We met a great storm at sea
looked back at the
the sand was going under
black birds were
the storm ate friends and foes
water turned into salt for
Etel Adnan, “The morning / after my death”
He knows that somewhere in the Galaxy there are human beings who scar their own faces and bodies for ritual. He knows that on Balsavis, Rishi, in the northern reaches of Korriban, on Sluis Van and Lehon there are the nomadic and dirt-encrusted tribes where they score their arms with hatchlines like a despondent cell-bound calendar, where they slice their own skin from temple to nosebone and rub inside of the wound ground and glittering pieces of shells to make the healing puffy and raised, where they do not have spoken names but instead inscribe something like identity on their chests with wounds like primitive soot-drawings on the walls of caves (I, slave; you, master; you, someone else; me, my ruptures tell me that), where they hang themselves by the loose fat of their upper backs from the ceilings of their huts and the puckered tearing of the flesh is a kind of spiritual sustenance, a form of structure and order and entrypoint to existential meaning.
He knows they do not value the same things as he does. He knows that given time and education and logical enlightenment and the proper forms of shame these indigenous rites of mutilation would fall away. He knows they would eventually realize their failings, to have been so enamored by the weakness of their own skin.
But he had looked at the rift on Kylo Ren’s face, splitting him just right of center like a tectonic shift and black on the frayed edges with gummy cauterization. The snow had been melting there, hissing at the surface of Ren’s hot blood, and he had thought: I hope you live with this forever.
They spend two cycles drifting in space moored to the gravitational well of a gaseous moon while the engines are repaired, the power relays reconverted, the malfunctions borne from the polarity of a world exploding with the power of a star are diagnosed, dealt with. He and half the remaining crew are cycled through radiation decontamination. It leaves his skin numb and his eyes dry, his stomach heaving. Energy is rerouted; the lights keep going out. Kylo Ren emerges from bacta wet and seething and bloodless after the first four hours and he will not go back in.
He does not seek Ren out. He imagines him stalking the lower corridors leaving trails of sticky sanigel and melted snow in his wake, wailing into the recycled claustrophobic air like a half-tranquilized beast, gnashing his teeth into ground bone, and he thinks: Good.
“Power levels have stabilized at sixty-eight percent, sir.”
Mitaka hands him the datapad. As if mocking them, the lights in his quarters shudder and dim, holding just long enough in the dark for the emergency reds to flicker on.
“Stabilized,” he says.
“We’re still prioritizing engine repair and LS, sir,” says Mitaka.
There’s a low, gritty whirring, from somewhere deep in the ship. The lights struggle weakly back to life. A panel in the overhead by his berth still sputters.
“I want this sent to Kaplan,” he says. Beneath his fingers on the screen, a string of prognostic percentages that blur at the edges. Reality, Projected, Ideal. “He’ll be at the comm.”
“I expect full operations restored by the time I return. Three cycles at the latest. We’ll have our orders by then.”
“Yes, sir.” Mitaka is beginning to look as though the rigors of the Academy could not have prepared him for this, as if someone had forgotten to remind him that failure was always a possibility even if it were statistically unlikely, as if two cycles without sleep somehow have done irreparable damage to the part of his brain that keeps one’s face from betraying the cycle of rage and despair inside one’s chest. As if someone had let them all get soft. Hux thinks distantly that he would like to slap him.
Mitaka goes. The vacuum seal of the door stutters when it closes behind him. In the emptiness of his quarters now he can hear it: the vents are noisy, wheezing with muddled oxygen. There is the distant whine of primed fire suppressants, the chittering of microdroids scattered along the hull plating like symbiotic algae. He imagines vaguely that somewhere in the bowels of the ship there is a cog loose, a connection gone faulty, a converter that has been punctured by debris and that all it will take to set everything right again will be a good, hard kick to the correct dented, malfunctioning panel.
And yet if he closes his eyes for too long, it still feels as though the ground is heaving underneath him.
There is a set of coordinates, encrypted, on his datapad. He glances at them every hour to make sure that they have not changed. He reserves a shuttle. He confirms the flight-plan, the arrival. He assigns a modified crew roster, transfers comm-control for three cycles with option to reconfirm should his time off-board—continue. He signs thirty-four work orders. The updated lists of personnel and officers kay-aye-eh comes in from Flight, from Engineering, from Science and Astromech, and he signs those, too.
