Five forced entries, four hostage threats, three suicidal protestors on the Avenue, two mutant rat attacks, and one brawl with an inconvenienced civilian who’d gone for stormtrooper over clone when fishing for a suitable insult. If he had any jaw left, he wouldn’t be using that word again.
Counting all the reasons for a stiff drink that night took both of Fox’s hands, and one of Thire’s too.
It was a night for the Den.
Two months ago, there’d been a violent jailbreak at HQ, followed by a mostly-on-foot pursuit that escalated into a gruelling multi-level manhunt. It ended with the 104th bagging the fugitive and all the credit. Some luck. The brave boys in red were rewarded with reduced privileges all around. The joke should have been on the top brass, thinking there were any left in a clone’s life, over three years into the war.
But it just meant being treated a little more like prisoners themselves. Early curfews. Revoked holonet access. Flash lockdown drills right before you needed to take piss. Everyone and their brother and their brother’s brother on staff duty, so you couldn’t get an hour to yourself or sometimes even a chair. Signing out ammo required a form in triplicate, and caf rationing was back—never mind stims, the lifeblood of the Guard.
It was administrative hell, and they had all landed in it because a Padawan grew a god-complex. Just a kid? Yeah, so were the guards she left cold in her slipstream. Sure, she hadn’t killed them, no, not like her bloodthirsty conscientious-objector buddy, but a TBI was just as lethal to a clone. Hob and Floren never even saw a tank: they were full-up, and shinies were on their way.
And that was before the ARC who’d already done a runner from a Tipoca medwing did a runner from the Republic Medcenter, fleeing from a conspiracy theory and an assault on the Chancellor. They’d gotten him promptly, but it’d been an ignominious business all around. Whispers of misfires and accusations from Skywalker’s favored that Etch had been dilatory in hailing the medivac. Their mutie senior captain even had the stones to file a grievance.
Fox wanted nothing more than to forget the entire episode. The Chancellor personally reassured him that he could.
So tonight, when the fresh intake meant a glut of rostering and personnel filing, and the Guardsmen who’d had their incident reports finally signed off were exempt from CQ and curfews, they rolled towards the penthouse with all the gusto of kicked shit.
Fox couldn’t wait to join them. He’d even brushed her off.
“I suppose you won’t be over tonight?” she’d asked him. Senator Chuchi—Riyo. Fuck, but he’d never get used to saying her name, however many times he’d panted it into her hair. “I haven’t seen you in some time.” She laid a small hand on his gauntlet and diplomatically let him fill in the blanks of what she didn’t say.
“I know. I’m sorry.” There was more he could have said, too. I’m sorry your friend’s night on the lam ruined our date night, and every date night for the past two months. I’m sorry your friend decided she was above the law she swore to uphold. I’m sorry you ever made friends with a Jedi.
But Fox wasn’t sorry that they’d silently agreed never to talk about her. It allowed him to keep Riyo. He couldn’t bring himself to care about anything else.
“It’s their first night of leave,” he added, hoping that was enough. A commander might wander at will, but solidarity wasn’t something the Guard enjoyed from without, not anymore; Fox did his best not to sabotage it from within.
He’d pressed Riyo’s delicate fingers under his glove and asked if he could wake her in the morning. She’d said yes.
Fox sank into his bike’s gees as he cornered his way from the Senate building through the sprawling administrative district to a cloudcutter near the opera house. He popped his helmet seal before he’d even reached the landing pad. He could never get it off fast enough. It was lids-on around civvies, especially the senators—Amedda's decree. Fox had come to resent that. And when those same senators asked him to remove it, he resented that, too. It was why he liked Riyo so much: she’d never made a decision for him. She regarded him—and his men—in such a genuine way, he chased her approval all the more, like a scurrier seeking shade.
It took him long enough to park; there were more vehicles up here than he’d seen in a while.
Optempo was through the roof, what else was new, but now they had Tarkin and the rest of the birther RAJ watching their every move. 79s was just another high-risk point in a shitty beat, and even off-duty, no one liked being taken for the fun police when all you really wanted to do was to keep the dirtside dimwits that were clone units ashore from bringing Rugeyan and his goons down on the entire army.
