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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.

Chapter Text

Kylo

The door closed behind him with a soft hiss, the lock unengaged, leaving Kylo in the steel-enclosed silence of his orbital station. His head was still muddled with the lingering stillness of his interrupted meditation, but he was swiftly, determinedly processing what had happened to pull him out of it: the stray stormtrooper he had picked up in an ill-advised moment of charity in an Utel City alley, barely held together by staples and painkillers, had made an insistent, if inexpert attempt at seducing him in order to pay for his life. If Kylo had been told the story by someone else, he would have laughed in disbelief, but the taste of Hux’s mouth and the smoothness of his skin under his left hand were vivid in his memory.

Lifting that hand to his lips, he rubbed the thumb along the lower, his breath warm and damp against it as he sighed. The mission on Utel Gamma was supposed to be simple: let the Resistance operatives on-planet falsify information about an intended saboteur to allow Kylo to pick up the vital intelligence they had gathered on the First Order from their mole. The transfer had been made successfully, but when Kylo had tried to make contact with Irrel, the Bith head of the Utel contingent, she hadn’t replied. He had been on his way to her apartment, taking a shortcut through the alley, when he had found Hux at the mercy of four stormtroopers. In black, he had stood apart from them, and Kylo had assumed—naïvely—that he was a civilian.

The troopers were easy enough to put down between the blaster Kylo carried on his hip and the Force, which he didn’t use but for situations like this, when he needed to gain the upper hand quickly and without mercy. He broke two of their necks in an instant, shooting the third and the fourth before they could pull the trigger on the red-headed man who knelt, defeated, in a puddle on the broken pavement. Kylo saw the sleek armor he wore, but didn’t think too much of it as he hauled him to his feet and started off toward the Falcon.

He didn’t have a map of a city, so finding a hospital was out of the question until he could get directions, but Hux demanded not to be taken to one anyway. Kylo hated them himself—he had spent too long there as a child, when he had first lost his arm—so it didn’t bother him in the least to skip the white walls and antiseptic smell of a bustling emergency ward. And he was used to basic triage; you didn’t work with the scum of a galaxy on a regular basis without scathe. It wasn’t until he got a good look at Hux’s wound, when they were aboard the Falcon, that he knew there was going to be more to it than slapping on a bacta patch.

Kylo didn’t bother to warn him that the syringes of non-addictive painkillers were laced with sedatives as he injected one straight into his neck. Kylo had winced in sympathy when he pushed the plunger down and the blue liquid raced, stinging, into his veins. Hux had exhaled with relief, his eyelids falling over bruised and battered eyes. He managed to stay awake long enough to reject Kylo’s efforts to help him treat his side before allowing him to apply bacta gel to the lacerations on his face. He had said once again that he was expected somewhere, but already he was succumbing to the sedatives, and Kylo eased him back onto the couch as he drifted into unconsciousness.

Kylo had sat back onto the table, taking a minute to settle his racing nerves. He had looked Hux over in earnest, examining the high-end combat gear: plasteel plates in shining black and a thick woven base layer that looked to be custom-fit. It was unmarked, which was uncommon among mercenary bands, who wore their colors proudly, but made too clearly for combat to belong to anyone but a soldier. Hux didn’t seem too forthcoming with information, and while he had the right to that, Kylo needed to know if he could turn his back on him without putting himself at risk. Not that Hux was in any condition to fight, but Kylo didn’t have the first idea what kind of skills or intentions he had.

There was a way, of course, but Kylo loathed using it. It was invasive and, as his uncle had always told him, an abuse of the power he possessed, a tool employed only by those who were cruel enough to learn it. Unfortunately, Kylo had always had an innate talent. Even before he was born, he had prodded at his mother’s mind, demanding in his curiosity. She had been able to brush off his attempts when she was awake, but in dreams her defenses were lowered, and Kylo—Ben—had been able to push into her thoughts. It had frightened her, and even as an infant, Kylo had been able to sense the dismay that lay under her affection for him. He had felt the conflict in her when he was sent away to his uncle’s school for training: there was sorrow at letting him go, but also relief. Luke would teach him to keep to the light and control his darker impulses.

Kylo hadn’t entered someone’s mind in years. It wasn’t painless or undetectable; reading thoughts was done deliberately and left the subject taxed, sometimes to the point of fainting, if they were not already incapacitated for the interrogation. He preferred that they were. Their minds were fuzzier, the images less clear, but it spared him from watching their faces contort in pain as he forced himself into their heads. Hux, he told himself, wouldn’t remember the discomfort. Kylo would be quick; just a look and then it would be over.

Rising haltingly from his perch on the table, he had crouched at Hux’s side and set his left hand on his bacta-slick brow, just at the hairline. He dipped into the flow of the Force, using its energy to penetrate the flimsy barriers of Hux’s consciousness and slip into his thoughts.

He felt the exhaustion first, the bone-deep weariness that suffused Hux as his beaten body struggled to knit itself back together, aided only somewhat by the bacta. The painkillers kept the worst of the agony at bay, but it colored the edges of his mind with a red-gold aura that grew minutely as the anesthetic wore off by degrees. Around the hurt and tiredness, Kylo began to tease out the most recent memories: the slickness of the bloody gash on his side as he pushed his fingers into it; Kylo’s face fading in and out as Hux tried to focus his vision; the wetness at the knees of his base layer from where he had been on the ground; the burning in his lungs as he raced down flights and flights of stairs. And then he was lying on his back on a roof, staring up at the helmets of stormtroopers as they held him down. Betrayed.

Kylo started at Hux’s recognition of the troopers. They were his men, not First Order goons who had attacked an innocent on the street. Hux was one of them. Kylo pushed deeper into his mind, suppressing the regret as he watched the sleeping Hux knit his brows and frown. In Hux’s memory, he could all but taste the rush of satisfaction and pride as Hux shot down Irrel, the Bith Resistance operative, in her apartment from three hundred meters. Kylo hadn’t known her, but he took a moment to mourn her. He skimmed across Hux’s mind to see the days he had spent observing her, and before that, when the transport had dropped him and his men on Utel Gamma. Kylo’s pulse jumped. If he could go far enough back, he might be able to find out more about the First Order’s operations.

He froze, though, at a small, anguished cry. Looking down, he saw that Hux’s face was screwed up in pain as tears slipped from the swollen corners of his eyes. Kylo drew back from his mind so quickly that Hux whimpered again, hurt by the sudden withdrawal. Disgust and guilt roiled in Kylo’s gut, caustic and deserved; he had gone too far. Not even the Resistance’s enemies—not even the man who had taken pleasure in killing one of them—deserved to have his mind flayed until he wept.

“I’m sorry,” Kylo said as he fumbled with a piece of gauze to wipe the tears from Hux’s temples. Hux relaxed under his touch, returning to an undisturbed rest.

Kylo had rolled down onto his backside, pressing his rounded spine into the hard leg of the table behind him and fisting the gauze in his silver right hand. The tactile sensors registered it, but he couldn’t feel the texture or the salty dampness.

He had left Hux sleeping on the couch and gone to the cockpit, where he collapsed into the pilot’s chair, letting his head fall back against the rest while he ran possible scenarios for what could happen next. The most logical solution would be to drop Hux at the nearest hospital and let the Utel City authorities deal with him, but they would have questions for Kylo, too, and he didn’t need to advertise his presence on-planet. He couldn’t leave him elsewhere, not in his condition, and Kylo wasn’t about to dump him at the First Order recruitment office and hand him back to them. He was effectively a Resistance prisoner now, and should be taken in for questioning and detainment. D’Qar had the medical facilities to treat him, and maybe the higher-ups would be interested in him, but Kylo wasn’t allowed there. His role was as informant and go-between; he wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with the formal structure of the Resistance.

“Stars,” he had sighed, rubbing his brow with the cool metal of his right hand. He needed to get Hux’s wound treated, and if he couldn’t take him elsewhere, he really had only one option: the Ryden 2 station.

He probably should have given it a proper name, but it was meant to be hidden anyway, so he had never bothered. The Resistance had financed its transport to the system, but had funneled the credits through a series of back channels so it couldn’t be directly traced to them. It was, like Kylo, an informal part of the organization, where certain dealings were done without open association with the Resistance operations. Kylo mainly used it to store and move the merchandise he transported as a part of his day-to-day job, one he had inherited from his father. He didn’t call himself a smuggler, but it was, essentially, what he did. He had his shipping permits, even if most of the cargo he carried had to be concealed to get through port checks.

The station would be safe, at least, so Kylo had powered up the Falcon’s engines, requested permission to take off, and set a course for the Ryden system. Once in hyperspace, he had gone to the galley to get a bottle of juice, stopping by the couch on his way out. Hux lay still, as expected, save for the steady rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. The bacta had sealed up the worst of the cuts on his face and dealt with some of the swelling, revealing an oval-shaped face, straight nose—luckily unbroken—that flared just a bit at the nostrils, and a soft, high jaw. His hands, long-fingered and narrow, were lying at his sides, the only bare skin save for his face.

The old Empire had used cloned stormtroopers, all with the same dark hair and eyes, but the First Order’s forces came from mixed stock. Kylo couldn’t imagine, though, there were many men among them who were as red as Hux. His eyebrows and lashes were just as bright as the hair on his head, fiery against the paleness of his skin — where it wasn’t bruised.

“What happened to you?” Kylo said as he watched Hux sleep. He knew he had been betrayed and almost killed by his own men, but the real reason was still buried in Hux’s mind, out of Kylo’s reach. He wouldn’t prod now, or even when he woke up; for the moment he would play dumb, until he could decide how to handle the stormtrooper that had fallen into his lap.

“Yeah,” Kylo huffed as he stood in the hallway just outside Hux’s door on the station. “Right into it.”

Slight and lanky, Hux shouldn’t have fit so well into the place between Kylo’s crossed legs, but he had folded himself around him just right, so that his seat bones rested comfortably on Kylo’s thighs and calves. And, stars, how he’d kissed: abrupt and seeking, making abundantly clear what was on offer.

Still half-dazed from his deep meditation, Kylo had permitted it—enjoyed it—not remembering in those first few moments that Hux was First Order, and his prisoner. He had let Hux press against him and had swept his tongue into his mouth, deepening their kiss. He had liked how Hux’s skinny hips had felt between his hands, and how his heels had dug into his lower back to bring them closer. If he hadn’t inadvertently grabbed Hux’s freshly-bandaged side and made him convulse in pain, he was sure he would have sleepily let Hux go as far as he had intended, whether that put them in Kylo’s bed or ended up on the floor next to the viewport.

But they had stopped, and thankfully. Hux had believed he had to give himself to Kylo, that his body was expected payment. Hearing that, Kylo had felt as though a bucket a water had been thrown over him, extinguishing any desire. His partners chose to be with him; they did not come to him out of obligation. The idea was repellent, and even if Hux was still sitting in his lap, his lips slick with their shared saliva and looking good enough to eat (despite the bandages), Kylo would turn him away. Sex wasn’t currency to pay any debt, especially a life debt.

Having grown up with a Wookiee, Kylo knew the significance in that. His “Uncle” Chewie had stayed on with his father for years in order to pay his life debt, after Han had freed him from Imperial slavery. Han had, at first, tried to say his debt was paid after a few jobs, but Chewie had stuck with him, insisting it was not. Kylo wasn’t certain if they had ever agreed that it was officially done, but Chewie had saved Han’s life many times over the years. By now they were partners and family, and there was no more talk of debts. It wasn’t common for a human culture to swear life debts, but if the First Order did, it was going to make things very complicated, very quickly.

“I need a karking drink,” Kylo grumbled, padding down the hallway, away from Hux’s quarters and toward the kitchen. The illuminators came up to half brightness as he walked in, lighting the way to the cabinet, from which he pulled a quarter-full bottle of blue-green Hosnian whiskey. He chose a tumbler from the shelf above the sink and, unscrewing the cap of the bottle, splashed three fingers of liquor into it. He gulped down half.

He had told Hux they would talk about the life debt tomorrow, and they would have to, but Kylo hadn’t the first idea where to start. Maybe going to his bed would have been enough in the First Order ledgers, but Kylo really doubted it. “We might as well start now,” Hux had said. That implied that sex was just the first step, and if Kylo hadn’t allowed that, then Hux would be thinking of something else.

