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Darker the Night (A Star Wars Rebels AU)

Chapter Text

The transport comm crackled, pulling Hera Syndulla’s attention away from her datapad. She had been reviewing the specs for the Republic’s new Eta-2 Actis-class light interceptor, and a tiny version of the ship rotated slowly on the datapad screen, forgotten for the moment.  

“Attention sentients. We are now approaching Coruscant,” the droid pilot announced.

Hera felt the familiar, subtle shift of the engines as the transport dropped out of hyperspace. The city-planet suddenly loomed up outside the transport’s canopy, its dark surface crisscrossed with glittering grids of light, and Hera felt her stomach lurch with excitement. At last, she was free of her homeworld, free to experience life outside the Outer Rim.

The image of her father’s scowl jumped, unbidden, into her mind. Cham Syndulla had not been so pleased that his eldest child wanted to leave Ryloth to join the Galactic Republic’s peacekeeping Starfighter Corps.

“We need you here, Hera. The corrupt Republic has enough pilots to do their bidding,” he’d said, as he stood next to Hera’s mother in the transport loading bay on Ryloth.

Rhea Syndulla had frowned, casting a quick sideways glare at her husband. When she looked at her daughter again, her gaze was tender. “It is a great honor to be admitted to the Judicial Academy. We are proud of you, my daughter, whatever you choose to do- and wherever you choose to do it.”

Hera pushed the thoughts of her parents to the back of her mind. She had spent, after all, the majority of her life living the way they wanted her to. She wanted to look to the future- a future where she would be doing exactly what she wanted to do.

The transport had made its way down to the surface cloud cover obscuring all but the tops of the tallest buildings. As the descent continued, Hera saw something she had never expected to view in person- the five tall spires of the Jedi Temple. Like most citizens from the Mid and Outer Rims, Hera had never seen or spoken to a Jedi. But as a Judicial Academy cadet, she would likely have at least some supervision from members of the Order. Everything in her life, from this moment forward, would be new and exciting and perhaps even strange. She thrilled to the possibilities that awaited her below.

 


“Focus, Caleb.”

Caleb Dume shifted his position slightly and exhaled hard, attempting to blow a stray strand of his hair out of his mouth.

“Is that necessary?” Master Billaba asked.

“The noise, or the hair?”

“Both, I suppose. You are distracted today. And thus also distracting to the rest of us.”

Caleb opened one eye and looked around the meditation chamber. Of the three other Jedi present, only one appeared to have noticed the noise- his friend Tai, who was brazenly smirking at him.

Master Billaba wordlessly stood and left the chamber, not bothering to spare him a glance. He got up and scrambled after her, and found her waiting outside the door with her arms crossed and a vaguely exasperated look upon her face.

“Master, I’m sorry-”

“Caleb, I don’t know how you expect to pass the trials if you cannot focus.”

“I can focus when I need to.”

“You must focus whenever it is required of you, and not merely when you are in peril.”

“I know.”

She raised an eyebrow at him and smiled. “You have come far, my apprentice, but I wonder when your attitude will catch up? With each passing year, you remind me more and more of Master Vos.”

“That sounds like it’s not a compliment- towards either of us,” Caleb said. “Master Kenobi certainly would agree with you. The best compliment he can give me is that I’m not quite as reckless as Master Skywalker.”

Depa Billaba laughed- and, remembering that she was just outside the meditation chamber, quickly smothered her amusement. “That is indeed a compliment, Caleb. You are, however, a bad influence on your Master. Please go now and practice your forms. I must meet with the Council.”

“The Separatists?” Caleb asked.

“We will discuss it later,” she said. “Go and practice your forms, please.”

He watched as she strode away, feeling a chill come over him. Master Yoda spoke often of the dark side, these days- and the growing threat, ever-present in all their minds, of the Sith. Over fifteen years before, Master Jinn had been killed by a Sith Lord on Naboo, and the Jedi had never managed to discover anything further about him or his accomplice. Always two there were.

The strength of the dark side was growing. Star systems were threatening to leave the Republic. The Confederacy of Independent Systems had declared themselves in open opposition to the Republic, headed by a former Jedi named Dooku. The word “war” had been used more than a few times in the past few years.

If there was going to be a fight, Caleb felt that he was ready for it. But Master Billaba was right- he lacked focus- today, more so than usual. Instead of heading towards one of the training rooms, he walked into the courtyard and gazed up at the traffic traversing the early evening sky. He did not have the gift of foresight that some Jedi possessed, but he felt distinctly that his life was about to change in the most profound way.  

Chapter Text

Hera’s mornings at the Judicial Academy were spent in class, absorbing every bit of information she could. Afternoons were for flight training, and it often extended into the early evening. That was fine with her- she was flying ships she’d only ever read about on the HoloNet, and she was flying them better than anyone else in her class. It should have earned her a few enemies, but her sincere willingness to help her classmates improve their skills won her a devoted group of admirers instead. In any case, they were all too tired to expend any energy on fighting amongst their ranks.

Initially, her flight instructor had her flying a BTL-B Y-wing, but within a few weeks, she was given a Delta-7 Aethersprite-class light interceptor.

“You can handle it,” Captain Enneb, her flight instructor, told her.

Hera was stunned. “This...this is…”

“A Jedi starfighter?” Enneb finished, slapping the hull of the dark red-and-white painted ship. “Yes. Much more responsive controls.”

“I’m not a Jedi, how could I possibly…”

“You may not be a Jedi, but you’re just as good a pilot as most who fly these ships. In a few years, you’ll be better than most. A Y-wing isn’t a challenge for you.”

Hera lifted her chin with pride. “Thank you, Captain.”

“You earned it, Syndulla. No need to thank me. Now...these ships don’t strictly require an astromech, but as we start flying missions for the Navy, we’ll want astromechs on board for safety reasons. You might as well head over to the droid shop and get one before you take this ship up- find one you’ll like working with.”

Hera took one last lingering look at her new ship and headed off across the hangar towards the droid shop. Coming towards her from the opposite direction were two robed figures. Her pace slowed- these were undoubtedly Jedi. The duo was in the midst of a heated argument and did not notice Hera rather rudely staring at them.

The slightly shorter, bearded Jedi was saying, “Anakin, for the last time, we are not going to ignore a direct mandate from the Council.”

The taller Jedi snorted and rolled his eyes. “Was it a mandate? Or was it more like a guideline?”

The bearded Jedi seemed at a loss for words, but he nodded politely at Hera as he passed her. The taller one ignored her completely, evidently lost in his own thoughts. A few seconds later, they were out of Hera’s earshot. She smiled. So that was the famous Anakin Skywalker she’d heard so much about.

She had seen a number of Jedi, at a distance, in the few weeks she’d been on Coruscant. None of the locals were remotely fazed by them, but Mid and Outer Rim folk- the yokels, her classmates joked- were still working on getting over the sight of, say, a Jedi having a drink at one of the cantinas the students frequented. Sometimes even with the students.

Her closest new friend, Keran, was from Hosnian Prime and made fun of her constantly. “It’s only because I like you,” she’d tell Hera, chuckling. “Anyway, you can take it. Everyone I’ve ever met from the Outer Rim is tough, but you’re tougher than durasteel.”

Hera didn’t always feel tougher than durasteel, but she’d never let anyone know it. She reached the droid shop and found it manned by a disgruntled-looking human in dirty coveralls. He was not the slightest bit interested in assisting her, and merely jerked his thumb at a row of astromechs when she inquired about them.

She walked down the row, looking them over. They were mostly R2 and R4 units, all in reasonably good condition. At the end of the row, there were several units that were being worked on- one of which was was missing a leg, and very angry about it. He was a smaller C1 unit, white with orange and yellow accents. He was waving his grasper arms around and complaining loudly that the organic who ran the shop was too lazy to reattach his leg.

A wrench came flying across the shop, and it clanged against the little droid’s dome and nearly knocked him over. Hera immediately reached out and steadied him to keep him from toppling.

“Be quiet, you little rustbucket, or I’ll take the other leg before I wipe your memory!” the dirty droid mechanic yelled.

Hera’s lips pressed into a thin line for a moment. “I’ll take this one,” she said.

“That one’s not ready. Can’t you see it’s missing a leg and it needs a memory wipe? It’s seen action- a skirmish with the Separatists. Pilot was lost. It’s a bad droid. Really should be disintegrated, if you ask me, but times being what they are-”

“I said I’ll take this one,” Hera repeated, this time more forcefully. “I can fix his leg.”

“Look, girlie-”

Hera stalked towards the man, her eyebrows drawing together into a fierce scowl. “I’m taking that droid, whether you like it or not. And don’t call me ‘girlie’.”

The mechanic’s mouth, which had been hanging open, now closed with a snap. He’d recognized that the slim, attractive Twi’lek was, in fact, not someone to be trifled with. “It don’t make no difference to me, lady. Less work for me to do. There’s a dolly by the loading dock.”

The droid’s grumbling had subsided somewhat, but he continued to berate the mechanic all the way across the hangar.

Keran was waiting for Hera when she reached their squadron’s training area. “Is it true?”

“That I just acquired the crankiest droid on Coruscant?” Hera said. “Yes. It’s true.”

“No!” Keran said, entirely ignoring Hera’s new acquisition and his sorry state. “The Jedi starfighter! Captain Enneb said you were going to be flying it!”

Hera rubbed the back of one lek sheepishly. “It’s true.”

“At first, we thought she was joking, but then we had to ask ourselves when Enneb has ever made a joke…”

“That’s a valid point,” Hera acknowledged.

“I can’t believe it!” Keran squealed. “I mean...I can believe it. You’re an amazing pilot. But a Jedi starfighter is a big deal.”

“I know. Help me move this thing, will you?”

Keran gazed doubtfully at the one-legged droid on the dolly, who was still grumbling. “That is one awful-looking, angry astromech.”

Hera grinned. “I think he’s going to be great.”

Chapter Text

Sammo Quid yawned loudly and poked Caleb in the ribs. “How much longer?” he asked, not bothering to lower his voice in front of the younglings.

They were standing side by side in one of the Temple training rooms, watching two of the younglings spar with training sabers. “Another 20 minutes,” Caleb sighed, exasperated. Sammo, a Twi’lek with cerulean skin, was Caleb’s best and laziest friend- and a terrible teacher who disliked children on principle. Caleb loved working with the younglings, but he would never have admitted that to Sammo. 

Sammo yawned again. “All right,” he said, blinking his green eyes in a deliberate manner as if it would help him become more alert. He pointed at the pair of younglings ineffectually whacking at each other with their sabers. “That’s enough of you two. Let’s see someone who’s better. Where’s Bridger?”

Caleb scanned the heads of the jostling little group of younglings, all around seven or eight standard years old. He did not see the unmistakable dark blue hair of the particular problem child in question.

“Where is he?” he asked the group. A couple of them shrugged and shook their heads, and a few more gave him blank looks. Caleb’s eyes came to rest on Jai Kell, who had a suspicious expression on his face.

Caleb raised his distinctive eyebrows and gave Jai a look. “Well? Where’d he go?”

“I told him not to,” Jai said. He turned and pointed towards an adjoining room, where only Master Jedi were allowed to train.

“Ugh,” Sammo huffed. “Kids.”

“I’ll get him,” Caleb told Sammo. “You all keep working.”

Sammo rolled his eyes. “Do I have to?”

Caleb ignored him, heading past the group of younglings and into the adjoining training room. Ezra Bridger was there, all right. With a red-bladed lightsaber ignited in his hand.

He shut the lightsaber off and hastily shoved it back into the carved rack affixed to the wall, turning towards Caleb. His small face filled with remorse when he saw Caleb’s livid expression.

“I- I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I just wanted to look.”

“You know you’re not allowed in here. You are definitely not allowed to touch those lightsabers!”

“I know. I’m sorry, really I am. I just wanted to look. Honest. Didn’t you ever want to look?”

The kid had found the kink in Caleb’s armor. Caleb had always wanted to look, and know the answer to every question. His irritation with Ezra evaporated.

“Yeah, I wanted to look. But the rules are the rules. If you want to be a Jedi when you grow up, you have to follow them. That’s all there is to it.”

“It’s hard to follow the rules sometimes,” Ezra observed.

“Yep. It is. But that’s a part of life, kid. You have to do what they tell you if you want to get what you want. You know?”

“I guess.”

“Anyway, I hope that’s the last time you see one of those red blades up close,” Caleb told him, unable to resist playing the role of the more knowledgable adult.

“Have you…?” Ezra asked, his blue eyes wide.

“No. I’ve never encountered anyone who used one of those. C’mon, we better-”

Just then, the door opened.

“Well, well. What a surprise to find Caleb Dume and Ezra Bridger in a room that is off-limits to both of them,” Obi-Wan Kenobi said, his lips curved into a faint smile.

“Master Kenobi! This looks worse than it is,” Caleb said.

“I am quite certain I’ve heard you say those very words on more than a few messy occasions, Caleb. What, pray, are you two doing in here? Having a nice chat?”

“Well-” Caleb started.

Ezra interrupted him. “It was me,” he said. “I just wanted to look. Caleb was just coming in here to fetch me.”

Master Kenobi was trying not to smile and failing miserably. “Out with you two,” he told them, making a shooing motion with his hands.

Out they went. When they were beyond being seen by Master Kenobi, Caleb chuckled. Ezra looked up at him and broke into a grin. 

 


 

After the incident in the Master’s training room, Caleb would occasionally catch Ezra tailing him like a poorly-trained spy. During a meal, he’d look up to find a pair of admiring dark blue eyes watching him. Sometimes he’d sense that the kid was trailing him through the cavernous halls of the Temple, and his evening sparring sessions rarely had fewer than an audience of one small blue-haired boy. Ezra also went out of his way to be on his best behavior whenever Caleb and Sammo were in charge of helping the younglings with their lightsaber training, and Caleb’s presence seemed to have a positive effect on his performance, as well- a fact that did not go unnoticed by some of the masters.

Master Yoda commented on it: “When present you are, more focused young Bridger is, young Dume.”

Master Billaba, too, had some thoughts.

“You and Ezra seem to have forged a connection, Caleb,” she commented, after watching her apprentice assist the child with some very basic Ataru moves during an afternoon training session.

“If by ‘connection’ you mean he follows me around everywhere, then yeah.”

“Do you remember when I was in the bacta tank after that run-in with the permacrete detonator on Nal Hutta, and we felt a connection to one another?”

Caleb pursed his lips. “Yes.”

“The Force sometimes shows us the special connections we will make in unusual ways. Perhaps he will be your apprentice when you are old enough to take one. In the meantime, he is just a child seeking the brotherly affection of one he admires.”

Caleb shifted his gaze to watch the kid, who had an undeniable talent with the lightsaber. The Force was strong with him. Caleb felt a little burst of pride, as if Ezra was already his responsibility. Maybe Master Billaba was right.

She watched him watch Ezra and smiled. “Caleb, since you are such a good teacher, and a very capable pilot as well, I would like you to go tomorrow to the Academy to evaluate and work with the newest class of cadets. I think perhaps it will do you good to work with people who are not Jedi, and your patience and expertise will benefit them greatly.”

“I don’t know where you get this idea that I’m patient, Master,” Caleb said, smiling.

“You are when you are helping others, my apprentice. Not so much when you are supposed to be following the teaching of others, though.”

“I’m working on it!”

She smiled and turned to leave. “While you’re at it, Caleb, work on getting a haircut, too.”

He laughed loudly, causing the entire training room to stop and look at him- including Master Yoda.

“Sorry!” he yelped, as he quickly resumed what he liked to think of as his “Serious Jedi Face.” Immediately, however, his mind wandered, wondering what the cadets would be like- and how he would need to alter his teaching techniques to account for the fact that they weren’t Jedi.

“Focus, young Dume,” Master Yoda called. “Need training, these younglings do.”

 

Chapter Text

Captain Enneb was a tall, wiry human with short graying hair and a kind but overall very no-nonsense demeanor. Hera was in awe of her and usually hung on every word the woman said. That afternoon, though, there was a Jedi standing next to her as she began the pre-flight briefing in one corner of the noisy Starfighter Corps hangar. None of the cadets were listening to a single word the Captain was saying.

