A Better Man – 2/3 – Keira Marcos

Title: A Better Man
Series: Gra’tua
Series Order: 1
Author: Keira Marcos
Fandom: The Mandalorian, Star Wars
Genre: First Time, Kid!fic, Romance, Time Travel, Science Fiction
Relationship(s): Din Djarin/Cara Dune, The Armorer/Paz Vizsla, OC/OC
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Slavery, Canon Typical Violence, Explicit Language, Explicit Sex
Author Notes: Slavery is a canon concept in Star Wars but it’s not one I focus heavily on in the series. I warned for it just as a head’s up. Special thanks to my Alpha readers Jilly James & DarkJediQueen and my Betas Chris King & Ladyholder. This fic started out as some wistful idea and it bloomed organically out of me in a way all good ideas do. It wouldn’t have been the same without Jilly’s epic support throughout the entire writing
Beta: Chris King, Ladyholder
Word Count: 99,900
Summary: Din Djarin loses the love of his life, his son, and his faith in the way. Near the end of his life, Qui-Gon Jinn gives him the chance to return to the past so he can right the path of the Force in the galaxy and do what he can to keep the two halves of the Force Dyad from being destroyed by the dark side. His first step? Kill Moff Gideon and take the darksaber.
Artist: Mizu



Chapter 7

Rey’s fingers were clenching in little bursts around his as they moved through the small marketplace near the covert’s entrance. IG had procured a satchel for their shopping from their first stop, and it already held more clothes for both children than Din currently owned. He’d picked up a few things for himself as he admitted, at least to himself, that his former life on Sorgan had allowed him to get comfortable without armor. The baby’s interest was solely on eating, so he was currently sleeping off a food coma in the pram.

“You okay?”

“Yes,” Rey said immediately, then pressed her lips together. “There are a lot of people here.”

“Do you remember ever going to a market?” Din questioned.

“No,” Rey said and shifted closer. “There was a house in a forest, and we had a garden. The first time I ever left that place was to go on the ship, then I was on Jakku.”

Din found that horrifying. He didn’t know what sort of relationship Rey’s parents had with Plutt, but leaving their child unprepared and alone on a desert planet spoke to more than just desperation. Fortunately, the emperor didn’t know that Rey existed. Din wasn’t even sure when Rey’s parents had met. He also hadn’t asked what would happen to the dyad when Rey was born again. Disconcerted at the idea of a version of his daughter being abandoned on Jakku in the future, Din guided Rey to a stall where Cara was browsing hair accoutrements. The stall owner had called out to her specifically as they’d been picking out clothes for the baby.

Rey let go of his hand to study a collection of clips. She picked out several that had metal flowers on them and set them to one side, then selected out some strips of linen and leather in various colors.

Cara had a similar pile. Din watched her pick up a gold clasp with small sparkling stones on it several times but eventually appeared to decide against purchasing it. She made her purchases, passed them to IG then motioned toward a shop across the street. “I’m going to restock the medical kit.”

“Use my credit account for that,” Din said, and she inclined her head in agreement. “Get a full compliment of bacta bandages.”

“We have a liter of that stuff,” Cara pointed out. “Senator Organa made me take it before we left Coruscant in case your injuries need further treatment.”

“I’d rather use bandages or the healing patches than liquid bacta for minor injuries.” He turned back to the table as Cara entered the shop and picked up the gold clip she’d left behind, and added it to Rey’s pile.

“She liked it a lot,” Rey said. “It’s a good present, Buir.”

Din was glad for his helmet because his face grew hot as he put in his credit code on the device the stall owner presented. “It’s a secret for now.”

Rey offered him a bright smile and accepted the little wrapped package of their purchases, which she passed to IG. The girl had adapted to the droid easily, and Din was reminded of the little mech droid who had traveled with her in the other timeline. It had belonged to someone fairly high up in the resistance, but after the war was over, it had stayed with Rey exclusively as she’d tried, vainly, to gather resources to rebuild the Jedi Order.

Din checked on his son and found that he was still sleeping. “Is he too hot?”

“The child’s temperature appears to be the norm for him,” IG reported. “I’ve been keeping a log, so I will know when there is a problem.”

Din started to ask for more information, but there was a shift inside of him that spoke to the Force being used, and he jerked around just as Rey reached and touched an amphistaff where it was jutting out from a fat, pulsating polyp.

“Rey!” Din shot forward, but it was too late; the one she touched snapped off the polyp and whipped around her forearm.

Four Mandalorians, who had been following him as discretely as four battle-class Mandalorians could, rushed toward her, but Din reached her first and snatched the head of the alien serpent in a firm grip.

“Damn it,” Din hissed as the serpent coiled with alarming strength around her arm. The Force shifted inside him again and realized what he was feeling was the amphistaff itself bonding with his daughter. “IG!”

“The bonding appears nearly complete, Mand’alor,” the droid reported. “It has already adjusted itself to her biometrics.”

Din focused on Rey’s face; she was staring at the serpent in what could only be considered shocked delight. “No.”

“Buir, he likes me a lot,” Rey protested. “He wants to stay with me.”

“This is one of the most dangerous anti-personnel weapons in the Outer Rim, and you are not keeping it,” Din told her sternly. He turned to the stall owner. “Come get this fucking thing off my kid before I blow your head off.”

The large male white Twi’lek offered him a sharp-toothed grin. “Your child has destroyed any potential I had to sell that particular amphistaff by bonding with it. Even if I could break the bond it has with her, and I can’t, it is not fully mature. It can not be reattached to the polyp. You owe me 1300 Imperial credits.”

“I hardly think so,” IG interjected. “The established rate for a mature, trained amphistaff is only 1000 Imperial or 500 NR. This creature is not trained nor mature. Moreover, due to your poor care of the polyp and its premature detachment, it will not reach its full size and will likely never develop proper venom sacs. I would expect to pay no more than 300 NR for such a deficient creature.”

The Twi’lek glared at IG, and Din focused on Rey, who was petting the head of the serpent, which he still had a tight grip on. “Rey, remember the discussion we had about pets and how dangerous one might be for the baby?”

Her face fell. “Oh.”

“Mand’alor, the amphistaff is not a threat to either child. They only consume food at the end of their lifecycle when they gorge themselves and morph into a polyp themselves. It is a state this creature will never achieve due to its premature detachment. It is essentially neutered. In its bonded state, it will be loyal to all those that Rey herself is loyal to.”

Rey leaned forward and whispered, “Peli only gave me 120 Imperial credits for my parts.”

“What the fuck is going on?” Cara demanded as she bodily shoved one of the guards Oddau had put on them out of her way. “For the love of…” She slid to her knees in front of Rey. “Did it bond with her?”

“Yes,” Din admitted tightly.

Cara relaxed. “Oh, well, good, it’s not very big, though. That’s a shame.”

“This thing can withstand laser strikes and cut through beskar,” he hissed. “And it’s bonded itself to my kid!”

“It’s not a gun, Buir,” Rey protested. “And he’s nice. He’s my friend.”

Cara pried his hand off the head of the serpent, stood, and picked Rey up. “Pay the Twi’ what we owe him. I’m starving.”

Din started to protest, but two of the guards split off and followed Cara, IG, and the baby’s pram toward the covert’s junk shop entry. He turned to the Twi’lek. “Do you realize how lucky you are?”

“Lucky?”

“I know how that fucking polyp feeds,” Din snapped. “If that amphistaff hadn’t snapped off, it would’ve dragged her into the polyp to eat.”

“He told us it wouldn’t eat people!” one of the other stall owners shouted in horror.

“It’ll eat anything organic it can get ahold of,” Din said. “Up to and including a fucking Hutt!”

“It’s too small for that,” the Twi’lek protested as he looked around at his neighbors nervously.

“You and I both know that those amphistaffs could rip a full-grown Hutt to pieces in under an hour,” Din said through clenched teeth. “Get it off the street, immediately.”

“You owe me 300 New Republic credits,” the Twi’lek demanded boldly.

He pulled the little bag that Rey had given him and dropped it on the table. “How about 120 Imperial, and I let you walk away with all of your appendages attached to your body.”

“Deal.” He snatched the bag. “It was a pleasure to do business with you, Mand’alor.”

“If this thing is still on the street in an hour, I’m going to come back and kill it,” Din said evenly and walked away before he gave in to the urge to shoot the smug bastard in the face. “Your chances of surviving a second encounter with me today are zero.”

Cara was lingering in the back of the shop next to the entrance with Rey, the pram, and IG. “I figured…I’d get a room at the inn down the street.”

“You’re with me,” Din said. “If you’re not welcome in the covert, then neither am I.” He focused on Aja. “Confer with your father. We’ll wait for an answer.”

“No need,” Aja said. “He’s set up private quarters for you and your entire party, Mand’alor. The Armorer made it clear that included Cara Dune.”

Cara took a deep breath but just nodded when Din looked in her direction.

“If you’d prefer the inn, we can go there together,” Din said.

“I don’t want to offer anyone insult. Your coverts are spaces for your people…I just…” She shrugged and looked away from him entirely.

“I need a private space for a conversation,” Din said and focused on Aja as he spoke.

“There’s an office, just here,” the younger Mandalorian opened a door quickly.

Din ushered Cara, IG, and both children into the small office. Cara crossed her arms and made a face at him as he closed the door. “Were you mistreated while you were here before?”

“I never left Motto’s dock and slept on the Razor Crest,” Cara said. “The Armorer went into the covert several times, but I stayed with the ship. I did receive a personal invitation from Oddau Rast to meet with him and his wife, but that meeting was canceled because of the distress call. I don’t know what he wanted to discuss with me. It didn’t feel like a hostile request, so I don’t think he has a problem with me or anything.”

“At the least, he wanted to ask you questions about me and how you knew me,” Din said.

“I wouldn’t discuss you with anyone,” Cara denied. “He’d have been disappointed.”

“It wouldn’t have been malicious,” Din said wearily and leaned on the desk. “I’m a foundling, Cara.”

Her gaze flicked from the baby to Rey and back to him. “I remember you saying so—on Nevarro.”

“You were there when the Armorer gave me my clan insignia. My adoptive father never took me into his clan. He never took any of the foundlings he raised into his clan because he felt we should earn our places amongst other Mandalorians. I’m not even sure I have a house, due to the destruction of the covert on Nevarro, within the political structure of Mandalore, and I don’t think they know what to do with me as a result.”

Cara made a face. “House leaders would fall under the sole leader in the structure of the government?”

“No, I will eventually be asked to select people to serve under me as tribal protectors, and house leaders would fall under them in the political structure. This covert is a tribe made up of many small clans. I don’t know if they belong to a specific house or if such structures have truly fallen away in our exile from Mandalore. The covert on Nevarro was the very last of the tribe that I was adopted into as far as I know.”

“And they were part of Death Watch,” Cara murmured.

“Yes,” Din said. “It was the biggest faction of our people to survive the purge because there weren’t many on Mandalore at the time of the attack due to ongoing hostilities between tribes. When the Empire sought to replace Bo-Katan Kyrze, they did so by ordering the execution of any Mandalorian that wouldn’t swear their loyalty to the emperor. Whole tribes were wiped out if their leadership refused.”

“Are they afraid of you?” Cara questioned.

“Some of them probably should be,” Din said roughly. “I’ll have to fight to keep the darksaber. There are plenty of Mandalorians who want nothing to do with the job. I happen to be one of them.” He paused when she laughed. “But there are those who will be outraged that a foundling with no house and a very small clan is the Mand’alor. I don’t know anyone in this covert as well as I would like. The Armorer is the only one of my own tribe to come here, as of yet, and I’m not sure she’ll stay. She’s orthodox in the way, and that matters a lot. In fact, such beliefs were the root of the Mandalorian civil wars. I need you to watch my back, and that means we sleep in the same places. We can return to the ship, get a room at the inn, or…we can leave here altogether if you want.”

“You said you wanted to join this tribe,” Cara said.

“Not if it means I have to choose between you and them,” Din said and glanced toward Rey, who was petting her serpent even as her gaze jerked from him to Cara. “Have you named it?”

“Kaan,” Rey said. “Are we going to stay in the covert or on the ship?”

“We can try it,” Cara said. “Just try to keep it from getting weird.”

Din winced. “Which reminds me of the other reason the leader of a covert might invite an outsider in for a conversation.” He paused. “Especially a young woman already wearing a full set of beskar/durasteel alloy armor.”

“They want my armor?” Cara demanded, clearly horrified with the idea of parting with the Armorer’s gift.

“No,” Din said with a laugh. “They want you. We don’t get all of our children through adoption, Cara. Many adult women are sworn into our clans through marriage.”

“Oh.” She touched her braids. “Well,” she huffed. “Do you guys have courting gestures? I don’t want to get someone’s hopes by accident.”

“We usually just ask for what we want,” Din said. “Whatever or whoever that might be.”

Her eyes darkened, and her cheeks flushed. “I see.”

Din hoped so because he’d already spent one life denying himself, so he was certainly going to ask. And if she ultimately said no, he’d accept it as gracefully as he knew how. That, honestly, wasn’t a lot, but he’d try. He opened the door. Aja Rast was standing on the opposite side of the hall.

“Has news of the amphistaff reached the covert?”

Aja laughed. “Yeah, Byr is getting the lecture of his life from Gí. He was assigned specifically to watch over your daughter. We have two already in the covert, but they’re mature and bonded to adults. We don’t think it’ll be a problem.”

“She named it Kaan,” Din said.

Aja laughed. “Please, come. We are preparing a meal which we can have delivered to your rooms.”

– – – –

Rey, and her ridiculous serpent, were asleep but the baby was running full tilt around the common room. There were only two bedrooms—some serious assumptions had been made since the room that was clearly meant to be his had a large bed meant for two in it. The other room had two single-person beds. Cara was at the table with a stack of datapads. She was still sorting data from Gideon’s base on Nevarro.

Din plucked the hover ball from his satchel and sat down on the floor near the center of the room. “Come here, ad’ika.”

The baby toddled to him and sat down in front of him with an excited giggle. He clapped his hands as Din released the ball. It hovered above his hand a few moments before he shifted his hand and used the Force to push it toward the baby. The toy wasn’t designed to be used as a teaching tool for the Force, but it would work until he could commission some specific modules.

There was a knock on the door. Din caught the ball with a little push of energy as the baby sent back to him. “Can you get that?”

“Sure,” Cara said and stood from the table.

She stretched, causing the material of her thin shirt to tighten over her breasts, and Din briefly lost control of the ball. It smacked him in the helmet. Cara laughed, and Din grabbed the toy. He really wished she’d kept her armor on. “That was your fault.”

She sent him an amused look and went to open the door. The Armorer entered first and was followed by Oddau and Gí Rast. Din released the ball and pushed it back to the baby, who giggled as he caught it. He flung it back a little too hard.

“Easy,” Din murmured as he caught it. “Precision first, ad’ika. The more control you have over the Force within you, the clearer your mind will be.” He watched his son digest that, and the baby nodded before holding out his hands again. “Good.” He pushed the ball again, and the baby stilled it then prodded back. “Great.” Din glanced briefly at the Armorer as he pushed the back. “Something wrong?”

“We brought ten ships back from the Core with us,” the Armorer said. “Nine clans have joined the covert here, but the tenth…”

Din caught the ball and focused on her. “Are they here to challenge me?”

“No,” the Armorer said. “After what happened on Coruscant, I don’t expect anyone to challenge you.”

“I got my ass handed to me by an asshole with a shock rod.”

“You took out 22 armed guards without drawing a single weapon, then took four hits from a shock rod designed to control a bantha and still had the physical strength to seek cover with your children,” Oddau said. “I don’t know how you survived even two hits, much less…you shouldn’t have been able to walk at all after the second but appeared to have no physical response at all until the fourth. Have you viewed the footage of the incident?”

“I’ve not,” Din admitted. “I didn’t think it would help me calm down to see my children so upset.” He pushed the ball back to the baby. “But I did want to see how he did with the x-wing, so I’ll watch it eventually. Did he pass out after he did it?”

“No,” Cara said. “I was surprised. Rey said he healed you after they got on the ship. The doctor was stunned by the lack of burns on your skin, so that must have been the most he could do through your armor.”

Din nodded. “The tenth ship?”

“Paz Vizsla has requested I take his clan’s foundlings to teach them the way,” the Armorer said quietly. “That’s eight children.”

“How many of the adults made it off Nevarro?” Din asked in confusion.

“All of them.” The Armorer’s hands tightened into fists. “I have their helmets on the Razor Crest. All of the adults and Paz’s oldest foundling—the only one to swear the creed—removed their helmets. He refuses to believe that they would be welcome here. He said he was disgraced.”

It made Din furious. He wondered what had happened in the other timeline but dismissed it quickly because speculation would just hurt.

“Have you agreed?”

“No,” the Armorer hissed. “Paz is the patriarch of House Vizsla!”

“I wanted to offer them an opportunity to…” Oddau took a deep breath. “There is plenty of room in the way to interpret what they did was necessary to save the lives of their children. To some of my own clan, it feels like they’re abandoning you, Mandalore, and even their own children for pride.”

“The evolution of the creed within Death Watch was done as a matter of survival,” Din said and deactivated the ball. The baby made a huffy sound, so he motioned his son to come to him. He picked up the child with trembling hands. “There is nothing more honorable, in my mind, than to sacrifice your creed to protect your own child. It wouldn’t be an easy path for any of us, Oddau. The traditions of your tribe have shaped you as much as ours have shaped us. It’s not about pride. It’s grief and heartbreak. They’ve stripped themselves of the identity they’d embraced their whole lives.” He let the baby rest on his chest and lowered his head briefly. “And they were made to do this because of my unspeakable greed.”

“We knew you’d go back for the asset,” the Armorer said. “And when we saw what you carried—that it was a child, no matter its species, we understood the sacrifice we were going to make. We should’ve evacuated shortly after you left, and the fact that we didn’t is on me, not you. It’s galling that Gideon was on that planet with a force that large, and we had no clue.” She made a short disdainful noise. “Greed? That fucking beskar belongs to us! It shouldn’t have been in their hands, to begin with.”

Din didn’t disagree with that. “I’m going to make the New Republic give back every bit they can find.” He focused on the Armorer. “It’s the only way I’ll agree to join them in any single way.”

