The Supreme Leader is talking to himself.
It's hard to catch him in the act, and so Hux finds himself spending his evenings tracking through surveillance tapes, scowling as Ren strides down the corridors, dishes out orders, and causes Stormtroopers to scatter at the slightest hint of a short temper.
But then, every so often, usually in the evenings, he'll freeze, his eyes looking up from whatever task he's busying himself with. If he's alone, he'll say something, his lips clearly forming words in the grainy surveillance footage. If there are others around, something might come out of the corner of his mouth. Something undefinable. Untranslatable.
Hux dares not share his discovery with anyone else. With Snoke gone there's no one to tell. No one to protect him should Ren's temper flare, squeezing the air from Hux's throat as it does so.
He must tread carefully. The most likely explanation is that Snoke is still communicating with Ren. He's heard of such a thing among force users. Of powerful men who are not here in body but are still able to make their presence known.
And it is so very much like Ren to keep this to himself. To jealously guard all of Snoke's attention and instruction for himself.
What about him? He's leading the First Order while contending with an unstable moron who might just kill him if a passing fancy doesn't pass quickly enough.
Hux flicks back further through the footage, but all he manages to find is something of a one-sided greeting, before the Supreme Leader disappears into his quarters, taking his secrets with him.
The Supreme Leader is smiling.
Hux has never seen such a vile display of emotion.
It's not smiling, per se. Hux is briefing the senior officers ahead of an assault on an suspected Resistance base, and Ren, naturally, has muscled his way into the meeting.
Snoke never watched him this closely.
Although there were always consequences with Snoke. Even after a success, there was always something wrong. It was as though Snoke wanted him to fail, so he could punish him, and if he succeeded, the punishment would come regardless.
There is, perhaps, a grudging preference for Ren's methods.
From the corner of his eye, he sees Ren's lips twitch. It's the faintest movement, and a less suspicious person might put it down to a muscle spasm, a toothache, thirst, even.
But Hux has not seen such a thing on Ren's face before.
"Is there something you'd like to share, Supreme Leader?"
Despite Hux's preference for Ren's management, the words are still bitter in his mouth.
"No," says Ren plainly. He gestures with one gloved hand at the map of the base. "Continue."
Hux regards him for a moment, then returns to his strategy briefing. His skin is hot, and there's acid swirling in his stomach. He hates not knowing. Being left out of the loop in his own briefing. It is the ultimate show of disrespect, this barely concealed smirk, which he now knows it most definitely was. It was most definitely a smirk.
He keeps his eyes on Ren and the officers for the rest of the briefing. He refrains from blinking as far as possible, his eyes getting drier and drier so he doesn't miss a thing.
Ren is clearly trying to win over the officers by undermining him so openly, so blatantly. Nothing about this briefing is remotely funny - it's very clearly a deliberate and childish attempt to spoil his plans.
There is something amiss with Ren's face for the rest of the briefing, as though the shape of his mouth has changed. It's a permanent change though, a new default which isn't turned down at the corners. It's difficult for Hux to put his finger on, even when he runs back the tape for the sixth time.
The offending smirk is barely detectable on the footage. It looks more like a flicker on the tape than anything else, but Hux had seen it with his own eyes. He knows he did. When he switches to a different source, the corridors now, after the meeting as Ren strides towards his quarters, something catches his eye.
There's a small movement of the lips, and Ren's eyes flick towards an empty patch of wall just in front of him and to the left. The murmur doesn't last, but then there's a pause, and Ren shakes his head as a broad smile spreads across his lips, baring his teeth for a few seconds before he regards the invisible audience on his left again, the ghost of the smile still hanging around his features.
He can't possibly be communicating with Snoke.
It's much later, when Hux is lying in bed, staring up into the pitch blank of his quarters, that he realises he's never seen Ren happy.
He doesn't get much sleep that night, and Hux wonders instead when he himself last felt any happiness.
He can't remember.
The Supreme Leader is displeased.
They've travelled halfway across the galaxy, deployed Stormtroopers, TIE fighters, AT-ATs, and the result?
The result was nothing. A caved in bunker with one lone signaller programmed in an endless loop, changing its sequencing patterns at random so as not to arouse suspicion.
And then, of course, there had been the landmines. Delayed detonation - or remote, they're not sure. But their troops on the ground had been decimated, the AT-ATs blown to smithereens, cannon left in a state of irreparable damage.
It's not just a failure.
