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Blood's Perimeter

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The long-range blaster was perfectly balanced and steady in his hands. Troopers with any tremors were sent to the infantry, but those with Hux’s control were dispatched to the firing ranges for five years of intensive training. The First Order needed good marksmen, and Hux was the finest among them.

Rain was pattering down on the black plasteel plates of his armor as he lay at the lip of the building’s roof. It wasn’t enough to soak him, but the hair on his uncovered head was damp. He never shot without his helmet in the daylight—his hair was too bright, too red, and would give him away—but at night, when he could retreat into the shadows, he removed it. He liked the feel of the cool, metal scope against his brow as he lined up a shot; it grounded him in the moment before he pulled the trigger.

A voice over the comm earpiece he wore: “Skyline, report. What’s the status of the target?”

Hux sighted through the scope, three hundred meters across to the residential building on the opposite side of the ten-lane street below. The third window from the right on the thirty-second floor: there was a Bith female in the central room, working on what was presumably the makeshift explosive device she would use against the Order’s staging area just outside of the city.

High command had gotten the intelligence just two cycles prior, but hadn’t hesitated in dispatching a covert operations team to take the Resistance fighters down. Hux was in charge of this team: six infantry troopers and one sniper. He had installed himself on the roof the day before, watching his target’s movements and the comings and goings of her associates. He knew she would be alone with the device tonight, and it was high time to make their move.

He replied to his team: “Target is in position. I’m ready to execute the mission. Are you prepared to infiltrate?”

“Affirmative,” said the trooper on the other end of the comm. “Awaiting your signal, Skyline.”

Hux adjusted his position, breathing out the tension that had been building in his back as he lay, unmoving, for the past three hours. He brought the butt of the blaster to his shoulder, resting the muzzle on a tripod. He disengaged the safety with a flick of his thumb, and peered through the scope. Through the red crosshairs he could see the Bith in sharp relief, down to the Resistance patch on the breast of her jacket. He might have liked to aim for that and her heart, but a headshot would be decisively fatal. He didn’t want to leave her injured for his men to deal with. This was his mission, his kill.

“Be ready to enter on my mark,” Hux said over the comm. There was no acknowledgement; his men knew better than to disturb him right before a shot.

Scoping across the distance, he sighted the Bith one last time. Her head was bent down over the object she worked on, a look on concentration on her face. She had done nothing to wrong Hux or the First Order; not yet. But he had his orders, and he had been conditioned from childhood to follow them. Exhaling, he pulled back on the trigger.

The transparisteel window was almost completely unaffected by the blaster bolt. It singed a small hole near the center, but not even rain would get through it. The Bith, though, was unrecognizable in the aftermath.

“Mark,” Hux said. He kept his eye on the apartment, waiting to see his men, in their white armor, burst through the door. But there was no movement, no entrance, nothing.

“BF-9845, report,” he said. “What is your position?”

Silence.

“I repeat: BF-9845, what is your—” Hux was cut short as someone grabbed him from behind, pulling him away from the edge of the roof and across the pea gravel surface. The plates on the front of his armor screeched as he was dragged backwards; his blaster clattered uselessly to the ground. All of the air rushed out of his lungs when the first hard kick landed in his stomach. The black sniper’s armor, softer and more flexible than standard stormtrooper’s armor, gave under the blow, surely bruising Hux’s ribs.

He curled in on himself, grabbing his middle, but managed to look up to see his attackers. He expected the Resistance—maybe they had found him out, or the entire operation had been a trap—but what he saw were the familiar masks of his men, the white of their armor.

“What—” he croaked, around the searing pain in his abdomen.

“Don’t talk,” one of the troopers said. “It’ll just make this worse for you. It’s supposed to be quick, easy. Don’t put up a fight, and we’ll have this done with.”

Hux had been told not to put up a fight before: by his father, when he had dragged him by his shirt collar out of the nursery where his baby brother had been sleeping, and told him he wasn’t needed anymore.

“Bastard boys have no place here,” Brendol had snarled. “You’re superfluous. You’ll go into the Program, and no one need hear of you again.” He had pushed Hux against the wall and sneered at him. “HX-4874. That’s what you’ll be called now. Armitage is dead.”

He hadn’t fought that day, only wept. He was no more than six when the transport came to collect him and took him to Yirium for reconditioning. They had taken his name that day, but in his mind he still held onto one part of it that his father had given him: Hux.

Letting go of his wounded middle, he slapped away the hands that were reaching for him, attempting to pull him to his feet. His father’s words ran over and over in his head: “Armitage is dead.” Dead. Dead. This was an attempt on his life; not the first, but the most brazen. Brendol had finally grown so desperate to be rid of his shame, his illegitimate son, that he had ordered Hux’s own men to kill him.

    Adrenaline surged through him with the realization, making it clear just how bad his odds were: six against one, and all of them armed. Hux didn’t carry a service weapon when he was on a mission, only the blade he kept in a sheath on his left thigh. He reached for it now, drawing it and slashing out at the nearest weak point: the space between plates at a trooper’s knee. The man screamed and collapsed; Hux’s blade came away red. Rolling back, Hux came up into a low crouch, knife at the ready.

“Kriff!” another of the troopers cried. “Don’t let him get away.”

One of the six went to help his wounded comrade, but the other four came at Hux with blasters drawn. When they didn’t fire, he knew this wasn’t meant to be a simple murder. They had specific instructions, likely to make it look like an accident or a slip-up in action. That gave Hux an advantage that he planned to exploit.

Glancing past the advancing troopers, he spotted the roof access door about twenty meters away. If he got past them, he could get to it and lose them on the stairs. He was faster in his blacks than they were in their armor, and if he could outrun them, he might have a chance of getting out of this alive.

“What did he offer you for this?” Hux asked, harshly. “Promotions? New postings planetside? What did Commandant Hux do to get you to kill me?”

“Shut up,” snapped one of the troopers, “and surrender. You can’t win, HX-4874.”

Hux laughed. “Surrender and go meekly to my death? You can get karked before I do that.”

