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It's Always Only Ever Been

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are you there

It’s not the proper form. Even she knows that. These are not what the first words between soulmates are supposed to be. The correct words – words that beings on worlds across the galaxy have agreed upon even when they can agree on nothing else – are I am here. Words of reassurance, lacking expectation or demand. Words that won’t frighten some youngling if their soulmate reaches their coming-of-age, or age-of-majority, or time-of-awakening, or whichever socially acceptable norm holds sway in whatever corner of the galaxy the sender lives in. The words laid down in a gush of somber black ink or a celebratory dazzle of paint, spilled across the vulnerable skin of an inner forearm and sent out like a whispered secret on the vagaries of the Force.

are you there

Jyn has no home world. No traditions to follow except for “Don’t.” Her world is dust and hunger, the scent of cordite and the thunder of Saw Gerrera’s impassioned speeches in pursuit of something that’s called freedom but mostly seems to be blood. Even though she is kept away from what is deemed the worst of it she’s seen (and done) enough to know it’s all a matter of degrees.

At fourteen, Jyn is old enough to make that contact by any measure of “old enough” that the fussiest of protocol droids could argue against. She bleeds from more than split knuckles. She’s led raids on far-flung supplies depots – and had people listen to her direction. Blown up shield generators. Killed a target in broad daylight and gotten away cleanly enough to have sleep elude her for days on end.

She is adult enough to make the decision to contact her soulmate and feel secure in her reasoning.

are you there

Yet the only words she wants to send are a childish plea for reassurance.

It’s the dark. The dark and this tiny, underground room that’s barely wider than her outstretched arms. If she could stretch out both her arms.

Saw had sent her and five others to Lothal for a simple bit of sabotage, to make it seem like the Partisans had brought their fight to one place while they prepared for a raid in another. The plan had mostly, mainly worked, with the exception of the exceedingly decrepit condition of the ore processing plant. Her explosives had done their job too well, blowing apart most of the facility and her collar bone in the bargain. Knocked unconscious, she’d missed the rendezvous to get off world again. And while this contact of Saw’s can provide her with a dusty basement room hidden under the floor of his mechanic shop, it’ll be days – maybe a week – before things die down enough for her to be retrieved.

In the dark, bacta patches and black market painkillers only get her so far.

are you there

The words rattle around her head, a distraction not from the pain but from her own attempts to ignore it. She is fourteen and old enough to know her chances of reaching an age where a soulmate would be anything but a pen pal – much less anything like the promised completion stories and songs would make everyone believe – are slim. Even at fourteen she’s cynical enough to doubt there’s anyone with enough spare pieces to make her anything like complete. Even at fourteen she knows that if soulmates brought strength then every single one of Saw’s fighters would be paired up with their “one” the moment they were brought into the crew. (They are not. Most of them even choose to have their forearms scrubbed, removing the risk of temptation.) (No one talks about it in front of her or the others her age, but they don’t need to hear talk to know what those oddly scarred forearms mean.)

are you there

She’s hurt and alone, too close to physical shock to shove the ensuing fear down into the hatch where it belongs, and she knows it. No words have ever appeared on her arm, for whatever reason. (She’s so, so alone, probably without a ‘mate at all, which does happen, or they’re already dead because the galaxy is a dangerous and uncertain place, or worse, they’re somehow like her, life dedicated to a cause that will someday take everything without ever once giving a damn thing back, even something as fundamental as the one being that’s supposed to make you whole...) It’s likely her ‘mate wouldn’t answer even if she did give in to the mounting (panic) (dread) (loneliness) need. It can be months, even years, before that initial contact is returned, due to arbitrary beliefs in how old, how worldly, how prepared is enough…

Light slowly creeps into the room, angled low through the hidden ventilation shafts that keep the room from being completely unendurable.

She’s made it through another night.

Hands trembling, she drains her canteen of the previous day’s water ration and lets her head fall back against the wall. With sunlight gently bolstering the orange glow of her lantern, she lets herself give in to sleep. Or whatever rest she’ll find in her uneasy state.

 

+

 

She makes it through the next night, though she’s practically chewed her lip bloody in the effort to keep from reaching for something – anything – that will leave enough of a stain on her skin to carry her message.

Her dreams – because she’s too tired to avoid them – are of her cave on Lah’mu and a never ending warren of tunnels and corridors from any number of Partisan bolt holes. She searches for her parents. For Saw. For…someone. All the promising routes end in explosions when she starts to feel as if she’s getting somewhere. Every time she tries to backtrack, there’s too much rubble hiding her path.

She wakes up from the dreams to dim, then dimmer, sunlight. Dark comes again.

That night she runs out of her small supply of painkillers. It’s been four days. There’s been no message from Saw, or his people. Her chest aches like she’s in the throes of Corellian flu. (are you there) Reality barely seems to hold sway inside her tiny puddle of orange-red lantern light, much less the possible consequences of sending a single question out on the whims of the Force.

“Trust the Force.” Her mother’s words echo where her voice no longer does.

are you there

A question unlikely to be answered and ultimately unimportant. Just three words to settle the spinning in her head.

No one speaks of soulmates in Saw’s camps, but Jyn’s spent enough time in market places to hear what the Quill merchants say. Something organic works best, though anything that’ll color the skin will work. Some champion proteins…she’s not bleeding, so the stories where dying lovers exchange undying vows in their own blood don’t apply. But there’s some sort of berry paste that came with the rations dropped through the ventilation shafts that’d been too tart to tempt her almost nonexistent appetite. A thin stream of water from the canteen gives her something like a lumpy paint.

are you there

Three words, carefully smudged across her forearm in a single, desperate attempt to believe she’s not the last person left in the galaxy. To hold on to something outside of herself and her own challenges.

are you there

are you there

She falls asleep on her hard bedroll, the words still chiming in her head, albeit with less desperation and more longing.

 

+

 

Cassian Andor sets himself aside and works to turn himself into someone new. Jeron Willix grew up on Bothawui after Separatists tore his colony on Fest apart. Jeron Willix is going to join the Academy at Carida and one day return the favor. Jeron Willix has ambitions to be an officer, meaning his clothes are already spotless and fresh as his uniform will soon be, his voice is only occasionally rough with the fading accent of his childhood, and his forearms are unmarked.

The scars from being scrubbed are too regular and distinctive to be covered up, while also being easy enough to fake if there’s a man after Jeron Willix who needs to explain a lack of a ‘mate. But Jeron Willix’s ambitions will do the explaining for him; no career-minded officer will go looking for a soulmate until they reach a sufficiently impressive rank.

As for Cassian, he has no intention of ever initiating a Search, and at an unblemished seventeen, it’s possible there’s no one Searching for him either. A lot of things have fallen by the wayside since the rise of the Emperor and his puppet Senate.

(At seventeen, Cassian’s already made hard calls, and choosing not to Search for his ‘mate is probably an easier choice than he’d have to face if he ever found them. The Alliance calls for personal sacrifice, and it’s easier to surrender something you never had the first place.)

He is seventeen and determined not to give into temptation, confident in his own abilities and tenacity. Until one afternoon as he sits in an empty conference room, studying for the Academy entrance exam, and his left forearm starts tingling like it’s fallen asleep. (He’s been sequestered for hours; it just might have.) Except, just past the edge of his rolled back sleeve is the end of a clumsily written word.

–re

He knows what the traditional words are (I am here) and knows them for the impossible promise they are. Still, his stomach drops as he stares at the barely legible letters and tries to decide what to make of this.

This is not ideal, he knows as he cautiously pushes the sleeve back to see the full body of the message. But it’s not exactly disastrous either. This can be worked around, especially if…

His internal calculations about how long he can put off responding come to an abrupt halt when he sees what’s actually written on his arm.

are you there

He’s been with Alliance Intelligence for five years. His brain sees the message and understands things that are likely true about the sender (his ‘mate) without having to really think about it. (Probably young, possibly lacking much in the way of a formal education; the crudeness of the letters supports that much. Probably unsupervised. Alone…)

What he’s unprepared for is the sudden pounding of his heart and the heaviness in his gut as his mind’s eye shows him the scenario in question. The sender (his ‘mate) is not just alone the same way he’s alone, even among a Rebel base with a barracks set aside just for young recruits. This message didn’t come from anyone at the center of an Invitation Ceremony. Those are supervised, and deviation from the traditional phrasing wouldn’t be allowed. So there’s no adults with them, no one who’s already started their Search and could guide them. No one to counter the silence from his end of the message, to still rising anxiety. Desperation. And somehow he knows it is desperation behind this demand for acknowledgement. (Every child is prepared for those three words appearing on their skin before they come of age themselves. It’s why those words have been shaped into a calm invitation. I am here is only the first part of the message.) (The unspoken conclusion is when you are ready.)

are you there leaves no room for a wait of months – even years – before a response is sent. are you there speaks of isolation. Of last hopes. Last chances.

Somewhere, there’s someone who is so alone that reaching out to a complete stranger – even if it is the highly romanticized notion of a soulmate – was considered a better option than remaining silent.

Somewhere there’s someone who’s completely at Cassian’s mercy. He’s seventeen; this isn’t the first time that’s been true and it won’t be the last.

He will rarely, if ever, have the option of showing mercy.

Leaving his study materials behind, he jogs towards the med center, his sleeve rolled down to conceal the plea fading from his skin. There will be fallout from his decision, but as long as the Rebellion doesn’t enforce Scrubbing, it’s a choice he gets to make. Major Draven won’t be happy, but that’s a concern for later.

Under bright lights in a medical bay, Cassian writes I’m here in blocky, easy to read letters and sits on a cot to wait.

Major Draven comes.

A response does not.

 

+

 

Jyn wakes to the feeling of bright sunlight warming her. Spilling over her arm. She opens her eyes to receding darkness and an increasing warmth that the weak morning light can’t explain. Her fingers tremble as they brush aside dried clumps of berry paste to reveal the dark message underneath.

I’m here

She sits up on her bedroll and pulls her arm closer. The words don’t vanish. Not immediately. They will; they’re already fading. (A consequence of distance, or so she’s heard. The farther away your ‘mate is, the more faded the message, the less time it lasts.) But they – the words, their sender – are undeniably there.

She holds her arms close to her chest, calloused fingers wrapping around her mother’s pendant.

Not entirely alone. Relief keeps her from immediately questioning the speed of the response.

 

+

 

Saw comes for her the next night. Comes for her himself, with Ulshi to carry her back to the transport.

 

+

 

It’s almost two weeks later before she can make it down to the canvassary in Little Onderon and pick a Quill off a preoccupied passerby. There have been no further messages from her ‘mate, not that she’d expected any once she’d had time to think about it. (If a parent or guardian had seen her abnormal message on their underage child, they might respond immediately, but if that were the case, they’d probably also would have likely sent another message to check on her. Maybe even try to find out where she was so help could be sent.) (Most guardians, she thinks. Saw’s reaction…Saw’s reaction likely would have been entirely dependent on her own.) Her soulmate is probably of age and possibly better matched to her than she would have guessed if they haven’t taken her one-time plea as permission to butt into her life.

Still, she perhaps owes them something more than continued silence.

