Kanan shifted his weight, mustered his courage, and knocked on the door.
To his surprise, the woman who answered was young, with chestnut hair that fell just past her shoulders and bright green eyes. He realized that, though he wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, it was far from this.
“Hi.” He swallowed nervously. “Ms. Syndulla?”
She smiled warmly. “You must be Kanan Jarrus.” The woman shook his hand in a manner that was both businesslike and friendly. “Please, call me Hera.”
He was about to reply, but the sound of barking cut him off.
“Oh, and that’s Chopper,” she shook her head, as a medium-sized mutt came running up. The dog started sniffing Kanan’s legs, and though he couldn’t have identified the breed (or any one of the breeds, for that matter) to save his life, the mongrel seemed friendly enough.
“Don’t worry, he’s the definition of gregarious.” Hera remarked. “Occasionally a nuisance, but gregarious.” Chopper looked up toward his owner and gave a single, irate bark, as if he had heard her; then turned back to Kanan, circling him.
“Why don’t you come in,” Hera gestured, holding the door open for him. “Come on, Chopper,” she grunted, giving the dog’s collar a tug to bring him inside. Hera ushered the mutt away and led Kanan through the simple but tastefully designed home into a smaller room, off the common area. It was sparsely decorated, with a desk in one corner and a small table flocked by two chairs in the center.
“This is where you’d be staying,” she explained as they sat down. “We’ll move the table out, of course, but I thought it made the most sense to show you the room.”
“Of course,” he nodded.
She had with her a few sheets of paper, and a pen, and she arranged them in front of her. “So, tell me a bit about yourself.”
He cleared his throat. “Well, I work as a mechanic, and I own my own shop.”
“Where were you living before?”
His stomach tightened. He had figured he would need to lie, but he hadn’t realized it would be difficult. Kanan cleared his throat. “Ah, I was living in an apartment building, but my lease ends next week, and they’re going to raise the rent. I don’t really need all the space, and I saw your listing, so I thought I would look into it.”
She nodded, marking something down on the paper. “I should let you know, we’re looking for someone who can commit to at least six months.”
There it came again, that indicative, anxious jolt in his abdomen. “I can do that.”
“Great,” she smiled, looking up at him, and he was struck by the green of her eyes. The knife in his stomach twisted a bit deeper. “There are just a few things I’d like to go over, then… You don’t smoke, do you?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“And you’re not allergic to dogs?” She asked. “I know you met Chopper on the way in.”
“No, he won’t be a problem.”
“Do you mind kids?”
The question surprised him. “Uh, no.”
She looked up with a faint smirk. “That didn’t sound convincing.”
“No, uh, kids are great. I just didn’t realize…” He looked over his shoulder. “Where are they?”
“At school,” she looked amused. “It’s Monday morning.”
“Oh,” he shifted in his chair. “Right.”
She looked at him carefully, a mild suspicion filtering into her eyes. “Anything else I should know?”
Worried that he had blown it, Kanan tried for a joke. “I’m terrible at keeping track of days?”
To his great relief, she smiled back. “That won’t be a tenant requirement.”
He grinned back. “Lucky me.”
Each held the other’s gaze, just for a second, and then, all too soon for him, Hera broke it, looking down at the papers in her hands.
She cleared her throat. “Well, it’s a fairly straightforward lease. Rent is $600 a month, which includes utilities.”
“Okay,” he nodded, relieved.
“You’ll have your own bathroom,” she nodded at a door to their left, “and the room does lock, so I’ll give you the key when you move in. If you want the desk, I’m happy to leave it, otherwise we can move it into Zeb’s room.”
“Zeb?” He asked curiously.
“Oh, right. Zeb is my oldest son; he’s a sophomore. Sabine and Ezra, the twins, are in fifth grade. The four of us are in the bedrooms upstairs, so you’ll be the only person sleeping on this level. Even with all the kids home, it shouldn’t get too loud.”
“Okay,” he nodded.
“I should tell you, we all have to leave the house by seven-thirty on weekdays, so there might be a little commotion in the morning,” she admitted. He couldn’t tell if her affect was apologetic, or worried that he might change his mind.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “I get to the garage pretty early.”
“Great,” she smiled again, relieved, and the compunction returned with a vengeance. “And I don’t mean to pry, but if you plan on going out early or coming back late, I ask that you try not to make too much noise. I’ll give you a key to the house, so you don’t have to worry about being locked out, it’s just I would prefer you didn’t wake the kids.”
“Of course,” he nodded. “Is there anything else?”
She looked over the papers in front of her. “No, I believe that covers everything. If you want to take a few days to decide—”
“Actually, I think I’m ready to sign,” he offered. Her eyebrows went up.
“Okay,” she shuffled the papers. “I suppose we’ll just need to pick an official move-in date then.”
“Honestly?” He shrugged. “I could move my things in tonight.”
“Tonight,” she repeated in surprise. He rushed to reassure her.
“I know it’s sudden, but, I could pay you for the whole month,” he offered quickly.
Hera frowned. “It’s the twenty-first, that would be highway robbery.”
She was given pause, and flicked her eyes down to the table, then back up to him with a smile. “Welcome to the house.”
He felt dirty. The woman, Hera, had been nothing but genuine and kind, and he had lied to her face. She, in contrast, had been completely honest with him, about the kids and the noise— Of course she had kids, a family to support, that was just perfect. The room was probably needed income for them, while to him, it was nothing more than a month-long crutch.
She was the perfect landlord, and he, the perfect fraud.
Kanan unlocked his apartment with a sigh. Right above his garage, it was the ideal living situation, until he had nearly fallen through the floorboards last week. A quick call to one of his friends in the business had told him the rotting floor would take a month to fix.
The mechanic put his hands on his hips, surveying the flat with apathy. It was just a studio, encompassing his bed, a small bathroom and an even smaller kitchenette. It had come with the garage, and had never struck him as a home so much as it did a place to retire when he was done working. He had been staying in a motel, until he remembered seeing the listing. Renting a room seemed like the perfect solution; it was much cheaper than the motel, and closer to the garage, too. It would be a temporary lease, just the one month, until the apartment was fixed.
But then, she had asked for six months. And he had told her, without even blinking, that he could make the commitment no problem.
Kanan had never been very good at commitment.
He sighed again, staring at the hole in the floor. The crew would start tomorrow, so he needed to get his belongings out. With his mattress and bedframe, he figured it would take two truckloads, maybe three.
Everything fit in one. His single dresser, the clothes within it, the mattress and its frame, all fit in the bed of his pickup, with room to spare. When he stopped at the motel to pay his bill and pick up the suitcase he had brought with him, he was almost dismayed at how much space there was left for it.
The bedframe did fold. That was probably why.
He was done within the hour, and drove back to the house, but when he knocked at the door, there was no answer. Frowning, Kanan waited for a moment, then decided to wait at the garage. He worked on someone’s engine, and then, antsy, tried again around four. As he approached the house, another car was pulling into the driveway, and so he slowed his truck, crawling up to the curb in front of the house and stopping in sync with the SUV. Unlike his car, hers quickly had three kids spill out of it. He hovered outside of his pickup, picking up statements from the two he assumed were twins.
“Mom, guess what I learned in school today!”
“Hey, Mom, do I have soccer practice tonight?”
“Sabine, I’m trying to tell Mom what I learned!”
“And I’m trying to figure out if I have soccer practice!”
“It’s Monday. Even I know you don’t have practice on Mondays.”
“Well, sometimes I forget!” The dark-haired girl finally turned and noticed him loitering. “Mom, who’s that?”
Hera had been retrieving a bag from the trunk, and looked up. “Kanan,” she said. She seemed surprised to see him. “Hi.”
“Hi,” he said. “Um, sorry, this is a bad time—”
“No, no you’re fine,” she shook her head, running a hand through her hair. “Kids, this is Kanan, our new tenant. Kanan, this is Zeb,” a tall, gawky boy with rumpled brown hair lifted his hand, “Sabine,” the girl gave him a cheeky smile, “and Ezra, the twins.” The younger boy, with hair so black it was almost blue, blinked at up at him curiously.
“Uh,” Kanan cleared his throat, “Hi.”
“Hi,” Sabine replied cheerily.
“Kids, why don’t you bring your backpacks inside, and then we can help Kanan unload his things,” Hera suggested.
“Okay!” Ezra and Sabine raced into the house, and Zeb lumbered behind them.
“I’m sorry, this is probably bad timing,” Kanan started.
“No, no, you’re fine—” she waved a hand dismissively.
“I tried to come back earlier, but, you weren’t home.”
“Oh, God, sorry, I was at work. I should have been clearer, that was just my lunch break. I didn’t think you’d be back so soon.”
“Ah.” He chose not to explain his brevity. “Where do you work?”
“I actually teach at the high school,” Hera explained. “Which Zeb loves,” she added, and rolled her eyes.
He chuckled. “What subject?”
“Science. Physics and astronomy,” she clarified.
“Oh, man. I was terrible at physics,” Kanan admitted.
“You should see some of my students,” she sighed.
He laughed. “Just be glad you didn’t have me.”
Hera smiled, started to say something, and then appeared to change her mind. “Ah, can I help you bring anything in?”
“No, no, I’ve got it,” he shook his head, but the kids had returned, and apparently disagreed.
“I get the bed!”
“You don’t get the bed, that’s Mr. Kanan’s bed!”
“I don’t want the bed, I want to carry the bed!”
“No, I wanna carry the bed!”
“You carry the dresser!”
“But I don’t wanna carry the dresser, I wanna carry the bed!”
“Kids!” Hera stopped them both. “Kanan and I will carry the mattress. You two can bring the bags, and Zeb will get the dresser.”
The twins pouted, but complied, bickering over who would take which bag. Zeb wordlessly lifted the dresser and carried it into the house. Within a few minutes, everything was inside. He re-assembled the mattress frame as Zeb disappeared, and the twins assessed the room.
“That’s not a lot of stuff,” Sabine commented.
“Where are all of your toys?” Ezra asked.
“Where are all your clothes?” Sabine added. “Do you wear the same thing every day? Because that’s fine if you do, but—”
“What about your toothbrush?” Ezra interrupted. “Did you bring a toothbrush? You can use mine if you want.”
“Ezra, Sabine, some people pack lighter than others.” Hera effectively silenced the pair. “And Ezra, don’t share your toothbrush, that’s unsanitary. Kanan, do you need any help with that?”
“No,” he grunted, pushing the frame into place. “I got it.”
“Are you sure?” Ezra piped up. “Because I’m really strong. I did ten whole push-ups today in gym class.”
Sabine cut in. “I did twelve!”
“Those were girl push-ups!” Ezra protested.
“They still count!”
Kanan chuckled. “I think I’ve got it, thanks.”
“Great. You two get started on your homework,” Hera said pointedly, and the twins groaned, trudging out. Kanan watched them retreat, then exchanged a grin with Hera.
“Sorry about them,” she said.
“Don’t be,” he shook his head.
“Well, save that apology for the future, then,” she consented.
Kanan chuckled. “They seem like great kids.”
“They are.” A soft smile that graced her features, but he had turned to lift the mattress onto its frame, and missed it. Hera cleared her throat.
“You’re welcome to have dinner with us. If you’d like to.”
He was glad his back was turned to her; it hid his surprise. “Really?” He kept his voice carefully level. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. I think it would be nice,” she said. “That way we won’t feel like strangers. It’s important to me that you and the kids to feel comfortable around each other.”
Kanan nodded in agreement. “That sounds great. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. We’ll eat around six.” She slipped out, closing his door behind her.
Kanan watched her go, and then sat down on his bed, surveying the room. Ironically, within five minutes of moving in, it felt homier than the apartment he had spent most of his life in. The walls were a pleasant green color, and a white chair rail ran around the room. What little furniture he had brought fit right in, as if it had sat in the room its whole life, waiting for someone to claim it. The window, facing the neighborhood, was large; he approached it, and stared out at the houses, picturing endless families and imagining endless lives, until Sabine knocked on the door and told him it was time for dinner.
“We’re having eyeball stew,” Sabine told Kanan as she led him through the living room and into the kitchen.
“And fried spiders!” Ezra, who had been cleaning off the table, added gleefully.
Hera, stirring a pot on the stove, rolled her eyes affectionately. “We’re having spaghetti and meatballs,” she informed him, draining the pasta in the sink.
“But dessert is blood pudding,” Ezra stage-whispered to Kanan.
“Is not! It’s fish pie!” Sabine jumped in.
Ezra disagreed. “Fish pie isn’t a real thing.”
“Neither is blood pudding!”
“Is too! We learned about it today in—”
“Sabine, Ezra, could you two set the table please?” Hera cut them off.
“I dibs forks!”
“I dibs spoons!”
“We don’t need spoons, you big blueberry, it’s spaghetti and meatballs!”
“I thought you said it was blood pudding!” Ezra stuck out his tongue.
“Sabine, what have I told you about calling your brother a blueberry?”
“Well what am I s’posed’ta call him? You don’t let me use any of the good words!”
“That’s because they’re the bad words, dear,” Hera reminded, moving in to set a salad bowl on the table. Kanan watched the exchange in amusement. “Okay, people, let’s eat. Zeb!” She called in the direction of the stairs, and soon the teenager appeared. Ezra and Sabine clambered for plates, but Hera nudged them back. “Guests first, guys, remember?”
The twins tried to conceal frowns, and Ezra begrudgingly passed his plate to Kanan.
“Oh. Uh, thank you,” he nodded awkwardly, stepping up to the island, where bowls of food were laid out. Everything smelled incredible, and he realized, with a despondent pang, that he hadn’t eaten a home-cooked meal in years. He plated his food and took a seat at the table, the Syndullas following suit.
“Mom, Mr. Kanan’s in my spot,” Ezra whispered.
Hera shook her head in amusement. “Ezra, it’s just a chair.”
“But it’s my chair!”
“Here, Ezra, I can move,” Kanan offered, sliding his plate to the right.
“No, that’s Sabine’s spot,” Ezra shook his head.
“Ezra,” Hera scolded. Kanan lifted his hand.
“Really, Hera, I don’t want to impose.” He stood up. “Here, buddy, which seat is open?” Ezra pointed to one, and he took it. The kids fell into their respective chairs, and once everyone was seated, Hera said a brief grace.
“Sabine, are you excited for your field trip on Friday?” She asked once they had started eating.
“Yes!” Sabine exclaimed, and turned to Kanan to elucidate, “We’re going to the county zoo.”
“Sounds like fun,” he nodded, taking another bite of pasta. The food was delicious, easily the best meal he had eaten in a long time.
“My class is going next month!” Ezra interjected.
“Yeah, but I’m going first, so there,” Sabine stuck out her tongue.
“Sabine,” Hera reproached. “Don’t be supercilious.”
The girl huffed, and crossed her arms. “How can I not be it if I don’t know what it means?”
“It means acting like you’re better than others,” Hera answered gently. “And it’s not very polite.”
“Oh,” Sabine nodded in thought, and then moved on. “Did I tell you we get to see the dolphin show?”
“Only about a hundred times,” Zeb grumbled. Hera gave him a look, as Kanan swallowed a laugh.
“That will be really exciting, Sabine,” she smiled, after Zeb had muttered an apology. “The dolphin show was my favorite part of the zoo when I was your age.”
“You should be a chaperone for it,” Sabine suggested. “The class still needs one more.” There was a tender hopefulness in her daughter’s voice, as if she were already prepared for disappointment, and Hera’s shoulders sagged.
“You know I’d love to, dear, but I have to work.”
“Oh,” Sabine looked like she wanted to say more, but then glanced over at Kanan. Her tone shifted, a brightness taking hold. “Right. Ezra, does your class get to go to the dolphin show?”
“I ‘ope so,” Ezra replied, through a mouthful of garlic bread. Crumbs flurried from his mouth.
“Ezra,” Hera shook her head and tried to suppress a chuckle, while Sabine yelped a “gross!”
“What?” Ezra asked, his mouth still half-full but emptying slowly. Zeb started sniggering then, and even Kanan couldn’t resist a laugh.
“What was that, Ezra?” Zeb egged his brother on. Ezra started laughing as well, which led to another spray of crumbs, which in turn led to more laughter. Chopper ran up to Ezra’s chair and started scrounging for the morsels that had fallen.
“Chopper, no!” Hera groaned, getting up from the table to pull the mutt back into the living room.
“Uck!” Sabine wasn’t amused. “Mr. Kanan, do boys get less gross when they grow up?”
Pleased to be considered a source of knowledge, Kanan shrugged waggishly. “Some of us do.” He heard Hera stifle a snicker as she returned to her seat.
The girl made a face. “If that’s true, then I’m never getting married.”
“Hey, girls are just as gross as boys!” Ezra interjected.
“Not this again,” Zeb grumbled.
Ezra wasn’t finished; he folded his arms. “If Sabine’s never getting married then I’m not either.”
“No fair! I said I wasn’t getting married first!” Sabine was indignant. “Mom, tell Ezra he has to get married!”
Hera was trying to take the pair seriously. “When you two get older, you can both choose whether or not you want to be married,” she mediated, barely concealing her amusement. Sabine huffed, and chose a new target.
“Mr. Kanan, are you married?”
The question surprised him almost as much as it did Hera, who nearly choked on a sip of water. “Sabine!”
“What?” Her daughter blinked up innocently.
Hera coughed, clearly uncomfortable. “It’s not polite to ask personal questions like that,” she struggle to explain.
“What? I’m curious. You said to always ask questions when we’re curious,” Sabine justified herself.
Hera remained dissatisfied. “Yes, but—”
“Hera, it’s fine,” Kanan chuckled, waving his hand. “No, Sabine, I’m not married.”
Her mother still looked displeased, but Sabine shrugged. “See, Mom? No big deal.”
Hera shook her head. “All of your questions are going to get you in a lot of trouble one day, missy,” she ruffled Sabine’s hair, and the girl squealed in dissatisfaction.
Hera just chuckled and stood up, clearing her dishes from the table. Kanan regretted that the meal was over; his plate had been empty for several minutes, but part of him had been hoping that seconds would be offered.
“Alright, boys, somebody needs to finish this little bit; it’s not worth storing,” Hera decreed, setting the bowl on the table, directly between Zeb and Kanan. Kanan raised an eyebrow at Zeb, who just rolled his eyes and pushed his chair out from the table, taking his plate with him.
He looked to the younger one, Ezra, “You want any?” and hoped the answer would be no. The boy shook his head, and Kanan shrugged to conceal his delight as he transferred the remaining pasta to his plate. Though Zeb had left, Ezra and Sabine stayed, apparently fascinated by watching him eat, and Kanan shifted in his seat.
“So,” he cleared his throat, setting his fork down with chagrin, “You guys are in fifth grade, right?”
“Mhm.” Both nodded in sync, perfectly capturing the twin stereotype, and continued to stare.
“That, uh, must be fun,” he tried to elicit conversation, but the kids seemed oblivious. He stared longingly down at his pasta, but unable to stand the silence, tried again. “Where do you go to school? The Academy?”
Ezra made a face, and Sabine started laughing. “The Academy? No way!” She shook her head.
“My mom says that school is for ignorant, self-absorbed airheads,” Ezra added proudly.
“Ezra,” Hera gasped, her cheeks going red. She was in the adjacent kitchen, moving dishes into the sink. Zeb had already dropped his off and disappeared.
“What? Isn’t that what ISA stands for?” Sabine asked with a smirk. ISA was the technical name of the private school in their county, but it had long been forgotten what the first two letters stood for, and everyone simply referred to it as “The Academy”. Hera shook her head, coming back over to the table.
“I told you both, that acronym is never to leave this house,” she chastised, but looked more amused than angry.
“But we’re still in the hou—” Sabine began, but one look from her mother told her not to argue. “Um, Ezra, want to go outside?”
Her brother nodded hastily.
“After you clear your places,” Hera reminded them, looking complacent as the pair scrambled out. She watched them go and then turned back to Kanan, with a sympathetic smile. “Sorry about them.”
“Oh, no, you’ve already apologized once for them today, I can’t let you do it again,” he winked at her.
Hera laughed, “Tomorrow, then.”
“Ooh, my schedule’s pretty tight tomorrow,” he tsked, shaking his head. “How about Thursday?”
“I can do any time after three,” she bantered right back.
He grinned. “It’s a date.”
Hera smiled, and looked as if she were about to reply, but just as quickly changed her mind. Her smile faded and her mouth clasped shut, and she glanced back at the upper level of the house. “I’ve… got to help Zeb with something. Just set your plate in the dishwasher when you’re done.”
He stood, gesturing at the sink. “Wait, do you want any help with—”
She had already disappeared up the staircase. Kanan frowned, slowly dropping back into his seat; they seemed to be genuinely connecting. He wondered what had gone wrong. The mechanic finished his pasta, though his appetite was gone, and brought his plate to the dishwasher, tempted to put the others in it as well. He decided against it, however, thinking he didn’t want to intrude. Instead he folded his arms and paused for a moment, surveying the kitchen. There was the quintessential children’s artwork hanging on the refrigerator, along with a few family photos. It reminded him that he needed to go grocery shopping, more than anything, and he returned to his room to start a list. Kanan rarely kept a grocery list— his diet was hardly what one would call varied— but the idea suddenly seemed more appealing than remaining in the kitchen, prying into their lives.
Ezra and Sabine eventually came back inside to entreat their mother for a bedtime snack. Hera and Zeb were at the table, each doing their own respective work for the next day at school, and once the twins appeared, battling for their mother’s attention, Zeb slipped out. Quickly, both were seated and fed, and small talk ensued. Sabine, however, quickly changed the subject to fit her own agenda.
“Mom, are you sure you can’t chaperone the field trip on Friday?” Sabine looked up from her cereal.
Hera stopped scrubbing a pot, and slowly set it down. “Ezra, why don’t you head up to bed?”
“But I’m not done!” The boy stared at his cereal in distress.
“You can finish your snack upstairs,” Hera said patiently.
“But I’m not allowed to eat upstairs!”
“Well, right now, I’m allowing you,” Hera replied, somewhat less patiently.
“Can I eat my breakfast up there tomorrow?”
“But if I’m just going to have cereal again then why—”
His mother’s tone left no room for dispute, and her son grabbed his bowl and scurried away. Hera turned back to his twin and concealed a sigh.
“Sabine, love, I’m sorry, but I just can’t chaperone this one,” she said.
“But Ketsu’s mom is!” Sabine argued.
“Ketsu’s mom works part-time,” Hera explained with careful patience. “I work all of the time.”
“Sure feels like it,” Sabine muttered.
“Sabine…” Hera sighed despairingly. “The work that I do pays for you to go on field trips like these, remember?”
“I know, but I want you to go with me! I’m the only kid in the class whose mom can never chaperone anything!”
“I’m sure that’s not the case,” Hera began, but the young girl cut her off.
“Yes it is! I’m in the fifth grade, and you haven’t come to a single one of my field trips! That’s my whole elementary school career!” There were tears glistening in Sabine’s eyes; despite the adult language, she had never looked more like a little girl. “All the other kids probably think you don’t even care about me!”
“Oh, Sabine…” Hera knelt down and took her daughter by the shoulders, meeting her eyes. “You know that’s not true,” she said firmly.
Sabine looked down at her toes. “I know,” she mumbled.
“And you know how much I hate that I can’t go on those field trips with you.”
“And that just because I haven’t made it to one doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” Hera prompted kindly.
“Good.” She smoothed back her daughter’s hair with a heavy exhale. “It’s just… Mommy can’t afford to take a day off right now.”
“Why not?” The question was heartbreakingly innocent.
“Well, because... it’s adult stuff, honey,” Hera sighed. “But it’s what best for our family. I just need you to trust me.” She nudged Sabine’s chin up with her thumb. “Can you do that for me?”
The girl set her jaw and nodded bravely, and Hera gave a weary smile.
“That’s my girl.” She leaned forward and embraced her daughter, and Sabine clung back. “I’m sorry, love,” Hera whispered. “I know it’s hard.”
Sabine shrugged as they separated. “’s not so bad.”
Hera kissed her forehead. “I love you. Get some sleep.”
“Okay. Love you too.” Sabine retreated up the stairs, and Hera watched her go, a regretful look on her face. A heavy sigh escaped her the moment her daughter was out of sight, and she sank into one of the kitchen chairs, completely deflated. Hera allowed herself a moment to rest her head in her hands, but soon stood up, and went to finish washing the dishes.
“Need any help?” Zeb seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Hera examined the pile. “You know, I could use some help drying, if you’re up for it.”
The teenager shrugged, grabbing a dishtowel and joining his mother at the sink. They worked in comfortable silence until almost everything had been washed, and then he cleared his throat.
“The zoo field trip’s the worst one to chaperone, anyway. Two kids got lost when I went.”
Hera tried to laugh, but only a harsh exhale came out. She turned to look at her son with a grateful smile. “Thank you.”
Zeb just shrugged. “’s true. G’night, Mom.”
She rocked on her tiptoes to kiss his forehead, even though he tried to shy away. “Goodnight.”
Hera had been true to her word; by 6:30 a.m., he could tell that the family was awake. The sound of people and the smell of breakfast, two things that had long been absent from his morning routine, drifted under his door. Kanan freshened up and changed before leaving his room to greet them. The kids were at the table eating breakfast, and Hera was leaning against the counter, holding a mug in one hand and writing in a planner with the other.
She looked up when she heard his footsteps. “Morning. Do you drink coffee?” In a modest skirt and blouse, Hera looked the part of a chic schoolteacher, even more so after she tucked the pen she had been writing with behind her ear. He suddenly felt embarrassed for his worn jeans and t-shirt, which he was certain had an oil stain on it.
“Hi.” His cheeks felt hot, as he realized he had the attention of all four Syndullas. “Um, yes, coffee would be great.”
Sabine, never one to miss the opportunity to exacerbate someone’s embarrassment, looked up from her cereal. “Why are your clothes all dirty?”
“Sabine,” Hera scolded, as she handed Kanan a mug. “Cream’s in the fridge, sugar’s in the pantry.”
“Thanks,” he said, and then cleared his throat. “Um, I’m a mechanic, Sabine, so I work with cars all day.”
“So those are the clothes you wash the dirty cars with?” Sabine nodded understandingly. Hera and Zeb stifled a laugh.
“I don’t wash the cars, I fix them,” Kanan straightened indignantly.
“How?” Sabine asked.
“Well… lots of ways.” He shifted his weight again.
Kanan huffed. “It’s hard to explain.”
She shrugged. “I’m just saying, if it’s your job you should probably be able to explain it—”
“Mrs. Anderson says the best way to understand something is by teaching it to someone else,” Ezra interjected.
“Well, I already understand everything, so I don’t need to teach it to someone else,” Kanan struggled to maintain his patience, suddenly wishing his coffee was an Irish one.
Thankfully, Hera interposed. “Okay, Sabine, put some food in that mouth of yours or we’ll never make it to school on time.”
“Yes ma’am!” Sabine gave a mock salute and returned to her cereal, and Kanan breathed a sigh of relief.
Hera turned to her twin. “Ezra, did you feed Chopper?”
“Yes ma’am!” Ezra copied Sabine, but then paused. “Wait… Be right back!” The dark-haired boy scurried out of his seat.
“And Sabine, do I need to make you a lunch for the field trip?” Hera asked.
Hera moved over to the pantry. “And Zeb—”
The teen cut his mother off by giving her a thumbs-up, without looking up from his toast. “Whatever it is, I did it.”
“Awesome. Fifteen minutes, guys,” Hera chirped, grabbing a loaf of bread. “Sabine, PB&J okay?”
“Strawberry on one half, grape on the other, please!”
“Sorry, dear, we’re out of grape.”
“Oh. Well, just put strawberry on one half then. Please.”
Hera raised an eyebrow. “Not both halves?”
Sabine took another bite of cereal. “I know what I’m about.”
As she prepared the sandwich, Hera turned her attention back to Kanan, who had been leaning against the counter and nursing his coffee with no small amount of amusement.
“Kanan, do you need breakfast?”
“I’ll eat at the garage, thanks. You seem pretty occupied,” he chuckled.
“Oh, I wasn’t offering to make it for you,” she teased, spreading the jelly. “But there’s bread, and cereal, if you’d like.”
“I was going to ask you about that, actually—” Kanan began, but then Ezra came back into the kitchen.
“Wait, Sabine gets home lunch? I want home lunch!” He protested.
“Sorry, Ezra, you need to buy school lunch today,” Hera shook her head.
“But we used to always get home lunch,” Ezra said.
“Well, now it makes more sense for you to buy lunch,” she replied.
“Because, dear, Mommy doesn’t have time to make home lunch every day,” Hera ruffled his hair.
“But you always made it before—”
Hera cut him off. “I promise to make you a yummy home snack when we get back, okay?”
“Okay,” Ezra smiled, complacent, and returned to his chair. “Wait, what about Chopper? Does Chopper get home lunch?”
“Chopper already gets home breakfast and dinner,” Hera explained patiently.
“Yeah, if that dog eats home lunch he’s going to be home fat,” Zeb muttered. Kanan couldn’t stop a laugh from escaping, Ezra and Sabine erupted into giggles, and even Hera bit her lip to hold back a grin. From somewhere in the house, Chopper gave an indignant yap.
“Okay, Sabine, here’s your lunch,” Hera handed her daughter a brown paper bag, and Sabine’s eyes widened in horror.
“MOOOOOM, THESE ARE BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT!” She wailed.
“Honey, I know that, but I didn’t want—”
“I CAN’T GO TO THE ZOO WITH A PAPER BAG! WHAT ARE THE ANIMALS GOING TO THINK?!”
“Sabine, I promise, those bags are made from 100% recyclable material—”
“THESE ARE DESTROYING THE PLANET, MOM! WE HAD A WHOLE UNIT ABOUT IT! MRS. JONES WILL LITERALLY NEVER FORGIVE ME IF I BRING MY LUNCH IN THIS!”
“But then you’ll have to carry the other one around all day—”
“DO YOU KNOW WHAT BIRDS CARRY AROUND ALL DAY, MOM? OIL. FROM SPILLS FROM ALL OF THE GOLF IN MEXICO!”
“But I know you love that lunchbox, and I don’t want you to lose it—”
“THIS PAPER BAG ISN’T GOING TO STOP ALL OF THE GOLFING IN MEXICO, MOM!”
“Okay, Sabine, I’ll switch the bags out!” Hera finally exclaimed over her daughter. She snatched the bag back and transferred its contents into a multicolored lunchbox. “There you go. You’re making an awful impression on our guest, you know.”
“It’s okay, Sabine. We need to do everything we can to stop those golfers in Mexico,” Kanan nodded seriously, holding back a grin.
“See, Mom? Someone gets it!” Sabine gestured at their tenant in exasperation, and Hera rolled her eyes.
“Okay, missy. Get that in your backpack and let’s get going.”
Sabine skipped away from the table—
“Dishes!” Hera shook her head.
And then skipped right back to bring her bowl over to the dishwasher.
“You’re welcome,” she sang.
“I’m not going to thank you for something you should already be doing,” Hera chided, sounding for all the world like a parenting magazine.
“I know,” Sabine huffed, heading for the mudroom adjacent to the garage, “But it’s worth a shot.”
“Ezra, Zeb, you too,” Hera gestured, and her brothers followed suit. Once the kids were out of the way, assembling their backpacks, she gave her attention back to Kanan.
“Hi,” he grinned.
“Hi,” she exhaled. “I hope we didn’t wake you up, mornings can be a little crazy here.”
“No worries,” he said.
“Did you sleep alright?”
“Great,” he said.
“Good,” Hera nodded. “Oh, I have your house key. We’re leaving in a few, so just lock up whenever you head out?”
“Sure, no problem,” he nodded, taking the key from her.
“Great, thanks. We’ll see you later—” Hera turned on her heel, but after a moment’s pause, turned back to him with a self-effacing laugh. “I’m sorry, you wanted to ask me something.”
“Go,” he waved his hand. “It can wait.”
She gave him a grateful smile. “We’ll be home around 4:30.”
“Great. Oh, Hera?”
She turned once more. “Yes?”
“Thank you,” he said, raising his mug. “For the coffee.”
As he had hoped, another radiant smile lit her features. “You’re welcome.”
Kanan took off about half an hour later, once he had cleaned out the coffeepot and set his own mug in the dishwasher. He locked the doors, as she had asked, and then drove up to the garage, where he was certain he’d be able to scrounge up something from his cupboards.
That “something” amounted to a half-empty box of strawberry Poptarts and a half-full jar of peanut butter (the discovery of the Poptarts had made him optimistic). He made a peanut butter sandwich, Poptarts in place of bread, (it proved to be a surprisingly delicious combination) for both breakfast and lunch, and worked for the rest of the day.
Kanan couldn’t help himself from glancing at the clock every moment after it hit four, but he didn’t want to show up the moment they did, so he forced himself to wait until 4:40 to leave. Kanan walked up to the front door—
Well, no, I live here now, so shouldn’t I use the garage door?
He walked into the garage and stood facing the door there.
But I don’t want to surprise them, if I come in the back way.
He made his way back to the front.
I can’t ring the doorbell, that’d be stupid.
And back into the garage.
No, this is like the family entrance, it’s probably the laundry room or something. What if Hera’s bras are hanging up?
He turned around to head for the front door, but then halted. What IF Hera’s bras are hanging up?
Kanan pondered this for longer than he cared to admit, but then shook his head vigorously. No. Bad Kanan. It doesn’t matter. He meandered back to the front, where Sabine popped her head out the door.
“Hey Mr. Kanan, why are you pacing in front of our house?”
Kanan blushed. “It, uh, helps me think,” he said, which, he was pleased to realize, wasn’t a total lie.
“Well, whenever you’re done, you can just go in the garage door,” Sabine shrugged. “Oh, but don’t look—that’s the laundry room and all our underwear is hanging up!”
Kanan’s blush intensified, and he speed-walked back into the garage, keeping his eyes carefully trained on the floor as he slipped into the house. He showered, changed, and when he left his room, Sabine and Ezra were at the table doing homework.
“Hey, you changed out of your dirty clothes,” Sabine noted with glee.
“So does that mean all the cars are clean?” Ezra asked.
Kanan opened his mouth to correct him, but then changed his mind. “Sure.”
“Neat. We’re doing our work too,” Ezra informed him, displaying a sheet of paper with equations on it.
“Ah, reducing fractions,” Kanan inspected the paper. “I remember those days.”
“Really?” A gleam appeared in Sabine’s eye. “What’s two fourths?” The girl challenged. Kanan immediately regretted his response, but he had never been one to resist a challenge.
He smirked. “One half.”
“Wh— that’s not a real fraction,” Kanan sputtered.
“Yes it is and it’s one half!” Sabine cheered with glee.
“Well, yeah, but it’s not a real fraction,” he argued.
“Who are you, the fraction police?” Sabine put her hands on her hips.
Ezra’s eyes widened. “There’s a fraction police?”
“No,” Kanan chuckled, at the same moment Sabine exclaimed “Yes!”
“What is going on out here?” Hera descended the stairs, amusement lighting her eyes.
“We’re teaching Mr. Kanan fraction reduction,” Sabine replied smugly.
“They are not—”
“Nine fifteenths!” Sabine turned on him and shouted.
“Um— ah— it’s—” Kanan spluttered.
“Three fourths!” Ezra cried triumphantly.
“Three fifths, honey,” Hera ruffled his hair. “But really good try.”
When Hera turned away, Sabine looked at Kanan and gave him a cheeky grin.
He crossed his arms, disgruntled. “That was on the tip of my tongue.”
Later that night, after homework had been finished, dinner had been eaten, and the kids were in bed, he approached his proprietor. Hera had been inspecting something in the sink, and she turned around when she heard his footsteps.
“Did you clean the coffeepot?” She sounded pleasantly surprised.
“Yeah, uh,” he rubbed the back of his neck. “It was empty, and I was there, so…”
A warm smile lit her features, and Kanan would have washed a thousand coffeepots if it meant seeing that every day. “Thank you.”
“No biggie,” he shrugged dismissively, inwardly cringing at the fact that he had just said “biggie.”
“Were you able to find the sugar this morning?” She asked, returning the coffeepot to its place.
“No, actually, but that’s alright,” he said. “I drink it black.”
She made a face of distaste, reminding him for a passing moment of her daughter. “You drink it black?”
Kanan shrugged. “I got used to it.” The mechanic certainly didn’t prefer it that way, but he kept forgetting to buy sugar, and the cream always ended up expiring. Black coffee was depressing, but it was simple, sort of like his life before them.
“Well, it’s up here, if you ever change your mind,” Hera explained, opening the pantry and showing him. “I’d keep it on the counter, but Ezra and Sabine are always getting into it,” she shook her head in amusement.
“Boy, that’s the last thing they need,” he remarked.
“No kidding,” Hera smiled, and then recognition flashed across her face. “I’m sorry,” she facepalmed. “You wanted to ask me something this morning, and I completely forgot about it until now.”
“Oh! Right,” he nodded. “Um, I was wondering about groceries. Is it okay if I just keep things in your fridge, or pantry?”
“Of course,” she said. “I can clear a space for you, if you like.”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” he waved his hand. “I don’t need much.”
“Two nights of my cooking, and you’re already asking where you can put your groceries,” she shook her head in mock dismay, a teasing grin waxing on her face.
“Hey, don’t sell yourself short, you make a mean PB&J,” he grinned, playing along. “Putting jelly on one half is quite the stylistic choice.”
Hera nodded seriously, glancing upstairs. “Sabine is my muse.”
Before he could respond, another voice joined their repartee. “Ha! Mom just called you a muse!”
“Shut up!” Sabine’s head, shortly followed by her brother’s, appeared at the top of the stairs. “MOM! What’s a muse?”
“Don’t say shut up,” Hera chastised, her hands landing on her hips. “And what are you doing up there? It’s past your bedtime!”
