The corridors of Echo Base were busy and cramped, more so than those of Yavin 4. It wasn’t that there were more personnel, or that the passages were more narrow; on the contrary, the opposite was true. Echo was a work in progress. Half-built, half-ready. The Alliance had pushed itself. Divisions had blurred; sentients had undertaken tasks normally designated to droids. Cassian had spent more hours than he cared to scraping out tunnels, and still, there was more to be done. The base was functional, and as secure as could currently be hoped for, but it was nowhere near proper headquarter status.
He hated it. He hated the hand he’d had in creating it.
Snowflakes, riding on gusts in the hangar, clung to his beard and eyelashes. His lower back ached. It had been fine, mostly, when he’d been on his ship, but now it was a pulsing throb, heightened by the cold. There was a sensation, to the left of his spine, as if something were clicking, sliding. He felt it often. His entire hip was not quite right. He tried not to think about it. He’d try not to for as long he could manage.
He passed a contingent of droids, threading wires through a length of pipe, easing them through a hole in the wall. Sparks fanned outward, struck metal, burned hot and bright before vanishing. His nose stung. A humanoid model with a black chassis spared him a glance. It wasn’t the same face, or the same body, and it hadn’t been manufactured for the same purpose, but still, there was a closing in, a pressure on his lungs, a thickness in his throat. He shoved it back into the same place he put his pain.
A group of pilots walked toward him, on the opposite side of the corridor. They were animated, chatting, smiling. The one on the outside struck his shoulder. She looked back. Her cheeks and forehead were framed by stray curls.
He was pretty sure she didn’t know him, but he knew her. He knew everyone. Shara Bey . He gave her a nod. She blinked, nodded back. His fingers twitched toward his coat pockets. It was an old reflex.
CIC, when he reached it, was a cold, noisy mess. Divisions were on top of one another. The lighting was utilitarian. He walked past clusters of operators, past soldiers and commanders conferring; past screens, transparent save for the glowing outlines of maps. He was used to debriefing in confined spaces -- or, at least, in mostly private ones. Having to meet the General out here made the back of his neck itch. But there wasn’t much to be done for it, unless everyone in Intelligence started meeting in special quarters, and that would telecast more than they were willing.
Draven sat at a desk in a corner. He was leaning back, frowning at a datapad. The space around him was dark.
He looked up. His eyes shifted, taking Cassian in. He straightened. “Captain.”
“At ease.” Draven folded his hands over his lap. “Report.”
Cassian’s stance widened. “I abandoned the objective. Imperials had already established a presence.”
Draven frowned. “It took you five standard days to come to that conclusion?”
“No, sir.” He felt a familiar prickle, where his neck joined to his skull. He breathed. His features held still. “I delayed to ensure I hadn’t been followed.”
“You had no opportunity to send a message?”
The prickling spread, over his shoulders and upper back. “It didn’t seem prudent, sir, no.” He was used to lying. He did it all the time. But he had only once before lied to the man sitting in front of him. It was necessary. It was right. Habit made it feel wrong, and experience made it feel dangerous, in a way that few of his gambits had.
Draven regarded him for a long moment, then sighed, planted his elbow on the arm of his chair, ran his forefinger along the skin between his upper lip and nose. “You’re certain there’s nothing that could be done? No way to dislodge them?”
“Not without drawing undue attention.”
There was a pause. The air was filled with the chatter of nearby operators, hushed and indistinct; with indicators beeping, their songs overlapping and bleeding into one another. Cassian was good at what he did -- brilliant, if he was to take the word of a certain woman in his life -- and he took precautions, and in twenty years, and even as a child, and even when his fear had all but run him and his heart had beat so loud that he’d been sure everyone could hear, he’d never been caught, apart from on Jedha.
He’d barely begun to play this game, and already he felt the whisper of a noose.
Draven rose. “Walk with me.”
They moved toward the rear of CIC. Draven led them down a small passage. Their shoulders brushed. “You know why you’re being given these assignments.”
He gritted his teeth. Of course he knew. He knew why he was no longer being sent to recruit, why other agents were landing undercover missions, why he was spending his time scouting and acquiring supplies. The things he was doing were important things, useful things, but they were also, to a certain extent, unsuited to him. He’d said it to Jyn, in so many words: punishment, fancied up in accolades. “Sir.”
“Your saving grace is that you’ve continued to get results. But make no mistake: we’re in no position to tolerate sloppiness or insubordination.” He stopped. His gaze swept back and forth, along the passage. It was clear, save for the two of them, but he stepped closer, nonetheless. “This isn’t the first instance lately where the Empire has been ahead of us. If there’s a reason for the pattern, then we need to find it.”
Cassian looked up. His hands were behind his back, resting at the spot where the soreness began, the thumb and forefinger of one hand wrapped around the wrist of the other. His heart fluttered. He waited.
“I want you to look into it. No one else is to know.”
Well, that was going to be a problem.
“Consider this the next step in regaining our full trust. If it goes well, we’ll look at returning Albarrio to you.” Draven tilted his head back. He was tall enough to look down at Cassian naturally; the gesture heightened the effect. “You’ve been one of our better agents, Andor. Don’t disappoint me.”
Cassian replied with a single, tight nod, lips drawn downward, brow relaxed. Draven’s eyes ran up and down his face. His lips thinned.
“Dismissed,” he muttered, and turned and headed off, back toward CIC.
Cassian stared after him. His mind ran laps. His heart wasn’t racing, not exactly, but it was beating faster, and a thread of nervous heat was working its way through his core. Alliance Intelligence wasn’t stupid; it wasn’t surprising that they’d noticed something, or that they’d started to suspect what he already knew. But he hadn’t expected to be made aware of that suspicion, at least not so soon. It might be a good thing. It might also be very, very bad.
At least a full minute passed before he moved, walking in the opposite direction of the General, following the passage to its end. It emptied into a lesser-used corridor. Darker than the others, colder, walls and floor left rough. It took him a moment to orient himself. He wondered if they knew something. He wondered if someone had seen, or heard. He could be more open, now, if he wanted, and that would give him access to more channels, but part of why he hadn’t sought them in the first place was because he couldn’t be sure about them. And then, of course, there was Jyn. It would make things harder for her, if they were monitoring him on this.