The message she sends is a single word, and not one she expects a response to.

safe

 

+

 

Pins and needles in Cassian’s arm wake him thirty minutes before the chrono is set to go off. No one else in the barracks is awake as he pulls his arm out from under the blankets.

The single word releases a tension he hadn’t been aware of carrying in his chest and shoulders.

He’d decided, since his original plan of silence had been abandoned, not to engage his soulmate beyond what they insist on. If he can’t ignore them completely (if he clearly won’t ignore them completely), he can at least maintain enough distance to keep them both on each other’s periphery. Still, he’s…glad…they decided to leave at least one more message. Glad too that it doesn’t necessitate a response.

Chapter Text

Jyn is a soldier. The daughter of Saw Gerrera couldn’t be anything else. (She’s someone else’s daughter too, but whatever that girl could have been disappeared along with her last name.) (When she’d been eight, and scared, and desperately holding on to anything familiar, she hadn’t questioned Saw when he’d said the name Erso had to disappear for good.) (One day, a couple of years ago, she’d worked out his reasoning: he’d never believed her father was dead.)

(My father is dead. My father is alive. My father is a hero. My father is a coward. My father… Saw Gerrera is my father. Saw Gerrera raised me.)

She’s able to understand some of what she’s always considered his paranoia when it occurs to her. If her family were dead, no one would care what her last name was. It’s only a threat if it’s shared with someone more dangerous than a lieutenant in a band of Alliance fighters. What keeps her from asking Saw about it, from addressing his fears, is who he is keeping the secret from. Even when she listens in to his conferences with the Alliance council – on the occasions they don’t devolve into shouting matches over…philosophical differences – he only ever refers to her as his daughter. Never even uses her first name. She’s a secret kept from their allies.

She’s not safe from the Empire.

She’s not safe from the conflicted interest of the Rebel Alliance.

It’s not hard to extend that one step further: She’s not safe with anyone. Anyone includes the stranger on whose arm her words appear.

(Knowing they’re out there somewhere, that she’s not alone, is a comfort. Knowing anything more than that is a risk.)

Not that she admits any of that to herself. She’s a soldier, first and foremost. Hiding who she is besides that is second nature, as easy as cleaning and reassembling her blaster after use.

(She is very, very good at the things that keep her alive.)

 

+

 

There’s a woman in camp who takes Jyn aside long enough to explain all the facts of life a ten-year-old girl living in a rebel camp needs to know. There’s a heavy emphasis on trusting her instincts about who is safe and who is not.

There’s a series of women after that, each drawing her aside for a quiet talk every few months. Jyn’s never certain if they approach her on their own or if it’s at Saw’s insistence. Nonetheless, she’s usually grateful. Eventually. They’re all fighters too, practical, not wasting time on momentary things like modesty or embarrassment.

When it comes to important talks though, Saw is the one to tackle the subject of soulmates. Like most of the discussions she has – the ones that matter beyond politics and strategy and the basic day-to-day truths and lies of living – there’s a hole in the center she doesn’t dare approach.

(“Trust the Force” her mother says before going back.)

(Why, why, why… The question echoes inside of the cave, always has, and maybe this is why. Why she risked going back.)

 

+

 

Saw tells her about the biological mechanics behind it all. Glands and chemical receptors, melanin and ink, distance and what some people call fate and others call accident. Saw tells her – the eleven year old with a somber face and fire in her eyes – that out there, somewhere, is someone who may be able to communicate with her whether she wishes it or not. (She is coming to an age where such messages may appear, and he has spent the last three years preparing her for any eventuality.)

At no point does he try to influence her thinking, her opinion of being (possibly) intimately connected to a complete stranger. (He does not need to; the fires that burn in his foster daughter are only all too familiar.) She will make a choice completely independent of any attempts he might make. But he says “stranger” and sees the immediate reaction in the small, solemn body sitting across from him. Sees the tension that’d lead to combat in any other situation; sees the dull gleam of mistrust and the faint spark of hope that has driven thousands of generations to etch messages of invitation and longing into their skin.

I am here

He does not tell her that it is possible to make a permanent rejection of (fate) (happenstance) (the Force) random chance. (His own choice had been for the cause, had been to let scrubbing finish what the burn scars from a childhood injury had started.) If the Force is kind – and he rarely has known it to be – she will never be contacted, never need to make contact. Because he knows the Force is not always kind, he prays that it will be soft towards her should she ever be so alone that a stranger with her handwriting on their skin is left standing as her only ally.

(He has spent the last three years preparing her for any eventuality, even the one where he is not there, though she wouldn't know that.)

(Already there are whispers of what a scientist with a name like Erso may be devising for the will of the Emperor.)

The only thing he tells her, demands of her, is caution. It’s far too easy to sacrifice the idea of a soulmate when there are living, breathing beings that are so much more real than a distant concept.

Saw knows, because he’d sacrifice hers in an instant if he had to.

 

+

 

Caution is bred into her bones, even at fifteen when other, less hunted beings are making reckless decisions in the split seconds she’s learned to use to fire a sniper rifle in. Still, she wants to… The temptation to write to them, to her ‘mate, is there. Of course it is. The one response she’d received from them – the only message of any kind (if silence can be discounted as a message) – is firmly tied to the memory of feverish dreams. Of course she wants to settle the matter enough to put it behind her. Just like the constant threat of being one meal away from true hunger, or a cat-nap away from exhaustion.

She’s comfortable with needing. She can push past it.

 

+

 

Caution doesn’t keep Maia from being killed by concussives while TIE fighters try to flush Saw’s latest encampment out of the hills of Serenno. Maia, who Jyn had practically grown up with, two young girls with innocent faces and rage at the Empire festering in their guts. Maia, who’d come the closest to hearing the truth about…about what’d happened before Jyn had come to Saw’s care. Maia, who could pick the pockets or the loose tongues of foolish young Imperial officers better than anyone else in the band. Who could throw a knife with an accuracy that made Jyn green with jealousy. Who’d laughed at Codo when he’d gotten his nose broken by an outraged Jyn for trying to steal a kiss and a grope, but had also given him a pity kriff when Saw had banished him to a cell in the outer rim.

Jyn stares at the body for a moment, her mind scrabbling to hang on to this moment, not the limp fall of a body from years before. The air roars and the ground shakes and Jyn snaps back to herself long enough to grab her pack and Maia’s before rushing for the makeshift hangar where the transports are hidden.

Survive now, grieve later. She’s a soldier, but this is a lesson that predates even that. (Black helmets, white cape, flash of red, green grass. Chill and damp. Silence and harsh breaths.)

The transport she’s on takes enough hits making it out of atmo that one of the shield generators blows out. They make it into hyperspace long enough to avoid pursuit, but have to drop out of it before they can reach any Partisan bases.

It’s Kestrel Dawn, Saw’s youngest lieutenant who contacts the Alliance base on Dantooine, and handles the negotiations for enough time to land and make repairs. Relations between their two factions aren’t on the most stable of terms, but she is determined and used to arguing with people with far more clout than the commander at the other end of the comlink. She only needs time, not supplies. Not rations. Not even space on one of their limited landing pads.

She gets clearance to land a few klicks out from the base to make the necessary repairs.

It’s Jyn who sends two messages after the pilot assesses the damage. One is to a communications relay, telling Saw what happened and asking for rendezvous coordinates.

The other is sent after everyone but the man on guard duty is asleep. Four words this time, the only expression of grief she can allow herself as long as she has command.

are you still there

 

+

 

It takes two days to get a response. Two words that ease the knot in her chest.

still here

 

+

 

It becomes a coping mechanism. She has so few opportunities for guilty pleasures that she is able to justify indulging in this singular behavior. There are so few things in her life that are even marginally hers that it’s only logical to keep track of them.

She has her mother’s necklace for the small troubles, to grasp when she’d rather bloody someone’s mouth or finds the constant tangle of emotions inside her too overwhelming to be fed into her drive to make the Empire pay. She has Saw to vent to, to strategize with, to sit silently with a cup of caf and be ignored by when she needs company but not conversation.

And when someone who isn’t a friend but also isn’t an enemy doesn’t come back from a mission, when she lives to see another sunrise when she really shouldn’t have, when their little war of attrition wears her down to a thing made of bones and sleeplessness… She has a Quill and a phrase that’s quickly becoming something more than mere words.

are you there

Sometimes the answer comes quickly. Once it’d taken nearly a week. (A week in which her already easy to rouse temper had reached new heights.) (A week she spends avoiding Saw out of fear of having to confess her secret weakness.) (A week she spends wondering just what the hell her ‘mate is doing, because such speed and delay must mean something.)

Their answers vary where her question doesn’t. (yes) (still) (I’m here) (She hates the last one the most because it never fails to make her feel like a child reaching out for a hand in the dark.)

She never receives any questions in return. It’s a relief and an ache wrapped up in one.

 

+

 

Joren Willex spends eight months at the Academy using dead drops to transmit information about off world Imperial training facilities, localized anti-Imp sentiments that should be nurtured, and the movement of Stormtrooper forces that pass through in order to deal with them.

His assignment should have lasted a full standard year, except one of the drops is compromised before the intel can be retrieved. There’s some comfort in knowing he could have gotten away clean…except of course, things go slightly off book and he ends up returning to base with a reprogrammed Imperial droid shadowing him.

He manages to keep ‘Kay from getting shot on sight. Manages to keep ‘Kay from getting disassembled when he expresses the Rebellion’s chances of achieving their stated goal of storing a true and free Republic to the galaxy. Even manages to convince his superiors that the droid might be useful.

(This last is true in more ways than one. Having someone to talk to eases the temptation to put a Quill to his skin and start looking for vague reassurances of his own.)

(He’s promised himself though; he will only ever communicate what they need to hear.) (There’s no room in his life for any other compromise.)

He wonders sometimes though, right before sleeping – or when sleep eludes him entirely – what kind of life inspires such silence. He hopes it’s something like peace. Like safety, as they’d last written. Hopes it’s not like what’s behind his own.

 

+

 

He has the odd loyalty of a KX-series droid and the benefit of nearly a year in an Imperial academy. Jeron Willex is a busted alias, so Lieutenant Junior Grade Aach is placed in Senator Organa’s retinue and made a tempting target for Imperial Intelligence, who’ve already put multiple operatives in the Organa household.

He’s put there to identify the Imperial agents, pretending to resent his assignment. It’s not hard, he’s got plenty to feed into it. He spends just as much time speaking Alderaa as Basic, which is an ache all it’s own. One that finally distracts him from the constant knowledge that he could reach out to his soulmate at any time if only he were a little less…

(If he weren’t still a six-year-old capable of parroting Separatist slogans without fully understanding what they meant.)

(If he weren’t still the nine-year-old who’d nearly died of exposure on the night his village had been reduced to so much rubble.)

(If he weren’t still a twelve-year-old working through the night be the glow of a chem light to memorize complicated coding systems.)

(If he weren’t still fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, working his way through mobs he’d incited along with his mentor to conceal an assassination.)

 

+

 

He’s in a small room in the Imperial base in Aldera, being pressured by a mid-ranking officer who holds Lieutenant Aach’s career in his hands. Being pressured to feed intelligence about the Senator’s private life to the officer in question. (Which is entirely in line with his mission, but he can’t be too quick to give in.) Which of course means that his forearm starts prickling weakly.