“We’re spying, duh,” Sabine rolled her eyes. Hera lifted her chin and arched a single, authoritative eyebrow at her daughter, who immediately blanched. “Butwe’rebothreallysorryandwewon’tdoitagainandwe’regoingtogotobedrightnowgoodnightloveyoubye!” She dashed out of sight with Ezra on her heels. At the sound of two doors shutting, Hera relaxed her imposing stance and facepalmed, trying not to laugh. Kanan grinned.
“They’re fun,” he remarked.
“They’re something, alright,” Hera murmured, casting one last wry look upward.
“Though I’m starting to understand why you keep the sugar on the highest shelf of the pantry,” he said dryly. She chuckled, and for a moment, there was a comfortable silence between the two, during which she cast a contemplative, sideways look at him.
“You know,” Hera began slowly, “If you’d like to just eat with us, I can rope it into your rent.”
“Really?” He tried not to sound as giddy as he felt. “You wouldn’t mind?”
“Not at all,” she shook her head. “I mean, the kids like you, and it would make more sense than trying to cook two separate meals.”
He sighed. “I knew that me warming up a Hot Pocket every night would get in the way.” Hera smirked, and he continued. “But seriously, that would be great. For what it’s worth, you’re a great cook.”
“Well,” she dipped her head, as if dodging the compliment. “I’ve been told I make a mean PB&J.”
They shared a smile, and then Hera cleared her throat. “I should probably go up there and explain what a muse is, so that they don’t use it as an insult for the rest of the week.” She paused for a moment. “And, you know, why it’s wrong to spy.”
He chuckled. “Good thing we weren’t having a private conversation.” His tone of voice indicated that he would like to, and with the shift, she seemed to stiffen. He noticed and regretted his words instantly.
“Sorry. Uh, that came out… wrong. I meant that—” Kanan flushed, and rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I don’t know what I meant.”
She was looking at him carefully. “Kanan, I hope you realize that eating food around a table with me and my three kids does not constitute a date,” Hera said. “And that I think it’s in both our best interests to keep it that way.”
“Absolutely,” he nodded, so vehemently that his neck started to hurt. “My apologies, I completely agree.”
Her lips quirked up in a half-smile, and he felt a rush of relief that he hadn’t obliterated his chances of ever seeing her grin again. “Good.” Hera turned on her heel, her dark hair swishing a goodbye behind her.
“Night,” he called faintly, and then immediately hoped she hadn’t heard.
Shaking her head as she made her way upstairs, Hera entered her daughter’s room.
“Sabine Wren Syndulla, don’t even try to pretend you’re asleep already,” she rolled her eyes. Guiltily, Sabine lifted her head from under the covers.
“Sorry, Mom,” she said sheepishly.
“For?” Hera raised an eyebrow.
“Spying,” Sabine mumbled.
“It’s wrong and it’s an invasion of privacy,” Sabine recited.
“And all together?” Hera prompted.
Sabine groaned, flopping back onto her pillow. “I’m sorry Mom for spying because it’s wrong and an invasion of privacy.”
“Thank you, dear,” Hera smiled, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“I didn’t even overhear anything good,” Sabine grumbled. “Why do adults talk about coffee so much?”
Hera chuckled. “It’s how we keep up with you young’uns,” she grinned, ruffling her daughter’s hair. “Night, Bean. I love you.”
“How much?” Sabine prompted.
Hera kissed her forehead. “Always and forever and into the stars.”
Sabine smiled as she lay back down. “Love you too.”
Hera said goodnight to Ezra next, and then popped into Zeb’s room. The teen was still up, reading a book by lamplight, and he looked up when his mother entered the room, but then returned to his book.
“Ouch,” Hera chuckled, taking a seat on his bed. “What’s up, big guy?”
Zeb didn’t look up from his book. “Nothing. Just tired.”
“Mhm,” Hera nodded wryly. “So, what do you think of Kanan?”
“Your new boyfriend? He’s great,” Zeb muttered.
“Garazeb,” Hera narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me?”
Zeb huffed, and put down the book. “Ezra and Sabine aren’t the only spies in the family, Mom. It’s hard not to overhear him flirting with you.”
“He was not flirting,” Hera groaned in frustration. “In fact, that’s exactly what I was clearing up with him.”
“Was that after you invited him to eat meals with us?” Zeb arched his eyebrows. “Or when he complimented your cooking?”
“Zeb,” Hera’s voice took on a warning tone, “You’re being disrespectful.”
He sank into his covers a little further. “Sorry,” Zeb grumbled. “It’s just… it’s weird.”
“Zeb, for goodness sake,” Hera laughed, “I’m not going to start dating him.”
“Promise?” Zeb folded his arms.
“Cross my heart,” Hera snorted, making the gesture. “God, Zeb, I’m not going to get involved with a man I’m renting to. Can you imagine?”
“It’d be convenient,” Zeb smirked, and Hera’s mouth dropped open. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” He protested immediately.
Hera rolled her eyes. “The only thing it would be is a bad idea. Seriously, Zeb, don’t tell me that’s what’s bothering you about him.”
Zeb avoided her eyes, and Hera chuckled knowingly.
“Alright, then. Any other, legitimate concerns?”
The teen shrugged. “His shirt had an oil stain on it this morning.”
“He’s a mechanic,” Hera groaned in exasperation. “What do you expect him to wear, a tux?”
Zeb pretended to consider this, and she nudged him lovingly. “Alright, enough out of you.”
He smirked. “Night, Mom.”
“Goodnight,” she smiled. “I love you always and forever and into the stars.” Hera kissed her son’s forehead before he could protest, and then stood up. As she reached the door, she looked back over her shoulder. “And Zeb?”
“You don’t need to look out for me, okay? That’s my job.”
Zeb looked bashful. “Right.”
Hera gave him one last motherly smile before retiring herself.
After spending a week with them, Kanan had more or less figured out the family’s routine. Hera left with all three kids at 7:30; their elementary, middle and high school buildings were all connected, and class started at eight regardless of the student’s age.
“It sure makes things a lot easier,” Hera had told him once, when he’d asked her about it. He wasn’t sure what the family did when school was over — he hadn’t wanted to pry — but the four of them came home together around 4:30. Zeb had started football practice, so now one of his teammates was dropping him off a bit later (which was fine with Kanan, because the teen’s attitude towards him was polite at best). Kanan hadn’t pressed beyond the realm of what could be considered casual conversation, but he was secretly dying to know what had become of the children’s father. He had his speculations— it had been nearly a week, and he still hadn’t seen any signs of a significant other, which led him to believe that Hera was a single mother.
Kanan wasn’t quite sure what to do with that information, but (and he realized it sounded horribly selfish) he was pretty sure he didn’t want it to be proved wrong.
He actually beat them home on Friday—he hated doing that, it made him seem over-eager, and as if he didn’t have better things to do, but all of his work in the shop was done—so he waited until he saw her car pulling up to get out of his own.
“Hey guys,” he greeted.
Sabine bounded out of the car. “Mr. Kanan!” She brightened. “I have to tell you all about my field trip!”
“Tell him once I get inside so I don’t have to hear it all again,” Ezra sulked, trudging past them and into the house.
“Okay, fine, I’ll tell him out here,” Sabine stuck out her tongue and plopped down on the lawn. She gave Kanan an expectant look, patting the grass next to her. “I’m waiting,” she sang.
Hera covered her laugh. “Sabine, Kanan probably—”
Kanan waved his hand at Hera. “You know what, Sabine?” He crouched down beside her. “Tell me all about it.”
Sabine started babbling as soon as his seat hit the ground, and Ezra and Hera made their way inside, a warm smile on the latter’s face that, accompanied by a mouthed thank you, made the next half hour entirely worth it.
“You should go sometime, Mr. Kanan, you would have loved it,” she finally finished her tale.
“I’m sure I would have,” he chuckled. “And, uh, you don’t have to call me ‘Mister’. Kanan is just fine.”
“That’s weird,” Sabine giggled. “I like Mr. Kanan.”
He kept his eyes trained on the grass to keep them from rolling. “Okay, well, Mr. Kanan it is.”
“What’s your last name?” Sabine asked.
“Jarrus. What’s yours?”
She laughed. “Syndulla. Duh.”
“Is that your mom’s last name or your dad’s?” Kanan asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.
“Mom’s.” Sabine’s reply was far more nonchalant than his.
“Oh,” Kanan nodded. “So, your mom’s not married, then?”
Sabine picked up a blade of grass. “She was, for a while. Now she’s not.”
He nodded again. “Do you know what happened?”
“We don’t really talk about it.” Sabine shrugged, toying with the grass. “It was a long time ago. I was little.” She held the grass up to her lips and blew, trying to make it buzz. “Besides, it’s none of my beeswax.”
Kanan smirked. “You mean your business.”
“No, I mean my beeswax. It’s Junie B. Jones. You probably haven’t read it,” she said, in a manner that was all too reminiscent of a hipster.
“Okay, so it’s none of your beeswax, sure,” Kanan pressed on— so far, the conversation was going nowhere. “But aren’t you curious?”
“Why would I be?” Sabine shrugged. “We’re happy just the four of us. Well, four and a half.”
“Oh, so I’m just a half?” He joked.
“No,” Sabine shook her head. “Chopper’s the half.”
Kanan feigned offense. “Well, what am I?”
“I’m still trying to figure you out.” She cocked her head and looked at him closely. “But… I think something good.”
The sun felt warmer on his cheeks. “Thanks, kiddo.”
She brought the grass to her mouth again and blew a long whistle. After a moment, Kanan plucked a blade for himself and did the same, earning an excited gasp from Sabine. They sat on the lawn buzzing grass together, and were right in the middle of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” when Ezra told them it was time for dinner.
Zeb was at the counter chopping vegetables while Ezra set the table, and Hera smiled at the pair when they came in. “Sabine didn’t talk your ear off?”
“Actually, she whistled my ear off,” Kanan chuckled.
“Mom, Mr. Kanan is really good,” Sabine said. “He can do “Row Row Row Your Boat” without even stopping!”
“Impressive,” Hera nodded, exchanging an amused look with Kanan.
“It was nothing,” he chuckled. “Sabine, we should probably wash our hands before we eat.”
“Ugh, just when you were getting fun,” Sabine groaned, trudging into the bathroom.
“Getting?” Kanan raised an eyebrow, and was answered only by an echoed laugh.
“I think you’re fun!” Ezra said, from where he was setting the table.
“Thank you, dude,” Kanan reached over to give him a high five. In his excitement, Ezra dropped all the silverware he had been holding to smack the older man’s hand. Chopper scurried over in excitement to inspect the goods, but when he realized that the forks hadn’t yet touched food, he gave Ezra a disgruntled snort and trudged away.
Kanan was more concerned with Ezra’s reaction. The boy had seized up in fear, and was staring at the fallen cutlery with wide, horrified eyes. He couldn’t have look more frightened had the knives been sticking out of maimed corpses.
“Ezra?” Hera knelt in front of him and put her hands on his shoulders. “Ezra, love, it’s okay.”
“I— I’m sorry—” Ezra stammered.
“I know. I know, love, it’s okay. It’s okay.” Hera smoothed back his hair and kissed her son’s forehead. “It was just a little accident. Here, let’s put these away and get clean ones.”
He seemed to relax. “O—okay.” His mother stood up and Ezra followed her over to the dishwasher, as Kanan watched in confusion. Ezra’s reaction had been so violent, for such a small mistake, and Hera was clearly trying hard to placate him. He stuck close to her side as they finished setting the table together. Zeb had witnessed the scene too, and his fingers were clenched tightly around the knife.
“Okay. Great,” Hera clasped her hands together a little too cheerfully. “Thank you, Ezra, that was a big help. Let’s eat.”
They sat down in their respective places, and Zeb brought the vegetables over a moment later.
“Thanks, Zeb. How was practice?” Hera asked.
“Not bad,” Zeb shrugged. “There’s a team bonfire tomorrow night. Can I go?”
Hera looked distressed. “Zeb, you’re supposed to babysit the kids tomorrow, remember? I have to go to the gala for Alliance.”
“But Mom, I have to go to the bonfire. It’s the biggest team event of the season! I’ll be totally ostracized if I’m not there,” Zeb protested.
“Zeb, I told you last week that you would need to be here on Saturday to watch the kids,” Hera said evenly.
“Well it’s not like I can change the day of the bonfire, Mom, I’m only a sophomore,” Zeb countered in frustration. “Can’t you just skip the gala? You said you didn’t even want to go.”
“I’m a teacher at Alliance, Zeb, I kind of have to go,” Hera said, with a warning look in his direction. “Maybe this is something we can discuss after dinner,” she added. Her expression made it clear that the “maybe” in the sentence was merely decorative.
After a beat of tense silence, Kanan cleared his throat. “Um, Hera, I’ll be here tomorrow night. If you need someone to keep an eye on them.”
“Kanan, that’s very kind, but it’s a Saturday, I’m sure you have plans—”
He chuckled. “It’s been a long week, my only plan was staying in. Ordering pizza. It’ll be fun, right guys?”
Ezra’s eyes grew wide with excitement. “Pizza?!”
“Can we, Mom? Please?” Sabine begged.
“Kanan,” Hera started again.
“Hera,” he replied, matching her tone and making the kids snicker. “I don’t mind. Really. I would be doing it anyway.”
She didn’t look satisfied. “Only if you’re absolutely sure—”
“I am,” he said. “Besides, I played football when I was Zeb’s age. I know how important that stuff is.” He grinned at the teen, and received a grudging smile in return.
“Thanks,” Zeb mumbled into his plate.
“Really, Kanan, thank you,” Hera echoed. It was a phrase he would hear for the next twenty-four hours, if not more.
Saturday, four pm, and Hera was darting around the house with wet hair, sweatpants and a frenetic energy. “Okay, so Chopper’s been fed for the night, I’m dropping Zeb off at the bonfire when I leave at five, Ezra and Sabine don’t have any activities and they’ve both done their reading and chores for the day, so you guys can just hang out, there’s games and puzzles in the cabinets by the couch but they should probably be in bed after nine or so, there’s money for pizza on the counter, feel free to lock the front door once it gets dark, my cell number and the emergency numbers are by the phone—
“Wait, did you leave me the number for 9-1-1?” Kanan asked. Hera’s face went white.
“No, I’ll write it down right—” She stopped, exhaled and glared at him. “Very funny.”
“Hera, relax,” he chuckled. “There’s literally nothing to be worried about.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry, I just…” She ran a distressed hand through her hair. “I’ve never left the kids without Zeb before.”
“We’re going to be fine,” he said sincerely. “And you’re going to be late.”
Hera glanced at the clock. “Right.”
“Ooh, Mommy, can I help you get ready?” Sabine called from the couch.
“Of course, dear,” Hera smiled, grabbing her daughter’s hand as she passed the couch, and Sabine giggled in delight as they ran up the stairs together. Once Hera put her dress on, Sabine watched as she twisted her hair into an elaborate updo— “Don’t lean too close, love, that curling iron’s hot” — and then sat next to her at the vanity as Hera did her makeup. Sabine was fascinated by makeup, and took every opportunity to watch her mother apply it.
“Can I put some of this stuff on?” Sabine asked.
“When you’re older,” Hera replied, putting the cap on her eyeliner.
“You say that every time,” Sabine pouted. When her mother didn’t respond, she pressed further. “It’s really just like painting, if you think about it.”
“Sabine, beautiful young girls like you don’t need to wear makeup. I usually don’t even wear it, and I’m an old bat,” Hera teased.
“You’re not an old bat,” Sabine rolled her eyes. Hera chuckled and kissed her daughter’s forehead.
“Good answer. Here, you can help me put my lipstick on.” She handed off the tube, which Sabine took and uncapped with great care. Hera leaned in and puckered her lips, and her daughter meticulously traced them in soft red.
“Done,” she announced with triumph. Hera checked the mirror— Sabine’s application had been flawless.
“Absolutely maaaaah-velous, my darling,” she crooned, making Sabine giggle. “Now, just a little mascara…” She opened a new tube.
“Why are you making that face?” Sabine frowned.
“This is the mascara face. Everyone makes it,” Hera explained, her eyes opened as wide as her mouth. “Otherwise, the mascara doesn’t work.”
Sabine giggled. “You made that up.”
“You’re right,” Hera screwed the cap back on. “I did. But it works, see?” She batted her eyelashes for her daughter.
“Wow,” Sabine gaped. “Mommy, am I gonna look like you when I’m older?”
Hera hoped desperately that her daughter would; she didn’t need another reminder of the girl’s father. Instead, she sighed, “Sabine, love, there are far more important things in this world than beauty.”
“Aw, you’re no fun,” Sabine grumbled. Hera just chuckled.
When Hera and Sabine appeared at the top of stairs, Zeb was reading on the couch while Kanan and Ezra played Go Fish.
“Got any tens?” Ezra asked.
“No, but I’ve got my eyes on one,” Kanan muttered. Hera was clad in an emerald evening gown that was as demure as it was elegant, revealing only a slim, delicate pair of ankles as she descended the stairs (Kanan had never realized how titillating ankles could be). It was a dress that alluded to its wearer’s beauty without screaming about it, and it did not so much demand a watcher’s attention as it did monopolize it through no intention of its own. It was perfect for Hera, fitting her personality as well as it fit her figure, and she practically glowed in it. Her hair was pulled back and up, highlighting her delicate cheekbones, and her eyes were sparkling.
Thankfully, Ezra’s gasp covered Kanan’s. “Mommy, you look fancy!” He exclaimed. Kanan smiled; out of all the words in the dictionary to describe the way a woman like Hera looked in a dress like that— Stunning, flawless, exquisite—and Ezra picked fancy.
Hera smiled at her son. “Thank you, love.”
“I helped,” Sabine chimed in.
Zeb looked up at his mother, only to blush, shake his head, and return to his book. Kanan stood up from the card game to receive her, but his mouth didn’t seem to be putting out sound.
“Geez, Mr. Kanan, this took us a long time, you could at least say something,” Sabine huffed.
His gaping jaw finally closed with a smile. “Words fail me.”
Hera gave him a look, but he knew that the pink tint on her cheeks was from more than blush.
“Close enough,” Sabine shrugged, and went to pick up Ezra’s card game.
Hera led Kanan into the kitchen. She was talking, but he was too mesmerized by the soft shine of her lips to process the words coming out of them.
“The kids’ school, Alliance, puts this gala on every year. It’s kind of a fundraiser, but they also talk about the past year’s achievements, announce the Teacher of the Year, talk about future plans for the district…”
“Mhm,” he nodded, shifting his attention up to her eyes. When they’d first met, he hadn’t thought they could shine a brighter green; now, complemented by the dress, they were positively dazzling.
“I’ve sat through several of them now, and it’s the same thing every year, but there’s just no getting out of it if you’re a teacher,” she sighed. “I don’t want to call it a waste of time, but…”
“Mhm.” Even her earlobes, swaying under the weight of dangling earrings, were perfect.
“Anyways, I really can’t thank you enough for doing this,” she said, and Kanan tuned back in.
“Actually, I think you can. Because you definitely have,” he teased. She rolled her eyes at him, which somehow made her even more breathtaking.
“Well, let’s see, I think I covered everything… Chopper’s fed—”
“Mom, stop feeding Chopper and let’s go,” Zeb called.
“One second,” Hera said. She ignored the resounding groan and tapped anxious fingers on the counter, eyes sweeping the room. “Um…” Hera seemed reluctant to leave, and he knew it wasn’t because she was giving him an opportunity to stare at her.
He looked at her closely (well, more closely than he had been already). “What is it?”
Hera sighed, lowering her voice. “The thing is, Kanan, the kids have never really had a babysitter before. Zeb’s always done it. I’m just… nervous. Don’t take this the wrong way, I definitely trust you, but it’s them I’m worried about, you know?”
“I know,” he nodded. “Well, um, I guess I don’t know know, but I know.”
Zeb appeared in the kitchen, bouncing impatiently. “Mom. Come. On.”
“I’ll be right there, meet you in the car,” Hera said. Zeb groaned and pointedly trudged off, and his mother bit her lip, looking anxiously around the house.
“Hera.” Kanan was tempted to put his hands on her shoulders, in a soothing gesture, but he resisted (although they did look tempting, in those lovely little Queen Anne sleeves). “We’re going to be fine. I promise to call you at the first sign of so much as a mosquito bite.”
Rather than soften with gratitude, as he’d hoped they would, Hera’s eyes went wide. “Oh my God, I think we’re out of bugspray—”
“Hera. Go,” he chuckled.
“Okay, okay,” Hera mumbled, more to herself than to him. “Ezra, Sabine, be good for Kanan, alright? Promise?” She knelt down and extended her pinkies to both of them with solemn grace.
“We promise,” they chimed.
“Okay, good. I love you both.” Hera gave each a kiss on the cheek.
“Have fun Mommy!” Sabine called. Hera stood up and looked toward Kanan one last time, and he felt her radiance hit him like a sun lamp.
“Thank you again,” she said, her voice sliding over him like honey.
“You’re welcome,” he replied. Kanan seemed to have lost the vocal capacity to say anything other than what came perfunctorily. Her dress swished in her wake, and Kanan couldn’t refrain from craning his neck, to see if she had left behind a glass slipper.
He turned around to find both kids looking up at him expectantly, and in that same instant, Kanan Jarrus realized that he knew didn’t know the first thing about taking care of children.
“So.” He cleared his throat. “Uh, who wants pizza?”
Having put the kids to bed, Kanan was just settling into the couch when the doorbell rang. Chopper started barking, and he hurried to the door, worried that the noise would wake the kids.
“Hi. Can I help you?”
To his chagrin, Chopper only barked louder once the door was open. The man was somewhere around Kanan’s age, and wearing a watch that looked like it had cost more than his car. Surprise crossed his face when his eyes met Kanan’s, but then quickly vanished, replaced by intrigue.
“Is Hera here?” The man asked.
“No, sorry, she’s out for the evening,” Kanan replied.
“I see,” the man nodded, his eyes peering past Kanan and into the house. “Zeb, perhaps?”
Feeling defensive, he sidestepped to block the visitor’s view. “He’s gone as well. Can I take a message?”
The man chuckled. “No, no, that’s quite all right.” He seemed to linger on the front step, staring through Kanan and into the foyer, until the mechanic cleared his throat.
“Well,” the stranger grinned in that patronizing way parents do when their child likens dandelions to flowers. “I suppose I’ll be going then.”
“I didn’t get your name,” Kanan called after him, but the man, walking leisurely across the front lawn, didn’t turn around to give it. Kanan watched from the front door until the man had disappeared into his Porsche and driven off, and then shut the door with a puzzled frown.
Chopper was still barking crazily, growling in the direction of the door.
“Hey, shush! The kids are asleep!” Kanan hissed.
Chopper yapped once more as if to spite him, and then, with a look reminiscent of a human’s glare, sulked away. Kanan shook his head and settled into the couch once more.
Around ten, his phone lit up with a call from Hera.
“Hey,” she greeted breathlessly, “everything going okay?”
“Yeah, great. Are you still at the gala?”
“Yes,” she lowered her voice. “This thing is taking forever! I snuck into the coat check so that I could call you; it’s going to be at least another hour, if not more.”
He chuckled. “You sound like you’re having a great time.”
“Bash of the century,” she deadpanned. “And I was supposed to pick Zeb up at eleven, too… I don’t know how I’m going to get there in time.”
Kanan imagined Hera running a hand through her hair in distress as she said this, but then stopping to protect her carefully styled locks. He tried to picture her with that adorable look of displeasure on her face, but couldn’t come up with anything less than the radiant sunbeam of a smile she had given him before departing.
He realized he had let the silence hang for too long. “I’ll pick him up.”
“Oh, Kanan, you’ve done so much already—”
Now her voice was sugar, spilling apologetically out of her mouth, traveling through the receiver and into his ear. “I don’t mind. Really.”
“You are such a godsend. Thank you.” The sugar was molten, turning his insides to melty mush.
“It’s no trouble.”
“Really, Ka—Oh, no, the principal’s coming. Talk to you later.”
The line went dead, but he fully intended to hold her to that last promise— he could listen to Hera speak for the rest of his life. A few minutes later, Hera texted him the address, and an hour later, Kanan went to wake up the twins.
Sabine was first, and her reaction was much more positive than he had expected.
“I slept in until eleven?! Cool!” She exclaimed.
Kanan chuckled. “Sorry, Sabine, it’s only eleven at night.”
Her eyes widened with panic. “I’m awake at eleven at night?! Mom’s gonna kill me!”
“It’s okay,” he tried not to laugh. “Your mom wants us to pick up your brother.”
“Geez, Mr. Kanan, Ezra’s not that heavy—”
“Not Ezra! Zeb.”
“Oh,” Sabine blinked a few times. “Yeah, he’s pretty heavy. We’re gonna need all the help we can get.” She jumped out of bed. “EZRA!”
“Wait, Sabine—” Kanan winced, but the girl was already in the hallway.
“EZ—RA! WAKE UP! WE HAVE TO GO LIFT ZEB!”
The mechanic facepalmed. Sooner or later, they were in the back of the pickup.
“Wait…” Kanan turned around to eyeball them. “You guys don’t need carseats, do you?”
“Mr. Kanan, we’re in the fifth grade,” Sabine huffed. “We’re not babies.”
“Jeez, just asking,” he said, turning back toward the dash.
“Ezra needed a carseat last year, but I didn’t, because I’m bigger,” Sabine grinned.
“You are not bigger! You just grow faster,” Ezra pouted.
“Exactly! So, bigger,” Sabine said. “Oh, wait, Mr. Kanan, I want my blanket!”
“Wh— Sabine, we need to go,” he said.
“But I want it! I’ll grab it really quick,” she said, already sliding out of her seat.
Kanan groaned. “Sabi—”
“Wait, get mine too!” Ezra cut in.
“No way! Get your own!”
“Your blue one? Or your orange one?”
“Guys,” Kanan sighed.
“My orange one!” Ezra decided.
“Okay!” Sabine raced back into the house.
A few minutes later, they were on the road, the twins snuggled happily up in their blankets and Kanan trying not to shake his head. By the time they reached the address Hera had given him, they had both fallen asleep, and Kanan held a finger to his lips as Zeb slid into the passenger’s seat. The teen checked behind him, smiled at the sight of his siblings, and then spoke in a quiet tone that Kanan matched for the remainder of the conversation.
“Ah, thanks for picking me up,” he said gruffly.
“You’re welcome. I know what it’s like to be the last kid there, making the host wait up for you and all that. I didn’t want that to be you,” Kanan said.
Zeb replied with his modus operandi, a grunt and a nod, and then stared out the window.
“Were the kids okay for you?”
Kanan was pleasantly surprised by his effort to make conversation. “Yeah, they were great.”
“Made you play Go Fish, didn’t they?”
“If I never hear those words again, it’ll be too soon.”
Zeb chuckled, but not at Kanan’s expense, and the mechanic realized that this was the best chance he’d get to befriend the teen.
“I thought about teaching them poker, but I think the concept’s a little over their heads,” he said.
“You know how?”
Zeb shook his head. “Mom won’t teach me,” he said, rubbing his neck with something between humiliation and resentment.
“Every man should know how to play poker. Next time she’s out, I’ll teach you,” Kanan said.
“Really?” Zeb actually sounded excited.
“You bet,” Kanan said, with an almost vengeful certainty. He had discovered the chance to befriend the teen, and he refused to let it slip away.
“Heh, pun intended,” Zeb snickered. Kanan laughed with him— not because the joke had been funny, but because he could feel the shaky but distinct beginnings of camaraderie.
Back at the house, Zeb led a sleepy Sabine to her room and then retreated to his own (to crash, Kanan assumed, in the way only teenagers could). Ezra was sound asleep in the back of the truck, so Kanan scooped him up and carried him up to his bed. Halfway up the stairs, he realized he was being watched by a very blue pair of eyes.
“Mr. Kanan?” Ezra blinked up at him.
“Yeah, Ezra?” He whispered.
“Is Mom home?”
“Not yet, buddy, but she’s coming.”
“Okay,” Ezra yawned. “Tell her you’re a good babysitter.”
Kanan smiled as they entered his room. “Sure thing.” He put Ezra down and tucked him in, at the child’s request, then went downstairs to wait for Hera, all the while wearing a big, goofy grin on his face. Whatever it was that made a child’s approval so special was a powerful thing.
Hera came in so quietly, he didn’t realize it until she was standing in front of him. He had fallen half asleep on the couch, so she seemed even more dazzling as his eyes adjusted, as if she were making a divine appearance.
“Hera,” He blinked sleep out of his eyes and scrambled to sit up straight.
“You didn’t have to wait up,” she said, but the softness in her voice told him she appreciated it nonetheless.
“Well, I was so excited to hear about the gala that I couldn’t sleep,” he winked. She snorted, an action that hardly lined up with her evening attire but somehow made her more charming, and sunk into the couch next to him, which he again found as incongruous as he did agreeable.
“Well, it wasn’t as bad as these shoes,” she said, reaching forward and pulling off a pair of heels that he figured made her legs look as if they were sculpted from marble. She noticed the bills she had left on the table still lying there. “You guys didn’t order pizza?
“We didn’t,” he lied.
Hera craned her neck. “I can see the boxes.”
Kanan shrugged. “It was my treat.” She gave him a disapproving look. “What? I ate most of it.”
“Kanan, you watched my kids, last minute, for free, and picked Zeb up on top of that. You don’t get to pay for pizza,” she said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all of this more than you know, but I thought I made it pretty clear that I’m not going to date you.” Hera had a light smirk on her face, but her tone was cautious. Kanan, on the other hand, was trying not to laugh.
“Hera. It’s pizza,” he said.
“It’s more than pizza,” she frowned.
“Okay, I admit we did spring for the deep-dish, but if you take into account the pizza-to-dollar ratio—”
“Kanan,” she said. “Look, it’s one thing if you did all this as a favor from one friend to another, but I’m not going to lead you on and take advantage of you just so that I can have a free babysitter for my kids.”
He turned toward her. “You are hilarious, you know that? A beautiful, single woman refusing to take any favors from a man who may or may not be attracted to her. I know lesser women that would take advantage of this and lead me on for months.”
“Well,” she folded her arms across her chest, forced herself to ignore the ‘beautiful’, and stared at him defiantly. “I’m not lesser women.”
“No, you are not,” he said quietly, his eyes intently on her. “You most definitely are not.”
Hera sighed and pushed herself off the couch. “That is exactly what I was talking about.”
Inwardly, Kanan cursed himself— once again, he had totally blown it. As Hera passed the kitchen counter, she slipped the pizza money into her purse. “I’m taking this out of your rent,” she said curtly.
“Hera, wait,” Kanan scrambled to stand up. He met her in the kitchen, and she stared at him expectantly: one hand on her hip, the other dangling her heels— even the shoes looked like they had run out of patience for him. “I…” he reached up and rubbed the back of his neck in discomfiture and mumbled something she couldn’t understand.
Her brow furrowed. “What?”
“I want your kids to like me, okay?” Kanan huffed. “That’s why I offered to babysit, and pick Zeb up. I like them, and I like living here, and I want them to like me.” He folded his arms tightly across his chest, as if he wished he could squeeze himself into oblivion. “That’s it. No games, no hidden motive, no romantic ploy. Just me, a grown man seeking the approval of two ten tear olds and a teenager like some middle schooler who just wants to fit in with the cool kids.”
“Goodnight,” he said gruffly, and turned on his heel to head into his room, hoping to retain some scrap of dignity.
Her voice was honey once again, and he turned back toward her like a bumblebee. “That’s… actually very sweet. I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge.” Hera avoided his eyes. “I’m not used to receiving favors from people who don’t want something in return.”
It was a loaded sentence, and it pained him to imagine all of the experience behind it. He was reminded of the strange man that had come to the door, and Kanan realized he was glad that he had been the one to receive him.
“This was all so kind of you, and I couldn’t even grant that you were doing it out of goodwill. I’m sorry,” she said.
She looked completely sincere, maybe even a bit abashed, and he shifted his weight uncomfortably, trying to decide how to respond.
“Well,” he finally cleared his throat. “To be fair, I was being pretty flirtatious.”
Her lips turned up in a relieved smile, and it gave him the boldness to press on.
“But come on, have you looked in a mirror yet tonight?”
“Oh, stop,” she swatted his arm. “I try to be serious with you for one minute—”
“Hey, I can be serious.”
“Can you really?” She snorted.
“Sure. How’s this?” He held up his hand and straightened his posture. “I, the tenant, Kanan Jarrus, solemnly swear not to pursue romantic relations with you, the proprietor, Hera Syndulla, unless I am strictly given permission to do so.”
“Not bad.” She nodded in approval and mimicked his stance. “I, the proprietor, Hera Syndulla, promise not to interpret the lecherous remarks or kind gestures of you, the tenant, Kanan Jarrus, as flirtation, but rather as harmless comedic remarks and goodwill, neither of which made for any personal gain.”
He grinned. “I think we just exchanged vows.”
She rolled her eyes. “To a partnership. A platonic, professional, partnership. Deal?”
He stuck out his hand, and she shook it. “Deal. Although lecherous remarks was a little harsh.”
“It was inspired by your end clause,” she smirked.
“Hey, a guy can hope.”
She smiled at him, and he grinned back, and they both stood there feeling like fools for the moment. Hera shifted first. “Thank you again. For the babysitting, and… for everything else.”
He smiled. “You’re welcome. You know, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful platonic partnership.”
Hera shook her head with amusement. “Goodnight, Kanan.”
He realized, as he changed his clothes, that he had forgotten to mention the visitor.
And he decided, as he brushed his teeth, that he never would.
Sundays were a bit of a whirlwind at the Syndulla household. Kanan had expected Hera to sleep in, after such a late evening, but the coffeepot started to rumble at seven. He considered joining her and was back asleep before he could finish the thought. Eventually, when the noise of the kids roused him, he left his room to find laundry strewn everywhere— Sabine and Ezra were sorting it on the living room floor, and Zeb was folding more clothes on the couch.
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty!” Sabine grinned up at him as he wove through the piles.
“Good morning,” he said. “If I’m Sleeping Beauty, does that make you Snow White?”
“No,” Sabine shook her head vigorously, and her short, dark hair —the reason Kanan had suggested the princess in the first place, drawing on his limited knowledge— swished. “I’m a dwarf, because we have to do work all day.”
“Do you?” He raised an eyebrow as he reached for a coffee mug.
“Uh-huh,” Sabine nodded. “We have to do homework and schoolwork and yardwork and laundry work.”
He took a sip of coffee to hide his smirk. “Sounds like a lot of work.”
“Sunday is chore day,” Ezra said.
“More like bore day,” Sabine grumbled.
“I heard that,” Hera entered the room, a laundry basket balanced on her hip. “Morning, Kanan.”
“Good morning,” he nodded, and she gave him a smile that warmed his insides better than any coffee. “Your dwarves are doing excellent work.”
“They are, aren’t they?” Hera bent to set the basket down and patted Sabine’s shoulder. “Now, which dwarves are you?”
“Well, I’m Happy, obviously,” Sabine said. “And Zeb, you have to be Grumpy.”
The teen replied with a grunt that, while probably intended to dispute her choice, only evidenced it further.
“Which one should I be?” Ezra asked.
Sabine laughed. “You can be Dopey.”
Hera cleared her throat. “No, he is not going to be Dopey,” she said sternly.
“Fine,” Sabine huffed. “Sorry, Ezra, the only other one I know is Sneezy.”
Ezra shrugged, and threw his pile of laundry in the air, pretending to sneeze. “Ah-choo!”
Sabine started cracking up, and even Zeb tried to hide a smile. Hera laughed and ruffled the boy’s hair, and as Kanan watched, he couldn’t help feeling like an outsider, as if he were witnessing the event from behind a panel of glass.
The feeling clung to him for the rest of the day; he didn’t need to go into the garage, so without anything else to do, he found himself idly hanging around the house (and feeling a bit in the way).
“Hera, is there anything I can do to help?” He finally asked.
“Kanan, you’ve done plenty,” she said.
“Come on, I have nothing else to do. I hate just sitting here and watching everybody else work,” he said.
“Don’t you have actual work you could do?” She asked. “You know, for your job?”
He waved a hand in the air. “I’m done with all that.”
“Well, aren’t you a hotshot,” she teased.
“I like to think so.”
She gave him a look and resumed sweeping.
“Seriously, Hera, there has to be some way I can help.”
“Kanan, relax. It’s a day of rest.”
“You’re not resting.”
“The words “rest” and “single mother” are rarely synonymous,” she replied lightly. Kanan had gotten the sense that he was to treat ‘single mother’ as a fact, rather than a point of discussion. He hoped that he would eventually get the full story out of her, but until then, he would keep his mouth politely shut.
At least regarding that particular matter.
“Fair enough,” he shrugged and stood up. “Let me give you a minute of rest then.”
She pulled the broom closer. “No.”
“Just one minute?”
“What about one sweep?” He grinned. “One fell swoop, if you will?”
She rolled her eyes and passed him the broom with great resignation. “You know, if I had known you were going to be this ridiculous, I would have charged you higher rent.”
With one singular, dramatic stroke of the broom, Kanan added to the dirt she had accumulated. “Fun fact: they actually banned me from my high school’s curling team because I was so good at sweeping.”
She held her hand out for the broom with an expectant but amused grin. “Did they really?”
“Oh yeah,” he nodded, sinking back into the couch and lacing his fingers together behind his head. “I was banned from participating in several sports actually, on account of my sweeping abilities. Well, that and my good looks.”
She snorted. “Now that I find hard to believe.”
“It’s true. I mean, good looking and the star quarterback? It just wouldn’t be fair to the other guys.”
Hera chuckled, then asked, “Where’d you go to school?”
He shrugged. “Well, they tore down my old high school, but it used to be right where Academy is now.”
Hera’s eyes widened with recognition. “You went to Republic?”
“Yeah! How’d you know?”
“A lot of the staff at Alliance actually came from Republic,” Hera said as she swept. “They sure weren’t happy when Academy tore it down. It sounds like it was a great school.”
