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Under the Ruins of a Walled City

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Observations upon waking: Hux’s hearing starts today. Headache persists, other symptoms have lessened. Someone is watching him.

It’s his mother. She’s leaning in the doorway, her hair up in an official-looking bun and her expression concerned and cautious, just as it’s been since Ren woke from that last dream about Hux. She’s wearing a pressed, formal tunic over tailored pants. There’s an understated brooch, no necklace.

Observation, hazy but harsh: She’s dressed for court. Preparing to leave.

“I’d hoped you were awake,” she says, coming into the room with a glass of water. She always has water in hand, as if she needs an excuse to enter his room. Ren stays on his back in bed and looks up at the ceiling, wishing he felt strong enough to do anything but let her enter the room and sit on his bed. He’s been in bed for over a day, and the prospect of getting up to face the first morning of Hux’s hearing feels like a weight that’s keeping him flat on his back. He flinches away when his mother touches his forehead, but allows it when she persists. “How are you feeling?” she asks.

“Can’t you just--”

“Yes, I could use the Force to sense the current status of your health, but I’m asking you, and I’d like you to tell me, in words. Please.”

“I feel like shit,” Ren says, regretting the sharpness of his tone when he senses a glimmer of panic in her feedback. It’s a relief to feel it quickly replaced by annoyance. “Sorry,” he says, though he’s tired of hearing himself say the word. “Just-- You’re going to his hearing. Today. Right now.”

“Yes.”

“You’ll see him.”

“I will. From a certain distance. I won’t be allowed to speak with him--”

“I should-- I should write him a letter. You could get it to him somehow.”

“I don’t think that would be wise. I wouldn’t want anything belonging to you found on me, for reasons which I hope are obvious. Now is when we have to be most careful. The eyes of all the galaxy will be on me for the next two days.”

She sighs as if she’s not looking forward to it. Ren knows she isn’t. That she’s only doing this for him.

“Don’t let them hurt him,” he says, feeling pathetic. It’s his job to protect Hux, not hers, but he can barely lift his head without dropping down again in exhaustion. “Please,” he says when she only stares at him.

“I’ll do what I can,” she says, settling her hand on his arm. “Rey tells me she’s sensed that Hux has a long life ahead of him yet. I hope you’ve sensed the same thing?”

Ren thinks of General Husk, the old man who stood before a giant window, looking out at mountains and seeing nothing. He closes his eyes, and only flinches a little when his mother touches his forehead again, this time to brush his hair aside.

“I have to go,” she says. “I’ll come back later.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Yes, I do. You should keep resting,” she says when he peeks at her. “Maybe-- Maybe don’t watch the broadcast of the hearing.”

“Will they show Hux?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Then I have to watch it. I have to see him.”

Leia sighs and nods as if she expected to hear that. She stands and straightens her tunic, folds her arms over her chest.

“Wish me luck,” she says.

“With what?”

“Enduring this day. It’s going to feel very long.”

“You’re doing it for me,” Ren says, pulling his gaze from hers. He stares up at the ceiling and waits for her to deny that.

“In part,” she says. “But also because I have some ideas about what the consequences should be for him, and I don’t believe death is the answer.”

“Just go,” Ren says, not wanting to talk about the consequences she believes Hux should face. “I’m fine.”

He listens to her leave and sits up in bed, wincing. Everything still aches, but it’s distant now, except for the pain at the base of his skull. The worst of it is the strain he feels when he uses the Force for any purpose, even just to read the feedback of the person who sits with him. It’s mostly been his mother for the past day, in the few hours when he was awake. They haven’t talked much, but she’s brought him meals in bed and countless glasses of water. When they did talk, it was mostly her trying to get information from him about what he’d done to put himself into a near-impenetrable trance that has stripped him of his energy, physical and otherwise, and which sealed him in this room with a power so dark that Rey still has a burn on her hand from when she tried to wrench the door open.

Rey hasn’t allowed Wedge to bring her to a doctor. She says that it’s only a small thing, that it can wait. Ren has the sense that she wants him to heal it.

He’s afraid he might not be able to do it. He hasn’t healed anyone since being possessed by Snoke, who seemed to take Ren’s ability with him when he left.

Observation, or perhaps it’s more of a relentless certainty: If the healing is gone, he’ll be a kind of husk himself. Emptied of the one thing he was ever purely proud of.

Objective: Don’t think about that yet. Not until Hux’s hearing is over. One horror at a time.

Ren finishes his glass of water and stretches out in bed again, his head beginning to throb. He rolls toward the wall and returns to his memories of being Ben and seeing Hux in his old uniforms: Hux smirking and holding him, kissing him, teasing him, calling himself Ben’s betrothed. These feel like real memories, not dreams. Even now, after the past day of suffering in bed and so many hours spent feeling useless and weak, Ren wants to go back and live in those memories.

Objective, important: Don’t. You’ll kill yourself. Doesn’t matter how bad you want it or how much he might need it.

He clings to fantasies in lieu of taking any action, closes his eyes and imagines Hux in his cell, lying in his narrow bed, watching the sun rise with dread as the hour of the start of his hearing draws closer. He tries to imagine what Hux would do if the door opened and Ren walked through, blood-soaked and ready to take him away. He’s not even sure Hux would come with him. Hux might scramble against the wall in terror and hold his arms over his head the way he did after Snoke’s attack. He might beg Ren to leave him alone.

Observation: This is not a fantasy. It was supposed to be one, but even that part of Ren’s mind isn’t working at present.

Objective: Restart. Something good. For the sake of working up enough energy to get out of bed.

Ren pulls his blanket over his head and listens to his own harsh breathing. Fantasies about the present or the future aren’t working, so he returns to thinking of himself as Ben, alone and afraid, bracing himself for some stranger to come through the door at Snoke’s fortress and seeing Hux appear instead. It’s hard to conjure up what Hux would say, because Hux is always better than Ren can imagine in that way, or at least more surprising. Instead, he imagines Hux doing what he did in the last dream, before it unraveled: sitting close, slipping his arm around Ben as if it belonged there, cupping his face and kissing him deeply, swallowing up his astonished moans.

Theory, wrenching and almost certain: If Ben had really found someone like Hux in that fortress, when he was alone there in the quiet of night, he would have abandoned Snoke to the feeling of true belonging that he had in those dreams, when Hux whispered promises that they were meant to be together, and that someday he would be happiest in Ren’s company.

Ren is tempted to believe he only imagined that part, but he feels it heating his chest even now, under his blanket, alone in his bed: Hux said that all of his best memories are of Ren, and he meant it.

Something better than good. Hux had said that, too. Ren tries to imagine what it could be, if not the fantasy of ruling the galaxy together that Hux rejected. Good would be the freedom to leave everything here behind together. What could be better? Ren can’t imagine it. He needs Hux to tell him. He needs Hux.

Concern, sudden and sharp: He’ll send the last doomed scraps of himself to Hux without even meaning to if he keeps wallowing like this.

Objective: Get out of bed.

Observation: Doing so feels like being torn from Hux all over again, maybe because he truly had Hux with him while his physical body languished in this bed.

He sits up and glowers down at his pillow for a while, hating it for not being Hux, and hating himself for not appreciating every moment in that house on the cliff when he’d been able to slide into bed and find the heat of Hux’s skin waiting for him. Ren became overly accustomed to it there, even as he knew they wouldn’t be able to hide in that bed together forever. He should never have taken a moment of that sanctuary for granted. He should have paused to meticulously note the details every time he twitched from a thin sleep to find Hux there, when closing the space between them was as easy as rolling over and burying his face in Hux’s hair. It feels like a power that’s been stripped from him, similar to his healing.

Reminder: The healing might not actually be gone.

Observation, continuous, like a chill he can’t shake: He’s afraid to try it, afraid to find out.

He’s not surprised to find Rey and Wedge sitting in the living room when he ventures out into the apartment. Neither of them bothers to attempt to look as if they haven’t been awaiting his emergence. Rey hops up from the sofa and hurries over to him as if he might topple to the floor at any moment. As if she needs to be in arm’s reach at all times. Ren doesn’t mind it so much, suddenly.

“How long until it starts?” he asks.

“Just an hour,” Rey says. She squeezes Ren’s arm. “It’s good to see you on your feet, but are you sure you should be up?”

“Yes.” Ren glances at the holo, which is powered off. He imagines the programs that must be running on every channel in anticipation of the start of the hearing: speculation and gossip and a sense of excitement for the announcers who will dissect the hearing’s progress. The city feels quiet, beyond the apartment’s walls. There’s no transport traffic noise from the street. Ren can sense all the New Republic’s citizens gathering around their holos, chattering about what might happen. As if it’s a holiday.

“How about something to eat?” Wedge asks when Ren just stands there.

“Yes,” Ren says. “I’ll cook.”

He’s eager to have a distraction, but he feels clumsy when he tries to slice up herbs, and when he fumbles a bowl and tries to use the Force to catch it in mid-fall, he can’t do it. The bowl shatters onto the floor, and Rey comes running.

“Let me help you,” she says when Ren bends down to gather the broken pieces, his hands shaking.

Observation, non-stop, running parallel to every conscious thought: What have I done, what have I done, what have I done to myself?

“You’re okay,” Rey says in a whisper, resting her hands over his when she squats down in front of him on the floor. “You were fooled by something in one of those books. It may have been something helpful, but it got turned around on you and made you weak. It’s okay to be weak while you recover. You haven’t lost anything, Ben. I would have sensed it if you had.”

Ren takes Rey’s wrist and turns it over, wincing at the sight of the scarred flesh on her palm, still raw from the burn that Ren’s bedroom door gave her.

My fault, he thinks, knowing she’ll hear it. She shakes her head.

“Snoke,” she says, whispering again. Her eyes are hard when Ren looks up to meet her gaze. “You felt it. I did, too. He’s trying to get back into your head. That’s okay. We knew he would. We won’t let him.”

Ren can’t think about his continued determination not to let Snoke get anywhere near Rey, in battle or otherwise. Not today, and not with her already in his head. He stands and resumes trying to make breakfast, jamming a wedge of kini fruit onto the juicer with his palm.

“I won’t let them kill Hux,” he says when Rey stands beside him, watching him work in a way that reminds him of Hux lingering at his side and watching with mild fascination while Ren made soup. “I don’t care if I have to do it with my bare hands-- I will see him safely away from that place.”

“I don’t think you should watch the hearing,” Rey says. “But I know you will,” she adds when he flicks his eyes to hers, ready to rant that she can’t stop him. “It’s good to see you feeling like yourself again,” she says. “Mostly, I mean. You don’t look so deathly pale today, anyway.”

Ren grabs another piece of fruit and smashes it on the juicer.

