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How to Get Away with Murder

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The first time Hux sees Ben Solo is the night of the reaping, on the official broadcast. Hux is seated in the center of his District Arena's main stage, beside Phasma, in one of the two antique, banner-adorned chairs reserved for the tributes who have volunteered for Two. The reaping broadcast is at last winding down to the final dregs: District Twelve. The first name called is a girl who will certainly die before the sun sets on day one of the Games: skinny, visibly holding back tears, barely making it onto the stage before her trembling legs give out.

Hux yawns. Phasma snickers. The boy's name is called next: an actual person named Rufus, how funny.

Then someone volunteers to take Rufus' place, shouting this offer like a threat as he walks through the crowd that parts around him.

Hux sits up a bit straighter and watches the volunteer launch himself onto the stage. He’s tall, eighteen or close to it, and he would be fierce-looking if it weren't for those ears and the way his limbs seem like they're just a bit too long to be used efficiently. A close-up on his face shows a few black marks on his pale skin, and for a moment Hux suspects they’re flecks of coal. The volunteer stares into the whispering, agitated crowd, stony-faced while the escort gapes at him in surprise.

“Ben Solo volunteers as tribute,” she says, still staring at him like she's afraid he might have a bomb strapped to his chest. At least one man in the crowd is protesting this development angrily; Hux can't make out the words. “Mr. Solo,” the escort says, “That's very brave of you. Why have you volunteered as tribute? To spare Rufus Uthridge?”

“No,” Ben says. He stares out at the crowd and offers nothing further.

Hux snorts. Phasma is squirming in her seat, probably wanting to fuck this idiot or something.

“Why, then?” the escort asks, shrinking away from Solo a bit. “If I may ask?”

“I'm volunteering,” Solo says, staring directly into the camera, “Because I'm our best chance at winning.”

Nobody in the crowd even cheers. Typical.

“What a stupid hick,” Hux says.

“He's taller than you,” Phasma says, smirking. She is, too. Hux hates her.

“How can you even tell?” Hux asks, though he had the same thought when he saw Solo walk to the stage.

Rufus Uthridge gladly accepts Solo's offer to take his place in the Games, and the escort in Twelve moves on to interview the parents of the tributes. The skinny girl's parents are incoherent with grief. Solo's parents at least appear to have some dignity, but his mother is obviously shocked, tears bubbling behind her clipped answers to the escort's questions. Solo's father is pacing in place, rubbing his hand over his mouth and glancing to his left, glaring at someone or something like he wants to kill it before it can be killed in the Games.

“We’re surprised,” Ben's mother says for the third or fourth time, as if this gut-punched objection might undo what her son just did. She's identified as Leia Organa. Hux is hardly surprised that women in District Twelve don't take their husband's names, but maybe these two aren't even married. They might as well not be. Hux has heard that the marriage custom in Twelve is something involving toasting bread. That's it: no ceremony, no party, just bread. When a kid in school told him this Hux thought it had to be a joke, much too sad and dumb to be anyone's reality. But it's true. He looked it up.

“Ben does what he wants,” Han Solo barks when the escort moves the microphone warily toward him, and then he storms off camera.

The escort seems ready to leave this grim scene, and she does only one more interview with the tributes, barely getting a single decipherable word from the blubbering skinny girl. Ben is still staring directly into the camera like he wants to attack it. Trying to intimidate the competition already, Hux supposes, though it's bizarre to think of someone from Twelve having that much foresight, or that much nerve.

“We'll never forget what you did for him!” someone shouts from the crowd, tearful.

The escort identifies the shouter as Rufus Uthridge's mother. Ben glances at her with what appears to be indifference verging on irritation, then looks back to the camera.

“It's a very noble thing,” the escort says, nodding. Hux sniffs.

His first impression of Ben Solo, aside from his being an unwashed hick with big ears, is that Ben doesn't seem like he's doing this to be noble or even necessarily to win the Games. He looks like he's volunteered just for the opportunity to kill someone, like he wants to go on a violent tear through as many people as possible before flaming out in a blaze of blood-soaked glory. Hux supposes Ben could accomplish that well enough in Twelve, before the Peacekeepers took him down, but perhaps he wants as many witnesses as possible, all of Panem watching him do it.

Hux turns and sees his father looking at him from his place on the stage in the mentor's chair. He adjusts his posture and hopes Brendol doesn't think he looks nervous. Because he's not. At all. He turns back to the screen and is glad to see that Ben Solo is no longer on camera.

Phasma elbows him. Hux snarls at her; she's always jabbing him with her elbow when they’re not more directly grappling, and she somehow perennially smells like a frosted cheese danish, especially when she sweats. They've been training together since they were six years old. Hux has been looking forward to killing her for about that long.

“He'll be a wild card, eh?” Phasma says. “This Solo kid?”

“He may last one or two days longer than the girl,” Hux says.

Phasma rolls her eyes.

“Oh, sorry,” Hux snaps. “Are you casting him as our main competition? Because he's built like an overstuffed scarecrow and seems to be emotionally disturbed? Yes, wow, how impressive.”

“You'd know about being emotionally disturbed,” Phasma says.

Hux ignores her, ready to go home. After twenty more minutes of ceremonial bullshit the tributes are finally dismissed, a silver necklace with a rock strung onto it placed around their necks by the mayor.

“Do I have to go on wearing this?” Hux asks his father when they're in the backseat of their car together, their driver bearing them home. Brendol slides his eyes over to Hux in a way that tells him he's asked the wrong question. Hux steadies himself against the urge to wilt, his hand going to the necklace. “It's fine,” he says. “Just-- jewelry. I don't like wearing jewelry.”

“It's not a jewel. It's a symbol of your District. A token of your community's faith in you. Which means nothing to you, apparently?”

“It's--” Hux shakes his head and looks out the window. Also the wrong move: his father grabs his arm hard and jerks him back around.

“Do not embarrass me,” Brendol says, eyes flashing when Hux wilts under his stare. Hux stammers an apology and corrects his posture, holding his father's gaze as respectfully as possible until his arm is released. Brendol straightens his jacket and turns to stare out at the city as their car cuts across the highway and back toward home. Hux turns slowly to look out his own window, seeing nothing.

Stupid: he should have known not to complain about the ceremonial rock necklace. The rock from Brendol Jr'.s Games is in a gold dish on the mantle in the great room, blood-splattered and exalted alongside the urn.

The Hux family has always lived in the Victor’s Village. Hux has heard that the Villages in the lesser Districts are just a few fine houses grouped together, surely standing out like something from a mirage in Districts like Twelve. He wonders if Ben Solo plans to move into one of those as their car glides into the District 2 Village, which is a busy community stocked with many generations of Victors and their families. It’s extremely rare that anyone but a Career wins the Games, in these sophisticated times of advanced, lifelong training, and it’s been forty years since anyone from Twelve did. Hux tugs at the rock around his neck again. He’s spent most of his life imagining how he might outplay the other top Careers of his generation, most of whom are bigger than him. Defeating bloodthirsty opponents from the impoverished Districts rarely crossed his mind; it goes without saying that he will. However tall they are.

Brendol wants nothing to do with him as soon as they’re inside the residence, predictably. In two days they’ll both be on a train headed for the Capitol. Brendol is technically his mentor. Hux sits at the window in his bedroom and stares at Rae’s house, across the fountain-lined cobblestones of Victory Square. Her lights are out as usual, except for the bluish glow from her office on the fourth floor. She serves on a variety of committees in the District and the Capitol, some official and some more shadowy, and never stops working as a rule, except to provide for what she calls “survival functions” such as sleeping and eating, as if she’s still and always playing her own Games. Surely she watched the reaping, though she shrugged and called it perfunctory last time they spoke. He’ll go see her in the morning.

Rae is the only Victor who ever tells him the truth about the Games. Not out of kindness but because she can’t seem to not tell the truth, or doesn’t care to put in the effort of lying to Brendol Hux’s son. She’s told Hux that nobody sleeps on the night after their reaping ceremony. Not even the most confident competitors; not even her, when she was seventeen. Hux lies awake in bed and stares at the ceiling in the dark, running the faces of the biggest threats to his victory through his mind. Phasma is one of them, as loathe as he is to admit it. Ben Solo might be, too, but Hux will reserve judgment until he sees Ben perform during their training period.

Before Brendol Jr. died, it was assumed that the younger Hux son, the one of questionable origins whose appearance on national television might therefore be an embarrassment, would be an industry captain following his older brother’s Games victory. Hux sometimes thinks, with a feeling like rot spreading in his gut, that if Brendol had survived to second or even third in his games, if he had not died in a freak accident with seven other tributes still alive, there would have been no expectation placed upon him to compete himself. But there’s no sense in thinking about it now except to make him miss his brother and burn with shame at the thought of blaming the forthcoming reality of his own Games on Brendol Jr.’s failure.

Hux had been watching when it happened, ten years old and waiting, waiting through the whole excruciating thing, which took seventeen seconds that seemed like seventeen hours, for someone-- his father, anyone --to swoop in and put a stop to it, but of course nobody did. It was the first time the Games ever felt remotely real to him, though in the weeks afterward he still caught himself waiting for his brother to come back winking and saying that was just a fake, just a show. Maratelle had fainted before the seventeen seconds were even up, and two years later she was dead, too, from an ‘accidental’ overdose of her nerve pills. Brendol Sr. had gone so white as they all watched his eldest son die, and the color had never seemed to come back to his face. Hux sometimes has nightmares where he watches his father transform into a statue in that moment, a marble man where the living, breathing one once stood.

They were not always unhappy here in the Village. Hux was always aware that he wasn’t Maratelle’s son, but Brendol Jr. kept the other kids from tormenting him overmuch about this. Brendol Jr. had always wanted a brother, and was old enough when Hux was born not to feel competitive with him. Hux was sickly, after all, until around age six. He wanted to be like his older brother, whom he worshipped with an openness that embarrasses him when he thinks about it now. Brendol Jr. was the glowing energy source around which all of the rest of them revolved: bright and strong and quick to smile, afraid of nothing. He was handsome like Maratelle, with dark hair and a dimpled chin. If he spent the night after his reaping lying awake with worry, he didn’t let on, and Hux can’t picture it. He may have even slept well; he certainly smiled, as he was leaving for his Games, as if he believed entirely that he would win. Hux had believed it, too.

At some point Hux drifts off into an odd place adjacent to dreams but not quite touching them. Even in his sleep he feels the half-conscious stress of running from bad dreams that want to claim him, and he wakes with an ache in his jaw from grinding his teeth. Not wanting to face his father at breakfast, he dresses and slips out through the back entrance, pausing in the basement kitchen to give his mother a wary smile that he probably shouldn’t dare, for her sake. She’s the only Avox in their household, and the other servants watch her closely. She smiles back, lips tightly pressed together. Hux feels the usual dragging impulse to speak to her, though it would be pointless and he’s only supposed to do so if he intends to give her an order. He’s not even supposed to know that she’s his mother, but there’s no such thing as a well-kept secret in a Victor’s Village.

He has a key to Rae’s house, and this gesture of trust is the closest she’s come to showing affection for him beyond the usual Mentor and Career relationship. She gave it to him after Brendol struck him in the face in front of their entire training squad years ago, humiliating him in a way that made him wish for ten more severe blows behind closed doors, so long as nobody found out. Rae slipped him the key when she found him afterward in one of the restrooms, having broken several sinks with one of their training clubs. It was unlike him, and he’d thought Rae would drag him out by the collar and punish him, as she was not opposed to making examples of people who thought their failures during training merited tantrums. Instead, she gave him the key and left without a word. He didn’t work up the nerve to use it for weeks, and when he did he only opened her manor’s exterior fence and sat in her courtyard garden waiting for her to come down and invite him into the house.   

This morning he finds her having an early breakfast as usual, dressed in a training center uniform rather than the finer clothes she wears when she has meetings with higher-ups. She ran the training program for a period when Hux was younger, and passed it off to Brendol when she took an interest Capitol politics. When she’s in residence she stops by daily and acts as if she still runs it. This of course infuriates Brendol, who won his Games five years before she won hers, but he fears the reach of her influence and never dares to complain.

Rae doesn’t look up from the news report she’s reading when Hux sits at the breakfast table beside her. It’s quiet as a tomb in her house, something that Hux found unnerving until he got used to it. Now he prefers it to the constant creep and clatter of servants in his father’s house. Rae has none; she doesn’t trust them.

“Still using the text edition?” Hux asks when he sits down beside her. He nods to her mobile device when she glances at him. “There’s such a thing as televised news, you know.”

“It’s my least favorite day of the year for that particular noise,” she says. “Post-reaping.”

“Ah, yes.” Hux gave up long ago on trying to suppress his habit of quickly agreeing with her when she corrects him. “All that analysis based on nothing much yet. It is exhausting.”

“I wonder what they’re saying about you.”

She smiles a little when he shifts in his seat at the thought. He’s long been able to envision himself ending the lives of those weaker than him, but being charming on television is another thing.

“Did you watch?” he asks, annoyed that she’s making him ask.

“Of course. It’s part of my job to watch the reaping.”

Which job, he wonders. “Right, well. What did you think?”

“What did you think?”

She puts her toast down, presses her fingers together over her plate and stares at him as if this is a test. Most of her questions are.

“Standard stuff,” Hux says. “No real surprises. One and Three volunteered the people we expected them to. Both from Four looking overconfident and ostentatious as usual. A couple of strong-looking nobodies in Five and Nine. That psycho in Twelve.”

“Psycho?” Rae raises one eyebrow. “You mean the boy with the ears?”

“Of course him. Didn’t he strike you as unbalanced?”

“Sounds like analysis based on nothing much yet.”

Hux feels his nose twitch in a disapproving little snarl before he can stop it. Rae drinks from her coffee. He can’t remember the last time he saw her eating anything but bland toast, coffee and oranges, though she’s muscular, still strong for her age, and must fit in protein somewhere.

“That boy from Twelve struck me as one to keep an eye on, too,” she admits, looking back to the news. “It was more the reaction from his parents than his boasting.”

“How so?”

“The father’s rage. The mother’s look of betrayal. It was as if he did this to hurt them.”

“So he doesn’t like his parents. So what?”

Hux wants to add: Who does? Have you met mine?

“Just interesting,” Rae says. “Most people at least defer to their parents to keep up appearances, especially in so public a spectacle. His behavior evinces a kind of fearlessness beyond the usual overconfident volunteer from one of the more pathetic Districts. That’s noteworthy.”

“Noted, then.”

Hux wilts a little when she gives him a warning look. They’re comfortable together; he’s been attached to her since he was a boy, when she took an interest in training him despite the family’s confidence that Brendol Jr. would be the Victor who renewed the family’s honor in the Games. But this level of familiarity does not preclude her coldest looks when he makes smart-assed comments.

“Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that you’ll likely be underestimated,” she says. “Especially by the other Careers. Don’t be prideful enough to miss that.”

“I won’t, for the precise reason they’ll underestimate me. Because I’m not a neckless mountain of muscle.”

“And because of your background. Let’s not be naive, Armitage. Your father is comfortable with his power here, but he’s got enemies in the Capitol. The fact that your mother is an Avox will come out during the interviews, however many asses Brendol kisses in his attempt to bury it.”

“She wasn’t one when he-- When they--” Hux hears himself stammering and clamps his lips shut. He’s shaken. Even Rae doesn’t normally mention his mother.

“Regardless,” Rae says, and she gives him a steadying look: not pitying or indulgent but somehow communicating, as she always has, that she’s on his side. “It will come up at some point in an attempt to unsettle you, probably very close to the start of the Games. Prepare yourself for it. Come to peace with it, if you haven’t already. If I were you, I’d feed them some crap about Brendol having been kind enough to continue raising you as his son after your mother betrayed the Capitol.” She hesitates, studying Hux’s face, then continues: “And you might briskly follow that up with talk about your brother. How kind he was to you, and so forth.”

Hux looks down at his hands on the table. They seem too pale and slender, like always. When he was younger he truly believed that as he drew closer to his Games his body would transform into one more like Brendol Jr.’s. He’s not weak, and his skills in sharpshooting and stealth are unmatched in his training class, but the delicacy of his hands seems to betray some inner failing. They’re like his mother’s, cold and quick and made for handling pastry in the kitchens. He curls them into fists and looks at Rae.

“Marketing yourself to the public prior to the Games is hell,” she says. “By the time I was through with it I couldn’t wait to finally compete on an honest level. But nobody wins the Games without finessing the audience beforehand. You’ll have sponsors, Brendol will see to that, but if the Gamemakers and the audience don’t find you interesting, you’ll face more obstacles than a player they want to keep watching.”

“I know all this,” Hux says.

“But you’re like me,” Rae says, and Hux feels himself flushing with a kind of long-sought relief that almost makes his eyes water. “Fake charm doesn’t come easy.”

Hux laughs when he realizes this is what she meant.

“Brendol is making me spend the train ride to the Capitol with a media consultant,” he says.

“That’s only a few hours.”

“Yes, but-- Okay, all right. I’ll get near-weepy about how Brendol saved me from obscurity by letting me be the family bastard. Whatever it takes to get the sentimental morons out there interested in my survival.”

“Precisely.” Rae snaps her handheld shut, the news text disappearing. “Now get on with it.”

“With what?”

“With whatever you showed up at my door at dawn to ask.”

Hux looks down at his hands again. Without realizing it he’s half-uncurled his fists, his fingers looking uncertain and too narrow on the tabletop.

“What was it like to win?” Hux asks.

They’ve discussed every aspect of the Games together over the years, except this. Last night, sleepless and sweating under his sheets, Hux had convinced himself that if he could fear winning, at least a little, maybe that would help him push himself to do it, the way that all his fears helped him in training since boyhood. He knows how to use fear, how to convert it like raw energy into personal armor.

“I can only tell you what it was like for me,” Rae says after studying his face in silence. It’s her habit and he’s used to it. There’s something comforting about being looked at with such scrutiny. No one else does; certainly not his parents, for their very different reasons.

“So what was it like for you?” Hux asks, lifting his shoulders a bit and feeling too young-- Not for the Games but for something else. Some truth that she probably won’t tell him.

“It feels like work, for the most part,” she says. “You do the work without thinking about it, because if you’re not doing it, you’re dead. Then you come to the end, and it’s just you and the last person you’re tracking. And then it feels different.”

Hux watches her face as her eyes go unfocused. He keeps his breathing quiet, surprised to hear Rae talking about feelings at all. Even though he asked.

“The girl who nearly beat me,” Rae says, and this is something else Hux never expected to hear from her, though he’s watched the tape, of course: a vicious fight between Rae and a younger girl from District 8. “Adea. I remember thinking that no one but we two could understand what those last moments were. They could watch it, were watching it, would watch it over and over, but only we would ever know it. Then you kill that other person, if you’re lucky. And then it’s only you who knows.”  

Rae drinks from her coffee. Hux presses his fingertips into the tabletop and tries to understand what she means, which might just be that he can’t possibly understand, until he’s there. He’s always assumed that he’ll be like Rae if he survives the Games: alone in a very quiet manor, no spouse and no children. Not even affairs like the ones Brendol had. He’s occasionally fantasized about pretending to employ his mother while actually letting her rest in a garden like the one Rae’s breakfast table overlooks.

“You can be overly analytical,” Rae says, sharply, when she notices that Hux’s attention has strayed. “Avoid that impulse. Be strategic, quick-thinking but not hasty, and don’t pause to think about a decision after you’ve made it, when you can’t go back. Especially after you win.”

“You think I will?”

Hux hates how desperate that sounded. He’d instructed himself not to ask outright. Rae looks at him as if she’s mildly insulted by the question.

“I wouldn’t have mentored you if I didn’t think you would.”

Hux is more buoyed by this than he’d like to admit. He spends the rest of the day between her house and the training center, running through practical and theoretical trials. By the time he marches home he feels ready to leave for his Games, even ready to face the media nonsense he’ll have to endure in the Capitol.

He passes by Phasma in the square. She’s having pictures made with her parents, beaming for a professional photographer’s camera in front of the grandest fountain. Her mother was a Victor, and her father commutes to the Capitol for work as an ambassador. He’s easily as connected there as Brendol, maybe even more so. When Phasma notices Hux slinking by, alone and uncelebrated, her megawatt smile sharpens. She’s always believed she’ll win. They’ve joked about killing each other with glee since childhood, like the rest of the top students in the training program. Every time she’s annoyed him over the years, Hux has imagined delivering her death blow. He knows she’s done the same to him in her mind many times. It’s encouraged, of course. Part of the Game.

**

“Anything to do with romance is priceless, if you can pull it off.”

This is one of the first things the media consultant says, once Brendol has left them alone together in the train compartment. Hux is half-listening, staring at the window and frowning at his reflection, disliking this advice.

“Romance?” he says when the consultant responds to his visible disgust with silence. “That’s so stale. Even in my father’s era it was overdone.”

“Oh, I see you’re the expert.” She reaches for her bag and pretends to be packing up her things. As if she’d dare defy Brendol’s instruction to make Hux camera-ready in two hours. “In that case, I’ll go to the bar car and have a martini while you ruminate over whatever brilliant strategy that will outshine mine.”

“It’s just-- look at me,” Hux says. “That’s not a strategy for me. Next, please.”

“You’re not bad looking,” the consultant says. Hux forgets her name. She has lavender hair, in the style of the season, and doesn’t seem much older than him. “Is that your real hair color?” she asks, as if noticing his attention to hers.

“Yes,” Hux says. “You saw my father.”

“Right, well, it’s unique, that coloring. It has a kind of appeal. Don’t undervalue the audience points you’d get for even a little flirtation. All the most popular romances have been between the boys from Districts One and Two. People like to see the tough guys show some depth.”

“Before they slaughter each other.”

“Indeed, that’s the best part. The inevitable moment when they turn on each other.”

“No, thanks.”

The male tribute from District 1 is Riddell Rodinon. He’s a vicious meathead with a stumpy potato nose, and from first glance he’s reminded Hux of his father. Hux would rather swallow a knife than even pretend to bat his eyelashes at Rodinon for the sake of audience favor.

“It’s just something to keep in mind if you need to go into damage control mode,” the consultant says. “And it doesn’t hurt as a strategy for luring certain people close enough to kill, meanwhile.”

“Might hurt if you were actually the one being lured all the while.”

“Moving on,” she says, sharply. “Your mother.”