Not now.

It’s his first thought, one colored by annoyance because this is breaking not just eighteen months of silence but his concentration as well. He needs to strike the right balance between reluctance and greed and cowardice to make his eventual concession believable. And he can’t imagine what’s causing this communication now of all times, but he can’t chance looking. If he brings any attention to the existence of an active message, the next thing Commander Tallez is going to want to know is why his file doesn’t have a confirmed status recorded, and that will draw more attention than he needs at this juncture.

To make things worse, the prickling is weaker than anything he’s felt before. (Not that he has a lot of experience.) How dim is the message already? How long before it’s completely illegible?

What are the odds that they’ll ask again if he doesn’t reply? (Kaytoo would point out that no attempt would be far more beneficial and is therefore the desired outcome.)

Fortunately, the Commander is overconfident, depending too much on the obedience that should still be deeply ingrained in a junior officer only a year or two out of the academy and showing signs of not wanting to fail at his first real test of loyalty to the Empire.

Lieutenant Aach (junior grade) is given a contact and a set of instruction, and is allowed to depart with his silent droid lumbering after him.

He’s too…aware…to push up his sleeve on the trip back to the royal palace. (He’s not paranoid. He’s cautious and aware of his first duty.) Being debriefed by one of the Senator’s aides takes an agonizingly long time, and even after that he has duties to attend to for appearance’s sake.

He does not grit his teeth or rub the fingers of his left hand together when the tingling stops. He’s too good for these kinds of tells.

 

+

 

“It appears to be a variation of the Galactic Standard Protocol for a Search Initiation ceremony.” Kaytoo manages to sound disapproving as he uses his much more sensitive ocular sensors to help Cassian determine what message his ‘mate may have sent. He weathers the disapproval and tugs his sleeve back into place with sharp motions to discourage any lingering creases.

“You do not appear to be surprised.” Kaytoo waits for Cassian to respond, then adds, “There’s little data, but I am given to understand variation in these matters is rare,” when Cassian only frowns.

“Thanks, ‘Kay.”

“You did not mention an active Correspondence when asked about factors that might affect this posting.”

That’s because a single Correspondence that ended over a year ago had hardly seemed like a concern.

are you still there

He had better things to be concerned about, as well as a duty shift to complete before he can think about responding. (He doesn’t have a Quill with him, and isn’t sure how to get one without drawing attention in an environment that boasts multiple as yet unidentified Imperial spies.)

(That’s what he’s supposed to be focusing on. Not the reason why his soulmate only seems to ask a single disturbingly vague question seemingly meant to get under his skin in more ways than one.)

 

+

 

In the end he (awkwardly) borrows the use of a Quill from the Senator himself in a rare moment of privacy. He pretends not to notice how Organa’s eyes flick towards a holoimage of his daughter in worry when he mentions needing to reply to his ‘mate. Just like he pretends turning his back is enough to keep from feeling exposed when he pushes back his sleeve and writes still here like the poor consolation it is.

Chapter Text

Kaytoo informs him that his soulmate is initiating a Correspondence approximately every five-point-seven weeks. Seeing as how anything involving his ‘mate is the only topic Cassian refuses to discuss with his droid, he shrugs the information away and changes the subject.

Besides, he hadn’t needed the reminder. He already wonders what’s happened to turn his reticent soulmate into…well, they’re hardly talkative. But every few weeks the same message appears; are you there. Never anything else. Not even the inclusion of the word ‘still;’ apparently that was reserved only for breaking long silences.

Their refusal to deviate from that single question is almost reassuring aside from how it makes him wonder what the hell they’re actually doing. It certainly removes the pressure to pull up his sleeve every time his arm starts to tingle under the heavy wool of his Imperial uniform.

(He wonders what it’d be like to meet them, if the first words he’d hear from them would be a question of disbelief.) (“Are you really here?”)

With the pressure off, he’s able to complete his assignment; finger the Imperial spies so that they can be kept under watch, feed enough misinformation to the opposition to get them to back off slightly. He paints Bail Organa as a pacifist slowly coming to terms with the fact that the way of life he remembers is a vision shared by too few to sustain hope of regaining it. It should buy them at least a few months of breathing room. Maybe even a year or two. (A year or two will be enough to pass some of the Rebellion leader’s duties on to his daughter.) (She’s grown up in a palace but she’s got the eyes of someone who grew up in the camps.)

(It’s her eyes that make him teach her how to lie. Not like her parents, not the gentle lies of politics and diplomacy. He teaches her to lie like a spy, how to hold on to a falsehood with everything she has, to believe in it so fully herself that no one can sway her from it.)

(He can teach her everything he knows; will never know if it takes unless she’s put to the point, and he tells himself that she’ll never be driven that far. That her war will look like the path her parents have chosen.)

Leia Organa is a torch waiting to be lit; Cassian leaves Alderaan before he has to watch her pageant of an Initiation Ceremony. Every pigment that touches her skin will be carefully nullified, typical for those in positions of power. (Soulmate consorts never do seem to come to a good end.) Besides, she’s given herself to her parents’ cause. She’d insist on the subterfuge even if they didn’t.

It’s a good choice. It’d been his choice, until a clumsily written plea had shown dark under his skin.

He almost – almost – writes to his ‘mate. Not for information that might be dangerous for him to have. Which, to be honest, is any. But just to find out if they’re still safe.

They wrote three weeks ago. He contents himself with that.

 

+

 

They write two weeks later. He’s already several hundred levels deep on Coruscant, recruiting. (Free of the Imperial skin he’s had to wear for the last two years.) He doesn’t push back his sleeve to look; won’t reveal that much about himself to the trader sitting across the grubby table from him. He won’t ask ‘Kay to scan him when it makes it back to the safe house. (He doesn’t think of his ‘mate as predictable so much as reliable.) He will, however many hours later, respond.

still here

It seems to be the only thing they want from him. He should be happier that they aren’t asking for anything he can’t give. He does not resent their constant need for reassurance without ever offering any of their own.

 

+

 

Jyn is sixteen. Everywhere she turns, rumors abound. That’s hardly anything new. Rumor and hearsay drive far more missions than anyone would like to admit.

These rumors though…they have teeth. They worry at her just at the edge of her hearing, at the range where she has to wonder if she’s even heard anything at all.

Imperial blasters have gotten more powerful. Somewhere the Emperor keeps a team of weapon designers under lock and key. This is just the beginning; soon they could have blaster cannon power enough to level entire city blocks with just a single shot. The scientists are hidden away on Kamino. On level one of Coruscant. On Geonosis.

The Alliance council is no better. Saw argues with or dismisses their concerns depending on his mood. Today he is mostly silent. Jyn listens from outside the not fully closed door to the comms room, crouched down in the dark as the distant rumbles of all-out war slip past her.

Didn’t you bomb that facility?

Didn’t we take care of that loose end?

Wasn’t that research destroyed?

Weren’t you the one to relocate that scientist, his wife, their child?

What was their name?

Whatever became of that knowledge?

Jyn huddles in the dark, right hand wrapped around left wrist. She has some faint memory of her mother, her father, their forearms brushing against hers. Faint stirrings of peace.

She shoves those memories down and aside as best she can. Her old life has no place in her current one.

(They say that pressing forearm to forearm with your soulmate can relieve physical pain, strengthen a failing heart, banish terror, make you fall in love. The say the effect is weaker among blood relatives, less weak between parents and children.) (There are no united ‘mates in Saw’s camps. Few enough people related by blood.) (Resistance fighters rarely have anything other than the need to fight against the oppressive brutality that stripped them of anything else that mattered.)

What was that scientist’s name? Whatever became of his family? Were they ever found?

Jyn has no family but a foster father. She grips her wrist tighter, forces memories back into the cave where they can rot, for all the good they do her.

A soldier’s life isn’t a long one. Not many people will remember Saw leaving, coming back with an eight-year-old girl of indeterminate origin and an Imperial accent.

Old Staven is one of them. He leaves the room first. She presses herself deeper into her dark corner as the rest of Saw’s lieutenants file out. She’s the only one who didn’t attend the meeting, the holo-conference with the rest of the Alliance’s chiefs. In their wake she silently slips into the room, waits by the door, out of direct sight, for Saw to notice her. The skin around her wrist will bruise under the pressure of her grip. Doesn’t matter; she’d rather appear composed. (Jyn has never seen the battle-light in her own eyes. Doesn’t understand that it will give her away every time.)

“You heard.” Saw has the posture of a man who’s fought far beyond his limits and knows he must still go on.

Jyn shrugs. Rumor. Hearsay. No charges of excessive violence this time, but it’s only a matter of the next skirmish, the next engagement. “We should hit a depot. Get our hands on some of those modified blasters.” It’s a suicide mission; having possession of an Imperial weapon is an instant life sentence in one of their many, many prison camps. Of course, it’s only a suicide mission if it fails.

They’ll never be able to mod their own blasters to match the new Imperial might without something to study.

“You’d lead the mission?”

She shrugs, pretending nonchalance. (She would do anything to feel like she’d earned the target slowly appearing on her back.)

“A depot is too risky.” Saw waves a hand at the protests she doesn’t have time to make. “Find a garrison. Something a little more vulnerable than a bunker made of durasteel and entrenched on an asteroid where they’d see you coming from every direction.”

“The garrisons on Kashyyyk would have them. Have to keep the slaves in line somehow.” If she fails there, she’s just as likely to be torn apart by an angry Wookie as she is to be shot by a death squad.

Saw laughs at her safer alternative, but waves his hand again, this time in dismissal. “Have it your way, little Jyn. Turn in a mission brief, then go poke the Imperial beast with a sharp stick.”

 

+

 

She’s halfway to Kashyyyk before it occurs to her that maybe this time she should warn her ‘mate. Sometimes, when one passes, the other is informed by bruises that aren’t bruises. By a stain that spreads across their arm and takes days to fade away.

She doubts she’s done enough to make them care whether she lives or dies. (They have never, never initiated a conversation with her.) (She tells herself it means she’s never had to lie to them.) But still…

She tries to imagine what message she might send. What she’d be remotely comfortable with as her last words. Decides the entire exercise is far too sentimental.

(thank you) (That’s what her last message would be.)

(Thank you for responding.) (Thank you for never intruding.) (Thank you for never making me choose.)

A week later, as her ship settles back on Onderon with a shudder that makes her think it’ll never take off again, Jyn scribbles a single word high up, near the crook of her elbow.

safe

 

+

 

safe

Cassian’s settled in for an evening of watching patrol routes, timing shift rotations, observing how the ‘troopers inside their command center respond to the periodic – and planned – disturbances from outside the gates. He’s wet and miserable, caught in a late winter rain on the outskirts of a Corellian shipyard. His forearm is the only warm thing about him, and even that’s not going to last long.

At least he looked. At least he won’t send a nonsensical response later to what he would have assumed was a request to confirm his continued existence.

Not for the first time he wonders just what the hell it is they’re doing. This is not how these connections are supposed to be used. After over a year of almost regular Correspondence he should know more about his ‘mate other than the fact that their handwriting varies wildly between precise lettering and a messy scrawl.

After over a year of corresponding, he knows he’s revealed even less about himself.

