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Under the Ruins of a Walled City

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On the day of his interview with the New Republic prosecutor, Hux wakes feeling calm. He’s not sure why, except that he doubts that what he says to this person will really make any difference in the long run, and in the meantime at least it’s something to do. The biggest event of the day prior had been his sanistream shower, and he’d had the entire otherwise empty day to obsess over unsettling memories of a dream about being with Ren at the Academy. In the dream, Hux had lead Ren through the halls on a kind of morbid tour of the past, culminating in something to do with buttons. Hux has been trying not to think about it. He’s never been the sort to assign importance to dreams, or to anything that goes on purely in one’s own head, but he keeps returning to the memory of it, probably only because he’d rather think of anything other than the shrinking number of days he has left before his hearing begins.

When the guards deliver Hux to the conference room where Jek awaits, his sense of calm is immediately disturbed by Jek’s demeanor. Jek is obviously flustered, and his data screens are spread three feet wide by his pad’s projector, two layers deep and cluttering the air between them as Hux takes a seat.

“What’s wrong?” Hux asks when Jek clears the screens away. Hux checks over his shoulder and pulls out his cigarettes, wondering if he really wants to know the answer to that question.

“I’m only being given an hour to prepare you for the prosecutor’s examination,” Jek says. “I know this isn’t the actual hearing, but it’s an important piece of evidence, and I was lead to believe I would have at least three hours to prepare you.”

“What’s there to prepare?” Hux asks. He flicks his thumb across the end of the auto-light, pleased when it sparks to life in his steady hand. “I know my own life story well enough.”

“Hux. Don’t be flippant. This is very important.”

“Well, can you protest? Would they care if you did? What’s the point of fretting? So we have an hour. Let’s use it well and not waste time complaining about the shifting sands of this wretched business. They’re going to do whatever they want with me. We’ve both known that from the start.”

“Please don’t bring that attitude into the interview,” Jek says. “I know you think you can protect yourself with resignation, but she’ll turn it around on you and make you look like you’re overconfident, which is the last thing we want. This prosecutor is very astute, as far as I can tell.”

“I’d expect nothing less from a top New Republic attorney.”

Hux is being sarcastic and Jek can probably tell. They stare at each other for a moment, Hux smoking and Jek fluctuating between a look of annoyance and something that actually manages to frighten Hux a bit when he fears it might be defeat, or at least despair.

“I wish they would at least play by their own rules,” Jek says. “I can’t imagine it’s General Organa or even the Chief Justice who’s behind this last minute schedule change. And the prosecutor herself seems noble enough. It’s the Committee. The representatives who lost their home worlds to your weapon shouldn’t be making any decisions regarding your punishment, as much as I grieve for them. It’s not right-- If I thought I’d have a chance in hell against the political clout they have right now I’d be fighting to replace them with some less biased Committee members, but as it is I’d be destroyed for even suggesting it. Metaphorically speaking.”

“There’s no sense lamenting if it truly can’t be changed,” Hux says. His heart is beating a bit too fast now that he’s glimpsed Jek’s seeming doubt that he can make a difference here after all. “Just tell me what I need to know about this interview.”

“She’ll be asking about all the details of your life,” Jek says. “From childhood onward. So if there’s anything that-- If there’s anything about your childhood that might be illuminating, in terms of helping people to understand what you’ve gone through, you’ve got to disclose it to the prosecutor today. If they call you to the stand during the hearing and suddenly you’re telling a last-ditch sob story that didn’t come up during this examination, it’s going to look fake and desperate, not sincere.”

“Fair enough,” Hux says, dragging the ash tray over. “But do I look like someone who will ever be telling a sob story of any sort?”

“No,” Jek says. “But you look like someone who has probably been handed his share of shitty treatment, and based on what I know about the culture of the Order, they start pretty young with doling that out.”

“What the hell have you heard about the Order that makes you think that?”

Hux tries to remain outwardly calm. It’s good practice for his interview, perhaps, that Jek is already annoying him with this trivial appeal for something Jek might call ‘emotional honesty.’ Hux would call it true surrender, and he won’t be offering his to the New Republic or to anyone else, not ever. Not again. His heart is pounding when he glances at Jek, who has further annoyed Hux by suddenly growing silent, and by staring at him now with a kind of terrible sympathy that makes Hux look away quickly when he feels as if he recognizes it. Suddenly he remembers that Henry appeared in that dream about Ren at the Academy.

“I don’t mean to pick on you,” Jek says. “I’m only pointing this out so that you’ll be aware of it when you answer questions. Maybe you already know, but-- Your face gets red when you start to feel defensive about something.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Hux says, trying to laugh. “Really? They’re going to be shocked to find me defensive? You’re my fucking defense attorney. Typically people who have one of those have reason to feel defensive.”

“Just be honest with the prosecutor,” Jek says. “Keep some cards close if you need to, but don’t try to show her a mask. It would backfire. Trust me.”

“A mask,” Hux says, muttering. He thinks of Ren. Has Ren dreamed about him, too? Probably. Ren had always been so twitchy in his sleep, even on the Finalizer. In the house on the cliff Ren had a proper nightmare at least once, one night when he woke up shuddering and gasping. Hux had tried to comfort him, and had been almost angry when Ren wouldn’t let him have his turn to do that. Ren scoffed at Hux’s concern and left the room to cook something, naturally. Hux forgets what it was; something in a pan. He remembers following Ren out into the dark house and clinging to him there at the stove while he worked. Hux had been so shameless in that house, so prone to grabbing for Ren whenever he liked and trying to keep hold of him for as long as he could. He had known all along that it would cost him everything, that lapse in his guard. Still, he went on doing it, every day that they were there. He’s not sure he regrets it entirely.

“Well, let’s get to my list of issues to review,” Jek says. He appears to be concerned about this stretch of silent smoking that Hux has slipped into. “Issue number one is Kylo Ren.”

“What about him?”

“You told me he’s Leia Organa’s son. If you want her to remain on as Committee Head, I’d advise keeping that to yourself.”

“Of course.” Hux takes a long drag, though inhaling will only make his heart beat faster. “I’ll tell this prosecutor the same thing I told the officers who showed up with Organa for my questioning. Ren was a stranger. We had an enemy in common, that’s all.”

“Mhmm. You think that’s the best strategy?”

“Yes. Obviously. You think it would generate sympathy for me if they find out I was enjoying myself in bed with him while in hiding?” Hux scoffs when he hears that out loud. “Occasionally enjoying myself,” he mutters, “I mean.”

“Yeah, don’t worry. I hadn’t gotten the impression that your time together was entirely enjoyable. Especially in the sense that it ended, and that you’re separated for the foreseeable future.”

Jek reaches into his coat when Hux glares at him. He pulls out a slightly rumpled blue envelope, puts it on the table and slides it toward Hux after checking the door’s window for onlookers.

“That can’t be from Ren,” Hux says, disappointed. “Someone else is writing me letters?”

“It’s from Ren,” Jek says, and he gestures to it impatiently, as if he wants Hux to tuck it away. “Or so I’m told by Finn, who delivered it. I haven’t read it, of course.”

“Of course.” Hux snaps the letter up, still incredulous about the fact that Ren has apparently become tactful enough to use actual stationary. He slips the envelope inside his shirt, his breath catching when he considers that it will be there during the entirety of his examination by this prosecutor. He’d like to think of this as a kind of good luck charm, but it’s likely more of a liability. “Cross Ren off your list of issues,” he says when Jek opens his mouth to speak again, probably on the same subject. “I know how to handle the topic. What’s next?”

“If they ask you who designed the weapon you fired,” Jek says. “What will you say?”

“I’ll say it was designed by a team of First Order personnel, and that I was part of that team.”

“That’s good,” Jek says, nodding. “I think that’s the best we can do, just in case they’ve intercepted some intelligence that names you as the lead designer.”

“Yes. It’s also the truth. Loath as I am to admit it, I didn’t do it all myself. The concept was mine. If they learn that somehow, I can give them a phony confession saying I took all the credit for it while it was actually the work of several colleagues. I’m sure they won’t have a hard time believing I’d do something so dishonest, and I think it would muddy the issue enough to keep my actual involvement with the design from being particularly damning.”

“Good thinking,” Jek says, typing notes now. Some brightness has returned to his expression when he looks up at Hux again. “To hell with their surprise restriction on our prep time,” he says. “You’re gonna do great.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Hux says, realizing only after he’s said this that it was more sincere than sarcastic, despite his tone. “How about my mother?” he asks.

“She’s scheduled to arrive on-planet tomorrow night,” Jek says, still typing. “I’ve got a hotel lined up for her.”

“Fucking hell-- I’m not concerned about her bunking arrangements! I meant what if they-- Are they going to interview her, too? Do I need to worry about what she might say about me?”

“No,” Jek says slowly, looking up. “They can cross examine her at the hearing, but she’s our witness, and they haven’t asked to examine her on the record prior to that. But I’m a little worried about her testimony now, based on your reaction.”

“My reaction? To what?”

“To the slightest mention of her forthcoming proximity to you?”

“It’s not as if I think she’d bad-mouth me to them,” Hux says, though he is, somewhat. He doesn’t know her anymore and perhaps never truly did. She may have lumped him in with the Brendols after all this time, in terms of unpleasant First Order business that she’s detached herself from now. Hux drags on the cigarette, shrugs. “I just don’t think she’ll be helpful to us.”

“We’ll see,” Jek says. “I’ll bring her here to speak with you on the morning after her arrival. If she’s not helpful, we won’t call her to the stand during the hearing. It’s as simple as that. It’s-- Well, I know, it’s easy for me to say that it’s simple, but you know what I meant. Let’s talk about what you’ll say if they ask about her. Because they will ask about your parents and your upbringing, certainly.”

For the half hour or so that follows they review the information Hux plans to reveal about his upbringing and training as a First Order soldier. It’s all true and mild enough, with the incidents at school snipped cleanly out of the story. Jek gives him practice questions and alternately praises and critiques his answers. Hux was always good at oral exams. He’s not worried, until Jek mentions toward the end of this review that he’s received the list of the witnesses the prosecutor will call on during the hearing.