“You’re going to blackmail the New Republic for beskar?” Cara asked, shocked.

“Every ounce that exists belongs to Mandalore. I want it all,” Din said grimly. “I won’t accept any other arrangement. I know they have stores of it from mining on the planet. I consider it the goal of every Mandalorian alive to take back beskar when they see it—no matter the circumstances.”

“I like you so much,” Gí said with a quick laugh that had her husband growling playfully.

Din laughed and focused on his son, who was blinking rapidly. “Time for bed, ad’ika.”

“I’ll take him,” Cara said as Din stood.

He passed the baby to her. “Let’s move his pram into our room.”

Cara raised an eyebrow.

“He likes to eat reptiles. I’d like to get him really used to not eating Kaan before I let him out of my sight.” Din paused. “Though he never tried to eat any of the water snakes on Sorgan.”

“Could be their size,” Cara said as she walked away with the baby. “Or maybe he just doesn’t like snake meat.”

Din focused on the Armorer. “Ask if they’ll meet with me in the morning.”

“They will,” she said. “Paz said he would stay in the covert’s dock while he waits for my answer.”

Din nodded and looked her over. She was rigid and as agitated as he’d ever seen her. “I don’t blame him for asking you—he trusts you.”

“He never asks me the right questions,” the Armorer snapped and left the room.

Gí just shook her head and leaned into her husband. “One day, I hope it crosses her mind that she can ask, too.”

Din laughed.

“We’d better go calm her down,” Oddau said. “Or she’ll be carving her signet on Paz Vizsla’s ass.”

Cara was prodding the pram out of Rey’s room when Din shut the door on the Rasts and activated the lock. She put her hands on her hips. “You implied that we’re sleeping together.”

“I certainly did,” Din said and shrugged when she gaped at him. “I’ve been very honest about my intentions.” He shrugged. “You can refute that by asking for your own room tomorrow.”

She glared at him. “If I ask for my own room—people are going to line up to crawl into your bed.”

“I’ve never had a problem getting laid,” Din said mildly. “If I just wanted to get my dick wet, I’d have made that clear on Sorgan.”

“This whole thing you’ve done with those stupid ghosts has made you…unbearable,” Cara said darkly.

“You liar,” Din said with a laugh. “Is the second bed in the other room okay for you? It’s narrow, but it should be long enough.”

“It’ll be fine,” Cara said and tilted her head. “Just how long is this courting process of yours going to last?”

“I want to get it right,” Din murmured and cupped her face with one hand. “If it was just sex…” He sighed when she leaned into him. “I want to make a life with you. I need you to be sure. My life is never going to be easy, Cara. Qui-Gon Jinn fully expects me to stand between the New Republic and the reformation of the Empire. That’s why I’m here.”

Her eyes fluttered shut, and tears slid down her cheeks.

“Why you?” Cara asked hoarsely.

“Because once he came upon the most powerful Force user to ever exist and it never crossed his mind that he could use that child to control others.” Qui-Gon’s voice filled the room around them, and Cara shuddered in his hold. “And when he turned to the Force to find answers after the child’s death—he did so from a place so honorable that it humbled and shamed me. He had more respect for the Force than any Jedi I’d ever trained. It is no wonder that the Force arranged to put its own child in Din Djarin’s hands. Even now, he stands in your arms with the power to bend the will of others to his every single whim, and his biggest concern is trying to figure out how to get his childhood rival to put his damned helmet back on.”

Din laughed. “Go away, Master Qui-Gon. I’m trying to have a moment here.”

Chapter 8

“Oh.” Cara took a deep breath and laughed.

“What?” Din focused on her, and so did all the other Mandalorians that had followed him to the dock.

“Greef complained non-stop because he thought Moff Gideon stole his ship, and he’d hoped to recover it from the old base.” She motioned toward the Starhawk in front of them. “Apparently, he owned the only modified Mark I Starhawk in the Outer Rim. He picked it up brand new from the Nadiri Dockyards a year ago though he refused to say how he paid for it. It disappeared the night the covert fought the guild. He thought some of the Imperials ran off with it and gave it to the moff.”

“I like Greef Karga, mostly,” Din said. “But he’s a mercenary and a real bastard when he’s crossed. He also takes 40% of every bounty that is redeemed through his guild.” He took a deep breath. “The last time I had a fight with Paz, we both ended up with broken noses.”

“How long have you known him?” Cara questioned.

“Since I was seven—when his father rescued and adopted me.”

“You’re brothers?” Cara asked. “You never mentioned that.”

“Paz never considered any of his father’s foundlings his siblings in the way you think,” Din said. “He has a deep faith in the way, but we weren’t a part of his clan due to his father’s methods and beliefs.”

“Did you resent it?” the Armorer questioned.

“No.” He’d been proud to put on the armor, swear the creed, and set out to make his own way in the galaxy.

The ramp for the ship lowered, and Din wondered if he should’ve left Rey and the baby behind in the main part of the covert. Rey had made the five-kilometer trip with little complaint. Living on Jakku had hardened the little girl in ways that Din didn’t like, but he was relieved she didn’t appear to be suffering in the cave system.

He turned to their escorts. “This is a private matter for our tribe. You can return to the covert if you’d like.”

“We’ll stay and provide escort upon the conclusion of your business, Mand’alor.”

He watched them both retreat to the opposite side of the docking area and settle down with guards who were assigned to space. “How deep into the plateau are we?”

“This is Jabba the Hutt’s dock,” the Armorer said. “The covert connected the cave system under Mos Eisley with the underground complex the Hutts built under the old B’Omar monastery. It’s why so much expansion is possible. The only concern currently is the ability to guard the entrance in the old monastery.”

Din nodded as he considered that. The monastery had eventually been reoccupied, the second time by force, by an order of monks dedicated to restoring galactic history after the Empire had spent so much time trying to eradicate it completely. It had been a noble goal, but Din hadn’t had that much faith in their process or their methods since they forced others into their order.

“Bring the crate, please,” Din said as he picked the baby up out of the pram. “Come on, ad’ika, it’s time you met more of the people who helped me save your life.”

He walked up the ramp and into the ship, the Force shifting inside of him in a way that told him he had to get this right. They were all gathered in the galley. Paz was front and center, his clan spread out behind him. Din stopped at the table, aware that Paz had purposefully created space for his family with the table. It was narrow but long—enough seating for all the children.

He focused on Paz, and the man closed his eyes and lowered his head.

“Mand’alor.” Paz cleared his throat. “The day before you swore the creed, Buir told me that he’d had a vision as a young man, and it shaped his every action going forward. He told me that he’d spent his life trying to find the right foundling. By the time he brought you home, he’d raised 31 children to follow the way. I was born in the midst of all that, so I didn’t meet them all. I don’t even know all their names. I was 8 when he brought you home, and I asked him to bring you into our clan. I wanted a brother—a real one that would stand with me and with our house.”

“He said no,” Din murmured.

“He said your destiny was bigger than him. He said it was bigger than our clan, and he had no right to interfere in that. But he loved you as much as he loved me.” He smiled briefly. “Perhaps even more since you never argued with him.”

“I was too grateful to argue with him,” Din admitted. “If he were here right now—I’d do exactly what he wanted without a single damn word of complaint.” He shifted the baby around in his arms because he was starting to squirm. “I started to come to this meeting by myself because I figure before the end of it, I’m going to punch you in the face.”

Paz grinned. “It’s likely.”

“This is my son—the so-called asset that the Imperial was hunting. He doesn’t have a name, just a chain code that proclaims him to be 50 years old. He was wanted dead or alive because he’s a Force-sensitive.” He paused. “What I say next is to be considered a secret to all the members of our tribe.”

“Understood,” Paz said.

“He doesn’t have a people within our reach. As far as I know, he’s currently the only one of his kind to exist in this galaxy. There were others in the time of the old Galactic Republic. They were both Jedi Masters as they were extremely gifted with the Force as well, but they’ve both been dead for years.” Din looked down at his son.

“When I accepted the bounty, I believed I was hunting for an adult based on the chain code. There was no puck—just a tracking fob. I’d have never taken a bounty for a minor unless it was parent seeking the return of their kidnapped child.” He paused when they all nodded. “But there he was, and I’d already accepted the job. So, I brought him back to Nevarro and turned him over to that fucking Imperial. The moment I let him go, I regretted it, but I tried to push through—to get past it because of the codes I lived by as a bounty hunter in Karga’s guild. The covert needed the funds, and I frankly wanted the beskar. I felt like I’d earned it. I felt like I deserved it.

“I felt like the worse kind of monster for wearing it. I tried to leave him behind, but I felt like it was going to tear my heart out of my chest. I didn’t understand it because frankly, I never had any interest whatsoever in adopting a foundling for myself.”

“That’s a truth I know very well. You brought me all of the children I adopted into my clan,” Paz said dryly but smiled when Din looked his way. “So, thank you.”

Din glanced toward Paz’s younger children. He’d found them living in a shack on Dantooine—their parents had died of a fever, and no one in the small town had given a damn about their survival. Din had killed several people over it.

“They had him strapped down to a medical table, and there was a torture droid in the room—prepped for something. I didn’t know what, but seeing that thing hovering over the child filled me with so much rage that I couldn’t contain it. By the time you and the rest of the covert exposed yourselves, I’d resolved to die before giving him back.”

“He’s the weirdest, most adorable thing I’ve ever seen,” Paz said. “He’s the one that helped you with the mudhorn?”

“I’ve got some truly embarrassing holovid footage to prove it,” Din admitted. “He doesn’t know how to control the Force when it flows through him, so he often passes out after a big event. It’s something we’ll work on together in the years to come. He’s got a lot of time to get it right—he’ll be a child for decades still. He won’t be old enough to swear the creed until he’s in his 90s.”

Paz nodded. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I need you,” Din said. “I need you to be the brother you wanted to be when we were children, Paz. You said Buir spoke of my destiny and how big it was—I think it might be bigger than he envisioned. The New Republic’s liberation forces will reach Mand’alor within the next 48 months. I’ve two Force-sensitive children that the Imperials will do everything they can to get their hands on—for their own use or worse.”

“I’m not fit to stand with you, Mand’alor.”

“Fuck you!” Din snapped and took a deep breath as Paz blinked in surprise. “Damn it, don’t you get it? Death Watch is gone! We have to find another path in the way. I can’t reunite the tribes, lead Mandalore, figure out the Force, train two children, and keep potentially thousands of Imperials at bay by myself! And if my own damn tribe refuses to stand with me…then who will? Who can trust with my life? With our world?” He passed the child to Cara and pulled the darksaber free. He slapped it on the table between them.

Paz’s gaze dropped it. He inclined his head. “Kind of small, huh?”

“Yeah,” Din admitted. “I’m considering having the Armorer rebuild the case. I think that asshole moff modified it so he could use it. He wasn’t Force-sensitive, so it might have been difficult for him to keep a grip on.”

“We’re…dishonored,” Paz said lowly.

“No, you’re not, and if you say it again, I’m going to come over this table and do my best to kick your ass.” Din took a deep breath and pressed down on his chest plate. His heart was thundering in his chest, and he wasn’t sure if it was fury or the Force.

The Armorer shifted closer to him. “Is your heart…”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine,” Cara hissed. “Is it hurting?” She passed the baby to Rey and started digging through the satchel on her hip. “IG! Come here and scan him.”

“I’m fine,” Din repeated. “I don’t need to be coddled like a child.”

“I will punch you in your stupid head again,” Cara ground out through clenched teeth as she pulled out a medkit.

“What’s wrong with his heart?” Paz demanded.

“A birth defect that no one caught—they found it on Coruscant when they were healing the damage done by the shock rod,” the Armorer said. “They used a bacta injection to repair it.”

“The Mand’alor is perfectly healthy,” IG reported. “His biometrics are different from my last scan, but I don’t have a Force-user baseline for him for comparison. His midi-chlorian count is remarkable.”

“Shut up,” Din snapped. “Not another word, IG.”

The droid stepped back as Cara let her satchel fall back against her hip.

“Din?” she began, her eyes wide and welling with tears. “What are midi-chlorians?”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what that Imp bastard wanted to extract from the baby,” she said hoarsely. “The doctor they had on the project said they could bleed him weekly for months to get the maximum amount of midi-chlorians out of him. The moff just wanted to harvest his bone marrow and replicate it in the…clones.” Her knees went weak, and Din caught her. “They’re trying to build a new clone army with Force gifts.”

“Not an army,” Din said grimly as he put her down on the bench attached to the table. “The emperor is probably trying to clone himself a new body or repair the body he’s got.”

“The emperor survived the destruction of the Death Star,” Paz said and inhaled harshly. “The New Republic has no idea, right?”

“No, and they’d probably deny it if I tried to tell them,” Din said. “The only two adult Force users they have are barely trained, and Palpatine has been manipulating them. I’m working to free them both from it, but it’ll take time to build trust.” He cupped the back of Cara’s head. “Hey, you okay?”

“I’m…no,” Cara said. “Nothing I’d read from Gideon’s data made any sense. I’m still compiling and preparing it. Now part of it makes sense, and I’m scared and disgusted. What they had planned for him is an obscenity. IG, are Rey’s levels high? High like the baby’s and Din’s?”

“Yes,” the droid said quietly. “Moreover, she’s older and has a bigger blood volume to harvest. If they knew about her—they would seek her more ardently than they do the child.”

“I’ll stand with you as your brother,” Paz said quietly. “But I’m not putting the helmet back on. I’m no longer a Mandalorian.”

Din released Cara and focused on him. “What am I?”

“The Mand’alor.”

“What am I?” Din shouted and slammed his fist against the table.

Paz jerked. “A Mandalorian.” He paused. “My brother.”

Din unlatched his helmet from the gorget and unceremoniously took it off. He slapped it down on the table beside the darksaber, ignoring Cara’s gasp of shock. “What am I?”

Paz stared at him in horror. “What have you done?”

“You sacrificed your creed to protect your children because of my actions,” Din said quietly. “If you aren’t a Mandalorian, then neither am I.”

“You asshole,” Paz muttered.

Din raised an eyebrow.

Then another helmet hit the table. He turned to his left and found the Armorer smoothing down a head full of light brown braids that were curling against her scalp in a pattern he knew all too well. Mourning braids, he thought.

“I’m Torah Liss of Alderaan,” she said simply. “And if the Mand’alor isn’t a Mandalorian, then none of us are.” She focused on Paz. “You weren’t there when he took the darksaber from Gideon. It was like the…universe paused, and even in the midst of the fight, all I hear were the words he spoke. The air around us grew heavy as if we’d suddenly been dropped in a heavy grav environment. I felt as if I’d borne witness to the rebirth of a legend.”

Din flushed and lowered his gaze because he remembered the event very differently. It had felt like nothing but justice. “He tried to murder my son.” He looked toward the baby and found both of his children staring at him with wide serious eyes. “Don’t worry about the Imperials, Rey; they’ll never touch you.”

She wet her lips and nodded. “Ba’jur bal beskar’gam, ara’nov, aliit, Mando’a bal Mand’alor—an vencuyan mhi.” She focused on Paz. “This is the way.”

Paz inclined his head. “This is the way.” Then turned to Din. “That’s the first thing you taught your foundling? A nursery rhyme?”

“Of course not,” Din scoffed. “I taught her to swear first, like a proper Mandalorian. That’s all I had time for—I picked her up before I went to Coruscant.” He focused on Cara and found her staring at him. “What?”

“It’s just…” She shook her head. “You’re stupidly attractive. Put the helmet back on and never take it off in public again. How dare you look like that on top of everything else.”

“I can’t be the only one who’s relieved to see that he grew into that nose of his,” Paz said wryly, which caused a smattering of laughter.

Din stared pointedly at Paz. “Who are you to talk? Your ears have always been ridiculous.”

“I’m not going to be insulted by that since you clearly like people with ridiculous ears,” Paz retorted.

Rey put the baby down on the table, and he toddled across it in Paz’s direction. He held up his hands in demand and made a huffy sound when the man hesitated.

“Go ahead, but don’t stick your fingers in his face. His teeth are sharp,” Din said and shrugged when Paz laughed.

Paz picked him up. “He weighs practically nothing.” He focused on Din. “Do you honestly think he’ll ever be big enough or strong enough to swear the creed?”

“You’re holding one of the most powerful Force users to ever exist. With no apparent training and no true understanding of what the Force is…he’s capable of killing you without ever laying a hand on you. I don’t know what his purpose is within the Force. I can’t say the way is his path, but I’ll raise him the tradition of the Resol’nare. In the end, the choice will be his.”

“I already have some concepts for his armor,” Torah announced, and Cara grinned. “The ears are a problem—there are no traditional helmet designs that account for that sort of feature. I’ve made armor for a Twi’lek, which is similar, I suppose. We had to give her a bit more room in the helmet so she could curl her lekku up into it. She embraced the creed and the armor gladly—she said she’d never felt safer in her life than the day she put on her armor.”

“It’s no wonder considering how often the females of her species are enslaved,” Din said. He put his hand on his helmet as Paz put the baby back on the table, and Cara retrieved him. “It’s time we return to the ways of the ancient tenets. Today, we swear a new creed, one that we can carry with pride as our ancestors did before us. From this point forward, we decide as individuals who may see our faces. Seek honest and loyal companions and allow those you hold with intimate regard the privilege of knowing you as I know you.”

“You always paid far better attention to Buir’s history lessons than I did,” Paz said and shook his head.

Din picked up the Armorer’s helmet and turned to her. “Torah Liss of Alderaan, stand before me and swear the creed of our ancestors.”

“You don’t want me to kneel?” she questioned.

“Never,” Din murmured. “Stand with me now as you would stand with me in the future.”

She touched her closed fist to her chest plate. “I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will follow the Mand’alor in times of peace and war. This is the way.”

“This is the way,” Din said and offered her the helmet. She took it with steady hands and put it back into place.

Din turned to Paz’s clan. “Get the helmets, please.”

The Armorer picked up the crate and placed it on the table, and opened it. He picked up the smallest of them and focused on Paz’s oldest child. “Ero Rain Vizsla of the clan Vizsla, stand before me and swear the creed of our ancestors.”

The boy looked toward his father. “Buir?”

