Title: A Better Man
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.
The space port for Mos Espa was nicer and more expensive, Cara noted as the Armorer arranged to land. She’d originally planned to take the speeder over to the other city to have a tour of the bacta facility and get a demonstration on the flexpoly suit technique. That had earned her a genuinely appalled look from her husband, who considered it stupidly dangerous. She didn’t know a lot about Tatooine, but after a lecture about raiders and mercs, Cara had agreed to the use of a ship. Torah had immediately volunteered to use the Razor Crest for the trip.
It had taken her four weeks to get the appointment, so she hadn’t quibbled about who went with her. She could tell, however, that Din had forced himself not to protest the separation. It wasn’t about co-dependence, as far as she could tell, and more about providing the best possible security for their children. There were many strangers in the covert on Tatooine, and they were growing at an alarming rate.
Cara didn’t know if the Armorer needed a breather from the covert or if her volunteering for the trip was about keeping Din secure. She really didn’t know how to tell any of them that Din wasn’t going to tolerate any sort of overprotective measures on a long-term basis. He was clearly still getting his feet under him—coming to terms with his new role, the Force, and the time travel, which they hadn’t told anyone else about. Cara was pretty sure that he never really planned to tell anyone else, and that was probably for the best.
“Is something wrong?” Cara questioned.
Torah glanced her way as she powered the Razor Crest down. “No.”
“No?” Cara prodded and laughed. “Seriously?”
“I…the covert on Nevarro was rarely more than 75 members in total. Clans moved in and out of it over the years due—the isolation was too much for most,” she said finally. “And now I’m responsible for so many. I expect it to be close to 450 inside the next week. We’ve had two more clans reach out, and I’ve given them permission to come. There are so many children in the covert, and I worry about protecting them.”
Cara nodded. “Can I ask a personal question?”
“Yes, but don’t be offended if I decline to answer it.” Torah turned to face her.
“Why haven’t you adopted a foundling or had a child? Your sister clearly did it for years before she married, and you used to travel with her, right?”
“Right,” Torah agreed. “I did assume that I would have a child or two by now, but I’ve never had any desire to adopt. Din brought many children to the covert over the years on Nevarro, and I kept waiting for one of them to be…mine, and none were.”
“I never expected to have children,” Cara admitted. “Even as a young woman on Alderaan, it wasn’t something I found interesting at all. My mother said it would come in time, and maybe it would’ve if…things hadn’t gone the way they did.”
“Now you’re the mother of two,” Torah said. “Is it unwelcome?”
“No, I’d have never agreed to…I wouldn’t do that. Rey’s a bigger adjustment than Dral, but that has more to do with her trauma than anything going on with me personally. I just never expected it and didn’t think I wanted it.” She checked the time on her vambrace. “We should leave—my appointment is in 30 minutes, and I’m not sure where this place is exactly. They gave me some instructions, but apparently, some of the streets around the dock have no signage.”
The instructions turned out to work out fine, and they proved to be a little early for the appointment, but a representative quickly arrived. It was a little annoying that as they walked into the back of the facility, Torah took a position behind her like a guard. First, she didn’t need protection, and second, it was bizarre.
“His Majesty didn’t wish to join the tour?” Troy Zaltin asked.
Cara wondered how Din would respond to being called his majesty. Torah huffed quietly, so she figured the other woman was just as amused as she was. “His what?”
“Your leader…I’m uncertain how to pronounce the word. I read on the HoloNet that Mandalorians have a king now.”
“The word is Mand’alor,” Cara said. “It’s not a position of inherited royalty but one earned through strength in battle. As I explained in the comm I sent you, there is a member of our tribe with a debilitating injury. We’re here to review the artificial bacta and the flexpoly system being developed for his treatment. It is not a matter the Mand’alor will be attending to personally. He’s a busy man, as you must realize.”
“Yes, right,” Zaltin swallowed visibly. “You said you’d bring the scans you’d taken so we could prepare a treatment plan for you to administer?”
Cara pulled a datapad from her satchel and offered it. “It’s the only file on the device—I’ve completed four different scans during the course of his day for a week to demonstrate muscle strain and inflammation due to use.”
He nodded. “Come, we’ll give this data to the medical team, and they’ll review it while I give you a tour of the facility. You can see how we create the artificial bacta and the flexpoly suits.”
The tour took an hour, and receiving in-depth instructions on using both the flexpoly suit and the artificial bacta took another three. If Torah was bored by the process, she didn’t let on. In the end, the entire kit cost a third of what she’d have expected to pay for a 24-hour period in a bacta tank. It felt weird to lay down just under 10,000 credits using Din’s account. She couldn’t have paid for it personally, so there was no choice. She wondered how others were adjusting to the influx of funds. She knew there had been times when Din had lived hand to mouth. One bounty and the clone of an IG program had changed a lot of lives.
After the Bacta-Group, Torah led her to a market street and into a windowless shop with no sign. There were no shelves or products on display. There was an Ortolan sitting behind a counter. His trunk twitched as they approached.
“Armorer,” he squeaked. “I didn’t know you’d returned to Tatooine.”
“I require all the zersium you have in stock, 20 kilos of titanium and as much unprocessed carbon and iron as the two of us can carry without undue notice.”
His big, black eyes lit up. “You have money to spend! Come, come. I’ll show you what I have. It’s not much, mind you! You like quality, and I import mostly junk for metal works here. They don’t care about metal integrity for those foolish pod racers.”
“What are you going to do?” Cara questioned as she followed Torah and the salesman back to the storeroom of the shop.
“I’m going to attempt to make beskar,” Torah declared and walked off like she hadn’t just announced her intention to do what was generally considered to be impossible in the modern age.
“I thought that ability was lost to antiquity.”
“My buir spoke of it to me, but he never had the funds and materials to experiment—it would’ve been wasteful in our circumstances,” Torah explained. “But I need to make armor for hundreds to prepare to return to Mandalore, so now is the time to claim the legacy he left in my hands and in my mind so I can give everyone the best protection possible.”
– – – –
“What is beskar exactly?” Rey questioned as she watched the forge intently.
Cara was glad for her daughter’s curiosity as it spared her having to ask questions that she felt she should already have the answers to. She’d been reading as much as she could but was concentrating on learning the language first.
“Beskar is also known as Mandalorian steel,” Torah explained. “Most steel is created through a smelting process which is created by merging raw ores together in liquid form to create an alloy.”
“How does beskar happen in nature, though?” Rey rose up on her tiptoes, standing exactly in the place Torah told her she could stand to watch the process. Cara had rarely seen her stay in one place for more than five minutes.
“It is unknown how the metals on Mandalore and Concordia came together to create beskar ore. It is only found on our home planet and its single moon. In no other place in the galaxy has such an alloy been found in nature.”
“Maybe the Force did it—like a gift for us,” Rey said and smiled when Torah focused on her. “That would be nice, right?”
“It would be…interesting,” Torah said. “Do not move from that spot. Molten metal is very dangerous, and any injury you suffered would be permanent. Bacta is a miracle product, but it cannot fix everything.”
“I understand,” Rey said. “I won’t move, promise.” She bounced a little. “Can anyone learn to do this?”
“The path of an armorer is not one to be tread lightly—it is a lifelong obligation,” Torah said as she started to work. “It is not the path for you.”
“I can work hard,” Rey said and frowned.
“Of course,” Torah agreed. “You will be a great asset to the tribe, and in time you will learn many things. This is not one of them. It is a calling and an art—one that does not call to many.”
Cara watched Rey make a face but then nod in understanding. “Your buir should be returning to the covert soon.”
Rey focused on her. “He said I could go to the monastery tomorrow if the structure is stable. How long do you think it’ll take to renovate the building for us?”
“Four or five months,” Cara said, and she didn’t think they would actually be on the planet to see the completion of their plans for the monastery
She offered the girl her hand and was grateful that Rey didn’t hesitate. In truth, both of their children preferred Din over her—he was a source of security for them, and she understood it. She didn’t resent it but hoped to build good relationships with both of them.
“Good luck, Torah.”
Torah looked up from her datapad. “Thank you.”
Paz’s two youngest foundlings, a pair of twins named Zarr and Zin, were fast becoming Rey’s closest friends, so Cara wasn’t all that surprised when the two eight-year-olds immediately lured her away when they entered the central chamber of the covert. She walked across the large cavern to stand with Din, who was watching Dral chase lizards along the river bank. The baby was clearly having the time of his life.
“Is there a limit on how much we should let him eat?” Cara questioned with a laugh.
“I figure when he gets so full that it slows him down, and he can’t catch anymore then he’s done,” Din shrugged. “He expends a lot of energy using the Force to get around. I think he’s only mobile because of the Force, actually.”
“Oh.” Cara considered that. “Makes sense. He’s a little…top-heavy.”
Din laughed. “Yeah, he is.”
Dral brought them a lizard at that point and proudly offered it. Cara knelt down and plucked the creature from his claw.