“It’s shorter than I anticipated,” Jek says. “Which probably means they’re going to rely heavily on how the Committee members already feel about what you’ve done. This is really their show, in a way that I’m very uncomfortable with, but--”

“Who are their witnesses?” Hux asks, tired of hearing Jek complain about how this process is unfair, all of his complaints followed by reminders that he can’t do anything about it. Hux knows, like Jek does, that anyone sane would laugh in Hux’s face if he had the nerve to complain that he should be treated more fairly after what he did.

“Well, I’ve met one of them already,” Jek says, bringing up a data screen with FN-2187’s picture. Hux snorts, then realizes it’s not actually that funny.

“FN-2187,” Hux says, his heart rate picking up again. “Really. They’re dragging him out to defame me?”

“I don’t know that he will,” Jek says. “If he really held a grudge against you personally he wouldn’t be delivering these letters, would he?”

“Ah, yes, I’m afraid he would be. He’s in love with Ren’s cousin, or something like that. Plus, he’s a stormtrooper,” Hux says, shrugging one shoulder. “They do what they’re told more often than not.”

“Not this guy,” Jek says. “I mean, not always. He defected--”

“Yes, I’m familiar with his traitorous past.” Hux takes a shaky inhale from the the cigarette, making swift calculations as he reconsiders his interaction in the transport with FN-2187. “If this man wanted something from me and I denied it to him,” Hux says, gesturing to FN-2187’s picture on the projection, “Do you think it would persuade him to defend me if I gave it to him now? Or would he just take it and laugh as he destroyed me anyway?”

“I’m confused,” Jek says.

Hux rolls his eyes. “He’s a stormtrooper,” he says. “Taken in infancy from an outer rim planet that doesn’t even have a name that I know of, just a row of coordinates that was logged in our system. I remember it particularly, since he was my first defector. I could tell him where to find this planet. He may still have family there.”

“I don’t see how giving him that information could hurt,” Jek says.

“Did I not just explain? He could extort this from me and give me nothing in return. Easily.”

“You mean he could make you feel like a fool? So what? You’re facing death. Maybe don’t play so conservatively when you have the potential to win someone over by giving them what they want.”

“So it’s your expert legal advice that I give this stormtrooper the coordinates of the planet he’s seeking?” Hux asks, speaking sharply, though he can’t really fault Jek for this analysis. He doesn’t like having his questions about strategy challenged by anyone, least of all someone who is telling him not to fear being perceived as a fool.

“I think you know it’s the right move,” Jek says. “In more ways than one.”

“Next you’ll be telling me that I shouldn’t call him a stormtrooper or refer to him by his troop number as opposed to that whimsical name he’s apparently given himself.”

“Nah,” Jek says, typing now. “You already know both those things. You’re only being stubborn because it’s just me here and you know you can get away with being nasty. You’re too smart to say anything like that in front of the Committee or the prosecutor.”

“You think I’m being nasty?” Hux is almost flattered. “I’m just being honest. He’s the one who invented a made-up name for himself.”

“And he has no more right to do that for himself than you did when your system assigned him some letters and numbers for a name?”

Jek is still typing, not dignifying Hux’s potential response with his attention. Hux drags on his cigarette, exhales, and wonders how much time they have left before the prosecutor arrives.

“It was my father’s system,” Hux says. “I was around ten years old when FN-- When Mr. Finn the Future Traitor was acquired.”

“Kidnapped,” Jek says. He looks up, his fingers pausing over his holoboard. “If we’re being honest, as you said.”

“Who are the other witnesses?” Hux asks, disliking the fact that he can’t deny this, even in present company. Hux’s father would have found a way to reframe it. Brendol Sr. would have said that the Order gave the stormtroopers better lives than those they would have had on their lawless outer rim home worlds. He wouldn’t have believed it for a moment, but he would have said it, in public, for the sake of appearances.

“Their next witness is another ex-stormtrooper who used to work under you on the Finalizer,” Jek says, flipping to his next data screen.

UT-5278’s picture appears. This isn’t the picture on file from her First Order days, of course-- It’s some Resistance-generated thing. She looks different, even younger than she looked in a stormtrooper’s armor, almost smiling.

“Terrific,” Hux says, stabbing out his cigarette.

“Do you remember her specifically?” Jek asks.

“Yes, very.”

Hux opens his mouth to disclose the whole story, but before he can speak a word of it he remembers something Jek said about having an obligation to keep Hux’s secrets as long as those secrets don’t present a direct, imminent threat to the New Republic. Though it’s unlikely, Pella might still be just that. Hux can’t suppress a grin at the idea that she could be: that she might send the whole courthouse up in a glorious explosion during their live broadcast. That would be beautiful. A rather noble death for both General and Lieutenant, their daring plan finally enacted, and in the cruelest way possible.

It occurs to Hux that Ren’s mother would be among the victims, should this come to pass. There’s something he doesn’t like about that, though Organa was once one of his most valuable potential targets. It’s just that she gave him that water. She’s already made him softer and weaker, by doing that. Also, Ren would be upset if his mother was killed on a holo broadcast along with Hux. In fact, Ren would probably turn into a black hole of rage that would swallow up what was left of this planet.

“The look on your face is worrying me,” Jek says.

“We can talk about UT-5278 later,” Hux says. “It’s just that I let her kill a man who tried to attack her aboard my ship, once. I think that may make her partial to me, but then again, she did defect. Who else can we expect to see on the witness stand?”

“Well, to complete the triumvirate,” Jek says, “One of your ex-officers who showed up in New Republic custody just recently.”

Hux freezes in the process of drawing out a fresh cigarette, his mind going to Uta. But she would never. He glances up at Jek’s next data screen and barks a relieved, unrestrained laugh when he sees the face that has appeared there.

“Fucking Mitaka?” Hux laughs again, harder than he probably should. This is the most actual entertainment he’s had since he zipped around on that speeder with Ren. “Oh, I might have known. He’s in league with the Resistance now?”

“He escaped from the Order,” Jek says. “Apparently the news of your surrender and upcoming sentencing is splintering the leadership in all sorts of ways.”

Hux snorts and laughs again, surprised to find that he’s glad to hear it. “Mitaka was hardly leadership,” he says. “But actually I was always rather friendly to the little chap. I remember offering my sympathy when I’d heard that Ren had choked him for no reason.” Hux had been more irritated with Ren than sympathetic to Mitaka, but no matter. Mitaka didn’t necessarily differentiate, and express sympathy from General Hux was rare enough to be a thing one didn’t tend to forget.

“That’s great, actually,” Jek says. “It sounds like they might have inadvertently chosen some witnesses who could really help us.”

“They thought the people who worked closest with me would have the best dirty laundry to air.” Hux realizes he’s smiling, too, and tries to amend this. “Because of course it must have been a nightmare to work for ruthless General Hux. Their inability to imagine that there were First Order officers who treated each other and their subordinates with respect will hurt them, perhaps.”

“You’ve told me you were decent to the crew on your ship,” Jek says, nodding. “These witnesses will prove that, unless they’ve been coached to lie.”

“That’s possible,” Hux says, his spirits dampening. “And I doubt any glowing praise offered by my fellow ex-murderers will stand up against the weeping Committee members and the memories of their dead families.”

“We’ll see,” Jek says. His gaze flicks to the window on the door, and he curses when he sees the guard outside checking someone’s ident-pass. “She’s prompt,” he says, hurrying to close his data screens. “Put that thing out,” he says, whispering.

“Why?” Hux stabs his cigarette out without waiting for an actual answer. At least he’s already stunk up the conference room with the lingering aroma of two of them. He stands and faces the people who enter the room, glad when Jek hurries over to greet them. Hux will be doing no such thing. Two of them are human: a young man and a woman with graying hair. Hux assumes the Twi’lek woman with them is the court reporter, and he’s surprised when she walks forward first, holding his gaze.

Where Hux comes from, any Twi’lek who shows up in decent society is likely there doing sex work. He feels like this one must know that about First Order culture, and like she must have that firmly in mind as she stares at Hux, looking like she’d be first in line to throw the release on his guillotine, though he supposes she might just be angry about those exploded planets.

The Twi’lek species supposedly has innate powers of seduction, but Hux suspects that might be only a myth. This Twi’lek who appears to be prepared to prosecute him is lovely, anyway, with pale blue skin and dark, glittering eyes. She seems much too young to have such a big job, though Hux isn’t sure how visibly Twi’leks age. Regardless, she may have been selected for her looks, since this is all a show, scripted for a live broadcast. Her attire is quite plain and conservative, unlike that of all the Twi’lek women Hux has seen in the past.

“Mr. Hux,” she says. “You may sit.”

“This is Ojelpani Faza,” Jek says, returning to Hux’s side. “Lead prosecutor for the New Republic.”

“Hello,” Hux says, still holding her gaze as she pulls open her data pad.

“Dora, you may begin the recording,” Faza says to to the human woman, who is setting up a holorecorder. “This is my associate, Mr. Divot,” Faza says, gesturing to the young man who sits beside her. “He’ll be helping me with the presentation of evidence.”

“I wasn’t provided with any exhibits prior to this,” Jek says.

“I was told I could present them during the examination,” Faza says.

“Told-- By whom?”

“By Chief Justice Botta.”

“Why was I not present for this discussion?”

“You’d have to take that up with him,” Faza says. She smiles faintly at Jek. Hux thinks of the way he must have looked at Jek upon first meeting him: dismissive, smugly superior and openly insulting.

“Are we recording now?” Jek asks, his voice a bit sharper.

“We are,” Dora says.

“Good, because I want to have it on the record that I object to this method of introducing evidence.”

“As long as we produce it prior to the actual hearing, it’s admissible,” Faza says. “If you want to enter a motion challenging that, of course you may.”

“Thank you,” Jek says, scoffing. He’s got his data pad open again, no projections hovering above it as he types. “I’m aware that I’ve been given the privilege of introducing motions.”

“In the meantime,” Faza says, returning her gaze to Hux. “Let’s begin.”

“Fine,” Hux says, glancing at Jek, who is still typing.

“Do I need to explain the procedure for questioning?” Faza asks.

“Not unless it involves something beyond you asking questions and me answering,” Hux says.

“And you are required by law to answer truthfully,” Faza says.