The holonet scroll is a flickering whirl of Neo-Republican propaganda. They are still calling him the Hosnian Scourge. And they are calling him beaten.
On the closed-circuits he watches Ren pace the width of his rooms, barely clothed, stitched together with the slime of bacta and the image juddering with low power. In the corner of his console the tracker signal is static and grating, a steady glow of red flickering at the edge of his vision, blink-pause-blink-pause-blink-pause-blink—
He orders a bloody Bantha steak. He is ravenous. A droid brings it to him and he eats it in one sitting, tearing at gristle with his fingernails. Not much later, he vomits it all up into the basin of the refresher, and goes to bed with an empty pit in his gut.
Three hours later, the coordinates have not changed. He wakes, and dresses. He smooths his hair back from his face and he wipes an errant smudge of soot from the hem of his uniform with a pinch of his fingers. Overhead, the corner panel light is still flickering.
In the corridors, he can still hear the whirring of the vents, the sad, uneven staccato beeping of a door console stuck in the open position. The echo of his boots on the floor is flat, eerie. At one end of the corridor there is an abandoned tech-panel, hinges wide and a pile of laz-spanners scattered on the ground below it. He pauses, when he reaches it, and then crouches down to lay the spanners together neatly in a row. He closes the panel, and locks it. (It takes three tries; the mechanism has been bent out of place.)
Ren’s rooms are dark, lit only by the orbital crescent of the moon through the transparisteel, as if perhaps Ren has not bothered to turn on the lights at all since he ran and hid here from his own healing. The air smells sour: vaguely antiseptic, damp on the edges. In the dimness Hux can see a lump of bedclothes on the berth, a pile of discarded bacta patches stained rust-black with old blood, on the floor.
“Get dressed,” he says.
Across the room Ren stares at him. His eyes are wet-looking, wild and red-rimmed. He is naked from the waist up, bare-footed. There is a sickly-blue bruise bloomed at the knotted half-healed wound on his side. Hux wonders if perhaps he has been pacing ceaselessly since he last shut off the closed-circuits.
“We’re leaving,” he says.
“Now?” says Ren.
“Now,” he says. And then again: “Get dressed.”
“What did he sa—” Ren starts.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” he says.
It makes something ugly and condescending twist in his gut, watching Ren tug on his clothing. All those awkward ungainly angles with nothing to hide them now where they protrude: white-pale elbows punching through the holes in the black fabric, watching Ren’s big, thick fingers fumble with the latch on on his overshirt, on that wide, stupid belt. Watching him attempt something like care with the drape of the cowl. Shoving those long feet into his boots with all the grace of a stumbling hooved beast.
When Ren straightens, it looks unfinished; vaguely amputated.
“That’s it?” he asks. No helmet; no mystical weapon strapped to Ren’s belt.
“I don’t,” says Ren. His mouth twists; the wound on his face jumps along with it. “I don’t have anything else. It’s gone.”
“What a pity,” he spits.
It’s so refreshing, he thinks, in a way. To care so little what Ren has to say to him, and to care so little for what he has lost.
In the shuttle Ren hunches in the seat with one knee up against his chest and his shoulders tight. The ragged cowl he tugs up over his mouth and nose. (Hux has unbidden the memory of a cadet who would sleep with the edge of the sheets clutched in his damp fist and the pad of his thumb shoved between his teeth like a suckling fetal boreal animal. Several of the larger boys had eventually beaten him out of the habit.)
Three hours in, Ren rolls his head against the back of the seat and looks at him.
“You spoke to him,” he says.
“I received a message,” says Hux. “I was expecting it. It had the coordinates of his current location.”
“No,” says Ren. “Before.”
Before, he thinks. Before was the moment where he had abandoned his post at the comm and went running full-speed down a shuddering, crumbling corridor to report their own demise. He would not have done so, he thinks now, if he had not been summoned. He would have preferred to have never had the orders he got, then. He would have preferred, he thinks, to have let them all die and let Starkiller consume what it wanted. At least then, he thinks, there would be those who saw his failure as a form of victory.
“Yes,” he says.
Ren rolls his head back, shoves his face back into the folds of the cowl. When Hux glances at him, a few minutes later, there is a tight line of tension in his forehead, and his eyes are closed as if he is asleep.
The eulogy his father had written for Korwell Nyael had been kind. He hadn’t understood.
Hard to stay angry at the dead, Junior, his father had said.