“He expects you to eat it, now,” Din said in amusement. “He’s given me four so far. I just toss them after he walks away.”
“Thanks,” Cara muttered but took the lizard from Dral’s hand and stood as the baby hurried away. She kept the lizard for a few moments, until she was sure her son was properly distracted, then tossed it into the water. “He has very good instincts—hunting must have been required in his natural habitat.”
“Specifically, he comes from Dagobah,” Din said quietly. “Which is a world full of swamps. I don’t know when he was taken from there.”
Cara nodded. There was more to the story, but she didn’t call him on it. Dral’s circumstances were special, and she realized that discussing him in a public space wasn’t wise. His uniqueness and power would mark him a target in most circumstances, and the bounty situation hadn’t been resolved. The last comm from Greef hadn’t been a comfort at all—he’d been unable to confirm how many tracking fobs had been given out, and he didn’t have the ability to deactivate them.
Of course, it was probably no secret at all where Dral Djarin was since the covert was making such big moves, and everyone knew where the Mand’alor was. So far, Din had been ignoring diplomatic overtures left and right from Core worlds but had communicated with most of the Outer Rim worlds that had reached out. He hadn’t clearly defined his plan regarding the New Republic to himself, so she hadn’t pressed for more from him. He was being pulled in a lot of directions, and she didn’t want to add any more stress to the situation.
“How’s Oddau’s healing going?”
“He’s confined to his bed in a flexpoly bodysuit full of artificial bacta,” Cara said dryly. “He’s miserable, weirded out, and convinced that he can feel the bacta moving around in his body, which is impossible, but I understand the paranoia. That stuff is creepy, but the suit is better than tank immersion. He agreed to a sedative because he didn’t want to tear or damage the suit. He’ll be down for 6 hours, at least. Then we’ll run some scans. Gí and Torah have rearranged training schedules to handle the load. It helps that we have more adults now to monitor the range and provide for security.”
“How well is it going to work?” Din asked.
“It’s a prototype,” Cara admitted. “We got a discount for my agreeing to provide non-personal data regarding healing time and effectiveness. They have a clinic and are using the artificial bacta on patients with permission. I made sure they were honest about that with their walk-in patients. It’s part of the reason my appointment took so long to arrange. I asked too many questions, and they didn’t know how to deal with me. I ended up speaking with the founder of the company, who came back to the planet specifically to meet with me. He pointed it out twice, so I’d be grateful, I guess. And appeared quite disappointed not to meet the king of Mandalore.”
Aja trotted over to them at that point. “We’ve got…there’s a girl in the junk shop with a small boy asking for the Armorer, specifically. She’s demanding to speak to her and won’t tell anyone else why she’s here. I tried to tell her that she just can’t come here and demand to speak to the matriarch of our tribe, but she’s…well…she teared up when I told her no, and she’s clearly with child. I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s probably the girl from the Administrator Yar’s office,” Din said. “Torah told her to come to her if she had a problem.”
“I’ll go tell her then,” Aja said and left.
“Let’s go up,” Cara suggested. “If she’s pregnant enough to show…well, for fuck’s sake, Din. She’s a child.”
“16, she said,” Din murmured. “But I think we both know the circumstances probably weren’t consensual. I don’t want Rey to hear about that sort of thing. She’s too young.” He looked around. “I’m going to ask my uncle to watch the kids.”
“Yeah,” Cara agreed as she had no interest in explaining such a circumstance to Rey either.
Torah was already starting up the stairs by the time Din finished his talk with Ram Vizsla, so they followed her up. Cara wasn’t all that surprised when Paz joined them. He was rarely far from Torah Liss. She wondered how long her friend was going to tolerate his respectfully distant pining before she lost her temper. She didn’t know the specifics regarding that relationship as she didn’t like to pry into romantic matters, but Din had told her enough to know that she’d have already kicked Paz’s ass in Torah’s place.
The girl and the boy she’d brought with her were in the office of the junk shop. Torah entered fully, and Cara went with her. Din and Paz chose to linger at the entryway, which was good since the space wasn’t huge, and the two of them together made for an intimidating picture.
“Has someone bothered you?” Torah questioned. “I’ll need their names and a list of their demands so I can deal with them.”
The girl shook her head, and tears spilled down her cheeks, which were stained bright red. “I’m sorry to come here like this, but I don’t have…a choice. I tried to work to support us, but no one will hire me because of my pregnancy. I stole what I could from Yar’s home and sold it before his son arrived, but that’s gone now, and we were cast out of the room we were staying in this morning.” She touched the boy. “This is my brother Hadi—he’s four. Yar allowed me to keep him after my parents died on the promise that he would sign a contract when he was of age to do so.”
“And your name?” Torah questioned.
“Emil.” She took a deep breath. “I no longer use my surname. My parents sold me to Yar, and they’d have done the same to Hadi given a chance. My mother said she was trying to give me a better life, but…” She motioned to her stomach. “This is my fourth pregnancy in five years, and the first Yar allowed me to keep. It’s a boy. He said he had no use for daughters.”
Cara had never wanted to murder a dead man more in her entire fucking life.
“I know that Mandalorians adopt children,” Emil said. “I’m hoping that you can find a family for my brother. I can’t even properly feed him right now, and that’s not fair to him.”
“Or to you,” Torah said quietly. “Protecting and providing for him must have you exhausted.”
“I’ve not slept much,” Emil admitted. “Neither of us have eaten well for the last week as I was trying to ration what little I had. Now I have nothing.” She bit down on her bottom lip. “Yar’s oldest son—Kiv—offered me a place in his household, but he refuses to take Hadi. There are dozens of children like Hadi in the streets now because…of what you did to Yar.”
Torah’s fists clenched. “Dozens?”
“No one in Mos Eisley wants to risk having an underaged indentured servant with you on the planet,” Emil said. “Don’t feel guilty—you saved those kids from slavery.”
“You don’t wish to stay with your brother?” Torah questioned.
“I…I’m too old, I know that.”
“I was five months from turning 16 when I was adopted by my Mandalorian father,” Torah said. “My sister was 12. If you do not wish to be adopted, you are old enough to join us as you are—you could swear the creed.”
The girl’s fingers curled into her brother’s tunic, and more tears slid down her face. “He’s all I have. I can’t…I haven’t felt my baby move in days. I don’t know if he’s still alive, and I haven’t eaten since yesterday. I don’t know what to do.”
“You’re in no position to make a decision right now,” Torah said. “Come, I have a suite of rooms, and you both will stay with me while you consider your options.”
“Okay,” Emil whispered. “Thank you.”
Cara relaxed against the wall. “I have a medical kit. We’ll check your pregnancy, and…if things have gone wrong we’ll take you to a medical clinic for the necessary medical procedures.”
Emil nodded and closed her eyes briefly. Cara hated the grief on the girl’s face, so she averted her gaze and focused on her husband. Din and Paz were both tense—furious certainly, by what they’d heard.
“Once you’re feeling better, you’ll arrange for me to meet with the other children,” Torah said.
“Other children?” Emil questioned. “You’ll take them, too? There are so many—perhaps as many as 40. I don’t have exact numbers.”
“Yes, we’ll take them,” Din interjected. “Every single one of them—species nor gender will matter.” He jerked suddenly back from the doorway, and a shrill alarm sounded.
“Fuck!” Paz shouted. “That’s an intrusion alarm.”
The trip back down the stairs was quick but agonizing, and the scene in the central cavern that greeted them was horrific. Adults and children alike lay sprawled like broken dolls. Some were moving, barely and clearly disoriented. Rey and Dral were nowhere to be seen.
Din rushed across the chamber to his uncle’s side. The older man was struggling to sit up and knelt at his side. “What happened?”
“Stun grenade,” Ram said, and his hand fell to Din’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I tried to fight it off, but…I couldn’t stand. The man grabbed Dral and ran back toward the dock. Rey pursued.”
“Rey pursued,” Din repeated hoarsely. “Someone go wake IG.” He let his head rest briefly against Ram’s, then stood. “I…”
“I’ll go through the tunnel,” Cara said. “You go up and over.” She inclined her head when her husband focused on her. “He’s got a ship in the dock, or he plans to steal one.”
Gí Rast came to them. “I’ll go with Cara in the tunnels.”
“Go,” Din said. “Paz, Torah—you’re with me.” He glanced toward Emil and Hadi, who were hovering nearby. “Emil, provide any help you can—don’t strain yourself trying to help anyone stand. In armor, we’re quite heavy. Try to keep the children calm as they wake.”
“Yes, of course.”
It was no favor at all that the tunnel was a clear straight shot. The bounty hunter would be moving fast, but he had five kilometers to cover, and he was armored. It would slow him down, depending on how heavy the armor was and how fit he might be. It wasn’t going to slow Cara down—her armor was well-made, light, and droppers were trained to run and hunt.
Within minutes, her HUD picked up their life-signs. Rey was a kilometer ahead of her, and the bounty hunter was almost two. Cara activated Rey’s channel as she ran.
