Ren has lost track of how long he’s been staring at the holo when Rey comes into the living room and stands in the middle of the projection, distorting the image of a Bendenzian who is analyzing the body language and micro-movements of Hux during his testimony about Kylo Ren. The announcer refers to this as the “pre-love confession testimony.”
“Move!” Ren barks, one of the sofa cushions levitating in a threatening manner.
“Do not throw that at me,” Rey says.
“I won’t, if you get out of my way.” Ren turns up the volume and cranes his neck. “I’m watching this!”
“You’ve been watching this all night and all morning, and now Luke is on his way here,” Rey says. “Are you going to be staring at the holo when he walks through the door?”
“Why shouldn’t I be? This is important. Luke can wait.”
“You do realize these programs are going to be talking about that hearing for weeks to come, if not longer?”
“So? Good. I want them to.”
Rey groans and moves away from the holo at last. The Bendenizan has frozen the portion of video she’s analyzing on a frame that makes Hux look particularly emotional, for Hux. An arrow-shaped graphic appears and points to Hux’s red cheeks.
“This is absurd,” Rey says. “Why do you need to watch this? They’re debating whether or not Hux seemed sincere in his testimony. You already know what’s true and what’s not.”
“It helped me connect with him before,” Ren says, his eyes glued to the image of Hux’s face, the flush on his cheeks. His lips look dry. His eyes look sad.
“It helped you connect to him when it was live,” Rey says. “This is just-- You’re wallowing.” Rey sits beside Ren on the couch and pats his knee. “You need to eat something,” she says. “Or at least sleep for a few hours.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Really. Because the massive bags under your eyes would seem to suggest that you are.”
“The power of the Dark side allows for long periods without rest.”
“Should you really be embracing the Dark side right now? For the purpose of watching holo commentary about a subject you’re already an authority on?”
The master bedroom door opens and Wedge steps out. He looks as if he’s sorry that he’s been caught. Feedback indicates he was going to try to sneak out without their notice. He was going to leave a note. Now he stands stiffly, his eyes shifting from Rey’s sympathetic gaze to Ren’s glazed-over expression.
“I think I’m gonna go for a walk,” Wedge says, closing his bedroom door behind him. “Just-- To let you guys speak with Luke and Leia alone for a bit. Just so it’s not too much, you know. All at once.”
“Okay,” Rey says. “How long do you plan to be walking?”
“I’ll come back before Luke leaves,” Wedge says. “I don’t suppose you two know how long he plans to stay?”
“Luke doesn’t let me read his mind,” Ren says, turning back to the holo, where another segment of Hux’s testimony is being replayed. The host indicates this as the moment where Hux seemed to stumble and lost control of his narrative. Ren nods to himself, feeling only somewhat delirious. This was the part when a lamp shot off the table beside the sofa and shattered into pieces against the wall beside the holo, narrowly missing the projector.
“I’m not sure what Luke’s plans are either,” Rey says when she walks with Wedge toward the door. “You know-- You don’t have to see him if you don’t want to.”
“That’s not true,” Wedge says. He gives Rey a hug. “I have to see him. I’ll be back, I just need to clear my head.”
“Of course,” Rey says, and she stands in the foyer after Wedge has gone, watching the door. She’s got her hair in three buns again. Ren doesn’t check her feedback to find out if it’s for Luke’s benefit. He doesn’t want to know.
“And what do we think of this moment?” the Bendenzian asks, bringing up a new video clip. It’s paused, and it shows Leia lifting her glass for Hux, who stares at it in disbelief before reaching for it. “I know it’s been much-discussed,” the host says. “But what I’m asking is: what would have happened if Hux hadn’t accepted the water? There’s been a lot of focus on why the General even offered it, but did he know what he was doing when he accepted? Do you think Hux realized how important this gesture was, or did he just need a drink of water?”
“Personally,” another host says, from off-screen, “I’m of the opinion that all of Hux’s seemingly emotional decisions during this hearing were carefully calculated by the defense.”
“Yes, but if it all hinged on this moment with the water, his reaction to that was spontaneous, was it not?” the Bendenzian says.
“I don’t know how you can stand watching this,” Rey says. “It’s inane.”
“No, it’s not,” Ren says, though he’s only watching for the images of Hux. He flicks away from the discussion about his mother’s offer of water to Hux, which several different programs have described as ‘a turning point,’ and stops when he finds the love confession video playing on another channel.
“--I wanted to remain in that third world,” Hux says, and Ren curses under his breath when he realizes it’s almost over, his heart beating faster. “With him, for the rest of my life. So, yes. In answer to your question. Yes, to this day. Yes.”
The video cuts off there. Ren feels Rey staring at him, and senses her growing concern.
“So, assuming this is true,” a T’ygarian with long pink hair says, “That only raises more questions, does it not? Chief among them being: Who is Kylo Ren? Where did he come from, and where is he now? Is the prosecutor’s concern that he could retrieve Elan Hux from prison and mount a renewed offensive against the New Republic legitimate?”
Ren doesn’t like hearing Hux’s first name on these broadcasts, and he doesn’t like the panel discussion that follows. It involves Leia’s promise that such a thing could never happen, because she has personally taken care of the Kylo Ren situation. Ren changes the channel. He hears footsteps on the stairs outside.
“That will be them-- Oh!” Rey grins when Ren glances up at her, sensing a flare of joy among her various anxieties about how this day will go. “Finn is with them,” she says.
“Terrific,” Ren says. When the lamp hit the wall yesterday, Finn leapt off the sofa to draw his blaster. Ren locked him in a Force-hold before he could do anything stupid, and Rey retaliated by trying to do the same to Ren, who had been so charged up that he threw her effort off easily, causing her to stumble against the wall. Wedge had yelled at everyone to calm down. It was the first time Ren and Rey had ever heard Wedge raise his voice to that degree. This was all prior to the love confession, which shut everyone up until Finn blurted Wait, is that true?
Observation: Ren is not in the mood to see Finn again today.
Additionally, worse: Leia is on the other side of the apartment’s door now, too. Along with Luke.
“Someday my life will no longer be a nonstop series of unwanted interruptions,” Ren says, his jaw tight, when Rey turns off the holo projector.
“Listen,” Rey says, when the chime on the door rings. “It’s a big deal for Luke to have come here. I’m upset with him, too, especially for having left my father when he was most needed. But if you would show some gratitude for the fact that he’s come to help, I would appreciate it.”
“Gratitude,” Ren mutters, thinking of his mother. She’ll expect that. She saved Hux’s life, she’ll say. Before and after she vowed to keep Ren away from Hux forever.
“And don’t bark at Leia when she’s straight through the door,” Rey says, whispering this as she goes to answer it. “She’s been through a lot these past few days, too, and she’s--”
Rey frowns and pauses in mid-reach for the release panel that will open the door. Ren senses it, too. Leia has come here to say goodbye. Something has happened with the Resistance.
Finn walks inside first, and the look on his face indicates that he has something to apologize for. Leia is behind him, her gaze flicking to Ren’s in a way that feels too much like a warning for his liking. Then there’s Luke. He’s still wearing his robe, the hood covering his head and shading his eyes as he walks inside.
“Welcome home,” Rey says. There’s a bitterness in the remark that makes Ren wonder if she was really speaking to herself when she instructed him to go easy on Luke.
“What’s happened?” Ren asks, standing. “Something involving the Resistance?”
“We’ve received intelligence,” Leia says. “And we’re launching a very important mission right away-- Tonight. Finn and I need to be back on the base for the briefing soon. I should really be there now,” Leia says, walking closer to Ren. “I considered sending a note with Finn, but that didn’t seem right.”
“You’re going with them?” Rey asks Finn. He nods.
“They need me,” Finn says. “The mission involves my old ship.”
“Hux’s ship,” Ren says, glowering at Luke as he passes through the living room like a ghost. Luke freezes in front of Wedge’s bedroom door and clasps his hands together, staring at it as if he’s waiting for Wedge to emerge. “He isn’t in there,” Ren says. “And you can’t go in. He wouldn’t want you to.”
“Wedge is out walking,” Rey says. “He’ll be back-- well. I’m not sure when, but he’ll be back.”