“It was,” Kanan nodded. “Academy moved in a few years after I graduated. I’m not the type to reminisce over my high school days, but I was still kind of sad to see it go. I met a lot of good people there.”
“Where’d you end up after that?” She asked idly.
Kanan rubbed his chin. “Nowhere, actually,” he said. “I’ve been at the garage ever since.”
“Never went to college?” Her tone wasn’t judgmental, and he was grateful for that.
Kanan shrugged. “Don’t need a degree to fix cars.”
She shrugged too, as if in agreement. “How’d you learn?”
“My mom taught me everything I knew,” he said. “It was her garage. She was a real master.”
“Your mom,” Hera repeated. “She handed the business over to you, then?”
“She died not long after I graduated.”
The broom froze in her hands. Kanan was staring out the window with a wistful smile on his face.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
Kanan cleared his throat, and his eyes snapped back to reality. “’S not your fault,” he said.
“Well, no,” she acknowledged, “but I’m sorry it happened to you.”
He nodded, slowly, reflecting on her answer. “Thanks.”
She continued with her task while he took his gaze to the window. Hera was sweeping detritus into the dustpan when Kanan finally stood up.
“You know, my mom would have liked you,” he chuckled as he passed her. Hera straightened up indignantly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She called. Kanan walked off with a roguish grin.
Later, he found Sabine and Ezra in the living room, struggling with the vacuum cleaner.
“Hey kiddos. What are we up to?”
“Mom says we’re not supposed to let you help, so it doesn’t matter,” Sabine replied smartly. Kanan chuckled.
“That vacuum looks a little big for you, Sabine,” he said. The handle of it came up to the girl’s chest.
“Well, it’s not so bad, see, because Ezra’s helping me,” Sabine explained. “He holds the cord and moves the furniture, and I push the vacuum.”
“Looks like a good system,” Kanan nodded.
“I came up with it,” Sabine said proudly.
“Did not!” Ezra interjected.
“No, it was my idea to do it together,” Ezra retorted.
“Yeah, but I worked out the mechanics of it!” Sabine replied.
“Why don’t you both show me how well it works?” Kanan cut in, hoping to avoid an argument.
“Ooh, good idea,” Sabine nodded.
“I’ll plug it in!” Ezra grabbed the cord.
Kanan watched Sabine start up the vacuum and push it around, while Ezra moved furniture out of its path. He was doing well until he came to the couch, and Kanan came around to one side to help him lift it.
Sabine switched off the vacuum and put her hands on her hips, looking the picture of her mother. “Mr. Kanan, you’re not supposed to help!”
Kanan feigned innocence. “Me? Oh, no, I’m not trying to help you guys vacuum,” he shook his head, squatting low. “See, I lost a quarter the other day, and I was thinking it might be under the couch, so I wanted to check.”
Sabine and Ezra nodded slowly as he pretended to inspect the carpet. “Unfortunately I don’t see it… But if you happened to vacuum under here really quickly, while I was holding it up, I’m sure your mom wouldn’t mind.”
The twins exchanged a dubious look.
“I mean… I guess that’d be okay,” Sabine finally said.
“Here, I’ll help you,” Ezra added. He put his hands on the couch and grunted, straining to hold it up with Kanan, who tried not to laugh. Sabine vacuumed and, when they set the couch back down, shook a finger at Kanan.
“We probably shouldn’t tell Mom. Just in case.”
He saluted her. “You got it, kiddo.”
By the end of the day, the chores and homework were all done. The kids were fed, the kitchen was clean, and Hera was making her nightly rounds— she’d said goodnight to Zeb and Ezra, and Sabine was next.
“Hey Bean,” she said.
Sabine looked up and put her book away. “Hey Mama.”
Unlike Zeb, Hera rarely had to start conversations with her daughter; Sabine did that all on her own. “Mr. Kanan was really funny today,” she said.
“Yeah?” Hera sat down on the edge of her bed. “And why is that?”
“Well, he kept trying to help us do our chores and stuff.” Sabine snickered. “I think he was bored.”
“I think he likes you guys and he wanted to help out,” Hera smiled.
“Huh,” Sabine nodded. “Mom, does Mr. Kanan have kids?”
“No, not that I know of,” Hera said.
Her daughter looked pensive for a moment, and then sat up, inspired. “Why don’t you just marry Mr. Kanan? Then he could have us.”
“Oh, Sabine,” Hera didn’t know whether to laugh or keep the shocked look on her face. “It’s not that easy.”
“Well,” Hera said, “For two people to be married, they have to be in love.”
Sabine frowned. “Is that why you and Dad got married? Because you were in love?”
Hera just nodded, her stomach suddenly twisting up.
“But you’re not married anymore,” Sabine continued, her brown eyes perplexed.
“We… we were in love at the start,” Hera finally managed to say, staring down at the carpet. “But… as I got to know him, it got harder to love him.” She tore her gaze from the floor and looked back at her daughter. “Does that make sense?”
“Yeah,” Sabine frowned. “I guess so.”
“Okay. Good,” Hera said, trying to keep her voice steady.
“You ran out of love. Like a car runs out of gas,” Sabine said, and in that moment, Hera wished that the world worked as simply as her children sometimes thought it did.
“Right,” she sighed. “It’s… it’s getting late, sweetie. You should go to bed.” She stood up and headed for the door, her stomach trying to punch its way there first.
Hera tried not to look too tired as she turned around to face her daughter. “Yes, dear?”
Sabine’s voice was small. “Do you think you’ll run out of love for me?”
Hera’s anxiety flooded out of her as she rushed back to embrace the girl. “Oh, God, Sabine, no. Never. Never, ever, ever,” she shook her head, clinging to her daughter tightly. Sabine hugged her back, burying her face in her mother’s chest.
“I love you, Sabine,” Hera whispered, stroking her hair. “I love you always and forever and into the stars, and I will never, ever run out of love for you.”
“Promise?” Sabine’s voice was muffled.
Hera pulled her tighter. “Cross my heart.”
She lay down, still clutching her tightly, and stayed with her daughter until she fell asleep. Once Sabine’s breathing slowed, Hera slipped out and went quietly down the stairs, where she put the kettle on for a cup of tea and sat at the table with her head in her hands. It was only nine; she still had a few hours to grade lab reports, but her body felt like lead. She hated that any mention of the kids’ father affected her so deeply.
“Hey, Hera, do you mind if I—” Kanan walked out of his room and immediately paused, looking at her closely. “Are you okay?”
She looked up, blinking a little too brightly. “Fine. What’s up?”
He looked suspicious but didn’t press. “I just wanted to make sure it was okay if I showered this late. I don’t want to wake the kids.”
“Oh,” she nodded. “Um, no, don’t worry about it. Go ahead.”
“Okay,” he said, taking one step forward but then two back. “Um, you’re sure you’re okay?”
She waved a hand in the air. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
He nodded slowly, and she knew he didn’t believe her. Hera put on a bright, flirtatious smile. “Now go shower before I throw you in there myself.”
He grinned, picking up on the vibe. “You know you’re always welcome to join me.”
She rolled her eyes at him and he chuckled, sauntering back into his room. Hera breathed a sigh of relief for the privacy, and the kettle whistled along with her. She took a deep breath, forcefully pushed the thoughts out of her head, and went to grab her grading folder and steep the tea.
The next morning was business as usual. Hera and the kids left for school, and Kanan went to work. He had settled into a rhythm with them, which gave him a strange pleasure. He would wake up, roused by the sounds of the family bustling around, and join them at the table around seven, where he’d sit sipping coffee until the family left at 7:30. After that, he’d get dressed and do any remaining dishes (as efficient as Hera was, Sabine had a sneaky habit of leaving hers until the last second, so that she wouldn’t have to put them in the dishwasher, and Ezra was usually a half-step behind his siblings, so his were out as well). He liked spending time with them in the mornings; while Zeb wasn’t particularly chatty at any time of day, the twins seemed to have no limit to their energy, and were always willing to include him in conversation. He’d get ready after the kids left, to maximize his time with them, and then lock up (which, and he was quite proud of this, though he’d never admit it, Hera trusted him to do) and be on his way.
The garage had started feeling quieter, since he’d moved in with the Syndullas. In Hera’s home there was always something making noise— mainly the kids, and Hera usually had the radio on, but even the dishwasher or teakettle contributed to the communal noise of family. He was starting to wonder how he’d ever lived in the silent flat above his garage.
“Alright, kids, let’s get going!”
It was 7:25, and while Kanan put their coffee mugs in the dishwasher, Hera was fighting the daily good fight of getting her three children out the door.
“Zeb, do you have your football bag?”
“Ezra, do you have your homework?”
“Yeah… wait, no… Okay, now I do!”
“Sabine, do you have your homework?”
“Sabine, did you do your homework?”
“Of course I did! I just… can’t find the sheet that I did it on.”
“It’s right here, Mom. She drew a picture of me on the back.”
“Sabine, thank your brother.”
“Thank you, Zeb. Wait, Zeb, I gave this to you as a present!”
“Well, next time, don’t draw me on your homework!”
“Okay, Sabine, put that in your backpack and let’s get going, love. Ezra, did you feed Chopper?”
“Yeah… wait, no…”
“Ha, I knew it! Zeb owes me a dollar!”
“Sabine, that wasn’t very kind. You can feed Chopper and apologize to Ezra while he gets his shoes on.”
“Fine. Sorry, Ezra.”
“And sorry, Chopper,” Sabine made a face as she filled his bowl with kibble. Chopper yelped happily and rushed to dig in.
“Don’t worry, Sabine, I already fed him some chocolate for breakfast, so he’ll be fine.”
The teenager held up his hands. “I’m kidding!”
Hera shook her head, a grin on her face despite them all. “Alright, my lovely children, in the car.”
“Bye Mr. Kanan!” Ezra called.
“Bye Ezra!” Kanan replied.
“Bye Mr. Kanan!” Sabine jumped in, and he chuckled.
Hera gave Kanan a quick wave and a smile, which he returned, before ushering everyone into the garage.
“Okay, Ezra, Sabine, in the car,” Hera nudged the twins. “Zeb, a word?”
Zeb, still buttoning his coat, looked befuddled. “Wha—why?”
“Ooh, Zeb’s in trouble,” Sabine snickered.
“He’s not, but you will be if you don’t scoot,” Hera said, her smile light but her tone firm. Ezra’s eyes widened, and he and his sister scurried into the car.
She turned to her oldest.
“Mom, we’re gonna be late,” the teen bounced up and down on his toes.
Hera ignored him and folded her arms. “Zeb, have you not been eating lunch at school?”
“What?” Zeb shook his head and kept bouncing. “Why would you ask something like that? Of course I have.”
Hera raised an eyebrow. “Zeb.”
“What?” His gaze darted around the room but never met her eyes. “Mom, we’re going to be late—”
“Zeb.” Hera wasn’t moving.
The teen huffed, and shifted his weight several times. Hera cocked her head while he fidgeted, and eventually, his darting eyes went to the floor.
“I…I thought it would help save money,” he mumbled.
Hera all but exploded. “Garazeb Orrelios, I’ve told you a thousand times, you don’t need to worry about money!”
“We might not be billionaires, but I make enough to keep food on the table!”
“And yes, money may be a little tight around here, compared to some of your friends, but that is not your concern,” Hera said fiercely.
“I know, but—”
“No!” Hera threw her hands out, but then glanced over her shoulder at the car. Relieved to see that Sabine and Ezra weren’t watching, she went on, her voice slightly lower but just as intense. “You should be out with your friends, not worrying about things like this!”
“You are a growing, active boy, and I will not have you starving yourself to save a few dollars!”
“You mean fifty cents?” Zeb challenged. Hera jerked back as if stunned, and his expression softened, regretful. The teen shifted his defiant gaze down to his toes and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“I… I saw that they started charging us the reduced price,” he muttered.
Hera deflated. “Oh,” she said. “You… you can see that, huh?”
He nodded and bit his lip. “I saw it changed, and… well, you rented the room out, so… I was just worried that—”
“Oh my God, Zeb,” Hera pulled her son into a tight embrace, and then stepped away, grabbing his shoulders. “Zeb, love, the last thing you need to be worried about is money. Our financial situation is fine; the reduced lunch is only temporary,” she assured him. “We barely qualify for it, but I want to make sure we’re taking advantage of all our resources right now, and if all four of us eat at school every day, it’s one less thing we have to worry about. Every penny counts, but we’re not even close to the point where we need to be counting pennies. Please, please don’t be concerned.”
“Mom, let me help you.” Zeb sounded urgent. “I could get a job—”
“No,” Hera said fiercely. “You are my kid and I’m not letting you take care of me. Not for at least forty more years,” she smirked, and he gave a small laugh. “Zeb, trust me, we are perfectly fine. Your only job right now is to be a teenager.”
Zeb rubbed the back of his neck.
“And to get good grades,” Hera added. “And to be good to your brother and sister. And to not get hurt during football seaso—”
“Mom,” Zeb groaned.
“Alright,” she chuckled, and ruffled her son’s hair. “Good talk.”
Zeb hesitated. “You’re sure we’re fine?
“I’m the mom. If I say we’re fine, we’re fine,” Hera replied firmly. “Now come on. We’re going to be late for school, where you are going to buy a lunch.” The last words were punctuated, and Zeb grumbled. “Don’t you make me come over and eat lunch with you, you know I will,” she threatened.
“Ugh, Mom,” Zeb groaned, but he was trying not to laugh.
“I used to do it all the time when you were in elementary school,” Hera reminded smugly, as they made their way out to the car. “You loved it…”
After dinner that night, Ezra and Sabine went to play outside. Kanan, after some convincing, accompanied them, and Hera finished the dishes. She was humming along with the radio when Zeb came down the stairs.
“Hey honey. How was lunch?” She asked pointedly.
Zeb rolled his eyes. “Edible. Which is saying something, for high school.”
“Hey, I eat it too,” Hera reminded him, with a teasing lilt in her voice. “It’s not so bad.”
“Yeah,” Zeb said. He shifted his weight from foot to foot and scratched the back of his neck.
Hera looked over to him. “Something wrong, love?”
“No, no, nothing,” Zeb shook his head vigorously.
She gave him a curious look. “Alright.” Slowly, Hera turned back to the dishes, but remained alert. The silence in the kitchen hung between them like a curtain.
After a moment, he spoke up. “Well, I’ve just been thinking… we never had to get reduced lunch before.”
Hera kept her expression neutral, but her grip on the skillet tightened.
“And, you still have the same job and everything, so…” Zeb sounded like he didn’t want to conclude his thoughts. “I guess I’m just wondering what changed.”
Hera scrubbed at the skillet with increasing vigor. “Zeb, I told you, don’t worry about money,” she said. “That’s my job.”
She looked over her shoulder at him, when he didn’t continue, and the look on Zeb’s face was one part anxious and one part brave. Hera was sure it reflected her own, and kept her voice neutral.
“Does this have something to do with Dad?” Zeb asked. The words came out in a tumble, and he almost looked scared to find out.
Hera kept her back turned to Zeb, and set the pan down. She stared out the window in front of the sink, focusing hard on the grass, and fought to keep her voice neutral. “What do you mean?”
“Mom, you know what I mean,” he said quietly. Hera sighed. She dried her hands off, took a deep breath, and faced her son.
“He… he stopped sending his child support checks,” she said.
Zeb’s expression shifted from hesitance to betrayal, and when he finally spoke his voice was low.
Hera shook her head. “It doesn’t matter—”
“When?!” The teen demanded. He was tightly coiled, one spark away from an explosion, and his face was bunched in a snarl.
“He can’t do that, Mom!”
Hera flinched. “I know, love—”
“He can’t do that to you, that’s not fair!”
“After everything he did to us, to Ezra, and after everything we went through in court, and now he’s not sending the checks?!” Zeb slammed his hands on the counter, making the entire kitchen rattle.
Hera pressed her lips together.
“Can’t we do something?!” Zeb gaped at his mother in distress. “He has to send the money, doesn’t he?”
“That means no,” Zeb shook his head. “No, of course he doesn’t. That’s not fair!”
“Life isn’t fair sometimes,” Hera began.
“I don’t care!” Zeb shouted. “I hate him! I hate him and I wish he was dead!” He gripped the counter and breathed heavily, glaring up at his mother and anything else in anger. Hera’s shoulders sank.
“I’m sorry, love,” she said quietly. “I shouldn’t have told you.”
“No, you should have, because I deserve to know what a shitty dad he is,” Zeb snarled.
“I don’t care!” Zeb roared. “He said worse things in front of Ezra, and Sabine, and me! He was awful, Mom, and just when I start to think he might not have been so bad, he proves me wrong, again! I hate him!”
He clenched his fists and stared down at the floor. Hera approached him and put one arm around him, then leaned her head on his shoulder.
“I hate him,” Zeb said, sounding less convincing.
“It’s okay,” she murmured.
“I hate him,” Zeb repeated. “I was the oldest, I should have known better, I should have done something…”
“Garazeb.” Hera gripped her son’s shoulders and stared fiercely into his eyes. “None of what happened was your fault. You know that.”
“But if I had just spoken up sooner—”
“Stop.” Hera shook her head. She dropped her hands from his shoulders. “You were a kid. You didn’t know.”
He raked a hand through his hair. “I should have known—”
“Zeb.” She stopped him with a long, hard look. “Zeb, we all have our regrets, but no one can take responsibility for what happened except for him. Your father is an awful, twisted man; you can’t blame yourself.”
Zeb deflated, and his eyes shifted to the floor. “I know.”
“There’s a reason he isn’t part of our lives anymore, and there’s even more reason I intend to keep it that way, money or not,” Hera said. She put a firm hand on her son’s shoulder and looked at him with determination in her eyes. “We don’t need him, Zeb.”
Zeb’s chin quavered, but he tried to match his mother’s resolve. After swallowing hard, the teen set his jaw. “I know.”
“I’m ho-ome!” Ezra bounded through the front door, still wearing his soccer pads, and dropped his backpack on the floor.
“Hey, love,” Hera greeted. She knelt down and spread her arms wide for a hug, and he ran into them. “Did you thank Mrs. Polinski for dropping you off?”
Ezra nodded seriously as they separated. “I made sure I did.”
“That’s my boy,” Hera smiled and ruffled his hair. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah, I—” Ezra followed Hera into the kitchen, where Kanan was at the table, watching Sabine color. “Mr. Kanan! Did you know that I have my first soccer game tomorrow?”
Kanan glanced at Hera. “No, I didn’t.”
“Do you want to come?” Ezra asked. He turned to his mother, who was handing him a granola bar. “Mom, can Mr. Kanan come?”
Hera blinked as Ezra took the bar and began happily munching on it. “Well, of course he can, sweetie, but I’m sure Kanan has already made plans—”
“Actually,” Kanan began, with an almost imperceptible mischievous grin at Hera, “I’m completely free.”
She pursed her lips, while a big grin broke out on Ezra’s face. “All right! So you’ll come then?”
“Sure thing, buddy,” Kanan said. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He gave Ezra a high-five.
Sabine nudged her elbow into his side. “Mr. Kanan, you’re not paying attention,” she grumbled.
“Whoops. Sorry, Sabine.” Kanan turned his eyes back to her paper. “Which part are you working on now? The tail?”
“Mhm,” Sabine, halfway through an elaborate drawing of a fish, nodded. “The scales are pink, but then the fin part at the bottom is gonna be purple.”
Kanan chuckled. “Awesome.”
“You should draw something too,” Sabine said, grabbing a new colored pencil. Kanan snorted at the thought, which made her abruptly stop and give him a serious look.
He faltered. “Uh, good idea. Here, pass me that paper.”
With a satisfied grin on her face, Sabine handed him a fresh sheet. Meanwhile, Hera had started to cook, and she turned around and gave Kanan her best smirk. He rolled his eyes back at her as if to say “very funny,” and she just chuckled, turning back to the stove. He reached for a colored pencil.
“Nope.” Sabine put her hand up and blocked him. “You have to use the crayons.”
“What?” Kanan felt a flash of pique, and while it was immediately silenced by his rational, adult brain telling him not to start an argument over something so insignificant, started one anyway. “Why?”
“Because you’re a beginner,” Sabine rolled her eyes. “Duh.”
“Beginner?” He raised his eyebrows at her and put on a look of offense. “Now hang on, I’ve been coloring for way longer than you have.”
Sabine put down her colored pencil and raised her eyebrows. “Really?”
He should have known to end the argument there, but he pursued, under the foolish delusion that he had the upper hand.
“Absolutely,” Kanan said. “I colored all the time when I was a kid.”
Sabine snickered. “Mr. Kanan, you were a kid, like, a billion years ago.”
Hera burst out laughing, which only multiplied the insult. He dropped his jaw.
“Hang on a second,” Kanan shook his head and put a hand on the table. “You,” he gestured at Sabine, “think I’m,” he brought a hand to his chest, “Old?”
Sabine bit her lip to contain another laugh and nodded. In the kitchen, Hera was rummaging around in one of the lower cabinets to hide the grin on her face. Kanan refused to be ganged up on, so he drew her into the conversation.
“Hera, can you believe this?” He called, raising his voice in hopes of making Sabine laugh. “Your daughter thinks I’m old!”
Both women laughed.
“Why?” Kanan turned back to Sabine, enjoying his performance now. “What makes me so old?”
Sabine shrugged. “You have a beard. Duh.”
Hera held back another snicker, and Kanan joined her, trying to take Sabine seriously.
“So it’s my beard that makes me old,” he said. “Nothing else.”
Sabine shook her head. “Nope.”
“Interesting.” Unconsciously, Kanan brought a hand to his beard and stroked it in thought. “So, what about your mom? Is she old?”
Hera gave him a look, which he returned with a devilish grin.
Sabine had already returned to her drawing, and she just shook her head. “Nope. Mommy’s young and beautiful.”
“That’s my girl,” Hera grinned from the kitchen.
“What?” Kanan feigned outrage. “Come on! Your mom and I are almost the same age!”
“Sorry,” Sabine shrugged, sketching another fin. “I don’t make the rules.”
“What if she had a beard?” Kanan asked, thoroughly lost in the world of children’s logic. “Then would she be old?” Hera’s mouth dropped open, but she decided to let it go and roll her eyes, turning back to her work.
Sabine snickered. “Mommy can’t have a beard.”
“But if she did?” Kanan pressed, a devilish gleam in his eye. Sabine dropped her colored pencil and looked at him in exasperation.
“If Mommy had a beard, she would be old,” she said. “Happy?”
Kanan stifled a grin and nodded.
“Good,” Sabine huffed. “Now be quiet and color.” She plopped the box of crayons down in front of him, and Hera clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter. After a few minutes of quiet coloring, Sabine tried to peer over at Kanan’s work. He covered it with his hands.
“Sorry, no peeking,” Kanan said, feeling smug and childish at the same time. Sabine gave him her best stinkeye.
“Fine, but then you can’t look at mine, either,” she said resolutely. The girl picked up her work and skipped from the kitchen table to the island barstools. “Mommy, I’m going to color here,” she announced. Hera, who had been using the island counter to cook, just shook her head with a smile, and cleared a space for Sabine.
The next day, Kanan helped Hera clean up after dinner, while Ezra put his jersey on.
“Hey, you don’t mind if I catch a ride with you guys to the game, do you?” He asked.
She passed him a plate to dry. “No.”
Kanan raised an eyebrow. “You hesitated.”
She was scrubbing a saucepan, and spoke down to it. “No, I didn’t.”
If Hera had been looking up at him, she would have seen doubt in his eyes. “If it makes you uncomfortable, I’m happy to drive separately,” he said.
“It doesn’t make me uncomfortable,” she replied, passing him another plate. “And I didn’t hesitate.”
“Heck, I don’t even have to sit by you guys—”
“Kanan,” she sighed, “Really. It’s fine.”
He set the plate down on the counter. “Then why haven’t you looked me in the eye since I brought this up?”
Hera huffed, dried her hands off and faced him. “I’m happy that you’re coming to the game,” she said, her tone pacifying. “Ezra’s really excited about it.”
“That’s not what I asked you,” he said.
She huffed again, but then took a deep breath. “Haven’t you considered…” Hera picked up the towel again and wrung it through her hands. Her eyes darted around the room. “That if I show up with you, people are going to think we’re together?”
It took all his willpower to keep the wounded look off his face, which he felt like he’d been slapped in.
“Gee, sorry, I didn’t realize I’d be embarrassing you.” Kanan disguised his hurt by rolling his eyes and looking away from her, picking up the plate again.
“No, Kanan, it’s not like that,” Hera sighed, and fidgeted with the towel. “I’d hardly be embarrassed to date you, it’s just that people talk.”
He was too hung up on the first half of that sentence to argue with the second one. Kanan held the plate in his hands, rubbing it slowly.
“And you don’t want people to talk,” he inferred.
“Just…” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “It’s not you, okay? It’s me.”
He couldn’t stop the smirk that breached his lips. “Hera, are you breaking up with me?”
She rolled her eyes, any sincerity they’d held vanishing at his quip, and whapped him with the hand towel.
“Okay, sorry, I couldn’t help it,” he held his hands up in surrender, chuckling. She shook her head with exasperation at him and turned back to the sink.
“So,” Kanan began, after a quiet moment of work, “People talk, huh?”
“People talk enough when you are a single mom,” Hera began, without lifting her eyes from the sponge. “When they start to suspect you’re not…” she trailed off, scrubbing harder.
Kanan nodded. “Got it.”
More silence, suffused by the running water and clink of plates.
“I’ll drive separate.”
“Kanan.” She put her hands on the counter and a laugh forced its way out through her nostrils. “I realize how ridiculous I’m being. Please drive with us.”
He arched an eyebrow. “You’re sure?”
She nodded. “Positive.”
He shrugged. “Okay.”
She gave an ephemeral smile, and passed him a colander, and that was that.
He hung a few steps behind her as they approached the field. Ezra darted off to join his teammates while Sabine flitted about with the other siblings at the game. Hera waved to a few parents and stopped to chat with others, so Kanan took their chairs and set up at a spot with a good view of the field.
Hera was fiercely animated throughout the game, cheering on Ezra and the other kids throughout. He found himself getting into it too, even if the level of competition was vastly different from the ESPN he was used to watching. Although, looking back, the audience of those professional games had consisted of him, his sofa, and maybe a bag of microwave popcorn, if he hadn’t forgotten to go grocery shopping again. Sitting there, next to Hera and Sabine (who had brought a chair but promptly opted for her mother’s lap), divvying up Sabine’s fruit snacks with a blanket bearing the school colors over the three of them, made the fifth-grade soccer game worth more than front row tickets to the World Cup. Every time Ezra’s team scored a goal, the three of them would cheer wildly and swap high-fives. Sabine was especially impressed by Kanan’s ability to whistle, and all his showboating for her had Hera groaning and covering her ears.
Ezra’s team won, 3-2. As he came off the field, his family rushed him, and Hera swept him up into the air.
“You were amazing, love,” she cried, swinging him around in a circle. “Your very first game and you won!”
Ezra was beaming with pride. “You think so?”
“Of course! You were so fast,” Hera beamed.
“Way to go, buddy,” Kanan added, giving him a high-five.
Ezra grinned. “Thanks, Mr. Kanan.”
“Ew, Ezra, you have grass all over your knees,” Sabine giggled. Ezra looked down to his kneepads in dismay.
“Don’t worry, honey, it’ll wash out,” Hera assured him.
“You can’t wash them out; that’s the mark of a warrior!” Someone called. They looked up to the tall teenager approaching them.
Ezra recognized him first.
“Zeb!” He shrieked. “You came!”
“Of course I came!” Zeb chuckled and squatted down with his hands raised for double high-fives. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. You were awesome, buddy.”
Ezra returned the high-fives, then threw his arms around Zeb. “You really think so?” He beamed as he pulled away.
“Yeah,” Zeb nodded. “Keep it up and you’ll be playing JV as a freshman.”
Ezra crinkled his nose in confusion at that, but the grin stayed on his face.
“Wait, how did you get here?” Sabine piped in, as Hera and Kanan caught up to them.
Zeb leaned in and grinned conspiratorially. “I told one of the seniors I was gonna beat him up if he didn’t give me a ride.”
Sabine clapped a hand to her mouth and gasped, and Ezra’s eyes went wide with admiration.
“No way,” he breathed.
“Zeb,” Hera chided, folding her arms but unable to keep the smile off her face.
“I’m kidding,” he assured her, straightening up. “Turns out, the varsity guys all really like me, and one of them who lives around here offered me a ride after practice. You know, since I can’t drive myself yet…” The last sentence, heavy with subtext, was said pointedly in Hera’s direction.
She shook a finger at him. “Not today.”
Zeb groaned and folded his arms.
“Hey, Mommy,” Ezra interjected, looking up at her with an innocent smile, “Can we go out for ice cream?”
Hera’s eyes shifted, something Kanan noticed but was sure Ezra missed, and she glanced at her watch. “Um, sure thing, sweetie.”
Sabine and Ezra gasped in delight. “Sweet!”
“I’m gonna get a chocolate cone. No, vanilla!”
The family had piled into the car, and Ezra was musing over his upcoming ice cream selection.
“Zeb, what kind of ice cream do winners eat?”
“Ha, Zeb wouldn’t know,” Sabine said smugly. Zeb raised his eyebrows at her and then turned back to Ezra with a devilish grin.
“Well, Ezra, real winners steal their sister’s ice cream,” he said pointedly. Sabine’s mouth dropped open.
“Take that back!”
Ezra stuck out his tongue. “Blegh. Sabine always gets Superman though.”
“Of course I do.” Sabine tossed her hair. “It’s the most colorful one.”
Ezra shifted his attention. “Mr. Kanan, what are you gonna get?”
“I don’t know, Ezra.” Kanan stroked his chin, pretending to think. “Old Jho makes a mean hot fudge sundae.”
“Hey, that’s Mommy’s favorite,” Ezra exclaimed.
Kanan chuckled. “Well, your mom has good taste.”
Hera pointedly avoided making eye contact with him, as Ezra furrowed his brow. “Wait, why would you want your ice cream to be mean?”
Kanan held back an amused smile. “I meant mean in the sense of good.”
“Wait, mean can be good?” Ezra frowned.
“No,” Hera said quickly, cutting her eyes at Kanan in exasperation. She looked up at Ezra in the rearview mirror. “Being mean is never good. But Kanan was using a figure of speech, when you pair ‘mean’ with a verb to describe something that’s been done well.”
“Oh,” Ezra nodded. “So could you say Zeb plays a mean game of football?”
“Exactly,” Hera nodded proudly.
“Thanks, buddy.” Zeb high-fived him.
Jho’s Malt Shoppe was built in the nostalgic style of the fifties. Black and white tiles checkered the floor, multicolored stools ran parallel around the linoleum counter, and the cherry red booth cushions were comfortably flattened after years of holding families. In one corner, a jukebox crooned Elvis.
After waiting in the line that was as inherent to the Malt Shoppe as whipped cream and a cherry, the kids stepped up to the counter.
“Why, is that Ezra Bridger?” Jho pretended to squint. “Long time no see, look how tall you are!”
“Jho, guess what? I just won a soccer game,” Ezra chirped.
“Well, congratulations,” Jho smiled. “Here to celebrate, are we?”
“Mhm,” Ezra nodded. “Can I please have a chocolate cone?”
“Coming right up,” Jho replied.
Sabine jumped forward. “Look at me, Jho, am I taller too?” She asked, stretching her shoulders up and back.
“Why, who’s this?” Jho’s eyes widened. “Don’t tell me you’re the little Sabine Syndulla that used to ask for an extra cherry on top of her Superman ice cream!”
Sabine beamed with joy. “You remembered!”
“Of course,” Jho said, as he began scooping. “Why, you’re even taller than your brother.”
“On that note, please feel free to throw Ezra an extra scoop, Jho,” Hera said as she stepped forward.
“Really, Mom?” Ezra’s eyes widened in awe.
“Of course,” Hera gave a thin smile and ruffled his hair. “We need to keep your strength up if you’re going to keep winning soccer games.”
Jho handed him a mountainous ice cream cone, and Ezra’s grin almost reached his ears. “Sweet! Thanks, Jho!”
“You’re welcome,” Jho nodded. He turned his attention back to Hera after Sabine had gotten her ice cream and joined Ezra in a booth.
“Hera, you’re looking as lovely as ever,” he smiled warmly at her. Kanan would have felt a twinge of jealousy, had the Malt Shoppe owner not been pushing seventy years, and happily married for over forty of them. “How have you been, my dear? It’s been too long.”
“We’re doing just fine, thank you, Jho,” Hera smiled.
“I hear Zeb’s quite the football sensation. Regular order for you, first string?” Jho asked.
Zeb blushed and nodded. “Yes please, Jho. Thank you.”
“Regular order?” Hera raised her eyebrows at Zeb, who ran a hand through his hair.
“Uh, the guys and I come here sometimes, after practice,” he said.
“He’s the only one giving me any news on your family, missy,” Jho said, shaking an ice cream scoop at Hera in mock censure. “You haven’t brought the gang here in ages.”
“I know, Jho, I’m sorry,” Hera sighed. “Life gets crazy, you know?”
Zeb handed an ice cream cone to Zeb and looked at her with sympathy in his eyes. “I know.” The look that passed between them seemed to carry pages of conversation, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared. “Can I get you anything?”
“I’m alright, thank you,” Hera said.
“For you, sir?” He looked to Kanan.
Kanan paused for a moment, glancing at Hera and then smiling. “I’ll take two hot fudge sundaes, please.”
Hera gave him a disbelieving look and then a miniature scowl. Kanan replied with his favorite mischievous grin.
“Big appetite. Good man,” Jho clucked in approval and started scooping. He handed two sundaes to Kanan, who promptly passed them to Hera, occupying her hands and stopping her from grabbing her purse.
“I’ve got it,” he waved a hand. Hera, stunned by how quickly he’d handed off the sundaes and pulled out his wallet, opened her mouth in protest. “Really, Hera, I’ve got it.”
“Kanan.” She plunked a sundae down in defiance and opened her purse.
Jho waved both of them off. “It’s on the house, you two.”
Hera drew in a breath but didn’t pull her hand out from her purse. “Jho, that’s very kind of you, but—”
“I insist,” he said. “Come around more often, alright?”
Hera’s shoulders settled, and she let go of her wallet with a shake of her head. “Thank you, Jho,” she said sincerely.
He nodded, and waved them off.
“You kids will have to make sure we thank Jho for the ice cream,” Hera said as she and Kanan sat down. She set both sundaes in front of him, and he just as quickly slid one back across the table to her. She rolled her eyes, but couldn’t keep the corners of her lips from turning up as she took the spoon.
“Wait,” Zeb said. Everyone looked to him, and he lifted his cone in the air. “I propose a toast. To Ezra’s first soccer game.”
Ezra beamed with pride, as they all lifted cones and spoons high in the air and cheered. “To Ezra’s first soccer game!”
Across the table, Kanan’s eyes met Hera’s, and she smiled.
Much to Sabine’s amusement, Ezra couldn’t keep up with his rapidly melting cone.
“Ezra, it’s dripping all over you,” she cackled. Ezra frowned, attacking the ice cream with fervor as it dribbled down the cone.
“Here, let me.” Zeb took the cone from Ezra and, in a single lick, cleansed the sides of it and pushed the ice cream back to the center.
“Aw.” Sabine pouted and folded her arms. “I wanted to do that.”
Meanwhile, Hera had gone to bring their sundae dishes back up to the counter, and was immersed in conversation with Old Jho. Kanan was watching curiously, although he tried to feign indifference. Eventually she returned to the booth.
“Alright, are you guys ready to go?”
Ezra, with renewed control of his ice cream, licked the chocolate from his lips and nodded.
“Oh, honey,” Hera tried not to laugh as she grabbed a napkin. “Here.” She swiped his mouth clean, and Ezra stuck out his tongue. The kids scooted out of the booth, waving to the proprietor as they left.
“Thanks, Mr. Jho!” Ezra called. “That was some mean ice cream.”
Jho waved and smiled. “See you kids around.”
During dinner, Hera mentioned that she had exams to grade, so Kanan offered to do the dishes. She had protested vehemently until he’d gotten up, planted himself in front of the sink, and started without letting her argue. Kanan noted with satisfaction that Hera was now deeply engrossed in a stack of papers at the table, and they worked in companionable silence.
Zeb walked into the room. “Hey, Mom?”
“What’s up, sweetie?” She murmured, as she marked one of the exams.
“Can we practice driving tonight?” Zeb asked.
Hera stopped writing, looked up from the paperwork and pursed her lips. Her son drummed his fingers against his thighs in anticipation.
“Sure,” she finally said.
Zeb pumped his fist in triumph. “Great! When?”
Hera glanced at the clock and then back down at the ream of papers.
“Give me ten minutes?”
“Really?” Zeb brightened, but then rubbed the back of his neck, to hide his enthusiasm. “I mean, it can be later, if that works better for you.”
“No, it’ll have to be soon, I’ve got that thing tonight,” Hera shook her head.
“Oh,” Zeb said, deflating a bit. “Right.”
Desperately curious, Kanan forced himself not to pry.
“Alright. Ten minutes,” Zeb said, and left the room. Kanan heard the pen click that signified Hera had returned to the exams, but was too intrigued by the conversation to let it go.
“Driving, huh?” He remarked from the sink. “How’s that going?”
“Good,” Hera said. “Terrifying.”
Kanan chuckled. “They grow up so fast.”
“Hm, yeah,” she murmured. Her pen clicked again, as Hera returned to her work without giving the remark any further thought. Kanan, on the other hand, was giving it a dangerous amount. The phrase had slipped out—they grow up so fast—but now it ricocheted through his mind like a gunshot.
What had he been thinking, saying something like that? He’d known them for what, a month? What perspective of his warranted a comment that was so intimate, so familial? Had he kids of his own, he might have been able to slide by on the precept of identifying with her, but that wasn’t the case.
