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Tatooine | 5 BBY

He's on another trek through hyperspace on another mass transit shuttle, Coruscant to Tatooine, beings packed into the silver ship so tightly that Cassian can hardly breathe. His jacket's hot on his shoulders, and the small stack of Alliance holo-chips feel heavy in his pocket in more ways than one as he scans the cabin. Two stormtroopers today, posted by the airlock. They stand still as statues in their white duraplast and faceless helmets. Their blasters gleam in the low light.

Mon told him that if he could, he should make contact with Senator Gadot from Tiisheraan on this run. There are rumors of new Imperial labor camps on the Tiish moons. The senator and her bodyguards are all the way across the cabin, but she stands, holding onto one of the balance poles just like Cassian, rather than claiming a seat. He likes that. He can see why Mon trusts her.

He isn't sure he trusts her yet, but that's all right. That's not his job. This is: making his way through the transport, a step at a time, until he's next to Gadot's first guard. The Duro is tall and as unreadable as anyone else of their species, those eyes something Cassian has never learned to interpret beyond watching me/watching someone else. Right now, they're watching him.

He smiles, and the ship banks a curve. Cassian's hands find the pole to brace himself, palms landing just above the senator's.

Gadot looks over at him, her face registering disapproval until she notices the small starbird on the top button of Cassian's coat. Her eyes widen for just a moment, and then she opens her hand under his. Cassian steps back with a sheepish smile at the guard, raising his hands placatingly.

"Sorry, Madam Senator," he demurs. "I lost my balance."

"Happens to the best of us," the Senator says kindly. "Public transport is always choppier than I remember."

"Yes, ma'am," Cassian says. "It does seem rougher every day."

Gadot inclines her head. "That it does. I will keep that in mind."

Cassian lets himself drift back toward the aft hatch of the shuttle. There are still ten minutes to landing, but he doesn't like sticking around. He doesn't like being this close to the troopers, but it's probably safer in the long run than refusing to meet their eye-line. Casual.

The senator in her finery is a rarity on this shuttle route. Most of the beings in the crowd are wearing clothing only slightly above what Cassian would consider rags, the Coruscanti poor emigrating to Tatooine to beg for work on moisture farms or seek out new lives in oasis villages or the hardscrabble tenements of Mos Eisley. The factory workers of the Empire, in their black uniforms, are neat and tidy, but look wan. Sick. They're the third human-cattle shipment to the Outer Rim that Cassian has seen this week. The Emperor must be gearing up for something big.

Cassian misses solid ground and looking up at the sky instead of out at it. He misses traveling in his own ship with Kay-Tu. Public transportation is rancor shit, even if the shuttles do all run on time under Palpatine's rule, and Cassian understands why an Imperial droid would be obvious and out of place. With Cassian traveling on his own, these interplanetary flight missions have proven as useful for recruitment as Mon and the others had hoped, but Cassian hasn't had a break in months. As choppy as the big oversize shuttles are, he's so used to them now he'll have jelly-legs the next time he spends any time on-planet.

The blue streaks of hyperspace blur together in a flash of white, and then Tatooine rises out of a star field toward the ship.

He stays out of the senator's way – out of her bodyguards' way – as everyone disembarks. Time will tell if the lead was successful; he doesn't need to stick around and get reckless. He has passage booked on the next flight out, two docking bays down. From Tatooine, he'll head to Dantooine to check the probes at the old base. His next assignment will come through from Mon or Draven there.

He tries to get a bead on the factory workers disembarking after the Senator so that he can transmit as much information to Mon as he can at the next secure site. There are a lot of children on this run. Small hands, detail work. Cassian hopes they aren't bound for the Tiish moon.

A flare of anger knots up in Cassian's chest, but he has to smooth it over. There are more troopers here, lingering around transports and checking flight manifests as pilots exit their ships.

The spaceport at Mos Eisley is a blast of dry heat, but even that is a welcome change after hours of humid recycled breath.

"So I'm a choppy pilot, huh?"

Cassian snaps around and takes an immediate step back as he registers the pilot of the transport, arms crossed over her chest, grinning at him.

She's got a single curl of long black hair streaming across her face in the dry desert breeze. The rest of her hair is in a tight regulation bun like all of the other Empire pilots, her black uniform collar sharp enough to use as a weapon.

"I'm sorry?" Cassian manages.

The pilot laughs. "You don't have to look so scared. It was funny." She sticks out a hand. "Shara Bey."

"Jorge." Her hand is cool and steady in his, and he knows that his palm is cool and steady, too – lots of practice giving fake names. "Jettson."

"I've seen you before," Shara says. "On my ships. This is the second time this month, isn't it?"

"Is it?" Cassian licks his lip. "Well, I feel even worse for saying anything about your skills."

Shara raises one eyebrow. A scar runs through it, a pale white line against her skin. Cassian immediately forces himself to meet her gaze again.

"You make a lot of trips to the Rim," she says. "Doesn't seem to matter what port we're headed for, though."

"People everywhere need the latest tech," Cassian shrugs. "Even out here." His cover is better when Threepio is with him, a walking sales pitch for Cassian's programming abilities, but protocol droids are large enough that many flights are charging for his passage these days. The Resistance isn't made of credits.

Shara Bey tips her face closer to Cassian's. "Like those chips in your pocket, no?"

Cassian's hand twitches toward his belt, and Shara's eyes follow the motion, just as quick. She leans back, hands raised. "Relax, pal."

"What do you want?" Cassian keeps his face close, too, his lips barely moving.

Shara's face settles into something serious. "I might be in the market for some of that new tech, myself."

Cassian looks up into her eyes, and here comes the stare-down. Around them, the spaceport buzzes with activity and the heavy footfalls of stormtroopers in their armor, stomping past in perfect rhythm.

She doesn't blink. Just watches him right back.

"I heard the other thing you told the senator," she says, finally. "And it is rougher. Every day."

Cassian looks away. They shouldn't be doing this here – he knows better, he should just give her a chip and go.

"You must need pilots," Shara says, and when he looks back at her she's biting her lip.

Cassian palms a holo-chip and reaches out for her hand. He lifts it to his mouth and brushes a kiss across the back.

"A good droid salesman always needs someone who knows what pilots want."

Under his lips, Shara's hand tenses as she closes her fist around the chip.

"Are you staying here?" The question seems to surprise her on its way out, and she sticks her hands in her pockets, rocks on the balls of her feet, the first time she's seemed nervous during the entire exchange. "Sorry, that's a stupid question, I meant – are you here a little longer? I could go for something to eat." Her mouth purses. "Someone to talk to about… droid tech."

Cassian looks up and checks the bay for any encroaching Imperial officers.

This pilot, Shara Bey, doesn't look like she's detaining him, though. She looks – desperate.

Cassian knows that desperation, that need to know that someone, anyone, anywhere, is doing something.

"Okay," he says. "I can get the next flight out."

"If you have to go, I get it." Shara's face shifts back to steely composure in a second. "I don't want to keep you."

Cassian smiles. "No, it's all right. What is technology for if not to help people? You look like a person who needs some help."

"Maybe I'm a person who thinks I could be of some help," Shara says lightly. "Let me grab my things, and we can go."

Cassian watches as she turns to head back into the cockpit, the anti-hijack maglock sealing behind her.

She could be calling in Imperial reinforcements right now, uploading his chip to Vader himself.

But for some reason, he trusts that she's not.

She's back in less than a minute, slinging a decidedly non-regulation jacket over one shoulder and balancing a duffel bag on her hip.

"Don't like leaving my things around," she explains as they leave the transport behind.

All the bars in this spaceport look the same to Cassian, but Shara passes two without a glance before heading into the third. If anything, this hole in the wall looks grungier than the last. But there are only a couple of troopers inside, right up at the bar, and the cozy booths set into the far walls give more privacy than he was expecting.

Shara looks at the tall Duro behind the bar and nods. "L'ulo, you all right?"

"Been better," he shrugs, with a nearly imperceptible tilt of his chin toward the troopers huddled in the two end seats. One is still wearing their helmet, but the second has his helmet off so that he can drink from a tall glass of something amber and frothy. He stares at Cassian with flat-eyed defiance.

"Hopefully it'll clear up soon," Shara agrees, pleasant and casual. She tilts her head to indicate Cassian beside her. "Same as always. Get my new friend Jorge my usual, too, por favor."

"Will do." The Duro nods.

Shara leads the way toward a booth in the back, shoving her duffel bag under the table against the wall and sliding into the stained cushions, surveying Cassian.

"L'ulo was a pilot in the Clone Wars," she explains. "Since nonhumans can't get transpo licenses… this is as close as he can get. It's hard to be away from ships once you've flown."

Cassian rubs the back of his neck, glancing around them. Everything seems business as usual – maybe he can really let his guard down for half a second, breathe easy and eat something to kill the headache he's had since this morning. "If you like flying," he says.

"True enough," Shara says. "Sometimes it's nice to get your feet on the ground, I guess. Depending on where you land."

