“My young strategist,” Master Billaba called him, with a smile that seemed younger than the rest of her, like some part of her was still an apprentice herself, “since you will be my Padawan, I will need to know what you’ve learned here at the Temple. I have seen less of your training than I might have liked.”
Caleb bit back a frown as he watched her cross the room to a neat little tea set. What could she want to see here, in her private quarters? Wouldn’t they be better off finding a practice room, where he could show her his skills with a lightsaber?
Her voice continued, gentle but with an undeniable firmness behind the words. “Tell me what you know of the Code.”
“We have five precepts.” He straightened up in his seat, his mouth curling up. This was an easy question. If all she needed was proof that he’d passed the Initiate trials, this meeting wouldn’t take long at all. “There is no emotion, there is peace. There is no ignorance, there is knowledge. There is no—“
Master Billaba raised a hand, and the remaining tenets of the Jedi Code rattled in his throat, unsaid. She didn’t stiffen or make any expression of disappointment, but the fact that she didn’t bother to turn around felt like a silent admonishment. “There is no need to rush, Caleb Dume. We have all day—today, at least. Start with the first.”
“There is no emotion, there is peace,” he repeated, the words duller this time. When Master Billaba continued to measure out tea leaves into the pot, Caleb decided she must want something more, though he wasn’t sure what. “Master Coven says in The Jedi Path that it means we need to act without recklessness.”
“What do you think?”
It was a trick question—it had to be. There was the right answer, and then there was the truth, and he should tell her the right answer if he didn't want her to change her mind about taking him on as her Padawan. Sammo Quid might have thought Master Billaba was cursed, but Caleb didn’t think that was the case…and even if he did, he'd still want her to accept him as her apprentice.
But if you couldn’t be honest with your master, who could you be honest with? He finally replied, “I think having no emotions is hard.”
She turned around then, tea tray in hand, and even in the low light, he could see she was smiling at him. “I think so, too.”
“Really?” Caleb’s mouth dropped open.
“Did you know,” she continued, taking a seat across from him, “that Master Coven’s descriptions of the precepts aren’t the only ones we have? Emotion, yet peace is another way it has been said.”
“That’s the short version.” They used it in their meditation, but it wasn’t written in the training guide.
“That’s the original version.” Master Billaba passed him a cup of tea, still steaming, and he took a deep breath of the spices steeped in with the leaves. “Do you think it changes the meaning to say it that way?”
Caleb blew on his tea, stealing a moment to consider the question. However smart Master Billaba seemed to think he was—and every time he thought of Master Billaba admiring his questions, he couldn’t help but feel a little glow of pride—she could still be disappointed by his answers. And then where would he be? A Padawan without a Jedi to train him. “I guess it does.”
“It’s saying…it’s saying that you can feel emotions, as long as you still feel peace, too. Right?”
Her smile was inscrutable, even worse when she took a sip of her tea and the curve of the cup was all he could see. “You don’t have to be nervous—there isn’t a right answer. If you are to be my Padawan, though, we’ll spend time meditating on the Code and its different permutations. And I’ll help you pursue all the questions your mind can create.”
Won’t we be busy with the war? he wanted to ask, but Master Billaba told him the truth the last time they met in her quarters: She might never be a trusted commander again. He could be signing himself up for an apprenticeship that was one step up from the Service Corps, studying all day and never once seeing action.
But he couldn’t deny the appeal of a master whose patience for questions never ran dry. His fingertips touched at the far curve of his teacup, a tentative smile growing on his face.
For the most part, Caleb Dume and Kanan Jarrus agreed on very little. The one exception was this: Don't get too attached.
Caleb hardly existed except as a little voice in his ear, a conscience sitting on his shoulder and half-heartedly reminding him of Jedi precepts when they seemed relevant. His words got a little louder, a little more insistent, when Hera was there. Whenever she spoke, whenever her lekku swung as she walked, whenever Ghost made an impossible escape—everything she did make Kanan and Caleb alike sit up and take notice.
However they—he—thought of her, though, Kanan doubted it could come to any harm.
Their days settled into a pattern as they flew to Pasher, in search of a mission Hera said would give them plenty of dirt on the Empire in the long run. Over on Carda, there was a pilot with a working knowledge of several imperial bases. His people were starving, though—so much for the Empire’s guiding hand—and he wasn’t about to spill without getting something in return. So Hera had found someone on Pasher with food in the quantities they were looking for. It was a lot of fuel for the knowledge, but Hera was so certain it would be worth it that Kanan found himself believing it would be, too. She flew, and Kanan did odd jobs around the ship. Hera seemed excited to have him clean the lesser-used spaces.
“It’s always been me and Chopper,” she explained cheerfully, holding out a dust rag and a bottle of oil to Kanan. “And Chopper’s more of a mechanic than a maid.”
Chopper, who reminded Kanan more of a mad pikobi someone had shoved in a can than anything as helpful as a droid, waved its arms behind her and made one of those cacophonous scratching noises it favored. It seemed more than happy to turn whatever cleaning duties it had previously been assigned over to the newest crew member of Ghost. And Kanan wasn’t about to complain about it. Ghost was an incredible ship, as sleek and stealthy as its name implied. Someone had to keep it clean, and if it meant he got to catch a ride with Hera, he was willing.
That was their week in hyperspace. She cooked in the tiny galley, and they watched holovids while they ate. He flirted with her, and she tolerated it with mild amusement, as if calling her "sweetheart" was just a quirk of his personality.
It wasn't a problem with his skills, if the flattered smiles of a dozen women before Hera could be trusted. The problem was that nothing he tried seemed to work on Hera. The closest she had come to flirting with him was a newfound respect that showed in her expression when she thought he wasn't looking at her, and that could just as easily be platonic. They were crewmates first, after all. Crewmates, comrades in arms, newly battle-tested and off on their first real mission together.
Pasher, when they got there, was an ugly planet, but unlike Gorse, it at least wasn’t perpetually dark. They touched down at midday, when the desert sands were blinding in their brilliance and the sky was bleached white-blue in the heat. There wasn’t much around to help keep people from getting too interested in the ship, but they weren’t planning to be gone long.
“And besides,” Hera said, watching as the gangway shut, Chopper waving goodbye to them (or, more accurately, her) from inside, “she shuts up tight. I wouldn’t fly a ship I couldn’t lock down.”