All of Corrie was Guard territory. Here they controlled the guest list. And no one was watching but them.
Fox pinged in the new passcode, scanned his tally, and inhaled deeply when the steel doors opened. The place had been new when it was sealed up in an attestation case eons ago; the smell of fresh paint still hadn’t quite faded from the vestibule in the two years since Fox, Thire, and then the rest of the Guard, clone command cadre, and some privileged other ranks began a slow process of occupation and renovation. No one had bothered them, and they felt they could make a pretty convincing squatter’s case should anyone come knocking. They had rifles and big knuckles; Riyo speculated that at this point he probably had the law, too.
Maybe in a more just galaxy, he would. Maybe when the war was over and the Republic reborn.
In the meantime, Fox contented himself with not having to pay surface property tax, and paused to check the control panel for the em-field they’d wired up to deter surveillance droids. CSF popped bottles with SpecOps, sure, but Fox didn’t trust their zealous prefects anymore than he appreciated their obnoxious and leaky HoloNet feed.
It was weirdly quiet inside: no muffled bass, no troopers idling around the stairs or helping themselves to the offerings on the main bar—the gaudy kriinwood one with an island that snaked across half the loft atop finely engraved columns. Great for dance-offs, until Grizzer and his mates chewed through most of them. Massifs and their ARFs were now confined to the balcony.
Fox found Rhys, Jek, and Mint behind it, bunched uncomfortably near the conservator. When they clipped to attention, Fox knew there was shit in the water.
“Cut that out,” he said, shaking his head and watching them hardly melt. “It’s frosty in here.”
“There’s a reason for that,” Mint said.
Fox followed the jerk of Mint's head, towards the bannister and the cavernous lounge below. He walked over, and the chime of feminine laughter rose to meet him.
They wouldn’t dare—
She was sitting down there, surrounded by her little harem of soldier boys.
Tano—no titles or honorifics now, Fox reminded himself—was gesturing wildly, deep in animated conversation. Maybe she felt Fox enough to make a good show of pretending she didn’t. Maybe she really didn’t think anyone would give a shit.
But the blond 501st officer next to her noticed. Rex. His arm was draped across the back of the sofa; on seeing Fox, he let it fall around Tano’s shoulders, pulled her in close and kissed her cheek, slow and languidly—like he’d been waiting for two months and could wait a little longer, just so he could stare at Fox while he did it. Just so he could dare Fox to put his gall up his ass and sit.
Fox turned back to the bar. He really should’ve gone home with Riyo.
“Thought we’d booted him from the list,” he said.
“We did,” answered Rhys, keeper of the passcode. “But it’s a big list and he could’ve asked anybody.”
He’d probably asked Marshal Commander Sunshine. He’d share anything with his mutie lay.
Fox pointed at the two cases of Ardees dumped on the countertop. “This theirs?”
Jek gave a hesitant nod, like a man who’s worked out the flakzone and has found himself still standing in it.
Fox’s blood boiled to hurl the cases over railing. But manners made the man, not some Mando genotype, so he grabbed the beers and trundled down the staircase, marking the units of the onlookers who’d been lingering for a show.
Tano, demobbed and presumably homeless, had found credits enough for new clothes. Industrial chic—like the glossy images of upmarket models in the upmarket holozines that circulated across Riyo's caf table. No lightsabers that he could see, but she couldn’t change her stripes.
She stopped yakking only when Fox drew close enough to toss the cases into the laps of two of the 501st.
“You can leave now,” he said. “And I’ll let you take your shitty booze with you.”
Rex swirled his glass, awash with something neat and dark from the house stash. “Thanks. But I’m not finished.” He took a long swig.
The other blue boys looked comfortable, too. One of them even let his legs fall open and adjusted himself with a cocksure flourish of his arm.
“Is there a problem, Commander?” one asked, raising his cog-stamped brow.