The human Jedi was quite tall, and young- about the same age as cadets themselves. The slightly curling ends of his reddish-brown hair just reached his earlobes, and there was a skinny braid that started behind his right ear and extended down the length of his neck. He wore the usual Jedi garb- long brown cloak, tall brown boots, off-white tunic, and loose pants. His skin had a dark golden hue.

Hera, for her part, was at least making some effort to focus on the Captain. The rest of the squadron was fidgeting and whispering back and forth. Keran, ever the class disruptor, elbowed her and murmured, “Do you know who he is?”

“No,” Hera whispered back. “Why would I know who he is?”  

The murmurs and fidgeting quickly reached a level of disruption that the Captain could no longer ignore.

“It seems that you’re all having difficulty acting like professionals this afternoon,” she sniffed, irritated. “Cadets, this is Caleb Dume. He will be evaluating your performance in flight and giving instruction as he sees fit. You will extend to him the same deference and courtesy you would any superior officer.”

Hera heard Keran sigh as she leaned towards her. “Whew. It’s really too bad that those Jedi aren’t allowed to have relationships, huh?” she whispered near Hera’s ear cone.

Before she could stop herself, Hera rolled her eyes at Keran’s comment. It was a bad habit that her mother had always hated. When her eyes returned to the front of the squadron where the Jedi stood, she saw that he was looking right at her. Had he heard Keran? Had he seen her behave in such an incredibly unprofessional manner? His expression was serious, but his green eyes were sparkling with amusement. Her cheeks flushed deep green with embarrassment. Nevertheless, Hera lifted her chin and continued to meet his eyes. She made it a point never to lose her cool.

As they looked at each other, a jolt passed between them, following the path of their locked gaze.

Hera’s eyes widened in surprise, and she felt a powerful desire to look away- but the Jedi looked away first. He glanced around for a second or two as if not entirely sure of exactly where he was, and then seemed to return to himself. His youthful appearance and apparent awkwardness were disarming.

The Captain was less impressed. She gave him a curt nod, said, “I’ll leave you to it,” and strode away towards the control room. It was Hera’s understanding that the Jedi were always superior to even the most superior officers of the Judicial Forces- even some of the Jedi who hadn’t yet passed the trials. This Jedi- Caleb Dume- cleared his throat and took a few steps forward, closing the gap between himself and the squadron. He glanced around at the faces, carefully avoiding hers.

“You all can call me Caleb, or Dume, if it makes you feel more comfortable- the Jedi aren’t militarized,” he told them. “I think we’ll start with some basics today, so I can get an idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are- individually, and as a squadron. Nothing too basic, of course. I’m told that this squadron is pretty good.” His voice was deep and warm, with just a hint of a sardonic undertone. He spoke with far more confidence than she had been expecting, and she wondered if she'd been mistaken about him being awkward. 

“It’s mostly Syndulla,” Keran the class disruptor said, pointing at Hera. The cadets laughed. Hera had already become their unofficial squadron leader, and by that time, everyone knew that she was the reason for their excellent performance. Dume’s eyes lit on her and moved quickly away.

“A strong leader is important,” he said, “but the squadron can’t rely on just one person. I’d like to see what everyone is bringing to the table. Let’s get to the ships and get up there.”

As Hera walked past the Jedi on her way to her ship, she felt the space between them surge with peculiar energy. She kept her gaze straight ahead, directed at her ship, which was only a short distance away. Still, it seemed to take five hours to traverse it. She was annoyed with herself for getting so flustered, she and set about to prepping to distract and center herself. The Academy insisted upon cadets learning how to prep their own ships, to check for mechanical issues and run diagnostics. In Hera's opinion, that was a good thing.

“Chopper,” she called up to the grumpy droid she’d rescued from the awful man in the droid shop, “run a diagnostic on the comm. It seemed a little glitchy yesterday.”

The droid, who was already installed in the ship’s astromech socket, warbled indignantly and thrashed his grasper arms. On average, at least half of anything Chopper said was insulting and peppered with foul language.

“Yes, it was glitchy, and not just my ‘terrible organic ear cones’!” she yelled back at him. He had proven to be worth the effort, fortunately- he was much more intuitive than any other astromech she’d ever encountered, possibly owing in part to the fact that he’d never had a memory wipe. He was also eccentric and terribly cranky, and a true artist when it came to swearing. Hera was already very fond of him.

Chopper smacked the edge of the socket furiously, grumbling.

“Just do it, or I’ll take you back to that droid shop and let that mechanic disintegrate you!”

“Excuse me,” the Jedi’s voice said. He was standing directly behind her.

She froze for a second, wondering how long he’d been standing there, and then slowly turned. She had embarrassed herself for the second time in front of the Jedi, but she reminded herself that she did not lose her cool. She swept the chagrin aside as if she'd never felt it at all.

“Hello. Can I help you with something?” she asked, smiling at him.

 


 

It was a lovely smile. But her voice was even more delightful- melodic, not too sweet, and very confident. For a moment, Caleb forgot what he'd wanted to say to her. When that moment passed, he again forgot what he had been wanting to say because he was too busy noticing the flecks of light greenish-gold in her eyes.

She had a heart-shaped face, a small, determined chin, and large bright green eyes. Her lekku were covered in white tattoos- a fairly common thing for Twi’leks, he knew- although not all had them. She wore a flight cap and suit, but she was so graceful that she made them look like evening wear. He heard Master Billaba’s voice in his head, telling him to focus. If she only knew what he was trying to draw his focus away from!

He gestured toward her ship. “This is a Delta-7,” he said, immediately chastising himself for saying something so obvious and so stupid.

“Oh...yeah. And I’m not a Jedi. Right?” She was still smiling, but now there was a glint of pride in her eyes.

“I didn’t mean anything by it-”

“I wasn’t saying that you did-”

“-it’s just that I’m...impressed.” Caleb was sure that no one in the galaxy had ever sounded like as big an idiot as he did right then. He imagined Sammo howling with laughter over all of this, and he smiled grimly.

Her raised eyebrows indicated that she didn't really know what to make of the incongruence between his odd smile and his words, but she remained gracious. “Thank you, I appreciate that. I’ve been flying since I was a little girl, so that has a lot to do with it.”

“That’s not a typical practice on Ryloth, to teach young kids how to fly...is it? My main resource isn’t the most reliable.” Caleb chuckled, thinking again of Sammo.  

“Are you familiar with Ryloth?” she asked.

“Well, it’s part of our training to learn a bit about each world. But my best friend is a Twi’lek. Do you know him? Sammo Quid?”

She laughed, not unkindly. “We don’t all know each other, you know.”

“Right...right,” Caleb sighed. The conversation was going terribly, and in any case, he didn’t know what was wrong with him. He wanted to tell himself that he was just having a friendly chat with a student, but he knew that it was a lie- he wanted nothing more than to know her better- better than it would ever be appropriate to know a student. 

“My father’s good friend, Gobi, is a pilot. He used to give me flying lessons. At first, I would just sit with him, and he would explain all the parts, everything he was doing. When I was big enough and knew enough, he let me fly. My father wasn’t too pleased when he found out, but Gobi was persuasive, and my parents let me continue,” she told him.

“Well it’s a good thing they did, uh-” he paused, realizing he didn’t know her first name.

“Hera. Hera Syndulla.”

“Hera.” His voice unintentionally dropped half an octave as he repeated her name. She blinked, and her cheeks flushed slightly. It did not escape Caleb’s notice. “It’s a good thing they did, Hera. The Republic needs good pilots.”

Just then, her astromech banged his grasper arm against the ship again, warbling something about “idiot organics”. She sighed, and then smiled at Caleb. “I should probably finish prepping,” she said.

“Right,” Caleb replied. “I apologize for taking up your prep time, but you can’t blame me for being curious about a cadet who can fly a Delta-7.”

“No, I can’t blame you. I admit I was curious about you, too. I’ve never met a Jedi before.”

He smiled. “I’m not really a full Jedi- I haven’t completed the trials yet. Hope I’m not too disappointing, for your first Jedi. You should know that I’m a pretty big deal back at the Temple.”

She played along. “Are you?”

“Yep. They’ve already got my seat on the High Council ready, right next to Master Windu and Master Yoda.”

“Hmmm,” Hera said, nodding. “Uh huh.”

“It doesn’t seem like you believe me,” Caleb deadpanned.

She laughed and shook her head. “Not really. But I’m sure you’re a perfectly good Jedi.”

“‘A perfectly good Jedi, huh? Well it just so happens-”

Her droid commenced banging on the ship repeatedly, resulting in an obnoxious clanging.

“I better go,” she said.

“Yeah, you’d better. I’ll see you up there,” he said.

She gave him a quick nod and turned back to her ship. Caleb turned, too, and went to his, feeling very cheerful indeed. 

Chapter Text

Caleb’s Delta-7 was the last in the air, owing to the fact that he wanted to see how the squadron did with takeoffs and landings. It was very basic stuff, and all of the cadets had been through some manner of flight training- that was a prerequisite requirement of admission to the Judicial Academy’s Starfighter Corps program- but Caleb was a thorough teacher. In this case, he was more interested in seeing how well they did with procedure, rather than technique. Coruscant’s airspace was teeming with speeders and starships around the clock, and there were certain rules for negotiating those, as well as for planetary orbit and beyond.

Not surprisingly, they all followed procedure to the letter and entered orbit without issue. Comm chatter was kept to a minimum, most likely because they knew he was listening. The row of Y-wings (and one Delta-7) were already in formation when he arrived.

“So far, so good,” he said. “Let’s just start with some evasive maneuvers and go from there.”

He ran them through all the basic maneuvers, giving an occasional pointer here and there. It was a much slower pace than he was used to, and as a result, his attention was frequently split between the cadet he was evaluating and Hera Syndulla. Of course, she didn’t actually require any of his attention. She ran through the maneuvers with the rest of her squadron, executing every task perfectly. He hadn’t been able to get much of a read on her when they were on the ground, but now he could sense that she was happy. This was what she loved to do.  

He smiled as he watched her execute a flawless canopy roll. She was exhilarating to watch. There was nothing jerky, no hesitation, and no sense that she was at any moment not in complete control of her ship. Caleb was considered a very good pilot by Jedi standards, but he knew that Hera Syndulla was better. He couldn’t help but feel deeply impressed. The Jedi teachings sometimes mentioned individuals who were not Force-sensitive, but were still able to access the Force when it came to certain abilities. Hera Syndulla seemed to be one such individual.

“Very nice, Syndulla,” he said. It seemed a paltry compliment to pay to someone so talented.

Thanks." The loveliness of her voice was only slightly diminished by the comm. 

As good as she was, there was really no way to know how she- or any of them- would hold up in actual combat. The Starfighter Corps was a peacekeeping outfit, not unlike the Jedi. But even peacekeepers needed to be prepared for anything. He had them work on some maneuvers together as a unit and then had them do steep ascents and dives. Again, Hera made it all look easy.

“I think that’s it for today,” he announced, after a couple of hours of solid work. “You all did extremely well. I think we’ll work on dogfighting tomorrow.”

We, uh...haven’t done much of that,” Hera said. She sounded thrilled at the prospect.

“Your ships are all equipped with training simulators that’ll allow you to target each other as if you were really in combat. I know it’s not typical to do more than study combat specific to Starfighter Corps procedure during your first year, but I think you’re all ready for a little fun,” he told them.

Excited murmurs and laughter came through the comm.

Caleb smiled. “All right, let’s land these birds so none of you are late for dinner.”

Back on the ground, Caleb hopped out of the cockpit and sat down on the wing of his ship, looking across the hangar to where Hera was doing post-flight checks on her ship. He wanted to go over and talk to her again, but he held himself back. On the one hand, he was a Jedi, and his feelings about this woman were already muddled. It wasn't appropriate. On the other hand, he was Jedi- surely he was capable of handling confusing emotions by remembering all that he had been taught throughout his nineteen standard years of life? Of course, he'd also been taught to avoid situations that were potentially problematic, and talking to Hera Syndulla was the opposite of avoiding a potentially problematic situation. 

“What are you staring at?” a familiar voice called up to him. He looked down to see Sammo standing there with his arms crossed and the usual smirk on his face.

“Nothing,” he answered, jumping down from the wing in an attempt to distract his nosy friend. But it was too late- Sammo had already turned to look. He turned back to Caleb with both eyebrows raised.

“And who’s that, young Jedi Dume?”

“Who’s what?”

Sammo’s eyes narrowed. He and Caleb had been raised together from infancy in the Temple on Coruscant; he knew Caleb perhaps better than he knew himself. There wasn’t much of a point to feigning ignorance.

“Oh, that pilot over by the Delta-7? She’s a cadet. Very talented,” Caleb said, keeping his tone light.

“Is she? What’s her name?” Sammo asked, studying Caleb’s face with a suspicious expression.

“Syndulla, I think.”

“Syndulla, you think. Uh huh.” Sammo rubbed his chin thoughtfully, a mischievous smile beginning to develop at the corners of his mouth. “I think I’ll just go introduce myself. It’s always nice to meet another Twi’lek, after all.”

“Sammo…”

“Yes?”

“Nothing.” Caleb would master his emotions, just like he had been taught, and that would be the end of it. There was no need to tell Sammo anything or give him any reason to be even more suspicious than he already seemed to be.

Sammo turned and walked a few steps in Hera’s direction, and then stopped to call back over his shoulder, “Well? Aren’t you coming?”

Caleb sighed. A few excuses drifted through his mind, but who knew what Sammo would say? No one ever did. He’d been reprimanded for his glib tongue many times more often than any other Jedi in their age group. He followed his friend.

 


 

Hera looked up from her inspection of one of her ship’s thrusters to see that the Jedi was making his way across the hangar towards her. He was reluctantly following another Jedi, this one a Rutian Twi’lek with the expression of a Blurrg who had just found a particularly tasty patch of grass.

“Hello,” the Rutian said, bowing. He was a few centimeters shorter than his companion. Other than his lack of a hooded brown cloak, his attire was identical to Caleb’s. His green eyes glinted with mischief, and he had the look of someone who was seldom serious for any significant length of time.

Caleb ran a hand through his hair, not quite meeting her eyes. “Hera, this is the friend I was telling you about- Sammo Quid.”

“And saying nothing but nice things about me, too, I’m sure,” Sammo said with a wide smile. “It’s always a pleasure to meet another Twi’lek. Are you from Ryloth?”

“Yes. Tann province.”

“Ah, Tann province! A beautiful place. You must be homesick.”

Hera nodded. “I miss the open spaces, yes. And my family.”

“Young Caleb here tells me your surname is Syndulla...any relation to the famous Cham Syndulla?”

“Yes,” Hera replied, doing her best to keep any irritation out of her tone. She was keenly aware of the fact that his name was well known in certain circles, and she wanted to be judged based on her own merits. “He’s my father.”

“Officially, I’m not supposed to comment on politics, so don’t tell anyone I said so,” Sammo murmured, “but I think most Twi’leks here on Coruscant would’ve preferred your father to Orn Free Taa.”

Hera maintained her pleasant expression despite the memories of that election being anything but. She had met Free Taa, the corpulent senator from Ryloth, and she did not have a high opinion of him. Her father maintained that Free Taa had somehow cheated his way to victory, although Cham had never been able to uncover how it was done. It rankled him still. The constant presence of meddling Separatists on their planet, usually as Free Taa’s guests, had caused her father to become increasingly angry over the last few years.

“I appreciate that,” Hera told Sammo. “My father would, too.”

“Caleb here tells me that you’re a very talented pilot.” The Rutian clapped his hand on his friend’s shoulder and smirked, lifting one eyebrow. His expression managed to be both gleeful and suspicious, which was an odd combination.

Hera glanced at Caleb. Their eyes met, but he looked away quickly. A small part of her wondered at his sudden aloof behavior, but ignorant as she was of both men and Jedi, she did not believe herself involved at all. Even if she had, she wasn’t one to be bothered by such things. Her interest in him was focused on what she could learn from him. Beyond that, well...it seemed unlikely that even friendship would be possible, so why bother to give it a thought?

“I’ve been flying a long time,” Hera told Sammo. “Longer than my classmates. It’s just experience and a lot of practice.”

“I suspect that you’re being modest,” Sammo replied.

“She is,” Caleb said.

Hera looked at him again, and he didn’t look away this time. She’d seen the expression on his face before; Gobi’s face had looked the same the day that he declared she had surpassed him as a pilot. She’d been fourteen standard years old.