“He took Dral!” Rey shouted. “I can’t…I can’t, Ama.”
“I’m right behind you,” Cara promised. “Don’t get close enough for him to grab you, okay?”
“Rey, when you reach the dock—there’s an emergency lock down procedure. Hit the big blue button next to the office. It’ll prevent him from opening the bay doors,” Gí instructed.
“Big blue button,” Rey repeated. “Okay. I’ll do it. I can’t talk and run.”
“Just run, baby. We’ll listen to you breathe,” Cara said. “Don’t close the connection.”
She noted that Rey’s pace increased—perhaps the Force was giving her a boost. Maybe she was a terrible parent for not investing more precious time into getting Rey to stop, but she noted that Din was listening and hadn’t tried either. Her own parents would be appalled—they’d coddled and sheltered their children to an immense degree. She’d been nearly an adult before she knew how bad the Empire truly was, and most of that information had come from friends who were considering joining the rebellion. Cara didn’t know how she felt about that, but she’d promised Din that she’d raise warriors with him, which meant that overprotecting their children wasn’t possible.
“I am behind you, Cara, half a kilometer and closing,” IG reported.
“IG, some terrible, no-good bastard took Dral!” Rey shouted.
“This terrible, no-good bastard will not survive the day,” IG promised.
That was certain, but Cara fully intended to be the one to kill the asshole. Her anger and worry was actually making her sick to her stomach, and she didn’t have time to throw up. Gí fell behind with furious, rushed apologies for being out of shape. Later, Cara would have to point out to the woman that she’d run nearly four kilometers in under ten minutes, which was well within the average for an Alderaanian. The rebellion had trained the average out of Cara, and she’d never been more grateful when she caught sight of Rey ahead of her entering the docking bay.
“Almost there,” she reported.
“We’re about to land,” Din reported. “You’re fast.”
“Shock trooper training,” Cara said. “Drop silent, run fast, hit hard.”
She drew her knife as she entered the docking bay. The moment her boots hit the steel-plated floor, an alarm sounded, and a riot gate fell down over the bay doors. There were twenty ships in the area and room for many more, but none appeared active.
Rey shot out of the office and pointed across the room. “He’s there! Trying to steal Buir’s old ship!”
That was honestly adding insult to injury. And it was stupid. Like Din wouldn’t have the ability to keep track of his own ship? He might not want to look at the Razor Crest every day, but that ship had been in the Vizsla family for at least four fucking generations. She came around to the side and found the man trying to get the side door open by punching in a series of codes.
“Give me my baby,” she ordered.
The man turned, looked at her, and snorted. “Fuck off, bitch. This thing is worth a ton of credits. I’m finally going to get what I deserve.”
He sounded familiar, and from Din’s ragged intake of breath in her ear, he knew who she was facing. She didn’t have time to care.
The arrogant prick turned his back on her, so she strode forward and buried her combat knife into his unarmored side. “I said, give me my baby.”
Cara pulled the knife out and shoved it again as he groaned. She cut the strap of the sack he was carrying, then stabbed him again for good measure before she turned and left him where he fell. She shouted for Rey as she hurried across the bay to the Tor, opened the side door, and all but tossed Rey in when she appeared at her side, then went up the steps herself and closed the door behind her.
She opened the sack even as she sank to her knees and found Dral, unconscious, curled up in it. Cara pulled off her gloves and picked him up carefully. “He’s breathing, still stunned.”
“Where are you?” Din demanded.
“In the Tor,” Cara said as she used one hand to remove her helmet and slid down to sit on her butt. She held out an arm to Rey, and the girl cuddled close. “All three of us—in case he wasn’t working alone.”
“We’re checking now,” Din murmured and took a deep breath as Paz returned to his side.
“All clear,” Paz reported. “Torah is running a scan for exterior threats.”
The man was on his back, bleeding out, but none of them were interested in giving him any sort of medical care. Din’s stomach tightened with a strange kind of fury. He felt betrayed in the most base way.
“When Buir first brought you into the covert, Paz and I would argue over who got to take care of you,” he said quietly. “There were times when we both defended you against him because of your aggressive behavior and terrible temper. Maybe that was our mistake, but we both saw you as a brother—more than we did each other at the time.”
Hab laughed, but it was a bitter, angry sound. “Don’t act like you fucking care about me.”
Torah hooked the toe of her boot under the front of Hab’s helmet and kicked it off. “Neither one of them will do this—they still remember the troubled boy you were and have tried for over a decade to ignore that you’re a selfish shabuir with no heart. Die as you lived, Hab Wren. As the matriarch of Gra’tua, I declare you.”
Hab glared at her, then he shuddered and closed his eyes.
“Shall I dispose of his carcass?” IG questioned.
Din turned to look at the droid. “He’s not dead yet.”
“His wounds are fatal—three distinct penetrations, three different organs. Cara’s knife work is superior.”
Din couldn’t argue that point.
“Strip his armor and leave his body in Beggar’s Canyon,” Gí Rast suggested as she arrived. She took a ragged breath and pressed against her chest plate. “I’m out of shape. I couldn’t keep up with her.”
“Not sure I could’ve on foot,” Din admitted.
“She’s stronger than both of us because she spent all of her formative years on Alderaan, and our time on Coruscant changed us,” Torah said, and she focused on Hab, who was staring at her with glazed eyes. “Did you kill someone to get this armor?”
“Stole it,” Hab slurred. “Not a murderer.”
“You’re worse,” Din said and walked away. He couldn’t stand to watch whatever happened next. He went to the Tor and input the security code.
He found his family on the floor, huddled together. Din closed the door and sank to his knees. He discarded his helmet with less care than he’d ever done and pulled all three of them close.
“I’m sorry, Buir,” Rey whispered. “I let that horrible man take Dral. I wasn’t paying attention to him…I was trying to sneak up the stairs to see what you and Ama were doing.”
“It’s not your fault,” Din murmured and cupped the back of her head. “If you’d been closer to him—the stun grenade would’ve gotten you, too.”
“I felt it,” Rey said. “But it just tingled a little and made me dizzy, but I got over it quickly and ran after him. I wasn’t fast enough to catch up with him.”
Din put his hand on Dral’s back and found comfort in the rapid thump of his son’s heart.
– – – –
Hab Wren had entered the covert with one of the newer clans. Din didn’t know them but had heard the name. Torah told him they’d fled Concord Dawn during the purge. The clan in question had taken Hab in because of his name and a sob story he’d told them about making a mistake with the new Mand’alor. Din found the entire situation extremely frustrating because he had no genuine outlet for his fury.
Clan Rau was small now, but one of their ancestors had once led their people on Concord Dawn. Their current patriarch was reported to be an honorable man, but he was a traditionalist, and that had led him to give Hab Wren a chance to redeem himself. It was galling that Hab had been in the covert for over a week, and he hadn’t known it.
In order to keep Oddau Rast in bed and in treatment, they’d had to resort to having a meeting in the man’s bedroom. Clan Rau hadn’t been granted status in either House Rast or House Vizsla as yet, and it was clear to Din, at least, that it wouldn’t be happening at all because neither Paz nor Oddau were pleased with the fact that Jeliah Rau had kept such a secret from them. Clan Rau had once been a vassal of House Saxon. It was an issue that Din had been considering, but now he felt like he couldn’t trust any of the adults in the clan.
“I don’t know how to trust them,” Din finally admitted and focused on Oddau, who was clearly furious. “I’ve always known that wearing the armor is not enough, and now more than ever, I’m forced to deal with the fact that many would stab me in the back for the darksaber. Whether they want it for themselves or if they want to put it back in Bo-Katan’s hand—it doesn’t matter. Hab saw Dral has a ticket to a better life, and I get that, unfortunately, because I was no better when I took his bounty. But we can’t ignore the fact that he was also trying to punish me.”
“He tried to take the Razor Crest as well,” Cara said. “And that’s about Nez Vizsla, Din. Hab obviously deeply resented the fact that Nez didn’t consider him a son.”
“Buir would’ve never…” Paz sighed. “He never forgave Clan Wren for their actions during the occupation, but he didn’t mistreat Hab because of that. He also would’ve never stripped Hab of his clan identity. He believed in preserving the family legacies whenever he could, and Clan Wren is an ancient one.”
“Hab was ambitious,” Din said quietly. “And convinced he deserved more than anyone else. He certainly believed he was better than me and would often get furious over how much attention Buir gave me.”
“I can’t say it wasn’t irritating sometimes,” Paz admitted dryly. “He took such pride in you—like your every success was his own. He’d honestly be unbearable to be around if he were still alive.”
Din laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “Shut up.”
“How’s Cara and the kids?” Gí questioned.
“She’s furious—hypervigilant. Rey and Dral slept between us last night. He woke up a few hours after we came back into the covert and doesn’t appear to be suffering any side effects. Rey was jittery, and it took a long time to get her to settle down. I think a mixture of adrenaline and Force awareness. They both ate with no issues this morning, but Cara ate a meal bar and cleaned her rifle.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Then she cleaned the amban. She’s probably sharpening her knife right now. I don’t want to push her too much to talk because her mindset is…different than mine.”
