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On the Edge of the Devil's Backbone

Chapter Text

Ten years ago
Zardossa Stix

Rising smoke made a black column against the horizon.

Cham Syndulla felt his heart turn over as the Syndulla’s Gamble got close enough to ascertain that it was smoke and not some kind of natural landform, which he had still been holding out hope for until it was close enough to be visible to the naked eye as well as on the ship’s scanners.

“Are you certain?” he asked the ship’s pilot, his cousin-by-marriage Sinthya Syndulla. “Perhaps –”

Her mouth was compressed into a thin, tight line, her lekku taut and her shoulders so tense that Cham half-thought they would shatter if he touched her. It was her co-pilot Jaq who answered. “The coordinates match up, General Syndulla.”

Cham shut his eyes, letting out a shuddering breath. His hands were yellow-knuckled on the back of Sinthya’s chair, gripping so tightly that the worn, cracked synthleather dug into his exposed fingers.

He looked up as a hand landed on his shoulder, squeezing in a way that was probably supposed to be reassuring. Gobi didn’t smile, but he said, “Do not gather stones for their tombs just yet, Syndulla. Your sisters and your wife are strong.”

“So is the Empire, my friend,” Cham said.

He watched the smoke grow larger and larger as the Gamble approached, tense in expectation of an Imperial attack – they must have known that once word reached Ryloth of the colony’s destruction, someone would come to investigate its veracity. It did not take much guessing to expect Cham himself. Not to those who knew just who had been living in the colony.

Soon they began to see the outskirts of the colony. Zardossa Stix was not so very different than Ryloth, one of the reasons that it had attracted the colony’s founders, and many of the same crops had been grown here, carefully laid down alongside the small rivers and oases that sprang up at odd points in the desert. Cham had seen holos of the colony and knew how the fields should have looked; now they were burned, the crops charred to ash. From above, he saw the corpse of a blurrg floating in a pool, poisoning the water.

Nearer the city’s walls, more obvious signs of fighting began to appear. The attack must have come at night, because there were few corpses to be seen here, but Cham spotted a tumbled AT-DP with its chassis cracked open, along with one downed V-wing starfighter. The colony had not been completely unarmed; there were enough veterans from the Clone War here that they had known how to take down tanks and starfighters from the ground, given the chance to do so. It looked like at least a few of them had.

“Should we set down on the landing pad, General?” Jaq asked.

“No,” Cham said, shaking himself out of his reverie. Half the walls were tumbled down; the smoke he had seen from so far away was rising from somewhere within the colony. “Fly over the colony, and then land outside the walls. The landing pad may be booby-trapped.”

The only other area within the walls large enough for the Syndulla’s Gamble to touch down in was the forum, which any half-clever Imperial officer could have predicted and bore the same risk. Cham stared out the viewport as Jaq nodded and did as he had ordered, the Gamble flying low over the city walls.

“There’s nothing on the scanners,” Sinthya said, speaking for the first time in hours. “No lifeforms. Ours or theirs.” She stared at the sensor boards in a bleak sort of way; apparently Jaq was the one flying the ship. Cham couldn’t blame her.

“There is still a chance,” Cham said, with a certainty he didn’t feel.

Sinthya glanced back at him, her mouth twisting, but didn’t respond.

The Gamble circled slowly over the colony, giving Cham a good view of battered and burned buildings – many of them still on fire; thus the smoke – and the bodies littering the streets. From this far up he couldn’t make out any features, but he could tell that while there were stormtroopers among them, the vast majority were Twi’leks. At least, he thought bleakly, there weren’t enough bodies to account for everyone in the colony.

He couldn’t help looking for Alecto and Hera, even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to see them from here.

“I’m going to set down in that field,” Jaq told him, angling the ship away from the city. She squinted doubtfully out the viewport and added, “What’s left of that field.”

Cham dragged his gaze away from the city and nodded. “Very well. I’ll –” speak to the others, he meant to finish, but the words stuck in his throat. He didn’t know if he could bear to meet the gazes of the people who had come with him, who were all friends and relatives of those who had left Ryloth for the colony. Who had come here because they wanted to be safe from what the Empire was doing to Ryloth.

“I’ll speak to them,” Gobi said. He squeezed Cham’s shoulder again, then left the cockpit, his soft-soled step light on the deck.

Cham sank into one of the passenger seats, putting his head in his hands. He had sent his entire family here, mostly against their wishes; he had wanted them to be beyond fear of the Empire’s reprisal against him. He was supposed to be Palpatine’s only target, not his family.

He felt the Gamble touch down on solid ground. Jaq and Sinthya busied themselves shutting down the ship’s engines, then stood. Jaq said, “It’s time, General.”

Cham pushed himself upright. Sinthya didn’t look at him, stepping wide of him as she made her way to the door. Jaq watched him as if bracing herself to catch him if he fell, like she expected him to falter before he left the cockpit. Cham wasn’t certain that he wouldn’t.

They were supposed to be safe. They were supposed to be safe.

They had all been meant to be safe.

His bootsteps rang heavily on the deck as he made his way out of the cockpit, Jaq trailing him. Everyone but a skeleton crew had already left the Gamble; they knew better than to leave the ship unattended, and not everyone here wanted to see what was left of the colony.

The others were already standing outside the ship, a few of them with their hands on their blasters but most of them looking bleakly towards the colony walls. Cham’s cousin Themarsa Pehshan Syndulla, who was a doctor, was holding his medical bag close; Cham guessed that the only reason he hadn’t gone over to the nearest bodies was because Gobi had a firm grip on his elbow, keeping him from leaving the group.

All of them had sent family to the colony. Parents, spouses, children, siblings, lovers, friends – all of them here.

All of them gone.

It took all of Cham’s political training to keep his voice calm as he reminded his people that there was no way to be certain that the Empire had gone completely; there were ways to fool lifeform scanners. They couldn’t afford to spend much time here, but they had to search the colony thoroughly. There would be no one left behind here – not the living, not the dead.

“Stay with Themarsa,” he told Gobi as the other man made to follow him. “I don’t want any harm coming to him.”

“I do not think you should be alone, Syndulla,” Gobi said, his brow furrowing in concern.

“I’ll stay with him,” Jaq volunteered.

“I don’t need to be babysat,” Cham said dryly. He stepped aside before either of them could say anything in response and looked up to see his sister-in-law staring at him.

Clotho Syndulla met his gaze for a moment, then looked away. Cham didn’t think she had spoken three words since they had heard about the colony and her silence had been terrible, making everyone steer as warily around her as they did around Cham. She had been at the colony until only a few months ago, before she had left her teenage son and infant daughter in the care of her sister’s household in order to return to Ryloth, to the fight. If harm had come to either of them, Cham wasn’t certain that Clotho would ever be able to forgive herself.

Clotho turned her head a little as Sinthya touched her arm, saying something that Cham was too far away to hear. Clotho nodded, and the two women started towards the city.

Cham shut his eyes. Even the clean desert wind blowing in from the east couldn’t wipe away the scent of death that hung heavy in the air, nor the acrid heaviness of the black smoke still climbing into the sky. He opened his eyes again and stared at it, then made himself step forwards. He couldn’t put this off any longer, not that he was here. Whatever the truth was – whatever had become of his family – he had to know.

Everything inside the city walls felt like death.

Cham walked with his blaster drawn, wary of an Imperial trap, but it soon became clear that the only living beings left in the city were the Twi’leks that had come on the Syndulla’s Gamble. Even the desert scavengers had fled at the ship’s approach; the blurrgs and other beasts brought from Ryloth or purchased at the nearest market had been slaughtered. All that seemed to remain were a handful of tookas that watched his passage from the darkened doorways of houses with shattered walls and tumbled roofs. Pets, presumably, but ones now too wary of people to approach.

