Actions

Work Header

Under the Ruins of a Walled City

Chapter Text

Observations, continuous since long before sunrise: Aching head, tight jaw that won’t unclench, dry mouth, puffy eyes. The crying has stopped but the aftermath feels worse. Moving proves difficult.

It’s well past the hour when Ren normally gets out of bed. He’s watched the progress of the daylight that sneaks in past the privacy screen, has seen it go from pale blue to golden yellow. He has no idea what hour it is now. Rey’s concern bounces off the bubble he’s constructed around himself.

Further, the one physical side effect he longs to interpret positively: His cock is hard, though he feels as if he was kissing Hux not just hours but years ago.

Interpretation, tentative: The fact that this erection won’t go away is perhaps significant. He’s fairly sure he’s never maintained one for this length of time.

Ren sits up and winces, still completely sapped of energy but in need of water. Even standing is difficult, the disproportionately intense weight of his dick not helping with the effort, but once he’s on his feet he manages to shuffle over to his dresser, where he pulls his hooded robe on over the black shirt and underwear he wore to bed. He uses the Force to check the status of the hallway and the path to the bathroom. It seems clear, but he barely trusts even this simple intuition at the moment. The effort required to find Hux in that dream and truly take his hand, to give Hux something he could feel and then something he could keep forever, was even more enormous than Ren had anticipated when he read between the lines in a certain volume of Luke’s books the day before. He keeps expecting to look down at himself and see Ben’s smaller body, or to feel Snoke sneaking back in the way he would have after Ben had a dream like that. Were those the things you want, boy? I can give you everything you want.

Ren turns to look at the book that had seemed to promise that. And had it not delivered? Hux had said things-- felt things --that were new and real, and Ren had shed some very heavy remnant of Ben that is now not actually gone but held safe elsewhere, by Hux. The book’s instructions for that kind of connection within a dream were strange, more felt than understood, and Ren had barely expected it to work, though it had seemed like someone, not something, had whispered to him that of course he would be successful. Now, in the light of day, that particularly fragrant old book looks as lifeless as any other object in the room, sitting on top of two other books on a chair in the corner. No otherworldly hum seems to come from its pages. No one whispers from it as Ren hurries out of his room and into the bathroom, walking stiffly, still hard.

He drinks water from the bathroom sink, cupping it in his palm and gulping, remembering that stream outside of Snoke’s citadel. This doesn’t taste like that water. It’s got a slight metallic bite, and it’s nowhere near as cold. The memory has more to do with how stripped bare he feels now, not unlike the way he’d felt that day when he finally drank from the creek, and how desperate he is to get to Hux while also telling himself that he cannot go to Hux yet. He splashes some water on his face before turning for the shower, bracing his hand against the wall as he adjusts the temperature. His cock almost hurts against the pressure of the hot water, and he has to turn his back on it, but once he has it’s like there’s nothing to do but stare down and wonder if he’s even allowed to touch himself. He feels like Hux should be here to give him permission.

Because he would be thinking of Hux if he did. He closes his eyes and tips his head back so that the water from the shower soaks through his hair, and he bites his lip when his dick throbs. This feels good, too: the way the water slides down his back and over his ass. In the dream, which feels nearer to him than anything in the real world right now, he was Ben again. Untouched, alone, unlovable. That’s what stripped him raw and left him shaky, like he’s wandered for days across the bleak landscape of a desert planet in the effort to get back into his real body. But it had to be a physical thing. That’s the key: a touch that can go someplace where his real body can’t follow.

Questions, important but also hazy and half-formed: The key to what? Kissing Hux in his dreams?

Theory: It’s more than that. It’s something to do with the symbol of those hands pressed together.

Rey has logged the hands-together symbol into the data device that Leia sent over. It’s at the top of their list, but there is no description of its meaning listed in the adjacent text field. The day before had been a good one with the books, and Ren’s mind felt clear and sharp when they were through. Hence his experiment with the dream. He’s not entirely sure how he did it. He wasn’t even aware that it was a dream after a certain point, once he had dissolved fully into the dark place where he lead Hux by the hand. It felt more like a memory. Like Ben’s actual first kiss. Hux would laugh if he knew that.

Hux: in that uniform, at that age, from the vantage point of Ben’s desperation to keep him near. Hux had looked so different from that perspective. Untouchably beautiful, like the pristine landscape of a planet that would finally feel like home, but also so real. Hux had seemed very strong, too, like someone who could lift Ben out of that darkness and pull him onward toward the future.

Now Ren is awake, and that future has become the past. Their days together in that house on the cliff are solid and real and can be traded upon, but they’re also far away. It’s apparent to Ren now that using fixed points in time might not be the best way to do what he’s trying to do for Hux. He almost lost himself entirely in Ben, and in the feeling of failure and abandonment when Hux dissolved between his hands. Pulling himself out of that darkness wasn’t easy.

He closes his eyes and thinks about the shower in the house on the cliff. The light there had been so different. He can’t get back to it now, even with his eyes closed. He needs to stay focused on where he is or he might do something in his waking hours that resembles what he did in that meditative sleep, and he’s not in command of himself fully enough right now. There’s no telling where his mind might end up.

Objectives: Don’t panic. Refocus on your physical body. Grab your dick; it’s fine. There, good.

To keep himself grounded in this moment, in his body, he imagines Hux strolling casually into this bathroom, naked. In the fantasy this is their rented apartment in some New Republic city. Hux is an engineer who makes things that aren’t designed to destroy planets or anything else, and Ren is a-- Something, doesn’t matter. They live here, together, and Hux is accustomed to slipping into the shower with Ren in the morning, wrapping his arms around Ren’s chest and resting his head on Ren’s shoulder, sighing when his skin slides against Ren’s under the water.

You’re mine, Hux might say, squeezing him. And I’m yours.

Ren spent the last four or five hours in bed coming back to himself by repeating Hux’s words in his head, over and over, trying to mentally emboss them as something real that he can keep. Ben heard them a certain way: like a promise he longed to believe in, but then the person promising this was gone and he was alone again in the dark. Ren hears them differently: in astonishment that Hux would give himself to anyone that way, at any age, under any circumstances. And yet Hux seemed to mean it. Ben felt it, and Ren feels it again now, remembering.

It’s important, sustaining, something he’s still clinging to desperately in the light of day, but this memory is not the kind of thing that will make him come, and he needs to get rid of this erection and get on with his day. He shifts to imagining Hux here with him now: Hux whispering You’re mine in Ren’s ear before pushing him to his knees on the floor of the shower.

There’s something incongruous about imagining sucking Hux’s cock while he strokes his own, but it’s the first fantasy that comes to mind. Hux had squirmed against this kind of attention the first time Ren tried it on the Finalizer, made uncomfortable by the sight of Ren’s submission. It’s strange that he wouldn’t enjoy that, considering how much he likes giving orders. Ren imagines Hux having grown to love it, Hux’s hands stroking through Ren’s wet hair while Ren swallows around the tip of Hux’s cock and Hux murmurs taunting praise, telling him he’s bad for liking this so much. It would be a kind of compliment, coming from Hux, because he loves it, too. He’s bad, too.

Ren grunts and opens his eyes. It’s not working; he can’t properly lose himself in a fantasy when his mind keeps returning to that dream. He needs to get his physical body back under control, and he’s never had to start with his cock before. It also hasn’t occurred to him before now that he’s not particularly creative in his fantasies. He always had help with that, but he can’t think about that now. He discards the fantasy about being a regular guy in a New Republic apartment with Hux’s dick in his mouth. It doesn’t feel right.

Mental adjustment: He’s no regular guy. He’s a brutal warrior returning from battle, blood-soaked and panting, exhausted. Hux, his Emperor in this realm where no one questions their joint domination of the galaxy, awaits his return.

Ren closes his eyes, his hand moving faster on his cock as he pictures this more clearly. The bedroom where Hux waits is dark and lavish, a room at the top of a well-guarded fortress. Hux is cool with him, asking if his orders were carried out. Ren answers curtly that they were, expecting Hux to understand that this means they were carried out to Hux’s exact specifications. Hux helps Ren out of his clothes, carefully avoiding his eyes. Ren is still so battle-charged that he’s breathing heavily, his cock hard just from the sight of Hux’s clean hands peeling away his blood-damp clothes. Hux touches a fresh injury on Ren’s shoulder and makes a disapproving noise under his breath, half-scolding and half-sympathetic.

“You’ve done well,” Hux says, his eyes finally snapping up to Ren’s. “Name your reward and you shall have it.”

“You.” Ren grabs Hux’s chin and steps closer, smearing some of their enemies’ blood along Hux’s jaw. “Now.”

“Very well,” Hux says, breathing this out as Ren’s mouth lowers onto his.

Ren loses himself to the fantasy, leaning back against the wall so he can feel the blast of the water on his cock while he gets close, finally, to a long-needed release. He imagines bringing the ferocity of the battle to bed and falling onto Hux, holding nothing back, feeling Hux pull on his hair in encouragement, fueling Ren’s bruising attention with teeth on his shoulder. Ren fucks Hux hard and growls under his breath when Hux murmurs thorny endearments in his ear: You’re my monster, aren’t you? My very own dark energy, smashing whatever’s in my way, moving in whichever direction I send you. You’re so bad, Ren. I can feel it when you’re inside me. Harder, make me feel it.