“She’s a warrior to her core,” Torah said. “Her military training shaped her differently from all of us—I don’t know much about the life of a shock trooper, but based on what little she’s said, it was not an easy one. She killed many, and yesterday was a direct reminder of what she left behind when she left the New Republic’s military service. I think her final act was one of heartsore desperation. She felt betrayed by their political dealings. Though in her place, I’d have done no differently.”
“I might have enjoyed it more,” Din admitted and shrugged at the looks that earned him. The lack of helmets allowed for too much non-verbal communication, and he was starting to find Paz’s dirty looks downright annoying. “We need to figure out how to balance the security of the covert with our desire to connect and build a society.”
“And prepare for our return to Mandalore,” Torah said.
“Yes, but it’s not something I’m ready to formally announce yet. I need more information about the planet, about the current occupation, and what we’ll need to take the planet back.” Din stood and picked up his helmet. “Since Clan Rau hasn’t aligned themselves with either House, then this conversation should take place between him and Torah. I’ll stand as a witness.”
“Do you want input on my decision?” she questioned.
“No, I can’t be impartial, and we all know it. Dral’s been a target since I set eyes on him, and it’s fast becoming a trigger for me.” He huffed. “I was actually fucking relieved when IG joined the chase, and even two months ago, that would’ve been so horrifying it would’ve made me physically ill.”
“Look at you growing as a person,” Paz said dryly.
“Fuck you, honestly.” Din put on his helmet. “Let’s get this over with. I promised Rey I’d be back in time for lunch.”
Clan Rau had a series of rooms on the opposite side of the main cavern as his own, and he was grateful for the space.
“How many children do they have?”
“11,” Torah said. “But just five adults. It’s easy to see why they would accept another adult into their clan, especially if he feigned interest in taking their name and joining their clan in full through a marriage. Hab, for all of his faults, was attractive and well-trained. He’d have had no problems finding a partner if he’d not been so fucking corrupt. Jeliah is the only male adult if that matters.”
“It shouldn’t,” Din admitted roughly. “But it does explain why they’d take a risk with Hab. I hate this.”
“I can’t say I love it,” Torah said roughly.
“How is Emil?”
“Fine—resting. Her child is healthy, as far as my scans can tell. My equipment is not as advanced as Cara’s, as I wouldn’t understand the results anyway. There is no midwife in the covert, so I’ve asked for volunteers to seek out the knowledge and learn the way of it. Gí told me that the last midwife here married an outsider and left the covert in favor of a life on a moisture farm outside of Freetown. In the meantime, I did send a comm to Peli Motto asking her if she knows where we can get a med-droid cheaply.”
Din grimaced but kept his mouth shut. It was a sound decision, and he didn’t want his bias to interfere with the health of anyone in the covert. Jeliah Rau answered the door and stepped back to allow them to enter.
“Tell me how Hab Wren came to join your clan,” Torah ordered. “Everything you can remember that he said.”
Jeliah took a deep breath. “He approached me shortly after we took some rooms in Anchorhead. He told me how he had to flee Nevarro when the Imperials attacked and that Paz Vizsla ordered them to remove their helmets and armor so they could steal a ship in the dock without getting caught. Once they arrived here, all of them were given the opportunity to swear the ancient creed, but he was cast from House Vizsla for protesting your position as Tribe Matriarch. He said you’d never liked him because he was a Wren and that he needed a way to prove himself to you.”
“Hab Wren refused to swear the creed and declared that Din Djarin was not worthy of being a Mandalorian, much less Mand’alor. When he realized that he had no allies in the situation, he drew his blaster on Paz Vizsla, who wasn’t wearing a single bit of armor at the time,” Torah explained tightly. “He was a jealous, selfish boy. You should’ve revealed to me he was with your clan the moment we made contact. You didn’t ask me a single question to verify his story!”
“I should’ve, but…I know what it’s like to be judged harshly because of the actions of others. My buir, Fenn, was fiercely loyal to the Empire at one time, and no matter his later dedication to the rebellion…I’m judged by his misdeeds.”
“Hab preyed on that weakness,” Din said, and Torah focused on him. “He was always good at that—getting you to empathize with him and take his side. It’s easy to see his manipulations when I look back on it. Even my buir wasn’t immune to it, and perhaps that is the real root of his resentment. He was never quite manipulative enough to get all that he wanted in his life.”
“I made a mistake,” Jeliah began.
Din’s gut tightened with fury.
“A mistake?” Torah demanded. “You brought a fucking threat into the covert, and he attacked us en masse! What if he’d thrown a shrapnel grenade instead of a stunner? Dral Djarin is wanted dead or alive by Imperials! Hab Wren betrayed us, and you facilitated it!”
“Look, I get that the little alien thing is powerful and a valuable asset, but…”
Din reacted before he could help himself, pushing Jeliah Rau up against the wall and shoving a knife up against his unprotected throat. “My son is not a goddamned asset. I don’t care what you see when you look at him but know this, Jeliah Rau, I will bathe in your fucking blood if you ever come near him again.”
Torah’s hand on his shoulder was firm as she pulled him away. “It is clear, Jeliah, that your clan cannot stay with our tribe. The Mand’alor has the right to assume that all of his children are safe with us. I cannot trust your judgment or the quality of your heart, and that has absolutely nothing to do with your buir’s misdeeds.”
Din sheathed his knife and tried to push down his fury.
“Also, it would be remiss if I did not point out that you should be wearing a gorget,” Torah said roughly. “Unless you’d like to get your head cut off in the near future.”
“Let’s talk about Kaan,” Cara said as she sat down on Rey’s bed.
Rey put aside her datapad and pulled the serpent from the sleeve of her tunic. “Is something wrong with him?”
“No,” she said and cleared her throat. She put Dral down on the bed, and he crawled into Rey’s lap to pet Kaan. “You see him as a pet more than a weapon, and I don’t…think that’s necessarily a problem, but from now on, he should always be with you.”
Rey bit down on her bottom lip and nodded. “Would he have been stunned by that grenade thing?”
“No, he’s immune to such things. He also could survive a blow from a lightsaber. The amphistaff is a genetically modified species—modified for war to be a weapon. That kind of bioengineering is illegal in the New Republic, and even the Empire frowned heavily on it. As a weapon, few would rival Kaan if he were mature.”
“So, he’s not a great weapon because he’s a baby.” Rey pursed her lips. “Is that a problem?”
“He’s a fine weapon just as he is,” Cara assured. “Even without venom, he can be trained to take a quarterstaff form and be used as a whip. He’ll learn to respond to your intent and, in a dangerous situation, would attack your enemies at will. Your buir is put off by him because he can’t control him. I know you’ve been leaving him in your room because of that.”
Rey flushed. “What Buir thinks is important.”
Cara laughed. “Please don’t tell him you think that. The thing about your buir is that he’s not going to like anything he can’t control. Maybe he’ll get better about it, but he has plenty of reason to be the way that he is. I’d like you to think of Kaan as part of your personal defenses from now on. He goes everywhere you go, and we’ll work on training him to respond to your needs as a weapon.”
“He won’t mind?” Rey questioned.
“It’s his purpose—his kind were bioengineered to be a weapon of war. Due to premature detachment from the breeding polyp, he’ll never be all that he could be, but there is no reason not to let him serve as much of his genuine purpose as he can. If he can attain even half of the length that his species can reach, he’ll be around five feet long. That is a respectable length for a living quarterstaff.”
“Was the polyp Kaan’s mom?” Rey questioned.
Cara exhaled sharply. “Well, not…sort of? The polyp was an amphistaff at one time. Near the end of their life cycle, a normal amphistaff will gorge itself on organic material. During that process, it turns into a polyp and will spawn three off-spring. Those off-spring will gather food to feed the polyp to fuel their own growth until they are too large to stay attached to the polyp, then they will fall off and abandon it.”
Rey frowned. “Ama, did Kaan and his siblings try to eat me?”
“Well.” Cara shrugged. “On an instinctual level, while he was attached, Kaan did consider you a food source. That’s why your buir got so angry with the merchant who had the polyp out in a public area. It was a foolish thing to do.”
“Why did Kaan snap off, then? He wasn’t ready.”
“I suspect that one of the Force Spirits was watching out for you,” Cara said and tapped her nose. “But you don’t need to worry so much now—Kaan wouldn’t hurt you. He’ll be very protective of you because of the bond you’ve formed with him.”
“I’m not afraid of him,” Rey declared. “He feels very safe to be around. I think the Force would tell me if I couldn’t trust him. I wish they’d told us about Hab Wren.”
“There are a lot of people in the covert, and the Force Spirits that are helping your buir can’t be everywhere at once. We also can’t expect them to watch over us all the time—it wouldn’t be fair to them.” Cara took a deep breath. “In the end, it’s best if we depend on ourselves and do all that we can to protect each other.”