“Have you sensed that they have Force users guarding that Tower?” he asks. “I haven’t,” he says before Rey can answer. “And if they don’t have that, they can’t stop me. Even if they had ten advanced Force users on staff, I’m more powerful, I could destroy them--”

“Ben--”

“I don’t care what my mother has to say about it, or this Committee, or anyone in this entire fucking galaxy--”

“Ben!”

“You don’t understand.” Ren feels the skin of the fruit split. The point of the juicer bites into his hand. He doesn’t care, keeps twisting. “Nobody understands. That’s fine. It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to sit by and--”

“Ren!”

Rey’s use of that name makes him stop. He looks up. She’s startled, distressed, breathing hard.

“You’re bleeding!” Rey says, yanking his hand away from the juicer.

“Doesn’t matter,” Ren mutters, staring down at his hand as blood drips onto the kitchen floor, kini juice stinging sharply in the fresh cut. “I deserve it. I hurt your hand.”

“You didn’t. Some terrible power that was trying to keep me away from you did this to my hand. But it couldn’t keep me from you, and I’m glad to suffer a flesh wound if it means not losing you.”

“You want me to heal it,” Ren says, staring at the floor.

“If you wanted to try--”

“And you called me Ren.”

He looks up at her. She takes a deep breath and pulls him over to the sink, turns on the water. They both watch his blood wash down the drain.

“I know I should call you that,” she says. “It’s just hard not to think of you as Ben. Leia and I talked about it while she was here, when you were resting. She says you think of yourself as Ren now. She says it’s not a bad thing, not entirely. I suppose I knew that. I was hanging onto something, but. If it upsets you to be called that, I shouldn’t say it.”

“It doesn’t upset me.” Ren shrugs when she looks up at him, sensing the lie. “Not always,” he says. “Not when you do it. Sometimes it seems like your nickname for me. I know you don’t say it to hurt me.”

“I’d never do anything to hurt you,” Rey says. “Not now, anyway,” she says, glancing up at his scar. She peers down at his hand when fresh blood pools in his palm. “I’m going to get a bandage,” she says. “Please don’t juice your hand while I’m gone.”

She leaves. Ren stares down at his fresh injury. There’s a measure of relief in physical pain. This flesh wound is nothing like the shattering ache that’s kept him in bed since he woke to Rey’s sobbing and his mother’s arms wrapping around him. This is simpler; there’s blood involved, and he did it to himself. He supposes he did this other damage to himself, too, but it felt bigger than that. He was helped along by something. Such as when Snoke helped Ben ruin everything. It was Ben’s fault, but also Snoke’s doing, and Snoke had always held more cards. Rey says they’ll revisit the issue after the hearing. She knows Ren won’t be able to think about anything else until Hux’s sentence has been handed down, however many times he bellows that it’s all irrelevant anyway. He believes that it is, truly, but it doesn’t feel that way today, this morning, with only minutes to go before the hearing begins.

He lets Rey clean and dress his wound and thinks about offering to heal her hand in turn. Instead, he turns back to making breakfast. She stays close, sipping from the juice he’s squeezed after throwing away the portion that was mixed with his blood.

Breakfast is solemn, all three of them sharply aware of the last minutes that are ticking away. The holo remains quiet in the living room while they eat in silence in the kitchen. Even Rey and Wedge don’t attempt small talk.

“It’s starting,” Ren says, shooting up from his chair when he feels it in his chest: Hux being marched into a kind of arena where his potential executioners wait. Ren’s mother sits in the middle of a panel of unfriendly faces, her own expression as neutral as she can keep it when Hux meets her eyes as he’s led to his seat.

It’s strange to see this scene come to life on the holo as the images sharpen, Ren standing with the control gripped tightly in his hand, his chest heaving. Rey comes to stand at his side, then Wedge at his other side, and he wonders if all three of them will stand through every hour of this broadcast.

There’s nothing but crowd sounds from the broadcast as everyone gets settled. No bodiless announcer, as Ren half-expected, as if this would be handled like some kind of perverse sporting match. He keeps his eyes focused on Hux, who sits at a table facing the Committee members, beside Porkins. Ren can only see the back of Hux’s head in this shot, and his narrow shoulders against the back of his chair.

Hux’s hair is too short. He’s dressed in a pale gray tunic with buttons and dark gray pants. Someone has given him some shiny black shoes.

Observation: Immense relief, and Ren laughs in a kind of breathy sob when he senses how glad Hux was to receive these shoes, and to be able to dress like a person instead of a prisoner for this hearing.

“I can feel things,” Ren says, without meaning to say this out loud for Wedge to hear as well as Rey. “Looking at him, I-- It’s like having a connection again, like--” He lets his voice break off, knowing that Wedge won’t understand and that Rey already does.

“I hope he can feel you, too,” Rey says, and she gives Ren’s arm a squeeze. “I think he can. I think he knows he’s not alone.”

“I told him,” Ren says, nodding furiously. “In a letter,” he explains, to Wedge, when he can talk again.

“That was very good of you,” Wedge says, resting a hand on Ren’s shoulder. “Do you want to sit down? Or would you rather stand?”

“Stand. You two can sit. You don’t have to hold me up.”

Neither of them moves. On the holo, Leia calls the room to order.

“Okay,” Leia says, and she seems to suppress a tired sigh. Ren feels connected to her, too, watching this. “As most of you know,” she says, “I am General Leia Organa of the Resistance, and I have been asked to head this specially appointed Committee. Before we get started, I’ll talk a little bit about how this is going to work, and how I expect to conduct this hearing. This morning we will hear opening statements from the New Republic’s appointed representative, Ms. Faza, and from Mr. Porkins, who represents Mr. Hux. I’ve asked them both to keep those statements concise, as it is my goal to get through the examinations and cross examinations of the Republic’s three fact witnesses before the close of business today. Tomorrow, we will resume with the witnesses called by counsel for Mr. Hux, and then we’ll have the closing statements. The members of the Committee have also asked permission to give impact statements if they so choose, and I think we’ll hear-- three of those?”

Leia glances to her left, where Chief Justice Botta sits. He consults his data screen and nods. To his left there are two Committee members whose massive size makes Botta appear particularly small: one is a pinkish and hulking Utrian with a fat snout, scowling like he wants to kill Hux himself, and the other is iridescent green with a pendulous trunk and giant black eyes, some species Ren doesn’t recognize. This individual’s expression is unreadable to Ren, but there’s a sense of fury emanating from everyone on this side of the bench, aside from Botta, who has a more stoic demeanor. These angriest Committee members have been seated across from Hux. On the other side of Leia there’s a blond human man with an icy expression, a Qusoa woman who is already in tears, and a very slender Thulmar with sleepy eyes.

“Okay, yes,” Leia says. “We’ll hear from Representative Cobal of Utr, Representative Al’tia of Oberi, and Representative Boovt of Eurc-Wenta. And I believe we’ll need a translator for that statement-- We have one, correct?” She glances at Botta, who nods. “Good. If the Representatives from Qusoa or Raklan change their minds and would like to give personal impact statements before this Committee, they will please let me know as soon as possible.”

Ren stares at Hux, wanting to move closer to the holo and touch the pixels that comprise his projection. The picture is clear enough that Ren can see the sharpness of Hux’s recent hair cut. He imagines the way the short hairs at the back of Hux’s neck would prickle against his fingers, and how Hux might shiver and lean into the touch.

“Okay,” Leia says again, folding her hands on the podium where she sits, which is slightly elevated above the panel tables that fan out from either side. “The purpose of this hearing is to determine the sentence handed down for Mr. Hux’s role in the destruction of the Hosnian System. We are only considering two alternatives for his sentence. Those alternatives are execution or a life sentence in a New Republic prison.”

Leia pauses there, reaching for a pitcher of water behind her podium and pouring some for herself while clearing her throat.

Observation, possibly confused or inaccurate: Something about seeing Leia do this pricks Hux with a small measure of hope.

“This is a very grave Committee to sit upon,” Leia says after taking a few sips of water. “I do not want the proceedings to drag out or to become needlessly exploitative. I’m aware that this hearing is being broadcast live and that much of the galaxy is watching. I’m also acutely aware of the loss that five of my fellow Committee members have suffered. The loss of one’s home world along with one’s family and friends and culture is an indescribable wound that never heals. I believe that is why I was asked to sit as Committee Head, because I share this particular, shattering understanding of loss. In accordance, I will be sensitive to the Committee members during this process.”

She pauses again, pursing her lips the way she used to when she was trying to decide how best to frame the terms of some well-earned punishment for Ben.

“However,” she says “I don’t want our stated goal during this hearing to be only about honoring the loss these individuals have endured. I want us all to think seriously about what this decision will mean about the New Republic. About what kind of message it will send. If the tables were turned and I had been captured by the First Order, I suspect I would be dead already, or worse. I have personally seen that Mr. Hux has been treated humanely prior to being brought to an expedited trial, and where we go from here matters. I won’t personally have a vote unless this Committee’s vote ends in a tie. Regardless, as an Alderaanian and as the General of the Resistance which fights daily to end the Order’s unprecedented galactic terrorism, I urge Justice Botta and all of the Committee members to listen carefully to testimony and think very seriously about the impact of this decision before voting. Ms. Faza, are you prepared to begin?”

“I am,” Faza says, rising from the table across the aisle from the one where Porkins and Hux sit.

It’s harder to get a read on the people in this holo image whom Ren hasn’t met in reality, and his powers are weaker than he can ever remember them being, but he gets a sense of ease and grace from Faza as he watches her approach the podium in the middle of the aisle, as if she thinks she’s already won. She has no data pad, and launches into her opening statement without any notes on hand for reference.

“Members of the Committee,” Faza says, “And General Organa. I would like to begin by saying that I share the General’s view on the outcome of this hearing. I do think it’s important to send the right message to the galaxy in light of our responsibility to see justice done for the Hosnian System. I am not here today to argue for or against the death penalty as appropriate for Mr. Hux’s punishment. That decision is solely in the hands of the Committee. I am simply here to present the facts on behalf of the New Republic, to help draw the clearest picture of who Mr. Hux actually is, and to underscore the enormity of what he has done. I believe the facts will show that he prided himself as a lifelong enemy of the Republic and a living symbol of the First Order’s merciless will to annihilate anyone who resists them.”

“No,” Ren says, unintentionally aloud. “He’d hate-- He’d never think of himself as a symbol.”

Rey gives him a sympathetic look. Wedge pats his shoulder. Feedback from both indicates that they want him to be quiet so they can listen to the rest.

