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Troposphere

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Troposphere

[TROPE-oh-sfeer]

Noun The lowest level of a planet’s atmosphere, where conditions are best for lifeforms and turbulence.

 *****

Kanan peeked around the corner, blaster at the ready. “It’s clear. Go.”

Hera dashed around him and headed for the doorway. “We’ve got ten minutes, tops, until he figures out that meeting was a ruse and comes back.” She held up a stolen ID badge. The face of a middle-aged man in a dark grey jacket stared blankly from its surface. Hladden Birk, Information Technology Supervisor, BalCorp Industries. “Here we go.”

She held the badge to the door. It slid open with a surprisingly loud swoosh, and they both stepped inside. Kanan waved his hand over the control panel just inside the doorway and it slid closed again.

“And now, the fun begins.” Hera flashed him a quick grin as she sat down in front of Birk’s main computer terminal display.

Kanan stayed near the door, listening. Breaking into these sorts of industrial facilities was often necessary for the sort of information-gathering work they did. It was surprisingly easy to get in. Getting out, however, could be a bit more challenging — and making sure that happened smoothly was his job.

He looked back to see Hera frowning at the screen. “This isn’t making any sense.”

Kanan leaned over her shoulder to squint at the display. “It should be in here somewhere.” He trailed one fingertip across the display screen, then shook his head. “These records are a mess. How do these companies manage to get anything done?”

“It’s a different Empire without Count Vidian around to make things more efficient.”

Kanan shuddered at the memory. “Makes things easier for us.”

“Either that or they’re trying to cover up their tracks more than I realized.” She paused and scrolled backward a bit, then forward again. “Maltho. Ring any bells?”

Kanan thought for a moment. “Maltho. Is it a code name for something?

“I’m not sure. It’s come up three times in connection with large amounts of credits, though. Maybe it’s a project that they’re trying to fund.”

“The first thing that comes to mind is malthochymine.”

“They’re developing chemical weapons?” She turned to look up at him.

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Of course, it could also be a…” There was a flicker just at the edge of his senses, like a black dot appearing in one’s peripheral vision. He blinked.

“Someone’s coming?” There was a touch of awe in her voice, as there always was when he let down his guard against the Force. (She thought he should use that connection more often. He disagreed.)

He nodded and turned, blaster already in his hand. He could hear faint bootfalls now, approaching at a pace that indicated action. Their intrusion had been detected. “I think Birk is coming back, and he’s bringing some friends.”

“I just need to download the financial records.” She tapped furiously at the terminal’s data entry screen.

“Hera, we have to go. Now.”

“Thirty seconds.” Her headtails twitched in a way he’d come to recognize as annoyance.

The sound of troops’ footsteps grew closer. Raised voices could be heard now, reverberating off the walls. Kanan swore softly. They had ten seconds, tops. Hera was good, but even she couldn’t make electrons move faster. He bounced on the balls of his feet. His fingertips began to tingle.

Hera—”

“Got it. Go!”

Kanan leapt toward the door and waved his hand over the panel. It opened and he stepped through, blaster at the ready. To his surprise, the corridor was still empty. The sounds of the approaching feet were close, though, just around a bend some twenty meters away. He gestured the opposite direction and Hera dashed down the corridor, her blaster already in hand.

They rounded a corner and jumped into an open turbolift. Hera pressed the stolen ID badge against the controls. Nothing happened for a moment. She held the badge against the control panel again, and a red light began blinking.

“Druk! We’ve been locked out of the system.” She turned and scanned the corridor. “We’ll have to find another way up. Can we climb through--”

The turbolift doors began to slide closed. Kanan leapt forward and pushed hard against them, bracing them open long enough for Hera to squeeze through.

“Where to?” she asked, but he’d already chosen a direction and started sprinting. The sound of Hera’s boots against durasteel flooring right behind him was reassuring. He could sense her too, could feel the slight ripple in the Force that only existed when she was near. He wasn’t conscious of it most of the time, but in moments like this one, her presence was seared into his mind as clearly as if she were emanating energy.

And her presence wasn’t the only one triggering his senses. There were others ahead, possibly security personnel coming from the opposite direction.

“Not that way.” He stopped and turned in place, looking for an alternate escape route. These new Imperial-funded industrial complexes had more security than those built in the Republic days. The ceiling was solid, with no obvious ductwork they could disappear into. The walls in this section were bare except for what appeared to be an electronics storage closet. It was hardly the best option, but it was the quickest. “Storage room, go!”

Hera pushed the button to open the small door and dashed inside. Kanan glanced down the corridor once more before following. The door slid shut behind him, plunging them into total darkness. He tried to turn to face the door and his elbow made contact with something soft and warm and… round.

He heard Hera hiss in pain.

“Sorry! I’ve barely got room to stand.”

“I think you picked a one-person hiding spot.”

That he had, and one from which there was no escape route if they were discovered. The footsteps grew closer outside. Kanan reached behind him and triggered what he hoped was the door’s locking mechanism. It produced a satisfying click.

“That’ll hold ‘em off,” Hera quipped.

“They’ll shoot me first, you know.”

“Comforting thought.” Her tone was light and teasing, but he could hear the tension beneath it.

In the darkness, Kanan’s other senses shifted into hyper-awareness. The sound of his own heartbeat filled his ears, along with Hera’s slightly shallow breathing. He felt small bursts of damp warmth against his throat as she exhaled, but that paled in comparison to the heat rolling off her body. They were separated by mere centimeters from head to toe, physically closer than they’d ever been.

Kanan looked up to where the ceiling would be if it were visible, and exhaled. He’d never been more tempted to reach out to the Force for strength than he was right now.

“Listen,” Hera whispered, and leaned against him, apparently trying to position her ear closer to the door. One hand pressed against his chest, her long fingers splayed over the fabric of his jacket. Her fingers moved just slightly, and Kanan bit his lip to keep himself from making a sound in response.

It was a Force-damned life-or-death situation, and half of his brain was going offline from hormonal overload. He inhaled smoothly, deeply, and forced his mind to focus. The boots of the security force were moving away now, though there were voices nearby, just a few meters down the corridor. He could only make out a few words through the thick door: “intruders” and “false alarm” and “drill.”

“Are they leaving?” Hera’s fingers clenched the fabric of his jacket.

“I don’t think they know we’re here. We just have to wait.” He patted her on what he hoped was her arm, and she relaxed slightly. She pressed her forehead against his shoulder and sighed. He slid his hand around to her back and held it there, palm pressed against the rough surface of the leathery armor she wore. She wouldn’t even feel the touch, but he could imagine he was holding her, comforting her.

And with hostiles just outside the door, prepared to blast them on sight. Very romantic.

They remained there, neither of them moving for several long minutes. He could hear Hera’s heart beating now, faster than usual. Her fingers traced small circles against his chest, almost a caress. He felt her breathing, warm and rhythmic against his cheek, closer now than she’d been before. Sweat trickled down Kanan’s back. It itched, but the moment he moved, the spell would be broken. She’d move away, as she always did, with longing in her eyes, but resolute in her determination to keep him at arm’s length.

You know I’m fond of you, love, but this is my life right now. There isn’t time for anything else.

He closed his eyes and willed the itch away. The bit of dust that had settled in his nose, however, was another matter entirely. He felt the tickle of a sneeze begin to grow, and then there was nothing else for it. He reached up to squeeze his nose shut, his fingers trailing across usually warm skin as he did. There was a small intake of breath from below. He winced.

"Sorry, sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

It wasn’t fine, he knew. Headtails were off-limits, and the way he’d just stroked his fingers up the length of one of hers was a very intimate touch indeed. His cheeks flamed in the darkness. Could he frak this up any more spectacularly than he had already?

“They’re leaving,” she whispered, and stepped away from him.

The air between them was still hot and damp, and he ached at the loss of contact. He ached in one place in particular, actually. He’d have to make sure she didn’t notice that when they finally got out of here.

He pressed one ear against the door and listened. The footsteps were very faint now. Perhaps it would be all right if he just reached out a bit, just enough to sense how far away they’d gone. He closed his eyes and let go of his careful control, just for a moment. He sensed nothing in the corridor — nothing close enough to be an immediate threat, at any rate. Hera’s presence was a warm beacon in the Force, distracting him from nearly everything else. He let himself wallow in it for a long second, eyes tightly closed. It felt good, but when he pushed it all back down again, there would be nothing but emptiness left. It was an ache he’d grown used to. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes.

“Let’s go.” Blaster at the ready, he opened the door. He winced at the brightness of the corridor, but all was quiet.

“This way,” Hera said, stepping past him. He allowed himself a single moment to watch her retreating figure, then followed.

*****

 

Chapter Text

Lipstick. Hera hated the stuff, but tonight it was necessary. Certain aspects of conventional beauty were expected at events like this one, after all. She stepped back to admire the effect of her face-painting in the mirror: she wasn’t unrecognizable, but neither did she look like herself. And that was the point, wasn’t it?

She adjusted the drape of the jeweled fabric covering her lekku and smiled flirtatiously at her reflection. Yes, that would do nicely. She turned sideways and her dark green gown swirled elegantly with her movements. It had been years since she’d worn something so lovely. It fit her perfectly, to the credit of that tailor on Bakka Prime. The fabric draped delicately over her breasts, left her back bare, and clung to her slender waist. Though most of her skin was covered, it was easily the most revealing garment she’d ever worn. And that could work to their advantage, of course.

This should be reasonably fun, if all went as planned. They’d discussed their cover story thoroughly. They’d planned for multiple contingencies. Their faked event invitations and ID codes were vacuum-tight, even with the presence of Imperial security forces.

She turned to look at her reflection over her shoulder. The view from the back was rather lovely as well. The shoes might be a problem by the end of the evening, though. Boots were much more her style than these little slips of jeweled synthplas. Once more she lamented the fact that there was nowhere to hide a weapon. It was rare that they embarked on an operation without blasters, but they doubted they could get them past security anyway.