“I know,” Luke says. He turns enough to show Ren one appraising blue eye, then looks at Wedge’s bedroom door again. Ren scoffs when Luke reaches out and places his palm against the door, as if it’s a Force-sensitive tree he’s communing with.
“Have you seen Hux?” Ren asks, turning back to his mother. “Since the end of the hearing?”
“No,” she says. “But I’m sure he’s fine.”
“Fine? Right, he’s only been told that he can’t see anybody but his enemies for the rest of his life, the people who want him dead--”
“That’s not what he’s been told,” Leia says. “Why don’t you sit? You look very tired. Haven’t you slept?”
“What does it matter if I’ve slept? That’s exactly what you told him!”
“That’s what I told the viewers of the broadcast and the Committee members who wanted him dead,” Leia says, her voice sharpening when she steps closer. Though he’s much taller than her now, Ren still feels small when she does this, and he remembers imagining he could see Vader’s rage flashing in her eyes at times. “I wasn’t going to lay out the details in front of everyone who was calling for his blood,” she says.
“What details?” Ren glances at Luke again, perturbed to find him still staring at Wedge’s door. When Ren turns back to Leia, she’s looking at Luke, frowning.
“Are you just going to stand in the corner like a malfunctioning droid?” she asks. “You’re giving me the creeps.”
“I’m thinking,” Luke says.
Leia rolls her eyes and looks up at Ren again. “Look,” she says. “You’re more powerful than me when it comes to picking up on unspoken cues. I assumed you’d figure out my true intentions without me needing to spell them out.”
“True intentions? What true intentions? You vowed to keep me away from him, you said you personally had the Kylo Ren situation under control--”
“Because I do! Be quiet and listen to me. Anyone who registers can apply to visit with Hux at the Tower. There is a vetting process, but I trust your Jedi mind tricks can get past a few prison guards.”
“I’m not a Jedi,” Ren says, without conviction. She’s telling him he can go to the Tower. That he could see Hux.
“You know what I mean,” Leia says.
“Wait,” Finn says. “You want him to go to the prison?”
“It’s not a good idea,” Luke mutters, still half-hidden in his hood.
“Who asked you?” Leia snaps, and she closes her eyes when she hears herself, drawing her hand to her forehead. “I’m trusting you,” she says when she opens her eyes. Somehow, this statement is directed at Ren, and her feedback indicates sincerity. “Under Rey’s supervision, of course. I think you should be allowed to see the man you love. I don’t know what sort of arrangement you might work out. I can’t be involved, for obvious reasons. But you’re smart, and you’re determined, and I refuse to believe those qualities will continue to be overcome by your stubbornness and recklessness. I gave you this leg up so that you could see Hux in person and help him retain that spark of humanity you seem to have ignited in him.” She pauses there, studying Ren’s eyes. “And vice versa,” she says. “And maybe it’s the wrong move. It was certainly somewhat-- Spontaneous, of me. I did it in part because I sensed that you were entertaining him when he was supposed to be listening to the heartfelt statements of the representatives from the planets he destroyed.”
“I wasn’t entertaining him. I was keeping him calm. Those people all wanted to kill him.”
“Well, perhaps you can forgive them.”
Leia opens her mouth to continue and shakes her head. She still can’t talk about the people Ren has killed without thinking about Han. She can’t think about Han right now. Ren turns away from her. Luke is staring at him now, the hood pushed down.
“You only cheat yourself by remaining blind to those who wish to help you,” Luke says.
“Look who’s talking!” Ren roars. Luke doesn’t flinch.
“Okay,” Leia says, holding up her hands. “We’re all under stress. I’m sorry I came in here with-- Aggressive energy.” She pronounces this like she resents the term, as if someone else taught it to her. “I just need you to not go into a despair spiral right now,” she says to Ren. “Please. Lean on Rey and Luke. Go see Hux if you feel like you need that.”
“See him--” Ren pinches his eyes shut. It’s impossible. He’d have to take Hux with him when he left. “When-- How? Can I go right now?”
Everyone but Finn says so at once. Ren glowers at Rey. She shakes her head.
“We’d have to do it smartly,” she says. “And you need rest. And we need to speak to Luke.”
“About what?” Ren asks. Luke sighs.
“About the books!” Rey says. “And everything that’s happened.”
Everything that’s happened. Ren sits on the sofa and puts his head in his hands, trying to sort it all out as the room seems to tilt and spin around him. Hux’s hearing began and ended. Hux was sentenced to life in prison. Hux said he loves Ren. He said he knows that Ren feels the same. He disappeared from Ren’s reach as soon as the broadcast ended, when Ren was thrown into panic. Weakened by fear. His fear of losing Hux is a weakness; other things Hux gives him are strengths, but the fear remains, and it strips his powers from him when something activates it.
When Leia sits beside him on the sofa, Ren doesn’t lean away from her touch. She strokes his hair and rests her hand on his shoulder.
“What’s the mission?” Rey asks. Her feedback indicates that she barely stopped herself from asking if she could join them before remembering that she has to stay here and look after Ren. Like a child minder. Like a nanny droid.
Observation: Those are Ren’s thoughts, not Rey’s. She’s primarily worried about Finn, wishing she could watch his back personally during this mission.
“I haven’t been briefed yet,” Finn says. “All I know is that it involves my old ship.”
“The Finalizer,” Ren says, his head still in his hands. He feels defensive on the ship’s behalf. It’s where he met Hux, and where they first had sex. Where they first kissed.
“Is it dangerous?” Rey asks, though it’s a redundant question. She already knows the answer. The apologetic look returns to Finn’s face.
“Finn will be okay,” Leia says, though she knows it’s a promise she can’t make. “We’re in a good position to strike. The broadcast of Hux’s hearing wasn’t just done for entertainment value. We wanted the Order to see their captured General denouncing everything he’d done. It’s causing a certain amount of panic in their ranks, as we’d hoped.”
“You’re going, too?” Ren says, looking up at her. Leia nods.
“I know the timing isn’t great,” she says. “I wish I could be here with you while you process everything.” She glances at Luke. “But I’m leaving you in good hands.” She seems to be speaking more to Luke than to Ren. Luke looks at Wedge’s door again, staring at it as if it’s Wedge himself: sadly, and with a fond determination.
“How long will this mission last?” Rey asks. She keeps looking at Finn, wanting an excuse to go somewhere with him and talk in private and also sensing that there’s no time for that, and that even this brief interlude for a goodbye required special permission from Leia.
“We don’t know,” Leia says. “There’s some delicacy involved in waiting for the right time to make our move. We’ll be based elsewhere during the operation, at a secret location. I’m afraid we won’t be able to send or receive messages.”
Ren remembers this feeling from childhood: hearing the news that his mother would be away for a time and thinking it had to be a good thing, because he was freer to do what he liked without her scrutinizing attention. But it never felt like a good thing, and it doesn’t feel like one now.
Luke is still standing at Wedge’s door when Leia and Finn have to leave for the base. Wedge is still off walking. Rey hugs Finn for a long time, and Leia takes Ren’s hands at the door, peering up at him and looking suddenly very much like the smaller of the two of them.
“You’ve got so much on your shoulders,” Leia says. “You always have.”
“I can take care of it,” Ren says, meaning Snoke.
“I believe that. But don’t neglect help when you need it.”
“Seeing Hux will help. Thank you. I know-- You saved him.”
“I’m relieved to be going on this mission in the sense that I can flee the holos that are dissecting every move made during that hearing,” Leia says. “Particularly mine.” She glances at Finn and Rey. They’re whispering together near the front door. “Be patient with each other while I’m gone,” Leia says, quietly.
“I’m not just talking about you and Rey,” Leia adds, lifting her eyebrows. “He came to help.”
Ren glances at Luke. He’s still obsessively monitoring Wedge’s bedroom door, but Ren can feel him giving this conversation some attention.
“It’s strange to see him like this,” Leia says. She’s whispering, though she’s also aware of Luke’s attention. “After all these years. But it feels right to have him back.”
“Sure,” Ren says. He’s already thinking about Hux at the Tower, calculating how soon he might get there. He feels Leia sensing this, and notes the sharpening of her gaze.
