Chapter 1: just don't leave
It is raining on Exegol, a strange rain not of water, but of scrap and ash and burning cinders as the tarnished silver sky is eclipsed by thick, black dust and smoke. Victory often means destruction of the losers’ side, and the Sith fleet is falling, as it disintegrates, out of the sky. The larger wreckage has landed first, in chunks and slabs and sections, vaguely recognizable as what used to be capital ships, and then the rest of the matter has sifted down and down in a constant obscuring whisper, muffling the cries of the wounded and dying in a black parody of heavy snowfall.
Two and a half thousand casualties to each Xyston-class Star Destroyer, more or less. A skeleton crew, at 10% capacity, but crew enough to fire the axial superlasers. Armitage Hux knows this, because he’d once been a general of the First Order. And he knows the Rebellion knows this, too, because he had sent them that very information once, a very long time ago. Well, no. It hasn’t been all that long, really. That’s his fevered brain playing tricks on him. But there is no light in the ruined medbay of the Steadfast, no day-night cycle, no shift change. There is only the creak and settling of ruined superstructure around him, fatigued metal succumbing to strain beyond its limits. — he would have summoned the numbers instantly days, hours ago. When his mind was still clear.
Hux has no idea how long it has been. There was, in the beginning, a soft, regular drip of bacta from the shattered bacta tank, a soft liquid plish that remained constant despite his warped perceptions of time. That had stopped eventually, as the volume of the tank had run out. Twenty more heartbeats, he tells himself, biting his lower lip bloody. Twenty more, when that time elapses. Hux knows this much. He is dying. He’s trained enough to qualify for promotions to know the rule of threes. Three minutes to live without air or in icy water. Three hours in extreme heat or cold. Three days without potable water. Three weeks without food. Injuries subtract from that time. It’s rude, almost, how his body reminds him how badly hurt he is, with rude jolts like lightning zinging through the twisted paths of his nerves every time he tries to move, a pain that drew weak, pathetic sounds out of his throat when he still had a voice left to him.
He’s lost count of his heartbeats again, and he bites down on his bloody lip, takes a breath as deeply as he can muster, and joggles his left arm with his right. The hurt is breathtaking, makes his hot, itchy eyes sting. Stay awake, he tells himself. Pryde can’t have the satisfaction. Was it Pryde that he hated more, or Ren? He doesn’t know any more. There’s a rustling sound, a hissing of something on metal, and a hollow thump.
“One black,” he hears softly in the distance, “no, two.” The voices are distant and papery, and for a moment Hux thinks he’s hallucinating.
“Ren?” he tries to whisper out loud, but his mouth is too dry. In desperation he puts his mouth against the cold metal floor of the medbay and sucks at it until he raises the spit. The taste of stale bacta and bitter fuel fill his mouth, lingers on his tongue unpleasantly, but he is beyond caring. “Ren?” he calls into the empty dark. A convulsive shiver wracks him, then, and he mews weakly against the pain that blooms in his back and belly. This is it, then, the end that he deserves, frightened, alone, and calling out to his worst enemy because it’s better than not having anyone at all.
“Was that a voice?” someone asks. “That way.”
Search crews. They’re here to tag the dead, find the survivors. If they’re First Order they might save him, or put a blaster bolt in his brainpan for his treason. If they’re Rebellion, well. He has no idea what they’ll do to him. Instead he closes his eyes and concentrates on his heartbeats for another count of twenty, twenty more, sixty total. Sixty more. Sixty more. He loses count again, the moments slipping out of his grasp as though they were soap bubbles, drifting away on tiny currents of air.
“Another black?” asks a voice, muffled, masculine, behind a breather mask. The darkness behind his eyelids flaring bright red as a stablight picks out his face in the shadows.
“No.” A woman, this time, a voice he recognizes, despite the distortion of the breather mask. “He’s still breathing.” There’s the sound of a rope unfurling across the tilted floor of the ruined medbay, its end jangling softly near him. He opens his eyes a sliver against the light, reaches his good right hand outwards, his knuckles striking hollowly against the floor under him. He hasn’t the strength to grab the rope.
Hux’s would-be rescuer descends the rope smoothly, swiftly, and he sees a masked face dip towards him. Careful, gloved fingers reach out for his pulse, the touch warm through the decontamination gear — kriff, what’s all that soot doing to his lungs? he thinks, and then chokes out a weak laugh. That’s going to be the least of his worries in a few minutes. A small hand reaches out for his right hand and closes softly over it, and he feels something being placed across his wrist — they’re tagging him, triaging him right now. Will they even bother to waste medical resources on him?
“He’s a red,” the woman says, as she unfolds something and lays it beside Hux, balancing it carefully on the tilted floor. “Urgent. Come down here, I need your help to roll him onto the stretcher.”
They’re saving him, the idealistic fools. Hux tries to crawl onto the stretcher himself, but his body won’t obey, and he shudders against the wave of pain that rushes through him.
“Don’t move,” she tells him, taking hold of his right wrist with a small, strong hand. She lets go of him once she’s sure he isn’t going to try it again, and Hux squints up at her as she pushes the goggles up on her brow. Large hazel eyes stare into his, and he knows her then. The scavenger. Hux closes his eyes in shame and disappointment and turns his head away, shivering in another wave of chill that tears through his body like wildfire, a ripple followed with a wave of shocking hurt.
“It’s okay,” she tells him as his eyes begin to close, “it’s okay.” He turns away from her and chooses to think of someone else instead, imagines those eyes, but darker, intense, reflecting the stablight as Ren’s only could. Her gloved hand is warm and gentle on his shoulder, and Hux leans into it despite himself, desperate for any kind of comfort at this wretched time.
Why did you leave me? Hux asks nobody in particular, as consciousness began to slip out of his grasp, is this all we have in the end? This betrayal and hurt?
Silence. Darkness. And a blessed absence of pain.
There is so much Rey can hear if she only stops to listen, but she muffles her gifts, deafens herself temporarily to the Force. She is self-contained, a molecule of being in slick decontamination gear, goggled and masked against the volatiles and unspent fuel hanging heavy in the dead, dry air of Exegol’s atmosphere with the soot and the particulates and the ash. There’s an oily, gritty texture to everything she touches, courtesy of machine oil vapor condensing on the cooling surfaces of scorched metal, catching every crumb of dust that drifts, settling like a cruel snow.
This isn’t the first time she’s been in a wrecked Star Destroyer, but she sincerely hopes that each one’s the last. The complexity of this fresh wreckage and the hazards within — toxic vapor clouds, fuel-fed fires, metal still cooling from white-hot — makes everything she’s ever done to this date look like a child’s playground. And the death surrounds her thickly, as greasy soot and ash from sapient bodies collects on her goggles and the slippery waterproof polymer of her gear. It is no wonder then, that she relies only on her human senses to glean the living from the dead. This much death will overwhelm her, she knows, if she lets it in, and she will have to be callous to be kind.
And yet Rey dares not turn away from the horror that surrounds her. She knows that if she lets herself stop now, she will remember the way Ben Solo’s chapped, clammy lips felt upon hers in their first and last kiss. And in that memory is a grief so heavy that it it baffles her, exhausts all her capacity to deal with it, like a tangle of cables too knotted to undo. Leia is gone. Ben is gone.
Rebellion search and salvage crews have begun the grim accounting that follows a victorious battle. Tallying the survivors on both sides, searching for the wounded, comforting the dying, and recording the dead. And even the Rebellion has too few people to send out through the killing fields of Exegol, not with the losses they’ve taken. Instead the search crews are recruited from scavengers, wreckers. People who grew up in the shadows of great battles, whose livelihoods were wrenched out of rusting ships, part by part. They of all people know how to test their footing before they take another step, to move swiftly within ducts and conduits when decks have collapsed upon each other.
Rey is leading a crew from Jakku, scavengers, mostly, who hitched rides with offworlders when Lando put out his call, a motley crew serving as engineers on smuggler ships held together with tape and good wishes, and they’ve found the most survivors out of the search crews so far. She’s on her third ship of the day — not that time is easily told with Exegol’s etiolated gray sunlight shining through the haze of gas and smoke and dust — but she can tell how long it’s been from how lightly her canteen is riding in her satchel. She’s down to a last drink of water, she thinks, and she’ll have to stop soon, or she’ll endanger everyone around her.
This ship’s transponder is still active. The Steadfast, it reads to her handheld sensor, and she steels herself as she climbs carefully through its shattered hallways. She’s been in this one before, was in Kylo Ren’s own quarters, in fact, retrieving the ancient Sith dagger. Chewbacca had been held here, interrogated by a noxious man named Pryde. And yet nothing is familiar to her. The spotless metal decking that had once been under her feet is now sometimes ceiling, sometimes wall. And the dead are everywhere. Stormtroopers and officers alike lie together and apart, sometimes whole, sometimes not. She tags them with wristbands from her satchel, black wristbands for the dead, records their location, name or serial number, if discernible. Most of them are nameless to her. The few living she finds, she tags according to their condition, red for the critical, yellow for the seriously wounded, green for the walking wounded. It’s a simple enough call to make, except when it isn’t.
Already they’ve come across survivors who are mortally wounded, too sick and too injured to save. Then a hush descends upon the team as they administer pain relief, tuck them in blankets. Every attempt is made to comfort them in this situation, before they move on. Once they’ve cleared the wreckage, they retrace their steps and check back with the dying, retagging them to black if they’ve perished in the slow and weary wait, evacuating them if they somehow have clung on despite all odds.
And there are crush victims, those who have been pinned under wreckage. It’s a hard call to make every time the team finds a pinned survivor, because of the cruel passage of time. Most of them are wounded badly enough to die from shock once freed, even with a medic tending to them in the process. And yet Rey and her team try again and again, cutting through armored bulkheads with handheld tools, a grueling process. It makes sense even with purely self-interested reasoning such as the First Order operates on. Better to be sure that there’s nothing that can be done, instead of wondering if they could have made a difference but did not. It’s better for morale that way, exhausting as it is. And the Rebellion is supposed to operate on higher principles than those.
They’re heading towards one of the ship’s medbays, on the off chance that its location, deeply buried within the ship’s superstructure, will have shielded would-be survivors. But the people within a medbay would have been sick or otherwise wounded, their chances of survival compromised. Medbays are a good location to search nevertheless. Resources are thinly spread and scavenged medpacs can keep her team going for another day or two. The hallways to the medbay are tilted at a precarious angle from the way this section of the ship has settled, and the floor creaks ominously when she puts her weight on it. Support trusses under this level have failed catastrophically, she thinks, and her crew of search and rescue workers take the air ducts instead.
Her second, Kelev, drops himself out a vent to count the casualties trapped in one of the surgical wards. A small handful of humans, all dead from massive trauma. There is no patient — evidently they were preparing for an emergency procedure when the Steadfast went down. He counts and tallies the dead, leaves one of them tagged so recovery crews can follow the tracker to this room, and with swift, professional jerks, dismembers the damaged surgical droids so he can retrieve their specialized scalpel arms and cores for reuse. Surely there’s a slicer back at the makeshift Rebellion triage center who can reprogram these droid cores for general, non-First Order use, and a welder or two who can put makeshift bodies together.
Rey has to help Kelev up the last stretch of rope, and he hangs there precariously while she unburdens him of his unexpected bounty so he can fit back in the vent, backpack and all. The droid arms and cores are passed backward through the whole crew, distributed among them so that not all of their spoils are lost if one of them slips and falls into a hallway-turned-abyss. That’s not scavenger knowhow, not what Rey learned on Jakku, anyhow, if only because the margin of survival there was thin enough that it wasn’t safe to work with others. No, this is how Rebellion units work, a camaraderie that some of the scavengers and wreckers have yet to get used to.
It’s genuinely strange for some of them to return to base after a day of searching to find hot rations laid out for them, free of charge, as it had been for Rey after she had first joined the Resistance, before it had become the Rebellion again, but the hot food is good for morale. It lets them reset their thinking, and it’s easier to focus on the ones they saved over a hot caf, instead of obsessing on the ones they lost. Some of the Wookiee search crews have brought sniffer beasts from Kashyyyk, too. Rey heard Poe call them can-cell bugs. Small and swift, the Wookiees used them to carry cables from one end of a wreck to another and to search for survivors. While Rey understands that the can-cells are not pets, but working animals, their iridescent wings and light movements have been a welcome distraction from the horrors she’s found in the wrecked ships.