Everywhere were the dead. Cham had stopped at the first dozen bodies to check their faces, recognizing a tall blue-skinned woman who had fought with him against the Separatists and a man who had been one of the tenants on his family’s estates, but after that there were too many, and Cham only stopped for the ones who might have been his wife, one of his sisters, or one of the children.

Too many children’s corpses lying in the street, still clad in their night-clothes and ripped at by scavengers in the long hours that had passed between the Imperials’ departure and Cham’s arrival.

The city wasn’t so large that it took him long to reach the street where his wife’s house had been built, not far from the forum as befit her status. Cham stopped in the street, staring at it in dismay – the door had clearly been blown open, char-marks still scoring the mudbrick around the doorframe and the shattered window, where tattered curtains still fluttered weakly. He stood frozen, his blood pounding in his ears. Alecto could be in there. His sisters could be in there. Hera could be in there –

Hera could be in there. She could be alive, she could be hiding; she had always been good at that when it was time for her lessons. There was no reason to think that she couldn’t have hidden from the Imperials as well as she had from her tutors back on Ryloth.

As soon as Cham stepped through the doorway, his boots crunching on the remains of the door, he knew that his daughter wasn’t anywhere in the house.

There was a body lying near the center of the atrium, an orange-skinned Twi’lek woman whose single remaining eye was staring blankly at the ceiling. Cham had no conscious memory of crossing the room, just the hard shock that resonated through his whole body as he fell to his knees beside his youngest sister.

Even though her skin was cool and waxy, he still pressed his fingers to Aleema’s neck, hoping vainly for a pulse, but there was nothing. As Cham pulled her clumsily into his lap, he saw the glittering fragments of metal embedded in her brow and the side of her skull; dried blood stained the tile floor where she had lain.

He didn’t know how long he sat there. He knew that he ought to have gotten up to look for Seku and Alecto – for Hera – for the other children – but he couldn’t seem to make himself do so, not with Aleema’s corpse in his arms. He didn’t know if he could bear it if he found his daughter dead in one of the other rooms.

At some point he heard Jaq leave the atrium. She must have searched the rest of the house, because she came back and said gently, “There’s no one else here, Syndulla.”

Cham nodded bleakly, not looking up. His sister was a heavy weight in his arms, on his lap, her lekku spilling messily across his knees.

He wasn’t aware of anyone else entering the house, not until bootsteps clicked on the tile. Cham raised his head to see Clotho standing over him, staring down at him. She was holding a bloody bundle in her arms, cradling it as carefully as she would a living child. One small blue lek, graying with death and spattered with dried blood, dangled down from the swaddling of stained fabric. She sat down beside Cham, holding her daughter’s body close against her chest as she tucked the errant lek back into the fabric.

“They’re gone,” she whispered. “They’re all gone.”

*

Present day
Somewhere in the Outer Rim Territories

Something has happened, Hera thought. It’s been too long.

She let her head fall back against her chair’s headrest, staring out at the viewport and willing Fulcrum’s ship to appear, even if she didn’t have a clue what it looked like. Kanan should have checked in by now. He should have checked in hours ago. It was an easy trick to jump in and out of hyperspace, losing any pursuers along the way; they should have been able to rendezvous with Fulcrum within minutes of leaving the clearinghouse. That had been hours ago.

Fulcrum could have turned Kanan and Ezra in to the Empire. She could have sold them to the Hutts. She could have killed them herself –

Blast it, Kanan, what were you thinking?

Hera folded a hand into a fist and pounded it silently against the armrest, which barely even had the effect of leavening her frustration. The only other person in the cockpit to see was Chopper, who had certainly seen far worse over the past six years; Zeb and Sabine had both retreated once it became evident that nothing was going to happen quickly.

Neither of them could understand why Kanan had gone off with a complete stranger either, of course. The Kanan they knew had always been smarter than that, mostly because they had never known the Kanan who had thrown away his entire life to follow Hera off Gorse.

Hera massaged the skin over her eyes. Arguably that hadn’t turned out very well for Kanan, either.

She looked up as the door behind her slid open. “Any news?” Zeb asked.

Hera shook her head. “Nothing yet. I don’t even know where they might have gone.” Unlike when he had been arrested, where she had known exactly where he was being taken.

“Why did Kanan trust this broad, anyway?” Zeb settled into his usual seat, Sabine following him into the cockpit.

Hera shook her head again. “He said she was a Jedi,” she said, which made Zeb snort.

“Anyone can say they’re a gundark, but that doesn’t give them four arms and a bad attitude.”

“Except she wasn’t the one who said it.” Where would Fulcrum have taken him? What would she even want with Kanan? Ezra, perhaps, if what Kanan had suspected turned out to be true, but Kanan? He had been an Inquisitor; no rebel would trust him because of that. Few Imperials would, either, but that was immaterial at the moment.

“I can’t believe we lost him again,” Zeb grumbled. “I’m going to put a blasted bell on him the next time we see him, see how Inquisitor High and Mighty likes that –”

“Jedi High and Mighty,” Sabine reminded him, and his ears twitched.

That’s going to take some getting used to.”

You have no idea, Hera thought. She stared out the viewport at the empty space between stars, wondering if there would be anything to get used to or if Kanan was gone. Again. But he promised, she thought fiercely. He had promised that he wouldn’t leave her again, that he would come back. She refused to believe that he would break that promise so soon after he had made it.

“Hera –” Sabine began hesitantly, after a few minutes of awkward silence had passed in the cockpit. “If he doesn’t contact us –”

Before she could finish the sentence, the communications board lit up with an incoming transmission. Hera managed to keep from leaping for it, but she couldn’t help the smile that spread over her face at the sight of Kanan’s hologram.

“Kanan!” she said. “Are you all right? What took you so long?”

An instant later she felt a flicker of doubt. Kanan’s expression was strained; he was standing with his hands clasped behind his back and his shoulders tight, as if for an inspection. And he wasn’t wearing either his lightsaber or his blaster, the holster empty on his thigh. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen Kanan unarmed; he was never more than arm’s reach from a weapon even when they were in bed together.

“The Empire –” she began.

“Hera,” he said tiredly, “it’s not the Empire.”

“Kanan?”

She caught her breath as the field of the hologram suddenly widened, revealing the Togruta woman Fulcrum standing on one side of Kanan. Hera’s father was on his other side.

“Hera,” he said, sounding cautious.

Hera crossed her arms over her chest, anger making her bite off the words. “Father. This is low even for you.”

Cham Syndulla’s jaw twitched. He looked tired, like he hadn’t been sleeping much lately; he also looked a little hopeful. Hera wasn’t entirely certain what he was hoping for, unless it was that neither she nor Kanan would snap and kill him. “Hera –” he began.

“I know what you want,” Hera snapped. “Transmit me your coordinates and I’ll come. I’ll get my partner and his apprentice. And then I never want to see you again.” She closed her hands into fists onto the arms of her chair, yellow-knuckled with fury.

Her father blinked once. “Your mother and your cousins want to see you,” he offered like a salve, as if anything would make this better.

“And I want my partner back, preferably unharmed.” Hera looked away from him, only long practice from years in the Imperial service keeping her anywhere near calm. “Kanan, are you all right? Where’s Ezra?”

His shoulders slumped. “We’re both fine,” he said. “No one cares about the kid; it’s me they want to throw out an airlock.” He sighed. “Hera, I’m sorry.”