His quarters were on the edge of the South Passage. Despite the marks against him, he was still a Captain, and that entitled him to a private room. It was small -- four meters long and two and a half wide -- and the heating was as unreliable as on the rest of the base, but he needed it, these days, and was grateful for it. He took off his coat. Sat on the edge of his bunk, ran his hands over his face, settled his thumbs under his chin, his forefingers on either side of his nose. He needed a shave. He needed to talk to his contact. He needed to know whether he could still trust him. The thought came, speeding along tracks laid a lifetime ago, that he might have to neutralize him.
Call it what it is, Andor: killing.
He forced it away.
There was a rap at the door. His hands fell, wrists landing on his knees, fingers dangling between them. He flooded with irritation. He didn’t want to be bothered. He wanted to sift through his thoughts, pick at this new assignment, this new potential problem, until sleep rolled over him and dragged him under. The rap came again. He squeezed his eyes shut, took a long breath, and rose.
He leaned against the door. His voice was pitched low. “Who’s there?”
“Sergeant Erso,” the visitor said, the rank sounding strange and forced.
He felt a jolt in his gut. The irritation fled. He straightened and palmed the panel beside the door, movements jerky with urgency. She was standing with her arms folded across her chest, shifting from one foot to the other. Radiating with that constant, hair-trigger energy, that livewire buzz that made her mere presence loud. Her cheeks were pink from the cold. Her hair was crusted and shiny with frost. She didn’t smile when they made eye contact, but her features softened.
“Captain.” There were other people moving about. “I heard you were back.”
Of course she had. He’d have known the exact moment she returned, were their positions reversed.
“There’s something I’d like to ask you. One of the scouts said you’d probably know.” She jutted her chin toward his quarters. “Do you mind?”
“No.” He wondered if they were really fooling anyone. He suspected that they weren’t. The calculating part of him thought it might be useful: sleeping together as a cover for conspiring. Then again, they already had a reputation for the latter. What am I going to do ? “Please.” He stepped to the side, allowing her to pass. They didn’t touch. The door closed, and still, they didn’t touch. For a long moment, they didn’t even speak.
He hadn’t seen her in five standard days. He was aching from it, powerfully, all over, and yet he just stood there, looking at her. He felt awkward. He couldn’t imagine why; there was no reason for him to, after everything that had passed between them. But it was all so new, and he wasn’t sure what normal was, and he had a feeling that she didn’t know, either. They were making it up as they went.
Were they watching her? Had they spoken to her, too?
“So,” she said, at last. There was a ledge carved into the wall above the foot of his bunk. She placed her blaster and truncheon there, beside his own weapons. “How’d it go?”
He opened his mouth, closed it, breathed through his nose. Walked past her. He couldn’t be near the door when he started talking. Neither of them could. He leaned against the desk opposite his bunk, curling his fingers under the lip and crossing his legs at the ankles. “I’m not sure if ‘well’ is the right word.” He’d wanted to avoid being followed, it was true. It made sense to take the long way home. But it hadn’t been the only reason. He’d made a stop, along the way, off the record. “I was able to find out how Telara had been turned.” He paused. “They took his family. They told him they’d kill them, one by one, and record it.”
He let the implication sink in. Her jaw and shoulders tightened. Her eyes dropped.
“Wish I could say that was surprising.” She said it softly. “Did they not know who he was, until recently?”
“I don’t think that they did, no.”
“But all those years...”
He nodded. She was so close to him. He could tap her leg, if he moved his foot a hair. He could take her hand, if he pushed himself forward and reached out. His thoughts skittered back and forth. They had to talk about this, about all of it. There were things that needed doing. The mission didn’t stop being the mission just because he’d missed her. “I know. It might have been that his luck ran out; that’s the way it is with informants. He might also have been deliberately compromised.” It would fit. It would make sense. He was almost certain it was what had happened. “But I wasn’t able to determine that. There wasn’t the time.”
Her hands moved to to her lower back; her shoulders tugged at her snow-colored thermal coat. It was ill-fitting. He wanted her to take it off. “So that’s it.”
“For that, yes. For now.”
He could tell she was gritting her teeth. “It’s not a whole lot.”
“No,” he admitted. He’d have liked to have gotten more out of it, himself. He might have, if he’d thought he could get away with a longer delay. But the speculation, the direction of it -- that was a piece. There’d been times when he’d unraveled entire plots from less. “But it’s something more than we had before.”
Silence fell for a moment. There was a rumble beneath their feet, followed by a long, low groan. The shield doors were closing. She took a few steps toward him. “How, uh.” Her throat worked. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” She was trying to change the subject. “There’s something else.” Would she expect it? Did she already know? He wanted to grab her waist and pull her to him.
Her gaze roved over his face. “What?”
“Draven,” he said. “He knows something’s off. He’s asked me to look into it.”
“Are we in trouble, then?”
“More so than usual, you mean?” He found himself uncrossing his ankles, standing up, moving to meet her. His hip popped. He grimaced. “I don’t know yet.” I don’t know if I can keep you safe . And he wanted to. He’d been wanting to since before he’d even realized that that was what was driving him. There was hardly any space left between them. Her fingers brushed against his. The air was cold. He ran hot. “What about you? Anything?” He touched her hair, her face, her neck. His blood was rushing, pooling.
“Nothing new.” She took his hand. Her fingers wove between his and flared outwards. “Cassian, I’m serious.”
He sighed. “What do you want me to say?” He ran his thumb along her jawline. “I really don’t know.” Thoughts of duty were fading.
She clicked her tongue and shook her head. Her lips, however, were curving upwards. She placed her hand on his hip, passed it around to his back. Pressed her fingers into his flesh. “You should get this checked out, you know.”
She’d noticed. It wouldn’t have been her if she hadn’t. “No need,” he said.
He smiled at her. He couldn’t reach her knee, but he wrapped an arm around her waist, and drew her to where it touched his own. “That was different.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Her voice had gotten very quiet. Her words were captured by his breath. “You’re being stubborn.”
He sniffed. Their foreheads touched. He splayed his hands over the small of her back; she wrapped one of hers around the back of his neck. His chest was swelling. “How have you been? Really?”