The simple turn of phrase, seemingly innocuous, was a harsh reminder that they weren’t his kids. He could live with them, clean up after them, color with them and watch their soccer games, but they weren’t his, no matter how strongly he pretended and no matter how badly he wanted them to be. He was, and always would be, an outsider looking in. A tenant. Their tenant, maybe, but a tenant all the same.
It had been a nice delusion—going out for ice cream, carrying lawn chairs across a soccer field, coming home after a long day to noise, and bustle, and smells—but it was just that. He was here to crash while his own apartment was being repaired, not fall in love. Sure, Hera had quickly squashed any nascence of that in the strictest sense, but he’d found himself falling for everything she encompassed—namely, life with a family.
Kanan had never thought of himself as a family man, hardly even a relationship man. It seemed too late for him in that department. But now that he’d been exposed to it, to the warmth and laughter and joy that children could bring, his former life seemed cold and empty, a mere shell of what it could be.
The repairs on his apartment had ended last week. The email had sat in his inbox, unanswered, for days now. He could move back in whenever he wanted to, and yet, there wasn’t so much as an iota of him that ever wanted to return to that place, which had stopped seeming like home and instead become the embodiment of his pre-Syndulla life: lonely, quiet and dull.
There were, thankfully, five months left in the lease he’d signed with her—that gave him time, before he had to take any action, but Kanan was struck by the sensation of looking far, far down the road he’d traveled to get here. Where would he be, when the lease was up? Did they need him as badly as he needed them?
He could continue living with them, continue being a part of their lives, but the center could only hold for so long. The thought depressed him so that he realized he’d spent the last ten minutes with his hands floating in dishwater, not washing a thing.
“Kanan, Zeb and I are going to practice driving for a while.”
He blinked, startled, and his hands twitched, sloshing soap around the sink. Hera had spoken up behind him. “Would you mind keeping an eye on the kids?” She continued.
“Huh?” He shook his head abruptly, trying to clear it. “Um, yeah, sure, no problem.”
Her phrasing only compounded his misery—no, he wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on the kids. They weren’t his, after all, therefore it was a favor, rather than an implicit responsibility.
Never had Kanan so desperately craved implicit responsibility.
She was eyeing him. “You alright?”
“Yeah.” He shook his head again, as if it were an Etch-a-Sketch, and that would erase the gloom. “Yeah, just thinking.”
“Dangerous stuff, thinking.” She gave a wry grin. He halfheartedly chuckled, but Kanan had dug himself too deeply into misery to find any amusement. He continued with the dishes after they left, keeping his hands busy while his mind battled itself, and felt even more restless when he finished than when he’d started. Kanan wrung the towel for a few moments and bounced up and down on his toes. Ezra and Sabine were playing together upstairs, but he knew that finding them would only compound his heartache.
Eventually Zeb and Hera returned. Kanan practically jumped up from the table, he was so grateful to be distracted.
“How was driving?”
“He’s getting good,” Hera smiled, with a rueful shake of her head. Zeb beamed as he passed by, and Hera reclaimed her spot at the table grading papers.
Kanan cleared his throat. “Hey, I’ve got some work to finish at the garage,” he said, only just realizing that he’d made the decision to leave as he said it. “Need anything while I’m out?”
“No, thanks,” Hera shook her head. She was already engrossed in the exams, so Kanan slipped out. He headed toward his garage, but at the last moment, passed it, driving aimlessly for miles until the sun had set. He had always done his best thinking on an open road.
Eventually, his fuel light blinked at him, interrupting his reverie. Kanan sighed and turned the car around, heading for the gas station closest to the house. As he filled the truck’s tank, a bar down the road caught his eye, and the thought that he could use a drink came with it.
He hadn’t realized how much time had passed since he’d left. It was almost ten, and the bar was in full swing—the barstools were the only available seats, which suited him just fine. Servers were dashing between the customers and tables like bees in a hive.
“Be right with you sir!” The waiter who’d called it was moving too fast for Kanan to pinpoint, so he waved his hand in the general direction the sound had come from, as if to say no rush.
A few minutes later, a waitress, or really, a tall stack of dishes with legs, came his way. She, a brunette, he realized, when her back was turned to him, set the pile down on the counter opposite the bar. The woman shook her hands out and finally spun around, to give him a bright smile.
“Hi, what can I get for y—”
She froze, her smile as familiar as it was fading, without another word. For a second, Kanan wondered if his brooding had been powerful enough to impose itself on reality, but there she was.
“Hera?” He gaped.
“Kanan?” If his expression was half as shocked as hers, he figured his eyes had left their sockets. They stared at each other like ghosts who had met again in the afterlife.
Hera was the first to recover, as she always was, and managed to close her mouth and run a hand through her hair. She blew out air in a manner that tried its hardest to be a laugh.
“Wha…” She shook her head and gripped the sides of the counter. “What are you doing here?” Hera was trying to keep her expression neutral, but her fingers were twitching.
He couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows and gesture to the bar between them. “I think I could ask you the same question.”
Her lips formed a thin line, and she answered carefully. “I work here.”
He held back a snort, and made a vague gesture at the logo on her t-shirt instead. “I can see that.”
Hera drummed her fingers on the counter and pursed her lips. Her eyes searched everywhere in the bar but his face.
“I’m sorry, it’s crazy here tonight.” She cut him off. “Can we talk about this when I get back?”
Her bluntness left no room for debate. Still trying to process everything, he managed to nod.
“Okay,” Kanan said, slowly rising from the stool. “I’ll see you then.”
He walked out of the bar needing that drink much more than he had walking in. Kanan drove automatically, still trying to process what had happened. When he arrived, the house was dark and quiet, but Chopper rushed down the stairs and met him, barking crazily at the door.
“Shh, buddy, it’s just me,” Kanan whispered, kneeling to scratch the dog’s ears. Chopper gave a wary growl, and sniffed him a few times, then quieted. Appeased, he wandered back upstairs, leaving Kanan to wait for Hera on the couch.
She came in after midnight, softly shutting the door behind her. He stood up to greet her, and turned on the lights in the kitchen so that they gave the room a soft glow.
“Hey,” Kanan started. She put a finger to her lips, gestured upstairs, and motioned with her hand for him to follow her into the garage. He nodded.
“Sorry,” she said. He was relieved to find Hera calm, if maybe worn-out. “I didn’t want to wake the kids up.”
“Do they know?” Kanan asked. There were other questions he’d been planning to ask her, all carefully formulated so as not to provoke offense, but the query slipped out once she mentioned the kids (in his defense, it was nearly one in the morning).
“Zeb knows,” Hera said. “He’s comfortable staying home alone.”
“How long have you been working there?” He asked. The question was more for his own sake; Kanan, sleeping on the ground floor, was disturbed that he’d never heard her come in or out. Even Chopper, he realized with a miffed feeling, made a better security guard than him.
Hera just shrugged. “A while.”
She was being vague, but not frigid, which was a better situation than he’d expected.
“Why, um…” His carefully composed list of questions long gone, Kanan shifted from foot to foot.
Hera arched an eyebrow, and her gaze, though weary, was penetrating.
“Why?” He finally asked.
She shrugged again. “Teaching doesn’t support a family of four.”
Though it was the most obvious one, her answer still blew him away. “Hera, if it’s a money issue, let me help—”
“You do help.” Her tone went from evasive to sharp in an instant. “You pay your rent.”
“That’s not what I meant—”
“I know what you meant.” Hera folded her arms. “And I don’t need charity.”
His mouth opened but then hung that way, without a word coming out. Hera watched him, her eyes hard as crystal.
“I…” Feeling trapped under her gaze, he finally stammered, “Hera—”
“I can do this on my own.”
Her arms folded, she stared him down with the harsh certainty of someone who had known, lived, and spoken those words for years. Kanan didn’t know what to say. Hera had always been forward about defining their relationship, but he’d never seen her speak so strongly. His eyes held her, his mouth slightly open, and eventually, she sighed. A fraction of the severity sagged from her stance.
“I… appreciate that you’ve become a part of our lives,” Hera said carefully. “The kids like you, and I do too.”
This relieved him greatly, but she wasn’t done.
“But leave it at that, Kanan.” Hera’s voice took on the hard glint once more. “Don’t get entangled with us. Please.” Her eyes seemed to be begging him, speaking volumes more than just her words. “Professional, platonic, partnership, remember?”
Kanan was just as bewildered as he’d been when they started the conversation, but so far, everything she’d done had carried a hidden plea that he let the matter go.
He gave in, and sighed. “I remember.”
She exhaled, and a sliver of her exhaustion slipped out. “Good.”
He watched her for a change, a softening of her stance, that didn’t come.
“Goodnight, Kanan.” She reached to open the door.
She turned back and looked at him with weary eyes that made him swallow the words on his tongue, knowing that she would turn down anything he offered.
Kanan cleared his throat. “Goodnight.”
He hardly slept that night. He didn’t sleep in the next day, as he knew that breaking their morning routine would send a message, but dragging himself out of bed was painful. When he trudged into the kitchen, Sabine and Ezra were eating at the breakfast bar, Zeb was unloading the dishwasher, and Hera was prepping something in the crockpot. Sabine saw him first.
“Good morning Mr. Kanan,” she sang. “Want some coffee? You look like you could use it.”
“Sabine,” Hera scolded.
“What?” Sabine shrugged and danced over to the coffeepot to fill a mug for Kanan. “’S true.”
Hera gave Kanan an apologetic look, and he shrugged with a rueful smile. She smiled back, but it quickly faded, and she returned to her work with increased vigor. He tried to conceal his disappointment.
“Did you have a nightmare, Mr. Kanan?” Ezra asked from the breakfast bar. “It’s okay if you did. I get them all the time.”
Hera frowned and reached over her work to rub his back, while Kanan shook his head.
“No, just didn’t sleep well, bud,” he replied. Sabine handed him his coffee. “You are an angel,” he told her. She snickered and flounced back to her breakfast.
Kanan took a seat at the table and yawned. “Any big plans today, guys?”
“No, but next week I’m going on my field trip,” Ezra said.
“That’s exciting,” Kanan said. “Where is it, again?”
“The county zoo,” Ezra replied. “We get to see the dolphin show!”
“Very cool,” Kanan chuckled.
“Ezra, eat up, love, or we’re going to be late,” Hera chimed in.
“Right, sorry.” Ezra turned back to his bowl. Soon, Hera was nudging the kids out the door, but she turned over her shoulder before slipping out herself.
Their eyes met, and she hesitated in the doorframe. Kanan raised his hand in a nonchalant wave that belied his anxiously churning stomach.
“I’ll see you later,” he said, and offered his best reassuring smile as a peacemaking gesture, in the hope that she would return it.
She nodded, and then slowly smiled, both with gratitude and relief. “See you later.”
Kanan went to the garage feeling lighter, but now the issue, rather than their dispute about it, hung heavily in the back of his mind.
Hera worked two jobs.
It was becoming less and less surprising, the more thought he gave it. Hera was a single mother supporting three kids and a mortgage on a teacher’s salary. She was also driven, protective of her children, and fiercely independent, so it seemed all too logical that she would take on a second job, sacrificing her own time, sleep, and stars knew what else in the process.
He was still miffed that he hadn’t heard her leaving at night, and disappointed that she refused his help—Kanan wasn’t exorbitantly wealthy, but the garage did well, and he certainly had more to his name than a childless bachelor needed. Hera and her family were more than deserving, especially considering all the light they’d brought into his life, but Hera had made it clear that his monetary support was not to be accepted or offered.
He was torn—he didn’t want to insult her, but he couldn’t sit back and do nothing. Not after everything they’d done for him.
Kanan had thought he understood the Syndullas’ nightly routine. Ezra and Sabine, being fifth graders, were in bed at 8:30. When he’d first met them, he hadn’t understood how Hera managed to keep up with the tireless twins twenty-four hours a day, and she’d confided in him that the early bedtime was a blessing. Zeb, older and lower-maintenance, usually went upstairs around ten.
That left Kanan and Hera. His first week in the house, he’d foolishly hoped that the hour of the night would be his in with her— he envisioned them sitting at the table, talking, drinking wine, maybe even watching a movie together. Hera was either oblivious to this plan or purposely evading it; if she was still downstairs, it was always because she was working. He felt too strange, sitting around or watching TV while she worked at the table, so Kanan had found himself retiring earlier than usual (as much as he wanted to strike up a conversation, he didn’t want to distract her (or worse, in Hera’s eyes, come off as flirtatious)).
After adding it all up, it made sense that he hadn’t noticed her leaving so late, but he was still disappointed by how oblivious he’d been. Kanan knew it would make Hera roll her eyes, but he liked to think that sleeping on the first floor made him the first line of defense, in case something happened.
(Knowing Hera, she would probably have an intruder tied up and knocked out before he could even throw a t-shirt on, but hey, he could dream.)
He stuck to routine that night, but instead of putting on Netflix when he retired early, Kanan sat on the edge of his bed and waited until he heard Hera leave for the bar. He forced himself to wait five minutes, counting each painful second, and then jumped in his truck to follow her.
Thankfully, business was slow. Plenty of seats were open, including the barstools, which were his target. Kanan watched Hera serve a patron and then sat down in what he hoped was her area. This time, she noticed him instantly.
“Kanan,” she stated. He couldn’t tell if she sounded surprised, or like she was bracing herself. Kanan hoped for the former.
“Hey,” he said, trying to smile. If he succeeded, she didn’t return it.
“I realized I never got a drink last night,” he said lightheartedly. Hera’s lips didn’t so much as twitch, and she lifted her arms to cross them, but then settled for placing them on her hips.
He bit his lip and leaned forward. “Look, Hera, we don’t have to talk about it—”
“Perfect,” she said sharply. “Let’s not.” Her posture was stiff, unyielding, and he sighed.
“I just… I feel like we got off on the wrong foot, about this.” Kanan gestured between the two of them. “It’s none of my business where or when you work, and I’m sorry if I acted otherwise. As a tenant, I overstepped my boundaries.”
He held his breath until Hera softened her stance. With a deep breath, her hands came off her hips, and rested on the bar between them. Kanan gave her a hopeful look.
“You are more than just a tenant, you know,” she finally said. His heart just about leapt into his throat with joy.
Maybe he was imagining it, but her lips held a hint of an apologetic smile.
“We’ve… kind of integrated you,” Hera said. “I understand why you thought it was your place to help. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer about drawing that line.”
Her tone shifted, and the last sentence stung, but not enough to strip the warmth from the first one. Kanan jumped to salvage it.
“I like being integrated,” he said. “The soccer games, the busy mornings, the meals… It’s been a lot of fun.” He gave a sheepish smile that finally got her to confess a wisp of her own. Kanan leaned forward before the moment could slip away. “But, if there’s ever anything I can do, besides attending a soccer game, I really hope you’ll let me know.” He looked into her eyes with sincerity. “I care about you guys.”
Hera stared back at him, motionless for the briefest of seconds. Then her throat bobbed as she swallowed. “I know.”
Her eyes drifted down to the countertop, and he shifted in his seat. She spoke before he could.
“Why are you here, Kanan?”
It wasn’t a defensive question, rather, there was almost a curiosity to it.
He cleared his throat. “Like I said. I feel like we got off on the wrong foot about this. I figured I should give it another shot.”
Her eyes were still narrowed doubtfully.
“From now on, I’ll be the same as any other customer,” he added.
“You mean you’re going to hit on me,” she said dryly. The quip, and the nascent smirk on her face, gave him hope. Kanan spun theatrically around on the barstool and came to face her anew, an outrageously lewd grin on his face.
“Hey.” He bounced his eyebrows at her. “Come here often?”
Hera snorted, and covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing. He shifted his pose, propping his chin up on his elbow and batting his eyes at her.
“Tell me, did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”
She rolled her eyes, but it didn’t hide a growing smile. “You’re lucky I’m getting paid right now.”
He smirked. “Well, I hope this conversation doesn’t hurt as much as it did when I scraped my knee falling for you.”
Hera laughed out loud and then bit her lip to hold it in, glancing at the bar around them. Her gaze came back to him with a soft smile. “Not bad. You’re quick.”
“Thank you.” Kanan leaned back, puffing out his chest. “I’d be even quicker taking off that uniform.”
“Ooh…” She crinkled her nose and shook her head.
“Too far?” He winced.
“Too far,” Hera nodded, but she was smiling. “Maybe I should shut you up with a drink.”
He grinned back. “I think that’s an excellent idea.”
He knew going back to the bar had been the right decision, both driving home that night and waking up the next morning. Hera seemed completely at ease with him, as she whisked around the kitchen making breakfasts and checking homework.
“Mom, can you sign the permission slip for next week’s field trip?” Ezra asked.
Hera was pouring food into Chopper’s bowl. “Sure,” she nodded, scratching the dog’s ears. Chopper gave a happy yelp before digging in, and Hera met Ezra at the table. He slid the form across.
“There’s a box at the bottom for the parents who want to be chaperones,” the boy added, looking up at her hopefully. Hera pulled a pen from behind her ear with a smile that was already resigned.
“I don’t know, Ez—”
“Please?” Ezra’s eyes were wide and entreating. “Mr. Anderson says that if we don’t get enough chaperones, we might not be able to go!”
Sabine was watching the exchange closely; Hera remembered a similar conversation with her daughter just a month earlier. She chose her words carefully.
“I’m sure your class has plenty of parents who are willing to go—”
“I want you to be willing to go,” Ezra said. There was a hopeful sadness in his eyes. “Just once.”
Even though his mouth was pushing on, her son already seemed like he’d given up. Hera sighed, and not from exasperation.
“Ezra,” she said, “You know I’m always willing to go, it’s just that I can’t. I only have so many days off work, and I have to save them in case there’s an emergency.” She glanced at her daughter, hoping for support. “It was the same way when Sabine had the field trip.”
Sabine nodded sympathetically, and Zeb came over and rubbed Ezra’s shoulder. “It’s nothing personal, bud. You know that.”
Ezra sank down in his seat. “I know,” he mumbled. “It would just be cool to know one of the chaperones, for once.”
Kanan, who’d been awkwardly silent through the exchange, surprised himself by speaking up. “I could go with you.”
All four heads in the room turned to him, with expressions ranging from dubious to overjoyed.
“You could?” Ezra was grinning so wide, Kanan thought his jaw might unhinge.
“You could?” Sabine was indignant.
“You could?” Zeb raised an eyebrow.
Hera was looking at Kanan with intrigue. Thoughtfully, she placed her hands on her hips and cocked her head. “You could.”
Ezra turned his excited grin towards his mother. “Really, Mom?”
Hera shrugged. “I don’t see why not. As long as Kanan’s okay with it.” Zeb gave an exasperated shrug and shook his head, lumbering back to the sink.
“I’d be happy to,” Kanan said, grinning at Ezra.
“No fair!” Sabine exclaimed. She looked between her mother and brother indignantly. “Mr. Kanan didn’t chaperone my field trip!”
“Sweetie, we met him the night before,” Hera held back a laugh. She and Kanan exchanged a look of concealed amusement.
“Still,” Sabine pouted, putting her hands on her hips.
“I’ll chaperone your next one,” Kanan squatted down in front of her and held out his pinky. “Promise.”
Sabine locked pinkies with him. “You’d better.”
Kanan made sure to help Hera with the dishes that night.
“Hey, I hope I’m not overstepping, with this whole field trip thing.” The kids were somewhere in the house, so he kept his voice low.
“It… is a little strange,” Hera admitted, passing him a plate. “But I know it would mean a lot to Ezra, and that’s what matters.” She submerged her hands in the dishwater again. “I hate that I can’t do that stuff with them,” she murmured.
“I’m sure they understand,” he said, hoping to comfort her.
Hera chuckled dryly. “Zeb, maybe. Sabine and Ezra are still pretty young, but, I’m working on getting them to see things from the other person’s point of view.”
He paused, and gave her a sidelong glance. “You’re a really good mom, you know that?”
Hera faltered for a second, the only indication that he’d caught her off guard, but her hands quickly resumed their movement. “He said minutes after she ditched her son’s field trip?” She threw lightness into her voice, but it didn’t mask her doubt. Kanan saw right through the attempt to divert the praise, and he resisted the urge to nudge her with his elbow. There were a few implied boundaries between them, largely ones that stemmed from their “professional, platonic, partnership,” and physical contact fell onto that list. Kanan would give the twins the occasional high-five, but he was more careful with her, getting the sense that if there were ever a need for contact, Hera would be the one to initiate it.
“I’m serious,” he said, wiping a plate. “You are.”
“Yeah, well, it’s hard to believe that when—”
“Hera.” He turned and kept his gaze on her until she begrudgingly met his eyes. “Just say thank you.” Kanan grinned.
Hera frowned, but eventually gave a resigned sigh and turned back to the sink. “Thank you.”
He couldn’t resist giving her a smirk. “You’re welcome.”
In the following week, the field trip was all Ezra could talk about, and Kanan made sure to spend plenty of time coloring with Sabine to make it up to her. He was still trying to read Zeb, who on a good day would pal around with Kanan, and maybe even talk about football, but on a bad one seemed entirely apathetic to his presence. He brought the capriciousness up to Hera once, and she couldn’t hold back a snicker when she explained the phenomenon in just six words.
“He is a teenager, you know.”
That week, he visited her at the bar once more. As he walked up, she gave him a knowing smile with only a hint of exasperation.
“This is going to become a thing, isn’t it?” Hera said dryly.
He smirked back. “Not every night.”
“Just every other?” She raised an eyebrow, but he could tell she was teasing.
Kanan settled into his barstool. “How often do you work here?” He asked.
Hera was folding towels. “I pick up a few shifts every week,” she said. “I try to stick to weeknights.”
Kanan nodded. “When did you learn how to bartend?”
Hera chuckled. “I started doing it in college. All my friends always tried to score free drinks off me.”
He raised his eyebrows. “And did you let them?”
“What do you think?” There was a twinkle in her eye; it was a challenge. He brought a hand to his chin in thought and stared at her contemplatively, and Hera tried not to shy away under his brooding gaze.
“You seem like you have a pretty strong moral compass,” Kanan finally said. “I’m going to say no.”
Hera smiled. “You got me.”
“Wow. Not even one free drink.” He shook his head and smirked. “You must not have had many friends.”
Hera’s jaw dropped in mock offense, and he gave her a wolfish grin. She rolled her eyes and went to serve another customer at the bar. Kanan chuckled and returned to his drink, switching between watching her and the game that was playing on TV, waiting until she had another free moment.
When she passed by him with a tray of dirty glasses— he had learned to sit near the sink, so that he could talk to her while she worked— he caught her eye.
“What were you like as a kid?”
Hera paused to consider the question, and cocked her head. “What do you mean?”
“Just trying to make conversation,” he shrugged. She nodded, and bent her head to wash the glasses.
“I was… serious,” Hera finally said, without turning away from her task. “My mother died when I was fairly young, and my father expected a lot of me.” She looked up and gave a wistful smile. “I think I grew up a little too fast.”
“You lost your mother too?” He asked. She nodded. “You didn’t mention it earlier.”
Hera gave an honest, not indifferent, shrug. “I didn’t want to take away from you telling me,” she said.
He nodded appreciatively. “How old were you?” Kanan asked.
“Eleven,” she said. Hera didn’t give him time to pity her, or grimace an apology, for losing her mother so young. “You?”
“Twenty,” he replied.
A short silence passed before he spoke again.
“You miss her?”
Hera rinsed a glass under the water, choosing her answer carefully. “Some days more than others.”
Kanan nodded. “Me too.”
She looked up and gave him a quiet smile, which he returned. The chatter from their fellow barmates rose around them like a bubble, and before he could speak again, a woman at the end of the bar waved her hand, and Hera was gone. The bar was crowded, and it was nearly an hour before she passed him again.
“Busy night?” He called after her. She just gave him a grin and a rueful shake of her head as she darted by. Kanan liked watching her work—in the least lecherous, least chauvinistic way possible, Hera was great at what she did, and it was fun to watch her thrive, darting back and forth as smoothly as a fish in a stream, serving, to indulge the cliché, with a smile. Not that she needed any help in the department, but he was weirdly proud that she got to have a social hour: talking and laughing with the bargoers, rather than her students or kids. Hera’s boundless energy, even after a full day of work and motherhood, never ceased to impressed him. He stuck around until the bar was quiet and shutting down, and she eventually sidled her way back to him.
“What about your father?” Kanan surprised himself with the boldness of this question. “If I may ask,” he added quickly.
Hera was rinsing out glasses in front of him. She paused, pursed her lips and looked like she was weighing the words on her tongue. For a moment, he was worried she wouldn’t answer, and when she finally spoke, the answer trickled out slow, like she was testing every word of it.
“My father and I haven’t always seen eye to eye.”
He raised his eyebrows, intrigued. “Oh?”
“It’s nothing dramatic,” she sighed. “I grew up in a really small town, you know, only one main street, everyone knows everyone type of place. In some ways, I loved the community of it, but I knew I couldn’t spend my whole life there.”
“You needed something bigger,” Kanan inferred. Hera nodded.
“He was the town mayor, so he wasn’t always around when I grew up. Most of our time together was out at community gatherings, when we had our public, happy-family faces on, so we never really got to know each other the way a father and daughter should. For him, the town came before our family,” she said. Hera took a deep breath and let it out slow, like it was heavy. “Even when my mother died.”
Kanan’s eyes softened with sympathy.
She went on to say, “He wasn’t a bad father, not by any means. I think we just grieved for her differently. We weren’t as close as we should have been before, and losing her only drove us further apart.” Hera gave a melancholy half-shrug, like her shoulders couldn’t quite lift away the burden. “He shut down, and I wanted to open up.”
“I’m sorry,” Kanan said, and he meant it. He knew he’d reopened a wound that was as old as it was deep.
“When I… left home to teach—” There was the briefest pause in her speech before Hera continued— “He wasn’t exactly thrilled. I think he expected me to follow in his footsteps.” A tiny, dry chortle escaped her. “He’s met the kids a few times, but, we don’t really keep in touch. I kind of lost him when I lost my mom.” Hera bit her lip and looked down at the counter. When she looked up, she wore a watery smile that didn’t fool either of them.
“You always see parents coming in and rallying, when their daughters have a baby,” she said softly. “It would have been nice to have mine.”
Kanan was overcome with the urge to reach out and squeeze her hand. His fingers made it halfway across the bar counter before he pulled back, but she seemed to understand the significance of the gesture. He gave her a sympathetic smile and hoped it was enough, and the way her eyes met his, looking shy and a little sad but also warm and grateful, told him it was.
If the world had ended right then, and his last moments were spent sharing this beautifully intimate gaze with this beautifully mysterious woman, Kanan wouldn’t have minded.
“Well.” Hera broke the gaze first, shaking her head and shoulders as if cleaning their slate. She pushed the corners of her cheeks up in a self-abasing smile. “Enough about me, right?”
No such thing, he was tempted to say.
“What about your dad?” She asked.
“Never met him,” Kanan said. He’s spoken those words a hundred times, always accompanying them with a casual tone and a shrug, but he couldn’t summon that nonchalance here. Kanan felt a new sadness weighing them down, like Hera could see right through the indifference with which he always answered this question, like her presence had cracked open the wound he’d told himself was sealed shut long ago.
Her eyes were soft and warm with sympathy. “I’m so sorry.”
Kanan couldn’t handle the sincerity of that gaze, so he forced a shrug. “My mom always said that three’s a crowd.”
He figured Hera was too smart to fall for the blasé act, and the thin-lipped look on her face proved him right. “Do you ever wonder about him?”
Kanan was about to shrug again, when something stopped him. Hera had just opened up and told him everything—the least he could do was be honest with her.
“I did a lot, when I was a kid,” he admitted. “My mom was never shy about it. The way she tells it, they were dating, and when she told him she was pregnant, he fled.”
“But she never told it like I was an accident, even though I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what happened. In her words, I was the “surprise she’d wanted her whole life.”” Kanan felt his cheeks heat up at admitting it, but he couldn’t help the smile that came with. “She always made sure I knew that she wanted to keep me.”
Hera was smiling too. “She sounds wonderful.”
“She was awesome,” Kanan chuckled. “She was this tiny, unassuming Hispanic woman, but a total badass. When she ran the garage, people would bring in their cars thinking she was the accountant, or something, and then she would pull out a wrench and start working right there, just to see the looks on their faces.”
Hera grinned, and Kanan had a warm, wistful smile on his face, too.
“There was this one time, when a stray cat got into the garage, and she chased it out with a welding torch,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ll never forget the way she looked, running around like a crazy person, wielding a tool that was almost as big as she was. I was only five at the time, but I remember watching her and just thinking that she could do anything.”
Hera’s amused grin encouraged him to say more.
“I actually feel closest to her at the garage,” he admitted, his voice less humorous and more reflective. “Changing out a part, holding a wrench… It’s like I can still hear her voice, cursing in Spanish that I’m turning a bolt too tight.”
Hera chuckled. “You must miss her,” she said softly. He knew, by the look in her eyes, that it was the first time he was hearing those words from someone who understood.
“Like you said,” Kanan nodded. “Some days more than others.”
She smiled at him, and the air between them was steady and alive as a living thing. He felt immensely connected to her in that moment, like threads of energy were strung between their souls, conducting the same spark of electricity. Hera held his gaze, her eyes warm and kind and radiating a sincere empathy, rooted in the understanding they shared.
His chest was tight in the best way, like he didn’t have room to hold this feeling any more than his mind had words to describe it, and he felt his attraction to her strengthening, solidifying, catalyzing into something far more earnest and heartfelt than puppy love.
He should have been terrified at falling so fast and hard, but in that moment, she was as radiant as the sun, blocking out everything else in the sky.
The day of the field trip had arrived. They’d be returning to school late, so Kanan drove Ezra in his truck, much to the younger boy’s delight.
“This is so much cooler than Mom’s car,” he said, wide-eyed in the passenger’s seat. Kanan just chuckled. When they entered Ezra’s classroom, a swarm of fifth graders, all running, laughing, and talking a mile a minute, were buzzing in the classroom. Ezra looked to them, and then to Kanan, a longing in his eyes.
Kanan chuckled. “Go on.” He motioned at Ezra’s backpack. “Here, let me carry that.”
Ezra slipped out of the straps faster than a jailbird out of handcuffs and disappeared into the horde. Kanan tried to keep his eyes on him, but after a few minutes of fruitless searching, he started to doubt his own ability to be a chaperone. Thankfully, Hera appeared—she’d planned to meet them in Ezra’s classroom before her own classes started, to introduce him to the teacher and other parents. An older gentleman walked up with her.
“Mr. Anderson, this is Kanan,” Hera introduced. “He’s a family friend.”
Ezra’s teacher, who was old enough to be a grandparent, but had a youthful brightness in his eyes, smiled and extended his hand.
“Nice to meet you. Call me Harold,” he said. Kanan was about to reply when Ezra darted up, appearing out of nowhere.
“You can call him Mr. Kanan,” he informed his teacher. “That’s what we all do.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Anderson raised a bushy white eyebrow and chuckled, sharing a glance with Kanan. Ezra nodded and dashed off to join his friends once again.
“Well, Kanan, thanks for joining us today. It looks like we’re going to need all the help we can get.” The teacher checked his watch. “And thank you for finding us another chaperone, Hera. I don’t want to make you late for your class.”
Hera waved a hand dismissively. “First hour high school physics? My kids will be late anyway.”
Anderson chuckled. “No they won’t.” Then he turned to Kanan and stage-whispered, “Hera here rules with an iron fist.”
“Hey,” Hera laughed, and pretended to be offended.
“I’m kidding,” Anderson assured them. “The students love her. We’re lucky to have her at Alliance.”
“Harold.” Hera rolled her eyes to mask a blush.
“Alright, alright,” He held up his hands. “You run along. Ezra will be fine.”
As if he’d heard his name, Ezra emerged from the sea of boys. Kanan, who had been trying and failing to track him once again, was relieved to see he was still there. He ran over, and Hera knelt to meet him in a hug.
“Bye, love,” she said, ruffling his hair. “Have fun. Be good for Kanan.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Ezra saluted, and then he was gone, leaving Kanan and Mr. Anderson. Kanan was trying to think of something to say when the older man spoke up.
“Ezra’s very bright, you know,” Anderson said.
Kanan was a little confused, but he nodded.
“And he loves animals. He’s been waiting for this field trip all month.” Anderson chuckled. “Just wait until you hear everything he’s learned about the monkeys.”
The teacher hadn’t been exaggerating—Ezra seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of not just the monkeys, but every animal in the zoo. Kanan knew that Chopper slept in the boy’s room every night, so it was no surprise that he liked animals, but Ezra’s acumen was far greater than that of an ordinary pet lover. As they moved from habitat to habitat, he spouted facts like a fountain, and the genuine enthusiasm he had for sharing the information kept Kanan amused, rather than annoyed.
“See that bird in the crocodile’s mouth? I read about it with my mom. It’s a sym… symbee… something relationship,” Ezra frowned, struggling over the word.
“Symbiotic?” Kanan guessed.
“Yeah!” Ezra lit up like Kanan had guessed the winning Powerball numbers. “A symbiotic relationship!”
Even a few other kids a clung close to hear what Ezra had to say. It was fun for Kanan, watching him in the school setting. Though it wasn’t his place, it made him proud to see that Ezra was friendly with everyone in his class, playing and laughing with the other boys. The kid was so happy— all of them were, really. Kanan wondered what stage of life it was, when kids started to lose that unfailing optimism, and hoped that Ezra would never reach it.
Adolescence, he heard Hera’s voice teasing in his mind, and couldn’t help but smirk.
“Mr. Kanan, what are you smiling at?” Ezra asked. Kanan’s cheeks went hot.
“Okay, kids, we’re going to stop here for lunch!”
The class had meandered through the exhibits until noon, and had arrived one of the zoo’s outdoor cafes.
“Alright, Ezra, what sounds good?” Kanan clapped his hands together and appraised the animal-decorated menu. “We’ve got hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, mini corn dogs—”
“Mini corn dogs?!” Ezra’s eyes went cartoon-character wide, but after a glance at the backpack on Kanan’s shoulders, his face fell. “Oh, um, that’s okay,” the boy mumbled, his eyes shifting to the ground. “Mom packed me a lunch.”
“Hm,” Kanan frowned thoughtfully. “We wouldn’t want to let that go to waste.”
“No,” Ezra shook his head glumly. “Mom hates when we waste food.”
Kanan rubbed his chin. “You know…” he began slowly, “The lunch is in this backpack, right?”
Ezra gave him a confused look. “Right.”
“And I’m the one who’s been carrying it all day, right?”
Ezra hadn’t quite caught on yet. “Right…”
“So really, isn’t it my lunch?” Kanan raised his eyebrows and gave Ezra a slow, encouraging nod. The boy’s face brightened.
“Yeah…” The smile spread on his face like a speedometer of comprehension. “Yeah, it is!”
“So, if I have a lunch, and you don’t have a lunch…” Kanan continued, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. After he figured Ezra had been tortured long enough, he grinned, and spread his hands in a theatrical shrug. “Sounds like we should get you some mini corn dogs.”
Ezra was trying and failing to conceal an excited grin. He tried to look serious. “I guess we should,” he nodded. Kanan chuckled and pulled out his wallet.
After taking their order, the worker asked, “And would you like to add a snow cone to that for a dollar?”
Kanan knew the answer from the way Ezra immediately straightened up. “Why, yes we would,” he said. Ezra beamed up at him like a pint-sized ray of sunlight.
They found a free bench amidst the chaos of thirty fifth graders on a lunch break, and sat down; Ezra with his snow cone, and Kanan holding the tray of mini corn dogs.
“You know, you’d better eat that first, so it doesn’t melt,” he pointed to Ezra’s cone.
Ezra looked up at him with awe. “Mr. Kanan, you’re the coolest.”
Kanan leaned in and winked conspiratorially. “Don’t tell your Mom.”
Ezra knit his brow. “Don’t tell her you’re the coolest?”
Kanan opened his mouth, but decided against it. “You know, never mind.”
He pulled the backpack open and rummaged around for the lunchbox.
“Dang, Ezra, two sandwiches?” Kanan raised his eyebrows. “Nice!” The lunch also included apple slices, peanut butter, carrot sticks, hummus, a box of raisins and two granola bars. Kanan was almost embarrassed to admit how good the homemade lunch looked (especially compared to his days of Poptart PB and J).
Ezra shrugged and licked his cone. “Mom says I’m too skinny.”
Kanan cocked his head. Ezra had never struck him as skinny—a little on the lanky side, maybe, but not undernourished.
Ezra must have noticed his puzzlement, because he went on to say, “She just worries, ‘cause I didn’t get enough to eat when I was younger.”
“Huh.” The statement required more thought than Kanan had time to give it, as Ezra finished his snow cone and reached for the mini corn dogs.
Kanan shook his head. “No, thanks, buddy.”
“Can I have the raisins?” Ezra asked.
“Sure.” Kanan passed them over. “Want to split the carrot sticks?”
Ezra dipped a corn dog in ketchup and popped it in his mouth. “Nah.”
Kanan chuckled. “Maybe we’ll find some bunnies to feed them to.”
“Mr. Kanan, you can’t do that,” Ezra protested, but he was grinning.
“Sure you can,” Kanan shrugged. “You just stick ‘em through the fence.”
“Mr. Kanan!” Ezra covered his hand with his mouth, holding in crumbs and laughter. Kanan couldn’t help but egg him on.
“Trust me, the bunnies love it.”
Ezra, laughing breathlessly now, had both hands up, but crumbs sprayed out all the same.
After lunch, they headed to the dolphin show. Kanan was joking around a bit with Ezra, but once the show started, it completely captivated the boy’s attention. Kanan watched too, and reflected on his day with Ezra. He was lost in his musings when one of the other chaperones, a mother with expensive-looking hair, scooted over to him.
“So,” she began, her voice low. Kanan blinked in surprise; then wondered how he hadn’t known she was coming by the strength of her perfume.