“He knows,” Jek says, perhaps anticipating that Hux was about to make a smart ass remark about what the penalty for lying under oath would be: jail time, perhaps?

“Please state your full name for the record,” Faza says.

Her first real question, and it already feels overly personal, something Hux doesn’t want to answer. He hesitates only for a moment, however.

“Elan Bartram Hux,” he says, hating every syllable. The only name he ever really liked was General.

“And where were you born, Mr. Hux?”

“On a starship.”

“Please be more specific. Which starship?”

“It was a frigate ship, lancer-class, called the Giant. Decommissioned now.”

“And this was an Imperial ship, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And what rank did your father hold with the Imperial army at that time?”

“He had the rank of Commandant when I was born.”

“And your mother?”

“She held no official rank.”

“But she considered herself an Imperial subject?”

Hux wonders if this is a trick question somehow, and if they might have gotten to his mother before Jek did, in secret. He has no idea how ruthless or not these people are willing to be. Nor does he know how ruthless or not his mother might be, in regard to him, these days.

“My mother’s father was a governing overlord in an Imperial town on Oxcot,” Hux says. “That made his daughter an Imperial subject, yes, and her subsequent marriage to my father certainly cemented that. She stood alongside my father at flag-raising ceremonies, anyway.”

Faza types a note before continuing. Jek has stopped typing and is listening intently, his hands folded over his stomach.

“And you had an older brother, correct?” Faza asks.

Hux resists the urge to ask why that’s relevant. He knows he’ll want to ask that question many times before this is over.

“Half-brother,” Hux says. “From my father’s first marriage. He was six years older than me.”

“And how long did the four of you live together on the Giant?”

“I think it was around three years. Then we were on a bigger ship called the Leonis, and then in a rented apartment on an outer rim space station for some time, and then finally my father’s school had recovered enough, post-Empire, to again have a land-based operation, and we moved to an estate near the Academy grounds. This was on a planet we called Victoria, though I believe it had some other name before the Order took over.”

“Yes, that would be Ryli’a,” Faza says, pronouncing this with a snobby flourish. “Where the fledgling forces of the First Order massacred the native population, who had only primitive weapons with which to defend themselves.”

“Well.” Hux resists the urge to shrug. “We weren’t taught that in our history courses.”

“At what age did you begin school, Mr. Hux?”

“There were always little classes and things for as far back as my memory goes,” Hux says. He’s relieved that she’s skipped over the questions he dreaded about intimate details of family life, though it’s possible those are still forthcoming. “These were sort of day care programs where my mother would be in a room with the other mothers while we, the children, were taught about the glory of the Empire and how we would certainly defeat the feeble Rebellion, and how we would all be brave soldiers who protected the Empire’s honor someday, and so forth.”

“And when did you begin your formal schooling?” Faza asks. “Assuming you had some, prior to the Academy?”

This mention of the Academy feels like a threat, though of course she knows he went to one. Every First Order officer did.

“I was six years old when I began day school on Victoria,” Hux says.

“Please describe a typical school day.”

“Oh, well, let’s see.” Hux is almost charmed by this question. His memories of school are good, prior to the junior Academy. “A transport would come to the house to pick me up each morning. It was a six day school week, and I had three identical uniforms that I was responsible for laundering and pressing and keeping to code, though of course my mother did all of that for me, and later we had droids, when my father and the Order in general were more financially successful.”

Hux realizes he’s getting off topic a bit and clears his throat, surprised that Jek hasn’t cut in to remind him not to volunteer unnecessary details about having taken pride in his perfectly pressed uniforms at six years of age.

“In the morning we would all stand and say a pledge to the First Order,” he says. “We would swear to die to defend the Order’s honor, if necessary. I’m sure you can imagine how ridiculous that sounds in the voices of a room full of six year olds, but I think we believed it most seriously at that stage, like we were going to be called to the front at any moment. Then we would have our lessons in history, mathematics, grammar, all the typical things. They weren’t training us in combat just yet, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“At what age did combat training typically begin?” Faza asks, typing notes.

Hux is surprised she’s allowing him to direct the flow of questions. It’s quite possibly a ploy, especially this early on, in order to make him feel overly comfortable. He reminds himself to stay alert and concise in his answers.

“I believe we were ten years old when we first had some light combat training,” Hux says. “We weren’t enrolled in an official course titled ‘combat’ until we went to the actual Academy, however. That was at age fourteen.”

He shifts in his seat, feeling Ren’s letter against his side, under his shirt. All those words Ren has written, presumably about what it was like to succumb to Snoke as a boy, contained in an envelope and waiting to be absorbed by Hux in his reading of them: Hux tries to imagine he can feel a kind of warmth or strength or something emanating from inside that envelope, needing it now.

“So at fourteen you were a member of your father’s Academy,” Faza says.

“Well. We were housed at the same campus. They called it the junior Academy. It was a one-year program.

“And what was the purpose of that one-year program?”

Hux doesn’t like that she’s asking about this, and likes even less than he can’t tell if it’s for a valid reason or because of the personal hell that he’d do anything to keep out of this, though it’s impossible that she could know about that.

“The purpose of the one-year program was to weed out weaklings,” Hux says, sitting up a bit straighter. He can feel the letter shift again when he does. It feels like encouragement: like a secret caress meant to fortify him. “The Order didn’t want to waste time training any but the best in the senior Academy, so they had this pre-Academy program to determine who would make a successful officer and who should be sent to the front to command the stormtroopers. Some who were particularly skilled went on to be pilots or snipers, of course, but what the Academy was mainly concerned with was advancing those students who would see the Order on into the future. Strategic minds, brilliant engineers, and born leaders. Before the cadets reached that level of training, they were put through this junior program.”

“Put through,” Faza repeats, typing something. “Was it physically grueling?”

“Yes, of course. We hadn’t faced real combat training prior to this year of our education. Some candidates fell by the wayside.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, students died in this program, not infrequently. Two in my class, as I recall.”

“And there were other accidents at times, I imagine?”

“Certainly.” Hux keeps his face as still as he can, remembering something from that last dream about Ren. The accident during combat practice. It had been the first answering blow Hux struck, carefully planned and executed just as he’d intended, with many witnesses who would spread the word but no way to prove that he’d done it purposefully. He wasn’t attacked again after that, though they all threatened revenge. Hux was the one who had real revenge later, further. Eventually.

“Were you ever involved in an accident of this nature?” Faza asks. She’s keeping her expression impassive, too. Hux can almost detect the effort of it, and he prays she can’t sense the same from him as this topic blooms into a line of inquiry she’s obviously interested in.

“I believe I was,” Hux says, finally allowing himself to shrug. “Something happened in class-- It’s a vague memory now. I was injured during training myself at times, most notably the following year. I broke my arm.”

“Did you ever break another cadet’s bone, Mr. Hux?”

“I don’t think so. I may have. Students often hid injuries, to prevent being labeled as weak.”

“Did you ever cause any lasting injury to a fellow cadet while enrolled in the junior Academy?”

“I may have.” Hux’s fingers twitch under the table. He wants a cigarette, and wants to adjust the envelope inside his shirt so that it won’t drop to the floor if he’s forced to suddenly stand. “They didn’t keep very good records of such things,” Hux says. “It was expected that we would injure each other. Those events didn’t stand out, particularly.”

“Okay.” Faza can barely hide her excitement now, typing a note onto her data pad and pressing her shoulders back. “So if you had, for example, been blinded by a fellow cadet, that’s not something that would have left an impression, particularly?”

“Obviously it would have stood out to me,” Hux says, working very hard to keep the corner of his lip from raising. “As I would then be blind, which would make the incident rather memorable, I’d say.”

“And if you had blinded a fellow cadet, that wouldn’t have stood out, particularly, to you?”

“Well, I’ll put it this way. I don’t remember having a blind classmate. Because of course I wouldn’t have, as the Order would have considered a cadet useless following his blinding, and he would have been dismissed from the program at once. So if I had done something, say, in class, accidentally, at some point, that caused a boy to be blinded, he would have then disappeared without ceremony, and I therefore wouldn’t have even necessarily known that he was so permanently affected.”

Hux is proud of himself for this answer. He can feel Jek glancing at him, because this information is new to him, but Hux doesn’t return his looks.

“I see,” Faza says. “Does the name Geov Slekk mean anything to you, Mr. Hux?”

“No,” Hux says.

He can feel his face getting red. The holocam will record it. Geov was the loudest. Thought he was clever, never shut up. The things they said were the hardest part to forget.

“You don’t remember an incident during your year at the junior Academy involving Geov Slekk?” Faza asks.

“I just said I don’t remember that name in particular at all. We were encouraged not to form bonds with the other cadets, prior to graduating to the actual Academy. We were each other’s competition.”

“Ah, I see. Tell me about that. You were encouraged to view each other as competitors?”

“Of course. There were only so many spots available in the senior Academy. We were all competing for them, all the time.”

“And would it have been uncommon for one cadet to try to sabotage another’s chances of graduating?”

“Uncommon? No.”

“And your father was the Commandant of the Academy you eventually placed into, correct?”

“Correct.” Hux can hear something in his voice that he doesn’t like. He’ll attempt to modulate it, but the holocam has already captured that lapse. It’s a kind of tremble he associates not with weakness but with rage. Something barely held back, pre-lunge.

“Would you say that, being the son of that senior Academy’s Commandant, you were perhaps unofficially guaranteed a spot in the senior Academy, at least more so than other cadets?”

“No.”

“You don’t think that gave you any sort of advantage? Not even in the sense that your father had perhaps told you, all your life, what would be expected from you at the Academy, with particular specificity, as he designed the programs at the school and dictated the culture there himself?”

“I still had to complete the coursework and the training and survive the-- That year-long junior program. I didn’t have my own special single room or any advantages slipped to me.”

“Okay. I believe you, Mr. Hux,” Faza says, mockingly. She doesn’t believe him, and she’s calling attention to his overly defensive demeanor, his reddened cheeks. Jek shifts in his seat. He can’t really do anything, of course. “Despite the fact that this system was, according to you, actually not unfairly balanced in your favor, would you say that perhaps your fellow cadets might have mistakenly perceived it to be? That they might have assumed you had an unfair advantage, as the son of the senior Academy’s Commandant?”

