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A Different Path

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Master Billaba’s last screams were still ringing in Caleb’s ears as he ran through the temple in the direction of the crèche. When he finally made it down to the hall where the younglings and junior initiates lived, all was quiet except for the distant sounds of blaster fire. He flew between rooms, finding only the disorder of a hasty departure. Bedclothes were left rumpled, stripped of their blankets in some cases, and toys were scattered over the floor.  It was clear that the crèche masters were aware of the attack and began an evacuation. 

Caleb was turning away from the last nursery when he felt a tug. Pay attention, a voice in his head chided him.  The presence that was reaching out to him was afraid and instinctively latched on to him. He crossed the room swiftly and peered under one of the beds.

A pair of wide violet eyes peered back at him and it felt like the air was snatched out of his lungs. He hadn’t felt like this since... since he had seen Master Billaba for the first time. 

Caleb coaxed the kid from under the bed.  A clearer look revealed him to be a very young human boy with eyes red and puffy from crying and clutching a stuffed toy tooka.

“It’s going to be okay,” Caleb tried to reassure him, “We need to leave really fast though. Will you let me pick you up?”  At the boy’s nod, Caleb took a blanket from the bed and wrapped him up, tooka and all.

His first thought was to try to catch up with the rest of the crèche survivors but the sounds of screams and blasters told him that he was too late.  The fear and pain he felt in the Force nearly sent him to his knees and the boy began shaking and crying.  Caleb bounced the toddler and tried to soothe him with shushing noises.  He turned on his heel and ran as quickly and quietly as he could manage to a small tunnel that tied into the temple drainage system.  It felt like his heartbeat was pounding loud enough to give them away, but the voices of clones and the sound of blasters didn’t indicate a chase. The kid seemed to understand that he couldn’t make noise, because his cries quieted to sniffles.

The tunnel had been a tight fit when Sammo discovered it a few years ago.  Now Caleb could only fit on his hands and knees—well, hand and knees. One hand clutched the bundle of kid and blanket to his chest. Little arms circled his neck in a surprisingly strong grip. The floor was slippery with algae and he lost his balance often. The bright side was that there was no way a clone could fit into this tunnel, armor or no armor.

Finally, the tunnel broadened, allowing Caleb to stand in a crouch, and then straighten to his full height. He knew that meant that he was in the main drainage system for Coruscant, outside of the temple grounds.

Caleb carefully slipped into the crowd of panicked citizenry in the under-levels, still not able let down his guard for an instant. Their fear was catching and they weren’t out of danger by a long shot.  The first priority had to be getting off of Coruscant. He didn’t have any money, so that meant he would have to stow away. Easier said than done with a toddler.

He clutched tight to the kid as he was jostled on all sides by the crowd.  He pushed his way through the mass of sentients and across levels to where he thought Master Billaba had pointed out a spaceport that catered to smugglers.

The spaceport wasn’t in any less of a disarray than the pedestrian zones. Everything between small personal craft and large freighters were in various stages of departure. Caleb closed his eyes, searching for any hint of where to go. When he opened them, a mid-sized freighter caught his attention. It didn’t seem to have a crew prepping it to go yet, which meant that it probably didn’t have a large enough crew to leave someone with the ship.

With a little force manipulation, it wasn’t difficult to get through the hatch and into the ship, re-locking it behind him before he left.  He cast his eyes around looking for some relatively-undisturbed hatch, landing on one under a stack of crates.

Caleb set the kid down and tried to roll the tension out of his own shoulders before crouching down to the boy’s level.  The kid was still sniffling and hugging the toy tooka tight.  He was young. Really young. 

“Um... my name’s Caleb. Can you tell me your name.”

The boy rubbed at the snot running from his nose. “E... Ezra.”

“Okay, Ezra. Do you know how old you are?” 

“Grina said today I’m ‘dis many.”  Ezra held up three pudgy fingers. “She gave me Stripey.”  He held the stuffed tooka in Caleb’s face.

Kriff. It was the kid’s birthday.  Caleb suddenly wanted to cry, like that was the last straw.

“Happy birthday,” he said with as convincing a smile as possible.  Now to get the kid in the compartment—a burst of inspiration. “Do you want to play a game with me, Ezra?”

Ezra nodded eagerly. “Stripey too?”

“We are all going to play.  It is sort of like hide and seek.  I’m going to open that little door there are we are all going to climb in and be really quiet.  Can you do that?”

“Who looking?”

Caleb swallowed roughly. “I don’t know. But to win the game, we can’t let them find us, okay?”

Another nod and Caleb pushed the crates to the side and lifted the trapdoor. Luckily, the compartment was empty except for dust and some old ration bars.  He put the backpack he’d been carrying when he and Master Billaba were on the way to the hanger before the attack at the head of the compartment.  Once Ezra was arranged with his blanket, Caleb climbed in after him and shut the door. Carefully, he used the force to return the crates to their original positions.

The compartment was small, but at least air and a bit of light filtered through the slats.  He found a position where his head was resting on some clothes bundled in his bag. Ezra wiggled so that he was laying half on top of Caleb.

Eventually, the kid’s exhaustion overtook him. His warm, humid breaths puffed into Caleb’s face and he felt like he was cuddling a furnace under the blanket.

Caleb felt disgusting. The slime from the drainage tunnel was smeared on his knees and hands and he had sweated through his clothes so he felt uncomfortably damp. Not to mention that Ezra had used the front of his tunic as a tissue a few times. Well, there was nothing he could do about the situation now. He shifted Ezra fully over onto his chest so his currently-pinned arm wouldn’t lose circulation and settled in to wait. 

Chapter Text

The firing of the ship’s engines roused Caleb from his dazed stupor. He held his breath, studying Ezra in the dim light, but the exhausted kid slept on. Caleb wished he could sleep, but the Force cried out with hundreds, maybe thousands, of deaths. One death in particular gnawed at his very soul. He hadn’t seen Master Billaba die, but he felt their broken bond like an open wound. She had known from the very instant she sent him away to check on the crèche that she would not survive.

Run. I’ll be right behind you.

That was the last thing she would ever say to him, and they had both known it was a lie when she had said it. If only he had been braver. She could have lived. Instead Ezra was stuck with him and he had no idea what to do next.

The ship shuddered as it entered hyperspace, then the hyperdrive evened out to a steady hum.  After a few minutes, a door swished open and a single set of footsteps sounded on the decking, coming closer.  Caleb barely dared to breathe. Ezra’s light snores sounded as loud as a bomb in the confined space of the compartment.

The footsteps paused nearby, somewhere around the cargo bay door. Someone—presumably the owner of the footsteps—hummed to himself. The footsteps began again and then there was a shadow over the hatch to the compartment. Caleb squeezed his eyes shut, like not seeing would make it better. There was a screech of metal-on-metal as the crates were pushed aside. 

Kriff. Not even a day in and his stupid plan was going to get him and the kid killed. Master Billaba would have known better...

The hatch flew open and Caleb rolled to put Ezra underneath him in a pitiful attempt to shield the toddler. Ezra let out a surprised wail and began to cry.

A hand seized him by the scruff of his collar and hauled him out of the compartment, away from Ezra.  Next thing he knew, he was pinned against the bulkhead. Caleb opened his eyes to see a blaster in his face.

“Kriff! Baby Jedi!” the man holding the blaster swore.  When he backed up and lowered the blaster to aim at his chest rather than between his eyes, Caleb could see that the man was a green Kalleran.

“We... we aren’t Jedi,” Caleb stammered.

The man rolled his eyes. “Do I look stupid to you, kid?  You are dressed like a Jedi, your braid is like a baby Jedi’s and...” he reached for Caleb’s belt and snatched his lightsaber, “This is a Jedi weapon.  Now, let’s not lie to each other.  Get the kid.  No funny business.”

Ezra had not stopped screaming. Caleb froze. “No.”

“No?”

Caleb squeezed his eyes shut again. “If... if you are going to shoot me, fine. Just don’t... don’t hurt Ezra. He hasn’t done anything.”

The Kalleran swore. “You really think I’m going to kill a couple of kids in cold blood?”

Caleb looked at the man to find his face contorted in disgust. He just shrugged in answer. 

The Kalleran grimaced, showing off his decidedly not-reassuring sharp, pointed teeth, and holstered his blaster with a sigh.  “I’m not going to do anything to you or the kid. You can do your magic trick to see if I’m telling the truth.  But can you please shut the kid up?”

Caleb sidled over to the open hatch where Ezra was still crying at peak volume. He felt out toward the Kalleran with the Force as he moved.  He felt like he was telling the truth, but the Troopers had still managed to turn on them with barely any warning at all. And with the Force distorted by darkness as it was, he wasn’t sure if it could be trusted.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have much choice other than trusting the Kalleran. 