“Love, it’s not your fault your new friend turned out to be a double-crossing schutta,” Hera said. “We’ll be there soon.” She looked back at her father, anger making her voice shake as she added, “If you hurt him – either of them – I’ll kill you.”

She shut off the transmission before she could say anything else rash and stayed where she was, her hands fisted so tightly that her nails dug into her palms even through the leather of her gloves. She was so angry that she could barely breathe.

Chopper warbled softly after a few moments, and Hera heard Sabine get up to check what it was. “They transmitted the coordinates.”

Hera shut her eyes, then pushed herself up out of her chair. “Then plug them into the navicomputer and let’s get this over with.”

Sabine made a sound of surprise, but Hera didn’t wait to hear what she said after that, just stepped out of the cockpit and let the doors slide shut on her startled crew. She was shaking all over by the time she managed to lock the door of her cabin behind her, leaning back against it with her hands over her face before her knees gave out and she slid to the floor.

Years in the Imperial Academy dormitories had taught her to cry silently. Hera sobbed into her gloved hands, occasionally trying and failing to wipe her face clean on her sleeve. It was too much, it was all too much. She wanted Kanan back – just Kanan, wanted Kanan and the Ghost and the freedom of the stars, not any of the rest of this. Not her father. She hadn’t wanted her father since she had been a child, and that was a long time ago and a lifetime away and it wasn’t fair, none of this was fair, she had done all the right things and it had all gone wrong, and then she had done all the wrong things and it had all gone even worse.

Not fair, not fair, and if there was one thing Hera should have learned from the Empire it was that nothing was ever fair, but she hadn’t expected this.

*

Cham wasn’t certain what he had been expecting from either Hera or her Inquisitor, but whatever it had been, it certainly wasn’t what he got.

After the comm shut off, they stood in awkward silence for a few minutes, looking at each other before the Inquisitor glanced aside. “If you’re going to space me, do it before Hera gets here,” he said, sounding tired.

“No one is spacing anyone,” Ahsoka said. As the Inquisitor raised an eyebrow at her, she said, “He can stay on the Aegis with me until his crew arrives –”

“No,” Cham said. “We have a brig on the Hope. I won’t have this…thing…walking around free, even without his weapons. And I want him searched for trackers, hidden weapons, anything else you can think of.”

The Inquisitor flicked a glance at him. He was standing with deceptively casual ease, his hands loose and open at his sides; even without the black leathers he had been wearing when Cham had last seen him on Thyferra he had an air that radiated threat, like a languid predator. The fading bruises on his face did nothing to make him look like less of what he was – one of the Emperor’s deadliest weapons.

My daughter shares her bed with that thing, Cham thought with a chill, and had to resist the urge to draw his blaster and blow the Inquisitor’s brains out. Only the promise he had made to Hera kept him from doing so, and even then…maybe his daughter would thank him for it once the Inquisitor was dead. Once she was truly free.

He put his hand on his blaster grip, considering it; at the motion Ahsoka caught his eye and shook her head. She put her hand on the Inquisitor’s elbow and, as he turned his head to consider her, said, “Do you have a problem with that, Kanan?”

He curled his lip. “It’s not the first time that I’ve been searched – or that I’ve been in a cell. Not even the first time this week.”

“That sounds like an interesting story,” Ahsoka said. “Come on, Kanan.”

She took a step towards the door, where Doriah was waiting with his blasters drawn, but Cham said, “I want him searched now, before he leaves this room. Down to the skin.”

“Fine,” the Inquisitor said, pulling free of Ahsoka’s hand. He reached up to fumble the straps of his pauldron free, dropping the pieces of his armor on the deck with heavy clunks. His belt and empty holster followed a moment later, then his boots and his green jumper. He was reaching for the collar of his black undershirt when he hesitated.

Cham’s grip tightened on his blaster.

The Inquisitor shut his eyes, his teeth digging into his lower lip, then pulled the shirt off over his head.

Doriah made a soft, shocked sound in the back of his throat.

The Inquisitor dropped the shirt on the floor, his eyes still shut. He skimmed out of his trousers a moment later and added, his voice dry, “All the way to the skin?”

“Yes,” Cham said.

“I used to get tips for this sort of thing,” the Inquisitor mused, then pushed his underwear down and stepped out of it. “Happy now?”

“Ecstatic,” Doriah said flatly. He holstered his blasters and produced a scanning wand, stepping away from the door and towards the Inquisitor. He ran the wand over the Inquisitor, the Inquisitor spreading his arms without being asked. Doriah stepped away a moment later and said, “He’s clean. You can put your pants back on now. That’s more human male than I ever wanted to see again.”

“Flattered to hear it,” the Inquisitor drawled, doing as much. He was reaching for his shirt when Doriah said, “Wait.”

The Inquisitor’s shoulders slumped, but he obeyed without protest. He stood utterly still, shirt dangling from his hand, as Ahsoka stepped around him to push his short ponytail away from the back of his neck. He flinched at her hand, but didn’t pull away.

The last person Cham had seen with the Imperial cog tattooed on the back of their neck had been Ojeda. Before today, he had only seen Imperial slaves marked like that.

He was so focused on the cog that he didn’t notice the alphanumeric code tattooed beneath it at first, not until Ahsoka touched it gently with one finger – the Inquisitor flinched again – and said, “What is this?”

The Inquisitor raised his chin, rolling his shoulders back, and said flatly, “It’s my operating number.” His grip on his shirt was white-knuckled.

Doriah sneered. “I’m surprised an Imperial officer would agree to be marked like a slave.”

His voice flat, the Inquisitor said, “What makes you think I agreed?” He pulled his shirt on and turned to face them, crossing his arms over his chest. “We done with show and tell yet? I’m getting cold.”

“We’re done,” Cham said. “Take him to his cell.”

“Great,” the Inquisitor said, scooping his green jumper off the floor and tugging it on, then his gunbelt. He picked the pieces of his armor up and began to fasten them into place. “I hate long waits.”

“You sure we can’t shoot him?” Doriah demanded.

“You tried that already,” the Inquisitor snapped at him. “On Lothal and Thyferra.”

“Well, you know what they say,” Doriah said. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

“Please,” the Inquisitor said. “Try.”

“Well, if you insist –” Doriah began, drawing one of his blasters.

Cham caught his wrist. “Not unless he gives you a reason,” he said.

Doriah scowled and holstered his blaster again as Cham released him. The Inquisitor flicked a glance at him, fixing the last piece of his armor, his knuckle plate, into place. He pulled his boots on without looking at anyone, the line of his back tight and his shoulders tense.

“Cuff him?” Doriah asked Cham, reaching for the binders he had brought with him.

“That isn’t necessary,” Ahsoka said. She looked at the Inquisitor. “Is it?”

He shrugged. “Is there anything I could say that would make you believe me?”

“No,” Doriah said.

“At least he’s honest,” the Inquisitor observed.

“Binders won’t be necessary,” Ahsoka said again, frowning.

“I won’t have that creature walking free on my ship,” Cham said, making the Inquisitor roll his eyes.

Doriah snapped the binders around his wrists, which the Inquisitor suffered without protest. Ahsoka’s frown deepened.

“Come on,” Doriah said, grabbing the Inquisitor by the shoulder and thrusting him towards the door. “There’s a cell with your name on it.”

“Well, that will be new,” said the Inquisitor. He took two steps, then stopped, and looked back at Ahsoka and Cham. “What about the kid?”

“Free Ryloth does not harm children,” Cham said. “Not even Imperial ones.”

