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Under the Ruins of a Walled City

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On his first morning back in the New Republic, Ren wakes to the sound of sirens.

He sits up in bed, all of his senses scrambling for traction after the last in a long series of nightmares. The sirens are blaring outside, from somewhere on the streets below. They’re moving away, the sound fading: emergency craft approaching some minor disaster in the city. Nothing to worry about.

Observation, too heavy but upon him anyway: His father used to say that to him when he was very little and got startled easily. Han would slide his hand across the back of Ben’s head when he said it. Nothing to worry about, kid. You’re fine.

Sunlight burns against his eyes, too bright from behind the thin shade over the window. What’s the point of a shade that blocks no light? It’s a ‘privacy screen,’ according to Wedge. So that no one can see into Ren’s small room from the building across the street.

Objective, first one of this first fucking day: Let that last dream go. Don’t think about it.

Observation: Can’t.

First objective: Failed.

The dream: Ren had been thirteen, maybe fifteen. Still Ben. He stood in the center of a shallow lake, or maybe it was more like a giant puddle, tall trees watching him from the shore. The Millennium Falcon was parked in the middle of this water, which moved against a calm but steady wind. The water was neither cool nor warm-- not real, holding no temperature because it was only a dream, not a vision --and it had not quite reached Ben’s knees as he walked through it, searching, already panicked. Hux was somewhere nearby, in trouble, and Ben felt it like a spear through his chest when he finally spotted Hux: in the water, floating, face down. He’d screamed Hux’s name-- his real name, Elan, as if it would wake him like some magic spell --and had run toward him, but the water slowed him down, he couldn’t get there, and then he heard the cannon turrets on the Falcon turning, locking on him, firing--

Then he woke up, to sirens and the glare of the sun.

He closes his eyes, concentrates. He’s been afraid to open his mind too widely, lest Snoke get back in somehow, but he won’t be able to even pull himself from his bed if he can’t find some indication through the Force that Hux is not suffering right now. He grits his teeth when meditation doesn’t come as easily as it once did. Nothing slides over him, no perfect black surrounds him. Snoke has changed him, in leaving-- in being thrown out. That was always Snoke’s plan, surely. If he can’t steal Ren’s powers for himself, he’ll at least have crippled them beyond repair.

Mental adjustment: Or so Snoke fucking thinks.

Objectives, louder and louder inside his own mind: Don’t give up so easily. Fuck your self-pity. It’s not important. Hux needs you. Get your head out of your ass. Try harder.

Ren grabs his pillow and screams into it as hard as he can without frightening Rey and Wedge. He feels better when he lowers the pillow, his throat raw from that half-buried scream. He likes the idea of sharing an injury with Hux: raw throat, locked into a kind of cell, assaulted by this planet’s brutal sun. He clings to this and closes his eyes, takes a deep breath.

He sees snow. For a moment he thinks it’s a vision of the planet that was destroyed along with Starkiller base, but this snow is different somehow. It’s not shaded by trees. Sunlight bears down upon it, but it’s cold enough up here that the snow doesn’t melt. A mountaintop: he’s standing on one, the air so thin that he wouldn’t be able to breathe in smooth exhales if he were really here and not just standing within a vision. But it’s a real vision: he senses the sting of the cold, sharp in his mind though he can’t feel it against his skin. The wind blows his hair in his face. He doesn’t try to push his hair aside, only closes his eyes within the vision. He can’t see Hux, can’t see anything in the perfect black that finally comes, but he feels a burn in his lungs, and it’s not from the thin air. Cigarettes? He smells one, coughs.

The cough takes him out of the vision. When he opens his eyes he’s sitting in bed in Wedge’s apartment, blinking against the glare from the window. He tells himself this new vision is a good sign, because he’s seen cigarettes in Hux’s future before, and they didn’t feel like a bad omen then.

Observation: He doesn’t trust his visions now. Back when he did trust them, they were really only distractions as Snoke laid the last of his groundwork for that attack on Hux.

Observations, related and worse: He still doesn’t understand the scope of his own power. He’s been too long without a teacher who wanted to do anything but take this power from him. He’s weakened, reeling without direction.

However, undeniable: He feels the faintest hint of tar from a cigarette lingering on his breath as he gets out of bed. He’s never actually smoked one, and yet he’s sure that’s what he tasted in his vision, and what he felt burning in his lungs.

He tries to cling to this as reassurance as he puts on his father’s old clothes again. They’re still too small, but Wedge is even shorter than Han was, and he’ll have nothing better to offer. Yesterday Ren forced himself to eat an early dinner with Rey and Wedge, tasting nothing as those two talked and cried and tried to include him as best they could. He tried to respond in the ways they wanted him to but was mostly just exhausted by their presence and by the temptation to take comfort in it. He went to bed before the sun went down, and now he’s awake again.

He doesn’t know what else is true or real anymore: just that he’s imprisoned in his mother’s world, that Hux is far away, and that Snoke still lives. Ren intends to change all of this as soon as possible. First he will kill Snoke, then he will retrieve Hux. Then he will leave these people who think they know how to help him behind forever. He just has to determine how he’ll accomplish this, starting with the destruction of Snoke.

Objectives, to start: Take a shower. Clean yourself up. Acquire some clothes that didn’t once belong to a man you murdered. Pretend you’re a person who can function in this world for as long as you need to.

He can feel Rey sensing his wakefulness, though she’s not reading his mind precisely. Ren has become the replacement for those chimes Rey steadied on Luke’s island: even while her energy is focused elsewhere, she’s always checking on him, making sure that he’s not spiraling out of control against a strong blast of some untidy emotion. She’s always asking herself: Is Ben okay? What in the present environment might upset him? Is he still where I left him? Would I be able to retrieve him if he were suddenly elsewhere?

He wishes she would stop thinking of him as Ben, but he knows there’s little chance of any of these people managing that.

When he leaves his room Rey is there, waiting in the hallway and wearing what appears to be Wedge’s robe, a faded blue thing that is much too big for her. She smiles at Ren and hands him a towel. Her hair is wet, and longer than he realized.

“The shower’s there,” she says, pointing to the hall bathroom. “I cried.”

“You cried?” He knows what he means, and he’s annoyed by her persisting smile. She shrugs.

“I didn’t have one on Jakku,” she says. “Or at Luke’s house. Not even hot water.”

“Well.” Ren looks down at the towel she handed him and stops himself from informing her that he didn’t have a shower at Snoke’s fortress. “Thanks,” he says instead, lifting the towel. “I’ll, uh. Be right back.”

The bathroom smells strange when he shuts himself inside, sort of sweet and cloying. He realizes why when he strips his clothes off and enters the shower stall: Wedge has purchased some women’s bath products in anticipation of Rey’s arrival. Of course he has. There is a row of new things for Ren as well, presumably: shampoo and soap in bottles that claim to smell like lavanwater and birca tea, neither of which Ren particularly wants to smell like. Even the sight of these bottles that were put here for him makes him want to flee. It’s like a knife in his side, realizing that somebody thinks he deserves anything more than cold creek water and a hunk of anonymous tallow to clean himself with. Those were his supplies during his time with Snoke.

He makes the water very hot, tips his face up into it and tells himself again that he would have felt it already if anything bad had happened to Hux. He felt it when they were in different systems, and now they’re on the same planet, not even a day’s journey separating them. He’s still attempting to convince himself, from time to time, that he didn’t only sense Hux’s pain during his captivity because Snoke wanted him to. He can’t really make himself believe this, or anything that might mean there’s a hope in hell for either of them here, but it seems important to try.