That might be the truest thing Cassian's heard today. The Duro from the bar comes over with drinks, and a plate of what looks like bread, sticky with butter and herbs. It smells like straight grease and makes Cassian's stomach growl.

He raises the glass to her. "I'll drink to that."

The liquor is sharp and strong when Cassian kisses his first sip.

"Have you been flying transports long?" Cassian asks, setting his glass down and fussing with the cuff of his jacket. It's fraying, which he always forgets until he's drinking and needs something to focus on.

"Since I passed the exam," Shara says. "Almost two years. It's steady work."

"You like it," Cassian says. "Don't you? The flying bit."

Shara's eyes shine, and the bar is dim enough that it can't be the light, and her shot glass is still almost full, so it can't be the liquor.

"I love it," she says. "That moment you're breaking into lightspeed? It's almost like being free."

"Or being torn apart," Cassian shrugs, but he can't help grinning at her sincerity.

Shara grins and takes another little sip of her drink. "If you've got a choppy pilot."

"Or a clunker like those transports," Cassian points out. "They can't be fun to maneuver."

Shara raises her eyebrows and nods at that. "Claro. I have my mother's old A-wing from the Clone Wars... she's old, but she still flies like a dream."

"Your mother flew in the Clone Wars?" Cassian finishes his drink and immediately wishes he hadn't. There's nothing to do with his hands but fidget.

"Just a few relief missions," Shara says. "But she always says that she saw Padmé Amidala once at a spaceport."

Half the galaxy thinks they've seen Amidala at a spaceport – she's an urban legend at this point – but somehow Cassian believes Shara. And the important part is: she has her own ship. He lowers his voice and leans in closer to her. "We could always use a good pilot with a good ship."

Shara looks him over appraisingly. "Now you're willing to talk? No more tech?"

"I do work with tech," Cassian says, and smiles. "A good droid is a good droid, no matter where it came from, if you're a better programmer."

"You work with tech, but your job is to be a people person," Shara says, slowly. "And you're good at it, but you don't like it very much, do you?"

"That sounds like you're a people person." Cassian laughs. "I don't hate talking to people."

"Just flying?"

It's the liquor that has Cassian glance up at her from under his lashes, still smiling. "Only when it's a choppy pilot."

Shara Bey laughs and shoves his shoulder once.

Cassian sways with the punch, lets the momentum bring him back a little closer to her. He doesn't mean anything by it: he isn't dumb, she doesn't seem entirely interested, and he's never sloppy on the job. But it's nice to pretend for a minute, to act like two normal humans in a sketchy bar, drinking shitty drinks.

Shara drinks the last of her shot, finally, and runs her tongue over her lips.

Cassian wants to say something – wants to say just the right thing – but the clatter of duraplast armor behind him makes him look over his shoulder. The bare-headed trooper jams his helmet back over his face, and he and his companion both jump to attention, facing the door.

"Kriff!" he hisses under his breath. An Imperial officer, olive-brown uniform so sharply creased the man looks like he could take off like a kite if a stiff wind came by, enters the bar with his little cap in his hands. His hair is parted as severely as his coat is pressed.

Shara follows his gaze. "Would he recognize you?" She asks, her voice low, perfectly controlled.

"I recognize him." Cassian tries not to move his lips as he looks for a back exit. "Not a nice guy."

Shara's hand curls over his knee under the table. "L'ulo can't have trouble in here, we should go."

"Is there a quiet way?"

Shara purses her lips. "Maybe."

She seems to catch the Duro's eye and bites her lip briefly before pushing Cassian out of the booth. "There's a window in the restrooms."

"The restrooms—"

Shara grabs his hand and tugs him behind her toward the back of the bar. Her hand is small in his, fingers wrapped tight around his like he might fight her on this.

She moves fast like she's still in flight, dodging a service droid carrying a full tray of drinks. Cassian ducks behind her, follows as best he can, although he doesn't think she'd be above dragging him.

She pushes him into the restroom and locks the door behind them.

"So is this something you do every day?" She asks as she looks around for something they can stand on to reach the high window. "Escape Imperial high directors?"

"Only on the bad days," Cassian grimaces.

Shara looks back at him, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. "You make a girl feel real special, Jorge."

Cassian grins. "This isn't a bad day."

Shara laughs. "You're telling me that isn't an Imperial high director?"

"No," Cassian says, and he weaves his fingers together so Shara can get a boost up to unlock the window. "That's the Grand Director."

Shara shakes her head, as her fingers struggle with the lock, her boot heel digging into Cassian's palm. "You're right, this isn't a bad day, it's a terrible day." Her hand slips on the stuck latch. "Kriff this," she mutters, and she takes the blaster pistol from its holster on her hip.

"Force," Cassian swears, "You do that, they'll be here in a second. Switch places with me?"

Shara grumbles, but holsters her blaster again and jumps down. She braces her knees and lets Cassian step into the basket of her hands so he can hop up.

It takes him a moment, but Cassian hasn't spent years with his hands in the bowels of every droid model still working to not be able to spring a rusty window lock.

"Got it!" He grins down at Shara. "Do you need me to pull you up after me?"

"I shouldn't," Shara says, and she sounds genuinely – not sorry, but like she wishes she could run away from this place, too. "I have another flight in a few hours."

"You could—" Cassian stops himself. He isn't stupid. Still, he can't help but ask: "You're sure?"

Pilot First Class Shara Bey smiles up at him and boosts him up high enough that he can get a good grip on the outer window ledge.

"I'll see you again," she says. "I believe that."

"I hope so," Cassian says. "Thank you."

Shara pats her pocket. "No, thank you."

He nods, and lets himself take in her determined face for a moment. The quirk of her mouth, the stubborn angle of her chin. The little freckle in her eye, just beside her pupil. He's met so many people doing this job that all the faces begin to run together, but somehow it's important that he remembers hers.

And then he's out the window, making the drop to the dusty Tatoo ground.

He'll head for the Mos Eisley cantina and try to hitch a ride to Mos Espa. There's still work to do.

 

Yavin 4 | 3 BBY

The rainy season on Yavin lasts half of its rotation: it's a gentle rain, warm and steady, but Cassian is sick of rain. His feet are pruned in his boots, and the callouses on his hands from the weaponry they're training with are soft and sore, tearing off too easily and leaving raw pink skin behind.

"I'm eating without you," Kes Dameron, Pathfinder trainee, Rebel for just shy of two years, warns him, hunched over a small can of cooking fuel at the back of their shelter. It's Pathfinder training – there are precious few supplies, but they've had a lucky day, finding a standing corner of a decayed stone wall to use as support for a lean-to.

They'd managed to get stakes into the soft ground and stack Jakaw fronds to make a third wall. Kes has a small tarp in his rucksack, so they stretch it between the stone ruin and the jakaw branches with more of the broad, waxy green leaves on top to make a nearly waterproof roof.

Cassian turns from surveying the hazy wet and dark green of the jungle.

"Don't you dare, Private," he mutters. "I'm your commanding officer. I can leave you out here without your boots in the dead of night, if I want."

"Then come in," says Kes. He looks up from the tiny blue glow of the fuel. "Pick a ration, any ration."

"What're you having?" Cassian asks.

Kes gestures to the clear packet resting on his knee. "I think it's supposed to be a stew? It's the one we've got the most of." He gestures to the watertight box at his feet, where the rest of the rations are stacked in their vacuum-sealed skins.

"Sounds good." Cassian ducks back into the shelter structure and lets the camouflaging jakaw fronds fall into place like a door. They should be completely hidden from stormtroopers, in theory, but there won't be any in the Yavinese jungle. The Empire has no use for Yavin Four; all that exists here are hulking shells of stone temples from a dead religion and overgrown jungles with entirely too many types of birds.

What Cassian and Kes do need to worry about is whether they're completely hidden from the other Pathfinder training crews out tonight. They're hunting each other, after all, everyone playing both sides to make it back to the Command Center last and whole.

It's Kes' final exercise before he can be read into classified ops – Crater, Crystal, Desert Bantha. He and Cassian have been living out of each other's pockets for the last thirteen months, and after Cassian signs off on Kes' rank approval, they may never see each other again.

Kes bites open the plasti-pack and pours the contents into their little pot, adds water from his canteen and puts it over the eye of the burner. "While you were finishing the roof I ran the periphery," he tells Cassian. "I don't think anyone's going to be looking over here. I spotted a campfire but it was a good five klicks south, down by one of the waterfalls."

"Good," Cassian says. He pulls out his datapad and checks for the stake reports from the other trainers. "Did you notice Melshi and Tonc up at the top of the temple on the river? They can see this quadrant with their scopes."

"Kriff," Kes swears. "No."

Cassian resists a smile. It shouldn't be a laughing matter, but Kes is usually good at this, and seeing his frustration with himself makes Cassian feel strangely fond.

"Well, we haven't been color-tagged," Cassian says. "So they haven't noticed the structure yet. Do you want to move to higher ground or hope the camo is good?"

Kes rubs at his face, stirs the pot with their single spoon. "It is good. I checked it at least three times from every angle. I think we should sleep here and then move early, before they're up. Maybe even go after them. They wouldn't expect us."