Paz took a shaky breath. “Ero, I asked the unspeakable of you months ago, and you did not hesitate to do your duty to our clan. You’re every bit the warrior that I always knew you’d be, and it is my honor to call you my son. There is no shame in the redemption we are being offered.”

“Why me first?” Ero asked of Din.

“Because I was there the day your mother birthed you,” Din murmured. “I held her hand when she died. I swore on my life I’d get you off Kessel. You know you were born in the cargo hold of the Razor Crest. Honestly, it’s a miracle you made it Nevarro. What you don’t know…” He trailed off and looked toward Paz. The older man just nodded. “Your birth mother was a smuggler, wanted by the Hutts for theft and various other crimes she was quite pleased with.

“Fortunately, they didn’t know about her pregnancy. When I brought you into the covert, the first person I encountered was Paz. He took you from my hands immediately, and two days later, you were introduced to the tribe as his first foundling. The only thing I asked of him was that you be allowed to keep the name your mother gave you. It was all she had left to give, and she paid for your place in our tribe with her own blood.

“I promised her that I would see that you were given to a good family who would protect and love you. I’ve never regretted letting Paz Vizsla take you from my hands that day, not even now as you stand before me having sacrificed Death Watch’s creed in defense of your clan and siblings. I’m so proud of you, Ero.”

The boy wiped tears from his face hastily but moved around the table to stand in front of Din. “I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will follow the Mand’alor in times of peace and war. This is the way.”

“This is the way,” Din murmured and put the helmet on for the boy because the kid was shaking like a leaf.

He picked up another helmet, hesitated briefly before picking up a second. “Jhil Vizsla and Zox Krow of the clan Vizsla, as you are of one heart—stand before me and swear your creed together.”

The two women glanced toward Paz, who nodded. There was an undercurrent in interactions of Paz’s clan, which caused him a small fizzle of worry. He had a pretty good idea of where it was coming from, and he’d accounted for it as he’d selected the helmets.

The pair came to hand in hand, and he got a little wink from Zox. He glanced toward Cara, who was watching the proceedings with the same intent interest as Rey.

“They went from fist fighting to married within a week of meeting each other.”

Cara grinned.

Jhil shrugged. “Best fight of my life.” She cleared her throat and spoke her oath.

Zox took the helmet from Din’s hands and put it on her wife. “It will always be my honor, Jhil Vizsla, to love and fight with you.” She turned to Din. “I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will follow the Mand’alor in times of peace and war. This is the way.”

“This is the way,” he said and handed Jhil the second helmet.

He picked up Lios Vizsla’s helmet next, then raised an eyebrow. “Did you get your head out of your ass?”

“Yeah, finally,” Lios admitted and shrugged at the laughter that earned him.

Din picked up the second helmet. “Lios Vizsla and Shad Cyrd of the clan Vizsla, as you’ve decided to live your lives as a cautionary tale together, it is only right that you stand before me and swear the creed of our ancestors as one.”

Lios spoke first, fist pressed against his armor. “This is the honor of my life, Mand’alor. I never thought I’d be so lucky as to live long enough to see the darksaber returned to our house and world. I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will follow the Mand’alor in times of peace and war. This is the way.” He bowed his head as he accepted his helmet and put it back into place.

“This is the way,” Din said and watched Lios’ shoulders relax.

Shad cleared his throat. “As a foundling, I’ve always found comfort in the creed that made other Mandalorians my family in one way or another. I spent the first ten years of my life living hand to mouth, first with a father who preferred to drink himself sick every single day then on the streets of Coruscant. I ran away from him when I was seven because I heard him talking to a friend of his about…using me to earn credits.” He glanced toward the children in the room. “You were on Buir’s ship when he brought me on board. I think you’d only sworn your creed a few weeks before.”

Din nodded; he’d been traveling with his uncle. He glanced toward Ram Vizsla and got a smile in return.

“You gave me food and told me it would be fine. Over the next few years, you made a habit of giving me food. Sometimes you’d just walk by and hand me food and keep on walking.” Shad shook his head.

“You looked like you hadn’t had a proper meal in years,” Din said. “I can’t be the only one that threw food at you all the time.”

“No, but certainly the most consistent,” Shad said. “It was nice since you barely spoke to anyone else in the tribe. I asked my buir about it, and he told me how his brother raised his foundlings. I was relieved that I hadn’t been adopted by Nez Vizsla—I don’t think I’d have done as well as you did.” He smiled then. “It’s a good thing I never saw your gorgeous face—I’d have never gotten over my crush.”

Din took a deep breath as he felt his face heat. “The worst part about wearing a helmet for decades is that I never bothered to learn to control my facial expressions.”

“You still blush like a boy,” Shad pointed out with a grin, then gently he spoke his creed with a smile and eyes shining with affection and amusement.

“This is the way.” Din offered him the only helmet in the whole clan with orange accents. “I always thought orange suited you. I’ve never known anyone to treat life so precious as you, Shad Cyrd.”

He focused on his aunt and uncle, Ivaa and Ram Vizsla. “Bavodu’e.”

Ram stepped forward. “My brother would be bursting with pride to see you as you are right now in this very moment, Din Djarin. A good leader is strong, thoughtful, devout in the way, and humble before his own. I don’t know what you’ve been through to get to here, vodu’ad. I’ve seen this look in your eyes before.” He cupped Din’s head and took a deep breath. “The day we took you from your homeworld—the grief in you was a living thing. It drove you, destroyed you, and eventually remade you. It seems that you’ve been remade again in just a few short months.”

Din wanted to protest, to tell his uncle that it had taken decades and a trip back in time to become the man he was. To be the kind of man his tribe deserved to have amongst them.

“Fatherhood changes you,” Ram said then. “I know next to nothing about this Force business as far as training goes, but I’ll have your back for the rest.” He tightened his grip on Din briefly. “I swore my first creed over 60 years ago. Didn’t think I’d ever see a day like this.”

“I was told that the ability to adapt the foundation of the Mandalorian way of life,” Din said.

Ram laughed. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that bantha shit came out of my mouth a time or two. Been telling you children that for years.” He stepped back and watched Din retrieve a shining gold helmet from the crate. “When I put my helmet in that crate, I never thought to see it again.”

“I thought Gideon gathered them,” Din admitted.

“No, we left them on the dock in the hopes that they’d be returned to the Armorer,” Paz said. “If I’d known an Imp would find them first—I’d have left them a note.”

“A profane one,” Ram muttered under his breath. “I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will follow the Mand’alor in times of peace and war. This is the way.”

“This is the way,” Din said and released the helmet to his uncle. “You’re going to regret that full beard in about an hour.”

Ram laughed. “Or less.” He stepped back to make room for his wife.

“Ba’vodu Ivaa,” Din said and took the hands she offered.

She was a petite woman, but he’d been told that she’d been a force of nature in her youth. “Bend down here.” He did so, and she kissed his cheek. “I never got to do that when you were a boy.”

He glanced toward Paz, who quirked an eyebrow. “She’s been kissing us all the time. Last week she tried to clean my face with her spit and fingers. I had to run away.”

“It did make him go wash his face,” Ivaa said and shrugged. “I wish to swear the ancient creed, but I will only wear my helmet in public from now on as I hold all of our family in intimate regard. I want as few barriers as possible between me and those that I love in my final years. Is that…okay?”

“Of course,” Din said. “The choice is yours, and honestly, it always should’ve been. I understand why Death Watch took the path they did, but we deserve more.”

“What’s the most powerful force in this universe?” Ivaa asked.

“Love,” Din murmured. “It cannot be controlled, made to exist, or truly destroyed.”

“Everything bends to the will of love,” she said and released his hands. “Even the strongest of men. Your uncle wonders what reforged you, but I don’t. It’s written all over your face.” She looked at the gold helmet he held. “I think I’ll paint it black in your honor. It’s what you’ll be to our people for years to come, you know, the embodiment of justice.”

Din blew out a quick breath and cleared his throat. “If you don’t stop, I’m going to cry.”

“Also another great reason to wear a helmet,” Shad declared and got a few grunts of agreement.

Ivaa laughed and gave Din a firm nod. “I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will follow the Mand’alor in times of peace and war. This is the way.”

“This is the way,” Din said and released the helmet to her care. “Thank you.”

Ivaa put the helmet on. “For what?”

“Being you,” Din said and felt helpless for the admission. He removed the final two helmets from the crate. “Armorer.”

Torah stepped forward and removed the crate from the table, and tossed it toward the cargo area through the open doorway. “I’m going melt that down as soon as I can.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

Din put the final two helmets on either side of his own. He had his doubts about Paz’s decision, but he hoped that he’d really meant what he said to Ero. Din didn’t consider it redemption, but if that’s what it took for them to stand with him, then he would declare it so.

The second helmet belonged to a quasi-foundling. He focused on Hab Wren—born on Mandalore before the purge but accepted into the clan Vizsla years later when his was parents were killed. The Wren clan was an ancient one on Mandalore, but their history wasn’t pleasant nor particularly honorable in Din’s mind.

Hab leaned against the wall and shook his head. “Bo-Katan Kryze is the rightful Mand’alor.”

“Do not speak that woman’s name in my presence!” Paz shouted. “She was given the darksaber, and she lost it to a fucking Imperial moff.”

“We owe her a chance to prove herself—to regain what was taken from her.”

“If Bo-Katan wants the darksaber, she can challenge me,” Din said. “I’ll meet her on the field of her choice.”

Hab glared at him. “If you had an honor, you’d have returned it to her immediately. Challenge? She’s more than twenty years older than you.”

“Strength is life, for the strong have the right the rule,” Din said evenly.

“Don’t you dare quote the tenets to me!” Hab snapped. “I’m a Mandalorian by blood and by birth! My ancestors fought to defend Mandalore for generations while yours were toiling in the dirt on some nowhere planet in the Outer Rim.”

“Clan Wren aligned themselves with the Empire just as keenly as clan Saxon did,” Din said and watched Hab’s face flush red with anger. “If you’re going to claim that blood matters, then you have to accept the actions of all of your ancestors. How many of them stood by while the Empire ravaged the galaxy? Your clan only returned to their place as a vassal of House Vizsla to save themselves after they betrayed clan Saxon and the Empire. Sabine Wren built the fucking duchess! Proud of that, are you?”

“What’s the duchess?” Cara asked quietly.

“It’s what the Arc Pulse Generator was called on Mandalore,” Din said. “The Empire tested it on us—those that were exposed to it—their armor ate them. Sabine Wren created it and gave it the nickname duchess in honor of Duchess Satine Kryze.”

“And Bo-Katan destroyed it,” Hab said. “With the darksaber.” He looked at his helmet. “I can’t swear a new creed before you, Din Djarin. I don’t think you deserve it. I don’t think you deserve to wear our armor. I never did.”

“Your jealousy is obscene,” Paz said roughly. “Leave the armor.”

“What?” Hab questioned.

“Leave the armor,” Paz repeated. “It belongs to the tribe. You came to us with nothing, and if you leave—you take only what you’ve earned.”

“And you think I didn’t earn my armor?” Hab demanded.

“You do realize that every single thing you have on your body Din Djarin paid for, right?” Torah demanded. “Every meal you’ve eaten for the last ten years! The boots on your feet, the armor on your back, the blaster in your holster. He provided all of it! He bled for it and nearly died multiple times for it.”

“Well, he was the only one of us you’d let out of the fucking covert,” Hab hissed. “How was the rest of us supposed to earn anything of our own? He’s nothing but lucky! Look at him—two ships, the darksaber, more credits in his account than any of us have ever seen, a woman who looks at him like he shaped the fucking galaxy with his own two hands, and two children. What do the rest of us have?”

“No one made you stay in the covert,” the Armorer said evenly. “You could’ve left at any time.”

“You said I couldn’t return! You said that only one of us could be seen regularly on Nevarro, and Djarin was your choice!”

“I protected the tribe the best I could for as long as I could,” she said. “You’d know nothing of such worry—you’re a boy pretending to be a man. Paz is right—your jealousy is obscene.”

Hab jerked off his vambraces and dropped them on the floor. Din averted his gaze as the younger man stripped off the armor and dropped it to the floor like it was trash. He started to take off the holster.

“No, keep the weapon,” Din said. “You’ll have to leave through the port entry—you can’t walk through the covert as you are. They’ll kill you.”

Hab glared at the Armorer. “Why him?”

“Because I knew he’d come back to us as long as he was alive,” she said. “I knew he’d use all of his talents to the best of his ability to provide for us. His loyalty to the tribe and to the way has never been a question in my mind. He is not a Mandalorian. Din Djarin is the Mandalorian.” She paused. “As for the tenets you seem to think he doesn’t have the right to speak of, he lives them.”

“He left us for good the night he stole the asset from the Imperials!”

“He’s sent out coded messages every single day since he killed Gideon seeking to reunite with us because it was safer to do so,” Paz said. “That credit account you were complaining about? He sent me the codes to use it hours after it was established and didn’t change the codes when I didn’t acknowledge his message. The two ships? He gave one to the Armorer so she could seek out any of the tribe that escaped Nevarro and set up a new covert in the place of her choosing. He’s here because she suggested it. Even as Mand’alor, he gives her all the respect she’s due as the matriarch of our tribe. You’ve struggled with that for a decade.”

“She’s a foundling! I never understood why the role fell to her when your father died,” Hab snarled.

“Because I fucking said so!” Paz shouted, and Hab drew his blaster.

Din grabbed the darksaber and vaulted over the table, the weapon activated with just a thought. The blaster fell to the floor in two pieces, and Hab scrambled back from him in horror and hit the floor. Din pointed the darksaber at him. “You’d be dead if I weren’t trying to refrain from killing in front of my daughter.”

“I can close my eyes, Buir. I won’t look, promise,” Rey offered earnestly.

Din kicked the man in the face and turned off the saber as he slumped unconscious. He turned and found Rey covering her face with both hands. Beside him, Paz snorted.

“You might want to go ahead and commission her armor,” Paz said dryly.

“You can look, Rey.” Din hooked the darksaber on his belt and picked up Paz’s helmet. “The next words out of your mouth better be the oath, or I swear on Buir’s soul I will break your face.”

Paz grinned. “I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will follow the Mand’alor in times of peace and war. This is the way.”

“This is the way,” Din said offered the helmet.

Paz took it but let it dangle in one hand as he wrapped one arm around Din’s shoulders and pulled him into a rough hug. “Aliit ori’shya tal’din, vod.”

“What did that mean?” Rey asked.

Din looked down and found she’d come around the table and picked up his helmet. “Family is more than blood.” He paused. “Vod is the Mando’a word for brother or sister.”

“Does that make him my uncle? Are you going to threaten him all the time? Is that what brothers and sisters do? I don’t want to threaten the baby. Can I practice my threatening by sending messages to Coruscant?”

“Yes. Probably. Sometimes. You may not threaten the baby, ever. And I’ll set up a special comm account so you can send port security on Coruscant as many insulting and threatening messages as you’d like,” Din said and grinned when Cara made a noise that sounded like deep disapproval and a lecture all at once.

“I’m a princess,” Rey declared. “And they sure didn’t treat me like one, and that needs to be addressed.” She offered him his helmet. “Right, Buir?”

“Leader doesn’t mean king,” Din said wearily.

She scoffed. “I’m a princess.”

Paz poked him, and Din found that the man had put his helmet back on. “She’s a princess.” He took the helmet from Rey’s hands and turned to Din. “Let’s cover-up that stupid face of yours.”

Swearing a new creed felt right considering the other timeline. “I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will stand in defense of Mandalore in times of both peace and war. This is the way.”

“This is the way,” Paz said and offered him the helmet.

Din put the helmet back on, and it had never felt more right. He picked Rey up. “Okay, princess, if you insist.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck. “What are the tenets of Mandalore?”

“Strength is life, for the strong have the right to rule. Honor is life, for with no honor one may as well be dead. Loyalty is life, for without one’s clan one has no purpose. Death is life, one should die as they have lived.” He turned to focus on Cara and found her staring at him—dark eyes clear and determined. “This is the way.”

Kaan shifted on her arm and reared his head. Din made a face and turned to Paz. “Did you want to meet her amphistaff?”

Rey cheerfully pulled the serpent free and offered it to Paz. “This is Akaan’tratu. But you can just call him Kaan.”

“Weapon of war, huh?” Paz gamely took the serpent. “Apt.”

“Buir says Kaan’s one of the most dangerous anti-personnel weapons in the whole Outer Rim.” Rey smiled brightly. “He wouldn’t let me get a blaster, so I made do.”

“This is the way,” Paz declared, and Din suddenly wanted to throw his newly claimed brother off the planet.

Chapter 9

Din shut the door and, for a moment, ignored the droid. “Cara, could you please take the kids into their room and shut the door?”

Cara’s gaze drifted between him and IG briefly. “Yes, of course.”

Din turned to IG as soon as the door shut. “How do you know about midi-chlorians?”

“I don’t know,” IG said. “Processing.”

Din’s hand curled around the darksaber. “Do you remember anything about your life before Kuiil repaired you?”

“No,” IG replied. “I know I was originally manufactured on Nar Shaddaa by Holowan Laboratories due to memories I retain from my former body’s repaired neural harness. I’ve not returned to their facility since my initial programming and activation as far as I can tell.”

“What else do you know about the Force?” Din asked.

“Just what I’ve heard you say,” IG said. “In my previous life, one of my tasks was to identify those with higher-than-average midi-chlorians.”

“Do you know why?”

“No, I know it was a task because the testing protocol is amongst my fundamental skill set.”

“What else is in your fundamental skill set?”

“I speak only 401 languages beyond basic—the common languages from the Core worlds. I’m proficient with the use of 1047 different types of weapons. I can pilot any ship or vehicle designed, constructed, or used by the Galactic Republic, the Empire, and the New Republic between the years of 598 BBY and 8 ABY. I know how to efficiently kill every known species in the galaxy without a weapon. Though, I do not have the physical ability to achieve many of those methods.”

“Those are all skills I would expect an assassin droid to be given in their skill set,” Din said roughly. “What else?”

“Basic medical care as it pertains to humanoids. The child is not listed amongst those species—not a surprise considering your belief that he is not from this galaxy. I don’t have any mech skills, but Peli Motto has promised me a manual for the Tor. If protocols in my skill set disturb you, I can disable or delete them.”