When he washes himself he finds that he can’t even shower without returning to sacred memories of Hux that are like more small knives in his sides now: Hux in the shower on the Finalizer, so surprisingly open that Ren wanted to heal him then and there, under the water. Hux turning up his palms in the shower at the house on the cliff, waiting for Ren to clean him and then clinging to Ren so tightly after he had. Was it really only those two times? Ren could swear now that every real shower he’s taken has been in Hux’s breathless company. Maybe it’s because they were so often in the rain together.

He gets out and dries off, sighs at the sight of Han’s clothes. Rey has assured him that he won’t have to face his mother on this first day here, that Leia is off-planet on some classified Resistence business, but he can’t stop expecting her to appear every time he opens a door in this place. When he’s dressed he steps out into the hallway with caution, moving toward the kitchen and the persistent sound of Rey and Wedge’s chatter, the smell of food drawing him forward even as the thought of more cheerful conversation makes him want to lock himself in his room until Rey and Wedge are asleep again.

“There he is,” Wedge says, turning from the stove. He’s cooking flatcakes-- burning them slightly, by the smell of it. “I’m not much of a chef,” Wedge says, as if he’s read Ren’s thoughts. “But I thought I’d make breakfast for you guys. Hungry?”

“Yeah,” Ren says, trying to sound grateful. Rey gives him a look that tells him he probably looks queasy instead, but Wedge doesn’t seem offended. Last night Wedge made them sandwiches with jelly and khaddi-nut butter, which had been Rey’s favorite thing to eat as a girl. She ate two and praised Wedge’s sandwich construction abilities as if he’d slaved over a gourmet meal for her. Ren had choked one down as politely as he could before retreating to his room. He hadn’t even liked khaddi-nut butter as a kid, but he supposes Wedge never knew that. He sits at the table, accepts a plate of flatcakes and douses them with the syrup that Wedge has put out on the table.

“Luke mentioned some books,” Ren says when he can’t hold it in any longer, interrupting Rey in the middle of some story she’d been telling about the fruit served at a bar she’d apparently visited with Han and Finn before everything went to shit. Rey turns to him, her mouth still hanging open around whatever she’d half-said, and Wedge turns, too. “Sorry,” Ren says, mopping up syrup with a forkful of flatcakes. “Just. I should get to work. With those books.”

“Yeah, of course,” Wedge says. He turns off the stove and comes to the table with his own plate. “I’ve got all Luke’s old Jedi stuff. He always said he’d pass it down to Rey someday, when she was old enough.” Wedge smiles at Ren when he looks up from his plate, then turns to Rey. “I suppose you’re both old enough now.”

Ren hopes Wedge won’t start crying again. Every time Wedge gets going, Rey follows suit, and it’s hard for Ren not to lose his composure when Rey cries.

“Where did Luke find these books?” Rey asks, looking as if she hopes they won’t all start crying again, too.

“Well,” Wedge says, and he clears his throat. “Let’s see, um. To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Luke was always disappearing, back in those days. Going to distant planets on these missions he’d set for himself, collecting things. He said it was important. To be honest, I thought he was just making up excuses to ditch me from time to time.” Wedge grins when Rey gives him a look. “You don’t know what he was like before you came along.”

“I think I do know what he’s like,” Rey says, and she scoffs. “Staying behind like that, I--” She forces herself to drop it there, for Wedge’s sake. He shakes his head as if to tell her she didn’t need to, but they both drink from their juice to avoid continuing that conservation.

“I guess the books were important after all,” Wedge says. “If they’ll help you guys now.”

Feedback from Wedge, as easy to read as it had been when Ben was a kid: Wedge is constantly telling himself not to get his hopes up. That Luke won’t follow Rey home after he’s had a few more days or weeks or months to remain in denial on that island.

“I’ll pull those books out of storage for you,” Wedge says, standing, though he’s not finished with his flatcakes. “You’re right, Ben. You should get started as soon as you can, that’s a good idea.”

Rey is glaring at Ren when Wedge leaves the table.

“Don’t read his mind,” she says, whispering. “He’s your host!”

“So?”

“So, show him some common decency, please. He deserves his privacy.”

Ren shrugs and returns to his flatcakes. They’re too thin and kind of grainy, only really edible because of all the syrup. He’ll make dinner, maybe.

“Have you had any visions?” Ren asks. “Since you’ve been back?”

“A few,” Rey says, mumbling.

“And?”

“And they’re not to do with you or your-- What do you call him?” She narrows her eyes. “Not-- Boyfriend, surely?”

“I don’t call him anything,” Ren says, sharply. “And I wasn’t asking just about him.”

“Oh, Ben, yes, you were. I told you, Finn is going to come over today--”

“When?”

“Whenever the Resistance allows him off the base! He has a job there, you know. He’s not just your personal messenger.”

“But he will return to the Tower,” Ren says, as if he’s giving Finn this command via the Force. “With a message for Hux.”

“I’m sure he’ll do it if I ask him to,” Rey says. “And I will ask him to, if you stop reading my father’s mind for your own entertainment.”

“So you’ve sensed nothing about Hux’s current condition?” Ren says, partly to avoid agreeing to that. Rey sighs and puts her hands over her face.

“You’re going to drive me mad before we can even look at these books,” she says. “Your feedback is-- Obsessive, you’re obsessed with that man, you’ve got to--”

“Oh, you can read my mind, then? That’s allowed?”

“I can’t not read your mind!” Rey says, nearly in a shout. “It’s like you’re screaming it internally, non-stop, this insane concern for him-- They’re not going to hurt him, Ren, not now! He’ll get his day in court.”

“You really think they’re going to give him a fair trial? Don’t be so naive.”

“Um,” Wedge says, from the doorway. Ren feels guilty for turning to him with a look that might be interpreted as rage. “The books are all set up in the living room,” Wedge says, gesturing with his thumb. “There are only five of them, but they’re all big. I’m going out to get you kids some decent clothes to wear, okay? I can’t look at you in those things anymore.” He’s looking at Rey, who is in the same tattered attire that she wore on Luke’s island. “I didn’t want to presume, you know, ahead of time, to know what kind of things you’d like to wear, so. Just let me know what you need and I’ll get it for you.”

“Oh, anything,” Rey says, waving her hand over her plate. “Anything that’s not too tight.”

“Okay.” Wedge laughs uncertainly and looks at Ren. “How about you?” he asks. “I take it you don’t generally like wearing your shirts with the sleeves too short like that?”

“No,” Ren says, pulling at Han’s sleeve. “I, uh. I prefer black. And I don’t like my pants loose like this,” he says, turning to show Wedge what he means.

Rey snorts. “Those aren’t loose,” she says.

“Well, they don’t fit. I’m forty across, here,” he says, slashing his finger across his chest when he turns back to Wedge, who looks as if he thinks he should find something to write this down with. “I prefer tunics, no buttons, and I need a new belt. Thick and black-- that shouldn’t be hard to find. In pants I’m a thirty-three by thirty-four if you can find it, but a thirty-two waist works if that’s all they have. The boots I have are okay, but I--”

“Ben!” Rey snaps, boggling at him.

“What?”

“Do you really not hear how you’re sounding right now?” Rey asks.

Ren thinks of Hux and looks down at his knees. He’s just so tired of wearing his father’s old things. Wants to feel like himself again.