The last thing Kylo needed right now was a tagalong, like Chewie had been for his father. He worked alone for a reason: he had to protect himself and his ties to the Resistance. And he didn’t need anyone poking around his past. Hux had already asked about his arm—given, it was more about the tech than how he got it—and he didn’t want to dodge those questions if he could avoid them completely. Taking him to Leia was the most reasonable choice, really, life debt be damned, and that meant placing a call.

Knocking back the rest of his whiskey, he abandoned the tumbler and bottle on the counter and cut across the living space to a panel against the far wall. Ejecting a small key from the tip of his prosthetic forefinger, he slid it into the space between panels. A holographic keypad appeared, and he typed in his most recent security code. The panel’s series of locks clicked and it swung open.

The room inside was small, equipped with a single holocomm and one round chair, upholstered in soft synth-leather. Kylo closed the panel behind him and engaged the locks, before approaching the holocomm console. His mother’s private frequency was for emergencies only, but Kylo couldn’t think of anyone else in the Resistance hierarchy he could contact to address this problem. Keying it in, he hit the button to send the comm request, and then went to sit and wait.

The time difference on D’Qar was significant, but it didn’t take long for Leia to answer. Her hologram appeared after only a few minutes, revealing her hair to be in the long braid she wore for sleep and one side of her hastily-donned dressing gown lying crookedly across her chest. “Ben,” she said, sounding as alert as ever, as if she hadn’t just been in bed.

Kylo tried not to flinch at the sound of his old name, the one he had left behind along with his arm when he was fifteen. “Mother,” he began, “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “It’s all right. What’s wrong? Something happened on Utel Gamma. You didn’t get the information.” The general’s formal disappointment supplanted a mother’s worry in her tone.

“I have it,” Kylo said, reaching into the secure pocket on his trousers. The chip he produced was no larger than his thumbnail. “I’ll send it over as soon as we’re done here.”

Leia nodded, her only acknowledgement, before saying, “Then what’s the matter?”

Kylo replied bluntly, “Irrel is dead. Probably the others, too. The First Order acted on the information we gave them.” He wet his lips, recounting Hux’s foggy memories: “They sent a tactical team. A sniper.”

Leia sighed, closing her eyes for a few seconds. She knew all of the Resistance operatives by name, having given them their orders herself, and felt their loss acutely. “Did you find the troopers?”

“Yes,” said Kylo. “Five of the seven, anyway. Four are dead. The fifth...I took him captive.”

“You did what?” Leia said, brows raised in shock. “Ben, it’s not your place. The Resistance sometimes takes prisoners. You do not.”

Kylo suppressed the childlike guilt at crossing a parent. “I know. I didn’t know he was a trooper when I took him. He was wounded, and I...I saved his life.” He cast his gaze down, unduly sheepish. “The others were attacking him. They had a blaster to his head.”

Leia paused at that, looking hard at Kylo through the holoprojector. “And you stopped them? A conflict among stormtroopers isn’t our concern.”

“I told you, I didn’t know he was one,” Kylo said.

“Until he admitted it to you?”

Heat did rise in Kylo’s face in earnest, then. “I looked at his mind.”

Leia, downcast, made clear this kind of disappointment was wholly maternal. “I see. So, he doesn’t know that you’re aware of what he is.”

“No,” said Kylo, shaking his head.

“And now you’re wondering what to do with him,” she continued, sitting back in her chair, chin high. Kylo didn’t bother to reply; she already knew the answer. “He’s of little use to us if he’s just a trooper. We need someone higher up with more than just basic orders to kill.”

Kylo drew his bottom lip under his upper teeth, anxiety rising in the pit of his stomach. “You want me to get rid of him.”

Leia’s expression—her senator’s face—betrayed nothing. “I’m not suggesting that. You can take him to a world, give him a few credits, and let him go. If he finds his way back to the First Order, he does, but if not, he’s not your burden.”

It’s a life debt. I won’t just let that go.

Kylo met Leia’s eyes through the hologram and said, “I’ll find a way.”

The lines around her mouth softened. “Good. Transfer the information on that chip, and we’ll sort through it. Thank you for doing this, Ben. I’ll be in touch when something else comes up.”

“Goodbye, Mother,” Kylo said, and severed the connection. The blue glow of the hologram winked out, leaving the comm room in murky half-dark. Kylo reclined in his chair, staring up at the durasteel ceiling.

He should have known Hux wouldn’t be valuable to the Resistance. He should have left him on Utel and been done with it, not bring him to the station and patch him up. Leia had said he wasn’t his burden, but he was, and it wouldn’t be as easy as she said to just drop him on some backwater in Hutt space and let him fend for himself.

He had looked so lost when Kylo had told him he didn’t want him, and he had stood with his shoulders hunched and gaze on the floor as Kylo had left him in his room: uncertain, timid. Kylo had had him in his arms, too, and if that didn’t make him his responsibility, he wasn’t sure what else would have.

Prying himself out of the chair, Kylo left the comm room and made his way back to the kitchen. With one more glass of whiskey in hand, he wandered into the living space and sat down on the plush couch. He sipped at the liquor, letting it burn down into his empty stomach, as he watched Ryden 2 through the viewport. It lulled him, and soon he was resting his head on the arm of the couch and closing his eyes. Whatever he had to face with Hux in the morning, he’d do it after a few hours’ sleep.

 


 

When the voice comes, it always carries images with it: a figure in black robes with a saber that crackles with unstable red light. Its face is shrouded, but Kylo knows it well. Ren. Behind him are six others, each of them masked and carrying weapons of their own. The buildings at their backs are burning, casting their long shadows out across the packed dirt of the ground. The air smells of wood-fire, and ash dusts Ren’s shoulders, his cowled head. There’s a girl at his feet, dressed in plain brown and wearing her hair in braids. The light of his saber illuminates her wide-eyed, fearful face for a split second before he cuts her down, but there’s never any cry to hear, only the voice whispering steadily in Kylo’s mind.

“It’s your legacy. You’re to inherit your forebears’ power, wield the darkness that lives inside you. It burns to be free. Let it out. Let go of Ben Solo; he is weak and pathetic, bound by rules that limit his true strength.”

The words slither through him like the touch of long, cold fingers, curling around his consciousness and tempting, enticing, inviting.

“This is your destiny, Ren. Take it! Become what you were meant to be.”

In the vision, Kylo sees himself at the center of his uncle’s temple, the school where he spent his youth, but he’s just a boy, barely a teenager, his cropped hair baring his ears. The hilts of two lightsabers lie on the ground at his feet: one narrow and unadorned, the other heavy and ill-balanced with a thick crossguard. The voice, new to him then, tells him to choose. Kylo extends his boyish right hand, still whole, flesh and blood, toward the heavier of the two sabers.

“Good, boy,” the voice continues. “Reach for what you deserve. Don’t be smothered by the weak-willed Jedi. Come to me. Come into your own. Come, Ren, come.”

In a sudden, eerie instant, Kylo is surrounded by familiar faces: the other padawan and, at the center, Uncle Luke. They are looking on in silence, their gazes dark with judgment. Kylo stares at them, frightened, but he can’t call out to them; his throat his closed, his mouth dry. The gloominess of the light begins to turn yellow and red. The fire. Kylo can feel the heat at his back, but he doesn’t dare turn to look at it. The two sabers are still lying before him, and the voice is insistent now: “Take it. Take it. Take it, Ren.”

The circle of padawan breaks into chaos as the six dark knights charge through it, weapons flashing in the firelight. A boy falls and then a girl. The knight at the forefront carries a two-bladed staff, and he spins it as he approaches Luke. Kylo’s uncle goes for his saber, but his belt is empty; he doesn’t carry it when he teaches. Half-blind with terror and rage, Kylo bypasses the heavy, black saber and grabs the slender one, engaging the blade. It’s red, but it’s smooth and steady. Holding it at high guard, he charges the knight and drives it through his chest.

The voice howls, not in pain, but in fury: “Idiot, worthless boy! I could have given you everything. All the power you could have desired.”

“You won’t have me,” Kylo says. But in this single pause, he’s made a terrible mistake; he didn’t see the knight behind him. His own screams drown out the voice’s final curses as the knight’s weapon tears through his shoulder and arm. The lightsaber falls to the ground, blade disappearing. Kylo collapses, grasping at the wound that is bleeding down his side. He tries to move his right arm, but it’s useless. Tears stream down his face as he gasps for breath, and then the world goes dark.

“You can still take what’s yours, Ren,” the voice says in the blackness. “Come to me.”

Kylo’s reply is deep, his voice as a grown man: “Never, Snoke.”

There’s a broken laugh, a whispered “In time, Ren,” and then silence.

 


 

Kylo jerked awake, sweat-soaked and clutching his right shoulder as aftershocks of pain radiated through it and down to where he thought he felt his arm. The medics said it would never fully go away; a “phantom limb,” they called it. Eyes still closed, he worked the prosthetic fingers into a fist and then out of it again, as if he could feel it stretching. In the quiet of the station, he could hear the nearly imperceptible whirring of the cybernetics.

“Are you awake?”

Awareness hitting him like a slap across the face, Kylo sat up and delved into the flow of the Force, his nearest weapon. Hux, who stood beside the couch, took a measured step back, eyeing Kylo warily. Recognizing him, Kylo stopped and released his hold on the Force; backed down.

“How long have you been there?” he asked, rubbing at his sleep-crusted eyes with his left hand.

“A minute,” Hux replied, “maybe two.” His tongue darted out brush his lip, and his body was tense, as if ready to flee or attack; Kylo couldn’t decide which. “You were calling out. I could hear you”—he gestured back to where his room was—“from there.”

Kylo lifted his legs from the couch, setting his bare feet down onto the cold floor as he leaned on his thighs. It had been a few weeks since he had last had a dream about the attack on his uncle’s school, when he had faced the six men sent to kidnap and take him to the creature that would be his master, who had been in his head since he was a little boy.

“Sorry,” he said, letting his head hang between his arms. “Nightmares.”

Hux cocked his head slightly to the side, inquisitive. “You said a name. Snoke. How do you know it?”

Kylo peered up at him, quickly searching for a way to deflect. Snoke was his own business, and he had no desire to explain him to anyone, especially Hux. “I said that, huh? I say a lot of things when I’m dreaming. I don’t always know what they mean.” Rising, he used his scant inch or so of height over Hux to stare him down. It wasn’t really a threat, at least not a considerable one. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“No,” Hux said, flatly.

When he didn’t continue, Kylo asked, “Did you get a little rest, at least?” A glance at the digital chronometer on the wall revealed it was nearing 0600 standard. He had slept for about six hours, Hux for seven.

“I did,” said Hux. “And well.” He shifted his weight, moving one hand to where his side was bandaged; his chest was still bare save for it. “I came to ask if you might help me. The droid said I should change this after I bathe. I don’t think I can do it myself.”

“Oh, yeah,” Kylo said. “Of course. Do you want me to take it off for you?”

Hux nodded shallowly. “Yes. I don’t want to tear it.” He seemed genuinely apprehensive, and Kylo felt for him. He hadn’t looked too good while 1H had been stapling the wound closed, so Kylo figured he wasn’t going to want to see much of it while it was still healing.

Kylo took a step closer to him, relieved when he didn’t back away. “Okay, we’ll get it in your ‘fresher.”

Hux took that cue to turn, and stalked in long strides back toward the residences. The door to his room was open, so they went straight through, and Kylo noted that the bed was neatly made, as if Hux had never even slept in it. But the pillow had a creases from being used, which he was glad to see.

He blinked as they entered the refresher, the illuminators having come up to full strength immediately. Hux stopped in the center, very conspicuously not facing the mirror, and watched Kylo approach. His skin wasn’t stark white, but tinged with pink—not a flush, just its natural coloring—making the bandage stand out against it. The tape at the edge was peeling just a little, leaving a sticky residue that Kylo wanted to wipe away with a warm towel.

“Do you want to soak it off again?” he said, glancing between Hux and the shower.