“Of course some of them thought so. If anything, that made the program harder for me.”

“How so, Mr. Hux?”

He shouldn’t have said that. Would give anything to retract it.

“I was not well-liked,” Hux says. He’s tapping his fingers against his knees under the table, though he knows he should keep perfectly still, directly fixed in her crosshairs now. “The other cadets helped each other, perhaps. I had no help. Everything I achieved there was done solely on my own strength.” This is true, at least, and he feels some of the heat draining from his cheeks as he takes a few even breaths, waiting for whatever comes next while Faza types notes.

“Were you ever targeted by your fellow cadets for this distinction?” Faza asks. “For being Commandant Hux’s son?”

Hux had begun to expect this question, but he still doesn’t know what evidence she’s found that relates. Any response, therefore, involves some measure of risk.

“Of course not,” he says. He’d rather be caught in a lie than admit to any of it. And how could she possibly know? They’re all dead. Hux watched them die himself. Other than the three who did it, only Henry ever knew, and he’s dead now, too. Ren knows, of course, but Hux can’t even fathom that level of betrayal from him, even after having been nearly murdered by Ren’s hands.

“You were never picked on?” Faza asks, giving Hux a disbelieving look. “Never bullied, not even once, in this competitive environment where you were singled out for being the son of the man who ran the Academy that all these cadets were desperate to graduate into?”

“I didn’t say I was singled out. I said I was not well-liked.”

“Is there an important distinction between the two, Mr. Hux?”

“Yes. Very. One implies that I was ignored and not helped especially by anyone else, not befriended. And that’s the truth. The other implies that anyone there thought they would survive harassing the son of the Commandant. Do you think that even boys of that age could be so stupid? They would have been ousted at once, as soon as they were reported. This was part of the reason for my isolation. No one wanted to even offend me, lest I tell my father and their careers be ended instantly.”

It makes Hux’s stomach twist up until he feels like he’ll have to hunch around the ache in his gut, the idea that this might have been true. The reality still lives in him, however, incontrovertible: they did the one thing they knew he wouldn’t be able to speak about to his father. Because it was something Brendol Sr. didn’t want to hear, and something slight, friendless Elan didn’t want to say, least of all to his father.

“So you had a very close relationship with your father?” Faza asks. “The kind where any offense you suffered would be reported by you and would be perceived as very offensive to him as well?”

“I didn’t have his ear at every moment of the day,” Hux says. “But anyone who disrespected my father’s family was in turn disrespecting him, and he had a reputation as an unforgiving man.”

“I see.”

Faza’s eyes light up, and now Hux knows precisely where she’s going with this, and exactly what evidence she has. He calms himself by imagining that she hasn’t uncovered anything beyond one stupid, slanderous news story. How could she have? She’s typing now, her associate watching the screen of her data pad as her fingers fly.

“And would you say your father was a proud man, Mr. Hux?” Faza asks. “That he was confident, sure of himself?”

“Yes,” Hux says, hating her. He knows where she’s going with this line of questioning, too, but there’s no denying that Brendol Sr. was proud. Too many people knew him, and his pride was too well-recognized as a mark of his persona.

“And as a confident man, would you say that your father tried to raise you in his image? That he wanted you to be like him, to share his values and emulate him to some degree?”

“I suppose you could say that.”

“Is that a yes, Mr. Hux?”

“Yes. He wanted me to be like him, yes.”

“And would you say that you wanted that as well? That you wanted to please your father and resemble him as a proud, confident and successful man?”

“Sure.”

“Please answer with a yes or a no.”

“Yes.”

“And, as you admit that you sought to emulate your father, would you also say that you shared his tendency to be unforgiving?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

“No? So if I was to ask you if you once allowed a stormtrooper on board one of your ships to personally execute a fellow trooper who had attacked her, would you say that was the action of a forgiving person?”

Hux opens his mouth to say something that might actually reflect upon him sympathetically, to some: He tried to force himself on her, you think I should have given the man stern talking to? Docked his rec time? But that would circle back around too neatly to some things she might know about Hux and the junior Academy, things that are dangling over his head like the blade of a guillotine, waiting to fall. Though how could she know? She may have that news story, but nowhere even in that piece of filth was such a specific motive put forth.

“Please instruct your client to answer the question,” Faza says, addressing this to Jek.

“I don’t think I understand what the question is, exactly,” Jek says. “Could you please repeat it?”

“Would you say you’re a characteristically forgiving person, Mr. Hux?” Faza asks.

“Perhaps not especially,” Hux says, knowing she’ll elaborate on the punishment he approved for UT-5278’s attacker if he tries to deny this. She must have already interview UT-5278. So much for his loyal, sweet-faced stormtrooper blowing everyone to hell on a live broadcast, though maybe she meant to defend Hux’s character in relating that story.

“So that’s a no,” Faza says.

“No.”

“So you tend more toward the unforgiving side of things, generally.”

“In the past, yes.”

“Are you saying you’ve changed, Mr. Hux?” Faza lifts her eyebrows, making a show of her incredulity for the holocam.

“A lot of things have changed,” Hux says, looking down at the table. He snaps his eyes back up to Faza’s when he realizes how weak he probably just appeared.

“But in the past, you’ve been unforgiving at times?”

“Certainly. Who hasn’t?”

“Are you familiar with the Daily Ordering of Events, Mr. Hux? Sometimes referred to as the DOE Report?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell us what that is?”

“It’s a daily news transmittal sent to many citizens of the First Order.”

“Are you aware that the New Republic sometimes intercepts transmissions of this nature?”

“I’m sure they do. The DOE is mostly a propaganda tool, so I doubt the New Republic learns much from it beyond how glorious and destined for victory its writers claim the Order to be.”

“Certainly, these transmittals are often full of stories written with a particular slant toward Order propaganda. And occasionally they contain articles on other news stories, do they not?”

“Of course.”

“Have you ever noticed a report on an incidence of serial murders in a transmittal from this publication?”

“Maybe,” Hux says, shrugging. “I didn’t make it a habit to read the DOE closely.”

“I see. But if a DOE transmittal contained a news story about three boys from your class at the junior Academy all having been tortured to death within a period of three years, would that be something that caught your attention?”

“I suppose not, since I don’t remember that particularly.”

“Here in the New Republic, many of us have a feature installed on our data pads that functions in relation to the various news stories that come across our feeds on a daily basis,” Faza says, relaxing into her narrative now. She can’t have any proof. Hux used an assassin who’d cut out his own tongue prior to going into that line of work. He was hardly the sort who might have been tortured into a written confession, and without him there’s no real evidence of Hux’s involvement. He was paid from an anonymized account. Hux manipulated the credit transfers himself. He left no trace, and had alibis in place every time.

“This data pad feature I mention involves getting an alert anytime particular subjects come up in the news,” Faza says. “It can be customized to include our names and the names of our family members.”

“Is this a question of some kind?” Hux asks when she just types for a while.

“Did you have anything like that on your data pad?” Faza asks.

“I don’t think so,” Hux says. There’s no way Mitaka left the Finalizer with Hux’s data pad. He didn’t have that kind of security clearance, or that kind of strategic foresight.

“So if your name appeared in an article about the serial murders of your former junior Academy classmates, that’s something you might not have noticed?”

“No, I never noticed anything like that.”

“Really. No one on your large staff of officers ever brought it to your attention?”

In fact, Hux’s father had brought it to his attention. Brendol Sr. was still alive when that article came out. He was furious, but there was never any proof, and Hux denied everything even to him. Hux remembers the article word for word, and he wants to look away when Faza pulls it up on her projector and turns the text toward him. He keeps his eyes on it nonetheless, his expression neutral.

“I’d like to officially enter into evidence the prosecution's Exhibit 17,” Faza says. “An article about three murders committed over a period of three years. This article notes that all three of the men who were brutally killed had once been enrolled in the same junior Academy class as Elan Bartram Hux, only surviving son of Commandant Brendol Hux.”

“That sounds like blatant gossip fodder,” Hux says, though he’s not been asked to comment. “The kind of thing that was beneath my notice and beneath my father’s notice. We were busy with reality at the time.”

“So you suspect it was a mere coincidence that all of these murder victims happened to attend the junior Academy in the same year that you did?”

“How am I to know? Maybe some bitter cadet who didn’t make the cut resented them for some reason. As I said, nobody talked to me at school. I don’t know what all their stories were.”

“So you don’t know that one of the murder victims was Geov Slekk, who had been blinded during the junior Academy year and therefore never advanced to the senior Academy?”

“I just told you, I’ve never read this article. It’s sensational, gossipy junk, and not the sort of thing I ever paid any attention to.”

“So you’re unfamiliar with the quote in paragraph four of this article, three sentences in, from a former classmate of yours named Wilfred Mallin?”

Wilfred. Hux would have had him murdered, too, or at least ruined his career in the aftermath of this article’s publication, if doing so wouldn’t have been too conspicuous.

“Of course I’m unfamiliar with it,” Hux says. “How many times do I have to say that I’ve never read this before?”

Jek makes a soft noise under his breath, probably as a reminder that Hux shouldn’t act like an arrogant, defensive ass.

“Could you read Mr. Mallin’s quote for me, Mr. Hux?”

Hux wants to refuse, and he knows that he can’t. He makes a show of sitting forward and squinting curiously.

“I hadn’t seen Geov since he left school,” Hux reads, “But I remember the Commandant’s son blinding him during a training exercise. He claimed it was an accident.”

“Has this jogged your memory of that incident involving the blinding of Mr. Slekk?” Faza asks.

“No,” Hux says. “Because to the best of my recollection, no such thing happened. Obviously Wilfred was only trying to capitalize on the slanderous tone of this thing by inventing some memory that would make me look bad. He was probably paid to say this. As I’ve already told you, the DOE Report is just First Order propaganda, which, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is utter garbage. Even within the Order, no one serious reads this thing. The officers had internal, confidential memorandums that told us the truth of the news of the day. This slop was entertainment and indoctrination for the masses, nothing more.”