Do you even hear yourself?

Observation: No. Not always. Relatively infrequently, he fears.

“It’s fine,” Wedge says, coming over to squeeze Ren’s shoulder. “I’ve got a good memory. I think I can keep all that in mind.”

“Thank you,” Ren mutters.

When Wedge is gone Ren walks into the living room while Rey does the breakfast dishes. Like every other room in this apartment, with the exception of the mercifully windowless little kitchen, the living room is too bright. The books are spread out on a low table that nearly runs the length of the stiff-looking sofa behind it. Just looking at them gives Ren an odd feeling that makes him keep from getting any closer to them until Rey enters the room.

“You could have helped me clean up,” she says, and she stops in mid-step when she sees the books.

Feedback from Rey, unmistakeable: She feels the same reluctance that Ren does to approach these books. As if opening them might unleash something dangerous.

“You feel it, too?” she says, glancing at him. He gives her a look.

“You know I do. Don’t waste your time with--”

“Redundant questions, right, your favorite lesson to teach me, over and over.” She sighs and squares her shoulders. “Well,” she says. “You wanted to get started. Let’s get started.”

Rey walks to the couch and sits down primly, hands on her knees, as if the books are some visiting dignitaries. Ren follows and sits beside her. The books are all yellowed paper bound in leather, some thicker than others, all of them large and powerfully musty-smelling in a way that makes the grainy flatcakes and syrup on Ren’s stomach shift uncomfortably.

“We should use a data pad or something to keep track of our notes and observations,” Rey says.

“I’m not much of a typist,” Ren says, thinking of the way he enters coordinates on shuttlecraft: slowly, when there’s a full keyboard.

“Oh. Me either, in fact. I'll find some paper and a pen.”

Rey goes in search of that, and Ren is left alone with the books. He feels like they’re staring back at him. In some kind of harsh judgment.

Observation: That’s ridiculous. You’ve become such a coward that you’re afraid to open a book?

He can’t remember the last time he touched an antique book. His mother owned a few, and he had been interested in them as a kid: old histories of the societies that preceded the Republic, and a couple of less interesting ancient fictions of Alderaan that Leia had taken great pains to track down. These books seem older than those had. Ren opens the largest one first, carefully lifting the cover away. He doesn’t recognize the lettering on the title page as any language he’s aware of.

“Can you read this?” he asks when Rey returns with note-taking materials. She shakes her head and he turns another page. It’s intimidating: full of letters and symbols that only begin to make sense to him when he stops trying so hard to separate one from the other, and even then only a few discernable words prick at his consciousness, scrambled and indistinct. ‘Temple’ is one of them.

“I’ve never heard a spoken language that I couldn’t understand,” Rey says. “Droids, other species-- Chewbacca was the first wookie I ever met, but I understood him right away.”

“Yeah,” Ren says, that name like a rope around his neck. “Me too. But reading is different.”

“Right,” Rey says. “I suppose because there’s no conscious person here whose meaning can be sensed.”

“Fucking Luke!” Ren says, standing, agitation flooding him so fast that he’s full of nothing but the need to break things before he can get himself away from the books. Rey’s alarm keeps him from stomping over to at least smash the lamp in the corner or tear down the useless screens over the window. “He should be here,” Ren says, his teeth grit when he glances at Rey. She looks less alarmed now, more annoyed.

“I know,” she says. “But he’s not. Sit down. We haven’t even started. Give it more than ten seconds before you decide it’s impossible.”

“I didn’t say that,” Ren says, muttering. He returns to the sofa, smoothing his hands down over his thighs to make himself calm down. It’s something Hux did, at the house. It doesn’t really work, but the thought of Hux doing it is comforting, for some reason.

Rey sighs and picks up one of the smaller books, pulling it into her lap. She turns the pages carefully. Some of them have arcane illustrations: people with what looks like lightning shooting out of their palms, a levitating Temple surrounded by figures in robes. Something about the images makes the hair on the back of Ren’s neck stand up.

“The truth is,” Rey says, after studying the book for a while in silence, “I’m not really sure where to start with something like this. I knew how to read when I left home, but I never exactly spent a lot of time studying texts, before or after.”

Observation: When I left home. Ren hates that she says it like that, as if it was her choice. To spare him.

“I was a terrible student,” he says when she glances at him. “As you know.”

She touches his shoulder and sighs, returning her gaze to the book. “Did you make the stormtroopers study?” she asks.

“I didn’t make them do anything.” That’s not true, but he certainly didn’t design their education program. Rey glares at him, her hand still on his shoulder.

“You know what I mean,” she says. “Would Finn be able to help, do you think?”

“Are you joking? No. They’re grunts, Rey. They don’t read ancient languages in boot camp.”

“I know that.” She pulls her hand away, glowering now. “I meant-- Never mind what I meant, they’re not grunts, they’re people, kidnapped people, and if you can’t get your mind around that then you’ll never be able to defeat Snoke.”

“What do my feelings about stormtroopers have to do with Snoke?”

“You have to start seeing things as they really are! Otherwise Snoke will turn your head around again, and twist everything until he’s convinced you that it’s impossible to beat him.”

Ren says nothing, wanting to argue that but unable to lie to her. He knows she’s right, that he has to untangle himself from the things Snoke taught him, but she doesn’t understand that some of the ways he sees the world don’t originate from Snoke’s manipulation. She’s got to let herself see that he’s not the kind of person she wants him to be, if she really means to help him. She’s got to want to help him anyway, despite that understanding, or this won’t work.

“You know who could help us,” Rey says, softly enough that Ren can tell whom she’s thinking of without needing to read her mind.

“My mother.” He shakes his head, though he knows she’s right again.

“Leia is well-educated, went to the finest schools, has a talent for strategy--”

“Fine,” Ren says, sharply. “But she’s not here, you-- Said, you said she was off planet.”

“She’ll be back tomorrow,” Rey says, still speaking softly.

Ren shakes his head again, harder now. “I can’t--”

“You can and you will. Don’t underestimate yourself. Or your mother. I’m not saying it won’t be hard. But we need her, Ben. You need her.”

Ren puts his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. He lets his hair fall around his face like a curtain, like a hiding a place. He did this often as a kid, as Ben. He would put his hands over his ears to block out his mother’s voice when her attempts to soothe made him feel like he was being mocked.

“I have an idea,” Rey says, placing her hand on Ren’s back.

“What?” he asks when she’s silent, her hand still resting there.

“Let’s get away from the books for a minute. I want you to tell me what you know about Snoke. I feel like that might be easier without this-- audience.”

They go out to the patio. It’s shaded from the sunlight by a trellis overhead that is covered in flowering vines, but this protection is imperfect, spots of sun sneaking through here and there. Ren sits in one of the long chairs that look out on the city and Rey sits in the other.

“Where would you like to start?” Rey asks after they’ve spent a few minutes just listening to the disorienting sounds of the city. She’s looking at Ren, squinting, because there’s a patch of sunlight that falls near the corner of her left eye. She doesn’t seem to mind.

“Snoke possessed me,” Ren says. “In the house on the cliff. I need to know why he was able to do it then. Before, when I was fifteen, I thought I’d given him permission. It felt like that, like I was hiding somewhere, by choice, and letting him-- Do what he did. But this time I didn’t give any kind of permission. He took me by surprise. Against my will.”

“What were you doing when it happened?” Rey asks.

