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Troposphere

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Hera searched the tool box for the 15 mil spanner, then squinted into the tiny compartment. Three quick turns should do it… there.

She sat back and admired her work for a moment before closing the compartment again. The droid was an ancient model — no one made C1-10s anymore — but she’d been able to customize many of its functions. It would be able to fly this ship by itself when she was finished. And it would be someone to talk to. After four standard weeks alone in space, she was getting a little desperate for company.

The comm pinged, startlingly loud in the silence. She crossed to the panel and tapped the screen, and a scramble of coded text flowed across the display. She took a deep breath and released it slowly, trying to calm her suddenly racing pulse.

She typed in the code they’d agreed upon — short enough that they’d be able to remember without having to store it anywhere, long enough to be reasonably secure — and waited, tapping impatient fingers against the side of the panel. After four agonizing seconds, the display finally blared to life again. There was a time and a location, then a long string of random text intermixed with words like cup and instrument. This was followed by what appeared to be a name, another short string of random text (a code?), and the word cormolite.

She switched off the display and headed to the cockpit. It was time.

***

Hera pressed the buzzer next to a weathered metal door. The planet’s sun was edging toward the horizon, leaving a reddish-gold glow in its wake. People strolled past the industrial building without a second glance, and Hera began to wonder if she’d decoded the address correctly.

After a moment the door clicked open a millimeter. She pushed it forward and walked through to an elegant foyer. A human woman wearing a perfectly tailored suit stood at a podium just inside. Her gaze raked over Hera in a way that suggested she was being inspected. Hera held her head high and assumed the air of one used to passing such tests with ease.

“ID chip?” The woman’s red-tinged lips stretched into a smile, revealing perfect white teeth.

“Of course.” Hera drew a chip from her pocket and handed it over. At least she’d find out now if her forged identity chip was convincing. She’d elected not to bring a blaster after reading more about the security of this particular establishment.

“Kir Falla, welcome.” The woman turned to open the ornate wooden door behind her, and gestured Hera through it. “The hostess awaits you just inside. Enjoy your evening.”

Hera nodded as pretentiously as she could manage and walked through the door. A thick, dark curtain hung just before her, blocking her way forward. She glanced around, nerves now set on edge. Directly above her was a weapons detection portal, painted black to blend in with the ceiling. A buzz of music and conversation could be heard from behind the curtain, and Hera felt a twinge of anticipation of what she would see on the other side. She’d only heard rumors of establishments such as this one.

At last , the curtain was drawn aside in a long smooth movement. A beautiful Twi’lek woman stood before her, her head bowed demurely. “Good evening, esteemed Kirana. Welcome to our fine establishment.”

She stepped aside and Hera got her first look at the room beyond. It was cavernous, but the dim, colorful lighting gave the space a relaxed, lounge-like feel. A low throb of music permeated the rumble of quiet conversation that rose from the many clusters of beings seated around the room.

“May I assist you with your outer garments?”

Hera straightened her shoulders. “I will keep them. I often get a chill.”

“As you wish, Kirana.” The hostess gestured toward the bar, behind which multi-limbed bartenders were hard at work. “Forgive me, but I must inquire: would you like me to process your credit chip now, or would you prefer to settle your tab later?”

“Later is fine.” More like never, if things went the way Hera planned.

“Of course, Kirana. What is your pleasure this evening?”

“I’m meeting someone.”

“Code, please?”

“Four-eight-besh-two-five.”

The hostess nodded, her pale blue head-tails swaying as she did. “Of course. This way, please.”

Hera followed, her gaze sweeping the room for exits and potential signs of trouble. The array of languages being spoken blended with the music into a heady buzz of sound, making the atmosphere feel even more intimate. Scantily-clad beings of many species and genders were scattered around the room, serving drinks and draping themselves across the laps of wealthy clients. Along the edges of the room, she saw pairs and groups moving slowly in tandem, their rhythmic movements clearly sexual. The lights were lower in those areas, but there were clear flashes of bare skin and pleasure-slackened faces, and as they grew closer, soft grunts and cries. Hera hardly had to feign prurient curiosity as they passed. It was even more decadent than she’d expected.

The hostess stopped before the entrance of a dark alcove and gestured toward it with one hand. “Kir Dargonig awaits you, Kirana. A slave will be sent along shortly to tend to you. Do you have a preference?”

The corners of Hera’s lips turned up. “I think a human male would suit me well tonight.”