Ren has to bite his wrist to keep quiet when he comes, and he overdoes it, drawing blood in two spots, but it’s worth it for the relief his orgasm brings. He lolls against the wall as he watches the evidence wash down the drain, his pleasure seeming to wash away with it when he feels empty in the aftermath. Hux isn’t here to go lax in his arms and kiss his neck while he tries to recover his breath. Hux isn’t here. It feels like the only thing that matters.

By the time Ren turns off the water he knows he’ll do it again, tonight. He’ll try something slightly different, something not based in needing to return to the misery he felt as Ben. This other method may be even harder or more dangerous, but he can’t deny that he’ll do it anyway. He needs to feel Hux’s hand in his again, to see his eyes and hear his voice.

Mental adjustment: It’s not a weakness, this need. It’s a test of strength.

Objective, therefore: Go to that well again and drink from it. Yes, you will wake in agony, without him. But shying from agony is not your way.

After he’s returned to his room to put on clean clothes, he heads out into the living room and finds Rey and Wedge both on the sofa, watching a holodrama and eating popped fassa grain from a bowl. Wedge has clumsily dumped some spices over the stuff, and the whole apartment smells like baked cinnamon.

“Are you ill?” Rey asks, scanning Ren’s thoughts before he can answer. She frowns, sensing that something is off. Her feedback indicates that she’s noticed his puffy eyes. Ren shrugs.

“No,” he says.

Rey studies him. She hasn’t missed his reluctance to allow her access to his thoughts, though she can’t discern why. Wedge has paused the holo.

“You do look a little pale,” Wedge says, also noticing Ren’s eyes.

Have you-- Bitten yourself? Rey sends in confusion when she senses the marks on Ren’s wrist. Ren boots her out of his head before she can understand the origin of the injury. He walks out of the room without answering.

In the kitchen, he makes as much noise as possible while getting his breakfast, his headache mellowed by his orgasm but still resting like a swampy puddle at the back of his skull. He’s annoyed by Rey and Wedge just for being out there and watching some stupid show, possibly one that will be interrupted with breaking news about Hux’s sentencing. Ren wants to smash the holo, and he wants freshly squeezed kini fruit juice but doesn’t feel like bothering Wedge about ordering some from the droid service. Even the idea that Wedge would happily agree to do so is annoying right now.

“You’re certainly in a cheerful mood,” Rey says, coming into the kitchen with the empty fassa grain bowl while Ren sits at the table eating scrambled eggs with cheese. “What’s wrong?” Rey asks, more quietly. She puts the bowl in the sink and takes the seat beside Ren’s. “Don’t tell me it’s nothing,” she says. “Everything about your energy feels different this morning.”

“I dreamed about Hux.” This is true enough to hold off a full interrogation. Ren keeps his eyes on his eggs and shrugs. “I’m worried about him.”

“Oh. Well, if it will make you feel better, why don’t you write him another letter before we get started with the books? To clear your mind.”

“Good idea.” Ren shovels the last of his eggs into his mouth and hurries off to do that before Rey can get a better read on his mindset.

Observation: It may be unwise to hide from Rey at this juncture.

Mental adjustment: He’s not hiding. He told her he dreamed about Hux. That’s true enough.

Alone in his room, he pushes away the urge to fret further about this and grabs his pen and two fresh sheets of paper. He thinks of writing about what went on in the dream, but it seems as if it would be safer to discuss that with Hux in person, in another dream, later tonight. He writes instead about Snoke, continuing his narrative about how things went from bad to worse.

Though remembering any of this is typically draining, writing it down and knowing Hux will read it bolsters him, as if he’s put it all in a lockbox where it can’t hurt him anymore. Ren’s mood is improved by the time he folds up the pages of the letter and places them in a blue envelope. A vision strikes him hard when he turns the envelope over and wonders if he can infuse it with something that will smell or feel or taste like him when Hux reads what’s inside.

The vision is simple and stark: a blue envelope pressed against Hux’s stomach. Hux is naked, and his heart is pounding. He’s trying not to laugh. He’s in a shower.

Ren stands behind Hux in this vision, afraid to reach for him or speak. The sight of Hux’s bare shoulders rips at him and fortifies him at the same time. When he feels the vision start to fade he fights it, not sure if this is a future or past event or maybe something purely figurative. Either way, Ren’s initial interpretation fills him with soaring hope and erases the last of his headache: there is something of Ren in these letters, a concrete thing that travels with them and holds a kind of strength, and Hux can feel it.

Ren brings the books he keeps in his room to the living room. Rey is there with the data pad and the other two books, already working. Wedge has disappeared.

“What does Wedge do all day?” Ren asks. He regrets his tone when Rey looks up at him as if he’s said something cruel.

“I think he’s still trying to figure that out,” she says. “At the moment, he’s out having a run.”

“Having a run?”

“Yes, you know, for exercise?” Rey pumps her fists to imitate a runner’s arm motions.

“I need some of that,” Ren says, picking up the book that had seemed to speak to him the day before. “Combat practice, too.”

“Yes, I’d considered that. Maybe on the roof at night? Meanwhile, look at this. I think I found something here about healing.”

Ren hurries over to look. The page Rey indicates is all text, no illustrations, which is a relief. They’ve both agreed that the illustrations in the books are unsettling.

“This is about using meditation to move physical objects,” Ren says, annoyed with Rey for misunderstanding it and getting his excitement up over nothing.

“Isn’t that what you do when you heal?” Rey asks. “You have to concentrate, yes? I remember thinking it was like you were meditating when you healed my scrapes and cuts. You’d get quiet, and it was like you seemed to go somewhere, but you were also so connected to me. That’s why this made me think of healing-- Look what it says here, about how you have to disconnect specifically from the physical world in order to influence it through the Force. Whereas we’d normally think of it as an intimate connection with that physical thing. We’re actually detaching from it in order to move it, because we’re detaching from our expectations of its capabilities.”

“Hmm.”

Observation, dishearteningly familiar: Rey is better than him when it comes to reading meaning from the books.

Mental adjustment: She thinks so, anyway. Ren sees things differently. He reads between the lines. It’s harder, and more impressive.

“Does that not make sense?” Rey asks.

Feedback from Rey: Confidence faltering.

“I’d never thought of it that way,” Ren says. “But. I think it’s a good observation. Put it in the log.”

Rey smiles and does so. Ren doesn’t have much faith in the log. It doesn’t have the same feeling of permanency that the ink on the paper in these books does, or even the same power of the words he writes for Hux to read. He considers what Rey said as he watches her slowly typing her notes, and remembers something about their fight in the woods at Starkiller base: both of them struggling to grasp Luke’s lightsaber, both using the Force to do so. Ren had expected the lightsaber to come to him. The more surprised he became when it didn’t, the weaker he felt. Rey surely wasn’t focusing on expectations at that point, untrained as she was. It flew to her palm because she needed it, not because she believed she deserved it.

“But I was hardly meditating,” Rey says, reading Ren’s thoughts even as she continues typing her notes. “And certainly not detaching from the physical world. All I could think about was Finn lying there hurt and how I needed to hurry up and get rid of you so I could get help for him.”

“So you wanted something more than you wanted the lightsaber,” Ren says. “And in considering the weapon as only part of your larger objective, you were able to bring it to you.”

“Does it feel like meditating?” Rey asks when she looks up from the data pad. “When you heal someone?”

“Only in the sense that I block everything else out.”

“What else does it feel like?”

Ren thinks about it for a moment. It’s not easy to describe.

“When you bite into something and it crunches apart between your teeth,” he says. “There’s a kind of satisfaction in that, yes?”

“Sometimes,” Rey says. “Depends on the texture.”

“It’s the opposite of that feeling. It’s like a satisfying reverse crunch. The easiest things to heal are like unchewing something with a nice texture, and the harder things are like uncracking something very hard that comes back together sharply and makes you worry about the integrity of your teeth. The healing is like having this secret set of teeth that do the opposite of what actual teeth do. And if the most powerful teeth are razor sharp and jagged, this invisible jaw has just as much brutal power, but it knits together what would be broken apart by its inverse, and it’s strong enough to put anything back the way it should be.”

“Well, not anything, surely,” Rey says. Ren gives her a look for doubting his powers. Rey finds this funny, and reaches over to shove his shoulder when she laughs. “I just mean you couldn’t revive the dead,” she says. “There are some injuries too grave to repair, I imagine?”

Ren stands up and paces. He can feel something at the edge of his consciousness, fighting to solidify. Reviving the dead-- No, he’s sure he couldn’t do that. But there’s something important in the suggestion that he might. He closes his eyes and continues pacing, unable to concentrate properly. He stripped some of his ability to do so away by using so much energy to connect to Hux in that dream that lingers with him even now, replaying behind his eyes.

“Make a note,” Ren says, hurrying the words out when he senses someone climbing the stairs outside with heavy footsteps. He assumes it’s Wedge, back from his run, and alarm strikes through him when he realizes it’s someone else, a stranger.

“What note?” Rey asks, grabbing for the data pad.

“About the two hands symbol. The one we both saw floating over the books. The note should read ‘death.’ I’m not sure what it means yet, but it’s relevant. Also, someone is coming.”

