A few notes here at the beginning:
I am stepping out of my modern AU box to write my first canon longfic. This fic is how I see canon Ren and Hux -- complicated, damaged, sympathetic in many ways, but ultimately not good people. This is a story about bad people finding common ground that leads to a lifelong passion. I'm not going to tag the heck out of it, because I think "canon compliant" and "canon typical violence" sums it up; if you saw the movies, you should be fine.
I'm very excited to share this story with you all, and truly hope you enjoy!
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.
Hux woke exactly ten minutes before the alarm on his chronometer would have sounded.
It had been years since he’d heard the shrill pulse, never falling into too deep a sleep that he couldn’t be tugged easily into consciousness by the slightest change in atmosphere. There was no daylight in the black of space, artificial or otherwise, and yet somehow the man-made constructs of rotating cycles appealed to his vestigial, diurnal clock. Like his primitive relatives, who had lived each day in imminent danger, Hux was always the first to rise, so he would not be the most likely to fall prey to those things which skulked in the shadows.
The blue glow of the numbers on the chronometer’s flat, black face was the only illumination in the room, and Hux let his eyes adjust while watching the minutes pass slowly. The low rumble of recorded thunder underscored the patter of rainfall on leaves, all of it emanating from a speaker box the size of his palm that sat on the corner of his bedside table. There were all manner of sound loops programmed into the device: the rolling lull of summer insects in a warm climate, the peaceful babbling of a rocky brook, the soft din of a sleepy city. Yet it was only the channel that played back the familiar white noise of a constant downpour that soothed Hux’s busy mind at the end of each cycle, immersing him in one of the few peaceful memories of Arkanis until eventually sleep carried him off.
Nine minutes passed, and then Hux reached out and shut the alarm off before it shattered the peaceful prelude of his day. Fingertips on a dial display shut off the echo of his homeworld and a spoken word brought the lights in his bedroom to thirty percent. He pushed the blankets off and swung his long legs out of bed, bare skin prickling in the chilly air.
His mind began working the moment his feet touched the floor, like a mainframe coming online. He was calculating the length of time he would have between his morning meetings and filling that space with menial but necessary tasks: approving two provision contracts up for renewal, reviewing several culturally diverse translations for the dissemination of First Order spin on the debacle at D’Qar, having a drink with Tollan Adat’s bereaved father to offer his sympathies for the young ensign’s untimely demise.
That was the one engagement today that he was actively looking forward to.
Hux showered quickly, more to wash away the lingering residue of sleep than to get clean, as he could never go to bed without sluicing the grime of a shift off.
Afterward, as the steam cleared, he scowled at his reflection in the mirror, brushing his fingertips over the place where the imprint of Kylo Ren’s grip had left purple-black bruises; they’d faded over the last two weeks, but the memory of it was seared into Hux’s mind such that he wondered if he’d always see the marks when he looked at himself in the mirror. Like they were etched onto the veneer of his self-image, nebulous reminders of his place in this hierarchy and how precariously he clung to it.
He did not, at least, have to project that appearance. Not even to himself in the privacy of his own quarters.
He took his time with his grooming ritual, as he always did, for one's outward appearance reflected the structure and order of the inner self. Brendol had drilled that into his mind in every rigid expectation, and it had been honed into perfection through years at the academy. An organic murad tree cream under his eyes diminished the way that exhaustion took its toll on his pale skin, two stim pills would eliminate the headache that drew the furrow between his eyebrows, a close shave with a straight razor restored him from hirsute barbarian to cold marble.
From madman to General.
He regarded himself for a moment, searching his own grey-green eyes for any hint of fallibility while running one thumb over the blade of the straight razor, just lightly enough to feel the sharpness, but not to cut. Flirting with the promise of pain cleared his head, reminded him that he was in control of how much torment he would take. That what some saw as utility was also danger.
Kylo Ren would do well to remember that.
He held the blade beneath a stream of water in the sink and watched the fluorescent overhead light play across the steel, then carefully replaced it in his shaving kit; it was one of the few ostentatious relics of his father’s that he’d appropriated and sterilized. Possessing objects for his enjoyment that Brendol had once used for his own served as daily reinforcement for Hux, reminding him that in the end, he’d been the one with the power. What Hux tried not to focus on was the fact that he needed these reminders, all of them, subtle as they were.
A soft beep from the data pad in the room beyond snapped Hux out of his bitter reverie, and he thought about ignoring it until it beeped again several times in quick succession. Running his fingers over his hair to ensure that the pomade had dried enough for him to tilt his head, Hux padded out of the ‘fresher and to the corner of the table where he’d nearly fallen asleep reviewing reports the night before.
[ Alert ] Four secure messages have not been retrieved by recipient KRMNR01 for a time period exceeding 7 standard cycles. Do you wish to send an alternative alert?
Hux sighed, pressing a button to cancel that option and laying the data pad back on the table. He went about the business of preparing his morning mug of Tarine tea while contemplating how best to communicate with Ren, who, unsurprisingly, had not suddenly acclimated to electronic correspondence upon ascending to the rank of Supreme Leader.
What about this, you inconvenient bastard? Hux thought as he dropped a tea bag into steaming water. He stood in his kitchenette with his head cocked, as though he were an antenna angled to receive Kylo’s mystical transmission. “Can you hear me now? Are you planning to hide in your quarters and do nothing indefinitely? ”
The words felt loud and irritable in his own head, but he had no real expectation of Ren actually hearing him. Sure enough, there was no response, and Hux left his tea on the counter to cool while he finished dressing.
Only as he shrugged into his greatcoat several moments later did something began to nag at him, tickling at the back of his mind unpleasantly, suggesting that he not push his luck too far. That the lack of an answer might mean that Hux simply wasn’t tuned to receive it, while Kylo Ren very well could be.
Hux poured Lieutenant Birin Adat a measure of the same Hestian vodka that he’s served the man’s son two weeks prior, rounding the desk and offering it to Birin personally. “It’s tragic,” Hux said, his voice respectfully subdued. “He was so young.”
Birin took the glass from Hux’s hand, brought it halfway to his lips before freezing as though he’d just realized there might be something improper in the act. His expression was caught between grief and bewilderment.
“I still don’t understand,” he said, shaking his head. “He had his mandatory physical every year, right?” Birin’s dark eyes, so much like his son’s, flicked to Hux’s face, and the lieutenant blanched. “Well, of course you wouldn’t be monitoring that. That’s below your pay grade.”
Hux raised an eyebrow and bit down on the inside of his lip to keep from smirking. “Many things are below my pay grade, Lieutenant. But that doesn’t mean I am ignorant of them. The men and women that serve on my bridge are by necessity held to the highest standards. Had there been anything in your son’s medical records to indicate a potential liability, he would not have been chosen for his position.”
Birin suddenly seemed to remember the drink in his hand, looking down at it with eyes crossed almost comically. He tossed the vodka back, wincing; that was another thing to add to Hux’s tally of criticisms—it was quality liquor, hard to come by.
He waited patiently until Birin cleared his throat, fat tongue licking droplets of the blue liquid off the corner of his mustache. He had a full, reddish beard streaked with silver, and it reminded Hux unpleasantly of Brendol. “Would you like another?” he asked Birin, reclining on one hip against the desk.
“Mmm,” Birin gruffed, reaching out to set the glass down. “Moderation. You know, your father thought it was bad for the image to keep alcohol in one’s office. Gives others the impression that the decisions you make might not have all your wits behind them.” He leveled his unblinking gaze at Hux.
Hux didn’t rise to the taunt; these unwelcomed adages about his father were like passages of a pathetic eulogy that circulated amongst those of Brendol’s generation who were still in power. They were getting much fewer and farther between, fortunately.
“I can assure you,” Hux said, “that every action I take has a precise purpose and is done with the utmost consideration.” He smiled.
Birin studied his face with a pursed mouth, lips almost hidden by his mustache. There was an unmistakable aura of distrust clinging to the lieutenant, though Hux didn’t believe it was related to the death of his son. It was the sort of reaction that many senior officers had toward him, as though they were unable to accept that at the age of thirty-four, Hux had managed to climb over their heads to the second highest position in the Order without some sort of nefarious undertakings.
If Hux had been required to eliminate rivals and pave over his obstacles, he considered that foresight.
The moment of silence stretched to the outer edge of uncomfortable, and Hux’s patience had run thin less than ten minutes after Birin had stepped into his office. Fortune favored him, however, and his desk com beeped.
“You’ll have to excuse me, Lieutenant,” Hux said apologetically, circling his desk to peer at the alert on his screen. It was a notification that the service droid he typically had in to straighten his quarters during his shift would be replaced with a different model beginning tomorrow. It was an expected and routine rotation. “It seems I have a situation which requires my immediate attention," he told Birin gravely.
Lieutenant Adat straightened and cleared his throat, hesitating only a moment before offering Hux a tight salute. “Thank you for your condolences, General,” he said, sounding bereft once more.
Hux could not bring himself to sympathize, but he returned the man’s salute with one hand while he pressed the button to open the doors behind Birin with the other. “Should you need anything, feel free to contact my office.”
Birin gave him a short nod and left, the door sliding shut quietly behind him.
Hux sank into his chair and dismissed the alert regarding the droid from his screen, opening his personal correspondence instead. His cheek twitched just beneath his eye when he saw that yet another secure message to Kylo had reached the seven full cycle limit for remaining unopened on the network.
Tapping his screen, Hux brought up the private video call application that he knew for a fact was connected to Kylo’s personal system in his quarters, and he swiped the call bar. Three blue dots appeared in the black box, undulating with gradient color as the comms tried to make contact. After thirty seconds, the attempt timed out, the application asking Hux if he would like to try again. Feeling fractious, Hux tapped the call button a second time. Seconds later, the electronic dial tone was interrupted on the third ring, and Hux sat forward in surprise to speak, only to see the connection go dead.
“That bastard just hung up on me,” Hux muttered incredulously, blood beginning to boil. Perhaps Hux should just assume the title of Supreme Leader himself, and see if that coaxed Ren out of his cave.
He stood up and snatched his data pad off the desk, tucking it under one arm. If Ren would not come to him, he would go to Ren.
It occurred to Hux as he stepped out his door that perhaps that had been Ren’s intention all along, that this was no more than an extension of the power struggle that had always colored their interactions. Hux’s step actually faltered briefly when he thought that he might simply be playing right into Ren’s hands, more firmly establishing himself in both Ren’s eyes and that of his crew as subservient. Little more than the Supreme Leader’s lackey, doomed to chase him about while attempting to interest him in his recent military acquisition.
Hux wasn’t sure he was prepared to give Ren that much credit, however. Thus far, he seemed more likely to exert control through fits of rage that made those beneath him too terrified to oppose him, or through physical violence.
Hux pinched the collar of his uniform at the base of his throat, pulling it away from his skin before he caught himself doing it. The fabric wasn’t tight, but since that incident in Snoke’s throne room, even the barest of pressures around his neck seemed to mimic the phantom stranglehold of Kylo’s fingers. He’d even had to remove his dog tags when he slept at night for the first week, having woken in a panic at the once-familiar sensation of the chain lying across his throat.
He’d left his office with self-righteous purpose, but now, approaching the door to Ren’s quarters, Hux could feel a cool sweat beading on his forehead and the beginning of his tension headache returning. He had to purposefully unclench his teeth and take a deep breath before reaching up to press the com button outside Ren’s door, frowning at the way his hand felt clammy.
He made a fist at his side while he waited, flexing the muscles around his wrist as though gearing up for a confrontation. Not that he would survive a direct one. No, if he wanted to lift this particular curse, he would have to play a game of shadows and subterfuge.
A full minute went by while he waited, and Hux was not surprised by the fact that Kylo did not answer, though he knew that Ren had been in his quarters less than fifteen minutes prior. Hux raised his hand again and depressed the green call button once more, leaving his thumb on it. It felt like rattling a rancor’s cage, and it gave Hux an alarming thrill that very well should have been replaced with caution. Not for the first time, it occurred to Hux that Ren drove him mad in ways that did not align with self-preservation.
He was prepared for any number of things, but the door whirring open to gape emptily over a dark room was not one of them. He’d expected Kylo to all but throw the doors open and confront him, to tell him to sod off or worse, not to offer this silent admittance.
Hux had pulled his thumb away from the keypad the moment the hydraulics whined, but he hesitated in the doorway, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. His mouth was dry as he inched inside, mentally chiding himself for the way Kylo allowing him onto his own turf suddenly seemed to sap his confidence. It was like the familiar board on which they’d always played their games had been flipped upside down.
The door slid shut behind him, the soft whisk the only sound in the room. It was dimly lit, the overheads not set above ten percent, Hux thought, and even through his uniform and greatcoat, he could tell that it was unnaturally cold.
There was movement out of the corner of his eye and Hux turned his head, catching a play of dark on black as something shifted within the small cavity of what Hux assumed was the refresher. Officer’s quarters were standard aboard the star destroyer, and while Hux supposed Ren could have demanded something more spacious, he hadn’t.
His suspicions were confirmed when he heard the brief rush of water splashing against metal, interrupted for a moment as though hands were being passed beneath the stream. Then there was quiet again just as the shadows within the space resolved, producing the Supreme Leader. Hux could see that his hands were damp as Ren scrubbed them over his face, raked them back through his lank, unwashed hair.
Kylo appeared paler than usual, the skin beneath his eyes looking paper thin and bruised, making his gaze seem hollow. Hux realized with a start that he’d been seeing that same look on his own face in the mirror for weeks--ever since the destruction of Starkiller.
“What do you want?” Ren spoke into the lingering silence. His voice was thick with exhaustion, and only long practice let Hux identify the acerbic edge to it.
Straightening his shoulders, Hux swiveled on his heel so that he was facing Ren fully, irritation seeping down his spine. “What do I want?” he parroted snidely. “I’d ask if you ever read your communiques, but I know the answer to that.”
Ren’s eyebrows slanted and he dropped his hands to his side, wiping the residual moisture onto the loose-fitting black trousers slung low on his hips. “So, you planned a visit of state to inform me that you are aware I haven’t checked my comm messages?”
Hux’s eyes flitted down Kylo’s torso, unbidden, marveling briefly at the stretch of marred skin that crossed his left side like a macabre, bluish-pink starburst. “How else should I inform you?” Hux snapped, frowning at him. “Certified mail?”
The corner of Ren’s mouth twitched, and the huff of air from his nose was, Hux realized with a mix of chagrin and surprise, laughter.
That was not in the list of reactions for which Hux had a premeditated response. “There are numerous items that require your attention,” he insisted, digging the nails of one hand into the meat of his palm before he caught himself. He hooked a thumb in his pocket to keep from fidgeting, which was less of a nervous tick than it was a sign of overflowing impatience.
Ren seemed to lose interest midway through that announcement, shoulders lifting in a sigh as he crossed the room to the single table. Hux found himself surprised that Ren was apparently an ascetic; except for that table, the only other furniture in the room was a standard bed, stripped of bedding, and a desk where his com unit was currently flashing with an angry red light. Unchecked messages, Hux thought darkly.
He found himself strolling toward the desk, reaching out to run the tip of his finger down the side of the com unit. “I could show you how to use this,” he suggested, glancing at Ren with a blank expression.
Metal chair legs scraped across the floor as Ren turned it and dropped heavily into the seat, back facing the wall. He folded his arms. “I thought you’d be pleased to have a brief taste of true power.”
Ren did a remarkable job of adopting a bemused tone, his doe-eyes and their faux innocence setting Hux’s skin ablaze. His hand tensed against the com unit and he was overcome with an uncharacteristic desire to hurl the thing across the room into the wall. He jerked away from it, curling his fingers into a loose fist.
“You should know that I have dispatched a particular bounty hunter, whose art of espionage I believe to be unparalleled, to follow the trail of dear old daddy’s...how did you put it…piece of junk.”
That wiped the self-satisfied expression off Ren’s face. “Don’t,” he warned Hux.
Raising both eyebrows, Hux pretended to miss Ren’s point. “I can contact her and call it off, if you wish.”
There was that same tug in the air around him, like atmosphere venting into space; Hux felt his lungs constrict, realized he was holding his breath, waiting for Ren to steal it. There was something painfully addictive about it, like eating sweets that he knew were poisonous, but were too delicious to pass up.
Ren’s fingers were white against the chrome table top, and Hux thought it quivered briefly; it would have been a massive surge of energy, because it was bolted down, like most furniture on the ship.
“How long until we are ready to move?” Ren asked tightly.
Hux deflated, almost disappointed in Ren’s self-control; he shrugged one shoulder in his discomfiture, immediately appalled with himself for the unrefined gesture. “Within two cycles. The Supremacy’s final modifications for minimal jump are near completion. In fact,” he said, clearing his throat. “I will be inspecting the progress in several hours. I thought you might like to accompany me.” The words tasted sour. He hadn’t meant to say them, had wanted the moment he stepped on Snoke’s former flagship to belong to him alone.
“I think not,” Ren said, his cold stare making Hux wonder instantly which reality he disagreed with: the spoken, or the private.
“Suit yourself,” Hux said, tensing to turn away, but an indignant impulse seized him instead. “Do you plan to hide in here indefinitely?”
“Is that what you think I’m doing?” Ren’s face was almost curious, his head cocked just slightly to the side.
Hux glanced around the room, raising both eyebrows. “I certainly don’t see any evidence of productivity.”
That clearly struck a nerve, for some reason. Ren lurched up from the chair, catching it with his heel seemingly by accident and kicking it away. Hux flinched as Kylo took a step forward, but relaxed when he passed Hux by, raking his fingers back through his own hair again.
“Not everything is quantifiable with spreadsheets, General ,” he growled. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. What Snoke did...the Force link. There has to be a way to recreate it. If I could just...” He trailed off, growling under his breath in what sounded like desperate frustration.
Hux turned his head, watching Ren pace the room like a caged animal, hands still clutched to his skull like he was trying to keep his head from drifting away. “If we’re talking about your wizard’s spells…” Hux began, but Ren whirled on him, planting his feet defensively, shoulder-width.
“Does being deliberately obtuse get you off? You aren’t as ignorant as you pretend to be. You know that this …”
Hux felt the ghost of fingers around his neck; it was just a whisper of air, teasing, but it was enough to make him step back abruptly.
“...is completely real,” Ren finished, the pressure around Hux’s neck vanishing. “Demeaning me simply makes you foolish.”
“Only because you’re arrogant and undisciplined,” Hux snarled, too angry at the alarming frequency of these petty physical assaults to hold his tongue.
“Get out,” Ren said. His eyes were wild, red-rimmed from lack of sleep.
Hux sucked in a breath to say more, but he could sense the way he was balanced now on the knife-edge of Ren’s unpredictable rage. Crossing that boundary had finally, after years of sniping at one another, begun to be tangibly hazardous to his health.
“As you wish, Supreme Leader,” he hissed, ducking his head in a mock bow. Ren’s eyes were narrower when Hux’s gaze met his again. It rankled to allow Ren to have the last word, almost more than it did to feel compelled to follow his orders, but Hux forced himself to walk across the room and press the release for the door. He stepped through it, ground to a stop, and turned around.
“As your second in command,” he said, “I suggest you get some rest.” When Ren squinted at him, as though gauging Hux’s actual level of concern, Hux smirked. “You look like shit.”
He barely had time to register the way Ren’s expression went black, only just caught the flick of his hand before the doors closed in Hux’s face with unnatural alacrity, hydraulics shrieking.
Hux took a shuttle to the Supremacy alone, touching down in a mechanical bay that had been temporarily repurposed. He was met by her commanding officer, Rondack, who ferried him through a tour of the wounded mega-destroyer while giving him a thorough accounting of the recovery progress. Rondack seemed suitably proud of the resilience of the great bird, and had Hux not been irrevocably covetous, he would have found her quite agreeable. As it was, he barely managed more than clipped questions around his critical assessment, doing his absolute best not to snap at her every time she said the words my ship .
“I believe,” she was telling him now as they rode a lift to the command deck, “that if we are able to secure a sufficient malleable durasteel supply, we should be able to have her back to full functional capacity within four months.”
“We’ll have our resources,” Hux assured her. I f he had to blackmail the materials out of the Sisk Conglomerate himself. He didn’t add that his analysts had done nothing but hit proverbial brick walls trying to trace the source of Snoke’s vast wealth, or to untangle the intricate webs of investments and contracts that fueled the financial might of the First Order. It left a bitter taste in Hux’s mouth, to realize that Snoke failing to have a contingency plan laid in place for such circumstances as his untimely death left little doubt that the old bastard hadn’t cared any more for the Order and its principles then what it could do for his own ambitions in the moment.
Rondack was giving him a confident smile as the turbolift came to a stop. She placed her hand over the door-track after it slid open, preventing it from closing between she and Hux as Hux stepped out.
“I have no doubt, sir,” she said. “Will you need anything else?”
Hux adjusted the glove on one hand, flexing his fingers in the soft leather. “No, Commander. Thank you.”
She bobbed her hand in acknowledgement and took her hand away from the doors, which hissed closed with a near-silent ding.
Hux turned away, facing the corridor, glad that Rondack had seemed to sense that her tour was slowly progressing toward babysitting; he knew this ship like the back of his hand--her sleek lines, deadly armaments, cold efficiency. He trailed his fingers over the durasteel paneling as he strode toward Snoke’s former throne room, reveling in taking his time, in being alone here with his aspirations.
How many times had he traversed this same hall torn between fury and fear, anticipating having outlived his usefulness to Snoke. Snoke had always made him feel small and foolish, just like Hux’s father had--tearing out the self-image that Hux had constructed around his own proven competence and talents and chewing it into a pulp so unrecognizable that Hux would leave his presence more often than not with no sense of his own worth.
And now Kylo Ren proposed to assume the vacuum of power over Hux in just the same heavy-handed way, thinking that he would browbeat the Starkiller into submission. The same man who had orchestrated the symphony of death that now had the galaxy on its knees in awe and the loathsome resistance no more than a skeleton at his feet.
Red light played across his face, catching and refracting in his pale eyelashes as the security system embedded outside Snoke’s throne room entrance sought Hux’s identity. The laser glow turned green, and Hux smirked as the doors slid open, welcoming him, and him alone.
Where once ablaze, the throne room was now a haunted cavern. Crimson banners were sunk in shadow; where once the vivid red of oxygenated blood, the walls were nearly black. The obsidian floor was scoured of its reflective qualities in the low light, and only the walkway beneath Hux’s feet was illuminated by dim burning bulbs, like banked embers left at uniform intervals to show Hux the path to his seat of power.
He stood just inside the blast doors, hands clasped behind his back as he recalled the acrid smell of charred metal, the tangy-sweet undercurrent of death that had permeated the air when he’d last stepped foot here. The air had been choked with the physical detritus of the battle that had taken place with Snoke’s Praetorian guards, the debris of broken and burning weapons and bodies which had been caught in the destructive whirlwind of Force magic now a grisly, caustic rain.
Hux had watched it settle around Ren and Snoke both, had stood there perhaps longer than he should have because something about it was mesmerizing. Like there was a message in it about how easily the mighty could be brought low, and how the galaxy would go on burning after they’d fallen.
His boot heels clicked against the polished floor, steps measured as he strode toward the throne. The sweeping contour of vaulted ceilings and concave walls was like a dark womb, the empty dais at the center offering a chance at rebirth. He’d thought often of this moment, of shaking loose the coils of an inauspicious childhood to assume a mantle he’d forged entirely with his own hands.
Yet he paused at the foot of the dais, chin tilted up as he gazed at the seat of the First Order’s power, and he knew in his gut that he was merely allowing himself to dream outside the scope of his present circumstances. It vexed him to admit to himself that he had no functional plan to rid himself of Kylo Ren, and that he had formulated none for Snoke.
Hux moved up the sloped side of the dais, eyes flicking to the floor where he’d found Snoke’s sundered body. Hux had never been one to rely on fortuity, and it stung that he was one massive step closer to the throne due to Kylo Ren’s casual treachery, rather than as a result of his own careful planning.
Tugging one glove off, Hux drew his fingers over the rectangular arm of the chair; it was carved from some sort of clastic stone, the porous exterior discolored where Snoke’s hand had often rested, the natural oils from his skin absorbed into the surface.
Hux’s upper lip curled in disgust and he slipped the glove back on, staring critically at the throne and wondering, not for the first time, where that creature had come from. What murky depth had spat him out? Was there some quantifiable, predictable method to the galaxy’s madness in producing Force-sensitive beings? If so, Hux would love to harness that secret and eradicate them before they seeped into places they did not belong and gummed up the gears.
Shifting closer to the throne, he put both Snoke and Kylo Ren out of his mind and allowed himself to dream. He swiveled until he was facing the blast doors and then sat slowly, sliding his hands down the arms of the chair until he could curl his fingers over their blunt ends. His shoulder blades pinched together and the small of his back twinged at the way he was forced to lean forward with his arms spread unnaturally; it was clearly made for Snoke alone. Hux persisted, nevertheless, looking out across the room and envisioning the way it would feel to gaze down on supplicants begging for his favor, his forgiveness, his might.
He populated this mental image with ghosts from his past, and there was a finite array of them stamped with the most precise details, anchoring them in time and place. So many of them were versions of his father.
One memory in particular sprang to the forefront, painted with the vivid clarity of cultivated bitterness:
Hux can feel the air on the parade ground, the way it clings to his cheeks in a damp film. Coupled with the muggy afternoon heat, the precisely shorn hair at the nape of his neck is saturated with sweat and water, rivulets of it trailing down his spine beneath his uniform. It itches terribly, and yet he does not move a muscle.
The ground beneath his feet is spongy, and even though he is standing perfectly still, he can feel his left heel sinking into the loam, and must dare to shift the weight on one foot forward to the toe. The ground makes a squelching sound, loud in his ears, but no one seems to notice. Hux thinks, not for the first time, that Brendol and his lot could have chosen anywhere else for their field training, somewhere not so reminiscent of Arkanis; but then Brendol always did have uncompromising visions.
Today is the last day of third-year instruction, and Hux can’t help that his eyes wander, straying over the ranks of his peers in their rigid lines, everything about them uniform except the color of the hair peeking out from the bottoms of their caps and the variations in size that have only increased on the threshold of puberty. There are twenty-eight boys in Hux’s class. A year past, when courses had begun, there were thirty-one.
Karler Craden contracted a bronchial infection, which in itself wasn’t noteworthy, but it was the third in a year; the boy hadn’t been suited to the wet climate of Scorix 470, so Commandant Hux had instructed the medical supervisor to let nature sort things out. Craden died of pneumonia a week later.
Hux thinks of him sometimes when he hears disembodied coughing in the dormitories—not such a rare experience in the marsh—and figures that if anyone is justified in haunting the place, it is that boy.
Garmis Withbro’s absence is decidedly on Hux’s conscience, though it doesn’t weigh very heavily. Each year, the boys participate in a series of challenges, testing their progress in the martial arts. Hux has yet to grow into his physical potential, if Brendol’s formidable height and portly circumference are anything to measure it by; at eleven, Hux is still very much a runt—shorter than his peers by almost half a head and willowy. It amused Garmis immensely to be paired with young Hux for hand-to-hand demonstrations, the boy’s taunts giving rise to jeering from their peers. Hux can still feel the way silence descended over the gathered throng when a well-aimed foot to the groin brought Withbro to his knees. The way the boy’s spine cracked when Hux twisted his neck was like a dry twig snapping in a quiet forest.
Hux received only token punishment by way of several lashes. Brendol stood by, hands clasped behind his back, to watch Hux receive them. The scars, his father said, would remind him not to allow passion to overtake self-discipline. Hux hates the way the raised skin feels at his shoulders now, where the seam of his damp uniform chafes whenever he moves his arms. The wounds have healed enough by this time not to be raw, but what truly rankles is that Brendol had been right: Hux does remember that lesson, constantly, as surely as if Brendol had carved it into his flesh himself.
Most of Hux’s classmates were content to view the public lashing Hux received as penance. Two, however, felt the need to be vocal about “special privileges” afforded to the commandant’s son, and insisted that Hux needed to be taught a further lesson. One of the two, a vicious, twelve-year-old lieutenant’s son named Jimbre Durjes, simply disappeared one night. No one was able to pinpoint what strange magic had been involved, though the message was clear enough.
Now, as Hux’s father strolls the ranks alongside Sargeant Mulbie, the Academy instructor responsible for Hux’s class, Hux feels secure in his position. He feels that he has clawed his way to the place that Brendol has dangled before him since his early childhood, using the tools he’s honed leading feral children: fear, the threat of pain, and showing himself to be impervious to both.
There are only three of those children left now within Hux’s reach; disturbed by them, Brendol gradually transferred them elsewhere, keeping only enough within Hux’s circle to appear to be fulfilling his vow to Gallius Rax. They are enough, though, and followed Hux’s orders to get rid of Jimbre Durjes without question, and with the utmost efficiency.
The commandant passes Hux then, chin lifted so that his bristled red beard juts out like it is leading the way. Mulbie is in Brendol’s wake, and Hux sees him look over his shoulder, meeting Hux’s eyes. In Mulbie’s is a chilly mix of fear and disgust, as though Hux is a rancid cut of meat rotting on the shelf, the very proximity of which could bring plague upon them all. Hux is too disciplined to react, though he imagines Mulbie registers the self-satisfied gleam in his eyes. What the master sergeant looks upon with such distaste is not Hux’s character, but his shield. It is the thing that repels men like Mulbie and Brendol ,who wish to find him forever lacking; it protects him from vindictive peers and makes savage children fear him enough to obey. How else does someone weak-willed and thin as a slip of paper, like Armitage Hux, survive in their world?
Hux does sneer when Mulbie turns away. Overhead, thunder rolls low and distant, a breeze buffeting his cheeks and making the damp sheen over his cheeks rapidly cool. Hux can smell rain, the scent mixed on the air with the stench of mildew and sweat. Brendol always drags these inspections out, wanting an opportunity to see the cadets struggle with self-discipline, wanting to see who will give in to the uncomfortable conditions. Those, Brendol once told Hux, would be the men most likely to get their fellows killed in the field.
The weather of Scorix 470, however, has no patience for this practice, and thunder booms overhead again, closer. Brendol’s steps quicken slightly, and Hux almost laughs at the comical squelch his father’s boots make as the sodden ground tries to suck him down.
The commandant steps up onto the parade stage, muddy boot-prints trailing after him. Mulbie takes his place beside Hux’s father. Today is the day they will announce the cadet who will hold rank over the fourth-year recruits, the boy who will be firmly in the position of power.
He looks up through the ranks of cadets in their damp gray uniforms, inhaling and allowing his chest to swell with pride as Brendol meets his eyes from the stage. They are locked one to the other in a steel gaze for a handful of seconds, Hux waiting for Brendol to call his name and summon him forward to receive the accolade he’s earned.
Then his father looks away.
Hux frowned as he glared out across the empty room; there were only shadows to confront for past slights, and for the first time in his life he felt a twinge of regret that he’d so thoroughly eliminated those who had wronged him. Now, there were none to experience what would be his most satisfying revenge: proving, beyond a doubt, that his rightful place was above them all, if for no other reason than he’d taken it.
Most of all, he’d like for Brendol to see him now; for him to see the son he’d passed over time and time again in favor of some other boy, some other person, always wanting Hux to see that no matter what he did, it would never be enough.
He hoped, at least, that Brendol understood the meaning behind his own death, when he was staring it in the face. Hux wanted him to know that he’d finally stopped seeking his approval like the castle in the air that it was.
And now, here Hux was, alone in his own fortress.
The throaty, mechanical hum that suddenly pierced the silence didn’t register with Hux at first; the spitting, hissing plasma sounded like cold water poured into boiling oil. The muddled split-second that it took Hux to draw the connection between the noise and the way red light splashed over the back of the throne felt like being caught flat-footed between two worlds—his consciousness grounded too much in the past before him, leaving him deathly unaware of the present sneaking up behind.
Hux lurched forward, his first instinct to spring out of the chair and meet his doom face-to-face. He was bent at the waist, weight on his left toe, hand scrabbling for the grip of his blaster, but he got no further. The atmosphere closed around him like a fist and he was wrenched backward in the seat; he had no agency over his body, no ability to brace for the impact, and he struck the back of the throne with such force that it punched the air from his lungs. His skull bounced off the stone frame, driving his teeth hard into the soft meat of his tongue.
He was frozen there, as much by Kylo Ren’s hand as by the weight of his own stupidity; he’d allowed himself to equate Ren’s distraction with complacency, to underestimate his possessiveness.
From the corner of his eye, Hux could see the tip of Ren’s lightsaber, the body of the blade creeping into view like a menacing serpent and bathing everything in flickering red. Hux tried to turn his head, but only succeeded in straining the tendons in the left side of his neck.
“You are imagining yourself as emperor,” Ren said in a sing-song tone of calm that Hux wasn’t expecting.
The lightsaber was in profile now, Ren lurking like an inky shadow to Hux’s side.
“You’re imagining what it would be like to rule from my throne,” Ren continued, and Hux felt his chest constrict, the tight knot bursting only seconds later when Ren whispered in his ear. “And yet the strongest thing you feel is loneliness.”
Hux’s eyes watered, humiliation making his cheeks hot. He tried to speak, but the muscles in his face felt as though they were being pummeled by strong g-force, and all he could manage was to open his mouth enough for a trickle of blood to slip from the corner and roll down his chin.
Ren was suddenly looming before him, the saber held casually to his side as he leaned closer, almost face-to-face with Hux. Where Hux had expected rage, he found something darker: cold threat, a complete lack of fear, as though Hux was nothing more than an amusing insect, deadly but safely bottled for the moment.
Hux could not even flinch when Ren lifted his hand—ungloved, Hux noted pointlessly—and dragged the tip of his thumb over Hux’s chin, bringing it away smeared with blood. In the red-tinged light, it seemed to shimmer as Ren held it only a fingerbreadth from Hux’s eye.
“This is a good color on you, General.”
Hux could only glare as Ren straightened, wiping the blood on his trousers. For some reason, that too-casual gesture infuriated Hux.
The vice-grip of the Force suddenly released him, tense muscles keeping him upright; it was a small gift, not to suddenly slump over in front of Ren, slack with relief. Hux spared only a single thought for his blaster, not willing to make a fool of himself if these were truly his final moments.
“Decided to take an active role, then?” Hux asked, touching his swollen tongue to the inside of his bottom lip to gauge the damage. “Supreme Leader,” he added acerbically.
Ren stepped casually down the dais, tread resounding on the metal grate like he was trying to make himself heavier. Somehow, Hux thought, these theatrics had fit him better when he’d gone masked.
“Something called to me,” Ren said, lightsaber buzzing through the air as he spun it casually. His tone was almost contemplative. “A disturbance in the Force.”
Hux snorted, shifting his weight forward. Outwardly, he was confident that he appeared calm, though his heart was a jackhammer and his nerves misfiring in a way that made Hux wonder if standing up was the wisest course of action. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had a noose around his neck, waiting for his mad king to release the trap door beneath his feet.
“And what,” Hux began, having to swallow around the dryness in his throat, “do you suppose this disturbance is?”
“A warning,” Ren answered without hesitation, turning to face Hux again and freezing him with his dark gaze as surely as he had with his powers. “A warning about you , General.”
“As you just saw,” Hux said, trying and failing to make his tone sound light, “I’m hardly a threat to you.” It felt vile to utter aloud, but he thought it was what Ren wanted to hear. When Kylo only stared at him, Hux shifted again, making to stand.
“Don’t. Move,” Ren hissed, freezing Hux with nothing more than the tone of his voice; but then Hux flinched back when Kylo stalked forward toward the throne again. He moved like an advancing stormfront, red lightning crackling beside him. “Why rise? You covet that seat. You feel like it belongs to you. Like you’ve earned it.”
Hux frowned. “Of course I’ve thought about it,” he snapped, because there was no point in denying it.
Ren stopped at the base of the dais, looking up at him. Red light played across his face from one side, leaving the other in shadow. One pupil was limned with fire, the other black. “Yes, you’ve thought about it in great detail. You’re just disappointed that—how did you put it...dear Old Daddy isn’t here to see it.”
Hux did lurch to his feet this time, too incensed and too driven by shame to be cautious. He was looming over Ren, though the tension had fallen from Ren’s shoulders as though he were feeling entertained rather than threatened.
“Patricide seems to be something we have in common, finally,” Hux drawled, folding his arms. “Though I’m not sure we regret it for the same reasons.”
Ren’s upper lip curled. “You know nothing about me, or what I feel.”
Hux scoffed, confidence once more starting to seep through the cracks in his wounded ego. “You’re transparent. Do you think I believed for one moment that your little scavenger girl killed Snoke?”
Hux deliberately took a step back and away from Ren, toward the ramp that lead him down to floor level. “No,” he continued, Ren watching him move. “You finally got tired of your master belittling you. Of finding you unworthy of his respect.”
Hux stalked closer until he was only a foot from Ren, well inside the arc of Kylo’s blade. “You tolerated me because you knew you had something that I didn’t, and you always would. I wasn’t a threat . Not like her.” He took one long step forward again until he could see the pulse thumping in Ren’s neck.
“What you couldn’t abide, Supreme Leader , is your master endeavoring to replace you.”
He saw Ren’s fingers clench around the hilt of his saber, saw his jaw tense and shoulder twitch back, but before Ren could strike him down, Hux said one more thing: “I know what it feels like to be cast aside, Kylo.”
Kylo’s lips parted, as though he’d had a response on the tip of his tongue, but had been prepared for Hux to say something completely different. Ren stared at him, brows drawn to a point over his nose, and for a moment Hux thought he would argue, but then Hux heard that faint huff of air that passed for laughter.
“You think you’re clever, don’t you?” Ren asked, but there was no longer malice in his voice.
Hux refused to breathe a sigh of relief. “I am clever,” he challenged. “And you’d be wise to remember it.” He almost bit his tongue again the moment the words left his mouth, too accustomed to their usual script to check himself. “I can be of use,” he added, cheek twitching in irritation.
Ren smirked, and the room was plunged into silence and darkness again as he powered off his saber. “Pleading doesn’t suit you, General.”
Hux huffed. “I’m not…” he began, but Ren was turning away from him, and Hux was not speaking to his back.
“Come,” Ren said as he strode toward the blast doors, giving Hux a long look over his shoulder. “I want you where I can keep an eye on you.”
Hux couldn’t tell if Ren was trying to be funny, but he was absolutely not amused. However, Ren had him on this one. Under present circumstances, he could hardly suggest he did not need to be watched.
Following Ren at an unhurried pace, head held high, Hux thought to himself that he would much rather engender distrust than inspire dismissal, and so, for now, that would have to do.
Hux didn’t physically see Ren over the next cycle, but the Supreme Leader made himself known in ways that left Hux constantly on edge.
“I don’t care what Katamon told you,” Hux snapped into the receiver, “I expect Dowaud to be present at that meeting, and if she isn’t there the deal is off.” He thumbed the button to disconnect the call, the hand-high hologram of the Chiss in the center of his desk fizzling out.
Hux was in a hurry, having been plagued throughout the cycle by an array of preparations for the upcoming jump to Turik station, and he didn’t have time to argue with greedy Black Sun bagmen.
Tugging on his gloves, Hux snarled at the way sweat had degraded the pomade seal keeping his hair in regulation order. He glanced at his monitor to discern whether he had time to sprint back to his quarters to freshen up. The moment his eyes locked on the screen, though, he felt like someone had dumped ice water down the back of his uniform.
He’d been slogging through comm messages before the call with Sron’nik’recen, having left that box open on his screen. Now, however, there were no less than eight tiled windows all showing various camera feeds around the ship: the corridor outside the door to his private quarters, the infirmary bedside where he’d visited a wounded pilot that morning, the flight deck where he’d helped supervise preparations for the day’s events, the bridge.
Hux felt splotchy color high on his cheeks when he recognized that a camera that was usually aimed down a service corridor that connected to the flight deck turbo-lifts had been turned, angling now toward a supply room door where Hux had slipped in mid-day to disengage from the chaos of his afternoon. He’d stood with back pressed to the locked door and taken himself in hand, working out a languid orgasm while imagining himself on Ren’s throne. And not alone.
Hux swallowed, glancing at the other windows open on the screen, finally pausing on the feed that showed him looking down at this same monitor. Hux’s head snapped up to glare into the camera over his office door.
“I don’t have time for your games, Ren,” he snapped, met only with the pulsing green light below the camera lens.
Hux snarled again, snatched his cap from his desk and placed it over his hair as he hurried out the door.
Looking out over the perfectly assembled ranks of troopers never failed to fill Hux with a pride bordering on possessive; these men and women were perfect examples of a dream brought to fruition not by Brendol, ultimately, but by himself. The rigorous simulations they trained under were more practical, less costly in terms of supplies and lives both, and served just as well.
The white-plated rank and file, easily a thousand strong, stretched deep into the cavernous hangar bay, their perfect rows and columns a balm to Hux’s soul. He couldn’t help thinking of the threadbare classes of academy cadets from which this great army had sprung; couldn’t help thinking that all great things begin small, weak, and armed only with potential.
Despite his pleasure in his troops, Hux had elected not to give a speech. Replacing Phasma with Captain Landry was not his wish, but it was a necessity. He had no inclination to besmirch Phasma’s legacy by honoring her successor with fanfare, nor did he think orbiting Crait was the prime location for expounding on the future of First Order dominance in the galaxy.
“I’m impressed, Landry,” Hux said as they strolled between the well-formed rows, moving back toward the head of the assembly. “You’ve assumed Phasma’s position seamlessly.”
He saw Landry nod out of the corner of his eye. “Thank you, sir. I’m grateful for the honor.”
Hux gave him a sidelong look. “Never be grateful for what you’ve earned,” Hux said lowly, for Landry’s ears only. “And never invite question as to whether you deserve it.” It was Hux’s refined way of saying you have no room to fuck up.
It seemed the captain picked up on Hux’s tone; he set his jaw and stared ahead expressionlessly. “I am considering a mandatory round of reconditioning,” Landry told him, “as there wasn’t time after the debacle at…after the harrowing loss of our base.”
Hux sneered inwardly, but nodded. “I believe you have a sound idea.” Their boots made syncopated reports against the metal floor grating. “And after you’ve…”
Hux’s thought evaporated, and he only dimly heard Landry say, “Sir?” Hux only realized he had stopped walking when he registered the back of Landry’s cap before the man partly turned to face him.