Hux blinked once, thoughtful. “No. The droid didn’t say that. I’ll just take it off.” He seemed very keen on following orders, which Kylo supposed that was a product of his training; troopers did as they were told. Rumor among the Resistance was that troopers were mentally and physically conditioned from infancy to obey out of unflagging loyalty to the First Order. What really happened to them wasn’t known, but it couldn’t have been an easy life, brainwashing or no.

“You don’t have to do everything 1H told you,” said Kylo, “but if that’s how you want to do it, that’s fine.” He came up next to Hux and, cautiously, reached out for his arm. Hux shot him a warning look, but then relaxed, allowing Kylo to lift it up to rest on his shoulder. “Just hang on here,” Kylo said. “In case it hurts.”

Hux swallowed, but gave another nod. “Go on, then.”

Kylo had always been told that ripping a bandage off hurt a lot less than removing it slowly, but he was too afraid of tearing Hux’s staples to do that. Instead, he started at the upper corner of the bandage and began to draw the tape back. Hux’s skin came up with it, but settled back as soon as the adhesive had let go.

“Is that okay?” Kylo said, pausing once the first bit of tape was free.

“Yes,” said Hux, curt, as the hand that rested on Kylo’s shoulder tightened.

“Just tell me to stop if you need me to.” Kylo started in on the next side, exposing the actual wound. It was still an angry red, but it wasn’t raised unhealthily; the bacta seemed to have started mending the skin, though the staples were still necessary to hold the two sides together. Kylo’s own stomach turned a little, but he pushed through it to peel off the last of the tape and remove the bandage completely. “There. Done.”

Hux’s wide eyes were focused on Kylo’s face. They were green, Kylo saw, darker around the pupils and bright as the color radiated out. “All right,” he said.

Kylo held his gaze, gingerly touching the sticky square around the wound. “Do you want me to turn on the shower for you?”

“I can do it,” Hux replied, though he made no move to leave the spot.

Kylo stayed as well, his left thumb just slightly catching on the adhesive residue as he passed over it. Hux was so much thinner than him, despite his height, and Kylo knew he could carry him, even if he was a bit more solid than he seemed. It made sense that he wasn’t a ground trooper; he didn’t have the physique for it. But Kyo had seen in his memories just how lethal he could be with his long-range blaster.

“Let me get it,” Kylo said. He gave Hux’s tender side a last touch as he left him, going to the cubicle and turning the handle to start the water. It spilled down over his forearm, and he left his hand in the spray until he judged the temperature to be warm enough. He stepped back and turned, but the inviting “It’s ready now” died on his tongue.

Hux stood just a pace from where he had been, the black pants Kylo had given him in a discarded puddle on the floor. He held himself tall, his shoulders square, and his arms dangled at his sides, doing nothing to hide his nudity. Kylo stared, frozen and caught wholly off guard; his jaw hung slack, though he snapped his mouth shut as Hux took a few steps toward him.

“Do you want to join me?” Hux said, laying a hand on Kylo’s chest, just above his strongly beating heart. The movement was hesitant, but he brought his other hand to Kylo’s waist, pulling himself closer. The tips of their chilly toes touched. “I’ve heard that’s done, sometimes.”

Kylo’s pulse jumped at his proximity and touch, which was less demanding than before, but not undetermined. He curled the hem of Kylo’s shirt into his forefingers, letting the pinky and ring finger brush the skin he exposed. Kylo shivered under it, nerves alight. Hux never took his eyes off of his face, clearly studying and gauging his reaction. Kylo wasn’t certain how he appeared, but inside he was frantically assessing every move he could make: he could take Hux by the hips and pull him in; he could run his fingertips over his jaw, where red-blond stubble had grown in overnight; he could move his hands down his knobby spine until he reached the small of his back, the tops of his buttocks; he could kiss his parted lips as he let Hux undress him before stepping under the hot water of the shower.

But he did none of these things.

“No,” he said, taking hold of Hux’s shoulders and pushing him lightly back. “I told you you don’t have to do this.”

Hux’s expression darkened, not with anger, but chagrin. There was a sulkiness to his tone as he said, “I have nothing else to give you, but I’m indebted. Why won’t you take this?”

Kylo frowned, disliking how coldly he spat the word “this,” as if was a meaningless transaction. “It isn’t how a life debt goes,” he said, firm. “I don’t have any claim on you...physically.”

“Oh, I see,” Hux said. “You’re not inclined to me.” He looked down, chewing on his full lower lip. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He sounded almost wounded.

“No,” Kylo sighed, sliding his hands down to Hux’s biceps and rubbing lightly with his thumbs. “It’s not that. I’m, uh, ‘inclined.’ It’s just...” He trailed off, searching for what to say. He didn’t need this; he just wanted to do what Leia had said and send Hux away. But instead he found himself saying, “We’ll find another way for you to pay your debt.”

Hux lowered his hands, releasing his hold on Kylo’s shirt. “This would be simpler.”

“Yeah, I know,” Kylo conceded, “but it’s not how it’s going to happen.” With a gentle, but assertive hold, he steered Hux into the shower cubicle. “Get cleaned up, and then come get some breakfast. I’m going to get you some fresh clothes. We’ll have to go planetside to buy you some that fit, but we’ll take care of that later.” When I figure out what do you with you. “Just...have a good shower.” Backing up, he took a last look at Hux—his hair was sodden and stuck to his brow, and water ran down his sleek sides in clear runnels—before fleeing the refresher.

Kylo went straight to his room, keying himself into the door and slamming the button to close it behind him. He fell back against it and took a few deep breaths. “Shit.” In the span of less than twelve hours, he had managed to kark up everything that he needed to go smoothly in his life, and all because he had to play the hero for a pretty stranger with red hair.

He cursed again. Hux was something to behold, and it had taken all of Kylo’s willpower to keep from getting into that shower with him. He would have felt so good under his hands, all soft skin and long lines. Kylo would have washed him from head to toe, careful to skirt around his wound, enjoying the soapy taste when he kissed him after he was clean. Then he would have led him to bed and wrapped them up to sleep for another few hours. It had been months since he had had someone in his bed—never on the station, and never just to sleep—but the prospect was undeniably attractive.

Out of the question.

Peeling himself away from the door, he went across the room to his own refresher and made quick work of a shower and shave. He looked himself over in the mirror as he drew the razor up his cheek, curious what Hux saw. It seemed it didn’t much matter to him whether or not he found Kylo appealing, but Kylo couldn’t help but wonder if he did. Amused by his own vanity, he wiped the shaving cream away from his face and went to dress.

He hated to admit it, but most of his clothes were reminiscent of what his father had always worn: simple trousers, soft shirts with open collars, even the occasional vest. It was inconspicuous, which Kylo did his utmost to be, even when his height and breadth made him stick out in a crowd. He pulled a blue shirt over his head, his wet hair leaving damp spots at the shoulders, and stepped into a set of black trousers. For Hux he chose white and plain green, making sure to find him a belt to cinch at his waist. Clothes in hand, he left his room to knock on Hux’s door. There wasn’t an immediate reply, but he opened it anyway.

“Hey, uh, I’ve got something for you to wear,” he said, loudly enough to be heard in the refresher. “I’ll just leave it here?”

Hux appeared at the threshold, a towel wrapped around his hips. “Wait. The bandages…”

Kylo stopped, saying, “Right,” as he set the clothes down on the bed. The clean bandage and tape 1H had left were still sitting on the bedside table, so he went to retrieve them there. To Hux: “Why don’t you sit down?”

His steps were silent as he made his way over and sat down on the mattress, looking up at Kylo expectantly. Kylo took the bandages and topical bacta packet and sat beside him, the mattress dipping under his weight. Hux’s shoulder collided with his.

“This’ll be cold,” he said, tearing the packet open and squeezing some of the gel onto his fingers. He couldn’t warm it between his hands, seeing as one of them was cool metal anyway.

Hux lifted his arm out of the way. “It’s all right. Just do it.”

Kylo smeared the bacta over the wound as quickly but gently as possible, until it glistened. The gauzy bandage stuck to it, allowing him to apply the tape along the same sticky lines that had been left like a guide. Hux was silent throughout, his expression blank enough that Kylo could assume he wasn’t hurting him.

“Okay,” Kylo said as he drew back. “That’s it.”

Hux shifted his torso, testing the give and pull of the tape. “Thank you.”

Kylo offered a small smile. “It’ll be healed up in no time. You probably won’t even have a scar.”

“I think I might like to have one,” Hux said, brows drawn. He cast a brief glance at Kylo’s arm, though it was covered by his shirt, save for his hand. “A body should reflect its past, shouldn’t it?”

Kylo hadn’t thought of it in that way before; it was unexpectedly sentimental. As a boy, he had been bitter and furious when he had woken up in the hospital with a full part of him missing. He had thought himself crippled, as it was his dominant hand, but Uncle Luke had sat with him for days in the aftermath, showing him his own prosthetic and telling him how he’d grown used to it until it felt no different from his real limb. Kylo hadn’t believed him, especially in the first awkward months of learning to manipulate his new arm, but it had proved true. The arm was no different than the rest of him now, and as Hux said, it did tell the story of what his body had been through and survived.

“Well,” Kylo said, gaze falling on the empty bacta packet lying on his knee, “we can leave this off tomorrow. It shouldn’t get infected. At least I hope not.”

“The droid will see to it if it does,” said Hux, with a kind of confidence Kylo certainly didn’t feel. “It will have to take the staples out eventually.”

“Far as I know, they just dissolve when the skin knits itself back together.”

Hux pursed his lips. “Ah, well. I suppose it won’t matter if it doesn’t scar.”

Kylo had no reply to that, so he kept quiet. They should likely get going if they wanted to get planetside while the sun was still up, but he didn’t move. His thigh was resting against Hux’s, which was hidden by the towel stretched over it, and he had to suppress the compulsion to set his hand on his knee and squeeze, a small attempt at comfort. Instead, he picked up the clothes and offered them.

“Hopefully these’ll do for you,” he said. “I figure you can wear your boots for now, but if you want something else, we can get it.” Hux’s armor was piled in the corner of the room, abandoned.

“I don’t have any credits,” said Hux. “They were...stolen.”

Kylo marked the lie for what it was, but disregarded it. “It’s fine. I’ve got it.” He ventured a crooked grin. “I make a good living, remember? I have a space station.”

Hux eyed him sidelong, but said, “Very well.” He rose smoothly, painlessly, and made to undo the towel.

Kylo shot to his feet and, clearing his throat, headed for the door. “Come to the kitchen when you’re done,” he said. “I don’t have anything really good, but...are ration bars and caf okay?” He rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. “I, uh, don’t really cook much.”

“Yes,” said Hux, the corners of his mouth turning up with just the slightest amusement. “I’ve never cooked before, either.”

“Yeah,” Kylo laughed. “My mother wasn’t really the cooking kind and neither was my dad, so I just make do with the best packages credits can buy.”

The was being generous to Leia, in actuality. She had never so much as fixed a prepackaged meal for herself. Raised on Alderaan as royalty, she had had the finest chefs on hand, and even as part of the Rebellion, she had eaten in the mess halls. The senator’s life she had led when Ben was a child didn’t lend itself to cooking, either. Ben’s nanny had done the majority of it, seeing as Leia was out most of the day and Han wasn’t always around. Kylo had a few memories of omelets his father had tried to make; they were not fond ones.

Hitching his thumbs in his belt, he said to Hux, “Glad to hear you’re not picky.”

“I’m not.” Hux once again reached for the towel, giving Kylo a pointed look that conveyed, clearly: I’m removing this. If you’re going, do it now. “I’ll be there shortly.”

Kylo nodded, whirled on his heel, and strode out of the door.

If he didn’t mind military-grade rations, Kylo did have an affinity for strong, good quality caf — another hand-me-down from his father. Han Solo drank it strong and sludgy, which Leia found disgusting, but she had always been a tea drinker anyway. Kylo set up the machine in the kitchen to brew while he rooted around in the cupboards for the freshest ration bars. It had been a while since he had picked up anything new, but he did have a couple of chocolate-flavored ones—his favorite—left. He didn’t even hear Hux’s approach, and started when he turned to see him standing by the counter.

“Stars,” he muttered. “You’re as quiet as a mouse droid.”