A flash of panic appeared on the hostess’s face. “My apologies, Kirana. We have only one human male at the moment. I will inquire if he is available, but I deeply regret your disappointment in the case he is not.”

Hera turned to her with a stern smile. “I will double the price anyone else offers to pay for him.”

The hostess nodded discreetly. “He will be along shortly. Have a pleasurable evening.” She turned and walked away, tapping at the data pad attached to her slender wrist.

Hera took a deep breath, then stepped into the alcove. It was even darker inside, and she squinted to make out the interior. Two figures sat close together on cushions against the far wall — so close, in fact, that Hera thought for a moment she was intruding.

“Kir Dargonig?”

One of the figures leaned forward until her face was illuminated by a low-hanging light. “Ah, Kir Falla! I am delighted to make your acquaintance at last. Please, sit.” Dargonig gestured to a nearby floor cushion.

“Thank you. I appreciate your hospitality, Kir Dargonig.” Hera removed her cloak and folded it neatly, placing it on the floor beside the cushion. The clothes she wore underneath — a slip of sheer fabric draped across her chest and form-fitting trousers — were a far cry from her standard flight suit. Dar followed her movements with her eyes, her expression one of open admiration for her appearance. Hera felt the corner of her mouth twitch upward; it was good to know she’d chosen her attire so well.

“Please, call me Dar. I insist.” Dar was human, probably fifty standard years old. Her hair was dyed in a stylish pattern of green and blue stripes, and her clothing indicated a level of wealth Hera doubted she’d attained legally.

Hera settled on the cushion, her bare back brushing the sumptuous fabric of the cushion behind her. “Then you must call me Falla.”

Dar snapped her fingers at the nearly-naked Trini stretched out beside her. “Refresh my drink.”

“Yes, Kirana,” the Trini purred. Her large silver eyes flicked quickly to Hera and back again before she stood and slinked away, tail swaying behind her.

“She’s lovely,” Hera said, turning back to Dar.

“She’s one of my favorites.” Dar’s smile was sly. “Have you requested a slave for yourself this evening?”

“I have.”

“If you prefer your own kind, they’ve plenty to choose from.”

Hera’s smiled tightened. “I’m in the mood for something different tonight.”

Dar’s eyes sparked with interest. “How intriguing.”

“I’ve never been to this establishment before. Is the selection broad enough for your tastes?”

Dar chuckled. “If I thought otherwise, I’d have no one to blame but myself. I’m one of the primary investors.”

Hera feigned surprise. “Then I am even more pleased to discuss business with you.”

“I do hope we can come to an arrangement that will be beneficial for us both.”

“It will be an honor, Dar.”

The doorway darkened, and Hera saw Dar’s gaze slide past her. “Your companion for the evening, I presume.”

“What is your pleasure, Kirana?”

It was all Hera could do not to react to the sound of a voice she hadn’t heard in weeks. She turned to the entryway, hoping her expression read more as cool anticipation than blatant relief.

Kanan was nearly draped across the doorway, hip canted out to the side, one arm stretched up over his head. The tight trousers he wore hung low on his hips, and his naked upper body seemed to glimmer in the dim light. His hair hung loosely about his shoulders, his face was clean-shaven, and his eyes were rimmed with dark color. He looked… the only word that came to Hera’s mind was distinctly impolite.

“Kirana?” he asked again, a hint of a smirk on his lips.

That small smile lifted weeks of worry from her shoulders, weeks of wondering what he was doing and how he was being treated, if he was hurting — or worse. But there was no time for a reunion now. The mission was the important thing.

Hera allowed her gaze to roam over his body appreciatively. “Come closer.”

Kanan moved forward slowly, his bare feet silent on the floor. He stopped before her and dropped to his knees, lowering his head demurely. “Do I please you?”

Hera felt the weight of Dar’s attention on her. She slid a hand under Kanan’s chin, encouraging him to look up at her. His eyes were clear and his expression guarded, but otherwise he seemed to be fine.

“You please me very much,” she said, and caressed his lower lip with the pad of her thumb. He sucked her thumb into his mouth and swirled his tongue around it, and she felt a shiver of arousal move through her. “You’re a naughty one, aren’t you? I think we’ll have fun tonight.” She pulled her thumb from his mouth and stroked his smooth jaw. “But I think I’d like a drink first. Choose something for me.” She let her hand slide around his head and twined her fingers in his hair. She tightened them until a hint of pain registered on his face. “If I like it, you’ll be rewarded.”