“Bored.” It was half a chuckle. She tilted her head upwards. Her nose brushed his.
“That’s a shame,” he murmured against her lips. In truth, he was relieved. It meant nothing had happened, at least not to her. She leaned up and into him, whispered something he couldn’t make out, and then kissed him. Her lips were cold, at first; an artifact of Hoth, and all its unpleasantness. Friction warmed them. He held her fast. He kneaded her hip, her rear, and slipped one hand up, behind her head, under her bun, through her hair. She gripped his neck. Cupped his cheek. Hooked a thumb under his belt. Their movements were slow, languid. Their kiss was at once deep and raw and delicate.
He’d missed her. He couldn’t believe how much he’d missed her. He trembled from the force of it. He broke away and buried his face in her neck and shoulder. “Jyn.”
She kissed his jaw, his neck. One of her hands moved over his abdomen and slid upward. He pressed his lips and tongue to her neck. Her body rolled against his. He planted his palm between her shoulder blades, and let himself roll back.
Her fingers dug into his shirt. Her thumbs moved downward, then back up, bunching the fabric. It was coming out from his trousers. It would be cold, but it would be worth it, as it had been, for the past month.
“Of course,” she replied, tone heavy and rough.
He walked her backwards, toward his bunk. He fumbled for the buttons on her coat. Her hands covered his, helped him. She caught his bottom lip between her teeth and tugged, and he let her pull him, increased the pressure on the back of her head, sucked on her tongue, and pulled her right back. A gasp, sharp and sweet, rose out of her and landed in his mouth. Fire lapped at his spine.
Would they see? Would they try to take her from him? She already knew things that, as it turned out, she wasn’t supposed to know. He'd just been told that no one could be a part of it. She was already a part of it. He couldn’t not have her be a part of it. Strange, how his loyalty had shifted.
He’d never done this before.
She grabbed him, and moved in some way , and he was on his back. Her thighs were around his midsection. He squeezed them.
It was hard to think.
He wished he couldn't think at all.
The alarm was the shattered echo of a memory.
Jyn’s stomach lurched. Her muscles flexed, preparing. She pushed herself up. The air was cold. The bed was hard, but softer than she was used to. Her mind clawed at orientation, for a where, a when. Abyssissa? Were they back there? How many years had it been? She’d bunked on the ground, the last time, tucked into a corner, behind a Togruta woman who’d taken a liking to her. She groped for a name.
Damat had died two months later, clutching an unstable detonator.
The tone of the siren was different. The pitch was lower, and there was a strobe attached to it. Who was in charge of the perimeter? She squinted. The wall and door ahead of her came into view, then vanished again. Her hand moved under the blankets, grasping, searching. Blaster. Vibroblade. One or the other, had to be close.
Her knuckles brushed against skin. A body shifted, sat up beside her. She started.
A man’s voice. He turned, and the mattress dipped beneath him, just enough for her to feel it. His arm swept between them and back, toward a wall and a panel. Before the light went on, she was able to make out the lines of his chest, the curve of his bicep and shoulder.
She blinked and breathed.
Her first thought: Saw is going to kill me. Her second: Cassian.
He hurried down the bed, to its end, throwing off the covers. His knee, bent outwards, struck her bare thigh, dragged along it, ran over her own knee. In the lingering confusion of her waking, the contact was a bright flash of clarity. She swallowed, swung her legs toward the floor, reached up to gather her hair, push it back into its bun. The ground was cold and hard beneath her feet. She scanned it for her clothes, and reached for her underthings, her trousers.
Her eyes moved to Cassian. He was yanking up his own trousers, securing them around his waist. The muscles of his back rippled beneath his skin, beneath the long scar that followed the lower half of his spine, puckered and purple and still angry, a month after he’d earned it. There were other scars, white with age. There were ten red lines -- five running over one shoulder blade, five beneath the other -- fresh, but already fading. She thought of the weight of him, pressing into her. His breath on her neck, gasps in her ear. The way he looked when he was beneath her, eyes cloudy, lips parted. Her stomach lurched again. It would have been nice to wake him under different circumstances, before she had to leave. The time between had felt very, very long. She’d managed to make it through six years of being mostly alone, and now she could barely stand five days of it.
She needed more to do. Too much desk work was bad for the brain.
A rumble shimmied up through the balls of her feet. The PA system crackled. “Breach at South Passage, L1. General quarters.” There was a sound like static, a spark and a sizzle. The lights flickered and died. For a moment, Cassian’s back, and the wall and door, flashed black and red. A rising hum filled the room, and a dim off-white glow followed.
She watched him tug his overshirt down and tuck it into his trousers. “Shame about your quarters,” she said. They were near the faulty generator, nearer than any of the other officers’ at or above his rank. Everything was ad hoc. Everything was in progress. Still, he deserved better.
He made a noise, in the back of his throat. He bent toward the floor. His hair fell into his face. “And yet, here you are, instead of in your own.”
She half-smiled. “I don’t like my bunk mates.” It wasn’t totally true. They were fine enough, as people went. But for all that they were Alliance, and for all that she shouldn’t have had to worry, habit still demanded that she put her back up when sleeping around them. With Cassian, she slept better than she had in over a decade.
Somewhere in the back of her head, a familiar voice was screaming.
He smirked. “Right.” He tossed her shirt to her. She snatched it from the air. “It is what it is. We’re working on it. And in the meantime, we deal with it.” He reached for his parka. “It’s a short walk, at least, when something goes wrong.”
She shrugged into her own coat. She was trembling. The warmth of the bed, and of his body, had clung to her skin for a few moments, but it was gone, now. The room was colder than it should have been; the heater had to have been off for at least half an hour. She moved toward him. She wanted to drag him back under the covers.
He handed her weapons to her, then reached for his commlink. “Are you set?”
She hesitated. There was a weight, suddenly, tugging on her legs, rooting her in place. There were people moving, outside. Boots slapping, voices rising. There would be. Of course there would be. And there’d be no avoiding them, or the glaring implications of she and Cassian leaving his room, together, in the middle of the night.
They hadn’t tried very hard, all things considered, to keep things discreet. They’d still played at it enough to gain some plausible deniability. On all the other nights she’d stayed with him -- nearly every night their shifts happened to align -- she’d taken care to rise before him, leave ahead of him, slip between passers-by. For every other emergency, she’d responded from her own quarters. After this, they’d be hard-pressed to deny anyone who had suspicions.
