Packed into the small turbolift with several other members of Fulcrum's network and a few Republic troopers, Kanan felt like he couldn't breathe. He could feel Janus’ eyes boring into his back, not moving even as the turbolift beeped at every floor passed. Beside him, Zeb was nearly vibrating with curiosity, despite staring straight ahead with military focus. Chopper kept burbling quietly to himself, but his head kept swiveling between Kanan and the other rebel. Even the others that had been brought along in this final sweep of the captured star destroyer could feel the tension in the air, making the lift as quiet as if they were in vacuum. It made Kanan glad that they had left Sabine in one of the upper levels; if she was here, she would have undoubtedly already begun to dig into why a member of another cell were so interested in Kanan. And that was a question that he wasn't ready to answer.
Not now. Not ever.
The pings began to slow down. As if on signal, everyone took out there weapons. Kanan pulled out his blaster, quickly checking that its tibanna gas levels were good.
This was the last level; if there was going to be any more resistance from the Imperials, it would have to be here. Taking the ship had been a hard-fought battle; the flying that Hera had had to do to keep them from being blasted to pieces had been intense, with all of them having to man the guns. Several times, they had been hit with glancing blows, making the metal of the ship shriek and the electronics groan with effort. It reminded Kanan of nothing more than what it had been like during his first battles at his master's side as a padawan - whirling chaos spilling over and around him like a flood.
When the doors finally opened, no one spoke. They all knew what they had to do.
Stepping out, he, Zeb, and Chopper immediately peeled off of the main group, heading down a hallway with purpose. Kanan ignored how his flesh crawled as they made their way down the bland hallway. It was grey, with its blank walls only broken by the occasional door. Imperial or Rebel, all star destroyers looked the same inside, bringing back memories that he knew would have him sitting in the galley and staring at the wall for a few sleep cycles.
Why had he agreed to do this? He hit a button to open the first door, peering in. Inside, there were only crates. Chopper wheeled himself in, beeping, with Zeb following him to check on what was in the crates. Kanan stayed outside, feeling his muscles slowly knot as he waited for something to happen. When the call had gone out for volunteers to finish sweeping the ship, Kanan hadn't intended to help. The damage that the Ghost had taken meant that it needed pretty significant repairs - and while Kanan didn't quite have enough knowledge to know how to do that, he had been looking forward to spending time with Hera as she did the necessary tune-ups.
But then - then he had felt it. The Force. Usually quiet, it respected his resistance to letting it into his life again, flowing around him but never through him like it did when he was a child. But as soon as the call had gone out -
It had been like someone was standing behind him, not quite touching, but close enough to feel the warmth of their body, it's metaphorical gaze burning holes into the back of his head. And then Zeb had passed by on his way to get Chopper, mentioning that they needed more people capable of slicing open locks, and Kanan had found himself rising from his seat and offering to join them.
And then things had gone to pot as soon as they met at the rendezvous point, just like it always did whenever Kanan listened to the Force. Janus, one of the two people he wanted to see least in the galaxy, had been waiting there, and of course the Kalleran had immediately noticed him and begun to make their way towards him. It had been a blessing when the head of their little squad had started to talk, giving Kanan and excuse to ignore him. But from the way he could feel the other man's gaze on the back of his neck, Kanan fully expected that he would have to spend the rest of their time at the Republic space station hiding in the Ghost.
Zeb and Chopper finally trundled out of the room, the droid beeping irritatedly to himself. Kanan glanced over to Zeb and raised an eyebrow.
Zeb shook his head. "Nothin' interesting," he grumbled. "Just rations and some dust."
Kanan shrugged. "No news is good news," he replied. "Unless you were looking forward to getting into a firefight with some Imps."
"Who says I wasn't?" Zeb said, pressing the button for the next door.
Kanan shook his head and laughed softly, feeling some of the tension leave his muscles. He was glad that Zeb and Chopper were here; both of them knew when not to press him. Even if it was burning them up with curiousity, which judging by the way Zeb kept glancing back towards him, was the case.
They went through several more rooms exactly like the first one. Dusty crates, filled with random supplies, were tabulated by Chopper for later uploading for reports. In the distance, Kanan could hear the murmuring of the other groups, undoubtedly finding the exact same thing. Kanan wasn't surprised. As well as wanting to stay with Hera, he hadn't expected any more Imps to be hiding out in the lower decks. He wasn't quite sure what had gone on once the vessel had been boarded, but from the sounds of it, it had been over fairly quickly. It took a certain type of person to keep fighting after that, and Kanan had never seen one of those in Imperial ranks. Plenty of commanders that would sell out their own mother to save their own skins, but never really someone who would fight to the death.
Kanan had almost entirely relaxed, wondering to himself why the Force had wanted him to come on the sweep when Zeb grunted, sounding puzzled. Tensing, Kanan glanced over at him as Chopper warbled a question.