She turned back to face the mirror once more. It was almost time, and she’d somehow managed to be ready before Kanan. She crossed the corridor to stand in the doorway of Kanan’s small room on the Ghost. He was leaning close to the mirror to frown at his reflection, and she had to bite her lip to keep herself from grinning. He looked — well, not like himself at all.

The jacket he wore was ornately decorated with ribbons and medals, and it was a rather outlandish shade of crimson. Flamboyant as it was, the cut of the jacket was flattering, accentuating the breadth of his shoulders and tapering down to a gold-braided edge at his waist. Her gaze drifted downward to the line of the black trousers over his backside, quite a lot tighter than the ones he usually wore. She tilted her head appreciatively.

Kanan tugged at the frilly collar of his shirt and grimaced. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

She’d never been able to sneak up on him. She assumed it was a Jedi thing, though she’d never asked. “It’s going to be fine, love.”

“I don’t thi—” He turned to face her and stopped mid-word, mouth hanging open. His eyes went almost comically wide.

She waited a full second before canting out one hip and smirking at him. “Something wrong?”

He blinked, swallowed visibly, and seemed to be trying very hard to keep his focus on her face. “No, I… you look… wow.”

She grinned at him. “Thanks. So do you.” She crossed to admire the jacket, unable to stop herself from trailing her fingers across the collection of medals on the chest. “I wonder whose grandfather these belonged to.”

“I suppose I can say my own, if someone notices some of them are from before I was born.”

She stepped back and tapped a finger on her chin. “I have to say, this is a good look for you. But this has to go.” She moved behind him to tug the leather tie from his hair. It fell to his shoulders, and he stood patiently while she combed it smooth with her fingers. She let herself linger there for a moment, the strands sliding over her skin. It was such a strange, soft texture.

“Having fun?” She could hear the teasing smile in his tone.

“Hair is so weird. I’ve always found it fascinating. Do you really have it all over?”

“You’re welcome to find out for yourself,” he quipped in response.

An image sprang unbidden into her mind: Kanan stripped naked, on his knees, staring up at her with that expression he only had when he thought she wasn’t looking. She allowed herself a private grin before pushing the thought away again. “I walked right into that one, didn’t I? Here, turn around.”

He turned to face her, immediately plastering on the most ridiculously charming smile she’d ever seen on his face. And that was saying quite a lot. “Do I look the part?”

“Absolutely. Do I?”

His expression softened. “You look like a princess.” At her raised eyebrow, he flushed slightly and looked away. “Or a baroness, I suppose. Ready?”

She nodded. “Let’s go.”

*****

The hovercab dropped them off at the entrance of what appeared to be an ancient palace in the city’s center. Sharply dressed beings milled about the exterior, some clearly holo-journalists waiting to catch a glimpse of someone important. A long purple carpet had been laid out from the street across the lush grounds to the entry doors, in front of which stood a pair of stormtroopers in dress armor.

Hera slipped her arm through Kanan’s and smiled broadly. “Here we go.”

They walked along the purple carpet, beaming at everyone around them. Happily, the holo-journalists didn’t pay them any attention.

One of the troopers at the door held out an armored hand. “Identification.”

Kanan smiled and reached into his jacket. “Would you like to see the invitation as well?”

“Just your identification.” The voice was female, and even modulated, sounded annoyed.

Kanan shrugged. “We should have left it at home, then. She loves to put these sorts of things in a scrapbook, you know.”

Hera batted her eyelids at him. “I do! Be careful not to crumple it, darling.”

“I’ll do my best, dearest. Though that may put a bit of a crimp in my dancing this evening.” He winked at the trooper’s blank mask. Predictably, there was no response. “Our identification,” Kanan said, holding out a small data chip.

The trooper inserted it into her datapad and tapped at the screen. Hera held her breath while the trooper studied the display. If this didn’t work, they could at least still make a quick escape. She looked up at Kanan, who winked at her — the signal that he was ready for the escape plan, if needed.

“You’re on the list. Proceed.” The trooper handed the data chip back and stepped aside as the door swung open.

Kanan and Hera beamed at each other and strolled through into the building’s large foyer. It was difficult not to gape at the exquisitely decorated interior— Hera hadn’t seen anything quite so excessive in her entire life. The purple carpet continued through the foyer towards the open doors of a large ballroom on the opposite side. Opulently dressed people milled about, many holding drinks in delicate crystal goblets.

“Shall we?” Kanan nodded toward the ballroom.

They passed through the weapons-detection portal and then were stopped in the doorway by a pale human man in Imperial dress uniform. “Welcome to the Empire Day Grand Gala. Identification?”

Kanan held out the chip. “Lots of security tonight, isn’t there?”

“One can never be too careful, sir.” The man inserted the chip into his data pad and nodded. He held up a small commlink and said, “The Baron and Baroness Khlikia of Lo’Uran.” Hera flinched at the sound of his amplified voice — they hadn’t planned to make such a dramatic entrance — but as they stepped forward into the entryway spotlight, no one in the cavernous room bothered to pause their conversation. In fact, the officer’s voice barely made a dent in the din of hundreds of voices.

Kanan took her hand and squeezed it, then led her through the crowd towards the room’s central bar.

“I told you the ID would check out,” she whispered into his ear.

He put an arm around her waist and pulled her against him, smiling blandly at the people who were looking their way. “You were right.”

She leaned in to brush her lips against his cheek. “I do love hearing you say that.”

“Would you care for a drink, dearest?” he asked, more loudly. His eyes sparkled with something she hadn’t seen in them before, and it made her feel slightly giddy.

She traced her fingertip around the largest medal on his chest and looked up at him through painted eyelashes. “Something bubbly, my love. And expensive, please. You know how cheap wine always gives me a headache.”

Following the minutest of eyerolls, he let go her hand and wound his way to the bar. She took the opportunity to scan the nearby revelers. The attendees were an interesting combination of Imperial officers, politicians, royalty from dozens of systems, and even a few celebrities. In fact, the man smiling lasciviously at her right now was a face she recognized from holovids she’d loved in years past.

He seemed to interpret her eye contact as an invitation and crossed to stand beside her. “This is quite an event, isn’t it?” His gaze roamed down her body and back up again before settling on her eyes.

“It’s terribly exciting, yes.”

“Can I offer you a drink?” He stepped even closer, far closer than was proper.

She gestured toward the bar. “My husband has just gone to get me one, actually.”

“What a careless man he is to leave such a lovely creature as you all alone.” These words were spoken directly to her breasts.

She cleared her throat and he looked up again, completely unembarrassed about being caught. She smiled sweetly at him, calculating. Obnoxious as he was, his prurient interest in her might prove to be of use this evening. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to cultivate the possibility. But first, perhaps a bit of fun.

She tilted her head and frowned slightly. “You look familiar. Have we met before?”

His eyes smoldered just as they had in that vid series where he’d played the dashing hero. “I’m sure I would remember meeting someone as delicious as you. I’m Kel Yolo.” His lips twisted into a smug smile. Or, would have done if not for the excessive surgery he’d clearly had in an attempt to reclaim his once youthful appearance.

“Pleasure to meet you, Mr Yolo.”

“Please, call me Kel.”

“Kel,” she repeated carefully, as if making a mental note of it. “Are you a senator?”

His expression fell for a moment before he caught himself and plastered on a charming smile once again. “Ah, no. I stay far away from politics, my dear. I am an actor.” There was a dramatic emphasis on the last syllable. “Perhaps you’ve seen my work? I was the star of the Adventures on Kelis Prime trilogy and Rogue Jedi: Sith Legends. But of course, you are probably most familiar with my award-winning performance in The Dacken Supernova.”

Hera gasped in mock surprise. “Oh, yes! My mother loved those vids! She was always such a big fan of yours, ever since she was very young.”

Kel struggled to maintain his smile. “How wonderful.”

“In fact,” she continued, practically beaming at him now, “I think I had a toy of your Rogue Jedi character when I was a little girl.”

“Really?” Kel’s expression was perfectly blank.

“Here you are, darling,” Kanan said as he joined them with drinks in hand. His gaze fixed on Kel and, though his expression appeared friendly, Hera could see the tension underneath it. “It was the most expensive wine they had.”

She took the proffered glass and winked at Kel. “My dear husband always knows just what I like.”

“I imagine he does.” Kel’s gaze had shifted to Kanan now, and Hera couldn’t help noticing it burned with the same degree of interest he’d shown in her. He held out his hand. “Kel Yolo.” He paused and smiled, smarmily. “Yes, the Kel Yolo.”

Kanan shook Kel’s hand and, to his credit, didn’t even flinch. “What a pleasure.”

“It certainly could be,” Kel replied, his tone fairly dripping with innuendo. “What a lovely pair you make. Are you visiting the planet for long?”

Hera took Kana’s arm and leaned into him slightly. “We’re leaving in the morning, I’m afraid. We’ve so many duties back home to attend to. It was difficult for my husband to make room in his schedule even for this.”

“If you’ve no plans for later this evening, perhaps you would consider joining me for a drink in my suite?” Kel looked at each of them in turn. “I assure you, I could show you a very good time.”

Kanan was, for once, completely speechless.

Hera took a measured sip from her glass and giggled. “How kind of you, Kel. Isn’t he ever so charming?”

“You could say that,” Kanan replied.

There was a buzzing sound, and Kel frowned and reached into his pocket. “I must apologize. I’m being summoned by my assistant.” He held up a commlink. “I’m starting a new project next week, and there are so many last-minute details to settle. If you’ll excuse me for a moment.” He gave them both a sly smile and walked away.

“That was unexpected,” Kanan said once he was out of earshot. “Never thought I’d ever meet one of the Rogue Jedi.”

“Or that he’d invite you to his bed?” Hera nudged him with an elbow.

Kanan snorted. “I think he invited both of us.” He tucked his arm around her waist and pulled her close enough to whisper in a way that would appear romantic to anyone watching. “Have you seen anything yet?”

