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Under the Ruins of a Walled City

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Hux isn’t allowed to see the result of his haircut. There was no mirror in the stuffy little room where it was administered, and as he’s paraded directly to the meeting with his mother he comes to realize that the interior environs of the Tower have very few reflective surfaces. He suspects the lack of opportunity to make sure he doesn’t look like an idiot is the warden’s doing, and wonders if the barber was also instructed to do a poor job. Hux’s hair was at least cut by a living being, not a droid. He’s unfamiliar with the species: one enormous eye and eight arms were involved, and no semblance of conversation passed between them. Hux can only presume that his barber understood the instructions to neaten his hair without making it too short.

He would be touching his hair to try to ascertain something of its appearance, but his hands are bound in front of him. It occurs to him only as the guards bring him to stand before a conference room door with no window that his mother might already be in there, and that, if she is, she’ll see him with his these binders on, restrained like a common criminal. Either way, and no matter what state his hair is in now, she’ll see him in these prisoner’s rags, shuffling toward her in slippers. A guard punches a code into the door’s panel and it slides open smoothly, revealing a room with a table and four chairs, all of them empty.

Hux tells himself he’s relieved. As one guard frees his hands, he wonders if his mother was lying when she said she would comply with the subpoena. Perhaps she has fled again, to restart her life a second time-- Or a third, fourth. Hux wouldn’t know.

“Sit,” the guard who removed his binders says. “Your attorney is on his way up.”

Both guards leave the room, the door sliding shut behind them. Defiantly, Hux does not sit. This room has no window, but on the far wall a large simu-screen plays a holo of fish swimming in a sun-dappled ocean. Hux snorts at the sight of it and wonders what this room is normally used for. Therapy sessions? Conjugal visits? He supposes some prisoners at the Tower must be allowed those. He’s not going to ask Jek about it, even if he avoids execution and is sentenced to spend the rest of his life here. Ren is a wanted man, and he’s also General Organa’s dirty little secret. He would never be allowed to come here to occasionally offer Hux some human contact, and Hux would never ask him to, even if it were possible to bring Ren here undetected. The very thought is breathtakingly humiliating.

When he’s tired of pacing the room, Hux sits and removes the pack of cigarettes from the waistband of his pants, staring at them in the light from the stupid fish holo. He supposes the holo is intended to be soothing in some way. He attempts to ignore it, but he keeps being startled by miscellaneous sea creatures which dart to and fro at the corner of his eye. In lieu of imagining his mother ascending in an elevator alongside Jek, or perhaps having been left in her hotel room after being deemed too antagonistic to accompany him, Hux returns to the preoccupation that kept his mind off his mother all morning, after he woke at dawn from strange dreams: Ren, naturally. Ren had been in peril in Hux’s dreams. The narrative, as best Hux could piece it together upon waking, involved Ren having physically inserted himself into Hux’s subconscious at great personal risk, which seems so like something the real Ren would actually do that it’s still troubling Hux in the light of day.

Hux closes his eyes, mostly to block out the shifting colors of the holo, which is perhaps actually some sort of torture device. When his eyes are shut the dream comes back to him too vividly, but he lingers in the memories of it anyway: Ren holding him, and hurrying him into that robe as usual. This time he’d also drawn its hood over Hux’s head and his own, and this action had transported them to some sort of grand starship where Hux wore a garment resembling an evening gown and yelled at Ren, as if his being dressed that way was Ren’s fault. That’s the most muddled part of the dream, which then gave way to a frightening interlude in the forest of pines that Hux often dreams about, where Hux had the sense that Snoke had caught up to them again.

The resolution of that ordeal fizzled into Hux finding himself in a decrepit old fortress that was abandoned save for one boy who was locked up alone in a cold room where he seemed to wait for company. The boy was Ren, then still unable to think of himself as anyone but Ben, in his late teens but still childish and awkward and uniquely precious in a way that had made Hux want to hide him in a robe of his own, though he’d had none to offer, as he was dressed in his old lieutenant’s uniform, for some reason. Hux had gathered this pre-Ren to his side and kissed him, had stroked his face and confessed that he would someday only ever know real contentment in the impossible company of the grown-up version of that boy. Ben had heard it, and now Hux sits in the light of a therapy-torture holo and wonders if Ren somehow heard it, too. He feels as if Ren had really been there with him at night, in his mind, and it’s a suspicion he’s had before, since arriving at the Tower. He hopes it’s just foolish wishful thinking. Nothing good could come of Ren having an out-of-body experience, surely, with Snoke always awaiting his next opportunity to have Ren’s body for himself. Even Ren can’t be dim or reckless enough not to realize that, or to think it would be worth the risk because Hux needs rescuing from his nightmares so desperately.

The door begins to open. Hux grabs the cigarettes and hides them under the table, sitting up very straight. Jek enters first, carrying his data case, his nervous smile difficult to interpret. He steps out of the way and allows Elana to enter.

She looks like a ghost in the bluish glow from the simu-screen, but otherwise nearly the same as she did twenty years ago: still blond and pale and possessing a certain amount of ever-fading beauty. She's also thinner, less well-dressed and harder to read, her expression neutral and calm as she comes to stand beside Hux’s chair.

“I can give you two a moment,” Jek says, lingering near the door after it’s closed.

“Please don’t,” Hux says. He pulls his cigarettes out again, ignoring the fact that his mother is staring at him as if he’s an animal in a zoo, like Hux is some fascinating creature she’s never encountered before. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“Don’t be difficult,” Elana says. Hux glares at her, and leans away when she tries to touch his shoulder. Undeterred, she takes a handful of his sleeve and pulls him up from the chair.

He might have resisted, but the shock of being embraced by her robs him of his ability to do anything but stand there letting it happen, his heart beginning to race when she holds onto him. When he’s counted to ten and she’s still got her arms around him, one of her hands moving on his back as if he’s a child who needs soothing, Hux wonders if Jek told her to do this. He thinks about asking if that’s the case, just to break the ice, but his throat feels constricted and he doesn’t say anything. “That’s a relief,” Elana says when she pulls back to look at him. She’s shorter than him, but not by much.

“What?” Hux says, confused. He wonders if he’s fallen asleep while waiting for his real mother to arrive, his subconscious mind again conjuring the comfort he wants, again in a way that feels too real.

“You don’t look so much like your father in person,” Elana says. She touches Hux’s cheek, near the spot where his dry skin continues to irritate him, and this breaks the spell. She’s smiling even as Hux flinches away and drops back into his chair. He’d forgotten that she still has a slight accent from her home planet. It’s clipped and sharp in places, intelligent somehow. Brendol Sr. had often accused her of sounding smug.

Jek has taken a seat across from them and is pretending to arrange some data screens, his heart probably soaring at what appears to be a tender reunion. Hux fumbles with his cigarettes while Elana drags her chair unnecessarily close to his and resumes her staring.

“Auto-lights?” she says. “You smoke that garbage?”

“This garbage is all that they’ll let me have in here,” Hux says, glad to find that his voice is working again. “And I’m not even really supposed to have these, but I’ve gotten away with it so far, maybe because they assume it’s a kind of last meal.”

“Here.” She has a purse, suddenly. Hux didn’t notice it when she walked in. It’s a bland canvas bag that doesn’t match her cream white tunic or the pale purple slacks beneath it, something she wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing when Hux was a child, though she’d never exactly been fashionable. She’d had a certain style back then that was her own, and it’s whimsical and girlish in Hux’s memory, featuring dresses that were always too airy for the hallways of the ships and space stations where they lived prior to the estate, where her wardrobe had finally seemed appropriate. What she’s wearing now is suited for an old woman who works with her hands.

Elana pulls out a slim silver case and unclips it, revealing what appear to be hand-rolled cigarettes. “You can use the end of your auto-light to fire one up,” she says, offering them to Hux. “They confiscated my portoflame at the door. I suppose they thought I might try to burn this place down on your behalf.”

Hux wants to respond to that with a smart ass remark, but it doesn’t quite come together in his head, so he only reaches for one of her cigarettes and does as she suggested, then passes the auto-light to her when she puts a cigarette between her own lips.

“You smoke,” Hux says, watching her inhale. “And I’m told you arrange flowers.”

“You sound like your father,” she says, but she smiles as if this wasn’t supposed to be an insult, necessarily. As if they’re both having a joke at Brendol Sr.’s expense. Like old times. “Yes, I need an income now,” she says. “They didn’t let me sell the estate on Victoria and exchange the Order’s credits for the Republic’s, you know.”

“Pity. So I suppose our home is state property now?”

“I assume so. It was yours, of course, but now you’re here. With me,” she adds, and there’s that unnerving smile again. Hux can’t remember her ever smiling so much. Perhaps he’s never seen her truly anxious before. Anyway, those pine trees behind the house belong to someone else now.

