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Uncanny Valley

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It’s instinctive for Kylo to dwarf himself in the presence of his mother but whether him standing now, hunched, with his shoulders curled inwards is an effort of respect or shame he’s no longer certain.

He’s rigid as she embraces him, drawing him down to meet her. With his own, awkward angle, his nose ends up resting on her shoulder and he’s easily overwhelmed by the strength of her perfume. She’s worn the same scent whenever going out for at least a decade, though Kylo thinks that he may have even earlier memories of it. It makes his head throb, anyways, and he’s still grimacing in response when she finally breaks the hug.

Leia’s hand is warm on his cheek, her gaze soft though she makes no effort to conceal the way she’s scrutinizing him. Her eyes search her son’s while his remain downcast. They have fought far too recently for Kylo to withstand the affections he knows await him should he ever look up.

Leia searches for only a minute more before releasing him to rummage through the massive purse on the counter behind her. She procures a bottle of Advil and, taking Kylo’s hand, tips two blue pills into his broad palm. Though they haven’t spoken a word yet to each other, she’s somehow sensed his hangover.

“It’s good to see you again, Ben.” She murmurs. “You know where the cups are.”

Her eyes chastise him more than her voice ever could.

 


 

Rey arrives while Kylo is still in the kitchen. Trailing behind her, all smiles as always, is her boyfriend of a year and a half and the reason Kylo has opted to down a second glass of water rather than greet her; Finn.

There is no possible redemption for Finn. Kylo doesn’t care he’s a refugee from some warring nation or that he’s painfully charismatic, charming, with his naive eyes and raucous laugh. Kylo doesn’t care that he stands up as though bitten whenever Leia or Han enter the room or seems to always, almost to a point of excess, place Rey’s needs first. Kylo doesn’t care that he manages to form a near-instant bond with anyone he meets, or that Poe Dameron, Leia’s favorite friend of Kylo’s as he was growing up, had come to trust him so quickly as to permanently lend him his signature jacket the day that they met. Finn is dating Kylo’s little cousin and will always be Public Enemy Number One.

Leia, of course, immediately took to Finn, delighted the day Rey introduced him to the family. Kylo seldom questions his mother’s judgements but feels, if only in this matter, she’s been blindsided. She’s hugging the pair now, both at once and then, individually. In the least, Finn matches Rey’s inclinations towards unabashed affection, may have even picked it up from her. While it’s an endearing trait of Rey’s however, Finn’s behavior is obnoxious.

When, nearly half an hour later, they all cram into Leia’s small car, finally embarking, Rey calls shotgun and Kylo finds himself in the backseat with Finn. The pair exchange a glance, Finn, wincing but offering one of the awkward smiles that seem to have enchanted everyone Kylo knows and Kylo glaring without a concept of first chances or remorse. Ultimately, Finn resigns and Kylo looks away to untangle his headphones. Legs spread and posture guarded, Kylo blares his music the full hour and a half ride in spite of his lessening headache, mood mitigated only by the occasional, concerned peeks Rey sneaks through the rearview mirror.

 


 

Rey entered Ben’s life when he was six.

She arrived a fragile, restless bundle in Luke’s arms when he showed at their doorstep one evening, back from an almost two-year trip across the globe for some “greater understanding.” Leia’s eyes had been cold when they met her brother’s, sharp and angry, but when they journeyed down finally to the infant in his arms they had softened, Ben's mother radiating only warmth and compassion and love.

Ben came to understand these feelings for himself when he held Rey for the first time. She had been small, frighteningly so; a terrifyingly delicate thing in his arms he was responsible for, if only for a few minutes on a rocking chair in the living room. His chest had swelled with a million things he couldn’t comprehend, overwhelming him such his eyes grew wet holding her. He knew only he had to protect her, care for her, guide her. The sense of responsibility Ben shouldered then came to last for a lifetime.

Luke, as was soon revealed, had found Rey in an overpacked orphanage following a village’s terrible flood. She was one of the few healthy children, undernourished, but beaming some kind of inexplicable hope. Though Luke made a point to distance himself from his work, not to let emotion, empathy overtake him, he’d been helpless against the girl. They all had.

This didn’t change the fact that Luke had never been equipped to raise a child, and never would be.

Luke spent the night in their home and several after that, sleeping, the few times he did, on a futon in the spare bedroom that would later become Rey’s. Often Ben would wander from his own room following a nightmare, only to find his mother, father, and uncle engaged in hushed tones. Rey, never fussy, would always be in someone’s arms, someone’s lap.

