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Claws and Effect

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The cafe was modestly busy. Patrons were scattered among the tables, including a few familiar faces. Snowflake was dozing in the display window, catching a rare beam of sunlight that made his white fur seem to glow. A young pantoran boy was gaping at him as his mother, or possibly a minder, tried to drag him past the entrance. Obi-Wan hid a smile; the Happy Tooka Cafe & Rescue was a magnet for younglings, so much so that they’d expanded their menu to include more child-friendly options within the first month.

Feral was manning the counter at the moment with the help of Nali, a Selonian with an encyclopedic knowledge of caf-based drinks and their history, who was also good at getting things off the upper shelves that Feral couldn’t reach. Jen & Jun were keeping order in the Meet & Greet half of the cafe and he knew Savage was in the back office placing orders, but he hadn’t seen Maul for most of the morning. Which was fine, of course; he wasn’t on the schedule, but he had a habit of dropping in even on his days off and the cafe always felt a little brighter when he was around.

It was Obi-Wan’s day off, too, but like Maul he found it hard to stay away. Finding the right location and getting all the permits together had been a huge hassle, even with a bit of judicious slicing from Feral to help speed the process. The money Senator Organa had “loaned” them as well as their own pooled funds had disappeared fast, but now the cafe was a reality and was starting to climb its way towards success. Savage was even in talks with a local holonews channel that wanted to do a “fluff” piece on them. The only catch was that he thought that Obi-Wan and Maul should be the ones interviewed. Which made sense since it was their initial encounter that led them here, but talking to a camera? Knowing his words were being broadcast to millions of beings? It was a daunting thought, even if it was sure to increase their revenue and make sure that more tookas found good homes.

His heart lifted and he looked up just as Maul entered. Their eyes met and he found his own smile reflected on Maul’s face. He gestured to a corner table, grateful to see that Feral and Nali were busy arguing about something and thus wouldn’t be able to nag them. Why everyone seemed to assume that he and Maul were a couple- or that they should be one- was beyond him. They’d become close friends over the past few months, but that was all.

“Found something new, I see,” he said, brushing his fingers along Maul’s forearm where a fresh scratch shone with a smear of bacta.

“Found, but didn’t catch.” Maul sighed, dropping into a chair. “The trap popped open while I was trying to load it in the van and he was gone in a flash of claws.”

Obi-Wan winced in sympathy. He’d tagged along on a few capture missions, himself, and while some of them were happy to see a friendly humanoid many more were terrified. Not that he could blame them. Starving, alone, some of them abandoned by uncaring owners, facing the dim levels of Coruscant where not everyone considered a tooka a pet… He reached out, twining his fingers with Maul’s.

The Oppress brothers hadn’t had an easy time of things, either, and some people considered them no better than the animals they were trying to help.

“You’re brooding again.”

He blinked, looking up into a soft smile.

“I’m fine,” Maul said, tugging on his hand. “And the tooka’s fine, too. Left with a full stomach and a lot of attitude. I’m thinking of calling him Kenobi.”

He scoffed in mock-offence. “Hey now, I’ll have you know that my stomach is-”

The sound of a throat clearing had them snatching their hands back. Feral smirked at them.

“Sorry to interrupt the flirting,” he said, “but brother, if you wouldn’t mind covering for me for awhile, Savage says he needs me in the office.”

“We weren’t-” Maul sighed. “Fine, but why can’t Nali handle it herself?”

Obi-Wan glanced over as the Selonian slipped into the back with a muffin in her hand.

“Break time.” Feral shrugged, still smiling.

“Convenient.” Maul narrowed his eyes. “Make it quick, brat.”

“Thanks! Bye!” He all but ran for the back.

They shared a look.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Obi-Wan said, following Maul behind the counter to grab an apron of his own.

“You aren’t the only one.”

They helped a few customers. Maul led a young couple to the Meet & Greet room and returned with a familiar purple-striped tooka kitten in his arms.

“She missed you,” he said, bumping shoulders with Obi-Wan as he transferred the furry bundle over.

“Is that so, little one?”

“Mrrr,” the tooka said, reaching up to grab at his nose.