“When you scan one of us for health issues, what do you look for?” Din questioned. “List each protocol.”

“Biometrics, blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, respiration, organ function, and midi-chlorian level.”

“Why do you check biometrics every single time?” Din questioned.

“To confirm identity.”

That, Din thought, was definitely a part of the assassin programming.

“Could you identify a clone?” Din asked curiously.

“If I knew the original being, yes, because even a clone from a strand-cast would not be a perfect copy,” IG said. “Such a thing is impossible with current technologies.”

Din nodded. “Do you have any communication protocols that are currently inactive?”

“No,” IG said. “Is there a concern, Mand’alor?”

“All information regarding midi-chlorians was destroyed by the Empire decades ago. You shouldn’t know they exist, much less have a built-in protocol to scan for them,” Din said roughly. “Do you have any protocols regarding bounty hunting?”

“No.” IG paused, and the silence stretched between them. “Did I really attempt to harm the child in my first incarnation?”

“You were working for a bounty hunting guild,” Din said. “So was I. My bounty was dead or alive.” He cleared his throat and removed his helmet. “Your orders were to terminate the asset before delivery.”

“I wish to be escorted to Peli Motto immediately,” IG said.

“Why?” Din questioned.

“I require additional programming.” IG started toward the door. “Protocols must be inserted to ensure that no one can ever order me to murder a child—any child. For me to do such a thing would violate my base function and dishonor Master Kuiil.”

“Can it wait until morning?” Din asked. “I’ve had a long day, and tomorrow won’t be any better, really.” He rubbed his face. “Do you have any political protocols?”

“I do not believe I was required to be diplomatic in my former career.”

“Was that a joke?” Din asked and offered the droid a grin. “Seriously?” He slouched back in his seat. “Go charge yourself or something. I’ll take you to Peli tomorrow for some protocol adjustment. Make a list of anything you might want to see added. I would ask that you also add a protocol to your fundamentals so that you can never be forced to hunt for Force-sensitive people.”

“Agreed,” IG said.

Din picked up his helmet and went into his room. He stripped off his armor, placing the pieces on the closed trunk at the end of the bed, then moved into the small bathing room. He showered by rote, the events of the day rumbling around his head. Paz’s clan had been accepted with no overt hostility, but there was something brewing in the covert that he didn’t have a firm grasp on. Oddau Rast had expected him to come into the covert without a tribe of his own; that was more than clear considering his invitation for Din to join the tribe he led.

Until Coruscant, it was the belief of most that Paz Vizsla and his whole clan had died on Nevarro or at the very least died trying to escape. Now, the covert on Tatooine was home to the oldest and most revered ancestral house of Mandalore. Paz’s declared intent to stand with him as a brother meant that the clan Vizsla expected Din’s clan to join House Vizsla formally. He dried off with a towel and pulled on a pair of loose pants in a dark brown color that reminded him of his son’s coat.

He ran his fingers through his hair as he left the bathroom then came to an abrupt stop. Cara was sitting on his bed, leaned back on her hands, still fully dressed. He watched the light reflecting over her armor. She wet her lips, and want pooled in his gut.

Din leaned against the smooth stone wall. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“I never expected to be able to look at you like this,” Cara said. “As much as the story of the future you told me was galling—there was a part of me that resented the other version of me.”

“Why?” Din asked in confusion.

“She was there when you took off your helmet and buried it on Sorgan,” Cara murmured. “I’d have never asked you to do it, you know. Not even after I realized that you’d shown your face to your children.”

“What kind of father doesn’t show his own children his face?” Din asked wearily. “I never did in the other timeline. It was one of my biggest fucking regrets—that I’d never seen him alive without the filter of my helmet.” He crossed the small distance between them and cupped the back of her head. “You wouldn’t have wanted to know the man I became during the years that I hunted Gideon.” He let his forehead rest against hers. “I…we were savages. We did some truly wretched things to people to find Gideon. Part of me thinks we never became lovers because it would’ve broken us both wide open, and we couldn’t afford that. The mission couldn’t withstand it. The last two jobs we took came from a New Republic official were political assassinations. I can honestly say that at the time, I didn’t regret it at all.” He cleared his throat. “Years later, that bastard turned out to be an Imperial plant and was instrumental in the formation of the First Order.”

“We’ll kill him this time around,” Cara declared.

Din laughed. “May I kiss you?”

“Yes.”

He cupped her arms and lifted gently. She came up off the bed, and their mouths met—it was unspeakably soft, careful, and sweet. Din hadn’t thought either one of them would be capable of such a thing. Her hands slid down his sides, blunt nails scraping gently against his skin. He hadn’t had anyone touch him after he’d retired on Sorgan. Din couldn’t honestly remember the last person he’d had sex with before he’d gone after the child. His partners had been sporadic during that time period.

“You were amazing today,” she whispered against his jaw. “That boy doesn’t know it—but you are remaking this galaxy with your own two hands.”

“I’d like to complain, honestly,” Din said and let his hands drop to her hips. “But I signed up for this shit.”

“Did others in the covert on Nevarro resent you the same way?” Cara questioned.

“Yes,” Din admitted. “The Armorer favored me and never made a secret of it. It used to infuriate Paz, but that’s a different kind of jealousy. He thinks she deserves better than him but certainly didn’t want me to have her either. He told me once, when he was drunk, that he had nothing real to offer her.” He touched her face, rubbed his thumb over her bottom lip. “I didn’t understand what he meant until I met you. Even now, as we stand here, I have nothing substantial to offer a woman like you.”

“A woman like me?” Cara repeated.

“Strong, brave, heartbreakingly loyal—a warrior. You’re everything a man like me could imagine wanting. The fact that you’re beautiful is just a bonus.”

“For some men I’ve known, my face was the only part they liked,” Cara admitted. “A year into my formal military service, I was on escort and guard duty. During my third assignment, the son of a visiting diplomat got disgustingly drunk, and we had to haul him back to his rooms. He told me I had a pretty face, but it was too bad I was built like a man. Then he asked me to fuck him. He said he had the necessary equipment in his luggage unless I came with my own.”

“You know damn well you’re not built like a man,” Din said and pulled her closer.

“You seem to like women a little on the delicate side,” Cara pointed out. “This isn’t me being insecure or anything. I’m just pointing it out. Captain Holdo and Omera are both of the same slender body type and while certainly each fierce in their own way—they’re not exactly shock trooper material.”

“I never laid a hand on Omera,” Din said. “And Amilyn…I took what was offered. I took it often because I was lonely and sad, but she’s not my type physically.”

Cara grinned. “So, you don’t like it when pretty girls send you messages?”

Din laughed. “That kid. Objectively, her face is lovely, but her real beauty comes from within—she’s brilliant, staggeringly brave, and she was so loyal to the cause that she sacrificed herself to save it. The fact is, Cara, Amilyn Holdo saved the galaxy. Her sacrifice ensured that Rey had people to fight with and fight for. If the First Order had succeeded in wiping out the rebellion—Rey would’ve failed, no matter how hard she would’ve tried—I believe she would’ve fallen to the dark side.”

“Okay,” Cara said and pushed him back onto the bed.

He laughed as she slid astride his hips. “Got something on your mind, Dune?”

“You.”

“Oddly, normally in this situation, I’m the one wearing too much armor.” He propped himself up on his elbows. “Kiss me.”

She leaned into him and pressed her mouth to his briefly before brushing her mouth against his jaw. “What’s the most alien sexual partner you’ve ever had?”

Din laughed. “Cara.”

“Seriously.” She sat back on his thighs and loosened the harness on her armor so she could pull the pieces free.

“A female Twi’lek once—not recommended. A male Devaronian—he found my helmet fascinating and commended me on adorning myself as well as I could since I didn’t have proper horns. A pair of Togruta—husband and wife—I was young and stupid enough to believe I had the stamina to spend a whole weekend with them.”

She grinned. “That’s…very sexy, actually.”

“You?”

“Female Zabrak—another shock trooper. She kicked my ass then asked me to sit on her face—I obliged,” Cara said as she dropped her armor on the mattress. “A male Gungan—also a shock trooper. I kicked his ass, and he informed me that I was the most amazing creature he’d ever met and expressed his deep desire to worship me.”

“Lucky guy,” Din murmured. “I got propositioned by a Hutt once.”

She burst out laughing. “Din.”

“I probably broke a land speed record getting back to my ship. I was just 22, and it was my first straight-to-client delivery bounty. I don’t think I really started breathing normally again until I was in hyperspace. Ram loves to tell that story. So, you’ll probably hear it at a meal sooner or later.”

“Male or female?”

“Fuck if I know,” Din said wryly and grinned when she burst out laughing. “What about you? Ever get an offer from an unexpected direction?”

She blushed and huffed. “This little Ewok used to follow me around and try to give me flowers when I was in training on Endor. She cried when I got reassigned and tried to fill my trunk with flowers.”

“You heartbreaker,” Din murmured, sat up, and cupped her hips. “Stay the night with me.”

She inclined her head. “You’re not asking for sex.”

“I’ve never once, in my whole life, actually shared my bed with anyone for a whole night. I’ve had to sleep alone…because of the helmet and my faith then afterward it was just…I couldn’t.” He paused. “Unless you count the baby, and I don’t. Besides, he likes to sleep on my head.” He brushed his lips against hers. “Though he hasn’t tried it since I stopped sleeping in the helmet.”

She grinned. “Yeah, I’ll spend the night with you.”

– – – –

Cara woke gradually and shifted slightly in Din’s hold. They’d left the door to the chamber ajar, so Rey knew that she could wake them up if she needed, but the girl hadn’t. She’d like to think she wouldn’t have slept through a visit from either of the children. Din pulled her closer and pressed a kiss against her neck.

“Good morning.”

“How’d you sleep?” Cara questioned.

“Better than I expected,” Din admitted. “I thought I’d wake up often.”

“Buir?”

Din’s hold loosened on her, and Cara fought back a protest. The heat of his body against hers was honestly kind of perfect, and she wasn’t ready to get up.

“You can come in, Rey.”

The girl pushed the door open completely and entered with the baby on one hip. They were both dressed for the day—Cara noted that the baby was wearing a white tunic and brown pants instead of that little brown coat he’d worn since the first time she’d met him. She put the baby on the bed and crawled up after him.

“IG washed the clothes we bought,” Rey reported. “I have my dress ready for the adoption.” She rubbed her head. “He told me I’d have to get one of you to braid my hair as he doesn’t have any hair protocols. He did brush it for me. He says I need to get my ends trimmed, but he doesn’t know how to do that either.” She made a face. “He apologized a lot during that whole conversation.”

“I can trim your hair,” Cara said and yawned. “We’ll do that tonight. If you get a brush, I can braid it now.”

“Sure,” Rey said and scrambled off the bed.

The baby crawled to Din as he sat up and head-butted him in the stomach. Din laughed and picked him up. “Hungry, ad’ika?”

“We already ate, Buir,” Rey declared as she reentered with her little bag of hair supplies. “IG said we had a full schedule this morning, and he wanted to make sure we had a proper meal. Then he complained about you and Cara eating meal bars.”

There was nothing wrong with a meal bar, Cara thought. It was perfectly balanced nutrition that she could eat as she moved. She sat up and got situated. Rey’s hair was quite long and definitely in need of a trim. The ends were split and frayed, not a surprise considering she’d spent time on Jakku by herself. Cara didn’t know exactly how long that had been, and Din hadn’t said much at all about how he’d come to find Rey when she was so young. He’d clearly had an inside track on that whole thing, which spoke to Force Spirits, and that honestly irritated the hell out of Cara. She certainly didn’t resent Qui-Gon Jinn or the others involved because their actions had given her a life she wouldn’t have had otherwise, but there was part of Din that was clearly off-limits to her.

“How many braids would you like?”

“I don’t know,” Rey said with a laugh. “How did your mommy braid your hair?”

Cara’s hands stilled briefly, and she took a shaky breath despite her best intentions before speaking. “On Alderaan, our hair was very important to us. Braids had their own language. We could tell our life stories with just the braids we placed in our hair. There were special ones for marriage, parenthood, love, grieving, social positions and most especially for various ceremonies.”

“Like adoptions?”

“Yes,” Cara sectioned Rey’s hair off down the middle. “It’ll take about 25 minutes to get this into place. Can you sit still that long?”

“Absolutely,” Rey declared. “How will it look?”

“There will be four braids—which I will pull up and pin to create a loop. Then I’ll make a little bun out of the ends. Each loop represents a period of your life as a woman.” She paused. “At least that’s how it was perceived on Alderaan.”

“What were the stages?” Din questioned, and Cara looked toward him. He was holding the baby in his lap, and they were both watching the process intently.

“The girl, the maiden, the mother, and the matriarch,” Cara murmured and focused on Rey’s hair. “It was a very traditional view of what a woman’s life should look like. These braids were worn during important life events like—adoption, marriage, childbirth, and burial. Moments of great change.”

“The Armorer is from Alderaan,” Rey said. “What do her braids mean?”

“Mourning,” Cara said gently as she split the girl’s hair again and started to pin the sections out of her way so she could focus on one braid at a time. “It is a very personal thing, so please don’t ask her about them.”

“Okay.”

“The night my world was destroyed by the Empire,” Cara began and took a deep breath. “I was so angry that I cut off all of my hair. I didn’t wear braids for many years as a result because I felt guilty and angry. That’s why my hair is so short even now. It was once as long as yours.”

“Because you lived,” Rey said. “I understand. My parents died because of me.”

“No, Rey,” Din said. “They died doing the right thing. It was their job to protect you, and that’s exactly what they did.”

Rey sent him a sour look. “If you die protecting me, Buir, I’m going to make your Force Spirit suffer forever.”

Din laughed. “I just bet you will.”

“I’m gonna ask Master Anakin about it—he seems like the sort to help me do it.”

Din made a face. “That guy talks to you?”

Rey inclined her head. “He’s very sad, Buir. He did terrible things and made mistakes that he’ll carry with him forever. He says he had a little girl, and he never got to meet her as her father. I’m not sure what that means.”

“I…” Din blew out a breath, and when Cara glanced toward him, he was focusing on the baby who was sprawled across his lap. “I can explain it, but I think you’re too young to hear it.”

“Okay,” Rey said reasonably. “I’ll ask again when I’m older.”

“Just like that?” Din questioned.

“I trust you to make the best decisions for me, Buir.”

No pressure, Cara thought.

– – – –

The magistrate for Mos Eisley was a pompous bastard, but Din knew that to be the case before going into the meeting. He’d had several run-ins with the man in the future. Paz and the Armorer were waiting on him when he’d entered the large common area of the covert. They’d fallen into step with him, making it clear they were going to be his company for the day whether he liked it or not. Now, they were standing behind him with Cara in the spacious office of Magistrate Yar.

Yar was human, and Din was pretty sure he was a former Imperial. There’d never been any proof to be had on that belief in the future. The man was also under the impression that he had Din at a disadvantage. He’s said several times that Mos Eisley certainly had room for a few Mandalorians, which clearly indicated that the fool had no idea the covert under the town had nearly doubled in a week. There were six more ships on the way.

“And of course, you can have space here in the administrative building to conduct your official New Republic duties.”

“No,” Din said.

“No?” Yar questioned in confusion. “To what?”

“No, we won’t be paying a monthly migration tariff per Mandalorian citizen that joins me here, no we will not work as your private military, no we will not give you a percentage of any bounties we collect while in residence on this planet, and finally, no, I don’t need office space.” The last one was the most galling, and he couldn’t put a finger on why exactly. “Who exactly do you think I am?”

“The Senate has declared you a dignitary of the Mandalorian people,” Yar said and raised an eyebrow. “Is that inaccurate?”

It wasn’t wrong exactly, and that was irritating, too.

“He’s the Mand’alor, you uneducated shabuir,” Paz muttered.

Din cleared his throat but kept his attention on Yar.

“What does that mean?” Yar questioned, gaze narrowing.

“Sole leader,” Din said mildly.

“Of your tribe?”

“Of us all,” the Armorer supplied before Din could find a way to give a non-answer.

“Every Mandalorian?” Yar questioned, horror growing on his face. “Just how many are coming here? You can’t invade and take us over because you lost your own planet!”

Rey scoffed. “Buir doesn’t want this barely industrial dirtball.”

Paz snorted, which told Din the man was going to be a very poor influence on Rey.

“I’d ask you to forgive her, but everything she said was the truth,” Din said mildly and watched the magistrate’s face go ruddy with temper. “If I wanted to negotiate refugee status for my citizens on this world, I’d be in Mos Espa where the power and wealth lie. It’s also where I’d set up an office if I were inclined toward such ridiculous behavior, and I’m not. The New Republic has requested that I provide them with information regarding my home base and my port city of preference. I’ll be informing them, shortly, that’ll I’ll be taking over the B’omarr Monastery.

“When I’m on the planet, I expect to have frequent visitors. Shall I tell those visitors to come to Mos Eisley, or would you prefer Mos Taike get that business?”

Yar glared at him. “You can’t take over Jabba’s palace. We only recently were able to run out those freakish monks! His son has insisted we keep it empty. He expects to return here within the next year.”

“The Hutts are confined to their own space by the New Republic,” Din said. “And Rotta is a coward who has no interest in leaving his homeworld again. He’s been stringing you along for years—playing you for a fool and robbing you blind because you think the Hutts returning to this planet would increase your power base. It’s never going to happen, under any circumstances.”

“You can’t decide that!” Yar shouted, and the baby squeaked in alarm from his covered pram.

Din pushed a little positive emotion toward the baby with the Force. He’d been doing it off and on all morning to try to remove the negative emotion attached to the closed pram. “You’ll find I have decided all of that, and you don’t have a choice about accepting it. The Hutts keep slaves, and I do not tolerate slavery.”

“You can’t make decisions about how we run our government,” Yar hissed with one glance toward the pram.

“Tatooine has petitioned to join the New Republic,” Din said. “And they most certainly can tell you how to run your government if you want to remain a member. How long do you think you’d stay in charge if your citizens realized you were endangering their ability to become citizens of the New Republic? The enslavement of organic beings is illegal galaxy-wide per the NR legal code. That’s another reason why the Hutts are confined to their own space. They’re too cowardly to court war.