“I feel it, too.” Rey frowns and looks at the door, waiting to hear the chime. “I suppose you should hide?”

Ren shakes his head when feedback from the man outside hits him, and he crosses the room in three strides, hurrying to the door.

“What are you doing?” Rey asks. “Ben, no one can know you’re--”

“He’s here on behalf of Hux.”

Ren tears the door open before he’s finished saying so. The man standing outside backs away, his eyes widening when they meet Ren’s. This is a man who has handled Ren’s letters to Hux. The lawyer.

“Hello,” the lawyer says, smiling nervously. “I’m--”

“Get inside,” Ren says, grabbing his shoulder and yanking him into the apartment. “I know who you are.”

Feedback from the lawyer, who stumbles through the apartment’s foyer, clutching a data case to his chest: His name is Jek Porkins III, and he’s feeling extremely guilty about being here. Hux doesn’t know that he’s come.

“Ben!” Rey says, leaping up from the sofa. “What are you doing? How do you know we can trust him?”

“Feedback indicates we can,” Ren says, though he’s skeptical, too. Porkins is tall and wide, older than both of them, but he seems to cower in their presence, his eyes darting from Ren to Rey.

“I didn’t mean to invite myself in right away,” Porkins says, holding his data case across his chest like a shield. “I shouldn’t even be here, but my excuse, if anyone notices, is that I’m interviewing Ms. Antilles about her encounter with Hux and Kylo Ren, the one that led to Hux’s surrender. I, uh. I assume you both know who I am?”

“The lawyer,” Rey says, nodding. “I’m sorry-- Mr. Pork--” She glances at Ren, then back at the lawyer. “Porkins?”

“You guessed it!” He brightens and walks over to shake Rey’s hand, then turns and seems to want to do the same with Ren.

“Welcome,” Ren says, folding his arms over his chest. “Please. Sit.”

“It smells good in here,” Porkins says. He takes a seat on the sofa, occupying the place beside Rey where Ren had been sitting. “Are you guys baking?”

“Um, no,” Rey says. “It’s just popped fassa with cinnamon. Can I get you something?”

“Oh, no, I’m fine.” Porkins puts his data case on the table, beside the books. “Wow,” he says, staring at them. “You don’t see artifacts like that every day.”

“Why are you here?” Ren asks, unable to hold it in any longer or lower the volume of his voice. “What’s happened? Is Hux all right?”

“I’m actually here to meet you,” Porkins says, half-smiling and clasping his hands between his knees. He’s looking at Ren, taking him in fully now. “Hux is fine, but he doesn’t know I’m here. You can tell him I came if you like, but I’m afraid it might rattle him to know I spoke to you.”

“Then why did you come?” Rey asks. “Is he withholding some information from you?”

“Ah,” Porkins says, glancing at Ren and then back at Rey. “Clearly you don’t know him very well, if you need to ask that question.”

“I don’t know him at all,” Rey says. “Except through Ren’s-- Feelings.” She glances at Ren apologetically.

Observations: It’s exhilarating and infuriating to be in the room with someone who has seen Hux so recently. Just yesterday, this man helped Hux through a difficult encounter with some New Republic lawyer. Porkins’ feedback overflows with sympathy for Hux, because of something Hux told him.

Ren steps backward when he realizes what it was. He ends up leaning in the corner of the room, resisting the urge to drop into a crouch, unpleasantly overcome with the information that this man is someone who actually cares about Hux. This unspectacular person sitting near Luke’s books is someone Hux trusts absolutely, and after such a short time.

Observation: That never happens. Or it happened only once, before now. When Hux lifted his ass in the air for Ren in bed, that first time.

Observation, related, bitterly indisputable: Even then, Hux hadn’t trusted Ren fully.

“I’m not here for any specific information,” Porkins says, wilting a bit when he sees the look of jealous resentment that has crept onto Ren’s face. “I just wanted to talk to Ren-- It’s Ren, right? That’s what he told me to call you.”

“That’s my name,” Ren says, sharply.

“Right. Well, I’m putting together my opening statement and my general strategy for the hearing, and I feel like I’m still missing pieces of the picture. I’m not going to hold my breath and wait for Hux to open up to me about what he went through with you, so I thought you might be able to help me get a fuller picture, if you’re willing. I think it could help me defend him.”

“It doesn’t matter if you defend him or not,” Ren says, still sharp. “If they sentence him to death, I won’t let them carry it out. Has he not told you who I am? What I’m capable of?”

Feedback from Rey, sent directly: Please stop looking at this man like you want to tear his throat out with your teeth. My reading is that he’s a good person who likes Hux and wants to help. You’re not going to find many of those on this planet.

“Oh, you-- You’re saying you would intervene?” Porkins says, his eyebrows lifting. “In protest?”

“In protest, yes,” Rey says, hurriedly. “But hopefully it won’t come to that. I think we can all agree that would go very badly, in a sense.” She glances at Ren, sending feedback to remind him not to tell everyone he meets about his vague plans to rescue Hux from execution. “What would you like to know?” Rey prompts when Porkins sits there looking lost for a moment.

“Just-- Just what the hell really happened, I guess?” Porkins says. “Hux told me he was betrayed and tortured by some of his officers, and that Ren showed up to save him. I believe all that. And he’s told me that he and Ren had some sort of relationship, but that’s where it gets fuzzy. He makes it sound like some kind of matter of convenience, but I’ve always gotten the opposite impression, despite what he tells me.”

“Why?” Ren asks, staring at a spot on the floor so that he won’t frighten Porkins with the look on his face.

“Well, the way he reaches for your letters when I give them to him, for one thing.”

“Did he send one back?” Ren asks, knowing the answer before he can even finish asking. He drops his gaze to the floor again and shakes his head. “Of course not. He didn’t know you were coming here.”

“Right. And he’s, you know, we’ve got to be careful about what he puts in writing right now. I almost want to encourage you not to write to him again, because he’s on record saying he’s not in contact with you.”

“I have to write to him, you don’t understand--”

“No, I know,” Porkins says, holding up his hand. “I said ‘almost’ because I think Hux’s determination to fight for his life would be dampened if he didn’t have your letters to look forward to. I think they’re that important to him, just based on his body language when he gets one. And that’s why I’d like you to tell me a little bit about your time together, if you’re willing. I’m not saying I want to hear all the juicy details or anything like that, but I get the impression that this interlude with you was when things started rearranging in his mind, regarding the Order and his feelings about what he’d done, and I just need to know if that’s right or not. Because a sincere change in his mindset is really important to my defense of his past actions.”

Ren turns this over in his head, ignoring feedback from Rey that strongly suggests he comply. Would Hux want Ren talking about their time together in that house? No, absolutely not. But could it actually help Hux to let his man know something of it?

Observation: Hux told Porkins about what happened to him at the Academy.

Conclusion, therefore: Porkins can be trusted with information about what went on in the house on the cliff. Hux might not like it, but Porkins won’t use it against him.

“What do you need to know?” Ren asks, still staring at the floor.

“Did you and Hux have feelings for each other prior to your time spent hiding out together? Is that why you saved him?”

“Hux was trying to save me.” Ren pushes away from the wall and paces in front of the holo projector, agitated. He doesn’t like talking about this, but he can’t deny that this Porkins is trying to help. “Hux thought I was in trouble. That’s how they got him alone. He was reckless. He went after me himself.”

“What did your feelings for each other arise from?” Porkins asks. He’s not making notes. “I know it’s a personal question,” he says when Ren shoots him a look. “But it’s hard for this Committee to imagine that someone who did what Hux did is even capable of expressing care and affection, and the idea that he has, and with a specific person, could be an important tipping point toward getting them to see Hux as a person and not a monster.”

“Monster,” Ren mutters, pacing. He resists the urge to explain that someone can be both a monster and a person at the same time. This guy knows that already.

Every time Ren opens his mouth to relate the story of how Hux ended up in his bed, the words die at the back of his throat. I killed my father that day, he thinks, knowing Rey will hear this. And Hux was there, after I’d failed to gain power from it, and after I’d failed in battle against an untrained beginner. Hux had failed that day, too.

“We disappointed Snoke,” Ren says. “Hux’s weapon and base were destroyed. And I-- I failed in battle, and Snoke determined that I needed further training. He asked Hux to bring me to him. There were three days. On the ship, on our way to Snoke. Hux slept in my bed.”

“So it was a matter of mutual sympathy?”

“It wasn’t that simple,” Ren says, sharply enough to get a warning look from Rey. “I-- I didn’t feel sympathy for him, no. It was a fascination. I denied it to myself because I was not meant to have such attachments. It was forbidden by my-- By Snoke. Hux was similarly guarded against any unuseful preoccupations. But we had both been alone a long time. It was like trying not to drink from the purest, clearest water that’s flowing past you when you’re dying of thirst. Of course we both drank. We told ourselves it didn’t matter, but once we let ourselves have a taste of it, we couldn’t entirely turn away from each other, even after I had reported to Snoke. So when Hux thought I was in peril, he tried to get to me. And when I sensed that Hux was in real trouble, I went to him.”

“Okay,” Porkins says, nodding. As if he could possibly understand. “So you obviously had a strong bond. Was Hux receptive of your help when you found him? I know he’s got a lot of pride.”