Not for the first time he’s tempted to respond honestly. There’s a difference between being honest with someone and giving them information. For example, he could tell them that he’s cold, wet, and bored, and it’d be more honest than he’s been with anyone in…

The Alliance doesn’t care about how he feels. It cares about information, analysis and interpretation. (Maybe – maybe – about instinct. If they trusted the source.) The few friends he has are too often away on their own assignments to be of any real comfort.

And all his ‘mate wants to know is whether or not they’re alone.

Not true a part of him whispers. Otherwise there’s no reason for them offer this reassurance of their own. But mostly he feels…

He swallows hard and refocuses on his mission, even though his quadnocs fuzz with static in the relentless drizzle.

It’s just as well the message doesn’t require a response. He doesn’t have it in him to send one.

 

+

 

Weeks pass in silence. Cassian returns to Base One, reports in, spends a few days being debriefed and catching up on recent gossip with whoever else is around. Most of it centers around Saw Gerrera’s latest exploits. A raid on a heavily fortified base on Kashyyyk, this time. There hadn’t been much of a base left standing by the time the fires had been put out. Not many troops left either. Or there hadn’t been, before the blockade around the entire system had been reinforced. Both Gerrera and the Empire believed in eye-for-an-eye retaliation, so the surrounding systems were all on edge.

How many people on those worlds could have been swayed towards the Rebellion before the Imperial crackdown had broken their spirits? How many more years would it be before any progress they’d made on those worlds could be recouped?

“What was he thinking?” Cassian demands, as if anyone could explain even a hint of reasoning behind Gerrera’s actions.

Dameron’s a spec ops grunt through and through though. He’s got a grin like a targeting system homing in on a kill shot. “Don’t know, but at least he didn’t hesitate to share.” The smile becomes all teeth at Cassian’s disapproving look. “One of his people dropped off a crate of those blasters that has the Council’s collective shorts in a wad. Don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on one.”

Maybe he can’t appreciate the necessary daring because he’s an intelligence asset. Intelligence is ultimately about the long game. If the Council can’t rein in factions like Gerrera’s, Kaytoo’s odds about their chances of success may be more optimistic than the droid realizes.

 

+

 

Cassian’s sent to those restless, on edge sectors, of course. Not to recruit, but to observe. His mission is strictly limited to reconnaissance. He spends a couple of long months wandering from settlement to settlement, from colony to outpost to whatever passes for a town on those sparsely populated worlds. He might spend a day or two on one, maybe as much as two weeks on another. Always moving, always listening, always watching.

Rarely sleeping.

Kaytoo points out that his ‘mate hasn’t initiated communication in nearly eleven weeks. Cassian privately knocks a couple of weeks off that total because he’d never told ‘Kay about the message on Corellia. It’s longer than’s become average, though.

He wonders if the word safe will always be followed by long silences.

It doesn’t make him feel any less used.

Cassian carefully tucks that thought away where he won’t have to examine it.

 

+

 

After three months he returns to Base One to report in. Draven sends him to his bunk, telling him his intel can wait a little longer, and privately expecting that his lieutenant will be off his feet for at least twelve hours.

Cassian gladly stumbles to his bunk – or what would be gladly if he could feel anything but exhaustion. He drops onto his still made bed without doing so much as taking off his boots.

A couple of hours later he wakes up enough to kick them off. Enough to strip down and crawl under the covers. He’s still so tired that he doesn’t notice the soft burn of a fading message on his arm.

 

+

 

He sleeps through the message that comes six hours later.

 

+

 

He’s been out for a solid ten hours when the buzz under his skin, combined with the sound of a ship taking off, wakes him enough to realize he’s hungry.

are you there

He looks at the familiar words. Looks, and looks, and deliberately does not think about the history behind them.

He’ll respond later. After he’s hit the ‘fresher and gotten something to eat that doesn’t come out of a vacuum sealed pack. After he’s completed his assignment and been given new orders. A delay has never meant anything before.

 

+

 

Jyn is sixteen, and the best soldier in Saw Gerrera’s cadre, and the morning sun is turning her solitary bunker a bloody, dusty shade of red. The tip of her Quill digs into her skin hard enough to leave behind a raised impression of her words, telltale scratches that will tell everyone what she’s done.

Or would, if there was anyone to see them.

Jyn is sixteen and she’s just realized that this time no one is coming back for her.

 

+

 

are you there

 

are you there

 

are you there

 

please

Chapter Text

When his arm twitches with the telltale tingles of an incoming message, Cassian checks the chrono. The motion is jerky, as he both reacts in surprise and tries to stifle the action. His eyes still land on the timepiece sitting innocently on Colonel Draven’s desk.

He’s not imagining things. He hasn’t lost track of time. He’s been meeting with his commanding officer for less than two hours. Had seen the last message less than four hours ago.

The bottom drops out of his stomach, that sickening lurch when the ground underfoot isn’t as steady as it should be. (Repetition had made him assume things about the intent behind his soulmate’s message. They have never followed up, not even that time he’d been so deeply entrenched in his cover that he hadn’t been able to respond for a week.)

“Forgotten another appointment?” Draven’s expression is calm, the closest he ever comes to showing surprise.

“No, sir.” Cassian flushes at even this mild reproof, but it doesn’t quite stop his jerky movements, doesn’t stop him from pushing back his sleeve. (There’s different shades of meaning behind the word unprecedented in his line of work, and none of them are good. And this is unprecedented.)

please

He’s not sure how long he looks at the message before remembering that he’s not alone. When he manages to look away Draven is half-turned towards the window, studying a data pad. By the time the colonel looks up, Cassian’s managed to compose himself enough to pass a basic inspection.

 

+

 

As a general rule, Draven is not a fan of his operatives being in contact with their soulmates. All too often soulmates are unknown factors, introducing unacceptable levels of risk into carefully planned missions. Even the most seasoned officer can be distracted by the wrong word at the wrong time, and that’s the best case scenario.

However, he’s also learned when to trust those under his command, when pushing them will cause them to fracture in ways they’ll learn to cope with and when it’ll break them beyond repair. Because the Rebel Alliance can’t be choosy about their recruits beyond a confirmation of loyalty and purpose, because they draw from every level of experience and background, the issue of soulmates isn’t one that can be dealt with in a single approach.

He observes Andor silently. Sees the way his shoulders ease back into something more like military precision than a defensive hunker. Watches his exposed forearm twist so that what should be a private message is pressed against his abdomen. Watches features smooth into something like an attempt at cool rationality, an attempt that ultimately fails because nothing is going to temper the light in his eyes except time.

Andor’s been in sporadic contact with his soulmate for two years without any reported incidents. Two years that have left their mark in his posture and the transformation of youthful overconfidence into self-assurance. Two years that might as well not have happened because Draven remembers walking into the med bay and seeing that same anxious expression around his eyes even while his body had barely held itself on the respectful side of defiance.

One of the most important lessons a commanding officer has to learn is to recognize when they’re about to issue an order that will be immediately disregarded. And then learn not to give that order.

He sighs. They’ll have to address this. Andor hasn’t come this close to losing his reserve in years.

“Do you need to take some time?”

Communication between soulmates is rarely efficient. And Andor is too good an agent to have made the kind of contact with his that would let him use a comm station.

He can see the younger man (Force, but his troops are all so young) start to make a denial, then change his mind.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Report back tomorrow at 1400 hours. Dismissed.”

His agent is practically out the door before he can finish speaking.

 

+

 

Cassian tracks Kaytoo down in the main hangar, performing maintenance on the U-wing they’ve been using for the last three months. The droid follows him inside the ship and waits while he pulls his sleeve up and holds his bared forearm out like it’s a vital bit of intelligence data.

(He doesn’t say anything. Can’t say anything, because there’s only one person he really wants to talk to and he knows nothing about them other than the fact that something has broken a pattern that’s lasted for nearly two years.)

Kaytoo looks at Cassian, looks down at his arm, and then back to his face. “You do not generally share Correspondence from your soulmate.”

From behind gritted teeth Cassian asks, “How many messages did I miss?”

“Ah.” ‘Kay bows his head, servos whirring as he changes the settings on his ocular sensors. “That makes more sense.”

“’Kay!”

“Including the current message, I can identify evidence of four individual messages in your dermal layers. Or, based on pattern recognition, perhaps I should say three repetitions of their standard query in addition to the current message. Also, you appear agitated. Is their display of manners really so upsetting?”

“Not now.” He doesn’t have time to talk about this now. Four? In what…sixteen hours? At least four? A med droid could probably tell him exactly how long evidence of messages sticks around, but that isn’t really the point.

He jogs back to the barracks and unearths his Quill from where it’s buried at the bottom of his duffle. The point is that he can’t stop thinking that this is unprecedented. (Can’t stop thinking about what that may mean.)

I’m here

That part is easy, is almost a natural response by this point. It’s also not enough.

I’ll always be here

It’s the truth. It’s a lie. (If here is defined by where they are not, then it’s true. He’ll always be here, on the other end of their connection, and no closer.) It’s not enough for anything like contentment. It is enough to get by on. (Getting by on almost nothing is a lesson he doesn’t even remember learning. It’s a part of him at this point.)

He runs his hands through his hair in frustration. It’ll be hours before he gets a response. He can’t spend them in here, sitting on his bunk and killing time by thinking of all the things that could happen to someone on their own. (He’s never gotten away from his first impression of his ‘mate as someone who is alone.)

He can’t just sit here until he gets a response. Can’t go help with the U-wing because ‘Kay is unlikely to let his state of agitation be without comment.

Changing into looser clothes he heads down to the training center. There’s probably someone around who’d be willing to spar with him. Maybe if he aches for another reason he’ll be able to forget his worry.

 

+

 

She has a pack. In it are a change of clothes, enough rations to last a week if she’s careful, a full canteen of water and purifying tablets for when she runs out. A couple of chem lights. Thermal blanket. A handful of credit chips. Enough of a first aid kit that she could stop some bleeding, or at least sop it up long enough not to leave a clear trail. Standard stuff. Basic field kit for a short term assignment.

She stares at the pack without seeing it, her ancient, oft-mended blaster rifle cradled loosely in her arms. If someone were to burst into her lonely bunker right now, they’d be on her before she could raise the muzzle.

(If someone were to burst into the room right now, she’s not sure she’d bother to try.) (The defensive action has been drilled into her subconscious; she might not have a choice about whether or not to defend herself.)

Alone.

She swallows hard and forces her lungs to obey her commands. To take slow, even breaths.

please

Tears sting her eyes as she digs ragged fingernails into her thigh. Stupid. Stupid to send more than one message. Stupid to end on such an obvious sign of weakness. Stupid to make demands of someone who always responds in their own time.

Stupid to have ever reached out to them in the first place.

Somewhere out there is someone who sees her messages appear on their skin, and for what? How can any of it mean anything to them? How could she have let it mean so much to her?

Soulmates are not a strength; she’s always known that. There’s no one waiting to swoop into her life and make it whole.

Whatever happened to that scientist? To his family?

Her father is alive. Her father is dead. Her father is a bastard. She has no father. Saw Gerrera raised…

She stifles a sob behind one dirty palm.

I have no father.

(Her father’s last name is apparently her only value and her overwhelming disadvantage.)

(There’s no reason to believe her ‘mate would believe any differently.)