“Kaan’s my weapon,” Rey said quietly. “I’ll remember, Ama.”
“We’ll train with him,” Cara decided. “I need to download a training manual on that and see what the process is. I know the Yuuzhan Vong, the species that engineered the amphistaff, use a series of hand movements to control them in a fight, so there is a training system there that we can learn. He’s attached to you and attuned to your emotional state, so to start, let’s work on making him see that it’s his duty to protect you and Dral.”
“He likes Dral,” Rey said. “I should just think protective stuff about us, right?”
“Yeah, it’ll be a good start.” Cara took a deep breath and let her gaze drop to Dral, who had dozed off in Rey’s lap.
“You were very upset yesterday,” Rey said. “Did it hurt to kill Hab Wren?”
“I…” Cara considered how to respond to that because it hadn’t hurt at all, and while she didn’t want to lie to her daughter, she didn’t want to reveal such a thing to her either. “Killing someone should never be easy, but I was trained to deal with it. I was very upset, however, because of how much danger you and Dral were in. I felt guilty for leaving you and angry that I’d let myself get complacent in regards to security because of living in the covert.”
“We’re supposed to be safe with our tribe,” Rey said pensively. “We shouldn’t let Hab Wren ruin that for us.”
“The tribe is large, and we have relationships to build with the various clans,” Cara said. “We’ll take our time on that front going forward. It’s natural to want to trust those around you—to believe that they are invested in the same things you’re invested in.”
“But not everyone will be. Hab Wren was jealous of buir.”
“Very,” Cara agreed. “For many reasons. He won’t be the only one to be jealous of your buir’s position. Being the Mand’alor is a position of immense power, and many will covet that power for themselves, but I’ll watch his back.”
“I should teach Kaan to watch Buir’s back, too,” Rey said and focused on the amphistaff. “Don’t you think?”
“It wouldn’t hurt,” Cara agreed. “He has a terrible ability to get himself into trouble.”
– – – –
“Ready to talk to me?”
Cara took a deep breath and focused on him. “From now on, IG’s rest period will coordinate with our sleep schedule as much as possible. A stun grenade wouldn’t have impacted him. I can’t say that either one of us would have fared as well as Rey did…maybe you could’ve shaken it off because of the Force.”
“He wouldn’t have acted if IG was in the room,” Din said and sat down on the bed. He slid up behind her and took the brush from her hand. “Let me.”
“Yeah,” she agreed and took a deep breath when he pulled the brush through her damp hair. “I thought we were going to lose one or both of them. It felt worse than anything I’ve ever experienced…I don’t know how either one of us lived after what happened in the other timeline.”
“We didn’t live well,” he admitted roughly. “It was a hard life, and all we had was revenge. I can’t imagine going back to that life or anything similar to it.”
“I don’t know how many people I’ve killed,” Cara admitted. “I mean—we set off bombs, used systems to paint ground targets for orbital assault to get around shields, and I once used a laser canon to take down a transport ship that could’ve held hundreds. I used to keep track of up-close and personal kills. There was a time when the number was a genuine source of pride for me. I’m not ashamed of that—every single Imperial I killed had that shit coming.”
“I couldn’t put an accurate number on it either,” Din admitted. “I think we probably killed upwards of forty men between us on Nevarro and at least twenty on Sorgan. Hunter and prey, remember.”
“Yeah,” Cara agreed. “I don’t regret any of it.”
“Not even leaving Sorgan with me?”
“Especially not that,” Cara said and turned to face him. She cupped his face with both hands. “Din, I’ll never regret agreeing to make a family with you. How could I? You’re everything I’ve ever wanted.”
He raised an eyebrow but let his forehead rest against hers. “I hardly think that a young girl on Alderaan pictured herself with a jaded Mandalorian bounty hunter.”
“Well, the specifics would’ve been hard to imagine,” Cara said with a laugh. “But I did want someone strong and loyal who could stand with me. I stayed away from involving myself with males on Alderaan since many had very traditional views about a woman’s role in life. You asked me if I wanted to birth a child the night we married. No single male Alderaanian man would ask that question—they would assume that I would not only be willing but eager to birth several.”
“Child birth is dangerous,” Din said. “I don’t look forward to the risk at all.”
“It was much less dangerous on Alderaan,” Cara said. “That’s not to say that every birth was successful because that would be impossible, but maternal death was rare. I’m strong and fit, so I’m not worried about carrying or birthing a child. I just wouldn’t want to do it six or seven times.”
“You did so well,” Din murmured and brushed his mouth against hers. “Knowing that I can count on you to do what is necessary every single time is the biggest relief in my life.” He took a deep breath. “Should we talk to Rey about disobeying you?”
“I don’t think she lied to me,” Cara murmured. “She said she couldn’t stop, and I think she meant it. If the Force was pushing her—did she have any choice at all?”
“It would depend on how heavy-handed it was being,” Din admitted and took a deep breath. “She’s small and open to influence. It’s why so much damage was eventually done to Ben Solo. I don’t know how to handle that situation. I’ve already misstepped and put Han Solo on edge regarding my interest in his son.”
“Is that why you haven’t reached out Leia Organa?” Cara questioned.
“I’m still…unspeakably furious over what happened on Coruscant,” Din said. “Let’s finish compiling the data we got from Gideon, and you can send it to her personally. No personal details—as far as I know, it hasn’t really gotten out that we’re married.”
“Did you want to hide it?” Cara asked, clearly hurt by the implication of his badly worded request.
“No, not at all. But in this particular instance, it would serve us if Leia Organa gets this information from Cara Dune of Alderaan versus the Mand’alor’s wife.” He touched her face gently. “It is my honor to be your husband, don’t ever doubt it. It’s honestly something I thought I’d never have, and coming back in time has given me more gifts than I can fathom.”
“You made a big sacrifice,” Cara said, and Din refrained from disagreeing. “You gave up what little peace you’d managed to make for yourself to come back in time with no guarantees that you’d succeed. You could’ve been forced to live through everything again—lose us, again. Did it even cross your mind?”
“No,” Din admitted. “Because there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to prevent what happened. Sometimes…”
“What?” She ran her hand through his hair and kissed him gently. “Say it.”
“The destruction of the dyad seemed like the final blow for the Force. I wondered if it didn’t begin with Dral’s murder. I think the Force was so hurt by his unnatural death that it retreated, and when it woke within Rey—it was no longer strong enough to be everything she needed. I don’t know that the Force would’ve ever trusted this galaxy enough to give us another child like Dral.”
“This galaxy didn’t deserve another child like him,” Cara said. “I don’t think we deserve him—he’s so innocent and small, Din. Why? Why make him so vulnerable for so long?”
“He’s powerful,” Din said thoughtfully. “Perhaps his long road to adulthood is about tempering his power with experience and knowledge. Maybe it is a test for those around him. A test that most would fail.”
Cara pressed her lips against his, and for a moment, he let himself get lost in the taste of her mouth.
She pulled free before he did. “We should check on the kids.”
“I’ll do it,” Din said. “And you can get ready for bed.”
She wet her lips. “In the mood to sleep, Mand’alor?”
“Not remotely,” he admitted and grinned when she laughed.
IG was standing sentry in the middle of the room when Din opened the door. The droid’s head whirled, and red eyes focused on him. He barely refrained from flinching.
“Is something amiss?”
“No, I wanted to check on the kids before we go to sleep,” Din said. “Cara said you’d rearranged your rest period to coincide with our own.”
“Yes, but I have created a secondary sentry subroutine that will run while I recharge,” IG reported. “No one will enter these rooms without me knowing about it, and I will wake up to deal with the intrusion.”
Din nodded. The door to the kid’s room wasn’t closed, but there was now a locking system in place that IG could activate and defend as a safe room. Rey was curled into a little ball on her bed, and one of Dral’s ears was flopped over her face. He stared for a moment, charmed and concerned at the same time. They had offered to let her sleep with them again, but she’d said she’d be fine alone.
He briefly considered retrieving Dral and putting him back in the pram but figured that he could easily wiggle out of his current position if he was unhappy with it. He stared for a few more moments before returning to his own bedroom and shutting the door. Hesitantly, he engaged the lock and moved to the dresser. Cara left the bathroom as he demagnetized his armor and started the removal of his armor pieces.
“You look like a man who needs a blow job.”
Din laughed and glanced at her. She’d sprawled on the bed—naked and so tempting that his mouth went dry. He peeled off the body glove and tossed it with hers for cleaning. There’d been a time in his life when he’d restricted sexual activity to mouth and hand jobs. He didn’t harbor any negative feelings toward either activity, but he didn’t consider it intimate or particularly satisfying.
He walked to the bed, crawled onto it, and eased on top of her languid form. Cara spread her legs, and he settled between them. “In truth, I’d much prefer to come with you.”
She arched under him—rubbing her breasts against his chest as she did so—and hummed under her breath as he let most of his weight rest on her. “What if I want to be in charge?”