He shot another look at the door, the position of the wounded trooper and his friend, and the men coming at him. Adjusting his grip on the blade, he dug his toes into the gravel and charged forward. One trooper fired, but Hux managed to duck before the bolt hit him. He sunk the blade into that man’s neck, leaving it stuck there as he ran for the door. Five bolts followed him, one of them cutting into his right side. He cried out, stumbling, but pressed on until he had the handle of the door in his hand. He threw it open and clattered down the first flight of stairs.

Pain radiated from the wound on his side as he struggled down thirty-five floors. Behind him he could hear the tramping, hurried steps of the other troopers close behind. He was panting, and sweat from both exertion and fear was dripping down his back. When he reached the ground floor, he slid across the smooth tile, frantically searching for an exit. There was an emergency door just to his left, which he raced toward. The alarm blared as he opened it, but he ignored it and ran on.

“Stop! You can’t get away, HX!” the troopers called from behind him, their voices dangerously near.

Hux found himself in a narrow alley, wet with a rain that was now falling harder. He splashed through filthy puddles, fighting his way along. Once, he fell into the wall, sending searing pain up his side; he ground his teeth against it, but it did little to help.

Up ahead, he could see the flash of passing speeders. If he could get to the street, he might be able to get lost in the crowd. Lurching forward, he set off for it, but his vision began to tunnel, making the terminus of the alley seem kilometers away. Still, he surged, but he didn’t see the pothole in the pavement. He stepped right into it, catching his toe at the edge and falling down first onto his knees and then flat on his belly. He moaned as his bruised ribs were concussed again.

“Get him! Get him!”

The voices seemed muffled and far away, but the ground almost shook as their footfalls came closer. Hux was barely able to fight as they pulled him up and slammed him against the nearest wall. He wasn’t given a second before they hit him, a punch to his cheek hard enough to make his teeth rattle. The coppery taste of blood filled his mouth. Another hit came, and then another, driving Hux’s head back against the wall until he saw white.

“Enough, enough,” he heard even through ringing ears. “He has to be recognizable when we bring him back to the ship. Just get him on his knees.” They shoved Hux down until he was kneeling, beaten head hanging. “Two shots. Clean. Make it look like the Resistance executed him, just like we’re supposed to.”

Hux kept his eyes open, even as he felt the pressure of a blaster barrel against his head. At least it would be, as they said, clean. Fuck you, Father. He waited for the darkness, but instead he heard a cry and the crack of plasteel against metal. The blaster at the back of his head disappeared, and he looked up.

The four troopers were scrambling to shoot at a fifth figure among them: large, shadowed, and wielding a small blaster with deadly accuracy. He caught the first of the troopers in the chest, knocking him back and killing him instantly. The next was on the receiving end of a kick to the side of the knee, surely detaching the kneecap. He wailed as he went down. The third trooper was backing away, firing as fast as he could, but the man never wavered. Hux was delirious with pain, but he thought he even saw two of the bolts stop mid-air and fizzle out as if they hadn’t been there at all.

The fourth trooper dropped his blaster to hold up his fists. So that was YT-2386, the hand-to-hand specialist in the team. He charged at the man and nearly got in a blow, but he was countered deftly and knocked onto his back, before the man put a bolt through his helmet. The others were lying on the wet ground, some making noises of hurt, while others were deathly silent.

Hux knelt where they had left him, aching and battered. He could barely see around his swollen eyes, but when a pair of boost came to rest just in front of him, he ventured a look up to see the man who had, inexplicably and capably, fought off four of the the First Order’s finest stormtroopers.

He saw dark hair hanging loose around a long face, pronounced chin. The nose was straight and narrow, the mouth wide and lips slightly parted as the stranger breathed through them. He was staring down at Hux with concern in his eyes; it was too dark to make out their color.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice muted as if he spoke through a fog. “Can you speak?”

Hux wasn't sure that he could, but he managed, “Yes.”

The gloved man set one hand on his hip, where he wore a leather blaster belt. “Yes to one or to both?”

Hux, fuzzy-headed, ran back through what he had been asked. “Yes, I can speak,” he said, “but no, I am not okay.”

“Yeah, you don't look it,” said the man. “You'll have to tell me what you did to get on the wrong side of four stormtroopers, but let's get you patched up first.” Leaning down, he got one arm under Hux’s and began to hoist him up.

Hux winced. His whole body was raw and abused, and he couldn't decide what hurt the most: the lacerations on his face, the creaking ribs, or the blaster wound in his side. He could only imagine what he looked like to this man, to whom he now owed his life.

“I can't go with you,” Hux said, even as he wrapped his arm around the man’s waist to steady himself. According to the mission parameters, he was to report back to the extraction point at 2300 hours, when the operation was complete. Every part of his conditioning told him that that was what he needed to do, even if the troopers—his men—had just tried to kill him.

In the past, when there had been a series of accidents that should have killed him, he had simply survived and reported back for his next assignment. But this instance was different; Brendol had never gone far enough to attempt a direct assassination. Now, Hux wasn't certain he could go back and resume his duty, not when he knew for certain that his father, a member of the senior command, wanted him dead. The First Order was no longer safe for him.

His stomach dropped with that weight. He had lived in the Stormtrooper Program for twenty-eight of this thirty-four years, and he knew nothing beyond it. Not appearing at the extraction point would constitute desertion. If he were ever caught, he would be put to death anyway. In some way, it made more sense to go back to his life and await death there rather than run until he was found and executed.

“I can't go with you,” he said again, this time planting his feet and resisting his rescuer’s hold on him. “Let me go.”

The man paused. “If I let you go, you'll collapse. You can hardly walk.”

Hux pushed against him, finding him very solid. “I have to report back to…” He hesitated, uncertain what this man’s loyalties were. It could be highly unwise to inform him that he, too, was with the First Order. “I just have to get somewhere.”

“Yeah,” the man said, “to a medbay.” Taking hold of Hux more firmly, he pulled him along, forcing Hux to walk or be dragged. “We’ll see about getting you where you need to go, but first I've got to stop this bleeding, or you're going to faint.”

“No hospitals,” Hux said. Public medical facilities asked for identification, and Hux didn't have that. He was HX-4874.

“Fine,” was the reply. “I've got bacta and some basic first aid supplies on my ship.”