“Yes, Kirana.” There was heat in his voice, and it sent another shiver through her.

She turned away from him in a silent dismissal, glad for the lack of proper lighting. She was sure her cheeks were dark green now. There was a slight rustle of cloth as he stood.

Dar’s eyes followed him as he walked away. “Very nice. I’ve not had that one yet.”

“Haven’t you?” Hera asked, settling onto her cushion again.

“He’s quite popular, from what I understand. Human males are rare treasures in this business, especially ones so well-made. You, my dear, are very lucky to have procured his services tonight.”

Hera swallowed down a swell of worry. How popular had Kanan been, exactly? The corners of her lips turned up in a smug smile. “I am indeed.”

“But the pursuit of pleasure can wait, for the moment.” Dar leaned forward slightly. “You have a proposition for me.”

“I do.” Hera settled back onto the cushions behind her. “I am in the business of procuring and transporting resources for private clients.”

“You are a pirate, you mean.” Dar raised a carefully manicured eyebrow.

Hera smiled. “A far too simplistic term for the sort of work I do, but it suffices. I have managed to avoid Imperial entanglements so far, but the galaxy is rapidly becoming a difficult place to do business.”

“I understand your difficulty. The Empire controls the main shipping lanes. I hear often of ships being boarded and their cargos seized for the slightest of infractions.”

“It’s very bad for business.” Hera shook her head, as if lamenting these new times. “But I understand you have made an arrangement that ensures your slave shipments are undisturbed.”

Dar’s smile was sly. “And if I have?”

“I would be very interested in learning how you managed it.”

“I’m sure you would.”

“And I would be willing to pay a sizable amount for the information.”

The Trini slinked through the doorway again, a tall, shimmery drink in her hand. She set it on a low table on Dar’s right, then curled up against her side. Dar stroked her auburn fur, watching Hera through slightly narrowed eyes.

“You surprise me, Falla. From what little information I was able to find about you, I had the impression you were human.”

Hera’s stomach twisted, but she smiled in response. “It is an impression I have worked to maintain, Dar. Surely you can appreciate the difficulty someone like me faces in this line of work?”

“I can indeed. It is difficult enough as a woman, much less as a… being with a particular value, if you’ll forgive me.”

“Which is why I seek to benefit from your wisdom and experience, Dar.” Hera tilted her head in a way she knew would appear alluring.

Dar’s lips curved into an enigmatic smile. “You said you prefer to avoid Imperial entanglements.” Her hand dipped lower on the Trini’s body, out of Hera’s sight, and the Trini mewled softly.

“Times are changing. One must be pragmatic.”

“True. How sizable an amount did you have in mind?”

“That would depend on the type of information you could provide. The name of a contact is less valuable than, shall we say, the sort of information that would ensure my ship can travel unmolested.”

Dar smirked. “Imperials are hardly difficult to bribe, my dear.”

“But a bit of leverage helps, does it not?”

“I may have the sort of information you seek. It depends on the price, of course.”

“Does five thousand seem a fair price?”

Dar laughed. “Don’t insult me so early in the evening, Falla.”

“Kirana.” Kanan knelt at her side and held out a glass filled with a bubbling green liquid.

It was her favorite — Hera had to remind herself not to grin. She turned her attention back to Dar and held out her hand to the side. The glass was placed into it carefully, and she raised it to her lips.

Kanan’s fingers trailed down her forearm. “Shall I pleasure you, Kirana?”

Hera nearly choked on her drink. What the frak had Kanan been doing these last few weeks? She felt a pulse of panic, but quickly quashed it. He knew this place and what was expected, and she should follow his lead. She turned to look at him, partly to reassure herself that he was all right. She reached out to stroke her fingertips through the sparse hair on his chest — something she’d fantasized about doing for a long time. She trailed a fingertip across one taut nipple, watching his face carefully, but he didn’t respond.

“Let me have a better look at you. Stand.”

He complied, standing smoothly with his arms hanging at his sides. He kept his head bowed, eyes focused on the floor, yet he seemed to position his body in a way that demonstrated quiet strength. She reached up to trace one finger down the line of dark hair that disappeared into his trousers and he finally reacted, leaning his body into her touch with a soft sigh.

“Oh, you are lovely. Turn around.”

He turned his back to her, arching slightly to accentuate the curve of his backside.

Dar hummed appreciatively. “He is worth every credit you paid, my dear.”