Hux turns toward the window again. He can feel his nose twitching, lip raising. He’s had etiquette lessons for years, in preparation for his Games and all the frothy public relations bullshit that surrounds them, and his coach’s most frequent lament was that he can’t seem to control his involuntary sneers.

“She died two years ago,” the consultant says, softening her tone in a phony and needless attempt at sensitivity. “You’ll certainly be asked about that, and we need to calibrate a strategy for how emotional you will or won’t be over that memory being thrust in your face. This goes double for your brother, since viewers feel as though they knew him.”

“Knew him?” Hux turns his snarl on her. He can see her hope for his chances of ever charming a viewing audience lessen visibly in response. “They didn’t know him. He was on television for three days.” Hux vividly remembers the first tribute he’d watched Brendol Jr. murder. He’d thought he would be cheering when it happened, but his stomach had dropped. His brother’s face had looked different already.

“So your brother is the more sensitive subject,” the consultant says, making a note on her mobile. “That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have expected it.”

Hux takes this to mean that Brendol Sr. hasn’t briefed this woman on the fact that his real mother is an Avox and that Hux was sad when Maratelle died but chiefly because it meant he was alone thereafter with the surviving Brendol, who had never been warm but was like a slab of granite after he lost his namesake.

“This is giving me a headache,” Hux says. “My plan has always been to demonstrate efficiency, not likeability. That is a valid strategy, and with my father’s connections I’ll have plenty of sponsors regardless. Why don’t you go have your martini? We’re done here.”

She’s packing up her things again, muttering to herself, when Hux pictures Rae’s face and remember her words: Don’t block off your own exits by narrowing your strategy to one path. There will be obstacles there you can’t anticipate. Consider alternatives, even if it hurts your pride.

“Wait,” he says, his jaw tight when the consultant rises to go. “I’m sorry. Don’t go. I’m just-- Tense. Tell me more about-- About how I should talk about my mother. The truth is, I never have.”

Everything she says, Hux applies to his real mother, filing the advice away for the moment when he’s inevitably confronted with her misdeeds and subsequent misfortune: Don’t overdo it, but show that the subject affects you. Offer an example of how this adversity helped you grow stronger in the long run. Insist that she’s in a better place.

That last one won’t translate, of course.

Hux is so tired of discussing media strategy by the time they reach the Capitol that he’s almost glad to see Phasma. She slips in as the consultant is leaving.

“Last minute lessons in feigning humanity?” Phasma says when the compartment’s door is shut.

“For Brendol’s sake.” Hux shrugs one shoulder. “I don’t plan to wear the mask for long.”

“You in a mask?” Phasma barks out her somehow both high and throaty laugh, throwing her head back and all. Hux feels the urge to kill rising, as per usual when he hears the sound of her enjoying herself. “Oh, that’s rich. I cannot wait to see you up on that stage. What are your hobbies, Armitage? What do you enjoy? Ah, well, let’s see--” She’s doing a poor imitation of Hux’s voice now. “Sitting in spiteful silence and grinding my teeth have always been favorites.”

“Oh, shut up.” Hux is so used to this treatment that it’s almost comforting, maybe only now because of their proximity to their destination and all that will come after. “Where have you been while I was in here suffering with that woman? Making friends?”

“I saw Rodinon and Unamo. Charmless as ever, those two. A couple of walking weapons to be sure, but blunt ones. By comparison to them, maybe you will seem lovable.”

Hux sniffs and turns to look out the window, annoyed with himself more than with her at how much that stung, a rare and seemingly unintentional direct blow.

As if to salt the wound, the compartment’s door slides open and Brendol steps inside.

“A moment with my son, please,” he says to Phasma, who is already heading out.

Hux sits up straighter and turns his back to the window. He’s been wondering since Rae brought it up if Brendol is going to mention the shameful identity of his real mother and all that the press might make of it, pre-Games. This could be that moment. Hux would rather jump out the window of the train and walk the rest of the way than have that conversation, but he keeps his face impassive and his shoulders back, as if he’s already facing all of Panem on live television. Brendol’s attention has a similar merciless, eviscerating quality.

“I suppose it will come as no surprise to you that I’ve put every advantage for you in place that I can,” Brendol says. “You will have sponsors, gifts, a positive spin in the broadcast. Unless you fumble it all in some unredeemable fashion, of course.”

“Of course,” Hux says, and he sees his father’s gaze sharpen; that was too close to sarcasm. “Of course I won’t,” he clarifies, though that’s not necessarily what he meant. “I will make you proud.” And Rae, he doesn’t say. He would be far more ashamed of letting her down in his final moments, if it came to that.

“This occasion--” Brendol clears his throat and walks to the window, hands in the pockets of his trousers. Hux freezes, afraid to see his father experience some sort of naked emotion in his presence, and then Brendol fixes him with a stern, disapproving look and says, “It was so different, with your brother.”

“Yes,” Hux says, as if he was there, and not riding in civilian transport with Maratelle to the posh hotel in the Capitol where they would watch Brendol Jr.’s death on a gigantic screen in a ballroom, surrounded by the gasps of well-heeled onlookers.

Brendol is silent for the remainder of their commute to their luxe rooms in the Training Center tower. Hux has been surrounded by luxury all his life and is unimpressed with the thirty-sixth floor view of the city at high noon, the furnishings and the welcome baskets from various companies and individuals who are attempting to woo Brendol. If Hux dies in the Games, Brendol’s reputation will take a second brutal hit-- a third, if his affair with a kitchen servant who later betrayed the Capitol is included, but that was hushed up considerably, at least until now. Hux stands at the window in his bedroom and practices answers for questions about his mother in his head, resenting that he needs to. He should be during further research on his opponents or networking with potential sponsors in the Training Center’s more shadowy hallways and out of the way conference rooms. Instead he’s digging his fingernails into his palms and wondering if they’ll put an image of his mother up on the screen during his interviews. He’s had nightmares about the removal of her tongue ever since he learned what an Avox was, but surely they don’t-- Surely they wouldn’t--

Brendol’s influence is too far-reaching, whatever enemies he has here. District 2 is the darling of the Capitol. They won’t torture Hux with footage of his mother’s Avox induction. Surely.

Hux jumps when he hears the door chime. He’s so relieved to be summoned for the start of the mandated training sessions that he almost smiles back at Phasma when she smirks at the sight of him in his skin-tight training attire.

“Think they might have measured your pants a bit small?” she asks him as they’re lead to the welcome meeting by a junior escort.

“Just glad to know you’re still ogling my crotch after all these years,” Hux says, to embarrass her in earshot of the escort.

She’s never actually ogled his crotch, to his knowledge.

From the moment they enter the training facility at the center of the building, there’s a buzz of sharp interest that slices through the air with every look, every gesture. Hux’s eyes go directly to Ben Solo. He tells himself that it’s only because Ben is the tallest non-Phasma competitor here. Perhaps he’s already been given a consultation about his ears by his stylist: they’re hidden under his wavy, overlong hair now.

Rodinon and Unamo acknowledge Hux and Phasma with a nod that communicates the combination of courtesy and threat that Hux expected from the District 1 competitors. Like most District 1 heavies, they should be easy enough to take down. The only other competitors of note, according to Hux’s post-reaping research and broadcast analysis, are Poe, a strong-looking boy from Four who was slick on camera and radiates a kind of simmering confidence in person, and a boy named Finn from District 9 who has a similar combination of physical strength and charm. Finn also seemed angry during his reaping, and rage can go a long way in the initial melee.

“Some of these cannon blasts look even more pathetic in person,” Phasma says, muttering this in Hux’s ear as if they’re browsing bruised produce in a market.

Hux grunts in agreement. The youngest two are Thannison from Five and Rey from Ten, both thin and lost-looking and certainly goners. Mitaka from Six looks as if he’s going to wet his pants already, though he’s nearly Hux’s age. The girl from Twelve looks vaguely medicated, her eyes pink and puffy from whatever weeping she did on the way here. Ben Solo spares her not a glance. After some stealthy observation Hux notices that Ben hasn’t made eye contact with anyone. He’s as motionless as a statue, grimacing at nothing in particular and standing with his shoulders hunched in the lineup. Determined to remain unimpressed by him, Hux reminds himself that bad posture demonstrates a lack of discipline. He straightens his own slightly, ignoring the snicker from Phasma, who has certainly interpreted this as Hux’s attempt to seem taller.

As the instructors give their presentation, issuing watered-down versions of speeches Hux has heard from his personal and Academy trainers for years, he notices that a camera crew is already present, shooting B-roll to be used as filler during between live interviews or whatever else. Hux didn’t expect to be bothered by this, or the general idea of being filmed while not directly performing. He feels overly conscious of the way he’s breathing, standing, and the proximity of Phasma and Unamo at his sides.

The day begins with station-based training. Most of the tributes from the farther Districts got here last night and have already been sizing each other up, and it seems like no one is willing to socialize outside of their District yet if at all, everyone keeping to task. Hux fully expects Rodinon and Unamo to approach him and Phasma later in the evening about aligning at the start of the Games. It’s already in their plans, informally, and Hux might welcome a few strong arms from other Districts, too. Poe is chatty with his partner from Four, a pretty girl named Pava with a serious demeanor and impressive climbing skills at the station stocked with ropes and walls of various materials for scaling. Hux keeps an eye on Poe, considering that he might be useful as a kind of glue to keep an initial super-strength alliance together, but he’s dashed this tentative plan by the time he’s working through his third station. Poe and Pava are bonding already, and bringing the two of them along invites the risk of having a strong pair turn on him and Phasma early on, whereas Rodinon and Unamo will be broken up as soon as one smells blood on the other, like any District 1 brutes.

Hux is working his way through the dull tasks at the camouflaging station when he notices a murmured sense of excitement in the room. People are gathering near the open sparring mat, watching two tributes going at it with a pair of wooden practice staffs. When Hux cranes his neck, he sees a flash of black hair, then hears a pained grunt followed by a series of noises from the crowd that range from sympathetic to mocking.

“Next,” someone says, and Hux sees Rodinon pushing angrily through the crowd, clutching at his stomach, face aflame.

The challenger who bested him is Ben, twirling his staff as if its an extension of his arm. He paces the mat, staring at the onlookers like an animal ready to strike at anyone who makes a wrong move. Some of them are already scattering to other stations. Afraid of him, after they saw whatever he did to Rodinon.

Hux sniffs. As if it’s so impressive to outmaneuver a competitor who needs a real sword to do any damage. Of course Rodinon is hopeless with a wooden staff; his straightforward attack strategy won’t survive any kind of defensive finesse, not when actual blood isn’t being spilled. Ben seems to have trained with this kind of more sophisticated weapon, meanwhile.

So has Hux, from the finest teachers of hand to hand combat that money can buy.

Hux approaches the mat, calmly tugging on the fingerless gloves provided with the rest of his training uniform. Ben isn’t wearing any. His gaze flicks to Hux, and it’s like being struck with a throwing star, but Hux expected as much from having seen him on the reaping broadcast, and he deflects the blow with a cooler but still knifing stare, which even Rae has praised him for in the past, though she rarely gives credence to style.

“You?” Ben smiles a little when Hux steps onto the mat and takes up a staff.

“You may not have noted my District, since we showed up late.” Hux gives the staff a one-handed twirl: nothing too fancy yet. Let this yokel underestimate him and pay for it. “I’m from Two. Generally we skip the introductions.”

Ben says nothing, and this information fails to wipe the predatory shadow of a smile from the corner of his lips. As they circle each other Hux realizes that the dark shine of his eyes is not just a one-time weapon, thrown and spent. Ben’s stare is hypnotic and unsettling, somehow very solid and impenetrable but also in constant motion, as if he wants his opponent to see the wheels of his forthcoming takedown turning there.

He fails to intimidate Hux, but the effort is amusing. Hux waits for him to make the first move. Ben is holding back, taking his time and sizing Hux up for far longer than necessary.

“Is this a barn dance or a fight?” Phasma shouts.

Hux lunges, though he shouldn’t have let her of all people goad him. Ben blocks his first blow easily, but Hux expected as much. He’s already thinking two steps ahead, something that he’s best at in the heat of the moment. He manages a blow to the back of Ben’s legs that should have at least made him stumble. Ben dances away from it as if it was part of his plan, though it must have hurt. When his staff meets the underside of Hux’s chin it’s a taunt, only enough force behind it to make Hux curse under his breath in frustration, because Ben delivered that blow with such speed that it was nearly invisible.

Ben fixes him with that stare again when they move apart. His legs must be stinging, and there’s a charge between them that Hux interprets as Ben’s surprise that Hux got a blow in at all; Rodinon probably didn’t. Not wanting to give the impression that he’s chastened by the teasing tap on his chin, Hux rushes him and ducks, spins, gets him hard on his left side with the end of the staff but feels like he’s struck stone. As if he’s energized by Hux’s attack, Ben moves in a fluid twirl and thrashes Hux across the back of his shoulders with a ferocity that’s the opposite of his careful footwork. He trips Hux during his attempt to recover, not with the staff but one of his massive feet. It’s as if there are two of him: one behind Hux and one in front, wherever Ben wants to shift to in any given blink, with no regard for the way time and space typically function.

Hux ends up on his hands and knees, too stunned to register the humiliation of it until Ben is using his staff to flip Hux onto his back like a hot cake. He crouches over Hux with those eyes pressing down onto him, seeming to hold him to the floor. Ben isn’t actually touching him, but Hux can feel the oppressive, animal heat of him, and he wants to move away from it but can’t fling himself from the eyes of the crowd like Rodinon did without looking like a sore loser and increasing his embarrassment. His face is on fire. Someone from the production team moves closer with a handheld camera.

“Well done,” Hux says, holding Ben’s stare and feeling it like a succession of further blows, battering him as he props himself up onto his elbows, arms trembling. He was clutching his staff too tightly, not thinking enough about form.

“Next,” Ben says, standing and looking to the group at the edge of the mat. Leaving Hux to scramble up on his own.

Hux expects Phasma to challenge Ben next, and she does. It’s of some comfort that Ben beats her just as handily as he did Hux, but also perturbing, because the way he moves is not natural: there’s too much ease, too much brutal strength slamming down from within it, and Hux’s eyes can’t make sense of Ben’s balletic, thundering strategy even as he takes down two more opponents: Poe and then Finn, who mutter together afterward in the corner. Hux can’t blame them for casting suspicious looks at Ben. Maybe he’s on some kind of performance enhancing drug, though given his District of origin it’s unlikely that he could afford it. It’s as if Ben watched tapes of these fights ahead of time and therefore knows the precise move he should make in every instance. When he’s alone on the mat, slashing at the air because no one else will come forward to face him, Ben appears to not be winded or in pain, despite having taken nine blows from the three tributes who faced him after Hux, by Hux’s count. He received every one of those strikes as if they were part of the plan, as if they were fortifying him.

“You’re staring,” Phasma says, coming up behind Hux in an attempt to startle him. He remains perfectly composed and keeps his eyes on Ben.

“The whole point of this exercise is to study the competition,” he says. “And he’s it.”

“Told you so,” she says.

Hux gives some attention to other tributes as well: Unamo is the quickest draw with the practice bow, but her aim isn’t as good as Hux’s. Finn and Poe do the best in the gauntlet obstacle course, which Hux considers overrated for realistic evaluation of in-Games potential. Little Rey is surprisingly accurate with knife throwing and otherwise seems to be the one who is watching people most carefully, maybe second to Hux. She doesn’t seem to want to be caught doing this. When she meets Hux’s eyes from across the training floor she looks away and pretends to be busy with her fire-making effort, which she’s kept at a near-smoulder in a way that seems intentional.

He feels stupid for studying the actions of a slight ten-year-old girl, as if her strategy might matter, then reminds himself that his brother was killed by Sucking Sand after suffering no injuries more severe than a shallow cuts. Nothing should go unnoticed, especially now, when he has the luxury of observing without the constant threat of death.

Brendol was of course observing the training with the other mentors from some elevated, unseen room overlooking the stations. He’s cold and silent when Hux returns to their rooms for a shower before his first meeting with his prep team. Hux almost wants to suggest investigating Ben Solo for drug use or genetic mods, but Brendol would hear that as an excuse for Hux’s poor performance against him and wouldn’t otherwise take it seriously.

Hux takes a long time in the shower, not caring if he keeps the bobbleheads who will fuss over his appearance waiting. His muscles ache from the ropes station, where he spent the most time because it’s what he’s worst at: hoisting himself up on his own strength. His arms aren’t what they should be, and he’s long thought he makes up for what he lacks in muscle with his quickness, but Ben Solo made him feel slower than Rodinon during their fight. He touches the mark Ben left on the underside of his chin, pressing his fingertips into the tender, bruising skin there. They’re not supposed to strike each other in the face during training, to ease their stylists’ job of making them look attractive, but this wound is placed just right, invisible in the shadow between Hux’s neck and chin. Rather close to the most vulnerable place on his throat, now that he thinks about it.

He presses at the mark again, then lower, against his throat, his pulse. He’s starting to get hard. Ben Solo seemed to get off on pain, or at least to feed on it. Hux considers a wank, but after a few strokes can’t bring himself to continue. The proximity of his father, out there stewing in shared humiliation already, kills his erection. Possibly he’s also somewhat nervous about what he would be thinking about when he came.

The meeting with the stylists is worse than he feared, though not for the reasons he expected. Rather than recoiling at the sight of him, they act as if he’s lovely. He supposes they’re all on some sort of mood-enhancing drugs that make them think this of most people; such things are common in the Capitol. They’re particularly impressed by his hair and eyelashes. Hux has never once considered that the shade of one’s eyelashes could be a factor in one’s attractiveness or not. He feels stupid, especially for blushing when they investigate him here and there with their hands. It’s not that there’s anything salacious about it: they’re professional, courteous even as they prod at him. The experience is alien, however. Outside of combat practice, no one touches him.

“I expected you to look like your brother,” the haircutter says as he’s trimming Hux’s fringe.

“Well,” Hux says, wondering how many people know about his real mother already. “I don’t.”

“Your appeal is different,” the head stylist says, circling them. His name is Gregor and he’s wearing a kind of frilled poncho that doesn’t inspire confidence in his ability to dress anyone. “Very fine-boned,” he says, learning in close to Hux’s face and narrowing his eyes. “Almost elfin.”

“Elf-- What? Don’t you dare dress me up like an elf.”

“Please. I’m hardly that literal. Are you not familiar with my work?”

“I don’t follow fashion.”

“Not even in the context of the Games? Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. Your brother was the same way.”

“You knew him?” Hux shifts in his seat. The haircutter tuts with annoyance and readjusts him.

“Of course,” Gregor says. “I’ve been styling District 2 for fifteen years. You really are out of the loop.”

Hux says nothing, feeling a familiar anger ballooning in his chest. Though it’s childish and makes no sense, he wants to be the guardian of all memories of his brother. He especially longs to erase what people think they know about him based on the Games. Even those who met him.

“You must miss him,” Gregor says. “He was wonderful. Very patient. And what a smile.”

Hux doesn’t answer. He’s been told that his own smile is frightening. He’s always taken it as a compliment.

Gregor and company dress Hux in a dark grey tunic just faintly tinted with purple and a pair of black pants that are nearly as tight as the ones provided for training. He doesn’t care for the style but the fabrics are very fine and feel good against his skin. The product in his hair is different from the basic stuff he usually wears, and he worries that he smells like the kind of Capitol-dweller who overdoes everything when it comes to presenting himself. There’s a welcome banquet for the tributes in an hour, and the rumor during training was that President Snoke himself might make an appearance to say a few words. Hux suspects he’ll do so remotely, on a video screen. Snoke is infamously paranoid about assassinations, having lived through several, one of which nearly split his skull in two. He wears the scar proudly, like a threat. The rumors about what was done to the would-be assassins may or may not be true but were most unsavory regardless.

Hux goes down to the banquet with Brendol, who scoffs at some unspecified aspect of Hux’s styling and otherwise says nothing. Brendol is Phasma’s mentor, too, and when they collect her from the girls’ dormitory floor he spares her a rare compliment about her stamina during the training sessions, probably only to twist the knife he’s silently inserted between Hux’s ribs. Phasma flashes her most obnoxious grin and Hux wants to remind them both that Ben Solo kicked her ass, too.

There are no assigned seats at the Tribute banquet, which is modest in comparison to the viewing parties Hux normally attends with Brendol prior to the Games. Roaming camera people are present, capturing the early social dynamics of the group. Hux experiences a rare moment of appreciation for Phasma’s size as they approach the table where Rodinon and Unamo are seated. It feels good to have someone so imposing at his side, and the way she moves in tandem with him seems to reinforce the power of the cold stare he wears for Rodinon and Unamo. It’s an act, of course: Phasma might utilize one of the many strategies Brendol has reviewed for them that involves turning early on one’s District partner. But it’s discouraged in Two, where everyone is taught to view themselves as superior to even the weak and sentimental denizens of the Capitol. Brendol famously fought to the death against his Two counterpart in his own Games, working with her until the very end and finally striking her down.

Hux doesn’t plan to keep Phasma around quite that long, but he’s pragmatic enough to realize that he’ll need her help from the start. For this reason, he doesn’t tell her his actual game plan, which developed at some point between his defeat by Ben Solo and his sad attempt to wank in the shower. He nods along with her while Rodinon and Unamo ‘generously’ offer to team up with them until the Tributes for the weaker Districts are mowed down. They agree to leave each other untouched until it’s just the four of them left, everyone certainly imagining they’ll make their move against the alliance before then. But none, Hux hopes, planning to make the precise move that he will.

He glances across the room, at the table where Ben Solo sits with the girl from his District. Her name is Barley, as if her fate wasn’t already cruel enough. She’s pushing food around on her plate and looking so pale that Hux half expects her to just shove the spires of her fork into her throat and be done with it. Suicide during the training period has happened before, and so have escape attempts. The tributes aren’t replaced in these instances; both are rare enough. The Tributes who kill themselves are considered bested by the others, their Districts disgraced, provisions docked by the Capitol so severely that famines have occurred. The would-be escapees are always caught, of course, and saddled with injuries that make them easy targets when they’re launched into the Games.

Hux tries not to look at Ben Solo a second time during the meal, but as a hush falls over the room when the lights dim and a screen lowers over a small stage, he glances at Ben again. Ben is not speaking to Barley, but he’s allowing her to sit with him while he shovels food into his mouth, eyes on his plate. Interesting. Hux’s pants are so tight that he can feel the shape of the note he wrote back in his hotel room, folded with precise corners that make it seem as sharp as a concealed weapon against his thigh.