“Don’t make me regret giving you this opportunity,” she says. “I don’t want you to feel like you’ve lost everything you care about, and I know he feels like everything you care about right now-- Like the majority of it, anyway. But this is not a free pass to behave recklessly. Please consider what I’m risking by trusting you with this.”
“Trusting Rey, you mean,” Ren says. “Since she’s been assigned to chaperone me.”
Rey looks up from her whispered conversation with Finn at the sound of her name. She’s holding Finn’s hands between hers. She looks frightened.
Observation: Rey will be further from the person she loves than Ren is from Hux as soon as Finn ships out with the Resistance.
“I’ll be good,” Ren says when he looks back to Leia. He means it, provisionally. Hux is safer at the Tower until Snoke is dead. After Snoke’s demise, mental adjustments may be necessary.
“Take care of them for me,” Leia says, speaking to Luke. He turns, partially, and says nothing. Leia looks up at Ren. “I wish you were fighting with us,” she says, shocking the breath out of him. “You and Rey. But your fight is with Snoke.”
“I know that,” Ren says, still reeling, unable to cleanse his mind of an image of himself in Resistance garb, using the Force to send swaths of stormtroopers careening out of his mother’s path. Leia nods and releases his hands.
“Finn,” she says. “I’m sorry, but we’ve got to get moving.”
“Right.” Finn is staring at Rey, who seems unwilling to remove her hands from his shoulders. “Don’t worry too much,” Finn says, softly. “I’ll be okay.”
“I know,” Rey says, and she smiles. Her feedback indicates that this smile is forced, and also that she has an understandable separation anxiety that’s making her internally panic about never seeing Finn again. She’s also angrier with Luke than she expected to be. She shoots Ren a look when she feels him prying.
“Good luck,” Ren says when his mother moves toward the door.
“I could always use more of that,” Leia says. She smiles and touches Finn’s shoulder to prod him toward the door. Rey watches them go. Ren turns to Luke, who is facing the room now, his back to Wedge’s door.
“So what do you have to say for yourself?” Ren asks when he hears the door close behind Leia and Finn, then their footsteps on the stairs outside.
Luke stares at him for a while. Rey comes to stand at Ren’s side as if he might need backup.
“Well,” Luke says, “I could point out the absurdity of you asking me that question, but I have a feeling the remark would fall on deaf ears. Leia mentioned that something in one of the books you’ve been studying pushed you into a kind of coma-like state where you disconnected from your physical body. Can you bring me the book that was allegedly to blame for this?”
“I’ll get it,” Rey says. She’s wary of even letting Ren touch that book now. When she leaves the room, Ren holds Luke’s stare.
“I watched the broadcast of the hearing,” Luke says. “The second day of it, anyway. Interesting stuff.”
“I don’t care to hear your commentary on it.”
“I hope you can at least appreciate what your mother did for you,” Luke says. “Her hope for you is boundless.”
Ren says nothing. Rey arrives with the book and sets it on the table by the sofa. For a long, awkward moment they all stare at it.
“The drawing of the seven birds,” Luke says, moving forward to open the book to that page. The preciseness of his ability to do so makes Ren want to take a step backward, but he stands his ground.
“Do the hands at the bottom of the page have anything to do with healing?” Rey asks. “We’ve both had several visions of a different symbol with two hands, pressed together, and it appears in one of the other books. I think it has to do with Ren’s healing. Or with healing, generally.”
“Let’s talk about the healing,” Luke says. He takes a seat on the sofa. His robe looks even more ridiculous once he’s seated there. Ren fights the temptation to sit on the floor like a padawan. “How old were you when you first did it?” Luke asks.
“Thirteen,” Ren says. It had been shortly after Rey’s arrival. “But I’d always felt like I could do it. I just didn’t try it until then.”
“It was Rey that you healed, right?”
“You knew?” Ren asks, alarmed. Luke shakes his head.
“I’m reading it off of you now,” Luke says. “Off of both of you. It was your secret. Why? I seem to remember you liked to show off when you developed a new power.”
“This felt different,” Ren says. “It was like I was-- Practicing, for something big. I didn’t want you knowing about it until I felt I’d mastered it.”
“And this was a time when Snoke was always in your ear,” Luke says. He narrows his eyes, considering something. “But you hid it from him-- By avoiding the temptation to heal yourself?”
“I don’t know how I hid it. I was afraid to even try to hide anything from him. But he knows now. He must have seen me heal Hux.”
“How are you certain that he knows?” Rey asks. She’s sitting on the floor like a padawan. Ren remains standing, shaking his head.
“I can just feel it,” he says. “And I had a dream about a woman. She called me a healer. That was when I knew that Snoke had found out about this power.”
“Why?” Luke asks. “You think the dream was generated by Snoke?”
“Not exactly.” Ren groans when he can’t find the right words. “So much of this is trying to attach words to things that don’t correspond to them.”
“That’s what these books try to achieve,” Luke says. “At least, that’s my theory. Nobody explained them to me when I tracked them down. They were in the hands of smugglers who didn’t know the value of what they had.”
“So these aren’t written in an actual language?” Rey says, eying the book. “It’s supposed to be intuitive in some other way?”
“That’s the best guess I came up with,” Luke says. “After studying them for years, I was left with the impression that the symbols on the page defy the concept of an organized language system. I think it’s intended to keep some secrets safe for only Force users, which leaves me wondering why that could matter. If the average person could read about the Force, what would be spoiled? I never really determined the answer to that question.”
Again, Ren is overcome with the urge to sit. He wonders if it’s Luke’s doing. It’s strangely comforting to be in a quiet room with him and Rey, the book open between them.
“It’s like how Ren hid the healing,” Rey says, her eyes unfocused and her hands over her knees. She’s not quite meditating, but she’s also not entirely in the room with them.
“Explain?” Luke says, and Rey snaps her eyes up to his.
“The books aren’t obscured by this non-language to keep the secrets from people who can’t use the Force,” she says. “They’re safeguarded against certain types of Force users who would write them off as nonsense. Snoke couldn’t sense Ren’s healing because it seemed like nothing to him when Ren was only healing my cuts and scrapes. Once Snoke sensed Ren healing Hux’s major injuries, his attention locked onto the healing. But I still don’t think he understands it. It’s like a language that Snoke can’t interpret, because he’s trying to read it line by line-- The way we were trying to read these books when we first opened them. But there’s something in it that he’s missed.”
“You’ve come a long way in a few weeks here,” Luke says. He sounds proud. Ren huffs.
“You’re so sure she’s right?” Ren says, though he felt it, too. Rey is onto something true. Ren doesn’t like that she knows something about his healing that he doesn’t, but he can’t deny that she’s identified something important: Snoke still doesn’t understand all the dimensions of Ren’s healing power. Which means that there’s at least one dimension to it beyond the obvious.
“Rey has articulated something important,” Luke says, a bit sharply. “Now what we need to think about is individual instances of your healing, and any discrepancies you’ve noticed. When it felt different from other times.”
Ren thinks of his time on that shuttle, on the way to the house on the cliff. How Hux shuddered under his hands and hid in Ren’s robe when he rested between sessions. Your eyes, he’d said. They’re black.
“Sometimes it comes purely from me,” Ren says. “And sometimes it’s like an energy transfer. Any kind of energy can feed it. Destruction, or--” He tries to think of a word for what he felt when he read Hux’s letter the other day, before he healed Rey’s hand.
“Intimacy?” Rey says, and she shakes her head when Ren looks at her. “No, that’s not the right term. But it’s something to do with closeness. You’ve only ever healed two people you’ve been close to, right? Me and Hux.”
“You think I’m not powerful enough to heal a stranger?” Ren asks, wanting to run out to the street and try it, to prove her wrong. Luke sighs.
“Speaking of intimacy,” Luke says. “When’s the last time you felt Snoke in your head? Or trying to reach you in any way?”
“He’s not here now,” Ren says. “I think he watches from a distance, but he’s not welcome, and he used to count on that. He sneaks in when I’m not paying attention. When I’m sleeping, usually. He shows me things in dreams.”
“What things?” Luke asks.
“Visions-- He taunts me. He says he’s already taken me.”
They’re all silent in the wake of that admission. Ren sinks into a squat, then sits on the floor.
“There are structures he left behind,” Ren says, his voice tightening. “I feel them-- I guard those places. I think I know where they all are now. He used them to try to kill Hux.”