“We shall see.” Hera snapped her fingers. “Come, slave. Sit behind me. I wish to lean back against that strong chest of yours.”

He moved quickly, settling behind her and drawing her back between his spread thighs. “How else may I pleasure you?” he asked, and Hera felt a spark of arousal in her belly. This was going to be a long evening.

“My shoulders are tired from my journey,” she said, adding a simpering note to her voice.

His hands moved instantly to massage her shoulders, and oh, she should ask him to do that more often. She soon found herself melting under his expert hands — perhaps this wasn’t the best idea under the circumstances. She shrugged off his hands and leaned back against him.

“That will do for now.” She tried to appear relaxed and confident, but frak it all, he was warm and half-naked. The sensation of her bare back pressed against his chest was precisely the opposite of relaxing. She took a calming breath, and then his fingertips stroked the tips of her lekku. She whimpered before she could stop herself.

“Not yet.” She caught his fingers in hers and squeezed them. “I have business first.”

“My apologies.” The fingers moved to her shoulders, where they traced small circles against her skin.

Dar was nearly leering at her now, and Hera had to struggle to remember where the conversation had left off. “Six thousand, then.”

Dar chuckled. “You are asking me to hand over evidence of Imperial complicity in the pleasure trade, are you not?”

Hera pressed herself back against Kanan’s body, forcing him to still his wandering fingers. “I wish to ensure that I will be free to conduct business in the Outer Rim territories.”

“Then you wish to elude the influence of Six Star.”

Hera felt Kanan tense slightly behind her. “Indeed,” she replied. She let her hands fall to his knees on either side of her, and stroked the underside of his thighs.

“That will cost you a bit extra, I’m afraid.”

“Eight thousand.”

“Ten, no less.”

Hera laughed in disbelief. “For ten thousand, I’d expect the entire financial records of Six Star and its affiliates.”

Dar smiled darkly. “Perhaps that is what I have to offer.”

Hera’s pulse jumped. “Well, then. Perhaps ten thousand is a fair price. Do you have the data with you now?”

Dar hesitated a moment, then reached into her pocket and held up a data chip.

Hera snorted. “That chip could contain your personal schedule, for all I know.”

“And your bank account could be empty, for all I know.”

“Do you have a chip reader?”

The Trini slave was sent to fetch a reader cube. When she returned, Hera inserted her chip and and the holo-display flared to life. Her fake credit account, expertly created by one of Fulcrum’s associates, showed a balance of twelve thousand Imperial credits. Dar nodded approvingly.

Hera removed her chip and handed the reader to Dar, who inserted her own. The display of files and names and numbers was so large it lit up the alcove. Hera leaned forward, straining to see the details. It did indeed appear to show the entire financial portfolio of Six Star industries.

“How did you come by this information? How can I be certain it’s valid?”

Dar switched off the reader and retrieved her chip. “I have my sources.”

Hera gave her a long look. “Are your sources included in the price?”

Dar chuckled. “Very well, Falla. Perhaps this will suffice.” She pulled a second chip from her pocket and plugged it into the reader, then tapped at the screen until a set of files appeared. “My personal communications with the head of Six Star, Ballik Maltho himself.”

Hera bit her lip to stop herself from gasping. This was it — exactly what they needed to infiltrate Six Star and bring it down, expose its illegal and immoral operations across the galaxy. Her eyes darted over the titles of the messages, her mind spinning already. Dar watched her carefully, and Hera realized she’d let too much of her excitement show.

Dar switched off the reader and pocketed the chip. “Twelve thousand for all of it.”

Hera tried to look shocked, but in the end, what did it matter? It wasn’t as if the money she was offering was real. She sighed and leaned back against Kanan again, drawing small circles on the inside of his knees with her fingertips. “You drive a hard bargain, Kir Dargonig. Twelve thousand it is.”

There was a small flash of triumph on Dar’s face, but it disappeared just as quickly. “Excellent. A toast to seal the deal, perhaps?” Dar held out her hand, and the Trini quickly placed her drink in it.

Hera held out her hand and Kanan, after wriggling behind her to reach her glass, followed suit. Hera held her glass up. “To prosperity.”

“To rewards of all kinds.” Dar took a long drink and then pulled the Trini slave into her lap. The slave rubbed her head against Dar’s shoulder, and Dar’s hand dropped between her furred thighs. “Let us relax and enjoy the company we’ve purchased for the evening. The details of our transaction can wait.”