“I believe the facts will also show that Mr. Hux is a man without a culture that embraces anything but the destructive, brutal acquisition of power for power’s sake,” Faza says. “Mr. Hux’s legacy and life history, both personal and political, indicates he has devoted himself solely to this doctrine, and that he has channeled that embrace of the Order’s sole, fundamentally sadistic mission into developing a particular talent for costing the galaxy billions of lives with the push of a button. Mr. Hux’s crime not only represents but indisputably is the cruelest, most callously efficient slaughter of innocents that this galaxy has ever seen in its known history.”

She lets that sink in. Feedback from Hux indicates a kind of uneven pride in this fact. It’s more to do with the description of his work as peerlessly efficient than the bit about innocents being slaughtered, but still not a great sign, as Hux is a bad actor and may not be able to hide this. Maybe he won’t have to testify.

“I know the members of this Committee who represent the five planets we lost don’t need me to describe the price of what Mr. Hux has done,” Faza says. “It is so enormous that it cannot possibly be measured by the life or death of one man. My goal during this hearing is only to speak for those New Republic citizens who no longer have a voice, thanks to the actions taken by Mr. Hux. I humbly aim to lend the billions who are not here with us today my voice as I seek to expose the person responsible for the firing of the weapon that ended their lives as the unfeeling, unrepentant, destructive instrument of the First Order that I believe the facts will show him to be. Thank you.”

Ren is pacing in front of the holo as Faza returns to her seat. Wedge has taken a seat on the sofa, and Rey stands in place, checking Ren’s feedback periodically as he attempts to focus on the words from the broadcast rather than his building rage.

Observations, poured on top of this rage to smother the forthcoming explosion: Hux’s attorney will speak next. He’s a kind man. He cares about Hux.

Objective: Listen. Pay attention. Resist the urge to smash the holo projector when it seems like a taunting enemy that holds Hux in its prison of unreachable images.

Porkins approaches the podium, also without notes. This sends a jerk of panic through Ren, and something else hits him, too. It’s Hux’s anxious anticipation of what Porkins could possibly say in his defense. Ren feels it. Hears it, almost. If he were stronger, he would be able to pick out the words that form in Hux’s mind, not just the feelings. And possibly he could send words to Hux in return.

“Where is this court located?” Ren asks, pausing in his pacing and whirling on Rey.

“You cannot go there,” she says, stern, even as her feedback pings with fright that she won’t be able to stop him. “Ren, I mean it--”

“I know that!” He doesn’t like scaring her, and he can’t go: it’s true. It would ruin something for Hux, who still wants his own chance to win the game they’re all playing against him. “Just-- Tell me. That courthouse is near here, isn’t it? In this city?”

“Yes,” Rey says, her eyes hardening. “Why.”

“Never mind-- Shh, listen.”

“I’d like to start out on a personal note,” Porkins says. “If that’s okay.”

Ren can feel it when Hux groans internally. It’s a deep-seated dread that sinks into Ren, too, but the feeling of having a connection to Hux’s thoughts again lifts him through the roof at the same time.

“Of course that’s okay,” Leia says when Porkins seems to be waiting for an actual answer. “Proceed, please.”

“Great, thank you. My name is Jek Porkins III. I was born on Coruscant, seven years before the Battle of Yavin. My father was a pilot who fought in that battle and lost his life during the effort to destroy the first Death Star. I can remember learning that the Death Star was destroyed, and cheering with my grandfather and my mother, and then learning, shortly thereafter, that my father had not made it back. His X-wing went down before he could see that horrible weapon that had destroyed Alderaan blown to bits. That made me so angry, as a kid. I wanted my dad to have at least seen his enemies fall first, if he had to give up his life in the process. I wanted to feel sure that he knew what he had done had mattered. In my view, at the time, his death only truly mattered if the mission was successful. It had been, but he didn’t get the satisfaction of witnessing that, and in that sense I felt cheated on his behalf.”

Feedback from Hux, who sits motionless with his sad haircut: He likes this beginning. Likes Porkins, and wants to believe that they could win this fight together. Hux’s heart is beating very fast.

Observations: So is Ren’s, and he’s leaning toward the holo, wanting to leap into it.

“Now I’m older,” Porkins says, “And we in the New Republic know a lot more about the stormtrooper program, what it was like under the Emperor and what it’s like now. We know the Empire went from cloning people to serve as their soldiers to collecting them from Outer Rim planets and raising them up to think of themselves not as people but as living extensions of the power of their superiors. You’ll hear a little bit about that today, from some people who used to see themselves that way, when they were serving the First Order as stormtroopers. I’m glad we’ll hear that testimony. I think it’s very important in order to paint a full picture of who Mr. Hux is, as Ms. Faza has said she aims to do.”

Feedback from Hux: He likes the bite of this statement, which sounds like a suggestion that Faza actually intends to do something else entirely. Ren decides he likes it, too, though he resents the sensation of Hux enjoying the experience of someone other than Ren fighting for him.

“But if I can get personal again for a moment,” Porkins says, not pausing for Leia’s approval this time, “When it comes to reflecting on that battle that took my father from me, the older I got and the more I learned about who the stormtroopers are, the more I started thinking about how the destruction of the Death Star was a bit like taking an eye for an eye. The Death Star didn’t support as much life as Alderaan did, and it wasn’t a peaceful place by any means, but there was a mass of life destroyed along with that weapon.”

Porkins pauses to let this sink in. Ren isn’t sure about this narrative, or maybe it’s Hux who is growing concerned and passing this along as feedback.

“On the first Death Star, on the day that my father died, thousands of stormtroopers were living the role in that our galaxy had handed to them,” Porkins says. “Maybe some of them were desperate to defect the way that the brave individuals we’ll hear from today eventually did. Maybe some of them had long wondered in secret if they would ever even get the opportunity to try it, and how far they would get if they did try, and how hard it would be to to find some life for themselves outside of the only one they’d known, or anyone who would want to help them.”

Feedback from Rey: She’s thinking of Finn. How scared he was when he left the Finalizer. He downplays it, but she’s felt it. He still has nightmares about Poe Dameron sinking into a sandpit along with the stolen TIE fighter.

“When the Death Star blew up, I cheered,” Porkins says. “And when I found out my father was never coming back, I tried to be even happier about the Death Star’s destruction. Because at least he hadn’t died in vain. That’s what everyone said, anyway, when my family was grieving. But all I could think about was my anger that my dad hadn’t at least lived to see the Death Star go up in a glorious explosion before he took his last breath. That was such a sticking point for me. It seemed cruel that he’d missed it, but the older I got, as more and more years passed since I’d lost my dad, the less it seemed to matter. If my dad had seen the Death Star blow up-- So what? If he had died seconds later instead of minutes before-- What’s the difference? He’s still gone. And four years later, there was another Death Star being built, another battle, more lives lost on both sides. It’s been going on and on since I was a kid. Some of my earliest memories revolve around trying to conceptualize what war was, and why my dad had to go away and fight in one.”

This pause seems more appropriate. Ren senses something that may or may not be from Hux: sympathy for Jek. Hux doesn’t want Jek’s heartfelt story to fall on indifferent ears, and not just for his own sake.

Observation: Ren may be misreading something. That doesn’t seem like Hux. He likes Porkins, but he’s not sentimental.

“There was a time when I thought I’d surely grow up to be a pilot just like my dad,” Porkins says, “But when I was old enough to start flight school, I found I wasn’t craving the excitement of battle anymore. At least, not the kind of battle where the winner kills the loser. That’s my hope for the galaxy, that we can all stop craving conflict that involves those consequences someday, and I truly believe that the Resistance and the New Republic stand for the ideals that could help us get there, just like the Rebel Alliance my dad fought and died for. Who were those stormtroopers who died on the Death Star during the battle that killed my father? I’ll never know, just like I’ll never know the innocent souls from Utr, from Oberi, from Eurc-Wenta, from Qusoa and from Raklan who can’t be here today to add their voices to this discussion about what happens next. But I’m very glad that we do have four people here today whose voices might never have been heard if we hadn’t welcomed them to tell their stories rather than deciding that the uniforms they once wore still define them entirely, and I’m as happy to represent Mr. Hux as I would be to defend any of the other three refugees from the First Order who you’ll hear from today.”

Porkins lets this sink in, and there’s a kind of brightening and sharpening in his gaze, as if he dares someone to doubt him on this point. Behind him, Hux is half visible, his face blank and his feedback a seasick mix of hope and fear.

“In contrast to Ms. Faza’s view of the situation,” Porkins says, “I believe that the facts will show that Mr. Hux is not an unfeeling symbol that has somehow transmogrified itself into an evil as pure as those red beams of light that none of us will ever forget. I’m grateful that the Committee is giving not just Hux but three other witnesses the opportunity to speak about how the Order operates on the most devastatingly personal level, infiltrating and poisoning the intimate details of every life it touches, in a way that affects the most junior member of its janitorial staff all the way up to the highest ranking commissioned officer. I thank the Committee in advance for their careful attention to these facts. Thank you.”

Feedback from Hux indicates that he thought that speech was too long, but there’s a seed of hope glowing within him as Porkins returns to sit beside him. Porkins pats Hux’s shoulders as he sits.

Observation: A sudden, low boiling jealousy, that someone should be allowed to pass a reassuring hand across Hux’s shoulders.

Observation, related and as if in answer: A pang of acknowledgement, or perhaps it’s just a coincidence when Hux wonders if Ren is watching and if he would be jealous at the sight of someone else attempting to offer him a comforting touch.

“Thank you, Mr. Porkins,” Leia says, the sound of her voice on the holo drawing Ren’s attention away from Hux. “Ms. Faza, if you’re ready, you may call your first witness to the stand.”

“Oh,” Rey says, under her breath.

Feedback from Rey: The first witness is Finn. Rey is nervous for him, and she wishes he could be here watching with them and not there, on the holo.

“He’ll do fine,” Wedge says as they watch Finn walk to the witness box, which is off to the right, across from the prosecution’s table.

Ren would be shouting that Finn had better do fine, or perhaps storming out of the room and refusing to watch Finn claim to know the first thing about who Hux is and whether he deserves to live or not, but he feels a sense of calm settling at the pit of him, and he chases it, wanting to believe that it’s originating from Hux himself as their connection solidifies, even from this distance, with the help of the live broadcast. Ren backs up against the sofa, keeping his eyes on the holo as he sits. Rey is the only one still standing, her arms folded over her chest tightly as she watches Finn swearing to tell the truth.

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

“Finn,” he says.

Faza lets that hang for a moment. Finn glances at Leia in confusion. Leia’s feedback indicates sympathy and preemptive exhaustion.

“Simply ‘Finn’,” Faza says. “No last name?”

“No. I mean. I’d like to find my parents eventually, but-- I don’t know their names yet, so.”

Faza seems taken off guard by this response. Rey has her hands pressed in a kind of tent over her mouth.

Feedback from Rey, ridiculous: She wonders if Finn would like to take her last name if they were to marry someday.