“Nice place.” Kanan shielded his eyes against the sun, peering out at the horizon. A whole lot of nothing stretched out before them, interrupted by a few squat buildings clustered together. “Their tourism season must be a riot.”
“I think this is their tourism season.” As they started towards town—if you could call that a town, anyway—Hera glanced over in Kanan’s direction. “Any questions before we get started?”
“Don’t worry—I catch on quick.” When she’d described their goal, everything had seemed simple enough, anyway. Breeze into town, make a few shady deals, leave several containers of rations richer. Hera had a plan for their booty, of course; this was a first step in some larger plot she’d cooked up. But they could cross that bridge when they got there. “And I don’t say much when I’m supposed to look like the hired muscle.”
Hera scoffed, grinning. “You? You look like a krek beetle could take you in a fight.”
“I know what ‘crew’ means when we’re walking into a den of thieves. Big scary guy to back you up.” Kanan made a show of shrugging. “Trust me, when push comes to shove, I know how to make thugs look around for their mommies.”
“I know you do.” The sharp amusement in Hera’s expression softened into something else, something Kanan couldn’t quite name. She was humoring him, he suspected. “You’re capable, Kanan Jarrus. But today you’re here as my partner, not my bodyguard.”
“You offered to be part of my crew,” she continued, her stride growing quicker as they approached one of the dusty buildings. Nobody had bothered to keep up the outside of it, and Kanan couldn’t blame them—on closer inspection, the stone walls were only a slightly lighter shade as the grime that spattered them. “As far as I’m concerned, that means you’re part of something bigger than Ghost’s cleaning roster.”
“Fair.” He hadn’t expected that, not after knowing her a week. But if she wanted to put them on even ground, he didn’t mind.
Inside, it was somehow hotter than in the sun. Whoever had built this cantina liked the air to be thick enough to cut, and even the thick stone walls did little to keep the desert out. Kanan and Hera walked through the dim, sparsely populated room, bypassing the barkeep at the center, until she brushed his hand with a fingertip and glanced over at a round table tucked back in the corner.
If they weren’t in search of rations, Kanan would have steered them in the opposite direction. A Duros, two Sullustans, and a human had cards out, and the sweet scent of rekka smoke clouded over them. In his travels, Kanan had learned plenty, and “don’t interrupt a Duros while he’s betting” was high on his list of galaxy-wide rules to live by.
Hera either hadn’t picked up that lesson or just didn’t care. She walked up to the group like she’d lived on Pasher her whole life, flashing them a polite smile, and asked, “Do you have room for two more?”
The human grunted, pushing a forelock of dark hair back from her scarred face, and the two Sullustans shifted over. Kanan pulled two more chairs from another table and sat down backwards on his, folding his arms over the edge of the table. “Thanks.”
“We’re here to see Lomy Baaksob,” Hera said, looking across the table at the Duros.
“You found him,” he answered. Kanan wasn’t the best judge of Durosian beauty standards, but he was pretty sure this guy wouldn’t be a prize even if you were into red eyes. His bald head had a dent-like scar, and his eyes bulged as he leaned over his cards to squint at Hera. “You wanted the rations, didn’t you?”
“That’s us. I have the credits if you have the crates.”
“Blast the credits. I’m heading to the Outer Rim next week.” Baaksob set his cards face down on the table, tapping a fingernail against them in a fast .
“They’re good,” Kanan cut in, though part of him wondered if he should let Hera handle Baaksob’s objections herself. “Trust me, you won’t have trouble spending them.”
“And we agreed—“ Hera started.
“That was before I decided to visit Tatooine. They’re no good to me now.” His hands twitched, and between that and the sudden attitude, Kanan had the feeling their new friend was under the influence of more than just rekka. As much as Kanan avoided spice, you didn’t spend as much time as he had roaming the underbelly of the galaxy without seeing the signs of a user. “You’re gonna need a better offer than that if you want those rations.”
One of the Sullustans muttered something to the other. The only word Kanan caught was floob, and that was enough to tell him he didn’t need to know the rest of it.
The human rolled her eyes. If she’d noticed Baaksob’s agitation, she was ignoring it. “I have a sabacc pot to win, if you two plastiheads are done here.”
“We are.” Hera looked sharply over at Kanan, and he got her message loud and clear in the sharp arch of her brows: Not worth it. She’d caught on to the same things he had, or she was just feeling cautious. As she stood up, she added, “Thanks anyway. We’ll be going.”
“Hey,” snapped Baaksob. “I said, you’re gonna have to make an offer.”
“The credits are what we have.” Kanan put his hands up in front of his chest as he stood, nudging his chair back towards its original table with one foot. “We’ll let you get back to your game.”
For a moment, his words hung in the air. And then Baaksob propelled himself over the width of the round little table.
Sabacc cards went flying. The human’s drink splashed all over her front, the glass smashing when it hit the floor. Faster than the blink of an eye, Kanan was flat on his back, the breath knocked out of him—first by the Duros’ head crashing into his chest and then by his weight pinning down his chest and arms.
“My sabacc pot!” the human snapped.
He whipped his head just shy of a punch to his nose and hefted his weight up and to the side. Baaksob wrenched him over with him as Kanan freed himself. His shirt and ponytail pulled stickily away from the filthy cantina floor as he slammed down on Baaksob. A folded bit of paper in Baaksob’s jacket pocket caught his eye, . Easy enough to grab it and ball it up into his fist, especially with Baaksob’s arms.
“Sorry!” Hera said, somewhere behind Kanan’s back. How she managed to sound so chipper when Kanan could hear the sound of flesh hitting flesh, he didn’t know—but he liked it. “Better luck next time.”
One punch at Baaksob’s face, and Kanan was on his feet, stumbling for the door at the opposite end of the smoky room. He was shoved roughly onto his stomach, face hitting a mess of spilled drinks and crumbs, before he got more than three paces. Someone smaller this time—the human?—but no, it was Hera, expression stony as her eyes flicked towards a new blaster burn in the stone wall.
He hadn’t even heard it fire.
Blaster fire chased them out and down the dusty, ill-used excuse for a street. Even after Baaksob and his buddies gave up, they still ran, needing the enclosure and protection of Ghost.