“Thank you,” she said, not knowing what else to say. She was pleased that she had impressed a Jedi, but it would not do to make that obvious.

Caleb’s smile was warm, but his eyes were guarded as he looked at her. “Sammo and I have taken up enough of your time, and we should be getting back to the Temple. There are younglings to train.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Sammo groaned. Caleb grabbed his friend’s arm and steered him away. “It was nice to meet you, Hera Syndulla!” Sammo called back over his shoulder.

She half-waved, but neither Jedi saw because they had commenced slapping playfully at one another as they walked towards the hangar exit.

“Not really what you expected, are they?” Keran appeared at Hera’s elbow, her helmet still in one hand. She pushed a lock of auburn hair off her forehead and leaned back against the wing of Hera’s ship.

“Not really, no. I guess I didn’t think they’d have a sense of humor.”

Keran laughed. “Some of them don’t have a sense of humor. Those two are padawans. Did you see the braid on the tall one? It means he hasn’t passed the Trials. He’s not a Jedi Knight yet.”

“He told me. Caleb. That’s his name.”

“Oh, yeah. Right. Am I being nosy if I ask what you two were talking about? I’m dying of curiosity,” Keran said.

“You? Nosy?” Hera laughed. “He was just curious about me because of the ship.”

“That makes sense. It’s a big deal, you know. You flying this ship.” She slapped the wing with one gloved hand and sighed. “You’re not going to be with us that much longer.”

“What do you mean?”

“Those two might just be padawans, but they weren’t talking to anyone else in this hangar, were they, Hera? Why would they? They’re so much better than we are at everything. They’re not all that interested in the skills of ordinary people unless we’re really good.”

Hera bent over to inspect a wiring panel under one of the engines. “I think you’re making a bigger deal out of it than it really deserves…”

“Are you kidding? I’m not making a big enough deal out of it!” Keran blew out an exasperated puff of air and shifted her helmet from one hand to the other. “You don’t have to believe me. You’ll see soon enough, my talented but dubious friend. Just promise me you’ll teach me how to do a canopy roll like that before you move on to better things.”

“Sure,” Hera said, straightening up. “But we have a post-flight debriefing to get to, Chopper has disappeared and there’s a good possibility he’s off doing something illegal...and I would wrestle a rancor for a hot cup of caf right now.”

“You’d probably win, too,” Keran said, grinning. “And there’s an even better possibility that droid is off doing something illegal and murderous. We better get going.”

 

Chapter Text

Caleb and Sammo returned to the Temple to find both of their Masters waiting for them under the massive stone arches of the main entry hall. Master Secura looked vexed, as was often the case when it came to her Padawan.

“Sammo Quid, how will you pass the Trials if you insist upon ignoring the directives of your Master? Come. We have work to do,” she said. With a toss of her lekku, she stalked away down the hall without looking back to make sure Sammo followed.

“Yes, Master.” Sammo cast a sly look in Caleb’s direction, but Master Billaba caught Sammo’s eye, and the young Twi’lek’s gaze dropped to the ground as he dutifully followed his Master.

Master Billaba’s dark eyes shifted, settling on Caleb. Now shorter than her Padawan, she had to tilt her chin up to look him full in the face. She was silent for several long moments, which was not unusual for her. Caleb waited.

“You’re late returning,” she said finally. “How did the training with the cadets go?”

“They’re very skilled. Captain Enneb will produce another excellent squadron for the Republic.”

His Master nodded slowly. “That’s good to hear, but it was not a thorough answer to the question. I sense that you are...unsettled by something.”

Outright evasion of her probing was out of the question. Caleb knew well enough that Depa Billaba could see through him easily. “There’s a cadet in the squadron who can touch the Force,” he said. “At least...I think she can. She’s flying a Delta-7.”

“It does happen occasionally that non-Force-sensitives have that ability,” she said.

“Yes, I remember reading about it.”

Master Billaba’s keen gaze did not waver as she regarded her young apprentice. He had learned to endure these searching looks over the years, but this time irritation welled up in him, and he was surprised by it. He felt suddenly protective of the strange feelings that swirled around his thoughts of the Twi’lek cadet. Even though he knew it was futile, he met her eyes and tried to block his Master from sensing them.

She frowned. “Hmm. I would tell you to be mindful of your feelings, but it seems that you already are.”

Caleb’s gaze dropped to the floor. It occurred to him that he should apologize to her, but rebellion rose in him. There were times when he found Temple life...confining. Like all Padawan learners, he longed to complete the Trials successfully and become a Jedi Knight. Deep down, though, he knew it was because he craved some freedom, and it made him feel guilty. His teenage years had been difficult on both Master and Apprentice- younger Caleb had been full of nonstop questions and emotions that ran the gamut from euphoria to outright defiance. The Order prescribed training and meditation as the antidote to teen angst, with varying degrees of success. In Caleb’s case, the success was hard-won and quite a bit less comprehensive than both Master and Padawan had hoped. Caleb did not like feeling that he had failed her- and, even more, he disliked his continued difficulty controlling his emotional state.

Depa Billaba sighed. “Caleb, it’s not unusual for young Jedi to experience feelings that are exceptionally difficult to master. But master them you must.”

He was silent for several seconds, unwilling to ask and fearful of the answer. It was not Jedi-like, and he knew it. He did not raise his eyes when he finally spoke.

“What if I can’t?”

“One of the reasons I took you as my Padawan is my appreciation of your questioning nature. Granted, at times it can be frustrating- but it is less so now that you are older, and more cognizant of the appropriate time and place to ask your questions. You needn’t ever be concerned with asking me questions like this. ‘There is no ignorance, only knowledge.’ And to know, you must ask.”

He raised his eyes to meet hers. “Thank you, Master.”

“As to your question, well...you will do your best. We will do our best, Caleb- I will always be your Master, and because of that, you will never have to face anything alone. We Jedi are seekers, and sometimes the answers to our questions cannot be found even within the Order. If that is the case, there is no shame in fully understanding what sort of being you are. The Order is not for everyone, and those who touch the Force but choose to leave the Order are not lesser beings for having done so. It is a fine line we walk, when it comes to the feelings we may develop for others- none of us, not even Master Yoda, can claim perfection. Our mandate is not allegiance to one being, but to all beings. Yet we teach the importance of love and compassion, and thus, our ideals can at times seem to conflict with one another. In you, Padawan, emotion is both a strength and a weakness, and you continue to struggle with finding peace and serenity. You must meditate at length and search your feelings deeply, Caleb.”

“I don’t want to leave the Order.”

“No one is asking you to. The decision is yours alone to make if ever you should reach that crossroads. I will do my best to help and guide you, and to offer what wisdom I can without judgment.”

Her smile was full of kindness and compassion, and Caleb felt instantly better. “Thank you.”

“You may question my wisdom in giving you this directive, but you will return to the Starfighter Corps hangar tomorrow afternoon and resume your training of the cadets,” she told him.

“I don’t question your wisdom. I went there to oversee the training of the cadets on the behalf of the Republic, and I’ll do my job. Besides, running from problems never solves those problems.”

“Unless that problem is a gundark.”

Caleb laughed aloud, drawing some stony looks from passing Jedi. Master Vos, who was just jogging down the stairs, grinned in his direction. There was nothing Master Vos enjoyed more than a Jedi who was as disruptive as he was.

“Really, Padawan. Must you be so loud?” Master Billaba asked with a smirk. She turned in the direction of the meditation rooms, gesturing for him to follow.

He did as indicated, saying, “Honestly, Master, sometimes I don’t know how you ended up on the High Council. You have a sense of humor, after all.”

“I could tell you that a great many of the Jedi on the Council have a sense of humor, but I doubt you would believe me. Besides, it sometimes helps to stand out from the crowd. The Council values differing opinions from time to time- now more than ever.”

“Will the Republic go to war with the Separatists?” Caleb asked.

“I fear it may be so. More star systems leave the Republic by the week. We may try to fool ourselves that we are still living in a galaxy of peace and prosperity, but unrest grows. Dooku, being a well-respected former Jedi, has called the Order into question throughout the galaxy with his disparaging remarks. Chancellor Palpatine expresses that he wishes to prevent war at all costs, but his actions seldom match his words. These are strange, worrying times. And the shadow of the dark side continues to grow in all our minds.” Her unfocused gaze cleared as she looked up at him. “The present is the only thing that matters, and at this moment we have other things to attend to. We will meditate, and then I think it will be time for a much-needed meal and rest for us both.”

“I agree completely.”

He followed her as she led the way into one of the Temple’s many meditation chambers, and the Twi’lek cadet was, for the moment, forgotten.

Chapter Text

Hera sat in the cockpit of her ship with the glittering surface of Coruscant far below and the vastness of space above, and watched the rest of the squadron getting into formation. The other Delta-7 piloted by the Jedi Padawan Caleb Dume brought up the rear. He’d been all business in the pre-flight briefing, which had lasted all of two minutes- and he’d made no mention of combat training. She waited impatiently, hoping he hadn’t changed his mind. 

Ready to go, Syndulla? ” Keran’s ship was on her starboard wing, and she gave a little wave when Hera glanced over.  

“Of course I’m ready,” she said. 

Whup! Whup! Whup! Chopper chortled from the astromech socket.

I heard that, Chopper, ” Keran grumbled. “Just wait until we get back to the hangar, you little-

All right, cadets,” Caleb’s voice cut in. “We can threaten our droids later. Today we’re going to do some combat training. Activate your in-flight training simulators and make sure they’re switched to combat mode. I want you to pair up and work on combat maneuvers, specifically pursuit curves- the geometry and speed of pursuit and attack needs to become second nature so that you’re not wasting precious seconds thinking about it when you have the advantage. The cadet who isn’t attacking will work on evasive maneuvers. You’ll all have five minutes in each position. Since there are seventeen of you...Syndulla, you’ll fly with me.

Hera could see Keran’s head swivel out of the corner of her eye, but she ignored it. She was thrilled. Flying against a Jedi- that was a real challenge. 

A message from Chopper scrolled down the screen on her console: “We’re toast.”

“Yeah, thanks for the input, Chop. Be quiet and check the stabilizers.”

She tried not to let her excitement distract her, focusing instead on watching her classmates with a critical eye. She knew they would come to her later with questions and requests for flying tips that they were too afraid to ask their Jedi instructor. 

Some were better than others- she was pleased to see that Keran was quite good with combat maneuvers- she had natural talent. 

At last, it was her turn. Caleb’s ship had disappeared. He was more likely to attack her from above or below- it was the smartest way to quickly get the upper hand, and it would be harder for her to get the advantage once he had it. On the other hand, he would know she was expecting it. She fired up her engine and left her squadron behind, pushing to attack speed. 

No pings on the scanner. Hera was more excited than nervous. There was no way to really anticipate what she was up against, but she wasn’t unduly concerned. The stakes were low and if nothing else, it would be an incredible learning experience. 

Out of nowhere, he was on her. 

She had no idea where he’d come from- above, most likely- but he must have been flying at top speed in a steep descent for Hera to miss him closing in on her. She’d heard talk of Jedi reflexes and reaction time, but it was an incredibly reckless maneuver. She grinned, and then her console lit up red with target lock warnings, and the cockpit alarms sounded. The onboard training sim did not involve the use of real weaponry. The Delta-7’s twin cannons were disabled, but the starfighters were linked and their computers were capable of creating a decent facsimile of how it felt to fire and take hits from the dual cannons, had they been functional. Caleb fired and missed. Hera knew the miss was deliberate. He was feeling cocky, and that was to her advantage. 

She faked right and then broke left, but he stayed right on her tail and opened fire. She’d have to do better than that. Weaving and dodging might buy her a little time to think about how to gain the upper hand, but it wouldn’t buy much. Her heart pounded. She’d flown against some excellent pilots, both back home on Ryloth and at the Academy, but they were nothing compared to Caleb Dume.

Hera needed space if she wanted any hope of out-maneuvering him. 

“Chopper! Re-route all power to the engines and rear thrusters,” she said.  

Chopper’s response scrolled on the console: No shields? Are you crazy?

“Do it!” she growled.

When she had the power she wanted, she hit the accelerator and dropped into a steep dive, plummeting straight down towards atmosphere. He’s not the only reckless one, she thought. The atmosphere was off-limits, but there was always the possibility that her speeding towards it at a truly insane speed might throw him off. More importantly, though, Coruscant had gravity. And gravity meant more speed. Caleb gave chase, but Hera had gotten the space she wanted. She broke hard right and kept going, banking hard into the turn, her engine whining with the effort. She peered out of the rattling canopy, looking for him. The scanner pinged.

He’d overshot in an effort to catch her, and in a half-second more she’d have him.  

She grinned again. The targeting computer lined up the shot, and she took it. Another message from Chopper scrolled on the screen: You did it, you dumb organic!

The comm beeped- he’d opened up a private channel. She slapped the comm button, and his voice filled the cockpit. “You got me,” he said. “I knew you would.” From the way his voice sounded, she could tell that he was smiling. 

“You let me get the upper hand,” she said in a mock-accusatory tone.

Believe me, I wish that were true.” He laughed. “I underestimated you, and that’s saying something...but I didn’t think you’d be even more reckless than I am.”

Now Hera laughed, too. “Gobi used to yell at me all the time about that. He’d threaten to tell my parents.” She dropped her voice several octaves and reverted to her natural accent to imitate him: “‘Hera, you fly too low and scare the Blurrg...Hera, you will crash the ship and we will die and I will never forgive you for crashing my ship and killing me.’”

They laughed together for a few moments, and then Hera said, “Hey, it’s your turn to be the defender.”

“And suffer further humiliation? I don’t think so.”

“Don’t you want me to learn?”

“I don’t think you need it, Hera.” There was a stretched silence, and then he said, “Do you, uh...are you hungry?”

“What?” She couldn’t imagine what the state of her stomach had to do with anything. 

“Are you hungry? Would you...want to go get something to eat with me?”

Hera didn’t answer right away. His question was surprising, to say the least, and she wasn't immediately sure how to respond. She knew that Jedi weren’t allowed to have relationships, but the tone and hesitancy of his voice suggested that eating a meal together might fall into some kind of taboo category as well. She didn’t see how it could, though. Regardless, she was in fact starving, and she didn’t have any strange rules to follow. 

“I didn’t get a chance to eat earlier, so yes,” she said. “It better be delicious.”

“It’s really good. I think you’ll like it.”

“Where is it?”

“Just meet me outside the hangar after the debriefing. It’s a surprise.”

Hera shrugged even though he couldn’t see it. “Okay, sounds good,” she said.

“We better get back to the squadron before they start looking for us.” Without waiting for a response from her, he closed the comm channel. His ion exhaust ports lit up and he peeled away, back towards the squadron. She followed a moment later.

 


 

Darkness was falling on Coruscant, and the ever-present hum of speeders and ships filled the air. The city-planet seemed to pulsate, throbbing with life and noise. The neon glow of holo advertisements lit the night sky, blocking out the few stars that could have been seen. 

Caleb and Hera were sitting side-by-side at a counter in a small, dingy Rylothian noodle house in an inconspicuous, dirty alley not far from the Judicial Academy. Each of them sat facing a giant, steaming bowl of noodles in broth.

“That was impressive flying,” Caleb told her, as he stirred some of the optional, tongue-singeing hot oil into his bowl. 

“Thanks,” Hera replied. “And thanks for bringing me here. It’s nice to know where I can find a little bit of home on Coruscant.”

He slurped some of the spicy, thick broth experimentally, testing the heat. It was perfect. “It’s not the nicest place, but the food is great. Sammo and I come here a lot. He knows how to do two things really well: how to fight with a lightsaber, and how to eat. He knows all the best restaurants. And I think he particularly likes this place because of the connection to his culture, even if he didn’t grow up on Ryloth.” 

“You both grew up in the Temple?” She crammed a spoonful of noodles into her mouth and chewed, clearly delighted with the taste.

“Yeah. That’s usually how it goes. All the Force-sensitive kids within the Republic are located via blood testing when they’re really young. You were probably tested, too,” he said.

“I guess I didn’t pass,” she said with a grin.

He smiled back. “No, I guess you didn’t. But I'm guessing your test wasn't average, either...I think you can still touch the Force.”

“What? What does that mean?”