“You don’t know your parents or the last name you were born with,” Faza says. “Can you tell me why?’

“Because I was absorbed by the stormtrooper program as a kid,” Finn says. There’s something flat and irritated in his tone, as if he doesn’t like responding to questions everyone involved already knows the answers to. “That’s what they call it, absorbed.”

“And what does that mean, precisely?”

“They go to Outer Rim planets and collect children to place into the pre-training program. You enter the actual training program at six. Before that it’s mostly indoctrination and--”

“Back up a moment,” Faza says. “You were saying you don’t remember having a last name-- Do you remember anything of your parents?”

Finn opens his mouth.

Feedback, mostly from Rey, who senses it from Finn: This question feels too personal. He’s not ready to talk about the few snatches of blurred, barely-there memories that he has. He’s been staring at the coordinates Rey gave him on and off since he got them, afraid to start planning a trip there, afraid of what he might find.

“The Order says that all the kids who are placed into the program are given up by their parents,” Finn says, his voice sharpening a bit. “They claim to have official documentation that proves this. That’s all I know about my parents, but I don’t know if I believe that it’s true. I think we might have been kidnapped. Or worse.”

“Worse?” Faza says.

“That they-- They might have killed all the parents and taken all the children,” Finn says, mumbling this. There’s some muttering from the audience in the courtroom.

“And why do you think that may have been the case?” Faza asks.

“It’s just rumors you hear,” Finn says. “Stormtroopers aren’t supposed to talk about this kind of stuff, but of course they do, with each other. Some people wondered about their parents, is all. We weren’t allowed to be in contact with our families ever again after being absorbed. That’s part of the deal. The Order says our parents gave us up because they were poor or desperate or they just didn’t want the hassle of another mouth to feed. I just-- I can’t believe you could front an entire army, the size of the one that serves the Order, with kids whose parents gave them up to that life and agreed to never see them again.”

“And since defecting, which we’ll return to in a moment,” Faza says, “You’ve learned that your suspicions are true?”

“Yeah. Well, that they could be. I haven’t tried to find my parents yet. There’s been-- A lot going on.” He glances at Leia again. “But the Resistance has found evidence that the Order has taken kids into the program against their parents’ will.”

“Okay,” Faza says. “We won’t speculate about the fate of your parents, since we don’t know for sure. But I would like you to talk about your earliest memories of being a stormtrooper.”

Ren is quickly bored by what follows: descriptions of barracks life and mandatory attendance at speeches to boost morale, some of these given by Hux himself. Wary but unable to resist, Ren focuses on Hux and on trying to parse the actual words that are piecing together in his feedback. This was Ben’s process for reading people’s thoughts when he was young and just beginning to do it with some ease: pick out a few words, apply them to the feelings, and suddenly you’re in.

Feedback from Hux, still stubbornly wordless: He’s thinking of what it was like to see his mother again and know that she hadn’t really forgotten him. He hopes Finn’s parents are alive.

Observation: Hux is thinking of him as Finn, not as FN-2187.

Objective: Cling to that word, find others.

“Can you tell us about the first time you met Mr. Hux in person?” Faza asks, breaking Ren’s concentration.

“It was when he was arrested,” Finn says. “He surrendered to the Resistance on a remote island in a planet in another system. It was-- a neutral territory.”

“And what was Mr. Hux’s attitude toward you at that time?”

“Toward me? I don’t think he even noticed I was there. He was really out of it. He didn’t speak.”

“Then how did he offer you his willing surrender?”

“He--” Finn fidgets, and Ren can feel him trying not to glance at Leia, who is staring stonily at her half-empty glass of water. “He’d surrendered to Kylo Ren,” Finn says. “Then Ren brought him to the neutral zone so we could arrest him.”

There’s some noise from the audience in the courtroom-- Muttering, whispers.

“What did you tell him to say?” Ren barks at Rey, who shushes him.

“I see,” Faza says. “So you didn’t hear Mr. Hux willingly surrender to the Resistance personally?”

“No,” Finn says. “But he didn’t resist when we cuffed him.”

“How did Kylo Ren communicate to the Resistance that he was conveying a war criminal who had surrendered to him?”

“I don’t know. That’s above my security clearance.”

“I see. And am I right to assume that everything to do with the location of Kylo Ren at present is also above your clearance?”

“Yes,” Finn says. “He was too powerful for us to detain. He’s-- I don’t know where he is.”

“Did Kylo Ren tell you why Mr. Hux had surrendered?”

“Yes. They’d both ditched their leader-- The Supreme Leader of the First Order, Snoke. Snoke wanted them dead. He’d attacked Hux. There were these--” Finn gestures to his neck, then clears his throat. “He was injured, obviously. Hux thought maybe the Resistance could protect him from Snoke in exchange for information they could use against the Order. That’s why Ren brought him to us.”

Feedback from Hux, another exact word to latch onto: Ren. They’re asking too many questions about Ren. This can’t be good.

Hux.

Observation: Hux jerks in his chair, grabbing both of its arms. Porkins frowns in concern.

Sorry, Ren sends. It’s just like that day at the landing strip, when the guards were leading Hux toward the transport that would take him to the Tower. Ren had called out to Hux, unable to stop himself. This feels like that.

Feedback from Hux: Disbelief, fear, and a ribbon of shimmering hope. His heart is slamming as Porkins rises to cross examine Finn.

Ren tries to connect with Hux again, though he knows he shouldn’t. Rey hasn’t noticed; she’s too focused on Finn.

“I just have a few questions,” Porkins says to Finn, who nods. “You mentioned that you haven’t had time to investigate the planet you were taken from in an attempt to contact your birth parents.”

“That’s right,” Finn says, hardening a bit. “In part because I’m required by law to be here today.”

“And your presence is very appreciated,” Porkins says. “I’m going to let you leave here in just a few minutes and get back to your life, but before I do, can you tell me how you came to know the location of the planet you were taken from?”

“Hux gave it to me,” Finn says.

There’s some murmuring from the audience. Faza leans over to whisper something in her associate’s ear.

“Did he volunteer this information to you without being asked?” Porkins asks.

“No,” Finn says, glancing at Hux. “I asked him for it.”

“And did he give it to you the first time you asked?”

“No. He was a real bastard about it the first time I asked-- sorry,” Finn says, glancing at Leia. She waves her hand, shakes her head.

Feedback from Hux: He’s fuming. Wondering where Porkins could possibly be going with this. Ren shares Hux’s rage the moment he’s sensed it.

“About how long after you initially asked for these coordinates did you receive them from Hux?” Porkins asks.

“A week, I guess?”

“So, just to clarify, Mr. Hux had been a resident of the New Republic for a week before he reconsidered and decided to help you find your parents after all?”

“Well, he’d been a resident of the prison, yeah.”

“Okay, great, thank you. I have no further questions for the witness.”

“Permission to redirect?” Faza says, practically leaping out her seat. It’s the first time she’s seemed to lose her cool, but she doesn’t seem upset. More excited.

“Go ahead,” Leia says.

“Did Mr. Hux give you these coordinates before or after he’d learned that you were going to testify at his hearing?” Faza asks, barely making it to the podium before the question is out.

“I’m not sure when he found out,” Finn says. “You’d have to ask him.”

That was Faza’s only question. Finn is dismissed, and Ren is left uncertain about how to feel about that testimony. It wasn’t a disaster, and he appreciates Finn’s unwillingness to say that Hux knew for sure he would be a witness before handing over the coordinates. But Faza seemed pleased just to have the opportunity to ask that question, and several Committee members sniffed with distaste at this obvious incentive for Hux to have his change of heart.

The next witness takes the stand: the doe-eyed former stormtrooper whom Hux sent to the Resistance as a fake defector. She has a steely look on her face that masks her feedback, which is rattled and terrified.

Feedback from Hux, when her eyes dart to his and again away: Fuck.

She doesn’t want to betray you, Ren thinks, not sure if Hux will hear this. I can sense it even from here.

Feedback from Hux, who flinches in his seat less noticeably this time: Where are you?

You can hear me?

Yes, Hux sends, still wary, half-expecting to realize this is a trick, though it feels like Ren, as if suddenly Ren’s scent is on Hux’s clothes, crowding around him with a comfort that slackens his posture. How-- Where are you?

Ren wants to vault off the sofa and run around the room in excitement. Rey turns to him and frowns, sensing what’s going on now.

“Careful,” she says. Ren shakes his head.

“This is good,” he says, believing it. “I feel stronger. And my headache is gone.”

I’m at Wedge’s apartment, Ren sends. It’s not far from where you are, and I’m watching the broadcast. Hux-- Hux--

Feedback from Hux: Ren-- I can’t--

It’s okay. I’ll be quiet. You can listen.

Pella is testifying about her escape from the Finalizer. She describes her arrival at the Resistance, and the realization that her twin sister had been fighting for them. Ren tries to focus on the words, but he can’t concentrate on anything beyond wanting to hear Hux’s thoughts again, warm and real and close enough to almost touch. He can sense Hux’s heart still beating fast, and Hux fighting the urge to reach out to Ren rather than listening carefully to what Pella is saying.

“That must have been an incredible experience,” Faza says. “Reconnecting with the family you’d been taken from.”

“Of course,” Pella says. Her expression is stony, though she’s still very nervous.

“The Order has a policy of separating twins, correct?” Faza says. “To discourage a bond outside of the required devotion to serving as a stormtrooper?”

“Yes,” Pella says. “We were encouraged to think of ourselves as part of the system, as if we couldn’t exist outside of it.”

“And you were so unhappy in this system, aboard Mr. Hux’s ship, that you risked your life to flee his command?”

Pella opens her mouth. She looks at Hux.

Feedback from Hux: I haven’t given her up to them. I suppose it’s my secret, too, though no worse than what they already know I’ve done.

“Does it make you emotional to remember your desperation to defect?” Faza asks when Pella’s open-mouthed silence stretches on, her eyes shifting to Hux again.

“General Hux wasn’t the problem,” Pella says, snapping her gaze back to Faza.

“I see,” Faza says. “The problem was the culture aboard his ship, and the cruelties inherent to the stormtrooper program which he personally oversaw?”

“Actually, no,” Pella says. “I appreciated the way Hux ran the Finalizer. I felt respected there, in the role that I served.”

There’s murmuring from the audience. Faza seems thrown. Her feedback indicates anger.

Feedback from Hux: Gloating giddiness. He’s afraid to hope.

“That’s not what you said when we deposed you on the record,” Faza says. “Are you saying that you perjured yourself in that testimony?”

“Yes,” Pella says. Her feedback has calmed. She’s resolved to do-- Something. Ren can’t sense it from this distance, but it’s big, like a forthcoming explosion.