Ren opens his mouth to defend Hux on this point, but Porkins is not wrong, and he’s not saying so unkindly. If Hux could have survived his ordeal while also rejecting Ren’s help, he probably would have, just for the sake of his pride.

“Hux was badly injured,” Ren says. “I healed him.”

“Good, let’s talk about the healing.” Porkins sits up a bit straighter. “Because the prosecutor was hammering Hux on that, but he handled the questions very well, as if it was undeniable that you healed him. What does that-- Require, exactly?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Ren says, muttering.

“We barely understand it ourselves,” Rey says. “Not everything about the Force has been explained to us. Not everything about it can be explained.”

“Okay,” Porkins says. “But is it-- I mean, I imagine there must be a kind of, ah, tenderness? Involved in healing someone?”

“No, no,” Ren says, pacing again. “It’s power, the rawest sort of power, it’s not-- Tender, no. It comes from the dark side.”

“Are you sure about that?” Rey asks. Ren raises his lip, not wanting to get into it in front of this layperson.

“I guess it would be pointless to try to wrap my head around the Force,” Porkins says. “And I think talking about it would just confuse the Committee. Could you tell me about what it was like when you were hiding out from this Snoke character? Hux described your hiding place as a safehouse.”

“It was a house.” Ren moves into the corner again. He slumps back against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. What can he say about their time in that house that would convey what it was really like? Nothing. Even Hux, who is far better with words, wouldn’t be able to articulate what those days before Snoke’s attack felt like. It was too pure, too sacred, too much to vocalize.

“Hux must have been pretty fragile after what he went through,” Porkins says. “Though I confess I can’t imagine it.”

“He was traumatized when I met him,” Rey says when Ren says nothing. “By Snoke.”

“Snoke showed up and attacked him, right? At this safehouse?”

“Are you going to say all of this to that Committee?” Ren asks, trying to convey with mere tone of voice that he forbids it. “Against Hux’s wishes?”

“No,” Porkins says. “I’m just trying to get the complete picture, for my own understanding. Appealing to a Committee like this involves telling a story, and you’re part of Hux’s story.”

“How are you going to tell his story without actually saying all of this? I don’t understand.”

“I haven’t figured that out yet,” Porkins says. “But Hux’s mother is arriving tonight, and tomorrow I’m going to meet with her and Hux, and hopefully that will give me another piece of the puzzle.”

“His mother?” Ren crosses the room, stands at the window and stares out at the wall of the building next door. “Does Hux know she’s coming?”

“Yes, of course.”

Ren says nothing. He doesn’t consult anyone’s feedback. He thinks of Hux, alone in a prison cell, awaiting the arrival of his mother.

Conclusion, reaffirmed: It’s another reason to return to Hux’s dreams tonight, in as physical a form as he can manage. Hux will be anxious about this meeting. Rattled. Perhaps he’ll let Ren comfort him this time.

Memories, related: That day they went to the beach at the bottom of the cliff, when Hux closed himself off at the mere mention of his mother’s continued existence. Ren had wanted to follow Hux into the shower. Hux had not allowed it. If that type of rejection should happen tonight, on the eve of Hux’s confrontation with his mother, Ren will again accept it. He would be disappointed, however.

Feedback from Rey, directly and sharply sent: Where are you right now? Hello?

“Sorry.” Ren turns and looks at her, then Porkins. “What more do you need to know?”

“Anything you’d like to tell me,” Porkins says. “I guess it would be helpful to know how you see Hux. As someone who cares about him this way.”

“This way,” Ren mutters. He turns back to the window. All he can think of is how he saw Hux in that dream last night, when he returned to the hell of being Ben just so that Hux could have back some of what he’s given up. Pride, maybe. But that’s the wrong word. Porkins said Hux must have been fragile. That word is wrong, too. “Hux is--” Ren winces and shakes his head. There are no words. How does he see Hux? Like a house on a cliff where everything that doesn’t really matter falls away. A place to put his head down. But more than that, too. Hux is stronger than that house proved to be. Ren felt it when he healed him.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to answer,” Porkins says. As if Ren has backed down from a challenge. As if he’s too much of a coward to say something true in present company.

“We belong to each other,” Ren says, snapping this in Porkins’ direction, from over his shoulder. “An oath was made and sealed. It’s unbreakable. It’s not a matter of how I see Hux. Even if he tells you he never wants to see me again.” Ren turns to find Rey looking unamused and Porkins somewhat wide-eyed. “Has he said that?” Ren asks, loud again. “He says things like that when he feels betrayed. Perhaps he told you I tried to kill him?”

“What? No.” Porkins glances at Rey, then at Ren again. “You tried to kill him?”

“No. Snoke did. He used me to do it. Snoke thought he could sever our connection by making Hux afraid of me. He underestimates my power--” Ren makes himself stop talking. He shouldn’t be saying this out loud. Rey’s feedback indicates concern.

“It’s to do with the Force,” Rey says, explaining this to Porkins. “Hux didn’t tell you?”

“He skimps on the details. I guess I imagined this Snoke guy showing up and issuing the attack himself. Uh, in person, I mean.”

“It’s irrelevant,” Ren says. “What more do you want me to tell you? Hux is mine. It’s laughable that the New Republic thinks they have any say in his fate. Hux’s well-being is entirely in my hands. Even now. Despite appearances to the contrary.”

Feedback from Porkins, who now sits in silence: He’s surprised that Hux tolerates a person like Ren, considering Hux’s lack of patience for sentimental people.

“This is counterproductive,” Ren announces when Porkins opens his mouth to speak again. “I’ll ask the questions now.”

“Fine by me,” Porkins says. His smile is obnoxious but sincere. “Though I have to assume you know more than I do.”

“Have you spoken to Hux’s mother?” Ren asks.

“Only in a few short messages over the network.”

“And what has she said? About Hux?”

“Nothing, really. Just that she’s willing to appear in accordance with the subpoena we served on her.”

“What has Hux said about her arrival?”

“He’s nervous.” Porkins looks sheepish after saying so. He feels guilty again, for divulging this information, knowing that Hux would be angry and insulted if he heard Porkins applying the word ‘nervous’ to him. “I got the warden to agree to let Hux have a haircut before he sees her,” Porkins says. “Maybe that will help with the nerves--”

“His hair-- What?” Ren feels struck, imagining a grooming droid at the prison buzzing it all off.

“It was Hux’s idea,” Porkins says. “I thought it was kind of sweet. Tell you the truth, I’m a little worried about his mother rattling him right before the trial. I’m going to meet her at the spaceport tonight and personally see her to her hotel, so I’ll get a sense of her at that point, and if she seems cruel I’m going to have some serious second thoughts about bringing her to see Hux. He’s made real progress, and-- I don’t know. His mother abandoned him, he said. I’m anxious to hear her side of the story.”

“You’re quite devoted,” Rey says, not bothering to hide her surprise. “It’s admirable,” she says when Porkins turns to her. “Do you think the Committee will treat him fairly?”

“Hard to say. All I know is I’ll do my best for him. I’ve never gone through this before, one-on-one with someone who’s potentially facing a death penalty. It’s intense. I want to help, I really do. That’s why I’m here.”

“What more can I do?” Ren asks, now standing in the middle of the room. “You want to help? I’d die for him. Ask more questions, if you think you can do something with the answers.”

“Ben,” Rey says, softly.

“What?” Ren throws out his arms and looks at her, then back at Porkins, who seems pleased by this outburst, for some reason. “I’m only volunteering my help,” Ren says, disliking the slant of Porkins’ feedback. “Take it, take whatever you want, ask me more!”

“I think I have what I need,” Porkins says. “I haven’t read your letters to him, but I wanted to make sure that he’s eager to get them for the reason I suspected.”

“What reason?”

“Well, that you love him,” Porkins says. “And he knows it. That’s why those letters are like a lifeline for him, and why he barks at me when I ask questions about you. It’s something he protects. It’s important.”

Ren turns away again. He stares at his blurred reflection on the powered-off holo screen.

Observation: He’s grown weary of having difficult conversations in this room. When he’s finished with what he needs to accomplish here, he’ll never return to this apartment, or to this city, or this planet.

“Don’t tell that fucking Committee any of this,” Ren says. “About me and Hux-- No. It wouldn’t come out right.”

Hypothesis: They would laugh. Then the news would ripple through the holo broadcasts and the entire planet would laugh along with them.

“No, no,” Porkins says, waving his hand through the air. “You’re right, it would be a disaster to make too much of this in front of Committee members who lost the people they love to Hux’s weapon. It’s more of a nuanced thing. I don’t plan to bring it up specifically. It’s just something I’ll have in my pocket. An understanding. Thanks for confirming my analysis of the situation.”

Porkins sits back and seems to be deep in thought, absently touching his stupid little beard. Rey keeps her energy focused on Ren, checking his feedback, not wanting this encounter to leave him overly upset. Ren’s ears are hot. He’s pacing again, more slowly now.