Cassian nods and powers down the datapad after a quick check-in note to Kay-Tu. They've been out for almost three standard weeks now without a charge, and it's running low. He doesn't put it past the droid to come out into the jungle after him if he loses power entirely and can't send a note at the end of the day, even if Kay-Tu's motivation would be more 'boredom' than 'concern.'

Kes pours the steaming and rehydrated stew into a cup and hands it to Cassian. "Enjoy."

Cassian takes the stew and bites back a smile. Whatever this stuff is, it mustn’t have been enjoyable to a human palate even before being freeze-dried. He watches as Kes repeats the process to make himself a cup of the gunky mess.

"Maybe by this time next week we'll have real food," Kes says, cheerily.

"Maybe," Cassian agrees.

Kes grins over at him. "We've only got to tag out three more teams. You wanna make it a bet?"

"It's not something to bet on," Cassian says, as sternly as he can muster. "This is life and death, Private Dameron, not a game of Dejarik."

Kes nudges Cassian's knee with his own. "Like you and the other officers haven't made your bets on us already."

Cassian had, in fact, wagered half his next credit transfer on Kes being the last to get knocked out of training, after just two days with him. It was a stupid thing to do, and he's still not sure if it's going to backfire spectacularly.

Cassian hasn't gambled on any of his other partners, if Mon ever asks him about it,. Melshi looked shocked when Cassian entered the pool. Rarely has Cassian even communicated with the other Pathfinder ranks on these final tests beyond the stake notices at the end of day, preferring to keep to himself and run his trainees like they're on a real op: hard, harsh, and quiet.

Kes is different.

Kes makes Cassian different.

"You're not supposed to know about that," Cassian says, tilting his cup to get the last of the stew down to his mouth.

Kes laughs. "We all know. Some of the other officers aren't exactly subtle about it." He glances at Cassian, oddly shy. "Anyway, however it shakes out, I'll try not to embarrass you."

Cassian doesn't know how to interpret the sincerity in Kes' gaze.

So he ignores it, putting the fluttering in his stomach down to crappy stew, and busies himself with unlacing his boots. "I know you won't, Private. You're one of the best trackers I've ever seen."

"Ah, so you did bet on me." Kes' smile expands until it tugs at his eyes, his entire face crinkling.

"Kay-Tu needs upgrades," Cassian lies. "I need the credits." He pulls off his boot and examines the swelling on his three broken toes.

Kes hums, unperturbed. "I'm going to set the cups out for a minute to wash, I'll be back." He takes the pot and their two mugs, and the small snap-up bin that they use to collect drinking water.

He's gone for maybe five minutes, and Cassian stretches out in the lean-to. It's just big enough for them to lie down side-by-side when it's time for sleep, and he spares a jealous thought for his private room and camp cot back at base.

There's water in Kes' hair when he returns, like he left his hood down again. The water clings to his strong nose – crooked where he broke it as a child, the first story he ever told Cassian – and the sturdy cut of his jaw. He shakes out the pot and cups, and crouches by Cassian.

"We can fill up our canteens in the morning," he says. "I got something for your feet." He extends his palm, shows off three skinny, waxy leaves. They're triangle-shaped, like little spears, and oozing pinkish sap or nectar where he cut them off from the stem.

"You didn't have to do that," Cassian says, and his stomach wriggles again. He still hasn't decided where the embarrassment comes from when Kes does nice things for him, but he's been choosing to pin it on a sense of umbrage that anyone thinks he needs their help. He's been taking care of himself since he was six years old, and he's dealt with worse than a few broken toes.

And yet.

"Let me see," Kes demands easily, crouching down and tugging at the hem of Cassian's trousers.

Cassian leans back and lets Kes manipulate his ankle. "If you want to deal with the smell, then may the Force be with you."

Kes tugs Cassian's foot up to rest on his knee, and runs his thumbs up the arch. It's ticklish, making Cassian huff. "You say that lightly," Kes observes. "You don't believe in it?" He checks each bone, like he doesn't trust Cassian's assessment that the issue is simply his toes.

"I don't see a reason." Cassian tries not to squirm as Kes' strong fingers work. "There are no more Jedi. Does it matter if there is the Force?"

"I'd say it matters to all the people who still believe in it," Kes shrugs. "And the people who have died for it." They've heard about the destruction of holy cities across the galaxy, the fact that Imperial troops have even been sent to Jedha.

Kes squeezes out the sap from the leaves across Cassian's toes and wraps them with his bandana, keeping them straight. "Try not to put weight on it again until we leave tomorrow?"

"What, did you find bacta out in the jungle?"

"Sort of." Kes looks proud of himself. "We had these plants back home. My wife's father was a medic in the Clone Wars; he taught us all kinds of natural remedies. This won't act as a painkiller like bacta, but sábila is anti-inflammatory and will start to knit the bones."

Cassian tries not to look too impressed. Kes grins like he already knows, and Cassian shouldn't encourage him.

"I guess we'll see tomorrow how well it works." Cassian tugs his pant-leg back down to his ankle and shifts until he's sitting comfortably with his foot still elevated. "If you have more, I can look at your shoulder. Don't think I didn't notice."

Kes nods. The fact he isn't fighting it means it must be worse than he's letting on. He hands over the last leaf and turns, shucking his shirt over his head. His arm cracks with the motion, and Cassian winces in sympathy.

And then winces again at himself, staring too long at Kes' broad shoulders without doing anything about the ragged injury across one shoulder blade.

Kes isn't a big man, probably doesn't weigh much more than Cassian does, but he's shorter and broader, sturdy in a way Cassian will never be.

The back of Kes' shoulder is swollen, scraped and raw. The skin is a tatter of oozing liquid and bits of bark and the sharp green needles from the spiky tree that Kes skinned up to track Raner's squadron trapped in the unclean cuts.

At least he color-tagged them both before he fell. Another two people out of the running.

"How bad is it?" Kes asks, craning his neck to look at Cassian.

"Not great, but not likely to get infected." Cassian breaks open the thick, strange pod and examines the pinkish nectar inside. The leaf itself has a texture discomfortingly like skin – almost how Cassian's always imagined a Hutt might feel.

"Will it scar?" Kes stretches, trying to parse the pain. "At least it's not my face, my wife's always said she married me for my looks."

Cassian's jaw clenches for the barest second. "No, it won't scar. Didn't really break the skin... you're not even bleeding. Just a lot of debris."

Kes seems to realize that the joke fell flat, and his tone is considerably more sober when he speaks again. "Can you clean it out?"

"I think so." Cassian wishes that his fingers were cleaner, for Kes' sake. "It'll hurt like shit."

"That's why we have liquor, right?" Kes' laughter sounds tight, and he hunches over his knees. "Just do it, please."

Cassian takes hold of the first barbed spine caught in the mesh of Kes' skin, and pulls.

Kes grunts, low and punched from his chest.

Cassian swallows. "We don't have liquor."

"If you're telling me you threw out the flask in my boot, I might cry," Kes grits out.

Cassian scrapes some fragile bark out of a wider cut with the blunt edge of his knife, and Kes groans again.

"At least talk to me, man." He inhales, his ribs shifting under skin and muscle. He has dimples on either side of his spine where his tailbone dips into his trousers.

"I don't know what to say," Cassian says, because it's the most honest thing he has. He's never wanted to talk to anyone on a mission before.

Kes has his hands on his knees, his fingers spreading and contracting. They're shorter than Cassian's, thicker-knuckled, with short blunt nails Cassian has watched him scrub clean. He wears a single white-silver band on his left hand. It's beaten up, like the metal is cheap. Soft.

"Cassian?"

"Sorry, what?"

"I asked how long you've been doing this."

"Since I was six years old." Cassian abandons the knife and decides to pull out all of the needle-leaves first. He'll come back for the small bits of bark and dirt afterwards. "Soy festano."

And he is, still, from Fest. Even though he hasn't seen that planet from the ground in eighteen years. Everyone knows what happened on Fest eighteen years ago, of course. Or at least, they know the rumors. Cassian could assure them that reality was worse.

"Mierda," Kes says, and somehow Cassian is very sure he isn't reacting to Cassian digging through the scrapes on his back. "Yo soy chacaoense. Qué chévere es conocer a alguien que hable parecido, ¿no?"

Cassian knew where Kes was from, of course. It’s in his file. But the other man is right, it’s nice to hear the familiar words, even from a different accent. He nods.

Kes takes it as encouragement, plowing forward. "Since you were six, shit. Have you ever taken a break?"

Cassian pauses. It's a different sort of question. Most of the time, if he gets this far into the conversation, the response goes one of two ways: the person says they're sorry or asks if he still has family on Fest. Their reaction is never really directed at Cassian.

"Taken a break from what?" Cassian asks. "My life? No."

Kes is quiet for a long time after that, the only sound their hushed breathing, the uncomfortable sound of raw skin being picked clean. "You can't be much older than I am," Kes says, suddenly.