“Ezra’s not an Imperial,” the Inquisitor said, but he let himself be marched towards the door again. Ahsoka followed, keeping her hands on the hilts of her lightsabers despite her earlier words.

Cham stayed behind, watching them leave – there were more guards outside the doors, and they would accompany Doriah, Ahsoka, and the Inquisitor down to the brig. They had barely departed when the door slid open again and Alecto came into the room, frowning over her shoulder before she turned to face him.

“Why is he still alive?”

“Because I would rather not Hera shoot me again,” Cham said, rubbing his bad shoulder, which still ached.

“Once he’s dead, she won’t be affected by his mind tricks anymore,” Alecto said, scowling. She crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s a danger to this ship as long as he’s onboard.”

“I’m aware.”

“If word gets out to the Synedrion that you have an Imperial Inquisitor onboard –”

“It won’t.”

“Once word gets out on this ship that you have an Imperial Inquisitor onboard,” Alecto said sharply. “I’m not sure there are a dozen people on this ship you aren’t related to who won’t want to lynch him in his cell.” She paused and considered. “I’m not sure there are a dozen people on this ship you are related to who don’t want to lynch him in his cell.”

“Are you one of them?” Cham inquired, tensing in expectation of the answer.

I think you should have spaced him as soon as he came onboard,” Alecto said. “But I’m not going to go in there and shoot him, if that’s what you’re asking.” She took a deep breath, then said in a rush, “Hera said that she would come?”

“She wasn’t happy about it, but yes, she agreed.” Cham put his hands on Alecto’s shoulders, feeling her tension. “Hera’s coming. She’s coming here.”

*

Hera stayed kneeling on the floor until her knees protested, then she pushed herself slowly up to her feet, her whole body aching as if drained of energy. She made her way stiffly over to her bunk, stripping off her wet gloves and damp jacket as she went and letting them fall to the floor behind her. She pulled her shirt off too, tugging her lekku free of the collar, and then kicked off her boots and skinned out of her pants until she was standing nearly naked in her cabin, shivering in the cool blast of air from the ship’s ventilation system.

They took him, she thought again, fine for a moment until the reality of what that meant came crashing down on her. Her parents had nearly killed Kanan once before, and now he was there, they had him, they would – they would –

Hera sank down onto her bunk, putting her head in her hands, but she didn’t have any tears left. Instead she curled up in her unmade bed, where the sheets still smelled like Kanan, and pulled a pillow against her chest. It was easier to think about what her parents might do to Kanan now that they had him than it was to think about her parents at all, about the ghosts Hera had thought she had exorcised years ago.

Hera felt fourteen years old and terrified again, sitting in a cell with her whole future stretched out before her – a future spent in a room whose span Hera knew intimately, whose width she could still walk with her eyes close, her arms stretched out to touch the places where the walls should have been. She had walked those walls more times than she could count in the decade since she had left the Spire, and knew that if she got up, if she dragged herself out the bed she shared with Kanan, she could do so now.

Hera didn’t get up. Instead she stayed where she was, clutching the pillow to herself. Her eyes felt dry and swollen, her body heavy, her lekku dragging at the back of her skull like a pair of deadweights.

It was an all too familiar feeling; Hera had spent more of her life crying than she cared to think about. Her head throbbing, Hera finally pushed herself upright, sitting on the edge of her bunk with the pillow still held against her. She sat there silently, staring at the locked door, and felt a flutter of panic in her chest, the kind of panic that had led to a fourteen-year-old girl throwing herself at the door to her cell and pounding at it until her fists bled. She had done it often enough that ten years later she still had the scars.

That had been a long time ago, and this was her room, not a cell. She was the one who had locked the door, and she could get out when she wanted to. That made all the difference.

Hera took a shuddering breath, then made herself set the pillow aside and get up. She found a clean shirt and pants, the dark sober colors that plainclothes ISB officers favored, and picked her gun belt and blaster up off the floor where she had dropped them. She was pulling her boots on when she looked up and saw her uniform.

Hera hadn’t been able to bear the idea of packing it away, so she had hung it up the way she normally did, since it kept the fabric from wrinkling. She stared at it blankly, at the neat red and blue squares of her rank insignia on the breast – everything she had worked so hard for over the past decade. Gone.

She swallowed and looked aside, pulling her second boot on and smoothing down the leg of her trousers where it had gotten bunched up. She stood for a moment, indecisive, then licked her lips and went to the door, touching the control to unlock it. Even after all this time, she still felt a murmur of relief as the door slid open without even the hesitation of a creaky mechanism.

She found Zeb and Sabine in the lounge along with Chopper, looking at a hologram of the Free Ryloth fleet’s last known configuration. Sabine was pointing at the frigate that hung near the front of the elongated spear tip – the weaker ships had already begun jumping to hyperspace at the time – and saying, “They’ll be keeping Kanan and Ezra here, on the flagship. The –” She squinted at the labels in the hologram, from the Imperial Navy computers. “The Forlorn Hope? That’s a weird name for a ship.”

“It’s named after the Syndulla clan lands, the Tann province,” Hera said, making them look up as she came in. “The Twi’leki word for ‘hope’ is ‘tann.’” She sighed, realizing she was stalling, and added, “What do you have so far?”

Sabine scooted over so that Hera could sit down beside her, reaching for the holoprojector controls. The image of the fleet blinked out, replaced by a hologram of a Separatist war frigate without the Forlorn Hope’s modifications. “We don’t have the schematics for the flagship, but the old Separatist schematics are in the public record, and they can’t have changed the ship that much. That means the holding cells will be here – C-27.” A red light blinked in the place she had indicated. “That has to be where they’re keeping Kanan.”

Zeb shook his head. “I don’t think so.” When Sabine frowned at him, he said, “There are a lot of people living on that ship, right? There’s no way they expected to have to keep prisoners long-term. If you ask me, they would have converted the cells into living quarters and put the brig somewhere else.”

Hera nodded slowly. “A lot of the old droid ships only had minimal life support, if any. The frigates were originally a Trade Federation design, so they had more than some of the others, but when the ship was refitted it would have had to be installed everywhere else. It would already have been in this holding area.”

Sabine scowled, disgruntled at having her theory rebutted, but allowed, “I’d forgotten about that. They’re still going to have a brig somewhere, though, and the most likely place is probably – here.” She jabbed a finger into the hologram, which obligingly lit up another red dot for her. “Hangar bays here, here, and here,” she added, tracing them with her finger, “along with airlocks at regular intervals all along here, if the Twi’leks kept them.” She pulled up the hologram of the fleet again, enhancing it to only show the Forlorn Hope, and ran the hull analysis software. “Which it looks like they did.”

“You really think we’re going to have to infil?” Zeb asked Hera, sounding a little surprised. “Any chance they’re going to just hand Kanan and the kid over when we get there?”

“You don’t know my father,” Hera said, shaking her head. “He’s already tried to kill Kanan once before, and nearly succeeded.”

Sabine and Zeb glanced at each other, but it was Chopper who asked the question.

“Back on Thyferra, when Kanan was shot,” Hera confirmed. She rubbed a hand over her face, feeling the edges of her panic creep up on her again. “I’m fairly sure he won’t try it again, at least not before I get there.” She hesitated for a moment, then added, “And I don’t think Fulcrum actually wants Kanan dead.”

Sabine gave her a strange look. “Hera, whoever she is, she kidnapped Kanan.”

“I know,” Hera said. She took a breath, then added, “According to ISB reports, Fulcrum has been reported all over the galaxy; Lothal was the first time she’s ever been sighted with Free Ryloth. That means she has connections with other rebel cells. Kanan is an Imperial deserter. Even if my father cares more about the fact that he sleeps with me than he does about that, she won’t. She’ll want to interrogate him before she executes him, and for that he needs to be alive.”