He reached into the compartment and Ezra clung to him immediately.  Caleb angled himself so that he was between the Kalleran and Ezra, even though it meant putting his back to him. After a few minutes of bouncing and shushing and back rubbing, Ezra’s hiccuping sobs subsided to pitiful whimpers.

“Follow me to the galley,” the Kalleran said, “We need to talk.”

Caleb trailed after the man with Ezra balanced on his hip, not sure what else to do. He was pointed to a booth seat behind a table and soon after a cup of water and a plate of cut-up fruit was placed in front of him.

The man heaved a great sigh when he sat across from them. “First off, I’m Janus Kasmir.”

Caleb opened his mouth to introduce himself, but Kasmir raised a three-fingered hand to stop him. “It’s better for both of us if I don’t know your name. So long as you’re here, I’m just going to call you ‘kid.’  You already told me the little tyke’s first name, so there’s no un-knowing it.  I’ll take you both as far as my next stop on Kaller, but then you are going to have to go your own way. A smuggler’s ship is no place for a toddler.”

“But what... what will we do?”

“You lie. You cheat. You steal.” Kasmir scoffed. “Didn’t they teach you anything useful at that temple of yours?”

Caleb bristled. “They taught me better than to do that.”

“Listen, kid. I’m sure you think the Jedi are great. Maybe you’re right. But you know what else they are? Dead. Or soon to get that way whenever the republic or the empire or whatever it is now gets their claws in them. If you want to keep yourself and the kid alive, you will forget all about them. Whoever you were before is dead now.”

Kasmir’s words hit Caleb like a punch to the gut.  He knew all of it.  He knew the Jedi were dead or dying.  He knew the Republic had betrayed them.  He knew it was very possible that he and Ezra were the only survivors from the Temple.  But to hear it said aloud…

Caleb bit his lip.  He wasn’t going to let this stranger see him cry.

Kasmir rubbed his crest awkwardly.  “Sorry, kid.  That was harsh, but it is true.  You’ve got to lose everything that marks you as a Jedi—your clothes, your name, and especially that braid.”

Caleb ran the braid through his fingers.  He remembered how proud he was when Master Billaba had braided it the first time, making him the youngest Padawan since no less than Knight Skywalker.  Six months.  That was all the time he had with his Master.

“You should eat,” Kasmir reminded him gruffly, and saw Caleb’s hesitation.  “I didn’t drug it.  See?”  He popped a piece of the fruit in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.  He opened his mouth the show Caleb that it was gone, the washed it down with a sip from the water.

Caleb took a bite of the sticky-sweet meilroon and chewed it slowly.  When he decided it didn’t taste off, he nudged Ezra awake and passed him a cube.  By the time the fruit was gone, Ezra’s face and hands were sticky with mashed meilroon.

“I’ll show you the ‘fresher.  You both stink and I don’t want grimy handprints all over my ship,” Kasmir groused, “Then we will see about the clothes and the haircut.  You’ll have to figure out the name on your own.”

A few days later, it was Kanan Jarrus that exited the Kasmiri in a new set of clothes fit for a spacer and with the credits Kasmir had given him as “salary” for helping out on the way to Kaller.  By the time he and Ezra boarded the transport with the fake docs—courtesy of a shady contact of Kasmir’s—Caleb Dume was well and truly dead.

Chapter Text

The cute wore off of him a lot sooner than it did Ezra. He could see it in people’s eyes that he had moved from pitiful child to probable delinquent in their minds. Unfortunately, he was still too young to find a real job or a more permanent place to stay. Not too young to fight a war or be murdered alongside his master, he thought bitterly, but too young to stock shelves or sign a lease.

He returned to where he had hidden Ezra napping beneath some shrubs in the park. He kept Ezra close enough that he could keep an eye on him, but far enough away that the little boy was hidden from view.  

Ezra was clingy when Kanan pulled him from the hiding place. He tried to plaster on a happy face for the kid. He was always fussy when he was hungry.

“You ready for dinner, Ez?” he asked.

Ezra’s eyes lit up. “Din’ner,” he repeated. He had hugged himself so tight to Kanan that he could feel Ezra’s stomach growling.  He carried him all the way to a bakery that would be closing down soon.

Kanan made sure the shop was empty before he entered.  He had learned fast that shopkeepers didn’t like scruffy-looking people in view of their regular customers, even if one of them was a frankly adorable three-year-old. Kanan had to admit he was biased there.

He adjusted Ezra so that the kid was clinging to his back to free up his hands.  A peek in the window confirmed that the shop was empty and the keeper was beginning to clean up.  A bright, twinkling chime sounded when he opened the door. The keeper, an older woman with her grey hair piled on top of her head, smiled at them over the counter.  Kanan waited for the smile to turn into a scowl, but it only softened when she took them in.

“Can I help you, dears?” she asked, beckoning them forward.

“Do... do you have any bread on sale, since it is the end of the day?” he stammered.  The smell of the bakery was getting to him. He was pretty sure the lady could hear his stomach from across the store.  His hand clenched around the few credit chits he had in his pocket. The corners dug into his palm.

“I sure do, young man.  What would you like?”

Kanan stepped closer to the display case and studied the loaves left. There was a loaf of protein bread left, which was a lucky break. It was pricier, but Ezra needed the nutrients.  He was getting too thin.

“That one, please,” he said, trying not to act too eager.  Ezra wasn’t worried about hiding his excitement. He was crawling over Kanan’s shoulder for a better view.  He slapped the glass over a sweet roll filled with jogan fruit.  “K’nan,” he demanded, tugging on Kanan’s hair, “Wan’ that one!”  Kanan felt his heart sink.  He didn’t need to use the Force to know the kid was excited.  His eyes shot to the shopkeeper.  He counted creds again, running his thumb over the edges of the chits in his pocket.

“Not tonight, Ezra,” he said softly.  Ezra drooped against his shoulder. 

“Okay,” he whined.

The old lady paused in wrapping up the protein bread.  “Are your parents around?” she asked casually, not looking up from the packaging.

Kanan tried not to fidget. “They are just up the street, ma’am.  We split up to run errands faster,” he said and prayed for Ezra to stay quiet.

The lady hummed skeptically.  Kanan didn’t feel any malice from her, only concern.  “Why don’t you wait in here for them where it is warm?  It is getting dark.”

Kanan started to panic. If she called child services her good intentions could get him and Ezra killed. “They are just next door. We are meeting them there.”

“Okay, dear. As long as you are sure.” She placed the wrapped parcel on the counter.

“How much...?” Kanan began, but the lady shook her head.

“On the house,” she insisted. “Now, can the little one have the sweet roll?” She was already wrapping up a couple of the sweet rolls and a couple of sausages wrapped in pastry. Kanan’s mouth watered at the sight. If he stretched it out, that amount of food could keep them fed for days.

“I have some creds,” he protested.

“Nonsense!  They would just be going to waste.”  That wasn’t true and Kanan knew it. The trash behind the bakery never had piles of unsold loaves.  He had checked.

Ezra was practically drooling on his shoulder.     If he leaned forward any farther, he would fall off.  Kanan hesitated—surely this offer couldn’t be no strings attached—but he couldn’t stand to disappoint Ezra.  “Are you sure?” He felt compelled to ask.

The lady nodded. “I’m sure. I know two growing boys when I see them.”

“Thank you,” Kanan said, trying not to sound too fervent, “Say ‘thank you,’ Ezra,” he prompted.

“T’ank you,” Ezra said shyly, now burying his face in Kanan’s neck.

“You are very welcome, little one,” the lady said with a smile.

Kanan took the package and put it in his bag. He bid the lady farewell and left the shop. He made sure to keep his pace measured. It wouldn’t do to run like he had stolen the bread.  He still couldn’t believe it. Tonight, Ezra would eat his fill.

Chapter Text

The next day, Kanan returned to the same spot in the park. It was close enough to some play installations that he could keep an eye on Ezra while he tried to get them credits.  He clenched his fists in anger when he saw parents steer their kids away from the shabbily-dressed toddler playing by himself in the sandbox. He wanted to scream at the unfairness of it. Ezra should be playing with his crèche-mates, not depending on a dumb kid who didn’t know what the kriff he was doing.

Since clearly the parents on the playground weren’t exactly bleeding hearts, he studied passers by for a likely mark. Whenever anyone got close, he directed their attention to the small animals he made from folding paper he scavenged from the bin. Most just scoffed at him, a few gave him a credit or two.  Craft time in the crèche was paying off. 

And Janus said the temple never taught me anything useful.

The days were getting shorter and cooler, which meant fewer people taking a stroll in the park. It also meant that he would need to find a warmer spot than the literal hole in the wall he and Ezra currently resided in.  

In the lull after the lunch-time traffic, his attention drifted to Ezra, who was showing the signs of needing a nap.