Standing at the end of the row, centered and flanked by troopers, was the Supreme Leader. Ren faced the two of them, creating by his mere positioning an aisle for Hux and Landry to traverse like supplicants going to kneel before their ruler.
But then, Hux thought as he began moving again, that was exactly what this was.
Ren’s face was blank as they approached, though his eyes were fixed on Hux. To avoid meeting them, Hux took in Ren’s new appearance. Gone were the quilted, ill-fitting tunic and too-tight trousers, replaced with leggings and open coat that looked almost soft, like velvet. It would have been laughable on a man Ren’s size, Hux thought, except for the wide tooled leather belt cinched at his waist and the boots laced up to his knees. There was something distinctly militaristic about those features, insisting that Ren was both refined, and deadly.
Hux shook those thoughts away as he paused beneath Ren’s scrutinizing gaze. At least the fool had washed his damn hair.
“Supreme Leader,” Hux said, keeping his voice low and reverent. Landry echoed his greeting.
Rather than respond to either of them verbally, Ren’s eyes skated quickly over Hux and locked on Landry. Hux felt his own brow furrow in confusion, recognizing the predatory look on Ren’s face. Before he could speak, however, Kylo pushed between them, forcing them both to jump apart to let him through. Hux swiveled, confused, and watched as Ren stalked systematically down the rows of stormtroopers. Every ten or fifteen people, Ren would stop, leaning into the trooper’s personal space like he was trying to catch their scent.
“What’s he doing?” Landry asked, a strange awe in his voice that echoed Hux’s own inner thoughts.
Realizing his mouth was hanging open, Hux closed it, watching Ren weave out of sight through another row. He resisted moving so that he could keep an eye on the new Supreme Leader.
“He is performing his own scheduled inspection,” Hux said belatedly, refusing to admit that he had no idea what had overcome his co-commander. Leader. He felt Landry give him a hard stare, but didn’t acknowledge it.
They stood watching Kylo Ren together, hands behind their backs, until Ren finally emerged farther across the hanger bay. He strolled casually back to them, his own hands clasped behind his back, and Hux burned to question him as Ren came to a stop at his side.
While Hux stared at him, Landry took his opportunity to speak.
“I trust that my troops met with your satisfaction, Supreme Leader?”
“Whose troops?” Ren asked softly, needing to speak no louder for his point to be relayed.
Landry inhaled sharply, dipped his head. “Yours, My Lord. I am humbled to command them in your name.”
Hux resisted an urge to roll his eyes, irritated that his personal message to Landry not moments before had been eclipsed by three minutes of Kylo playing the role of an unstable witch.
“Dismissed,” Kylo said then, surprising both Landry and him.
“Sir,” Landry said, not needing to be told twice. He turned away from Kylo and barked an order, and the hanger bay was filled with the sound of thousands of armored feet filing out. Landry was disciplined enough, at least, to follow without looking over his shoulder like a frightened child.
Stifling a sigh, Hux about-faced to take his own leave, having no desire to revisit anything that had been exchanged between Kylo and him in the past two cycles. Especially anything to do with thrones, physical or otherwise.
“Not you,” Kylo said, voice just barely carrying over the din.
Hux halted mid-stride, turning back slowly. “Yes?” he bit out reluctantly.
Ren crossed the few steps between them, dipping his head so that his words were clear. “I don’t agree with this appointment.”
Hux blinked. “What? Landry?” Since when had Kylo Ren taken an interest in trooper dispositions. “I can assure you that—”
“I have a better sense of whom you can trust and whom you cannot,” Ren finished for him.
“What does that mean?” Hux demanded, stepping back so he could see Ren fully.
As though the moment had passed and the oracle had become, once again, just a man, Ren shrugged. “I’m sure you know what’s best, General.”
When Kylo smirked, Hux’s ire spiked. “As a matter of fact, Ren, I do.” He almost whirled to take his leave, but couldn’t resist a weak jab. “Nice outfit.”
Ren’s smile slipped for a fraction of a second; Hux preened inwardly, then flinched back as Ren reached out to touch the lapel of Hux’s greatcoat. He traced the hem with long fingers.
“And what would you wear, as Supreme Leader?” Ren asked, sounding amused. He tugged sharply at the lapel, jolting Hux forward a surprised inch. “Pretty gold robes, perhaps?”
Before Hux could summon a reply, Ren brushed past him, knocking him aside as their shoulders collided. Hux spun around to watch him go, feeling like he was gradually being circled by a great wolf who was only waiting for him to show weakness, to succumb to the delusion of safety.
That would be when the wolf struck.
thank you so much to the lovely @pangolinpirate for her amazing drawing of Supreme Leader Ren in his new digs!!! <3
Hux swirled the tea in his cup, staring into the tiny whirlpool formed by the centrifugal force. Fragments of crushed leaves were specks of black in the dark liquid, swirling toward the epicenter like particulate being sucked into the vortex of a black hole. Hux briefly imagined himself on just such a journey, bound for an inevitable state of nothingness, which would perhaps be preferable to this farce of a decision making council.
A throat cleared with an intentional resonance before breaking up into a feigned fit of coughing, likely to cover up the audacity inherent in demanding Hux’s attention as though he were an errant schoolboy. Hux raised his eyes slowly and caught Commander Erol watching him; he fixed the man with a chilly stare that implied he always caught every word spoken in his presence, and that Erol would be wise not to forget it. Then he slowly brought the cup of tea to his lips and took a sip, suppressing a wince at the way it had long ago gone cold.
He placed the cup on a coaster on the table, folding his hands before it and cocking his head, lifting one eyebrow to relay his impatience. They’d been in here for hours now, engaged in political and tactical discussions that were little more than thinly veiled arguments, and Hux had been reduced at last to slouching over his teacup while Erol extolled the practical virtues of the Yesluacarron tritium mines.
“I believe,” the commander abruptly went on, his tone clipped with what sounded to Hux like a mix of exhaustion and irritation, “that the First Order holding primary stock will lend a significant advantage when negotiating with the Toshade government.”
There was a sharp clack as the duraplast casing of Major Andwald’s data pad slapped down against the table. The officer’s shoulders were stiff with tension, a wisp of auburn hair straying from the neat coil at the nape of her neck. “The First Order has no need of negotiations at this point,” she objected. “This rivalry between Yesluacarro and Toshade is not our concern.”
Hux saw Commander Erol’s jaw twitch, just beneath his ear, heard the intake of breath through his nose; there were tiny, red threads of burst capillaries around his nostrils--too much gin, perhaps. “Toshade houses the primary military installation in the system; nothing gets in or gets out without their involvement. What do you suggest, blowing up the planet to save ourselves the trouble?”
The words were bluster, and coarsely spoken, but the gravity in that implication settled over their small assembly in such a way that silence overtook them for the first time in hours. Hux had to suppress a shudder of laughter, which he hid quickly behind one fist. When he raised his eyes this time, Erol was looking at him again, though now with a resigned expression, as though he’d just discovered the limit of his own patience.
“You both make good points,” Hux conceded, adjusting his posture and hearing his upper vertebrae crack. “The Order would do well to…”
He was interrupted by the whisper of hydraulics as the door of the conference room slid open, and it took Hux a full three seconds to snap his gaping mouth closed. There, darkening the archway with a sour expression, was Kylo Ren. There was a crease between his heavy eyebrows, his lips set in a scowl that canted to one side, hair swept back from his forehead as though he’d just combed his fingers through it before opening the door.
So busy was Hux examining Ren’s appearance that he only vaguely registered the way the officers around the conference table were coming to their feet in a slow wave of uncertainty, one after the other. Gritting his teeth, Hux was the last to follow suit, his fingertips pressed against the table and knuckles white as he pushed himself up, uncoiling to his full height at a pace bordering on lackadaisical.
“Supreme Leader,” Hux intoned woodenly, watching Ren’s eyes flit around the room, taking in the faces of the officers whose names and dispositions he likely did not know. Hux thought briefly of pretending he had no idea why Ren would include himself in this meeting, but decided such insubordination in front of his top command was not in his best interest, long term.
“I’m pleased you were able to join us,” he said instead, offering Ren a tight-lipped smirk. With the toe of his right boot, Hux caught the bottom leg of the chair beside him and gave it a nudge; it rolled several inches away from the table, silent on the gray carpet. “Won’t you have a seat?”
Ren paid the chair no heed, slipping fully inside the room. He pressed his back to the wall, just inside the door, and the door slid closed. Ren crossed his arms.
“Continue,” he said, the word sharpened with an edge of command.
There was a hesitant moment before the officers around the polished mahogany table began to sink back into their seats. Hux remained standing, circling his chair and digging his fingers into the cushioned leather upholstery as he hovered behind it.
“As I was saying,” he continued, voice measured, refusing to look at Ren despite that fact that he loomed in Hux’s peripheral vision like a carrion bird waiting for him to die. “I believe that the Order must take decisive action while the galaxy is reeling from the loss of the Hosnian system.”
He said this with detachment, like the galaxy as a whole had merely misplaced the system, rather than seen it obliterated by Starkiller.
Hux went on. “Commander Erol and Major Anwald make equally valid points; our influence is necessary in strategic positions, and very little will be needed to accomplish that. This window will not be open indefinitely.” He ran his thumb over a seam in the chair, glanced at Ren out of the corner of his eye. “Sentient species do their best to forget their painful pasts, and to find new outlets for their discontent.”
Lieutenant Drummond, a squat man with a scar bisecting his thick, ruddy lips, nodded, elbow on the table beside his data pad. “By that time, the Order will hold all the cards.”
“Yes,” Hux agreed. “We’ll have picked up all the pieces of their shattered Republic and put them back together so well that they will not be able to remember how they functioned without our oversight.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Ren said, voice coming from farther along the conference room’s oval wall. He had shifted while Hux was speaking, forcing Hux to turn around now to acknowledge him.
“Oh?” He knew Ren was right, but that was not a discussion for a command council. A great bulk of his role was merely to convince those under his thumb that they were justified and secure.
Ren’s arms were still folded across his chest. “The seeds of rebellion will grow in even the most hostile soil,” he said. “Oppression is a potent fertilizer.”
Hux’s lips twitched. “Indeed, Lord Ren. Which is why we would do well to offer the galaxy something besides corruption and despotism.”
They stared at one another, and Hux felt something uncomfortable creep up his spine, prickling in the back of his head. Did he and Ren actually agree on something? The thought was abhorrent.
As though hearing this thought, Ren’s mouth lifted in the ghost of a smile, and he waved a magnanimous hand toward Hux. “By all means, outline your plan to become the galaxy’s most beloved benefactor, Starkiller.”
Hux inhaled sharply through his nose, nostrils flaring, and he was riveted for too long a second by the way Ren’s eyes bored into his. Finally, he turned to face his officers again, suddenly realizing he was the only one among them still standing; Ren shifting positions in the conference room had served to make Hux seem like he was petulantly trying to block the Supreme Leader’s presence from the others.
Hux pulled his chair away from the table and sank into it once more, the tips of his fingers numb with elevated nerves. He grasped his tea mug, clenching his hand around it and hearing the almost imperceptible creak of its duraplast shell as it compressed around the mold.
“Primary among my directives,” Hux said curtly, dispensing with the illusion that anything at this table was actually up for discussion, “will be to dispatch sufficient ground forces to quell this little J-Sec rebellion on Vardos. I will not tolerate secular dissension on a planet known for its heritage of loyalty to the Empire and now the First Order.
“Concurrently, Takodana has been scoured clean of that squalid pit of thieves and crooks Maz Kanata encouraged to fester there, and the ground is ripe for regrowth. It is a perfect way point between the Inner and Outer Rim territories, and under First Order control, we can…”
“You are dismissing the allure of law-neutral territory,” Kylo interrupted him, forcing Hux to turn around again to glare at him. Ren was pressed against the wall, posture slack and thumbs hooked in invisible pockets low on his hips. “Takodana prospered because there was no overt political influence, no outside agendas being pressed.”
“Exactly,” Hux snapped. “Unbridled chaos.”
Ren shook his head indulgently, like Hux was a child seated at his classroom table rather than at the head of a war council. “Not chaos,” Kylo told him. “Opportunity. An endless reservoir of it. Allow the illusion of autonomy to persist, funnel money through the right shadows to rebuild, establish a solid network of spies and surveillance, and we will have our finger on the pulse of the galaxy. Who wants what, and how much they’re willing to pay for it.”
Hux stared, the implications of Ren’s suggestion sinking claws into his analytical mind and tugging at threads, showing him how that elusive and intangible underbelly of the galactic machine could be woven tightly into the First Order’s interests.
He was loathe to voice that aloud, but Ren was staring at him, his dark eyes almost eager for Hux’s reaction. So, grudgingly, Hux offered an acknowledgment that did not quite border on a compliment.
“As you wish, Supreme Leader.” At least Hux wasn’t arguing with him. That should tell Ren something.
Hux thought he saw him smile, but wasn’t sure, for Ren looked down at that moment and his dark hair fell in a curtain around his face.
The meeting droned on for another half-hour, Hux pushing the various remaining agendas along brusquely, having no desire to give Ren more than the bare minimum of opportunities to override his decisions. Nevertheless, Ren offered his suggestions, and by the time Hux adjourned the council, he was beginning to regret his efforts to involve the new Supreme Leader in the affairs of his organization.
Hux was standing at the head of the table, hands fisted behind his back as his officers filed out. When Ren made to follow them without another glance at Hux, Hux’s temper snapped.
“A word in my office, Supreme Leader,” he snipped curtly, sweeping past Ren to precede him out the door.
Hux stalked down the hall and pressed his thumbprint to the keypad, forcing himself to wait until the door slid all the way open rather than shouldering through the breach. He was digging a fingernail into the nail bed of his thumb by the time he’d circled his desk and turned to face Ren.
The door slid shut as he faced across an empty room.
Hux remained standing, staring dumbly at the door, lips parted. His chest felt tight, throat muscles standing out as he clenched his jaw. Rage was a porous stone in his belly that sucked all the rationality out of his being, and he was still there, facing forward and worrying a bloody hole into the side of his thumb when the door opened again, innocuously.
Ren came through and paused abruptly, eyebrows knitting as the psychic brunt of Hux’s discontent hit him. He looked, Hux thought disdainfully, like he was surprised, as though he’d been expecting to be praised. The moment passed quickly, however.
“What do you want?” Ren asked, declining to approach further.
Hux wasn’t sure why he’d summoned Ren, other than to try to grind him back down beneath his boot where he belonged. A moment of inspiration seized him, however, and he sat down heavily in his chair to key up schematics of the Supremacy and tables of data. The reports began scrolling, information streaming across the screen at a speed only a droid could truly decipher—satisfied, Hux gripped the edge of the display and rotated it so that it faced Ren.
“I thought you might have some expert insight into how best to reassign the non-essential personnel from the Supremacy while she is being refitted.” Hux folded his hands on the desk before himself. He saw Ren’s gaze flick from the screen to the crescent-shaped wound on Hux’s thumb, and Hux tucked it quickly out of sight beneath his opposite palm.
Kylo’s attention returned to the monitor; Hux watched his dark eyes scanning from left to right, and was pleased at the way Ren’s lips turned down in consternation. Hux suppressed a smile as he reached out to grasp the edge of the screen to turn it back, preparing to offer Ren a concise lecture on what it took to truly run an organization as large and encompassing as the First Order. Then the Supreme Leader spoke.
“Offload crew and equipment to the surface, prior to our departure.”
Hux’s brow creased, and it took him a moment to realize what Ren was suggesting. “You mean abandon them on Crait?” There was an incredulous lilt to the question.
Ren flashed him a long-suffering glower, walking forward and slumping down, uninvited, into the chair across from Hux. “Crait was a high-yielding lithium mine before the Empire fell. The infrastructure is still there, just out of use.”
“A lith— How the kriff do you know that?” The mere fact that Kylo Ren was in possession of a fact about the Imperial Age of which Hux had been previously unaware made a headache begin to form behind his eyes.
Ren shrugged cryptically, managing to look both menacing and smug, like he’d backed Hux into a corner with this information and was daring him not to act on it.
“I see,” Hux said. “Part of the classified training you received in Jedi school.”
Kylo’s priggish expression turned dark, and Hux hurried on before Ren admonished him with fingers around his throat.
“Since you show yourself to be such a diligent student of the inner workings of the universe around us, perhaps you could find a further outlet for it when we reach Turik station. I have a particular agenda involving some very self-serving arms dealers who are convinced they know a good deal more about weapons than I do.” Hux drummed his fingers on the table, blunt nails ticking against the laminate surface.
Kylo regarded him as though judging whether Hux was making a joke. “And you require the services of a loyal guard dog?”
“While there is some appeal to that idea,” Hux said drolly, eyes trailing down to the pale column of Ren’s neck, “no. You should get to know your constituents, so that you can learn how best to take advantage of them.” He met Ren’s eyes again and saw something flicker there—a brief glint of what looked like doubt; Hux had seen that same look when they’d faced Snoke’s hologram together, when Snoke had questioned Ren’s dedication to his training. It was, Hux realized at that moment, fear of failure.
Ren’s expressive face shuttered then, and Hux wondered with trepidation whether he’d projected his sudden insight.
“I’ll be looking forward to it, General,” Ren said, rising from the chair and fixing Hux with an intense gaze. “I think you’ll find that I am quite capable.”
He turned and fled the room before Hux could ask him to elaborate.
Sitting back, Hux contemplated the way he’d seemingly scratched the surface of something here. He’d always known that Ren harbored a certain depth of insecurity, but the way his face had brightened for just a moment when Hux had first mentioned the prospective encounter with the arms dealers...it was like Ren was desperate for a chance to prove his worth.
There was, perhaps, something to that. Something Hux could use.
They made the jump to Turik station without incident, and Hux imagined that he was not the only one among the crew who felt immense relief. There were thousands of men and women aboard the Supremacy that had likely held their collective breaths in morbid anticipation of the wounded bird coming apart in hyperspace, of their corporeal molecules being scattered in the cosmic wind; while Hux was pleased that this was not the case, he was, above all else, ecstatic that his ship had come through it safely.
His flag ship. He couldn’t think of the Supremacy as Ren’s possession, and didn’t bother to try.
Ren had briefly made an appearance, prior to the jump, to inspect Hux’s dispatch planning for the ground crew and machinery that would carry out that damnably decent plan to colonize Crait and plunder its lithium deposits. Other than that, it had been nearly two weeks since Hux had last seen the Supreme Leader; for all Hux knew, Ren had gone back into hiding to meditate or practice his astral projection techniques—whatever nonsense passed for productivity in his world.
Carrying out the necessary arrangements and finalizing the nightmare of logistical details related to the Supremacy’s repairs had taken up much of Hux’s days, of late, and by the time his scheduled meeting with Dowaud was looming on the near horizon, the idea of a tense and potentially dangerous liaison with a notorious criminal syndicate was starkly appealing.
And he’d all but forgotten that he’d invited Ren along.
It wasn’t often that Hux had an opportunity to leave the ship, and even less often that he took those chances when he did have them. He strode across the hangar deck now, a standard issue rucksack slung over his shoulder, and sifted through his memories for the last time he’d taken shore leave.
It had been almost a year after Kylo Ren was first assigned to his ship, the title of co-commander tacked on with typical nonchalance by Snoke, who cared nothing for the First Order’s traditions. Or for the fact that rank was earned. Hux remembered the way he’d seethed at Snoke’s decree that Hux would be required to share the spoils of his own personal triumphs, that he would not only be denied the title of Grand Marshal that was rightfully his, but would be saddled with a malcontent boy whose sole purpose seemed to be undermining Hux’s authority.
Yes, Hux had desperately needed shore leave, just the once, and only for a handful of cycles; he hadn’t trusted Ren or Snoke enough to leave his command in their hands for much longer than it took to pilot a shuttle, alone, to Zeltros, where certain needs could be indulged. He’d spent that time with no name, no history, no agenda other than to work off months of tension in whatever bed he found himself in; what he couldn’t burn away, he’d drowned in drink, and then he’d returned to the Finalizer, shaken that camouflage off, and resumed the mantle of General.
A decidedly pleasant memory had been stirred to the surface of an evening spent with a Twi’lek whose name Hux had never caught, and he was thinking of a set of incredibly talented lips when he was abruptly snapped out of his reverie by the voice of his shuttle pilot barking his name.
“General Hux, sir!” The young pilot was standing rigidly at the bottom of the open gangway, palm at his brow in salute.
Hux blinked, then frowned. “Feris. Aren’t you on the wrong side of the hull?”
The lieutenant’s lips twitched in what might have been a smile had Hux been anyone else. “Yes, sir. The Supreme Leader saw fit to, um...relieve me of my duties.”
Hux’s left eye twitched. “He did what?”
“He threw me out, sir.”
The pieces settled into place abruptly, and Hux barely stifled a groan as he recalled sending Ren a formal copy of his agenda more than a week ago. Of course Ren would decide he should be the one piloting the shuttle.
Hux inhaled deeply, breathed out slowly. “Thank you, Lieutenant. The Supreme Leader and I will take things from here.”
Feris was too well trained to appear chagrined or curious. He saluted once more and left Hux to deal with Ren.
Clenching his hand over the strap of his bag, leather glove creaking around the woven leather, Hux stalked up the gangway and into the dim interior of the shuttle. He tossed the rucksack onto the bunk in his compact quarters at the stern, then made his way toward the cockpit.
He found Ren there, and for a moment Hux simply watched as Ren’s long fingers danced across the controls, running pre-flight checks; sometimes it was easy to forget that Ren was an accomplished pilot. There was something to be lamented about the fact that the higher one climbed in rank, the less they were called upon to practice such skills. Some of which, like flying or shooting a high powered rifle, were also deeply gratifying.
“I expected a lecture, General,” Ren voiced into the silence, startling Hux.
Hux pursed his lips, seeing Ren’s eyes on him in the reflection of the transparisteel navshield. How long had he been watching Hux while Hux watched him?
“Would a lecture do any good?” Hux asked, meeting Ren’s gaze in the reflection and catching his lopsided smirk.
That seemed to be all the answer Hux was going to get, and he hesitated a moment in the cockpit door, torn between retiring to his quarters, as he usually did when Feris was piloting, or keeping an eye on Ren, whom he didn’t trust. Prudence won out in the end, and he slipped through the space between the seats and took the co-pilot’s chair.
As though waiting for this cue, Ren pressed a button and Hux heard the hydraulics whine as the ramp closed behind them. Moments later, the ship lifted seamlessly from the deck, drifting toward the Finalizer’s portside docking vestibule. As they passed through the hazy blue atmospheric shield, Ren glanced at him.
It was both unnerving and heady to have the Supreme Leader asking Hux for his orders, like a game he was being allowed to play with a potentially lethal animal that might very well decide to bite his hand off at any moment.
Hux chewed on the inside of his bottom lip, almost reconsidering the wisdom of this excursion, but there was no alternative. He could never show Ren his soft belly.
“Nar Shaddaa,” Hux told him with resolve.
Ren’s brow wrinkled as he guided the shuttle away from the Star Destroyer. “Good place for a top ranking First Order officer to find himself being held for ransom.” Ren didn’t sound particularly concerned. Amused, maybe.
Hux snorted. “Except I won’t be a First Order officer when I get there,” he said, giving Ren a sidelong long.
Ren frowned, like he was trying to discern Hux’s meaning, but he chose not to pry.
Then the stars turned abruptly to blue-white threads of light, pulling them away from Turik station and out into space.
Hux woke several hours later. He’d relocated to his bunk, having grown quickly uncomfortable with Ren’s startling penchant for silence. The soft beep of his wrist chrono advised him that the trip was drawing to an end, so he pushed himself off the cot and began to dress.
Before he’d lain down, Hux had removed his uniform and hung it carefully in the wardrobe space, and now he drew a pair of supple, dark leather breeches from his rucksack. They were just loose enough not to be crude, with banding that crisscrossed his thighs and offered storage space for all manner of implements. Knives, mostly, of which Hux was exceedingly fond.
His officer’s blaster was set aside in favor of an E-17 carbine that fit snugly into the holster on his right hip, a smaller MR-7 on his left. A duster jacket over a grey tunic concealed the wrist sheath for his monomolecular blade, which could be in his hand in a split second with the right movement.
The brown leather gloves he slipped on after he combed the style out of his hair were the same pair he’d used in his sniper training years ago, and still smelled pleasantly like mechanical grease.
Satisfied at last that he’d hidden everything he needed on his person, Hux pressed the button to open his door, stepping out once more into the shuttle’s common space. He felt the ship setting down, and paused to prop his foot up on a bench to adjust the blade he'd hidden in his boot. He’d just dropped that foot to the floor once more when he felt Ren’s presence darken the cockpit door.
Ren stared at him, eyes open and round like he needed more surface area with which to fully take in Hux’s appearance. Hux almost physically felt those eyes as they surveyed all his lines, taking in the various weapons, the disordered hair that was falling over Hux’s forehead. Hux held his breath, willing himself not to flush under the scrutiny, waiting for Ren to say something derogatory.
When Ren offered nothing, Hux cleared his throat, gesturing to the lightsaber on Ren’s belt. “You will have to leave that behind, clearly.”
Ren glanced at the weapon like he’d forgotten it was there, then removed it without argument. He disappeared back into the cockpit and returned a moment later, empty handed.
“It didn’t even occur to me to bring a gun,” he murmured, looking about the cabin as though it might offer him one.
Hux tried not to gloat, knowing that Ren needed no physical weapon to outmatch almost any opponent. Unclipping the MR-7 from its sheath, he flipped it around and handed it to Ren, grip first. Ren made a face; it was diminutive for his stature, and looked small in his hand when he took it from Hux and tucked it into the back of his belt.
“Some bodyguard you are,” Hux quipped.
Ren, busy adjusting the gun against the contours of his back, looked at Hux with evident surprise that was quickly burnished to snide humor. “Is that how you thought this was going to go?” he asked, striding to the wall panel beside the outer door and pressing the button to open it. It hissed as the gangway extended.
“I’m not your bodyguard,” Ren told him with a smirk, waving Hux toward the shuttle’s exit with mock magnanimity. “You’re mine.”
Some of you will have read the original chapter five before I deleted it, and you'll recognize parts of this new chapter. I rewrote it to deal with some issues of pacing and characterization that I felt needed to be fine-tuned, and I like this version a lot more. I wanted to put it back up while I work on finishing the fic as a whole. I hope you enjoy it!
Seen from space, Nar Shaddaa was like a dying sun, a sphere of angry red and molten orange threads that spiraled out from burning wells of light, all encompassed by the scab-black crust of massive cities. The reality was a picture of burgeoning life, of neon signs and streaming veins of air traffic shining through the stout bones of endless skyscrapers.
Except there was no sky, no stars. There was only a bulbous blanket of smog, the particles so dense that the multihued city below was only an oil-sheen of color on the underbelly of the cloud.
The air itself was noxious, and Hux found himself pressing a gloved hand over his lower face; the scent of leather and mechanical grease barely concealed the atmosphere, thick with trapped exhaust fumes. He cleared his throat, feeling the humid breath moist against his lips and wincing as he recalled the last time he’d ventured to this planet. He’d returned to his post with a wet, hacking cough that had persisted for days, expelling black matter from his lungs, the properties of which Hux did not want to begin to consider. He would have sent someone else for almost any other mission, but this one required his particular touch.
He swept along the thoroughfare more quickly than he truly needed to, unable to allow Ren to walk ahead of him and unwilling to appear as an equal at his side. Nevertheless, he could feel Kylo’s presence hovering on the periphery like an ancillary shadow. Hux glanced at him, and found the hapless Supreme Leader gazing up toward the skyline with something that almost resembled wonder, and Hux felt a jolt of irritation that he’d managed to pigeonhole himself into the role of a glorified babysitter for a maladaptive child.
“Is it thrilling to be off your leash?” he asked.
Ren’s gaze snapped away from the towering buildings like a student caught daydreaming in class. His eyes narrowed. “Not quite as terrifying as it must be for you.” There was venom on his tongue.
Hux faced forward again, refusing to betray that ever-present cancer of anxiety by swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat. “You realize you won’t be able to actually conduct these negotiations,” Hux told him firmly.
There was a moment’s pause before Ren replied, and Hux could almost feel Ren’s amusement at the abrupt change of subject. “I’m surprised you bother with negotiations,” he said. “You do have a history of circumventing them with big guns.”
Hux bristled, stepping aside to avoid a planter that boasted a holographic tree. It was one of many such decorations, ethereal and golden and dripping jewel-like leaves that would never touch the ground. “You can’t achieve every aim with brute force,” he snapped.
Ren gave him a dull look. “Is that a pun? And that’s rich, coming from you.”
“You know firing that weapon was a last resort!” Hux heard the sharp, defensive lilt in his words, unsure where it came from, but not prepared to examine it while traversing the streets of Nar Shaddaa. “And just so you’re aware,” he added, “you cannot strong arm the Black Sun syndicate. We…”
Hux had been facing forward as he walked, and now glanced over to fix Ren with a threatening stare only to find him no longer there. Alarmed, Hux stopped short and spun around, finding Ren several paces back, attention glued to a display screen.
Hux ground his teeth together, a spike of frustration lancing through his chest. What he had expected from the experience of having Ren tag along on this excursion was a certain dose of ignorance and hot-headed impulsivity, but Hux hadn’t expected to be herding cats.
Taking the score of steps to Ren’s side, Hux resisted the urge to lift his hand and snap both fingers in front of the Supreme Leader’s face to wrench him out of whatever trance the seemingly innocuous display board had caught him in. Instead, he focused on the shifting image before them in an effort to discern what it was that had drawn Ren’s attention.
The display was one of many such advertisements that littered the streets, rising above Ren’s height by several inches and spanning shoulder-width. It was encased in duraplast to protect the screen, and the thin surface of the shield was marred with myriad letters and crude drawings etched into the material, overlaid in places by stickers and the residue of adhesive where someone had made an effort to clean it.
Hux couldn’t tell what it was about the video playing on the screen that Ren was interested in—at first glance it appeared to be nothing more than an advert for a holiday destination. Nuyruta, a planet of endless blue seas and lush green forests. It is the jewel of the Teira system, boasting the finest…
“Really, Ren?” Hux drawled, speaking over the audio feed. “You’ve been in power for less than a month, and already planning a shore leave?”
Ren’s cheek twitched, the only indication for a moment that he’d heard Hux. The blue and green lights from the display played over his face, making glittering shadows of his eyes. Then he nodded once toward the advert, calling Hux’s attention fully to the screen again.
“Not that. This.”
The holiday reel was replaced by a star map, specks of light that whirled in rotation as the camera zeroed in on a single planet. It glowed yellow-white in its hollow of black space, a patina of red glimmering around it. Hux squinted at it, glancing at the words that scrolled past on the lower part of the screen.
“You have a bizarre fascination with mining,” Hux muttered, seeing that the advert was merely encouraging individuals to throw in their lot on this no-name planet on the edge of the Outer Rim.
Ren pursed his lips in a thin frown, brows furrowed like he was trying to read something in a language he only had only the barest grasp of. The display showed images Hux assumed were meant to entice the potential workforce: a step-tiered, modern town built into the side of a mountain, arranged around a tamed river that cascaded down from the hills, feeding patches of cultivated greenery artfully spaced throughout the city. Humans lived alongside alien cultures, looking far too comfortable with one another as they mingled in a saloon, and far too enthusiastic as they streamed to work in factories and mines.
Hux frowned as the image faded and rolled over once more into the promotional video for Nuyruta, cheerful music jingling over the speakers and feeling at odds with the way Ren was staring forward like a man who’d seen an apparition.
“I’m afraid I’m not following,” Hux said, when Ren remained silent.
Ren shook his head at last. “Just…I know that place. I’ve seen it.”
Hux sighed, pressing a thumb between his eyebrows to ward away his building headache. It was a particular kind of gnawing pain that seemed to only occur in Kylo Ren’s presence.
“That’s fascinating, Ren,” Hux said. “Are you done reminiscing, or shall I go on without you?”
Kylo shot him a glare, but turned away from the viewscreen and gestured with one hand in the direction they’d been walking. “Are you planning to explain exactly what we’re doing here?” he asked.
Despite chiding Ren for being briefly enthralled with the propaganda surrounding that distant industrial planet, Hux found himself feeling foiled when Ren offered no further explanation for his interest in the advert. And Hux was not about to ask now.
“I explained that aboard the ship,” Hux reminded him, moving briskly down a set of stairs to another platform. It bordered a canyon in the city layout, a bridge the width of a modest shuttle spanning half a klick over empty space.
“You mentioned an arms deal and the Black Sun,” Kylo said, the timbre of his voice heavy with impatience. “That is too vague for me to play my part.”
“Play your part ?” Hux threw him an incredulous look as he stepped out onto the bridge. He kept to the center of the wide lane despite the safety railing; at this height, the wind that buffeted them was disconcerting. “You sound like you’re trying out for a theater production.”
Hux gasped when Ren pinched the fabric of his coat at the small of his back and tugged it, making his steps stutter.
“You’re the one in a costume,” Ren reminded him.
“For my own safety,” Hux hissed, wrapping his coat closer about his torso. “I can’t very well traipse through Nar Shaddaa in my uniform, as you so insightfully pointed out on the way here.”
Ren huffed, the sound almost lost in the low roar of wind and the whirr of speeder lanes as they passed beneath the bridge. “I suppose I can just sift through your head and find the information I need.”
Hux thought he didn’t sound entirely serious, but he couldn’t help bristling. “You’ll do no such thing. These are my contacts. I am the one that has cultivated these relationships and I’ll not have you mucking them up.”
Ren circumvented an Aqualish driving a hovercart down the median, and he and Hux broke apart briefly. When Ren rejoined him, his face was dark, and Hux felt that thin line that he often toed growing taut between them.
“You sound like a child who doesn’t want to share his toys,” Ren said.
Hux frowned. “I’ve always worked better alone.” He cast Ren a sidelong look. “That’s part of the appeal of being at the top.”
He caught Ren’s half-smirk as they reached the end of the bridge. “Those years as my co-commander must have been difficult for you.”
“You have no idea, Ren,” Hux growled under his breath, sure Ren heard him anyway. He paused before the glowing, two-button box control of an industrial lift, the only way to reach the lower levels in this part of the city. He peered down to see the platform slowly begin to rise. “If you must know, I was a superior covert agent. I excelled at surveillance and clandestine operations. Solving problems with minimal waste of resources and time.”
Ren leaned over the railing to peer down at the rising lift. “You were a sniper.”
He hadn’t phrased it as a question, and Hux wondered briefly if Kylo had ever bothered to read his personal dossier, and was unsure how he felt about either eventuality.
“I was. And damned good at it.”
“Responsible for scouting and eliminating targets of interest? Did you have a team? Support?”
“I didn’t require that,” Hux began. “I was…”
“Expendable,” Ren finished for him.
Hux sucked in a breath. He’d been about to say efficient . “I was not, nor have I ever been expendable , Kylo Ren,” he snapped.
Ren glanced at him at last and afforded him a lazy, smug smile. “You have personally never deployed a sniper in any sort of, um...clandestine operation...that you’ve sent alone.” Ren ran his hand along the platform railing, wrapping his fingers around the bar. “Have you?”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” Hux said, throat tight. Except he knew exactly what Ren was getting at, because the same, hard reality had haunted him for years. Brendol had couched those solo missions in flattery and faith in Hux’s exalted abilities, but Hux had always seen it for the smokescreen that it was.
Hux couldn’t look at Ren, suddenly, because it felt like all the layers of carefully compacted years were being peeled away to reveal the teenage cadet who’d known that his father had set him up time and again to get him killed. His stomach curdled.
Ren might have scratched at something festering at Hux’s core, but that did not mean that he was prepared to reveal the extent of that particular wound.
The lift achieved its laborious ascent, shuddering to a convenient, grating stop. Hux stepped out onto the platform before the quivering in the metal frame had subsided, snatching the onboard control box to lower the lift again without even checking to see that Ren had followed.
There was the clang of a boot against metal, a tremor that rose through the soles of Hux’s feet, and Ren’s presence clung to Hux’s back like a polluted film. The silence between them lasted only as long as the whine of hydraulics overpowered it.
“Were you the only student in that class?” Ren asked, and Hux knew by the volume of his voice that he was close.
“What class?” Hux asked, squeezing the control box in his hand tightly enough that the poorly soldered metal sides bit into his palms even through his gloves.
Ren’s voice was just a fraction louder, closer to his ear, almost singsong. “The one where you learn that no amount of hard work will ever make your daddy love you?”
Hux dropped the control box and it swung out over the edge of the lift, the thick rope of power-cord keeping it from tumbling into the distance. It clanged hard against the platform as it swung back, in the same moment that Hux turned on his heel and fixed Ren with an icy glare.
“And what would you know about that, Ben? ” he spat.
Hux had only a moment’s, fleeting satisfaction as Ren’s eyes went wide, so close that Hux could see the brown-green rings around the irises, the flecks of black in amber. Then the Supreme Leader’s hand was on his neck, fingers like talons on his jaw, bending his head back and forcing Hux to look up into his face even as Ren backed him to the edge of the platform. Hux felt the heel of his left foot stutter as it lost traction, suspended over empty space. He snatched Ren’s wrist, closing his hand around it vice-tight, every fiber in his body screaming at him to retaliate, to defend himself, but he would not scramble in fear. If this was his end, he’d look it in the eye.
Ren was close, larger body almost pressed to Hux’s, the heat of him contrasting the void at his back. The lift seemed to have slowed to a crawl, as though the bitter, enraged core of Kylo Ren was feeding off the kinetic energy. Hux thought he felt it too, a heat that seemed to crawl over his skin and prickle beneath the shroud of his clothing, and only when Ren squeezed, thumbnail biting into the soft flesh over his jugular, did Hux recognize that burning feeling for what it was. Rage. His own.
He bared his teeth at Ren. “You’re nothing but a bad-tempered child,” he snarled, hearing his own father’s voice in his ears, saying these same words he’d heard as a five-year old boy. “All temper and no discipline.”
Ren squeezed harder, backing Hux up another step. Hux’s other heel lost its footing, and he leaned in, weight on the balls of his feet. The muscles in his left calf shook.
“I have had enough of your lack of respect,” Ren growled, face flushed with anger, full lips twisted in a frown.
“Then earn it ,” Hux said, finally moving the hand that hung at his side to plant his palm hard against Ren’s chest, shoving him back. Dimly, he knew it was a childish gesture, like he was a little boy posturing on the playground, hoping the bully twice his size was intimidated by his false bravado.
Ren, at the very least, was surprised. He took a step back that served to pull Hux away from the ledge. Hux tightened his grip on Ren’s wrist, dragging the Supreme Leader’s hand away from his throat. Without the Force, it was just a test of physical strength, and not one Hux would have won if Kylo hadn’t let him.
“What makes you think I want your respect?” Ren asked, flexing the wrist beneath Hux’s fingers, pressing back against his hold with what Hux guessed was only token resistance.
Hux’s heart felt loud in his ears, rushing blood fueling his anger. “Because if you didn’t, you’d have tossed me over the edge just now.”
Ren’s eyebrows dropped, eyes narrowing as though he didn’t find that response adequate. Hux went on, before he lost the opportunity.
“You didn’t destroy Snoke because you wanted his throne. You did it because he treated you like an animal on a yoke, nothing but a tool to do the heavy lifting.”
In the circle of his palm, Ren’s wrist slowly went slack. Hux kept his grip for a second longer, holding Ren’s eyes, then shook him off. A quick, furtive glance to the side told Hux that they were close enough to the ground now that even if Ren should change his mind, he could survive the fall. Nevertheless, he stepped to the side, putting his back to one of the hydraulic arms of the lift. Ren watched, but didn’t move to stop him.
“I know how that chafes,” Hux said, speaking calmly now, picturing the way Ren had looked in his office aboard the Finalizer when given the opportunity to prove himself valuable. It had been clear in the set of his open, boyish eyes that he had wanted to be worthy of praise.
Ren’s eyes were only dark now, unreadable, but pinning Hux with a promise of violence coiling dangerously between them like a live wire. Hux could feel Ren waiting for him to misstep.
Hux took a silent breath in through his nose. “I know how being thought of as inferior to another’s ambitions strips one of their self-worth. How being devalued festers. And I know that no matter how much you try to purge your soul with death, no matter who you kill, the poison will still be there.”
The poison was rage, shame, insecurity. Bitterness, envy, and self-reproach.
There was a moment of silence, Ren’s face shifting from barely checked wrath to something pensive. The hydraulics shrieked as the lift ground to a halt, the durasteel mesh vibrating beneath Hux’s feet.
“Then what do you with it?” Ren asked, his voice just barely carrying over the sounds of the loading dock.
“The poison?” Hux stepped off the platform, rubbing gloved fingers over his bruised jaw. He frowned. “You learn to enjoy being a viper.”
Ren continued to regard him, his brow furrowed, until the motion alarm on the lift began to beep again, signaling its imminent rise back to the upper level, and Ren hopped off the platform.
“Are you going to tell me what we’re doing here?” Ren asked in that maddening way that he had of making a question and a statement indistinguishable in tone. He was scanning the dock now; Hux saw him fix on several faces, squinting, then look away, and he wondered what Ren was seeing, or hearing, with those arcane senses of his.
Hux hesitated. “It’s really best if…” he began, but Ren snapped his gaze back to Hux sharply, and Hux nearly bit his tongue in his haste to close his mouth.
“I would hate to think that you dragged me along on this excursion in an effort to make me appear foolish,” Ren said.
Hux’s head swam briefly as though the words were attempting to seep into his brain and corrupt his memories, to burnish his less than honorable intentions into motives that even he was tempted to believe. Hux felt the color drain from his face as Ren held his eyes, as confident and mesmerizing as a snake charmer.
Then the feeling was gone, almost the moment that Hux had acknowledged it to himself, like Ren was only waiting for Hux to taste the potential of his power.
“What is all this to you?” Hux asked, hearing a sour note in his tone that was equal parts resentment and chagrin. “Did you agree to come because you find it amusing to descend from the clouds and dance around with the mortals?”
Ren frowned, folding his arms across his chest as though shielding himself from impertinent questions. “What the kriff does that mean?”