Ren looks away from her, up at the flowering vines overhead. The flowers are bright pink and papery, almost translucent when the sun hits them a certain way. They have a sweet smell that becomes overpowering when a hot wind blows across the patio.

“Oh,” Rey says.

“Get out of my head.”

“I’m not-- I just got a sense of it! I wasn’t prying. Sorry. That’s interesting, actually. I, um. I assume it wasn’t the first time you’d done-- That? With the Starkiller?”

Ren closes his eyes, concentrating on keeping his memories locked away. The concentration makes everything come back too sharply: Hux that first time, the way it had felt to absorb Hux’s feedback when he shuddered in pleasure, inside and out, flooding Ren with it twice-over, so strongly that Ren had felt like the most powerful force that had ever existed in any galaxy, because he was doing this amazing thing and Hux was so glad for it, shaking with gratitude in his arms. Ren opens his eyes, almost dizzy from the memory. The sun overhead burns the intensity of it away quickly enough, even through the vines.

“I was kissing him when it happened,” Ren says. “It was the first time I’d done it since we’d been there, when we were in the house. Something had kept stopping me, before. We did other things-- We were close. We slept together every night, in the same bed. But when I thought about kissing him I would get this kind of warning feedback.”

“Oh,” Rey says, differently now. Ren can imagine what his feedback must read like at the moment, things he can’t hide from her: grief, pouring into him like boiling water, at the thought of what he had and how far away it all is already. His desperate hope that he could ever be in any bed with Hux again. The fear that he won’t. It burns like the cruelest sun, always searing him.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Ren says, sharply. “I’d-- Lost myself, in him, already. In Hux. The kiss was no different. But then it was, somehow. That moment. I gave myself over to-- Something. Not to Snoke. But Snoke took advantage of it.”

“Interesting,” Rey says, again. She’s leaning toward Ren now, as if she might need to spring out of her chair and comfort him, or calm him from some forthcoming tantrum. It’s true that he’s breathing harder now, trying not to let his anger about what Snoke has taken from him overwhelm him just yet. “I’ve never kissed anyone,” Rey says when Ren turns to her. She doesn’t seem upset about this.

Feedback from Rey, too blindingly bright to go unseen: She thinks she’ll be able to kiss someone, finally, soon. That stormtrooper.

“I’d wipe that look off your face if I were you,” she says. “I’m not judging you for who you’ve been kissing.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Well, I’m trying not to! Anyway, my point is that I don’t know what that’s like, but when I try to imagine you doing it, with him-- I think it must be something more, um, intimate, in a sense. Than whatever else you’d done. Maybe the other things were more-- physical? Automatic? But a kiss is like a choice. To surrender. On another level. It’s physical, but it’s also something else. Am I totally off base?”

“Not totally,” Ren mutters, glowering out at the city now.

“And how about the time before?” Rey asks. “Were you overwhelmed by something when Snoke took over, when you were fifteen? By some emotion?”

“Dread,” Ren says, unable to look at her. “Fear.”

“Fear of what he’d asked you to do?”

“Fear that I wouldn’t be able to do what he had asked.”

“Because you were afraid of him, right?” Rey says. “Of Snoke?”

Ren shakes his head. “I was afraid I would have to be Ben again. That I would always only be him. And not what Snoke could help me become.”

This is what he needs Rey to understand. Still, it’s hard to say. It’s hard to feel her feedback dropping into deep disappointment after he’s told her this truth.

“I see,” Rey says, though she doesn’t really understand or accept this about him, not yet. “Well, suffice it to say that these were peak emotional experiences. I mean, the moment before the massacre at the Temple certainly was. And this experience with the Starkiller--”

“Will you stop calling him that?”

“Only when you stop thinking of Finn as ‘that stormtrooper’ or ‘that traitor.’”

“I don’t-- Always think of him that way.”

“Regardless,” Rey says, giving him a humorless look. “This experience you had with the-- General. This particular kiss. Something was important about it?”

“It was-- I had, just. Wanted that. For all those days we were there. And all the months before that, when we’d been apart. I had kissed him already, that same day, outside the house. But this time was more like how I’d pictured it. In bed with him. And he’d told me his name.”

“His name?”

“His real name, his first name. He’s like me, he hates his name-- The one people called him when he was a kid. He likes to think he grew out of it. But it’s still there, and. He said it for me, just before we kissed, and I let something fall away, too. For him. It was like I was giving him something that I wanted him to keep for me, forever. But Snoke came and stole it.”

Ren wants to sit forward again, to let his hair fall around his face so he can hide inside it. He remains still on the low chair, lying on his back and staring up at the vines. He can feel Rey thinking, considering this information. He can also feel her thinking that she wants to know what all this feels like, in practice rather than in theory. She wants know what it’s like to give someone an unnamable piece of herself and trust them to keep it forever.

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” Rey says. “I can feel it, I-- can imagine.”

“Can you.”

“Yes,” she says, sharply, when she hears the doubt in his voice. “I know what it’s like. When you’ve been alone for so long. When it starts to seem like there’s never been anyone. Not really, just you. And then-- There is someone, suddenly, and it’s like the world has more colors than it did before, and you have so much hope, in the face of-- anything, whatever comes, that you’re not going to be alone anymore. And then they’re gone, and you’re alone again. You were wrong when you thought-- And it hurts worse than before, being alone.”

“You don’t even know him,” Ren says, mildly horrified. She’s talking about Finn, of course.

“Oh no?” she says, fire jumping into her eyes. “And how many days did you have with your General before you felt like you’d die if you lost him?”

Ren doesn’t answer. She knows. One. Not the first day he met Hux, but that first night they spent alone together in Ren’s room. After everything that had happened. Ren had felt newly alone, more than he had ever been in his life, because Snoke had lied to him. He had not grown more powerful in killing Han. It had weakened him. And then Hux was there, in his bed, warm and real and saying whatever he thought, unafraid. Even when Ren’s hand was around his throat, that night, in that bed: Hux was fearless, and Ren could have only done with someone fearless, then.

“There’s something I haven’t told you yet,” Ren says, needing to change the subject.

“Oh?” Rey says, wary.

“I have a power that Luke didn’t teach me. I developed it myself, and even Snoke never knew. Or anyway, I don’t think he did. I had it before Snoke possessed me in that house, but afterward, when I tried to use it on Hux, I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m afraid I’ve lost it, but--”

“What’s the power?” Rey asks, looking increasingly concerned.

“Healing.” Ren stares at her after he’s said so, expecting her to doubt him. She doesn’t seem surprised.

“I know that,” she says.

“You-- What? From reading my thoughts?”

“No. I remember, from when we were kids. If I had a scrape or something, you would heal it. I thought it was funny, because we never told anyone. That’s strange, isn’t it?” She’s frowning now. “I’d sort of forgotten. Why wouldn’t you have bragged to Luke that you could do that?”

“I didn’t--” Ren has to look away from her, something like a headache forming at the base of his skull. He sits up, alarmed, but it’s not Snoke. It’s like a regrowing memory, something that his efforts to remove Rey’s memories of the Force had destroyed. It’s still tattered, unclear, but he can see it now: a half-formed image of a cut on Rey’s thumb, healing under his hand. She’d smiled up at him when it was done. He’d winked.

“You’d forgotten,” Rey says, still frowning. “So you don’t remember why you kept this a secret, back then?”

“No. I didn’t tell you my reason?”

“I don’t think so. It’s not like I ever came to you with a broken bone. It was more like if I’d scraped my knee or something like that.”

“And you never told Wedge or Luke?”