Hux traced the square edge of the counter with his forefingers, his eyes cast down. “Yes, I do tend to be. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Kylo waved him off. “Don’t worry about it. Here.” He held out a ration bar, which Hux took and looked over.

“‘Chocolate cake,’” he read. “Is that a sweet?”

Kylo raised his brows, absently crinkling the package of his own bar. “I mean, it isn’t as good as actual cake, but it’s sweet enough. Haven’t tried this kind, huh?”

Hux tore open the package and brought the bar to his nose, sniffing dubiously. “We weren’t issued sweet things,” he said.

Kylo noted his choice of words, likely a slip-up he didn’t even think about; only troopers were “issued” anything. “Give it a try,” Kylo said. “If you don’t like it, I have other flavors. But it goes well with the caf. Sweet and bitter, you know.”

Pulling the wrapper down, Hux took a tentative bite of the bar. He chewed it slowly, as if it were something delectable to be relished. “Oh,” he sighed once he had swallowed, the lean muscles in his throat working.

“Good?” Kylo asked.

“Yes,” Hux replied with fervency. “Very good. It’s...remarkable.” Without hesitation, he took another bite, this one considerably larger.

Kylo turned to the caf machine to hide his grin, though he watched out of the corner of his eye as Hux tore through the bar. Retrieving two mugs, he filled them with caf and offered one to Hux. In his other hand, he held out another ration bar.

“Here,” he said. “Have this one, too.” Hux blinked at him, questioning, but curled his fingers around it as Kylo pushed it into his hand. “Go on. I’ve got a bunch.”

Caf in one hand and bar in the other, Hux moved toward the counter to set the bar down. He sipped at the caf, and his eyes brightened. “This is good, too.”

“There’s more where that came from, if you want it,” said Kylo, taking a drink from his own mug, and nearly wincing at the temperature. Hux seemed unfazed as he drank and ate greedily. “So,” Kylo said as he unwrapped a somewhat disappointing garberry ration bar of his own, “where do you come from? Your homeworld.”

It was idle conversation, but Hux paused in chewing, mug held halfway up to his mouth and a flash of apprehension in his face. Kylo was about to tell him not to worry about it, but then he said, quietly, “Arkanis.”

“Outer Rim,” said Kylo, if he remembered his galactic maps well, which he did. “Not too far from here, really. Wouldn’t take more than five hours in hyperspace to get there.” He paused, but asked, “Maybe you want to go back there?”

Hux frowned into his caf. “I barely remember it. I didn’t spend much time on-world.”

“Yeah,” Kylo said. “I wasn’t on my homeworld much, either. I was only six when I left.” He still remembered how he had wept when his mother and father had ushered him down from the Falcon and toward Uncle Luke’s school. They had embraced him and told him to wipe away his tears.

“This is your place, Ben,” Leia had said. “You’re meant to be a Jedi, just like your uncle. It’s a very special honor.”

Kylo had clung to her leg, leaving wet stains on her dress and begging her not to leave. Only Han’s promise to teach him to fly if he was good boy and worked hard at his training had bolstered him. He had wiped his leaking nose with the back of his hand and held in any further sobs. Han had picked him up and swung him around one last time before setting him on his feet to toddle toward where Luke waited. After that, he didn’t see them for two years.

“I was the same age when I was taken away,” said Hux.

“Is that so?” Kylo said, intrigued. He laughed. “We match, then. Maybe it was the same year. You can’t be much younger than me.”

“I doubt that,” Hux scoffed. “You’re not a day over thirty.”

Kylo saluted him with his mug. “A good guess. I’ve got twenty-nine standard years under my belt. Where does that land you?”

“Thirty-four.”

“Huh,” said Kylo not bothering to hide his surprise; Hux had a much younger look about him. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for that.”

Hux shrugged. “What difference does it make? It’s only five years. Where I come from, we don’t put much stock in age. It’s experience and capability that matter.”

“Arkanis?” Kylo asked. “Or elsewhere?” There was really no reason why Hux couldn’t tell him he was First Order. He had no idea about Kylo’s ties to the Resistance—which Kylo had no intention of revealing—or that he had any particular prejudice against stormtroopers. Unless he considered how ruthlessly Kylo had killed four of them; that might put him off.

“Elsewhere,” Hux said, warning in his voice.

“Right,” Kylo mumbled as he took another sip of his caf. He didn’t want to press, but he couldn’t resist adding, darkly, “Does that make you experienced and capable, then?”

Hux’s eyes narrowed, and he looked Kylo up and down, appraising in a way that made Kylo think that maybe, maybe, he did find him appealing. He tried not to be overly pleased.

“I’m excellent at what I do,” Hux said, lowly.

Kylo sucked his teeth, making a show of his tongue as it touched his lower lip. He was satisfied to see that Hux’s gaze was drawn there. “What is that, exactly?”

Hux hesitated for a moment, but as he set down his mug, he replied, “I’m a marksman. The organization that...employed me was, as you suggested last night, paramilitary.”

The First Order was hardly para military, Kylo thought, but he it let it go. At least Hux wasn’t trying to pass off the combat dress he had worn as something other than it was. Kylo would have had to have been an idiot to buy any other cover story, and he appreciated that Hux didn’t imagine him a fool.

However, he played into the lie, saying, “So you are a merc.”

Hux repeated what he had said before, dodging a forthright answer: “Of a sort. But I believe I am now a freelancer.”

Kylo wasn’t sure if it was a step too far, but he took a chance: “So, you can’t go back to your previous employers? Or you don’t want to?”

“No,” Hux said, curt. “I am...not welcome there anymore.”

“Oh,” said Kylo. He scanned over Hux’s brief, watery memories of his own men turning on him. There were uncounted things that he might have done to deserve an execution, and while Kylo itched to know which of them it was, he couldn’t ask. “You’ve got nowhere to go.”

“No,” Hux said again. “But I couldn’t go anywhere even if I did. My debt requires me to offer my service to you. If you will not be paid in other ways.”

Kylo drained the rest of his caf, setting the mug down with the scrape of ceramic on metal. They had come to this, then. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any better ideas than he had had before breakfast. “I don’t really need a marksman,” he said. “I’m a trader.”

Hux let his hands hang by his sides, rubbing the thumbs along his forefingers. “I have other uses. I’m able, and I can work.” He lowered his gaze, fisting his hands. “Or I can be sold.”

No,” Kylo said sharply. “I’m not a slaver. I would never…no.” He sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. “Can you pilot?”

Hux shook his head.

No one to fill the co-pilot’s seat, then.

“You like tech.” He opened his prosthetic hand, gesturing toward him. “Can you fix it?”

“Firearms only,” said Hux. “But I’m very good with those.”

Kylo could maintain his own blasters, so that wasn’t really of much help. “What languages do you speak?”

“Only Basic. I can read some High Galactic.”

“Really?” Kylo asked. High Galactic was basically dead, and only a written language. Even his polyglot mother hadn’t learned it. “How’d you come by that?”

Hux looked everywhere but Kylo’s face. “I had some education on Arkanis. A long time ago.”

Kylo again called up everything the Resistance had learned about the First Order stormtrooper program: as far as they knew, children were taken from common homes—farmers’ or laborers’—none of whom would have had any reason to know or teach High Galactic. If Hux had, it implied he had come from somewhere else altogether. And he spoke with an old-world Imperial accent, no traces of Inner Rim coarseness or Core lilt. Kylo eyed him like a puzzle box, wanting to manipulate his cogs and panels until he could unlock what he was hiding.

Tamping down his interest, he said, “No Bocce, huh? That’s what you really need to get by in this business.”

“No,” Hux said, his cheeks pinkening. He was embarrassed, Kylo knew, but the color looked good on him. “I could learn, if you would teach me.”

“I could tell you some phrases, sure,” said Kylo, “but it’ll take time to really pick it up. And I don’t think you’ll be with me long enough for that.”

Hux looked up sharply. “I’ll stay as long as it takes. I must.”

Kylo took a step toward him, tempted to reach out and calm him with a touch. “I know. I’m just not used to having someone around.” He cocked a brow. “And you aren’t really cut out for this kind of work.”

“Then hire me out, if you must,” said Hux, approaching him in kind. “I’ll give you my wages if I’m to be paid.” His eyes flashed. “Sell my skills, or my body, or both.”

Kylo snapped his hands out, landing them hard on Hux’s shoulders. “Enough. I’m not going to sell you to anyone. You’ll work for me. I’ll find something for you to do, even if it’s lifting boxes.” He had droids for that, but if it was the only thing he could think of to keep Hux occupied, it would suffice. He didn’t want to think about what it was going to mean for his jobs for his mother, but he would contend with that when he had to. “You’ll pay your debt, okay?”

Hux glanced at each of Kylo’s hands, one flesh, one silver, and then nodded. “All right.”

Kylo exhaled, releasing him. “Good. Are you finished eating? We should get planetside.” By his reckoning, the sun would be setting in his favorite port town of Hydria, but it was still morning on the central continent, and there was a decent market in Olmek.

“Let’s go,” said Hux.

They left their mugs and the wrappers of their ration bars in the kitchen to be dealt with later, and Kylo led Hux to the lift that would take them to the Falcon. Han would want it back soon, leaving Kylo with his own smaller, newer, and sleeker freighter. Of course, he preferred the old bird, but Han wouldn’t give it up until he was in the grave. “You’re lucky I even let you borrow her, kid,” his father unfailingly told him every time he left the Falcon in Kylo’s care.

She was waiting in the hangar for them, her loading door already open and beckoning. When they reached the cockpit, Kylo swung into the pilot’s chair, but Hux hung back. Peeking over his shoulder, Kylo tapped the chair beside him. “Sit down. I’ll show you a couple of things.”

Hux sank into it, his attention immediately on the console. “It’s complicated,” he said.

“Not really,” Kylo laughed, “once you get used to it.” He ran through his pre-flight checks by rote, but then tapped the ignition button. To Hux, he said, “You push this now.”

Hux laid his finger just beside Kylo’s, pausing to take a breath, and then pressed the button. The Falcon roared to life, and Hux smiled. Kylo returned it as he keyed in the code to open the hangar doors and guided the freighter out into the starscape toward Ryden 2.

“Let me show you what this girl can do,” he said. “Better hold on.” Hux gripped the arms of the chair. “You ready?”

“I am.” And they were off.

Chapter Text

Hux

Kylo proved to be an adept pilot, bringing his ship smoothly through atmo and down over a small city whose squat buildings cast shadows in the slanted mid-morning sunlight. The Ryden system had only one sun, but it was massive and burned hot, far from the weak one Arkanis orbited, casting its gray light onto an already gray-green planet. It would be far warmer outside than Hux was used to, and brighter. He had been told that his skin would burn easily in harsh climates, but he had always been in full armor when he deployed outside of the star destroyers on which he had spent most of his life. He was bareheaded now, and wearing only a lightweight shirt and trousers that barely held onto his hips, despite the belt. The sun reflected off the ship’s viewport in a glinting flash, making him blink.

“Here we are,” Kylo said as he set the freighter down on a public landing pad just the other side of a stretch of scrubby grassland. The city lay opposite, sprawling for maybe twenty kilometers, but no more.

“What is this place?” Hux asked.

Kylo powered down the ship’s engines, which whined as they spooled out. “Olmek,” he said. “Capital city of Binnik Province. Not a fancy place, but it’s quiet and we’ll find what we need here.” He swung out of his seat and up, starting out of the cockpit, and leaving Hux to follow.

They stopped in the central living space for Kylo to retrieve a sidearm from a narrow cabinet, which he slid  into the holster along his thigh. Hux caught a glimpse of a few more blasters in the cabinet, but he didn’t ask for one. Kylo’s acceptance of his mercenary story was fortunate; however, Hux wasn’t about to push his luck when it came to his trust. He could just as easily kill Kylo and steal his ship—although he had admitted that he couldn’t pilot. He simply let his hands hang at his sides, waiting for Kylo to be finished.

“All right,” Kylo said, flashing Hux a toothy grin. “Let’s get going.”