Hux heaved a deep breath. “If you can just…” He waved a hand in the air between them, indicating the Force and everything that it infected. “…take whatever you want with no effort whatsoever, why bother pretending to play at real leadership? Why not just brainwash everyone into submission and be done with it?” Hux knew that he had likely goaded Kylo Ren as far as it was wise, but his hackles were up; hands around his throat he could handle, but not an invasion of his mind.
Kylo’s posture didn’t change, except that his shoulders seemed to tense. “You know nothing about what it’s like to be me,” he snapped, and Ren turned his face away the moment the words were spoken. To Hux’s utter surprise, the Supreme Leader’s ear, where it peeked from the thick curtain of his hair, was a flushed red.
Hux thought perhaps this was indicative of rage, but then, Kylo never turned away from anger. Was he instead embarrassed? If indeed Kylo was defensive about his inner turmoil, if he was secretly a tortured soul cursed by his power, that was a scab Hux could not resist picking at.
But perhaps not just yet, as the results of that experiment could go awry quickly; amidst the bustling activity of the loading dock and the lift that was once again descending toward them laden with pallets, it was hardly the best time to light that wick. It was either a candle, or a bomb, and Hux would reveal those details slowly, maximizing his potential for advantage. As with all things.
Taking a deep breath, Hux changed his approach.
“We are meeting a contact of mine, a Cerean slicer named Twim Zel, prior to our appointment with the arms dealer,” he said, motioning with his hand for Ren to follow him as he began walking again. “She has a particular talent for digital forensic investigation. She can find the single drop of water you’re looking for in a planet-wide ocean.”
Ren seemed startled by Hux’s departure and by the abrupt change of topic, but he jolted forward quickly enough and matched Hux’s pace. “She’s tracing Snoke’s financial trail.”
It wasn’t a question, the way Ren said it, and Hux glanced over, caught between being impressed with the idea that Ren was naturally insightful, and suspicion that the Supreme Leader had perfected that sort of act by skimming pertinent information from others’ minds.
What might have been an expression on Ren’s face bordering on interest grew dark. “Why do you always look surprised when I can string more than two thoughts together?”
Hux almost snorted, but caught himself, clearing his throat behind a gloved fist to give himself time to compose a response that wasn’t overtly mocking. “I suppose I am used to you being a man of action. The ‘every gun we have’ type over the patient and strategic type.”
Ren’s jawline hardened, though Hux thought his cheeks colored slightly; it was hard to tell with the way his hair shrouded it. Nevertheless, Ren didn’t argue with that, which surprised Hux anew.
“If she finds nothing?” Ren asked instead.
Hux pursed his lips. “We’d better move quickly to secure the right tributes. Something more lucrative than lithium deposits.”
Ren glared at him. “That was a better idea than you had at the moment.”
Hux waved his hand. “It wasn’t a bad idea,” he admitted, begrudgingly. “It’s just not enough.” Though he wouldn’t admit it aloud to the Ren, Hux was worried. Snoke’s rise to the top of the First Order hierarchy had been like a rampant infection, agents of which occupied every branch of their machine now. Not only did he not know what aspects of their organization were kept afloat by Snoke’s financial empire, but he had no idea how to bring it under his control; without Twim Zel, his only recourse was to wait and see which alliances and contracts began to fall apart before he could scramble to put them back together.
Part of Hux wanted to unload this onto Ren’s shoulders, but was overshadowed by an almost rabid compulsion to keep as much to himself as possible. The First Order was his .
“We are in the best position we could be for this...crisis,” Hux said, unsure if he sounded convincing. They walked single-file briefly as they wove through head-high stacks of pallets and rebar. When Ren moved back to his side, Hux opened his mouth to speak, but Ren preempted him.
“Corellia,” he said. “The Corellian shipyards are…”
“...a utilitarian goldmine,” Hux breathed, a flutter of adrenaline in his chest. How had he not thought of that? “And the planet itself, largely agrarian. The food supplies alone would be worth the acquisition.”
Ren huffed. “You make conquest sound like a game of holochess.”
Hux side-eyed him. “Isn’t it?”
Ren smirked. “There has been political unrest there for decades. My fath...I remember as a child hearing that anti-alien sentiment had isolated them, eroded the economy for the sake of speciesism.”
Hux regarded Ren with interest, though the conversation felt balanced on a knife’s edge. Taken out of his familiar surroundings, Kylo seemed to be vacillating between two halves of himself, with the past peeking through loosened seams.
“The planet was loyal to the Empire as late as 9 ABY, and it’s been in flux ever since,” Ren added, meeting Hux’s eyes. “A society without a sense of itself will adopt the most convincing model.”
Hux raised an eyebrow, a dark smile curving his lips. “Are you saying people are sheep, Ren?”
“My mother thought so.”
“Well,” Hux said. “If anyone would know, it would be the woman that constantly manages to string wide-eyed idealists along on a crusade for mutually agreed-upon galactic peace.”
Ren snorted, that same sound that Hux thought might be a laugh, but his countenance was dark. “She always believed that all people were inherently good. That given the freedom, they would choose to uplift one another.”
“Bollocks,” Hux said. “They will rise up in defiance of good sense unless you hold them down.”
Ren pressed the tip of his tongue into the inside of his cheek, studying Hux’s face. “Your father’s words?”
Hux’s face fell. “Unlike you, I am not swimming in anecdotes from my mommy and daddy,” he snapped, even though those were, actually, Brendol’s words.
Ren did not rise to the bait this time, though he was silent for a moment as he followed Hux down a corridor that was carved between massive freight containers. Not much had changed since Hux’s last visit to Nar Shaddaa and Twim Zel’s lair; the layout of this level was essentially the same, though rearranged slightly in places like a beach after the tide had washed out.
“I wonder,” Hux asked, pausing at another service elevator, this one merely a small, scarred metal door set into the wall. He pressed a button. “What did Luke Skywalker do to you?”
Ren’s gaze was distant. “Let’s just say that he was one in a very tragic line of those who judged me and found me lacking in some way.”
Hux couldn’t tell if that was meant to include him, but decided to assume for the moment that it did not. Yet.
“And now all of them are dead, or have one foot in the grave?”
The service door slid open and Hux stepped inside, Ren following. The car was barely large enough for two people, and Ren’s bulk made the space feel much smaller.
Ren said nothing for several moments as the elevator moved past five, six, seven levels, and Hux began to feel awkward, as though the air was suddenly too thick to breathe. Finally, Ren spoke, his voice a low and sinister thrum.
“If it had been your father standing on the sands of Crait, finally ready to face his sins, how many guns would you have used?”
Hux gritted his teeth, breathing through his nose, and even that was laborious through the sudden spike of fury. Brendol’s death, despite its brutal manner, had not quenched it. “Every one I had,” he admitted in a hiss.
Ren said nothing, and several seconds later the elevator doors slid open. A long corridor stretched before them, lit only with flickering industrial bulbs emitting a high-pitched, electrical whine. This level was not technically on the grid, and siphoned power from the city mainframe. It was a precarious lifestyle, as this service elevator was the only way in and the only way out now. One faulty cable and this could become a tomb instead of a haven.
Hux flicked a glance at Ren and found himself being watched with an expression that Hux interpreted as expectant. But of what, Hux didn’t know. Solidarity, perhaps?
Suppressing a sigh, Hux stalked out of the elevator and down the corridor. “Come on then,” he called back. “Lord Ren.”
If Ren thought he was ready to swim in the deep end of the pool, Hux was perfectly willing to sit on the edge and watch him drown.
The rhythmic bass undertones of electronic music filtered through the durasteel walls of the corridor, the higher octaves suppressed by the structure and leaving Hux with the eerie feeling that they were walking through the veins of some great beast, hearing the thrumming of blood through vessels.
It was nothing more sinister than an abandoned maintenance passage, fallen into disuse as the surrounding metropolis expanded and contracted. Hux estimated that there thousands of such vestigial spaces, dark and cold, haunted by the indigent and the misanthropic.
He scanned the ceiling as they walked, knowing there were cameras hidden throughout the patched and rusted grating, tiny lenses no larger than a button secured to fiber optic cables. The lines ran the length of the corridor like invasive vines, the root of the system grafted to one wall of Twim Zel’s secluded refuge.
Ren’s presence flowed behind him, an ill-proportioned, living shade that fluttered in the wings of Hux’s consciousness. Hux couldn’t shake the feeling that he was smuggling something virulent into the slicer’s haven, and his skin was prickling with hyper-awareness; he knew she would be watching. He knew she was not helpless, despite the way she hid in this subterranean cave.
“I must admit,” Ren said, voice a basso hum between the tones of the music seeping through the walls, “this surprises me.”
Hux paused, slipping a com tablet from an inner pocket in his coat. “Something surprises you?” he drawled, swiping on the device in his hand. “I thought you were all-knowing.”
Ren huffed, and Hux flinched at how the sound managed to feel loud in his ear despite the fact that the Supreme Leader was still several steps behind him.
“I never imagined you having a friend,” Ren said, his tone suggesting that he was amused by this prospect, and still didn’t believe it.
“I would hardly go that far,” Hux muttered, waiting as the screen flickered to life in his palm. He frowned as the device, set to search and report on open wireless networks, automatically connected to one. The screen immediately filled with an image: a circle, overlaid by opposing crescents, black on a field of vivid yellow: a biohazard symbol. “I would hardly go that far at all,” he added.
Ren materialized at his side, peering at the image, but he didn’t seem concerned; it made Hux feel overly cautious, and jumpy, and like he suddenly needed to defend himself.
“This entire corridor is probably rigged as a death-trap,” Hux told Ren. “Twim Zel has no intention of going back to the life she led before I found her.”
“You mean a life free of constant antagonization and tiresome squabbling?”
Hux gave Ren a cursory, sideways glance, refusing to take that bait, ironic though it was. “She was a slave. Forced to employ her considerable skills on behalf of the Zann Consortium. I was tasked to end that relationship and deliver her to the First Order.”
Ren’s head was tilted back now, his gaze trained on the ceiling, squinting. “And you succeeded admirably, I see,” he murmured offhandedly while scanning the overhead grating, like he’d lost focus on the conversation and was merely needling Hux out of habit.
Hux clenched his teeth, as much due to the casual dismissal as the contrariness. “Despite what your Republican mother led you to believe while you were growing up in a world full of threadbare ideology, all people are not sheep.” Hux narrowed his eyes when Ren glared sharply at him. “Some of us are wolves in the pen.”
Hux felt that near-delightful tingle of fear along his spine as Ren’s eyes bored into his, and his heart skipped a beat when Ren leaned in so that the growl of his voice resonated Hux’s chest.
“That tongue is going to get you killed one of these days,” Ren said.
“That would be such a tragic waste,” Hux riposted smoothly. His blood was singing in his veins suddenly, the rush of it registering in his brain as a warning sign that he was edging closer to that blurred line between a calculated game and a risky addiction. Until Snoke’s demise, he’d always been only fool enough to hold one hand in this fire, and yet now he seemed determined to throw himself in. Something about it made his mouth water.
Their eyes remained locked, Ren silent and with a suddenly bemused expression fixed on his face, replacing the building anger. His eyes flicked to Hux’s lips almost absently, and only then did Hux replay their last exchange, realizing that it had not been entirely clear what the tragic waste would have been in the event of his death: a competent general or a clever tongue.
Hux’s nose heated with embarrassment, and he swallowed. The pause between them had already grown awkward, and promised to grow more awkward still if he attempted to retract his unintentional double entendre. He was saved the effort, however, when the data pad in his hand flashed, capturing the attention of them both.
The biohazard symbol had begun to rotate ominously.
Hux cleared his throat, glad for the interruption and for the yellowish glow that turned the flushed skin of his face a sickly, bland orange. “I believe Twim Zel is suggesting that we stop loitering and get on with our business.”
Without waiting for Ren’s acknowledgment, Hux tucked the data pad beneath his arm and set off down the hall again. He forced himself to walk at a sedate pace, disinclined to appear as though he was hurrying at anyone’s behest, or fleeing from the fact that he was irrevocably tethered to Ren in this errand—especially not with the dissention percolating between them, a miasma Twim Zel would surely register.
“I assume,” Ren went on, keeping a looming pace with Hux, “that you reached the conclusion that it would be more advantageous to secure the asset for yourself.”
“Nothing gets past you, Supreme Leader,” Hux responded, avoiding a suspicious cable that lay across their path.
“How old were you?” Ren sounded genuinely curious.
“Twenty. It was among my first post-Academy assignments.” Hux waited for Ren to make some sort of snide comment about the fact that this mission had taken place at the behest of his father, that Hux had gone in alone to case a compound that housed over twenty. When Ren didn’t speak, Hux went on. “I don’t think that Twim Zel’s potential value was estimated highly enough by the top brass.”
That was as close as Hux planned to get to admitting that the extraction, and his own survival in the attempt, had not been considered a priority or a likelihood.
“Fourteen years ago,” Ren mused. “You play a long game.”
“The only kind worth playing,” Hux said, pausing outside a slim door set into the corridor’s durasteel wall, marked with a faded placard reading ‘Authorized Personnel Only.’ Red light limned the inner frame, picking out the sharp, industrial edges of the entrance.
Hux removed the data pad from under his arm and glanced at it, finding an image of himself this time, Ren’s face like a pale moon behind him. Where the camera recording them was, Hux could only guess. The feed hissed into static and was replaced by a series of letters in a language Hux didn’t recognize.
Hux sighed, his temples starting to ache. Twim Zel was eccentric and had a sadistic streak that worked well in some situations but was tiresome in others. He let his gaze rove the door, the maintenance placard, the ceiling, looking for the camera lens that was, no doubt, still watching.
“ I f you have me, you want to share me. If you share me, you haven't got me. What am I?” It was Ren’s voice, startling Hux.
“What?” he asked, half turning to frown at him. His mind scrambled to place Ren’s words in some kind of context.
Ren met his eyes briefly, then indicated the data pad in Hux’s hand with his chin. “There. That’s what it says.”
Hux’s gaze snapped back to the screen, though the letters still remained unreadable to him. “How do you know that?”
He sensed Ren shrug. “It’s Quechua.” When Hux gave him another incredulous look, Ren added defensively, “It’s a dialect of Huttese.”
“How…” Hux started to ask, but then it came to him. “Ah. Smuggler blood.”
“A secret,” Ren said.
“Hardly. If you—” His next words were cut off by the sound of mechanical locks clicking, the echo of metal on metal just barely audible over the sound of the dark bass. The door swung inward slowly, and Twim Zel filled the dim portal, a wide grin bathed in red light making her teeth look pinkish red.
Yellow eyes grazed over the two of them, taking Ren’s form in from head to toe. “Your friend’s smart,” she said, turning that impish smile on Hux. “I like it.”
Hux huffed and rolled his eyes, beginning to step forward into Twim Zel’s refuge, only to have her slam one hand against the doorframe to block his entrance. The buoyant expression on her face caved, brows drawing to a point over her aquiline nose. She was close enough that Hux could see the dark smattering of clogged pores across it, the oil-shimmer of sweat on her pale brow.
“What I don’t like, General, is the fact that you’ve brought this friend. You know the rules.”
Hux was taken off guard by her sudden hostility, though he should have expected it. Truthfully, he hadn’t considered the fact that she would object to Ren’s presence, nor that she had the right. Fourteen years didn’t clear a life-debt.
Hux swayed back slightly, pursing his lips and summoning diplomacy in place of the acrimony that bubbled closer to the surface. “You should know by now that you can trust me, Twim Zel.” You should know by now that I own you.
She studied his face, yellow eyes narrow and snake-like. “You forget how bright I am,” she said, but the threat had retreated from her posture. She took her hand away from the doorframe, rubbing the back of her neck in what Hux guessed was an unconscious gesture. It was there, implanted near her third cervical vertebra, that the tracking chip lay. The killswitch code was the coin she had traded for her freedom—the price Hux had demanded for the shame of his own fabricated failure to extract her.
Twim Zel caught him watching and seemed to read his thoughts, for she jerked her hand away from her neck and made a choppy gesture to wave them inside. Hux offered her an insincere smile as he moved into the room beyond, Ren crowding in behind him. Twim Zel leaned out through the still-open doorway and glanced furtively left and right before retreating inside and closing it.
She hovered there with her back to the wall, arms folded and hands tucked beneath. “Did you bring the payment?” she asked.
Hux raised an eyebrow as he turned away from her, stepping further into the small space toward a welded metal desk. “That depends,” he mused, picking up a crumpled foil wrapper that had once housed a nutrition bar. He turned it between his fingers, finding a notation that stated: Not for individual resale. Nudging a half-empty box of the same flavorless meal substitutes beneath the desk with the toe of his boot, Hux flicked the wrapper into an overflowing waste bin nearby.
Twim Zel moved out of the corner of his eye, snatching several more of the discarded wrappers from the desk and shoving them into the trash receptacle, then pushed it away with her heel before placing herself between it and Hux, like it hid insights into her person that she did not trust Hux to witness.
“It depends on what?” she asked. The volume of the music filling the room had not changed, though Hux suspected her shrill tone had less to do with an effort to be heard over the music than it was evidence of her agitation.
Hux brushed his gloved hands together in front of him, dusting imaginary crumbs from the leather as he watched Twim Zel eye him nervously. “It depends,” he reiterated, “on whether you’ve kept your end of the bargain.”
They always played this game: anything Hux asked was more an implicit command than a request, but he allowed the ruse of an equal exchange to emphasize the boundaries of her freedom. Her leash was long, but a leash nonetheless, and Hux would not have her forget that the hand that held it was also the one that fed her.
Hux cast a glance at Ren, who had been surprisingly silent, and found him browsing a shelf bolted into the wall and set with a meager display of personal effects. Hux frowned, irked that Ren was missing this particular lesson. The fool had been so adamant that he step into Hux’s choreographed schemes, and yet he was distracted by a holoframe of shifting photographs.
“I always keep my end of my bargains,” Twim Zel said in a flat voice, and Hux imagined that he could hear the subtext which said: Because we both know I have no choice.
He offered her a benevolent smile. “We’d be happy to see that,” he said, pitching his voice to be heard over the music, the inflection intended to catch Ren’s attention.
Twim Zel frowned, worrying at the piercing through her bottom lip. She took a deep breath, seemed about to respond to Hux, but then her eyes widened and she took a startled, half step toward Ren.
“Don’t touch that!”
Ren’s hand froze, fingers outstretched mere inches from a small glass bottle with a tiny cork stoppering the neck. He looked back at Twim Zel, eyebrows drawing together briefly and lips twitching in a frown. Hux almost laughed, seeing that look turned on someone besides himself; it spoke plainly of Ren’s dislike at being told what to do. Hux half expected Ren to give in to his inner child and swat the items off the shelf out of spite, but instead the Supreme Leader drew himself up to his full height and tucked his hands beneath his arms. His expressive face was quickly transformed to a disinterested mask.
Twim Zel continued to scowl at him for a span of seconds before turning her attention to Hux once more. “I’m not sure you’re going to like what I’ve found,” she said, wedging herself between Hux and the desk and sinking into a high-backed chair.
Briefly, Hux wondered what lengths she’d gone to in order to acquire that particular piece of furniture; compared to the other remnants and cast-offs scattered about the den, the chair was rather at odds. It was old, the dark, brown gloss worn down in places to muddy taupe and the seams were bound in places with duct tape; but it looked far more comfortable than the metal stools pushed against the wall opposite the door. Looking at those, Hux suppressed the desire to question Twim Zel on the topic of what sort of guests she might entertain in this cavern. That would be a topic for another time, when Kylo Ren wasn’t looking on to judge how well in-hand Hux’s informants were or were not.
The bank of computer screens before Twim Zel came to life one by one as her slender fingers flew across a keyboard. “You wanted me to source your investor’s primary assets.”
Hux cleared his throat, imagined he could feel Kylo’s eyes boring into the back of his head at the reduction of the late Supreme Leader’s role as a mere investor. Not a spiritual leader, not a mentor—simply a creature bent by greed whose saccharine lies had drawn the most powerful man in the galaxy into his trap and made of him nothing more than an insect.
Although one with the potent poison of spite coating his fangs.
“Yes,” Hux said, folding his arms. Had he been wearing his uniform, the gesture would have been reprehensible and he flinched, almost rearranging himself into parade rest, but did not want Ren to see him appear unsure of his presentation. “And you were able to piece this together?” There was an edge of impatience to his tone.
Twim Zel looked at him over her shoulder, a furrow between her eyebrows. “There wasn’t much to piece together.” The corner of her lips twitched down, a pregnant pause hanging between them as she waited, perhaps, for evidence of Hux’s ire.
Truthfully, Hux was not surprised; Snoke had always seemed more phantom than flesh and blood, and had Hux not personally seen him cloven in two with that fat tongue lolling from his mouth, it would have been easy to imagine that Snoke had sprung from the abyss fully-formed, empire intact.
“Start with what you were able to find,” Hux allowed, nodding toward the bank of computer screens.
Cautious relief washed over Twim Zel’s face and her chest rose as she inhaled deeply; she’d been holding her breath, Hux realized. Her healthy fear of him was gratifying in a manner that began to knit together parts of his spirit that Kylo Ren had been shredding holes in for weeks. Hux didn’t know whether Twim Zel was projecting this in some way that Ren would pick it up through the Force, but Hux hoped that his own dark revelry amplified it in some way.
Twim Zel’s attention turned once more to her screens, images expanding and contracting as windows closed and shifted. “Whoever he was,” she explained. “He was old.”
“That much was clear,” Hux remarked dryly.
“When I say old,” Twim Zel went on, “I mean the last marker I was able to discern, which I believe to be his galactic footprint, is in the records of someone called Darth Lachris.” Touching a screen to her left, the slicer pulled up a grainy, blue tinted image of a woman with dark hair and wild eyes.
Kylo had stepped to Hux’s side, as though drawn in by mention of someone Hux could only imagine must have been Sith. “Darth Lachris?” Ren’s tone was incredulous.
“Mmm,” Twim Zel hummed, her anxiety seeming to have drained now that she was surrounded by the armor of her craft. Her index finger tapped another screen, and a spreadsheet opened. With only seconds to assess it before another window overlaid it, Hux’s immediate impression was that the document contained sales receipts.
Now they were looking at what appeared to be a mission log entry. “She described a belief that the Balmorran resistance and its Grand Marshal were sold out by someone from the inside, an Imperial sympathizer, and hypothesized that the Jedi Knight Ralon Nys, who died in the invasion of the Balmorran Arms Factory, indicated his own master’s betrayal in his last moments.” She turned to glance at Hux and Kylo, looking between them as though to judge whether this information had any particular impact.
“Snoke,” Ren said, reaching that obvious conclusion at the same moment as Hux. “But…” The Supreme Leader stopped himself, and Hux guessed he’d been about to complain that Ralon Nys was, if Twim Zel’s report was accurate history, a Jedi, which further complicated Ren’s murky conscience.
Twim Zel shrugged one shoulder. “It’s not really important, I suppose,” she said, seeming to misread the confusion on Ren’s face. Turning back to the monitors, she swiped away the mission log and revealed, once more, the spreadsheet. Pointing, she indicated a set of symbols.
“This signature can be traced all the way from the Balmorran Arms manufacturing lines to weaponry and defense systems used by the First Order.” The list began to scroll, and Hux watched centuries fly past. It began with the Imperial invasion of Balmorra near the outbreak of the Galactic War over three thousand years ago, crawled through conflicts Hux had never heard of, others that he recognized. It was like watching the evolution of technology, its growth fueled by the necessity of war, and led at last to and entry Twim Zel had marked in red. An entry she knew would garner Hux’s interest.
“The thermal oscillator manufactured for use on Starkiller Base,” he breathed. The scope of what he had just seen settled in his chest, a kind of awe that felt both condensed and too large.
Twim Zel looked at him, saying nothing. The music track that had been playing trickled to an end, and no song took its place, leaving them in a silence that seemed fitting.
Hux stared at the screen, at the model numbers of various components that had formed the heart of his great machine. “So all this time, Snoke has been a…” he struggled for the right label. He started to speak again, but Ren cut him off.
Hux looked at him, finding none of the wonderment that Hux himself could not help feeling in the face of such cold calculation. “I was going to say a war profiteer. But I suppose there’s not much difference.”
He could see the raw wound this opened in Ren’s spirit, and he desperately wanted to pour salt in it, to chide him about being but a grain of sand in a millennia-old landscape of greed, but he couldn’t do that in Twim Zel’s presence without giving away Ren’s identity.
“While this is all very interesting,” Hux said, “it isn’t overtly useful. What of the financial piece?” He hoped that his voice was level, betraying only curiosity, rather than the desperation that was just under the surface. He recognized that Snoke’s death was a central thread in the tapestry that had come loose. “Where is his money?”
Anxiety settled on Twim Zel’s face again, and she ran a hand over her sweat-damp, conical skull. She dropped the hand to her lap, spinning the chair around to face Hux more fully. Chewing on her bottom lip, she seemed to deliberate on her next words before finally shrugging, hands splayed helplessly at her sides. It was not a gesture Hux would ever expect from a savant.
“Everywhere?” Twim Zel said. “And nowhere.”
Hux frowned. “I’m not in the mood for riddles.”
Twim Zel sighed, turning back to the displays and bringing up another window. “From what I can gather, he has...or had...holdings in numerous manufacturing conglomerates, but I believe the bulk of his capital came from patents.”
A three-dimensional schematic image of a T07 Armored Personnel vehicle appeared, rotating 360 degrees before being replaced by another blueprint. Hux recognized this one as a dark energy conversion core, another component of his superweapon.
“The list goes on,” Twim Zel said as the images began to replace one another with alacrity, such that Hux couldn’t discern one from the other. The scope of Snoke’s technological empire was apparent, however.
Hux glanced again at Ren, whose interest in Twim Zel’s report seemed to have waned or turned inward. He stared forward blankly, not appearing to see the display on the screens.
“There is something else,” Twim Zel added, a hopeful lilt in her voice.
The central monitor darkened briefly and then filled with a 3-D map of a galaxy that Hux didn’t recognize. The image zoomed in on a single planet, blue and white, tiny compared to the gas giant it hid behind.
“Your...investor...shipped a great deal of raw material to this planet over the years.” Twim Zel pointed at the small sphere with its two moons. “The movement was convoluted, but when looking for his financial trail, I necessarily came across his purchases and the manifests of the ships that carried them.” Once again, she looked over her shoulder and searched Hux’s face for a reaction.
“The name of this planet?” Ren asked, having come to life once more at Hux’s side.
“No name,” Twim Zel replied. “Just a numeric designation. S9-02. The system is just called S-9.”
Ren’s brows drew together, and Hux thought he looked pensive rather than angry. Twim Zel saw the look on his face, and seemed to be eased by the evidence that she’d engaged his interest. It irritated Hux that she seemed to be naturally drawn to appease Ren, like she knew he was a potential disaster that needed to be averted.
“Over how long a period were you able to track activity centered there?” Ren asked.
“I found nothing prior to the fall of the Old Republic.”
“A thousand years,” Hux murmured. What the kriff was on that planet?
“There are answers there,” Ren said, as though reading Hux’s mind. “But not to the questions you’re asking now.”
Twim Zel’s forehead wrinkled as she raised both eyebrows, and Hux saw the way curiosity vied with suspicion on her face. She studied Ren closer, and Hux felt compelled to intervene, if for no other reason than to prevent this conversation from deteriorating into the mysteries of the Force.
“I expect all of this transferred to my drive,” Hux said, handing Twim Zel the data-pad that he’d brought with him. Because she was still staring at Ren, Hux withdrew a slim, silver box from an inner pocket of his coat and tilted it in front of her face. The light caught its polished metal surface and drew her attention.
“Your payment,” he said. “As promised.”
Twim Zel snatched the box from his hand, flicked it open with a thumb to count the pills inside. There were twenty, each of them oblong and pale yellow—military grade stims. Her favorite candy.
“Give me ten minutes,” she said.
Armed with centuries of carefully plumbed data and a mysterious set of coordinates, Hux led the way back to the elevator that would take he and Ren back to civilization. He was more than disappointed in the information, for it did nothing to shore up the integrity of the First Order’s internal structure, but Ren seemed eerily fascinated.
“He had memories,” Ren was saying as the elevator began to ascend. “Visions that bled through from time to time when we were connected. Usually when he spoke of his understanding of the Force.”
Hux sighed, in no mood for this. “The abstract memories of a dead master don’t really help us, Ren.” Only belatedly did Hux realized he’d said us , and wished he could take it back.
Ren waved a hand, and Hux flinched, but the gesture was nothing more than thoughtful. “There was a fortress. A temple, something. Ancient. I always thought he was remembering his childhood home, because he often thought of it when we discussed the learning of my youth.”
Hux regarded Ren silently for a moment, weighing this against the information relayed by Twim Zel. “You think this planet is what? His childhood home?”
Ren shrugged, his eyes bright in the dim light of the elevator car. “I don’t know, but there is something there. Some key.”
Hux sighed again, fingers curling in toward his palms as he fought the urge to tear his hair out. “I’m not looking for the meaning of life, Ren.”
Ren narrowed his eyes, expression scornful. “No, you only want one kind of power.”
Hux bristled. “Do you not know me at all, after all these years?” He plastered on a smile, showing teeth, and imagined it reflecting his sinister humor. “There isn’t a kind of power that I don’t want.”
Ren snorted. “That place. S9-02. It’s a key to a future we both want. I feel it.”
The lift reached its apex, and the door slid open. Hux wanted nothing more than to tell Ren that he was mad, that chasing after these impulses and visions was what had gotten them all into this situation. And yet Hux was caught on this empyrean chessboard and had been since being thrust between two Force-sensitive narcissists. He’d seen first hand what happened when Kylo Ren didn’t get his way.
The elevator door began to slide shut again, and Hux reached out to jam his hand against it. Ren had fixed him with an expression that bordered on eager, and it left Hux with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, like he was being forced to drink wine he knew was poisoned.
Perhaps there was some key. Some answer on that lonely planet that hung forgotten on the edge of the galaxy. Ren had made it clear that he knew what Hux wanted, and was not offering to stand in his way.
Still holding the door open, Hux shifted to the side of the car to make room for Ren to pass through.
They had been compelled to wait, following their summit with the arm of the Black Sun whose business was black market, massive scale weapons. Hux had insisted that he verify the deals they’d come to with their leader, Katamon Suru, who Hux had been told would be at the meeting. The lack of his presence was something Hux had found disconcerting.
The antichamber they’d been shuffled off to was some sort of private museum, housing collections of artifacts and antiques that Hux only recognized a modicum of. A tribal mask with three tongues. An ancient phonograph. A holorecording set into a frame on the wall, looping a speech given by Senator Palpatine decades before.
It was this that had kept Ren’s attention, no doubt because of the relationship of the erstwhile emperor to Ren’s grandfather.
“I’m surprised you didn’t choose to adopt an alias for Katamon’s benefit as well,” Ren said, still facing the holorecording.
Hux started to speak, to explain that subterfuge was unnecessary in this case, but Ren turned his head and fixed him with a flat look.
“Something perhaps to match this…fierce ensemble.” Ren indicated Hux’s attire, not only with a gesture of the hand, but with his eyes, which trailed lazily down Hux’s form. The expression on his face was somewhere between bored and mischievous--the kind of look Hux would expect from a child attempting to entertain himself by burning ants with a magnifying glass.
“An alias is hardly needed when one’s business partners are suitably impressed with the reality. I should think a general of the First Order is fierce enough,” Hux said.
Ren smirked, turning back to the recording and speaking as though to the image of Palpatine. “And how exactly does that fact exert its influence? Did you convince Katamon that if you were to disappear, the entire might of the Order would descend on his head and demand your freedom? Pay a hefty ransom because you are simply…” he looked at Hux again with a half-smirk. “...irreplaceable?”
Hux’s chest constricted, and he suddenly burned with a desire for the power that Ren had to will the very fabric of the universe to crush windpipes.
“I am not…” Hux began, but then realized that he was simply falling into Ren’s tired, unimaginative trap. When vying for Snoke’s favor, their squabbles had been just as petty and vitriolic, but Ren’s hand had been stayed by the will of his master; now, however, it was beginning to seem like Ren was goading him for other reasons--as though he wanted to see how much of a slavering, snarling dog he could turn Hux into before choking him into submission.
“If you think I do not have contingencies in place in the event of my disappearance,” Hux told Ren instead, “you are sorely mistaken.”
Ren hummed. “I think it’s you who are mistaken, General, if you think any of your cohorts will come looking for you.”
Hux’s cheek twitched, near his left eye, and a pulse of doubt flashed across his consciousness when he considered that Ren might know something that Hux did not. While Hux would never depend wholly on the loyalty of others, Ren had a way of choosing words that sounded like portent. Had he seen into the minds of those few officers that Hux did trust? They were often in Hux’s orbit--Opan, Paze, Jinn--and if Ren could glean the secret memories of their former Supreme Leader, would the inner workings of the minds of Hux’s small circle present any challenge?
Hux realized with a start that his eyes had drifted away from Ren, had fixed in a blank stare as he’d turned inward to process Ren’s words. He snapped his gaze back to Ren, and found that smug smile on his lips once more, dark eyes dancing with mirth.
“So full of fear and doubt,” Ren said in a low, sing-song voice, like he was casting one of his Jedi mind-tricks on Hux.
Hux sneered. “I imagine you pulled the wings off butterflies when you were a boy,” he said, and Ren’s forehead wrinkled with confusion, so Hux added: “Just to see them suffer.”
Ren’s right eyebrow lifted almost imperceptibly. “Is that what you’re doing now?” he asked. “Suffering?”
Hux couldn’t tell from Ren’s lack of affect whether he enjoyed the thought, or was mildly alarmed that it might indeed be the case. Hux wet his dry lips, trying to parse a suitable response that didn’t make him sound placating, when they were blessedly interrupted.
Hux looked about to see Katamon Suru entering the room from a side door, previously unnoticed as it was set cleverly into the wooden paneling. Katamon closed it quietly behind him, offering Hux and Ren a smile that Hux thought hinted at amusement. He forced himself not to scan the ceiling for cameras, knowing that they were surely there, and likely as inconspicuous as the door.
“Katamon,” Hux said, not bothering to imitate the man’s jovial manner.
For a crime lord, Katamon was rather unassuming. He stood perhaps five foot six, was about a three stones overweight in a way that made him appear soft around the edges, and wore a red and gold yukata belted at his round waist with a simple sash. As he approached, Hux saw that the robe was embroidered with stylized fish in delicate, shimmering filigree.
There was nothing about Katamon’s black eyes, however, that was soft. They were insect-like, devoid of feeling, and they crinkled as he held a hand out to Hux, palm up.
Hux flexed his own hand at his side, loathe to touch him, and he had to fight to keep the sneer of distaste from his lips as he placed his palm over Katamon’s. Instantly, like a trap closing around the ankle of an unwary beast, Katamon’s fingers clamped hard around Hux’s wrist.
“So nice of you to come all the way to Nar Shaddaa to grace me with your esteemed presence.”
Katamon’s overlong nails dug painfully into the skin of Hux’s wrist, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself not to wince. “It’s always a pleasure to see a savage beast in its natural habitat.”
Katamon’s black eyes narrowed dangerously, and Hux saw Ren shift in his peripheral vision, taking a step closer to Hux. In that moment, Katamon released Hux’s wrist abruptly, and the adder-like expression on his face dissolved into false good will. Drawing a handkerchief from an inner pocket within his robe, the arms dealer wiped his hands absently, as though it was habit.
“Tell me,” Katamon said as he stroked the red silk across the center of his palm, glancing at Ren. “Who is this handsome creature you’ve lured into your sticky web?”
Hux blinked, caught off guard, and he turned to look at Ren before he thought better of it. Ren was gazing mutely at Katamon, a tiny line between his heavy brows, full lips curved down at one corner. It was a look of distrust, Hux thought, and well-placed.
“This is my…” Hux began.
“...business partner,” Ren cut him off. “Shmi,” he added, gruffly introducing an alias that Hux should have anticipated the need for. Ren had thought of it quickly, and Hux surmised the name must hold some significance for him.
“Business partner,” Katamon mused, offering his hand to Ren as well.
Hux bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling as the Supreme Leader dispensed with the formality of Katamon’s cultural palm-to-palm greeting, grasping the man’s hand and squeezing with what was clearly an overly firm grip. Hux hoped Ren had done it on purpose.
“As we discussed with Duwoud,” Hux began, drawing Katamon’s eyes away from Ren. “The planetary shield genera…”
“Ah. No, no, no, General,” Katamon said with a flat smile. “No business on an empty stomach. You know better.”
Hux opened his mouth to protest, but Katamon was already turning away, striding across the room while flexing his hand at his side, as though Kylo had ground the bones together.
“He doesn’t seem very fond of you,” Ren said under his breath.
Hux scoffed. “He takes my money. That’s all that matters.”
Katamon looked over his shoulder before Ren could say more, and he beckoned for them to follow.
They were led into an adjacent room, one entire wall made up of transparisteel that looked out on a dizzying view of Nar Shaddaa’s skyscrapers. A plain black-glossed table abutted the windows, decorated only with a clear vase housing a single red flower, the origins of which Hux couldn’t guess at. Knowing Katamon, it was a rare species, and this was the last of its kind, trimmed to die here so that it could decorate one meal before it withered and died.
“Please,” Katamon said. “Have a seat.
He waved a hand and Hux grudgingly complied, having no appetite and no patience for this stalling. They were greeted by several droids who took drink orders and spirited the beverages back in mere moments, as thought Katamon had anticipated their requests.
Against his better judgement, Hux requested a whiskey, promising himself that he would only partake minimally. He almost laughed when Ren would accept only a water, but then felt a twinge of doubt that perhaps Ren had the right of it. But Katamon overrode that decision, and signaled for a drink that matched Katamon’s own to be placed before Ren. A martini had always been, in Hux’s experience, the crime lord’s drink of choice, and once he had his before him, he deemed conversation acceptable.
Katamon lifted the spear from his glass and let the liquor drip slowly from the olive. “I’m curious,” he said, lifting it to his mouth. “What sort of business partner are you, Shmi? You have the bearing of someone familiar with combat, but I don’t believe you are military.” He popped the olive into his mouth and sucked it from the spear.
Hux took a breath to interject, but Ren spoke first. “What leads you to believe I’m not? Military?” His fingertips played absently over the edge of the cocktail spoon lying next to his plate.
Katamon chewed the olive slowly, swallowed, and then dabbed his lips with a napkin before responding. “Your posture, for one,” he said. “You fold in on yourself when you’re seated.”
This made Ren sit back in his chair, drawing himself up and squaring his shoulders. Hux let a breath out through his nose as he saw Ren close the cocktail spoon in his hand, as if he needed some solid outlet for his burgeoning ire. Hux steeled himself to intervene, unwilling to have this encounter end in one of Ren’s fits of dark temper.
To his credit, Katamon seemed to realize that he was stirring a tempest, eyes flicking from the fist Ren had made to the glower on his face. “I would describe it more as a cat poised to spring,” he said, “rather than a constipated statue like your counterpart.” He smirked at Hux.
Hux frowned. “I apologize for interrupting your off-planet holiday, but must we resort to puerile insults?”
Katamon did not appear chastised as he raised his glass and took a sip of the green liquor. Hux flicked a glance at Kylo and found him relaxed once more against the back of his chair, lips pursed in what Hux thought was an attempt not to smile.
“Shmi serves as my enforcer,” Hux said, still looking at Ren, and was thoroughly gratified when the humor drained from his face. It was replaced by something dark, something Hux should acknowledge as dangerous, but Hux was not a man fond of being laughed at.
“Is that so?” Katamon hummed, not sounding entirely convinced. “Duwoud mentioned that he was quite the negotiator.” He said this last words as he leveled a long look at Ren that made Hux wonder if the parlay with the Black Sun crew had gone so smoothly because Ren had softened their minds with his powers.
“I know my ships,” Ren said. “And I know a sour deal when I smell one.” He refused to look at Hux, taking a swig of his mead and licking the moisture from his top lip.
“Indeed,” Katamon said, smiling. “On the subject of sour deals, I really should tell you how I came to meet young Lieutenant Hux.”
Hux sat up straighter in his chair, leaning forward. He’d hoped for a change of subject, but not for it to veer in this direction. “There is no need to reminisce about bygone days. The future is compelling enough.”
Katamon’s smile curved into a devious grin. “Oh, there is all the time in the world for such talk. It’s not often I have the opportunity to leave the Taxus-5 Resort in order to fly halfway across the galaxy to placate you. I’d like to get the most out of it that I can.” He turned back to Ren. “Surely you’re interested in this tale?”
“Absolutely,” Ren answered without hesitation. “I believe it’s advantageous to know the most about him I can. As his enforcer, of course.” There was humor in Ren’s answer, which meant that he had no doubt read the undercurrents in Katamon’s suggestion, and inferred that this account was not one that Hux wished to be shared.
“I was barely out of the womb,” Hux muttered, turning and flicking his hand at one of the droids hovering in the corner. “Another whiskey,” he told it before turning back to glare at the table. With a concerted effort, he lifted his eyes, not wanting to appear sullen.
Katamon was watching him intently, “He was a fresh-faced young man, newly fatherless,” he said. “Hungry for power. He arrived on my doorstep having gotten past my guards with false papers, a clever tongue, and a knife for the only one of the worthless lot that opposed him. Ironic, as that would have been the only one I let live.”
Hux sniffed, rotating the empty tumbler in his hand. The ice, only partially melted, clinked against the glass, and he lifted to swallow the dregs of bitter water. “In their defense,” he said, “I did know a great deal about your organization.”
The serving droid brought a fresh whiskey, adding an ice cube at the table. Hux motioned, and it dropped another in with a plink . Behind Katamon, the sky was an ominous gray, like the color of coals gone to ash, and a sickly green lightning spiderwebbed across the sky. There was a low peal of booming thunder that rattled the transparisteel of the floor to ceiling windows.
“Your general was an arrogant bastard, too,” Katamon went on when the structural vibrations ceased. He was looking at Ren, and Ren smirked.
“He still is.”
Hux inhaled through his nose as he chewed the inside of his cheek, willing himself to hold in a trite remark. He rotated his glass, watching the icecube bob in the amber liquor before he lifted it and took a sip.