Cassian is nearly done, was just thinking thankfully that they can go to bed and put the conversation to rest, too. "Probably not," Cassian says. "Rebels tend to be very young or very old. Not many of us make it in-between."

"Can I ask, then?"

"Ask what?" Cassian flicks another sap-sticky needle off of his fingers. Kes is bleeding now, hot onto Cassian's hand.

"How old you are." Kes seems more subdued now, whether by the pain or Cassian shutting down his earlier question so completely.

"Twenty-three Standards," Cassian says. His knife opens again with a soft snick and he runs the dull edge of the blade over the blue flame still glowing from their dinner. "Treintaidós años festanos. I don't know why I still count it."

Kes makes a low noise, watching Cassian clean the blade in his peripheral vision. "Do they celebrate name days on Fest?"

"I don't remember," Cassian says. There are vague impressions: kisses on his cheeks and the smell of butter on his mother's hands. But that could have been another day. It could have been a wish. "Mon sends me a holocard and some credits every year."

"They're a big deal on Chacao. We celebrated my abuelita's ninetieth just before I came here." Kes sounds fond – and hurt, his voice tight, his shoulders hunching around his ears.

"That – sounds nice," Cassian says haltingly. This falls perilously close to what he's always considered small talk. He doesn't know how to hear about someone's life without asking, How does this help the Rebellion?.

"Oh, she hated it." Kes laughs. "She grumbled the entire time: the cake was too dry, the music was too loud, there were too many children pestering her for stories. The rest of us loved it, though."

"I haven't had a cake since I was an Imperial aide," Cassian says. He holds tight onto Kes' good shoulder as a brace, and warning, that the worst is about to come. The wound is nearly clean, but he'll need to cauterize it.

"You were an Imperial aide?" Kes sounds more amused than surprised, his tone lighter than it was just a moment before.

"I was a spy." Cassian lets the flat of his blade cook in the stove's fuel flame until it glows red. "For almost a year, I slept on Khutebha cotton sheets and ate nerf steaks with politicians. And all I got for the trouble was a sarcastic droid."

"Kay-Tu's not so bad," Kes says. "Hey, give me a count for that, please, Captain?"

Cassian nods. "You ready?"

Kes takes a deep breath through his teeth and holds it.

"Three, two, one." Cassian lays the flat of the red-hot blade against the raw skin and sweeps like spreading blue butter on toast.

Kes doesn't say anything, just exhales slowly through his nose.

Cassian frowns at the ugliness of the mark against Kes' golden soft skin.

"Do you think that – gel, from the plant, that it would help soothe a burn?"

"Yeah," Kes says. "Please."

Cassian reaches across the tiny space of the lean-to for the last half of the quivering leaf. It's already begun to wilt, softer and slimier inside than when he first broke it open.

"Thank you," Kes says, slowly. "For doing this."

Cassian shrugs, and then, belated, says, "Can't send you back to your wife half-dead and disfigured, can I."

"I'd prefer not to be half-dead," Kes agrees. "She's already a lot prettier than me."

Cassian finds that hard to believe, honestly.

He's careful, smearing a thick layer of sap over the wound, and then wiping his fingers clean. "All right. Just be sure to sleep on your other side so it can breathe."

"Right." Kes gives his shoulders a tentative roll and groans. Low, and throaty.

Cassian busies himself with cleaning his knife.

"I'll take first shift of watch," he informs Kes, sheathing the blade at his belt again and knee-walking toward the entrance to take a look outside. "You should sleep if we're leaving early like you said."

"Wake me up in three," Kes agrees, unrolling his plasti-fabric sleep-sack and settling into it on his stomach. His bare shoulder already looks less raw as the sap absorbs, and Cassian lets himself look for a moment longer at the tan nape of his neck, the soft curve of his ear. Just for a moment.

The lean-to is really too small for two grown men to fit comfortably, even two as admittedly small as Cassian and Kes. Kes' side is hot where it's pressed against Cassian's leg.

He falls asleep faster than Cassian remembers ever being able to. Soon there's just the steady sound of his breathing, and the rain on the jakaw leaves.

It's harder to stay focused on the watch when Cassian knows that really, it's all a fake. No one is actually going to burst in, blasters blazing; the worst-case scenario is Melshi and Tonc spraying them with color-tags and having to turn over some credits.

But still, Cassian tries to keep his mind on the sounds of the jungle and not the quiet sleep-noises of the man lying beside him. He counts the disparate types of night-bird calls, listens to a runyip root in the soft moss nearby and pull up grubs to slurp. A twig cracks to the northeast, and Cassian straightens.

Nothing happens.

Kes moves, just a twitch that tightens the muscles across his back, and turns his head to face the other way.

Cassian gets to look at the back of his head, now, the silly cowlick that swirls his hair at the crown and makes it spike up.

There's another cracking twig, but it's further away. Another runyip, most likely.

Kes shifts again, probably still dully in pain, and then his face is pointing in Cassian's direction again. His eyes move constantly beneath closed lids. His mouth is soft, bright pink peeking out of the tangle of wiry beard that they've both grown over their time in the field.

Cassian stares at him, and not at the lean-to's rough door. Why had he told Kes about his childhood? He does not talk about Fest. He outranks Kes, could have told him to zip his lip.

And instead he'd responded – he'd practically encouraged Kes to ask more questions.

He shakes his head and tries to focus again on the sounds outside, the bird calls in the night.

By this point in training a private, he normally color-tags his trainee himself. Just to show them that you cannot trust anyone in a war.

And so that he can stop having to spend time with them.

He should probably color-tag Kes anyway, before this is over. Just to be sure. Kes is too open. Better Cassian teach him a lesson now than he get shot in an alley someday because he wasn't watching his back.

Kes mumbles something quiet and indistinct in his sleep, voice low.

Cassian doesn't want Kes to close himself off. The thought surprises him.

He wakes Kes half a standard hour early, just to prove to himself he's not showing favoritism.

Kes checks his watch, has to realize, but he just nods and shakes himself awake, crawls to the open side of the lean-to so Cassian has room to lie down.

"I'm going to make caf, do you want some before you go to sleep?" he mutters, pulling the rain skin inside to fill a cup.

Cassian hesitates. Almost accepts.

It might be nice to share a cup of caf.

"No," he says, and skins out of his shirt. The sleeping bag is warm when he curls inside.

"Your loss," Kes shrugs easily, tapping a foil packet of the shitty insta-caf into his cup and stirring with one finger. "When do you want me to get you up?"

"Just give me ninety minutes." Cassian never sleeps longer than ninety minutes at a stretch. "Then we'll go see whether we can find Melshi and Tonc before they find us."

"All right." Kes touches his shoulder gingerly and, determining the gel is dry, shrugs back into his shirt. "Que sueñes con los angelitos."

And for the first time in years, Cassian sleeps deeply enough to dream, something sweet and soft and tinted in blue.

He feels rested when Kes gently shakes him awake.

It's unsettling.

"Here," Kes says. "Can't turn it down, I already made it." The cup of insta-caf is fresh and smells almost like the real thing.

"Thank you." Cassian gulps most of the cup down in just a few swallows so they can pack up, destroy the shelter, and head out before sunrise.

"I already did mine," Kes informs him, as if he could tell what precipitated Cassian's hurry. "I filled your canteen too, and the mess kit's all packed. I figured we could eat after we get 'em."

Cassian finishes the last of the caf and turns the dregs into the dirt. "Good thinking, Dameron. Let's get going."

He pulls on his shirt while Kes crawls out of the shelter, then follows. It only takes a few minutes to demolish the scant structure.

Kes doesn't complain, pulling his pack over his injured shoulder, but there's a tightness between his eyebrows that isn't natural this early in the morning.

Cassian feels rather the same, lacing his boots. They feel too-tight, like his feet are swollen from the constant water-logging and his broken toes.

He checks the datapad for stake points while Kes scatters the last of the jakaw branches.

Joma's crew took out another pair in the night, but not before Sefla took out the attacking trainee.

Cassian, Kes, Melshi, and Tonc are the only pairs left. This might end today.

When he glances up, Kes is watching him thoughtfully.

"I think we should wade up the river and climb the bluff," Kes says. "It would take longer to go around, and I don't think they'd be expecting it."

Cassian nods. He stretches out his sleep-sore muscles and cracks his knuckles. Climbing. He kriffing hates climbing.

"So when we get below where they are, we leave the packs on the far side of the river," Kes continues. "Nobody else is close enough to take them. We'll be quieter on the climb with less weight."

Cassian nods, deferring. This is Kes' plan to succeed or fail, and then Cassian will debrief him and assign him a pass or fail back at the base.

"We shouldn't even try to get onto the plateau," Kes decides. "Just find good footholds at the edge and shoot over the lip."

It definitely keeps their bodies out of the way of any defensive backfire, although it's assuming they won't trip backward and plummet into the river below.

Cassian nods. They haven't scouted Melshi-and-Tonc's hide yet, but he doubts that they thought to construct it in a way that would protect them from sniper fire. Melshi is lazy, doesn't notice details. Cassian had trained him and failed him twice, years ago, when he was seventeen and Melshi was almost ten years older and a cocky shit.