“Some people have a sort of Force-sensitivity when it comes to certain skills. You obviously have that with flying,” he said. “Not many non-Jedi can outfly a Jedi, even on their very best day.”

She looked stunned. “That's...that's unbelievable.”

“It’s not common, but it does happen. Some people just have it, and no one knows why it works out that way. You can probably learn to enhance it, too. I might be able to help you with that,” he offered. As soon as the words left his mouth, he wondered what in the worlds he was thinking. What he was doing was very much the opposite of avoiding the pretty, exceptionally talented pilot.

“Uh...sure. Yeah. It’s just a lot to take in, you know? And anyway...don’t you have other things you’re supposed to be doing? It sounds to me like the Jedi are always busy.” She looked a bit dazed, and she picked up her spoon but made no attempt to use it. 

“Well, I’m working with your squadron at the Academy right now, and I’m preparing for the Trials. There are other duties, too. Training younglings, mostly. I’m busy enough.”

“So when would you find the time to help me?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

“I would find it.” 

“When are the Trials?” she asked. She’d regained locomotion, and she plunged her spoon into her bowl.

Caleb shrugged, poking at his noodles absently. “They could be tomorrow, or they could be four years from now.”

Hera turned her face to look at him. “Are you serious?”

“It’s up to the Jedi Council to decide when...or if, I guess...I’m ready. I have to prove that I’m worthy first,” he said. “Sometimes the Trials are administered within the Temple, and sometimes Padawans are sent on dangerous missions without their Masters- the type of Trial really just depends on the Council and the Padawan. Most Padawans are apprenticed for about ten standard years- I’ve only been apprenticed to Master Billaba for five. But, again, it all depends on the Council.”

“Isn’t it hard not knowing when it’s coming?” Hera asked. “I’m used to exams at set intervals- and we almost always know in advance if we’re going to be evaluated.”

“I think the element of surprise is part of the whole thing,” Caleb said. “But, yeah, it’s a little nerve-wracking. We’re not supposed to see things that way, though. ‘Emotion, yet peace’.” 

“Is that some kind of...mantra?” She had all but forgotten her bowl of food to listen to him. 

“Sort of. It’s the Jedi Code. My Master’s version goes like this: ‘Emotion, yet peace. Ignorance, yet knowledge. Passion, yet serenity. Chaos, yet harmony. Death, yet the Force.’”

A crease appeared between Hera’s eyebrows. “What does it mean?”

“That explanation would take more time than I think either of us has tonight,” he said with a chuckle. “I can tell you about it some other time, though.”

Hera looked away and frowned slightly. “You say that like we’re going to see each other again, outside of the Academy,” she said.

He watched her for a moment, not entirely sure of her meaning. “We could see each other again- if you want that. As friends.” He knew he was treading on dangerous ground as he said it, but the part of him that had always rebelled against the inflexibility of the Order didn’t care. He should have been able to mitigate it with his long years of training, but he was beginning to realize that proximity to Hera seemed to impair his ability to quell that part of himself. 

“Are you allowed to have friends who aren’t Jedi?” 

She was asking the question in earnest, but he couldn’t help it- he laughed. “Yeah, of course. Why not?”

“I just thought- nevermind. It was a stupid question.” She looked sheepish, and Caleb felt bad for laughing.

“No, it wasn’t. But friends are friends, Jedi or not. Maybe you’re thinking of relationships,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “We’re not supposed to have those- with anyone.”

“Why not?” she asked. Her voice was too light and casual; she resumed eating, acting as if they were just talking about different types of hydrospanners. 

“Jedi aren’t supposed to value any one person above all other people. We’re supposed to protect the galaxy, be peacekeepers. Bring justice and light. At best, emotional entanglements are a distraction to doing those things well. At worst, they’re a path to the dark side. That’s one reason we’re taken into the Order so young- we never develop attachments to family.”

“You can’t miss what you don’t remember.”

“Right,” he agreed.

“I don’t want to judge, but calling a relationship a ‘distraction’ seems harsh,” she commented. “I can’t imagine thinking of my family and friends that way. If you’re allowed to have friends, doesn’t that count as a type of emotional entanglement, too?”

“Well,” he said, “that’s kind of the point. Jedi are supposed to be able to find that balance between caring about others and not becoming completely immersed in feelings. I guess romantic entanglements are more difficult to detach from emotionally. I wouldn’t know, obviously.”

Hera nodded. “Me neither. I’ve been too busy working to get here. What’s the dark side?”

“That’s also a conversation for another time. But if you think of the Force as light- well, where there’s light there’s also shadow. It’s a corrupting and evil influence for Jedi. There’s a lot more to it than that, but this will have to suffice for now. I can show you the Temple and tell you a bit more, next time. If you want a next time.”

“How could I not want a next time, if you’re going to show me the Temple? I didn’t even know regular people could go inside.”

“Most people don’t know. There’s a lot that’s off-limits, but we can always sneak you into those areas,” he said with a chuckle.

Her eyebrows went up. “Are you serious?”

“Rarely.”

She gave him an appraising look. “Are the other Jedi like you?”

“Are you asking because you’re impressed or because you’re unimpressed?”

“What if I don’t answer that?” 

Caleb laughed. “Well, to answer your question, some are like me, some are worse, and most are a lot better.”

Hera smirked and finished the last of her noodles. She pushed the bowl away from her and turned to him, accidentally bumping her knee against his.  The touch sent a jolt through him, but he told himself that he just wasn't expecting it. "I should go," she said. "I have class early in the morning."

"I know," he replied, wondering if he ought to say something about how he'd enjoyed spending time with her. 

She stood and spoke before he had a chance to decide. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow?"

"I guess you will." 

She smiled. "Thanks for dinner."

"You're welcome." 

And then she was gone, and Caleb was alone. The owner, an elderly Twi'lek with green skin darker than Hera's, gave him a knowing smile as she took his credits. He wanted to tell her, "It's not what you think!" Maybe he wanted to tell himself that as well. 

He walked back to the Temple, hardly noticing his surroundings, his thoughts consumed by Hera. 

Chapter Text

Hera figured that she had seen the last of Caleb. The day after their dinner, she’d waited a bit impatiently for him to appear in the Starfighter Corps hangar, but he never showed. Captain Enneb told the squadron he’d been called away on Jedi business, and she resumed training the squadron as if the Jedi had never been there at all.

After a few days, Hera began to wonder if he had been, or if she’d just imagined the whole bewildering thing. Captain Enneb promoted her to official squadron leader, and she was expected to make sure the cadets were always in top form, in addition to keeping up with her own studies. Two weeks flew by in this manner, and aside from the sight of the Delta-7 Aethersprite he’d flown sitting in the hangar, there was little to remind her of him. She didn’t expect to see or hear from him again- as far as she was concerned, there was no point in wasting precious mental resources on the matter. It seemed, after all, fully ridiculous to believe that a Jedi wanted to be her friend. She put him out of her mind.

The cadets got one day off per standard week, and Hera usually used her day off to study and run errands. Keran always tried to coax Hera to join the squadron at one of the nearby cantinas. She’d gone with them once or twice- she knew it was important to build rapport with her team. She enjoyed their company, but she didn’t have much interest in it beyond that. And, of course, she had work to do. 

She was sitting in her spartan room in one of the Judicial Academy’s high-rise dormitory buildings, working on her datapad, when Chopper alerted her to an incoming transmission. She didn’t bother asking who it was- the only people who ever contacted her via hologram, as opposed to her comm, were members of her family. She just assumed it was her little brother or, more likely, her mother- so, when Chopper projected the image, she didn’t immediately look up from her datapad to see who it was.  

“Look, I’m sorry I haven’t gotten in touch,” she said, scowling at a particularly difficult problem involving the physics of hyperspace travel. “I’ve just been really busy.”

“No apologies necessary,” a deep, amused-sounding male voice responded.

Hera looked up in surprise. There was Caleb Dume, rendered in flickering cyan light. She’d forgotten how striking he was, and she gazed at him rather stupidly for several seconds before realizing she was doing so. She blinked and sat up a bit straighter in her very straight-backed chair. 

“Oh. Hello,” she said in a perfunctory tone, flustered and scrambling to hide it by acting like Jedi contacted her every day. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

“Yeah...sorry about that. An emergency came up, and my master and I were sent to deal with it. We ended up being gone longer than anticipated.”

“Was it anything exciting?” Hera asked, unable to keep the curiosity out of her voice.

“Not really. Just pirates hassling some locals on Devaron- we had to deal with a very irritating Devaronian crime syndicate. If the Republic doesn’t address things like that quickly, the locals go to the Separatists for help.”

She nodded. “It sounds like things are getting worse.”

“They are. From what I hear, there’s a lot of squabbling in the Senate, and the Chancellor is having a hard time just getting everyone to come to a consensus about what to do. Meanwhile, more systems are leaving the Republic. It’s not good. But I don’t know much more than that- my master is on the Council, but she’s not allowed to share much of what goes on in that chamber with me,” Caleb said. 

“But surely the Jedi can do something.”

Caleb shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s more to it than that.”

“What?” 

“The dark side.” 

Even though she was only looking at a hologram, she could see that he was troubled. “You told me you’d explain that term to me,” she reminded him.

He nodded slowly. “I did say that. I also said I would show you the Temple. It’s your day off, right? That was the schedule I got for your squadron.”

She smiled. “It is.”

“So...would you like a tour of the Temple, with your very own Jedi tour guide?” He gave her a grin and a cocked eyebrow, and the overall effect of the combination was disconcertingly charming.

“Are you sure it’s all right?”

“Of course. Technically, it’s my home. I can have friends over to visit.” His tone had a slight edge of defiance to it. 

“Okay,” she agreed. “I can be there in an hour. I have some work to finish first.”

He smiled. “I’ll meet you outside the main entrance. See you soon,” he said. 

She returned his smile, and just before the hologram flickered and died, she saw a peculiar, intense expression on his face. 

“Whup! Whup!” Chopper complained.

Hera scowled at the droid. “That’s funny- I don’t remember asking your opinion, Chop.”

“Whup! Whup! Grrrrrrr.” 

“I’m just going to see the Jedi Temple. Mind your own business.”

Chopper subsided into low grumbling. Hera ignored him. She wanted to see the Jedi Temple, so why not let Caleb show it to her?

 

An hour later, she was standing at the foot of a massive set of stone staircases, craning her neck to look at the five spires that topped the flattened ziggurat-like base of the building. It was a massive place. Jedi came and went, but Hera also saw non-Jedi in significant numbers. She scanned the stairs for a third time, wondering if Caleb had forgotten, or had been called away again. But this time she saw him bounding down the center staircase, his robe flapping. His hair was messy, and she watched him reach up and try to smooth down the cowlicks. He saw her and grinned.

A minute later, he was standing in front of her, panting. “Sorry I’m late,” he panted. “Ran all the way here. An annoying kid delayed me.”

Hera’s eyebrows went up. “An annoying kid?”

“Yeah, he’s a youngling. You’ll probably meet him- he follows me almost everywhere.”

She smiled. “That’s sort of...adorable.”

“You think a kid following me around everywhere is adorable? Are you sure you didn’t mean to say ‘annoying’?” he asked, incredulous.

“Yes. Adorable.” 

“Okay, well, I guess it’s adorable, then. I’ll take your word for it. But maybe you won’t think so, once you meet him.”

Hera laughed. “I doubt it.”

“Let’s find out. Come on,” he said, waving his hand in the general direction of the grand entrance. 

They climbed the many stairs together, and aside from polite smiles and nods, none of the other Jedi took any particular interest in her. Caleb, on the other hand, got a wide variety of reactions from his fellow Jedi- amused grins, a couple of frowns, and one very cross expression from an old woman with a bun pinned in place by two sticks. 

“Who was that ?” Hera asked, as soon as the woman was out of earshot. “She didn’t look very happy with you.”

“Jocasta Nu, the Chief Librarian of the Jedi Archives. She and I...well, let’s just say I’m not her favorite.” He chuckled. 

“Let me get this straight- you don’t get along with the librarian?”

“I ask a lot of questions.”

“She’s a librarian, though. Answering questions is part of her job, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, you’d think she would love me, right? I guess I ask the wrong kinds of questions,” Caleb said ruefully. 

Hera shook her head, bemused. “I don’t know whether to be impressed or concerned that the person in the Temple who dislikes you the most is the librarian.”

They’d reached the top of the stairs by then, and Caleb raised his eyebrows, looking slightly hurt. “You think she really doesn’t like me? I thought she was just fondly exasperated. She did get really annoyed with me a couple of days ago when I tried to get her to let me into the restricted section...and then I dropped an ancient text on the floor by accident. She kicked me out and told me to stay out for a week.”

Hera recalled the woman’s aggravated scowl. “It sure looked like she didn’t like you.”

“There he is,” Caleb said, evidently setting aside the matter of the librarian for the moment. “Come over here, Ezra.”

A small, blue-haired boy of about seven standard years, wearing a miniature set of Jedi robes, had been loitering beneath one of the enormous stone monoliths that created the entrance to the Temple. He stepped into the light, looking sheepish. 

“I was just waiting for Jai-” Ezra started.

“Save it, kid. This is my friend Hera.”

Ezra looked up at her with a surprisingly confident smile. “Hi, Hera. How do you know Caleb?”

She smiled back at him and said, “I’m a pilot. Caleb was instructing my squadron over at the Judicial Academy.”

“Oh, a pilot! They don’t really let us fly yet, but I can’t wait to learn. Caleb’s a good teacher.”

Hera gave Caleb a sideways glance. He was trying to look disinterested in the conversation and failing. “Yes, he is,” she agreed.

The corners of Caleb’s lips lifted into a pleased smile, even as he tried to smother the expression with one of haughty boredom. “All right, Ezra, go back to your studies. I’m not bailing you out again when someone comes to me complaining that you’re falling behind.”

“Sorry, Caleb.”

“Yeah, yeah. Get going, kid,” he said, shooing Ezra back into the Temple. He turned to look at her and found her grinning at him. “What? You still think it’s adorable, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

He sighed. “Well, at least someone does. Come on, let’s go inside.”

 

“Inside” turned out to be a cavernous space with high, arched ceilings and column-lined halls that seemed to go on forever. The enormity of the place was overwhelming. Her own home in the Tann Province on Ryloth, not small by her people’s standards, seemed a hovel compared to the Jedi Temple. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she whispered.

“You don’t have to whisper,” Caleb said, amused. 

“I feel like I should.”

 “You really don’t have to.”

“Caleb!” A Togruta woman was striding towards them with a huge smile on her face. Two lightsabers hung from her belt, but she did not wear the traditional robes of a Jedi- instead, she wore a short dress, leggings, and tall boots. “How are you?”

From his pleased expression, Hera could see that this was a good friend of his- and a very different type of friend than Sammo. “Not bad. Just got back from Devaron. Where have you been? I think it’s been at least a month, right?” 

“I’ve been here, there...everywhere, it seems. Who’s your friend?” The Togruta looked at her with bright, kind blue eyes and smiled. Hera returned the smile without hesitation. She liked the woman instantly- it seemed impossible not to like her. 

“Oh...sorry,” Caleb said, looking sheepish. “Hera Syndulla, meet Ahsoka Tano.”

“Syndulla?”

“Yes, I am Cham Syndulla’s daughter, if that’s what you were wondering.”

Ahsoka nodded. “I was. I’ve met your father- he’s very charismatic,” Ahsoka said. “He’s not a huge fan of the Separatists, either. Are you visiting Coruscant?” 

“I’m a pilot at the Judicial Academy.”

“Oh, that’s right- you were working with the pilots,” Ahsoka said, looking at Caleb. Neither one spoke for a moment as some sort of silent communication passed between them. 

Caleb cleared his throat and said, “Yeah. I was. But I got called away.” 

Hera could see that the two Jedi were communicating with an exchange of looks, in the manner of two people who knew each other extremely well. She was very familiar with this type of communication- she and her brother used it often, without even thinking about it.

Caleb looked at her, clearly trying to evade Ahsoka’s keen gaze. “I promised to give Hera a tour of the Temple,” he said, despite the fact that no one had asked. 

Ahsoka’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly for a second, but then she turned back to Hera, still smiling. “I hope you enjoy it,” she said, and her tone indicated that her hope was one-hundred-percent sincere. “The Temple is beautiful- especially the gardens. It was nice to meet you, Hera. I hope our paths will cross again.”