Hux tried once again to stop. “I can't leave the planet. I have to get back—”

“I know,” said the man. “I won't take you anywhere you don't want to go. Well, except to the Falcon, to get you treated before you bleed to death.”

Woozy as he was, Hux wasn't really in a position to refuse. He needed to get his bearings before he could even try to locate the extraction point. Resigned, he leaned into his rescuer and let himself be half-carried down the alley.

“What's your name?” the man asked him as they stepped out onto a mostly empty side street.

The number was on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it back down, forcing out: “Hux.”

“Hux,” the man repeated. “I like that. I’m Kylo. I, uh, wish we could have met under better circumstances.”

“Yes,” said Hux. “Kylo.”

It was an unusual name, and wasn't easily identifiable as coming from one part of the galaxy or another. His accent was a mix of Inner and Outer Rim, which Hux couldn't place, either. His native language was Basic, or at least he spoke it without non-native hesitation. As far as Hux knew, though, he could be anyone.

“It's not far to my ship,” Kylo said as he navigated around a surly-looking Bothan making his way down the sidewalk. The Bothan eyed them, but said nothing about Hux’s state or the blood that was smeared across Kylo’s shirt where he held Hux against him. “This isn’t a good part of town. No security. The perfect place to get jumped. Is that what happened?”

“Stormtroopers don’t just attack civilians,” said Hux, terse. “At least not unless it’s under orders.”

“So, they were told to beat you half to death?” Kylo asked.

Hux didn’t answer, having no reason to disclose anything about himself or his circumstances. He needed to get his wounds seen to, and then leave as soon as possible. A niggling at the back of his mind, though, warned him that life debts did not go unpaid.

Nothing was free among stormtroopers. Though they were not paid in currency, there was a trade economy that thrived in the ranks. Favors were done, but payment was always expected, whether that was in the form of another service or something more lascivious. Hux had always kept to himself, and had never had cause to owe one of the other troopers anything, but there was no denying that he would have to offer something to Kylo in exchange for what he had done. But he didn’t have anything, save for his body, ravaged as it was, and his skills as a sniper. If Kylo didn’t want either of those, Hux would have to find another way, and that might take longer than the few minutes, maybe an hour, that they had before Hux was due to appear at the extraction point.

“Well, whatever happened,” Kylo continued; he talked a great deal, “at least I was there.”

Hux conceded to that, but it wasn’t just anyone who would take on four expertly-trained stormtroopers, single-handed, for the sake of a stranger. No one that Hux had ever known would do that. “Do you make a habit of killing First Order soldiers?” he asked. “Just walking down the street waiting for the opportunity?”

“Oh, yeah,” Kylo said. “All the time.” There was a wryness to his tone that told Hux he was joking, but beneath it was a razor-thin trace of admission. He adjusted his hold on Hux, making him hiss. “Kriff, I’m sorry. We’re almost there.”

They had entered the shipping district, where there were landing pads for transports and freighters. A good deal of them were empty at this time of night, but there were three in a row that were occupied. Kylo led them to the first, where a YT-model freighter was docked. Hux didn’t know a great deal about spacecraft, but it was clear this one was nearly an antique.

When they were standing under the belly, Kylo typed in a code on a keypad and the loading ramp began to descend. A jet of condensed air shot down in front of Hux, making him start and tighten his hold on Kylo’s waist.

“You’re all right,” Kylo said. It was meant to soothe, but Hux’s temper flared; he didn’t need to be coddled.

The ramp struck the duracrete of the landing pad with a heavy thud, and immediately Kylo began to draw Hux up into the ship. They went through the empty cargo hold and into narrow passages lined with yellow illuminators. The falls of their boots sounded hollow, as if there was space beneath the grated floor. Hux tried to commit the layout of the ship to memory, in case he needed to make a hasty escape, but it all blurred together in a haze of hurt and lingering disorientation.

They stopped, at last, in the main living compartment, where there was a semicircular bench seat upholstered in a fading orange and a small, round table set for dejarik. Kylo brought Hux to the bench and lowered him onto it. Hux hunched over, relieved to be off of his feet, but made sharply aware of all the places from which pain was radiating in red-hot pulses.

“Stay here,” Kylo said. “I’ve got to go get the first aid kit.”

Hux grunted, watching him disappear around the corner to find what he needed. Hux peeled back the synth-leather of his gloves while he waited. He put them to the side and ventured to touch his wound, gasping as he slid his fingers past the ruined armor and grazed the broken edges of his skin. It would take a great deal more than a field bacta patch to heal the gash; likely sutures, which would mean a medical droid. Unless Kylo had medic’s training, which Hux doubted. He needed to get to the extraction point and back to the First Order for proper treatment.

“Here we go,” said Kylo, coming back into the living space with a small case in his hand. The fingers were sleek and metal, not skin at all, and Hux thought he had imagined it until he took a seat next to him and lifted the lid with his other hand, which was very much flesh and blood.

The kit was a basic one: bacta patches, bandages, stims, and, thankfully, two syringes of painkillers. Hux pointed to one and said, “That first.”

Kylo picked up one of the syringes and grabbed for Hux’s upper arm. It was armored still, so Hux tugged it out of Kylo’s grip, snatching the syringe with his other hand. Quickly, and over Kylo’s surprised protests, he injected the painkillers into his neck. The relief was immediate. The drugs flooded his system with each pump of his heart, clearing his head some and making it possible to see clearly again. When Kylo laid a hand on his side, there was only a dull throb of pain.

“You need to take this all off,” Kylo said. “I can’t get to the wound like this.” He reached for the clasps at the back of Hux’s neck, but Hux pulled away.

“No,” Hux said sharply. “Just give me some bacta gel.” That, at least, would heal the broken vessels and stanch the flow of fresh blood. It could get him where he needed to go.

“All right, fine,” Kylo grumbled, retrieving a tube about the length of his hand from the kit and breaking the seal on the cap. He wasn’t foolish enough to try to apply it, as he had tried to inject Hux, instead handing it over and allowing Hux to do it himself.

The gel was cool on Hux’s bare hand, where he squeezed out a generous amount. He pushed it through the hole in his armor, spreading it over the wound with his forefingers. The gel and blood left smears of thick red on his hand as he pulled it free. When Kylo offered him a towel, he took it and wiped himself clean.