“Of course.” Hera’s stomach fluttered. Dar had the information they needed, and she’d agreed to hand it over. How far did this evening have to go before they’d be able to leave with what they came for? And for that matter, how would she manage to take Kanan with her? She knew he would have an escape plan, but how would he communicate the details?

Kanan’s hands stroked her shoulders now, brushing the tips of her lekku with every movement. There was only so long he could avoid touching her intimately without the ruse becoming apparent, but it was nearly maddening. She squirmed against him and he stilled, drawing in a quick breath. It was a moment before she realized what she’d done: his arousal was now evident against the small of her back. She exhaled shakily, and pressed her backside against him again. His forehead touched the back of her head and she felt his warm breath on her skin.

“What a lovely pair you make.” Dar’s gaze raked over the two of them. “Please do enjoy yourself.”

“I plan to.” Hera reached behind her, grasped Kanan’s hand, and pulled that arm around her torso. She’d intended it to be an embrace, something slightly less provocative, but his hand wriggled under the fabric to splay against her belly. She felt warm breath against her neck, and he began to plant soft kisses under her jaw. Damn it all, she ached now. It was a struggle not to lean shamelessly into his touch, or to arch her neck and encourage that hand to move a little higher.

Dar pulled the Trini slave up into a kiss, and Hera closed her eyes, her mind racing. This wasn’t the way she wanted it to happen between them. Not like this, under these circumstances.

The Trini sat up with a small growl, and Dar fell back onto the cushions. “She is unconscious.” The Trini looked up, and Hera realized she was looking past Hera, at Kanan.

Kanan pushed Hera forward gently and moved out from behind her. “Very good, Tala. The data chip?”

Tala slid her hands into Dar’s pockets and came up with three. She frowned.

“We’ll take them all.” Kanan held out his hand.

“I’ll hold them until you keep your promise,” she replied, a slight expression of panic flitting over her feline face. She clutched the chips to her chest.

“Of course.” Kanan turned to Hera. “Tala is coming with us. She’s been of great help to me here, and I promised we would free her in exchange for the risks she’s taken in assisting me.”

“Yes, of course.” Hera took a deep breath, pulling herself back to the moment, to the mission. Kanan moved to check Dar’s vital signs, all business once again. Hera turned to look at Tala, now seeing her for what she was: a terrified slave who was desperate to escape. Hera smiled at her in a way she hoped was reassuring, but Tala only clutched the chips more tightly.

“It’s going to be fine,” Hera told her softly.

Tala blinked suspiciously in response.

Hera touched Kanan’s shoulder. “What’s the escape plan? I’ve seen enough of this place to know what sort of security it has.”

“Leave that to me.” He looked up and grinned in his familiar, cheeky way, and Hera felt affection flood her chest.

She’d missed him so frakking much. The enormity of the time they’d spent apart and what had just happened between them struck her, and she was unable to keep the emotion from her face. He had already looked away, though, and it was just as well: the mission wasn’t over yet.

“Here’s the plan,” he said, gesturing for Tala to come closer.

A few minutes later, the three of them staggered out of the private alcove, Kanan and Tala supporting Dar between them.

“This’s gonna be ssso hot,” Hera said, slurring her words as best she could while scanning the area to make sure they weren’t noticed by the wrong people. Unfortunately, they had already caught the attention of a nearby uniformed security guard. Hera ran her hand up Kanan’s arm to signal a warning. “That private play room better have a lot of rope.”

“It has everything you could desire, Kirana.” Kanan hefted Dar a little higher on his shoulder.

But the guard was still watching them, and his eyes narrowed as he took in Dar’s slumping body.

“Mind if I join the fun?” A young male Twi’lek slid past Hera and stopped in front of Kanan, smiling wickedly.

Hera felt a jolt of panic. Was this part of the plan?

“Whatta ya say, Kir Dargonig?” Kanan’s gaze slid lewdly down the Twi’lek’s scantily-clad body. “Care to add a fifth to this party?”

Hera glanced over at Dar’s still-unconscious form and saw Tala jab her hard in the side. Dar made a sound like a moan and rolled her head forward. For a moment, Hera thought she might wake, but then she went still again.

“I think that was a yes,” Kanan said. The Twi’lek stepped forward, looking up at Kanan with an expectant smile — and kissed him. Kanan’s free arm went around the Twi’lek and pulled him closer, kissing him back with enthusiasm. Hera was momentarily stunned. She glanced over at Tala, who leered at them both. Was this part of their escape plan?

