The deeper a gravity well is, the more energy any space-bound climber must use to escape it.
The black-glossed, durasteel floor of the shuttle was littered with dust, stark white granules of crushed salt and red boot prints losing their distinguishing edges as Kylo trod over them, pacing. Hux was pressed into his seat, safety strap securely over his shoulder and snug at his waist, having no intention of being hurled across the compartment to connect head-first with the opposite wall should the single, kriffing ship that eluded the entire might of the First Order come tearing out of nowhere to take them down.
Hux would leave that ignominious end to Kylo.
Supreme Leader .
Hux’s upper lip curled at the thought, and he ground his teeth together until the pressure made his temples throb. To think that his career should culminate to being the puppet of not one, but two self-serving sorcerers was almost more than he could stomach.
Kylo passed by him for the nineteenth time, stalking toward the cockpit and stirring the salt-dust in the air. Hux wrinkled his nose, trying not to sneeze.
“Why don’t you sit down ,” Hux snarled, holding a gloved finger beneath his nostrils and waiting for the tingling to recede.
Kylo rounded on him, smearing red dust in an arc with the toe of his boot, reaching out and steadying himself with one hand on the cockpit door frame. Wild, dark eyes bored into Hux’s, and for a moment Hux thought he would feel the pressure of ghostly fingers closing on his windpipe again, but then to Hux’s surprise, his glorious Supreme Leader took two steps toward the far side of the shuttle and threw himself into one of the seats.
Kylo’s long legs stretched out into the aisle as he slumped back, but then he corrected his posture, leaning forward and planting his elbows on his knees, head bowed. His dark hair fell in a lank curtain over his face, and Hux could smell his sweat and sun-heated skin. Kylo cradled one hand with the other, rubbing a thumb into the leather of the opposite glove in a way that made the material squeak. He radiated anxious, irritable energy that set Hux’s very bones on edge.
Hux gripped the armrests of his seat with both hands, inhaled, and counted to ten before he let the breath out slowly. “What are our plans when we arrive on board?” he asked, hoping for some answer beyond chase one single ship across the galaxy with every destroyer in our arsenal and then use all our collective firepower to blow the piece of junk out of the sky.
There was no response at first, and Hux began to question whether Kylo had heard the question, but then there was a mumbled response.
“I’ll meditate on it.”
Hux snorted. “That tactic has clearly been advantageous thus far.”
Kylo’s dark gaze snapped up, eyes narrowing as they locked with Hux’s. He didn’t speak, but the implied threat was clear enough. Hux stared back coldly until he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, like the air was gaining an electrical charge. He looked away then, focused on the door of the cockpit, listening to the near-imperceptible hum of the metal vibrating in the frame.
The shuttle arrived back on the Finalizer without another word passing between them. Ren had finally lapsed into stillness, head resting against the back of his seat, while Hux had begun to sift through a mental tally of the repairs that would need to be set in motion with utmost haste.
The frame of the spacecraft shuddered as it set down in the docking bay; Kylo was standing before Hux had even peeled the safety belt over his shoulder. Hydraulics whined as the ramp lowered, and Hux came to his feet and stepped toward the exit just as Kylo’s heavy tread reverberated down the gangway.
“Supreme Leader,” Hux barked from the top of the ramp, rolling his eyes when Ren actually took another three steps before the title seemed to register with him.
Kylo swiveled slowly, shoulders hunched and mouth turned down, offering Hux nothing but a tired glare by way of acknowledgement. Hux walked down the ramp toward him, tugging the sleeves of his coat primly over his wrists.
“When would you have me report to you?” Hux asked in as level a voice as he could manage; the necessity rankled, but it was, for the moment, in his best interest.
Ren merely shrugged one shoulder, the disinterested look on his face making Hux’s blood boil. “I’ll summon you when I’m ready.”
Hux sucked in a breath to demand some sort of schedule, but was left with the words dying on his tongue when Ren spun away again and stalked across the hangar bay, scattering technicians and ground crew before him.
Hux’s eyes shifted to a young woman kneeling beside an open floor panel, a roll of electrical tape in one hand as she stared curiously up at him. Hux imagined he could hear her thinking, judging his capability as a commander after being so summarily dismissed by that impudent child masquerading as Supreme Leader.