“So much for that,” Hera panted, once the gangway hissed shut. “I’ll check the HoloNet for other options—”
Kanan nodded, uncurling his fist to find the paper he’d snatched. The digits written on the creased page didn’t mean anything to him, but the shape of them did. “Coordinates.”
“Coordinates?” Hera frowned at him, taking the paper when he offered it to her. “It can’t be. Nobody could be that careless—”
“—But we could find out if there’s an exception to the rule,” Kanan finished, grinning. “Want to make one more stop while we’re here?”
The furrow of her brow eased, her expression returning to that luminous, unbounded joy Kanan was starting to love in her. She pulled him down to her height and pecked him on the mouth.
Kanan stared at her, mouth agape, as she let him go. It happened so quickly that he couldn’t entirely believe he didn’t just imagine it—but there was the echo of the pressure of her mouth, and the cocky kind of smile she had, the sort he was used to giving other people.
“I’ll let Chopper know what we found,” she said, looking way too pleased with herself. “We fly in three.”
Kanan and Caleb agreed not to get too attached to Hera Syndulla. As far as Kanan was concerned, though, that didn’t mean there couldn’t be some fun along the way.
“What about the second precept?” Master Billaba asked, looking up from a holocron she was studying.
“There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.” He knew what had to come next this time—the lessons of the last conversation hadn’t been lost on him—so he added, “Or ignorance, yet knowledge.”
She smiled again. Caleb had decided he liked her smile, especially compared to how uncertain she’d looked when explaining her past failings as a commander. And he liked that her response to a correct answer (even if she claimed that there wasn’t a correct answer, he was pretty sure there was, in this case) was a quiet, happy gesture. “I think this is a good mantra for someone who loves to question.”
“I always liked it,” Caleb said.
“Why?” Somehow, Master Billaba could ask such a thing without it feeling like she was questioning his motives or waiting for a single, specific answer. She wanted to know, not solely to test his knowledge but because she was interested in what he had to say.
“It’s…” His feelings on the matter came dangerously close to complaining, he suspected, and not just complaining—complaining about Master Billaba’s colleagues. But she asked. “Sometimes people don’t like how many questions I ask, but we’re supposed to avoid ignorance. If I’m going to be a good Jedi, I have to ask questions.”
“You do.” Master Billaba’s agreement was enough to reassure him that he wasn’t toeing too close to a line he shouldn’t cross. She folded her hands, regarding him with something that looked like curiosity. “What will you do when you come across a question you can’t answer, though?”
I’ll be annoyed. Jedi weren’t supposed to get annoyed, though. So Caleb shrugged instead, shifting a little in his seat. “I don’t know.”
“I would recommend thinking about it,” she told him. “You cannot know everything. Knowing what you do not know can be nearly as valuable.”
“Ignorance, yet knowledge.” The words sounded a little different now. He furrowed his brow, picking the skin next to his thumbnail with one finger. “So you aren’t caught off-guard.”
“There are uncertainties in all we do.” Master Billaba reached over to rest her hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “It is when we are prepared to face unexpected challenges that we are most likely to succeed.”
“Tell me something,” Kanan said, swallowing back a yawn.
Hera elbowed herself up to look at him, the sheets falling down around her waist. Her left lek brushed against his bare chest, casually enough that he wasn’t sure if she’d done it on purpose or not. Either way, he could feel the touch long moments after “What kind of something, Kanan?”
“Anything.” Anything to hear her speak, especially now that her voice had settled into a gentle, almost sleepy, fondness. Not her usual sympathetic but businesslike tones at all—she said his name like a mantra, like she was just waking up into an entirely different world.
Kanan Jarrus might have been a little bit smitten by the sound of it.
She waited, though, unimpressed with his answer, and he stretched his own, sluggish thoughts, towards an answer. No wonder Jedi didn’t approve of romantic relationships. Spent and languid, lit only by a crack of light coming in from the corridor through Hera’s door, he didn’t give an akk dog’s rump about anything but this moment. Everything outside the confines of Hera’s all too narrow berth could wait.
(He’d have to fix her door eventually. The captain of a ship needed a door that closed properly. It was a tiny flaw in a ship that Hera otherwise gave her all to, one he wasn’t sure how to explain to himself. A low priority fix compared to upgrading Ghost’s stealth features and running missions? Too recent a malfunction to register? A few months of knowing Hera hadn’t been long enough to suss out every wrinkle in her personality.)
“Tell me a story. Tell me something about yourself.” He was walking dangerous ground, asking for that, but he couldn’t deny his curiosity. “Or about Ghost, if you want. I just want to hear you talk.” On a whim, he added, “I knew I had to meet you when I heard you ask Charko and his gang for directions. Anyone with a voice like that, I said…”
“Did you?” Hera’s smile wasn’t just a quirk of the lips. It crinkled her eyes, softened her cheeks, sent her lekku curving in towards her breasts—and yes, warmed her words. “I had no idea.”
It’s like a melody I knew before I heard it. Too sentimental, even for a moment like this. And entirely unnecessary, it turned out. After another moment’s thought, Hera lay back down, sprawling an arm across Kanan’s chest, nuzzling into his jaw. Her lips nearly brushed against his ear as she spoke, the warmth of her breath sending slender frissons of sensation over his scalp.
“I wanted to go to flight school more than anything in the world,” she began, and the words tickled Kanan’s skin. He closed his eyes, the image of a younger Hera forming easily in his mind. The same bright eyes, the same determined smile. She must have been a terror. “Any flight school, anywhere. I would have picked nits out of a Wookiee’s back hair if it meant I could get into a cockpit. But the formal schools were Imperial-operated, and Ryloth was…”
He felt her shake her head. Ryloth had a troubled history, especially during the Clone Wars and their immediate aftermath. They would have needed every resource they had available to them, even their stubborn, space-mad daughters.
“There were more important things than sending me to learn how to fly for the Empire.” The warm, just a little sarcastic tone Kanan was used to returned to her voice, and there was little better than having it right there at the curve of his ear. “But my father knew people—people we could trust. Fane Gallamby was sympathetic to our cause, and she knew how to fly. More importantly, she was willing to take a twelve-year-old and show her the stars. So I said goodbye to my mother and father, and all my brothers and sisters, and I boarded a ship heading towards Dalchon.”