“You call it arrogance,” Hux said, tongue tracing the outline of his bottom lip, savoring the tang of fine whiskey. “I call it tenacity.”
“Whatever drives him,” Katamon said, still speaking to Ren as he made room for a plate the droid was now delivering to the table, “he weren’t leaving here without the contracts your father held with our organization. As though they were his inheritance.”
Hux smiled behind the rim of his glass. “They were.”
There was a lull in the conversation as horderves were laid out before them. Katamon, despite his expansive ego, was not a braggart, and the bowls of vibrant blood-oranges, ripe nicta fruit, sugared grappa seeds and real, golden honey--all rarities in the Outer Rim--were, Hux guessed, less a purposeful display of his wealth than it was exemplary of the typical fare that the Black Sun’s boss was accustomed to.
The droids finished laying the spread and replenishing beverages and then left them to their conversation once more. The storm that had begun to brew outside was now buffeting the transparisteel with fat raindrops. They were blown across the surface diagonally to the southwest, leaving behind yellowish, oily streaks.
“Acid rain,” katamon commented as he took a pair of delicate tongs with polished, mother-of-pearl handles and from a tray selected several cubes of a pungent, blue cheese. “Fortunately, we’re below elevation for the most dangerous risk of erosion. Although I do have to replace the windows from time to time.” As he said that, lightning flickered again, and the condensation on the transparisteel took on a sinister, sickly glow.
“A truly metropolitan topic for conversation,” Hux remarked dryly. “Have you given thought to what we dis…”
“Please,” Katamon interrupted. “Respect my hospitality.” He waved a hand to indicate the spread before them. “Eat.” The word was inarguably an imperative, and Katamon did not look away nor blink until Hux set his glass aside irritably and picked up his plate. It set his teeth on edge to be spoken to like a child being ordered to finish his vegetables before he could leave the table.
Beside him, Ren was still leaning back in his chair, watching the exchange, but he too came to attention when Katamon’s gaze swung around on him.
“I’ve not told you the most interesting part of this story,” Katamon said, jovial mood returning as Hux and Ren both selected delicacies for their plates. Hux couldn’t help but notice that the Supreme Leader seemed unsure of himself, leaning forward with three finger tips of his right hand tapping silently on the rim of his plate as he studied the various offerings. To Katamon, Ren might have looked discriminating, but to Hux he simply looked uncultivated.
“Just choose something, Shmi,” Hux snapped, wanting to get on with this whole farcical business. “It’s not rocket science.”
Ren’s fingers curled in and he frowned, and Hux was surprised to see that Ren’s long nose turned pink across the bridge.
“I should hope that you never find occasion to host a meal,” Katamon said to Hux, reaching toward a transparent red and orange bowl and moving it so that it was before Ren. “Try this. Ahi with sesame and macadamia nuts.” Katamon didn’t wait for Ren to hesitate over the foreign chopsticks balanced in the bowl, and picked them up himself to pluck several of the pink, cubed bites of fish for Ren’s plate.
This seemed to jumpstart Ren, who mumbled his gratitude and collected more food. It was surprising to Hux that the son of a senator, a child born with money and privilege, couldn’t tell one delicacy from another.
“He can’t help himself,” Ren said suddenly, startling Hux. “He was little more than a vermin as a child, growing up on a spaceship under his father’s feet with his pack of feral rodents. Probably gnawed holes in nutrient bar wrappers when daddy forgot to feed him.”
Katamon’s laugh was loud and full, and Hux made a fist, flexing the cords of muscle in his forearm over which his mono-molecular blade was banded. One, practiced motion and it could be buried in Ren’s jugular.
“Perhaps you should get on with that story,” Hux suggested, voice barely above a growl.
“Ah, Hux,” Katamon said, still quivering with laughter as he peeled a blood-orange with one thumb nail. The dark, viscous juice dripped onto his plate, the sound drowned out by the staccato of raindrops on the windows. “You never did develop a sense of humor.”
Hux sliced an olive in half on his plate and coaxed the pit out with a spoon. “It’s not a useful skill in my line of work.”
Katamon’s laughter subsided as he popped a section of the orange into his mouth. He dabbed his lips with a napkin after chewing and swallowing, all the while staring at Hux thoughtfully. “It wouldn’t be, would it?” he mused.
“The young lieutenant Hux arrived like a thief in broad daylight,” Katamon began, turning back to Ren, “So arrogant that he assumed he could simply demand the contracts and understandings that his unfortunate father had enjoyed. I found him amusing, at first, and rather than toss him immediately into a rancor pit, I decided to have a bit of fun with him first.”
Ren seemed to have acclimated, and was now eating the assortment of foods on his plate while appearing to listen raptly to Katamon’s accounting. Hux found that he couldn’t tell whether Ren was actually interested in this glimpse into Hux’s past, or if he was merely trawling for embarrassing fodder on the general. Thus he found himself watching Ren’s face as Katamon spoke.
“Brendol Hux was a powerful man, and there was a certain type of intelligence that he possessed, but it was tempered too much by incontrovertible dogma. The man couldn’t see past his own nose. Hux, however, had ideas .” Katamon glanced at him then, but Hux couldn’t read the expression on his face. “He didn’t want any part of the human trafficking schemes that fed Brendol’s stormtrooper program, nor did he want munitions to arm them with. No. He wanted cutting edge technologies, prototypes for weapons that would bring the galaxy to heel.”
“I’d say he achieved that,” Ren commented, making unexpected pride spread through Hux’s chest slowly. Ren hadn’t seemed to have been making a joke of it, as though he was simply stating a common fact.
“Perhaps,” Katamon answered, ruining the moment. “But listening to these grandiose demands from a twenty-five year old boy was rather comical.” He took another sip of his drink, then ate a bite of cheese before continuing; Hux clenched his teeth throughout, having barely touched his food.
“I thought to myself at the time that I was well rid of the first Hux, and had no need of a second such fanatic, so I gave him an impossible task that would either rid me of him or prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had the right sort of mettle.”
“And what ‘impossible task’ did you set?” Ren asked then, and there was something about his tone that Hux couldn’t place. Mocking, almost.
“He gave me a target,” Hux told him, capturing Ren’s attention. “And had me assemble my own weapons from a scrap heap.”
Quiet laughter bubbled on Ren’s lips until he seemed to realize that Hux was not making this detail up. He raised an eyebrow then and sat back in his chair. “And?”
“He succeeded admirably,” Katamon answered for Hux. “And to be fair, it wasn’t just any scrap heap.” He sounded amused with himself. “It was a storage locker full of rare parts for antique weapons. I took a risk letting you use them at all, considering what I paid for some of those treasures.”
“Junk,” Hux said, just to get under his skin. Truthfully, Katamon’s collection had been impressive, the hybrid M-ot 6 sniper rifle he’d assembled testament to the quality of engineering from earlier history.
Katamon frowned at him, the nerve Hux had touched twitching under the crime boss’s left eye. “He took his chimera of a weapon and he spent three days stalking a double-dealing politician who had the audacity to think he could spread his loyalties equally between The Black Sun and our rival syndicate.”
“The man had more security than royalty,” Hux interjected, remembering how it had taken him days to find a chink in the politician’s schedule that would allow him to make his shot and escape with his life. It had come during an unscheduled brunch with the man’s wife and young son, and Hux had almost missed his chance hesitating over murdering the father in front of his child. In the end, Hux was driven to pull the trigger by telling himself he was doing the boy a favor, that if someone had taken Brendol out that same way, Hux would be a better man for it.
“It was delightfully cold-blooded, the way he did it,” Katamon said, like he was seeing the memories that played out across Hux’s consciousness.
“It was necessary,” Hux said. “That’s the way war is.”
Ren was studying Hux, but he didn’t ask that Hux elaborate, which led him to wonder whether Ren had seen into his mind, had glimpsed the look of horror on the blood speckled face of that politician’s wife as she’d tried to shield her son.
“Needless to say,” Katamon went on, as though there was no gravity to the story, “I was suitably impressed. We even hosted a celebration for Armitage when he returned.”
“As macabre a celebration as only you could host,” Hux said.
“My people made an evening of it,” Katamon told Ren. “Took up space at a local bar and watched the terrible news unfold round-the-clock on holo. News anchors reporting on the tragic end of such a promising career and the man’s poor family.” Katamon was chuckling at the end of this, the drink in his hand nearly empty as he took another sip. “The next morning I sent several of my gang to locate our man of the hour so that I could congratulate him on his prowess, and offer my partnership, and lo and behold they found this ruthless, disciplined First Order poster-child sprawled drunk in bed with two men, wearing nothing but his boots.”
Hux blanched, feeling his heart trip in his chest. He’d had no idea Katamon had known about that moment of shame; his behavior had been unbecoming, the result of being drunk on his success and the high of being newly free of Brendol, and truthfully, Hux had put it out of his mind until this moment. He clenched a fist in his lap, pulling in a long breath through his nose as he fought off the urge to flee.
Katamon drained his martini and set it aside. “I’m so glad that you insisted we meet today, Armitage. I haven’t thought of that amusing tidbit in years, and I’m so glad to have a chance to share it..” He apparently was not compelled to even disguise the fact that he’d brought it up for the specific purpose of humiliating Hux in front of his ‘business partner.’
“Perhaps we should focus on the reason we’re actually here.”
The proclamation came from Ren, which brought Hux’s head about in surprise. Ren’s facade of dark curiosity about Hux’s past had vanished, replaced by something hard that was tempered only by the faintest blush coloring his cheekbones.
There was a moment of silence as Katamon and Hux both stared at him, but Ren only returned Katamon’s stare, and there was something about his posture that Hux found almost defensive. But of what?
“Indeed,” Katamon said with a smirk, gesturing at a droid to bring another round of drinks. “A change of topics could be amusing. But this is my house. I pick the dinner conversation.” He accepted a fresh martini, drew the olive out and split it between his teeth. “Now. Shmi . Tell me about yourself.”
Hux’s head ached with a throbbing that began behind his eyes and pulsed in waves all the way to his occipital lobe. Every foot step shuddered up through his bones in a way that vibrated discordantly with his skull, and he felt sick to his stomach. It was as much the food he’d eaten, which was far richer fare than he was used to aboard a starship, as it was the gravid silence that hung between he and Ren now like the tide being held back by a dam.
Hux was going to have to find a way to broach the topic of those far too personal details that Katamon had been so eager to divulge, and decide how best to convince Ren to keep his own mouth shut about it. While Hux was not ashamed of his particular proclivities, it was frowned upon in the Order, and this was not the time to draw that kind of attention to himself. Not when vultures were already circling the battlefield, waiting for one of them to die.
Katamon had been insistent on providing Hux and Ren with a shuttle ride back to the docking bay, and Hux had been only too willing to accept. He wanted nothing more than to set a course back to the Finalizer and shut himself in his private cabin the moment they’d cleared atmosphere.
The shuttle had deposited them at the turbolifts that took them to Dock B, and they were only a hundred paces from that promise of freedom when Ren’s voice finally broke in over the sound of Hux’s clipped steps.
“Why did you really invite me here?” he asked.
Hux stopped abruptly, rounding on him. “I had hoped to make an utter fool of you, Kylo Ren,” he snapped. “Exactly as you thought.”
Ren did not appear taken aback by this revelation. “And did you?”
Hux sucked in a deep lung full of air and blew it out slowly through his nose. “What do you think?” He had a sneaking suspicion that Ren was fishing for praise, but Hux was in no mood to simper; denial was as close to an admission as the Supreme Leader was going to get.
Hux turned on his heel again and began moving toward their shuttle once more, before he clawed that smug look off Ren’s face. Hux had been so sure that Twim Zel would have the answers that would put the First Order’s purse strings squarely in his hands, and yet all he had were more questions. He’d expected the transaction with The Black Sun to go smoothly, and yet had been met with ridicule by its leader, all while his most notorious rival looked on.
Shmi . Hux had sat there and simmered while he listened to Katamon draw out the details of this fictional sand-rat that Ren had concocted for himself. He’d grown up on Tatooine, he’d said. Had learned to fly a speeder at the age of six , he’d said.
Hux punched his key into the shuttle’s lock-pad, resisting the urge to put his whole fist through it. The ramp had yet to touch the ground before Hux’s boots slammed down on the durasteel grating as he retreated inside.
He heard Ren following him, but said nothing as he made his way toward the cockpit to begin pre-flight checks. Hux didn’t even bother to take a seat in one of the two pilot’s chairs, but hunched over the displays as he set switches and spooled up diagnostics. He set the nav computer to begin plotting their course back Turik Station, then swept out of the cockpit again to head to his cabin, clipping Ren’s shoulder hard as Ren tried to enter the cockpit door in the same moment.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” Ren asked, not sounding terribly interested in the answer.
Hux needed out of this stifling coat and free of the chafing straps around his legs. “I have work to do on ship,” he called back, though Ren wasn’t really entitled to an answer.
The door to his cabin hissed open and he stepped inside only far enough to shuck his duster jacket and toss it across the twin-sized cot. As soon as the ship was off the ground, heading toward hyperspace, Hux would strip himself of this garb and remake himself stitch by stitch into the First Order’s top general. In the meanwhile, he allowed himself time to use the closet refresher to scrub the Nar Shaddaa grime from his face and run his fingers, which he found were trembling, through his hair until it was combed back in a rough semblance of order. The man that stared back at him from the mirror looked young, Hux thought, foolish and inexperienced, and he vaguely recognized it as the way he’d used to feel when Brendol laughed about him with his friends and fellow officers, when he’d called his accomplishments into question.
“What are we going to do about S9-02?” Kylo’s voice startled Hux out of his dead father’s grasp, and he looked sharply at him. Kylo was filling the narrow doorway, having to duck just noticeably to see Hux.
“Do about it?” Hux asked, though he was more tuned to Ren’s use of the word we . It was not the first time the Supreme Leader had referred to them as a unit, as though he was not anticipating removing Hux from his position. Of course he wouldn’t be , Hux reasoned. He’d be a fool to, and perhaps was realizing that he had no business trying to lead a machine like the First Order, and so here he was seeking his directives from Hux.
Hux sneered. “What do you think we should do about it, Ren? There’s likely nothing to it. Just another dead end.”
“It’s not nothing,” Ren answered without hesitation.
Hux sighed, pushed past Ren irritably. Once out of the cabin, he turned to face him again, both of them framed by the open cabin door.
“At the very least,” Hux said. “We can send scout ships, just to see if there really is a planet there, and…”
“There is,” Ren interrupted.
“Then why don’t you meditate on it and find the answers for yourself?” Hux snapped.
“I will meditate on it, but it’s not like watching a documentary, after which I’ll spring back to a conscious state with all the necessary details.” Ren’s voice was growing irritable too, infected by Hux’s own peevish mood.
Hux barely registered the sound of footsteps on the gangway, still open to the dock, until a shadow darkened the entrance. It was little more than a wavering of light, as the interior of the ship was already dim, but it was enough to make Hux turn his head mid-argument.
There was barely time to register the appearance of the creature, its skull-hollow eyes a dull red, its face framed in pale, bone-like protrusions, before it raised a blaster.
It happened in slow motion, the way Hux had always heard life and death moments were wont to do. The first detail his mind latched onto was the make of the weapon--an R4-S2K, a light stun weapon with a kill setting. He had time to see that the kill setting was activated, the red light laser bright on the top of the barrel and aimed right at Ren.
The second thing Hux registered was that Ren’s hand shot out, palm forward, and Hux felt the drag of the Force around him, but the weapon aimed at them didn’t respond, nor did the being holding it.
The third thing that Hux noticed, the last in a space of perhaps three seconds, was that the creature offered a horrid grin full of filed teeth just before it pulled the trigger.
The thing that had escaped Hux’s notice in this flurry of action was the part where he stepped sideways, between Ren and the plasma bolt aimed for his heart, the bolt that Ren had not been able to stop with the Force. As Hux had moved, he’d jostled Ren to the side, back into the doorway of the cabin behind them, and Hux took the bolt in his shoulder.
Pain exploded through his right side, rippling like molten glass through muscle and skin, and Hux could feel it blackening at the edges, the fabric of his tunic seared to the flesh. He could smell it.
His right arm was useless, but he had a blade from his thigh holster in his left hand before the creature had time to depress the trigger again for a second shot. He heard Ren shout something, felt Ren’s hand on his hip trying to pull him back, but Hux compensated for that shift of balance and threw the knife with all the force of muscle-memory. It was a blur, shooting across the ship and burying itself in the creature’s throat.
It took several seconds before time caught up with Hux, and the would-be assassin crumpled to the floor in real-time motion, the gun falling from its hand and skittering away from it. The moment it left the creature’s grip, it lifted from the ground and was tossed across the room to smash into the bulkhead. Hux barely caught the movement of Ren’s hand, who seemed to have finally regained use of the Force.
Then Ren was stalking with those long strides across to the fallen creature, grasping the front of its light armor, and hauling it fully into the ship, slamming it roughly onto its back. Jet black blood leaked from the knife wound in its throat and trickled from the corners of its lips.
“Who are you?” Ren growled.
The creature only smiled, pin-point teeth black with blood. It appeared to wince as Ren’s hand closed around its bony forehead, and Hux saw Ren’s eyes flutter half shut only to open wide again a moment later.
“It’s like it doesn’t exist,” Ren muttered.
Hux limped toward them both, the right side of his body aflame. “What the kriff does that mean?”
“It’s absent from the Force. Like a blank space.”
Hux considered the creature that lay dying at his feet. “Then someone knew to send such a being. Someone that wanted you dead.”
Ren immediately looked at Hux, suspicion plain on his face. Hux glared back and removed the hand from where he was unsuccessfully trying to staunch the blood leaking from his shoulder, showing the red-stained palm to Ren.
The gesture seemed to do the trick, to drive home the point that had Hux been behind this, the last thing he would do was step in front of the kriffing blaster bolt. And Hux wasn’t remotely ready to examine why he’d done that. He’d been seconds from all his problems evaporating, and he’d stopped it.
It seemed, from Ren’s expression, that they were having the same thought, but Ren turned his attention back to the dying creature, wrapped his fingers around the hilt of Hux’s knife, and jerked it roughly out. The creature coughed, blood spurting freely now from the wound and running from its lips.
“Who are you?” Ren asked it one more time, but the creature only made a weak effort to spit in Ren’s face, the result nothing more than a bubbling cough.
Hux moved toward the control panel for the gangway and pressed the button to raise the platform. “We have to take it with us. Stall whoever sent it. And we can’t leave it here or we’ll have Hutt security barring our shuttle.”
Ren hesitated only a moment, seeming to realize that there was nothing more they could get from the dying creature--not with a knife-wound in its throat and a mind locked away from the Force. As Hux moved gingerly toward the cockpit, wanting to get off this planet as soon as possible, he heard the wet, sucking sound of the knife re-entering that body, and the gurgling stopped.
Slumping into the pilot’s chair, Hux ran through the final pre-flight checks before disengaging the mag-locks. The shuttle released its grip on the deck below and shuddered as it gained balance.
“Hux,” Ren said from the cockpit door. “Your arm.”
“I’m aware,” Hux said, reaching out to take the guide stick in his sticky, blood-stained hand, leaving his wound uncovered.
Before he could grasp it, Ren had thrown himself into the copilot’s chair and taken over, and Hux was too tired to argue. The last thing he remembered before he passed out was the way the dark space between the stars that were opening up before them seemed welcoming, like a good place to rest.
He woke sometime later, with Ren looming over him. Chilly air grazed Hux’s open wound, setting the fried nerve endings alight and making pain shoot through his entire arm.
“What are you doing?" Hux hissed, though the words sounded slurred in his own ears. He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open.
“This needs to be dressed,” Ren said.
“It can wait until we’re back on the Finalizer,” Hux said.
“It can’t,” Ren insisted, frowning. He folded himself down, wedging an arm beneath Hux’s, pushing it between Hux’s back and the seat until he was levering Hux out of the chair.
Hux was too weak to fight him, but he did curse well enough when the movement made his body spasm with pain. Ren guided him out of the cockpit, careful as he maneuvered through the narrow door. They passed the corpse of the would-be assassin and made their way to Hux’s cabin, where Hux dimly noted Ren had spread medical supplies across the small cot.
“You have medical training?” Hux rasped as Ren lowered him to the edge of the cot.
“Some,” Ren said. “Basic field techniques.”
Hux scoffed, the sound morphing into another curse of pain as Ren’s fingers prodded at the exit wound in his back. “Careful, you fumbling beast,” he snapped.
Ren did not seem off-put, settling on the cot behind him. “We need to remove this,” Ren told him, grasping the hem of Hux’s tunic.
“Carefully,” Hux said again, and was surprised when Ren was just that. He lifted the left side first, helping Hux work his good arm through the sleeve while Ren kept the wounded right shoulder braced with a hand around that bicep. The tunic went over Hux’s head next, leaving his hair in disarray, and then Ren very gently peeled it away from the singed wound. Hux bit his lip hard to keep from screaming as the melted fabric tore away burnt skin, but Ren made quick work of sliding it off his arm with minimal movement.
Hux found he was breathing hard with the effort of withstanding the pain, and he jumped as he felt Ren prod the edges of the exit wound.
“It missed the scapula,” Ren said. “A clean exit, at least.”
“It karking hurts,” Hux growled, realizing he’d probably be ashamed of himself later for the complaint.
Ren didn’t respond for a moment, and then Hux felt a tiny prick in his neck. He realized it was a pain stim mere seconds before his body was flooded with relief, his indignation at being injected with narcotics without his permission floating away on a cloud before he could voice it.
He barely felt the sting of the astringent as Ren cleaned the wound, though he could smell it as it scrubbed away the dried blood.
“That shot was meant for me,” Ren murmured.
“Was it?” Hux asked, his attempt at sarcasm sounding like a dazed question instead.
Ren seemed to read it well enough, despite. “Why did you step in front of it?”
Hux tried to piece that together, searching for the tenor of the impulse that had made him move to push Ren aside, but there was only a blankness there. Like a dream he couldn’t remember all the details of.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Probably not the best move on my part.”
Surprisingly, Ren laughed. Not just that odd, breathy sound Hux took for laughter in other circumstances, but a genuine laugh that sounded almost relieved. Hux couldn’t think of how to address it before Ren had shifted around on the cot to face him, so he could clean the entry wound.
Hux watched him. Ren’s face was all seriousness, brows pinched as he carefully scrubbed away the dried blood. Ren’s own hands had been scrubbed almost pink, like he’d spent effort to scour away the black fluids of the creature they’d killed. For some reason, this attention to hygiene before touching Hux’s open wound felt endearing, but Hux surmised that was the pain-killer’s influence.
Hux floated there as Ren applied bacta, and finally bandaged the shoulder securely, front and back. Ren took his time about this last task, creating a makeshift sling. Hux argued against the need for it, but Ren ignored him, and Hux didn’t have it in him to fight. At last, Ren checked his work, fingers pressing gently at the edges of the tape to ensure it was a secure fit.
“This should be good enough until we’re shipboard again,” Ren announced at last, and Hux twitched, having almost fallen asleep. Ren was behind him again, where the exit wound had been the last of the bandages he’d rechecked.
“You could have just let me bleed to death in the cockpit,” Hux said drowsily.
“And you could have let me take that blaster bolt to the chest.”
There was a moment’s long silence, and then Hux felt Ren’s palm flat against his back, smoothing over the bandage before moving over the slope of his shoulder and down his arm. Ren’s hand was warm where it rested briefly at Hux’s elbow, and then it was gone.
“Is this a truce then?” Ren asked, and his voice was close enough that Hux could feel the stir of breath on the fine hairs of his neck.
Hux’s skin prickled, and his eyes closed. He swayed back an infinitesimal inch, blaming it on the narcotics in his system, before he stopped himself. A truce. Hux turned his head just enough to meet Ren’s eyes.
“Not on your life.”
It was the silence that woke him, tugging him up out of a dreamless sleep into a sensory haze, like floating in a deprivation tank he had no memory of climbing into. It wasn’t raining. It was always raining when consciousness took hold.
He blinked, or thought he did, though no light peeked through his eyelids; his face felt heavy, like his skin had lost elasticity and was giving way to the pull of gravity. With great effort, he dragged a hand up from his side and found his forehead, then his nose and lips, felt a pulse in his throat, slow and faint beneath his weak fingers.
The absence of his chronometer, which should have been playing the looped recordings of thunderstorms that soothed him to sleep every night, was his first clue that he was not aboard the Finalizer, and the moment that fact took root, other details burst to life. Corellian crystal filled with whiskey, streaks of yellow static across the polluted sky, shifting shadows and white-hot pain, black blood. Ren’s hands on his skin.
Hux sucked in a lungful of air, surfacing fully at last; the pain struck him, a viper-bite to his sluggish mind, and a wave of dizziness was offset only when he managed to orient himself in his dark coffin. He was supported at his back by something flat that gave with a hint of softness, so he knew which way was down, and which way was up.
“Lights,” he rasped. “Twenty percent.”
The world became substantial again, wrenched from nothingness and transformed into the interior of a small cabin, uniform but familiar. The tang of astringent and bacta paste tickled his nostrils, and he felt the pull of tape on his shoulder as he tried to sit up.
He’d taken a plasma bolt meant for Kylo Ren.
And then Kylo Ren had put him back together.
Hux growled in pain as he levered himself up, cutting the sound off mid-expression and allowing only a hiss of air through his teeth. The woozy, disoriented feeling that clung to him like sodden gaberwool could only be the lingering effects of narcotics, something Hux had little experience with. Pain, Brendol had said, lets you know you’re still alive. A borrowed anecdote, as usual, but the truth.
His right arm was secured against his side, folded across his torso. The sling kept Hux from extending the shoulder, which was probably to his benefit, but it suddenly felt constricting, and he wanted it off. He wanted out of this sodding cabin and back on the bridge of his ship.
Hux pulled one knee up, rotated his torso to drop that foot to the floor, only to have his leg tangle in a thin blanket that he hadn’t registered until that moment. It was wound around his calf, and Hux had to tug it free with his left hand. He was panting shallowly by the time he had both booted feet on the ground, and his shoulder burned.
He had to stop himself from tearing the sling off violently so he could strip away the medical tape and claw his nails into the itching flesh beneath. The fact that it was itching at all was a good sign; the bacta gel was doing its job. His eyes tracked across the small room to the tunic he’d been wearing on-planet; it was folded precisely, lying on the durasteel table that was the only other piece of furniture in the room beyond the single chair and the cot Hux sat on.
Hux swallowed, his throat dry as sandpaper, and the cool shipboard air pricked at the bare skin of his torso, forcing him to consider the fact that Ren had removed that blood-stained shirt from his body. That memory was fuzzy, comprised more of sensory impressions rather than images: acrid ozone, burnt flesh, the iron tang of blood, the way the tunic had peeled away from his skin with a tearing sound muted only by the way his breath had been coming in shallow pants. He hadn’t screamed. He remembered that.
And now all that vied with the fact that Ren had taken the care to fold the ruined tunic and set it neatly aside.
He hung his head to keep it from spinning and tried to replay the scene in the main cabin, tried to find the threads that connected sanity to what he’d done. He had been one, single second of inaction away from Kylo Ren being nothing more than a lengthy test of his patience, one sidestep in the opposite direction from a clear path to this thing that he worked all his life for. His destiny. Ren was sucking quicksand that had slowed him down long enough with his need for coddling by Supreme Leader Snoke; he’d cast his long shadow over Hux even in his most shining moments, and all Hux had needed to do today was let him die.
Hux squeezed his eyes shut, left hand curling into the blanket that was rucked up over his thigh. He remembered the way it had felt for Ren to peel him out of the pilot’s seat, how he’d been weak with blood loss and pain, and how it had been like that when Starkiller came apart. Only Hux had been the one supporting Ren, frigid wind blasting their cheeks as the sky turned red and the ground split open.
The shuttle they’d taken from that dying planet to the Finalizer had no medical droids, and it had been left to Hux to clean the blood from Ren’s wounds, to find where the life was seeping out most quickly, to staunch it until Ren could be dumped into a bacta tank to mend. Then, Hux had felt there was no choice, having been assigned as Ren’s nursemaid by Snoke, who could very well tear from Hux’s mind any subterfuge that led to Ren’s death.
Hux had not been gentle with Ren. Had not scrubbed his hands pink until afterward, when he’d been desperate to get the blood off. He’d deliberately failed to apply bacta to the wound on Ren’s face, once he’d deemed the cut not fatal; he’d hoped it would scar, and it had.
And now, Hux felt the ghost of Ren’s calloused fingers as they traced the edges of the medical tape sealing Hux’s wounds closed, he felt the whisper of air against his neck when Ren had spoken to him of truces, and the way that wide palm had traced the contour of Hux’s shoulder, his arm, testing the give of the sling.
Hux shivered, snatched the blanket out of his lap and tossed it to the foot of the bed. Gingerly, he slipped his arm out of the sling and eased it off his shoulder, examining it for the first time and seeing that Ren had made it from a spare pillowcase, and the realization punched a sharp bark of laughter out of his chest that made his shoulder throb.
He choked, parched and in pain, and made two wobbly attempts to stand up from the cot before he found his feet and made it to the refresher sink. There was a small cup on the edge, and he filled it with recycled water and gulped it down; it was stale, had a metallic bite, but it was like sweet nectar to Hux. He refilled the cup and drank it down twice more before finally setting it aside and daring to look in the mirror.
He afforded his face only a cursory glance, focusing instead on the wounded shoulder. It was completely covered by the bandage Ren had placed there, and Hux hooked a thumb nail beneath the tape and gently peeled it away. He hissed as the adhesive gave way and pulled at the already tender skin, but he found the flesh beneath only the pink-red of healing skin, not inflamed with setting infection. The entry wound would need further attention once aboard the Finalizer, much to Hux’s chagrin, but the quick application of bacta had saved him significant permanent damage. It would scar, but it would just be one of many.
Hux replaced the bandage and smoothed it down carefully, trying not to think of Ren’s hand doing the same, and how someone with such an affinity for violence should not be capable of that kind of care.
Having only brought the one spare change of clothing, Hux donned the undershirt of his uniform, the action of getting his arm through the sleeve and then pulling it over his head bringing tears of pain to his eyes. He was too spent from the effort to try to struggle into the rest of his uniform, and so emerged into the main cabin as he was.
The corpse of the creature who might have been Hux’s savior still lay in the mouth of the outer door, which was still sealed shut. Viscous black blood pooled around its head, soaked into the shoulder of its grey uniform. Hux clenched his teeth, jaw tightening at the way the thing was despoiling his ship with its filth. He wasn’t sure what could be gleaned from its remains, but the sight made him faintly nauseous and he was disinclined to search its pockets at the moment.
Hux could tell from the low thrum of engines that the ship was not at port, and he surmised that he must not have slept long; the trip to Nar Shaddaa was no more than three hours. The running lights were dimmed, but it suited his bleary eyes as he made his way toward the cockpit, seeking Ren and a timeline for their arrival.
The door slid open at a touch of Hux’s fingers to the control panel, and the question he’d formed for Ren died on his tongue.
There should have been stars hurtling past the viewport, streaks of white and blue on a dark field, but instead, everything was shades of red. Hux’s eyes adjusted slowly, the visual input syncing gradually with comprehension, until he saw the brilliant display outside the viewport for what it was. They were suspended in a nebula, its hydrogen emissions interpreted in the ship’s visual display as crimson and deep purple, strewn with glittering pockets of white-pink light as though the whole tapestry had been punched through at random by some cosmic needle, allowing glimpses to another plane of being.
They were in a birthplace of stars.
“What is this?” Hux asked, voice sounding hoarse. He knew what it was, but not why. Why they were here, and not aboard his ship. When there was no answer, Hux turned to look for Ren, and found him slumped in the pilot’s chair, eyes closed. The rise and fall of his chest was subtle, a strand of his long hair clinging to the eyelashes of one eye and fluttering when he breathed. Hux was momentarily struck dumb by how young the Supreme Leader looked; his pale face, tinged pink by the filtered light of the red nebula, was slack and lacking his perpetual frown, as though he’d found some sort of peace in his dreams.
Hux slammed the toe of his boot into the side of Ren’s foot. “Where the karking hells are we?”
Ren, to his credit, did not snap out of sleep like a startled animal. He opened his eyes slowly, raked his hair out of his face and blinked up at Hux. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” His tone suggested that Ren was irritated that it wasn’t Hux’s first observation.
“It’s charming,” Hux said acerbically. Truthfully, it was stunning, but Hux did not intend to tell Ren that he thought so. “Why are we here?”
Ren narrowed his eyes and glared up at him, then pushed himself upright in the pilot’s chair, stretching his arms over his hand, fingers interlaced. “You’ve been out for hours,” he told Hux.
“Thanks to you. Had I needed narcotics I would have asked for them.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Ren countered. “Regardless...” He dropped his arms, leaning forward to check a display on the console. “I thought you would rather sleep them off than have medical droids carry you off the shuttle in full view of your men.”
Hux had his mouth open to argue with Ren’s assumption that he knew Hux better than he knew himself, but he snapped it shut when Ren planted the vision in his head of being removed from the shuttle on a gravstretcher, or worse, stumbling out half-dazed with his arm in a sling.
He stared at Ren, mind scrambling to parse the meaning behind this, and how it benefited the Supreme Leader. Was Ren loathe to appear as though he could not protect a single officer? Would the crew of the Finalizer expect that duty of Ren, as it had been widely assumed that Ren was Snoke’s sentinel? Did Ren think that Hux would be grateful, and therefore owe him a boon?
Or was he simply being considerate?
Hux was not sure which of the possible assumptions bothered him more: the nefarious, self-serving ones he could understand, or the single, humane thing that he could not. Not from Ren.
He suddenly thought of waking up with a blanket draped over him to ward away the cold of deep space, and how he couldn’t remember lying down.
“I have work to do,” Hux said, immediately annoyed with the way the statement sounded less authoritarian than he’d intended, as though he were merely stating an inconsequential observation rather than trying to compel Ren back into lightspeed.
“You shouldn’t have taken the sling off yet,” Ren muttered, like he hadn’t just heard Hux speak. He was looking at Hux’s shoulder, frowning.
“I’ll be the judge of what I should and should not do,” Hux snapped.
Ren said nothing, but Hux saw a line form between his eyebrows. For a moment, Hux thought he would argue, but then Ren turned away and began flicking buttons across the console. Seconds later, the hum of spooling engines vibrated through Hux’s feet. He was so intent on trying to read Ren’s face for some clue to his motivation that he missed the opportunity to glance for one last time at the breathtaking nebula before the color bled away into the monochromes of hyperspace.
He left Ren in the cockpit alone, doing so rather abruptly upon seeing the ship on its way back to Turik Station. He’d almost asked Ren, outright, why he’d chosen to help Hux save face before an army Ren had only recently laid claim to himself. Whether it was something so simple as gratitude. That question, however, would surely have invited another, glaringly obvious one on Ren’s behalf: why had Hux taken a blaster bolt meant for him?
Hux didn’t have an answer for that, and did not want to look for one.
“Lights, sixty percent,” Hux said, punching the door controls to manually lock it behind him, sealing himself in the cabin he’d only just escaped.
He stood just inside, only gradually registering that his heart was rabbiting in his chest, and only then because he felt it begin to slow as he caught his breath. His mouth was dry, and he was suddenly acutely aware of the way he smelled; Nar Shaddaa’s putrid atmosphere clung to him like a second skin, and he wanted nothing so much as a hot shower. That, however, would have to wait until he was back aboard his destroyer; the shuttle had only a cramped sonic, and Hux did not have the energy to strip and then redress himself.
The realization made him want to put his fist through a wall; he’d been belittled enough by Kylo Ren, and now he was made an invalid by association.
Ren had said the creature who’d attacked them was like a void space in the Force, but he hadn’t said that void extended across the whole ship. Perhaps, having not been able to affect the assassin, he’d done the next easiest thing by using his powers to appropriate Hux as a human shield. Perhaps it had never been Ren’s plan for Hux to survive, and playing nursemaid afterward was just a ruse to throw Hux off.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Armitage,” Hux muttered to himself, raking his hand through his sweaty, tousled hair and sitting down heavily on the edge of the cot, deflating. “If he wanted you dead he’d just kill you.”
Then why hadn’t he?
The question was accompanied by a piercing pain in his temples that was answered by the throb in his shoulder. HIs body was telling him that he had more corporeal things to worry about in the moment, and he was grateful for the pain for the first time since waking. He took a deep, steadying breath and pushed himself to his feet again.
Inside the pocket of his uniform coat was a silver tube, and he withdrew it while giving it a shake. He heard the muted rattle he’d hoped for, and when he thumbed open the lid and tilted the tube, two oblong, yellow pills fell into his palm. He sealed the tube and replaced it, then drew the entirety of his uniform from the tiny closet and draped it over the back of the cabin’s single chair.
He popped the stims into his mouth and chewed, wincing at the bitter taste. The first aid kit Ren had used to patch him up was lying on the table beside the bloody tunic, and Hux flicked it open. Everything had been replaced neatly, and Hux frowned as he rifled through the contents until he found a small pack of basic analgesics. They would do little to ease the ache of the blaster wound, but they were preferable to the muddy hangover of opiates.
In the refresher, he filled another cup of water and swallowed the pills, washing the chalky taste of the stims out of his mouth. He could already feel the military-grade amphetamines beginning to clear out the cobwebs in his brain, narrowing his focus to what lay directly in front of him. Getting back to his ship and the business of running the First Order was all that mattered, and existential questions could wait until the dark solitude of night-cycle.
The stims and the standard-issue painkillers were enough of a bulwark to allow Hux to wash the sweat from his body with stale water from the sink, then pull on his uniform layer by layer. The most difficult part of that process was replacing his utilitarian boots with the knee-high pair, the strain of unlacing and tugging leaving him winded. He emerged victorious, however, grateful for the cap to hide his filthy hair and the greatcoat which would disguise the fact that standing with his shoulders back in posture befitting his rank was too difficult.
He felt the ship drop out of lightspeed just as he was shrugging into the coat, and he pressed the door to exit his cabin only to come face to face with Ren.
The Supreme Leader’s hand was poised over the outside control panel, as though he’d intended to buzz for Hux’s permission to enter. As Hux stared at him, and Ren dropped the hand to his side.
“We’re on approach to land,” he told Hux, and Hux’s skin crawled as Ren’s eyes tracked each aspect of his uniform. He imagined Ren picking out the way the starched pants bunched where they were tucked into his boots, and the way he couldn’t get his lank hair to lay perfectly under his cap without the pomade he’d been foolish enough to leave behind in his shipboard quarters.
Hux adjusted the greatcoat, tugging the lapels closer together to hide his state beneath. He stepped forward as he glowered at Ren, and the Supreme Leader moved aside at the last moment before they collided, allowing Hux into the main cabin.
“What will we do with this?” Hux wondered aloud, crossing to the corpse of Ren’s assassin.
“What do you suggest?” Ren asked, the volume of his voice telling Hux that he hadn’t moved to follow.
Hux stared down at the body as he drew one of his leather gloves from the pocket of his coat and slipped it on. “There’s very little we can learn from it at this point,” Hux pointed out. “Nothing useful, at least.” He paused, then looked back at Ren. “Beyond the very intriguing prospect of employing Force-void beings as personal aides.”
Ren’s mouth twitched, and Hux couldn’t tell if the resulting expression was a smirk or a frown. As they regarded one another, Hux felt the shuttle decelerate and the maglocks engage as it was secured to the docks. He had to force himself not to exhale in relief, and turned away from Ren to punch the control for the hatch, anxious to escape this tomb.
The outer door eased open as the gangway extended, and the bustle of uniformed troops outside was a balm to his soul. He took a breath, eyes locking on the pair of officers approaching him from across the bay, data-pads in hand, ready to receive Hux’s orders.
He was back in command. Of this ship. Of himself.
“Go to med bay,” Ren ordered him, and Hux flinched.
“I’m fine,” he hissed, as though anyone in the clamorous bay could hear him.
Hux ground his teeth, refusing to look at Ren again, and yet he could feel Ren’s eyes on him. Hux felt exposed, suddenly, like the blaster wound in his shoulder was a beacon pointing to a vile intimacy that had been lacking when they’d boarded this shuttle a mere cycle ago. Hux felt queasy, the mix of pills and stomach acid an acrid burn in the back of his throat. He swallowed.
“I will have my officers remove the body to the morgue,” Hux informed Ren. “If anything can be learned from the corpse, I will notify you.”
He didn’t wait for Ren to respond before marching down the gangway and across the bay to meet his officers.
Where the interior of Hux’s private shuttle had begun to feel like a coffin, the bridge of Hux’s star destroyer was a rush of raw energy that flooded through his veins the moment the blast-doors slid open to reveal that well-oiled machine. He felt the full-body tension that had his nerves taut and humming begin to sync with his ship, as though the might of the vessel was a mechanized shell that augmented his feeble human form.
Hux stepped inside only far enough to allow the doors to slide shut, and he paused there to admire his bridge. He watched his presence register on several faces, receiving a cursory nod from one helmsman. It was not a lack of respect, but testament to the fact that his crew knew that he belonged here, that his return was expected and his figure on the bridge a natural extension of the Finalizer.
And if Hux was that, then Edrison Peavey and his lapdog Abel Doban were pockmarks, tumors that had yet to be excised. Hux’s eyes had found them last, standing at the far side of the command walk like a two-headed relic of the old Empire. Of Brendol Hux’s inglorious days.
Leaving Peavey in control of the Finalizer always rankled, but the man was next in the chain of command and to replace him without clear reason would have been senseless. The only satisfaction to be had by following this established hierarchy was when Hux returned and was able to strip that control away again.
“Captain Peavey,” Hux intoned, pleased that Peavey had been so immersed in his hushed conversation with Lieutenant Doban that he hadn’t seen his commanding officer approach.
Peavey stiffened, stopped speaking abruptly as he turned to face Hux. The captain’s pasty cheek twitched as he saluted, blue eyes flicking to Hux’s cap and back to his face, pointedly not meeting Hux’s gaze. It was a subtle mark of disrespect that Peavey had always employed, as though Hux was too distasteful to acknowledge on such a human level.