“Is Hux suffering?” Ren asks. “Does he need me? I could go to him, maybe, in disguise--”

“Oh no, please don’t,” Porkins says. “It’s very important that your mother remains on the Committee, and if anyone gets a whiff of who Kylo Ren is and what he means to Hux, that would mean Organa stepping down. There are three votes that will go for the death sentence, I fear, no matter how well I present Hux’s case. Two are more hopeful, but what we’re really fighting for is the tying vote. That would send the decision to your mother, and I’m confident that she wouldn’t put him to death.”

“Because of me?” Ren asks, sharply, daring him to say so.

Porkins lifts one shoulder. “Maybe in part,” he says. “But I also don’t think your mother would be comfortable allowing the legacy of Alderaan to be tarnished by an act of petty revenge, all these years later. She doesn’t seem like the vengeful type.”

“You don’t know her.” Ren scoffs and returns to the window, shaking his head.

“Thank you for coming,” Rey says to Porkins when Ren has been silent for some time. “I hope you got what you needed from us.”

“I did, thank you. And it was nice just to meet the elusive Kylo Ren.”

“Nice?” Rey says.

“Well, illuminating.”

“Oh. Good!”

“Wait,” Ren snaps when Porkins stands. “I have another letter for Hux. Wait here. I’ll get it.”

When he returns from his room with the envelope, Porkins is standing with Rey in the foyer. They’re talking about something, voices low. Feedback indicates that the subject matter involves Finn. Rey is almost tearful when she turns to Ren, smiling and holding a folded piece of paper.

“Thank him for me,” Rey says when she looks back to Porkins. “I know it’s probably a ploy to get Finn’s testimony to go his way, but I don’t care. This will mean so much to him.”

“Finn’s testimony.” Ren glares at Rey. “He’s been asked to appear at the hearing. When were you going to tell me?”

“Honestly, I’m surprised you hadn’t read it off me already,” Rey says. “I wasn’t guarding it particularly closely. You’ve just been distracted.”

“Take this to Hux,” Ren says, ignoring her observation and passing the letter to Porkins. “Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome,” Porkins says. Feedback indicates he’s sincere. Also that he is almost impossible to offend. “Thanks for writing to him like this,” Porkins says. “I’m sure he’ll write back when the hearing is over. It’ll be safer then.”

“But what if they find out Hux lied about being in contact with Kylo Ren?” Rey asks.

Observation: It’s odd to hear her say that name. Unpleasant.

“Well, whatever they find out after the sentencing,” Porkins says, “Their decision is final. They’re not offering me the chance to appeal, but that means they also can’t change their minds once the verdict is handed down, no matter what comes out afterward.” Porkins shakes his head. “It’s all quite unorthodox,” he says. “But maybe that will work out to our advantage.”

Observation: Our advantage. As if he’s really on their side. An actual ally of Hux.

Feedback from Porkins: He is, at least in his own mind.

“Thank you,” Ren says again, when Porkins moves toward the door. “For bringing Hux the letters. And for-- Listening to him. When he tells you things. Thank you.”

Before Porkins can respond, Wedge punches his entry code and the door swings open. What follows is an exhausting and rather loud exchange of pleasantries and small talk, because Wedge knew Porkins’ deceased father and apparently these two have met before as well. Ren slips away while they’re distracted by their shared gladness to see each other. To his dismay, Rey follows.

“Are you all right?” she asks, crowding Ren’s doorway before he can shut himself in his room.

“It’s strange to say any of that out loud,” he mutters, keeping his back to her.

“What was that you said about an oath?” Rey asks. “Between you and Hux, something you sealed? When, and-- What?”

“Never mind,” Ren says. He was referring to the dream, the moment when Hux whispered You’re mine against Ben’s lips. “I’ll help you with the books again later. I need a moment.”

“You must know I can feel it when you pull away from me.”

“Please--”

“And are you going to explain why you think the symbol of the hands we saw during meditation means ‘death’?”

“I didn’t say it means death! It’s something to do with death, some kind of-- Related phenomenon, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’re not reading between the lines. You’re being too literal.”

“And you think it’s impossible to be too figurative? Or to stray into something dangerous when you leave the path made by those who have gone before us?”

“Finn will testify at Hux’s hearing,” Ren says, unwilling to discuss this other subject. Out in the foyer, Wedge and Porkins are still talking, laughing about something. Ren doesn’t like the sound of it, though they both only want to help.

“Yes,” Rey says when Ren turns to her. “Finn will testify. They’re making him do it.”

“Hux gave him something. Coordinates. His parents?”

“They’re the coordinates of the planet Finn was taken from as a child,” Rey says, glancing down at the folded note in her hand. “It’s just a start. But it’s something. I suppose Hux sees it as a kind of bribe.”

“And Finn is above taking a bribe?”

“Of course he is! He’ll tell the truth at the hearing.”

“Which is what?”

“As I understand it, he never had any real interactions with Hux prior to being there for his arrest. I think they’ll mostly be asking him about the injustices involved with the stormtrooper program that Hux oversaw.”

“He could help Hux,” Ren says. “I need more time to determine how Snoke can be destroyed. It would be better if they didn’t sentence Hux to death.”

Rey gives Ren a look.

“No kidding,” she says. "I know that, and Finn knows that. He’s not going to make up lies to hurt Hux during his hearing. He’s only going to be talking about life as a stormtrooper.”

“Which will make Hux look bad.”

“Well, maybe he deserves to look bad for the bad things he actually did. I think people might be surprised that the stormtroopers aren’t beaten daily and that many of them are quite passionate about fighting for their leaders.”

“Finn wasn’t.”

“Finn wasn’t passionate enough about the Order to kill dozens of innocent villagers upon your command, no.”

Rey walks away, shutting Ren out of her head as she goes. Though he was ready to get rid of her a moment ago, he hates that she’s storming away now. He thinks of calling her back, arguing, but what she said can’t be disputed. He closes his bedroom door with his hand, quietly.

Memories, blurred only by his own disinterest in them: That village. The old man, Lor San Tekka. His mother’s friend. Ren killed him in part because of what he said. Something far worse has happened to you. Liar, smug bastard-- What did he know about what Kylo had become? When Tekka was dispensed with and Dameron captured, Kylo had ordered the execution of everyone else present. Why not? What did their lives matter to Kylo of the Knights of Ren? Those people who kneeled at the center of that village were insects to be squashed. Nothing more.

Objective, probably unwise: Imagine what Hux would say.

Theory, relatively sturdy: Hux might ask why Ren isn’t answering for what he’s done the way that Hux will have to, publicly, as he pleads for his life during a broadcast that will reach hundreds of planets, including those ruled by the Order, where people will spit at the sound of Hux’s name just as those in the New Republic do, despite his pleading, neither side willing to forgive.

Mental adjustment: Hux might plead in a technical sense, but he won’t beg.

Further, important: What importance would those villagers have had, truly, to the fate of the galaxy? Their lives were monotonous toil, led without impact. The same was true of most of those people on the planets Hux destroyed. They were mere numbers that now only represent moves made in a game. Perhaps some among them were kind, such as the boy Ren saw in Hux’s dream about the Academy. Henry. Perhaps some of the villagers murdered by Kylo’s stormtroopers on Jakku crossed paths with young Rey when she was in need of some kindness and extended a friendly smile or a portion of food to her. No matter. What did this kindness ultimately change for Hux or Rey? Nothing. Ren has real power that can and has saved them both in the past. This power has nothing to do with kindness. It’s something much bigger. Kindness falls aside without real impact. It’s ultimately only as useful as luck.

Ren slumps onto his bed and thinks of that lawyer. Porkins. Perhaps he could be classified as kind.

Mental adjustment: The lawyer is undeniably kind. And it has mattered, somewhat. It may yet matter even more. Porkins didn’t laugh at Hux, or doubt him, when Hux confided in him. He didn’t confiscate Ren’s letters to keep them from possibly spoiling Hux’s case. Porkins cares about the case, but not because it could advance his career. He cares about the outcome purely for the sake of Hux’s welfare. Thus, the letters were conveyed, and Porkins noticed how Hux responded to them. He told Ren about this response.

Observation, belated: Porkins came to this apartment to tell Ren that his letters make Hux want to fight for his life.

Mental adjustment, more useful: Ren already knew that.

Follow-up question, annoying: Didn’t he?

When Ren closes his eyes, he can only see a blur that represents those villagers rounded up for the slaughter that he ordered. He doesn’t remember a single face. Even Tekka’s aged face is only a vague memory. Kylo didn’t like looking too long at people who had known Ben, especially if they believed, as Tekka did, that Ben was hiding behind Kylo’s mask.

The remainder of the day is an agony of efforts not to think about things that don’t matter. The villagers killed on Jakku. Rey’s increasing suspicion that Ren is hiding something from her. The approach of Hux’s mother’s shuttle to this planet, and the sense that Ren’s mother is wondering when she should visit the apartment again. After the hearing or before? Ren has no answer for her. He shuts her out, and everything else along with her. He can’t sleep, so he does repetitive exercises in his room: one-handed push-ups, hundreds of huffing crunches, squats that continue until even his tailbone aches. He’s soaked in sweat and panting on the floor by the time the sun begins to go down.

Rey does not fetch him for dinner. Perhaps she told Wedge that Ren needs to be alone. It’s true enough. He watches the fading glow of the sinking sun on the ceiling of his room and wonders what Hux is doing now. Have they cut his hair off yet? Ren is exhausted, but he can’t sleep until Hux does. Finding Hux in his dreams is easier if Ren slips into sleep around the same time that Hux has.