“Nothing,” she replied, reaching up to comb his hair away from his face with her fingers. “Perhaps we should walk around?”

He nuzzled her cheek with his nose. “Should we split up?”

“Not yet.” She closed her eyes against the sensation of warm breath against the sensitive skin of her lekku. “It will look more natural for us to be watching the crowd if we’re together, I think.”

He took her hand again and they wound their way through the crowded bar area towards the far side of the ballroom. She recalled the details of the face of their target from the information they’d gathered over the last few weeks: human, tall, pale-skinned, sparse orange hair, middle-aged, and with a long thin nose. She’d yet to see anyone that matched the image in the files they’d acquired.

They strolled hand-in-hand, smiling at everyone they passed, and kept their observations quick and casual. She found herself on the receiving end of appreciative looks at every turn. Perhaps wearing this gown had been a mistake — she hadn’t intended to attract this much attention.

Kanan stopped then, so suddenly that his hand pulled away from hers. Hera turned to look at him. His gaze had gone unfocused in a way she’d only seen a few times before. He blinked, and then turned ninety degrees to the left, staring out into the crowd.

Hera followed his gaze. There were two men standing not far away, absorbed in conversation. Hera gasped: one of them was Artis Tinian, the most successful and influential weapons designer in the Empire — and just the man they were looking for. “There he is,” she whispered, nudging Kanan with her elbow.

Kanan blinked. “Who?”

“Tinian,” she whispered, frowning. If he hadn’t spotted Tinian, then what had caught his attention? She turned to look again.

The man Tinian was talking with was dressed similarly to Kanan, in the sort of military garb generally preferred by aristocrats. His rust-colored hair was shoulder-length and wavy, and his beard was trimmed in an intricate swirled pattern. Standing behind him was a girl. She was human, ten or eleven years old, and dressed in a floor-length gossamer blue gown. Her dark hair was intricately arranged into a design that must have taken hours to complete — wealthy, here with parents, but clearly comfortable at this sort of function. Perhaps one of these men was her father?

Hera looked at Kanan again. “The girl?”

“Yes. She’s about to… do something.”

The girl glanced around casually and then, very carefully and with practiced ease, slipped a small device into the pocket of Tinian’s conversation partner. She cast one more glance up at him to make sure he hadn’t seen and smiled, and then looked up. The moment she made eye contact with Kanan was startlingly clear. She stared back at him with an expression of confusion for several seconds, then seemed to force herself to look away. She turned into the crowd and disappeared.

Kanan started after her immediately.

Hera caught his hand. “What are you doing? That’s him. This is our chance!”

Kanan shook his head. “Stay here and keep an eye on him. I’ve got to find out what just happened.”

“Why?” Hera asked, but he was already too far away to hear. She swore under her breath as he vanished into the crowd. She waited, sipping her drink slowly and watching the two men talk. They seemed to know each other, and to be engaged in a very intense conversation. She edged her way toward them as casually as she could manage, trying to catch a bit of what they were saying. The room was still quite loud, though, and they were talking quietly. She wouldn’t be able to get much closer without appearing suspicious.

She had drained her glass by the time the men shook hands and parted ways. She hesitated a moment before carefully trailing Tinian as he moved through the ballroom. He stopped to talk to a few more people, though the conversation was clearly light and social, nothing like the earlier one she’d observed. He moved on again. She tried to follow, but was stopped by a woman who admired her dress and felt compelled to tell her so, at length. By the time Hera was able to disentangle herself, she’d lost Tinian.

Damn. She crossed to the far wall, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. The crowd had only grown larger in the time they’d been there. She frowned, frustrated.

“A pretty face like yours should be smiling!” a passing man said, giving her a lascivious wink. She reached for her blaster out of habit, and then remembered she was supposed to be the Baroness of Lo’Uran. She plastered on a smile.

“There you are, dearest,” she heard, and turned to see Kanan walking towards her.

“Where have you been, darling? I was all alone for minutes. It was horrid.” All of this was said through clenched teeth.

Kanan’s eyes widened fractionally. “I’m terribly sorry, love. It couldn’t be helped.”

Enough of this ridiculous facade. She shot him a mild glare. “I lost him.”

“We’ll find him again.” Kanan stepped closer, but didn’t put his arm around her this time.

She gripped his hand tightly enough that he grimaced. “Where the hell were you?”

“I wanted to find out what that girl was doing.”

“Why?”

“I… can’t explain.” His expression was guarded now.

Hera sighed in exasperation. “So what did you find out?”

“Nothing yet.”

“If you’re that curious, you need only ask,” they heard.

They both turned to see the girl standing right behind them.

“All right,” Kanan said, staring at her intently. “I’m asking. What did you slip in that man’s pocket?”

The girl crossed her arms over her chest. “First, tell me why you’re interested in Tinian.”

Hera smiled as warmly as she could manage. “We’re interested in bringing him to our planet to supervise the development of our defense systems. The Outer Rim is quite a dangerous place, you know.”

The girl’s eyes narrowed at Hera. “Which planet?”

“My dear, we are the Baron and Baroness of Lo’Uran.”

The girl’s eyebrows rose slightly, making her look far older than she was. “Lo’Uran doesn’t have an aristocracy. It’s been a representative democracy more more than a century. Luckily for you, few people around here know their galactic history.”

Hera steeled her smile. “Isn’t it getting close to your bedtime, darling child?”

The girl rolled her eyes and turned to Kanan. “So obviously you’re not who you say you are, which means you falsified your identification in order to attend this event. Why would you go to all of that trouble just to attend a party? The only reasonable conclusion is that you’re here doing recon of some sort.”

Hera’s jaw clenched: if a ten-year-old child could work out their plan through simple observation alone, they should probably leave while they could.

To her surprise, Kanan chuckled. “Very good. Now tell us something we don’t know.”

The girl’s lips quirked up slightly at the praise. “Tinian isn’t the one you should be interested in. You should focus on Maltho.”

Hera and Kanan exchanged a glance. Maltho: the name that had come up in the files they’d downloaded from their recent raid on a weapons facility. They’d assumed it was a code for a top secret project. It hadn’t occurred to Hera that it might be the name of a person.

If Kanan had possessed headtails, they would have been quivering now. “Who is Maltho?”

“He’s the money. He’s here to recruit Tinian, and based on what I’ve heard so far—” She patted the tiny purse that was slung over her shoulder. “—I’m guessing he made quite a lucrative offer.”

“You bugged him.” Kanan shook his head admiringly. “So what are you after, then?”

The girl smirked. “I’m doing a school project, of course.”

“Right.” Kanan pursed his lips. “Any chance we can get a copy of that project when it’s done?”

“Interested in intergalactic geopolitical affairs, are you?”

“Absolutely.” Kanan smiled roguishly, and the girl, astonishingly, grinned at him. Hera suppressed the urge to roll her eyes.

“I’ll consider it,” the girl continued. “Do you have a secure holonet ID or a skimmer address? Scramble only. I don’t do anon.”

Hera gaped at her. This girl was far more knowledgeable than she first appeared.

“We do,” Kanan replied. “Do you have a pen?”

“I’ll remember it,” she said, the corner of her mouth turning up slightly.

Ordinarily, Hera would have assumed they were being brushed off, but something about this girl made her think they would be hearing from her again. Kanan quietly told her the skimmer address, and she nodded.

“What else can you tell us about Maltho?” Hera asked.

The girl pursed her lips and looked past their shoulders before lowering her voice to a near-whisper. “He has a hand in nearly all of the big weapons projects in the Empire. He has a seemingly endless supply of credits to finance it all, too. I don’t know where he’s getting it all, but there must be laundering going on. That’s what we’re—” She paled slightly and cleared her throat. “That’s the thesis of my project, anyway. Think I’ll get good marks?”

“Kid, I think you’re heading to the top of the class.” Kanan grinned, and Hera had the distinct impression he’s only barely restrained himself from ruffling her perfect hair.

The girl looked past their shoulders again. “I’ve got to go. Mother’s looking for me. I’ll be in touch.”

Hera held out her hand. “Thank you.”

The girl shook it firmly and smiled. She looked up at Kanan and held out her hand to shake his as well, but instead he took it and lifted it to his lips. The girl’s cheeks flushed pink. She stared at him a moment longer and then dashed away. Kanan stared after her as she crossed to a woman in an ornate ball gown standing not far away. The woman looked back at them once before turning her daughter towards the doorway.

Hera sighed and slid an arm around his waist. “Trying to make me jealous with a younger woman, are you, dearest?”

Kanan blinked and turned to look at her, confused. “No, I just… That was… interesting.” He trailed his fingers up her bare skin of Hera’s back almost absently.

She shivered at the touch. “Interesting how?”

“I’ll tell you later.” He stared back at her for a long moment. There was longing in his eyes — real longing, not the act they’d been playing all evening. She let herself drown in his eyes for a moment, let herself be drawn closer.

This was a terrible idea, and she’d promised herself she wouldn’t go down this path with him. It would complicate matters unnecessarily. The work they were doing was important, the sworn focus of her life. If she knew they could just be casual lovers, it would be different. Kanan loved her, though, and if they crossed that line, there would be no turning back.

He closed his eyes and she realized how near he was. She should step away, turn her head. She should definitely not press her mouth against his and—

“Oh, sorry to interrupt.”

They stepped apart and turned to see Kel Yolo leering at them.

“Still interested in that drink tonight?” He leaned in close, and it was clear he’d already had quite a few.

Hera took a step backward and gasped. “Is that Beyond the Stars they’re playing? Oh darling, it’s our song!”

“So it is,” Kanan said, slipping smoothly into character again. “Forgive us, Kel, but I promised my beautiful wife back on our wedding day that I would always dance with her whenever we heard this one.”

“Of course,” Kel said, gesturing broadly towards the dance floor. “I’ll get us a round of drinks, shall I?”