“So, it’s going to be like this—my people will come and go as they please as long they do not disrupt the peace unduly. We’ll pay fair prices in the markets and in the space dock—the only places you can legitimately collect taxes for your city government. The monastery is outside of your jurisdiction and none of your business. I will also notify the other town magistrates of my location. Once a planetary government is established, I will, of course, be willing to meet with that body concerning my presence on this planet.”

“And protection?” Yar questioned. “You’re all experienced fighters, and there has been pirate activity in the sector.”

Din was never going to agree that his people lower themselves to working as a hired militia for an ex-Imperial. Those days were gone as far as he was concerned.

“We certainly wouldn’t stand back while the town was invaded by a hostile force,” Din said. “But we’ll never be subject to your beck and call. Mandalorians have a code and an intricate leadership system in which the likes of you have no place.”

“You answer only to yourselves,” Yar said sourly. “There was a time when your people and mine had a very different arrangement.”

“Times change,” Din said and made a note to delve very deep into Moff Gideon’s data to see if he couldn’t find some way to create a list of hiding Imperials to give to the New Republic. He could certainly create one and would, but data to prove it would be good. “Adapt or die.”

“This is the way,” Rey said and quirked an eyebrow when Yar stared at her in shock.

“This child’s presence in this meeting does remind me of one final matter,” Yar said. “I know of your people’s little habit regarding orphaned children. It will not be allowed to happen here in my town.”

“Are you saying that my people are not allowed to adopt children with no families from the streets of Mos Eisley?” Din questioned. “Be explicit, Magistrate Yar, it matters.”

“Life on Tatooine is hard; some find themselves on their own at an early age. They can learn to survive without any interference from your kind. There are systems in place to take care of them.”

“You mean systems like indentured servitude,” Din said.

“Perfectly legal even within the New Republic,” Yar said and smiled. “Anyone over the age of five can sign such a contract.”

“I won’t look, Buir,” Rey said.

“What…” Yar trailed off when Din stood.

“I’m not supposed to look when he kills people,” Rey declared as she covered her face with both hands.

Din picked his daughter up. “I’m not going to kill him, Rey.” And she dropped her hands to look at him in outrage. “I’d never get in the way of the Armorer’s kill—it would be rude.”

He turned and left the office. The pram zoomed to his side as soon as he was any sort of real distance from it. Cara followed with a frown.

“What?” Din asked as he heard a blaster engage, and Yar screamed just once before three shots were fired in quick succession.

“What if I wanted to kill him?” Cara questioned.

“Those who would allow the enslavement of children are mine to deal with,” the Armorer said in a clipped tone as she stalked past them. “Claim your own kill, Cara Dune, and I will honor it.”

“Oh, well, I guess I owe you an apology. That’s what I was wanted for—killing a former Imperial officer who liked to enslave female children.”

“I know exactly what that shabuir did. I read your bounty record. No offense was meant, and none was taken,” the Armorer paused in front of the desk where a young girl sat. “Tell whoever needs to be told that you need a new magistrate and also let that person know that we will not tolerate the indentured servitude of children on this planet or any other planet on which we put a boot.”

The young woman stared for a moment, blinked very slowly then smiled. “Yar’s dead?”

“Yes.”

“Does that mean my contract is canceled?” she asked. “I’ve been under contract with him for six years—since I was ten.”

“Yes, and if anyone disagrees with it—find a Mandalorian and tell them you need to see the Armorer.”

“The Armorer what?” the girl asked.

“Just the Armorer,” Torah said. “I’m the only one left.”

Out in the street, Din took in a ragged breath. “We need to have a serious conversation with Oddau Rast.”

“Their numbers are small, and this town is quite large and corrupt,” Paz said. “The practice could’ve flourished on Nevarro without our knowledge. It didn’t because Greef Karga didn’t allow it. He always gave you the children he found abandoned in his town and in the spaceport.”

“True,” Din said, and he hated that. “One day, I’m going to ask him where he thought I was taking all of those kids.”

“Are we really going to live in an old monastery?” Rey questioned.

Din put her down. “When we’re here—yes. It’s constructed well, very defendable with a minimal force, and when Jabba the Hutt lived in it—he called it a palace.” He flicked one of her braids. “Every princess should have a palace to call home.”

Chapter 10

Rast’s limp was worse. Din watched the man move across the small private meeting room he’d been led to when he asked to speak Oddau and inclined his head. “Bad break or amputation?”

“Reached help before amputation was necessary,” Oddau muttered. “Unfortunately. A prosthetic would work better than what I was left with. They told me I’d need weekly bacta micro-injections for a month or full immersion in a tank with a pristine batch of bacta for a day to fully repair the damage.” He sighed. “Like that’s something the average person can afford?”

Din thought about the liter of bacta on the Tor tucked away in their supplies. A part of him wanted to offer it to the man, but it wasn’t a risk he could take—that bacta could stand between him and death at some point in the future. Or maybe one of the kids would need it…the thought was horrifying, but it made the decision to not share it with Oddau Rast all the easier.

“Would synthetic bacta do the job?” Din questioned. “There’s a dealer in Mos Espa for it. It’s new—I heard they were talking about some sort of suit as well instead of the tank experience. We might be able to wrap the leg.”

“I hadn’t thought about it. Been living with it for almost two years.” Oddau dropped down in the seat. “I don’t know if I want to know what you said to Vizsla to make him walk away from the ideals of Death Watch.”

“You want to know,” Din said dryly. “I took my helmet off and declared I wasn’t a Mandalorian if he wasn’t. Then Torah followed suit.”

“That’d do it.” Oddau shook his head. “I’d feel sorry for him, but Paz Vizsla pisses me off so much. If he doesn’t figure himself out pretty damn soon, I’m going make a hobby of punching him in the head.”

“She’s as much to blame as he is,” Din pointed out. “Sure, he keeps his distance because he feels like she deserves better, but she turned down the offer to join House Vizsla twice.”

“Why the join the man’s house or clan, for that matter, when he can’t even admit he loves her?” Oddau asked, then huffed. “Why are we sitting here talking about their love life? Let’s talk about yours.”

“No,” Din said firmly.

Oddau laughed. “Come on! Where did you find that gorgeous woman?”

Din crossed his arms over his chest. “Sorgan.”

“That’s the damnedest thing,” Oddau said with a grin. “Lot of speculation about her when she came in with Torah. I had to switch out the guards watching Motto’s bay because of the interest. Might want to put a helmet on that woman if you want to keep her.”

“Would it be utterly arrogant to say I’m not at all worried about that?” Din questioned and sighed when Rast laughed. “Do you suspect any blowback for the thing with Yar?”

Oddau made a noise that sounded a lot like a sigh. “Should’ve figured it would go down that way. Gí was too small to realize what her sister went through, keeping them both out of the hands out of slavers on Coruscant following their parent’s accidental death. Gí told me once that as much as she grieved her parent’s deaths—she couldn’t regret the life she had since she was sure her parents would’ve eventually returned to Alderaan, and they’d all been on the damn planet when it was destroyed.”

“Torah wears mourning braids.”

“Gí says she’s worn them since her parents died,” Oddau murmured. “I should probably tell Paz to offer to help with her hair.”

Din shifted in his chair as he considered that. He wanted to ask questions about that but didn’t know how to go about it without intruding into Rast’s own relationship, which wasn’t to be done no matter how open Oddau’s tribe was.

“It’s an intimate thing,” Oddau said quietly, “when a woman from Alderaan allows you to take down her hair. I’ve never seen one wear it short as Cara Dune does.”

“She cut it all off the day Alderaan was destroyed,” Din said. “I think it was probably years before her fury made room for grief. Maybe she’s still getting there—she just recently started braiding it again.”

Oddau hummed. “Gí told me what those two braids meant—first love and unavailable for offers. I made it clear no one was to crowd her. Not that she can’t handle herself—I’ve heard enough to know she doesn’t require any help from me.”

First love, Din thought and flushed. He was glad he’d kept his helmet on. “I wanted to speak with you about the offer you made for me to join your tribe with my clan.”

“I know that’s not happening now,” Oddau said mildly. “Whatever tribe forms out of Death Watch—you’re best served politically in it because of House Vizsla.”

“We took the ancient oath,” Din said and focused on Oddau, who was staring at him in surprise.

“That’s more lenient than the tenets my tribe follow,” Oddau said quietly. “We don’t bare our faces to outsiders.”

“Cara has seen your face.”

“Cara Dune isn’t an outsider,” Oddau said and offered him a knowing look. “Every person and droid in this covert considers her your riduur.”

Wife. He wanted that to be true in the worse way possible. “It’s daunting—being that to me. Maybe if I was just…a bounty hunter, it would be an easier choice for her to make. Cara isn’t naïve enough to think that there is anything glamorous or safe about being the Mand’alor. The only comfort I have in that situation is if some shabuir kills me for the darksaber, she will immediately shoot them in the head.”

Oddau started laughing.

Din waited for the older man to stop laughing because he had one more thing to discuss. “I’d like to talk to you about the reestablishment of House Rast.”

“House Rast lost our place over a thousand years ago.”

“The funny thing about being Mand’alor, Oddau, is that no one tells me what to do,” Din said.

“You want to bring House Rast and House Vizsla under one tribe,” Oddau said. “Under Torah as a matriarch.”

“I’d put the darksaber in her hand if I thought she’d accept it,” Din said roughly.

“Never,” Oddau said with a laugh. “Unless she took it out of the hand of the shabuir that Cara Dune shot in the head.”

Din could see that. “I don’t know how many tribes are out there, but every single clan that has come here—has had no tribal connections left to speak of, and that’s telling.”

“There’s been some discussion over the Hab Wren situation,” Oddau murmured. “Nothing you wouldn’t expect—he comes from an ancient and influential clan. He’s very proud of his blood and disdainful of your position because you’re a foundling. I met with him personally shortly after he was escorted into town. Paz asked it of me. He feels responsible for Hab, and he shouldn’t.”

“Nez Vizsla sponsored Hab’s place in their clan,” Din said.

“And yet, Hab drew his weapon on Nez’s son,” Oddau said. “While the man wasn’t wearing a single piece of fucking armor. Heard you scared the fuck out of him by drawing the darksaber.”

Din blew out a breath. “If anyone is going to threaten Paz, it’s me.”

“Ah, brotherhood,” Oddau said with a grin. “I miss it. I’m the only child of my buirs to still be alive.”

“Hab is the only Wren I’ve ever met,” Din said. “Buir took their betrayal very personally. Paz clearly did as well. I don’t think he’ll accept them back wholesale into his house, and I don’t blame him. Maybe it would be easier politically…”

“And it’d be easier to tell them no if he were aligned with House Rast,” Oddau said and nodded. “Forming a tribe with me would make him unavailable to the political maneuvers of houses like Wren and Saxon should they come out of hiding.” He shrugged when Din looked in his direction. “Saxon probably still has a presence on Mandalore. You’ve never been there, correct?”

“No, splinter cells of Death Watch were already living in coverts by that point—I was taken to Ankhural first, then eventually our tribe settled on Nevarro. We were there when the purge happened. I’ve seen it from space a few times, though. I can’t pretend that Death Watch has a glorious history, Oddau. But I also can’t let history continue to define us and our place in this galaxy—as individuals or as a people. Our children deserve better. The New Republic is going to struggle for decades to recover from what the Empire did to this galaxy, and even as we sit, there are elements working to return to power that could see to the deaths of millions. Maybe even somewhere out there, there is some asshole trying to gather the resources to build another Death Star.” He paused. “Or worse.”

“What the fuck could be worse?” Oddau demanded.

“If it exists, the Empire probably thought of it,” Din muttered.

“What do you want me to do?”

Din considered that. He really didn’t want to hand down a set of orders to Oddau Rast or, frankly, anyone else, but he also knew that he had no choice. He had too much to do, and events were moving much faster than he expected. Din had really anticipated being gone from Tatooine shortly after his arrival. But it might be weeks or even months before he could leave to his next target for hidden information on the Jedi.

“I want a united, strong tribe to stand with me when I land on Mandalore,” Din said quietly. “One that is fierce, determined, and utterly prepared to help me restore our world to its proper place in the galaxy at large. Moreover, Oddau, the New Republic is going to come to depend on us for stability in the Outer Rim. They’ll expect that from me.”

“Fuckers,” Oddau muttered and stood.

“Where are you going?”

“To get that asshole, Paz Vizsla. Let’s get the broad strokes hammered out, and we’ll announce the merger. It’ll give everyone a few hours to adjust before the adoption ceremony this evening.” Oddau paused and turned to him. “It would be well received for everyone here to see bear witness, but if you wish to keep it private…”

“No, I wanted to give them…more than a clan,” Din said. “I want to give them a tribe. It meant a lot to me. I don’t think the baby will understand, exactly, but Rey will. She needs that after being abandoned by her birth parents.”

“Abandoned,” Oddau said. “With purpose?”

“To protect her, but yes,” Din said. “They died rather than give up her location, and that says a lot about how much they loved her…but they left her on Jakku with this mercenary asshole who barely fed her. When I found her, she was living several kilometers outside of the settlement in a wrecked AT-AT.”

“A desolate desert planet where even water is bartered is not the place to leave a child no matter your circumstances,” Oddau said. “There are better, less dangerous worlds even out here in the Outer Rim. You said remnants of the Empire were hunting her and her parents?”

“Yes.”

“Then has it crossed your mind they abandoned their child to save themselves? Easier to run without having to worry about a small child.”

“Of course, I just hope it never crosses hers,” Din said.

– – – –

The announcement had been met with some disbelief but little hostility. There were probably a few issues that would arise in the days and weeks to come. Din was relieved but also cautious. In truth, Mandalorians weren’t known for keeping their displeasure to themselves in any situation, so in that respect, he wasn’t worried about being shot in the back. There were 283 people in the covert, and half of them were under the age of 20. It was clear that all the clans in the newly combined tribe had been working since the fall of the Empire to rebuild their numbers. In this, the Mandalorians had an upper hand over other cultures all over the galaxy. Adoption was not only respected, but it was also a time-honored tradition that allowed them to rebuild quickly.

Now they were all spread out around him a wide circle in the main chamber of the covert. Rey looked nervous but excited. The baby kept toddling away as he was very distracted by the other children in the tribe. Din snatched his son up and returned to his place with a shake of his head. It caused several adults in the room to laugh.

“It would be inappropriate for me to leash him, right?”

“He’d probably just drag you around,” Cara pointed out and grinned when he looked her way.

Din sighed and focused on his son, who was staring up at him. “I’ve done terrible things in my life, ad’ika, but the single worst sin I ever committed was against you. I’ll live with the shame of it for the rest of my life. The moment I walked away from you—I knew I couldn’t live with it, and the worst part is that I tried. There came a moment when I was fighting to get off Nevarro with you—I was surrounded, and I thought I was going to pay for what I’d done to you with my own life. It was no less than I deserved, but there was little to no hope you were going to make it out alive if I died.

“Then my tribe came for us, and while I didn’t deserve it—they sacrificed every single bit of safety they’d had for two decades on Nevarro so that I could escape with you. I thought, after that night, that I should do this by myself. I cut myself off from the communication network that had served our tribe for years to keep whatever was left of them alive. I’ve been trying since that night, vainly at times, to be a better man for you.

“Tonight, I stand in front of our new tribe, aptly named Gra’tua, for the gal bal manda. It is also my honor to give you a name—here’s hoping you don’t come to hate it.” The baby patted both sides of his helmet and laughed. “Ni kyr’tayl gai sa’ad, Dral Orikih Djarin of Clan Djarin.” He glanced briefly at Paz before continuing. “Of House Vizsla.”

Paz held out his hands as he stepped forward, and Din gave his son over. “Welcome to House Vizsla Dral Djarin.” He turned and offered the baby to the Armorer.

Torah took him and let him rest on her chest plate. “Welcome to Gra’tua Dral Djarin. The tribe shall protect you until you’re old enough to stand in defense of yourself and others. This is the way.”

Din swallowed hard. “This is the way.” He watched the baby passed into Cara’s care before focusing on Rey, who was bouncing just enough to make the white robe she was wearing over her sky-blue dress shift around her booted feet.

He knelt on one knee, and Rey’s eyes widened with surprise. “Never settle for a man who won’t take a knee for you, princess.”

Rey laughed and pressed her fingers to her mouth.

He held out his hands for her, and Rey took them. “I was roughly your age when I was adopted by Nez Vizsla. During my adoption ceremony, he spoke to me of strength, sacrifice, survival, and loss. Though I wish it were different, these are all things you understand better than some adults.

“There will come a time, years from now, when you’ll come to fully understand how you came to be here and now. I want you to remember, no matter what else happens, that I willingly, and with no regrets, put a boot on the path that led me straight to you. And one way or another, Force willing, I will always be with you. Ni kyr’tayl gai sa’ad, Rey Sarad Djarin of Clan Djarin of House Vizsla.”

He stood and released her hands. Rey eagerly took the hands Paz Vizsla offered.

“Welcome to House Vizsla, Rey Djarin,” Paz said. “On this day in your 13th year, it’ll be my honor to give you your first blaster.” He laughed as Din exhaled loudly. “As that is the privilege of the House Patriarch.”

Rey laughed, and her amphistaff swirled up out of her robe to curl around her neck as she turned to Armorer. Torah took her hands. “Welcome to Gra’tua, Rey Djarin. The tribe shall protect you until you’re old enough to stand in defense of yourself and others.” She paused. “Come to my forge tomorrow, and I shall present you with the first piece of your armor.”

“Armor?” Din questioned, aware that he’d be unable to keep the horror out of his voice.

“She’s has a weapon; she gets armor.” Torah released her as Rey cheered. “This is the way.”

“This is the way,” Din repeated and wondered what Qui-Gon Jinn would do if he cursed him out. Considering the man’s history and legendary status amongst Jedi before he died, he probably hadn’t been given a piece of someone’s mind in damn near a hundred years.

– – – –

“What does my new name mean, Buir?” Rey questioned.

Din looked up from the datapad Cara had handed him to read. “Sarad means bloom.”

“Bloom,” Rey repeated. “Why?”

“Because I found you in a desert—flourishing and beautiful despite your circumstances just like those little flowers that Dral picked for you,” Din said and smiled when her cheeks flushed pink.

