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Under the Ruins of a Walled City

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Though the transport’s interior is temperature controlled, Hux can feel it growing slightly colder as they continue south, other landships plentiful at first and thinning out more and more as the hours pass and they move further from the Resistance base. Despite the dropping temperature, the cloudless skies and the glare of the sun persist, and even through the shaded viewports this feels like an insult, because Hux has so long dreamed of seeing some planet’s sun again, secretly and perhaps ironically, and now here he is, under sunlight at last, and under arrest.

He’s seated between two uniformed guards who hold their industrial-sized blasters across their chests as if they might actually need to use them against Hux in his current pathetic state. As if he has any hope of trying to escape at this stage, or any place he could run to. Across from him is FN-2187, who keeps looking at Hux like he’s trying to begin some kind of speech. If he attempts to make Hux feel ashamed of himself, Hux will laugh.

“Hey, uh. Starkiller.”

Hux doesn’t have a timekeeping device on him at present, but he’s relatively confident that it’s taken FN-2187 approximately three hours to work up the nerve to speak to him. Hux slides his eyes slowly from the viewport, where rocky mountains have appeared in the distance. He says nothing and holds FN-2187’s gaze, waiting.

“That’s what they call you,” FN-2187 says.

Hux says nothing, stares. It’s a fine name for a weaponized base, and in fact one that Hux came up with himself, after treating himself to several celebratory glasses of whiskey when the ideal planet for that base was finally discovered, but when applied to a person-- to him --it sounds tacky and theatrical, more appropriate for someone dramatic like Ren.

“Anyway,” FN-2187 says. He seems nervous, which is absurd, considering Hux is the one facing his doom and FN-2187 appears to have been placed into a position of some authority within the ranks of the Resistance. Even Ren’s beautiful cousin seemed inexplicably fond of this traitor. They ought to be careful. FN-2187 is not to be trusted. “I might not get a chance to speak to you one-on-one again,” FN-2187 says. “And I wanted to ask you, because you were in charge of the stormtrooper program, uh. And since I defected, you probably reviewed my record at some point, and-- Do you remember where I was taken from? Originally? Even just which planet?”

Hux has an excellent memory and was particularly interested in this traitor’s record, so: yes, he does.

“Why?” Hux asks, though he knows. The guards beside him adjust their postures, as if even allowing the ‘Starkiller’ to speak is potentially dangerous.

“Because I’d like to try to find my parents.” FN-2187’s eyes harden as if he’s daring Hux to deny him this. “If they’re still alive.”

Hux raises his eyebrows very slightly and thinks of his father giving him leadership advice. When someone asks you for something they want, think of ten ways to use it to your advantage before you offer them an inking of indication that you might give it to them.

“I’ll certainly negotiate with your superior officers before any information of that sort is divulged,” Hux says, turning to look out the viewport again. “Though I doubt they’ll have any interest in such a small detail.”

FN-2187 sits back and crosses his arms over his chest, nodding to himself as if to say he should have expected that response. He seems to be trying to hold something else in and will likely fail to do so. Hux suppresses a twitch of his lips, something that may have evolved into a smile under different circumstances. This seemingly endless transport ride was excruciating prior to this entertainment. He supposes he’d better take this chance to hold onto the last remaining scraps of his sense of self while he can. Surely they will be stripped from him along with Luke Skywalker’s rags upon arrival at their destination.

“Rey told me to make sure they look after you when we get there,” FN-2187 says, speaking sharply now. Hux isn’t surprised to hear this. They’ll be worried about Ren having a tantrum, of course. “She says Kylo Ben will lose his shit if you’re not treated well.”

Hux thinks he misheard, then realizes that was a joke at Ren’s expense. So ex-stormtroopers are capable of being clever. It’s the kind of joke Hux would normally enjoy, but hearing this traitor call Ren by his the name his parents gave him is annoying, even sort of infuriating. FN-2187 scoffs when Hux offers no response, either because he resents having to offer Hux this tiny measure of protection or because he plans to ignore the order he was given. FN-2187 is skilled when it comes to doing that.

Hux closes his eyes and imagines being questioned by whichever surviving figureheads ostensibly run the New Republic. They’ll interrogate him about the stormtrooper program most thoroughly, he imagines, now that the function of the oscillator is no longer a mystery. Were both an equal failure? He had all those days of doing nothing in Ren’s little bungalow from hell, but he came up with no real conclusions about his life’s work. He was too preoccupied with anticipating his death at Ren’s hands, and perhaps this wasn’t such a bad thing to have been preoccupied with, since it nearly came to pass. Hux flinches with the desire to touch his neck, where he assumes the bruises are still visible. He hasn’t seen a mirror in some days, but he saw his reflection in this transport’s blacked-out viewports before the door was opened for him. He looks like a wild-haired wraith, and the sunlight had seemed to expose this tenfold, the image he saw in that reflection still burned into his mind.

“Tell me,” Hux says, opening his eyes when another hour has passed and he can’t resist any longer. He looks at FN-2187, who glares at him, his jaw set as if he’s preparing to deny Hux what he wants to know. Hux has a feeling he won’t. “Whatever became of the other stormtrooper who defected, the one who left just after you? UT-5278? I believe that was her number.”

As if he could ever forget it. Hux pretends to be half-bored by his own question. FN-2187 sits forward like he’s eager to tell Hux the answer, because he thinks it will hurt Hux. As Hux predicted.

“Oh, she’s with the Resistance now, too,” FN-2187 says. “She gave us some pretty useful information when she first arrived.”

“Did she.”

“Pella even found her twin sister fighting with the Resistance,” FN-2187 says, perhaps enviously. Hux laughs under his breath and looks away again. So they still don’t know, or anyway, this one doesn’t. “What’s funny?” FN-2187 asks.

“You called her Pella.”

“Yeah? That’s her name. Her real name, now, the one she gave to herself.”

He says so angrily, and Hux can’t hold in more laughter. He lifts his bound hands to cover his mouth, resisting the urge to tell him: I gave her that name, you imbecile. I sent her to kill you with that name.

He says nothing, because he doesn’t want to blow UT-5278’s cover, even now. Perhaps only for her own sake, even after the way she humiliated him. The true nature of her departure from the Finalizer could also be a useful bargaining chip down the road, though Hux can’t imagine what he would be spending it on. Begging to reside in their prison for the rest of his life rather than being executed? Or just a quick death by drugs as opposed to a more dramatic town square hanging that would bring gruesome closure to those who mourn five irrelevant planets?

He touches his neck without meaning to, then hurries his bound hands back to his lap, hoping no one noticed. Though what does it matter? Will they question him about what he was doing with Ren all this time? About the lingering shade of the bruises on his neck? Hux wouldn’t be able to answer those questions. His voice would die in his throat, as if Ren’s hands had returned to it.

He’s ashamed to note that he’s trembling when the transport cuts through snow-topped mountains and a massive tower in the distance comes into view, standing alone within a wide valley circled by steep mountain peaks. Hux has heard about this New Republic prison, the largest and the most heavily guarded of its kind. He did not know it was located on this planet, but it fits the descriptions he’s heard: a relentless spike of what they would call justice, cylindrical and very tall, perhaps a hundred stories or more, nothing but mountains surrounding the high wall that circles its base. Hux writes his trembling off as temperature-induced and also hunger-related, though he can’t imagine ever having an appetite again. It’s not as if he isn’t terrified-- he can admit that he is, though he can’t say what, exactly, he’s afraid to lose, since he’s got nothing left --but he’s not usually one for trembling, terrified or not.

“Home sweet home,” FN-2187 says when Hux makes the mistake of catching his gaze.

The transport passes through a massive gate that opens at the base of the wall that surrounds the Tower. Inside these walls there is nothing but the Tower and the barren ground that circles it, looked down upon by cannon-mounted guard stations that are placed every fifty feet or so along the top of the wall. Hux notes these details and files them away, though he knows it’s foolish to imagine he could escape from here on foot or by any other means short of Ren losing his mind and coming to collect him. Hux would refuse to go with him. Fantasies aside, he doesn’t want to be alone with Ren again. He couldn’t manage it. He would shiver himself to death in fear of the next moment when Snoke managed to take over. Even if Ren kills Snoke somehow, that’s all over. No more blankets or beds or other senses of false security that would only lure Hux further into ruin. It was a near fatal move in this game he’s always been playing, and it’s brought him here, back to very bottom of the ladder that everyone alive is climbing, all his weapons stripped away.

Ren won’t come for him, anyway. Enfolded in the arms of his family, Ren will be ‘Ben’ again before long, will be convinced that Hux is just more of his former self’s collateral damage, and will move on to reinventing the Jedi or some fantastic bullshit like that, probably only to inevitably repeat the cycle that is his family’s unenviable fate. Maybe Ren will next become obsessed with someone ‘good’ and will ruin them, more in keeping with Skywalker tradition. Regardless, whatever Ren does from now on won’t involve Hux. Of that, Hux is certain.

The transport enters a garage at the base of the tower. A dark tunnel empties into a windowless room on the interior, and Hux’s trembling intensifies, to his dismay. It’s automatic, something that seeped into his bones when he was held in that bunker. On that moon. In that room without windows. From what he’s been able to piece together, he was there for roughly seventeen days. The same amount of time he was in that house with Ren, incidentally.

A large man with a fat stomach and slicked-back gray hair waits for him in this windowless room, which is really more of a garage compartment for the transport. The guards take Hux by his arms and pull him to his feet, leading him from the transport. The fat man is flanked by two more guards in uniforms identical to those worn by the men who usher Hux toward him. The fat man is smiling, for some reason. He appears to be about the age that Hux’s father would be, were he still alive, and he’s wearing civilian clothes but sporting a badge that’s clipped to his coat. It says WARDEN.

“General Hux,” the warden says. “Welcome to the Tower.”

Hux isn’t sure if he’s expected to speak. He wants the damn binders off his wrists already. That pilot made them too tight, not cutting off his circulation but uncomfortably pressed into his skin for too long now. FN-2187 comes forward and puts out his hand. The warden stares at it.

“Sir,” FN-2187 says. “I’ve been sent as part of the special envoy appointed by General Organa. I was asked to convey the prisoner here personally and speak to you about, ah, some conditions of his imprisonment.”

“I received Organa’s holo,” the warden says, waving FN-2187 away. “All right,” he says, to the guards. “Bring him in for processing.”

“Sir?” FN-2187 says. The warden ignores him and walks through a thickly armored durasteel door that opens into a windowless hallway. Hux is paraded down this hallway by the guards, behind the warden. FN-2187 follows, perhaps unnoticed. Hux finds that he’s relieved about this, though he has no idea why. FN-2187 certainly doesn’t hold any sincere concerns for Hux’s well-being, and Hux has a bad feeling about the smile on the warden’s face. He suspects that even Organa’s pleading on Ren’s behalf won’t make much of a difference in how he’s treated here.

They take an elevator up ten floors and move down another, busier hallway, then into the warden’s office, which is surprisingly cramped and also windowless, located at the center of an administrative area. Hux tries to note details about the building’s organization, but his ability to concentrate on anything aside from his own dread is fading. He’s tired, his stomach is aching, and just keeping his posture somewhat respectable when he’s pushed into a chair across from the warden’s desk takes all of the energy he has left. The guards move back to stand against the wall behind Hux, and FN-2187 hovers near the door. The warden smiles again when he pulls up Hux’s file on the holoscreen that projects over the center of his desk.

“I should introduce myself,” the warden says. “My name is Maxim Stepwell. Maybe they’ve heard of me in the First Order?”

“No,” Hux says, earnestly. Stepwell snorts as if he doubts this is true.

“I run the Tower,” Stepwell says. “Home to the most captured First Order officers in the galaxy. Also holder of the record for fewest successful escape attempts in Republic history. Holding steady at zero.”

“Congratulations,” Hux says, though he knows he should shut up. Stepwell studies him, smile fading, then flips through the screens on Hux’s record.

“Elan Bartram Hux,” Stepwell says. “Former General in the First Order, known as Starkiller among the Resistance because he used a sun to blow up five planets. That’s cute, did you invent that? I heard your weapon self-destructed before the dust settled.”

Hux suppresses the urge to take that bait, longing to inform everyone present that it wasn’t a flaw in his weapon’s design but the Resistance’s bombs that destroyed the oscillator. He restrains himself, keeping any hint of an expression off his face.

“I hear from Organa that you surrendered willingly.” Stepwell makes a mock-impressed face. “I find that hard to believe, and the leadership of both the Resistance and the New Republic have a lot of questions for you. But they’re generously giving you a day to get settled in your holding cell prior to that, and then of course you’ll have your sentencing hearing. In the meantime, let’s go over the dirty details. Your prisoner number is 061-EBH. Think you can remember that? If you’re here long enough to make it to the commissary, you’ll need to give them that number when you pick up your toothpaste and so forth.”

“I can remember it,” Hux says when Stepwell seems to be waiting for an actual answer. A number instead of a name. As if he’s some kind of common foot soldier. Funny.

“The sixty-one refers to the floor we’ll be housing you on. There are one hundred and twenty floors in my walled city, but don’t worry, you won’t be needing a map. You’re an isolated, maximum-security prisoner, according to Organa’s direct order. That means you take your meals in your room, get your own special shower time, and if you survive your sentencing you’ll get an hour of rec time on the roof every day, all by yourself. Though I don’t think anyone in this room really expects you to survive your sentencing.”

Hux doesn’t refute that. Stepwell’s face changes, his chin lowering as he studies Hux.

“I thought you’d be a bigger guy,” Stepwell says. “Like your father.”

“You knew him?” Hux is surprised, frowning.

“Oh, I knew of him. And his school. Know all about your stormtrooper program, too. I blasted away my share of bucketheads when I fought in the Rebellion. Lost a lot of good men to the brain-washed bastards fighting for the Empire.” Stepwell’s eyes flick to FN-2187, and he frowns. “What are you still doing here?” he asks. “I told you, I received Organa’s holo message. No harm shall come to the little general here, prior to his sentencing. Would be bad for the New Republic’s image if it did, and for my Tower’s reputation. I get it. Who are you with, soldier?”

“I told you,” FN-2187 says, as insolent as ever, “I’m part of the special envoy--”

“Right, well. Has the general been frisked?”

“Frisked-- For weapons?” FN-2187 huffs a sort of laugh that makes Stepwell’s eyes darken. “Sir-- He was arrested in the presence of a Force user. General Organa’s niece, in fact. She would have sensed it if he had--”

“Get him up and frisk him,” Stepwell barks, and the guards hurry forward. “I don’t really go in for that spiritual crap,” Stepwell says to FN-2187 as Hux is yanked from his seat by the guards. “Not in the sense that I think it’s foolproof, anyhow.”

Having two guards yank his legs apart and pat him down in a simple if vigorous weapons search shouldn’t make Hux’s heart rate skyrocket and his breath shorten, but it does. He’s afraid he’s visibly shaken afterward, though he tries not to be, still standing, his bound hands braced on the back of the chair he’d been sitting in. Stepwell studies him, smirks.

“Can’t wait to read the transcript of your questioning,” Stepwell says. “You look like shit-- Was there a mutiny aboard your ship? Your precious indoctrination methods still not working out so great, huh? Get him out of here.” Stepwell gestures to the door. “Quara, Pintmo, you two know what to do. Tarum, Deetz, you’re back on duty in the garage. And you,” Stepwell says to FN-2187 as two of the guards take Hux by the arms and turn him toward the door. “You can take the first transport back to the base where you came from.”

“Yes, sir,” FN-2187 says. “But, sir, before I go, I have been ordered to confirm your personal assurance that this prisoner will be given special consideration, on account of the information that we’ll need to get from him and the fact that he is apparently, um, traumatized--”

“Traumatized, ha! Yeah, they’d all sell me that story if they could, every prisoner on one hundred and twenty floors.”

This is the last of their conversation that Hux is able to hear. He’s being marched down the hallway by the two guards, around a corner and into an elevator. Hux knew this would happen, so he fights off the disappointment. Of course Ren can’t protect him here. Not even with the threat of a tantrum. Ren has lost all his weapons, too, by confessing that he needs his mother.

Hux imagines his own mother hearing of his arrest. Surely it will be reported across the galaxy: his disgrace, his forthcoming punishment. His mother was never exactly proud of him for advancing in rank. She seemed to think it was inevitable, all down to nepotism, though she never said so out loud. Maybe she’ll think he’s gotten what was coming to him the way Brendols Sr. and Jr. did, while she continues to spend the family’s money on doing whatever she likes.

The guards don’t speak to Hux as they lead him down another hallway, just two floors up from the last one. This floor is quieter, and they bring Hux to a droid-manned desk before a row of rooms, read off his prisoner number and then march him into one of the rooms, the door closing with a hard click behind them.

“Okay,” one guard says, coming forward to remove the binders from his hands. Hux has forgotten the names that Stepwell barked; he supposes it doesn’t matter. He can’t really think straight at the moment, and could barely make his legs work on the walk here. “Strip,” the guard says, gesturing to Hux with his blaster.

Right. Sure, of course. Getting straight to it. This is why the pair of male guards were ordered to take him away, perhaps. One of the others was a woman.

Hux takes a moment to consider whether it would be more or less dignified to turn his back on the guards while he removes his clothes. In that bunker, on that moon, he wasn’t allowed to do this part himself. He remains facing them and pulls off Luke Skywalker’s enormous shirt-like thing, then pushes down the baggy pants, removing them along with the old boots from the house. That’s it: just three things this time. No gloves, no belt, no underthings. Lifting his eyes to the guards is not easy, but Hux manages it. He stares at them as blankly as he can, hands at his sides. He won’t scream, anyway.

“What are you waiting for?” the guard who spoke before asks. He gestures with his blaster. “Go, unless you’d rather be hosed off by medical.”

Hux frowns, turns. Behind him is a row of sanisteam showerheads. He somehow didn’t notice.

He holds in humiliated, grateful laughter as he moves toward the showers. Right, well. This is standard procedure in the Order, too. Prisoners are ordered to scrub off the most obvious of whatever foreign agents they might be carrying before being examined by medical to check for anything more insidious that could be passed on to the general population. According to Stepwell, Hux won’t be mixing with the general population. But anyway. This is what’s actually happening: showering. At least for now. He can do this. One humiliation at a time, and this one not as bad as it might have been. He turns on the sanistream.

The guards mutter to each other while the shower does its work. Apparently the sight of a captured general being steam-cleaned is not so very interesting. Hux lifts his hands to make sure the dirt under his fingernails is blasted away. He considers the fact that he hasn’t showered since Ren fucked him, and then can’t move for a while, frozen into a state of near non-existence that sometimes still seems like an appealing alternative to actually being alive. He forces himself to think about something else, anything but Ren, anything but that day, and for some reason his mother comes to mind. He tries to recall the last communication he had from her. It was before he was made General. She’d sent some disinterested holo from a planet with jungles and temples. She was always saying in her messages that the locals were strange, but she had hated First Order society, too. She had fit in easily enough, and made a nice-looking, functionally two-dimensional image at his father’s side, but--

“Hey,” one of the guards barks. Hux isn’t sure if it’s the one who spoke before or not. He feels somewhat insane when he turns, not wanting to leave the warmth of the sanisteam and almost ready to start some kind of fight he’d certainly lose. “Start the dry-off mode,” the guard says. “This isn’t a fucking spa.”

Hux does as instructed, tipping his face up and closing his eyes when the surge of warm air soaks over him, efficiently removing all lingering moisture from his body. He hasn’t been in one of these sanistream showers since the Academy. They don’t bring back great memories, but he’ll take any small mercies he can get at this point, still riding his relief about being asked to strip only for this, though he knows he can’t count on his luck continuing.

When he’s done he attempts to smooth his hair down, wondering if they’ll buzz it off, then if they’ll parade him naked to the station where he’ll be issued a uniform. Luke’s clothes have disappeared, deposited into some unseen laundry chute or incinerator. One of the guards goes to a panel on the wall and punches some information into a data pad there.

“Stand here,” he says, grabbing Hux’s arm and pulling him onto a square on the floor that lights up with a number after a few seconds: his weight. It’s not as low as Hux feared, but still not quite what he would call his fighting weight. The guard types this number into the data pad. “How tall are you?” he asks.

Hux tells him, surprised that they’re just taking his word for it, though he supposes lying about this would only result in an improperly fitting uniform. When his information has been entered, the wall panel opens, revealing a folded shirt and pair of pants. Pale gray, short sleeves, no pockets on the pants. Hux’s prisoner number is stitched onto the back of the shirt.

Hux dresses in these things gladly while the guards look on. At least these garments are clean. The shoes he’s given, meanwhile, are an insult. They’re soft, more like slippers than shoes, and they only fit him approximately. He thinks of his boots, trashed on that moon base, or maybe collected by whoever arrived to deal with the bodies Ren left in his wake. If anyone even bothered. Snoke certainly wouldn’t have. The thought of those men still rotting there, unburied and increasingly disgusting with the slime of decay, gives Hux a bit of needed cheer as he submits to the binders again, his wrists aching when the guard makes them even tighter than that pilot did. He’s marched down the hallway and back into the elevator, wearing fucking slippers in public.

As he predicted, he arrives at one of the Tower’s medical floors next. He’s examined in a curtained corner by a small, female doctor as the guards stand watching.

“What are these bruises from?” the doctor asks almost immediately, pulling the collar of Hux’s uniform shirt away to get a better look at them. She looks up into his eyes when he hesitates to respond, and seems unamused by his silence.

“Well,” Hux says. “As you might have guessed by the fingerprint-shaped ones, someone tried to choke me. Actually, I suppose he did choke me, rather successfully, except in the sense that he failed to kill me by doing so.”

“Your vocal chords sound healthy,” she says, frowning. “These bruises look old, but. In a strange way--”

“Yes. Here’s the more interesting part, maybe even from a medical perspective-- I was given some magical Jedi tea that lessened the bruising, and it also healed my throat.”

The doctor gives him another unamused look and continues with her examination. When she’s through he’s given clean bill of health, which is so preposterous that he might laugh, if he had any energy left. Ren really did heal seventeen days worth of injuries that should have killed him. Hux was afraid for the first few days in that house, paranoid that it would all be reversed somehow, as if Ren didn’t really know what he was doing, because whenever did he. Hux had held on to hope because that first injury Ren had inflicted and then healed on Hux’s throat had never reappeared, at least not in a literal way. In a more fatalistic sense, it has returned. It seems now like something Hux should have predicted.

“What’s that?” Hux asks when the doctor approaches him with a syringe. He has a bad association with syringes, though he can’t remember exactly why.

“This is just something that prevents the growth of facial hair,” the doctor says. “You’ll be given this shot on a monthly basis. They don’t trust the prisoners with razors, but they want the human ones clean-shaven, for sanitary reasons.”

“I know,” Hux says, staring straight ahead while she administers it. “I’m familiar with dexitoma.”

The Order uses it on the stormtroopers. It can cause dehydration and itchiness, but it was determined by the leadership-- by Hux, who reviewed the financials and relevant medical data himself --that neither reaction was severe enough in the average trooper to negate the value of using it on them. Hux is fairly certain that the dexitoma won’t take effect for at least several hours, but he imagines he can feel his skin drying out as he’s marched back to the elevator, still flanked by the same guards, and he would be scratching at his cheeks if his wrists weren’t bound.

He’s glad his father didn’t live to see him dexitoma’d like a common grunt. Officers don’t use the drug, of course. It’s a gentleman’s privilege to shave. A kind of important ritual. Hux will miss that. He’ll miss showering in a private stall under hot water, too. That was such a relief, when he was made an officer: the small shower that was just his, protected from onlookers, a kind of sanctuary, whereas the other kind had become a gaping arena of torment in his imagination, even after he’d built enough of a reputation for revenge that no one dared glance in his direction there. His heart had still beat too fast, every time.

He thinks of Ren, not wanting to, as the elevator rises and rises and the pressure of this rapid ascent builds in his ears. Ren, who stepped so casually into that shower behind Hux, after that first fuck on the Finalizer. It should have been terrifying, in light of Hux’s lingering phobia. But Ren had just seemed to belong there, maybe because it was his room, his shower. And he got out when Hux asked him to. The second time he asked, anyway.

Hux allows himself one hateful thought about what Ren must be doing right now. Having cake with Mummy, doted upon by that cousin who somehow still seems to adore him, sitting in a sunlit mansion, surrounded by supportive family members.

He knows this is a simplification. He knows Ren would rather enslave himself to some new monster than face his mother and see the loss of his father in her eyes. But Hux clings angrily to this mental image of Ren laughing it up with family and friends, sipping the healing tea that those people know how to make, tearfully apologizing, being forgiven, forgetting that Hux is here in hell.

Ren did this to him. Ren had him arrested, caged. Hux keeps this firmly in mind as he’s lead into his cell on the sixty-first floor.

“Your attorney will meet with you in the morning,” one guard says. He removes the binders from Hux’s hands, turns toward his waiting colleague and walks out, the armored door shutting with a surprisingly quiet whisk behind them.

Hux flexes his wrists and rubs his thumb into one palm, then the other. It’s quiet in here, at least. He feels better, having showered, and hungry enough to eat whatever they’ll eventually bring him. He braces himself and turns to take in the room where he’s been imprisoned indefinitely.

The room is shaped like a slice of pie, which is unexpected and almost whimsical: typical, too, of the Republic. Design over function, even in a fucking prison. It’s much larger than he would have guessed, maybe four hundred square feet of floorspace with a relatively high ceiling. The narrowest part of the pie slice is the width of the door, the walls branching diagonally outward from there and arriving at a rounded far wall which is also a huge window, surely made of some material more sturdy than the average viewport. It looks out on the surrounding mountains. Against the left wall there is a sink and a toilet. On the right there’s a durasteel desk and chair, both bolted to the floor, a low bed and some empty shelves that are built into the wall. That’s all. Nothing to do but sit and think about what he’s done.

Hux considers what he’ll say when they question him. He’s surprised he’s being given an attorney, apparently. Prisoners of the First Order aren’t allowed one unless they’re fairly high ranking, and even then it’s just a charade of justice, the accused’s fate already handed down from whoever wanted him accused and arrested, as long as that person outranks him. Hux assumes that’s the case here, too, even if they dress it all up a bit more ornately. He goes to stand at the window, clasps his hands behind his back and surveys the mountains. They look merciless from here: high peaks, freezing temperatures, no hint of flora or fauna in sight. It’s strange that he’s allowed to have a view. He supposes all the prisoners here are, if every room is shaped this way. The New Republic must tell itself that this glimpse of the outside world is enough to keep its imprisoned population sane. Hux is sure it won’t be, in his case, but he may not have arrived here sane, exactly.

When he tires of standing he sits on the bed. There’s a blanket, a pillow. Both are on the thin side but also of a higher quality than he might have expected. The room is immaculately clean, sterile and dustless. There’s no sound.

He knows what will happen when he rests his head on that pillow and allows his heavy eyelids to fall shut. He’ll see Ren looming over him. The change in his eyes. The way he-- Snoke --had smiled. It was so strangely personal. As if Snoke actually hated Hux the person and didn’t just want to get the newest obstacle out of the way.

To keep himself distracted until sleep takes over and does whatever it wants with his unguarded mind, Hux goes over what he knows about First Order operations, which is voluminous almost to the point of being encyclopedic, organizing the information he might offer and that which should still remain guarded. He can’t deny that he was ready to abandon the Order and all it stands for when he sat on that speeder and held Ren’s face in his hands, but he is not there now. He needs to consider, carefully, all potential outcomes of his apparent cooperation with the New Republic upon questioning. They’ll be dangling his life over him as bait, surely, but they’ll probably want to execute him no matter what he says.

Realizing this, he feels foolish for assuming that what he reveals to them will matter to his own future. He’s probably got a month here, if that. If he can’t figure out a way to escape, he’ll be executed. Stepwell doesn’t seem like a man who makes empty promises, and Leia Organa surely can’t show mercy toward the mass murderer her son was fucking without risking an enormous backlash on a galactic level. Regardless, it’s probably not her decision. The Republic is not going to hand down a judgment that will amount to hosting General Starkiller in this relatively cozy pie-slice with a view, not after what he’s done. He didn’t just command the enemy army. He took worlds down with him. Bragged that he would do it and then did. Destroyed a sun. Executed billions without warning. He tells himself, when he can’t fight sleep any longer, that this means he’s not a failure. He left his mark, anyway.

He dreams of the estate on what he thinks of as his home planet, though he only lived on those grounds from the age of six until he left for the Academy. He’s spent more time living on starships than on land, but they never felt like home. Not the way that place did, when he first walked under pine trees alongside his mother. They were avoiding the Brendols, probably, or at least Brendol Jr., who was then just a year away from being fast-tracked into the junior Academy so that even his hapless nursemaids wouldn’t have to deal with his increasingly psychotic behavior. Hux would soon attend an elite pre-Academy school for the sons of officers, but he wouldn’t board there. That hell was a long way off, far away from that summer when they first moved into a real house with surrounding property. Still, Hux would be less and less in his mother’s company when he returned home from his school days. Whose decision was that? Not his, not at six years old. She pulled away, or Brendol Sr. separated them. Regardless, she let it happen.

He’s half-awake as he slips in and out of this dream about a pine-scented forest, still fighting real sleep. When he loses the fight he’s returned to the house on the cliff. Looking for Ren. Searching every room, panicked. He finds Ren crouched in the garage, in the corner, though he’s sure he already checked here twice. Ren is shirtless. There’s something odd about the long curve of his spine. He’s rocking on his heels, making some strange sound under his breath. Crying? Hux wants to tell himself not to do it, to get away, but in the dream he reaches for Ren’s shoulder.

He wakes up with a shout, scrambling away from the attack that came in the dream: Ren’s eyes black, face horribly scarred, Ren barring his teeth and hissing with menace as he sprang at Hux, his hands going to Hux’s throat.

But it was only a dream. The light from the window has faded. Hux pushes his hand across the bed, looking for the real Ren. He scoots forward, confused when his hand finds only a cool surface: a wall. This bed is not pressed against a wall.

Hux’s eyes are open, but reality comes back more slowly than his vision. He’s in a bed that is pressed against a wall. Bolted into it, in fact. The sheets on that other bed, in the house on the cliff, are cold now, still wrecked from their struggle there, and from what came before.

Hux rolls onto his back and touches his neck, trying to breathe and finding that he can’t. He rubs his hands over his face and allows himself, briefly, just for the sake of catching his breath, to imagine what it would have been like to find Ren next to him. The real Ren, that fool who intended to protect Hux, once. Had Hux’s searching hand found that Ren, he would have let his conscious mind stay mostly turned off as he settled against Ren in relief, would have taken a deep breath, would have allowed the scent and heat of Ren’s skin to calm him. He would have been glad to feel Ren in his head, even. Checking on him. It wasn’t like hearing Ren’s voice in his mind, not when Hux woke from some horrible memory-turned-dream and grabbed for Ren, half-awake. Then it was more like a different kind of touch, having Ren in his head. Like Ren was clinging to him there, too, needing to skim over everything to make sure it was all still healed. As if Hux’s mind ever had been.

There’s a sound from the door: a narrow compartment on the bottom opens and a tray is pushed inside. Meal time. Hux hears the whir of a droid moving away from the door as the compartment closes again.

He sits up and is faced with a brilliant sunset that has colored the sky outside pink and orange, some thin clouds streaked in dark silhouettes against this. Perhaps Stepwell gave Hux a room with this sunset view to mock him: tick-tock, 061-EBH.

Hux collects his dinner tray from the floor and brings it to the desk, which is closer to the window than the bed. He goes to the sink and finds a new bar of pale green soap, a flimsy-looking red toothbrush and a tiny tube of toothpaste. There’s a towel folded on a small shelf under the sink: basic and grayish like the ones aboard the Finalizer. That’s a strange comfort when Hux uses it to dry his hands after he’s washed them.

Strange comforts. They do still exist, he’s found. Such as that tea brewed by Luke Skywalker. Hux could swear he felt sunlight through wind-tossed pines when he drank it, along with the relief in his throat. He felt something akin to what he’d felt when Ren healed his ear, too, though not so intensely. That had been unique. He’s not sure why, even now; maybe because the healing energy sunk into him so deeply, though Ren had repaired his bones before.

Hux goes to the desk, opens the little carton of blue milk on his meal tray and resolves not to think about Ren, that uncanny healing, or any of it. Not yet, anyway. He has more pressing concerns, such as whether he should trust this attorney who will apparently meet with him in the morning-- probably not, he thinks --and how likely it is that someone in the kitchen staff here might be eager and able to poison his food. He supposes the only real option is to eat what they serve him and find out. He’s tried living without food before, against his will. It’s not something he longs to attempt again.

The food is not good, especially after weeks of Ren’s bizarrely enjoyable meals at that house, but it’s not bad. Much higher in quality than what the Order feeds the stormtroopers, never mind their prisoners, who get a maximally cost-effective serving of gruel twice a day, as far as Hux knows. This tray contains some kind of dry meat with a gravy sauce, mashed root vegetables that were almost certainly made from a powder, and a largely tasteless salad with on overly acidic dressing. There’s also a little bar of something orange-ish that is surprisingly sweet when Hux bites into it. He doesn’t care for sweets but eats it anyway, because there’s nothing else to do.

He wonders when and how they will collect the tray. It annoys him, sitting there on the desk, littered with crumbs and congealing gravy. At that house by the shore, Ren had barked at him once or twice for leaving his dirty plates around. Hux doesn’t like the sight of dirty dishes either, but at every other stage of his life he’s had them whisked away by a staff of some sort before he could really take notice.

As the sunlight disappears outside, no lights come on in his cell. He remains at the desk, rubbing his hand over his eyes, not wanting to sleep again. He wishes they would give him an off-network data pad or even a paper scratch pad and a pen to use for making notes about his strategy going forward, though he supposes it would be dangerous to have anything in writing. He’s got to try to hold all of it in his head, which is not in the best condition to hold onto anything at present.

But he’ll try. He’s not giving up. He made that decision on the cliff outside of Skywalker’s house. He’s not even really sure why, but he was raised never to stop trying to rule the galaxy, no matter what the circumstances are. Hux saw the First Order rise from almost nothing throughout his childhood. He saw it grow powerful enough under his own guidance to destroy five planets with the press of a button.

He’s got to start pretending not to count that as an achievement. He still has his pride, but he’s not stupid. He knows how to lie. It’s not his sharpest skill, but it’s one that no student graduated from his father’s Academy without.

The night passes in uneasy fits and bursts of sleep, every half-restful stretch interrupted by dreams about Ren transforming into a monster, and not the friendly kind who let Hux ride on his shoulder in that idiotic fantasy that Ren apparently witnessed. Hux is shaking by daybreak, huddled under the blanket on the bed in a way that he told himself he would never do again, like a frightened child. He pushes it away and sits up when he sees the light of the sun climbing over the mountains, throwing the long shadow of the Tower over them as it rises.

When he considers his forthcoming meeting with an attorney he gets out of the bed to dress, only to remember that he has no closet, no clothes. He goes to his mirror and touches his still hairless face, noting a slight pink coloration high on his cheeks. It doesn’t itch, exactly, but his eyes feel overly dry and he blames the dexitoma. He brushes his teeth, washes his face, and straightens his hair as best he can with damp hands. By the time the guards come for him he feels halfway human, though also very hungry and still embarrassed by his footwear as he shuffles through the hallways in the grip of his jailers, his hands bound in front of him by a new set of binders.

He’s surprised when the guards again convey him in silence. He expected that warden to have instructed them to taunt him as much as possible, as Stepwell seems like the type who would encourage or at least allow that sort of juvenile behavior in his lessers. These guards are not the ones from the day before: one is a tall woman with a thick chest, the other a man who is on the scrawny side. Hux hasn’t seen any non-human personnel at the Tower yet. He wonders if Stepwell shares Brendol Hux Sr.’s suspicion of all other high-functioning species. Hux bought into that, once, but when he heard rumors aboard the Finalizer that Uta had some non-human blood he found that he didn’t care and continued to promote her. Anyway, her appearance was human enough, and that was mostly what people feared, irrationally: some lifeform that looked different from them. That was what Ren had counted on when he covered his humanity with that mask.

Hux tries not to think about the first time he saw Ren’s face. Those memories aren’t useful here, now. And yet: he remembers being surprised. Not just by one thing but by everything: Ren’s youth, his unguarded eyes, the plump lips, that annoyingly luxurious hair, and the fact that Ren didn’t even try to hide that he was sorry Hux had seen him as he really was. Ren had ducked away slightly when Hux caught him speaking to Snoke without the mask, had lowered his face like a child who couldn’t conceal his shame.

The elevator arrives on the twentieth floor today. Hux wonders how many of the lower floors are devoted to administration and how he might find out. He’s a bit insulted, when he considers it, that he’s been placed on the 61st floor, though he’s not sure it signifies anything. It seems to him that the very worst criminals would be at the top or the bottom, and 61 is such a middling number here, unless all 60 floors below him house administrative departments, which seems unlikely.

The guards bring him into a pie-shaped conference room with a window that looks out over the mountains on the other side of the Tower. A plump man wearing what probably passes for formal clothing in New Republic society sits at the end of the table inside, furiously typing on an over-sized data pad. He’s about Hux’s age, maybe a bit older. He looks up when they enter and beams, as if Hux has arrived for his birthday party.

“Oh!” he says. “Already, wow, that was fast. Thanks, guys.”

Hux is surprised when the female guard removes his binders, though he supposes he has no reason to attack his attorney. The guards retreat to the hallway, behind a soundproof door with a window that looks into the conference room. The man in the suit-- Hux’s lawyer, presumably --hurries over to shake his hand, still smiling. His cheerful, fat-cheeked face is unnerving, but Hux shakes with him, though he’s always hated this greeting custom and his father once told him never to submit to it. It’s a Republic-originating thing.

“I guess they told you who I am,” the man says. “Jek T. Porkins, the third. Your defense attorney for the sentencing.”

He sounds a bit as if he’s introducing himself as Hux’s waiter for the evening, and the way he walks over to pull one of the six big chairs at the conference table out for Hux furthers this impression.

“You said your name is-- Jek?” Hux says, sitting. “Jek-- Porkins, that’s your actual name?”

“The third!” He grins and returns to his own chair, looking as if he’s missed the insult in this question.

“And were the two previous Jeks attorneys as well?” Hux asks, not sure what else to say in this situation.

“Oh no, no. Dad was a pilot, flew in the Rebel fleet back in the Imperial days, lots of decisive battles. Died in action, highly decorated, all that. And Grandpa Jek was a professional athlete, back when U-Ball was big on Coruscant.”

“Okay.” Hux watches Jek typing something into the data pad. “How did you get stuck with this job?”

“I’m something of an activist,” Jek says, still typing, as if Hux has interrupted him in the process of drafting his holofiction. “Vehemently opposed to the death penalty, no matter what the crime. So you’re sort of the ultimate dream case, for me.”

“Delighted to be of service.”

“Okay!” Jek closes whichever document he was working on and sits back, sort of rocking in the chair that he fills completely. There is something about him that is-- round, generally. Too smiley. Hux stares at him, awaiting his advice. “First off,” Jek says. “I take it you’re not objecting to the nature of the sentencing hearing. You’re not denying that you gave the order to destroy five planets, that is.”

“Well,” Hux says. “I might try to if it were feasible, but I take it that the Republic has got hold of the footage of the speech I gave in the presence of thousands, which was broadcast to millions, where I enthusiastically take credit for the crime.”

“They have,” Jek says, nodding, still rocking in his chair.

“In that case. Sentencing it is.”

“Good!” Jek drinks from a cup of what smells like caf. Hux wouldn’t mind some of that, or a cigarette. He hasn’t smoked since the Academy. It was a habit his father detested, but Hux hid it well, like everything else. Something about being institutionalized yet again is making him long for that old comfort. “So I’ll go ahead and explain how the sentencing process is going to work,” Jek says, pulling up what looks like Hux’s file on his data pad. There’s an outdated picture attached. Hux can only see the reverse of it, but it appears to be his Academy graduation photo.

“I take it there’s really only one debate involved in this sentencing,” Hux says. “To kill me or not to kill me.”

“That’s right,” Jek says. “Hence my involvement.”

“I’m surprised they’re bothering to debate it at all. Is this legitimate, in your opinion? Not just a pageant? They’re actually considering-- Life imprisonment as an alternative, I assume?”

“That’s right. And I believe the hearing is legit. It’s quite rare for this governing body to sentence someone to death. I typically have a much more traditional defense practice. But you’re, you know. A special case. People have a lot of ongoing pain and anger.”

“People have a lot of ongoing pain and anger,” Hux says, repeating this as dryly as he can. Jek just goes on smiling faintly, enjoying his special project. “Yeah. I guess you could say that.”

“So before we talk about some theories of defense, let me tell you the details about the sentencing Committee,” Jek says. “It’s a specially appointed Committee made up of five surviving representatives from the planets that were destroyed, one from each planet, and then there’s the Chief Justice of the New Republic. That’s probably the only lenient vote we can really count on, because he’s typically not in favor of the death penalty. And then the Committee Head is General Organa. She only gets a vote if there’s a tie, and in that case she would cast the deciding vote.”

“General Organa.” Hux withholds laughter, or maybe it just doesn't quite materialize. He shouldn’t be surprised. Nor amused. “Really.”

“Yeah, I think they sort of pressured her to do it, because of Alderaan, you know, her personal connection with planets being destroyed by superweapons. Needless to say, this sentencing hearing is a big to-do in the press. You’re the biggest celebrity in the galaxy right now, sort of uniquely infamous.”

“Terrific.” Hux wonders if he should mention his own ‘personal connection’ to General Organa’s recently wayward son. It may be the only bargaining chip they have, though it’s a paltry one and could in fact be a liability in some way that Hux hasn’t yet foreseen. Much to do with Ren was, after all, and Hux has a history of figuring out the actual way that his association with Ren will screw him over only when it’s too late.

“The Committee will hear from the Republic’s appointed prosecutor,” Jek explains, “And then from me. I’m not sure if I want to have you testify before the Committee, but it’s likely the prosecutor will move to force you to do it. Would you consider yourself a charming person?”

Hux waits for Jek to crack a smile, but he appears to be serious now.

“That’s a real question?” Hux says.

“Yes-- I mean, notwithstanding what you’ve done. I think it’s obvious that our only real defense here is that you surrendered willingly because you saw the error of your ways-- which is a great start! --and that you were born into the First Order and pressured to become a General, to use the superweapon-- I’m told you answer to a greater authority, but apparently there’s some confusion about who that is exactly?”

“We called him Supreme Leader.” Hux touches his neck. “He’s-- Mysterious, by design. I never had a personal audience with him outside of calls on a holo channel, but. I know someone who did.”

“Great! Are you still in touch with this person? Can they prove this Supreme Leader exists and that he handed down the order to destroy the planets?”

“Um.” Hux sits forward and puts his elbows on the table, more unprepared to talk about this than he even realized. “Do you think you could get me a pack of cigarettes?” Hux asks when he looks up at Jek, who appears concerned. “The auto-lighting kind, since I assume they won’t allow me a firemaking device of any sort.”

Somewhat to Hux’s surprise, Jek says he’ll see what he can do and goes to speak to the guards. Hux stares at the back of Jek’s data pad, at the reverse image of the picture of himself in his Academy uniform, and tries to envision Ren’s testimony at his hearing. No, it won’t happen. Ren’s mother will keep him far away from this apparent media circus. Anyway, the weapon wasn’t Snoke’s idea. Hux invented it when was still a captain, seven years ago, based on an idea he’d been working on since school. His promotion to General was supposedly due to the weapon’s acceptance to production. Surely the prosecution will be sharp enough to dig up some intelligence gathered by the Resistance as proof of that.

“Well, that was easy!” Jek says when he reappears, a pack of cigarettes in his hand. “Keep those discreet,” he says, passing them to Hux. “I said they were for me.” He winks. Something about this reminds Hux of Ren, though there is literally nothing about this man that resembles him.

“People just hand you things you ask for?” Hux says, opening the cigarettes. “Just like that?”

“I’ve been told that I’m a charmer. So we’ve got that in our corner! Anyway, we’ll get back to composing a witness list later. My point about asking if you’re charming is that you’re gonna have to grovel like never before, and you don’t look like a groveler to me. If you’re willing, I can arrange a pre-sentencing interview with the prosecutor and enter the transcript into the record, and in that transcript we would include details about how you were brought up, what your indoctrination experience was like, and anything about how you were mistreated within the system that created you. If that’s something that happened. Mistreatment, I mean. Based on what I know about the Order, I tend to assume everybody has some horror stories?”

Hux can’t get the hang of these auto-lighting cigarettes. They’re different from the ones he smoked as a boy, which required actual fire. He flicks at the end with his thumb again and again, waiting for it to catch flame. His hands are shaking.

“What?” he snaps when he looks up to find Jek staring at him. “No, I-- I was Commandant Hux’s son. Of course I wasn’t mistreated. There would have been consequences.”

“Can I get that for you?” Jek asks, nodding to the cigarette when Hux continues to struggle to light it.

“No. I can do it myself.”

Hux’s hand is still shaking terribly when he manages to light the damn thing, and he drags on it like it’s a lifeline, coughing most of his first inhale up. Jek is still giving him a searching look. Hux hopes this fucker isn’t ‘Force sensitive’ or whatever they call it. He won’t be entering a word of what happened to him at school onto any record. He would rather die. Perhaps he will, in consequence, but at least he’d go to his grave without submitting to a therapy session in a public forum while he’s the biggest celebrity in the galaxy.

“I need you to think about that a little more carefully over the coming days,” Jek says. “Because to establish that the, let’s say, less desirable elements of your character were shaped by the First Order is very important to our case. Essential, I’d say. I mean, you’re an engineer, right? You’re a logical guy. But I’m sure you can understand that these people hate the Order. You’ve left the Order, and they want to hear now why you hate it, too. The more personal you get, the better, because these representatives from the the five planets that were destroyed? This is as personal as it gets for them, obviously. So you’ve got to be able to rise up to meet that if you want to survive this. You get me?”

“I get you,” Hux says, muttering this around the end of his cigarette. He’ll find some other way. Make up some other story.

“In my research on you I found some rumors that there was a mutinous faction within the crew on your ship,” Jek says. “Can you tell me a little bit about why you left the First Order? What was your primary reason for defecting?”

Hux glances at the conference room door. He drags on the cigarette again, the relief of it filling his lungs pleasurably this time. His reason for leaving the Order was Ren, twice over. Hux ran straight into the trap Snoke had set because he was told Ren needed him. Then he left, finally, for good, without meaning to, because Ren had arrived to slay his captors. That was the leaving Hux did. Carried away in Ren’s arms like a half-dead thing, not yet aware that he was still just some wriggling bait for Ren to chase.

“I saw the error of my ways,” Hux says, sharply, when he turns back to Jek. “That’s what they want to hear, right?”

“Never mind what they want to hear, we’ll work on that later. I have an absolute, unbreakable responsibility to maintain confidentiality while serving as your attorney. Unless you tell me some information that represents a direct, imminent danger to the Republic, I would be disbarred if I ever divulged anything you told me in confidence to the Committee or to anyone else.”

“So?” Hux says, still sharply.

“So I need you to tell me the reason you left the First Order. The real reason. And we’ll work together to shape the facts we have on the table into something they want to hear.”

Hux opens his mouth, half-determined to say all of it out loud. Why not, as he’s already being marched toward his Committee-approved death? Even if he could get the vote of a single sap from one of those destroyed planets, there’s no way in hell the majority of them will be won over by whatever sob story he concocts. Even if he told the real story, or both of them, since he supposes he really has two petty personal nightmares to offer them in exchange for their exploded home worlds, what would they care? Hux would need at least two of their votes to even him bring him to Organa’s tie-breaker, and that’s only if Porkins is right about the Chief Justice being unwilling to vote for a death sentence. Two people whose planets Hux destroyed would have to decide, on behalf of whomever else remains of their blown to hell culture, that Hux deserves to live. And then Organa would lower the ax anyway, because why wouldn’t she? Even if she wanted to spare him for Ren’s sake, to do so would be political suicide and an insult to her own blown-up ex-planet and those scallops that don’t exist anymore.

There’s no chance for him, is what he’s hearing already. So he might as well tell part of this story, at least. The sanitized version. Just for the entertainment of seeing how far it will get him.

“Look,” Hux says, calming a bit after another drag on the cigarette. “I was a spoiled kid. I had a privileged upbringing and enjoyed advancing in rank. Inventing weapons like the one I used was my true passion. I left the Order because the leadership turned against me. Snoke, they call him. He was angry because I allowed the Starkiller base to be destroyed by the Resistance. He didn’t turn on me right away, but once he had secured my replacement, he got rid of me. Arranged to have me killed as slowly as possible. I had only one ally at that point-- The former apprentice whom Snoke had also turned against. Together, we ran. When Snoke found us, he nearly killed me.” Hux pulls the collar of his uniform shirt away from his neck and points to the bruises. “Ren-- Snoke’s former apprentice --is powerful, however, and we managed to escape. Lest we be overtaken by Snoke again, we fled to the only safe harbor available: Skywalker’s little hut on that island. I don’t know how much of this you’ve already heard?”

“Nobody’s told me any of this,” Jek says. He’s recording Hux’s statement on his data pad. So it’s out now, that part already on record in a sense. Porkins might claim to be working for Hux, but he’s a New Republic citizen and he now has Hux on record saying he likes inventing weapons that destroy planets. Perhaps Hux is fucked anyway, but confessing that bit to anybody, ever, and especially at this point, probably wasn’t the wisest move. It would seem that his ability to withhold information only until he’s absolutely certain that it can be played to his advantage has been compromised after spending weeks alone with someone who could read his mind.

“Please,” Jek says when Hux just sits there, probably looking horrified. “Continue.”

“Well, that rather brings us up to the present, doesn’t it?” Hux says. “Ren is also known as Ben Solo. Organa’s son. He’s with them now, I presume, and I’m here. Arguing for my life. I’m afraid those are the only facts we have to work with.”

Jek blinks, stares. “Are you serious?” he asks.

“Yes. Is that look you’re giving me a good or a bad sign?”

“It’s-- I don’t know, I guess it’s just shock. In what sense was Ben Solo an apprentice to this Snoke person?”

“Oh, you know.” Hux takes a long drag and exhales through his nose. “The Force, or whatever. The power-hungry, murderous side of it. He was an apprentice in that sense.”

“Why did this Snoke person turn on Solo?” Jek asks, typing notes now.

“That’s between them.” Hux really needs to stop talking about Ren. He can’t control the course of the conversation well enough, already isn’t sure if he’s said too much. “I don’t really know him that well,” Hux says. “Ren, I mean. We hid together out of desperation, but he’s not the talkative sort. Nor am I, despite my current inability to shut up. Anyway, it seemed prudent to keep what we knew close to our chests, lest it be used against us.”

“This is fascinating,” Jek says. “Ben Solo, wow. I’d heard gossip, but-- People thought he was dead.”

“You cannot pass this information on to anyone,” Hux says, newly terrified by the fact that he’s revealed even this thinly drawn truth about what happened. The near-complete loss of his mind is confirmed, he supposes.

“You can rely on my complete confidence,” Jek says, cheerful again. “Just like I explained. Don’t you have confidentiality laws in the First Order?”

“They’re more unspoken and usually involve quietly murdering the one who betrayed your confidence.”

“Oh.” That takes the wind from Jek’s sails. He’s typing again. “I wonder if Organa will step down as Committee Head when she finds out her son was involved with all this, in a sense.”

“She-- How would she find out, Jek? You just told me--”

“Not from me! From him, right? You said they’re together?”

“Well. Yes, I assume. He’s with his cousin, anyway, and some man called Wedge.” Hux snorts. For a moment his eyes are almost wet. He drags on the cigarette, not sure what’s come over him but glad for the moisture there, to combat the dryness. “But Ren might not be too keen on talking to his mother,” Hux says. “Though I suppose she might be able to read his mind. They do that, you know.”

“Uh-huh.” Jek is still typing notes. “Okay, speaking of mothers. You said you had a nice childhood? That’s great for you, but less than ideal when it comes to our case here.”

“Nice might be a bit of a stretch,” Hux says, muttering.

“I’m going to subpoena your mother,” Jek says, casually. Just as Ren told him that she’s still alive, that day. “She’s your only living relative, correct?”

“I-- Yes, but. She’s not-- She won’t respond to your subpoena.” Hux laughs, or tries to, suddenly feeling like he’s dragged too deeply on the cigarette again. “She doesn’t reside in the New Republic.”

“Sure she does.” Jek frowns and pulls something up on his data pad. There’s no picture, just text. “Elana Levchen Hux, fifty-four years old, occupation is listed as ‘floral assistant.’ She’s not on this planet, but she’s not far, should be able to get here in a few days. She defected to the New Republic, let’s see-- Three years ago. Applied for amnesty as a political refugee and had it granted. So, hey! Maybe you can get some tips from her. Anyway, her defection and successful integration as a Republic citizen is great news for us. This is one reason I want her on the stand as a character witness. She was unhappy with the Order, and you’re her son, and now here you are seeking refuge, too. Obviously you’re defecting under very different circumstances, but. It’s a good personal angle. It’s a start.”

Hux has to stop himself from flicking his cigarette into this man’s jolly face. He drags on it instead, looking away. No, well. No, he can’t deal with any of that right now. He’ll think about it later.

“How is your relationship with your mother?” Jek asks. “I take it it’s strained, since she--”

“She abandoned me when I was fourteen years old,” Hux says, more loudly than he’d intended to. “Because my father was fucking a pilot named Boma. My mother left me when she left him, without a care, and never looked back, beyond sending a few disinterested holos here and there. When I blew up those five planets I thought maybe she could have been on one of them, and I kind of liked the idea. That’s how my relationship with my mother is, Jek.”

Hux forces himself to calm down before he looks at Jek, who is smiling again, though now in a way that makes him look almost clever.

“Now we’re talking,” Jek says, his fingers flying on the data pad.

“Excuse me?”

“Your mother left you! And she clearly has regrets. This is sympathetic stuff. How about your father, the Commandant?”

“What about him? I’m not going to defame him. He didn’t beat me. Or my mother. He mostly just worked. We never went hungry. Not even in the early days, when some families like ours did.”

“Were you close to your dad?”

“How could that be relevant?”

“This is the kind of stuff that’s going to make or break your case,” Jek says, his expression growing serious again. “As small as it may seem-- Small is good. All you really have left in your defense, having done this enormous violence that you can’t take back, is the sense that you’re not really the face of all the evil the First Order has done, not just some symbol. You’re one small person who has lived an individual life. And believe me, they’re going to want to know the details of that life. Not just the Committee but the public in general. Your hearing will be broadcast to multiple planets, live.”

“Right. Of course. I’m an individual now, got it. But as I’ve ended the lives of billions of individuals, what does anyone care if my father spanked me or not, or whatever the hell you’re getting at?”

“It matters. We have to show them that executing you would make them no better than you were when you pressed that button. And they have to see you as a distinct person before that can happen.”

“I didn’t press any buttons. I gave the order.”

“You know what I mean, Elan.”

“Don’t call me that.” Hux tosses his cigarette into Jek’s cup of caf and glares at him. “Nobody calls me that.”

His mother does, actually. Or she did, last time she sent a holo. Jek peers into his cup as if to make sure that Hux really did throw a half-smoked cigarette into his innocent caf.

“I’ll call you Hux, then?” Jek says. He actually seems apologetic. None of this makes any sense.

“Tell me,” Hux says. “Do you actually believe I deserve to live? After what I did?”

“I’ll put it this way,” Jek says. “I don’t think I deserve to decide. And then when I consider: who does? Nobody, in my opinion. Nobody has the right to make that decision.”

“Even though I made that decision for billions.”

“Well, yeah. Even then. And I don’t think it was entirely you. Even if it was your weapon, your order. What happened to those planets was really the will of many, of everybody in the leadership of the Order who stood by and let it happen, and everybody who came before them, the ones who gave birth, literally and figuratively, to your generation. It’s never as simple as one man, and it’s disingenuous and even dangerous to pretend that it could be.”

“So you don’t find me disgusting?” Hux says, daring him to say no.

“Maybe I do,” Jek says, glancing into his ruined cup of caf again. “But I don’t really know you yet. That’s the point. That’s what we have to show this Committee. The real you, the whole picture.”

“They wouldn’t like it.”

“Well, that’s why you have an attorney. We’ll showcase the better parts.”

“This is absurd,” Hux says, but he remains in the meeting with Jek for another hour, going over the process that will begin tomorrow, when Hux is questioned by the Resistance about the First Order’s plans and operations. This will be private, in a windowless room, and not broadcast anywhere, live or otherwise. As it’s a matter of highly classified military security, Hux will not be allowed to have his attorney present. Jek advises Hux to give them as much information about the First Order as he can, in order to sway the Committee’s sympathy in his favor. This seems very obvious, and yet Hux can’t escape the idea that it would be extremely foolish, too, though he supposes most everyone still with the Order would kill him on sight for what he’s done already, and divulging specific secrets won’t make a difference in that sense. He still can’t shake a stale but persistent sense of loyalty to the Order that recoils in horror at the thought of giving their secrets to the New Republic, as illogical as that may be in his present situation. He’s certainly not offering any real loyalty to the New Republic, whatever he might have to say to save his neck.

“The sentencing hearing starts in ten days,” Jek says when he’s packing up his data pad. “So we’ll have some time to prepare, but I suspect the New Republic will question you for the majority of at least two of those days. I’ll prepare as best I can while you’re with them. Of course, the prosecutor will be preparing her case, too, gathering evidence that she’ll intend to use to show that you deserve to die. I suspect there may be a few skeletons in your closet?”

“A few.”

“We’ll talk about them next time we meet,” Jek says, and he puts his hand out again. Hux shakes it, again not wanting to. “It was good to meet you,” Jek says. He seems to mean it.

“Do you meet many mass murderers?” Hux asks.

“I’ve met a few in my time.”

“And how many have you saved from the death penalty?”

“Well, none, personally. I’ve worked on cases like this before, but I’ve never been lead attorney on one. Let alone the only attorney.”

“You-- What?”

“I’m not exactly a big shot in the legal world here,” Jek says, giving Hux a sheepish smile. “I just, uh. Well, to be honest with you, nobody else wanted the case. But I did! So here we are.”

“Here we are indeed.”

This feels like confirmation of what Hux already knew: whatever this perhaps well-intentioned buffoon called Jek thinks, this entire ‘sentencing hearing’ really is just a show for the masses, where the five representatives from those planets will each have their turn to tearfully tell Hux what he’s cost them before they sentence him to death in a gesture of beautiful galactic healing, or however they’ll try to sell it. Organa might sit there sad-faced, but she and Ren will likely get over it rather quickly. Onward to bigger and better Skywalker disasters. There’s no way Organa’s tie-breaking vote will need to come into play, not even close, probably to her great relief. That is, if she doesn’t step down as Committee Head as soon as she hears from Ren that Hux wore her old socks in that house on the cliff.

Hux hides the cigarettes inside the waistband of his pants before following Jek out into the hall, where one of the guards puts the binders on his hands again. They bring Hux to the elevator and back to his cell. A breakfast tray is waiting on the floor, and Hux nearly trips over it as one guard removes his binders. When the guards are gone and the cell door has locked him inside, he squats down to examine the tray, then just sits on the floor like the wretch he now is and eats a piece of chewy bacon, several forkfuls of rehydrated egg-like material, and a block of some kind of nutrient bar that is tasteless on its own and not much improved by the too-sweet berry goop that’s served on the side. Hux opens his milk and gulps it down. Only one thing remains to be done for the rest of his day, until the next meal arrives: there’s a little roll still on his tray, swirled into a tight circle. It looks sweet.

He picks up the roll and stares at it. He’s still sitting cross-legged on the floor, still trying not to think about his mother and what was said to him in that conference room, things that can’t be true. A political refugee? A bloody floral assistant? He can’t even decide which is more preposterous. She’d never worked a day in her life, when he knew her. Though he supposes he never really did know her at all, particularly considering this new information about where she’s turned up.

His eyes are wet when he bites into the roll. He wonders where the room’s security monitor is hidden. Surely he’s being watched, always. Perhaps footage of him crying on the floor while eating a sweet roll will be entered into evidence during his hearing-- But would it be evidence for or against his right to live? Hux might vote against, were he on the Committee, after being forced to watch some idiot blubber on the floor of his prison cell as he struggles to swallow his breakfast.

He wants to find the security monitor, wants to glare directly into the recorder and tell whoever’s watching that he’s not crying because he’s afraid for his life. He’s not even crying, really. Something is happening to him, a terrible ache. It’s this little tray of food that’s doing it, and the memory of Ren bringing him a bowl, a spoon, some stupid soup he’d made himself. These people-- his fucking jailers --are feeding him the way that Ren did. It’s not precisely the same, but it’s too similar to keep Hux’s face from getting wet, his eyes burning now. And that man with his ridiculous name, fucking Jek, who wants to bring Hux’s mother here to save him. It’s as if they all really do care, somehow. They’re not even denying Hux the sweet roll that might have been left off his breakfast tray. It could have been swiped and eaten by a bitter kitchen maid. Why wouldn’t she take whatever she could from him? Hux would have taken it from her.

It’s too absurd and confounding to bear. He’s weeping with confusion. He wishes he could explain. Surely someone is watching, wondering, and wishing him dead, regardless of whatever explanation he might manage to stutter out as he wipes his face and licks the sugar from his lips.

He pulls himself together, cursing under his breath, and washes his face in the sink. It’s probably just more torture, like before, like that interlude with Ren: Get comfortable, enjoy your lovely view, have something nice to eat, curl up inside your blanket. Then lie back, complacent, as we choke the life out of you.

Hux tells himself he’ll be ready this time. But he told himself he’d be ready last time, and he let himself get comfortable anyway, at least enough to think he could have one more kiss, then one more, one more. He dries his face with his greyish towel and looks up into the mirror, at his pink eyes and splotchy cheeks. When he was younger, especially when he was at the Academy and drying his face after a secret meltdown, he would stare hatefully at his reflection and tell himself that he would rule the galaxy someday, repeating it over and over in his mind-- a silent mantra, lest anyone unseen hear it out loud and laugh at him.