Kanan held out his hand. His eyes sparkled with humor and a touch of regret, and his cheeks were flushed. “Ready, my love?”

Hera felt something twist deep inside her, and pleasantly so. She smiled and took his hand. “Always.”

To her surprise, he actually led her to the dance floor. She gave him a panicked look when he turned to face her, arms outstretched.

“I don’t know how to do this dance.”

“I do. Just follow.” He stepped forward and pulled her into his arms.

Two extremely awkward minutes later, they made a quiet exit from the building. The hovercab driver they’d hired earlier was waiting around the corner, as expected. They spent most of the ride back to the spaceport in silence.

“I’ll be glad to get out of this dress,” Hera said at last. She glanced at Kanan, and he quickly looked away. “It’s not really my style.”

“I suppose not,” he replied, staring out the window. He seemed lost in thought — or was he avoiding looking at her after the aborted kiss?

Hera sighed and watched his profile for a long moment. He was so dear to her, so important in her life and work. She cared about him as much as she’d ever cared about anyone. She was undeniably, painfully attracted to him. But was she in love with him? She pressed her lips together. He was her best friend, her partner, her confidante, her compatriot. He was everything to her, and the thought of possibly ruining what they had by taking it a step further was terrifying.

She exhaled, calming her suddenly racing heart. “Do you really think the girl will contact us?”

Kanan smiled and stroked his beard with the tips of his fingers. “I do.”

“If she doesn’t, I think we can find her. Did you get a good look at her mother?”

Kanan turned to her, his face blank. He shook his head.

“I can’t be certain, but her mother looked very much like the Queen of Alderaan.”

Kanan pursed his lips. “Easy to find, but almost impossible to contact, then.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking her parents might find it a bit odd that a man your age is so keen on talking to their very young daughter.”

“Which is why you would do all the talking, dearest.”

“I always do the talking, darling.”

Kanan grinned. “In the meantime, we’ve got some work to do.”

“Maltho,” Hera said, and turned to look out the window. The lights of the city streaked past in a swirl of yellow and white and blue.

Maltho.

*****

Chapter Text

Hang on back there!

Hera’s voice crackled over the commlink dangling from Kanan’s belt — even more evidence of damage they’d taken from that last hit.

He hadn’t even made it to the gun turret before the ship turned in a deep arc, pressing him down hard into the floor. A moment later, the ship pulled out of it so quickly that the grav generators barely had time to compensate. Kanan’s feet left the floor for a full second.

Jumping to hyperspace in three.

Kanan swore softly and dropped to his hands and knees. Two seconds later, the floor moved out from under him. He flattened himself and managed to twist so that he hit the wall feet-first. He waited out the sickening pull in his stomach and then pushed to his feet again. No need for the guns now.

An alarm pierced the air: smoke was rising from the compartment just to his right.

The computer is reporting a fire in the main electronics compartment.

“I’m on it,” he shouted, not even bothering to use the commlink.

He pulled a cannister of fire retardant from the wall station and yanked open the door of the main electronics compartment. Smoke drifted upward from one panel, but fortunately, nothing appeared to actually be on fire. He crawled inside for a better look.

Damage report?” Hera’s voice was accompanied by quite a bit of static.

“Internal comm took some damage, from the sound of it.” He pried off the scorched panel and coughed as a cloud of acrid smoke flowed out. He waved it away and peered closer. A gundark’s nest of twisted wiring had melted together, and right behind it — frak it all. He shifted his weight to a more comfortable position and raised the commlink to his mouth. “Part of the atmospheric controls are burnt out.”

Great.” He could hear the annoyance in her tone. “Any chance of fixing it?

“Not without a replacement heat unit.” He poked at the twisted mass of metal he’d have to pry out of a tangle of wiring.

Can we cannibalize something from the Phantom?

“I’d prefer to keep it intact, in case we need it.” Even better would be if they could just route the atmospheric controls through the small shuttle’s electronics, but that sort of operation required a hell of a lot more expertise than either of them had. They really ought to pick up an astromech at some point. “We’re going to have to make a supply stop. And until we do, it’s going to get frosty in here.”

At least the hyperdrive still works.

That it did, and only because Hera’s piloting skills enabled them to avoid the most direct hits. Those smugglers had turned downright unfriendly when he’d brought up the subject of their connection to the mysterious Maltho. And they’d had far more sophisticated weaponry than he and Hera had expected.

He wrestled the mangled heat unit out of the compartment, somehow managing not to do any further damage in the process. By the time he cleaned up and made his way to the cockpit, the temperature had dropped noticeably.

“It’s going to be an hour and a half before we reach the closest system.” Hera turned to face him as he sat in the copilot’s chair. “Ever been in an unheated ship in hyperspace that long?”

“No.” He decided not to tell her that he’d heard stories of what happened to others who had. “We’d better bundle up.”

Their cold-planet gear was stowed in the supply room, purchased that time they’d checked out an abandoned Clone Wars-era base on Bryndar. Hera went to dig hers out while Kanan sat in the cockpit, making a last futile attempt to convince the computer to re-route heat from the ship’s hyperdrive exhaust past the ventilation ducts. Several minutes later, she reappeared wearing a thick white snowsuit, gloves, and boots.

“Much better,” she said as she tucked her lekku into the specially-designed hood. “Aren’t you cold yet? I can see my breath in here.”

“Getting there,” Kanan replied. He leaned back in the pilot seat and grinned at her.

“What?” She tried to cross her arms over her chest, but the bulky snowsuit got in the way. She put her hands on her hips instead.

“You look like a stuffed jakrab.”

She raised one hand in what seemed to be an attempt at an obscene gesture, but only managed a strange little wave with the thick gloves encasing her fingers.

He feigned confusion. “Sorry, didn’t catch that.”

She scowled, and looked even more like a fluffy bunny as she did. “We’ve got an hour until we reach the nearest system. At the rate the temperature is dropping…” She paused, apparently calculating in her head. “It’s going to get dangerously cold in here very soon.” She looked up at him, her expression more worried than he’d seen in quite a while.

“Guess I’d better suit up, then.” He found his own snow gear in the back of the storage locker, neatly folded as he’d left it several months before. He shook it out and decided to remove the armor plates he wore on his shoulders before pulling the stiff coveralls on. He’d forgotten how uncomfortable it was, but it was best to put it on now and start building up heat inside the suit. He put his utility belt on over the outside of the suit, letting it out several notches. The boots were a whole size too big for him, which was annoying. The shop hadn’t had his size, and he’d opted for too large instead of too small. If he could manage not to trip over his own feet this time, he’d be fine.

Hera was shivering in her seat when he returned to the cockpit, which now felt like a walk-in freezer.

“It’s frakking cold up here.”

“You think?” Her sarcasm had lost a bit of its usual edge.

“There’s no reason for us to sit here. Set the alarm and come on. We’ll hole up in the Phantom. The heat still works there.”

It sort of worked, anyway. The shuttle’s systems weren’t designed to function while attached to the Ghost, and they seemed reluctant to run at full power. Worse, the shuttle’s single air vent was positioned right in the back by the doorway that connected to the main ship, and so the paltry heated air dissipated as quickly as it was released. They huddled under the vent anyway, staring up at it as if urging it on.

“Whoever designed this ship didn’t have much imagination for what could go wrong, did they?” Kanan quipped.

“They probably figured that if it got that bad, we’d use the Phantom as an escape pod.”

“That might still happen.”

“Hopefully we can get within a parsec of an inhabited system first. Otherwise it’ll be a very long ride.”

Kanan sighed. “Right.”

“It’s well below the freezing point already,” Hera said, looking up at him with genuine concern. “If it gets much colder, we’re going to have to pull out of hyperspace. I don’t want to abandon ship, but we might have to. We could stock up as much food as we can in the Phantom and put out a distress call.”

“Or we could stick it out for another hour.”

Hera shook her head. “Unless we find another way to warm up, we’re not going to be alive in an hour.”

Kanan exhaled, slowly. She was right. They needed another plan.

“This would be a nice time for a camp fire, wouldn’t it?” Hera’s tone was light, but there was real tension underneath it. She raised her gloved hands to her cheeks and exhaled against them to warm her face.

“It would,” Kanan replied. A fire on a ship like this was obviously out of the question, but perhaps he could rig up another heat source — ah. Of course. He headed down the corridor to his small room. “One camp fire, coming right up.”

“I was joking!” Hera called after him. “You’re not allowed to set fires on my ship!”

He smiled tightly and didn’t reply. Inside his room, he pressed a button below his bunk, and a drawer slid smoothly open. He reached in and pulled out the single object he’d kept with him for the last fifteen years of his life: his lightsaber. He hefted the hilt in his hands for a long moment. He hadn’t activated it in years. Hell, he hadn’t shown it to anyone else in more than a decade. He’d never even shown it to Hera in the year he’d known her, but they were desperate. It might as well serve some purpose, after all this time. He clipped it to his utility belt.

A few minutes later he set the remains of the Ghost’s heat unit on a piece of plasteel in the middle of the floor of the main cargo hold. Hera stood in the doorway, arms wrapped around herself, her breath visible puffs of vapor in the cold air.

“What’s that?”

“Your camp fire,” Kanan said, with a smile he hoped hid his nervousness. This was probably a terrible idea. It might not even work.

He unclipped the lightsaber from his belt and ignited it. The blue blade’s hum was deeply satisfying, comforting in a way he’d forgotten. The slight vibration of the hilt was barely perceptible through the insulation of the gloves, but he allowed himself a moment to feel it again, transported back to the day years ago when he’d built it and first switched it on. The thrill of seeing it come to life beneath his hands, of knowing he’d passed that particular test, had been one of the best moments of his life.