“Shouldn’t we get started?” Hux asks, looking away from her and barking this at Jek.

“We have all day,” Jek says, shrugging. “She’s our only witness.”

“You didn’t tell me that,” Elana says. “You make it sound as if it’s my sole responsibility to exonerate him.”

“So sorry to put you out,” Hux says before Jek can respond. “I know it’s probably a massive inconvenience, being pulled away from your blissful New Republic life, and your flower arranging.”

Elana exhales smoke, searching the table for an ashtray and then staring up at the simu-screen, where a school of bright yellow fish are streaking by.

“What is this?” she asks, gesturing to the projection. “It looks like something for the wall of a nursery.”

“Ah, they call this a Soft Room,” Jek says. “I asked for one, you know. To soften things?”

Hux snorts. Elana smokes and frowns up at the holo. Hux wishes she wasn’t sitting so close. He’s afraid she’ll hear his heart slamming in his chest.

“Have they messed up my hair?” Hux asks, addressing this to Jek. “They wouldn’t let me look.”

“It’s too short,” Elana says. She shrugs one shoulder when Hux cuts his eyes to hers. “But not bad. I always liked your hair longer. He has beautiful hair, really,” Elana says, to Jek, who raises his eyebrows and doesn’t seem to know how to proceed. “I might have let him grow it to his shoulders if Brendol hadn’t considered that high treason.”

“I detest long hair on men,” Hux says, thinking of Ren. Normally it’s true. He tried to detest it on Ren, anyhow.

“Well, you may not look like your father in person,” Elana says, staring at him again. “But you’re doing your best to sound just like him, for some reason.” She turns to Jek and lifts her cigarette. “Shall I tap the ashes onto the table, or do you have something I can use?”

“Oh!” Jek goes to his data case and begins rummaging around. “I did actually bring a little ashtray, thinking of Hux--”

“Please don’t speak to my attorney like he’s a waiter,” Hux says.

“He doesn’t mind,” Elana says, catching the ashtray that Jek slides across the table. “This is some lawyer you have, Elan. Top quality. He picked me up from the station and bought me a meal at the hotel bar-- The kitchen was closing, but he convinced them to stay open and cook something for me.”

“Fucking hell,” Hux mutters, watching her ash her cigarette. “He’s married, Elana.”

“Oh,” Jek says, laughing uncomfortably. “She didn’t meant it like that.”

“Of course not,” Elana says. She tugs at Hux’s arm until he meets her eyes again. She doesn’t seem perturbed by the fact that he’s snarling, or that he goes tense under her touch when she squeezes his bicep. “I meant to say it’s a good sign,” she says, her eyes suddenly wet, though she still looks pleased with herself. “This is someone who is good at convincing people to do what he wants,” she says, gesturing to Jek without looking away from Hux. “I wouldn’t have thought so when I first saw him. But surprising charm is the most valuable kind, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Hux yanks his arm free and scoots his chair away from hers. “Can we get on with it?” he asks, nearly shouting this at Jek, who looks pitiful with the reflection of the holo fish sliding across his saddened expression.

“Sure,” Jek says, clearing his throat.

Hux rolls his eyes. If Jek gets emotional at any point during this meeting, Hux will be tempted to fire him.

“Aren’t you going to ask if we talked about you?” Elana asks, giving Hux that unashamed, overly intense stare again. He wonders if her eyesight has gotten bad. “You don’t want to know if I discussed you with your lawyer while I ate this meal?”

“Stop interrupting,” Hux says, still overly loud and still unable to change this. “My fucking life is on the line here, in case you hadn’t realized.”

“Of course I realized.”

“Really. Because you seem to be pretty amused by this whole proceeding so far. Since when do you have a sense of humor?”

“When did I make a joke?”

Hux refuses to respond. He drags on his cigarette and blows the smoke that he exhales toward the fish on the simu-screen, watching it cloud the projected light that comprises them.

“Okay,” Jek says when he’s allowed them to sit in strange silence for long enough, apparently, according to his calculations. “So, like we talked about, we’re going to go over some questions that I’ll be asking Elana first, and then we can speculate about what the prosecutor might ask in her cross exam.”

“I saw her on the news,” Elana says, tapping ashes. “A Twi’lek girl.”

“Yes, she’s-- Hux did very well when she deposed him.”

“So let’s hear it,” Hux says, annoyed that his mother has managed to sidetrack things again, already. “What’s your first question for her?”

“He’s always been very particular about keeping to schedule,” Elana says, as if to apologize to Jek for Hux’s tone. “Gets that from his father. I was sorry to hear about Brendol’s passing, by the way.” She moves her chair closer to Hux’s as she says so, and peers at him as if he’s expected to believe she’s sincere.

“I’m sure you wept buckets,” Hux says.

“Of course not, but I was sad for you. I know you cared about him. I would have come to see you if I could have, after. Do you believe that?”

“No.”

“So, um,” Jek says when silence descends again. “First question, right, okay. Let’s just go through the whole thing-- Please state your name for the record?”

“Elana Levchen Hux.”

“And Levchen is your maiden name, correct?”

“That’s right.”

“Can you tell us a little bit about your life prior to your marriage to Brendol Hux?”

“Well, I was a child. I was a child when I married Brendol, too, and when I had our son, though I wouldn’t have said so at the time.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Hux says. “You were twenty years old when you had me, and you’d married my father the year before.”

“Are you not old enough yet to see a nineteen-year-old as a child? Perhaps some people are quite worldly and grown-up at that age. Perhaps you were. Some people are children well into their twenties. Some people manage to be children all their lives.”

“Listen to yourself,” Hux says, thinking of Ren. “You’re going to philosophize like this during my hearing, on the stand? You think that’s what will help me, this navel-gazing bullshit?”

“Hey, okay,” Jek says. “She’s doing fine so far. It’s actually good to mention how young she was when she married and had you, and even to frame it this way. It fits the narrative of how she lost her agency as a mother.”

Hux stares at Jek, his eyebrows lifting.

“Lost her agency?” Hux asks, hating that he can feel his mother’s eyes on his face while he stares at Jek in disbelief. “Is that what she told you? I seem to recall that she grew increasingly bored with motherhood and then fucked off to do something more interesting when she found out my father was sleeping with one of his students.”

“I told you,” Elana says, speaking to Jek. “He won’t listen to me.”

“Let’s try to keep the interjections to a minimum for now,” Jek says. He’s addressing this to Hux, who feels inordinately betrayed. Jek is taking her side. Figures. “And Elana, let’s back up a bit. I’d like you to talk about what your childhood was like.”

“Oh, it was happy,” she says. Hux has heard this part before. “Until my mother fell ill. That was when I left school, when I was sixteen, to help care for her. I intended to go back-- The women in my family were educated. But her illness dragged on for years. By the time she was gone, I’d lost interest, and then Brendol appeared.”

“Would you say you married Commandant Hux out of love?”

“No, certainly not.”

“What’s that got to do with my character?” Hux asks, too sharply. Answering his own question, he supposes. “I mean, she’s a character witness, is she not?” he asks when they both stare at him. “If you’re trying to say the quality of my parents’ marriage shaped me somehow-- It didn’t.”

“Just trust me on this,” Jek says. “This is the kind of context people want to have when they’re learning about someone’s life.”

“He’s sensitive about this father,” Elana says.

“That’s not true at all!”

“So would you say you were pressured into the marriage?” Jek asks, ignoring Hux and typing notes into his data pad. Elana shakes her head when Jek looks up, frowning as if she’s insulted by the notion.

“There is a story behind my marriage to Brendol,” she says. “It has little to do with Brendol himself, however.”

“Explain?” Jek says, looking up. Hux stares at the surface of the table and keeps his expression as neutral as possible, though this isn’t being recorded. It’s not even on the official record. Just practice for the horror of the real thing.

“There was a kind of civil war on my home planet when I was home caring for my mother, during her illness,” Elana says. Hux knows this part, too, but isn’t sure what it has to do with his parents’ marriage. “My father was an overlord in a town that was struggling with various factions-- Both Imperial, but far enough from the seat of the Emperor’s power to have their own ideas about how best to serve him. Stormtroopers occupied the town when I was eighteen, overseen by Imperial officers. They kidnapped my father, because there was a rumor that he was cooperating with the rival faction. This kind of thing went on all the time under Imperial rule, on the less populated planets. There were bigger fish for the Emperor to fry, so he kept out of it.”

“You’re editorializing a bit,” Hux says, muttering this around the end of his cigarette. He can feel her staring at him again, but he keeps his eyes on the simu-screen.