Din laughed and cupped her ass with one hand as he rolled them over. Cara braced herself on his chest as she sat up and stared down at him, clearly startled by the abrupt change in their positions. “You can be in charge all you want.”
She stared at him for a long moment, then rolled her hips just so—rubbing her wet cunt along the length of his cock. “When I was young—and attached a great deal of sentimental value to my virginity—I dated this fresh-faced boy who loved to suck my tits.”
“Can’t blame him,” Din murmured. “Did you let him come on you?”
“Yeah, just like this. I would rub my pussy all over his dick until he just fell to pieces underneath me,” she admitted. “Later on, when I joined the rebellion, I came across him again. He’d been recruited for science work and was on Yavin 4 when Alderaan was destroyed.”
“Did you finally let him have a real taste?” Din questioned.
She laughed. “Yeah, in more than one way. Eventually, I got too hard for him—saw too much, killed too much.”
He rubbed her thighs. “You aren’t too much of anything for me.”
“I know,” Cara murmured. “I don’t take that for granted.”
“Everything he had a problem with…those same qualities make you perfect for me,” Din said. “And I don’t take that for granted.” He rubbed her thighs until she relaxed. “Where’s this coming from?”
“I…” She slumped down on his chest and propped her chin on her arm. “I’m being an idiot.”
Din laughed. “Not possible—did someone say something to you?”
“Not to me, no,” Cara said. “I overheard something when we came back to the covert. You were talking with Paz, and I’d taken the kids over to the food processing station to get Dral some more of that lizard jerky, and two women from one of the new clans were talking. They said that…” She huffed. “It was implied that I was too involved in your business and couldn’t concentrate on being a proper buir to our children.”
“I don’t believe in that traditionalist crap,” Din muttered and ran his fingers through her hair. “In different circumstances, I’d be happy to be the one to stay with the children while you earned our living. I took you upstairs with me because I knew you’d be perceived as less of a threat to that girl. As it turns out, it was true in more than one way.”
She pressed a kiss to his mouth.
“I don’t need people I don’t even know telling me how to live and run my life,” Din muttered. “Why do we always end up talking so much when we’re naked?”
“Little time to do it any other time?” Cara questioned and shifted her body. She took him inside with a slow glide that took his breath. “Better, Mand’alor?”
“I do…really enjoy being inside you,” he admitted.
“But you turned down a blowjob,” she pointed out as she sat up and braced herself. “You don’t want me on my knees for you?”
“It has appeal,” Din admitted. “But it’s not…intimate.” He took a deep breath and cupped her hips. “Can we talk about it later?”
She laughed. “Sure, if you aren’t man enough to get your dick ridden and have a conversation at the same time—that’s fine.”
“Great, fantastic,” Din agreed and cupped her ass as he lifted his hips into the slow grind of her body. “Fuck.”
– – – –
He was relieved when the Armorer returned to the covert with 47 children—most were human or near-human species except for a tiny Gungan running around being a charming distraction. The thought of all those children being abandoned on the streets had left him furious and sad. Din stayed back from the proceedings, holding Dral, who was clearly thrilled to see so many small children. There was an age-old process of introducing so many foundlings into a tribe. There wouldn’t be any choices made for weeks, and the children would be kept together until all of them had been placed to prevent any of them from thinking that they were an afterthought.
Of course, the truth was that there would probably be some fighting over the children as nothing was more valuable to a small clan than expansion through the adopting of foundlings. Right now, they were gathering names and information so they could search for parents. Any child that reported that they’d been sold by their own parents would be moved into the adoption pool as they wouldn’t give assholes like that a chance to sell the child a second time.
“How’s it going?” Cara questioned as she and Rey joined them.
He glanced down at Rey and noted that she had some complicated braid arrangement going on. “What does it mean?”
“It would not be out of place on Leia Organa’s head,” Cara said in amusement.
“You gave her princess braids?”
Cara shrugged, and Rey grinned at him broadly as she patted her braids. “She said she wanted special braids for meeting all the new foundlings.”
“I wanted to look nice, Buir,” Rey declared. “It’s an important day for them. They’ll be safe now, and they never thought that they’d be safe again. I know what that’s like.” She curled her fingers into Cara’s as she looked around the children. “I should go meet them.”
Before Din could formulate a response, she released Cara’s hand and darted off. She immersed herself in the crowd of children, and Dral whined. Din reluctantly put him down, but he didn’t make it halfway to the group before Rey retrieved him, hitched him on one hip, and waded right back into her self-appointed mission.
“She takes her princess duties seriously, I see,” Paz said as he joined them. “Shad and Lios have already asked for three. I don’t know what any of these precious children did to deserve that fate.”
“They’ll be good parents,” Din said. “How about you?”
Paz cleared his throat and scuffed his boot. “I’ve 8 and a grandchild on the way as of last night.”
“The last I counted your horde, you had six…oh.” Din cleared his throat. “Seriously?”
His brother huffed. “Torah showed up at my door last night and told me she’d decided to adopt Emil and Hadi. Then she said if I didn’t marry her immediately, she was going to find someone who would because she needed a real partner and not some asshole who only came around to scare off potential lovers.”
Cara groaned. “You dumb bastard—I’d have beat you half-dead years ago.” She picked up her medkit. “I told Torah I’d set up and run health scans on them. Some of them look malnourished, and I don’t know if they’ve eaten at all today. Food is coming—some bone broth to start—something that won’t upset any stomachs. I don’t see any herbivores—good thing since we didn’t plan for that.” She paused and moved closer to him. “Did you notice that all the Twi’leks are female? The sons of bitches.”
Din just took a deep breath as his wife stalked off in Torah’s direction. He knew that female children among the Twi’lek were not prized and, as adults, often ended up in the slave trade. Now it appeared, that some of them began that life as indentured servants—working as domestics until they were old enough for the sex trade.
“Is it wrong that I want to run around and kill a whole bunch of people?” Din questioned.
“It’s not our fault—Buir raised us this way,” Paz defended and crossed his arms.
Din laughed and sighed. “For fuck’s sake.”
After a half-hour, Din found himself seated at the table, working with a datapad searching chain codes. Several of the children had been taken from passenger transport ships and brought to Tatooine to be sold. Unfortunately, all he’d done so far was look at one death record after another. Apparently, the pirates who’d taken the children made a habit of killing every adult on board and scavenging the ships afterward if it were at all valuable. The children were lucky to be deemed of some sort of value.
He sent the result of each search to Torah’s datapad and watched as Cara finished off the last of the health scans. Torah joined them at the table after the last child was taken into the temporary creche that had been set up in one of the newly open caverns.
“Any major problems?” she asked quietly as she sat down.
“Minor malnutrition that we can correct fairly quickly,” Cara began. “They’re physically and emotionally stressed. We should work to make sure they’re allowed to see each other regularly after they’re adopted into various clans. They’ve become a little tribe of their own, and it should be respected as much as possible.”
Torah nodded. “It happens sometimes—though normally with older children. What do the numbers look like?”
“25 human, 12 Twi’lek, the oldest of them is nine, and there were no signs of sexual abuse.” Cara focused on her pad, her shoulders a little tense. “Four Zabraks, two Kage, three Mirialan—they’re siblings, so they’ll need to be adopted together. Then finally, we have a six-year-old Gungan, and she’s…a problem. We can’t keep her on this desert planet. I don’t know how she got here or how she’s survived more than a month at her age in servitude. Perhaps her owner took care to make sure she had enough water, but I doubt it.”
Din picked up his datapad. “She and her parents were reported killed by pirates on a transport ship bound for Naboo six months ago. Her parents listed no next of kin on their chain codes.”
“She’ll have next of kin,” Cara said. “Gungans are born as tadpoles and can have upwards of twenty siblings in a single cycle, so she’ll have hundreds of relatives. Her name is Majee Bowi, and she’s of the Otolla race, which is fortunate. They have an easier time out of water for long periods of time than the Ankura. All of that being said, she cannot thrive on a desert planet, so she must go back to Naboo as soon as possible. If she genuinely has no family, then a family will be found for her. They’re a tribal species, and they place great value in taking care of their young.”
“You said you had a friend from the rebellion from Naboo,” Din said.
“That’s the path of least resistance, certainly, but it might serve you to reach out to the government on Naboo and arrange for her return through official channels. They’ll be able to locate a member of her family to come for her. Politically, it would be to your benefit to demonstrate in a very public fashion that Mandalorians don’t, in fact, steal children and that you’re willing to go to great lengths to return a lost child to a loving family,” Cara said. “But if you don’t want the scrutiny, I can reach out to a few people so they can search for her family. It’ll probably take longer.”
“She shouldn’t have to suffer more than she already has,” Din said. “Should I go with the queen of the humans on Naboo or opt for the Gungan leadership?”
“The humans on Naboo are traditionally pacifists—not surprising since they originally descend from Alderaanian colonists,” Cara said. “The Gungans are a warrior culture—one that would certainly understand and perhaps even embrace Mandalorians as brothers in arms.”