Fox’s face burned. He did not appreciate having to confront people with his authority, here of all places. “I know you’re a bunch of jumped-up standards, so I’ll say this slow for you. But I’ll only say it once. Get—the—fuck—out—of—my—house.”
Rex put back the rest of his drink. “We come here to relax among brothers. Like old times. And you won’t bury the blade.”
“We’re not brothers. Just unfortunate colleagues. And now you’re trespassing.”
“Fox,” Tano said sternly. And there was an echo to it that he knew this place didn’t allow for. “If you have a problem with me, fine. I’ll go. But let them stay.”
Fox ignored her. She was out of his chain of command. Never had been in it in the first place. It was like he’d told their misfit brother, the one who’d fragged his Force-fucked general, when the Judicials quietly slipped him out of confinement and onto Fox’s muster. We don’t answer to any Jedi here, trooper.
“I’m sorry, and just why the fuck should I—”
“She’s cleared, Fox,” Rex snapped.
Fox glared at him—Rex, the righteous captain who’d signed his incident report with extreme prejudice because he’d had to put out an APB on his own sweetheart, and then had the nerve to shrug off three dead men who’d not gotten the chance to scratch spaulders in a larty before a lightsaber gouged their armor. “Did you watch the footage from 1313? She fucking resisted arrest and half that squad spent a week in bacta. Two never even got that far. Or are you just too cuntdrunk to care?”
That got everyone off their asses.
Rex stomped up and over the squat caf table, bringing them nose-to-nose. “Say that to my face one more time. I want to get solid contact on you before I let her defend herself.”
“Good idea. Then I can take your bitch in for aggravated assault. That’ll stick to a civvie, I can fucking promise her that.”
“And when will manslaughter ever stick to a guard?” Rex's voice was gravelly and low, more top-shelf booze on his breath than most brothers would taste in their sorry lifetimes. “When he isn’t some senator’s laphound?”
Fox saw red. A faint, inky voice in the back of his mind said it first; Fox wanted so badly let it spill from his tongue. At least we hold out for better bribes than tailhead cunt.
But then he saw indigo, too. Riyo would be disappointed. And one of Bly’s boys might be in earshot. So he said something else that had been curling in his throat for a long time. “Maybe when your command stops cultivating defects.”
It wasn’t even Rex who threw the first punch.
It was their godsdamned medic—the pretty one, with golden eyes and a fucking golden heart, too, apparently.
Fox felt his cheekbone behind his eyes. And then he felt nothing but rage.
He wheeled back and grabbed Rex’s chestplate, jerking him sideways, away from the oncoming torrent of blue.
A wave of red was there to meet him, and some other colors too. But Fox only had eyes for that sandy skull. His tight fist thudded against it, aim thrown off by Rex regaining control of his own momentum.
The whole place erupted around them.
Fox took hits from every side, some probably meant for Rex and his tattooed berserker brother. The opportunistic looking to land something on the Third Army’s privileged.
He got a boot behind Rex’s knee and plunged them both to the ground. They landed in a clatter of plates. Fox was heavier, a little taller too, pumped with more at incubation and treated better since. He should have had the advantage here, against an impaired opponent.
But sometimes dumb luck prevailed.
Rex flapped his legs madly to shield himself from Fox’s blows. One shin snapped Fox in the jaw. It canted him sideways at just the right angle for someone’s heel to catch his kama, pinning him down. Rex scrambled loose. Fox was heaved backwards, head hitting the marquetry floor.
His vision tailspinned. Rex clobbered him. Wherever Fox threw his arms, Rex managed to not be there. He couldn’t have heard endex even if it were called; and there were no Alphas around to pry them off each other now.
Fox’s mouth turned coppery. His cheeks were wet. A cool wet. And Rex’s breath smelled even worse, somehow.
“ENOUGH!!” came a voice that could only be described as vast.
The world beyond Fox’s consciousness ceased to buffet itself so violently, so loudly against his body. It fell almost silent. But he still felt that voice in his chest and noticed a hissing sound, too. A pressurized pause.