They weren’t so different, if she’d left the people she’d known all her life at such an early age. The difference, of course, was that she hadn’t lost anyone in leaving. Ryloth was still out there—parsecs away, but out there—and the Syndulla clan remained intact, so far as he knew.
“By the time I was seventeen, I had my own ship,” she went on, tracing an idle circle over Kanan’s heart. “I went back once, right after I got Ghost, but not since.”
“Do you miss it?”
She hesitated. “Sometimes. But everything I do out here, to make the galaxy better, I do for Ryloth. It’ll be a better place when I go back.”
Hera shifted her weight until more of her was resting on him than not, her face a hand’s breadth from his. She looked down at him, tilting her head as though she wanted to kiss him, but she didn’t lean in.
She was studying him, he realized. Pinned as he was, both by the weight of her body and the solemn gaze of her eyes, he was hers to memorize. It would be easy enough to escape the intent little quirk of her brows, to slide out from under her and start picking up his clothes, but he didn’t want to.
If someone was going to learn him, it might as well be Hera.
“Do you want to take a turn?” she asked, long enough later that he’d nearly forgotten they were having a conversation. The question was hesitant, and he could guess why; they didn’t usually deal in the past when they talked, and especially not Kanan’s. “Telling me a story?”
Part of him wanted to, just to see what she’d think of it. She would have liked Master Billaba, he thought, and even if she somehow didn’t, he thinks she would have respected her. But Hera wasn’t just asking for a story, not after what she’d told him. She was asking for Order 66.
Even if she didn’t know that was what she wanted to hear, Kanan knew it was what curled up under his ribcage, filling his lungs with words with edges that cut into his flesh. They piled up in his chest, slicing their way up toward his throat. To spit them out would be a relief, but it would bring them back to life. Bring those memories, those thoughts of Styles and Grey and Caleb, back into the world.
A raucous chittering outside her quarters saved him from making the decision himself. Glancing over towards the door, Kanan saw a flailing silhouette through the crack. Whatever the droid was saying, it was impatient for an answer.
“Chopper—“ For once, Hera sounded as annoyed with Chopped as Kanan usually felt. Her attention snapped over to the door. “Later. No—listen to me—it can wait. No one’s going to use the dorsal laser cannon tonight.”
The droid whirred angrily in response, and the door slid open. Kanan shielded his eyes against the sudden brightness, and Hera pulled at the blankets covering them. “Chopper!”
“I’ll deal with it,” Kanan muttered, carefully sliding out from under her. He had the vague sense that he should be trying to cover himself, but it was a droid—who cared if a droid saw him fumbling around for his pants?
“Are you sure?” Hera was already following him, leaning down to grab her vest from the floor.
“Yeah.” It was the best way things could go. It got Chopper off Hera’s back, fixed whatever was wrong with the laser cannon, and meant Kanan didn’t have to figure out whether he should be gone when Hera got back. He didn’t make a habit about sleeping with women after they’d had their fun, these days; in the past, it had been the single surest way to end up on a crash-course towards entanglements he didn’t want. “I’m your crew, right? You don’t have to get up.”
“All right. But hurry back.” She caught his eye, and if he was lucky, the light at his back kept her from seeing how his eyes widened.
Chopper made another irritated noise, like a file rasping against metal, and started pushing at Kanan’s legs with its little metal hands. Kanan shrugged, still shirtless, and let himself be shoved out of Hera’s room. The last he saw of her before the door slid (mostly) shut was a wide-eyed, hopeful expression and her lekku curling around each other in front of her.
“You know,” he told the droid, once he was certain they were out of earshot, “I’m starting to think you don’t like me hanging around her.”
“There is no passion, there is serenity, is the next one,” Caleb offered. Their conversations were, he thought, settling into a comfortable pattern of question and answer, comment and reply. He could live a life asking and answering this way, especially as they moved closer to the battlefields of the Clone Wars as well. “Passion, yet serenity. That’s…really different.”
“I don’t know if Master Yoda would like us to follow the short ver—the original version.” Caleb looked down into his cup. The tea on board the ship didn’t have the same spice to it as the sort Master Billaba had made in her apartment, but it was still drinkable. It was only dregs now, wet little leaves and tiny puddles of tea. “Having too much passion is what makes a Sith.”
“Hmm.” Master Billaba sounded almost amused, though he couldn’t guess why. She picked up the teapot, and he held his cup out to her. “Do you remember what your Master Coven wrote about this precept?”
“You can’t put yourself before the mission.” There was more to it than that, but it took a moment to remember the words printed in his battered copy of The Jedi Path. “She says you have to be dispassionate. So she’d probably agree with Yoda.”
“Perhaps she would. Do you know what dispassionate means?”
He frowned. “It means you don’t have passion.”
“It can,” she agreed. “What about the word ‘unpassionate’?”
“Is ‘unpassionate’ a word?”
“It is, in fact—if not quite as common.” Master Billaba smiled. “Similar to ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested,’ there are shades of meaning that can become complex. If you are uninterested, you hold no interest in a subject, but if you are disinterested, you have held back your own interests to provide a neutral position.”
She didn’t continue beyond that, and the silence washed over them again for several seconds before Caleb realized that she wanted him to connect her point to the word ‘dispassionate’ aloud himself. Master Billaba seemed content to wait and let him speak the lessons she intended for him, rather than voicing them herself.
He liked that.
“Then you could still be interested in something,” he started slowly, “even if you were disinterested. You’d just choose not to let that affect you.”
“Yes, I think you could.”
“So…as long as you choose not to let your passion get in the way of what you’re doing, you can still be passionate. Right?” He waited for Master Billaba to speak, to confirm or deny his understanding, but she only raised an eyebrow, waiting. Maybe this was another thing that didn’t have a right or wrong answer, but the idea of it sat oddly in the pit of his stomach. “If I can say, Master—“
She waved a hand vaguely towards the window. “Speak without worry of disturbing me, Caleb Dume. I will not take offense.”
“Okay.” If you couldn’t speak freely to your potential master, after all—but there was speaking freely, and then there was insulting what she’d just said. Caleb was sure he’d get a smack to the back of the head from Master Yoda for a comment like this. “It sounds like a way to do what you want and say you’re still following the Code. Couldn’t anyone interpret the precepts any way they want?”