“No. I guess I thought it was your secret to tell. Like maybe you wanted to surprise Luke with it, later, when you could heal something bigger, after you’d practiced on my little scrapes.”

Ren stands and tucks his hands under his arms, paces. This is important. Enormously. When he looks at Rey he knows she can feel it, too.

“Who else have you healed?” she asks.

“Only Hux. I must have forgotten I could do this when I dropped you off on Jakku. It started coming back to me after-- After Han, after the bridge. After I’d fought you in those woods.”

“And what did you heal on him?” Rey asks. “On Hux?” she clarifies, pronouncing his name grudgingly.

“Everything,” Ren says, and he scoffs. “First, his neck. After you gave me this scar, when I was still recovering myself. Hux made me mad and I sort of-- Anyway, I healed some bruises on his neck. Then, when I rescued him from what Snoke had done, from these First Order traitors who had-- Have you sensed this yet?”

“A bit,” Rey says, looking queasy. “His fear, when we arrested him-- I could sense something very bad had happened to him in captivity, before.”

“Right, well. When I found him, they had just-- Trashed his body. Broken legs, and his ribs--” Ren shakes his head. He can’t think about that now. Those memories would send him over the edge of this patio, down the street, across this entire planet at full speed until he reached Hux and became some kind of inhuman source of pure rage that would tear that Tower apart from tip to base in search of Hux, needing to carry him away from his captors again. “I healed so many injuries on him,” Ren says, weakly, when he senses Rey’s concern. “But after Snoke’s attack-- After Snoke used my hands to attack him--” He looks down at his hands, at his palms. “Nothing. I had no power to heal him.”

“Maybe the recipient has to be open to it,” Rey says. “And he wasn’t, then, because he was in shock, and scared of you.”

“Maybe,” Ren says, muttering. “I want to look in those books for information about this, if it exists there. Tell me if you find anything about healing.”

“I will,” Rey says.

They share a look, and Rey smiles a little. Ren fights the urge to do the same. This discussion feels like some kind of small progress, but they can’t get ahead of themselves. With Snoke there are always at least three layers of deliberate confusion to untangle from every new discovery.

They return to the books then, each taking one and making notes of the words and phrases they’re able to piece together from instinct when they can clear their minds enough to do so. It doesn’t amount to much by the time Wedge returns from his shopping trip and the sun begins to sink outside, but it’s a start-- Or so Rey says, ever optimistic. Ren still feels lost, with his jumble of jotted down words and no information about healing discovered.

“I think I got everything you need,” Wedge says when he hands Ren a bulging shopping bag.

“I’m sure it’s all fine,” Ren says, peering inside curiously. “Thank you. It’s hard, uh. For me to wear these other clothes.”

“Well, you should have things that make you feel comfortable,” Wedge says, smiling.

Feedback from Wedge: He doesn’t know Ren has been wearing Han’s old clothes. He simply thinks Ren is a very emotional person who needs things a certain way.

Ren isn’t sure what kind of expression to put on his face, sensing this. He makes a vague gesture toward his room, indicating that he’s going to go change.

“Oh, sure,” Wedge says, waving him in that direction. “Go ahead. Maybe I’ll order something for dinner tonight.”

“Can you order supplies?” Ren asks.

“Supplies?”

“Groceries,” Rey says, coming out of her room wearing some of her new garments. This outfit looks like a cleaner, newer version of her old clothes, out of fashion and basic but also somehow flattering. “Ben likes to cook,” Rey says when Wedge still seems lost. “He wants to cook us dinner. I think it’s a great idea. A good way to channel pent-up energy.”

Ren turns to scowl at her, though he secretly appreciates this. She grins.

“Absolutely!” Wedge says, sounding like this is the best news he’s heard all day. “Just give me a list of what you need and I’ll have it delivered by the droid service.”

“I’ll change first,” Ren says, mumbling. He grabs Rey’s arm when she starts to walk past him. “When does your friend get here?” he asks.

“Are you unable to say his name?”

Ren stares at her. She stares back.

“When is Finn getting here?” Ren asks, his jaw tight.

“In about an hour,” Rey says, cheerful again. “So he’ll be with us for dinner. Account for him in your grocery order, please.”

She walks off as if the matter is settled. Ren goes into his room, annoyed with himself for not anticipating that an offer to cook dinner would result in serving it to Finn, but he’ll feed that guy anything in exchange for reassurance that Hux arrived safely at the Tower and is being given special accommodation. He opens the shopping bag Wedge brought him and laughs under his breath when he sees that literally everything inside is black, though he’s not sure why this is funny. It’s what he asked for.

When he’s dressed in black pants and a long-sleeved black tunic that’s cinched around his waist with a wide black belt, all of these items satisfactory if not ideal, he gives Wedge a list of ingredients to order from the droid service and thinks of returning to the books, then decides he’s had enough of them for one day. Rey is in her room, but she’s left the door open. She looks up from the mirrored vanity where she’s sitting when she spots Ren lurking in the doorway.

“Do people still wear their hair like this?” she asks, touching one of the three sections she’s knotted into a bun. “Wedge always put it up for me this way when I was little, and I do it out of habit, but I don’t know-- Does it look stupid, do you think? In modern society?”

“Why do you presume I know how women wear their hair here?” Ren asks, confused about why it even matters until he considers that she probably wants to impress Finn. As if she wouldn’t manage that with a shaved head.

“Well, you’ve mixed with normal people more than I have,” Rey says, a bit sharply. “In your adventures. I assume.”

“I don’t know if normal is the right word. I’ve been on space stations. In the Order they had all the women wear their hair in a bun at the base of their necks. To keep it out of the way.”

“And yet you were allowed to wear yours flowing freely?” Rey says, smiling a little. Making fun of him now.

“I wasn’t enlisted in the Order.”

“Ben, it was a joke. Lighten up. We’re having a dinner party. Isn’t it exciting?”

“No.”

Rey laughs and turns back to her mirror, fussing with her hair again. Ren leaves her to it and paces the apartment, increasingly anxious for Finn to arrive and give him the news about Hux. When a droid brings the supplies he asked for he at least has that as a distraction, though he feels stupid rinsing vegetables in the sink, and begins to regret that he offered to do this. It’s absurd, considering everything else that’s going on, but he tells himself, like he did in that house on the cliff, that they still have to eat. Cutting ingredients up into neat sections and placing them into bowls brings him the same quiet calm that it always does, until he hears the door buzzer and nearly slices his thumb off as he flies from his work to answer it.

Rey gets there first. She’s still wearing her hair in three buns. Ren is glad about this, for some reason. Finn is all smiles for her as soon as he’s through the door, and he continues to share Rey’s apparent fondness for talking at the same time as the person she’s attempting to speak with. Finn’s face falls when he notices Ren looming nearby.

“Hello,” Ren says, intentionally, to get that out of the way. “Is Hux secure at the Tower? Did you speak to those in charge as Rey instructed you to? Were you able to confirm that they won’t allow anything untoward while--”

“One question at a time!” Rey says. “And let him at least finish walking inside first.”

“It’s fine,” Finn says. “I expected this. But I still don’t get why you care,” he says, speaking to Ren. “You and that guy are-- Friends?”

Feedback from Finn: He’s thinking of Poe Dameron, his close friend. He doesn’t understand.

Ren glances at Rey. She shrugs, as if to tell him it’s up to him to divulge whatever he’d like to Finn about the nature of his concern for Hux’s well-being.