He laughed as she twisted around and climbed up to sit on his shoulder; her favorite perch.

It had been a losing battle from the start and deep down he’d known it. Purple Stripes, renamed Princess, was officially his, though she spent a lot of time charming guests in the Meet & Greet room as well.

“I’m glad she found you,” Maul said, scratching her under the chin. She leaned against Obi-Wan’s jaw and purred.

“I’m glad you found me,” Obi-Wan said. “Uh, or- or else all this would never have happened.” He made a vague gesture that ended with his hand resting on Maul’s shoulder.

The bell over the door chimed and Senator Bail Organa entered, escorting a woman with elaborately-braided hair, several bodyguards, a small fleet of cam droids, and a green-skinned twi’lek lady in a low-cut suit.

“And here we are,” the twi’lek announced, grinning into the nearest camdroid. “The Happy Tooka Cafe and Rescue! Home to what’s sure to be Coruscant’s hottest new trend!”

Bail mouthed an apology as he approached the counter, but he was all smiles as several droids followed him.

“Obi-Wan! Maul! It’s so good to see you both again,” he said. “I wanted the chance to introduce you to my wife. Breha, these are the young men I’ve been telling you about.”

Breha, who looked like she was trying not to laugh, shook both their hands. “It’s an honor to meet you both,” she said. “I’ve been hearing wonderful things about you from Bail and wanted to see what you’ve done for myself.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Obi-Wan said, trying to remember the vitally important detail he was sure he’d forgotten.

“And who is this lovely young thing?” Breha reached out to allow Princess to sniff her fingers.

“Ah-”

“Are you getting this, Ayfour?” The twi’lek moved closer, raising her voice. “As you can see, the Happy Tooka’s popularity is on the rise. Here we have the Queen of Alderaan, herself, getting ready to order some caf and maybe a four-legged companion to take home to the palace?”

Obi-Wan blanched and felt Maul grab his arm. Queen Breha winked at them before turning to address the twi’lek.

“As I’m sure you know, Stella, I’m always in favor of efforts to help those less fortunate, whether it’s refugees from a totalitarian regime or tookas out on the streets, looking for a home.” She glanced at Obi-Wan, eyes gleaming. “Much like this sweet little one sitting on Mr. Kenobi’s shoulder.”

“Princess,” he said, regretting every choice in his life that had led him here. “Her, uh, her name is Princess.”

Queen Breha arched a brow. “A fellow royal?”

Behind her Bail covered his mouth and coughed.

“I’m privileged to meet you, Your Highness,” Breha said, doing a full curtsy as the cameras caught everything.

“Mrow,” Princess said, and yawned, showing off rows of pointy teeth.

Breha laughed. “Yes, formality can be boring, can’t it?” She reached up to scritch Princess’s ear. Bail had yet to recover from his “coughing” fit.

Stella laughed, the sound as bright and false as the spots on her lekku.

“A delight as always, Queen Breha! But did I hear you say Mr. Kenobi??” Stella and several cameras turned to face him. “And might I assume that the attractive gentleman clinging to his arm is the mysterious Mr. Oppress? My, my,” she said, giving both of them a long look. “It seems that tookas aren’t the only things customers will be tempted to take home with them!”

At the accusation of “clinging” Maul had released him and took a step away. Obi-Wan’s mind was busy connecting up the pieces and he stiffened as he realized what was happening. Judging by the suppressed groan beside him he wasn’t the only one who realized they’d been set up.

“I’m not sure either of them are on the menu, Stella,” Breha said, a hint of sharpness to her voice, “but allow me to introduce you. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Maul Oppress, I’d like you to meet-”

“Stella Solana, from HNN,” Stella interrupted. “But I’m sure two clever boys like you already knew that.”

“Ah, yes,” Obi-Wan said, “I think I’ve seen some of your reports. They’re very- interesting.”

Stella simpered at him. “Charming as well as handsome! I can see why this place is so popular!”

He felt Maul tense beside him but did his best to ignore it.

“Actually, Miss Solana, I think you’ll find that it’s the tookas themselves who draw people in. Maul and I and the rest of the staff here at the Happy Tooka are just here to facilitate that.”