"It's an embarrassment," Ren says, looking down at Hux. Never have those extra two inches of height grated so much. He should be thankful for small mercies though - they are, at least, alone for this conversation. Everybody knows about his latest humiliation - how could they not? But he'd rather have this particular disciplinary take place away from the dross of the First Order. He doesn't want the nobodies to feel an ounce of delight from this.
"You've wasted our time, our resources, our men. I've never seen such a catastrophic failure." Ren paces back and forth, while Hux stands as tall as he can, chin held high, arms clasped behind his back. He can't stop his eyes from fixating on Ren's right hand, which rests on the hilt of his lightsaber. When he turns, the lightsaber disappears, and Ren's itchy trigger finger along with it. Hux can feel the sweat forming on his back, his mouth dry, until Ren turns again and his hand is no closer to the ignition switch.
He has never known stress like it - to have his fate (and most likely his head) resting on the turn of a boot, safe, not safe, safe, not safe.
He's fully aware that it's been some time since Ren last lost his temper and destroyed the closest thing to hand.
Hux is currently the closest thing to hand.
It's not a position he favours.
"Do you have anything to say about this?" Ren stops and looks him dead in the eye, a chilly, piercing gaze that is even more unsettling than one of his rages. Hux cannot read him, cannot interpret anything other than his outright displeasure.
Hux clears his throat. "The intelligence we received - "
"Was bad intelligence," Ren interrupts, stepping closer to him, his boots only an inch away from Hux's own. He lowers his voice now, and it's soft, almost a whisper, and highly dangerous. "If I told you, that the Resistance has restored the old Onderon bases," he says, and Hux can feel the heat of his breath ghosting across his face, as though death itself is sizing him up. "Would you take us all the way there, deploy our troops and transports, and put our forces at risk without spending a single second on basic due diligence?"
There is no right answer to the question, but Ren stays silent, waiting for one.
"We picked up signals from the base - we couldn't have known it was a trap. The Resistance's armoury was depleted after Crait, they were finished!"
"Except they weren't," Ren says. "Clearly."
Hux opens his mouth to defend himself, but Ren cuts across him before he has the chance.
"Do you know what the Resistance is doing right now?" Ren asks.
Hux stays silent. He's sensing an end to the conversation, and he'd like to make it out the other side.
The Supreme Leader is laughing.
At least, Hux thinks he is. He doesn't have a point of reference for this outcome.
The surveillance footage isn't giving Hux the answers he needs, and so he has taken drastic steps. His ear is pressed flat against the metal door that seals off Ren's quarters from the rest of the ship, but it doesn't have the same soundproofing quality as the ones in the briefing rooms.
And so Hux can hear him laughing.
"You should have seen his face," Ren says, and Hux's lip curls as a prickle of embarrassment travels up his spine.
He doesn't hear a reply, but after a short pause, Ren laughs again. It's just a soft chuckle, something that might be exchanged between friends. But Ren doesn't have any friends. None of them do. Snoke had seen to that. No alliances, only servitude.
But Snoke is dead.
Maybe Ren has changed the rules. Maybe he has found a confidant. Hux wonders if any of the Knights of Ren are still out there, if Ren has made contact, formed alliances, so that they can decimate the Resistance once and for all.
He wants to burn every last one of them to dust. Even more so after their last trick.
He strains to hear the one-sided conversation taking place in Ren's quarters, and it gets even harder when the clatter of boots sounds nearby. Hux clamps a hand over one ear while pressing the other into the cold metal, but the words are undetectable, just the bass of Ren's tone travelling through the door.
"Is the door control jammed, General? We've had some issues, let me take a look."
Before Hux can say a word, the maintenance technician has inserted his override key into the control, and the door hisses open.
Hux's heart freezes in his chest, breath caught in his lungs. Ren is sitting in his chair, his jacket undone, and the topmost buttons of the undershirt below unfastened. He's comfortably slouched, but the relaxed expression on his face is fading, and in one hand there is a bottle that looks almost like -
"Is that beer?" Hux demands, his shock getting the better of him. He regrets his tone immediately. Ren's expression turns stony now, and he stands up, walking slowly towards the door.
"Did you open this door?"
"No," Hux says, and he points towards the maintenance technician. "He did."
"I'm sorry, Supreme Leader," the technician blurts, "I thought the General was having problems with the - "
His words are cut short by the constriction of his throat. He rises a few inches into the air, his toes dragging along the floor. Hux looks across to Ren's feet, and has to bite his tongue when he sees that Ren is bootless, and standing there in his socks.