A blast of dry, sweltering air swept over them as the loading door of the freighter was lowered. The heat wavered over the pavement of the landing pad in clear swells that dissipated several meters above the ground, and the reddish hardpan of the nearby street blazed in the overbright sunshine. Hux could already feel the prickling of sweat at the small of his back, his temper souring. He decided he was not fond of heat this intense.

Kylo strode down the ramp as if unaffected, and Hux stayed at his side, their long steps almost matched. “Just have to check in,” he said. “But then the market’s about ten blocks away. You don’t mind walking?”

“No,” said Hux, though he expected to be hotter still, and displeased, by the time they reached their destination.

They went down the nearby stairs to a booth manned by a rotund service droid, which took Kylo’s credits for the lease of the pad for six hours. Hux couldn’t imagine that it would take them that long to buy a few sets of clothes, but he didn’t question it, instead going along with Kylo as he jogged across the street to a sidewalk lined with white bricks. A few sentient creatures were making their way along it, and a vendor pushing a covered cart from which some kind of skinned rodents hung called out to them in a language Hux didn’t understand. If Kylo did, he ignored him.

As they went away from the docks, the sidewalks began to fill up, passersby walking with their heads down, focused on their own destinations. Most of them were dressed in muted colors that seemed as sunbleached as the planet’s surface, but there were some in finer threads, going by in shaded litters borne by humans in wide-brimmed hats. There was a child in one who pointed at Hux as she and a woman who was presumably her mother passed by, chattering away in the same language the vendor had used.

Beside him, Kylo chuckled. “She was saying how unusual you are. There aren’t many red-haired people here.”

A glance around proved that true: all of the humans in sight had black hair worn long and braided intricately. Hux and Kylo seemed the only two with theirs trimmed above their shoulders. Hux frowned; he didn’t want to stand out.

“What language are they speaking?” he asked.

“Etash,” said Kylo. “It’s the dialect of this part of the continent. I can only make out about half the words I hear, but I know enough to get by if someone doesn’t speak Bocce or Basic.”

Hux listened to the chirped sounds of conversations around him. “I suppose that’s fairly common here, then?”

Kylo slipped past a masked Gand male walking determinedly in the opposite direction, but when he came back next to Hux, he replied, “Laborers and factory workers usually stick to Etash, but anyone who travels, trades, or has money learns Basic. Olmek here isn’t far from the sulfur mines, so there are a lot of Etash speakers around, but you’ll be fine in the market. You ever haggled before?”

“Have I what?” Hux said, wholly unfamiliar with that word.

Kylo raised his brows. “Haggled. Negotiated a price on something?”

Hux had never had credits or the need to buy anything before; the First Order provided everything for its troopers. “I haven’t.”

“Well,” Kylo said, “you’ll get your chance today. Don’t ever pay full price for anything. Talking someone down from the first offer is expected around here.”

Hux shot him a sidelong glance, disbelieving. Surely he wasn’t serious; such a process wasn’t at all efficient. “Why wouldn’t a merchant just set the price he wanted to get for an item and save himself and his customers some time?”

Kylo shrugged. “It’s tradition.”

“Unnecessary,” Hux grumbled, making Kylo laugh.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll teach you how to do it, and you’ll be arguing with the best of them in no time.”

They made their way onto one of the main thoroughfares, at least as far as Hux could judge by the speeders that were zipping along the four lanes between the sidewalks. Most of the buildings were windowless and no higher than five storeys; hardly like the towering complexes in Utel City. Perhaps there were metropolises like it on Ryden 2, but this was not one of them. Still, Hux paid sharp attention to his surroundings, taking stock of hidden places from which they could be attacked and eyeing the beings with whom they shared the sidewalk.

He was conscious of being exposed, and of the gazes that were falling on him and Kylo. They stood head and shoulders above most of the humans, though not all of the other creatures. He knew he would have been just as conspicuous in his armor, but he craved the familiarity of the helmet and plating.

“So, I figure we’ll go to the textiles quarter first,” Kylo said, drawing Hux’s attention back to him. “Get you something to wear. Then maybe we could catch a Cabourian dust match. Don’t think you’ve seen one of those.”

Hux, of course, had not. “And what is that?”

Kylo waggled his eyebrows. “That would spoil the surprise.”

“I don’t like surprises,” said Hux.

“You’re going to have to get used to them if you’re going to be working with me. I hate the same thing all the time.” Kylo gestured with his silver hand, turning the corner onto a side street. “Come on. This way.”

Hux heard the noise of the market before he saw it: a mix of raised, excited voices, the murmurs of different languages, and strange, whining music interspersed with irregular drumbeats. He could smell it, too. The scents were foreign, but enticing: perhaps perfumes, perhaps cooking foods. His mouth watered despite his full stomach.

Chocolate cake. The ration bars he had eaten for breakfast had been unlike anything he had tasted before. Foods for the troopers were bland to the point that Hux barely even registered the scant flavor anymore; he ate to fuel his body and nothing more. But the sweetness of the bar Kylo had given him had exploded across his tongue, delicious and rich. When he had been offered a second one, he had taken it greedily, expecting that he would never have such a thing again. And the caf had been black and thick, stronger than anything he had been served aboard the Finalizer.

He hadn’t missed Kylo watching him eat and drink with interest, and maybe a bit of amusement, but he hadn’t stopped or slowed down. Kylo had chewed his own ration bar slowly, sipping caf from the white ceramic mug, the same as Hux held. He had asked Hux about his skills, the things he could do to pay his debt. To Hux’s dismay, he had nothing to offer, and Kylo had made it abundantly clear again that morning that he had no desire for his body.

The best alternative was to hire him out. Even if he hadn’t done such work before, he was certain he could make a good mercenary. But Kylo had told him he wouldn’t do that, no more than he would sell Hux on the open market. Had Hux been in his place, he would have chosen either of those, the quickest and simplest ways to be done with the matter. Kylo, it seemed, would not do that, instead taking Hux to a market to buy him clothes and telling him he would find a job for him in his own business, whatever that entailed. Hux would have to be an idiot to believe that transport and trade were lucrative enough to support a private space station, but he would play along until he discovered what kind of work Kylo actually did.

That wasn’t all Kylo was hiding, either, of which his nightmares were evidence enough. Hux hadn’t known what to do when Kylo’s cries had woken him. He had come alert immediately, expecting violence, but there was no one else on the station save the two of them, and he recognized Kylo’s deep voice despite the despairing noises he was making.

Hux had crept out of bed and into the living space, hugging the wall and ready to strike if he was set upon. He found Kylo sprawled on the sofa, his left arm slung over his eyes as he thrashed and groaned. Hux had paused just a moment to watch him, uncertain if he could approach or say something to wake him, but then he had said it: Snoke . Hux had taken a step back as if the name could summon the creature to them.

The true name of the Supreme Leader of the First Order was not even known to all the troopers in the ranks. Hux had learned it as a boy; it was something his father had said that still lingered at the back of his mind. Snoke, the being who had taken a sect of Imperial loyalists on the fringes of the Outer Rim and made them into the strongest military power in the galaxy, was not someone anyone outside of the Order knew existed. And yet Kylo had spoken his name aloud, as if addressing him directly.

In part, Hux hoped that Kylo was First Order, but he was equal parts afraid that he was. If he was an informant, he could turn Hux in as a deserter; but a mere affiliate of the Order wouldn’t know the name of its leader. Whatever he was, Hux had even less reason to trust him now, and he absolutely could not reveal his own loyalties. Former loyalties.

He clenched his teeth as he walked beside Kylo. This civilian life was what he had to accept now, distasteful as it was. He hadn’t wished for it; he had expected to spend his life in the Order, until he was killed or grew too old to fight. Now he was whatever Kylo told him to be.

The markets were a panorama of vibrant colors, from the reddish dirt of the narrow lanes through the stalls to the deep blues and greens of awnings above them. Red, white, and gold pennants fluttered from the peaks of tents, and no two wares for sale were the same. It was chaotic and boisterous: the very opposite of the clean, sterile lines of a First Order star destroyer. Hux was stunned.

“Hey.”

He found Kylo a few paces away from where he had stopped at the entrance to the market; he hadn’t realized that he had stuck to the spot.

An easy, indulgent smile spread across Kylo’s face as he hitched the thumb of his silver right hand into his pocket. “You won’t see it all if you stay there.”

Shaking off the awe, Hux went quickly to join him again, and Kylo led them into the din. The people in the lane swallowed them up immediately, pressing them shoulder-to-shoulder. Uneasiness rose in Hux as they cut through the thick crowd. He was used to sharing spaces—there was no privacy in the troopers’ barracks, and there were several thousand souls aboard a star destroyer—but so many bodies so close meant that a hidden blade could sink home before it was seen, or that pockets could be picked. And Hux didn’t care to be touched if his permission had not been given.

“Is it far to where we’re going?” he asked, loudly enough to be heard over the other voices around him.

“Just around the corner,” Kylo replied. Taking Hux by the elbow—Hux almost recoiled—he guided him past a Bith and her human companion into a smaller lane where there were fewer people. Hux took in a lungful of the free air.

The opening of the yellow-striped tent beside them yawned wide, and several pieces of clothing hung from a knotted rope between the supports that held the tent up. The fabric fluttered in the feeble breeze around a sign that read: Tyrish’s Emporium.

“Here we go,” said Kylo, moving Hux toward the opening. Hux allowed it, crossing from the sunshine outside to the dim interior of the tent.

It smelled overmuch of incense inside, but the soaring peak above him made the space seen cavernous. Round, clear lamps stood around the nooks, illuminating the tent enough to make browsing the racks of garments possible; and there were many racks. Hux couldn’t discern if they were organized in any particular way.

“Welcome, welcome,” said a narrow-framed Gungan from near the back of the tent, spreading his arms wide. His fingers were adorned with gemstone-studded rings, and he was dressed in a deep red tunic embroidered with golden thread. His haillus, the dangling ears, were pierced along their entire lengths, small gold cuff earrings wrapping around the outer cartilage. “Come inside, friend, and let us dress you.”

Hux stayed where he was, uncertain, but as Kylo came in behind him, he greeted the Gungan: “Tyrish. Good to see you.”

“Ah!” the gungan exclaimed. “If it isn’t Barthok-An.” He looked Kylo over from boots to nose, scratching the end of his bill. “You’ve come for something new, I hope. I sold that shirt to you nigh on a year ago.”

“I love this one,” Kylo said, plucking at the soft material by his stomach. “And you know I’m a man of simple tastes.” He tipped his head toward Hux. “We’re here for him.”

Tyrish approached in measured steps, appraising Hux as he did. There were bells somewhere on his costume that tinkled with each step.  “What are you called?”

Hux replied with his name, cautiously.

“Hm, yes, Master Hux,” said Tyrish. “These are not your clothes. They fit you very poorly.” He clicked his tongue at Kylo. “You should not have let him outside looking like this, Barthok-An.”

Kylo shrugged, giving him a helpless look. “Didn’t have much choice, but I brought him here first thing. I know you can find him something much better.”

Tyrish sniffed haughtily: “Of course I can.” He reached for Hux, but seeing him tense, pulled his hand back and gestured back behind him. “If you’ll follow me, Master Hux.”

They went to the rear of the tent, where there stood a raised, hexagonal platform atop a soft orange carpet. A tri-paneled mirror reflected it back on itself.

“Step up here,” said Tyrish. “We’ll have to have you measured first.” Disdainfully, he glanced at Hux’s shirt. “Off with this. The trousers can stay for now.”

Hux tugged the shirt from his belt, pulling it over his head; Tyrish took it from his hands and discarded it on a nearby chair. From a hidden pocket, the gungan produced a length of fabric marked with what Hux assumed to be Gunganese characters.

“Arms out,” Tyrish instructed. “Stand tall. Very good.” He started with Hux’s waist, taking measurements while he muttered quietly to himself, before moving on to his chest and then the breadth of his shoulders. He measured the length of Hux’s legs and arms, the width of his neck. When he was finished, he bid Hux step down and sit in the chair on which the shirt he had taken off lay.

“Stay right there,” the gungan said. “I’ll select some things for you.”

Hux did as he was told, folding his hands in his lap and trying not to look at himself in the mirrors; he was sure he wouldn’t recognize himself. Kylo, who had been lingering by a nearby rack of clothing, came closer.