You will, he tells himself now, glaring at his reflection as if he can crack the mirror with his silent rage. You will crush your enemies under your boots again before you die. Believe it. Believe it, you weakling.

He can’t, but that doesn’t mean anything. He never believed it, not fully, not once, but he still stood before thousands and watched the power he’d created from nothing streak through the sky and crush billions under his boot. He’s not dead yet. He’s still winning this game that will surely put its hands around his throat again before it’s done with him. He tries not to think about the fact that it was Ren who wrenched those hands away last time they nearly cost Hux his chance to keep playing. He tries not to think about Ren at all, but there’s just so little else to do, and Ren has always crept into his mind so easily.

Hux closes his eyes and wonders if Ren could reach him here, through the Force. He shakes his head when the idea terrifies him. He needs to be alone with his thoughts and fears if he has any hope of being more than Ren’s battered little charge again. Ren nearly ruined him, but even Ren’s power combined with Snoke’s couldn’t bring Hux down, not entirely. He opens his eyes again and stares at his reflection.

“You’re alone,” he says, aloud but softly. “At last. It’s a gift.”

He can’t believe that either, but he still hopes, like he did when he glowered at his tear-stained reflection during those early Academy days, that wanting to believe it counts for something.

 

**

Chapter Text

On his first morning back in the New Republic, Ren wakes to the sound of sirens.

He sits up in bed, all of his senses scrambling for traction after the last in a long series of nightmares. The sirens are blaring outside, from somewhere on the streets below. They’re moving away, the sound fading: emergency craft approaching some minor disaster in the city. Nothing to worry about.

Observation, too heavy but upon him anyway: His father used to say that to him when he was very little and got startled easily. Han would slide his hand across the back of Ben’s head when he said it. Nothing to worry about, kid. You’re fine.

Sunlight burns against his eyes, too bright from behind the thin shade over the window. What’s the point of a shade that blocks no light? It’s a ‘privacy screen,’ according to Wedge. So that no one can see into Ren’s small room from the building across the street.

Objective, first one of this first fucking day: Let that last dream go. Don’t think about it.

Observation: Can’t.

First objective: Failed.

The dream: Ren had been thirteen, maybe fifteen. Still Ben. He stood in the center of a shallow lake, or maybe it was more like a giant puddle, tall trees watching him from the shore. The Millennium Falcon was parked in the middle of this water, which moved against a calm but steady wind. The water was neither cool nor warm-- not real, holding no temperature because it was only a dream, not a vision --and it had not quite reached Ben’s knees as he walked through it, searching, already panicked. Hux was somewhere nearby, in trouble, and Ben felt it like a spear through his chest when he finally spotted Hux: in the water, floating, face down. He’d screamed Hux’s name-- his real name, Elan, as if it would wake him like some magic spell --and had run toward him, but the water slowed him down, he couldn’t get there, and then he heard the cannon turrets on the Falcon turning, locking on him, firing--

Then he woke up, to sirens and the glare of the sun.

He closes his eyes, concentrates. He’s been afraid to open his mind too widely, lest Snoke get back in somehow, but he won’t be able to even pull himself from his bed if he can’t find some indication through the Force that Hux is not suffering right now. He grits his teeth when meditation doesn’t come as easily as it once did. Nothing slides over him, no perfect black surrounds him. Snoke has changed him, in leaving-- in being thrown out. That was always Snoke’s plan, surely. If he can’t steal Ren’s powers for himself, he’ll at least have crippled them beyond repair.

Mental adjustment: Or so Snoke fucking thinks.

Objectives, louder and louder inside his own mind: Don’t give up so easily. Fuck your self-pity. It’s not important. Hux needs you. Get your head out of your ass. Try harder.

Ren grabs his pillow and screams into it as hard as he can without frightening Rey and Wedge. He feels better when he lowers the pillow, his throat raw from that half-buried scream. He likes the idea of sharing an injury with Hux: raw throat, locked into a kind of cell, assaulted by this planet’s brutal sun. He clings to this and closes his eyes, takes a deep breath.

He sees snow. For a moment he thinks it’s a vision of the planet that was destroyed along with Starkiller base, but this snow is different somehow. It’s not shaded by trees. Sunlight bears down upon it, but it’s cold enough up here that the snow doesn’t melt. A mountaintop: he’s standing on one, the air so thin that he wouldn’t be able to breathe in smooth exhales if he were really here and not just standing within a vision. But it’s a real vision: he senses the sting of the cold, sharp in his mind though he can’t feel it against his skin. The wind blows his hair in his face. He doesn’t try to push his hair aside, only closes his eyes within the vision. He can’t see Hux, can’t see anything in the perfect black that finally comes, but he feels a burn in his lungs, and it’s not from the thin air. Cigarettes? He smells one, coughs.

The cough takes him out of the vision. When he opens his eyes he’s sitting in bed in Wedge’s apartment, blinking against the glare from the window. He tells himself this new vision is a good sign, because he’s seen cigarettes in Hux’s future before, and they didn’t feel like a bad omen then.

Observation: He doesn’t trust his visions now. Back when he did trust them, they were really only distractions as Snoke laid the last of his groundwork for that attack on Hux.

Observations, related and worse: He still doesn’t understand the scope of his own power. He’s been too long without a teacher who wanted to do anything but take this power from him. He’s weakened, reeling without direction.

However, undeniable: He feels the faintest hint of tar from a cigarette lingering on his breath as he gets out of bed. He’s never actually smoked one, and yet he’s sure that’s what he tasted in his vision, and what he felt burning in his lungs.

He tries to cling to this as reassurance as he puts on his father’s old clothes again. They’re still too small, but Wedge is even shorter than Han was, and he’ll have nothing better to offer. Yesterday Ren forced himself to eat an early dinner with Rey and Wedge, tasting nothing as those two talked and cried and tried to include him as best they could. He tried to respond in the ways they wanted him to but was mostly just exhausted by their presence and by the temptation to take comfort in it. He went to bed before the sun went down, and now he’s awake again.

He doesn’t know what else is true or real anymore: just that he’s imprisoned in his mother’s world, that Hux is far away, and that Snoke still lives. Ren intends to change all of this as soon as possible. First he will kill Snoke, then he will retrieve Hux. Then he will leave these people who think they know how to help him behind forever. He just has to determine how he’ll accomplish this, starting with the destruction of Snoke.

Objectives, to start: Take a shower. Clean yourself up. Acquire some clothes that didn’t once belong to a man you murdered. Pretend you’re a person who can function in this world for as long as you need to.

He can feel Rey sensing his wakefulness, though she’s not reading his mind precisely. Ren has become the replacement for those chimes Rey steadied on Luke’s island: even while her energy is focused elsewhere, she’s always checking on him, making sure that he’s not spiraling out of control against a strong blast of some untidy emotion. She’s always asking herself: Is Ben okay? What in the present environment might upset him? Is he still where I left him? Would I be able to retrieve him if he were suddenly elsewhere?

He wishes she would stop thinking of him as Ben, but he knows there’s little chance of any of these people managing that.

When he leaves his room Rey is there, waiting in the hallway and wearing what appears to be Wedge’s robe, a faded blue thing that is much too big for her. She smiles at Ren and hands him a towel. Her hair is wet, and longer than he realized.

“The shower’s there,” she says, pointing to the hall bathroom. “I cried.”

“You cried?” He knows what he means, and he’s annoyed by her persisting smile. She shrugs.

“I didn’t have one on Jakku,” she says. “Or at Luke’s house. Not even hot water.”

“Well.” Ren looks down at the towel she handed him and stops himself from informing her that he didn’t have a shower at Snoke’s fortress. “Thanks,” he says instead, lifting the towel. “I’ll, uh. Be right back.”

The bathroom smells strange when he shuts himself inside, sort of sweet and cloying. He realizes why when he strips his clothes off and enters the shower stall: Wedge has purchased some women’s bath products in anticipation of Rey’s arrival. Of course he has. There is a row of new things for Ren as well, presumably: shampoo and soap in bottles that claim to smell like lavanwater and birca tea, neither of which Ren particularly wants to smell like. Even the sight of these bottles that were put here for him makes him want to flee. It’s like a knife in his side, realizing that somebody thinks he deserves anything more than cold creek water and a hunk of anonymous tallow to clean himself with. Those were his supplies during his time with Snoke.

He makes the water very hot, tips his face up into it and tells himself again that he would have felt it already if anything bad had happened to Hux. He felt it when they were in different systems, and now they’re on the same planet, not even a day’s journey separating them. He’s still attempting to convince himself, from time to time, that he didn’t only sense Hux’s pain during his captivity because Snoke wanted him to. He can’t really make himself believe this, or anything that might mean there’s a hope in hell for either of them here, but it seems important to try.

When he washes himself he finds that he can’t even shower without returning to sacred memories of Hux that are like more small knives in his sides now: Hux in the shower on the Finalizer, so surprisingly open that Ren wanted to heal him then and there, under the water. Hux turning up his palms in the shower at the house on the cliff, waiting for Ren to clean him and then clinging to Ren so tightly after he had. Was it really only those two times? Ren could swear now that every real shower he’s taken has been in Hux’s breathless company. Maybe it’s because they were so often in the rain together.

He gets out and dries off, sighs at the sight of Han’s clothes. Rey has assured him that he won’t have to face his mother on this first day here, that Leia is off-planet on some classified Resistence business, but he can’t stop expecting her to appear every time he opens a door in this place. When he’s dressed he steps out into the hallway with caution, moving toward the kitchen and the persistent sound of Rey and Wedge’s chatter, the smell of food drawing him forward even as the thought of more cheerful conversation makes him want to lock himself in his room until Rey and Wedge are asleep again.

“There he is,” Wedge says, turning from the stove. He’s cooking flatcakes-- burning them slightly, by the smell of it. “I’m not much of a chef,” Wedge says, as if he’s read Ren’s thoughts. “But I thought I’d make breakfast for you guys. Hungry?”

“Yeah,” Ren says, trying to sound grateful. Rey gives him a look that tells him he probably looks queasy instead, but Wedge doesn’t seem offended. Last night Wedge made them sandwiches with jelly and khaddi-nut butter, which had been Rey’s favorite thing to eat as a girl. She ate two and praised Wedge’s sandwich construction abilities as if he’d slaved over a gourmet meal for her. Ren had choked one down as politely as he could before retreating to his room. He hadn’t even liked khaddi-nut butter as a kid, but he supposes Wedge never knew that. He sits at the table, accepts a plate of flatcakes and douses them with the syrup that Wedge has put out on the table.

“Luke mentioned some books,” Ren says when he can’t hold it in any longer, interrupting Rey in the middle of some story she’d been telling about the fruit served at a bar she’d apparently visited with Han and Finn before everything went to shit. Rey turns to him, her mouth still hanging open around whatever she’d half-said, and Wedge turns, too. “Sorry,” Ren says, mopping up syrup with a forkful of flatcakes. “Just. I should get to work. With those books.”

“Yeah, of course,” Wedge says. He turns off the stove and comes to the table with his own plate. “I’ve got all Luke’s old Jedi stuff. He always said he’d pass it down to Rey someday, when she was old enough.” Wedge smiles at Ren when he looks up from his plate, then turns to Rey. “I suppose you’re both old enough now.”

Ren hopes Wedge won’t start crying again. Every time Wedge gets going, Rey follows suit, and it’s hard for Ren not to lose his composure when Rey cries.

“Where did Luke find these books?” Rey asks, looking as if she hopes they won’t all start crying again, too.

“Well,” Wedge says, and he clears his throat. “Let’s see, um. To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Luke was always disappearing, back in those days. Going to distant planets on these missions he’d set for himself, collecting things. He said it was important. To be honest, I thought he was just making up excuses to ditch me from time to time.” Wedge grins when Rey gives him a look. “You don’t know what he was like before you came along.”

“I think I do know what he’s like,” Rey says, and she scoffs. “Staying behind like that, I--” She forces herself to drop it there, for Wedge’s sake. He shakes his head as if to tell her she didn’t need to, but they both drink from their juice to avoid continuing that conservation.

“I guess the books were important after all,” Wedge says. “If they’ll help you guys now.”

Feedback from Wedge, as easy to read as it had been when Ben was a kid: Wedge is constantly telling himself not to get his hopes up. That Luke won’t follow Rey home after he’s had a few more days or weeks or months to remain in denial on that island.

“I’ll pull those books out of storage for you,” Wedge says, standing, though he’s not finished with his flatcakes. “You’re right, Ben. You should get started as soon as you can, that’s a good idea.”

Rey is glaring at Ren when Wedge leaves the table.

“Don’t read his mind,” she says, whispering. “He’s your host!”

“So?”

“So, show him some common decency, please. He deserves his privacy.”

Ren shrugs and returns to his flatcakes. They’re too thin and kind of grainy, only really edible because of all the syrup. He’ll make dinner, maybe.

“Have you had any visions?” Ren asks. “Since you’ve been back?”

“A few,” Rey says, mumbling.

“And?”

“And they’re not to do with you or your-- What do you call him?” She narrows her eyes. “Not-- Boyfriend, surely?”

“I don’t call him anything,” Ren says, sharply. “And I wasn’t asking just about him.”

“Oh, Ben, yes, you were. I told you, Finn is going to come over today--”

“When?”

“Whenever the Resistance allows him off the base! He has a job there, you know. He’s not just your personal messenger.”

“But he will return to the Tower,” Ren says, as if he’s giving Finn this command via the Force. “With a message for Hux.”

“I’m sure he’ll do it if I ask him to,” Rey says. “And I will ask him to, if you stop reading my father’s mind for your own entertainment.”

“So you’ve sensed nothing about Hux’s current condition?” Ren says, partly to avoid agreeing to that. Rey sighs and puts her hands over her face.

“You’re going to drive me mad before we can even look at these books,” she says. “Your feedback is-- Obsessive, you’re obsessed with that man, you’ve got to--”

“Oh, you can read my mind, then? That’s allowed?”

“I can’t not read your mind!” Rey says, nearly in a shout. “It’s like you’re screaming it internally, non-stop, this insane concern for him-- They’re not going to hurt him, Ren, not now! He’ll get his day in court.”

“You really think they’re going to give him a fair trial? Don’t be so naive.”

“Um,” Wedge says, from the doorway. Ren feels guilty for turning to him with a look that might be interpreted as rage. “The books are all set up in the living room,” Wedge says, gesturing with his thumb. “There are only five of them, but they’re all big. I’m going out to get you kids some decent clothes to wear, okay? I can’t look at you in those things anymore.” He’s looking at Rey, who is in the same tattered attire that she wore on Luke’s island. “I didn’t want to presume, you know, ahead of time, to know what kind of things you’d like to wear, so. Just let me know what you need and I’ll get it for you.”

“Oh, anything,” Rey says, waving her hand over her plate. “Anything that’s not too tight.”

“Okay.” Wedge laughs uncertainly and looks at Ren. “How about you?” he asks. “I take it you don’t generally like wearing your shirts with the sleeves too short like that?”

“No,” Ren says, pulling at Han’s sleeve. “I, uh. I prefer black. And I don’t like my pants loose like this,” he says, turning to show Wedge what he means.

Rey snorts. “Those aren’t loose,” she says.

“Well, they don’t fit. I’m forty across, here,” he says, slashing his finger across his chest when he turns back to Wedge, who looks as if he thinks he should find something to write this down with. “I prefer tunics, no buttons, and I need a new belt. Thick and black-- that shouldn’t be hard to find. In pants I’m a thirty-three by thirty-four if you can find it, but a thirty-two waist works if that’s all they have. The boots I have are okay, but I--”

“Ben!” Rey snaps, boggling at him.

“What?”

“Do you really not hear how you’re sounding right now?” Rey asks.

Ren thinks of Hux and looks down at his knees. He’s just so tired of wearing his father’s old things. Wants to feel like himself again.

Do you even hear yourself?

Observation: No. Not always. Relatively infrequently, he fears.

“It’s fine,” Wedge says, coming over to squeeze Ren’s shoulder. “I’ve got a good memory. I think I can keep all that in mind.”

“Thank you,” Ren mutters.

When Wedge is gone Ren walks into the living room while Rey does the breakfast dishes. Like every other room in this apartment, with the exception of the mercifully windowless little kitchen, the living room is too bright. The books are spread out on a low table that nearly runs the length of the stiff-looking sofa behind it. Just looking at them gives Ren an odd feeling that makes him keep from getting any closer to them until Rey enters the room.

“You could have helped me clean up,” she says, and she stops in mid-step when she sees the books.

Feedback from Rey, unmistakeable: She feels the same reluctance that Ren does to approach these books. As if opening them might unleash something dangerous.

“You feel it, too?” she says, glancing at him. He gives her a look.

“You know I do. Don’t waste your time with--”

“Redundant questions, right, your favorite lesson to teach me, over and over.” She sighs and squares her shoulders. “Well,” she says. “You wanted to get started. Let’s get started.”

Rey walks to the couch and sits down primly, hands on her knees, as if the books are some visiting dignitaries. Ren follows and sits beside her. The books are all yellowed paper bound in leather, some thicker than others, all of them large and powerfully musty-smelling in a way that makes the grainy flatcakes and syrup on Ren’s stomach shift uncomfortably.

“We should use a data pad or something to keep track of our notes and observations,” Rey says.

“I’m not much of a typist,” Ren says, thinking of the way he enters coordinates on shuttlecraft: slowly, when there’s a full keyboard.

“Oh. Me either, in fact. I'll find some paper and a pen.”

Rey goes in search of that, and Ren is left alone with the books. He feels like they’re staring back at him. In some kind of harsh judgment.

Observation: That’s ridiculous. You’ve become such a coward that you’re afraid to open a book?

He can’t remember the last time he touched an antique book. His mother owned a few, and he had been interested in them as a kid: old histories of the societies that preceded the Republic, and a couple of less interesting ancient fictions of Alderaan that Leia had taken great pains to track down. These books seem older than those had. Ren opens the largest one first, carefully lifting the cover away. He doesn’t recognize the lettering on the title page as any language he’s aware of.

“Can you read this?” he asks when Rey returns with note-taking materials. She shakes her head and he turns another page. It’s intimidating: full of letters and symbols that only begin to make sense to him when he stops trying so hard to separate one from the other, and even then only a few discernable words prick at his consciousness, scrambled and indistinct. ‘Temple’ is one of them.

“I’ve never heard a spoken language that I couldn’t understand,” Rey says. “Droids, other species-- Chewbacca was the first wookie I ever met, but I understood him right away.”

“Yeah,” Ren says, that name like a rope around his neck. “Me too. But reading is different.”

“Right,” Rey says. “I suppose because there’s no conscious person here whose meaning can be sensed.”

“Fucking Luke!” Ren says, standing, agitation flooding him so fast that he’s full of nothing but the need to break things before he can get himself away from the books. Rey’s alarm keeps him from stomping over to at least smash the lamp in the corner or tear down the useless screens over the window. “He should be here,” Ren says, his teeth grit when he glances at Rey. She looks less alarmed now, more annoyed.

“I know,” she says. “But he’s not. Sit down. We haven’t even started. Give it more than ten seconds before you decide it’s impossible.”

“I didn’t say that,” Ren says, muttering. He returns to the sofa, smoothing his hands down over his thighs to make himself calm down. It’s something Hux did, at the house. It doesn’t really work, but the thought of Hux doing it is comforting, for some reason.

Rey sighs and picks up one of the smaller books, pulling it into her lap. She turns the pages carefully. Some of them have arcane illustrations: people with what looks like lightning shooting out of their palms, a levitating Temple surrounded by figures in robes. Something about the images makes the hair on the back of Ren’s neck stand up.

“The truth is,” Rey says, after studying the book for a while in silence, “I’m not really sure where to start with something like this. I knew how to read when I left home, but I never exactly spent a lot of time studying texts, before or after.”

Observation: When I left home. Ren hates that she says it like that, as if it was her choice. To spare him.

“I was a terrible student,” he says when she glances at him. “As you know.”

She touches his shoulder and sighs, returning her gaze to the book. “Did you make the stormtroopers study?” she asks.

“I didn’t make them do anything.” That’s not true, but he certainly didn’t design their education program. Rey glares at him, her hand still on his shoulder.

“You know what I mean,” she says. “Would Finn be able to help, do you think?”

“Are you joking? No. They’re grunts, Rey. They don’t read ancient languages in boot camp.”

“I know that.” She pulls her hand away, glowering now. “I meant-- Never mind what I meant, they’re not grunts, they’re people, kidnapped people, and if you can’t get your mind around that then you’ll never be able to defeat Snoke.”

“What do my feelings about stormtroopers have to do with Snoke?”

“You have to start seeing things as they really are! Otherwise Snoke will turn your head around again, and twist everything until he’s convinced you that it’s impossible to beat him.”

Ren says nothing, wanting to argue that but unable to lie to her. He knows she’s right, that he has to untangle himself from the things Snoke taught him, but she doesn’t understand that some of the ways he sees the world don’t originate from Snoke’s manipulation. She’s got to let herself see that he’s not the kind of person she wants him to be, if she really means to help him. She’s got to want to help him anyway, despite that understanding, or this won’t work.

“You know who could help us,” Rey says, softly enough that Ren can tell whom she’s thinking of without needing to read her mind.

“My mother.” He shakes his head, though he knows she’s right again.

“Leia is well-educated, went to the finest schools, has a talent for strategy--”

“Fine,” Ren says, sharply. “But she’s not here, you-- Said, you said she was off planet.”

“She’ll be back tomorrow,” Rey says, still speaking softly.

Ren shakes his head again, harder now. “I can’t--”

“You can and you will. Don’t underestimate yourself. Or your mother. I’m not saying it won’t be hard. But we need her, Ben. You need her.”

Ren puts his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. He lets his hair fall around his face like a curtain, like a hiding a place. He did this often as a kid, as Ben. He would put his hands over his ears to block out his mother’s voice when her attempts to soothe made him feel like he was being mocked.

“I have an idea,” Rey says, placing her hand on Ren’s back.

“What?” he asks when she’s silent, her hand still resting there.

“Let’s get away from the books for a minute. I want you to tell me what you know about Snoke. I feel like that might be easier without this-- audience.”

They go out to the patio. It’s shaded from the sunlight by a trellis overhead that is covered in flowering vines, but this protection is imperfect, spots of sun sneaking through here and there. Ren sits in one of the long chairs that look out on the city and Rey sits in the other.

“Where would you like to start?” Rey asks after they’ve spent a few minutes just listening to the disorienting sounds of the city. She’s looking at Ren, squinting, because there’s a patch of sunlight that falls near the corner of her left eye. She doesn’t seem to mind.

“Snoke possessed me,” Ren says. “In the house on the cliff. I need to know why he was able to do it then. Before, when I was fifteen, I thought I’d given him permission. It felt like that, like I was hiding somewhere, by choice, and letting him-- Do what he did. But this time I didn’t give any kind of permission. He took me by surprise. Against my will.”

“What were you doing when it happened?” Rey asks.

Ren looks away from her, up at the flowering vines overhead. The flowers are bright pink and papery, almost translucent when the sun hits them a certain way. They have a sweet smell that becomes overpowering when a hot wind blows across the patio.

“Oh,” Rey says.

“Get out of my head.”

“I’m not-- I just got a sense of it! I wasn’t prying. Sorry. That’s interesting, actually. I, um. I assume it wasn’t the first time you’d done-- That? With the Starkiller?”

Ren closes his eyes, concentrating on keeping his memories locked away. The concentration makes everything come back too sharply: Hux that first time, the way it had felt to absorb Hux’s feedback when he shuddered in pleasure, inside and out, flooding Ren with it twice-over, so strongly that Ren had felt like the most powerful force that had ever existed in any galaxy, because he was doing this amazing thing and Hux was so glad for it, shaking with gratitude in his arms. Ren opens his eyes, almost dizzy from the memory. The sun overhead burns the intensity of it away quickly enough, even through the vines.

“I was kissing him when it happened,” Ren says. “It was the first time I’d done it since we’d been there, when we were in the house. Something had kept stopping me, before. We did other things-- We were close. We slept together every night, in the same bed. But when I thought about kissing him I would get this kind of warning feedback.”

“Oh,” Rey says, differently now. Ren can imagine what his feedback must read like at the moment, things he can’t hide from her: grief, pouring into him like boiling water, at the thought of what he had and how far away it all is already. His desperate hope that he could ever be in any bed with Hux again. The fear that he won’t. It burns like the cruelest sun, always searing him.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Ren says, sharply. “I’d-- Lost myself, in him, already. In Hux. The kiss was no different. But then it was, somehow. That moment. I gave myself over to-- Something. Not to Snoke. But Snoke took advantage of it.”

“Interesting,” Rey says, again. She’s leaning toward Ren now, as if she might need to spring out of her chair and comfort him, or calm him from some forthcoming tantrum. It’s true that he’s breathing harder now, trying not to let his anger about what Snoke has taken from him overwhelm him just yet. “I’ve never kissed anyone,” Rey says when Ren turns to her. She doesn’t seem upset about this.

Feedback from Rey, too blindingly bright to go unseen: She thinks she’ll be able to kiss someone, finally, soon. That stormtrooper.

“I’d wipe that look off your face if I were you,” she says. “I’m not judging you for who you’ve been kissing.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Well, I’m trying not to! Anyway, my point is that I don’t know what that’s like, but when I try to imagine you doing it, with him-- I think it must be something more, um, intimate, in a sense. Than whatever else you’d done. Maybe the other things were more-- physical? Automatic? But a kiss is like a choice. To surrender. On another level. It’s physical, but it’s also something else. Am I totally off base?”

“Not totally,” Ren mutters, glowering out at the city now.

“And how about the time before?” Rey asks. “Were you overwhelmed by something when Snoke took over, when you were fifteen? By some emotion?”

“Dread,” Ren says, unable to look at her. “Fear.”

“Fear of what he’d asked you to do?”

“Fear that I wouldn’t be able to do what he had asked.”

“Because you were afraid of him, right?” Rey says. “Of Snoke?”

Ren shakes his head. “I was afraid I would have to be Ben again. That I would always only be him. And not what Snoke could help me become.”

This is what he needs Rey to understand. Still, it’s hard to say. It’s hard to feel her feedback dropping into deep disappointment after he’s told her this truth.

“I see,” Rey says, though she doesn’t really understand or accept this about him, not yet. “Well, suffice it to say that these were peak emotional experiences. I mean, the moment before the massacre at the Temple certainly was. And this experience with the Starkiller--”

“Will you stop calling him that?”

“Only when you stop thinking of Finn as ‘that stormtrooper’ or ‘that traitor.’”

“I don’t-- Always think of him that way.”

“Regardless,” Rey says, giving him a humorless look. “This experience you had with the-- General. This particular kiss. Something was important about it?”

“It was-- I had, just. Wanted that. For all those days we were there. And all the months before that, when we’d been apart. I had kissed him already, that same day, outside the house. But this time was more like how I’d pictured it. In bed with him. And he’d told me his name.”

“His name?”

“His real name, his first name. He’s like me, he hates his name-- The one people called him when he was a kid. He likes to think he grew out of it. But it’s still there, and. He said it for me, just before we kissed, and I let something fall away, too. For him. It was like I was giving him something that I wanted him to keep for me, forever. But Snoke came and stole it.”

Ren wants to sit forward again, to let his hair fall around his face so he can hide inside it. He remains still on the low chair, lying on his back and staring up at the vines. He can feel Rey thinking, considering this information. He can also feel her thinking that she wants to know what all this feels like, in practice rather than in theory. She wants know what it’s like to give someone an unnamable piece of herself and trust them to keep it forever.

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” Rey says. “I can feel it, I-- can imagine.”

“Can you.”

“Yes,” she says, sharply, when she hears the doubt in his voice. “I know what it’s like. When you’ve been alone for so long. When it starts to seem like there’s never been anyone. Not really, just you. And then-- There is someone, suddenly, and it’s like the world has more colors than it did before, and you have so much hope, in the face of-- anything, whatever comes, that you’re not going to be alone anymore. And then they’re gone, and you’re alone again. You were wrong when you thought-- And it hurts worse than before, being alone.”

“You don’t even know him,” Ren says, mildly horrified. She’s talking about Finn, of course.

“Oh no?” she says, fire jumping into her eyes. “And how many days did you have with your General before you felt like you’d die if you lost him?”

Ren doesn’t answer. She knows. One. Not the first day he met Hux, but that first night they spent alone together in Ren’s room. After everything that had happened. Ren had felt newly alone, more than he had ever been in his life, because Snoke had lied to him. He had not grown more powerful in killing Han. It had weakened him. And then Hux was there, in his bed, warm and real and saying whatever he thought, unafraid. Even when Ren’s hand was around his throat, that night, in that bed: Hux was fearless, and Ren could have only done with someone fearless, then.

“There’s something I haven’t told you yet,” Ren says, needing to change the subject.

“Oh?” Rey says, wary.

“I have a power that Luke didn’t teach me. I developed it myself, and even Snoke never knew. Or anyway, I don’t think he did. I had it before Snoke possessed me in that house, but afterward, when I tried to use it on Hux, I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m afraid I’ve lost it, but--”

“What’s the power?” Rey asks, looking increasingly concerned.

“Healing.” Ren stares at her after he’s said so, expecting her to doubt him. She doesn’t seem surprised.

“I know that,” she says.

“You-- What? From reading my thoughts?”

“No. I remember, from when we were kids. If I had a scrape or something, you would heal it. I thought it was funny, because we never told anyone. That’s strange, isn’t it?” She’s frowning now. “I’d sort of forgotten. Why wouldn’t you have bragged to Luke that you could do that?”

“I didn’t--” Ren has to look away from her, something like a headache forming at the base of his skull. He sits up, alarmed, but it’s not Snoke. It’s like a regrowing memory, something that his efforts to remove Rey’s memories of the Force had destroyed. It’s still tattered, unclear, but he can see it now: a half-formed image of a cut on Rey’s thumb, healing under his hand. She’d smiled up at him when it was done. He’d winked.

“You’d forgotten,” Rey says, still frowning. “So you don’t remember why you kept this a secret, back then?”

“No. I didn’t tell you my reason?”

“I don’t think so. It’s not like I ever came to you with a broken bone. It was more like if I’d scraped my knee or something like that.”

“And you never told Wedge or Luke?”

“No. I guess I thought it was your secret to tell. Like maybe you wanted to surprise Luke with it, later, when you could heal something bigger, after you’d practiced on my little scrapes.”

Ren stands and tucks his hands under his arms, paces. This is important. Enormously. When he looks at Rey he knows she can feel it, too.

“Who else have you healed?” she asks.

“Only Hux. I must have forgotten I could do this when I dropped you off on Jakku. It started coming back to me after-- After Han, after the bridge. After I’d fought you in those woods.”

“And what did you heal on him?” Rey asks. “On Hux?” she clarifies, pronouncing his name grudgingly.

“Everything,” Ren says, and he scoffs. “First, his neck. After you gave me this scar, when I was still recovering myself. Hux made me mad and I sort of-- Anyway, I healed some bruises on his neck. Then, when I rescued him from what Snoke had done, from these First Order traitors who had-- Have you sensed this yet?”

“A bit,” Rey says, looking queasy. “His fear, when we arrested him-- I could sense something very bad had happened to him in captivity, before.”

“Right, well. When I found him, they had just-- Trashed his body. Broken legs, and his ribs--” Ren shakes his head. He can’t think about that now. Those memories would send him over the edge of this patio, down the street, across this entire planet at full speed until he reached Hux and became some kind of inhuman source of pure rage that would tear that Tower apart from tip to base in search of Hux, needing to carry him away from his captors again. “I healed so many injuries on him,” Ren says, weakly, when he senses Rey’s concern. “But after Snoke’s attack-- After Snoke used my hands to attack him--” He looks down at his hands, at his palms. “Nothing. I had no power to heal him.”

“Maybe the recipient has to be open to it,” Rey says. “And he wasn’t, then, because he was in shock, and scared of you.”

“Maybe,” Ren says, muttering. “I want to look in those books for information about this, if it exists there. Tell me if you find anything about healing.”

“I will,” Rey says.

They share a look, and Rey smiles a little. Ren fights the urge to do the same. This discussion feels like some kind of small progress, but they can’t get ahead of themselves. With Snoke there are always at least three layers of deliberate confusion to untangle from every new discovery.

They return to the books then, each taking one and making notes of the words and phrases they’re able to piece together from instinct when they can clear their minds enough to do so. It doesn’t amount to much by the time Wedge returns from his shopping trip and the sun begins to sink outside, but it’s a start-- Or so Rey says, ever optimistic. Ren still feels lost, with his jumble of jotted down words and no information about healing discovered.

“I think I got everything you need,” Wedge says when he hands Ren a bulging shopping bag.

“I’m sure it’s all fine,” Ren says, peering inside curiously. “Thank you. It’s hard, uh. For me to wear these other clothes.”

“Well, you should have things that make you feel comfortable,” Wedge says, smiling.

Feedback from Wedge: He doesn’t know Ren has been wearing Han’s old clothes. He simply thinks Ren is a very emotional person who needs things a certain way.

Ren isn’t sure what kind of expression to put on his face, sensing this. He makes a vague gesture toward his room, indicating that he’s going to go change.

“Oh, sure,” Wedge says, waving him in that direction. “Go ahead. Maybe I’ll order something for dinner tonight.”

“Can you order supplies?” Ren asks.

“Supplies?”

“Groceries,” Rey says, coming out of her room wearing some of her new garments. This outfit looks like a cleaner, newer version of her old clothes, out of fashion and basic but also somehow flattering. “Ben likes to cook,” Rey says when Wedge still seems lost. “He wants to cook us dinner. I think it’s a great idea. A good way to channel pent-up energy.”

Ren turns to scowl at her, though he secretly appreciates this. She grins.

“Absolutely!” Wedge says, sounding like this is the best news he’s heard all day. “Just give me a list of what you need and I’ll have it delivered by the droid service.”

“I’ll change first,” Ren says, mumbling. He grabs Rey’s arm when she starts to walk past him. “When does your friend get here?” he asks.

“Are you unable to say his name?”

Ren stares at her. She stares back.

“When is Finn getting here?” Ren asks, his jaw tight.

“In about an hour,” Rey says, cheerful again. “So he’ll be with us for dinner. Account for him in your grocery order, please.”

She walks off as if the matter is settled. Ren goes into his room, annoyed with himself for not anticipating that an offer to cook dinner would result in serving it to Finn, but he’ll feed that guy anything in exchange for reassurance that Hux arrived safely at the Tower and is being given special accommodation. He opens the shopping bag Wedge brought him and laughs under his breath when he sees that literally everything inside is black, though he’s not sure why this is funny. It’s what he asked for.

When he’s dressed in black pants and a long-sleeved black tunic that’s cinched around his waist with a wide black belt, all of these items satisfactory if not ideal, he gives Wedge a list of ingredients to order from the droid service and thinks of returning to the books, then decides he’s had enough of them for one day. Rey is in her room, but she’s left the door open. She looks up from the mirrored vanity where she’s sitting when she spots Ren lurking in the doorway.

“Do people still wear their hair like this?” she asks, touching one of the three sections she’s knotted into a bun. “Wedge always put it up for me this way when I was little, and I do it out of habit, but I don’t know-- Does it look stupid, do you think? In modern society?”

“Why do you presume I know how women wear their hair here?” Ren asks, confused about why it even matters until he considers that she probably wants to impress Finn. As if she wouldn’t manage that with a shaved head.

“Well, you’ve mixed with normal people more than I have,” Rey says, a bit sharply. “In your adventures. I assume.”

“I don’t know if normal is the right word. I’ve been on space stations. In the Order they had all the women wear their hair in a bun at the base of their necks. To keep it out of the way.”

“And yet you were allowed to wear yours flowing freely?” Rey says, smiling a little. Making fun of him now.

“I wasn’t enlisted in the Order.”

“Ben, it was a joke. Lighten up. We’re having a dinner party. Isn’t it exciting?”

“No.”

Rey laughs and turns back to her mirror, fussing with her hair again. Ren leaves her to it and paces the apartment, increasingly anxious for Finn to arrive and give him the news about Hux. When a droid brings the supplies he asked for he at least has that as a distraction, though he feels stupid rinsing vegetables in the sink, and begins to regret that he offered to do this. It’s absurd, considering everything else that’s going on, but he tells himself, like he did in that house on the cliff, that they still have to eat. Cutting ingredients up into neat sections and placing them into bowls brings him the same quiet calm that it always does, until he hears the door buzzer and nearly slices his thumb off as he flies from his work to answer it.

Rey gets there first. She’s still wearing her hair in three buns. Ren is glad about this, for some reason. Finn is all smiles for her as soon as he’s through the door, and he continues to share Rey’s apparent fondness for talking at the same time as the person she’s attempting to speak with. Finn’s face falls when he notices Ren looming nearby.

“Hello,” Ren says, intentionally, to get that out of the way. “Is Hux secure at the Tower? Did you speak to those in charge as Rey instructed you to? Were you able to confirm that they won’t allow anything untoward while--”

“One question at a time!” Rey says. “And let him at least finish walking inside first.”

“It’s fine,” Finn says. “I expected this. But I still don’t get why you care,” he says, speaking to Ren. “You and that guy are-- Friends?”

Feedback from Finn: He’s thinking of Poe Dameron, his close friend. He doesn’t understand.

Ren glances at Rey. She shrugs, as if to tell him it’s up to him to divulge whatever he’d like to Finn about the nature of his concern for Hux’s well-being.

“Never mind why,” Ren says. “Tell me. Is he safe? What transpired when you arrived at the Tower? What was his condition when you departed?”

“All right,” Finn says. “Three more questions.” He takes a seat on the sofa with Rey when she brings him there. Luke’s books have been put away: two in Rey’s room, three in Ren’s. “Um,” Finn glances at Rey. “Am I going to meet your dad?”

“Excuse me,” Ren says, louder than he intended to. They both glare at him. “Answer me, dammit,” he says, not interested in being polite. “Wedge is in his room. He’ll be here momentarily. This matter is more pressing.”

“Go ahead,” Rey says, nodding when Finn looks at her. “My dad’s just getting ready. He’s not avoiding you.”

“Okay.” Finn sighs and looks at Ren. “When we got there, they took him to the warden. Not the friendliest guy, but he said he already had orders from Organa to keep the Starkiller in isolated custody so nobody can mess with him. I guess you know about the sentencing hearing that’s coming up for him, since it’s all over the holo broadcasts nonstop.”

“What?” Ren glances at the room’s powered-off holoprojector, which is perched on a shelf over the simu-light fireplace, across from the sofa. Somehow Ren didn’t anticipate Hux being galactic news, but of course he is. “Where are the controls for this thing?” he asks, scanning the projector frantically when he can’t locate them. It’s a new model, a design he’s not familiar with, and he’s too thrown by this sudden information about Hux being talked about in the media to sense anything but his own panic as he slaps at the sides of the projector, looking for a compartment that hides the controls.

“Calm down!” Rey says. “Please, Ben, you’ll break it.”

“Pretty sure you turn it on with this, man,” Finn says, more smugly than necessary. He’s holding a wireless controller. The holo flickers on when Finn presses a button.

The holochannel that the projector is tuned to shows a game of smashball. Finn flicks to the next channel, where a Cerean man reads a news report. Ren stumbles backward, away from the projector, when a picture of Hux’s face appears alongside the newscaster. It’s a still image from a recording of the speech Hux gave before the first use of the weapon that destroyed those five planets. So the New Republic has seen that speech. Of course they have.

“Turn it up,” Rey says.

Finn adjusts the volume. Ren keeps backing away from the projector until he’s standing against the wall beside the sofa, still staring at the frozen image of Hux. It’s from some moment toward the end of his speech. In the image, Hux looks insane. Inhuman with hatred. His eyes don’t appear to be green.

“The capture of the First Order’s General Hux is said to be a great victory for the Resistance,” the newscaster says, staring gravely at the camera. “Especially in light of last year’s loss of much of the Republic’s fleet in the attack that General Hux takes credit for in this now-infamous footage that was first released to the public earlier this year.”

The broadcasts shifts to Hux’s speech. Ren had sensed it more than watched it, that day. At the time he’d found Hux fairly ridiculous, but seeing the speech now sends a biting chill down the back of his neck. Hux is almost spitting with rage as he addresses his subordinates, announcing the end of the Republic. That speech was personal for him, but this doesn’t give the right impression of why. Hux looks and sounds like someone who not only longs to kill everyone who stands in his way but also like someone who is quivering with enjoyment at the thought of all that suffering, loss, destruction.

“That’s-- Quite a different side of him,” Rey says when the broadcast cuts back to the newscaster.

Rey’s feedback, things she can’t or doesn’t want to hide: She’s more distressed by this footage of Hux than she was by Ren’s admission that he had wanted to destroy Ben Solo and become Snoke’s creation instead. Rey is even a bit frightened, as if the Hux on the holo was really just in the room with them, threatening them.

“All his speeches were like that,” Finn says, shrugging one shoulder. “I’d never met him back then, but he always seemed like a spiteful little lunatic to me.” Finn sniffs a kind of humorless laugh, recalling something more recent. Ren is rattled, but Finn’s feedback is never very guarded, easy enough to read now.

Feedback from Finn: He asked Hux, in the transport on the way to the Tower, to help him find his parents. Hux refused. He was dismissive, cruel. Clinging to the last petty remnants of his tattered power over FN-2187.

“You don’t know him,” Ren says, to both of them, without really meaning to speak. He can’t hold it in. “He doesn’t let people know him.”

“How did you ever come to bond with a person like that?” Rey asks, her distress persisting.

“It’s not like they don’t have a few things in common,” Finn mutters when Ren refuses to answer.

Observations: Another redundant question from Rey. Finn’s response is more astute.

Wedge walks into the room just as the newscaster finishes reading off the names of the Committee members who will decide how to punish Hux for what happened when that speech concluded.

“Hey!” Wedge says when Finn and Rey rise. “You must be Finn. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Ren remains pressed against the wall while they make their inane introductions. He’s still staring at the holoprojector. A picture of his mother has appeared in place of the image of Hux.

“General Organa will serve as Committee Head during the sentencing,” the newscaster says. “It’s being reported that, should the vote for or against the death penalty end in a tie, Organa will have the deciding vote.”

Rey hears this at the same time that Ren does. Finn and Wedge haven’t noticed. They’re talking about-- Ren doesn’t even know, doesn’t care. He feels Rey looking at him, wanting to draw his gaze.

Feedback from Rey, directly: Ben. It’s okay.

“Like hell it is,” Ren says, accidentally out loud. Everyone turns to stare at him. His voice came out unsteady. His mother’s picture is still being projected. The newscaster is talking about Alderaan.

“It’s Leia,” Rey says when Wedge and Finn look at her in confusion. She points to the holo. “She’ll be, ah. She’ll be on the Committee that--”

“Did you know?” Ren asks, barking this more angrily than he’d intended to. Rey shakes her head, but she’s not being honest. Ren can read it on her now. She had a vision about this. “I thought you didn’t have any visions about me and him,” Ren says, louder now.

“Hey, all right,” Finn says, holding up a hand. “Don’t shout at her.”

“Ben,” Rey says. Her voice is shaky; it stabs at him. He did that. He’s frightened her. Once, that was impossible. “Please, just. You can speak to Leia about this, soon.”

“Speak to her-- What am I supposed to say? I’m supposed to beg her to spare him? You’re failing to see the irony in that, really?”

“I didn’t ask you to beg for anything,” Rey says, her voice sharpening, eyes narrowing. “I wanted Leia to tell you this herself. I didn’t think it was my place-- I didn’t realize it would be on the news just yet.”

“Okay,” Wedge says when everyone goes silent, Ren breathing heavily from his spot against the wall and Finn standing near Rey as if he’s ready to protect her, as if Ren might attack her, as if Finn could do anything in a fight against him. “How about we all go into the kitchen and have a beer,” Wedge says, holding out his hands. “This is big news, about Leia being involved with the, um. I think we all need a second to process it.”

“Beer sounds good,” Finn says. He touches Rey’s shoulder. “You okay?” he asks, speaking softly. She nods, then gives Ren another accusing look.

Observation: It hurts. A lot. Seeing her look at him like that. Like she doesn’t know him. Can’t trust him.

Observation, related: It was the footage of Hux that did it, more than Ren’s most recent outburst. Rey saw that footage, that speech, as proof that Ren’s allegiance lies elsewhere. With people of that sort. She saw the real, flagrant hatred on Hux’s face and felt she had been wrong to offer Hux comfort on Luke’s island. As if she had been almost tricked into it, by Ren.

“People can be more than one thing,” Ren says, his voice still too tight. “They can be monsters and something else, too. At the same time. You said so yourself. About me.”

“I’m not upset with you for whatever you see in-- That man,” Rey says, and she sniffs. “But how could--” She presses her lips shut.

Feedback from Rey, better not said aloud: How could you think Leia would vote for anything but mercy? How could you think for even a moment that she would kill the man you love as revenge for what you did to Han? How fucking dare you, Ben?

He’s not sure how to respond to that. It’s strange to hear Rey curse, even in her head. She shuts her mind to Ren as best she can and walks into the kitchen. Finn follows, looking confused and giving Ren an angry glance on his way out of the room. Wedge sighs and turns off the holoprojector when the newscaster moves on to talk about diplomatic relations with the leadership of the Yancreian system.

“So,” Wedge says when he looks at Ren. “Do you drink?”

“Sometimes.” Ren thinks of that second night on the Finalizer with Hux. His first and only experience with alcohol. He had hated parts of it, hearing himself say things too easily, but he had liked others. He had liked that the drink seemed to give him permission to try certain things, like running his fingertips slow and soft along the length of Hux’s arm. He had liked how Hux smiled and shivered and pressed back against him in drowsy pleasure, how Hux had suddenly let himself have certain things, too.

“Good,” Wedge says, nodding. “Because you could probably use a drink, huh?”

Ren follows him into the kitchen and accepts a bottle of beer. Rey and Finn are sitting at the table with their own beer bottles, in silence. Finn looks as if he’s trying not to let it show that he’s having a hard time managing his reactions to all of this. Skywalker drama, as Hux used to think of it, though there are no Skywalkers here. The drama could still be accurately called that. Rey avoids Ren’s stare. Dinner lies half-prepared on the counter.

“I’m going to drink this in my room and write a note for Hux,” Ren announces, lifting his beer bottle. “I’d like to you to bring this note to Hux as soon as possible,” he says to Finn, as politely as he can manage.

Observation: He hears himself, this time. He’s aware that he still sounds aggressive, as if he’s issuing a command.

“Then I’ll finish cooking dinner,” Ren says, hurrying this out when Finn opens his mouth to respond. “And you can stay. And eat it. With us.”

“Okay,” Finn says slowly, glancing at Rey.

“He’s a good cook,” she says, still avoiding Ren’s gaze. “Or he thinks so, anyway.”

Ren goes into the living room and retrieves the scratch pad he jotted notes on earlier. He brings it into his room with his beer, using the Force to the slam the door shut behind him. He sits on the bed, puts the beer on the little table beside it, and stares at Luke’s books. They’re piled on a chair near the window. The room has already started to smell like them, a bit.

Ren stares down at the blank sheet of paper that awaits his message to Hux. He can’t remember the last time he wrote anybody a note by hand. He sent Hux a few messages via his comm on the Finalizer, and he tries to remember what the last one said. It was probably some command for Hux to come to Ren’s room to get fucked. Thinking of it makes his hand curl into a fist around the pen he’s holding. It’s already hard to believe that there was ever a time when he could just ask for that and Hux would come to him, if he wanted to. And Hux had wanted it, so much. Ren had felt it in the air, everywhere on that ship, ever-present at the back of his mind once he knew: Hux wanted him so much that it hurt, and the hurt only made him want Ren more. Hux had liked that there was an edge of pain in their every interaction, secretly. The pain made it real, made it count.

Observation, far too late to change things the way that it should have: For Ren it was a life-altering revelation, this idea that someone could find him vexing and exhausting and yet could never tire of his company. It had felt so good to give Hux that: to just keep close, nothing more, and feel Hux’s feedback soothing into a kind of peace he’d never known before Ren.

Ren drinks half the beer, writes the note to Hux, and drinks the rest as he reads it over. It’s not very well-written or profound, but it’s the best he can do right now. Hux just needs to know that Ren is thinking of him. Non-stop. So much that Rey is weary of sensing it already. She calls it an obsession, as if that were a bad word. Ren knows about obsession. Obsession moves the world, as much as it can ever be moved by any single person. It drives the desires of everyone in the galaxy, large and small. Both the powerful and powerless. Everybody is obsessed with something. In some ways, being obsessed with serving Snoke was easier to live with than Ren’s obsession with protecting Hux, but he wouldn’t go back if he could. Ren was a hollow column of darkness before Hux. Even when he was Ben. He’d felt so empty, before his need to have Hux always at his side grew to feel like the only thing that matters.

He folds up the letter, returns to the kitchen and gives it to Finn, then resumes work on the meal he’d been preparing without a word. The conversation at the table becomes awkward for a moment, but soon they’re all back to talking as if Ren isn’t among them. He prefers that to any uncomfortable attempts to include him, and he’s glad to have something to do while they talk and drink.

The meal he makes is simple, grilled sandwiches with meat and cheese, pan-fried vegetables on the side, but the ingredients brought by the droid were of a high quality and everything turns out well. Ren begins to eat his portion at the counter, standing, but consents to join the others at the table when Wedge asks him to. Rey meets Ren’s eyes when he looks at her as he’s taking his seat.

Feedback from Rey, directly, somewhat fuzzed by the two beers she’s consumed: It just breaks my heart to think that you don’t know Leia. Or that you pretend not to know her, and how much she loves you. Maybe because I can barely remember my own mother.

Ren eats quickly and wipes his mouth with his napkin when he’s finished his sandwich. Wedge and Finn are really hitting it off, talking about the old X-wings and some newer models that are being built on the base right now. Rey is getting sleepy and somewhat impatient, wanting to be alone with Finn and wondering if Wedge will go to bed before Finn has to leave.

“I have some things to say,” Ren announces, having had enough of this dinner party and needing to make himself scarce sooner rather than later. They all turn to stare at him. He feels like he should stand, so he does. “Rey,” he says. “I’m sorry I shouted at you.”

“I--” she says, shaking her head. “It’s fine, you were--”

“Finn,” Ren says, not wanting to reopen the discussion of what he was feeling when he shouted. “Thank you for taking my message to Hux. I trust you to get it to him and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t read it.”

Observation: The slight threat implicit in that statement is concealed so well that only Rey senses it. She sighs. Finn looks from her to Wedge and then up at Ren again.

“Okay, yeah,” Finn says. “I’ll do it, sure, as soon as they’ll let me go back down there.”

“Leia will grant you the leave,” Rey says. “She’ll be back in the morning.”

“Wedge,” Ren says, also not wanting to reopen a discussion of his mother. “Thank you for the clothes. I know I thanked you already, but I wanted to say it again. It’s a big deal, to me. For reasons I can’t explain.”

“Ben,” Wedge says. His eyes are shining but not quite wet. “Anything you need. You were there for Rey when she needed you, so. I’m here for you now.”

Ren can’t deal with that either. He looks at Rey.

“Thanks for cooking,” she says.

Feedback from Rey, below that: You can go to your room if you want. It’s okay.

Observation, another thing he can’t deal with: Rey sounds like Leia, giving him permission to duck away. Leia used to say things like that to Ben, via the Force, when he wanted to escape from family parties or even just from the other kids. It’s okay, sweetheart. You don’t have to play with the others if you don’t want to. Leia had offered this sincerely but sadly. Worried for him. She was always afraid that Ben would grow up unhappy, because of who he was. Because of the things he couldn’t change about himself.

Alone in his room, Ren doesn’t put on the light. He’s grown accustomed to doing without light after nightfall, and he stands at the window to look out at the city. The books seem to hum from the chair where they sit, but he can’t learn anything more from them tonight. He takes off his belt, holds it in his hands. His hooded robe is folded on the bureau. He’ll wear it when he goes to kill Snoke, and when he sees Hux again.

He gets into bed and stretches out on his back, still dressed, his hands folded over his stomach. When he closes his eyes he drifts, too hazy from the beer to approach anything like meditation. He doesn’t want to sleep.

Observation, still hazy but real, a kind of vision: Hux doesn’t want to sleep either. In his cell, alone. He’s reached across his sterile sheets more than once, looking for Ren.

A soft sound breaks at the back of Ren’s throat. He wants to believe that Hux has heard it, as if Ren’s audible grief is a currency that Hux could cash in for comfort.

“Please, please,” Ren says, whispering, talking to himself. He wants this vision to be real, needs to believe that Hux has looked for him while half-asleep, even as the idea rips him in two, because he wasn’t there when Hux reached for him.

He falls asleep on his back and has more bad dreams: blood, the buzz of his lightsaber too close to Rey’s cheek, and the sound of Poe’s screams from the hallway of the Finalizer, when Ren was still too much of a coward to enter the interrogation room himself.

Observation, when the semblance of sleep fades and he wakes with a mild headache in an unfamiliar room, smelling ancient books: They weren’t dreams so much as memories.

The apartment is quiet, but some small disturbance pings at his consciousness: Rey. She’s outside, on the patio. Ren sits up, wanting to walk out and sit with her, thinking she’s unable to sleep, but before he can move from the bed he senses that she’s not alone. She’s in one of those low, long chairs, with Finn, though they can’t fit there together without holding onto each other and overlapping, Rey’s head resting on Finn’s chest as she laughs at something he’s said. Wedge is asleep in his bedroom. Rey is smiling, fidgeting, overly warm. Finn has kissed her ten times already, maybe more. Sensing this almost gets Ren out of bed, a protective instinct curdling in his gut, but these kisses they’ve exchanged are just some chaste kids’ stuff, both of them thrilled to even have this.

Ren disconnects as much as he can, but when he rolls onto his side in bed he can still feel small things that come through without any effort on his or Rey’s behalf: Finn’s heartbeat under Rey’s cheek, Finn’s hand resting on her hip.

Observations, fundamentally reassuring, even as they slap against Ren like taunts: Rey feels safe, happy, hopeful. She feels, at last, again, like she’s not alone.

Ren closes his eyes and focuses on his own thoughts, moving away from theirs. He sends his mind south. To the Tower. He’s been afraid to do it before now: afraid he would frighten Hux, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to reach him, afraid of what he might find there if he did. Hux might sense Ren’s attempts to reach him and want nothing more than freedom from Ren’s attention, forever.

Observation, suddenly too clear: Hux is offline.

Correction, pushing back the panic: Hux is asleep. In a bed that is cold but clean. Dreaming.

To call this a dream would be too charitable. It’s a nightmare: Hux is surrounded by faceless men in First Order uniforms. They approach him, cornering him, laughing. Ren is sad for Hux before his epiphany comes.

Observation, shooting Ren into the stars with giddy accomplishment, power flooding him like a color he lost sight of for some time: He can see Hux’s dream. From here. The nightmare is real, for Hux, and Hux is terrified.

And Ren can help him. He is in this dream with Hux now.

In Hux’s dream, Ren finds his confiscated lightsaber in his hand. He looks down at it, smiles, feels his teeth sharpening into points. He makes a half-animal noise and all of Hux’s would-be attackers turn. They don’t have faces. Ren cuts their heads off anyway.

Ren walks through the shower of blood that falls from them. He powers off the lightsaber and throws it away. Hux is watching him, wary. He saw the sharpness of Ren’s teeth. He’s afraid that those teeth might close into his throat.

In this nightmare, Hux sees himself as younger and smaller than he really is. They were in a windowless room, but when Ren concentrates he transforms the room into a forest. Pine trees sway in the wind overhead. Hux remains on the ground, not cowering but cautious. Frowning up at Ren.

“Hux,” Ren says.

Hearing Ren’s voice transforms Hux into who he really is: his real age, actual size, green eyes.

“You’re not real,” Hux says.

“No,” Ren says, because Hux doesn’t want to see the real Ren yet. Not even in his dreams.

Hux stands up. He’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt and loose pants, both gray and nondescript. Slippers on his feet.

“You can’t keep saving me,” Hux says. “It won’t work.”

The bodies of the decapitated nightmare men are gone. Their heads have disappeared, too. Sun flicks through the pine needles that sway overhead.

“I’m tired of being underestimated,” Ren says, the words coming to him as if he’s reading lines from some play. Still, they feel true: like his own, real words, buried someplace until now. “I will kill Snoke,” he says, finally believing it. “I will save you. And we will leave this planet together.”

“It’s a dream,” Hux says, laughing, angry. “You were always only a dream.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“Do I?” Hux walks closer, just a few steps, his eyes still so angry. “How?”

“Because I was inside you. You felt me. I’m real.”

Saying so throws Ren out of Hux’s dream. He opens his eyes and stares at a square of light on the ceiling of this room in Wedge’s apartment. He gasps, clawing at the unfamiliar tunic that he’s wearing in this unfamiliar bed.

Observations, shot through with ragged disbelief but solid, too: His eyes are wet. His eyes are wet because that was Hux. Because Hux woke up, too, gasping in his bed, in his prison cell.

Hux will tell himself it’s not real, because Hux doesn’t believe in things as easily as Ren, who could lift his hand and move objects across rooms by the time he was four years old. But Ren has to believe, because he’s seen too many things that shouldn’t be real, that Hux can smell him on his sheets now. Ren rolls over and drags the blankets on the bed against his face. It’s Hux, this smell: as if he was just here. The scent of Hux fades quickly, but before it’s gone Ren blinks his wet eyes open and clenches his jaw, imagines his teeth growing into razor-sharp points.

Observation: Only two things matter now.

First objective: He will visit Hux in his dreams again. Hux can tell himself it’s a fantasy if he wants to. Hux deserves that much; Ren won’t trouble him when he’s not asleep.

Secondly: Ren will have Snoke’s throat in his teeth before long. He will bring Snoke’s bitter, shriveled heart to Hux in a black lacquered box.

After that, it’s up to Hux. Ren can only hope Hux will accept this gift. He can only hope that Hux will read the note brought by Finn rather than ripping it to shreds. Ren can feel his note crumpling in Finn’s pocket even now, as Rey falls asleep against Finn’s chest.

Feedback from Finn, unwanted but too clear to ignore: Finn was supposed to be back at the Resistance base two hours ago. He’s afraid they’ll punish him but can’t make himself leave her just yet.

Observation: Ren knows something about what that’s like.

Observation, also relevant, annoying: Finn will deliver the letter as asked. He’s honorable, when it matters. When it actually matters, Finn is more faithful than most.

Ren wipes his face on the sheets. The scent of Hux has faded, but it was here. He’s sure of it. He falls asleep, trying to ignore the persisting awareness that his mother’s ship is drawing closer to this planet as she returns to her base.

Observation, strange: He wants his ghosts back.

Ren listens, waits. Feel as if those ghosts are still with him but quieted by something.

“Come back,” he says, muttering this against the mattress, speaking to everything he’s ever lost.

Observation, fading into real sleep: He’s even directing this request to his mother. Even as she’s already returning to him, unstoppable.

 

**

Chapter Text

Only when Hux wakes up thirsty on his second morning in the Tower does he realize he’s not been provided with a cup for drinking water. He eyes the crusted, empty milk carton on last night’s dinner tray, which remains on his desk, and decides he would rather gulp water from his cupped palms like an animal. When he gets out of bed he’s assaulted straight away by an unwanted memory of Ren bringing him a glass of water in that house on the cliff. It was one of the first things Ren did after all the healing. The water there had been sort of foul-tasting in a subtle way that Hux had noticed later. Upon taking his first gulps of it he’d been too distracted his by massive, terrifying relief and by the usual undercurrent of petty annoyance with Ren to note any imperfections in what he was drinking.

At the sink, bent over and bleary after another bad night of half-sleep, Hux slurps cold water from his palms and hopes that drinking from this tap won’t give him some sort of parasite. He dreamed about Ren. It’s fading already, but it was something about Ren killing a group of menacing, faceless men in another act of unasked-for protection. Ren then announced he would kill Snoke and save Hux, in that order. Or something like that. It’s not an unusual scenario, dream-wise, but something about it is bothering Hux as he switches from gulping water out of his palms to splashing it on his face. He looks into the mirror after he’s used the towel to dry off, trying to focus on his reflection rather than the memory of that dream. Ren’s appearance had transformed everything: attackers gone, the walls that had caged Hux disappeared and gave way to the fantasy of a fragrant forest of towering pines that Hux’s subconscious continues to cling to. It’s a dangerous fairy tale to entertain even in a dream, this idea that Ren stepping onto the scene could mean anything but further disaster, let alone some actual salvation.

Hux hears the little compartment on the bottom of his cell door opening, and he hurries to grab the dinner tray, wanting to be rid of it. There are only a few seconds available to pass the previous meal’s tray to the droid outside before it pushes the next one in, and Hux doesn’t want dirty things stacking up here, inside his only remaining sanctuary. He manages to get the old tray out before the next one is pushed inside, and he hurries his fingers away from the compartment when it slams shut again.

Rather than eating breakfast on the floor like a wibbling child, which is already a horrible memory that he refuses to dwell on, he takes his tray to the desk and opens his milk before sitting, gulping from it and wishing that they would swap it out for juice at some point, or even filtered water. He supposes he’ll never have sparkling water again, or sparkling wine, or brandy, though he did get his hands on those cigarettes with relative ease. They’re hidden under his mattress. He’ll sneak them into his next meeting with Jek, which he supposes will be his only opportunity to smoke while he’s here, unless he survives to see some kind of recreational time.

He doubts he’ll even make it through the entire pack of cigarettes before his own flame is extinguished. His sentencing hearing begins in nine days, and no one is going to save him from the foregone conclusion of that galactic melodrama-- not Jek Porkins III, and certainly not Ren. Hux supposes he could make it his goal to smoke several cigarettes during his next meeting with Jek, to ensure the pack won’t outlive him. That’s the only sort of realistic objective he’s got left to set for himself.

He neatens his hair as best he can and tells himself not to allow his tendency to prepare for the worst to twist into a kind of self-pitying defeatism. He’s only begun to understand the way this place and this entire culture works, and there may yet be some loopholes he could exploit. Believing that he could survive when he felt like he was already more dead than alive was always a useful strategy in the past, even when that belief felt like a deluded lie. Part of the reason he’s still standing on two feet is his willingness to cling to such seeming delusions when they’re all he has left, such as now.