The screen flickers on and everyone turns, some cringing more visibly than others. Looking at President Snoke is uncomfortable, and not just because of his scars. Snoke’s gaze ice-blasts the most unforgiving scrutiny Hux has ever known, and as someone who spends much of his time with Brendol he’s no stranger to it. Snoke’s is different in that he looks like he’s not just judging you but also amusing himself by imagining all the ways he could kill you with impunity during even the mildest conversation. Hux has had the displeasure of speaking to him in person several times at post-Games events over the years. The memories are burned onto him like brands, like having been in the presence of Death itself and wiggled free with a layer of his soul razored away.

On the screen, Snoke is sitting at his desk in his palatial residence, flanked by two of his masked guards. They wear all black and their masks are largely featureless, their weapons concealed beneath heavy robes. They never speak, and Snoke never speaks of them or to them, at least not in the presence of the public. His unwillingness to acknowledge that they are there, as if they are demons who might otherwise turn on him, is part of their effectiveness. Hux assumes they’re Avoxes who are strong enough or skilled enough to act as bodyguards; they have stopped all of Snoke’s would-be assassins so far. When he was a boy he thought they were ghosts, people who were already dead. Brendol Jr. had laughed and told him they were just the Knights, selfless warriors like the ones in old stories, sworn to protect the king.

“Honored tributes,” Snoke says, after a long pause to stare at each of them. It’s a two-way broadcast, of course. “Welcome to your Games. I encourage you to think of them that way. As your Games. They are unique, could never be replicated even if we reused the exact conditions of your Arena, and even for those of you who will make the ultimate sacrifice, that moment of triumph or defeat will belong to you.”

Snoke’s eyes pass over the assembled Tributes again, as if to make sure that each of them understands what he’s actually saying: most of you will die soon, and there’s no escape.

“I encourage you to enjoy your time here at our state of the art training facility,” Snoke continues-- taunting those in attendance who have never seen such polished environs before and will die having known only these. “And I hope you are taking your training period very seriously. It is made available to encourage your success and establish a level playing field, as you know.”

Phasma’s shoulder twitches with a mostly concealed scoff. Hux’s blood goes cold when Snoke’s dark eyes slide to them as if he heard that.

“I look forward to watching you compete,” he says, and he seems to be speaking directly to Phasma and Hux. “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

The transmission cuts off abruptly after that, and the lights come up. For a moment nobody moves. Even Ben Solo has stopped eating and is still staring at the spot on the screen where Snoke’s grim visage appeared.

Phasma exhales and glances at Hux, who isn’t sure that he’s ever seen her look scared before.

“Here’s to the level playing field,” she says, cheerful again when she lifts her glass of water as if to toast.

Rodinon and Unamo just stare. Hux wonders, watching Phasma gulp water down like it’s a stiff drink that she’s badly in need of, how many times her give-no-fucks attitude has been fake in the past.

There’s a dessert station with a spread of prissily decorated cakes and delicate-looking cookies. It’s mostly untouched, the well-trained Tributes loading up on cleaner nutrients and the hopeless sad sacks too panicked to have an appetite for anything beyond a few spoonfuls of rice. Hux doesn’t normally care for sweets. Phasma might know this, but it’s possible that she’s never considered that paying attention to Hux’s eating habits could be important. Whether or not it will draw suspicion from her, he can’t pass up his chance when he sees Ben alone at the dessert station, slopping some kind of cobbler onto the same plate he just ate steak and potatoes off of. Trust someone from Twelve to not know that you can ask for a clean one.

“Hello,” Hux says under his breath when he’s standing at Ben’s shoulder. He already has the note hidden against the palm of his hand, and isn’t surprised when Ben doesn’t respond with anything but a glance that feels like a warning not to get any closer. “Mhm, lime cheesecake. Sounds disgusting.”

Ben says nothing but looks at Hux again, this time with curiosity.

Hux sets the note on the dessert table, beside a silver container of strawberry sauce. He’s not signed it, and took care to write in handwriting that doesn’t resemble his own. Ben might leave it sitting there, and if he picks it up he might still ignore it, and might be unable to do as it asks even if he wants to. Hux has always assumed the Tributes from the lesser Districts are more heavily guarded prior to the start of the Games. He’s already worked out a way to slip out of his room later, undetected, at least to get as far as the common area on the boys’ dormitory floor. Ben may not have the same resources.

“Best to stick with the classics, I feel,” Hux says, and he grabs a handful of cinnamon twists before hurrying back to his table.

By the time he gets there, Ben has returned to his own table. Ben doesn’t spare Hux another glance, concentrating fully on eating his cobbler out of a puddle of steak sauce. Hux looks at the dessert station, his heart slamming. He stuffs a cinnamon twist into his mouth to keep from grinning when he sees that the note is gone.

Phasma makes no smartass remarks about his trip to the dessert station or words exchanged with Ben, and Hux isn’t sure if this is a sign of her failure to assign any importance to it or of her waiting to see what if anything will come of it. Back in the suite with Brendol, Hux gets ready for bed and braces himself for some late evening chastising. Brendol was drinking at dinner and has already helped himself to more from the wet bar in the room. When no angry knock on his bedroom door comes, Hux lies in bed feeling anxious and watching the clock, waiting for the hour of his appointment, the words from his note playing on a loop in his head.

Lobby at half past midnight, come alone.

As if Ben might have otherwise brought his mentor, a sad old hermit from Twelve who somehow won his Games forty years ago. District 12 hasn’t had a Victor since then.

Hux predicted that the door to their suite would open without need of Brendol’s access card, and he’s glad to find that he’s right, though this also makes his hands shake as he slips out into the empty hallway. Surely there are cameras monitoring his every move, but he’s got no concern for Games officials finding out what he plans to do, so long as his fellow Careers aren’t tipped off. None of them are as well-connected as Hux; tiresome as it’s been in general and despite mentoring so poor that it even failed Hux’s brother, being Brendol’s son at least offers this advantage. Brendol quickly learned that even being a Victor from Two wouldn’t mean much for long if you didn’t get to work kissing the right asses, and he’s always had more ambition than pride. People still hate him, of course, but he has a collection of affiliations that scare them, such as the fact that he answers to Rae, and it’s not for nothing that Hux has already met President Snoke twice.

Hux is running this through all this in his mind as he waits in the dark common room, hands clasped behind his back. He stares out at the glittering city and waits for the sound of a footstep from the hallway behind him. He took care to show up ten minutes earlier than the note suggested, wanting the upper ground at least in this sense. The common room and hallway remain silent, and when his spirits begin to sink he tells himself he doesn’t need Ben Solo’s secret allegiance to win the Games. It’s just one strategy; he has many others, and this one was spontaneous, maybe even ill-advised. Certainly so, it seems, when he checks the massive old clock at the far end of the room and sees that it’s almost one o’clock in the morning.

“Fine, you cocky fucker,” Hux mutters, disappointed as he turns to go.

“Talking to me?”

The voice comes not from behind Hux but from the shadows of the nearest wall, not far from where Hux has been standing this entire time.

Hux curses again when Ben Solo steps into just enough light to reveal the shine of his eyes, the point of his long nose and a smirk that he seems to be trying to suppress as he takes in Hux’s startled disbelief.

“How long have you been there?” Hux asks, dragging a shaking hand through his hair in an attempt to reorder himself.

“Longer than you. What do you want?”

“I-- I’d like not to have my time wasted, for one. Why didn’t you make yourself known? You were watching me all that time? What did you expect to see?”

Ben’s lips twitch into a proper smirk for half a second.

“I saw plenty,” he says. “Tell me what you want.”

“What do you think?” Hux frowns and clasps his hands behind his back, taking in Ben’s attire: all black, long sleeves and a high collar. So he planned this stupid surveillance trick. It’s theatrical, effective but only briefly, and Hux gathers himself up to his full height as Ben steps closer and studies his face.

“You’re supposed to start out with those other kids,” Ben says. “The Careers.”

“Not officially, but of course that’s how it usually goes.” Hux lowers his voice and checks the hallway. “Come over here,” he says, nodding to a darker alcove near the fire exit. “That is-- If you’re interested in working with me, in secret.”

He lets Ben study him again, taking care not to blink or to let anything but businesslike resolve show in his eyes.

“What’s in it for me,” Ben asks.

Hux nods to the alcove again, then walks there. He’s not sure if Ben will follow, and it gives him a disproportionate thrill when he hears him doing so.

“Favors,” Hux whispers when they’re hidden in the darkness together, away from the windows. “I’m a Two, very connected. I’d share things from my sponsors with you. I’m also the best shot here, and if one of us can get our hands on a long range weapon, I think we’d be unstoppable, between that and your obvious dominance at hand to hand combat.”

“Who says I won’t have my own sponsors.”

“Me,” Hux says. “Unless you plan to put on a charming show during the interviews?”

Ben swallows, and it’s the first hint Hux has seen of some sort of insecurity. It’s no surprise to learn that he’s aware that most people don’t like him; he doesn’t seem stupid, and wears his aggressiveness as a kind of armor.

“Am I the first to approach you?” Hux asks, not sure if he should expect the truth. He’s mostly asking to spare Ben the humiliation of admitting that an abrasive maniac from Twelve won’t have gifts raining down around his shoulders during the Games. Hux needs to defer to this boy’s pride, for now. This is a seduction, in a sense.

“You’re the first,” Ben says.

“I’m surprised.”

“Are you.”

“Yes. Others may make similar offers, including my fellow Tribute from Two. You obviously intended to impress us all during training today.”

“No.”

“No?”

“Just wanted to make sure none of you will be a problem once I run you down.”

“I see. Extreme straightforward-ism. Might work, unless I’m up in a tree with a bow and arrow while my friends draw you out. If you’re my only true friend, my arrows could pierce their necks instead.”

“Only true friend?” Ben scoffs. “Right.”

“I don’t need you to trust me yet. Just think about it. And we’d need to look like friends, yes, if we hope to get gifts you need as well. Otherwise I’m just using you for your brute strength and I’ll still be the favorite.”

Ben steps closer, crowding Hux against the door. If Hux takes another step backward he’ll set off the alarm, but he keeps perfectly still and stares up into Ben’s face.

“Or I’d be the favorite,” Ben says. “For doing the real work while your manipulative, entitled little ass thinks he’s pulling one over on me.”

“However it shakes out in the eyes of the audience,” Hux says, shrugging one shoulder, “I think you and I could do well if I seem to break out with the other Careers at the start, only to betray them once you show up for the slaughter. Then we could take out the others as a team, until it’s just the two of us.”

“You don’t really want to face me in the final battle.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You’ve only faced me in hand to hand combat. The Games don’t often make it that straightforward for the final two. Maybe I think I can outsmart you.”

Ben smiles. It’s a real smile, and it drops through Hux like an undetonated bomb, ticking.

“Okay,” Ben says.

“Okay?”

“We can do your plan. Separate at first. I’ll kill five or so on my own. You should be able to manage the same between you and the other three Careers.”

“We’ll surely kill more than five!” Hux says, laughing at Ben’s classless overestimation of himself.

“Then we take out the Careers together,” Ben says, as if Hux hasn’t spoken. “Then we see what comes next.”

“Indeed,” Hux says. “So we have a deal?”

“As long as you’re not fucking with me. If you are, I’ll make it painful for you.”

Implied in that is: your death, which I will eventually engineer.

Hux feels himself smiling, the same smile he’s always been told is scary. Ben doesn’t flinch, but the amusement has drained from his face.

“I thought maybe you were asking me to fuck you,” Ben says. “When you passed me your little note.”

Hux recoils, heat from what feels like a bomb blast spreading within him. “Don’t flatter yourself. What kind of idiot would be thinking of that now?”

“The kind who might be dead in three days.”

Hux looks away without thinking about what this break in eye contact means: a concession, a sign that Ben has managed to rile him. When he looks back, Ben’s face is still a stoic mask, but there’s something victorious in his eyes, like a laugh.

“You really think you’re going to win,” Ben says.

“You can waste time pretending that you know you will if you like,” Hux says. “But you wouldn’t have met me out here if you didn’t need help. We can go far together if we don’t fritter away our energy posturing for each other.”

Ben considers this, and Hux notices that his stylists have done something nice to his hair. The waves are softer now, shining in the soft light that the city throws into the room.

Funny. Hux had thought they might hack it all off, to make him look more like an unhinged killer. But perhaps they had the same thought Hux did when he came up with this plan: Ben needs to pretend otherwise until there’s nothing left of pretense and no gifts raining down from the sky for anyone, until the Game itself has ripped of its mask and dissolved into what it really is, naked and blood-soaked, snarling.

“I should get back,” Hux says, growing unnerved in the presence of Ben’s combination of static and kinetic energy, like a thing warring with itself and giving off a low frequency buzz of warning to anything in range. “Tomorrow we’ll meet again, yes?”

“For a fuck this time?”

Ben smirks when Hux steps away without responding to that, glad that he chose to do this in the dark. He didn’t expect his face to get as red as it did when Ben bested him on the mat during training, but even the dullest joke about sex has always set him off.

And it’s certainly a joke. It’s not as if Ben could be serious.

In bed, Hux tosses and turns for an hour before giving in and shoving his hand into his underwear. When he’s finished he’s panting, still thinking vaguely of being fucked in a shadowy corner. He never has been, in a shadowy corner or otherwise.

One day left to see to that, some evil thing inside him warns. But no: he’ll have this whole life after the Games. Tonight wasn’t just about seeking out a useful alliance. He was also gathering intelligence, and already has some ideas about how Ben might be outsmarted in the end, based on his style of intimidation. The start of the televised interviews tomorrow will likely provide additional intel.

Hux will prevail. He must. He clings to his pillow and tries not to think of Brendol Jr.’s last grasping moments, the way his hands had clawed at the disintegrating ground and then at the air. He tries not to let his mind wander to the future either, but the thought of waiting until after the Games to have sex makes him envision his most optimistic future the way he’s long imagined it: a life like Rae’s, of solitude and respect, ambition and vigilance, no room or will for anything else.

 

**

Chapter Text

Hux sleeps in jerky fits and starts, waking from dreams about his brother and others that are less clear, murky threats shifting about until something achieves enough clarity to pounce out of the indistinct gloom and snap him into heart-pounding wakefulness. It’s normal, he supposes, with the Games just a day away. But he’s also tempted to blame Ben Solo, because most of these dream assailants leap out of a shadowy place not unlike the one where he hid, watching Hux in silence, presumably for signs of weakness.

It’s an odd strategy, even for someone as openly odd as Ben, since he revealed himself as soon as Hux turned to leave. Hux sits up in bed and blinks at the dim, foggy dawn through the room’s blinds. Beyond the door, he can hear Brendol moving about in the main living area, barking orders related to his morning coffee. Presumably he’s speaking to one of the Avoxes that services their room. Hux thinks of his mother and wants to crawl back under the blankets. He should ask Brendol how to handle the questions that might come; no one else will know how to advise him, and Brendol is his mentor in all things, at least officially. But he’s also the last person Hux wants to speak with frankly on the subject.  

Hux dresses in his training uniform and smoothes his hair down with his hands. He looks paler than usual, obviously not well-rested, and he thinks of pinching his cheeks to put some color in them, but the idea of it disgusts him, like all preoccupations with vanity. It will be a trying day on that front: the parade through the city at sundown and the interviews to follow. His stomach twists, and he remembers Rae’s advice: eat well before the Games, whatever happens. Throw up if you must, then eat again. Hux had been insulted by the implication that he would be nervous enough to get sick, but the smell of bacon that greets him when he leaves his room, and the sight of the grease it’s left behind on Brendol’s lips, is already enough to make his stomach lurch.

It’s not the Games, or the threat of death. It’s the thought of discussing his mother: now, with Brendol, and later, in front of everyone.

“I’ll give you something to help you sleep after the interviews tonight,” Brendol says, watching Hux’s juice-pouring technique for any sign of a shake in his hand. This offer isn’t a kindness; it’s a scathing remark on how pathetic it is for Hux to have clearly suffered a fitful sleep.

“Once they’re done I’ll be fine,” Hux says. “I don’t like the idea of making a show of myself, that’s all.”

“Don’t be dim, it’s all a show. And the presentation of your confidence to the other Tributes is extremely important.”

“I know--”

“Don’t interrupt me! We can watch the recording of your brother’s interview. His was exceptional, as I’m sure you recall.”

Hux nods and drops his gaze to his plate. He’s glad for the knock on the room’s door, even when it turns out to be Phasma. With her here, there’s no way Hux is bringing up the subject of his mother, though she’s probably heard the gossip back home. The fact that she’s never taunted him about it is evidence that she either doubts the rumors or considers that subject off-limits for some reason. No other subject ever has been, aside from Brendol Jr.’s death. She hasn’t dared speak his name in front of Hux since they all watched the Games when it happened. It’s likely out of respect for Hux’s brother more than for Hux himself. Phasma liked Brendol Jr., too. Everybody did, aside perhaps from the Tributes he murdered before his own death.

“Stage two of grooming today,” Phasma says when her own lips are shining with bacon grease. “I hope they won’t try anything stupid on me. I have an established aesthetic.”

Hux snorts. Brendol is ignoring them both, frowning down at some report on his handheld.

“What would they even try?” Hux asks. “Hair extensions?”

“I’d never allow it,” Phasma says, running her fingers over the closely shorn bits at the back of her head. “Long hair is just something for your enemy to grab hold of.”

“Tell that to Ben Solo.”

“I don’t think I will, in fact. I wonder if they’ll try to make him look gentlemanly for the cameras.”

She smirks at the idea, and Hux can’t help doing the same. He also can’t help the heat that rises to his cheeks at the thought of Ben, largely having to do with that meeting the night before. He’s only flustered at the mention of Ben’s name because he needs Phasma to suspect nothing. Not because he spent some of his sleepless night wondering if Ben could have possibly been sincere about the two of them sealing their pact with a last chance fuck before the Games.

Hux has already ruled it out: that sort of thing would expose all manner of weaknesses, and whatever Ben’s experience with such matters is, Hux has had exactly none, so his own weakness would feature prominently. He’s glad to have Ben’s purported cooperation, but Ben remains his biggest threat when it comes to long-term strategy, and the last thing he’s going to do is let his most ferocious competitor see him gasping and trembling through an orgasm.

Ben certainly said that to get into his head, regardless of whether or not he would follow through with it. Hux is annoyed at how well Ben’s attempt to infiltrate him with useless mental static worked, and is determined not to think about the way Ben’s grin mostly happened in his dark eyes, as opposed to on those fat, crooked lips of his.

Hux searches the observation deck for Rae during training, desperate for her to show up. Her presence grounds him, and one glimpse of her exacting stare would surely banish frivolous thoughts about Ben Solo’s mouth from Hux’s mind. Rae assured him that she would of course be in the Capitol during the Games, but it’s beneath her to watch tributes train along with the mentors and Gamemakers. She’s probably rubbing elbows with much more influential people somewhere out of sight. Hux envies her, and reminds himself that he’s already working on his goal of becoming just like her someday.

First step, unskippable: become a respected Victor of District Two.

Today’s training session is brief due to what comes next: prep teams primping the tributes for the parade through the city. The training is only perfunctory at this stage, mostly designed to let the tributes evaluate their competition, but something in Hux still feels insulted at the shortened time for practical preparations in favor of camera-readiness. He’s not looking forward to finding out what costumes he’ll be dressed in, or how they’ll correspond to Phasma’s. Every year that Maratelle was alive he had to endure her tedious commentary on the quality of the costumes. Even Brendol claims that this presentation has some kind of significance, but Hux can’t fully buy into this. His brother looked glorious in his chariot before the Games, untouchable. None of it helped when he was gasping his last panicked breaths on the broadcast.

Killing time at the tree climbing station, Hux instructs himself to stop bringing every developing thought process around to Brendol Jr. and his failure. He still hasn’t decided what he’ll say about his brother during the interview. Perhaps there’s no point in rehearsing it in his mind. He’ll likely be angered by the questions, unable to hide it, and hopefully this will give the impression that he’s possessed by a dangerous sense of revenge and a special determination to reclaim the family’s honor.

While catching his breath, perched high in a synthetic tree, Hux scans the room for a complete evaluation of the tributes on day two. Phasma is showing off at the axe station, halving heavy logs in two with single blows while Thanisson and Mitaka observe, both looking as if she’s lulled them into a kind of trance. Rey is practicing with slingshots while seeming to keep the corner of her eye on the activity at the surrounding stations. Poe and Finn are practicing making a hammock together, for some reason. Their heads are bowed over their work, and Hux notes that they’re muttering to each other almost constantly while seeming to make an effort to move their lips as subtly as possible. Interesting.

Ben is sitting cross-legged at the edible insects and plants station, half-watching an interactive video while he flicks his gaze here and there. He spots Hux and stares openly, which makes Hux frown with disapproval. They shouldn’t risk even the slightest sign that they’ve made contact with each other; even the meeting in the open lounge was risky, but Hux had no alternative. He shimmies down the synthetic tree. Once he’s at its base he checks to make sure Ben has refocused his attention. He hasn’t, and he seems amused by Hux’s second glance. As if he knew Hux would look again. It makes Hux almost regret that he’s aligned himself with this sloppy hick. He makes his way toward the slingshot station, resenting that this whole process seems like a game to Ben, and not in the proper sense of the word.

Rey departs for another station as soon as Hux arrives at the slingshots, and he practices alone with them for a while, hoping that he won’t actually need to use such a rudimentary weapon at any point. He’s able to master the mechanism of each available slingshot, taking care not to reveal how good his aim would be if he weren’t adjusting each shot a bit to make it slightly off-center. He can feel approximately three sets of eyes on him at all times, not counting the Gamemakers or mentors. Ben at least has the sense not to approach him at any point during the training session, but almost every time Hux checks Ben’s location, Ben’s gaze snaps to his as if he’s felt Hux’s attention on him like an electric charge. It’s eerie, but perhaps Ben is looking at Hux every five minutes or so regardless.

They’re shuttled directly to their prep teams after training, and though Hux is not looking forward to being plucked and snipped at again, let alone what comes next, he’s glad the final parade costume fitting takes place in a windowless room with no competitors or even mentors in view.