“As you were!” Hux sniped, and took pleasure in the way the woman’s face blanched as she dove back into her duties.
He rode the elevator alone, the silence and familiarity of the ride to the command deck clashing with his racing pulse and the way he suddenly felt boneless, like exhaustion had reached such a point that his very skeletal structure had given up the fight. How long had it been since he’d slept? The explosion of Starkiller base was but the singularity out of which this entire nightmare had burst, expanding in flames across his every ambition and leaving rage in its wake.
His palm connected with the wall of the lift, a dull thud of leather meeting metal beneath the heel of his hand vibrating painfully up his radial bone. He could feel the frantic thud of his heartbeat against his sternum as though trying to escape the diminishing space in his chest as his ribs contracted, squeezing his lungs.
With a sharp gasp, Hux sucked in a lung full of air and dragged his hand down the paneling to jab one thumb into the stop car button. The lift shivered to a halt, and Hux stepped closer to the wall and rested his forehead against the cool metal. His ragged breath left a patch of condensation inches from his face that expanded and contracted with every exhalation, until Hux finally shut his mouth and forced himself to breathe through his nose. Steadily, evenly, counting the seconds and focusing on the rise and fall of his chest.
Gradually, the moment passed and he felt the color start to recede from his cheeks. He straightened, jerked the hem of his tunic down to smooth out creases, ran his fingers gently over his scalp to find every hair still in place. When he was satisfied that he once again had himself under control, Hux reached out and pressed the button to resume the lift.
He focused on the cadence of his boots on the corridor floor as he made his way to the bridge, not missing a beat even when he reached inside his coat to draw a small cylindrical tube out. He unstoppered it and tipped it against his lips like a shot of liquor, catching the two remaining pills on his tongue. They were vile, felt chalky on his teeth as he chewed them; his throat was dry and he had to force enough saliva to swallow, but the stims would keep him going until he had the fleet—what was left of it—mobilized.
Pausing briefly outside the command post entryway, Hux tilted his head at the right angle for the retinal scan, the green light playing over his face briefly before the doors slid open with a soft hydraulic hiss.
“Lieutenant Holland,” Hux said, striding in and speaking to the helmsman seated to his left. “Status report.”
The young officer shifted in his chair, expression pinched for a split second before he spoke. “Estimated three hours before ground assault equipment is ferried back in total and secure.”
The lieutenant glanced to his left then and Hux frowned at the bizarre, skittish behavior; he followed the officer’s gaze until his own locked onto the source of Holland’s uncharacteristic agitation. Hux squeezed his hand into a tight fist for the briefest of seconds before taking a deep breath and crossing the room to confront Kylo Ren.
Ren neither turned toward him upon approach, nor acknowledged him as Hux planted himself along his side. Folding his arms behind his back, Hux wrapped one hand around the opposite wrist tightly enough to bruise.
“Supreme Leader,” he said. “I didn’t expect to find you here.”
Ren was gazing out the transparisteel viewport, seeming fixated on the shuttles that zipped through the atmosphere like bees between the larger ships of the line.
“This is my ship, is it not?” Ren asked, shifting his head just enough that Hux could see the corner of his mouth, which twitched in what appeared to be amusement.
Hux bristled, teeth clenching around his first impulse to snap at this arrogant usurper. He ignored the jibe instead, twisting his gloved hand around his own wrist, making it chafe. “I estimate two weeks before we can seal the breach in the Supremacy, stow the wreckage and jump her to Turik Station for repair.”
“We don’t have two weeks,” Ren said. “Every moment we waste is a moment they have to regroup. For her…” He closed his mouth, and Hux saw the muscles of his jaw twitch. “There’s not time,” he repeated.
Hux stared, incredulous, eyes flicking through the viewport to take in the sundered right arm of the mega star destroyer that was even now being secured by tow cables. “So, what?” Hux asked, voice low. “You propose we fly off half-cocked and leave our most valuable military asset floating in space for the first deep salvage team that happens along?”
“Our most valuable asset?” Ren repeated sharply, and Hux saw Ren’s gaze focused on him in the reflection of the transparisteel window.