“How did you manage to get rid of him after that happened?” Luke asks.
“I went-- To the past? No, but. I was Ben. In the dark. There’s a dark place. Ben is still there-- I can hide there. Snoke can’t touch it.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Rey says. “Does it?” she asks when Ren looks up at her, eyes narrowed.
“No,” he says. “It’s stupid. Never mind. Ben is gone. Those are just dreams.”
“Don’t discount the importance of dreams,” Luke says. “Leia tells me you almost killed yourself in one recently.”
“I didn’t-- I reached too far, that’s all. I wanted to be able to-- Feel things.”
“He was trying to give Hux something to look forward to,” Rey says. “In prison. A kind of connection that was so powerful it bordered on actual physical contact.”
“And he got trapped inside it?”
“I wasn’t trapped,” Ren says, though he was. “Not for long,” he says, muttering.
“He’s stopped doing it,” Rey says, staring at Ren as if she wants confirmation of this again. “It’s too dangerous.”
“What was the process like?” Luke asks. “How did you send yourself away-- From yourself?”
“It wasn’t so different from meditating,” Ren says. “Only you’re not surrendering. It’s very willful. You peel--”
As soon as he’s said that word, he whirls to look at Rey. Her eyes are wide, and she nods.
“Go on,” she says.
“It was like peeling yourself out of reality a little at a time,” Ren says. He hops up from the floor and begins to pace, nodding to himself. “But putting myself back together in the other place-- With Hux, in his dreams-- That was less intentional. That was what made me vulnerable. I had to sort of float on whatever his dream came up with.”
“This is impressive,” Luke says, though the look on his face doesn’t seem to indicate that. “In a worrying way. I wonder if your ability to do this has something to do with these abandoned structures that Snoke left behind in your head. It sounds as if he colonized you and you staged a rebellion, replacing all of his fortifications with your own. That’s impressive, too, Ben.”
“We try not to call him Ben,” Rey says.
Luke turns to her with an incredulous look. “Forgive me,” he says, glancing at Ren. “Old habits, and so on. I’m interested, though, in what you said about Ben being in a dark place. It’s obviously something powerful, if accessing that place, or those memories, enabled you to overpower Snoke when he was attacking your--” Luke breaks off there. “Hux,” he says, after an awkward pause.
“It doesn’t feel powerful,” Ren says. “It feels like I’m him again. Helpless.”
“Oh,” Luke says. “Ben was never helpless.”
“You say he’s in a dark place,” Rey says, hurriedly, when Ren stops pacing and stares at Luke. “Is he alone there? Or-- Are you alone there? Are you him, when you go there, or are you looking down at him?”
“I’m him,” Ren says. “And I’m alone, until.” He doesn’t want Luke hearing this part, but even if Ren communicates it to Rey through the Force, Luke will probably overhear it. Luke has locked onto Ren now, and he’s seeing him too clearly. Ren only has enough energy to hide one very important fact from him, at present.
“Hux finds you there,” Rey says, nodding to herself as if she’s remembering something she read in one of the books. As if Ren’s interior mind is a tool to be dissected in order to enlighten everyone present on some truth about the Force. Rey looks up at him when she senses his distress. It’s mild enough; Ren shrugs and gives her a kind of unspoken permission to continue. “And you only ever see him there, as Ben?” she asks.
“Only Hux,” Ren says. It’s a statement that feels true of so many things right now. “And he’s Ben’s age, in this place. Or-- The age he would have been, when Ben was fifteen, sixteen, whatever.”
“Interesting,” Rey says. “As if this is a thing anchored in actual time somehow? Partially?” She turns to Luke. “Have you heard of anything like this before?”
“No,” Luke says. “I think Snoke has existed for a long time, but there’s a reason why there are no records of whatever it is he does to take possession of other Force users. Who would write the record? Snoke isolates these victims and makes it appear as if they’ve only gone over to the Dark side as themselves, on their own. There’s plenty of that talked about in the oral histories, but we can’t determine which ones were actually becoming Snoke’s new host, and those who go Dark guard their secrets very closely, Snoke’s involvement notwithstanding. But whatever he does to people, I think it gives them unique powers. If Snoke loses control of the host body he was grooming for possession, I think those powers could be used against him. That’s why I think someone in Ben’s-- excuse me-- Ren’s?”
“Call me whatever you want,” Ren says, sharply. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
“That’s why I think someone in Ren’s position is our only hope of finally ridding the galaxy of Snoke,” Luke says, holding Ren’s gaze as he speaks. “Ren is in a kind of grey area between all of this energy that Snoke invested in him and also being in the process of honing his independent powers, unrestrained by Snoke. I suspect that Snoke will reach out to another victim as soon as he can, but we have a window of time, before he does, to use what Snoke built in his former apprentice against him.”
“This is all purely theoretical,” Ren says, pacing again. “You’ve never even encountered Snoke.”
“Feel free to put forth your own theories,” Luke says. “I’m just trying to help. I know my help has done no good in the past, but I had a bad feeling, not long after you left the island. Like staying away wasn’t the right thing anymore. So here I am.”
Ren doesn’t know how to respond to that. He knows he’s the only one who can kill Snoke. He still doesn’t know how it could be done, but doesn’t believe that Rey or Luke will guide him toward the answer. Only Snoke knows, and Ren is the only person alive who truly knows Snoke: what it’s like to live with that weight in his mind, that cold in his bones, and the piercing fangs of Snoke’s words always dragging over his skin.
Objective, essential: Rey and Luke can’t know that he intends to face Snoke alone. They wouldn’t understand. Ren has been working hard to keep Rey from finding out about the Falcon and his fractured but always-formulating plan to reach Snoke sooner rather than later. He’ll have to work even harder to keep Luke from sensing this.
Observation, helpful, a needed distraction: Footsteps on the stairs outside. Wedge has returned from his walk.
Luke stands from the sofa. Wedge stands on the other side of the door. Rey rises to her feet and gives Ren a pleading look, sensing that he wants to retreat to his room and write a letter to Hux.
Feedback from Rey, direct and desperate: Please don’t leave me alone with them.
Ren doesn’t see why he and Rey can’t both leave, as this is between Luke and Wedge, whatever it is, but he stands beside Rey anyway, crossing his arms over his chest as they all watch Wedge finally walk inside.
Wedge looks at Luke first. He’s a bit breathless, as if he was walking fast. Feedback from Wedge indicates shock at Luke’s graying hair and unkempt beard, followed quickly by a kind of resentful embarrassment at the thought of Luke noticing how he’s aged. Wedge turns to Rey and Ren, who stand at attention like they’re working security for this event. It occurs to Ren that when he sees Hux at the Tower, they will be observed by guards.
“So you made it,” Wedge says, turning back to Luke. “They told me you were coming, and I-- Believed them, but. Excuse me, I need something to drink.”
He walks into the kitchen. The expression on Luke’s face makes him seem far away, as if he’s been thrown back into his own past. Rey heads toward the kitchen and Ren follows, disliking the general feedback fogging the apartment and wanting to go on a walk of his own to clear his head. He would probably walk straight toward the Tower as soon as he set foot outside, not stopping until he got there. He’ll need some kind of disguise first, and a fake backstory. Rey can help him with that.
In the kitchen, Wedge is not drinking a beer or something stronger, as Ren had expected. He’s gulping fortified fruit juice from a bottle, standing at the sink. Wedge turns and shakes his head.
“He’s not even going to speak?” Wedge says. “Has he taken a vow of silence?”
“He just doesn’t know what to say,” Rey says, softly, though Luke can certainly hear them through the Force, if not audibly. “Do you want some privacy?”
“No,” Wedge says. “This is not-- It’s not like that anymore, between us. I mean, how could it be? We’re just old friends, at this point. Luke?” he calls, the sudden shift in the volume of his voice making Ren and Rey flinch.
“Yes?” Luke says, still in the living room.
“Do you want something to drink?”
Luke comes to the kitchen doorway. Rey and Rey step aside to make way for him, but Luke remains there, just outside of the room. Wedge raises his eyebrows, waiting for an answer.
“If my being here makes you uncomfortable,” Luke says, “I can go.”