Her smile didn’t waver. Now that the words hung in the air between them, they didn’t seem quite so impertinent. Master Billaba seemed to welcome such impertinence, at least when they were discussing intellectual matters. It might be different when they had lightsabers in their hands—though he wasn’t sure that would be the case. “Perhaps they could. What kind of interpretations do you foresee people coming up with?”
“Acting like Sith. Always being passionate, and saying that because the words used to be passion, yet peace, they were just following the rules.”
“That would be a concern.” She held his gaze for a long, quiet moment, during which he couldn’t bring himself to speak. “But do you think they would be following the Code at that point?”
“Of course not! They’d be—“ He searched his mind for the best words. “—all passion, no peace. Even if they said otherwise.”
“Then we would have to bring up their behavior with them.” There was a sprinkling of laughter in her voice. “The Code can be interpreted in different ways, but those ways must be based in the text itself. Jedi who cannot defend their interpretations using the words given to them are not fulfilling the Code. They might be able to say they are, but their words will not hold up under scrutiny.”
“But if we can just…just decide they’re wrong,” he persisted, “can’t someone else just decide you’re wrong? Or I’m wrong? What if my words don’t ‘hold up under scrutiny?’”
Only then did her smile fade, into something sadder. Not for the first time, Caleb wondered just what Master Billaba had seen before he came across her in the bacta tank. “In that case, you must have faith that you have based your interpretations in truth, not an attempt to excuse Sith behavior. And you must be strong.”
Before that week, Kanan had never visited Eniddal. After, he never wanted to see it again.
The place was one disaster after another, right down to its terrain: slender fingers of land jutting up between canyons so deep, they looked like they could go right down to the planet’s molten core. Who could tell? All he knew was that the place was oppressively hot, carried the sulfurous reek of lava pits, and he couldn’t see where the jagged trenches ended.
Not to mention the fact that the whole planet reminded him just enough of old stories of Mustafar to make the back of his neck itch.
Hera’s informant, a Bothan woman looking to give the Empire a taste of its own medicine, was just introducing herself when a blaster shot knocked her into Kanan’s arms. By the time her forehead hit his chest, she was lifeless weight. More blaster fire followed.
“Bounty hunters.” Kanan’s voice was tight as he dropped the woman and started running, Hera already several paces ahead of him. Ratcheting his blaster from his thigh, he shot back over his shoulder, but the bolts went wide.
There wasn’t much point in chasing them—as far as he was concerned, anyway—but one enemy of the Empire meeting with two strangers could easily be three bounties, and bounty hunters weren’t exactly known for their commitment to nonviolence. So he and Hera ran along the rocky, uneven, ground and he got flashes of a stocky Rodian behind them.
Coming up on the edge of one of thousands of cliffs on this forsaken world, one of their shots finally hit true, and Kanan skidded to a stop, shooting one more stunning blow just in case.
Hera screamed behind him, and his heart shuddered in his chest.
He turned around to find nothing. Then the shouts came from over the cliff’s edge. “Kanan!”
Kanan swore, shoving his blaster back into its holster as he hurried over, falling to the ragged earth as he approached the edge. Hera was clinging to a tiny outcropping, the only one before a fall into the depths of the planet.
He glanced wildly around. Nothing to brace him up here, and where there was one bounty hunter, others might follow. Who knew if the Rodian had partners?
“Hold on!” he shouted, sliding as far forward as he dared, stretching an arm down to her until his shoulder started to ache. She reached up, pushing herself as far up as she could against the handful of stone jutting out. Her fingertips grappled at his, but his hold was weak. If he tried to yank her up, he wouldn’t do more than break her fingers before she fell to her death.
Footsteps pounded behind him—with their luck, the Rodian’s friends—even as Hera lost her grip on the stone.
The air died in Kanan’s chest. He couldn’t lose her, lose this. The Force, the Force, and to hell with everything else—
He reached out in his mind with all the delicacy of an grasping child, yanking Hera back up to the edge of the cliff face so he could pull her the rest of the way. Turning, he fired two more blaster shots and cleared their way back to the Phantom, dredging Hera up next to him with an arm under hers.
They returned to Ghost exhausted and filthy with the space-black dust of the planet.
Chopper zoomed around them both, chittering with irritable worry. At some point in the last year, Kanan seemed to have been upgraded in Chopper’s circuitry from “interloper, getting too close to Hera” to “tolerable, not as good as Hera.” That, as far as he could tell, came with few benefits except the droid’s occasional concern after tough missions.
Once they’d assured the droid they hadn’t met with more than the usual amount of danger, Kanan went to his bunk, and Hera to hers.
He’d hardly said a word to her since.
How could he? He’d stood (well, laid) on a literal precipice and nearly gotten her killed, not in the midst of rebel activities but on the run from no one important. She might not have returned from the chasm if he’d found his resolve an eyeblink later.
Fear had gripped him for a moment in a way he’d never felt before, the paralytic realization that without Hera, he would be alone as he hadn’t been since Gorse. But with Hera, he was exactly the man the Jedi Code warned against. Passionate, putting himself before his mission, personally obsessed with a single woman over the entirety of the galaxy.
What kind of idiot wouldn’t use the Force when the Force was the obvious solution to his problems?
One who was happiest when telling himself that if he only ignored the Force long enough, it wouldn’t matter what he felt for his captain.
For two days, Hera had tolerated his new eagerness to tune up Ghost and clean out its more obscure crawlspaces. She made conversation when they ate, questions and comments that had little to do with the past or future—only the immediate present—and let him stalk off to the innumerable chores he set before him.
On the third day, when she found him sitting on the well-worn lounge seat, she asked, “Room for one more?”
“Plenty.” Kanan felt a sharp bite of something—embarrassment mixed with the sort of gut warning that used to send him far away, when women were concerned—under his ribs. He tugged up one corner of his mouth out of habit and pressed his hands into the orange upholstery, about to stand. “The sensor array could use diagnostic testing, actually—”
“Stay.” She said the word kindly, with a gentleness he thought he’d probably earned with his sulkiness, but there was a firmness that said he wanted to do as told. “I want to talk.”
So much for diagnostics. Kanan stayed, hardly noticing than he crossed his arms over his chest. “Okay. Shoot.”
“You’ve been distant.” Despite her earlier question, she still stood. Maybe it was a distance she wanted him to be the one to close. “Ever since Eniddal, you’ve been burying yourself in work. I have my guesses why, but I’d rather hear it from you.”