“Tyrish is the best in the market,” he said. “He’s a little extravagant when it comes to doing fittings, but if you let him work, you’ll have an exceptional wardrobe in no time.”

The notion of having a wardrobe at all was still difficult for Hux to grasp. He was used to having uniforms for sleep and exercise, training and battle, but nothing more. The array of garments in the tent was overwhelming.

“What did he call you?” Hux asked, turning his eyes up Kylo. “Barthok-An?”

“Oh,” said Kylo, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s a nickname. It means, ah, ‘black water.’ Loosely translated.”

Hux cocked a brow. “Why that?”

Kylo shifted his weight between his feet, pressing his lips together. “Well, it comes from how we met. See, I didn’t just happen to wander in here one day; I did a job for one of Tyrish’s suppliers. But it didn’t go very well. I was also hauling a shipment of deep-water nargels from Eria, and there may or may not have been a leak in the tank that got into a store of dye from the shipment. Half of the fabrics were damp and black by the time we got here to drop them off. Tyrish cursed me out for the black water, and it just stuck.”

“You ruined his goods and he gave you a nickname for it?” Hux said, doubting. “Surely he would never have let you work for him again.”

“Actually, I’m the fastest and most reliable transporter this side of the Outer Rim,” said Kylo, with no small measure of pride. “And black just happened to be in high demand that season. Tyrish made a killing.” He grinned. “I make sure not to haul nargels with the cloth anymore, but he won’t hire anyone else.”

Hux managed not to shake his head, but just barely. A trooper who had slipped up that seriously—or even an officer—would have been flogged for it.

“Are you always that lucky in your mistakes?” he said.

Kylo crossed his arms, eyeing him. “I don’t make many. You don’t do well in this business if you can’t see a shipment safely to the buyer.”

“Indeed,” Hux murmured.

Kylo opened his mouth to say more, but Tyrish reappeared before he could speak. The gungan carried a stack of clothing over his arm: trousers, shirts, tunics, and, if Hux wasn’t mistaken, some kind of robe.

“Here now,” Tyrish said, hanging the garments along a bar beside Hux’s chair. “We’ll start with these.”

Hux swallowed, eyes widening. There was already so much; he didn’t know where to begin. Fortunately, Tyrish ushered him into a curtained stall and pushed a set of trousers and a few shirts into his hands, telling him to try them on first and pulling the curtain closed behind him. Hux removed his heavy boots, setting them aside, before unbuckling the belt Kylo had given him and sliding the green trousers down over his hips; he didn’t even have to unfasten them, they were so loose. Unlike those, the trousers Tyrish had given him fit properly, as did the shirt he tugged on.

“Come out, then,” the clothier said from outside. “Let’s see you.”

Hux pushed the curtain aside and stepped out to where Kylo and Tyrish were waiting for him.

Tyrish offered his odd, billed smile once again. “Excellent, excellent. It suits you. Have a look.” He pointed to the mirror, and Hux reluctantly turned to see himself.

The shirt was finer than the one Kylo had lent him—a pale tan color with embroidery at the collar—and the trousers were brown. His hair stood out against the simple colors, burning bright. The expression he wore was still stern, but there was less severity about him in these clothes than the gray, white, or black the troopers wore. He could pass for a civilian after all.

“What do you think, then, Barthok-An?” Tyrish asked of Kylo. “Is he not handsome?”

Kylo smiled one-sidedly, meeting Hux’s eyes in the mirror. “He is that.”

Hux regarded him in kind, strangely pleased at the praise. Though Kylo had refused him that morning and the night before, there was genuine admiration in his gaze. And he had kissed Hux with unmistakable ardor before he had put a stop to it. Maybe he wasn’t as indifferent as he seemed.

“Well, on to the next thing,” said Tyrish, ushering Hux back toward the stall. “We have a great deal more to see.”

Hux spent the next hour, or perhaps two, dressing and undressing, showing each ensemble to Kylo and Tyrish. The gungan approved of most things, but some he dismissed and told Hux to set aside. Hux hadn’t the first idea about which combinations were acceptable, but he paid attention to those that were approved so that he could put them together again when he had to do so alone. By the time they reached the last of the garments, he was thirsty and tired of looking at his own reflection.

“Well,” Tyrish said when Hux came out of the stall wearing a pair of beige trousers with a burgundy stripe along the sides and a cream-colored shirt under an emerald-green tunic belted at the waist, “I believe that’s what you’ll be wearing today. The rest I’ll have packed up”—he glanced at Kylo—“and sent to your ship?”

“All of it?” Hux asked. The bar by the stall was nearly groaning with the weight of the clothing hanging from it.

“Sure,” Kylo replied. “Send it to Pad 15 at 1300. We’ll be back by then.”

Tyrish inclined his head, hand over his heart. “On your account, Barthok-An?”

“Not so fast, you old swindler,” Kylo said, raising a silver finger. “How much?”

Tyrish’s tongue darted out to wet the tip of his bill, but then he said, “Twenty-two hundred.”

Kylo barked a laugh. “Have you been at the barris root again? No more than fifteen hundred.”

“You insult me, Barthok-An,” said Tyrish, though he didn’t sound particularly affronted. “My craftsmanship is certainly worth two thousand.”

“Sixteen,” Kylo said with a shake of his head. “No more.”

Tyrish frowned as much as a gungan could, saying, “Eighteen.”

Kylo heaved a put-upon sigh—surely affected—and said, “Seventeen, or nothing.”

“Seventeen.” Tyrish extended his glittering hand for Kylo to shake, and that, apparently, concluded the deal.

Kylo nodded at him as he released his grip. “You would have charged anyone else twice that.”

“Three times,” said Tyrish. “Easily.” He turned to Hux and gave a shallow bow. “Master Hux, be wary of this one; he’s charming, but he’s got a bite if you’re not careful.”

“You’re damn right,” Kylo drawled. “But the teeth are only for cheating gungans and buyers who think they’re getting my shipments at half price. Especially if they’re one and the same.”

“Bah,” Tyrish groused. “That was one time.”

Kylo tipped his head to the side, conceding, but came back around to face Hux. “Come on. Let’s go get something to drink. And the dust matches should be starting soon.”

“Don’t bet on the reds,” said Tyrish. “They lost me half a day’s profits last week.”

“I’ll take that into consideration,” Kylo chuckled, setting his hand at the small of Hux’s back to usher him out. “See you next shipment.”

Hux squinted as they stepped back into the sunshine, though there were a few gray clouds in the sky now. The dark-colored tunic should have been too warm, but he found it was light enough not to overheat. He didn’t know what had become of the clothes he had worn before, but he assumed they would be sent back to the ship with his new wardrobe. Unless Tyrish had decided they were too old and tossed them sneakily away. It seemed like something he would do.

“The arena is at the center of the market,” Kylo said, pulling Hux along with him as he slipped into the flow of people making their way along the lane. “We should be able to get a decent place if we get there soon.” He still had not said anything about what these dust matches actually were, but Hux had no other choice than to go with him.

They wove through so many vendors and stalls that Hux couldn’t have found his way out if he had tried—and he had an exceptional memory for places. It was fascinating to see the textiles transition to electronic components, weapons, and droids, as if anything imaginable could be found in this place. For all the cities Hux had been in on his missions for the Order, he hadn’t experienced this mix of peoples and goods. He was grateful that Kylo could navigate it well, as he would have been at a loss for where to start or where to stop.

He hadn’t known what to expect when they arrived at the arena, but it turned out to be a twenty-meter pit lined with stone and surrounded by an energy-charged crowd. There were booths at both ends of the pit, the Zygerrians behind the counters handing out some kind of flimsi vouchers. The air smelled of dung and sawdust, but there was an overlaying scent of roasting meat that made Hux’s stomach growl.

“This way,” said Kylo, making for the nearest of the two booths.

There was a digital display hanging at the back of it, advertising several teams, all denoted by color: yellow, blue, green, the reds Tyrish had warned them of, and a series of numbers beside each.

“Those are the odds to win,” Kylo explained, pointing. “Looks like the golds are the favorites, but blue doesn’t look bad, either. Where do you want to put our credits?”

Hux had a rudimentary knowledge of gambling from taking bets on who would win in the training rooms on the Finalizer. His odds were always particularly good, and very few troopers bet against him when he was up for shooting. His hand-to-hand record wasn’t as impressive, but he had come out on top a few times and earned himself someone to clean his gear or five minutes alone in the refresher before the rest of his bunkmates came in. He had, however, never bet with actual credits.

“Green,” he said: a guess, really.

“Blue’s got better odds,” said Kylo. “But you can take green if you want.”

They pushed their way up to the front of the line, getting to the counter where the Zygerrian was waiting.

“Place your bets quick,” she said in a whiny, nasal voice. “They’re starting in eight minutes.” She snapped up the credit chit Kylo passed to her. “How much?”

“Twenty on blue,” he said, “and thirty on green.”

The Zygerrian tapped the chit against the reader, which flashed green, before handing it back to Kylo along with five vouchers. He grabbed them and pushed the three green ones into Hux’s hands.

“Hold onto those. You’ll need them if you win.”

Hux tucked them into the pocket of his trousers, keeping his hand there, too, just to hold them in. He followed close behind Kylo as he cut through the rest of the last-minute betters to find an open spot by the end of the pit. They weren’t right next to the edge, but they were close enough to see down into it. It was filled with dark brown wood shavings, and there were barred cages all along the interior walls.

“Is this an animal fight?” Hux said, not exactly alarmed, but taken aback. He had heard of the brutality of some fighting rings, and while blood was nothing new to him, watching animals tear each other apart for sport wasn’t appealing.

“No, not at all,” Kylo replied quickly. “It’s a ball game. The Cabourians aren’t sentient, but they’re trained to seek the ball and knock each other around to get it. It’s just rough-housing for them, not fighting.”

Hux looked hard at the cages, trying to see any creatures inside them, but they were too shadowed. “How many play at once?”

“Two three-man teams,” said Kylo. He pointed to the display mounted just behind the far side of the pit. “It’s red versus gold to start. They’re only ten-minute matches, so it won’t be long before blue and green are up.”

“It’s blue versus yellow second,” Hux said, reading the board. “Is it knock-out? If one team loses, they’re out of the running and the winning team advances?”

Kylo smiled, nodding. “That’s right. You catch on quick.”

Hux didn’t reply, but rubbed the folded vouchers in his pocket between his thumb and forefinger. It didn’t matter which team won; they weren’t his credits he was wasting. Still, he hated to lose at anything.

“Good morning, one and all!” cried an announcer from her place beneath the scoreboard. “Welcome to the Dust Pit. We’ve got six teams for you today, so I hope you’ve already placed your bets. It’s going to be a good one.” She pointed a long-nailed hand at the pit. “Gates away!”

Three of the cages sprung open and six four-legged reptiles with short, docked tails charged hissing out into the wood shavings. A ball the size of a small melon was dropped into the center of the pit, and immediately the Cabourians were on it, shoving each other out of the way to pick it up in their mouths. Their backs were painted with a stripe of color to denote their teams.

The crowd erupted into cheers as the match began, people urging their favorites on, waving their vouchers. Kylo still held his in his left hand, but he didn’t lift them up or howl with the others. Hux, too, stood quietly, watching with curiosity.

The Cabourians played hard, and, amazingly, were trained well enough to toss the ball between them. The gold team was outperforming the reds, as Tyrish had warned, scoring several points in quick succession. Half the crowd groaned as they passed the goal line once again, with a few curses interspersed. Near where Hux stood was a Togruta who clearly had a stake in this match, its fists balled as it called out encouragements.

When the buzzer sounded for the end of the match, the handlers jumped into the pit to herd the animals back into their cages. The gold team had won, and already betters were making their way to the booths for their payouts.

“Can someone make a living off of this?” Hux asked over the sound of shuffling feet and complaints at the loss of the reds.

“Gambling, or raising Cabourians?” Kylo said in reply.

“Both, I suppose.”

Kylo tucked his hands into his trouser pockets, rocking back on his heels. “Well, it’s not a rich life, but having a farm can support you. There are probably more who earn their keep from their bets. If you get lucky enough, you can set yourself up for a Ryden standard year.”