“I’m telling my story,” Elana says. “It’s more true than whatever they taught you at your father’s school, I assure you.”

The mention of the Academy makes Hux’s face hot. He shrugs one shoulder.

“Please,” Jek says, maybe to rescue Hux from the silence that follows. “Continue.”

“Most people had left town during this period,” Elana says. “But my mother was in the local hospital, and I went to see her every day. When these stormtroopers kidnapped my father and took him away for reprogramming, they held me hostage on our estate. I was his incentive to cooperate, you see.”

“I didn’t know this,” Hux says, turning to her. “Was my father one of the kidnappers?”

“No, no. This was a local skirmish, far beneath even Brendol’s notice. He was elsewhere, already in charge of his school. Already married, already a father.”

“How long were you held hostage?” Jek asks.

“Five days.” She drags on the cigarette and tips her chin away from Hux when she exhales. “You wouldn’t know it now, but I was a very beautiful girl at the time. The men who held us hostage were small time officers. They were scarcely more than stormtroopers themselves, but they wore uniforms and had an advanced sense of entitlement. Pretty early into this, they started to have ideas about how they might entertain themselves while they waited for their superior officers to return. I suppose you can imagine?”

Hux’s heart is beating too fast. He’ll leave. If she’s implying-- They can’t make him listen to more of this.

“They-- You were attacked?” Jek asks.

“No,” Elana says, the clarity of her answer returning the breath to Hux’s lungs. “I would have been, I’m sure, but one of the stormtroopers who was supposed to be guarding the doors of the house sensed what was going to happen if someone didn’t intervene. He protected me. My father was a paranoid man, or perhaps not, since it had come to this-- There was an armored panic room in the attic of the house. A lot of good it had done us when they ambushed us, but when this stormtrooper asked if there was someplace where I could hide from these men, I told him about this place, desperate to be protected from that other fate. I thought he might be taking me there because he wanted me for himself, but no. He protected me there, until my father was returned.”

“Oh.” Jek looks confused. Hux can sympathize. “And then what happened?”

“What happened next is not the point, Mr. Porkins.”

“What is the point, Elana?” Hux asks, furious with her for scaring him like that. As if it would mean anything now, or about what had happened to Hux at school, if she had been less lucky. She ashes her cigarette and doesn’t look at him.

“The point is that I was in this hiding place with that stormtrooper for almost four days,” she says. “And of course he had to remove his helmet, you know, so he could drink and eat from the provisions this room was stocked with. And after he had removed the helmet, he left it off, of course, because why wouldn’t he? He had already defied his superior officers. He wouldn’t take the rest of his armor off, though, aside from his gloves. Even when I begged him to. He said he would need it if the others found a way in, and that he would want to be wearing it if he had to fight them off.”

“I don’t understand,” Jek says. “You begged him to take his armor off?”

“She fell in love with him,” Hux says, snapping this angrily at Jek. “Right?” Hux says, turning to his mother, unable to stop scowling. Hating this story.

“That’s right.” Elana holds Hux’s gaze, her expression mild again. “I think I almost didn’t know that stormtroopers had faces, before he pulled that helmet off, or maybe I assumed they would be the blandest faces possible, with dead eyes, sort of droid-like. But he was so-- He had brown eyes, the saddest brown eyes, because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to protect me for long, and that they would kill him afterward, either way. He’d broken orders to keep me safe. He was willing to die, just for-- This girl. For me, because I was frightened, and they were wrong to frighten me.”

“What was his name?” Hux asks, wanting the question to hurt. “TX-5200 or something like that, I imagine?”

“He was BN-4529,” Elana says, again holding Hux’s gaze with that unblinking stare. “But he called himself Flick. That was his nickname, from his comrades, because-- Apparently he had a habit of reading and rereading old, illicit holorecords until their batteries died, letting the projection flicker until it was completely gone.”

“How romantic,” Hux says.

“Shhh,” Jek says, waving his hand at Hux. As if he’s enjoying this nonsense, or as if it could possibly be used in Hux’s defense. “What became of Flick?” Jek asks.

“Oh, are we skipping to the end already?” Hux asks. “We won’t hear the full love story? I guess there’s no consummation scene, since you mention he left his armor on.”

Elana stares at him, smoke trailing up from the end of her cigarette. Hux can’t read minds, but he can imagine well enough what she’s thinking. You really are just like your hateful father. Brendol would be proud of the monster he created.

“I did kiss him,” she says, maybe just to wound Hux with this information. As if he actually cares. “I was eighteen, terrified, and he was my hero, he had those soft eyes. Do you know what he said, the first time I tried to kiss him? ‘I can’t,’ he said, and ‘I’m not really a person, not the way you are,’ when I asked him why. I rejected this. Indoctrination. The kind of thing Brendol loved: there is no you, there is only us, the ones you serve. I kissed my stormtrooper as often he would let me, while we waited. I showed him he was a person, whatever they’d told him. Can you imagine, telling a trembling teenage girl who relies on you entirely that she is a person and you are nothing? I wouldn’t stand for that talk.”

There’s a slight shake in her hand, but after another drag on the cigarette it’s gone. Hux considers making a remark about the irony of her marrying the inventor of the refurbished stormtrooper program after having had this apparently soul-deep experience with some random trooper. He refrains, for the sake of his case. He should be nicer to his mother, he supposes, if he wants her testimony on his behalf to seem sincere.

“What happened after these four days of captivity?” Jek asks. He looks nervous, as if he’s expecting the story to take a horrible turn. And of course it will: Elana Levchen didn’t marry a stormtrooper. She married Hux’s father.

“My father was brought back to the house,” Elana says. “Weather-worn but not badly harmed. He was an opportunistic man, and he’d befriended his captors, for whatever definition of friendship he had. He was more important than the officers who’d been left at the house with me, and when he returned with his new friends and found me in the attic, kept safe by Flick, he was grateful to this stormtrooper who had defied his corrupt superiors. My father was a hard man, but he loved me very much. He had the officers who’d threatened me executed in the yard, for even thinking of doing what they might have done.”

“And Flick?” Hux asks, unable to resist pronouncing the name as if he finds it distasteful: he does. “Grandfather didn’t execute him for kissing you?”

“No,” Elana says. “He only knew that Flick had protected me. My father arranged to have Flick commended for protecting me from them. There was even a ceremony, a medal. This was days later. It was the last time I saw Flick, during that ceremony. He was allowed to remove his helmet when he received his medal. He shook my hand and we exchanged a few words, with everyone looking on. At the little reception afterward I kept trying to get to him, thinking maybe we could sneak away somewhere, even for just a moment, but.” She shakes her head.

“Then what?” Hux asks, when Jek seems unwilling to pull her back on track.

“Flick was killed in battle soon after,” Elana says, holding Hux’s gaze as she speaks. “Twenty years old. Wearing his armor, of course. There was a real person’s body under that armor, wasn’t there? A man. I would have given him everything I had. But he died still wearing his armor, wasted. He was buried in it, I’m sure.”

Hux struggles to come up with something dismissive to say about all this, because he’s sure it should be dismissed. In lieu of the right words, his thoughts turn to Ren, and to that helmet he wore. What it had felt like to peel all that armor away and find Ren inside.

“I’m so sorry,” Jek says, and Hux wants to slap him. It’s such a tremendously inappropriate response to that story, for so many reasons. When Hux looks up he finds Elana staring at Jek as if she might be thinking the same thing. She exhales a thin stream of smoke, shrugs.

“Brendol saw me at a party not long after that,” she says. “After my father had ensured that we were ushered into proper Imperial society and climbing the ladder of their hierarchy, not wanting a repetition of the ordeal at the house. Brendol cornered me at this party and told me he had to have me. He’d noticed me from across the room because of my long hair, which wasn’t the fashion at the time. Most women wore theirs short and very neat. Brendol was a complete conformist, always, but during the initial attraction he liked that I didn’t care about the latest trends. He liked that I wore a thick braid, pulled to one side. After we were married he insisted that I keep it that way. He said it made me look like a girl from a folk tale, half-magic.”

“That does not sound like my father,” Hux says, sputtering.

“Well, Brendol didn’t show much of himself to his family, when he could help it.” She’s staring at Hux as if she expects him to draw a parallel between himself and his father here. Hux refuses to acknowledge this stare.

“So you were pressured into the marriage?” Jek asks.

“Did she not already tell you she wasn’t?” Hux asks. Elana smiles when he glances at her. This time it seems real, but Hux can hardly say for sure.