The shrill bark of laughter was out of Hux’s mouth before he could stow it. Did Ren actually mean that he was somehow more valuable to the First Order’s endeavors than the Supremacy? “Doing otherwise would be a crippling mistake at this point,” Hux advised, electing to ignore Ren’s threadbare insinuation.
“Are you questioning my methods, General?” Ren asked, his voice taking on an unmistakable and piss poor imitation of Hux’s Imperial accent. Before Hux could respond, Ren whirled on the ensign to his left. “Notify me the moment we’re prepared to leave orbit, and lay in a course for the Utral system.”
“Belay that order,” Hux snapped, taking a step forward so that he was not obscured by Ren’s larger frame.
Hux felt the air seem to waver, to lurch like it was being sucked into a vacuum, the moment before he felt Ren’s fingers around his already tender throat. “I’m growing tired of your insubordination,” Ren growled.
Hux’s hands closed around Ren’s wrist, thumb working its way beneath the heel of Ren’s palm, trying to peel him off. “And I’m growing tired of cleaning up your messes,” he croaked, only loud enough for Ren to hear. The fingers squeezed more tightly, and Hux’s voice was a choked gasp then. “Let me do my kriffing job, Supreme Leader . It’s in your best interest.”
Ren’s eyes bored into his, and Hux realized suddenly that he’d never actually seen him up close this way. The irises were more gold than brown, like something inside him was boiling, making his gaze molten.
Then as suddenly as Ren’s hand had closed over Hux’s windpipe, it fell away again, leaving him heaving for air. Ren seemed to deflate, chin tilted up toward the ceiling; his jaw moved like he was chewing on the inside of his cheek, brows drawn down and heavy over his eyes. It took a moment for Hux to realize that this was, surprisingly, concession.
Refusing to rub the pain from his abused neck, Hux turned his gaze on the crew member Kylo had instructed moments before. “Hold station,” Hux told him, angry at the way his voice came out sounding like he had a mouthful of gravel. “You will await my command.”
Ensign Adat looked pale, dark brows creased over his nose. Hux’s blood simmered when the man’s eyes flicked away from him to look to Kylo for instruction. Sucking in a breath, Hux prepared to issue the order again when Ren turned his head toward Adat.
“Do as he says,” Ren sighed, resignation suddenly gathering around him. His shoulders drooped under the weight of it.
Hux opened his mouth to offer some sort of acknowledgement of Ren’s sudden grasp of reality, but Kylo had spun on his heel and was stalking across the bridge. Hux watched him go, too incensed to be pleased.
When the doors had closed again in Kylo’s wake, Hux turned his gaze on Ensign Adat. “You have your orders,” he said, feeling all eyes in the room like laser beams dissecting him. He took a deep breath, forced himself not to wince, and moved to leave the bridge with as much grace as he could muster.
Hux made it only a handful of steps before the dull rage in his chest infected him fully; he froze in place, turned at the waist enough to catch Ensign Adat with one eye. “See me in my office after your shift,” he hissed, and then he was walking away again, spine straight.
Prior to this day, Hux’s private suite, which was nestled safely in the central quadrant of the command deck, windowless and set apart from potential target zones, had always been the place he sought when he needed to regroup. Now, however, with Snoke dispatched and Kylo Ren wearing the mantle of Supreme Leader, no place in the galaxy felt safe from madness.
The door slid closed behind him and Hux crossed the room to his desk, settling into a chair his father would have called ostentatious. Hux liked fine things, however, and he’d earned them. Keying in a code on a cabinet at his knee to expose a two-tier, steel shelf, Hux drew the first platform out and procured a bottle of Hestian blue vodka and a shot glass.
He poured himself a measure, recalling the way his mother had used to sit in an armchair beside the window with a bottle just like this on the end table beside her, smoking cigarettes and staring out the window at the rain. His father had hated the smell of smoke in the house, and his mother had kept a fragrant water-mister tucked between the cushion and the side of the chair that smelled like lilies, though it did little erase the aroma of stale smoke.
Hux hated that scent now, on the few instances he’d encountered it since; it wrenched him back into his childhood and made him feel small and weak. Thin as a slip of paper, and just as useless.