“I suppose your parents are just down the block?”

Kanan nearly jumped out of his own skin.  It was the lady from the bakery. She must have been able to tell that he was about to bolt because she grabbed his arm.  He could have pushed her off but didn’t want to cause a scene.

“It is okay, little one. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Again, Kanan didn’t think she was lying, but then, she wouldn’t think that giving them to child services was hurting them.  He forced himself to relax. He didn’t want to scare Ezra.

The lady sat down on the path next to him, dug two sandwiches out of her bag and passed him one. Kanan stared at her like she had grown a second head. “I can tell you are hungry.  Now, let’s sit and eat our lunch. I’ve got a couple of questions for you, if you don’t mind answering them.”

Kanan shrugged. If he didn’t want to tell, he wouldn’t tell.  Either way, it was a free lunch.  He studied the sandwich in his hands. There was cheese and fresh greens and actual meat. It was easily the best thing Kanan had eaten since his last meal at the Temple.  He would need to pace himself so that there would be some left for Ezra. 

“My name is Maleene.  You called the little one Ezra, but what is your name?”

“Kanan.”

“How old are you?” she asked. 

“Eighteen,” he answered without hesitation. Maleene raised her brow skeptically.  “Fifteen,” he muttered, “But I can take care of us by myself.”

“What happened to your parents?”

“Mom died just over a year ago. We didn’t have anyone else.”

“Do you have a job?  A place to live?”

“We get by,” Kanan answered cagily, cursing himself right after. He might as well have said “no.”

“My son has moved out, so I could use some help around the shop. You and your brother could share his old room.”

“That is very kind of you but...”

“You don’t have to give me an answer now.  You know where to find me.”  She reached into her bag an pulled out another sandwich.  She nodded toward the uneaten half of his own sandwich that Kanan had carefully wrapped up for Ezra to eat later. “Eat your food, dear. You’re a growing boy.”

An entire freshly-made sandwich all to himself was an unbelievable bounty. He resisted the urge to shove the rest into his mouth. His master had taught him better than that.

“These are lovely, by the way,” Maleene said, holding a little folded tooka in the palm of her hand. “I’m sure you will have no trouble at all folding pastry if you can do this.  Can I have this one?”

Kanan nodded “As many as you like.”

Maleene gentle sat the tooka down on her knee while she dug in her bag some more. “There we are!” she cried, and pulled out a couple of credits.

Kanan blushed. “I... I can’t take your money. Not when you’ve given us so much.”

“If you agree to come work for me, consider it an advance. If you don’t, then it is just a gift.”

That night Kanan counted out the day’s meager take while Ezra slept curled up beside him. Maleen’s gifts of food would help the money stretch but it wouldn’t keep the cold out. The wind was already whistling through cracks in the walls around them.  There wasn’t enough credits to get them to a warmer planet and the scrawnier he got the less likely anyone was going to let him work to pay for his and Ezra’s passage.

Kanan thought longingly of a real bed and warm meals.  Maleen was offering him a job, a chance to get Ezra off the street.  She didn’t look at Kanan like he was gutter trash.  He wanted to trust her, but trust was dangerous.

Another stiff breeze buffeted against the wall, causing Ezra to shiver in his sleep and their fire to flicker.  Kanan pulled Ezra in closer and wrapped the blanket around him more tightly. 

 

The bell rang cheerfully when Kanan entered the little bakery.  Maleen’s head popped up from behind the counter and her face broke into a warm smile when she saw them.

“Come in, then,” she encouraged with a wave, “It is good to see you young man!  Are you here to browse or have you thought about my offer?”

“What would I need to do?” he asked cautiously, not coming any closer to the counter.

“I could use some help with deliveries and preparing dough. Things like that. Maybe helping to clean up shop after closing.  You could both take my son’s old room, as I said, and your meals would be provided.  So would other necessities like medicine and basic clothes.  You’ll get a bit of a salary on top of that. What do you think is a fair wage?”

It hadn’t occurred to him that she would be offering credits on top of a place to live and food to eat.

“Ummm...” Kanan considered, “Thirty credits a week?”  That was about what he would manage to scrounge up over a few days on the streets. 

“Thirty credits?” Maleen asked, shocked.

Kanan recoiled. “I can take less.”

Maleen shook her head sadly. “You don’t barter very well, young man. I’ll give you fifty credits a week minimum, more if we get busy and you work more than usual.  Any tips you get making deliveries are yours, of course.”

Kanan wasn’t sure what an angel looked like, but he was beginning to think they looked a lot like Maleene. 

 

Kanan and Ezra were immediately ushered upstairs to a cheery little kitchen with plates of hot breakfast set in front of them. Ezra’s eyes were easily the size of the yolks of the eggs on his plate. Kanan tried to correct him when he ignored his fork and dug in with his hands, but Maleene waved him off. “There will be time to worry about manners later.”

Kanan ate more slowly, cutting his eggs into small pieces and sopping up the runny yolk with toast.  Ezra belatedly started copying him but his hands were already gummy with half-dried yellow gunk and he was clumsy with utensils anyway.

They were then shooed toward a fresher to clean up. Maleene gave Kanan some of her son’s old clothes, but Ezra would have to make do with an oversized shirt while his were in the wash. “We’ll go shopping later,” Maleene told him before leaving them to tend the bakery. 

The fresher had a real tub that Kanan filled with warm, soapy water. He kneeled beside the tub and lifted Ezra in.  He squirmed before his feet touched the water, resisting bath time. Kanan didn’t blame him.  The last few washes in the river had been unpleasantly cold.  Ezra’s little eyes widened in surprise when he found himself surrounded by warmth. 

Ezra giggled in delight at the bubbles covering the water in a thick layer of foam. A smile spread across Kanan’s face, a smile that was actually genuine.  He scooped up some of the bubbles as well, plopping them on Ezra’s head like a giant fluffy hat.  Ezra retaliated by trying to throw a handful of foam at Kanan, but was surprised when instead of flying through the air, the cloud-like mass floated docilely toward the water.  Kanan watched as the little boy repeated his experiment several times, giggling every time a clump of bubbles left his hand.

Kanan allowed Ezra to play until the water started getting cold and the bubbles began to dissolve.  He pulled the stopper to drain the tub and Ezra watched the now grayish water swirl around the drain.  Kanan turned on the shower to rinse the remaining suds from Ezra and stepped under the spray to quickly clean himself.  The towels Maleen left for them were fluffy and white.  Ezra wrapped himself up in his so that only a tuft of blue-black hair was visible from the top.

Kanan put on the clothes left for him. They were a bit loose, but they worked. He helped Ezra pull the shirt over his head and find the sleeves with his arms. The hem on the shirt nearly touched the ground. As he often did, Kanan worried that Ezra was getting enough nutrients to grow as he should, which reenforced his decision to take Maleene’s offer.

That night, Kanan fell gratefully into a soft, warm bed for the first time in a very long time. Ezra, despite having a cot to himself, crawled under the covers next to him. He was down for the count within moments. They would work on Ezra sleeping in his own bed later.  For now, he was glad to finally feel safe and warm as he, too, fell asleep. 

The next morning when Maleene was showing Kanan around the bakery, he caught sight of a little paper tooka perched on top of the display counter. 

Chapter Text

I. Nothing Lasts

Maleene’s eyes were only watering a little when she pressed her dry, papery lips to first Ezra’s forehead, then Kanan’s. “Take the credits you’ve stored and whatever is in the till.  You need to be fast...”

“But they’ll hurt you!  You need to come with us!”

Maleene shook her head sadly. “I can’t go on the run. I’d only slow you down and my life is here. We’ll make it look like you robbed me. I’m just a poor, gullible old woman, after all,” she gave him a wry smile and patted his cheek, “I’ll be okay.”

Kanan swallowed harshly. “That’s what my mother said.”

Maleene combed the hair back away from his face. “Take care of each other.”  She took a small holdout blaster from under the counter. “I want you to take this with you when you go.  You and Ezra go gather your things. I’ll hold on to this until you leave just in case they come back.”  Kanan ushered Ezra out but paused to look back. He could only stare on in horror as Maleene pointed the blaster at herself and pulled the trigger. She fell to the floor with a dull thud and suddenly she morphed into Master Billaba, her body riddled with blaster wounds. The quiet of the bakery was drowned out by the sounds of lightsabers deflecting bolts and the screams of younglings. The smell of smoke and charred flesh coated his airways and he was there again. 

“Kanan?”

Ezra. Ezra was here. He wasn’t the little toddler he found in the temple. Kriff. He needed to pull himself together.

“Go grab your things, Ezra.  I’ll be up in a minute.”

Ezra’s footsteps clattered up the stairs. Kanan winced. At least they weren’t having to sneak out just yet.