You hated him, he replied. He had been eight years old and perhaps nuance was new to him, a little. You said he was the worst Commander you’d ever seen under Imperial rule.
What good’s it do now to tear him down? His father said. Mistakes are for the living, and only for the living to avoid.
Still, he wonders now, in moments like this. (He has wondered before, at times.) He wonders now what species of solace he might find if he were to offer some part of himself up to some kind of primitive blade and do nothing to right the marring it would make.
They dock inside the entrance, hacked from the rock of the dead tidal moon. Ren is silent, still; his fingers pulled tight into fists at his sides. The long walk from the shuttle is dim, and strange. The lights that line the corridor are like primitive fire: flickering and dull red-orange. The whole labyrinth of it seems to him to have been carved with uneven tools, or perhaps left by the ravenous chewing teeth of some great and petraphilic worm; he imagines the husk of it is still lying somewhere several hundred meters below inside of the mantle, slowly crusting over with its own ossification.
At the end of the corridor, outside a wide and yawning opening of darkness, a tall figure stands swathed in black, a rusted mask like an open grill where the face should be, a long staff with a gleaming tip like a halberd clutched in one massive fist. Ren does not look over as they approach; his brow is still tense, his eyes fixed to the floor several feet in front of them.
The figure stops Hux with a gloved hand to his chest. He is directed to pause, to step to the side, to follow to another door to the left of the corridor. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches the sight of Ren turning—of Ren pausing, just for a moment, to look back when he notices that he is expected to go on alone.
“Who are you,” he says. His voice echoes; the room they are in is empty, cold; ringed with the same rough-hewn rock walls, and a sickly dampness staining the floor.
The masked figure does not answer; it just points at one of the long, low benches of stone.
“Are you one of his,” he asks, when he has sat.
“His.” The figure echoes him, voice like a muffled yelp of laughter.
“Yes,” he says. “Do you belong to him?”
The figure just makes that noise again, high and grating. It raises its staff and slams the side of the blade against the side of its metal helm, three times: clang-clang-clang.
Later, when he has been left alone, it terrifies him. It leaves him cold, and thrilled, and shaking, to think that that could have been a language, leaving dents in one’s own skull.
He knows that somewhere in the galaxy, there are civilizations who have entombed themselves. He remembers reading once when he was a young man at the Academy about the Intenari of the Unknown who let the force of a great storm swallow all their cities whole. They had climbed down into the deep tunnels and the cellars and into the massive underbellies of their world and laid down to sleep together while over their heads an enormous whirling typhoon of water and wind and sand and hapless earth washed everything away.
Did they mean to come out again, do you think, Cadet Swallows had asked.
Dumb fucks, Cadet Knoll had laughed. (She’d been rimkin, like himself, but had never learned not to be crude.)
What do you think, he had thought. If you saw something like that coming your way, wouldn’t you rather never have to see what it was like when it was over.
“He has killed his father,” says Snoke, curled forward in his rough and geometric throne, long fingers spread over the arms like gray vines.
Bully for him, thinks Hux. It does perhaps have an edge of envy.
“Ren’s unilateral choice to abandon his post and go after the scavenger endangered us all,” he says. “I was not consulted, I raised my objections—”
“We have the map,” says Snoke. “Kylo Ren has seen it. Skywalker is within our grasp.”
“And Starkiller is gone,” he says.
“Weigh the balance, General,” says Snoke. He looks mild, pleased; it makes—no sense.
“The balance of what.” He is angry. He can feel it surging underneath his skin now, tightening at his temples. “Skywalker will not bring us victory. The weapon was supposed to bring the Resistance to its kne—”
“Kylo Ren is a weapon,” says Snoke. “Are you saying, General, that I do not know how to wield him?”
It stops the words cold in his throat.
“Perhaps you are not as clever as I had hoped—as I had once believed. Do you also blame the blaster when you shoot yourself in the foot, I wonder.”
That isn’t it, he wants to say. He wants to say: You never gave me the kriffing safety.
“No, Supreme Leader,” he says, instead.
“I trust I have made myself clear.”
“Yes, Supreme Leader,” he says.
He thinks for the first time—he lets himself think now for the first time—how frail Snoke looks, in person. How small, how withered and rooted and immutable.
He finds Ren in the antechamber where he had been ushered before, hands gripping at his knees and head bowed, hair falling over his face as if to replace the scrim of the helmet that had been lost.