Hux sits back and tries not to look proud of himself. He wishes he had some water, though his hand might shake when he reached for it. Faza is trying to appear unfazed by how well he handled that. It was really a poor move on her part, desperate-looking and reliant upon the same meritless First Order rag that assures its subscribers daily that they are destined to bring order to a chaotic galaxy. Hux congratulates himself again for having volunteered nothing about what those three did to him during his junior Academy year. Offering up that clear motive to make himself seem sympathetic would have backfired and ruined him completely.

Now he can never say it. Not in a last ditch sob story, not ever. It’s a relief.

It should be a relief. Perhaps later it will be, when he can reorganize his scattered thoughts.

Having played what might have been her best hand, Faza then moves on to question Hux about his rise to power in the First Order, the development of the weapon, and his departure from the Finalizer. He answers as planned and in some cases repeats the story he already gave the Resistance: about Snoke, about Ren, about his surrender. Faza doesn’t seem to have been tasked with a particular interest in Snoke’s role in Hux’s story, but Hux notices her fingers moving quickly over her pad’s holoboard during several mentions of Ren, and he braces himself for her follow-up.

“Where did you get this?” she asks, throwing Hux off for the first time since her questions about the Academy and that article. She’s pointing to her own lips, indicating Hux’s scar.

“During my captivity on that moon,” he answers, resisting the urge to reach up and touch the scar, to hide it from her. “I bit my lip open when they dislocated my shoulder.” It actually happened when one of them leaned onto that two day-old injury with his boot, but this is simpler, and true enough.

“A dislocated shoulder is a serious injury,” Faza says. “Can you give us some other details about your torture during this period?”

“I object to the question,” Jek says.

“On what grounds?”

“I don’t think it’s relevant, and it seems abusive to make him describe his torture in detail in this setting. This happened to him only about a month ago, you understand?”

Hux laughs under his breath before he can stop himself. He looks over at Jek, then at Faza, feels his face coloring.

“It just seems much longer ago,” Hux says. “Than one month.”

“So you would be comfortable talking about it, then?” Faza says.

“Do you have a point behind this question, counselor?” Jek asks before Hux can decide how he wants to answer.

“I assure you I do,” she says. “Do we need to call a mediator in here, or will you let me continue?”

“He’ll answer questions about the nature of his torture,” Jek says, glancing at Hux. “But only if you ask something more specific. He’s not going to construct a detailed narrative purely for your gratification.”

“Okay,” Faza says. “I’ll rephrase. We’ve heard you suffered a dislocated shoulder. I understand that’s the kind of injury that can be popped back into place by a layperson. Did you also suffer broken bones?”

Hux wants to lie, because he knows what she’s getting at. She’s trying to suggest that he was healed by some still-loyal First Order officers after his rescue, or that he was actually still in league with the Order during the period when he claims he was alone with Ren. But she won’t believe that he was tortured without enduring a single broken bone.

“They broke both of my legs,” Hux says. “And many ribs. I didn’t count how many. Most of them, I guess.”

“Those are serious injuries that could have been life threatening if not treated promptly. And you claim you were held by these torturers for seventeen days?”

“Approximately, yes. I didn’t have a clock on hand.”

“And then you were in hiding with Kylo Ren for just about that same length of time?”

“Yes.”

“And you claim that you were personally in contact with no other people during that time, First Order personnel or otherwise?”

“That’s correct.”

“And yet your legs are functional at this time, Mr. Hux?”

“Right.”

“And your health in general is good at the moment, is that correct?”

“I’m a bit stressed out these days, but yes, otherwise.”

“Mr. Hux.” Faza raises her eyebrows again. She thinks she’s caught him, and his explanation may not convince her otherwise. “Who healed your broken bones?”

“Kylo Ren did.”

“Really. Is Kylo Ren a medical doctor?”

“Not to my knowledge.” Hux has to hold in an insane little laugh. He’s growing tired, has been talking about himself for hours now.

“Did Kylo Ren have access to advanced medical technology in this house on this planet that you claim not to know the coordinates of?”

“No.”

“Can you explain why you presently have the use of your legs, sir, if both were broken during your torture and you did not see a medical doctor until your arrival at this facility approximately thirty-four days later?”

“Ren healed them. I don’t know how he did it. He used the Force.”

“The Force.”

“That’s what I said.”

“And where is Kylo Ren now?”

“I’m sure I don’t know.” Hux stays perfectly still, hoping that Ren didn’t even sign the letter inside his shirt with so much as an ‘R,’ though Hux won’t let them find it. He wouldn’t get to read it at all if they took it from him, surely.

“You’re no longer in contact with Kylo Ren?”

“No.”

Jek has gone very still as well.

“So he won’t be appearing to corroborate your story?”

“Obviously we haven’t called Kylo Ren as a witness,” Jek says. “Nor have you, so what is the point of this question, Ojel?”

“The point is that I don’t believe Mr. Hux can prove that Kylo Ren had anything to do with his escape, nor can he prove that it was an escape as he describes it-- From torture, after being abandoned by his leader.”

“Why else would I come here to surrender?” Hux asks. “Was I desperate?” he says, before she can respond. “Yes, I was. I’ve admitted that to you and to the Resistance. I was helpless when Ren found me, and I was helpless when he brought me to this planet with my hands bound, in Resistance custody. Of course he’s disappeared, that’s what he does. He’s some kind of magic person, some kind of ghost, and I wouldn’t have believed that either until I encountered him. Ask Poe Dameron about Kylo Ren, if you need proof that Ren can do damage to an enemy using only his mind. He can heal his allies in the same fashion, and I’m sorry I don’t have proof of that on hand, but I suspect the prison doctors could get some for you if they scanned me. I’m swearing to you right now, under oath, that my medi-scans will show recently healed bone in both legs.”

Faza whispers something to her associate, who nods. Dora puts her hand over her mouth to cover a yawn. Outside, the sun has begun to sink toward the mountains.

“I have no further questions for the witness,” Faza says, snapping her data pad shut. “Thank you both for your cooperation today. We’ll see you again at the hearing.”

They gather up their things and go. Hux and Jek both watch the door, Hux hoping that he’ll be allowed to talk to Jek for a bit in the aftermath, then wondering if he really wants to when he turns and sees the look on Jek’s face.

“So what’s this about you being a serial killer?” Jek asks. “Where was she going with that?”

“She was reaching, desperately,” Hux says, and then he does the same himself: first into his shirt to clamp the letter securely against his belly, tucked into his waistband, then for his cigarettes. “What difference would it make anyway?” he asks. “I’m on trial for the murder of billions of supposed innocents and she wants to suggest I killed three men who worked for the Order? Seems like piddling into the ocean.”

“She had better not be able to prove it,” Jek says. “Brutal serial murder is a very different crime than ordering the firing of a weapon during wartime.”

“Why, exactly?” Hux asks, though he knows. She’ll never prove it, because he didn’t tell her why he needed to see those men die. He kept his secret. It’s finally proven to be the right decision. It’s so clear to him now that he can’t understand why his stomach keeps twisting up tighter at the thought that no one will ever again find out what happened to him. No one beyond Ren ever finding out is exactly what he wants. Should want.

“Why is serial murder different from firing a superweapon?” Jek says. “Was that a real question?”

Jek raises his eyebrows when Hux glances at him. Hux is annoyed by how guilty Jek’s stare is suddenly making him feel, for the first time.

“It’s different because it proves a different kind of inherent malice,” Jek says. “Because there’s a special sickness in someone who would torture another person to death, and she was hammering on trying to prove you’d done both because the Committee would hear it as another dimension of evil-doing that would complete their picture of you in way we don’t want them to, to put it mildly. Serial killers take a personal, particularly cruel pleasure in the pain of their victims.”

“And this killer’s victims never took a very personal, particularly cruel pleasure in anyone’s pain?” Hux’s foot is bouncing now, his heel tapping madly against the floor, and he has to almost bite down around his cigarette to get his lips to stop shaking. “You’re sure about that? That they’re not the kind of people who were better off eliminated from the population? That the killer wasn’t doing the galaxy a favor by snuffing them out?”

“Isn’t that what people want to suggest about your potential execution?” Jek asks, boggling at him.

“But I didn’t do what these people did to me!”

Hux didn’t mean to say that, or any of this. He’s red-faced now, as red as he was that day when Henry found him. He tries to drag on the cigarette, but his attempted inhale comes back out as a shallow cough.

“I would dare anyone to watch what they did to me and not feel at least a little bit of understanding for my inability to let them get away with it,” Hux says, speaking slowly enough to keep his voice steady. “And I couldn’t have done anything about it as a kid-- I didn’t have the resources. And I didn’t do the actual dirty work with my own hands. And I didn’t watch the whole time. And I didn’t enjoy watching as much as I told myself I had.” He drags on his cigarette, inhaling half-successfully this time. “And I specifically instructed my assassin not to do to them what they’d done to me,” he says, pointing with his cigarette when he turns to show Jek his red face. “That would have lowered me to their level. I maintain that it’s a kind of thing worse than murder, understand? Or maybe you can’t. Am I glad to be alive and not dead? Of course. But they’re dead, and they’re still alive in my head. And it’s not fair. I could order them to be killed, I could stand there and make sure it happened, but I couldn’t kill what they’d done to me along with them. I suppose I thought that I could, but. I didn’t. Couldn’t.”

“How old were you?” Jek asks, his voice soft again, because he does understand, somehow. Because Hux has told him, somehow.

“How old was I when I hired someone to assassinate my old schoolmates?”

“No, I meant--”

“Oh, I was fourteen. Nearly fifteen. Not a banner year for me, but I did learn the only real lesson that place taught.”

“Which was what?”

“Survive, survive, survive.”

Hux is quiet for a while, smoking. He occasionally can’t believe there were only three of them. In his nightmares and sometimes even in his memories they tend to multiply into roomfuls of faceless boys in uniform.

“Are you going to quit my case now?” Hux asks, unable to look at Jek again. Hux has ruined Jek by telling him: now Jek is someone who knows. Just like Henry was, after that day. Hux was never able to look Henry in the eyes again. Not fully, anyway.

“Of course I’m not going to quit,” Jek says. “Why would I?”

“Because--” Hux can’t articulate it. It’s something to do with disgust and shame and how they interlace sickeningly in his gut when he allows himself to remember any of this. He shakes his head and stares at the conference table, smokes.