She should have just broken the Quill and smeared its ink over her forearm and been done with it. Left this childish need behind. Let a hazy smear allow them to make their own conclusions.

“Trust the Force,” the ghost of her mother’s voice says.

The Force clearly means for her to be alone.

For a moment, a wild split second, she feels the urge to rip her mother’s pendant from her neck, to smash the butt of her rifle into it over and over and over until nothing’s left but a pile of glimmering dust mixed into the filthy, cracked floor.

What stops her is the sensation of pale, winter sunlight shifting over her arm. A cold comfort, a childish indulgence. Still, she watches shadows darken under her skin, her heart beating so hard it’s as if it’s trying to outrun the consequences of her pitiful demand for comfort.

I’m here

I’m here?

Jyn’s distressed, disbelieving laugh echoes in the empty room, off bare walls, the cracked ceiling.

I’m here?

Her next burst of laughter shatters her defensive detachment; the sound becomes more than a single, stifled sob. Her chest squeezes the pain out like she’s inhaled too much smoke, loud rasping sounds that hurt as much to hear as to make.

Dangerous. Too dangerous to make noise like this, to expose so much vulnerability.

She curls up, arms around knees, compressing herself into a ball, holding the fracturing pieces of herself together as best she can. Because there sure as hell isn’t anyone else around to do it for her.

When her arm burns with another message, Jyn claws at it without looking, denying whatever trite comfort they’re attempting to offer. Like she can brush their words from her skin.

Except, except…

Except they’ve never said anything more to her after responding to her questions.

The novelty of it pulls her back to herself enough to quiet the sounds she’s making, to impose her usual silence over her misery. Her hands curl into tight enough fists that her fingernails cut into her palms, but the pain is a focus of its own. She takes one deep breath, and then another. And another. Keeps at it until it becomes natural instead of forced.

Only when she no longer has to force her body to obey her commands is she able to uncurl enough to look at her arm. She feels weak, exhausted beyond what sitting here on her arse can account for.

Feeling dull and beyond caring at this point, she glances at her arm anyway.

Oh.

Ohh…

Fury feels more natural than anguish. She doesn’t consider, doesn’t think, doesn’t fear giving away more than she should, more than is safe. Just responds, without caring about how her message will be received.

 

+

 

liar

Cassian stares at his forearm. Part of his mind is formulating possible meanings behind this response. (His gut already knows what it means, but he’s not ready to deal with it.) His ‘mate doesn’t know anything about him, can’t possibly be referring to what he does for the rebellion. Which means they mean just how empty the only comfort he can offer is.

I’ll always be here

(It’s the truth. It’s a lie.)

liar

(Always. First and foremost. He’d make it true if he could. If he were another man with something to offer, something not already given in service to the cause.)

(He rubs his chest absently, as if the pain that sits there could be soothed so easily.) (This is why he’d decided never to seek them out. Because what he could offer and what they would need were so far apart.)

He sighs and runs his hands through his hair. This is it, he supposes, though he’d thought it’d take longer. (Take longer for them to get tired of this.)

He goes down to the canteen for dinner. Not much of it is appetizing. He ends up taking a bit of bread and some kind of fruit back with him to the barracks. After postponing their debrief, he’s going to need to be absolutely on point to regain his standing with Draven.

(At least if Draven asks, he’ll be able to say his infrequent Correspondence with his soulmate is unlikely to be an issue from this point on.)

He studies the intelligence on his data pad until all that’s left in his thoughts is the information he’s spent the last three months gathering. Studies it until his eyes start to cross. Goes to bed without much hope of actually sleeping. And it’s as bad as he thinks, his brain cycling through information he already knows, except now there’s images attached. Faces he saw and discarded as unimportant, civilians living their lives, unlikely to throw their lot in against the Empire.

I’ll always be here

liar

His arm is a dark shape in the shadows, but there’s enough moonlight coming through the small window to see what he’s doing.

I’m sorry I can’t be there

That at least is true enough.

Cassian doesn’t sleep much. Mostly he trails his fingers over his arm and tells himself not to expect anything.

 

+

 

Rage energizes her.

Kestrel Dawn makes it to Ord Mantrell City. She leaves Jyn half a day behind in that dirty bunker. Almost leaves her Quill there too, except survival is drilled too deeply in her sub-consciousness to leave anything behind. (Either as a possible tool or a sign of her presence there.)

She suspects Kestrel isn’t going to last much longer. Kestrel’s ties are all to…to the Rebel Alliance. (She doesn’t know what she’s going to do with herself, but she’s not about to go running back there like a stray dog.) (Besides, she’s not any safer with them than she is on her own.)

The city is old, crumbling, abandoned by the Republic and the Empire alike. She’s been in a dozen places like this. Knows how to watch, how to spot the signs of clandestine business dealings. It might take her a couple of days, but she’ll find someone who needs something. Something she can provide. The skills she’s picked up over the last eight years will translate enough to get her off this rock.

Where she’ll go after that, who she’ll be…

She finds a place to shelter for the night. (Not sleep. It’s not safe enough for that.) Tomorrow she’ll watch.

Her arm burns under her sleeve. (It’s too soon. Her emotions are still too rocky, too close to the surface, too unpredictable even for her.) Still, she’s got nothing better to do, and she’s always been the type to poke at her wounds.

I’m sorry I can’t be there

 

+

 

don’t be

 

+

 

Kestrel Dawn never sends another message.

Tanith Pontha eventually gets lonely enough to write.

Chapter Text

Cassian works. Alliance operatives are perpetually overworked thanks to the Alliance being perpetually understaffed. (Along with perpetually low on supplies. Space. Equipment.) He’s good at infiltration, good at appearing as if he belongs in a place, has always belonged in a place, at copying the small mannerisms that mark individuals as part of a larger group.

Whenever Draven doesn’t need him – which isn’t very often – he loans himself out to “requisitions,” scouting Imperial caches, working with Kaytoo to develop the best methods for infiltration so that the officials at HQ can start asking for the next item down on their list.

It keeps him busy, fills up any empty hours he might otherwise have. But it’s what he prefers; he’d rather keep moving, keep working.

He doesn’t sleep much, and lightly when he does.

He’s not killing time, because there’s nothing to wait for.

This is his life.

 

+

 

I’m sorry I can’t be there

don’t be

 

+

 

She goes to Hutt space. It’s not the best idea for someone with secret. Or it wouldn’t be if everyone on Nar Shaddaa didn’t have at least one secret of their own. As long as she pretends her secret is smaller than it really is, she won’t raise undue suspicions. (Acting as if she isn’t hiding anything at all would be more suspicious than anything else.)

She keeps her head down; pretends there’s nothing going on around her to see. (By Saw’s…by some standards, there’s nothing to see.) (Everyone on Nar Shaddaa is here for something; greed keeps them in line enough that the Imperial presence on the moon is mainly for show.)

Back with the Partisans she’d been considered a decent slicer. Here it’s enough to get her a position in a back room…establishment. She keeps to herself, does her work, and picks up some new tricks as she goes. Moves on. Finds another back room establishment, slightly bigger, slightly less grimy. Learns some new tricks. Repeat. Never takes the same route back to her small room. Rooms. She changes lodgings more often than she changes jobs.

(It’s like part of her is sleeping. Waiting. Possibly even lost.) (She feels disconnected from herself, when she stops to think about it.) (It makes her wildly uncomfortable, so she does her best not to think about anything at all.) (Survival is an instinct by this point.)

When she’s ready she chooses a new name, buries what’s left of Kestrel Dawn as easily as she walked away from Jyn back on Ord Mantrell, as she buried her life before that deep in the cave.

She makes no friends. Barely makes acquaintances. Every time she changes jobs she moves far enough on that she may as well be a new arrival on the moon.

There’s only one person she can’t hide from. And the only thing she knows about them for certain is that they’ll never come looking for her, much less…

Kriff, she doesn’t even know what she wants from them. Sometimes she hates them with everything she has for never, not once, reaching out to her. Sometimes she’s pathetically grateful for the unspoken kindness, that she doesn’t have to be reminded that there’s…more out there. That further reminders of what she’s already lost aren’t forced on her.

Is it apathy or empathy?

Does it even matter?

Still, the day Tanith Pontha is born, she reaches out to her ‘mate.

I’m still here. Are you?

She tells herself not to expect much. There’s nearly a year of silence between them, and her angry, hurting words besides.

(Honest words though. She doesn’t want them here with her. Doesn’t want them to know her like this. It’s better that they have some imaginary version of her. Some version of her built around their infrequent interactions.)

She tells herself not to expect anything, but she knows (she knows, she knows) them. It’s not even an hour later when she feels the warmth of sunlight spilling across her arm. (She’s on the dark side of Nar Shaddaa. What’s currently the dark side of Nar Shaddaa. There’s no sun here.)

 

+

 

He’s on Nar Shaddaa, meeting an informant, a woman who used to work on an Imperial communications station until her mental health issues had become too pronounced for her superiors to ignore. Now she spends her time dozing away the first half-life of whichever benzos she can get her hands on and picking up whatever repair work she can in their second half-life.

She’s angry and alone; her ‘mate still stationed on the same communications station and willing to funnel whatever intel they can. For the pair of them the Rebellion is a very personal grasp at freedom. He feeds them a small but steady stream of credits and knows that one day they’ll use them to disappear, Alliance and Empire be equally damned.

They use each other. It’s cold, and callous, and completely impersonal. But intel is intel, and someone somewhere wants the information enough to make sure the credits appear. (He almost understands. Is almost able to care about the intangible flow of information that could maybe, possibly, indicate very real, very secret Imperial bases.) (But mostly he wants to get the intel and get back out, back to doing.)

She leaves and Cassian lingers, pretends to finish his drink. (Most of it ends up on the floor.) He watches the beings around him, flicks of fingers, tension in shoulders, stray or idle glances. Watches for mannerisms that shouldn’t be there, or ones that aren’t that are telling in their absence.

He does not press his forearm against the cool durasteel of the tabletop to stop the sudden, unexpected, burning sensation. It’s not, can’t be, stronger than he remembers it being. But then, he’s spent months trying to forget about (what it felt like when they’d first written) (the silence after he’d seen safe on his skin for the first time) (his confused and confusing resentment) (liar) everything.

He finishes his drink, sets the glass upside down on the table over a particularly battered credit chip, and wanders out of the cheap Sholaan tea house behind a mixed group of humans, Evocii, and Chiss. The group moves slowly and he tails them for ten or fifteen minutes, long enough to determine he doesn’t have a tail of his own. (Long enough to tell himself he’s been patient enough.)

Joreth Sward is a mid-rim trader with flexible morals concerning ownership when it comes to the cargo he pays for. He agrees with the politics of whoever it is he’s buying from, is willing to haggle but never presses so hard that he has to walk away from a deal. He has an unremarkable Correspondence with an equally unremarkable soulmate he’ll probably settle down with someday to live an unremarkable life. (It’s the kind of reassurance that this type of informant requires.) (No one who’s met their ‘mate imagines that anyone else would lie about theirs.)

It means he’s wearing a Quill in his collar pocket.

He slips down the first alley that’ll take him to the cheap landing pad his ship is docked at. He’ll probably have to bribe the guard on duty to get on board.