He hurried over to Maleene—not Depa, Maleene—and felt for her pulse at her neck. It was steady, if a bit fast.  Soon she was blinking blearily at him.

“Why did you do that?”

“You weren’t supposed to see,” she said breathlessly, “The stunner wound will make our story look good.  Now go run ahead.  I’ll finish ‘robbing’ the till.”

 

II. Don’t Let Them See You’re Desperate

The man’s eyes slid down to Ezra, who was clinging to Kanan’s leg. He crouched down to get a better look and hummed in interest. “The kid could be useful,” he said looking back up at Kanan, “He’s small enough to place charges in tight spots.”

Kanan gritted his teeth and pushed Ezra behind him. “He’s barely four,” he said coldly.

The man shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’ll give you forty a week.”

“Forty?” Kanan scoffed, “That’s half what the other miners at your company make.”

“And you are half the man they are. Seems fair to me.”

“I’m stronger than I look,” he growled, “and I will work twice as hard.”

“Sure, kid. Maybe you’ll get a raise if you can prove you can keep up. Until then, I’ll even throw in board so there’s no hard feelings. My sister runs a place.”

“You aren’t the only mine in town,” Kanan reminded him.

The man laughed. “I’m sure they’re all clamoring to hire up some small fry. Do you think you’ll go try my brother’s mine or my cousin’s next?”  He smiled predatorily, showing off his yellowed teeth. “I’ll warn you, kid. I’m the nice one.”

Kark. He had to end up on a planet run by a family monopoly. He couldn’t afford to piss off any of them, or he wouldn’t be able to get a job at all, mining or otherwise. Even worse, he was cornered.  He didn’t have the credits to get himself and Ezra to another planet.  It was this or the street.  The man had him pinned, and they both knew it.

“Fine,” he said tightly. Forty a week and board it is. And the kid stays out of it.”

The man seized Kanan’s hand in a bruising grip. “It’s a deal, Jarrus.”

 

III.  The Force is persistent

Kanan knew better than to reach for the Force.  Nothing good ever came from it.  That didn’t keep it from reaching for him.  And if it could get to him, it could get to Ezra.  That was unacceptable.

A solution presented itself from an unlikely source.

Kanan was wrapping up his work on his first day in a new job, wiping the grease from his hands.  He was lucky this time around, having found work as a mechanic and occasional pilot.  Now that he looked older, people were more willing to believe he had the skills.  The pay was better and he preferred it to the backbreaking work of manual extraction.  He was still working for a mine on a backwater planet, and his coworkers were still the same kind of rowdy transient workers as every other mine he’d worked at.  Like him, many of them tended to be looking for somewhere that wouldn’t look at scan docs too closely.

“Hey, new kid!” one of his new co-workers called out to him when he was clocking out, “Want some?”  He lifted a bottle of something clear and sloshed the contents.

“I really should be heading home,” Kanan protested.  Ezra would be waiting for him.

“Why? Is your mommy expecting you?” one of the others goaded.

“Shut it, Cal,” the first man interrupted, “C’mon, we just want to get to know you.  I’m Tito.”

“Fine,” Kanan sighed, “I can stay for a few minutes.”

Tito smiled at him and passed him the bottle.  “Here, I made it myself.”

Kanan accepted the bottle and took a swig.  It burned all the way down and when he breathed out of his nose after swallowing, it burned too.  He hacked and coughed.  Sure, he had known it wasn’t water, but he wasn’t expecting that.

Tito laughed.  “That’ll put some hair on your chest, won’t it?”

Kanan coughed again and passed the bottle back to Tito, who took a pull off it like it was water and passed it back to him.

They all passed the bottle around while they talked.  The burn faded to a pleasant warmth after the first couple of tries, and by the time Tito told him he should probably stop, his head was spinning.

When he fell in to bed after warming up dinner for himself and Ezra, his head was blessedly quiet.  For once, it didn’t feel like the Force pressing in on him.  Finally, he had found a moment of peace.  

 

IV. The Galaxy is lonely

Kanan loved Ezra.  He really did.  The kid was the center of his universe, but there were things that he just couldn’t talk about with a five-year-old.  He was lonely.

Maybe that was why he was so receptive to Livia’s advances.  Maybe it was the alcohol currently buzzing in his brain.  She was pretty, no doubt about that.  Her lips were pulled up in a smile and her eyes glinted with mischief.

She pressed him against the wall in the alley behind the bar, her fingers knotted in his hair and her lips wandering down his neck.  “Your place or mine?” Livia asked breathily.

“Your’s” he moaned.  At least he was holding on to enough sense to remember the kid at home.

Livia curled up in his arms after, resting her head on his shoulder.  She looked even lovelier now, with her skin flushed and glistening with sweat. 

She looked disappointed when Kanan got up to look for his pants and said he had to leave.  She kissed him full on the mouth again before he left and slipped her com code into his back pocket.

Kanan kept seeing her off and on for the month and a half he stayed on that planet.  She may have thought it was weird that he never let her know where he lived or talked about himself much, or maybe she just thought he was in to some shady business.  He would be hard pressed to say much about her, either.  He was pretty sure he liked her.  She was a friend, at the very least.  It was strangely normal, complaining to her about work and listening to her talk about her day.  At least it would be if he didn’t slip out of her bed after they had sex and go to his actual home with the kid he never told her about.  For the brief moments he was with her, Kanan didn’t feel so alone, though he knew it was an illusion.

Neither one of them expected their arrangement to last, so neither one was disappointed when Kanan broke it off so he and Ezra could move on to another planet.  He didn’t tell her where he was going, and Livia didn’t ask.

 

V. Sometimes, the rules can be thrown out

Something about Hera made him lose his mind. That was the only explanation.

At the first sign of Imperial activity, he should have grabbed Ezra and gotten the hell off of Gorse. Terrifyingly competent Twi’lek pilots with lovely voices and covert missions be damned. Instead he found himself running around with her, a mad bomber, and a timid surveillance specialist, trying to save a moon—and mostly succeeding.  Even worse, he had used the Force. There was a chance that Hera hadn’t noticed and anyone else who had seen anything was too dead to say anything about it.

Kanan said goodbye to her at the spaceport. She stood with him outside the ticket counter. “Are you sure you won’t join my crew as a regular?”  Her left lek and brow lifted in interest, or perhaps in challenge. 

Kanan flashed her his most cocksure smile. “You missing me already, sweetheart?”

Hera rolled her eyes. “Less when you talk like that.”  She shook his hand and turned on her heel towards the ship yard and, presumably, her ship. 

“Dantu V,” he blurted, causing her to pause and look back at him. “There’s a mining operation there where I can get work. If you happen to be in the area and need help with a local job, look me up.  Maybe a little less insurrection this time, hm?”

Hera spared him a wry smile before disappearing into the crowd.  He ached to follow, but Ezra was his first priority.  Kanan needed to keep him safe. Hera was many things, but safe wasn’t one of them.

Still, he hoped he would see her again.

Chapter Text

 

A few weeks of “laying low,” as per Fulcrum’s instructions, saw Hera entering Dantu V’s airspace. For practical reasons. Reasons that had nothing to do with who she thought was currently residing on this planet.  It had a good space port with plenty of freelance work for a pilot with a freighter and it had a low imperial presence. Those were her reasons.

For other, equally practical reasons, she spent her first night on Dantu V cantina-hopping just outside of the industrial end of the space port.  Talking to off-shift laborers was often the best way to know what was really going on in a place.  She didn’t stay in one place very long. She sipped on her soda water with lemon and chatted a bit with the locals—at least the ones that weren’t looking to get her clothes off.

What she heard set a nervous twinge in her stomach. Apparently Dantu V made Gorse look like a paragon of worker safety. The Empire may not be here—yet—but greed certainly was. She was hard pressed to find a mine worker who had been there more than six months.  Most people she talked to seemed to be day laborers and took whatever work they could get whenever they could get it just to scrape by.

She wondered how Kanan was making out, if he was even still here.  It had been almost three weeks since they had parted ways on Gorse.  Kanan didn’t strike her as the type to settle down for long, especially if the getting wasn’t good.  She knew better than to ask after him. He wouldn't appreciate having the attention drawn to him.  She could be patient.

Her wandering paid off in one of the less classy dives by the refinery’s off-loading station.  A bark of laughter drew her eye behind the bar, where Kanan was flamboyantly mixing up a drink for a pretty devronian girl. She was leaning across the bar, probably to accentuate the low cut of her top.  Her eyes were locked on his well-developed biceps and pecs while he shook the cocktail.  She looked like she wanted to consume him.  Kanan poured the contents of the shaker in to a glass slowly, teasingly and pushed the now-finished drink to her.  Their hands met on the glass and his cocky grin sent the girl into a fit of giggles.