Rey’s team emerges from a vent into a tilted hallway sloping downwards, where they find, huddled together, a Stormtrooper and a nurse, both of them holding hands. She holds the stablight for Kelev while he crawls carefully towards them and feels in vain for a pulse. “One black,” he says, tagging the nurse, before he lifts the Stormtrooper’s battered helmet. “No. Two.” The young woman’s eyes are open, staring, and clotted blood runs sluggishly out of her nose and mouth with the movement. Kelev tags her too, and makes an attempt to close her eyes. But she’s been left this way for too long, and in the end he unfolds one of the thermal blankets they’ve brought, and covers the bodies so they may lie decently for a while, until recovery crews come in to retrieve them.
Rey remains respectfully silent as Kelev pulls the rustly fabric over the bodies, and that’s when she hears the cry. “Ren?” The voice comes thin, etiolated and distorted over the distance, but it’s audible nevertheless.
One of her crew members, Sarai, lifts her head and takes a step up the tilted hallway. “Was that a voice?” she asks.
“That way,” Kelev says, pointing down the hallway, towards a doorway. The pressure doors have come down, but there’s always a safety unlock built into such systems, and First Order tech, based on old Imperial tech, is something that Rey knows how to operate and circumvent, if need be. She uses a wessex-head bit driver and pops the screws off the panel, pulls the lever that releases the hydraulics, and the doors hiss apart. There’s only a finger’s width of space between them, but they slide smoothly apart on their tracks when pulled on, and Rey shines a stablight into the room.
It’s utter chaos. A bacta tank, shattered by impact, its patient thrown across the room, a tangle of wires and tubing leading to their location at the very bottom of the room, where gravity has left them. “Another black?” Kelev asks, but Rey shakes her head. She can see faint movement in the low light, and she pulls out her coil of rope, anchors the grappling hook in the doorframe.
“No,” Rey says, “he’s still breathing.” She tests the hook with a hard pull before she unfurls the rope down the doorway of the room, and climbs it down towards the person she finds huddled on the floor. It’s a man, stained dressings on his chest and leg, covered in dried bacta. Its stale reek fills the room, and she reaches out for his pulse, finds it fluttery and weak under her fingertips. He is going to die, she realizes, as she pulls a red tag out of her bag, fastens it around his wrist.
No, not him, a voice whispers unbidden in the back of Rey’s mind, and she almost flinches at the hiss on her inner senses, stirring lightly within her like a breeze. Or a last breath, soft and cool against her lips. “He’s a red,” she calls out to the team, “urgent. Come down here, I need your help to roll him onto the stretcher.” Her hands are moving automatically all this time, unfolding the light plasteel stretcher as she speaks. It snaps easily into shape, locking joints popping softly as they configure themselves automatically.
She knows this man, even though she has never quite managed to meet him. General Hux, of the First Order. She adjusts her stablight as she puts the stretcher down beside him, balancing it on the ground, and winces despite herself as he tries to pull himself onto it. It’s clear that his injuries are grievous. She can see the telltale signs of flail chest, of ribs broken so badly that every breath is an agony. White bone gleams from the almost-black of clotted gore, and shards of glass from the shattered bacta tank protrude from his savaged flesh.
No, Hux is not going to die. Hux is dying. Now. Now… No. Rey grasps his wrist, tries to keep him still. “Don’t move,” she tells him, and he stops fighting her almost immediately. A tear rolls down her face, welling on the seal of her goggles, and she pushes them up so they roll down and away instead of blinding her while she tries to work.
Hux stares blankly up at Rey, his green eyes full of anguish, his pupils huge from shock and blood loss and pain, and she knows this stare intimately and does not know why. “It’s okay,” she tells him, taking his shoulder gently, his skin cold and sticky and clammy under her gloved hand. “It’s okay.” He shivers and whimpers in agony, closing his eyes to weep, unmanned entirely by his suffering, and Rey closes her own eyes then, as Kelev climbs slowly down the rope.
Rey knows that she hasn’t much to give — she simply can’t heal all his wounds even if she were rested and whole. But such naked pain demands a response, and so she searches in the Force for the faint glow of his life, and takes hold of him, cradles his fading strength in the wellspring of her own.
It’s okay, she thinks at Hux, trying to calm him, gentle him, and oh, stars, so much pain. But he leans into her touch like a frightened child might, and she feels his pulse strengthening minutely as he partakes of her strength and soul. His face goes slack as he loses consciousness, his body rallying briefly around the vitality she has lent him, and the last thing she sees in his face is a great relief, like a fist unclenching as the hurt finally leaves him for a brief span.
She wraps a blanket carefully over him as Kelev drops to the floor beside her, and together they manage to move him onto the stretcher, mindful of spinal injuries.
“That’s the most hated man in the galaxy,” Kelev whispers to Rey, as he secures the straps holding Hux down, so they can turn on the stretcher’s built-in repulsorlift and float him out of the room. “He did for Hosnian.”
“Yes, that’s General Hux,” Rey says. She pushes her goggles back down, and pulls her canteen out, suddenly desperately thirsty. She pushes her breather mask aside and attempts to hold her breath as she takes a grateful sip of water. Everything tastes and smells like spent fuel in here, stinging volatiles and the ripe mustiness of decaying bodies, but the moisture is welcome on her dry throat, nevertheless.
“He never did anything to me and mine,” Kelev says, thoughtful, “but you’re going to have a job and a half keeping him alive once we get him back to the forward operating base.”
Chapter 2: up on a ladder trying to call out your name
Rey consults with Poe on what to do with General Hux, and afterwards has a chance meeting with someone she knows. She has no idea how she knows them, only that she does.
The forward operating base is humming with organized chaos, and Rey’s team are met by a Rebellion mess cook bearing a tray of cheap, stamped metal mugs full of hot gruel, milky and sweetened, as the medical staff at the triaging station assess their casualty and whisk Hux away to surgery, to stabilize him as soon as they can. Rey refuses the mug offered her and leaves her crew to their drinks, instead murmuring to medical staff that they should keep Hux’s identity secret.
“He is a high-value prisoner,” Rey explains to Dr. Kalonia urgently. “His intelligence is going to be important in the coming days. And I know who he is but — let it be said that the Rebellion does not conduct punitive reprisals. He should see trial, if he survives to.”
“I understand. Will you post a detail of guards to make sure nobody tries, or?” Dr. Kalonia is a kind but pragmatic woman. They probably don’t have the manpower to waste making sure such a poorly patient doesn’t escape, which means that their justification for a bodyguard might attract more attention than not.
“I’ll consult with Poe,” Rey says. She’s deeply aware of just how grungy and ash-smeared she is over her decon gear, especially in contrast to the medics, who need to keep themselves clean. “I’ll leave you to your work.” She turns, taking a deep breath, to look back at her team as the medics depart.
“Good work, everyone. Very good work. Why don’t we call this the end of our shift? Kelev, could you and Sarai run those droid parts over to Mechanical, and make sure they’re labeled clearly as medical droid parts. The rest of you, you’re dismissed for the day. Get some food in you, and some rest.”
The scavengers nod, stacking their mugs up in a plastruct tray left exactly for that purpose, and wander off towards the chow line and the parts storage, and Rey unfastens her decon gear, letting a wisp of cold air slip through the open front, to cool her sweaty skin. The cold is a relief from the stifling humidity under her waterproofs, her decontamination suit itself has become a sweatbox, and she’s gross.
She makes for the command tent, where Poe Dameron is currently ensconced with whatever logistical talent he can beg, borrow or appropriate from allied forces. His main focus has always been on a tactical level, in small-scale engagements, and the repeated losses the Rebellion had taken has left them with a blind spot in large-scale supply chain maintenance — which means that Poe is learning what to and what not to do in a search and recovery operation as and when circumstances change right here on Exegol.
Rey does not envy him his position, but he’s proven up to the task, and logistical help has come from an unexpected source. Some of the allied ships that have come to assist at Exegol are trader ships. Smuggler ships, to be precise. The smugglers vary. Some of them are people running the First Order blockades to evade mass confiscation of foodstuffs and medicines, trying to alleviate famines and maybe make enough credits to buy enough fuel for the next run. Others are shadier, people playing the gray luxuries market, trying to evade duties on liquors and exotic goods. Yet others are old spice-smugglers, presently turning their ill-earned skills towards getting people where they need to be. They all have something in common, though, which comes with the job. Smuggling is a process of getting things where they’re wanted by a specific time, through hazards that range from “inconvenient” to “absolutely lethal”, which means that smugglers are some of the galaxy’s best logisticians.
Poe’s having dinner when Rey finds him — a mess tray of half-eaten food is balanced on top of his knee as he squints at a holoprojection of numbers in columns. He blinks his gritty eyes once, twice, and then turns away from it to greet Rey.
“You’re back early,” he says. “Nothing wrong?”
“We found a casualty,” Rey sighs, “he had to be evacuated as soon as possible.”
Poe winces, the shadows ghastly on his drawn, tired face. “That bad, huh. I guess that makes sense. This late in the search and rescue operation we’re either going to find walking wounded who got trapped with enough supplies to make it so far, or the dead and dying.”
Rey glances around the command tent, at the borrowed logistics droids pipping rapidly to each other in Binar as they go over updated requisitions numbers. The holoprojection blinks, shivers, and new numbers pop into the air, updating the previous columns of information. “Poe, I need to talk to you for a minute or two,” Rey tells him, before he can turn back to his dinner.
Poe nods, copacetic. “The look on your face says ‘in private’. The back of the command tent quiet enough?”
“Yeah. That’ll work.” Rey waits for Poe to put his dinner aside and climb off his folding camp chair, and they retreat into the small, curtained-off section of the command tent where Poe sleeps when his duties permit. A folding cot stands to one side of the space, with a crumpled blanket thrown rudely over it, and there’s a sleeping bag unrolled to the side of it, where Finn’s been sleeping. A divot in the sleeping bag shows where BB-8 has been resting, too. While droids don’t strictly need sleep, Rey knows that BB-8 is attached enough to Poe and Finn to want to watch over them while they rest.
“Right. Your casualty was someone important, I take it,” Poe says, motioning politely to the cot. Take a seat, the gesture says, but Rey remains standing. She doesn’t want to leave soot smeared all over his blanket.
“I found Hux,” she says, as Poe sits down instead.
“You found General Hugs? Guess he’d turn up eventually, like a forged credit.” Poe sighs. He pulls the rumpled blanket off the cot and begins to make order of it, folding it roughly into a rectangle, and that into a square. “I’d started going through some of the debriefing transcripts Rose had sent me, some of the folks we pulled off the Steadfast claim they saw Pryde shoot him for treason. I guess that’s why he was so badly off.”
Rey remembers the pain she had felt in Hux through their brief connection in the Force, and fights a shiver. “Someone, probably a co-conspirator of his, had put him in a bacta tank in an out-of-the-way medbay. He was still in it when that section of the ship crashed. It’s not pretty.”
“It wouldn’t be, I suppose. You haven’t told anyone else who he is?” It’s not so much a question as much as a half-thought expressed verbally, but Rey answers it anyway, to complete it.
“Only Dr. Kalonia, but he was the First Order’s poster boy for recruitment, and he’s not so badly hurt that he’s unrecognizable.”
“Which means that he’s going to be a problem,” Poe sighs again. “Everyone’s going to want me to do something to him in revenge for Hosnian, or they’ll take it into their own hands and kill him — yeah, I don’t want to deal with the discipline issues. How’s about this, Rey. We’ll tell Dr. Kalonia to just pretend he’s a horribly disfigured intelligence officer and put some bandages around his head, and I’ll have him moved somewhere to take the pressure off our own medical staff here, and so nobody will find out who he is until we figure out what to do with him.”
Rey smiles faintly despite herself, surprised by the cleverness of Poe’s deception. “That’s… an elegant lie.”