“This is what you’ll wear for the evening interviews,” Gregor says, unzipping a garment bag to reveal a fine-looking gray blazer and darker gray slacks, accented with a soft purple shirt. The colors correspond with the ones they dressed him in for the banquet. “Understated,” Gregor says as Hux examines everything, relieved that it’s not more ostentatious but still not looking forward to donning this for television. “The idea is that you’re a businesslike type, cool and calculating.”

“I am like that.”

“Yes, I gathered. I think it will help you get far, adhering to that persona until you’ve got a knife to someone’s throat. People would love to see the buttoned-up Victor’s son go berserk when the time is right.”

Hux wants to sneer and remind this man that it’s not his job to tell Tributes when to put knives where and how, but he restrains himself and undresses, noting that he no longer looks unrested and wan when he peeks at his reflection in the three-way mirror. They’ve positioned him in front of it like a doll, and the three assistants are scanning him for any imperfections that might have surfaced since they last surveyed him. Hux tries not to fidget, especially when Gregor holds his head between both hands and stands behind him, narrowing his eyes at Hux’s reflection as if he’s testing it somehow.

“Yes,” Gregor says when he finally releases Hux and motions to one of his assistants. “This will do.”

“What will?” Hux asks.

Gregor smiles slightly. It’s a worrying look, on him.

“As you know, the theme of rock is very overdone for District Two tributes,” he says. “As are direct inversions of the theme-- It’s so obvious. I’m including my own past work in this criticism, of course. But I do have a particular fondness for the styling I used when your brother competed, and since you’re related--”

There’s a closet on the wall across from the mirrors. Gregor slides it open while Hux stares at his reflection and tries not to sink too deeply into memories of Brendol Jr.’s pre-Games parade. They’d seen him in person, in his costume, just before he left for the chariot line-up. Hux remembers touching the cape, at his brother’s urging.

“I feel like a magician,” Brendol Jr. said, and he winked when Hux gaped at him, surprised that he would make light of his moment in front of Brendol Sr., who had been too overcome with pride to notice.

“A cape, really?” Hux says when Gregor swirls around with the unveiled parade costume. He feels something heavy settle in his heart; it’s not a pain, exactly. It’s something almost comforting, though also very dense, and excess weight of any kind is not something he can afford to bring into the arena.  

“It’s regal,” Gregor says, draping the cape around Hux’s shoulders. “And the District Two tributes are the royalty of the Games, are they not?”

“Not technically.”

“You’re really nothing like your brother,” Gregor says, removing the cape.

“That’s the third time you’ve said so.”

Brendol Jr. could carry the cape, the gold embellishments that shone like medals won in some imaginary war, even the tight white pants. He looked like a king beside the beautiful, brawny girl from Two who competed with him, their arms raised for the cheering crowd. Their smiles were real. The girl was named Veena. She survived to the final three, only to be killed by the ultimate Victor, the girl from District One, just before she killed the runner-up from Eight.

“You know we had different mothers,” Hux says, meeting Gregor’s eyes in the mirror.

He didn’t plan this comment but doesn’t regret it even when all of the assistants go still, then hurry to look busy again. Gregor lifts his eyebrows slightly. Hux should have considered this sooner: it’s a way to practice what he might have to confess during the live interview tonight.

“That’s the rumor,” Gregor says, eyebrows still up. “But there are always all sorts of those floating around just before the Games, especially about our District Two Tributes.”

“Well, this one is true.” Hux squares his shoulders. “Hence our differences.”

“Are you concerned about your interview?”

“Of course not.” Hux swallows, uncomfortable with what feels like an instance of mind reading. “Why would I be?”

“Your mother, your brother-- It’s a lot. I say let them pick you apart and think they’ve gotten to you, if it comes to that. In the arena you’ll have your father’s legacy and your mother’s bold rebel spirit. Your brother only got so far with just one of those things.”

“I might have you reported for calling it a bold rebel spirit,” Hux says, glowering at what feels like a cruel dig at his brother.

“Merely trying to give it a positive spin,” Gregor says. Hux isn’t sure how to interpret his wink, and his heart is still beating too fast as the assistants help him remove the near-replica of Brendol Jr.’s parade costume, zipping it away for later. The cape is different, anyway: more delicate, he fears, the red interior laced with cutouts like dripping blood.

The rest of the day is spent preparing for the evening’s interviews, which for Hux means sulking alone in his room and wondering where Brendol is. He wishes again that Rae would show up, though he’s not sure what advice she would impart that they haven’t gone over many times already. Mostly he wants to speak with someone who is direct with him, and not in the way that Brendol is. Everyone else is doing a carefully calculated dance around their true intentions. Hux isn’t good at that. He tries to believe what Gregor said, possibly with sincerity: that his particular combination of legacy training and dirty, violent spirit will serve him well, but in truth he’s never felt like he had much in common with his mother. He’s made some attempts to research her exact crimes, and how her relationship to Brendol and resulting pregnancy factored in, but it’s all been hushed up. Maybe after he’s a Victor he’ll have clearance to learn more, but it’s likely to be thrown in his face before that. If Gregor knows something of the rumor, there’s no doubt that obnoxious host Threepio has several provocative note cards prepared on the subject.

When he finally hears Brendol come in it’s nearly time to report for the parade and he’s wasted an afternoon that he should have spent visiting the lounge for protein and covert observation of the other Tributes. He’s partially been avoiding Ben Solo, but he tells himself he was really waiting for his father, and he’s in a sour mood about how long it took Brendol to return by the time he emerges from his room.

“About ready to get this circus over with?” Brendol asks. The slight cheery edge in his tone indicates that he’s been having cocktails with fellow Victors in some shadowy lounge, but not enough to launch him into full drunkenness, which usually involves a mood that has nothing to do with cheer.

“Yes, I’m anxious to be done with it.” Hux winces at the word anxious, wishing he’d chosen a different one. Brendol is pouring himself a fresh drink and doesn’t seem to have noticed. “I thought I might--” Hux says, rushing this out before he can reconsider. Brendol turns, still pouring. “Might ask you if there’s anything I need to know about my mother,” Hux says. His voice is steady, expression calm. It’s a good dry run for what will happen later, even if his heart is racing again. “I simply don’t want to be taken by surprise,” Hux explains when Brendol just stares at him, swirling bourbon in his glass.

“Simply,” Brendol repeats, mimicking him. He takes another drink and sneers. Hux may have overestimated what appeared to be a good mood.

“Well--” Hux is already stammering, and he curses himself internally for taking a step backward when Brendol moves toward him. “I only thought-- You know how they are, how they try to, to invent something sensational--”

“Sensational?”

Historically, having Brendol throw his words back at him at an increased volume has not been a good sign. Hux braces himself and focuses on maintaining his composure. It’s not like the old man is drunk enough to hit him just before he goes on camera.

“I’m only asking if there’s anything I need to know that only you could tell me,” Hux says, evenly and without the hint of sarcastic accusation that he’d like to imbue this with. “If there isn’t, then we have nothing to talk about.”

Brendol finishes his drink and puts the glass on a stand near the giant television that is powered off at the moment. He turns back to Hux and looks him over. They’ve both always been opaque to the other, verging on incomprehensible. Hux has often wondered if it’s to do with his mother: who she is, how Brendol felt about her once, or some combination of the two.

“If they ask,” Brendol says, conspiratorial now, “Tell them you’ve no memories of her. That you were raised by respectable people who welcomed you into their home out of the goodness of their hearts. Which is true.”

Hux nods. It’s true enough; Maratelle was never warm toward him but she wasn’t cruel, and Brendol Jr. treated him like a full brother. Brendol Sr. was and is another story, but he didn’t make Hux live in the kitchens.

“You’ve never asked me about your mother before,” Brendol says, eyes narrowing.

“I--” Hux hopes he’s getting all his stammering out now, pre-interview. “It didn’t seem relevant,” he says, as casually as he can.

“Indeed it’s not. Laugh at them if they try to embarrass you out there. Not out loud, only with your eyes. They’re grotesque puppets who are trying to make an audience gasp. You’re a warrior.”

Hux nods, so taken off guard by this praise that he doesn’t trust it and braces himself for whatever comes next.

“I hope they haven’t dressed you in anything humiliating,” Brendol says, eying Hux like he’ll be to blame if they have.

“There’s a cape,” Hux says.

He feels himself turning red when he pictures Brendol Jr. in his own, all those years ago, and how it had seemed fitting, flowing down from his far broader shoulders. He knows Brendol must be thinking of it, too, and keeps perfectly still as he watches him return to the bar for more bourbon.

“Soon all the pageantry will be over,” Brendol says. Something about the way he mutters this, darkly and as if he’s speaking to himself, makes Hux worry for the first time that his father might not actually expect him to survive.

An aide comes to collect Hux for the parade when Brendol has dozed off on the couch, empty glass perched over his thigh. Hux is glad he’ll have an hour of nothing more taxing than standing and waving from the chariot beside Phasma, though he’s never liked being gawked at. It’s a fact of the Games, and one he’s had a long time to brace himself for. He’s got a better shot at being charming while all he’s expected to do is wave and smile. He’ll also have the opportunity to laugh at whatever they’ve dressed Phasma in, and may crane his neck to try and spot Ben Solo’s costume at the back of the procession. For laughing purposes, of course.

It annoys him quite a bit when he joins Phasma in the staging area and sees that she looks resplendent, as if she has ascended to some kind of actual royal status just by donning a costume. It’s her height, in part, but also the way she carries herself in the shining red dress and chain mail-like cape that make her appear to be some combination of an empress and a knight.

“That red clashes with your hair,” she says after looking Hux over.

“Good,” Hux says. It’s indeed a good sign that she can’t come up with anything worse to say. “Hopefully people will assume I’m too focused on more important things to notice something so petty. Better than behaving like a peacock.”

“The whole point of this event is to be as peacock-like as possible!”

Hux disagrees, but can’t contest that Phasma outshines him during the chariot ride, though they both catch their share of gifts thrown from the roaring crowd. It’s mostly flowers, but Hux also catches a faux gold, lightweight chain that someone seems to have thrown just for him. After wrapping it around his wrist, he waves and searches the crowd, trying to identify the thrower, not sure what he’s looking for.

On the screens that line the parade route, there are flashes of each chariot. Hux glances at them perhaps overmuch, waiting to time it right so that he can see what District Twelve is wearing. When he finally does, he almost chokes on something. He’s not sure if it’s a laugh or protest.

Someone has had the brilliant idea to leave Ben Solo shirtless for the parade. Hux isn’t sure it’s ever been done before, but he can understand the stylist’s choice when he allows himself to stare and then to make another sound of protest, thankfully so buried by the crowd noise that even Phasma doesn’t notice, when the view changes to a shot of District Five’s chariot. The scene on Twelve’s chariot is burned firmly into Hux’s mind already: Ben, shirtless, in brown suede pants so fitted that they border on lewd, wild hair tossed back while he glowers at the crowd like he means to threaten it. Beside him, they’ve put Barley in a flowy white dress, her shell-shocked face just as white, a flower crown in her hair. The dichotomy is striking, maybe even vulgar: the unadorned beast and the innocent who is soon to be sacrificed, no sense in pretending otherwise. People with either be outraged or enamored, but probably somewhere between the two: titillated. The most favored sensation in the Capitol.

The post-parade assemblage back at the training center is somewhat chaotic as people are shuffled to and fro, ushered toward their stylists for the change into interview attire. Hux unclips his cape and folds it over his arm, feeling a sentimental urge to hug it to his chest after he has. It’s not the same one Brendol Jr. wore, but it seems suddenly imbued with his spirit. He strokes his hand over it before thinking about the fact that one of the other Tributes might have seen this gesture, which is surely some kind of sign of weakness. When he looks up, shirtless Ben Solo is staring at him. He’s on the other side of the holding area, but the room they’re in is small enough that Hux can see that Ben’s nipples are erect. His face burns as he drags his eyes back up to Ben’s, and he scowls as subtly as he can when Ben’s eyebrows lift slightly.

“My, my,” Phasma says, suddenly at Hux’s shoulder. Even in all her regal dressings, she smells heavily of cheese danish at the moment. “I suppose if they can’t make him charming, they have to make him rustically sexual or some such.”

“Rustically sexual?” Hux turns his scowl on her. “That’s not a thing.”

“Isn’t it? Have a look, it’s standing right there. Staring at you, in fact.”

Hux moves away from her, puts his back to Ben and makes a mental note to lecture Ben on not exposing their alliance with this ridiculous staring. When Gregor appears, Hux is glad to hurry away from Ben’s attention, and hopes he’s only imagining that he can feel Ben watching him go.

“You did well,” Gregor says, making no comment about the fact that Hux has removed the cape himself. “Letting Phasma shine was the right move at this stage.”

“Yes, that was my strategy.” Hux isn’t sure if he sounds sarcastic or not. He’s already starting to wilt from the long day of being around masses of people, and the most exposing part of it is still to come.

When they’re all marched out to the pre-interview holding area, Hux is relieved to see that Ben is now wearing a shirt and that Phasma doesn’t look quite as resplendent as she did during the parade. Her dress is a simple gold column that hugs her hips, accented by striking black bracelets that start at her wrists and go up to just beneath her biceps. Her heavy black eyeliner is probably intended to make her look fierce, but to Hux she just looks suddenly older than eighteen. Ben’s outfit is all black, accented with what look like crows’ feathers on his shoulders and featuring pants that are again a bit too tight for good taste, buttons running up the sides.

“You look like a real estate agent,” Phasma says of Hux’s understated blazer and slacks.

“As if I care,” Hux says. He straightens his cuffs. “This can’t be over soon enough.”

“You’re nervous.”

“All these years we’ve trained together and you still can’t read me at all.”

Phasma barks a laugh that draws the attention of the other Tributes who are milling about. “We’ll see,” she says, lowering her voice and bringing her mouth close to Hux’s ear, “In the arena. Which of us reads the other right, in the end.”

They’ve been threatening each other with vague allusions to eventual murder since they were children, but something about this, now, on the eve of the Games, marks the first time Hux has been truly chilled by anything she’s said to him. He keeps his expression neutral and swats at her with a distracted gesture, as if she’s an insect buzzing too close to his ear.

His gut has twisted up by the time they bring Threepio out to the main stage for his mic check. Rodinon and Unamo are first up, and they shouldn’t be a hard act to follow. Hux knows he’ll seem like a cold fish compared to Phasma: she’s loud, relishes attention of any sort and knows how to make simpering idiots like Threepio laugh when it’s to her advantage. Hux doesn’t care about giving a bland impression so long as he doesn’t come off as too lifeless to inspire sponsors, and then there’s the far worse fear of having an emotional reaction dragged out of him by questions about his brother or mother.

He tells himself there’s no point in perspiring about it now, as Rodinon and Unamo take the stage to cheers from the crowd. Hux glances back at the pairs of Tributes who are lined up behind them, in descending District order. Ben, the tallest, is at the very back. Staring at Hux, of course. He doesn’t smile, even in a mocking way that remains only in his eyes, but also doesn’t look nervous. Barley is hovering so close to him that Hux wonders if they’ve come up with some kind of fake romance strategy of their own. He’s surprised Ben is allowing her cheek to nearly brush his shoulder, at any rate.

“Welcome to my favorite part of the Hunger Games!” Threepio says, addressing the audience once Rodinon and Unamo are seated and the live broadcast is rolling. Hux grew up watching Threepio do these things, and every year he looks less like a human and more like some kind of human-cyborg combination. His presentation style tilts dizzily from childlike glee over the Games to dismal, morbid reminders that most Tributes are being sent to their doom at dawn tomorrow. The crowd loves this. Hux has always found Threepio revolting, even when he was drawing easy smiles from Brendol Jr.

“Tonight, we get to know the Tributes you’ve seen in the parade and training footage on a far more personal level,” Threepio continues, crossing one bony knee over the other. “Which always proves so exciting! Here, as always, we begin with our District One Tributes--”

Hux mostly tunes out while Rodinon and Unamo answer Threepio’s questions. His heartbeat has become too rapid and bone-shaking to allow for quality listening. He both hopes and fears that Rae is watching this. They’ll likely have it on in the kitchen at the Hux residence, all of the servants allowed a break to watch while Brendol is away. Or forced to watch, in Hux’s mother’s case. He doesn’t know her, not really, but he knows she must hate the Games, the Capitol, Threepio. All of it.

“Well, thank you very much for that illuminating look at how District One prepares for the Games!” Threepio says, with a hint of sarcasm as Rodinon and Unamo both stare at him, stone-faced as ever. “Wishing you both the best of luck.”

He seems glad to be rid of them and makes some further comment that has the audience laughing. Hux feels the stage manager prodding him when Phasma walks forward ahead of him. Hux follows her blindly, no longer even sure what he’s so afraid of. Being seen, maybe. As he walks across the stage behind Phasma, the roar of the crowd like boiling water filling his ears, he feels like no one has ever really looked at him before now. With the possible exception of Ben Solo.

Something about the thought of Ben’s awkward intensity calms him, and he manages to smile out at the crowd as he sits beside Phasma.

“Aren’t you two dressed sharply!” Threepio says. “District Two is always so fashionable. Your presentation in the parade was simply magnificent, if I may say so.”

“You may,” Phasma says, with a glittering smile that makes the crowd laugh. “And thank you. I suppose I’m biased, but I think we have the most talented style teams in the competition.”

“And yet the time for style is almost past,” Threepio says, giving the camera a somber stare. His notecards are balanced on his knee. Hux imagines a typed notation on one of them: MOTHER IS AVOX: MAKE SURE TO MENTION! BROTHER DIED IN GAMES; FATHER IS VICTOR. These are the things that boil down to who Hux is: the people in his life who’ve already had their own adventures, win or lose.

“I always assume the Tributes from Two are eager to enter the arena,” Threepio says. “Your District is known for his bravery and preparedness. Would you say that you two are looking forward to daybreak tomorrow, or is it perhaps more complicated?”

“No complications at all,” Phasma says, shaking her head. “Until we see which ones they have in store for us inside the arena.”

“And are you anxious to discover what those are?” Threepio asks. Hux goes tense when he realizes this question was directed to at him. “The Gamemakers prize themselves on surprising all the Tributes, after all. Even those from Two.”

“Anxious isn’t the right word,” Hux says, staring Threepio down and thinking of Rae: what she would say now and what she did say then, when she sat here and stared at this same obnoxious person. “Ready, is what I’d call it. Phas and I are both ready to assess the layout of the arena and proceed accordingly.”

That second statement was a bit dry and robotic, and he shouldn’t have used a nickname for Phasma-- Where did that even come from? He’s never called her that, and he can feel her glancing at him with amusement.

“Now there’s one thing that’s unique to some of the more-- Shall we say, sophisticated Districts,” Threepio says, playing to this crowd of those who consider themselves the most sophisticated of all. “You two must have grown up together, training and whatnot. Armitage, I know your father teaches strategy and combat at the Academy in your District, and that you two must have at least gone to school together there. Is there a real friendship between you?”

The question takes Hux so off guard that he barely contains surprised laughter. He looks to Phasma, daring her to answer. It’s her turn, anyway.

“We’re like siblings,” Phasma says, aiming her calculating smile at Hux, who feels it like an ice pick not plunging into but emerging painfully from his heart. She’s shifting the conversation on purpose. “I’m an only child, you see, so Armie has been the closest thing I’ve had to a brother. Fights and all, of course.”

Hux suppresses his sneer. She’s never used that nickname except to taunt him.

“Interesting!” Threepio says, clearly delighted to take her bait. “And Armitage, I can’t fail to mention that you did have a sibling, one who was very dear to all of us here when he prepared for his Games. It must be difficult, being here and thinking of your brother and the tragedy of his fate?”

The entire massive audience has gone silent, all of them studying Hux and awaiting his reaction. Hux suspects that even Phasma is holding her breath, waiting to see how her blow will land.

“I loved my brother,” Hux says, voice keeping steady even though he’s never said so before, to anyone. “For eight years I’ve been waiting to come here and win the Games in honor of his memory.”   

He’s not sure how sincere he managed to sound. Someone in the audience whoops and starts clapping. They’re probably some old, weepy fan of Brendol Jr.’s, or maybe they were paid to do this by Brendol Sr., but either way it sets off a chain reaction: others clap, cheer, and soon the audience is thundering with shouted approval, as if they’re all expecting Hux to win now, too. Hux is careful not to smile or look pleased. He holds Threepio’s stare, though he’s not really looking at him but through him, trying to decide if Rae would scold or praise him for this response.

“Well,” Threepio says, wiping a fake tear from the corner of one eye. “That is certainly an admirable source of inspiration for a victory in these Games. I’m sure you’ll have many people here in the Capitol rooting for you, along with those back home-- Those who aren’t rooting for the charming Ms. Phasma, that is!”

“Ha,” Phasma says, adjusting one the black bracelets that had begun to sink down. She doesn’t like what just happened. Hux radiates smug contentment, pushing it in her direction like a psychic weapon. She won’t look at him.

Hux refocuses while Phasma answers a soft-lobbed question about her fighting skills. He can’t allow himself to get comfortable. The question about his mother is coming.

“I’ve heard you have a very sharp eye, Armitage,” Threepio says when Phasma is done bragging. “And excellent aim.”

Hux tries to parse this quickly, assuming there is some hidden message. Threepio is looking at him like there’s a salacious suggestion concealed in this question, but Hux can’t figure out which direction it’s coming from or where Threepio is trying to point him. He almost wants to be asked about his mother now, though he still doesn’t know what he’ll say. Just to get it over with would be a relief; he feels like he’s been on this stage for an hour.

“Sorry,” Hux says when the crowd titters because it’s taken him so long to respond. “I’m trying to determine how to answer that modestly.”

He grins in the way that Phasma does when she turns on her aren’t I such a card? bullshit. The crowd laughs, relieved.

“Oh, so you know what you’re good at!” Threepio says. “Well, of course you do. Is there anything you’re concerned about, meanwhile? What would you say your greatest weakness is?”

“Probably making friends,” Hux says. It’s an honest answer, so it’s easy to seem like he’s being earnestly self-defacing. The crowd laughs again. “But fortunately we Careers know how to stick together. It’s important.”

“Till the end, of course,” Threepio says, offering his morbid, leering, almost-smile.

“Of course,” Hux says. “But that seems quite a ways off from where we’re sitting. I’m sure Phas will agree with me.”

He slings the nickname back at her with a slicing glance. She smiles, and it seems worryingly genuine.

“Indeed,” she says. “Loyalty is important in District Two.”