“I allowed Brendol’s attentions,” she says. “I didn’t give myself to him right then, not the way he would have liked me to, but I eventually agreed to the marriage. He was an imposing, powerful man, and I was flattered by his pursuit, tired of being nothing but heartbroken and hollow. I’d lost the man I loved, had lost my mother, and my father was busy with his machinations. I was alone, and Brendol was telling me that I didn’t have to be. That I could be important-- the wife of an important man. I also hated Brendol’s first wife. She was a sneering snob who looked down on my family and had once made a comment about my hair. I enjoyed the idea of ousting her. Of having the power to do anything, really.”

“So Brendol left his first wife for you?” Jek asks, looking somewhat uneasy about this. Perhaps it won’t play well with the Committee that Hux is a second wife’s son.

“Immediately,” Elana says, nodding. There’s a hint of pride in the way she says so, even now, and she should probably censor it. Jek makes no notes about this response, only listening now. “The first wife had a son by him,” Elana says. “Brendol Jr.” She glances at Hux, who keeps his expression impassive. “Junior was five years old when Brendol Sr. and I were married,” she says. “That child hated me like I had killed his mother by my own hand. The first wife was sent off quietly, and Brendol arranged to maintain sole custody of the boy, of course. And then my new husband got me pregnant in short order, according to plan.”

“And that baby was--?” Jek says when she pauses. Hux is listening intently, his hands in fists over his knees.

“That was Elan.” She reaches over and touches Hux’s shoulder after she’s said so, leaning forward to put her cigarette out with her other hand. When it’s crushed into the ashtray she brings both of her hands to her lap. “Elan-- I insisted on that name, which Brendol hated. It was unheard of, in that culture, to name a child after his mother. But I insisted. Brendol had a son named after him, so why shouldn’t my son have my name, in a sense?”

Hux can feel her looking at him again. She cursed him with that name. He’s always thought so.

“He had the softest, softest red hair,” Elana says, and Hux flinches as if she’s reached to touch his hair now, though she hasn’t moved. “I couldn’t believe Commandant Hux had put something so soft in me.”

Hux winces at her unfortunate phrasing and stares at Jek’s data pad. Jek is still not typing. Perhaps none of this is useful. Of course it’s not.

“Can you talk a bit about E-- About Hux’s youth?” Jek asks. “About what he was like as a boy?”

“He grew up during the fall of the Empire and the rise of the Order,” Elana says. “And Brendol was very busy, accordingly. Brendol Jr. went on loathing me and spent most of his time in the company of his nursemaid, poor woman, and then he was shipped off to school. I didn’t want that for Elan.”

“You kept him home with you?”

“Yes, for as long as I could.”

“And what was Hux like as a boy?” Jek asks, adopting his courtroom voice again.

“He was pragmatic,” Elana says. “Like his father. Sharp, but also sweet-natured, when he thought he wouldn’t be punished for it.”

“Can you give me an example of his sweet nature as a child?” Jek asks, almost knocking his data pad off the table in excitement as he hurries to make notes again. “And how he might have been punished by his father for showing that side of himself?”

Elana glances at Hux. She holds his gaze as if she’s asking for his permission to answer these questions.

“Go ahead,” Hux says, only mildly concerned about this bizarre assessment. “I’m curious myself.”

“Maybe sweet-natured isn’t the right word,” Elana says, still looking at him. “Maybe it was more like-- Serene. He seemed to have this collected, peaceful sense of himself when he was very young, and he never lashed out or objected to my mothering of him. Never had a fit over wanting sweets or anything like that. Brendol Jr. was probably never going to blossom into an innocent flower, but he was traumatized by the separation from his mother, and in response he became very cruel and hard, always angry. I took note of this, as a mother. I kept my baby close for as long as I could.”

Hux turns to stare at the fish on the wall. A massive purple one is swimming through the simu-water now. Hux watches its undulations, overcome with the feeling of wanting to be anywhere else, simultaneously unable to imagine this meeting coming to an end. He’s not ready for it to end, though he also feels desperate and trapped, exposed. He supposes they still have hours left here, under the glow of the holo fish that seem to swim through the wall. It’s an exhausting, exhilarating thought.

“I have a whole section of questions about how you struggled to keep Hux close to you despite the traditional separation from the mother in First Order society,” Jek says. “Like we talked about last night. But before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about Hux’s brother. Hux hasn’t shared much with me about him.”

“Shared?” Hux says, objecting to that word.

“I wonder how much you remember of Junior,” Elana says, touching Hux’s arm. He looks at her, but only from the corner of his eye.

“He was mean as a snake and dumb as a rock,” Hux says. “A violent simpleton, really. My father pretended to be proud of him, I think, but the Commandant was never a very good actor. He got rid of Junior when the various antics became inconvenient.”

“Mhm,” Elana says, not exactly disagreeing. “Junior was very angry inside, all the time. Brendol was pleased by this, somewhat, because it made his eldest son effortlessly mean, and effortlessly mean people went far in Brendol’s world. But eventually my husband began to realize that he had gone a bit too far in engineering his son’s cruel streak. Brendol Jr. had rages. He was angry in a way that wasn’t useful or controlled, and he could only pretend to have those other qualities for so long.”

She glances at Hux. He remembers his half-brother in flashes that seem somewhat surreal, as if Brendol Jr. was a ghost who’d haunted that estate and then disappeared one day. There were shouts from behind closed doors, shattered family heirlooms in pieces on the carpet, and a persistent sense of distant malice lurking. Hux was never exactly afraid of his older brother, but he was afraid of what he represented. Hux had wondered if he would be like that, someday: a failed experiment, transformed from a boy into a monster.

“Brendol could have kept his namesake off the front lines,” Elana says. “He had connections, to put it mildly. I think he let his son go to war with a sense of relief, knowing what would happen. Junior was fierce, maybe even brave, but not clever enough to survive many battle situations. It didn’t take long before one claimed him.”

“Did you celebrate?” Hux asks, bitterly, though he remembers being glad of the news himself.

“Of course not,” Elana says. “Your father was crushed.”

“And you cared so about his feelings.”

“I didn’t hate the man. I didn’t like seeing him mourn. It really bothered him, this loss,” Elana says, relaying this to Jek as if it’s unusual to be bothered by the loss of one’s child. Hux doesn’t remember his father visibly grieving. “I think it really changed him,” Elana says. “It was after Junior’s death that you would hear rumors about the Commandant requiring his special cadets to murder each other as initiation. I didn’t want to believe that, but.” She glances at Hux. “It was probably true.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Hux says, though of course he knows and of course it’s true. “I was not invited to join the Commandant’s Cadets.”

“Of course you weren’t!” Elana frowns as if Hux has finally said something that’s upset her. “He treated those warped children like his personal science experiment. He didn’t want that for you.”

Jek is making notes again. Hux ashes his cigarette and then drags on it, having almost forgotten that he held it. It is much smoother than the auto-lights, of course. He feels a bit light-headed and calmer after a long inhale.

“So you would say that Brendol Sr. loved and protected his son?” Jek asks.

“Protected!” Hux says, barking this without meaning to. He feels his face getting hot again. Jek half-shakes his head, apologetic sympathy leaping into his eyes. Hux feels slapped by that, too, and looks away.

“I only meant--” Jek starts to say.

“No, no,” Elana says. “Brendol protected himself. He protected himself from what he really felt for his sons, which was maybe love, I don’t know. I do think he sent Junior away to die, and regretted it. He sent Elan off to become a brilliant officer, and I think he probably considered Elan’s success one of his greatest achievements. He lived to see you make General, yes?” Elana says, leaning toward Hux.

“Not quite,” Hux says. Snoke had issued that promotion not long after Brendol Sr.’s heart failure.

“He died of natural causes,” Jek says. “Correct?”

“Correct,” Hux says, thinking of the funeral at Arkanis. Boma had not attended, probably because Brendol Sr. had moved on to someone younger by then.

“Brendol never respected doctors,” Elana says. “He preferred to be diagnosed by droids. Another human telling him that they knew more about him than he did? No, he didn’t like it. He was arrogant. That was his undoing.”

“And you mentioned that he discouraged you from spending time with Hux as a boy, after he started attending day school?” Jek says, too pointedly. Hux rolls his eyes.

“Oh, yes,” she says. “That’s not done, in the Order. Boys who are on their way to becoming good soldiers don’t spend time with their mothers. I was close to my mother, as an only child. Brendol treated me as if I was ignorant, thinking that I would be close to my son, as his mother. He told me that wasn’t done, that it made the child soft, all sorts of nonsense. My father agreed, which didn’t help. They were always trying to preoccupy me. Encouraging me to join women’s clubs or to take up shooting for sport, anything to get me out of the way. Elan would go to school and come home for dinner, and that was my only time with him before Brendol returned from work and had the nursemaids whisk him away.”

“But prior to his attendance at school,” Jek says. “You and Hux spent time together?”