Hux watched the screen by the booth light up both red and green as credits were exchanged. “The bets we placed were fairly small.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Kylo. “It’s basically nothing, but if we win, we might be able to buy ourselves a nice lunch after this. Speaking of...” He cast a brief glance around them, alighting on a vendor carrying a tray of bottles chilled in steaming dry ice. He waved the woman down, and she started over. “You like lata juice?” he asked.

Hux had never tried it before and said as much.

Kylo perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised by his vast ignorance of common foods, but his brows still went up. “It’s good,” he said. “Cold.”

The vendor took two bottles of thick, orange-colored liquid from her tray and handed them to Hux while Kylo paid. As he had said, the bottles were cold, a welcome respite from the heat of the day. When the vendor had gone away, Hux gave Kylo one of the bottles, watching how he tore the seal open before setting in on his own. Hux eyed it dubiously, but took a tentative sip. It wasn’t as sweet as the ration bars, and there was an acidic tartness to it, but he couldn’t deny that it was delicious as he swallowed it down.

“What do you think?” Kylo asked, the corners of his mouth turning up.

“It’s good,” Hux replied. “Remarkable.”

Kylo’s smile widened to show his slightly crooked front teeth. “What kind of gruel did the mercs give you before if this is ‘remarkable?’”

“Rations,” he said. “The cheapest we could find.” It was close to the truth, anyway.

“We’ll get something proper in you before we leave today, then,” Kylo said. “Oh, here we go; the next match is starting. Blue versus yellow. Let’s see how my boys do.”

They did well, as it turned out, soundly defeat the yellow team, which put Kylo in the running to win. Hux’s green team was in for the next match against black, and he turned his attention sharply to it.

He drank his juice slowly over the next few matches, savoring it. Kylo had long ago finished his and set the bottle down by his feet, but Hux didn’t mind his getting warm. The final match was about to start as he finished it: blue versus green, just as they had hoped.

“You’re going to lose,” Kylo teased, bumping Hux’s shoulder with his.

Hux shrugged. “They’re your credits.”

Kylo grumbled something at that, and Hux had to stifle his laugh.

The noise of the spectators was even louder now as the teams were released from their cages. Green made their move first, scoring before blue. But the blue team came back strong with three goals. Kylo ventured a cheer, and Hux, caught up in the fervor, cried one of his own. It seemed to bolster the green team, and they scored two, three, four times.

The clock was counting down quickly, the ten minutes almost spent, when blue made another goal, bringing them to a tie. With less than one minute remaining, Hux watched fixedly, tense. Just as the buzzer sounded, a green-backed cabourian crossed the goal line to the sounds of a raucous roar from the crowd.

“Well, kriff,” Kylo said. “Looks like you put the credits on the right team. But I guess I can’t complain. I probably just won back the twenty I bet on blue.” He grabbed the bottles they had set down and made for the Zygerrian’s booth.

Hux turned in his vouchers for a total of eighty credits, which Kylo put back on his chit.

“What do you think about something to eat?” Kylo said as they followed the flow of people away from the arena. “There’s a cantina not far from here that serves the best beer and rotisserie Bantha in the city.”

“I’d like that,” said Hux, his hunger making itself apparent with a rumble.

Kylo laughed. “You’re easy to please. I can appreciate that.”

Hux had been in one cantina in his life, to do reconnaissance on a target. He had kept to the dark corners there, watching instead of joining the others at the bar or a table. His focus was on the Resistance operative he had been sent to assassinate, but out of the corner of his eye, he had caught sight of a man in burgundy by the stage where the band was playing a quirky tune heavy on the pipes.

He was broadly built and blond-haired, with a laidback grin that hit Hux straight in the gut. Hux had been no more than sixteen then and had been startled by his interest in the stranger. Neither men nor women in the trooper ranks had had any real appeal before, but this man Hux found mesmerizing. He had wanted to speak to him, though he wouldn’t have known what to say, but the mission came first.

Hux had followed his target toward the door, giving the stranger a last glance. Just as he was passing by, the man had looked up and met his gaze. His eyes were an astonishing blue, and reflected exactly what Hux couldn’t have: someone outside of the Order. Troopers did not have shore leave like the officers did; their only choices of partners were among their own ranks, and Hux didn’t fraternize. That man had been the first and, Hux had believed, the last person he would let himself desire.

Kylo was whistling tunelessly as they walked along the road at the edge of the Olmek markets, his stride swinging and loose. He his body wasn’t so different from the man in burgundy’s, though he was taller, if Hux’s memory served. And his coloring was the very opposite, but he drew the eye as the other man once had.

He had tended Hux’s wound gently that morning, his hands, both metal and flesh, seeing to him with careful touches. Hux had watched his dark head as he bent to remove the bandage and listened to him ask if it hurt, if he was removing it too fast. The First Order’s medics were brusque at best, sadistic at worst. The times Hux had had to visit them for vaccinations and physical inspections, they had looked at and treated him like an animal at auction: to be checked over quickly, stuck with needles, and then shoved off to make room for the next one. Kylo handled him more delicately than was necessary, but Hux had done nothing to hurry him up.

When he had gone to turn on the shower, Hux had watched him walk, admiring him as he had the man in burgundy. But Kylo he could speak to, could reach out for. And debt aside, he found that he wouldn’t object to going to his bed. He had removed his borrowed trousers and kicked them away, leaving him bare for Kylo to see when he turned back around. There was anxiety, of course, at revealing himself completely, but there was excitement, too. He wanted Kylo to look at him and see something he craved.

“Do you want to join me?” he had asked, coming to stand in front of Kylo, taking hold of his thin shirt and lifting it just slightly to feel the skin beneath. He had hoped Kylo would lay hands on him then, let Hux undress him and bring him under the water. He wanted to wash his body just to feel its unfamiliar contours.

But Kylo had taken him firmly by the shoulders and pushed him away. Hux, discouraged, had made a last, weak attempt to convince him that it would be simpler if Kylo just took what was on offer, but in the end it had made no difference. He had been guided into the shower and abandoned. Like the man in burgundy, Kylo was not to be had.

They stopped on the street outside an alcove into which a heavy door was set. There was no sign or name to mark it as a cantina, but as Kylo pulled open the door, Hux could hear the music and smell the thick cigarra smoke.

“After you,” Kylo said.

Inside it was hazy and dark, the few windows near the doorway covered with sackcloth curtains. The bar was semi-circular, filling nearly the entire building. A few chairs and tables were scattered around by the stage, where a four-piece band played, but most of them were empty. The door closed with a heavy thunk , cutting off the last of the sunlight, and leaving Hux’s eyes to adjust to the dimness. A few of the patrons shot glances at him and Kylo as they sauntered up to the bar, but no one seemed in a hurry to accost them.

The bartender, a Genonosian with a scar across his face, set down the glass he had been wiping and leaned on the bar toward them. “What can I get you?” he asked, voice wheezy and syllables hissed.

“The house ale,” said Kylo. “And…” He paused to allow Hux to give his order, but Hux didn’t know what that would be. The troopers drank water.

“The same,” he managed to say.

The bartender went away to see to their drinks, allowing Kylo to lean in and say, “Their brew is pretty strong. Can you hold your liquor?”

“I believe so,” Hux lied.

Kylo clapped him on the back. “Good. You might have to pilot the ship back to the station if I have more than one.”

“I can’t—” Hux started, protesting, but Kylo cut him off: “I know. It’s a joke. I’ll get us back.”

The bartender put two pint glasses in front of them, the beer amber in color and frothed at the top. Kylo lifted his first in a kind of salute, gesturing for Hux to pick his own up when he didn’t right away.

“A toast,” Kylo said. “To my first crewmember.” He clinked his glass against Hux’s, and then drank. Hux followed suit.

The ale was bitter, and he barely managed to avoid spitting it out. It was far from the tart juice he had enjoyed at the dust match; it was heavy, astringent, and vile. He set the glass down hard on the plasteel of the bar, mouth pinched.

“Not good?” Kylo asked, clearly having watched his reaction.

Hux coughed, wishing for something to wash away the taste. “It’s...fine.”

Kylo lifted a single brow, unconvinced. “Right. Well, if you don’t want to finish it, they’ve got other things. You like whiskey?”

“Does it taste like this?” Hux said.

Kylo shook his head. “No. Fewer hops, more bite. A really great one burns on the way down.”

Hux wrinkled his nose. “And you drink it by choice?”

“You get used to it,” Kylo laughed. He moved a bit closer and gave Hux a wink. “Can’t get drunk any other way, either.”

Hux watched him take another drink, this one deep, and ventured to pick up his glass again. He sucked his teeth, which still tasted of the ale, but then tipped the glass back and drank. It wasn’t as bad the second time, though the it still wasn’t exactly tasty. He swallowed heavily, his stomach roiling as the alcohol hit the emptiness there.

“You said something about food,” he said once he could breathe again. “Bantha?”

“Definitely,” said Kylo, flagging down the bartender again. To him: “Can we get two of the rotisserie wraps with extra sauce?”

The Geonosian grunted, pulling out a small notebook from his back pocket and scribbling their order down. He delivered the paper to the kitchen around the back side of the bar before going to see to other drinkers.

Hux looked around at them curiously, taking in the array of creatures. The First Order recruited only humans, and his contact with aliens had been limited. He wasn’t a xenophobe, but interacting with anyone whose eyes he had to fight to find was something of a challenge. Kylo seemed perfectly at ease among the mixed company, sipping at his drink while he surveyed those around them. He wasn’t the only one who was armed, Hux noted; a number of others around the cantina carried blasters. His fingers twitched at the absence of his sidearm, which he had modified to suit the quirks of his shooting. It was likely back in his locker on the Finalizer, if it hadn’t been disposed of already in his absence.

He remembered clearing out the few belongings of one of his bunkmates who had been killed on a mission. It was done expeditiously and without grief, the items of clothing, armor, and weaponry taken to be broken down or refitted for use by another trooper. It was routine, and watching it happen, Hux had felt nothing. But there was something irksome in thinking that those with whom he had served would cast him off as easily, even if he had done the same.

“So, tell me,” Kylo said, calling Hux back to the present. “What kinds of jobs did you do with your mercs, before they cut you loose?”

Although not all of Hux’s work was so closely tied to the Order’s operations that he couldn’t describe a mission without revealing the most incriminating details, Hux would still have to answer carefully.

“There were all manner of things,” he told Kylo, “but some assignments were more memorable than others.”

“Go on,” Kylo prompted, running his fingers through the condensation on his glass. It was stuffy in the cantina.

“Well,” Hux began, “once we were sent to a world in the Unknown Regions to deal with...a rival merc company.” It had been a Resistance expeditionary contingent seeking to set up a base nearer to central First Order operations. Dangerous for them, but Hux had to admire their boldness. “They were pushing into our territory, and we had to oust them.”

Kylo snorted. “Merc rivalries.”

Hux played at being offended, hoping it was convincing enough to fool him. “We needed to keep our business running without competition. You can’t have another band taking your work.” He shot Kylo a look. “Surely you know that from your own operations.”

“Competition is inevitable in transport,” Kylo said, “but if you get a reputation, it does drum up clients for you. Guess it works the same way with mercs, right?”

Hux really didn’t know, but he assumed. “It does. And we had our reputation to protect.” He took another sip of ale, keeping from wincing this time.

“All right. So what happened? You take them down in a hail of blaster bolts?”

Hux huffed, haughty. “Hardly. It takes far more finesse than that. I spent two days observing them before the rest of my unit even deployed. I identified their leaders: those who, if killed, would leave the others to flounder. Without guidance, soldiers are listless. Some give up.”

Stormtroopers didn’t surrender, but the mercenaries they had faced before had laid down their weapons as soon as their leadership had fallen.

“I learned their habits,” he continued, “studied them until I could identify their weakest points. Those would be where my men—the men—could attack.”

“Marksman and strategist,” Kylo said. “Impressive.”

Hux forced himself not to preen. He was very good at what he did.

Kylo asked, pressing him to say more, “So, what were their weaknesses?”