“Call it misdirection, like in legerdemain.” Poe sounds satisfied with the stratagem, and he tosses the folded blanket on the empty middle of his cot. It lands with a soft paff. “Oh, and Rey, go with him. I doubt he’s in any shape to try and escape, but — I guess you’d be the best person to make sure he doesn’t turn up dead, either. Your crew, they’re experienced scavengers, right? They can run without you?”
Rey isn’t sure at first whether Poe’s rewarding or punishing her, but she knows him enough to know that he’d be straightforward enough to tell her outright if he does have a problem with her, which he does not. So just another job that he can’t spare anyone else for, which makes the most sense. “Definitely.”
“Ok,” Poe says, standing up. “So go get cleaned up and get some food in you while he’s in surgery, I’ll have BB-8 run the message about the bandages back to Dr. Kalonia, and BB’ll come find you when he’s ready to move.”
“Right. Poe. Thank you,” Rey says. Poe twitches the curtain aside to let her out, politely, and she ducks out of his sleeping nook. It’s a good thing, she thinks, that she still technically lives on the Falcon, and that Chewie lets her live there — she won’t have to brave the ablutions tent that the Rebellion’s techs set up for sanitary reasons. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s going to be crowded at this time, with lines forming as crews return from their days of searching, and Rey wants to clean herself right now.
She steps out of the decontamination suit — a bulky polymer coverall — in the rampway of the ship, leaving the sooty garment in the Millennium Falcon’s cargo bay, before she walks through engineering to reach the Falcon’s crew quarters. Terbus, one of the Falcon’s porg stowaways chirrups curiously at her from his perch on top of an equipment rack, before settling himself back down, his fuzzy head tucked under a wing. The ship’s refresher is a modest cubicle, furnished only with a sonic shower, but Rey has come prepared. Finn, the wonder that he is, showed her what to scrounge for at some point in the last year. She had been wondering how he managed to smell so good all the time, even with next to no refresher time.
“You realize that with a lot of troopers in armor doing physical things, and the fact that we live on starships, all that recycled air is going to smell pretty bad after a while,” he had explained while Rey wiped a grimy forearm across her brow. “So they made us these things, you oughta search for them. Troop hygiene packs. It’s a little sack of blue polycloth, resealable. There’s all the stuff you need to stay clean for a 7-day patrol in them. Tooth powder and brush, nit comb in case the local bugs want to crawl in your hair, hair powder for getting the grease out, and seven dry shower packs. There’s also sanitary supplies in case you don’t have an implant. Most female troopers do, but some officers don’t, so they just include them anyway. The non-sticky side makes a great improvised bandage.”
To Rey, whose experiences had included sewing reusable sanitary belts from scavenged bandage gauze, and then using her precious drinking water and the soapy juice from a certain Jakku succulent to clean them, the First Order hygiene packs had felt like luxury, and she liked to keep one in her satchel at all times. She liked the dry shower packs especially. They were nothing much — two highly compressed disposable towels in a foil wrapper that ripped open. One of the towels was dotted with little bubbles of gel that burst against the skin and foamed, and they tingled pleasantly as she scrubbed herself down. Then the foam had dissolved into a residue that had been easily mopped off with the second towel. The stained towels were then easily wadded up and tucked back in their foil wrapper for later disposal, if a trash receptacle didn’t present itself right then.
Rey gives herself a quick, merciless scrub-down in the Falcon’s modest refresher, savoring the refreshing sting of the towel on her skin, and then unfastens her hair and sprinkles hair powder into it. The stuff smells fresh, like the air near an ocean, and it leaves her scalp feeling cleaner, as she brushes it in. A fresh change of clothes leaves her feeling almost reborn, and she bundles her old clothes up and stuffs them in her pack. Normally she would take them to the ablutions tent for cleaning — Rebellion techs have reprogrammed a pair of First Order laundry droids to do the necessary washing — but she’s aware that she may have to leave Exegol tonight, and decides to figure out the washing later. She steps out of the Falcon, wondering idly where Chewie is.
He’s been spending a lot of time with the Wookiee search and rescue teams when they’re on downtime. Catching up on news, gossipping. Rey can’t quite blame him. In the span of a year he’s lost several old and important friends, and his grief is still fresh. This reconnection with Kashyyyk may be what it takes for him to process his emotions. Rey would not be surprised if he chose to leave the Rebellion and return to his homeworld in time.
Rey leaves her pack stowed and wanders off in search of food. She’s not a picky eater, which is a good thing, because meals here on the Exegol base have been catch-as-catch-can. It’s all quite edible, but relying on allies for logistical support means that the meals have been a motley selection. From what she glimpsed on Poe’s plate earlier it looks like the chow line is handing out some kind of pickled fruit or vegetable, stir-fried with strips of meat, on top of some kind of steamed grain. Pickles surprised Rey, the first time she encountered them, their savory tartness almost too much for her after a lifetime of bland ration packs. The idea that there was a galaxy out there where the luxury of making sure a meal was tasty as well as edible was commonplace had boggled her mind.
That’s another adventure she’s been on, eating her way through every destination she’s been to. From that first taste of fruit salad at Maz Kanata’s bar on Takodana to a stick of sugared desert pears on Pasaana, every meal has been an experience treasured for its novelty and comfort. She’s still not much of a cook, but Luke and Chewie have walked her through the very basics of putting something on a stick, seasoning it, and roasting it over a campfire.
On Ahch-To Island she’d, to Terbus’ horror, cleaned and dressed porg to Chewie’s instructions, only to find the end result slightly unpalatable. Porg meat was dark and tender, slightly livery, but it wasn’t the muscle that she’d had a problem with. No, it was the fat that bothered her, reeking strongly of old fish. She’d skinned her portion of porg and nibbled her way delicately around the bones, while Chewie had crunched down on the dry drumsticks with the greatest satisfaction. The feathers had been the best part of that harvest, Rey thought at the time, they were soft and fluffy and made great pillow stuffing. Porg eggs were far better, in her opinion. Cracked slightly at the big end so they didn’t explode, and baked in the ashes of a campfire, they were creamy, smoky, and perfect wrapped in salty, tangy seaweed.
Such thoughts occupy Rey’s mind on the ten-minute walk from the improvised spaceport at one end of the forward operating base to the large mess tent, itself noisy with tired conversations and still wafting good smells. The salty savor of pickles and nerf strips reach Rey’s nostrils, and her belly growls loudly in response. She lines up with a mess tray in her hands, utensils at the ready, and receives a heaping mound of steamed, herbed grain, a large portion of meat and pickles, and a runny-centered fried egg on top of it all. A tall mug of reconstituted meiloorun juice finishes off her meal, and she retreats to an empty space at one of the long eating tables to have her dinner.
Rey’s hungrier than she thought, and she almost gives herself the hiccups shoveling down her food. A deep draft from her mug helps things go down smoother. The pickled vegetables are spicy, salty, and they crunch appealingly in her teeth, seasoning the tender strips of meat with their own bright flavors. The steamed grain is good and filling, it sticks to her ribs, and the sensation of it lodging in her belly calms her, gives her a broad sense that the galaxy is really an okay place, as she drains the last of the sweet drink in her mug.
Rey remains at her seat for a few minutes after she’s eaten, and she’s about to rise and take her mess tray and mug to the collection bins when she spots Chewbacca coming her way, a full mess tin in his hands. He greets her with an affectionate rumble-growl, and she scoots aside to give him room at the table, so he can put his food down.
“How’s everything going?” Rey asks him, as he pierces the yolk of his egg and mixes it, golden, into his plate of grains and pickles and meat.
He bellows in reply, and Rey translates mentally. “Rowurr’s crew found something strange in one of the ships, an animal. Some kind of tooka, if I had to guess. It’s not very happy.”
“Can’t blame it for feeling so,” Rey muses, as Chewie falls to. “What was it doing on a capital ship, though?” It takes a minute or two for Chewbacca to finish eating his current mouthful.
“I think it’s a pet of some kind. There’s a collar around its neck.” Strange. Rey didn’t think the First Order rewarded the kind of sentimentality it took to want to keep a pet around, and wouldn’t droids be more practical in that case? Nevertheless her curiosity is piqued.
“Do you think Rowurr would mind if I had a look at it?”
“Doubtful. He’d just as much palm it off on you, to be honest,” Chewie says, and then he turns his attention back to his dinner, as Rey rises and takes her dishes back to be washed. The chow line is open all hours, as crews depart and return on their own, which means that there’s always a service droid lining trays up in one of the water-efficient washers.
Rowurr’s crew are sitting at the other end of the mess tent, murmuring, as gently as Wookiees can, to a crate made of a perforated ammunition box, and a tawny-sided creature inside it hisses and yowls. The only members of the tooka family Rey has seen in person are the Loth-cats of Lothal, brown-striped plains predators that stalk and hunt fuzzy little rodents. The particular pitch of this animal’s plaint is oddly familiar to Rey, and she finds herself walking around the crate to get a better look.
Green eyes and a dainty muzzle, and claws locked around the metal grid replacing the lid of the ammunition box. A striped tail lashes against the sides of the box, and Rowurr glances up at Rey and shrugs. “It’s not calming down, is it?” she asks him.
“Those claws are sharp, so careful. Not sharp enough to bother us, but you don’t have fur,” he says good-naturedly, patting the crate carefully with blunt-clawed hands. “Calm down there,” he tells the creature inside.
That provokes a yowl and a hiss, more spat than exhaled. Cautiously, Rey reaches out for the twisted wire holding the ammunition box shut, and twists it until it releases. The door clanks as the creature reaches a paw out, but its claws are sheathed — it’s not angry, Rey senses, just frightened.
“It’s okay, Millie,” she tells it, and it subsides at the sound of her voice, its fur zinging against the inside of the crate until she pulls it out, her hands tucked securely under its forelegs. It’s a pretty little creature, striped and blotched, with soft, thick fur colored the rich warm color of a meiloorun rind. It’s not all that large, either. Probably weighs no less than six kilograms, which is smaller than the Loth-cats she’s seen. It settles against her chest and lets out a small plaintive sound, and she pats its soft fur.
Wait, she thinks, blinking as it presses its cold nose to the side of her head. How do I know what it’s called? A brief check of the black collar around its neck proves that she’s right. Its name is Millicent. She has no idea how she knows that. But before she can even try to reply, there’s a helpful beep behind her, and she turns, the tooka still in her arms, to find BB-8 waiting expectantly for her.
Poe’s asked me to come find you, the droid warbles helpfully.
“Go on,” Rowurr says, “you can take it with you if you want. I prefer to see it with someone it trusts, rather than unhappy in this crate.”
“Right,” Rey says, shifting the weight of the tooka to her right shoulder. It settles in, its claws punching softly through her clothing to gain a better grip, and they prick sharply on her skin as it does so. “Careful, Millie.” Again, that name. Rey grabs at the improvised crate with her left hand, finds it fairly light. “I’ll just take this with me for now, just in case.”
Chapter 3: what is that you tried to say?
Rey accompanies Hux to Arkanis, where he is transferred for medical treatment, and there she and Millicent make a new friend, and rediscover an old one.
Hux measures his consciousness out in little disjointed intervals, like drops of Akivan honey falling from a spoon. Everything has an odd glow to it that tells him he’s on strong painkillers, and his pain, attenuated from the drugs, feels like an odd drumbeat of heat and pressure syncopated to his heartbeat. His chest and belly, his leg, his bandaged forearms. There’s a sharper warmth in his chest every time he inhales, and he imagines, when he can, the bolt of plasma from Pryde’s blaster coalescing in its little well of scorched flesh and bone, like a pearl of elemental fire suspended in his ribcage like a tiny sun eclipsed by his bitter heart.
There’s the smell of disinfectant and the pressure of a breather mask over his face, and something more. His slice of vision is bounded on all sides as though he wears a visor. Ren, he thinks, but he’s forgotten why he ought to be sad whenever he thinks of the name. Mostly, Hux sleeps, and it’s good to sleep. There’s a heaviness in his body and mind that holds him reassuringly down, and he doesn’t notice the ghosts of his pain when he drowses.
Hux sleeps, and knows no more.