The sun’s been up for three days on this side of Nar Shaddaa. Weak as it is, filtering down through the pollution and the towering buildings that make up the planet’s surface, it’s still enough to read the message.

I’m still here. Are you?

The words are bold, stretching almost the full length of his arm. It’s new; he doesn’t know if it speaks of confidence or a lack of nerve masked behind bravado.

He doesn’t know how to respond. So he doesn’t. Not immediately, despite how that’d worked out the last time. Instead he keeps pressing on, focusing all of his attention on reaching the safety of his ship. Discipline is harder to maintain than it’d been on the trip out, but he doesn’t let his thoughts drift.

 

+

 

Later, after things have gone almost exactly the way he’d imagined they would, once Kaytoo has powered back up and is examining their cargo of contraband (because of course this mission had served two purposes), Cassian settles on his small bunk and carefully folds his sleeve back.

I’m still here. Are you?

Is this it? An actual invitation to start a conversation? Is that what he wants? Wrong question. Is that something he can commit to? He’s already made one promise to himself, and one promise to them. How many more promises can he afford to make?

(He is perfectly willing to lie about his ‘mate. He is less willing to lie to them.)

(Less willing is not the same as unwilling. And the less they speak, the less likely it is he’ll have to come to that.)

Maybe that’s what he needs them to know.

What I said last time. It wasn’t a lie.

 

+

 

She glances at the message and starts pacing across the single room of her cheap flat.

 

+

 

They’d said three things last time.

One: they were still there.

Two: they would always be there.

Three: they regretted not being with her.

 

+

 

don’t make promises you can’t keep

Jyn’s heart is in her throat, hands fisted desperately to keep from adding more. I couldn’t bear it if you left me. Neither one of them are regular correspondents, and her ‘mate has never initiated anything, but that doesn’t keep them from being there. (For now. They’re there for now.) (A part of her never stops aching from the tension of waiting for her ‘mate to disappear.) (Everyone else in her life has. She knows better than anyone that not even a soulmate is guaranteed to stay with her.)

(She can’t ask them not to leave. Revealing that much vulnerability would kill her, she thinks.)

Despite all her apprehension she can’t quite keep herself from thinking, Please. (Please understand.) (Please don’t ask why.) (Please just listen and don’t comment.)

Two hours later she receives their reply.

I can’t always answer right away

It’s a warning, and one still addressing what happened the last time they spoke, but she can handle a warning better than a promise.

(She’s not stupid. She can almost hear the unspoken promise which is I’ll always answer, which is almost as bad as I’m here. But they’re trying.)

It’s been so long since she’s felt heard that she simply accepts the warning at face value.

Those words on her arm make her heart settle back where it belongs. Jyn rubs at tired eyes and drops down onto her thin cot. It’s been thirty standard hours since she last slept. And yet…

(She’s been so alone.)

I don’t like having to be patient

 

+

 

For the first time Cassian’s truly angry with his soulmate. All the resentment he’s been holding onto for…years, if he’s being honest, bubbles up. And that’s not good, he should be beyond that, should be able to divorce his feelings from his actions. That he hasn’t, that he can’t, feels like a personal failure. And he expresses it without letting himself stop to think first.

if you don’t like long silences, don’t wait so long to write

He regrets it almost immediately. But washing the words from his skin won’t take it back. (And maybe he shouldn’t want to. Maybe he shouldn’t be encouraging them to pick their Correspondence back up.) (Maybe it’d be for the best to let them maintain their silence, since they seem to be better than him at keeping a distance.) But just because he’s learned patience doesn’t mean he enjoys it.

(He’s heard all the same stories they likely have. Stories are inescapable in their world. A soulmate is the one being he shouldn’t have to maintain distance from.)

If he is to have this one, selfish thing, he’d like to be able to rely on them and not suffer through months of silence.

He hadn’t be expecting a reply. Not really. And the one he receives is…unprecedented.

you could write first sometimes

 

+

 

The words are as casual as she can make them. Maybe her ‘mate will turn them into a light reproach, a gentle tease. But how they’ll respond matters. (No matter how she phrases it, their lack of initiative in writing to her makes her feel like a duty. A not particularly enjoyable responsibility. And because they’ve never offered the slightest encouragement, often her messages to them make her feel like a child pestering an adult for attention.)

(She wonders how old they are. Soulmates tend to be within a few years of age of each other, but there are always outliers. )

(She’d ask, but this exchange has already taken so much out of her, and she’s not sure how to ask without sounding like a demand.)

It shouldn’t matter; the good opinion of someone she’s never met shouldn’t weigh on her this much. But they’re possibly the only being in the entire galaxy to care about her even the slightest bit.

(It’s terrifying, just how much she stands to lose if they decide she’s not worth the effort.)

She falls into a fitful doze, half-propped up in the corner her cot is tucked into.

 

+

 

They must be fairly close, although that doesn’t mean much on a galactic scale. And the distance between them must be growing with every minute his ship stays in hyperspace, but Cassian lets the minutes pass.

There’s no emotion attached to the words on his arm, yet the anger inside him goes dull and cold. (He remembers being seventeen, can look back and see how naïve he was, imagining his soulmate as someone who needed a hero to swoop in and save them from their isolation.) (Everything until now has indicated they prefer isolation.) (And now he can’t shake that first impression of them, that image of them as an abandoned child, reaching out for the only connection they could hope for.)

you could write first sometimes

The words have no emotion attached to them, yet they’re…sad.

He starts to wonder about that first unspoken promise he made to them. That he won’t engage with them past what they ask for, that he will only ever tell them what they need to hear. (This last is becoming more than just a matter of survival; saying what people need to hear is quickly becoming part of who he is.)

Can he keep doing it? Is that what they’re asking for?

I didn’t want to invade your privacy

 

+

 

Oh.

Well.

Jyn traces a finger over the last word, lips moving soundlessly as she reads the message again.

I didn’t want to invade your privacy

is that what I’ve been doing? she asks. All those times she asked if they were there, is that how they’d felt? Intruded on?

She doesn’t think that’s true, not after they just asked her to write more often. But…

(But, experience has taught her that people will leave you at any time, and this time she’d rather have forewarning.)

 

+

 

never, he (promises) writes.

 

+

 

you only ever ask the one question, he writes.

 

+

 

I liked this last version better, he admits.

 

+

 

okay, she finally responds.

Chapter Text

Something changes after her conversation with her ‘mate. Something more than the fact that she occasionally writes them something that isn’t a request to prove they’re still breathing. (Something that doesn’t change is that they still don’t ever write to her first.) But something inside her that’d been missing, or out of place, seems to settle; her skin seems to fit better. She stops hurrying about with hunched shoulders, stops walking everywhere with her eyes fixed on the dirty streets.

Maybe it has nothing to do with her ‘mate and everything to do with how natural the posture feels. There’s a lot of things that could be said of her time with the Partisans, but they didn’t change who she was. Tempered her into a form she might not have taken otherwise, maybe, but there’s always been steel in her spine.

She doesn’t go looking for trouble, but she moves like someone who can put a stop to anything that someone else might start. And, she might step in and stop a few fights before they can really get started, but the point is she doesn’t go out of her way to find them. (Not that she has to, considering where she is.)

The next time she moves on, it’s because she’s stopped one too many back alley assaults on beings who can’t do it themselves. And the people she keeps trouncing have started to notice. (Honestly, she doesn’t go looking for fights to get into, but she’d forgotten how good it feels to throw herself into a physical fight and come out the other side short of breath but essentially unscathed.)

She hops quarters with nothing more than Lyra’s necklace, Kestrel’s duffle, and the Quill in her pocket. (But then, she doesn’t own much more than that.)

The first thing she buys once she’s as reestablished as she ever gets is a pair of knuckledusters that she can tuck in an inner jacket pocket. (She’d prefer a pair of weighted batons, but the Stormtroopers around here are indifferent and greedy, not stupid. Or at least not stupid enough to let her slip away if she revealed what she could do with two rods of carbon polymer.)

 

+

 

She’s learned that her ‘mate won’t respond to the non-sequiturs she sends them, but they’ll always answer her questions.

what’s one thing you never leave behind? she asks while looking at the dull glitter of metal looped around her fingers. She’ll need to find some acid or something to take that remaining shine off. Dumb to announce the presence of a weapon before it’s used.

 

+

 

He shouldn’t have encouraged them. (Selfish, selfish, selfish.) He’d almost regretted it, the way he’d asked them to write more often, but…

They’d been circumspect. He’s not sure why he’d expected anything else. Mainly he’d been dreading a deluge of personal information, or requests for the same. But over time, after message after message of…random details of their life, the heat he starts to feel at an incoming message is a gentle warmth of expectation.

there’s a hole in my boot they tell him in the middle of a mission briefing.

can’t decide if protein cubes are better or worse after sitting for a week, they complain a few weeks later as he’s trying and failing to fall asleep in a safe house on Phaeda.

there’s a 50% chance you don’t know this, but cramps are the worst, they say.

I don’t remember the last time I slept, they say.

how would you fix a hole in your boot?

look, if you’re never going to respond, why am I doing this?

He’s going to respond. He will. But he has to wash the blood from his hands first. (Some, but not all of it, is his.)

(It takes longer to respond than a simple washing of his hands. It’s harder to divorce himself from what he’s done when he’s going to write to them.) (To her?) (Them.)

I’m sorry he tells them. Eventually. I guess I don’t always know what to say.

you could start by telling me how to fix the hole in my boot

Cassian smiles. And does as he’s told.

 

+

 

They keep asking him questions. Innocent questions. Hypotheticals. Rhetorical. Their questions are random, so specific, perhaps, to what is happening in the life they don’t talk about that he has a hard time discerning anything about them.

Which reminds him that he’s not supposed to be figuring anything out about them. His ‘mate isn’t one of his assets, to be pumped for whatever information they may knowingly or unknowingly possess. This level of communication is already more than he’d ever thought he’d have with them.

It’s just easier to remember it when she…they…ask questions he doesn’t know how to answer.

what’s one thing you never leave behind?

what do you mean? (He’s not stalling.) (He’s trying to walk a line between truth and honesty.) (They sound like the same thing, but they’re not.)

 

+

 

the thing you’d feel naked without

His lullaby pill is a conspicuous weight at his collar, his blaster heavy against his thigh. Kaytoo clanks along behind him as they walk towards the transport. Joreth Sward’s scandocs are in his pocket. He’s heading out for an undetermined amount of time. They’re losing contacts at a higher rate than usual; if he finds the cause, he’ll have to bring it back and deal with it. But there’s time. He can find a way to respond before he has to go quiet.

 

+

 

Everything he owns was given to him by the Rebellion. And everything he was given was given to him for a reason. Even truth and honesty.

 

+

 

There isn’t a single thing he owns that he’d feel the loss of if it weren’t with him.

 

+

 

my clothes?

smartass

 

+

 

Cassian smiles, allows himself this moment of…softness, traces the letters in the privacy of the bay while Kaytoo pilots. Sentiment is a weakness, one embodied in a being he’s never met. Will probably never meet.

It’s probably going to be one of those missions. He knows because ‘Kay hasn’t volunteered any information about their chances of success.