“You need some for your face,” said Kylo. He gave Hux a stern look. “You’ll have to let me do that. You can’t see where the cuts are.”

Hux begrudgingly handed the tube over and tipped his chin up to permit Kylo to smooth the gel over the cuts and bruises. It would take care of the worst of the swelling and seal up any small wounds that had opened. He knew there was one on his lip, which Kylo dabbed at gently as he applied the gel. Hux noted that he used his left hand, not the artificial right one.

Looking up at his face, Hux saw that his skin was dotted with small, dark moles and that his eyes were brown. He bit down on his lower lip, with slightly crooked front teeth, as he worked. A strand of hair slipped down in front of his eye, but he didn’t pause to push it back until he was done with Hux’s face.

“There,” he said, sounded duly satisfied. “I think you’ve probably looked better, and you’ll be shades of purple tomorrow, but the swelling’s going down already.”

The words were strange on his tongue, but Hux said, “Thank you.”

Kylo flashed him a grin. “You’re welcome. Now, you should lie down and get some rest.”

Hux shook his head. “I can’t. I have to go. I’m expected.”

“Like hell you are,” said Kylo, expression darkening again. “You’ve got to take it easy for a minute and let the bacta work.”

Hux knew that, but he had no other choice. The chronometer on his wrist already read 2230. “I appreciate your help, Kylo,” he said, “but this isn’t negotiable. I have to leave.” Pressing his hands down into the upholstery of the bench, he started to rise. His vision went immediately grey around the edges, and his head swam, leaving him to fall back hard against the backrest of the seats.

“Easy, easy,” said Kylo, laying his hands on Hux’s shoulders to keep him in place. “You’re a mess, Hux. You can’t go anywhere.”

“I have to,” Hux mumbled, though he could feel the will and the ability to get up swiftly ebbing away. He was struggling to keep himself conscious, and realized, with dismay, that the painkillers had had sedatives him them. There was no way to get to the extraction point now; his eyelids were already sinking.

He felt himself being laid back onto the seats, but could do nothing to stop it. Before he passed out, he heard Kylo say, “Just sleep. You’re safe.” Hux was convinced he had never been less so in his life.

 


 

The ride in a troop transport was never a smooth one. Coming down through atmo shook the entire shuttle, jostling the men inside as they hung onto the narrow straps bolted to the ceiling. Hux felt himself in one now, being jostled along. But when he cracked his eyes open, he didn’t see the familiar ranks of white-helmeted troopers. The world was tilted to the side, and Hux’s head pounded as he tried to discover where he was.

The passageway was narrow and constructed of silver durasteel; there was a large viewport to the right, a planet visible outside. Forcing his head up, he tried to get a better look.

“Don’t struggle,” said someone nearby, “or I’ll drop you.”

Hux turned his face up, his blurry vision clearing to reveal Kylo. Hux was in his arms, being carried along the passageway. “Put me down!” he demanded, struggling just as Kylo had told him not to. “I can walk.”

Kylo’s grip tightened, pulling him closer to his chest. “Take it easy; I’m trying to help you. You were passed out cold. What was I supposed to do, sit around until you woke up?”

“I’m awake now,” Hux snapped, “so put me the bloody hell down.” He felt the rumble of Kylo’s laugh as much as he heard it, and it rankled him. He despised being the butt of anyone’s joke.

“You’re feisty, I’ll give you that,” Kylo said. “But shut up and stay still for now. We’re almost there.”

Hux made a last twisting attempt to free himself, but when Kylo jostled him again to keep his hold, he gave up. He kept his head up, though, surveying his surroundings. They were no longer on the grungy freighter, but somewhere clean and sleek. The planet outside the viewport was too verdant to be Utel Gamma, where Kylo had picked him up.

“Where are we?” he asked, with less venom than before.

“Somewhere safe,” Kylo replied, “and hidden. Whoever is after you isn’t going to find you here.”

Hux figured that was true. Since neither he nor any of his men had appeared at the extraction point—unless, maybe, the wounded one and his comrade had found their way there—they were likely presumed dead. A search team would be dispatched, and would find the bodies of the others. Without Hux’s, he would be declared missing-in-action. That would surely disappoint his father (with no body to bury), if not his commanding officer, who had liked having him in his unit for the bragging rights. Hux’s record was impeccable.

“Are we even in the Outer Rim anymore?” he said as they crossed the threshold into a larger room: a furnished living space.

“We are,” said Kylo, “just on the other side from where we were.”

He bore Hux across the room—past a sofa and upholstered chairs around a table that seemed to spring up from the floor itself, past a kitchen that Hux could just see beyond a dividing wall—to another hallway, this one lined with doors. Kylo went to the one at the end and, angling Hux down, pressed the button beside it with his silver right thumb. The door hissed open, revealing sleeping quarters: a single cot against the wall and an adjoining refresher. Kylo went over to the cot and set Hux down on it, as if he were something delicate. Hux scowled at him, going immediately to stand.

“Stars, you’re difficult,” Kylo said, setting his hands on Hux’s shoulders and pushing him, none too gently, back onto the cot. “You’re barely holding together. Sit down and let me help you.” When it seemed that Hux wasn’t going to fight him, he backed off, going to the comm unit on the wall. “2-1H, will you come down here? I need a hand.”

Hux tensed. He hadn’t considered that there were others in this place, even if it seemed large enough to house them. But he couldn’t deny that he needed a medic, if that was who Kylo was summoning.

“You should get out of that armor,” said Kylo as he turned back to Hux. “1H will be able to get you stitched up, but it’s got to see the damage.”

Ah, a surgical droid, then; that was better. Hux shifted to the edge of the cot, but paused, eyeing Kylo. “I have to get up to do that. Are you going to stop me again?”

One side of Kylo’s mouth lifted in a half-smile. “No, but I am going to help you.”

“I can undress myself,” Hux grumbled, rising unsteadily to his feet.

Kylo took a sauntering step toward him, looking him over from boots to mussed red hair. “Maybe, but who doesn’t like it when someone else does it for you?”