“So humble!” Stella smiled. “My audience will just eat you up! And maybe I will too,” she added softly, her lekku twitching. “But please, call me Stella.”

Obi-Wan was saved from trying to figure out a way to respond when Princess hopped off his shoulder and onto the counter. Stella cooed at her, reaching out to scratch her ears. Obi-Wan glanced back at Maul, startled by the hard look on his face.

“You okay?” He kept his voice soft, reaching out to brush his arm.

Maul blinked, refocusing on him and managing a smile.

“Sorry,” he said. “If you want to help her I’d be happy to deal with Bail and Queen Breha.”

“Oh, I’d just love a chav latte, if you’re offering.” Stella winked. “But don’t think you’ll escape me so easily, Maul. I’m sure people are dying to know how a fine specimen such as yourself wound up here, of all places, and in such a unique… partnership.”

Obi-Wan stepped forward, blocking Maul from her view, but a touch at the small of his back had him moving aside.

“My brothers and I may have escaped Dathomir through luck, Miss Solana,” Maul said, “but we succeeded due to our intelligence, our commitment to each other and our cause, and our dedication to doing the right thing. Something I’m sure you yourself can understand.”

His smile was perfectly pleasant, but there were daggers hidden in those words and Obi-Wan felt a surge of pride as he watched them strike home.

Stella’s eyes glittered. “Touché,” she said before returning her attention to Obi-Wan. “Now, about that latte?”

The next small eternity was a minefield of diplomacy, insinuations, flirting as a means of self-defence, and, of course, tookas. Bail managed to pull them aside while Stella was harassing Jen & Jun and apologized for their involvement.

“We were ambushed outside the cafe,” he said. “But she was already on her way in here.”

“Yes, we were set up as well,” Obi-Wan said. “Don’t worry about it, Bail, it’s always good to see you. And to meet your lovely wife.”

“The lovely wife is glad she finally got to meet you as well.” Breha looked up from where she was using one of her braids to play with greenish-blue tooka. “What you’ve done here is truly amazing. You should be proud of yourselves.”

“We’ve a ways to go yet,” Obi-Wan said, “but we’ve already come further than I ever thought we could and that’s thanks in part to your generous loan.”

“Gift,” Bail corrected.

“Don’t you dare try and pay back a single credit, Obi-Wan.” Breha attempted a glare, but the severity of it was hampered by the tooka chewing on her hair. “However, since we’re here perhaps you’d be willing to draw up adoption papers for this little menace?”

She scooped up the tooka, who immediately started to purr. Bail rolled his eyes at her, but his look was full of affection.

“Of course, Your Highness,” Maul said, smiling. “I’m sure Vibroblade will love his new home.”

Breha laughed. “Yes, I’ve been meaning to ask, how in the world did he get that name?”

“My brother Feral,” he said. “When he first found him Vibroblade sank his claws into his arm and started purring.”

“His manners have improved since,” Obi-Wan added.

“Hopefully not too much,” Bail said. “I can think of a few people whose appearance might be improved by some claw marks.”

At that point Stella found them again, insisting on covering the adoption process.

“After all,” she said, hooking her arm through Obi-Wan’s, “I want to know all the little ins and outs of your business.”

He could feel the tips of his ears heating, but ignored it.

“As I’ve said before, Miss Solana-”

“Stella.”

“Miss Solana,” he repeated. “I’m only the caf guy. I may have had daydreams about owning a place of my own, but if it hadn’t been for Maul and his brothers I’d still be slinging drinks at the local Starshines.”

He glanced over, catching Maul mid-glare, but the expression softened as he caught Obi-Wan looking. Stella, of course, noticed it, too.

"I see caf isn't the only thing brewing here at the Happy Tooka."

Obi-Wan frowned up at her. She rubbed his arm.

“Don’t worry, your little secret is safe with me! But tell me,” she continued before he could object. “How does it feel to be working with not one but three Nightbrothers?”

He heard a sharp inhale from Bail and saw Maul freeze as he was handing over the datapad and decided he’d had enough.