Arkanis is a blue-gray pearl of a world, shrouded in heavy fog and mist. It reminds Rey somewhat of Ahch-To, but there was more bite to the wind on Ahch-To, the movement of the air unmuffled by large landmasses. There’s the same moisture hanging in the air, though, a damp coolness that feels like a balm on Rey’s skin after the parched smoky dryness of Exegol’s tainted air. The air smells fresh and ozonic as a faint drizzle hangs in the lights medical center, and a pair of Rebellion medics ease Hux’s suspensor-borne stretcher off the shuttle’s ramp and onto the cobblestoned square of a small village.
The wounded from Exegol have been distributed across the galaxy, in hospitals and medical centers capable of taking the overflow from the Rebellion’s own improvised surgical centers. It’s mostly the walking wounded and critically wounded who wind up shipped elsewhere — people whose needs can wait for a bit, or those who need care beyond what the Rebellion can render in their mobile hospitals. Hux has been routed here to Arkanis because there are beds available for the wounded; Rey understands that old facilities have been repurposed as medical centers.
This one is run out of an old stone abbey, a four-sided set of rooms and outbuildings meant to house holy men and women. In more contemporary times the buildings have been used first as a school, and then, with the Empire’s educational reforms, as agricultural storage — which means that the abbey has been retrofitted with an up-to-date power supply and modern refrigeration and stasis facilities. Those and its access to water from an ancient artesian well means the place was one of the best places to build a field hospital in, and medics from all over the planet have congregated here to perform the vast amount of relief work that comes out of winning a galactic war.
There’s something of a glow of peace that Rey can sense through the Force, a hush that she can almost taste, from flagstones worn smooth by countless soft, shuffling steps, bearing the residue of countless minds meditating first on the Force, and then the brighter dust of children thinking of their sums and arithmetic. This is a good place, she knows, and its aura comforts her. Local medics take Hux into their custody and move him to a ward converted out of an old study room — the hermits’ cells are hardly large enough for a proper bed, let alone the equipment meant to monitor him and keep him alive.
Rey follows, with the improvised animal carrier in her right hand. The tooka named Millicent has grudgingly acceded to the indignity of being put in a box and then shoved unceremoniously through hyperspace with a sullen silence, but Rey really couldn’t see another way they could have traveled on a hospital ship. “You must be hungry,” Rey murmurs to the small creature, which sticks a paw out of the mesh door, batting at the twisted wire that holds it shut. How smart.
Rey opens the mesh door and pulls out of her bag a small foil packet of sun-dried bantha meat, before dropping a few pieces in front of the tooka. It eats daintily, picking each piece up in its jaws and chewing at it, its tail switching from side to side. Rey then pours a little water into the lid of her canteen and places it beside the food, so that Millicent can quench its thirst. She isn’t really familiar enough with tookas to sex this one, but something about the name seems feminine.
“I don’t know what to do with you, Millie,” Rey says, sitting cross-legged on the hard flagstone floor as the tooka eats and drinks its fill. “I can’t just let you run around a hospital, but you probably wouldn’t like being caged all the time, would you?” It looks up from its meal with slitted green eyes and huffs, then gobbles down another strip of dried meat.
Rey is tired and hungry again; she hasn’t really had the time to rest recently, and dinner had been her first real meal that day. She’s about to reach into her pack for a ration bar when she hears a soft tapping at the door.
“Look at you,” a woman’s voice says, soft and lilting with the distinctive local accent, “you’re sitting on the floor. Do you know —” and she pauses to glance at the figure recumbent on the bed, shrouded in bandages “— him?” Rey looks up to see an older woman wearing a simple gray gown and cape, with a spotless white apron over the skirt. She’s not dressed as a medic, not really, and Rey can’t figure out who she is.
“You are?” Rey asks. She senses no hostility in the Force, only a genuine concern that warms her slightly against the cold stones of this abbey. She’s used to the cold desert nights, but the humidity here on Arkanis seems to give the wind an extra bite.
“My name is Maura,” the woman says softly, brushing a hand over her apron, “I’m a volunteer orderly. You must be with the Rebellion.”
“Yes. I’m Rey.”
Maura nods. “They told me there was a new patient here, but not to step in, since he was unconscious. I thought I’d look, anyway, and here you are. And who is that?” Millicent has crossed the floor to sniff at Maura’s skirt, and it butts its fuzzy head against her boot-clad ankles.
“That’s Millicent,” Rey says, scrambling to pick Millicent up in her arms before it causes any trouble. “I think it’s some kind of tooka. We found it in a wrecked ship.” Millicent doesn’t protest when Rey picks it up. It only lets out a small, sneezy sound that resolves into a rumbling vibration, and Rey smooths the plush fur down with her fingers.
“Oh, what a dear.” Maura’s lined face speaks of old sorrows, but also old joy, and her smile is soft and oddly sad. “You’re not from Arkanis, are you, Rey?”
“No.” There’s a coldness against her neck as Millicent presses its nose against her skin, and Rey continues to pat the furry creature in her arms. “This is my first time on the planet. Why?”
Maura shrugs, her shoulders slight under the bulk of her nerf wool cape. It’s a sensible garment against the cool air, hooded, with slitted sleeves that let Maura’s arms slide out at the elbows. “I thought perhaps you had the naming of this wee beastie. Millicent’s an old-fashioned name here… it means ‘strength’. I’d have named my daughter Millicent, but I had a boy instead. Well. Nevermind about that. But you’re to stay with him in the bed there, yes?”
“Yes,” Rey says.
“Let me set you up with a cot and a blanket, then.” Maura says, after a brief glance over at the empty space beside Hux’s bed. “And something to eat. You must be feeling pretty empty.”
“Yes, I am. Thank you.” Maura’s offer of food sounds a lot better than the ration bar Rey was planning to eat, and she wonders what the local specialties in this part of Arkanis are like. There were herds of nerf grazing in the rich green pastures, glimpsed from the porthole of the landing shuttle, and nerf is still novel enough that Rey won’t mind eating it for a long while, if she has to.
“And your little friend here, I don’t suppose we can keep her in the ward, the medics might object. But I’m currently staying in a little room here, it used to be one of the monks’ cells. I can keep her there. If she’s anything like the tookas that people keep here, she’s probably going to want a pan full of soil or sand for her business.”
Now that’s something that Rey hadn’t really had the time to figure out, and she’s glad Maura’s got things worked out. Nevertheless, she doesn’t want to just dump Millicent off on her. “I don’t want to inconvenience you, Maura.”
“Nonsense,” Maura says. “Millie, is it? I’m sure we’ll be good friends. No, no inconvenience at all.”
It doesn’t really matter that it’s still late afternoon local time in this part of Arkanis. Rey’s been up for more than twenty-four hours at this point, and the meal Maura brings her is a welcome one. Hux’s ward is slightly more furnished now; there’s a cot and a wheeled screen, for privacy, and a small folding chair and tray table, and Rey sits in the hard little chair and falls to.
Rey’s supper is a thick stew of local vegetables and smoked fish, colored delicately pink with roe. It’s thickened with some kind of starch, and topped with a flatbread moulded onto the top of the clayware pot itself. It’s hot, fresh from the oven it was held in, and the bread on top of it is crispy on its browned top and moist on the underside. It steams benevolently, sending all manner of good smells out when Rey uses her utensil to poke a hole in the bread, and she devours the stew and the bread alike, scalding her tongue at least twice.
Maura has also brought her what she calls a “pot” of tea, another clayware vessel with a spout and a handle, and a mug. The tea is a tisane of dried herb leaves, as far as Rey can tell, and it’s bitter, slightly astringent, but fragrant and warm. The bitterness of the tea balances the richness of the stew and the oily flavor of the smoked fish, and Millicent jumps from her perch on Rey’s cot, where she was cleaning her own fur with her tongue, to beg a share of this appetizing supper.
Rey uses her utensil to scoop a fragment of smoked fish from the pot, and she holds it between thumb and forefinger, leaning down to drop it before Millicent’s pointed nose, and the tooka sniffs at it, and then accepts the morsel with great relish. Millicent eats every crumb of good, flaky fish, and licks the flagstone floor where it fell afterwards.
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Rey asks her, and Millicent makes a soft mewing sound, and butts her head against the legs of Rey’s chair and table, and Rey’s ankles, beside. There’s a scratch at the door, and Rey turns her head. Maura is right outside, with a small dish of something in her hands.
“I thought Millicent would want something to eat,” Maura says. “It wouldn’t do to feed her people food for too long, it could upset her belly. I had the kitchen staff put aside some meat scraps, that’s what I’d feed a pet tooka.”
“Thank you, Maura,” Rey says. She likes Maura, that she’s decided. Rey isn’t sure how Maura makes an offer of hospitality such a matter-of-fact thing, and how unobtrusive her offers of comfort are, and she wonders if this is what Arkanis is like, culturally. Not that she’s spent much time outside this room, at this point. But she’s just arrived.
“You’ll probably want to turn in early this evening, you look exhausted,” Maura continues. “I’ll take Millicent after she’s done with her dinner, if you’d like.” Millicent, smelling her supper, has already crossed the floor to the doorway, tail held high, emitting several plaintive cries that clearly mean food is here.
“Yes, I’d like that,” Rey says as Maura places the dish down by the door so Millicent can eat, and Millicent scurries right to the dish, to begin devouring the scraps of meat within it. Her striped tail seems to vibrate at that point, twitching slightly from side to side in delight.
Maura rises stiffly after a few moments of watching Millicent, as though her knees ache, and glances to the ruin of Rey’s supper. “Do tell me if you’d like more to eat, we’ve plenty here,” she says with another one of her soft, sad smiles, and leaves the room before Rey can thank her again.
A medic arrives at Hux’s room shortly after Rey has finished eating her supper. The timing is so good that Rey wonders if Maura told her when to check on the patient, so as not to interrupt her meal. She unfolds the screen, leaving Rey on the other side of Hux, while she checks his vital signs and the equipment that is currently keeping him alive.
“Rather enthusiastic with the bandages, were they?” the medic’s voice floats from over and around the screen, her Coruscanti accent contrasting plummily against the soft Arkanian lilt that Rey has heard from the natives thus far.
“Excuse me?” Rey asks, blinking. Her delicious supper is working a soporific effect upon her, and she realizes belatedly that she’s let her attention wander. This won’t do, she’s supposed to make sure Hux lives to see trial.
“Lieutenant Trask here —” the medic continues, using Hux’s alias, her voice jovial, avuncular, “his facial injuries will probably scar hard, given how long he went without treatment. Two days, his files say? But they aren’t severe enough to warrant covering his entire head with bandages.”
Rey feigns ignorance and shrugs, and then realizes that the gesture is wasted, since the medics can’t see her. “I really don’t know. I’m here mostly to accompany him to —”
“Make sure nobody interrogates him on the sly, yes,” the medic says, “I suppose the old precautions would still remain in place until the Rebellion’s done a thorough purge.” There’s a soft hum of equipment, but Rey senses no threat in the Force, only a businesslike detachment from across the room. In her mind’s eye she sees a familiar piece of medical equipment, a hand-held healing field generator. The sound goes on for a few minutes, and then Rey glimpses, a little too late, Millicent’s striped tail vanishing around the screen.
“What’s this?” the medic asks, and the sound of the healing field generator is interrupted by Millicent’s soft chirp. “Is this Lieutenant Trask’s pet tooka?” she asks Rey, irritation entering her voice.
“I’m sorry,” Rey says, ducking around the screen. The medic has taken the dressings off Hux’s chest, obviously to treat his wounds, and Millicent is currently sitting on the edge of the bed, butting her head against his limp hand.
“While animals have a place in certain therapies,” the medic cautions Rey, “intensive care is not generally a place they belong. If you could kindly hold her while I finish up here?”
“Yes,” Rey says, scooping Millicent up in her arms. The tooka resists, small sharp claws digging into the sheets, and it takes both of Rey’s hands to wrestle her off the bed. Millicent yowls in protest, and Rey senses fear and anger in the creature. “Shh,” Rey tells Millicent, “it’s okay,” as she retreats to her side of the room. Millicent clings to her, fur fluffed out in a posture of fear. It is emphatically not okay, the creature’s expression says, and Rey tries to calm her with a soft pat.