He hadn’t expected anything else—what was there to talk about besides Eniddal?—and yet, the words felt sharp despite Hera’s gentle voice. That was on him, he knew that much, but it wasn’t easy to respond to.
“C’mon,” Hera said, sitting down next to Kanan. Evidently, she’d given up on having him come to her. Her hand found his, warm and callused fingers brushing against his own rough palm, and he didn’t have the energy to pull away. “Talk to me.”
If he was honest, he didn’t want to pull away.
It was hard to resist Hera, especially when she used that soft, patient voice. With anyone else, he could shake off attempts at pity—but Hera never pitied anyone. She showed compassion, felt empathy, but never pitied.
All he could manage then was a question. “Why?”
“Hmm.” That was all for several long seconds. He thought that was all, period, but eventually, she asked, “Has holding it inside helped?”
He suspected she knew the answer already, but he croaked it out anyway, his throat dry. “No.”
“Then maybe it’s time to try something new.”
“You know what I was,” he said, looking down at the dull metal floor. No, that wasn’t right. Whatever he might want, he couldn’t escape it. Every time he thought he’d left it behind, the Force made it clear there was no escaping. “What I am.”
She didn’t speak. They didn’t talk about it—had never said the word, not since he stopped her from it back on Calcoraan—and Kanan had always appreciated that. It sometimes felt like a non-issue; it wasn’t like he went out of his way to use his training, after all. More than a decade of avoiding it meant that other skills came more instinctually. But every time he got comfortable being Kanan Jarrus, gunslinger and sometimes rebel, Caleb Dume poked his head back up. And now, he couldn’t shove him back into the recesses of his mind.
“A Jedi.” The words left a bitter tang in his throat. Part of him wanted to correct himself: not a real Jedi, not a Jedi Knight, only a wayward Padawan who’d barely moved beyond the Initiate Trials and would never have any more training. He’d outlived his entire world. “The rules of the order…”
“Tell me about them.” When she spoke, it was with the gentle rhythm of water flowing over stones. Even now, he could lose himself in the sound.
“Not passion, but serenity.” The words still came easily to his tongue, even years after he’d last spoken them. They still held weight, though he wasn’t sure. “That was one of the rules. A Jedi cares for everyone, not one person. Not themselves, not…” Someone they love. “...Someone else.”
“Exactly. There were millions of people and thousands of Jedi.” And now, only one. “It was the only way we could help the universe.”
“I see.” Hera fell quiet again. She was still and warm beside him, soothing in her silence. It wasn’t comfortable—nothing was—but it was better than being alone. “So, the Jedi Order wanted you to try not to think of yourself. What do you want, Kanan?”
“And not what you think you should want,” she continued, as though he’d never spoken at all. “If you want to leave, I’ll understand. I’ll miss you, but I won’t stop you. Is that what you want, though? Or do you want something else?”
His mouth opened, more out of habit than anything. When he started to form a response, he realized he had nothing to say.
Hera would wait, he knew that much. He could only think of a few people with the same extraordinary sense of patience, and all of them were dead. So he shut his mouth and thought about her question.
Once, he’d wanted to see action, to test himself on the battlefield and prove his worth as a Jedi while fighting the Separatists. He could have that here, if he wanted—the action, anyway, and the vaunted goals. The Separatists were no longer the threat in question, but the Empire beat them handily anyway. They were bigger and more dangerous, and attaining Hera’s dream of a free galaxy would take all the longer for those facts. And the reward was greater, too, something more than proof of his own skills.
He’d wanted safety next, and the security that had evaporated the moment the clones had turned on him and his master. And Ghost was the safest he’d felt in years. He still woke in the night at times, breathless and sweating, tensed to escape enemies he hadn’t seen since he was fourteen, but once he was awake, he was secure. He could trust Hera, and even Chopper was warming up to him despite the fact that Kanan’s presence meant the droid had to share its mistress’ attention.
After that, he’d only searched for drink and a way to fill his time. With Hera, he didn’t need the former and didn’t want for the latter. His old life, drifting like debris from planet to planet and finding work where he could, had started to seem more like a bother than anything. It was work, getting to know new people and knowing he’d leave them—or worse, get them killed—in the end. And it wasn’t really necessary to do. With a freighter like this one, they could go anywhere, and their work could be anything. Every odd job in the galaxy, especially every odd job that might put a crack or two in the Empire’s shiny finish, was theirs for the doing.
And now? He wanted to stay. If he forced himself to look at it truthfully, he wanted this life.
Without realizing it, he’d started to put down roots. Years of living as the perfect fugitive hadn’t stopped him from getting comfortable, and a childhood spent learning to value serenity over attachments hadn’t kept him from falling in love with Hera Syndulla. The answer to what does Kanan want? was Hera. Hera and Ghost and even Chopper.
Hera and her missions and her unshakable ideals.
He was a Jedi, and that would never change. A Jedi who stood alone in the ruins of an order, maybe, but a Jedi all the same. And no matter what he tried, he couldn’t make himself into a Jedi who didn’t love—especially when it was a matter of loving a woman unmatched in bravery, a woman who saw a world that could be where everyone around her saw what was. He could no more stop his feelings for her than he could stop breathing.
And that was all there was to it.
“I want this.” The words scraped his throat on the way out. “You and me…we’re going to give the Empire everything it’s always dreaded.”
“As friends?” Hera asked in the bland tones she used for arrangements with strangers. There was something underpinning her words, though—worry, maybe, or hesitation. Or maybe Kanan was looking for hints of reaction where there weren’t any, some hint of what she thought.
“Yeah.” Casting his gaze sidelong at her, he flashed her a half-smile, the corner of his mouth tugging up. She’d already been looking at him, all while he’d stared at the rivets in the floor, and not for the first time, he wondered what she was thinking. “Friends, and…more than. But always friends first.”
Her lekku twisted around each other, a grin bursting from her as she reached over to take his chin in her hand and pull him close for a kiss.
“What about you?” he asked, once his breath returned to him. “What do you want?”
He could hear her smile almost before she spoke. Hera’s smiles radiated out of every inch of her skin. “To bring down the Empire. And you.”
“I come second?” he teased her, his voice finding some levity at last.