“I hope so, too,” Hera replied. 

Ahsoka turned and walked past them, disappearing down the hall on quick, nimble feet. Hera felt sure that she must be a formidable warrior. She looked at Caleb, who was staring straight ahead with an odd look on his face. “Hey,” she said. “I was promised a tour by my very own personal Jedi tour guide.”

He turned towards her, and Hera realized that his expression wasn’t odd- it was merely serious. A laugh bubbled up from within at the thought that Caleb’s serious expression was unusual enough to seem peculiar. His eyebrows shot up. “What’s so funny?”

She chuckled again. “It’s just- well, you actually looked serious for a second, and I guess I’ve never seen that before. It looked strange on your face.”

Any traces of seriousness vanished as soon as he heard this comment, and he laughed, too. “Master Billaba says I don’t take anything seriously enough. I guess she’s right.”

“My mother says I take things too seriously,” she said. “Just like my father.”

“Well, do you?” 

She smirked. “Not like my father, no. Just when it comes to something that’s important to me- like flying. And I’ve been so focused on becoming a pilot- the best pilot I can be- for such a long time that it’s all I really do. It hasn’t left much time for anything else.”

“It paid off.”

“It did,” she said with a shrug. “And I love it. It’s not tedious. But sometimes I wish I could take it a little less seriously.”

“And do what instead?” Caleb’s eyes were twinkling.

She sighed. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’d be drinking at the cantina with my squadron. I should be working right now, really...so I guess this is what I’d be doing.”

“I’m honored.” 

“You should be,” she laughed. “Now, about the tour I was promised…?”

“Right,” he said, running one hand through his messy brown hair. “Well, this is the...um...Great Hall.”

She gave him a dubious look. “You don’t say,” she said dryly. 

He pretended to be exasperated but couldn’t keep a straight face, and they both burst out laughing at the same moment.

“Come on, Syndulla,” he said, shaking his head. “I want to show you the Arboretum. Aside from the Archives, it’s my favorite place in the Temple.”

 

The Arboretum was indeed a wondrous place. They wandered among the Temple’s vast collection of plants and trees for a good half hour, not saying much to one another. Despite its size, the Arboretum seemed a better place for quiet contemplation. She walked by Caleb’s side in comfortable silence as she admired one fascinating plant after another. They even had a conifer tree native to Ryloth’s forests. 

She was keenly aware of him as he walked beside her: the rustle of his robes, the way the sunlight caught the reddish-gold in his hair, even the faint tang of the soap he’d used that morning. He watched her as she looked at the plants- she could feel his eyes on her- and when she caught him in the act, he would look away with a sheepish smile. 

She liked Caleb Dume. And that, she reminded herself, means nothing but trouble.

 

After they left the Arboretum, he led her to another, quieter area of the Temple that seemed to be composed of nothing but long corridors lined with doors. He took off his robe and threw it around her shoulders, surveying the effect with a critical eye. 

“It’s a little long, but I think it’ll work,” he murmured.

The robe smelled like him. She looked down at it, and then up at him. “Uh...for what?”

“These are the dormitories. You’re not really supposed to be in this part of the Temple.”

She barked out a short laugh. “Do you really think this robe is going to trick anyone into believing I’m actually a Jedi?”

“Yes, if they don’t pay any attention to you. The robe makes a lack of attention much more likely.”

“Doesn’t everyone know who lives here and who doesn’t?” she whispered.

He smiled, probably at the whispering, and said, “There are hundreds of Jedi living here right now, and quite a few of them aren’t permanent residents. No one really keeps track of that kind of thing.”

“Oh. Okay.” She wondered what would happen if someone caught them, but she couldn’t imagine any Jedi doing anything other than giving them a stern look. 

Caleb led them to the end of the corridor, where he unlocked and opened one of the doors on the right. The room within was spotless, with very few personal items in view. There were two bunks.

“I share a room with Sammo,” he said, beckoning her to enter. “Not sure where he is right now- probably eating, knowing him.”

Hera walked inside and looked around, curious, and her eyes fell on a small collection of holobooks. She walked over to the shelf where they sat and ran a finger across them. “Are these yours?” she asked.

“As much as they're anyone’s, I guess,” he replied as he closed the door to the room. He crossed over to where she stood. “We’re not really supposed to have possessions, but...some of us do have a few.”

“I figured they must be yours; anyone who’s made an enemy of the librarian for being too curious must be the book lover.” She looked up at him and grinned. 

He smiled, too, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes- instead, he was gazing at her with an unnerving intensity that made her face flush. She knew she probably should have looked away, but she didn’t want to. His eyes seemed darker, bluer than usual. He took another step towards her, closing most of the space between them, and his hand brushed against hers. Their fingers twined together automatically. Caleb’s fervent expression softened as he bent his head and leaned towards her, his mouth moving inevitably towards hers. She tilted her chin up and felt his breath against her parted lips. Her eyes closed-

- and the door opened. They jumped apart, flustered, to see Sammo standing outside in the corridor with his back turned towards them, talking to someone just out of sight. Sammo turned around when he realized that his room was occupied, and his eyebrows shot up when he saw Hera standing there with Caleb’s robe around her shoulders. Ahsoka appeared behind him, but she looked a lot less surprised and quite a bit more amused. 

“Hello again, Hera,” Sammo said smoothly, shooting Caleb a sideways glance. “It’s nice to see you, especially in a place where you’re not supposed to be!” He laughed, by all appearances not the slightest bit bothered by the impropriety of the situation. 

“Hello,” she replied, trying to sound casual. “Caleb was just giving me a tour of the Temple.” 

“Was he?” Sammo said, looking at Caleb with twinkling eyes. “That was nice of him.”

“It was,” Hera agreed. “But I really do need to get back to the Academy now.”

“I can walk you out,” Ahsoka offered. “I’m headed that way anyway.”

“I’ll walk her out,” Caleb said, apparently having recovered his ability to speak. 

“Well, then...I guess I’ll see you all later. Anakin is waiting for me, and leaving him for too long with nothing to do is asking for trouble!” Ahsoka chuckled to herself as she turned and disappeared down the corridor.

“It was nice seeing you, Hera,” Sammo said. His grin was very wide. “Hope it’s not too long until we see you again!”

Hera smiled and nodded as she passed him, following Caleb into the corridor. They walked in silence until they reached the edge of the Great Hall. She shrugged his robe from her shoulders and handed it back to him.

“Thanks,” she said. It was the only thing her brain could produce that seemed to make an iota of sense. 

He was frowning. “Hera, I-”

“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about it?” she interrupted. “There’s no point, is there?”

He shook his head. “No. I don’t know. I want...I wish there was a point, but…”

“There isn’t one.”

“We can just be friends,” he said a hopeful voice.

“Can we?”

They stared at each other for a few moments, both knowing they would never be just friends. 

“We can try.” 

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe. But I really do have to go right now. I have a million things to do before class tomorrow.”

“Right. I’ll...I’ll see you soon,” he promised. 

She had no idea whether or not it was the truth, but she nodded in response. “Goodbye,” she murmured, meeting his eyes one last time. He didn’t respond- he just stood there holding his robe tightly in both hands. She turned and headed towards the main entrance. She didn’t look back.  

Chapter Text

Caleb watched Hera’s retreating form until she disappeared from view. 

He stood exactly where she’d left him, paralyzed by indecision, trying to tamp down the strong impulse he felt to go after her, to explain- what? He wasn’t even sure how to explain what he was feeling to himself, let alone to her. In any case, an explanation wouldn’t be enough- she’d never be able to truly understand. Jedi were raised- trained- to believe that the welfare of the entire galaxy was their responsibility, and anything that got in the way of that sacred duty was personal, and therefore to be put aside. Hera had chosen a life of service to the galaxy, but the key difference was that it had been a choice, rather than a mandate- and she was allowed to have a personal life. No one but another Jedi could understand what he was feeling, but it felt dangerous to ask for the kind of help he needed. 

It shouldn’t have felt that way. For the first time- for all of Caleb’s probing questions that annoyed Jocasta Nu so deeply- he felt the full weight of a life he had not chosen. He felt the tendrils of the dark side pulling at the edges of the only world he’d ever known. But a new world had just opened itself up to him, and it was both exhilarating and terrifying. 

He saw Master Windu approaching, and it shook him from his thoughts. He was not close to the man, despite the fact that Depa had been his apprentice- but he sometimes felt that Master Windu kept a closer eye on him than he did other Padawans. He could see that he was already getting a suspicious look from the man, even from a significant distance, and he had no wish to discuss what that look meant. 

Caleb darted in the other direction, his feet carrying him automatically to his favorite training dojo. As was often the case when he felt emotionally ill-at-ease, he craved being in motion- it had always been the best way to clear and focus his mind. The dojo was blessedly empty when he arrived. He walked to the center of the room, ignited his lightsaber, and dropped into the opening stance of Form III. 

Time passed; he moved slowly and methodically through the Form, more concerned with getting it right than with speed and accuracy. The weight of his thoughts got gradually easier to bear as he focused only on his movements. Eventually, though, he realized that he was not alone.

She watched him with a critical eye as she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed. “You’re getting better,” Ahsoka commented. “But you still lack focus.”

“Depa says the same.”

“What’s distracting you, Caleb?”

He shrugged, faking a nonchalance he did not feel. “I don’t know. The Separatists, the possibility of war...the Trials. Lots of things.”

She leveled a skeptical look at him as she pulled her lightsabers from her belt and ignited them in training mode, advancing on him. He raised his lightsaber, dropping into a defensive stance. 

“She’s pretty,” Ahsoka said, circling him at a leisurely pace. “Hera.”

Caleb listened to her nearly silent feet on the mat and the hum of her lightsabers as she moved behind him. She wouldn’t strike from that direction- he knew her fighting style well, and her attacks were always aboveboard. No dirty tactics. 

“I guess so,” he replied. 

“You didn’t notice?” She sounded amused. 

“I’m not blind. I noticed.”

She appeared in front of him, but only for a split-second- after that, she was in motion- a blur punctuated by streaks of green and yellow light. She attacked relentlessly, and he held his ground, creating a defensive bubble around himself that she could not penetrate. 

Abruptly, she backed off, lowering her lightsabers. “You have improved. I’m impressed.”

“Thanks,” he said. He didn’t lower his weapon- he knew better. 

“Is Hera really what’s distracting you, though?” Ahsoka asked with her typical bluntness. Her tone was casual, though, with just a touch of curiosity. 

Caleb was silent for a moment. He felt the reassuring vibration of his lightsaber against his palms, the warmth of the metal, as he turned her question over in his mind. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he finally answered.

“I know you well, Caleb Dume. Better than most- better than Sammo, even. And I hope you know that you can be honest with me.”

He lowered his lightsaber, no longer caring if she attacked. “I feel...different when I’m with her. It’s hard to describe.”

“Try,” Ahsoka coaxed. 

He sighed. “Like...like anything is possible. That sounds stupid, but…”

“It doesn’t sound stupid.”

“She also makes me feel like I’ve had too much Corellian rum.”

Ahsoka nodded as if she understood, and switched off both lightsabers. “That’s a pretty good description,” she said.

Caleb gaped at her. “Have you…?”

She shrugged. “There was someone I met, not too long ago, who made me feel that way. But we’re Jedi.” 

“Yeah.” He switched his lightsaber off and looked down at it. “We’re Jedi.”

“Look, I know it’s hard. It might be one of the hardest things you do. But you have to let it go. Let her go. There aren’t any other options.”

“There’s always another option,” he muttered. 

“What? To leave the Order? You wouldn’t do that- you couldn’t- not any more than I could! Don’t be ridiculous. Look, I know this feels like a big deal, and it hurts to think about not seeing her again. But you’ll get past it. Anyway, there are much bigger things to think about.”

Caleb raised his eyebrows. “What happened?”

She sighed. “The Chancellor is going to declare war on the Separatists. Anakin just told me. I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but it’s you...I know you won’t say anything to anyone.”

He wasn't shocked by the news, but an uneasy feeling settled in his gut. “We all felt it was coming, though...it's not really a surprise," he said. "Do you think the Jedi will get involved?”  

“Most likely. At least, it sounds like that’s what the Chancellor wants. And Anakin says there’s some kind of army, too. I don’t know where the Republic acquired soldiers so quickly, but they did. A lot of them, too. I think the Chancellor has been planning this for a while.”

Caleb tried to process this information and found he could not. Depa had not told him any of this, though she had hinted at some of it. He shook his head. “Everything feels...off-kilter. It all feels very wrong, somehow.”

Ahsoka nodded. “Well, how could war ever feel right? But I know what you mean. Even Anakin…” Her voice faded as if she didn’t want to say more, and she looked troubled.

“You reminded me that I could be honest with you- that goes both ways, Ahsoka,” he told her.

“It’s hard to explain. He’s the same...but he’s different. Something is different. His temper is shorter- he gets angry for no reason, sometimes. But I think it’s just the stress, maybe? Everyone thinks he’s this Chosen One...and the Chancellor is always sending for him. They’ve been close for years now, but I think it’s getting to Anakin- I don’t think he enjoys politics at all. One of his good friends left Coruscant, too, and I think he misses her. Obi-Wan is concerned as well- he doesn’t say as much, but I can tell. I don’t know. You’re right. Everything does feel strange. How is Master Billaba?

“She seems fine. Worried, busy...but fine. I don’t see her as much these days. She’s always with the Council. I guess things will be changing soon enough, though, if we’re going to be at war.”

“Are you scared?” she asked.

He was, but he wasn’t ready to admit it. “Are you?” 

“Yes.”

He nodded. “I guess I am, too. But Master Yoda would tell us that fear is a path to the dark side.”

“True. That’s why I’m only admitting it to you.” She gave him a faint smile. 

Caleb tried to smile back, but it felt more like a grimace. “I should see her. Just once more...just in case. And to explain.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Ahsoka said. “Seeing her will make it harder, don’t you think? Anyway, she knows you’re a Jedi. She knows that relationships aren’t allowed, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah. She knows.”

“So what good would it do either of you?” She sighed. “I know you’re having a hard time with this, and I’m sorry. I really am. It’s not anything to be ashamed of, you know. We aren’t perfect beings. But we should always strive to be our best- to overcome the things that compromise our core beliefs and our mandates- shouldn’t we? Remember the Code. Besides, I don’t like to see you in pain.”

“I know,” he said softly. “You’re right.” 

“I think you could use some food. Want to go to Dex’s?”

He shrugged. “Sure. But we better get Sammo and Tai- they’ll never forgive us if we eat greasy diner food without them.”

Ahsoka chuckled. “Sammo especially. He has a stomach like a sarlacc.”

“Yeah,” Caleb said, feeling his spirits lift at the thought of spending time with his friends- his family, really. “He does. And the belches are just as loud, too.”

He clipped his lightsaber to his belt and followed Ahsoka out of the dojo, thinking, You're a Jedi. You'll be a Knight someday soon, and then maybe a Master...you'll help thousands of people, maybe millions, who knows? What's one Twi'lek girl, compared to that?

He would forget Hera, someday- their short time spent together would be a pleasant memory, nothing more. He'd tell himself that until it was true. 

 

Chapter Text

Caleb and Depa sat side-by-side on a large boulder in a particularly oppressive, uninhabited section of the Felucian jungle, waiting for their next orders from High Command. What remained of their battalion of Clone troopers loitered around, checking their weapons, talking in low voices. It was hot, and the jungle hummed and squawked with life.  

Depa was meditating, as she often did when she was conflicted about a course of action. Caleb could not meditate- he was thinking about the loss of life that day. Felucia could not be retaken, that much seemed certain...and the Republic had lost so many good people already. What had the Separatists lost? A bunch of battle droids, nothing more. They still held the planet. 

Caleb rubbed the scruff on his cheeks with one hand and tried to think of something other than the dead soldiers he’d seen that day. Ten months into the conflict, there was little else to think about but war and death- seemingly endless death. His thoughts turned to Hera, as they had done more and more through the months since he’d watched her walk out of the Temple, and ostensibly out of his life forever. At first, it had hurt to think of her, because it always reminded him of the fact that he was very unlikely to ever see her again. But now, thoughts of her seemed like a soothing balm compared to the hell they all battled through on a daily basis. He knew he should have tried to forget her. He knew he was doing the opposite of what a Jedi was supposed to do, but there were so many days when those memories of her seemed like the only thing holding him together. So, instead of forgetting her, he allowed himself to think of her- the same way someone living through a drought might allow himself a few drops of water.