When Luke finally left, Rey stayed behind.

Throughout Kylo’s many trials, she has always been his anchor.

 


 

Han and Leia divorced when Kylo was twenty-one and already out of the house, living in a ransacked apartment with three other boys his age, Rey, however, had only been fifteen.

The split hadn’t come as a surprise to anyone; Han was rarely home by that point and Leia had heavily pursued her political career, brought home a million tensions as mayor of their city they frequently squabbled over. Whenever the couple spoke publicly, their remarks towards each other were always barbed, layered, and far too frequently in the backyard, the garage, or their bedroom, shouting matches arose. It was, however, a nasty divorce, both adults bitter with a child and too much property to split between themselves.

That year, Rey spent more nights with Kylo in his dirty flat nine miles away then at home. Kylo’s peers had mocked him for it, even complained right up until the night he broke Jeff’s nose. (No one spoke a word after that, except Rey who, once he was back in his room, begged he teach her how to fight. Kylo refused, initially, hating to fight himself, but caved, eventually, as everyone always did to Rey. He assured himself it would only be for purposes of self defense, and blessedly, Rey had only ever used it for such.)

These monthly excursions, like the one they’re on currently, are a late result of the divorce. Kylo is twenty-seven now; Rey twenty-one. With both children out of the house and the fires of their fights having long since settled, Leia and Han have both been working to repair the damage done years ago, spurred by Rey’s recent move towards college and their own empty nests. Monthly, the pair meet with either Leia or Han, alternating, to do some ridiculous, domestic thing. The only constant has ever been that they go out for food afterwards.

This month, Leia is dragging them to an antique mall some drive away she’s “been dying to visit.” Kylo thinks, disappointedly, that age has tamed her.

There are many places Kylo would rather be; namely, bed. These excursions are always tense, awkward, tiring, particularly since Finn began joining them.

Were it not for Rey, Kylo wouldn’t have come.

To any of them.

 


 

The antique-mall is remarkably crowded for this early in the day, evident by their difficulty finding a parking spot anywhere in the substantial lot out front of it. When they do finally park (some distance from the actual building), and climb out of the car stretching, the late morning sun, free from earlier clouds, beats brightly on their backs. If this didn’t agitate Kylo’s stubbornly lingering headache, the interior of the place certainly does.

The massive room is simultaneously too bright and too dim, harsh fluorescents that cast too many shadows buzzing like distant flies on the ceiling. There’s a permeating scent of decay in the place, like the scent of a used bookstore but far stronger, and dust, everywhere. It tickles Kylo’s nose unpleasantly. All around are shelves of total junk Kylo finds, but the rest of his party seems overjoyed at the sight.

Already, just steps through the doors, Rey has located a garish Halloween decoration and squeals in delight. Some anthropomorphic pumpkin, dancing on legs of vine and wearing a face Kylo could only describe as horrific vintage backwash, has captivated her, and Leia, too, appears to find some charm in the thing. Finn, to his credit, appears as unsettled as Kylo, but Rey’s excitement rubs off on him soon enough. Soon he’s lifting a poorly painted Santa from a shelf, barely withholding laughter as he calls Rey over to see it. Kylo takes this as his queue to break off for a while.

Kylo sticks, mostly, to back walls and isolated booths, keeping a careful distance from the people who shop here as well as those selling. He aims to kill time but is barely successful. Surrounded by shelves upon shelves of gaudy garbage he’s achingly aware of each minute remaining until he can be home, free of this bullshit. There’s at least an hour left in this place, thinking optimistically, then the drive to whatever restaurant they end up deciding on for lunch, the wait for a booth, the wait for food, half an hour of conversation, the long drive back to his childhood home, in the backseat, once again with Finn, and then the drive back to his current in his own car. Kylo feels he’s aged ten years and coming back to finds he’s wandered before a booth packed with dolls, dozens of unseeing, unblinking eyes staring straight at him.

Kylo blinks in unconscious empathy.

There are at least fifty of them, all suspended on little hooks in the wall. Among them there’s a variety of dresses, hair colors, eye colors (even skin tones, Kylo notices, which is odd considering the time period these dolls should be coming from, but having never actually studied the history of collectible toys, shrugs), but all are girls with the exclusion of one, odd exception. There’s a boy in the corner closest to the wall, ginger and wearing suspiciously modern clothing. Drawn, Kylo steps closer and lifts it carefully from its hook.