“That’s not what I asked you,” Wedge says, his voice sharper than it was when he yelled at everyone to calm down after Ren broke that lamp. “I asked you if you want something to drink. I have juice, and beer, and-- What else--” He puts his juice bottle down and goes to the fridge, opens it. “Sparkling water,” he says. “And tap water, of course--”
“Wedge,” Luke says.
“What?” Wedge shuts the fridge door hard and lifts his shoulders, holds out his hands. “Why can’t you just answer a simple question? If you don’t want anything to drink, you can tell me ‘no, thank you.’ Or you can ask for something, but you can’t just stand there and stare me like that and read my mind, okay? You can’t. We’re not doing that.”
“I’m not reading your mind,” Luke says.
“Well, maybe that’s not the right word for it, but you’re doing something, you’re staring at me, and you’re giving me that look. Can you not answer my question? Can you not do this one thing for me? It’s sincerely what I want, Luke, I want you to answer me.”
“I’d appreciate some tap water,” Luke says, and Ren has to swallow a laugh. Rey shoots him a look when she senses it.
“I’ll get it,” Rey says, moving toward the sink when Wedge does. “Dad, please,” she says when Wedge rummages in the cabinet for a glass. “Sit down, I’ll get it for him.”
“It’s fine,” Wedge says. He fills the glass at the sink while Rey stands staring at him. “Still wearing that robe,” Wedge says when he turns and hands the glass to Rey, who brings it to Luke. “That’s not the same one you left with, surely?”
“It’s the same one,” Luke says. He takes the water but doesn’t drink from it. “It was practical, in my previous location. Maybe not so much here.”
“Your previous location,” Wedge says. He nods, reaching behind him to grip the countertop. “Right. Well, here you are. In our current location. I know the kids are glad to see you.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Luke says.
“We are,” Rey insists. She stares at Ren.
“I’m not opposed to it,” he says.
Observation: This is true. Having Luke here doesn’t feel excruciating, the way it did on the island. Something has changed.
“You can stay here if you need to,” Wedge says. “I know the three of you have a lot to talk about. The fate of the galaxy and so forth.”
“I have some things I’d like to talk about with you as well,” Luke says.
Wedge turns back to his juice and gulps down the last of it. His feedback is so violently conflicted that reading it makes Ren’s stomach tilt uncomfortably. Wedge is desperate to hear everything Luke has to tell him, and he also very much wants to deny Luke the chance to say it.
“Why don’t you make us something to eat?” Rey asks, peering up at Ren with that pleading look again.
“I was going to write to Hux,” Ren says.
Observation, however: He is suddenly aware that he’s very hungry, and can’t remember his last full meal. Possibly it was that grim breakfast on the morning before the start of Hux’s hearing.
“You cook?” Luke says, looking at Ren with naked astonishment.
“He’s a very good cook,” Wedge says, defensively, before Ren can answer.
“When he was a kid he only wanted to eat sweets,” Luke says. “Remember when I let you eat bread pudding for dinner?”
“No,” Ren says, though he does. He goes to the fridge and begins pulling things out, annoyed at Luke’s incredulity. Ren will show him. He’s still got all sorts of powers that Luke can’t even begin to comprehend. Cooking almost counts as one.
“Could I talk to you alone?” Luke asks when Wedge tries to walk past him.
“I need to take a shower,” Wedge says.
Wedge pushes past Luke without answering, his hands coming to Luke’s shoulders as he moves him out of the way. The doorway is narrow, and Ren is hit with a wave of inadvertently perceived feedback from both of them at this first brush of physical contact: alarm, interest, longing, and a measure of fury that probably belongs solely to Wedge. Luke remains in the doorway and watches Wedge disappear into his bedroom.
“So,” Rey says. “That wasn’t so bad. Right?”
“It’s never easy to confront someone you’ve hurt,” Luke says. “I admire your progress with Leia, by the way,” Luke says, speaking to Ren, who pretends to ignore him. “I didn’t think I would see you two interacting so comfortably when I got back here.”
“Well, you underestimate me,” Ren says, already chopping vegetables.
“That’s certainly been true in the past,” Luke says. He gulps down his tap water in three swallows and brings the empty glass to the sink, peering at Ren’s progress with the vegetables when he does. “There’s a lot about you I don’t understand,” Luke says, more quietly. “But I came here to try to change that. Maybe we’ll get frustrated with each other again, but this time you won’t have a disembodied voice in your head telling you to hate me.”
Observation: Luke apparently trusts that Snoke is no longer in control. Perhaps he can sense it.
Reminder: Luke couldn’t sense it before, when Ben trained with him daily.
Therefore: Luke has to trust Ren on this.
“Were you really not reading his mind?” Ren asks.
“No, I-- He doesn’t deserve that invasion. I can resist.”
“I can’t. With Hux. I can’t not hear him.”
“You could learn not to, out of respect.” Luke turns to Rey. “Are you okay?” he asks.
Ren has sensed it, too. Rey is holding back a kind of thunderhead of panic in the midst of everything else that’s going on. It’s not that she thinks Finn isn’t capable of surviving the mission. It’s irrational: the fear of being left behind.
Rey shrugs and shakes her head. She seems to consider trying to put what she’s feeling into words, then crosses the kitchen to put her arms around Luke instead. He’s taken off guard for a moment before he returns her hug. Ren turns back to his vegetables, watching this from the corner of his eye.
“I was so angry with you,” Rey says.
“I know,” Luke says.
“I still am, really.”
“I know it’s fine,” Rey say, pulling back. “And it’s fine that he still is, of course.”
“Of course,” Luke says.
Observation: They’re talking about Wedge, not Ren.
“Just be nice to him,” Rey says, whispering. “Take some juice if he offers it to you. He doesn’t know what else to do.”
“He should probably tell me to get out,” Luke says. “I feel like an intruder.”
“Well, you’re not an intruder, you’re very wanted, and don’t make him feel bad about that either.”
“We need to practice our combat,” Ren says, tired of overhearing this other conversation. “Me and Rey,” he says when he turns to see them both staring at him. “Soon.”
“I’m not fond of the idea of you sparring with her,” Luke says. It was never allowed during training at his Academy, of course. Ben had been much bigger than Rey, and more powerful, and too undisciplined to hold back when facing the other students. By the time he was preparing to leave, he’d been forbidden from sparring with even the students who were older than him. He’d been on the verge of being kicked out of the entire program, in fact.
“I can handle him now,” Rey says, giving Luke a look that dares him to dispute this.
“I know,” Luke says. “But something in me still objects.”
Observation, so heavy upon Rey’s thoughts that Ren reads it without trying or even wanting to: Luke still feels protective of her. Like a second father. Even now.
“Later tonight,” Ren says. “We could go up on the roof. Between the three of us, we could create a barrier solid enough to keep anyone from seeing us.”
“Perhaps it would be wiser to wait until every news program on the planet isn’t loaded with content about who and where Kylo Ren is,” Luke says. “Just in case something goes awry.”
“What’s going to go awry? And what are they going to do with me if they do find me? I can’t be imprisoned. That’s the whole reason I’m here.”
“There’s more than one kind of confinement,” Luke says. “Snoke engineered this life for you, in a sense. By closing off all your other options.”
“What life?” Ren asks, hearing himself getting loud. “You don’t know what my life is. This isn’t my life. This is just a stopover.”
He can feel Luke’s next questions bubbling under the surface of the tension in the room, wanting to erupt: What’s next, then? After Snoke? Where will you go from here? Rey signals to Luke and shakes her head.
Feedback from Rey, to Luke, overheard by Ren: Not now. Don’t corner him.
“I’m sorry,” Luke says, aloud, because he’s aware that Ren is listening in anyway. “But I hear that kind of talk and I think of my father. Of what I knew of him, anyway, and some things I’ve seen in meditation. He thought he was too powerful to be controlled by anybody. He became Palpatine’s slave in that way, believing he was untouchable all the while. Deceiving himself.”
“I’m not Snoke’s slave anymore,” Ren says, wanting to defend Vader. It’s easy for Luke to say that situations such as that are avoidable. To Ben it seemed like the only answer. No one else understood. They still don’t, and when Ren destroys Snoke he’ll be alone with his powers again. He’ll have Hux, maybe. Certainly. But he’ll also have everything that once drove him to take refuge in Snoke’s claims to understand him. “I’m not going to fight for the Resistance,” Ren says, thinking of what his mother said earlier. “That’s ridiculous.”