Hera rolled her eyes and made her way to an open barstool.  She watched him wipe down the bar and set the rag down in the general vicinity of a container with “TIPS” scrawled across the front.  He threw the girl a wink and turned to serve other customers.  He acknowledged the sound of a credit chit clinking in the jar with a jaunty wave. 

Kanan caught sight of her when he scanned the bar.  She may have been kidding herself, but it seemed like his smile broadened, became more genuine, when he saw her.

“Did you miss me, beautiful?” he drawled with only a slight slur.

Hera rolled her eyes. “I was in the neighborhood.”

“And you couldn't resist coming back for more.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

He laughed good-naturedly and this close she could smell the alcohol on his breath. “What are you having? On the house.”

“Just a soda water with lemon,” she replied.

“Come on, have a drink with me for old time’s sake.”

“Do two days a few weeks ago really count as ‘old times?’”

“They do if you want them to.”

“Fine. I’ll have whatever you’re having.”

He raised his brow, but turned to get two glasses and a bottle of clear liquor. He poured two glasses about half way and passed her one.  She mirrored his raised glass and took a cautious sip. Her eyes watered, but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of choking on it.  “That’s awful. I think you served me jet fuel by mistake.”

“Nah,” Kanan chuckled, “Jet fuel would have gone down smoother.”  He took her glass a dumped some of its contents into his and topped off hers with some sort of juice.  “A jet fuel and sour,” he joked, pushing the glass towards her.

She took a sip and found the drink was much improved with the sour citrus mix. “It’s nice,” she complemented.

“So... what brings you to this lovely establishment?”

“You know. Keeping an ear out for jobs. Are you still game if I need a copilot?”

“As long as the job isn’t Gorse-style.”

Hera snorted. “The Gorse job was... atypical.  Besides, I’m on my best behavior until the heat dies down.”

Kanan raised his eyebrow. “You sure you can manage that?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ll let you know. Do you have a comm code that I can call?”

“Sure. Just about all the pilot work around here is freelance anyway, even if you are flying one of the mine’s ships instead of your own so it’s not like I’ll have to skip out on my day job to help you.”

“Hey!” a voiced called from the other end of the bar, “You gonna take my order or are you too busy trying to get a leg over?”

Kanan sighed good-naturedly. “And so duty calls. Let me know if you’ve got a job for me.”

 

Working with Hera was great.  On the practical side, she paid well and didn’t ask a whole lot.  On the self-serving side, she was a delight to be around. She was dangerously easy to talk to. Sitting next to her looking at the stars outside of the cockpit canopy felt right. The Force was pushing in on him again, whispering pay attention, just as it had when it lead him to Ezra.  It was getting annoyingly persistent.

“Credit for your thoughts?” Hera asked, startling him out of his contemplation.

“Oh, um... nothing really. Definitely not worth a credit.  Just... this is nice, you know?  Working with you.”  He winced. Nice, Jarrus. Real smooth

Hera laughed. “Yeah. It is nice.  I mean... it is nice for me too.”  Her cheeks darkened in a blush.  “My offer on Gorse still stands. You can see my ship has crew quarters.”

“It is a great ship, but I still can’t.”

“I guess you don’t like being tied down.”

That depends entirely on the context.”  He waggled his brows. 

Hera rolled her eyes. “Unbelievable,” she snorted.

“What about you?” He teased, “You’re the captain of your own ship.  Doesn’t get much freer than that.”

“It really doesn’t. Not in this galaxy anyway.” A smile turned up the corner of her lips as she gazed out at the stars. Kanan’s heart squeezed at the sight. He never wanted to leave her side.

Listen, the Force insisted again. He had given into it once on Gorse now it seemed he would never be free of it again.  He stole a glance at Hera while they piloted into the hanger on the asteroid and grinned in spite of himself. It was worth it. 

 

Chapter Text

 

When Hera felt a tug at the leg of her flightsuit, she slid out from under the Ghost ready to come up swinging. She didn’t expect to see a scared little human kid staring at her with wide, tooka cat eyes.  He had blue-black hair, olive skin, blue eyes, and Hera was certain she hadn’t seen him before in her life.  He shifted nervously from foot to foot. “Miss Captain Hera Sin-doo-laa?” he asked in a rush, stumbling over her last name.

“Just Hera is fine.” she kept her voice gentle. She didn’t want to spook him more than he obviously was already.  “Can I help you with something?”

He bobbed his head. “Papa... Kanan is real sick. Can you help me?”

That caught Hera’s attention. She didn’t know Kanan had a kid. That wasn’t important now, though. What was important was that he was too sick to drag himself here or to a medic and the kid was obviously scared out of his mind. If he was coming to her for help, it probably meant he didn’t have anyone else. 

“I’m just going to grab my med kit,” she assured him, hauling herself up from the hover sled. “Chop!” she shouted once she was inside the Ghost, “Kanan is sick and I’m going to help. Make sure nobody steals anything out of the panel I opened up!”

Chopper wheeled past her beeping sarcastically about fragile organics and swearing a fiery death to whomever dared steal from <Hera Syndulla>.

“I’ll tell Kanan you send your love,” she said just as sarcastically.  Chopper’s answer was the droid approximation of blowing a raspberry.  She grabbed the med kit and some soup packs and hurried down the ramp. She locked the bay doors securely and, satisfied that Chopper had the situation under control, turned to the kid. “Lead the way.  Let’s get your papa feeling better! What’s your name?”

“Ezra.” He managed a small smile before hurrying off, presumably toward home.  Hera followed close behind him, which wasn’t easy considering how much more easily his little frame cut through the busy streets than hers.  They made their way to a seedier side of town, closer to the more industrial end of the spaceport.  Everything here seemed coated in an oily layer of grime from the mining shipments.  It made Gorse look like a prime vacation spot.

Ezra stopped in front of a tall, run-down apartment building and turned as if to ensure that she was still behind him.  She reached out to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder, but withdrew it when he flinched away. “This is where you live?”

Ezra bobbed his head and unlocked the exterior door.  When it closed behind them, Hera realized that this could be a trap.  She wasn’t naïve. There were those that thought nothing of capturing a female Twi’lek and selling them, especially if they were alone.  She trusted Kanan, but did she really know that the kid wasn’t just bait being told to use her part-time crew mate’s name to lure her? She had no way to know if Kanan was actually here. Sure, the kid looked a little bit like him, she supposed.  How much were human kids supposed to look like their parents anyway?  A non-twi’lek would see very little resemblance between her and her father, after all. 

Ezra was looking down from the top of the first flight of a rickety staircase to see her hesitating at its foot.  “I’m not tricking you,” he assured her. The uncanny way he was staring at her was all Kanan’s. 

“Wouldn’t you say that even if you were trying to trick me?”

Ezra looked shocked, like the possibility of lying to her hadn’t even crossed his mind.  “But I’m... but I’m not. Kanan is really, really sick. Please!”

Hera could tell the kid was about to burst into tears. He was already shaking.  She decided she would have to risk it. Even if it was a trap, Ezra was clearly scared of something and needed help. She checked her blaster at her hip and pinged her location to Chopper.  He would know where to start looking, at least.

When Hera began climbing the steps, Ezra turned and rushed up the flights. She was panting by the time she ran up the eight flights after him.  Ezra unlocked the door at the end of the hall and rushed in ahead of her.

The minute the smell hit her nose, she knew it wasn’t a trap. Or if it was, they were really committing to the ruse. The scent of stale sweat, vomit, and infection were heavy in the air. She pushed past the door and drew up short. Kanan was laid out on the bed, twisted up in blankets but still shivering. His face was pale and glistening with sweat. Ezra crawled up beside him, but didn’t seem to know what to do when he got there.

Hera hurried to the bed, already rummaging in her med kit. A hand to Kanan’s forehead confirmed her fears.  His skin was on fire.

His eyes opened at her touch but he didn’t seem to know who she was. He stared straight through her.  The shaking was becoming worse.

“Master!” he pleaded, “Please, don’t!  Don’t hurt her!” Hera’s heart lurched and her stomach was in knots. He was shaking with tears and writhing on the bed as if to escape the covers.  The situation was quickly getting out of control. 

Hera shot a quick glance at Ezra. He was curled in on himself, gripping his own head in his hands like he was blocking out the noise. She had to get him away from Kanan so he didn’t get caught by a flailing arm or become more frightened by Kanan’s flashback.  The only problem was that the apartment was a bed sit. There wasn’t another room to send him to.

“Ezra, sweetie, do you have any ice packs here?”  Ezra shook his head. “Okay. I’m going to give you some credits. Can you go buy some to help get your papa’s temperature down?”  Ezra nodded his head. She gave him the credits and sent him on his way. She would feel worse about sending a kid out on his own if he hadn’t just crossed the city and searched a busy spaceport to find her.