"Good," Kes says. "Let's go."

The rain has softened to a low, muzzy drizzle, and there's fog over the river. The sound of it, moving over rocks and around the roots of the trees overlooking the banks, hides the noise of their feet as they move upstream.

Kes takes to the trees, leaping from branch to branch overhead like an overgrown woollamander. Cassian moves below him, low to the ground. Scout low, scout high. Kes might actually be good on a team effort. Cover Cassian's back.

It's an alien thought. Cassian doesn't really do teams. It's more mouths to worry about keeping shut. Or shutting.

If they manage to knock Melshi and Tonc out, Cassian's going to tag Kes. He just isn't sure when. Should he do it right away, in front of Melshi?

Kes drops down from the tree and lands without making a sound in the soft mud and dropped leaves. There's a tiny woollamander baby riding his shoulder. "We're almost directly under them," he informs Cassian, keeping his voice soft, under the burbling of the water.

Cassian nods and lifts his fist, curled fingers facing Kes. He points up, opens his hand to show all five fingers, then closes his fist again.

Kes answers with a fist, a flat hand in a blade, and a fist. He crouches to check the currents of the river before they wade across, the tiny woollamander still curled around the back of his neck like a scarf. Kes strips off his pack and hangs it from a branch, then motions for Cassian to follow him.

It isn't a terribly wide river, and it isn't so deep that it takes more than a few strokes to swim across the worst chasm.

Cassian's legs and feet protest the cold of the river as they emerge on the opposite shore, but he hardly notices. Every focus is on their sounds, now: how loud they're breathing. Whether their feet touch rock or soil.

Kes scales the bluff like it's nothing – he's not fast, but he's steady, checking each handhold.

Cassian follows, to the side and only just below. It's a position that would allow for him to catch Kes by the wrist if Kes falls – he is Cassian's trainee, after all, and Mon and Draven do not like when Cassian brings back someone with broken bones even though that is the point of high-stakes training.

Well, Mon doesn't like it. Draven always asks why he bothered bringing them back at all.

If Cassian falls, he falls. At least they're over water.

Kes suddenly stops, holds up a closed fist with the back of his hand to Cassian.

Cassian takes one more foothold so that he's at Kes' eye-level. They both pull out their color-blasters. They're quieter than real weapons as they prime.

Melshi and Tonc are not even ten yards from the lip of the bluff: their backs to Kes and Cassian as they eat huddled around their burner. They're watching the woods – where the threat would be if Kes weren't smarter than both of them.

Cassian spares a moment for pride as Kes motions for him to lock on Melshi and aims his own weapon at Tonc.

Kes points toward them with a sharp hand. He holds up three fingers.

Then two.

One.

Pewsh! Pewsh!

"Hey!" Melshi yells, jerking to look at the yellow splatter on the back of his jacket. "Kriff you, Andor!"

Tonc just groans, but there's relief written across his face as he stands to wipe the dripping mess off himself.

Cassian climbs over the edge of the rocks onto solid ground, crouching and reaching down to help Kes up.

"Thanks," Kes says, and shoots him square in the chest, the paint flaring across Cassian's jacket.

Cassian stumbles back a step, watching the yellow paint spread across his chest as behind him, Melshi roars with vindicated laughter.

In front of him, Kes grins at Cassian, eyes warm and teeth white.

Cassian smiles back.

 

Yavin 4 | 1 BBY

"Captain, I feel as though it should be said that chlorine gas planets are not an ideal environ for either droid composition or human biology." Kay-Tu looks down in a good mimic of disgust at the way his whole trunk has crusted over with orange rust.

Cassian takes off his SAFER helmet, the seal hissing. The sounds of the Yavin base are thunderous as they assault Cassian's ears: for the last two weeks, every noise has been muffled by the whirring, whooshing ambient filter of the helmet. "Next time, Kay-Tu, I'll try to make sure the Empire only enslaves carbon-based life forms."

"That's all I ask." Kay-Tu brushes a crackling of rust away from his arm and stomps off toward Parts Maintenance. He creaks with every step.

"Captain," Mon greets him, gliding out of the shadows of the hangar to stand beside him. "It's good to see you back in one piece."

"It was a near thing," Cassian agrees. "I don't know what they are building out there, but it's big."

Mon smiles with half of her mouth. "It's never something small or easy to deal with, is it."

"No, ma'am." Cassian begins the long process of decompressing his SAFER suit. "If it were, you wouldn't need me."

"I could always find a use for you," Mon says without hesitation. "In another life you would've made a good ambassador, I think. We could've had debriefings over lunch in an expensive Coruscanti lounge."

Cassian laughs. "I'm glad I escaped that, then. Fancy isn't my style, Senator."

Mon Mothma looks amused. "I'm pleased you haven't lost your sense of humor, Cassian. I'll expect an actual debriefing in half an hour."

Cassian nods. He's contemplating the quickest path to the closest fresher when Mon clears her throat. "Also, I've transferred 250 credits into your account. Ten for every Standard of your life."

Cassian had forgotten the date. "Thank you, Senator. That was unnecessary."

"You're very welcome, Captain Andor." Mon turns to leave, but looks at him over her richly-clad shoulder. "It is the least that we could do."

Two hundred and fifty credits is enough to get stupendously drunk – maybe drunk enough to forget it's his name day, Cassian muses. He can shower later, he decides, heading to the command center. Get this debriefing over with and have the night to himself.

Cassian passes by a laughing, jostling group of Pathfinders on his way to the Command Center. He doesn't say hello to them, and they don't say hello to him. He's been gone for a month; they probably assumed that he was dead.

He trained half of them, and he barely remembers their names.

Kes isn't with them, anyway.

Not that he would expect Kes to be with them: there are active missions all over the galaxy, and Kes is talented enough to be running a covert op. Maybe even training someone himself, soon.

Mon tilts her face close to talk to Viceroy Organa as Cassian turns the corner of the large monitors in the command center. He immediately ducks away again to give them privacy. He can record his debriefing with one of the droids, and she can review it later.

Viceroy Organa used to make a big deal of celebrations, always trying to get Cassian to come with him to Alderaan for a Life Day's feast with his wife and daughter. Cassian always refused. He doesn't need to see a palace to know what he doesn't have. Cassian is sure, somehow, that it isn't a coincidence that Bail is here on his name day. The credits that Mon transferred for him probably come from an Alderaanian account.

Cassian sighs and tries not to be annoyed by their sentimentality. He finds one of the PZ model droids, the archival specialists, for his debriefing.

The rundown is perfunctory. The Empire is building something, using Sklowdowskans to work around to clock en masse.

He's just finishing his report when Mon and the viceroy walk past him on their way out.

"Mon informs me you've proved invaluable once again," Organa tells him. "We appreciate your efforts, Captain."

"Thank you, sir." Cassian manages a smile at Bail. "The Rebellion appreciates your continued assistance."

"I only wish I could do more." Bail exchanges a look with Mon Mothma. "But things are changing. I'm sure I'll see you again soon, Captain."

Cassian watches them leave, heads bowed together, still talking.

Changing. What's changing? If anything, the Empire is only becoming more brutal.

Cassian contemplates it as he makes his way back to his small assigned quarters. Perhaps the Empire's increasing disregard for the systems it governs will force more senators to join the alliance, but that's the hope they've been working on for years, and it seems like there's little difference.

Cassian ducks his tired head as he swipes open the maglock.

Rustle. Something – someone – moves inside Cassian's locked quarters. Cassian automatically grabs his blaster and primes the mechanism.

"Don't shoot me, please," comes a low voice from his cot, and Cassian swears, stepping back.

Kes Dameron stands up, hands in the air, laughing but wide-eyed. "Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

"What the fuck, shit!" Cassian hisses. He doesn't let go of his blaster. "What are you doing here?"

Kes gestures, and Cassian glances around the room for the first time – there's a garland of tinsel strung over his locker, and a foil-topped new bottle of booze on his bunk-side chest of drawers. And –

"I brought you a cake," Kes grins. "I had time off, and they said you were getting back today, so I thought... we should celebrate your name day."

Cassian –

Cassian doesn't know what it is that he's feeling.

"How did you get in?" he manages.

Kes shrugs. "Sweet-talked Kay-Tu into giving me the passcode override for the maglock."

Cassian's eyes narrow. "Kay-Tu has orders never to allow anyone inside."

"Well, that's just sad." Kes swiftly defers the implied question.

"I thought you would be off – saving the galaxy," Cassian says. "I didn't think you'd be hanging around Yavin."

Kes laughs. "I'll leave that to my abejita. She's been flying nonstop for your Senator Mothma." He shrugs. "Are you really complaining that I brought you cake?"

"I—" Yes. "No." Cassian blinks, watching Kes lounge on his cot. He's barefoot, in casuals like he belongs here. There's a scar across one arm that wasn't there before.

Cassian becomes overtly aware of how sweaty he is, how drenched he is in the reek of his own body after two weeks in a SAFER suit.