He blinked at her. “What is it?”
She thought of what it might mean for him, and felt pressure build at the base of her skull and in the back of her throat. It had been easy not to think about it earlier, when she’d been focused on the fact that he was back, and that he was all right, and that her body was thrumming with need. Now, with no distractions to ward it off, the bit of worry she’d felt when they’d talked began to grow.
Would it be harder, now? Would they have to see less of each other? Would he get used to that? They hadn’t known each other very long.
He stays. He comes back.
She looked away from him, checked her blaster. There wasn’t anything to be done for it; they couldn’t very well decline to secure the base. “Nothing.” She took a step, put a hand on his arm, and tilted her chin toward the door. “Let’s go.”
His gaze bounced down, then back up. She saw his forehead crease. It was tangible, the sense of him trying to read her, of trying to decide whether to say what he was thinking. She made eye contact and held it. After a beat, he nodded once, twice, touched the small of her back. His fingers dragged along her waist and hip, and then he turned, and the door hissed.
The corridor was dark. The back-up lights cast soft, narrow beams, evenly-spaced pockets of yellow carving through swathes of shadow. The temperature difference was immediately, uncomfortably noticeable; Cassian’s quarters may have been cold, but they’d still been holding back the worst of it. Her breath frosted. Her cheeks stung. A stream of personnel jogged past them, clutching pistols and rifles. A sapper, belt strung with grenades, noticed Cassian and tipped his head.
The alarm sang. The call for general quarters repeated. They started moving.
Cassian lifted his comm and identified himself. Jyn’s own was in her coat pocket. She curled her fingers around it, through the fabric. In her section of the base, there were two other NCOs who were more than capable of handling the general quarters call, and no one would begrudge her responding to the site of the emergency. She left it where it was.
Crackling, in Cassian’s palm. He spoke again. “Status?”
She couldn’t hear the reply. The alarm was too loud.
Somewhere up ahead, metal screeched. There came the echo of blaster fire, reverberating back and forth and wrapping around them. Jyn heard a roar, and then another. Hoth was a frozen wasteland. There was no evidence, as far as she and Cassian and everyone else had been able to tell, that anyone had ever settled there. But it still had...fauna, some of it the kind that existed solely to make life more difficult for everything else. They’d been dealing with it since the start. The base was a beacon -- a massive, pulsing shelter, filled with food. When the shield doors had been finished, the attacks had slackened, but they hadn’t let up. They probably never would, even after the last generator had been stabilized.
It was better, at least, than having the Empire descend upon them, and it sure broke up the monotony.
He edged closer to her, angling his body so that it curled halfway around her, so that her shoulder struck his front. “Three of them so far; one is down. There may be two or three more out of sight.”
“They can’t be locked down?” That was the usual approach.
He shook his head. “Not from what Voya told me, no. We have to get past them to repair the shield and generator.”
That meant it was worse than usual.
It was hard to tell, in the tunnels, exactly where sounds were coming from. The curvature of the walls and ceiling bent and threw them, made them misbehave. Despite that, it was clear she and Cassian were nearing the action, if for no other reason than that the din had grown louder.
“Have they managed to get anyone through?” she asked.
“She didn’t say.” He gave her a look. “She might have been a bit preoccupied.”
They rounded a bend, and came up on the back end of the staging area. Men and women spoke quietly, checked weapons and gear, waited, half lost in shadow. From up ahead, there came another smattering of blaster fire; light dappled the soldiers, the walls, and then faded. Something thumped.
A woman hurried toward them, stepped into a pool of yellow-orange. She was a few inches taller than Jyn. Broader in the shoulders. “Captain.”
He acknowledged her. “Sergeant Aldes.”
No salutes. The Alliance was inconsistent with its formalities, Jyn had noticed. That was fine; the cadre had been, as well, more often than not.
She turned to regard Jyn. They’d shared work detail together, once, and spoken twice outside of that. It had been cordial enough. Her expression was hard to make out. “Erso?”
Jyn breathed. “I was in the area.”
Aldes’ gaze shifted from her, to Cassian, and back again. The silence stretched.
“Is there a problem?” His tone was curt.
“No,” Voya said. Her gaze slid back to Jyn. She shrugged. “The more the merrier.” She gestured, indicating a point further down the corridor, and the three of them moved together. “We dealt with the other two while you were on your way, but we were right about there being more. They’re in the tunnel that leads to the generator.” She shook her head. “Not used to there being so many at once.”
“Have you been able to start repairs at all?” Jyn asked.
“Not yet.” Voya looked back over her shoulder. “Was about to make a push. We have the numbers for it, now.”
Cassian tapped her arm and stepped ahead. “I want to have a look.” The tunnel curled off to the left. At its top was an intersecting pass, its mouth bracketed by soldiers. A cluster of mouse droids rested just beyond them, at the start of another curve. The alarm strobed, and painted them in rolling waves of red.
Jyn found herself moving up with Cassian, keeping pace with him. It was natural, right , how they’d always worked together. Voya hung back, just a bit, and Jyn felt a knot begin to form in her chest. Soldiers moved aside. Cassian tucked himself against a wall, peered around its corner. He turned back, inclined his head toward Jyn, made space for her.
There were three large corpses on the floor, fronts gray and smoking, one of them lying less than a meter from their vantage point. She couldn’t see the live ones, but she could hear them, scraping and breathing and braying, the sound and sense of them overriding all else. The air smelled of smoke, ozone, and snow. It was a blessing of the cold that it didn’t yet smell of dead things.
She considered the hostiles, considered the width of the corridor. No way to flank them, save from outside the base, and no one would be foolish enough to drop the shield doors for this. Her eyes found a bit of wiring, a hung of metal. Parts swung outward from there, in an uneven arc. She followed them back, inward, wondering whether the poor droid had malfunctioned, or been sent on purpose. Something caught her attention. She knocked her shoulder into Cassian’s.
“That passage, there. On the side.” It was narrow. Fine for a humanoid, or something smaller; not so for a wampa.
He caught her eye, gave her a nod, and turned back. “Voya, how were you planning to approach?”
