"All I'm saying" —The woman turned and looked over her shoulder for the tenth time— "is that there's a lot of credits going in and out. And we're being pressured to cook the books, if you know what I mean."
Hera's gaze shifted to the entry of the small cafe and back again. Their local contact was clearly anxious about being seen with them, and that always put Hera on edge. "Any chance you can get us a copy of one of those books?"
The woman blinked nervously. "I… Look, I'd love to help you but—"
"We know we're asking a lot of you," Kanan said, his voice smooth. "We only need enough to see the pattern. You could download that in a few seconds and pass it on to us."
"We can meet you anywhere," Hera added. "We know Six Star is involved in some illegal activity. This could be just the information we need to—"
"To put hardworking people out of their jobs?" The contact lowered her voice to a whisper. "Look, I agreed to talk to you because I'm suspicious that there's something shady going on. But if this corporation goes down, what will happen to the people who depend on it for their livelihoods? Six Star has taken over this place. There's nothing else left."
"People are already being hurt by this corporation's practices," Hera said softly. "That will only get worse."
"The legitimate business will continue," Kanan added. "As long as the Empire needs this planet's resources, there will be jobs. But Six Star has made things worse here, hasn't it?"
The contact's forehead furrowed. "I can't deny that it was better before Six Star took over. Everyone was paid more, and there were more opportunities. Now it's just…" She looked away, her lips pressed into a thin line.
Hera leaned forward, clasping her hands together on the table. "They're taking everything they can from this world as cheaply as possible, and they don't care how it affects the people or the environment. And all the credits are going into the bank accounts of the industrialists in the Emperor's pockets, while the people suffer the consequences. It's happening all over the galaxy. If we don't start standing up to them, what will we have left?"
The contact shook her head and stared down at her own weathered hands. "I know you're right — I do. But I'm afraid. I have so much to lose."
Hera nodded. "I know you're afraid. But we need good people like you to help us do what's right, or it will never get better."
The woman sighed heavily, then looked up at her. "I'll see what I can do. Perhaps I can put some data on a chip and pass it to you in the morning." She glanced at the chrono on the wall behind them. "I've got to go or I'll be late for my shift. I get off at 0800. I'll pass through the main square on my way home."
"We'll find you," Hera said. "Thank you."
The woman nodded once, then rose to her feet and walked away.
Hera exhaled and slumped in her seat the moment she disappeared through the doorway. "I thought for a moment there she wasn't going to help us."
"She hasn't yet," Kanan pointed out, lifting his glass to his lips. "0800 is a long time from now."
"I know." Hera picked up her own glass and took a long drink. She winced and set it down again. "Ugh, what is that?"
"I don't know, but I kinda like it," Kanan said with a grin, and downed the rest of his drink. "We've got half a standard day before we see if she'll get us anything. What else are we supposed to be doing here?" There was a slight edge to his voice: he didn't like being left in the dark when they were given operations like this one.
Hera ignored it, as usual. "Let's go check out the facility. Maybe we can find a way in, take a look around."
"Do we have time to get a bite to eat first?"
"Thinking with your stomach again?"
He leaned back in his seat and gave her an almost roguish smile. "We're in a cafe. You've got to admit it's convenient."
After a quick meal, they headed down the crowded street toward the large pyramid-shaped building that was the sector's main employer: Chortarsta Chemical. Owned by Maltho's Six Star Industries conglomerate, it was a remarkably profitable corporation. Too profitable, in fact, considering that it had built its reputation upon products that were now banned in most of the galaxy. Still, the business churned on, and no one asked what was happening to all the illegal chemicals they were shipping offworld. Or at least, they didn't ask anymore — no one knew what had happened to the whistleblowers who'd first brought the situation to the attention of Hera's superiors.
Kanan touched Hera's arm. "Where's everyone going in such a hurry?"