“Ah, well, seeing how the relationships between Tributes from the same District evolve during the Games is one of my favorite parts,” Threepio says, tapping his notecards on his knee. From the other end of the stage, behind a curtain, a producer is making a hand signal that captures his attention. “And of course it can be one of the most harrowing aspects, too,” Threepio says. His smile turns predatory for just a flash when he gives Phasma and Hux a final once-over: I’m going to watch one of you butcher the other in a few days, it says. Hux feels almost defensive of Phasma in response, but the sensation is brief. “Thank you both for this insight into your relationship and backgrounds,” Threepio says. “All my best wishes to you, going forward!”

That’s their dismissal, somehow: Phasma stands and beams, waves to the crowd. She trots off as a producer on the other side of the stage beckons them. Hux stands, his thighs tense, and almost feels like he should protest. But you didn’t ask about my mother. This seems like a bad omen, like an obstacle that would have been easier to confront now rather than later, though it’s not as if he’s going to encounter his mother or some complication related to her inside the arena.

As he leaves the stage he decides that Brendol must have used his influence to make sure the subject of his mother wouldn’t come up. That would explain how relatively unruffled Brendol was when Hux tried to speak to him about it earlier. He might have shared his confidence that the question wouldn’t be raised with Hux, but perhaps he couldn’t be certain that the favors he’d called in would be enough to quash Threepio’s and the rest of the production team’s thirst for drama. Or perhaps he thought it would be good for Hux to suffer the stress of not knowing and then enjoy this slow building, chilly sense of relief.

Hux can’t say he’s enjoying it, exactly, though he feels he did far better on stage than he’d expected to. He sits beside Phasma in the backstage area and stares up at the screen that shows them the interviews as they proceed. Few are noteworthy, though Hux boils with jealousy when the crowd cheers louder for Poe than they did for him. Poe is better at balancing faked humility with smouldering confidence, perhaps.

“Everyone in Four hopes for a water-based arena,” Poe says. “But it’s a misconception that we feel out of place on land. I was born on land, after all.”

Poe smiles when the crowd accepts his joke, tossing back scattered laughter like coins. Hux thinks he’s trying too hard, or maybe attempting a sort of misdirection. Pava is quieter, but she projects a different kind of confidence, sleek and sharp, like a knife that can slip quietly into someone’s side before the pain is even felt. She smiles at all of Poe’s jokes, but it’s like she’s laughing at the crowd for taking his cues.

“Those two should be watched,” Hux says, muttering this into Phasma’s ear.

She shrugs. “I’ve seen them both exhibiting signs of sympathy toward the doomed set from the lesser Districts. They might make a good start, but they won’t impress in the long run. Forgive me, Armie, but Poe reminds me of your brother.”

“My--” Hux rears away from her, surprised that she’s still trying to stab at him with the cameras pointed elsewhere. “How so?” he asks, gathering himself.

“Pities the weak,” Phasma says. “Which makes him weak in turn, of course.”

Hux has to move away from her, toward a table with bottles of water, overcome with rage that wants to escape from within him by any means necessary. Of course: since she couldn’t rattle Hux onstage, Phasma is seething with defeat and leveling low blows to try to cause a scene now, the kind of dustup that would negate his good performance out there. Surely the behind-the-scenes cameras would be quick to make any sort of post-interview meltdown a live event.

He’s able to refocus on the interviews only when District Nine is onstage. Finn is clearly nervous, hesitating after every question and rubbing his hands together fretfully.

“I just know my parents will be watching,” Finn says, and he swallows. “So I can’t die. They can’t-- See that. That’s why I’ll win.”

He mutters win like he’s ashamed, lowering his eyes. Hux scoffs and gulps water, still lingering at the refreshments table just to keep away from Phasma. He notices Poe watching Finn’s interview carefully, and when Finn and the other Tribute from Nine come into the holding area, Finn looks for Poe, finds him, then looks pointedly away.

Interesting. Hux will inform Ben. He’s done confiding in Phasma about even the shallowest strategic commentary.

Ten is up next. The boy who is partnered with Rey is a ratty teenager named Teedo who seems like he’s high and falls prey to several sarcastic remarks from Threepio that sail right over his head. Rey is quiet, answers everything she’s asked with the curt delivery of an oblivious child, and sits very straight, the heels of her slipper-like shoes not touching the ground.

“Finn mentioned his parents,” Threepio says when he shifts back into morbid mode. “Is that a concern for you as well, Rey?”

“My parents are dead,” she says, and when she frowns it’s as if she’s not protesting but concerned. “Haven’t you got that in your notes?” she asks, craning her skinny neck as if to check.

Threepio is flustered: of course he does, and that’s why he asked the question of this orphaned ten-year-old girl, and the crowd will know it. Some among them titter with disapproval.

“A sad story,” Threepio says, back in clipped, cheerful mode. “But what a happy one it would make if Rey were to win! A lifetime of security for this girl who is alone in the world. That is the magic of the Games, my friends!”

Hux isn’t the only one backstage who laughs under his breath at Threepio’s obvious discomfort. He almost likes Rey for having inspired it. Her expression remains childishly blank, her hands clasped over her knees. Hux thinks of the way he saw her studying the other Tributes during training and wonders if that return volley was planned, or at least intentionally devastating. It’s probably a ridiculous suspicion. She’s a child who’s alone in the world; who would have taught her such deception?

When the Tributes from District Twelve finally take the stage, Threepio seems to be wilting, a sheen of sweat across his shiny forehead betraying his humanity under all the makeup and cosmetic mods.

“You two made quite the impression at the parade today,” Threepio says, his tone almost scolding. Ben is staring at the side table beside Threepio’s couch as if it’s more interesting than any of this. Barley is sitting close to Ben on their couch, her arms crossed tightly over her chest. “That composition was striking,” Threepio says. “Even now, the contrast between you is stark. Tell me, Ben, have you developed a fondness for your young co-Tribute?”

“What difference would it make?” Ben asks. He looks bored, his big hands hanging between his legs, which are spread indecently. There’s no attempt at a respectful posture.

The crowd titters when silence follows.

Threepio fake-laughs. “Well, quite a bit of difference, I should think!” he says. “You might protect her from the other--”

“She’s not stupid,” Ben says. “She’s never asked for my help. I didn’t come here to help people. Nobody did.”

“That’s certainly one way to look at the Games,” Threepio says. “And perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s your perspective, considering the rumors I’ve heard about your mother having once been involved with a radical terrorist organization.”

Hux’s breath catches, and he’s glad he’s not close enough to any of the others for that little near-gasp to have been audible.

This was Hux’s question, the one he was dreading. And somehow it’s being asked of Ben Solo.

“What’s that got to do with anything,” Ben says, staring at Threepio as if he dares him to answer.

“So it’s true, then?” Threepio says, eyebrows shooting up.

“What’s--” Ben shakes his head, snarls. “She’d be in prison if it was,” he says. “Or dead.”

“Ah, so you were only remarking on the rumor?”

“You’re the one who brought it up. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Hmm, and yet you didn’t sound surprised when I mentioned it?”

Ben sits forward. Threepio flinches, then pretends to straighten his hair, which is a motionless helmet of hair-spray.

“You know what we call you in Twelve?” Ben asks, still leaning toward Threepio.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s--”

“The cryptkeeper. Like a reanimated skeleton who eats the bones of children--”

“My goodness!” Threepio aims a manic laugh in the stunned, whispering crowd’s direction. “Spoken like the son of a terrorist, might we say? Well, I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for District Twelve! Always such a mixed bag, so fascinating!”

Threepio’s voice rises with each successive statement. Ben and Barley are hurried off stage by a producer whose arm is visible on camera at one point, beckoning madly. Barley darts off gladly while Ben takes his time in a sloping gait, looking neither regretful nor pleased with himself.

Hux’s heart is pounding when Barley enters the holding area. Shaken, she pauses and turns back, waiting for Ben. He doesn’t come.

“Oof,” Poe says, standing. “That wasn’t smart.”

“On the night before the Games, too,” Phasma says. “Well, nobody ever accused him of being a genius.”

Stupid, stupid, Hux thinks, squeezing his half-empty bottle of water so hard that it squeaks and crushes between his fingers, the top popping off. Now his secret ally will be going into the Games at a disadvantage. There’s no doubt that at least several Peacekeepers are roughing Ben up for acting out during the broadcast. It’s an unspoken rule that even Ben should have known, and Hux feels a sympathetic ache in his own ribs. He’s desperate to talk to Ben. Your mother was a terrorist, too? How does she still have her tongue?

Barley’s appearance at his shoulder takes him off guard, and Hux startles away from her, feeling as if he’s been approached by a ghost. Resigned to her fate, she’s essentially the walking dead, and her skin feels cold already when she passes a tightly folded note into Hux’s hand without looking at him. She takes a bottle of water from the table and drifts away again in silence.

Hux flushes as he tucks the paper into the cuff of his shirt. It feels like a touch, a further connection. Even on stage during his interview, he managed to keep the truth of himself unseen, but the pressure of the note’s sharp edge against his bare wrist is like being told he was spotted after all, at least by one person.

When he’s finally alone in his room, the whole Capitol alight outside with the raucous parties that are held from dusk till dawn on the night before the Games, Hux removes the note and reads it, pretending to be looking out the window at all the celebrations, just in case he’s being monitored from somewhere within his room.

Tonight. Same time, same place. I won’t hide this time. Got something to show you.

Trembling with anticipation that quickly morphs into disappointment, Hux tucks the note back into his sleeve. Surely Ben won’t be able to meet him now. He’ll have all eyes on him following that idiotic remark. As if insulting a clown like Threepio is worth anything.

Hux sits on his bed and stares at the clock, which seems to taunt him when it shows that he only would have had to wait an hour. He wonders what Ben wanted to show him. Probably only something teasing and cheap, like his cock.

Though he knows it’s a fool’s errand, when the appointed time arrives Hux slips out through the quiet main rooms and tries not to take the empty bourbon bottle as evidence that Brendol doesn’t believe he can win the Games and drank himself to sleep in a fog of dread. Hux wears his nightclothes out into the hall, hoping that this will make his story about sleepwalking seem more credible if he’s caught. It does feel like a kind of sleepwalk as he makes his way down the dark hallway and into the lounge, toward the windows where he met Ben before. He’s not sure what he’s expecting to find. Not Ben, certainly. He was always a kind of empty promise.

Hux looks toward the shadows where Ben hid last time. He moves into them, one hand outstretched, and his heart sinks when his fingertips touch only the wall. Right, well. So much for a second strategizing session.

“You’re so punctual.”

Hux gasps like an idiot and whips around to strike at the phantom that is suddenly looming behind him, dark and massive. His hand connects pathetically with Ben’s broad chest, and there’s just enough light to see Ben wince before he catches Hux’s hand and holds it.

“Thanks for that,” Ben says, stepping forward to crowd into Hux’s space, backing him against the wall. “You know they broke my ribs.”

“Well-- I assumed as much.” Hux’s heart is slamming, but he doesn’t mind that or his flush, because it’s dark and he’s filling so rapidly with relief that little else can take hold. Ben is here, somehow. He must have some real and deeply hidden talents if he was able to make it undetected. “What you did was incredibly stupid,” Hux says, whispering this up into Ben’s infuriating face. “It made me question the usefulness of an alliance with you.”

“Yeah? But you still showed up. C’mere, I found a better spot.”

Ben releases Hux’s hand and turns as if Hux is expected to follow. They move along the wall, through the shadows, until Ben reaches out and opens a skinny door that Hux has never noticed.

“What is this?” Hux whispers when Ben slips through it, onto an unlit stairway.

“Roof access,” Ben says.

“We’ll be caught!”

“Nope. But you can stay here if you’re too scared. I know about District Two. How they’re all afraid to disobey and lose their place as the Capitol’s pet.”

“You don’t know shit, you hick.”

Hux follows him onto the stairs without really thinking about it, a weight settling low in his gut when he hears the door shut behind them with a heavy click that sounds too final. Ben is smiling.

“How many ribs did they break?” Hux mutters when they’re standing on the dark stairwell, staring at each other.

“Come up to the roof and I’ll show you.”

Hux walks behind Ben as if hypnotized, bouncing between giddy relief that he can speak to Ben at all and a more practical suspicion about why this might be so. It’s not like Ben, someone from Twelve who is apparently the son of a suspected radical, has any connections here. But he seems to move in shadow like a spirit, and the way he fights still haunts Hux, as if he can manipulate space and time to his sole advantage.

The cold on the roof is a shock. Hux had almost forgotten the season. The Capitol is generally temperate, but they’re standing over sixty stories of skyscraper and the wind bites up here, blowing hard. There’s a helipad in the distance, and noise carries up from other rooftops as the pre-Games parties continue.

“Did you plan that dig at Threepio?” Hux asks when Ben turns from the darkest corner of the roof to gaze at him, hair whipping back from his face. “Is that why it was Barley who gave me the note? You knew you’d be in a holding cell, getting kicked in the ribs?”

“I didn’t plan it. Just wanted to keep clear of you, since we’ve got a secret. She’s got nothing to lose.”

“Did you know they would say all that about your mother?” Hux asks, not sure if he wants to bring up his own mother’s crimes. It seems too perfect a coincidence not to mention. If that’s even what it is.

Ben shakes his head. “Thought they’d ask about my grandfather and my uncle,” he says. “Not her.”

“Who are your grandfather and your uncle?”

“Victors.”

“You’re lying.”

“Nope. You know Anakin Skywalker, I’m sure.”

Hux scoffs. “Right. Then why have neither of your parents got that name?”

“Long story. But my uncle kept the name.”

Luke Skywalker. Hux knows of him, of course. There aren’t many Victors who are the sons of Victors themselves. Luke is a rare case, something for Hux to aspire to. Except that he turned into a mad recluse who only shows his face in public because they’ve forced him to be Twelve’s mentor, having been the most recent Victor.

“Anakin disappeared,” Hux says, studying Ben’s face. “I don’t suppose you know why?”

“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.”

“Was your mother really involved with terrorists?” Hux asks, blurting the question when he can’t stand it any longer. He’s never had that in common with anyone he’s actually met, as far as he knows. “Is that why your grandfather vanished after he won the Games, because the whole family is corrupt and reckless?”

Ben laughs under his breath. “Nah,” he says. Hux isn’t sure which question he’s answering. “Only some of us are corrupt and reckless.”

“Let’s see what damage they did,” Hux says, nodding to Ben’s chest. He’ll return to this subject once he’s got Ben’s guard down a bit more, if that’s even possible. If Hux’s instincts are good for anything, he’d guess that sex, or at least something sex-adjacent, might do the trick.

Ben pulls his shirt off. It’s not the same shirt he wore for the interviews; that one must have blood on it and therefore has probably been incinerated. To hide the evidence. Hux winces and reaches out as if to touch his fingers to the purpling bruises. They’re only on one side, at least.

“You can touch,” Ben says. His voice is husky, like it’s a dare, and too close.

“Why would I?”

“To see how many are broken. I can’t tell.”

“What does it matter?” Hux puts his hand above the injury and is surprised to feel goosebumps on Ben’s skin. Of course he’s cold; he’s human, clearly. Hux moves his thumb against the edge of the bruise and presses. Ben’s breath hisses in through his teeth when Hux drags his thumb lower, pressing more firmly. “Well,” Hux says. His voice is shaking and he doesn’t know what he meant to say next. Ben radiates heat; his breath smells a bit like blood. He must have bitten his tongue while they kicked him, to keep from giving them the satisfaction of hearing him scream. Hux can’t shake the feeling that he’ll surrender something if he looks up into Ben’s eyes, like that would mean losing a fight. He can feel Ben looking at him. Really seeing him, too.

“You did good,” Ben says.

Well,” Hux says again, correcting him this time. He looks up and frowns. “Wait-- When?”

“At the interview.”

“Oh. Yes, I suppose. You know. We’ve had training.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

“All our lives.”

“My uncle tried training me.” Ben smirks, but there’s nothing truly amused in it, and he ducks his gaze away from Hux’s. “Then he sorta went nuts.”

“Are you trying to take credit?”

“Only partially.”

Now Ben’s smirk seems genuine, or as genuine as a smirk can be. Hux still has his hand over Ben’s ribs, though just on the unhurt portion now, lower on his side. He’s close to doing something unwise, like pretending that he knows how to kiss or blurting that his mother is an Avox, as if even Ben knows what that feels like. Hux wants to tell him what it feels like, which is maybe worse than both of those other impulses combined.

“Tomorrow,” Ben says, as if Hux has forgotten what happens then. For a moment, trying to think of what to say about tomorrow, it does seem like he forgot. Briefly.

“I’ll break out with the Careers at first,” Hux says. “It’s important that we ambush them when the time is right.”

“And how will I know when that is.”

“Keep close after you’ve killed a few of the others on your own. You’re good at staying out of sight. I’ll give you a signal.”

“What signal?”

Hux considers it, wondering why Ben hasn’t put his shirt back on. Though actually he knows why. Every time he tries to avoid Ben’s eyes he ends up looking at Ben’s damnably hard nipples.

“I’ll take off my shirt,” Hux says. “I’ll pretend it’s got some kind of bug crawling inside it and take it to the edge of camp to wash it.”

“That girl’s going to try to kill you sooner rather than later.”

“I know,” Hux says, understanding that he means Phasma. “I can handle her.”

Ben makes a doubtful noise. Hux glares at him, though he’s doubtful, too. It’s a cold comfort to think of Ben bursting from the brush to help him finish Phasma off in a moment of struggle. Hux would prefer to do it himself, but he knows it won’t be easy. She won’t allow him that.

“I guess you think you can handle anything,” Ben says.

“It’s sort of been the theme of my life,” Hux says, snapping this angrily before he can think of a better, strategic, measured response. He doesn’t even mind the way his heart is pounding now: as if he’s finally an accomplice instead of a hostage to this feeling of everything moving too fast, with too much at stake.

“No, I like that about you,” Ben says, and his eyes soften in the strangest way, like he’s pitying Hux from a great distance, years away from this moment already. “Sucks I gotta kill you.”

“Yes, I know the feeling,” Hux says, trying to make the gravity of having to eventually kill Ben feel real.

But that’s not something his body really knows how to do, and when Ben leans in to kiss him it turns out this is something Hux does know how to do, though not with any skill beyond hunger, which comes easy. Still, it goes on and on.

“Skinny little society prince--” Ben says, teeth grit, angry through harsh breaths that land on Hux’s lips. “You should have been my prize, after I win this.”

“Fuck you.” Hux jabs Ben’s leg with his erection like it’s a weapon. “Say that again when my knife’s at your throat.”

“What knife?” Ben asks, and he grins.

When they kiss again they’re also biting at each other between licks and grunts. Ben laughs when Hux chews his fat bottom lip, refusing to release it. Hux has never felt someone’s arms around him like this, tight and unyielding, while also feeling no urgency to escape his rival’s grip. He just wants to stay here, smelling recreational gunpowder and feeling like they’ve gone over the side of the building together, like they’re plummeting toward a place where they’ll never hit the ground.

Ben puts his huge hands on Hux’s ass, squeezes, and alarms go off.

Literal alarms. The kind that indicate a Tribute has breached security.

Nothing has ever killed an erection faster in the history of Panem, Hux is sure.

“It’s okay,” Ben says, though his eyes are wide, too. “That can’t be for us.”

“It has to be us!” Hux shoves Ben away, as if putting a few feet between them will matter now. “We’re not allowed to be here, fuck, they’ll think we were trying to escape, they’ll break our legs--”

“Shut up.” Ben puts his shirt back on and grabs Hux’s hand. “Just follow me.”

They go back the way they came while the alarms continue blaring, several located directly on the roof, lights flashing in an angry red circle as Hux follows Ben back into the stairwell. How has it not locked? The entire building should be automatically locking down, according to protocol.
 
Hux isn’t quite ready to ask What are you? until they reach the lounge on the residential floor and Ben moves easily along the perimeter, toward the crowd of confused Tributes and mentors that are gathered in the hallway. They manage to blend into the scene without having Peacekeepers rush forward to arrest them. Ben has let go of Hux’s hand, which is still throbbing from the pressure of Ben’s tight grip. It feels like evidence that Hux should shove into his pocket. He turns back and already can’t find Ben in the chaotic assemblage, hallway alarms flashing and blaring and several mentors asking in vain for everyone to lower their voices. Stumbling forward, Hux crashes right into Brendol, whose eyes are red, hair an almost comic disaster. Brendol grabs Hux’s arms and stares into his eyes with a kind of confused but rapidly focusing rage that clearly communicates he knows, even if no one else does, that Hux wasn’t in the room when the alarms went off.

“What’s happening?” Hux asks.

“Waiting to find out,” Brendol says, fingers digging into Hux’s arms as if he’s ready to turn Hux in himself.

Ben appears at the corner of Hux’s peripheral vision. Hux is careful not to look at him directly. It feels strangely like insurance, having him near. As if Ben will be able to do anything if they were seen on the roof by concealed cameras.

Peacekeepers are on the scene quickly, herding all of the Tributes into the lounge area to stand in line and be counted. Only then does it occur to Hux that someone actually might have managed to escape, and that Ben was right about the alarms having nothing to do with their tryst on the roof. There are only ten male tributes present.

Poe and Finn are missing.

 

 

**

Chapter Text

Hux expects chaos in the wake of two Tributes escaping their pre-Games lodging, but the Capitol’s response is eerily smooth. The entire city is instantly placed on lockdown, no trains or personal vehicles allowed to leave or enter until the errant Tributes are found. The remaining Tributes and their mentors are herded into the dining room to watch an emergency broadcast from Snoke that will also be seen by everyone else in the Capitol, many of them probably still ripping drunk from pre-Games parties.

The Games begin in ten hours. Hux has this and the proximity of Ben Solo in mind as he stands in the dark dining room beside his father, waiting for the President to appear on the screen they’re all facing, Peacekeepers are lined up behind them as if Poe’s and Finn’s escape has cast them all in a suspicious light. Hux’s heart is still pounding from the fear that he and Ben were spotted as they slipped back among the others or recorded up on the roof. Brendol is keeping close in a way that is not protective. He knows Hux did something.

Hux doesn’t risk a look at Ben, even when the screen blinks on and the Capitol’s official insignia appears. As they were being herded here by the Peacekeepers, Hux noticed Ben’s mentor for the first time: a shaggy-looking man who is older than Brendol, with unkempt hair and a graying beard. Luke Skywalker, the victorious son of a Victor. He’s someone whom Hux is supposed to be emulating, in the sense that he’s trying to achieve the same against-the-odds fate. Luke met Hux’s eyes as if sensing his attention, and his gaze was like an accusation. Hux hasn’t dared a second glance.