The doll is maybe a foot long (still small, in Kylo’s hands) and boasts pixie-like features from its pointed nose and lips to its fair eyelashes and freckles, far too realistic, Kylo thinks. It’s unsettling. There’s also a certain sharpness to its stare (glare, Kylo corrects) and the slightest, derisive sneer on its lips. It’s so subtle, however, Kylo’s certain he’s imagining it (perhaps projecting.) He takes a second to try and remember the last time he’s eaten.

“Taken a liking to Armitage, boy?” A voice starts behind him, and Kylo very nearly jumps out of his skin.

Kylo wheels around. The man before him is as unsettling as, if not more so than, his dolls. He’s tall, nearly Kylo’s height, but skeletal and violently old. Where there aren’t odd folds, wrinkles in his skin, there’s bones, protruding in a way that’s painful to look at. His face is sunken, his eyes beady and glittering, and over his left temple and extending along his scalp is a nasty depression. From what kind of accident, Kylo can only imagine.

“Shit.” he curses, less than subtly, then “No,” then “Armitage?” His fingers twitch where he holds the doll close to his side, his body still somehow hoping to conceal what has already been seen.

“Yes.” The man draws out his ‘s’ in an uncomfortable way, setting Kylo at a further unease. “He’s a recent acquisition.”

Kylo lifts the doll to study it more closely and the shopkeeper’s eyes follow his hand. He’s about to demand a further explanation, then find a way out, when he spots Rey the same moment she spots him. She calls his mother over before he can motion her not to.

“Ben! There you are!” Leia’s voice calls from a ways down the aisle.

Kylo scrambles to put the doll back before she spots it but her eyes are fast.

“Oh, did you find something?” She’s reaching for the reading glasses dangling on a long, beaded necklace from her neck.

“No,” Kylo diverts, turning back to the shelf only to find the shopkeeper blocking his path, feigning obliviousness to Kylo’s plight but far too smug in his idle position.

“A doll!?” Finn voices, incredulous, appearing too now on the aisle.

Kylo feels his cheeks heat, the blood under his skin boil. His fate is long sealed by the time Leia catches up to him, gently prying the doll from his grip.

She gives a wistful sigh. “Oh Ben, isn’t he gorgeous?”

Rey rushes up beside her to see. There’s a twinkle of amusement in her eyes.

 


 

Despite all protests made by Kylo, Leia buys him the doll and it sits stuffed in its coffin-like box at the bottom of the bag it came in all afternoon, kept adamantly hidden as though it were a real body.

The restaurant they go to afterwards in a seafood place near as tacky as many of the items Leia had bought for herself today is more show than performance, but Kylo’s hungry enough by this point the greasy tray he orders goes down easy. He also manages, miraculously, to sleep on the ride back to his mother’s place. The afternoon goes almost smoothly.

Before they all go their separate ways again, Rey crushes him with a hug and Leia again loiters with him in the hallway after everyone else has left.

“Be safe,” She mutters, as though Kylo is planning something dangerous.

He has no idea yet what it could be, only that she was very seldom wrong detecting inbound peril.

 


 

Kylo doesn’t unearth “Armitage” until he’s back within the safety of his one-bedroom apartment, totally alone. The splitting pulse in his skull has returned and Kylo desperately needs a shower but he’s got a burning need to see the doll again first, if only to check if it holds the same eeriness it had in the mall under the far warmer lighting of his bedroom. He’s half hoping it doesn’t and half hoping it does. At least he’ll be far more validated in owning a doll if he can claim it “creepy.”

Carefully, Kylo removes the lid on the box, noticing, in the bottom right corner, the word Snoke in some shiny, swirled font. He sets the lid beside him on the bed. Armitage is concealed still by a layer of tissue paper like some kind of death shawl, and Kylo pulls it back slowly, finding himself tensing. Unblinking, its glassy green gaze already locked on Kylo, the doll lays as if prepared for this moment. Creepy, Kylo decides without having to put any effort into the judgement, and setting the doll aside a moment works to assemble its small stand.

His cluttered desk, littered with open textbooks, used tissues, and dirty dishes, is as good a place as any to put the thing, Kylo thinks. At least here, he feels, he can keep an eye on it. Kylo has the creeping feeling the thing will need surveillance as he sets it down by a crumb-covered dinner plate and idly wonders from just what meal the crumbs originate.

Eventually, exhausted, he drags himself into the bathroom and in the near darkness (he’s always preferred to shower with the lights off) strips before stepping under the hot water he’s had running for several minutes now. This. This is what he’s needed.