"I can go, if this is a bad time," Kes says. "I should've checked, I'm sorry."

"No, no." Cassian shakes his head and runs his fingers through his hair. "It's okay. It was... nice of you."

"it just seemed like maybe you needed a friend. One who isn't metal, I mean."

Cassian bristles, and Kes sighs. "No offense, Captain. And I fully understand you still outrank me."

Cassian is too tired and too hungry to work up a satisfying anger. And maybe he is a bit emotionally raw from his name day. "Oh, at ease, Sergeant. Descansa."

"You heard about my promotion?" Kes looks absurdly pleased.

Cassian hadn't meant to let it slip that he was following Kes' progress. He still isn't sure why he pulled the file before he left for Sklowdowska.

"There was talk," he says, gesturing. Kes is still beaming.

"I wasn't sure if you had, I didn't want to bring it up." His unashamed pride is infectious.

"I've never had a trainee pass on their first try before," Cassian admits. "I've been curious."

"That surprises me," Kes says, more seriously. "You were an amazing teacher."

Cassian doesn't deflect the praise; he knows he's the best Pathfinder who didn't fight the Clone Wars. And the old guard is getting, well. Old.

Kes motions to the cake. "I wasn't sure if you'd had dinner yet, but I thought – you said you hadn't had a cake in years, I couldn't let it stand, man."

"I haven't eaten real food in two weeks." Cassian subsisted on the nutridrip in his SAFER so he wouldn't have to risk removing the helmet. "Cake sounds great."

"Should we get something from the mess first?"

Somehow, the idea of going to the mess – full of people – with Kes sounds both wonderful and terrible. Cassian rarely eats there, content to bring some rations or a tray to his bunk and sit alone with his work.

There would be rumors.

"Shouldn't have something this sweet on an empty stomach," Kes says, his smile brilliant in the dim light of Cassian's room.

No, I definitely shouldn't, Cassian thinks.

"All right," he hedges. "I should use the sonic shower first. I've been stewing in my own juices for two weeks."

"I didn't notice," Kes says. "I'm used to how pilots smell."

Right.

His wife is a pilot.

"Dame un momento," Cassian mumbles. He's glad once again for the private fresher attached to his officer's quarters. He doesn't want to deal with the loud, jostling braggadocio of the ground crew fresher.

When he comes back out of the room, dressed in clean casuals and with the best shave he's had in months, Kes is still sitting on his cot –

And there are two trays of food beside him.

"You didn't seem interested in more company," Kes explains. "And I remember how you never came to the mess. I didn't want to push. Not on your name day."

"It would've been fine," Cassian says, and then, because he feels human again, with clean water dripping down his neck, "But thank you. This is nicer."

Kes smiles like the Yavinese sun. "Much quieter. And we won't have to share the cake and booze."

Cassian pulls the chair out from his desk and slumps into it, taking a tray and balancing it on both knees. He shoots Kes a glance, says, "I wouldn't have shared anyway. I might not even share with you."

Kes' smile bursts, flares, and he laughs, holding his stomach. "I knew you had a sense of humor in there somewhere."

Cassian tries to look stern as he opens up the limp sandwich on his disposable plate. The zeltro sauce is smeared completely unevenly, and he tries to repair it with his finger.

"Don't tell anyone," he says. "They'll respect me less."

"Your secret's safe with me," Kes promises, zipping his lips. "I'm glad, though. I was a little worried."

Cassian isn't sure whether to take that as an insult, so instead he rearranges the layers of his sandwich.

Kes purses his mouth. "I just mean, I'm glad you're human, you know? Thought you might be a real advanced model of Kay-Tu for a while there. It's nice to see this side of you." He pauses. "Do you want my extra pickled ruica?" Kes holds out his own sandwich. "I always take 'em off."

"Sure." Cassian gets the barest flash of memory, an older brother long, long gone swapping bits of their lunches. "If you're sure you don't want it."

"Yeah," Kes nods. "mamá hated wasting anything, growing up. I guess it stuck."

Cassian doesn't actually remember what his mamá was like. But he knows the feeling of using things – and people – to their last drop.

He takes the pickled ruica from Kes and tucks it into his food.

Kes nudges his knee into Cassian's. "So, what've you been doing? Anything you can talk about with a sergeant?"

"A lot of time on Sklowdowska," Cassian says around a mouthful of food. "Just intel gathering."

Kes nods, and takes a bite of his own sandwich. "Sklowdowska, huh." He talks with his mouth half full, and it should be disgusting. Instead Cassian just feels grateful for the company. His room feels warmer for having another body in it.

"There are a lot of resources there if you know where to look."

Cassian leans back against his wall, sprawled out. It feels good to be out of a cockpit. Feels good when their legs bump in the space between Kes' chair and the bed. Kes' thigh is hot and solid up against Cassian's knee.

Kes doesn't press for details, just hums a little as he eats his sandwich, peeling off the crust and eating it before the rest.

"I could kill for some empanadillas," he mutters. "Sometimes I think this is actual bantha fodder."

"Good thing you brought alcohol to drown it in," Cassian agrees. "I can see if I've got cups around here somewhere—"

"Don't bother," Kes shrugs. "The bottle's good enough for me, if you don't mind it."

Cassian's fine with that. He takes the bottle Kes offers him and dusts the label off with his sleeve.

"¿Mezcal festano?" Cassian asks, blinking. "Where did you find this? It must be almost as old as I am."

"You're not the only one with secret contacts," Kes grins, shoving Cassian's knee gently with his thigh.

Cassian swallows and doesn't even notice the terrible clashing taste of pickled ruica with zeltro sauce and whatever they're trying to pass off as meat in the mess these days.

"It must have cost you a fortune," he presses. "Let me pay you back, I have a bigger salary."

Kes' face goes very solemn. "It's a gift, Cassian. Let me share it with you, that's all."

Cassian doesn't know whether he's ever received a gift that didn't contain an implied exchange of services. "All right. Do you want to do the honors?" He holds the bottle back out toward Kes.

"You first," Kes shakes his head. "We're celebrating you."

"Uch," Cassian grunts. "What a thing to celebrate." He slices his pocket-knife blade through the wax protecting the bottle's top, then pulls off the lid.

"You've saved my life half a dozen times," Kes says. "With what you taught me. Who knows how many others there are like me, who owe you that." He leans back a little and smiles at Cassian. "You're just lucky I didn't give a speech in the mess hall."

Cassian drinks rather than think about that. It's good alcohol, too, better than anything he'd even had when he attended black-cape affairs in the guise of an Imperial aide.

He drinks, and his brain supplies a different line of thought. "Where are you staying? You're not leaving tonight?"

Kes runs his hand over his mouth, and laughs softly. "I was going to beg you for the use of your floor, honestly."

Cassian smiles and hands the bottle over. Kes' hands are still sturdy, but rougher than he remembered, when he takes it. "If you don't mind that Kay-Tu updates while I'm asleep."

"Oh," Kes takes a long sip, avoiding Cassian's gaze. "About that. When I saw him earlier and told him my plan he said he was going to be in maintenance all evening?" Kes' cheeks are slightly pink, a reaction to the alcohol, or – that wasn't all Kay-Tu said.

Kes hands the bottle back to Cassian.

"He's very rusty," Cassian agrees. "So... yes, you can stay. Just the one night."

"Just one night," Kes confirms.

Cassian's brain, lit up with the warmth of the alcohol and a full belly, clean body, goes places it hasn't in a long time, and he shifts, sitting up straighter in the desk chair. "You're welcome to use the fresher," he says, clearly trying to make things worse for his future self.

Maybe Kes doesn't still have the wife. Why would he come here, to Cassian's room, on a night off if he still has a wife somewhere back home?

But he'd mentioned her, earlier, hadn't he? Abejita, he said, his little bee. Cassian's just tired enough that the liquor's gone straight to his head, and everything is starting to blur.

"Sure," Kes says, and stands. "Thanks. I'll be right back. The, uh, your cake is over—" he gestures vaguely toward Cassian's footlocker. "If you want to get started."

Cassian nods, and watches Kes disappear into the next room. He listens to the fresher start up and takes another sip of the liquor. This is a terrible idea.

Kes sings in the fresher. His accent isn't festano, exactly, the syllables a little more loose, but it's close enough – the same way that Alderaanian, on Bail's tongue, sounded enough like the father Cassian hardly remembered that it ached, at first, and he would pretend to be asleep longer than he was so that Bail would wake him up with soft words.

It reminds him that Kes is staying the night: he doesn't have enough blankets to make the floor comfortable, so they'll have to beg some off the aide who runs laundry or –

Cassian scrambles for his commlink. It rolls off the desk, but he catches it before it hits the floor.

"Kay-Tu," he hisses into it, "Bring me spare blankets."

"I'm in the hot oil bath," Kay-Tu says. It almost sounds relaxed, even though its voice can't portray emotions. "Can't you get them yourself?"

"No! I'm serious, Kay, I need your help." Cassian watches the door. The water is still running, Kes' voice still audible occasionally.