Snoke appears on the screen, his expression so inhumanly stoic that it’s as if he’s wearing a mask of his own face, the effect more frightening than an angry glare. He was probably roused from sleep with the news of the escape, though there is something about Snoke that suggests he might not sleep. Hux can’t imagine him in a bed, eyes closed to potential assassins. He’s flanked as usual by two of his masked guards. Their black armor is as polished as Snoke’s studied calm, projecting a sense of authority that feels like an extension of Snoke himself. It also makes them appear robotic. There are rumors that Snoke’s guards are at least part cybernetic.

“I speak tonight to all citizens of Panem,” Snoke begins. His measured tone is a threat, same as his placid expression, promising there is nothing that could ever truly slip through his fingers. Hux thinks of his mother, her tongue, and feels his hands start to shake. Ten hours until the Games, and two of the stronger Tributes already as good as dead. The fools. Snoke might already have them. There’s an almost amused twinkle in his dark eyes that says try me. Posture pulled tight by the still-thrumming fear of being caught himself, Hux thinks that Snoke looks now like a personification of the Games: something devouring and inescapable. A sneering promise of fairness that won’t be kept.

“A disservice has been done to all of us this day,” Snoke says. “An indignity to our sacred traditions and to all who sacrifice to keep our society strong. A betrayal. Have no doubt that these individuals who have turned on all of us will be caught and punished. You will see them so punished, in the Games that they will not escape. As soon as the two Tributes are recaptured, doubtless before the sun comes up on the first day of the Games, they will be accordingly handicapped prior to being placed into the arena with the more deserving Tributes. While this sort of escape is unprecedented, I welcome the chance to show all of Panem what this previously unthinkable treason will bring upon any who attempt it in the future. Now, with the crisis well in hand, I invite you all to return to bed and sleep well before the start of the most exciting day of the year, one which we will all celebrate together. I extend this invitation especially to our valued Tributes who have so nobly played by the rules set forth for them. May the odds be ever in your favor.”

The broadcast ends and everyone stands staring at the blank screen in silence. Even the Peacekeepers seem at a loss for a moment, but they’re the first to snap to attention and begin corralling everyone back toward their rooms. Hux dares a glance in Ben’s direction and spots just the back of his head through the crowd, towering above the others. Ben doesn’t look back.

“This will be a grisly business,” Brendol says when they’ve nearly reached their room. “But good for the rest of you. Whenever they toss those traitors back into the arena, they’ll be roughed up good, crawling off their platforms like bait.” He chuckled. “That’ll be novel, at least.”

Hux thinks of Ben’s cracked ribs and bruises. He glances up at Brendol and wishes he hadn’t when he sees Brendol looking back at him, eyes narrowed.

“Regardless of how it plays out,” Brendol says. “It will be a sturdy reminder to all who might have ever considered stepping out of line under the Capitol’s watch. Particularly those who would be foolhardy enough to do so here, during the Games, with eyes everywhere.”

“Yes, sir,” Hux says. “I’m sure you’re right.”

Brendol sniffs. “I’d tell you to ask your mother about that,” he says, not looking at Hux now. “If she could reply.”

Hux hears alarms going off again, this time within himself. He isn’t sure what they’re warning against, but it feels dangerously akin to the impulse to strike Brendol. His lip is lifting, fists curling, but before he can do anything stupid they walk through the door of their room and find Rae standing inside the main sitting area.

“Sloane!” Brendol says before Hux can speak, relief cooling his churning fury enough to keep it contained. “What are you doing here? Thought the lockdown might have kept you out.”

“I’ve been in the Capitol for several days.” Rae’s eyes flick to Hux’s, promising a real discussion and urging patience, which has always been like a code word between them for enduring Brendol’s presence. “I have a meeting with some crisis management people, and I wanted to wish Armitage luck one last time before I’m up all night dealing with them.”

“Luck,” Brendol says with disdain. “As if that’s got anything to do with it.” He slaps Hux hard on the shoulder, jostling him in a way that feels like a punishment for his undisclosed location when the alarms sounded. “He’s been well-trained, and I’ve done what I can for him outside of training. If he’s told to rely on luck he won’t get far. Use your head, boy. But don’t use it to get any wild ideas.”

Brendol gives Hux a long stare before heading into his bedroom. He slams the door behind him in an expression of his disapproval of Rae’s presence and his inability to forbid it.

When he’s gone, Rae gives Hux a look he can’t remember seeing before. It’s not pity or even concern, but something in her eyes has softened. Hux wants to run to her and have the inertia of his need for comfort fully absorbed, the kind of thing Brendol Jr. had indulged when Hux was very young, holding both arms out until Hux trusted that he could dash into them. It’s not the sort of thing Rae and Hux have ever or will ever do, but there’s a nervous energy in the pit of Hux’s stomach that wants something like that, if not that exactly.

“What did he mean about wild ideas?” Rae asks, walking closer.

Hux shakes his head and glances upward, at the corners of the ceiling. When he meets Rae’s eyes again he can see that she understands: he’s asking if his room is being monitored.

“Of course,” Rae says. “But only by me personally. They trust me to oversee District Two’s involvement of the Games, as they should.”

“So no one else reviews the tapes?”

“No. Not without reason, and I’m sure there is none.”

She does look sure, which makes Hux think she must not have looked at any tapes of his room yet. He nods.

“No, it’s fine,” he says. “I made a pre-Games alliance after hours. Just wanted to make sure no one would get wind of it before we start.”

“Your secrets are safe with me, Armitage. Is that why Brendol is on edge?”

“Yes. I thought it best to keep him out of it.”

“Always a smart move.”

Hux nods, feeling distracted and overwhelmed. “If the rooms are monitored, how did Poe and Finn escape?”

“That’s what my imminent crisis management meeting is about. We’ll get to the bottom of it. There’s a terrorist group that’s been whispered about recently, goes by the name of Resistance. After the news broke someone managed to dig up data that suggests Poe’s late mother had some ties to their previous iteration.”

“His mother--” Hux clamps his lips shut. Now is not the time to mention Brendol’s remark, or anything about what it means to come from rebel blood. “Poe was a volunteer,” Hux says, thinking back to the interviews, Poe’s shining arrogance and the way the idiots in the crowd applauded it, unknowing. “He seemed like the typical cocky jock from Four. They ate it up.”

“Yes, it would be clever for the Resistance to insert a personality like his into the Games as their mole. It’s curious that he managed to radicalize Finn so quickly, or at least to convince him that it’s possible they’ll actually get away with an escape.”

“They won’t-- Right?”

“Of course not. Did you not watch President Snoke’s address?”

Something mischievous lights in Rae’s eyes. It’s another new look on her. She extinguishes it as soon as she sees that Hux has noticed.

“Are you prepared for the morning?” Rae asks.

“The morning.” Hux smiles a little, queasy. “That’s a very casual way to refer to the start of the Games.”

“You’re always sarcastic when you’re nervous.”

“I’m not,” Hux says, though she’s right on both counts.

“Don’t waste your breath on pride, I’m pointing out an important tell. I might not be the only one who’s noticed. Though I do suspect I know you better than anyone alive.”

There’s a tenderness in this observation that makes Hux feel proud and wistful, too, because he’s already stepping away from one half of his life and into the other. There’s no going back now, to the days when Rae’s instruction was purely for the future, practical but also theoretical. It’s all solidified around him into a kind of cannon that will soon launch him forward.

“Thank you,” Hux says, glad that his voice sounds strong despite how tired he feels, despite all of it. “Really, for everything--”

“Don’t talk like we won’t see each other again.”

Rae’s smile is real, rare, and there is nothing she could show him that Hux wouldn’t trust completely. She believes he’ll win; there’s no doubt on her face. His eyes fill, not enough to spill over into real tears but enough to embarrass him. He looks down, nodding.

“Right. I know--”

“You don’t know, and no Victor does on the night before the Games. If you weren’t afraid, I wouldn’t be as confident in you as I am. Here, take this.”

She reaches into her pocket and produces a clear packet containing a tiny white pill. Hux takes it from her, surprised.

“It will make you sleep for exactly five hours,” Rae says, crossing her arms over her chest as if daring Hux to defy this final instruction. “Quality rest, and there’s a slow release vitamin in it, too, which will help you to wake with energy and clarity. All the District Two Tributes take them on the night before their Games.”

“So my brother did?” Hux asks, closing the pill into his fist.

“Yes,” Rae says. “He did.”

“I always assumed he slept well anyway. That he went into the whole thing thinking-- Knowing--”

“That’s because he only ever showed you that part of himself. Because he didn’t want you to worry. He saw that you were an anxious boy who needed someone to look after him. He was a strong person, and--”

Rae cuts herself off there. She isn’t growing emotional; quite the opposite. There’s a kind of strategic consideration sharpening in her eyes. She shakes her head when Hux frowns.

“Keep him with you when you fight,” she says. “In your spirit, in your anger, even in your fear. The Games are about the lives we’ve lived outside of the Arena just as much as they are about the circumstances within.”

Hux nods and pockets the pill. He’s glad for the prospect of real sleep, but the idea of being completely knocked out for five hours, with rebels running around the Capitol and unseen cameras watching his every move, is not comforting.

“I should head toward my meeting,” Rae says. “And you need to rest.”

“Understood,” Hux says. This is goodbye, then. For now, at least.

“Is there anything else you want to ask me?”

So many things. Questions about his mother, things that Rae may or may not know the answers to. It shouldn’t matter now, maybe not ever, but since his arrival in the Capitol his mind is cycling back to thoughts of his mother so often. It’s all the talk of traitors and treason, perhaps. All the other questions that come to mind are things he feels like he should already have answers for: are you proud of me, can I really do what you think I can, will you be there waiting if I make it through this?

“If the alliance I’m hoping to take advantage of works,” he says, instead of any of that, “At what point should I turn on my partner?”

Rae smiles, now in the measured way that Hux is accustomed to: as if he’s skipped a step in some exercise and she’s waiting for him to figure out where he miscalculated.

“You’ll know.” She reaches out and touches Hux’s shoulders, applying firm pressure in one squeeze before releasing him. “You’re peerless among my students when it comes to holding some cards while showing others. Don’t worry. When the time comes, your good instincts will save you.”

“Good instincts,” Hux repeats, thinking of Ben on the roof.

“Don’t doubt that you have them. Brendol’s self-preservation and your mother’s daring. Plus something that’s entirely your own.”

“What’s that?” Hux asks, desperately wanting a word for it.

“Ambition.”

“Brendol has that! And my mother did, too,” he adds, mumbling. “In her way.”

“Yes, but yours is different. You’ll understand what I mean someday. We’ll discuss it after your victory, when you’ll have a new clarity in terms of self analysis. Until then, I’ll keep my eye on your progress and needle potential sponsors on your behalf.”

“Isn’t that beneath you?” Hux asks. He’d assumed that would be Brendol’s job.

“Armitage.” Rae gives him a warning look that has a hint of teasing it in, too. “No detail of the Games is beneath any of us. Remember that.”

She touches his shoulder again as she moves toward the door and doesn’t look back before stepping through it, into the hallway. Gone for now.

Hux goes into his bedroom and shuts the door. He’s already in his nightclothes, has already brushed his teeth, washed his face. His tongue and lips still taste faintly of Ben Solo. He could remove these traces before getting back into bed, but he chooses not to. A glass filled with water and the tiny pill from Rae accompany him into bed. He’s not shaking, not breathing shallowly. Having the pill as his clear objective is helping already. He swallows it and lies back on his pillow.

Staring up at the ceiling and waiting to be sucked down into medicated sleep, he feels as if his last thought before succumbing to this eerily perfect rest is probably important. He pages through a few fears, discards them, and avoids his deeper curiosities as well, including the fate of the escaped Tributes. Unthinking, he runs his tongue over his lips, and ultimately it’s the taste of Ben Solo’s mouth and the heat of his chest that are foremost in his mind as his consciousness fades to a pinprick and then departs completely.

He wakes as if in a blink, feeling his heart pounding and limbs tingling. It’s still dark in the room. He feels different, not energized like Rae promised but stuck in a kind of drowsy slow-motion, every twitch of his limbs like a little spark that can’t quite ignite a fire.

Something shifts on the other side of the room.

Hux bolts upright, drowsiness ripped away by alarm. His eyes go directly to the intruder. He’s near the windows, in shadow. When he steps closer to the bed, Hux sees that he’s dressed in all black. The light from the city illuminates just half of his face. Hux sucks in his breath and feels as if it the bed has disappeared beneath him, as if he’s locked helplessly in place and also plummeting, unstuck in time.

He’s older, and there’s a scar across the bridge of his nose, but there’s no mistaking Hux’s own brother.

“Are you a ghost?” Hux asks. There’s an echo in his voice, in the room.

“Yes,” Brendol Jr. says. He remains in place, half shadowed.

“Am I dreaming?”

“Yes.”

They stare at each other. Hux feels goosebumps rising along the back of his neck, but he’s not afraid. It feels like the first time he hasn’t been nurturing some secret, underlying fear in years. He understands in the moment that he’s had a kind of vice around his lungs since Brendol Jr. died, restricting his breath, and that his return, impossible in reality, would remove this choking, constant pressure.

“Why are you here?” Hux asks, though of course he really isn’t. Of course it’s only a dream.

“I wanted to see you,” Brendol Jr. says. “Armie. You’re all grown up.”

Hux swallows and shifts under his blanket. “Nobody calls me Armie anymore.”

“Nobody but me ever did.”

“That’s true. Can you come closer?”

“No.”

“Are you here to warn me about something?”

Brendol Jr. takes a ponderous breath, which seems like an odd thing for a dead person to do. Hux is deep enough in his own subconscious to acknowledge that he wants his brother to cross the room and hug him, tousle his hair, anything, and that it hurts not to receive these phantom attentions.

“I wish I knew what to warn you about,” Brendol Jr. says. “Everything feels so--”

He stops talking and turns toward the window. There’s scarring on his cheek, and something seems to be wrong with his left eye.

“Wait.” Hux’s blood goes cold. The air in the room feels too real. His lungs fill and empty, which doesn’t seem like it should be possible, like he’s breathing underwater. “Is this-- Are you--”

“Wake up, Armie,” Brendol Jr. says, turning back to him. “We’re out of time.”

Hux wakes gasping for breath and feeling as if he’s about to fall over the edge of the bed or something far higher, like he’s teetering on the edge of a chasm that shouldn’t ever be peered into. In reality he’s still lying in the center of the mattress, on his back under the blanket, still thrumming with a kind of vibrating energy. He sits up slowly, eyes on the spot where his dead brother stood in the dream. There’s enough light from the creeping glow of dawn to see that no one is there, but he sits staring anyway, waiting for something.

It’s the morning of his Games. As promised, the pill has left him feeling cleanly energized, new somehow, but the dream hangs overhead like a fog, an unintended side effect that muddles his physical clarity with a sense of foreboding. He puts his bare feet on the carpet beside the bed and thinks: this is it. The last time his bare feet will touch anything so soft until he either wins the Games or dies.

Did Brendol Jr. once think the same thing? Apparently he took the same pill. Hux looks again at the corner where his brother’s ghost stood and feels goosebumps rising again across the back of his neck.

Bring him with you, Rae said. Maybe she knew a dream like that would come. Hux takes a deep breath and stands, leaving the last bed he’ll ever rise from before his Games.

He instructs himself to stop being romantic about every detail of his last morning and joins Brendol for a tense, silent breakfast. Hux consumes a protein loaf, the traditional District Two sustenance on the morning of the Games. He had expected to feel too pulled-tight to eat, but the pill Rae gave him is still floating through his bloodstream, keeping him focused but functional.

“Well,” Brendol says when Peacekeepers arrive to escort him to the holding chamber that will vault him into the arena. He won’t even see Phasma again before they’re standing on their platforms, waiting for the Games to begin.

“Well,” Hux echoes when Brendol says nothing more, daring sarcasm now because there’s nothing Brendol can do about it in sight of the Peacekeepers who are standing in the doorway, waiting.

Brendol sniffs. “I’ve not got a speech prepared,” he says. “Just know I’ll be watching. Advocating for you as I can. I’ll do my part while you do yours. My father wasn’t a Victor, but he said the same thing to me before I launched.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hux is glad to be away from him, marching through the hallway with the Peacekeeper. No other Tributes are visible. Tributes are taken from their rooms one at a time so as not to encounter each other pre-Games. Everything pre-Games is over, except for this silent walk. Hux will see his stylist one last time, in the chamber where he’ll dress in his competition uniform. From then on, everyone he sees will be an enemy, sooner or later, until the Games end.

The launch chamber is as Hux expected: windowless steel, chilly and humming with unseen mechanics as he steps into it. He’d never admit it, but it’s a relief to have Gregor there to help him put the skin tight uniform on and adjust the belt around his waist. He even lets Gregor step in front of him to fuss with his hair.

“Does it really matter now?” Hux asks, just glad not to be alone. The effects of Rae’s calming sleep drug are fading, and the looming presence of the arena above is starting to feel more real.

“Does what matter?” Gregor asks, still adjusting Hux’s fringe.

“My hair.”

“Oh, no. I just never know what to say. You look well-rested. I take it you had a sleep aid.”

“Yes.” Hux thinks of mentioning the dream or at least asking if particularly vivid ones are common in Tributes who take sleeping pills the night before their Games. It’s his last chance to mention that vision of his brother, unless he mutters about it with Ben Solo later, during some pocket of downtime, but why would he?

“I’ve stood here with so many of you,” Gregor says. “You’d think I’d have some wisdom to impart. But I confess I don’t, at this stage.”

“I appreciate that confession.”

Hux meant that to sound sardonic, but it came out sincere and he doesn’t mind when Gregor smiles and taps him on the chin.

“May you run fast and strike accurately,” he says.

Hux likes that better than may the odds be ever in your favor, which has begun to sound to him like a cheap taunt or even an insult. It sounded like that when Snoke said it on last night’s broadcast.

“My father said they haven’t found the escaped Tributes,” Hux says. Above them, the countdown clock has reached two minutes, fifty-nine seconds.

“That’s right,” Gregor says. “But maybe they have and they just want the reveal to be a surprise.” He lifts his shoulders in a kind of affected shudder. “It’ll be disturbing to see how they penalize them before shoving them into the Arena.”

“Unless they don’t find them.”

“Now that would be a scandal. I’ve got to go, we’re not supposed to be here at the one minute mark. I’ll be watching, rooting for you.”

“Thanks,” Hux says. It feels small and hollow. He looks up at the clock when Gregor moves around him, toward the exit door that is available only to him. It opens, closes, and Hux is alone.

He lifts his eyes from the ticking clock up toward the hatch that will expel him onto his platform in one and a half minutes. It’s a circular shape comprised of five sharp triangles that meet at their points. They look a bit like knives, from this vantage point. If they were to malfunction and open imperfectly, those points might slice the ascending Tribute on all sides as the platform raised him up.

Hux thinks of the start of his father’s Games, his brother’s, Rae’s, but reviewing what he remembers about those feels pointless and makes his fingers tremble. He flexes his back, rolls his shoulders, and attempts the breathing exercises Rae taught him, though they’ve never managed to relax him. He used to pretend that they had, and she always saw through it but didn’t always say so. The clock rolls down to under a minute, its numbers turning bright red.

His hearing seems to fizzle out when the numbers pass the thirty second mark, and a dispersed sort of crawling pain in his stomach that started on the walk here intensifies into a feeling like devouring insects circling in around something sweet, narrowing the focus of what hurts until it’s chomped down to one searing bullet hole in his gut. Instead of the echoing quiet in the chamber and the tick of the descending numbers, he hears tinny music coming from someplace distant, not in this moment but from a memory. He reminds himself dazedly that he won’t have to leap off the platform right away, that doing so would mean instant death. He’ll have a moment up there to blink at his surroundings and take in the arena, the other Tributes on their platforms, the Cornucopia sparkling its temptations at him from the center. This isn’t the last moment before everything happens. It’s just the second to last, but it’s already dwindling down to nothing. Ten, nine, eight--

He closes his eyes and sucks in a sharp breath, imagining that these are the last seconds he’ll have wholly to himself before he belongs to all of Panem as a Victor or as a distant memory from a broadcast, the Victor’s second dead son, the one with red hair like his father--

An angry buzz sounds overhead and the platform below him shifts, moving upward. Hux stares up at the pointed triangles as they separate. Bright light from above blinds him momentarily, and he blinks against it as the platform rises, the triangles disappearing entirely as the opening overhead becomes a perfect circle. The blinding glow becomes a pale blue that seems to deepen as he rises higher and his eyes adjust. A blue sky. It’s all he can see until his eyes clear the rim of the arena floor and sand blows directly into them.

For some reason his response to getting sand in his eyes is to open his mouth as if in some kind of childish, unprepared protest or disbelief, and then there’s sand in his mouth, too. He rubs at his eyes with his fists and spits sandy drool onto his chin, panic reaching out for him like strangling hands. He tells himself first that the other Tributes must have sand in their eyes, too, then that this wind is blowing in only one direction and those on the other side of the circle already have an advantage over him.

Rae taught him how to handle panic: except in extreme circumstances where every move matters, float for two seconds, disconnect, and then reappear. Hux breathes and wipes his chin dry, eyes still streaming. There’s a simulated but very realistically burning sun touching the skin on his face. When the blur clears from his eyes he sees that they’re in a barren, sprawling desert.

There’s no shade on their platforms or on the Cornucopia, which sits like a lotus in the middle of the sand they’re circled around, laid out in District order. Hux glances to his left and sees Phasma shielding her eyes with her hand, narrowing her gaze to the Cornucopia’s offerings. The sun catches a tear streaming down her cheek, and Hux feels vindicated, knowing she got sand in her eyes, too. He glances to his right, where Unamo stands trying to swipe escaped strands of hair out of her eyes as the hot wind blasts against her.

The wind stops, and Hux braces himself. There is no audible or visual countdown inside the arena. They must wait, primed for the dash ahead or behind their platforms, until the heavy, gong-like sound from above that signals the start of the Games. Fifty seconds will pass during this period, but Rae told Hux not to count. The sand has already robbed him of his sense of orientation, anyway. He puts everything aside and searches the packages and weapons arranged around the lotus-shaped Cornucopia. The best stuff will be in the middle, but he’s not going to risk that yet. He’s told himself for years that his first kill will happen right away, to get it over with. He’ll need a weapon.