"This one's got a double lock," Zeb said, his brow furrowing as he jammed a finger against the button again. Kanan raised an eyebrow.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I mean, this door isn't opening like all the others did when the computers got reset," Zeb said, irritation colouring his tone as he jabbed at the button over and over again. "What do they got that needs this much security down here, anyways?"
Kanan frowned and stepped forward, holstering his blaster. "Let me see," he said, nudging Zeb out of the way. The Lasat obligingly shuffled to the side, letting Kanan get a better look at the lock.
Looking at it, Kanan narrowed his eyes. Reaching out, he tapped at it with a finger. There was a single brief flash of red on the screen, and then nothing.
"This definitely isn't the usual lock," he muttered, thinking.
"Yeah, no kidding," Zeb said, huffing out a humourless chuckle. Chopper burbled and rolled forward, extending his interface prod with an irritated wah-wah.
Kanan held up his hands and backed off, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. "Sorry, Chop, my bad," he said. "Do your stuff."
With a huffy beep, Chopper inserted his prod and twisted it, connecting to the lock's system. He was still whistling insults when there was a sharp hiss and pop of electricity. Wheeling back with a shriek, Chopper pulled back his probe and let out his little arms from the side of his head to wave about as he beeped and whistled out several curses.
Zeb chuckled. "Eating our words, are we?" he said, roughly patting the unit on the head. "Guess we'll have to get one of the other groups to come and help then, eh, Kanan?" Zeb then gave out a yelp as the little droid jammed his shock-prod into the nearest bit of flesh.
Kanan chuckled and leaned back against the wall as Chopper revved his way back to the port, chirping determinedly.
"Kanan!" Zeb whined, rubbing his thigh.
"Hey, you deserved that one," Kanan said, grinning. Zeb frowned, his beard bristling. Before he could say anything else, though, the door to the locked room whooshed open and the Force pressed up against Kanan like a wave just about to crest.
Chopper's triumphant hoots faded into the background, as did Zeb's growls. The bright, pitiless lights of the hallway dimmed. The room was dark, but to Kanan's eyes it seemed as clear as day.
There was a boy, sitting bolt upright in the room on a bench bolted to the wall, his chin tucked tight to his chest. His dark hair was shorn close to his head, his eyes closed and face lined with exhaustion, and he looked almost painfully small in the neat dark clothes that covered him. A black mask covered his mouth and nose, and his hands were chained together with thick cuffs that covered half of his forearm.
That feeling in the Force was back, Kanan noted numbly. Standing right behind him, almost touching and so close he could practically feel its breath on his neck. He took one step, and then another.
Zeb and Chopper had fallen silent behind him. Kanan took no notice, couldn't take notice. The boy in front of him -
Kanan nearly choked as he took that first step into the room, no, the cell. There was nothing in the cell but the boy and the Dark, echoing in on itself. Fear and pain rolled over each other in waves, spreading through the space until it hit the walls and rebounded upon itself. If the door hadn't been open, Kanan would have thought that nothing else in the galaxy but the room existed. He tore his gaze from the boy to stare at the walls, his heart in his throat.
What sort of material could block out the force? He had never, in all of his travelling, in all of his education at the Temple, heard of such a thing.
Turning back to the youngling, he was seized by the desire to take him and carry him far away from the cell.
"I thought all the prisoners were held on the middle decks."
Kanan jumped. He turned around, his heart thumping in his chest to see Zeb's horrified face staring just over Kanan's shoulder.
Clenching his fists and straightening, Kanan said, "I thought so too." He turned back to boy and took a deep breath, trying to pull up the mental shields he had just a little bit higher. Until he stopped wanting to run away screaming, at least.
It took several heartbeats. The pain, the fear, even the little laps of anger, were overwhelming as they turned back in on each other and tangled up tighter than the sarlaac's tongues. Kanan felt like he was drowning in the emotions, struggling to find solid ground to plant his feet onto. He found himself retreating, pulling away from the Dark Side's tendrils and curling in on himself until he found that spark of light he had carried within himself for all of these years.
It was only once he had found that spark again that he felt that he could open his eyes again.
The Dark had retreated from him, letting him see the youngling a little clearer. Taking a step forward, he felt the boy's fear and pain wash over him. But he could keep it at bay, now, just like the Force.
Small and half-starved looking, what was visible of the boy's skin was littered with signs of abuse. There was a nick in one of his ears, and a larger white slash over the bridge of his nose, long healed and contrasting sharply with delicate pink scrapes along his left cheekbone. One closed eye was mottled with yellow and green, an old healing bruise that told the story of a powerful blow. And looking closer, Kanan realized that the kid wasn't sitting bolt upright; his posture was due to a collar welded to the wall and shut tight around the youngling's neck. Kanan could already see the purple bruises forming underneath the kid's jaw.
Behind him, Zeb choked. "Is that -"
"A collar?" Kanan said grimly, standing. "Yes."