He settles on meditation, sitting up and beginning to steady his breathing. As his eyes fall shut, he refocuses on what he discerned the day before: the key to finding Hux in a dream and making their interactions there real on some level. He’s glad the book that supplied this information isn’t in the room with him now, because he wants to reactivate the exercise from memory, without a guide whispering from some words put to paper long ago.

The instructions for the dream communion caught Ren’s eye because of the illustration on the opposite page. It was in this sense that he felt the instructions more than read them, as if the drawing was a cipher for decoding the tightly packed text on the page that rests against it when the book is closed. The drawing is simple at first glance, or at least more so than most in the books, which chiefly feature humanoid figures performing various actions, apparently aided by the Force. On this page of the book there is a drawing of a pair of human hands which seem to reach up from the bottom of the page. They are well-drawn, less crude than most of the figures in the book, and above them in a distant sky are what appear to be seven birds. The birds seem to be flying toward a gathering of dark clouds and what might be space debris, globs of ink at the top left corner of the page indicating either distant space or a violent oncoming storm. From this darkness, four thin lightning bolts emerge, one snaking down the left side of the page and forking in two, the right fork touching the left hand that seems to reach upward toward the birds, either as if it has released them or as if it longs to call them back.

The text on the opposite page involves the importance of respecting duality when bending the Force to one’s will. Ren’s interpretation, therefore, is that the hands on the opposite page are both releasing the birds and desperately calling them back. The birds have been released only temporarily, and this allows them to move from one realm into another, then back again. When Ren meditated upon this, holding Rey’s notice at bay as if she was a set of wind chimes to be discreetly stilled, he developed a theory for reaching out more completely to Hux via dreams. He would send not just his mind but his physical senses there, and then would call everything back when Hux awakened. Seven birds: five representing the senses most beings possessed, one for the abilities that only Force users have, and one for the physical body comprised of these six extensions of self.

It worked, though Ren hadn’t planned to lose himself so completely to Hux’s dream. He hadn’t planned to revert to Ben, a previous physical state of being, rather than remaining within his present body as he led Hux away from his bad memories. Ren’s working theory is that his return to Ben’s consciousness had something to do with Hux’s age in the dream. Ben appeared in order to physically correspond to Hux’s age, because Ren was still Ben when Hux was seventeen. Tonight, Ren resolves to avoid that beginner’s mistake. He will remain Ren, regardless of how Hux presents himself at the start of the dream, and he will comfort Hux as needed, if Hux will allow it.

Darkness falls. Ren resists the urge to go to Rey and ask why she hasn’t been checking his feedback or knocking on his door. She’s upset, perhaps because of Finn’s memory of wanting to spare those villagers, or because she can sense Ren’s awareness that he doesn’t actually need her after all. Rey has her own path: it involves Finn, Wedge, Leia, and a life here in the New Republic. Ren’s path has forked away from Rey’s already. They can help each other, but only in small ways. Ren will forge ahead without her. This connection with Hux, and the refinement of Ren’s ability to send his physical consciousness to perform tasks for him even as body remains in a state of meditation, will aide him.

Reminder, quiet but clear as he settles into bed and prepares for the journey to Hux: Remain cautious about Snoke’s surveillance. Do not imagine you are safe from him anywhere.

Objective, simplifying his concerns: Protect Hux within these dreams.

The emptiness of Ren’s stomach seems a liability at first, but eventually he decides his hunger is actually a helpmate in this task, and he drifts into the perfect dark more easily than he did the night before. It’s not quite like meditation. He’s acutely aware of his objective, letting nothing go as he moves away from his physical body. There’s no surrender here. This is about determination, and a will so strong that it can transcend the reach of his limbs.

Objective, as the dark solidifies around him: Be mindful of duality. Let go if you must. Last night Hux promised himself to you eternally after you allowed yourself to fizzle into pathetic Ben.

Ren opens his eyes to the dark. At first, like before, he’s overwhelmed by his intense awareness of his own heartbeat. It has traveled with him, a thread that connects him to his body just as the Force allows him to send his mind away from it. For some time, there is nothing but this pulse in the dark. Then a tunnel appears, a faint light coming from the end of a long, curving hallway. When Ren moves he finds he’s walking along a circular path. It’s not like a dream or a vision, though there are properties similar to both: the completeness of the dark that billows like smoke behind him, and the clarity of his determination, something he rarely experiences when awake.

He can feel the floor of this place against his boots, can smell industrial cleaning products like those used on the Finalizer, and he can hear something like a faint rush, somewhere between running water and air pumped from a vent. Focusing on this sound makes his surroundings solidify. Doors appear along the wall to his right: all of them locked and unnumbered. Hux is here somewhere, in this sterile enclosure that is neither a starship nor an actual prison, though it feels like one to Hux, because this is Hux’s dream.

Ren has been watching the doors along the curve of the right wall, and the sudden appearance of a door on his left takes him off guard. This door is open. It leads into a circular room and to the source of that rushing noise: a sanistream shower. The shower blasts down onto nothing while Hux crawls around on the floor, naked and biting back tears, looking for something. Ren would flood the room with black buttons, but that’s not what Hux wants now.

“What do you need?” Ren asks, ready to rip his beating heart out if Hux asks for it.

Hux looks up, stricken. He appears to be his actual age in this dream, though the open fear on his face makes him seem slightly younger.

“My letter,” Hux says, still crouched on the floor. “Please, I’ve got to find it. They’re coming, they’ll take it from me.”

“Hux--”

“I’ve misplaced it somehow. I thought I had it, but now it’s gone. I can’t lose it, it’s essential, it contains irreplaceable intelligence about how I’ll escape from here, I need it--”

“Hux!”

“Quiet!” Hux says, still crawling around on the floor, running his hands over it as if he’ll find the letter more by touch than sight. “They’ll hear you, and if they find it before I do--”

“Look at me.”

Ren lowers himself to a squat. Hux still won’t look up. He’s shaking his head madly while he searches the floor for a blue envelope. Cruelly, the dream has made the floor of this room the exact same shade of blue, with the same glossy sheen as those envelopes in the box in Ren’s room.

“I’m your letter,” Ren says, and Hux finally looks up. Hux’s eyebrows pinch together when he tries to see Ren as the envelope he’s looking for. Ren moves closer, on his knees now. “It’s me,” he says. “The letter, it’s-- Me, I’m right here.”

Hux leans closer, squinting. He sucks in his breath, and when the light of recognition leaps into his eyes it’s as if he’s seeing everything he ever looked for: every button, every longed-for correspondence, coordinate, schematic, promotion, every word of closely guarded praise. Every victory he’s ever wanted.

“Ren,” Hux says, holding back a sobbing kind of laughter as he hurries into Ren’s arms.

“It’s me,” Ren says again when Hux falls onto him, clinging, though Hux knows this already. He’s recognized it now: that Ren is really here to push away the shadows of what might have been another nightmare.

“How?” Hux asks, but it’s not a real question. He doesn’t care how. He moans in complaint when Ren pulls back to remove his robe. Hux laughs when he feels the warmth of the robe against his bare skin as Ren wraps it around him, and he sighs with what sounds like relief when he leans into the heat of Ren’s arms again. “Oh, I--” Hux presses his face to Ren’s throat so firmly that it almost hurts. “I can feel your heartbeat,” Hux says, his voice muffled and disbelieving. “Ren. You’ll kill yourself, doing this. Whatever this is. You can’t--”

“Don’t underestimate me,” Ren says, squeezing him. He can’t allow himself to be overcome, as he was last night, by the feeling of holding Hux like this. He can’t pause for long to think about how good it feels, how right and solid and miraculous. “I know what I’m doing,” Ren says, only half-lying as he pulls the hood of his robe up over Hux’s head.

The hood is big enough for them both to hide inside. Before its darkness overtakes them, Ren admires the light in Hux’s eyes, and the way his lashes flutter as he peers up at Ren.

“But it’s just a dream,” Hux says, as if to comfort himself. He touches Ren’s cheek, feels the familiar texture of Ren’s scar beneath his fingertips and swallows down a whimper, shaking his head. “You don’t have to do this for me,” Hux says, whispering. “It’s not your last chance to see me, not necessarily. I might not actually be as good as dead.”

“You’ll admit that?” Ren says, grinning. “Finally?”

“Shut up.” Hux closes his eyes and presses his face to Ren’s cheek. Ren uses this opportunity to pull the hood up further, so that it closes them both in a new darkness. He needs to keep to his plan or he’ll risk losing his way. There’s something he wants Hux to see.

“Trust me,” Ren says when he feels Hux tensing against him. Ren keeps his hands on Hux’s waist, his breath mixing hotly with Hux’s inside the hood.

“What is this?” Hux asks, whispering, his lips moving against the corner of Ren’s mouth. “How are you doing it? How do you make it feel so real?”

“It is real,” Ren says. “But I can do other things here, too. Look.”