Millicent cries out, plaintively, and Rey turns bodily away from the screen that separates her from Hux. “It’s okay,” she tells the tooka again, and Millicent presses her cold nose against Rey’s shoulder, her claws digging into the fabric of Rey’s tunic, unwilling to let go.
Hux continues to drift in his drugged sleep, the world passing him slowly by like wisps of fog, and he chooses not to engage with it. Instead he lies cradled in the palm of the galaxy, drugs singing through his bloodstream, through his wretched meager flesh and bruised nerves, and waits.
Familiar things float by — the smell of Arkanian hot-pot, all smoked fish and yoghurt bread, the soft lilt of a woman’s voice, the warmth and weight of Millicent against his side — but he lets them all pass through his mind, which is presently holed like a sieve, it retains none of his stream of consciousness.
There’s a coolness against his chest, and the soft euphoric buzz of bacta being infused into his torn flesh, and he notes its pleasantness and lets it go. Belatedly he is recognizing the things that have passed him by, but he is unable, in his fuzzed state, to resolve that recognition and place things into the contexts in which they belong. They are all good or ill to him, but no more — a mild jag of pain as someone fusses with the bandages wrapped around him, the whisper of his mother’s voice, Millicent’s indignant yowl.
He does not breach the surface of consciousness, not quite. Instead, he glances at the waking world under the surface of his dreams, and does not bother to lift his head to draw a breath. He sleeps.
The lights have begun to go out in the wards of this field hospital, one by one, and the sunlight has fled the Arkanian sky, as Rey gazes out the window of Hux’s room. The medic, a Dr. Perdix, has let her (and Millicent) go with a stern warning, and Millicent, in turn, has gone willingly to Maura’s room. It’s now Rey’s turn to rest. The air is colder now, with a distinct chill to it, and Rey rummages in her pack for another layer of clothing only to find that she has forgotten to arrange for laundry — her spare clothes are still too dirty to wear.
Her fingers brush against unfamiliar fabric and she pulls the garment out, only to freeze once she recognizes it. It’s the shapeless black tunic Ben Solo wore in his last moments on Exegol, down to the tear on its collar and the scorched hole in its middle, from where she had stabbed him with her own lightsaber.
Tears start to her eyes the moment she holds it up, and she buries her face in it to hide her tears, shivers at the unfamiliar smell of it. This breaks the dam of her self-control, and she curls up on the cot with the tunic in her arms, huddled under the nerf-wool blanket.
It’s not fair, she howls mentally, hiccuping in her misery and loneliness, that I have to lose you just when I’d found you, Ben. Like I’ve lost everyone, my parents, Han, Luke, Leia. She knows that’s not fair. She knows that some of those people weren’t hers to really lose, not in the grand scheme of things.
She thinks to the moment she woke up in Ben’s arms on Exegol, on how she knew that instant what he had done. It should also have been my choice, Rey thinks, fighting a sob. She bites down hard enough on her lower lip that she tastes blood, and wipes furiously at her face. I’m tired of being left behind.
Rey cries herself to sleep, not for the first time, and certainly not the last. Her sobs slow as she drifts closer to unconsciousness, her hiccuping gasps jerky, before she uncurls slightly from her fetal position, and slides into true sleep.
Ben is there in her dreams, this is the first time she’s dreamed of him since Exegol. They’re curled intimately together, naked, her skin against his. It’s not sexual, not really, just raw with a sense of belonging that she had always dreamed of experiencing but never dared to reach for. His heart thumps against her spine, slow, booming like a fathier’s, and his broad arms are tucked securely around her waist.
They drift together in an amniotic warmth, and Rey opens her mouth to speak. “You should have let me choose,” she tells him. She can smell the strong soap he uses, taste, almost, the sweat on his skin. His breath stirs her hair. Each word seems to take forever to say, as though they are living on geological, or even stellar time.
“On Exegol?” Ben asks, his voice soft, tickling in her ear. “But you were beyond choosing. That’s why I did what I did.”
“I chose to fight Palpatine,” Rey tells him. “I knew there was a chance I could have died. I did it willingly.”
There’s a rumble that Rey realizes in a chuckle, and Ben shifts against her. She feels his forehead against the back of her head. “And so did I.”
“But you left me,” she accuses him, turning in his grip to stare into his face. His eyes are as dark as she remembers, his full lips pursed in a half smile. “I don’t know how much more I can lose.”
“No, Rey,” Ben says, and he kisses her. This time his lips are warm and soft, his breath strong, regular, and her world begins to melt into warmth at the touch. “I chose never to be apart from you.”
Rey gasps against Ben’s mouth, and shivers, then she closes her arms around him and squeezes, just to feel the life of him, whole and present, against her. “You’re dead, “she reminds him. “You’re dead, and I’m having an erotic dream.”
Ben shifts a little more, and she finds her head against his shoulder, closes her eyes against the reassuring solidity of him. “No, Rey,” he tells her. “You’re alive, and so am I. And — ” his voice breaks into another rumble of laughter, “things would be a lot different if I wanted this to be an erotic experience.”
Rey giggles despite the loss that unfurls so freshly in her heart, intoxicated herself by how easily Ben’s laughter comes in this dream. “Then what kind of an experience is this?”
Ben pauses to study her face, his gaze intense, intent, oddly soft. “Take care of Hux for me, please. And Millie.”
The mention of the tooka jolts Rey clean out of her dream, into full wakefulness, and she sits up on her cot, the nerf-wool blanket falling away from her as she does. It is dark and silent in Hux's hospital room, save for the beep and whirr of medical equipment, but insects sing outside to the overcast sky.
Hux. And Millie.
“Oh, Ben,” Rey whispers aloud, half to herself, Ben’s tunic clutched still to her chest, “have you been here with me all along?”
Chapter 4: just as you take my hand
Rey communes with Ben, and explores the boundaries of their shared state. Hux wakes up to find that the world has changed irrevocably around him.
This chapter is rampantly porny because I am first and foremost a smutfic writer.
Rey is dreaming. She knows this because Ben is there. But she also knows that this is more than a dream. She knows where she is — lying on the cot in Hux’s hospital room on Arkanis — but she’s also exploring the depths of her own soul, and that’s where Ben is. Sunk deep in this meditative trance-sleep, she communes with herself, and with him, while her body rests.
“How is Hux today?” Ben asks her. She’s figured out how to dream things into place, and they are both sitting on the beach at the ancient Jedi monastery on Ahch-To, watching the porgs dive and dabble for fish as the surf comes in. A driftwood campfire crackles, lending the chill air a glow of comfort, and they are holding hands as the twin suns begin to swing lower towards the sea.
“The medics are weaning him off the sedatives,” Rey says, as she tosses another stick in the campfire. She’s decided to imagine food cooking over it, in an old battered pot that belonged to Luke, but the smell of it is novel to her. Perhaps Ben has lent her some of his memories, in this private world that they share.
“That’s a good thing, I assume?” Ben’s eyes reflect the firelight, and sparks pop in the air as he tosses a still-damp piece of driftwood onto the fire to smoulder and sizzle on the embers.
“He’s healed enough that they can let him sit up in bed, that’s what Dr. Perdix said this evening.” Ben’s hand dwarfs hers, and his fingers are warm and steady. “They’ll be adjusting his pain medication after he regains consciousness. Too much of it can impair his thinking, leave him confused.”
A silence follows, and Rey finds herself amused that this soul-deep communion still leaves them enough room to be awkwardly quiet.
“You have to know we were lovers,” Ben says after a few minutes pass, “Hux and I.”
Rey probes within herself, feels vaguely amused at her lack of surprise. “I’d guessed that,” she says after a few heartbeats of thought, “when you asked me to take care of him. And Millicent. She’s your pet?”
“No, not mine. Millie’s his.” Another silence hangs between them, as Ben gets up and begins to pace along the rocky surf. Rey’s imagination has clad him in sturdy homespun wool and linen and leather, sensible clothing against the wet of Ahch-To’s humid climate. “You’re not upset, are you?”
“No,” Rey says, and it’s true. She isn’t jealous, strictly speaking, but Hux has always seemed so polished and put-together, even from the little she knows of him, and that makes her feel vaguely inadequate. Unschooled and untaught. “Not really. But I wonder what you want with me, when you had him.”
Ben gazes towards the horizon for a few moments, before he turns back to her. The wind stirs his hair within the confines of the hooded cape he’s wearing, dark curls billowing before his face before he brushes them away with an impatient hand. “Even now I don’t know what we both wanted. I wanted Hux, I suppose. I had a crush, you know, on another boy. His mother was a friend of Leia’s, and he was dashing, rebellious. Devastatingly handsome. But I went to Luke’s before anything more could happen.”
Rey sits and listens to Ben’s voice, pitched just loud enough to carry over the waves and the trills of the hunting porgs. The avians call out to each other as they dip into the waters, bringing small fish up in their toothy little mouths.
“Hux was —” And Ben blushes delicately, then, the tips of his ears coloring pink as he searches for the right words, ”— he was the first person I’d ever been with. He could have used me, but he didn’t. He showed me everything. I guess — I was lonely. I knew he was, too. But we could never talk about it. The only language we had to communicate with was physical. Sexual. It was good, too. But I doubted him. Snoke — I guess it was Palpatine all along, although I think Snoke had his own agenda, separate of his master’s — Snoke told me that Hux was just using me. And I believed him. I put him to the test. I was wrong. He has hated me, since.”
“When was that?” Rey asks, although she has a good guess. It’s something about the quality of Ben’s loneliness, back when he was being Kylo Ren.
“Shortly before I met you,” Ben says. “Months.” He steps back from the surf and sits back down on the sand beside Rey, unable to meet her gaze. “With you — it’s something different, I guess. I’d never met someone who had been able to look into me, the way you did. It’s as though I had been turned into glass, and you were seeing my deepest desires and my deepest fears.” Ben’s long eyelashes veil his gaze, and Rey cannot resist reaching out to him.
She tips his chin up, to look into his face, and sees the naked vulnerability there. “Because I did.”
“Because you did. I thought…” Ben sighs then, his chest expanding as he draws a deep breath. “Rey, I thought that maybe you would be the one who understood me as I felt then. That you’d been betrayed, and abused, and so had I. That you wouldn’t judge me. And then I looked into your eyes after we killed Snoke, and I saw how disappointed you were.”
“Ben —” The pain in his gaze is a lot. Almost too much. Rey did not want this talk to hurt him, and she reaches out for his hands, closes her fingers around his.
“Rey,” Ben sighs again, “you were right. I was a monster, and it was unfair of me to expect absolution from you. I’d killed my own father, and betrayed my own lover, destroyed my own master. Drove my uncle into hiding. And the hardest thing is, it starts with wanting somewhere to belong. Wanting to find a group of people who will accept you. And the more you do for them, the harder you fight for their twisted approval, the further you sink, until you’ve burned all your bridges. At that point, monstrosity is a thing of habit, you know? I chose to give up my existence to save you, because I knew that there would be no welcome for Ben Solo. Not with the Rebellion, not even though I turned on Palpatine. There was no one left for me, but you.”
Rey remains silent for a moment, her fingers tightening over Ben’s. Now she understands the choice he made on Exegol. How could she not? He’s laid it out in front of her, the unvarnished truth.
“If you had lived,” Ben continues, his voice low and soft and sad, “I would have gladly gone back with you to face justice. But Palpatine had taken too much from you, and it took all I had to pull you back from the brink.”
Rey silences him with a kiss, and she tastes salt on his lips, knows that his soul is weeping into hers. That kiss turns into two, and then three, his tongue velvet against hers as he begins to tremble. Here I am, those kisses say, Kylo Ren and Ben Solo, both sides of the same man. He is hers to love or not, and love him she does. Rey pushes Ben gently onto his back, watches his hair fan out from his face as his hood falls back onto the sand, and he does not fight her as she rolls over to kiss him, to work at the fastenings of his tunic so she can feel his skin against hers again, like in the first dream she shared with him.