When Kanan’s hand slid down to grip the Twi’lek’s backside, Hera’d had enough. She wormed a hand between them. “This is a lovely show, boys, but why don’t you save it for us to enjoy in private?”

The Twi’lek released Kanan’s lower lip with clear reluctance, then turned to wink lasciviously at Hera. She pulled him to her side, putting herself between him and Kanan.

The display had apparently convinced the security guard, who was now looking in the opposite direction. They continued towards the back of the club to the doorway that led to the private rooms. Another guard was stationed there, and he raised his eyebrows slightly when the group stopped before him. Tala held up Dar’s membership chip and he waved them through. They made their way down a corridor, keeping up the drunken act until the door of a private room closed behind them.

Kanan and Tala carefully lowered Dar to the floor. The Twi’lek ran to a storage cupboard and rummaged through it, then returned with several lengths of rope and a sack of what turned out to be pairs of boots and cloaks for the three slaves.

“Let me,” Tala said with a growl, holding out her hands. The Twi’lek nodded and handed the soft black ropes over, and Tala proceeded to tie Dar’s hands and feet.

“You should strip her,” the Twi’lek said. “It’d look more convincing.”

“No time,” Kanan said, listening at the door. “That drug will only keep her out another twenty minutes.”

“And who exactly are you?” Hera asked the Twi’lek.

He smirked at her. “Who do you want me to be?”

She leveled a stern look at him. “A reliable member of this escape team, for which it would be helpful to know your name.” He took a step backward, clearly surprised. “I could make one up,” she continued, hands on her hips. “Boy would suit you nicely.”

The playful rentboy mask dropped away, and he seemed to shrink before her. “Osit’nikim.”

She stared back at him, sudden emotion welling up in her chest. The Nikim clan was all but gone, slaughtered by the Empire and their lands seized, at least a decade ago. He couldn’t be more than twenty, which probably meant he’d been enslaved as a child.

“Osit’nikim,” she repeated. She put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”

“As am I,” he said, looking away.

“Oz is coming with us too,” Kanan said softly.

“Of course he is,” Hera replied. She squeezed Oz’s shoulder.

“These doors don’t lock,” Kanan said, drawing their attention back to the escape plan. “So we have to time our exit perfectly.”

“How do we do that?” Tala asked. Her tail twitched nervously.

Kanan pressed his palm flat against the door and closed his eyes, frowning in concentration. Hera watched him, relieved he’d decided to use the Force. He was so often reluctant to do so, for reasons she didn’t quite understand.

Thirty seconds passed. If their companions thought this was odd, neither said so. They simply watched Kanan and waited, hope and fear mingling on their faces.

Kanan’s eyes flew open. “Now.” They followed him silently down the corridor, around a bend to a small window.

Hera examined a control panel on the wall. “The alarm is here. Damn, if only I had—”

“Here,” Tala said, holding out what seemed to be a small multitool. Dar’s name was engraved on the hilt.

“Perfect,” Hera replied, grinning at her. She flipped open several different pieces before finding the one she was looking for. She pried open the control panel and was relieved to see it was a type of alarm system she knew well. She had it disabled in less than a minute.

They hit the ground running, hoping to put as much distance between themselves and the club as possible before Dar regained consciousness. It wouldn’t take long for her to work out what had happened and set security after them. By the time they reached the speeder bikes Hera had stashed in a quiet alley, the two slaves were panting, nearly exhausted.

“They don’t exactly let us out for runs,” Oz said, quirking an eyebrow at Hera. “There’s only one kind of exercise we’re allowed to do.”

Hera smiled tightly at him in response. The sooner they got off this planet, the better. She hopped on one of the bikes and Kanan climbed on the other.

Oz slid on behind Kanan, wrapping his arms tightly around him and pressing his face against Kanan’s shoulder. Kanan gave his hand a quick squeeze before reaching down to switch on the engine. Hera looked away, swallowing down her jealousy. Whatever had happened between them wasn’t her concern.

Tala climbed on behind her and gripped her hips with her soft-furred hands. Hera kicked the accelerator and led them out into the night.

To Hera’s relief, they made it to the spaceport without incident. A bribe paid to the customs official smoothed their passage, and within the hour, they were finally offworld.

“Making the jump to hyperspace,” Hera said softly.