“Never mind why,” Ren says. “Tell me. Is he safe? What transpired when you arrived at the Tower? What was his condition when you departed?”

“All right,” Finn says. “Three more questions.” He takes a seat on the sofa with Rey when she brings him there. Luke’s books have been put away: two in Rey’s room, three in Ren’s. “Um,” Finn glances at Rey. “Am I going to meet your dad?”

“Excuse me,” Ren says, louder than he intended to. They both glare at him. “Answer me, dammit,” he says, not interested in being polite. “Wedge is in his room. He’ll be here momentarily. This matter is more pressing.”

“Go ahead,” Rey says, nodding when Finn looks at her. “My dad’s just getting ready. He’s not avoiding you.”

“Okay.” Finn sighs and looks at Ren. “When we got there, they took him to the warden. Not the friendliest guy, but he said he already had orders from Organa to keep the Starkiller in isolated custody so nobody can mess with him. I guess you know about the sentencing hearing that’s coming up for him, since it’s all over the holo broadcasts nonstop.”

“What?” Ren glances at the room’s powered-off holoprojector, which is perched on a shelf over the simu-light fireplace, across from the sofa. Somehow Ren didn’t anticipate Hux being galactic news, but of course he is. “Where are the controls for this thing?” he asks, scanning the projector frantically when he can’t locate them. It’s a new model, a design he’s not familiar with, and he’s too thrown by this sudden information about Hux being talked about in the media to sense anything but his own panic as he slaps at the sides of the projector, looking for a compartment that hides the controls.

“Calm down!” Rey says. “Please, Ben, you’ll break it.”

“Pretty sure you turn it on with this, man,” Finn says, more smugly than necessary. He’s holding a wireless controller. The holo flickers on when Finn presses a button.

The holochannel that the projector is tuned to shows a game of smashball. Finn flicks to the next channel, where a Cerean man reads a news report. Ren stumbles backward, away from the projector, when a picture of Hux’s face appears alongside the newscaster. It’s a still image from a recording of the speech Hux gave before the first use of the weapon that destroyed those five planets. So the New Republic has seen that speech. Of course they have.

“Turn it up,” Rey says.

Finn adjusts the volume. Ren keeps backing away from the projector until he’s standing against the wall beside the sofa, still staring at the frozen image of Hux. It’s from some moment toward the end of his speech. In the image, Hux looks insane. Inhuman with hatred. His eyes don’t appear to be green.

“The capture of the First Order’s General Hux is said to be a great victory for the Resistance,” the newscaster says, staring gravely at the camera. “Especially in light of last year’s loss of much of the Republic’s fleet in the attack that General Hux takes credit for in this now-infamous footage that was first released to the public earlier this year.”

The broadcasts shifts to Hux’s speech. Ren had sensed it more than watched it, that day. At the time he’d found Hux fairly ridiculous, but seeing the speech now sends a biting chill down the back of his neck. Hux is almost spitting with rage as he addresses his subordinates, announcing the end of the Republic. That speech was personal for him, but this doesn’t give the right impression of why. Hux looks and sounds like someone who not only longs to kill everyone who stands in his way but also like someone who is quivering with enjoyment at the thought of all that suffering, loss, destruction.

“That’s-- Quite a different side of him,” Rey says when the broadcast cuts back to the newscaster.

Rey’s feedback, things she can’t or doesn’t want to hide: She’s more distressed by this footage of Hux than she was by Ren’s admission that he had wanted to destroy Ben Solo and become Snoke’s creation instead. Rey is even a bit frightened, as if the Hux on the holo was really just in the room with them, threatening them.

“All his speeches were like that,” Finn says, shrugging one shoulder. “I’d never met him back then, but he always seemed like a spiteful little lunatic to me.” Finn sniffs a kind of humorless laugh, recalling something more recent. Ren is rattled, but Finn’s feedback is never very guarded, easy enough to read now.

Feedback from Finn: He asked Hux, in the transport on the way to the Tower, to help him find his parents. Hux refused. He was dismissive, cruel. Clinging to the last petty remnants of his tattered power over FN-2187.

“You don’t know him,” Ren says, to both of them, without really meaning to speak. He can’t hold it in. “He doesn’t let people know him.”

“How did you ever come to bond with a person like that?” Rey asks, her distress persisting.

“It’s not like they don’t have a few things in common,” Finn mutters when Ren refuses to answer.

Observations: Another redundant question from Rey. Finn’s response is more astute.

Wedge walks into the room just as the newscaster finishes reading off the names of the Committee members who will decide how to punish Hux for what happened when that speech concluded.

“Hey!” Wedge says when Finn and Rey rise. “You must be Finn. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Ren remains pressed against the wall while they make their inane introductions. He’s still staring at the holoprojector. A picture of his mother has appeared in place of the image of Hux.

“General Organa will serve as Committee Head during the sentencing,” the newscaster says. “It’s being reported that, should the vote for or against the death penalty end in a tie, Organa will have the deciding vote.”

Rey hears this at the same time that Ren does. Finn and Wedge haven’t noticed. They’re talking about-- Ren doesn’t even know, doesn’t care. He feels Rey looking at him, wanting to draw his gaze.

Feedback from Rey, directly: Ben. It’s okay.

“Like hell it is,” Ren says, accidentally out loud. Everyone turns to stare at him. His voice came out unsteady. His mother’s picture is still being projected. The newscaster is talking about Alderaan.

“It’s Leia,” Rey says when Wedge and Finn look at her in confusion. She points to the holo. “She’ll be, ah. She’ll be on the Committee that--”

“Did you know?” Ren asks, barking this more angrily than he’d intended to. Rey shakes her head, but she’s not being honest. Ren can read it on her now. She had a vision about this. “I thought you didn’t have any visions about me and him,” Ren says, louder now.

“Hey, all right,” Finn says, holding up a hand. “Don’t shout at her.”

“Ben,” Rey says. Her voice is shaky; it stabs at him. He did that. He’s frightened her. Once, that was impossible. “Please, just. You can speak to Leia about this, soon.”

“Speak to her-- What am I supposed to say? I’m supposed to beg her to spare him? You’re failing to see the irony in that, really?”

“I didn’t ask you to beg for anything,” Rey says, her voice sharpening, eyes narrowing. “I wanted Leia to tell you this herself. I didn’t think it was my place-- I didn’t realize it would be on the news just yet.”

“Okay,” Wedge says when everyone goes silent, Ren breathing heavily from his spot against the wall and Finn standing near Rey as if he’s ready to protect her, as if Ren might attack her, as if Finn could do anything in a fight against him. “How about we all go into the kitchen and have a beer,” Wedge says, holding out his hands. “This is big news, about Leia being involved with the, um. I think we all need a second to process it.”

“Beer sounds good,” Finn says. He touches Rey’s shoulder. “You okay?” he asks, speaking softly. She nods, then gives Ren another accusing look.

Observation: It hurts. A lot. Seeing her look at him like that. Like she doesn’t know him. Can’t trust him.

Observation, related: It was the footage of Hux that did it, more than Ren’s most recent outburst. Rey saw that footage, that speech, as proof that Ren’s allegiance lies elsewhere. With people of that sort. She saw the real, flagrant hatred on Hux’s face and felt she had been wrong to offer Hux comfort on Luke’s island. As if she had been almost tricked into it, by Ren.

“People can be more than one thing,” Ren says, his voice still too tight. “They can be monsters and something else, too. At the same time. You said so yourself. About me.”