She looked up from her contemplation of the Chortarsta pyramid's architecture (and potential vulnerable entry points) to see that the streets appeared to be emptying out. People were rushing along, some heading toward the pyramid and others away, but all with a purpose. The crowd was thinner now than it had been even a few minutes ago, and stores along the street were beginning to close up shop. She looked up at the sky: the system's sun was on the verge of setting.
"Perhaps they literally roll up the streets at sunset?"
Kanan frowned. "Maybe we should follow their lead and head back to the ship for the night."
A woman hurried past with two young children trailing behind her, saying, "Quickly! We can't afford to get caught out after curfew."
"Right," Hera said, gritting her teeth. There had been no mention of a curfew in any of the landing briefings they'd received. And of course, they were on the opposite side of the city from the spaceport.
"Maybe we can get a hovercab." Kanan stepped to the side of the street and flagged down an approaching cab.
"I'm headed to District 4," the driver said around the tabac stick in the corner of his mouth.
"We need to go to the spaceport," Kanan replied.
The driver laughed. "You're out of luck, man. There's no way to get there before curfew." He shook his head and drove on.
"Blast," Kanan muttered, looking around. "Now what?"
"We need to get off the street somehow." Hera glanced pointedly at an approaching security hovercar, its driver having apparently noticed they were offworlders. "If we could find a spot to hole up until morning—"
"There," Kanan said, pointing across the street. A small sign hanging above a bar had the word "INN" printed on it. Or had at one time, at least. The second nern looked a bit like a yirt.
Hera groaned inwardly at the thought of spending precious credits on a room at a dilapidated inn when they had a perfectly functional ship to sleep in on the other side of town. But she didn't have a better idea, and they didn't have much time. "Fine. Let's hope there's space available."
The stairs leading up to the inn's entrance were grimy, but the room behind the dull gray door at the top was spartan and clean. A dark-skinned woman with a rakish mop of white hair stood behind a counter. She didn't stop scribbling in her record book as they approached.
"Got one room left."
"How much?" Hera asked.
Hera winced. "We'll take it."
The room was small even by spacer standards, but at least it was clean. The sleeping pallet took up most of the floor space, leaving just enough room for them both to stand at once. There was a connected 'fresher unit, though, which Kanan ducked into immediately.
"It has a water shower!" he called from behind the door.
Hera smiled. Kanan loved water showers, and it was rare that he got one. Hera didn't quite get the appeal; the thought of all that water running over her skin made her feel slightly itchy. If she wanted to get wet, she'd go for a swim.
"So you'll be an hour, then?" She leaned against the wall and pulled off her boots.
Kanan's face appeared in the doorway. "Do you need to get in here before I do?"
"No. Go and enjoy it."
He grinned before closing the door. She took off her headgear and utility belt, and stretched out on the sleeping pallet. It was surprisingly comfortable. The gentle hum of running water permeated the room, and she closed her eyes. She was tired, now that she thought about it. This city's time shift was eight standard hours off the one they followed onship, and so neither of them had slept in almost an entire standard day. A period of enforced rest would be good for them.
She hadn't realized she'd fallen asleep until she felt the pallet shift slightly as Kanan settled next to her. The room was dark and quiet but for the slight squeak of the springs beneath them. Kanan's breathing evened out and Hera drifted off again, her brain already weaving strange patterns.
She slowly became aware of a muffled squeaking sound, followed by rhythmic groaning. She opened her eyes and stared up into the dim light. It was a moment before she registered what she was hearing. She pressed her hands over her face and sighed.
"I think they're right above us," Kanan mumbled, sounding half-asleep himself.
She tried to block out the sound, but it seemed only to get louder. A second voice joined the groaning, pitched higher. "This is why I prefer to sleep on my ship, you know."
Kanan inhaled as if he were about to make a witty retort, but then stopped. A third voice had begun to moan in the room above them.
Hera's annoyance melted into giggles then. She turned to grin at Kanan, who was now listening with interest. She swatted his shoulder. "Give them some privacy!"