The man is positively casual. It's a disgrace.
"These are my private quarters," Ren says quietly. "But you using your override key defeats the object, don't you think?"
The technician collapses to the floor in a heap, gasping for breath, tears staining his cheeks.
"Don't ever open this door ever again."
"I'm sorry sir."
The stuttered apology goes unacknowledged.
"Leave us," Ren says, and his eyes return to Hux as the technician scrambles away. Once the sound of his staggered footsteps and laboured breathing fades into the distance, Ren speaks again. "What were you doing lurking outside my door?"
"I wasn't lurking," Hux snaps.
"You were lurking," Ren says, and it's no use arguing with him. His mind tricks mean he can see through everything. It's maddening.
"Who were you talking to?" he asks instead, turning the tables on Ren. "I know it's not Snoke."
"Of course it's not Snoke," Ren replies. "He's dead."
"So who were you talking to?" He's pushing his luck, and every second he goes without having his throat crushed only serves to embolden him.
"If it were any of your business, don't you think I'd tell you?"
There's nothing much Hux can say to that, and so he turns his attention back to the beer.
"And what about this?" he says, gesturing towards the bottle in Ren's hand. "This is a First Order ship, not some Outer Rim cantina." He sneers and returns his gaze to Ren's face. He's still not used to the blank expression. It makes his heart race, the unpredictably far worse than any rage he's ever been party to.
Ren looks down at the bottle. "I sourced a crate. I'd been planning to share some with you, in celebration of the victory over the Resistance but…" His eyes meet Hux's again, and there's a faint shrug of the shoulders. It's a jibe, and nothing more. A jibe to cover up Ren's own reckless and wanton behaviour.
"Why are you dressed like this?" It's a desperate last clutch at the upper hand, but any authority that Hux had hoped for is immediately undermined by the slight shake of Ren's head and the minute roll of the eyes.
Snoke has only been dead for three months, and already they've descended to this. Open jackets, unbuttoned shirts, and socks.
"I'm in my private quarters, it's late, and I'm having a drink before I go to bed," Ren answers, much more slowly than usual, as if speaking to an idiot. It's completely inappropriate. "Do you…" Ren adds, then pulls a face as he pauses, "do you sleep in your uniform, Hux?"
Hux opens his mouth to respond, but the words don't come. He does not sleep in his uniform. He sleeps in the standard issue sleepwear provided to all members of the First Order. As should Ren.
"I'm going to bed." Ren announces, and he takes a step back from the doorway. "Don't spy on me again or I'll crush every bone in your body." He deploys the threat so calmly, so conversationally, that it hits Hux like a punch to the gut.
"And stop watching tapes of me," Ren adds. "It's weird."
He hits the door control, and before Hux knows what's happening, he's face down on the floor. An invisible hand drags him by the leg, not stopping until he reaches his own quarters on the other side of the ship.
The Supreme Leader is a traitor.
Hux cowers behind the smoking navigation console as sparks shower over him, screams echoing around the bridge.
There's nowhere to run. So instead he hides.
Ren has smuggled the scavenger girl aboard, and the two of them are making quick work of the ship's crew. The only reason the alarm hasn't sounded is because no one has stayed alive long enough to raise it. Hux knows there's no point now, and so he crawls around the console, looking desperately for an exit which could lead him to an escape pod.
There's a door only thirty yards away, and the control panel is still glowing with life. Hux begins to crawl, the metal grille floor leaving deep welts in his hands and knees.
He glances through the carnage to see Ren's progress, and his lightsaber is nowhere to be seen. He clenches his hand into a fist and the helmets of the two nearest stormtroopers crumple, while the scavenger thrusts her lightsaber into the gut of another.
They're working at speed, and blasters are firing towards them, officers taking a last stand in a battle they must know can't be won.
Hux continues onwards, ducking one of the monitors shatters, glass flying everywhere and rattling through the gaps in the floor.
The door is only fifteen yards away now, and he hurries onwards.
"Saber!" Ren calls, and there is a flare of blue as the girl throws her lightsaber into the air, to be caught in Ren's bare hand.
It's one of the few times Hux has seen him without gloves. First socks, and now this. He should have seen it coming.