The closest visible weapon that could do real damage is a small knife that gleams in the artificial sunlight, adjacent to a black duffel bulging with indeterminate contents. Hux won’t be the only one who’s spotted the knife, and Phasma might reach it before him. He’s faster than her, but her legs are longer and she’s beaten him in a sprint before.

The uncounted seconds are ticking down toward single digits and everyone who knows anything about what’s about to happen is crouched in a lunge, preparing to dart in one direction or another. Hux is tense and ready, allowing himself one quick look at the full circle. Two platforms are empty: the places where Poe and Finn would have stood. So they haven’t been caught yet, or are being tortured and held for a burst of excitement later in the broadcast. The Bloodbath should prove exciting enough without them.

The last team Hux surveys is District Twelve, to the right of Rodinon and Unamo. Barley is standing up straight, looking like a ghost already, her pale face resigned and expressionless. Ben appears to be focused on something toward the center of the Cornucopia, but it could be a ploy. Hux turns his eyes back to his own goal: the knife, and the black duffel beside it. If he moves fast enough he could grab both at the same time and sling the duffel onto his back while slashing the knife at the attack that will come from ahead of him, unless Phasma or their supposed allies from District One plan to flip the script and attack him early.

He flexes in place, spreading his fingers and shifting his weight from one foot to the other, then back again. He can feel that it’s close. The simulated sun is burning him, but he’ll have time later to consider the cruelty of a desert arena and how hard he’ll have to work to keep from getting sunstroke in this exposed landscape. He’s spotted mountains from the corner of his eye, to his right and in the distance. They’re the only visible structure outside of the Cornucopia and the platforms, and everyone will be headed there for cover. The long dash toward them will itself be a bloody scrum.

There’s a moment where it feels like everyone is holding their breath. Not just inside the arena: all of Panem. Hux thinks of Rae. He imagines her standing to the side in a room full of officials, watching the clock on the screen tick down and waiting for Hux’s face to appear in the final circling shot of each Tribute.

The starting gong sounds, reverberating overhead as if they’re all inside a glass box.

Hux supposes they are.

He leaps from the platform and lands hard in the sand, which provides no traction and makes running maddeningly slow. Teeth grit, he bears through it and sees that he’s at least moving more lightly than Phasma and Unamo, who are struggling through the sand in his peripheral vision. Only one person gets to the Cornucopia before Hux: Ben Solo, moving with unnerving agility and zeroing in on something toward the center.

Hux has less ambitious aims. He wants the bare minimum of useful weight with him when he makes a break for those mountains in the distance, and his vision narrows to the knife near the large black duffel, even as he hears someone cry out on the other side of the Cornucopia, blood splattering in an arc already. The Cornucopia’s surface is laced with sand that’s blown onto it. Hux nearly slips in his first stride but manages to correct his trajectory just in time to crash into Phasma. She grunts, shoulders him aside, and dives for the knife. She grabs it just before he can.

Hux doesn’t have time to be disappointed, only to consider that she might use the knife on him. Weaponless, he rolls to the side, glad to see Phasma dashing toward the middle of the platform with the knife. She probably going after Ben. Hux darts his eyes here and there, desperate to find a weapon. With Rodinon and Unamo both headed for the middle with Phasma, he’s not eager to go after the serious artillery there. If they’re serious about working with him, they’ll share their bounty when the Bloodbath is done. If they’re not, he doesn’t want to be anywhere near them until he’s armed.

A spear is hardly an ideal weapon for his skill set, but there’s a neglected one rolling away from the fight at the center of the platform, which is looking increasingly like a concerted attempt by all the Careers to kill Ben. Hux can’t trouble himself yet over why he’s not been included, though perhaps it was both unanimous and spontaneous when they all saw him daring to approach the middle of the Cornucopia. All Hux knows is that it’s yet another reason he has to take whatever weapon he can get. He bolts for the spear and sees that he’s not alone in having noticed it. Pava is charging toward it, too.

They reach the spear at the same moment, both grabbing for the opposite ends of it. Hux kicks out hard and she has the same idea: his boot lands against her ribcage and she gets him good on his exposed inner thigh. Any higher and he would be doubled over in pain, but her aim was off and he has the advantage, springing up and smacking her in the cheek with the end of the spear that she’s trying to wrangle from him. Unfortunately it’s the blunt end, and she’s already trying to return the blow with the steel blade that protrudes from the other end, which is only a few trembling inches from Hux’s face.

Hux is stronger than Pava, and he manages to rip the spear from her grip only to end up with her boot striking him squarely in his side. She yanks the spear from him when he falls. He gropes blindly for anything he can use to block the forthcoming downward slice from the spear. He’s not sure what he’s got in his hands when he swings it at her, but it’s boxy and heavy and does the job, snapping the sharp end of the spear off. When Pava stumbles backward against the force of the blow he springs up and brings the boxy thing in his hands down onto her again, this time bashing her hard in the shoulder. He’d been aiming for her head. She crumples to her knees with a cry and stabs at him with the broken-off blunt end of the spear, snagging in in the stab-resistant fabric of his uniform, hard enough to bruise but not sharp enough to tear.

If Hux lifts the thing in his hands high enough to deliver a deathblow, she’ll use the opportunity to kick him in the balls before he can clobber her with it. Instead he leaps away and recaptures the sharp end of the spear. No retaliating attack comes, and when he whips back around Pava is staggering away as quickly as she can.

Hux looks around him and sees that no one else has their attention on him. Phasma and Unamo are locked in combat with what appears to be a machete and an ax. Rodinon lies bleeding and motionless between them. Based on the precision of his gushing wound, the two girls don’t seem to be the ones who killed him, and they aren’t fighting each other. They’ve ganged up on Ben Solo, who is holding his own with a double-bladed steel spear far superior to the bit of broken wooden one Hux has in one hand. In his other hand he’s still holding the heavy box-like thing he used to bash at Pava; he still has no idea what it is but is pleased to see it has straps like a backpack. Interpreting its weight as potential risk but too curious about what’s inside to forfeit it, he slings it onto his back and grabs for the nearest half-spilled rucksack of supplies, a shiny apple rolling out of it like a ridiculous refugee, out of reach.

Hux looks up at Pava. She’s nearly made it to the edge of the platform and he could easily overtake her, but she’s moving in the opposite direction of the mountains and he should probably join Phasma and Unamo to at least pretend to help them defeat Ben, certainly the priority kill over an injured, smallish girl. It occurs to him at last that his heart is slamming, that he feels sick from it, that the blunt stabbing pain on his side makes walking painful already. He’s burning, too, throbbing under the merciless sun. It has to be at least a hundred degrees inside the arena. The weaker players are either lying dead at the fringes or making for the mountain. The girl from Six is fighting the boy from Five at edge of the Cornucopia, both of them using bats and slowly rendering each other useless if not dead. Hux turns to watch the Tributes who are headed for the mountain, surprised to see they’re more desperate to seek cover than to use the opportunity to attack each other. Rey is among them, leading the pack. It makes her vulnerable, but if anyone has found a long-range weapon, Hux hasn’t seen it yet.

Someone makes a choking sound that draws his attention. Hux fears it was Ben, but he’s still locked in combat with Phasma, her ax clacking against Ben’s spear as they try to wear each other down. Unamo is the one who cried out, and she staggers almost on top of Rodinon’s motionless body before dropping, hands at her bloody throat. The budge of her unseeing eyes makes Hux’s stomach pitch. He turns and leaps onto the sand, racing for the mountains while Phasma and Ben are distracted by each other. Ten strides out he leaps over a dropped sack in the sand at the edge of one of the Tribute platforms, realizing in the process that it’s no sack but Barley, lying dead already.

He doesn’t slow down to examine the nature of her death, though he also doesn’t understand how she could be dead already, and who but Ben would have been close enough to kill her, unless Rodinon made an unwise detour to drop her before racing to the Cornucopia.

Something goes whizzing by his ear just before he’s out of throwing range, yanking his attention back to more relevant matters. It’s the knife: the small one picked up by Phasma. Hux tracks it to where it landed just ahead, stabbed into the sand. When he picks it up he circles back, ready to pitch it at Phasma if she’s coming after him, but when he sees her standing at the edge of the platform he realizes she didn’t intend to hit him. She’s got her bloodied ax at her shoulder and the machete used by Unamo in her other hand. There’s no sign of Ben, but if Phasma had taken him down she would have his double-bladed spear, which at least looked like the best weapon available.

Hux feels he’s being asked to make a choice, but there’s no way that Phasma would expect him to return to the Cornucopia regardless. She’s teased him mercilessly all his life for his delicate complexion, and he can already feel his cheeks burning. He heads for the mountains, expecting her to follow. Up ahead, the stragglers are disappearing into what looks like a network of caves on the lowest level, while little Rey climbs toward a rock outcropping twenty feet up. She’s moving with surprisingly decisive skill now that the Game has begun.

The Game has begun, Hux thinks, experiencing a kind of animal thrill before he considers that he failed to even kill anyone during the Bloodbath. He can’t dwell on it because he’s not safe yet, not even relatively speaking, but it seems like a bad omen.

He reaches the shadow of the mountain after what feels like half a day’s run in the blinding heat, always waiting for Phasma or Ben to run up behind them and overtake him. Finally in the thin overhang of shade, he puts his back to the rock wall and checks to see who’s following him. The heat shimmers on the horizon and over the sand that he beat with his footsteps on the way here.

He squints, waiting for some squiggly figure to emerge from within the disorienting heatwaves, but nothing comes. Strange. Whichever of them survived must plan to make the Cornucopia their base for now. Perhaps they found a tent. It seems foolish to Hux either way, but his rational mind can already barely compute the amount of raw data that was dumped onto it, accompanied by the smell of blood and the blunt pain left behind by Pava’s attack. It could have been worse, but he should have killed her. The thought of Rae and Brendol watching him be overtaken by a slight girl from Four whose partner committed treason is enough to make him cringe. Only after he has does he consider he’s not alone: he’s on camera at all times now. Representing his District and his family name. Hardly even alone in his mind, for how raggedly his emotions have crept onto his face already.

He strives for a more neutral expression while he still pants for breath, sweat streaking down over his burning cheeks. The air blowing from inside the cave at his back feels cool, and it’s a relief to move into the darkness even as he considers that it’s the perfect trap for a weaker Tribute to ensnare him, unless one of the packages he grabbed has some kind of light source. Even then, the others have the advantage if they’re already lurking somewhere in the dark, waiting.

He crouches just within the archway of the cave, catching his breath and trying to wipe away the sweat that keeps dripping down from his hairline, stinging his eyes. Before examining the boxy weight strapped onto his back he opens the small supply pack he managed to snare, hoping to find a bottle of water. It’s hard not to curse aloud when he finds only two protein bars and a roll of gauze. Other things may have rolled out along with that apple when whomever first grabbed this pack dropped it. He puts the knife Phasma threw at him in his boot and keeps the broken-off spear at hand in case he’s ambushed. At least he came away with the sharp end.

After listening for any hint of footfall from within the cave, he checks the desert outside again and again sees no movement on the sand aside from the waves of heat. He feels a snarl creeping onto his face when he considers that he has the palest complexion of any of the Tributes. The desert landscape feels like a personal affront.

Unable to wait any longer, he pulls the heavy box off his back and examines it. There are two circular nodules at the bottom that look like vents, and the box’s back panel won’t budge when he yanks at it. The weight and the construction of the thing makes it seem like some sort of machine, and his already racing heart stutters when he runs his hands over the sides and finds a concealed panel that pops open to reveal what look like controls.

Hux kneels before the thing and studies its design, hypothesizing about its use before daring the switch. In past Games, mostly the more recent ones, there have been a few impressive but self-sabotaging high-tech weapons in the Cornucopia, designed to fool the overconfident Careers into wielding them, only to present some kind of nasty side effect for the user. This thing seems a ripe candidate for such a function, and in the midst of this landscape that seems specifically designed to destroy him, Hux is feeling doubly cautious. He looks into the darkness of the cave again. There’s nowhere to go but in, unless he wants to die of heat exhaustion out there, and if there’s a water source anywhere in this arena it will be either inside the cave or within some kind of oasis on the other side of the mountain. He turns back to the mysterious machine, studying the vent-like things at the bottom. They seem designed to vent heat, and with that heat there might be a source of light.

There’s a soft, scurrying sound from within the cave. Hux holds his breath and listens, waiting to hear it again. It didn’t sound like a footstep, more like some kind of animal, but that’s hardly good news. With a broken-off spear and a small knife, he’d have a better fighting chance against one of the underdogs who bolted into the caves without even attempting the Cornucopia. Either way, he won’t have a hope in hell if he goes in blind. He takes a deep breath and puts his fingertip over what looks like an on-switch on the side panel of the machine, pointing the vents away from him and toward the cave’s opening. He’s been burned enough for one day. The thought of cool water within the cave gives him the courage to wrinkle his nose and power the machine on.

The machine comes to life in his hands with a power he had braced for but still knocks him backward onto his ass with a single thrust. Live flames shoot from the two vents, twin fires that narrow to a point around blazing blue centers before he quickly snaps it off, still sliding backward along the cave floor.

So this was a sort of sabotaging weapon. His heart hammers as he thinks about what would have happened if he’d activated it while it was strapped to his back: the flames would have shot straight down along the backs of his legs, burning his uniform and gluing its remains to his seared flesh. He can smell the burn of the thing’s fuel once he’s powered it off, and after he’s taken some time to listen for any hint of an approach from within the cave, he examines the controls again. Beside the power switch, he finds what he was hoping for, or at least what appears to be something that could make this device useful: a lever that controls the flames’ intensity. He pulls it all the way down to the lowest setting and can’t hold in a grin when it he flicks the power back on and the flames from the vents glows only softly.

So he doesn’t have a water source or the kind of projectile weapon he’d hoped for, but he does have this flamethrower backpack thing as a light source. It will make him vulnerable, too, from anyone who’s currently hiding from him in shadow, but if he wields it properly he can surprise any oncoming attackers by flicking the power of the flame to maximum strength, roasting anyone who approaches alive. It’s not the most efficient mode of murdering an opponent, but he feels better with this thing in his hands than he would stabbing blindly at the darkness with a spearhead.

He’s considering the potential danger of breathing too much of the gas fumes this things emits in an enclosed environment when he hears the scurrying sound again, closer now and accompanied by a kind of sinister skittering of what sounds like claws over rock. He hoists the flame-emitting device and illuminates one wall of the cave, then the opposite one, seeing only rock. Ahead of him there is deep darkness that the flames can’t penetrate, even when he turns up the power.

Hux glances quickly behind him, at the mouth of the cave. There’s nothing for him out there. The pitiless desert seems suddenly like most places in his life outside the Games: barren stretches, burning scrutiny, everything only a precursor to this moment in the darkness and all the moments in here that are to come. He walks deeper into the cave, trying to breathe quietly despite the flame that gives his presence away. The scurrying becomes a kind of scattered fluttering, and there’s something like an angry, piercing chirp just before the darkness gathers together and comes down upon him.

They’re bats, descending from the high ceiling of the cave and gnashing at him with what feel like teeth but might be armored wings. Designed to do damage, certainly, but Hux only suffers a few cuts on his face before dropping onto his back and holding the makeshift flamethrower box over himself like a shield, blasting the power and setting the oncoming bats alight. This strikes him as a foolhardy plan too late, but he’s saved from most of the falling, burning bats by the fact that the flamethrower box is propelling him across the cave floor as he uses it to stop the bats, pushing him back almost to the mouth of the cave before he powers it off and takes stock of the situation, choking against the stench of the roasting bats as they shriek and crash against the cave walls before dropping down into smoldering piles.

Hux pushes himself up into a seated position, his back to the wall near the cave’s entrance, essentially back to where he started. Before he can even assess his injuries he wonders what creatures the other Tributes might have encountered in here. He was careful not to make any unnecessary noise when he was attacked, but surely a Tribute like Thanisson wouldn’t have the presence of mind not to shout in surprise or pain, unless he’s in a system of tunnels that’s not connected to this one. Mind wheeling, he then wonders what kind of night-vision illumination tech the Capitol is using to broadcast effectively from in here. Finally he feels the throbbing cut on his cheek and realizes the bats’ talons might have been poisoned.

He observes the blood that comes away on his fingertips and decides to assume that he’s only sunburned for now, this cut irritating his already sensitive skin. Even a regular cut would throb along with the force of his ragged heartbeat. He gets to his feet and checks his gear, his flamethrower powered off for now. He resolves to think of it as such, though he suspects it actually has some other use, or at least teases one, based on the propulsion it offered when he had it on full power. Perhaps it’s a kind of jetpack. He laughs at the idea, though some Peacekeepers do use them. They don’t uses ones with exposed flame that would burn the back of their legs, however.

The bats are all dead as he walks through them, kicking their smoking bodies aside. They’re only about the size of his fist, but there are dozens of them and all of them have sharp talons on the ends of their wings. The cut on his cheek continues to throb. He can’t do anything about the potential for slow-acting poison right now, so he does his best to put it out of his mind as he moves further into the tunnel, lighting his way with the lowest setting on the flame-pack. Perhaps that’s a better term for it.

He wonders what he must look like as he moves carefully through the winding cave, searching for alternative routes every time the tunnel turns but finding only one way forward so far. The burns on his cheek might not be visible on the broadcast, but his sleeves have already been shredded in two places by the bats and he’s bleeding from the face, still coughing through the heavy odor of roasted bat. Already he’s devolved into a wild thing, but it might as well come sooner than later, however unheroic he looks on the broadcast, with his kill count at zero unless he counts a bunch of genetically engineered murder bats.

For a long time he walks undisturbing, pausing to listen for company or the trickle of a water source every few steps. There’s no reason to move quickly just yet, though he will need water soon. The Bloodbath is over, but the first few hours of the Games are still the deadliest when it comes to sloppiness and surprises as opposed to more carefully calculated assassinations.

The tunnel he’s moving through narrows enough to make his breath feel short, the possible danger of inhaling too much of the flame-pack’s fumes coming to mind again. He’s worried about running out of fuel for the thing, too, wondering if most of this Games will be played in the caves. Something tells him no, that this is just the introductory period: an unexpected descent into immediate darkness, for novelty. The Gamemakers will have a way to drive all the Tributes back out of these caves when they want a change of scenery for variety’s sake. Hux suspects they’ll flood the tunnels at that point, with water or some other non-breathable substance. Rey was smart to climb the exterior and start her exploration of the caves further up. Hux keeps his eye out for any methods of elevation within, but sees nothing.

He hears something, however. Not just the trickle he was hoping to find dripping down over one of the rock walls but a kind of rushing sound that he takes for an air pocket before recognizing it as water: gushing, plentiful and not far ahead on his path. He sniffs the air as he gets closer and can’t detect anything chemical or otherwise alarming, just a clean scent that makes him walk a little faster than perhaps he should. He catches himself and freezes, listening. He’s close enough now to the water source that someone else’s movements might be concealed by its noise.

A slight increase on the level of flame light seems prudent. After Hux has adjusted the power, he looks up and see the cave ceiling is higher here. There are platforms of rock up above. He braces for bats or worse and runs his tongue over his dry lips when he considers that someone might have found a long range weapon in here, or taken one from the Cornucopia while he was distracted by the other action there. He wonders where Ben and Phasma are now. It seems impossible that they both left the Cornucopia alive, and if Phasma took the time to throw the knife-- at him or to him, he’s still not sure --she probably managed to at least wound Ben badly.

That, or she’s secretly working with Ben, too. Hux wrinkles his nose at the thought of Ben being a double traitor. It seems fitting, actually.

He waits a while longer, knowing that the water is a likely point of ambush. Powering off the flame-pack leaves him completely in the dark but makes him feel safer, his hearing more sharply attuned without the soft whooshing sound of flame from the pack’s vents. He’s got his spear in his hand, fingers twitching around the broken-off handle. The water seems to taunt him, and despite his dehydration he’s beginning to feel like he needs to piss. Finally, feeling like a coward for being perhaps overly cautious, he moves slowly toward the sound of the water, one hand on the flame-pack’s power switch and the other still grasping his weapon. These caves are likely immense and maze-like; after his bad luck at the Cornucopia and with picking the mountain entrance loaded with bats, maybe he’s finally caught a break, finding water enough to quench his thirst and cool his cheeks. Even within the increasingly chilly tunnel, his face is still burning and throbbing in tune with his heartbeat, especially on the left side, where the cut from the bat attack has at least stopped bleeding.

Once he’s close enough to the sound of what must be a waterfall, soft mist already landing against him as he inches closer, he powers his flame-pack on, keeping the light as low as he can. The reflection of the flame in the small pool of rippling water startles him for a moment, and he turns in an anxious circle, illuminating every place he can but still wary of the shadowy corners in this wider part of the caves. Nothing comes at him, so he dares to point his light source upward, trying to spot the top of the waterfall, but it’s too high. He increases the power on the flame-pack just enough to make it shake in his hands and spots a platform that he might be able to reach on the right wall, though with the weight of the flame-pack it won’t be easy, and he’s unwilling to leave it behind.

Deciding to reassess after he’s calmed himself with a few swallows of water, he kneels at the edge of the lagoon, looks around again with his spear-end grasped in his hand, then hurriedly tests two fingertips into the water, brushing his tongue just lightly against them. He waits, head beginning to throb along with his burned skin for need of water. There are some poisons that have no scent, and he can’t trust how clean and perfect and cold this water seems from his current, desperate vantage point.

After a minute has passed he takes a small handful and sips from it carefully. Another minute, and he takes a larger handful. Waiting to be attacked from behind, above, or by the water he’s trembling with the need to drink from makes him feel like he’s already gone feral, and he wants to growl in protest or slam his fist into the rock in frustration. This must be a sign that he shouldn’t wait any longer to drink, and there have been no ill effects from his small sips so far.

He sets the flame-pack down, its light still giving him just enough illumination to see what might be coming once it’s nearly upon him, and drinks one generous gulp from his hand, then another. In a moment of madness that will make Rae lift her lip with disapproval, he sets the spear-head down and cups both hands into the water, throwing it onto his burning face. The relief is instant but very fleeting.