Kanan snorted. "If they wanted privacy, they wouldn't be so loud. They want everyone in the building to know how much fun they're having." There was a hint of envy in his tone.
Hera turned onto her side and watched his profile. His tongue darted out to wet his lips, and she felt a familiar spark in her belly. "Is it fun, then? I wouldn't know."
He turned his head to look at her, his expression one of shock. "You've never—"
"Had sex with two people at once? No." She smirked at him and tucked one of her lekku under her head. "But you have?"
He blinked at her. "I… well, I mean…"
"I thought Jedi didn't go for that sort of thing."
"I'm not a Jedi, am I?" He looked away again.
She bit her lip, regretting the remark. He didn't like talking about his Jedi past, but when he did, it was always with reverence. And there she'd gone and pointed out just how much he'd turned his back on their teachings. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that."
"No, it's… They weren't like that, anyway. Some were celibate and some were not. It was a personal choice."
The noises above grew to a crescendo, drawing their attention back to the ceiling. Other voices could be heard now as well — people in other rooms shouting curses in a variety of languages, most of which translated to Hurry the frak up and finish already!
Kanan turned to look at her again, his eyes dark and wide, and Hera felt a twinge in another place altogether. He was attractive for a human; she couldn't deny that. The combination of a strange room, darkness, and the lascivious cries from the room above was weirdly intoxicating, pushing her to voice thoughts she would otherwise have tucked away.
"So are you going to tell me?"
"About—" She pointed up.
A strange smile spread over his lips. "Why do you want to know?"
"Call it research."
He turned onto his side, shifting his body closer to her in the process. "On me?"
She smirked. "On human sexuality in general. It's not an area I have expertise in."
"Really, you've never had sex with a human?"
"No. Does that surprise you?"
He hesitated. "I suppose you've had far more important things to do."
"Something like that. But I don't want to talk about me." She gave him a mock-stern look.
"Right." He smiled lazily at her. "Well, since you really want to know, the first time was when I was fairly young."
"The first time?" Kanan's response was a sly shrug, and Hera shook her head. "How young?"
"Barely sixteen. I was working for this smuggling operation, and we got stranded on one of the moons of Tultin for a standard week when the ship broke down. It was the sort of place that's full of drunk spacers getting into fistfights, you know? So one night I was hanging out in a bar with some of the crew, and these two women were watching us from across the room. The others fed me some drinks and dared me to go over and talk to them, flirt with them and see if I'd get anywhere. I later found out the crew had arranged it all in advance, just to see if I'd go along." He paused for a moment, as if letting that information sink in. "So anyway, I went over and tried to flirt with them, and probably made an idiot of myself. But they smiled and took me by the hand and led me upstairs to a private room. They undressed me, and then they both started kissing me and touching me, and I think I lasted all of three minutes." He grinned at Hera, and she couldn't help returning it. "And then they just kept going."
The mental image of a younger, inexperienced Kanan being thoroughly debauched by two lovers was undeniably appealing. Hera took a slow breath and exhaled again. "And were you… comfortable with that?"
"Are you kidding? I was thrilled. It went on most of the night, with them putting me into different positions and just… I don't know how to describe it. It was like I was floating in sensation for hours. Eventually I fell asleep for a bit, but then they woke me up to start again." His fingers traced a pattern on the surface of the pallet between them. His voice lowered to nearly a whisper. "It was amazing, actually. They did things I'd heard about, but had no idea were actually possible. It set the bar kind of high."
"I imagine it did."
They stared at each other in the dim light. Kanan swallowed, and Hera's gaze followed the line of his throat down to where his undershirt gaped open on his chest, revealing sparse dark hair on his skin. She wondered what it would feel like beneath her fingers.
She forced her gaze back up to meet his. "And the next time?"
Kanan's expression was careful, almost neutral. "Why do you want to know this?"
Hera felt her face heat. "I'm sorry. It's really none of my business."