“The world you were born into was horrifying,” Jek says. “You did horrifying things while you lived in it, and horrifying things were done to you. I knew all that already, before I knew these details. I still think you deserve to live, and that people can change for the better, and that you already have, in some pretty important ways.”

“Anyway, thankfully she has no real evidence,” Hux says, hurrying this out while he ashes his cigarette. “You know and Ren knows. And I trust you both not to tell anyone.”

“Well, I appreciate that trust very much.” Jek sighs tremendously and rubs his hand over his face. “And you did really well today, by the way. I was impressed.”

“I guess it was fine.”

Hux feels some heat draining from his face as he drags on his cigarette again. His stomach is untwisting, slowly. The letter from Ren is waiting for him at the end of this nightmarish day. It feels heavy enough against his skin that he suspects it could contain more than one page of Ren’s frenzied scribbling, though that might just be the weight of the envelope.

“Are people going to find out that Ren is Organa’s son?” Hux asks. “That’s one thing that could still screw me over, I fear.”

“I looked into the details of your arrival on this planet a bit,” Jek says. “It was all highly classified stuff, inaccessible even by subpoena, even for a case like this. Organa must have sealed it all herself. I take it Ren was with you on the shuttle when you landed?”

“Yes.”

“Well, nobody knows that except whatever Resistance personnel Organa trusted to be there when you two surrendered and were conveyed to your next stops. And nobody knows where Ren went next. Organa made that highly classified, too.”

“Lucky Ren, having General Mummy’s protection.”

A guard knocks on the door and points to the data strap on his wrist. Jek nods and begins to gather his things.

“I feel like I should apologize to you,” Hux says, muttering, exhausted.

“For what?”

“I don’t know.” For paying to have three men murdered, ten years ago? Hux wants to wash it off of himself like a film now, whereas he’d once felt so proud of how well it had all been coordinated, at least until Brendol Sr. threw that fucking article in his face.

“You know what I think you should do, after we secure a life sentence for you?” Jek asks, brightening.

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“Write your memoirs! I think it would be fascinating, and maybe a little cathartic, too?”

“Oh, perfect, that’s well in order. What would they be titled? Memoirs of a an Utter Failure Who Rots in Jail while Billions of People on Hundreds of Planets Continue to Pray Nightly for His Grisly Demise? Yes, brilliant. That would sell wonderfully.”

“Don’t underestimate rubberneckers,” Jek says. “They might want to read your memoirs precisely because they hate you. Or because they think they do.”

Hux snorts, but something about the idea of everyone on this planet gobbling up his sensational confessions, post-trial, is strangely appealing. It would almost be a way of getting one over on all of the hypocrites who’ve currently made a sport out of cheering for his death while entertaining themselves with his infamy.

“You like the idea!” Jek says, smiling.

“I do not, please. It’s beyond absurd.”

“Just absurd enough to make a kind of sense, though, eh?”

“I don’t even know what that means. Anyway, let’s stay focused on me not being put to death before we make plans for my post-sentencing media career.”

“Fair enough. Anything else you need from me before I go?”

“Two things, actually.”

The guard knocks on the window and gestures to his data strip again. Jek nods and they both stand, Hux making sure his cigarettes and Ren’s letter are both secure under his shirt.

“I need you to pass some coordinates along to FN-- to Mr. Finn, or whatever he calls himself,” Hux says as they move toward the door. “My ex-stormtrooper turned personal courier. Tell him the coordinates are from me. He’ll know what they signify.”

Jek happily obliges, jotting down the coordinates of the planet FN-2187 was long ago taken from. Hux fears Finn won’t find anything left there but bones, but he likely he won’t get around to making the trip there until after he testifies at Hux’s sentencing, so perhaps it won’t matter in the long run.

“What was the other thing?” Jek asks as they move toward the door where the guards are waiting.

“Is it possible you could arrange for me to have a hair cut?” Hux asks, touching the unruly tufts that have begun to curl over his ears.

“Before your sentencing hearing? Oh, of course, I’ll--”

“No, I meant, um. Before my mother comes to see me here.”

“Yeah,” Jek says, softly enough to irritate Hux. “Yeah, I think we could arrange that. I’ll speak to the warden.”

“Isn’t there someone else you could speak to? That warden is not my biggest fan. If it’s up to him I’ll go to my hearing with a tangled mess on my head.”

“Sorry, but I’m pretty sure everything to do with you has to go through him. But don’t worry, I’m very persuasive.”

“Let’s hope so. Thank you.”

Out in the hall, Hux resists the urge to watch Jek go as he heads toward the elevators. The guards replace Hux’s binders before marching him around the corner to a different elevator bank. As the elevator climbs toward his cell, he’s surprised to find that he’s filled with something which actually resembles excitement. It’s just the thought of reading Ren’s letter, most likely, but it’s something to do with the hearing, too, and the idea that he could actually survive it. He won’t dare to hope that he’s got more than the slightest chance, but the idea that he could beat those odds is thrilling. It would be the achievement of his career, in a sense. The idea that he might outsmart someone by begging for mercy in just the right tone had never occurred to him as something that could also be a noble accomplishment, but it would be just that: the better play, a winning move.

“Aren’t we going to my cell?” Hux asks when the guards march him past it.

“It’s late,” the purple-skinned guard says. “You’re having your shower first.”

Hux is okay with this for half a second, then his heart seems to plummet through his chest and land in his stomach like a stone. Every other day, he’s instructed to leave his uniform on the floor and to put on a new one that appears in that drawer on the wall, across the room from the shower stations. Yesterday, he put this uniform back on after his shower. Today, he’ll be asked to leave the dirty one on the floor and cross the room to change. The letter to Ren is tucked into these clothes. Even if Hux could hide the letter on his body somehow, the sanistream would soak through the envelope and ruin it, transforming the words into an unreadable mush. He won’t be able to hold it out of reach of the stream without the guards noticing.

Hux’s heart is pounding by the time they reach the showers, not even the most tentative plan formulating. He’s spent the whole day scrambling to stay ahead of the curve strategically, and now nothing comes to him: he’s empty of clever ideas, but he’s got to come up with something. He can’t see this letter taken to the laundry by a droid. It would either be destroyed or would destroy him, if someone working there were to find it and bring it to that warden, who might begin to put the pieces together. Both potential outcomes seem equally horrifying as Hux approaches his usual sanistream station, his hands shaking on the hem of his shirt as he rolls the pack of cigarettes into it. They can be thrown into the pile of clothes along with his shirt easily enough; he has more, and wouldn't care much even if he didn't. But he can’t lose the letter. He needs it too much, after what went on today.

He removes his shirt first, tossing it onto the floor with the cigarettes concealed within it. If the cigarettes are found, Hux isn't sure what the punishment would be, since he has no real privileges to lose beyond cleaning himself and eating. The guards might check his room for more, which would mean Hux would have to hide Ren's first letter somehow, but in the meantime all he can think about is this second, unread one, and the chance that he might never know what Ren wrote and tucked inside the blue envelope that trembles against his stomach as his breath comes faster. Behind him, the purple-skinned guard is talking to his colleague as usual, tonight about something to do with the weather. A blizzard has been forecast, apparently. Hux hesitates for as long as he can, the letter still pressed to his belly by the waistband of his underwear. When he pushes them down it will fall away.

“What are you doing?” the human guard asks when she notices Hux standing there with his hands on his hips.

“I don’t feel well,” Hux says, half-turning. “Suddenly, I--” It occurs to him that if he goes to see the doctor she’ll examine him and find the letter inside his clothes anyway. That might be worse than taking his chances with letting a laundry droid sweep it away, since the medical staff surely communicates more directly with the warden than whoever oversees the laundry. “Sorry,” he says. “Never mind. I think I’m just hungry. I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

“Wow,” the human guard says. “You have my utmost sympathy in this time of your hardship. Hurry up and get in the shower.”

Hux shouldn’t have said anything. Now they’re watching him as he steps out of his pants and walks closer to the sanistream. His hands shake as he hooks his thumbs into the waistband of his underwear, and he pinches his eyes shut tight. He can’t handle this right now, can’t think, and can’t bear standing here feeling like he won’t be able to keep something that should belong solely to him, and like has no say in the matter. Not right now, not tonight. He didn’t even realize before this moment how completely the ability to look forward to having this one fucking thing for himself had gotten him through the day.

He tells himself to stop wallowing pointlessly, opens his eyes and shoves his underwear down, preparing to kick them away in a manner that will quickly hide the letter in the pile of his discarded clothes. He fails in this, and it takes him a moment to realize why, as he frantically scans the floor of the sanistream for the letter. The letter is not on the floor. It’s still pressed against Hux’s stomach, as if it has covertly coated itself in glue.

Hux turns the sanistream on without thinking, his mind reeling. He can’t protect the letter from the blast of the shower without turning and exposing its bizarre attachment to his skin to the guards, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The envelope doesn’t soak and curl; it doesn’t even become soggy. It’s made of standard paper, old-fashioned in the sentimental way that’s typical of stationary: Hux felt it, and feels it even now, as it lingers impossibly against his skin. But the envelope protects the letter inside as if it were made of waterproof armor.

Hux closes his eyes and puts his hand over his mouth to hold in what might have been crazed laughter. He thinks of how Faza pronounced the Force when Hux told her that’s what had healed him. It does sound rather stupid out loud, he must admit. But if she knew Ren, she would understand. He’s here somehow, even now. Holding this note for Hux safely against Hux’s skin, untouched by the blast of the sanistream. Hux keeps his eyes closed and tries to hear Ren laughing, too, as if they’re both playing some joke on the guards. He can’t hear anything, but the letter stays in place, dry as bone.

It’s normal for Hux to keep his back to the guards as much as possible while moving toward the drawer on the wall where a fresh uniform awaits, and they don’t question this behavior tonight. He’s only attempting to hang on to some semblance of pride, as far as they know. Hux dresses swiftly, letting out a shaky breath of relief when the letter is concealed by his clothing again.