“Straight on.” She clicked her tongue. “They’re animals.”
He sniffed. “Entire sections of the base have been closed over them,” he said. “Animals or not, we take them seriously.” He paused. Jyn watched his shoulders shift, watched his throat work, watched his jaw change its set. “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do.” He gestured to her. “Jyn, you take a few men and some mice and get to that passage. Voya, when they’re in position, we draw out the hostiles. Jyn’s team will move in behind them and start patching the breach and generator.”
Jyn nodded. It might be a bit much, but it was sound.
He began assigning her team. She noticed the sapper from earlier. “If all goes well,” Cassian said, “you should see minimal combat.”
A flurry of nerves, incongruous. She frowned. “Minimal combat?” A chuckle escaped her. A notion crept up and into her head. “Cassian, you’re not…” Voya was watching them. The knot in Jyn’s chest tightened. “...worried, are you?” She didn’t say “about me.” There was no need.
He didn’t look at her. He didn’t look at her in the exact same way that he didn’t look at her whenever he was touching down on the wrong side of honest. Instead, he busied himself with his rifle. “No. You’re the right person for the job.”
Blood rushed to her head. Her pulse pounded in her ears. They weren’t like this. He had her back, but not like this . “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
He did look at her, then. And there was that blank look, and at the corners of his mouth, a tugging, enough for her to know that he was struggling with some manner of tension. “What did you mean?”
She was very, very aware of Voya. She burned to be forthright, but there was an itch between her shoulder blades, and ice at the base of her spine. It was natural to work with him, not under him, but it wasn’t just the two of them now, and he outranked her, and they were doing several things in their downtime that could screw them, and goodness, she shouldn’t have had a problem following ranks, especially when he seemed to be trying so hard to not give anything away.
In her peripheral vision, Voya shifted her weight. Jyn swallowed. She knew very well how some people felt about her, even after what she’d done. A part of her understood it; another, louder part of her smoldered from it. Voya hadn’t seemed to be one of them. She wondered which would be better: raising eyebrows because she was Jyn Erso , or because she was a sergeant bedding a captain. Under any other circumstances, she wouldn’t have given two shits.
“It’s not important.” She bit off the ends of the words. His eyes softened, and his shoulders sagged.
“I trust you to handle it. That’s why I’m sending you.” His tone had changed. His voice was pitched lower. She stared at him for a moment. Didn’t speak. Turned to join her group.
She’d never done this before.
“Which one of you knows the best route?” The words came out harsher than she meant them.
They moved. It was convoluted, their path, and longer than she would have liked, but she could believe there was nothing to be done for it. The Alliance had taken advantage of naturally occurring caves, at this end of Echo, and exploited the network of passages connecting them. At some points, they’d carved out their own connectors, but time had so far limited them. And, as frustrating as the maze could be for them, it would be even more so for their enemies. She reminded herself of that as they wound their way through, as the texture of the floor changed, as ice slid under their boots, as time seemed to stretch beyond what was reasonable. There could be more wampa getting in. The ones already there could be advancing. It was getting colder. They were moving fast, but the chill was seeping under her collar.
Cassian was putting himself in harm’s way, and trying to keep her out of it. All well and good, for him to go and make it about his confidence in her, but a weight was still pressing down on her chest, and anger was still burning in her belly.
The corridor opened up, emptying into a high-ceilinged cavern ringed by intersections. Footfalls, hard and fast, approaching from the left. Jyn sought her weapon on instinct. A man emerged. He saw her, and the others, and came up short, halting beneath one of the back-up tubes. His breaths were condensed puffs of vapor.
She narrowed her eyes. Straggler. She wasn’t a hundred percent on this part of the base, but she knew there were supply and maintenance and storage rooms, in the direction he’d come from. A person who landed the wrong overnight shift could wind up there. How long had it been since the alarm had gone off?
“Soldier.” The tone of her own voice was surreal to her. She was right back into it, as if she’d never stopped soldiering. It would have been worse, if she’d been in her assigned quarters, and had found herself organizing personnel. It was worse every time the call went up.
“Sir.” He was gawky. And young -- younger than herself, she wagered, by a couple of years. She thought she’d seen him before, in CIC. An operator, maybe. It occurred to her that she ought to be making it her business to know everyone.
He blinked. “Sorry.” He sounded Coruscanti. “I was…”
“It doesn’t matter.” She could guess: a kid, on an overnight, working alone? He’d probably fallen asleep. She didn’t have time for it, either way. She cocked her head in the direction of the staging area, began backing away. “You’ve heard the message; you know where you need to be. Report to Captain Andor.” Another instance of the surreal.
He gathered himself. “Sorry. Yes, sir.” He stayed a beat longer, and then jogged off. She was glad that, like everyone else she’d encountered since this had started, he hadn’t bothered to salute.
She turned to her lead.
He tilted the barrel of his blaster. “This way,” he said, indicating the branch directly opposite the one they’d come from. She inclined her head toward him, then hurried after. The end of the passage was a triangle with a narrow top, its edges rounded but uneven, blackish blue in the dim light. It was too far, and too dark, to make out anything past it, but she thought she detected movement. Her hands and fingers flashed -- slow, quiet. Her team obeyed, and then began to arrange themselves at the end. Mouse droids, buzzing, zipped past her feet.
She dug her commlink out of her pocket. She felt her jaw tighten. “Cassian. Come in.”
There was a pause. “Jyn. I read you.”
“We’re in position.”
“Good.” There was a scuffling sound in the background. “We’re going to provoke them now. I’ll radio when you’re clear to move.”
Her free hand curled around her pistol. Her heart thumped.
Blaster fire. Short bursts. There was a roar, and a cry went up. She felt them, beneath her feet. Another burst. And another. A flash of white. Towering bodies, hunched over and moving, pawing at the ground. The edges of the comm dug into her palm. She was mad at him. Fear gnawed at her stomach, and that feeling, too, was directed at him.
Cassian Andor was an asshole.
More shouts. She glanced across the way, at the sapper, at his grenades. She almost asked him for one.
Cassian’s voice drifted up to her. “Jyn! Go!”
The communications section of ops was on the far side of CIC, separated from the alcove that functioned as the war room by a natural partial wall. It was dark. The faces of Jyn’s fellows were bathed in monitor light, surrounded by deep blue.