“You admit to this Committee that you lied in your deposition about this very serious subject?” Faza says, incredulous.

“I apologize to the Committee,” Pella says. “I felt I had to be dishonest prior to the hearing. I felt I had no choice.”

“And we’re expected to believe that you’re choosing to be honest now?”

“I am being honest.”

“And what exactly changed between your deposition and now?”

“I didn’t have to face Hux when I lied,” she says, her eyes showing a flicker of what she’s feeling toward Hux: loyalty, somehow. “Now that he’s here-- I can’t sit here and say that I defected because I felt trapped or because my life as a stormtrooper was terrible. I prefer my life now, here with my sister, and I appreciate all the freedoms that the New Republic has allowed me. But when I left the Finalizer, I wasn’t fleeing Hux’s command. I was obeying it.”

“I don’t understand,” Faza says, loudly, to be heard over the excited murmuring from the audience.

“Can we have quiet, please?” Leia says, in the same voice she’d used to quiet Ben and Rey when they were too loud as kids. The audience falls mostly silent.

“General Organa,” Faza says. “Forgive me. This witness has just admitted to perjuring herself prior to this hearing, and now she’s making audacious statements that she claims as fact. I’d like to move to have her testimony stricken from the record.”

“Wait a minute,” Leia says. She turns to Pella. Ren recognizes his look on Leia’s face well: disappointment edged by hope that this person she wants to trust is still good. “Pella,” she says. “I’d like an explanation.”

“Thank you, General,” Pella says.

Feedback from Hux: It stings to hear her call someone else by that title, with apparent respect.

“I was selected for an undercover mission in the wake of Finn’s desertion,” Pella says. The audience starts whispering again, but when Leia lifts her hand and casts a hard look in their direction, they go quiet. “I met with Hux personally about what was required. I was to report back to the Order if I successfully befriended Resistance members and rose in their ranks. This is precisely what I did, even after I met my twin sister. But eventually I couldn’t do it anymore. I came to know the Resistance, and my sister, and I felt changed by my experiences there. I waited for Hux to betray me to them after I stopped reporting to the Order, but he didn’t. Later, I thought maybe it was only because he’d been ousted by Snoke, and since his arrest I’ve lived in torment, afraid for my sister and my friends to find out the truth.”

Her voice wavers here, just a bit. It cracks when she tries to speak again, and Leia offers her glass of water, studying Pella when she whispers a thanks and drinks from it.

Feedback from Leia: She knew all this already, to some extent. She’d sensed that Pella wasn’t entirely who she said she was, but also that she wouldn’t hurt the Resistance the way she’d thought she could.

“If I may interrupt,” Faza says. “While this seems like very valuable information for General Organa and the Resistance, I’m not sure we should be using the Committee’s time to allow this troubled young woman to tell her story, if it’s not relevant to the matter at hand.”

“It is relevant,” Pella says, nearing a shout. Her lip trembles, but she quickly steadies it. “I don’t know what will happen to me after I leave this witness stand,” she says. “I don’t even know if my sister can forgive me for keeping this from her. I know I might be arrested here today, and that the friends I’ve made in the Resistance, the people who took me in, won’t feel they can’t trust me anymore. But I have to tell the truth about Hux now, here, today, because he didn’t give me up. Even in the position he’s in now. I was waiting, even this morning, afraid that he would have used my secret as a bargaining chip in his hearing. He didn’t, and I don’t know why-- Maybe he was only afraid to make his own case look worse.” She takes a deep breath and glances at Hux. “But I want the truth to come out now, because his life is at stake, and one of the reasons I was willing to risk mine on the mission that brought me to the Resistance-- Truly,” she adds, glancing at Leia. “Truly to the place where I belong-- One reason that I was honored to take on this mission he gave me is that he was fair to me, once. It was-- A small administrative matter, a minor thing to him, but it meant a great deal to me at the time, and I believe that even the smallest seed of good in him could grow here. It grew in me,” she says, her voice breaking up again. “I’ve done things-- I’m not proud. But I’ve changed. The people here have changed me. And I don’t think Hux is beyond redemption.” She looks at Hux. Her eyes are wet now. Her suddenly surging feedback indicates that she believes this moment represents her destiny. She believes that she could personally save Hux’s life. She’s always wanted to believe that she’s special this way, a single person who could shape history. “I’m sorry, sir,” she says, almost whispering this.

“General,” Faza says, sharply, over renewed noise from the crowd. “This is extremely inappropriate. I must state again that I feel this witness’s testimony should be stricken from the record.”

“Okay,” Leia says, holding up a hand. “Obviously, we need to have a recess and discuss this. Perhaps it’s also a good time to allow the Committee and parties a mid-day break. Porkins and Faza, you’ll follow me, please, and everyone else-- I’ll see you back here when we resume the hearing in an hour.”

Porkins whispers something to Hux before leaving. Ren is too jarred by these developments to pick it up from Hux’s feedback. Rey and Wedge are talking over each other.

“The news programs will be all over this,” Wedge says. “I’ve already seen stories claiming Hux came here in search of that girl, his former stormtrooper-- She seems quite attached to him herself!”

“Yes,” Rey says, glancing at Ren as if she’s expecting him to be upset about this. “You’re awfully calm,” she says.

“I’m-- He’s--” Ren gestures at the holo, where Hux is sitting alone at his table now, guards facing the audience behind him as some people stream out of the courtroom in search of lunch.

“I know what you’re doing,” Rey says tightly.

“What’s he doing?” Wedge asks.

“He’s trying to have a chat with Hux, through the Force. Ben-- Ren, I mean--”

“It’s fine,” Ren says. “Can’t you sense it’s fine? I’m not projecting, not even trying very hard. It’s just happening.”

Rey groans and resumes speculating with Wedge about what will become of Pella the spy. Finn is friends with Pella, apparently, and Rey is concerned about his feelings. Finn is on his way to the apartment now, and Rey is glad of this, sensing it as Ren has. She’s keeping a certain level of underlying attention on Ren’s attempts to contact Hux, handling him like those wind chimes again.

Ren stares at the holo. Hux has half-turned toward the screen, lost in thought. Pella has been lead away by guards. Ren starts with that name: Pella. Hux must be thinking about her.

Feedback from Hux: So she blew up the courthouse after all.

Further, cautious, cutting through the space between them like light through fog, sent directly and received clearly: Ren?

I’m here. Hux. I’m here, I’m--

How are you doing it? Hux asks, glancing around the courtroom as if he’s looking for Ren in disguise.

The holo helps. If they cut to the commentators I might lose you.

Feedback from Hux: I might lose you. It’s not Hux’s thought, just an echo of Ren’s. Hux wants to tell Ren that he already has, but he can’t make himself believe that anymore.

These people don’t hate you, Ren sends, as reassurance. The witnesses.

Of course they don’t. Ren, it doesn’t matter. This is just a show--

You don’t believe that anymore. I can feel it.

Hux shuts him out in response. Ren is surprised, then shocked, then heartsick. It’s like being pushed down a steep hill, rolling faster and faster away from the good thing he thought he’d found.

“What’s wrong?” Rey asks.

“He doesn’t--” Ren stands, sits again. “Doesn’t want. Me, in his head. Doesn’t want me.”

“He’s probably just startled,” Rey says. She glances at the holo, where Hux sits looking down at his shoes, shoulders rounded. “He’s going though a lot, and having someone’s voice suddenly in your head--”

“My voice.” Ren stands. “He doesn’t want my voice there.”

The holo cuts to four commentators who are trying not to smile as they discuss what just went on in the courtroom. Wedge turns the volume down and looks from Rey to Ren, confused. Ren leaves the room.

“Don’t panic,” Rey says, calling this to Ren before switching to directed feedback. Have some sympathy for how overwhelmed he must feel.

Sympathy? No one has more sympathy for him than me. But he’s-- Snoke ruined things, I ruined things, I thought the dreams were real but--

Ren?

Observation: That answering voice is not Rey’s. It’s Hux, calling to Ren in his uncertain way. Wanting him back.

I’m here. If Ren were speaking he’d be screaming. As it is, he smiles madly and slumps against the wall in the hallway. Still here. I thought-- I can leave you alone. If you’d prefer.

Feedback from Hux: My head is spinning. This is humiliating, so I hope you’ll enjoy it: I think if you held that fucking robe out for me now, I would run into it.

I would do it. Ren sinks to his knees in the hallway, closes his eyes. Anything, anything. Tell me what you need and I’ll do it.

Just stay with me.

Yes, okay, I will, yes. Are you-- How have you been?

Ren. Hux laughs under his breath and covers his mouth to hide it, though the cameras are off him now, only guards watching. What is wrong with you?

I don’t understand the question.

Of course you don’t. Never mind. I’ve been in prison, mostly. That’s how I’ve been.

I’m going to free you. Ren stands as he sends this to Hux, opening his eyes and bracing his hand against the wall to keep himself mostly in place. It’s true that his headache has gone away and that he’s beginning to feel stronger, but he’s been fooled by his instinct to connect with Hux before.

Feedback from Hux: I think our connection’s gotten fuzzy. Did you say you’re going to free me?

Yes.

From prison?

Correct.

Ah. Hux doesn’t believe this. That will be some magic trick. One for the ages.

Don’t underestimate me. Ren barely withholds the word ‘asshole.’ He means it as an endearment, but it’s hard to convey tone through the Force.

Feedback from Hux, growing thin as Porkins approaches him: You said that to me in a dream once. Or was that reality? It’s so hard to tell, with you.

Their connection fizzles when Hux is forced to focus on what Porkins is saying about his meeting with Leia and Faza. Ren comes out of it feeling spent, and he gives Rey a look when he feels her eyes on him. She’s leaning in the living room doorway, watching him warily.

“Hux is speaking with his lawyer now,” Ren says, pretending not to feel hurt by this lapse in Hux’s attention.

“Great,” Rey says flatly. “Why don’t you come back in here? You look pale.”

“I’m fine,” Ren says, but he does feel light-headed when he walks back toward the living room. Rey takes his arm as he attempts to pass by.

“Please,” she says. “Leia asked me to look after you during the hearing. I know you just want to speak with him, but you’ve got to be careful. It’s stretching you thin to reach him from here. Not as much as the dreams did,” she says, firmly, when Ren opens his mouth to protest. “That’s true. But it’s still more than you should perhaps be doing while you’re recovering from that.”

She’s holding onto him with the hand that got burned during that ordeal. Ren looks down at her fingers, wanting to turn her hand over and heal her palm. He moves away from her, shrugs.

“Fine,” he says. “But if he-- If I sense him wanting me-- I can’t not answer him, Rey.”