The guards come to collect him for his ‘interview’ with the Resistance leadership shortly after he’s stuffed down his breakfast, and as they fasten binders on his wrists he reminds himself to keep sharp and to meticulously note any and all vulnerabilities that this system possesses. He was allowed a short, solitary and closely monitored sanistream shower the night before, but he’s already wishing for another, or at least for a comb, as he’s marched toward a panel of his lifelong enemies. It doesn’t help what’s left of his pride that he’s wearing only slippers and an ensemble that would not even pass for a decent set of pajamas in his world, but he has at least been provided with a supply of ugly white briefs now, so he’s not flopping around like a savage inside his loose pants. These underthings arrived via the slot in his door yesterday, and they now constitute a large portion of his worldly possessions, along with that soap, toothbrush and towel.

The elevator takes them to the fourth floor. Hux can hear shuttlecraft moving about on the floors below and expects to find garages on this floor, too, hopeful for a moment that he’ll be taken elsewhere for this questioning, but when the elevator doors open they look out on a dimly lit hallway of heavily armored doors that seem too narrow to house shuttle bays. The warden waits at the end of the hall, before the largest set of doors. He’s dressed a bit less casually today, at least wearing a jacket that strains to contain his gut, a single button pulling at both sides.

“Here’s the guest of honor,” Stepwell says as the guards lead Hux forward, though there is nobody else in the hallway. Stepwell grins, which seems to be his habit: a self-conscious affectation or a mark of arrogance, possibly both. Hux files that away and keeps his own expression impassive. “How are you enjoying your accommodations, General?” Stepwell asks, reaching for his belt. He unclips a device which appears to be a kind of master key and uses it to release the binders from Hux’s wrists.

“I’m being uncuffed for this?” Hux says, ignoring Stepwell’s overly obvious attempt at irony. Stepwell doesn’t seem like an intelligent person: he’s an ex-soldier in the way that some of Hux’s former officers were, someone who has actually seen battle and holds onto that with a kind of brutish pride.

“I figure there’s no harm in it,” Stepwell says, twirling the unlocked binders around one finger. “You’re not stupid enough to lunge at General Organa while her guards stand against the wall with their blasters, are you?”

“She’s-- General Organa is present for this?” Hux glances at the armored doors. He wasn’t nervous before, more curious, but now his heart is beating fast. Organa is rumored to have the same powers that Ren used to read Hux’s mind, for one thing.

“Of course she’s here,” Stepwell says. “She’s a very hands-on general. No stranger to getting her hands dirty for the cause. Unlike yourself, I presume.”

Hux makes no response, his eyes on the door. He wonders if Ren has cried on his mother’s shoulder yet. Knowing Ren, he’s still hiding from her, but it might not matter, though it hardly seemed as if they were exchanging long-distance thoughts while Ren hid with Hux in that house that had once been Organa’s vacation home. Of course, Hux can never really know what goes on in these people’s heads. Even when Ren seemed to share his memories with Hux, in bed that night, it all might have been some muddled trick--

He pushes those thoughts away when Stepwell opens the heavy doors.

The guards take Hux’s uncuffed arms and walk him into the room as if he’s still wearing the binders. They push him into a chair on one side of a long table. Three Resistance officials await on the other side, three armed guards in what passes for Resistance uniforms standing against the wall behind them. The room is windowless and lit only by two lamps that glow from each end of the table, casting everyone’s face in shadow. Organa is not sitting in the middle, surprisingly. She’s off to the left, and though Hux has of course seen images and holo footage of her, she seems much smaller than he imagined. He remembers that pilot on Skywalker’s island saying the same thing about him, more or less, and he forces himself not to stare at Organa. Instead he looks directly across the table, at the man who sits in the middle. He appears to be roughly Organa’s age, with graying hair and a beard that is not as neatly trimmed as it might be. Off to the right there is some type of fish-like creature with red skin and enormous eyes. Hux vaguely recognizes the species, and even this particular specimen who has risen high in the ranks of the Resistance, but he can’t call either name to mind at the moment. Organa’s presence, lurking at the left corner of Hux’s vision, screams for the inappropriately fascinated attention he doesn’t want to show, and the effort required to ignore her stare blocks out much of the rest of Hux’s thought process.

“Here’s your prisoner,” Stepwell says, again being overly obvious. “You can have him for as long as you need him.”

“This shouldn’t take more than five hours,” the man in the middle says. “Thank you, warden. You may go.”

Hux appreciates this man’s dismissive tone. Presumably he doesn’t outrank Organa, but perhaps her rank elevates her above the chore of asking questions of the enemy. She’s certainly listening, a data pad waiting to record her notes. The man in the middle activates a recording device on his own pad.

“This is Lieutenant Commander Timmons of the Resistance, beginning the questioning of Elan Bartram Hux, prisoner of the New Republic and recently defected General of the First Order.” Timmons takes a sip from a glass of water after spewing all that out, and Hux notes that he appears nervous, maybe because these other two are his superiors and he’s been asked to do their talking for them as much as possible. There is a pitcher of water within reach of Organa, beside another glass. Hux wonders if he could request some water for himself. “Also present is Commander Ackbar,” Timmons says, still reading from what appears to be a script on his data pad. “And General Organa.”

Hux allows his eyes to flick to Organa’s then. She’s watching him, unblinking, both elbows resting on the table as she leans slightly forward. Studying him. Something about her overly casual posture reminds Hux of Ren. He looks back to Timmons when he realizes he’s staring.

“Mr. Hux,” Timmons says, glancing up from his script to give Hux a poor imitation of a steely stare. “Let’s begin by hearing the details of your defection from the First Order, starting with the last day you held the title of General aboard the Finalizer.”

Mr. Hux. That has a very unpleasant ring to it. Hux resists the urge to look at Organa again and makes a show of clearing his throat.

“May I have some water?” Hux asks, speaking to Timmons, who blinks in apparent confusion and turns to Organa.

“I’m afraid they only brought us three glasses,” Organa says, not offering hers, which is presently empty. She pushes the pitcher of water toward Hux, holding his gaze. “You can drink from that if you’re desperate.”

It’s an unexpected but admirably effective opening move, and Hux regrets his attempt to upset their script by asking for water. He stares at the pitcher, imagining how cold and fresh the water served to these officials must be, certainly filtered. He feels suddenly as if he’s been wandering in a desert for days, his tongue drying up against the roof of his mouth, but that word Organa used keeps him from drinking clumsily from that pitcher like a man beneath his station: like someone who is desperate. No, he’s not that. Yet.

“Never mind,” Hux says. He wants to look at Organa again but can’t bring himself to do it, and he returns his gaze to Timmons instead. “On my last day aboard the Finalizer I was given misleading, false information that allowed the officers who had been secretly briefed by our Supreme Leader to incapacitate me and smuggle me off-ship aboard a shuttle that brought me to a small moon. I have yet to determine the coordinates of this moon, as I was not informed of its location upon rescue.” Again, at the sound of the word rescue, he wants to look at Organa. Her stare seems to sear his cheek; he can’t hear her in his head but can’t stop wondering if she’s seen his mind already. He pushes images of Ren away as firmly as he can, though that is the part in this story where he has arrived: Ren carrying him away from that moon base. Healing him on that shuttle. Reaching for the cuts on Hux’s face first, sentimental idiot.

“Continue,” Organa says, and Hux’s eyes flick to hers, then back to Timmons.

“I was held on this moon base for approximately seventeen days,” Hux says, the walls of this windowless room seeming to press in around him as he speaks. “I was tortured by officers who I assumed were traitors. Later I would learn that they were working for our Supreme Leader, who had effectively unseated me by orchestrating this capture.” Yesterday and even earlier this morning, Hux had considered trying to tell them another tale, but he can’t risk the chance that Ren has spilled too many details about the truth already, and no other flight from the First Order would seem plausible for him, anyway. It’s not as if they would believe he had a sudden moral change of heart because he’d discovered the power of love or some nonsense like that.

“I was rescued from this torture and imprisonment by a man who calls himself Kylo Ren,” Hux says, deciding he might as well drop this bomb sooner rather than later, if it will even be news to any of them. He glances at Organa. She’s motionless, but she does blink once. “Ren was our Supreme Leader’s apprentice in what those two call the Force. Presumably the Supreme Leader had turned on Ren in some fashion, too. I don’t know the details about that, or why Ren saved me. He never told me.”

This is true, though only technically. Every night when Ren allowed Hux to take shelter in his arms was an answer to that question, but never mind.

“We hid from Snoke for as long as we could,” Hux says, staring at Timmons’ knuckles. “When Snoke found us and attacked me, Ren fought him off, but in the aftermath we could only conclude that our hideout was no longer safe. Ren had dormant but powerful loyalties to the New Republic, as I suspect at least one of you here is aware, and he asked if I would surrender to the New Republic in exchange for protection from Snoke. Having been betrayed and abandoned by the system I knew I could no longer trust, I agreed. Under Ren’s observation, I surrendered willingly to the custody of the Resistance. And now here we are.”

Hux awaits their commentary. Timmons keeps glancing at Organa as if he’s hoping she’ll take charge. Hux suspects Timmons was appointed to this task because he’s typically a smooth talker, and that Organa didn’t want to formally lead the investigation because of her son’s involvement. Hux also suspects there are few people in this galaxy who could speak about Kylo Ren impassively in the presence of Ren’s mother, no matter how talented they typically are at public speaking. Timmons hardly seems up to the task, in practice.

“You call him your Supreme Leader,” Ackbar says, enunciating this with surprising clarity. “We have heard him referred to as Snoke.”

“That’s correct,” Hux says. He feels a kind of unpleasant tightening in the skin at the back of his neck, hearing that name aloud here. “Supreme Leader Snoke. I know very little about where he came from and what his ultimate goals are, I’m afraid. He kept himself quite remote from me, aside from handing down orders via a holo channel. You’d do better to question Kylo Ren about him.”

“We’re here to find out what you know about Snoke,” Organa says, the new sharpness in her voice drawing Hux’s attention like a flame that has suddenly sparked to life in the dim room. She seems to have something of Ren’s temper, though she’s buried it as best she can among this company. “We need to know how Snoke introduced himself to the First Order and came to power among them,” she says, still sharp. “Surely you can at least tell us that?”

So she’s got some of Ren’s fondness for smug condescension, too. Of course. Hux glances at the pitcher of water again, then at Organa’s still-empty glass.

“I was not in a leadership position when Snoke first ingratiated himself,” Hux says. “And information of that sort is not necessarily volunteered even after one advances in the Order. My father gave me the impression that Snoke was some unseated dignitary who wanted to reclaim the power that he’d lost when the Empire fell, which was the case with most of the warlords and governors and other various sorts who came to us looking for a new centralized power in the absence of the Emperor.”

“When did you first encounter Snoke?” Organa asks. Timmons sits back a bit. He seems relieved, and embarrassed.

“I was not granted so much as a holo channel audience with Snoke until I was promoted to General,” Hux says, truthfully.

“And it was Snoke who promoted you?” Organa asks, making a note on her data pad. Hux nods when she looks up. “Answer verbally, please,” she says, her voice sharpening again.

“Yes,” Hux says, also sharp. “Snoke promoted me.”

They stare at each other. Hux wonders if Organa has used her Force powers to discern, as Hux has with his mere mortal reasoning, that Snoke only promoted Hux because he was the ideal bait to suit Ren’s predilections. Had Ren preferred women, perhaps a lovely young officer of that sort would have been chosen instead. Hux isn’t going to mention the other theoretical reason for his promotion, one that he once held onto proudly. He’s not sure if the people in this room know that he designed the weapon that he’s on trial for firing. He pushes that information from his head, now intentionally refocusing on thoughts of Ren. A preoccupation with Ren might distract Organa from other things in Hux’s mind, things which are more important to conceal. He allows himself to wonder where Ren is now, and if Ren has even spoken to his mother yet. He remembers Ren standing next to him, before Snoke’s giant holo projection, unmasked and radiating that endless need for praise that had made Hux sick with secondhand embarrassment. Did Ren need Organa’s praise too much, once? When he was so small that he could only cry in frustration when she didn’t or couldn’t give him what he needed?

Organa presses her lips into a straight line and types something into her data pad. Her eyes are colder when she looks up at Hux again. He wonders if she heard his thoughts. He hopes so, almost.

“And you made no attempt to contact the crew of the Finalizer or any other First Order personnel after you were rescued from your captivity?” Organa asks.

“Of course not. I didn’t know whom I could trust.”

“But you trusted Kylo Ren,” Organa says.

Hux attempts to read her expression or at least figure out where she’s going with this. He clears his throat and looks at the pitcher of water when he finds he has no idea.

“Well, Ren saved me,” Hux says. He feels pathetic for admitting it, though this information is redundant.

“Our intelligence suggests that your second in command aboard the Finalizer was Commander Malietta Uta,” Organa says, not missing a beat, if that question about Ren was even a departure from her notes. “Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Hux says, still too unsettled by what came before to lie. He wishes he had when he sees Organa typing more notes. He still believes what Ren said about Uta, though he once pretended not to. She was loyal, not part of that plot to draw Ren’s attention and see how far he would stray from Snoke’s control when Hux was brought low enough to cry out for Ren without even knowing he had. Snoke only used expendable officers for that mission, probably because he knew Ren would show up to slaughter them when Hux’s cries for help grew loud enough. Snoke will underestimate Uta, but she may do the same where Snoke is concerned. She can be arrogant. It occurs to Hux now that Uta would probably say the same about him.

“And as far as you know, is Uta commanding the Finalizer at this time?” Organa asks.

“I assume so,” Hux says. “But, as I said, I’ve not been in contact with the Order for some time.”

The rest of their questions are more like what Hux expected: the chain of command aboard the Finalizer and in the Order generally, the Order’s plans to strike again, which Hux honestly doesn’t know about, and many questions about weapons systems in production that Hux can’t answer, as he was singularly focused on the design that ostensibly got him promoted. The questioning about that weapon in particular is surprisingly light, and Hux imagines it will be far more pointed during his sentencing hearing, though it’s also possible that they haven’t discovered that he’s the weapon’s inventor. As they still haven’t captured the Finalizer or any major First Order base, they may simply be lacking that information. The Order still clings to a sense of needed mobility, and the base where Hux first came up with the idea for the weapon has already been dismantled and relocated. It’s lucky, he realizes, staring at that pitcher of water again, that he didn’t take credit for the conception of the weapon in the speech he’d made prior to firing it. It had never occurred to him that he might; individual accomplishment is downplayed even among the highest ranks, according to the Order’s most sacred doctrines. Hux had intentionally included a line in his speech about the Order as a whole having built the weapon, metaphorically and in some senses literally, down to every stormtrooper who stood staring up at him.

In the end, he’s relieved to feel that he’s given the Resistance little useful information while also answering their questions as fully as he’s able to. From the top down, the Order’s organization is intentionally segregated in terms of who works on which project, and this structure incorporates as little overlap in departmental knowledge as possible, precisely to prevent much from being divulged if an officer should find himself in a situation such as this. Hux isn’t sure if they buy this, but it’s the truth. Organa asks far less about the stormtrooper program than Hux anticipated, and he’s almost insulted by that disregard. Mostly they ask him over and over, in at least ten different ways, if the Order is building a second superweapon like the one that successfully blew up five planets. Hux can only tell them again and again that he doesn’t know of any plans to rebuild. He was once very surprised they even built the first one, and that so much trust and expense was placed in his somewhat radical design. This part, he keeps to himself.

After several hours have passed, Hux feels himself growing somewhat comfortable with this process, aside from the fact that he’s still thirsty. He adjusts his posture and reminds himself to stay alert. Though this trio seems oddly and even comically harmless, it would be dangerous to expect anything but bitter animosity from them, despite the fact that Organa apparently shares Ren’s ability to disarm Hux when he’s not paying attention. He has to continuously warn himself against feeling at ease. Like Ren, Organa will surely turn on him as soon as it suits her.

“I think we’re done for today,” Organa says after an indeterminable amount of time has passed, Hux’s throat beginning to ache for how much he wants to gulp messily from that pitcher of water. “Unless you two have follow-up questions?” she says, addressing Timmons and Ackbar.

“I haven’t got any,” Timmons says. Hux can hear Timmons’ stomach growling. He wonders where these three will go for their late lunch. Certainly not the prison cafeteria.

“I think you covered everything I had prepared, General,” Ackbar says.

“Good.” Organa flips the cover of her data pad shut, and the other two follow suit, the guards leaning up off the wall. “Then I’ll dismiss everyone but Mr. Hux,” Organa says, tenting her fingers, elbows on the table again. She stares at Hux when he flicks his eyes to hers. “I have one or two more questions for him, but I need to ask them without an audience.”

“Even-- You even want the guards to leave?” Timmons says, half-standing.

“Yes,” Organa says, still holding Hux’s gaze. “I’ll be fine. Please, leave us. It will only take a moment.”

Everyone seems reluctant, as if this wasn’t in Organa’s stated plan, but they all leave the room at her command. The door closes heavily when they’re gone. Hux is staring at the empty chair where Timmons sat. Organa shifts into it when Hux doesn’t turn to look at her. He draws his eyes up to meet hers, otherwise keeping perfectly still.

Hux wasn’t afraid of this questioning before, not really, not even when he learned Organa would be present. He was nervous, maybe, but not afraid. This feels different. She’s studying him, and it’s not like the way Ren studied him, not even when Ren crept into Hux’s mind without warning and stealthily looked around. This is less invasive but more uncomfortable. Organa is staring at Hux not as if he’s a fascinating specimen to be probed but like he’s a fellow person sitting in a room with her, and like she expects him to answer for himself on those terms.

“I know that Ben left Snoke to save you,” she says.

Hux has to look away at the sound of those names-- Ben, Snoke --but he can’t keep his eyes off of Organa for long without revealing that he’s increasingly anxious about being left alone with her, as if she’s the one who might lunge at him. She doesn’t look much like Ren, except that she carries herself like she has always comfortably known that she is royalty. Ren revels in it: grand entrances and loud pronouncements, uninvited opinions. Organa holds the seat of her power with dignity and restraint. Hux wonders if she was different when she was younger.

“My question originates from something I sensed only after having been here in this room with you today,” Organa says. “I hope you’ll answer me honestly, but, since you’re somewhat familiar with the Force and those who can use it, I trust you understand that I’ll be able to sense the truth either way.”

“Then why even ask?”

“Oh,” she says, shrugging, “I’m not as good at this as Ben. Or Luke. I still need to hear something out loud, most of the time, in order to determine if it’s true or not.”

Hux isn’t sure if he believes this. She’s playing some kind of game with him here. He glances at her data pad. It doesn’t appear to be recording.

“Fine,” Hux says. “Ask me anything. What have I got to lose by being honest?”

She lifts her eyebrows slightly and gives him a long stare that reminds him of Ren, though Ren probably would have made some smart ass remark as well.

“You told us you were misled while still in command of the Finalizer,” she says. “That these seeming traitors tricked you in order to get you alone. My sense is that they told you Ben was in trouble. That you left the First Order for the same reason that Ben left Snoke. Less intentionally, perhaps, but his initial rejection of Snoke was so confused that it could hardly be called intentional, from what I can sense.”

“Have you seen Ren?” Hux asks, too loudly. Desperately. “Since he’s been back?”

Her mouth quirks, but it’s not a smile. More of a suppressed frown.

“Not yet,” she says. “Are you going to answer my question?”

“Yes, they told me Ren was in trouble,” Hux says, still too loud. “But Snoke-- They told me it was Snoke who’d asked me to retrieve him, and this had been true before. I simply, I-- Was only following orders.”

He feels her sensing the truth, and maybe not even needing to use the Force to do so. Possibly she can’t actually use the Force at all. Her mention of it might have been a trick: an attempt to get Hux to admit that he went after Ren rashly and with a personal agenda, which was only Ren can’t die, because I need him.

“One more question,” Organa says. She looks down, spreading her hands on the table as if she’s just on the verge of bracing herself to stand. “What was the nature of the attack you speak of, when you two were hiding together, when Snoke found you? Snoke hurt you? Ben stopped him?”

Hux weighs his options and can’t imagine how lying about this part would help him. He’s beginning to suspect that Organa’s presence here has more to do with Ren than any military secrets she hoped to learn from Hux. Organa knows Hux has been discarded by the Order, and that he’s been too long out of the loop to offer anything that will save the last of her crippled fleet from the Order’s next strike. She might already be well aware that Hux was only ever Ren’s bait.

“Snoke possessed him,” Hux says, hating the defeat he can hear in his voice. “Snoke can do that sometimes, but not always. I have no idea what the criteria is, of course. I doubt even Ren knows. But Ren fought Snoke off. Snoke was trying to kill me-- He used Ren’s hands to strangle me. I don’t remember what happened next, and I don’t know how Ren got rid of Snoke, if he even truly has. I sort of woke up on Skywalker’s island. I suppose he’s your brother?”

Organa draws her hands into her lap and sits up straighter. She studies Hux’s eyes. He can’t hear her voice in his mind, and can’t understand why he almost wishes he could.

“You call him Ren,” she says. She’s speaking softly now, all her sharpness suddenly gone. “That name doesn’t mean the same thing to you that it does to Snoke.”

“I suppose not,” Hux says. He realizes he’s gripping the seat of his chair tightly, with both hands. His fingers are aching with tension, but he doesn’t dare move now.

Organa seems to want to speak again. She stops herself and reaches for her data pad, tucking it into one of the large pockets on her vest when she stands. Hux watches as she takes the pitcher of water and pours some into her empty glass, filling it almost to the top. Without looking at him, she slides the glass toward Hux and then walks away, around the left side of the table and to the door behind him, knocking once.

The door opens, and as Organa slips through it Hux grabs for the glass that she passed to him. He drinks from it in desperate gulps, swallowing almost half of it before the guards grab his arms, one of them removing the glass from his hand. Hux wants to protest, to elbow them away and grab for that water again, because it tasted like some kind of magic potion that Organa offered him, something that could save him, but he didn’t get all of it down, and he’s afraid, as he’s pulled away from the water that remains in the glass, that everything he was able to swallow doesn’t count.

He realizes as he’s marched out into the hallway that he’s gone a bit temporarily mad, his head swimming with the fact that he just spoke to Ren’s mother, and that she heard the name Hux has for her son and understood at least some of what Hux feels when he speaks it, thinks it, and when he holds it in his chest, still lodged somewhere between his ribs like a broken but once-powerful talisman that he can’t bring himself to throw away.

At the end of the hallway, the elevator doors are already closing around the departing Resistance leadership. Organa meets Hux’s eyes just before the doors close completely, and he wants to call out to her, but what would he say? Thank you?

He says nothing, of course, and soon is on his way back up to his cell in another elevator. He’s still thirsty and also very hungry, and he’s glad to find a lunch tray waiting for him on the floor of his room. When the guards are gone and the door is shut he takes this tray to the desk, hands shaking, and sits staring at it for a while, his stomach pinched up with something that feels like regret. As if he should have said more. As if he should have begged Organa for something outright, or gushed like an idiot about what had gone on in that house on the cliff: Ren tried to fix everything, he tried to save me, I think he may have come close, it’s not really his fault that I’m again beyond repair, I’m sorry. What good would it have done to tell Organa any of that, thoughts that are only half-formed even in Hux’s head? He takes a bite from the dry sandwich on his tray, thinking of that water left behind in the conference room and wondering if it will just be poured out by some dishwashing droid. Of course it will. Who but him would care about drinking it?

When he’s eaten everything on his tray he moves toward the bed, each step like another sharp thorn in his foot as he approaches the emptiness of the rest of his day. He’s not sure when the next meeting with his lawyer will occur. It’s the only thing he has to look forward to, with Organa’s questioning behind him: more meetings about the Committee that will soon assemble to execute him.

He slumps into the bed like an invalid and rolls onto his side, though he knows it causes poor digestion to lie down directly after eating. This was always the case when he was a boy, anyhow, and during his Academy days, when he had occasionally crawled into bed directly after dinner. With Ren, at that house on the cliff, it hadn’t seemed to matter. Maybe Ren had healed him in some subtle way that aided digestion when they curled up together in the middle of that bed, often immediately after dumping their dinner dishes into the sink. There had been nothing else to do there either, not really, but that sense of aimlessness was so different from what Hux feels now. In that house, with Ren, it had been almost freeing to understand that their only real objective was to stay warm and dry together while the world outside threw lightning bolts in their direction. Here the lack of direction is just part and parcel of Hux’s solitary march toward death or a lifetime of sitting pointlessly in this cell, neither option looking any better than the other from where he lies, his knees drawing up toward his chest.

He closes his eyes and tries not to dwell on the memory of Organa’s face, but he’s already mapping the features she and Ren have in common. All he can come up with is that they have the same sort of eyes: piercing but also warm, with a gaze that seemed to hold Hux in place completely but not cruelly, without crushing in around him like a kind of unseen fist the way that Hux’s father’s stare once had. Brendol Sr. had only thought he was seeing all the way into his son. Ren truly did see something hidden in Hux, and Hux shouldn’t hope that Ren’s mother did, too. That’s the last thing he should want, in his position.

His mind drifts. He’s not tired, and what comes isn’t quite sleep. It’s more of a muffled thought process that allows him to consider things more freely than he might if he were pacing his cell rather than wallowing in bed. He wonders where Ren is right now, what he’s doing, if he’s hiding in a shadowy corner of his family’s estate or prowling the streets of the city, his face hidden under the hood of his robe. Would they even let him out? Could they even stop him, if that’s what he wanted?

Hux wonders if his own mother has received her subpoena from the New Republic yet. He wonders if she’ll flee again rather than turning up to defend her monstrous son. He can’t imagine her passionately arguing that he should live. Can’t imagine her weeping on the witness stand, even in pretense. Even if they paid her. He has warm memories, but they must be some kind of confusion of childhood. By the time he left for school his mother was as cold as his father, though her eyes didn’t cut into Hux the way Brendol Sr.’s did. His mother’s gaze had stopped resting on him altogether by then.

The hour must be later than he realized, because soon the sky is coloring with the sunset. Hux sits up in bed and blinks at the sight with disinterest, wishing he could have some sort of timekeeping device beyond the sun. Its light through this giant window continues to seem like an insult. He wonders if it ever rains here, and supposes it’s more likely to snow. Last time he was held in captivity he had no frame of reference for how many hours or days had passed, but he’d had the constant companions of physical pain, searing humiliation and futile rage to keep his mind occupied. He doesn’t long to have any of those back, but he keeps waiting for someone to show up and tell him what the hell to do all day, if that more familiar suffering is actually off the table.

When the compartment on his door opens he races to get his lunch tray out in time, so ridiculously pleased to have a challenge that he realizes he left the tray on his desk intentionally, to increase the difficulty of accomplishing this task. He’s not hungry, but he’s still grateful to receive his dinner, just for the novelty of seeing what he’s been given tonight: a slice of some type of layered casserole, some long beans that appear overcooked, an oily-looking slaw and a cup of berry-flavored pudding with an odd texture. The pudding tastes entirely artificial and Hux doesn’t even like real berries much, but he eats this first, standing at the window and wrinkling his nose at the stuff’s consistency, which is somewhere between a traditional pudding and something much firmer. He eats it all anyway, then licks the spoon.

He’s finished with his dinner by the time the guards come to collect him for his evening sanistream. Knowing the routine now, and having somewhat less fear that these now-familiar, silent guards are leading him to a room where he’ll be beaten in what the warden will later claim was an accidental slip-up, Hux notes his surroundings more carefully than he did the night before. They pass twelve anonymous cell doors on their way to the entrance to this floor’s showers, which occupy the center ring of this slice of the Tower. The cell doors they pass in the hallway each have a data panel mounted on the wall to the left, but even the most basic information about the prisoners within can likely only be accessed by guards, as the panels offer no visible display for Hux’s prying eyes. Inside the shower area there are twelve sanistream stations in a round, open room. The guards stand near the room’s locked door as Hux approaches one shower station, now uncuffed. He turns on the sanistream and makes some rudimentary calculations, theorizing that each floor of the Tower has approximately thirty cells, based on the size of his own, the spacing of the doors in the hallway and his best guess at the circumference of the portion of the circle that they walked to arrive here. He supposes some prisoners must have cellmates, and he wonders if he’s on a floor that houses only solitary inmates. The showers were certainly designed for a large group, at any rate.

The guards are distracted by personal chatter tonight. One of them, a humanoid with purplish skin whose species Hux is not familiar with, seems to enjoy talking more than the others, and his partner humors him. Hux tunes out their conversation when he finds it only involves the recent matches lost by some professional sports team. He uses their distraction as an excuse to linger under the warmth of the sanistream for longer than he perhaps needs to, already resigned to the idea that the guards can see his naked ass. When his mind wanders, he tries to imagine what it would be like to share that pie slice room with another prisoner. All the rooms are likely the same size, which would account for the extra space Hux has in his. He supposes an isolated prisoner is relatively rare. Presumably the average room would have two beds, one bolted to each wall. The prisoners would be expected to share the sink, toilet, and desk. Hux tries to picture the sort of fellow who might be thrown in with him, were he not too much of a celebrity criminal to allow for company.

The only candidate who comes to mind is Ren, and the thought of Ren in a drab gray prison uniform is amusing, but also strangely awful. And would they make Ren cut his hair?

Hux closes his eyes, hating that he’s doing this but unable to resist: what would Ren be like, as a fellow prisoner, as Hux’s cellmate? Perhaps Ren would be someone Hux didn’t know prior to their individual arrests. Yes, and Ren would be hiding his Force powers. Plotting some grand escape while pretending to be a standard thug. But why would Ren ever allow himself to be imprisoned? Never mind, it’s just a stupid fantasy. It doesn’t need to make sense. Ren would be surlier than ever in captivity, and he would drive Hux mad in such close quarters, without even a back porch or a garage to escape to when Ren tested Hux’s patience or brooded too loudly.

But there would be times when Hux would be glad not to be alone in that room. He would have someone to talk to, when he did feel like talking. And no one has ever entertained him quite like Ren, despite all the nonsense that regularly comes out of Ren’s mouth. What was it he’d said, that last night on the ship? Through these lips passed the doom of the Republic, or something like that. Ha.

And at night, when the sun sets on that pie-shaped cell. If someone else was there with Hux. If that someone was Ren.

But no, that’s done. That sort of thinking, like his preoccupation with Ren while they were still aboard the Finalizer, after that first encounter, led to Hux’s ruin. It led directly to his imprisonment here. He has no time left for idle thoughts, and never should have indulged them in the first place. He switches the sanistream to dry-off mode, keeps his eyes open even when the warm air dries them out, and pushes the idea of Ren occupying any small space with him ever again as far away as he can get it. It hurts, anyway. Even thinking about it.

His cell is dark when he’s returned there, but his eyes adjust quickly in the moonlight that glows through his window. Hux prefers this lighting to the relentless glare of the days here. This planet has four moons, but only two of them are visible at this hour. One is very bright, a bit garish, almost approaching the arrogance of the sun, and the other is more distant, softer and bluer. Hux has a sentimental fondness for that one already. It’s the only face around here that he’s ever glad to see.

He should do crunches or push-ups or some type of exercise on the floor of his cell, but maybe he’ll save that sort of activity for the off-chance that he’ll be here longer than eight more days. Anyway, he’s just had his shower, and he hates to sweat if he can’t at least rinse off directly afterward. He gets into bed after putting on a clean pair of briefs, having left yesterday’s on the floor near the sanistream, per the guards’ instructions. Some droid will come and sweep them away. An underwear-sweeping droid: funny. The Republic has a droid for bloody everything. Hux’s father had told him that once, angrily, while doing some menial task himself. Brendol Sr. had hated doing things with his own hands, but in those early days after the fall of the Empire it had often been necessary.

Hux supposes some other droid, or maybe the same one, will bring him his freshly laundered underthings at the start of every week here. He’ll need to have them replenished before the start of his trial. Lying in bed and staring up at the glow of moonlight on the ceiling, he wonders if he’ll be allowed to dress like a gentleman for his hearing, or if they’ll make him shuffle before the entire galaxy in slippers, with hair that is badly in need of a trim, and wearing the plain, wan uniform of a prisoner. He scratches at his right cheek, imagining he can feel the spot of dry skin there growing more irritated, assaulted by the insidious presence of dexitoma in his system.

When he sleeps, he dreams first of his mother. She’s walking ahead of him through the halls of their old estate, disappearing into shadows like a ghost every time Hux begins to close in on her. She cut her long hair when he was ten years old, but in the dream it still falls well below her waist, undone from the thick braid she always wore and hanging behind her like an extravagant cape as she evades him. Through the windows that Hux passes in the house’s grand hallways, he can see many moons glowing just outside, as if their home has become a starship, and on these moons a war is being fought by at least three competing fleets of bizarrely built ships. The ships are almost spindly, but they give the impression of being especially fierce because of their delicate design, not in spite of it. Hux is afraid to stop in his pursuit of his mother to look more closely at these uncanny ships, afraid they will fire on the house.

His mother escapes him before the dream shifts around him, the windows disappearing and the walls transforming into thick durasteel. Hux knows this part well. People are coming for him: attackers who will pop his regulation perfect buttons off his uniform when they rip it away. He’ll have to chase the buttons down in the corners of this windowless room when his assailants are done with him, and he can’t always find them all. It’s such a particularly crushing torture to be docked for a uniform violation that isn’t even his fault. He looks down and shouts in alarm when he sees that he’s already naked, and he puts his hands over himself when he hears them coming: they’re already laughing, grabbing for the back of his too-long hair.

But instead of fingers in his hair he feels something fall around him: a blanket. No, a cloak. Or really more of a robe, black and hooded. It’s Ren’s.

As Hux turns, the thick walls of that hateful room are already sliding away, disappearing. Ren stands in shadow behind him, hanging back, as if Hux is frightened prey. Hux was someone else’s prey, nearly, but Ren has disposed of those others. Not even their corpses remain.

Sunlight breaks through the tree canopy that spreads very high overhead, but it’s gentle and far away, not like the too-close sun that taunts Hux through the window of his cell. His cell: he’s grown up, long past those days when he might have been punished for a missing button. He feels himself getting taller and stronger under Ren’s watch. He slides his arms into the sleeves of Ren’s robe and pulls it more fully around himself.

“Who have you killed for me this time?” Hux asks, lifting his chin and trying to sound kingly, as if Ren is his violent servant. “I didn’t even get a look at them.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ren says. His voice is low; he sounds sad, though they’re standing in a fully realized forest now, alone together within a kind of supernatural beauty that stretches as far as Hux can see. “They’re gone,” Ren says.

Stating the obvious was never Ren’s habit. He seems perturbed by something, cagey, and he’s keeping his distance. Maybe he simply wants his robe back, but Hux means to keep it this time.

“I met your mother today,” Hux says, calling this out as a kind of insult, wanting Ren to be angry at him or intrigued by him, anything but sad. Hux has wasted enough of his lifetime on that pathetic, useless emotion.

“I don’t want to talk about my mother,” Ren says, keeping back. Still sad.

“Of course you don’t. Coward.” Hux doesn’t want to talk about his own mother either, but Ren probably won’t ask. What does Ren know about what’s going on in Hux’s world now, about what’s coming? Nothing. Ren only knows Hux’s nightmares, his past, all the bad things that have already come and gone. The bad things yet to come are Hux’s alone.

“Did you get my letter?” Ren asks, finally stepping closer.

“No,” Hux says. “What letter? When?”

“I wrote to you.” Ren takes another step toward Hux, cautious. A thin ribbon of light that has sneaked through the pine needles above touches Ren’s face, falling just along the line of his scar.

“You?” Hux says, laughing. “You, writing a letter? What would you even say? Dear Hux, sorry I had my family arrest you and throw you in prison, and sorry again that they’ll probably execute you before we--”

Hux stops himself there. Before we even see each other again. What does he care if he sees Ren before he dies or not? He doesn’t.

“I can’t say it here,” Ren explains, or doesn’t-- typical. He’s moving closer, slowly, just a few feet away from Hux now. “You have to read it in the letter.”

“I hate your stupid rules,” Hux says, bitterly earnest.

This makes Ren smile, but it fades quickly.

“Tell me you’re okay,” Ren says, so softly that Hux is embarrassed for him.

“I will not. I’m certainly not okay, idiot. I’m in prison, facing death. Do you even understand what you’ve done to me, you eternal child? For those of us who live in the real world, there are consequences for our actions. You’ve seen to it that I’ll face the people in the galaxy who most want to see me suffer for mine.”

“You seem better today,” Ren says. He still looks glum, but also suddenly hopeful.

“Better than what?” Hux asks, laughing.

Ren smiles, and something about the way his eyes light up makes Hux stumble backward. It’s as if-- Ren is too real, suddenly. It’s as if those are Ren’s eyes and they are truly seeing Hux, even as he stands inside some impossible dream. That piercing but warm gaze that steadies Hux within the glow of an imaginary forest feels like something real and powerful, not just the Ren-like mask of a figment in a dream. It’s as if Ren is really standing there, as if he might actually cross the space between them and--

Hux wakes up in a dark room, grabbing for the top button on his uniform with one hand and reaching across the bed with the other. Ren isn’t there: the wall is there. Hux has already become accustomed to this. He’s not wearing his uniform from the Academy, or any other real uniform, just prison scrubs. He has no buttons left to lose, and there are no pines towering overhead when his vision refocuses on the blank stretch of the ceiling. There is no bed bolted against the opposite wall when he turns to look at where one would be, if he had a cellmate. Ren is not there, nor here with Hux in his own bed. Ren is nowhere, as far as Hux is concerned. He’s far enough away to be gone for good.

Remembering this is supposed to be a comfort, but Hux can’t get back to sleep. He’s jumpy, and he can’t stop touching his neck, checking for the stiff uniform collar he expected to feel there when he woke, then for the bruises that remain. He presses his fingertips into them, carefully but deeply enough to feel the lingering pain. That was real: being hurt by Ren’s hands, being used by Snoke to hurt Ren, ending up here when they were both done with him. The dream was just a dream, like all of them. Hux wishes he could go to the Tower’s medical floor for a syringe full of something that would prevent him from dreaming, like the one that prevents the hair on his face from growing back in. He scratches at the dry spot on his cheek and then rolls over with a groan, pressing that spot to the sheets so he won’t be able to irritate it further with his itching.

In the morning he manages to sleep until the light at the window has grown very bright, and he wakes only when he hears the door’s compartment opening, his breakfast tray sliding inside. He’s too late to push his dinner tray out, but he brings it from the desk to the floor near the compartment, mostly so he won’t have to look at it while he eats his breakfast. There’s a kind of porridge today, and it’s a bit too similar to gruel to sit comfortably on Hux’s stomach. He gives up after a few bites and eats the sections of fruit that have also been provided, a greasy little pressed-meat patty, and the same rubbery insta-eggs that arrive on the breakfast tray every morning. As he’s washing this down with his milk, his cell door opens and the guards step in. Hux recognizes these two: the usual morning guards, holding the usual binders for his wrists.

“Time for you to meet with your lawyer,” the shorter guard announces.

Hux feels unprepared for company, as if these two even count as such, and he suppresses the urge to neaten his hair on the way to the door. When he offers his wrists for the binders he’s sorry to realize that he missed his chance to hide the pack of cigarettes in his waistband before being marched to this meeting.

As far as Hux can tell, the conference room where he meets with Jek is the same one where they were introduced. Jek has taken the same chair at the head of the table, and he has the same inexplicably cheery look for Hux when he appears.

“Do you think this room is monitored by the warden?” Hux asks in lieu of a greeting, taking a seat to Jek’s right when the guards are on the other side of the room’s door, stationed just outside. “Or by the New Republic, or the Resistance?”

“Highly doubt it,” Jek says. “That would be extremely illegal, and even if they were doing it, nothing they learned that way would be admissible during the sentencing process. So you can speak freely,” he adds, as if Hux didn’t already know what he meant to imply. Hux sniffs at this infantile analysis. No one can ever speak freely without risking something. A lawyer should understand that.

“I forgot my cigarettes,” Hux says, noticing that Jek again has a steaming cup of caf.

“Ah,” Jek says. He reaches into his coat. “I thought maybe they’d have confiscated them from you, so I brought you a fresh pack of auto-lights.”

Jek grins and holds out the pack of cigarettes as if this is a different sort of handshake. Hux accepts this gift uncertainly, not sure why he’s perturbed by this development.

“I have something else for you, too,” Jek says, lowering his voice and glancing at the windowed door. He pulls a folded piece of paper from his jacket. “A man calling himself Finn brought that to my office in the city,” he says. “He claims it’s for you, from Ben Solo.”

“Did you read it?” Hux asks, already angry as he grabs for the paper.

“No,” Jek says. “I was asked not to.”

Hux grunts as if he doubts this information, though he thinks Jek is probably incapable of lying. Just holding this slip of paper that is allegedly from Ren makes Hux’s face grow hot, and he stuffs it hurriedly into his shirt. He feels it slipping down over his bare chest, onto his belly. It makes him shiver like a secret touch, and he again has trouble lighting his cigarette. Jek begins busily opening screens on his data pad, maybe just for the sake of allowing Hux to collect himself.

“Anyway,” Hux says, after he’s taken his first drag. “He doesn’t call himself Ben Solo anymore. They really ought to not keep applying that name to him if they don’t want him to have a tantrum that takes down half their city.”

“I do have some questions for you about Ben,” Jek says, and he glances up to see Hux snarling at him. “Well, what should I call him, if not that?”

“Ren,” Hux says, muttering it, his face burning hotter.

“Hmm, okay. Ren. But maybe we should start out with something lighter. How did the questioning by the Resistance go yesterday?”

Hux smirks at the idea that being questioned by a conquering enemy’s military leaders is a lighter subject than that of Ren. He has to admit that Jek isn’t wrong to assume this.

“It was really rather breezy,” Hux says. “Maybe worryingly so. They didn’t ask me who invented the weapon I fired. Should I take that to mean that they already know, and that they’re saving those questions for my sentencing?”

“Well, we can’t assume they don’t know,” Jek says. “I think it’s sort of the popular assumption that you were giving that speech because you were behind the weapon in some way. But in the meantime I would advise you to admit nothing, because they may not have concrete proof. Don’t even attempt to claim you don’t know anything about its invention, if you can avoid it. If they find some evidence during the course of their investigation and it comes out during the hearing, they could prove that you lied about the weapon’s origin, if you’ve claimed that someone else invented it or that you don’t know anything about how it was conceived.”

“But in general we probably don’t want to highlight that I not only gave the order but personally designed the thing that killed billions, correct?”

“Right,” Jek says. “It’s-- It’s relevant to their case against you, but it’s not part of the story that we want to tell. I am surprised it didn’t come up during your questioning. You’re right that it might not be a great sign.” Jek winces, which is itself not a great sign. “Anyhow, this brings me to some questions I have for you about how you want to handle your testimony before the Committee. I met with the lead prosecutor yesterday, and she wants to interview you with a court reporter and enter that interview into the record. That would mean the Committee would all see the interview and consider it as part of their decision.”

“I know what a fucking deposition is,” Hux says. He notices an ashtray on the table and drags it toward him, taps ashes into it. Jek sips from his caf, and sets his cup down a bit further from Hux after he has. “Must I agree to being deposed?” Hux asks.

“We could enter an objection to their notice of deposition,” Jek says. “But I don’t think that would look good at all. I think we’re better off getting your story on record, in your own words-- and I would advise agreeing to the holo-recorded deposition they’re asking for.”

“You think a holo projection of me explaining myself in my own words would be helpful to the case? Really?”

“Well, yeah. Look at the alternative: you refuse to be deposed-- and the Committee would almost certainly deny your objection --and that makes it look like you’ve got something to hide, something more than what you’ve already admitted to, and also like you don’t respect the Committee enough to even face them and offer your personal explanation. It would seem like you were giving up, too, almost. And if we just submit the text of your transcript to the Committee, as opposed to a recording-- Forgive me, but I think you’re probably better in person than on paper.”

Hux stares at Jek, the cigarette halfway raised toward his parted lips.

“What the hell gives you that impression?” Hux asks, almost laughing.

“You’re an intelligent guy!” Jek says. “But that doesn’t come across in your life choices so much as in your demeanor. And people respond to the kind of confidence you have more than you might expect. It’s not always seen as arrogance, though you do need to be careful not to come off as smug or overly defensive. But everybody’s warmer in person than they are in quotes, right? Remember, the little things matter big time here. Like body language, and tone of voice-- I’m not saying you’re going to pretend to be somebody you’re not, but they’re more likely to see you as a person if they get a sense of what you’re like when you speak frankly, and when they see what your mannerisms are, and so forth. Even letting people notice the color of your eyes could matter.”

“Really.” Hux drags on the cigarette, trying not to think of Ren. “And which eye color do death sentence Committees generally prefer?”

“No, no, that’s not what I mean. One color over the other doesn’t matter, but even being made aware that you have an eye color could matter. Noticing it, I mean, while watching you speak in a holo, as opposed to reading your testimony from a data screen. That way they’re more likely to see it as part of your individual personhood.”

“As part of my-- Do you hear yourself? You sound insane. They won’t care. Green eyes? So what? What the fuck’s the difference?”

Hux is getting agitated, and Jek is watching him with a kind of cautious sympathy that makes Hux want to pitch another cigarette into Jek’s caf. He drags on the one he’s smoking instead, glancing at the door of the room and then back at Jek’s stupid pity.

“Fine,” Hux says, shrugging. “They can question me, record me, broadcast it on the evening news. It’s all their game anyway, right? They make the rules about how I’m allowed to play it.”

“Let’s not think of it as a game,” Jek says. “I’ve been reviewing the information about the Committee members, and I really think you have a chance at a life sentence. Here, let me show you.” He turns his data pad around and flicks the holo projector on, an image of human man with small eyes and large spectacles appearing over the screen. “This is Chief Justice Botta,” Jek says. “He’s never voted for a death sentence before, even during the trials of war criminals.”

“Well, he’s never ruled on anyone who’s been accused of murdering billions of people in the process of blowing up five planets, has he?”

“No, but it would still look bad for him, politically, if he sentenced someone to death.”

Hux raises his eyebrows. This is the first actual encouraging bit of information about his sentencing that he’s heard.

“Would that also be true of Organa?” Hux asks. “If she were to make the deciding vote?”

“We’ll get to Organa later,” Jek says. “Let’s talk about the five planets you destroyed, what their cultures were like, and who represents each of them on this Committee. It will help us if you’re as familiar as possible with what you destroyed.”

Hux always liked his history courses at the Academy, but he can’t muster much enthusiasm for learning about the dead planets and all the New Republic culture that went with them. He did have a morbid fascination with Alderaan as a boy, but there is simply too much information about each of these planets to absorb properly, and three of them are entirely interchangeable in Hux’s mind, despite Jek’s attempts to educate him on their differences. One of them, Qusoa, apparently had a peace-loving, forgiveness-based religion that its representative on the Committee practices. Jek counts that as a potential life sentence vote along with Chief Justice Botta’s. There are three Committee members from the ex-planets who will be harder to sway toward mercy, according to Jek, and then there is the representative from Raklan. This one draws Hux’s attention in a way that the others haven’t. The image projected above Jek’s data pad is of a trim blond man who appears to be roughly Hux’s age. His stony expression is somehow familiar, though Hux doesn’t recognize his name.

“Now this is interesting,” Jek says. “Raklan’s representative is Ander Fillamon, and his vote could be good for us, but it’s hard to say at this point. He’s a diplomat who represents the baro cloth traders on Raklan-- or he was, anyway, back when there was a baro cloth trade. He was off-planet on a business trip when you fired the weapon. Fillamon’s wife and children were at home on Raklan, and they were all killed.”

“Then how could his vote be good for us?” Hux asks, ashing his cigarette. He supposes he’ll have to hear all manner of sob stories before this is done. Your first mistake was having a wife and children, he thinks, staring at Fillamon’s stoic holo image. Such attachments didn’t even do Hux’s father any good, despite Brendol Sr.’s attempts to protect himself from truly caring about his eldest son’s sanity or his second wife’s complete disinterest in him.

“Ander grew up in First Order territory,” Jek explains, calling up a data sheet that gives details about this. Hux frowns and turns the projection so that he can read what this sheet says about Fillamon’s time in the Order. He was born in the Unknown Regions and enrolled in one of the Order’s junior Academies. Hux recognizes the name of Fillamon’s school, though it wasn’t even on the same planet as his own. While serving as a lieutenant aboard the Steadfast, Fillamon deserted his ship and defected to the New Republic, where he was granted political amnesty.

“Where did he live on Raklan?” Hux asks, thinking of Henry, who had been a proper New Republic governor in Quroa when Hux blew up Quroa and Henry along with the rest of Raklan. Henry had defected, too, though later in his life than Fillamon. Hux had read about in a department memorandum, years ago.

“Let’s see,” Jek says, scanning the file. “He lived in the north, in a city called Eudaim. Am I pronouncing that right? Probably not. Why do you ask?”

“No reason.”

Hux wonders how far Eudaim was from Quroa. Possibly this man and Henry had known each other. Two ex-First Order officers on the same planet. Hux supposes there were probably plenty more. He certainly wasn’t informed about every officer who defected. This is the first he’s heard of Ander Fillamon.

“Like all the others, Ander applied to be a part of this Committee,” Jek says, “He may see you as a sympathetic figure, because he was able to escape the Order’s clutches while you were only sucked in deeper, or he may be angry because he knows that everyone in the Order has the chance to defect before they do something destructive on this scale.”

“Do they?” Hux cuts his eyes to Jek, who wilts. “You’re confident about that?”

“It’s something that will come up,” Jek says, lifting his hand in what seems like a kind of half-apology. “This Ander guy left, and so have others. Your story is that you didn’t leave so much as your leader threw you out. So we need to think about how you’re going to respond to accusations that you could have left sooner.”

“It’s impossible to shape this story into something sympathetic,” Hux says. “Are you really not seeing that?”

“No, I’m not seeing it,” Jek says, somewhat sharply. Hux snorts and looks away. “Tell me about Ben,” Jek says. “Ren, I mean,” he says when Hux glares at him.

“I did tell you about him,” Hux says. “He’s a Force-user. He’s Organa’s son. Snoke’s ex-apprentice. He saved me and-- Then I suppose he saved me again, and then he had me arrested.”

“Right,” Jek says, lifting one fat finger in the air, as if to hold Hux’s words in place. “But before the arrest-- Before your surrender, to put it more accurately. Ren saved you twice. Why?”

“Search me! Why don’t you fucking subpoena him and record a holo that you can show to the Committee? Surely that lunatic’s testimony will solve all our problems.”

Hux is turning red again, feeling the note from Ren that rests inside his shirt and against his skin like a thing that possesses a certain amount of body heat of its own, raising his temperature. He drags on the cigarette, exhales smoke from his nose and curses under his breath. Jek is staring at him, undeterred.

“This is one note I had,” Jek says, pushing the holo of Ander Fillamon away and bringing up some text on his screen. “I thought of it when I was going through these Committee members’ stories and finding that most of them were business people like Fillamon who were off-planet during the attack. Most of them lost families, including spouses. You’ve never married, according to my records.”

Hux laughs darkly and drags on his cigarette again, staring at an imperfection on the surface of the conference room table. It’s a chip in the cheap varnish. He wonders what manner of criminal put it there, and during what sort of struggle.

“I’m married,” Jek says. “Me and my wife have two daughters.”

Hux turns to him with an incredulous scowl. “Congratulations,” he says. “So what?”

“So, uh. I don’t wear my ring, because I don’t really like to advertise my family life to the galaxy. I make a lot of enemies in my line of work, you know what I mean?”

“I suppose I know something about making enemies, yes. I don’t know anything about marriage or children, however, so I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“I think you do know what I’m getting at. Who was this Ren person to you? Other than Organa’s son and Snoke’s former apprentice? This is the kind of thing that could save your life, Hux. Your personal story, offered up for these people who you took so much from. You have to make them understand that you’ve lived a life, too. That you’ve had things you cared about, beyond hurting these Committee members and annihilating their way of life.”

Things I’ve cared about, eh?”

Hux snorts and stares at the chip in the table’s varnish again. He needs to ash his cigarette but doesn’t want to move. Ren’s letter seems to burn against his skin now. What the hell has Ren even written? Didn’t Hux just dream about Ren saying something about a letter? Hux is sweating, just a bit, and he hopes the ink on the paper won’t run, though he can’t imagine that Ren actually has anything interesting to say. Hux had better not find the word ‘sorry’ anywhere on that paper.

“You can tell me things,” Jek says, in a soft tone that makes Hux want to tell Jek to go to hell and nothing more. “It would only ever be between us, if you choose not to share it with the Committee. But it would help me shape your story if you, like, told me your story. The details, I mean. The crime you committed is so big that the only thing that could save you might be what seems like the smallest detail to you.”

“What do you want to hear?” Hux asks, his voice rising with every word. “That Organa’s son helped me because he’d been fucking me prior to my capture, and because he wanted to fuck me again sometime, so I had better not be dead when that time came? Well, there you have it. I guess I’m saved by the power of having been considered a good lay. That will surely humanize me. What more could they need to know about the real me.”

Hux scoffs and drags on the cigarette, wishing he wasn’t still flushed across his face and wanting to itch at the dry spot on his cheek, which feels like it’s on fire now.

“Hmm,” Jek says.

“That’s your input? ‘Hmm’? Brilliant, thanks.”

“It’s tricky,” Jek says, typing notes now. What notes, Hux wonders? Today, my suspicions were confirmed: General Hux was indeed fucked by the psychopath formerly known as Ben Solo. “I think we want Organa to remain as Committee Head,” Jek says, still typing. “If it comes to a tie, her political history indicates that she would probably vote against the death penalty. But if it gets out that you were involved with her son in this way, she could be accused of favoritism, and the whole process might have to restart. Do you think she’s aware of the-- Relationship?”

“I can’t talk about this anymore,” Hux says, closing his eyes. “I’d rather hang than waste another word on this fucking nonsense. But. Yes. Organa knows.”

“Did she speak to you about it yesterday?” Jek asks.

“What the fuck are you typing?” Hux asks when Jek’s chubby fingers continue to fly over his data pad’s holoboard.

“Just notes,” Jek says, shrugging. “So? Did Organa mention your connection to her son when you spoke?”

“A bit.” Hux isn’t sure how to explain what went on between him and Organa when they were alone in that room together. She gave me water wouldn’t convey the full weight of it, even to a sentimental ass like Jek.

“Well, listen,” Jek says, his fingers finally going still. “If they come after her for a conflict of interest, we have a pretty good argument that the whole damn Committee has a tremendous conflict of interest, in terms of the majority of them having been directly victimized by you. There’s been some debate in the less sensational media about whether this method of sentencing is just. It’s certainly unorthodox. At some point it almost makes sense to have somebody on your side sitting up there, considering the five votes that are coming from people whose planets you blew up.”

“The whole thing’s just a circus,” Hux says. “Isn’t it?”

“It’s certainly turning into a media circus already,” Jek says. “I just hope they don’t find out where I live.”

“They’re-- Reporting on you? Personally?”

“Oh, sure. You should see some of the pictures of me they’ve dragged up. Not exactly flattering stuff. I used to be pretty goofy looking, during my law school days.”

“Really.”

“But it’s-- It’s fine. I’m proud to stand up to these people who are calling for torture and murder in the name of revenge.”

“Torture.” Hux puts out his cigarette and pulls another from the pack. Now he’s got twice as many to smoke before the Committee issues their sentence. “What were they suggesting, torture-wise?”

“Who knows,” Jek says, waving his hand over his data pad. “I try not to pay attention to the loudest ones in the press. But I will keep an eye on it, and I’ll let you know if there are any relevant developments. Evidence leaks or things like that.”

“What are they saying about me so far?” Hux lights this next cigarette easily, pleased with the steadiness that has returned to his hands. He’s amused by the idea of frothing sensationalist newscasters outlining all the ways he might be tortured. Perhaps some are advocating that he should be killed live on air, for all the New Republic to see. The price of the advertising rights would be historic.

“They’re saying all sorts of things,” Jek says. “I read this morning that you were raised by a nanny droid.”

Hux laughs, sincerely entertained by this. “If only,” he says. “Speaking of the droid-like creatures who did raise me-- Has my mother answered your call to testify?”

“My assistant received your mother’s secure-sign transmission on the acknowledgment form,” Jek says, nodding. “She’ll be here in three days to prepare for the hearing.”

“Your assistant?” Hux says, stuttering this around the end of his cigarette, vision blurring.

“No, I meant-- Your mother.”

“She’ll. In three days, you said?”

“Uh-huh. Hux, listen, um. Are you-- And I should have asked this last time, really. It’s my job, as your advocate. Please don’t answer this hastily, okay? Just think about it.”

“Think about what?” Hux asks, already sure that he’s going to hate the sound of whatever comes next.

“Under New Republic law, your jailors are legally required to provide you with counseling during your time here,” Jek says. “If you ask for it.”

“And they have,” Hux says, confused. He gestures to Jek with his cigarette. “You’re my legal counsel, are you not?”

“No, I meant, uh. Emotional support. Professional counselors of that sort.”

“Oh.” Hux laughs and leans over to ash his cigarette, relieved. “No, thank you. You were speaking to me earlier of various cultures? Mine doesn’t do that sort of thing. Please respect the First Order’s rich cultural history and don’t ask me again.”

He’s laughing at his own joke, a bit, when he drags on the cigarette again. Jek looks disappointed, as if Hux has refused some gesture of affection. Hux is ready to be done here for the day, though he knows it’s idiotic to want to rush back to his cell and read Ren’s letter, which will likely take all of two minutes. Hux can’t imagine Ren even holding a pen. Perhaps this note is only a crude drawing intended to represent Ren’s current emotional state. Hux laughs around his cigarette again, smoke leaking from his nose when he does.

“You’re a strange guy,” Jek says when Hux glances at him.

“That’s probably a charitable way of putting it,” Hux says.

“No, but it’s good. I mean, that you have a personality. I’ve got to admit, I was afraid you might just be, you know, a gray uniform with a face. Which is I guess how we in the New Republic tend to see First Order officers, in the abstract. I have some notes about that for my opening statement to the Committee, actually. Anyhow-- we’ll meet again before the prosecutor’s interview, okay? I think you’re going to do well.”

“I don’t know where you get your delusions,” Hux says. “But I almost feel like I should thank you for your faith in my ability to talk my way out of any of this. Unless of course it’s the wrong move and your advice will be my doom.”

“Nah,” Jek says. “You’re good at speeches, right? Just think of this as another important speech. You need to persuade the toughest audience you’ve had yet. That’s all.”

“That’s all,” Hux says, muttering. “Right.”

“I’m going to leave you with this,” Jek says, handing Hux a portfolio from his briefcase. “They won’t let me give you a data pad, even off-network, but I got them to agree to leave that with you. It’s got all the most important information that we went over in it, about the planets that were destroyed. And there’s a blank notepad, too, see?”

“What’s this?” Hux asks, pulling what looks like a child’s toy from the center of the portfolio.

“That’s actually a pen. The only kind they’d let me give you. Apparently it can’t be used as a weapon. I thought you might want it for writing notes about the case. Or maybe you’d like to write a note for me to bring to Ren Solo?”

Hux laughs harder than he has all afternoon, maybe all year. Jek looks concerned.

“Don’t call him Ren Solo,” Hux says, still laughing. “That’s somehow even worse. He’s just-- You know what, forget it. Don’t call him anything. We’ve no need to speak of him, and I won’t be writing to him. Are we done here?” Hux puts out his cigarette and stands. Jek nods.

“Think about what I said,” Jek says as he’s gathering his things. Hux is too tired to ask Jek to specify if he’s talking about the opportunity for counseling, his willingness to ferry notes to Ren, or something else entirely. “And study up on those planets,” he adds. “It will make a big impression if you seem to show an interest in them.”

Hux thinks it’s absurd that he should be expected to study the cultures of planets that don’t exist anymore, but he understands what Jek is saying from a strategic perspective. It’s actually quite smart, though he doubts it will ultimately matter very much. Before he leaves the conference room he tucks the new pack of cigarettes into his pants and secures the note from Ren inside the waistband of his underwear. He tries not to think about why the ride up to his cell in the elevator seems to take longer than usual.

When they arrive at Hux’s cell, his lunch is on the floor. One of the guards combs through the portfolio Jek provided before removing Hux’s binders and placing the portfolio in his hands. It’s just a folder with data sheet printouts inside, plus the notepad, which is actually quite thick with blank paper, as if Hux is going to write an entire manifesto in the next seven days. The pen is ridiculous, but it works well enough when Hux sits at the desk and tests it out, marking the first page of the notepad with a few aimless lines.

He leaves the portfolio on the desk, ignores the lunch tray on the floor and gets into bed, pulling the blanket over himself. In this fashion, his heart slamming, he hides the new pack of cigarettes under his mattress alongside the last one. Then, still under the blanket, he pulls out Ren’s note.

By turning toward the end of the bed that faces the window and tenting the blanket over his head just so, he allows in enough light to read by while still remaining concealed. He’s sweltering hot under the blanket, his heart racing, hands shaking, feeling as if Ren is going to leap off this paper and attack him, or kiss him, or both, as before.

Ren’s penmanship is predictably dismal, but not to the point of being illegible. There is no salutation, perhaps to prevent this message from being incriminating somehow. The letter just begins in the middle of Ren’s thought process. Hux should have expected that.

You asked me a question in that house that I never answered. About how old I was when Snoke came and what it was like. I want to tell you here in this letter because I think it might help me. I tried to give you something in that house but Snoke came and took it away before it got to you all the way. I think if I give this to you now in a letter it will be something that he can’t take from us. I believe it will work for three reasons. (1) Luke’s old books have some kind of power just because of the words on the pages. I can feel it when I’m near them. Like something was trapped in the words long ago and it’s still there. I think I probably have this power too through the Force. I think if I write in letters to you about the things I know about Snoke it might all become solid in some way that will help me see the way forward. (I would also consider your suggestions if you wanted to write back). (2) I can’t tell certain things to Rey. She doesn’t hear them right. Not the way you do. You see the truth about me and you still want to help me. You are the only one who ever has. (I hope this is still true). (3) I feel more powerful when I tell you things. I realized this almost too late. I should have told you more at that house. I was afraid it would make things worse if I said them out loud. But you were right that you can help me. (I know it might seem too late to work together but I don’t think it’s too late).