“Well, Miss Solana,” he said, carefully disengaging her arm from his. “I imagine it isn’t that different from working with three twi’leks, although they might be able to teach you a thing or two about civility."

There was a gleam of- approval? - in her eyes and she gave a small nod.

"Indeed, Obi-Wan. We reporters can be a bit bloodthirsty when we're on the trail of a good story, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when we uncover a happy ending instead of another skeleton in the closet.”

He… wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She reached out to pat his cheek before pivoting to face the adoption desk.

“Now! Let’s get a lot more warm and fuzzy footage and then we can get back to the studio and have 95% of my footage cut for time.”

With a wave of her hand the camdroids spun into action. One of them zoomed in on Princess, who had followed them into the Meet & Greet room. She leapt up and swatted it to the ground. It loosed a startled warble before recovering itself and watching her from a safer distance.

Obi-Wan was glad to see that Maul looked as nonplussed as he did about the reporter’s sudden change in attitude. She was still bright and smiling as she narrated everything but it seemed more natural now and there were none of the hidden barbs from before. She was less clingy, too, and seemed more insistent on getting as much footage of them together as she could. Which turned out to be a lot. It was always “just one more shot.” Obi-Wan leaning over Maul’s shoulder as they finished up the paperwork on Vibroblade’s adoption. Maul pressing closer than necessary “to fit in the shot” as he scritched Princess, draped bonelessly in Obi-Wan’s arms. The two of them making a latte together. The two of them talking to a bemused besalisk customer. Obi-Wan picking a tuft of fur off Maul’s horns. That part hadn’t even been planned, but Stella seemed delighted to catch it. Throughout it all, Stella narrated to Ayfour, who never left her side.

The picture she painted of them was one of equal partnership and shared passion. It started sinking in that she wasn’t “just” doing a story on Coruscant’s first (and only) tooka cafe, she was getting in a lot of carefully veiled information on the plight of ex slaves, the difficulty in overcoming stereotypes, and how wonderful it was to find the place where you fit and someone to fit with in an otherwise cold universe.

A warm heart in a cold world , Obi-Wan thought, and glanced aside to find Maul watching him, his own expression warm. A casual shoulder nudge turned into more of a lean, but he wasn’t about to object. He still didn’t understand all of the “prophecy” the brothers had told him, but it centered on helping others and finding someone who would give them a place to belong and to grow into the people they were meant to be. Romance somehow featured in there as well, although he was unclear as to how and Maul flatly denied it every time he asked.

At last, Stella seemed to have had her fill- both of lattes (on her company’s tab) and of Maul and Obi-Wan. The camdroids, led by Ayfour, gathered in a cluster, their recording lights winking out.

“Thank you for putting up with me,” she said, shaking both of their hands. “I know my act was a little aggressive at first, but you’d be surprised at how many slaves escape only to wind up in another form of slavery.” She smiled. “I’m glad that wasn’t the case here. Breha being here was a pretty good indication, but you never know.”

“I apologize for not giving you more of a warning,” Breha said, stroking Vibroblade’s head. “But Stella begged me not to say anything. The two of us have crossed paths a number of times and she’s proven to be pretty reliable.”

Stella laughed. “I’ll take any compliment I can get. And maybe someday the boors in the head office will let me cover stories with a little more substance to them. No offense.”

Obi-Wan arched a brow. “More substance than the plight of ex-slaves in a, ah, cold universe?”

Maul leaned in a little more and he braced himself to take the weight.

Stella’s lekku swayed as she shook her head. “Oh, most of that won’t end up on the air, unfortunately. They just want a light-hearted space-filler between segments.” She wrinkled her nose. “But someone will still have to go through the footage and Ayfour keeps backups of everything, don’t you, buddy?”

Ayfour bobbed in the air, warbling cheerfully.

“I do wish I’d gotten a chance to speak to your brothers as well, though, Maul.” Stella sighed. “It’s a shame they couldn’t be here today.”

Maul perked up. “Is that what they told you?”

“Why?” Her eyes narrowed with interest. “Are they here?”