“We’re all just dying to know.” The woman cast a conspiratorial glance back at her companions, and then turned it on him, her eyes as dark and mischievous. “Are you and Hera together?”
Kanan had been waiting for that question to come all day, so he just chuckled and shook his head. “No. I’m just a tenant.”
“But you’re here with Ezra,” the woman pressed. Her eyebrows were arched up, creating inquisitive wrinkles in an otherwise Botox-smooth forehead. “I’ve seen you at his soccer games, too. Surely that means something, doesn’t it?”
Kanan felt a flash of annoyance; who was this woman? He concealed his discomfort with a shrug. “Ezra’s a great kid. I guess you could say I’ve gotten close with the family.”
She clearly wasn’t any more satisfied with his prevarication than he was with her prying, but Kanan kept his lips firmly shut. He didn’t want to be rude, but he was starting to understand Hera’s reservations about bringing him to that soccer game. This town was smaller than he’d thought.
The woman’s mouth was a tight line, like she was trying to smile but wanted to frown.
“I’m sure you heard about what happened with her husband,” she said finally, like a fisherman putting his final bait on the hook. She’d caught his interest, but Kanan refused to let her know it.
“Nope.” He shook his head. “Hasn’t come up.”
“Oh.” The mother feigned surprised and pursed her shiny lips. “Well, it’s not really my place to…” She trailed off, but fixed her gaze on him, sounding anything but uncertain.
“No, no, of course not,” Kanan shook his head and restrained an eye roll. He was more than curious about Hera’s husband, whom he was almost certain was an ex-husband, but he had higher standards than prying the truth from this gossip girl.
The woman was watching him closely, and Kanan waited resentfully for her to say more.
“Well.” She licked her lips and her expression shifted, and she pasted on a smile. “My name is Merilee, if you need anything. I’m Jason’s mom.”
He extended a perfunctory handshake and hoped she wouldn’t expect him to kiss her hand. “Kanan. Nice to meet you, Merilee.”
She gave a smile that reminded him less of a friend and more of a shark, and then slipped away. Kanan breathed in the fresh air and forced himself not to turn his head as he heard a flurry of whispering start up behind him, instead leaning forward to tap Ezra on the shoulder.
“Pretty cool show, huh?”
“The coolest,” Ezra said. He turned his eyes from the dolphins long enough to give Kanan a beaming grin, the kind that was warm enough to make him feel like he’d swallowed the sun.
They returned home in time for dinner, during which Sabine hid her jealousy over the field trip by treating Ezra with a thin veil of contempt; one that quickly vanished, once the pair started discussing the dolphin show (and after a reprimand from Hera). Kanan reiterated his promise to chaperone her next one, and then headed to the garage for a few hours to catch up on the work he’d put aside for the zoo. It was late when he came back, nearly nine, and he wondered if Hera might be at the bar.
He was pleasantly surprised to find her at the kitchen table, working with her laptop open.
“Hey,” she smiled.
“Hey,” Kanan nodded. He entered the room with the intention of passing through it, and letting her work undisturbed, but she spoke again.
“How’d it go today?” Hera asked. “I know we talked about it at dinner, but…”
He knew what she meant—if there was anything he hadn’t wanted to say in front of the kids, now was the time.
“It was great,” he assured her. “Really. Ezra and I both had a lot of fun.”
“Good,” Hera nodded. Her eyes drifted reluctantly back to the screen, but the question still seemed to hover in the air between them. He wracked his brain for more to give her.
“I, ah, met Merilee,” he said.
“Oh my God.” Hera looked up at him gravely. “I’m so sorry.”
Kanan snickered. “She’s… chatty,” he said, dropping into the chair across from her. Hera snorted. She closed her laptop and pushed it aside.
“You know how some people never really leave high school?” She cocked her head. “That’s Merrilee.”
Kanan chuckled. “No kidding.”
Hera’s gaze shifted, and then came back to him. “Did she…” She faltered, and hesitantly ran her tongue over her teeth. “She didn’t bother you or anything, I hope.” Hera’s voice masked the question beneath her words.
“No,” Kanan shook his head. “I mean, she asked if we were together, of course.”
He gave his most derisive snort and eye roll in the hope that it would convince her. He knew he’d breached the space between them that, for good reason, they kept tacitly untouched; Kanan just hoped she took it as a joke, rather than a subliminal message.
“Of course,” Hera shook her head and gave an eye roll of her own. He was relieved and saddened that she could brush the idea off so quickly. Kanan wasn’t trying to lie to himself anymore; he knew his interest in Hera ran deeper than platonic. He knew it was unrequited, too, but there was still a part of him that wondered, and it wasn’t encouraging that she’d scoffed so easily at something it took him serious mental effort to dismiss.
He shook the thoughts away—he’d be here for Hera in whatever way she needed him to.
Kanan cleared his throat. “You know,” he began, “After today, I get it.”
She cocked her head at him, curious. “Get what?”
“When I went to Ezra’s soccer game. How you felt,” Kanan said. “I get it.”
Hera’s face fell. “Kanan, you know I wasn’t upset about that—”
“I don’t mean about me.” He shook his head. “I mean about everyone else. I only had a taste of it today, but I can’t imagine what it’s like, having people breathing down your neck twenty-four seven.”
Hera let out an exhale that was too heavy to be a scoff. She opened her mouth and brought her hands back to her keyboard as if she were about to write the remark off, but then faltered, and looked up at him sharply.
His eyebrows raised with interest, as Hera folded her laptop shut.
“You know what?” She said. Her eyes were piercing. “It’s actually really frustrating.”
Kanan got the feeling that she was voicing something she’d harbored for years. He waved a hand forward and nodded, encouraging her to go on.
Hera was watching him carefully, like a pawn shop owner appraising a new find. “Do you… do you have a minute?” She asked.
He tried not to nod too eagerly. “I have all night.”
Hera’s lips quirked in a furtive smile. She rose from the table, returned with two glasses and a bottle of red wine, and poured. Sliding one glass toward him, she took a sip from her own and set it gingerly back down on the table.
“It’s like…” Hera took a deep breath. “Your family becomes one person short of functional, and suddenly everyone’s just circling around, waiting for you to slip.”
“Mm,” he nodded, taking a drink from his own glass.
“I mean, Merrilee’s bad, but at least she’s overt. Everyone else tries to mask it, you know? “And how are you, Hera? How are the kids doing?”” Hera mimicked, her expression scrunched with distaste. “I hate that question, that loaded how are you?” She rolled her eyes and took another drink. Kanan barely had a chance to reply.
“They think they’re so high and mighty,” Hera continued. “It’s not even that they want to help, you know? It’s that they want me to need it. Like they need proof that I can’t do everything they can on my own.”
The question about her husband was on the tip of his tongue, and Kanan had to bite his tongue to hold it in.
“You know, I missed one of Zeb’s football games last fall.” Hera lifted a finger. “One.” She lowered her hand to the table and shook her head. “It was all anybody could say to me for the next month.”
“God,” Kanan muttered.
“Oh, we missed you at the game last night, Hera,” she mimicked, throwing a lilt into her voice once again. “You know, all the other moms get a free pass to miss as much as they want, but me?” Hera shook her head. “It’s like the more you have on your plate, the more you’re expected to be there, to prove that having a job doesn’t mean you love your kids any less.”
Kanan frowned. “That’s twisted.”
Hera gave a sullen nod and took another sip of wine. She held it in her mouth for a moment before swallowing.
“Sometimes…” She started slowly and without meeting his eyes, tracing a circle on the table. “Sometimes I don’t even know if I do that stuff because I want to, or because I need to prove that I can.”
The words were raw. Kanan stared at her unblinkingly; the sheer honesty of her statement had floored him.
“Oh my God,” Hera clapped her hands over her mouth and let out a laugh. “I can’t believe I just said that out loud.” She looked back to him. “You must be horrified.”
“Hera,” Kanan leaned forward and started to shake his head, but she cut him off.
“I just…” Hera’s hands were a frenetic blur. “I love my kids, okay? I love them. I love watching their games, I love spending time with them, I love cooking, and playing, and coloring, and everything else that comes with being a mother.” Her voice was vehement. “There’s no ‘but’ at the end of that sentence.” Hera’s hands settled in solidarity with her words, and her eyes slipped down to the table.
Kanan looked at her closely. He raised an eyebrow.
Hera gave a laugh that halfway through became a sigh. She ran a finger around the rim of her glass.
“But… it’s hard.” She said it quietly, like it was a shameful secret. “It’s damn hard.”
He couldn’t stop the laugh that escaped his chest. Her eyes flashed up at him and her mouth dropped open, and he knew she felt more vulnerable than if he’d seen her naked and more violated than if he’d laughed at that, so he jumped to explain himself.
“Hera,” Kanan leaned forward, “If you didn’t think it was hard, I’d have you committed to a mental institution.”
Her defenses fell, and the smile cracked her face slowly, like a sunrise, and as it rose she burst into laughter. Kanan found himself laughing too, out of both amusement and relief, and soon they were caught up in each other’s mirth. He’d never seen Hera laugh so hard.
When the ruckus finally died down, she wiped a tear from her eye, grinning at him broadly, and Kanan couldn’t push his cheeks down from their jubilant glee.
“Well,” Hera finally said, taking a steadying breath. She lifted what was left of the wine in her glass. “To staying out of mental institutions.”
“Hear, hear,” Kanan echoed. Their glasses clinked, and they each downed the dregs, placing the empty cups back on the table with a satisfying thunk.
She was staring at him after they set them down, her gaze appraising, like she was seeing him in a new light.
“What?” He gave a bashful grin. Hera traced a finger around the rim of her glass.
“You called me a good mom earlier,” she said carefully. “And I know I wasn’t very gracious about accepting it, but, that meant a lot.” Her eyes didn’t meet his until the last bit of the sentence.
He shrugged, and wished he had one last swallow of wine. “It’s true.”
“Well.” Hera traced one final loop around her glass, then looked up at him and smiled. “Some days more than others, right?”
The field trip fueled Ezra’s conversations for the next week and a half, to the point where Zeb could finish every story the boy started. It was hard not to humor him, though; Ezra was just so excited, and Kanan certainly didn’t mind the surge of pride he felt every time Ezra brought up how much fun they’d had.
“You know, I didn’t talk about my field trip for nearly this long,” Sabine had grumbled on more than one occasion.
“That’s because you didn’t get Mr. Kanan to chaperone yours,” Ezra would retort, with a smug grin on his cheeks.
“WE MET HIM THE NIGHT BEFORE!”
Sabine was grateful when a new conversational topic came up: Zeb’s birthday was in a few weeks, and she soon managed to dominate dinner-table discussion with that. After one such dinner, Kanan and Hera were sitting at the kitchen table—she working, he not so much— when Zeb walked in. The teen opened his mouth, cut his eyes at Kanan as if surprised to see him, then paused and cleared his throat.
“Mom,” Zeb focused back on his mother, “Have you made the appointment for my driver’s test yet?”
Kanan felt the energy in the room change, as Hera set down her pen and pursed her lips. “I haven’t, no.”
“Mom!” In one of the most teenaged responses Kanan had ever seen, Zeb somehow managed to simultaneously fling out his arms and sink his shoulders in distress. “My birthday’s in two weeks; all the spots are going to fill up!”
“I know, Zeb, but things have been busy lately—”
“Mom, it’s a phone call,” he pleaded.
“Zeb, you know how I feel about you driving,” Hera said firmly.
He gaped at her. “I’m a good driver!”
“You’re a great driver, absolutely, but that doesn’t protect you from all the bad drivers, and the distracted drivers, and the drunk drivers—”
“Mom, you’re being an alarmist,” Zeb huffed and crossed his arms.
Hera fixed Zeb with a look. “I’m not being an alarmist; I’m raising rational concerns.”
“All my friends are driving,” Zeb said. “They’ve never gotten into accidents!”
“I know your friends, and that’s luck,” Hera muttered. Kanan retrained a snort and tried to make himself as invisible as possible.
“Mom,” Zeb groaned. His eyes were wide, imploring. “Come on. I’m gonna be the only sixteen-year-old in the tenth grade without his license!”
“Zeb, that’s a touch dramatic, don’t you think?” Hera raised an eyebrow. He flung his arms out in a What do you expect me to do? gesture and blew air out through his lips. After a short staredown, Hera sighed.
“Even if you do pass the test,” she began, “Which I have full confidence you will, we don’t have a car for you to drive, love.” Her tone had shifted from protective to apologetic.
“It’s not about having a car, Mom, it’s about having my license,” Zeb groaned. “I have to grow up eventually, you know.” He gave her a knowing look, as if he were about to roll his eyes.
Hera sighed, a wistful smile on her face. “I know.”
Zeb shifted from foot to foot, watching her hopefully.
She glanced down at the stack of papers she was grading, and tapped her fingers on the table. “I’ll call them tomorrow.”
Zeb drew in a breath. “Really?” He tried to hide the grin rising on his face.
“Yes, really.” Hera gave a thin smile.
“Promise?” He raised his eyebrows, but the attempt at suspicion couldn’t mask his excitement.
“I promise,” she nodded.
Zeb grinned and threw a fist in the air. “Yes!” He moved forward to give his mother a burst of a hug. “You’re the best, Mom!”
Hera chuckled softly and returned to her work. Zeb dashed upstairs— already texting madly— and Kanan looked over at Hera.
“The sweet sixteen, huh?” He asked.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to eavesdrop?” She cut her eyes at him in a mock-glare.
“I’m sitting right here, Hera,” he chuckled. Hera let out a long-suffering sigh, and Kanan jerked a thumb in the direction Zeb had gone. “How’s the practice going?”
“Couldn’t be better,” she admitted. “I mean, he’s a great driver, Kanan.”
“So what worries you?” He asked.
“Mostly that we don’t have a car,” Hera said. She had resumed typing on her laptop, but Kanan wasn’t willing to let the question go that easily.
“Mostly?” He pressed.
She gave a breathy laugh and a bitter smile, and hesitated before speaking. “It’s stupid.”
Kanan raised an eyebrow. Her eyes drifted to the staircase.
“Well, it’s two things, really,” Hera said, her fingers coming to a stop on the keyboard. “The factual half is that once he can drive, he’ll want a car, and we just don’t have that in our budget. The other half…” She trailed off, and her eyes drifted around the home. “The moment he gets that license… he can go anywhere, you know? He’s already so independent, but driving is one of the few things he still needs me for. Once that’s gone… he stops being my baby.” Hera chuckled at herself and looked back at him. “Totally cliché, right?”
Kanan shook his head. “It’s not cliché if it’s how you feel.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Waxing poetry, are we?”
He shrugged. “It’s true. But he’s always going to need you, Hera. Heck, I was still calling my mom in college asking how to do laundry.”
“I don’t know if I’m more surprised that you went to college, or that you didn’t know how to do laundry,” she teased.
“Oh, ha-ha,” he rolled his eyes, then added, “In my defense, I did eventually get one of them right.”
She gave him an amused look. “College?”
He chuckled. “Laundry.”
This gave Hera pause, and she cocked her head at him. Without needing to voice her question, he answered it, shrugging.
“Don’t need a degree to fix cars.”
Hera nodded slowly.
“Besides, we can’t all be as driven as you,” he teased, in an effort to lighten the mood. “It must have been nice knowing exactly what you wanted to go into.”
Hera let out a chuckle and ran her tongue over her teeth. There was a noticeable delay in her response.
“Actually…” she began, tracing a circle in the wooden table, “I never really planned on being a teacher.”
Kanan’s eyebrows went halfway up his forehead. “Really?”
“I wanted to fly,” Hera admitted, rolling her shoulders back and glancing out the window. “That’s why I majored in physics. I wanted to be a pilot.”
He watched her and nodded slowly, bobbing his head up and down. “Huh.”
“But…” Her fingers moved around in the same pattern on the table. “Life happens. Kids come along, plans change.” Hera paused and tapped the table a few times. “I do like teaching though. I mean, there’s only so many paths open to an undergrad degree in physics, but, I’m happy where I ended up.”
She’d moved the subject along, not unintentionally, so he played along. “Seems you’re pretty good at it. Who doesn’t love a science teacher that lets them make Bunsen burner s’mores?”
Her mouth dropped open. “Who told you about that?”
“Ezra’s teacher might have mentioned something while we were on the field trip,” Kanan grinned. Hera smacked her forehead.
“Oh my God.” She looked up to point a finger at him and arched her eyebrow. “Promise me you’ll never tell Principal Mothma that.”
Kanan chuckled and traced an X on his chest. “Cross my heart.”
Maybe it was because things were going well. Maybe it was because she’d opened up to him about her family, and past aspirations, and this felt like the last thing on the list.
Maybe it was because he was on his second drink, rather than just starting his first, but whatever the reason, that night at the bar, he decided to ask her the question.
“So,” Kanan summoned his courage in tandem with a sip of whiskey and launched right into it, when they hit a slow period and he knew she would have a few minutes of rest. It was late enough that the nightly crowd had come and gone, but early enough that a few regulars still lingered, so he knew she wasn’t trying to close the place down.
Hera raised a curious eyebrow, then returned her attention to cleaning a spot on the counter. He wet his lips, feeling his mouth go dry in anticipation.
“Is there a Mr. Syndulla?”
She stopped scrubbing, and gave him the kind of hard look that made him regret asking.
“I don’t mean to pry,” he began quickly, in an attempt to backtrack.
“Exactly the kind of thing people say when they’re about to pry,” she replied, a little too sharply to be teasing. Kanan tried not to flinch.
“I’m sorry, it’s just… after living with you guys for so long, and not seeing anyone else… I can’t help but be curious,” he said, hoping honesty would get him the answer.
Hera pursed her lips, and pinned him with her gaze for a long time before answering. Kanan was just starting to feel like he’d intruded when the rag started moving again.
“He isn’t a Syndulla.” Her voice was cool, the words as punctuated as darts against a wall. “And he isn’t in the picture anymore.”
Kanan looked up at her in surprise. “Really?”
“What do you mean, ‘really’?” Hera narrowed her eyes at him.
He sounded closer to incredulous than surprised when he answered, “Well… who would leave you?”
She felt a flush of heat in her cheeks, but gritted her teeth against it, wiping the bar counter with increased vigor. “He didn’t leave. I did.”
“Oh.” Kanan looked back up. “Why?”
She looked up from the counter and narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t you think that’s a little close to prying?”
He chuckled dryly, gesturing to the bar around them. “This tends to be the sort of place where people pry.”
She sighed, and scrubbed the spot a little harder. He leaned forward, putting his elbows on the counter.
Hera ignored the gesture. “I have work to do.”
He cocked an eyebrow, leaned back, and very slowly, very deliberately, picked up his glass and spilled the dregs of his drink onto the counter. Her mouth dropped open.
“Whoops,” he said. “Must have knocked it over.”
She rolled her eyes at him, and with a capitulatory shake of her head, pulled out a new rag. “You’re unbelievable.”
He smirked. “It’s actually one of my better qualities.”
“Shame for you,” she muttered, wiping up the spill.
“Now will you tell me?”
She dropped the rag and looked him straight in the eyes, her tone sharper. “I’m going to tell you the same thing I tell most of the single men that roll up to this bar,” Hera folded her arms. “Come back tomorrow and try me then.”
He gave a slow, deferent nod, and pushed his stool back from the counter. Hera watched him with narrowed eyes.
Kanan tried to lighten the mood. “Come back tomorrow, mm?”
She took his glass and sauntered away with it. “And make sure the only thing you leave on that counter is a hefty tip.”
Kanan chuckled, reaching into his pocket for his wallet.
“Not really!” Hera called over her shoulder.
Kanan left a twenty behind anyways. The next morning, he found the same bill tucked into his shoe.
She wasn’t working the next night, and he didn’t broach the subject for the rest of the week—both of them understood that their time at the bar ran in a parallel universe to the one they typically occupied, so their conversations were circumscribed to the usual, this week’s theme being Zeb’s birthday. On the day itself, Hera had brought the kids home from school, with Zeb grinning from ear to ear—apparently, the entire football team had serenaded him in the cafeteria—but she’d mostly disappeared since arriving home. Now, she breezed into the living room, in dark jeans and an expensive-looking turtleneck that made Kanan want to personally test it for softness.
“Hey, Kanan, I just wanted to give you a heads up, we’re going out for Zeb’s birthday dinner tonight—”
“Moooooom!” Ezra, dressed in a button-down, came bounding down the stairs. “This is too tight,” he moaned, tugging at his collar.
“Baby,” Sabine followed, snickering in a colorful jumper.
“Sabine,” Hera scolded, then turned to Ezra. “Sweetie, I told you not to do the top button,” she clucked with a smile and bent down to fix his shirt. “There you go.”
“But why would they put it on the shirt if you’re not supposed to button it?!” Ezra cried in distress. Zeb jogged down the stairs, dressed similarly.
“That’s just the way it is, buddy,” he said, touching his hand gently to Ezra’s shoulder. “See? Mine’s unbuttoned.”
“Alright,” Ezra pouted.
Kanan stood up. “Hera, you didn’t tell me this was a formal event,” he said. “You guys look great; I don’t think I’ll be able to pull myself together in time.”
She smiled briefly at him and turned to the kids. “Ah, why don’t you guys start the car? I’ll be right there.”
“Dibs!” Sabine and Ezra shouted in unison.
“You guys don’t even know how to start a car,” Zeb rolled his eyes good-naturedly.
“Bet I could figure it out!” Sabine chirped, as he shepherded them out.
Kanan chuckled and stood up, facing Hera. “So, where are we going?”
“Um…” Hera tucked her hair behind her ear and avoided his eyes. “The four of us are going to that steak joint, on fifth street.”
“Oh.” The emphasis on the word four was unmistakable. Kanan cleared his throat. “Uh, have fun.”
Hera’s smile was as uncomfortable as it as apologetic. “But we’ll see you later, for cake.” He knew she was trying to make it up to him, skimming over the awkwardness of the situation like scraping the black crumbs off burnt toast, but he could still taste the scorch.
Kanan hated the way those words came out of his mouth, like they were still curled around the char. Suddenly he felt pathetic, for letting something like a kid’s birthday dinner get to him.
Hera’s shoulders sank. “I’m sorry, Kanan—”
“Don’t.” He held his hand up and shook his head vigorously, like there was something stuck in his hair. “Hera, you don’t have to apologize. It’s your family, and it’s his dinner.” He forced sincerity into his voice until he had almost convinced himself.
She relaxed slowly, but not entirely. “I know, but—”
He shook his head again, and even managed to grin at her. “You kids have fun, alright?”
Hera opened her mouth and then closed it, pursing her lips. She pulled her purse up to her shoulder with a tight hand. “We’ll see you later.”
He nodded. “See you later.”
The door shut behind her, and Kanan had never felt more alone.
They came home a few hours later, laughing and smiling. Ezra had a red bow stuck to the top of his head, and it made Kanan sick with jealousy. Worse was Hera, acting almost forcibly cheery, waving the cake knife around like a party baton. Kanan knew she was trying to smooth things over, and he tried to absorb the energy in the room, but his heart felt flat. When he sat down with his plate of cake, it tasted dry and brittle, and the frosting stuck in his mouth like paste.
“Mr. Kanan, aren’t you gonna eat that?” Ezra pointed at Kanan’s plate with his own fork, and Kanan winced, knowing that even though Hera was still cutting pieces, she’d heard. Before he could reply, Ezra gave him a shy grin and added, “And if you’re not, can I eat it?”
Kanan forced himself to chuckle. “Sure, buddy.” He slid the plate to Ezra.
“Ezra, don’t steal Kanan’s cake,” Hera called from behind them.
“I didn’t!” Ezra protested, giving Kanan a wink as he switched his empty plate with Kanan’s.
“I’ll cut you another piece, love,” Hera said.
“Thanksh, Mum,” Ezra replied through a mouthful of frosting. That was almost enough to bring a smile to Kanan’s face, and as Hera sat down next to them, she eyed Ezra knowingly, but didn’t say anything as she slid him another piece.
Kanan pushed the crumbs around his plate until the kids had dissipated, bouncing off to try out Zeb’s presents. Wordlessly, he grabbed their plates and brought them over to the sink; Hera jumped out of her chair to stop him.
“Kanan, you don’t have to do that—”
“I don’t mind.”
He turned on the water and started to scrub, and she watched him, fretting, shifting from foot to foot. Finally Hera grabbed a rag and started to wipe the counter down and put the cake away. In a few minutes, she’d joined him at the sink to dry what he had washed.
They’d worked like this before, but those silences had always been comfortable ones. Kanan passed her one of the last plates, and his eyes didn’t leave the faucet, as he said,
“I’m sorry. I just can’t help but wonder.”
Anxiety pricked her spine and made her stiff as she took the plate in her hands.
“Was this…” Kanan’s eyes stayed level on the sink. “Was this because I asked about their father?”
Hera flinched, and it was unmistakable.
“Sorry,” he said quickly, his tone completely changing. His eyes finally dashed over to make eye contact with her, and even though she was the one who’d wronged him, they held an apology. “I’m sorry, that—it doesn’t matter. I never should asked.”
Hera sighed, but she was grateful he was finally looking at her. Slowly, she started drying the plate.
“It’s not because you asked,” she said carefully. “That had nothing to do with it. But… it is about their father.”
Kanan raised an eyebrow, dishes forgotten.
“It’s…” Hera rubbed the towel over a plate that didn’t have a spot of water left on it. “It’s not exactly a happy story. Someday, I’ll tell you the whole thing.” She sounded weary, which made it easier to accept the obscure answer. “But… he wasn’t good to us, Kanan. Ezra and Sabine were young, but, Zeb remembers that, which… makes him very protective of me.”
“Of you?” Kanan fought to keep surprise out of his voice— he couldn’t imagine Hera needing protection from anything.
“Well, of all of us,” Hera amended. The corners of her lips turned up in a smile, but her eyes were sad. “It’s hard for him to accept having someone in that paternal position again, after everything that happened.”
Kanan nodded, and she continued.
“And I think with you, you know, chaperoning Ezra’s field trip, going to his soccer games, drawing with Sabine… You’re kind of becoming a father figure to them, and that’s hard for Zeb,” Hera said, then muttered, “The previous holder of that position didn’t do such a good job.”
Kanan nodded slowly. Hera’s hands moved the towel around the plate.
“It’s… hard for him to accept that you’re a part of our family now,” she said, her eyes sneaking up to meet his. “He’s too young, but I know he already feels like he needs to be the man of the house. He just wants to protect us— after what happened, he doesn’t think we need anybody else. And that’s nothing against you, it just… is.”
Her eyes fell back down, and her frame seemed heavy.
“What about you?”
The question seemed to come from nowhere, and her eyebrows drew together. “What about me?
Kanan’s head had lifted, the same hers had, and he took a step closer to her. She set the towel down, one hand gripping the counter. His voice had dropped low, and it rolled through her like thunder.
“You don’t think you need anyone else?”
The air between them was thick, electric. Their faces inches apart, he could have kissed her. Hera inhaled— a slow, deep breath, the kind that meant she was choosing her next words carefully—but her eyes didn’t leave his.
“I… am…” she spoke slowly, every word trickling off her tongue like honey, “Warming up, to the idea that we might.”
There was a tiny gap between her lips, one that he wanted to close with his own. She faced him openly, bravely, the thrill between them as if she’d dared him. Her eyes were magnetic.
Kanan surrendered first, taking a tiny step back, shaking his head with something like rue and grinning. Hera didn’t know if she was relieved or disappointed.
“I can work with that,” he said, with his gaze on her like she was a work of art. Hera’s heartbeat had quickened, and hammered in her chest in double-time.
“Good,” she found herself saying. She took a step back as well, before her heart pushed her into something she’d regret. “Good.”
He bit his lip and chuckled, nodding his head. There was an awkward beat, and he spoke first.
“Um, really, don’t worry about the dinner thing,” he said.
Her eyes, which just seconds ago had been sparkling with risk, went apologetic again. “You’re sure?”
Mother Hera was back—the Hera of the past moment a million lightyears away.
“Absolutely,” he nodded, stuffing his hands in his pockets. A smirk started to form on his face. “After all, I wouldn’t want to threaten the man of the house.”
Hera caught on; they were switching back to banter, as they often did when they were caught in moments that they couldn’t quite figure out.
“Oh no.” She shook her head, the corners of her own lips turning up. “I’m the man of the house.” She crossed her arms, making him chuckle. “And I’m hardly threatened by you,” she added archly.
Kanan raised an eyebrow, taking a step that was close enough to put them in the same position they’d been in moments ago. He bent his head ever so slightly, just enough for her to feel the full weight of his eyes on her, and his voice dropped once again.
“Not even a little?”
Hera re-folded her arms and stepped back. “Kanan.” She gave him a knowing look and edged it with reprimand, hoping it didn’t reveal the shiver his voice had sent up her spine.
“Alright, alright.” He held his hands up and moved backward, giving her a roguish grin as if the whole thing had never happened. “Goodnight, Hera.”
She couldn’t help but smile back. “Goodnight, Kanan.”
He sauntered out like he knew she was watching him go.
Kanan had told Hera not to hold dinner for him, since he’d be working late. She’d acquiesced, told him to make sure he got something to eat, and then promptly started laughing at herself when she saw the teasing smirk on his face. He arrived at the house and rang the doorbell just as the sky was getting dusky.
Sabine answered the door.
“Mr. Kanan?” Her little eyebrows furrowed. “You can just walk in, you know.”
Ezra materialized behind her, craning his neck. “Did Mom kick you out?” His eyes were wide. “Are you a hobo?”
Kanan chuckled. “No, Ezra, I’m not a hobo,” he assured the boy. “I want you guys to come outside for a minute. Zeb and your mom, too.”
“Okay,” Sabine nodded. Within a minute, the family was walking out the door, squinting their eyes at the driveway. Kanan waited on the edge of the sidewalk, stuffing his hands in his pockets and wishing he’d sprung for a giant red bow.
“Kanan…” As they gathered around it, Hera spoke first, her arms crossed and her expression wary. Zeb’s eyes were wide, and he was glancing between his mother, Kanan, and the car.
Kanan shoved his hands further into his pockets in a diffident shrug. “Happy birthday, Zeb.”
Ezra and Sabine gasped, and the teen’s jaw dropped open. “No way,” he breathed, with his eyes as wide as his mouth. Zeb took a few steps closer to the car, a silver pickup that Kanan knew would make even the most taciturn teenage boy grin, and ran his hands along the side of the bed, as if he couldn’t believe it was real.
“No way!” He shouted this time, jumping up and pumping his fist. Zeb spun to face Kanan, beaming with glee, his cheeks barely wide enough to fit his smile. “I…” His hands were shaking, and he looked between Kanan and his mother as if he didn’t know who to hug first. “Thank you,” he finally managed to breathe through his grin. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Kanan stepped forward and extended his hand. Zeb, eager for a physical outlet for his gratitude that wasn’t a hug, shook it so vigorously that Kanan thought his arm might pop out of its socket.
“This is Zeb’s car?” Sabine gaped.
“This is Zeb’s car,” Kanan nodded, trying to restrain his own grin to a modest smile.
“It’s so cool,” Ezra said, moon-eyed. “Can we ride in it?”
All three kids turned to their mother, their expressions hopeful and limbs like coiled springs. Hera opened her mouth, closed it, brought her fingertips to her temple, and then shook her head.
“Sure.” She brought her hand down and folded her arms across her chest. “Why not?”
“Yes!” Zeb laughed, punching another fist in the air. Kanan tossed him the keys, which he caught eagerly, giving Kanan another smile that spanned from ear to ear. As the car pulled out of the driveway, the temperature in the cool fall air seemed to drop ten degrees, and Kanan turned to Hera with a wince already in his posture.
“You’re mad, aren’t you?”
She licked her lips, and opened her mouth once again, only to close it. “I…” Hera started, then shook her head. She brought her thumb and forefinger to pinch the bridge of her nose. “I don’t even know what I am, Kanan,” she said, shaking her head. “I mean, you bought him a car.”
“Okay, for the sake of keeping the record straight, I didn’t buy the car,” Kanan said, holding his hands up. Hera lifted her eyes to his and raised an eyebrow.
“A customer dropped it off a few months ago, and never came back to pay for the repairs,” he explained.
She looked suspicious. “So it was just… sitting around?”
“Yeah.” Kanan shrugged. “Happens all the time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And what do you do with all these cars that are just “sitting around?’”
Kanan’s gaze shifted away from hers. “Well, sell them, mostly, but—”
“Kanan.” Hera’s arms came to a fresh cross.
He feigned innocence. “What?”
“You could have made a lot of money off that car,” she said. Her voice had risen, and he couldn’t tell if it was with exasperation or actual anger.
“Oh, no, it’s got a ton of miles on it, and the used-car market is hardly what it used to be…”
He trailed off, when she pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. There was something heavy in her posture, something that ran much deeper than exasperation, and Kanan’s stomach flipped the wrong way over.
“We can’t accept this,” she said quietly. He felt his stomach, already inverted, sink into his knees.
“It’s… it’s too much, Kanan.” She dropped her hands to her sides. “I mean, I’m his own mother, and I can’t even… and for you to… and we didn’t even invite you to his birthday dinner, oh my God—”
“Hey, Hera, hey,” he cut in, hoping to assuage her distress. Kanan wished he could reach out and pull her hands down from her face, but he had to settle for holding his own up in placation. “This is something I wanted to do. I don’t want it to be a grand gesture, I don’t want you to feel like you owe me something. It’s a gift.”
She sighed. “I know that, but—”
“But what? What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong is that it’s a car, Kanan,” she snapped, her tone changing. “I can barely afford to keep him in shoes, and you go and buy him a car.”
He furrowed his brow. “Are you insulted? Because I didn’t mean—”
“I’m…” She held up a hand, then stopped short and took a deep breath, suddenly looking weary. “I’m… confused.”
He cocked his head; he’d been prepared for a lot of answers, but not that. “Confused?”
“I’m confused,” she said again, as if convincing herself. “Because I feel like the moment I figure out your place here, it changes.”
Kanan furrowed his brow. “I thought I was part of the family.”
The statement clashed like a dissonant chord in the air between them; he didn’t know if he’d meant it as an accusation or a plea.
“You are, it’s just…” She sighed. “It’s complicated.”
Hera turned to stare out at the street, and silence followed. Kanan shifted from foot to foot.
“Look, you said that Zeb was having a hard time with me being a father fig—…” He cleared his throat. “Getting closer to Ezra and Sabine,” he amended. “I thought this would help smooth things out a little.”
His brow furrowed. “I’m not trying to be a father figure—”
“Then what are you trying to do?”
“I don’t know!” He threw his arms up in exasperation. “Something nice, I guess.”
“Something nice?” She flung a hand at the car as if she could brush it away. “Kanan, this is a car.”
“It’s a used car, and I didn’t pay a cent for it,” he countered.
Hera sighed, and faced away from him with her arms crossed, shaking her head.
He narrowed his eyes and took a step closer. “You know, why is it that every time I try to do something nice for you guys, we have to fight about it?”
Her shoulders sank with exasperation, and she turned toward him. “Kanan—”
“No, I’m serious,” he said, taking another step. “I’m trying to be a part of this family, but every time I get close, you push me away.”
“It’s not about that,” she said.
“You sure?” He folded his arms.
“Then what is it about?” He asked. Her brow twitched, and he continued, “Because I’d love to know, Hera. You’re not the only one who’s confused about my place here.”
Hera looked pained, like she’d aged thirty years in the beat it took her to respond. “You don’t understand.”
Anger flared in his chest. “You’re right, I don’t understand! I don’t understand at all,” Kanan countered. “And I’m getting sick of not knowing what I am to you guys.”
“Well, maybe I would have a better understanding of your place here, if you weren’t always trying to change it,” she bit back.
Kanan threw his arms up. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means”—Her eyes flashed—“That you can’t just buy your way into our lives!”
The resounding silence slammed down on them like a door banging shut, and the second it took for those words to register seemed to last a lifetime. Hera’s hand flew to her mouth, her eyes widening as the full weight of what she’d said sank down on her.
Kanan stiffened, his eyes hard.
“Kanan, I—” There wasn’t air left in the atmosphere; her lungs seized up in her chest. “That’s not what I meant—”
“Sounds like it was exactly what you meant,” he said, and it was the coldest she’d ever heard his voice. Sweat broke out on her brow.
“No, Kanan, I—I wasn’t— I didn’t—”
He shook his head at her. “You still don’t trust me, do you?”
The question froze her to ice. Hera couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe—her tongue was cotton, choking her. She watched his face crumple, watched him realize that her silence was worse than any word she could have said, and she could do nothing about it.
He turned away, his twist of his shoulders cleaving her in two.
“Wait for what?” He demanded, whirling around. “I’ve been waiting, Hera. I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me.” The streetlights made shadows dance across his face, and suddenly the fight seemed to drain from his posture.
“But we always come back here.” He lifted a hand between them, sounding defeated, and her heart sank. Kanan watched her, his shoulders rising and falling with each breath, his eyes almost pleading. His hand had fallen, but his fingertips still aimed toward her as if grasping for hope.
“I’m sorry,” Hera whispered. She instantly knew it wasn’t enough.
Kanan looked at her, hard, in a way he never had before—his eyes tracing every line of her face.
“Yeah,” he said finally, giving a single, slow nod. “Me too.”
His gaze left her slowly, and he made his way toward the house. He paused in the doorway, the light from within illuminating him like a silhouette, something ethereal she didn’t deserve. She couldn’t make out his features, but she knew they were hard, masking hurt.
“Goodnight, Hera.” He sounded stiff as a recording. They’d exchanged those words time after time, but he’d never said them like that before, cold and definite, like the sun wouldn’t rise in the morning. She felt like she was crumbling into ash, and something cracked inside her chest when he shut the door.
Hera stood outside, feeling the fall air cut through her clothing like a thousand tiny knives, facing her house and feeling for the first time like she didn’t recognize it. When her gaze finally shifted, it was to stare at the homes that surrounded her in accusation, as if they’d figured out something she hadn’t.