“I agree,” Luke says. His expression is mild when Ren turns to glare at him, because this agreement sounds sarcastic. “But only because I’ve sensed, as I suspect both of you have, that there won’t be the need of a Resistance much longer. The Order’s leadership is crumbling. Snoke has abandoned them, and now they’ve seen evidence that Hux has, too.”
“I wonder why Snoke stopped bothering with the Order,” Rey says. “And why he ever needed them in the first place?”
“I don’t think he needed them so much as they represented a practical source of power for him,” Luke says. “The effort probably amused him, if nothing else.”
“He wanted to rule the Order after he took full possession of my body,” Ren says, turning back to his work. “Through them, with my powers, he would have ruled the galaxy.”
“Hux must have played into that somehow,” Rey says. “You got the sense that Snoke allowed you that respite with him, right? After you rescued him from the trap Snoke had set?”
“Yes, but-- Hux was always just a pawn to him. An experiment, to test my loyalty. Snoke wanted Hux dead that day, when he made me-- Snoke wanted me left with nothing. He would have convinced me that I’d done it myself. Or so he thought. He didn’t realize that I was already too strong to be swayed by his games the way Ben was.”
“Games,” Luke says, as if he objects to that word.
“They’re games to Snoke,” Ren says. “If you believed yourself to be immortal, all mortal business would be a game to you, too.”
“But he must have some fear of his own destruction,” Rey says. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have to work so hard to prepare his next victim for possession. It’s not as if it’s a given that he’ll be successful, considering that you’ve thwarted him twice now. And his current body must be failing, or at least weakened, now that he’s wrung all the life out of it.”
Ren is already exhausted by their talk of Snoke, though he knows they intend to help. He longs to talk about it with Hux. Should have already, at the house on the cliff. If he’d trusted Hux with more information about Snoke, back then, everything might be different now.
Observations: But he never would have seen his mother again. Or Rey, or Luke. Hux, too, would have lost his last opportunity to see his mother, most likely.
Further, related, indisputable: Ren would prefer Hux’s constant company to these reconciliations. He would give up this sanctuary for that one.
However, increasingly worrying: His true preference would be to have Hux safe among these allies. Standing beside him in Wedge’s kitchen. Watching him chop the vegetables and perhaps contributing some essential observation about how Snoke might be defeated.
Mental adjustment: That’s impossible, even as a fantasy.
Ren spends the next hour tuning out everything but the cooking. It’s helpful, like a kind of meditation, only he doesn’t have to discover any deep truths about the Force or his past or the future while he does it. Things simply come together in an organized fashion, one step following another. Rey and Luke seem to understand that he needs to stop hearing their voices for a while, and they leave him to his work. Ren is vaguely aware of Luke in the living room, paging through his old books, and Rey in her room, trying not to obsess over the thought of Finn boarding the ship that will take him away from this planet. Wedge remains in his bedroom, though his shower is long finished. He emerges only when Ren is nearly done with the meal, walks past Luke without saying anything and enters the kitchen. He pulls a beer from the fridge this time, and pats Ren’s shoulder.
“Dinner looks good,” Wedge says. “But you look like you’re about to drop. Can I help?”
“What?” Ren sees a kind of reflection of himself in Wedge’s feedback when he turns to look at him: paler than usual, bags under the eyes, removing dumplings from a steaming basket in a kind of half-awake trance. “I’m fine,” Ren says. He eats a dumpling in two bites, past hungry and on into something more resembling nausea. It tastes good, but also burns his tongue. “Tell them to come eat,” he says, still chewing. “Please,” he adds after he’s swallowed. Wedge’s feedback indicates exhaustion, too, and a lack of sleep the night before.
Rey does most of the talking at dinner. She talks about Poe Dameron, which Ren doesn’t appreciate. Apparently he’s promised to give Rey flying lessons someday. As if a gifted Force-user like Rey could possibly need such things. Ben had piloted the Falcon with ease by the time he was ten years old, though he’d never been allowed to do so on his own. Han had always been there. It was their secret; Leia didn’t like the idea. Ben sensed that her disapproval stemmed from her fear that he would get overconfident and try to steal the ship for a joyride someday.
“I’m sorry I missed Leia,” Wedge says when Rey has finally run out of things to say about Poe. “She must not have stayed long?”
“No, she and Finn were on their way to the base,” Rey says, mopping up sauce on her plate with a half-eaten dumpling. She keeps her eyes lowered and goes on dragging the dumpling through the sauce until it’s soaked and soggy. “They’re leaving on an important mission,” she says.
“They’ll be fine,” Luke says.
“Yes,” Rey says, a bit sharply. “I’m sure you’re right.”
“It’s hard to get left behind,” Wedge says, reaching out to touch Rey’s elbow. Again, Ren has to swallow inappropriate laughter. Wedge is working on his third beer. Luke stares at him from the other end of the table. For a long time, no one says anything. Ren realizes at one point that he’s falling asleep in his seat, and he shoves his plate away.
“Someone else can do the dishes,” Ren says, standing. “Since I cooked.”
“And we can practice combat some other night,” Rey says. “You’re too tired. Go sleep.”
Ren nods and leaves, glad for the chance to be alone and to perhaps dream about Hux. He considers the holo projector when he passes through the living room, wondering if the love confession testimony is playing on some station now, or the footage of Hux being hugged by his lawyer after the verdict was issued. Ren hadn’t expected to like that part, but the close-up shot of Hux’s expression was worth the jealous desire to replace Porkins in that scenario. Hux looked so lost and small and almost frightened after hearing his fate, as if he was afraid to believe it could be true. This made Ren leap off the sofa, briefly determined to run to Hux then and there, and it hurt, but it was a good pain. Something about it had made him feel hopeful.
He resists the urge to fall asleep on the sofa while the holo projects images of Hux into the room. It feels better to close himself into his bedroom, and he’s relieved to see that either Luke or Rey has removed all the books that are normally stored here. He needs to be truly alone for a while, after so much company all day. He pulls off his boots and falls into bed.
Dreams come, but they’re hazy, fleeting things that he can’t grasp onto for long. They bring the kind of images he wishes he could linger in: Hux is in every dream, often undressed and reaching for him, sighing in his arms, whispering in his ear. Did you hear me? Hux asks. Did you hear what I said about you? Ren tells him over and over that he did. He murmurs You love me against Hux’s skin as if it’s his own confession, and Hux shivers in his arms, nods. Hux transforms from a warm presence curled against Ren’s chest into something larger and then back again, always keeping close.
In the dreams, Ren promises that he’s going to steal Snoke’s immortality and give it to Hux. He promises that they’ll find a house of their own someday, ready and waiting for them like the one on the cliff by the sea had been, only this one will be on a planet where it never rains.
“Not a desert planet,” Hux says, walking ahead of Ren through a crowded market in this dream. “Remember, I don’t like sand.”
“What kind of planet do you want?” Ren asks. “I’ll give you one as a wedding gift.”
Hux laughs at the idea of a wedding. Ren aches for him, even here. He wants to be laughed at like that by the real Hux. Though he desperately keeps hold of Hux’s hand as they wind through the crowd, as if this Hux is something real that might be lost, he knows this is a dream, and that he’s alone in it. This is only an imaginary Hux. Ren holds on anyway, and tries not to wake.
“I’m going to come to see you,” Ren says when he’s sitting in a steamy outdoor bath with Hux beside him. Hux’s skin is bluish in this dream, and sparking. Ren wishes Hux looked more his actual self here, but he knows it’s still Hux, in theory.
“You’re going to come see me?” Hux says. “But I’m right here.”
“The real you is in prison,” Ren says, breaking this to bluish Hux as gently as he can. Hux laughs.
“No prison could hold me,” Hux says.
“That’s my line,” Ren says, increasingly sad that this Hux doesn’t sound much like the real one either. Ren will probably wake soon. He looks down at his hands, in the dream. They have markings on them, like glowing tattoos. “A healer’s hands,” he says. When he looks up, Hux is no longer beside him. He’s climbed out of the bath and is walking away from it, naked. “Where are you going?” Ren asks. He wants to follow but can’t seem to move. His hands are too heavy, sinking down to the bottom of the bath, pulling him under.