I’m almost halfway down the page already so I will just start this first letter out with a few things about Snoke from the past. I don’t want to write too much all at once because I’m afraid it will be like when I tried to heal you all at once. I feel like you need to read this in parts. So here is the first part.

My first memory of hearing Snoke in my head was almost like a lullaby-type song. He didn’t sound like his real self. He can disguise his voice, or maybe I just hear him however I think he should sound at the time, because his voice got angrier and more frightening after I started to doubt his guidance. That would also happen when I was a kid. Eventually. But at first it was like this secret friend in my head. I didn’t have such an easy time making real friends. In fact I hated most of the other kids I knew. Not even for any solid reasons, they just seemed so stupid and annoying and they were never as impressed by my powers as I felt they should have been. But Snoke thought I was the best Force user in history, or so he said. The older I got the more he would tell me I was the greatest power in the galaxy and that my grandfather being Vader was proof that I had been chosen to fulfill a special destiny. I was lonely and unhappy and I wanted to believe it. (I never really did believe it. But I wanted to. I think that’s important). Also the voice encouraged me to reject the other kids and my parents more and more. It fed my anger until anger was the only thing I trusted. But it couldn’t make me angry enough to hurt Rey. And in that house (I’m skipping ahead obviously, but I’m almost out of room) Snoke couldn’t control me fully enough to hurt you. Not the way he really wanted to (which was to kill you), I mean. He can’t have that part of me that saved Rey or that part of me that saved you. That’s the thing I tried to give to you, that last day in the house. I guess I still have it. I got it back from Snoke, I think, when I threw him out of me. I’m going to give it to you again someday. For good this time. If you still even want it.

Last thing I’ll say: let me know if anyone hurts you there because they will answer for it and I think you know how. I will send another letter soon. Maybe you could write one to me, if they will let you. Until next time, I remain yours. --R

Hux reads it again, nervous laughter trapped in his chest. It won’t quite come out, so it sits there uncomfortably at the very center of him, like a stone. He reads the letter two more times before he decides he can’t stand the heat beneath the blanket anymore. Before uncovering himself, he hides the letter beneath the mattress, away from the cigarettes, as if it needs to be kept safe from them, too.

When the letter is tucked away, Hux walks over to the sink. He splashes water on his face and avoids his eyes in the mirror. He turns and stares at the lunch tray on the floor, suddenly not sure how to proceed with literally anything, including food. He’s hungry, but he can’t imagine eating. He paces, his arms crossed over his chest. There’s so much to think about. His fucking mother on her way here-- The idea of looking her in the face and letting her see what’s become of him. And those dead ex-planets; he’s expected to read about them and memorize the rituals of cultural festivals that were obliterated in mid-jubilation. Yes, it’s all very important and overwhelming. He turns to look at his bed. He wants to read that stupid letter again. Wants to read it until he’s memorized every word, until he can call them up at any time and rub them against his face like a balm that will soothe the burn that lingers there, though the letter is what brought this heat to his cheeks the first place.

He restrains himself and eventually regains his appetite. Sitting at his desk, he reads over the information Jek provided about the dead planets while he eats a sausage roll and some starchy mash. It’s good to have something to read, even if it is boring data about Raklan’s extinct economy. It’s a suitable distraction for his continuing desire to reread that letter.

His mind drifts, occasionally, and the words on Jek’s printouts glaze into a blur. Hux’s drifting mind mostly returns to the bit in that letter about Ren trying to give him something and Snoke snatching away as it passed between them. It’s nonsense, of course. And yet. Hux had felt it, maybe. That afternoon, in that house, in the bed, under that rainfall, and under the strangely perfect shelter of Ren’s body, before Snoke showed up. Perhaps something had nearly reached Hux just then. Something that was taken away before he could really have it.

When the sun begins to set, Hux gives up on his studying and turns to watch that bastard star finally sinking over the mountains. Another day gone, every moment here moving him closer to the judgment of that Committee. He wonders if Ren’s letter-writing campaign to defeat Snoke could actually be a viable strategy of some sort, or if it’s just another inane fantasy, like that moment when Hux talked madly of running away while they sat on the speeder. He tries not to remember what it felt like to kiss Ren that day, but his eyes snap closed when the sun sinks low enough to blaze directly into them, and with his eyes shut he can’t fight away from the memories. Kissing Ren had been like disappearing and being remade at the same time, and the disappearing had felt just as good as the remaking. That was the miracle of it, or the curse: Hux wanted to give everything up to Ren just as much as he’d wanted to take everything Ren had. He had liked feeling parts of himself dissolve into Ren, because they seemed to come back so easily, and better for having left him and returned, if also weaker.

He’s memorized one part of Ren’s letter already, word for word: Until next time, I remain yours. It’s not even the yours that sticks in Hux’s chest, snagging on the talisman he can’t get rid of that sounds and feels like Ren’s name. It’s the fucking Until next time. Hux puts his hand over his mouth, eyes still closed, and laughs into his palm. Ren thinks they’ll have a next time. Of course he does. Incomparable fool that he is, Ren wants this hell they’ve made for each other to continue.

Hux opens his eyes and blinks in the irritating, rapidly fading sunlight. He removes his hand from his mouth when he’s tempted to press his lips out against it in a kind of kiss that would be felt by no one, not even the person who once found him in a windowless room in a bunker on an anonymous moon. Not even a person who felt Hux needing him from an entire system away could now feel some phantom kiss sent from a prison cell. Hux sits up straight and puts his hands in his lap. He will absolutely not press kisses to his own fucking hand and hope that Ren might feel them. He hasn’t completely lost his mind. Not yet, anyway.

 

**

Chapter Text

The third time that Ren manages to infiltrate Hux’s dreams, he finds himself not observing a cowering Hux in a windowless room but standing alone at the bottom of a grand staircase in an unfamiliar mansion. When he concentrates he realizes it’s not a mansion but a school: a First Order Academy.

The structure of this dream feels unnervingly solid as Ren surveys his surroundings, searching for Hux. There is no one in sight. This is certainly Hux’s dream, but it’s so firmly rooted in Hux’s real memories that it’s complex and sprawling, and Ren feels lost when he considers whether he should climb the staircase or walk down one of the long hallways that branch off to the left and the right. A clock chimes on the second floor, loud and echoing like a condemnation, and the sound makes Ren shudder. Hux is in pain somewhere, right now, in this dream. He’s on his hands and knees, crawling around on a cold floor.

Ren stops himself from calling out to Hux and closes his eyes instead, concentrating. He feels like he’s being watched, like they may be in danger here. He hasn’t told Rey about these dream visitations, as it has occurred to him that he might be engaging in something dangerous, since allowing himself to drop so completely into Hux in that house on the cliff was what gave Snoke full access to his body last time. But instead of forcing himself to wake, he hurries to Hux after sensing his location within this dream, and soon he’s running down the hallway to the left as fast as he can, which is very fast here. He runs past unscreened windows that let in brutal sunlight resembling that which spills into Ren’s room in Wedge’s apartment. There are other people here, but they are only really the memories of people, waiting for Hux to access them with his subconscious, closed into the rooms that Ren runs past.

Objectives: Don’t let Hux activate any of these nightmare people. Get to him before they do. Save him from having to remember again.

Ren knows it’s probably futile, but he wishes that he could someday come upon Hux having a good dream. When he finds Hux, he’s in a kind of storage room at the center of the building, wearing a ripped Academy uniform and still crawling around on the floor, looking for something. Hux turns to glower at Ren when he senses him looming in the doorway. Ren stumbles backward, startled by how young Hux appears to be in this dream. He’s fourteen, fifteen at most.

“You’re not allowed to be here,” Hux says, still glowering as he sits back onto his knees and pulls his torn uniform shirt shut.

“I don’t generally follow the rules,” Ren says, trying not to show how perturbed he is by this scene. He slides his robe off, wanting to put it around Hux’s shivering shoulders. “What are you doing?” he asks, hanging back.

“I’m looking for-- My button, I lost a button.”

“Hmm.”

Ren puts his robe over his shoulder and looks down at his palms. He cups them, concentrates, and a perfect black button appears, then another. They fill his palms, twenty or more piling up there before he kneels down and offers them to Hux, who gives the buttons an angry, curious stare.

“Go on,” Ren says, desperate to give Hux something he needs. “You can have them. They’re all for you.”

“Where did you find them?” Hux asks, a slight tremble rising in his voice when as he continues to stare at the buttons, wanting to take them but afraid, too, that Ren is only ever going to be a cruel trick, another heartless joke at Hux’s expense.

“I made them for you,” Ren says, disliking the sudden unsteadiness in his own voice. Hux sits up straighter and blinks until his eyes are dry, his hands resting over his thighs.

“Then they don’t count,” Hux says, sharply. “I need the real ones.”

Ren looks down into his palms. The buttons have disappeared. He curses under his breath, annoyed that this dream has the power to take things back from him. Hux is smiling slightly when Ren looks up at him again, as if he’s enjoying Ren’s distress.

“Take this, at least,” Ren says, pulling the robe from his shoulder. The robe is real, in the sense that it’s something Hux has accepted from him before. Ren holds it out, begging with his eyes when Hux only stares at him, his smile fading.

“Fine,” Hux says, so softly that it’s barely audible. He takes the robe and pulls it around himself. “Only until I can replace my uniform,” he says, giving Ren a defiant stare when their eyes meet again.

“Okay,” Ren says. Suddenly the sunlight from the windows in the hallway, spilling in through the room’s open door, doesn’t seem so terrible. It’s nice, being here with Hux, who seems to only partly recognize him in this dream. Hux looks a bit older already, closer to seventeen or eighteen now. “Can you show me some good things here?” Ren asks. “Things you liked?”

“Here?” Hux looks around the empty room. “No, I-- Hate it here, I--”

“I meant the school. Was there part of it you liked? Something you could show me? I like finding out how things were for you. The good things, I mean.”

Ren is thinking of those towering pine trees. The fact that Hux loves them makes Ren love them, too. Hux looks suspicious, but he shrugs one shoulder agreeably and stands, still wearing Ren’s robe over his ruined uniform. Hux gets a bit older as Ren rises to his full height, though still not quite approaching his current age outside this dream. His hair grows slightly longer as his apparent age increases, less regulation-perfect. Ren wonders if Hux likes it that way, too.

“Good things,” Hux says, and he scoffs. He walks around Ren, out into the hallway, and takes a deep breath, as if the quality of air outside the room is far better, a relief. “All right,” Hux says, half-turning. “Follow me.”

Hux walks down the hall. Ren keeps a few feet back as he follows, sensing that Hux is still afraid of him, even here. They turn a corner, then another, until Hux finds the door he was looking for. He opens it and stands back, letting Ren look inside.

It’s a kind of training room, and a group of boys who appear to be about fifteen years old, all in uniform, stand watching two others practice hand to hand combat while an instructor looks on. One of the boys currently practicing is Hux, though the Hux who has brought Ren here still stands beside him, smiling faintly as he watches this scene play out. Ren has glimpsed this before, in a dream of his own: Hux slashes the practice weapon he’s secretly sharpened across the face of the other boy, who screams out in pain when blood flies from his face. Everyone reacts with surprise, including Hux, though Hux’s reaction is somewhat delayed. With the other boy bleeding and flailing about in blind agony, no one is paying enough attention to Hux to note the phoniness of his attempt to seem distressed. He’s not much of an actor.

The Hux in the doorway turns to Ren, his face falling when he notices Ren’s expression. “He was one of the ones who--”

“I know,” Ren says. Hux has grown younger again, appearing to be roughly the age he was when he did this. He’s smiling, but it’s not real. His face is very white. “Show me something else,” Ren says, wanting to be away from the wails of the blinded boy.

“You’re such a sentimental weakling,” Hux says, but it’s almost fond, and he leaves the room, shutting the door behind him when they’re both out in the hallway.

They walk back toward the main lobby with the grand staircase. Ren checks behind them periodically, still perturbed by the sense that they’re not alone here. He tells himself he’s merely sensing the presence of the people in Hux’s memories and continues on, to the next door that Hux opens for him. Hux is eighteen or so again, and smirking in a worrying way.

“Is this more what you had in mind?” Hux asks, stepping aside so that Ren can look into what appears to be a dormitory room. There’s a window on the far wall, and silhouetted in its glow are two boys who are sitting together on the bed nearest the window. They’re both breathing heavily, either jerking each other off or having just recently finished doing so. Ren gives Hux a look. Hux is peering into the room, smiling faintly. He appears to be sincerely wistful.

“It was so good,” Hux says. “With someone else, just. He just wanted the same thing I wanted. He was willing to lend me a hand in exchange for mine. That was all. I was afraid it was a trick, that somebody else would spring out from under one of the beds, but it was real. Just this simple thing, just the two of us.”

“Did you love him?” Ren asks. Hux laughs, predictably.

“No!” Hux gives Ren an incredulous look, still laughing. “Of course not. He was just a stupid kid who wanted to get off with me. We did it a few times more, but then it started to seem like a liability, so I put a stop to it. I barely remember his face, to be honest.”

Ren peers into the room again, trying to get a good look at the boy who now stands with his back to Hux as they both zip up the fronts of their uniform pants and begin to breathe normally again. It’s true that Hux doesn’t remember the boy’s face, which remains turned away. The details of the room are very concrete, however: the slightly stuffy temperature, the golden quality of the light through the window, a hum of peaceful quiet.

“It’s nice,” Ren says. Hux snorts, but he’s still admiring the scene inside the room, his cheeks faintly pink. “I would have kissed you,” Ren says, softly, as if the two kids in there might overhear. Hux turns to frown at him, suddenly looking quite like his actual, adult self.

“I would have bitten anyone who’d tried to kiss me back then,” Hux says.

Ren laughs, and the flush on Hux’s face deepens. It’s incredible to Ren that Hux’s face can color like this, even here. It’s incredible to him anyway, in reality, and he wants to lean over and close his eyes against Hux’s hot cheek.

“Come on,” Hux says, taking Ren’s arm and pulling him back into the hallway. “There’s more.”

Ren hopes Hux will keep hold of him all the way down the hall, but he lets go of Ren after a few steps. They’re hurrying toward something when Hux stops in his tracks, and Ren almost crashes into him from behind. Hux shrinks back to the age that he was when Ren first found him here, growing shorter and slighter. He turns to look at something behind them, his face going white.

Ren turns, too, reaching for the lightsaber that still hangs on his belt in these dreams, but the first thing he notices behind them is Hux, being pulled down the hallway by a boy who holds Hux by his arm. Hux’s face is brilliant red and he looks furious, but Ren doesn’t get the sense that this other boy is an enemy as the two of them pass, turning a corner up ahead.

“Henry?” Ren asks, looking at the Hux who still stands beside him, still very white.

“That’s not--” Hux says, his voice choked off. “That’s not a good thing,” he says, his voice steadying as his face twists into an angry scowl.

Hux hurries ahead as if he’s going to attack Henry and that other version of himself, as if he can kill that memory with his bare hands. Ren follows, wondering if he should take Hux back to their pine forest, far away from here. He’s not sure he’d be able to. Everything around them feels so real, as if they’ve stepped into an interactive holofilm that’s made up of solid objects rather than projected images.

Once he’s rounded the corner, Hux stops abruptly. Ren halts his steps, his hands going instinctively to Hux’s shoulders when he senses Hux’s distress, though he remembers himself before actually allowing himself to rest his palms there. Hux is staring at the shadowy corner of the hallway where Henry stands whispering with the other Hux. Henry is upset. Hux is angry, and trying not to cry. He slaps Henry’s hands away before they can reach Hux’s shoulders.

“This is not a good memory,” Hux says, loudly and in protest, but the other two can’t hear him.

“What do you care?” the other Hux asks Henry. “You don’t even know me.”

“Elan,” Henry says, the name cracking in half as he speaks it. The sound of it, spoken by someone else, by this boy who is also trying not to cry, lands against Ren like a death blow. “I do so know you. You sleep twenty feet away from me every night. And even if you were a stranger, they can’t-- They were--”

“How do you know I didn’t want it?” Hux asks. He’s trying to keep his voice steady and mean, failing. It’s the way Henry is looking at him. Ren feels it, too. It’s a knifing, bone-crushing sympathy.

Henry doesn’t answer that question. He reaches for Hux again, slowly this time. Hux is trembling like a leaf, blinking rapidly, doing everything he can to continue glowering. When Henry’s hands reach his shoulders, Hux doesn’t push them away.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Hux says, his voice barely working. Henry shakes his head.

“But we have to,” he says. “We have to tell someone.”

“What? No, please-- You can’t, I’ll do anything you want--”

“I don’t want anything from you, Elan, I just want to-- I just-- They can’t do that to you! I won’t let them.”

Ren can feel it in his chest when the Hux who’s peering up at Henry can’t hold everything or even anything back anymore. Something snaps inside Hux, like a delicate bone he didn’t know he had. His face pinches up. Henry makes a soft noise under his breath and pulls Hux against him. Hux’s arms remain at his sides when Henry hugs him, but he presses his face to Henry’s neck when he sobs with one violent jerk of his shoulders, then another.

“It’s okay,” Henry says, whispering. He holds Hux tighter and touches the back of his head. “It’s okay, Elan, it’ll be all right.”

“We can go,” Ren says, to the Hux who is wearing his robe, who is frozen in place and too small. “Hux. We can leave now.”

Nothing happens. The walls don’t disappear, the trees don’t grow to towering heights around them.

The other Hux catches his breath against Henry’s shoulder and puts his hands on Henry’s waist. He counts to ten inside his head, letting himself have only that: ten more seconds before he'll pull away and tell Henry that he hates him, that he had better never to speak to Hux again, and that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, doesn’t know anything.

One, two, three. Hux wipes his face against Henry’s throat, sniffles. Six, seven.

“Hux,” Ren says, sharply, and the Hux who is dreaming turns. The boys in the corner disappear, still holding on to each other as they fade. The walls of the hallway move backward and then dissolve. Hux grows taller, older, as he draws his eyes up to Ren’s, still wearing his robe. Trees appear around them, thick branches and fragrant needles sheltering them from the sun overhead on this unnamed planet. But it’s not a planet. It’s something Ren can give to Hux. Something he needs.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Hux says. His voice is steady, eyes dry. He looks just as he did last time Ren saw him in person, in reality: outwardly calm, despite everything. “I mean it, Ren. You can’t ever tell anyone.”

“I won’t,” Ren says, surprised that Hux doesn’t know this already. It’s not his secret to tell.

“Not even your mother,” Hux says.

“Fine,” Ren says, the edges of the dream beginning to flicker. It’s getting too real for Hux. He’s remembering things. That’s always when he retreats.

But the worried creases at the corners of Hux’s eyes have smoothed away. He holds out his hands, cupping his palms together.

“I’ll take those buttons now,” Hux says. “The ones you made.”

Ren is afraid he won’t be able to make them again, and when he realizes where the buttons are now he’s not sure how to proceed. He takes one step forward, then another. Hux leaves his arms outstretched, palms cupped and waiting. He frowns slightly when Ren steps close enough to reach down into the pockets of the robe Hux is wearing, but he doesn’t move away.

Ren takes a handful of buttons from each pocket, straightens and dumps them into Hux’s hands. When Hux is holding the buttons, Ren puts his hands under Hux’s, as if he needs help bearing up the weight of so many. Ren can’t feel the heat of Hux’s skin here, and Hux can’t feel him, not the way he would if they were really standing in the same forest on some peaceful planet, but even being able to touch Hux in a dream fills Ren with a sense of blazing relief that threatens to wake him. This is as close as he can get to Hux, for now. Hux peers up at him, more curious than cautious. A breeze moves through the pines overhead, and Ren’s robe fans out behind Hux when the wind picks up.

“I can’t stay here,” Hux says.

“I know.”

“But I got your letter.”

“What did you think of it?” Ren has been afraid to know. He was afraid Hux might not even read it.

“Your handwriting is atrocious,” Hux says.

“Ha. Yeah. I know. Sorry--”

He didn’t catch that word before it came out, and he winces in another kind of apology. Hux shrugs. He’s so close. If they were truly together, Ren would be able to smell Hux’s hair as the wind moves through it.

“I didn’t have any friends either,” Hux says. “As a kid.”

“I know.” Ren thinks of Henry. Hux seems to sense this, and he frowns. He closes his fists around the buttons and puts them back into the pockets of the robe, leaving his hands there, too. Ren’s hands linger stupidly in the space between them, cupped around nothing now.

“I won,” Hux says, the calm in his features giving way to a kind of buried rage that flickers in his eyes. “And Henry lost.”

He’s not saying so the way he did when he was on all fours in Ren’s bed, wearing that little hat. Hux looks as if he’s mad about this now, though not necessarily at himself. He’s mad that he’s being asked to answer for it, maybe, and he’s fading fast now, the dream disappearing.

“Write back to me,” Ren says, begging.

Ren wakes up in bed in Wedge’s apartment, not sure if Hux heard that departing request. When he sits up, the first thing he sees is his robe, folded on top of the dresser. It’s not really wrapped around Hux, and its pockets aren’t really full of black buttons.

Observations, brutally mundane while Ren’s heart still pounds from all that just happened in Hux’s dream: It’s late morning. Rey is concerned about him, frowning in the adjoining bedroom and trying to figure out why a bad dream has bothered him so much. But it wasn’t a bad dream. She doesn’t understand.

Ren scrubs his hands over his face, groaning. He stares at Luke’s books, imagining another day of puzzling over them. Yesterday was somewhat productive, but today is the day that his mother is supposed to drop by. That’s what Wedge called it when he spoke to her. Ren didn’t hear it, but he felt it. Drop by, right. The way a lit match might drop into a pile of oily rags and flame-triggered detonators. Leia won’t shout or show Ren how angry she is; the time for that has passed. She’ll be careful with him, afraid to upset him, pitying, and that will feel like it always did: unbearable, infuriating, and like deserved blame for everything that’s gone wrong. It will be worse, like it always was, when she refuses to voice that blame aloud.

He wanders barefoot into the living room, blocking Rey’s attempts to investigate his current mental state as completely as he can. Wedge is on the sofa, reading his data pad while the holo plays a newscast.

“Oh, sorry,” Wedge says, turning the volume on the holo down with that wireless controller. “I didn’t mean to wake you. Did I have it turned up too loud?”

“What? No.” Ren sits on the sofa beside Wedge, giving the holo an angry stare when he sees Hux’s image, mid-scream during that speech, projected beside the newscaster who is discussing his upcoming hearing. “Could you turn it up, actually?” he asks.

Wedge does as asked. Ren’s lip curls when he notices the text GENOCIDAL GENERAL hovering under Hux’s image. He thinks of Hux in that hallway at the Academy, the way his bony shoulders jerked with sobs when Henry held him. Kylo would blow up five more planets if it meant he could go back and change things for Hux.

Observation, disheartening: He’s not Kylo anymore. He can’t confidently choose destruction as the path forward. Can’t storm that Tower and rip it in half, toss his robe around Hux and carry him away. Not unless he wants to end up inviting Snoke back into his body. Kylo tried that method already. Didn’t work. Nearly killed Hux. Now Ren is here, trying this.

On the holo, the broadcast shifts from the newscaster in a studio to a mobile reporter on the streets of the city, soliciting the opinions of random passerby.

“Do you plan to watch the broadcast of General Hux’s hearing?” the reporter asks, speaking to a thin human woman with dark green hair.

“Of course,” she says. “My neighbors are having a big viewing party for the verdict reading.”

“And what do you expect the verdict to be?” the reporter asks.

The woman shrugs. “I don’t see how they could let him live,” she says. “After what he did? It wouldn’t make sense.”

“Sense,” Ren says, his shoulders curling forward as he resists the urge to spring up and smash something. Wedge turns the volume back down.

“Rey told me you were with him when you came to her and Luke,” Wedge says. “With, uh. Do you call him Hux?”

“Uh-huh.” Ren continues to stare at the holo. He doesn’t need the sound to understand what the next person interviewed says in answer to the same questions. Yes, this man will watch the broadcast. Yes, he believes the Starkiller should die. It’s only fair.

“Rey told me Hux was your companion on the other side,” Wedge says, the oddity of this phrasing drawing Ren’s attention. Wedge shrugs when Ren’s angry stare settles on him. “You must miss him,” he says.

“Do you think he should die?” Ren asks, in answer to that.

“I’m pretty anti-death these days,” Wedge says. “I killed people when I fought with the Alliance, of course. Stormtroopers, and other people who were in league with the Empire. I didn’t really think of them as people, back then. You couldn’t, you know? But now I do. I think about who they were. Especially the stormtroopers, now that we know they’re forced into service as kids, never even allowed to think of themselves as people. But they were people. All of them were real people who lived and died. Me and Luke used to talk about that a lot.” Wedge gestures to the holo, where Hux’s snarling image now fills the screen. “He’s somebody, too, a real person. I don’t have to know that he means something to you to understand that.”

“What time is my mother getting here?” Ren asks, staring at the cold fireplace below the holo, no longer willing to discuss Hux, stormtroopers, or any of it.

“She’ll be here in a few hours.” Wedge reaches over to touch Ren’s shoulder. Ren has to resist the urge to shrug his hand off violently. Wedge means well. He’s trying to help. That matters, supposedly. “She just wants to see you, Ben,” Wedge says. “You don’t have to do anything beyond being here for her.”

“Oh no?” Ren stands and pulls his hands through his hair. He takes a deep breath, struggling to tamp down his building rage. Wedge’s feedback is an untidy mess of concern for Ren mixed with sympathy for Leia, plus the usual undercurrent of longing for Luke, who used to lie awake with Wedge and mutter sadly about dead stormtroopers. “Sorry,” Ren says. “Thank you. I’ll go talk to Rey now.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

Rey is clearly expecting Ren when he storms into her room. She’s sitting cross-legged on her bed, her hair braided and pinned to her head in a way that reminds Ren of his mother.

“Why did you change your hair?” he barks, regretting the volume of his voice when she flinches and frowns.

“Because I felt like it? Sit down, Ben. And shut the door.”

Ren does as she asked, glad for this suggestion when he finds that he feels better once they’re closed into the room together. He can hide behind this door, for now. Maybe for the rest of the day. He doesn’t have to face his mother. He doesn’t have to do anything. They can’t make him.

He sits on the bed. Rey stares at him. He can feel her in his head, but he’s too preoccupied now with the approach of his mother to need to worry about Rey getting deep enough into his thoughts to uncover his efforts to sneak into Hux’s dreams.

“You were always afraid of her,” Rey says. “Why? She’s not a scary person.”

“Are you kidding me?” Ren scoffs. “You don’t know her. Or you do, but you know her as a five-year-old girl, and that’s how she still sees you. So you don’t have to see-- The rest.”

“The rest?”

“The fucking scrutiny. The softness of it, when she’s not soft like that on anyone else. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve already ruined everything. What’s the point?”

“The point is that she wants to see you and that owe her that much, yes?”

Ren doesn’t answer. He hunches over and stares at the floor of Rey’s bedroom, letting his hair fall over his face. Tries to remember the last time he saw his mother. Can’t. Snoke was so heavy and loud in his mind before the massacre. Ben may have seen Leia just before it happened, may not have. He’d stopped looking her in the eyes long before those last few days, anyway.

“I’ll be here,” Rey says, placing her hand on his arm. “You’re not alone, don’t forget.”

“I’m not alone?” Ren scoffs and flips his hair away, narrowing his eyes at her. “You didn’t do any of this. You weren’t my fucking partner in crime.” He thinks of Hux, grimaces, and puts his head in his hands. “But good, you should be here, good. You’re the child she actually wanted. Now that Luke’s gone and I’m a pariah, you can be Leia’s kid. The way it should have been.”

“You’re so cruel,” Rey says. He looks up at her, frowning.

“I know that,” he says, though it’s not what he expected her to say. “Don’t say that to me like you think it’s something I don’t know. About myself. I know.”

“Do you want to meditate?” Rey asks. She doesn’t seem mad at him, despite thinking he’s cruel. It’s like she’s pitying him for his innate cruelty. Just as Leia once did. Great. He won’t survive this. He needs to run, to go, to be with Hux. Waking from that dream and finding no buttons in his pockets will leave Hux feeling robbed, lonely and hopeless, if Hux even remembers the dreams where Ren finds him. Ren thinks he does but can’t be sure. “That’s not a bad start,” Rey says, and she shrugs with Ren glares at her. “I’m not reading your mind,” she says. “I just got the sense you were calming yourself down by thinking about the-- About Hux, about how you’d rather be with him. That’s fine. Whatever works to quiet your mind.”

“I don’t need you to teach me how to meditate.”

“I’m sure you don’t. But you do it a bit differently than I do. Maybe we could both teach each other something about it.”

“Why was Luke training you so heavily in combat?”

Ren has been meaning to ask this since they were on the island. A lot has happened since then, distracting him. Rey seems confused by the question when he looks up at her.

“Why wouldn’t he?” she asks. “It’s physical, but you can find deeper truth through the Force when pushing yourself physically.”

“I know that. But it’s as if he thought you’d be-- Fighting. Enemies.”

“Are you afraid he was training me to defeat you?” Rey asks, raising her eyebrows. “I suppose that had occurred to him. Lucky it didn’t come to that, eh?”

“I didn’t mean me,” Ren says, sharply. It’s true, but now that she’s brought it up, he’s bothered by the thought of Luke having sought to prepare her, at least at some point, for her next fight against Kylo Ren. “I meant Snoke,” Ren says. “That’s my fight. I won’t let him near you again, so don’t even think about it.”

“Let’s leave Snoke for another day,” Rey says. “You’ve got enough on your mind.”

“You’re avoiding the issue. Was Luke assuming you would someday face Snoke?” Ren imagines how Luke might have structured this confrontation in his mind, in his plans: First, you’ll have to kill the apprentice. Ben is dead to us anyway. Then, the master.

“You’re so wrong,” Rey says. “About so much.”

“Then show me. Tell me the truth.”

“About what, Ben? That your mother doesn’t hate you, even now? That Luke could never actually convince himself you were a lost cause? That you can’t defeat Snoke alone? You already know all of this. Who’s asking redundant questions now?”

“I don’t-- Know that. About Snoke. I think it has to be me who kills him.”

“Fine,” Rey says, sharply. “Go on thinking that, for now. We’re not facing Snoke today, as far as we know. You have something else to take care of first, and it’s important, too. Let’s meditate. Give me your hands.”

“Jedi don’t fucking hold each other’s hands when they meditate.”

“Well, we’re not fucking Jedi, are we?”

Rey grins when Ren appears scandalized. He not sure if he’s more surprised by the curse or the idea that she doesn’t consider herself a Jedi. Curious, he accepts her hands and pulls his legs onto the bed, turning toward her and sitting cross-legged in the same fashion.

Rey closes her eyes. Ren does the same, allowing her to turn his hands over and press her palms down against his. He takes a deep breath when she does, lets it out when she does, and concentrates on his first point of dry inquiry: did Luke teach Rey to meditate like this? No, not at the Jedi Academy when they were kids and not on that island. This is something Rey is inventing just now, for Ren. His palms seem important in a way she can’t figure out. She’s concentrating on them, and she’s confused when she receives an image of a black button. She won’t be able to unravel the meaning. She’s looking at it from the wrong angle. That’s typically her first mistake, where Ren is concerned. It’s a weakness he would exploit, if she were someone else.

Ren moves away from Rey in his mind, no longer able to feel the heat of her hands against his own. He thinks of his mother, of Snoke, but both of those paths will lead him further from the perfect dark he seeks, not more deeply into it. He thinks of Hux instead, trying to return to the mountains that overlook the Tower. If he could cross the space between the top of the mountain where he stands within his vision and the roof of that Tower, maybe he could get to Hux, in his mind, while Hux is awake. But when he looks down and sees his bare feet planted in snow, no avenue for walking through the air in his vision appears. If he steps into the air, he’ll fall, and the vision will shatter. He can’t feel Hux here the way he felt Hux in that dream. Hux is far away, over half a day’s journey, because Ren isn’t really at the Tower: the vision fades.

Something is tugging at his consciousness. He turns his head and senses that he’s in Rey’s room, though he can’t see Rey or feel her hands against his. Only one thing in this environment is visible now: Luke’s books. Rey keeps two of them in here, sitting on the vanity near the mirror. Ren can’t see the mirror or the vanity, only the books. They’re floating in the perfect dark. Glowing.

Ren calls out for Rey within this darkness, without using his voice. She answers him, silent and still: offering a wordless acknowledgement that she sees this, too. Her confirmation twists inside Ren’s chest with a combination of excitement and trepidation. The excitement is Rey’s. She thinks this is a good sign, something that will help them. The trepidation originates solely from Ren. He doesn’t trust those books. There is good in them; he’s felt it. They contain things that will be useful. But there are other things trapped in those ancient words, too.

He wants to turn away from the books, but Rey’s focus on them keeps his thoughts centered there, too. Something emerges from the pages of one and seems to float overtop them. Ren sees two hands pressed together. He mistakes this for his hand against Rey’s at first, but it’s actually a drawing, a symbol. It means something particular in one of these books, something important that they will not intuit outside of meditation. Ren hears Rey breathing, the sound breaking through the perfect dark. She’s trying too hard to make sense of this. She’s not trusting herself to simply withdraw into understanding.

Ren opens his eyes first, the meaning of the two-hands symbol still unclear to him. When Rey blinks at him he can see that she doesn’t understand it either. But they have seen it, anyway, and will try again.

“What are we, then?” Ren asks, his hands still resting under Rey’s.

“Huh?” Rey seems very young suddenly, dazed but unafraid.

“If you’re not a Jedi and I’m not Snoke’s apprentice, what are we?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Rey taps her palms down against Ren’s as if they’re playing one of the games he taught her when they were kids. He would hold out his hands and she would place hers on top, trying to pull them away before he could flip his over and slap her knuckles. She had laughed so hard when she managed to evade his hands, and even harder when she didn’t. Rey had never cared about winning. She was happy just to have a chance to play. Ren remembers Luke praising her for that and being so jealous that he wouldn’t play that game with Rey anymore.

“I’m sorry,” he says, feeling it when she remembers this, too. Now he understands why she wanted to meditate this way with him. Rey shrugs, smiles.

“Someone has to care about winning,” she says. “That’s important, too.”

“You think there’s some kind of balance between us,” Ren says.

“Maybe.”

“You think it’s a balance that could destroy Snoke.” Ren shakes his head. “No. I want to believe that myself, in a way, but I think it has to be me. Only someone Snoke put so much work into could kill him. He’s invested certain parts of himself in this body already. That makes him weak to me, uniquely.”

“I think you’re right,” Rey says, a newly brilliant light jumping into her eyes. “But it’s also not that simple.”

Ren has lost track of how long they’ve been meditating, and when he hears the door chime he realizes that Rey has successfully distracted him from the knowledge that there are no longer several hours left before Leia arrives. In fact she’s here now. Standing at Wedge’s door, two armed Resistance guards behind her. She’s wondering why there is a pair of durasteel binders hidden behind those pots full of dead flowers.

“Disconnect,” Rey says, so sharply that Ren jumps when he refocuses on her, his hands beginning to shake. “Don’t start reading your mother’s thoughts,” Rey says, much more softly. “You’re not ready for that. Just-- Just be here.”

“I can’t.” Ren looks at the window. He thinks of crawling out onto the ledge, making his way down to the street. He could do that. That seems possible. Walking out of this room and finding his mother on the other side of the door: less possible, too hard.

“She’s just saying hello to Wedge now,” Rey says, and she holds up her hands as if to block Ren’s path to the window. “There’s no hurry. We can stay in here for a bit longer.”

“A bit. A bit? No, that’s not going to work, I’m--”

“Okay,” Rey says, nodding. “You’re right. We can’t make you leave this room. And your mother is not going to ambush you. If you need to sit in here while Wedge and I have tea with Leia, that’s fine. Consider it a first step.”

“That’s--” Ren pinches his eyes shut and shakes his head. “That’s ridiculous. That would only make it worse. I have to rip off the bandage, I just have to-- Do it, if I’m ever going to.”

Rey seems surprised when he looks at her again, and encouraged.

“I think you’re right,” she says, speaking softly. They can hear Wedge talking out in the living room. Ren can feel his mother out there, but can’t hear her yet. She’s smiling tightly, trying to listen to whatever Wedge is rambling about, trying not to focus too acutely on Ren’s current location, not wanting to upset him.

“Tell her--” Ren says, and he makes himself go quiet when he hears how loud his voice came out, Wedge’s chatter halting on the other side of the door. Ren swallows and refocuses on Rey. He’s glad he didn’t have breakfast. Feels like he might throw up anyway. “Tell her that she can upset me,” he says, speaking to Rey but knowing that Leia will hear him, through the Force if not through the door. Everything in him has begun to tremble. Rey’s hair brush moves on the vanity, disturbed by his increasingly unstable energy. “Tell her I would rather be upset,” he says, forcing the words out, staring at Rey. “I would rather be upset than coddled. I don’t deserve her pity. I never did. She knows that now.”

Rey stares, not sure what to say next. Outside the room, Wedge is still quiet. Leia is walking away from him, toward the living room window. It looks out on nothing, really: a narrow alleyway and the wall of the building next door. In the room where Ren sits, Rey’s hair brush is still agitated with nervous energy that pushes it across the top of the vanity, and all the hairpins in the drawers have begun to rattle, too.

“Ben,” Rey says, staring at the vanity, not sure if she should use her powers to still these objects or if that would set Ren off.

Objective: Calm down.

Observation: That objective has literally always failed.

Objectives, more attainable: Stand up. Stop acting like a coward. Do this difficult thing and put it behind you. Think of this only as farewell. Leia is owed a proper goodbye.

Objectives, related: Get to Snoke sooner rather than later. Finish him, leave here with Hux. Remember, while speaking to Leia, that this is only temporary. Not a real return to Ben’s world. Just an interlude. A stop along the way. Leia deserves an hour or two of time. She expects nothing more than an audience. She’s not awaiting an apology. To apologize to her would be ludicrous, obscene.

“Go get Wedge,” Ren says, his vision tunneled around Rey’s hair brush, which has stopped shaking. It’s perfectly still now, though the air in the room is still charged, sparking against the back of his neck. “Take Wedge-- Anywhere, out on the patio or into his room. I want to be alone with my mother.”

“Okay,” Rey says, slowly. She stands, watching Ren, her feedback like a soft breeze across his skin, irritating him where it’s intended to soothe. “Are you sure?” she asks.

“Yes. Please. Do it.”

Observations, settling around him like a clearing of the air in the room as Rey walks out: It’s helping to think of this meeting with Leia as a goal related to future combat. He needs to clear certain obstacles from his mind before he faces Snoke. His mother is one of those things. This is a necessary meeting to further his objective to destroy something: Snoke. He can steady himself, face the task, and move forward with a lighter load to carry into that cave where Snoke awaits.

Ren waits, breathes, listens. When unhelpful mental adjustments attempt to surface, threatening to tip him back into uncontrolled panic, he makes himself think of Hux and his ultimate goal. He will be with Hux again when Snoke is destroyed. It’s the reason he was given all of this power. To save Hux. Even when Hux sobbed on Henry’s shoulder in that hallway, even when Ben was far away and only ten years old, it was already happening. This day is merely a hurdle he must clear on his way toward a day when he’ll hold Hux against him again.

Okay, Rey says, sending this from the patio. Wedge and I are outside. Take all the time you need. If you need me, just ask.

Ren tells her he’s fine. That he doesn’t need her. Almost believes it.

Objectives: Walk to the door. Open it.

Reminders, important: Leia Organa can’t hurt you now. You’re not Ben anymore. Nor are you Kylo, the man who killed Han Solo. You are Ren, and those others were weaker than you. Pity Leia for loving one of them and for losing Han to the other, but don’t cripple yourself with guilt. Don’t pretend that you can atone for the actions of those forms you have evolved away from now.

He opens the door, shoulders squared. He’s expressionless, wishing he had his helmet, his mask. Leia is still at the living room window, still looking out at that view of nothing. Even if the window in that room looked out on a sparkling ocean vista, she would be blind to it as she listened to him approach.

Ren intended to say ‘General’ when he arrived in the living room, so she would note the tone of this encounter and proceed accordingly. When he comes to stand in the doorway, he says nothing. She turns from the window.

Ren looks away, at the floor, the shock of seeing how fifteen years has changed her rolling down the back of his neck and nearly knocking him over. The only thing that holds him up is the answering weight of her own shock, which is eviscerating, an instantaneous detonation of relief and sorrow that he can’t begin to parse. She’s sucked all the breath out of the room. There’s no air. Ren feels like he’s standing on the surface of this planet’s merciless sun, already melted down to nothing. He can’t look at her again. He won’t.

“I’d sensed it,” Leia says. She lowers herself slowly to an ottoman, feeling her way onto it when she can’t take her eyes off of Ren. “How you-- Grew up, but. It’s so different. Really seeing you, it’s--”

Her voice breaks off with a weak gasp, as if Ren is the one who has stolen all the air in the room. Ren’s hands curl into fists, tightening until they tremble. She’s like an echo chamber, worse than ever before, throwing his every emotion back at him with her concern, wanting him not to feel bad, scared, wrong, stupid, worthless. Until everything she wants to correct in him is all he can feel.

“Your voice,” Ren says, still staring at the floor.

“My--?” Leia touches her throat lightly. “Oh, I. It’s different, yeah? Older. So is yours.”

Ren pinches his eyes shut, shakes his head. She’s trying to pull back from his thoughts, attempting to give him space, but she never could figure out how to do that completely, or very well at all. They’re connected. It’s excruciating, and unbreakable.

“I wish I had known my mother,” Leia says, her voice changing again: wavering. She had rarely cried when Ben was a boy. He can’t remember a single incident when she let those cracks show while she knew he was aware, around, noticing. “My biological mother,” she says, clearing her throat. “She might have taught me how to do this.”

“What?”

“She might have taught me how to have this feeling and go on breathing.”

This feeling: regret, guilt, all-consuming heartache, the need to run across the room and pull Ren into her arms. The knowledge that she can’t do it, that he will never let her hold him again.

Ren keeps his gaze on the floor. His only objective is to not look at her again. She’ll derail all his careful mental adjustments if he does. She’s threatening to do so even with her thoughts. Everything she feels now is too loud, almost drowning out the cacophony of his own panicked attempts to organize his thought process.

“You can sit,” Leia says, hopefully. “If you like.”

“I’d rather stand.”

“Okay.” She takes a deep breath and looks toward the window, drying the corners of her eyes with the edge of her palm. It’s something her adoptive mother taught her when she was still a girl: a discreet way for a princess to eliminate the evidence of an inconvenient emotional outburst during a moving opera or the dedication of a memorial to fallen soldiers.

Ren needs to stay out of Leia’s head. Rey was right. It’s too much. His legs are going to give out, and if he sinks to his knees Leia will think he’s still weak. She’ll think he gained nothing from what he took from her. He refocuses on Rey instead, feels her straining to get a sense of how things are going and pulling back, too, not wanting to intrude on this moment.

“I sensed it when you walked into that house by the sea,” Leia says. “Our old vacation spot. Ben, it gave me such hope. It felt like the first real hope I’d had in so many years.”

“Did you sense that I nearly killed him in that house?” Ren asks, keeping his voice sharp and trusting she’ll know he’s talking about Hux.

Because she has met Hux.

Ren would be staggering backward from the shock of sensing that if he could move at all, but he fears that if makes the slightest motion now it could only be to drop to his knees and curl up on the floor. Leia would run to him if he did. She would try to put her arms around him.

“I sensed,” Leia says, drawing in a choppy breath, “That you rejected Snoke, once and for all, because he hurt someone you love.”

“Too late,” Ren says, trying to laugh. “Too many people already hurt.”

“Ben--”

“I don’t want to be forgiven,” he says, nearly shouting. He means it.

“I can work with that,” she says.

Ren looks at her, without meaning to, and this time he can’t look away. She seems smaller than he remembers. He supposes he wasn’t this tall last time he saw her, but his father had seemed to be the same size as always when--

He has look away at the thought of Han. She does, too. For a while they don’t speak. Ren concentrates on his heartbeat, trying to use the Force to slow it down. He’s never been able to do it, and Luke once barked at Ben in a panic when he sensed him trying to steady his own pounding heart that way, because apparently it’s very dangerous. Still, he tries.

“You met Hux,” Ren says, staring at the floor again. “Yesterday.”

“Yes. We questioned him.”

“Was he-- Are they-- Is he okay?”

“He seemed quite collected, considering.”

“They want to kill him,” Ren says, glaring at the powered-off holo. “I won’t let them.”

“I’m sorry that they’ve pulled me into this,” Leia says.

Observation: She’s apologizing. To him?

“It’s all very political, as you can imagine,” she says. “Your Hux is supposed to be the poster boy for the First Order, a kind of symbol of victory for us now that he’s imprisoned, and I’m supposed to be the poster girl for-- I don’t know, revenge? I was pressured to take the Committee Head role because of Alderaan, among other things. I was going to refuse, but something stopped me. I suppose I know what that was now.”

“You would--” Ren is afraid to say it out loud, though he’s already sensed it. “You would spare him? If it came to your vote?”

“Of course I would, Ben. It’s a grisly business, killing someone. I’ve done it before, when I had to, when I was being fired on, and sometimes when I wasn’t. During the fight against the Empire. I was angry about Alderaan, to put it very mildly. There were times when it felt good to kill those I held responsible. There were times when I was glad to do it.”

Ren looks at her again, his eyes widening. She lifts her eyebrows, then one shoulder.

“I guess that’s one thing about me that you never sensed before,” she says. “You and I both tried to protect each other from the darkest things we knew. Seems like that wasn’t so smart of us.”

“I--” Ren looks away again, at the powered-off screen of the holo. He can see his own reflection in it, muddled and indistinct, more like a shadow than a mirror image.

“But now,” Leia says. “Now it haunts me, a bit, to remember how it made my heart race to see my enemies fall when I fired on them. I don’t have much in the way of bloodlust these days. The people of the New Republic have a right to demand justice, but I disagree with some of them about what form that justice should take. And there are times when death is letting someone off too easy, in a way.”

Ren wants to sit now, his legs trembling, but the sofa is too close to the ottoman where Leia sits. He backs into the corner, crouches there, and folds his arms over his knees.

“I should really step down from the Committee,” Leia says. “Hux gave us testimony about Kylo Ren during his questioning. He told us Kylo Ren saved him. There aren’t many people who know that Kylo Ren is my son.”

“He’s not your son,” Ren says, his shoulders curving inward, eyes on the floor. “Your son was Ben. He’s gone.”

“You know, you can lie to a lot of people in this world. Including yourself. But you can’t lie to your mother, not for long, so you might as well stop trying.”

“But I’m not Ben anymore. I’m not. Can’t you sense it?”

“Quite the opposite, actually, to my enormous relief.”

“You only see what you want to see!”

He didn’t meant to shout, but now it’s unleashed, angry and alive between them, crackling in the air.

Leia doesn’t seem particularly perturbed. Her feedback is mild, relieved. This is going better than she expected. At least he’s talking.

“You may be right,” she says. “I didn’t see Snoke. I failed you in that way. It was my job to protect you. I didn’t.”

“That’s--” Ren closes his eyes, shakes his head, and slashes his hands through the air as if he can physically banish her guilt. “Snoke hid from you. Specifically. He told me that.”

I hid him from you, Ren thinks, knowing she’ll hear it.

“Neither of us can change what we’ve done,” Leia says, her voice firming up in a way that sends Ren’s gaze back to the floor. “But what we do next could matter a great deal. I know you want to stop Snoke before he hurts anyone else the way he hurt you. Before he finds another Force-sensitive child to manipulate.”

“I want to destroy Snoke because he hurt Hux,” Ren says, his jaw tightening with every word. “Hux is all that matters to me now.”

“Hmm.” Leia’s feedback indicates concern, but it’s not overwhelming. She doesn’t believe him. She thinks he cares about other things, too. “Well. I suppose that’s a start.”

“I have Luke’s books,” Ren says, springing to his feet when he realizes that he can dispense with this pointless talk and introduce a shared objective. “He asked me and Rey to study them. We’ve struggled with it so far. Rey thought you might help.”

“That I might help-- With Luke’s old books?”

“Yes. You had old books, once. When I was--” He breaks off there, looks away. “Before, you had some. You’ve been to school. We thought-- Rey thought you could help us.”

“Oh. Well--”

“I’ll get the books. Wait here. Please,” he adds, when he’s halfway out of the room.

“Okay,” Leia says. She sounds confused, but her feedback is surging with renewed hope.

Ren goes to Rey’s room and grabs both books from the vanity, trying not to think too much about anything just yet. His heart is still beating too fast. Rey sends him questioning feedback from the patio.

Everything’s fine, he sends back. Tell Wedge not to worry.

Feedback from Rey, more directly: Wedge isn’t the worried one out here. He thinks you’ll be weeping and embracing each other in no time.

No. Ren stops in his tracks and looks down at the books. We’re not like that. Not like you. My mother is a serious person, like me. Come inside now. Please.

He waits for Rey to reach him, not wanting to re-enter the room with Leia alone. Rey gives Ren a tentative smile and touches the small of his back, nudging him gently back toward the living room.

“Hello again,” Rey says, walking ahead of Ren after they’ve passed through the doorway. Ren sets the books on the long table in front of the sofa and returns to the corner, squatting there. Rey hugs Leia and sits beside her on the ottoman. They both stare at Ren. “Is that really comfortable to you?” Rey asks. “Crouching on the floor?”

“I’m fine. Tell her about the hands we saw.”

Rey stares at him for a bit longer, sighs. She turns to Leia.

“We were meditating, before you came over,” Rey says. “The books seemed to call out to us. We saw something, a symbol from one of the pages. It sort of-- Emerged and hovered in the air, as if it had been written in the air by flame. There was a glow. The symbol looked like two hands pressed together.” She holds up her palms to demonstrate.

“I’d love to help you,” Leia says, glancing at Ren, who quickly looks away from her. “But this is Luke’s area, not mine. He tried to get me to study the Force, but I was too busy with work and war and--” She nods to Ren. “Motherhood.”

“It’s not so much not interpretation that we need your help with,” Rey says. “We need a sort of plan about how to attack this information. Neither of us really knows how to study anything but the Force, and that’s pure intuition. We look at these books and certain things become clear, but it’s all disorganized and we don’t know where to go from those initial feelings.”

“I see.” Leia is looking at Ren again. He can feel it, and can feel her sensing that he was hurt by the way she pronounced the word ‘motherhood.’

Mental adjustment, directed at Leia: He wasn’t hurt. He was just noticing her tone. It was a mere observation. She categorized her experience of motherhood along with work and war.

“I happen to like work,” Leia says.

Ren looks up at her, then away again.

“I do have a lot on my plate right now, however,” Leia says, turning back to Rey. “But I think I could help you organize your information. I have an analyst who helps me with my own data processing. She designed a program for me that you may find helpful. I could bring you a data pad with that program loaded on it. We use it when we gather coded intelligence from the First Order and other hostiles. It helps us find commonalities when we break down their codes-- Things that are more nuanced than what a processing droid could interpret.”

“You could just use the Force to break codes,” Ren says, and they both stare at him. He shrugs, bouncing on his heels. “You’re just as powerful as Luke,” he says. “Denying it is a waste of time and resources that you could be using for your-- Resistance.”

“There are some things about me that you don’t entirely understand,” Leia says, sharply enough to draw Ren’s gaze before he ducks away from her stare again. “Believe it or not.”

“I understand that you can use the Force,” Ren says, mumbling.

Feedback from Leia: Annoyance.

Observation: This reaction has not been padded to keep Ren safe. It’s a relief.

“That sounds great,” Rey says, hurriedly, when the silence that follows becomes awkward. “The, ah, data pad, that program, yes, perfect. Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome to whatever you need,” Leia says. “And I’ll be available-- to both of you --as much as I can be. I’m afraid this sentencing hearing is going to require a lot of time and attention over the next few weeks, unless I decide to step down--”

“You can’t step down,” Ren says. “You have to convince them not to kill him.” He stands and clasps his hands behind his back, trying to maintain a sense of decorum. This is an official request, addressed to his tentative ally. “Please,” he says. “I won’t let them kill Hux, no matter what they decide, but I need time to find Snoke and determine how to destroy him. Hux isn’t safe with me until Snoke is dead, and I won’t be able to concentrate on dealing with Snoke if Hux isn’t-- Secure, somewhere.”

“Ben,” Leia says. Something about the change in her tone fills him with dread, though he had been so sure he could withstand being upset by her; he’d even thought he wanted that. “If it’s up to me,” she says, “And it very well may be, General Hux will be in prison for the rest of his life. I don’t believe he’s solely to blame for what happened, but he bears a great portion of the responsibility for the use of that weapon. Greater than you understand. I know you can’t begin to comprehend the scale of what he’s done or the enormity of what he has taken from these people, but it’s very real to them, and to me. If the Committee decides to issue a life sentence, I will not stand back and allow you to use the Force, or any other means, to override that decision.”

Observation: She’s seen what Ren plans to do. He was foolish not to conceal his objective to kill Snoke, collect Hux by whatever means necessary, and flee with Hux to safety. Without really thinking about it, he had stupidly assumed she would understand.

“I can’t live without him,” Ren says.

He didn’t mean for that to come out sounding so weak. As if he’s begging her.

“I would have said the same thing about your father, once,” Leia says, unblinking. “And yet here I am. Still alive.”

Ren leaves the room.

Feedback from Leia, sent directly: Please come back. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.

To her, enraged: You cannot apologize to me. It’s madness. I won’t let you say you’re sorry. I looked him in the eyes and I killed him. And you’re apologizing to me? No.

He feels her reaching out again, trying to respond, and he shuts everything down so that she can’t. Pulls his feedback offline. Slams his bedroom door. Falls onto the bed and attempts to empty his mind, to put up every wall, to keep his mother out of his head. Ben used to be so good at this. It’s harder now, as Ren.

Hypothesis, uncertain but possible: Maybe Leia has gotten better at trying to see past his defenses.

Face down on the bed, afraid to let any thought settle too firmly, because she might sense the depth of his distress and think that she’s required to do something about it, he pinches his eyes shut and grits his teeth, grinding his forehead against the sheets.

Observation: That was a bad idea. She’s lost to him. They can’t have a normal discussion about anything. Even the driest subjects would somehow always come back to what he did. What he took from her. What he can’t give back.

Objective: Think of something else. Anything. Something she won’t be able to see.

His mind goes to Hux. He wants to examine his mother’s memories of her meeting with Hux at the Tower, but that would leave his own thoughts vulnerable to her searching. Instead he thinks of Hux at the house on the cliff, and that day when Hux laughed at Ren on the back porch. Ren had asked Hux if he heard himself when Hux complained that his ear hadn’t yet been healed. The idea of hearing Hux laugh again: Ren would do anything. He would humiliate himself a thousand times. He can’t remember ever purely liking it when Hux laughed, because whenever he did it was angry, sarcastic, or done in the process of mocking Ren. And yet. Ren clings now to the few memories he has of the way Hux’s eyes seemed to grow a bit greener as the corners pinched up and as he shook with laughter at something Ren had said.

Every thought of Hux is leading back to the idea of searching his mother’s memories for what Hux said to her, what she said to him, and what she thought of Hux beyond ‘collected’ and deserving of a life in prison. Ren changes tactics and moves toward the notepad and pen that he used to write his last letter to Hux. This will take his mind off the fact that his mother is still out there, speaking quietly with Rey, both of them concerned about him. They’re both angry with him, too. The usual combination. But Ren can’t do anything about the fact that he’s disappointed them and that he’s fated to do so again and again. He can write a letter to Hux. A letter which will further his plan to trust Hux with certain facts about Snoke, in a way that will bind them together in their hatred of Snoke and channel their combined energy toward Snoke’s defeat.

Observation, gleaned from Rey earlier, unintentionally: Finn will be over later to pick Rey up for a date.

Objectives: Write the letter. Give it to Finn, who will convey it to Hux.

Reminder: Nothing else matters. Only Hux. There is a chance, as long as Hux lives, that Ren might be laughed at or snapped at or called an idiot to his face, but also still needed and wanted so much that it will again make his bones sing with the kind of heady, life-changing power that he once foolishly thought Snoke’s adulation might bring. Hux truly needed Ren, truly saw him, and wanted him even more than Snoke wants to use Ren to live forever. Ren might again have a sense of purpose that not only motivates him but coats every inch of him, the only redemption that now matters, and only Hux can return it to him.

He writes the letter, frenzied but relieved to find that it’s working, distracting him from all else, though his handwriting is worse than usual. He’s bearing down too hard on the paper; he almost rips it twice. Confident now that Hux received his first letter and read it, he starts a second page when he’s done with the first, and he’s nearly filled both when something breaks his concentration.

His mother: She’s on the move. Coming to his room? Leaving altogether?

Observation: No. She’s walking out to the patio. Holding a beer that Rey fetched for her. Embracing Wedge.

Ren holds the pen above the paper, wishing he hadn’t been coming nearly to the conclusion as he sensed Leia’s relocation. He could write more, maybe in a long PS, but Leia is talking to Wedge, and Ren can’t resist listening in through the Force, though he dreads their inevitable discussion of how unsavable Ren remains. Surely even Wedge must feel it now.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Leia says to Wedge. “He feels safe here. I sensed it. I don’t even think Rey could give him that if she tried.”

“Oh, I haven’t really done anything,” Wedge says. “In fact, he’s been cooking for me.”

“It’s not what you’ve done, it’s how you are. He can sense that you’re not judging him, and that means everything right now. You have a real talent for compassion. I wish it could be bottled and served to people who need more of it.”

Like me, Ren thinks, but when he narrows his concentration he realizes she’s thinking of herself, and of the Committee members who want revenge more than justice.

Wedge laughs and dismisses this, as if his potential for compassion is something that everyone has. This is something he seems to actually believe. He drinks from his beer bottle. Leia drinks from hers, and they both look out at the city. Rey is getting ready for her date, cautiously monitoring Ren’s feedback as she takes down her hair. He shuts her out as best he can and refocuses on his mother’s conversation with Wedge.

“He’s a special kid,” Wedge says. “Though I guess he’s not really a kid anymore. I hate to see what’s been done to him, how that monster tried to twist him.”

“Snoke is beyond a monster,” Leia says, her voice flattening in a way that makes Wedge uneasy. “My father was a monster, for a time. So twisted by the dark side that he didn’t even recognize me. But goodness can hide even in monsters. There’s nothing like that in Snoke. He’s beyond anything we could understand as people who feel compassion. There was a part of me that thought Hux would be like that-- That he would just be blank, like a personified greed that had sucked power from every vulnerable source for as long as it could, nothing more.”

“But he was different?” Wedge prompts when Leia goes quiet. “I know he means something to Ben, but it’s hard to see anything of the real person behind the screaming in that speech they keep showing on the news.”

Leia hums under her breath. Ren listens, waiting. She must know he’s hearing this.

“He’s been through a lot,” Leia says, muttering this as if she resents having to admit it.

“Ben?” Wedge says.

“No-- Hux, the General. It’s surreal to hear myself say that about someone who’s done what he’s done, but I felt it when I met with him at that prison, and even today. It can be hard to remember that people like that were children once. That they were introduced to evil, and taught that they would have to emulate it if they hoped to survive it. But I think of Ben-- I think of what his enemies must have seen when he stalked toward them in that mask. Certainly not someone who had once been a child. Someone who had once crawled into his mother’s arms after a bad dream.”

Wedge drinks from his beer and turns away, trying to hide the sudden dampness in his eyes.

Feedback from Wedge, hitting Ren hard because his mother senses it precisely as he does: Wedge is imagining Rey on Jakku, five years old and having a bad dream, no one there to comfort her when she woke.

“It’s okay to be angry about what happened to Rey,” Leia says. Her voice is tight, but she’s not on the verge of tears like Wedge. It’s hard for her to admit that her son is culpable for what Snoke led him to do, and especially for how Ben was forced to save Rey by abandoning her, when he believed there was no other choice.

“I’m not angry at Ben,” Wedge says, wiping at the corner of his eye with his sleeve.

Feedback from Wedge: It’s true, somehow, still. Even in this moment.

Feedback from Leia: She’s surprised, too.

“Luke will come back,” Leia says, maybe just to change the subject. Wedge turns to her, his eyes widening. “It’s true,” she says. “Just like I told you when Rey disappeared. I knew we’d see her again. We’ll see Luke again, too. I don’t think it will take fifteen years this time. Though who am I to say I can predict exactly what Luke will do.” She scoffs and drinks from her beer. “I couldn’t even predict how Han would react to this kind of trauma. Though I feel now like I should have.”

“Oh-- Leia, I meant to send you a note, about Han, there were so many people at the memorial, I didn’t get to--”

“No-- please. Don’t do that. You’re taking care of our son in a way that even I can’t manage right now. There’s no better way to honor Han’s memory than what you’ve done for us already-- What you’ve done for Ben. Certainly a condolence card wouldn’t have been better.”

“I--”

“Have you talked with Rey about Luke?” Leia asks, almost sharply, telling him without saying it outright she doesn’t want to talk more about Han.

“Um.” Wedge drinks, frowns, nods. “Yeah, I. Asked her how Luke was doing.”

“And what did she say?”

“She hasn’t told you about her time with him?”

“Rey and I haven’t gotten to talk as much as I’d like. We had a few days together before she left to find Luke, but her memories were so scrambled, I didn’t want to overwhelm her. And since she’s been back, well. A lot is going on, as you know.”

“Right, of course. Uh, well.” Wedge laughs and looks down at his beer bottle. He’s nervous, or embarrassed: both. “She seems to think he still loves me, so. But that might just be her being gentle with me.”

“Wedge, you must know--”

“I don’t have the Force at my disposal. I feel like that means I don’t know much.”

“Luke made you feel that way, sometimes.”