The hearing resumes, and Leia calls the room to order. Hux is calmer now; Ren can feel it. He credits himself, though whatever Porkins said to Hux during the break may also have something to do with it.

“Okay,” Leia says. “I’ve talked with counsel and have decided to leave it to the Committee’s discretion when it comes to whether or not they want to consider Pella’s testimony or dismiss it, on a person to person basis. They’ve heard it, anyway, and we can’t change that. I will be investigating her claims as soon as we conclude here, so I would appreciate it if we kept the questioning of the day’s final witness as efficient as possible. Hopefully it won’t be quite so dramatic.”

Feedback from Leia: It will be a long night. She won’t be able to get back to Wedge’s apartment until Pella’s situation has been dealt with. She glances at the camera as if to apologize for this.

Observation: Ren thought he would be glad to see his mother’s work keep her away. He doesn’t like being coddled.

And yet: He’s upset by the idea that he might not see her tonight. He was going to cook. Was going to show her he’s good at it now.

“So, let’s begin with our next witness,” Leia says.

“Thank you, General,” Faza says. Her voice is a bit tighter than it was before the break. “The prosecution calls Dopheld Mitaka to the stand.”

Feedback from Hux: Amusement. She mispronounced Mitaka’s first name.

Ren recognizes the name, but he’s not sure why until Mitaka appears on camera, walking to the witness stand to be sworn in. He’s small, with dark hair and big eyes. Ren choked him once. He remembers shiny black boots sliding across the floor of the ship, Mitaka’s neck fitting well in his hand. He can’t remember why he did it, exactly. It was something to do with Rey, and Ren’s half-recovered memories of her. Mitaka had mentioned a girl in some report he brought to Ren. That had been enough.

“Mr. Mitaka,” Faza says. “You served under Mr. Hux aboard the Finalizer, correct?”

“Yes.” Mitaka appears nervous. He seems to be rather pointedly not looking at Hux, but his shoulders are stiff under his civilian clothes, as if he’s in the presence of a superior.

“And what rank did you have aboard his ship?”

“Lieutenant. I worked on the bridge,” he adds, with what might be a hint of pride. “Alpha shift.”

“So you saw Mr. Hux with some regularity?”

“Yes.”

“Can you describe his demeanor as General aboard the Finalizer.”

Mitaka opens his mouth and glances at Hux, leaning slightly forward now. He looks away quickly.

“He expected a lot from us,” Mitaka says. “But he did reward hard work,” he adds, glancing at Hux again.

“Did Mr. Hux ever make an effort to get to know his crew on a personal level?”

“Not really.” Mitaka swallows heavily. “He did-- He did ask me if I was all right once, though.”

“Really.” Faza looks down at her data pad. “Had you been through something that made him think you might not be all right?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me what that was, please?”

“Kylo Ren had--” Mitaka makes a vague hand gesture that’s supposed to represent using the Force. Ren snorts and sits back on the sofa, folding his arms over his chest. “He’d sort of-- Choked me, I guess.”

“Choked you.”

“Yes.”

“Hard enough to leave bruises?”

“Yes.” Mitaka twitches as if he wants to touch his throat.

“General,” Faza says, looking away from him. “The prosecution would like to enter into evidence Exhibit 23, which is the admitting report from the doctor at the prison where Mr. Hux has been incarcerated since his arrest.”

“Fine,” Leia says, and Faza uses her data pad to project a doctor’s report large enough to be seen by all in the room.

“Mr. Mitaka,” Faza says. “If you would, could you please read the remarks that the doctor typed at the bottom of this form, in the field labelled ‘Miscellaneous Notes.’”

“It says, um.” Mitaka leans forward, squints. “It says, ‘Patient Hux was admitted with signs of bruising on the neck and throat. Injury appears to have been suffered approximately one week prior to his admittance. When questioned, Patient Hux told staff that the injury resulted from having been choked during a struggle with an assailant.”

Rey turns to look at Ren. He keeps his eyes on the screen, his fingers twitching over his knees.

“Thank you,” Faza says, closing the exhibit. “Mr. Mitaka, were you aware of any conspiracy aboard the Finalizer to kidnap and detain Mr. Hux?”

“No,” Mitaka says. “None of us on the bridge knew what had happened to Hux. There were rumors, though. That’s when things started to get bad onboard. When Hux disappeared, and Kylo Ren was gone, and the Supreme Leader wasn’t giving us direct orders the way he had before.”

“So Kylo Ren disappeared around the same time that Mr. Hux did?”

“No, Ren had been gone for a while. Since Starkiller was destroyed.”

“Okay. Prior to that, while both were onboard the ship, did you ever see Mr. Hux and Kylo Ren interact?”

“Yes.”

“Why is she asking this?” Ren asks, leaping up from the sofa. Rey just shakes her head.

“And what were their interactions like?” Faza asks.

“Antagonistic,” Mitaka says. “They didn’t like each other.”

“And this was apparent enough that someone like you, who only interacted with Mr. Hux professionally, had noticed?”

“Yes.”

“So if you were to hear that Kylo Ren willingly helped saved Hux’s life on multiple occasions prior to assisting him with his surrender to the Resistance, would that surprise you?”

“Yes.” Mitaka’s voice has gotten softer. He glances at Hux.

“Would it surprise you more or less if you were told that Hux forced or manipulated Kylo Ren into helping him and was left with no choice but to surrender to the Resistance when Ren was able to overpower and attack him?”

“I object to the question,” Porkins says. He looks at Faza and holds his hands out, sputtering a bit. “What relevance does such a hypothetical scenario have to the reality of Hux’s testimony?”

“I would argue that it’s relevant based on the exhibit I just entered into evidence,” Faza says before Leia can respond. “Mr. Mitaka testifies that he was choked by Kylo Ren aboard the Finalizer. Hux had marks from an approximately week-old choking when he surrendered. I believe this calls into question the truthfulness of Hux’s story about his time spent with Kylo Ren, and therefore his truthfulness in general. It’s important to the prosecution’s case to establish that Hux is not being genuine in his statements to the Committee.”

“And this line of questioning is going somewhere?” Leia asks.

“Yes, General,” Faza says.

“Okay,” Leia says. “Continue.”

“Why?” Ren shouts, turning to kick the sofa. “Why did she do that?”

“Leia can’t appear partial to Hux!” Rey says. “And despite your feelings, she’s actually not partial to him. Calm down!”

Ren has to resist the urge to kick something again: maybe the wall this time, hard enough to send pain shooting from his foot and up the back of his leg. He paces instead, drawing his fingers through his hair and staring at the floor.

“I’ll restate the question for you, Mr. Mitaka,” Faza says. “Which scenario would surprise you more, based on your personal experience of seeing Mr. Hux and Kylo Ren interact aboard the Finalizer: hearing that Ren had put himself at great risk to help Hux, or that Ren and his alleged powers had been used by Mr. Hux, who could only keep control of the situation until Ren fought him off, choked him, and left him to seek help from the Resistance when he had no other choice?”

“Hearing that Ren had helped Hux would surprise me more,” Mitaka says. “But--”

“Those are all the questions I have for this witness,” Faza says, snapping up her data pad from the podium.

“Let him finish,” Leia says. “Mr. Mitaka, you were saying?”

“But when Ren was left on Starkiller base,” Mitaka says, “When the planet was crumbling, Hux went to get Ren personally. That surprised all of us. And my commander told me that Hux was in Ren’s rooms afterward. Everything was changing at that time, already. Unraveling, I think. That’s why I left. Maybe things changed for them, too. After Hux went to save Ren like that, maybe Ren felt like he owed him one. It would surprise me, and I know Ren likes to choke people-- Maybe they had a falling out later on?”

“Can we put a stop to the speculation, please?” Faza says, appealing to Leia.

“Well,” Leia says. “Your speculation about the choking was allowed. I think this is important information.”

She turns to Mitaka. He swallows and looks at Hux.

“Kylo Ren was really powerful,” Mitaka says. “I don’t know much about the Force, but I don’t think Hux could have made Ren do anything against his will, not even for a little while. Ren pretty much did whatever he wanted. No one could stop him. Not even Hux.”

“Thank you,” Leia says. “Ms. Faza, you may sit. Mr. Porkins, do you have any questions for this witness?”

“Just one, General,” Porkins says, popping up as if he’s eager to ask it, a kind of lightness in his steps. Hux’s feedback is positive, too, verging on smug, though there’s an undercurrent of worry that his experience with Ren will doom him somehow. “Mr. Mitaka,” Porkins says, “First, let me congratulate you on your defection to the New Republic. I know it’s very difficult for an officer to give up his authority in one society only to end up a prisoner in another.”

“All right, Mr. Porkins,” Leia says, giving him a look. “Save it for your closing statement and stick to actual questions here, please.”

“Sorry, General. As I said, I only have one real question, though to get there I have to ask a few preliminary ones-- Mr. Mitaka, you said one conversation you remember having with Hux involved him asking if you were all right after you’d been choked?”

“That’s right,” Mitaka says. His perfect posture has dissolved. Ren supposes Mitaka is headed back to his own prison cell when this day at court ends.

“Do you recall, with any specificity, what Hux said to you that day?”

“Yeah. I was surprised, so I remember it pretty well. Hux was usually all business with us. But I was on the bridge, talking with some other Lieutenants about the bruises on my neck and what had happened with Kylo Ren. When Hux came up to us, I thought he was going to reprimand us for talking about personal stuff while on shift, but he just dismissed the others and asked me if I was okay. He said, ‘I heard Ren attacked you. That is unacceptable and I will speak to him about it. Are you all right?’ Um. That’s what he said, yeah.”

“And how did that make you feel?” Porkins asks, almost glowing with gladness at being able to ask this. “When your General acknowledged your injury and checked on you?”

“Well, I mean, it felt pretty great. I was really shaken by what Ren did, and I was afraid it might happen again at any time, you know, since Ren was powerful and hard to control. But I liked the thought that Hux was on my side, at least, and that he didn’t want it happening again, to me. Yeah, that made me feel better.”

“Oh,” Rey says. “He’s sort of darling, isn’t he?”

Ren snarls at her when she grins at him, but he knows what she means. Mitaka is disarmingly innocent in appearance. These seeming innocents were supposed to make Hux look bad in comparison, but somehow they’ve mostly done the opposite.

“Thank you, Mr. Mitaka,” Porkins says. “General, thank you as well. That’s all I’ve got.”

“Excellent,” Leia says. “In that case, I think we’ll finish for the day, unless someone has an objection. Tomorrow we’ll hear from the witnesses for Mr. Hux-- Mr. Porkins, does that include Mr. Hux himself?”

“That’s the plan,” Porkins says. He doesn’t sound entirely confident about this. Hux’s feedback also indicates uncertainty.