Hux’s brow creased with suspicion. Nakedness was common in the gang sonics in the troopers’ quarters, so he had no qualms about that, but the innuendo made him wary. He had been approached by other troopers like this before, but he had never permitted any of them to touch him.

Seeing his expression, Kylo stopped. “Just a joke,” he said. “I’ll go if you want me to. 1H will be here in a couple of minutes.”

“No,” said Hux. “I can barely move without opening the wound again. I could use you.”

Kylo’s smile appeared once more. “Watch what you say. I might like being used.”

Hux pursed his lips, displeased and not knowing what to make of the teasing, suggestive tone Kylo seemed to be able to pick up and drop at will. “Just come undo these clasps,” Hux said.

Kylo came around behind him and released the fastenings at the neck of his armor, letting the cool, recirculated air prickle his skin.

“This is a space station of some kind,” he said as Kylo undid the clasps of the breast- and backplates. “What world are we orbiting?”

“Ryden 2,” Kylo said, lifting the plates away and setting them on the floor.

    Hux glanced down at the hole in the right side of the thick base-layer under the armor. The fabric was singed and caked with dried blood. He pulled at it gently, wincing as it stuck to the skin.

“We should soak that off,” said Kylo. “We’ll do the rest and then get you into the shower.”

Hux’s brows shot up. “You have water-based showers here?” He had never actually had  the opportunity to use one; the troopers were permitted only sonics.

“Mmhm,” Kylo hummed, stooping to remove Hux’s greaves. “It’s recirc, but it’s good. I had the filters retrofitted about six months ago, Ryden time. You can get as clean as you want. Take two showers a day.”

Hux wasn’t used to indulging himself, but the prospect of a cool shower in the morning and a hot one at night was almost too good to pass up. Still, he asked, “That doesn’t take away from the reserves for everyone else here?”

“You mean me?” Kylo chuckled. “There’s enough for both of us.” He put the greaves aside, starting in on Hux’s boots. “There’s nobody else here. It’s kind of a stopover place. People come sometimes, but they always go.”

Hux lifted his right foot out of the boot Kylo had unlaced, setting his socked foot on the chilly durasteel of the floor. “You don’t live here, then?”

Kylo slid the discarded boot across to the wall, where it stuck with a thunk. “Well, I guess you could say I do. I bunk here when I’m not working.”

Hux ventured the question: “What do you do?”

“Transport mostly,” Kylo said, peeking up to meet Hux’s eyes before holding his boot down so he could pull his left foot out. “You saw my ship. She’s a freighter. I run from here almost all the way to the Unknown Regions.”

The trade routes in the Unknown Regions were controlled almost exclusively by the First Order, and those merchants and traders they contracted with were larger, cartel-run enterprises whose silence could be bought. For an organization that had scraped by on the scraps of the old Empire at its founding, the Order had quadrupled its funds under Supreme Leader Snoke. They could afford to pay the cartels without even dipping into their reserves, or so Hux had once heard a pair of talkative officers say.

Looking down at Kylo, Hux said, incredulously, “A single man operating a transport can afford an orbital station of his own?” Hux was satisfied to see him hesitate as he stood again.

“I’m a good businessman,” Kylo said, cagey. Hux had a dismissive remark on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it back down as Kylo added, “Come on, the shower’s through here. Might want to take off your socks, though.”

Hux shucked them, leaving them crumpled on the floor as he followed Kylo into the refresher. It wasn’t overlarge, but the shower cubicle was far more spacious that the sonics Hux was used to. He stopped at the center of the room as he caught sight of himself into the mirror: his face was dark with bruises, which a topical application of bacta couldn’t handle; he would have to be injected with it, or let them heal in their own time.

“Don’t worry,” said Kylo as he turned on the shower, “you’ll still be pretty when 1H gets done with you.”

Hux’s attention was drawn immediately from his reflection to the soft patter of water on steel. It had a different sound than rain: more determined and pointed; he had never heard anything like it. Approaching cautiously, he took in the spray from the showerhead attached to the wall. He reached out, slow and tentative, and put his hand into it. The water was warm, nearly making him sigh.

“You should probably take off your pants,” Kylo said from beside him. “Looks like you’ll never get out of them if they get wet.”

Hux pulled his hand back, woken. “All right.” The skin-tight material of his base-layer was easy to slide down his legs and kick away, leaving him bare from the waist down. He noticed that Kylo had gone away, and was standing across the room with his back to him, busying himself with a stack of white towels. Hux trained his gaze back on the shower and, spreading his toes in anticipation, stepped under the water.

Heat and wet poured over his body, soaking immediately into his shirt and plastering his hair to his skull. The water running over his wound made it sting anew, but Hux disregarded it; this was as near to bliss as he had ever come. He turned his face up into the spray, letting it wash over his bruises.

“Give it a couple of minutes before you try to take your shirt off,” he heard Kylo say over the splash of the water. “Just let it soak.”

Hux turned his injured side into the direct flow from the showerhead, clenching his teeth against the pain. “For a man in ‘transport,’ you know a great deal about treating wounds.”

“A few things, I guess,” said Kylo, a shrug in his voice. “I’ve hauled merchandise for mercs before. I paid attention.”

“Mercenaries,” Hux mused, affecting wonder. “That must have been dangerous.” He himself had learned early how incompetent most Outer Rim mercs were. His first tactical team—six men fresh out of training—had put down a group of twenty without even breathing hard. Kylo didn’t need to know that, however.

“I didn’t fight them,” Kylo said. “I just brought their weapons from one planet to another. But not everyone could handle that kind of work.”

Hux gave a contemptuous snort, which was fortunately masked by the shower. “No doubt,” he said.

There was a pause, but then: “Is that what you are? A merc?”

“Of a sort,” Hux replied. He glanced out through the frosted plas of the cubicle, spotting Kylo’s blurry form against the wall across from the shower.

“Specific,” Kylo said, sardonic. “Fine, I get it; you can’t tell me. I’ll just make up a story.” Hux cocked a brow, though he knew Kylo couldn’t see it. Kylo continued, thoughtfully, “Let’s see. You’re a captain in the Hutt merc force, sent to Utel Gamma to shake down a glitterstim dealer who was cutting himself too big a share of the profits.”