Ben’s heart beats under her palm as she presses her mouth to his neck, to his narrow jaw, and he lets out a little needy sound that sinks to the core of Rey’s being and leaves her panting with want. She can sense her own growing arousal as his hands slide around her back to ruck the tail of her sweater up, to explore the texture of her skin.
“Rey,” Ben murmurs as their legs tangle together, his broad thigh between hers, as she begins to grind eagerly against him, “I don’t think this is —”
“What?” Rey whispers in between kisses, “are you getting cold feet?”
“No,” Ben shakes his head against the sand, laughs a little as she pauses to stare crossed-eyed at him in this closeness. “No. Just that this might not be the best place.” Ben points to their side, and Rey turns her head to see that several porgs have landed on the beach to form a curious little ring around the both of them, staring with their large eyes at the humans who are doing something strange and novel. “Not with the birds looking at us like this.”
“No, I suppose that is weird, isn’t it?” Rey agrees, and Ben laughs, caresses the side of her face with a feather-light touch.
“Close your eyes, Rey,” Ben tells her, and she does. The crackle of the campfire fades, as does the roar of the waves, and the quality of the air changes. Ben has reconfigured the dream, Rey realizes, when she opens her eyes again. They’re in a small room wrought almost entirely out of tangled branches, out of saplings woven together while flexible and allowed to grow into a cottage of some sort. The roof is made up of living leaves that filter the golden sunlight overhead, ornamented by clumps of snowy white blossoms that smell sweet in the warm breeze. They’re lying on a soft, comfortable sleeping pad over a mossy floor, and chimes hanging in the windows ring softly in the rising wind.
Fragrant petals fall from the flower clumps as they kiss again, landing in Rey’s hair and on the bed they’re lying upon. The petals are soft, silken against her skin, and they emit a spicy fragrance when she rolls over to lie on them. “This place is beautiful,” Rey murmurs against Ben’s mouth as he rolls over to return her kisses. His palms are buried in the mattress, to either side of her head, and she stares into his dark eyes, into the fall of hair framing his face.
“This is Chandrila,” Ben tells her. “Part of what I remember of it. I was born here.” And then Rey is tugging at the hooded cape he’s still wearing, from when this dream was a beach, and he shrugs it off, lets it fall behind him and kicks it off the bed. She’s managed to open his shirt partially, and his skin shows in a narrow V from his throat to his waist, pale, smooth, warm.
Ben feels so good in Rey’s arms, and she lets him take his time with her, because she wants to savor him, and because time is an illusion in here. And take his time he does. He worships her with his mouth and hands, kissing her hotly through her clothes, teasing her slowly and carefully to learn what she likes. Rey has never let anyone this close before. She simply hadn’t anyone she had trusted this much on Jakku, and she hadn’t had the time, afterwards. She knows what feels good, how she likes to be touched, but never in context with a partner. This is as different from her meager experiences as liquor is from water, and she is intoxicated by Ben’s touch and presence, and the way he feels against her.
“Is this your idea of an erotic experience?” Rey breathes in Ben’s ear as he rucks up the hem of her sweater, slides a hand underneath to caress her flank, and then she gasps and bucks as he tweaks gently at one of her nipples. His mouth is hot on her neck, his knee between her legs, and she grinds herself sweetly against him as he explores her skin and learns what makes her moan.
“One of them,” Ben murmurs against Rey’s jaw. “Show me what you like, Rey,” he breathes, his mouth venturing lower, to settle at the hollow of her throat, and Rey grabs one of his hands and does exactly that. He undoes the fastenings of her trousers and shoves them down her hips, pushes the waistband of her underwear down enough that he can slip his broad fingers between her thighs.
Rey guides Ben’s curious fingers up the folds of her labia, settles them over her clit, and shows him how she likes to be touched. She moves his hand in lazy circles, and he follows her movement to rub at her clit as she bucks her hips needily into each of his movements. Ben kisses her then, hungrily, and she moans against his mouth as he begins to give her the relief she’s seeking.
“Like this,” Rey gasps, and then moans again as he concentrates his efforts just where she wants them now, on the sensitive underside of her clit. She’s panting against him as he plants kisses over her face and neck and murmurs filthy encouragement in her ears, and her climax comes almost as an assault in its intensity. She cries out, screaming as Ben slides his fingers into her, big and thick, and she clenches sweetly around him as she shudders in the spasms of her orgasm. His thumb finds her clit easily, and he starts rubbing at it again.
It’s good, so good to have something to clench on as she comes, Rey thinks, and then her train of thought is obliterated by another white-hot burst of bliss as Ben keeps teasing her. He slides his fingers deeper, and she arches off the mattress, tries to push herself down onto them when she comes a third time. Afterwards she grabs at Ben’s wrist, pulls him out of her. “Enough,” she gasps, “enough for now.”
“Okay,” Ben murmurs, and he settles himself beside her, just to hold her while she catches her breath. Rey can feel his cock, hard and eager against her thigh, and she props herself up on and elbow, tests her equilibrium, before she shrugs her sweater off. Her boots, trousers and underwear follow, and then she’s fumbling at the folds of the bandeau she wears for support.
“Help me with this,” Rey tells Ben, and he untucks the end of the fabric, loosens it so she can tug it off. Ben inhales sharply as Rey sits naked before him, and then it’s his turn as she tugs the tails of his shirt up from the waistband of his trousers, helps him pull it off his arms. He bucks and groans when she helps him unfasten his trousers, her fingers lingering over the firm heat of his erection for longer than is strictly necessary.
It’s nice, Rey thinks, to be able to do this to someone, and especially so because it’s Ben, and his eyes flutter shut as she strokes him slowly through his clothing, teasing him for a few more moments before she divests him of the rest of his clothing and leaves him naked before her. Ben lies passively before her, his dark hair fanning out on the pale cover of the mattress, and she watches his chest rise and fall for a moment, before taking hold of his cock. It’s magnificent, she thinks, despite her inexperience, and the size of him drives nerves through her, makes her wonder if it’s like this for everyone. Ben’s cock is firm under her hand, hot, and she can feel him shivering as she runs her fingers up the length of him.
Rey’s never had a partner before, but it’s not like she hasn’t heard of all the things one can do like this. They always felt vaguely clinical to her, though, up until now, when she’s had someone she desires in her arms, in her bed, inside her, coaxing her to orgasm.
“What do you want from me now, Ben?” Rey asks, as she settles herself beside him. She knows she wants more, she just isn’t sure how.
“I would love to fuck you now, Rey,” Ben breathes. There’s a tremor in his voice from arousal, and from hunger, and Rey feels another flush of heat rising from her loins. There’s something to be said about being wanted this much. Ben continues to lie on his back, but he guides Rey carefully, and she straddles his hips with the curve of his cock pressing up against her ass. He’s breathing hard when she rises on her knees and takes hold of him, pushes the fat head of his cock up against the folds of her vulva.
It takes a couple tries, and Ben closes his eyes and groans as though he’s in pain when the head of his cock slides up against her, his hips bucking needily, but Rey manages to take just the head of him in her cunt. The stretch and drag intoxicates her — she’s so wet from his previous ministrations that there’s barely any discomfort at all, just the heat and hardness of him beginning to fill her up.
“Rey,” Ben moans, and she can see that he’s closed his hands on the sheets, balling them up into fists as he lies still with supreme effort, “stars, but you feel so good around me.”
Rey wants more, and she lifts her hips a little, settles herself lower, rocking slowly as she does, and Ben’s fat cock stretches her open, teases nerve endings. The sensation is — she’s incredibly vulnerable right now, in a way that feels right and good, and her head hangs drunkenly on her neck as Ben arches up against her, to drive himself further into her. She inches herself downwards like this, her mouth hanging open against the new sensations spreading through her body, until she’s practically sitting on his hips, impaled willingly on his prick. That wrings a cry from Ben’s throat that sets Rey’s skin ablaze, and then his big hands are closing on her hips, showing her how to move with and against him.
That’s how Rey’s first time is for her, as she rocks down against Ben’s cock in long, liquid thrusts, learning how to take him, how it feels, and appreciating the power inherent in being able to take someone to pieces with her body. Ben babbles filthy praise as he ruts up into her, driving himself deeper against the sodden silk of her cunt. “You’re so tight,” Ben groans, arching needily into her, “so hot and wet. I’m going to come so hard in your tight little snatch.”
Rey laughs a little, from sheer joy, from how right this feels, and how good this is. She loves the way Ben’s fingers close around her hips, how he drags her down the length of her cock, and she reaches idly to tease at her own clit, gasps at how much more intense the sensations are. Her clit is standing proud, displaced by the sheer girth of Ben’s cock, and it’s so much easier to focus on its sensitive underside like this. Ben bites his lip at the sight of Rey pleasuring herself on his cock, and the pace of his thrusts quickens, fills Rey with heat and bliss as he continues to push himself up into her.
They’re both panting against their efforts, at a fever pitch, when Rey comes again. It’s taken a little longer this time, after her previous satiation, but this climax comes like a brick to the back of her skull. She gasps as the involuntary shudder takes her body over, and then a nova of sensation drags her under. She clenches around Ben’s cock, letting out a desperate, needy keen, and then screams, her head thrown back helplessly as she holds herself very still. A hot, intense jolt of pleasure floods her pussy, spreads through her whole body in a fluttery burst that leaves her helpless, incapable of thought. It’s as though her blood has turned to molten gold, illuminating her from within.
“Fuck,” Ben manages to breathe, “fuck,” He drags her down with those strong hands, and she cries out, oversensitive as his cock drives up and up and up into her, hard enough to hurt a little, and then he’s groaning his relief as he spills himself into her. She can feel that too, Ben’s seed hot and wet, flooding her as he arches clean off the mattress to join her in release. He pants as though in agony, holding himself motionless against her, and then a last desperate shudder runs through him as he grinds out the last spasms of his climax in her.
They lie together afterwards, Rey’s head pillowed on Ben’s shoulder, shivering in the aftershocks of their pleasure, and Ben has somehow retained the presence of mind to drag his cloak up from the floor and tuck it over the both of them, where it traps the warmth of their bodies. It’s in this thin stretched silence of the afterglow where Rey speaks again, as another warm breeze sends more petals from the roof of this living cottage fluttering down upon them. “Ben. Is there anything you want me to tell Hux, when I see him next?”
Ben blinks sleepy eyes, but he is not surprised, nor is he offended. He only caresses Rey slowly, his fingers lingering on the back of her neck, under her loosed hair. “No,” he says after a few minutes of thought. “I think if there’s anything to be said between us, it needs to be said in person.”
“Mm,” Rey thinks, or tries to, but sleep is beginning to encroach upon her. And sleep, here, means waking up in her cot a few minutes later, in the physical world. “What do you want to tell him?”
It’s another minute of silence, as Rey fights a yawn, before Ben speaks again. “I want to tell him, first and foremost, that I’m sorry. For everything.”
Hux’s thoughts grow less sludgy over an undetermined span of time that could be hours, or whole geological ages. He can’t bring himself to care. But the fuzzed golden sleep of the drugs peels back slowly, gradually, to allow the indignities of pain and thirst and stiffness to intrude upon his sensorium. Something’s wrong, and he knows it the moment he tries to roll over, reaching reflexively for Ren’s warmth in the sheets. His body simply won’t obey him. There’s a resistance as he tries to bend his leg, a shocking ripple of hurt across his shoulders and in his chest when he tries to prop himself up on an elbow, and the only movement he manages is something close to the undignified flop of an air-drowned fish.
Poison, he thinks at first, some kind of paralytic in his tea, in his food? And then his memory shivers awake, and he flinches reflexively at what comes back first. Fragments of the Steadfast, of the burst of light in his eyes as Pryde shoots him. A dark and noisome hell that he wishes he’d imagined.
A warm hand presses down on his shoulder, pinning him down onto the sheets, and he blinks, stares blearily upwards at a sun-browned face, a pair of hazel eyes. Dark hair pulled neatly back.
“Don’t move,” she says, and the last pieces of the puzzle fall into place. The scavenger girl.
Hux tries to protest, but nothing comes out of his throat except for a sibilant croak. The resulting cough makes a hot bright pain blossom in his chest, and he gives up his attempts at movement, only lies sore and uncomfortable in his sickbed while the girl fetches a covered cup.