"Fine." Kay-Tu sounds almost as long-suffering as Bail's protocol droid. "I will be there as soon as possible. It may not be possible until I have no more need for the hot oil bath."

Cassian is relatively sure the hot oil bath is a ruse. Kay-Tu has been weird about Kes ever since Cassian returned from that training mission and passed him on the first go.

"Kay-Tuesso," Cassian says, as harshly as he can. "As your commanding officer, I order you to bring me an extra pallet of blankets! Now!"

"Your feelings for Sergeant Dameron hardly necessitate using that tone of voice with me," Kay-Tu says, and disconnects their link.

The water shuts off in the fresher.

Cassian puts the commlink away as smoothly as he can. He tries to lounge casually on the cot with the mezcal in a way that looks both open and nonthreatening.

It's the opposite of how he's ever tried to look. His muscles don't feel made for it.

A minute later Kes reemerges. He's back in his clothes from earlier, but there's still water on his forehead and down his throat, where his shirt is open like he'd toweled off hastily.

"I told you, you didn't have to wait for me on the cake," he says, grinning at Cassian.

"I forgot all about it," Cassian says. It's honest.

He's also rarely been honest with another person.

Everything feels strange, and it's not just the high-proof liquor.

Kes cocks his head at him. "How can you forget about cake?"

He moves closer, and Cassian expects him to take the chair – instead, he sits back down on the bed, next to Cassian.

Cassian can smell his wet hair, and it's – Kay-Tu was right, he does have feelings for Kes, which is... embarrassing, more than anything. Cassian honestly doesn't remember the last time he had a crush on someone.

And never on anyone married. Kes is married. He can't forget that. He's the only one who'll be hurt if he does.

"It's so unusual," Cassian says. "It's like forgetting there's a rathtar in the next room. Why would there be? So you open the door."

"Force," Kes swears. "Are you drunk? I feel like I need to drink more to keep up." He sounds pleased rather than accusatory, and he lists into Cassian's space to take the bottle.

"I might be drunk." Cassian nods. Kes is laughing at him.

His throat looks nice when it's tilted back like that to laugh.

It looks nicer when he purses his mouth around the lip of the bottle to drink.

Cassian might be staring. Is he staring? He blinks, just to be sure.

"Don't stare," says a phantom voice in his memory. "It's suspicious. People can always tell when you're staring. Just look at the room like no one in it matters to you."

Kes sets the bottle down on the floor and reaches to grab the cake, settles it on his knee. He pulls a knife from the sheath at his belt and slices a generous piece, extends it to Cassian. "Let's see how good spaceport cake even is."

Cassian takes the chunk of cake; without plates, it will be a messy endeavor.

He somehow doesn't mind as he watches Kes lick frosting from his fingertips.

"Not terrible," Kes decides. "Not as good as I could make if I had a shit-ton of azúcar morena and a proper kitchen for a couple hours, though. Maybe next year."

"Maybe next year," Cassian echoes. There is no guarantee of next year. Not for him. Not for Kes, either. Not even for the Galaxy itself.

Kes seems to sense the direction of his thoughts, knocking Cassian's knee with his own. "You're not a very cheerful drunk, are you, Andor?"

"I've never been accused of being cheerful." Cassian knocks his knee back against Kes'.

Kes leaves his knee against Cassian's like it's nothing. Like it's not the first real extended human contact Cassian's had in months.

Cassian takes another bite of cake. The sugar is going to make his hands jitter, it's been so long since he had some.

There's a bang on the door.

"I can get it," Kes says. He's steadier on his feet than Cassian would be, and he wipes some frosting on his pants as he walks to the door.

It opens to Kay-Tu holding a folded bed pallet.

"Oh, you are dressed in regular casual attire." Kay-Tu holds out the blankets. "I could have stayed in the hot oil bath longer."

"Sorry, Kay-Tu." Kes takes the blankets. "I really appreciate it."

"Now I do hope you make use of them." Kay-Tu leans through the doorway. "Good night, Cassian. I am returning to parts maintenance for a soft-cloth buffer."

Cassian lifts his piece of cake to salute the droid, guiltily.

Kes shuts the door as Kay-Tu's footsteps grow faint down the hall. "He didn't have to bring these, I've slept on worse."

"But you shouldn't have to." Cassian struggles to sit up straight. He manages it. "I can take the floor. You can sleep in my bed. Any time. You can – anytime you want, you can sleep in my bed." He shakes his head to clear it. "I mean, you should now, and I'll take the floor."

Kes looks faintly amused as he sets the stack of blankets on the desk chair Cassian had pulled out earlier. "That's ridiculous. You're still my superior, Cassian, I'm not letting you sleep on the floor in your own room."

Kriff. Cassian is Kes' superior. Even if Kes weren't married, nothing could happen. But he is married. To a pilot. His little flying bee.

"I promise," Kes says, seriously, "I don't mind. If you're ready for sleep now, I'll go ahead and set this up."

"Shouldn't we finish the cake?" Cassian rubs his eyes; everything in the room looks blurry. "I want chilaquiles."

"Well, buddy, I don't have chilaquiles." Kes laughs even though he's clearly trying to look like he's taking Cassian seriously. "There's the cake, though, and it'll keep 'til morning."

Cassian considers. The idea of cake for breakfast sparks a faint remembrance of his childhood, another name day, decades ago. For once, it doesn't hurt. "All right."

"Can I borrow some of your cleaning paste?" Kes asks, after a minute.

Cassian nods. He should brush his teeth too, if he can get up. And Kes is still wearing his civvies. "Do you want pajamas? I have extras; you can have them. Tonight."

"I don't think I'd fit," Kes says. It doesn't sound like an insult, so Cassian doesn't bristle the way he normally would. "I'm fine in my civvies."

"You do have very big arms," Cassian observes. Kes' biceps are something he would've been envious of if they'd met as teens, before Cassian resigned himself to being wiry.

Kes looks pleased with himself, bashful and a little pink. "Yeah, I guess I do these days. You should have seen me back at university. I was a wet noodle." He shrugs. "That's what war will do, I guess."

"Best possible outcome," Cassian mutters. He doesn't want to think about the war, for one night.

Kes laughs and flexes his bicep. It breaks the tension, somehow, and Cassian smiles back.

He hauls himself upright and tiptoes around the edge of Kes' pallet to get to the fresher. "I'll leave the paste out," he's saying, when Kes appears at his shoulder, leaning against the door frame. He holds out his finger, and it takes Cassian too long to figure out what he's doing and squirt the paste onto it.

"Gracias." Kes steps up into Cassian's space near the small mirror. He scrubs the paste over his teeth with the side of his finger, then waits for Cassian to spit before ducking his head down to drink from the spigot.

Cassian rinses when Kes backs up, and passes the towel he used to wipe his mouth.

Kes grins his thanks and pats his own face dry, hanging it back on the hook beside the mirror. "Now at least our teeth won't fall out in our sleep from all the sugar," he laughs.

Cassian grins. He wants to laugh, too, but – it feels strange, like he might do it wrong somehow. And then Kes will think he's strange and want to leave.

Kes leans into him, his shoulder warm against Cassian's. "Thanks for letting me crash here, man. When you came in earlier I thought you might throw me out."

Cassian is quiet when the warmth of Kes' arm leaves his.

He hangs back by the door to his fresher and watches as Kes steps into the room and pulls off his shirt to fold and use as a pillow.

"You surprised me," he admits. "But I – thank you, for the cake. I'm glad you came." He bites his lip, feeling awkward again. "I have to piss, I'll be back—"

He closes the fresher door and turns on the fan, slumping against the wall. Fuck. He's too drunk, too drunk to face Kes' sincerity and not say something stupid.

He wasn't expecting any of this. And Cassian doesn't do surprises. Surprises get people killed. Surprises make people kill. He doesn't like surprises, he likes planning and careful execution and –

And what if Kes planned this? What if Kes has an objective in being here?

That's almost scarier.

Cassian turns on the tap and runs the water as cold as it will go, splashes it on his face. He's being paranoid, which isn't like him. Logically there's no reason Kes would be here with an ulterior motive. And besides, he's married.

It seems like he's repeated that to himself a hundred times since Kes showed up tonight.

It's just... it's easy to forget, with the way Kes smiles at him so much, and he brought him cake and remembered his name day. He didn't even make it seem tragic, the way Mon always does, even though she doesn't mean to.

Kes makes everything seem less tragic, just with his presence, and Cassian is terrified that he'll get used to that.

Cassian slaps his own cheek. "Anímate, Fuerza."

He strips out of his own shirt and drops it in the chute before heading back to his cot. The walls aren't spinning, exactly, but it's not a smooth flight.

Kes might be asleep, if he's lucky – he isn't moving, and he's turned off the lamp. Cassian crawls carefully into bed and sighs into his pillow.

"Night, Cassian," Kes says, soft in the dark.

"Good night, Priv – Dameron," Cassian mumbles. He smushes his face against the pillow and breathes. "Kes."

Kes makes a soft pleased sound, and there's a shuffling motion in his sheets as he gets his hand free: Cassian can just make out the shadowy motion as he pumps his fist in the air.