When he’s returned to his cell, darkness has fallen completely and two meals await him on trays on the floor, lunch pushed a bit further into the room by dinner. Hux walks into the middle of the room, reaches up under his shirt and touches his stomach, afraid for a moment that he imagined the whole miraculous survival of Ren’s letter in some kind of delirious daze, but it’s still there, the edges of the envelope sharp against his fingers. For a moment he’s afraid he won’t be able to peel the envelope off of him without taking some of his skin with it, but it shifts against him easily now, moving as if it was only ever secured in place by the band of his underwear.

Hux feels like screaming or laughing or both, his hands trembling like the envelope has passed some electric energy into them. It’s too dark in the room to read the letter yet, but that bright, garish moon will soon rise. Hux kneels on the floor and eats from both of this meal trays like a madman at a picnic for one, feeling as if he’s been treated to a proper feast, and as if he could do anything, anything, because he has a magic person for an ally.

He’s calmed a bit after eating most of the contents of both trays and gulping down both cartons of blue milk, one much colder than the other. He stacks the trays on the floor near the door and hurries into bed, his stomach pinching up with a kind of excitement that borders on dread. He can’t put himself entirely in Ren’s hands again: even this giddiness to read what Ren has written is too much, too risky. But once he’s got the envelope in his hands, under the blanket on the bed, he presses it against his face like an idiot, letting out a shaky breath that feels like something he’s held in an increasingly overfilled substructure at the base of his lungs all day. He opens the envelope, pulls out the two pages of Ren’s letter and unfolds them, unable to resist the temptation to hold them against his face, too. He inhales deeply, imagining he can smell Ren on the paper, and allows himself to indulge in this frivolity for only ten seconds.

Smoothing the papers out on his mattress, Hux squints and tries to read the first page in the light from the blue moon. Under the shadow of the blanket that’s tented over his head, he can’t really make the words out until the brighter moon rises, its glow sliding across his cell much too slowly. Ren’s handwriting is somehow worse than before, and less consistent, as if he wrote this letter on the tilting deck of a starship that was under heavy fire. As before, there is no salutation, and Ren begins the letter nearly in mid-thought.

The first time I thought of him as Snoke was also the first time I was afraid of him. I thought I could hide that fear, but I know now that there were certain people I didn’t hide from as well as I thought I had and Snoke was one of them. I was ten years old and I asked my friend in my head who he was and where he’d come from. There was this kind of strange silence afterward, and in it I sensed disapproval that I had dared to ask, like I was speaking out of turn. I wanted to apologize and correct myself, and I think he felt that and liked it, knowing that I was already desperate to please him. He said something like “of course you are curious. I have protected you from the truth, boy, because I care about your success. The truth is that your parents do not care about this the way I do. They do not want you to be powerful.”

In fact that’s exactly what he said. I remember.

Because I had felt that. My parents didn’t want me to be as powerful as I was. I had felt it and it was true and my friend in my head had felt it, too. He sounded so sad for me, like I had been born to the wrong people. He told me I knew what I truly was and how great I could be and that my family would always hold me back because they didn’t understand me.

It felt so true. It shook me, how true that felt. It was like nothing else that anyone had ever said to me out loud. Like nothing that Luke had taught me. Luke and my mother and even my father seemed to be holding some truth back from me. I’d always been afraid that the truth was that I was bad and that I would have to go away from them so I couldn’t hurt anyone. Snoke told me that the truth was that I was glorious in a way they simply couldn’t understand. I broke down and cried because it was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Snoke knew that was exactly what I wanted to hear. I was ten years old and I had never had someone tell me exactly what I wanted to hear without being able to sense that they were sugarcoating it or lying just to get me to calm down. I hated that kind of coddling when I could sense it. Snoke was too powerful. I couldn’t sense his manipulation. He was like water and I was like a kid who was dying of thirst. I just gulped it up and he kept giving me more, but only enough to keep me alive. He handed out praise very carefully, to keep me desperate for more. Because nobody could give me praise like he could. Without reservations, without trying to teach me some lesson. Snoke told me that, deep down, I already knew everything I really needed to know about my own powers and how they would grow. He told me that Luke lied to me when he said that I didn’t yet understand the scope of my own powers. I loved hearing that, because what did Luke know? They were MY powers.

Now back to my questions. (I had asked Snoke who he was and where he came from.) He told me I could call him Master (which was a privilege, as I understood it) and that someday I would hear our lessers call him Snoke. He said he had seen me in the future and that in the future I was a powerful man who was feared by many, a man who had seen many victories and who had to listen to no one but Snoke. He asked me if I would agree to obeying only him, since he was the only being in the galaxy who understood my true powers and respected them as they should be respected? I said yes, of course. As for where he had come from, he said “I have always been, and I will always be.”

One thing I have been thinking about: this is how I understood that Snoke was immortal. I didn’t understand what that meant for a long time but once I felt him try to take my body a second time, I did: his thing about “always being” is bullshit, since he needs a new physical body to continue to live, so his thing about having “always been” must be bullshit, too. What kind of thing that needs to live in a physical body has “always been”? No, I think he was a person once.

Part of my reasoning for this: he understands people. He didn’t appeal to me purely through the Force. He talked to me. About my parents. He talked to me when I was a kid because he knows kids are vulnerable. Is it possible to know that if you’ve never been a kid? I don’t know. But I’m telling you here in this letter that I think Snoke was a person who discovered a way to live forever and that way was stealing the bodies of powerful Force users and that makes Snoke desperate and vulnerable, too.

I’ll stop here because I’ve given you enough to think about. If you have some input on this line of thinking I would be interested in hearing that. I know you are good at strategy and I should have appreciated that more and sooner. Also I would just like to see what your handwriting looks like.

Whether you write me back or not, I will write more to you. I saw your picture on some stupid holo broadcast. Doesn’t really look like you. I feel like your words in a letter might look more like you, even if they’re not actually your face.

I have to go now. I said out loud today that I can’t live without you and I meant it. I don’t care who knows it. When Snoke told me all that crap it felt true. But that was just getting told something by somebody else. It’s different when you say something true out loud and nobody wants to hear it but it’s true anyway and they can’t change it. I can’t live without you and I’m glad because I also just don’t want to. I’ll see you soon, I promise --R

Hux is laughing by the end of it, but he’s not laughing at Ren, and it’s not a giddy or even an amused sort of laughter. He’s laughing in confusion, in the same way confusion made him sob into his breakfast on his first morning here. He can’t understand why this letter has made him feel a kind of hope that not only pierces but overtakes him. The letter is a mad, depressing ramble that starts from nothing and goes nowhere. Hux presses both pages against his face when he’s done reading, shaking with laughter that trembles through him like an energy that could become physical, like a power that could leave the tips of his fingers in ten lightning bolts.

“Ren,” he mutters, and he actually waits for a response, focusing as hard as he can, but he’s so tired and nothing comes.

He sucks in his breath and takes the pages of the letter from his face before he can smudge something or wrinkle them too terribly. Smoothing them out on the mattress, he rereads parts but finds he can’t handle the whole thing again, not all at once. He folds the pages back up, puts them into their blue envelope and slips it back under his shirt, rolling over to face the wall and curling up around the envelope as if it’s a little animal that will need his body heat if it hopes to survive the night. He’ll hide it under the mattress soon. He just needs a few hours of feeling it against his skin. He’s not ready to be parted from it yet.

He’s still mostly under the blanket, which falls diagonally across his cheek. He blinks heavily once, twice. If he lets himself sleep he feels like he might see Ren in his dreams, but he’s afraid to even allow his eyes to fall shut, because what if Ren isn’t really there?

Sleep comes anyway, without his permission. Hux floats past a variety of subconscious horrors as if he’s observing the selection on a rancid dessert cart: the junior Academy, the base on that moon, Ren’s eyes when they went black above him. Hux has only ever seen an actual dessert cart once, at a First Order function on some fussy planet that was weaponized enough to need to be courted rather than conquered. He was sixteen or seventeen, on some kind of leave from school and sitting beside his father, pretending to find the cart that was wheeled to the table as frivolous as Brendol did.

“I don’t care for sweets,” Hux says, reciting this like a lip-synched line as he watches his father say it. Ren is standing behind Hux, silent in his black robe, sad-faced when Hux turns to glare at him. “Why do you always look like I’ve just kicked you?” Hux asks, shouting, because Ren is five feet back and very annoying, standing between two other finely-appointed round tables in this ballroom.

“You’re so young,” Ren says. He walks closer, that tattered robe of his swishing over the room’s marble floor. “You’re always so young in these dreams.”

“I’m seventeen,” Hux says, deciding this as he speaks. He’s remembering it, in fact: this night with the dessert cart, when he sneaked too many drinks from the open bar and tripped on the grand stairs that led down to their chauffeur's transport, earning a disgusted look of understanding from his father.

“Fine,” Ren says. “You’re seventeen.” He holds his hand out, ungloved. Hux thinks of black buttons spilling from Ren’s palm: Did that happen? When? “Come with me,” Ren says when Hux doesn’t stand to take his hand. “Please.”

“Why?” Hux asks, though he wants to leap from his seat and leave this scene, and wants to feel the heat of Ren’s heavy palm against his own.

“I could show you something,” Ren says.

“How tempting.”

Hux stands and straightens his uniform. It’s the proper Academy uniform, with a few cadet medals pinned over the right front pocket. He’s a good student. He’s moved past his earlier disgrace at the hands of his enemies. He’ll kill everyone who knows about it, someday.

He takes Ren’s hand and is pulled through the dining room, watching Ren’s face and waiting for him to say that he can feel it, too. It wasn’t like this in the other dreams. Hux couldn’t really feel the heat of Ren’s skin before. This is something different, a kind of conjuring within a dream.

“How are you doing that?” Hux asks, tightening his grip.

“Never mind,” Ren says, probably because he doesn’t even know. Typical.

“Is it dangerous?” Hux asks. “What you’re doing?”

Ren glances at him, frowns slightly, looks away.

“I take it that’s a yes,” Hux says. He snorts and turns to look ahead, his grip on Ren’s hand tightening again when he sees that the ballroom has disappeared. They’re walking through a thick darkness now, toward nothing. “What is this?” Hux asks, leaning toward Ren until his shoulder bumps Ren’s arm. Hux is still smaller than Ren here, still seventeen.

“It’s something you can keep for me,” Ren says. “Something I want to give you.”