Zeb and Sabine looked at each other again, and Chopper warbled warningly. Hera clenched her hands under the holotable, her heart in her throat. They’d dealt with enough rebels to know what that meant when it came to Imperial collaborators or captured officers; it always ended in bodies.

“Whatever they do to him,” Hera said, “he’s had worse.”

Sabine hesitated, indecision writ across her face, and then said, “What about your family, Hera? If you really think they’re not going to hand Kanan and Ezra over –”

Hera dug her nails into her palms. “I’ll deal with my parents. For now, plan for a jailbreak.”

*

Kanan didn’t know how long he had been meditating when he felt the murmur of a disturbance in the Force, a resonance as though someone had tapped lightly on a bell. He let himself slip out of his trance, touching his bare fingertips to the cool metal of the deck to ground himself in his own body before he looked up.

Ahsoka, who had been sitting on the other side of the cell’s ray shield, was already on her feet. She frowned at him before the door slid open, admitting a tall, green-skinned Twi’lek woman who was still handsome despite the dramatic scar cutting across one side of her face. Kanan stood up, since it seemed rude to remain sitting when both women were standing, and because he had a feeling he knew who this was.

The woman came to a halt in front of his cell and studied him silently through the shield, then flicked a glance at Ahsoka and said, “Leave us.”

Ahsoka hesitated. “Are you certain –”

“From what I know of Imperial Inquisitors, if he wants to kill me, I doubt you’ll be able to stop him,” said the woman. She had a deep, husky voice for a woman and a strong Rylothean accent, but there was something about the way she formed her vowels that reminded him of Hera. “And if he doesn’t, then I have nothing to fear.”

Ahsoka frowned, but said, “I’ll be outside if you need me –”

“Ahsoka,” Kanan said, making both women look at him. “Can you do me a favor?”

Her brows drew together, but she didn’t say no, so Kanan decided to take that as a tentative affirmative.

“Can you find the kid and make sure he hasn’t gotten into too much trouble? He’s got itchy fingers. And he’s never been on a starship bigger than the Ghost before.”

Ahsoka studied him in silence for a few moments, then nodded. “I’ll find him,” she said, then frowned. “I told him to stay on the Aegis.”

“He’s not so good with instructions,” Kanan said dryly. “I told him not to do anything stupid and he stormed the Crucible.”

“Extremely ambitious of him,” Ahsoka remarked, her brows rising. She gave him another considering look before turning away, resting a hand briefly on the Twi’lek woman’s shoulder as she left. The hatch that closed behind her sounded decidedly final.

Kanan looked back at the Twi’lek woman, who hadn’t bothered to watch Ahsoka leave. All of her attention was fixed on him, her green eyes sharp and penetrating. “Do you know who I am?” she asked abruptly.

“I think so,” Kanan said. “You’re Hera’s mother, aren’t you?”

“I’m Alecto Syndulla.” She crossed her arms over her chest, studying him. “How long have you known my daughter?”

“Six years,” Kanan said.

She blinked, clearly doing the math in her head and coming up with different ages than she had been expecting. Her voice cold, she said, “Do you know what they did to her? What the Empire did to my daughter?”

“Some of it,” Kanan said cautiously.

“Because you were a part of it?”

“No!” he said, stunned. “I wasn’t – I didn’t meet Hera until she was already an active field agent. I never knew her when she was at the academy. Or –” He stopped abruptly.

“Or?” Alecto demanded. “Do you know where she was before she went to the Imperial Academy?”

Kanan shut his eyes. “Yeah,” he said after a moment, looking up again. “I know. But that’s her story to tell, not mine. If she wants to tell you, she’ll tell you when she gets here. If she doesn’t, well, that’s her choice.”

“I know she was in an Imperial black prison,” Alecto snapped, biting off the words. “She was fourteen! She was a child!”

“I wasn’t there,” Kanan said through his teeth, his fists clenching at his sides. “It wasn’t my fault!”

“You were part of it.”

“No, I wasn’t! Before I met Hera my entire experience with the Empire involved running away from it, so no, I had nothing to do with what happened to her at the Spire or the academy.” Kanan had bared his teeth like his namesake before he realized what he was doing; he was out of practice losing his temper with anyone but another Inquisitor, where anything and everything went.

Hera’s mother looked supremely unimpressed by this display, for which Kanan couldn’t blame her. He wasn’t too impressed with himself either.

“My daughter is coming home,” she said. “To her family. Where she belongs.”

“I think that’s up to her, not you,” Kanan said. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Hera’s old enough and smart enough to know who she is and what she wants. She’ll make her choice.”

Alecto sneered, her scar making the expression ugly. “And you believe that she’ll choose you? She’s Syndulla. Her place is here.”

“I think that’s up to Hera,” Kanan repeated. “She’s a grown woman. She can make her own choices.”

“That will be a lot easier without any outside influences,” Alecto said. She gave him an unimpressed look.

“Outside – you think I mindtricked Hera into sleeping with me?” Kanan demanded, too startled to be delicate. “You think I’d do that? You think that Hera would ever do anything that she didn’t want to?”

“I think you’re an Inquisitor,” Alecto said coolly. “And you would do whatever you could to get something you wanted, including my daughter.”

Kanan snorted. “You don’t know anything about me,” he said. “And you don’t know anything about Hera, either.”

“I’m her mother,” Alecto said. “I know everything about her that I need to.”

“I think Hera will have something to say about that.”

“We’ll see about that.” Alecto gave him a dismissive look, then turned to go.

“Yeah,” Kanan said. “We will.”

Her shoulders went stiff, but she didn’t turn back, just went down to the airlock and wrapped her knuckles against it. It slid open in response, giving Kanan a brief view of a pair of Twi’lek guards standing in the corridor outside before it shut again.

Kanan sank back down onto the floor of the cell, dropping his head into his hands. He had a bad feeling about this.

*

Keto Amersu was waiting in the Residency when Cham reached his stateroom, leaning against the wall beside the door and seemingly oblivious of the mouse droid parked at the opposite end of the corridor. The mouse droid, Cham suspected, was one of Neso Cseh Syndulla’s spies, keeping an eye on Keto like Cham had asked.

Cham eyed Keto tiredly. With an Inquisitor in the brig and his daughter on her way, Cham didn’t particularly feel up to a conversation whose likely topics included fleet politics, alliance overtures, or the spy Neso was searching for. Though if Keto brought up the latter then Cham would have a problem, since only four people in the fleet were supposed to know about that and Keto wasn’t one of them.

“Can I help you with something?” Cham asked as Keto glanced up. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to Keto last night after Doriah and Xiaan had come to find him, not with everything else going on.

“Can we speak in private?”

“Of course.” Cham stepped around Keto to unlock the door of his stateroom, showing the other man inside as the lights came on. “Can I offer you a drink?”

When Keto inclined his head, Cham went to the liquor cabinet, considering his dwindling supply of Rylothean liquors. There was still some of the tzikeh he and Secchun had shared, but tradition and ritual was inscribed too deeply on Cham’s soul for that, so he bypassed it and picked up a bottle of pale green arien instead, pouring out two glasses. As he turned back, he saw Keto’s gaze flicker to the untouched bottle of tzikeh, but he took the glass of arien without protesting.

“I wanted to thank you for your hospitality,” Keto said. “I appreciate what you’ve done for me and my people since we lost the Coba.”