“Only just,” Hera promised him, turning her head to press a kiss to his half-closed lips. “It’s very close.”
“Chaos, yet harmony,” Caleb offered, after they were dismissed from the most important meeting he’d ever sat through. They’d finally received directives: to visit Kardoa, where the surviving soldiers of Master Billaba’s last battalion waited for them. He wasn’t sure how he’d wait the three weeks until they arrived.
Even though Caleb suspected she knew exactly what he just said, he repeated himself. “Chaos, yet harmony. The fourth precept.”
“So it is.” They looked out the wide, thick-glassed windows at Coruscant as it shrank to a pinprick, and then to nothing at all. It was strange how easily the buildings blurred into a grey, indistinct shell. “What do you think of it?”
It took him a moment to formulate an actual answer to her question. He’d brought the precept up mostly in hopes of looking a little more studious than he felt at the moment; the alternative was excitement over his first mission, and that wasn’t the way a Jedi behaved. “That’s what we’re going to do, isn’t it? War is chaotic, but your battalion won’t be.”
“Let us hope.” Master Billaba’s eyes remained fixed on the stars beyond them. “What else do you think of in relation to this precept?”
More. Caleb thought back to Master Coven’s text in The Jedi Path, how she’d explained it. Threads twining together, like strands of a rope—that was it. “We learned at the Temple that everyone’s lives are connected within the Force. Even if they’re confusing by themselves, they all belong together.”
She glanced down in his direction, but it didn’t feel quite like she was looking at him so much as beyond him. “Once, on Null—long before the Separatists, of course—I saw a reclumi spider’s web at dawn. It was wider than I am tall and covered in dew drops that sparkled in the sunlight. I couldn’t touch it, or I might have been trapped, but I could admire the pattern it made from afar.”
Caleb could see what she was trying to say, he thought, but it was her story, not his, and he didn’t want to guess at its message.
Master Billaba waited, and when he did not speak, only nodded, she said, “You will find your own metaphors eventually. Until then—whatever we face when we reach Kardoa, remember that we do so with the knowledge that the Force binds all our actions into something large, even if we cannot see what that is.”
Kanan loved Hera, and the galaxy didn’t shatter. Planets still spun in their orbits, and stars continued to glitter in the dark expanse of space. And the Empire continued—so they did, too.
Eventually—slowly, after years on their own—their crew had grown. First, a Lasat with snapping green eyes, who didn’t take kindly to questions about how he’d escaped the rest of his species’ extinction. Kanan and Hera didn’t ask, having seen the wreck of the bar where the last person tried and, failing that, insulted his grandmother. In his own time, he spilled, and it was a story Kanan knew better than Zeb realized. No matter who did the killing or how, it always boiled down to chance.
Then, a Mandalorian bounty hunter they’d found half-dead on Taris, the planet’s acrid smog clinging to her for days after they hauled her aboard. Hera and Kanan were after the whereabouts of a Herglic whose hundred-thousand-credit bounty had come up for anti-Empire behavior, and so had been Sabine, for decidedly different reasons. Up until her last partner left her on Taris, she’d told them, she’d been close to finding the guy.
They worked for their way to whatever destinations they asked for, but somehow, they never quite left.
And then there was Ezra.
“Remind me again why we’re meditating in the galley,” Ezra said, cracking an eye open approximately five seconds after they’d started.
Kanan sighed. He thought he’d explained the activity well the afternoon before, but evidently, he hadn’t—or Ezra, who didn’t take easily to meditation so far, was looking to wind him up and possibly get out of it. “Because you don’t get to choose the times you need the Force. Sometimes, you’ll be in the middle of complete chaos, and you still need to be able to reach within yourself.”
“Chaos and harmony, right?”
“Right.” He felt his lips curve up. Maybe he had managed to get through to him. Sometimes it was hard to tell. “And this is a safer place to practice than a fight.”
“Got it.” Ezra closed his eyes again.
Kanan wondered, in retrospect, if Master Billaba had found it this difficult to manage him and all his questions. He’d interrupted a meditation session more than once with inquiries, and only now did he realize how much effort it took to meditate and supervise someone with such an active mind.
Sorry, Master. Won’t do it again. His chest ached for a moment, an old loneliness that he noted and set aside. Every day he spent with Ezra, he wished he could call upon her and ask...well, everything. More thoughts to acknowledge and move beyond.
A large toe nudged Kanan. When he ignored it, it poked at his back again. “Hey. You, uh, all right there?”
“It’s a Jedi thing, Zeb,” Sabine called from the other end of the galley. Dishes clattered under her hands. “Hera said we’re not supposed to bother them.”
“We’re trying to meditate,” Ezra said, and Kanan could nearly hear his eyes rolling in his head. Couldn’t leave Zeb alone, not for two minutes. “You know, clear our minds and stuff?”
“You’re blocking the way,” Zeb answered.
Kanan didn’t bother opening his eyes, but he did groan, “Zeb…”
“Fine, fine. Have fun with your Jedi stuff.”
Besides Sabine in the background, it grew quiet, and Kanan allowed his mind to open to all the presences aboard the ship. Hera, going over inventory, munching on a jogan fruit as she checked items off her list. Chopper rewiring the acceleration compensator. Somewhere in the hold, a loth-cat snuffling through a nap—
Kanan bit back another sigh. This was what came of leaving the gangway open to air Ghost out. Loth-cats, neks, and who knew what else infesting the place. It was annoying, even if the hold needed some fresh air every once in a while. Annoyance had no place in meditation, though. He saw it in his mind’s eye and set it aside along with the loth-cat’s heartbeat.
Eventually, even Sabine left the galley, having heated up some noodle broth. (Kanan heard Ezra’s stomach rumble and hoped he was acknowledging his hunger and letting his mind move beyond it.) Despite the purpose of the exercise, the space grew still, and they were stiller within it, two conduits for the Force letting their minds expand into the vastness of the universe.
At moments like that, Kanan could believe he was making a difference for Ezra.
“What do Jedi believe happens after we die?” Master Billaba asked.
Caleb looked up from where he was going over his lightsaber’s field energizers with a soft cloth. He always knew they’d get to the last precept eventually, but talking of it now felt strange. He’d spent more time trying not to think about death than he ever expected he would back on Coruscant. “We don’t know.”