"No, I don't mind," Kanan replied, a bit hastily. "This is just… not the sort of thing we usually talk about."
For good reason. Hera took a slow, steadying breath. It would be so easy right now. They could both write it off as something that had just happened, under strange circumstances. It wouldn't have to change anything.
She looked back at him. His eyes were full of warmth, and there was a touch of something else there too — longing, and a hopefulness that made her heart clench.
She couldn't afford to be naive about this. It would change everything. Maybe it would be fine. Maybe it would even be better. But she needed to be sure.
The amorous threesome above them had apparently decided it was time for round two, and the resulting shouts from the neighbors wrenched her back to reality. This was not something to do on impulse. Not here, not like this, with an audience shouting commentary.
She closed her eyes and tried to swallow down the raw want that flooded her.
"We should try to sleep," she said at last, and shifted onto her back again. She didn't need to look to see the disappointment on his face. The space between them was suddenly thick with it.
"Right," he replied after a long moment.
She reached out and caught his hand, intertwined their fingers, willed him to understand. He squeezed her hand, but quickly pulled away again. He turned to lie with his back to her.
She gritted her teeth and ignored the heat still pooling between her thighs. It would go away, just as it always did. His would too, and in the morning they would be able to look each other in the eye and get back to work. It was better this way. It was.
She clenched her jaw and took a steadying breath, then released it slowly. His breathing was even and measured, and suddenly much too far away.
The sound of footsteps in the building's corridors drew her from her sleep. Her awareness expanded then to the warmth pressed against her back and to small puffs of breath against her shoulder. She smiled and gave herself a moment to enjoy it. Twi'leks commonly slept huddled together in groups, but she knew it was a far more intimate gesture among humans. He'd be embarrassed when he woke. She lay still for a few more minutes, then slipped away to use the 'fresher. When she emerged, he was sitting on the edge of the pallet, strapping his body armor back on.
"How'd you sleep?" she asked.
"Well enough." His smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "It's just past 0700. We should probably go."
"Right." She strapped her outer garments back on. He disappeared into the 'fresher, careful not to so much as brush against her as he passed.
She pulled on her boots and leaned back against the door, and sighed.
Hera gazed at the screen before her, heart pounding in her chest. The information on the data stick their contact had given them that morning was far more damning than she'd expected. The only possible explanation for these numbers was that Six Star was laundering funds through Chortarsta Chemical. And most of the incoming orders were being placed by the Empire.
This was information she needed to pass on as soon as possible. She ejected the stick and headed back to the main hold, where Kanan was tinkering with a pile of droid parts they'd picked up a few systems back.
"This is really not my area of expertise," he said with a frustrated groan. He tossed a spanner back into its case and ran his fingers through his disheveled hair.
Hera leaned against the doorway. "I told you not to bother. I've got a plan for those."
He looked up. "So do I. It's called 'sell it all for scrap'."
"That's my new droid you're talking about!"
He gave her a long look. "I don't think the word 'new' even remotely applies."
"We need to drop out of hyperspace. I've got to send this on to Fulcrum." She held up the data stick.
"Right," he said with a resigned sigh. "I'll make myself scarce." He gave her a tight smile and stood. "I'll pick up this mess later."
"No, don't worry about it. I've been meaning to do something with that motivator we picked up on Baht."
He threw his hands up in a gesture of whatever and left the main hold. Hera took a deep breath and released it slowly. He'd been unusually cool to her today, though she supposed she deserved it. She'd been far too careless with her affections these last few months. It was time to face the fact that she'd basically been stringing him along, giving him far too many reasons to hope their friendship could turn into something more. Hell, she'd been giving herself reason to hope, and it wasn't fair to either of them.
She had a mission even Kanan didn't know about, one that required her complete focus. Anything less could get them both killed. There were more important things in the universe than two people in love with each other.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and struck that last thought from her mind. She straightened her shoulders and opened her eyes again, then crossed to the communications panel.
Time to get back to work.