“Well, yeah. And now Rey, and Ben, and even you-- You all have this sense of things that makes me feel like I’m ten steps behind-- But I can’t-- I don’t mean to complain, I shouldn’t-- I’m complaining about this petty nonsense when you’re going through something real. I’m sorry.”

“You’re going through something real, too,” Leia says, firmly enough to get him to look up at her.

Observation: Ren always admired this about his mother and still does. She can admonish people for not admitting the truth of their feelings with just the right amount of authority balanced with sympathy. This makes them truly listen to her and reconsider what they’ve said. Ren tends to lean too much on authority, which not infrequently gives way to outright aggression. People tend to not listen, therefore, when he corrects them. Unless he forces them to.

“I miss him,” Wedge admits, as if Leia has yanked this out of him. Coaxed, maybe, would be a better way to put it. She hugs her arm around Wedge’s waist.

“He’ll come back,” she says. “I don’t have much confidence in my ability to see the future, but I’ve always known three things. That Ben would come back to us, that Rey would come back to us, and that Luke would, too.”

Wedge nods and looks up at the few stars that are visible against the light pollution that the city throws off: the brightest ones, two of them actually distant planets.

“I believe you,” he says.

Feedback from Wedge, again arriving in Ren’s mind just as it does in Leia’s: It’s true. Wedge has always believed that Luke will come back to him. It’s a belief that has gone a long way toward keeping Wedge going during the worst stretches of loneliness, even when his search for Rey seemed hopeless.

“I love him so much,” Leia says, following Wedge’s gaze upward.

Observation, childish and stubborn: She must be talking about Luke.

Observations, actual: It’s true that she’s not talking about Ben, though she does still love him, too. She’s talking now about Ren. The dark figure who crouched in the corner of Wedge’s living room. The person who annoyed her with his attempts to scold her about the Force. The person who fled like a coward as soon as he sensed she might truly judge him. The person who killed Han Solo. That person is someone she loves. Him. So much, she said.

“I know,” Wedge says, and he puts his arm around her shoulders.

He does know. Feedback is clear. Even from Wedge, who has no Force sensitivity. Even he knows she’s talking about Ren.

Ren signs the letter to Hux. He folds the two pieces of paper up and sits staring at them. Wedge and Leia are quiet now. Rey is worried about him, waiting to feel his feedback again. Ren closes his eyes and tries to send his mind away from all of them, to the south, to Hux. He can’t. Too much has happened, or he’s still too weak. Hux remains elsewhere, unreachable. Maybe they will dream together again tonight.

He feels it when his mother prepares to leave. Wedge has asked her to stay for dinner, but she’s sensed that Ren needs space, that he wasn’t really ready for this, and she has an appointment with one of her advisors in an hour anyway. She’s walking to the door. Hugging Rey in the foyer. Lingering hopefully while the other two give her excuses to stay just a bit longer, a bit longer: small talk. Wedge and Rey are good at it, both keeping the subjects light while they wait to see what Ren will do.

Objective: Determine what to do next. Quickly.

Observation: Can’t. Frozen in place.

Leia passes through the front door and greets the Resistance guards who stand outside. They don’t know why she’s come here, beyond the stated reason: a family visit. Rey and Wedge are Leia’s family. The guards don’t know that Ren is here. They don’t know that he was Kylo, and Ben. Few people do, as she said.

Wait.

He says this in his head, without meaning to. Leia pauses on the stairs that lead down to the waiting transport, one guard ahead of her and one behind. He knows she heard it differently, that his almost-wordless begging didn’t sound like Wait in her mind. It sounded more like Mom, the way Ben had said it when they were in a shop together and he wanted to show her something, usually for the purpose of asking her to buy it for him. Ben was always wanting something. His biggest failure at the Jedi Academy, prior to what Snoke used him to do, was his inability to stop wanting things all the time, and not just toys and candy: approval, praise, reassurance, adoration. Power.

Feedback from Leia, sent directly: I’ll come back soon. If you’d like me to.

Yes. Please. Okay.

Further, softer, but so clear that he feels as if she’s standing behind him when she says it, her hands on his shoulders: Goodnight, sweetheart.

From Rey, as soon as Leia is riding away in her official transport: Shall I come in?

“No,” he says, unintentionally aloud. I’m okay.

He can feel Rey searching his mind in an attempt to verify this, and he allows it. It’s true. He feels lighter. Not good, but not bad. It’s as if he’s set down something he’d been carrying. He’ll have to pick it up again; he knows that. But for now it’s out of his hands.

Night falls. Rey checks Ren’s feedback three more times before leaving for her date with Finn. Ren remains in his bedroom. He’ll give Finn the letter for Hux when they return. For now, it feels better to get into bed with the letter and hold it against his chest. This paper will soon be with Hux. Maybe Hux will be able to smell Ren on these pages if Ren holds onto them long enough. Hux liked the scent of him, once. He even found comfort in it.

Wedge hydrates an instant flatbread for dinner. Ren joins him and eats two pieces, though it tastes like cardboard. They don’t talk much or turn on the holo. Ren appreciates the quiet.

“I think Finn’s a good guy,” Wedge says. “I’m sure you would tell me if you’d sensed otherwise?”

“Rey would sense it herself.”

“Oh, right, well. Can’t romantic feelings for someone cloud your judgment about them, though?”

“I don’t know.” Ren considers it, staring down at the crumbs on his plate. They’re sitting in the kitchen, at the table. “I only ever felt those things for one person, and I already knew what he was like.”

Which is to say: not a good guy, at least not according to Wedge’s definition. Ren looks up at Wedge. He’s thinking about Luke.

“Luke used to think about you all the time,” Ren says, hoping this will be comforting. He returns his gaze to his plate when Wedge looks at him. “When I was Luke’s student, I used to taunt him for it. For how often he thought about you.”

“Well. Those were the old days.”

“He still-- On the island. He thinks he destroyed you. It’s what keeps him there.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Wedge says, his voice rising as if he’s talking to Luke. “He can’t sense that I’m fine?”

“You weren’t fine, before Rey came back. And you’re still-- Not, really.”

Ren glances up at Wedge, apologetically, but Wedge isn’t looking at him now.

“Leia says Luke will be back,” Wedge says. He stands and holds his empty plate, doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. “I guess I can understand why he’s afraid to return. I don’t know what it would be like, if he did come back. Maybe it would be too hard.”

Wedge puts his plate in the sink and leaves the kitchen, patting Ren’s head on his way out. Ren remains at the table, still hungry but too wrung out to cook anything.

Observations, curling in his gut like a stomachache: He made Wedge feel bad. He shouldn’t have done that. Not everybody wants to hear the truth about themselves. Not everybody deserves to be exposed, when they’re trying to hide something from others.

Ren slumps into his room and tries to sleep. When he can’t, his mind still racing as he obsessively categorizes and re-categorizes everything his mother said and did today, he picks up one of Luke’s books. He sits in bed and pages through it listlessly, the letter to Hux tucked inside his shirt, resting against his skin, hopefully absorbing something that Hux will want to have. Meanwhile, the book in Ren’s lap smells faintly terrible, like a tomb that contains corpses which have long ago gone to bone but still give off a hint of decay. He has some doubts about that code-breaking program his mother mentioned helping them with deciphering these books, which seem almost like living things. Luke should be here. He could help with this, with many things, if he would allow himself to imagine for even a moment that he still has the ability to do anything but inadvertently ruin everything.

As soon as Ren senses Rey and Finn on the stairs outside he’s up and pushing the book aside, regretting that he placed its flaking leather cover on his bedsheets but unable to wait; he can’t miss Finn, can’t wait another full day to get this letter on its way to Hux. He’s tried not to think too much about whether a letter from Hux will make it back to him anytime soon, or ever. Finn doesn’t have one for him tonight: he’s sensed that much already. He puts it out of his head, again, when he throws open the door of the apartment so abruptly that Rey wheels backward and Finn curses under his breath, moving as if to protect her.

“Hi,” Ren says. “I have a--” He makes himself pause, taking in their expressions, which go from startled to annoyed. “I mean. How was your evening.”

“Are you going to let us inside?” Rey asks.

Feedback from Rey: Continued annoyance, overlaid with sympathy when she thinks of Ren having spent the night mostly alone after the encounter with Leia, renewed doubt about whether she should have allowed him to do that, and a measure of understanding when she notices the letter in Ren’s hand.

“Of course you can come inside,” Ren says, stepping out of their way. “Please. Enter.”

“Thanks,” Finn says uncertainly, looking Ren over. “But I’ve got to get going. I’ve got a shift on the base.”

“I see.” Ren holds the letter out. “Please convey that to Hux at your earliest opportunity. Thank you.”

“Right,” Finn says. He glances at Rey without taking the letter. They’re concealing something from him. “Gonna give him his present first?” Finn asks.

“Yes,” Rey says, holding up a shopping bag. “We got something for you, pertaining to your letters.” She sets the bag down near the pots that still conceal the discarded binders and pulls out a box. Ren stares at it, confused. By most definitions, he hasn’t been sleeping well, and his mental processes are beginning to fuzz into inefficiency. Even his Force-centered intuition feels flimsy, worn thin.

“Stationary?” he says, taking the box.

“Envelopes,” Rey says. “Nice, official-looking ones. So that when he gets these letters they’ll look like important court business. Or something like that. Just in case.”

Ren holds his letter to Hux in one hand and the box of envelopes in the other. He looks from Rey to Finn and back to Rey. They spent part of their evening buying him a present.

“We thought you might need some cheering up,” Rey says when she senses Ren’s inability to fully process this. She’s changed her hair again, wearing it in a simple braid now. “And it’s practical,” she says, gesturing to the box of envelopes when Ren just goes on staring at her. “So go on. Put your letter in one of those, and Finn will get it to Hux for you.”

It’s strange to even hear her say Hux’s name. Ren does as she asked, feeling awkward. The envelopes they purchased for him are stiff and pale blue. He wonders who paid for them: does Finn even have an account for the accumulation of credits? Does Rey? When the letter is safely concealed inside an envelope, he passes it to Finn.

“Thank you,” Ren says, hoping that he can convey this properly with mere words and intonation, as Finn can’t otherwise sense the sincerity in Ren’s feedback. Finn nods and tucks the letter into his jacket. Ren dislikes the thought that it will probably only smell like Finn and like the fine paper of the envelope by the time it reaches Hux, but he can’t do anything about that.

“It’s no problem,” Finn says. He glances at Rey, and she smiles. “I’m glad to help, and his lawyer’s office is close to the base.”

“Who is this lawyer?” Ren asks. “Tell me about him.”

“Finn has to hurry back to the base or he’ll be late for his shift,” Rey says. She stares up at Ren, communicating something without wanting to say it aloud. She wants Ren to go inside so she can kiss Finn goodnight.

“Fine,” Ren says, annoyed that he won’t be able to grill Finn for information until perhaps tomorrow. “Okay. I’ll be inside,” he adds, looking at Finn, who raises his eyebrows.

“Great,” Finn says. “Thanks for the reminder.”

Ren sits on the sofa in the dark and waits. He keeps his mind clear of Rey’s feedback, imagining how much he would not like her to know exactly how he felt while kissing Hux, which is still something that could happen again someday. He only senses that she’s happy when she walks in a few minutes later.

“My dad’s in bed?” she asks, dropping onto the sofa beside Ren.

“Yes. We talked about Luke. I may have said some things I shouldn’t have.”

“Hmm.” Rey looks down at the box of envelopes, which Ren is holding in his lap. “Well, maybe he needs to confront his feelings about Luke a bit more than he’s willing to. How are you?” she asks, squeezing Ren’s arm. “Do you want to talk about today? About Leia?”

“No. Maybe tomorrow. Except-- When she was talking to Wedge, I listened in.”

“Of course you did.” Rey shrugs when Ren gives her a look. She doesn’t seem to be judging him for this, exactly. She’s just not surprised.

“She mentioned my grandfather,” Ren says. “She said he could be a monster-- That he had been, once. That he hadn’t recognized her. She’d never told me that. She never talked about him with me except to say that she hadn’t known him as he really was. I took that to mean that she hadn’t known Vader. Not the real Vader, who was incomprehensible to her.”

“But she didn’t mean Vader, of course,” Rey says. “She meant Anakin Skywalker.”

“His previous form, yes.”

“Mhm. His real name, you mean.”

“No. You can have more than one name. You can evolve.”

“You think Vader was an evolution of Anakin? I don’t think Luke would use that term, exactly.”

“Did Luke talk to you about Vader?”

Rey shook her head. “I think it’s a painful subject,” she says. “And you know how Luke is about those.”

“Then how--”

“Because I can sense things, Ben. I don’t need to hear everything out loud. I’m getting-- I think I’m getting better at it, too. I think those books might be helping.”

Ren frowns at her, concerned. She shrugs. Nothing will break through the giddiness that she’s trying to hide from him. Her first night out on the town with her-- Whatever Finn is. Her chosen companion.

“Just tell me about your stupid date,” Ren says, looking away from her. “We’ll talk about consequential matters in the morning.”

“You’re such a shit,” Rey says, but she’s laughing, squeezing his arm again. “It was actually quite overwhelming at times, you know? Just wandering around the city, free to do what we pleased. All the lights and the noise made me jumpy, and the people-- Being in a crowded shop or walking on a busy street, all the feedback dumped into you at once as you pass everyone by. It was exhilarating, but a bit frightening, at times.”

“Yeah,” Ren says. “When Snoke first brought me aboard a Star Destroyer-- the stormtroopers and the officers, all their idiotic thoughts, all that noise after years of quiet. Just walking through the halls would give me a headache. You get used to it. You learn to block everything out unless it’s useful to you.”

“Finn was a bit overwhelmed, too,” Rey says. “He didn’t say so, but of course I could tell. For him it’s just being able to do what he wants. He kept looking to me, asking if everything was okay, what I wanted to do, where we should go next. That’s how we ended up buying you a present.”

“I’m shocked that it wasn’t his idea.”

Rey grins and releases Ren’s arm, punches his shoulder. Her feedback is almost visibly ecstatic, like a glow. For all her talk of being overwhelmed: she loved it. Just being presented with a selection of envelopes and picking out which box to buy was a thrill. They’d watched part of a public play at the open-air amphitheatre near the city center, ate street food, sat near some fountain with rather pedestrian lighting they both found beautiful and talked for a long time, more entertained by each other than by the play they’d walked out on.

“It was a good day,” Rey says, wistful, only half-talking to Ren. “Wasn’t it?” she asks when she’s refocused her attention on him. She asking about how things went with Leia, inquiring as to his ultimate assessment.

“It wasn’t the worst day,” Ren says.

“Well, that’s progress. I like to think we’ve both already had our worst day. It would be a hard worst day to top, ours.”

She’s thinking of the day of the massacre, also the day Ren left her on Jakku. Ren grunts, disliking this statement that it would be hard for them to get lower. It feels like tempting fate, or something worse: like a point of weakness that Snoke might exploit, this blithe hope spoken at a late hour after a long day.

In bed, he tries to imagine having the freedom that Rey and Finn enjoyed on their date: walking around the city with Hux, purchasing whatever they liked, indulging in idle talk while people passed obliviously by. That will never happen. Few people in the galaxy will be able to forget Hux’s face by the time the sentencing hearing concludes. His hearing will be broadcast to even the most distant planets, and the First Order territories will certainly manage to find a way to illicitly view it as well. Hux will be forever infamous. He will never walk freely through any city on a populated planet that is home to such things as a shop with boxes of envelopes and fountains with stupid light shows that blink from behind the water features.

But it doesn’t matter. There are other planets. Ren would live in a dry cave on a deserted outer rim world in the unknown regions if it meant Hux could live there with him. He closes his eyes and pushes away a reminder of what his mother said, that she will not stand by and let him take Hux away from here by whatever means necessary. So he will have to break her heart, again, by saving Hux.

Objective: Don’t dwell on things that can’t be changed.

Objective, the only one that has a chance of succeeding with how tired he feels now: Find Hux in his dreams. Give him another handful of black buttons, if that’s what he wants. Give Hux whatever he needs, however possible, for now.

Working his way into Hux’s dreams requires more energy than he realized. It’s impossible tonight, with Ren's mind so relentlessly unsettled, and he remains confined to own dreams, which are dark. They don’t feel like visions, but they don't feel inconsequential. He dreams that he’s on the beach below the house on the cliff, on the rocks, reaching into a tidepool and finding a bony hand that grabs him and pulls him in, headfirst, down a long, dark tunnel. He dreams that he’s suspended in the air between the snow-topped mountains and that Tower, frozen, unable to reach Hux or free himself from this constriction, because he reached too far and lost too much of himself in his effort. Finally, he dreams of a woman with wide hips and long, dark hair. She has olive skin that is almost-green tinted. Ren has never seen her before, but he knows her. She walks ahead of him through an endless darkness, laughing under her breath. She’s leading him someplace where he doesn’t want to go, but he can’t stop following, because she has something he needs.

Abruptly, when her steps have slowed and Ren has almost reached her, she turns back to him and smiles. It’s a bitter, mocking smile, and though her face is beautiful, the sight of it horrifies him. She’s got a scar like his, slashed from her jaw to her forehead, a diagonal line. As he watches, a kind of menacing buzz building slowly in the dark around them, she puts her finger against her jaw, at the bottom of her scar, and draws it upward, toward her forehead. The scar disappears under her fingertip as she traces it.

“Healer,” she says, hurling this at Ren like a slur, and when she throws her head back to laugh at him the buzz around them becomes a violent wall of sound that feels solid and seems to shake the very darkness around them, unraveling every molecule. It’s a noise like a weapon, something that could upend an entire universe. Ren’s vision blurs as the dark-haired woman opens her laughing mouth wide enough to become the darkness around them, pulling him in between her slicing teeth as she swallows him.

He wakes to an unnerving physical calm. His heart is not pounding. His skin is not coated with sweat. The sun shines through the privacy screen on the window. He’s slept long past dawn.

Ren sits up in bed. He scoots back against the wall when he sees something under the blankets. A sizable lump: the book he paged through last night, before Rey returned from her date. He never removed it from the bed before collapsing here for sleep. It seems like an impossible oversight, but he can’t seriously consider the alternative, that the book somehow came to him in the night, pulled into the bed by his subconscious use of the Force or some other, more insidious presence.

He sits staring at it, wary of touching it or even moving the blanket to expose it to the light in the room. He’ll consult with Rey about the unsettling dream, but there is one thing he may not tell her. Something was blocking him from reaching Hux. That woman with the dark hair-- She was some kind of symbol, and whatever she represents jailed him in his own mind, keeping him from Hux’s dreams.

Theory, fairly indisputable: Snoke is behind this. He’s regaining his power after his failed attack. It will return to him rapidly now, as it did after Ren saved Rey.

Ren suspects he shouldn’t feel encouraged by this, but he can’t shake the feeling that it’s a good sign. Snoke attacked Hux in the house in the cliff, likely wanting him dead so that Ren would be completely alone, either dependant upon Snoke again or so defeated that he would offer his body to Snoke for the taking, finished with it himself. That objective for Snoke has passed, however. Ren will never relent to him: Snoke knows that now. The body Snoke still needs, this living battleground where all Snoke’s careful groundwork has been laid, will only be taken by force. And still something keeps Ren from Hux, even within his mind.

Conclusion: Hux is important, beyond Ren’s desire to be with him. He’s a real source of strength. Something that will matter a great deal before all of this comes to a head.

Objective: Get back to Hux as soon as possible. In dreams, for now. Far enough from the reach of Snoke’s hands, should something go wrong, but close enough to communicate with.

Ren closes his eyes and concentrates on the location of his letter to Hux. To his annoyance, he finds that it is still with Finn, whose shift on the base won’t end for another hour. When it does, however, Finn will go to that lawyer. The lawyer will go to Hux: today, in fact, for some important trial business. Hux will read the letter. After Ren’s words have strengthened Hux, Ren will find him again in his dreams.

Nothing will stop him this time.

Observation: He’s not afraid anymore. The dream did not terrify him as it was meant to. It’s invigorated him. Snoke has underestimated how ready Ren has been, for so long, for the real fight. Snoke destroyed Ben and created Kylo. All he’s ever done to Ren is underestimate him.

Ren uncovers the book on his bed and stares down at it. There is much work to be done. Rey’s consciousness flits against his, sent from the kitchen, where she’s having breakfast with Wedge.

Feedback from Rey, directly, relieved: You’re finally awake.

Yes, Ren sends. To her, and to anyone else who may be listening. I finally am.

 

 

**

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My reaction? To what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m confused,” Jek says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you remember her specifically?” Jek asks.

“Yes, very.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Hux,” she says. “You may sit.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Told-- By whom?”

“By Chief Justice Botta.”

“Why was I not present for this discussion?”

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

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

“We are,” Dora says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And where were you born, Mr. Hux?”

“On a starship.”

“Please be more specific. Which starship?”

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

“And this was an Imperial ship, correct?”

“Yes.”

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

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

“And your mother?”

“She held no official rank.”

“But she considered herself an Imperial subject?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please describe a typical school day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean by that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Hux says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uncommon? No.”

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“How so, Mr. Hux?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

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

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

“I suppose you could say that.”

“Is that a yes, Mr. Hux?”

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

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

“Sure.”

“Please answer with a yes or a no.”

“Yes.”

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

“I don’t think so, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that’s a no,” Faza says.

“No.”

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

“In the past, yes.”

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

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

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

“Certainly. Who hasn’t?”

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

“Yes.”

“Can you tell us what that is?”

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I never noticed anything like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I object to the question,” Jek says.

“On what grounds?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“That’s correct.”

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

“Kylo Ren did.”

“Really. Is Kylo Ren a medical doctor?”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“The Force.”

“That’s what I said.”

“And where is Kylo Ren now?”

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

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

“No.”

Jek has gone very still as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I meant--”

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

“Which was what?”

“Survive, survive, survive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess it was fine.”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“For what?”

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

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

“I’m afraid to ask.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two things, actually.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s hope so. Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could show you something,” Ren says.

“How tempting.”

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

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

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

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

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

Ren glances at him, frowns slightly, looks away.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ren?”

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

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

“Who are you?” the boy asks.

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

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

“Who are you?” Ben asks again.

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

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

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

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

“No? Not even to Snoke?”

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

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

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

“You’re lying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What-- No, stay, please, I need--”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

**

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Having a run?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm.”

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

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

“Does that not make sense?” Rey asks.

Feedback from Rey: Confidence faltering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What else does it feel like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s here on behalf of Hux.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my name,” Ren says, sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it was a matter of mutual sympathy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what has she said? About Hux?”

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

“What has Hux said about her arrival?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ben,” Rey says, softly.

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

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

“What reason?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice?” Rey says.

“Well, illuminating.”

“Oh. Good!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please--”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Finn is above taking a bribe?”

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

“Which is what?”

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

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

Rey gives Ren a look.

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

“Which will make Hux look bad.”

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

“Finn wasn’t.”

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

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

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

Objective, probably unwise: Imagine what Hux would say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental adjustment, more useful: Ren already knew that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hux--”

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

“Hux!”

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

“Look at me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t worry, it’s not my blood.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. I suppose not.”

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

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

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

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

Hux rolls his eyes. Ren frowns.

“What? You did.”

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

“Briefly.”

“And how did that go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What-- Defeating Snoke?”

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

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

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

“He’s here?”

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

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

“But. Last night. You kissed me--”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no-- No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?”

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

“What’s all my doing?”

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

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

“Spoken like a true child.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

**

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s too short,” Elana says. She shrugs one shoulder when Hux cuts his eyes to hers. “But not bad. I always liked your hair longer. He has beautiful hair, really,” Elana says, to Jek, who raises his eyebrows and doesn’t seem to know how to proceed. “I might have let him grow it to his shoulders if Brendol hadn’t considered that high treason.”

“I detest long hair on men,” Hux says, thinking of Ren. Normally it’s true. He tried to detest it on Ren, anyhow.

“Well, you may not look like your father in person,” Elana says, staring at him again. “But you’re doing your best to sound just like him, for some reason.” She turns to Jek and lifts her cigarette. “Shall I tap the ashes onto the table, or do you have something I can use?”

“Oh!” Jek goes to his data case and begins rummaging around. “I did actually bring a little ashtray, thinking of Hux--”

“Please don’t speak to my attorney like he’s a waiter,” Hux says.

“He doesn’t mind,” Elana says, catching the ashtray that Jek slides across the table. “This is some lawyer you have, Elan. Top quality. He picked me up from the station and bought me a meal at the hotel bar-- The kitchen was closing, but he convinced them to stay open and cook something for me.”

“Fucking hell,” Hux mutters, watching her ash her cigarette. “He’s married, Elana.”

“Oh,” Jek says, laughing uncomfortably. “She didn’t meant it like that.”

“Of course not,” Elana says. She tugs at Hux’s arm until he meets her eyes again. She doesn’t seem perturbed by the fact that he’s snarling, or that he goes tense under her touch when she squeezes his bicep. “I meant to say it’s a good sign,” she says, her eyes suddenly wet, though she still looks pleased with herself. “This is someone who is good at convincing people to do what he wants,” she says, gesturing to Jek without looking away from Hux. “I wouldn’t have thought so when I first saw him. But surprising charm is the most valuable kind, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Hux yanks his arm free and scoots his chair away from hers. “Can we get on with it?” he asks, nearly shouting this at Jek, who looks pitiful with the reflection of the holo fish sliding across his saddened expression.

“Sure,” Jek says, clearing his throat.

Hux rolls his eyes. If Jek gets emotional at any point during this meeting, Hux will be tempted to fire him.

“Aren’t you going to ask if we talked about you?” Elana asks, giving Hux that unashamed, overly intense stare again. He wonders if her eyesight has gotten bad. “You don’t want to know if I discussed you with your lawyer while I ate this meal?”

“Stop interrupting,” Hux says, still overly loud and still unable to change this. “My fucking life is on the line here, in case you hadn’t realized.”

“Of course I realized.”

“Really. Because you seem to be pretty amused by this whole proceeding so far. Since when do you have a sense of humor?”

“When did I make a joke?”

Hux refuses to respond. He drags on his cigarette and blows the smoke that he exhales toward the fish on the simu-screen, watching it cloud the projected light that comprises them.

“Okay,” Jek says when he’s allowed them to sit in strange silence for long enough, apparently, according to his calculations. “So, like we talked about, we’re going to go over some questions that I’ll be asking Elana first, and then we can speculate about what the prosecutor might ask in her cross exam.”

“I saw her on the news,” Elana says, tapping ashes. “A Twi’lek girl.”

“Yes, she’s-- Hux did very well when she deposed him.”

“So let’s hear it,” Hux says, annoyed that his mother has managed to sidetrack things again, already. “What’s your first question for her?”

“He’s always been very particular about keeping to schedule,” Elana says, as if to apologize to Jek for Hux’s tone. “Gets that from his father. I was sorry to hear about Brendol’s passing, by the way.” She moves her chair closer to Hux’s as she says so, and peers at him as if he’s expected to believe she’s sincere.

“I’m sure you wept buckets,” Hux says.

“Of course not, but I was sad for you. I know you cared about him. I would have come to see you if I could have, after. Do you believe that?”

“No.”

“So, um,” Jek says when silence descends again. “First question, right, okay. Let’s just go through the whole thing-- Please state your name for the record?”

“Elana Levchen Hux.”

“And Levchen is your maiden name, correct?”

“That’s right.”

“Can you tell us a little bit about your life prior to your marriage to Brendol Hux?”

“Well, I was a child. I was a child when I married Brendol, too, and when I had our son, though I wouldn’t have said so at the time.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Hux says. “You were twenty years old when you had me, and you’d married my father the year before.”

“Are you not old enough yet to see a nineteen-year-old as a child? Perhaps some people are quite worldly and grown-up at that age. Perhaps you were. Some people are children well into their twenties. Some people manage to be children all their lives.”

“Listen to yourself,” Hux says, thinking of Ren. “You’re going to philosophize like this during my hearing, on the stand? You think that’s what will help me, this navel-gazing bullshit?”

“Hey, okay,” Jek says. “She’s doing fine so far. It’s actually good to mention how young she was when she married and had you, and even to frame it this way. It fits the narrative of how she lost her agency as a mother.”

Hux stares at Jek, his eyebrows lifting.

“Lost her agency?” Hux asks, hating that he can feel his mother’s eyes on his face while he stares at Jek in disbelief. “Is that what she told you? I seem to recall that she grew increasingly bored with motherhood and then fucked off to do something more interesting when she found out my father was sleeping with one of his students.”

“I told you,” Elana says, speaking to Jek. “He won’t listen to me.”

“Let’s try to keep the interjections to a minimum for now,” Jek says. He’s addressing this to Hux, who feels inordinately betrayed. Jek is taking her side. Figures. “And Elana, let’s back up a bit. I’d like you to talk about what your childhood was like.”

“Oh, it was happy,” she says. Hux has heard this part before. “Until my mother fell ill. That was when I left school, when I was sixteen, to help care for her. I intended to go back-- The women in my family were educated. But her illness dragged on for years. By the time she was gone, I’d lost interest, and then Brendol appeared.”

“Would you say you married Commandant Hux out of love?”

“No, certainly not.”

“What’s that got to do with my character?” Hux asks, too sharply. Answering his own question, he supposes. “I mean, she’s a character witness, is she not?” he asks when they both stare at him. “If you’re trying to say the quality of my parents’ marriage shaped me somehow-- It didn’t.”

“Just trust me on this,” Jek says. “This is the kind of context people want to have when they’re learning about someone’s life.”

“He’s sensitive about this father,” Elana says.

“That’s not true at all!”

“So would you say you were pressured into the marriage?” Jek asks, ignoring Hux and typing notes into his data pad. Elana shakes her head when Jek looks up, frowning as if she’s insulted by the notion.

“There is a story behind my marriage to Brendol,” she says. “It has little to do with Brendol himself, however.”

“Explain?” Jek says, looking up. Hux stares at the surface of the table and keeps his expression as neutral as possible, though this isn’t being recorded. It’s not even on the official record. Just practice for the horror of the real thing.

“There was a kind of civil war on my home planet when I was home caring for my mother, during her illness,” Elana says. Hux knows this part, too, but isn’t sure what it has to do with his parents’ marriage. “My father was an overlord in a town that was struggling with various factions-- Both Imperial, but far enough from the seat of the Emperor’s power to have their own ideas about how best to serve him. Stormtroopers occupied the town when I was eighteen, overseen by Imperial officers. They kidnapped my father, because there was a rumor that he was cooperating with the rival faction. This kind of thing went on all the time under Imperial rule, on the less populated planets. There were bigger fish for the Emperor to fry, so he kept out of it.”

“You’re editorializing a bit,” Hux says, muttering this around the end of his cigarette. He can feel her staring at him again, but he keeps his eyes on the simu-screen.

“I’m telling my story,” Elana says. “It’s more true than whatever they taught you at your father’s school, I assure you.”

The mention of the Academy makes Hux’s face hot. He shrugs one shoulder.

“Please,” Jek says, maybe to rescue Hux from the silence that follows. “Continue.”

“Most people had left town during this period,” Elana says. “But my mother was in the local hospital, and I went to see her every day. When these stormtroopers kidnapped my father and took him away for reprogramming, they held me hostage on our estate. I was his incentive to cooperate, you see.”

“I didn’t know this,” Hux says, turning to her. “Was my father one of the kidnappers?”

“No, no. This was a local skirmish, far beneath even Brendol’s notice. He was elsewhere, already in charge of his school. Already married, already a father.”

“How long were you held hostage?” Jek asks.

“Five days.” She drags on the cigarette and tips her chin away from Hux when she exhales. “You wouldn’t know it now, but I was a very beautiful girl at the time. The men who held us hostage were small time officers. They were scarcely more than stormtroopers themselves, but they wore uniforms and had an advanced sense of entitlement. Pretty early into this, they started to have ideas about how they might entertain themselves while they waited for their superior officers to return. I suppose you can imagine?”

Hux’s heart is beating too fast. He’ll leave. If she’s implying-- They can’t make him listen to more of this.

“They-- You were attacked?” Jek asks.

“No,” Elana says, the clarity of her answer returning the breath to Hux’s lungs. “I would have been, I’m sure, but one of the stormtroopers who was supposed to be guarding the doors of the house sensed what was going to happen if someone didn’t intervene. He protected me. My father was a paranoid man, or perhaps not, since it had come to this-- There was an armored panic room in the attic of the house. A lot of good it had done us when they ambushed us, but when this stormtrooper asked if there was someplace where I could hide from these men, I told him about this place, desperate to be protected from that other fate. I thought he might be taking me there because he wanted me for himself, but no. He protected me there, until my father was returned.”

“Oh.” Jek looks confused. Hux can sympathize. “And then what happened?”

“What happened next is not the point, Mr. Porkins.”

“What is the point, Elana?” Hux asks, furious with her for scaring him like that. As if it would mean anything now, or about what had happened to Hux at school, if she had been less lucky. She ashes her cigarette and doesn’t look at him.

“The point is that I was in this hiding place with that stormtrooper for almost four days,” she says. “And of course he had to remove his helmet, you know, so he could drink and eat from the provisions this room was stocked with. And after he had removed the helmet, he left it off, of course, because why wouldn’t he? He had already defied his superior officers. He wouldn’t take the rest of his armor off, though, aside from his gloves. Even when I begged him to. He said he would need it if the others found a way in, and that he would want to be wearing it if he had to fight them off.”

“I don’t understand,” Jek says. “You begged him to take his armor off?”

“She fell in love with him,” Hux says, snapping this angrily at Jek. “Right?” Hux says, turning to his mother, unable to stop scowling. Hating this story.

“That’s right.” Elana holds Hux’s gaze, her expression mild again. “I think I almost didn’t know that stormtroopers had faces, before he pulled that helmet off, or maybe I assumed they would be the blandest faces possible, with dead eyes, sort of droid-like. But he was so-- He had brown eyes, the saddest brown eyes, because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to protect me for long, and that they would kill him afterward, either way. He’d broken orders to keep me safe. He was willing to die, just for-- This girl. For me, because I was frightened, and they were wrong to frighten me.”

“What was his name?” Hux asks, wanting the question to hurt. “TX-5200 or something like that, I imagine?”

“He was BN-4529,” Elana says, again holding Hux’s gaze with that unblinking stare. “But he called himself Flick. That was his nickname, from his comrades, because-- Apparently he had a habit of reading and rereading old, illicit holorecords until their batteries died, letting the projection flicker until it was completely gone.”

“How romantic,” Hux says.

“Shhh,” Jek says, waving his hand at Hux. As if he’s enjoying this nonsense, or as if it could possibly be used in Hux’s defense. “What became of Flick?” Jek asks.

“Oh, are we skipping to the end already?” Hux asks. “We won’t hear the full love story? I guess there’s no consummation scene, since you mention he left his armor on.”

Elana stares at him, smoke trailing up from the end of her cigarette. Hux can’t read minds, but he can imagine well enough what she’s thinking. You really are just like your hateful father. Brendol would be proud of the monster he created.

“I did kiss him,” she says, maybe just to wound Hux with this information. As if he actually cares. “I was eighteen, terrified, and he was my hero, he had those soft eyes. Do you know what he said, the first time I tried to kiss him? ‘I can’t,’ he said, and ‘I’m not really a person, not the way you are,’ when I asked him why. I rejected this. Indoctrination. The kind of thing Brendol loved: there is no you, there is only us, the ones you serve. I kissed my stormtrooper as often he would let me, while we waited. I showed him he was a person, whatever they’d told him. Can you imagine, telling a trembling teenage girl who relies on you entirely that she is a person and you are nothing? I wouldn’t stand for that talk.”

There’s a slight shake in her hand, but after another drag on the cigarette it’s gone. Hux considers making a remark about the irony of her marrying the inventor of the refurbished stormtrooper program after having had this apparently soul-deep experience with some random trooper. He refrains, for the sake of his case. He should be nicer to his mother, he supposes, if he wants her testimony on his behalf to seem sincere.

“What happened after these four days of captivity?” Jek asks. He looks nervous, as if he’s expecting the story to take a horrible turn. And of course it will: Elana Levchen didn’t marry a stormtrooper. She married Hux’s father.

“My father was brought back to the house,” Elana says. “Weather-worn but not badly harmed. He was an opportunistic man, and he’d befriended his captors, for whatever definition of friendship he had. He was more important than the officers who’d been left at the house with me, and when he returned with his new friends and found me in the attic, kept safe by Flick, he was grateful to this stormtrooper who had defied his corrupt superiors. My father was a hard man, but he loved me very much. He had the officers who’d threatened me executed in the yard, for even thinking of doing what they might have done.”

“And Flick?” Hux asks, unable to resist pronouncing the name as if he finds it distasteful: he does. “Grandfather didn’t execute him for kissing you?”

“No,” Elana says. “He only knew that Flick had protected me. My father arranged to have Flick commended for protecting me from them. There was even a ceremony, a medal. This was days later. It was the last time I saw Flick, during that ceremony. He was allowed to remove his helmet when he received his medal. He shook my hand and we exchanged a few words, with everyone looking on. At the little reception afterward I kept trying to get to him, thinking maybe we could sneak away somewhere, even for just a moment, but.” She shakes her head.

“Then what?” Hux asks, when Jek seems unwilling to pull her back on track.

“Flick was killed in battle soon after,” Elana says, holding Hux’s gaze as she speaks. “Twenty years old. Wearing his armor, of course. There was a real person’s body under that armor, wasn’t there? A man. I would have given him everything I had. But he died still wearing his armor, wasted. He was buried in it, I’m sure.”

Hux struggles to come up with something dismissive to say about all this, because he’s sure it should be dismissed. In lieu of the right words, his thoughts turn to Ren, and to that helmet he wore. What it had felt like to peel all that armor away and find Ren inside.

“I’m so sorry,” Jek says, and Hux wants to slap him. It’s such a tremendously inappropriate response to that story, for so many reasons. When Hux looks up he finds Elana staring at Jek as if she might be thinking the same thing. She exhales a thin stream of smoke, shrugs.

“Brendol saw me at a party not long after that,” she says. “After my father had ensured that we were ushered into proper Imperial society and climbing the ladder of their hierarchy, not wanting a repetition of the ordeal at the house. Brendol cornered me at this party and told me he had to have me. He’d noticed me from across the room because of my long hair, which wasn’t the fashion at the time. Most women wore theirs short and very neat. Brendol was a complete conformist, always, but during the initial attraction he liked that I didn’t care about the latest trends. He liked that I wore a thick braid, pulled to one side. After we were married he insisted that I keep it that way. He said it made me look like a girl from a folk tale, half-magic.”

“That does not sound like my father,” Hux says, sputtering.

“Well, Brendol didn’t show much of himself to his family, when he could help it.” She’s staring at Hux as if she expects him to draw a parallel between himself and his father here. Hux refuses to acknowledge this stare.

“So you were pressured into the marriage?” Jek asks.

“Did she not already tell you she wasn’t?” Hux asks. Elana smiles when he glances at her. This time it seems real, but Hux can hardly say for sure.

“I allowed Brendol’s attentions,” she says. “I didn’t give myself to him right then, not the way he would have liked me to, but I eventually agreed to the marriage. He was an imposing, powerful man, and I was flattered by his pursuit, tired of being nothing but heartbroken and hollow. I’d lost the man I loved, had lost my mother, and my father was busy with his machinations. I was alone, and Brendol was telling me that I didn’t have to be. That I could be important-- the wife of an important man. I also hated Brendol’s first wife. She was a sneering snob who looked down on my family and had once made a comment about my hair. I enjoyed the idea of ousting her. Of having the power to do anything, really.”

“So Brendol left his first wife for you?” Jek asks, looking somewhat uneasy about this. Perhaps it won’t play well with the Committee that Hux is a second wife’s son.

“Immediately,” Elana says, nodding. There’s a hint of pride in the way she says so, even now, and she should probably censor it. Jek makes no notes about this response, only listening now. “The first wife had a son by him,” Elana says. “Brendol Jr.” She glances at Hux, who keeps his expression impassive. “Junior was five years old when Brendol Sr. and I were married,” she says. “That child hated me like I had killed his mother by my own hand. The first wife was sent off quietly, and Brendol arranged to maintain sole custody of the boy, of course. And then my new husband got me pregnant in short order, according to plan.”

“And that baby was--?” Jek says when she pauses. Hux is listening intently, his hands in fists over his knees.

“That was Elan.” She reaches over and touches Hux’s shoulder after she’s said so, leaning forward to put her cigarette out with her other hand. When it’s crushed into the ashtray she brings both of her hands to her lap. “Elan-- I insisted on that name, which Brendol hated. It was unheard of, in that culture, to name a child after his mother. But I insisted. Brendol had a son named after him, so why shouldn’t my son have my name, in a sense?”

Hux can feel her looking at him again. She cursed him with that name. He’s always thought so.

“He had the softest, softest red hair,” Elana says, and Hux flinches as if she’s reached to touch his hair now, though she hasn’t moved. “I couldn’t believe Commandant Hux had put something so soft in me.”

Hux winces at her unfortunate phrasing and stares at Jek’s data pad. Jek is still not typing. Perhaps none of this is useful. Of course it’s not.

“Can you talk a bit about E-- About Hux’s youth?” Jek asks. “About what he was like as a boy?”

“He grew up during the fall of the Empire and the rise of the Order,” Elana says. “And Brendol was very busy, accordingly. Brendol Jr. went on loathing me and spent most of his time in the company of his nursemaid, poor woman, and then he was shipped off to school. I didn’t want that for Elan.”

“You kept him home with you?”

“Yes, for as long as I could.”

“And what was Hux like as a boy?” Jek asks, adopting his courtroom voice again.

“He was pragmatic,” Elana says. “Like his father. Sharp, but also sweet-natured, when he thought he wouldn’t be punished for it.”

“Can you give me an example of his sweet nature as a child?” Jek asks, almost knocking his data pad off the table in excitement as he hurries to make notes again. “And how he might have been punished by his father for showing that side of himself?”

Elana glances at Hux. She holds his gaze as if she’s asking for his permission to answer these questions.

“Go ahead,” Hux says, only mildly concerned about this bizarre assessment. “I’m curious myself.”

“Maybe sweet-natured isn’t the right word,” Elana says, still looking at him. “Maybe it was more like-- Serene. He seemed to have this collected, peaceful sense of himself when he was very young, and he never lashed out or objected to my mothering of him. Never had a fit over wanting sweets or anything like that. Brendol Jr. was probably never going to blossom into an innocent flower, but he was traumatized by the separation from his mother, and in response he became very cruel and hard, always angry. I took note of this, as a mother. I kept my baby close for as long as I could.”

Hux turns to stare at the fish on the wall. A massive purple one is swimming through the simu-water now. Hux watches its undulations, overcome with the feeling of wanting to be anywhere else, simultaneously unable to imagine this meeting coming to an end. He’s not ready for it to end, though he also feels desperate and trapped, exposed. He supposes they still have hours left here, under the glow of the holo fish that seem to swim through the wall. It’s an exhausting, exhilarating thought.

“I have a whole section of questions about how you struggled to keep Hux close to you despite the traditional separation from the mother in First Order society,” Jek says. “Like we talked about last night. But before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about Hux’s brother. Hux hasn’t shared much with me about him.”

“Shared?” Hux says, objecting to that word.

“I wonder how much you remember of Junior,” Elana says, touching Hux’s arm. He looks at her, but only from the corner of his eye.

“He was mean as a snake and dumb as a rock,” Hux says. “A violent simpleton, really. My father pretended to be proud of him, I think, but the Commandant was never a very good actor. He got rid of Junior when the various antics became inconvenient.”

“Mhm,” Elana says, not exactly disagreeing. “Junior was very angry inside, all the time. Brendol was pleased by this, somewhat, because it made his eldest son effortlessly mean, and effortlessly mean people went far in Brendol’s world. But eventually my husband began to realize that he had gone a bit too far in engineering his son’s cruel streak. Brendol Jr. had rages. He was angry in a way that wasn’t useful or controlled, and he could only pretend to have those other qualities for so long.”

She glances at Hux. He remembers his half-brother in flashes that seem somewhat surreal, as if Brendol Jr. was a ghost who’d haunted that estate and then disappeared one day. There were shouts from behind closed doors, shattered family heirlooms in pieces on the carpet, and a persistent sense of distant malice lurking. Hux was never exactly afraid of his older brother, but he was afraid of what he represented. Hux had wondered if he would be like that, someday: a failed experiment, transformed from a boy into a monster.

“Brendol could have kept his namesake off the front lines,” Elana says. “He had connections, to put it mildly. I think he let his son go to war with a sense of relief, knowing what would happen. Junior was fierce, maybe even brave, but not clever enough to survive many battle situations. It didn’t take long before one claimed him.”

“Did you celebrate?” Hux asks, bitterly, though he remembers being glad of the news himself.

“Of course not,” Elana says. “Your father was crushed.”

“And you cared so about his feelings.”

“I didn’t hate the man. I didn’t like seeing him mourn. It really bothered him, this loss,” Elana says, relaying this to Jek as if it’s unusual to be bothered by the loss of one’s child. Hux doesn’t remember his father visibly grieving. “I think it really changed him,” Elana says. “It was after Junior’s death that you would hear rumors about the Commandant requiring his special cadets to murder each other as initiation. I didn’t want to believe that, but.” She glances at Hux. “It was probably true.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Hux says, though of course he knows and of course it’s true. “I was not invited to join the Commandant’s Cadets.”

“Of course you weren’t!” Elana frowns as if Hux has finally said something that’s upset her. “He treated those warped children like his personal science experiment. He didn’t want that for you.”

Jek is making notes again. Hux ashes his cigarette and then drags on it, having almost forgotten that he held it. It is much smoother than the auto-lights, of course. He feels a bit light-headed and calmer after a long inhale.

“So you would say that Brendol Sr. loved and protected his son?” Jek asks.

“Protected!” Hux says, barking this without meaning to. He feels his face getting hot again. Jek half-shakes his head, apologetic sympathy leaping into his eyes. Hux feels slapped by that, too, and looks away.

“I only meant--” Jek starts to say.

“No, no,” Elana says. “Brendol protected himself. He protected himself from what he really felt for his sons, which was maybe love, I don’t know. I do think he sent Junior away to die, and regretted it. He sent Elan off to become a brilliant officer, and I think he probably considered Elan’s success one of his greatest achievements. He lived to see you make General, yes?” Elana says, leaning toward Hux.

“Not quite,” Hux says. Snoke had issued that promotion not long after Brendol Sr.’s heart failure.

“He died of natural causes,” Jek says. “Correct?”

“Correct,” Hux says, thinking of the funeral at Arkanis. Boma had not attended, probably because Brendol Sr. had moved on to someone younger by then.

“Brendol never respected doctors,” Elana says. “He preferred to be diagnosed by droids. Another human telling him that they knew more about him than he did? No, he didn’t like it. He was arrogant. That was his undoing.”

“And you mentioned that he discouraged you from spending time with Hux as a boy, after he started attending day school?” Jek says, too pointedly. Hux rolls his eyes.

“Oh, yes,” she says. “That’s not done, in the Order. Boys who are on their way to becoming good soldiers don’t spend time with their mothers. I was close to my mother, as an only child. Brendol treated me as if I was ignorant, thinking that I would be close to my son, as his mother. He told me that wasn’t done, that it made the child soft, all sorts of nonsense. My father agreed, which didn’t help. They were always trying to preoccupy me. Encouraging me to join women’s clubs or to take up shooting for sport, anything to get me out of the way. Elan would go to school and come home for dinner, and that was my only time with him before Brendol returned from work and had the nursemaids whisk him away.”

“But prior to his attendance at school,” Jek says. “You and Hux spent time together?”

“Well, yes, prior to that we were on the ships and it was easier. Things were frightening, our government was crumbling and then had crumbled, everything we’d counted on ripped out from under us. Brendol was preoccupied with helping to put it all back together, and I was tasked with protecting my baby from his troubled half-brother. Elan always had his little hand in mine, in those early days. Brendol had other things to worry about, and probably still hoped his older son would be the champion of the family name. His second son was a little doll who existed only to keep his pretty young wife occupied, back then.”

“That’s--” Hux wants to protest, but he doesn’t remember this time in his life well enough to do so, and what he does remember only confirms what she’s saying. Elana stares at him as if awaiting his challenge to these remarks.

“That was when I was happiest,” Elana says. “I thought I had only ever been truly happy when I was hidden away with Flick, four days of being with someone I could whisper with at night. But no, it was those first four or five years with Elan, that was my happiness. Then the First Order found land again, and everything changed.”

“You mentioned protecting Hux from Brendol Jr.,” Jek says, typing notes. “Was that-- Did the boys often fight?” He’s phrasing this delicately, fearing there’s some further trauma to uncover. Hux snorts and drags on his cigarette, waiting for his mother to answer.

“Fight?” Elana says. “No. Even when he was very little, Elan always seemed to be plotting, thinking ahead. He stared at his brother’s tantrums as if he was observing the behavior of an alien, and even if Junior managed to sneak behind my back and torment his little brother, Elan would break free because he had the advantage of remaining calm. Right?”

She looks to Hux, who feels like he’s been punched too many times in the head by the sound of his first name. He shrugs.

“Brendol Jr. wasn’t hard to evade,” he says. “That’s accurate.”

“Do you remember E-- I mean, Hux’s attitude changing once he’d started school?” Jek asks.

“School?” Elana says. “The day school?”

“Of course he means the day school,” Hux says, the heat on his cheeks spreading. “You weren’t there when I came home from my first year at the Academy, as you may recall. You’d gone, then.”

“It was supposed to be a vacation,” Elana says. She sounds sad, or wistful. Hux wants to throw something at the wall. The ashtray wouldn’t do: a chair, perhaps. In the style of Brendol Jr., or Ren. “But, I-- Yes, he changed in school, of course. School in the Order is indoctrination, especially at that young age. They think that’s very important, and not just for stormtroopers. Everyone is trained, drilled, suppressed. Elan pulled away from me as instructed. His father told him that mothers were not for fraternizing with, after a certain age, and Elan obeyed his father’s wishes. I don’t blame Elan, of course, and I didn’t blame him then.”

“And you clearly don’t blame yourself,” Hux says, as coolly as possible, which isn’t very.

“Again, like your father,” she says, her voice sharpening for the first time since this brutal side-interrogation began. “Thinking you know everything.”

“Can you talk a little bit about why you left?” Jek asks, softly. Hux is so tired of softness. Jek’s voice, this bloody holo, even the smoothness of the hand-rolled cigarette. He stabs it out in the ashtray while Elana considers her answer.

“Brendol didn’t like me anymore,” she says. “He didn’t even complain when I cut off my long hair. I had told myself I wouldn’t care-- He’d already had affairs, and I’d never felt particularly possessive of him in that way, but I felt useless. Elan didn’t spare me a glance either. He was fourteen-- This was the year Brendol Jr. had died. My husband didn’t want my company in his grieving. It was no secret that I’d had nothing but negative feelings for the boy. I think I wanted to talk about it with somebody, anybody, and I had no real friends I could confide in. Everyone was always spying on each other, gathering intelligence, hoping they could use your confidence against you. I wanted to talk with Elan, he was such a little person already, I wanted to know him, but. I think I felt forbidden to do it, and he kept his distance from me as if I had some disease he might catch if he even looked at me too long. I took a little trip, and when I considered returning, I thought-- Why should I? Nobody needs me or even wants me back there. I eventually saw no reason to return.”

“You saw no reason to return,” Hux says. “No reason.”

“What reason was there--”

“I needed you!”

Hux is snarling, out of control, but at least he hasn’t actually thrown anything. She thinks he’s innately cool, unflappable? Fuck her.

“You didn’t need me,” Elana says, frowning. “I didn’t have anything to give you, after you were standing on your own two feet, when you had your place in Brendol’s world. You needed your father, his name, his status, his school--”

“Yes, and look where those got me.”

Hux hasn’t often allowed himself to think that his father might have helped him with what was secretly undoing him at school or with anything else. But his mother. She might have done something, had she known. Particularly considering that she’d once had to hide for days against the threat of such a thing herself. She was known for breaking protocol when it didn’t suit her. Hux had so desperately needed to be broken from it, that first year at the Academy, the year when she left.

She could have taken him with her. He would have gone gladly. Perhaps he would have crossed paths with Ren in some other way, at her side. Ren would have seemed like a ridiculous child to Hux, back then. But Hux would have been allowed to be a ridiculous child himself, if it were only his mother he had to please. Perhaps if he’d been born to a fucking stormtrooper called Flick and not Commandant Brendol Hux, she would have extended that kindness to him.

She’s staring at him. He’s staring at the simu-screen, trying to reel himself back in, hating Jek for letting the silence stretch on. As if he expects Hux to tell his mother what he needed rescuing from.

“What does any of it matter now?” Hux asks, glaring at Jek. “I’m going to take the stand and cry that my mother left me? That’s really going to satisfy five planets worth of bloodlust? This is a waste of time.”

“Perhaps you two would like a moment alone?” Jek says, reaching for his data pad hopefully.

“No,” Hux says. “I can assure you, neither of us would like that at all. In fact, I’d like to be taken back to my cell.”

“I don’t understand why you’re so angry with me,” Elana says, matching Hux’s tone. “You never responded to my holo messages except with perfunctory greetings. You seemed irritated to hear from me, always ready for me to disappear again. I thought you were like your father, glad to have me out of your hair.”

“Yes, I’m precisely like him after all, in that you’ve served your purpose for me and now I’m finished with you. Good day.”

She grabs Hux’s arm, though he hasn’t actually risen from his chair. Jek is half out of his, obviously not sure if he should stay or go. Hux doesn’t even know which he wants. He wishes he hadn’t put the cigarette out, wants something to do with his hands when his mother tugs at his arm, trying to get him to look at her.

“I know it was wrong,” she says. “I saw the recording of that speech you gave. How can I explain to these people, this Committee, how much I cried for you when I saw that? For days.”

“You’d better summon some of that emotion on the stand,” Hux says. He closes his eyes and tries to imagine her seeing it. Something in his stomach twists, and he thinks of Leia Organa seeing it, too. Perhaps on the same day, when it was leaked to the New Republic media.

“Um,” Jek says, softly again, when Elana just goes on staring at Hux and he refuses to even open his eyes, let alone look at her. “Can you perhaps explain why you were sad for your son when you saw that?”

“Have you seen it?” Elana says, snapping this at Jek so harshly that Hux’s eyes pop open, without his permission, so he can take in Jek’s chastised expression.

“Yes,” Jek says. “Of course--”

“I believe you told me you have two daughters?”

Jek frowns slightly and glances at Hux. “Yes,” he says.

“And yet you need me to explain to you why that recording broke my heart?”

Elana mutters a curse under her breath and digs her cigarettes out again. She puts one between her lips before remembering that she doesn’t have her portoflame. Hux hesitates, but ultimately can’t bear the sight of her sitting there looking defeated with an unlit cigarette clamped between her lips. He pulls out another auto-light, gets it lit on the second try, and offers the burning end to her. She takes it, uses it for a light and returns it to him. Hux drags on the auto-light, disturbed by how harsh and foul it tastes now.

“Okay,” Jek says, after they’ve both smoked in silence for a bit. “Obviously this is all very emotional, and that’s fine, here with just the three of us, but for the benefit of the Committee, Elana, I do think you should practice explaining why you were upset to see Hux in that recording.”

“Because they had taken something from him,” Elana says. She still sounds more angry than sad, and more at Jek than the Order. “I had missed it somehow, all those years, even when I saw his picture in the news transmissions. But I saw it, in that recording. He had lost something to the First Order, and I had been too meek-- I had been complicit. I had let them take it from him.”

Hux waits for Jek to ask her to spell it out: what was taken? But Jek already knows, or at least knows enough. When neither he nor Elana say anything, Hux feels like he’s expected to make some comment on this himself. He huffs and looks at the simu-fish. Just a few black and white striped ones flit through the water now, followed by a slithering green eel. In reality, the eel might consume the fish, but this is a Soft Room, so it leaves them be.

“What else?” Hux asks, speaking to Jek. “What will the prosecution ask?”

“Oh, um.” Jek rearranges his data screens. Elana goes on smoking, not looking at Hux now. “Let’s see,” Jek says. “Okay, here are some hypothetical questions you might hear from the prosecutor, though I confess her line of questioning can be hard to pin down in theory. But she’ll probably ask you-- Why did you defect to the New Republic?”

“Because I had waited and waited to stop hating the Order for what had happened to Flick,” Elana says. “I thought-- It was just a girlish preoccupation, arising from a stressful interlude, a kind of romantic fantasy. But it had been thirty years, and I hadn’t forgotten him, and I was still angry, and they were still doing it-- The stormtrooper program. Brendol died that year, the year I defected. That put my son in charge of the stormtroopers. I couldn’t bear being a part of it any longer.”

“You mean spending our money?” Hux says. He regrets it, but only because he needs her to pretend to like him, on the stand.

“That’s exactly what I mean,” she says, finally looking at him again when he glances at her. “Was it hard to walk away from that comfort? That account with more credits than I would ever need? Yes. But I did it. I started over. And now you have, too.”

“What?” Hux glares at her. “Surely you don’t think that I surrendered willingly? I was caught, desperate, there was no other choice.”

“You don’t believe anything I say.” Elana raises her eyebrows and lifts her cigarette, almost like she’s toasting him with it. “Okay, fine. I don’t believe this, what you’ve just said.”

“Believe-- What? You think I want to be here? In prison? Fighting for my life?”

“Of course not, but something brought you here, and it wasn’t desperation. On the news I saw them speculating that you might be in obsessive pursuit of someone who defected to the Resistance, some Lieutenant. That you were trying to recapture her when you were caught.”

“What?” Hux tries to laugh, but it comes out dry. He looks at Jek. “What is she talking about?”

“Oh, that’s just the sensational media,” Jek says. “They’re referring to the ex-stormtrooper who calls herself Pella, UT-5278-- There are all sorts of crazy stories about you in the news. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“But you believed this?” Hux says to his mother, again trying to laugh, his chest tight with authentic amusement that’s also caged in dread. “You think I abandoned my post to chase after stormtrooper tail?”

He barely withholds a like mother, like son? She seems to see it on his face anyway, her eyes darkening.

“I hoped,” she says, sharply. “That you had some reason for leaving beyond desperation. I liked the idea that it might have been a person you were desperate for. That you had kept something of yourself, in that way. Something that their indoctrination couldn’t touch. Believed it? No. But the idea lifted my spirits, I suppose.”

“Ah,” Jek says, and they both turn their furious looks on him. “That reminds me, um. I have something for you.”

He reaches into his coat and retrieves a blue envelope: a letter from Ren. Hux wants to berate Jek for exposing this to his mother’s eyes, but he’s too glad to see a new letter to care. He grabs for it as Elana watches Jek slide it across the table.

“What’s that?” Elana asks. She studies Hux’s face, the fury draining away and turning into a less palatable kind of smug enjoyment. “You do have someone. Someone who writes to you?”

“You wouldn’t like him,” Hux says, before he can stop himself. He tucks the letter into his shirt, though he knows he’ll have to read it here, in this room with them, lest he risk having it confiscated on the floor near his shower. He’s wearing yesterday’s uniform and has no idea if he can count on a second letter sticking magically to his skin. Elana is still smiling when he sneaks another look at her. “This is extremely sensitive information,” Hux says. “You cannot tell anyone that I receive letters here.”

“Who am I going to tell?” Elana asks. “Oh-- Elan.” She reaches for him, and draws her hand back when he recoils. “I’m not teasing you,” she says. “I knew it. I had a feeling.”

“Why-- How?” Hux hates the heat on his face, hates that he wants to tell her about Ren. He has no idea why he ever would. “When?”

“I don’t know when,” she says. “Or why, or how. Maybe I just hoped. So it’s not the girl, the former stormtrooper? It’s a man? Is he a prisoner here, too?”

“He ought to be,” Hux says, muttering. “You really shouldn’t be having these letters couriered to you from one of the witnesses for the prosecution,” he says, turning to Jek. “Right? Isn’t that-- Bad form, somehow?”

“Oh, uh.” Jek fidgets and touches the back of his neck. Hux hasn’t seen him looking nervous before, or at least not this nervous. “The thing is--” Jek seems to be wishing that he could lie. “Well. I didn’t get that from Finn. I got that direct from the source.”

“The source.” Hux feels the heat on his face creeping down the back of his neck. But it’s impossible to imagine Ren anywhere near the actual, physical elements of Hux’s life now, including his attorney. “You can’t mean-- You saw him? You didn’t, surely?”

“I went to interview Ms. Antilles, and he was there, I wasn’t sure if--”

“Who the hell is Ms. Antilles?” Hux asks, shouting.

“Oh-- Rey, his cousin.”

“Who is writing you letters?” Elana asks, tugging at Hux’s arm again. “Did he escape from the Order along with you? Did you marry in secret?”

“Listen to yourself!” Hux says when he rounds on her, still shouting. She only smiles, shrugs.

“Someone loves you,” she says, her eyes getting wet again. “Someone other than me. Elan. Your face is so red.”

“I’m aware of that,” Hux says, feeling his cheeks grow hotter. “You don’t need to point it out.” He turns to Jek. “She shouldn’t know any details about who this letter came from,” Hux says. “Right?”

“Probably, yeah,” Jek says. “I’m afraid the whole business is rather classified,” he says, to Elana. “And a bit hard to explain.”

“What did-- How--” Hux isn’t sure how to phrase this question without revealing too much, the letter warm and real inside his shirt, waiting to be read. “You met him?” Hux says, to Jek. “You actually-- Did he speak?”

“Oh, yes, he was quite vocal.”

“What does he look like?” Elana asks, wiping at her eyes.

“Don’t answer that,” Hux says. “Don’t-- Don’t say anything, fuck! I don’t even want to know what sort of nonsense he probably-- What do you mean, he was vocal?”

“Is he not normally so emotive?” Jek asks.

Emotive?” Hux says, at the same time his mother also pronounces this word: she with delight, Hux with horror.

“Well,” Jek says. “He shouted at me that he would die for you--”

“Okay.” Hux holds up his hand, hating that he can feel his mother smiling, as if this information will save Hux’s life. As if anyone else, particularly those who style themselves as Hux’s fucking victims, could possibly feel anything but an insult in the expectation that they might care about this. “Stop talking,” he says, though Jek already has.