“It is my pleasure,” Cham said. “I’m sorry that we couldn’t do more. I’ve been trying to free up enough pilots and shuttles so that you and the rest of the Coba’s crew can transfer to another Amersu ship, but you understand that we’ve been very busy.”

“I understand,” Keto said. He tasted his arien and made an appreciative sound. “From your estates on Ryloth?”

“I only have a few bottles left,” Cham admitted. “The estate’s no longer there; I assume the orchards aren’t either.”

Keto turned the glass so that the light from the overheads shone through the liquor, his brows narrowed in thought. “The estate is still there,” he said. “Or at least it was when I was last on Ryloth. I don’t know about the orchards.”

Cham arched a brow. “Infested with Imperials, I assume,” he said. While he still had contacts on Ryloth, most of them were in Lessu, not in the Tann Province, and they had more important information to pass on than the disposition of the Syndulla family lands.

“There are Imperials all over Ryloth,” Keto said matter-of-factly. “They’re on all the clan lands, not just Syndulla.” He sat down on the edge of the sofa, still turning the glass between his fingers.

Cham sat down in the armchair. “Have you spoken to your brother lately?”

Keto’s gaze flickered to the liquor cabinet again, to the bottle of tzikeh that was only shared between clan heads. “Not lately. Kolo and I didn’t part on the best of terms.”

Given that Keto had taken half the clan and a considerable portion of the Amersu family fortune with him when he had left Ryloth to join the fleet, Cham wasn’t surprised by that. From what he had heard, Kolo Amersu had had to do some quick talking to not only keep control of what remained of the Amersu clan, but to stay out of an Imperial prison.

Keto took a sip of his arien, then said, “What I wanted to speak to you about does have to do with the clan, actually. Both our clans.”

Cham leaned forward and put his glass down on the low table, nudging aside a stack of flimsiplasts and a datapad in order to do so. “Xiaan and Doriah told me about your proposal.”

“She’s of age –” Keto began.

“And she already gave you a response,” Cham said flatly. “She’s old enough to know her own mind.”

Keto said, “I’ve heard you have another niece onboard, another survivor from the colony –” He hesitated for a moment under Cham’s glare. “Joining our clans would be good for the fleet,” he went on. “Amersu has allies both within the fleet and on Ryloth, allies that would serve us all well. The Synedrion –”

“Would see any alliance marriage as an attempt to consolidate power on my part,” Cham said. “For that matter, Secchun Fenn would see it as a direct insult to the Fenn clan since Xiaan has turned down Nawara. I don’t think either of our clans could afford her as an enemy when we already have the Empire against us.”

Keto’s mouth went tight. “I know Amersu is a patrician clan, not a curial one –”

“Caste has nothing to do with it,” Cham said. “Xiaan already gave you her answer.”

“And your other niece?”

“I would advise that you stay away from Ojeda. She’s only just returned to the fleet.” Cham stood up, Keto following belatedly. “With the fleet in disarray and the Empire on our trail, now is not the time to discuss this. Look to your own clan first, Keto.”

Keto frowned at the rebuke. “My clan –”

“Lost a ship in the last battle,” Cham reminded him. “Get your own folk seen to before you worry about mine.”

Keto was at the door before he said, “I don’t see why you concern yourself with the Synedrion, Syndulla. You could be the Synedrion; you are the fleet.”

“I believe in democracy,” Cham said. “And in the people of Ryloth.”

“Why?”

When Cham blinked at him, Keto clarified, “What good has democracy ever done Ryloth? The Empire came no matter what the Curia decided. So did the Separatists during the Clone War. Everyone knows that you didn’t wait for the Curia to vote on what they thought should be done, what might placate the Empire for a few days more, you fought. And the fleet – the Synedrion never does anything but argue. I don’t think we’ve agreed on anything once since Amersu has been with the fleet. They all listen to you, Syndulla. You could end all that. Why don’t you?”

Cham crossed his arms over his chest. “By making myself dictator? Or king?”

“Why not? Palpatine did it. And there have been kings on Ryloth before.”

“I don’t think the Emperor is the being I want to take lessons in governance from.” Cham frowned at Keto, then reminded himself that Keto Amersu was young and rash and an idealist, much like Cham himself had once been. Of course, when Cham had been Keto’s age the galaxy had been at peace.

“If I wanted to do as you suggest,” Cham said slowly, “I would be going against everything I have spent my life fighting for. Free Ryloth’s strength is in unity – and in all of us, not in any one being. To put any single being above the others would destroy that.”

“But that is how the Synedrion is,” Keto said. “That’s how the fleet is. You created this fleet, Syndulla. You created Free Ryloth. Everyone listens to you. Why not use that? Why bother with an illusion that does nothing but waste time and energy that could be better put to other purposes?”

“Because this is not the Empire,” Cham said simply. “I’ll see what I can do to make sure you get back to your own ships as soon as possible, Keto.”

Keto stepped unwillingly into the corridor, frowning deeply and clearly searching for a response. Finally he just inclined his head slightly and turned away, vanishing around the corner just as Alecto appeared.

She turned to watch him and the mouse droid following him go, then came down the corridor to meet Cham where he was still standing in the doorway. “Don’t tell me the Amersu came to you about Xiaan?”

“He offered for Ojeda too,” Cham said, standing back to let her into the room. “I told him no.”

“You’d think he’d have better things to worry about.” Alecto crossed her arms over her chest, waiting until the door had slid closed behind them before she added, “You need to kill that man.”

“That seems like a rather rash reaction to wanting to declare me Emperor of Ryloth; Amersu is a Syndulla ally, even if Keto clearly doesn’t think we’re close enough.”

“I don’t mean Keto Amersu,” Alecto said, though she arched an eyebrow at this assertion. “I mean Hera’s Inquisitor.”

“A tempting proposal.” Cham sank down into the armchair again, rubbing at the base of his lekku.

Alecto leaned an elbow on the back of the armchair and looked down at him with curiosity. “You don’t think so?”

“I believe that Hera will never forgive us if he dies.” Cham tilted his head back to meet her eyes. “You’ve spoken to him. What do you think?”

She hesitated. “I think – I think that he believes what he’s saying. What I’m not certain of is whether he should be believed.” She sighed. “I’ve met plenty of people who believe things that aren’t true because they want them to be.” Dryly, she added, “Most of them friends of yours.”

“The danger of politics,” Cham agreed. “Though I’ve found that to be no less true in Free Ryloth than it was in the Curia.” He frowned, thinking back over his meeting with the Inquisitors – he wasn’t certain that it deserved being called a conversation. “That was my assessment as well, though he wasn’t particularly interested in speaking to me at the time.”

“He’s dangerous,” Alecto said, straightening up and going over to the liquor cabinet. She frowned at the bottles until she found something to her liking, then poured out two glasses and returned to Cham’s side. “He’s an Imperial officer; he’s done terrible things in the Emperor’s name.”

Cham took the glass she passed him, which turned out to be a very mild meiloorun-flavored wine. “And the fact that he’s sleeping with our daughter has nothing to do with it?”

“If he wasn’t sleeping with our daughter then he wouldn’t even be here.” Alecto set her glass down and rubbed at her face, her expression tired. “It’s hard, Cham. I want Hera back so badly it hurts to think about anything else. I want to kill everyone who kept her from me all these years. Sometimes that includes you.”

“I know,” Cham said.

“What Hera said on Thyferra…” Alecto trailed off, looking down at her hands. “She believes that we abandoned her. I need to see her, Cham, I need to tell her that that was all a lie, that I never left her behind. I need her to know that. I need her to listen to me. And – I need my daughter. I need her to be here.”