She pressed her fingers to the side of her headset. Her head buzzed with ambient noise. Only a few hours had passed since the general quarters call. She had long since been drained of adrenaline, but its effects lingered, manifesting as a tingling in her muscles, and a tension in her upper back. Restlessness. She was restless often, these days.
She hadn’t been intel, when she’d been with the Partisans. Oh, she’d cased outposts and hangars and manufactories and the occasional base, when she’d been old enough, and she’d had some radio training, and a general education in cryptography -- useful skills, all, for any guerilla. But once she’d stopped being small enough to squeeze into tight spots, Saw had preferred to have her in more...immediate roles, and to task others with gathering information. She hadn’t envied them, especially in later years. When things went wrong, they were the first people he suspected.
She wasn’t used to this. She wasn’t used to the amount of sitting that she had to do, sifting through reports, slotting the puzzle pieces of far-flung transmissions into something resembling a larger whole. When she’d first been tapped to intercept (a job she hadn’t expected to land for months, given the clearance required, and one she wouldn’t have been given, had it not been for the collapse of a particular tunnel) she’d thought it might be a good change of pace. It wasn’t.
And it made it harder for her to help Cassian.
Her access to Alliance records had its limits, but there were still things that she could do. After Scarif, to replenish its personnel, Yavin 4 had drawn heavily from outposts and satellite bases. It would have taken too much time to study each newcomer, and Cassian would have risked drawing attention to himself by doing all the legwork. So, she’d been narrowing down the possibilities by studying the bases and outposts themselves, identifying any that’d had an unusual amount of incidents. Some had. But she hadn’t exhausted the list just yet, and every moment spent chained to a transponder was a moment she couldn’t spend on further research, and a moment spent watching the chrono tick further down.
She breathed, long and slow. Her team had patched the site of the compromise, aiming for speed, staving off further intrusion until more delicate droids and proficient techs could move in. Cassian was walking into the tunnel as she was leaving it. She’d wanted to talk to him, argue with him. She’d ached to talk to him. There was a moment, when she might have, but he wasn’t going to be open with her, then and there, and she knew it.
Instead: “good work.” And then, stepping closer: “2030?”
She’d raised her chin “If I can.” He’d swallowed.
It was confusing, being involved with someone in this way. It had seemed a damn lot less complicated, in the cockpit and bunk of their recon ship, and post-Scarif, and on Scarif, and even before that, when she’d thought she might hate him more than she liked him. How could she wake up wanting to kriff a guy, and then want to deck him less than an hour later, for something that she knew, she knew , made sense? How could she be angry, but also worry, and want to see him, because lately she hadn’t seen enough of him?
In the back of her mind, a voice whispered that people left, when they no longer found her useful.
A vein of static ran through the band. She adjusted a dial. The woman next to her coughed. Her next patrol shift was that afternoon. She longed for it. Cold as it would be, a nice, long trek around the perimeter would do wonders for her head.
She frowned. They didn’t retain recordings indefinitely, for obvious reasons; they held them just long enough to give their limited personnel a chance to be thorough. She’d been walking back through the morning, through hours of empty audio that had already declared its emptiness to another set of ears. But some messages, of course, were silent by nature. It was easy to miss -- a brief flash of light, in the corner of her screen, lost in a sea of identical blips.
She shifted. The transmission had originated on Hoth. Duration was less than a second. The captured information was encoded, as would be expected, and she didn’t recognize the code, which was also expected.
What was unexpected was the timestamp.
She leaned back. The nape of her neck prickled.
It had been sent during the breach.
...annnnd sorry again because this chapter is basically GLARING RELATIONSHIP/SELF-ESTEEM ISSUES AHHHH
I'm super sorry for how long this took. Life is dumb.
Cassian paused beside a door, in front of a vent, air spilling over his calves and feet. It wasn’t warm, exactly, but it was less cold . It soothed the ache in his hip.
He was in a more stable part of the base. Deeper in, set back. The rock was different -- older, harder. There were no incursions here; there couldn’t be, and there were very few failures, and so it held its less-coldness in a way that other sections didn’t. During those times when he was in a particular mood, he’d lament that CIC and the war room weren’t located there, despite knowing exactly why they weren’t. It was ironic. One would think, given where he’d grown up, that he wouldn’t have a problem with the cold. And one would, of course, be missing the point.
He fingered his comm. The message had come shortly before he’d finished up at the breach and, under Voya’s eye, left the techs and engineers to their work. Sooner than he’d expected, if he was being honest, and sooner than he’d have reached out, himself, even with the eagerness he’d felt the night before. Easier to draw connections, if the gap in time wasn’t wide enough. And yet, here he was.
He swept his palm over a panel. The door snapped into its pocket, and spat out a rectangle of light. He glanced at his wrist. Fifteen minutes. It would be enough, most likely. In truth, there was more time than that available to him, and he could push it, and few would question it. But it wasn’t the possibility of being questioned that concerned him. Anyone watching in a serious way wouldn’t bother.
There had been many times, over the course of his career, when the amount of leeway he’d been given was as much liability as asset. It always felt strange, but this time around, it was on a whole other level. He resisted the urge to check his sidearm. He thought of Jyn.
Jyn . The look on her face, the tone of her voice. He hadn’t expected that. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected at all -- nothing, perhaps. He should have known better. It hadn’t even been a line; she was the only person these days whose motives and loyalties he didn’t find himself constantly questioning, and she was competent , and so he’d wanted her where he’d sent her, truly, beyond all the rest. Beyond that nagging anxiety, that drive, in the heat of everything, to curl himself around her, or toss himself in front of her. It was a puzzle, why he’d thought he could conceal the second bit from her. Might have been habit.
He wanted to talk to her. It was distracting, just how much.
The room was long and narrow, apart from a section that bulged outward, sloping around an oil bath. The air was thick with the smell of grease and scalded metal, rough ozone tingling his sinuses. Parts, limbs, and joints lay on stacks of shelves and dull durasteel tables. Chassis of various types sat in a row along a section of wall. An LE-series, the only one on base, lowered itself into the bath. Heads clicked and whirred as they turned.