"Karabast," Zeb hissed through gritted teeth. He strode into the room, his steps thumping against the metal floor. "We have to get that off of him."
"No argument here," Kanan replied, standing to one side. "You got this?"
Zeb grunted and reached out, grabbing the metal ring around the kid's throat. "'Course I do," he said, starting to pull. The muscles in his arms bulged from the effort. "Just be ready - to -"
The collar split with a flat groan, like a ship's engine struggling to turn over. A sharp pop accompanied it with a few sparks, and the kid slowly began to tilt forward. Kanan swooped in and caught him, just keeping his head from hitting the cell's floor, and grimaced at the feel of him in his arms.
The kid was nothing but skin and bone. Even through the odd black clothes he was wearing, Kanan could feel the kid's ribs. His elbow was also jabbing into Kanan's stomach, feeling almost like a knife blade. Cupping the kid's head in one hand, Kanan gently let him down onto the floor from the bench he had been sitting on, arranging his limbs into an undoubtedly more comfortable position. Cradling the kid's upper body, he tugged the kid's cuffed hands so that they were nicely folded in his own lap with his elbows tucked in and no longer digging into Kanan's chest before examining the rest of his bonds more closely.
Glancing at the cuffs encircling the kid's wrists, Kanan dismissed them quickly. Just the usual durasteel, they were probably uncomfortable, but Kanan was pretty sure that the kid would survive having them on for a little while longer. The mask however -
Totally black and with a small grill in the front of it, the smooth metal seemed to fit around the kid's jaw perfectly without any seams. Scrabbling at it and trying to figure out how to take it off, Kanan frowned. What could this kid have done to be in such a strange getup? The clothes, too - they were black, sleek and almost tailored-looking in a way that the grey shapeless uniforms that the other prisoners had been wearing just weren't. Was the kid just too small to fit into one? Kanan had seen a few Sullustans and the like amongst the prisoners, but -
Chopper beeped and wheeled forward into the cell, his head swivelling. Kanan glanced over at the squawking droid, still feeling for a seam in the kid's mask.
Chopper whistled derisively at his attempts, waving his little arms about impatiently and extending his shock prod. Before Kanan could stop him, he wheeled over to the kid's other side and gave the mask a sharp zap. There was a whine, like something powering down, and the mask suddenly loosened in Kanan's hand, now falling off of the boy's face.
Kanan raised an eyebrow at the droid, not quite pleased at the sudden zap. If he hadn't removed his hand in time, he would have gotten a nasty shock as well. Chopper whirred back at him, unaffected by his look and smug in his superiority.
Whatever. The mask was off. He could yell at him later.
Peeling the mask away, Kanan tossed it to one side, not caring where it landed. The other rebels would probably want to look at it closer, but seeing how it had dug into the kid's face, leaving red lines, Kanan couldn't bring himself to keep it nearby any longer than necessary.
The kid's cheek was damp as Kanan patted it gently with his fingertips.
"Kid going to be okay?" Zeb asked, shaking out his hands from pulling the collar apart as he knelt down beside him.
"I don't know," Kanan said distractedly. The Force was back, pressing up against him, but Kanan did his best to ignore it. Focusing in on the kid's face, he saw his eyelashes flutter. Slowly, as if he couldn't remember how to operate his body, the kid opened his eyes.
For a second, Kanan would have sworn that he saw a flash of yellow. His stomach clenched, and for a wild moment he was incredibly aware of the Dark in the room pressing down on him. Shutting his eyes, he took in a deep breath and centered himself.
When he opened his eyes again, the kid's eyes were half-open and appeared to have stopped. There was no trace of yellow now, making Kanan think that maybe it was the lighting in the room. No, now the kid's eyes had revealed themselves to be an intense shade of royal blue, reminding Kanan of a lake on one of the first planets he had ever gone to with Master Billaba. The planet itself had mostly been reconquered for the Republic by the time they had arrived, with only a little mopping up being needed. Rather than bunking in the nearest city to their landing area, they had set up camp by a lake with the bluest water that Kanan had ever seen. It was there that he had first been officially introduced to the rest of Master Billaba’s legion -
He cut that thought off harshly. That part of his life was long gone.
"Hey kid," he said softly, cupping the back of the kid's head in his hand. "Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay now."
The kid didn't react for a second. Then he slowly blinked, his lips moving silently. Kanan huffed out a soft laugh. "Don't strain yourself now," he said. "I don't know how long you've been down here."
The kid stared at him through heavy-lidded eyes, a few sweaty strands of hair sticking to his forehead. Then slowly, as unstoppable as the revolution of the planets, his eyelids slid down, sending a sharp jab of fear through Kanan's chest.
"Kid," his half-whispered, tapping the side of the kid's face in alarm. "Kid, don't do this to me!"
"Karabast," Zeb swore, pulling out his comm. "I'm getting the medics."
Kanan didn't look up, still focusing on the kid's face. "Tell them to hurry," he said. "He's going cold."