Eventually, she saw Zeb’s headlights, approaching cautiously. The twins all but jumped out of the cab, it was so high off the ground, and then bounced inside, chattering away. Zeb exited the car carefully, almost with reverence, and shut the door with a gentle click. He caught her eye and walked up to her, rubbing his hands together in the cold.
“I…” Zeb ducked his head, watching her nervously. “I can keep it, right, Mom?”
Hera became instantly conscious of her expression, and cracked a smile open on her face. “Of course you can keep it,” she said tightly. Zeb’s cheeks rose in a grin, and he threw his arms around her.
“Thank you,” he murmured against her shoulder. Hera’s stomach churned.
“You’re welcome, love,” she said, then stepped back. “But remember who you really have to thank.”
Zeb nodded seriously, then paused.
“Mom…” The teen’s gaze wandered to the car and then back to her. “Why do you think he did that?”
Hera’s mouth ran dry. “Gave you the car?”
“Yeah,” Zeb frowned. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was really nice, and I’m sure it’s genuine, but—”
“But it’s a car,” Hera finished. Her heart was heavy with understanding, and Zeb nodded. Hera faltered.
“Honestly, love, I don’t know why he did it,” she finally admitted, letting out a sigh. Zeb furrowed his brow, and Hera caught herself.
“But,” she added, “I know he did it for the right reasons.”
Zeb nodded slowly, seeming to accept her answer. The wind whistled through the trees, pausing the conversation between them. When it died down, Zeb slung his hands into his pockets, shifting his gaze between the car and the house. Hera knew he was hovering, and waited until he finally spoke.
“I probably should have invited him to the birthday dinner, huh?”
She felt a wry smile lift her lips, even though she was trying to hide it. “Probably.”
“Wh—Mom!” Zeb cried. She couldn’t help but chuckle at his distressed expression.
Zeb flung his arms out. “You’re supposed to make me feel better,” he complained, trying and failing not to sound petulant.
“No,” Hera gave him a knowing look, “I’m supposed to make you be better.”
Zeb rolled his eyes at her, but the sag in his shoulders told her he knew she was right.
“You can apologize to him tomorrow,” she said. “After you thank him, of course.”
“Of course,” Zeb hummed, mocking her. She gave him a look, which he quickly deferred to, ducking his head. Hera just chuckled. She gave him an affectionate look and reached up to muss his hair.
“Get in there and get some sleep, alright, sixteen-year-old?”
“Ugh, Mom.” Zeb groaned, but he was grinning as he headed inside. Hera watched him go, her smile fading as the distance between them grew, and then turned her head back towards the street. If she strained her ears, she could hear the twins, chattering as they got ready for bed; Zeb’s gruff bass cutting in now and then to reprimand them. The same noises she’d heard and held in her heart for years.
But other than that, the house was silent. Kanan’s car sat at the end of the driveway, looking forlorn.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, nonsensical as it was. Hera stood with her home sounding like it always had behind her, and the reminder of how different it was out in front. She hugged her arms against her body and sighed, breathing the crisp air in and out, over and over, as if the chill could freeze her thoughts. She didn’t have time for this—there were papers to grade, dishes to wash, and kids to tuck into bed—but all she wanted was to be frozen in this moment, the cold air soothing her nerves and washing over the burn of her words. Going back inside meant facing reality, facing the door that she knew would be shut and quiet.
Her eyes were drawn to it like a moth to a lantern as she slipped inside—shut, as she’d expected, with no light coming from the other side. She sighed, the air inside stale and warm, her shoulders heavy on her back, and ascended the stairs to tell her children goodnight.
“Mommy, your hands are cold,” Ezra remarked, as he stroked his hair.
“Sorry, love. I was outside.”
He frowned in confusion. “Doing what?”
“Just thinking,” Hera said.
“Were you relaxing?” Ezra asked. “Mr. Anderson says you don’t relax enough.”
Hera chuckled. “Mr. Anderson is right.”
“You can do your thinking in here if you want,” Ezra said. “I don’t want you to be cold.”
She smiled. “Thanks love.” Hera bent down to kiss his forehead. “Goodnight. I love you.”
Hera pulled his blanket up to his chin. “Always and forever and into the stars.”
At one thirty a.m., Hera heaved a sigh, switched on her bedside lamp, and got out of bed. She’d lay down nearly two hours ago, but her mind was spinning relentlessly, replaying the argument with Kanan. Awake as she’d been when she’d brought her head to the pillow, Hera pulled on an old sweatshirt, tied her hair up, and made her way down the stairs.
The house was quiet, like it was holding its breath. Intending to get some fresh air, she opened the front door and froze.
Kanan was sitting with his back to her on the stoop.
Light from the house flooded the night like an intruder; and her shadow fell over him. She sucked in a breath and realized she was still holding it.
He spoke to her without turning his head.
She exhaled and stepped outside, moving to sit beside him. Taking the position brought a memory to her with a sharp pang, of the last time they’d sat together this late at night; sharing wine and her frustrations as a single mother. She’d felt, in that moment, like she could tell him anything, and she suddenly realized how forcefully absent that intimacy was, like someone—she—had yanked it away. Now there was a wall between them, as present as it was impermeable.
She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear, self-conscious of her ponytail and sweatshirt, and cleared her throat.
“I was going to grade papers, but, I have an apology to make,” she said.
When he replied, his voice was dryer and flatter than the Sahara. “Do you.”
“Yeah,” she said. “A big one, actually.”
“Mm.” He nodded, but didn’t look at her. The neighborhood was quiet—even the crickets had fallen silent, surrendering to the faint hum of streetlights. The houses were dark, cars resting in the driveways awaiting the next day, and the moon hovered over them like a guardian.
She turned to face him and hoped he would do the same.
“I’m sorry, Kanan.” Hera felt the weight of each word on her tongue as she watched his expression, hoping it would change. “I really am. What I said was completely out of line, and you didn’t deserve it. It was so generous of you to do that for Zeb, and I just… I was totally graceless about it.”
She paused, and waited for the impassive line of his jaw to shift.
He was still. Hera sighed.
“I was ungrateful, and I blew up at you for no reason,” she said. “And what I said was hurtful, and cruel, and not at all true, and I hope you know that. I hope you know I don’t feel that way, I just…”
She trailed off, turning her attention from him to the street, staring into the windows of those darkened homes.
“I was… angry. Not at you, but… it transferred to you. I said you couldn’t buy your way into our lives because…” Hera took a deep breath. The confession hovered at the edge of her tongue.
“That’s what their real father is trying to do.”
Finally, he shifted; an almost imperceptible twitch of his eyebrow.
“I mean, when I saw that car in the driveway today…” Hera exhaled, shaking her head. “I thought it was from him, Kanan. And I was terrified. I panicked, and I took it out on you.
“And I’m sorry,” she said. “I would take it back in an instant if I could.”
She looked at him once more, and with a final sigh, turned her gaze back out to the street. She’d just been getting used to the silence when Kanan’s voice broke it.
“What happened with him?”
Her stomach twisted around a block of ice. Even if she’d wanted to speak, Hera couldn’t have pushed the words out; her throat felt like she was being choked. She hated how cowardly she sounded when she said, “I don’t like to talk about it—”
“Hera.” He turned to her, and she was perplexed to see pain in his face. His voice was strangled. “After what you said to me tonight, I deserve to know.”
Those words resonated deep in her solar plexus. He was right—she knew it in every bone of her body—but that didn’t make the truth any easier. Hera inhaled, slowly, deeply, trying to settle her shaking hands.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay, I…” she tried, and then tried again, her lungs failing to capture air. “He…”
Her heart was pounding, threatening to beat through her chest. Kanan turned his head and must have seen how pale she was, because something in his eyes softened. There was a gentle tilt to his head, and he asked his next question softly.
“Who made it so hard for you to trust people?”
He didn’t say it as an accusation, but as an apology. And for some reason, knowing that was what she needed to move forward.
Hera took one last deep breath, filling her lungs with courage.
“We met in college,” she said, and it felt like releasing the first droplet of a flood. “I was a junior, he was about to graduate. He was the one who chased after me, but… I fell fast. By my senior year, I was pregnant.”
She paused, letting the words sink in. Kanan’s eyebrows had already gone up.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself; I was terrified,” Hera continued. “But he was… happy. Thrilled, even. Like a baby was all he’d ever wanted.” She sounded perplexed by her own word choice.
“I was beside myself with panic, but it was like he had everything planned. He’d already started working, and he wanted me to drop out, have the baby and then, in a few years, once things were steady, go back to flight school. He said he’d take care of me until then.” She gave a bitter laugh. “My knight in shining armor.
“Long story short, we had a shotgun wedding and I graduated—I actually missed the ceremony because I was in the hospital. We got a tiny little apartment, and he worked while I took care of Zeb. After a few years, right when I was feeling like I could go back to school, we decided to move, into this house. Once we were settled I brought it up again, but he was always finding excuses for me to stay home. It should have been the first red flag, but he made it seem so logical. We’d just moved, we didn’t have the money… before I knew it, the twins were on the way, and I was homebound again.”
Hera paused, wringing her hands.
“Things were… good, until the twins were born,” she said slowly. “We were so focused on being ready for two more babies that school got pushed to the back burner again, and since that was the only thing we ever fought about, it seemed like we were happy.”
She hesitated, taking a shaky breath. Kanan reached a hand out to her instinctively, but then pulled it back.
“When Sabine and Ezra were born, Ezra—” her voice caught, and Hera swallowed hard before continuing. “Ezra almost didn’t make it,” she said. “Twins are typically underweight, but he was barely three pounds, with all sorts of other complications besides. They had to keep him in the hospital for almost a month before we could bring him home. I was scared out of my mind, but my ex seemed… calm. At first, I thought he was putting on a brave face for me, but as the weeks went on, I realized he had this attitude of almost… resentment.” Hera sounded puzzled. “He started making comments about the hospital bills, how I was spending all my time there, and he was picking up the slack at home. I mean, there was one night… he told me he didn’t think Ezra was going to make it, that he didn’t even think he was worth trying.” Her voice had fallen to a whisper.
“I should have known right then and there, but there was so much going on. I was exhausted, splitting all my time between the hospital and home, trying to nurse Sabine on the side, keeping an eye on Zeb and praying that Ezra would make it out alive. I was so relieved when we brought him home that I forgot all about it. My ex didn’t bring it up again, and I was just starting to think I’d imagined the whole thing until the night we paid the hospital bill.”
He slapped an envelope on the table in front of her. Hera furrowed her brow, scanning the paper.
“The hospital bill?” He always handled the bills. She rarely even opened them when they came in the mail, just set them in his study like he preferred. She unfolded the paper, and her eyebrows flew up at the total sum.
Her ex was looking down at her, his eyes cool and unforgiving.
“That kid just sent your flight school plans back five years,” he said, snatching the bill back and walking away. “He’d better be worth it.”
Kanan’s jaw fell open. Hera met his eyes briefly and then looked away.
“There’s not an exact moment when it all went wrong, but, if I had to pick, that would be it,” she said. “Having twins was a stressor in itself, and it didn’t help that money was tight for a while. He started working longer hours; I was running myself ragged managing everything at home. Somewhere along the way, things just… fell apart.”
She was already in bed, reading a book, by the time he came home.
Hera looked up and closed her book, watching as he dropped his briefcase at their bedroom door and loosened his tie. “The kids missed you at dinner tonight,” she said.
He shrugged off his suit jacket. “I know; they’ve got me working like a dog at the Academy this week.”
“Feels like it’s been lot longer than that,” she said softly. He paused, looked over to her, and sighed.
“I know, baby, and I’m sorry.” He moved towards their bed and sat at the edge. “But the promotion’s coming up in a few weeks, and I have to do everything I can to make sure I get it.”
She gnawed on her lower lip. “Is that big promotion really worth it? Won’t you just be working more?”
“No, not at all. It’s a managerial position; I could practically set my own hours.” He touched her face. “Come home and take you out to lunch.”
Hera felt his fingertips slide down her cheek. “It’s just… the kids miss you, you know,” she said. “I miss you.”
He sighed. “I know. But I’m doing this for them.”
“Love, what you make has always been enough—”
“I’m not talking about the money,” he said. “I mean the Academy. There’s no way they’ll get in without my pull, plus we can’t afford the full tuition without the employee discount.”
She furrowed her brow. “Get in… to the Academy?”
“Of course. Zeb’s starting kindergarten soon, right? I want him in the best school in town.”
“Honey,” Hera frowned, “Zeb doesn’t want to go to the Academy.”
Now her husband looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’ve talked to him about it,” Hera said slowly. “Most of the kids in his preschool class are going to Alliance.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “He’ll make plenty of friends at the Academy.”
“He doesn’t want to go to the Academy,” she said. “And frankly, I don’t know if I want him to either.”
Her husband’s brow furrowed. “You don’t want our son enrolled in one of the best schools in the state?”
Hera sighed. “Don’t be like that.”
“Don’t be what, right?”
Something in his tone shifted the air between them, and she frowned at him. “I’m just saying, I think there are other factors to consider.”
“Babe, if it’s the money you’re worried about, I told you, the promotion comes with a big discount—”
“No, it’s the money I’m worried about,” she cut him off. “I don’t want Zeb going to a hyper-competitive, status-driven school that’s full of sheltered, trust-fund snobs. You haven’t met some of the mothers there—”
“I work with some of those mothers,” he said, his tone cool.
Hera sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to stereotype. It’s just… I want Zeb to grow up around more than one type of kid.”
“Zeb’s already above all those kids, Hera. He needs to be challenged, surrounded by kids who are smart, athletic. Winners,” he said. “Not some… public school menagerie.”
“Now look who’s stereotyping,” she murmured.
“Excuse me?” He raised an eyebrow.
She blanched. “I—I’m just saying, I don’t think the Academy is best for him, or Ezra and Sabine.”
“And why not?”
“Because none of them want to go,” Hera exclaimed. “If you were around more, you would know that!”
His eyes narrowed, and she instantly regretted it.
Hera swallowed, her mouth dry. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That wasn’t fair—”
“You should be,” he said. He left the bed and paced around the room. Hera’s eyes followed him, her body tense.
He stopped abruptly, and turned to her and spread his arms. “I’m doing this for them. You know that, right?”
“Every day, morning ‘til night, I work with those… what did you call them? Sheltered trust-fund snobs?” He levelled his stare at her and folded his arms. “I work with those people to strengthen a school that my kids can be proud of attending. And you want all of that to be in vain.”
Hera faltered, starting and stopping several times before she spoke.
“I… understand and appreciate what you’re doing for our kids,” she finally said, her pulse beating fast. He was watching her with narrowed eyes. “I just don’t know if it’s actually right for them.”
He watched her with his arms folded, and she pulled the comforter up around her body. Eventually, he sighed, and the fight left his stance.
She watched warily as he moved to sit on the bed. “Let’s not argue tonight, alright?”
Her lips parted in surprise. “But we haven’t made a decision—”
“Hera.” He put a finger over her lips. The corners of his mouth sagged. “It’s been a long day. I don’t want to fight.”
She moved his hand. “We have to talk about this eventually—”
“I know, I know,” he said. “In the morning.”
She pursed her lips, staring at him.
“I don’t want to fight anymore, baby,” he said. “I just want to make love to my wife.” His eyes pleaded with her, and his finger traced her cheek. “We’re not so damaged that we can’t still do that, are we?”
She looked at him helplessly, and he leaned in to kiss her.
“I could never bring myself to admit that we were,” Hera said, shaking her head. “Sometimes it felt like we were in two separate galaxies, orbiting two separate suns. We stopped being partners, were barely colleagues. I kept holding out hope that things would get better, but they only got worse. We fought incessantly… every conversation was a minefield. I still wanted to go back to school—I love my kids, but I knew motherhood wasn’t be enough for me—and we disagreed on that. He… he accused me of not caring about them.”
Her voice caught, and Kanan looked over to her. Hera was staring down at her hands.
“We both knew things had gone wrong, but the way he looked at me… it was like he blamed me for it,” she said. “Like somehow, us falling apart was all my fault.” She paused once more, pursing her lips in a tight line. Kanan realized she was holding back tears.
“He wasn’t the man I married,” she said, her voice trembling. “Or maybe he was, and it took the twins to see it.”
Silence fell on them. The shadows from the streetlights had shifted, dividing the street into panels of darkness and light. Hera’s shoulders shook, once, twice, and then she was crying, almost silently. A deep sense of wrongness had settled in Kanan’s gut—he knew what these tears were for, knew what her husband had done—but almost couldn’t bring himself to ask. The only thing worse than suspecting this truth would be knowing it.
“Did he ever…” Kanan swallowed hard, the words running his mouth dry. “Was he abusive?”
Hera’s voice was hollow. “Yes.”
He felt like he’d been gutted. “I’m so sorry.”
She turned to him with tears in her eyes.
“It wasn’t me he hit.”
The words hit him like a blow. A gaping, frigid hole opened in his chest, and Kanan felt like he was being sucked into it. The realization rang discordantly in his ears, and beneath the shock, he felt a hot bubble of anger rise.
“Oh my God,” he breathed. “Hera—”
“He was always so hard on Ezra,” she whispered, her voice quaking. Kanan’s blood ran cold as ice. “He’d get mad at him for the littlest things. I thought he was just trying to make him tough but—” Hera’s voice broke, and she brought her hand to her mouth, choking back a sob. Kanan’s heart ached, and it took everything he had not to reach out to her. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath.
“I should have known the day we paid that hospital bill, but I thought it was just a rough patch, that we’d get through it. I knew Ezra was frustrating for my ex—he wasn’t an easy baby; he was colicky, and constantly getting sick as a toddler.” She wiped her eyes. “He was smaller and slower than Sabine, too, and everything that came easily to her was more difficult for him, whether it was crawling or potty training or starting preschool. I’d always thought that was because of the complications when he was born, but…” she paused and took a shaky breath, her gaze listing to the ground. “Now I’m starting to think it was because of everything that happened after.”
Kanan’s mouth was dry. “How did you find out?”
Her voice was tight, grief like a hand around her throat. “I found the bruises.”
“Ms. Syndulla?” Dr. Ford entered the waiting room. Hera stood up with a jolt, pulling her purse close to her body. The doctor gestured her back and led her into a private room. Through the glass, Hera could see Ezra, flipping through storybooks.
She turned her gaze to Dr. Ford and held her breath.
“It’s not leukemia,” the doctor said. Hera felt relief soar through her veins.
“Or anemia, or anything else,” Ford continued. “Aside from the contusions, Ezra is a perfectly healthy boy.”
Hera nodded, then pursed her lips. She felt her relief slowly churning back into anxiety. “What about the hunger pangs?”
Ford shrugged apologetically. “Growth spurt, probably.”
Hera frowned, shifting her weight to one hip. “You said he’s small for his age, right?”
“Surprisingly so, actually,” the woman nodded.
The anxiety in her belly grew. “What does that mean?”
“Well,” Ford paused and pursed her lips. “Every child is different, but given his growth charts, he’s a few inches and several pounds below his predicted numbers,” she said. “Especially compared to Zeb and Sabine.”
Hera sighed and steepled her fingers, pressing her index fingers into her forehead. “He didn’t tell you anything else?”
Ford shook her head. “Just that the bruises happen at school. That’s all he’ll say.”
Hera suddenly felt overwhelmed by her helplessness. Tears stung her eyes. The doctor furrowed her brow and gave her a quizzical look.
“Ms. Syndulla, are you alright—”
“Something is wrong with my son.” Hera said, fiercely blinking back tears. “Something is wrong with my son, and I don’t know how to fix it.”
The doctor pursed her lips with sympathy. She hesitated, glancing toward the door, then leaned closer.
“Ms. Syndulla… I don’t mean to imply anything, but if you think there’s any chance someone could be hurting Ezra—”
“You don’t think I’ve thought about that?” Hera snapped, her eyes instantly dry. “You don’t think I’ve called his school, his teacher, his coaches, everyone who’s ever been in contact with him? You don’t think I’m trying to figure that out?”
“I know you are.” Ford’s gaze was sympathetic, but Hera’s tears had stopped coming. “And I know this is stressful. Is… everything alright in your home life, too? No one’s suffering from any… potentially detrimental stress?”
Hera’s gaze turned to ice, and she pinned the woman to the wall with it. Her voice dropped deathly low.
“If you’re suggesting that someone in my family would hurt my son—”
Ford shook her head. “No, never, I just—…” She trailed off with an uncomfortable look on her face. “We have to consider all possible options,” she hedged.
Hera narrowed her eyes, filling her gaze with as much resentment as she could. “Everything at home is fine,” she said icily. “Thank you for your time.”
“I was so naïve.” Hera brought her hand to her forehead, shaking her head. “Looking back, there were all these little signs, but I’d blocked them out. I mean, I’d given up my dream for this family, you know? I wanted it to be perfect.
“And… I did notice that my ex was more affectionate with Zeb and Sabine, and sure, I thought he was a little too hard on Ezra sometimes. But I convinced myself I’d imagined it. That it was nothing. That I had this perfect, fairy tale life.”
She trailed off, shaking her head, giving a derisive, humorless laugh.
“That’s what haunts me the most. My own stupid pride.”
They left the doctor’s office, and Hera helped Ezra into his car seat (the car seat he wasn’t supposed to need, at his age, but needed anyway), blinking furiously to keep the tears at bay.
“Mommy?” Ezra cocked his head at her. “Are you okay?”
Hera sniffled and swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. “No. No, love, I’m not okay.”
Ezra frowned. “Why not?”
“Because I’m worried about you, Ezra!” She tried to keep the frustration out of her voice, gesturing at him. Her son just crinkled his nose.
She felt hysterical laughter bubble up in her chest, and she tried to keep her voice down. “You’ve had these bruises for weeks, Ezra. Weeks! What is going on?”
Ezra’s expression shifted, and he avoided her eyes. “School,” he mumbled into his seatbelt.
“No,” Hera said, her voice rising, “No, it’s not school. I talked to your teacher; I know this isn’t happening at school.”
“It is school!” Ezra protested. “I’m clumsy!”
“Ezra.” Hera’s voice was deathly low, and each word was punctuated, as she indicated the bruises on his back. “This does not happen from being clumsy.”
“It was school! I don’t know!”
“You don’t know?! How can you not know?!”
“I don’t know!” Ezra cried. “Don’t yell at me!”
Tears were streaming down her son’s face, and, Hera realized, her own as well. Taking a deep breath, she crawled over Ezra and shut the car door, so that she was crouching by the side of his seat. He was staring at her with fear in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, love.” Hera said slowly, releasing a breath. “I’m sorry. It’s just… Mommy’s scared, okay? Mommy’s scared, because something is hurting her baby, and she doesn’t know what.” She used her sleeve to wipe the tears from his cheeks. “And Mommy’s job is to protect you, right, love?”
Ezra’s eyes watered as he looked at her. “Right.”
“So if someone is hurting you, Mommy needs to know about it, right?” Hera’s voice was trembling.
“Right,” Ezra whispered.
“Good,” Hera nodded. Her hands were shaking, and she pulled Ezra close to her chest, breathing in his scent.
Ezra was still in her arms. “Mommy?” He whispered.
She could barely hear Ezra, his voice was so quiet. “What about Daddy?”
“Oh, of course, Ez,” Hera pulled away and nodded. “If someone is hurting you, you can tell Daddy, too.”
“No, Mommy…” Ezra looked down and fidgeted with the buckle of his seat belt. “What if it is Daddy?”
She stared at her son, as those words sank into her belly and ripped her world apart.
Hera scrubbed at the tears on her cheeks with her fist. “Sorry.”
Kanan was dumbstruck. “Hera, don’t…”
He didn’t know what to say—there were no words for what had happened to her. “You don’t have to apologize.”
She made a strangled noise, something between a scoff and a sob.
“I have five years’ worth of apologizing to do.”
“How long?” Hera felt panic seizing her gut, her mind spinning in frantic, deadly calculations. She’d discovered the bruises over a month ago, appearing in new spots as they faded in old. The phenomenon that she’d thought was separation anxiety, the way Chopper planted himself next to Ezra when his father was in the same room… Urgency clenched her throat. “Ezra, how long?”
“I—I don’t know,” Ezra said, his lower lip trembling. “As long as I can remember.”
Hera felt like her chest had been hollowed out, her heart and lungs dropping to the floor, a cold emptiness rushing in to take their place. Horror, nausea, and shame all spun inside her and threatened to overwhelm her senses. Her peripheral vision went black; all she could see was her son; her son who’d been abused right under her nose, without her ever knowing it.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Hera choked out.
Ezra was on the verge of tears, his chin wobbling. “Daddy said that if I told anyone, he would hurt them, too,” he whispered. “I didn’t want him to hurt you.”
“Oh, Ezra.” Grief flooded her, filling every cell in her body with anguish. Hera pulled her son to her chest as tears spilled over her eyes. “Oh, my sweet baby boy.” She touched his hair, kissed his forehead, ran her fingers down his arms with a feather-light touch. Ezra was crying too, wet, hiccupping sobs that left tearstains on her sleeve.
Hera pulled away, keeping her hand on his arm. She levelled her gaze at him, and her eyes were teary but filled with a determined fire.
“I promise you, Ezra. I’ll never let him hurt you again.”
“I can’t believe how blind I was.” There were trails of tears on Hera’s face, but she was slowly regaining her composure. “But after that day, it all started coming together. Ezra had been such a joyful kid, but as he got older, he was quieter, more subdued. He never had friends over to the house, and he hated playing sports. He didn’t even like to be hugged.” She sniffled, and paused to wipe her eyes.
“Looking back, I realize a lot of that was the bruising. But there were other things, too. How if I went out for the night, Ezra always seemed to be starving when I came home. The way Chopper started acting around him, sleeping in his bed at night, growling if my ex got too close. How Ez always wanted to be in the same room as me, or ride along in the car if I was going somewhere.” A bitter, self-mocking laugh ripped from Hera’s throat. “I thought it was separation anxiety. God, I was so self-absorbed.”
Kanan thought his own voice would crack. “Hera, there’s no way you could have known—”
“No, but I should have, Kanan,” she said, her voice clenched with steel. “As his mother, I should have known.”
Upon arriving home, Hera helped Ezra take off his shoes and coat. She looked to her husband working at the kitchen table and then to her son, and was devastated to see the flash of fear in his eyes. Grief rushed over her again, only to be replaced by an atavistic rage. Hera took a deep breath.
“Ezra, love, why don’t you run up to your room?”
He nodded and slipped upstairs, and she strode into the kitchen.
“Hey,” he said, his eyes on his computer screen.
“I brought Ezra to the doctor,” she said. Hera walked up until she was standing over him. “About the bruises.”
Her husband tapped at the laptop. “Did they say anything?”
She drew her arm back and slapped him with all her strength. He jerked back and bellowed, clapping his palm over his cheek. He glared at her furiously. “What the hell?”
“You sick bastard,” Hera hissed. “Get out.”
“Get out!” She shouted. “Get out of this house!”
Zeb and Sabine were at the top of the stairs; Ezra by their sides.
“Go to Zeb’s room.” Hera jerked her arm. “All three of you. Now. Don’t come out until I say so.”
Her children stared back at her, their eyes wide and fearful.
“Now, Zeb!” Hera snapped. Jolted into action, the oldest grabbed his brother and sister and retreated to his bedroom. She turned her stare back to her husband, who was closing the laptop.
“I’m going to need to get my clothes—”
“I don’t care,” she cut him off. “Leave now or I call the police.”
He narrowed his eyes at her as if doubting her resolve, and she reached for her phone.
“Okay, okay!” He held up his hands and started moving toward the door. “Jesus.”
Hera watched him, her arms folded, while he collected his shoes and coat. He performed every action slowly, like he was giving her time to think it over, and he didn’t look at her until he was fastening the buttons.
“Don’t do this, Hera.”
She glared back without moving a muscle, and his shoulders sank in a silent sigh.
“Everything we have together, and you’re just going to throw it all away.”
“Everything we have together is a lie,” Hera said.
“So what, we divorce?” He flicked his hands out. “That’s it?”
“Yes,” she spit the word out, dismayed that he even had to ask. She waited for him to pick up his briefcase, but he just stared at her. His expression had changed, and there was something heavy and devastated in it.
“What?” She demanded.
“I love you.” He said it like a plea.
She gaped at him. “You abused our son.”
“It was a mistake, I know, but I can explain—”
She shook her head, but he didn’t stop.
“Hera, please, I can be better, don’t do this—” Suddenly he had her trapped in an embrace, clinging to her and rocking desperately. “Please, you can’t kick me out, I’ll fix it, I love you—”
She fought him off, pushing them apart, landing with her back against the wall. He stumbled but caught his balance, gaping at her with wild eyes.
Her shoulders throbbed. “You’re a sociopath,” she gasped.
His gaze locked on hers and went hard as if a mask had slid back into place. Unnerved, she thrust her hand at the door.
He glared at her one last time, his hand on the doorknob. “This isn’t over.”
She moved forward until he was forced out, took hold of the handle, and shut the door.
Kanan was watching Hera, as she finished telling the story, but her gaze hadn’t left the sidewalk. Her composure had never so much as cracked in front of him, but now exhaustion written in every line of her body.
“Hera, I…” He was lost for words. “I’m so sorry.” He looked at her and wished he could touch her, wished he could wipe the tears off her cheeks and wrap her in his arms.
He also knew that it would be one of the least comforting things he could do at the moment, and so he refrained.
She tried to shrug, but it just looked like she was shifting the weight of the world on her shoulders. “It’s not your fault.”
“I’m sorry I ever asked, I didn’t mean to—”
“Don’t—” She faltered, wringing her hands. Hera looked up at him, and he was startled by the intensity in her eyes. “Don’t apologize for being good. Okay? Please. You deserve to know.”
Kanan was stunned, but he managed to nod. Hera sighed. Her throat felt raw, and her head ached from fighting tears. Whatever alertness had kept her awake was vanished, replaced by a dull, exhausted ache.
“You asked who made it so hard for me to trust people.” She gestured with a limp hand. “That’s him.”
Kanan pursed his lips, watching her with sympathy in his eyes. Neither of them moved for a few minutes; the sorrow in the air was too thick for words to pierce it.
He eventually cleared his throat. “So what happened?”
“Getting rid of him wasn’t easy,” she said. “There was an ugly battle in court for custody of the kids, the house, the money…”
“Custody of the kids?” Kanan gaped. “After what he did?”
She closed her eyes and sighed. “My ex had—has, powerful friends. And because of the kids, I’d never had a real job. The court didn’t look too kindly on that.”
Kanan’s face flattened, sunk by some combination of anger and despair. “I can’t even imagine what you must have gone through,” he said.
Hera barely shrugged.
“I got the kids,” she said, mustering a weak smile. “That’s all that matters.”
Kanan watched Hera out of the corner of his eye—a thread of pride was woven through her exhausted posture. His head was still swimming with questions, but he knew it was time to call it a night.
“Hera… thank you,” he said. “For telling me.”
She shrugged, but there was nothing casual about it. “You deserve to know.”
They didn’t look at each other—couldn’t—but something deeper than their former camaraderie grew between them. It was well past two in the morning, and he was well past a little cold, but he’d never felt more at peace.
“And Kanan?” She said, breaking the silence.
“That… question, you asked me earlier,” she said. “About trusting you.”
Hope thrummed in his chest like a hummingbird.
“I—I do,” she said. Her gaze drifted up to his, and the candor in her eyes had him in a trance. He didn’t see her hand reach out to touch his but then hesitate, and waver back.
Hera cleared her throat. “It’s late.”
He glanced down at his watch and his eyes widened. “Oh, wow. Yup.”
“We should sleep,” she said.
He chuckled. “We should definitely do that.”
They both rose, and he reached for the doorknob, letting her in. The door shut behind them, and Hera watched him lock it before tucking her hair behind her ears and glancing at the staircase.
“Well,” she said, bobbing on her toes. “Goodnight, Kanan.”
He smiled at her and tried to keep the sympathy out of his eyes. “Goodnight.”
Hera made it up the stairs and forwent her own bedroom for Ezra’s. She stood over his bed, watching his chest rise and fall, then slipped under his covers and curled up next to her son. Kanan’s mind would spin for another hour before he fell asleep.
Something had changed between them the next morning. Ezra and Sabine came downstairs, clamoring for breakfast and chattering about the new car. Kanan sat with them at the breakfast bar and drank his coffee, watching Hera and seeing her in an entirely new light as she packed their lunches. If she was as tired as he was from staying up the previous night, she didn't show it.
As Ezra and Sabine unloaded the dishwasher, the clink of plates and forks suffusing the kitchen with sound, Hera passed behind him.
"Stop that," she said quietly.
He looked at her, bewildered. "Stop what?"
She set the lunch boxes in her children's respective chairs, speaking under her breath. "You're looking at me like I'm fragile."
Kanan swallowed, his mouth dry. "Sorry."
She moved away to help the twins, and he took a long sip of his coffee.
Kanan worked later than usual that night—he told himself that giving his hands something to do would help him sort out his thoughts, but there was the underlying reason that he didn't trust himself to be around Hera without saying, doing, or even looking something wrong.
He had hoped to roll in right after everyone had sat down for dinner, chat with the kids about school, and thus avoid the topic completely—instead, he walked in to find Hera standing over a pot on the stove, the kitchen silent save the sound of water boiling and the kids nowhere in sight.
His stomach jumped a little when she looked up.
"Hey," she said.
Kanan tested his tongue. "Hey," he said. "Um, about this morning—"
"About this morning—"
They started and stopped in tandem, chuckling awkwardly. Hera pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
"Sorry," she said. "You first."
Kanan cleared his throat. "I was going to apologize," he said.
She gave him a bashful smile. "And I was going to tell you that I overreacted."
He felt relief wash over him. "Well," Kanan said. "That was easy." They each chuckled, feeling a little awkward but mostly relieved, and then there was silence. He shifted his weight.
"Hera, um… I really appreciate you telling me," he said. "It means a lot."
She smiled at him. "You're welcome."
She turned to the pantry and started to search for something.
Kanan rocked on his toes. "If you don't mind, though, I was wondering…" he swallowed, watching her back. "Where is he now?"
Moving more slowly, Hera retrieved a box of pasta. "He still works for the Academy," she said. "Lives on the other side of town."
"Do you ever see him?" Kanan asked.
Hera tipped the box into the pot on the stove and shook her head without turning around. "There's a restraining order. Even if he wanted to come, he couldn't."
Kanan felt unease settle in his stomach. "That came out of the lawsuit?" he asked.
"That and the child support." She let out a sardonic scoff and stirred the contents of the pot. "He's followed through on one of them so far."
Her tone was so casual that Kanan almost missed her meaning.
"He… hasn't paid child support?" he asked.
Hera shook her head.
"Hera…" Kanan stared at her. "He can't do that."
"He beat Ezra, he manipulated you, he—" Anger burned in his chest, roaring to life. "After everything he did, he won't pay child support? Are you serious?"
"Lower your voice," she hissed, with a glance upstairs.
"Okay, but Hera—" He tried to soften his tone, but outrage kept it far from a whisper. "Don't you think that's a little problematic?"
Her eyes narrowed. "You do not need to lecture me on how problematic he is."
Kanan lifted his hands. "I'm sorry, Hera, but that's fuc—"
She arched an eyebrow at him and pointed upstairs, and it had the same effect as if she'd levelled a gun at his head.
"Screwed up," Kanan amended quickly. "He owes you that money; he owes the kids that money. We should do something—"
"Kanan, stop," Hera sighed. She pinched the bridge of her nose and looked at him with tired eyes. "He stopped sending the checks years ago."
He looked at her in disbelief, and his anger froze.
Hera nodded. Kanan exhaled slowly, realized his fists were clenched and uncurled them, letting the tension out of his muscles. She folded up the pasta box, slipped it into the recycling bin, and gave the pot on the stove another slow stir. He took a deep breath and sank into a seat at the breakfast bar.
"I don't get it," he finally looked up. "Why didn't you go to court?"
"I did," she scoffed. "They can hear the case in eight months."
He looked back down at the counter. "Oh."
"We would have survived on my teaching salary, but that's not the life I wanted to give them," she said. "They have sports to play, and college funds, and summer camps and piano lessons and art class…" Hera trailed off, her gaze going out the window. She sighed and gave the pasta another stir.
"I didn't want them to feel like having one less parent made them less than any other kid," she said. "So, I started working at the bar. Put in the ad for the room. Got really, really good at couponing."
After a beat, she sighed, waving her hand at him.
"Kanan. That was a joke."
"Sorry," he looked up, trying and failing to muster a laugh. "It's just…"
"Don't say sad," she said, a warning note in her voice.
"Unfair," he said, quickly. "It's maddeningly unfair." Kanan looked up at her, his eyebrows furrowed. "I mean, doesn't it frustrate you?"
"Of course it does," she said. "When he first stopped sending the money, I was furious."
Hera pulled her purse tighter to her body as she walked up the steps. His new house was a mansion, reflecting his promotion and accompanying raise in every copper gutter and manicured hedge. She rang the doorbell, and when a shadow appeared through the translucent windows, she half-expected a butler to answer.
She wished it had been a butler—when her eyes landed on him, the first time since the trial, she wasn't sure if it was fear or anger that sparked like a jumper cable clamped to her stomach.
"Why, Hera," he said. "What an unexpected surprise." Miniature claws of disgust scurried up her spine, and he stepped backward, holding the door open. "Come in."
She stepped into the foyer and held her chin high. "I won't be staying long."
He had already started walking down the hallway. She clenched her teeth and followed him into the kitchen, where a half-empty glass of wine was on the table.
"Can I offer you anything?" he asked, raising the glass in her direction. "Wine, refreshments?"
She set her jaw, striding right up to him. "Child support would be nice."
He sighed, swirling the wine in his glass. "Typical Hera, heading straight to business without so much as a wave to pleasure as it goes by."