“You have the map,” he says.
“I’ve—” says Ren. He raises his head slowly. His voice is halting, uneven. “I’ve seen enough.”
“You lied to him,” he says. “You haven’t.”
Ren’s lip curls. “I’ve seen enough,” he says, again, sharper this time.
“You think you can keep that from him?” His voice is rising now, the pitch of it catching on the anger he has been swallowing down for days now, allowing to erode at the inside of his own organs like acid. “And I’m supposed to—what? Pull my tail between my legs and whimper for my forgiveness, and pretend that this—all of this—isn’t entirely your fault?”
Ren pushes to his feet, leather creaking when his hands close into tense fists at his sides, again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says.
“You think you won’t be punished?” says Hux.
“I welcome whatever the Supreme Leader dee—”
“—You think he’s going to stroke your hair and tell you what a poor, lost, little child you ar—”
“The Supreme Leader has love for me—” Ren advances, now, wild in the eyes again.
“He doesn’t love you,” he spits. “He barely—he’s using you.”
“Shut up,” Ren snarls, and both of his giant hands are in Hux’s collar, fisting in the fabric and shoving him up against the cold rock wall; the air is pushed out of him in a single, dizzying rush. “I could kill you and leave you here to rot and no one would care. Not Snoke, not your petty officers, you’re alone, and weak, and you’re terrified, I can feel you trembling inside your own head thinking no one sees, but I do, I can—”
“Do it, then,” he chokes.
Ren laughs in his face, spittle spraying on his cheeks. He thinks perhaps, even as his head still spins and his nerves are jangling at him to run, run, run, he thinks perhaps he has seen this kind of anger before in Ren’s face, but not this—he is not sure in the moment what to call it. Not this kind of strain in the eyes, not this kind of terror in the line of his brows, not this kind of wild, raging grief, not this kind of pain. It makes something sick and suffocating gather inside his chest.
“I said—” he clutches at Ren’s wrists, not to pull him away, but to press him closer. Ren’s fingers spasm, at the fabric of his collar, and then slide upward, around his throat. “—do it.”
He knows in that moment what it was that his officers were always so afraid of, despite their impeccable training. Ren is strong, even the grip of his physical hands on the muscles of neck incites a sharp, involuntary panic inside his ribs. His pulse leaps, he can feel the moment when his mouth falls open and his eyes roll back into his head, when Ren squeezes, and his thumbs dig into the vulnerable divot under his jaw.
Ren makes a noise, something like a bestial grunt—it sounds already very far away. And then there is the strange, bright sensation, like a burning lance piercing through his temple, and he feels Ren inside his head, tugging on something quite near to the surface as if he has burrowed all the way inside the meat of his skull and is snagging it with his sharp teeth where it has burbled up from underneath. It hurts—a sob pushes out of him before he can help himself, it catches on the lack of air and his body jerks.
He sees it—just for a moment. What Ren sees there. It hangs inside his ringing skull like a little globe of light. A tower crumbling in the distance, falling apart stone by stone and dissolving into dust in the wind. The feeling of sinking wet sand beneath his fingers and salt-air and tears on his face and the brittle, blackened, saline-dryness of his own bones, and the empty, plummeting sensation of a tide rushing out and the thick mist coming in. A shout on the wind heard by no one, swallowed up by the dead air.
He feels Ren let go like he has been slapped. It snaps his head back; his skull thunks hard against the rock wall at the same time that Ren’s hands release his throat. He chokes, his chest heaving involuntarily at the sudden flood.
“You’re—” says Ren, panting like his own lungs are aching, too.
“Don’t say it,” he says. He doesn’t want to hear it when the feeling of it is still lodged raw and pulsing behind his temple.
“He’s going to make you leave me here,” says Ren.
“Perhaps we deserve worse,” he says. The lack of oxygen is still making his head tingle; his voice is hoarse in his ears, and Ren’s face is damp and hot and so close. “Than going this alone.”
“Don’t talk like that,” spits Ren, and his hands are plucking at the front of Hux’s uniform, kneading into the stiff fabric as if he somehow would like to tear it off him, as if it’s in the way of something important. The hard grip of his fingers settles on Hux’s waist. His forehead is pressed firmly against Hux’s, his hair damp with sweat and sticking to Hux’s cheeks. “I don’t want to hear you talk like you—”
“Shut up,” he hisses. “Ren—”
Ren kisses him—just closes the meager distance with a tilt of his head and bites at Hux’s lower lip at the same time that he shoves a massive thigh up between Hux’s legs, and grunts at the sudden pressure. Hux groans against his mouth; he finds that his own fingers have gripped at the folds of Ren’s cowl.