It’s less of a bath than a bottomless lagoon, and in the dark under the water, Ren searches for Ben. If he can find Ben, he might find the real Hux, or a kind of reflection of the old Hux, at least. Sometimes it’s both. He swims, searching, and eventually knows that he won’t find anything but more and more darkness down here. Finding Ben in his dreams has never felt like finding him, really. It’s more like waking up inside him, and it’s not fair that Ren can only seem to do so without meaning to, when he’s desperate.
“I would have let you keep him,” someone says, behind Ren, in the dark.
He turns, no longer swimming through water. The woman with long, black hair is standing behind him. She’s naked, her hair long enough to cover her breasts and her lower half submerged in darkness. She smiles, cruelly, to show Ren her sharp teeth.
“Liar,” Ren says. “You always lie.”
She opens her mouth wide and moves toward him in a sweeping descent, her hair fanning out as it becomes the darkness around them, pulling Ren closer like a net that he’s always, already trapped inside.
Ren wakes with a single thrash, his hand smacking against the wall hard enough to make him groan in pain before he’s fully conscious. Even as he returns to reality, landing this blow feels momentous. As if he’s beaten back a real enemy.
His window is dark and the street outside is quiet. He went to bed while there was a hint of sunset still in the air. He reaches inside his pillowcase and pulls out Hux’s letter, smoothing the paper before putting it under his shirt. Against slight pressure from the Force, the letter hugs itself to Ren’s skin in a kind of caress. He feels warmer once it’s there, and he closes his eyes.
Objective: A good dream. Even if he can’t have the real Hux within it. Something good.
Temptation, almost too strong to resist: Reach out through the Force, far enough to find the real Hux.
Concern, related: Snoke might find Hux if Ren does. Hux might not always be able to flee to the darkness where Ben hides. If Hux got left behind, and Snoke was in pursuit, what then?
Rebuttal, tentative: Hux has managed to find Ben every time in the past, except for the time when Ren was alone in the dark while Snoke used his body to choke Hux. There was little chance of Hux sending his mind anyplace but the horrifying present, then.
Come somewhere with me, Ren thinks, trying to send this to Hux. Unable to stop himself from asking. He waits, and hears nothing in response.
Observation: He’s afraid to really try. He’s being watched. He’s never been alone, thanks to Snoke, and in a deeper sense he’s always been alone. Who can relate? Nobody. Even Vader didn’t always have Palpatine whispering in his ear.
In the place between waking and dreaming, Ren feels some ghost calling to him.
Me, it says. And then, in a different voice, I can.
“What?” Ren says.
He waits, listens. No response comes.
Ren rolls over and tries to sleep again, pushing his hand up under his shirt until his palm rests over Hux’s letter. He imagines he can feel it growing warmer, and that when he strokes his thumb over the paper Hux can feel it on his skin, far away. He imagines Hux shuddering, his breath catching.
Are you asking me on a date?
Would the real Hux say that? Ren isn’t sure. He’s half-asleep, his thumb still moving on Hux’s letter.
“I just want to go for a walk,” Ren says. He’s standing at the bottom of the staircase that leads up to Wedge’s apartment, anxious about moving away from it. He’s memorized the path to the Falcon already. The garage that houses it isn’t far from here. It’s almost as if Leia wants him to find it. Perhaps in the same way that she engineered an opportunity for him to see Hux.
A walk, Hux says. Ren still can’t see him, and his voice comes from nowhere in particular. I had my first one of those today. They let me walk in circles on a track on the roof. For an hour. I’m to have that every day, from now on. Per some regulation.
“Where are you?” Ren asks. He takes a step away from the bottom of the staircase and looks left, then right. The streets are empty.
What do you mean, where am I? Where will I be for the rest of my life? In this cylindrical hell, awaiting death. They cleverly refer to this as a life sentence. It’s a slow death sentence, more like.
Ren smiles and takes another step toward the street. That sounds like Hux. The sky overhead is pale purple from light pollution, and the air feels warmed by Hux’s voice.
“I can hear you,” Ren says. “Can you feel me, or see me?”
I felt something. Like a phantom touch. Please say it was you?
“It was me.” Ren starts running down the street, giddy relief flooding through him. “I touched your letter!”
I still haven’t gotten your last one. Won’t someone bring it to me?
“That bastard lawyer didn’t give it to you?”
He’s not a bastard, don’t say that. He couldn’t bring it to court that day, when they were questioning me about you and I had to pretend you were lost to me. Though I suppose you are.
“You know I’m not!” Ren crosses a street in three leaping steps. He’s on his way to the Falcon. He’s going to show Hux. “Look, can’t you see me?” he asks. “I’ve got this plan.”
I can’t see anything. It’s dark here. I thought I would find you crying into your hands and looking like a child. This isn’t one of those?
“No.” Ren comes to a halt, breathing heavily. He turns around, and finds that he can’t remember the way back to Wedge’s apartment. “Fuck,” he says. “Hux?”
“I think I have to go. This might not be safe. You’re in the dark?”
Yes. You aren’t?
“No, I’m-- In a dream. I was going to my father’s ship, but now I’m lost.”
Are you sleepwalking, Ren?
“I don’t think so.” Ren walks forward and the city shimmers, as if it’s a puddle he’s disturbed by his footfall. “Hux,” he says, his voice cracking. “I’m sorry. We have to stop.”
Stop what? Don’t leave yet. Can’t you find me?
“Shit,” Ren says, taking another step back in the direction he came from. Every move he makes blurs the world around him, until he feels like it will rub off onto him like smeared paint. “Hux?”
“I’m going to come see you.” Ren grunts and pushes the side of a skyscraper away as it slides against him, the edges of the dreamscape closing in around him. His hand sinks into the building as if it’s made of clay. The sidewalk has transformed into a swamp that’s rising up to his knees.
Okay, Hux says. Come, fine, I’m not stopping you. I’m waiting, Ren.
“Open your eyes!” Ren says, shouting this as the dream crumples in around him, swallowing him up, both of his hands buried in the melting clay that was the city. “I’m not in the dark. Not tonight. I couldn’t get there. I’m sorry!”
Keep your apologies. You want me to wake up?
“Please-- Yes. Wake up, Hux!”
Ren can feel it when it works. Hux is awake, in his cell, safe enough. He’s touching the place under his shirt where he felt Ren’s thumb brushing over his skin.
When he’s confident that Hux has escaped from his end of the dream world, Ren opens his eyes. He’s still in his bedroom. Only a few minutes have passed. Maybe even less than that. Hux’s letter is still pressed over his heart, curled close against his skin. Ren touches it and feels a kind of shiver in response, but it might be his own.
Observations, scattered and half-formed: The landscape of his connection with Hux is constantly shifting. Outside forces can influence it, but nothing can sever it. There is a thread between them that remains unbroken. It can withstand the most powerful attack. It already has.
Further, dim and small: There’s another connection that has been corrupted by Snoke in some way. A different thread, which leads elsewhere. It involves the ghost.
Ren can’t get back to sleep. He gets out of bed and goes into the living room to watch videos of Hux’s testimony on the holo. Perhaps the late night broadcasts will feature more or longer replays. He’s surprised to find Luke sitting on the sofa, one of the old books open in his lap.
“What are you doing?” Ren asks.
“Reading,” Luke says.
“In the dark?”
“I don’t need light to find my way through these books.”
“I thought you might be--” Ren glances at Wedge’s bedroom door.
“No,” Luke says. He turns a page in the book and leaves it at that.
“I need to use the holo projector,” Ren says, wondering if Luke can sense that he’s just come from a dream that collapsed around him like a cave he’d foolishly wandered into, following the sound of Hux’s voice.
“Fine,” Luke says. “I can continue concentrating with the holo playing.”
Ren sits as far from Luke as possible, on the other end of the sofa. He watches the images on the holo come into focus, embarrassed to be doing so in view of Luke. The channel that the holo is tuned to is playing advertisements. Ren flicks to the next one, and stops there when he sees an image of Hux’s mother on the screen.