He drained the first pour and slammed the glass back on the table, too hard; he twirled it slowly on the desk top, looking for any spiderweb of cracks. Finding none, he poured another shot and slumped back in his chair, nursing it.
He played the scene in Snoke’s throne room over in his head, fast-forwarding past the grisly discovery of Snoke’s severed figure to the delicious image of Kylo Ren lying prone and unconscious. Had he not hesitated, had he drawn his damned blaster three seconds faster, perhaps he would have been rid of the impudent brat. Perhaps all of this would be his. The throne, the Supremacy, the full might of the First Order.
Hux swallowed another mouthful of liquor and grimaced, two fingers tugging at the collar of his uniform; it felt tight, chafed against his throat, and it weighed on him like iron. He was shackled to the First Order and Kylo Ren was holding the chain, and it was the brief, pathetic and hesitatant spike of fear that Hux had felt standing over Ren that had ultimately allowed it.
Drawing in a shuddering breath, Hux told himself that was his father talking— no more than the echoes of his disregard. Downing the rest of his drink, he poured another and called up damage reports on his relay screen, resolving to focus on that single moment of triumph on the bridge. A moment that showed him that perhaps Snoke was not the only one that could wind Kylo Ren around his finger.
He was absorbed in schematics proposed for sealing the breach in Supremacy’s hull, making her spaceworthy, when an alert dinged on his desk, announcing someone wishing admittance. Hux tapped a button on his screen to call up the exterior security feed and found Ensign Adat reporting dutifully for his audience. Hux’s mood soured instantly, recalling the way the insolent cur had deferred to Ren on Hux’s own bridge, robbing him of one more shred of dignity and command.
Hux replaced the bottle of liquor in its cabinet, wiped his lips and composed himself before he pressed the button to admit his hapless subordinate.
Adat hesitated in the door, the meek expression on his face raising Hux’s ire further, but the ensign came forward willingly enough when Hux gestured impatiently. He should have had this man airlocked already for prior behavior unbecoming to his station, but Hux was the type to store away others’ mistakes until he could use them to his advantage.
“Have a seat, Ensign,” Hux said, amicably enough.
The door sealed again and Adat crossed the room, sinking stiffly into the chair across from him. “Sir,” he said, sounding cautious. As well he should.
“I’ve been thinking on the matter of your promotion,” Hux told him, leaning back once more and linking his fingers over his lap.
“Sir?” Adat parroted, posture suddenly more attentive, but expression confused. Clearly he hadn’t expected anything resembling an accolade from this meeting.
As well he shouldn’t have.
“Yes,” Hux drawled, smiling. “I recall you mentioned that you felt you had...particularly valuable skills that you could offer.”
Adat’s expression went through several deviations—blankness, confusion, and finally a slowly dawning understanding. “Ah,” he said, and when his lips curled in a haughty, knowing smile, Hux’s scorn condensed into a burning, tight knot in the center of his chest.
Web laid, Hux slid the cabinet door open again and took the Hestian blue out once more, pouring a measure for Adat and sliding it across the table. Unsurprisingly, the young ensign plucked it from the desk without hesitation.
Hux had a suitable, warm buzz that lingered beneath his skin; he allowed Adat to sip the liquor alone while attempting to appear gentlemanly with the tiny glass in a way that amused Hux.
“I trust your father is well?” Hux asked. Adat’s father served as a Lieutenant aboard the Victory, and was just as unpleasantly unscrupulous as his misguided son. Hux had once had the displeasure of meeting the man at a commissioning ceremony, and had been regaled with unsolicited anecdotes about Hux’s own father.
“I haven’t spoken with him in a few weeks,” Adat admitted, “but his last com was genial.” Adat’s father was from old Imperial stock, just as Hux’s, and they shared the same aristocratic language and accent.
Hux plastered on a smile. “That’s good to hear.” He picked up the bottle and held it out, and Adat threw back the remainder of the vodka before holding his glass out. Hux tipped the neck and the blue liquor trickled in. “Will you enjoy serving under Kylo Ren?” he asked, eyes fixing on the ensign’s face.
Adat blanched, drew the shot glass back slowly. He simply held it awkwardly afterward, looking as though he wasn’t sure if this was a trick question.