He wants to warn him that perhaps this might not work—whatever it is that they’re doing. He hasn’t slept, he hasn’t kept anything down in days, he is still reeling from having his own terrifying isolation ripped from his skull and held in front of him like a writhing larva: he’s not sure he can muster the physical concentration to get erect. But then Ren is tugging off his gloves with his teeth and spitting them to the ground and he’s fumbling at the fastenings of Hux’s trousers with his bare fingers and he’s holding Hux back against the wall by his shoulder with one hand so they can both watch as he works Hux’s cock to hardness.
Ren’s fingers are slick by the time Hux lets his head fall forward to rest against Ren’s broad shoulder, nose pressed into the heavy, musty wool of the cowl. He’s gasping raggedly by the time Ren has learned how to push the flushed, wet head of it between the circle of his fingers with just the right tension in his grip. By the time Hux can feel it, the rising tightness in his belly and the coltish trembling in his upper thighs, by the time he is trying to warn Ren by whining into the warm divot below his jaw, Ren has his other hand sliding from the back of Hux’s head to grip at his throat again, and that is for a singular moment the only thing that matters in the entire expanse of the universe: Ren has him by the throat and the cock and he is coming.
(He imagines in the white and scalding split-second of it that the hot splash against Ren’s fingers and on his own exposed belly is a kind of fire, a kind of burn that will leave them now necessarily asymmetric, marked, and crippled.)
“Are you leaving?” asks Ren.
“Yes,” he says. They are on the floor, where they’d ended up after: after Ren had managed to make him weak enough at the knees by sucking on the vulnerable pulse point of his bruised and tender throat that he’d had no choice but to kneel and mouth desperately, hungrily, at the damp fabric stuck to Ren’s hard cock. After Ren had clutched at his shoulders and his hair and curled his whole massive body over Hux’s head, claustrophobic and clammy and gasping for air. After he had come down Hux’s throat and pushed him back against the floor to lick the remnants of it from Hux’s mouth and the spatter of it off of Hux’s chin with his tongue.
“When,” asks Ren.
“Tomorrow,” he says. “Oh-Six.”
Ren is silent. His broad back heaves once, a long inhale.
“You could stay,” says Ren, after a moment.
“Don’t be stupid,” he says.
“Don’t be condescending,” says Ren. “You’re just as scared as I am.”
He sits up, instead of responding. Presses his elbows to his knees and pinches at the top of his nose.
“Ask me what I’m scared of,” says Ren, behind him. “Go on.”
He fastens his trousers; tugs at the hem of his jacket and smooths the placket of it. Tries to ignore the way his hands are still shaking, minutely.
Ren rolls over, grabs at the sharp corner of Hux’s elbow. His skin is still damp, and hot.
“Hux,” he says.
“No,” says Hux. “I’m not—I’m not playing, not this game.”
Ren just smirks. The scar where it catches at the edge of his cheek curls and wrinkles like wet flimsi. Hux wants to scrape it raw again with his teeth. (He finds himself wishing that he hopes he is the reason that it never has a chance to heal.)
He knows that there are cultures where they do not bury their dead. He knows that there are ways to let the earth take its own back beyond the tomb. He does not fully understand the impulse but he knows that in space and in its vacuum there are certain efficiencies to disposal that the natural world and its hostility will accommodate. He knows that in the galaxy on planets where there are large stretches of desert they will let the bodies bleach in the sun and that the arid air will keep decomposition inoffensive. He knows that that in places where there are high peaks of mountains they will leave the bodies on the rocks in the snow and let the predatory birds pick the meat and brain and gristle and let the wild cavebeasts do the rest. He knows that where there are large oceans that they leave the bodies on the shore resting where they know that the moons will bring the water up and carry away what they have left in the night, as if it had never been there at all.
He has always wondered at that. Did they ever later walk upon the wet sand and find among the brittle seedpods and the kelp and the flotsam at the line of the tide the bones of loved ones they had left to the sea long ago. He has always wondered if they left them there, or if they gathered them up as some sign of return. Or if they simply walked with the reminders to the edge of the water and let the tide take them gently out again.