“The one you knew in the rebellion was a shock trooper?” Paz questioned as he pulled a chair out, flipped it around, and straddled it.
“We met in shock trooper training,” Cara said. “And eventually ended up in the same unit. Kor was with me on every single drop I ever made. He got used to the spacer life and works as a merc now. I can’t say for certain he’s anywhere near Naboo, but he’ll help me make the right connections easily enough if that’s the path Din wants.”
“Certain?” Din questioned.
“Yeah,” Cara laughed. “His father is the current Gungan Boss.” She paused. “That’s their version of a king. He’s one of about 300 children, so…it isn’t exactly uncommon to know one of Boss Adu’s children or grandchildren.” She quirked an eyebrow. “Kor told me once that his father would be hard-pressed to produce a list of his children’s names.”
Din snorted. “Well…after a hundred, I think it would be kind of difficult. Maybe a numbering system would’ve been best.” He laughed when Cara elbowed him and reached down to pick up Dral, who had wrapped claws around his boot strap, then looked up to check Rey. She was sitting in a circle with a group of little girls playing some sort of game. He focused on his son and sighed. “How many lizards have you eaten, ad’ika?”
Dral licked his mouth and giggled.
“You little beast,” Din muttered.
“I think he has a hollow leg,” Cara said. “Or he has a tiny blackhole for a stomach.”
“Blackhole,” Din agreed and focused on Cara. “Let’s send a comm to both—if they have any sort of functional alliance, then the queen will probably defer to Boss Adu. It wouldn’t do for him to think I ignored him outright in favor of the human queen—especially regarding a child of his people.” He shifted Dral and let him lay on his chest when he yawned. “This one’s ready for bed. Let’s make sure that Majee is properly hydrated in the meantime.”
“She might like a water bath,” Cara said. “Kor was allotted extra water time on every single base we landed on for his mental and physical health. Of course, in his off time, he couldn’t be trusted near a body of water. He’d strip off completely naked and frolic.”
“Is it true…you know…about…” Gi waved her arm.
“And then some,” Cara assured her. “I don’t know how one of them could get an erection and remain conscious at the same time.”
“It’s conversations like this that can ruin a man’s self-esteem for life,” Din told her, and Cara laughed. He stood. “Let’s get this one to bed. He’s eaten himself into an afternoon nap. How do you feel about writing my comm for me?”
“I don’t know why you could possibly think I’m better at political stuff than you are.”
“Given a choice between having a conversation and putting someone on carbonite…” He trailed off and shrugged. “Carb slabs don’t talk back to me or expect me to entertain them.” He inclined his head. “Or try to kill me. But really, I’d prefer a blaster in my face over some chatty asshole who thinks I care about his vac routine.”
“Ah, the glamorous life of a bounty hunter,” Cara said dryly and stood. “We should get some lunch in Rey—it’s clear she hasn’t a had a schedule in a very long time and doesn’t always recognize when she’s hungry.”
“I think…” Din frowned and looked across the room to where Rey was playing. “That she often kept her stomach full with water. She said she’d stolen her own water reclaimer—I didn’t check it, but it would’ve been a good way to not feel hungry if she could produce enough every day.”
“Yeah,” Cara agreed. “This conversation is infuriating. Let’s go over feed her.”
Din laughed. “Good plan. Is it bad parenting to encourage both our kids into a food coma?”
“Yes, but I recommend it,” Paz called after them.
IG left his place of sentry by the stairs and joined them as Cara extracted Rey from the game. Rey chattered the whole way back to their rooms about the foundlings. Din was pretty sure she’d memorized all of their names.
“What did you think of Majee?” Cara questioned.
“She’s very nice but sad,” Rey declared. “It’s been hard for her here—much worse than it was for anyone else. She says she misses the water very much and wants to go home. She said she lived in an ocean before her parents took her on a trip to visit her older sister on Coruscant. We agree that’s a terrible place to visit.”
“I’d rather never go there again,” Din admitted.
“The lack of land to put your feet on is disconcerting,” Cara said quietly as they entered their rooms. “And I’ve heard the ground level is toxic in more than one way.”
“I hunted a bounty there once. The first and last I ever took on a Core world,” Din said as he secured the door. He relaxed a little as Cara removed her helmet and put her things down.
She took Dral from him. “I’ll bring his pram out here. You in the mood to eat anything specific?”
“No preference,” Din admitted as he pulled off his own helmet and put it with hers on a table near the door. “Whatever’s handy and easy, I guess.” He glanced across the room to the kitchen area. “Want me to check the options?”
“I shall handle the meal,” IG declared. “I have a food plan set up for Rey to expand her palette and increase her stomach size, so that is on par with the human average for her age group.”
Din nodded and left the droid to it for two reasons—he was a terrible cook, and he was on board with a food plan that helped Rey get back on track physically. “I’m going to take a shower, but don’t hold the meal for me.”
“Of course, Mand’alor.”
He went into the bedroom, stripped down quickly, and went into the bathroom. He chose a sonic stream. Water didn’t appear to be a problem due to the underground river, but he still wasn’t inclined to be wasteful about it and had grown used to sonic showers after living on ships for so many years. He cleaned his teeth at the sink, contemplated trimming up his beard, which was sparse to begin with.
Din was still standing at the sink in front of the mirror when Cara entered the bathroom. She stroked fingers through the back of his hair as she pressed against his body. Her armor against his naked skin was far more arousing than he wanted to admit. Her gloved hands settled on his hips, and she pressed a kiss against his shoulder blade.
“Let’s handle that haircut after lunch.”
“You pressing up against me like this isn’t going to help me get to the table in a timely fashion.”
She laughed. “Am I making you hard?”
“You don’t have to do much to accomplish that, and to think I used to find my attraction to you deeply annoying.”
She laughed and scraped her teeth against the top of his shoulder. “You could’ve gotten so much pussy on Sorgan. Think about all that downtime we had—sitting around doing nothing but staring at the dirt.”
He huffed. “Shut up.”
She turned him, and he rested against the sink as she pulled her gloves off. He cupped her head as she tossed them aside and pulled her in for a kiss. Her hands stroked down his sides, and one wrapped around his cock. He groaned lowly as she stroked him—her hand a mixture of soft skin and callouses.
“Does this feel impersonal?”
“No,” he admitted and let his head fall back as she kissed his neck. “Everything is better with you.” She sank to her knees and sucked him in. “Fuck, Cara.”
Din curled his hands around the sink behind him and closed his eyes as he got lost in the pleasure of his wife’s talented mouth. He’d been mistaken about how it would feel…how it would be when love was involved. Her hands clenched on his thighs, nails scraped his skin, and his vision blurred. He wasn’t going to last long at all, which made him feel ridiculously immature.
“I’m going to come,” he warned and shuddered against the insistent pull of her mouth.
He couldn’t help but lift his hips off the sink as he came. She swallowed around the head of his cock and sucked intently as he shuddered through an orgasm.
Din pulled her from the floor as soon she released him, clenched his hand in her hair, and kissed her. The taste of his own come in her mouth was no deterrent at all. She trembled against him, curled her arms around his neck, and surrendered into his kiss with a soft, sweet moan that left him feeling desperate for more. She pulled her mouth free after a few intense moments.
“Lunch is ready, by the way.” She licked her lips and offered him a grin.
He laughed and let his forehead rest on hers. “I’m starting to think that was more for you than me.”
“I loved it,” she admitted. She patted his hip. “You’re really pretty like this—I should make you come your brains out more often.”
He laughed. “For fuck’s sake.”
Cara was knee-deep in water in the underground river when Din came out into the community space. She was holding onto Dral’s arms, dipping him in the water, which made him kick his feet and laugh. The little Gungan girl was swimming around her. Rey was sitting on a carved stone bench not far from the river with her datapad. From the state of her damp tunic, she’d been in the river at some point. Din walked across the chamber and sat down with her.
“Good morning, Buir.” Rey smiled at him. “Ama said we should let you sleep in.”
He’d overslept by three hours due to the fact that Cara had done her best to wear him out the night before. Din pulled out the meal bar he’d snagged from the supply in their rooms and unwrapped it. “What are you working on?”
“Vocabulary words,” Rey reported. “Can I ask a question?”
“Absolutely.” He focused on her as he chewed.
“Why aren’t there different words for uncles and aunts? I was looking it up because I wanted to make sure I said it right for when I talk to the Armorer.”
“There are a couple of theories on that. I would say that our ancestors came to understand that gender means nothing, and depending on body type—you can’t even tell if some Mandalorians are male or female when they’re fully armored. Gender is irrelevant—what matters is strength, loyalty, and faith in the way.”
Rey nodded. “Okay.” She stared at her pad. “So it’s okay that I’m a girl? You don’t wish you had another son? A human one? I heard people talking about it—they think you should adopt a human son from the new foundlings.”