The title sent a thrum of relief through Hux’s bones. “I trust all is well with my ship? he asked. It was petty, Hux knew; he’d glanced over Peavey’s shift report, but he craved the satisfaction of reminding his father’s old comrade that the Finalizer was Hux’s command.
“Of course, Sir,” Peavey answered stiffly. He turned, hands behind his back at parade rest, and gazed out the viewport. “I trust you enjoyed your holiday?”
Doban had a sudden need to clear his throat, beady eyes squinting shut. Hux turned a stare so full of ice on the lieutenant that the faux coughing fit became a natural one that forced him to excuse himself and turn away. Only then did Hux look at Peavey, by way of his reflection in the transparisteel. He waited until he saw Peavey’s reflection glance furtively to Hux’s own in the lingering silence, then he spoke.
“I would like you to begin preparations for moving on the Corellian shipyards,” he told the captain.
This captured Peavey’s full attention, and he rounded on Hux, school-yard bullying tactics forgotten. “The Cor….” he began, but he was too well-trained to question Hux’s order’s in front of the crew. That adherence to decorum, at least, was something noteworthy in his character.
“We must seize this moment,” Hux continued. “The galaxy is in a state of limbo after the destruction of its Republic infrastructure. We must help the remaining systems move forward into the future.”
The corner of Peavey’s lips twitched up, though Hux did not think there was anything inspired in the ghost of a smile. “Rightly so, Sir. Does the Supreme Leader share this vision?”
Hux’s vision darkened with rage, and he heard the ceramic scrape as he ground his teeth. “Do you need his stamp of approval on my orders, Captain?” Hux growled, nostrils flaring. “Perhaps you would like me to inform Ren that you require him to personally brief you on his motives?”
Peavey turned an unhealthy shade of white. “No, General. That will not be necessary.” He studied Hux, swallowing, and then took a step closer. Hux forced himself not to visibly recoil.
“If I may say so,” Peavey went on, voice just above a whisper and a shade of conspiratorial that Hux did not care for. “There are...some...among the officers’ corps that question whether Kylo Ren is the right man to have at the helm.”
Hux watched Peavey’s eyes flick very pointedly to Hux’s rank cylinders, and Hux suppressed a snort. If the captain thought Hux would be taken in by this charade, he was a bigger fool than he seemed. And if that was so, this bumbling effort at subterfuge might offer an opportunity to see what was festering below the surface of Hux’s command.
“That sounds remarkably like treason,” Hux mused quietly, keeping the venom from his tone, forcing himself to search Peavey’s blue eyes as though he were intrigued.
Peavey’s expression was carefully neutral as he drew away to his full height. “Of course not, Sir.”
Hux regarded him silently for a moment, mirroring his posture. Then he said, slowly, “Of course not.”
Peavey looked relieved. “Will you be remaining on the bridge to supervise the remainder of beta shift?” Beside him, Lieutenant Doban had recovered from his coughing fit, and was now looking a bit wan. He had not, perhaps, intended to become visibly complicit in whatever plot was possibly forming against the Supreme Leader.
“No,” Hux told him. It seemed that Peavey, having not been immediately ordered to his execution for fostering mutinous thoughts, had summoned the ability to be magnanimous. “I believe you have things well in hand,” Hux went on, smoothing out an invisible crease in his greatcoat. He flashed Peavey a false smile when their eyes met again. “I do need to debrief Lord Ren on the outcome of my...holiday.”
Hux lingered in the captain’s presence only long enough to see him blanch, then he spun sharply on his heel and crossed the bridge again.
Neither stims nor the high of being better at someone else’s game was quite enough to ward away the agony in his shoulder, exacerbated foolishly by standing with his hands clasped behind his back, and Hux retreated to his office with alacrity. He would let Peavey think he was meeting with Ren, when the person he truly wanted to talk to was Opan—the man who was Hux's eyes and ears in dark places.
A thin sheen of sweat had broken out on Hux’s forehead by the time he sank into the chair behind his desk. He keyed in a summons to Opan and then unlocked the cabinet near his right knee, taking out the depleted bottle of Hestian blue. He poured a measure, thinking of the way he’d served both the doomed Ensign Adat and his bereaved father from this same bottle, and imagined the sharp bite of the liquor to taste like power.
He tossed back the first glass before settling in behind his computer to sip the next one. He scrolled through a series of reports on the progress being made toward repairing the Supremacy, soon to be his flag ship, and then perused his electronic mail for anything of interest. He found his mind wandering rather quickly, however, thoughts dragging him back to that auspicious moment aboard the shuttle when he’d stepped in front of that weapon.
He drained the glass of vodka to drown that image, and had his hand on the bottle to pour another when the door chime dinged softly. He pressed the button to release the lock, and Opan entered. The man was habitually silent, rarely speaking unless spoken to, and he paused now before Hux’s desk, back straight and eyes forward.
“At ease,” Hux said, though Opan’s interpretation of that was minimal. He merely shifted into parade-rest while his eyes remained locked on the far wall.
Hux stood, only touching the tips of his fingers to the desk for balance. He moved around it then, so that it was not between he and Opan; while having a barrier between oneself and a proven killer would seem to be an advantage, Hux liked to be close enough to look Opan in the eyes, in case the gleam of fanatical devotion ever went out of them.
Hux leaned back against the desk, thighs pressed into the edge of the surface. “Did you learn anything upon removing the body from the shuttle?” he asked. There had not been much time for in-depth analysis, but Hux’s pet assassin was resourceful.
Opan nodded shortly, little more than an upward tilt of his chin. “The creature is Yuuzhan Vong. Almost surely working for someone outside its kin group.”
“You know this how?”
“Yuuzhan Vong abhor mechanical technology,” Opan explained. “This one was carrying a gun. It was likely an exile.”
Hux began to cross his arms, but winced when his shoulder muscles pulled taut. “Do we know anyone in the habit of employing this species?”
Opan looked at Hux for the first time, and for a moment Hux thought he’d found something, as the look on Opan’s face was one of concern. But then the other man’s gaze was searching Hux’s person, scanning his stooped outline, and Hux realized that Opan had not missed his wince of pain.
“Do you require assistance, sir?”
Hux straightened his arm, flexing his gloved fingers. “It’s nothing,” he said.
Opan looked as convinced as Ren had earlier, but unlike Ren, he did not argue the point. “As you say, sir."
Hux offered him a thin smile, appreciative of the deference. “On another topic, how closely have you been watching Peavey lately?”
“More closely than he would prefer, I’m sure,” Opan said, with what passed for a smirk on his dour face. “There is much...doubt, when it comes to Kylo Ren’s efficacy as a leader.”
“Well-placed,” Hux barked. “But still treason.”
Opan’s eyebrows both lifted minutely in surprise. “Is this a rebellion you wish to support discreetly?”
Yes . Every fiber of the disadvantaged cadet who had clawed his way to power through sheer, vicious opportunism screamed for Hux to step aside and let the pack of wild dogs have Kylo Ren, to finally rid Hux of the one impediment to true power.
“No,” he said. “Not yet. Men that would turn on one leader will turn on any.”
Opan turned to face him then. “Wise words, General.”
Hux grimaced. “Nothing I’ve done recently has been wise, which worries me.”
“Sir?” Opan cocked his head.
“Nevermind,” Hux said, straightening. He laid a hand on Opan’s shoulder, squeezed it in a parting gesture. “I will look for your report at the end of the next cycle.”
Opan nodded, content to dismiss what Hux compelled him to dismiss. “If that will be all, General?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
His oldest associate left him, then, and Hux remained resting against the desk. The alcohol and the stims were a noxious froth in his stomach, and he was light-headed. He would, indeed, have to report to the medcenter, and sooner rather than later.
Men that would turn on one leader will turn on any.
Was he simply being overly cautious to refuse to support this possible insurgency? Chronically distrusting? Logical?
Or was Hux stepping in front of another gun aimed at Ren?
“Again, General,” LN3 said, the words programmed to mimic human inflection in a way that came across, in Hux’s opinion, as somewhat merciless, more like a drill-sergeant than a medical droid.
One tidy result of an artificial intelligence as a physical therapist was that any plea for leniency would not be met with empathy, were Hux the type to appeal to it. LN3’s face was a landscape of metal ridges and sensors, her single eye a dark lens that regarded him without a hint of compassion.
“How much longer must we keep up with this nonsense?” Hux asked, dutifully flattening his palms against the wall and leaning forward. He knew the exercises were anything but nonsense, especially as he felt the muscles pull uncomfortably between his injured shoulder and his spine as he let his weight shift forward. Sweat broke out anew on his forehead as he held the position while the droid counted the seconds silently.
“If you wish to regain full range of motion, General,” she said, possessing the ability to speak and count concurrently, “you will comply with standard rehabilitation procedure for three to six weekly cycles.”
Hux grunted, biting down on the inside of his bottom lip. Bacta did well enough at mending and regrowing tissue, but neurological mapping was another matter. He flexed the fingers of his right hand and his nails made a grating squeal on the metal surface beneath his palm. What he would not give to rewind time and remain rooted to the floor of that shuttle, to have let Ren take that plasma bolt to the chest , right where he deserved it.
“That’s good, General,” LN3 said now, her three-digit hands coming to rest on Hux’s solar plexus and back in order to guide him back into a relaxed posture. Hux resisted the urge to shake off the touch. The droid withdrew promptly, however, once he’d regained his balance.
“We will resume tomorrow at 2400 hours,” LN3 stated. “Do you require anti-inflammatories?”
She always asked this after a session. “No,” Hux told her. “I have what I need here.”
The spiral lens around her single eye widened with a whir, as though she were judging his compliance with self-care following her departure. There were items on that list such as “relax” and “rest” that were almost anathema to Hux, especially since Snoke’s death had transformed Hux’s nerves into live wires. It was a constant, buzzing energy and alertness, a poise before danger that Ren’s unpredictable presence aboard the Finalizer only made worse.
“I’m fine,” he snapped at the droid.
LN3’s response was a low trill that felt admonishing. “Very well, General. I will see you tomorrow.”
She didn’t wait for a dismissal, high-strung as she was, and Hux watched her take her bag and march across his quarters to let herself out of the door without another word. There was a decided advantage to her particular skill set, despite what the human medical professionals insisted was an inferior manner. They’d counseled Hux after his bacta treatments that he should visit the medical wing three times weekly for these therapy sessions, saying that a human touch and compassion were essential for the ‘whole-person’ healing process.
That was garbage, in Hux’s opinion, and he much preferred not to be making frequent, visible trips to and from the med facilities, which would only invite questions from the crew. Questions which would undoubtedly lodge in the brains of men like Peavey, where they would find fertile soil to germinate into ammunition against him.
Peavey. It had been a week since that fumbling attempt on the bridge to seduce Hux into playing the fool and setting himself in direct opposition to the Supreme Leader. It still made Hux feel as though he’d stepped in something foul he couldn’t scrub off, a stench he was sure Ren would smell the moment they saw one another again.
Lifting the bottom hem of his black tank-top, Hux peeled it over his torso and tugged it over his head. He mopped the sweat from his brow with the hem and then tossed the shirt in the laundry chute on the way to his desk. Sinking down into the chair, he woke his data station, seeing that in the space of his forty-five minute PT session, he’d received thirty-seven messages. He afforded them only a cursory glance, finding nothing that stood out, and then keyed in his security code to bring up the observation feed for the bridge.
He cast the feed to the holoprojector mounted on the ceiling of his quarters, and it splashed a three-dimensional view into the center of the table. Hux stood, crossing to the kitchenette and taking a bottled water from the conservator while glancing over his shoulder at the display.
He left the conservator door propped open on his hip, spilling chilled air over his heated skin. These PT sessions were far more work than they should have been, and called attention to the fact that Hux had let slide certain aspects of strength training. Luckily for Ren, it seemed, his dexterity still had a well-honed edge.
Hux’s lip curled as he uncapped his bottle of water. He’d neither seen nor heard from Ren in more than a week, which proved the bastard felt entitled to use Hux as a human shield when necessary and harbored not a shred of gratitude. Hux wasn’t sure what he was expecting, truly. A promotion? A medal?
A karking bouquet of flowers?
He drank his water while glaring at the holoprojection of the Finalizer’s bridge. Peavy’s image was the size of the bottle in Hux’s hand, and Hux was struck with an uncomfortable reminder of the cycle not long past when Snoke had ripped Hux’s feet out from under him and dragged him across the floor in front of his men. He tried to imagine doing the same to Peavey, even tightened his fingers around the plastic bottle in his hand to hear it creak under the strain, but Hux couldn’t shake the personal sense of humiliation that accompanied that memory.
He tongued the back of one of his front teeth, feeling the hairline crack that he’d come away with that day. He kept meaning to see to it, but he’d worked so hard to push that moment on the bridge to the back of his mind that the injury only occurred to him when the memory surfaced unbidden.
It was but one in a tapestry of wounds that had followed Kylo’s assent to Snoke’s throne. Still standing in the chill of the open conservator door, thin vapor clinging to the skin of his back, Hux pressed the side of the cold water bottle to his neck. The bruises from Kylo’s fingers have faded, now, but he carries them like a scar still, having to practice far too much self-control to avert anxiety over simplicities like tolerating the high collar of his uniform.
He’d gone for an x-ray analysis between Crait and the trip to Nar Shaddaa to assess the difficulty he’d had taking a full breath of air, and was actually relieved to find he’d cracked a rib being tossed against the console on the command shuttle. Had it not been that, the only explanation would have been nerves, and if he was fraying that completely, Hux would have to question his own fitness for duty.
And now he was undergoing secret physical therapy sessions with a droid in his private quarters, with the hope that the damage to his body from the plasma bolt wasn’t permanent.
Hux stepped out of the gaping conservator door and nudged it closed with his foot. He found himself deliberately relaxing his jaw, flexing it, and added grinding his teeth to the mental list of Kylo Ren’s health hazards. He set his water bottle on the counter in favor of the bottle of brandy in his liquor cabinet.
Perhaps alcoholism was next, he thought, taking down a snifter and pouring a measure. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d drunk more than once a week in years, and yet he needed two hands to count the days since Snoke had been displaced. He tried to summon the will power to care, but his entire body felt like one taut cord of tension, and he knew of no other way to relax that was available in short order--methods of self-care and stress relief were not topics covered in the academy.
Hux frowned, capping the bottle of brandy and pushing it away on the counter, telling himself he would have only this one drink, then take a hot shower and try to sleep. It had been more elusive than usual, and plagued with dark dreams when it did come--dreams of a red planet, of a cavern full of shadows. He’d woken with a splitting headache more mornings than not for the past week, eyes dry and gritty like he’d been holding them open in a strong, dust-laden wind.
Easing himself back into the chair at his desk, Hux took a sip of his brandy and was about to turn off the holoprojection when it flickered, the colors separating and undulating in static waves as a chime sounded from his com station. Hux’s brow furrowed; this was his private line, and few people had clearance for it, none of whom he was expecting to hear from presently. Briefly, he entertained the idea that it might be Ren, but when the computer unscrambled and displayed the identity code of the caller, Hux sighed.
A tap of one key wiped the holodisplay of the bridge away, and when Hux accepted the call, that image was replaced by a smug visage he’d not thought to see again for some time. He left the video feed off on his own end, allowing only his voice to carry to the caller.
“Katamon,” Hux intoned darkly. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Katamon’s lips quirked, showing Hux that his tone made it clear that the surprise was indeed not pleasant at all. “General. Our recent visit was such a treat. Although I was sorry with how we left things.”
Hux frowned, unsure how to respond. Accepting Katamon’s apology for his garish story at dinner meant acknowledging that it had made him uncomfortable, and that felt too much like squirming on the end of a hook.
“It’s only cause for sorrow if we didn’t come to an understanding,” he said instead. “I trust that you will provide the materials I requested.”
The image of Katamon was seated, his upper body visible; he must have been looking into the lens of his own relay camera, but because Hux’s camera was off, the crime lord seemed to stare past Hux, into the distance.
“You will have the materials, General. Although I do have one, small request of my own.”
Hux swirled the brandy in his glass, the fumes of the sweet liquor wafting up to his nose. “I’m on the edge of my seat,” he said with equal parts boredom and indignation.
“I am hoping that you might return my associate to me. I am willing to compensate you for your...inconvenience.”
“Your…” Hux began, but then it struck him- the niggling suspicion he’d had since leaving Nar Shaddaa. “The Yuuzhan Vong assassin. You sent it.”
Katamon’s eyebrows pinched together over his nose, lips turned down, and Hux knew him well enough to recognize surprise as it flickered across his face. Hux frowned, thinking that he might have guessed incorrectly.
“Assassin?” Katamon said. “I think not. Xu Shai had a particular mission, admittedly at my behest, but dealing death was not a part of that.”
Hux was silent for a moment, sipping his brandy. He should be angry, but something about watching the arrogant Black Sun leader shift uncomfortably in his seat stirred satisfaction in his gut instead. He'd never seen Katamon present himself as anything but completely in control.
“It seems there was some miscommunication between yourself and this...Xu Shai,” Hux said at last, leaning back in his chair and crossing one knee over the other. He rested the snifter in his lap, tapping his fingers on the rim. “I can assure you that blaster was set to kill.”
Katamon’s chest rose and fell with a deep breath. “Then either he is dead, or in your interrogation chamber wishing he were.”
Hux shrugged one shoulder, then reminded himself that Katamon couldn’t see him. “My bodyguard is good at what he does.”
Now Katamon leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers over his chest and smiling broadly. “Bodyguard. You realize you’ve a spy in your midst, do you not?”
Hux’s brow furrowed. “A spy?” He felt a tingle of fear, immediately beginning to picture his recent conversation with Peavey on the bridge. Katamon had touched a raw nerve, but Hux would not show him that. “I think not,” he said. “I vet my associates thoroughly.”
This time, Katamon laughed--it was a bright, self-satisfied sound that made Hux’s blood simmer. Hux exhaled a measured breath through his nose, began to catalog what special operations team would be most efficient at rooting Katamon out and dragging him to the Finalizer to become personally acquainted with their interrogation facilities.
“I’m not sure how much of a student you are of galactic history,” Katamon went on, “but as you know, it’s a bit of a hobby of mine. That boy in your employ, the one who calls himself Shmi...is not who you think he is.”
Hux’s mind ground to a halt, troop dispositions and ordnance tallies forgotten. “Is he not?” he managed to ask, nose tingling in an effort not to laugh.
Katamon’s eyes narrowed, and Hux thought he’d not masked his humor well enough.
“No,” he told Hux. “He is Ben Solo, last scion of the Skywalker family, who disappeared years ago and was presumed dead. It seems that was a ruse, and now he has infiltrated your Order.”
Hux drained his snifter of brandy, leaned forward and set the empty glass heavily on the table. He’d not thought to bring up with Kylo what preempted his decision to abandon the mask and cowl that had concealed his identity; the practical reasons why he’d worn it in the first place made sense, however. Being the only child of Leia Organa, displaced princess and rebel leader, his loyalty to the First Order could easily have fallen under scrutiny. As it appeared to have done in this case.
“And so…” Hux mused aloud. “You thought to endear yourself to me by ridding me of this spy?” It didn’t fit Katamon’s character; at the very least, the crime lord would have found some way to use it against him.
"Hardly," Katamon said, confirming Hux's suspicions. "I thought he would make an excellent addition to my collection of galactic memorabilia. I don't suppose I could convince you to part with him rather than kill him? I had planned to encase him in carbonite and use it as a conversation piece. He'd spill none of your secrets that way."
Even through the grainy, blue-tinted holotransmission, Hux could see an almost fevered gleam in Katamon's eyes, and he suddenly wondered at just how that other 'galactic memorabilia' in his headquarters on Nar Shaddaa had come into his possession. Visualizing Ren as a coffee table did, however, fill him with a dark glee.
"How would you propose to apprehend him this time?" Hux asked. "Since your Yuuzhan Vong agent has sadly expired."
"Unfortunate. There are others. Perhaps you would care to join me on Taxus-5 for a brief stay, and bring him along. Then leave him there. I believe we would both win."
And here Hux was, yet again, being handed an opportunity to rid himself of Kylo Ren with the aid of someone whose resources rivaled those of the First Order. The primal, emotional part of him screamed at him to do it, even if it was a calculable risk; Ren could very well sense the deception. Hux still wasn't sure if he believed Ren did not skim his thoughts at will, despite his assurances otherwise.
The logical mind that ruled Hux cautioned him, told him that he needed to be careful, more so than Katamon seemed capable if he took into consideration the rather lax attempt that had resulted in Hux being confined to physical therapy in his quarters with an impertinent droid.
Hux inhaled deeply, flooding with disappointment. "I'm afraid he would not appreciate that," he told Katamon.
"Of course he wouldn't," Katamon said, reaching off camera and then bringing a small device into the picture, laying it on the table in front of him.
Hux leaned closer, squinting at it, then chewing his inner cheek in renewed deliberation when he realized what it was. It was a remote sensor jammer, a piece of technology that was favored on smuggling ships and an advanced model that Katamon was rumored to have commissioned. Possession of such a device had been at the top of Hux’s wish list for years, as its dissection could push the First Order’s experimentation with cloaking into its next phase. It was impossibly valuable and heavily guarded technology.
"I suddenly have the feeling that after being encased in carbonite, Ben Solo's stint as a conversation piece in your salon would be short-lived. Did you intend to sell him back to his mother when he started to gather dust?"
To his credit, Katamon's face betrayed nothing, if there was anything to betray. "I'm disappointed to hear that you don't trust me, General."
Hux scoffed. "After taking a blaster bolt to the shoulder to protect the Supreme Leader of the First Order, I'm not inclined to trust--neither you nor the fools you employ who cannot distinguish between stun setting and fully armed." His voice had risen in pitch by the end, his anger at the violation of his person and his dignity slipping through--before this moment, he'd had nothing corporeal to focus that ire on. The would-be assassin was dead, and all that had been left was speculation.
It thrilled him to watch Katamon's expression go through several permutations, cl early caught off guard.
"I was under the impression after we spoke that your Supreme Leader was dead," Katamon hedged, seeming to have chosen to pretend he did not grasp Hux's insinuation.
Hux did not respond for a moment, standing and crossing to the kitchenette instead, snifter in hand. He replenished his drink, took a healthy swallow, then turned back to face the holoprojection. He was now looking at the image of Katamon from behind, which was nothing more than a two-dimensional, featureless outline.
"Snoke is, indeed, dead," Hux said at last, smirking when he saw Katamon's image flicker as he turned his head, tracking the way Hux's voice sounded more distant. "But Kylo Ren is not. And, as I said, I believe he would very much not appreciate me handing him over to you to encase in carbonite as Jabba the Hutt once did to Ren's father. The irony would not sit well, I daresay."
Katamon said nothing, and his image was still; he'd overplayed his hand, and he knew it. Hux had him in a very elegant cage, exactly where he'd always wanted him, and only needed to close the door and bar it.
"In exchange for that jammer, I am willing not to reveal to the Supreme Leader who was behind the attempt on his life, and I will continue to hold my tongue so long as our arrangement is beneficial to me."
"You're bluffing." Katamon's image wavered again, the outline of a hand reaching off camera once more.
"Am I?" Hux droned, crossing back to his desk. "I'll give you a few cycles to consult your history texts and mull it over."
Before Katamon could respond, Hux touched his com screen and ended the call. Then he took the snifter of brandy with him to the refresher and into the shower, letting hot water and alcohol soothe the ache in his shoulder as surely as his conversation with Katamon had assuaged his spirit.
The tension that had kept him wound so tightly since returning to the Finalizer had finally begun to unspool by the time he stepped out of the shower. The glass he'd taken in with him was on the recessed ledge beside his hair products, now a third full with water from the spray. Hux left it there, as much from creeping lassitude as determination not to refill it with brandy. He refused to become Brendol, drowning the stresses of command with liquor only to have to face the same trials the next morning with a hangover.
His fingers were pruned with puffy, white ridges that were almost painful against the rough fabric of the standard issue towel he used to scrub himself dry, and his eyelids felt heavy. As he slipped on his robe, luxuriating in the slide of the expensive silk against his shower-warmed skin, he thought that perhaps he might finally be able to get a decent night's sleep.
The com panel buzzed again in the main cabin as Hux was tying the robe, and he frowned at the way the interruption had come on the tail end of that thought, as though the universe was reminding him that there was no rest for the weary. He considered ignoring it, but it was followed seconds later by the double-chime of his door, telling him that someone was there.
Sighing, Hux padded out of the refresher, still toweling his hair absently as he crossed to the com station, resigned to checking that message while ignoring whoever was waiting, uninvited, outside his quarters. He smirked when he saw that the message was from Katamon, suggesting they talk before any 'potentially unwanted decisions' were made, and the Black Sun leader even offered to come to him. The memory stirred of being seated on Snoke's throne, gazing out over the audience chamber at the supplicants and subjects who would would come to seek his favor as emperor.
He closed the message without replying, content to let Katamon marinate in the morass of his poor decisions.
The door chime beeped again, and Hux blew out another irritated sigh as he tapped a key to bring up the corridor security feed. He expected a junior officer on some mundane mission to approve this or that, sent by Peavey out of "courtesy," when the only true purpose of this was to irritate Hux.
He was not expecting it to be Kylo Ren, as though he'd been summoned by invoking his name aloud.
Hux hesitated, fingers hovering just shy of touching the monitor. The camera angle showed the side of Kylo's head as he faced the door, and Hux wondered if he even knew Hux was in the room. Perhaps Hux could just wait him out, even if it did feel a bit beneath him, like hiding under a rock and waiting for the predator to pass.
Kylo turned his head then, looking up, scanning the corridor ceiling and finding the camera--it was preternatural, because the lens was tiny, inconspicuous. Ren’s eyes found Hux’s and fixed him with an impatient stare, and Hux’s fingers darted forward to brush the monitor, hitting the key that controlled the lock. He jerked his hand away immediately, skin peppered with goose-flesh, unsure whether that impulse had been his own.
The door slid open and the Supreme Leader stepped inside. He was dressed in something Hux hadn’t seen before--form fitting trousers and long sleeved black shirt with leather patching at the elbows and wrists. It all clung obscenely to his torso, leaving few details of his shape to the imagination, the only distractions the low-slung belt from which his lightsaber hung and the thick cloak that had replaced his ratty cowl.
Hux very starkly realized that he himself was wearing nothing but the floor-length silk robe that he’d donned after his shower. It was even damp at the neck where it brushed his hair. His feet were bare, toes just peeking from beneath the hem.
“What do you want?” Hux snapped, forcing himself not to shift around the desk to put it between them. Nevertheless, he kept his fingers pressed to the durasteel surface of the table to keep them steady. His robe was little better than standing in front of the Supreme Leader, in front of Kylo karking Ren, completely naked.
The door closed behind Kylo with a soft hiss, but Kylo said nothing. Dark eyes moved down Hux’s figure, his face expressionless beyond the way his lips were slightly parted. Hux felt his skin heat, the flush crawling from his cheeks, down his neck and to his chest. He couldn’t stop the memory from pushing itself to the forefront of his mind of Kylo’s hands on his bare his skin; it was coupled with the pain of the blaster wound, a vague sense of violation, and something else that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
“You’re interrupting my sleep cycle,” Hux said. His throat was dry, and the words did not sound quite as acerbic as he’d intended them.
The effect, nonetheless, was that Kylo wrenched his eyes back to Hux’s face. He was paler than usual, wan almost, as though he’d slept just as poorly this past week as Hux.
“I came to inform you that I’m going to those coordinates we found. Where the planet, S9-02...to see if there’s anything there.” He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of one gloved hand across his mouth.
The thought of the Supreme Leader getting his hands on anything Snoke had left on that planet blasted Hux’s diffidence away, and he pulled his hand away from the desk and took a step toward Kylo.
"You will do nothing of the sort," he hissed.
Kylo blinked, gaze flicking back down Hux's body before he turned his face deliberately toward the floor. He was fiddling with the edge of his lightsaber, running his thumb over the grooves in the metal grip.
"We need to know what information or technology might be stored there," he argued. "You know that."
The tension headache that had only just faded sprang to life again behind Hux's eyes. "And whatever is there belongs to me," he snapped. "There would be no S9-02 on your karking radar without the information that my agent found."
Ren gave him a dark look. "It's not a contest, Hux."
"Isn't it?" Hux barked, squeezing one hand into a fist and forcing himself to relax it immediately. He took a steadying breath, trying to speak without sounding shrill. "It has always been a contest between us."
Ren took several steps forward, slow, like he was trying not to spook the prey he was about to pounce. Hux stood his ground until Ren was but a hands-breadth away, so close that Hux could feel Ren's body heat radiating through the scant silk covering Hux's body.
"It is no contest, Hux," Ren repeated, voice low, "because you cannot best me, and you know it. The First Order is mine. Its armies are mine. You are mine. And every advantage you claim for this regime belongs to me, foremost."
Hux's fingers twitched, and he imagined his nails digging into Kylo's eyes. He projected that image, hoping Kylo felt it burning in the air between them.
"And you will what," Hux snarled, "use me as you see fit? Let me do the work so that you can reap the rewards?" He leaned closer so that Ren could feel the heat of his breath against his cheek. "Or perhaps it fuels some dark need of yours to have your hands around my neck."
Ren jerked away, and Hux caught the way his pale cheeks were slightly flushed before the Supreme Leader turned his back on him.
"Are you healing well?" Ren mumbled gruffly, reaching out to absently brush his fingers over Hux's desk.
The question inflamed Hux even more. "That you would venture to ask me that is testament to your inability to attach action to consequence."
Ren said nothing for a moment, picking up the end of a disconnected cable lying on the desk, twisting it between his fingers so that the head rotated clumsily. "I reviewed the medical report following your last visit."
Hux felt like someone had poured ice-water down his spine, the feeling of violation skyrocketing. "Get out," he hissed.
"The cracked rib, the difficulty swallowing..." Ren went on as though he hadn't heard Hux. "I caused that."
"Do you make a habit of analyzing my medical records? Ironic, since you yourself are a health hazard. If you..."
"It won't happen again," Ren interrupted him, looking over his shoulder. His brow was furrowed, and if anything, he looked earnest. "I won't touch you again."
Hux's lips parted, but his mind had gone blank, synapses failing to find an appropriate response to this unpredicted circumstance. They stared at one another, Hux flushed, and the silence between them was heavy. Did Ren think this changed something? Was this genuine remorse speaking, or a ploy to make Hux into something more manageable?
"Did you know Katamon intended to capture you and freeze you in carbonite?" Hux blurted. He'd meant to mock Ren with it to repay him for the uncomfortable feeling in his gut, but he only sounded like an indignant child, tattling on someone.
Ren's eyes narrowed, and he seemed to take a moment to switch gears. When he did, he turned around again to face Hux. Now it was he with a steadying hand on Hux's desk.
"He..." Ren began, then shook his head. "Carbonite?"
Hux took the change in topic as a chance to escape Ren's orbit, and he walked across the room to sink down onto the couch, its pale blue fabric the only color in the apartment.
"Carbonite. He commed me just before you arrived to offer to buy you...to buy Ben Solo ...from me for the price of a revolutionary piece of technology and the courtesy of informing me I had a rebel spy in my midst."
Ren was quiet, his face blank. Hux shifted on the couch, tucking himself against the arm rest and propping his elbow on it. Stars , he needed a cigarra. He'd expected something more from Ren upon hearing this--rage, foremost. Not silence.
"And what did you tell him?" Ren asked at last.
Hux shrugged his shoulder, wincing at the spike of pain. He saw Ren notice, saw his forehead crease again.
"I told him that Ben Solo is none-other than the mighty Kylo Ren, and that I would accept his offered price for the favor of not telling you that he'd hired an incompetent Yuuzhan Vong bagman to capture you."
"And yet you've just told me."
"I'm curious," Hux said, drumming his fingers on the arm of the couch. "What would you do about it?"
Ren reached out and spun Hux's desk chair around slowly until if faced him, then he sank into it. His posture was tense, hunched forward with his hands on his knees, fingers flexing and relaxing as he thought. It struck Hux then how right Katamon had been about the way Ren carried himself--like a cat poised to spring.
Finally, Ren met his eyes again. "Let him think you have kept his secret. Continue to do so, and let him feel that he owes you."
Hux was surprised. "You don't wish to target his base with every gun in our arsenal?"
Ren frowned at him, but let the jab slide. "That would be a loss of a valuable resource. Equal parts gratitude and fear is a convenient stranglehold."
Hux held Ren's eyes, trying to glean whether there was any double entendre in those words.
"Perhaps I will do that, then," Hux said at last, refusing to admit more directly that it had been the plan he'd intended, even if actually telling Ren had not been a part of it.
"How did he know who I...was?" Kylo asked.
Hux smirked. "He's a historian, Ren. He recognized your face. I assume the tales of your background as my loyal enforcer held some grain of truth?"
Kylo's nose colored, and he rubbed his fingers over the bridge, pinching it. "Are you going with me to S9-02, or are you going to stay behind on the ship and feel cheated?"
Hux blinked. "Go with you?"
Kylo regarded him silently, waiting.
"Traveling with you seems to have significant risks," Hux muttered, but Ren had him caught quite neatly. Either Hux could concede the point that every resource Hux unearthed belonged to Ren, or he could take the chance to claim it beside him. If that was indeed what he was offering.
"Significant risks," Ren echoed, "and your chance to share power.” Then Ren cast him a self-satisfied smile, as if he already knew Hux's answer.
Now we are here. The reason I started writing this fic.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Ren had come to inform Hux that he was on his way to explore S9-02, he had not been suggesting that this would take place next cycle; he'd meant right then, at that very moment, and it lent credence to the suspicion Hux held that Ren had never intended to invite him.
It meant that the opportunity Hux might have had to spend a relaxing evening in his quarters gloating over his victorious confrontation with Katamon and picturing Ren frozen in carbonite had to be abandoned for another time. It also meant that, with little to no effort, Ren had pushed him into a position that forced him to scramble in his wake; he had to dress hurriedly, forgoing the static rituals that always preceded emerging from his den, regardless of the time or the purpose. With nothing but an impulsive snap of his fingers, Kylo Ren had inverted Hux's carefully ordered world. Again.
The corridors of the ship were deserted as he strode toward the lifts; at this hour, most of the crew was asleep, and Hux was grateful for it. Despite the fact that he'd donned a fresh uniform with boots polished to a gleam and had only recently stepped from the shower, he felt unkempt. The farther he got from his quarters, the more his confidence waned, the vacuum it left being quickly filled by disgust at himself for once again putting himself on the Supreme Leader's side, and, moreso, horror at himself for ever allowing Kylo into his rooms in the state of undress Hux had been in.
He pushed the thoughts forcefully away, concentrating on putting one foot before the other and the rhythmic click of his boot heels on the corridor floor, on the way the overhead track lighting flared and faded in the polished leather as he passed beneath it. Kylo had presumably passed this way fifteen minutes before, knowing that Hux would trail behind him like a kath hound on a leash.
It was an accurate assessment, when he was dangling this sort of carrot in front of Hux.
The hangar deck was similarly quiet on gamma shift, the bustle and din of routine maintenance and repairs curtailed until alpha hours, and yet the ship was never truly offline. The skeleton crew that moved about refueling, cleaning, running diagnostics, and keeping watch were like the faint pulse at the neck of his great machine, and it soothed something in Hux's soul.
He passed a trooper standing at attention and nodded in return when he was acknowledged with a sharp salute. He realized belatedly as he passed that he'd forgotten his cap in his haste to made it to the ship before Kylo departed, and Hux cursed under his breath as he mentally added another concession of his personal standards to the Supreme Leader's haphazard whims.
The sleek, dark shape of Ren's Upsilon shuttle couching on the deck with the entry ramp open like a gaping maw felt appropriate in the moment, but Hux did not hesitate to climb the gangway into the shadowed interior. He was equal parts trepidation and curiosity in regard to whatever awaited them at the coordinates Twim Zel had uncovered, but more than anything, he couldn't shake the desire to simply get this over with. Whatever it was, it felt primarily like another hurdle in the enervating gauntlet he was being forced to run to stay neck and neck with Ren, and he couldn't afford to fall behind lest Hux miss his chance to snatch power away from him.
The moment that thought crossed his mind, Hux's step faltered in the shadow of the ship's underbelly. He'd already had that chance, and more than once. Ren seemed to possess a degree of carelessness around Hux, perhaps borne of a well-ingrained propensity to underestimate his unwelcome co-commander, but Hux had started to suspect that perhaps Ren was starting to trust him. The concept should be elating, like watching a long elusive and pesky rodent finally lured into a trap, but it made him uneasy.
Absently rubbing his shoulder, Hux drifted ghost-like through the shuttle, looking for Ren. Built to house up to six officers and twelve or more troops, the empty hold managed to feel cavernous compared to the rife tension that had filled it in the wake of their failure on Crait. Ren's failure. Hux had done his damnedest to yank Ren away from his petty familial spat, and as he approached the bridge of the shuttle and found Ren there, he was reminded of the way the Supreme Leader had responded to Hux's voice in his ear. Just that once.
Hux's skin warmed, recalling the rush of power he'd felt, even if only for a moment. It was something he could very easily get used to.
"Ren," Hux said into the silence, stopping just inside the forward command station at the nose of the ship. Ren was facing the shielded transparisteel as though he, too, was remembering that day.
Hux's acknowledgement broke whatever trance Ren had been in, and the Supreme Leader turned to regard him over his shoulder with a critical glance that seemed to take in the entirety of Hux's appearance. Hux was reminded uncomfortably of the embarrassing encounter in his quarters less than an hour before, and suddenly felt clothed in nothing more than his robe again. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, when Ren's eyes snapped to his with a frown.
"Do you have everything you need to care for your wound?" Ren asked.
Hux gaped at him, caught entirely off-guard by the question, but then bristled with indignation. "I'm quite capable of judging what measures I need to take in regard to my own health, Ren."
The Supreme Leader snorted softly. "It was over a full cycle before you went to the medical wing after we returned from Nar Shaddaa."
"You never explained what gave you the impression that you had any right to access my medical records, nor monitor what I do with my free time," Hux said, glaring.
Ren's gaze was unflinching, which seemed a testament to the fact that he felt no chagrin. "I did mention that the First Order, and by extension you , belong to me."
Hux inhaled sharply through his nose and was considered exiting the ship in an abrupt and insubordinate about-face, when he caught the way that Ren's lips were curved in a one-sided, impish smile. He knew this was a discordant string with Hux, and was pulling it just to get a rise out of him.
"You're like a child with a shiny, new toy," Hux chided. "Trying to see how long it takes you to tear it up."
Ren had already turned away as though disinterested in Hux's response, and spoke over his shoulder as he lowered himself into the pilot's chair. "You're hardly shiny, or new."
A flush suffused Hux's pale skin, and he was thankful that Ren didn't see it. Crossing to the co-pilot station, Hux sat with the most dignity he could muster; he was burning with a strange sense of humiliation despite the fact that Ren's words were puerile nonsense.
"To answer your question," Hux said, not because he felt Ren deserved an answer, but because it was a convenient bit of redirection. "I will be fine, as long as I don't miss my next PT session." These last words held a touch of dryness as he thought of the dressing down he would get from LN3.
"That droid is a bit of a slave driver, isn't she?" Ren responded, fingers flicking over buttons that set a low hum running through the ship. Beyond the view port, the Upsilon's running lights shone on the durasteel deck.
"Is there anything you don't know about my personal business?" Hux snapped. "Would you perhaps prefer it if I kept a log of every time I take a piss and hand deliver it in the morning before my shift?"
Ren ignored this, touching a screen to his left and bringing up a star chart that distracted Hux from his mounting feeling of exposure. "It's a six hour flight, one way," Ren said.
Hux sat forward in his chair, peering hard at the map. The route took them deep into the Unknown Region, named landmarks trickling away toward the edge of the chart, becoming merely numbers as was the planet they had set course for. "Six hours? You couldn't have picked a shuttle with accommodations instead?" Anywhere at all, actually, to get away from one another.
Ren looked at him sidelong as he engaged the throttle, lifting the ship into the air. "This one has more guns," he said.
Despite himself, a huff of laughter escaped Hux's throat, and that was only mildly more startling then the way his amusement made Ren smile. As though making Hux laugh had been the point. Hux swallowed his amusement quickly, turning his head to face forward, concentrating on the sight of the deck drifting past rather than the way Ren's smile made him look almost boyish, like someone that hadn't always been a monster.
"I didn't think you were capable of laughter," Ren said, voice low.
"Oh I am," Hux assured him. "I just prefer to keep it behind your back." He waited a full beat before glancing at Ren, only to find his attention had turned to piloting the ship through the atmospheric shield. The reflection in the view port, however, was still smiling.
There was blessedly no more repartee afterward, both of them settling into a silence that for once didn't feel bloated with clashing agendas. It was strange, nonetheless, to realize that for the second time since Snoke's death, Hux and Ren were working in tandem toward a common goal, even if what came after remains nebulous.
Hux watched the stars stream past the ship for what seemed like hours, trying to picture the planet they are hurtling toward and sorting through the possibilities that could be planted there. Snoke was still, in many ways, a mystery to Hux. It was no secret that Snoke had at least peripherally had a hand in Hux's advancement, and meeting the Supreme Leader and being asked to present his ideas had felt like finally being called to the front of class to deliver his manifesto.
Snoke had asked him, that first day, whether he had it in him not only to build his machine, but to fire it. Hux had not hesitated in his answer.
It had driven Hux mad, in the ensuing years, to be forced to vie for Snoke's favor with a deck that was always stacked against him. In retrospect, it all seemed so futile; if what they'd learned about Snoke's past was relevant in the time Hux had known him, then the First Order—Starkiller, the destruction of the Hosnian system—might all have been nothing more than an opportunity to test a new weapon. For Snoke add a new implement of war to his catalog.
Hux turned his head to glance at Ren; was Snoke's erstwhile apprentice just another example of Snoke's meddling with power? Twim Zel had shown them evidence that Snoke had been at this game for millennia; he'd surely been a master of manipulation with foresight that spanned generations. And yet he'd finally underestimated someone.
Hux couldn't help wishing that it had been him, not Ren, that had taken Snoke down. What a rich sort of blood that would have been to have on his hands.
"Did you catch him by surprise?" Hux asked into the silence.
Ren looked away from the same tunnel of stars that Hux had been watching and searched Hux's face quizzically. "Snoke?"