Heat seeps like trained fingers into the muscles of Kylo’s back and Kylo groans in relief. His shoulders, spine are stiff with stress and the long hours spent in his mother’s too-small backseat today but gradually loosen under the water’s attention. He’s easily thirty minutes in, halfway through a long shampooing process and humming lowly under his breath when he hears glass shatter just outside his bathroom door.

In just seconds, his efforts at relaxation reverse themselves.

Silently, Kylo turns off the water and steps from the shower. His dark hair is still covered in suds and he’s dripping like a displaced swamp-creature. Snagging a dubiously clean towel off the floor and tying it around his waist, Kylo moves for the bathroom door and wishes, pointlessly, that the baseball bat under his bed and his grandfather’s decorated sword mounted above it weren’t so far away.

With a careful click Kylo undoes the bathroom lock and with a creak eases open the door.

There’s nothing of concern in his bedroom, Kylo assumes after his first scan of the room until, creeping towards his bed, a shard of something slices into his foot. Kylo shouts. Jerking backwards he spots his own blood smeared on the floor and all around it the shattered remains of a dinner plate somehow knocked from his desk. Kylo stares in disbelief, wondering if he’d somehow unbalanced it when he set Armitage down, but upon noting the doll is far closer to the edge than he’d left it, fixes it, instead, with a judgmental glare.

The doll glares back.

 


 

Kylo wonders if he might be losing it as he trudges back into the shower to finish rinsing the suds from his hair. He conditions quickly, then steps out, dries, and turns on the light to tend to his stinging foot. It’s a fairly deep gash, he notes with agitation, less annoyed by the injury than the means by which he’d earned it. What would he say, limping around campus tomorrow? That he’d hurt himself on his own mess? Two band-aids and some Neosporin later he trudges from the bathroom.

Kylo edges around the shattered glass until he finds the broom to clean it up. Even after sweeping up the largest bits however, there remain shards all over his desk and hidden in the laundry that covers his floor. Kylo ends up cleaning half his room before he’s able to crawl safely into bed, more than fatigued.

Just before closing his eyes, Kylo casts a bitter glance towards Armitage, and lifting a tired fist, shoots him the Bird.

 


 

Three alarms sound from his phone, one after the other, spaced five minutes apart, before Kylo even stirs. It takes six to wake him. He crawls out of bed slurring half coherent obscenities and repeating them, louder, when he steps too hard on his injured foot, in his sleep having forgotten the wound. After pissing and brushing his teeth and making a haphazard breakfast, he searches through the laundry untouched by the glass for something mostly clean to wear.

Armitage watches from Kylo’s desk as he scrambles about like an animal, manages a half presentable appearance, and stumbles out the door, open book bag slung over his shoulder.

 


 

Kylo doesn’t get back until early evening. When he arrives, without removing a thing, he storms for his bedroom and drops onto his bed, groaning. It takes five minutes of this shameless display of self pity before Kylo summons the energy to even unlace his boots. As he sits up and pulls them off, gingerly, he notes his sock is soaked through with blood and wonders if he should have gotten stitches. It’s too late now, he guesses.

After peeling off the sock and prodding curiously at the wound, Kylo turns to shoot a now ritual glare at Armitage only to find the doll isn’t where he left it. At all. Kylo blinks, a cold fear shooting through him, irrationally, at the absent toy, and rises mindless of his wound to search for it.

Kylo looks underneath his desk first, hoping it may have fallen like his plate. He knows he’ll be struck by guilt to find the doll shattered after his mom spent whatever ungodly amount on it, but it isn’t there, nor is it under any of the books or papers or napkins he shoves unceremoniously off his desk in a mounting panic. Kylo wonders, lucidly, if someone’s stolen it. He’s aware it’s worth a lot, but it’s dubious anyone in a town full of college kids would have any interest in it or knowledge of its value. Besides, the door had still been locked when Kylo got back just minutes ago.

When he turns around to check, just in case, for any open windows with the mind to grab his bat this time, he spots it.

On the wall-shelf directly across from Kylo’s bed Armitage sits prettily, almost grinning, its hands crossed in its lap.

Kylo stares for a long time. He’s definitely losing it.

 


 

Rey calls the next night, glowing, somehow, even through the phone. She’s just returned from a date with Finn, and apparently, they’d gone to the state aquarium neither she nor Kylo had visited since they were kids. She spends almost half an hour updating him on the place, describing the stingrays she’d felt and the jellyfish she’d seen and the two fishes that’d kissed each other repeatedly before forming crowd. Rey stops just short of admitting she’d kissed Finn then, too, but even this can’t tarnish things for Kylo. He’s still silently smiling, phone pressed to his ear in bed, and living on her excitement, vicariously.