“Well, yes, prior to that we were on the ships and it was easier. Things were frightening, our government was crumbling and then had crumbled, everything we’d counted on ripped out from under us. Brendol was preoccupied with helping to put it all back together, and I was tasked with protecting my baby from his troubled half-brother. Elan always had his little hand in mine, in those early days. Brendol had other things to worry about, and probably still hoped his older son would be the champion of the family name. His second son was a little doll who existed only to keep his pretty young wife occupied, back then.”

“That’s--” Hux wants to protest, but he doesn’t remember this time in his life well enough to do so, and what he does remember only confirms what she’s saying. Elana stares at him as if awaiting his challenge to these remarks.

“That was when I was happiest,” Elana says. “I thought I had only ever been truly happy when I was hidden away with Flick, four days of being with someone I could whisper with at night. But no, it was those first four or five years with Elan, that was my happiness. Then the First Order found land again, and everything changed.”

“You mentioned protecting Hux from Brendol Jr.,” Jek says, typing notes. “Was that-- Did the boys often fight?” He’s phrasing this delicately, fearing there’s some further trauma to uncover. Hux snorts and drags on his cigarette, waiting for his mother to answer.

“Fight?” Elana says. “No. Even when he was very little, Elan always seemed to be plotting, thinking ahead. He stared at his brother’s tantrums as if he was observing the behavior of an alien, and even if Junior managed to sneak behind my back and torment his little brother, Elan would break free because he had the advantage of remaining calm. Right?”

She looks to Hux, who feels like he’s been punched too many times in the head by the sound of his first name. He shrugs.

“Brendol Jr. wasn’t hard to evade,” he says. “That’s accurate.”

“Do you remember E-- I mean, Hux’s attitude changing once he’d started school?” Jek asks.

“School?” Elana says. “The day school?”

“Of course he means the day school,” Hux says, the heat on his cheeks spreading. “You weren’t there when I came home from my first year at the Academy, as you may recall. You’d gone, then.”

“It was supposed to be a vacation,” Elana says. She sounds sad, or wistful. Hux wants to throw something at the wall. The ashtray wouldn’t do: a chair, perhaps. In the style of Brendol Jr., or Ren. “But, I-- Yes, he changed in school, of course. School in the Order is indoctrination, especially at that young age. They think that’s very important, and not just for stormtroopers. Everyone is trained, drilled, suppressed. Elan pulled away from me as instructed. His father told him that mothers were not for fraternizing with, after a certain age, and Elan obeyed his father’s wishes. I don’t blame Elan, of course, and I didn’t blame him then.”

“And you clearly don’t blame yourself,” Hux says, as coolly as possible, which isn’t very.

“Again, like your father,” she says, her voice sharpening for the first time since this brutal side-interrogation began. “Thinking you know everything.”

“Can you talk a little bit about why you left?” Jek asks, softly. Hux is so tired of softness. Jek’s voice, this bloody holo, even the smoothness of the hand-rolled cigarette. He stabs it out in the ashtray while Elana considers her answer.

“Brendol didn’t like me anymore,” she says. “He didn’t even complain when I cut off my long hair. I had told myself I wouldn’t care-- He’d already had affairs, and I’d never felt particularly possessive of him in that way, but I felt useless. Elan didn’t spare me a glance either. He was fourteen-- This was the year Brendol Jr. had died. My husband didn’t want my company in his grieving. It was no secret that I’d had nothing but negative feelings for the boy. I think I wanted to talk about it with somebody, anybody, and I had no real friends I could confide in. Everyone was always spying on each other, gathering intelligence, hoping they could use your confidence against you. I wanted to talk with Elan, he was such a little person already, I wanted to know him, but. I think I felt forbidden to do it, and he kept his distance from me as if I had some disease he might catch if he even looked at me too long. I took a little trip, and when I considered returning, I thought-- Why should I? Nobody needs me or even wants me back there. I eventually saw no reason to return.”

“You saw no reason to return,” Hux says. “No reason.”

“What reason was there--”

“I needed you!”

Hux is snarling, out of control, but at least he hasn’t actually thrown anything. She thinks he’s innately cool, unflappable? Fuck her.

“You didn’t need me,” Elana says, frowning. “I didn’t have anything to give you, after you were standing on your own two feet, when you had your place in Brendol’s world. You needed your father, his name, his status, his school--”

“Yes, and look where those got me.”

Hux hasn’t often allowed himself to think that his father might have helped him with what was secretly undoing him at school or with anything else. But his mother. She might have done something, had she known. Particularly considering that she’d once had to hide for days against the threat of such a thing herself. She was known for breaking protocol when it didn’t suit her. Hux had so desperately needed to be broken from it, that first year at the Academy, the year when she left.

She could have taken him with her. He would have gone gladly. Perhaps he would have crossed paths with Ren in some other way, at her side. Ren would have seemed like a ridiculous child to Hux, back then. But Hux would have been allowed to be a ridiculous child himself, if it were only his mother he had to please. Perhaps if he’d been born to a fucking stormtrooper called Flick and not Commandant Brendol Hux, she would have extended that kindness to him.

She’s staring at him. He’s staring at the simu-screen, trying to reel himself back in, hating Jek for letting the silence stretch on. As if he expects Hux to tell his mother what he needed rescuing from.

“What does any of it matter now?” Hux asks, glaring at Jek. “I’m going to take the stand and cry that my mother left me? That’s really going to satisfy five planets worth of bloodlust? This is a waste of time.”

“Perhaps you two would like a moment alone?” Jek says, reaching for his data pad hopefully.

“No,” Hux says. “I can assure you, neither of us would like that at all. In fact, I’d like to be taken back to my cell.”

“I don’t understand why you’re so angry with me,” Elana says, matching Hux’s tone. “You never responded to my holo messages except with perfunctory greetings. You seemed irritated to hear from me, always ready for me to disappear again. I thought you were like your father, glad to have me out of your hair.”

“Yes, I’m precisely like him after all, in that you’ve served your purpose for me and now I’m finished with you. Good day.”

She grabs Hux’s arm, though he hasn’t actually risen from his chair. Jek is half out of his, obviously not sure if he should stay or go. Hux doesn’t even know which he wants. He wishes he hadn’t put the cigarette out, wants something to do with his hands when his mother tugs at his arm, trying to get him to look at her.

“I know it was wrong,” she says. “I saw the recording of that speech you gave. How can I explain to these people, this Committee, how much I cried for you when I saw that? For days.”

“You’d better summon some of that emotion on the stand,” Hux says. He closes his eyes and tries to imagine her seeing it. Something in his stomach twists, and he thinks of Leia Organa seeing it, too. Perhaps on the same day, when it was leaked to the New Republic media.

“Um,” Jek says, softly again, when Elana just goes on staring at Hux and he refuses to even open his eyes, let alone look at her. “Can you perhaps explain why you were sad for your son when you saw that?”

“Have you seen it?” Elana says, snapping this at Jek so harshly that Hux’s eyes pop open, without his permission, so he can take in Jek’s chastised expression.

“Yes,” Jek says. “Of course--”

“I believe you told me you have two daughters?”

Jek frowns slightly and glances at Hux. “Yes,” he says.

“And yet you need me to explain to you why that recording broke my heart?”

Elana mutters a curse under her breath and digs her cigarettes out again. She puts one between her lips before remembering that she doesn’t have her portoflame. Hux hesitates, but ultimately can’t bear the sight of her sitting there looking defeated with an unlit cigarette clamped between her lips. He pulls out another auto-light, gets it lit on the second try, and offers the burning end to her. She takes it, uses it for a light and returns it to him. Hux drags on the auto-light, disturbed by how harsh and foul it tastes now.

“Okay,” Jek says, after they’ve both smoked in silence for a bit. “Obviously this is all very emotional, and that’s fine, here with just the three of us, but for the benefit of the Committee, Elana, I do think you should practice explaining why you were upset to see Hux in that recording.”

“Because they had taken something from him,” Elana says. She still sounds more angry than sad, and more at Jek than the Order. “I had missed it somehow, all those years, even when I saw his picture in the news transmissions. But I saw it, in that recording. He had lost something to the First Order, and I had been too meek-- I had been complicit. I had let them take it from him.”

Hux waits for Jek to ask her to spell it out: what was taken? But Jek already knows, or at least knows enough. When neither he nor Elana say anything, Hux feels like he’s expected to make some comment on this himself. He huffs and looks at the simu-fish. Just a few black and white striped ones flit through the water now, followed by a slithering green eel. In reality, the eel might consume the fish, but this is a Soft Room, so it leaves them be.

“What else?” Hux asks, speaking to Jek. “What will the prosecution ask?”