“They told me you’d be waking up soon,” she says as she pops the lid off the cup and puts a straw into it, feeds the end of the straw carefully through an aperture in his breather mask, to his dry, cracked lips. Hux takes an experimental sip. Chilled water runs up the straw and spreads over his parched tongue, runs down his gullet like an icy blessing. It soothes his irritated throat and plunges into his shrunken belly, and he imagines himself rehydrating like a desert plant in a sudden rain. She lets him take another sip, and another, and then pulls the cup away from him when he turns his head away.
“You’re — I remember you,” Hux manages to say. His voice feels whispery and thin, and he tries to clear his throat, winces at how much that hurts. It’s as though he has been swallowing razor blades and pouring unripe meiloorun juice on the cuts.
“I’m Rey,” she says simply, and Hux remembers the name from Ren’s rants, after everything went wrong. And then he remembers Ren, and everything that came before, and a sudden jag of misery shoots through him, like an oversized fishhook twisting in his gut. The last thing remembers before the horror of the Steadfast’s wreckage is Pryde shooting him.
He remembers the impact, like a hard punch, and the heat in his chest, mirroring his anger and indignation, and later, in disjointed little fragments, how disappointed he is that he’s going to die. His aide, Tritt Opan, dragging him off the CIC on the bridge, urging him to stay awake, telling him that he’s going to be all right.
Hux takes a slow breath to calm himself, tries to close his fists for a count of five, but his hands feel wobbly and weak, and they shake with the effort as he balls them up on top of his rumpled nerf-wool blanket. Sunlight shines in from the one window in his room, it’s almost sickeningly idyllic.
Hux is not all right. He’s alive, and whole enough, as far as he can tell, as he takes a silent inventory of his injuries. There’s a bandage pulling at the skin of his brow and his jaw, obscuring the vision out of his right eye, his chest hurts every time he inhales, and a little less when he exhales, and his leg throbs. His back aches, and his belly twinges when he shifts under the sheets, a nasty tugging sensation that makes him think of sutures and bacta tape.
“How did I get here?” he asks Rey, after he opens his good left eye again. His composure is back, and he clings to it in the absence of anything else that makes sense. He’s fairly sure the First Order has lost — no, not lost, he realizes. Thrown away like a gaming piece to gain a once-dead Emperor’s approval.
There’s a soft rattling as Rey puts the lid back on the cup, and she puts it on his nightstand. “The Steadfast was shot down in the battle over Exegol,” she tells him softly, simply. “The impact flung you through a bacta tank. Rebellion surgeons had to pull fragments of glass from your flesh. One of them was ten centimeters long.”
Hux thinks again to Ren, that night on Starkiller Base, lying too silent and still in a widening smear of pink in the snow, and he thinks to the fragments of bowcaster quarrel First Order surgeons pulled from his belly, reaches absently up to the bandages covering his face. We have matching scars now. “This isn’t Exegol,” he says flatly, to distract himself from the ghosts of his memory. Nothing good can come of remembering Ren, Hux thinks. He turned away from me, from what we had, to chase this mysticism, and look what it got him.
“No. We didn’t have enough room in our facilities, so we had you moved off Exegol once you were stabilized. You’re on Arkanis right now.”
Hux flinches at the word, at the name, and he curses himself for his lapse in discipline. He never thought he would see Arkanis again, never breathe its air, never return to the bosom of the world he had been born upon, and he turns his good eye away from the girl, from the light of the window, and tries to roll over. Again that undignified flop, and he growls at the pain and the effort, only to feel a small, strong hand close around his shoulder.
Rey is helping him turn, and together she shifts him so he’s lying more comfortably on his side, facing away from her. The sheets zing softly as she adjusts them around him, and a stray tear slips from his eye to soak into the bandages on his face.
“I have to tell the medics you’ve woken up,” Rey continues, after she’s sure Hux is settled in bed, “but before I do, I have to tell you that you’re under protective custody. You’ve been admitted to this hospital under the name Lieutenant Anver Trask, and you’re supposed to be a signals and cryptography officer that we’re planning to interrogate.”
“I don’t understand why you didn’t just put me out of my misery,” Hux sighs. It hurts a little less to lie on his side, takes a bit of the pressure off his aching back, but the pain in his belly is worse this way, and he rolls back into a supine position.
“That’s not how we do things,” Rey says simply, and then she rises from her seat, and is gone.
Chapter 5: and wash your swollen feet
Hux regains consciousness, and is reunited with Millicent. Meanwhile, Rey learns more about Arkanis and its culture, and someone unexpected recognizes Hux through his disguise.
Content warning: Pet death
Content warning: Implied past non-con involving a minor
Content warning: Past physical abuse of a minor
Rey sits on her side of the screen in Hux’s room and meditates, keeping her mind open to potential threats, but she finds none. Dr. Perdix is as usual, at once practical and and faintly jolly, and Rey hears her admonishing the fictitious Lieutenant Trask for squirming around while she’s checking his condition. Rey understands Hux’s restlessness, at least. She thinks she would be, too, if she’d spent the last three days abed, which he has. Not that he was conscious for most of it, but bed rest wears down a body from atrophy and disuse, and someone of his driven nature must take doctors’ orders very badly.
She thinks of last night’s dream with Ben, of how he feels in her, against her, and reaches out to him, only to find that he has closed himself off to her, in the waking world. There’s nothing in her experience that has told her what to do about her present state, and the Jedi texts are on Ajan Kloss, temporarily out of her reach. Rey is fairly sure she can get a message out to the Rebellion base there and tell them she wants the books packed up and delivered to her, if she so desires, but she’s also not sure how long she’s going to stay in this field hospital with Hux, and she doesn’t want to burden herself with things to carry if he’s going to be moved soon.
Rey’s belly grumbles, and she notes her body’s discomfort, puts the thought aside. Maura has brought Rey her meals and helped her with the laundry these past three days — well, two and a half, really — and she wonders what’s going to be for breakfast today. There’s the soft squeak and rattle of the screen being pushed shut, and Rey opens her eyes, gets up from the cot where she is sitting.
Dr. Perdix is putting some medical equipment away in a case, and she nods to Rey. “Lieutenant Trask is well enough to be allowed to sit up in bed, and later I’ll have a nurse or two come along and help him walk around the room. No solid food yet, not until we see how he reacts to fluids. I’ll have someone bring him some hot broth.”
Hux makes a face, briefly, at those instructions, and then sighs and settles himself back onto his pillow. “I’m not exactly incapable of listening to your instructions, Doctor,” he tells Perdix, but she shrugs.
“Yes, but you don’t look like the kind of man who would actually listen to my instructions,” she tells him, “so I’m leaving them with your minder so she can make sure you follow them.” With that last parting shot, Dr. Perdix leaves the room, her footsteps sounding softly on the stone floors of the abbey.
Hux lets out a tired, frustrated huff. This is the most human that Rey has seen him, but then what has she seen of him, really? Finn, Poe and Rose have more experience interacting with him, as does Ben. All Rey has seen are the recruitment posters and the propaganda, where he’s built up to be the ideal First Order officer for the adulation and emulation of would-be fascists and conditioned troopers.
Hux is surprisingly thin, fragile, almost, without his padded uniform jacket, and his hands are long-fingered and slim outside of those black leather gloves. He looks out of place in his patients’ gown and bandages as the morning sun tapers through the narrow window set in the gray stone wall, and he glances at Rey with his good left eye, his fingers closing on the blanket tucked around him.
“You can ask me questions,” Rey tells him, sensing his ambivalence. “I won’t bite.”
“Everyone’s dead, then. Or captured,” Hux says flatly, his gaze pinned to the blanket as though he’s afraid to meet Rey’s eyes.
“Many are dead, yes,” Rey says. She can tell that he’s tiptoeing around the edge of a question that he’s afraid to ask, but she doesn’t push him. Instead she sits and waits for him to voice it.
“Ren. He’s dead, too.” It is as though Hux has cut himself off from all emotion. His voice is a flat monotone. But Rey can feel rage and grief banked behind iron discipline, tamped down. This man, she realizes, has spent so much of his life being the ideal First Order officer that he can’t articulate his pain or grief. It doesn’t excuse his horrific deeds, but Rey feels a pang of unease, at how Hux has mutilated his own soul simply to survive and flourish in such an unnatural setting.
“You could say that,” Rey says carefully. She isn’t sure how to disclose Ben’s fate to Hux, not with the knowledge that they had been lovers heavy in her mind. She doesn’t want Hux to view Ben’s turn to the Light as yet another betrayal. And yet she knows that everything Ben has done as Kylo Ren has been a betrayal of Hux to some extent, since the end of their relationship. This tangle of hurt is too much for her to unknot, right now, not without wounding Hux more than he already has been.
“I’m all alone, then.” Hux pulls the blankets down, and attempts to sit up. He only succeeds at propping himself up on an elbow until Rey presses the controls on his bed that tilt the top half up, so he’s allowed to half-sit, half-recline. “I wish you’d just shot me.”
“Millicent would be all alone, if we had,” Rey says simply, offering Hux the distraction, and reach for it he does.
His good eye widens, and he sits completely up on his own, wincing, before he lies back down again. “She’s alive?” he asks Rey, incredulous.
“She is,” Rey tells him. “Would you like to see her?”
Rey slips out of Hux’s room, looking for Maura, and she finds her bringing breakfasts to patients in the general ward. “I’m sorry to bother you,” Rey murmurs, but Maura turns immediately, delegating her duties to another volunteer orderly.
“No bother at all. Do you need something, Rey?” Rey isn’t sure why, but Maura wears gray constantly, as though it’s a uniform. Rey understands the need for medics to be uniformed — their scrubs are easily laundered, to keep a clean workplace, but none of the other volunteers here dress like Maura does. It’s all sensible clothing, of course, nerf wool and reedflax and thin, soft leather, but it’s all dyed in rich hues derived from local vegetation, as opposed to Maura’s unbleached gray gowns.
“Lieutenant Trask has just regained consciousness,” Rey says. Hux’s alias has become habit to her at this point. “He’d like to see Millicent.”
“Oh, that’s good. If you’ll give me a few minutes,” Maura tells the other orderly, and then she’s bustling out of the repurposed refectory filled with beds, to the wing of the abbey that contains the monks’ cells. This is where the staff stay, in narrow little rooms with hard little beds that used to belong to ascetics.
Millicent is waiting with her paws tucked under her, in Maura’s room. She’s sitting on the windowsill, watching the birds outside, but she looks up as the two humans enter her domain and chirrups a greeting.
“Hello, Millie dear,” Maura says, picking the tooka up in her arms. “Your master’s awake, according to Miss Rey. Would you like to see him?” Millie rubs her cheek against the side of Maura’s head, eliciting a smile. “Here you go, Rey,” Maura steps up to Rey, and passes Millicent over to her. The tooka is warm and soft in her arms, vibrating soothingly, and Rey buries her fingers in the plush fur, smiles cross-eyed at the little beast.
“Thank you, Maura.” Maura’s cell, now that Rey has seen it, is eye-wateringly neat. The bed is made neatly, and a row of similar, if not identical gray gowns hangs on a narrow rail to the side of the bed.
“I’ve to go back to my duties,” Maura tells her, “so I won’t be able to see Millie’s reunion, but it’s just as well, I think. I’ve been afraid of looking at all these soldiers from the First Order.”
The old Empire once ran an officers’ school of some kind on Arkanis, Rey remembers, and she wonders if Maura bears old scars from that time. “The Rebellion will protect you, Maura,” Rey tells her, as reassuringly as she can.
The response she gets is not the one she expects. “Oh, no, it’s not like that, dear,” Maura says, a tiny burst of old grief briefly deepening the lines on her gentle face. “They’re all perfectly nice to me when I bring them things. It’s just — well. I haven’t time to tell you the whole story, not right now. But do bring her back here once they’ve had their little chat. I’m fairly sure Dr. Perdix won’t hesitate to reprimand you again, if she catches this wee beastie in his ward again.”
“You know about that?” Rey asks Maura, tugging on the thread of conversation to distract her from that old pain.