Each breath he took, though he was half-choking from a nostril clogged with blood, reminded Fox more and more of every shitty dive bar in Galactic City. All of them at once. He shoved at the arm that jerked him upright by his armor, and he wiped a damp glove across his battered face. Rex was holding him firmly at arm’s length; his eyes flicked between Fox and Tano, who stood in a stupor, hands clasped to her horns, commanding the stunned attention of the house.
The beer cases had burst, the cans still spraying a fine, fermented mist into the air.
Jek would later tell him that it looked like an honest-to-Force accident. She’d shouted Rex’s name once or twice and then just—pwoooosh. It only lessened her in Fox’s estimation. Entire companies entrusted to a kid who didn’t even have a reliable safety on her kinetic emotions.
And now she’d fouled their furniture. He had even less sympathy when she doubled over and vomited behind a chair.
Rex scrambled up. He never reached her. Fox, sober and mad as a rabid akk, scrambled faster.
He bodychecked Rex to the window wall, floor squeaking underfoot, and smashed his skull into the glass.
Tiny fissures blossomed across the pane.
Superficial, just chinks in the inner crystalline, but it rattled Fox. He clenched his jaw, holding Rex still against the fractured web. His adrenaline kicked up feelings—feelings that contracted into a vivid memory of the last time he’d stood here, straining above a cityscape so fathomless it threatened to flip his stomach.
It’d been Riyo up against the glass then, her breath clouding the pane in rhythmic puffs as he rocked into her. With his last thrust, one hand circling her clit, the other bunched into her lilac hair, her knees had given out with a moan. They climaxed together, thighs flush against each other, and her nakedness flush against the scintillating void.
Fox had never felt so weightless. It might have been happiness. He didn’t quite know anymore.
Now, torquing his sore frame against Rex, he had to hold himself together against a black urge that snaked down his spine. Reach for your blaster. Put a bolt through him, through the glass, and through this entire hopeless charade.
Rex’s stare hadn’t softened, or abstracted in any alarming way, but it did flick over Fox’s shoulder.
A different voice called out. Not vast, but as deep and craggy as Corellia’s sixth hell.
Fox, his head one accretive throb, backed off an inch, recognizing Wolffe before he even turned around.
Wolffe thundered down the stairs, but clapped to a halt at the sight of Tano folded face-down over a chair. Another captain who’d been mechanically rubbing her back stood to attention; the rest of the room silently followed his inspired lead. The energy in the room dissipated like so much dust into a shield.
“Is there a problem here, ma’am?” Wolffe enquired flatly, in a tone that still struck Fox as two times too compassionate.
Tano straightened up with effort and shook her head.
Wrath of Corrie, she had enough yellow-livered insolence to drown a dianoga.
“Yeah, there’s a problem,” Fox snapped, jabbing a finger at Wolffe. In for a credit, in for a crate—and Fox hated games of maneuver. “You had your blaster set to stun.”
Fox anticipated the blow, but his arm still buckled a little under Rex’s fist. They scuffled against the window, Fox almost daring some of the priciest Corrie engineering—pricier even than him—to give way. Let’s die fast and young on our own terms: eye for an eye, brother for brother. Let's march together again on the other side.
Rex was still hung up on someone else’s fate, though. Fox felt what was coming like a supersonic slug. Supposed he’d even set up the shot himself. His gut swooped, just like it had in the warehouse, when he’d seen that fugitive ARC stagger against his stun round, upright and gasping, a black mark burning over his heart.
“At least he can handle his fucking weapon, you shiny fuck,” Rex snarled into Fox’s headlock. “You fucking sithson asshole—”
Fox knocked whatever was coming next straight out of the captain’s mouth. All his hurt and confusion and unfounded shame—who the fuck consciously recalls a settings check?—balled behind his fist.
By the time Wolffe pulled him off, his knuckle plate shone a deeper red in the canned light. Rex’s gasps bubbled and he flagged under Wolffe’s hold, but he still managed to score a bloody wad onto Fox’s cheek when he spat it out: brother-killer.