She waited until Ezra had run off on his mission before turning back to Kanan.  He was still struggling against the sheets and whatever imaginary attacker his mind was tormenting him with.  He was still muttering to himself and crying. 

Master. He was pleading for his master not to hurt someone. Ezra’s mother, perhaps?  It hurt Hera to her very soul to see anyone trapped in slavery. If Kanan was a runaway slave, a lot of things made more sense. The moving around, the skittishness, the reluctance to do any work on the books, hiding his kid from her... they were on the run. She shuddered to think of what had happened to Ezra’s mom.  She remembered sitting in the back of the Expedient telling him, “Yeah, you don’t strike me as a victim of oppression.”  Force, did she feel like a heel. 

First things first, the fever had to be taken care of.  She cautiously reached out to brush the hair plastered to Kanan’s forehead out of his face and left her hand on his cheek. He calmed slightly at her touch. “Kanan?  It’s me, Hera. Do you know where you are?” She tried to keep her voice calm and reassuring.

His eyes seemed to focus somewhat, but they were still bright with fever. “Hera?” he repeated in confusion.

“Yes. It’s me.  Ezra found me and brought me here.”

“Ezra?” He tried to sit up, looking frantically for the kid.

Hera hushed him and pushed him back to the bed. “I sent him for ice to help bring your fever down. You were confused when you woke up and I didn’t want him to... it was scaring him so I thought it was better to send him out of the room for a bit.”

Kanan released a shuddering breath. “I scared him...” If possible, Kanan sounded even more miserable. 

“You didn’t mean to.  We need to get your fever down. It is dangerously high.  I’ve brought some fever reducers.”

He nodded weakly and accepted the pills and a sip of water from her canteen to wash it down.  She had to stop him from draining it in one go.  He whimpered when she pulled it away but she couldn’t risk him throwing up the pills.

“Do you think you can make it to the fresher?  Some cool water will help.”  Kanan shrugged but allowed her to help him unwind from the covers and to peel off his sweat-soaked shirt. He flushed a little when she helped him undress, but they both understood that efficiency won out over modesty.  She left the boxers alone because causal flirting or not, Kanan was so off his head that it felt wrong. 

Getting him to the fresher was more difficult. He could barely stand. She was tall and strong, but his dead weight was a lot to manage. She finally got a good enough grip on his sweat-slick torso to haul his arm over her shoulder and half-walked, half-dragged him to the fresher. She sat him on the toilet lid while she got the shower running with luke-warm water.  She stuck her hand under the spray to check that is was just barely warm.  It couldn’t be too cold or it would shock his system. Satisfied with the temperature, she turn back around to see that he had started listing to the side. “Oh no you don’t!” She propped him back up and lightly patted his cheek. “You’ve got to stay awake for me, love.”  He nodded weakly. She quickly pulled her flight suit down her shoulders and her shirt over her head. She hesitated before taking her cap off too. She lifted him up by the armpits and transferred him to the floor of the shower. It was frightening how hot he felt against her skin.  She kneeled next the shower to make sure he didn’t fall asleep again. 

It was a mark of how bad Kanan felt that he didn’t try to make flirtatious jokes about her taking his clothes off or seeing her in just her breast band.  His teeth were chattering now that he was under the shower’s spray.  “Cold,” he protested.

“I know,” Hera soothed, carding her hand through his hair as it had seemed to comfort him before. “We need to get your fever down.”

“Feels like I’m freezing to death.”

“The water isn’t that cold. Your body is just that hot.”  She was lobbing him another softball, hoping for some hint of his usual self.  The most she garnered was a weak chuckle.  It would have to do. “Do you want to clean up while you’re in here?  You might be more comfortable after.”

He nodded, so she got the soap down from the ledge.  He scrubbed himself as well as he could manage only half awake. Hera helped him sit up and washed his back. “Want help with your hair?”

“Yes, please.”  Hera rubbed the soap into his hair.  She tried to work out the knots without pulling. It wasn’t as difficult as she thought it might be, considering it looked like birds were living in it when she started.  His eyes slipped closed again, like a tooka cat getting scratched behind the ear.  She was reluctant to stop, even when all the soap was thoroughly rinsed out. Humans sure are fuzzy, she thought, making sure all the soap was out of his beard as well.

“Where are the towels and a change of clothes?  I’ll look for them while you finish cleaning up.”  Kanan pointed to a towel hung up by the door and told her which drawer to look in for clothes.  

Hera shrugged her flightsuit back in place and left to give him some privacy while he finished washing.  She found Ezra curled up on the couch, arms wrapped tight around his legs.  “Is Papa better?” he asked in a small voice. Hera realized how scared he must have been if Kanan was all he had. She ruffled his hair with a smile. Humans did that in holos.

“He’s doing better. He’s just washing up now. Want to help me find some clothes for him?”  Ezra hopped down from the couch and dug around in the dresser for a clean, if slightly threadbare, shirt and sleep shorts.

“Great job,” she praised him, “I’m going to help Kanan out of the shower.  It would be a big help if you could find a clean set of sheets for the bed.”

Ezra was up and about again in a flash. He seemed reassured that someone knew what to do.

Kanan had fallen asleep on the floor of the shower by the time she came back.  He didn’t even stir when she shut off the water. She sighed heavily and shook him by the shoulder. She was just able to doge the punch that flew towards her face.  The momentum made Kanan flip over to his stomach and finally jarred him awake.  She scolded herself for touching him while he was sleeping after seeing how intense his flashbacks could be.

“Hera!” he rasped, finding her on the ground against the opposite wall. “I didn’t mean...”

“It’s fine. You missed. I shouldn’t have startled you.  I’ve brought a towel and some clothes. Do you think you can dry off and put them on?”

Kanan nodded. Hera turned around and readjusted her own clothes, peeling off the wet breast band before putting her shirt, flightsuit top, and cap back on.  Behind her, she could hear Kanan flopping the rest of the way out of the shower with a groan.

“You alright back there?”

“Fine,” he grunted.  After a few more minutes of grumbling he said, “Alright, I’m decent.”

Hera laughed. “Now I know you’re sick.”  She helped him off the bath mat, pleased to note that he could support more of his own weight.  She wouldn’t know until she checked with a thermometer, but it seemed like the fever reducers and the water were helping.

Ezra’s eyes lit up when he saw Kanan on his feet again.  He abandoned his losing battle with the bottom sheet to throw his arms around his father. Kanan swayed on his feet again but Hera propped him up before he could fall. He smiled when he patted Ezra’s mop of dark hair.  “Hey, kid.  It’s good to see you too.”  His voice was hoarse and broke off in another coughing fit.

Ezra frowned in concern. “I thought you were better.”

“It doesn’t happen that fast. But I’m better than I was. You did a good job finding Hera.”

Ezra’s chest puffed up in pride.

“Why don’t we help your dad to the couch, Ezra. Then you can help take his temperature while I make the bed.”

Ezra nodded eagerly and watched Kanan like a hawk while he had the thermometer in his mouth.  “Make sure you have it under your tongue,” he reminded him helpfully, and pressed his hand to Kanan’s forehead for good measure.

When it beeped, Ezra took the thermometer and a passed it to Hera. “It’s still high, but I think it is better than before,” she sighed. “We’ll wait a while before we try more fever reducers. Do you think you can keep some soup down?  I have some antibiotics with me, but you shouldn’t take them on an empty stomach.”

“I can try,” Kanan said doubtfully.

“He threw up everything when I tried to warm up food,” Ezra chimed in, “It was kinda gross.”

“We’ll try just a little bit of soup.”  She started heating some water for the instant soup packs. 

Another coughing fit took hold of Kanan and Hera passed him the pack of tissues in the med kit.  He nearly doubled over with the force of the hacking and leaned exhausted against the back of the couch when the fit passed. When he brought the tissue away, it was black.  Her heart caught in her throat. 

“Ezra, sweetie, can you watch the water for me?  Let me know when it boils.”

Ezra raised a skeptical eyebrow at her in an excellent impression of Kanan, but jumped up from the couch to do as she asked.

“You need to go to a med center,” she said quietly.

Kanan shook his head without even opening his eyes. “Can’t”

“Is this about the credits?  I can give you credits.”

He shook his head again, this time looking her dead in the eye. “It’s not about the credits. I can’t,” he insisted.

He must have a slave chip, Hera thought. “Fine,” she sighed, “But I’m at least going to call a doctor to see if whatever is going on here is something they recognize.”

“Hera!  Water’s boiling!” Ezra called out.

“We’ll stick to antibiotics and over the counter stuff now, but I’m not letting you keel over on my watch.”

 

“Miner’s Lung,” Hera said tightly, “That is what the doctor said it sounded like.”

“What’s that?” Ezra asked. 