Cara ran a comb through Rey’s hair to check her work and set aside her scissors. “What does the baby’s name mean?”

“Dral means strong, powerful.” Din waited until they were both looking at him. “Orikih means tiny.”

Cara grinned. “Who knew you’d be so good at the baby naming thing?”

Din shifted Dral against his chest, and the boy’s ear curled against his collar bone as he snuggled closer. He’d been worried, a little, that the lack of armor would put the baby off. Before the shift back in time, he’d never held his son without armor. Truth be known, the comfort he’d once found in his armor was gone. It wasn’t a burden to wear, but it no longer felt wrong to be in something soft and comfortable. He wondered how his own buir would feel about the changes.

“We should create a data package about other Imperial encampments we can share with Senator Organa,” Din said as he set aside the datapad. “This one is going to start chewing on my shirt any second now, which means it’s time for bed.”

Rey yawned.

“Maybe after a very careful review,” Cara said as she quickly put Rey’s hair into a braid for sleep. “The New Republic is…just as much of a machine as the Empire. There are a lot of automated processes no one even pays attention to, and Leia Organa is no exception to that. If she had, she’d have been waiting for you when you landed on Coruscant.”

Din couldn’t disagree with that, so he just nodded. He put Dral in the pram and prodded it into the smaller bedroom. Within a few minutes, Rey followed and crawled into her bed. He watched her wiggle under her blanket as she yawned repeatedly.

“You really think I’m beautiful, Buir?” Rey asked.

Din sat down on the edge of her bed. “Of course.”

“You probably have to think that because you’re my buir,” Rey said and yawned widely. “Getting adopted was a lot of work.”

“I think the part where you ran around and introduced yourself individually to the entire tribe is what wore you out,” Din said and grinned when she huffed.

“What were your first pieces of armor?”

“My buir commissioned chainmail tunics, called beskar’gam, for all of his foundlings shortly before they received their first weapon,” Din explained. “You’re much too small for that kind of weight.”

“What happened to your beskar’gam?” Rey asked.

“When it no longer fit, I returned it to the armorer of the clan, and they made me my first set of greaves from it. Recently, I had all of my armor reforged, and the beskar my buir gave me was used as part of my new vambraces,” Din explained. “This is the way.”

“This is the way,” Rey murmured. “What will the Armorer make me?”

“I don’t know—we’ll determine that after she takes measurements. Your physical strength will come into play with this.”

“I’ll get stronger, Buir,” Rey said. “I promise.”

“You already have the strongest heart of anyone I’ve ever met,” Din said. “Let the rest come with time.”

– – – –

Cara paused at the entry of the forge. The Armorer was working quietly—there was comfort in the other woman’s movements. It reminded her of the hours they’d spent together on Nevarro while they recycled all the Imperials armor.

“You may enter, Cara Dune.”

“I don’t want to disturb you.”

Torah hummed under her breath. “The role of tribe matriarch requires that I make myself available to all those I claim when they are in need. You’re included in that—creed or not.”

“It’s a bigger job than it used to be,” Cara pointed out. “You’ll be a Protector when the government reforms.”

“Yes,” Torah agreed and walked across the chamber. “I’ve finished weaving the material for the hodas’kute. I have enough to fit roughly 400, depending on size. Some of the battle class members will, obviously, require a little more than the rest of us. We’ll need to source more materials eventually, but it will be inexpensive.”

“How is combat class determined?”

“Size, physical strength, and muscle potential.” Torah offered her the sizing wand. “If you were half a meter taller, you’d qualify, but that’s rare for a human woman.”

“I…” Cara sighed when she got a helmet tilt and took the wand. “Making me an environmental suit doesn’t make sense without a helmet.”

“The design covers the body entirely—three pieces that will adhere to one another magnetically,” Torah explained. “And I already made you a helmet.” She motioned toward an armor bag sitting on the table in the back of the chamber. “Before we left Nevarro.”

Cara exhaled slowly as she stared at the bag. “I’m from Alderaan.”

“You always will be,” Torah said. “Swearing the creed didn’t erase my history. It didn’t take away the memories I have of my parents. What it did was give my sister and me a family again—it gave us safety from slavers on Coruscant, who saw her physical beauty as something to be taken and destroyed. The Mandalorian that adopted us was also an armorer—he offered me a path to provide for all that I had left. I was 15 when I swore the creed, younger than tradition dictates. I’d already killed four men in defense of my sister, and I was wanted for murder by two different crime lords. I’d left Gí in an abandoned building on the ground—there is no place in the galaxy worse than the ground level of the Galactic City.”

“I’ve heard that,” Cara said. “Never considered finding out for myself.”

“I returned to the building, and there was a Mandalorian standing between Gí and me. I drew my weapon. He told me I could try to kill him, or we could come with him. He promised us a home then he threw a puck on the ground between us. He’d taken it off a bounty hunter. He said the likelihood I’d get off the planet alive without him was slim to none as I’d managed to kill the son of a fairly important man in the slave trade. The bounty on my head was astronomical as a result.” Torah took the wand from Cara’s limp hand and returned to her production droid. “He explained Death Watch, the creed, and the armor.”

“You swore the creed that night,” Cara murmured. “Just like that?”

“I’d heard about the Mandalorians—I knew what it meant to be adopted into a clan. I thought I was too old for it. He explained that he needed an apprentice—one he could train to fight and to make armor. I watched him make my first armor pieces on a temporary forge he’d set up. His mission on Coruscant was to gather foundlings for adoption into Death Watch.”

“Not exactly a ringing endorsement,” Cara pointed out.

“Our kind can be quite mercenary when it comes to gathering resources,” Torah agreed. “But our foundlings are loved, protected, and trained to survive. Gí and I would both be dead if I hadn’t sworn the creed that night. I’ve never met a foundling who regretted their adoption, Cara. In fact, I’ve only met one Mandalorian who regretted swearing the creed at all.”

“Why did they regret it?”

“It cost her the woman she loved,” Torah said. “But even with that loss, she never once considered removing her helmet.”

“The one she loved walked away from her because she thought she’d never see…”

“For an outsider, the way that Death Watch followed can look like a prison.”

Cara had never once considered it such. She’d resented the hell out of it, briefly, when she realized that Din Djarin would rather die than violate that code. “You broke that oath.”

“I did.”

“Did it feel like death? Worse than death?”

“It felt like sacrifice,” Torah said. “And duty.”

“Because Din did it first.”

“He’s the Mand’alor. The first in generations to be able to truly hold and use the darksaber as it was made to be used.”

“A legend reborn,” Cara murmured. “That’s a fucked-up thing to say to a man’s face, by the way.”

Torah shrugged. “I regret nothing.”

“Are you still wanted?”

“Dead or alive,” Torah said with so much pride that Cara burst out laughing. She motioned toward the droid. “It’ll be ready in the morning—along with the others. Sleep well, Cara Dune.”

“You as well,” Cara said and hesitated only briefly before she picked up the bag with her helmet in it.

“It doesn’t have to be…” Torah trailed off when Cara focused on her. “The ancient vow isn’t nearly as restrictive as the first one I swore. You could live with it.”

“I would’ve lived with the other one,” Cara said evenly. “I never expected to see his face, Torah. I’d have never asked it of him either.”

“We all know that,” Torah said wryly. “Hab wasn’t wrong—you do look at Din Djarin like he shaped the galaxy with his own two hands, and you did before you ever saw his face. Such is the heart of a woman from Alderaan—true and loyal.”

“True and loyal,” Cara repeated and flushed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that.” She shouldered the bag. “Thank you.”

“Welcome to Gra’tua,” she said and turned back to her work.

Chapter 11

Din was already in bed when she returned to their rooms. Cara set the armor bag down on the trunk tucked at the end of the bed, unzipped it, and loosened her control harnesses so she could remove everything. He shifted on the mattress and started to push back the covers.

“Don’t get up,” Cara murmured. “I’m just going to take a quick shower.”

“You can turn on the lights if you need.”

“I don’t,” Cara said as she plucked up her satchel and pulled out the long tunic she slept in. “Plenty of light from the bath.”

“Lock the door before you come to bed,” Din murmured. “I agreed to let IG have sentry duty in the outer chamber.”

“I saw him,” Cara said and turned to lock the door before going into the bathing room.

Cara stared at her reflection for a long moment before she pulled the clips from her braids and loosened them. She didn’t know how she’d wear it under the helmet, but she certainly wanted to give it a thorough washing. Alderaan had a long history of pacificism, but there were a few older braids from traditions that had all but disappeared by the time the planet had been destroyed—including the battle knot that would suit her shorter hair.

Din was exactly where she’d left him, so she slipped under the covers and let him pull her close. He inhaled against her damp hair as he pulled her back against his chest. “Where did you go?”

“To see Torah,” Cara said. “Today was a pretty big one for her—I don’t think she expected to ever be the Protector of a tribe. We talked about what it meant when we were packing the covert on Nevarro.”

“Did I fuck that up? I want to believe she’d have told me if she didn’t want it.”

“The desire to protect others shaped her before she was even an adult,” Cara said. “And I agree—she’d have definitely told you no if she didn’t want it. Still, I like to think she and I are friends. Checking in felt like the thing to do.”

“Okay.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Always,” Din said. “I’ll do my best to provide an answer.”

“Hab Wren—I don’t understand his behavior. It’s clear that this covert is full of foundlings, and there were many in your buir’s house over the years.”

“It’s two-fold,” Din admitted. “He’s rabidly loyal to Bo-Katan Kryze. Hab was brought into our tribe several years after I swore the creed. I don’t know who he resented more—Paz or me. We received Nez’s individual attention whenever we wanted. He spent every moment he could teaching us. I was the last foundling he personally adopted, you see.”

“His vision had come true,” Cara said. “Do you think…the Force gave him that vision?”

“Yes, and I think I fucked up a lot the first time around,” Din admitted roughly. “Hab expected to be accepted into Nez’s clan, and he was. He also expected to be given the Vizsla name, and he wasn’t. Shortly before Nez passed—they argued over it. Nez said he’d never given a foundling his name, and if one was going to bear his name, it would be me. Hab was furious to be called a foundling and hit him, which just isn’t done. Nez was 91 years old. I barely stopped Paz from beating Hab to death. It took him a while to forgive me for interfering. But eventually, he admitted that he’d have deeply regretted killing at 17-year-old-boy.”

“When was this?”

“9 years ago,” Din murmured. “Hab didn’t attend Nez’s funeral, and he isolated himself from the rest of the tribe whenever he could since.”

“He wanted your place in his adoptive father’s affection,” Cara said. “And when he was denied it—he attacked an elderly man. The little bastard.”

“I always knew that Nez favored me—sometimes over his own biological son, but Paz had a long asshole phase, so that was his own fault.” Din paused. “It just recently ended, in fact.”

Cara laughed. “Din.” She turned in his arms and cupped his face with one hand. “I love you. I want to be with you always.”

“Cara,” he murmured and let his forehead rest against hers. “I…I’m torn between telling you what a terrible mistake you’re making and thanking you.”

“I left Alderaan for my education,” Cara said. “My mother wanted me to be a medical doctor. My father thought a mech engineer might be a better fit for my interests. The day they took me to the spaceport, we made plans for them to visit me on Coruscant with my brothers and sisters.”

“How many?” Din questioned.

“Five sisters and one brother,” Cara said. “I was the third oldest and the only one to earn a place in the Galactic Science Academy. They were so proud of me. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t want it. I’d already been approached by the rebellion, and I’d agreed to attend the Imperial Academy. The rebellion regularly sent their own into the Imperial Academy. If they did well, sometimes they would stay as spies for a while before deserting. The plan was to do as well as possible my first two years at the science academy then transfer to the Imperial. No one would’ve blinked an eye, really, that I was from Alderaan. Kids got radicalized on Coruscant all the time.

“I was six months into my second year when Alderaan was destroyed,” Cara murmured. “The last comm I received from my parents was my whole family singing to me for my birthday. A tradition from my mother’s homeworld.”

Din pulled her closer and pressed a kiss against her forehead. “I can’t imagine it. I’m so sorry for what you lost.” He cleared his throat. “I was running guns when I heard that Alderaan was gone. I brought a shipment to Hoth once after that—that was the first time I saw Leia Organa. Didn’t get anywhere near her for obvious reasons, but I remember hoping that she’d make it out alive. Most of the people I did meet during those days are dead.”

“A week after Alderaan was destroyed, I left Coruscant with a few friends, and we joined the rebellion. I knew nothing about fighting. I hadn’t ever held a gun, but I learned fast. I’ve been running from the family that I lost for so long that I…well.” She sighed. “I did lose my second chance the first time around. Selfishly, I’m glad I don’t remember what happened in the first timeline, but I regret it, deeply, that you live with those memories. I want you to know that I’d set this whole fucking galaxy on fire if I’d been the one left to pick up the pieces. Gideon could not have run far enough or fast enough to keep me from taking him out.”

“If there’s anything better than a woman willing to make war on my behalf, I don’t know what it is,” Din murmured and kissed her mouth—slow and sweet—like he had nothing better to do for the rest of his life.

“I accepted the armor for you,” Cara confessed as Din trailed soft kisses along her jaw. “I never expected to see you without your helmet.”

“I know,” Din said as he slid his hands down and cupped her hips. “Oddau told me that braid you’ve been wearing actually means first love.”

Cara felt her face grow hot, and she huffed. “I’m going to kick his ass.”

Din laughed. “Cara.”

“Love felt like a weakness I couldn’t afford after Alderaan was destroyed,” Cara said. “I avoided it on a damn near professional level for years, then some Mando came strolling into my bar with a little green baby.” She pinched his arm when he laughed. “The only time I resented your creed was the moment I realized you’d rather die than break it.”

“I’m sorry for that,” Din said. “Looking back on that moment is hard because at the time it felt noble, and now it feels like cowardice.”

“A coward is the last thing you’d ever be,” she said against his jaw. “What does riduur mean?”

Din stiffened against her. “Why?”

“Because half the covert calls me the Mand’alor’s riduur,” Cara said. “And I asked Torah what it meant, and she laughed then told me to ask you.”

“It means partner,” Din said.

“Partner,” Cara repeated. “Just partner?”

“Spouse,” he continued. “Wife. It can also mean husband. It’s not meant to be an insult if that is a concern.”

“How does that work? On Alderaan, couples could dedicate a whole week to getting married.”

“A week?” Din asked in horror and huffed when she started laughing. “Are you fucking with me?”

“I’d love to, but no, there are several events beyond the actual wedding ceremony that normally take place in front of friends and families. My people believe that love is to be celebrated and given the utmost respect.” Cara ran a hand through his hair. “We don’t believe in long, drawn engagements. My parents met and married within three months. How does it work for Mandalorians?”

“We exchange vows in private as part of the riduurok,” Din murmured. “And my signet would be added to your armor as soon as we could arrange it.”

“I don’t have your signet, but people still think I’m your wife,” Cara pointed out.

“They all know that my clan signet is very new, and we were separated physically shortly after it was added to my own armor. The story of what happened on Nevarro is probably the most often repeated one in this covert. A month from now, I’ll probably get a severe lecture for neglecting the signet for so long.”

“Then let’s get the Armorer to add it in the morning,” Cara said.

“Are you sure?” Din questioned. “I know that traditionally Alderaanians only marry once.”

“That’s true, so you’d best not fuck this up,” Cara warned and poked him in the ribs.

“You’re so romantic, Dune. I don’t know how I didn’t take a knee the day we met and swear myself to fulfilling your every need,” Din said against her throat, and she couldn’t help but laugh.

Then he slipped out of her arms and left the bed.

“Where are you going?” Cara demanded and sat up. She squinted when he turned on the lights.

“Nowhere,” Din said and came back to the bed. “I just want to see your face when we do this.”

“Kind of hypocritical for a Mandalorian,” Cara said and grinned when he shot her a look. “You know, I could always tell when you were giving me dirty looks when you wore your helmet.”

“I’d hope so,” Din said. “I put a lot of effort in getting my point across.” He settled down in front of her, and she took the hand he offered. “You said you didn’t do the baby thing.”

Cara felt her face flush. “That’s been my knee-jerk reaction to anything looking like motherhood since I was 15. Women on Alderaan, even those with careers, were expected to want a lot of children.”

“There will be other children,” Din said. “Some I will feel compelled to raise myself because of the Force. I can’t say I’ll adopt every single Force-sensitive foundling I come across, but Qui-Gon Jinn is going to guide me to them repeatedly. He’s already decided that the only way to keep the Force safe is to make it part of the Mandalorian culture. If you knew a thing about the deeply fractious history between the Jedi and the Mandalorians, you’d be laughing your ass off right now.”

Cara wasn’t opposed to more foundlings—the two they had were amazing and adorable. “You already told Rey that you have no regrets for the path you’ve set yourself on. How many do you suppose there will be?”

“I haven’t the first clue, but he did tell me he doesn’t expect me to raise them all. Make sure they’re safe, loved, and trained—certainly.” Din took a deep breath. “Can you handle that?”

“Of course,” she said with a laugh. “I can’t teach them the Force, but I can teach them to fight.” She squeezed his hand. “We’ll raise warriors together.”

His eyes darkened, and he took a deep breath. “What about a baby? Would you want…to carry one? I’m not opposed, but I’d never ask you to do something you’d hate.”

“We’d need a very stable and safe situation before I’d consider carrying a baby,” Cara said. “It’d leave me physically vulnerable in a way that would probably make me unbearable to be around, as well. The idea of being defenseless is appalling.”

Din laughed. “Cara, I can’t see you being defenseless in any single situation. Laras Vizsla, Paz’s mother, gave birth to him on the Razor Crest in the middle of the battle. Nez had to leave her to pilot the ship—he put her blaster in her hand and told her not to die. When he finally got them off the planet and into hyperspace, Nez put the ship into autopilot and went back to check on Laras. Paz was asleep in an empty ammo crate, and she was taking a shower.”

“That’s a lot to live up to,” Cara said with a shake of her head.

“She also told him she’d never birth another child, so he stopped at the first planet he could find with a medical facility and got permanent birth control for himself implanted. Speaking of my current implant won’t expire for two years.”

“I’ve got three on mine,” Cara said. “So, we can discuss the whole baby-making thing again then, but it’s not a no—just a not yet.”