Hux nodded once. "Was it a contest? Or did he trust you enough to turn his back on you?"
Kylo's face darkened, and he looked away again. "He was too blinded by his own hubris," he said. "And thought so little of me that I did not even register as a potential threat."
It surprised Hux to hear Kylo admit that. "And what? You killed him to prove him wrong?"
"Partly," Ren admitted, leaning forward to flip a switch on the control dash, cycling the overhead lights off and leaving the cabin illuminated only by the glow from flight control. It was like Ren only wanted to admit truths from the shadows. "You told me on Nar Shaddaa that you understood how it feels...how being devalued festers. He thought no better of you, no matter what you might tell yourself."
Hux's jaw tensed, but there was no real argument; with Snoke's demise, there was no more appeal to the sort of posturing their former rivalry had engendered. There was no more outside approval to be earned, accolades to receive, advancement to be granted. It was a dangerous dance of tolerance now, waiting to see if the scales would balance between them before one of them ended up dead.
"You said partly ," Hux said. "Why else kill your master?"
"Why did you kill your father?"
There were so many answers to that question, and all of them intrinsically and deeply personal. Few of the reasons for conspiring to assassinate Brendol were anything other than spiteful, and Hux had never felt the need to convince himself otherwise. There was one, overarching truth, however.
“I had no desire to continue standing in his shadow.”
Ren offered Hux a brief glance, lifting one dark brow. "And now you have only to find your way out of mine."
Hux couldn't tell if Ren was serious, but the statement seemed to hang between them, tempting Hux to deny that he wanted Ren out of his way. Hux could no longer even tell himself that convincingly, for he'd saved Ren's life a few short cycles ago and seemed determined to come between the Supreme Leader and whatever dangers lurked in the wings. Hux wondered whether Ren truly considered him a potential threat, or if Ren would some day trade places with Snoke in underestimating him long enough for Hux to leave him lying dead on the floor with his face frozen in a rictus of surprise.
"Why did you really invite me along?" Hux asked. "To leave my corpse behind and blame it on whatever we find out there?"
Ren rolled his eyes and exhaled. "If I wanted you dead, I could execute you on the bridge of your own ship and no one would challenge me."
Hux's brow furrowed, lips turning down. "I would not be so blindly confident in the power of fear in securing your rule," he snapped. "Worthwhile soldiers follow leaders who are competent and do not waste the lives of those that serve beneath them."
"And yet they followed Snoke," Ren argued.
"They follow me, " Hux insisted, though the moment the words passed his lips, he knew there was only a grain of truth to it. Many of his officers—the older regime who had served with his father—despised him and would love to see him gone, no matter how competent he was.
The look Ren leveled him with suggested that he knew what Hux was thinking, but for once, Ren did not goad him with it. "Very little has changed," he said instead. "On the surface. Very few actually ever saw Snoke. They saw me. His enforcer. The mystery persists over his death. For all the common soldiers know, I overthrew Snoke, and because you are still alive, despite the well-established antipathy between us, perhaps they believe you had a hand in the Supreme Leader's demise—that you were working in collusion with me to take over the First Order. If they believe me powerful enough to take down Snoke, then why wouldn't they fear me? And how is that to either of our disadvantage?"
Hux stared at Ren, mind working to parse his logic while at the same time realizing that these were, perhaps, the most words that Ren had ever spoken to him at one time. There was something at the core of those words, though, that lodged under Hux's skin.
"You imply that I am not safe outside your shadow," Hux said, meaning to give the words the force of spite, but hearing them come out quietly. "And that you have ensured that."
Ren shrugged one shoulder, mouth set in a pensive frown that made Hux think he didn't quite agree with Hux's choice of words. "It wasn't a conscious decision," he said. "Just the way the dice fell."
"The way the karking dice fell ," Hux mimicked, curling his hand tightly around the armrest of his seat. "Have you ever made a conscious decision in your life? Or do you just blow wherever the wind takes you and look back later to see what's been destroyed in your wake?"
Ren's heretofore calm demeanor evaporated suddenly; he lurched to his feet, and it took everything Hux had to steel himself, not to flinch. He expected Ren to stalk toward him, wrap his fingers around his neck, but Ren remained rigid, hand clenched in a fist at his side.
"I can assure you, letting you live is a conscious decision I've contemplated very thoroughly," he said, voice low.
Then two long steps took the Supreme Leader to the door of the pilot's station, where he paused only long enough to give Hux a glare that seemed in no uncertain terms to imply that he was still contemplating it, before he disappeared into the shadowed corridor beyond.
Only then did Hux register the low tremble running through his body, like the burst of dark energy that Ren's quicksilver mood had let loose in the cabin had not all been pulled from the room in his wake. Hux was left wondering on which side of that decision to let him live Ren was hovering; how narrow was the knife blade that Hux was walking now and just how far did he have left to push Ren?
Hux pressed the fingertips of both hands against his eyelids, pushed hard enough to see stars before dragging them up and through his hair. The webbing between his fingers caught at the strands and tugged, sending dull pain sparking across his skull. This game with Ren was fast becoming less a match of holochess and more like a round of roulette, only Hux was the only one holding a slugthrower.
The real question was, if Ren did not firmly want him dead, why? What did he want?
Sighing, Hux slumped back in his seat, tugging his greatcoat more firmly around him to ward away the chill of deep space. The star map on the Upsilon's control dash showed the gradual progress they made along their six hour journey to S9-02, and whatever answers Ren had insisted lay there.
He must have drifted off, having been robbed of his sleep cycle by Ren's earlier incursion into his quarters; when he blinked his eyes open again, the red dot on the map had shifted a noticeable distance, and Hux's neck and shoulder muscles were stiff.
He sat up, trying to rub life back into his upper arms as he glanced to the pilot's chair. It was still empty, no sign of Ren, and it opened a well of anxiety in Hux's chest that made no sense except that the vastness of space somehow felt more enveloping. And this was Ren's ship, the only shield between himself and the cold vacuum, and without Ren's presence it suddenly felt more like a tomb.
Hux pushed himself to his feet, needing to move in order to shake off this existential nonsense trying to force its way into his head. Another glance at the star map told him they still had less than an hour to go, and he turned to leave the cabin in search of Ren only to stop short. Ren was there, in the doorway, leaning against the frame with one shoulder and his arms crossed over his chest. For some reason, the way his eyes met Hux's led Hux to believe that he'd been standing there for some time, watching, and it made the hair on the back of Hux's neck stand up.
"We're almost there," Hux said, unnecessarily. Ren was facing the star map, and undoubtedly knew that. Surely that was what he'd been watching.
The unwavering stare Hux received in return made him flex his hand out of habit, predecessor to the quick flick of his wrist that would piston the mono-molecular blade into his palm. He thought he saw Ren's eyebrow lift infinitesimally.
"These answers you spoke of," Hux blurted suddenly, needing to fill the heavy silence. "You said they are not to the questions we are asking..."
"That you are asking," Ren interjected.
Hux took a deep breath through his nose, clenched his teeth and then relaxed his jaw slowly as he exhaled. "What are we going to find there?" he asked.
Ren said nothing for a moment, and Hux thought he was on the verge of revealing something when Ren suddenly straightened and crossed the small cabin to the pilot's chair again, shrugging one shoulder as he walked. Rather than sink down into the chair, Ren sat against the armrest, long legs stretched out into the center walkway, forcing Hux to turn again to face him.
“If what Twim Zel suggested has any substance to it,” Hux went on, “then there could be data banks with information connecting Snoke to the major manufacturing conglomerates that hold these patents she showed us. And after how long Snoke has apparently been active, who knows what’s out there that she didn’t find?”
"Plenty, I imagine," Ren said.
Hux frowned. "Have you given any thought whatsoever to what we'll do with this information? Or whatever else we find? The best case scenario for the financial future of the Order is if we can somehow transfer ownership of Snoke’s non-liquid assets to someone that knows what to do with them.”
Ren did raise his eyebrow this time. “You mean yourself, I assume.”
“Twim Zel could easily alter records to make it appear as though Snoke had passed down his holdings,” Hux argued, not even attempting to convince Ren that becoming Snoke’s financial heir on behalf of the First Order was not his goal.
“It would make more sense that his apprentice inherited his empire,” Ren countered. “Not the general he humiliated in front of his entire bridge crew.”
Hux felt the color drain out of his face. “So you invited me along as a punching bag,” he said tonelessly. “I might have known there was nothing else to it.”
To Hux’s surprise, Ren’s face twisted in what appeared to be a wince of regret.
“That’s not all there was…” Ren began, then stopped and took a deep breath through his nose just as Hux had moments before. “That is not why I suggested you come with me,” he finished.
“Then why?” Hux demanded, crossing his arms.
Ren’s posture remained open, and he even leaned back a bit on his perch, hands gripping the armrest at both sides. “You’re less dangerous when I keep you close,” he said.
Color slowly filled Hux’s cheeks again—not a blush, but a heated pleasure at being referred to as a danger by, perhaps, the most dangerous man in the galaxy. He was mollified enough in the moment by Ren’s admission that he didn’t feel the need to object that he was not equally as deadly up close.
Thinking of Ren’s particular powers brought Hux to another possibility. “If transferring assets to us so overtly is too messy, can’t you just…” Hux lifted his hand alongside his head and made several circles in the air. “...mind trick the people involved into handing them over? Or allying with the Order?”
Ren’s answer was a snort of laughter. “That’s not how that works. Manipulating a sentient being in that way without tearing their mind apart generally requires that they are either fairly indifferent or that there is a seed already buried in their consciousness that would make the suggestion seem natural. The probability of either scenario being true in this case is negligible.”
“That sounds like a rather useless skill, then,” Hux said. “How often do you encounter people at just the right moment to be mesmerized by your magic?”
“You’d be surprised just how rife the universe is with indifference,” Ren said, a dark edge to his words that Hux could not interpret, but seemed deeply rooted. “I doubt, however, that anyone in the business of making money is not keen on it.”
“Couldn’t you just dress up your suggestion? Make them think that giving you what you want is in their best interest?” Hux’s brow was furrowed as he tried to understand Ren’s convoluted religion.
Ren sighed. “What is or is not in someone’s best interest is too subjective. It might work with a guess, for a short time, but then things would return to normal and they’d remember what they’d done. And how it was wrong.”
Hux’s tongue wet his lips thoughtfully. “Don’t your kind have the ability to just…” he waved his hand now, past his face. “...wipe memories clean?”
Ren dropped his head back on his shoulders with another amused snort, eyes trained on the ceiling for the length of time it took him to sigh. Then he met Hux’s gaze again, and Hux couldn’t tell if Ren thought he was being needled for the sake of Hux’s own dark curiosity or his amusement. Hux was not sure which it was, either, but was surprised that Ren seemed to have an answer for everything.
“I’m flattered you consider me so all-powerful, Hux.” He fixed Hux with a level stare, something dangerous lurking in his dark eyes. “How about I show you, then?” Ren suggested.
“Show me?” Hux repeated, brows pinching over his nose in confusion before he realized what Ren meant. “Try your tricks on me?” The words came out shrill and he backed away a half step without meaning to. The backs of his thighs pressed into the arm of the co-pilot’s seat. “I think I’ve had quite enough of that.”
Ren’s eyes lidded halfway. “You should know what I’m capable of,” he said, shifting his weight off the chair and standing. “And what I’m not.”
Hux’s mouth went dry and he tried to swallow, which made him cough dryly. Every shred of Hux's being screamed at him to say no, not to let this monster get his talons into him, but the architect and the engineer in him wanted to know how it worked. What it felt like, so he could map his defense.
"Fine," he said tightly, recoiling slightly at the look of feline delight on Ren's face. "Tell me what you're going to do, first."
"'Doesn't work like that, Hux," Ren said, and then before Hux could respond, before any ground rules could be laid or requests made, Ren raised his hand into the space between them and Hux felt his spine go cold.
It was like having liquid nitrogen pumped down the curve of his back, being pulsed into his nervous system with every beat of his heart. His teeth felt like they were vibrating, and the muscles of his right shoulder and right arm stiffened, like the liquid nitrogen in his blood was rendering them frozen. Hux's fingers twitched, the tips numbing, and Hux was overwhelmed with the urge to flee. To dive for cover, to turn away. Anything but face Ren.
Ren's expression had gone from amused to something like bewilderment, eyebrows heavy over his narrow gaze. That gaze was unfocused, like Ren was trying to tune into a channel but was unable to find it. Hux was trying to find his voice to demand he be told what was happening to him when Ren curled his fingers in toward his palm where he held it aloft between them—the feeling of cold and tension and numbness drained out of Hux so quickly that his knees almost buckled.
He caught himself on the edge of the seat, only peripherally seeing Ren's hand open again. Hux let go of the seat, reached across the divide between them, and Ren's fingers closed around his hand. The Supreme Leader's palm was warm, the skin calloused, and when Ren applied just the barest pressure, drawing Hux toward him, Hux went.
He'd taken only two steps toward Ren when the stars beyond the viewport abruptly came into focus, the screen filled with the brilliant blue glow of a planet whose orbit they'd just jumped into. Hux had time to register nothing else before the shuttle was suddenly rocked sideways and he was tumbling toward Ren.
"We're being fired on?" Hux shrilled, feeling Ren's arm solidly around his waist, having arrested his fall. Hux jerked upright. "Let me go," he snapped, just as the ship lurched again. Red-gold flames licked across the viewport, and Hux could smell something electric burning from the interior of the ship as he threw himself across the cabin and into his seat.
"There's nothing here," Ren said, helpless confusion in his voice that made Hux's stomach sink.
This was a trap. Twim Zel had been bought, had set them up.
Hux's fingers flew over the diagnostic readouts, trying to assess the damage, to divert resources to get the damned shields up, but nothing was responding. Every warning klaxon and light in the pilot's berth was shrieking, flashing, heralding death.
Ren was shouting something.
"Orbital land mines!"
Hux cursed, jabbing a button to seal off the forward bay as he watched a display show their oxygen venting into space. Orbital landmines. Of course. How had they not thought of that? An entire planet rigged as a death-trap was only marginally worse than treachery.
"Can you blast them?" he yelled at Ren, pulling on the harnesses of his safety straps. He had the presence of mind to be glad that his hands weren't shaking, but only a moment to contemplate it before the ship spun hard to port and continued to roll. Hux felt the tug of gravity from the planet below, saw the heat of burning atmosphere begin to form a cocoon of orange-red over the shuttle.
It was too late. There was nothing they could do.
"I can't slow it down," Ren growled, slamming a hand into one of the shrilling alarms in front of him, shattering the light and cutting off the sound. "Hux. If you can make it to the escape pod, go." He sounded far too calm. Like he'd already accepted his doom.
"There's a karking hole the size of a rathtar in that side of the ship," Hux told him, the revelation punctuated by the sound of screaming metal as the force of their tumbling reentry began to tear that part of the ship away.
Ren's hands were still on the controls, and Hux looked at him frantically, wishing to the gods that he himself had ever chosen to master piloting. He wanted to shout instructions, to do anything , but his fate was in Ren's hands.
And it seemed the game was finally up.
The searing glow of atmosphere faded, blasted away by clouds. Everything was white and gray and for just a moment and felt motionless until they punched through the other side, and there was the surface of S9-02. It was vibrant, dark greens and pale emerald tones, and far, far closer than it should be.
"Ren." Hux breathed. "We're too close." It doesn't matter how you much you slow us down now.
"I know," Ren hissed, and Hux watched him let go of the flight controls.
This was it, then. The culmination of his career, the pinnacle of everything he'd tried to achieve. He would not rule the galaxy, but become dust on a forgotten planet.
His father would have loved that.
Hux breathed out, sat back in his seat, and watched the ground rush forward. The myriad greens began to resolve into trees—a great, towering canopy that sheltered rings upon rings of interlocking pools, all colored by thick algae so vibrant it almost glowed. They hurtled toward the land at the edge of the treeline, and Hux took note of the sodden browns of rotted vegetation that would be his grave.
He closed his eyes, exhaled slowly.
They said that life flashed before one's eyes, just before death, but what Hux saw was only the glittering expanse of space as he'd gazed upon it for the first time through the viewport of the star destroyer that had carried him away from Arkanis. That had been the beginning of his dream. That moment, when he'd looked out at the galaxy sprawled around him at five years old and thought this will be mine.
He held on to that, bracing for impact as the ship shuddered and jolted hard around him. At what felt like the last moment, he opened his eyes to meet death face to face.
What he saw took his over-taxed mind a dragging moment to interpret. The wet vegetation painting the ground was so close that Hux could see the shapes of the leaves, could see the impressions of alien footprints, the carcass of some long-dead, waterlogged creature.
They were below the treeline, and they weren't moving.
All the steel Hux had bound himself up with came loose at the same time, rent apart by confusion, and a tremor began to rattle his bones. He only barely managed to turn his head to look for Ren, wondering if this was limbo and his conscious mind hadn't caught up with the death of his body.
But Ren was there, and surely the Supreme Leader hadn't followed him into the afterlife.
No. Ren was alive. He was statue-still in the pilot's chair, hands turned over on the armrests with palms up. His eyes were closed, face slack.
Only then did Hux notice how the broken, red plasteel from the beacon Ren had smashed was floating, and the locks of Ren's hair fanned out around his face like a dark halo.
Ren had stopped the ship.
Hux's lips parted, breath leaving his lungs in paralytic awe, eyelashes gummed with moisture.
Ren opened his eyes. His fingers trembled, and something let go .
Hux had only long enough to see the ground rushing up one last time before everything went black.
I'm not going to tell you all what Ren was trying to use the Force to make Hux do, which didn't work, versus what did, for a few more chapters. Maybe you'll have some guesses. :)
Pain lets you know you're still alive, boy.
Hux was clinging to only enough fragmented consciousness to remember falling from the sky, skating across the atmosphere and burning, streaking toward a blue-green alien landscape that would have been beautiful if it hadn't been death, dragging him down to swallow him whole.
Each new sensation that seeped in brought with it another flash of memory. A burnt plastic, singed metal smell clogged the air that he managed to draw laboriously into his lungs, and his mind supplied the image of the supernova flash of flammable gases. An explosion rocking the ship. Oxygen venting into space.
The sound of something dripping pinged in his right ear, the intervals regular, liquid striking metal. His ears were over-sensitive from too-abrupt pressure changes and screaming alarms. Ren's fist smashing the beacon.
Red plasteel shards floating in the air like crystals of blood in the vacuum of deep space.
Ren, palms open in supplication, asking the very fabric of the universe to bend to his will, shifting the laws of physics aside and remaking them.
Hux's eyelids fluttered, sticky. Pressure banded across his chest, became a knot just below his sternum. He clawed at himself blindly until he found that point: the round clasp of his safety strap. He closed his fingers around the cold metal as he waited for his senses to come fully online, to feed him the information he needed to make another move.
Everything was at an angle, down facing, and the transparisteel separating him from the alien atmosphere beyond was painted two-tone with brownish black sludge across the lower hemisphere, and cobalt blue sky above. The two worlds -- upper and lower -- were split by a film of water the depth of Hux's forearm. It was murky, but the particulate had settled, suggesting to Hux that he'd not regained consciousness immediately.
Where was Ren?
Hux turned his head toward the pilot's seat and found it empty, the single warning light that remained on in the cabin pulsing weakly overhead and reflecting on the black padding. The safety straps were snug against the backrest, unclasped, and Hux's eyes immediately tracked to the floor.
His stomach lurched, and he fumbled with the clasp at his chest, snapping it open and untangling himself. As he was tugging his right arm loose, pain lanced through his shoulder so sharply that it made his teeth hurt and he gasped, nearly stumbling on the sloped floor.
Clenching his jaw shut against the agony, Hux willed it away and concentrated on keeping his equilibrium as he moved across the space between his chair and Ren’s. He tried to bring up any fragment of memory prior to seeing Ren holding the ship aloft, but he couldn’t picture whether Ren had been strapped in. By the time Hux had crept over to the Supreme Leader’s prone form and knelt at his side, Hux’s chest was burning, tight, and only when he put a hand to Ren’s shoulder and saw him stir did Hux exhale, realizing he’d forgotten to breathe.
Ren was slumped against the flight control panel, one knee bent beneath himself and the other splayed out toward the pilot’s chair, and his right palm was pressed against the body of the ship as though he’d tried to catch himself in a fall. Hux couldn’t see his face, as Ren’s head was limp on his bowed neck, hair shadowing his features, and he was curved in on himself, looking almost boneless; were it not for the way he’d moved his hand when Hux touched him, it would have been easy to think him dead.
“Ren,” Hux prompted, letting go of the Supreme Leader’s shoulder and pressing two fingers against Ren’s pulse point. The heartbeat was slow, but steady. Hux found the underside of Ren’s chin with his thumb and tilted his face up.
Ren’s eyes were slits, the whites showing beneath the long, dark lashes, and there was a trail of dark red blood leaking slowly from his left nostril. Hux was supporting the weight of Ren’s head entirely, and the gravity of that fact hit him suddenly.
Ren was at his mercy . It was the throne room all over again, only this time Hux could take the chance that fate was offering without the moment of hesitancy that had cost him the last opportunity. He didn’t allow himself to rethink the logic of it, let the vicious opportunist in him guide his actions, and the monomolecular blade was in his hand. He had only to sink it into Ren’s throat, and the First Order would be his.
The blood dripping from Ren’s nose slid over the curve of his upper lip and caught in the crease, staining the pallid contour of his mouth. Hux couldn’t look away from it. He should see Ren as weak in this moment, as pitiful and unfortunate and finally out of moves in the game between them, but gazing at the Supreme Leader’s slack face, all Hux could see was the man who had frozen their shuttle at the last moments of a twenty kilometers per second freefall.
Hux. If you can make it to the escape pod, go.
“Damn it,” Hux hissed under his breath. He flexed his wrist, brushed the mechanical sheath of his knife, and heard it retract with a soft click. “Ren,” he said again, clamping his fingers like a vice beneath Ren’s chin and tilting his head back farther. “Open your eyes, Ren.”
The Supreme Leader’s eyelids fluttered and he tried to turn his face away, as though to pull his chin from Hux’s grip. The effort was weak, coming from some place of self-preservation deep in Ren’s brain. Before he could sink farther into unconsciousness, Hux dug the fingernail of his thumb into the soft skin alongside chin and bottom lip, and Ren sucked in a sharp breath through his nose. It was a wet sound as he inhaled blood, and his eyes flew open, wild and disoriented.
Ren’s hand flew to his nose as he jerked his head away, breaking free of Hux’s hold and swiping the backs of his knuckles through the blood, smearing it. Hux watched his tongue dart out and press against his lips, and then Ren held his own hand aloft and looked down on the trace of red scoring it. The sensory details all seemed to register with Ren at once, perhaps flicking on lights in his mind and illuminating recent memories, just as things had happened with Hux moments before.
“You’re bleeding,” Hux told him in a flat voice. “What happened? Did you hit your head?” He reached out impulsively to grip Ren’s face again so he could inspect him from other angles, but Ren batted his hand away.
Hux pursed his lips, but then Ren gingerly pressed his hand to his own head—searching for evidence of trauma, Hux assumed. Ren’s furtive movement stopped suddenly, and with a spark of concern, Hux thought he’d found damage. He was about to reach out again to attempt to force Ren to let him assess the situation, but then Ren dropped his hand and fixed his gaze on Hux.
“I stood up from my seat to…” Ren looked at the empty pilot’s chair as though it would jog his memory, then back to Hux. “...see if you’d lived through the crash. You looked…” His forehead creased, and he didn’t finish the sentence. “I must have passed out,” he said instead.
“Can you stand now?” Hux asked, and the shuttle emphasized the urgency of that question by shifting ominously. The viscous mud encasing the nose of the ship crept up the viewscreen, blotting out more of the weak alien light. He came to his own feet and held his left hand out to Ren.
Ren stared at him, as though the gesture surprised him, and the muscle beside Hux’s eye twitched with impatience; he snapped his thumb and middle finger together sharply. “Move, Ren. I don’t fancy being at the bottom of whatever cesspool you’ve set us down in.”
Ren’s brows drew together, a dark vee over his nose, and with the blood smeared across his mouth, it was a macabre picture. Hux half expected him to bark something about gratitude and life debts, and was surprised when the Supreme Leader only reached up and grasped Hux’s arm. It was a steel grip, and Hux took a breath of relief as he curled his fingers around Ren’s forearm and pulled him up. He had to lean back to balance Ren’s superior weight, and Hux’s left arm was not quite as toned as his dominant side, but even this minor strain on his upper torso made his right shoulder throb. He must have winced, because when Ren was on his feet again, he was studying Hux’s face with something bordering on concern, and he didn’t let go of Hux immediately.
“I’m fine,” Hux said, before Ren could make any unwelcome inquiries.
Ren didn’t look convinced, but released Hux without saying anything. He turned toward the viewport and peered through it, chin tilted up and eyes squinted.
“Do you think you can get her out of here?” Hux asked, sharing Ren’s view. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ren shake his head once.
“Maybe. But without a proper repair yard, she won’t fly.”
“I know that,” Hux said. “But we have no idea where the karking hells we are or what’s out there.” An image flashed through his mind of the corpse of that dead creature, half rotted at the swamp’s edge, its belly an empty cavity. “We’ll need some sort of shelter that isn’t beneath ten feet of sludge.”
Ren’s brow furrowed and he frowned, and Hux found the expression alarming, like Ren knew something Hux didn’t about this planet. He opened his mouth to press Ren for any detail that might have been omitted at the beginning of this ill-fated journey, but the words were shocked out of him by a low rumble that vibrated throughout the entire ship. It felt distinctly non-mechanical, like the way a glass would rattle on a shaking table, and Hux’s eyes tracked upward to the film of water outside the viewport. It was rippling, where before it had been still, and muddy particulate had been disturbed from the swamp bed to swirl toward the surface.
“Something else crashing nearby?” Hux suggested in a hushed voice, but then the ship shuddered again, more violently this time, and the nose lurched down. Hux caught the flight panel with the palm of his hand as the angle of the floor shifted.
“We need to get out of here,” Ren said.
A chill ran down Hux’s spine; there was a tremor of either fear or worry in Ren’s voice, and it was not a tone Hux had ever heard from him. Not even when the shuttle was irrevocably lost, and he’d told Hux to take the escape pod and leave him behind to die.
Had Hux even felt the inspiration to argue, it would have been dispelled by the third deep reverberation to pass through the ship; he felt this one in his bones, and his imagination was rife with potential explanations. Another ship, perhaps—one much larger than Ren’s shuttle—could have followed them here, been destroyed by the unexpected and clever orbital mines, and the broken remnants of it that were too large to burn up in the atmosphere were blasting into the surface of the planet like smoldering hail.
Hux shoved his hand into an inner pocket of his greatcoat, tugging free his data pad. The floor vibrated again, and this time he could hear it in the compromised durasteel frame. He took a deep breath through his nose as he coaxed the flash drive out of its slot on the side of the data pad, scanning the flight control dash for the right panel.
He startled badly when Ren’s fingers closed around his arm, just above his elbow, and the data pad slipped out of his hand. It landed hard, screen down, and went skittering across the sloped floor.
“Damn it, Ren,” Hux hissed. “I need to…”
“You need to get off this karking shuttle. Now,” Ren insisted, fingers going vice-tight on Hux’s arm and trying to drag him backward.
Hux tried to jerk his elbow out of Ren’s grip, the effort punching a sharp gasp of pain out of his chest when his abused shoulder musculature contracted. Ren let go of him abruptly as though he’d been burned.
“Hux…” he growled, then had to reach out to catch himself on the frame of the pilot’s chair as the shuttle’s nose began to sink deeper into the swamp bed.
Hux slid forward, rather than walked, and planted his palm against the flight board as he drove the flash drive into what he hoped was the correct port.
“We need the navigational data and whatever initial analyses the shuttle managed to record before we went down,” Hux told Ren. “Or we’re going to be trapped here with no escape route.”
Ren said something under his breath and Hux felt himself being jostled aside. “There’s an emergency supply locker in the main hold. Left of the entry ramp…”
“I know where it is,” Hux snapped, seeing Ren’s fingers fly over the navigational computer, trying to work around the critical error message that kept flashing on the screen. Hux wanted to argue, to say that only he knew what data was needed, but this was Ren’s ship. Instead, he started forward to snatch his data pad from the floor, but Ren put his hand out again, blocking his way.
“ Go ,” Ren said. “I’ve got it.”
The shuttle shifted again, and the light began to drain out of the cabin as the mud crept up the cockpit viewport. There was now only a thin ribbon of blue above the murky, unquiet water. This planet was swallowing them whole.
Despite this, Hux couldn’t help delivering parting instructions. “Imagery,” he told Ren. “Any stills or visual recordings that were…”
Ren snapped his head around long enough to look over his shoulder and give Hux a withering stare, and it froze the words in Hux’s throat.
With one final glance at his data pad on the floor, Hux gritted his teeth and whirled about, striding to the door of the pilot’s berth and pressing the release button. With the diagnostic sensors on the shuttle dead or dying, the ship mercifully didn’t read the exterior damage as a threat, and the door opened with a rasp of warped metal. Hux swallowed at the sound, realizing how close they’d come to an integrity failure, with only this single blast door shielding them from the heat of reentry. It was not made to withstand such a necessity, and the fact that they were alive was karking lucky.
Lucky. Hux knew it was more than that. He watched dark water start to seep in through the widening crack of the door as it slid open, and he tried to shake the disgust he felt at the fact that he owed Kylo Ren his life.
The inflow of water increased at an alarming pace, and Hux was moving through the opening before the door had completed its circuit. Fortunately for the work Ren was trying to accomplish with the flight recorder, the door stuck halfway, and the angle of the ship had forced the water to pool against the cockpit bulkhead and the starboard hull.
Directly in the way of the emergency supply lockers.
He could see the alien sky through the ruined hull; it was a gradient that moved from deep blue-green to teals to the yellow of old bone and pale orange where the atmosphere grew thin. There were two moons visible, twins that were smudged on the horizon and fading into the light. Hux surmised it was what passed for morning on this planet, not far past dawn.
Hux hardly had a thought to spare for that fact, however, when faced with the totality of the damage to the ship. The hull looked as though it had been punched through with a fist, the metal curling inward in irregular, twisted sheets that had been scoured silver and black by heat. The starboard wing had been sheared off. Electrical access panels in the ceiling had been blasted open and wiring and ventilation hoses hung loosely like the innards of some great, dark beast.
Ren was wrong. Even with a properly fitted repair yard, this ship was scrap metal. Hux cursed quietly, just as his moment of horrified reverie was shattered by the ship vibrating again, much more noticeably than before. Hux could hear it now, which made it feel all the more critical that they escape it, whatever it was.
They . He was already thinking of this situation as one that necessitated Ren as a partner, and Hux suddenly felt like he was back in the Academy, being thrown into an unbalanced situation that he would be ill-equipped to handle without relying on the strength of someone else. He wanted to rail against that notion, but he had no time for it and absolutely no argument for the fact that he would be dead now had it not been for Kylo Ren’s reviled witchery.
The water Hux waded into almost black, full of silt and puddling over a foot at its deepest point. The supply locker was sealed by a six by two panel that retracted into the wall without protest when Hux pressed the release, and Hux immediately recognized an issue. There were supplies, yes, but nowhere to put them. These were triage materials, intended to keep troopers and flight crew minimally intact until returning to a larger vessel with a medical wing. Whatsmore, the Upsilon was a command vessel, not meant to ferry more than the fourteen elite defense troopers and command crew to and from a campaign staging point, and whoever had designed the emergency requisitions seemed to have done so with the full confidence that its occupants would make it out of hostile situations quickly and relatively unscathed. Certainly not blown open and stranded on an alien world, facing a survival situation.
The next tremor that rocketed through the ship made Hux’s teeth vibrate, and he forced a deep breath into his lungs as he pushed that unknown element outside the ship out of his mind. He cataloged the items in their secure shelving containers and began pocketing the most essential. A compass, a Mylar blanket, water purification tabs, ration bars—there were woefully few of those. The first aid kit was laughable—no more than the width of his two hands splayed side to side, and he didn’t bother to flip it open for inspection. Whatever they had was what they had.
As if to emphasize that point, the shuttle lurched beneath another full-structure vibration, and Hux tipped forward and had to catch himself on the lip of the supply closet. As he did, his gaze tracked down to a small canister at the base of the cubby with the universal label for bio-hazard; it was submerged nearly to the brim in filthy water, but Hux wasn’t interested in its sterility. He crouched, ripped the lid off, and yanked out the heavy duty, orange plastic bag inside.
The ship lurched again and groaned as its stern lifted further from the mire. Hux toppled to the side, striking his head on the frame of the closet. He could feel it start to purple alarmingly fast, but he ignored the pain and pulled himself up, tossing more gear into the water-proof bag and transferring what he’d previously stowed in his coat. In, too, went LED lamps and flashlights, batteries, a radio and a GPS signal locator, parachute cord, duct tape. Every small bottle of hand sanitizer he saw.
The shelving in the supply closet had started to rattle now, and there was a low hum in the air that made the small hairs on the back of Hux’s neck stand up. Sweat ran down his back and soaked the uniform shirt he wore beneath his greatcoat, and the air felt thick, loaded with moisture that seemed to add weight to it. When he had exhausted the cabinet, he took a step back and felt his boot squelch in thick mud, and with an anxious glance at the shredded hull, he saw that the ship had sunk to the point that bottom sediment was starting to seep in with the constantly spilling water.
“Hux,” Ren’s voice came from his opposite side, making Hux jump. Before Hux could turn around to look at him, the Supreme Leader’s hand was on the small of his back, propelling him toward the opening.
Hux tried to pull ahead of him, to escape the feeling of being herded, but the footing was unsteady and becoming more so with every boom that shook the earth outside. His coordination was compromised for a critical space of seconds by trying to tie the bag together tightly enough that it would be leak-proof.
The ragged hole in the side of the ship was below the waterline, edging into the mud, but the lower rim of it still only came to Hux’s chin. It served to highlight how deeply the shuttle was mired, and Hux couldn’t help but consider the fact that while the catastrophic damage to the vessel had brought them down, it was likely the only reason they’d survive now; the entry ramp was buried, and short of C-4, there was no way they would have been able to blow an exfil out through the hull. This really would have been his tomb, locked for all time with the bones of Kylo Ren.
The edge of the blast site was tortured, sharp metal, however, and did not offer a painless escape. Hux ran his fingers over the lip, searching for a smooth handhold, and then began to shrug out of his greatcoat without a second thought, ready to wedge the thick gaberwool over the rim. Before he even had the coat over his shoulders, he found he was looking up at Kylo, who was crouched ankle deep in the mud outside the ship, holding his hands out to Hux.
“Come on,” he growled, and the world around them shook, mud quivering at the lip of the hole and sliding over it into the shuttle.
Hux felt a twinge of indignation, but the air wafting into the ship now carried a sour smell like rotting fish that eclipsed the brackish stench of the swamp, and for the first time Hux allowed himself to imagine that whatever was out there and moving toward them was corporeal. And huge.
Without argument, he tossed the knotted sack of meager supplies through the opening, hoping it was light enough not to sink, and then he grasped Ren above the wrists. The Supreme Leader’s big hands wrapped full around Hux’s forearms and pulled him up; Hux’s boots were too slick to gain purchase on the wall, and he only managed to try to get a tenuous foothold once before Ren simply lifted him out of the ship as though he weighed nothing.
They were both balancing on the narrow lip of the blast site, and Hux had to steady himself with one hand on the edge while Ren seemed preternaturally lithe; he didn’t waver at all when the shuttle tipped farther toward the bow and shuddered violently.
“Follow me,” he told Hux without looking at him, eyes trained directly on the swamp beyond. He didn’t wait for Hux to acknowledge him before he was moving away, stepping far more nimbly than the environment should have allowed.
Hux hesitated for a moment, caught between a fully activated flight response and years of training as a sniper, which dictated a strategy of wait, watch, listen . He scanned the horizon, allowing his eyes just a moment to dart across the landscape while looking for the source of the noise.
They had come down on the very edge of a flat marsh plain, which was pocked with pools of dark green which were vibrant in the sun. A sort of hazy miasma hung over everything, much the way an oil-sheen appeared on the surface of water—the colors were barely discernible, and seemed to reflect the blue and orange of the sky above. Perhaps eight hundred meters away, the marsh was broken by a line of towering trees, their corpulent, lichen covered trunks tapering up to almost jagged points that spread rich green umbrellas over the floor below. The glimmering, almost tangible atmosphere was thicker there, binding with the shadows to obscure whatever lay within that tree line.
The word pounded through Hux’s head, surprising him utterly and tugging at him, making him jolt away from the ship before he realized what he was doing. He caught himself with a foot planted firmly just outside the shuttle, and looked up to see Ren staring at him as though he were trying to light Hux on fire with his gaze.
The ground shook, and Hux saw the oil-sheen on the air quiver, the colors displaced and forming new patterns.
He moved quickly then, shaken out of his strategic analysis of the landscape by the fact that something about it was undesireably alive.
Hux darted along the path Ren had taken, the steps and angles recorded in his photographic memory. He snatched the sack of supplies as he moved past it, meeting resistance that almost pulled him off course until it broke free of the muck with a muted, sucking sound. Hux watched his footing as he ran, sensing with every fiber of his being that falling now was not an option, and as he circumvented the ring of green-capped pools, he saw the algae beginning to break away from the edges with every thundering crash that echoed behind him.
Because whatever it was, it was behind him. Hux could tell that now, out in the open. He knew that if he stopped and turned, he would encounter something from which Kylo Ren’s only recourse seemed to flee. That fact alone thrummed in Hux’s chest with more sinister context then anything he could picture.
Ren waited for him where he’d stopped, no doubt to compel Hux away from the ship with a Force suggestion that had, clearly, been something Hux was keen on complying with. Hux ignored the way Ren’s eyes flicked up and over his shoulder more than once while he closed the distance.
The moment they were within arm’s reach of one another, Ren spun about and started to move again. This time, Hux followed without hesitation, instinct pushing him to trust Ren like they were pack animals bound by the impetus of survival.
The Supreme Leader led them toward the tree line, which itself quivered in the onslaught of booming steps behind them. Fronds of pinnate leaves soughing against one another created an eerie susurrus in what was, Hux realized, an otherwise dead-silent world. His mind raced back along the track they’d just taken, trying to locate the whine of insects, the throaty calls of amphibians or the warble of birds. There was nothing there, as though everything had gone to ground.
Everything but the two trespassers from the stars.
Footing became more precarious—the mud deeper and loam slicker—as they approached the forest, and it became clear as the entire ground came awake with rippling currents and shifting detritus that it was because the trees rose out of water, not earth. They passed beneath the boundary between open sky and arbor murk and plunged increasingly deeper into tepid water that rose alarmingly fast from calves to thighs to waist, until they were wading at what felt like a desperately slow, clumsy gait. Hux’s greatcoat was a massive weight around him, and he struggled to pull it off while still dragging along the bag of supplies that was half floating along beside him. At some point, Ren reached back and took the bag, pulling it firmly toward him and freeing Hux of the burden so that he could shed the coat.
Hux was wound with singular focus, bent on ignoring the way that he felt the weight of a terrible threat on his back, trying to push him face down into the water. Begging him to hide. It was not until he collided with Ren’s back, forced into an abrupt halt, that he realized the sound behind them had stopped.
Ren was breathing heavily, the black shroud of his tunic deflecting humid heat. Hux could hear the moving water in their wake go quiet, the illusory forest floor closing in about them once more, making them a part of the landscape while they stood frozen.
The cessation of the sound behind them, of the footsteps , was almost as disconcerting as their duration had been. Hux told himself that an alien being capable of creating an earth-moving disturbance such as that would have to be impossibly large, and could not have followed them through the tree line without tearing down branches.
Nevertheless, Hux moved his hand out of the water, pressed his knuckles to Ren’s back. Pushed.
Ren didn’t move, anchored there waiting for something. His head was turned just slightly to his left, the one eye Hux could see unfocused. Then, very slowly, Ren turned around.
Hux did not wait for Ren to make a full circuit and put them face to face before he matched Ren’s action, as ready to look upon impending death as he had been at the apex of the shuttle’s descent. He rotated fully, body angled toward the abandoned ship, and he focused through the haze.
He immediately wished he hadn’t.
The creature eclipsing the downed ship was at least forty meters in height, though at the angle he and Ren stood beneath the trees, the head of the beast disappeared over the treetops. It had far too many limbs—great, bowed, steel-gray appendages that would have seemed arachnid if not for the way they were varying lengths and haphazardly arranged.
Then it moved, and Hux realized that some of these limbs, multiple of them, were arms, culminating in three single-jointed, webbed fingers. One of these hands fanned out above the downed shuttle, which was just above half the length of that extremity, and Hux watched as it traced the ruined metal shell with a surprisingly delicate touch.
Hux began to whisper to Ren, to ask him what he thought the beast was doing, but before he even drew enough air into his lungs to speak, Ren’s hand was over his mouth. Hux hadn’t even heard the water stir, or sensed a draft of air as Ren moved. Impulsively, he tried to draw back from Ren’s hold, but he only pressed himself into the unmoving planes of Ren’s form, catching hard fingers in his side just above the hip to stop him from stirring the water in his desire to get away.
Hux’s heart felt loud against his rib-cage as the reality that Ren was trying to convey began to sink in. Not even daring to breathe, nor hearing Ren’s breath behind him, Hux’s auditory senses expanded to take in the distant, chilling sound from the direction of the shuttle.
It oscillated between a high-pitched, electric hum and a basso clicking that was almost outside of human range. The torso of the beast curved downward then, and Hux finally saw its head.
There were no discernible eyes; it looked for all the galaxy as though the multitude of appendages merely culminated in a mass from which emerged undulating antennae and pincers that could easily cleave one of the massive trees surrounding them completely in half. There were smaller sets of those mouth-parts as well, and an ovular, pink orifice split the creature’s visage as it emitted another series of skin-crawling clicks. The face of the beast turned in their direction, and Hux had all but forgotten about escaping Ren’s hold. He barely noticed the way Ren’s fingers had relaxed their bruising grip on his side and curled just slightly around his waist, pressing Hux closer to him as though sharing the same space added to the pall of silence they hid beneath.