He moved down the length of the room, toward the far corner. His contact was hunched over a bench, soldering a circuit board. A fountain of sparks arced into the air. The visor on the man’s mask flashed yellow and white.
“All secure?” Remb didn’t look up.
Cassian clenched his teeth. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t . He hated small talk, nine times out of ten, and especially when it was a prelude to an exchange of information. He tapped his fingers on the bench’s surface, keeping wide of the iron and its spray. There was tension along his shoulders. He wasn’t a fan of talking around droids. They were worse than people, in some ways, and he’d used it to his own advantage; there had been several times when K2 had miraculously managed to keep his mouth shut, and had been able to pull off a tricky bit of electronic eavesdropping. Cassian felt a pang, deep in the cavity of his chest, pushing outward, knocking at the backs of his ribs. He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them.
Focus . He glanced about the room again. Noted the supplies. Larger bits, mostly. A few clear cases of chipsets, sticks of RAM, discs and drives. Nothing, that he could see, for more delicate work. He looked over Remb’s bench, considered what was available.
“You’ll need another set of transistors.”
Remb paused. The iron hovered, its flame humming a long, low note. After a moment, he nodded. His grip slackened; his thumb slid upward. The flame died. He lifted the mask and glanced up at Cassian. His face was ruddy and covered with sweat.
“Walk with me,” he said. The mask clanged against the table behind him.
The supply overflow was a few meters from the shop, on the opposite side of the corridor. It was a square alcove, its shelves mismatched, of varying lengths and thicknesses. Remb stepped into it. Cassian would have preferred to follow, to be able to close the door behind them, but there wasn’t enough room. He leaned against the jamb, half his body in, the other half out. He breathed a forced relaxation into his limbs. His eyes roved over the walls, down the passage; up into the corners of the alcove, across the ceiling, down the stacks, to the gaps in between. Over Remb -- just in case, just in case. They’d worked together, off and on, over many, many years, but how many times, now, had that not mattered? He didn’t want to not be able to trust him, and he didn’t want the end that not trusting him would lead to. How bitter that all of his experience could now feel so damning.
His eyes slid back down, out again. He turned his head, slight. Listened. The base felt loud and alive.
It could be enough, just to meet, just to walk off together. The same old worry, the same old tension. Present in the spaces where it was supposed to be absent.
He had to be able to function.
Remb moved parts along the front of a shelf, reached behind them. “They’re all clean, so far.” His voice was pitched low enough that Cassian had to strain to hear. “Still have a few things to check, but they’re looking fine.”
Cassian titled his head toward the overflow. “You wanted to meet for this?” Remb wasn’t stupid. He could have sent all of that in a message, and it would have been safer.
He thought of what Draven might know, and how. If it was all related, then of course he’d be told that High Command was clean. Of course he would. This could be the sign, or one of them, but that was a hell of a supposition to make.
“No,” Remb said, with a chuckle. Cassian was at once relieved and anxious. “Found something else. It was kept off official reports.” He picked something up, turned it over in his hand, harrumphed. “S-threads, on a transport, a week ago.”
“We find those all the time. What’s different about these ones?” The question was a formality. He knew. He’d have guessed it, because he’d long ago become more than familiar with the patterns, but this wasn’t guessing. This was he and Jyn, hot and tired and battle-weary, combing over a ship.
“They weren’t found coming in; they were found going out.”
Cassian took a long, slow breath. “And it was a week ago? Exactly?”
“Yeah. Seven standard days. Around midday, if that makes a difference.”
Six days ago, before he’d headed out, he’d given the ship he’d been assigned a thorough inspection. He hadn’t found anything. His official mission, however, had been compromised. There were any number of other ways that could have happened, ways he now had formal backing to investigate -- not that formalities had ever stopped him when he’d had a lead. But this one, this one had precedent. A day was more than enough time. He was Intelligence, and an officer. He should have been informed.
“It might.” There were implications. Ones that worried him. “Who knows about it?” Just to be certain.
“Everyone you’d expect.”
His mouth quirked and he tilted his head back, exhaled. This was it, wasn’t it? The reason it had wound up being so much easier than he’d have ever thought it would be, the reason he’d been primed for a quandary and a connection to push him off-kilter. He wondered, quite seriously, if his mission had been expected to fail.
He wanted to be charitable. It could be that Draven had wanted to gather more information. He was nothing if not a careful man, and Cassian couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t do the same himself, if put in a similar position. But that didn’t explain why he hadn’t been told yesterday.
“Were there any other records like it?”
“Not as far as I know. But something else might turn up.” He paused. “You don’t think it’s the first time.”
Cassian swallowed. There had been no tells from Remb, so far. Then again, maybe there had been, and he’d been trying not to see them. “I don’t know what I think.”
Remb barked a laugh. “Right.” He lifted a small case, rotated it, nodded. “You find anything?”
Tension gathered between Cassian’s shoulder blades and tugged on the base of his neck. The moment had come -- the opportunity to plant a seed, and allow either his doubt or his faith to grow. His mind turned over. He walked back through his leads; through the incidents and outposts and carriers that Jyn had identified for him; through the recruits and transfers he’d already cleared; the lists of names he had yet to parse, the personnel he’d flagged for further review. He couldn’t play off any of them. And he couldn’t, wouldn’t use an uninvolved name.
Remb slipped the case into his coat pocket. Cassian glanced at his chrono. He had plenty of time to spare, technically, but they couldn’t linger much longer. He had to dangle something.
There was one particular name. One that had already been compromised.
“But I did lose a contact.”
Blood pounded in his ears. He hadn’t reported it, officially (an irony that he was well aware of; how many of them were doing this to each other?) and that meant that there would be questions. He both hoped and dreaded that he’d be asked them.
He didn’t have to kill him, did he? He would have, before. He wouldn’t have thought long or hard about it. His mind had zipped straight to it, fewer than twelve hours ago.
Remb had been turning around. He stopped. “Long term?”
He’d have to warn Jyn. He wondered how she’d take it. She’d been right when she’d pointed out that it was risky, involving someone else. But what could he do? The more places he went digging, the more likely he was to be exposed, and the more likely he was to land them both in trouble. He had no choice but to spread the recon out.
“Who?” His voice dropped another octave. Cassian almost didn’t hear him at all.