Din cupped her hips and pulled her unceremoniously into his lap. She wrapped her legs around his waist. She took a shocked little breath against his mouth as their bodies settled together. The hard jut of his cock against her stomach was a startling relief.

“There you are.”

“What?” Din asked as he nuzzled her neck.

“Part of me was a little worried this morning—it was clear you weren’t aroused, and that’s not something that’s a problem for human men first thing in the morning.”

“Oh.” Din laughed. “I got up and took care of myself in the bathroom, then came back to bed before you woke. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable. I’ve never believed it appropriate to put my dick on anyone just because I want them. My buir taught me better than that.”

“Good man, your buir,” Cara said and curled her arms around his neck. She trailed her fingers through his hair. “I don’t know the words—I’ll try to repeat after you. You’re not allowed to laugh if I muck it up.”

“I can say them in Mando’a so you can hear them, but I’ll give you my vow in Basic. I want you to understand exactly what I’m saying,” Din said.

Cara relaxed. “Sounds good.”

Din brushed his mouth against hers just once before saying, “Mhi solus tome, mhi solus dar’tome, mhi me’dinui an, mhi ba’juri verde.” He grinned when she just stared. “We are one whether we are together or apart, we will share everything, and we will raise our children as warriors.”

Cara thought the words deceptively simple—much like the marriage vows of her own world. “We are one whether we are together or apart, we will share everything, and we will raise our children as warriors.” She let her forehead rest against his. “On Alderaan, my private vow would’ve been…I’ll be the mother of your children, I will be faithful in mind, heart, and body to you, Din Djarin. Let us be one all of our days and build our family with love and loyalty.”

“I’ll be the father of your children, I will be faithful in mind, heart, and body to you, Cara Dune. Let us be one all of our days and build our family with love and loyalty,” Din murmured. “I saw the full Alderaanian rites performed once—Leia Organa officiated a wedding for two pilots in the rebellion. I watched it, then crawled into my tent and got utterly wasted with the foulest grain alcohol I’ve ever tasted in my entire life.”

“I’ve never seen you drink to excess, not even on Sorgan when we thought it was safe to do so,” Cara said and as she cupped the back of his head.

“It’s not something I’ve ever enjoyed doing—it dulls the instincts, and to be a Mandalorian is to be both the hunter and the prey.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t expect you to swear the creed. If anyone pressures you on the subject—feel free to kick their ass.”

Cara laughed. “I’ve never needed anyone’s permission to kick someone’s ass.” She stroked the sides of his face and scratched through the small amount of beard he had with blunt nails. “You don’t expect it, but the tribe will—you’re the Mand’alor, Din, and above anyone else in your life—your own wife should be willing to swear the creed and carry the mantle of your people.”

“I don’t care what they expect.”

She did, but she wasn’t going to argue that point because she’d much rather consummate her marriage than have an argument about a decision she’d already made. “I picked up my helmet from Torah tonight.”

“She already had it made,” Din questioned with a frown.

“She made it on Nevarro, and, honestly, I don’t think it had a damn thing to do with you.”

Din relaxed. “Alderaan.”

“There is kinship amongst the survivors and a deep sisterhood between the women of my world that I can’t really explain. I wouldn’t want to try.”

“No need to strip the love away from it by trying to figure it out,” Din said as he spilled her onto the mattress and eased on top of her. “The first time I was on top of you—I got so hard, so fast that I was appalled at myself. I was tempted, however, to send the Armorer a message thanking her for the room she left in my codpiece.”

She laughed. “Never gotten hard in a fight before?”

“Never,” Din admitted. “I should’ve realized I was in trouble with you.” He nuzzled against her jaw. “You really are magnificent in a fight. I’m furiously proud to have you at my side.”

“Love me,” she urged and spread her legs wide so he could settle fully between them.

“I do,” Din said. “I will love you all of my days.” He caught the edge of her shirt and started to pull it up. “In the spirit of full disclosure, I, in no single way, measure up to a Gungan.”

She grinned and relaxed under him. “I didn’t let him put that monster dick in me.”

“Well, thank for fuck for that—no human male could compete.”

“Your tongue situation is a real disappointment, though,” Cara said and smirked when his gaze connected with hers.

Din licked his lips. “I’ve never done that—you’ll have to teach me.”

“Not even with Holdo?” Cara questioned. “I ought to kick your ass for that. That woman deserves to get head every single day.”

“Sex with her was never intimate in that way,” Din admitted. “It doesn’t seem right to talk about it—even if she doesn’t remember it.”

Cara nodded and wiggled out of her shirt, which she tossed aside. “Want to get the light?”

Din flushed and braced himself above her. “I want to see you. I want to be seen.”

“Yeah, okay,” Cara whispered and took a deep breath as she ran her hands down his sides and pushed against his sleep pants. “Take these off.”

He all but melted against her after they got his pants off, mouth seeking hers in a way that felt close to the wrong kind of desperate. Cara understood it—the immense desire to connect with another person in the most physical way possible. His hands were calloused and roughened from work—from handling weapons—but they were still unspeakably tender as he cupped her breasts and thumbed over her nipples.

It was easy to get lost in the pleasure of his hands on her body and his mouth blending with hers in one heated, perfect kiss after another. She’d never had anything like it—sex had always been a race to see who could get off faster. Cara knew her appeal to a certain sort, and she’d never, ever had a problem getting laid on any planet she landed, but Din Djarin was something altogether different, and it was honestly kind of infuriating.

Din lowered his head and sucked a hard nipple into his mouth, and Cara clinched one hand in his hair. “How dare you be like this.”

He laughed against her skin and slid one hand between her legs. Gentle, knowing, thorough—all words that could be used to describe Din Djarin in bed. She’d expected something different—something hard and as wild as the man could be in a fight. Maybe sex had always been like a fight for her, and that hurt a little to admit even to herself.

Cara pushed those thoughts away. She’d deal with them later—Din didn’t deserve for her attention to be divided. She wrapped one hand around the thick length of his cock as he slid two fingers into her cunt.

“Fuck,” he whispered against her skin. “How do you like it?”

“You’ve thought about this for far longer than I’ve ever had the chance to,” Cara murmured as he lifted his head. She touched the side of his face, and his eyes closed briefly, then he lowered his head. “Just…have me the way you’ve always wanted to.”

“Cara,” he whispered fiercely against her sternum and pressed a surprisingly damp cheek against her breast.

She shuddered as he pulled his fingers from her and moved up to kiss her again. Cara clutched at his shoulders as he positioned himself and rubbed the fat head of his cock up through her folds several times before pressing into her with one long, breathtaking stroke.

“Oh.” She arched under him and dug her nails into his shoulders. “Fuck, Din.”

“You’re perfect,” he whispered as he started to move.

His quiet, restrained strength had never been more obvious to her, and it was startlingly attractive. Din cupped the back of her thigh, lifted her leg upward against his body, and the angle of his penetration changed in a way that made her groan despite her efforts to make as little noise as possible. She bit down on her bottom lip.

“It’s fine,” he murmured. “They both sleep so deeply is actually kind of petrifying. They could probably sleep through a battle—Dral has.” Cara rocked her hips into his next thrust, and he groaned. “I have a list,” he confessed against her cheek. “Of places, planets, and positions.”

Cara laughed and fisted her hand in his hair, then pulled. “I can’t wait to hear it.”

He got rougher, and she couldn’t hold back a shudder. The hot, thick drag of his cock inside of her was driving her toward orgasm at a pace she’d rarely achieved, even with a toy. Din pushed a hand between their bodies, pressed his fingers against her clit, and she came despite her efforts to put it off. He kept moving, sliding one arm under her and wrapping her hair up in his fist as he took her mouth.

The pleasure was fierce, tight, and overwhelming. She came again and wrapped her legs around his waist as he trembled against her.

“I love you,” he whispered against her skin.

Cara turned her face toward him and pressed against his neck.

Chapter 12

He’d noticed first thing that Cara’s armor had a black tint—he wondered if the Armorer had explained the color system attached to Mandalorian armor. Din watched her place her helmet next to his own and slip into her chair at the table. Rey was industriously plowing through a bowl of porridge, and the baby had a live lizard in his hand. IG was holding two more by their tails.

Din grimaced. “He’ll eat them dead, IG.”

“He prefers his prey living,” IG said. “There’s no need to deny him his preference when there is a viable food source at hand.”

Din glanced toward Cara, who was eating porridge as well. He snagged a meal bar from the basket in the center of the table and shrugged at IG’s tut of disapproval as he unwrapped it. “I loathe porridge, IG.” He took a bite, swallowed it quickly, and focused on Rey. “Cara and I got married last night.”

Rey pursed her lips as she swallowed her porridge and glanced between them. “The Armorer said marriage rites for Mandalorians are done in private.”

“Yes, it is a deeply private moment,” Din agreed. “You’ll learn the words in your language lessons when you’re older.”

Rey nodded. “What should I call you?” She focused on Cara as she asked the question, so Din refrained from pointing out that the word buir meant mother and father. He knew that Rey understood when he’d explained it to her.

“I called my own mother Ama,” Cara said. “It was a popular term of affection that means mother on her homeworld of Tangenine. My parents met on Coruscant—he was working as a political analyst for Senator Bail Organa, and my mother was a dancer. She was performing as the prima ballerina with the Imperial Ballet. My father attended every single performance he could purchase tickets for, and eventually, he worked up the courage to ask her to dinner. When he left Coruscant, he asked her to return to Alderaan with him, and she agreed.”

“Ama,” Rey repeated. “Okay, that sounds nice. Did you ever want to be a dancer?”

“Three of my sisters pursued dancing as a career, but I found the lessons boring, and moreover, I didn’t have the physical shape that was preferred in the ballet.” Cara gestured to her chest briefly. “My sisters were shorter and very slender like our mother.”

Din sat back and raised an eyebrow. “But you did take lessons?”

Cara flushed. “Shut up.”

“I’m not messing at you,” Din said mildly. “You’re graceful on your feet, sure-footed. I thought it came from your trooper training.” She averted her gaze and shrugged, so he let it go and focused on Rey.

“I don’t know where I’m from,” Rey said. “Not Jakku—it was a green world, with lots of trees and a river. The nights were cool but never cold. The days sometimes got really hot but never like on Jakku or here.”

“I don’t know where I’m from either,” Din said. “My family were refugees—moving from one world to another. We’d only been on the world where they died for a few weeks.”

“Why?” Rey asked. “Did the Empire hunt you, too?”

Din considered that and wondered if there was truly a child-safe answer. It wasn’t the Mandalorian way to coddle children. “The Empire used massive armies to enforce their rule. When it first formed, they relied on clones—soldiers that were created for the Galactic Republic—as stormtroopers. But as the years passed, those clones either grew too old to be useful, or they were killed by rebel forces. To replace the clones, they started to conscript people into their armies. When they could, they would take children so they could be…taught to loyally serve the emperor. I was the right age for that kind of recruitment, so my parents migrated often to avoid the recruiters who worked for the Empire.”

“Don’t you wish you knew where you came from?” Rey asked pensively. “Where were you born?”

“Of course,” Din said. “But I don’t resent my parents for their choices—they were doing the best they could to provide for me. It takes a lot of strength to have that kind of life, Rey, to constantly be the prey of those far more powerful than you. In the end, my parents and yours won their fight against the Empire. We sit here free because of their victories.”

Rey nodded. “What do I tell someone when they ask where I come from? I don’t want to say Jakku—it was horrible there.”

“I normally tell people to mind their own business,” Din admitted and laughed when Cara sighed dramatically. “Or I ignore the question altogether.”

“Maybe I was born in space,” Rey said. “I’ll tell people I’m a space baby.” That decided, she hopped up from the table. “Gonna get dressed! Can’t be late for my first armor!”

Din sighed and shared a look with Cara. “I hope I can count on you to be a voice of reason during that discussion.”

“Torah does what she wants,” Cara pointed out. “I’m wearing a full suit of armor that I didn’t ask for and tried to turn down.” She put her hand on his arm. “Would you prefer I swear my creed in front of them?”

“It feels private,” Din admitted. “I swore my creed in front of my buir with no other witnesses. It’s not our way to make big public displays of the creed—the whole thing with Paz’s clan wasn’t a normal situation. But the decision is yours, of course. It’s your creed.”

“Then just us—our family,” Cara said and glanced toward the baby just in time to watch him slurp a lizard into his mouth. “Good thing you’re cute, kid.” She stood and picked him up. “Let’s get you dressed.”

Din watched IG start to clear the table. “IG, do you have programming for general education?”

“Yes, I downloaded a whole education packet. I’ll need to test Rey before I can construct her curriculum. I’m unsure what I can teach Dral at his level of maturity.”

“He can make noises—purposeful noises that he repeats when he wants something. I think he’s probably never had a lot of stimulation geared towards teaching him anything. He can learn physical skills—evidence by the fact that he can walk, run, and use the vac by himself.” He paused. “Though the first time he used the vac on the Razor Crest by himself, I freaked out thinking it might have sucked him out…into space.”

“He’s quite small,” IG said. “We’ll have to make sure he can’t fall through the seat of the Tor. I’ll check the ship’s vac room and make any safety adjustments needed for both children.”

Din finished his meal bar and picked up one of the datapads on the table. He needed to pick a destination. There were several places he’d visited in the future though most of them had been pillaged by the Empire or Luke Skywalker. He’d stumbled across hidden caches of Jedi knowledge often enough that, in retrospect, he was clearly being guided. Qui-Gon Jinn played a long game, but Din couldn’t bring himself to resent the man. He thought about the books and scrolls that Rey had taken from Skywalker in the future—none had been all that informative where it concerned actual training methods. Skywalker, in his final years, had been more concerned with Force philosophy, which Din didn’t find appealing at all.

He’d have no part of the religion that the Jedi had followed—it hadn’t served them, and it hadn’t served the Force. Din firmly believed that many of the Sith had been created wholesale because of the Jedi’s rigid and sometimes heartless approach to life.

“Something concerns you?” IG questioned.

“Luke Skywalker,” Din admitted honestly. “And his desire to return the Jedi Order to its so-called former glory.”

“No religion that seeks to destroy freewill is a healthy one,” IG said.

“What do you know about the Jedi religion?” Din questioned.

“Master Kuiil had contacted several sources regarding information on the Jedi—I believe he was looking for information because of the child. He found him fascinating,” IG said. “The only response he got concerned the religious tenets of the Jedi Order. He was displeased by what he read and shared his thoughts with me. Their apparent disdain for emotional attachment and the family unit offended him greatly because it reminded him of the Empire.”

“It doesn’t mesh with the Mandalorian way of life,” Din said. “I certainly won’t teach those concepts to my own children. I don’t think it serves them.”

“How can one truly respect life without love?” IG questioned.

Din shot the droid a look. “You were much less complicated in your first incarnation, I want you to know.”

“I was also, apparently, an asshole,” IG said, and Cara burst out laughing as she left the children’s room.

Din nodded his head. “You were great in a fight, though.”

He accepted Dral when she offered him, and the baby made a soft cooing sound. The happiness radiating off the little guy was hard to ignore, and it was a relief. Having a connection with his son through the Force was one gift he’d never take for granted.

“Rey, come stand with me. Cara is going to swear her creed. You’ll be a witness.”

Rey dashed over and hooked her fingers into his gun belt. “When do I get to do it?”

“After the age of 16,” Din said. “But you don’t have to swear it immediately or at all. I won’t be disappointed if you choose a different path.” He shifted Dral around so the baby could watch Cara easily and picked up Cara’s helmet with his free hand. He held it between them. “Only if you’re sure.”

“I will shroud my body in armor. I will speak the language of the way. I will defend myself and my clan. I will raise my children as warriors. I will defend and protect the tribe. I will follow the Mand’alor in times of peace and war. This is the way,” Cara said, and her shoulders relaxed when Din gave her a nod and offered her the helmet.

“This is the way,” Din said.

– – – –

The Armorer had set up her forge in the first set of rooms leading into the part of the cover Oddau Rast had given over to House Vizsla. Din’s own chambers were deep into that section—a security measure he’d allowed for the safety of his kids. Anyone getting into the covert would have to go through a lot of Mandalorians to collect the bounty on Dral. The chamber was also four times the size of the one she’d had on Nevarro. She’d taken over all of the equipment Rast had stored.

Oddau and Gí were in the room in the back, working with several bolts of black material, which were being fed into a stationary droid used for clothes construction and repair. Din glanced around and wished he’d brought the pram to put the baby in. He really didn’t want him wandering around the forge. Some of the equipment was dangerous regardless of the activity being done on it. Paz prodded his oldest in just as Din was taking a seat.

“Okay, Buir, I get it,” Ero said. “But still, what do women like?”

Din hummed under his breath. “The question of the ages.”

Ero threw himself on the bench beside Din and crossed his arms. “Good morning, sir.”

Din made a face that would’ve probably gotten him a lecture if he wasn’t wearing his helmet. “What’s on your mind?”

“A few of the girls in the covert are flirting with him,” Paz said as he skillfully plucked Dral out of Din’s arms. “Good morning, little one. Did you get a full belly of lizards?”

“I just don’t know what to do with them,” Ero explained.

“I told him nothing—he’s too young,” Paz said.

Din sighed. “Like that stopped either of us.”

“I gave him the particulars,” Paz defended. “He has an implant, but he doesn’t have time to be chasing anyone around this covert with his training schedule.”

“But what do girls like?” Ero asked again.

“Competence,” Cara said, and Din noted that his nephew immediately focused on her. “Strength.”

“Integrity,” the Armorer said as she picked up her carving tool and deftly added Din’s signet to Cara’s pauldron.

“Is physical appearance important?” Ero questioned.

“To some,” Cara said. “Not that you need to worry about that—you’ve got a really pretty face.” She tilted her head. “Has one of those girls asked you to take off your helmet for her?”

Ero shrugged a shoulder, which was a yes. “They’re different here—I’m still getting used to it.”

“Don’t give this girl another moment of your time,” Torah ordered. “She has a lot to learn about the way. Our creed is more relaxed now, but that doesn’t mean anyone has the right to ask such a thing of you, ever. You should consider it a gift and not something that can be…expected from you from just anyone who finds your name more attractive than anything she could’ve possibly learned about you in the few days you’ve been here.”