She sank down onto the arm of his chair, passing her hands over her face again. “I want that man dead, but sometimes I’m not sure why. If he hurt her, or if it’s just because he was with her when I wasn’t, or because I know – I know – that she’ll never want to stay with us while he’s still breathing –” She caught her breath again. “But I need my daughter, Cham.”

Cham reached for her hand, and she let him take it, staring down at his orange fingers laid along her green ones. “I know,” he said. He pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “Whatever happens next, my love – we did it. We found our daughter.”

*

Free Ryloth somehow managed to look even more ragtag than it had the last time Hera had seen it, which was saying something considering the fact that the last time had been in the midst of a battle. As the Ghost flashed out of hyperspace, she saw that the fleet had rearranged its formation; Hera glanced at her sensor boards as they began to automatically catalogue the new contacts, the enhanced systems calculating visible damage and comparing the new information to the databank records from the battle.

“I’m picking up activity around some of the hulls, but we’re still too far out to get any details,” Sabine said, looking at the boards in the co-pilot’s station. “They must still be doing repairs. And it looks like about half a dozen of these ships have their hyperdrives offline. We’ve got incoming.”

Hera had already seen the two starfighters angling in towards them, old Clone Wars-era Headhunters whose hulls had been repainted with Rylothean designs – Syndulla patterns, she saw as one of them swooped close enough for her to make them out through the viewport. That also meant that she was close enough to see the pilot, a green-skinned Twi’lek whose close-fitting helmet disguised his or her features.

The comm board beeped to signal an incoming transmission. Hera stared at it, aware of Sabine and Zeb both watching her, then finally reached to accept it. “This is Ghost.”

“Ghost, this is Arrow Leader and Arrow Two; we’ll escort you in. You’ve got docking on the Forlorn Hope’s portside hangar bay.”

The voice was male and familiar, speaking in Twi’leki rather than Basic. Hera said, “Doriah?”

The pilot she had seen a moment ago gave her a thumbs up from the cockpit of his Headhunter.

Wonderful, Hera thought, annoyed for no reason she could determine. Except for the fact that she was here at all, though she supposed that wasn’t an excuse to take it out on Doriah.

The two starfighters settled in on either side and a little ahead of the Ghost as they led the way towards the big star frigate that hunt on the outer edge of the fleet. As they approached, a few more sensor contacts popped up on the boards, signals that had been too small to pick up earlier – spacesuited lifeforms, astromech droids, starfighters on patrol on the far side of the fleet.

“We’re being hailed by the frigate,” Sabine noted; Hera had already seen the comm blinking again. “Should I answer it?”

“Ask my cousin; this is his show,” Hera said.

Doriah’s response came a moment later, in Basic this time, “We’ll take care of it. Uncle Cham cleared it with the bridge, so it’s probably just some watch-stander who didn’t get the memo.”

That, Hera could believe. This was the rebels, not the Imperial Navy.

Except a moment later, as they were about to enter what the Ghost’s sensor boards marked out as the frigate’s firing envelope, Sabine said, “Uh, Hera – it’s the frigate again. They’re saying they’ll shoot if we don’t identify ourselves.”

Hera braked the Ghost, bleeding off the ship’s forward momentum in a turn that took them parallel to the range of the frigate’s guns, and opened a new comm channel. “Forlorn Hope, this is Ghost,” she said in Twi’leki.

“Transmit your clearance code.”

No one had given Hera a clearance code. She silenced the comm and said, “Chopper, make sure the shields are at full power,” then turned the comm back on. “We don’t have one. We’re here by invitation of General Cham Syndulla.”

There was a momentary pause, then the woman on the other end of the comm said, “Who is this?”

“This is Ag – this is Hera Syndulla.”

“Your cousin’s hailing us again,” Sabine put in. “He wants to know why we’ve stopped.”

“So would I,” Hera grumbled.

“You know, I was really thinking that we’d get away from protocol once we left the Empire,” Zeb remarked, leaning forward from his seat to peer over Hera’s shoulder out the viewport.

“Yeah, you and me both, big guy,” Sabine said.

As Hera waited for the frigate’s response, she was aware that several other nearby ships had seen the commotion and had shifted their positions slightly to watch them. Or possibly to get better aim; Hera resisted the urge to check the Ghost’s shields again.

Another light began to blink on the comm board, signaling another incoming transmission from a third ship. “Aren’t we popular today,” Hera muttered, then louder, “Hope, Ghost here. Do we have permission to land?”

“Hold, Ghost.” The comm went silent. Hera tapped her fingers on the Ghost’s control yoke, her irritation briefly eclipsing her fear for Kanan and her unhappiness at being here at all. From her quick glance at Doriah, visible through the cockpit of his starfighter, he seemed to be involved in a fierce argument, presumably with the same person Hera had been talking to.

Eventually, the woman on the Forlorn Hope said, “Proceed, Ghost.”

“Copy, Hope,” Hera said, then realized that meant she was actually going to have to land on the Forlorn Hope and swore silently. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, it was just that – well, she didn’t want to be here. In an ideal world she could land, collect Kanan and Ezra, and lift off again in less than five minutes, but she knew that that wasn’t going to happen. Her father wouldn’t let that happen.

For a moment she entertained the fantasy that Kanan was going to get tired of waiting and break out of whatever prison they were keeping him to meet her in the hangar bay, but she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not because Kanan wasn’t perfectly capable of it – Hera doubted that there was any cell on the ship that could hold a fully-trained Inquisitor who didn’t want to be there – but because he was too polite to do so when he knew Hera was coming, since he had to know that it would make trouble for her.

Stupid Jedi manners. That was definitely something that hadn’t come from the Crucible.

She fell in with the two starfighters again, ignoring the way her lekku tightened as they passed into the Forlorn Hope’s weapons envelope. The light on the comm board was still blinking; Hera considered it, wondering if it was worth responding to. The ID said that it wasn’t coming from the Forlorn Hope, but from another ship in the fleet, the Mercy Kill. According to the ISB files, it was home to the head of the only other curial clan represented in the fleet; Hera didn’t know anything about fleet politics, didn’t particularly care, and didn’t want to get involved, so she ignored it.

The hangar doors were open, meaning that Hera caught sight of her parents waiting for her inside the landing bay before the Ghost passed through the magnetic shield protecting it from vacuum. She faltered for a moment, enough that Sabine glanced worriedly at her, but her pilot’s training held and she landed the ship smoothly.

“Keep the boards on standby?” Sabine asked.

Hera sighed. “That’s a little too much optimism for me right now.” She busied herself with shutting down the ship’s systems, careful not to look out the viewport and at her parents. Her hands were shaking a little; nothing she tried to do seemed to be able to stop it.

She turned to face Zeb and Sabine. “I don’t know how long we’ll be here,” she said. “Hopefully not long, but I don’t know what my father has planned, except that he’s going to want me to stay here. I’m not going to do that.” She took a deep breath. “While we’re here, I want you to be careful. My father is a fanatic, an extremist, and so is everyone else in this fleet. They all chose to leave Ryloth, to walk away from their homes and their families and their lives there because they weren’t willing to compromise with the Empire. A lot of them aren’t going to like humans or other non-Twi’leks very much; none of them are going to like former Imperials.”

“Twi’lek supremacists?” Sabine asked.

“More like Twi’lek isolationists,” Hera said, “but that doesn’t mean there’s going to be much difference in their methods.” She rubbed the side of her thumb against the knee of her trousers, the back of her neck itching. “There’s something else going on here too. Fulcrum isn’t a Twi’lek, but she’s a Force-user – Kanan said she was Jedi-trained, like him – and she must have ties to other rebel cells. I don’t know if she’s hoping to recruit or if she just wants information, but either way it doesn’t look good for us. Be careful about what you say, don’t go anywhere alone, and don’t tell anyone that you used to work for the Empire.”