Beside him, Depa let out a barely audible sigh. He knew that she could sense his deliberate attempts at distraction and his emotional turmoil, even if he had never spoken the specifics of it aloud to anyone but Ahsoka. She said very little on the matter, however. The war had changed everyone, and his Master now seemed reluctant to admonish him for anything that wasn’t a matter of survival. 

“You fought well today,” she murmured.

“It wasn’t enough.” He turned his head to look at her; her eyes were open, and she looked exhausted. 

“No. It wasn’t. But there have been victories, and there will be again.”

“What difference does it make?” he asked. “It’s hard to remember what the point of this war is supposed to be.”

“To save the Republic. To protect the people from Separatist rule.” He felt an undercurrent of doubt and unease from her as she spoke. She was no longer so sure that those sentiments held true.

“General, we have a message from High Command,” Captain Styles called. 

“Let us hope they’ve decided to retreat,” she said to Caleb, getting up from her seat to walk over to where Styles stood. 

As he watched her, he saw a flash of green out of the corner of his eye and turned to see what it was. A Felucian bird had just landed on a branch in a nearby tree and was staring back at him. The hue of the bird’s feathers reminded him of Hera, and he wondered where she was. The Starfighter Corps had been absorbed into the Grand Army of the Republic, but he’d tried very hard not to think about her being involved in the war effort. Nevertheless, given her talents, it was very likely she’d been conscripted. If something happened to her-

He pushed the thought aside. She was an incredible pilot. She’d be fine. 

Depa returned. “We’ve been called to retreat. The Separatists win this battle, but we live to fight another day.”

Caleb nodded. He thought again of the Clones who had died that day trying to save the Republic, and of those who had lost their brothers. If fighting another day meant that it would bring them one step closer to ending the war, what choice did he have? 

 


 

Hera stood in the enormous, bustling, noisy Republic Navy hangar on Coruscant, going over the third ship’s manifest of her morning. The Starfighter Corps had been absorbed into the Navy at the start of the war, and was now mostly made up of Clones and their Jedi generals. Hera had been shuffled over to the Navy and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant- mostly because she was talented enough to be a Navy pilot, but regarded as too inexperienced to fly combat missions. If the war continued, though, she felt sure that they’d start sending her into combat. In the meantime, she was flying occasional diplomatic missions and supply runs, and attending interplanetary and deep space combat classes. 

Keran appeared, carrying two cups of caf. 

“Oh, stars, you’re wonderful,” Hera said, snatching one of the cups and sipping blissfully. 

“I know.” Keran grinned. “Sick of manifests yet?”

Hera nodded. “But somebody’s got to make sure the right supplies end up on the right ships.”

“Hey, at least that’s not all you’re doing. At least they’re letting you fly.” Keran was attending the same classes Hera was, but experienced flight instructors were currently in short supply, so she was only getting the occasional ride-along on supply ships. 

“They’re going to let you fly.”

“Yeah? When?” Keran plopped down onto a pile of crates with a huff. “I miss the good old days at the Academy. That seems like so long ago, now.”

“Yeah, it does,” Hera agreed. “You’re sitting on my ration bars.”

Keran shrugged. “Can I move once I’ve finished my caf? Hey...did you hear about Felucia?”

“No. What happened?” She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“Heavy losses. Even some Jedi losses, I heard,” Keran said, lowering her voice. 

Hera’s heart clenched inside her chest. “Did they say which Jedi?”

“No. They never say which Jedi. You know that.”

Hera looked at the manifest on her datapad again, but her mind wouldn’t focus on it. She didn’t want it to matter to her which Jedi had been killed. She’d walked out of the Jedi Temple nearly a year ago, knowing she probably would never see Caleb Dume again, and that it was for the best. She was a practical sort of person, and she could understand why he had not contacted her- she hadn’t contacted him for the very same reasons. But with each passing day, and each passing announcement of battles and lives lost, she got angrier at his silence and his absence. She knew it was irrational anger. Still- couldn’t he at least let her know that he was alive?

Unless he was among the dead. 

The thought gnawed at her. She reminded herself that she could just try to contact him. She could go to the Temple and ask someone. The truth, though, was that she was afraid- and not just of the possibility that she’d find out he was dead. She was also terrified of what it meant to her if he was still alive. 

As a result, Hera did nothing. She flew where she was told to fly, went to her classes, reviewed manifests. She argued with her father via holo about leaving the Navy and returning to Ryloth to fight the Separatists. She became a better pilot- the only thing she’d ever really wanted to be. And, in the rare moments when she wasn’t distracted, she was irrationally angry with a possibly dead Jedi. 

Keran snapped her fingers under Hera’s nose. “What are you doing? You just stared at that manifest without actually seeing it for way too long.”

“I just need caf, I guess. I haven’t been sleeping well,” Hera said. Neither of those things was a lie. 

“Who has?” Keran jumped down from the ration bar crates and pointed at the ship that Hera was currently working on supplying. “I’m actually on this ship- going to Mygeeto. Might see some action, at least.”

“Maybe,” Hera said absently, checking some medical supply crates against the manifest. 

“What’s going on with you?” 

Hera looked up at her and shrugged. “Just tired.”

Keran started pacing. “No, that’s not it, you liar. I know you better than that! It’s something to do with Jedi- as soon as I mentioned that, you started acting strange. But why Jedi? Is it...a particular Jedi?” She sucked in a breath. “It is a particular Jedi. The one from the Academy, right?”

Hera really did feel very tired. “Keran…”

“You could have just told me. I thought we were friends.”

Keran looked deeply hurt. Hera stared at her, filled with guilt and chagrin. “We are friends. I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell anyone! Not that there’s anything to tell, anyway.”

“There’s obviously something to tell. You’re worried that he was killed, aren’t you?

Hera nodded. 

“Look, you don’t have to tell me what happened between the two of you. I remember him paying a lot of attention to you, but I figured it was just because you’re such a great pilot. There was more to it, though?”

“A little bit more, yeah,” Hera said in a soft voice.

Keran slung her arm across Hera’s shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. “I’m sorry, Hera. Really. That’s...well, it’s a lot.”

Hera didn’t say anything, but she leaned her head against Keran’s and closed her eyes, thankful for her friend. Manifests and war could wait. 











Chapter Text

“Caleb. Wake up!” Sammo poked him hard in the ribs. 

He opened his eyes immediately- despite the fact that he had just returned to Coruscant after several weeks of sleep deprivation on the war-ravaged planet of Mygeeto, someone waking you up either meant that you were about to be under attack, or something terrible had happened- it was the new normal. He lifted his head off the pillow and mumbled, “What?”

“They want you in the Council Chamber.”

Caleb was in no mood to have a bunch of Jedi Masters staring at him, but he had no choice. He jumped off his bunk and quickly tried to make himself presentable, and then he was off- headed toward the Temple’s central spire, at the top of which was the Jedi High Council Chamber.

He waited in the antechamber until he was called, and when he was, he strode to the center of the room with a confidence he did not feel. Very few of the Masters were present, and none were available via holo- he had never seen the room so empty. He stood facing Master Yoda and Master Windu. Master Ki-Adi-Mundi sat behind him. Master Billaba was absent. 

As expected, the Masters sat staring at him for several minutes before anyone spoke. Finally, Master Windu said, “Caleb, we know that you just returned from Mygeeto. But we need you to travel to Belkadan in the Outer Rim to collect intel about a possible Separatist factory being built there. You will meet with their Council of Elders to discuss any concerns they might have.” 

“Concerns?” Caleb asked.

“Go you will, Young Dume, to Belkadan to investigate under the guise of diplomacy,” Master Yoda said.

“Yes, Master Yoda. Does Master Billaba already know?”

“She will not be accompanying you on this trip,” Master Windu said. “She has other matters to attend to, and we believe you are capable of gathering the intel yourself. But let me be clear: you are only to meet with the Elders and gather intel. You are not to engage with any Separatists.”

“Yes, Master.”

“The Allegiant II will be conveying you to Belkadan. It is undergoing preparations in the Temple hangar.”

“Is that really necessary? I can fly-”

“Yes, it is,” Master Ki-Adi-Mundi interrupted. “It is far less suspicious if you travel in the proper manner, aboard a diplomatic vessel, rather than a starfighter. Make ready. Your ship leaves in an hour.”

 

Forty minutes later, Caleb made his way up the boarding ramp and into the Consular- class space cruiser Allegiant II , which was painted red to signify that it was a diplomatic ship. The corridor was empty; presumably, the crew was going over the flight plan on the bridge. He made his way there, hoping to be underway quickly. 

The door to the bridge stood open, and Caleb heard typical Republic Navy chatter from within as he got closer- the crew was doing last-minute checks on the fuel, hyperdrive, and thrusters. He entered...and stopped dead in his tracks. 

Hera Syndulla stood less than a meter away, wearing a crisp, dark blue Navy uniform. She held a datapad in one hand as she scrolled with the other.

“Hera!” he blurted in surprise. She looked up. For a few moments, they both stood motionless, staring at each other. She didn’t seem surprised to see him- she must have been told ahead of time which Jedi the ship would be transporting. For his part, the flimsy mental walls he’d tried to build between himself and this woman disintegrated the second he saw her face. 

“Welcome aboard, Commander,” she finally responded. 

There was no mistaking the coolness in her tone. There was also no mistaking the fact that the entire crew had realized that something was going on, and was pretending not to listen to them.  He wanted to try to explain, to apologize, to beg her forgiveness- to say anything at all that might begin to convey the profundity of the mistake he’d made- but he couldn’t do it in front of her crew. Instead, he just said, “It’s good to see you, Hera.”

“It’s Lieutenant Syndulla, actually,” she replied in a clipped, professional voice that carried a barely detectable note of irritation. Her expression remained impassive, her eyes merely wary- but he could feel her emotional distress at the sight of him. “Would you like to review the flight plan?”

“No, thank you, Lieutenant,” he said. “I trust you.”

She gave him a curt nod and turned on her heel, heading toward the pilot’s seat. He spoke briefly with the Captain about the trip, and then he did his best to stay out of the way as the crew made ready for departure. They were underway within twenty minutes.

The trip proceeded uneventfully. Caleb sat in one of the jump seats at the back of the bridge, alternately staring out into the blue maelstrom of hyperspace, sneaking glances at Hera, or trying to think of what to say to her if he got the opportunity. She was, of course, still an excellent pilot, but making her fly a diplomatic ship was a terrible waste of her talents. On the other hand, he was very relieved to know that she wasn’t flying combat missions.  

About two hours into the trip, the Captain told Hera, “Syndulla. Take your break and go get your caf. I’ll take over.”

Hera got up from her seat and walked past him without a glance, into the corridor. He got up and followed, trying not to care that the crew would notice. About halfway to the galley, he caught up with her.

“Hera. Could I talk to you for a minute?”

She stopped and turned to look at him, lekku swinging. “I don’t have a minute. I need to get my caf and get back to the bridge.”

“Please- just a few seconds?”

“Fine. Make it very quick,” she muttered.

He wasn’t even sure what he was going to say, and he’d already had two hours to think about it. “Look, I’m sorry you haven’t heard from me- this war- my master and I are in charge of a battalion of Clone troopers, and-”

“That’s just it, isn’t it?” She interrupted. She spoke softly, but there was a biting edge to her words. 

“That’s just what?”

“How would I even know if something had happened to you? I know there have been Jedi casualties- but they don’t tell us the names.”

His eyes widened in surprise. He opened his mouth to answer, but no proper response came to mind. 

“It didn’t occur to you, did it?” she said. “That’s what I thought.” She pushed past him and headed back to the bridge, her caf forgotten.

Caleb leaned against the wall and let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The anger she felt was justified because she was right- it had not occurred to him that she would wonder and worry about him, even though he’d wondered and worried about her. Under different circumstances, he might have felt elated by the obvious proof that she’d cared for him- still cared for him after all this time- but now, it only meant that he’d caused her pain. 

He walked into the galley and absently started to make her a cup of caf, unsure of whether he’d be rebuffed for his paltry peace offering. As he waited for the caf to brew, he felt the ship drop out of hyperspace- the flight plan required a change of route, as there was no direct hyperspace lane from the Core to Belkadan. And then, through the Force, he sensed it- something was coming. 

Approximately two seconds later, the ship shuddered, and Caleb had to grab the galley counter to keep himself upright. It was a proton torpedo blast, likely an attempt to knock out the hyperdrive. He ran out into the corridor and noted flames and smoke obscuring his view of what was left of the tail end of the ship. He bolted for the bridge, wondering why the shields had been down. 

The bridge was in chaos. Hera was doing her best to keep the ship clear of another hit, but many of the systems were malfunctioning. Diplomatic ships were not designed for combat- they had no weapons, and they were relatively easy targets for any enemy who was willing to risk serious retribution from the Republic. Only the Separatists could be so bold. 

“We’re under attack!” the Captain yelled to him

Caleb shot him a look. “No kidding. Do we have shields?”

“Rear shields are gone, the hyperdrive is gone,” Hera muttered. “We can’t fight back, so we’re just sitting mynocks. It’s only a matter of time before...”

“Are there any nearby planets we might be able to make it to?” Caleb asked.

“Scanning now,” the nav officer called. “There’s only one system nearby- we might be able to make it. Here!” She sent the information to Hera’s screen. 

“That’s too risky,” the Captain said. “We should consider evacuating the ship.”

“So they can just pick us off one by one in the escape pods? That sounds like a terrible idea,” Hera said.

“Hera can get us there. It’s not that far.” Caleb wasn’t just saying it- he believed it. 

She banked hard to the right. “Reroute all the power we’ve got to whatever we have left of the shields, and to the sublight drive,” she called to the crew. To everyone’s relief, the planet they were headed for came immediately into view- it appeared as a greenish-brown sphere outside the canopy. The Separatist ship, meanwhile- a dreadnought, from the looks of it- continued firing, close on their tail. Hera somehow managed to dodge the blasts while still maintaining a relatively tight trajectory towards the planet. 

“The fire at the tail of the ship can’t be contained any longer,” the co-pilot said matter-of-factly. To Hera, she said, “And you’re not going to be able to land. The thrusters have been compromised.”

No one said anything for several moments, watching their destination grow large enough to take up the entire viewport. 

“We have to evacuate and take our chances,” the Captain said. “If... when the fire reaches the fuel lines…”

Caleb nodded. “I agree. Get to the escape pods.”

“A Captain goes down with his ship.”

“Sorry, Captain, but I outrank you. Get to an escape pod now, all of you.” The crew scurried off the bridge and into the corridor beyond, which was now beginning to fill with smoke. But Hera made no move to get up from her seat. “You too, Hera,” he said. 

“I’m staying until those escape pods are away,” she grumbled.

“I can fly this ship. Get out of that seat.”

“I’m a better pilot than you are. And don’t tell me what to do!”

The ship shuddered as it plummeted towards the planet. Hera miraculously still had some control, and the thrusters were still marginally operational. But there was no question that they were going to crash, and crash hard- that is, if they weren’t shot down or blown up first. She was grimacing, pulling on the yoke with all her might. Caleb checked the status of the escape pods. The last one was launching at that moment.

He peeled her fingers off the yoke and hauled her bodily out of her seat. “Let’s go,” he muttered.

“Hey-”

“We have to go now, Hera. Move!”

She moved. They ran down the smoke-filled corridor, coughing, to the closest escape pod and climbed inside. Hera jumped into the pilot’s seat and brought the shipboard systems online, quickly launching the pod. It hurtled towards the planet below. 

“Do you see any of the other escape pods? Did they make it?” she demanded.

“I don’t- oh.” A ball of flame bloomed some distance away from them as one of the other pods was destroyed by the Separatist ship.

“Oh no,” Hera murmured. 

A second later, the Allegiant II exploded, lighting up the inside of their escape pod. The shockwave from the explosion propelled their pod toward the planet below at a much more rapid speed. 

“Hopefully, the explosion will hide us...or distract them,” she said, focusing her gaze on the planet below. “The speed helps, too.”