“I’m not upset with you for whatever you see in-- That man,” Rey says, and she sniffs. “But how could--” She presses her lips shut.

Feedback from Rey, better not said aloud: How could you think Leia would vote for anything but mercy? How could you think for even a moment that she would kill the man you love as revenge for what you did to Han? How fucking dare you, Ben?

He’s not sure how to respond to that. It’s strange to hear Rey curse, even in her head. She shuts her mind to Ren as best she can and walks into the kitchen. Finn follows, looking confused and giving Ren an angry glance on his way out of the room. Wedge sighs and turns off the holoprojector when the newscaster moves on to talk about diplomatic relations with the leadership of the Yancreian system.

“So,” Wedge says when he looks at Ren. “Do you drink?”

“Sometimes.” Ren thinks of that second night on the Finalizer with Hux. His first and only experience with alcohol. He had hated parts of it, hearing himself say things too easily, but he had liked others. He had liked that the drink seemed to give him permission to try certain things, like running his fingertips slow and soft along the length of Hux’s arm. He had liked how Hux smiled and shivered and pressed back against him in drowsy pleasure, how Hux had suddenly let himself have certain things, too.

“Good,” Wedge says, nodding. “Because you could probably use a drink, huh?”

Ren follows him into the kitchen and accepts a bottle of beer. Rey and Finn are sitting at the table with their own beer bottles, in silence. Finn looks as if he’s trying not to let it show that he’s having a hard time managing his reactions to all of this. Skywalker drama, as Hux used to think of it, though there are no Skywalkers here. The drama could still be accurately called that. Rey avoids Ren’s stare. Dinner lies half-prepared on the counter.

“I’m going to drink this in my room and write a note for Hux,” Ren announces, lifting his beer bottle. “I’d like to you to bring this note to Hux as soon as possible,” he says to Finn, as politely as he can manage.

Observation: He hears himself, this time. He’s aware that he still sounds aggressive, as if he’s issuing a command.

“Then I’ll finish cooking dinner,” Ren says, hurrying this out when Finn opens his mouth to respond. “And you can stay. And eat it. With us.”

“Okay,” Finn says slowly, glancing at Rey.

“He’s a good cook,” she says, still avoiding Ren’s gaze. “Or he thinks so, anyway.”

Ren goes into the living room and retrieves the scratch pad he jotted notes on earlier. He brings it into his room with his beer, using the Force to the slam the door shut behind him. He sits on the bed, puts the beer on the little table beside it, and stares at Luke’s books. They’re piled on a chair near the window. The room has already started to smell like them, a bit.

Ren stares down at the blank sheet of paper that awaits his message to Hux. He can’t remember the last time he wrote anybody a note by hand. He sent Hux a few messages via his comm on the Finalizer, and he tries to remember what the last one said. It was probably some command for Hux to come to Ren’s room to get fucked. Thinking of it makes his hand curl into a fist around the pen he’s holding. It’s already hard to believe that there was ever a time when he could just ask for that and Hux would come to him, if he wanted to. And Hux had wanted it, so much. Ren had felt it in the air, everywhere on that ship, ever-present at the back of his mind once he knew: Hux wanted him so much that it hurt, and the hurt only made him want Ren more. Hux had liked that there was an edge of pain in their every interaction, secretly. The pain made it real, made it count.

Observation, far too late to change things the way that it should have: For Ren it was a life-altering revelation, this idea that someone could find him vexing and exhausting and yet could never tire of his company. It had felt so good to give Hux that: to just keep close, nothing more, and feel Hux’s feedback soothing into a kind of peace he’d never known before Ren.

Ren drinks half the beer, writes the note to Hux, and drinks the rest as he reads it over. It’s not very well-written or profound, but it’s the best he can do right now. Hux just needs to know that Ren is thinking of him. Non-stop. So much that Rey is weary of sensing it already. She calls it an obsession, as if that were a bad word. Ren knows about obsession. Obsession moves the world, as much as it can ever be moved by any single person. It drives the desires of everyone in the galaxy, large and small. Both the powerful and powerless. Everybody is obsessed with something. In some ways, being obsessed with serving Snoke was easier to live with than Ren’s obsession with protecting Hux, but he wouldn’t go back if he could. Ren was a hollow column of darkness before Hux. Even when he was Ben. He’d felt so empty, before his need to have Hux always at his side grew to feel like the only thing that matters.

He folds up the letter, returns to the kitchen and gives it to Finn, then resumes work on the meal he’d been preparing without a word. The conversation at the table becomes awkward for a moment, but soon they’re all back to talking as if Ren isn’t among them. He prefers that to any uncomfortable attempts to include him, and he’s glad to have something to do while they talk and drink.

The meal he makes is simple, grilled sandwiches with meat and cheese, pan-fried vegetables on the side, but the ingredients brought by the droid were of a high quality and everything turns out well. Ren begins to eat his portion at the counter, standing, but consents to join the others at the table when Wedge asks him to. Rey meets Ren’s eyes when he looks at her as he’s taking his seat.

Feedback from Rey, directly, somewhat fuzzed by the two beers she’s consumed: It just breaks my heart to think that you don’t know Leia. Or that you pretend not to know her, and how much she loves you. Maybe because I can barely remember my own mother.

Ren eats quickly and wipes his mouth with his napkin when he’s finished his sandwich. Wedge and Finn are really hitting it off, talking about the old X-wings and some newer models that are being built on the base right now. Rey is getting sleepy and somewhat impatient, wanting to be alone with Finn and wondering if Wedge will go to bed before Finn has to leave.

“I have some things to say,” Ren announces, having had enough of this dinner party and needing to make himself scarce sooner rather than later. They all turn to stare at him. He feels like he should stand, so he does. “Rey,” he says. “I’m sorry I shouted at you.”

“I--” she says, shaking her head. “It’s fine, you were--”

“Finn,” Ren says, not wanting to reopen the discussion of what he was feeling when he shouted. “Thank you for taking my message to Hux. I trust you to get it to him and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t read it.”

Observation: The slight threat implicit in that statement is concealed so well that only Rey senses it. She sighs. Finn looks from her to Wedge and then up at Ren again.

“Okay, yeah,” Finn says. “I’ll do it, sure, as soon as they’ll let me go back down there.”

“Leia will grant you the leave,” Rey says. “She’ll be back in the morning.”

“Wedge,” Ren says, also not wanting to reopen a discussion of his mother. “Thank you for the clothes. I know I thanked you already, but I wanted to say it again. It’s a big deal, to me. For reasons I can’t explain.”

“Ben,” Wedge says. His eyes are shining but not quite wet. “Anything you need. You were there for Rey when she needed you, so. I’m here for you now.”

Ren can’t deal with that either. He looks at Rey.

“Thanks for cooking,” she says.

Feedback from Rey, below that: You can go to your room if you want. It’s okay.

Observation, another thing he can’t deal with: Rey sounds like Leia, giving him permission to duck away. Leia used to say things like that to Ben, via the Force, when he wanted to escape from family parties or even just from the other kids. It’s okay, sweetheart. You don’t have to play with the others if you don’t want to. Leia had offered this sincerely but sadly. Worried for him. She was always afraid that Ben would grow up unhappy, because of who he was. Because of the things he couldn’t change about himself.