But that was a different life than the one he lived now. He carefully avoided looking at Hera as he adjusted the length of the blade down to just a few decimeters. He crouched in front of the twisted remains of the heat unit and plunged the shortened tip of the lightsaber into the center. The metal glowed orange in a slowly-expanding circle around the blue plasma blade, shifting around as it began to liquefy. He worked the metal carefully for nearly a minute before switching off the blade. Heat rose pleasantly from the half-melted mass.

“Sort of a campfire, anyway.” He turned to look at Hera.

She stared back at him with an expression of awe. “You have a lightsaber.”

“Yeah.” He looked down again. “Come sit. This is actually working.”

She knelt beside him and held her gloved hands out. She smiled. “Just need some meat to roast and we’ll be set.” Silence stretched between them for a long moment. She inhaled, exhaled again, and finally spoke. “Why didn’t you show it to me before?”

Kanan’s lips twisted. “You’re the first person I’ve shown in a decade.”

“That’s not what I asked.” There was only kindness in her tone, but it still set him a bit on edge.

“What good would it have done? It’s not like I can use it anywhere. It’s a relic from the past.”

“Then why did you keep it?”

This weapon is your life, Padawan. Keep it safe, and it will return the favor.

He shrugged. “I suppose I could have sold it.” Lightsabers were worth a rather large sum on the illegal weapons market. He’d seen them for sale on multiple worlds, and each time had felt a stab of pain at the thought of what had happened to their owners, to the hands and minds that had so carefully crafted each one. He turned to look at her again.

“I’m glad you didn’t,” she said. Her eyes were dark and wide, and her smile was far warmer than the air around them. She put one gloved hand on his arm and squeezed, then looked back at the rapidly cooling heat unit. “Fire’s going out.”

“I got it.” He switched on the lightsaber again and reheated the metal. “It’s going to start cooling off faster. This may not help much longer.”

They warmed themselves for a few minutes, but the color began to turn from orange to gray more quickly than it had done before. He heated the unit again, and again, but it eventually became clear that it was a futile effort. The cold air was sharp against his skin, and his nose and eyes were beginning to ache. Their breath seemed to hang between them in the frigid air — soon breathing would become genuinely painful. For the first time, Kanan felt a trickle of fear that they might not survive this.

No, that was not a possibility. They had less than an hour to go, after which they would land near the equator of a planet with a lovely temperate climate. They’d be sweating in tropical heat in no time, laughing about how cold they’d just been. Besides, he’d been trained for this type of circumstance. He could slow his heartbeat and bodily functions, bring himself into a state of near-hibernation.

Hera made a small sound next to him, something almost like a whimper, and he was momentarily flooded with panic. He could probably survive no matter how harsh the cold, but she wouldn’t be able to follow. He closed his eyes and forced himself to clear his mind. They needed another plan.

He got up without a word and headed back to the storage room. He rifled through the supplies until he found a thin thermal blanket. It was the only one they had, but it would have to do.

“Hera?” he called, but there was no response. He walked back to the cargo hold to see her huddled miserably on the floor, eyes glazed over. “Hey, come on. Stay with me.” He tugged at her elbow and she climbed to her feet, breathing shallowly. Her face was pale green now, something he’d never seen before. He swallowed down a wave of anxiety and tucked an arm around her waist.

He walked her to his room and sat her on the bunk, then maneuvered behind her on the small bed. He pulled her back against his chest, then tucked the thermal blanket over them both, heads and all. He rubbed at her arms, though he wasn’t sure it was doing much good through the thick coat she wore. Hell, he wasn’t sure if this would help at all, but surely they’d be warmer huddled together, wouldn’t they? Re-breathed air would be slightly warmer, and that should help their lungs.

“Welcome to my bed,” he said, trying to cover his worry with a bit of cheek. “Never thought this day would come.”

She leaned back against him and moaned softly, her eyes closed. He wrapped his arms around her more tightly and listened to the rhythm of her breathing for nearly a minute. It was reassuringly steady, but he needed to get her attention somehow, to keep her awake and alert.

“We really underestimated those smugglers, didn’t we?” he began. “Ships like that don’t usually have that level of firepower. It’s almost as if they were armed for a large-scale attack.” He frowned: had they missed a chance to gain an ally? “But now we know Maltho’s reach extends beyond Imperial interests. That captain didn’t just turn hostile when we mentioned the name. He was almost scared.” In fact, he’d never seen a hardened old one-eyed spacer look quite so terrified. It would have been funny if the man hadn’t then unloaded his forward canons into their shields. “He was definitely unhappy that we’d connected him with Maltho. But why?”

“Sumpf,” Hera mumbled.

“That’s it, talk to me. What was that?”

Hera opened her eyes, but they remained unfocused. Still, it felt like success.

“It never gets this cold on Ryloth, does it? Your species isn’t really built for the cold, I guess.”

She blinked and her forehead wrinkled.

“When I was a youngling at the Jedi Temple, there was a Twi’lek boy called Barsoc. He used to say ‘colder than a lylek’s garf,’ and I would laugh. Or at least, I did until I met a lylek and saw its garf.” He winced at the memory. “The Jedi always taught us to respect and appreciate life in all its forms but I saw nothing remotely worth appreciating in that.”

Hera turned her body and snuggled her face under the hood. He let himself press dry lips against her forehead and closed his eyes. This wasn’t exactly the way he’d always imagined it would be when he took her to bed and held her in his arms, but he’d take it.

“That was a long time ago,” he said, his voice dropping to nearly a whisper. “A lifetime ago, when I thought I was going to be a Jedi and spend my life fighting for truth and peace and all that kraf. And then it all just…” He trailed off as a strange roil of emotion clawed its way up his throat.

“Just what?” she said, so quietly he’d almost missed it.

He smiled, immensely relieved. “You’re awake.”

“Warmer now.”

“Good.” He pressed his cheek against her forehead. Her skin was still incredibly cold, but the fact that she was alert was a good sign. “I guess its a good thing neither of us ate gaff root today.”

She huffed something almost like a laugh. “Keep talking.”

“What do you want to hear?”

“You. Jedi.”

“Right.” He pressed his lips together for a moment. Where to begin? She’d never asked before, and he hadn’t volunteered. He’d always figured that the less she knew about that part of his life, the better. He didn’t want to make her a target unnecessarily. “I was brought to the Temple when I was around two years old. I don’t remember my mother, but I know that she was very poor, and struggling to raise four kids on her own. I’m sure it was hard to give me up, but she probably knew I’d have a better life with the Jedi than I would if I’d stayed.”

“Does she know?”

“That I’m alive?” Kanan shrugged. “It’s best if she doesn’t. Most people believe Empire’s propaganda about the Jedi. I wouldn’t know where to find her anyway.”

“Not everyone believes it.”

“But enough do. I’ve seen the sort of stuff they say, that the Jedi stole children from their families and abused and brainwashed them, but it wasn’t like that. It was… magical. We were treasured, given all the resources we needed to grow and learn. We knew we were special, that we were meant to make a difference in the universe.”

“And you will,” Hera said softly.

He looked down to her upturned face. Her eyes were warm and wide, and much of her color had returned. Her expression was so open, so hopeful, and his heart clenched in his chest.

He should kiss her. He should kiss her now, before he lost his nerve.

A trilling sound rang through the air, slightly muffled under the blanket.

Hera’s eyes lit up. “The alarm! We’re coming out of hyperspace.” She tugged the blanket off and they both winced at the rush of frozen air. She stood up and headed for the door, moving stiffly.

Kanan closed his eyes for a moment and took a steadying breath. His head was spinning a bit, and not just from the cold. Being that close to her, holding her — he didn’t know if he’d have the chance again.

The ship lurched out of hyperspace just as he reached the cockpit. Chokai Four hung in space before them, beckoning them with its green warmth. Hera flew them into the long line of merchant ships awaiting landing clearance.

“Chokai Four Planetary Authority, this is Alpha-Alpha—” She paused to double-check the transponder reading she’d had the ship randomly generate. “—Four-nine-two-Delta-Five, requesting emergency landing clearance for Batakki Spaceport. Our ship’s atmospheric controls are malfunctioning.”

There was nearly a minute of silence, then a burst of static followed by, “Emergency clearance granted. Proceed to the front of the landing queue and await further instructions.

“Copy that,” Hera replied. She switched off the comm and said, “Thank the Force.” She steered the ship out of the queue and toward the front of the long line of spacecraft.

It was incredibly cold in the cockpit, but it wouldn’t be much longer. Even now, the heat from the system’s star was beginning to warm them through the transparisteel viewscreen. They would soon be planetside, and they’d find a replacement heat unit, maybe stock up on supplies. And, if he could talk her into it, perhaps they could spend a day warming up on one of those nice Batakki beaches he’d heard about and make a plan for what to do next with the new information they had.

“We’re going to be fine,” Hera said, flashing him a confident smile.

“Yeah,” he replied, and swallowed down the persistent longing in his chest

Mostly fine, anyway.

*****

Chapter Text

“All I’m saying” —The woman turned and looked over her shoulder for the tenth time— “is that there’s a lot of credits going in and out. And we’re being pressured to cook the books, if you know what I mean.”

Hera’s gaze shifted to the entry of the small cafe and back again. Their local contact was clearly anxious about being seen with them, and that always put Hera on edge. “Any chance you can get us a copy of one of those books?”

The woman blinked nervously. “I… Look, I’d love to help you but—”

“We know we’re asking a lot of you,” Kanan said, his voice smooth. “We only need enough to see the pattern. You could download that in a few seconds and pass it on to us.”

“We can meet you anywhere,” Hera added. “We know Six Star is involved in some illegal activity. This could be just the information we need to—”

“To put hardworking people out of their jobs?” The contact lowered her voice to a whisper. “Look, I agreed to talk to you because I’m suspicious that there’s something shady going on. But if this corporation goes down, what will happen to the people who depend on it for their livelihoods? Six Star has taken over this place. There’s nothing else left.”

“People are already being hurt by this corporation’s practices,” Hera said softly. “That will only get worse.”