Cassian's smiling when he passes out.

* * *

A rancor is sitting on Cassian's head when he wakes up.

"Kriff." Cassian braces his hands over his eyes and sits slowly and carefully so that he doesn't jostle his brain.

He'd woken to the door opening, and now it slides shut. Cassian peers between his fingers, but everything is blurry. The room is still dark.

He startles when the mattress dips.

"Just me," comes Kes' voice, gruff with sleep. "Here, I got you caf."

A warm mug is pressed into Cassian's hands. It smells like Kes got there early enough to get a good cup, not too weak and not too sludgy with dregs from the bottom of the pot.

Cassian closes his fingers around it and inhales the rich scent. Kes doesn't move from the edge of the bed, his hip pressed up against Cassian's leg through the blankets. He's got a cup of his own, drinking it with his eyes closed.

"Have you been awake long?" Cassian isn't normally a heavy sleeper. He can't be. Somehow he hadn't heard Kes moving until the door alarm beeped. This is why he doesn't drink.

"Not long," Kes confirms. "Might try to catch a couple more hours before I leave, if that's okay." He's listing, his weight heavy against Cassian's leg now. Cassian scoots over and gives him more room.

"That's fine." Cassian swallows more of the caf. It is good, and it helps to clear his head. "Do you know your next post?"

Kes only nods, which means he can't share, or he's too sleepy to understand it was a layered question.

Cassian understands the feeling. He quietens, too, and drinks the caf.

Kes' head lolls heavily against his shoulder. The empty mug of caf sits between limp hands in his lap.

His breathing slows, evens out.

Cassian watches him for a moment. He could shake him awake, help ease him back down onto the pallet on the floor.

But he should be getting up anyway. He's supposed to report to Mon in the command center this morning for new assignments.

He leaves the bed carefully, setting his cup on the bedside table, and taking Kes' mug, moving it too before he guides the other man down on the mattress. Kes grumbles, but his eyes don't open, and when he's horizontal he shoves his face into Cassian's pillow and goes still again.

In the fresher, Cassian washes his face and sponges off his arms, chest, before he shrugs into a shirt he'd hung up the day before. It's mostly clean. He brushes his teeth, and leaves the tube of paste on the counter – just in case. Kes might want it again when he wakes up.

He opens the door again.

Kes is still sleeping.

Cassian watches him, for a minute, taking in the curve of his back, the soft bare arches of his feet – his boots are across the room by the door, like he was trying to be quiet and not wake Cassian up with heavy footsteps.

Cassian chews the inside of his cheek.

He leaves his own boots off until the door slides shut behind him and the maglock clicks.

He'd been afraid that he'd slept in, but it's still early. The base is quiet, and he only passes a few people on his way to the command center. Mon is still drinking a cup of tea when he arrives.

"Captain Andor." She smiles at him in a way that suggests she knows that he had a guest last night. And of course, she does: she would have had to sign off on Kes' base entry.

"Senator." Cassian wishes he'd spent a little more time on his appearance. It had seemed so urgent that he get out quickly, but now he just feels rumpled.

"Did you receive your credits?"

"Yes, ma'am." Cassian's left boot isn't tied tightly enough. He ducks down to fix it and maybe arrange his hair with his fingers the best he can.

"Good. I'm sorry I can't offer you more time before your next assignment, but unfortunately I must ask you for your services again."

"Of course, ma'am." Cassian stands to attention. "Should I comm Kay-Tu?"

"It would be optimal for you to leave as soon as possible," Mon nods. "If he can ready your ship, then we can have more time to discuss your mission."

"Yes, ma'am." Cassian pulls out his commlink and switches it on. "Kay-Tu? Come in, Kay-Tu. I know you're not still in Parts Maintenance."

"Good morning, Cassian," Kay-Tu says. "I am surprised to hear from you so early."

"Get to the ship," Cassian says, rather than acknowledge the droid's implications. "We have a mission."

"I'm on board the ship currently," Kay-Tu grumps. "What else?"

"Make sure that our supplies are replenished. And I left my coat in my quarters."

"How many days worth of provisions should I pack?" Kay-Tu asks, blessedly not commenting on Cassian's other request.

"Plan for two Standard weeks," Cassian says. "I'll update you once I am read in."

"All right," Kay-Tu agrees, and Cassian clicks off the link before he can say anything else.

Mon nods. "Ten standard days is what I've noted in your schedule, but you can add time as you deem necessary."

"Yes, ma'am." Cassian's heard that before. Normally it means that he'll be gone for six months.

Surely Kes will have received a new assignment and left by then.

General Draven strides into the room, deep in conversation with Bail Organa as the viceroy doctors his caf with blue milk.

Cassian rakes fingers through his hair again. Bail looks impeccable as usual, clothes pressed, boots shined, face serious as he listens to Draven.

"It could further harm the reputation of the Rebellion with the remaining neutral senators if an alliance is made with..." Bail trails off. "I concur that it is the only remaining course of action, but I have to say, the optics of this choice will not sway the moderate to our cause."

"It's been nineteen years, Bail." Draven sounds exhausted. "If someone claims to be moderate now, they're only afraid of admitting they're on the side of the Empire."

"Or afraid of what the Empire will do to those they love if they say otherwise," Mon interjects.

Draven's sharp jaw tics. "Some of us don't have the luxury of that sort of fear. If they don't accept the risk soon, I doubt that anyone will."

Mon and Bail exchange a look, and Cassian wishes he'd brought his cup of caf. He doesn't want to spend the morning stuck listening to the same argument the council has had for months rehashed.

"Right." Mon Mothma says, in a tone that suggests that the discussion will be tabled – again. "Threepio, seal the room, please."

"Yes, ma'am. The Control Center is sealed for classified briefing." The protocol droid gives a small, golden bow.

"Captain Andor, your task is to verify a report coming out of Onderon that Saw Gerrera is recruiting again." Mon flicks open a holo chip, displaying a message to the same effect.

Cassian is too hung over to deal with Saw Gerrera.

He rubs his temples. "Yes, ma'am. Do we have intelligence on his target?"

"Anyone he can get his hands on," Draven says. "But that's not your mission."

Mon sets her teacup down. "Your job is to find an in for us with Saw himself."

"Yes, sir." Cassian stands at attention again. "Yes, ma'am. What are your intentions for my engagement with Gerrera, if I see him?"

"We want to offer him a deal," Draven says, flatly. "We just need to get a foot in the door to discuss what that might look like."

"That said, Cassian, we can't afford to look as though the Rebellion itself is involved in terrorist acts," Bail says. "You have permission to participate with his group up to a point to get that foot in the door. Do you understand?"

Cassian takes a deep breath. "Yes, sir."

"There is a lead," Mon Mothma says. Draven opens his mouth to interrupt her, but she holds up an elegant hand. "Captain Andor, what do you know about Imperial Science Officer Galen Erso?"

"Attended school with Director Krennic before joining his science division," Cassian repeats what he's seen of the file. "Left for a time, whereabouts unknown, before surfacing again. He's been with the Empire ever since."

"Correct." Mon looks at him across the table. "He has a daughter. She spent several years with Gerrera's militia. They say she was like Saw's own daughter after Galen Erso disappeared. It might be useful to find her."

* * *

Kay-Tu has the U-wing humming through its preflight modes when Cassian climbs aboard and slumps into the pilot's seat. He'd managed to grab another cup of caf, and he takes a long sip as he untangles the wire of his headset.

"Captain," Kay-Tu greets him. "I was surprised to find Sergeant Kes Dameron in your cot without you when I retrieved your coat."

Cassian glances over at him. "He must've fallen asleep there when I got up."

"I did surmise you might keep him up all night." Kay-Tu primes the thrusters.

"Ugh," Cassian says, and then, "not yet!" as Kay-Tu reaches for the controls. He wrestles his commlink from his pocket. He can't leave Kes without some explanation. Even if it wasn't what Kay-Tu thinks.

He doesn't have Kes' commlink number. Gritting his teeth, he takes another steadying sip of caf. "Kay, search for Kes' communication ID, please."

"03091979," Kay-Tu rattles off immediately. "He gave it to me ages ago. 'For emergencies,' he said." Kay-Tu tilts his head. "That's how he said it. 'For emergencies.'"

Cassian types it in, trying not to wonder when, exactly, Kes had given Kay-Tu his personal information, and – why.

What kind of emergencies had he had in mind?

Cassian sends a short apology. It doesn't feel like it's enough, and he follows it with two more messages – one thanking Kes for the cake, and one offering the use of his room as long as Kes needs it in Cassian's absence.

He regrets it almost immediately. He should've stuck with a simple goodbye.

He shuts down the commlink and taps in the coordinates for Onderon. "Let's go."

"It was nice of you to offer Sergeant Kes Dameron the use of your quarters," Kay-Tu says. "I have never seen you allow another sentient into your bunk."

"I said, let's go," Cassian grumbles.

"I had hoped it might relieve some tension," Kay-Tu says. "But I see that is not the case."