“Us orderlies, we hear everything,” Maura says with a smile.
Millicent presses her cold nose into Rey’s ear on the way out, huffs approvingly as Rey carries her down the flagstone hallway to Hux’s ward. The tooka lets out an excited yowl, her tail switching from side to side, as Rey enters Hux’s room, and she digs her claws into Rey’s arms, boosts herself off Rey, and leaps onto Hux’s bed, climbing up his legs to butt her head eagerly against his chest.
Hux winces in response — Millicent has just stepped on his bandaged belly — but he returns her caresses with slow, loving passes of his good hand, his fingers lingering on the thick fur on her chest and the back of her neck. Millicent presses her entire face into the palm of Hux’s hand, and leans so hard into his touch that she slumps onto her side, squirming on top of him while emitting rapturous little squeak-grunts. I was so worried about you, those cries clearly say, and eventually she settles down and closes her eyes in utter bliss as Hux runs a finger over the soft velvety fur between her ears.
“I’ve never seen a tooka like her,” Rey comments, after Hux shifts himself back onto his pillow. “What is she?”
“I don’t think her species has a name,” Hux says, his eyes closing against the sunlight. He sounds tired, but also relieved. “They’re related to tookas, clearly. Same ecological niche as Loth-cats. Prairie and savanna hunters; they eat small herbivorous prey. Usually rodentiforms, or avians.”
His fingers continue to pass slowly over Millicent’s fur — she is already emitting that soothing vibration that she does whenever she’s content, and she’s doing it loud enough that Rey can hear it from her chair beside Hux’s bed. “I found her in the Unknown Regions, on a planet the First Order had earmarked for resettlement. It was nicely in the habitable zone, not too hot, not too cold. Accessible water, potable. Enough oxygen in the atmosphere. Perfect for humans. We sent xenobiologists, and they noted that the local wildlife wasn’t particularly suited for domestication. So the standard procedure was to exterminate anything we couldn’t use and store tissue samples for cloning if we found a use for them later on.”
Hux sighs, as though he resents the memory. “I was just a cadet then, and I had a moment of weakness, I suppose. I found Millicent as a tiny kit, trying to nurse from her dead mother. Starvation and dehydration had already taken her littermates. So I stuck her down the front of my tunic to keep her warm, smuggled her back to barracks, and fed her oral rehydration fluids. She was no bigger than the palm of my hand then, and I was smaller than I am now. I looked up some old veterinary texts on what to do for tooka kits, and I woke up every two hours to wipe her bottom and feed her nerf milk. It was all I had to give her.”
“Why did you save her?” Rey asks, curious. “Did you get in trouble for it?”
“Not really, not at first,” Hux says. “Sloane — she led the First Order then, back when we were still the Imperial remnants, she let me keep Millie as long as I fed her out of my own rations, which I did. Later on I did some favors and got to scrounge for her out of kitchen wastes, before it went to the composter plants. Offal, things like that that she could eat and we couldn’t. She was about three months old, though, when my father found her.”
Hux’s face goes entirely hard and still then, and Rey braces herself in anticipation of his anguish. It’s potent and palpable, fermented into bitter hate, after all these years. “My father wrung her neck. He thought that my keeping her was sentimentality. foolishness. I — I went to see a xenobiologist I knew, after that. Convinced him to add Millicent’s tissue samples to the vault, and he did. I had her cloned after my father passed away, and again after — after Starkiller Base failed.”
A flash of shame crosses Hux’s face, and for a moment Rey glimpses into his thoughts, sees from his point of view a cold, hard wall and feels hot greedy hands stroking at his skin, and she knows then what Hux did to get the first Millicent’s body frozen. That knowledge fills her at once with hope and rage. Hope, because Hux is still capable of love, beneath his outward cruelty, and a deep burning anger at the system that forced him to flense away his humanity strip by strip until all that was left was hatred. “So this is the third Millicent?”
“You could say that,” Hux muses aloud, “although I view them as sisters, like triplets raised separately, rather than perfect copies of each other. Each Millie has a slightly different stripe pattern from her predecessor. It’s the cloning process. It’s not perfect.”
Hux’s pain-medication induced rambling is interrupted by a polite scratch on the door, and it’s one of the volunteer orderlies with a tray in his hands, bringing Rey and Hux their respective breakfasts. Rey has a covered platter emitting all manner of good smells, and Hux has a bowl of fragrant broth, its top speckled with coin-like circles of rich golden fat.
Millicent gets temporarily displaced while the orderly unfolds a tray table and places it over Hux’s lap, and she settles herself instead at his feet, her paws tucked in neatly so that she resembles a loaf of bread with a head.
Rey uncovers her plate to find some small golden flatbreads and salty rashers of smoked nerf meat, as well as some round, unidentified slices of something. One slice is black, almost, the other pale, and the third one is a roasty brown that smells richly of mushroom. It’s a hearty meal, and the same stuff Maura was handing out to patients in the general ward.
“Rushcakes,” Hux muses. “We must be in the northern lakelands of Arkanis.”
“Oh?” Rey pokes curiously one of the unidentified slices, the black one, and finds it coming easily apart under her utensil. It tastes meaty and yet not, herbal, subtly bitter and strongly savory, and she decides that she likes the taste of it, takes another bite.
Hux leans back on his pillow, closes his eyes. His voice, when he speaks, is dreamy and detached as though he’s pulling distant memories across a gulf of years. “This is a traditional Arkanian breakfast, but its contents vary from region to region. You get rushcakes only in the lakelands. They’re made from the roots and pollen of a plant that grows in the shallows of a lake. The tubers are full of starch that you can turn into flour by crushing the root and washing the starch out. The pollen doesn’t travel well. Turns mouldy unless it’s kept in stasis. That slice you just ate, that’s black sausage. Nerf blood and grains, mixed with herbs and fat. The other one, the pale one, that’s white sausage, made of nerf liver. And that big brown thing is a slice of puffball that grows only in the northern latitudes of the planet. The puffballs get shipped all over the planet, true, but if we were further south there’d be more vegetables on your plate, like fried wolfpeaches, or stewed beans.”
Rey blinks in semi-surprise. Of all the things she expected Hux to know, cookery wasn’t one of them. “You know a lot about the food here.”
Hux shrugs, one-shouldered. “I was born on Arkanis. My mother was a cook. Then my father took me away when the Empire left.” Those words, so simple, cover an abyss of hurt still raw even after what Rey presumes to be decades. She glimpses again, in her mind’s eye, a flash of memory. There is a small child, his hair red-gold, sniveling and snotty-faced. “Mama!” he screams uselessly, and a broad hand cuffs him across the face, knocks him sprawling to the floor of a departing shuttle.
“I see.” It’s almost a struggle for Rey to come back to the present, out of Hux’s mind. The drugs must have left him open to her gifts, his layers of suspicion and defensiveness loosed for the moment, like a garment left behind. That old memory explains that flinch in Hux, when Rey told him where they were. He must have never expected to come back here. His bowl of broth is untouched, his utensil lying on the tray table where the orderly left it. “You’re not eating,” Rey says after a few more moments pass.
“I don’t really have much of an appetite,” Hux says, and he closes his eyes against the sunlight, sags into his bed, a gesture that speaks of depression, of him losing the will to eat.
Rey cudgels her mind for a moment. She’s not really here to counsel Hux, but she doesn’t want to leave him languishing in his sorrow either. Their efforts to keep him alive for intelligence would be all for naught if he starved himself to death, and besides, there is that request from Ben, to make sure he’s cared for. He’s her responsibility, for better or for worse. “I’ll let you have some of my smoked nerf belly,” she tells him at last, “if you finish that broth.”
Hux glances at his still-steaming bowl of broth, a little surprised. “I’m not supposed to eat anything solid, yet.”
Rey shrugs, feeling a tiny burst of defiance. “We just won’t tell the doctor, and you’ll take care of the evidence by eating it, right?”
“Well. Okay. It’s a deal.” Hux picks up his bowl in shaky hands, his fingers spreading pale against the brown-glazed clayware, and he lifts it to his lips and takes a small drink. Wisps of steam curl around his head, and Rey watches his throat work as he takes another sip, and another. He puts the bowl down then, keeps his hands around it, and sighs in contentment.
Rey takes another bite of her breakfast, starting with a fragment of rushcake. It smells like honey, fragrant and floral, but isn’t quite sweet, and it’s a good contrast to the richness of the blood sausage she just ate. “That was better than you thought it was going to be, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t normally like broths,” Hux admits. “Most of the time they’re just watery and insipid. But whoever made this actually left some flavor in it.”
“Everything I’ve had here has been good so far.” Rey remembers to swallow before she speaks, but it’s hard to want to hold a conversation when everything on her plate is practically clamoring to be stuffed in her face. She pauses to break off a fragment of smoked nerf, salty and rich, and gets up from her chair, holds it out to Hux on the end of her utensil. Obediently, he opens his mouth and lets her feed it to him, crunching down on the crisp fat slowly, thoughtfully, savoring the flavors.
Rey returns to her breakfast after that, and sits down as Hux lets out a soft, low breath, settling himself back on the pillows. Lying like that it’s almost as though he’s a statue of a man, some kind of memorial marker, with his good hand resting over his bandaged one, both laid over the blanket tucked over his sutured belly.
Rey can tell that Hux’s energy is at an ebb. It matters not that he has just woken from his long sleep — his body is still mending itself, and that costs him resources that has to come from somewhere, given that his digestive system had to be stapled back together in surgery after his accident with the bacta tank. They have had him on several intravenous drips — an counter-infection medication delivered in an isotonic solution, so he won’t dehydrate, one of bacta, meant to accelerate his healing, and until recently, a third bag of blood-replacement fluid, meant to address his blood loss. But Rey has also overheard enough of the medics’ talk that she knows that his body is cannibalizing muscle tissue to rebuild more vital systems, and that his capacity for digestion is limited, hence the broth, so as not to overwhelm him.
Hux will not be leaving this medical center, not for a while more. Rey lets him doze while she finishes her breakfast, and then she takes his bowl and stacks it on top of her plate, moves the folding tray table off his lap. Millicent stands up and stretches, an arc of orange fluff, yawning wide, before she tiptoes quietly over to Hux’s pillow, where she deposits herself contentedly to nuzzle at his brow.
Hux opens his eyes at that and lets out a small sound of approval, smiles drowsily at the closeness of his pet. “I was so worried about you, Millie,” he murmurs, lifting his good hand to scratch softly under her chin, “those two days in the ship. I had no idea where you were, or if you’d been hurt.”
“A Wookiee search and rescue crew found her, the day I found you,” Rey tells him, as she moves her chair closer to his bedside. It’s nice that he’s conscious again, if only because it means she has someone to talk to besides Maura. “I’ve been taking care of her ever since.”
“Thank you,” Hux says without opening his eyes. “Truly.” Rey finds it hard to reconcile this man, in the moment, with the officer she saw in the propaganda, ordering Starkiller Base to fire upon the Hosnian system. She still remembers the utter, irrevocable silence in the Force, that obscene absence of life and warmth, can still reach the scar with her thoughts if she stretches. But that’s the seductive nature of evil, isn’t it? That its proponents can seem wholly reasonable, up until they aren’t.
There’s a scratch at the door, and Rey turns to find Maura coming in to collect the dishes. But she doesn’t. Instead she stares at the bed, at Hux, who is wearing fewer bandages than he had been in the days prior, and goes very white.
Rey senses incredulity, rage, and something else, and she stands swiftly, reaching out to Maura before her legs fold beneath her. Maura is trembling, fierce and fragile in Rey’s arms like a frightened bird, and tears fill her wide green eyes.
“This — this man isn’t Lieutenant Anver Trask,” Maura whispers, her voice hissing through a throat sealed with pain. “I know who he is.”
“Maura —” Rey starts to say, but Maura’s knees give way, and it’s all Rey can do to hold her up despite her thin little body. It’s as though she’s weighted down with sorrow and nerf wool, her sober skirt dragging at them both.
“He’s Armitage Hux,” Maura says, as the tears begin to run down her face to soak Rey’s tunic. “He’s my son.”