When he’s confident that he’s rearranged things to suit his plan, he pulls the hood down again. Though he’s normally not the celebrating type, Ren can’t resist a victorious cackle when he sees that he’s achieved what he hoped to: a vivid recreation of the fantasy he had earlier. Hux peers around uncertainly, not yet noticing that he’s no longer naked inside Ren’s robe but clothed in the fine garments of an Emperor who rules the galaxy. They’re kneeling together on the floor of Hux’s lavish bedchamber, and across from them there is a large window on space. Emperor Hux’s fortress is a massive, incomparably-armored starship. Ren decided on this detail just as he was pulling the hood down.

“What the hell?” Hux asks. He looks down at his elaborate ceremonial robes, befitting an all-powerful Emperor, then up at Ren. “What is this?”

“It’s-- We can have anything here. This is something I was thinking about earlier. What it would be like if--”

“Ren!” Hux scrambles backward, wide-eyed. “What-- Why are you covered in blood?”

“Don’t worry, it’s not my blood.”

Ren stands and puts his shoulders back, reaching for the lightsaber on his belt and resisting the urge to power it on before he gives it a twirl, with flourish.

“I’m your personal assassin here,” Ren says. “And you’re my Emperor. I also lead all your armies--”

“What-- This is some kind of child’s fantasy?”

Hux looks angry. He’s still sitting on the floor, which does make his regal finery seem somewhat ridiculous.

“It’s our fantasy,” Ren says, frowning. “Something I thought we could have together. A good dream.”

Hux says nothing. He doesn’t even blink. Ren can’t read Hux’s feedback in this realm as clearly as he can in reality, but he seems to be fluctuating between faint fondness and massive annoyance.

“I don’t want some fantasy where you’re fresh from a slaughter,” Hux says. “You’re always killing people in these things. It’s boring,” he says, his tone taking on a somewhat Emperor-like air as he stands and straightens his ceremonial robes. “And this thing you’ve dressed me in is far too flamboyant.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Ren says, insincerely, not even minding how Hux snarls at the sound of that word. Ren somehow forgot how pointless it is to try to do something nice for Hux. “I thought you’d like this. I thought you wanted to rule the galaxy.”

“Maybe I did.” Hux walks to the window on space. It’s a particularly beautiful view: a blazing orange planet in the distance, sparkling rings of asteroids circling a green planet that looms nearby, meteors streaking implausibly past at regular intervals. “But I really just want to talk to you,” Hux says, keeping his back to Ren. “That’s what I want when I read those letters. To interrupt you and ask you to explain yourself, and to just hear you saying all of it. Not that you even speak like that, like the way that you write. But I think of what it was like in that bed, in that house. The way you talked to me at night sometimes, when we were hidden there together. That’s my fucking fantasy now, I suppose. That’s all I’ve got left to hope for, and it feels more impossible than the hope that I could rule the galaxy, most days.”

The view through the window changes. Space dissolves and pine trees grow along a sunlit path. The swank bedroom disappears, melding into the thickly wooded landscape that replaces it. The blood on Ren’s clothes dries and flakes away, evaporating into dust. Hux’s heavy robes unravel and fizz into nothing in the air around him, revealing a simple shirt and pants beneath, slippers on his feet. His prison uniform. Ren can’t think of what Hux would rather be wearing, here under the trees. The General’s uniform wouldn’t be right; that would be like taunting Hux about what he’s lost, and Ren is certainly not going to dress Hux in Han’s old clothes again, or even anything resembling them. Hux turns to Ren and attempts a shaky smile. He looks very tired, even here.

“You couldn’t have brought us back to that house on the cliff?” Hux asks. “To that bed?”

“Do you-- Really want to go back there?”

“Oh. I suppose not.”

Ren walks slowly toward Hux, not wanting him to linger on thoughts of how that bed was spoiled for them. Hux looks down at his attire and sighs with what sounds like resignation.

“My mother is coming to see me,” Hux says.

This statement stops Ren in his tracks, still a few feet away from Hux. Ren nods when Hux looks up at him.

“You walked with her under trees like this,” Ren says.

Hux rolls his eyes. Ren frowns.

“What? You did.”

“Yes,” Hux says. “A long time ago. I don’t even know her anymore. I suppose you’ve seen your mother now?”

“Briefly.”

“And how did that go?”

“We spoke.” Ren decides not to mention Leia’s determination to keep Hux imprisoned for life, in spite of Ren’s plotting to do otherwise. “She said some things-- I ran from the room.” He’s revealing this only so that Hux won’t feel bad if he needs to run from the room after facing his own mother. Therefore, he doesn’t appreciate Hux’s smirk.

“I might have known,” Hux says, muttering.

“Are you really this angry about me trying to show you a stupid fantasy about ruling the galaxy?” Ren asks, regretting the tone in his voice when the skies overhead darken slightly.

“What?” Hux shakes his head. “What are you talking about? Why do you think I’m angry?”

“You’re being--” Ren has to catch himself before he says ‘mean,’ and for a moment he’s afraid that he’s turned into Ben again, but when he looks down at himself he’s still the right size.

“What am I supposed to do?” Hux asks. “Run into your arms? It’s terrifying, I-- Do I even want to know what kind of sacrifice you’re making in order to be here with me like this?”

“How do you know I’m making a sacrifice?”

“Well. If I was a sentimental idiot I’d say I can see it in your eyes. Like some part of you is in pain, somewhere.”

“It’s worth it,” Ren says, sharply. He tries to tell himself that he didn’t just notice the skies over the pine trees darkening further, as if something in the distance has cast an enormous shadow.

“Why?” Hux asks, and Ren can feel Hux’s guard going up as he moves closer, as if it’s a physical barrier. Here, perhaps it will be, but Ren doesn’t feel any pressure keeping him away as he walks toward Hux. “Why is it worth it?” Hux asks when Ren is only a few steps away from him. “Because I need you? Because I need to cower inside your fucking robe-- Again, infinitely? That’s worth whatever energy you’re stripping out of yourself to get here? Don’t you have an ex-master to destroy? Won’t you be sorry you wasted your time on me when you get to his doorstep and you’ve given up too much of yourself to this nonsense?”

Hux’s voice has begun to shake. His cheeks are pink, but he holds Ren’s gaze without blinking when Ren comes to stand just a few inches from him, peering down into his eyes.

“I told you,” Ren says. “In the letters. I need your help.”

“What-- Defeating Snoke?”

They both look up at the treetops when something resembling thunder rumbles in the distance. The golden sunlight stutters behind fast-moving grey clouds that are gathering overhead.

“Sorry,” Hux says, his eyes widening when his gaze returns to Ren’s. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said his name--”

“No, fuck that. Don’t let him scare you.”

“He’s here?”

For some reason, the appropriate response to this inquiry seems to be grabbing Hux and kissing him, to show him that Snoke can’t touch them here. Hux jumps away when Ren leans in for a kiss, holding his hands out to keep Ren back.

“Don’t do that!” Hux says, shouting as the wind begins to whip the pines overhead, making the needles very fragrant. “Do you not remember what happened last time?”

“But. Last night. You kissed me--”

“That was-- The past, or, I don’t fucking know-- It was a dream! Ren, what is happening?”

“Nothing,” Ren says, though he’s not so sure. A storm is moving in. He’s afraid to look up. When he does, he sees the grey skies turning black. Hux is frightened, wrapping his arms around himself to fight the cold that seeps into the woods. When Ren reaches for him, Hux backs away.

“How do I know you’re really Ren?” Hux asks.

“Hux.” He’s so ripped apart by the question that he’s no longer confident that he is Ren, suddenly. “Please.”

“Please what? It’s too good to be true. Ren always was. I can’t trust this-- Magic, this intangible-- Whatever it is! I can’t see the beginning or the end of it, and I’ll see it turn around on me again if I let it get too close.”

“No, no-- No!”

Ren’s frustration is making things worse. The thunder overhead is beginning to sound like a deep-throated cackle, branches cracking against the wind. Hux crumples to the ground and puts his hands over his head, wanting this to be over.

Observation: It can’t end like this. It will cost them both something, in reality, to let this world deteriorate around them.

Mental adjustment: Make a hard left, grab hold of anything, go someplace where Snoke won’t think to look.

Now Ren remembers how he ended up as Ben the night before. Things went wrong. He’d had to restart.

The ghost spoke to him, as it does again now: Go back to your memories. You’ll be safe there until I can drive him away.

This voice settles his mind like a cage that snaps around him, steadying everything.

Ben opens his eyes. He’s still not accustomed to waking up here, but it’s less jarring than it was a few months ago. He sits up on his pallet and turns, as usual, to the single window on the high stone wall. It’s dark outside. He searches his mind for his Master, checking to see if he’s been awakened for a reason. Sometimes the tests take place at night, when he’s pulled abruptly from a deep sleep.

Snoke doesn’t respond to his requests for a protocol. Ben senses that Snoke is elsewhere, suddenly, off-planet, or maybe in some deep meditation that he doesn’t want Ben interfering with.

Ben sits up for a while anyway, sensing that something is off. He yawns, scratches his fingers through his hair, rubs at his eyes, and freezes when he hears a footstep just outside his door. His lightsaber is in reach, but he doesn’t grab for it yet. Sometimes he has visitors at night. He’s been instructed to welcome them.

The person who comes through the door isn’t one of those people. He doesn’t avert his eyes with what seems like disinterest, and he’s not naked. He’s wearing a military uniform, and he looks strangely familiar, like someone Ben met years ago. The sight of him makes Ben’s heart beat faster with something that feels like hope. He’s a boy about Ben’s age, with red hair and pale eyelashes.

