It had been almost three weeks since she had last left the rear hold of her small ship, focused solely on Horatio's recovery, but as close as he was to being able to leave, she wanted to give him at least one final gift. After a constant diet of bland, hardly tolerable food rations, the only supplies she'd had on hand when she rescued him, a hot meal would be a welcome change for them both. It was going to be the last time she'd ever see him, and she wanted to make a lasting impression.
The aroma of the local specialty wafting into the ship ahead of her had to have already gotten his attention before she had even made it to the top of the lowered ramp, but as her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting within the hold, she didn't see Horatio anywhere inside. His jacket was gone, his cot was empty, as were the pilot and copilot seats she could see down the corridor. Trying to quell her disappointment a second time, she placed the meal down on the cargo crate that had served as their table for the past few weeks, no longer interested in it for herself. She had begun to walk toward the cockpit, faintly curious if he had left her a message, but she heard footsteps behind her, halting her.
Striding up the ramp with one side of his jacket draped over his slinged arm to conceal it, Horatio met her gaze and came to a stop himself, studying her for a long, tense moment before he spoke.
"Needed some fresh air."
Surprising her, his voice was quiet and somewhat reticent; it was almost as if he were confessing, giving her a reason for his absence though she neither demanded nor required it. He sounded weary, but it was the most he had said to her in days; he had remained withdrawn and silent since she had shared a gentle, earnest kiss with him, belatedly expressing her gratitude for his help. He was regaining his strength, she knew, but his attitude toward her after that night had been tough to interpret, to say the least. She let go of a slow breath as she nodded, watching him carefully as he continued into the hold.
"I thought you might like to have some real food for a change," she began casually, extending a hand to the crate as she stepped toward it, as well. "Some kind of roasted nerf. The droid repair shop owner down the street swore by it."
Though he glanced over the plate of meat with muted interest, he looked back up at her with an expression she found odd. He seemed to be suddenly skeptical, as though he was about to completely refuse the meal for some reason. Undeterred, she maintained a wan smile on her face until he finally lowered himself onto his cot, carefully holding his left arm against his chest as he moved.
He had maintained his gaze on the plate as he spoke, not yet moving to take any. He had to be starving, but she knew it wasn't etiquette keeping him from taking the first bite...it was caution. He was waiting for her to eat first, as he had every time they had shared a meal. Obliging him one last time, she slowly sat beside him as she grabbed a modest chunk of nerf and chewed, answering him after she'd chased it down with a generous gulp of water.
"I sent him on some errands for me. He won't be back for a few days."
Though he had regained some weak function in his left hand over the past week, he still only used his right to pick at the plate with extreme prejudice that was unusual; just a few mouthfuls passed his inspection as they sat together in a lengthy silence, but glad that he was finally taking in some decent protein, she didn't bother him about it. Something else was on her mind entirely. She wasn't sure if she had the strength to pose the question she had for him, but she knew she'd have no other chance...
"Can I ask you something?"
He met her gaze again, but he didn't even blink. "Not having permission hasn't stopped you before."
She had to choose her words carefully, speaking slowly and softly to keep his attention. "The first time we met...I saved your life. So I had self-serving reasons for doing so, I didn't think you'd have much of a problem with it after the fact. And these past three weeks, again I've needed a favor of you, and I have done nothing but care for you...for your wound... Yet every glass, every plate, you've looked at me like you expect me to try to poison you." She hardly had any breath left. "After all this...you still don't trust me?"
She wasn't surprised to see his eyes harden as he clenched his jaw. "It's nothing personal. I just don't trust anyone."
With a quick, fluid movement she wasn't expecting, he stood from the cot and returned to the top of the ramp at the rear of the hold, standing with his back to her as he looked out into the dark, silent spaceport they had docked in days ago. She held her breath, expecting him to continue walking away...but for some reason he remained in place, motionless. She had dared to strike a nerve in him, and as much as she knew he could hurt her in return, she didn't want him to leave in pain.
Swallowing her fear as she got to her feet, she watched him closely, taking careful steps toward him until she stood just behind him to his right. She somehow kept a slight tremor out of her voice. "You can't do everything on your own... You have to know that now, especially after that fight in the cantina I pulled you out of, barely alive. It's just not possible. There has to be someone you go to, someone you confide in..."