“Oh, um.” Jek rearranges his data screens. Elana goes on smoking, not looking at Hux now. “Let’s see,” Jek says. “Okay, here are some hypothetical questions you might hear from the prosecutor, though I confess her line of questioning can be hard to pin down in theory. But she’ll probably ask you-- Why did you defect to the New Republic?”

“Because I had waited and waited to stop hating the Order for what had happened to Flick,” Elana says. “I thought-- It was just a girlish preoccupation, arising from a stressful interlude, a kind of romantic fantasy. But it had been thirty years, and I hadn’t forgotten him, and I was still angry, and they were still doing it-- The stormtrooper program. Brendol died that year, the year I defected. That put my son in charge of the stormtroopers. I couldn’t bear being a part of it any longer.”

“You mean spending our money?” Hux says. He regrets it, but only because he needs her to pretend to like him, on the stand.

“That’s exactly what I mean,” she says, finally looking at him again when he glances at her. “Was it hard to walk away from that comfort? That account with more credits than I would ever need? Yes. But I did it. I started over. And now you have, too.”

“What?” Hux glares at her. “Surely you don’t think that I surrendered willingly? I was caught, desperate, there was no other choice.”

“You don’t believe anything I say.” Elana raises her eyebrows and lifts her cigarette, almost like she’s toasting him with it. “Okay, fine. I don’t believe this, what you’ve just said.”

“Believe-- What? You think I want to be here? In prison? Fighting for my life?”

“Of course not, but something brought you here, and it wasn’t desperation. On the news I saw them speculating that you might be in obsessive pursuit of someone who defected to the Resistance, some Lieutenant. That you were trying to recapture her when you were caught.”

“What?” Hux tries to laugh, but it comes out dry. He looks at Jek. “What is she talking about?”

“Oh, that’s just the sensational media,” Jek says. “They’re referring to the ex-stormtrooper who calls herself Pella, UT-5278-- There are all sorts of crazy stories about you in the news. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“But you believed this?” Hux says to his mother, again trying to laugh, his chest tight with authentic amusement that’s also caged in dread. “You think I abandoned my post to chase after stormtrooper tail?”

He barely withholds a like mother, like son? She seems to see it on his face anyway, her eyes darkening.

“I hoped,” she says, sharply. “That you had some reason for leaving beyond desperation. I liked the idea that it might have been a person you were desperate for. That you had kept something of yourself, in that way. Something that their indoctrination couldn’t touch. Believed it? No. But the idea lifted my spirits, I suppose.”

“Ah,” Jek says, and they both turn their furious looks on him. “That reminds me, um. I have something for you.”

He reaches into his coat and retrieves a blue envelope: a letter from Ren. Hux wants to berate Jek for exposing this to his mother’s eyes, but he’s too glad to see a new letter to care. He grabs for it as Elana watches Jek slide it across the table.

“What’s that?” Elana asks. She studies Hux’s face, the fury draining away and turning into a less palatable kind of smug enjoyment. “You do have someone. Someone who writes to you?”

“You wouldn’t like him,” Hux says, before he can stop himself. He tucks the letter into his shirt, though he knows he’ll have to read it here, in this room with them, lest he risk having it confiscated on the floor near his shower. He’s wearing yesterday’s uniform and has no idea if he can count on a second letter sticking magically to his skin. Elana is still smiling when he sneaks another look at her. “This is extremely sensitive information,” Hux says. “You cannot tell anyone that I receive letters here.”

“Who am I going to tell?” Elana asks. “Oh-- Elan.” She reaches for him, and draws her hand back when he recoils. “I’m not teasing you,” she says. “I knew it. I had a feeling.”

“Why-- How?” Hux hates the heat on his face, hates that he wants to tell her about Ren. He has no idea why he ever would. “When?”

“I don’t know when,” she says. “Or why, or how. Maybe I just hoped. So it’s not the girl, the former stormtrooper? It’s a man? Is he a prisoner here, too?”

“He ought to be,” Hux says, muttering. “You really shouldn’t be having these letters couriered to you from one of the witnesses for the prosecution,” he says, turning to Jek. “Right? Isn’t that-- Bad form, somehow?”

“Oh, uh.” Jek fidgets and touches the back of his neck. Hux hasn’t seen him looking nervous before, or at least not this nervous. “The thing is--” Jek seems to be wishing that he could lie. “Well. I didn’t get that from Finn. I got that direct from the source.”

“The source.” Hux feels the heat on his face creeping down the back of his neck. But it’s impossible to imagine Ren anywhere near the actual, physical elements of Hux’s life now, including his attorney. “You can’t mean-- You saw him? You didn’t, surely?”

“I went to interview Ms. Antilles, and he was there, I wasn’t sure if--”

“Who the hell is Ms. Antilles?” Hux asks, shouting.

“Oh-- Rey, his cousin.”

“Who is writing you letters?” Elana asks, tugging at Hux’s arm again. “Did he escape from the Order along with you? Did you marry in secret?”

“Listen to yourself!” Hux says when he rounds on her, still shouting. She only smiles, shrugs.

“Someone loves you,” she says, her eyes getting wet again. “Someone other than me. Elan. Your face is so red.”

“I’m aware of that,” Hux says, feeling his cheeks grow hotter. “You don’t need to point it out.” He turns to Jek. “She shouldn’t know any details about who this letter came from,” Hux says. “Right?”

“Probably, yeah,” Jek says. “I’m afraid the whole business is rather classified,” he says, to Elana. “And a bit hard to explain.”

“What did-- How--” Hux isn’t sure how to phrase this question without revealing too much, the letter warm and real inside his shirt, waiting to be read. “You met him?” Hux says, to Jek. “You actually-- Did he speak?”

“Oh, yes, he was quite vocal.”

“What does he look like?” Elana asks, wiping at her eyes.

“Don’t answer that,” Hux says. “Don’t-- Don’t say anything, fuck! I don’t even want to know what sort of nonsense he probably-- What do you mean, he was vocal?”

“Is he not normally so emotive?” Jek asks.

Emotive?” Hux says, at the same time his mother also pronounces this word: she with delight, Hux with horror.

“Well,” Jek says. “He shouted at me that he would die for you--”

“Okay.” Hux holds up his hand, hating that he can feel his mother smiling, as if this information will save Hux’s life. As if anyone else, particularly those who style themselves as Hux’s fucking victims, could possibly feel anything but an insult in the expectation that they might care about this. “Stop talking,” he says, though Jek already has.

“I hope you had some happiness with this man,” Elana says, and suddenly Hux lacks the energy to even lean away when she puts her hand on his shoulder.

“He offered to come here in disguise and visit you,” Jek says after Hux has sat in silence for some moments, a variety of different agonies crackling through him. “I thought that was-- Misguided, of course, but pretty charming.”

“He is not charming,” Hux says. He leans forward and puts his elbows on the table, hands over his face, unable to hold his eyes open to the blue light of the simu-ocean any longer. “I refuse to believe you were charmed.”

“Not entirely,” Jek says. “But I got what I went there for, that’s for sure.”

Hux doesn’t ask, but he spreads two of his fingers apart so that he can peek out at Jek from between them, glowering.

“I just wanted to make sure my suspicion was correct,” Jek says. “That you were downplaying the depth of your connection to him. I understand if you don’t want to talk about it with me-- It’s okay. And I hope you’ll forgive me for going there without telling you. I think you’re right that I shouldn’t see Finn again until after he’s testified, but this way you still get your letter. So that worked out, huh?”

Hux sits back and puts his hands in his lap. He’s anxious to read the letter, wishing he could do so alone, in his cell, under his blanket. He hates the thought that he should probably leave it with Jek after reading it here in this room, lest it potentially be confiscated. It’s early enough that he might not be paraded directly to the showers, and this letter may very well perform the same miraculous trick that the last one did in clinging to his skin, but he can’t count on either thing happening for sure, and can’t risk losing Ren’s message to him.

“My hearing starts the day after tomorrow,” Hux says. He’s held this firmly in mind all morning, but saying it out loud makes it feel real. His mother reaches over and takes his hand. Hux allows it, though he’s not sure why. It’s not comforting, exactly.

“These people won’t kill you,” Elana says. “I won’t let them.”

“You won’t let them?” Hux rips his hand from hers, glowering. “And what are you going to do about it, exactly?”

“Your attorney has called me here to stand before this Committee and plead for my son’s life,” she says. “That’s what I’m going to do. That’s how I’ll protect you. I’m not like you and your father, I’m not good at giving grand speeches. But I think I can speak-- Frankly. In a different way. On your behalf.”