“The legitimate business will continue,” Kanan added. “As long as the Empire needs this planet’s resources, there will be jobs. But Six Star has made things worse here, hasn’t it?”

The contact’s forehead furrowed. “I can’t deny that it was better before Six Star took over. Everyone was paid more, and there were more opportunities. Now it’s just…” She looked away, her lips  pressed into a thin line.

Hera leaned forward, clasping her hands together on the table. “They’re taking everything they can from this world as cheaply as possible, and they don’t care how it affects the people or the environment. And all the credits are going into the bank accounts of the industrialists in the Emperor’s pockets, while the people suffer the consequences.  It’s happening all over the galaxy. If we don’t start standing up to them, what will we have left?”

The contact shook her head and stared down at her own weathered hands. “I know you’re right — I do. But I’m afraid. I have so much to lose.”

Hera nodded. “I know you’re afraid. But we need good people like you to help us do what’s right, or it will never get better.”

The woman sighed heavily, then looked up at her. “I’ll see what I can do. Perhaps I can put some data on a chip and pass it to you in the morning.” She glanced at the chrono on the wall behind them. “I’ve got to go or I’ll be late for my shift. I get off at 0800. I’ll pass through the main square on my way home.”

“We’ll find you,” Hera said. “Thank you.”

The woman nodded once, then rose to her feet and walked away.

Hera exhaled and slumped in her seat the moment she disappeared through the doorway. “I thought for a moment there she wasn’t going to help us.”

“She hasn’t yet,” Kanan pointed out, lifting his glass to his lips. “0800 is a long time from now.”

“I know.” Hera picked up her own glass and took a long drink. She winced and set it down again. “Ugh, what is that?”

“I don’t know, but I kinda like it,” Kanan said with a grin, and downed the rest of his drink. “We’ve got half a standard day before we see if she’ll get us anything. What else are we supposed to be doing here?” There was a slight edge to his voice: he didn’t like being left in the dark when they were given operations like this one.

Hera ignored it, as usual. “Let’s go check out the facility. Maybe we can find a way in, take a look around.”

“Do we have time to get a bite to eat first?”

“Thinking with your stomach again?”

He leaned back in his seat and gave her an almost roguish smile. “We’re in a cafe. You’ve got to admit it’s convenient.”

After a quick meal, they headed down the crowded street toward the large pyramid-shaped building that was the sector’s main employer: Chortarsta Chemical. Owned by Maltho’s Six Star Industries conglomerate, it was a remarkably profitable corporation. Too profitable, in fact, considering that it had built its reputation upon products that were now banned in most of the galaxy. Still, the business churned on, and no one asked what was happening to all the illegal chemicals they were shipping offworld. Or at least, they didn’t ask anymore — no one knew what had happened to the whistleblowers who’d first brought the situation to the attention of Hera’s superiors.

Kanan touched Hera’s arm. “Where’s everyone going in such a hurry?”

She looked up from her contemplation of the Chortarsta pyramid’s architecture (and potential vulnerable entry points) to see that the streets appeared to be emptying out. People were rushing along, some heading toward the pyramid and others away, but all with a purpose. The crowd was thinner now than it had been even a few minutes ago, and stores along the street were beginning to close up shop. She looked up at the sky: the system’s sun was on the verge of setting.

“Perhaps they literally roll up the streets at sunset?”

Kanan frowned. “Maybe we should follow their lead and head back to the ship for the night.”

A woman hurried past with two young children trailing behind her, saying, “Quickly! We can’t afford to get caught out after curfew.”

“Right,” Hera said, gritting her teeth. There had been no mention of a curfew in any of the landing briefings they’d received. And of course, they were on the opposite side of the city from the spaceport.

“Maybe we can get a hovercab.” Kanan stepped to the side of the street and flagged down an approaching cab.

“I’m headed to District 4,” the driver said around the tabac stick in the corner of his mouth.

“We need to go to the spaceport,” Kanan replied.

The driver laughed. “You’re out of luck, man. There’s no way to get there before curfew.” He shook his head and drove on.

“Blast,” Kanan muttered, looking around. “Now what?”

“We need to get off the street somehow.” Hera glanced pointedly at an approaching security hovercar, its driver having apparently noticed they were offworlders. “If we could find a spot to hole up until morning—”

“There,” Kanan said, pointing across the street. A small sign hanging above a bar had the word “INN” printed on it. Or had at one time, at least. The second nern looked a bit like a yirt.

Hera groaned inwardly at the thought of spending precious credits on a room at a dilapidated inn when they had a perfectly functional ship to sleep in on the other side of town. But she didn’t have a better idea, and they didn’t have much time. “Fine. Let’s hope there’s space available.”

The stairs leading up to the inn’s entrance were grimy, but the room behind the dull gray door at the top was spartan and clean. A dark-skinned woman with a rakish mop of white hair stood behind a counter. She didn’t stop scribbling in her record book as they approached.

“Got one room left.”

“How much?” Hera asked.
 
“Forty.”

Hera winced. “We’ll take it.”

The room was small even by spacer standards, but at least it was clean. The sleeping pallet took up most of the floor space, leaving just enough room for them both to stand at once. There was a connected ‘fresher unit, though, which Kanan ducked into immediately.

“It has a water shower!” he called from behind the door.

Hera smiled. Kanan loved water showers, and it was rare that he got one. Hera didn’t quite get the appeal; the thought of all that water running over her skin made her feel slightly itchy. If she wanted to get wet, she’d go for a swim.

“So you’ll be an hour, then?” She leaned against the wall and pulled off her boots.

Kanan’s face appeared in the doorway. “Do you need to get in here before I do?”

“No. Go and enjoy it.”

He grinned before closing the door.  She took off her headgear and utility belt, and stretched out on the sleeping pallet. It was surprisingly comfortable. The gentle hum of running water permeated the room, and she closed her eyes. She was tired, now that she thought about it. This city’s time shift was eight standard hours off the one they followed onship, and so neither of them had slept in almost an entire standard day. A period of enforced rest would be good for them.

She hadn’t realized she’d fallen asleep until she felt the pallet shift slightly as Kanan settled next to her. The room was dark and quiet but for the slight squeak of the springs beneath them. Kanan’s breathing evened out and Hera drifted off again, her brain already weaving strange patterns.

She slowly became aware of a muffled squeaking sound, followed by rhythmic groaning. She opened her eyes and stared up into the dim light. It was a moment before she registered what she was hearing. She pressed her hands over her face and sighed.

“I think they’re right above us,” Kanan mumbled, sounding half-asleep himself.

She tried to block out the sound, but it seemed only to get louder. A second voice joined the groaning, pitched higher. “This is why I prefer to sleep on my ship, you know.”

Kanan inhaled as if he were about to make a witty retort, but then stopped. A third voice had begun to moan in the room above them.

Hera’s annoyance melted into giggles then. She turned to grin at Kanan, who was now listening with interest. She swatted his shoulder. “Give them some privacy!”

Kanan snorted. “If they wanted privacy, they wouldn’t be so loud. They want everyone in the building to know how much fun they’re having.” There was a hint of envy in his tone.

Hera turned onto her side and watched his profile. His tongue darted out to wet his lips, and she felt a familiar spark in her belly. “Is it fun, then? I wouldn’t know.”

He turned his head to look at her, his expression one of shock. “You’ve never—”

“Had sex with two people at once? No.” She smirked at him and tucked one of her lekku under her head.  “But you have?”

He blinked at her.  “I… well, I mean…”

“I thought Jedi didn’t go for that sort of thing.”

“I’m not a Jedi, am I?” He looked away again.

She bit her lip, regretting the remark. He didn’t like talking about his Jedi past, but when he did, it was always with reverence. And there she’d gone and pointed out just how much he’d turned his back on their teachings. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“No, it’s… They weren’t like that, anyway. Some were celibate and some were not. It was a personal choice.”

The noises above grew to a crescendo, drawing their attention back to the ceiling. Other voices could be heard now as well — people in other rooms shouting curses in a variety of languages, most of which translated to Hurry the frak up and finish already!

Kanan turned to look at her again, his eyes dark and wide, and Hera felt a twinge in another place altogether. He was attractive for a human; she couldn’t deny that. The combination of a strange room, darkness, and the lascivious cries from the room above was weirdly intoxicating, pushing her to voice thoughts she would otherwise have tucked away.

“So are you going to tell me?”

“Tell you?”

“About—” She pointed up.

A strange smile spread over his lips. “Why do you want to know?”

“Call it research.”

He turned onto his side, shifting his body closer to her in the process. “On me?”

She smirked. “On human sexuality in general. It’s not an area I have expertise in.”

“Really, you’ve never had sex with a human?”

“No. Does that surprise you?”

He hesitated. “I suppose you’ve had far more important things to do.”

“Something like that. But I don’t want to talk about me.” She gave him a mock-stern look.

“Right.” He smiled lazily at her. “Well, since you really want to know, the first time was when I was fairly young.”

“The first time?” Kanan’s response was a sly shrug, and Hera shook her head. “How young?”

“Barely sixteen. I was working for this smuggling operation, and we got stranded on one of the moons of Tultin for a standard week when the ship broke down. It was the sort of place that’s full of drunk spacers getting into fistfights, you know? So one night I was hanging out in a bar with some of the crew, and these two women were watching us from across the room. The others fed me some drinks and dared me to go over and talk to them, flirt with them and see if I’d get anywhere. I later found out the crew had arranged it all in advance, just to see if I’d go along.” He paused for a moment, as if letting that information sink in. “So anyway, I went over and tried to flirt with them, and probably made an idiot of myself. But they smiled and took me by the hand and led me upstairs to a private room. They undressed me, and then they both started kissing me and touching me, and I think I lasted all of three minutes.” He grinned at Hera, and she couldn’t help returning it. “And then they just kept going.”

The mental image of a younger, inexperienced Kanan being thoroughly debauched by two lovers was undeniably appealing. Hera took a slow breath and exhaled again. “And were you… comfortable with that?”