Diagonal, gill-like openings flared above the open mouth, antennae straining toward the forest like vines reaching for the light, and Hux stared into the face of it for what felt like ages, waiting for it to take up that irregular, booming stride and come for them. The trees, massive though they were, would offer no protection if it came to that. And Ren...he’d stopped their shuttle, but this…?
Then the creature turned away again, and with an awful shriek like metal tearing, it closed its hand around the shuttle and lifted it out of the swamp as though it were a child’s toy, water spilling from the wounds in the structure. The hull buckled in its grip, and Hux pictured only too easily the way he and Ren would have been crushed within it. Were it not for Ren, Hux might have stayed in the ship, trying to hail someone on the burnt-out communications array.
The alien horror turned away from them, lumbering with a thundering stride into the distance, where it was swallowed by a fog-like haze that made Hux suspect that a great body of water lay that way. Only when the trilling of insects and birds began again, like an orchestra resuming full tempo after a dramatic rest, did Ren release him. Hux felt him sag as he let go, as though a great reserve of energy had dissipated from his body.
Hux looked over his shoulder, the water making no sound as it barely rippled around them. They shared a look, neither of them speaking, and then Ren turned slowly around and began moving through the swamp again. He’d left the sack of supplies floating behind him, a concession to Hux’s ability to carry his own weight or an admission of exhaustion.
Hux stared after Ren for only a moment, watching as he shifted through the water, ghost-like. What sense of direction Ren was using, Hux didn’t know, but he grabbed their supplies again, wiped sweat out of his eyes, and followed.
If they were trading life for life, Ren was now up by one.
Here are a few images that inspired me for S9-02
The adrenaline and waning stimulants that had been sustaining Hux for the past several hours did not bleed gradually out of his system; they washed out suddenly, like something being sucked out of an airlock, and exhaustion rushed in to fill the space.
He missed a step, catching the toe of his boot on something beneath the murky water and losing altitude. The swamp was just above waist-deep, and he splashed into it up to his chest before he got his balance with a wind-milling arm. Muck clung to his chin and Hux ducked his head to swipe it off on the damp sleeve of his ruined uniform.
Memories surfaced of the years he’d spent on Scorix 470, the fledgling First Order Academy’s substitute for the lost training grounds of Arkanis, and a tendril of shame crept up Hux’s spine. He’d had more endurance and sure-footedness in terrain like this as a child.
Had command made him soft?
He fixed his eyes on Ren, who glided through the water with a liquid grace of his own, forging a path through the crust of green algae over its surface. The algae broke apart, shifting aside in noxious clumps, the water rippling in Ren’s wake and creating a path of least resistance for Hux. And Hux trailed after him, floating the bag of supplies along beside him like an obedient servant.
He clenched his teeth at the thought, and a sharp pain lanced through his left temple. Hux forced himself to relax his jaw, to take a measured breath of the humid air through his nose.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Hux asked, deliberately keeping his voice down.
“Away from the crash site,” Ren said without looking back, a heavy emphasis on the word ‘away.’
Hux opened his mouth to demand more detail than that, but after what they’d just seen, Ren’s plan felt completely reasonable. Whatever that creature was, it had looked distinctly aquatic, with gills and tentacular appendages that did not belong on land. It was too big to be submerged in water like this, which made moving deeper into this terrain an optimal response.
The swamp stretched out around them for what felt like hours, the flat, green surface becoming crowded with vegetation the farther in they moved. The massive trees that tapered into the thick overhead canopy now sheltered what Hux began to suspect were smaller versions of themselves—young growth with spindly branches that seemed to twine about one another with the evidence of age. Close to the base of the larger trees, it was evident that the trunks were vertically ribbed, like a giant hand had taken more slender branches and twisted them together to form one, tapered plant. Lichen grew in the ridges, dotted with tiny, greenish-white flowers no bigger than a thumbnail.
Fallen branches, some with leaves still clinging to them and others rotting, littered the sodden landscape, making their progress slow going as they had to pick their path carefully. The underwater surface was uneven, sometimes waist deep, and others rising on thigh level, encouraging a quicker, hopeful pace until suddenly the ground dropped away again, plunging them deeper. This, at least, was one advantage of Ren leading the way, and might have been amusing had Hux been able to put aside concern that he would have to drag an injured Supreme Leader out of this mire on his own.
Having been lulled by their steady pace, moving along on autopilot, Hux almost walked into Ren, who’d paused on an upslope with one hand resting on the trunk of a particularly large tree. Hux stopped several paces behind him, on high alert as he instantly suspected that Ren had picked something up with his Force sensitivity; an image flashed instantly into his mind of that creature with its antennae and the awful, seeking whine-click sound it had made.
Hux stretched his own senses out, scanning the water for evidence of far-off, ground-shuddering footsteps, listening for the crack of breaking trees. There was nothing, though; only the chorus of insects that had filled in the silence for hours now. And just there, the staccato call of a bird.
“What is it?” Hux whispered. His voice sounded raw, reminding him how long it had been since he’d had water.
Ren turned his head just enough that Hux could see his profile, though the Supreme Leader did not look at him.
“I need a minute,” he said.
There was a hint of irritation in Ren’s words, and the unexpected tone prompted Hux to a new awareness. Ren’s shoulders were slumped, but rising and falling with heavy breathing, his hair was soaked with sweat, skin flushed and damp. The hand that he’d pressed to the trunk of the tree quivered until Ren caught him looking at it. He curled the fingers in after that, balancing with the heel of his palm.
It dawned on Hux that Ren was tired. The realization was a bit like seeing a mask pulled away, and the glimpse at something so basic and human in this man made Hux’s skin crawl. Ren made more sense as a concept, not as a person. What would be next? Being forced to acknowledge that Ren needed to eat and sleep just like Hux?
“We need to find some source of fresh water,” Hux told him, just to fill the silence. “No number of purification tabs are going to make this muck safe to drink.”
Ren made a sound low in his throat that might have been acknowledgment. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said, gesturing at the landscape with his free hand.
The admission that Ren truly didn’t know where he was going sparked a mixture of anger and anxiety in Hux’s chest. He should never have come on this fool mission; had he not, Ren would be trapped here, leaving the First Order squarely in Hux’s hands with enough time to cement it against him.
Hux imagined that, briefly—being stranded here, alone, with no direction and no way to call for help. This swamp was stifling in the daylight, and what must it be like in the dark? He pictured Kylo, this human version of him, wandering blindly through this forest, closed in on all sides by pitch black and the disembodied sounds of wildlife. Of stars knew what else that came alive after the sun fell.
A chill rolled down Hux’s spine and settled uncomfortably in his stomach. He put that image out of his mind and pictured the broken shell of the Upsilon just before it had been lifted from the ground by the alien horror that had been drummed up by the crash.
“We entered this forest at more or less a thirty degree angle from the crash site,” Hux guessed, glancing around and considering the landscape. “Assuming that beast came from deep water, it makes sense that we’re moving through wetlands at or below sea level, and only heading marginally away from that sea.”
Kylo was silent for a moment, following Hux’s gaze. He seemed to have finally caught his breath, and was able to take his hand away from the tree and adjust his posture.
“You’re right about the water, I think,” he said. “When the data was transferring from the shuttle’s planetary scan, I could see some of what it caught before we went down.”
Hux thought about the data from the ship for the first time since they’d escaped. “You got my datapad out of there?” he asked, scanning Ren’s person, submerged to the abdomen.
He nodded, bending his arm to tap something at his back beneath the skin-tight tunic. Only then did Hux notice the rectangular imprint beneath the fabric.
“You tucked it in your pants?” Hux asked, too tired to sound truly appalled.
“Where else was I supposed to put it?” Kylo rotated in the water, disturbing the layer of algae and dead plant matter that had filled in the space around him as he’d stood unmoving. He pointed to Hux’s right. “If we’re moving thirtyish degrees away from the crash site now, then that way is ninety. And hopefully higher ground.”
There was the slightest lilt of a question after these last words, and Hux responded with a nod. It was nothing better than an educated guess and hinged on a potentially flawed sense of direction, but what else did they have? Even the compass he’d rescued from the ship wouldn’t have a point of reference that was of value. They had to get out of this swamp. “That would be my guess,” he said. “And I would guess it’s past mid-afternoon.”
Kylo seemed to catch his implication; this place was nowhere to be come nightfall, and it was clear that this was something they both fully agreed on.
The daylight seemed inclined to stretch on interminably, however, and after several more hours slogging through the swamp, the heat had become unbearable. Despite the thick canopy above, the sun filtered through and fell on the water, giving rise to steam that coiled off the surface.
Hux had shed his uniform jacket, tying it around his waist and wearing only the black tank that was his standard undergarment. Even in the dappled light, he could feel the skin on his pale shoulders burning, but the alternative was to boil alive. He imagined that Ren must be dangerously on the verge of a heatstroke, swathed all in form-fitting black that could not possibly breathe.
Hux’s temples were beginning to throb with a dull ache that signaled dehydration, and thinking back to the last thing he’d had to drink brought up the memory of standing before Kylo Ren wearing his robe and holding a glass of bourbon. The image felt murky, the way recollections of events long past always seemed to, and thankfully hadn’t kept the edge of humiliation that he’d felt at the time. Perhaps that was simply due to the life and death situation he found himself in now, which did not leave much room for useless sensitivities.
“I can’t help thinking that Snoke would be viciously amused by this,” Hux said, loudly enough that Ren could hear him several paces ahead.
Ren lost his footing briefly, and when he’d regained it, Hux noticed the water now only came to his hips. The handle tip of his lightsaber glinted in the sunlight, and Hux felt a spark of hope that they were finally coming to the edge of this wasteland. He matched Ren’s steps, finding that the ground was indeed beginning to slope gently upward.
“He did enjoy watching others suffer,” Ren said with a dark tone.
He’d enjoyed it too much , Hux thought, recalling the brutal way he’d died. Suffering made some people weak, cowed and hopeless. For others, it was like a hot fire that forged something angry and deadly and determined not to live a life dictated by outside forces. He and Kylo were alike, in that way.
Hux changed the subject. “If Snoke really did hide something of value here, he picked an excellent location for it. I would say the natural planetary defenses are unparalleled. How many of those things do you think are out there?”
It was a moment before Ren answered as he struggled through the thick, slippery silt below the surface. Another few steps, and the water had receded another few centimeters.
“No idea,” Ren answered, “but…”
Before he could finish his thought, a wail split the air--that same, awful shriek like durasteel being rent apart. Ren froze, his hand moving to his lightsaber out of habit, probably, as the weapon would be useless against a creature that size. He seemed to realize it and left it clipped to his belt as he scanned the forest canopy.
Hux stood still, not even daring to draw a breath as he waited for the beast to do something else to give its location away. That first, bone-chilling call did not seem to have come from the direction they’d fled, but Hux was suddenly afraid they’d gotten turned around in this damnable, trackless swamp and were about to emerge just where they’d started. Right into the maw of that beast.
The call came again, piercing the air and scattering birds from the tree tops. Their flight rained leaves down onto the water below. Distantly, he heard that deep, resonating boom that had accompanied the earlier creature’s steps, and Hux found himself watching the surface of the swamp for evidence of the ground shaking, but there was only stillness.
“It’s far off,” Ren said, the lines of his body visibly relaxing. He dropped his hand away from his lightsaber. “But I think more of this planet is water than we thought.”
The implication of that was obvious enough, and Hux suppressed a shudder. He started walking, not waiting for Ren. He realized once he’d started moving that the bag of supplies he’d been towing along had grown heavier, and he paused after only a few steps to heft the bag out of the water, afraid their meager haul from the shuttle was being consumed by the swamp.
He only found a small tear in the plastic, solving that potential disaster by changing his handhold on the bag, pinching the hole closed before he moved again.
“If you’re wrong about this place,” Hux said, now side by side with Ren, “then things are going to go even farther downhill for us rather rapidly. The concerning alien presence aside, we have four ration bars between us, no fresh water, and no ship.” He realized that his tone made it sound like he was blaming Ren for all of this, and that was, he had to admit, partly unfair, considering Hux himself had tried to pry the rights to explore this planet away from Ren, claiming the intel was his alone. The situation would have gone very differently for him if he’d come here in his own shuttle accompanied by troopers instead of Kylo Ren.
“I’m not wrong,” Ren said.
Hux frowned. “You never are, of course.”
“Only about who I can trust and who is better off dead,” Ren answered in a flat voice.
Hux looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “Why didn’t you leave me on that shuttle?” he asked. “It would have been an easy death to explain to High Command, if you cared about that sort of thing.” Hux knew he didn’t. Ren was an indiscriminate killer.
Ren was picking his way around a partially submerged, fallen tree. The swamp had receded now to knee level, and the landscape had begun to change. Tall grasses sprouted out of the water, greenish-blue leaves serrated and the width of Hux’s thumb. The ground beneath Hux’s feet was more compact, and the forest growth denser, making their path more laborious.
“You almost seem like you want me to try to kill you,” Ren said.
“I always thought Snoke was the only thing holding you back.” Hux found himself genuinely needing an honest answer. Was his death at Ren’s hands just hinged on a dark whim, on the Supreme Leader having a particularly bad day? Or was it Hux himself that was the architect of Ren’s decision?
Ren paused, turning his head to meet Hux’s eyes with a bitter look. “That turned out not to be true, didn’t it?”
Ren stopping forced Hux to do the same. “I suppose not,” he said. Part of him wanted to make a jab at Ren about being disloyal and impulsive, but was for once checked by a sense of self-preservation.
The Supreme Leader’s eyes bored into Hux’s as though he heard this anyway, and Hux tried not to squirm with worry that everything he ever thought was an open book to Ren, who was unarguably deceptive. Although what did it truly matter if Ren skimmed his thoughts? It seemed that something about Kylo had made him unable to hold his tongue from the inception of their co-commandership; Ren already knew everything that crossed Hux’s mind concerning him.
Well. Perhaps not all. Perhaps not some thoughts that Hux held onto for the times he was desperate for quick release, like the image of his own, polished, immaculate boot pressed down on the pale column of Ren’s neck, Ren’s pupils dilated and begging to be punished like he deserved to.
Suddenly far more uncomfortable than he cared for, Hux started moving again, pushing past Ren to trudge through the undergrowth. There was a long pause before he heard Ren following.
When there was finally nothing but solid ground beneath Hux’s feet, he called a stop to their hours-long flight from the crash site. Ren didn’t argue, and actually seemed grateful as he sank to the forest floor and propped himself heavily against the trunk of a tree, long legs stretched out before him.
Hux let the bag of supplies drop from his hand unceremoniously, likewise lowering himself to the ground on legs that were quivering with the strain of their forced march. It was embarrassing to be so out of shape; there was a time when he’d been nothing but lean, wiry muscle, and while he tried to make it to the officer’s gymnasium several times a standard week, there always seemed to be too much to do. Or too great a temptation to relax with a hot shower and a glass of bourbon in his quarters, where he could be blessedly free of demanding subordinates for just a few hours—all the time he ever had to himself—before he took a stim so he could sleep.
The ground itself was carpeted with decaying brown leaves that were slick with mildew and rot, but it wasn’t five feet of vile water so Hux couldn’t bring himself to complain. He sat cross-legged beside their supplies and peeled the hastily tied knot loose. The water that had seeped into the bag had made condensation collect on the inside of the thick orange plastic, and Hux found it coating the contents as well.
Sweat rolled down his nose as he rifled through the bag, pulling out the compass he’d tossed in and the military GPS device that was basically useless without relay satellites in orbit. It was meant for First Order personnel on Order controlled planets, which was, Hux thought, of very limited utility for conquerors. He turned it on with very little hope, and was not surprised to see the blinking red symbol of a satellite with a slash through it. He tossed it away, prepared to leave it lying right where it landed--preservation of natural environments be damned.
“I don’t suppose you can use the Force to locate a source of fresh water,” Hux asked, flicking the compass open. He didn’t look at Ren, not wanting him to realize it was a jest.
“I’m not a divining rod,” Ren answered sourly.
Hux watched the needle on the compass quiver, as though the strongest magnetic pull on the planet was somehow in flux. The thing wouldn’t serve any other purpose than keeping them moving in a straight line, but that was better than nothing.
“I need to look at the data you downloaded from the ship,” Hux informed Ren, glancing up at him.
Ren didn’t move for a moment, his eyes half-closed. His dark hair was lank and soaked with sweat, clinging to his cheeks in a way that made Hux itch. Then Ren swayed forward, peeling his back from the tree trunk and reaching behind him to pull the data pad from beneath the hem of his pants. He had the courtesy to rub the case partly dry against his knee before he held it out to Hux.
Hux frowned, his fingers twitching before he forced himself to reach out and take the device. Who was he kidding with fearing something unsanitary in this situation? He had just spent the better part of the day wading through stagnant water full of noxious algae and decaying plant matter.
Nevertheless, he balanced the datapad on his leg so he’d only have to touch it minimally, and depressed the button to power it up. The hard rubber case and Ren’s sleek tunic seemed to have repelled the water from the more delicate components; it was a military case, meant to protect the tablet in combat, but Hux was nevertheless glad when the screen lit up with the First Order’s hexagon after only seconds. The image itself was comforting, the world it represented like a lifeline to reality.
The tablet automatically tried to connect to the Finalizer’s intranet and displayed an error signal. Hux ignored the device’s request that he check his login credentials and try again, bringing up the storage folder that housed the data Ren had pulled from the shuttle.
He frowned when he saw how minimal that data was, and tried to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of his belly as he opened one of three video files. It was a rotating panoramic view of the solar system they’d arrived in, shot from the camera just below the nose of the cockpit.
Hux played it back twice, frowning. “Did you look at this?” he asked Ren.
“A glance,” Ren said with a strained grunt.
Hux looked up and found Ren tugging at his left boot, trying to free his foot. Hux curled his own toes, his attention called to the once-soft gaberwool sock that felt stiff and abrasive against his skin.
“You know we’re not making camp here,” Hux informed Ren, nodding toward Ren’s half-free boot when Ren looked up.
Ren just grimaced and tugged it off anyway. “There’s nothing out there,” he told Hux, and it took Hux a few seconds to realize he meant the solar system beyond and not the jungle surrounding them.
Hux didn’t reply, because there was nothing to say. Ren was right; there was nothing out there but a single, dead, sand-blasted planet in close orbit to the red dwarf at the center of the system. The two moons Hux had seen before they moved into the forest clung closely to the blue-green and luminous S9-02, the whole of the tiny system bordered by an asteroid field. There were no ships, no lights, no signs of space-faring civilization.
He clicked the next image file and found partially assembled lidar and radar data, marking atmospheric conditions and a limited, three-dimensional snapshot of the surface below. Nothing stood out except the fact that there was nothing—no unnatural features.
Hux stared at the screen, scrolled through several more images and trying to wrap his mind around the situation they were in. ‘Dire’ did not even begin to describe it.
He looked up at Ren again, seeing the Supreme Leader massaging wrinkled, pink toes back to life with both hands.
“If you have any non-mystic suggestions,” Hux said, “I’d love to hear them, because as it stands…” He trailed off, his throat parched and tight with anxiety.
“Look at the images the camera caught right after we broke atmosphere,” Ren said, not looking up.
“I did,” Hux said. “I didn’t see anything.”
Hux bit back a retort which would have been nothing more than him objecting to Ren telling him what to do.
Breathing deeply, feeling fatigue settle in his bones, Hux clicked that file and watched the images play again. They flickered by quickly—shots of cloud-stained landscape, indistinguishable yellow-orange blurs of flame, frames of green and blue and... there .
It took two swipes with a quivering thumb to pause the recording. He reversed the video several seconds and pushed play, only to stop it again as the image showed something he hadn’t noticed the first time. Partially obscured by cloud cover and nestled deep within the forest was a clearing that Hux had dismissed at first, but upon second look realized what Ren had seen in it. The clearing was obviously not a natural feature of the landscape; it was rectangular in shape with clearly defined edges, and though Hux didn’t have a solid reference, his guess was that the space was wide enough to admit a small ship, and for it to be so precisely cut, it must have been walled off or tended to recently in order to hold back the sprawling jungle foliage.
He played the footage back two more times, holding the tablet closer to his face and trying to glean anything else useful, but the only other distinguishable feature was what appeared to be a river that snaked along below the site.
He looked at Ren again and chewed the inside of his lip. “There’s no sure way to know what direction that’s in,” he said. “Since we don’t know where the ship crashed in relation to it, and we don't know where we are now.”
The expression on Ren’s face said the same concern had occurred to him. “I think we do, though,” he said, holding his hand out for the tablet.
Hux actually hesitated to hand it to him, like he might hesitate to give a child something breakable, but when Ren’s eyebrows pinched together, Hux gave it to him.
Ren’s fingers moved over its surface; Hux, impatient to see any clue to their liberation from this nightmare, pushed himself wearily to his feet and moved to crouch beside Ren so he could see. Ren was organizing a set of stills into a folder, dragging them about with one finger into an order that began to make sense to Hux.
“How did you notice this when all you did was glance at it?” Hux asked, incredulous.
“It’s just a puzzle,” Ren said with a shrug, dragging one final image into place and zooming in until they all fit.
What Ren had seen was a pattern in the cloud cover that masked the jungle below. He’d matched it to the orbital radar images that showed a spiraling storm system, the tail end of which lay just over the potential man-made structure that had caught their attention. Hux traced the storm system back through the images in the order Ren had laid them out and found that they were taken at a rapidly decreasing distance as the ship had broken cloud cover and hurtled toward land. The last shot was of the edge of the swamp where the ship had crashed, marked by the animal carcass Hux had seen just before passing out. That site appeared to be more or less beneath the tip of the weather system’s other spiral arm.The swamp itself, visible with the spotty lidar imagery beneath it all as an all encompassing expanse of lowland, stretched on for miles, forking around a sort of peninsula at its center. It bled into a massive body of water in one direction and what looked to be a large lake in the other. Since they'd encountered neither, that appeared to put them more or less at the edge of that elevated formation.
It was as close to a point of reference as they were going to get.
“Impressive, Ren,” Hux muttered, glancing up in time to catch the way Ren was looking at him with something akin to eagerness, like a boy hoping to impress his elder. The Supreme Leader looked away quickly, hiding a smile by pressing the datapad into Hux’s hand.
“You do the math,” he said.
The calculation Hux was able to make was crude, but the radar images and his best guess at how far they'd walked at least allowed for some approximation of geometry. With another fifteen minutes of rest and orientation with the compass, they were picking their way through the dense undergrowth again.
As though heralding the wisdom of following a storm system to their destination, a wind began to pick up, rattling the leaves above in a way that sounded like thousands of tiny metal shards sawing against one another. Perhaps those evidently serrated edges was what kept the forest free of the coastal horror they’d seen earlier.
The wind itself was blessedly cool, and felt as though it was drawn in from the sea. They only caught teasing hints of it this far below the treeline, but it was enough to dry the sweat on Hux’s brow if not the tank-top that clung wetly to the small of his back.
Neither of them spoke, and it felt like they were both holding their proverbial breath for some sign that they were indeed going in the right direction, because if they’d misjudged the images guiding them, they could very well be wandering in this jungle until they starved or died of dehydration. Or worse.
Hux led the way this time with Ren carrying their supplies, an arrangement that they’d fallen silently into as though the use of mathematics to choose their direction had afforded Hux that honor. If honor it was. Every footstep was treacherous, as the ground was riddled with gnarled roots the size of Ren’s arm, a carpet of creeping vines and fallen branches shaken loose from storms like the one that was brewing overhead.
Hux was aching, the soles of his feet raw from walking in damp socks, and the knot on his forehead from hitting it against the emergency supply cabinet on the shuttle was just starting to throb again, reminding him it was there. He was gritting his teeth against telling Ren he had to stop again, not wanting to admit he wasn’t made for this kind of exertion anymore, when he heard something else beneath the wind.
He paused, feeling Ren stop just behind him, close enough to touch.
“Listen,” he said, cocking his head. “Do you hear that?”
After a moment, Ren answered. “Running water,” he said. There was a mix of relief and hope in his voice that echoed in Hux’s chest.
Humans were naturally terrible at discerning direction from sound, but Hux tried anyway, moving forward toward a tangle of greenery that seemed more dense and more vibrant than the rotting jungle they’d been walking through for hours. The closer they got, the more distinct the sound of water became, until a shallow slope dropped away from the tree line to reveal a blessedly clear, emerald green lake.
“Kriffing hells,” Hux breathed, forcing himself to take a good look at the landscape instead of throwing himself immediately into the water. He heard the rustle and thump of Ren dropping the bag he’d been carrying.
The trees stood on the edge of a small beach, anchored to the shore with thick roots that reached into the water like fingers. Hux could see the bed of the lake, made of fine, pale silt and peppered with flat, smooth rocks that had clearly seen the erosion of a current. Indeed, the lake was fed by a stream that meandered away through the trees, roughly in the direction they’d been traveling.
“Is this it?” Hux asked aloud, meaning the river they’d seen bordering their destination.
“Maybe,” Ren said, pushing his way past Hux and stepping around tree roots to reach the edge a tidepool. He knelt, dipped both hands in, and splashed the water over his face. “It’s not salt water.”
Hux let out a shuddering breath and followed Ren down.
They decided to remain there, as the sky was darkening not only with the encroaching storm, but also with the onset of night. The lake’s surface was rippling with the wind as Hux and Ren worked to satisfy their most pressing need, which was fresh drinking water. Purification tabs they had, but they had no drinking vessel.
An assessment of the shoreline had given Hux an idea, and Ren’s lightsaber had easily cut down and bored a hollow in a medium sized tree trunk. Thick and sturdy, the wood was water-tight and more than sufficient. A portion of one purification tab and several super-heated stones from the fire Ren had lit served to boil enough water that Hux felt safe drinking it, and both he and Ren didn’t bother to wait for it to cool completely before scooping it out with cupped palms.
Ren filled the hollow again and levitated more hot stones into it while Hux picked through their supplies for the ration bars he’d rescued.
“If we don’t reach that site soon, we may be forced to hunt,” Hux said, choosing not to imagine the fact that they might reach their destination and find nothing there. He took one of the foil-wrapped bars from the bag and examined it. It was military issue, high-calorie, but they only had four of them. He turned and held it out to Ren. “Here.”
Ren eyed the bar briefly from his perch on the hollowed tree, then returned to watching the water boil. “I’m fine,” he said. “You eat it.”
Hux’s brows drew down and he frowned, still holding his arm out. “Unless I’ve been wrong all this time, you are not a god, and you have to eat just like me. Take it.” Only when Ren looked at him again did Hux realize he’d been speaking in the voice he used to command his troops.
Ren hesitated, searching Hux’s face, and Hux felt his skin begin to heat strangely at the fact that the Supreme Leader actually seemed to be prepared to sacrifice his own chance at a meal to save more of their limited food for Hux. Nothing about that fit with Hux’s understanding of Kylo.
Before Hux could snap at him again, Ren reached out and took the ration bar. He merely settled it on his thigh at the moment, but it was enough to satisfy Hux, who took another from the bag and ripped the wrapping away.
Despite his best intentions, it was hard to force the food down. Hux’s stomach felt knotted, like the hollow of it wasn’t sufficient to hold anything but anxiety. He only belatedly realized what the slight trembling in his hand was when he held the bar up to take a second bite: the stims he’d relied on since the weeks before firing Starkiller to stay awake and alert far beyond human limits had been in his greatcoat. Another few hours and he’d be far worse off than this.
“Fuck me,” Hux muttered, closing the wrapper over the nutrition bar and shoving it back in the bag, replacing it with the mylar blanket. Rather than wait for Ren to ask him what was wrong, Hux got shakily to his feet.
“This ought to keep the rain off,” he told Ren. “Not that we’re ever going to dry out at this rate.” He glanced up at the sky as he shook the mylar out. It crinkled in the wind, and rain drops speckled Hux’s cheeks. He scrubbed them away and winced--his face felt sunburned and raw.
“It’s better than nothing,” Ren said tiredly. He’d removed both boots and had his socks draped over a rock near the fire, which was already hissing and spitting in the rain.
“I suppose,” Hux said, moving toward the base of a huge tree that he’d already marked as a shelter. Its strange, gnarled roots spilled off the rise of land it grew from, making a sort of bowed hollow beneath that was big enough for two people.
Ren appeared at his side as Hux was spreading the Mylar across the root system, and Hux was too tired to snap at him for trying to help. It helped, too, that he didn’t have to pick up the heavy stones that held the blanket in place at the edges.
He was so tired that he stooped and crawled between the roots and out of the rain almost the moment they had the shelter covered. The ground beneath was silt, blessedly soft, and the rise that Hux leaned back against was only marginally uncomfortable. There was a good six inches or so between the top of his head and the base of the root system, and Hux peered out at Ren, who was down on the shore again pulling their supplies together.
Kylo was broader by half than Hux, and didn’t slip between the roots quite as easily, but he managed it, dragging the bag and his boots in behind him. He wedged everything to the side, folding himself in with knees drawn up. There wasn’t enough room for either of them to lay down, but it was dry, and Hux didn’t think they were immediately visible.
They both watched the storm roll in across the lake, the previously calm, sparkling green surface now white-capped and slate dark. Down the beach, Hux could see the trees swaying, leaves and small branches scattering in the wind and blowing across the shore. Thunder cracked overhead with a deep, rolling boom, and the rain made an insistent, metallic drumming on the Mylar above them. Hux found himself staring at the open sky over the lake, hoping in vain for the running lights of a ship, and wishing that he could see the stars.
“You said there were answers here,” Hux told Ren, his voice just loud enough to be heard over the rain. “The only question I want answered is if we’re going to make it off this blasted rock alive.”
Ren was silent for far too long, and Hux glanced over sharply. Ren was staring out at the lake, eyes vacant, like he was seeing something that Hux wasn’t.
“Ren,” he said, snapping his fingers next to the Supreme Leader’s ear.
This jolted Ren back from wherever he’d been, and he looked at Hux, blinking slowly as his eyes focused again. “We will,” he said.
Hux almost asked him to promise it, to ask him how he knew that, but the thought felt like the sort of reassurance a child would need. “I’m never getting on another ship with you,” he said instead.
Ren actually smiled before he looked away again. “Get some rest,” he said. “I’ll take first watch.”
Hux started to object, but a bone-deep weariness responded to the suggestion of sleep so suddenly that the words died on his lips. He just nodded instead, settled back against the wall of earth behind him, and closed his eyes.
He slept fitfully, every boom of thunder jolting him partly back into a panicked consciousness, thinking that another of those unholy creatures was descending on them. In the flash of lightning beneath his eyelids, he saw the flames consuming their shuttle and felt the vertigo of falling from the sky, jerking awake just before he hit the ground. Each time, Ren was beside him, silent and alert, and Hux couldn’t shake the fact that it was comforting, even if he didn’t want it to be.
What woke him the last time was the cessation of the rain, and it took him a moment to remember where he was. Water dripped irregularly on the Mylar above them on and on the leaves of the forest, and the lake lapped gently against the shore beneath a soft wind.
Remarkably, he felt rested, and sat up to stretch his muscles as much as he could in the tight shelter. Glancing over for Ren, he found him missing.
Hux lurched forward, tight panic seizing his chest. If Ren had gone on without him, taken their compass, stranded him…
No. The bag was still there in the corner of the shelter, sealed closed with the knot Ren had tied.
Another look through the root system, and he found Ren. He was standing on the shore of the lake, facing away. Hux watched him, and only after his sluggish brain had had time to spool up did he notice the surface of the water.
Spread across it were scores of phosphorescent orbs, luminous green and bobbing in the waves. At first, Hux thought it was some sort of plant matter stirred up from the storm, but then he saw with growing disquiet that the spacing was too regular. The orbs floated in pairs, blinking on and off together, and Hux realized they were eyes.
He left the shelter, drawing his blaster as he padded quietly down to Ren. Only as Hux got closer in the darkness did he see that he had his lightsaber drawn. It sent a chill down Hux’s spine; anything that Ren felt threatened by out here felt somehow exponentially more dangerous.
Kylo seemed to have heard Hux coming, as he didn’t appear startled when Hux reached his side and paused there.
“They’ve been getting closer for the last few hours,” Ren told him quietly.
“Doing nothing else?” Hux asked, watching the closest set of the glowing, green eyes. They were the size of his palm, and Hux didn’t want to know what they were attached to.
“Mm,” Kylo said. “Just floating there. But clearly sensing us here, which I don’t like.”
“Agreed,” Hux murmured, curling his finger closer to the trigger of his blaster. “There are too many to fight, if it comes to that.”
With a crackling hiss, Kylo’s saber burst to life, the red glow piercing the darkness, and the surface of the lake frothed as whatever creatures were floating out there dove beneath. Ren stood there with the saber burning beside him for a long moment, the red light playing over the rippling water. Finally, he turned it off, and Hux waited with breath held for the lights to reappear. They didn’t.
“I can stay awake,” he told Hux. “You can rest.”
Hux shook his head, even though Ren wasn’t looking at him. “You need to sleep,” he said. “I won’t be able to, anyway.” Not with that on our doorstep .
Ren looked at him. For a moment, Hux thought he was going to argue, but then moonlight shone through scudding clouds and illuminated wan, hollow cheeks and dark eyes smudged with exhaustion.
“Go on,” Hux said, gripping his blaster more tightly and nodding toward their shelter.
Ren drooped, though it took him a moment to give in. “Wake me up if it they come back and this doesn’t scare them off again,” he said at last. Hux caught movement between them, glanced down, and saw Ren holding his lightsaber out. “You know how to use this?”
Hux was frozen by the gesture. Why would Kylo Ren ever let him take his weapon? Was he so confident he could get it back if Hux decided to steal away with it? Or was he sure that Hux wouldn’t run?
Hux wrapped his free hand around the hilt, the metal warm from Kylo’s palm. For a moment, they both held it, and then Kylo smirked and let go.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” he said, then turned and walked back up the beach.
Hux watched him go, the weight of the lightsaber heavier in his hand than it should be, like it was weighed down with some caveat or condition that wasn’t clear to him.
Then Ren disappeared into the shelter, and Hux turned to look out at the lake again. Far off in the distance, he thought he saw something glowing green, and he stroked the pad of his thumb over the saber’s power switch, waiting.
In our previous chapter, Kylo and Hux managed to piece together images taken from their shuttle that gave them a tentative destination—what appeared to be a man-made formation in the middle of the jungle, visible from above. Finally having a bearing, they begin to head west and happen upon a freshwater lake where they decide to spend the night.
The cycles on s9-02 were, indeed, longer than standard shipboard time. Their first day on this forsaken planet had passed with a kind of stealthy momentum; the sun had made its circuit of the sky mostly unchecked as Hux and Ren had single-mindedly dragged themselves through swamp and forest.
The interminable night, however, gave it perspective. That, and the tremendous ache in Hux’s body that did not feel remotely correlated to a typical day’s hike, regardless of the hostile terrain. His thigh muscles and calves burned and the soles of his feet were a mess of tender blisters that made him more angry than they hurt; he couldn’t deny the fact that his stint as a general had indeed made him, quite literally, soft.
None of this was helped by the fact that a nauseating tension had permeated the very fiber of his being and that he had no recourse for it. It was a bone-deep weariness that had none of the lingering effects of endorphins, but rather the opposite—like his body was a machine that had expended the last of its particular fuel source and was now functioning on nothing but fumes and sheer stubbornness.
For the third time since sunrise, Hux slipped his hand into the inner pocket of his uniform jacket, fingers brushing the fraying thread at the seam. The pocket was still empty, as were all the others. He glanced up, down the beach and vaguely in the direction they’d come the day before, and tried to picture where he’d struggled out of his greatcoat. He could see the slim, silver box that held his stim tabs, and was absolutely sure that was where he’d lost them. Not for the first time in the last few hours, his brain fired off a sharp, quickly depleted burst of dopamine, telling him to go after that box, even if it meant backtracking for miles, because he had to have it.
Hux ground his teeth together and tightened his hold on Kylo’s lightsaber so that the flared end of the hilt bit into the meat of his palm. He’d done it more than once, leaving the skin tender and scored with red indentations, but each time it dragged his fraying mind back from the brink. The surprising power he’d let stims claim over him was another thing this planet had called into sharp focus and which might have gone willfully ignored otherwise. He supposed he should be grateful for it, but his dominant feeling at the moment was anger—a live-wire, raw, simmering anger that made him want to kill something with his bare hands.
With a conscious effort, Hux relaxed his hand around the ‘saber and rested it against the knee of his crossed leg. He rotated the hilt slowly, focusing on the way the gray light of the alien dawn slid across the dark metal. He let his mind wander back to Kylo putting the weapon in his hand, telling Hux not to hurt himself in a way that, when played back in Hux’s memory, sounded much more like ‘stay safe.’ Hux wasn’t deluded by such an elevated sense of his own importance to be sure that Kylo needed him to get off this planet, so what other motivation was behind his concern?
Perhaps, Hux thought, Kylo needed someone to feel tethered to. Snoke had filled that role for years, giving Kylo purpose and direction, and since Snoke’s death Kylo had been like a free electron, moving at the whim of outside forces. It made him dangerous and unstable, and perhaps at some level Kylo craved a solid state that he himself couldn’t achieve on his own.
Hux turned his gaze out to the water, teasing out the threads of that possibility in his mind. He felt an undeniable shudder of pleasure along his raw nerve endings at the idea of Kylo Ren as his loyal pet, doing his bidding the way he’d obeyed Snoke so blindly. And for what? After what Hux had seen Kylo do, it appeared that Kylo’s power had far outstripped the former Supreme Leader’s, making Snoke seem like a beast in the shadow of a god. So what had Kylo wanted from Snoke?
And was it something that Hux could offer him?
To wonder was as far as Hux was able to go with that thought at the moment. His temples throbbed, and he assumed that he was probably more than a little dehydrated on top of suffering from stim withdrawal. He was used to eating sparsely as he rarely had an appetite, but now his stomach felt hollow and clenched painfully when he thought of food.
Sighing, Hux slipped off the log he’d been sitting on—the same one Ren had carved out the basin for purifying water farther up the beach. The sand beneath his feet was cool and still damp from the storm the night before, and Hux decided to risk a walk down to the edge of the lake.
He kept Ren’s saber at the ready, scanning the lake’s surface warily for any sign of the luminous green eyes that had appeared the night before. After Ren had left the beach, Hux had only caught a glimpse of them far offshore, and over the next few hours they had slowly blinked out, not to return. Not that he would necessarily have seen anything at a distance—just before dawn, a thick blanket of fog had rolled in and was steadily creeping closer.
Hux tread cautiously down the slight decline of hard-packed sand, avoiding the smattering of rocks and debris until he reached the very edge of the lake. He stopped where sand met water and brushed his thumb over the ‘saber’s ignition switch, considering turning it on just in case. He decided against it, however, lest it summon Ren and make Hux look like a frightened fool.
Another step forward, and the water lapped at his bare toes. It was cooler than Hux expected, given the relative sauna this planet was, but then the morning itself was cool. Clouds still hung overhead, obscuring the sky completely, and visibility was thirty feet at the most in any direction. This little section of beach could have been a microcosm lost in an untethered dimension, and the feeling of being cut off from everything Hux had ever known was stronger in this moment than it had been since landing on this unknown world.
The only sound Hux could hear was the ebb and flow of the water—the susurrus of gentle wavelets as they broke over the sand. While the silence was unnerving, it also instilled at least a modicum of confidence in Hux’s chest that they were not in immediate danger from one of those awful creatures of the sort that had carried the remains of their shuttle away.
Tucking the saber beneath his arm, Hux bent down and rolled up the cuffs of his filthy uniform trousers. He’d like nothing more than to strip completely and scour his clothes and his body both—his pants were stiff with dried swamp muck and the same residue clogged his pores. But such a luxury would have to wait until the potential need to flee on a moment’s notice was not imminent.
Easing farther into the water, letting it lap around his ankles, Hux wondered how deep the lake was, and whether those monstrosities were fresh water creatures. It seemed unlikely, as the aerial images had shown this lake to be surrounded by vegetation which sensibly could be assumed was much like the forest they’d come through the day before—the same forest of serrated leaves the creature had not pursued them into.
Despite following that path of logic to a reasonable conclusion, an image manifested of one of those creatures spreading its tentacles out beneath the surface to grab unwary prey and drag them into the depths. The mere thought made Hux’s pulse jump, fight or flight response urging him to back out of the water.
He took a single step away before movement caught his eye—a dark shape flickering in and out of his peripheral vision on his left side. Hux snapped his head around, jabbing the ignition of Ren’s saber at the same time by reflex.
There was nothing there, but fog bank blanketing the forest floor in that direction had been disturbed—wisps of vapor eddied and stirred as though something had darted across the beach and into the forest.
Ren’s voice pierced the silence behind him and Hux startled, freezing mid-step so suddenly that he nearly lost his footing on the unstable sand. He regained his balance quickly, turning to glare at Ren, standing too close for Hux not to have heard him. It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up to realize how easy it would be for anything to sneak up on them on this spongy terrain.
“Must you sneak around?” Hux asked, keeping his voice low.
Ren ignored the question, holding out his hand, palm up. For a brief moment, Hux didn’t register the meaning of the gesture, and then his sluggish brain made the obvious connection. Powering off the lightsaber, Hux spun it in his hand and offered it to Ren pommel first like a blaster.
“You’ve been out here all night,” Ren observed, eyeing Hux critically. He clipped the ‘saber on his belt. “You could have woken me.”
Hux frowned, glancing down the beach toward the treeline where he’d seen the fog stir.
“I couldn’t have slept anyway,” he told Ren.
When Ren didn’t respond, Hux looked at him again and found that Ren was studying him closely, brows furrowed.
“What?” Hux snapped.
Ren’s lips twitched down at one corner and he looked away, out across the lake. “Did they come back?” he asked. Whatever he’d been thinking—about Hux’s sorry state or otherwise—he chose not to reveal.
Hux swallowed down the irrational flare of anger and the impulse to drag Ren’s thoughts out of him and joined the Supreme Leader in gazing at the water.
“No,” Hux said. “They maintained a token presence for several hours, then withdrew toward dawn.”
He heard Ren snort softly, sounding amused. “You make them sound like an invading army on a battlefield.”
Hux shot Ren a baleful glare. “Well that’s quite nearly what they were last night, isn’t it?”