“Yeah, but…”

“But what?”

“I think the explosion damaged the propulsion system.”

She groaned. “This day just keeps getting better and better. Do we have brakes?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well,” she said, tapping at her console, “I’ll see what I can do. But this might be an exciting landing. And if we’re not blown up by the Separatists, we’re about to find out very soon just how exciting it’ll be.”

Caleb hung over her right shoulder, peering out the canopy at the rapidly approaching surface of the planet. “I appreciate your optimism.”

“I’m going to aim for that big open area there,” she said. “No trees. Also no cover, but we’ll just have to take things one step at a time. Now to see if the brakes are working.” She pulled up on the yoke, and the pod responded- but not much. “Okay, well…a very exciting landing it is. Any chance there are parachutes on this thing?”

He checked. “No.”

“Well...buckle in.”

Caleb did not buckle in. Standing behind Hera’s seat, he flung out his arms and reached for the Force, creating a protective bubble around them. He tried to push it outward as much as he could, to protect the pod itself as well. The ground rushed towards them as Hera struggled to level the pod out, and he closed his eyes, concentrating.

The impact threw him backward, and he tried in vain to get to his feet as the pod bounced and rolled across the terrain. He was not able to keep his Force barrier stable, but he tried to focus it around himself and Hera as much as possible. The rattling pod careened over the side of a shallow ravine and crashed at the bottom, coming blessedly to a stop.

Dazed, Caleb sat up and quickly checked himself for injuries. He was sore and fairly certain there was a deep gash across one shoulder blade where he’d hit the side of the pod when he was thrown backward on impact- but otherwise, he seemed physically sound. Hera was still buckled into her seat, but the pod had landed on its side and she was hanging from the seat restraint with her lekku dangling, apparently unconscious. He jumped to his feet and went to her. Please be okay, he thought.

There was a freely bleeding gash in her forehead- something must have detached from the pod and smacked her in the head, knocking her out. He felt for her pulse and found it weak and thready but present. “Hera. Hera!” 

She didn’t respond, and he didn’t want to shake her and do more damage. He rubbed his knuckles against her sternum. To his relief, it roused her.

“Now that was an exciting landing,” she murmured.

“Are you okay?”

She looked up at him. “Listen to the concern in your voice. It’s really sweet. Are you all right? I have a headache.”

“Yeah, I bet you do. I’m fine. Let me get you out of that seat.” He leaned against her so that she wouldn’t fall and unbuckled the belt, sliding her into his arms. While she was there, he gave her a little, gentle squeeze. His Force barrier had worked- she was alive- and that was the only thing that mattered. 

He set her down on the floor and pulled the medpac out of one of the pod’s compartments. “We need to get out of this escape pod as quickly as we can, just in case they come looking for us,” he said as he rummaged through the medpac and pulled out a bacta bandage. He peeled off the backing and placed it gently over the gash on her forehead, looking into her eyes as he did so. “Is anything broken? Any other injuries?”

“My ribs. I think the seat restraints…”

“Okay, broken ribs, maybe. Anything else?”

She moved her arms and legs, looking surprised. “No...I don’t think so. But how? We should be dead.”

“Yeah, we should be,” he said, running a hand through his hair.

Her gaze turned suspicious. “It was you, somehow. You saved us. How did you do it?”

“Jedi, remember? Honestly, I didn't think much about it. I just did it.” 

She gave him an incredulous look. “That’s...that’s impressive.”

“I told you I was impressive. Come on- we need to gather up whatever we can and get out of this pod.”

He stood and turned to look for the homing beacon, and she gasped. “You’re bleeding!”

“It’s just a cut. Let’s get out of here first, then worry about it.”

“That’s a lot of blood,” she grumbled. “At least let me put a bacta bandage on it. It won’t take long.”

He sighed and pulled his robe from his shoulders, then undid the tunic beneath. He heard her dig around in the medpac and take out the bandage. There was a pause- he could feel her hesitation and confused trepidation at the sight of so much of his skin- and then he felt her gentle fingers apply the dressing. The cooling sensation of the bacta immediately numbed the discomfort. He pulled the tunic and robe back on. 

“Thank you,” he said.

She nodded. The two worked to pack up the items they would need into a rucksack they found, and then they climbed out of the ship and into the ravine. Caleb looked up at the greenish-blue sky above the rocky terrain. “It’s going to be dark soon. We need to find shelter.”

Suddenly, in the distance, they heard a piercing screech, followed by a roar. 

Hera’s eyes widened. “What was that ?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. Let’s find some shelter.”

She nodded agreement. “The sooner, the better.”

Chapter Text

Hera and Caleb climbed out of the ravine and stood at the edge, looking down at the battered escape pod. 

“Maybe we should blow it up so they think we’re dead,” Hera suggested. She hugged herself, trying to give her undoubtedly broken ribs a bit of support. 

Caleb heaved the rucksack a little higher onto his shoulder, wincing a bit. “That’s a good idea, but how would we blow it up? We don’t have any weapons, other than my lightsaber. The escape pod is totally dead, so we can’t use it to destroy itself. And we don’t have any accelerants.”

“It was just an idea,” she muttered.

He turned his head towards her and gave her a half-hearted smile. “It was a good idea.”

“Do you think they’ll come to check? To see if there were any survivors?”

“Maybe,” he replied, scanning the sky above them. “But they obviously wanted to keep me from reaching Belkadan, and they’ve done that. They might just assume we died- or that if we haven’t yet, we will soon. ”

“Do you know something about this planet that I don’t?”

“I think it’s a moon.” He pointed to the horizon, where she could just make out the faint edge of a distant, larger planet. “I have no idea which moon, though, or which planet. Do you remember what was near the hyperspace junction?”

“The only systems near the junction were Ahakista and Lah’mu, but there are lots of unknown little hunks of rock this far from the Core.” She tried to remember the nav maps she’d looked at prior to the trip, but her head hurt too much to focus. 

“It’s probably one of those unknown little hunks of rock, then.”

“With our luck today, it seems likely. We should get going.” She was starting to feel cold, and her ribs ached. 

The ravine was at the edge of a forest full of tall conifers with black bark and dark blue needles. The terrain was rocky, with very little vegetation aside from the trees- in terms of finding water, the landscape didn’t look promising. Caleb lead them into the forest with his lightsaber gripped in one hand. She wished she had a blaster. Despite the fact that blaster training was a requirement for all personnel, the Republic Navy rarely armed regular pilots. It rankled her to be defenseless and in need of protection- even if her protector was a Jedi. 

They walked in silence for a while as the forest closed in around them. It had been, to put it mildly, a very long day, and Caleb didn’t seem to want to discuss it any more than she did. She walked beneath the fragrant branches, with the dry needles crunching under her boots, trying to ignore the throbbing in her head and right side. She tried to focus instead on the smell of the trees- a pungent, spicy odor, much stronger than the conifers native to Ryloth. It wasn’t unpleasant. Her eyes fell again and again on Caleb, taking note of his stride, the unruly hair at the back of his head, and his strong, straight back. The recollection of his bare skin flooded unbidden into her mind- she remembered the way his muscles had tensed at her touch, the curve of his shoulder and his face in profile as he'd turned his head while she dressed his wound. Her cheeks felt suddenly hot, and she pushed those thoughts out of her mind. 

Caleb stopped, and she nearly walked into him, pulling herself up short. He raised his hand- a signal for her to keep quiet. Several minutes passed, during which Hera heard nothing. Finally, he dropped his hand and turned to look at her. 

“I sensed...something,” he said.

“What do you mean, ‘something’?”

“Well, if I knew exactly what it was, I would say so.” 

She tried not to get annoyed with his tone and failed, giving him a withering look that said as much. As they stood there exchanging irritated gazes, darkness abruptly fell, as if a blanket had been thrown over the moon. 

Caleb ignited his lightsaber, the blue glow glancing off the black trunks of the trees around them. “That’s not helpful,” he remarked. “We still need to find shelter, and it’s going to be a lot more difficult in the dark- but we seem to be moving into some kind of valley...maybe we can find something less out-in-the-open. Let’s keep moving. Just...stay close.” His tone was wary, and she wondered again what it was he’d sensed. She felt a light touch of his hand on her elbow, directing her to walk beside him. “I’d rather be able to see you,” he told her. 

They trudged on, and Hera struggled with pain and cold, but she said nothing. Caleb’s pace picked up, and he seemed entirely focused on finding shelter. She had to agree- she was exhausted, and the pain seemed to increase with every step she took. She squinted into the darkness, looking for anything that might suffice. Off to her right, through a break in the trees, she suddenly saw an outcropping of large stones. 

She stopped dead in her tracks. “Look,” she said, pointing. 

He peered past her. “Let’s get closer.”

They crunched through the underbrush, coming into a tiny clearing. Sure enough, there was a gap in the rocks big enough to admit them. Caleb raised his lightsaber, and the blue glow illuminated the rough interior beyond the small opening. “It looks uninhabited. But if we get cornered, we might have to fight our way out. There’s probably no alternate exit.”

“It’s either that, or we keep searching for something better and freeze to death.”

“Those aren’t great options.”

“No,” she agreed. “But they’re the only options we have right now. Go ahead, crawl in there.”

“You first,” he said. “I’ll guard the entrance and keep watch.”

“You need sleep.”

“I’m a Jedi, I actually don’t need sleep.”

“Everyone needs sleep,” she grumbled. 

“Can you just go inside the cave, please? I’m trying to keep you alive, here.”

“Oh, is that right?” She didn’t know if it was the situation, or if the pain and cold were getting to her, or all of the above, but his tone annoyed her. “We wouldn’t be standing here right now if I hadn’t kept the Allegiant II from getting completely blown to pieces.”

He sighed. “And I kept us from getting killed in the escape pod. Look, you probably have a concussion and broken ribs, and you’re in no condition to be standing here bickering about who saved who. So please...go inside.”

She shot him an irritated glare and hunched over, wincing, as she eased her way into the small crevice. He followed, turning the lightsaber off only after he’d thoroughly investigated every inch of the tiny cave. He flopped down onto the ground on his back, and Hera tried not to grunt in pain as she followed suit.  

They laid side-by-side in silence as the minutes passed. She hugged herself, trying not to shiver, but it was useless. Her teeth began to chatter. She knew he could hear it- and she knew there was only one way to stop it. The problem, however, was that she couldn't bring herself to say it aloud.

Luckily, Caleb gave her the opening she needed. He turned his head toward her, saying, “Hera? Are you okay? It sounds like you’re-”

“Freezing? If that’s what you were going to say, you’re right. Look, I know it’s probably against some ancient Jedi rule or something, but we’re going to have to get a lot closer to each other if we don’t want to freeze to death.”

He swallowed so hard that she could hear it. “There’s no rule against surviving,” he murmured.

“Good, because I’d rather not die in this ridiculous cave. Roll over,” she ordered. 

He rolled onto his side obediently, facing her. She squirmed closer, wincing, and curled against his chest with the top of her head pressing against the underside of his chin. His body was tense against hers, but she was too busy shaking with cold to concern herself with it. He hesitated for a moment, and then tucked his robe around her, followed by his arms, trying to stop the tremors.

They listened to her teeth chatter for a while, not speaking. Finally, to her great relief, her shivering began to subside. She relaxed against him and felt his heart thudding in his chest. 

“Thank you for saving my life today,” she said, her voice muffled by his tunic.

He sighed. After a few moments, he said, “I saved you, but I sent everyone else to their deaths.”

She was not surprised by his brooding train of thought- her own thoughts would likely have run along the same lines, if not for the distraction of her physical discomforts. “We all agreed that taking our chances was the only option,” she said. “They didn’t just do it because you told them to, they did it because...they would have died if they stayed. That’s not your fault.”

“I send people to their deaths all the time- I don’t know why this bothers me more, but it feels awful that it does.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The Clones. Doesn’t it seem...wrong to you? That they grew those men in a lab to fight a war for them? Die for them?” Caleb’s voice was strained.

She hadn’t had a lot of contact with any of the Clones, but from what she had seen, there was no denying that they were unique individuals. Duplicates of one man, certainly, but did that make each Clone less important in his own right? 

“It does seem wrong,” she agreed. “It’s terrible.”

“The Republic allows it, though. The Jedi allow it.” There was anger in his voice. 

Hera sighed. She didn’t know what to say that might help him, so she placed her hand over his heart, feeling it beat against her palm. In response, he pulled her more tightly against him. It hurt. 

“Ow.” She grimaced, tensing. 

He loosened his arms. “I’m sorry...I forgot that you’re hurt. I’m really bad at this.”

She smiled, even though he couldn't see it. “Bad at what?”

“Everything, I guess. And I still owe you some kind of explanation.”

“I know why I never heard from you. You’re a Jedi. It’s not that complicated.”

He let out a soft chuckle. “Fair enough. But I just need you to know that...I wanted to see you again. But I thought that if I did…”

“What?”

“There would be no going back.”

“Oh," she said softly.

“Yeah.”

“What happens to a Jedi if they break that rule?”

“Expulsion from the Order, I’ve been told. I’ve never heard of it happening in recent history, though.”

“You can just...walk away? No punishment?”

He laughed again. “Punishment? No, of course not. But isn’t it punishment enough to be expelled from the Order?”

“Yes...of course. I was just-”

“I know. But it’s not like that. Why do you ask, anyway? Do you want me to leave the Order for you?”

She was taken aback, and not entirely sure he was just joking. Did he really think that? “ No !” she yelped. “That’s not what I was saying at all , Caleb…”

“I know. I was just winding you up.”

“I was just curious.”

“I know . And I was just kidding.”

There was the slightest hint of uncertainty in his voice, but she didn't know what to make of it and thought it best not to dwell on it. A few more moments of silence passed, but his heartbeat didn’t slow. 

“You’re in pain,” he murmured.

“Yes, some,” she admitted.

“I can try to help with that, but I don’t know if it’ll do much. If you want me to.”

“I do.”

He raised one hand, keeping the other arm snugly wrapped around her, and touched her temple lightly with his fingers. His warm palm curved against her cheek. “Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.”

She did as she was told. It might have been her imagination, but she felt a faint tingling sensation move through her body, relaxing her. The pain eased, although it was not completely gone, and she felt herself drift away from consciousness with the steady beat of his heart like a drum cadence leading her towards sleep.  

In her dreams, they flew across the galaxy together, hand-in-hand, as the stars ignited around them.

Chapter Text

Caleb woke with a start, and his mind immediately registered all of his body’s complaints. Of particular note were his completely numb left arm, the stone digging into his hip, and the wound on his back. Hera was still asleep, with her face pressed against his chest and one arm curled around his waist. He didn’t want to wake her, but dim morning light filtered through the rocks that created their little shelter, and he wanted to get the homing beacon to a higher altitude as soon as possible. 

He eased his numb arm out from under her neck, cradling her head as best he could with his other hand as he did so. Even in the gloom of the cave, even smeared with dirt and dried blood, her face was heart-clenchingly beautiful. Her eyelids opened slowly, and she looked up at him. She wasn’t fully awake yet, and the raw, undisguised emotion in her eyes scared him almost as much as it undid him.

He wanted to kiss her. It would have been so easy- he was already holding her lovely face in his hands- all he had to do was lean forward. And, from the look in her eyes, he doubted his kiss would be rejected. The pull he felt towards her was nearly overwhelming, just as it had been in his room at the Temple, and there was no one to interrupt them this time. But there on that moon, so far from the Order and their mandates, his feelings for Hera seemed...amplified. Looking at her, he could see the end of everything he’d worked for his entire life. He could have easily forgotten his training- set aside everything he’d held most dear- just to allow himself to be consumed by what he felt for her. But for how long? Would he walk away from the Order for her? Could he? As long as he was unable to answer those questions in a definitive way, kissing her seemed like the wrong thing to do. It was a promise he couldn’t keep. 

Instead, he brushed his thumbs along her jawline and smiled at her. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

She gave him a brief searching look. Pulling her arm from around his waist, she pushed herself up onto one elbow with a grimace, dislodging his hands from her face. She absently skimmed her fingertips across the back of one of his hands as he withdrew it, but he was fairly sure it wasn’t accidental. “Not great,” she said. “Who knew that sleeping on the ground isn’t the best thing for broken ribs?