"Pleasure is rarely synonymous with our visits," Hera said.
He raised an eyebrow. "Then what brings you here?"
"You didn't send this month's child support," she said.
"Oh, dear." His face fell in mock distress. "I'm afraid I just used up the last of it on a new watch."
Her stomach twisted. "You're disgusting."
He set the glass on the counter. "Didn't anyone ever warn you not to bite the hand that feeds you?" He clucked disapprovingly, and she fought her rising hatred down. "Well, I'm sure your judgment's just a little clouded. After all, you do love your children always and forever and into the stars," he mocked. Hera gritted her teeth. She wanted to claw into his throat and rip the last reverberations of those words from his vocal cords, but all she could do was glare.
"Just send the money," she said. "They're your kids too."
"Are they?" He arched an eyebrow. "That's not what the judge decided at our divorce hearing."
With no other outlet for her detestation, Hera drove her fingernails into her palms. "The judge also decided that you would pay your child support," she said.
"Forget the child support." He waved a dismissive hand. "Come back, Hera." His tone changed, suddenly loving, and he gestured around the kitchen. "Live here, with me, in comfort. The kids could have everything they ever wanted, without this bureaucratic nonsense."
"Never." Hera's eyes blazed. "I won't let my children be raised by a snake."
"Charming," he deadpanned. "Remind me, was that in your wedding vows?"
She glared at him, and he gave a heavy sigh. "Hera, Hera, Hera." She hated him more with every disapproving discharge of her name. "They're missing out on so many opportunities, being raised by just one parent. If they were here, they could live up to their full potential. They're smart kids—well, Sabine and Zeb, anyway," he shrugged, the malice in his gesture calculated.
"Ezra is just as bright as his siblings," Hera said fiercely. "He might be even more so, if not for what you did to him."
"Oh, Hera," he clucked sadly, shaking his head. "Regardless of my interventions, Ezra never had a fighting chance. Born so small, hooked up to all those tubes for so long… I still can't believe you wanted to fight for him, after what they were charging us. What a waste. Why, with that money, you could have gone to flight school." His voice was like oil.
"You're loathsome," she hissed.
"Impressive vocabulary word," he sneered. "I see teaching at Alliance hasn't dumbed you down too much. Do you still dream of flying?"
She looked away from him, providing the answer to his question. He nodded slowly. "You know I could give that to you, Hera." His tone had changed, becoming low and intense.
"Like you did when we were married?" she spat.
"Darling, it's all in the timing." He looked offended, but she knew better than to believe him. "The children were so young then, you couldn't have possibly managed school and taken care of them. Now that they're older, however…" he trailed off, leaving her to fill in a blank that would always be empty.
"Right." Her voice was bitter. "That's what's changed."
"Why, Hera, I'm hurt." He touched a hand to his heart. "You know I supported your dream from the start."
She rolled her eyes, but he moved closer to her.
"I'm moving up at the Academy, you know," he said. "I could easily cover the cost." His voice was low in her ear.
She crossed her arms and stepped back. "I'd prefer a child support check."
"Hera…" He sighed. "You know I'll provide for you if you just come back to me. We could be a family again."
Her eyes blazed. "We were never a family."
In an instant, his loving coo was gone, replaced by narrowed eyes and a scathing tone. "Then why do you still expect my financial support?"
Hera wanted to scream. At that moment, she would have given everything she had to go back to their wedding night and throw the rings down the sewer. Instead, she met his eyes, cast her revulsion away, and took a deep, shaky breath.
The conceit vanished from his eyes, and he stared at her, his face awash with shock. For the first time since she'd entered, his gaze was unclouded, and Hera took a step forward, her voice pleading.
"Don't take this out on our children."
He looked at her for a long time, and then finally, his shoulders dropped. With a huff of exasperation, he pulled out his wallet and scribbled in his checkbook, then tore it out and shoved it at her.
"Here's two-thirds of the money," he said. "I won't pay a cent for that boy."
She was too relieved to be upset. "Thank you," Hera breathed. She clutched the slip of paper tightly, as if he would yank it back.
He recovered his glower as she headed for the door. "You can't hang on to them forever, Hera. Sooner or later, they'll need me. You all will!"
The only response she dignified him with was the sound of the door closing behind her.
"I was proud of myself, then," Hera said. "But every month it got harder. He kept demanding more, holding out longer. It got harder and harder to convince him…" Her eyes flicked down. "He grabbed me, once. That was when I decided I'd had enough."
Kanan chest ached. "I'm sorry," he said.
She looked at him, not unkindly. "You've been doing a lot of apologizing for things that aren't your fault lately."
"Well, I…" he trailed off. "I don't know what else to say."
She gave him a sympathetic shrug. "That's half the reason I don't tell many people. Talking about it isn't easy, but somehow the sympathy you get is worse."
He'd felt the same way when his mother had died, so he just nodded.
After a moment, he asked, "So, if you're both still in town… how many other people know?"
Hera pressed her lips in a thin line. "He paid a lot of money… and I mean a lot of money, to keep me quiet. I always knew he cared about his image, but I'd never realized how much he thought it was worth." Her voice was bitter.
Kanan couldn't quite believe what he was hearing.
"So… no one knows about the abuse?" He stared at her, hoping she'd contradict him.
Hera just shook her head. "Obviously we couldn't hide the divorce, but as far as everyone knows, things just… didn't work out."
Kanan couldn't stop his eyebrows from raising. "Seriously?"
She pursed her lips and nodded. "I mean, it's on his permanent record, but he doesn't exactly have to carry that around with him."
Kanan narrowed his eyes. "Doesn't he work at a school?"
"Administration," she said, with a plaintive sigh. "No direct contact with the kids. They kept him there because they're all snakes and he's good at his job." Her eyes darkened. "The Academy only cares about its numbers. He could hit a thousand children, but as long as he's performing well, he'll stay."
Kanan watched her closely. "Doesn't that make you angry?" He asked.
Hera pursed her lips took a deep breath, sighing it out. "It did," she said. "At first." She picked up the spoon and gave the pasta an absent-minded stir. "I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, you know? Make sure no woman or child would ever be hurt by him again."
She dragged the spoon around the pot, then paused.
"But frankly, Kanan, I was already the talk of the town for divorcing him," she said. "I mean, my ex is successful, popular, charismatic… he had everybody fooled, he still does. Women still ask me for the real story behind our divorce, if they're feeling bold. To give them child abuse to talk about, besides everything else…" She picked up the spoon, moving it again.
"It's better for everyone not to know," she said. "It protects me, it protects the kids…"
Hera trailed off, her eyes on the bubbling water.
"Besides, how could I show my face to them, once everyone knew I was the mother that let it happen?"
His heart ached for her. "Hera—"
She looked up, her eyes blazing. "I should have known, Kanan," she said. "It's kind of you to try and tell me otherwise, but I will go to my grave regretting that I didn't stop him sooner."
He knew that she was right, that nothing he could say would change her mind, so he just sighed.
"I'm sorry," he said. His shoulders felt heavy on his back.
Despite the solemnity in the air, she looked at him with a hand on her hip, the corners of her lips raised in something close to a smile.
"There you go the apologizing again," she said. He opened his mouth to say something, but she'd already turned her attention back to the stove.
Despite his lingering questions, Kanan actively tried not bring it up again—he felt Hera had been more than generous with what was obviously sensitive information, and he knew it wasn't an easy subject. It wasn't like the family had been shrouded in mystery before, but now, smaller idiosyncrasies had started making sense: Ezra's anxiety, Zeb's protective attitude toward him, even, Kanan hated to admit, how the boy seemed to struggle more than Sabine did in school.
The next few days passed normally. Kanan attended one of Ezra's soccer games with Hera; it hadn't occurred to him that his newfound knowledge might affect the experience, and he was startled by how much his perception had changed.
He hadn't forgotten how hesitant she'd been to bring him to a game, but that first time, he hadn't noticed the multiple sets of eyes on them. Now, after everything they'd talked about, he couldn't help but feel like they, instead of the kids, were the main attraction. It was only the second game he'd attended—Hera had never missed one—but the pointed looks and whispers when they approached the field and set their chairs up were impossible to ignore. Said looks and whispers didn't stop once the game started—if anything, the distraction of the kids only emboldened the gossiping parents behind them, as if they assumed the footfalls of running feet would give them cover. Kanan was starting to feel like a specimen in a laboratory, and he hadn't realized how viscerally he was reacting until Hera nudged him with her elbow.
"Ignore them," she whispered, with a pointed look at his hands. He looked down to find his fists clenched.
When they returned home, he stopped her in the garage after the kids had entered the house.
"How do you do it?" Kanan asked. Her back was to him, as she retrieved their lawn chairs from the car, and she turned around. "How do you just sit there and act so calm, when you know they're talking about you?"
Hera hung the chairs on a peg on the wall. "I've gotten used to ignoring it," she said. "You should have heard them at last week's game, when you weren't there."
Kanan's eyebrows raised, but before he could say anything, Sabine flung open the door and informed them that she was hungry and they were taking too long, effectively ending the conversation.
They followed her into the kitchen, where Zeb was setting a casserole on the table. Hera had put him on dinner duty that night—Kanan was constantly impressed by how much the kids helped around the house, especially the teenager. Zeb was often put to work helping prep dinner and sometimes cooked the entire meal himself.
"Dinner à la Zeb," he said, gesturing to the casserole with a flourish.
"It smells great, Zeb," Hera said. She and Kanan took a seat at the table, where Ezra and Sabine were already waiting. "I can't tell you how nice it is to come home and have dinner already on the table. Thank you for cooking."
Zeb blushed as he sat down. "Well, you do it for us every other night of the week. I figured it was about my turn."
"Hey, I can make dinner one night!" Sabine said, then whispered to Kanan, "Does cereal count as dinner?"
"Sure it does," Kanan said as he served himself from the dish.
"No," Hera corrected, giving them a pointed look.
"I can make grilled cheese and tomato soup!" Ezra said. "That counts as dinner, right?"
Hera smiled. "Exactly, thank you, Ezra—"
"Except I can't use the stove yet, so the grilled cheese would have to be cold. And so would the soup," Ezra said. "And someone would probably have to open the can for me."
"You can do the soup in the microwave," Sabine said.
"Hey, it's my dinner, not yours," Ezra said.
"Fine," Sabine said. "I'll make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches then."
"Um, that's lunch, not dinner. Duh," Ezra said.
"Ezra, be nice," Hera said.
"Actually, Ezra, I've had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner plenty of times," Kanan said.
"What?" Ezra's eyes bugged out. "No way! Mom, when do I get to do that?"
"When you're in college," Hera said dryly.
"Oh, I wish I could tell you I was in college when I did it," Kanan said, making the kids laugh.
Hera raised a playful eyebrow. "You know, we have been running out of peanut butter and jelly faster than usual," she said, cocking her head at Kanan. "And bread."
"What can I say?" Kanan shrugged. "A man needs his second dinner."
Ezra was looking at Kanan in awe. "I can't wait to be older," he said.
Hera shook a finger at him, her tone light. "You stay young as long as you can, you hear me?"
Ezra pretended to pout. "But being younger means you have a bedtime."
"Yeah," Sabine chimed in. "When you're older you can stay up late and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for any meal."
"Well, maybe we can have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for bedtime snack tonight," Hera said. "I think that would be a good compromise, yeah?"
Sabine crossed her arms. "Compromise is just your way of saying that we're not going to get what we want," she said.
Ezra and Zeb exchanged a look.
Hera raised an eyebrow at her daughter. "Or I could have you clean up all the dinner dishes and send you to bed without a snack for sassing with your mother," she said.
Sabine blanched, and quickly uncrossed her arms and sat ramrod-straight in her chair. "No thank you," she said.
Hera's expression cracked with the tiniest smile. "Compromise is sounding pretty good now, huh?"
Sabine saluted. "Yes ma'am."
Dinner continued without so much as a whisper of sass, and when their plates were empty and the conversation lulled, Hera cleared her throat.
"Zeb, I know you cooked, but would you and Kanan mind doing the dishes?" she asked. "I've got a lot of work to catch up on."
Kanan and Zeb exchanged a look in which Hera wasn't sure whom looked more uneasy.
Kanan began, "I don't mind—"
"I—I can do them by myself, Mom," Zeb said, with another nervous look at the man. "Kanan's probably got better things to do."
"I'm sure he can spare few minutes," Hera said, with a smile at both of them that left no room for debate. "Thank you, Kanan."
And just like that, she, Ezra, and Sabine were gone, leaving Kanan and Zeb standing in the kitchen alone. Zeb took one look at Kanan and went over to the sink.
"Um," Kanan said, following him slowly. "You wash, I dry?"
"Sure," Zeb said. They began the dishes in silence, running water the only sound in the kitchen. Kanan wracked his brain for something, anything, to talk about.
"So, uh… football's good?" he asked.
"Yeah," Zeb said. "Yeah, um, yeah, the team's good."
"Good," Kanan said.
"Yeah," Zeb said.
Two more plates passed between them.
Kanan cleared his throat. "And, uh, school? School's good?" he asked.
"Yeah," Zeb said. "Yeah, school's good."
After a few more dishes came through, Kanan found himself drying a paring knife and thinking that he could have cut the tension in the room with it.
"Look, about last week, I'm, uh, sorry I didn't invite you to the birthday dinner," Zeb said suddenly, without lifting his eyes from the sink. "It, um, wasn't very cool of me."
Kanan finished drying the knife and tried to conceal his shock. "Zeb, you… you don't have to apologize," he said.
"Yeah, but… I feel bad." Zeb didn't look up from the dish he was scrubbing. "Ezra and Sabine really like you."
Kanan couldn't help but snort. "Ezra and Sabine, huh?"
Zeb's cheeks went red, and he scrubbed harder. "Well, it's not that I don't like you, it's just… it's strange."
Kanan knew better than to press a teenager for specifics. "Of course," he said.
"We haven't…" Zeb trailed off. "I mean, I've been the oldest guy in the house for a long time, but at the end of the day, I'm still just their brother. I think it's good for them to have someone… I don't know, someone older. Someone else. It's… it's been a while."
Kanan chose his next words very carefully. "You know, I grew up without my dad," he said. "It's not easy."
"I wish I'd grown up without mine," Zeb said. He must have noticed Kanan pause, because he shrugged, and added, "Mom said she told you."
Kanan nodded. Zeb turned off the water and looked at him.
"I don't care if you know," he said. "But don't treat us any differently."
"Of course not—"
"Especially not Ezra or my mom."
There was something determined in the teenager's posture, and he stared at Kanan with his arms folded across his chest.
"I would never," Kanan said, and he meant it like a promise. Zeb nodded and relaxed just slightly.
"She doesn't tell a lot of people, you know," he said. "She trusts you."
Kanan didn't know what to say to that, so he just nodded.
Zeb turned the faucet back on. "Don't mess it up."
In a different situation, hearing that from a teenager might have made Kanan laugh, but there was something serious in Zeb's tone, something heavy. He reached forward and turned off the faucet, and waited until the teen looked him in the eyes.
"Zeb," he said, "I promise you. The last thing I want to do is hurt your mom, or your siblings, or you."
Zeb blinked back at him.
"I know having me here might seem… strange, sometimes, but being part of this family means a lot to me," Kanan said.
Zeb nodded. "Good."
He turned the water back on, and they continued the dishes in companionable silence. As he washed the last plate, Zeb cleared his throat.
"I, um, never really got a chance to thank you for the car, so… thank you," he said.
"You're welcome," Kanan said. The mood had lightened considerably. "You like it?"
"It's super cool." Zeb's eyes were bright. "I mean, I don't know much about cars, but…"
"You should come work at the garage," Kanan said. "I'll teach you."
"Really?" Zeb's eyes were eager.
"Sure," Kanan said. "I could use an extra set of hands."
Zeb grinned. "Awesome," he said. He passed the plate to Kanan and dried his hands. "And, thanks for the help with the dishes. Even if my mom kind of made you do them."
Kanan chuckled. "No problem," he said. As Zeb started to wander off, he cleared his throat.
"Hey, um, this was good, yeah?" Kanan said. "A little talk, man to man?"
Zeb gave him a look and shook his head. "You're ruining it," he said, but there was a hint of a smile on his face as he walked away.
Wherever Hera and the kids had vanished to during their conversation, she reappeared after they'd gone to bed. Kanan found her reading a book in the living room; after a moment of consideration, he entered the room and plopped down next to her on the couch.
"So, the craziest thing happened earlier tonight."
Hera looked up from her book.
"Zeb apologized for not inviting me to his birthday dinner," he said.
Her eyebrows rose, and she marked her page and set the book down. "Did he?"
"He did," Kanan said. "We had a really good talk, actually."
Hera smiled. "I'm glad to hear it."
Kanan settled into the couch. "It's funny, you know, when I first moved in with you guys… I didn't really think he liked me," he said.
"Mm," Hera's response was noncommittal, somewhere between a nod and a chuckle, and her gaze drifted from his. Kanan cocked his head.
"Which, I mean, I understand, coming from a teenager, but… It seems like we're doing okay now," he said, hoping to bait her in.
Hera pursed her lips. She shifted so that she was facing him, tucking her legs into the couch.
"Zeb… remembers his father," she said. She licked her lips and paused again; clearly choosing every word with care. "Which makes him very protective of me."
"Oh." Kanan's lips flattened into a grim line. "I see."
Hera paused before speaking again. She cleared her throat.
"You know I dated for a while, after the divorce," she said. Her gaze went to her hands in her lap. "That was really hard for him. And for Ezra—he was so young, he couldn't draw the distinction between the man that had hurt him and the men that wouldn't.
"Zeb had been close with his father, and when the abuse came out he was blindsided. For a while, he didn't trust anyone I brought home, even if it was just a friend coming over to fix a faucet."
She pursed her lips. "It was definitely… hard for him, when you moved in," Hera said. "But I think you've really grown on him."
Kanan smiled. "I'm glad to hear that."
She smiled back.
"So." Kanan nodded to the book she was reading. "Is that for school, or did you get through all your work while we did the dishes?"
"Oh, I didn't have much work to get through," Hera said as she picked up the book. "I just needed a reason for him to talk to you."
Kanan's mouth dropped open, and she flipped the book open with an impish grin.
"Hera Syndulla, you are, quite literally, one sly mother," he said, shaking his head. She laughed out loud before returning to the book.
The following morning, Kanan sipped his coffee at the breakfast bar as the family prepared to leave.
"Well, Zeb, are you taking the new truck to school?" he asked.
"No," Hera said, making the twins laugh. Zeb gave his mother a wounded look. "We're all going the same place anyways, love, it doesn't make sense to pay for gas or parking," she told him.
"No buts," she said. "Besides, you're not even insured yet; it would be completely illegal. What if something happened?"
"I'm a good driver—"
"That doesn't protect you from all the bad drivers!" Ezra and Sabine chorused, making Kanan chuckle and Zeb groan.
"Thank you," Hera told them, with a pointed look at Zeb.
"What if I pay for the insurance?" Zeb pleaded.
Hera put her hands on her hips. "With what money?"
"I could get a job—"
Hera sighed. "I've told you, Zeb, your job is to be a student."
"A student who wants to drive his car," Zeb said.
"Love, you can't work during football season anyways," she said. "You need your free time to study and have fun, and you'd never find a place that would take your available hours."
"Kanan said I could start working for him at the garage," Zeb said.
Hera arched an eyebrow and swiveled her stare onto Kanan, who froze mid-sip. "Did he?"
Kanan blanched, and set down his coffee and cleared his throat. "I… may have mentioned it."
"When we were washing the dishes last night," Zeb chimed in.
Hera looked between the two men, arms akimbo, and eventually pinched the bridge of her nose.
"We'll talk about this when we get home," she said. "Now come on, we're going to be late."
"We wouldn't be late if you'd just let me drive the new car—"
The teen shoved his hands in his pockets and slung his backpack over one shoulder with a dramatic groan. "Fiiiiiiiiiine."
Hera shooed him forward, and the twins waved to Kanan as they were ushered out the door.
Reeking of football practice, Zeb was dropped off by one of his teammates, just as Hera and Sabine were sitting down for dinner. Sabine was carrying a platter to the table, and nearly dropped it as he walked past her.
"Ugh," she wrinkled her nose. "You stink."
"Do not," Zeb said, taking the platter from her and setting it on the table. "Are you being a good helper for Mom?"
"Mhm," Sabine nodded. "I did all the dishes and all the carrying." She glanced at the platter he'd moved. "Well, until now."
"Atta girl," Zeb said, and ruffled her hair.
She shrieked and darted away from him, yelling "Ugh, stink hands, gross!"
Zeb laughed and chased her, but then halted, looking around.
"Soccer practice," Hera said, checking her watch. "He should be home soon."
Appeased, Zeb nodded. The family sat down for dinner, and the front door opened a minute later.
"Ezra?" Hera called. "That you?"
"Yeah." Ezra's voice was faint.
"Come eat, love, dinner's ready," she said.
"I'll be there in a minute."
Hera furrowed her brow and stood up from the table, walking towards the front hall.
Moments later, Kanan heard her gasp. He and Zeb both jumped out of their chairs, and Zeb looked at him before running toward the front door, Kanan and Sabine on his heels.
Ezra was sitting on the rug in the front hall, his uniform scuffed with dirt and his coat, soccer bag and backpack in a crumpled heap at his side.
Hera was crouched in front of him, her fingertips gently skimming a dark bruise on his arm.
Kanan slowed to a stop. Bile churned in his stomach.
"Zeb, turn the light on," Hera murmured, her gaze never leaving Ezra. Zeb complied, and Sabine approached her brother, kneeling at his level. Her eyes were doleful, and her lips downturned in a sympathetic frown.
"What happened?" she asked.
"I ran into the goalpost," Ezra said, his gaze on his feet. Kanan watched Hera's eyes narrow.
"Did you run into it, or did someone push you?" she asked.
Ezra's lower lip trembled. "I—I got pushed."
"You got pushed—?!"
"We were scrimmaging, and I was trying to stop Mart from making a goal," he said.
"And he pushed you out of the way?" Hera asked.
"I don't think he was trying to push me that hard," Ezra said, looking up at her. "He felt really bad about it afterward. He helped carry my backpack and everything."
Hera folded her arms. "Do I need to call his parents?"
"No," Ezra shook his head. "It was an accident."
Hera's mouth was a tight line, but she said no more. Sabine frowned, squinting closer at the bruise.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
"A little," Ezra said.
Hera sighed and stood up, putting her hands on her hips. "Let's get you cleaned up, love."
Ezra nodded, and she took his hand, leading him past the forgotten dinner on the table and toward the laundry room. When they were out of sight, Zeb reached for Ezra's bags.
"Here," Kanan said, "Let me help you."
Zeb looked him over and nodded.
"I can get some ice," Sabine said, looking between the two of them for confirmation.
Zeb almost managed to smile at her. "I think Ezra would like that."
With gentle hands, Hera wiped a streak of dirt off Ezra's cheek. His lower lip trembled against the rag.
"I'm sorry, Momma," he said.
"Oh, Ezra," Hera said. "You don't have to be sorry."
"But you're crying," Ezra said. Hera touched a hand to her cheek and discovered that she was.
"Oh," she said. She cleared her throat and scrubbed at her eyes. "Momma's not unhappy with you, Ezra. It just… makes me unhappy to see you get hurt."
Ezra stared at her solemnly, and reached forward to wipe a tear off her cheek.
"I don't want you to be sad, Momma," he said. "It was just an accident."
Hera tightened her lips together to keep from crying. "I know, love," she said. "I know."
Sabine came in.
"Hey, Mom," she said. "Hey, Ez. I brought you some ice." She handed him a plastic bag wrapped in a towel.
Hera blinked rapidly to clear her eyes. "Thank you, Sabine."
"Thanks, Bean," Ezra said.
"I can stay and help you hold it on your arm, if you want," Sabine said.
Hera smiled. "That's very kind of you, Sabine, but I think we'll be alright. Why don't you go finish dinner with Kanan and Zeb? They're probably hungry."
Sabine hesitated, her gaze shifting between Ezra and her mother. Ezra gave her a nod and a weak smile as if encouraging to go on, and she acquiesced, slipping out the door.
Hera turned her attention back to Ezra. "Now let's see that arm," she said. Ezra turned his injured side toward her, and she rolled up his sleeve. "Does it hurt anywhere else?"
"Um…" He broke her gaze, staring down at the floor.
"Ezra, if you don't tell me, I can't make it better," Hera said.
Ezra looked up at her with doleful eyes. "But every time I get hurt, you get sad," he said.
Hera's heart sank. She cupped his chin so he was looking at her.
"I get sad when all of my babies get hurt," she said, slowly and firmly. "And the only way for me to feel better is to know that you're going to feel better. Does that make sense?"
"Now, where else?"
He bit his lip and tugged his shift up, revealing a bruise on his torso, on the same side as his arm. Hera felt tears sting her eyes, but he was watching her carefully, his blue eyes measuring her every movement, so she just cleared her throat and blinked them away.
"Okay," she said, hearing her voice hoarse. Pull it together, Hera. "Okay. That's everything?"
Ezra nodded, still watching her shrewdly.
"Alright," she said. "Here, hand me the ice."
When they returned to the dinner table, all of the dirt and turf had been wiped away. The scrapes on his arms and knees from hitting the ground had been bandaged, and the bruises on his torso and arm had been wrapped with bags of ice. Hera guided Ezra to the couch, followed closely by Kanan, Zeb and Sabine's eyes.
"You can rest right here, love," she said. "Are you hungry?"
"A little," Ezra said.
"I'll get you something to eat," she said. When Hera returned to the kitchen, Sabine came up and tugged her sleeve.
"Can I eat on the couch, too?" she whispered.
"Sure," Hera said, and handed her a plate. "Why don't you bring this to your brother and then sit next to him?"
Sabine grinned—they were only allowed to eat on the couch on special occasions—and brought Ezra his plate. Hera joined him on the couch, her food long gone cold at the table, and sat on Ezra's uninjured side. He leaned into her and she curled an arm around him. Sabine filled her plate with seconds and came to sit on Hera's other side.
"Hey Mom?" she asked.
"Can we watch cartoons?"
Sabine looked up at her mother with a pleading grin. Hera looked down between her two children, and a soft smile graced her lips.
"Alright," she said. "Just this once."
"Yes," Sabine cheered, and reached over to high-five her brother's good arm. "Zeb, come on, watch cartoons with us!"
"I have homework," the teen said, but he'd already stood up to join them on the couch. Sabine reached for the remote and started flipping through the channels. "Alright, come here, you," he pretended to growl, swinging her into his lap. Sabine squealed with delight.
Kanan remained in the kitchen, feeling for all the world like an observer watching them through a pane of glass. Eventually he rose with the intent of doing the dishes, and Sabine's eyes, glued to the screen, darted over to him.
"Mr. Kanan, aren't you going to watch with us?" she asked. Kanan was astounded by the warmth and relief that rushed through him at the offer. Even Ezra looked up, nodding and gesturing with his good hand to wave him over.
"Well," Kanan pretended to hedge, "I suppose the dishes could wait a few minutes."
Sabine gave him a room-brightening grin. "Here, you can sit by me and Zeb," she said, patting the space next to them. Kanan's gaze went to both Hera and Zeb for confirmation, but they just nodded and smiled. With his heart light, he took his place on the couch.
They watched cartoons until bedtime—Kanan was still amused to find designations for time like "bedtime" slipping into his vocabulary—and then Hera put the kids to bed. Later, Kanan overheard her at the table in the kitchen, speaking on the phone.
"Hi, Coach Windu? It's Hera Syndulla… Good, thank you."
"Right, I'm sorry, I know it's late, but I was just wondering about practice today…"
"Well, Ezra came home with a bad bruise on his arm and—"
"Okay. Yes, that's what he said."
"Well, of course I believed him, I just—"
"No, Coach, I wouldn't call this disproportionate concern."
"Yes, I know that it's a contact sport."
"Right, right, they're kids, they get hurt all the time—"
"Yes. Yes, I know."
"Okay. Mhm. Okay, thank you. See you at the next game. Yep, you too. Okay. Bye."
The phone fell to the table with a clatter.
Kanan moved further into the room and made himself visible, and upon noticing him, she cringed, glancing guiltily at the phone.
"Everything… okay?" he asked.
Her expression was unreadable. "Fine." Hera's eyes flicked back down to the table.
"You know…" Kanan sat across from her. "I'm sure it was just an accident. Come tomorrow, he won't even remember it's there."
When she finally looked up at him, her smile was thin. "Of course."
Hera stood up from the table and pushed in her chair. "Goodnight, Kanan," she said.
He glanced at the clock; it was barely 8:30. She was already halfway up the stairs.
"Goodnight," he said, and watched her go with a silent sigh.
Hera had put Ezra down to bed only minutes ago, but she stopped by his door on the way to her room.
"Need anything, love?" she asked.
Ezra was propped up on his pillows, an ice bag at his side. "No thanks," he said. "I'm good."
Hera came into the room and picked up the ice. "It won't be good for you to fall asleep with this," she said. "Does it still hurt?"
Ezra yawned. "No," he said. "The medicine helped."
She'd given him a dose of child's ibuprofen with dinner. The thought of her baby being in any pain, after how much he'd gone through, had long overruled any hesitation Hera held over giving her children drugs.
"Good," she said. "I'm sure it'll feel much better in the morning."
"Do you feel better?"
Hera was surprised. "Me?"
"Mhm," Ezra nodded. "You said that the only way for you to feel better is for you to take care of us."
Hera smiled, remembering. "Yes, Ez. I do feel better."
He blinked up at her. "Do you want to sleep here?"
"No, love, but thank you," she said. "I don't want to bump you when I fall asleep."
"You wouldn't hurt me," Ezra said.
"I—" Hera was shocked at how quickly those words choked her up. She blinked rapidly against rising tears and turned her head away. "I—I know. Goodnight, Ezra."
She shut the door and left the bag of ice to melt in the bathroom sink. Hera entered her own room with a lump high in her throat, at Ezra's words—
You wouldn't hurt me.
When she'd first seen him, crumpled on the carpet with a bruise on his arm, her mind had jumped not to an accident at soccer practice but to her ex. The bruise on his torso flashed her back to the day she'd found out, fear pooling in her stomach like ice water.
It was hard enough for Hera when Zeb brought bruises back from a football game, or Sabine came home scraped up at recess, but anytime Ezra showed so much as a scratch it sent her spiraling into a visceral reaction of nausea and fear.
He'd found him.
He'd hurt him.
The thoughts dragged her down like quicksand, overwhelming her. Visions of Ezra's back, beaten and bruised, of when her ex had done his worst piled up in her mind, and she sank to the ground, leaning her back against her bedframe.
Hera crumpled into herself and sobbed. She knew, rationally, that she couldn't protect him from everything, but that didn't make it any easier when he was hurt.
Zeb touched a light hand on Ezra's uninjured shoulder when he came down for breakfast the next morning.
"How ya feeling, champ?" he asked.
"Better," Ezra said. "But I have to miss the game tonight."
"Darn right you do," Hera said from the table. She was grading a stack of what looked like lab reports. She didn't often grade in the morning, but Kanan guessed last night's events had pushed her back. He took out two mugs for coffee.
"Zeb, love, would you be a dear and make the twin's lunches?" Hera asked. "I've got to get these handed back today."
"Sure," Zeb said. They'd switched from school lunch back to home lunch recently, which was significant for reasons far beyond flavor. Zeb knew it was a simplistic model, but brown-bagging over buying the reduced-price school lunch was one of the few indicators he had that his mother wasn't worried about finances.
Sabine looked up from her cereal. "Can I have—"
"Peanut butter and jelly with strawberry on one half and grape on the other?" Zeb winked at her. "Sure thing."
She gave him her sweetest smile. "Thank you."
Hera flipped through another lab report, and Kanan set a mug of coffee in front of her. She looked up at him with a grateful smile and brought it to her lips.
"Ezra, peanut butter and jelly okay?" Zeb asked.
"Yes please," Ezra said. Zeb looked to Hera, who held up two fingers and gestured at Ezra behind his head. Zeb nodded and put out extra bread.
"You know, Zeb, I think you make better sandwiches than Mom," Sabine said.
"Do I?" Zeb played along.
"Mhm," Sabine nodded. "Mom doesn't put enough jelly on."
"That's because you don't need all the sugar," Hera said.
"Yes I do!"
Hera, Zeb, and Kanan all chuckled.
"You know, Sabine, since you think I'm such a great worker, maybe you should help Mom think about letting me work at Kanan's garage," Zeb said, with a pointed look at his mother.
Sabine's mouth dropped, nearly dropping cereal back into her bowl. "You're going to work with Mr. Kanan?" Ezra was equally wide-eyed, looking between his brother and the man.
"Maybe," Hera said from the table, before either of them could interject. "We'll see."
"That's so cool!" Ezra said.
"Right?" Zeb said. "Think about all of the important life lessons I could learn about safety, car maintenance, personal fiscal responsibility—" He was watching his mother, hoping for a reaction, but all he got was a mild eye roll.
"We'll see," Hera said again.
"What's personal fiscal responsibility?" Sabine asked.
"It's like how when we get birthday money Mom doesn't let you spend all of it on markers and candy," Ezra said.
"Oh, yeah." Sabine stuck out her tongue. "That."
Zeb dropped a few more hints (of the painfully obvious variety) before breakfast was over. Hera simply thanked him for packing the lunches as they headed out the door.
A/N: Hey all. Thanks for being patient and sticking with this story; it means the world to me. We'll see some real action in the next chapter, I promise.
It was fourth period, and Hera's classroom was empty. Every teacher had one free hour during their workday, and this was hers—she had her lunch pushed to one side of the desk and lab reports for the next three classes stacked in front of her. She was so absorbed in grading that she almost didn't notice when Zeb walked in.
"Hey Mom," he said, sliding into the chair across from her desk.
"Zeb?" She looked up at him, and then to the clock. "Don't you have lunch?"
He set his lunchbox on the desk between them. "I wanted to have lunch with my mom."
Hera raised an eyebrow at him. "Really?"
Zeb shifted in his seat. "Yes, really."
Hera leaned forward, laced her fingers together and rested her chin on her hands. "And this has nothing to do with your wanting to work at Kanan's garage?"
Zeb didn't recover quite quickly enough. "N-no!" he said, touching a hand to his chest in exaggerated outrage. "Can't a kid have lunch with his mom without suspicion of an ulterior motive?"
Hera gave him a knowing look. "Not usually."
Zeb's posture sagged. "Okay," he said. "I may have come in here to ask you about the job."
"Just couldn't wait until we got home, could you?" Hera shook her head, but there was a teasing twinkle in her eye.
"Well," Zeb shifted. "I wanted to talk to you alone, in case it had something to do with Kanan."
Hera shook her head. "It has nothing to do with Kanan, Zeb. It has everything to do with you being a teenager who doesn't need a job."
"But I want a job," Zeb said, sounding exasperated. "All my friends have jobs."
"All your friends?" Hera raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
Zeb huffed. "Okay, most of my friends. And most of my friends also have cars, and now I have a car, which I could drive if I had a job and was able to pay for the insurance—"
Hera had pressed her fingertips into her temples somewhere in the middle of that sentence, and Zeb trailed off, watching her nervously.
"I…" she started, and then stopped, looking to the pile of papers in front of her. "Zeb, I hear you, and I understand where you're coming from, and I promise that we will have this conversation before the day is over, but right now I need to get through this grading." She looked back up at him. "Is that okay?"
Zeb nodded. "Yeah."
Hera returned her eyes to the papers with a relieved sigh. "Thank you."
"After dinner?" Zeb asked.
"After dinner," Hera said. "We can even go to Jho's, if you want."
Zeb smirked. "Are you bribing me?"
Hera touched a hand to her chest and mocked offense. "Can't a mother offer ice cream to her kid without suspicion of an ulterior motive?"
Zeb broke into a grin. "Not usually."
Hera gave him a look that was as exasperated as it was affectionate. "I'll see you at home."
Zeb waved as he went out the door.
After dinner that night, Hera put her plate in the dishwasher and turned around to find her teenaged son practically bouncing up and down.
"Hi," she laughed.
"Hi," he said. "Remember that thing we talked about?"
Hera closed the dishwasher. "Yes."
"So, I was thinking about it at school today, not in class, obviously, because I always pay attention, but just in the hallway, you know, walking between classes, and I was thinking—"
"Zeb." Hera pursed her lips to keep from laughing. He blinked at her.
"I've already made a decision."
His eyes widened, either out of fear or anticipation.
"You can take the job," Hera said.
Zeb threw his arms up in the air. "Yes!" Then he threw them around his mother, hugging her tight. "Thank you thank you thank you!"
"But on limited hours," Hera said. "Starting with five, maybe eight."
Zeb's elation dimmed, but was still burning brightly.
"And I think you should start with weekends," Hera said. "I don't think I want you working on school nights until football season is over."
"Okay," Zeb said. He was nodding excitedly, so fast it looked like his head would come loose, and she wasn't sure he'd heard a word she'd said after you can take the job.
"Deal?" Hera raised an eyebrow.
"Deal," Zeb said. He hugged her one last time. "Yes! Thanks Mom."
Hera smiled. "You're welcome."
Zeb dashed off to share the news with Kanan and likely all of his friends, and Hera sat down at the table and pulled out her laptop to look up teenager's insurance.
"So," Kanan said. He was seated at the bar with a drink in front of him. "You're letting him work at the garage."
Hera was wiping out glasses, and she set one down, shaking a finger at him. "On limited hours," she said. "And I mean that. No more than five for the first few weeks, and only on weekends. From there we'll see how it goes."
"Yes ma'am," Kanan saluted. Hera gave him a look and shook her head.
"He seems excited," Kanan said.
"He is," she said.
Hera pursed her lips, choosing her words carefully. "I'm… happy for him. I think he'll learn a lot, and I'm grateful he'll be working with someone I trust."
Kanan still felt a spark of pride whenever she said that word, trust.