Ren actually smiled, though he pinched his bottom lip between his teeth like he was trying to hide it.
“Did you manage to get any sleep?” Hux asked, in no mood for humor. If neither of them were rested, it didn’t bode well for their journey.
Ren shrugged, glancing up at the overcast sky just as a low, deep bellow of thunder sounded from far across the lake. A fat raindrop landed on Ren’s cheek and he closed his eyes, letting it roll down his face.
“Not much. Had strange dreams,” he said.
“Something portentous?” Hux pressed flippantly, even though he found himself immediately anticipating the answer.
Rain was beginning to fall with more determination, and Ren turned his face away from the sky and scrubbed his hands across it and back into his wild, knotted hair.
“No,” he said. “Just dreamed we were running from one of those huge creatures, and couldn’t get away. No matter where we hid, it would get in. Even places that were way too small, like my quarters on the Finalizer.”
Hux suppressed a huff of amusement, shielding his eyes from the rain, but finding he didn’t mind it otherwise. It felt clean. “The mighty Kylo Ren has scary nightmares?” he asked.
Ren glanced at him, then down at the sand. “All the time,” he said quietly.
It was Hux’s turn to regard Kylo in pensive silence, hearing that voice in the back of his head that at one time, not so long ago, would have needled Kylo about an admission like that. That voice was weak now, and Hux chalked it up to exhaustion.
“We should break camp,” he told Ren instead, then suddenly recalled the flash of movement he’d seen out of the corner of his eye and the way the fog had been undulating beneath the trees. “Unless you think visibility will improve later.”
“How would I know?” Ren asked, turning back toward their makeshift shelter and walking away.
Hux held his tongue, lingering a moment longer at the water’s edge and scanning the shore again, and then he followed Ren up the beach, snatching his boots and socks as he went. Ren was just disappearing beneath the Mylar-covered root system, and Hux felt a small amount of comfort seeing that he was nearly invisible behind the vegetation. At least these trees could serve as reliable cover in the future, although perhaps disguising the reflective, silver shroud would be advisable.
Hux’s hair was plastered to his head by the rain as he ducked into the shelter as well. He found Ren sitting cross-legged with the plastic bio-hazard bag in the cradle between his thighs. He was sifting through the contents and spoke the moment Hux settled on the sand beside him.
“Water is going to continue being a problem.”
“This whole planet is a problem,” Hux said, watching Kylo open the small first aid kit. “Give me that.”
Ren gave him a curious look but handed the box over without comment. Hux propped it on his knee and began to pick through it.
“Looking for something in particular?” Ren asked.
Hux shot him a look, trying to read his face for any innuendo. “Just taking inventory. Maybe we can use this bag to try to transport fresh water if we can seal the hole.”
Ren studied him and Hux held his gaze; he felt sweat beading on his forehead despite the fact that his skin was clammy. Finally, Ren looked away, attention returning to the bag.
Hux took a deep breath through his nose and turned away, forcing himself to exhale slowly. He’d been through a life and death situation with Ren already, had been shoved into more than one inescapable corner where he’d had no choice but to let to Ren save his skin, but for some reason having the Supreme Leader see that Hux was struggling with the bad side of a chemical addiction felt like advertising the worst sort of weakness. And perhaps it was.
But trapped on a deadly planet on the ass-end of space was not the most spectacular place for self-reflection.
Hux consciously unclenched his jaw and realized he’d been only half paying attention as he moved contents around in the kit. Muttering a silent curse, he started again, making orderly lists in his mind to ground himself.
He found the typical disinfectants—soap, alcohol and iodine pads. There was an assortment of analgesics and anti-bacterial ointments, bandages and gauze sealed in waterproof sleeves, tape, a small pair of scissors. The rest—tourniquet, cyanoacrylate, bacta gel—were all field trauma kit, and Hux knew that the second he dismissed any of it as unnecessary, they would need it.
He closed the red, hard-shell case and clipped it shut, setting it aside in the sand. There was paracord among the supplies from the shuttle, and that would serve to slip through the kit’s handle so it could be looped around his belt.
“We should follow the shore until we need to branch southwest,” Hux said. “At least keep ourselves oriented to it if we need to double back.”
Ren nodded, putting the little handheld radio on the ground between them. Hux picked it up and turned it over in his hand and watched murky water drain from a seam in the case.
“Think you can fix it?” Ren asked.
Hux inspected it, frowning. “Maybe if we had hours of direct sunlight and the time to sit around in it. And the right tools to open it.” He held it in his palm and stared at it. “If there was anything broadcasting from that structure we’d have heard it from the shuttle.”
“Maybe,” Ren said, peeling back the foil wrapping from one of their remaining ration bars.
Hux’s blood pressure spiked at Ren’s impassive tone. “Does any of this cause you one bloody second of concern?” he snapped. “Or have you achieved some kind of spiritual zen since we touched down?”
Ren had paused with the ration bar now in two hands, broken in half. “I told you,” he said, “that we will not die here.”
“Oh, fuck you and your baseless prophecies,” Hux growled, pushing himself to a crouch and then shoving his way out of the shelter and into the rain. His shallow breathing was loud in his ears, chest tight, and he fought the urge to scream by hurling the radio down the beach where it cracked against a tree and rebounded into the forest.
The thick fog hanging there in the undergrowth rippled and surged upward and out of it came a sound that chilled Hux to the bone. It was a shrill, throaty whine punctuated by a string of clicks, and it was answered by something deeper in the trees.
Hux groped for his blaster out of instinct—an instinct that was screaming at him to run at the same time that his educated mind told him to do so would be fatal. He stood for a long moment, skin crawling and finger on the trigger of his blaster, and waited for something to emerge. When nothing did, he pivoted slowly in place and scanned the rest of the forest and the stretch of lake shore behind him, and found everything still and silent but for the drumming rain.
Letting out the breath he’d been holding, Hux clipped his blaster back into place on his belt and allowed himself to feel foolish. He’d just had a very Ren-like moment, storming out of their shelter into a downpour and breaking something in a fit of pique. The fact that he could blame it on exhaustion, withdrawal and hunger did little to assuage his pride, and now on top of that he was soaking wet.
As an excuse not to return to the shelter just yet, Hux walked the dozen or so feet to the tree trunk where their water was pooled in the bored-out hollow. It was too full to have become that way in the past few minutes of this shower, so Hux assumed that Ren had refilled it and boiled it during his watch; the stones were still settled at the bottom.
Bending down, keeping a wary gaze on the treeline, Hux dipped his hands into the reservoir and drank from his cupped palms. It was much cooler than yesterday and tasted blessedly fresh. Three handfuls eased the ache in his belly and he allowed himself the luxury of splashing some of it across his face to scrub away the sweat and grime of travel. What he wouldn’t give for a hot shower.
Afterward, he couldn’t form any better excuse to stand about on the beach, so he reluctantly returned to the shelter. He dared Ren with a hard gaze to say something while he eased himself back down onto the sand, but the Supreme Leader was silent. Hux felt an unexpected stab of something not unlike guilt; if the situation had been reversed, he would have never offered Ren that same courtesy.
“I don’t know if you noticed,” Hux said, as though nothing had happened, “but the day cycles are longer here. At least during this time of year.”
“I did notice,” Ren said, offering Hux one half of the ration bar that he’d broken in two just prior to Hux storming out of the shelter.
Hux took it. “If we keep near the shore until we find that river, maybe we'll find something edible in the tide-pools.” His stomach turned at the thought.
Ren shook out the now-empty bag and held it up to the wan light peeking through the roots; the light filtered through and painted Ren’s pale face a sickly orange. Hux saw the small tear in the bag, and was grateful that it didn’t appear to have enlarged much.
“I don’t even know what to look for,” Ren admitted. “So I’ll leave that to you.” With that, he got to his feet and left the shelter, taking the bag with him.
Hux watched him walk down to the lake and then out into it as though he had no fear of what might be lurking there. Hux tensed and held his breath as Ren stooped down in knee-deep water and dipped the plastic beneath the choppy surface, washing away sand and filth from their long trek. He was out there for less than a minute, but it felt like hours to Hux before Ren turned and started back toward the shore, dark hair whipping in the wind and the bag folded carefully against his chest. Hux had just started to breathe again when Ren stopped suddenly at the waterline, staring to his right—it was the direction that Hux had thrown the radio, and from which that strange sound had come.
Before he’d even thought it through fully, Hux was outside on the beach again, facing the same direction as Ren, blaster in his hand and back to the lake. The squall had stirred the fog somewhat, fanning the thick carpet of it out and upward beneath the trees, but it did little to improve visibility.
Hux waited for some new horror to burst from the trees, but again, there was nothing. Finally, he sensed Ren moving and turned to look at him. Their eyes met, and the concern on the Supreme Leader’s face made Hux go cold.
Ren reached his side and stopped, pressing the bag into Hux’s hand. “See what you can do with this,” he said, eyes still on the treeline.
For once, Hux didn’t feel the need to question him.
Instead, he hurried back into the shelter and made quick, efficient work of sealing the hole in the bag and reinforcing it with the role of heavy-duty tape. Ren watched his back then as Hux walked down to the lake once more and filled the bag with enough water to get them through another long day. He dumped an entire purification tab into it and hoped they could get by without boiling it too, and then sealed it at the top with more tape and a length of paracord he fashioned into a loop.
Hux couldn’t shake the feeling of alarm that had flooded him the moment he’d seen Ren register that there was something out there. He peeled the Mylar blanket off the root system as slowly as he dared, though the damn thing made an excessive amount of noise, and by the time he had it stowed inside the first aid kit, he was debating the wisdom of using it for a tarp again. His socks and his boots, at least, were dry because of it, and that felt like a small blessing.
What Hux didn’t fit into his pockets, he carried across the sand to where Ren stood, still watching. Without discussion, Ren took the datapad from beneath Hux’s arm and stowed it, then took the water, leaving Hux with the first aid kit.
“What have you seen?” Hux asked, just loudly enough to be heard over the rain.
Ren shook his head. “Nothing. I just sense that we aren’t alone.”
Hux threaded paracord between his belt and the first aid kit’s handle, knotted it, and settled it into place on his hip. “Sentient?” he asked.
Ren frowned. “I’m not sure.” He looked at Hux. “Will staying by the shore keep us moving in the right direction?”
Hux had the compass in his palm and he glanced at it again, shielding it from the rain with his other hand. “Relatively. Well enough. It’s a strong possibility this lake feeds the river we saw abutting the feature, so...even better if we find that and can keep to it.”
Ren nodded. “Agreed,” he said. “Let’s go.”
The journey down the lake shore felt like walking a gauntlet; on their right, they had a vast body of water which they already knew housed some manner of creature that found them interesting, and to their left was a forest that felt as though it had eyes. Ahead of Hux, Ren gravitated closer to the water’s edge—partly, Hux assumed, because the ground was firmer, but he had a blood-curdling suspicion that Ren felt less danger emanating from that direction.
There was a strong possibility that Hux’s imagination was running away with him, too, especially with the sharp edges of his mind frayed by his lack of stimulants. He told himself bitterly as he walked that going back down that path, ever again, was not acceptable—if he got off this planet alive, he was sticking to tea and a healthy eight hour sleep cycle.
The rain finally let up after over an hour of walking, becoming little more than a heavy mist. As the day began to heat, however, the humidity rose and the fog took on the characteristics of steam. Worse, the forest was gradually encroaching on the shore, thinning out the stretch of beach they were moving along until it became obvious that they needed to reassess their path.
“This couldn’t have just been easy,” Hux complained quietly, trying to catch his breath in the stifling air. Ren had set a quick pace, and Hux hadn’t objected.
Ren had paused with one foot resting on a large boulder, and he held their fresh water up, peering at the bag. “Is anything ever?”
Hux rolled his eyes and reached out to spin the bag in Ren’s hands, showing him where he’d set a strip of thick tape just above the water line. It was reinforcing a hole set higher in the plastic than the first one had been, providing an opening to drink from that had less danger of tearing. Ren angled the bag and upended the bottom, letting gravity force the water into his mouth. He coughed and spat part of it out, grimacing, and handed it to Hux.
Hux eyed it. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s hot and it tastes like dead plants,” Ren said, swiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Hux almost laughed at the Supreme Leader’s petulant tone, then tried not to make a similar face as he drank his fill of the admittedly rank lake-water. He tried not to think about any parasites that might be swimming their way into his gut, vowing to deal with them later.
This time, Hux threaded the makeshift handle at the mouth of the bag through his belt, leaving both of Ren’s hands and range of movement free.
“Not sure how much longer that bag is going to hold up in this forest,” Ren said.
That was the least of Hux’s concerns when it came to the stretch of jungle looming nearby. “Are you still...picking anything up?”
Ren shook his head. “Not for the past half hour or so.”
Hux drew the compass out of his pocket again as he’d done several times during the recent trek. They had veered slightly west while following the gentle curve of the lake, which was in their favor. He peered at the trees; the scraggle of undergrowth and new shoots clustering near the shore gave way gradually to older growth, and through the steam, Hux could make out the billowy fronds of large ferns.
“I guess there’s no way out but in,” Hux said, trying to force the dread from his voice. “Did you see a clear path through this mess?” He gestured at the thick scrub.
The dark hum of Ren’s lightsaber accompanied the splash of red light as it came to life. “No,” Ren said. “But I can make one.”
Ren set to it and wasn’t quiet about it—slicing through branches large and small and yanking them out with the Force. It was a picture of destruction, and Hux hoped that anything watching them was deterred by the display rather than lured by it the noise.
A minute or so and Ren had cleared them a path off the beach and up into the forest. The grade was still steep, the overhang eroded by flooding and crumbling under Hux’s feet as he tried to climb up it, and he was forced to accept Ren’s hand for balance. Slowly, cautiously, they began to leave the lake behind and move southwest.
Ren kept his lightsaber on, clearing their way through the tangle when necessary and allowing the crackling hiss of power and the red flame to act like a torch to keep primitive things away.
Hux was somewhat comforted by it, as he was comforted by Ren’s presence, and that fact galled him. Circumstances not being what they were, Hux had little doubt he would ever have arrived at a place in his own mind where he felt gratitude for the spoiled Republic prince that had plagued him for so many years, but trying to picture himself wandering through this jungle alone made him feel ill.
But that was a secret Hux would have to keep.
Ren stopped every so often to consult Hux for navigation and to share water. The first such time, they’d discussed their progress aloud, and the sound of their voices in the shrouded jungle was jarring and echoed eerily. After that, they communicated with gestures and carefully mouthed words.
Hux lost track of time completely—the sun was completely obliterated by the thick canopy of green above, and the steady drip of water suggested that it had started raining again at some point. Occasionally, Hux thought he caught a flash of lightning, but he never heard thunder.
It was only gradually—and far too slowly—that Hux realized they were being followed.
Attuned to the sounds of pattering droplets on leaves and the buzz of Ren’s lightsaber, Hux hardly registered the way the other sounds of the forest began to drop away until they were gone. No birds, no insects, no more of the haunting hoots of the small, striped primate Hux had identified.
The hair on the back of his neck stood up and his arms prickled with gooseflesh, uncomfortable on his overheated, sweat-soaked skin. Hux tried to catch a glimpse of anything in the trees around them, but the fog was too thick and too alive, eddying and whorling as they passed through it. He could only just make out Ren ten paces ahead of him, and the lightsaber was a beacon that Hux was sorely glad for.
Picking up his pace, Hux drew closer to Ren and reached out, brushing his fingers to the back of Ren’s elbow. Ren didn’t stop, but turned his head enough that Hux could see his sharp nod—that they were not alone had not escaped the Supreme Leader’s notice. Ren’s pace slowed marginally and he gestured at Hux with his hand, telling him silently to stay close.
They moved in silence for several more minutes until it was broken suddenly by that same sound that Hux had heard on the beach—a nasal whine like the low notes from a windpipe, followed by a wet, staccato click like a tongue against the roof of the mouth. Hearing it so near, Hux flinched, his military training urging him to take cover and bring up his weapon.
Ren stopped suddenly, just as the sound was echoed from the opposite side, and that was the moment Hux realized that they were not simply being followed.
They were being hunted.
He felt Ren’s body heat as they crowded close to one another, and the energy that flowed off the Supreme Leader felt charged. Ren took one short step away from Hux, stretching his arm out fully and leveling his ‘saber, making a wide arc with it through the fog. Blaster in his hand, Hux angled his body so that his back was to Ren’s, flicking on the laser sighting of his weapon and watching it pierce the curtain of white that hemmed them in.
A twig cracked, and the whine-click came again, much closer this time, and it echoed around them not once, but twice, identifying at least three of their hunters.
Hux’s ears were ringing with the pulse of his heart, adrenaline flooding his system. His fingers felt bloodless and cold around the grip of his blaster, knuckles tight. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck like an insect crawling along his spine.
A breath stirred the air beside his ear, lifting the hair and falling hot and humid on his skin.
Hux whirled, coming face to face with a monster. Its glistening maw hung open, prehensile purplish-black tongue coiling like a viper back into its mouth. Hux caught only a glimpse of milky green, reptilian eyes before he stumbled back out of the way of far too many teeth and fired his gun.
It all happened in a space of seconds—the plasma bolt flashing through the mist, refracting a thousand times on a jet black, insectoid shell, a screech that split the silence like nails on metal, the mist erupting around them and Ren’s lightsaber slashing across Hux’s vision.
Ren’s ‘saber seemed to draw them, whatever they were. Hux caught glimpses of a long, spined tail as it whipped out toward Ren’s legs and was shorn off, the wound spitting green, glowing blood. Hux shot a flurry of bolts into the fog as the creature vanished into it again, shrieking.
Hux tried to close the distance between them which had grown in the shuffle, but he took only a single step before something locked around his ankle and pulled .
Hux started to pitch forward but caught himself with one hand planted on the spongy ground. He threw his weight into a sharp kick behind himself and felt his boot connect hard with the shell of one of the creatures. It released him long enough for Hux to come to his feet, spinning to try to get a line on it.
He’d moved farther away from Ren now, who shifted like a dark ghost in the fog a dozen feet away. Hux heard Ren say his name, and then Hux’s left foot came down at an angle, not finding the ground where it should be. His balance thrown, Hux’s weight tipped backward and he only had time for a single, wordless shout before he was tumbling down a decline.
The fall was a blur—fingers scrabbling at musty loam and dead leaves, nails caked with detritus and moss, knee cracking against a rock and making stars burst across his vision. Nothing he tried to gain purchase on was solid—the floor of the forest slick with mildew and rainwater, dead, decayed sticks, loose stones.
He finally came to a stop in a shower of leaves that settled around him and over him. Rocks dislodged from his fall bounced past and splashed into gurgling water behind him.
Hux laid there prone and winded for what felt like long minutes, his mind telling him to move while his body struggled to recover from the shock. Finally, wincing, Hux pushed himself cautiously into a sitting position and looked around, knowing he didn't have the luxury of convalescing anywhere in this forest.
He had fallen into a gully, just at the edge of a shallow stream. In the greenish gloom, Hux could make out the shape of a massive temple that the stream disappeared into farther away at the mouth of the gully. It looked ancient, eroded and stained by the elements, and its features were cloaked with moss.
Hux tried to get his feet beneath him, but his knee burst with pain when he bent it, leaving him to pant shallowly while he caught his breath. He looked up the decline he’d fallen down, hoping to see the red glow of Ren’s lightsaber, but the fog blotted out everything above the cool, stream valley.
Reflexively, Hux groped for his blaster, only to discover that he’d lost it on the way down.
He was injured, lost, and unarmed. And worse than that, he was alone.
In our previous installment, Hux and Ren had been separated when they were attacked by the beasts that had stalked them through the forest, and Hux found himself alone and unarmed in a gully with no idea if Ren had lived, or if he would see him again.
This chapter is definitely a 'graphic depictions of violence' chapter, and there's a brief mention of suicide in order to avoid a particularly violent death.
Hux dug his hands and his left boot heel into the earth to push himself back and away from the stream, keeping his smarting knee straight for the moment. He winced as his palms came into contact with the pebbly detritus beneath him, and he lifted one only to see that it was lacerated with numerous tiny scratches, surely from his efforts to grab hold of anything to slow his fall.
His senses were on full alert, adrenaline making his heart beat faster and his skin tingle with an urge to run . He couldn’t stay here, out in the open like a bleeding animal. He hated this. He hated the way that becoming separated from Ren left a hollow in his chest that seeped full of puerile fear. He had to swallow it, and fast.
Twisting about, Hux allowed himself one final glance up the hill, but it was crowned in thick fog that had gone still now, as though the world simply ended there. He counted to twenty, allowing himself only that handful of seconds to anticipate Ren bursting through the mist cover in pursuit.
When his count was up, Hux turned away and shoved that hope to the back of his mind.
First things first, he had to take stock of the situation. It was a good sign that he could hear birds twittering in the trees. Coupled with the gentle burbling of the stream at Hux’s feet, it was almost peaceful, but without a doubt that sense was a snare for the unwary. He wasn’t safe here.
He pushed himself to his knees and then got his left foot underneath him. Planting his hands on that thigh, he pushed himself up slowly, letting that leg take his weight until he was balanced on his left foot. Slowly, he stretched his right leg, feeling the knee joint pop. It sparked a flare of pain that felt like the cartilage burning. Straightening helped and he eased his center of balance to both feet, taking a tentative, shuffling step. It would hold at a careful walk, but running was going to be a problem.
“Kriff,” he said under his breath, but set that worry aside for a moment to focus on the other details of his predicament.
The plastic bag that had held their 'fresh' water was, of course, little more than trash hanging empty and limp from his belt, and Hux tugged sharply on it to free it, letting it fall to the ground. He scanned the leaf fall again, moving a few feet up the hill and toeing through the leaves to see if he could find his blaster, but it he didn't see it. He'd likely let go of it seconds after he fell.
He stooped, wincing as he hiked the leg of his jodhpurs up far enough to push his fingers down below the top of his boot, feeling for the makeshift strap he'd used to secure his monomolecular blade to his calf. Swamp water and mud had rendered the mechanism for the wrist sheath useless, so he'd secured it with medical tape where he was sure he wouldn't lose it. The damned thing was worse than useless wedged in his boot like this, since he could never have gotten to it in time to make a difference in a fight, but he'd followed the logic that he had his blaster and he had Ren .
He got a fingernail under the edge of the tape and picked at it until it loosened, and then peeled it back. The adhesive tore the fine hair off his leg as it came free, but Hux was glad for the sting. It sharpened his mind and it meant he has at least one thing to defend himself with.
He drew the blade out and ripped the remainder of the tape off from the sheath. He slid the knife out, which didn't fit properly in the holster without the locking clips that had allowed him to summon it with a flick of his wrist. What had once felt extremely clever to him now felt like a design flaw.
He turned it over in his hand, frowning at it. Monomolecular blades were sharp enough to cut through a durasteel plate, but they were brittle. They weren't made for combat, but stealth and fine work, and the creatures that had stalked he and Ren through the forest were nothing that Hux wanted to get within range of to make the blade's four inch reach effective.
But it was better than nothing.
He could feel the bruised ache just over his right kidney where the hard shell of the first aid kit had been smashed beneath him in the fall, but it was, thankfully, still tied to his belt. If he managed to survive whatever was hunting him, he'd have some bulwark against the other injuries he'd likely sustain.
Recovered from the fall and a semblance of armed now, Hux had to make a decision. He still had the compass in his pocket, and a quick glance at it showed that this stream he'd fallen into ran relatively southwest. There was every likelihood that it was the root of the river they'd seen snaking along the southern border of the man-made feature they were trying to reach.
It was only Hux now. Stars knew if Ren was even still alive.
Then he pictured Ren beside him in the shuttle, hands open and palms turned up, face almost serene with his eyes closed and hair fanning out in a halo around his head, suspended in a place he'd hollowed out between the laws of physics. A place where not even gravity and acceleration could touch him.
Hux glanced up the hill again, brows drawn together in thought. No. Ren wasn't dead, but if Hux took the compass into the forest and left him here, he could very well be irrevocably lost, and Hux would have nothing but a brittle blade to defend himself with. Like it or not, Ren was a shield and a weapon both, and Hux needed him to get off this planet alive.
It left a sour taste in his mouth, but at least he'd made a decision. He had to wait, to hope Ren found his way down to the gully in one piece.
Zeroing in on the sounds of the jungle around him, listening for the dying off of birdsong and the unnatural stirring of fallen leaves, Hux began to edge down the creek side toward the temple.
It looked as though the building had been built astride the stream, like the beings who'd been responsible for its construction had felt some affinity toward water. It made sense on a planet that seemed to be near covered by it, and one with such frequent storms.
Rising perhaps fifty feet into the canopy, the body of the structure was a blocky pyramid shape, the outline of each massive stone making up each rise picked out by verdant moss. The stream trickled into an emerald green pool at the base of a lichen coated, stone stairway which led up into the looming mouth of what appeared to be an antechamber or foyer. Thick ropes of vines straggled across the dark entrance and wound over the framework, and as Hux neared it, he saw how weathered the stone was—symbols he didn't recognize that were engraved on the lintel were just barely discernible, their lines worn down by erosion.
Hux paused at the edge of the pool, turning to scan behind himself and, again, up the hill he'd fallen down. Still nothing. His stomach felt tight, like it was trying to digest rocks, and he realized as he turned back to the entrance of the structure that he'd been holding his breath, hoping for some glimpse of Ren.
Squeezing the hilt of his blade, Hux edged close to the rim of the pool and stepped gingerly over the narrow strip of sodden earth to the base of the stairs. The water lapped at the bottom, flowing around the rise and disappearing into arched culverts carved into the foundation. Hux examined the feature curiously, contemplating how they weren't clogged with forest detritus and wondering if maybe this temple wasn't abandoned after all. Was there, perhaps, a sentient species still in residence here that could lend help of any kind? Food, clean water, guidance?
As he was thinking this, something long and sinuous slipped out of the left hand culvert and moved through the water. It was a snake as long as Hux was tall, as wide around as his bicep, mottled green and black. It undulated through the pool, sending little ripples out across the surface, then disappeared beneath the stairs.
Hux thought of wading through the chest deep water of the swamp the day before and gooseflesh rose along his arms. Gods knew what else had been in that murky waste that they'd been kriffing lucky to avoid.
He picked up his pace, moving as quickly up the slick stairs as he dared, away from that pool and whatever else it hid. The interior beyond the threshold was as black as space, and Hux paused at the edge of a darkness so thick it felt as though it could be measured in weight. He untied the loop of paracord binding the first aid box to his belt loop and opened it. Inside, he'd stashed the single, functioning LED flashlight and a sealed pack of the small, round batteries. He shoved those in his pocket and pushed the power button on the light. To his relief, the beam was clear and bright.
He flicked it off and tucked it beneath his arm while he secured the kit again. His throat felt dry and he was desperate for water, but his only option was to drink from that pool, and dipping his hands below that surface was as unappealing as the bacteria it was certainly rife with.
Letting the first aid kit fall back to his belt to rest against his hip, Hux turned on the flashlight again and panned it around the foyer. It was perhaps fifteen feet across with a ceiling somewhat lower than Hux had at first thought. It was instantly claustrophobic to see stone only a hand's breadth or so from the top of his head. Ren would almost have to crouch to pass through here. Although Hux didn't intend to go much farther than this. He needed to be able to keep an eye on the gully and to hear, in case Ren did find his way down.
After scanning the interior of the antechamber, which was empty and devoid of embellishment, Hux moved toward the far wall only to shine his light into the far passageway.
Opposite the entrance, this passageway had clearly once had a thick, stone door, one side of which now lay crumbled and split, half blocking the threshold, while the other seemed to have fallen back into the darkness of the room beyond. Hux's brow creased as a sense of deep unease fell over him—a naturally decaying stone structure would not have fallen in a pattern like this. It looked as though it had been punched through, and he could think of no natural force that would have caused damage like that. Instantly, he pictured the massive, tentacled creature they'd narrowly escaped from just after they'd crashed here and it made his skin crawl.
He couldn't see anything beyond the door except the walls of a passage that stretched away beyond the range of the palm-sized light's bluish-white beam. There was nothing alive within that radius, and he heard nothing except a disembodied, steady trickle of water.
Satisfied for the moment that he wasn't in imminent danger from that direction, Hux moved into the corner of the antechamber and slid down to the damp stone floor with his back against the wall. He stretched his legs out, the injured knee grateful for the respite. From this angle, he had a partial view of the gully and the stream, but he was less sure he would see Ren approaching than he was that, if Ren intended to seek him out, if he was convinced Hux had waited for him, then he would almost certainly check here. It was the only logical place to conceal oneself in this landscape.
And so Hux flicked off the flashlight and waited.
It was with a sick feeling of horror that he jolted out of sleep some indeterminate amount of time later. His legs were tingling with circulation that had gone sluggish from being stretched completely straight before him, and he couldn't feel the backs of his thighs where they were pressed into the cold stone floor.
He pulled his knees in toward his chest, wincing as the right one throbbed dully. His heart rate had picked up, pumping blood toward his extremities and his brain, and he stared out through the temple door to try to determine how long he'd slept. It didn't look any darker, but that wasn't saying much. The forest was perpetually murky beneath the thick canopy.
He listened then, stretching his senses out for anything out of place that might have startled him awake, but there was only the faint trickle of the stream and an undercurrent of soughing leaves far overhead. All of that was muted by the thick stone surrounding him.
Hux let his breath out slowly, willing his pulse to even out as he set his knife aside. His fingers were stiff from the vice-like grip he'd kept on it even in sleep. Maneuvering the first aid kit onto his thigh, he opened it again and picked through the contents until he came across a pack of basic analgesics, which he tore open with his teeth. There was nothing to drink, so he dry swallowed them—it served to call his attention to how dry his mouth was and the way his lips were sticky and starting to crack. Of all the things that could kill them on this planet—monsters out of nightmare and hostile fauna—it might very well be simple dehydration in the end.
He was sealing the kit when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head around, staring out into the daylight, unblinking. For a moment, there was nothing, and Hux began to imagine that it had only been a bird or some other innocuous creature, but then he heard it. That hollow, woodwind sound, punctuated by a burst of clicking that sounded every bit like a language. Like creatures relaying a strategy, or saying here, I've found him.
It was right outside the door.
Pain in his knee forgotten, Hux shifted into a crouch, taking up his blade again and keeping his eyes focused on the rectangle of light on the far side of the antechamber. He could see the uppermost stairs, dappled with the shifting shadows of overhead leaves, and for a moment that was all. But then he heard that call again, closer, and he realized he wasn't taking in the whole picture.
Lifting his eyes slowly, gaze trailing up the frame of the door to the lintel, Hux saw the raptor like claws curled over the edge. They flexed as Hux stared at them, extending their full length. The digits themselves—leathery skin and bulbous joints—were perhaps five or six inches, tipped with tapered claws that made Hux’s monomolecular blade seem like a ridiculous child’s toy.
Hux clutched it tightly nonetheless, because it was all he had, and came slowly to his feet. He held his breath, keeping his eyes fixed on the creature's claws as he tried to gauge his chances. The encounter earlier was a muddled memory full of half images that flashed across his mind—insectoid shell, iridescent black, slit pupils in yellow-green sclera, whip-like tail. Teeth the length of Hux's thumb, long and curved and absolutely carnivorous.
Letting his breath out slowly through his mouth, Hux started to back along the wall, guiding himself by his fingertips. He didn't know what senses these creatures used to hunt by, but if he could reach the innermost door and slip past the crumbled stone into the darkness beyond, maybe he could escape its notice.
He didn't make it even half a dozen steps before the claws clutching the lintel contracted abruptly, nails clacking against the frame and throwing a shower of dust and chipped stone to the floor. The hand—for Hux was sure that's what it was—vanished, and then the creature itself dropped from the roof to fill the doorway.
Hux couldn't say that he'd been frightened of many things since he'd been a child. He hadn't needed to entertain the sort of imaginative nightmares that plagued many young boys, because he'd had his father, who was himself a monster. An integral part of his survival in body and spirit both had been overcoming anything that might have been perceived as weakness and used against him by Brendol himself or any of his peers who'd been doing the same thing Hux was: trying to master and outlast the hazards of their own toxic environments.
But this thing. It had fixed him with eyes that were undoubtedly intelligent—reptilian and cold with nictitating membranes that passed across them slowly as it lowered its head and took a step toward Hux. It moved in a crouch, spine sloped from hindquarters to shoulder blades, elbows bent and hands on the floor.
Hux felt his humanity bleed out of him, replaced by the sort of raw, primal dread that a beast of prey must feel when facing an apex predator. He was, quite literally, backed into a corner and a third the size of this monster. Its reach was far longer, as well, and Hux could sense its inherent speed in the tense energy that surrounded it, like a compressed spring.
The way it held Hux's gaze made him feel as though the creature was toying with him, like a loth cat who'd cornered a wamp rat. When Hux dared a tentative sidestep, toward the inner door, the monster shifted with him, rolling its weight to one hand as it cocked its head, mouth splitting open in a hiss that sounded like whistling steam escaping a kettle.
Hux might as well have been snared on its claws for the way the sound froze him mid motion. The fine hairs on his arms stood up as fear crawled down his spine. His eyes flicked to the beast's open maw, to the rows of teeth glistening with the saliva that pooled in its mouth and trickled over its lower jaw.
It took another step forward, long tail lifted behind it and undulating like a feline's. It was uncanny how quietly it moved, even with its shell-like skin and claws on stone. Hux was breathing shallowly through his nose, forcing himself not to take panicked breaths, knuckles white around the hilt of his blade.
He took another step to the side, toward the interior door, glancing quickly at it to judge the distance. There was little chance its more narrow frame would deter the creature, but at least the remains of the door could serve as some type of barrier.
Then he saw the monster's eyes track his own, its head tilting as if in thought before it shifted. Its direct approach bowed out and it began to circle Hux instead, moving closer to Hux's angle of escape. As it did, it called out again, softer this time, and Hux sensed the light from the antechamber's entrance shift as another of the creatures filled the space.
He barely had time to register that one before the first of them sprang. Instinct took control of Hux's reflexes and he threw himself to the side, hitting the floor on his shoulder and rolling. He came up into a crouch and slashed his blade in an arc to his right, and it connected, ripped through the best like a hot knife through butter, spraying greenish blood across the floor and the wall behind it.
The creature shrieked, tried to put its weight on its front limbs, and collapsed to the side as its right arm bent unnaturally, muscle and sinew severed at the joint. Hux's blade was small, but when it cut, it was with no mere scratch. There was no armor that could deflect it, natural or man-made.
Blood was pooling rapidly on the floor, radioactive-bright, and the beast rolled through it as it tried to gain its feet. The other creature was calling out, the flowing staccato language full of urgency, and Hux knew it was summoning more of its kind. He backed up, away from the one he'd wounded which was pushing itself up onto its hind legs to loom like a man, arm hanging limply and trailing blood at its side as it took a step forward.
Hux saw that its gait was unsteady, but not unsteady enough, and now its counterpart was advancing across the small chamber as well. Hux could feel his heart jackhammering against his rib cage, his pulse throbbing in the soft place below his jaw. He could smell his own cold sweat.
No matter how agile he was, there was no getting past two of these things, and after the first massive spike of adrenaline, his wounded knee was screaming with pain. He raised the blade before himself in defense as the unwounded beast hissed at him, and only had time to appreciate the caution in its posture before his mind was drowning in the impulse to open his own throat with the knife.
It would be over fast, quick enough that he wouldn't feel himself torn limb from limb and devoured alive.
He sucked in a deep breath, stepping back and bringing the blade up, flush with his neck, feeling the vibration of it humming against his skin. It was buzzing, making a sound like an overflowing circuit that Hux had never heard it make before, and then the room was bathed in red light.
For the briefest of seconds, Hux thought he'd done it. Thought he'd slit his own throat and that this was the way the world looked when lifeblood was draining from the body. But then the light focused, became a solid beam that arced across the room and tore through the second creature's body, cleaving it in half below the shoulder blades.
As though it wanted its last action in life to be dragging Hux into death with it, the first of the monsters lunged toward Hux, only to be lifted from the ground and flung across the room. It smacked into the wall with a crunching, broken sound and fell to the floor, still.
"Ren," Hux breathed, the name punched from his lungs.
Ren's dark eyes raked Hux's body as he took a short step forward. The saber was still humming in his hand, and the expression on his face was so intense and so full of danger that Hux flinched. The reflexive movement seemed to jolt Ren, and he stopped, looking Hux in the eyes.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
"No," Hux said, pulling himself up to his full height with his back still pressed to the wall. The smooth stone was cool and solid against his back, and with it on one side and Ren on the other, he was able to take the first deep breath he'd managed since realizing he'd fallen asleep in enemy territory.
Ren didn't respond, but Hux saw his chest rise and then contract as he exhaled, just before he turned away to step back to the door of the antechamber.
That was when Hux saw it.
When Ren turned and the light of the saber fell away from his torso, it called into sharp relief the way his shirt was torn in three place—long, slashed stripes from sternum to side. Hux's attention hadn't been called immediately to the wound because the pale, exposed skin beneath was stained dark with blood.
Hux pushed himself off the wall and toward Ren. "You're the one that's wounded," he said, keeping his voice quiet.
Ren didn't respond as he leaned around the door frame, peering out. When he held up his left hand, palm out, Hux froze. He watched with growing alarm when Ren folded his fingers down and then extended them again, counting. One, two, three. Then he shook his head and looked at Hux, his expression more worried than Hux had ever seen him look.
"There are too many," he whispered, and when he backed away from he entrance, looking over his shoulder at the dark doorway behind them, Hux saw him wince.
Hux had known Ren was not invincible, but having that displayed in stark relief just now made him feel hopeless. He'd survived this most recent attack only to die moments later in the next wave.
"We can try our luck deeper into the temple," Hux suggested. "A room or a passageway we can seal off."
"There's not time," Ren said. "They're everywhere. Coming out of the forest. Scores of them."
Hux muttered a curse. "So we are just going to stand here and die, then?"
Ren looked at him, his brow pinching, and his eyes looked pained. "Hux, I..." he began, but then the world shook.
The vibration traveled through the stone, making Hux's teeth hurt and his stomach lurch. It was followed seconds later by another, like a bomber strafing the gully outside the antechamber, getting closer with every heavy, resonant boom.
Then the shrieking began. A discordant chorus unmistakably rife with terror. Everywhere at once, echoing up the valley between the lightning-cracks of splitting trees. Ren had leaned around the doorway again, and without regard for his safety, Hux pushed closer until Ren stood back so that Hux, too, could see outside.
He gaped out, going cold to his core. Half-submerged in tree-cover was that creature that had stolen the bones of their shuttle, its long tentacles whipping out across the stream bed to snatch up their horrid pursuers. Hux watched it peel one of the struggling monsters out of the water and lift it up, maw stretching open to receive it whole.
Hux and Ren were both transfixed by the scene of carnage outside, Hux pressed to the frame of the door and hardly noticing the way he was sheltered against Ren's side, in the crook of his arm. Ren had turned his lightsaber off and was barely breathing.
It seemed to go on forever, when it couldn't have been more than a few seconds. What had been scores of the creatures pouring through the gully toward them was now only a stream bed of overturned rocks and splintered wood and green, glowing blood.
The monster which had become their unwitting savior bellowed that nails-on-metal call, followed by a stream of low clicking that sounded much more horrible up close.
It turned its head, stepped forward out of the trees and fully into the little valley, and came straight for them.
Ren's whole body jerked. "Move!" he said, not bothering now to be quiet, and he'd grabbed Hux's forearm and was pulling him back before Hux had managed to react. He was sluggish from exhaustion, but adrenaline pulsed through him again. Adding fuel to his overtaxed muscles.
Ren's grip was bruising as he yanked Hux back from the door, spinning him around and propelling him toward the back of the antechamber. Hux almost slipped in the pool of blood that had formed on the floor beneath the bodies of the first two creatures, but the sound of the massive footsteps outside sharpened his mind and drove him over and around the crumbled stone blocking the interior entrance. He plunged into the darkness, started to turn to see if Ren had made it when he felt Ren's body crash into his. Ren didn't stop moving, planting his hand on Hux's back and pushing him.
"Go," he hissed.
It was pitch black, and the scream of the predator outside echoed down the corridor. Hux's palm scraped along the wall, guiding him as quickly as he dared to move when he couldn't see the floor. He heard Ren breathing behind him, the sound ragged and full of pain and fear both.
Hux couldn't stop thinking as he heard the fallen stone behind them being ripped out and thrown against the walls, that fear was an equalizer. That he and Ren had been reduced from General and Supreme Leader to something base and painfully mortal that was not so different.
The building shuddered and Hux stumbled over something on the floor, only for Ren's hand to bunch in the fabric of his shirt to keep him steady.
"Keep going," he whispered.
Hux did, until the sounds stopped behind them.
When he finally came to a halt, Ren didn't push him forward again. Instead, they both stood leaning against the wall, shoulders touching, no sound but for their mingled, labored breathing.
The air was tense, full of anticipation as they both waited for the earth to shake, for the walls to crumble in around them as the creature pulled the temple apart to find them. Perhaps five full minutes passed before Hux's heart rate returned to normal, and almost in conjunction, Ren flicked on his lightsaber.
The room was washed in red, illuminating the stone walls and the low ceiling but not chasing away the shadows. The space was tight, and Hux again had the impression that it had been built by a species smaller than a human. And yet it was clearly ancient, so where was this race? Obliterated, perhaps, by the vicious fauna.
He turned to look at Ren, and found the Supreme Leader staring at the opposite wall of the corridor. A line was drawn between his eyebrows, lips just slightly parted like he'd been about to speak, but rendered silent. Hux followed his gaze.
As if to answer Hux's question about the beings that had made this place, the corridor wall was lined with carvings. This far inside, away from the elements, they were clearer, etched in detail and showing a host of beings Hux didn't recognize. They were stocky, with flat faces and long, pointed ears and resembled, more than anything else, bats.
The carved relief showed them standing one behind the other, three-fingered hands holding a multitude of items—bowls, sprigs of flowers, orbs surrounded by outflowing lines as though they were glowing. They all followed the same path, leading up to throne made of thick, square lines with a tall, familiar back.
Seated on that throne was a creature not of their race, huge in comparison and stooped, bedecked in a flowing robe.