“Are you kidding? I was thrilled. It went on most of the night, with them putting me into different positions and just… I don’t know how to describe it. It was like I was floating in sensation for hours. Eventually I fell asleep for a bit, but then they woke me up to start again.” His fingers traced a pattern on the surface of the pallet between them. His voice lowered to nearly a whisper. “It was amazing, actually. They did things I’d heard about, but had no idea were actually possible. It set the bar kind of high.”

“I imagine it did.”

They stared at each other in the dim light. Kanan swallowed, and Hera’s gaze followed the line of his throat down to where his undershirt gaped open on his chest, revealing sparse dark hair on his skin. She wondered what it would feel like beneath her fingers.  

She forced her gaze back up to meet his. “And the next time?”

Kanan’s expression was careful, almost neutral. “Why do you want to know this?”

Hera felt her face heat. “I’m sorry. It’s really none of my business.”

“No, I don’t mind,” Kanan replied, a bit hastily. “This is just… not the sort of thing we usually talk about.”

For good reason. Hera took a slow, steadying breath. It would be so easy right now. They could both write it off as something that had just happened, under strange circumstances. It wouldn’t have to change anything.

She looked back at him. His eyes were full of warmth, and there was a touch of something else there too — longing, and a hopefulness that made her heart clench.

She couldn’t afford to be naive about this. It would change everything. Maybe it would be fine. Maybe it would even be better. But she needed to be sure.

The amorous threesome above them had apparently decided it was time for round two, and the resulting shouts from the neighbors wrenched her back to reality. This was not something to do on impulse. Not here, not like this, with an audience shouting commentary.

She closed her eyes and tried to swallow down the raw want that flooded her.

“We should try to sleep,” she said at last, and shifted onto her back again. She didn’t need to look to see the disappointment on his face. The space between them was suddenly thick with it.

“Right,” he replied after a long moment.

She reached out and caught his hand, intertwined their fingers, willed him to understand. He squeezed her hand, but quickly pulled away again. He turned to lie with his back to her.

She gritted her teeth and ignored the heat still pooling between her thighs. It would go away, just as it always did. His would too, and in the morning they would be able to look each other in the eye and get back to work. It was better this way. It was.

She clenched her jaw and took a steadying breath, then released it slowly. His breathing was even and measured, and suddenly much too far away.

*****

The sound of footsteps in the building’s corridors drew her from her sleep. Her awareness expanded then to the warmth pressed against her back and to small puffs of breath against her shoulder. She smiled and gave herself a moment to enjoy it. Twi’leks commonly slept huddled together in groups, but she knew it was a far more intimate gesture among humans. He’d be embarrassed when he woke. She lay still for a few more minutes, then slipped away to use the ‘fresher. When she emerged, he was sitting on the edge of the pallet, strapping his body armor back on.

“How’d you sleep?” she asked.

“Well enough.” His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “It’s just past 0700. We should probably go.”

“Right.” She strapped her outer garments back on. He disappeared into the ‘fresher, careful not to so much as brush against her as he passed.

She pulled on her boots and leaned back against the door, and sighed.

*****

Hera gazed at the screen before her, heart pounding in her chest. The information on the data stick their contact had given them that morning was far more damning than she’d expected. The only possible explanation for these numbers was that Six Star was laundering funds through Chortarsta Chemical. And most of the incoming orders were being placed by the Empire.

This was information she needed to pass on as soon as possible. She ejected the stick and headed back to the main hold, where Kanan was tinkering with a pile of droid parts they’d picked up a few systems back.

“This is really not my area of expertise,” he said with a frustrated groan. He tossed a spanner back into its case and ran his fingers through his disheveled hair.  

Hera leaned against the doorway. “I told you not to bother. I’ve got a plan for those.”

He looked up. “So do I. It’s called ‘sell it all for scrap’.”

“That’s my new droid you’re talking about!”

He gave her a long look. “I don’t think the word ‘new’ even remotely applies.”

“We need to drop out of hyperspace. I’ve got to send this on to Fulcrum.” She held up the data stick.

“Right,” he said with a resigned sigh. “I’ll make myself scarce.” He gave her a tight smile and stood. “I’ll pick up this mess later.”

“No, don’t worry about it. I’ve been meaning to do something with that motivator we picked up on Baht.”

He threw his hands up in a gesture of whatever and left the main hold. Hera took a deep breath and released it slowly. He’d been unusually cool to her today, though she supposed she deserved it. She’d been far too careless with her affections these last few months. It was time to face the fact that she’d basically been stringing him along, giving him far too many reasons to hope their friendship could turn into something more. Hell, she’d been giving herself reason to hope, and it wasn’t fair to either of them.

She had a mission even Kanan didn’t know about, one that required her complete focus. Anything less could get them both killed. There were more important things in the universe than two people in love with each other.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and struck that last thought from her mind. She straightened her shoulders and opened her eyes again, then crossed to the communications panel.

Time to get back to work.

*****

Chapter Text

“Wait, I need a second.” Kanan paused to catch his breath. He closed his eyes and swiped a hand across his brow before even more sweat began to drip down his face.

“All right?” Hera asked, panting.

“I’m fine.” He looked away from her flushed face and took a drink from the water cannister on his utility belt.

The heat on this planet was oppressive, nearly consuming. The buzzing of insects and bleats of arboreal creatures had faded into the background an hour ago, but the heat remained, a hazy awareness on the edges of his consciousness. He hadn’t been on a planet this hot in a long time.

“Not far! Hurry!” Their local guide beckoned with one green speckled hand, then disappeared into the thick foliage once more.

Kanan took a deep breath of humid air and started forward again. He heard Hera’s footsteps behind him, solid and steady. She wasn’t struggling nearly as much as he was. Twi’leks could handle heat much better than humans — or so he kept telling himself, anyway.

Ten minutes later, his nose began to twinge: there was a strange smell in the air, metallic and dusty. A different sort of sound permeated the landscape now, one that was distinctly mechanical. Sunlight pierced the foliage ahead, as if they were approaching a clearing in the dense forest.

“Here!” The Grathonian said at last, waving two of his many hands almost frantically. “Look!”

They slowly made their way to his position and peered through the parted branches — and gasped. Before them stretched a vast expanse of wasteland, so wide that the trees on the distant edge seemed a mere green line on the horizon. There was no life left: trees had been razed, the ground burnt, and bones of a variety of animals were scattered across the charred remains of plant life. Winding across the near stretch was a small stream, though the water steamed and shimmered unnaturally. A crater could be seen in the distance, its wide yaw obscured by a rising cloud of metallic dust. The most prominent feature of the devastated landscape, though, was an enormous steel structure. Its spires belched acrid smoke while a line of droid-operated loaders piled high with rocky soil moved toward an entrance bay on the far side.

“You see?” their guide said softly. “This is what they do.”

“This planet has been a nature preserve for centuries. The damage they’re doing…” Hera’s eyes narrowed as she scanned the scene before her. “The Imperial Senate would have had to approve this operation, but there’s no record of it in the relevant subcommittees. And even if they had discussed it, there are laws prohibiting this sort of strip mining in—”

A familiar metallic sound pierced the air, and all three of them looked up. A squadron of TIE fighters streaked overhead.

“And yet, the Empire protects this operation,” the Grathonian said. His nostril slits squeezed closed indignantly. “They provide ‘security’ while Six Star takes what it wants, using the most destructive means imaginable. It is happening all over the planet, even in our most protected and sacred places. Our pleas have been ignored, all of our transmissions to the outside blocked.”

Hera shook her head in disgust and pulled the holorecorder from her utility belt. “We’ll get this information to those who can disseminate it. People will see what the Empire is doing here, one way or another.”

And then they’ll feel badly but do nothing about it. Kanan would never voice it aloud, but it was true all the same. They’d seen it before. Grathon was a long way from the Core and its wealthy, influential citizens. Devastation and genocide on a distant planet was just something to tut over briefly before going back to arguing about local politics. It was pointless, all of this, but they would do it anyway, because the alternative was even bleaker.

And it hardly helped that this planet was so frakking hot.

Kanan winced. He wasn’t usually so easily defeated by physical discomfort. He needed to focus his mind on something else.

“Shall I narrate your recording?” Their guide cleared his throat.

Hera hesitated a moment, her eyes full of concern. “Are you certain you want to risk being identified?”

The Grathonian straightened all of his limbs. “I am not afraid.”

He should be.

Hera nodded and pointed the recorder towards the desolate landscape. She switched it on and panned across the scene while the Grathonian spoke in careful, measured Basic, describing the effects of the Six Star conglomerate’s mining activities on the local population.

Kanan turned away to watch the area around them. There were no indications that they had been followed, nor that their arrival onworld — using an Imperial survey ship’s transponder signal — had aroused any suspicion about their intentions. Given the heat, he had difficulty imagining any Imperial-friendly organics would have tracked them here. Drones or probes were more likely.

He listened, but heard only the sounds of the dense forest: the background buzz of a billion insects, punctuated by an occasional shriek from high in the trees. He looked up to see dark shapes leaping in the canopy above — narnets, most likely, one of the small furry species visitors to this planet loved to trek through the forest in search of.

He took a slow breath and exhaled again. The thick air felt like a blanket around him, curling into his lungs and clinging moistly to his skin. His clothing was no help, trapping the heat his body so desperately needed to release.

Well — there was a solution to that. He glanced around once more before holstering his blaster, then stripped off his body armor and tucked it into the backpack he’d been carrying. That helped, but now he was even more aware of his sweat-soaked clothing. He tugged his overshirt off and wrung it out, cringing at the amount of sweat it had been holding. That was definitely getting cleaned before it went back on. And the undershirt too, for that matter. He tucked both into the bag alongside the armor. Oh yes — much better. If only there were a slight breeze, the heat might border on tolerable.

“We pray that our pleas will be heard by the good and decent citizens of the Empire,” the Grathonian finished.