“That’s enough,” Wolffe growled, shoving Rex to the floor, and throwing Fox a look that said, in no uncertain terms, to leave it. Wolffe had gotten rattled on 1313 too; shame he didn’t drop the bitch when he had the chance, but Skywalker had been right on his six, blade close enough to singe asshair. Fox would have missed the grumpy prototype diva.
Panting and exhausted, Fox deferred to Wolffe's blunt adjudication for the time being and stepped back. His point was made.
Wolffe wore disdain very well—helped only marginally by his stony eye, he came by most of it naturally—and he levelled all of it over his shoulder. He found Tano again in the crowd, hugging herself at the elbows. “There are guardsmen still in physio and you’re here?” he demanded.
She’d need to take another long walk off a short drain to forget that, Fox thought. And not a moment too soon, she began by plodding silently up the stairs and out of sight.
“Lieutenant,” Wolffe barked at the tattooed ARC, thudding a boot against Rex. “Get him out of here.”
Lieutenant and a buddy sidled over and hoisted their captain across their winged shoulders. Enough damage done, the blue bastards climbed the stairs to a sibilant swell of curses and jeers, drummed out of the hallowed walls by broken bottles. Thank Fett for shinies and working parties to keep them busy. Fox didn't envy them the clean-up.
Pulped up and propped limply between brothers, that mutie fuck still managed to get the last word. His men twisted him round—complicit in his contempt of command, Fox noted for the record—so Rex could cough it out for the benefit of the room.
“Someone’s going to come for your neck one day, Fox. I hope I’m there to see it.”
Wolffe rolled his eye for both of them as the fuckers were booed out the doors. “Anything new worth drinking here?" he asked. He clapped Fox’s spaulder with more than just comradely force. “Or did I just trade one sticky evening in shit company for another.”
Fox shrugged him off. “Help yourself to the floor.”
Every second Fox had to loiter in his own vestibule for the 501st to get lost scraped at what was left of his composure, until he was a flayed husk of himself. Etch refused to let him near his bike, and he was probably right, but Etch was flatted into the wall, where he was ordered to remain until Fox had had his morning caf, please and fucking thank you.
The drive to Riyo’s second residence, the unofficial one near HQ, passed in a blur. Nothing registered at all until Fox cut his engine and realized she still wasn’t there. Working late, again. Should’ve used the journey to cycle through the departures log, since Thire could no longer be trusted not to flirt himself to such distraction with the comms officer and remember to keep tabs on Fox’s girlfriend.
He intercepted Riyo’s driver on the Annex platform. Her Basic was rudimentary and her temper notoriously shorter than his. Fox had never been more grateful for his integrated annunciator tech; he clicked his teeth to play some polite phrases in her native tongue, requesting her to stand down because the Senator needed to be taken to a secure location. Just protocol. Move along. She wasn’t paid enough to argue, and so duly fucked off. The red commander always knew best, and she couldn’t see his battered face.
“Fox!” Riyo exclaimed when she saw him leaning against his bike. He’d tried to make it look suave, because he couldn’t trust himself to stand. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Couldn’t wait until morning,” he said, aching in untouched places when she bit down a wide smile. She’d smell his beer-soaked blacks soon enough. He hoped she’d at least let him zip into the skylane before starting on any difficult questions.
She only managed one, and even had the goodness to wait until Fox had wordlessly parked his sticky shebs on her tiled fresher floor.
“May I remove your helmet?”
He fell apart in the tender hollow of her neck, wracking them both with sobs.
Later still, with a cleaner face and a clearer mind, his thoughts drifted downwell. To black and grimy places where he had to look at himself in the glare of Rex’s choice and wonder if he was just as compromised.
Would he be as ineffectual, if he had to bring in someone he loved? If he had to draw on her?
Fox squeezed his sore eyes against the thought. She was upright and loyal. She sent them cakes and jams and tasted sweet beneath his tongue.
He flicked through rifle settings in his mind until sleep overtook him, wrapped in Riyo’s arms and perfect legs, her cheek cool like moonlight against his neck.