“I hope you had some happiness with this man,” Elana says, and suddenly Hux lacks the energy to even lean away when she puts her hand on his shoulder.

“He offered to come here in disguise and visit you,” Jek says after Hux has sat in silence for some moments, a variety of different agonies crackling through him. “I thought that was-- Misguided, of course, but pretty charming.”

“He is not charming,” Hux says. He leans forward and puts his elbows on the table, hands over his face, unable to hold his eyes open to the blue light of the simu-ocean any longer. “I refuse to believe you were charmed.”

“Not entirely,” Jek says. “But I got what I went there for, that’s for sure.”

Hux doesn’t ask, but he spreads two of his fingers apart so that he can peek out at Jek from between them, glowering.

“I just wanted to make sure my suspicion was correct,” Jek says. “That you were downplaying the depth of your connection to him. I understand if you don’t want to talk about it with me-- It’s okay. And I hope you’ll forgive me for going there without telling you. I think you’re right that I shouldn’t see Finn again until after he’s testified, but this way you still get your letter. So that worked out, huh?”

Hux sits back and puts his hands in his lap. He’s anxious to read the letter, wishing he could do so alone, in his cell, under his blanket. He hates the thought that he should probably leave it with Jek after reading it here in this room, lest it potentially be confiscated. It’s early enough that he might not be paraded directly to the showers, and this letter may very well perform the same miraculous trick that the last one did in clinging to his skin, but he can’t count on either thing happening for sure, and can’t risk losing Ren’s message to him.

“My hearing starts the day after tomorrow,” Hux says. He’s held this firmly in mind all morning, but saying it out loud makes it feel real. His mother reaches over and takes his hand. Hux allows it, though he’s not sure why. It’s not comforting, exactly.

“These people won’t kill you,” Elana says. “I won’t let them.”

“You won’t let them?” Hux rips his hand from hers, glowering. “And what are you going to do about it, exactly?”

“Your attorney has called me here to stand before this Committee and plead for my son’s life,” she says. “That’s what I’m going to do. That’s how I’ll protect you. I’m not like you and your father, I’m not good at giving grand speeches. But I think I can speak-- Frankly. In a different way. On your behalf.”

Hux turns away from her and draws the blue envelope from his shirt, unable to wait any longer to know what Ren wrote this time. Taking this as a cue, Jek clears his throat and invites Elana to go over the questions again, saying he wants to reorganize some things. Hux scoots his chair away from them, closer to the light of the simu screen. He leans over Ren’s letter as he pulls it from the envelope, hating that he can’t be alone with it.

I want to say a lot about the last time we met but I don’t want to put it down here. Will speak to you about it later, I hope.

Hux reads these opening lines three times, confused to the point that he wonders if he’s missing a page. The last time they met was on the landing strip at the Resistance base, as Hux was being stuffed into a transport bound for the Tower. Possibly Ren is referring to some less tangible meeting. Hux closes his eyes and half-remembers scolding Ren in the dreams he had last night: saying that Ren shouldn’t be risking his safety by showing up in some kind of precarious physical form. He reads on, hoping for a clue, but Ren’s letter jumps back into the subject of Snoke from there.

When I was about thirteen Snoke started sharing his visions with me. I was already in Snoke’s pocket, doing and thinking whatever he wanted, but the visions really broke me. They changed me. He showed me things that he claimed were the future. He showed me soaked in the blood of children and called it glorious. He showed me the alternative, and it was Rey putting a lightsaber through my chest. I think we were in some woods but I don’t know if they were the same woods where I really fought her, near Starkiller. It’s blurry because of what I did to my memories-- all the stuff about Rey got blurred and comes back to me in pieces now. I used to think I messed this up, but I think maybe I did it to myself on purpose, so that Snoke couldn’t search my mind for information about where to get her. She had just come to us the year Snoke started showing me his visions. He called her the foundling or the orphan. He was always emphasizing that she wasn’t my blood. He said that if I didn’t destroy her and all the others they would team up against me and be my undoing. It felt so true. I saw visions of my disgrace. Snoke showed me visions of my grandfather, who had acted too late. I saw him suffering-- I felt his suffering. It was tremendous. Being shown that and feeling it so strongly was like an injury I sustained, and I think it’s an injury I still carry with me. I can barely talk about it now but suffice to say my grandfather was helpless and abandoned by everyone who had claimed to love him. The abandonment hurt worse than the lost limbs. I felt it, and Snoke told me that was coming for me if I didn’t act.

Now I wonder why Snoke needed to convince me at all. Why not just take me, if he could? I think his ability to control me completely, the way he has done twice now (I’m sorry to bring it up but I need your help untangling this. Rey only tangles things up further. I need someone who thinks the way you do, without the help of the Force) is very complex and that it would be easier for him (of course) if I just gave myself to him. I think he wanted me to give myself to him in the wake of your death, had he been successful in killing you. He would have tried to convince me that I had killed you myself and then I would have given up.

(Again I’m sorry to talk about his plans to kill you and I’m sorry he was able to almost do it. I know it was my failure that he was able to get so close. I’m trying to figure out how I let it happen. It didn’t feel like letting him take over during the massacre. I let something go, but not for his sake, not like before. I was letting it go for you. How did he take that from you? I need to figure it out. I will. Maybe you have some ideas?)

(I know you don’t like the word sorry but I’ve sat here for a while now trying to edit it and nothing else sounds right in that sentence. And I am sorry, Hux. I’m sorry.)

Since I’ve talked with you about the massacre before, I’m going to talk about what it was like directly afterward, when I went to Snoke. I went there with plans to kill him but I was weak and I didn’t believe that it could be done once I arrived there. I was tired and broken and trying not to let him see how lost and small and finished I felt. He gave me a new lightsaber as a gift for having done the massacre successfully and told me my first task as his official apprentice (Kylo) was to kill his previous apprentice. He said this was boy who, like me, had been tested, and who, like me, had come to Snoke’s fortress to audition for the role of apprentice. He said this boy had been weak and had failed him and that I was his replacement and I had to kill him before I could sleep or eat or even get a drink of water. It was nothing like the massacre, where I hid inside myself until Rey needed me. This boy was starving and hurt and wild-eyed, like Snoke had locked him up alone for a long time and he’d gone crazy. Just sensing his energy was like being wounded because it was so bleak and insane and desperate. I killed him because I was afraid I would turn into him if I didn’t. Does that make sense? Have you ever been around someone whose weaknesses and fears represent your own worst visions of potential failure so completely that you just want to destroy them? Maybe you haven’t, but I was repulsed by that boy. It felt better to feed my rage toward him than to have any sympathy. I had no more energy for sympathy that day, and Snoke would have killed us both if I didn’t kill him. Or so I thought at the time. So that boy is the first person I remember killing. I didn’t even know his name. Snoke never spoke of him again.

Who was that boy, before Snoke got to him? He didn’t speak to me during our fight. I had the feeling that Snoke might have cut his tongue out. But I’m not sure.

I don’t think it matters who that boy was, but then again something about him sticks in my mind when I consider how to move forward with vanquishing Snoke. Maybe you have some ideas about how it could matter?

I know your hearing starts soon. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Sometimes when I feel like you’re too far away I think about how we grew up in different systems. And how far away you were when I was training with Snoke and you were still on the Finalizer. At least we’re closer than that now. Maybe you prefer to have me away from you for now. I would understand if so.

But please write to me if you can. I need you, too. --R

Hux wants to press the pages of the letter to his face. He leans over them, imagining that they’re giving off a warmth that will heal him, and listens to his mother answering Jek’s questions, refining her answers. Hux wonders if either of them would notice if he pressed Ren’s words to his face, just quickly. He sucks in his breath and decides he doesn’t care. Elana changed his diapers when he was a baby. Jek knows about the Academy, and has heard Ren’s humiliating declarations live and in person. Hux exhales and brings the pages of the letter to his face, breathing against them and wanting to keep them, knowing he can’t. He’ll read the letter again, will try to memorize it. Only one bit rings hard in his ears now, over and over as he tries to sink into the letter like it’s a place where he can escape: I need you, too. Over and over.

Hux hears a chair scraping against the floor. His mother: she’s still talking, telling Jek something about her fucking braid, for some reason. Apparently she cried when she cut it off and Hux’s father had no reaction. When her chair is close enough, she puts her hand on Hux’s back. He remains hunched over, Ren’s letter covering his face. He’s not crying, but he doesn’t want to expose the renewed red on his cheeks. They stay like that for a while, her hand on Hux’s back and his face buried in Ren’s words, Jek continuing with his questions as if this is none of his business.

When Hux has managed to compose himself, he sits up and smooths out the pages of the letter against his thighs. He reads it two more times, then folds both pages up and tucks them back into the envelope. It’s like a physical loss when he passes it back to Jek, like some essential piece of Hux’s body has been disconnected and will now be indefinitely withheld from him.

“They may take me for my shower directly after this,” Hux says before Jek can ask why he’s giving the letter back. “I nearly lost the last one that way. Please. Keep it for me. For now.”

“Of course,” Jek says, and Hux watches the blue envelope disappear into Jek’s coat again. “I’ll keep it safe.”

Hux sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. He feels a headache coming on, maybe because he was bent over with his face in that letter for too long. His mother drags her chair closer and puts her shoulder against his. Hux doesn’t move away. It would be pointless to do so, and this feels better than having his hand held, at least.

“Elana and I will work on this some more tonight,” Jek says when the guards have knocked to warn them that time is almost up. “I think this testimony is really important, and we’ve got a good start here.” He smiles, looking hopeful at the sight of Elana lingering at Hux’s side. She’s not smoking now, just hugging her purse in her lap. She’s been wiping at her eyes on and off, never making a sound to indicate more serious crying. “Hux?” Jek says when he just sits in place, listless in the glow from the fake ocean, the fake fish. “You’ve gotten quiet-- You okay?”

“He’s fine,” Elana says, before Hux can snap at Jek to tell him that of course he’s okay, or of course he isn’t-- He’s not even sure which is the real answer. Elana stands and drops her purse onto the table before pulling Hux up from his chair. Hux leaves his arms at his sides when she hugs him again, but he drops his forehead to her shoulder this time. He’s tired, and he remembers this lesson from the house on the cliff, from Ren: it feels good to be held, so fuck it. He might as well enjoy it while it lasts. “Your hair,” Elana says when she pulls back, touching the freshly clipped bits at the back of Hux’s neck. “Still soft.”

“I doubt the quality of my hair will save me,” Hux says. “But thank you for noticing. Thank you for coming at all.”

“Elan. Do you not know how long I’ve been waiting to hear you ask for me?” She stares at him like she expects him to answer this question. He has no idea how he would. “Since you were six years old,” she says. “Since then.”

She smiles tightly and pats his cheek, moving away from him when the guards open the door. Jek stands and gathers his things. Hux thinks about the letter in Jek’s coat. It’s already too late to change his mind and ask for it back, with the guards watching now. Hux lingers in the room as Jek and his mother are ushered away by the guards, both of them turning to look back at Hux before they go. He’s glad that they’re led to the elevators before the binders are snapped around his wrists.

The walk to the elevators feels as if it’s taking place in one of Hux’s ever-shifting dreams, where the scenery can change from cruel to comforting and back in a blink. He’s trying to piece together his impression of his mother: overly familiar, obnoxious, warm and a little strange, with the mannerisms of a younger woman, even in those drab clothes. His persisting resentment of her hits him in waves that recede and then crash against him again as the guards bring him back to his cell, and he wants to either remain furious or dismiss it and allow his relief to replace it.

Had he pushed her away? When? He remembers telling his father he was going for a walk with his mother-- how old had he been then? --and the look on his father’s face when he received this information. What kind of boy wants to spend time with his mother that way? I’ve never heard of it. He hadn’t forbidden it, exactly. He’d only had to look at Hux as if he was some alien thing that didn’t fit everyone’s expectations. Hux had seen Brendol Sr. look at his mother that way, too-- increasingly, as Hux got older.

Hux was afraid to be looked at like that. Everyone he knew was terrified of being different, standing out. Hux started to see his mother’s whimsical walks and long hair and out-of-season dresses as embarrassing. She was just a woman of leisure who had moved from her powerful father’s household to her more powerful husband’s. What could Hux have learned from her? What did he really lose when he stopped walking with her through the woods behind the house, whenever they could sneak away together to talk about nonsense and note the growth of some new mushrooms? What good did it do to hold someone’s hand when you’d already found your own way?

He’s close to cracking even before the guards march him directly to his room, and that’s what does it: he’s not going to the shower. He could have kept Ren’s letter. Now he’s being returned to his room without it, and the comfort of the letter feels like a gift that Hux rejected. He didn’t want to dismiss it when he could have kept it, and he didn’t mean to wait so long to write back to Ren, didn’t mean to give the impression that he might not care.

When the purple-skinned guard turns Hux toward him to remove the binders, Hux glares at him, daring him to mention the fact that Hux’s eyes have gotten wet. The other guard is leaning against the wall, bored and not even looking.

“That was your mother?” the purple-skinned guard says.

Hux blinks at him, trying to interpret this question as a taunt. But it’s earnest, and the guard appears to be speaking to Hux as if he is an actual person, not just cargo to be transported from one room to another. Hux doesn’t even know what species this guard is. He’s got a short, up-turned nose and greenish freckles.

“What’s your name?” Hux asks, keeping his voice as steady as possible. “I see you every day, and I-- I don’t know--”

“I’m Yonke,” the guard says. He gestures to his human partner, the woman, who is watching them now. “That’s Omeila.”

“Okay.” Hux nods and tries to blink the moisture from his eyes. He’s mostly successful. “Thank you.”

The door to his cell opens, the binders come off, and then he’s alone again, locked up, letter-less. He’s got the other two letters under his mattress, but when he pulls them out to reread them they don’t seem to have the same recently-given life that the one he read in that Soft Room still possessed. Hux tucks the previous letters under his shirt anyway, curling up under his blanket with his back to the door.

Dinner will come, and he’ll be paraded to his shower. Then the last day before his hearing will dawn. He pulls the blanket fully over his head and imagines what Ren would do if he were here, on the day before Hux faces his fate. Ren was always drawing his fingers through Hux’s hair in that bed, in that house, on that storm-blasted cliff. Hux fights off memories of his mother doing the same thing, when he was small enough to sit in her lap, when the two of them spent their days together on starships that raced through the galaxy as its realities shifted around them. Ren had returned those memories to Hux when he stroked Hux’s hair, calling up something deeply buried. It was a gesture that spoke to Hux without words, and without need of the Force, as his mother’s touch had communicated this just as clearly as Ren’s had: You’re mine to take care of and you’re safe here with me. That was what it had felt like, long ago, and again when he was in Ren’s arms.

Hux realizes that he didn’t even check his haircut in the mirror before getting into bed. He thinks of getting up to do so but stays under the blanket, wanting to hear thunder in the distance or rain against the window. There’s nothing but the perfect silence of his cell. Hux reaches up under his shirt and presses Ren’s letters against his skin, wanting them to speak to him the way they had seemed to when he first read them, in Ren’s voice, when they were new.

As the evening progresses, Hux finds his spirits lifting, and he’s not sure why until he’s climbing into bed, the last of the light fading and his memoir ten pages longer. He supposes the act of writing about his childhood after being forced to talk about it for much of the day might be the reason for this elevation in his mood, but when he settles under his blanket he realizes that it’s not that.

He’s anticipating seeing Ren soon. In his dreams. As if such an encounter could possibly count.

But Hux can’t deny that it has, in recent days: even when he wakes alarmed, concerned for Ren’s safety after worrying about him in a darkening wood and then coddling him in what seemed like someone else’s memory of the past, it still feels like something to hang onto. It’s still a real glimpse of Ren, somehow.

It takes him a long time to get to sleep, and he tosses and turns, fighting off the urge to reevaluate everything his mother said and did, now and in the past. He drifts off while indulging in a memory of walking in the woods behind the estate with her, his half-conscious mind inserting Ren into this memory. In it, Ren is a bodyguard who follows behind them at a distance and shows Hux his stupid, crooked, perfect smirk when Hux turns to check that he’s still there.

This gives way to real sleep, which pivots into a dream about the hearing. Hux sits alone at the center of a massive arena. There are thousands of spectators, but they’re out of sight, hidden by darkness. A spotlight washes over Hux like a merciless sun, searing his skin. A single judge watches him from behind an enormous podium. Hux can barely see this judge, half-blind in the harsh light that beats down onto him. When the judge speaks, it’s in Snoke’s voice.

“And what good were you?” the judge asks. This is the Committee’s only question, it turns out. Jek is not here, and realizing this sends a stab of panic through Hux. What if they killed him? Who will take care of Jek’s family, if they have? Or has his family been killed along with him?

Hux’s face is wet. He tries to dry it, humiliated when he hears laughter from the darkness, but his hands are tied to a post in front of him, and he can’t lift them.

“Wrong answer,” Snoke says, his voice booming. Snoke is fully himself now, as Hux remembers him, coming into view with a sneer. Snoke flips his hand the way he did when he told Hux to oversee preparations for the firing of the weapon that he’s on trial for using-- As if it was an afterthought, Hux’s silly pet project, something Snoke was allowing out of disinterest. “Go,” Snoke says. “Let them have you.”

“What?” Hux’s voice is a panicked whine. “But I didn’t answer, I haven’t--”

The crowd in the arena is pouring over its walls, rushing toward him. Hux yanks at the post that his hands are tied to, but it’s useless: he’s trapped here, can only brace himself helplessly against being ripped limb from limb. And what if they do worse, before that? He screams when he feels the crowd come upon him in a violent crash of clawing hands, and he catches sight of Snoke’s approving, sneering smile just before he rips himself out of the nightmare, waking in a fight with his blanket.

Hux scrambles out of the bed, trying to breathe as he pulls his shirt off. Both moons are out, and by their light he checks his neck in the mirror over the sink, his fingers shaking. There are no fresh bruises on his throat, which burns with the phantom memory of being crushed between Ren’s hands. It wasn’t real. Just a dream.

He stares at himself in the mirror, recoiling when his eyes look somehow unrecognizable. He can’t even determine why. Maybe it’s more his hair that looks wrong-- Too short. His mother wasn’t wrong about that.

Hux turns and looks at his bed, the blanket thrown to the floor. He could sleep again. He could hope that he would find Ren in a new nightmare, that Ren would hold out his hand and lift Hux above the worst memories and fears of the future, but Hux can’t count on that, and they’re only dreams, no matter how real they feel when he’s still asleep.

He goes to his desk and flips past the pages of his memoir, to a blank page in the middle of the notepad. Carefully, he rips this page out.

When his fingers have stopped shaking and his breath has steadied, he begins a letter to Ren. There are long pauses as he considers what to say and how best to phrase it. He’s not like Ren; he can’t just sling his emotions out at top speed and expect them to be translated by the reader. This sort of writing comes less easily than the memoir has so far. Hux works at it with the determination he once brought to selecting the right words for an important speech, and by sunrise he’s filled the whole page. In the glow of the last dawn before the day that will mark the start of his hearing, he puts his palm over the letter he’s written, willing his touch to sink into it.

“Are you coming back?” he asks, whispering this. He didn’t have the nerve to put it in the letter. He’s talking to Ren. He’s talking about his dreams. “I’m waiting,” he says, and he lifts the letter to his face. He kisses it swiftly, then again, and checks over his shoulder before folding it in half. As if someone might have seen.

 

**

Chapter Text

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.

 

 

**

Chapter Text

Hux makes a perfunctory attempt at getting to sleep on the night after his first day at court, not expecting to have much success. He only slept for a few hours the night before, and eventually his exhaustion rolls him into a brief, rattled kind of nap. He wakes half-remembering a dream about finding Ren in his usual habitat of nearly impenetrable darkness, child-sized again and filthy for some reason. Hux sits up and blinks at the giant window, the blue moon.

In the dream, Hux had cleaned Ren’s dirty face with his tongue. He had also begun making vague plans to enlist Ren in the First Order’s army, perhaps as some sort of specially appointed, Force-using assassin. Hux leans back onto his pillow and rubs his hands over his face, listening for any hint of Ren that might be lingering in his head after that dream. There’s nothing, and he lies awake wondering if Ren will be able to reach him in their waking hours again, once Hux is at the courthouse and the broadcast is live. Having Ren suddenly in his head during the hearing was extremely unsettling and incredibly comforting: Ren’s usual twofold effect on him.

Hux gives up on sleep and goes to his desk, feeling light-headed and dozy but also like he must do something rather than wallow in bed feeling sorry for himself and having useless thoughts about Ren. He shuffles through his information about the five destroyed planets, dreading the forthcoming ‘impact statements’ of the Committee members who have elected to give them. He lingers on the pages about Raklan, wondering why Ander Fillamon hasn’t volunteered to give a statement. Perhaps Fillamon made up his mind about Hux before the start of the hearing and sees no reason to prolong it. That would be in keeping with the culture Fillamon was apparently raised in. The Order cherishes efficiency, after all.

Hux picks up his ridiculous safety pen and flips past the twenty-eight pages of his attempt at a memoir. He’s not sure what he intends to write when he puts the pen to paper.

Tomorrow the New Republic shall vote on whether or not to execute me.

He stares at this sentence, disliking it. It doesn’t fit in this section of his memoir, which is still concerned with his early childhood memories, and it’s not a letter to Ren, who already has this information. Furthermore, the sentence itself feels clumsily constructed and bland. He snarls down at it when he realizes it’s a kind of diary entry, tears out the page and flips back to work on his memoir, picking up with a passage about his half-brother, who has been heavy in Hux’s thoughts for the first time since his childhood, after that meeting with Elana under the glow of holo fish.

My earliest memories of my brother are from our family’s time spent living on a space station in the Wim system. Prior to that, my mother must have been more successful at keeping him away from me, but once we were installed on this space station, in a cramped apartment, the three of us often alone together while my father put the finishing touches on his plans to relocate his Academy to a new planet, there was really no way to consistently avoid Brendol Jr., who did not respond well to the change from living on starships to something more resembling solid ground. I was five years old and he was eleven. The space station was a mostly lawless place where a family like ours could hide from the Republic’s authorities. Accordingly, it was also a place where we had to work to avoid scoundrels and criminals of all types. We children were certainly not permitted to leave the apartment unaccompanied, and even my mother was encouraged to stay inside until my father could join her on her errands. Brendol Jr. was not clever, but he was rather determined, and he was often in the midst of some scheme to sneak out and explore the space station on his own. He would not infrequently threaten to bring me with him in a duffel bag and sell me to slavers.

This struck me as a thing that was in legitimate danger of happening to me, and yet I wasn’t exactly afraid. I think I trusted that my mother would find and retrieve me even if Brendol Jr. did manage to hand me over to such characters, and in this sense I began to feel sorry for my older brother for the first time in my life, as he had no mother. My mother reminded me relatively often that she’d had nothing to do with the creation of Brendol Jr. in the way she had done with me. As I didn’t understand the mechanics of this at the time, I thought of my half-brother as someone whom our father had created on his own, prior to finding a worthy woman to make a child with-- that second child being therefore superior. It struck me as the most pitiable state of existence I could then imagine, to have no one so solidly and constantly on your side as my mother was on mine. Brendol Jr. and I both understood that we held value for our father, but I don’t think either of us ever had a moment of feeling irreplaceable to him. To my mother, I was irreplaceable, and I was so certain of this that I almost wanted to dare Brendol Jr. to sell me to slavers, just to be able to gloat when she came for me and undid his deed with ease.

Hux is still writing when the sun begins to rise, disliking most of what he’s working on but unwilling to stop. It’s overly sentimental, this section: too complimentary toward his mother, for one thing, as if Hux has reverted to his five-year-old view of her in the writing of it. He’ll edit it later, or perhaps not, because allowing himself to be overly sentimental here may make Elana’s later abandonment of him that much more profound in the narrative.

He looks up at the window when he can no longer deny that it is morning and that Jek is surely on his way here. Hux will be allowed to change into civilian clothes in a conference room again, and then they will travel to the city together in an armored transport, surrounded by guards and accompanied by other armored transports that are identical in appearance. There is a great deal of security being expended to keep Hux from being assassinated on this way to or from the hearing. The warden personally informed Hux of this yesterday, either in sincere complaint at being inconvenienced or to put the idea of Hux being hunted by renegade revenge-seekers more firmly in Hux’s head at the start of his hearing. As if Hux could forget that this prison is the only remotely safe place in the galaxy for him anymore.

He manages only a few bites from his breakfast tray before the guards come to collect him. These are not the guards Hux prefers. Yonke and Omelia shuttle him to and fro mostly in the evenings, and though he still has the feeling Omelia hates him, she at least doesn’t express it so obviously as these two morning shift guards, both human men, who make his binders especially tight today. Hux doesn’t give them the satisfaction of complaining, and doesn’t plan on bothering to ask their names now or in the future. They communicate plainly enough, without needing to speak, that they would spit on Hux before revealing any personal information about themselves.

It’s a relief to be delivered to Jek, less so to find that Elana is with him. The conference room that the guards close them into is at least void of any whimsical holo projections, and Hux tries to take comfort in this when he lets his mother throw her arms around him. He contemplates the clothing that’s laid out on the table for him: the same tunic and pants from yesterday, the black shoes resting on the seat of a nearby chair. He’ll have to change in front of his mother, apparently.

“I hated not being able to speak to you yesterday,” Elana says when she pulls back to look at Hux, her gaze darting around his face a bit frantically. She was in the audience at the courthouse the day before, waving from the back whenever Hux half-turned to check that she was still there. She’s put on makeup and a conservative but stylish black dress with a little matching jacket. Two thin sections of her hair are braided and pinned back in a way that makes her look younger than her years. Hux appreciates the effort.

“We don’t have a lot of time here before we have to leave,” Jek says, nodding to the clothes on the table.

Hux sighs and pulls off his shirt, replacing it with the tunic.

“You look thin,” his mother says. “What are they feeding you?”

“Prison food,” Hux says, rolling his eyes. He’s got his back to her as he does up the tunic’s buttons and watches Jek shift through some screens on his data pad. “What do we need to go over?” Hux asks when Jek glances up at him, then back down when Hux kicks off his slippers and shoves down his pants.

“I don’t want to prompt you too much just now,” Jek says. “I need your answers to feel organic. The only thing I’d be careful about is what you say about Kylo Ren. I think Faza is really into this theory that he’s the one who choked you, and you can’t easily explain that he wasn’t without getting into the whole-- Possession thing.”

“Possession?” Elana says.

Hux winces. For a moment he’d forgotten she was there.

“Um,” Jek says, glancing at her and then back at Hux. “To be honest, I don’t entirely understand it myself.”

“What do I care if they think Ren choked me?” Hux asks. He buttons his slacks and sits to put on the shoes. “They can’t prove it.”

“No, but if they seem to have caught you in a lie it will really hurt your credibility, and the Committee may see you as a calculating phony rather than someone who has a true story that needs telling.”

“Kylo Ren?” Elana says. “That’s the name of your lover, correct?”

“My-- Don’t use that word!” Hux glowers at her, his face getting hot. He whirls on Jek. “You told her?”

“He told me nothing,” Elana says. “I listened yesterday to the testimony. That man’s name came up so much. I thought, he must be the one who writes to Elan. Hiding together-- I know something about that.”

“Well, I hope everyone else in the fucking galaxy hasn’t caught on,” Hux says, snapping this at Jek as if it’s his fault. “Because I’m really pretty fucked if so.”

“Not necessarily,” Jek says.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“You shouldn’t be so crass when you’re speaking to this Committee,” Elana says, tapping Hux on the shoulder. “Or so angry. Haven’t you told him this?” she asks, addressing Jek.

A guard raps on the door and Hux curses again, under his breath this time. He leans down to finishing tying his shoes, his face still hot and his heart already racing. His mother knows he got a letter from a man; that’s the only reason she was able to put one and two together about Ren. Other people don’t have that information.

“It’s a good thing he didn’t write to me again,” Hux says when he stands, hoping this sounds at least halfway convincing. “Carrying a letter from him into court would be inviting disaster.”

Jek makes a face and glances at the door. They usually get less than a minute to compose themselves after the initial warning knock from the guards.

“He did actually write another one,” Jek says, whispering this. “It’s back at my office. I just couldn’t bring it today, I’m sorry, there’s too much risk with the focus they’ve brought to him--”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Hux says, his heart doing a kind of stuttering dance between rage and disappointment, with a helping of regret for how sharply he just spoke. Jek means well. He would have brought the letter if he could have done so in good conscience. “It wouldn’t have been wise to bring-- Such a thing,” Hux says, nodding to himself. “Not today. Thank you for using your better judgment. There’s no time left to be sentimental.”

“Don’t say that,” Elana says. “Don’t say anything about time, not yet.”

“You’re both going to do great today,” Jek says, walking to them as the guards throw the door open. Jek puts one hand on Hux’s shoulder, the other on Elana’s. “Don’t worry,” he says, whispering. “I have a plan.”

“I should hope so?” Hux says, boggling at him. Jek winks and ushers him toward the waiting guards.

They pass the journey into the city in the same grim silence as the day before. Hux watches the scenery pass by outside and lets his mother cling to his arm, though her trembling is increasing his own anxiety. He has some confidence that they won’t execute him immediately, during the live broadcast, should the vote go that way. Still, he can’t stop imagining that this might be his last time in a transport, and these might be the last mountains he ever sees, then the last desert, the last sleepy suburb lined with rainbow fig trees. As the transport draws closer to the city, he’s already hoping to hear Ren in his head, wondering if they’ll need to say goodbye today and wishing like hell, despite his own better judgment, that Jek had been foolish enough to bring him that letter from Ren. It could be the last one they’ll ever exchange.

The transport enters an underground garage on the outskirts of the city and makes the rest of the journey to the courthouse through a long, dark tunnel reserved for a passenger such as Hux: so infamous that their mere presence in a standard street transport, armored or not, would be disruptive to civilian life. At the start of the hearing yesterday, before he was ushered into the soundproofed interior courtroom, Hux could hear the enormous crowd gathered outside the courthouse, though he couldn’t make out what they were chanting. He supposes he probably doesn’t want to know.

Knowing what he’ll face makes getting out of the transport a bit easier today, though he’s still a stranger to giving testimony to the room he’s being brought back to. At a certain point in the journey toward that room, Hux and Jek are required to part from Elana, and she leans up to kiss Hux’s cheek. Her eyes are red-rimmed but dry.

“I used to think you could save me from anything,” Hux says, suddenly not caring that they have an audience of impatient courtroom guards. It feels like it could be his last chance to speak with her like this. “I thought-- Even if my brother sold me to slavers, I assumed you’d be there swiftly to bring me home.”

“It never came to that because I protected you so well,” Elana says, holding Hux’s gaze in a way that makes him realize this is where he learned it from, this ability to appear calm in the face of anything, anything. She nods once and keeps her eyes on Hux’s as Jek nudges him toward the bailiff who is calling to them from an elevator. “I did forget how to protect you when someone told me I couldn’t do it anymore,” Elana says. “But now I’ve remembered. Elan-- I won’t lose you again. Don’t worry.”

Hux listens for Ren’s voice in his head on the elevator ride up to the courtroom. Maybe he even calls for Ren, or tries to. There’s nothing in response, probably because the broadcast hasn’t started. Hux thinks it’s somewhat ridiculous that a live holo broadcast could aid the fucking Force, though he supposes it also makes a kind of sense that Ren is able to zero in on him from afar when he can see exactly what Hux is doing at the moment.

“So I’m going to call your mom to the stand first,” Jek explains, maybe just to have something to say, because Hux already knows this. “Then you. Faza will question you after I do. I’m not sure if she’ll want to ask your mother anything.”

Hux hopes not. He feels a surge of protectiveness at the thought of his mother enduring Faza’s questions.

“What’s become of Pella?” Hux asks, remembering how he felt protective of her, too, yesterday.

“The Resistance is dealing with her,” Jek says. “Classified so far, but when she was led from the courtroom she got a few quotes in with the press when they ran up to shove microphones in her face. She told them she was given a mission to fulfill her destiny by sacrificing her life for the Order, and the experience of living among the Resistance changed her so much that she’s willing to sacrifice herself not for that ideology but for one man, because every life matters, and she believes you would come to understand that, too, if given the chance, and something about how you’d made her feel like her life mattered, even back under First Order command-- Oh, she said it better than that, but trust me, it was a good thing.” Jek winks again.

“Why are you doing that?” Hux asks, hoping that it’s not because Jek is nervous.

“Doing what?” Jek asks, and the elevator doors open.

Hux is lead into the courtroom by the guards, Jek following. Leia is already seated in the raised seat between the other six Committee members, and Hux is again placed in front of the two who radiate unbridled hatred when they look at him, despite the one with the trunk being seemingly incapable of actual facial expressions. Hux can feel it anyway. Beside this trunked creature is Botta, who just seems distracted, and on the other side of Leia sits Ander Fillamon.

Same as the day before, Hux gets a bad feeling from Fillamon. It’s not hatred; it’s not that simple. Hux looks away quickly when Fillamon’s cold blue eyes meet his, and he shifts his gaze to the Qusoa representative, who is sniffling already but not full-on blubbering like she was during much of yesterday’s proceedings. Qusoa was the peace-loving planet that abhorred war and celebrated forgiveness, and Jek continues to insist that they can count on a vote for life from her. Beside her is the Thulmar, whose presence continues to unnerve Hux in a way directly opposed to Fillamon’s intense scrutiny. The Thulmar frequently doesn’t seem to be paying attention. According to Hux’s notes on the destroyed planets, Thulmars believe in fate in some particularly ironclad way, as if all of time has already played out and they’re only living according to a script. They have visions that guide their decisions, and rituals involving drugs are typically what result in these so-called visions.

“Is the Thulmar high?” Hux asks, whispering this to Jek when they’re seated together and waiting for Leia to call the room to order. Jek glances up from his data pad and studies the Thulmar for a few seconds.

“Hard to tell,” Jek says. “Don’t worry about the Thulmar, though.”

“Don’t worry about one of the six people who is voting on whether to kill me or not, got it.”

“Look,” Jek says, giving Hux a somewhat apologetic glance that worries him. “My research indicates that the Thulmar, the Utrian and the Eurc-Wentonian came here to see you dead. That’s just the reality that we’re working with. Justice Botta and the Qusoa rep won’t want to sentence you to death, meanwhile. That leaves the human from Raklan. That’s why I’m planning to appeal to human sympathy in particular. We need him to cast the tying vote, and then we’ll be counting on Leia to show mercy.”

“Planning to appeal to human sympathy,” Hux says, staring at Jek when he looks away. “By putting my mother on the stand, you mean?”

“Sure,” Jek says, nodding down at his notes. “Among other things.”

“What--”

“Okay,” Leia says, loudly enough to draw the attention of everyone in the room. “I don’t see the need for any opening remarks from me on this second day of the hearing, so if counsel for the New Republic and Mr. Hux are ready to begin, I’d like to get started with our first witness for the day.”

“I’m ready, General,” Jek says.

“Counsel for the New Republic is prepared to begin,” Faza says. Hux doesn’t like how calm she appears, after being at least apparently unsettled by the proceedings the day before.

“Great,” Leia says. “Mr. Porkins, I believe your first witness is Elana Hux?”

“That’s correct,” Jek says.

Hux’s mother approaches from the same door that Finn and the others entered through the day before. She’s poised and expressionless, which may not be the best approach, but her cool demeanor makes Hux feel proud of their shared culture, maligned as it is here and despite the fact that it crumpled them both into its palm when it could. At least they never broke character in public, whatever happened to them. Hux realizes as he watches his mother take her seat that he’s afraid to see her break down in front of these people. He doesn’t want that, even if Jek believes, perhaps not mistakenly, that such a thing could save Hux.

“Please state your name for the court,” Jek says.

“Elana Levchen Hux.”

“And your relationship to Mr. Hux?”

“I’m Elan’s mother.”

There’s some muttering from the audience, though Hux’s mother’s involvement in the hearing has been reported in the press for a week now, according to Jek. Perhaps this commentary involves her appearance, or some disbelief that Hux does have a mother after all, and that her concern for his welfare wasn’t purely a rumor.

“Please tell the court where you reside,” Jek says.

“On Nestor, in the Syob system.”

“And that’s a New Republic planet, correct?”

“It is.”

“When did you defect from the First Order to the New Republic.”

“Three years ago.” Elana answers every question as if she’s throwing a little dagger: precisely and without hesitation.

“And why did you defect to the New Republic?” Jek asks.

“Because the First Order had taken everything I loved from me.”

There’s a murmur from the audience. Hux stays very still. He considers calling out to Ren again, but perhaps now is not the time to send his mind elsewhere.

“And when you say everything you loved,” Jek says, “Can you explain what that means?”

“Yes. The man I loved, who was a stormtrooper, killed when he was twenty years old, and then my son, Elan, who was taken from me, for all intents and purposes, when he was deemed old enough to begin training to be an officer.”

“And how old was Elan when the Order’s social structure dictated that he be placed into this sort of training?”

“Six years old.”

“The same age that the stormtroopers are placed into formal training?”

“That’s correct.”

“Speaking of stormtroopers,” Jek says, clearly enjoying the murmur of curious commentary from the audience. “You said that the man you loved was a stormtrooper who lost his life in battle?”

“That’s right.” Her expression hardens. “BN-4529. I knew him as Flick.”

“And how did you come to know a stormtrooper personally?”

“My household was attacked by a certain faction of the Empire when I was a teenager. My father was kidnapped, and I was held hostage while this faction interrogated him in light of accusations that he sympathized with a competing interest. One stormtrooper protected me when some officers who held me hostage threatened to hurt me. For four days I was in his company, while we hid together. I fell in love with him. I was never allowed to be with him, of course, outside of that situation, and he died in service to the Empire soon afterward. But I never forgot him. And I never forgave the Empire or its successor for taking this man from me and disposing of him as if he was nothing. As if he was just another one of their suits of armor to be deployed and destroyed.”

Hux has to withhold a snort, wondering if she practiced that rhyme. He’s proud of her, and on the edge of his seat, despite the fact that he already knows this story. The audience in the courtroom has quieted. Leia seems fascinated, too, and she’s leaning slightly toward Elana from her seat above the panel and the witness stand. Ander Fillamon is staring at Hux again.

If looks could fucking kill, Hux thinks, shifting his gaze away from Fillamon. He feels Ren hearing this, a sort of joy at their renewed connection ballooning in Ren and becoming so huge that it reaches Hux, too.

He thinks he knows you, Ren says, in Hux’s head.

Who? Hux asks, half-listening to Jek as he begins to ask Elana about Brendol Sr.

The blond man on the panel, Ren says.

Well, Hux says to Ren, struggling not to glance at Fillamon again. Fillamon is still staring; Hux can feel it, or maybe he’s feeling Ren’s notice of it. I don’t know him. I’d never seen or heard of him before this circus.

It’s not that he thinks you’ve met before, Ren says. He thinks he knows you in some other way. It’s not clear to me, from this distance.

I’m glad you’re here, Hux says. Or-- That you’re with me, whatever.

Me too. Hux--

But be quiet for a minute, Hux says, because he needs to pay attention.

Okay. Sorry.

Though it’s a massively stupid sentiment at this point in time, Hux feels guilty for hurting Ren’s feelings. He resists the urge to roll his eyes at himself, not wanting the cameras to catch it, and refocuses on his mother’s testimony.

“So despite the fact that you didn’t have romantic feelings for Brendol Hux, Sr.,” Jek says, “You held no particular resentments toward him?”

“Not at that point,” Elana says. “He’d given me my happiness back, had given me my baby, and he allowed me and Elan to be each other’s world in those frightening transitional years, when the Empire fell and the First Order began to cobble itself together from the scraps. I was allowed to stay out of all that, and so was Elan. We were happy, despite everything. He was a happy child, especially in my company. Easy to love.”

“And when would you say that your relationship with him changed?” Jek asks.

“When he went off to day school,” Elana says. She looks at Hux. He feels something pulling in his chest when his eyes meet hers, a kind of tightening. It might just be Ren struggling not to blurt something or other. “He liked school, and he was a good student,” Elana says. “He liked having his little uniform perfectly neat. I did that for him-- This was before we could afford any household help beyond the most basic service droids. I would wash and iron Elan’s uniforms and would always have them ready for him in the mornings. At one point, maybe a year into his schooling, doing so began to make me sad. It felt like my only remaining connection to him.”

“And why was that?” Jek asks.

“His father. Brendol didn’t believe that a boy should be spending much time with his mother after a certain age. He thought I would weaken his budding little officer with whimsical things like walks through the woods or conversations about anything beyond Imperial history and the forthcoming glory of the Order.” She sniffs. “I didn’t salivate over power the way that Brendol did. He knew this about me. He didn’t want Elan catching that attitude from me. So he pulled Elan in one direction and pushed me in another.”

“And you allowed this to happen?” Jek asks. His tone seems to indicate that he anticipates this would be one of Faza’s antagonizing questions. She’s making notes at her table.

Elana nods. “Brendol had gotten rid of his first wife so easily,” she says. “He was typically not cruel to me, but beneath our every interaction there was the implication that the same could be done to me. It was an understanding, maybe, more like. If I fought him on something like spending more time with Elan, or rounding out Elan’s view of the world a bit, Brendol would have cast me to the wind same as he did his first wife. He would have maintained complete control over Elan, just as he had over Brendol Jr. I was afraid Elan would end up like his older brother had, if I wasn’t at least haunting the edges of his life like a ghost. I tried to sneak any time with Elan that I could. I tried to speak to him on matters that his father wouldn’t approve of. But.” She shakes her head, her lips pressing together when she looks at Hux again. “You know how children respond when you tell them that the most horrible thing is to be different from the other children. They take that very deeply to heart, at that age. And Elan saw the proof of it in everything about the people we lived among. No, he wanted to be just what was asked of him. He was a good boy, at heart, and we told him that was how to continue to be good. I shrunk away and told myself that it was for the best, in the long run, for him to become powerful the way that his father had, by protecting himself from the things that had hurt me-- Attachments, sentiments, dreams of things that weren’t possible for any of us.”

She pauses there and exhales. Hux can feel his heart pounding. The room is very quiet. He feels something like a sigh from Ren, in counterpoint to his racing heartbeat.

“And do you regret allowing your son to embrace the life his father wanted for him?” Jek asks.

“What kind of question is that?” Elana says, suddenly sharp-eyed. “Sorry,” she says when she’s heard herself, and she glances at Leia. The look that passes between them feels like a wound that opens slowly in Hux’s chest, and he has to swallow a gasp when he feels Ren seeing it, too, and feeling it like a spreading ache. “I only mean that the answer should be obvious,” Elana says, speaking to Leia. “Of course I regret letting some outside forces who thought they knew better than me take my son away from me and turn him into someone who did this terrible thing. Of course I do.”

Elana returns her gaze to Jek. Leia turns away, too, staring at nothing in particular, her lips slightly parted.

Does she know? Ren asks. He sounds angry.

Does who know what? Hux asks.

Your mother. Does she know about me?

Not the bit about you being seduced away from your mother by an evil wizard, no.

But she knows other things? Now Ren just sounds surprised.

Hush, Hux says. His mother is getting emotional on the stand, but a layperson might not be able to tell.

“You’ll have to forgive me if this sounds like another question to which the answer is obvious,” Jek says, “But could you tell us why you regret losing that special relationship with Hux?”

“Because I thought I was protecting him when I let them pull him from me,” she says. “I thought that the Order could give him something real, something which I couldn’t. I knew I was wrong, in my heart, but when I felt helpless I tried to lie to myself, to believe that Elan would find some kind of joy in what Brendol and Brendol’s school and the Order could give him. But no, I-- I was supposed to protect him from all of that. I know that now. I knew that then. I was a coward, thinking I couldn’t get away from them and also take him with me. I’d been raised by a man like Brendol-- My father told me there was nothing but tragedy and ruin for a woman on her own in the wilderness that existed outside of the Order’s protection. I was still a girl in my heart, still so naive, too frightened to try to do anything on my own. By the time I worked up the nerve to even stay away on a kind of extended vacation, Elan had started at the Academy.”

“The Academy,” Jek says. The word strikes Hux like a stray bullet, and he can feel Ren jerk protectively in response, as if Hux can be retroactively shielded from it. “That was Brendol Sr.’s school, correct?”

“Yes,” Elana says. “Brendol sent me some businesslike transmission to tell me Elan had done well in his first year, and I sent Elan a holo call when he was home for the end of year break.”

“And how did that call go?” Jek asks.

Hux listens for the answer. He can’t remember. That break, with nothing for him to do but think and spend time alone, had been torture.

“He was so different,” Elana says. “Maybe just because I had gone, and because I was vague about my plan to come home. Elan seemed to hate me, and I knew he was right to. But I thought there was no going back. That’s how it feels when the Order controls your life. They set you on a path and they tell you, ‘the alternative is nothing. Death, disgrace, torment in the hands of our enemies.’ I had made my decision. I had lost my son to Brendol’s army. That’s what I thought that day. Elan’s eyes were so cold on that holo call. I thought that meant he was gone. That he didn’t belong to me anymore.”

Are they showing my face? Hux asks, sending this desperately to Ren. He can feel how red his cheeks are, and the corners of his eyes are stinging.

They’re showing your mother, Ren says. It sounds like a lie, or an avoidance of the question. He didn’t say ‘no.’

“And what do you think that coldness on the holo call meant now?” Jek asks. “Upon reflection?”

“He was angry because he needed me.” Everything Elana has been holding back rushes to the surface, but just for a moment. She swallows it as best she can and adjusts her near-perfect posture. “And he wanted me to see that. And to do something about it. But I felt that I couldn’t. I failed him, in that way. Thinking I had nothing to give when I had everything he needed. He was hiding behind that anger when we spoke on that holo call, and on all the ones I attempted afterward. Elan used that anger as a shield. It protected him, when I had failed to.”

“I’m going to stop the questions here, General,” Jek says when Elana lifts her shaking hand to her face.

“Fine,” Leia says, and she passes a handkerchief to Elana, who whispers an inaudible thanks. Where did the General get a handkerchief from? It’s just one of those things mothers seem to have, Hux supposes. Some mothers, anyway.

Distract me with something, Hux thinks, begging this of Ren. Please, hurry.

I got your letter, Ren says.

Good. Hux has to look away when his mother meets his eyes, the handkerchief pressed to her trembling lips. More, just. Make me think of anything but this.

I dreamed about you, Ren says. You licked my cheek.

I did, yes. I know.

Hux is chewing on the end of his tongue, praying that the cameras aren’t on his face as Faza approaches the stand to question his mother. His plan to have Ren take his mind off of what is happening hasn’t worked, because if Ren had that dream, too, it means something that Hux is not prepared to think about right now. Meanwhile, Elana has mostly regained her composure. She’s dabbing at her eyes with the handkerchief. After she has, she settles her gaze on Faza.

I want to come to the court, Ren says, with an angry, childish determination that almost makes Hux laugh very inappropriately. I want to come there now and get you.

Well, Hux replies. Don’t.

I won’t. Can’t, I know. I have to deal with Snoke first.

Oh, fuck, Ren, can we not discuss Snoke right now?

Sorry. Right.

“Mrs. Hux,” Faza says, drawing Hux’s attention back to his present surroundings. “Or is it Ms. Levchen?”

“I still go by Hux,” Elana says. “It’s-- My connection to Elan, I think, that made me keep it.”

“That’s very sweet,” Faza says, unconvincingly. “I just have a few questions.”

Elana waits, blinking away the last of her near-breakdown. Hux has calmed, too, though he fears his face is still blazing.

“You work as a floral assistant on Nestor,” Faza says. “Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Elana says.

“And do you make an hourly wage in that position?” Faza asks.

“I--” Elana frowns at the question. “Yes,” she says. “It’s an hourly wage.”

“And if you don’t mind, can you tell us what that wage is?”

“Excuse me, General,” Jek says, standing. “May I ask if this is going to be made relevant somehow?”

“I assure you, General,” Faza says. “I have a point to make with these questions.”

“Fine,” Leia says. She looks a bit wary but mostly curious. “I’ll allow it. Please sit, Mr. Porkins.”

Hux leans over to whisper in Jek’s ear when he’s seated again. “Surely she’s not trying to imply--”

“Shh,” Jek says. “It’s okay.”

“It’s twelve credits per hour,” Elana says. She looks somewhat vicious now, like she’s ready for a fight. Faza seems pleased.

“Great,” Faza says. “Now, can you give me an estimate of what the value of the estate where you lived with Brendol Hux on Victoria would have been, had you been allowed to sell it and keep those credits?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Elana says. “I was never a property owner. My father and my husband didn’t share financial details with me.”

“I see. But this was a somewhat sprawling estate, correct? And your father and your husband both made substantial salaries in the boom times for the Empire and again, later, when the First Order was in power?”

“I’m sorry to object again,” Jek says, half-standing this time. “But may I ask how many questions Ms. Faza plans to ask before we come to the relevant part?”

“Please get to the point,” Leia says to Faza, who nods.

“Had you ever traveled to this planet before your appearance for this hearing?” Faza asks.

“No,” Elana says.

“Do you often travel for pleasure, on your floral assistant salary?”

“No.” Elana scoffs and glances at Leia, who is looking away from her and frowning slightly at Faza.

My mother doesn’t like this, Ren says, as if to console Hux with this information. She thinks it’s tasteless.

I don’t think it’s being done for your mother’s benefit, Hux sends, his fists trembling under the table now.

“And prior to your defection to the New Republic,” Faza says, “Is it true that you traveled very frequently, to many luxurious resorts and large cities in dozens of systems?”

“I was running away from my life,” Elana says. “That was how I accomplished this, yes.”

“I see. You took comfort in that. It was enjoyable?”

“It was lonely,” Elana says.

“But you continued to do this for approximately sixteen years, nonetheless?”

“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Elana says. “I wasn’t allowed to do anything else.”

“Okay. So it was probably a big adjustment, after you’d defected, to lose the ability to travel for fun once in a while?”

“General,” Jek says, standing. “If this is going where I think it’s going, it’s extremely offensive, entirely speculative and totally out of order, in my view.”

“If I may get to my point before you rule on Mr. Porkins’ objection?” Faza says.

Leia purses her lips and glances from Faza to Porkins, then back again. “You can have one more question related to this line of reasoning,” she says.

“Mrs. Hux,” Faza says, refocusing on Elana, who is still confused, frowning and worrying that handkerchief between her hands. “Did counsel for your son pay for your journey here, and your hotel stay, your meals, and that lovely new dress you’re wearing?”

“Okay,” Leia says when Elana’s mouth falls open, the audience whispering in what sounds like a combination of surprise and delight. “Let’s not.”

“If you won’t allow the question then I have nothing further for the witness,” Faza says. Despite Leia’s reaction, she looks pleased.

And why shouldn’t she? Leia doesn’t get a vote without a tie. Certain Committee members look as if they find this line of reasoning very relevant indeed. Surely it’s easy enough to believe that a heartless war criminal would have an opportunistic mother who only showed up in court because she’s a pauper who wanted a free vacation and some new clothes. Hux is shaking with rage. He glances at Ander Fillamon, suddenly unafraid to meet his cold stare. Fillamon seems unimpressed.

Hux.

That’s Ren, but Jek is tugging on Hux’s arm and in more immediate need of attention. Jek shows Hux a note that he typed onto his data pad.

Faza is trying to rile you up prior to your testimony. Don’t let her do it.

Hux nods, though he’s not sure he can comply with that request. His heart is slamming, and he keeps half-consciously rejecting Ren’s attempts to reach him, which is unfortunate, because he wants Ren more than anything right now. He wants Ren to storm in here and immobilize everyone but Hux, Elana and Jek, possibly also Leia. Hux wants to run the fuck out of here with Ren and set everything on fire in their wake, but he can’t run to Ren right now, not even in his head. He needs to concentrate.

“You may step down,” Leia says to Elana, gently, when Elana just sits there trembling with the same silent rage that Hux is experiencing, if not more of it. Elana jerks her head in Leia’s direction and softens her expression, nods.

“They said I could sit in the audience?” she says.

“That would be fine,” Leia says.

Elana gets up, steadies herself and marches past Faza’s table, not deigning to look her way. She reaches out to Hux as she passes, and he grabs for her hand, holding it until she’s walked out of reach, beckoned forward by a guard. The crowd murmurs, stirs.

“Ready?” Jek asks, and for once Hux doesn’t mind the softness of his tone. He nods.

“Will Mr. Hux be taking the stand now?” Leia asks.

“Yes, General,” Jek says, and the murmur of the audience rises to a dull roar. Leia has to ask for order as Hux approaches the witness stand, smoothing his hands down over the front of his tunic.

I’m here, Ren says as Hux sits. If you want me.

I always want you, Hux sends back, without pausing to think about it. He’s facing the room now, the audience a mass of angry attention, a collection of more different species than Hux has ever seen in one place. Just don’t interrupt me while I’m doing this, Hux adds, afraid Ren will interpret his unintentionally candid admission as an invitation to start a running commentary.

It doesn’t matter what they decide, Ren says, or maybe just thinks. Hux’s head is spinning, and for one horrific moment he’s afraid he’ll black out, watching as the hovering recorder droids adjust their lenses to pull in closer on his face. I’m going to fix everything, Ren promises.

No, Hux says, and he meets Jek’s eyes as he feels the threat of losing consciousness fading away. Let me fix some things myself.

“Please state your name for the record,” Jek says.

A formality, and a laughably redundant question. Approximately everyone in the galaxy is watching. Every one of them knows Hux’s name. He sits up a bit straighter, clinging to the sense of related pride that he wants to keep, even if he has to keep it in a very small box that’s also lined with shame.

“Elan Bartram Hux,” he says, trying to be proud of this, too. To his surprise, he finds that he is. It’s his mother’s name, his grandfather’s, and his father’s. He got something from each of them, and he’s survived to this point because of it.

“And do you understand why you’re here today, Mr. Hux?”

They’ve practiced this question. Hux hates the answer. He nods.

“I gave up my life to the Order when I was six years old,” he says. “And now I’ve placed my life in the hands of the New Republic. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done this, and lucky to have a chance to try to account and atone for what I did while serving the Order. I would not have been given this chance by my former associates.”

“When you say you gave up your life to the Order,” Jek says. “What do you mean by that?”

“The Order asks everyone in their service to think first of the mission,” Hux says. “That mission is ostensibly to bring peace to the galaxy through rigid management of every planet, every system. But we all know that’s a lie. And I don’t just mean the people here in this room today. Everyone who grows up in the grip of the First Order knows that they had better hang on to however much power they can get, or to whomever holds the most power over them, because that is the only thing that is truly of value.”

Hux hates this answer, too, and is eager for the follow-up question.

“That’s certainly the impression that we all get here in the New Republic,” Jek says. “But as much as that’s the Order’s design for all of those who wear their uniforms or their armor, there are some cracks in that design, are there not?”

“People are still people,” Hux says, shrugging one shoulder. “Secretly, for the most part.”

“Can you explain what you mean by that?”

“We keep our personal lives very close. We hide everything that might call attention to us as an individual. The things we want for ourselves that don’t fit with the Order’s goals, the relationships that develop, that sort of thing.”

“I see,” Jek says, nodding, as if he hasn’t heard this before. Hux would roll his eyes at this performance if he could, though he appreciates it. “And what would you say that you hid about yourself from your fellow officers in the Order?”

Hux stares at Jek, stunned. They didn’t practice this question. Jek gives him an encouraging look. As if he’s just thrown a ball in Hux’s direction and trusts him to catch it.

“I resented the Supreme Leader,” Hux says. There’s muttering from the crowd. “Snoke, he was called. He found out about my resentment, eventually. And I was sent up the river without a hearing.”

“And why did you resent your Supreme Leader?”

Hux knows what Jek wants him to say, and why they didn’t practice this part. Jek wants Hux to admit that he came to hate Snoke for the way he’d treated his apprentice. He wants Hux to talk about Ren, even after warning him to be careful about doing so.

“Snoke was not transparent with me,” Hux says. “About his goals for the Order or about his mystical religion.”

Jek’s face falls, but he recovers quickly, nodding.

“And it was Snoke who handed down the order to use the weapon which destroyed the Hosnian system,” Jek says. “Correct?”

“Yes.”

“And after you carried out his command, when Starkiller base was destroyed, Snoke had you ousted, is that right?”

“That’s right.”

“And how did he accomplish this ousting? Did he tell you were demoted, or outright dismissed?”

“No. He had eight of his officers kidnap and torture me for seventeen days.”

“And why do you think he did that?”

Hux isn’t sure how to answer this, though it is one of the questions they rehearsed. There’s a glimmer of reckless desire, deep in his gut, to say something about Ren. He dismisses it and goes with the canned answer.

“Snoke meant to make an example of me,” Hux says. “It’s how he came to power in the Order. Because that’s the sort of Supreme Leader they respect-- The biggest and most powerful person who dares to command them, and who promises they’ll perish in agony if they disobey.”

“And do you think Snoke intended to have your torturers kill you, eventually?” Jek asks. “When he felt you had suffered enough?”

“Yes,” Hux says, though he doesn’t think so. Snoke would have kept him alive and suffering by any means necessary in order to get Ren desperate enough to show up and sweep him away. Hux still isn’t sure why, so there’s no point in being candid about this suspicion.

“And what prevented that from happening?” Jek asks.

“Kylo Ren,” Hux says.

“Kylo Ren rescued you,” Jek says.

“Yes.”

“How did he do so?”

“He killed everyone who had detained me, and he took me away. To a safehouse. I don’t know where it was located. He never even told me the name of the planet we were on. I was very weak and-- This part is all a blur, to me.”

If only that were true. Hux can feel Ren’s surging desire to sweep him away again, the way he did on that moon. It’s so suddenly strong that Hux wants to turn and look over his shoulder to make sure Ren isn’t actually standing there.

“And why do you think Kylo Ren did this for you?” Jek asks. “We’ve heard testimony that the two of you didn’t get along.”

“Ren had come to hate Snoke as much as I did,” Hux says. “Snoke had been tormenting Ren since childhood, seeking his power.”

There’s a kind of pinprick at the back of Hux’s mind, brief but very sharp.

Is that you? Hux asks, speaking to Ren, momentarily terrified.

Careful, Ren says. Snoke is back to watching everything I do. And you-- Just. Careful.

“Okay,” Jek says. “We won’t get into the Force and so forth, but what I’m getting at is that perhaps Kylo Ren respected and valued you the way that some of your former officers and troopers seemed to, based on testimony we heard yesterday?”

“Objection,” Faza says, shooting out of her chair. “That’s a very biased interpretation of the testimony we heard.”

“I’ll rephrase,” Jek says, holding up his hands. “Mr. Hux, do you think Kylo Ren wanted to help you only because Snoke was your shared enemy?”

“That was one reason,” Hux says, narrowing his eyes just enough to tell Jek not to do this: please, don’t do this.

Jek can’t use the Force, can’t hear this begging, so he goes on.

“And the other reason?” Jek asks.

“Ren-- Months ago, almost a year now, Kylo Ren was in trouble,” Hux says. “On Starkiller, when the base was destructing around us. He was injured and-- Ah. Demoralized. I went to retrieve him and I essentially saved his life. So when I was in danger, he saved me.”

“Would you say that helping someone who had helped you in the past is a value taught by the Order?” Jek asks.

“No,” Hux says. “But that doesn’t meant that no individuals within the Order feel that they should conduct themselves this way.”

“Right. And would you say that Snoke had instructed Kylo Ren to help people who had helped him in the past?”

“No. Snoke tried to brainwash Ren into thinking of nothing but serving him.”

“So you and Kylo Ren had that in common, in a sense. That you would be defying the standard expectations if you went out of your way to help someone you felt personally indebted to?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“And when both of you realized that the other was also willing to defy that expectation, you ran away together?”

Hux stares at Jek, hoping that his seething rage at being asked this is not obvious to anyone but Jek and perhaps Elana. Ren is quiet, and Hux gets the sense that he’s worried about Snoke, as if Snoke is suddenly going to pop into Hux’s mind. Hux would welcome that, at present. He feels angry enough to overpower Snoke and end him for good, and he might also end a few others in this courtroom while in possession of Snoke’s powers.

“I wouldn’t say we ran away together,” Hux says, unable to stop his lip from lifting as he repeats that phrasing. “We relied upon each other for a time.”

“Okay,” Jek says. “So would you agree that there were three major events that lead to your surrender to the New Republic: your disenchantment with Snoke following the use of the weapon, your captivity and torture, and your time spent with Kylo Ren while on the run?”

“Yes,” Hux says, deciding that it’s not important to mention that he’d never been particularly enchanted by Snoke prior to the firing of the weapon. He understands why Jek is drawing that distinction, of course.

“Now, we’ve all been briefed by the Resistance about the whereabouts of Kylo Ren being classified,” Jek says. Hux can hear Leia shift in her chair. “But if you could see Kylo Ren right now, what would you tell him?”

Hux stares at Jek in disbelief. If Jek thinks that Hux is going to wax poetic about Ren during a live broadcast, he doesn’t know Hux very well at all. Even being relatively candid in writing meant for Ren’s eyes alone had been difficult.

“I’d thank him,” Hux says flatly, surprised not to hear Ren offering any suggestions about what he’d like to hear. “He saved my life,” Hux adds when Jek says nothing, standing there as if he’s waiting for more.

“But he also brought you here,” Jek says. “Might you have preferred some other arrangement that didn’t involve being imprisoned and fighting for your life before this Committee?”

Finally, a question they have practiced. Hux fears he’s still glowering slightly at Jek, even so.