His shoulders tensed with each passing moment, as if his breath was solidifying in his chest. The darkness in his tone chilled her to her core.
"Putting your trust in someone...is just giving them free license to figure out how to betray you, and hurt you, a hundred different ways..."
She heard her words before she had even thought to form them. "...I trust you."
Turning his head to her, he searched her eyes intently for any hint of a lie before he gave a weak scoff. "You shouldn't."
"Why? Because of what you did to me?" Looking guilty, he resumed his forward gaze, prompting her to continue. "Yes, how untrustworthy of you to bring me the help I needed when I needed it the most."
His expression had hardened once more, and as she realized what it was that bothered him so, she let go of a soft sigh.
"I know what you used to be, what you used to do. Believe it or not, I've lived a similar life. We're a lot more alike than you think, maybe even more than you care to admit, except for one thing. Horatio," she breathed, "...you are not the sum of your mistakes. Your past doesn't negate your present."
His brows furrowed together as he stared ahead intensely. "Yeah, it does."
Sensing that he was beginning to close himself off, she withdrew for a long moment, allowing him to calm his racing mind. She had seen the regret that had surfaced in his eyes the instant she mentioned his past actions, and it worried her. He still harbored so much guilt for initially refusing to help her after their first meeting, despite the fact that he eventually made up for it by saving her life when she was so dangerously close to death. How, then, could he have absolved himself of his previous sins under Tzymo, the Huxnel, and a number of other employers, when one he actually had rectified continued to haunt him? He didn't think himself worthy of redemption, but she needed him to...
She had to quiet her voice even more to keep from startling him. "People change. Regardless of your history, you can remake yourself into anything you want. I'm living proof of that." Curious, he met her gaze once more. "You're not the man you think you are," she concluded faintly, "...you're better."
Her statement only seemed to confuse him more. He turned to face her completely, even taking a few steps closer to her with defeated body language. "Look, what do you want from me?"
It was a simple enough question, but she suddenly had some difficulty finding her voice. "It would be nice to know...that you won't try to get yourself killed again."
As she expected, his eyes narrowed. "Right, because you need me to do your job for you."
She was becoming somewhat fond of his biting wit. "If I could do it, I would...but it's not my place. Like I told you before, it has to be someone who's not a family member or a Jedi."
"Last time I checked, you qualified for both categories, too, so answer my question: why does this fall to me?"
She had yet to accept it herself, so she knew he wouldn't, either. "Because my part in it will take me on a completely different path."
As his brows furrowed again, he looked almost...concerned? "What does that even mean?"
"It means what it means. I've asked for your help because I need it, because Cordira will need it."
Though she wasn't sure what she had said to trigger it, realization passed over his expression, softening his eyes the longer he held her gaze in the lengthy silence.
"...have you told Garran?"
She blinked, blindsided by the change in direction. "Have I told him what?"
Shaking his head, he momentarily glanced at the floor between them. "Figures that you don't take your own advice... You lecture me on not doing things alone...and you weren't even planning on telling your closest friend that you'll be leaving for a suicide mission."
Her breath left her as she froze in shock, her fear getting the better of her though she had determinedly hidden it from him. How could he possibly have known? Had it been her words or her tone of voice that had given it away so easily? She hadn't even finalized her plans, nor had she intended to tell him, but she already knew how it would all have to end. She simply wasn't prepared to face it just yet.
She could only whisper in response. "He doesn't need to know."
Moved with muted compassion she hadn't expected to see from him, she watched through tear-blurred vision as he slowly closed the distance between them. She couldn't help but flinch as she felt his hand gently grip her upper arm, locking her in place as she closed her eyes to shield herself from his gaze. The warmth of his touch had a calming effect on her she couldn't have predicted, preventing her from further alarm as he lightly pressed his lips against hers. She felt nothing but delight at the fulfillment of her weeks-long desire, but the more she gave back, the more he retreated...
With no more than a breath of separation, he could hardly speak. "Of all the people you could have gone to for this..."
Her heart was racing and aching at the same time. "You were the only one I knew I could trust...to keep my secret."
She felt his hand sweep up the side of her neck as he pulled her more closely to him, meeting her with another impassioned kiss. It was a connection she had been missing for years since she had begun her exile, one she wasn't about to surrender though her final mission loomed in the back of her mind the entire time.