“Ezra, why don’t you go do your lessons on the couch?” Kanan asked. 

“I want to know what’s happening!” he insisted.

Kanan looked to Hera and shrugged. “Basically it is an infection from bacteria trapped in the minerals the mines are trying to extract, exacerbated by the powdered rock in the air and the chemicals inside it.  The mines are supposed to provide respirators.”

“They did. They were probably the cheapest they could find, too. So what does all that mean?”

“I was able to get a specialized course of antibiotics, a bacta inhaler, and some saline packs.  When I told him I wasn’t going to get my crewman in the office, he sold them to me under the table.”

“And that should do it?”

“That should do it,” Hera confirmed.

“You heard that, Ezra?  I’m going to be fine.”

Ezra smiled and Hera was surprised by him hugging her tightly. “Thank you, Hera!”

“You’re welcome,” she stammered.

“C’mon kiddo. You need to do your math lessons before dinner. I wasn’t just saying that to distract you.”

With minimal whining, Ezra took out a datapad and began scribbling away.

“We should start the saline drip,” Hera reminded him.

“After Ezra’s asleep,” Kanan replied quietly, “I don’t want to worry him.”

 

Kanan didn’t let her start the drip until after dinner and Ezra was sound asleep on the couch.  He didn’t even look away from the boy when she slipped the needle into his vein. He looked thoughtful. 

“He’s a cute kid,” Hera said, “Such a helper.”

Kanan let out a deep sigh that broke off in a coughing fit.  He glanced anxiously towards Ezra to make sure he was still sleeping. “He’s had to grow up too fast.”

“You’ve both been through a lot.  Stars and skies, Kanan! Your old master must have been terrible.”

“Excuse me?” he growled jerking his hand away from hers. Hera was taken aback by Kanan’s anger.  Was he upset she had figured it out?

“I know, Kanan.  You were talking in your sleep and suddenly so much made sense.  You have to know that I would never turn you in.”

“What did I say?” he asked tightly.

“You were begging someone you called ‘Master’ not to hurt someone... a woman. Was that Ezra’s mom?  You don’t have to tell me. You were really upset.  I’m sure you know what becomes of most Twi’leks off Ryloth. Please believe me that I won’t let slavers take you or Ezra.  I have contacts that can get you clean IDs...”

She trailed off.  Kanan was shaking his head in denial. “You’ve got the wrong idea.” he took a deep breath and seemed to make a decision. “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t told anyone in over six years.  This sickness was a wake-up call. If something happens to me, Ezra would have no one to turn to. I don’t want that to happen. I’m trusting you, Hera.  This secret could get me and Ezra both killed or worse.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” she reassured him.

“The bounty is high and the price for being caught hiding us is steep.”

“If I keep doing my job right, I’ll have quite a bounty on myself,” she joked weakly.

“And turning us over will get you out of almost anything.”

“I would never do that.”

“Ezra and I were never slaves. My best guess is that the flashback you heard was the day my Jedi Master was murdered at the Temple on Coruscant.  She died saving me.”

“You are a Jedi,” Hera gasped.

Kanan shook his head. “Not anymore. The Jedi I was died alongside my master.”

“I remember the Jedi who came to free Ryloth,” Hera said, “They were very kind. They seemed unstoppable.  We all looked up to them as heros. I loved watching them fly, of course. I thought that if I could be half the pilot they were someday, I would be happy.  When we had nothing, they gave us hope.  Finding out what happened...” Hera shook her head. She couldn’t put into words how not-safe the galaxy felt if even the greatest and strongest protectors they had could be killed all at once.  “I meant it, Kanan. I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thank you.”

“What about Ezra?  Is he...?”

“He’s not my biological son. Him calling me his father is sort of a recent thing, actually.  I don’t know why he started, but I suspect Okadiah was behind it. He was around two or three when the Temple fell. I don't know for certain. He got separated from his crèche masters in the attempted evacuation. I found him on my way to see if the crèche was clear before I tried to run. As far as I know, we were the only two survivors from the Temple.  We’ve been together ever since.”

“How old were you?” She asked quietly.

“I was fourteen at the time.”

“Kriff, Kanan!  How did you stay alive?”

“We move around a lot.  The first few years we lived on the street for the most part.  I think Ezra was too young to remember most of that time, thank the Force.  An old baker gave me a job and we lived with her for a little while. When I was old enough, I started taking work where I could get it and where they didn’t check docs. Not exactly the most savory establishments, but it pays enough to keep a roof over our heads.”

He was so nonchalant about it, but Hera could tell their life took its toll on Kanan.  She had just spent a couple days watching him hack up lungfuls of black phlegm from breathing in mine dust, after all.

An insistent buzzing from her chronometer interrupted her train of thought. 

“It’s time for your meds.” Hera rummaged in her medkit for the fever reducers and antibiotics.  She found them, but when she turned around, Kanan looked reluctant.

“I can work to pay you back for those,” he offered.

Hera rolled her eyes in exasperation. “You are my friend, Kanan. You don’t have to pay me back.”

“I know you’ve stayed here longer than you planned taking care of me. You have to have missed out on jobs and meds aren’t cheap. I don’t want to be a dead weight.”

“And I don’t want you to be actually dead,” she argued stubbornly. “I would lose my best copilot, after all,” she said with a smirk.

“Don’t let Chopper hear you say that,” Kanan laughed, but it broke off with a deep, rattling cough in his chest.

Hera gave him a worried frown. She stole a glance at Ezra, but he was still sleeping soundly on the couch.

“You really need a med center.”

“It’d be faster and cheaper to put a blaster bolt through my skull. Same outcome, too.”

Hera shuddered.  “At least don’t worry about paying me back for some pills. You could come work with me though. You know, full time.  I could use a partner.  To lift the heavy crates.”

“But Ezra...”

“You both could stay on the Ghost. There’s plenty of room in the crew quarters.  Plus, I like having you around and Ezra seems like a good kid.”

“What about the murder droid?  I’m not sure Chopper will like having a kid around.  I know he won’t like having me around.”

“I’ll tell him to be on his best behavior.  You don’t have to answer now.  Just think about it.”  She didn’t want to sound desperate. She didn’t need Kanan and Ezra on her crew and in her life. She just wanted them there. She wasn’t accustomed to letting herself have what she wanted. 

“Thank you, Hera. Really,” Kanan said softly, briefly reaching up to brush her cheek before swiftly withdrawing his hand as if burned. His touch made her skin tingle to the tips of her lekku. “Sorry,” he muttered in embarrassment, “Too much.”

Not enough! A long-ignored part of Hera’s mind cried.  Kanan had trusted her with his most vulnerable self when he told her about his past. Perhaps it was acceptable to let herself return the favor. Slowly, she took his hand in hers and raised it back to her cheek, turning her head to brush her lips over his palm. “It is fine with me. Really.”  She was rewarded with the most gentle of smiles. His thumb brushed over her cheekbone.

“Okay,” he said, “We’ll see how long you can stand me.”

Chapter Text

“This is amazing!” Ezra cried, bounding up the ramp to the Ghost and clambering up the ladder.

“Slow down, Ezra!” Kanan called, breaking off in a short cough that passed quickly.

Hera squeezed his hand. “Let him go. He’s not going to hurt anything.”  She let Kanan go ahead of her on the ladder and followed close behind.

Ezra was looking around the common area when the caught up with him.  “Want to see the cockpit?” Hera offered. Ezra nodded eagerly.

Kanan leaned against the door watching Hera explain each button, nob, and screen Ezra pointed to. He smiled to himself to see how easily they took to each other.

Kanan held his breath when he heard Chopper’s grumpy beeping and rumbling. Ezra’s eyes lit up. “You have an Astromech?!” Ezra cried, “That is so cool!”

Chopper whumped proudly, waving his manipulator and spinning his top to show off. 

“And you were worried that they wouldn’t get along,” Hera teased, leaning against the other side of the door way. 

“This might be worse. Chopper has a partner in crime now,” Kanan joked, still smiling at the joyful sound of laughter and happy beeps. 

Chapter Text

“You wanna explain all tha’?”

Hera squeezed her eyes shut, like not seeing would make it all go away. “Not now, Zeb.”

“Then when Hera?  When we know it’s too late to do anythin’?”

“It is already too late,” she hissed.

“Really? ‘Cause the kid swears he’s still alive. Can feel ‘im hurtin’?”

Hera buried her face in her hands. “Please stop.”

“Explain ta me why we’re givin’ up an’ I will.”

“It’s too dangerous.” Zeb looked like he would interrupt but Hera held up a trembling hand to stop him. “If Kanan is... gone, Ezra may be the last Jedi in the whole galaxy.  More importantly, he’s my son. He’s Kanan’s son. I swore to him that I would protect Ezra if anything happened to him. Letting him attempt to infiltrate a star destroyer en route to Mustafar is not protecting him.  No matter what she says, Sabine is also a kid. I can’t protect them from everything; I know that. But I can protect them from a suicide mission.  Kanan did what he did do that we would all have a chance to live. I can’t throw that away.”