So he drags things out. (He’s got three days of hyperspace travel to kill.) Waits until the words have faded entirely, until he can’t even see the shadows under his skin.

what about you?

oh, well,  you know how I feel about my boots

 

+

 

They talk to each other without managing to say much of anything. For Jyn, who’s spent a lifetime (several lifetimes, maybe) hiding who she is behind deliberate misunderstandings and disambiguation, it doesn’t seem strange. She’s so used to looking for the meaning behind words that it never occurs to her that her soulmate may take her messages at face value.

She can’t tell them what she’s afraid to lose. (Her fingers find the small lump of her necklace under her shirt.) (There’s two things she’d be bereft without, and only one of them is something she can hold in her hand.) But her boots seem like a harmless surrogate. (By the time they’d walked her through how to patch the hole in her boot she’d had it fixed for weeks. But getting the hole fixed had never been the point.)

no leaks, by the way

good

worried about my feet getting cold?

you do have a way of going silent for too long

Jyn’s heart trips a little over that second to last word. It looks a little too much like honesty, like emotion. (Like her fingers clenched around a Quill and etching the word please into her skin.)

It fires a small rebellious flame in her gut.

not long enough to ever make you write

 

+

 

Communicating this way is so strange. So many delays. Real life carries her along with it, ordinary concerns intrude, like whether she can pay for her next meal or if she needs to snag bits and pieces of it from different stalls on her way back to her flat, whether the swelling in the knuckles on her left hand is going down or if she needs to find a way to trade a few favors in for something that will do the job quickly. Then she’ll feel the warmth of sunlight against her forearm, skin prickling under her sleeve and she’ll remember their ongoing conversation as if there’d been no pause in it at all.

about that…

hmm?

There’s a lag between messages, of course, but it’s a fairly regular one. They must be trying to have a conversation with her.

I need to ask you for something

 

+

 

This is the hard part. What he’s been putting off with an aimlessness only they seem to inspire in him. (He’s always, it seems, been putting this off. Ever since he sent that first response.)

Cassian doesn’t know why he’s sure he’s about to ask them for something that will be difficult for them to give.

(He does.) (It’s in are you still there?) (please) (don’t make promises you can’t keep)

He waits for a reply, knows how many hours to give them before giving up on receiving one.

it’s not what you think he writes. (He doesn’t know what they think. Doesn’t know if they expect him to cut off all contact or push for more, but either way it’s not –)

“This form of communication is ineffective and archaic.” Kaytoo’s voice echoes from the cockpit. “If you insist on maintaining an association with this individual, you should establish a comlink with them.”

Cassian sighs and scrubs his hands through his hair. This isn’t the first time Kay’s offered the opinion, probably won’t be the last. And as usual, he doesn’t engage the droid in debating the relative merits of different forms of communication. He’d never be able to offer that much trust to them, and doubts they’d be willing to accept it if he did.

He wonders if he’s already scared them away. It’s not uncommon for ‘mates who’ve been Corresponding for this long to start talking about the possibility of meeting. (What is uncommon is how little they know about each other.)

And they might actually stop speaking to him for this. For what he’s going to ask them to do. But considering ‘Kay hasn’t volunteered the odds of making it back to Yavin IV in once piece, considering how their messages always distract him, for just a moment, despite his discipline in (delayed gratification) disguising his need to look…

He can’t be distracted this time.

And he can’t afford to ignore anything they send.

 

+

 

They tell her it’s not what she thinks, but how can they possibly know what she’s thinking?

(Not that she’s thinking.) (Feeling…well, it doesn’t take much to revive the knot of tension in her gut.) (Survival instincts, the Partisans would have said.) (Time to run again.) (She hasn’t worked out how to run from someone who is as close as her own skin.)

Close on the heels of (panic) gut instinct is…disappointment. Followed by…expectation. Maybe. She shouldn’t be upset that they’ve finally found a way to use her at the same time she feels relief for the same thing. (She knows what they’ve done for her, even if neither of them has ever expressed it. And while most of the time she doesn’t care if she leaves debts in her wake, she doesn’t like feeling she owes them.)

It’s a mixture of dismay and anticipation that has her writing back.

I’m listening

 

+

 

Cautious.

He has to smile at their innate caution.

If only the galaxy was different. If they were different. (Maybe they could have a different conversation.)

(It occurs to him that he could probably manage to recruit them. If he tried. Get them to join the Rebellion. But that would be a different kind of hell.)

I need to go silent. For awhile.

He thinks he knows how they’ll take that, after everything he’s said about staying in contact. After they’ve put effort into meeting his expectations. He’s backing away; he swallows around the lump in his throat and waits. I’m sorry.

 

+

 

(She knew it.) (She knew it.) (She knew it.)

 

+

 

it’s not like you write a lot in the first place

It’s easier to pretend she doesn’t know what’s coming, but she’s been left before.

This time she’s going to force them to say it outright instead of allowing them to pretend that things will be fine. (Everyone who’s ever left her has pretended they were doing something else.)

 

+

 

you know what I’m trying to say

 

+

 

I really don’t

 

+

 

You’re a distraction. The best distraction. I’m sorry.

 

+

 

Jyn wipes her hands on her pants. Her palms are sweaty and she feels sick. Cold.

So many pretty words. Words that could have come from her. (What is her ‘mate but a distraction from the ugliness of her life?) She knows what those words, in that order, mean.

Her ‘mate’s a soldier. Doesn’t really matter which kind. There’s enough fight to go around these days.

She remembers flying towards Kashyyyk and trying to decide what she’d want to say if she never got another chance to write. She remembers deciding not to say anything. (She remembers not wanting to explain herself if her message raised any alarms.) (She remembers wanting to avoid this exact conversation.)

It’s suddenly not so important to force them to admit they’re…

(If she loses them, she has no one.)

 

+

 

She can’t lose them. She can’t lose them any more than she can live without sleep, or warmth, or shelter.

She also can’t bring herself to write back.

The problem is, silence doesn’t seem like an answer this time. It seems a lot like cowardice.

It takes half a day to work up the courage to respond, another century to decide what words to use.

 

+

 

you know that means you’ll have to write first

 

+

 

They respond before ‘Kay drops them out of hyperspace. The burning in his arm doesn’t relax him, exactly, but it eases the tension in his shoulders, lightens the boulder sitting in his stomach.

you know that means you’ll have to write first

It’s more of a concession than he was expecting to receive. He still doesn’t relax, but he does feel relief, a heady, dizzy feeling that makes him want to bow his head and offer something in return. (Not a promise. He hasn’t forgotten that they don’t want promises from him any more than they want to know who he is.)

He has a few minutes. Just a few minutes left before he has to set himself aside and become a tool of the Alliance. Before he has to set aside this delicate flicker of hope and become the hardened agent who has a chance of completing the mission before him.

He doesn’t use it to make promises or apologies. Doesn’t use it to lie or ask for more comfort than what he’s been given. Instead he offers the only comfort he’s ever been able to give them: that he saw their message.

 

+

 

thank you

 

+

 

The words make her sick.

Jyn tucks her Quill away at the bottom of her duffle and rolls her sleeves down as far as they’ll go.

 

+

 

+

 

+

 

Slicing isn’t challenging enough anymore. Doesn’t consume enough of her focus. So she branches out into forging documents. It’s almost the same thing, except not quite. It helps keep her distracted.

And when that doesn’t work… It’s not hard to find fights when she’s not looking for them. When she is?

 

+

 

Mostly the far-flung resources of Alliance Intelligence are individuals with so little importance beyond a single line of intel that he cuts them loose, never to be contacted again.

But people die. Some of them because Cassian can’t unravel the threads around their counteragent fast enough to pin them down. (Fast enough to convince him it is a counter-agent at work, an Imperial agent inside the Alliance network, but never fast enough make up for having started almost in the dark.) Some of them because they’ve become liabilities and they know too much.

(The soulmate of his asset on Nar Shaddaa is one of the former.) (The asset on Nar Shaddaa is one of the latter, and he thinks he sees relief in her eyes when she catches sight of him.)

He perseveres.

 

+

 

are you there

are you there

are you there

The unasked words beat in time to the dull ache of her bruises. Nar Shaddaa is losing its appeal. She stands out too much, the small, vicious human and her Imperial accent. (Not that she talks much, but she’s in Hutt space and there’s already a target hidden on her back.)

She trades work for odd corners in smuggler’s vessels, making for Sleheyron. It shouldn't be hard to find a ship making the run from Kessel to Coruscant. She’ll be better able to disappear if she goes Core-ward for once.

(Her only value and her overwhelming disadvantage is a name shared with a possible dead man, and she can be anyone she wants. If both sides in this kriffing war would use her then there’s no such thing as safety and she might as well go where she wants.)

(Sun, she thinks. She’d like to go some place where she can feel the sun on her skin.)

 

+

 

Cassian finds the man he’s looking for.

 

+

 

Jyn is cold, no matter how she lets the sun rest on her arms.

Chapter Text

“Lieutenant Andor.”

“Colonel?” As he comes to attention he’s everything Intelligence needs in an officer. Cold, remote, and unrelenting. (He will likely see a promotion for this and hate himself for it. Because they all do.) There’s nothing to reveal what he’s thinking, on his face or in his posture. He’s every inch the officer Draven has trained, has promoted, has sent on assignment. He’d given a flawless debrief of his mission, of finding the Imperial spy in their ranks, of the information the man had given up. Had recounted every scrap of pertinent information with absolute composure, without revealing any hint of his personal feelings on the matter.

Draven has a choice: allow the lieutenant to maintain his protective coldness, or push him back towards warming. (Push him towards someone who can call him back to himself despite everything that stains them.)

In the end, the man and the officer are inseparable. Ultimately, the ability to feel pain makes better officers. More human officers.

“When is the last time you were in contact with your soulmate?” It’s a personal question, barely acceptable coming from even a superior officer, but it’s one that matters. It’s more than just speaking to someone you trust, perhaps despite your better judgment. It’s the chemicals released by the body when a message is received; the calming influence of serotonin and oxytocin. Biology is as responsible for soulmates as the Force, and there’s times when that biology can be made useful.

Andor somehow squares his shoulders in a way they weren’t rigidly straight before. Stares ahead without seeming to really see anything in front of him.

“Sir?”

“You’re relieved of duty for the next forty-eight hours. Effective immediately. I trust I’ve made myself clear.”

 

+

 

They call these tiny little rooms the tanks. They’re used by Intelligence officers who need time and privacy to resurface from assignments, especially long term ones. They’re a lot like a prison cell, in some ways, though the doors are actually incapable of locking.

Cassian sits on the standard issue cot, back against the wall as he stares, unseeingly, across the room. His empty hands hang limply over his drawn-up knees. Across the room his duffle rests on a bench; inside are the same clothes he’s had with him for the last six…no, seven months, his data pad, the com unit he uses to keep in contact with Kaytoo, and a Quill.

He doesn’t touch any of it. His hands have held too many things in the last week, none of them fit for civilized company. And that’s just in the last week.

And yet…

(His hands flex restlessly before going still again.)

He didn’t promise, though. They were right to keep him from doing that.

Maybe he should put an end to this now. There’s always going to be another mission. There’s always going to be someone with information that he’ll need to retrieve by one means or another. If he talks to them now, it’s only a matter of time they’re right back here.