“I…” Adat began. “He is the Supreme Leader now, I hear. Our purpose is to serve him. To bring order and prosperity to the galaxy.”
Hux grit his teeth, wanted to bare them instead. “Indeed.”
Adat shifted, seeming to sense the inherent danger in this line of questioning. He downed his drink and set the glass aside on the table. “And yet, I’m here to serve you at the moment, aren’t I?” he asked, voice now masked with a throaty veneer that Hux assumed was supposed to be seductive.
“Indeed,” Hux said, voice tinged with low-simmering spite that Adat would no doubt misinterpret. He swiveled his chair, spread his thighs, and cocked his head in invitation.
He allowed the ensign to take his time, prostrated on his knees between Hux’s legs, cock in his mouth. This had been Adat's brazen offer nearly nine months before when sitting across this same desk, personally objecting to a superior’s decision to transfer him from his coveted post on the bridge. It had been audacious enough, wasting Hux’s time with such petty concerns, but he’d also been arrogant enough to admit he was privy to Hux’s preference for men, and was willing to accommodate it. Hux imagined that news had been something exchanged between Hux’s own father and Adat’s, something titillating to laugh at over a snifter of brandy.
Hux took pleasure in the fact that the younger Adat’s efforts were commendable at present, but what brought him off in the end was the way his dark head looked bobbing in his lap, and the way Hux could imagine Kylo Ren on his knees in just such a way.
Afterward, when he’d tucked himself away again and straightened his uniform, he offered Adat a wan smile. “Well done, Ensign,” he purred, having to restrain the laughter that bubbled in his chest. “I believe we’ve come to an agreement.”
Adat stood, hovering at the edge of the desk, seemingly pleased with himself. “I am at your service, Hux,” he said, grinning with pink, swollen lips.
Hux’s family name spilling from Adat’s mouth was like a nail driven into the base of Hux’s skull. Irritation shot through him, and his expression faltered long enough that Adat seemed to realize his mistake.
“General,” he corrected himself quickly, and Hux mastered his own expression.
“You’re dismissed, Ensign.”
Adat continued to hover. “When should I expect that promotion you mentioned?”
You won’t see it coming . “At the first possible moment,” Hux promised, pressing a button to open the doors of his office.
Adat glanced behind him, then back to Hux, and Hux was pleased to see the doubt on his face. The tinge of suspicion. And yet the young ensign was wise enough not to press his luck any further.
“Thank you sir,” he said, dipping his head in a pathetic excuse for a salute.
Hux flicked his hand, dismissing him, and the ensign departed with no further fanfare.
Hux stared at the door long after it slid closed, unable to stop picturing Adat’s face as he looked away from Hux on the bridge and showed his true loyalty to be to Kylo kriffing Ren. Hux refused to be doomed to that humiliating, public dismissal; if it began in the lower ranks, it would spread like a virus until the infection demanded to be rid of its host.
He yanked his comlink from his belt and depressed a button. “Opan.”
There was a brief pause. “Sir?”
Hux took a deep breath, let it out slowly, telling himself that he was, would always be , the one in control of this ship and his destiny. “The young ensign assigned to my bridge. Adat. You know him?” Opan knew everything; that was his quintessential value to Hux.
“Sir,” was the affirmative answer.
Hux’s lips twitched, something between a smile and a frown. “Get rid of him.”
He walked back to his quarters, the pleasant lull of vodka and stims diminishing with every step until he was merely fried nerve endings, brain sending only weak signals between neurons. He was little more than an automaton by the time he stripped his uniform off and stood in the harsh fluorescent light of his refresher chamber. He was barely able to summon the indignation he should feel at the purpling bruises on his neck, or the angry red-blue bruise along his ribcage where Ren had hurled him against the console.
Hux sought that indignation, digging his fingers into the mark on his side, drawing out the pain with barely a wince and zeroing in on it, reminding himself that he would have another chance, that Kylo Ren would fuck up again, just as he always did. And that was when he would strike.
He turned the shower on and stepped in, letting the water stream over him in a scalding torrent until the automatic conservators turned it off. He stayed there, palms against the shower wall, head drooped as water dripped from his hair until he began to shiver from the chill.