“Well, we’ll look forward to that,” Leia says, casting a look at Hux. Ren can’t interpret it. It’s not warm or encouraging, but there’s something accepting in it.

The hearing cuts to the commentators before Ren can reconnect with Hux. Ren stands staring at the holo as Wedge lowers the volume on the four announcers who will surely discuss the day’s proceedings for hours. Ren tries to find Hux in his mind, but he’s not there, everything blurred and indistinct without the holo to show him exactly what Hux is doing and hearing in the moment.

“It’s okay,” Rey says, placing her hand on Ren’s back. “Finn is on his way here. I’ve sensed-- I didn’t want to say it until I was sure, but he has something for you. Can’t you feel it?”

“Feel what?”

As soon as the question is out it hits Ren like he’s been pushed down another steep hill, but this time he’s rolling toward something good, not away from it.

“Hux wrote to you,” Rey says, smiling. “His lawyer gave the letter to Finn.”

Observations and concerns, overlapping and shortening Ren’s breath: Finn is on his way here, the letter is tucked into that stupid jacket of his, Finn is crossing streets on foot, he won’t be here soon enough, Ren is going to dissolve into nothing if he can’t see the letter immediately.

“Calm down,” Rey says. “And breathe. He’ll be here soon.”

He’ll be here soon.

Mental adjustment: She means that Finn will be here soon, with Hux’s letter. Not that Hux will be here soon.

Correction: Some piece of Hux will be here, however. A concrete piece of evidence that Hux doesn’t entirely resent Ren’s attempts to reach him.

Concern: Unless the letter contains only a request that Ren stop writing to Hux.

Counterpoint: Hux could have simply said so earlier, when they exchanged thoughts through the Force, rather than in a letter.

Concern, secondary: Maybe Hux would prefer not to have a live confrontation.

Reminders, desperate, as Finn draws closer with the letter: Hux said Just stay with me. Hux said he would run into Ren’s robe and hide there if he could. Hux said he remembered what Ren had said in his dreams, and that it had felt real.

Finn approaches the stairs, climbs them too slowly, and Rey opens the door for him before he can reach the chime. Ren feels something holding him back when he attempts to rush at Finn and demand the letter. It’s the Force: it’s Rey, using the Force to keep Ren from flattening Finn to the wall with his enthusiasm.

“Rey,” Finn says, as if he hasn’t even noticed Ren, who is straining to break free from Rey’s Force-hold on him. Rey goes to Finn and throws her arms around him, giving Ren a look from over Finn’s shoulder.

“I know,” Rey says softly, stroking her hand over Finn’s hair when he rests his forehead on her shoulder. “But you did so well-- Give Ren his letter so we can talk without him looking at me like this.”

Finn lifts his head and turns to Ren, taking in the look on his face. Ren isn’t even sure what it is, and he grunts in annoyance when he feels Rey’s hold on him dissipate. He hurries forward and puts out his hand. Finn reaches into his jacket and nods.

“It’s from Hux,” Finn says, as if Ren didn’t know that. He snatches it from Finn’s hand and turns, crossing the room in three steps before he remembers to turn back.

“Thank you,” he says. Finn nods. He looks tired, and turns back to hug Rey again.

“Wow,” Wedge says, still on the sofa. “What a day!”

Ren stares at Wedge. Doesn’t know how to respond to that inane statement, can’t think. Hux’s letter is in his hand. Ren is afraid to open it, but he also can’t wait any longer. He nods at Wedge and flees the room, hurrying into his bedroom.

When he’s alone with the letter, door closed, he stares down at it for a while, disliking the fact that Luke’s books are here in the presence of the words Hux wrote for him. His hands feel too big as he unfolds the letter, as if they’re clumsy things that Ren has only partial control over, and as if he might lose this control and damage the paper somehow. He lets out his breath when he sees it’s a full page long. Not just one sentence telling him to stop writing.

Observation, via the Force, hitting him with one glance at Hux’s handwriting: Hux had to practice handwriting in school. Handwritten records were important during the transitional time between the Empire and the First Order, when better technology wasn’t always available.

Observation, related: Hux’s handwriting is precise and exact, neatly ordered in even lines. It’s also a bit sharp, the letters small.

Objective: Read the letter before you smash it against your face like an idiot.

To Whom it May Concern:

I’m sure you’ll understand why I can’t address you by name. On the record, I’ve never met anyone like you. According to my own sworn statements, I’ve never been through what we went through. As far as the rest of the galaxy is concerned, I’ve only known a watered-down version of it that can be recounted clinically upon command. I try to picture what people must envision when I tell it the way I do. I think of it as two men sitting in silence together in a small, uncomfortable space, staring at the wall and waiting for their enemy to stop seeking them. It’s a kind of leaking old hovertrain car in my mind, this enclosure where these loosely affiliated men have taken shelter together. One of them wears a mask. The other is recently brutalized and filthy, with seventeen days’ worth of beard on his face. No one asked me why I had a clean-shaven face when I was arrested. Nobody seemed to think that when or where or why I’d shaved was important. Isn’t that odd? Maybe that question is yet to come.

Now I’m on dexitoma and my beard doesn’t grow in. You probably don’t know what dexitoma is. Why would you? I try to imagine you shaving with a knife or some other barbaric instrument while lodging with your former master. Your letters about him leave me with all sorts of grim mental images. These imaginings have caused me to dream about you there, very young and completely alone. In the dreams, my age corresponds to yours. Accordingly, I tend to find myself wanting you, though not the way I would want you if you were here now, fully grown. When I see you like this, in my dreams, I begin to understand why you’re always hiding me inside that damn cloak of yours. (In the dreams, I mean. Which I suppose doesn’t count. Did you really only ever do it the one time, in reality?) I want to take you away from him in those dreams, and from all that is to come. I want to hide you in my coat and carry you away and keep you like a pet in whatever quarters I’m living in, though I know that would never work. You’re not tame. You would tear the place apart. But you seem so manageable in these dreams. You swoon against me like you’ve been waiting to do it.

You had some strategic questions for me, meanwhile. First and foremost, I would suggest keeping a close watch on your corporeal body. I had a sort of nightmare that you were throwing it across the planet, in my direction, without care for the consequences. In case that’s something you actually did, because I have some measure of concern that you could do such a thing if you were in a particularly reckless mood, I will state it clearly here: I forbid you from endangering yourself just for the sake of having a chat with me. Would I give anything to do that safely? Yes. But there is much work to be done before either of us is safe again.

I need more time to think about the questions you posed in your letter regarding how to approach your upcoming fight. I can’t devote my mind to the task until I emerge from battle myself. Tomorrow, my hearing begins. I wonder if you will watch the broadcast. I’m not sure that I want you to see me like this. There’s a spot of dry skin on my cheek that could probably be very easily healed by certain individuals who possess certain powers. I think of you every time my hand goes to it, when I struggle not to scratch and make it worse. I think of your fingertips easing the pain away. You would probably kiss that same spot afterward, because you’re sentimental.

I hear you’ve recently been emotive. That concerns me. I am concerned for you. Constantly. You should be aware of that, and not pat yourself on the back for caring for someone who doesn’t think of you. You’re not selfless. You know that I live for the thought of seeing you again, that I ache for you. You once told me that yourself. Don’t pretend not to know things like that. It’s a waste of time to pity yourself, imagining you’re not the last outpost of hope that I orbit around in order to keep from drifting into nothing. You must know that’s what you are, for me.

Write back immediately. I may not have long to live.
H.

Ren reads the letter five times, standing in the middle of his room. He sits on his bed and reads it twice more, until the words blur away and he has to blink the moisture from his eyes. He’s left with a searching, restless feeling, as if there’s something he could do to bring this letter to life, to turn it fully into Hux, and his mind can’t settle on what that thing is.

Objective: Don’t do anything like that. Do as Hux asked. Nothing dangerous, nothing reckless. Devote yourself to the battle to end Snoke and reclaim Hux, as Hux commands you.

Objective, also important: Write back immediately, as requested.

He’s almost finished with his letter when Rey comes into the room. He glowers at her without meaning to, disliking the interruption.

“Is everything okay?” she asks.

“Yes-- Sorry. I’m writing. Sit.” He points to his bed. “I want to try something.”

Rey sighs as if this instruction annoys her, but she does as asked. Finn is having a nap in her bed. Ren yanks his thoughts away from that information as quickly as possible, though he doesn’t get the sense that Finn did much more than fall asleep there after talking with her.

“I suppose Leia will be over late if at all,” Rey says when Ren tucks his finished letter into a blue envelope. “Do you want to make something for dinner? It’s getting-- Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I’m not,” Ren says, not even sure what she means. He feels crazed with hope in the aftermath of receiving Hux’s letter. It’s sharp, almost like a pain-- An ache. As if Hux came here and kissed the breath out of him and then left again. Ren feels powerful, too, as if Hux’s words unlocked something essential that’s been out of reach. “Give me your hand,” he says when he sits beside Rey.

“My-- Oh.”

She offers her injured hand, her palm facing up. Ren doesn’t hesitate. There’s no time for insecurity. Hux will need healing again someday. Rey needs healing now. Ren can do this.

Rey gasps when she feels the burned skin on her palm soothing under Ren’s touch. The healing is so powerful that it shoots outward and takes the callouses from years worth of hard work from her fingers.

“I’d forgotten what that felt like!” she says, beaming at Ren before examining her repaired hand. “Look at this-- so soft! It’s like someone else’s hand.”

“It’s your hand,” Ren says, suppressing the urge to grin triumphantly. “Back the way it should be.”

“You have to do the other one now, too,” Rey says, holding her other palm up. “Or they won’t match.”

Ren does as asked: easily, feeling the reverse-crunch sensation in a smooth flow of energy that radiates from his hand and into Rey’s. She curses and shivers, laughing again when she holds up her newly soft hands.

“That’s amazing!” she says. “It’s like you can turn back time.”

They both freeze and look up, and it’s as if Ren can see the symbol of the two hands pressed together reflected in Rey’s eyes. He knows she sees it, too, in his eyes.

“Turn back time,” Ren says. He stands and paces, nods. “Put that in the log. The two hands, the symbol-- That’s important, that’s-- Close.”

“I don’t think it’s literal,” Rey says.

“No-- It’s not. I can’t change the past. But it’s something about turning back-- Something about time, or not-- Not time, exactly--”

“Peeling back the layers!” Rey says, beaming again.

Ren claps and points at her, resisting the urge to start jumping in place like a kid.

“That’s it,” Ren says, wanting to hug her. She feels this, leaps up and throws her arms around him, squeezes. He squeezes back. “I don’t know what it means,” he says. “But that’s it. The layers, peeling back-- And it’s related to healing.”

“I’ll put it in the log,” Rey says, leaning back to grin at him. “Oh-- This has been a good day, hasn’t it?”