“Maybe we’ll find a luxury hotel today.” He sat up, brushing the dirt from his robe.

“It’s too early for sarcasm.”

“It’s never too early for sarcasm. We should set up the homing beacon in a higher spot, away from the trees...the stronger the signal, the sooner we’ll get off this rock.” 

She frowned. “What if the Separatists pick up the signal?”

“That’s a chance we’ll have to take if we ever want to leave this moon.” He reached for the rucksack and rooted around inside, pulling out a ration bar and a bottle of water. He held them out to her. “You should eat something.”

“Split the bar with me,” she said. “We should try to eat as little as we can.”

“I don’t need it- you eat it.”

Caleb.” She glared at him- she didn’t like it when she didn’t get her way.

Hera,” he said, trying not to smile as he imitated her stern tone. 

She tugged the ration bar from his hand with an exasperated huff, unwrapped it, and broke it in two, holding one half out to him. “Just take it.”

He shrugged and took it, deciding to choose his battles with her a bit more wisely. “I’m going to go outside to look around.”

“I’ll come with you,” she said.

“I think you should stay here and rest.”

She snorted. “I don’t. I’m coming with you.”

“You don’t? What a surprise!”

She rolled her eyes. “I think I know if I can handle it or not.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t handle it.”

“Good. Let’s go, then.”

Caleb gave up and grabbed the rucksack and his lightsaber. He squeezed himself through the opening to their cave and stood in the clearing just outside. Whatever he’d sensed the night before remained elusive. He could sense that there was something on the moon with them- something that could touch the Force. Something malevolent. He hadn’t told Hera because there was no need to alarm her. Not yet. Whatever it was, it was keeping its distance. 

Hera stepped into the clearing behind him. “If not for the trees, it would be warm,” she commented. From what he could tell, the moon was relatively close to a dim, small star. 

“It’ll be warm if we can get above the treeline. I’m just going up on top of this outcropping to take a quick look around.” It wasn’t much of a jump, and he landed lightly at the top with ease. He glanced down and saw that Hera was trying not to look amazed and failing. Beyond flying with him above Coruscant, it seemed that she still hadn’t really seen what Jedi could do. He grinned as he scanned the horizon. They had definitely entered a valley- in the distance, he could see the peaks of a small, craggy mountain range. Otherwise, as far as his eyes could see, it was just dark blue tufted treetops against a pale green sky. Opposite of where they were headed, he could see the bare area where they’d left the escape pod. To his relief, there were no ships within view. He doubted the Separatists would waste the resources or time, but you could never be too sure when it came to the Separatists. 

He jumped down, landing next to Hera with a soft thump. “Looks like there’s some high ground further into this valley. We should head in that direction. I don’t think it’s very far- maybe a few hours of walking.”

“I can handle it.”

“I know you can.” 

“Maybe we should turn the beacon on now,” she suggested.

“I turned it on already. Yesterday, after the crash.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Do you still have a headache?”

“Just a bit. I’ll be fine.” She raised her eyebrows at him, a clear challenge. He was concerned about her, but he was pretty sure that most of his concern was stemming from something other than logic or necessity. Again, he decided to let it be.

“Okay, well...let’s go,” he said as he walked forward, lightsaber ready in one hand. 

As they walked, they ate their ration bars and drank a little water. There was no trail, but the stony ground lacked vegetation- the tree roots must have been very strong to break through. It was a strange moon- breathable atmosphere, but apparently never uninhabited- at least, not that part of it, anyway. He wondered if the whole moon was similar, and if so, had it had been passed over as a potentially habitable planet due to lack of resources and arable land? It seemed very possible. Nevertheless, the place had a strange beauty. One thing did bother him, though- he had not seen or heard evidence of any life, other than the sentient Force-wielder he had sensed the night before. It was an oddity for a planet with an atmosphere and, presumably, at least some water, to have no life at all. It was unsettling. He didn’t really want to think about it. 

He did want to think about the woman walking beside him, though. It struck him that he really knew very little about her life, and he wanted to know more. “You know,” he said, “you never really talk about Ryloth, or your family.”

“There’s not much to say, really.”

“I’d still like to hear about it. You said you’re from the Tann province, right?”

She nodded and smiled, pleased that he remembered a piece of information she’d shared so long ago. “Clan Syndulla has lived there for at least two hundred standard years- probably more, though. My father inherited the ancestral home. Ryloth is like a lot of other planets- there are parts that are beautiful, and parts that aren’t so beautiful- although, in Ryloth’s case, the less beautiful parts are only ugly because they’re dangerous- they’re infested with lyleks.”

“I’ve heard of those. Ever seen one?”

“Not alive, no. And I don’t want to. My father has, though.”

“What’s he like?”

She let out a little sigh. “He’s...very charismatic and very intelligent. Practical to a fault. Rarely affectionate with anyone but my mother. Exacting and demanding of his children. He’s a very skilled warrior- those skills are passed down through generations in some clans- and he started teaching us how to fight when we were very young. But he got into politics about seven standard years ago, and his teaching fell by the wayside. He has the charisma for it. I think he enjoys the challenge. He thought he could do some good- and he has- but Orn Free Taa’s election changed all that.”

“Why?”

“Oh, my father is convinced that the election was rigged, that the Separatists were behind it because they wanted to get someone into power who would help them infiltrate the Senate and allow them to exploit Ryloth.”

“Do you think that’s true?”

“I didn’t think so at first,” she said, “but now I know better. We thought he was becoming obsessed with it because he was angry about losing, but he was right. He saw this coming. And he was prepared.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure exactly, but...since the war began, I haven’t had an easy time getting in touch with them. It’s not just that Ryloth is in the Outer Rim and that comms are down because of the war...when I do hear from them, they’re very secretive. There are things they won’t discuss. Even my mother and brother seem to be hiding something, and that’s not like either of them. My younger brother, Val- he’s always been a troublemaker, a free spirit, hardly ever serious. He always told me everything. But now...even if I send him encrypted messages, I get nothing back. I’ve heard rumors, though, that the Separatists are trying to gain control of Ryloth, and that there’s a movement to prevent that from happening- and I feel sure my parents and brother are involved. Knowing my father, likely very involved.”

He wondered if the Jedi knew about a possible guerilla group on Ryloth- they would be potential allies, after all. But that could wait.  

“He was disappointed in me for leaving, you know,” Hera continued. “He thinks the Republic is corrupt, and that I was just going to be another cog in the machine. He’s asked me to return to Ryloth many times.”

Even though he didn’t have parents, Caleb knew what it was like to live with expectations and the worry of failing to live up to them. “It sounds like he didn’t want to let you live your own life,” he said with a frown. 

“He wants me to live it the way he sees fit. He thought I could become a pilot just as well on Ryloth, in the service of my own people. When the war broke out, he demanded I go home. I refused. I haven’t really spoken to him since. The whole galaxy needs help- not just Ryloth. But I feel guilty anyway- I wonder, sometimes, if I should have gone home to be with my family.”

“For what it’s worth, I think you made the right decision. But I don’t have a family, so I can’t really be objective about that.”

“That’s not true. What about the other Jedi in the Order? They’re like family.”

“I don’t think it’s the same.”

“Of course it’s the same. Blood bonds matter, yes- but you can care about and...love people you’re not related to by blood.” She looked at him for a moment, and then looked away. “Those bonds can sometimes be even stronger than blood. Those people took care of you, raised you and taught you- they’re your family as much as my clan is mine.”

He looked at her thoughtfully. “I guess that’s true.”

“Even so, though- even if we care about our families- we still should do what’s right for everyone.”

“It’s hard to know what’s right anymore. I didn’t expect war to be fun, but it’s worse than I ever could have imagined.” He couldn’t quite manage to keep the pain out of his voice. 

Hera didn’t say anything in response to that. He didn’t blame her. What was there to say? She turned her face towards him, and he felt her hand touch his. He took it, pressing their palms together and squeezing gently. He was unused to physical touch- the Jedi weren’t physically demonstrative- and he was coming to realize that he liked it. He had never before considered the fact that the steady pressure of another person’s hand in his could do more to soothe his feelings than words could. The fact that it was her hand didn’t hurt, either. 

“What’s your mother like?” he asked, hoping she wouldn’t let go.

She didn’t. “Her name is Rhea. She’s an artist and a writer- she’s brilliant. She sings, too- she has a beautiful voice.”

“I guess you get that from her, then.”

“I wish. If I end up half as amazing as she is, I’ll be happy.”

Caleb doubted she’d have any trouble achieving that goal. “She sounds a lot different than your father.”

“It seems that way, but it works for them. They understand each other- admire each other. I won’t say that the differences in their personalities don’t cause some issues, and neither of them is perfect- they have fights. But they love each other. I guess that’s what matters.”

“I guess it is,” he agreed. He didn’t know for sure, though. Romantic love was such an unfamiliar concept to him- at least, it was when framed in a positive light, as opposed to something forbidden and potentially dangerous. He had no experience at all with it- no parents, no friends who had ever experienced it. He’d seen people in love, though. As a young Padawan, he’d been confused by it. He remembered seeing a couple kissing while on a diplomatic mission- Master Billaba had caught him gawking and pulled him away. She’d explained it as best she could. Her explanation had only made him more curious about the reasons why it was forbidden to Jedi- but he got no answers that satisfied him. 

They walked in silence for a little while, still holding hands. The terrain began to get more difficult. Hera winced now and again but otherwise seemed fine. She was tough, and he liked that about her- in fact, aside from her inability to use the Force, she had nearly the inner strength and mental fortitude of a Jedi. 

“So...your brother is a troublemaker?” he asked. Talking seemed to distract her from the pain. 

She chuckled. “He can be. He’s not a huge fan of authority.”

“Does he get along with your father?”

“You would think that they wouldn’t get along, but Val has a way of talking himself out of everything. He’s always charming. Everyone loves him. It’s impossible not to.”

“Oh, is that why I remind you of him?”

She gave him a confused look. “I never said-”

“I’m pretty sure you did.”

She laughed- a rich, throaty, musical laugh. “You’re right, you do remind me of him a bit,” she said.

“It must be all my charm.”

“No, I was going to say that it’s because you’re just as annoying as he is.” She flashed him a grin and shrugged. 

He smiled back. “That hurts, Syndulla.”

“Sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m really not.”

They walked on, and eventually, reluctantly, he had to release her hand to share some water with her. She told him a story about taking Gobi’s ship for a joyride with her brother and getting caught by their mother, who did not tell their father (or Gobi). He told her a similar story about him and Sammo and a speeder- but they’d gotten caught by Master Kenobi. They started to climb, which made conversation more difficult, but she talked a bit about her squadron and her friend Keran as they picked their way up the steep side of a small mountain- more of a tall hill. Caleb wouldn’t have said so, but he didn’t want to make her climb anything taller with broken ribs. He could feel her pain through the Force. She was sweating, and he doubted it was from exertion. She stopped to peel off her jacket and tie it around her waist, exposing a white sleeveless undershirt, and she planted her hands on her hips as she squinted up towards the peak. 

He felt, for a moment, that he should avert his eyes. Very little of her was exposed, really- he’d seen women far more scantily clad than Hera on a number of occasions. Dealing with any Hutt, for instance, nearly guaranteed the presence of at least one underdressed woman. But those women were always slaves, and Caleb’s only desire was to help them escape that life. Free women were a bit of a different story, though, and their beauty was occasionally very difficult to ignore. But ignore it he always had- until he met Hera. Whatever it was about her- whatever it was between the two of them- he couldn’t have explained it, but he was so drawn to her that her beauty was almost beside the point. His whole being responded to hers in a way that seemed both utterly mysterious and completely obvious. Nevertheless, the experience of seeing her in just a sweaty, dirty undershirt bordered on transcendental. 

She turned her head towards him and caught him staring at her. Her eyebrows went up, and she smirked. He instantly felt guilty. Twi’lek women were constantly being objectified by men- especially human men- all across the galaxy. He didn’t want her thinking that he was one of those men. 

He cleared his throat. “I don’t think we have to go all the way to the top,” he said. “The beacon is strong- it’ll just be a little stronger if there’s less interference.”

She nodded. “I might be able to boost the signal.” He must have looked a bit surprised, because she laughed. “What? Did you think my mechanical skills were just limited to starships?”

“I guess I did,” he admitted. “But I see that I made a mistake in assuming there’s anything you can’t do.”

“There’s a lot I can’t do. I can’t jump twenty feet straight up, for example. Or use a lightsaber.”

Suddenly, Caleb felt the creature he’d sensed the night before. It wanted him to know it was there, this time. It wanted him to know that it was tracking them. 

Hera was frowning at him, which indicated that he looked at least as perturbed as he felt. “What’s the matter?” she demanded.

“It’s whatever I sensed last night. We need to find shelter. A defensible position,” he said in a low tone.

“A- what? What’s going on?” She sounded alarmed. “What is it?”

He started hiking up the hillside again. “That ledge there,” he said, pointing to a spot quite a bit higher up. “I think that might work. It’s going to have to work.”

Caleb,” she growled. “Tell me what it is, or I’m not walking another step.”

He sighed and turned around. “I don’t know what it is. It’s like some kind of animal, but a very intelligent one- and it can touch the Force. I’ve only ever heard of creatures that can do that- it’s not common. This one is...not friendly.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“It’s tracking us.”

Stalking us, you mean?”

“No,” he said. “I meant what I said. It’s not hunting us, not yet. But it’s tracking us. It regards us as a potential threat because it can sense me through the Force- it doesn’t know what I’m capable of. Otherwise, it would just regard us as food.”

“Okay, so we avoid it, then. Maybe it’ll just leave us alone if it thinks you’re a threat.”

“Maybe. I’m with you on the ‘avoid it’ idea. But I still think we need to find shelter and a defensible position. Whatever this thing is, it’s got the mind of a creature that enjoys killing and has been deprived of that pleasure for too long. Come on.” He turned and headed back up the slope towards the ledge. She followed this time. 

They hiked in silence until they reached the ledge, which was wider than it appeared from below. They also found a fissure in the stone that opened into a small, roundish, enclosed space. It wasn’t quite a cave- the ceiling was open to the sky- but it would block the wind. Hera got to work trying to boost the signal on the beacon. Meanwhile, Caleb lopped branches from a nearby conifer with his lightsaber to create some kind of roof for their shelter, dousing the ends in the dirt to keep them from catching fire. It would have to suffice.

When he was done, he sat down beside her on the ledge. She was sitting cross-legged with her lekku draped over her shoulders, still tinkering with the beacon.

“Looks like lightsabers are better than axes,” she commented.

He chuckled. “How’s that beacon coming?”

“I boosted the signal a bit. I think it should transmit throughout this whole section of the Outer Rim. The Jedi will come looking for us?”

“Yeah. They’ll come to investigate, at the very least. The Allegiant II never reached Belkadan, and they’ll know about it by now. They’ll send someone out here, and that someone should get our signal.”

“I hope they come soon,” she said. “This moon is odd. No birds or other animals.”

“Yeah...it is. I don’t mind the company, though.”

She looked up at him with a little smile. “No...I don’t mind it, either.”

And we found a luxury hotel, too,” he said, grinning. 

Hera snorted and pulled a ration bar out of the rucksack. “We should eat something.” She unwrapped it and broke it in half, handing one half to him. He didn’t argue- he was very hungry. 

Darkness fell just as abruptly as it had the night before, although it did not seem as cold. He followed her into their little shelter. He had not sensed the creature tracking them in quite a while, and it worried him- but he didn’t plan on sleeping. They sat against one wall together and looked up at the stars peeking through the branches of their roof. 

“You can use my shoulder as a pillow if you want,” he offered, hoping she would sleep. 

By way of an answer, she rested her head on his shoulder. He slipped his arm around her, pulling her close, and she nestled against him.

“Can you do whatever it was you did last night?” she murmured.

He touched her temple with one hand and reached into the Force. She sighed, and after a few minutes, she dozed off. When he was sure she was asleep, he pressed his lips lightly against the top of her head, listening to her soft breathing and trying not to think about what he would do when the inevitable Jedi rescuers showed up. Instead, he listened and stretched out with his feelings, just as he had been taught, slipping into a meditative state. 

Time passed, though he couldn’t have said how much. Suddenly, he felt it. His eyes snapped open.

A loud, deep growl came from somewhere on the slope below them. 

It was coming.