“We still need more evidence,” Hera said, tucking the holorecorder away again. “I’m going around to the other side to get a better view of the mine pit.”

Kanan groaned. “I knew you were going to say that.”

Hera turned to glare at him, but any biting remark she’d been planning to make died on her lips. She stared at Kanan with wide eyes, clearly caught off-guard by the sight of him naked from the waist up.

“What?” He was unable to stop himself from smirking.

Her gaze roamed appreciatively for a second more, then she seemed to force herself to look away. “Let’s hope nothing poisonous bites you.”

“It’d still be better than heat stroke.”

She rolled her eyes.

“It is dangerous,” their guide said, apparently oblivious to the tension between them. “If you are seen, they won’t hesitate to use their weapons. There have been attacks on the facility by some of my people, and each has met with a terrible end.” His inner eyelids closed and opened again, his expression solemn.

“We understand,” Kanan told him, and handed him a commlink. “Stay here and keep watch. Signal us if you see anything.” He nodded curtly to Hera, whose headtails were twitching anxiously.

“We won’t be long.” She cast one more glance at Kanan before starting forward, picking her way through the brush. The undergrowth was thicker here, slowing their progress considerably.

The air felt even heavier in the dense greenery. Leaves stuck wetly to his bare skin as he wove his way through, some with jagged edges that scratched him as he passed. Bright red gnats buzzed annoyingly around his head, distracting him to the point that he walked right through the web of an arachnid. He wiped his face off furiously, swearing under his breath. Perhaps taking off his shirt hadn’t been a good idea after all.

He took a deep breath of liquid air and bit back his irritation as best he could. “How much further?”

“Just over there,” Hera said. Her voice was unusually strained.

Kanan frowned. “Are you all right?”

“Are you?”

“Not even close.”

“Then there’s something we agree on.” There was a smile in her tone, but Kanan found he couldn’t share it.

If he didn’t pull himself together soon, he’d compromise the mission. He centered himself, cleared his mind. His body was overheated and uncomfortable, yes, but his mind could transcend mere physical discomfort. He just had to focus, to—

Hera stopped in front of him, and he walked right into her, nearly knocking her over.

“Ow!”

“Sorry.”

She peered through the branches out to the open mine pit. “I think we’ll have a better view if we go over to that side.”

“It’s a frakking hole in the ground,” Kanan retorted, finally unable to contain his frustration. “How much better is it going to look?”

Hera turned to glare at him. “You’re not the only one struggling here, you know. The Grathonians—”

“Spare me the lecture, all right? Let’s just get the evidence so we can get the hell out of here and do something with it.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. Hera’s expression was one of annoyance. No sympathy or concern, just frustrated bewilderment that he was acting like such a child.

And he was, wasn’t he? He was usually better than this, stronger than this.

He looked away, wiped yet more sweat from his face. It had been this way for weeks, ever since she’d so flatly rejected him. He’d known better than to get his hopes up, but there had been so many signs, so many moments when he’d looked into her eyes and seen real longing. But then she’d gone and closed that door for good. He’d thought he could push his feelings aside and focus on the work, but on days like this one, it seemed almost impossible.

He sighed. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s just so damn hot, and—”

The was movement in front of him, and he looked up to see her unfastening the front of her flight suit. She pushed it down to bunch at her hips, and then did the same with her undershirt. All that remained was a strip of nearly-sheer fabric criss-crossing her chest. She leaned her head back to take a deep breath and her chest rose, stretching the fabric so tightly across her breasts that it might as well not have been there at all.

“Oh, that is better. I should have done it sooner.”

It was a moment before Kanan remembered to breathe. Her skin was smooth and dry, and just as flushed as her face. And frak it all, her breasts were perfect.

She opened her eyes and looked at him, and the slightest hint of a smile traced her lips. “What?”

His pants were distinctly tighter than they’d been before. “Nothing. Just glad you’re… better. Now. Without…” He made a vague gesture.

She looked as if she were biting back a laugh. “The sooner we get there, the sooner we can get out of here. Come on.” She started forward, picking her way through the undergrowth. The curve of her waist disappeared into the fold of the flight suit over her hips, and Kanan’s gaze was momentarily fixed on the way the small of her back swayed as she moved. It made him think of other ways she might move.

No, stop. He couldn’t do this to himself, not now. Besides, he’d stripped first, hadn’t he? He could hardly blame her for wanting to do the same.

The undergrowth cleared as they neared the edge of the forest by the mine pit, providing them less and less cover. They crouched behind a fallen tree that was as close as they dared go and peered carefully over the top. Mining droids worked steadily, pushing hovercarts loaded with a shimmering purple ore up a switchback path on the far side of the pit.

“Karbinium,” Kanan whispered. “Valuable stuff.”

“And important for the production of certain types of disruption weapons.” Hera balanced the holorecorder on the top of the log and switched it on.

There was a loud whirring sound overhead, and Kanan acted without thinking. He dropped to the ground on his back, pulling Hera down on top of him, and pointed his blaster up at the sky.

“What—” she hissed, but he put a finger to her lips.

Sentry droid, he mouthed.

She nodded, her eyes darting up to scan the sky. The droid moved on, making its way around the forest perimeter. It hadn’t seen them — or at least, it hadn’t behaved as if it had.

Hera sat up a bit higher, wriggling as she did, and it was only then that Kanan realized what he’d done. She was sitting astride his hips, her weight resting firmly against his newly-intrigued erection.

He winced and closed his eyes. Hutts. Naked hutts. Greasy, naked hutts.

She braced one hand on his chest and peeked up over the log again, then ducked back down quickly. “It’s gone, but we should stay out of sight. There may be more of them.”

Kanan took deep, steadying breaths, and tried to keep his mind clear. It was a bit difficult to think about anything other than the weight of her body pressing him into the ground, the curve of her breast just centimeters from his lips, her bare hand pressed against his damp skin. She was breathing harder now too. He could almost hear her heartbeat — or maybe it was that he could feel it, mingling with his own.

One of her fingers moved over his sweaty skin, almost exploratory in its touch. It glided across his nipple, which hardened immediately. Kanan gasped before he could stop himself, and Hera stilled against him.

“Sorry, sorry,” she whispered, shifting her weight as if to move away. Unfortunately, the movement caused her to slide against his groin in a way that made his eyes fly open. She froze in place, eyes closed, and exhaled shakily.

“Hera—” Kanan began, and she moved, gingerly pushing herself up and off. She settled on her knees on the ground beside him, her expression strangely blank. Kanan’s hand flew down to cover his erection, but it was impossible she could have missed it. He kept his eyes squeezed tightly shut.

He’d never been more tempted to reach out to the Force for strength than he was right now.

She rose up high enough to switch off the holorecorder. “I think we got what we need. Let’s fall back.” She crouched on her toes and carefully made her way back towards the denser undergrowth.

Kanan pushed himself to sitting, then reached behind him to brush dirt from his back. He took a deep breath and released it, and tried to focus on anything other than the humiliating reality of having just rutted against a woman who’d made it clear she wasn’t interested in him. He took several deep, steadying breaths to calm himself down.

“Kanan?”

He leapt to his feet, thought there was no urgency in her tone. He looked back at the mine, at the sentry droid now on the far side of the excavation area. The reality of the situation swept over him again, abating his arousal.

“Coming.”

They barely looked at each other during the long hike back to their guide’s village, nor after they’d said their goodbyes and politely refused a meal, explaining the urgency of passing the information on. After a silent two-hour ride on rented speederbikes and an awkward walk to the spaceport, they finally made their escape into the black coldness of space again, relieved to have left the heat of Grathon far behind.

*****

Kanan stripped off the rest of his clothes and dropped the smelly lot into the ship’s cleaning unit. Hera had gone to transmit the data they’d recorded to the elusive Fulcrum, so he had a bit of time to himself. He closed the door of his small room and stretched out on his bunk, eyes closed.

He cleared his mind and slowed his breathing, and then let his brain drift toward sleep. Images kept surfacing, though: Hera half-naked in the forest, Hera’s hips swaying as she walked, Hera’s fingers tracing the circumference of his nipple before pinching it between her fingers. Hera astride him, nothing between them now, her body slick with his sweat, rising and falling on his cock, gasping as she worked her fingers between her thighs and—

“Kanan?”

Her voice outside the door wrenched him awake again. He blinked, disoriented, the fingers of one hand sliding around the shaft of his penis automatically. So close.

“Yeah?”

“Sorry if I woke you. We’ve got orders.”

He exhaled, closed his eyes again. “Where to?”

“Lowan Three. More information once we get there.”

That was a fairly short hyperspace jump away. “I’ll get cleaned up.”

“You’ve got time. We’re not meeting them until 1900.”

“Right.” He settled back down again. Just long, slow strokes now, enough to keep him right there until she left.

“Kanan?”

He felt a small jolt at the way her voice sounded, as if she was pressing herself close against the door, listening to the soft sound of his hand sliding on his own skin. Had she heard him before he awoke? His face heated at the thought.

“Yeah?” He knew his voice was low and hoarse, but at the moment he didn’t care.

She was quiet for several seconds. “Get some sleep. That’s an order.”

“I was planning on it.”

He didn’t wait for the sound of her retreating footsteps; he rolled onto his belly and pumped into his fist, pressing his face against the mattress. If she wanted to listen to the sound of his breathing, to the small grunts deep in his throat as he got closer to the edge, fine. He didn’t care.

The Hera in his mind was beneath him now, urging him on, her fingers tightly gripping his ass as she tried to pull him harder against her. She pushed up to meet him, taking him in deep, and pressed her open mouth against his.

Yes-yes-yes, and then one more thrust, spilling hot into his own hand. He panted, relaxing his body into the mattress.

It wasn’t enough, but it was all he was going to get. He wiped his sticky hand on a towel he kept under his bunk, then rolled onto his back and let himself drift to sleep.

*****

Chapter Text

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.”

***