His smile drops when a little while later she asks him, teasingly, how Armitage is doing. Eyes flicking up to the doll still on the shelf on the wall across from him who eyes him back cruelly, Kylo decides against telling her the truth.

 


 

Kylo’s on his ratty couch, guitar in his lap and notebook opened to a page heavily coated in pencil marks, when the crash comes from his bedroom. He jumps in spite of himself, and sore finger squealing on a string, loses the rhythm he’d just finally sorted out. Kylo throws his guitar in frustration, wincing at the broken and abandoned sound it makes hitting the hardwood floor, and storms for his bedroom, ready to give whatever faulty furniture or haunted doll or robber at fault a piece of his fucking mind.

He’s not ready, as it turns out, at all.

Punching his cracked door open fully, Kylo is caught in his tracks at the sight of a redheaded male just right of him, resetting his apparently broken shelf against the wall, nonchalantly, before replacing the books that were on it with far more care than Kylo had ever managed to. He’s wearing, Kylo recognizes belatedly, Armitage’s clothes; a ribbed black turtleneck and close fitted, dark brown cords.

“Ah, good. You’re here. I’m afraid I wouldn’t last long, otherwise.” He speaks in subtle English vowels and shares Armitage’s pointed lips and nose. His cheekbones are far sharper however than the doll’s had ever been, as is his derisive stare when, placing the last of Kylo’s books on his shelf, he finally turns to face him.

Armitage’s hand finds Kylo’s cheek before Kylo finds the sense to pull away.

The touch is cold, uncomfortably so, sending the hair along Kylo’s neck upwards, his pupils wide. A thumb runs over Kylo’s lower lip before hooking on it, drawing it down and baring Kylo’s teeth. Armitage inspects him like he would a dog at the show.

“I’m sorry to have to do this, but it’s not as though you’re making anything of your life, are you?”

Kylo’s lip is released and plops back with wet noise that feels inappropriate for the scene. Kylo, still in shock, manages only to form a ‘W’ with his lips before that cold hand on his face slips into his hair, gripping it far too tightly, and drawing him down into a hard, chaste kiss. It’s as thrilling as it is terrifying.

Armitage pats Kylo’s cheek condescendingly before pulling away completely.

Kylo only swallows, a strange shudder traveling him at the loss of touch worse than the one that had accompanied it.

“Thought so.” Armitage takes the moment to look over his own hands with a silent reverence, appearing more vibrant, more solid by the minute while Kylo feels he’s withering. “I wouldn’t worry, however. One could describe the process as unpleasant perhaps, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt.

Kylo trembles, freezing, barely the beginning of a question making it out this time though Armitage appears to understand, at least.

“What-...”

“You’re taking my place. It’s a nasty curse that Snoke places,”

Snoke, Kylo puts together slowly, eyes darting to the box half under his bed.

“-But anyways, it’s no longer my problem.”

Kylo feels leaden, helpless, his limbs horrifically loose, useless. Armitage seems to grow larger and the floor nearer.

“I do hope whoever finds you has enough courtesy to place you on a shelf and not among his own trash. Anyways, goodnight. I’ve got a life to return to. It’s been a few months, hasn't it?”

Kylo watches and doesn't answer, soon splayed helplessly on the ground, insignificant, small, as Armitage steps past him to exit the room.

His eyes, once as warm and brown as his mother’s, grow cold and glassy.

 


 

Rey’s a mess. It’s been days since she was last able to reach Kylo and she unlocks his apartment door with the spare key he’d given her and shaking hands. Finn, behind her, steadies them with his own and the pair turn the knob together.

The living room shows no sign of a struggle, in fact, looks recently touched if not for the fact Kylo’s esteemed guitar is on the ground, looking slightly dented. Rey calls out Kylo’s name, then Ben’s, receiving no answer to either. She stoops by the couch, picking up his messy notebook and skimming through the lines of whatever song he’s been working on. His handwriting’s too illegible for her to make out more than a few stray verses, but it’s clearly enough titled ‘Uncanny Valley’ and describes painted freckles and soulless green eyes; as human as they weren’t.

Rey sets the notebook carefully down, an inexplicable dread filling her when she hears Finn call, from Kylo’s bedroom;

“Rey, look at this! He’s had one made of himself, too!”