Obi-Wan grinned at him. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

The look Maul gave him was downright predatory. “If you’re thinking that my dearest brothers shouldn’t miss out on the fun, then yes.”

“Would you like to buzz her up to the office?”

“It would be my pleasure.” He chuckled, turning to offer Stella his arm. “If you’ll follow me, Miss Solana, I’d be happy to show you where my brothers are hiding.”

“Oh, they were trying to hide, were they?” She grinned, taking the proffered arm. “I love it! Lead the way.”

“And if you wouldn’t mind giving them your best, uh…”

“My best Obnoxious Reporter routine?” She laughed. “I would be delighted, Maul! Especially since they tried to cheat me out of meeting them!”

Obi-Wan watched them go, trying to ignore the twinge he felt at how closely they walked together.

“Well, I’d say you passed that milestone with flying colors,” Bail said, startling him from his thoughts.

“Hmm? Oh yes, I suppose,” he said, handing his apron off to Nali, who came shooting out of the back room that led up to the office. “We were bound to have to go through something like that sooner or later.”

Muttering apologies and thanks, Nali resumed her place behind the counter, leaving Obi-Wan free to keep talking to the Organas.

“You’d better get used to it then,” Breha said, with an almost tooka-like grin. “I have a feeling you’ll be fielding a lot more little interviews as the word gets out about you.”

He grimaced. “Not really?”

“Sorry, Obi-Wan.” She reached out to pat his arm, earning an objection from Vibroblade. “That’s one of the costs of popularity.”

“We aren’t that popular,” he protested.

“Maybe not yet,” Bail said. “But give it time. If you’ll excuse us, though, it seems I suddenly have to arrange for a whole lot of vaccines and a mountain of live animal importation paperwork.”

Breha scoffed. “You love him just as much as I do and you know it.”

“We’ll see,” he said, smiling.

“Anyway, it was wonderful to meet you, Obi-Wan,” she said, leaning in to kiss his cheek. “Pass my regards on to Maul as well. And we’ll be sure to send you progress reports on Vibroblade.”

“We’d love to hear how he settles in,” Obi-Wan said. “Thank you so much for stopping by, Your High- uh, Breha,” he corrected, catching her warning look.

“We may stop by again some time,” she said. “If I can manage to fit it into our schedule.”

“Our doors are always open for you.” He bowed slightly as he said it.

“Charmer,” she teased. And then with some final farewells, they were on their way.

Obi-Wan turned just as Maul came out of the back with a spring in his step.

“Were your brothers happy to see you?”

“Appalled.” Maul grinned. “She had them cornered. It was wonderful.”

“They deserve it,” he said, studying the gold flecks in his friend’s eyes. “Especially since Queen Breha said that we might have to go through this again.”

Maul’s eyes widened. “What?”

“If the cafe gets more popular she says that other news outlets will be looking to do similar pieces on us.”

Groaning, Maul leaned his head forward. Obi-Wan met him halfway so that their foreheads touched.

“Not really?”

“Afraid so.” He smiled, resting his hands on Maul’s shoulders. The close contact was making him feel a lot warmer. Because Zabraks ran hotter than humans. “Maybe we can get Savage and Feral to handle the rest.”

“Yes.” Maul placed his hands on Obi-Wan’s hips, tilting his head so their noses pressed together, too. “That.”

The air seemed to tingle and that whispery feeling in the back of his head was stronger than ever. One of his hands slid to cup the back of Maul’s neck, thumb stroking his jaw.

“We should… should go somewhere,” he said, his voice suddenly thick.

Maul hummed agreement, the vibration traveling right down his spine. He knew he should pull away or- or do something, but he couldn’t look away.

“Obi-Wan.”

The way he said his name, deeper and huskier, set his stomach fluttering.

“Yeah?”

Maul reached up, tentative, and brushed his fingers through Obi-Wan’s hair. “May I…?”

“Yes!”

Releasing a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding he closed the scant distance between them and they kissed. It was slow and comfortable, like they’d been doing this forever. His heart soared and somewhere in the back of his mind the whisper turned into a song.

Finally, he thought. Or Maul thought. No, they thought. Finally, this is right.