Alone in his room, Ren doesn’t put on the light. He’s grown accustomed to doing without light after nightfall, and he stands at the window to look out at the city. The books seem to hum from the chair where they sit, but he can’t learn anything more from them tonight. He takes off his belt, holds it in his hands. His hooded robe is folded on the bureau. He’ll wear it when he goes to kill Snoke, and when he sees Hux again.

He gets into bed and stretches out on his back, still dressed, his hands folded over his stomach. When he closes his eyes he drifts, too hazy from the beer to approach anything like meditation. He doesn’t want to sleep.

Observation, still hazy but real, a kind of vision: Hux doesn’t want to sleep either. In his cell, alone. He’s reached across his sterile sheets more than once, looking for Ren.

A soft sound breaks at the back of Ren’s throat. He wants to believe that Hux has heard it, as if Ren’s audible grief is a currency that Hux could cash in for comfort.

“Please, please,” Ren says, whispering, talking to himself. He wants this vision to be real, needs to believe that Hux has looked for him while half-asleep, even as the idea rips him in two, because he wasn’t there when Hux reached for him.

He falls asleep on his back and has more bad dreams: blood, the buzz of his lightsaber too close to Rey’s cheek, and the sound of Poe’s screams from the hallway of the Finalizer, when Ren was still too much of a coward to enter the interrogation room himself.

Observation, when the semblance of sleep fades and he wakes with a mild headache in an unfamiliar room, smelling ancient books: They weren’t dreams so much as memories.

The apartment is quiet, but some small disturbance pings at his consciousness: Rey. She’s outside, on the patio. Ren sits up, wanting to walk out and sit with her, thinking she’s unable to sleep, but before he can move from the bed he senses that she’s not alone. She’s in one of those low, long chairs, with Finn, though they can’t fit there together without holding onto each other and overlapping, Rey’s head resting on Finn’s chest as she laughs at something he’s said. Wedge is asleep in his bedroom. Rey is smiling, fidgeting, overly warm. Finn has kissed her ten times already, maybe more. Sensing this almost gets Ren out of bed, a protective instinct curdling in his gut, but these kisses they’ve exchanged are just some chaste kids’ stuff, both of them thrilled to even have this.

Ren disconnects as much as he can, but when he rolls onto his side in bed he can still feel small things that come through without any effort on his or Rey’s behalf: Finn’s heartbeat under Rey’s cheek, Finn’s hand resting on her hip.

Observations, fundamentally reassuring, even as they slap against Ren like taunts: Rey feels safe, happy, hopeful. She feels, at last, again, like she’s not alone.

Ren closes his eyes and focuses on his own thoughts, moving away from theirs. He sends his mind south. To the Tower. He’s been afraid to do it before now: afraid he would frighten Hux, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to reach him, afraid of what he might find there if he did. Hux might sense Ren’s attempts to reach him and want nothing more than freedom from Ren’s attention, forever.

Observation, suddenly too clear: Hux is offline.

Correction, pushing back the panic: Hux is asleep. In a bed that is cold but clean. Dreaming.

To call this a dream would be too charitable. It’s a nightmare: Hux is surrounded by faceless men in First Order uniforms. They approach him, cornering him, laughing. Ren is sad for Hux before his epiphany comes.

Observation, shooting Ren into the stars with giddy accomplishment, power flooding him like a color he lost sight of for some time: He can see Hux’s dream. From here. The nightmare is real, for Hux, and Hux is terrified.

And Ren can help him. He is in this dream with Hux now.

In Hux’s dream, Ren finds his confiscated lightsaber in his hand. He looks down at it, smiles, feels his teeth sharpening into points. He makes a half-animal noise and all of Hux’s would-be attackers turn. They don’t have faces. Ren cuts their heads off anyway.

Ren walks through the shower of blood that falls from them. He powers off the lightsaber and throws it away. Hux is watching him, wary. He saw the sharpness of Ren’s teeth. He’s afraid that those teeth might close into his throat.

In this nightmare, Hux sees himself as younger and smaller than he really is. They were in a windowless room, but when Ren concentrates he transforms the room into a forest. Pine trees sway in the wind overhead. Hux remains on the ground, not cowering but cautious. Frowning up at Ren.

“Hux,” Ren says.

Hearing Ren’s voice transforms Hux into who he really is: his real age, actual size, green eyes.

“You’re not real,” Hux says.

“No,” Ren says, because Hux doesn’t want to see the real Ren yet. Not even in his dreams.

Hux stands up. He’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt and loose pants, both gray and nondescript. Slippers on his feet.

“You can’t keep saving me,” Hux says. “It won’t work.”

The bodies of the decapitated nightmare men are gone. Their heads have disappeared, too. Sun flicks through the pine needles that sway overhead.

“I’m tired of being underestimated,” Ren says, the words coming to him as if he’s reading lines from some play. Still, they feel true: like his own, real words, buried someplace until now. “I will kill Snoke,” he says, finally believing it. “I will save you. And we will leave this planet together.”

“It’s a dream,” Hux says, laughing, angry. “You were always only a dream.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“Do I?” Hux walks closer, just a few steps, his eyes still so angry. “How?”

“Because I was inside you. You felt me. I’m real.”

Saying so throws Ren out of Hux’s dream. He opens his eyes and stares at a square of light on the ceiling of this room in Wedge’s apartment. He gasps, clawing at the unfamiliar tunic that he’s wearing in this unfamiliar bed.

Observations, shot through with ragged disbelief but solid, too: His eyes are wet. His eyes are wet because that was Hux. Because Hux woke up, too, gasping in his bed, in his prison cell.

Hux will tell himself it’s not real, because Hux doesn’t believe in things as easily as Ren, who could lift his hand and move objects across rooms by the time he was four years old. But Ren has to believe, because he’s seen too many things that shouldn’t be real, that Hux can smell him on his sheets now. Ren rolls over and drags the blankets on the bed against his face. It’s Hux, this smell: as if he was just here. The scent of Hux fades quickly, but before it’s gone Ren blinks his wet eyes open and clenches his jaw, imagines his teeth growing into razor-sharp points.

Observation: Only two things matter now.

First objective: He will visit Hux in his dreams again. Hux can tell himself it’s a fantasy if he wants to. Hux deserves that much; Ren won’t trouble him when he’s not asleep.

Secondly: Ren will have Snoke’s throat in his teeth before long. He will bring Snoke’s bitter, shriveled heart to Hux in a black lacquered box.

After that, it’s up to Hux. Ren can only hope Hux will accept this gift. He can only hope that Hux will read the note brought by Finn rather than ripping it to shreds. Ren can feel his note crumpling in Finn’s pocket even now, as Rey falls asleep against Finn’s chest.

Feedback from Finn, unwanted but too clear to ignore: Finn was supposed to be back at the Resistance base two hours ago. He’s afraid they’ll punish him but can’t make himself leave her just yet.

Observation: Ren knows something about what that’s like.

Observation, also relevant, annoying: Finn will deliver the letter as asked. He’s honorable, when it matters. When it actually matters, Finn is more faithful than most.

Ren wipes his face on the sheets. The scent of Hux has faded, but it was here. He’s sure of it. He falls asleep, trying to ignore the persisting awareness that his mother’s ship is drawing closer to this planet as she returns to her base.

Observation, strange: He wants his ghosts back.

Ren listens, waits. Feel as if those ghosts are still with him but quieted by something.

“Come back,” he says, muttering this against the mattress, speaking to everything he’s ever lost.

Observation, fading into real sleep: He’s even directing this request to his mother. Even as she’s already returning to him, unstoppable.

 

**