Hux turns away from her and draws the blue envelope from his shirt, unable to wait any longer to know what Ren wrote this time. Taking this as a cue, Jek clears his throat and invites Elana to go over the questions again, saying he wants to reorganize some things. Hux scoots his chair away from them, closer to the light of the simu screen. He leans over Ren’s letter as he pulls it from the envelope, hating that he can’t be alone with it.

I want to say a lot about the last time we met but I don’t want to put it down here. Will speak to you about it later, I hope.

Hux reads these opening lines three times, confused to the point that he wonders if he’s missing a page. The last time they met was on the landing strip at the Resistance base, as Hux was being stuffed into a transport bound for the Tower. Possibly Ren is referring to some less tangible meeting. Hux closes his eyes and half-remembers scolding Ren in the dreams he had last night: saying that Ren shouldn’t be risking his safety by showing up in some kind of precarious physical form. He reads on, hoping for a clue, but Ren’s letter jumps back into the subject of Snoke from there.

When I was about thirteen Snoke started sharing his visions with me. I was already in Snoke’s pocket, doing and thinking whatever he wanted, but the visions really broke me. They changed me. He showed me things that he claimed were the future. He showed me soaked in the blood of children and called it glorious. He showed me the alternative, and it was Rey putting a lightsaber through my chest. I think we were in some woods but I don’t know if they were the same woods where I really fought her, near Starkiller. It’s blurry because of what I did to my memories-- all the stuff about Rey got blurred and comes back to me in pieces now. I used to think I messed this up, but I think maybe I did it to myself on purpose, so that Snoke couldn’t search my mind for information about where to get her. She had just come to us the year Snoke started showing me his visions. He called her the foundling or the orphan. He was always emphasizing that she wasn’t my blood. He said that if I didn’t destroy her and all the others they would team up against me and be my undoing. It felt so true. I saw visions of my disgrace. Snoke showed me visions of my grandfather, who had acted too late. I saw him suffering-- I felt his suffering. It was tremendous. Being shown that and feeling it so strongly was like an injury I sustained, and I think it’s an injury I still carry with me. I can barely talk about it now but suffice to say my grandfather was helpless and abandoned by everyone who had claimed to love him. The abandonment hurt worse than the lost limbs. I felt it, and Snoke told me that was coming for me if I didn’t act.

Now I wonder why Snoke needed to convince me at all. Why not just take me, if he could? I think his ability to control me completely, the way he has done twice now (I’m sorry to bring it up but I need your help untangling this. Rey only tangles things up further. I need someone who thinks the way you do, without the help of the Force) is very complex and that it would be easier for him (of course) if I just gave myself to him. I think he wanted me to give myself to him in the wake of your death, had he been successful in killing you. He would have tried to convince me that I had killed you myself and then I would have given up.

(Again I’m sorry to talk about his plans to kill you and I’m sorry he was able to almost do it. I know it was my failure that he was able to get so close. I’m trying to figure out how I let it happen. It didn’t feel like letting him take over during the massacre. I let something go, but not for his sake, not like before. I was letting it go for you. How did he take that from you? I need to figure it out. I will. Maybe you have some ideas?)

(I know you don’t like the word sorry but I’ve sat here for a while now trying to edit it and nothing else sounds right in that sentence. And I am sorry, Hux. I’m sorry.)

Since I’ve talked with you about the massacre before, I’m going to talk about what it was like directly afterward, when I went to Snoke. I went there with plans to kill him but I was weak and I didn’t believe that it could be done once I arrived there. I was tired and broken and trying not to let him see how lost and small and finished I felt. He gave me a new lightsaber as a gift for having done the massacre successfully and told me my first task as his official apprentice (Kylo) was to kill his previous apprentice. He said this was boy who, like me, had been tested, and who, like me, had come to Snoke’s fortress to audition for the role of apprentice. He said this boy had been weak and had failed him and that I was his replacement and I had to kill him before I could sleep or eat or even get a drink of water. It was nothing like the massacre, where I hid inside myself until Rey needed me. This boy was starving and hurt and wild-eyed, like Snoke had locked him up alone for a long time and he’d gone crazy. Just sensing his energy was like being wounded because it was so bleak and insane and desperate. I killed him because I was afraid I would turn into him if I didn’t. Does that make sense? Have you ever been around someone whose weaknesses and fears represent your own worst visions of potential failure so completely that you just want to destroy them? Maybe you haven’t, but I was repulsed by that boy. It felt better to feed my rage toward him than to have any sympathy. I had no more energy for sympathy that day, and Snoke would have killed us both if I didn’t kill him. Or so I thought at the time. So that boy is the first person I remember killing. I didn’t even know his name. Snoke never spoke of him again.

Who was that boy, before Snoke got to him? He didn’t speak to me during our fight. I had the feeling that Snoke might have cut his tongue out. But I’m not sure.

I don’t think it matters who that boy was, but then again something about him sticks in my mind when I consider how to move forward with vanquishing Snoke. Maybe you have some ideas about how it could matter?

I know your hearing starts soon. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Sometimes when I feel like you’re too far away I think about how we grew up in different systems. And how far away you were when I was training with Snoke and you were still on the Finalizer. At least we’re closer than that now. Maybe you prefer to have me away from you for now. I would understand if so.

But please write to me if you can. I need you, too. --R

Hux wants to press the pages of the letter to his face. He leans over them, imagining that they’re giving off a warmth that will heal him, and listens to his mother answering Jek’s questions, refining her answers. Hux wonders if either of them would notice if he pressed Ren’s words to his face, just quickly. He sucks in his breath and decides he doesn’t care. Elana changed his diapers when he was a baby. Jek knows about the Academy, and has heard Ren’s humiliating declarations live and in person. Hux exhales and brings the pages of the letter to his face, breathing against them and wanting to keep them, knowing he can’t. He’ll read the letter again, will try to memorize it. Only one bit rings hard in his ears now, over and over as he tries to sink into the letter like it’s a place where he can escape: I need you, too. Over and over.

Hux hears a chair scraping against the floor. His mother: she’s still talking, telling Jek something about her fucking braid, for some reason. Apparently she cried when she cut it off and Hux’s father had no reaction. When her chair is close enough, she puts her hand on Hux’s back. He remains hunched over, Ren’s letter covering his face. He’s not crying, but he doesn’t want to expose the renewed red on his cheeks. They stay like that for a while, her hand on Hux’s back and his face buried in Ren’s words, Jek continuing with his questions as if this is none of his business.

When Hux has managed to compose himself, he sits up and smooths out the pages of the letter against his thighs. He reads it two more times, then folds both pages up and tucks them back into the envelope. It’s like a physical loss when he passes it back to Jek, like some essential piece of Hux’s body has been disconnected and will now be indefinitely withheld from him.

“They may take me for my shower directly after this,” Hux says before Jek can ask why he’s giving the letter back. “I nearly lost the last one that way. Please. Keep it for me. For now.”

“Of course,” Jek says, and Hux watches the blue envelope disappear into Jek’s coat again. “I’ll keep it safe.”

Hux sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. He feels a headache coming on, maybe because he was bent over with his face in that letter for too long. His mother drags her chair closer and puts her shoulder against his. Hux doesn’t move away. It would be pointless to do so, and this feels better than having his hand held, at least.

“Elana and I will work on this some more tonight,” Jek says when the guards have knocked to warn them that time is almost up. “I think this testimony is really important, and we’ve got a good start here.” He smiles, looking hopeful at the sight of Elana lingering at Hux’s side. She’s not smoking now, just hugging her purse in her lap. She’s been wiping at her eyes on and off, never making a sound to indicate more serious crying. “Hux?” Jek says when he just sits in place, listless in the glow from the fake ocean, the fake fish. “You’ve gotten quiet-- You okay?”

“He’s fine,” Elana says, before Hux can snap at Jek to tell him that of course he’s okay, or of course he isn’t-- He’s not even sure which is the real answer. Elana stands and drops her purse onto the table before pulling Hux up from his chair. Hux leaves his arms at his sides when she hugs him again, but he drops his forehead to her shoulder this time. He’s tired, and he remembers this lesson from the house on the cliff, from Ren: it feels good to be held, so fuck it. He might as well enjoy it while it lasts. “Your hair,” Elana says when she pulls back, touching the freshly clipped bits at the back of Hux’s neck. “Still soft.”

“I doubt the quality of my hair will save me,” Hux says. “But thank you for noticing. Thank you for coming at all.”

“Elan. Do you not know how long I’ve been waiting to hear you ask for me?” She stares at him like she expects him to answer this question. He has no idea how he would. “Since you were six years old,” she says. “Since then.”

She smiles tightly and pats his cheek, moving away from him when the guards open the door. Jek stands and gathers his things. Hux thinks about the letter in Jek’s coat. It’s already too late to change his mind and ask for it back, with the guards watching now. Hux lingers in the room as Jek and his mother are ushered away by the guards, both of them turning to look back at Hux before they go. He’s glad that they’re led to the elevators before the binders are snapped around his wrists.