"I know it's time I loosened the reins on him; I just hate the idea of him working too hard. I was like that when I was a kid, growing up way too fast, and I want him to enjoy his childhood while he still can," she said. "And—" Hera caught herself and hesitated.
"And?" Kanan raised an eyebrow.
She sighed. "Sometimes I feel like he wants to work because he thinks we need the money. And that's just not his job."
Kanan nodded understandingly.
"Anyways." Hera flicked her towel out; she was usually quick to change the subject anytime it veered towards money. "What about you? Looking forward to having an apprentice?"
"Absolutely," Kanan said, sipping his drink. "It'll be nice having someone to kill all of the rats under the floorboards."
Hera nearly dropped one of the glasses she was cleaning and gaped at him. Kanan burst out laughing.
"I'm kidding," he chuckled. Her posture relaxed, and she rolled her eyes, but there was a smile on her face.
"The garage doesn't have floorboards," he said. "The rats are all out back."
The towel hit him in the face. He laughed even harder.
Under Hera's orders, Zeb would work for five hours on Saturdays, and the weekdays would be reserved for homework and football practice. Kanan kept the garage open on Saturdays to accommodate those who couldn't make it in during the week, which meant that he was busy and looking forward to having someone to lighten the load.
Zeb proved his capability as that someone within the first half hour of their shift. For a teenager who'd never worked as a mechanic, he certainly knew his way around a garage.
"Hey, Zeb," Kanan called when the clock struck noon. "It's the best part of the day."
Zeb lifted his head from the truck he'd been working on with quizzical look.
"Lunch hour," Kanan said. "Want to go somewhere? My treat."
Zeb grinned. "Sure."
Kanan held up his keys. "Want to drive?"
The teen's eyes bugged out. "Seriously?"
Kanan shrugged. "Why not? You need to practice with a real truck, right?"
Zeb's smile grew and he nodded eagerly as Kanan handed him the keys. They brought sandwiches back from a shop close to the garage and sat at a workbench to eat.
"So, I have to ask," Kanan said as he unwrapped his meal. "How'd you convince your mom to let you start working?"
"I actually didn't have to do that much convincing," Zeb said, chewing thoughtfully. "I asked her about it a lot—and I mean a lot—but I think the tipping point was when I visited her during her lunch break at school." He blushed. "I thought that if I kissed up a little it would help my chances, but she saw right through me."
"Moms are good at that," Kanan chuckled. "Did you have to sneak into the teachers' lounge? I've always wanted to do that."
"No, she usually eats in her classroom," Zeb said. "But she comes out to buy lunch."
"Your mom buys school lunch?"
Zeb's voice grew smaller. "She says it's cheaper," he said.
"Right." Kanan cleared his throat. "Well, I'm glad you're here. You really know your way around a garage."
"My mom taught me everything I know," Zeb said.
Kanan chuckled. "Really?"
"Really," Zeb gave a proud nod. "We went to the hardware store one time, and the worker came up to me and said, 'Can I help you find anything, sir?' and my mom was like, 'Actually you could have helped me,' and then she walked right past him."
Kanan shook his head with a smile. "You know, Zeb, your mom's pretty cool," he said.
"Yeah." Zeb grinned. "I know."
The following Monday, Hera was clearing her desk for lunch when there was a knock on the door.
"Excuse me, Ms. Syndulla?"
She turned her head expecting to see a student; instead, none other than Kanan Jarrus stood in the door, a brown paper bag in his hand and an orange visitor sticker displayed on his chest.
He lifted the bag and smiled. "Your twelve o'clock is here."
She laughed as he entered the room. "What are you doing here?"
"Thought you might want something other than school lunch for a change," he said. At her quizzical look, Kanan added, "Zeb told me."
"Of course he did," she said. "What else did you two gossip about during his shift?"
"Oh, you know, guy stuff," Kanan said. "Cars, football, power tools."
She chuckled. "Of course."
"Actually, I wanted to tell you that I was impressed. Zeb really knows his way around a garage," Kanan said. "Although I have to say I was a little disappointed."
"Disappointed?" A crinkle formed between her brows. "Why?"
"I was disappointed that I'm never going to have the chance to fix a Syndulla's car," Kanan said with a chuckle. "He says you taught him everything you know."
Hera relaxed. "I see," she said. "Well, I wanted him to be competent."
"He's more than competent," Kanan said. "I might have to up his pay."
"Don't even think about it," she said. They both laughed.
Kanan gestured at the chair across from her desk. "May I?"
She smiled and nodded, and he sat down.
"Did you really bring me lunch?" Hera asked.
"Well, you never pack yourself one," Kanan said, opening the bag. "And if the food here is anything like the swill they served when I was in high school, I figured you might need a change of pace."
"The salad bar's not so bad," she said.
"You're such a drag. 'The salad bar's not so bad,'" he mimicked.
Her jaw dropped. "Like you've ever eaten a salad in your life."
"I have so eaten a salad in my life," he said.
"Sure," he said. "The one with the apples and the Snickers pieces."
"Snickers salad?" Hera was laughing. "That's a dessert."
"But it's a salad, is it not?"
"It's more like an amalgamation."
"Hera Syndulla, has anybody ever told you that you're absolutely no fun?"
"All the time."
They bantered and chatted throughout the meal, and soon, her lunch break was up. Hera glanced at the clock with an apologetic frown.
"My kids will be here in ten minutes," she said.
Kanan couldn't help the twinge of disappointment in his chest; they'd genuinely been having a good time.
"I'd better get going," he said. "Unless you want me to stick around for Bunsen burner s'mores."
"That was one time!"
They both laughed as he gathered the wrappers and stood to leave. Hera watched him, her eyes weighing a decision.
"You know…" she said, "I'm working at the bar tonight. If you want to visit me at both jobs."
Kanan tried to hide his delight. "It would be my pleasure."
A/N: This is a big chapter y'all. Thanks for being patient.
The bar wasn't too crowded that night—exactly how Kanan preferred it, as it gave him plenty of opportunities to talk to her. Hera had become fond of his presence there, though she'd never admit it—it was nice having someone to make idle conversation with, plus it helped pass the time, and even better was that ever since he'd started hanging out, the number of patrons hitting on her had noticeably decreased.
They were making aimless, meandering conversation, the subject of which neither would remember later, when Hera trailed off mid-sentence. Her eyes went behind him, to the doors of the bar, and stayed there, her expression shifting from contented to dread. Kanan turned around to follow her gaze and saw four men walking in. The leader of the pack looked strangely familiar, but he couldn't place him.
Worry curling in his stomach, he looked back to Hera, who had gone pale.
Before he could ask what was wrong, she turned around. "I'll be right back—"
"Oh no," said a voice. "Don't tell me you're closing early."
Hera froze. Kanan turned again to see who had spoken—
It was the same man who'd come to the house when Hera was at the school gala, almost two months ago. Kanan felt his blood chill.
"Hera," the man said, grinning like a hunter at prey.
She stared at him with hard eyes. "Alexsandr."
Kallus approached the bar, waving away the group he'd come in with as he did.
Hera's voice was flat. "What are you doing here?"
He slid onto one of the stools. Kanan, four spaces away, watched from the corner of his eye.
"A little bird told me you'd picked up a job here," Kallus said.
"If that's true then you can't legally be here," Hera replied.
"Right, I'm sure the cops will rush to the scene when they hear that the new chairman of the most prestigious school board in the state came to the bar with his colleagues after work," Kallus said dryly.
The hostility didn't leave her stare. "Why'd you come?"
"To celebrate my promotion, of course," he said. "Speaking of, could you pour me a Guinness?"
Hera, her eyes flat, didn't move an inch. He sighed.
"I admit that your presence here might have played a small role in the choice of venue," he said. "I was hoping we might have a civil conversation."
She lowered her voice. "The only civil thing between you and me is a civil lawsuit."
Kallus sighed. "My point exactly."
Hera just stared at him.
"I wanted to talk to you about your working here," he said. "And the unnecessity of it."
"It would be unnecessary, if you would send your checks," she said.
"Hera, we both know those checks are a stopgap measure—"
"Why, because they've stopped coming?"
She saw the first flash of anger break through the cordial mask on his face. Years ago the vagary might have frightened her, but guarded by the knowledge that she was safe in such a public space, it was almost satisfying.
"I mean that they're not a permanent solution," he said. "You've lasted longer than I thought you would, but child services will soon find out that you can't care for three kids on your own."
"Seriously?" She couldn't help the eyebrow that rose. "If there ever comes a day when I can't support the kids, it'll be your fault."
"Please," he said. "Even with my financial support you'd still be working two jobs to make ends meet. I remember how expensive those kids are. Have you thought about how Zeb's going to pay for college?"
She masked her eyes in hopes of hiding that it was one of the things that kept her up at night, but he read her anyway.
"I thought so," he said. His gaze softened. "Hera, if you came back to me, you'd never have to worry about money again. Zeb could go to whatever school he desired."
She folded her arms. "Why is it that you're only willing to provide for them when they're under your roof?"
"Because they're my children too, Hera, in case you've forgotten," he said. "Throwing money at you feels impersonal, distant. I want to see them, watch them thrive."
"Right," she said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. "That's why you won't send the checks."
He leaned forward, and she instinctively leaned back.
"I want them to be my kids again, Hera," he said. "Our kids."
Hera narrowed her eyes and her voice went cold with fury. "You don't get to tell me, after how little you've done for them, that you want them back."
"If anything, I deserve them back," he said. "I'm far more qualified as a caregiver. I make more money, I'm on the executive board of a school that consistently yields higher test scores…" He looked around the bar with disdain. "Tell me, how would the court feel about you leaving your children home alone so late at night?"
"It still wouldn't be the same level of neglect with which you treated Ezra."
He sighed. "You never could let that go, could you?"
"You starved and beat your own son, Alexsandr!"She lowered her voice and hissed. "How can you possibly think you deserve a second chance with him?"
"You used to say that everyone deserves a second chance," he said.
Her gaze was hard. "People change."
He held the stare for a moment, and eventually realized she wouldn't budge.
"Very well then," he said, taking a step back from the bar. "I know when I'm not welcome."
Hera didn't change her stare. Kallus hovered and cast an unimpressed glance at Kanan.
"I see you're with someone new," he said.
Hera's hands twitched. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, Hera," he said, shaking his head. "You almost disappoint me. I have eyes and ears all over town, you should know that by now. I heard the moment he started shacking up under your roof."
His lips twisted in a cruel smile. "A strange relationship, to be paying to be sleep with someone, don't you think? If you need three jobs to keep your head above water you must really be in trouble."
Kanan's fists closed so tightly that his fingernails drew blood.
Hera's jaw was clenched. "Alexsandr, don't—"
"Tell me, does he know about your relationship with your father?" Kallus feigned nonchalance, but his smirk remained. "That you always sleep on your right side? How you take your coffee?"
"Stop, talking," Hera said evenly.
He leaned closer to her and leered. "Have you told him of your dream to fly?"
"Get out," she said. Her voice sounded as hollow as she felt.
"Oh, I could, but this is a public space, no? You're an employee of this fine establishment, correct?" He cocked an eyebrow as if daring her to challenge him. "In fact, Hera, I'm suddenly feeling rather thirsty. What do you say about that Guinness?" He waved his hand at the tap handles between them with a simper. She didn't so much as glance down, instead holding his stare.
Kanan stepped forward, unable to bear it any longer. "I think she asked you to leave," he said.
Kallus raised an eyebrow at Hera. "The boyfriend's playing bodyguard? How cliché."
Kanan waited for the inevitable "He's not my boyfriend," from Hera, but it didn't come. She stood firm, hands planted on hips, eyes glaring a thousand tiny cuts. Kallus looked between her glare and Kanan's, and eventually gave a sigh.
"Very well then," he said, "Seems I'm unwanted company." He pulled out his wallet and dropped a hundred-dollar bill on the counter. "That should take care of my men's tab. And maybe a new pair of shoes for Zeb, yes?"
Hera's eyes flashed down to the bill and then back to Kallus.
"He's quite the linebacker," Kallus continued, a knowing glint in his eyes. "But he'll never get anywhere in those ratty hand-me-downs you've got him playing in. If he ever needs new gear, tell him he knows where to find me."
Hera's hands clamped down on the bar counter. She didn't move to take the bill.
Kallus took a final glance between her and Kanan. "I'd say it's been a pleasure, but…" He trailed off, moving away from the counter. "Remember my offer, Hera. Better for the inevitable to happen on your own terms, mm?"
Her eyes were harder than they'd ever been as they followed him out. When the door finally shut behind him it was like oxygen had returned to the atmosphere. Hera released a breath that made her standoffish posture crumple inward, and Kanan watched with concern as she bent her head, taking deep breaths against the bar.
Before he could say anything, she disappeared into the back.
Hera's coworker that night was a woman a few years her senior. They were often on the same shift, and had become friends over their time there. Hera got the sense that the woman had endured even more tragedy in her past than she had, though they'd never spoken about it, and she also had the feeling that her coworker felt the same about her. Their relationship had a tacit solidarity to it, and they were close despite never asking about each other's pasts.
She slipped into the kitchen and sank her back against the wall, heart pounding wildly and hands shaking. Her coworker, who had always been wise beyond her years, took one look at her and said, in a tone that left no room for debate,
Hera looked back at her and hated that the first thing that ran through her head was the hours of pay she would miss out on. The woman seemed to read her mind.
"I'll clock you out when I leave," she said, her voice gentler but just as resolute. "Go home."
Hera took a deep breath and a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Ahsoka."
Hera left through the side door and sank to the ground before it had even shut behind her, curling into herself with her back against the wall. This was where the employees slipped out for a smoke break when the bar was slow, and she was surrounded by cigarette butts and debris.
After a few minutes, she heard footsteps approach, and braced herself. Kanan came into view before she could stand up.
"Hera—" he began.
She held out her hand, stopping him, her head still bent. "Please."
Kanan drew his lips together, reaching a hand out and then drawing it back, forcing himself to give her space.
They stayed like that for minutes: she curled into herself on the patch of concrete, he standing, hovering, unsure.
Finally, she took a deep breath, lifted her head, and stood up with her shoulders back. "Let's go."
He looked at her, concern flooding every fiber of his being. "Hera…"
"I'm fine." She stepped away from him and forced a smile that was like someone wielding an umbrella against a hurricane. "Let's go."
Kanan couldn't just watch her walk away like that, shoulders hunched and looking small.
"Let me drive you home," he said.
She looked between Kanan and his car and at last gave him a tiny nod.
Kanan opened the door for her. Hera turned toward the window, and they drove in silence. Eventually her hands came up to her face, and then her shoulders started shaking, and as they exited the freeway he realized that she was crying.
"He's so, awful," she choked out, wiping the tears from her eyes. "Why did I ever marry him?"
Kanan stayed silent until Hera dropped her hands. "No. No, I know why. I was young, and pregnant, and scared." She rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. "God, could I be any more of a cliché?"
His eyes cut over to her. "You're not a cliché," he said quietly.
"Really? I'm not?" She scoffed, staring hard out the window. "I get knocked up and give up my dream to marry an awful man out of sheer panic, and I'm not a cliché? He ends up abusive and I end up a divorced single mother and I'm not a cliché?" Her voice was rising. "I have to work two jobs just to keep food on the table, and you're telling me I'm not a goddamn cliché?!"
"You're not a cliché!"
Kanan swerved to the side of the road and slammed on the brakes, and Hera jerked back in her seat. He was gripping the steering wheel so tightly that she thought it might come off, and he slammed one of his hands on the console when he turned to face her, his voice low and eyes intense.
"You might be tired, and angry, and scared, because it's one in the morning and your sociopath of an ex-husband just threatened to take away the three things you love most, but you are not a cliché."
She must have looked stunned, because he heaved a sigh and turned back to face the dash, kneading the steering wheel with his hands.
"Hera…" Kanan searched himself for the words, staring out at the road. "I've never met anybody who is as strong, or as courageous, or as kind as you. To have survived everything that you have, and to be the person that you are today… You amaze me. Truly. I can't imagine doing half the things you've done. You've raised three wonderful, intelligent kids, all on your own. You've fought for them, fought him for them, worked late into the night and managed a household, all for them. Nobody else could do what you do, and nobody else pushes you to do it. You have this insane, incredible inner strength, this willpower, this… this hope…" He shook his head. "I can't explain it, can't figure it out, and believe me, I've tried."Kanan moved his eyes from the windshield to meet her own. "But no one, Hera Syndulla, and I mean no one, is more unique, and more powerful, and further from being a cliché, than you."
They stared at each other for a long time. Hera wasn't remotely close to having a response, and finally it was Kanan who cleared his throat, brought his hands back to the wheel, and his gaze back to the road.
"It's late. Let's go home."
She found the faculty to nod.
When they pulled into the driveway, she desperately wanted to thank him, to tell him how much his presence, his words, all of it, meant to her. Emotional communication had never been her strength and since the divorce she had all but withdrawn entirely. The idea of openly voicing her feelings, of leaving them to hang in the air for rejection or judgment, made her skin crawl. Part of that was who she was, and part of that had evolved from her years with Kallus.
But this man, as she struggled to remind herself every day, was not Kallus. He was nothing like Kallus. And after all he had said, after all he had done, the very least he deserved was to know that she was grateful for him.
She found herself with her hand on his shoulder. It was the first time she had reached out to touch him since that first handshake, she realized; it was practically the first time they had touched at all, and a small part of her was immensely grateful at the realization that he had made no advances. But it didn't feel strange, touching him; it felt natural to the point of underwhelming, like a chore she had been putting off for years and then finally decided to take on, only to discover it was accomplished with ease. The fabric of his t-shirt was comfortably worn, and she tried not to feel the strength beneath it when she squeezed his shoulder.
He looked at her with wild surprise, and once she spoke—
—his eyes softened into a smile.
When they were inside the house, they stood facing each other in the kitchen, neither sure of what to say.
"Well." Whatever emotional confidence Hera had summoned in the car was entirely gone. She rubbed her arms. "I should get some sleep."
"Hey," he reached out and touched her arm. His hand was warm, but he didn't rest it on her person, she guessed out of a courtesy that she appreciated. "Will you be alright? Truly?"
"Yeah," she said, and at that point, even Hera couldn't tell if she was lying.
"I can stay up with you, if you'd like."
"I…" She trailed off. Hera could handle Kanan as a tenant. She could handle him as a professional, as a platonic partner, as a mechanic, even as a cheeky, salacious flirt. But this… she couldn't put a name to this Kanan, this chivalrous, sensitive soul, couldn't place him in a category, couldn't come up with a failsafe, consistent manner for responding to him, and that made her nervous.
She ran a hand through her hair. "I'm pretty tired. It's been a long day."
"Yeah," he nodded. "It has. Sleep well."
She managed a weak but grateful smile as she made for the stairs. Halfway up, she turned back to him.
He looked up to her in earnest.
"I—…" Hera took a deep breath. "I'm glad you were there tonight."
He gave her a crooked, bittersweet smile. "Me too."
Hera looked like she was trying to smile back, but could only muster a weak nod. "Goodnight, Kanan."
"Goodnight." He watched her ascend the stairs with a deep, weighted sadness clinging to him like a shroud. When she disappeared, Kanan took one of the kitchen chairs and carried it to the front door, where he sat facing the window, looking out over the street.
Kallus wouldn't come tonight.
Not on his watch.
Hera pulled off her uniform as if it was weighted. Too tired to shower, she stared at the immensity of her bed, at the dark, lonely cavern of her bedroom, and her feet carried her out of it. She slipped into Ezra's room and curled herself around his sleeping form.
The boy shifted. "Mama?"
"Hey, sweetie," Hera whispered, with tears in her eyes.
"Why are you sleeping here?" he mumbled.
"Because I love you."
Ezra yawned and snuggled against his mother. "Okay."
Hera pulled him closer to her and squeezed her eyes shut.
A/N: I want to add a disclaimer that this fic became a concept way back in season one, when Kallus was still a bad guy. Obviously he's changed, but he made such a good bad guy that I just couldn't give him up. I can't wait to hear what you guys think!
Zeb, Sabine and Ezra were their usual selves the next morning, but Hera was noticeably subdued. Kanan drank his coffee and tried to banter with the kids without tipping them off, but he couldn’t keep his eyes from sneaking back to her. She was preparing for the day as usual, but she looked weary, like there was a weight slung around her neck.
Before he had the chance to say anything to her, it was time for them to leave. Sabine opened the door first.
“Uh, Mom?” she asked, staring at the empty space in the garage. “Where’s your car?”
“It’s in the shop,” Hera said. “We’re taking Zeb’s.”
Zeb looked up, his eyes eager. “Does that mean I can drive?”
The response was a dead giveaway for how tired Hera was, but the kids were too excited to notice.
“Yes!” Zeb pumped his fist and ran out with Ezra and Sabine on his feels. Hera paused before following them, looking back to Kanan.
He jumped at the chance. “Hera—”
“Would you mind bringing me lunch today?” she asked.
Kanan blinked. She’d never been so forward about wanting to see him before, but he certainly wasn’t complaining.
“My pleasure,” he said.
She nodded and went out the door. He stared at it for minutes after they’d left.
Hera was using her computer when he knocked on her door, but she closed it when he came in.
“Hey,” he said. She gestured for him to sit down, and he held up a paper bag.
“I brought salad,” he said.
“You?” Her eyebrows lifted. “Brought salad?” He’d almost managed to make her smile. “Did you know where to buy it?”
“Ha-ha,” he said, taking food out of the bag. “I did get a little help from a pretentious Whole Foods employee.”
The ghost of a grin touched her lips, but not the bags beneath her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
They ate in silence for a few minutes—him chewing, she poking at the food.
“So,” she finally said. “That was my ex.”
Kanan set his fork down. “Hera, I’m so sorry—”
She raised a hand. “It’s not your fault. I’m glad you were there.” She gave the salad a few more perfunctory jabs before she set her fork down. “I take it you heard everything?”
It wasn’t so much a question as a statement. Kanan nodded. Hera’s eyes flicked back down.
“Has he…” Kanan cleared his throat. “Has he harassed you like that before?”
“No,” she shook her head. “We haven’t spoken since I approached him about the checks, and that was years ago. Once in a while he tries to call me, usually when he’s drunk, and I’ve see him at Zeb’s football games. It’s… sick, and twisted, but he still thinks of himself as their father.”
Hera shook her head.
“It’s always the same old thing,” she said. “He thinks I can’t raise three kids on my own. Conveniently forgetting that I’ve been doing it for five years. Frankly, with how much he was always working, I’ve done it since Zeb was born.”
“Can you call the police?” Kanan asked. “Tell them he broke the restraining order?”
She gave a defeated shrug. “Alexsandr has friends in high places. And even if they were outside his influence, I wouldn’t have any proof.”
Kanan clenched his fists and then released them. “God,” he said. “This sucks.”
Hera sighed. “I’m sorry you got dragged into it—”
“Don’t be,” he said. “I’m glad I was there.”
She gave a him a small smile. “Me too.”
Then they stared at their lunches for a moment. Eventually he picked up his fork.
“I thought about bringing Snickers salad, but I figured it wasn’t the right time,” he said.
Hera smiled at him. Yesterday she would have burst out laughing.
He finished his food while she picked at hers. A few minutes before one, he stood up and gathered his things. Hera followed him to the door and put a hand on his shoulder.
He stopped the moment he felt her touch. Electricity flowed through his veins at the contact.
“What you said in the car, last night…” Hera looked everywhere but his eyes. “Thank you.”
He looked at her and slowly brought his hand up, to lay it over her own. Their eyes met but she didn’t pull away.
“You’re welcome,” Kanan said.
There was a split second where they stayed like that—hand over hand, eyes locked, no words exchanged but somehow understanding one another completely—and then the bell rang.
She pulled away.
“And thank you again,” she said. “For lunch.”
“It was my pleasure,” Kanan said. “Even if it was salad.”
She smiled at him, not quite fully, but by far the closest yet.
Hera was working again that night, something he knew he’d be dreading if he were in her shoes, but she didn’t give any indication as to how she felt. He only found out because she asked him to drop her off.
“I’m happy to stay,” he said.
Hera was putting on her jacket in the passenger’s seat and thus not facing him. She shrugged. “You can if you want.”
They didn’t speak again until he pulled up to the curb.
“Kanan, I, um, didn’t mean to be rude,” Hera said. She glanced over at him. “I would really enjoy the company.”
He smiled at her and put the car in reverse.
“Wish you’d told me that earlier,” Kanan said. “Now I have to parallel park.”
Hera facepalmed. “You really don’t have to—”
“Nope, gotta do it. Now it’s the principle of the thing.”
He maneuvered into the spot while she chuckled, and to Kanan, the laughter was a personal victory.
Kallus didn’t appear at the bar that night—neither of them had been entirely convicted that he would, but there would always be a lingering suspicion, a background buzz of anxiety. Hera was a little jumpier than usual, but it was something only he noticed. The night passed normally and they headed home after she closed down.
A few days went by, and while the Kallus incident was not forgotten, it was at least in the past. The next time he saw Hera with her uniform on, he offered to drive her.
“Working tonight?” he asked. “Need a ride?”
“I’ll take one,” she said.
In the car, they chatted about their days, the kids, Hera’s upcoming physics lab. When he pulled up to the curb, she gave him a small smile. “Need a drink?”
He smiled back. “I’ll take one.”
It went on like this for a few more weeks; he would offer her a ride and then stay for the length of her shift. Hera only worked weeknights, so the bar was never too crowded, which gave Kanan the chance to spend most of her shift talking with her. They often talked about work, but the conversation quickly strayed to various topics, and they each found that the other had some good stories to share. He enjoyed these nights with her more than he would ever admit—while Kanan liked spending time with Hera in any context, she told her best stories when she wasn’t around the kids.
They’d just finished laughing over one of said stories when Hera leaned forward and rested her arms on the bar.
“Kanan,” she said, looking at him with eyes clear and candid, “I know you’re not here because you’re an alcoholic.”
Even though he’d known this conversation was coming, Kanan was a little taken aback.
“Well, not yet,” he said, raising his glass. “I am in training though.”
“Kanan.” She was trying not to smile. “I appreciate what you’re doing here. Really. But I don’t want you to feel like it’s your responsibility.”
Kanan struggled to craft a response and defaulted to a cocky one.
“If you’re implying that I’ve been hanging out here in case Kallus comes back, you’re giving me a lot of credit,” he said.
Hera put her hands on her hips. “I am,” she said. “But it’s not undue. You’re a good guy, Kanan. I know why you’ve been coming here.”
It was a simple sentiment—just five words—but it touched him all the same, to the point where he knew he had to be honest with her.
Even if it meant he was shooting himself in the foot.
Kanan cleared his throat.
“I like knowing that you’re safe,” he said. He plunged forward before she could reply. “And I’m sorry if that’s misogynistic, or offensive, or derogatory, and I know full well that you can take care of yourself, but… I feel better when I can keep an eye on you.
“I know that’s not my place,” he said, rushing again. “It’s just how I feel. And I’m sorry. If you’re asking me to stop coming, I will.”
They looked at each other. He’d left all his cards on the table. Hera sighed.
“I… feel safer when you’re here too,” she said. “And I appreciate it, really. I just don’t want you to be here out of a sense of obligation.”
“Hera,” he said, looking into her eyes. “Trust me. It’s not an obligation.”
They held each other’s gaze for seconds longer than friends should, until Hera ducked her eyes and took away his empty glass. He realized that his hands had ended up on the counter and were, consciously or not, reaching for hers, and he pulled them back.
“Well,” she said, returning with a full drink in hand, “As long as you don’t mind, neither do I.”
She slid the glass across the counter to him.
“The house is going to be covering your tab a lot more often, though,” she said.
He raised his glass in salute. “Fine by me.”
Kanan woke to the same sound he always did on Saturday mornings: cartoons paired with occasional chatter from Sabine and Ezra.
“Morning, kiddos,” he said, passing them as he headed for the kitchen.
“Kiddos?” Sabine scrunched up her nose. “Mr. Kanan, we’re ten-year-olds. Not kiddos,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
Kanan looked between the television, which was broadcasting one of those talking-animal shows kids seemed to be so crazy about, and Sabine, who had dressed for Saturday cartoons in a black cape and witch’s hat. The pointed glance was lost on Sabine, whose eyes were already back on the TV.
“Right,” he said. “My mistake.”
He fist-bumped Ezra on his way into the kitchen, where Hera was standing over the coffeemaker, frowning.
“Bad news,” she said.
“Good morning to you too,” he said. “You broke the coffeemaker?”
“I did not break the coffeemaker; the coffeemaker has broken,” Hera said. “Passive voice.”
“Hmm.” Kanan moved in to take a closer look. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It won’t start,” she said. “I’ve tried everything.”
“It just quit on you?” he asked.
“Hey,” Hera said. “I’ve had this coffeemaker since college; I would appreciate it if you showed a little more respect.”
Kanan raised his hands. “My apologies,” he said. “A moment of silence for Mr. Coffee.”
He bent his head, and Hera rolled her eyes. “Very funny,” she said.
Kanan waited for several seconds, each of which he knew drove her even further up the wall, before raising his head.
“And please, send my regards to Mrs. Coffee,” he said. “She must be devastated.”
Hera rolled her eyes once more.
“You know, back when I lived alone, I used to do this crazy thing when I needed coffee,” Kanan said.
Her eyebrows lifted. “Yeah?”
“I would go out, to a coffeeshop…” Kanan dropped his voice to a whisper. “And pay for it.”
Hera pretended to gasp. “No.”
He nodded solemnly. “Yes.”
She looked dubiously between the broken coffeemaker and the door.
“I’ll drive,” Kanan said.
“You’re still in your pajamas,” Hera said.
Kanan looked down to his flannel pants and white-but-so-old-it-was-almost-yellow t-shirt. “These are my clothes,” he said.
Hera turned bright red and opened her mouth for an apology, but he couldn’t maintain the charade, and cracked a grin. “I’m kidding. I’ll change.”
“Ugh, I knew it!”
As Kanan left to change, Hera realized that they’d just inadvertently agreed to go out for coffee together. She looked down at her own outfit—jeans and a blouse (normally she’d be in her pajamas and robe on a Saturday morning, but she hadn’t gotten to that level of comfort with Kanan yet, and wasn’t sure she ever would)—and shrugged. It was a nice day out, she was on top of grading, and the kids could take care of themselves for half an hour. Maybe a coffee run wouldn’t be the worst thing.
It had been so long since Hera had gone out for coffee that she let Kanan pick the place. She was pleasantly surprised by his choice—an airy café with big windows and long wooden tables, each with its own miniature plant in the center. It felt warm and welcoming from the moment they walked in.
“This is where you go for coffee?” she asked, surveying their surroundings.
Kanan grinned. “Surprised?”
He shrugged. “It’s close to the garage.” Then he gave her a sideways glance. “Where’d you think I was going to take you, a gas station?”
Hera chuckled. “I never said that.”
“You’re not denying it.”
They waited in line until it was their turn to order. Kanan gestured for Hera to go first.
“Hi,” she said. “Small coffee, please.”
“Sure thing,” the cashier said. She pressed a few keys and looked to Kanan. “And for you, sir?”
“Oh, no, we’re not together—” Hera started reaching for her purse, but Kanan stayed her with a wave of his hand.
“Yes we are,” he said. She gave him a look. “What?” he said. “It’s time I get you a drink for a change.”
Hera’s mouth twisted, but she let go of her purse.
“I’ll have a medium coffee,” Kanan said.
“Sure,” the cashier said. “For here or to go?”
“For here,” Kanan said, at the same time Hera answered, “To go.” The cashier’s eyes darted between them, her finger hovering over the keypad. Kanan was tempted to repeat his response, but he turned to Hera, implying that the final decision was hers.
“You know what?” Hera said, looking at the tables around them. “For here.”
Kanan hid a smile and pointed at the dessert case. “And two of those scones, please. Also for here.”
“Oh, we should get something for the kids,” Hera said.
“You’re right,” Kanan said. “Can you add three blueberry muffins to go?” he asked the cashier.
“Here, I’ll pay for it—” Hera reached into her purse, but Kanan waved his hand.
“Hera, please,” he said. “I’ve got it.”
She put her hands on her hips. “You said you would buy me a drink, not a meal.”
Kanan touched a hand to his chest. “Did I just hear Hera Syndulla refer to three blueberry muffins as a meal?” he smirked. “Wait until I tell Sabine and Ezra.”
Hera’s mouth dropped open. Her arms came to fold across her chest. “You know what? For that comment, I will let you pay for it.”
“Thank you,” Kanan said. “And thank you,” he said to the cashier. She recited his total, which made Hera’s eyebrows go up, but she said nothing.
Once they were seated, Hera took a sip of her coffee and looked around the room. The café was a mélange of people—young parents with strollers parked next to their table, women in leggings and ponytails fresh out of morning class, older seniors reading the paper and regulars chatting with the baristas at the counter. The windows let in a gracious amount of natural light, and lively chatter was in the air. Her simple coffee with cream and sugar was the best she’d tasted in years. Kanan sipped his—black—and watched her as she looked around.
Hera set her cup down.
“So,” she said, looking around once more. “This is what people do on weekends.”
He stifled a chuckle. “Some people, yes.”
Hera’s gaze drifted around the room. “I’ve been focused on the kids for so long…” Her eyes came back to him. “Sorry,” she said, laughing. “I probably sound like an old maid.”
“Not at all,” Kanan shook his head. “What were you going to say?”
“Just… well, for the past five years, my life has been Zeb, Sabine, and Ezra,” Hera said. “Either focusing on them or cleaning up the mess that Kallus left, trying to make ends meet. I haven’t had time for anything else. I mean, I can’t even remember the last time I went out with a person my own age.”
She took a sip of her coffee.
“I’m not saying I’m unhappy with that. You know how much I love the kids. But… when I’m at places like this, even at the bar sometimes…” Hera’s eyes trailed around the room. “It makes me wonder what I missed.”
“If you missed,” Kanan said.
She furrowed her brow. “If?”
Kanan shrugged. “The grass is always greener, right? I mean, look at these people. Their lives can’t be that great.”
Hera nearly spit out her coffee. “Kanan!”
“I’m serious,” he said, but he was grinning. “I mean, bringing a stroller into a café? You know that’s not fun for anyone. Or waking up early on a Saturday to exercise? No thanks.”
“Keep your voice down,” Hera said, but she was holding back laughter.
“I’m just saying, it’s an illogical comparison. We’re only looking at a tiny window of their lives. What they don’t know is that while they were going out for coffee, you were raising three incredible, brilliant, courageous kids,” he said. He reached for his mug and shrugged. “I don’t think you missed out on anything.”
Hera smiled. “Thanks, Kanan.”
He took another sip of coffee. “I should disclaim that I’m being a huge hypocrite, though.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Really?”
“Really,” he said. “When I used to come here by myself, I felt the same way. All of the students with laptops made me wonder what I had missed out on by not going to college. The parents with strollers made me feel like I should be settled down. And the older regulars by the counter, reading the newspaper and chatting with the baristas? I always felt like I should be putting in more of an effort at this place, rather than checking out and taking my coffee to go.”
Hera nodded. “How did you get over it?”
“I found out the secret,” he said.
She cocked her head. “Secret?”
Kanan set his mug down. “Let’s take the students, for example. While I was jealous of the crazy parties I thought they were having, and how they were in the best years of their lives, they were probably wondering what it would be like to have a steady job and a paycheck,” he said. “The couples with strollers are probably jealous that we could come here without our kids. And the moms fresh out of yoga class that ordered low-fat lattes? I’d bet my car keys that they wish they were eating these scones.” Kanan pinched a piece off of his and tossed it in his mouth, just to prove his point. Hera chuckled.
“The secret really isn’t a secret at all,” he said. “People are always comparing themselves to each other. I finally realized that everyone here was living their life the way that they chose, and that I was living mine. You can’t compare yourself to people all the time. You’ll never be happy.”
Hera nodded thoughtfully.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I’m above all that now,” he said. “It’s something I have to work on every day. But I am getting better.”
Kanan reached for his mug. “Can I be really, truly, shoot-myself-in-the-foot candid with you?” he asked.
Hera furrowed her brow. “Of course,” she said.
“The root of that feeling… of making the comparison, of missing out… was that everyone in this coffeeshop always had people,” he said. Kanan’s gaze went down to his mug.
Hera looked at him, her eyes soft. “And you don’t have many people, do you?”
He looked back up at her. “No,” he said. “Well, I didn’t used to, anyway. But now… and this is the shooting-myself-in-the-foot part… I feel like I do.”
Hera gave him a warm smile. “I feel like you do too.”
Kanan smiled back.
“Your turn,” he said.
“Your turn. You feel like you’re missing out. What’s the root of that?”
Hera frowned and stared down at her coffee in thought.
“I think it’s… being normal?” she finally said. “Having a normal, functional family and a normal, functional life?”
“Hera,” he said. He leaned in closer and looked her in the eyes. “You’re too smart to believe that there’s such a thing as a normal, functional life.”
Hera chuckled. “Okay, right, I mean, I know it’s all bullshit,” she said. “But you have to admit that most of their lives are probably closer to normal than mine.”
Kanan couldn’t disagree.
Hera leaned back in her chair and reached for her mug. “But, I guess you said it yourself,” she said. “The grass is always greener, right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “But I think I like my current side of the fence.”
She smiled at him. “Me too.”
For the next few minutes, they drank their coffee in companionable silence, occasionally meeting eyes to exchange a smile.
Once he finished his coffee, Kanan gave her a look.
“Have you really had the same coffeepot since college?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Hera sipped her coffee. “You know I’m frugal.”
He snorted. “Yeah, I saw your eyebrows go up when we checked out.”
“Four dollars for a scone is ridiculous,” she said. “I could buy an entire bag of flour with that.”
Kanan reached for his last bite. “You gotta admit they’re good though.”
“Yeah,” Hera said, giving a defeated shrug. “They’re good.”