Zeb cracked his knuckles. “Anyone who wants to start something –”

Chopper snickered, a familiar whap-whap sound that eased a little of Hera’s tension.

“The only one of us who actually looks like an Imperial officer is Kanan,” Hera said, “– no offense, Sabine.”

“Hey, none taken, you know how I feel about that.” She fingered the ends of her newly-blue hair, which she had dyed while they were in hyperspace. From the array of paint jars that had taken up residence in the lounge, her armor was about to follow suit whenever they finished up here.

Hera forced a smile. “I know, and right now I’ve never been more grateful that you aren’t good at following regs.”

“What can I say? It’s a gift.” Sabine leaned forward earnestly. “Hera, we’re on your side. Whatever you need, we’re there. If you want us to sit back and smile pretty, we can do that. If you want us to blow a hole in the side of this boat, we can do that too.”

“Let’s save that for plan B,” Hera said. “Right now, I’m just hoping that my father will follow through with one of his promises for once and hand Kanan and Ezra over so that we can get out of here.” She fisted her hands on top of her knees, then added again, “Remember that we’re dealing with someone who was crazy enough to try and assassinate the Emperor ten years ago.”

“Wait –” Zeb said. “What?”

“I’ll tell you later,” Sabine said.

Hera pushed herself to her feet, still not looking out the viewport. “You were both on Lothal on Empire Day; you saw what they were capable of. Don’t underestimate them. Free Ryloth is smart, it’s ruthless, and they’ll do whatever they think is necessary to get what they want. And I don’t know what that is right now; that’s what makes me nervous. So be careful.”

“Yeah, Hera,” Sabine said, her expression softening. She tossed off a sloppy salute. “Whatever you need.”

What I need is to not be here, Hera thought, but didn’t voice the words. “Let’s just get this over with,” she said instead, reaching for the ladder that led to the hold.

The others followed her down as Hera hesitated, her hand hovering over the ramp release before she finally touched it. At her gesture, Zeb and Sabine hung back, though neither seemed happy about it. They were both watching the figures standing on the hangar deck near the Ghost; Doriah, who had already climbed out of his starfighter, was making his way across to them. He paused as he saw Hera standing at the top of the Ghost’s ramp, glanced at the small group, and then turned towards the Ghost.

It was easier to concentrate on Doriah’s presence than that of the group, so Hera made her way slowly down the ramp to meet him. Chopper trundled along beside her; Hera didn’t have the heart to tell him to go back. She brushed her fingers over his dome, then braced herself and looked down at Doriah, who was waiting at the foot of the ramp.

“Hey,” he said gently in Twi’leki. “You came.”

Hera swallowed. “My father didn’t give me much choice, did he?”

Doriah’s gaze went hooded for an instant in acknowledgment. Then he saw Chopper peering out from behind Hera and blinked. “Is that – Chopper?”

Chopper whistled acknowledgment.

Doriah blinked at him. “I just assumed the Empire scrapped him when they destroyed the colony.”

Hera rested a hand on Chopper’s dome to forestall his response to that statement, which would undoubtedly be rude, and said, “Agent Beneke said that he was taken from the colony along with most of the other droids. They kept him deactivated and in storage until I went into the field, then Agent Beneke gave him back to me as a…a present for passing my qualifications.”

“Wiped and reprogrammed, right?”

This time Chopper did say something rude, waving one of his manipulators at him. Hera grimaced, remembering the reason she usually tried to keep him away from other Imperial officers, but Doriah just grinned. “You know that was a bribe, right?”

“It was a reward,” Hera said, stiffening. “And it was a long time ago.” She pressed her lips together, crossing her arms over her chest. “Is he here?”

“Hera –”

“It’s a simple question. Is he here?”

Doriah stared at her, searching her features for something that only he knew, and finally said, “He’s in the brig. What did you think we were going to do, throw him out an airlock?”

“The thought crossed my mind.”

“Well, lucky for you and your boyfriend, we’re not the Empire.”

Hera stiffened. “Considering where Kanan was a few days ago, right now I don’t really see the difference.” Before her cousin could respond, she added, “Chopper, stay with the ship,” and stepped down off the Ghost’s ramp.

It felt decidedly final, as if landing on a rebel ship hadn’t meant anything but actually walking on one was. Hera hesitated briefly, wanting more than nearly anything else to run back up into the Ghost, close up the ramp, and fly away – back to the Empire, back to Gorse, anywhere but here. Except the only thing that she wanted more than that was Kanan.

He had better appreciate this, she thought, fisting her hands so tightly her leather gloves strained over her knuckles. He would, of course. He was surprisingly sensitive to things like that.

Her mother came forward as Hera hesitated, her hands outstretched and her expression open and hopeful. Hera stopped inadvertently.

Her mother’s face fell, but she closed the distance between them anyway. She took Hera’s hands in hers, which was when Hera realized she was shaking.

She abandoned you. She left you behind in the Spire, she didn’t even bother to look for you. Despite that, despite that knowledge that had festered inside her for ten years like a wound gone bad, there had been times that Hera had wanted her mother so badly it ached. She abandoned you. She tried to kill Kanan. She helped my father kill Agent Beneke.

“Baby,” her mother said. Her hands were warm, with small scars visible on her green knuckles – only a shade darker than Hera’s, where her fingerless gloves bared her skin. “My baby.” She touched Hera’s face like she couldn’t quite believe Hera was there and was reassuring herself of her presence. “My darling girl.”

Hera licked her lips. Though her mother was still a hair taller than she was, Hera didn’t have to look up at her anymore; they were nearly the same height.

That wasn’t right. Hera shouldn’t have been able to look her mother in the eye.

“Mama,” she managed to say eventually, her voice a little higher than she had intended. She could have slapped herself; she wasn’t a child anymore, and she wasn’t here for a family reunion. You’re an Imperial officer. Act like one.

A moment later she remembered that she wasn’t an officer anymore; she had deserted her post. Coming here made her not just a deserter, but a traitor too.

“Mother,” Hera said. Her mother’s expression, which had begun to regain a little of its earlier hopefulness, betrayed a little dismay, but she didn’t take her hands away. Hera should have stepped back and tried to regain her composure, but she couldn’t quite make herself pull away from her mother. As a result, her voice wavered a little when she said, “You have something that belongs to me.”

Her mother blinked once. Silence drew out between them, long enough for Hera to wonder wildly if her mother even knew that Kanan was there and if her father had already thrown him out an airlock. Just because Doriah had said that he was still alive didn’t mean that her cousin was telling the truth.

Just as her breathing was beginning to quicken in panic, her mother said reluctantly, “The Inquisitor is in the brig.”

Hera let her breath out in a gasp that ripped at her lungs, visions of a life without Kanan in it – something she remembered very well and didn’t need any prompting to relive – vanishing. Her mother blinked at this display of emotion, tightening her grip on Hera’s hand.

Relief made it hard for Hera to keep her voice steady. She spoke in Basic for the benefit of Sabine and Zeb, who were within earshot on the Ghost’s ramp. “And the boy Ezra Bridger?”

“He is with Fulcrum in the other hangar bay,” her father said, approaching from behind her mother. “Hera –”

She could have screamed in his face, and part of her wanted to. Instead, Hera pulled her hands free and stepped back, ignoring the agony in her mother’s eyes. “You know why I’m here,” she said. “Give me back my people.”