“Sloppiness,” Hux replied, derisively. “A lack of discipline. They were cautious, but the leaders were far too friendly with their subordinates. That makes their organization and their soldiers’ autonomy even weaker.” He sniffed. “They would be easy to defeat. We decided a daytime assault would be suitable, so I ordered the rest of the men down at midday. There were ten of us and thirty of them.”

Kylo’s brows shot up. “What kind of odds are those?”

Hux gave him a cold smile. “The kind that I prefer. My unit was very capable.”

“You don’t say,” Kylo muttered. More clearly: “Did you take them down, then?”

“It took us eleven minutes,” said Hux. “The infantry approached from the west as a distraction while I shot from the south. Their commanders lasted barely three minutes, and the rest was a basic clean-up job. We took fifteen prisoners. Two of our men were shot, but nothing more serious.”

Kylo said, shaking his head, “Stars. You must have been something to see in action. I don’t know much about fighting, but I’d say that’s pretty damn extraordinary.” He lifted his glass. “I bet you had a steep price for your services, eh?”

“Of course,” Hux said, avoiding specifics. He didn’t know the going rate for hiring a mercenary company. “We did well for ourselves.”

Kylo hummed as he rolled a mouthful of ale over his tongue, and then swallowed. “To look at that armor you had, I’d say so. But if you were doing so well with them, why’d they throw you out?”

Brendol Hux. My father tried to have me killed to sever his last ties to a kitchen woman, with whom he had spent one drunken night, and the bastard son with which she had saddled him.

“A disagreement about the direction of the company,” Hux said, hurriedly fabricating more of the recent past he had decided on for himself. “They wanted to take different jobs.” He tapped the rim of his glass with his thumb, seeing an opening to test Kylo. “They were offered work by the First Order.” He took a drink of ale, but watched Kylo all the while, waiting for a response.

Kylo set his glass slowly down, leaning his left arm on the bar. His tone was even and steady as ever as he asked, “And you didn’t want to work for them?”

Hux replied with a question of his own: “Would you?”

“Depends on what they were paying,” Kylo said, stretching his shoulders back with almost too-easy nonchalance. “I take a job if it’s in my interest. Doesn’t much matter who’s asking, as long as they offer good credits.”

Hux wasn’t certain whether to be relieved or disappointed. Maybe he had expected that Kylo would have certain scruples when it came to his business, but he couldn’t decide if working with the Order would be considered scrupulous or not. To many in the galaxy, they were a holdover Imperial cult that clung to dead ideals and should be disregarded, but others understood more clearly what kind of power they had and what they intended to do with it.

Hux believed resolutely that the Order’s rule would bring structure to a fractured galaxy, as the old Empire once had, but without the fundamental flaws that allowed the Rebellion to overthrow it. Even now that he was no longer a part of the Order, he was determined to aid its cause, even if he had to wait until after his life debt was paid—however long that might be.

“But you don’t agree,” said Kylo, gaze fixed on Hux’s face. “You wouldn’t take credits from the First Order?”

“They have soldiers of their own,” Hux said. “They don’t need to hire mercenaries to die for them. There were better uses for our company. Safer and more lucrative.” He paused, realizing how that might sound. He added, “I’m not a coward.”

Kylo reached across to him with his silver hand and laid it on Hux’s knee. “There’s nothing wrong with keeping yourself out of danger, if you can avoid it. Especially if it’s just a matter of pay. You don’t have to go down fighting for a cause you don’t believe in if you can make enough to support yourself elsewhere.” He squeezed Hux’s thigh. “I know something about leaving when you’re expected to go along with someone else’s plan.”

Hux glanced down at the glinting metal of Kylo’s fingers; they didn’t feel inorganic through the fabric of his trousers. “I didn’t want to go,” he said, quieter than before, and honest. “I belonged with them. But I had no choice.”

“Neither did I,” said Kylo, a distance in his eyes. “I was supposed to do something completely different—live a whole different life—but after…” He released Hux to display his prosthetic. “After this, everything changed. If I had stayed where I had been before, the ones who did this to me might have come back for others. I had to leave to keep them safe.”

Hux watched him flex the fingers. “You said it was an accident.”

“It was,” Kylo said, setting his hand on his own knee. “At least I think so. They weren’t supposed to hurt me, just take me away.”

“Who?” Hux asked.

Kylo took a deep swallow of ale. “Enemies of my family.”

Hux knew he wasn’t saying everything, but he couldn’t fault him for not being forthcoming, when he himself was anything but. “Transport was your only recourse?”

“Not quite,” Kylo chuckled. “It’s a kind of family business. The Falcon is my dad’s ship. He lends her out to me from time to time when he needs to borrow my freighter to look reputable.”

“It’s old, but surely not disreputable,” said Hux.

Kylo’s smile was sly. “It’s just when he flies her. He’s got a reputation in some circles.”

Hux cocked a brow. “Would I know him?”

“I doubt it.” Kylo gestured to Hux’s half-full glass with his own empty one. “You want something else?”

“Just water,” Hux replied. The ale was wet, but didn’t do much to quench thirst when he could barely choke it down.

Before Kylo could wave to him, the bartender reappeared with two paper-wrapped cylinders, both of which he dropped on the bar in front of them. The scent of spiced meat wafted up.

“Thanks,” Kylo said, sliding a credit chit over to him. “Add another ale and a glass of water to the tab before you charge it.” As the bartender went to the console to transfer the credits, Kylo pushed one of the cylinders toward Hux. “Go on. I think you’ll really like this.”

Hux took it—it was warm—and examined the paper, which was folded carefully to hold it in place. When he tugged at a corner, though, it gave way, and a stronger aroma rose. Inside was flatbread wrapped around a layer of shredded, fragrant meat over a bed of purple and green chopped vegetables and topped with white sauce. It looked unusual, but smelled delicious. Folding the paper back from the edge, Hux brought it to his mouth.

His eyelids nearly dropped closed in satisfaction as he tasted the mixture of flavors: seasonings on soft, chewy meat; a creamy freshness in the sauce; and the crunch and earthy sweetness of the vegetables. He was too caught up in it to be embarrassed to hear the deep sound of pleasure he made.

Kylo was grinning at him openly, his own wrap still lying on the bar. “What do you think?”

Hux couldn’t answer around his food, but he chewed it and swallowed heavily. “It’s Bantha, you said?” At Kylo’s nod, he continued, “It’s delectable.”

“I figured you might say that.” He unwrapped his own and inhaled. “It’s my favorite.”

For the next few minutes, they ate in silence, Hux concentrating wholly on his meal. He didn’t pause until he had finished it all and licked his fingers clean. Kylo worked somewhat more slowly, stopping to drink his ale, but he didn’t disturb Hux.

“You’ve got some appetite,” he said once Hux, full to bursting, had leaned his elbows on the bar and reached for the cup of ice water the bartender had brought him. “Did your merc crew starve you?”

“Something like that,” Hux sighed, too content to make up anything more elaborate.

Kylo finished off his ale. “Well, if you’re working for me, you’ll have all the rations you could want. And we can come down here and get a wrap whenever you’re in the mood.”

Hux eyed him, genuinely baffled. “Why does it matter to you what I want?”

“Why do you think it wouldn’t?” Kylo said, brows knit. “Just because you’re indebted to me doesn’t mean that you have no say in your keep.” He scratched the back of his neck with his flesh-and-blood hand, under his hair. “I want you to be okay here. With me. You’re not supposed to suffer through this.”

“Not everyone to whom a life debt has been owed has believed that,” said Hux, remembering more than one payment among the troopers that had been less than completely consensual.

A mix of enmity and pity—a strange combination—flashed across Kylo’s face. “What the kriff did they do to you?” he said.

Hux studied the rounded edges of the ice in his cup, wondering as he hadn’t before what the Order had made him, with its ruthless conditioning. “We were taught to survive.” And to serve.

“You’ll do that with me,” said Kylo, firmly. “I’m not going to put your life at risk.”

If Hux were to die in Kylo’s service, his debt would be paid in full. However, he didn’t think that was what Kylo wanted to hear, so he held the words back. Instead, he said, “You’re the first to tell me that.” When Kylo frowned, he added, “I’ve been a soldier since I was a boy. Being kept from harm is not something I know.”

“Are you going to hate it?” Kylo asked, crumpling up the wrap’s paper and setting the neat ball down beside his glass. “An easy life with a transporter? Nothing to shoot, no enemies to fight. It could be tedious for you.”

Hux shrugged. He would have ample time to mourn his past as they traveled through hyperspace on one of the many jobs they would no doubt be taking in the coming months. For now, he said, “I’ll make do.”

Seemingly satisfied with that, Kylo pushed back from the bar, dropping his feet onto the dusty floor. “We should be getting back. I’ve got some things to take care of before tomorrow.”

“We have work then?” said Hux, sliding off of his own stool.

Kylo’s flinch was fleeting, but Hux didn’t miss it. “Yeah. A pickup in the Inner Rim. You don’t have to come, though; not this first time. You should take some more time to heal up.”

“I’m fine.” Hux lifted a brow. “You did say it wasn’t a dangerous job. I’m more than able to manage something that isn’t active combat.” He was sure he could, in fact, go into a fight without much trouble, but that wasn’t necessary.

“All right,” Kylo said, resigned. “I’ll tell you about it back on the station.”

They went back out in the sunlight, which was burning even hotter and brighter in the midafternoon. Kylo didn’t dawdle this time, leading them briskly through the crowds, which parted for a man of his size. Hux kept pace, though he spared a last few glances for the city around them, as if he wouldn’t see it again. Were this a mission for the Order, it was likely he wouldn’t—they deployed on a world to work, and were then extracted—but Kylo appeared to know the place well, implying that he came here often. Maybe there was another Bantha wrap in the offing before Hux’s debt was paid.

There was a neat pile of plassteel cases on the landing pad when they arrived back, all of them filled with Hux’s new wardrobe. As Kylo keyed in the code to open the loading door, Hux went to retrieve the first of them to carry aboard. It wasn’t overly heavy or large, but Kylo swept in to take it from Hux’s hands.

“I’ll get these,” he said as he held the case easily. “You shouldn’t tear your staples.”

Hux pursed his lips, annoyed, but nodded. “Shall I wait for you in the cockpit?”

“Sure,” said Kylo. “Just, uh, don’t touch anything. If you power up the engines while I’m down here, you might kill me.”

“Wouldn’t want that,” Hux said.

Kylo narrowed his eyes, but when Hux offered a small smile—an admission that it had been a joke—he grinned. “I’ll be up in just a minute.”

Hux turned and went up the platform into the belly of the freighter. He remembered the way to get to the cockpit, but he didn’t take it, instead making a turn to explore the other parts of the ship. Everything was narrow, winding, and weathered. It was the opposite of the clean, sharp lines of the Finalizer, but the freighter—the Falcon—was not a warship.

When he heard the whining of the loading door closing, Hux made for the cockpit, settling into the copilot’s chair and folding his hands in his lap. The clatter of Kylo’s boots announced his arrival, just before he swung into his own seat. His fingers flew over the controls on the console to fire up the ship’s engines, and she rumbled in response.

“Here we go,” he said.

Hux took hold of the armrests as Kylo guided the ship up and off of the landing pad, leaving Olmek behind them. As soon as they cleared the atmosphere the quiet of space enfolded them.

Kylo steered confidently, saying, “I figure when we get back, you can set up your clothes in your quarters on the station. Might want to pack a few changes for tomorrow, just in case we get caught up on the job. Sometimes they take longer than planned.”

“What are we doing?” Hux asked.

“It’s an unspecified cargo,” Kylo replied, sheepish. “Well, at least the most important part is. The rest is supposed to be grain to resupply some colonists in the Unknown Regions.”

Hux blinked once, surprised, but perhaps not completely caught off guard. “That’s not transport; that’s smuggling.”

Kylo tightened his grip on the yoke. “Ah, you might call it that. It’s not something I do all the time, but it pays.”

“I understand,” said Hux.

“You don’t have a problem with it?” Kylo asked, giving him a measuring look.

Hux shook his head. “I’m at your service, whatever that might be.”

“Well, all right, then.” Kylo leaned back in his chair, extending his long arms to reach the yoke. “Let’s get to work.”

Focusing on the starscape beyond on the transparisteel viewports, Hux saw the station and his near future take shape ahead.