“But I believe we have some theories.”
“Yeah.” He wasn’t as familiar with all the different ideas as he suspected Master Billaba was, but there had to be as many possibilities as there were Jedi. No one could know them all, surely. “We don’t just stop.”
“Because…” He fitted the pieces of the lightsaber back together, tucking his cleaning cloth into his robes. “Because even people who can’t feel the Force live inside it. The Force doesn’t just stop because you close your eyes. Even if you don’t open them again.”
Master Billaba smiled. “You have a way with words, Caleb. Someday, you could be a theorist as well as a strategist.”
“I think I’d rather fight,” he admitted, shrugging with a sheepish grin.
“What have you thought of the fighting so far?” she asked, which didn’t exactly seem like the Master Billaba he was used to. Theory was often her strength; Caleb doubted he could recall all the texts she referenced in their conversations, texts she assured him she’d have Jocasta send them from the library, a few at a time. They’d helped her when she was Master Windu’s Padawan, and they’d guide Caleb, too.
“It’s what I wanted.” But that wasn’t enough. The Clone Wars were more than just imagined glories now that he was in the middle of them. “But I didn’t realize what it would be like.”
There was no response except a nod, the sort that said continue. Master Billaba would never leave things at that, and they both knew it.
Caleb shifted where he sat. They’d never talked about this before—despite the battles, despite the daily treks into areas where they could be of use. “Killing people.”
If he didn’t fight, he’d be the one lying glass-eyed on the ground, shot through with blaster fire. But they were people, all of them, and the fact that they were wrong didn’t change that. They might have had homes, friends—and then they had nothing at all.
And the worst part was that he didn’t feel nearly as bad about it as he thought he probably should.
Master Billaba was quiet—a glance up at her found her face stricken for a moment, until she realized he was looking at her—and then she sighed. “It isn’t an easy thing, taking a life. I regret that it has become necessary for you at such a young age.”
“It’s—” It’s okay, it’s what I wanted, it’s—he’d expected this life for so long that he was pretty sure he couldn’t complain about it now. And so much of it was what he wanted, was exactly like he’d hoped. “It’s what we have to do.”
“It is.” They sat in the silence, the fire crackling before them, Grey and Styles busy with a card game on the other end. “It has been said that, though our bodies might rot away, the strongest parts of us remain in the Force. What makes me Depa Billaba and you Caleb Dume will last beyond anything we can imagine now. Some believe that a Jedi strong in the Force might be able to use it to reach out to the living, even after death.”
It seemed too good to be true, on the face of it, but Caleb couldn’t deny he liked the idea. “Like a ghost.”
“Somewhat,” she agreed. “A piece of the spirit, freed from its mortal flesh. Everything returns to the Force eventually. There’s beauty in the fact that, someday, we will commune with every being that has lived.”
A question settled on the tip of Caleb’s tongue, one that needed to be swallowed back. Whenever he grew curious about Master Billaba’s past and all the soldiers that died when they battled General Grievous, he did his best to tamp it back down.
“Ask it.” His uncertainty must have been palpable—or Master Billaba had grown accustomed to predicting his inquiries. Perhaps both. “I will not take offense.”
“When you think of that,” he began, words coming without certainty, “of people returning to the Force after they die...does that make you feel better about what happened with your last battalion?”
“It is tempting to lie to you.” Reflected firelight flashed in the metal stud at the bridge of her nose. “No. It doesn’t. Even knowing that they entered the war knowing the risks, even knowing the value of self-sacrifice, I am not sure I will ever be entirely at peace with their deaths. But it might help you, and it is my job to prepare you for the work you will do as a Jedi Knight.”
Caleb wasn’t sure he’d ever find beauty in the thought of the dead returning to the Force, just a sort of comfort that felt hollow despite itself. But as theories went, it was interesting enough.
“Kanan?” Hera’s voice was soft, her body a silhouette against the sharp lights in the corridor outside their bunk.
He’d just been on the verge of sleep, what would either be restless drowsing or the kind of slumber so deep that an entire day might pass dreamless, but for Hera, he could put it off for a few moments more. After what she and the crew had gone through to rescue him from the Inquisitor, he was willing to walk over broken glass for them. “Yeah?”
She came in, the door sliding shut behind her. It was dark, truly dark, no slants of light slipping through cracks, as her weight settled onto the mattress next to him. One of her hands found his. “How are you? Really.”
“I’m here,” he told her, after a long moment. “That’s enough for me.”
They lay there, Hera nowhere near as close as usual—worried, perhaps, that he might have injuries she hadn’t seen. She was still dressed; by ship’s time, it was early evening, nowhere near time to sleep for anyone but recent prisoners. Maybe she’d stay until he slept, he thought. He’d like that.
“The Inquisitor called me a coward.” The words sounded thin in the air, the memory something he could share with no one else. (Ezra, someday. Ezra deserved to hear the full story as much as Hera did. But not yet.)
Hera shifted next to him, raising herself on one elbow. “You’re not—”
Kanan waved his free hand dismissively, though he doubted she could see. Mostly, it made his arm ache all the more. “When the clones turned on us, my master told me to run, and I obeyed. That’s what you do as an apprentice—what your master tells you to. But it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die. Not then, or there.”
“You weren’t a coward,” she insisted, settling back down. He tugged her a little closer, but though the warmth of her body neared, she wouldn’t rest her head on his shoulder. “You were a boy. The fact that you survived took bravery, not cowardice.”
Hera would have her opinion whether he argued or not. He decided not to. “Once, she told me that Jedi who were strong in the Force could speak to the living even after they died. For years, I hoped I’d hear her voice again, that she’d find me and answer every question I never got to answer.”
Next to him, Hera’s breathing was steady. She was all patience for matters like this, letting him speak at his pace and tell her what he would. Further out, Ghost hummed with the low, mechanical whir of moving through space, its own sort of breathing. Somewhere beyond all else, Depa Billaba might watch, or listen, or simply exist.
“She didn’t, and I don’t think she will.” He stared up into the darkness, a starless space where no ceiling could be seen. “But I don’t mind anymore.”
With her free hand, Hera touched his chest, fingers settling over his heart. “I think she speaks through you, Kanan. Even if you can’t hear her voice, part of it is still here.”
He covered her hand with his own, his tired fingers squeezing hers. “Maybe.”