“My,” Hux deadpanned, “how did you guess all that?”

“Hush,” Kylo said. “I’m not done. I see now...everything was going according to plan, and the dealer was about to give up his stash, but then the First Order stormtroopers showed up. The dealer was in league with them the whole time! He was funnelling the extra credits to their operations.”

He wasn’t far off in that, actually. Hux’s team had once been sent to collect the profits from just such an operation. The Order was, if anything, resourceful.

“What happened next?” Hux asked, earnestly curious to see where Kylo’s imagination would take them.

“Well, of course, the secret was out, so the troopers killed the dealer, and then came for you. No loose ends. But you ran. I bet you’re quick, with those long legs of yours. I don’t quite know how they managed to catch you—maybe you didn’t know the city and got turned around in that alley—but they did. And, uh, they decided to rough you up before they put a bolt in your head. But before they could, a tall, devilishly handsome stranger who was quick on the trigger came out of the shadows to save your life.”

Despite himself, Hux smiled just slightly. “You think very highly of yourself.”

“Hey,” Kylo said, sounding affronted, “I did save your life. The least you can do is tell me I’m good-looking and good with my blaster. And brave. Put brave in there for good measure.”

Sobering, Hux said, “You did. Why?” Through the plas, he saw Kylo move from the side of the room to where the mirror was. He appeared to be leaning on the sink below it.

“I’m not just going to stand by and watch someone get shot in the back of the head,” he said, quieter than before.

“What if I had deserved it?” Hux asked. “What if I’m the drug dealer in your story, selling glitterstim to children on the street?”

“Drug dealers don’t wear high-end duraplas armor in ‘Stealth Operative Black.’ You’re a soldier; that much I know.”

Hux licked his wet lips, unable to find a way to deny it. He was turning lies over in his mind as quickly as possible, but before he could decide on one, Kylo spoke again: “The blood should be loosened up by now. Try it.”

Taking the hem of his shirt between his thumb and forefingers, Hux began to lift it away from the wound. The material gave this time, coming up from the skin without sticking painfully. As he stretched up to lift the shirt over his head, the wound pulled and stung; a rivulet of red trickled down his waist and over his hip.

“Is that surgical droid here?” he said, dropping the sodden shirt at his feet.

“It’s outside,” Kylo replied. “Are you bleeding again?”

“Yes.”

The word had just left his mouth when Kylo, holding a towel, appeared around the corner of the cubicle. Ignoring the still-running water, he stepped close to it and shut it off before sweeping the towel around Hux’s shoulders. “Come on,” he said, ushering him out of the refresher.

“Master Kylo,” said the droid standing next to the cot when they got back into the bedroom. It was squat, with a single wheel to move around on. Its head was anthropomorphic, but the body was round and drum-like. Two clamp-like “hands” jutted out from its sides. “Is this the patient?”

“Yes,” Kylo said. “His name is Hux, and he’s been shot.” Still holding Hux by the shoulders, he guided him to the cot. Before Hux could say anything to the contrary, Kylo pulled the towel away and wrapped it around his his waist. “Sit.”

Hux did as he was told, sinking down onto the mattress. As soon as Kylo moved away, the droid was there, clucking over his wound.

“No, no,” it said, “this isn’t good at all. You poor young man.” The clamps whirred into different, more precise tools.

Hux fought not to flinch; he had always hated medical treatment. As a sniper, he was removed from the proper battlefield and was rarely injured. This was, in fact, that most severe wound he had ever sustained.

“Well,” the droid narrated, “at least someone thought to stop the worst of the bleeding with bacta. You must be very clever, Master Hux.”

“Very,” Hux grumbled. Across the room, Kylo huffed a laugh.

Moving in, the droid brandished a syringe. “Just a little prick, now, and then you won’t feel a thing.” It injected him with anesthetic near the wound, and almost instantly the dull ache faded. “Best not watch this part, unless you’re curious about surgery.”

“No,” Hux said, turning his head away. He heard the meaty clunk of the staples puncturing his skin to close the wound and felt a little sick.

“All done!” the droid said, all too cheerfully. “Now just bacta gel and a nice, fluffy bandage and you’ll be as good as new.” It paused, looking up at Hux’s face. “Well, another little shot of bacta, a few hours, and then you’ll be—”

“He knows, 1H,” said Kylo. “Just finish up with that, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Hux glanced at him, surprised. With a perfectly good droid to handle the dressing of his smaller cuts, he couldn’t imagine why Kylo would want to do the work himself. Hux certainly wouldn’t have done it.

The bandage the droid placed over Hux’s side was square and clean. 1H sealed it tightly against his skin, saying, “Leave this on for tonight, but you can take it off when you bathe tomorrow. Let the wound air for a few minutes—don’t towel-dry it—and then put another bandage on.” It added, in a sour voice, “I’m sure Master Kylo can help you if you need it.”

“All right,” Hux said.

1H gave a curt, mechanical nod, before producing another syringe. “This one is for your face. It might sting a bit, but—”

Hux tipped his chin down, offering his cheek. “Go ahead. I can take it.”

There were three short pricks, a feeling of fullness under his skin, and then nothing. When the droid was finished, it wheeled back. “Very good, Master Hux. I prescribe a good night’s rest now.”

“Thanks, 1H,” said Kylo, before Hux could reply. “You can go.”

“You’ll be needing these, Master Kylo,” the droid said, offering a packet of bacta and a few smaller bandages. “You know where I am.” Making what Hux could only describe as a huffy departure, it disappeared through the door.

“You’ll have to excuse him,” Kylo said. “He doesn’t get to see much use these days, so he was pretty excited to get the opportunity to fix up a real injury.”

Hux, amused, waved him off. “I can manage the others by myself. You needn’t bother.”

Kylo sat down on the cot beside him, reaching for his upper arm, where there was a short, shallow cut that Hux hadn’t noticed. “It’s not a problem. It’s just this one, and then you can get some sleep.”

Admittedly, Hux was exhausted, but he couldn’t imagine sleeping here, unguarded. When he was on a mission, he closed his eyes for a few minutes at a time to keep himself sharp, but he never truly slept until he was back in his bunk on the Finalizer. While he had been told Kylo’s station was safe, his habits were going to be difficult to fight.