“I considered my options,” Hux says. “Going back to the Order was right out. I didn’t want to, first and foremost, and I’ll be the first to admit that Snoke would have finished me off even if I had wanted to. Another option was going it on my own, but Snoke would have found me eventually, and my previous torture would have seemed like a paid holiday compared to what he’d do to me if he did. So the third option was to fall on the mercy of the New Republic, offering them whatever secrets they could use in their fight against the Order in exchange for safe harbor. I knew it was a long shot that they would offer me anything beyond a relatively quick death. I’m not surprised to be facing a hearing like this. I’ve seen the video of myself that was intercepted and broadcast here. It’s strange to be on the other side of it. It’s strange to be on the other side, generally. But I wouldn’t say it feels wrong. When I learned that my mother had defected, I was surprised at first, but now I think, of course she did. I can’t say we didn’t fit in with First Order society. We did, and there were parts of it that were quite tailored to my-- True self, or whatever you want to call it. I’m competitive, and self-interested, and I don’t long to share the details of my personal life with anyone who isn’t a part of it already. Where I broke with the Order was where everyone eventually does, my mother included.”

“And what was that breaking point?” Jek asks.

Hux worries this sounds too rehearsed. Jek probably has that concern as well. Hence his failed effort to get Hux to break from the script.

“When I was no longer deemed useful to the relentless drive toward someone else’s fight for power,” Hux says. “That’s when the Order was finished with me, and when I was necessarily finished with the Order. I’m lucky to have survived that break. Without Kylo Ren, I wouldn’t have. But I did, and now here I am, on the other side of things, seeing what I did as if backward through a mirror. I have to confess, to me it’s still completely surreal. I know there are plenty here today and throughout the galaxy who believe the only way to make me truly comprehend my role in the destruction of the Hosnian system is to make me face my own death. Maybe they’re right. I’m only beginning to attempt to form an actual picture of the life I led under the Order, and it feels as if it were a dream I’ve now awakened from. It was not entirely a nightmare. There are parts of that dream that I miss. But once you’re awake, you can’t shut your eyes and return to the dream that you were having. At least, I can’t.”

“So now I have a hypothetical scenario I’d like to ask you about,” Jek says. Hux is relieved that they’ve reached this final question, until he remembers that Faza will spring up and begin questioning him after this. “Let’s say you had confidence that, if you wished, you would be welcomed back to the First Order, no questions asked, and that you would be allowed to resume your duties as General. Let’s say you could even have confidence that you would live out the rest of your days in that role, as successfully as possible, and that no one would usurp your position again. Would you return to the Finalizer, the Order, to all of it?”

“No,” Hux says. He means it, but he’s not sure if this is evident. He’s not sure how to convey how true it is, despite all their rehearsing.

“And why not?” Jek asks. His expression pleads Hux to give the real answer.

Hux wouldn’t go back to the Order, even with all of those guarantees, because Ren isn’t there.

Perhaps if Hux could project his thoughts telepathically into the minds of everyone here, they would all be very touched by this information. But he can’t, and saying it out loud, against the weight of everything he’s cost the people who will soon cast their votes to determine his fate, is too ridiculous to bear. Jek is wrong. Demonstrating that he longs to be with Ren won’t save him.

“Because,” Hux says, “I’ve seen the real world now. And I don’t want to live in a dream. Not when I can reach out from that dream and destroy what’s real, without even understanding what I’ve done. Because I couldn’t understand it from within the dream. I confess that I can barely comprehend the scale of it even now. All I can promise is that I’m awake now, and that I don’t want to return to living my life in a murderous sleepwalk any more than I want to die.”

“Thank you,” Jek says. He holds Hux’s gaze for a moment, looking as if he wants to keep prodding Hux to confess something in particular, but also like he’s given up hope that it could happen. “Those are all the questions I have at this time,” Jek says to Leia, who nods.

“Ms. Faza,” she says. “You may approach.”

Faza walks to the podium that Jek has now vacated, holding Hux’s gaze as she moves in her fluid Twi’lek way, as if she operates on a slightly different wavelength of gravity. Hux wonders if she’s using the fabled Twi’lek powers of seduction on him now, because she looks particularly fearsome not only in countenance but also as someone who wields a beauty that can be converted into the sort of ruthless power Hux can’t help but admire. But Hux has never been seduced by grace or even by this sort of collected confidence. He’s only ever been seduced by a brazen, clumsy, cacophonous cannonball of a person, and he’s lost to all others who cannot recreate what Ren somehow does to him.

He wants to call out to Ren in his mind, but now is not the time. This is the real fight for Hux’s life; everything that has come before was only the warm-up.

“Mr. Hux,” Faza says. “If you’re willing, I’d like you to please tell this Committee, with as much detail as possible, about your experience of the day when the weapon on Starkiller base was fired.”

“As much detail as possible,” Hux says. “Meaning what, that you want to hear whether or not I brushed my teeth that morning?”

He shouldn’t have said that. There’s a hushed kind of rumble of disapproving surprise from the audience, and at least one Committee member grunts angrily.

Hux is almost amused at the thought that he could be crashing and burning already, in response to her first fucking question.

“Yes, actually,” Faza says. “I’d love to know all of the details, such as that. Everything you remember.”

Jek seems to consider objecting, but then he sits back, peering at Faza before shifting his gaze back to Hux. Jek shrugs one shoulder as if to prompt Hux to go along with this, for now.

“That day,” Hux says, letting his gaze drop away from Faza’s. “Well. It was really sort of three days blurred together. I hadn’t slept much at all, since Mr. Finn stole a TIE fighter and escaped with the Dameron man whom Ren had captured. In fact, I don’t think I had a moment to brush my teeth. I suppose that didn’t matter as much as it might have, because I can’t remember eating anything between the escape of those two and the approximate morning after Starkiller imploded, when I believe I finally sat down in the officer’s wardroom to consume some bland soup. I’m sorry, I’m not sure I’m answering this question the way you want me to?”

“I’ll rephrase it,” Faza says. “Take me through the process of deciding to fire the weapon, which lead to your speech and to the actual firing which you ordered, and I’d also like to hear about what you did directly afterward.”

Hux drank brandy with his fellow officers after watching the Hosnian system flame out. The men who joined him were some of the same officers who would later torture him on that moon. But he’s not going to mention that celebratory round of brandy, or anything else that will make him look particularly callous. Faza surely knows that, so Hux isn’t sure what she’s getting at with this question, which makes it a very dangerous one.

“Well, the process of giving the order to fire the weapon began, in some ways, years before,” Hux says. “But I take it that you don’t want to hear about the bureaucracy involved?”

“Mr. Hux,” Faza says, her tone not quite sharpening but perhaps brightening, as the threatening glint off a knife might brighten. “Much of the testimony today has had to do with you personally, as an individual. So I want to hear, if you’ll please indulge me, what it felt like to you, personally, to fire this weapon on this particular day. That is, if you can recall any related feelings.”

“I understand,” Hux says, admiring her for her strategy even as he loathes her for putting him in this position. He’d almost rather talk about his feelings for Ren. He didn’t feel much that day beyond pride and accomplishment. He’d been very tired, very irritated by Ren, somewhat anxious but mostly pleased with his efforts and validated by what the weapon did. That weapon had been his life’s work, up to that point. And it had fired, had operated as he designed it to, had seemed to clear the way for his secure legacy in the Order and in the galaxy. Faza has probably guessed all of this, or at least most of it. She knows, too, that Hux can’t be honest about it now. He has to pretend he felt some kind of regret on that day. She doesn’t believe he can convincingly pretend, which is why she’s invited him to try.

“Take me through it,” Faza says. “Help me to gain an understanding of your personal mindset. What did it feel like to hear your Supreme Leader give you permission to fire this weapon?”

She asks this as if she knows that firing it was actually Hux’s suggestion, and that he’d only sought Snoke’s approval. Hux stares at Faza, waiting to hear Ren telling him in a panic that this woman is Force sensitive, and that she’s reading Hux’s mind.

No, Ren says, so suddenly that Hux flinches in his seat, visibly enough that some members of the audience whisper acknowledgments of this to each other. She’s not a Force user, Ren says. She just thinks she knows you. The same way that the guy to your left thinks he knows you.

To his left: Ander Fillamon. Hux’s vision had tunneled on Faza so completely that he’d failed to notice how close he is to Ander now, close enough for Ander’s stare to feel like heat against Hux’s already hot left cheek. Hux suppresses his desire to scratch at the dry skin there. Faza’s question is not one that Jek anticipated, and therefore Hux has no canned answer for her. He has to think. There are two strategies available: honesty or invention. He feels too vulnerable for one and too exhausted for the other.

“Mr. Hux?” Faza says, leaning forward, as if he’s perhaps suddenly hard of hearing. “Do you need me to repeat the question? Or are you refusing to answer?”

“Repeat it,” Hux says. He blinks, feeling as if the lights from the cameras that are all focused on him have suddenly gotten brighter. “Please.”

“How did it feel to fire that weapon?” Faza asks, letting her voice rise with every word, as if she planned everything about how this would go: her angry repetition of the question now seems like something Hux has glibly provoked. The crowd murmurs; someone on the Committee shifts heavily in their seat.

“It felt cooperative,” Hux says, knowing even as he hears himself speak that he picked the wrong answer. He’s shucking responsibility; Jek specifically told him not to do this. The noise from the audience grows louder-- Angrier, or maybe Hux is only imagining that. “I mean to say-- It was something we were all doing together. I felt-- Giving that speech-- That I had conveyed my sincere appreciation for every person standing before me. And I did always think of them as people. The stormtroopers. That was important-- That was what my father did for the Order that innovated everything. He made them people, not clones.”

Hux is just rambling now. Panicking. He wants Jek to object to his own answer. He feels feverish, wants Ren to burst into the room and--

“Setting aside the fact that you apparently still don’t see clone troopers as individual people,” Faza says, “Despite your counsel’s eloquent words about those who served on the Death Star, I’d like to refocus on the events of the day, as I’m not sure I understand your statements about your feelings. Walk me through it: You stood on that stage, you watched the weapon destroy the Hosnian system. Then what?”

Hux suddenly can’t remember. The brandy, which he won’t mention, but what else? Everything happened so fast. It all began to crumble beneath his feet so quickly, and then there was bloody Ren, needing rescuing--

“There were meetings,” Hux says, wondering why Leia hasn’t told the audience to be quiet. Their murmuring has built to a roar, though possibly Hux is just overly sensitive to it. “I’m sorry, it was-- A bit of an out-of-body experience, I think.”

“Are you trying to tell me you were literally sleepwalking when you gave the order to destroy five planets?” Faza asks, her eyebrows shooting up.

“No,” Hux says. He wants to beg Leia to tell the crowd to shut up, please, shut them up. He can’t think. “No, of course not, but-- I feel as if the first thing I remember clearly was taking a shuttle to get Ren, when the planet was cracking apart. I suppose it was the adrenaline.”

“Okay,” Faza shrugs, nods. “We can start from there. I’m simply curious about the emotional aftermath of this act of destruction, for you, personally, so we’ll pick up wherever your conscious memories do, Mr. Hux. You fetched Kylo Ren from the deteriorating planet. And then?”

And then-- Ren had choked him, when Hux stood over his sick bed. Does she know that? How could she? Why isn’t Ren speaking to him now?

“I looked after Ren,” Hux says, wanting this confession to bring Ren’s voice back to his mind.

“And was nursing a sick crew member typical of the duties of a General?” Faza asks.

“What-- No, of course not. He wasn’t a crew member, anyway, at least-- He wasn’t enlisted, he didn’t hold rank--”

“But Kylo Ren was badly injured. So badly injured that you felt you needed to personally oversee his care?”

“I-- Well. He was in shock, I was told.”

“I see. And you oversaw his recovery from that shock alongside a medical team?”

“No. It was just me--”

“So you personally overtook, shall we say, responsibility for Kylo Ren at this time, when he was vulnerable enough to have needed rescue, badly injured in the aftermath, and suffering from shock?”

“He wasn’t all that vulnerable,” Hux says, his voice rising. He grits his teeth when he realizes he was going to offer Ren’s attempts to choke him as proof of this. That would probably not go over well.

“Mr. Hux,” Faza says. “When you were brought to prison, you submitted to a medical examination upon arrival, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“And is Exhibit 23 an accurate record of your examination at that time?”

“You mean the one about my throat having bruises?” Hux says, dryly. At least he can see where she’s going with this now.

“That’s right,” Faza says. “I can project it again, if you need your memory refreshed.”

“No, thank you. I remember it fine. It was an accurate report, to my recollection.”

“So you did have bruising around your throat when you were arrested?”

“Yes.”

“And you have submitted to this Committee in sworn statements that it was Snoke who gave you these injuries, when he discovered you with Kylo Ren and attacked you?”

“That’s what happened.” Hux doesn’t know how to continue. He can’t explain how Ren was possessed by Snoke. Even Ren doesn’t know how it works, exactly.

“Can you tell me why, then, you’ve also claimed that you’ve only ever had an audience with Snoke via holo projector?”

The courtroom crowd murmurs with approval. If Leia would allow it, they’d probably be cheering at top volume for Faza, and waving banners with her name painted on them, and perhaps doll-like effigies of Hux with ropes around their necks.

“Snoke and Ren are connected through the Force,” Hux says. “In some nefarious way that’s done great harm to Ren. Snoke can overpower Ren. He-- Snoke used Ren to hurt me. He did it against Ren’s will--”

“So you submit to this Committee that you did not in fact stow Kylo Ren away when he was so weakened that he needed you to rescue him personally, and that he did not eventually overpower and choke you when he was again strong enough to resist you?”

“Objection,” Jek says. “That’s-- Barely a question.”

“Forgive me, General,” Faza says. “It’s just that something about this story does not entirely add up.”

Hux can feel the weight of Leia’s concern for Ren as she considers her response. He flicks his eyes through the agitated crowd and finds his own mother sitting toward the back. The makeup on her right eye is smudged.

“You may continue with your questions,” Leia says to Faza. “Just be careful that they’re actual questions and not your personal theories. You still have a closing statement. Save the narrative for that.”

“I only have one more question, General,” Faza says. She slides her gaze to Hux. He feels it like a blaster she’s just charged up and aimed at his head. He stares back at her and straightens his shoulders, waits for her to fire. “If not in a violent struggle,” Faza says. “How and why did you and Kylo Ren part ways?”

“I don’t know,” Hux says, too tired to invent a story. “I was in shock after Snoke’s attack. I have few memories prior to my surrender. Ren was gone then.”

Faza seems to a consider a follow-up, then snaps her data pad shut. Surely she’s better off working on her closing statement. She’s already thoroughly decimated Hux. He can hear himself sounding like he barely knows what he’s talking about, and like he can’t keep his own story straight.

“Permission to redirect?” Jek asks, rising from his seat as Faza returns to hers.

“Granted,” Leia says.

“May I also have a few moments to compose my questions?” Jek asks.

Leia seems to want to deny this. Perhaps she realizes, as Hux does when he feels his shoulders slumping down tiredly, that Jek is really giving Hux a moment to regain his composure. Hux isn’t shaking or breathing quickly, and even his face has cooled from red to pink. He’s just beaten: he feels it, and knows he can’t hear Ren now because he’s too lost inside his own mind to connect to another’s.

“Okay,” Leia says. “But just one minute, Mr. Porkins. We still have impact statements and closing statements to hear today.”

“Yes-- Thank you, General.”

Jek begins typing furiously on his data pad. The crowd whispers, then murmurs, and within twenty seconds they’re properly chattering. Ander Fillamon stares. Hux resists the urge to glare at him in answer.

Ren, Hux thinks, and he feels this call for help fall flat. Hux’s mind is a mess of static; his mouth feels dry. Instead of Ren, someone closer seems to hear him. Leia picks up her glass of water and holds it out for him. Hux looks at it, then at her. The crowd quiets and falls silent.

“Go on,” Leia says. “You’ve been talking a lot. It helps.”

Hux takes the water. It’s about half full, and on the other side of the glass there’s a mauve lipstick print. He feels the eyes of everyone in the room upon him as he drinks from Leia’s glass, then the eyes of everyone in the galaxy. He can hear the lenses shifting on the recorder droids, probably zooming in on his face. He can feel Ren again when he swallows the last of the water, in a kind of soaring, wordless embrace from afar.

“Thank you,” Hux says when he passes the empty glass back. Leia takes it, her expression neutral, as if she’s the only one here who is completely unimpressed by what she just did. She lifts the pitcher behind her podium, pours more water for herself, and looks up at Jek.

“Are you ready, Mr. Porkins?” Leia asks.

Jek looks mildly dumbfounded. Everyone in the room does, Hux realizes, scanning their faces, except for Elana. She’s smiling as if she just heard Leia read a not guilty verdict.

“Oh-- Yes!” Jek says, and he hops up. “I’m ready. I’ll keep this brief.”

“Good,” Leia says. “Go ahead.”

“Hux,” Jek says, pronouncing that name with a kind of warmth that takes Hux off guard again, bolstering him the way the water that tasted like a magic potion did. “I just have one real question for you, but I need to ask a few preliminary ones before we get there.”

“Okay,” Hux says. He’s wary of this information, but he also feels suddenly invincible, as if Leia just saved his life by infusing that water with some kind of Force-assisted quality that will make everyone in the galaxy forgive Hux at once.

“You said earlier that you don’t like sharing personal information,” Jek says. “Isn’t that your testimony?”

“Yes,” Hux says. The temptation to panic arises. He suppresses it.

“And Faza is left confused by what is admittedly a somewhat confusing story,” Jek says. “It involves the Force, which is mysterious to most of us, and it involves Kylo Ren, who can’t be here today to corroborate what you’ve said. Would you agree that there is one important hole in your story that would illuminate it, Force notwithstanding, for Ms. Faza and for the Committee?”

“I don’t understand the question,” Hux says, though he does. His hands twitch over his knees. He feels like Ander Fillamon is breathing down the back of his neck with that stare.

“Then I’ll just ask directly,” Jek says. “Are you in love with Kylo Ren?”

The crowd that was silenced by Leia’s gesture with the water comes back to life with whispers and gasps, and even Faza looks startled. Jek seems content with himself, despite the look that Hux is giving him now. The crowd quiets again, waiting to hear Hux answer. Recorder droids float closer and adjust their lenses.

At the edge of it all, Hux can feel Ren waiting, too. Ren is watching this on the broadcast and feeling it through his connection to Hux. Hux could lie: he would. If Ren weren’t watching, Hux would lie his way straight to the grave on this matter.

“I feel I’ve lived now in three worlds,” Hux says, pushing the words out before he can reconsider them. “I’ve lived in this one, your world, which is very new to me and hard to understand in some ways. And perhaps I’ll perish here before I fully understand it. I’ve also lived in the world of the Order, which I once thought I understood perfectly, and where I thought I could achieve some sort of satisfaction through power, only to learn that there was nothing but toil and betrayal for me there. The third world I’ve lived in, too briefly, was Ren’s. He could-- See into me, truly, with the Force. He could cup his hand around my ear and heal everything within it after it had been kicked into a useless clump by the First Order officers who tortured me. For me, Kylo Ren was a living, breathing bubble of security and chaos that somehow coexisted. I wanted to remain in that third world, with him, for the rest of my life. So, yes. In answer to your question. Yes, to this day. Yes.”

Hux’s stomach pinches up. He feels as if he’s waiting for a blow to come. There’s only a kind of stunned quiet, even in his head.

“And why didn’t you mention this in your testimony prior to this moment?” Jek asks.

“Because I didn’t think it mattered,” Hux says. “I’m still not sure it does. To the Committee, I mean.”

“Ms. Faza has implied that there were holes in the story about your time with Kylo Ren because you were intending to hide the fact that Ren spent time with you against his will. But in fact he rescued you, and hid with you, and healed the injuries you sustained in captivity because he loves you, too, isn’t that correct?”

Hux wants to protest that this was only supposed to be one question. He feels newly crushed, though the murmur of the crowd in the courthouse sounds different when it starts up again. Less vicious, unless he’s only imagining that.

“Yes, I think so,” Hux says. He looks at one of the cameras, then away, at nothing in particular. “I mean. I know he does, he-- No one has ever cared for me like that, with nothing to gain from it, and in fact with much to lose. I didn’t even believe such a thing existed, before him. I thought it was a fantasy. But he’s real. Wherever he is.”

“Thank you for your honesty,” Jek says. “I know this isn’t easy for you to talk about. General,” he says, turning his gaze to Leia. “I’ve got no further questions.”

“Great,” Leia says. She drinks from that water glass, and it feels like she’s sealing a spell. Hux can feel Ren welling up in him like a breath he can’t push out, wanting to say something but too overcome to make their connection clear enough. “Faza?” Leia says. “Are you also finished with Mr. Hux?”

“Um.” Faza seems to consider it. Her associate whispers something in her ear. She frowns, shakes her head. “No-- Yes, General. I’m ready to hear the impact statements from the Committee.”

The impact statements. Hux had almost forgotten them. He rises from the witness stand when dismissed, his ears seeming to fill with water as he walks back to the table where Jek waits. Not until he takes his seat does he realize it’s Ren filling his ears, wanting to form words but too overwhelmed by what he just saw on the broadcast and felt in Hux’s feedback to quite accomplish it.

I threw a lamp, Ren says when Hux is sitting beside Jek, allowing Jek to pat his shoulder.

I’m sorry? Hux blinks at the Utrian as he stands to read his impact statement. The Utrian is massive, taller than Ren and almost spilling out of the court-appropriate attire he’s stuffed his body into. I think I misheard you, Hux sends when he hears nothing more from Ren. I heard the word ‘lamp.’

Luke is here, Ren says. On this planet. At my mother’s residence. She thinks it’s best if he doesn’t come to the apartment until after the hearing, because of me. Because of my reaction to the verdict. I threw a lamp, just listening to Faza question you. It wasn’t entirely intentional. I used the Force to do it.

Okay? Hux stares at the Utrian, trying to pay attention as he talks about the loss of his homeworld. This Utrian is obviously not an accomplished orator, and Ren is making no sense. Hux feels like putting his head down on the table, but he maintains a look of grave attentiveness as he keeps his eyes locked on the Utrian.

“You mentioned waking from a dream?” the Utrian says, his dark eyes growing wet as he glowers at Hux. “I’ve fallen into a nightmare that I will never wake from, where I have no home, where my family and my people are gone, and where there is nothing but emptiness ahead, as blank as a waking death.”

It’s not the words of the Utrian’s speech that are falling flat so much as his awkward delivery. Hux waits to hear more from Ren, wanting the distraction. He can feel Ren starting and stopping, considering whether he should approach some particular subject. Hux can guess what it is.

What you said. About me.

No, Hux says. Don’t make me relive it.

Okay. But I heard you. I saw--

I understand how holo broadcasts work and I assumed that you had. Please, just--

Wedge and Finn think the Committee will vote for a life sentence, Ren says, rescuing Hux from having to wallow in his confession. Finn thought so after your mother’s testimony. Wedge wasn’t sure until after yours.

And what does your cousin who can see the future think? Hux asks, though he’s afraid to find out.

Rey senses that you have a long life ahead of you.

And what do you sense? Hux hasn’t asked this yet, somehow. Or maybe it’s more that Ren hasn’t told him.

I’ve had no visions of the future I want, Ren says. But I’ve seen you smoking on a roof.

Fantastic. Hux tries to refocus on the Utrian, who is talking about various landmarks on Utr that are now space dust. It’s a disorganized narrative. Hux would pretend to be moved if he knew how to, but the best he can do is feigning rapt attention.

And what is the future you want? Hux asks when he feels Ren brooding, wanting to say something powerful and afraid Hux will laugh at his attempt. It would not be good for either of them if Hux laughed just now.

The bubble, Ren says. It feels like that for me, too. The only place where I can breathe. I want it back.

You’re breathing now, Hux says, annoyed at having his own flowery eleventh hour language thrown back at him in this context. The Utrian finishes and the Eurc-Wentonian stands. A translator is beckoned forward.

You know what I mean, Ren says.

I rarely do, Ren.

Though it’s true, Hux is only saying so now to give him a hard time. Ren deserves a hard time, after being allowed to watch Hux blather out a love confession in front of the entire galaxy. It already feels like something that happened in an alternate dimension or at least a dream. Hux imagines it will be replayed endlessly on the news broadcasts, for weeks, perhaps in contrast to his speech about the weapon. He’s struck by a vivid mental image of the two recordings playing simultaneously on a split screen, and he barely resists the urge to pinch his eyes shut in horror at the thought.

The Eurc-Wentonian’s language is a harsh sort of blurting, and the translator’s attempt to tastefully talk over this is unintentionally comical, though perhaps only Hux sees it that way. Everyone else on the Committee, with the exception of persistently stoic Fillamon, looks as moved as possible when the translator mentions the long struggle of Eurc-Wenta to achieve peace in the post-Imperial age and how things there were finally getting better. There’s a mention of this creature’s children learning to swim. Hux feels stretched too thin over all of this, and he wonders if he’ll be able to sleep before they execute him, if it comes to that.

“Thank you,” Leia says when the Eurc-Wentonian has concluded. She actually appears somewhat distressed by this second impact statement, perhaps because of the mention of children.

She was thinking about teaching me how to swim, Ren supplements. Hux sighs, as quietly and shallowly as possible, not wanting to appear impatient to get this over with. The Thulmar is rising to give the final impact statement.

“Mr. Hux,” the Thulmar says, speaking in surprisingly unaccented Basic. “My name is Al’tia. I come from Oberi, where the Thulmar people had lived for thousands of years in as much peace as we could ever find in a galaxy plagued with malignant cultures like the one that gave birth to you.”

Al’tia stares at Hux as if this is expected to wound him. Hux imagines the Order giving birth to him itself, rather than his mother. It doesn’t seem right, like his old idea that Brendol Sr. had pulled Brendol Jr. entirely from himself somehow, resulting in Brendol Jr.’s half-formed awfulness.

This Thulmar is going to vote for the death penalty, Ren says. He sounds worried. Hux really doesn’t need to hear evidence of mounting concern from Ren right now.

Tell me what our life would be like, Hux says. If we were in that bubble again. Pretend Snoke is already gone.

Hux--

Tell me, Ren, I can’t listen to this nonsense. I’ll start making incriminating faces or something.

Okay. All right. We’d get far away from here, first of all.

What about your family?

What about them? Ren asks. The question seems sincere. I don’t belong to them anymore.

Continue, Hux prompts, enjoying the implication that now Ren belongs completely to Hux, even if it’s probably not as true as Ren thinks.

I’d heal you, Ren says. I can still do it. Snoke didn’t take it from me. I’d heal your cheek, and whatever else needs healing.

Yes, Hux says, resisting the impulse to touch the rough skin on his cheek.

“There is a parable in Thulmar culture,” Al’tia says. “It begins with a group of children throwing stones into a pond.”

Ren, Hux says. Talk to me. I don’t want to hear this fucking parable.

You’re cruel, Ren says, enjoying it. Hux can almost hear his smile, crooked and mean and only for Hux.

I’ll watch the recording someday, Hux says, not actually planning to. What next, after you’d healed me?

There’s a half-formed thought about fucking that Ren tries to protect Hux from. Hux would smirk if he could do so without looking like an unrepentant killer. His eyes shift to Ander Fillamon, who is still watching him intently.

What would you want next? Ren asks, the ‘if not fucking’ implied.

Oh, I’d want that, don’t worry.

That?

I’d want you to fuck me and fall asleep on top of me.

I could do that.

I know you could, Ren. What would these people do if they knew what was going through my head right now?

Hux is less amused with himself when he remembers Leia. She appears to be carefully listening to the conclusion of the Thulmar’s parable, which involves a rain storm somehow, but it’s possible Leia’s thoughts have spiderwebbed out in Hux’s direction and that her pity for him has lessened somewhat upon learning that he’s flirting with her son rather than paying attention to the heartfelt statements of his victims.

I’m a dead man, Hux thinks, though he’s afraid Ren will throw another lamp when he hears this. Aren’t I?

No. Don’t say that.

But I don’t belong here, Ren, and I never will.

I know that. I’ll come for you.

“Thank you,” Leia says as Al’tia sits. Leia’s eyes flick to Hux. He can’t read her expression but feels struck, worried. “And the Committee members from Qusoa and Raklan still don’t want to give impact statements, correct?”

The Qusoa woman shakes her head, her face soaked with tears.

“No, thank you,” Ander Fillamon says. It’s the first time Hux has heard him speak. They share an accent.

“Then I’ll now offer the parties a recess prior to the closing statements,” Leia says. “Unless they would prefer to deliver those statements now.”

“Do you want a recess?” Jek asks, whispering this to Hux. Jek is wiping at the corner of his eye with his sleeve. He’s sniffling, sincerely moved by some allegory that Hux didn’t even listen to. Hux feels a kind of pitching guilt, like a forward momentum, throwing him down the bottomless well where he belongs.

“No, I-- Not unless you need one,” Hux says. If he had a handkerchief, he would give it to Jek.

Jek shakes his head. He takes a deep breath. When Faza informs Leia that she’s ready for the closing statements, Jek agrees.

“Okay,” Leia says. “Mr. Porkins, you’ll go first.”

Hux doesn’t like that Faza will get the last word, though he did anticipate it. He wants to do something stupid like squeeze Jek’s shoulder or turn to peer at his mother, but he stays still, listening for Ren as Jek rises from his seat.

I will come for you, Ren says again, sounding a bit like a stuttering holo projection.

Not just yet, Hux responds, watching Jek approach the podium. This part, I want to hear.

I know that, Ren says. He’s irritated by this knowledge. Jealous, Hux realizes, and he has to swallow a laugh, passing it off a cough.

“On behalf of Hux and myself,” Jek says, “I’d like to thank the Committee for sharing their personal anguish with us. Hux mentioned in his testimony that the concept of what that weapon did is still surreal to him, and I believe these moving impact statements are a start at helping him and all of us who have not suffered such an immeasurable loss to begin to understand what that feels like.”

He pauses there. Hux isn’t sure this is the right tack, but he trusts that Jek is about to flip it on its ear.

“Seeking to understand what another person has been through and why they feel the way they do is such an important facet of the empathy that our society is based upon,” Jek says. “I’ve appreciated the chance to let Hux speak for himself before this Committee on that front, and to hear from witnesses who knew him on the other side. One important thing I wanted to emphasize during this hearing is the fact that Hux is an individual person who continues to struggle with navigating all the galaxy has handed him, the same as any of us. I wanted you all to get to know him as I have. I’m a pragmatic person, especially in court, so I knew that would be important in order to gain an understanding of who Hux is, and to activate that basic empathy that all of us possess.”

Hux withholds a wince at the implied instruction that the Committee should ‘activate’ their purported empathy. It’s the kind of thing Hux would have resented, were he in their shoes. Of course, if he were in their shoes, he wouldn’t have bothered with a hearing at all.

“I confess to being a pragmatist in court, but I’m also an idealist at heart,” Jek says. “One of the ideals that I’ll go to my grave cherishing, and probably the most important one I hold, is the same one my father died defending during the Battle of Yavin, and that’s the belief that the Republic stands for a different future for the galaxy than the violent disregard for life that the Empire and then the First Order have propagated. That future is something we’re all still fighting for, and my role in that battle is to remind everyone here today that the New Republic stands for peace, for hope, and for mercy. I place my faith in the Committee today to uphold the ideals of our society, rather than holding up a mirror to what the First Order has done and deciding that the violent rage in that reflection is all that matters. I hope we’ll all turn that mirror around on ourselves today, that we’ll see the peaceful future we’re all working toward reflected there and act accordingly. I know it’s been a long and emotionally draining day already, so I’m going to leave it at that and thank the Committee again for their careful attention to the testimony and General Organa for giving her time to overseeing things fairly and compassionately. Thank you.”

Whereas Hux thought Jek’s opening statement was too long and too sentimental, this one feels too short, but he gives Jek an appreciative look as he resumes his seat. The Committee members have likely all made up their minds, anyway. Hux glances at Fillamon, expecting his stare, but Fillamon is watching Faza as she walks to the podium. Something about this makes Hux’s heart sink, as if some important if uncomfortable connection between him and that cold-looking man has now been broken.

“As I said in my opening statement,” Faza begins, “I’m not here to try to sway the Committee in one direction or another on what the punishment for Mr. Hux’s unprecedented criminal act should be. If they believe that showing mercy is the right thing to do, then I fully support their decision.”

She pauses, and Hux has a brief, insane hope that maybe she’ll leave it at that. She doesn’t, of course.

“We’ve heard lots of testimony about who Mr. Hux was during his time with the First Order,” Faza says. “We’ve heard about who he was for his mother, for his crew, and for Kylo Ren. That offers the kind of glimpse at a lifetime that Mr. Porkins correctly identifies as igniting an empathetic spark in those of us who truly value life. But I’d like us not to forget all of the empathetic sparks of life in this galaxy that were extinguished by Mr. Hux. I’d like to suggest, hypothetically, that there was a man on one of those planets who had lost his mother at a young age. A man who felt enslaved by his work in order to keep his head above water. Maybe he’d been living this way for thirty-odd years. Maybe it had made him hard, and perhaps he made poor decisions in response to the difficulties of his life. Maybe if we ran into this man at the market and he sneered at us and snatched the piece of fruit we’d been reaching for, we would wish him a bad day in our heads and think he must be a miserable person to know. And maybe if someone told us that when that man turned the corner after leaving the market he would crash into the person who would become the love of his life, and that this love would bring him a happiness he’d never known before, and that he would be kinder and better and healed by this happenstance-- Maybe then we would smile and think ‘good for him’ and wish him well, despite the fact that he’d sneered at us. Well, maybe this man existed. Among billions of people on five planets, it seems likely enough. Maybe he lived on Raklan, or Qusoa, on Utr or Oberi, maybe he lived on Eurc-Wenta. Maybe he reached for the love who’d changed everything as Mr. Hux’s weapon appeared as a red pinprick high in the sky. I wonder if he would feel empathy for the person who fired that weapon as his world burned to nothing. I wonder if it would matter to him that this person had known similar pain and joy. I think he would feel cheated. I feel cheated, on behalf of five planets’ worth of life that was wiped out by Mr. Hux’s weapon.”

Faza pauses there. This is much milder than what Hux expected. When Faza turns to glance at Hux, he braces himself for the finale. She’ll have the last word, and this is it.

“I don’t want to sound overly dramatic,” Faza says. Hux scoffs, mostly under his breath, and hopes that no one noticed. “But I personally don’t find the revelation that Mr. Hux shared some sort of love story with Kylo Ren very comforting. Most of us in the New Republic know very little about Kylo Ren and his powers, except for rumors and whispers and pieced-together, passed down stories about the Force. Lieutenant Mitaka told us that Kylo Ren is very powerful, and I believe him. For that reason, I dearly hope that the Resistance’s classified information about Kylo Ren involves his current location. If it does not, then I worry about how long we could keep Mr. Hux in prison, were a life sentence to be handed down. And, more than that, I worry about what Mr. Hux, a brilliant engineer who has already destroyed five planets, and Kylo Ren, a powerful Force-user who has already ‘rescued’ Mr. Hux from captivity once before, might get up to upon being reunited, were we to show Mr. Hux mercy and ultimately pay an even greater price for that, somewhere down the road.”

The room is silent when Faza allows that suggestion to settle over it. Hux somehow didn’t anticipate that reasoning. Jek certainly didn’t.

“Thank you, General,” Faza says. “For giving me the opportunity to argue for protecting the New Republic from people like Mr. Hux. I hope that the Committee will choose wisely about how best to do so, going forward.”

In Hux’s head, Ren says nothing. Possibly he’s rampaging, breaking more lamps. Hux hopes he’s not on his way here to prove Faza right. He’s not even sure he should hope this. Perhaps it’s their last chance. Jek types something into his data pad and shows it to Hux.

Don’t panic. She’s overreaching.

Hux nods, mostly so that Jek won’t feel bad for having seemingly damned him with the things about Ren that he thought would save him.

“All right,” Leia says. There’s something deadly in her gaze that lifts Hux’s spirits a bit, in the way that certain looks of Ren’s have, at certain times. “I think we’re almost ready to conclude and go to the vote. However,” she says, sharply enough that the murmur from the crowd that began quickly ceases. “Since Ms. Faza has called into question the ability of the Resistance to contain the threat of Kylo Ren and the ability of our New Republic to house a prisoner like Mr. Hux, I would like to say, without revealing any classified information, that Kylo Ren is not a threat to the Republic at this time, and I will personally vow, in front of the entire galaxy, and directly in response to Ms. Faza’s remarks, that Kylo Ren will not be storming the Tower prison in some sort of romantic gesture to free Mr. Hux. I’d add that I think the suggestion is absurd, for reasons that Ms. Faza perhaps doesn’t understand, as her security clearance allows her only to speculate wildly about the situation, which she has for some reason chosen to do, and that it is offensive to the entire structure of the New Republic and its security forces, as well as the Resistance members who risk their lives every day to defeat the First Order, to suggest that we do not have control of the situation.”

“General--” Faza says, standing. She freezes, half out of her chair, when Leia lifts a hand.

“You have not been invited to respond,” Leia says. “Thank you, Ms. Faza. And Mr. Porkins, and to all who have cooperated with this hearing over the past two days. I’m going to invite the Committee members to retire to the deliberation room if necessary.”

Leia looks right, then left. No one moves. The Qusoa woman cries softly. Botta looks vaguely alarmed by Leia’s little speech. The Utrian and Eurc-Wentonian look ready to kill Hux with their bare hands. The Thulmar appears half-asleep. Ander Fillamon is staring at Hux again.

“No one needs to deliberate?” Leia asks, a measure of disappointment in her tone. None of the Committee members budges. “Okay,” Leia says, slowly. She glances at Faza, at Jek and then at Hux. “It will probably surprise the audience here, as it surprised me when I was told, but all of the Committee members have asked to cast their votes openly, in person and out loud. Unless that has changed, I would like to proceed.”

“This is crazy,” Jek says, muttering under his breath. “But don’t panic,” he says, when Hux whirls to look at him. Hux can see the panic in Jek’s eyes before he tries to smile in an attempt to hide it. Even the smile doesn’t quite pan out.

“I cast my vote for the death sentence!” the Utrian roars, without being invited to speak. Much of the audience cheers, though not all of them. Hux wishes his mother hadn’t asked to sit among the crowd. He turns to check that she’s safe while Leia calls the room to order again. Elana appears strangely calm. She’s watching Leia, unblinking.

“Excuse me,” Leia says, sharply. “We will be doing this in an orderly fashion.” She sighs and rubs at her left temple. “Since the representative from Utr sounds confident about his vote, I won’t ask him to recast it, but everyone else here will wait until they are called upon to vote. Is that understood?”

There is nodding, and more noise from the crowd. When Leia turns back to the audience and stares, the muttering stops.

Hux. That’s Ren, their connection suddenly weak and reedy. What she said--

Ren, I cannot even harness my own thoughts at the moment. Please refrain from dumping yours into my head until this is over.

Ren doesn’t like that word: over. He falls silent anyway. The translator announces that the representative from Eurc-Wenta also votes for the death penalty. The outburst of angry cheers from the crowd is more restrained this time.

“I vote for a life sentence,” Botta says when Leia calls up on him. Hux had somehow forgotten to expect that, and he entirely did not expect the small measure of applause that comes from the crowd. There were more hands clapping than Elana possesses.

“Al’tia,” Leia says, turning to the other side of the panel. “Your vote?”

“The stones do not emerge from the pond,” Al’tia says. Hux has no idea what that means; perhaps he should have paid more attention. “Therefore, I vote for death.”

Hux looks down at his hands. He’s spread them on the table; when did that happen? When the Qusoa woman is called upon, Jek takes Hux’s left hand and gives his fingers a squeeze. Hux wants to apologize for being a lost cause. Jek will blame himself.

“No loss could strip the grace of mercy from my bones,” the Qusoa woman says. Hux supposes he should have learned her name. “I vote for a life sentence.”

So it comes to Ander Fillamon, just as Jek said it would. Jek squeezes Hux’s fingers more tightly. Hux meets Fillamon’s eyes. He knows you. Ren said that. But Hux can’t make sense of it even now.

Fillamon looks as if he’s still thinking. His brow creases slightly. For a moment it seems as if he’ll cry, but Hux must be imagining things. In the next second Fillamon’s expression is as cold and immovable as it has been for the past two days.

“Life sentence,” Fillamon says, with a kind of offended disinterest, as if he’s annoyed by a waiter who has asked how he’d like his bantha filet cooked.

“Then the vote ends in a tie,” Leia says, and the building noise from the crowd rushing toward an excited crescendo that hits the back of Hux’s head like a wave. If Ren is celebrating, Hux can’t feel it. Jek is barely containing his urge to jump out of his seat and cheer, his fingers too tight around Hux’s hand now.

Hux feels as if the entire galaxy is trembling around him. It’s a sensation that makes him long to disappear. He imagines Ren’s robe closing around him and taking him elsewhere: to a drizzly beach or a sunlit wood, or back to Ren’s bed in some apartment in this city. Hux would hide there with Ren forever, if that were allowed.

“So it comes to my vote,” Leia says. “I’ll end the suspense immediately by declaring that mine is the deciding vote for life imprisonment.”

The room explodes in a combination of protests and disbelief, with some measure of celebration thrown in here and there, most notably Jek’s when he grabs Hux and hugs him. Hux can’t seem to speak or move, and the noise in the room seems to be coming from above a body of water that Hux has been submerged into. He’s staring at Leia. She lets her gaze pass lightly over his before she quiets the room and continues.

“I realize this is not going to be a popular decision across the board,” Leia says, “And I appreciate the three votes from my fellow Committee members who share my perhaps unpopular but binding opinion that, in contrast to the First Order’s approach to leadership, the New Republic shall show mercy, even to a man who has done this unimaginable thing which has affected so many of us. I also personally believe that a life sentence is a more fitting punishment for reasons of retribution as well as mercy. As part of this sentencing, I propose to the Committee that anyone who has been personally affected by what Mr. Hux did shall be able to register at the Tower to visit with him in a controlled environment, and that he be required to sit and listen to them describe how he has changed their lives by what he’s done.”

Hux wants to ask Jek if she can do that. Jek would probably approve, however.

“This opportunity shall be open to anyone who wishes to visit the General for the entirety of his sentence,” Leia says. “He would be required to have an audience with perhaps four or five of his victims per day, on perhaps two or three designated days of each week, for as long as there are victims who wish to communicate their grief to him. That, to me, is far more excruciating and fitting as a punishment than simply ending his life. If I did not believe that Mr. Hux is capable of empathy and regret, I wouldn’t bother with this addendum to his sentencing, but as I believe that he is, I think it shall be a harsh punishment indeed. I hope that, if he doesn’t already grieve for each of those individual lives lost in his unprecedented attack on life in our galaxy, this exercise will eventually if not immediately force him to at least begin to comprehend what he’s done. He has many, many years of incarceration ahead during which he can work on wrapping his mind around it, after all. Thank you.”

Leia stands, and Hux turns to look at his mother. She’s hurrying toward him, but before she can reach him a guard stops her. The crowd is exuberant with opinions, some of them rather colorful slurs shouted directly at Hux. When Hux turns back to look at Leia, supposing he should at least offer her a silent stare of thanks, he finds the Committee already dispersing: the Thulmar comforts the weeping Qusoian woman, and the Utrian and Eurc-Wentonian seem to comfort each other as they leave their seats, the Utrian snarling at Hux as he goes. Fillamon has disappeared. Botta collects data pads left behind by the Committee members. Leia gives instructions to the bailiff, who comes forward to tell the guards to allow Elana past the barrier and into Hux’s arms as he hurries from his chair to shield her from the noise and violent energy of the crowd. This time he holds onto her, tightly, and hides his face against the side of her head.

“Thank you,” Hux says, not sure if she’ll hear this over the racket from the crowd. She gives him a squeeze and pulls back to look at him. He wants to fix her ruined eye makeup, but if he brushes his thumb over it he’ll probably just make it worse.

“You don’t have to thank me,” Elana says, breathless. “Not ever.”

“Let’s go someplace quieter,” Jek says, gathering them away from the crowd, which is beginning to seem like a kind of angry animal with hundreds of limbs that might charge past the guards at any moment. When they turn to follow the bailiff away, Faza is standing in their path.

“Well done,” she says.

She’s speaking to Jek, and her smile seems strangely genuine, if not warm. She glances at Hux, who tucks his arm around his mother and wills himself not to say anything. He’s too tired to make it appropriately cutting, anyway.

“I hope you’re right about Mr. Hux,” Faza says to Jek. “And I hope for all our sakes that the General is right about Kylo Ren.”

“I trust the General knows what she’s talking about,” Jek says.

Faza smiles again before returning to her colleagues. Hux doesn’t know what the hell she looks so happy about, but maybe this is all just a game to her. He can’t hear Ren again until the bailiff has hurried them into a hallway behind the courtroom, the heavy door shutting out the noise of the crowd. It feels like moving from one dream world into another, none of this quite real for Hux yet.

You did it, Ren says. He sounds somber, or maybe just overcome.

I had help, Hux says. His relief is a shallow thing, surrounded by unscalable walls. Some subconscious part of his brain had tricked itself into thinking that he would be free to go if not put to death, or that Ren would actually come here to retrieve him. Ren remains far away, however, and Leia’s personal vow to contain him will probably work well enough to keep him there.

They’re going to cut to the announcers--

Ren’s voice breaks off there, and Hux feels as if he just lost his shirt, like he’s suddenly exposed to the elements and lacking the only armor he had left. He waits, sure that Ren will find his way back, but there’s nothing in his mind now but his own weatherbeaten thoughts and his persistent ache for Ren, though that’s not really in his mind so much as everywhere, running the length of his body and then back again.

“What’s wrong?” Elana asks when she notices Hux’s expression.

“I’m just-- I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it,” Hux says. It’s true enough. He has the impulse to hug Jek, but resists it. “You did it,” Hux says to him. “You saved my life.”

“I had a lot of help from you two,” Jek says. “And the other witnesses-- What Pella said about you speaks highly of you.” Jek gives Hux’s shoulder a squeeze. “And your response was perfect when I asked about Ren. I knew you could do it.”

“Yes!” Elana says. “But I knew they would vote to let you live before that. When the General gave you her water glass. I want to thank her-- Is she here? I think she saved you, really. With her vote, of course, but also with that water, when she passed you her glass. The room got so quiet. That must have moved the human who sat next to her, yes? That symbol of mercy?”

“I’m not sure he was moved by anything,” Hux says. He has the suspicion that he hasn’t seen the last of Fillamon, and it’s not a wonderful feeling.

“We’re ready to transport the prisoner,” a guard says, stepping forward. Hux noticed this guard yesterday: tall with greyish scales, mouth like a gash. He seems to be in charge of the whole operation.

“Can’t he had a moment to celebrate the fact that he gets to live?” Jek asks.

“This is a very time-sensitive operation,” the guard says. “The transport caravan is ready to roll out.”

Hux notices the guards who traveled with them from the Tower lingering nearby, one of them holding a set of binders. None of the guards looks particularly happy about the news that Hux will be returning to prison rather than heading for the gallows.

“I’ll come to visit you,” Elana says, throwing her arms around Hux again. “Soon, I promise.”

“Don’t you have to get back to Nestor?” Hux asks, ready to be disappointed. He pulls free, peers down at her. “To your flowers?”

“He’s going to help me get a job here,” Elana says, nodding to Jek. “So I can-- Be near to you-- They’ll let me visit him, of course, yes?” She asks this of Jek as if she’s begging for his permission.

“I think so,” Jek says. He squeezes Hux’s shoulder and steps away with Elana when the Tower guard moves forward to put the binders on Hux’s wrists.

“Aren’t you coming with me?” Hux asks Jek, his heart suddenly pounding. He thinks of the letter from Ren in Jek’s office. What if some angry citizens burn the place down during the night? What if the letter goes up in the flames?

“I’ll be back to see you soon,” Jek says. He looks like he might cry, and for the first time since they met Hux doesn’t resent Jek’s sudden onslaught of emotions. Hux feels like he’s just been told that the Committee’s decision was reversed, that he’s going to die after all, and that he needs to say his goodbyes as efficiently as possible. “You’ll be okay,” Jek says as Hux is lead away.

This empty statement reminds Hux of Ren. I’ll come for you, I promise, it will be okay.

No, Hux thinks as he’s lead down a dimly lit hallway, shoved forward when he tries to turn and get a last look at Jek and his mother. No one is coming for him. Not even Ren, after Leia made that grave promise to keep Ren from freeing Hux and then saved Hux’s life to seal the deal. How could even Ren bring himself to ruin her after she did everything she could to protect the one thing in the galaxy her maniac son still cares about? Hux is alone now, and there’s nothing but a lifetime of sitting in that cell ahead of him.

On the journey south, he doesn’t look out at the transport’s windows at the landscape that rolls by, though this is probably the actual last time he’ll see it. He thinks of his first trip to the Tower, when he sat across from Finn and taunted him about his parents. That was only twelve days ago. Hux feels like the idiot who sat sneering at Finn probably deserved a death sentence. He’s not sure what he feels he deserves now. He’ll sleep, anyway, at last. Hopefully through the night. Hopefully he’ll dream of Ren.

It’s nighttime in the south by the time they reach the Tower, and the sight of it at night is alarming and strangely beautiful, its windows dotted with lights here and there but mostly dark and shining like a faceless guardian of the mountains that surround it. Hux feels as if he’s being swallowed up by a living thing as the transport passes into the garage at the bottom of the Tower, disappearing into deeper darkness.

He isn’t surprised to see the warden waiting in the station where the transport docks. The whole process of being re-consumed by the Tower is a bitter repetition of his original arrival here, only this time he’ll never leave again.

“Well, General,” Stepwell says when the guards march Hux toward him. “Looks like you fooled them all.”

Hux makes no response. He waits, half expecting a punch to his gut.

“So now you’re a permanent resident,” Stepwell says. “I guess it’ll be on whoever becomes warden after me to zip you into a body bag someday, unless you delight the galaxy by croaking before you reach old age. Until then, I’m told I need to arrange for people to come here and rail at you on a regular basis for what you did, which I’m fine with, and you’ll also be pleased to hear that I’m legally required to give you an hour of exercise every day now that you’re a lifelong resident-- Unless you lose your privileges, of course. But I don’t see how you’d manage to do that, since you won’t be mixing with the general population at any point while I’m warden.”

“I appreciate that,” Hux says, though it’s probably unwise to say anything. “I’m aware that plenty of my fellow prisoners want me dead.”

“Sure, sure,” Stepwell says. “It’ll get awfully lonely though, eh? With only the people who hate you coming to visit?”

Hux decides now is not the time to mention that Jek and his mother will also be applying to visit him here. He dreads a comment about Ren, and feels his face getting hot. Stepwell smirks.

“Prisoners aren’t eligible to receive conjugal visits until they’ve served one year on consistently rated good behavior,” Stepwell says. “Just in case you were wondering about that. Though seeing as your knight in shining armor is on classified lockdown somewhere himself, I guess that won’t be a concern.”

Hux is burning to respond, but too tired to come up with anything that wouldn’t make him sound pathetic or defensive. The warden laughs and waves Hux toward the door that leads into the Tower, and the guards march him there.

The familiarity of what follows is not a comfort. Hux is brought to the showers on the sixty-first floor. He strips, cleans himself, touches the place on his stomach where Ren’s letter once pressed against him undetected. His shoes and civilian clothes are taken away, and he’s provided with a fresh prison uniform. The slippers he’s given seem to be the same ones from before. He’s brought to his cell, where the binders on his wrists are removed. The guards leave; the door shuts. A dinner tray waits on the floor.

Hux sits on the floor near the tray and surveys its contents in the dark, startled by how weak he’s become. He should be elated, gloating with private victory and plotting what comes next, but being so suddenly alone has left him feeling defeated. He tries to imagine what his mother is doing right now: having dinner alone in her hotel room, watching the broadcasts that will endlessly analyze the events of the hearing? Jek is probably in bed with his wife, if not still having a celebratory dinner with his family. Surely they won’t watch the broadcasts, as least not in the presence of the children. Hux doesn’t even know how old Jek’s daughters are; he feels now like he should have asked, but what would be the point? What does any of it matter?

Ren might already be writing him another letter, meanwhile. Hux turns to glance at his notebook, on the desk with the materials about the dead planets that he doesn’t need anymore. He picks up a piece of toasted bread from his dinner tray and walks over to the desk, spreading the data sheets Jek made for him across the surface. Raklan’s sheet still tells him nothing about Ander Fillamon and why he voted to spare Hux. Utr’s sheet features images of child-sized beings like the one who screamed his vote for the death sentence. These children are in the midst of celebrating some kind of festival, laughing and wearing ribbons that wind around their chubby arms, their faces painted. Qusoa’s sheet promises that the air on the planet was some of the cleanest in the galaxy, as if purified by its residents’ faith in this galaxy being a good and merciful place where peace will eventually come to all.

What does it matter. It’s all gone now.

Hux sits at the desk, the bread he swallowed sitting in his stomach like a rock. He closes his eyes and tries to reach out to Ren, having no idea how such a thing is accomplished. Ren has always just come to him, in the past. He won’t come now. Hux knows that when he opens his eyes. He can feel it like a limb that’s been lobbed off: he’s lost Ren’s touch, his voice, that closeness that he’d told himself that no one else would ever know. Living without it will strip Hux down to nothing eventually. He turns and considers the dinner tray on the floor, then opts to smoke a cigarette instead. It’s possible this transgression will be caught on some invisible security camera, but there’s nothing left for Hux to lose, so he might as well.

Standing at the window, he smokes and tracks the flight path of a dark creature that flies from one mountain peak to another. It’s some type of large bird, or maybe an enormous bat that lives in a mountain cave. There is a moment when Hux’s heart lifts and he thinks it could be Ren. He laughs at himself and feels his heart beating faster even after he’s sure that it’s not. It’s not really funny, probably a sign of oncoming madness, but Hux is amused by the mental image of Ren in flight, that robe fanning out behind him as he soars from mountain to mountain, trying to find a way to Hux already. Not even able to stay away for one night.

Hux puts his cigarette out and eats a few more bites from his dinner tray. He hides the cigarette butt in a tub of creamy sauce intended to be consumed with the evening’s mystery meat, then pushes the tray against the wall near the door. Falling into the bed feels good, but once he’s there he experiences a full-body, bone-deep soreness, probably from sitting so tensely in that chair in the courtroom for two days. He pulls his knees up to his chest and wonders if he wishes they had killed him. The idea of facing all these days and years here alone seems worse, suddenly, though still not entirely. He’s still holding onto something. It’s not quite the hope that Ren will come for him after all, but it’s something. It’s just his pillow, maybe, wrapped up into his arms as he drifts toward sleep.

For the sake of getting some needed rest, he imagines his pillow is Ren. He pictures Ren having flown here in the night just to pass magically through the cell’s window and into Hux’s bed. Hux would make fun of Ren for his dramatic entrance, his windblown hair, and then he would pull Ren close and hide inside that robe of his until morning, listening to Ren’s heartbeat and being periodically awakened by the feeling of Ren’s fingers in his hair. Hux would wake without Ren at dawn, no one the wiser, and would live for nightfall, when Ren would return. If Hux just could have this one magic thing, it would be enough to truly keep him alive here. I’m your letter. Ren said that once, in a dream. Hux wants to find Ren pressed to his skin, inside a blue envelope, tumbling wholly formed from the words on a page.

He would settle for dreaming of Ren tonight, or at least Ben, but he dreams instead of a planet that will soon be destroyed. It’s a kind of amalgamation of the five in the Hosnian system, and there’s a festival going on: children run past him with ribbons, adults drink and laugh and line the streets. There are fireworks, streamers. Hux runs from person to person, trying to tell everyone he sees that there’s a blast coming from Starkiller, that they have to evacuate, but his voice won’t work and he’s dismissed as a lunatic. He notes at one point that he’s barefoot, wearing a filthy and torn prison uniform, and he can hardly blame the locals for ignoring his wordless cries of panic. When the red light appears in the sky, the crowd cheers. They think it’s just more fireworks, part of the celebration. Hux sinks to his knees and watches it come.

 

 

**

Chapter Text

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?”

“No!”

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.

“We will.”

“I’m not just talking about you and Rey,” Leia adds, lifting her eyebrows. “He came to help.”

“Mhmm. Okay.”

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.

“Afterward, then?”

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.

“Wedge?”

“Yes, Wedge.”

“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.”

“That’s fine.”

“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?”

Yes?

“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?”

Ren?

“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.”

“My approach?”

“Running away.”

“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.

 

 

**

Chapter Text

After two days of nobody telling him anything except when it’s time for his daily trip to the shower, Hux is making some sluggish progress on his memoir when the guards appear in mid-morning to inform him he has an appointment. As these are the two Hux has come to childishly think of as the ‘mean guards,’ as opposed to the ‘mostly indifferent guards’ who prod him toward the shower in the evenings, Hux does not inquire as to the nature of this appointment. He assumes it’s his first scheduled beratement by someone who blames him for ruining their life. He’d been dreading that, but after two days of crushing boredom broken up only by bland meals and the occasional confounding dream about Ren, he’s almost curious enough about how this will go to consider actually looking forward to it.

When he’s brought to a small, windowless conference room where Jek awaits, smiling and in possession of a blue envelope, no mourners for the five planets in sight, Hux has to exert sincere effort not to throw his arms around Jek in relief. Jek smiles more widely, as if he’s sensed Hux’s barely contained relief, and this annoys Hux enough to allow him to snatch the envelope from Jek’s outstretched hand and drop into a seat beside his, the urge to embrace him successfully avoided.

“That’s the letter from before the verdict was read,” Jek says when Hux stares down at the envelope, holding it carefully in two hands. It feels like a meal that’s been withheld from him for weeks.

“What are you doing here?” Hux asks when he drags his eyes up to Jek’s.

“Continuing to advocate for you,” Jeks says, as if Hux should have known this already. “You’re still a unique client. You need someone looking out for you, right?”

“How so?” Hux asks. Even here, in this position, and presently feeling extremely grateful, Hux doesn’t like the implication that he can’t take care of himself.

“Your visitations,” Jek says. “For one thing.”

“The people who signed up to cry and scream at me?”

“No-- Well, yes, that’s part of it. I want to make sure you have a balance of interactions. Your mother will be allowed to visit you, too, and others, um. Including me. Leia actually asked me to oversee this personally.”

“Leia-- Ren’s--” Hux blinks down at the envelope.

“You can read it if you want,” Jek says, reaching into his briefcase to pull out his data pad. “I’ll give you a minute.”

“The letter can wait,” Hux says, because he doesn’t appreciate being called out on his impatience to find out what’s inside. “General Organa asked you to advocate for me?”

“She didn’t put it like that, but she said that she wanted this program of people being able to visit you to be, you know, a healing process. For both sides. So you’re going to be evaluated, periodically, to make sure that you’re handling it okay.”

“Evaluated by whom?”

“A therapist,” Jek says, shrinking a bit.

“No,” Hux says. “I can handle some sobbing citizens, as long as the guards don’t let them reach across the table and strangle me. I don’t need to talk about how it’s made me feel. That would worsen things, actually.”

“Are you sure?” Jek asks. “Why not try it?”

“Am I sure? It’s as if you’re asking an organism without gills to breathe underwater. I don’t have the equipment for-- Whatever therapy requires.”

“See!” Jek says, holding up an obnoxious finger. “You don’t even know what it requires, exactly.”

“Have you been to therapy?” Hux asks, and he regrets the sharpness of the question when Jek’s face falls.

“A long time ago,” Jek says, nodding. “When I was a kid. After my dad died, then again when my mom got remarried.”

“Fuck,” Hux says, in lieu of an apology. “Do you know what I realized the other day?” he asks, to change the subject.

“What?”

“I don’t know how old your children are. And then I thought, why does it matter? But if you’re going to keep seeing me here, perhaps I should know things like that. To prevent me from embarrassing myself with inappropriate questions, if nothing else.”

Jek looks down at his data pad and laughs. Hux wants to apologize further, because now Jek seems embarrassed, but his expression has returned to the usual easy acceptance when he looks up again.

“My girls are seven and ten,” he says. “Petri and Amara.”

“And they’re-- Okay?” Hux asks, not sure what he’s trying to say. He’s increasingly aware that he should just read Ren’s letter. He won’t be able to concentrate on decent conversation until he has. “I mean, they’re safe?” Hux says when Jek gives him a puzzled look. “I don’t like the thought of you or your family suffering for what you did for me,” Hux says, regretting that he’s cornered himself into admitting this. “Because some people must hate you now, too.”

“Oh, my family is fine,” Jek says. “I’ve taken precautions. Leia helped with that, too.”

“Really?” Hux looks down at the envelope. “Maybe she ought not to be taking such an obvious interest in you-- In anything to do with me, I mean. If people found out that she-- That Ren is her-- Do you think they would veto her decision and redo the hearing?” Hux asks, blurting this out as quickly as he can. He’s had two nightmares about it that he can remember, probably more that he can’t.

“The decision is final,” Jek says. “That was part of the deal. If victims got to sit on the Committee, and if they got to rush you to court ten days after your surrender, they had to agree that the sentence can’t be overturned. Whatever happens with Kylo Ren and that whole drama, you’re safe. I’ll see to that, if anyone tries to challenge Leia’s ruling. Don’t worry.”

Hux nods to himself and tears open Ren’s envelope, unable to wait any longer. Jek politely turns his eyes to his data pad. Hux’s hands are shaking as he unfolds the paper, and he reminds himself that Ren wrote this before the hearing ended. He’s expecting two pages of promises that he’ll soon be rescued, should the need for that arise, and he realizes when he reads the opening lines that Ren must have received Hux’s letter to him just before he started writing this. Hux turns away from Jek, hiding the fact that he’s grinning down at Ren’s handwriting like an idiot, his eyes blurring over. He blinks them clear and reads the first two sentences again.

I received your communication and am writing back immediately as instructed. Please feel free to send me further instructions at any time and by any means and know that until then I eagerly await your every word and miss the sound of your voice so much that sometimes I feel like I’ll dry up and turn to dust if I can’t at least just hear you say my name.

(You gave me that name. Did I ever tell you that? It’s like you invented it, not him. Because it sounds different when you say it and it made me someone else, eventually. Someone better than his servant and better than cowering Ben and more like who I really am.)

(Once you muttered my name just before you fell asleep on top of me, like a question you were asking, and I think that’s when I started to think of myself as someone who belongs to you. Because I wanted to be the answer to every question you had. That was all I wanted to be, in that moment. It seemed big enough to do justice to all my powers and their potential. It’s still enough for me, so just ask of me whatever you want.)