Hux takes the spear-head up again and sits on his knees, the madness passing and rational thought refocusing as he imagines he can feel the water seeping down into him. He still has to piss, but that need is secondary, and he’s already starting to despair at the lack of a watertight container that he could use to secure a supply of water before moving on. He’s lucky to have even gotten a few handfuls into his mouth without being attacked; the Gamemakers will throw more creatures at him if he is truly isolated here, all other Tributes moving around elsewhere.

He takes two more gulps of water before he dumps out the protein bars and gauze and attempts to fill the bag with water. It’s no use; the thing is porous and just ends up soaked. Hux uses it to mop at his face, wincing when its rough material drags against the cut. He supposes he’ll have a scar. Most Victors have plenty of them.

The fact that he’s considering his vanity at a time like this makes him wonder if he shouldn’t eat one of the protein bars to absorb some energy and hopefully reign in his thought process, but before he can do anything else he needs to address his bladder. He hates to do it, and when he stumbles into the corner with the spear ready in his hand, leaving the flame-pack at the edge of the lagoon, he feels like he’s unwisely marking this as territory. It takes too long to even get started, the knowledge that he’s on camera bothering him even here and now, but he’s breathing evenly again when he’s finished. Refastening his uniform pants, he hears a timid footstep from above and suppresses the urge to grin. Someone who waited until he turned his back for a piss to attack will be easy enough to take down, and he’s had enough of this humiliating groping in the dark. He’s ready for his first kill.

Hux has always been excellent at anticipating his opponent’s first move, confrontations with Ben Solo excluded. All these hours alone in the darkness have fine-tuned his senses, and he pretends to still be doing up his uniform pants when he feels the density of the air just above him change, suddenly not empty. He whirls with the spear and connects, missing his attacker’s gut but stunning him with a blow to the chest that sinks the tip of the spear into flesh before Hux pulls it out, planning to aim for the throat now that they’re head to head.

He’s male, large, and when the flame-pack gets knocked over during their struggle, casting crazed shadows onto the far wall and otherwise providing little light, Hux thinks he might actually be Ben. But he’s not fighting with that armored spear; he’s got a heavy club that comes down hard on Hux’s left shoulder after Hux managed to only swipe at his attacker’s face, missing his throat.

They’re on the ground now, which isn’t good, because the guy is bigger than Hux and keeps half-pinning him between every slash of Hux’s blade. It’s also perilous in the sense that they’re rolling closer and closer toward the open flame of the pack that Hux left burning, for all the good its light is doing him now. He feels disoriented, not even sure which of them has the upper hand at any given moment. He knows he’s made several successful blows with the spear-head, can feel his assailant’s hot blood soaking down onto him from multiple wounds, but the Tribute, who Hux recognizes in his panicked struggle as Yonni, the boy from Three, seems indifferent to the fact that he’s being sliced to pieces while he tries to crush Hux’s head with the club.

Hux manages to knock the club away, but in doing so he leaves his own neck vulnerable and two strong hands circle it, crushing inward. Hux plunges the spear hard into Yonni’s side and Yonni wails in pain but only squeezes Hux’s neck harder. Hux twists the blade and feels Yonni drooling onto his face along with his agonized groan, a mix of saliva and blood dripping into Hux’s eyes, but still his grip on Hux’s neck doesn’t loosen.

When Hux’s vision goes spotty he thinks they might actually kill each other simultaneously. He miscalculated, not having realized that not only the smaller Tributes from the weakest Districts reached the caves before he did. Now he’s flat on his back and choking, still twisting the spear in deeper as he feels the Yonni’s defeated weight settling onto him. Hux tries clawing at Yonni’s grip on his neck with his free hand, struggling to pull the spear out of Yonni’s side so he can use it to slash at his impossibly tight fingers, but he’s weak, and the spear is buried so deeply, and how is this boy still alive, how did it come to this so quickly? He sees quicksand closing around him as his vision greys at the corners, swallowing him down.

The first breath he’s able to take is painful, and he hardly knows what’s happening, distressed at first that the spear has been ripped from his hand. But Yonni’s body has been ripped off of him along with it, and he can breathe; the tightness around his throat is a phantom, just bruising and soreness.

Hux touches his throat while gaping up at the darkness, slowly registering that someone else is here and that Yonni was finished off by whomever has come to now finished Hux off, too. He’s weaponless, weak and dizzy, crawling pathetically away from the person who is grabbing for him now.

“Stop moving,” Ben says. “Other guy’s dead. I finished him off.”

Ben. Ben is here, crouching over him and then pouring what feels like cold water onto his face. Hux laughs madly: cold water, of course, the curse for a crushed throat.

“I--” Hux tries to say, his voice a scratch. “How--”

“You almost had him.” Ben pushes Hux’s wet hair off his face and then shines a too-bright light down onto him. “The hell is that thing over there, a bomb?”

“It’s-- I don’t know-- Flame--”

“I’m gonna turn it off, unless that will blow us both up.”

“Yes, there’s a switch--”

Hux sits up, wincing, and touches the tender skin at his throat. Ben has some kind of flashlight. Hux watches as he goes over to the flame-pack and examines it before shutting off the power. Then he shines the bright little light he’s holding back into Hux’s eyes.

“Well, you found water, anyway,” Ben says, mocking.

“Shut up.”

“You’re welcome. I guess we’re officially aligned now, since I killed your fake allies right out of the gate. You’re welcome for that, too.”

“Phasma’s dead?”

Hux wishes his voice hadn’t gone up an octave and cracked with the question. Hopefully viewers will understand this is merely a physical effect of the attack he just survived.

“No,” Ben says. He sounds surly about this. “I meant the other two, from District One. They’re dead.”

“And Phasma is where exactly?”

“I don’t know. I got her good in the thigh with this.” He gestures to the steel spear strapped to his back. “Thought maybe I’d hit the femoral artery.”

“I’m surprised you know what that is,” Hux says, voice recovering somewhat.

“Fuck you.”

“So where is she?”

“I don’t know. We were both worn down by the fight. She seemed like she was going after you, so I used the opportunity to get a head start on the way here. She has a machete and an ax. I wanted to get out of throwing range.”

“She wasn’t going after me.” Hux feels certain of it now, shifting his legs and feeling the shape of the knife that’s tucked in his boot. “She’s not that bad an aim.”

Ben shrugs and kneels down beside the water supply, gulping from it. Hux sniffs, watching this.

“Not going to test it for poisons first?” he asks.

“I have a sense for these things,” Ben says. He’s also got a good-sized canteen, and he fills it with water after taking a few more gulps.

“A sense for-- Never mind, I don’t care.”

Hux doesn’t want to hear any boasting about Ben’s mastery of the natural elements due to his backwoods upbringing. Hux's spearhead is still buried in Yonni’s lifeless body. He wonders if Ben saw him pick up the knife that Phasma threw. Seems unlikely.

“What have you got in there other than the canteen?” he asks, nodding to the rucksack that hangs on Ben’s hip.

“Some jerky and dried fruit.” Ben walks over to Hux, shining his flashlight up at the stone platforms overhead. “Matches, and some kind of compact bedding thing I haven’t unrolled yet. That was it, plus this light and the canteen. I’m gonna hoist you up there,” he says, pointing to the platform over Hux’s head. “It’ll be safer, we can watch the entry points while we eat and rest up.”

“Hand me my flame pack,” Hux says, trying not to look like he’s struggling to stand. “My spear, too.” He nods to where it’s lodged in Yonni’s side, wondering already if he should have simply dashed for it himself.

“Some spear,” Ben says, yanking it out. He wipes it on his pants before handing it to Hux, then passes the flame pack to him. They hold each other’s eyes for a moment, and Hux isn’t even sure if his end of this gaze is more a challenge or a promise of trust. He supposes it could be both.

Maybe eating will help him feel less weak and indecisive. Killing someone without help might do the trick, too, but he’s not ready to dispose of Ben. His presence feels like needed sustenance right now, and it is helpful to have a boost up onto the platform once he’s got his flame-pack strapped on. Ben tosses Hux’s bag up after it. Hux tucks his sprearhead into his belt when Ben climbs up onto the platform beside him.

“Not a bad first encampment,” Ben says. The platform is just wide enough for the two of them, and Hux can smell Ben’s sweat, can feel the heat coming off his body. Neither thing is unpleasant within the cool air of the cave. “We’ll have to move on after this break,” Ben says, as if Hux doesn’t know this. “The water will draw people in, and somebody might have a long range weapon.”

“They could pick us off like sitting ducks if so.”

“Not unless they have a light source.” Ben clicks his flashlight off, throwing the cavern into complete darkness. The rushing sound of the waterfall seems to double in volume when the light is gone. “Gotta reserve the battery life anyway,” Ben says. His voice seems not louder but closer in the dark.

Hux says nothing, listening to his own breathing and not protesting when Ben fidgets against him, shuffling around in his bag. Hux mostly holds in a surprised little sound when Ben takes his hand, opens it and presses a piece of jerky against his palm.

“Thanks,” Hux mutters, embarrassed by all this but so relieved that Ben is here. He decides not to think about the fact that this moment is being broadcast; there’s no point. Victors have done far more humiliating things than this in the process of claiming their eventual wins.

“How many have you killed?” Ben asks, keeping his voice low and close to Hux’s ear.

“None.” There’s no point in lying. “Unless you count the guy down there.” Hux can smell his blood; it’s lucky that the caves are cool or the rotting stench of death would reach them quickly.

“He was mostly dead when I got here,” Ben says.

Hux snorts, annoyed by this generosity. “I injured Pava, the girl from Four,” he says. “But getting a head start toward the mountain seemed more important than finishing her off, considering the lack of cover. She might be lying dead in the desert somewhere, since she ran off in the opposite direction. Have you taken anyone but Rodinon and Unamo down yet?”

“Mhmm.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Barley asked me to snap her neck as soon as she stepped off the platform. She begged. So.”

Hux chews his jerky, imagining he can sense Ben’s discomfort with this subject. He wonders if he should press it or just let it stand. It makes sense that the doomed girl would want to meet her fate sooner rather than later, with minimal suffering. He’s surprised Ben seems bothered that he kept his promise to her. Perhaps it’s an act, but it would benefit Ben more to pretend he’d killed her with cold efficiency, not because he pitied her.

“Did you get a sense of where any others ended up?” Hux asks. “I saw Rey climbing up to one of the cave entrances higher on the mountainside. I thought that was smart, actually. Would have tried it myself if the sun wasn’t frying me.”

“You’re the first one I managed to find in here,” Ben says. “Saw a light and heard grunting.”

Hux scoffs at the reduction of his fight to the death with Yonni to ‘grunting.’

“I figure the caves are all connected,” Ben says. “It’s a maze. There’s probably some shit hidden in here, too.”

“Some shit?”

“Weapons, supplies. Sponsors might open passageways for certain Tributes.”

“Interesting theory.” Hux finishes his jerky and digs in his own bag for one of the protein bars. He opens it, breaks off some of it and halves that portion. He feels for Ben’s hand, offering half to him. “It’s only fair,” Hux mutters when he imagines he can feel Ben smirking at him with surprise at this friendly gesture.

Ben passes the canteen back to Hux, and for a while they again eat and drink in silence. Hux feels his sore limbs growing heavier. Surely it’s too early to sleep, though they might be close to the end of the first sundown by now. He wonders if he’d dream of his brother again if he slept.

“So much for your plan to start out with the Careers,” Ben says.

“You’re the one who thwarted that, really. But it ended up being needless. Phasma’s location concerns me, however.”

“How about Poe and Finn?”

Hux snorts. “Why would I be concerned about them? They’ll be half-dead whenever they’re thrown in here.”

“But--” Ben stops himself, and Hux shifts closer to him in the dark, a chill moving through him. He can guess what Ben might have said, and why he stopped himself when he remembered the cameras. Poe’s and Finn’s ability to escape from the residence in the Capitol, even temporarily, evinces a kind of power and skill that no other Tribute in the history of the Games has shown. There’s a secret, rotten part of Hux that admires them for it, too.

“Of course it’s a fucking desert arena,” Hux mutters, mostly for the sake of changing the subject. “I’m blistering. Maybe someone will send burn cream.”

“Is it really that bad.”

“Yes. You don’t know what it’s like to have this coloring.”

“True. You’re so delicate.”

“That’s not what I meant! Fuck off.”

Hux means this sincerely but not literally; he doesn’t object when Ben takes his hand in the dark and shuffles closer, their clasped hands resting on Ben’s big thigh. Ben rubs his thumb into Hux’s palm, which is calloused from a lifetime of weapons training but still softer than Ben’s.

“The sun will go down soon,” Ben says. “That’s when we should try to move on, if we can find a way out of here.”

Hux nods, thinking of mentioning his suspicion that the tunnels will be flooded eventually. There’s no sense in tipping his hand to the Gamemakers, and Ben surely has had the same thought, so he says nothing. Despite the lack of strategic competency shown during his interview, Ben seems to know what he’s doing in here, at least so far.

“How long can we risk staying here?” Hux asks, wondering if he should risk putting his aching head on Ben’s shoulder. His neck hurts terribly, and supporting the weight of his head feels like it’s taking too much of his energy.

“Long enough to digest what we just ate,” Ben says. “Then we move.”

“The temperature will start to drop when sundown gets closer,” Hux theorizes. It seems to be getting colder inside this cavern already, as his heart rate calms and the sweat cools on his skin.

Hux can feel it when Ben nods. He moves a little closer, letting his head tip toward the temptation of Ben’s broad shoulder. How pathetic it would be to rest his cheek there for even a moment, with the Game just beginning and his kill count still at zero. But now that time has slowed again he’s got to take any little reprieve he can get before the next round of cave bats or worse comes hurtling at them. He tries to imagine what Rae would do but can’t imagine her in this situation even outside of the Games, holding hands with a boy in the dark.

“So you think it would be wise to move away from the mountain after this?” Hux asks, now talking just to keep himself awake.

“Yeah. For all we know it will turn into a volcano eventually.”

“That would be overkill, don’t you think? No variation on the theme of extreme heat.”

“Gamemakers love overkill,” Ben says, muttering this as if he knows it’s unwise to say so on camera. Hux squeezes his hand hard, admonishing. Ben huffs and tugs Hux against him. “Rest your neck,” he says, his voice still a low mumble. “It’ll help.”

“Help,” Hux mutters doubtfully, but he does as Ben suggested, lowering his cheek to Ben’s shoulder and letting his weight sink slowly onto Ben’s. The relief is instant, probably more profound than it should be. “I still don’t understand how that corpse down there was keeping his grip on my throat when he was more than half dead from blood loss,” Hux says, determined to keep his head in the Game even as it rests on Ben’s shoulder.

“Dying really brings out the determination in some people.”

Hux tries not to take that as a warning about what’s to come, eventually, between the two of them. “Rodinon went down easily,” he says.

“He nearly took my head off with that machete while the other two wailed on me.”

“Funny they went after you straightaway like that.” Hux doesn’t need to say: without telling me they would.

“Made sense to me. I knew going for this spear would draw them onto me. Figured if I could just get a hold of it I’d take them all out with it. But Phasma’s smarter than the other two were.”

“Faint praise,” Hux mutters, his eyes falling shut. He’s proud of himself when Ben breathes a warm little laugh against his forehead. Hux has never been known for making anybody laugh, and Ben seems like a hard customer in that department. “How’d you kill our friend down there from Three, by the way?”

“You didn’t see?”

“I was preoccupied with attempting to breathe, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s a bit dark in here.”

“Crushed his skull against the rocks on the other side. Brains everywhere. Careful you don’t slip in them when we refill our water.”

“Those brains had better not be leaking into our water supply!”

“We’ll fill the canteen straight from the waterfall if they are. Calm down.”

Hux doesn’t like that instruction but supposes he should have thought of that. Maybe he does need to rest for a moment, to recapture his wits. He doesn’t want to fully sleep, but it might be strategically wise to take this chance while he has it, considering it might be his last.

“Did you meet any creatures in the tunnels?” he asks.

“Creatures?” Ben says.

“Like bats. I ran into some bats with knives on the points of their wings.”

“Is that how you got that cut on your cheek?”

Hux is pleased that he noticed. He would roll his eyes at himself if they weren’t closed. “Yes.”

“I haven’t seen anything like that. I was thinking about it, though. How I bet they have some nasty bugs and snakes and shit waiting for us somewhere in here. Whole pits of them.”

“Well, we can set them on fire if necessary. That’s how I dealt with the bats.”

“Fuck, really? Were they still flying once you lit them up?”

“Yeah.” Hux grins, then remembers that the darkness that hides his expression from Ben won’t do the same for the viewers. Though really, what does he care. “Some of them were. The smell was awful.”

“Did you put any in your pack?”

“Put-- What, the dead bats?”

“Yeah. I bet they’re edible.”

“No, I didn’t think of it.” Hux sighs, not sure if he’s disgusted by the suggestion or embarrassed that he wasn’t more resourceful. He shifts against Ben, so disoriented by the dark that he doesn’t mind how much he’s enjoying the feeling of resting his singed, sore, stabbed-at body against the warm weight of another person. Of this person.

“Too bad,” Ben says. “Roasted bat might have come in handy.”

He’s still holding Hux’s hand, and the way his thumb strokes over Hux’s knuckles keeps him awake, but it seems like some kind of nervous fidget that Ben needs to indulge, so Hux doesn’t protest. Anyway, it feels good. Hux wants to ask, What do you think they’re saying about us already? He wonders if there were cameras on the roof of the tower in the Capitol after all, and if they were allowed to have their kiss there just for drama’s sake.

Hux sleeps thinly and wakes thirsty, his neck still aching. As soon as he fidgets and hisses at the pain Ben presses the mouth of the canteen to his lips. Hux drinks from it, flushing. It’s colder in the cavern now, probably approaching nightfall outside.

“We should move,” Ben says. “I’ll refill the water.”

“Remember not to slip on the brains,” Hux mutters. “Or the blood, for that matter.”

Ben snaps his flashlight back on and holds it under his chin, giving Hux an eerie smile. Having the ability to see again makes Hux feel like he’s already done everything wrong, but at least he’s still alive and not bleeding from any major arteries. He can handle the pain in his neck, and Ben’s weirdness. Once they make it out of these tunnels, he’ll reassess.

Even being alone on the platform makes Hux tense. He keeps his spearhead at the ready while he watches Ben refill the canteen down below. The spear on Ben’s back looks mechanized, but Hux only saw him using it as a blunt instrument at the Cornucopia. Hux straps his flame-pack back on and carefully gets to his feet when Ben pulls himself back onto the platform.

“Where do we go from here?” Hux asks.

Ben uses the flashlight to show him. Hux’s heart sinks; he’s okay at rock climbing, but he feels groggy and the low light makes him nervous. He moves ahead as if he’s unafraid, stretching one leg out to the nearest nub of rock that provides a foothold before gripping a narrow ledge overhead. The flame-pack is a liability, making him wobble, but he’s not ready to abandon it. If he falls, he could activate in desperation. Burning himself would be preferable to shattering into a pile of bones on the rocks below.

Hux almost slips twice, but Ben doesn’t tease him or try to coach him in his movements. He’s giving Hux most of the light, holding it straight ahead even while he climbs, and only when Hux finally reaches the overhang that leads into a tunnel on the other side of the cave does he turn back and see Ben holding the flashlight between his teeth while he scales the rocky walls. Ben leaps onto the overhang, showing off, and Hux grabs for him without thinking, steadying him. Ben takes the flashlight from between his teeth and grins. Hux turns away, embarrassed, and heads into the tunnel.

The air smells fresher up here, and some of the day’s heat is still trapped in the narrow, winding tunnel. Hux follows the bouncing beam of Ben’s flashlight along the ground ahead of him, hoping they’re not far from the exit. He doesn’t exactly feel rejuvenated after that short nap, but he’s had enough of this mountain. He feels like they’re hiding here, and doesn’t like it.

Something in the distance rumbles. It sounds like thunder, but Hux knows better than to trust assumptions inside an arena. Hux stops walking and Ben bumps into him from behind.

“What it is?” Hux asks.

“I smell rain,” Ben says. “We need to get out of here.”

“I knew they’d flood the tunnels.” Hux is sorry he didn’t say so earlier, for the official record.

The grade of the tunnel is sloping downward, first gently and then in a steep plummet. They both skitter in their steps over loose rocks. The thunder sound claps and rumbles again outside, seeming to shake the entire arena. Hux hears rocks breaking and falling down over what sounds like a steep precipice.

When they come to the end of the tunnel they’re at the foot of the mountain, looking out across a rocky plain that stretches out into nothing, only thinly laced with sand. Dusk has fallen and heavy stormclouds are gathering in the distance, lightning moving through them as they approach the mountains.

“This whole area is going to flood,” Hux says. The rocks ahead are sloped, angled toward the mountain to guarantee the tunnels will fill when the rain starts pouring.

“Yeah,” Ben says. “But we’re not safe on higher ground. They’ll strike anyone who tries to ride it out up there with that.”

Ben points to forking lightning that blasts the ground up ahead. The way he said they makes Hux uncomfortable. The Gamemakers don’t like being directly accused of picking off players themselves. They call it the luck of the arena, though everybody knows better.

“I think we move ahead,” Hux says. “Into the storm. The farther we can get across this plain before the downpour starts, the better.”

Ben gives him a faint, quick smile that feels like a coded message. His hair is whipping in the wind, and Hux sees now that Phasma or someone else left a bad gash on his right shoulder. Hux didn’t notice before; he’d rested his cheek on Ben’s other shoulder, in the dark.

“If it’s drowning or lightning, I’ll take my chances with electrocution,” Ben says.

“Is that a yes?” Hux snaps, impatient to get moving and annoyed with himself for taking time to worry about Ben’s open wound becoming infected.

“A yes?”

“To my plan, shall we go?”

“We shall.”

Ben is making fun of Hux’s District Two accent. Hux doesn’t especially care. He sets his sights on the storm ahead and walks directly toward it. Ben follows, keeping close. The wind blasts against them, carrying the smell of rain like a predator’s scent. Hux feels unafraid and fierce as they approach it, glad to be released from the suffocating prison of the tunnel system. He’s glad that Ben is with him, too, and can’t imagine any better treasure he might have found in those caves. He knows he shouldn’t think this way, that allowing himself to enjoy Ben's company will make what is already headed toward them harder. Only one of them will leave alive. Hux can’t imagine feeling more alive than he does in this moment, so he doesn’t try, just walks into the wind with his weapon in his fist and Ben at his side, ready for anything but the end.

 

 

**