Kylo’s hands were soft on his shoulder, applying a thin layer of bacta before covering the scratch—that’s all it was—with a bandage. “That’s it then,” he said. “Good as new.” Hux laughed weakly, and Kylo grinned at him. “Let me go find you something to wear to sleep. Most of my clothes will be too big for you, but it’s just for sleeping, right?”

“I don’t need them,” said Hux. “I’m accustomed to sleeping nude.”

Kylo’s brows rose. “Oh, really? Interesting. Well, suit yourself, but I’m going to get you some pants, at least. For the morning.” He got up, standing over Hux, who remained seated. He was very broad across the shoulders, and his light grey shirt—stained with Hux’s blood—was pulled taut across his chest. “Devilishly handsome” might have been too generous, but he was striking.

“What happened to your arm?” Hux asked, eyeing the flash of silver at his side.

Kylo lifted the prosthetic right hand, curling the fingers in toward his palm and then out again. “An accident when I was a kid.” He rolled his sleeve up a few centimeters more, revealing more of the well-crafted metal.

“It’s cybernetic, I assume,” said Hux. “Custom-fitted.”

“That’s right,” Kylo said. “I had to go to the Core to get it made, but I’ve learned to tune it up myself when I have to.” He rubbed his bicep. “Goes all the way up to the shoulder.”

Curious, Hux stood. “May I see it?”

Kylo gave him a look, but nodded. “Sure.” With both hands, he pulled the hem of his shirt out from the waist of his pants and tugged it off over his head. He wore a white undershirt beneath it, the thick straps over his shoulders baring the place where the silver arm met his skin.

Hux came a half a step closer, cocking his head to the side as he studied the way the metal was almost ribbed, each section a joint, to allow Kylo a full range of motion, perhaps even more than a blood-and-bone arm would permit.

“You can touch,” said Kylo, “if you want to.”

Gently, Hux laid a hand on the upper section of the arm; it was cool to the touch. “Can you feel anything?”

Kylo rolled his wrist, making the cybernetic muscles throughout his arm flex under Hux’s palm. “The hand has tactile sensors, so I can still pick things up without dropping them, but the rest is just metal. I can’t feel your hand, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Fascinating,” Hux said, drawing back. “How often does it need to be serviced?”

“Full of questions, aren’t you?” Kylo chuckled. But he answered, “One or twice a standard year. I just take it off and run a software upgrade, lubricate the joints. Nothing really impressive. If I ever really damaged it, I’d have to take it back to Hosnian Prime to get it repaired. I’m only so good with tech.”

Hux wasn’t particularly good with it, either, but it was interesting to him. “It must have cost a great deal.”

Kylo shrugged. “A bit, but I take good care of it, for the most part. It was pretty easy to carry you with it, too. You’re heavier than you look.” At Hux’s frown, he flashed a grin. “Done looking? I’ll go get you those pants.” Turning, shirt in hand, he left the room.

Hux stared at the door that shut behind him, left alone in the silence. On the Finalizer, if it was quiet enough, he could hear the humming of the drive core. The station, though, was soundless, relying on the planet’s gravity to stay in orbit rather than core power. The First Order had a few stations like this one, but far larger and very crowded. The Imperial exiles who had founded the Order had taken their repopulation duties very seriously, and with the advent of the Stormtrooper Program, thousands of children had been recruited to fill the ships and stations.

The officers were fewer and came almost exclusively from Imperial stock, carrying on their parents’ legacies in a new military. At the head of the Order’s ever-growing forces was the youngest general ever to lead them: Brendol Hux II, the brother for whom young Armitage had been cast aside to make way for. His mother was their father’s wife, not a kitchen girl the commandant had dallied with for a few months, so he was the one to bear the family name and rise through the ranks to the top of the Order. Armitage was given a number and put where no one would find him. And even if he did venture to tell the truth, which he never had, he wouldn’t have been believed.

He had been bitter as a teenager, watching his brother advance and win the favor of Supreme Leader Snoke, but those feelings had long passed by the time he finished his special operations training. He lived for marksmanship, and couldn’t imagine a life without his blaster rifle in his hands. His brother may command thousands, but he never learned to shoot outside of a simulator, never felt the rush of a shot landing perfectly between the eyes. Hux was content where he was.

Had been.

He was a deserter now, unable to return to the Order. He had lost his rifle, and his armor was piled in the corner of the room, discarded and unlikely to be used again. He might have escaped with his life, but his father had taken his purpose, and that, he thought, could almost be worse.

The door hissed opened again, admitting Kylo. “Here,” he said, holding out a pair of folded black pants. “These shouldn’t fall off.”

Hux took them, feeling the soft fabric. It would be the first item of clothing he had worn as an adult that wasn’t standard-issue.

“I’ll go now,” said Kylo. “If you need anything, I’m the first door on the left. Knock hard.” He backed away two steps, gave a small wave with his silver hand, and then went out.

He was gone before Hux even realized he hadn’t thanked him. That was if a simple phrase would even begin to repay the life debt that Hux now owed, which it wouldn’t. Among the troopers, if you saved someone else’s life, they would owe you a great deal of favors. Those ranged from cleaning blasters and armor for a year to giving up recreation hours or submitting to any physical demand that they had.

Upon entering the Program, every trooper was given an infertility vaccination—reversible—-and conditioned to control sexual appetites. The vaccination was completely effective, but the conditioning was not. It was difficult for even the First Order’s best behavioral scientists to control the human urges to fight and fuck. Fortunately, the Program’s mixed-gender barracks and frequent combat situations allowed for both.

Debts among the troopers were often paid in the form of sex, as it was easy to come by and universally enjoyed. Hux had known a man who had been rescued during a drop by a young woman, and to repay her, he had taken care of her gear for months and shared her bed for even longer. Hux remembered listening to their barely-muffled grunts of pleasure while he tried to sleep. He had been relieved when the man’s debt was cleared, only to find out that they intended to continue the arrangement anyway. Not all sex was in exchange for something, after all.