Back to the subject of Snoke.

Hux isn’t ready to return to the subject of Snoke, which presumably is what the remainder of the two page letter is concerned with. He reads the first three paragraphs a few more times before continuing onward.

I’ll talk now about the long years when it was just me and him. There were others, sometimes, but I was never sure if they were real or just projections. He would project enemies for me to fight, and those fights felt real, so when I think back on who else was there with us, I wonder if they were really there at all. (Except for that boy I had to kill when I first arrived. I’m sure he was real. He felt real. I felt his panic and his relief as he died, and it terrified me. These others I’m about to talk about didn’t feel that way. They offered no feedback. I thought at the time that they were fellow Force-users and they were just keeping me from reading their thoughts with their own powers, but now I think maybe not). There were the Knights, who were supposedly my comrades, though they never talked to me. I did feel better when they were around, though. Less alone. Snoke made me kill them just before he sent me to the Finalizer. I tell myself now that they weren’t real. I’m not sure. I know the people he sent to bed with me weren’t real. I think Snoke felt me figuring it out, and that was why it stopped about a year after it started, or maybe he just thought I should be weaned off of it.

Hux looks up from the letter and half turns toward Jek, though it’s not as if Jek can offer him counsel on this. His stomach hurts, as if someone has thrust his invisible hand in to squeeze it. Snoke sent ‘people’ to Ren’s ‘bed?’

He closes his eyes, trying to hear Ren’s voice in his head, needing to ask him questions about this. He feels almost angry at Ren for dropping this information casually into a letter, then angry at himself for that impulse. He opens his eyes and reads on, frowning down at the words now.

Most of the time though it was just me and Snoke, or just me. He would disappear on me and he told me not to question this. He said he had business elsewhere that was none of my concern but I always got the sense he was actually still around, at least still watching closely from my head, waiting to see what I’d get up to while he was away. I didn’t get up to anything he didn’t want me doing. That’s the thing about Snoke that he did so well that Luke didn’t. He got me to obey because he saw the way that I was craving it whereas all Luke could see was a kid who wanted to challenge him. Luke wanted to understand me, and Snoke just wanted to tell me he knew best and that if I had questions, they didn’t deserve answers. He told me I wasn’t going to be nurtured or guided into anything, that I was already fully formed and he was going to help me discover the truth of me that was already there. I guess that appealed to me more than Luke’s method, or anyway it made a kind of sense whereas Luke’s lessons always felt convoluted and like mind games that were designed to trick me. It’s funny (not really funny but you know what I mean) because Luke actually was trying to help, and Snoke actually was playing mind games, but the mind games appealed to me more than the actual help did.

Snoke’s big thing, which makes me think about the Order in some ways, is that there is no self. There is only power and action. He said the self was a navel-gazing invention that most humanoid cultures were caught up in and that it was destroying the galaxy. He said that self was the cause of war and suffering and that if we erased all the selves there would be peace. As if Snoke cared about peace. I knew he didn’t, but I liked this idea that Ben had never REALLY existed. He was just a construction based on his parents and what they thought their child should be, and also based on what Luke thought a Force user should be. Snoke said he could see past all that bullshit (not the word he used, but basically what he meant) and down to the pure core of my power. He said that’s who I was-- which wasn’t a self at all. Just a power. And I liked the idea. I played right into his hands, wanting to be a selfless power. Of course he wanted me to see myself that way, so he could use that power like his personal weapon and then jump into my body and keep it forever once he’d gotten rid of my “self” in the last, most literal way.

So now I’m back to the question at hand. You said in your letter that you couldn’t concentrate on this problem until you’d finished your battle. Will you have finished it by the time you read this? I hope so. Maybe it will have gotten screwed up and I’ll have had to get you away from there in a hurry. In that case I guess you might never actually get this letter. Or maybe you’ll read it on the morning before your big battle is decided. I wish I could be there, anyway. I will be, in the only way that I can be. You know what I mean. Hearing your voice like that, having our connection again-- I want it back, so bad, already.

Getting off track here, so back to the problem we need to solve after your problem is over (at least for the time being): Why did Snoke have to wait until I was 15 to take over my body? Why did he wait another 15 years to try again? What’s the secret that lets him in? I feel like I need to figure this out before I kill him. Then I think about him seeing me write this and laughing, because maybe I’m wrong. That’s what I’ll always have in my head, for as long as he exists: the idea that he’s laughing at me because he thinks I’m hopeless and wrong and lost without him.

Well, I’m not. And I don’t care if he knows that I think so, and I don’t care if he laughs.

In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts on the questions in the above paragraph. Tomorrow is the last day of your current battle. I’ll be watching and I’ll speak to you as soon as I can. I’ll be with you again as soon as I can. I’m not sure how yet. But I’m sure it’s going to happen.

Here is something to fortify you if you’re reading this before the start of the second day of your battle: Say they sit up there and presume that they can kill you. As if they are powerful enough to do that. First, I’d laugh at them from afar. Then I’d be on my way there. I’d send a kind of tornado of energy through the crowd outside, blowing them all out of the way. I’d rip away every door between you and me, no matter how heavily armored it is, just like I did on that moon. I’d freeze everyone inside the courtroom in place (with the Force. It wouldn’t hurt our mothers, or your lawyer, who I guess you like. It wouldn’t hurt anyone, but I thought you might be concerned about these people. You needn’t be). They would have to sit and watch as I made my way toward you and put out my hand. You would be the only one other than me with the ability to move. I would rip those binders off of your wrists. You would take my hand. We would walk out of there, untouchable.

I confess I don’t know what comes next but I’m confident that you would come up with a plan.

So think about what to do next, Hux, and tell me, please.

Love R.

Hux snorts and lifts the letter halfway to his face, pausing before he’s actually pressed it there. He rereads the sign-off, amused again by the lack of a comma. It’s as if Ren is begging Hux to love him, or demanding it. Ren has gotten that, since writing this. He got precisely what he asked for here, officially stated for the record, with all the galaxy as his witnesses.

“I want to keep this one,” Hux says when he turns toward Jek, still staring at the last few lines on the second page of the letter. “I need to, I think.”

“Fine by me,” Jek says. “It still wouldn’t be a great thing if they confiscated it, but you’re not going to get sentenced to death for lying about hearing from Kylo Ren. You won’t face the threat of that sentence again for any crime, at this point.”

“What if I killed a guard?” Hux asks, not buying this. “Not even then?”

“How about you just don’t kill a guard?” Jek says. “Just in case.”

“Well, I wasn’t planning to, but-- Never mind, forget it. Tell me about these fucking empathy sessions, or whatever. Am I going to be locked into a room with a mourner until one of them snaps and kills me?”

“No,” Jek says. “There are parameters, set forth by Leia. It’s very specific. You’re to be in a room with a clear barrier between you and the visitor. The room already exists-- It’s an interview room, typically, for violent offenders who can’t be trusted to be in the same room as whoever needs to speak to them, for whatever reason. The barrier is see-through, and sound can travel through it, but it’s a thick material that can’t be broken, and the guards will be on the other side of a similar barrier that is see-through but sound-proofed, so that the mourners can have privacy when they speak to you. But they won’t be totally unmonitored. The guards will see if they try to do anything weird, and the visitors will of course be searched on their way in, so it’s not like they’ll be bringing in bombs.”

“Unless the warden would be okay with me getting blown up,” Hux says. “Which I’m pretty sure he would be.”

“I don’t know about that, but it would look really bad for him if he let something happen to you under his watch. I mean, you’ve been okay so far, right?”

“Right,” Hux says, uncertainly. “So when do these unfortunate meetings begin?”

“I’m not sure,” Jek says. “I think they’re still in the process of sorting through the applicants. The warden mentioned something about a few ‘VIPs’ being advanced to the front of the list.”

Hux thinks of Ren, absurdly. In a dream, Ren had promised he was coming to visit. It’s hard to tell what connection to reality the various Rens in Hux’s dreams may or may not have, for whatever definition of reality Ren currently lives by.

“Leia said something about you having around ten visitors a week on the broadcast,” Jek says. “But I’m pushing them to limit it to five, and at the end of the week you’ll meet with your therapist--”

“Can I not refuse that?” Hux asks, sharply. “Is that not my right?”

“Hux. You talked about incredibly personal stuff during your hearing, in front of the entire galaxy. What are you afraid of? You only have to talk about what you want to talk about with the therapist. You won’t be judged by a Committee for avoiding her questions, if you don’t want to answer them.”

“Maybe I’m just tired of being asked questions altogether.”

“Well, I’m sure she’d be happy to just let you talk--”

“Why are you saying ‘she’? This is a person you’ve met?”

Jek nods, somewhat sheepish. “I contacted her at Leia’s request,” he says.

Hux scoffs, horrified by the thought that Leia is looking out for him, as if they have some kind of relationship through Ren. He supposes it’s irrational to pretend that they don’t, but the unspoken nature of it bothers him, particularly since it seems to have resulted in Leia managing Hux, presumably so that Ren won’t torch the city and fling every door between him and Hux aside ‘no matter how heavily armored’ they are.

“I think you’ll like her,” Jek says when Hux looks at him again, eyes still narrowed.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Hux says. “You like everyone.”

“Not true,” Jek says.

“Name one person you don’t like.”

“That warden,” Jek says, lowering his voice, as if he’s not confident that they’re not being eavesdropped upon. “Something about him puts me off, though I’ve been kissing his butt as much as I can, on your behalf.”

“Please,” Hux says, wincing. “Don’t kiss any asses for my sake. I can’t bear the thought of it.”

“That’s very touching,” Jek says, smiling again. “But I consider it an art form. I don’t take it personally.”

Hux knows what Jek means, though he wishes he didn’t. This had been Hux’s philosophy when he was a young officer: Don’t let pride get in the way of tricking people into giving you what you want.

“I might as well tell you,” Hux says, moving closer to Jek and lowering his voice. “Ren might try to come here. I might need you to manage that disaster, at some point.”

“You mean-- Come here and free you? Even after what his mother said?”

“I’m not sure it will be that dramatic. He’s got some pressing business to attend to first, I suspect. But he’s very hard to control.”

“Your mother asked if she could meet him,” Jek says.

Hux reels backward so violently that his chair slides across the floor.

“Absolutely not!” he says when Jek opens his mouth to continue. “That’s-- No. Never. Why?”

“Why? I’m sure you can imagine why she would want to meet the man her son loves.”

“Don’t--” Hux winces and holds up his hand. “Don’t let her anywhere near him, please.”

“I doubt I could stop her, but I’ll let her know your feelings on the matter. She’s hoping to come see you once your clearance period is up, in a month.”

“A month,” Hux says, glumly. He’d once imagined that he’d gladly never see his mother again. Now a month seems like an eternity before he’ll be able to endure her opinions about Ren, whom she’ll surely see without Hux’s blessing, as soon as she can find her way to the apartment where Ren does his brooding.

“You’ll need to stay on good behavior for a month before they’ll let you have regular visitors.” Jek says. He clears his throat meaningfully before continuing, and Hux gives him a piercing look. Jek seems to understand that Hux doesn’t want to talk about the regulations for conjugal visits right now. “Meanwhile,” Jek says. “Are they letting you have your hour of exercise, once per day?”

“Yes. It’s very cold up there.”

“I asked them to get you a coat!”

“They-- have.” Hux frowns. “That was you? The coat?” Hux counts it among his most cherished possessions now. He wears it in his cell even when he’s not cold, enjoying the way it swallows him up, though he’d once hated wearing ill-fitting things. It reminds him a bit of being wrapped in Ren’s over-sized robe.

“I mentioned it when I was going over your file with the warden,” Jek says. “That, you know, you could get sick if you weren’t provided with standard-issue outdoor gear for your exercise periods, and if you get sick, the Tower pays for your care. That sort of thing.”

“That sort of thing,” Hux says, muttering. “Right, well. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Jek says, waving his hand through the air.

“No, I ought to mention it more often,” Hux says, almost angrily. “It’s not as if you can bill for this, and the journey here takes a long time. I’m cutting into your livelihood.”

“I’m not exactly hurting for business,” Jek says. “Plenty of people hate me for defending you, but there’s a good chunk of those who feel like it was the right thing to do, and enough people in trouble who don’t give a damn what my morals are as long as I can get them off the hook for things they’ve done, too.”

“Really.” Hux smiles and tucks his letter from Ren inside the waistband of his pants. “That’s good to hear.”

“Yeah,” Jek says. “We’re both a bit famous. You much more so than me.”

“You mean infamous, surely.”

“Well, a little of both. I don’t suppose you want to hear about the speculation on your love life that’s been airing on the holos since--”

“No,” Hux says, his heart pounding with a kind of terror that startles him in its suddenness and intensity. “I do not.”

“Fair enough,” Jek says.

When Jek is gone, Hux experiences a stretch of tense dread that begins during his ascent in the elevator and lasts until he’s crossed the threshold of his cell with Ren’s letter still safely tucked into his pants. He kneels onto the floor when the guards are gone and kisses the blue envelope with frantic determination, all over, as if it’s Ren’s face. The texture is good for this, though not as good as Ren’s skin, which would be warm and responsive against his lips. As his fit of semi-insanity passes, Hux checks over both shoulders, embarrassed, as if someone has seen. Since the hearing, he’s been paranoid about being watched or overheard. He hides the letter under his mattress with the others and goes to the lunch tray that has recently been passed into the room. The roll is still warm, and it actually tastes good, or maybe it’s just the heat against Hux’s lips that brings him a certain dazed appreciation.

That night, he’s freshly asleep when he feels someone grab his hand and tug him sideways, as if away from dreaming and into something deeper.

It’s alarming: Hux can’t see anything. He can’t even see his own hand as it’s pulled, and the one that does the pulling isn’t warm enough to be Ren’s.

“Keep running,” a voice says: familiar, but hard to place. A child’s voice, or not quite-- a teenager’s. Hux suspects Ben, but this person doesn’t share Ben’s accent. This person speaks with an accent like Hux’s.

“Why are we running?” Hux asks, startled when his voice sounds too young.

“There’s a monster after you,” the other boy says. It doesn’t sound like they’re playing a game: he’s frightened.

“Why can’t I see you?” Hux asks.

“I don’t know,” the other boy says. “I can see you.”

Something about this jars Hux enough to wake him. He opens his eyes and feels slapped when he sees the beginnings of the sunrise through his cell’s giant window. If he had other dreams that filled the hours during which he slept, he can’t remember them.

This happens twice more during the plodding days that follow: Hux goes to bed hoping that he’ll wake hanging onto some small memory of Ren from a dream, but instead he’s led through a deep darkness by someone unseen who tells him to keep moving, to stay ahead of whatever pursues them. These dreams always seem worryingly brief, considering that Hux wakes from them at dawn and feels as if he only shut his eyes against his pillow moments ago.

“Who are you?” Hux asks on the third night, speaking to the person who leads him through the dark.

“Don’t you know?” the boy asks.

“Did Ren send you?” Hux asks.

“No. But I’ll take you to him when it’s safe.”

This statement remains lodged in Hux’s head during the day that follows. He eats breakfast, tries to write his memoir, starts and scraps a letter to Ren, and walks the freezing track on the roof of the Tower still thinking about the promise some invisible person made to him in a dream. He’s annoyed with himself for fixating on this nonsense, but he has little else to think about. The urgency with which he worked on his memoir prior to the start of the hearing has faded, as he’s now well aware that he has the rest of his life to shape the narrative, and that his story will end with his imprisonment here, as nothing else awaits.

When the morning guards again collect him for an unspecified appointment, Hux mentally tallies the days since Jek’s visit. Jek told Hux that he’ll only be allowed to visit once a week, if that. It has only been four days, so this appointment will be with someone else. When the elevator’s doors open on the fifteenth floor and Hux finds the warden waiting for him, he can guess what this appointment will involve.

“So begins the General’s creative punishment,” the warden says as Hux is ushered toward him. “We’ve got some people here to see you.”

“Fine,” Hux says, when the warden just stares at him, smiling in his usual affected way.

“Lucky for you it’s not a cage match,” the warden says. “I’ve got you in the interview room. You’ll be safe from everything but the words.”

Hux withholds a response this time. He’s not afraid of words, though they were the worst part, once, of the worst thing that ever happened to him. As long as they’re only words, without the accompanying soul-scraping torture, he’s certain he can withstand them.

The room is as Jek described it: a clear wall looks in on a windowless enclosure that’s a little larger than Hux’s cell, another clear wall dividing the space in half. Two identical chairs sit on either side of the dividing wall. Hux is surprised that he hasn’t been given an uncomfortable stool to sit on in contrast to a far nicer chair for the mourner. Both of these chairs are plain gray duraflex with armrests and padded backs. Hux settles into his and turns to stare at the guard on the other side of the clear wall that looks in on the divided room. The guard stares back at him, looking bored. Behind him, a door that leads to the outer hallway opens, and a small Qusoian woman walks inside, first entering the staging area with the guard and then the other side of the divided room. Hux sits up straighter at the sound of her footsteps. The entrance to the room disappears back into the clear wall as the door to Hux’s side of the enclosure did, melding in seamlessly, as if there is no door there at all. Hux isn’t familiar with this material, and is unnerved by the fact that it seems to be engineered not to allow sound in, as promised. It’s as if he really is alone with this Qusoian, or at least alone with her words.

She seems much younger than the Qusoian Committee member, her skin far smoother and her eyes brighter. Hux thinks a Qusoian an odd choice for his first derider, but perhaps they’re not all so peace-loving.

She sits and blinks at Hux as if he’s an animal in a zoo, her small hands resting over her knees. Like all of the Qusoians in Hux’s reading materials on the planet he blew up, she’s small and compact with big, dark eyes and a hairless blue skin that seems to shift slightly in color when she moves. Hux sits and waits for her to speak first, trying to appear respectful.

“Can you really hear me?” she asks, reaching out to tap the barrier between them.

“Yes,” Hux says, and she sits back, as if startled that a holo projection has suddenly evidenced cognizance by speaking directly to her.

“What’s this material?” she asks, tentatively tapping the barrier again.

“I don’t know,” Hux says. “I’m told it can’t be pierced.”

“Ah. So I’m safe from you over here? They did say that.”

“Are you frightened of me?” Hux asks. He’s not sure why he’s surprised by this, or not more pleased.

“I thought I would be,” she says. “You look smaller in those clothes.”

Hux looks down at his prison uniform and nods. It’s a bit chilly in this room; he’s got goosebumps on his arms. He didn’t think it would send the right message if he wore the coat that he uses on the roof of the Tower. It dwarfs him, which makes him look even smaller, and also a bit like he’s hiding.

“Slippers,” the Qusoian says, staring at them.

“Can I ask your name?” Hux says, not wanting to talk about the slippers.

She glares at him. “Do you deserve to know my name?”

“I don’t know what I deserve,” Hux says, struggling not to sigh. For a moment this was actually somewhat interesting, but now he’s remembered that he finds other people’s rage tedious, and always will.

“Names are very important in Qusoa,” she says, and she sniffs when she hears that. “They were, anyway.”

She seems to expect Hux to respond. He studies her face and determines that she came in here intending to get angry but now she feels intimidated by the process, or perhaps just too flustered to gather her thoughts.

“This is strange,” Hux says. “Isn’t it? You’re my first, uh. Visitor. I haven’t gotten the hang of this yet.”

“How dare you?” she asks, narrowing her eyes. “You already think this is something to grow accustomed to? You think that you will develop an immunity to it after enough people have passed through here?”

“I don’t know.” Hux glances at the guard. He’s still watching them, still looking bored. “Can I ask why they let you go first?”

“I left Qusoa when I was a girl,” she says. “You might say I defected from pacifism.”

“Interesting,” Hux says, sincerely.

“I joined the Resistance to fight against people like you,” she says. “Because I knew that mercy would do no good against them.”

“Oh.” Hux surveys her attire, which he’d judged as civilian, though it’s hard to tell with the Resistance. “Well, I can’t argue with that logic.”

“I came here today to tell you that the Resistance is mounting an attack against your former ship, the Finalizer,” she says. “And that the First Order has been hobbled by what you said in that broadcast.”

Hux isn’t sure what sort of response she’s looking for. Has she come to gather information about the Finalizer’s operations? To gloat that the Order is weakened? To threaten him with the information that soon the Tower may be flooded by an influx of angry former officers from his old ship, who watched that broadcast and intend to make Hux pay for it?

“I suppose I’m not surprised,” Hux says when she goes on saying nothing.

“I thought I would have more to say,” she says after some awkward moments in silence have passed. “But now that I’m looking at you-- You’re just a man.”

“That’s true,” Hux says, trying not to sound like a smart ass.

“Others will scream at you and beat their fists against this wall,” she says, peering up at the barrier. “Perhaps you’ll grow accustomed to hearing them curse your name.”

“I suppose I will.”

“But a name takes damage like a starship does, Mr. Hux. It can be wounded and it’s not easily healed. That’s what the Qusoa people believed. I think it’s true. I pity you, almost. You’re just one man the Order abandoned, a kind of sacrifice. But your name belongs solely to you. And that’s the name that will be injured, in this place.”

Hux absorbs this as calmly as he can. She’s not wrong. It’s his mother’s name; that was part of why it hurt to be called that while real damage was done. It was part of the injury.

“I always thought I’d go back,” she says, her eyes drifting from Hux’s and seeming to go unfocused. The color on her cheeks shifts from purplish blue to something much paler, like the surface of a clearing tidepool. “I thought-- When I’m done with my work, when the Resistance has accomplished more, when things are safer. I catch myself thinking that, still. Even though I know my home is gone. I think sometimes of the places that I wanted to return to. They only exist in my memory now. Going back to the things you’ve lost in a memory can bring such pain. Is that something you know? You must,” she says when her eyes meet Hux’s again. “You claimed to love someone. There’s some debate about whether it’s true or not. I think it is. I think I could tell, when I watched your broadcast. So you must know what I mean about the painful memory of something you cannot return to.”

Hux would rather be called names than analyzed like this. He keeps his gaze steady, his expression impartial. His heart pounds so hard that he worries she’ll hear it.

“I don’t know what else I thought I would say,” she says, standing. “I’m just a person speaking to another person. It changes nothing. I left Qusoa to make a difference in the galaxy rather than waiting around for a galactic epiphany about the value of peace to descend upon us. Something else descended. Good luck to you, Elan Hux. I’m sorry to see you’re just a man. I think I wanted to see a wicked beam of red light here today, and to reach out and stop it.”

She leaves then, in tears when she bangs on the door that opens as if it’s made of liquid and then segues back into the wall seamlessly when she’s gone. She hurries away as the guard opens the door that leads out to the hallway. Hux finds himself wanting to call out to her, though he can’t imagine why. She didn’t tell him her name.

The next two visits are more of what he expected, though the rage of both visitors seems to peter out earlier than they anticipated, and their blubbering sobs are harder to stare at directly. Neither of them invites Hux to speak, which is something of a relief, though he didn’t dislike speaking to the Qusoian woman. He wonders what she does for the Resistance, and why she’s not along on this alleged trip to bring down the Finalizer.

“You will perish here in agony,” Hux’s third visitor says, through tears. He’s a young Utrian, some kind of official’s son who was off planet during the attack. He’s covered in tattoos, and Hux has to wonder if he was enjoying the wealth provided by his family’s station on some far-off pleasure planet while his family faced their doom. There’s something guilty about his anger. He slinks away when he’s worn himself out, his voice having grown hoarse.

Hux lets out his breath and adjusts in his chair, his back beginning to ache. The guard in the staging area has been swapped out for another, presumably to give the first one a break. Hux isn’t sure how long this has gone on, or how much longer it will continue. He feels a bit numb when he turns and sees Ander Fillamon strolling into the staging area, back straight and icy blue gaze already lasered onto Hux as he strides toward the door that materializes and slides open in the clear wall, allowing him access to Hux’s ears as well as his eyes.

“I think I’m your last one for the day,” Fillamon says, dragging his chair closer to the barrier, until his knees almost touch it. He sits back and almost smiles, observing Hux as if he finally has him precisely where he wants him. “They had us in a holding room of sorts,” he says. “The other three recognized me from the Committee. They wouldn’t speak to me. I suppose because I’m the one who let you off, in their view.”

“Who are you?” Hux asks, and he winces when he hears the stupid question. “I mean-- Why have you come? Did I know you-- Before?”

“You can’t answer that question yourself?” Fillamon looks disappointed. He puts his left hand in the pocket of his fine trousers, and Hux freezes, waiting for some very discreet weapon to be pulled out and pointed at him. Fillamon’s hand remains in his pocket. “You don’t know me,” Fillamon says. “I’m just someone who came to this planet to kill you.”

“Really.” Hux glances at the guard, and Fillamon laughs. It’s sharp, joyless, and it feels like the weapon he had concealed.

“I decided not to,” Fillamon says, holding up his free hand in a kind of reassuring, condescending gesture. “Remember? I had the power to kill you already. I cast it away.”

“You saved me,” Hux says, and he’s not sure why this comes out sounding bitter. Fillamon is playing some kind of game. Probably the Order sent him here, though Hux can’t figure out what their next move would be, in the present situation. He checks the guard again, from just the corner of his eye this time. This second guard appears as disengaged as he has since he was swapped in for the first one. He’s doing his job, watching the encounter play out, but clearly not particularly fascinated by this conversation that he can’t hear.

“I didn’t save you,” Fillamon says.

“No?” Hux isn’t afraid to seem like a smart ass for this particular visitor. “Have you come here to tell me you’d prefer to see me murdered while in prison?”

“Yes,” Fillamon says. “Though it’s not the kind of murder you’re perhaps anticipating.”

“You grew up in the First Order,” Hux says. “You were an officer, too. Or so they tell me. A defector.”

“Defector,” Fillamon says. “Yes, that’s one word for what I am. I had two sons, and I didn’t want them absorbed by the war machine. One of them would have been fine, or as fine as any of us were, but the other would have been crushed underfoot. The Order tells us that those who are crushed deserve to be, because they were not useful, and if you are not useful, why are you still alive? So, with the support of my wife, we took our sons away from all of that and raised them on Raklan, which the Order then exploded.”

Fillamon stares at Hux, the hint of some kind of mirthless grin still twitching at the corner of his lips. He looks like someone who was recently handsome, someone who aged suddenly and rapidly. His blond hair is graying at the temples, and his eyes seem almost frosted, covered by a sheen of something he can’t unsee.

“Nothing I can say will please you,” Hux says. “I’m sure.”

“No, you’re wrong,” Fillamon says. “You’ve already said something that pleased me a great deal.”

“And what was that.”

“That you love someone.” Fillamon smirks when Hux flinches. “And he’s lost to you. I came here to kill you, but when I heard that, I thought: better that he live. That’s a torture that a planet killer deserves, indefinitely.”

“Well.” Hux’s non-statement drops off there. Was he really going to say he’s sorry that he killed Fillamon’s wife, his sons? He can’t offer up such a small, empty utterance for a loss like that, or any utterance at all. He imagines having to look Jek in the face if his family had been killed to spite him for defending Hux. No-- It’s too much. Any apology would be an insult. Hux has known that truth himself, before.

“Does the name Henry Melinchik mean anything to you?” Fillamon asks, and Hux flinches again. Fillamon doesn’t smirk this time. His expression has hardened into something that looks as if it might be sharp enough to pierce this barrier between them and slice Hux in half.

“Henry?” Hux’s mouth goes dry. There’s no one here to offer him water. “I-- Why are you asking about him?”

“He was a defector, too. Like me and you. A very successful one, in the sense that he became a governor on Raklan, in a small town. Long before that, he went to your father’s school.”

“I remember,” Hux says, defensive now. His face has gotten hot. He won’t let himself think about what Fillamon might know yet. He can’t imagine what Fillamon would do with the information Henry had now, beyond humiliating Hux in the press, and he doesn’t seem like the type who would settle for that. “I take it you knew Henry, on Raklan?”

Fillamon stares at Hux as if he’s waiting for Hux to read his thoughts. If only Ren were here, Hux thinks, insanely, his face blazing now. Fillamon clearly has cards to play, and surely this will be the rest of Hux’s life, between long spells of nothing: being introduced to new adversaries who sit on the other side of walls that will come down for them when they’re finished with Hux. They will bring weapons, unseen, and leave with impunity after using them.

“Can’t you guess?” Fillamon asks. “They say in the news that you’re smart. I heard someone call you a genius.”

“I’m sure they were referring to my engineering abilities, not my talent for mind reading.”

“Does it take a mind reader? I wanted you dead when I applied to be on that Committee. When I heard you were in love with someone you couldn’t have, I wanted to see you live another hundred years.”

Hux begins to reply but stops himself, allowing himself to picture Henry as an adult. Hux had seen a few pictures. The Order generally kept tabs on defectors. Henry had still been somewhat overweight in these pictures, in a way that seemed to suit him once he was fully grown, and his hair had been much better. He’d looked like someone who would have political success without much effort, in the climate of Raklan: trustworthy, kind, reasonably handsome in a way that wasn’t alienating.

“What?” Hux says, forgetting himself and almost laughing. “You were in love with him or something?”

“Do you know anything about the culture on Raklan?” Fillamon asks. Something about this response seems like a confirmation, maybe only because Fillamon looks slightly more ready to kill Hux after hearing that question.

“Of course I do.” Hux thinks of the data sheets up in his room. “It’s the opposite of the Order. I’m surprised anyone who was raised like we were would feel comfortable there.”

“The truth is that I didn’t,” Fillamon says. “Henry loved it, meanwhile-- He defected relatively late in his life, did you know that?”

“I suppose I’d read it,” Hux says, tightly. Henry was twenty-seven when he left the Order, if Hux remembers correctly. And he’s sure that he does. Twenty-seven can only be considered late in one’s life it they are dead before they reach their mid-thirties.

“So you kept tabs on him?” Fillamon says.

“We kept tabs on all defectors.”

“But you don’t seem at all familiar with me.” Fillamon smiles fully after saying so. It’s the coldest thing Hux has seen since the floor of that cell on that moon. Even the look that came over Ren’s face when Snoke took possession of him had more heat in it. “Henry kept tabs on you after school, anyhow,” Fillamon says. “Though that wasn’t hard, you being such a rising star in the First Order.”

“He was kind to me in school,” Hux says, regretting how desperate that sounded.

“He told me that he tried to be,” Fillamon says. “And that you were beyond saving. That was the phrase he used. I always wondered what he thought he could save you from.”

“So you knew him? You discussed me?”

“At one point,” Fillamon says. “Henry ran a kind of support group for ex-First Order personnel who had found their way to Raklan. He was good at organizing people, and at caring about them. Most families felt very lost when they showed up in our little community. I didn’t live in the same town as Henry, but I heard about this group and began to attend. My wife found it useless, but something about it drew me back, week after week. Eventually I realized it was Henry himself.”

Hux waits, clutching at his elbows. Surely this isn’t leading up to anything good.

“You never married,” Fillamon says.

“I hadn’t the time.”

That’s supposed to be a sort of joke, but Fillamon doesn’t look amused. Hux is struck by a strange impulse that he can only interpret as jealousy. It’s something to do with the fact that these ex-First Order officers on Raklan had a kind of community where they could-- What? Talk about their feelings? Fall in love with each other? It’s not the sort of thing that should inspire envy. And yet.

“And you prefer men,” Fillamon says. “I take it.”

Hux nods. He’s growing very tired of sitting in this chair, physically and otherwise. Everything in him is pulled tight as he waits to hear confirmation that Henry is dead. Sometimes Hux is still thrown by the scent of particular kind of cheap, heavy wool, which was their Academy uniform jackets had been made of. When this kind of fabric is slightly wet, as if soaked by some wretched child’s tears, it can jar Hux straight back to that moment in the hallway when he let himself count to ten before pulling his face from Henry’s shoulder.

“I’m surprised you weren’t pressured to marry in order to produce children, despite your preference,” Fillamon says. “As I was.”

“There was some pressure,” Hux says, thinking of his father. A few vague remarks. Brendol Hux associated having children with pain and disappointment. “But not much, for me. I was more professionally driven. That was acceptable to my-- Family.”

“How nice for you. And how well that worked out. I was allowed my affairs, but was expected to carry on the line. Of course, I yanked that line out of reach when I defected, but by then I loved my children out of more than a sense of duty, and their sincere happiness more important to me than the idea of them flying the banner of the family name.”

Hux has no response for this. He stays as still as he can manage. He’ll never understand the desire to have children and won’t pretend he can grasp what it feels like to lose them.

“I loved my wife, too,” Fillamon says. “We were dear friends, eventually. She knew about Henry. I lost all of them, but Henry was the one who drove me here to apply for this Committee, to seek vengeance. It was the idea that he had known you and tried to help you, once. And you had refused him. I couldn’t imagine the kind of heartless, soulless, beyond redemption sort who could have looked into his face and turned his help away. I thought: I have to see to this personally. I have to see to it that the galaxy is rid of this evil person. Anybody can fire a weapon without truly considering who it might strike. I did, when I served the Order. But this detail about Henry, my Henry, and you having known him-- He was sad, when he talked about you. I think he felt he’d failed you.”

“He didn’t,” Hux says, hurriedly, as if he’s pleading for his life again. His mouth is still dry and his throat feels constricted, as if some new hands have come to circle it. “I was-- A child, we were both children-- I was afraid to get him involved--” Hux breaks off there and shakes his head. “What’s the point of this?” he asks, angry, when he realizes what he almost said. It’s possible Fillamon knows nothing about what Henry was trying to rescue Hux from. Henry never told anyone at school the secret, after all. “Look, you got what you wanted. I’m rotting away here, I’ve lost the only person I-- What do you want me to say?”

“I don’t want you to say anything,” Fillamon says. “I suppose I wanted you to hear my-- What did they call it? Impact statement. I was hardly going to read mine in front of the whole galaxy. You can relate, I suppose. I appreciated what you said about our culture, if you want to call it that. We don’t like to discuss personal matters.”

Hux doesn’t get the sense that this is an honest answer. Fillamon does want to hear something from him. Perhaps he’s just not sure what it is yet.

“You said in your testimony that you didn’t believe a certain kind of affection really existed,” Fillamon says. “That it was a fantasy. I had the same belief. I was happy enough to have a wife who was a good companion and the occasional more interesting affair. But then there was Henry with his silly little meetings and his optimism and his pain that he thought he was so good at hiding. He was very sought after, which I thought was funny, until I was seeking him, too. He told me I reminded him of someone.” Fillamon leans forward, until his nose almost touches the glass. “Someone he went to school with. The saddest person he’d ever known.”

Hux has to look away, which is perhaps satisfying for Fillamon. Hux should want to satisfy this person he’s destroyed, but it burns him with a kind of remembered shame to be unable to hold his gaze and to know that Fillamon must enjoy seeing him squirm.

“Henry found a kind of pure joy on Raklan,” Fillamon says. “Finally, he had found his people. The culture there had nothing to do with conquering anything. They liked drinking and parties, but not the way the Order does them, to excess and only behind tightly closed doors reserved for those at the top. There was a kind of calm celebration of life that seemed ongoing on that planet. It made me anxious, unless Henry was at my side. He’d grown up on the Outer Rim, on a place not unlike this, before the Order absorbed his family. He’d never quite fit in, as perhaps you know. He’d never understood what all the fuss was about when it came to the Order. On Raklan, everything made sense to him, and he made sense to the people there, too. So much so that they made him governor of that sleepy town where he lived. He had a charming house and he loved to cook for people. I found all that socializing a bit tedious, myself. I only ever wanted to be alone with him and talk with him the way I had never talked with anyone before. About the past and how we’d escaped it and as if I could say anything, anything, and always be met by his sweet understanding and maybe his fingers through my hair.”

Hux starts to respond, but whatever he was going to say dies in his throat. Henry liked to cook. This information sinks down through Hux like poison, spreading slowly. But it’s not poison. Hux is the poison, killing something good that was unlucky enough to be swallowed up by him.

“For a while I thought it was possible he’d been off planet during your attack,” Fillamon says. His voice is different: still steady, but tighter, more careful. “He traveled sometimes, for fun. I held on to the delusion that he might have been elsewhere for as long as I could, but finally it was impossible. He would have contacted me. He loved me-- He told me so. He would have contacted me straight away to let me know that he was fine. He would have come to me at once. He would have let me do nothing but weep for a year about my family, if that was what I needed. I would have had all of that as soon as possible, if he’d survived. He would have raced to give it to me. I’m sure of it. And I don’t have it, so I’m sure that he’s dead. I’m sure now that you killed him, with your weapon.”

Hux holds Fillamon’s gaze. He owes it to Henry to not look away just yet.

“Do you understand that?” Fillamon asks, leaning forward again. He’s narrowed his eyes to study Hux’s face, and for a moment there’s no anger in his expression, just a kind of horrified astonishment, as if Hux is a creature beyond comprehension. “Does it even reach you? You killed the one source of hope that I had that the galaxy could be surprising and beautiful in a way that I had never anticipated. That there was a place where I could put my head down and not have to pretend to be something I felt I owed to my family, or some useful ex-soldier, or even someone who was particularly strong. Do you know what that’s like? When you think you’re functioning fine and someone comes along and shows you that you weren’t, not ever, not without them? Is that what love was like for you?”

Hux isn’t sure if he should answer. Fillamon is looking at him as if he’s not sure they even speak the same language.

“Yes,” Hux says when enough time has passed.

“Good.” Fillamon sits back, his eyes flashing. “And you’re here forever, living without it, just as I am. Almost as I am, that is. I think I would kill your Kylo Ren if I could.”

Hux stays motionless and doesn’t say that it would be impossible, that Ren is too powerful, though he wants to comfort himself with that information. Fillamon blinks six times, quickly. Hux tends to count things when he panics, and when the blinking stops there’s nothing to count, as Hux is not even breathing properly, not in a countable way.

“But then again,” Fillamon says, “Maybe I wouldn’t kill the man you love, because it would break Henry’s heart. He wouldn’t even want me killing you. If I’m honest, that’s what really stopped me. I had to tell myself, ‘Hux will suffer more this way. Without the one he loves.’ And I do believe that’s true. But it was the idea of Henry hating me for killing this sad, sad boy he’d once tried to help. That overturned my vote. You could have said anything. Done anything. And Henry’s old hope for you would have saved you anyway, at last.”

“I still think of him,” Hux says. His voice is small, but he doesn’t deserve to sound any bigger than he feels. “Of Henry. I told Ren about him.”

“Did you mention that you killed him?”

“Yes,” Hux says, nodding, eager to show that he doesn’t intend to avoid the truth of this. “I did. I told him what I’d done.”

Fillamon seems to want to say more. Perhaps it’s something in Hux’s expression that stops him. Hux has no idea what he looks like right now: red-faced, ravaged by still not enough guilt, uniquely alone. Fillamon sits back, removes his hand from his pocket and rests it on his thigh. He’s holding no weapon. He’s already detonated the one he brought with him. Hux can feel Fillamon’s disappointment seeping through the barrier between them. It’s cold, like everything in this Tower that arrives warm and gradually loses its heat. Hux knows well that even using the worst weapon in galactic history really changes nothing for the person who fired it. The one who did the firing still turns back and finds everything he didn’t manage to destroy waiting behind him, just where he left it.

“I’m leaving this planet tonight,” Fillamon says. “Heading to the Outer Rim world where Henry grew up. It’s rather desolate and dangerous, but I heard they overthrew the Order recently. That sounds like the kind of place I’d like to be.”

“I envy you,” Hux says, though it’s probably not what Fillamon wants to hear. It’s honest, at least, and it’s increasingly clear that Fillamon doesn’t need Hux to tell him anything. He only came here to talk. He hasn’t talked to anyone, really, since he lost Henry. Hux doesn’t need to hear that out loud or to read Fillamon’s mind to know that it’s true. Hux won’t talk to anyone, not really, until he speaks to Ren again.

“And I envy you,” Fillamon says, standing. He puts both hands in his pockets and nods. “I thought I’d had a hand in giving you the perfect punishment, but it’s not the same. Even knowing Henry was alive would save me now, even if I could never see him again. Just knowing that someone, somewhere was better off for having been near to him, even if I couldn’t. That would infuriate me in one sense, but it would also comfort me. Perhaps you can’t relate.”

“Of course I can relate,” Hux says. “You came here because you know we’re the same.”

He didn’t mean to say that so plainly. It feels like a dangerous statement, like something that could truly overturn Fillamon’s vote. His eyebrows go up slightly. It’s the first time Hux has seen him look surprised.

“We’re not the same,” Fillamon says. “I let Henry save me as soon as he offered. I tripped over myself to fall into his arms. You had to be dragged to your salvation, and it’s brought you here. I’ll leave you to the rest of your life inside these walls, then.”

“Did he tell you what he tried to save me from?” Hux asks, too loudly, when Fillamon turns to go.

“No,” Fillamon says, and he turns his cheek back toward Hux, keeping his back to him. “I had a few guesses, but he seemed not to want me to ask. I think he felt protective of you, even then. It’s funny-- I came here expecting to be much crueller to you, just as I came to this planet expecting to kill you. I think the fact that I couldn’t do either must mean that he’s still with me, somehow. So maybe I do have something you don’t, Mr. Hux. Beyond my freedom, of course.”

Fillamon knocks on the wall that leads out of the divided chamber. The guard opens the clear door, and Fillamon walks out. He exits into the hallway without looking back.

Again, Hux has the impulse to call out, though not necessarily to Fillamon. He’s left with his mouth hanging open, his hands gripped tightly around the seat of his chair. He jumps when the guard opens the door on his side on the interior barrier.

“Get up,” the guard says when Hux just sits there. Hux wants to protest, though he has no grounds. He stands and watches the guard refasten the binders around his wrists. The other guard in the doorway that leads out to the hallway. Presumably, Fillamon is in an elevator. Certainly, Henry is dead.

What does it matter. What does it matter? It doesn’t. Hux stumbles when he tries to walk.

“Guess they managed to shake you up,” the guard who shoves him toward the hallway says. “You owe me ten credits,” he says to the other guard, who grunts.

“No way,” the second one says. “He’s not crying. That was the deal.”

“He’s basically crying. Look.”

The first guard grabs Hux’s chin and yanks his face in the direction of the second one. Hux jerks out of the guard’s grip, glowering at nothing in particular. Ironically, cruelly, this is what makes Hux’s eyes burn until they water, the heat creeping in from his face: embarrassment, at the impotent rage that he can’t keep off his face.

“Doesn’t count if you make him cry,” the second guard says, and the first one laughs.

The trip back to Hux’s cell seems to last the remainder of the day, but it was his time in that room with the clear barrier that actually took up the remainder of the afternoon. Lunch awaits on the floor. Hux steps over it without looking at what’s on the tray and kneels at the window, watching the snow on the mountain peaks reflect the golden glow of the sunset’s initial stages. He puts his palm against the window and then peels it back, examining at the handprint he left behind. When do they unleash droids to clean in here? When he’s in the shower?

He feels a panicked need to check that Ren’s letters are still under his mattress, and when he finds them there, all three safe and cold in his hands, two-dimensional, he clutches them to his chest and rests his forehead on his mattress, fighting away the urge to be sick against the sheets. In his memoir, he’s reached the part about his early school days. What will he write when he comes to the part where Henry and the others appear? When his main character arrives at the Academy with a feeling of trepidation that won’t take very long to chase to its source? It sits there, ahead of him-- still ahead of him, somehow --waiting for him to either pretend it didn’t happen or to fail to accurately describe what it was really like. His father once told him that the body doesn’t remember pain. Memory doesn’t work that way, Brendol Sr. said. Memory is mostly things that you invent in hindsight. Imperfect impressions of whatever was real. Pain is immediate, just a warning that you need to change something about your present circumstances or risk irreversible injury. And then, when it’s over, when the immediate threat is gone: so is the pain.

A useful fairy tale for people like his father and for an entire culture that shrugged at blowing up five planets. Hux slumps over onto his side when he hears the compartment on the door opening, his dinner tray clacking against the lunch one. He tries to hug himself around Ren’s letters, but they’re too small. They’re nothing that can really be held onto, the way he needs to hold onto something now.

He can’t sleep. Instead, a kind of feverish disconnect from consciousness slips over him and then quickly retreats, leaving him feeling like he’s being poked awake in the dormitory at the Academy, and like his harasser is too quick and crafty to spot. He hears laughter when he closes his eyes and sees shadows moving menacing along the wall when he opens them, but when he blinks hard enough the shadows disappear.

When he does dream, it’s a horrible nightmare about Henry. Hux is in the room where he sat and received visitors, on one side of that impenetrable barrier. Henry is on the other side, still fourteen years old, and Hux is helpless as he watches the other side fill up with cold water.

“It’s not real,” Henry says at one point, but he’s sobbing under every word, as if he’s terrified that he’s wrong.

The feeling of trepidation that Hux had at the Academy returns. He checks over his shoulders even when he’s alone in his cell, and passes two more nights without anything that resembles restful sleep. He’s counting the days and then the hours until he can at least sit glumly in a windowless room with Jek again, and every time the meal delivery droid rolls up to his door he tenses in anticipation of being brought back to a room where Ander Fillamon will tell him more and worse things about Henry, though he’s sure he’ll never actually see Fillamon again.

When he’s taken from his room just before dinnertime and brought to the elevators rather than the shower, he clings to the hope that he’ll see Jek tonight, though by his calculation that won’t happen until tomorrow. The floor where they arrive is the 21st, and it seems different somehow from the others Hux has seen. The walls are beige instead of colorless gray, and the lighting in the hallways is different-- brighter, but also softer. It’s almost pinkish.

“Is this the maternity ward?” Hux asks, because he’s being conveyed by Yonke, who sometimes responds politely to his jokes, and Omelia, who at least just yesterday asked him if he was sick, presumably having noticed his unrested appearance.

“It’s part of medbay,” Yonke says, and he gives Hux an apologetic look that worries him.

“I’m not actually ill,” Hux says, glancing at Omelia.

“This has been on your chart since the start of the week,” she says, sharply, as if he’s accused her of caring about him.

“I have a chart?” Hux doesn’t like the idea. He likes it even less when he’s marched to a door that Yonke knocks on as Hux realizes what this must be. Therapy.

And then comes the relief, because at least it’s not that other room, with the see-through barrier and the people on the other side.

A woman comes to unlock the door. She appears human at first glance and then clearly isn’t, because her bouncy red hair doesn’t quite conceal two pink horns, and she blinks with several sets of eyelids after grinning at Hux. His first impression of her is that she looks like someone who might eat him, though she has small teeth that don’t appear particularly sharp.

“Good!” she says when Yonke removes the binders. She’s peering up at Hux as if she wants to stick a torchlight in his face and peer into his eyes and ears. As if she’s an actual doctor of some sort. “You look different than you did on the holo,” she says.

“I get that a lot,” Hux says.

Yonke and Omelia depart and the door closes. The therapist, who is rather squat and short, wears a baggy sweater open over a kind of smock. Hux is surprised and a little displeased that she’s not made to wear a uniform like the guards or at least expected to dress professionally like Jek does when he visits here. She smiles at Hux again and points to an overstuffed purple chair that could fit three of him, then turns to take her own seat, which is not behind a desk, as he’d pictured, but in a similar chair.

“Go ahead and sit down,” she says. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“They didn’t mention it, but I think I can guess.”

“Right.” She sits with a kind of huff, as if the trip to the door and back has tired her out. “You can call me Moa,” she says. “And I’ll call you Hux, unless you prefer Elan?”

“Hux is fine. How did you pull this unlucky assignment?”

“Oh, I fought for it. Are you kidding? Everyone on the staff wanted the Starkiller for a patient. This is what we’re here for, right? You don’t end up a therapist in a prison because you want to counsel average people going through marital strife.”

“Seems to me you might end up a therapist in a prison because you couldn’t find a better situation.”

“It can be depressing,” Moa says, nodding. “But I have the constitution for it. And I like a challenge. They told me you might prefer a human therapist, and you’re within your rights to request one if you want. There are some schools of thought that suggest therapy only works when the therapist shares a brain map with the patient on a species-level. I don’t believe that myself, and we can talk about why if you want, but I hoped you’d give me a try first. I was raised among humans.”

“And what do you think of us?” Hux asks. The chair he’s sitting in is comfortable, at least, and the light inside the room is making him feel sleepy.

“Humans,” Moa says, thoughtfully. “They hang onto things. Good and bad. I’m Iottian, but I was raised on Coruscant. Do you want to talk about where you were raised?”

“I’m rather sick of talking about that, actually.”

“Yeah, I thought you might be. How about your meetings with the aggrieved? You had the first ones three days ago, right? How did that go?”

Hux makes a sound that was supposed to indicate exasperation but mostly came out sounding like exhaustion. He slumps back onto the chair and rubs his hand over his eyes.

“That well, huh?” Moa says. “Yeah. It’s an experiment, okay? General Organa has some concerns about it. That’s where I come in. Maybe your attorney explained?”

“He-- Yes, he explained. I’ll be fine. It’s just that one of the Committee members came to the first-- I don’t know what to call it, session? But he’s gone now, and nobody will tell me anything worse than he did. So it’s fine.”

“What did he tell you?” Moa asks. When she blinks with one set of eyelids followed by another, Hux feels as if he’s being recorded by another droid with ever-adjusting lenses, although she’s actually not very droid-like at all, in other respects. She’s too alive, if anything, and rather squishy-seeming in general.

“Well, he told me that I’d killed billions of people,” Hux says, “And a few in particular who he misses very much. His children, his wife, and his boyfriend, namely.”

“And do you consider yourself to be someone who killed billions of people?”

Hux stares at her. She seems serious.

“It’s on the record that I am,” he says. “That video--”

“Right, but that video was a performance. Anybody could see that. The whole firing of the weapon was a kind of performance, right? A demonstration of the Order’s power. That doesn’t feel like killing someone’s children and wife and boyfriend-- Or does it?”

“Whether it felt like that or not, it effectively did it, so I don’t see why it matters.”

“I think it matters a lot, but okay. You’re saying you do feel personally responsible? As if you, Hux, killed billions of people? Is that how it feels?”

“I don’t-- know how that’s supposed to feel!” Hux says, and suddenly he’s shouting. He’s very tired. His face gets hot, as it always does in the aftermath of allowing his voice to raise. “It would be like asking you, What does it feel like to have horns on your head? It’s not something I can fucking describe, it’s just something I can’t change.”

“Sometimes patients ask me if they can touch them,” Moa says, lifting her hand to tap the dull point of her left horn. She has a thumb and three fingers, all of them plump.

“Do you ever say yes?” Hux asks, deflating against the back of the chair again. She shakes her head.

“I’m almost tempted to,” she says. “Sometimes. I feel like some people they think they need to do that before they can trust me. Which is odd. Do you believe that you can trust me?”

“Sure,” Hux says, unconvincingly.

“Who’s the last person you felt like you trusted?” she asks, as if he’d answered ‘no.’

“My lawyer,” he says, and she laughs.

“Sorry,” she says. “That’s good! I liked him, during the broadcast. He was a little hokey, but it worked. Anybody else? Before him?”

“Are you trying to get me to talk about Kylo Ren?” Hux asks, imaging Moa taking a payout from some sensational holo program that will allow her to retire early just for information about the mentally fragile Starkiller and the ghost he claims to be in love with.

“Was Kylo Ren the last person you trusted?” she asks. “Before your lawyer?”

“Not really,” Hux says, remembering his ever-present dread in that house, that Ren would lose his mental battle with Snoke and leave Hux high and dry. Which was precisely what happened. Almost.

“Okay, so before him,” Moa says, brushing the subject of Ren aside more easily than he’d expected her to. “Who’d you trust?”

“My second in command,” Hux says, his eyes going unfocused when he considers what may or may not be happening aboard in the Finalizer right now. “Malietta Uta.”

“Can you tell me about her? And why you trusted her?”

Hux finds this subject much more palatable than the others she’s tried to introduce, and he talks at some length about his friendship with Uta, realizing in the process that he actually misses her, which is something he once never would have thought possible. She infuriated him more often than not, but it came from a place of sincerity and she abhorred ass kissing of all kinds, which Hux respected. She was also an uncommonly competent officer, even among the highest-ranking he’d known.

“Can I ask you something that you may be unwilling to answer?” Hux says after Moa has listened to him reminisce about Uta for some time.

“Sure,” she says.

“Is Lieutenant-- I should say, is Dopheld Mitaka imprisoned here? And Pella, the former stormtrooper?”

“As far as I know, yes,” Moa says. “They were both booked here, anyway. I saw it on the news.”

“Did the news mention their sentences?” Hux asks, a kind of guilty fog icing over him at the thought of Pella alone in one of these pie-shaped rooms, away from her twin again.

“Pella’s sentence was short,” she says. “Six months, I think? They’re pretty lenient on the stormtroopers, and there’s been a lot of debate about that in the news. I think they’re trying to encourage more of them to dump the Order, so they want the reports to indicate they’ll be welcome here as private citizens, but then they’ve got to worry about someone pulling what Pella originally came here to pull-- A fake defection.”

“Right,” Hux says. “And Mitaka?”

“I think his sentence was for a year,” Moa says. “There was debate about that, too, though less so. He’s quite a sensation on the holonet, actually. He has fan clubs.”

“What-- Why?”

“People find him cute. And he had a couple of good catch phrases during the broadcast. The thing about Kylo Ren liking to choke people, that’s one I’ve seen jokes about.”

“Jokes?” Hux sits up straighter and shakes his head. “That’s-- Fine, okay.”

“Were you worried about them?” Moa asks.

“Them?”

“Mitaka and Pella.”

“Yes-- No, I just. Someone put this absurd idea in my head, and I’m delirious and disoriented enough at the moment to consider asking you about it.”

“Go for it,” Moa says. “Can’t hurt to ask.”

“Could I possibly be allowed to talk to them? If they were willing? And I don’t mean one on one,” Hux says, his heart beginning to race when he imagines them in that room, on the other side of that barrier. “I mean in a kind of collection of former First Order people,” Hux says.

“Oh,” Moa says. “Like a group therapy.”

“I’d rather not call it that,” Hux says, trying to remember the term that Fillamon had used when he talked about Henry’s group meetings on Raklan. “What you call things is important,” he says, thinking of the Qusoian and her warning about names. “And they won’t want to come if you call it that.”

“But you’d like them to come?” Moa says. “Just those two, or whoever wanted to sign up?”

“Well, whoever, though I’d prefer it if nobody who wants to kill me showed up to try and make that happen. But who am I to make such demands of the galaxy, these days.”

Moa smiles. Hux doesn’t like the look of it, though it’s not quite condescending. She’s looking at him as if he’s an interesting project to undertake. He supposes he’s been looked at in worse ways.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she says. “I think it’s a pretty great idea, actually. Hey, they tell me you’re a genius, by the way.”

“I’m starting to suspect that’s an exaggeration,” Hux says. “But I’m good with schematics. Ha.”

“My point is that you must be bored,” she says. “I’m going to recommend that you have access to approved holorecords. Is there anything in particular that you would like to learn about?”

For some reason, Raklan comes to mind. Hux doesn’t want to confess that interest, and anyway, what would be the point of learning about a dead planet?

“The Force,” he says instead. “Are there holorecords about that?”

“Sure! Mostly histories of academic study about the legends surrounding it-- And from an outside point of view, you know, since the Jedi didn’t share their secrets with the uninitiated. But I bet I could find you something interesting.”

“So this is your assignment, essentially? To keep me sane?”

“Oh, not essentially,” she says. “Literally, that’s my assignment.”

“Well, best of luck to you in that.”

They talk a bit more about how this group Hux has proposed would function, and he makes her swear she won’t tell anyone it was his idea. He likes planning things, and even this probably useless thing is a pleasant distraction from where his head has been for the past few days. When his time with Moa is up, she walks him to the door and watches as Yonke refastens the binders onto his wrists.

“If you’d rather have a human therapist you’d better let me know now,” she says. “This works best if the relationship is uninterrupted.”

“I’ll stick with you,” Hux says, surprised that she’s said this in front of the guards, until he considers that Yonke isn’t human and therefore may appreciate the sentiment. If that’s the case, Moa must have known what Hux’s answer would be. She grins and nods.

“Good!” she says, which is also the first thing she said upon having Hux delivered to her. She slips back inside and the door shuts behind her.

Back upstairs, Hux is taken for his shower and prompted to change into a fresh uniform. He feels somewhat lighter on the way to his cell, and realizes he’s starving when he gets there and finds one of his favorite dinners on the tray that waits on the floor: a kind of pastry fold-over with creamy red sauce and white meat inside. It’s cold and the pastry is low quality, but it’s better than the usual meat in gravy or mystery fritters that are fried in too much oil. He finishes that, a bland salad and a tart cup of fruit pudding and smokes a cigarette at his desk while working on his memoir. A few days ago he fashioned himself an ashtray using half of the back cover of his notepad, which is made from a bendable flimsiplast material. It had seemed like a pathetic gesture when he did it, but now he’s a bit proud of his ingenuity.

The first time someone in an official capacity applied the word genius to me was toward the end of my time at day school, he writes, to begin this section about his pre-Academy school days. He goes from there, perhaps indulging himself a bit more than usual, until he’s too tired to continue.

Approaching the bed makes him feel anxious again. Nothing good has come of sleep lately, and Ren has only been in his dreams in taunting, barely remembered flashes. He sits on the bed and looks out at the moonlight that allowed him to write. There is no pure darkness out there. There is always some star bright enough to pierce it. Something else waits for him in his dreams, sometimes. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to him, but there are times when he navigates it so easily.

He’s avoided rereading Ren’s last letter, and when he pulls it out he realizes that he did so because he wanted to save it for a night when he needed it very badly. The words feel almost fresh as his eyes scan over them, but there is something partially used-up about them, too, and it makes his lips shake. He puts the letter under his shirt and yanks the blanket up over himself. He tries to think about good things: that therapist and her little horns, the idea of talking with Mitaka and Pella, the faint taste of that red sauce lingering on his tongue. He forgot to brush his teeth.

The dark comes quickly, and tonight no one takes his hand. Hux is afraid to move his head and look in any direction, knowing what he’ll find: that face that looked down at him when Snoke used Ren’s hands to choke his breath and his hope and everything else away. Hux realizes, within the dream, that he almost never thinks about it. He won’t let himself think about it, because he’s afraid he’ll start obsessing over the details the way he once did, at the Academy. The details had been worse than the pain. The details were the words, and how they changed but also followed a kind of script. Who had even taught them that script?

The details from that day on the cliff: how Hux had shivered just before it happened, still kissing Ren. It had felt as if a draft had crept in through the window, but the window was closed. Hux had tried to press himself up against Ren, to get warmer, but Ren was pulling away, and then he wasn’t Ren at all.

“Hey,” someone says, and he waves his chubby palm in front of Hux’s face. “Elan? Can you see me now?”

Henry. Fifteen years old. Peering at Hux with that concern that he’d hated. Sporting that terrible haircut and his old Academy uniform.

“No,” Hux says. He shakes his head hard when he hears his own voice. It’s half-formed, as if he’s Henry’s age, too. When he looks down he’s not overly surprised to see he’s wearing his uniform, too. “No, please,” Hux says, when he looks up at Henry again. “I don’t want to go back to the Academy.”

“It’s okay.” Henry touches Hux’s shoulder, squeezes. His hand is cold, probably because he’s dead. “I’m not taking you back to our past.”

“Why should you take me anywhere?” Hux asks, his chin trembling the way it did that day, in the hallway, just before he let himself cling. “You should kill me, before I can kill you.”

“No, thanks,” Henry says. “C’mere. I found a safe trail.”

“There are trails?” Hux says, taking Henry’s hand. “What is this place?”

“It’s like the stuff behind your eyelids,” Henry says. “It’s never really as dark as it looks when you first close them. You can follow the shapes if you look close enough.”

“Henry,” Hux says, again afraid to look left or right and especially afraid to look up. He doesn’t want to see any dark, morphing shapes. Not here. He keeps his gaze fixed on Henry’s hair, on the back of his head. “I saw Ander,” Hux says. “He told me about you.”

“I know. I was there. Couldn’t you tell? Hurry, or we’ll miss it.”

“Miss what?”

“Your window. There it is, come on.”

Ahead, a gnarled tree appears. It’s dead, or leafless, anyway, and below it runs a very cold stream. To the left of this, a bluish moonlight spreads out to reveal a fresh mound of dirt and a weeping boy with his filthy hands in the mud. He’s crying so hard that he’s choking on his breath.

“Ben,” Hux says, and he tries to hurry ahead. When Henry keeps hold of his hand, Hux looks back. “Can’t I go to him?” he asks, his voice breaking when he feels Ben’s sobs like punches against his own sternum.

“Of course,” Henry says. “That’s why I brought you here. But listen. Someone’s after you. You have to be careful.”

“Did you see him?” Hux asks, still holding onto Henry’s hand. “Is it Snoke?”

“I don’t know. They didn’t show themselves to me, whoever they are. All I know is they think you’ve got something that belongs to them.”

“Why are you helping me?” Hux asks, almost angry at him for this. “You should hate me.”

“No, I shouldn’t. I’m helping you because you need help. And because you deserve it. Understand?”

“Not really.” Hux turns toward Ben, tugged forward by the desperate sound of his crying. The scene ahead has transformed into a dense wood with unfriendly trees that lean in close, like a low ceiling or a watchful audience. Hux can hear the nearby stream moving fast over the rocks. Henry lets go of his hand.

“Goodbye, Elan,” Henry says when Hux whirls around to look at him. “Don’t forget me.”

“I never did,” Hux says, trying to walk closer. Henry is backing away, moving into the shadows that they both emerged from. “Don’t you know that? Can’t you feel it? Isn’t that why you’re here?”

Henry only smiles in answer, then sinks back into nothing. When he’s gone, Hux wants to crumble, but he can’t. He’s needed here, and he must proceed carefully as instructed. He turns back to Ben, whose crying has softened in a way that only seems to indicate increased hopelessness. Ben is kneeling at someone’s grave. His hands are raw and bleeding from the effort it took to dig it. The shovel he used is lying nearby, its handle dark with dried blood.

“Shhh,” Hux says when he kneels beside Ben, his hand sliding over Ben’s trembling back. Ben whips around and gives Hux a wide-eyed stare, breathing in open-mouth