Ren nods, reeling himself back in. He goes to his desk and picks up the envelope with the letter to Hux, hands it to her.

“Have Finn get that to Hux,” he says. “Tell him to be careful with it, and with the exchange.”

“Of course he will be.” Rey smiles, whacks Ren on the arm and turns to leave the room. She opens the door and turns back, her eyes going wide when something else strikes through her.

Ren feels it, too. He nods, swallows. Doesn’t know what to say.

“Should we tell him?” Rey asks, whispering.

“I don’t know. Maybe we should wait.”

“Ren, I’ve got to tell him.”

Rey jogs out to the living room, where Wedge is watching a program about Hux’s hearing, more endless dissection of the testimony that was heard today. Ren follows her, more slowly. Wedge smiles up at them, his smile fading when he sees their expressions.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, standing. “Are you two okay?”

“Yes.” Rey says. She takes a deep breath and looks down.

“Want me to say it?” Ren asks. She shakes her head.

“Dad,” Rey says, when she looks up. “Me and Ren just sensed something. Something good. Maybe you should sit?”

“Sit-- Why?” Wedge frowns, still standing. “What did you sense?”

“Luke’s coming back,” Ren says, blurting it when Rey hesitates. “He left the island in the shuttle that brought me and Hux there. He’s coming here.”

“So that’s good!” Rey says when Wedge just stares at them. His feedback is guarded for the first time that Ren can remember, and confused. There’s disbelief, and a kind of suppressed joy that makes him angry.

“Here?” Wedge says. “You’re sure?”

“Yes,” Rey says. “We both felt it, just now--”

“Well, that’ll be good for you kids.” Wedge turns away from them and touches his hair, then the back of his neck. “I’m sure he’s planning to help you with your-- Books, and so forth, um. I’m gonna--”

Without finishing that statement or looking back at them, Wedge goes into his room and shuts the door behind him, very quietly. Rey looks at Ren, wincing.

“Did I handle that poorly?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” Ren says, earnestly.

“How do you feel about it?” Rey asks.

“I feel like it’s overdue and perhaps unnecessary after all.”

“You’re lying,” Rey says. “Why bother lying to me?”

“Why bother asking me how I feel about something if you’re just going to read it off my feedback anyway? It’s-- He’s-- It’s fine. Luke is coming here. Fine, okay. What do you want me to say about it?”

“That you think he can help us?”

“There’s not a lot of precedent for that,” Ren says, and he leaves her standing there, shutting her out of his mind as he heads into his room. Unlike Wedge, he doesn’t favor shutting doors quietly. He slams his, and feels it when Finn wakes up in the next room, startled. Rey hurries to Finn, also sensing this. Ren snaps away from their feedback and sits on his bed. He uses the Force to snatch Hux’s letter from his desk, and he reads it again.

I may not have long to live. Does Hux really think so? Ren can’t imagine the galaxy without Hux. He won’t let anything remove Hux from it.

“Hux,” he says, speaking to the letter.

Observation: No answer, beyond the words he’s already read.

He reads them one more time, then puts the letter inside his shirt, using the Force to make sure it stays pressed over his heart.

Nobody emerges for dinner, so Ren doesn’t bother cooking. He eats handfuls of salt twists from a greasy bag, more kini fruit, and a portion of a bad leftover casserole from a box that Wedge made while Ren was bedridden.

Observation: Today’s developments are good. Especially the breakthrough about peeling back layers, though he’s not yet sure how it’s relevant. Regardless, it’s important. Rey felt it like a beam of light cast down upon them, just as he did.

Further: Hux wrote to him, aches for him, and survived his first day of the hearing unscathed.

Therefore: Ren is not sure why he feels so rattled and tense.

Theory, which is actually more of an observation: It’s Luke. The idea of him here.

Additionally: Hux’s trial continues tomorrow. They will vote tomorrow.

Ren’s sense is that Hux won’t be sentenced to death, but there’s something blocking his ability to see this clearly. He goes to his room and meditates, but still no finite answer comes. He realizes why when he meditates further: at least one member of the Committee hasn’t decided on how to vote. The profundity of that individual's indecision prevents a clear reading of the future.

Ren gets into bed with Hux’s letter under his shirt, wanting to dream of Hux but keeping Hux’s instructions firmly in mind. He’s too relieved to have his healing back to try anything that might strip him down to weakness again, though it’s possible he had the ability to heal even when he was at his weakest. The only time he wasn’t able to do it was when he was still reeling from the attack on Hux, perhaps more unable to concentrate his thoughts and energy on any task than truly unable to heal.

This is his last conscious thought before something overtakes him.

It’s not a dream. It’s a darkness.

In the center of this darkness sits Snoke, on his throne, fully present. Smiling.

He’s holding something.

Ren jerks forward when he realizes what it is, the knowledge slicing through his bones like ice cracking within them.

Hux’s letter. Snoke has found it. Read it. Stolen it somehow.

“I foresaw this,” Snoke says, his glinting black eyes focused on Ren’s struggle to move, which Snoke seems to find amusing. “Your failure. The nature of it. So weakened by the slightest indication that you might belong anywhere but here with me. I have already taken you, Kylo Ren. You know it. You cling to scraps like this in vain.”

Snoke holds up the letter. When he rips it in two, Ren screams, the ice in his bones transformed into lava, burning him from the inside out. Snoke laughs and tears the letter again, and again, into smaller and smaller pieces.

“You put your faith in something so narrow and small,” Snoke says when the letter is in tatters. “Something that begs to be destroyed.”

Snoke opens his hand and the torn bits of the letter turn to ash, fluttering to the floor while Ren writhes in pain, fighting to even hold his eyes open as this destruction ruins him, twisting him into something inhuman. Ren screams and pinches his eyes shut, though he knows he shouldn’t. When he tears them open again he sees himself: enormous, laughing on Snoke’s throne, his eyes black. The thing on the floor that Ren now inhabits is the last body Snoke stole and wore down to nothing, a skeletal husk in constant pain, gasping its last breaths while Ren’s body stares back at him, Snoke smiling from within it and enjoying Ren’s pain.

“So many years,” Snoke says, in Ren’s voice. “I struggled to find the key that would unlock the last reserve of light in you. And it was merely a piece of paper all along. Something even a child could rip apart with ease. How funny.”

Snoke fades away then, taking Ren’s body with him. Ren is left in the darkness, smouldering down to a molten pile of bones as the ash from Hux’s letter blows against him, taunting him.

He closes his eyes, giving in to the abyss that swallows and swallows him.

Mental adjustment: It’s a dream. An illusion. Meditate within it. Find your way back. Don’t let Snoke tell you what you’re capable of. Only you know that.

Reminder, from one of the ghosts: He still underestimates your greatest strength.

Ben sits up. He’s someplace in the dark. Snoke sent him here; he can’t remember why. There’s something on his cheek: ash, smearing darkly against his fingers when he tries to wipe it from his face. He’s not sure why he should want to lick ash off his hand, but he does.

It tastes good. Like kissing once had. He’s only ever kissed one person. His betrothed.

“Elan?” Ben calls, looking around at the dark. It’s motionless, thick. The only thing he can see is more ashes on the ground, which are illuminated by a light that seems to glow outward from his own body. He rubs his hands through the ashes and licks them from his fingers, swallows.

“I told you not to do this.”

Ben looks up and sees Elan standing over him. Elan is in his old uniform, the one from school. He’s got his hands in his pockets as if he’s afraid of what he might do with them if he takes them out. Ben resists the urge to cling to his betrothed’s legs and rub his face against them.

“You can’t even go one night without disobeying me?” Elan says, squatting down to peer into Ben’s face.

“What did I do?” Ben asks.

“Hell if I know, but here we are. What’s all over your face?”

Before Ben can answer, Elan leans forward and licks his cheek.

“You’re a mess,” Elan says, brushing more ashes from Ben’s cheek with his thumb. “Like a little orphan boy. I’d put you in my army if I found you like this in real life.”

“I’m too powerful to be a foot soldier,” Ben says, offended. Elan snorts.

“I didn’t say I’d make you a stormtrooper. Fuck, that I could have known you sooner! We’d be ruling the galaxy together by now if we’d had a head start, before all the other bullshit.”

“I thought you didn’t want to rule the galaxy anymore?”

Saying this snaps Ren into wakefulness, because it’s something Ben never knew. He sits up in bed, feeling heavy, his hand shaking when he checks under his shirt. Hux’s letter is still there. Ren’s head isn’t pounding. He hasn’t pushed himself into a coma. It was just a dream. It started out as something else, but that wasn’t real either. Even after Ren fled from Snoke’s illusion, he hadn’t felt Hux’s tongue on his cheek, not really.

There’s something almost physical lingering in his head, however. A sensation of a space recently vacated. Snoke was here, more powerfully than before. Snoke has been watching him for days now, carefully. Seeing everything.

Ren sinks back down to the mattress and touches Hux’s letter again. He wants to return to the dream about Hux, wants to cling to him mindlessly and rub his ash-smeared face onto Hux’s uniform jacket, but he can’t trust that even that pocket of respite is something Snoke isn’t monitoring. It didn’t feel like Snoke could find them there, however. It felt as if Snoke had announced Ren’s defeat too soon. Like Snoke had failed to account for something. He’d miscalculated when it came to Ren’s greatest strength, having discounted it as a weakness.

Hux can’t be torn apart like a letter. Many have tried. Hux has been ripped to shreds before. Ren has seen it himself. But Hux always comes back together, with Ren’s help now. Ren touches his cheek, wanting to find ashes there and knowing that he won’t. He licks his fingers anyway, and imagines he can taste Hux on them.

“You can’t scare me with visions anymore,” Ren says, speaking to Snoke. “I’m not a kid. You’re the weak one now, and I’m strong. You can’t fool me.”

There’s no response. Ren rolls toward the wall, his palm still up under his shirt, pressed over Hux’s letter. He listens, waits.

Nothing comes beyond the sensation of two ships moving through space. One is Luke’s shuttle, approaching now. The other is the trajectory of another ship that will soon launch. At first it seems like a second approach, some strangely familiar ship that will arrive here in a matter of weeks.

Correction: It’s a departure from this planet that he’s sensed. His own departure.

Ren’s eyes snap open, but he doesn’t see the wall in his room or the bedsheets that he can feel against his cheek. His consciousness snakes through the city like a heat-targeted blast from a cannon. He twists through alleyways and turns down streets, seeking something. When he finds it, his heart grows so heavy that he feels like the entire bed will drop through the floor with him in it.

He sees the Millennium Falcon. Housed in a private garage not far from here. As silent as a mourner, covered up and docked alone, in secret.

Waiting to take him to Snoke.

 

 

**