“What do we think of the fact that the Starkiller’s mother defected before he did?” some disembodied announcer asks. Ren can tell by the use of the word ‘Starkiller’ and the pause on an image of Elana Hux looking rather severe and cold that this is one of the more flagrantly biased programs.
“Personally?” another announcer says. “I’m getting very tired of the citizens of the New Republic being asked to harbor all these war criminals as if they’re refugees. And you better believe I’m including ex-stormtroopers in this. If I have to hear another stormtrooper-related sob story--”
Ren changes the channel. Hux’s mother. It was strange to see her speaking about Hux as a boy, and more difficult to watch than Hux’s testimony in some ways. She had looked at Ren’s mother at one point, had seemed to appeal directly to her. Ren wants to speak to Leia about it, but Leia is off-planet already. Headed into battle.
“What’s your experience with ghosts?” Ren asks Luke as he flicks through channels, looking for some video footage of Hux.
“They can reach out through the Force,” Luke says. “It’s uncommon, but it can happen at times of great personal distress, or in response to other strong emotional energy. You and I talked about this long ago, didn’t we?”
“I guess.” Ren remembers a few conversations about this when he was young. Back when he wasn’t sure what Snoke was. He’d wondered if the voice in his head was the ghost of his grandfather speaking to him, at one point. He hadn’t wondered that aloud, of course. The voice had already warned him not to speak about its presence to Luke. It had promised Ben that Luke wouldn’t understand.
“Are you hearing from ghosts?” Luke asks, staring at Ren now.
Ren shrugs and turns up the volume on a panel discussion that features a flattering picture of Hux from the hearing. Hux seems somehow innocent in this picture. His eyes are clearly green.
“So here’s what I’m wondering,” an older man with what appears to be a bad wig says. He’s smiling in a way that Ren doesn’t like. “Is all this mysterious Kylo Ren stuff just a smokescreen to take our attention away from all the rumors about General Hux and his faithful Lieutenant Pella?”
“What if Pella is Kylo Ren?” another host squawks, gleeful. “What if that’s what General Organa means when she says she has the situation under control?”
“They’ve reduced you to a stormtrooper,” Luke says. He’s smiling at the holo as if he’s enjoying this.
“Shh!” Ren says.
“And where is Pella now?” the old man asks. “Is she imprisoned on the Resistance base or at the Tower? I’ve heard she’s been given a short sentence for lying on her immigration paperwork or something like that?”
“If she was spying for the First Order, a short sentence is an insult!” This is the input of a third host: a fat-cheeked, angry-looking Heeku. “She should be locked up with her boyfriend the Starkiller, for life!”
“Now, now,” the old man says. “I feel for the girl, personally. She seems to have gotten in over her head in one way or another. Charmed into espionage? Pressured to lie about her true identity? And what do we make of the fact that she has a twin sister?”
“The twin could be Kylo Ren!” the loud host says, leaning forward with what seems like genuine excitement. “That would explain so much!”
Luke laughs, and Ren glares at him, though on some remote, currently inaccessible level he does understand why this is funny. He changes the channel, searching again for actual Hux footage.
“Your mother is a lot less concerned about your attachment to this man than I am,” Luke says when Ren stops on a channel that’s showing Hux responding to questions about the bruises on his neck.
“You don’t know everything about attachments,” Ren says. “Your approach is flawed.”
“I seem to remember you running away from everyone who cared about you, once.”
Ren glowers at the holo and turns up the volume. He could get into a fight with Luke about why he ran and about how hard it was to come back, but Luke knows that already. Luke is trying to draw some kind of parallel between them. Ren doesn’t want to see it. Luke is alone. Ren won’t leave Hux, no matter what happens. He won’t do to Hux what Luke did to Wedge.
Without intending to, Ren falls asleep on the sofa. He’s stretched across it entirely when he wakes up to the bluish light of dawn sneaking in through the window. If he had more dreams, he doesn’t remember them. Luke is gone.
Ren closes his eyes and uses the Force to scan the apartment, trying to determine if Luke has left entirely or if he’s just out of sight.
Observation, immediate: Luke is on the patio, for some reason.
Ren pulls himself from the sofa and walks to the living room doorway. From there, through the sitting room that adjoins the kitchen, he can see the big window that looks out on the patio. Ren expected to find Luke meditating or reading, but he’s just sitting in a chair, eyes closed. Wedge is with him. Luke isn’t meditating, but he’s very calm, feeling peaceful. Wedge has trimmed Luke’s beard already, and now he’s working on the back of Luke’s hair, carefully smoothing one section between two fingers before snipping off the frayed gray ends.
“Will you get your hand redone?” Wedge asks. “They have better simu-skin now, it lasts longer--”
“Do you want me to?” Luke asks. He opens his eyes, though Wedge is behind him. Ren can’t hear this conversation from where he’s standing; he’s using the Force to spy. Luke is probably aware, but he doesn’t turn toward the window to give Ren an angry look.
“Why should what I want matter?” Wedge asks, still snipping.
“Clearly it matters. You said I needed a haircut, and here we are.”
“It’s not as if you came back for me,” Wedge says. He steps back when his hands begin to shake, pretending to survey his progress on Luke’s hair.
“You want to know the truth?” Luke asks.
“Probably not, but go ahead and tell me.”
“I don’t know why I came back. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Mhm.” Wedge resumes the haircut then, working on a portion at the top. He moves slowly with the scissors, as if he doesn’t want this to end. Luke closes his eyes again when bits of snipped hair sprinkle onto his cheeks.
“But I do want to know which you’d prefer,” Luke says, flexing his cybernetic hand over his knee. “Simu-skin or uncovered mechno? It makes no difference to me.”
“Sounds like a pretty presumptuous question,” Wedge says.
Luke laughs in a little huff, his shoulders jumping. Wedge tries not to smile, though Luke can’t see his face. Ren decides he should probably leave them alone.
He goes into his room and sits down to write a letter to Hux. Usually he starts right away and doesn’t stop until he’s filled the page, but today he hesitates. He’ll be delivering this letter to Hux in person. He’s sure of it, even though he hasn’t worked out the logistics yet. Rey will help him with that when she wakes up.
When he struggles with how to start this letter, he has to fight the inclination to send his thoughts back to the patio and listen in on Luke and Wedge. He thinks of his mother and father, how they had a confounding ability to weave back together after anything: big fight, doors slammed, and then suddenly everything okay again, his mother fixing the collar on his father’s shirt, his father watching her with an adoring smirk. Their reconciliations always happened out of sight. Ren spreads his hand over the blank sheet of paper where his letter to Hux will eventually be composed. He remembers shaving Hux’s face, and hiding the scissors so that Hux wouldn’t ask for a haircut. Screaming at Hux, being screamed at, and then that moment when Hux sat beside him and calmly ate seafood stew, his shoulder pressed to Ren’s. As if nothing had happened. Ren wants that back more than anything. The thread that connects them in dreams isn’t enough. Visits to the prison in disguise won’t be enough. He needs to know that they can both try as hard as they can to wreck everything and that it will be in vain, because in short order they will need each other again. He needs Hux to always be in reach when that time comes, when everything resets to what matters most, which is that neither of them wants to be anywhere else.
Hux, he writes, using his name for the first time. It seems right, suddenly. I’m going to find you a planet. There won’t be too much sand or constant rain. The skies will be deep purple and the sun will never feel too bright. The plant life will always seem slightly damp and dewy, like it’s covered in beads of water, and the leaves will glitter when the wind blows. The storms will all be windy in nature, and we’ll have a sturdy house that’s low to the ground, where these storms can be safely avoided. In fact, our house will be partially underground, with high windows and a stone chimney.
Ren is beaming down at the paper as he continues to write, the words coming easily now. He’s not making this up. He’s not good at inventing things, really. That’s Hux’s department.
Observation, therefore: This is easy to write because it’s a vision of the future.
Objective, secondary and already happening: Write everything, every detail. So that Hux can see it, too.
Objective, primary, above all others: Make it come true, make it unbreakable, make it all the way across the galaxy to this planet, this house, this windstorm, this moment, this destiny that flashes like the glimpse of a glittering coin at the bottom of a dark lagoon. Dive as deep as necessary to retrieve it. Don’t look back until that coin is safely closed in your palm. Don’t wait. Don’t doubt. Don’t stop writing until the vision is gone.