Cassian doesn’t write.

 

+

 

He doesn’t write at first.

 

+

 

It’s just…now that he’s not moving he can’t stop thinking about it. About them. Waiting. Always waiting for him to set them at ease. And as the hours pass without anything else to fill them his guilt becomes stronger than anything else he’s feeling.

He didn’t promise them anything. That’s not the same as what he expects out of himself.

His hands tremble under the weight of the Quill.

 

+

 

Silence doesn’t make Jyn’s temper any sweeter. Despite the boisterous attitude she affects, despite the easy camaraderie she shams with the pack of young criminals she falls in with on Brentaal. (They’re all young, and filled with enough anger to suit her, even if she’s the one with most experience in the bunch.) (As a fighter or a forger.) Despite smuggling whatever they can get their hands on out to the Rim colonies for whatever people are willing to pay them, despite doing it under the noses of Imperial agents and troopers alike, her temper is not appeased.

It makes her stupid in a way that Saw would upbraid her for if he were there. Which of course he isn’t. Because she’s clearly not the kind of person people stick around for.

She gets into enough ill-conceived brawls that she spends a night in an Imperial jail cell for the first time. (And a second. And a third.) Not to mention the week she waits, expecting to be shipped to an Imperial prison off world for what is mildly described as “resisting arrest” on her rap sheet and looked a hell of a lot like her taking her frustrations out on a squad of ‘troopers with a length of pipe. That is, until her group of blossoming convicts-to-be change her records in the system and get her released.

She should be grateful.

She’s furious.

Her fury stays contained behind a toothy grin and hard eyes even as she moves them from Votrad to Oradin and does her best to beat the idealism out of them. (At eighteen she’s not the oldest in bunch, but her experience counts for something, and these idiots will get themselves killed if they can’t learn to recognize when to cut their loses.)

 

+

 

Vorin calls her too-cautious, teases her for being sixteen going on sixty. When he steals a kiss it gives her a direction for all of her pent up wrath.

The sex is energetic and sweaty, lets her work off some of the emotions that are always boiling just under the surface of her self-control. It’s about as intimate as a fist-fight, and nearly as gentle. (But for a moment she’s not alone.)

 

+

 

Vorin’s a couple of years older than her, skin burned brown and hair bleached blonde by hours in the sun closer to Brentaal’s equator. He’s charming in a way that means she doesn’t trust ninety percent of what he says, but he doesn’t seem to put a lot of effort into trying to lie to her, so she lets it slide. He’s uncomplicated in a way her life has never been. In a way she’s never been. He’s deceptively unconcerned about everything, which tells her more about him than anything else, and he doesn’t push for more than she allows him.

They don’t share more than a few minutes alone together every now and then. In fact, she still prefers solitude for the most part, her right hand wrapped tight around her left wrist in the moments she wants to reach out for something else. (Someone else.)

 

+

 

Cassian writes the first thing that pops into his head.

 

+

 

Jyn lunges for the light by her bedroll once she realizes that the heat on her arm isn’t just the muggy air. Her fingers are clumsy with urgency, in a way she’s never experienced, but she manages to turn the light on. Enough to see the writing on her bare arm.

She falls back on her bedroll, hands hiding her face though there’s no one to see her. Her ribs ache as she inhales as deeply as she can, a slow, shuddery breath that she lets out just as slowly. Takes another one as her palms press tighter to her closed eyes.

Alive.

They’re alive.

And not just alive, but they’ve actually written to her.

(They’ve been out of contact for longer. Seven months is nothing for them compared to the times they might go a year or more without saying a thing to each other.) (This shouldn’t be so…shouldn’t feel so…)

She doesn’t cry. At least, she doesn’t make any sounds loud enough for anyone to hear.

 

+

 

It takes her too long to calm down. Maybe it takes her no time at all. She can’t really tell and the words on her arm are no help. They’re faded, but she doesn’t think they were particularly dark to start with. And the content… It’s upsetting in an entirely different way.

run away with me

They don’t mean it. They can’t mean it. She doesn’t want them to mean it. (She desperately wants to say yes.) (If she thought she had a chance in hell of finding something like safety in the company of another person, nothing would stop her.)

She needs to tell them that she can’t do this again, can’t let herself get close and then have to back away and wait for an all-clear. (You know what to do. Her mother’s mouth shapes the words and Jyn nods and creeps back after her parents anyway…)

No. That’s not it. She can’t allow herself to be dependent on them because it’s too hard to go back to being alone when they’re not there. And she will always have to be prepared for that moment. (She’s always known it, but now she’s had the reality of it.)

Her chest burns, aching already at the thought of being alone. Or maybe at the thought or writing back. (Of course she’s going to write back. She can’t… She won’t not answer when this is the first time they’ve ever written to her first. Especially if…)

It occurs to her that she doesn’t have to cut off all contact. She could just go back to reaching out every now and then, confirming her continued existence and offering no more than that. They probably won’t fight her over it. Probably won’t even mention it.

They’ll notice, though. She doesn’t think she’d be lucky enough to escape that. But they’re not the type to pressure her into anything.

(They’re not the type to pressure her into anything. That’s what makes playing along with their fantasy alright.) (It’s what tells her this will never be anything more than one of those after the battlefield conversations.) (“What if we walked away from this?”) (“What would you do if the war ended?”) (“Where would you go?”) (“Who would you be?”)

(Maybe they both just need something soft, something make-believe to hold on to for awhile.)

(Maybe they even deserve it.)

 

+

 

where would we go?

A sharp pain in his chest accompanies the words, but it’s a welcome pain. A sharper counterpoint to the dull tingle of an incoming message. (They’re not the furthest they’ve ever been from him, but far enough. The message is faded in a way that promises hours between exchanges.)

He knows a pleasant lie when he’s told one, having told so many of them himself. And this, their response, is everything he could have wished for. The best possible reaction to his hasty, ill-conceived impulse.

Even knowing that every word is an impossibility, he responds in kind.

Have you ever seen the Temple of Joining on Alderaan?

 

+

 

tell me about it, they say, as if whether they’ve ever seen it or not doesn’t matter. As if they know…

 

+

 

He tells them about the temple.

He tells them about Alderaan.

About a park he used to walk through between the Imperial barracks and the palace, though not about either of those. About the festival of lights he’d watched, though not about the façade of a bored officer he’d had to wear. About the people, but not about himself.

He writes to them so quickly, so often, that there isn’t time for them to form a response to any single message. (He scrubs the tacky pigment off his arm with the palm of his hand the moment it’s dry enough, his words forming into dirty balls of ink and cheap plastene the can be impatiently brushed away.) He writes until he runs out of words. Until he remembers all the things he can’t tell them. It leaves him feeling suddenly empty, unpleasantly light, like there’s nothing tethering him to the violent mundanities of his life.

His hand falls back down to the cot, the Quill once again heavy and lifeless to his touch.

 

+

 

From behind the locked door to her tiny room, Jyn watches the messages pour through her. Her heart aches a little more with every message, but it’s a dull, old hurt. (A childhood hurt, an ache of remembered – and shared – loneliness.) Weeks of messages – perhaps years of messages – too steady and too rushed for her to interrupt.

She gets it. She does. Understands this need to talk about all the things that won’t hurt to talk about because of how much whatever you just endured does hurt. (Her ‘mate is a soldier and she’s sent them messages just like this but hers had been about protein cubes and how kriffing miserable monsoon season is and…and nagged them to tell her how to fix her boots.)

She hopes that whoever they are, wherever they are, that this is the first time they’ve faced this. That she’s been a soldier longer than they have.

When the words slow down, when she’s reasonably certain no more messages are coming, Jyn lets out a shaky breath and relaxes against the wall.

She has a choice: start letting them down now – send a brief but gentle reply, one that discourages further communication – or respond in kind. (She’s not kind. Never has been, she thinks.) (She’s always been too guarded to be something as soft as kind implies.) But they’re all she has, all she’ll probably ever have, if she keeps letting her temper get her into scrapes with the Imps. So maybe she should ask a question before she makes any decisions.

 

+

 

are you safe?

It takes her a long time to decide how to phrase her question. They might be talking about running away together, might be pretending that there’s something out there that’s more than what either of them is willing to offer, but that doesn’t mean she wants the responsibility of knowing anything about them. She doesn’t want to know where they are. Doesn’t want to know if Alderaan is their home planet. Doesn’t want their name. (Especially doesn’t want their name.) (Names aren’t safe, a lesson that’s been drilled into her with all the exacting violence of the blows she used to take to teach her never to drop her weapon.)

But this at least is a reference point for them, one she’s always used to mean, “Not actively in danger.” But maybe it means something different for them.

(She doesn’t even consider that they might lie to her.)

 

+

 

As safe as I’ve ever been, they tell her, and she knows…

She knows she can’t keep this up. This being the strange orbit they’ve fallen into. This being those months of sickening weightlessness when staying out of contact isn’t a choice but a necessity. This being the forced acknowledgement of what she could still so easily lose. This being forced to face her fears and finding herself unequal to the task.

But right now they’re lying to each other. So she sets a shakily held Quill against her skin and writes back.

my mother used to talk about the temple on Jedha

 

+

 

Tell me about it.

 

+

 

They talk to him through the night. They talk to him until his exhaustion wins out over his numbness, until a lack of sleep becomes something he can no longer bear. (Until his own darkness is pushed back far enough that he might actually stand of chance of finding sleep if he closes his eyes.)

I missed you isn’t a thought he verbalizes, not even within his own mind. (If communicating with them is a weakness he can barely afford, then missing it when he can’t have it is a potentially deadly one.) Thank you seems too telling, and he’s already asked them to play a game of make believe with him.

He tells them goodnight instead before settling into them meager comfort of the bunk.

(His weariness is extreme enough to drag him past where his dreams can follow.) (The warmth in his arm never quite leaves him though.) (Maybe he does dream, but it’s of a warm hand wrapped around his arm, as if he weren’t completely alone.)

 

+

 

Jyn emerges from her day and a half of isolation and drags Vorin into a dim, out of the way corner, because she can take her riotous emotions out on him and he won’t take it personally.

Two standard days later a message blooms across her skin.

Still here.

me too

Her response is automatic, because even if she can’t bear the indulgence of pointless messages anymore, she still can’t afford to lose her ‘mate entirely.

The familiarity of the message starts an itch in her gut though, and before she knows it, the urge to move on is overwhelming.

 

+

 

Everything she owns still fits in a single duffle. One day she leaves with it and catches a transport to the expansion zone.

 

+

 

Jyn does what she does best. She survives. She survives on what little she can wrest out of those around her.

 

+

 

Cassian waits. He’d known he was asking too much from his ‘mate. Had known that silence would likely follow their attempt to pretend they could have a different sort of life. Had been prepared for it, even.

 

+

 

Cassian does what he does best. He submerges himself in his work because the Rebellion does not wait.

And, when weeks later, the words still here appear on his arm he does not press for anything else.

(He almost believes himself when he says he’s not disappointed. That this is what he’s been expecting. That this is even possibly for the best.)

 

+

 

When the words still here appear on her arm, Jyn goes looking for the most likely fight she can find, and takes the pain of them out on whoever is kind enough to oblige her.