“How do I say no to that? They know we’ve taken new oaths.”

“You just say no,” Din said dryly. “Anyone can be bold enough to ask the most profane of questions, Ero, but that doesn’t mean you owe them any sort of answer, much less a positive response. If she’s offended, then she’s even less worthy of sharing any sort of intimacy with you. The only thing worse than someone who would demand you remove your helmet is someone who would try to do it for you.”

“That sounds like experience talking,” Paz said.

“You’ve spent a lot of time coverts, Paz. There are plenty of assholes out and about in the galaxy who consider one of our helmets a trophy.” Din shrugged. “And some just see it as a barrier that they can’t tolerate. They rely too much on eye contact and facial expressions in their day-to-day communication to trust someone who never shows their face.”

“Or they’re just assholes,” Cara said dryly and rocked her head a little. “Honestly, I expected it to be heavier. I’m pissed because this HUD would’ve come in really damn handy when I was serving. I could’ve been three times the fighter.”

“I’m not sure the galaxy can survive you being three times the fighter you are,” Din said dryly and focused on Rey who was waiting patiently for the Armorer’s attention. “She needs full arm and shoulder movement for various Force-related training lessons. Meditation will feature heavily in that from the very start, so I don’t want her weighed down.”

Torah handed Rey a wand. “Let’s check her potential future size.”

“Why is it just potential?” Rey questioned.

“Many things can impact your eventual adult size—nutrition, environment, physical training, and diet are among them. Tatooine’s not a heavy gravity environment but if you spent any significant time on such a planet then you’d develop stronger bones. A low gravity environment would do the opposite.” Torah took the wand and picked up her datapad. “Your body type will veer toward lean in adulthood, but you have higher than average strength potential based on current muscle density.”

“Could be the Force,” Din said. “Or her time spent on Jakku, which does sport a higher-than-average gravity rating than most inhabitable planets. Not by much, but enough that I felt the difference when I landed.”

“It was…easier to move on Jakku,” Rey said and flushed when everyone focused on her. “I couldn’t carry big pieces of scrap like some of the scavengers working for Plutt, but I could carry more than he expected me to.”

Torah held out her arm. “Pull—don’t use your weight.”

Rey wrapped her hands around the Armorer’s gloved hand and pulled. She didn’t make much of an impact, but Torah hummed under her breath. “Perhaps the world she was raised on had a heavier surface-grav than even Jakku. I would not expect just a year to make her this sturdy. You will learn more about the Force and share this with me as it will have bearing on her armor in the future.”

Rey released her hand. “What do I get today?”

“Considering the training you will undertake, I think vambraces will be the easiest armor pieces of you to adjust to. It will also give you a communication system and allow your parents to track you if you’re separated during travel. I will also make you a birgaan to wear on your back—for your serpent—as there could be times when you’d not want to advertise the fact that you carry such a weapon. It will be leather and durasteel. It could also provide shelter for Dral, and you could bear his weight without burden.”

– – – –

“How does it feel?”

Cara looked up from the datapad she was working with and focused on Gí Rast. “What?”

“The helmet.” She inclined her head. “The adjustment can be difficult for some, and age plays into that.”

“I expected to feel isolated,” Cara admitted. “But instead, I just feel more secure.” She pulled the toolkit she’d put together and rummaged through the various cables she had collected on Nevarro for the data mission. “It feels like a tool or weapon in my arsenal more than anything else. I appreciate the privacy it gives me—but I’m used to using my facial expressions to get my point across, sometimes. I gotta work on my helmet tilts.”

Gí laughed. “My buir could curse someone out without saying a word. I’m more likely to add my fist to a conversation.”

“It’s a legitimate form of communication that can’t be misconstrued,” Cara said and attached to the cable to the dead holocron.

“What are you doing?” Torah asked as she joined them at the table.

“I’ve collected all of Gideon’s data, and I’m running a program to organize it. Some of it’s encrypted, but it’s an old Imperial code that I already have a slicer for. This holocron is from a damn near-ancient bunker on Nevarro. It looked like it was used by the rebellion at some point, probably to spy on the Imperial base on that planet. We’re looking for information on the Jedi and their training methods.” Cara focused on the holocron. “And the Jedi used holocrons for communication, historical archives, and training. I’m hoping this will be useful, but I can’t figure out to get power back into it. It’s probably been dead for decades, and it doesn’t have the structure of current holocrons.”

“Maybe it needs the Force to be activated,” Gí said and shrugged when Cara glanced her way. “A security feature, perhaps?”

Cara unhooked the cable from the holocron and turned the cube over in her hands. On some instinctual level, she knew it wasn’t dangerous. Whatever information it was holding was old and probably useless, but she couldn’t leave it unexplored.

“Something wrong?”

Cara looked and found that Din had returned to the small common area that they were sharing with Clan Rast.

“Can you turn this on?” She offered him the cube.

Din took the cube as Oddau, and several other Mandalorians that weren’t immediately recognizable left him. She was still working on memorizing armor configurations.

“It’s too small to hold much of anything,” Din said as he sat down. He set the holocron down and took off his gloves before picking it up again. “It’ll be something personal—perhaps a mission log.” It started to glow in his hand, and a holographic image of a man dressed in dark robes flowed out of it.

“The Imperial forces on Nevarro are small but made up of elite assets. Their purpose here is unclear and attempts to gain information have already cost us three talented people. We have a nest of true believers, which is disconcerting on its own, but they’re stockpiling kyber crystal. There are no Force-sensitives amongst them, which is not a surprise—the Sith code only allows for two, and Darth Sidious appears to be quite enamored with his current apprentice, Tyranus. We have been unable to uncover any more data regarding Project Stardust, but I can confirm that Wilhuff Tarkin is in charge of the project. Based on current data, I believe that we must go forward with the plan to remove Tarkin and the scientist, Galen Erso, from the project by any means necessary.”

The hologram disappeared with a flicker, and Cara took a ragged breath. Din’s hand settled on her shoulder.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.” Cara took a deep breath and then another.

“What’s Project Stardust?” Gí questioned.

“It was the code name for the construction of the Death Star,” Cara said as he put the holocron down. Dral’s hands on her leg caught her attention, so she reached down and picked him up. “I’m okay.” She patted his back as he snuggled against her chest.

“And Galen Erso?”

“He was a brilliant scientist that the Empire conscripted into finishing the Death Star construction. His daughter eventually joined the rebellion and stole the plans for the battle station. He put a weakness into the design—on purpose—and it allowed the rebellion to destroy it. They’re both dead—the Ersos. Not many people even know what they did and why. The New Republic is keen to present a virtuous image where they are the saviors of the galaxy, and everyone in the Empire was evil.

“Don’t get me wrong—the only good Imperial is a dead Imperial, but there were people caught up in the Empire’s thrall that were little more than slaves.” She cleared her throat. “Something I tried to ignore and Kuiil reminded me of.”

“Who’s Kuiil?” Oddau asked as he sat down at the table.

Cara watched them all settle in around her project. “He’s a friend we lost on Nevarro.” She looked down at Dral, who was wiggling just a little back and forth so he could basically nest between her breasts. “He died for Dral.” She glanced across the room to where Rey was sprawled on a couch with a datapad. “The Empire enslaved him and many others of his race to do the work they believed below humans.”

“Ugnaughts were deeply mistreated by the Empire,” Din agreed. “Much like the Wookiees and other races they declared not to be sentient, so they’d feel justified in enslaving them.”

Cara put the holocron in her pile of processed materials and put a small green one in front of Din. “This one has power, but it’s encrypted to an energy signature, which is an unusual security feature.”

“It feels ugly,” Din muttered and seemed to hesitate before picking it up. The holocron glowed gently in his hand but didn’t activate. “You found this in the bunker on Nevarro?”

“Yes, along with the other five holocrons,” Cara said and motioned to the holocrons piled up in front of her. “I’ve already culled the data from everything else, and I have a program organizing it for me. Most of it is, honestly, useless for our purposes, but it might make some historian really happy. Gideon’s data is a gold mine, and most of it should be sent to the senate. I don’t know how you feel about that, but I think we should give them an opportunity to prove they can do the right thing without making it a big political mess.”

“It’s going to be a big mess no matter how we handle the data,” Din said. “But I’m not opposed to giving them a shot at completing the job they started.” He picked up the holocron she’d given him again. “Encryption like this was used by the Jedi Order to pass secure information from one person to another outside of the HoloNet—this could be hundreds of years old.”

“Out of the view of the Republic,” Cara supplied. “What would they hide from the Republic?”

“The names of Force-sensitive children, for one,” Din said. “Some parents refused to part with their children, but the Jedi Order kept an eye on them for security purposes if nothing else. They didn’t like to train older children or teenagers as a rule.”

“Harder to indoctrinate an older child,” Cara said flatly.

“Yes, but it’s also important to remember that the Jedi wanted their members to be completely immersed in their religious principles. Convincing someone to forsake intimacy, love, and family requires a mindset that is easier to develop in a small child.”

“Sex, too?” Oddau questioned. “Seriously? Maybe our ancestors should’ve focused on rescuing those idiots from themselves instead of fighting them.”

Cara laughed but focused on the older man as he shifted in the chair. His shoulders tensed up, and his right hand dropped down to his leg. “Muscle spasm?”

He nodded. “Happens occasionally.”

“How’d you hurt it?” Cara questioned.

“Took a job I shouldn’t have,” Oddau muttered. “It was on planet—seemed like easy money and the covert needed funds for medical supplies. Everything was running short and has been since Vik stole our only ship, then got himself and it blown up.”

“Well, he got the ship blown up,” Din corrected as he turned the holocron over in his hands. “This thing feels familiar, which is weird.” He looked up and focused on Rast. “I crossed paths with Bos Vik about two months before I took the bounty for Dral. I found out, later, what he did here. If I’d known at the time—I’d have brought him back to you.”

“How did you activate the first one?” she questioned.

“I just wanted it to turn on,” Din admitted. “So, it did. The Living Force is intelligent and sophisticated.” She watched him stare intently at the holocron. “The Force is…the energy of life. It is marginally separated into the Living Force and the Cosmic Force. Many believe the Living Force is the origin of life in this galaxy; I’ve heard, but never seen proof, that it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe. The Living Force is a conduit to allow the Cosmic Force to feed, encourage, and bind everything together around us with the purposeful manipulation of midi-chlorians.”

“And what exactly are midi-chlorians?” Oddau questioned.

“Microscopic lifeforms that live inside all organic life forms. Some believe them the first life to be created in the heart of the galaxy. They return to it when the organic life they are hosted in dies—a renewal of sorts. The higher your individual midi-chlorian count is, the better control you have over the Force energy that moves around us.”

“Okay,” Cara said. “When you took the darksaber from Gideon, you used the Force with purpose.”

“It felt like I could,” Din said. “I wanted the darksaber. It was offensive to see it in his hand, to see him use it as a tool instead of a weapon. He had no respect for it, and it showed in every single way. I’ve never hated anyone more in my life than Moff Gideon—all I saw when I looked at him was death. My son’s death, specifically. Anyone who could look at Dral and think he deserves to die has no right to live.”

Cara shifted the baby against her chest, and her fingers clenched briefly in his tunic. She tried not to think about what Din had told her about the future all that often, but suddenly, an image of Dral lying dead on the ground filled her mind, and she took a deep, ragged breath.

“You pulled with the Force—physically pulled to get the darksaber to leave Gideon’s hand.”

“Yes,” Din agreed.

“Try pushing the Force into the holocron and see what happens.”

After a few seconds, the Holocron started to glow, but no hologram appeared. “Data, perhaps?”

“I have a protocol to harvest from an active holocron,” Cara murmured and picked up her datapad with one hand.

“I’ll take him,” Torah said and reached out for Dral.

Cara let her have the baby after a moment’s hesitation and mentally considered her options for baby wearing in the future. There were a few sling configurations that had been popular on Alderaan. She focused on the pad because she felt ridiculous trying to figure out how to keep a 50-year-old toddler as close as possible. She didn’t know what sort of nurturing he needed to thrive, but she had to think it had been a long time since he’d been held with genuine affection and care.

She activated the protocol and snagged the data from the holocron. “Looks like recon data—movements, schedules, and a floor plan for the base on Nevarro.”

Din set the holocron down, and it darkened. “Certain members of the rebellion knew about the death stars well before the destruction of Alderaan.”

“They were in construction for over a decade,” Cara said. “The original design came from the Geonosians before the Galactic Republic fell to the Empire. It was refined and later built by Palpatine’s forces.” She put the other holocrons in front of him. “Go ahead and activate these if you can, and I’ll cull the data into something I can work with and organize.”

Din did as instructed, and each proved to be just data. More holos would’ve been interesting, but data was data—even old information could speak to motivations and goals that shaped organizations and the people involved.

“I need to move the Tor,” Din said. “No need to waste money on docking fees, and it’ll cut into Peli’s profits long term since she only has one dock of that size in her bay. Oddau, if you don’t mind, come with.”

Cara sat back as he looked her way, and she inclined her head to let him know that she was fine with what he’d said and what he hadn’t said. Oddau Rast was certainly about to get an explicit conversation about his injury and treatment for it.

– – – –

Oddau eased down in the co-pilot seat as Din began flight procedures.

“The leg,” Din said, and the older man sighed. “Can I be blunt?”

“Always,” Oddau assured.

“You’re going to get yourself or somebody else killed with that injury. It could be your wife or one of your children coming to your defense in a bad situation, and we can’t allow it to continue when we have the funds to correct it.”

“There are better uses for the credits, and my children know better than to…” He trailed off when Din scoffed. “I’ve trained them. I know them.”

“They love you,” Din said shortly. “I’d have laid down and died for my buir, and he knew it. I don’t doubt your training of them at all—clearly, you and Gí both are raising warriors, but they’re also loyal to you. If you go down in a fight, they won’t leave you, and they’d probably defend your corpse.” He transferred the credits to settle his docking bill and left the bay.

“Sometimes you speak as if you have knowledge that you couldn’t possibly have,” Oddau said quietly as Din turned the ship and headed for the monastery. “Are you having visions?”

“No visions, yet,” Din murmured. “Sometimes I feel pushed to do or say something—clearly, the Force letting me know that I need to take action or handle a situation in a certain way. I felt that sort of push before I went to speak with Paz. I knew that if I got it wrong and he left Tatooine with his clan in so-called disgrace that it would have terrible consequences. We can both speculate as to what that might have led to.”

“And you get that sort of feeling when you’re around me?”

“Yes, and it’s always worse when your injury seems to be getting the better of you,” Din said. “I can’t expect you to trust the Force and or even me blindly as you’ve not had time to know either, but your leg isn’t going to get any better without intervention, and it would be insane on my part to allow someone of your experience or ability to get themselves killed when it’s preventable.”

“I’d like to speak to Gí about it,” Oddau said roughly as the docking bay doors opened. “Treatment will probably take me out of the workflow of our family and tribe—that matters a great deal. It matters more now that the covert has expanded so quickly, and we have to schedule time in the range and various other training spaces. We’re also opening more of the covert and preparing the droids to fully connect our space with the complex under the monastery.”

Din considered that. “How’s the food situation?”

“Gí handles that, and the influx of credits from your account has solved that problem,” Oddau said. “The vendors aren’t trying to gouge us anymore as they realize we have the resources to go off-world to bring in our supplies. Torah’s raw ore needs aren’t going to get met on planet, so we’ll need to take a trip to shop for that. Beskar isn’t available for purchase no matter how much we have to spend, but we should be able to get our hands on zersium, carbon, and recycled titanium. There are a lot of wrecked Imperial ships all over the galaxy, even now, that are being scavenged for metals.”

“We could take a team to Jakku and break down one of the big ships there,” Din said. “Well, not me since Rey and I made a vow to never step foot on that dirtball again, but we could send a salvage team or two to scavenge from a downed destroyer.”

“There are whole destroyers down on that planet?” Oddau questioned. “We could make new armor for everyone with that kind of resource.”

“Yeah, several, actually. It was the biggest battle the rebellion fought against the Empire after the Battle of Endor. There is a small population on the planet and an even smaller export operation. We’ll need a plan for it, but I think it’s viable, especially with the ship Paz stole from Nevarro—the cargo capacity is immense. I’d like to keep the Tor close at hand for self-defense.”

“Agreed,” Oddau said. “We have plenty of people on hand to launch an operation—there are probably some in the covert already who have salvage skills.” He stood and rubbed the top of his thigh as he did so. “I’m not saying no to the treatment—because you made your point. One of my biggest fears is one of my kids getting themselves killed in my defense.” He paused. “I took Aja on the job that led to this injury. I was caught in an explosive charge—improvised landmine that didn’t show up on the scanner. Aja dragged me out of that explosion, completed the job by accident rather than design, and carried me two kilometers to get into comm range of the covert since the speeder we used to get out to the raider encampment was caught in the explosion.” He paused. “I woke up a day later and was barely on my feet when Aja took his oath and put on his first helmet. He wouldn’t have left me behind if I’d ordered it, and I certainly would’ve if I hadn’t been unconscious.”

“Cara will investigate the bacta operation in Mos Espa and give us some options regarding treatment and downtime,” Din said. “She studied medicine on Alderaan and on Coruscant, but her heart wasn’t in it. I think she much prefers computers to people.”

“Odd coupling for a man who is well known for his disdain for droids,” Oddau said, and Din couldn’t help but flinch. “My apologies—I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“I’m not insulted,” Din said roughly. “I’m quickly approaching ashamed, to be frank. We’d have died on Nevarro without IG. I also have to live with the knowledge that my friend Kuiil would’ve survived if I’d trusted his judgment. My bias against droids doesn’t serve me, and it won’t serve the tribe, so I’m going to work on it. I can’t say it’ll be easy. My childhood was defined by the murders of my birth parents. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about that day—it burns in my mind.”

“The moments that define us are often deeply traumatic.”

 


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Keira Marcos

The only thing holding me back from world domination is felony level procrastination.

5 Comments:

  1. Another great installment.

  2. You outshine a supernova.

  3. The Mandalorian covert is a wonderfully built community, here. I so appreciate the care you take with all these people.

    And awww…the vows were beautiful. Just perfect and meaningful.

  4. Very touching scenes

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