The walk to the elevators feels as if it’s taking place in one of Hux’s ever-shifting dreams, where the scenery can change from cruel to comforting and back in a blink. He’s trying to piece together his impression of his mother: overly familiar, obnoxious, warm and a little strange, with the mannerisms of a younger woman, even in those drab clothes. His persisting resentment of her hits him in waves that recede and then crash against him again as the guards bring him back to his cell, and he wants to either remain furious or dismiss it and allow his relief to replace it.

Had he pushed her away? When? He remembers telling his father he was going for a walk with his mother-- how old had he been then? --and the look on his father’s face when he received this information. What kind of boy wants to spend time with his mother that way? I’ve never heard of it. He hadn’t forbidden it, exactly. He’d only had to look at Hux as if he was some alien thing that didn’t fit everyone’s expectations. Hux had seen Brendol Sr. look at his mother that way, too-- increasingly, as Hux got older.

Hux was afraid to be looked at like that. Everyone he knew was terrified of being different, standing out. Hux started to see his mother’s whimsical walks and long hair and out-of-season dresses as embarrassing. She was just a woman of leisure who had moved from her powerful father’s household to her more powerful husband’s. What could Hux have learned from her? What did he really lose when he stopped walking with her through the woods behind the house, whenever they could sneak away together to talk about nonsense and note the growth of some new mushrooms? What good did it do to hold someone’s hand when you’d already found your own way?

He’s close to cracking even before the guards march him directly to his room, and that’s what does it: he’s not going to the shower. He could have kept Ren’s letter. Now he’s being returned to his room without it, and the comfort of the letter feels like a gift that Hux rejected. He didn’t want to dismiss it when he could have kept it, and he didn’t mean to wait so long to write back to Ren, didn’t mean to give the impression that he might not care.

When the purple-skinned guard turns Hux toward him to remove the binders, Hux glares at him, daring him to mention the fact that Hux’s eyes have gotten wet. The other guard is leaning against the wall, bored and not even looking.

“That was your mother?” the purple-skinned guard says.

Hux blinks at him, trying to interpret this question as a taunt. But it’s earnest, and the guard appears to be speaking to Hux as if he is an actual person, not just cargo to be transported from one room to another. Hux doesn’t even know what species this guard is. He’s got a short, up-turned nose and greenish freckles.

“What’s your name?” Hux asks, keeping his voice as steady as possible. “I see you every day, and I-- I don’t know--”

“I’m Yonke,” the guard says. He gestures to his human partner, the woman, who is watching them now. “That’s Omeila.”

“Okay.” Hux nods and tries to blink the moisture from his eyes. He’s mostly successful. “Thank you.”

The door to his cell opens, the binders come off, and then he’s alone again, locked up, letter-less. He’s got the other two letters under his mattress, but when he pulls them out to reread them they don’t seem to have the same recently-given life that the one he read in that Soft Room still possessed. Hux tucks the previous letters under his shirt anyway, curling up under his blanket with his back to the door.

Dinner will come, and he’ll be paraded to his shower. Then the last day before his hearing will dawn. He pulls the blanket fully over his head and imagines what Ren would do if he were here, on the day before Hux faces his fate. Ren was always drawing his fingers through Hux’s hair in that bed, in that house, on that storm-blasted cliff. Hux fights off memories of his mother doing the same thing, when he was small enough to sit in her lap, when the two of them spent their days together on starships that raced through the galaxy as its realities shifted around them. Ren had returned those memories to Hux when he stroked Hux’s hair, calling up something deeply buried. It was a gesture that spoke to Hux without words, and without need of the Force, as his mother’s touch had communicated this just as clearly as Ren’s had: You’re mine to take care of and you’re safe here with me. That was what it had felt like, long ago, and again when he was in Ren’s arms.

Hux realizes that he didn’t even check his haircut in the mirror before getting into bed. He thinks of getting up to do so but stays under the blanket, wanting to hear thunder in the distance or rain against the window. There’s nothing but the perfect silence of his cell. Hux reaches up under his shirt and presses Ren’s letters against his skin, wanting them to speak to him the way they had seemed to when he first read them, in Ren’s voice, when they were new.

As the evening progresses, Hux finds his spirits lifting, and he’s not sure why until he’s climbing into bed, the last of the light fading and his memoir ten pages longer. He supposes the act of writing about his childhood after being forced to talk about it for much of the day might be the reason for this elevation in his mood, but when he settles under his blanket he realizes that it’s not that.

He’s anticipating seeing Ren soon. In his dreams. As if such an encounter could possibly count.

But Hux can’t deny that it has, in recent days: even when he wakes alarmed, concerned for Ren’s safety after worrying about him in a darkening wood and then coddling him in what seemed like someone else’s memory of the past, it still feels like something to hang onto. It’s still a real glimpse of Ren, somehow.

It takes him a long time to get to sleep, and he tosses and turns, fighting off the urge to reevaluate everything his mother said and did, now and in the past. He drifts off while indulging in a memory of walking in the woods behind the estate with her, his half-conscious mind inserting Ren into this memory. In it, Ren is a bodyguard who follows behind them at a distance and shows Hux his stupid, crooked, perfect smirk when Hux turns to check that he’s still there.

This gives way to real sleep, which pivots into a dream about the hearing. Hux sits alone at the center of a massive arena. There are thousands of spectators, but they’re out of sight, hidden by darkness. A spotlight washes over Hux like a merciless sun, searing his skin. A single judge watches him from behind an enormous podium. Hux can barely see this judge, half-blind in the harsh light that beats down onto him. When the judge speaks, it’s in Snoke’s voice.

“And what good were you?” the judge asks. This is the Committee’s only question, it turns out. Jek is not here, and realizing this sends a stab of panic through Hux. What if they killed him? Who will take care of Jek’s family, if they have? Or has his family been killed along with him?

Hux’s face is wet. He tries to dry it, humiliated when he hears laughter from the darkness, but his hands are tied to a post in front of him, and he can’t lift them.

“Wrong answer,” Snoke says, his voice booming. Snoke is fully himself now, as Hux remembers him, coming into view with a sneer. Snoke flips his hand the way he did when he told Hux to oversee preparations for the firing of the weapon that he’s on trial for using-- As if it was an afterthought, Hux’s silly pet project, something Snoke was allowing out of disinterest. “Go,” Snoke says. “Let them have you.”

“What?” Hux’s voice is a panicked whine. “But I didn’t answer, I haven’t--”

The crowd in the arena is pouring over its walls, rushing toward him. Hux yanks at the post that his hands are tied to, but it’s useless: he’s trapped here, can only brace himself helplessly against being ripped limb from limb. And what if they do worse, before that? He screams when he feels the crowd come upon him in a violent crash of clawing hands, and he catches sight of Snoke’s approving, sneering smile just before he rips himself out of the nightmare, waking in a fight with his blanket.

Hux scrambles out of the bed, trying to breathe as he pulls his shirt off. Both moons are out, and by their light he checks his neck in the mirror over the sink, his fingers shaking. There are no fresh bruises on his throat, which burns with the phantom memory of being crushed between Ren’s hands. It wasn’t real. Just a dream.

He stares at himself in the mirror, recoiling when his eyes look somehow unrecognizable. He can’t even determine why. Maybe it’s more his hair that looks wrong-- Too short. His mother wasn’t wrong about that.

Hux turns and looks at his bed, the blanket thrown to the floor. He could sleep again. He could hope that he would find Ren in a new nightmare, that Ren would hold out his hand and lift Hux above the worst memories and fears of the future, but Hux can’t count on that, and they’re only dreams, no matter how real they feel when he’s still asleep.

He goes to his desk and flips past the pages of his memoir, to a blank page in the middle of the notepad. Carefully, he rips this page out.

When his fingers have stopped shaking and his breath has steadied, he begins a letter to Ren. There are long pauses as he considers what to say and how best to phrase it. He’s not like Ren; he can’t just sling his emotions out at top speed and expect them to be translated by the reader. This sort of writing comes less easily than the memoir has so far. Hux works at it with the determination he once brought to selecting the right words for an important speech, and by sunrise he’s filled the whole page. In the glow of the last dawn before the day that will mark the start of his hearing, he puts his palm over the letter he’s written, willing his touch to sink into it.

“Are you coming back?” he asks, whispering this. He didn’t have the nerve to put it in the letter. He’s talking to Ren. He’s talking about his dreams. “I’m waiting,” he says, and he lifts the letter to his face. He kisses it swiftly, then again, and checks over his shoulder before folding it in half. As if someone might have seen.

 

**