He gritted his teeth. The desire to talk to Jyn was blossoming into a pulsing, pounding need, a feeling he’d become very familiar with over the past several weeks. It had a different flavor to it, this time, and he’d be bracing himself for an argument when he did finally see her, but it all flowed from the same place. He wasn’t sure where the balance lay when it came to her. In his line of work, that wasn’t unusual; the liminal was the spy’s playground. He supposed he’d figure it out. But he wished that he was working through it under different circumstances.
He thought of her in his rack, hair down and face lit by half a smile. He’d made her laugh, last night.
He pursed his lips, looked out into the corridor again. He took a breath, then went ahead and said the name. It would be quick, this way. And he was reasonably confident he could throw off any who’d approach him.
Air whistled between Remb’s teeth. “Wouldn’t have expected him.”
There was a long silence.
“Let’s get back to the shop.” Voice back up, conversational. “I’m getting cold.”
A muted reaction. Too early to tell what it meant, if it meant anything at all. Could just be he’d been keeping track of the time, himself. Cassian pushed himself away from the jamb. Footsteps, somewhere behind him, off in the distance.
His mind was working. He had latitude, and he knew where next he ought to use it, and there was nothing else to be done or gotten from here. Not today, in any case.
“I’ll pass,” he said. “Thank you, Remb.”
Remb exhaled, hard. “You sure?” He moved past Cassian. “If someone’s watching, they’ll notice.”
Or they wouldn’t. Even odds, on how they’d interpret it, and he was at the point of wanting to provoke a reaction, anyway. “They’d notice whatever we did.” He shrugged. “You know what matters, and what doesn’t.”
Cassian tapped his shoulder. “I’ll be in touch.” He wondered what that would entail. He wondered how much of it would stem from feeling him out, deciding where he stood and what that meant. He could call on him again, only to succumb to a betrayal. He could push him into betraying himself.
As was the case with the vast majority of people on base, Cassian knew the on-duty officer of the deck mainly through records. Seon Aronson had been recruited, if memory served, a little over a year prior. He wasn’t one of Cassian’s, and when he’d come on, Cassian had been on the tail-end of a long-term assignment. They’d spoken only a handful of times. Every single one of them had been after Aronson had landed watch, and none of them had been outside the hangar bay. He could have thought Cassian was anyone. He probably didn’t think of him at all.
He turned, straightened as Cassian approached. His brow furrowed, just a hair. He’d been chatting with a pilot. They exchanged a nod, and then the pilot left, walking quickly toward the opposite wall. Eyes drifted down, to chest level -- assessing rank. Bounced back up.
Not at all it is, then . The liminal.
“Petty Officer.” He removed his gloves, tucked them under his arm. The air stung the backs of his hands. “I need to see the logbook.”
Cassian blinked at him, glanced across the bay. The garish Y-class freighter was near the shield door -- open, at this time of day -- and its equally garish owner was hanging over its end, shouting something to his Wookiee copilot. Sentients and droids were maintaining ships; clusters were talking, postures halfway between relaxed and not. There was nothing, so far as he could see, in progress. And if anything was, it had already gotten to the point of being beyond Echo proper.
“Yes, right now.” He sniffed and shook his head, shoulders rising and falling. “Unless there’s some other time that would be more convenient for you?” It was incredible that the man would even ask. He felt his mind tilting, teetering back over the edge of the paranoid spiral. It would be easier, with this one. Gentler. That was the benefit and the danger of personal distance.
Seon’s lips thinned. He straightened further, and cocked his head. “This way.”
The office was a tidy room near the hangar’s entrance. It held a desk, a monitor, a locker -- Cassian wondered what the latter’s use could be. The person on watch wouldn’t have any reason to bring their personal effects along. Then again, he was a man of so few that it was likely his experience and understanding wouldn’t link up to anyone else’s.
There was a datapad on the desk. Seon picked it up. His fingers slid over the surface.
“There you are,” he said, proffering it. “The navigation’s not quite right, but…”
“Thank you.” Cassian flashed a tight smile. “I doubt it will be a problem.”
He scrolled through the flight deck records. He went back, at first, further than he needed to, all the way to the beginning of their time on Hoth; he couldn’t be sure there wasn’t a logger installed. Skipped ahead, by a week. Furrowed his brow.
There was a gap.
He was conscious of his breathing. He took in the air. He held it.
He moved ahead, to one week ago, to the day before he’d left base. Names, times, down to the second, and then.
He closed his eyes.
He wanted to talk to Jyn. He wanted, so badly, to talk to Jyn. Even if she was still angry, she’d recognize the significance of this. She’d put aside the thing that they were, for the handful of moments it would take to process it. She might not know what to do. But that wasn’t the point.
Around it. The entries around it were important. He wished he’d brought a disc, and also he didn’t, because anyone worth his or her salt would expect just that, but goodness, it would have made it all easier. He took in the names of those who’d been on deck before and after the gaps. He read them, over and over; blinked and burned them into his mind. He couldn’t approach them all himself. That would call too much attention. He’d have to stagger it, and call on his resources.
He wondered what he’d tell Draven.
He had to tell him something. Under normal circumstances, he’d immediately go to him with this, with this very obvious manipulation of records. He’d explicitly been tasked with uncovering this sort of thing, but… If Draven wasn’t trustworthy… He’d been Imperial, hadn’t he?
There’d been times when Cassian had gone deep, and had been good at it. He’d stretched the cuffs on his Imperial uniform, straightened the collars; reported, with a smile on his face, to men and women who’d casually ordered violent subjugation. He’d been sustained, through all of it, by the knowledge that he was, in truth, on the side of justice. Eventually, he’d betray them, and take them down.
As it turned out, betrayal could take many forms. It should have been obvious.
He had to tell Draven something. If he was wrong -- if all of the seemingly incongruous behavior could be explained -- then he ought to report the whole of what he’d done. But there was no way to know.
He looked over the names. Over and over. Squeezed his eyes shut, pictured them in his head.
Handed the datapad back.
“Thank you, Petty Officer.” He put his gloves back on. He moved toward the door.
She’d come, later on, wouldn’t she? Her anger wouldn’t keep her. It might make her more eager, even.
“Keep up the good work.”