“Karrabast, Hera. ‘M sorry.”

“Zeb, you can’t tell Ezra what I told you. I know he’ll hate me for my choice, but it’s better than him blaming himself.”

“Hera... ‘M sorry I—”

“I think I’d like to be alone now, Zeb.” She breathed, trying to control the tremor in her voice,  “But... but never doubt that I love that man.”  She turned away to the safety of her cabin and her bunk with sheets that still smelled like Kanan. The cockpit would have been preferable, but there was no guarantee that an insane fit of hope wouldn’t lead to her calculating a jump to the Mustafar system.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry, Master Jarrus. Even with bacta treatment, you will not regain your sight.”

Hera squeezed his hand and bent to kiss his knuckles. That was when Kanan knew it was bad. Hera didn’t do affection in front of strangers. Kanan squeezed back but didn’t move or react otherwise.  The silence in the room was oppressive. The only thing that felt real was Hera’s warm palm against his. He wanted to lean into her side and soak up her comfort, but knew that was overstepping.

The medic continued talking but his voice was an indistinguishable drone in the back of his mind.  Words like “accommodations,” “therapy,” and “disability” jumped out at him. He forced himself to focus more, and realized that the medic was telling Hera that Kanan should be relieved of his duties.  He felt the floor disappear out from under him. Once again, he concentrated on the small point of contact with Hera. She was rubbing her thumb in circles on the back of his hand now.  He focused on her touch instead of realizing he was of little use to Hera now and couldn’t be the teacher Ezra needed.  Everyone on board the Ghost worked. If he couldn’t work... he was dead weight.  A liability that they couldn’t afford but would carry along nonetheless.

“Kanan, love,” Hera’s voice cut over the noise calmly, “I need you to breathe for me. Slow, deep breaths.”  She pressed herself so close to him that they were touching cheek to cheek.  He could feel the rise and fall of her chest against his, the steady thrum of her heartbeat, the whisper of her breath on his ear.  “It’s just us, love. I sent the medic away for a minute.”

Kanan cleared his throat. “You could leave me with Zaluna.”

Hera’s hand barely paused in stroking his hair. “Is that what you want?”

He was thankful she couldn’t see his face, as he couldn’t see hers.  “I don’t want to hold you down.”

“You never could. If you want to step back and take time to heal, I support you. If you want out of the fight, I won’t blame you for that either. But I won’t let you think you’re useless without your sight because you aren’t.  You beat Maul blind!”

“That wasn’t me.”

“Then who was it?”

Kanan pressed his lips together. He didn’t have an answer besides “the Force” and that was always true in a way, as Hera was sure to point out.

“Let’s not make any decisions now.”  Her hands were soft on his face, free of her gloves. “We’ll go back to the Ghost and rest. If you still want some time away in a few days, we’ll make plans.”

He nodded, but he didn’t think his answer would change.  Hera pressed her lips to his one more time before calling the medic back in.  Kanan tried to ignore the feeling that there was some sort of pantomimed discussion happening around him. He allowed the medic to smear more bacta on face and re-bandage it, even though now he knew it was a mostly empty gesture. It may at least make him more tolerable to look at.

Another day of doing nothing but consume the credit-strapped rebellion’s resources left him exhausted. Hera helped him change into sleep clothes, though he had no idea if it was even dark yet.  Still, his bunk was a welcome change of scenery.

“Stay,” he asked Hera quietly, “Just for a little while.”

There was a rustle of fabric and mattress and blankets shifted as she slid between them. When she pulled his arm around her and snuggled into his chest, he realized that she had stripped down to her basics.  His heart jumped to his throat.

“Hera, I can’t...”

She shushed him. “Just sleeping,” she reassured him.  Kanan pulled her in close to him. He could be selfish with her time for a little while.  She nestled back into him so that every line of her body was flush with his. 

The next few days showed Kanan more than words ever could that he needed to go. He barely had a moment alone. Hera was with him every moment she wasn’t in a meeting or overseeing an operation. She hadn’t been off the ground for so much as practice maneuvers since his return. If she wasn’t there it was Sabine or Zeb. Ezra was hiding in his room or wandering the base rather than risk running into him on the Ghost.  Hera helped him find his clothes, shave his face, change his bandages, prepare his food... he had known he would need help but he didn’t anticipate how much.  He was thankful for all that they did for him, but it wasn’t fair to make them do it. They all had too much to worry about as it was.

He withdrew to his cabin as much as possible.  Ezra shouldn’t have to hide in his own home just to avoid him.  The rest of the crew should get used to him being gone.  Predictably, Hera was not on board with this plan. 

“Come on,” she said firmly, pulling the covers down, “We are going for a walk.”

Kanan sighed.  He could humor her.  He swung his legs down from his bunk—the lower one now that he couldn’t see the ladder—and accepted her hand to pull himself up.  After the wave of vertigo passed, there was some awkward fumbling to put on pants and a shirt suitable for walking around outside of the ship.  She hooked her arm through his as they walked side-by-side through the base.  If it weren’t for the bandages wrapped around his face, anyone walking by would just see a couple out for a stroll. Except Hera wouldn’t be this openly affectionate with him in public if her touch wasn't the only thing keeping him from falling into a hole or accidentally wandering off and getting eaten by a giant spider.

She narrated their way through the base, telling him about the expansions and improvements that they had made since he, Ezra, and Ahsoka had left on their ill-fated mission.  He hummed and nodded at the appropriate times, and Hera did her best to carry both halves of the conversation. Finally, she grew silent and Kanan could feel her resignation, picture the worried furrow in her brow and the droop of her lekku.

But he couldn’t see her.

She guided him a little farther, until the beep of the transponders told him they were close to the perimeter.  She pulled him with her when she sat down and leaned her head on his shoulder. 

“Please say something, love,” she begged.

“Where are we now?”

“We are sitting where we said goodbye, before you left. It is sunset and the sky is beautiful, just like then.”

“I broke my promise,” he said morosely, “I said we would see each other again. The Force sure does have a sense of humor, doesn’t it?”

Kanan felt Hera shake her head.  “You still see me in the ways that count.”

Kanan’s stomach flipped uncomfortably. He wished he could stay in this moment forever, sitting beside Hera with the warmth of the fading sun on his face.  But he couldn’t.

“This isn’t working,” he sighed. 

Her lekku stiffened against his back. “What do you mean?  Am I crowding you?  I can back off...”

He shook his head. “No. It’s nothing you did. I just... in the med center you said that I should decide what to do in a few days. It has been almost two weeks, and I’ve decided. I can’t stay.”

Hera swallowed. “Tell me you want to leave. Tell me you don’t want to be here and I won’t fight you.”  He didn’t believe that for a second. Just from the tone of her voice he could tell that her jaw was set in the way that meant she was squaring up to a difficult problem.

“I can’t stay,” he repeated.

“You can if you want to,” she argued stubbornly, “I’m the captain and I say you can.”

He shook his head. “Hera, you need to think logically. I can’t pull my weight. I can’t be your co-pilot. I can’t fight.”

“Do you really think that’s all you’re good for?”

The pressure in his chest was building and he had to breathe carefully so it wouldn’t escape as a sob.  Her hand guided his face where she could see it. “Kanan?”

He decided to play it as a joke. “Well, I guess I’m a decent cabin decoration. But since I could never convince you to spend money on a rug for your cabin when you complained about the cold floor every morning, I don’t think that is a good enough reason.  Especially since a rug is much more low-maintenance.”

Hera’s breath hitched and he suddenly realized that she was crying.  She pulled away from him, but she didn’t get up. “Hera...” he began, feeling unmoored without her leaning against him. 

“How horrible do you think I am?”

“What?  No!  I didn’t mean it like that!  I know that you won’t kick me out. That is why I’m telling you that me staying isn’t the smart thing to do.”

“If you want me to leave how I feel out of it, fine. I can do that. You do so much more for us than fight. Even if you can never fight again—and I don’t think that is the case—you have a great mind for tactics. I might have the big plans, but you always figure out how to make them happen. You keep our crew, our family, together.  Don’t sell yourself short, and don’t think that how it is now is how it always will be. People all over the galaxy live good lives without their sight. I’m not saying it won’t be hard, but you will adjust. And you don’t have to do it alone.”

He nodded, suddenly at a loss for words. “Do you... do you think you could come with me to see Zaluna?  I really do think that she can help me adapt.”

She kissed him on the cheek and leaned her head on his shoulder again. “Of course, love. I’ll put in my leave request right away.”