“Will I want to have it?” Hux asks. The quiet around them seems to deepen until it’s a kind of hum, a perilous vacuum that watches them move through it, almost a living thing.

“I don’t know if you’ll want it,” Ren says. “But it’s yours forever if you do.”

He sounds so sad. Hux tries to slip under Ren’s arm, to hug himself against Ren’s side, wanting to comfort him, but Ren evaporates into the darkness before he can.

“Ren?”

Hux spins in a circle, hating the fear in his voice but unable to mask it here, within the nothingness that Ren has lead him into, which seems to thrum around him like an infinitely multiplying enemy. Hux hears his own ragged breath and then something else, ahead in the dark: something real.

Within the darkness, sitting in a spot of light that seems to generate from his body, is a teenage boy whose nearly shoulder-length black hair hides his face when he leans onto his folded arms, his knees pulled to his chest. Hux turns back to ask Ren what the hell this is, but Ren has not reappeared. When Hux turns back, the boy with black hair has spotted him. He’s glaring at Hux, trying to conceal the fact that he’s been crying.

“Who are you?” the boy asks.

It’s Ben, of course. Fourteen or so, probably just on the verge of letting Snoke use him to kill all those Jedi children. Ren has brought Hux here to-- What? Comfort him?

Hux walks forward and stands over Ben: close, in an effort to intimidate him. He’s annoyed that he’s been asked to coddle Ren’s inner child here, in one of these dreams that are Hux’s only real source of comfort these days. Even without the heat of Ren’s palm clasped against his own, the dream remains uncomfortably vivid. Hux can feel the rough wool of the uniform sleeves against the thin skin on his wrists, and when he squats down to look into Ben’s eyes he can smell the salt of the angry tears on his cheeks. Ben is still scowling, defiant. It seems like he doesn’t know that this is a dream, or that his own alter ego has brought a strange boy in a First Order Academy uniform to dry his cheeks, if that’s what Ren expects Hux to do.

“Who are you?” Ben asks again.

“Don’t you recognize me?” Hux asks, teasing. He’s wearing the hat that belonged with this old Academy uniform, its rounded brim shading his face. Ben’s eyes narrow when he steadies his gaze against Hux’s smirking stare.

“I’ve never seen you before,” Ben says. He wipes his face with his hand. “What do you want?”

“Oh, nothing now. But I will answer your question about who I am. You won’t meet me for many years, but I’m the person you’ll belong to someday.”

Ben scoffs. “Belong to? I’m not a slave. I don’t belong to anybody.”

“No? Not even to Snoke?”

Ben’s face goes white. He rears backward slightly, but Hux follows him, moving closer, until his bent knees are pressed around Ben’s legs.

“How do you know--” Ben tries to ask, breathless, his mouth hanging open when he can’t finish the question. His frantic effort to search Hux’s eyes for answers makes him look hypnotized.

“Because I’m your betrothed,” Hux says, not sure why he’s enjoying this cruelty so much. He reminds himself it’s only a dream, though in reality he was particularly cruel at this age, so angry and so high on the idea that he would someday have his revenge. “Snoke picked me for you, in fact.”

“You’re lying.”

“Am I? You’re the mind reader, soothsayer. Do these really sound like lies to you?”

“Betrothed,” Ben says, pronouncing it slowly, as if he’s scanning Hux’s thoughts to discern its meaning. “But why would my Master want me marrying some man who can’t even use the Force?”

“It’s not quite as simple or pedestrian as marriage, I’m afraid. He wants you enslaved to me. And me to you.”

“And you to--” Ben frowns, his eyes moving down over Hux’s buttoned uniform jacket and then up to his face again. Ben’s wandering gaze catches on something, and he grabs Hux’s arm, points to the First Order insignia that’s stitched onto his sleeve. “What is this?” Ben asks, angry.

Hux swallows a laugh. “Right,” he says. “That means I’m bad, right? In your world?”

Ben says nothing, glowering, still holding Hux’s arm. Hux leans toward him, expecting him to rear away, but Ben stays perfectly still when Hux brings his mouth just shy of resting against Ben’s left ear.

“It’s true that I’m bad,” Hux says, whispering this. He can feel Ben shiver, not so much in his body but in the air around them, which seems to shiver when Ben does. “But it’s all right,” Hux says, letting his mouth touch Ben’s ear, just barely. He feels that shiver again, against his lips this time. “Because you’re bad, too.”

“I’m not,” Ben says, mumbling this in a way that sounds more like an admission than a denial.

“It’s okay,” Hux says. “I know your secret. You’ve got real darkness in you already. Me too. We’ll be bad together, someday. We’ll do such terrible things together, once we’ve grown up.”

Hux pulls back then and looks into Ben’s eyes. They’re wide, bright, interested. Ben is breathing in little huffs through his nose, letting Hux linger in his personal space.

“Have you been kissed yet?” Hux asks, genuinely curious, as if he’s speaking to the real Ben Solo from the past, just on the verge of no-going-back with Snoke.

Ben blinks and takes a moment to process the question. He shrugs, the tips of his ears going red.

“That’s a no, then,” Hux says, thoughtful.

Does this mean that Hux was Ren’s first kiss, that day at the door of Ren’s room on the Finalizer, that helmet pressed between them? It can’t be true-- Ren was too good at it, too quickly. But he is a mind reader. And maybe he’d had someone to teach him how to do it just so, in some surreal world where they existed outside of time for a bit, truly together even as their physical selves were far apart and really much older than they are here.

“Do you like me?” Ben asks, eyes shining. “In the future? When my Master-- Are you glad? When he makes us, uh-- Betrothe?”

“It’s not quite that he makes us,” Hux says, a sudden flood of sympathy for the real Ren making his face hot. He cups Ben’s cheek in his hand, feels Ben pressing into the touch like he’s already been away from the warmth of anything like it for years. “In fact,” Hux says. “We both like it so much that it makes him angry.”

Ben smiles and Hux kisses him: softly, not the way he would kiss Ren now if he could. He holds Ben’s face with both hands and coaxes his lips apart carefully, with little licks that won’t startle him. Ben presses his tongue out to meet Hux’s in a testing fashion, and it tastes ridiculously good, that timid measure of trust.

“You’re mine,” Hux says, whispering this against Ben’s lips like a secret. It feels more like an oath when Hux pulls back to give Ben what was supposed to be a commanding stare. It turns into something else when Hux sees the pleading, hopeful look on Ben’s face, and he strokes Ben’s cheeks with his thumbs. “And I’m yours,” Hux says, still whispering. “Don’t forget it. Don’t let your Master tell you otherwise. We shall only ever belong to each other. I’ve seen the future. I know it’s true.”

Ben grabs the collar of Hux’s uniform and tugs him forward again, kissing him with sloppy, desperate enthusiasm, soft noises breaking at the back of Ben’s throat every time Hux’s tongue soothes against his in an effort to calm his frantic licking. Hux uses his thumbs to further this effort, fitting them along Ben’s jaw and tilting his face up gently. He wants to take this little bundle of bite-sized Ren fully into his arms, but he can already feel himself fading, being taken back to prison and away from here, because it’s too real and Hux is beginning to remember that he’s not actually a seventeen-year-old boy in an Academy uniform but a man who is asleep in a nightmarish future where he won’t be able to roll into the arms of this other man when he wakes.

“What’s happening?” Ben asks when he feels Hux disappearing, the ghost of Hux’s touch on his cheeks no longer reaching him. “I can’t-- Feel you, I--”

“I’m not really here,” Hux says. “I’m on another planet, in another time.”

“What-- No, stay, please, I need--”

“Shh, stop begging. I always leave you before you want me to, in these dreams.”

“Why?” Ben asks, his eyes growing wet again. He’s trying to grab Hux’s cheeks, but there’s nothing there to hold.

“Because you’ve hurt me,” Hux says. He feels guilty for saying so when Ben sees the anger in his eyes and blinks out fresh tears.

“When-- How? Wait, please-- Tell me! I don’t want to hurt you!” Ben tries to kiss the fading image of Hux desperately now, in little pecks that only touch the air where Hux’s lips had been. “Please,” Ben says, sobbing the word out. “Please, don’t leave me, I’m sorry, I’ll be good--”

Hux wakes up abruptly but doesn’t move or open his eyes. He breathes as evenly as he can, reaching up under his shirt to press his hand over the envelope. For a long time he stays that way, trying to make sense of what just happened in his mind. More than that, he’s trying to return to the place where he just felt he went. The past? No, but someplace where Ren is. Or maybe it was more that Ren came to him. Either way, Hux fails to return there and can’t get back to sleep at all.

At the first light of dawn he hides Ren’s second letter alongside the first and walks to his desk, where the paper and pen provided by Jek await inside the portfolio stuffed with information about five planets which no longer exist. He opens the notepad and picks up the pen, staring at the test mark he made on the first page. He hasn’t made any notes about those planets yet. He twirls the pen in his hand and tries to imagine where he could possibly start.

I was born on a starship, forty-one days after the first Death Star was destroyed by the Rebels. That information has always felt like my first real memory, though I know it is inaccurate to characterize it as such. As an infant, of course I had no real understanding of what was going on. My actual first memory is probably some inconsequential color or shape, but when I look back now, my mind fills in that particular blank with this knowledge: that something massively powerful had been destroyed, that everyone who mattered was angry about it, and that we were building another one as quickly as possible. I grew up amid a sense of urgency to replace what had been lost, and this only increased as the Empire crumbled around us four years later.

Hux stares down at this paragraph as the light through the window brightens. He feels stupidly proud of this already, and it doesn’t take him long to realize it’s not actually the letter to Ren that he intended to write. This is meant for a wider audience, perhaps, or maybe only for Hux himself. It’s a memoir. The start of one, anyway. It’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s also something only he can do. No one else can tell this story, and he’ll need more than the time left before his hearing in order to get anywhere with it. He’ll need to live, if he means to finish this.

The thought should make him panicked, and perhaps he should use this time to review his dead planet data, but he’s rather pleased with himself as he continues onward from there, so absorbed in the writing of it that he misses the chance to shove his lunch and dinner trays out as breakfast arrives. He finds he doesn’t care, and goes on writing.

 

**