It all feels so stupidly obvious now, so disgusting and foolish and awful. All those conversations, all those smirks, she'd been whispering in his ear the entire time. Corrupting him, turning him against the First Order. And he fell for it. So pathetic, so weak, to destroy everything he believes in, everything he has worked for, just for some desert pauper who has a stupid sword like his.
There is another flash of blue as the sword is thrown back to the girl, and she spins, aggressively taking out three officers in as many seconds.
Hux refocuses - if he can get to the door, there will be time to be angry later. There will be time to plan, and he can ensure there are appropriate consequences for this ultimate betrayal. He shuffles forward, ducking again as another explosion rips through the bridge, and the lightsaber changes hands yet again.
He stretches out an arm, hand reaching for the door control, but then there is an almighty crash, and Lieutenant Tripp's lifeless form is flung across the room, colliding with the door. The force of the impact dents the metal, and her head collides with the door control, shattering the panel. Hux slaps his hand against his mouth to prevent himself from calling out. His gloves are littered with grit and debris, scratching at his skin as he tries to control his breathing. This exit had been his only hope. The fight is only drawing closer, while blood trickles from the corner of Lieutenant Tripp's mouth, each drip onto the floor bringing Hux closer and closer to his fate.
The pain of the grilled floor against his knees is too much now, and so he tucks his feet under himself, rolling back into a crouch while he considers his options. One quick glance at the battle tells him it won't be long now until they find him. There are more slumped and broken bodies in First Order uniforms than there are standing ones.
Someone makes a run for the door on the far side, but Ren is too quick. He raises one hand while the other thrusts the lightsaber through the stomach of a captain, and the door descends on the escapee, severing him in two.
Hux scuttles to the nearest desk for cover curling underneath and trying to calm himself. He knows their kind can detect strong emotions, and so he clamps his hands over his ears, closes his eyes, and tries to imagine the bangs and flashes are from the destruction of the Resistance.
It doesn't work.
His heart is pounding in his chest, and he can't regulate his breathing no matter how hard he tries. He scoots further under the desk, leaning to one side so that he has enough room to hide his feet from view, but something hard digs into his side.
If he's not going to survive this, he might as well take Ren and the scavenger with him. He draws the pistol, and notices that the screams are less frequent now, as though they're drawing to a close on the bridge. Hux peeks out from the side of the desk and spots Ren, breaking the neck of the last stormtrooper. The scavenger looks pleased, a giddy smile spread across her face.
"Right on schedule," she says, beaming at Ren.
"Did you have any doubts?" he asks, and he reaches out to brush a strand of hair from the girl's sweaty forehead. It's insulting, to have this kind of behaviour on the bridge of all places.
Hux takes aim.
And then he pulls the trigger.
Hux is aware of his surroundings just long enough to see the red jet his Ren in the side, his late movement towards the girl foiling Hux's perfect shot.
It is the girl who turns on him and makes one violent sweeping gesture with her hand as Hux is flung into something hard, his head splitting with a pain that he can't quite process. And then the darkness swallows him up.
He doesn't know how much time has passed when he comes to, but the scavenger is anxiously rifling through a medical kit while Ren lies slumped against the desk, his shirt open, wound exposed. For a moment, Hux believes he has triumphed. But then Ren speaks, spoiling it all, as he always does.
"I'm okay, really, let's just get out of here."
"It's all right, I've found one," the girl replies and peels apart a bacta bandage. She crouches down in front of Ren and places it delicately over the wound. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'll be fine," Ren replies. "You don't need to to worry about me."
"But I do worry."
Hux rolls his eyes, but flash of pain lights up his head, and he refrains from doing it again.
"I know you do," Ren says, and he cups the scavenger's face, guiding it towards his own so that he can kiss the scavenger scum. She seems satisfied at the very least, and she stands, holding out a hand to help Ren to his feet. He staggers, and grips onto the desk for support, but he makes it nonetheless.
"Traitor!" Hux can't stop the scream, not when he knows the inevitable is coming. He has to declare it, have it haunt Ren for the rest of his days, in the scum-filled galaxy that the Resistance will create. Hux pulls himself to his feet, the pain in his head rendering him almost blind. He feels for his pistol, but the holster is empty.
Ren turns towards Hux, leaning heavily against the scavenger. "Yes I am," he says. It's definitely a smirk that Hux sees now, and a flash of triumph in Ren's eye that he has never seen before.
Ren reaches out one crimson stained hand, and Hux is certain that he is about to be starved of breath one final time.
He's wrong though, and the last thing to go through Hux's head is his own spinal column.