Hux had never been in a position to owe anyone anything, having taken care of himself on the battlefield and off, but things were different now. If he had to start paying Kylo back, he might as well do it tonight, offering himself first and negotiating other methods the next day. Dropping the towel from around his waist, he pulled on the pants and padded out into the hallway, going to the first door on the left. He knocked hard.

There wasn’t a response right away, and Hux considered that Kylo might already be sleeping, but it hadn’t been more than a few minutes. He didn’t bother to raise his fist to knock again, instead just pressing the button next to the door and hoping it wasn’t locked. He heard a click, and then the door slid open.

Kylo’s bedroom was twice the size of Hux’s, and instead of a wall at the far side, there was a massive viewport, displaying Ryden 2 below. Kylo was seated on the floor in front of it, his legs crossed and his hands resting on his knees. His eyes were closed. Hux, barefoot, crept into the room, going to him cautiously. Kylo still didn’t open his eyes, even as Hux came to stand right before him, less than half a pace away.

He seemed perfectly serene, his face lax and blank, breathing steady. A meditation, perhaps? Hux had heard that some entered a state of unawareness when they meditated, completely inside their own heads, but he hadn’t believed it was possible to completely shut oneself off from outside stimuli. It was too dangerous, too, for a soldier.

Slowly, knees creaking, Hux knelt in front of him. With his right hand, he brushed Kylo’s jaw, but he still didn’t move. Puzzled, but determined, Hux cupped his cheek, and, leaning in, whispered, “Thank you,” as he kissed his lips. Kylo’s eyes flew open immediately, wide and bright with astonishment. Hux kept his mouth against his, unsure how to proceed—he had never done this before—but unwilling to relent until Kylo responded. Slipping his hands around Kylo’s shoulders, he crawled into his lap and wrapped his legs around his waist. Kylo made an “mm” sound as he took hold of Hux’s hips, steadying him. Taking that for encouragement, Hux pressed closer, kissed harder. He wasn’t expecting it when Kylo pulled back.

“Hey,” Kylo said, his face still very close to Hux’s. “Hey, stop a second. You’re a little, ah, frisky for someone who almost died. What’s this all about?”

Hux held his gaze, confused and a little irritated at the question. It was obvious enough. “You don’t want it?” he asked.

Kylo blinked once, adjusting his grip on Hux so that he was holding him by the buttocks. “If you really want to kiss me, I’m not going to stop you, but—”

Hux took the opportunity and moved in again, silencing Kylo with his lips. This time Kylo’s mouth was softer, more receptive. With minute movements, he got Hux to relax into it, too, until the emphasis was not on intensity but exploration. Hux understood kisses to be a prelude to the rest, and there was no denying that his body’s interest was piqued by the softness of Kylo’s mouth and the inquisitive swipes of his tongue against the seam of his lips. Hux was surprised, but not unpleasantly, when he parted them, and Kylo slid inside.

Hux’s pulse jumped, blood flowing strongly through his veins and down to his cock. Spurred by the sensation, he clung to Kylo, pushing his own tongue against his. Kylo turned his head to change the angle, and their noses brushed. Strangely, Hux liked that feeling just as much as the kisses, which resumed right away. One hand cupping Hux’s buttock, Kylo moved the other to his side to pull him even closer. As he squeezed, Hux spasmed, in sudden pain.

Shit,” Kylo swore, yanking his hand away from Hux’s wound. “I’m sorry. I got carried away.”

“It’s all right,” said Hux. Fingers at the back of Kylo’s neck, he tried to steer him back into a kiss.

Kylo resisted. “Wait. This is a little crazy. An hour ago you were barely conscious, and now you’re...like this. We should dial this back a notch.”

Hux slid his hands down Kylo’s chest to where his shirt hung by his belt. This was necessary, but now Hux was interested in it; he wanted to continue. “We might as well start now.”

Kylo’s throat worked as he swallowed. “Start what?” he said.

“Paying my debt,” Hux replied. “You saved my life. That can’t go unpaid.”

“You think you owe me... this...for that?” Kylo stammered, gaze darting over Hux’s face, as if he didn’t comprehend in the least.

Hux’s brows knit in consternation. “Yes. Unless you don’t want me.” Part of him was disappointed at that thought.

Kylo blew out a breath. “Well, I don’t not want you, but I don’t expect you to sleep with me, if that’s what this is.”

“You don’t?” Hux asked.

“No!” Kylo exclaimed, taking him by the shoulders and easing him back so that there was some distance between them, though Hux still sat in his lap. “Of course not. You don’t owe me anything, especially not this. Unless you want it.” He shook his head. “But even if you do, this isn’t the time. I mean, is this how it works where you come from?”

“Mostly.”

Stars,” said Kylo. “I, uh, well, where I come from, it isn’t. So, don’t think you have to do anything, okay? Here, just hang on.”

Taking a hold of Hux’s thighs, he started to get to his feet. Hux wrapped his legs tighter around his waist and looped his arms around his neck, and Kylo carried him toward the door. They went back to Hux’s room, where Kylo set him on the ground next to the cot.

“Look,” Kylo said, holding Hux’s face, “if things were different, and we had met in a cantina on Utel, you’d be bunking with me tonight, but we didn’t, and you’re not. I want you to get some rest. Don’t think about what you owe me.”

“It’s a life debt,” said Hux, insistent. “I won’t just let that go.”

Kylo rubbed his thumb across Hux’s still-tender cheekbone. “I know. We’ll talk about it in the morning.” He released Hux and, going to the cot, turned down the sheets. “There’s an extra blanket in the cabinet if you need it.”

Hux nodded, arms hanging limply at his sides. He wasn’t ashamed of himself, exactly, but clearly he had done something wrong, which only served to emphasize that he was now in a world that he didn’t understand.

“Goodnight, Hux,” Kylo said.

Hux replied, “Goodnight, Kylo,” and watched him walk out for the third time.

When he was gone, Hux sat heavily down on the cot. It was spongy and presumably more comfortable than his bunk on the Finalizer. Resigned to never seeing that again, he curled up under the sheets and closed his eyes. He had started the day as HX-4874, a First Order trooper, and now he was ending it as Hux, civilian, fugitive; someone he didn’t know.