Kanan nodded from in his usual seat at her side and turned back to make sure Tala and Oz were properly strapped into the seats behind them. Hera activated the hyperdrive and the stars shifted into streaks. She sank back in her seat and exhaled.

There was a muffled sob behind her. She turned to look, but Kanan was already out of his seat and pulling Tala into his arms.

“It’s all right,” he said, petting the back of her head. “You’re safe now. They can’t hurt you.”

Hera glanced at Oz to see him watching her. His lekku moved, and it took her a moment to process the words — it had been a long time since she’d been among her own kind.

What will happen now? His eyes were wide and dark, his skin a pale blue in the harsh light of the Ghost’s cockpit. He looked almost like a lost child.

What do you want to happen?

He closed his eyes. I want to go home.

She nodded, feeling a sharp stab of grief. Home had little meaning for her anymore. Home was this ship… and Kanan.

“What is your name?” he said in Ryl.

“Hera Syndulla.”

He pressed his lips together. Then you are like me.

She held out her hand. He hesitated a moment before unstrapping his safety harness and sliding to his knees on the floor beside her. She pulled him into an embrace, cradling his head against her breasts like a mother would. He made a sound like a sob, and his fingers clenched her arms.

She looked up at Kanan with tears in her eyes. He looked back at her, his expression open and unguarded. Something passed between them then, something Hera could not explain or define. She could only look back at him, at this man she loved, and be grateful.

***

Hera pulled the safety goggles down over her eyes and switched on the pac-welder. Red wires to red, green to green, and then solder that joint… there. She switched off the welder and pushed the goggles up onto her forehead.

“You’ve made a lot of progress on that droid.” Kanan leaned against the doorway, arms crossed over his chest. He was back in his familiar gear and almost looked himself again — except for his chin, which only sported a few days’ growth.

“I had some time to kill.” She stood and replaced the tools in the crate. Silence stretched between them for a moment, strange and awkward. They hadn’t talked at all about what had happened in that dark alcove, and the more time passed, the less likely it seemed that they would. Hera folded her arms over her chest. “It’s quiet without them, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “But they’re both better off. Force knows they needed some help processing everything they’ve been through.”

“B’lichtenai is one of the best rehabilitation centers in this quadrant.” Even though she’d only known Tala and Oz a few days, it had been difficult to say goodbye. The memory of Oz’s obvious distress at saying goodbye to Kanan had been in her mind all morning. “He loved you, you know.”

Kanan sighed and looked away. “He loved the idea of me.”

“Who wouldn’t?” She smiled and bit her lip, the question that had been circulating in her brain for days now coming to the fore. “Did you love him?”

Kanan’s gaze met hers again. “He was a kid, Hera. A traumatized, desperate kid.”

“So you’re saying you and he never…” She made a vague gesture with one hand.

“I was undercover. I did a lot of things I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Are you sure you want to know the details?”

Hera clenched her jaw, suddenly ashamed of her jealousy. He’d done what he had to do for the mission, and she had no right to question his methods. But she couldn’t help wondering what sort of bonds he’d forged with the slaves he’d met, or how much comfort he’d taken in his interactions with them. It was a part of him that she would never be able to share or understand, like so many other parts. He was more a stranger than ever now.

She forced herself to look at him again, to see the man standing before her. “Do you need to spend some time at B’lichtenai yourself?”

She’d expected him to respond with his usual bravado, but instead, he looked thoughtful. “I considered it, but I think I’m okay. Believe it or not, my Jedi training covered those sorts of situations. I had… resources to draw on.”

Hera wasn’t sure whether to find that idea disturbing or reassuring.

“I knew what I was getting into.”

Hera swallowed. “I know.”

When they’d first discussed this mission, she’d thought she would be the one to go undercover as a pleasure slave. It made the most sense, after all. But he’d insisted it should be him, saying he had more training for this sort of mission. She’d suspected he was protecting her at the time, and she’d been annoyed. Now she realized he’d been right. As disinclined as he seemed to use it, his Jedi training gave him a strength that she did not possess. He could do things she could not, and they were a stronger team because of it.

“If you need to talk about it—”

“I’ll let you know.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the three data chips Tala had taken from Kir Dargonig. “Ready to take on Six Star?”

A new spark of excitement lit in her belly. This was the important thing, this work they’d taken on together and had sacrificed so much for. There was no time to be maudlin when it was all about to pay off.

She took the chips from his hand and grinned at him. “Absolutely.”

***