“There you are,” the boy says, hurrying to Ben’s pallet. Ben should take up his lightsaber, but he feels comfortably sleepy and even kind of warm, despite the fact that this room is usually frigid. Maybe he’s dreaming. This seems likely when the red-haired boy sits close to Ben on the pallet, scooting against Ben with the easy acceptance of someone who would be nice to him in a good dream.

“Who are you?” Ben asks, though he feels like he knows the answer to this question when the boy-- who isn’t quite a boy, really, more of a young man --slips his arm around Ben’s shoulders and tugs him even closer, sighing.

“Do we really have to go through it again?”

Ben’s betrothed smiles when he sees the recognition on Ben’s face. Ben holds his breath, not sure if he wants to shove his betrothed away or swoon in toward him. He disappeared so fast last time. Ben doesn’t want to feel that way again.

“You never even told me your name,” Ben says, hoping that he sounds appropriately indignant.

“Oh, why don’t you just fucking call me Elan? That’ll make this whole puzzlebox of a clusterfuck even better.”

Ben tries not to laugh and fails, not sure why that’s funny. Though he’s renounced the Light and committed his eternal devotion to the Dark side, he hasn’t heard anyone use a curse word in months. He tugs at a medal pinned to the front pocket of Elan’s uniform jacket.

“You’re still in the First Order,” Ben says.

“Not really. I just keep turning up in my old costumes. I blame you.”

“Me?”

“Yes. This is all your doing, isn’t it?”

“What’s all my doing?”

“Never mind. I suppose you’ve mind-wiped yourself back into childhood again. Terrific.”

“I’m not a child,” Ben says, shouldering him away. “Do I look like a child to you? I’m sixteen. And I’m taller than you,” he adds, though they’re seated. He’s confident it’s true.

“Spoken like a true child.”

“Yeah? You think you’re impressive with your stupid medals? What’d they pin that one on you for? Some kind of tactical order given from a control room? I’ve killed people with my bare hands. I’ve done things you can’t imagine.”

“Yes, yes, the many fearsome deeds of young Kylo. Do you still kiss like a clumsy kid?”

Ben wants to bite him, for that comment about Kylo alone, but he only parts his lips with an embarrassingly soft moan when Elan leans in to reassess his kissing abilities. Ben isn’t sure if he’s any better at this than last time. He certainly hasn’t had practice. It feels just as good as it did the first time he kissed his betrothed, like something he could spend the rest of his life doing. Ben had convinced himself that last time was just a dream, but it felt real, and this does, too.

“Are you going to disappear again?” Ben asks, mumbling this against Elan’s lips.

“Hmm?” Elan seems dazed, his thumb stroking along Ben’s jaw. “Oh-- Probably. Fuck, that we could both get out of this terrible loop. But I don’t think you’re really capable of changing the past.”

“Is it terrible?” Ben asks, closing his hand around Elan’s medal, which dangles from a ribbon. The medal is cold; Ben wants to yank it off. “Being with me,” Ben says when Elan just goes on stroking Ben’s cheek, maybe avoiding the question. “In the future? It’s terrible, huh?”

“Yes,” Elan says, and Ben looks up at him, too quickly to hide the hurt on his face. “The trouble,” Elan says, taking Ben’s chin in his hand when he tries to turn away. “Is that it’s also the only good thing that’s ever happened to me. Every stupid moment I’ve ever spent with you. Those are all the highlights. And when it’s terrible, it’s not your fault. It’s only terrible because I keep waking up without you.”

“So don’t go,” Ben says, grabbing his collar.

“Mhm, if only. Come here, don’t cry. Fuck, I miss this so much, it’s so--”

Elan kisses Ben again, sucking at Ben’s bottom lip and then at the tip of his tongue, which makes Ben gasp. Elan laughs, but feels strangely good to be laughed at while being held like this, kissed like this, and Ben knows what’s coming this time, but it still rips his heart out when the feeling starts to fade.

“Why can’t I just have something good?” Ben asks, not even sure where to direct his building rage. Elan shrugs, increasingly translucent. His eyes are green. Ben logs that information away, as if it will be the answer to a difficult riddle someday.

“I’m starting to think good things just aren’t in the cards for us,” Elan says. He touches Ben’s lips, or tries to-- Ben can only faintly see him now, and can’t feel him anymore. “But maybe we’ll have something better than good,” Elan says, and then he’s gone.

Ben sits there waiting for what comes next, but there’s nothing. Just the quiet in the fortress, and the mocking quiet in his mind without Snoke to guide him, and the cold that returns like a fog. Ben touches his lips, which are still fat from kissing his betrothed. That boy, young man, whatever: Elan. He’s a vision of the future.

But it’s impossible. Kylo Ren has no attachments. He doesn’t kiss people who laugh at him. Ben pinches his eyes shut and rolls onto his pallet. He punches the wall until his knuckles bruise and bleed, his teeth grit, eyes still closed. He’s not going to cry. He’d rather punch the wall until his hand breaks, until the bones in his wrist shatter. He hits the stones harder, harder, trying not to think of what his father used to say. Again with the tears? and What’s wrong this time? and It’s okay, buddy, you’re okay.

There’s a very concrete thought that he can’t let through, pulling at him like a hand on his shoulder, like sunlight that tries to fight its way in past his wet eyelashes. It’s a thought he’s had before, not infrequently since he arrived here. He can’t get rid of it, as usual.

He wants his mother. Wants her to fix this, and forgive him, help him, save him.

“Ben. Please-- Okay, you’re okay. Look at me.”

“Mom?”

She’s here, somehow, pulling him into her arms when he sits up in bed, the pain at the back of his skull nearly yanking him back down. Bed: he’s in a bed, not on his pallet, no longer alone in the dark. He’s in a too-bright room, clinging to his mother when she trembles in his arms. Or maybe he’s the one trembling. Everything hurts. Rey is in the open doorway, sobbing. Wedge pokes his head in and smiles tearfully at the scene in the room. Finn is somewhere nearby, out in the living room, not sure if he should comfort Rey or keep clear of this family moment.

“What--” Ben tries to say, but he’s not Ben anymore. He’s awake. He’s been asleep for a long time.

“I tried everything to wake you,” Rey says, still crying. “I had the worst feeling, in the middle of the night, like Snoke had come for you. I couldn’t even get into the room. The door wouldn’t open, and when I used to Force to get inside, I-- Something happened--”

“Shh,” Leia says, turning to Rey. “It’s all right. He’s okay.” She sits back and looks at Ren as if to confirm this, still holding his shoulders. He blinks against the light from the window, his eyes puffy and sore. Leia is silhouetted in the midday glow. In this light, she looks just like she did when he left her.

“I’m sorry,” Ren says. His voice is scratchy and small. “I did something, I shouldn’t have-- I’m sorry--”

“Ben,” Rey says, falling onto the bed to hug him from behind. “You were so cold, I couldn’t feel you at all, I thought--”

“How long,” Ren asks, still holding his mother’s gaze. He lets her reach down to take hold of his hands, lets her help him to get warm again. “How long was I asleep?”

“We’ve been trying to wake you for twelve hours,” Rey says, pressing her wet face into his hair. “But it wasn’t like sleep, Ben. It was like a coma, like some kind of awful, empty trance. I was afraid you were gone, it felt like you were just gone.”

“I’m sorry,” Ren says. “I’m sorry, I--”

“Here,” Wedge says, appearing with a glass of water. Finn peeks inside the room, then leaves again.

Ren can barely hold the glass. Leia helps him steady it when he drinks.

“Lie down,” she says when he’s finished most of the water. “You can tell us what happened later. You’ve drained yourself, injured yourself-- Dreaming, right?”

Ren nods. Rey moves out of the way so he can lie back on his pillow. Leia remains on the bed, her hand on Ren’s arm. She’s got her thumb in the crook of his elbow. Tracking his pulse.

“I’m sorry,” Ren says again. He doesn’t even care how weak his voice sounds, or that his eyes are wet. He is sorry. He needs her to hear it.

Leia shakes her head. “You don’t have to apologize,” she says. “You came back.”

“Hux--” Ren pinches his eyes shut, needing to know that Hux is okay. He can’t concentrate, has no visions. His mind has been scraped over with something coarse and merciless. Even his skull seems to throb with pain that rolls back in once the shock and relief of having his mother so close recedes.

“Hux is okay,” Leia says when Ren looks up at her. “You haven’t hurt him. Only yourself.”

Ren turns to Rey for confirmation. She nods, wiping at her face.

“He’s afraid of something,” Rey says. “Hux, I mean. That’s the only feedback I can sense from this distance, when I focus on him. But it’s a mild fear. I think it’s just his mother.”

Leia sniffs. “May the Force be with him,” she says. “In that case.”

She pushes some of the sweat-stuck hair from Ren’s forehead. He closes his eyes, still reeling. He feels like he wished for this fifteen years ago, as Ben, and got it. He didn’t, of course. Everything that happened in every one of those years is still real. But this relief feels real, too. He clings to it, and to his mother’s hand, and when he sinks into real sleep, he doesn’t dream.

 

 

**