Din took a deep breath. “I don’t care about that at all. There are no words in Mando’a that mean son or daughter, Rey, which I’m sure you’ve already noted.” She nodded. “Do you remember what I said during your adoption?”
“I’ll never forget it, Buir,” Rey said, and she focused on him. “I promise.”
“I mean it—I knew exactly who you were and where my decisions would lead me.” He tugged her braid gently. “Some clans and tribes within Mandalorian culture have traditions and social norms that are different from ours. I was raised in Death Watch—and in that tribe, no one gave a single thought to gender or gender roles. It just wasn’t important. It never will be important to me.”
“Okay.” Rey refocused on her datapad, so Din stood as he finished his meal bar.
He walked across the chamber to where Torah was working. “Can we talk in private?”
Torah looked up from her work. “Of course.” She stood. “My forge should be private enough.”
Din nodded and followed her out of the chamber. Once in the forge, she shut the door and secured it.
“Is there a problem?”
He outlined what had been said in front of Cara and what Rey had overheard as well. Torah fired up her forge in silence and threw a chunk of ore into it.
“There are four clans amongst the newest arrivals who are deeply traditional,” Torah said tightly as she worked. “One of their patriarchs even questioned my place as tribal leader and as a future Protector. I’m told when he woke from that conversation, he was contrite.”
“But he has not approached me to apologize. Perhaps he fears that I will punch him again.” She threw another piece of ore in her forge. “It is a well-founded fear. Some of the clans have been quite isolated for various reasons, and they’ve been unduly influenced by the social norms of the worlds they’ve lived on. Or it could be the influence of those who have married into the clans as adults. We both know how much damage the Imperial occupation has done to us, our culture, and our world.”
“I’m not interested in force-feeding anyone my own opinions regarding such things, but I don’t think either incident was created by accident. They clearly want me to know they disapprove of me, my wife, and even my children.”
“The most conservative of the new clans is Clan Lowr. I noted that every single foundling they’ve adopted in the past were male per their reported records. They also indicated that they would accept more from the foundlings I brought in—males only. The few females in their clan are born or the result of marriage. I found the request offensive, so I’ve moved them to the bottom of the list when it comes to meeting the foundlings. I hope to see connections form quickly with clans that are more established in the covert.”
Din made a face. He certainly didn’t want to deny another Mandalorian the opportunity to adopt a child, but the behavior he’d heard about was off-putting, and he most certainly didn’t like the subversive campaign they were currently engaging in. There was a sharp knock on the door.
“We should make him wait,” Din said conversationally.
“He’s ridiculous,” Torah said darkly but pushed a series of buttons on her vambrace, and the door unlocked. Paz entered and glanced between them. “I don’t need your protection.”
Paz crossed his arms. “I know. I was worried about him.”
Din laughed. “You asshole.”
“What’s going on?”
“Clan Lowr is apparently making their disapproval of Din and all of his choices very clear in front of Cara and Rey.”
“I don’t see how anyone could have a problem with Cara,” Paz admitted. “She’s fierce and strong. Honestly, she deserves better, but I guess she loves him, so it’s fine if she wants to stay married to Din.”
Din took a deep breath. “Wanna go spar?”
“I’m not allowed to spar with you,” Paz said. “You’re the Mand’alor, and Torah told me I couldn’t.”
“You’re both ridiculous, and neither of you have ever been able to concede when you fight each other. The last bout only ended because one of you passed out from fucking exhaustion.” She pointed one of her tools at them. “Your buir did you no favors—fostering this competition between the two of you.”
“It kept me alive,” Din said and shrugged when they both focused on him. “By the time I was working as a bounty hunter on my own, it took work to find the kind of challenge Paz represented. If anything, Buir is more responsible for my reputation as a bounty hunter than I am because of that competition, because he was a ruthless bastard that made me make one choice after another that no one should really have to make.”
He checked the time. “I should go. I have to work on that comm to Naboo, and Cara wants to start going over the data we’re going to send to Organa.”
“Where have you been all morning?” Paz questioned.
“I slept in,” Din said mildly and shrugged at the helmet tilts that earned him. “I can have a lazy morning if I want.”
“Sure,” Paz said mildly but turned to Torah. “Strong and fierce, as I said.”
She sighed. “When she kicks your ass, Paz Vizsla, I’m going to gather all of our children to watch you get a life lesson.”
Din left as Paz started to laugh. Cara and the kids were not in the community space when he went back. He’d have left immediately if Oddau hadn’t motioned for him. Din walked across the chamber a little irritated—Rast was no problem, but the man standing with him probably was going to be.
“Din,” Oddau said. “This is Chal Lowr of Clan Lowr.”
“Vassal house to Clan Saxon,” Din finished.
“Not anymore,” Chal said. “My clan was exiled two decades ago for refusing to support the Empire. Gar Saxon was intolerant of dissent. Our previous relationship with House Saxon won’t be a problem, will it?”
“No, I believe in redemption,” Din said mildly and noticed that Chal’s shoulders tightened.
“So I heard,” Chal said. “You allowed House Vizsla return to the fold after they abandoned the way and their helmets in a crate on Nevarro.”
“Not a Vizsla alive would ever abandon the way,” Din said quietly. “And a helmet is nothing without the belief and the faith in our deepest felt tenets. If you think otherwise, then your own belief in the way is pale and shallow.”
“I heard you had more heart than sense,” Chal muttered.
“If I shoot you in the head—where you stand—will your clan continue to believe me weak?” Din questioned, and Chal took a step back. “I have no time for your backward beliefs, Chal. Do yourself and your clan a favor, and tell them to keep their opinions about my actions to themselves around my wife and children.”
“What kind of legacy are you building?” Chal demanded. “With a woman who doesn’t know her place, a female child you give too much of your time, and a tiny alien who’ll never be strong enough to swear the creed. Where is your pride?”
Oddau took a deep breath.
“What’s so funny?” Chal demanded.
“The idea that you think subjugating a woman and having male human children is a source of pride or strength,” he said seriously. “I didn’t need either the day I took the darksaber from Gideon. I won’t need it when I land on Mandalore and drive out the Imperial remnant there. Only the inherently weak would seek to derive their power from an exterior source. It’s simply not how I was raised.” Din shrugged. “If it bothers you over much, feel free to figure out how to make yourself feel better about it. Maybe you’d like to trot off and find a lightsaber so you can challenge me for the darksaber.”
“Of course not,” Din said when he trailed off. “It’s pretty daunting, right now, to have this job. Maybe you’ll wait until after I’ve won Mandalore, and it looks easier. No need for you to work too hard for further manufactured glory.”
Oddau snorted as Chal turned on his heel and walked away. “My apologies, I had no idea he was harboring…such a ridiculous mindset. He’s not said anything like that in front of me, or I’d have set him straight.” He cleared his throat. “Though apparently, it’s been noticed that you haven’t expressed any interest in adopting any of the foundlings the Armorer brought back to the covert.”
Din grimaced and looked around the chamber. Many of the new foundlings were running around—playing games that he didn’t quite recognize. “I’m not in a position to adopt another foundling and maybe won’t be for years. The Force hasn’t prodded me toward any of them. There will be more children for Cara and me in the future, but they’re not among these. If there was a shortage of options, of course, we would step up, but…there are so many clans here that I didn’t think it was necessary.”
“It isn’t necessary. In fact, there are some who will be disappointed at the end of this process. There are many children, but more clans stepped forward with the desire to expand their families than needed. Some of the children are blood kin and should be placed together.”
“It was easier on Nevarro,” Din murmured. “There was a rotation—an established rhythm for any foundlings I brought into the covert. I’m not sure how much of a problem Clan Lowr will be for you going forward, but their traditionalist mindset is going to upset a lot of the other clans.”
“Agreed,” Oddau paused and seemed to consider his words. “But the same can be said for most former Death Watch members, regardless of their clan or house affiliation. You’re all rather polarizing.”
“He said I spend too much time with my kid,” Din muttered. “Seriously?”
“Well, your female child wouldn’t need or deserve as much training as a male child would in his mind,” Oddau said. “My daughter, Nix, is a better shot than all of my other children combined, and she can’t swear the creed for another year.”
“I’d like to arrange for some private practice on the range—for Cara and me.”
“I’ll block you off some time,” Oddau said. “She’s been down a few times, and I imagine many people would love to see you in action.”
Din was glad no one could see the face he was making over that. “I’m not going to be a source of entertainment for anyone, Oddau.”
“No one would see it that way,” Oddau retorted. “You’re the fucking Mand’alor. They’ll measure themselves against you—for good or bad. It’s just how things are.”
“Right.” Din sighed. “I’ll think about it, but for now, I’d just like some time with Cara. I think some of these people believe I owe them time and attention that I don’t. I’m not built for politics.”
“I doubt any single Mand’alor was,” Oddau said. “At least, not a real one. But people like Chal Lowr have expectations that have nothing to do with you or the history of the position. For some, it’ll be about Bo-Katan Kryze, but for others, it’ll be about the traditions they’ve clutched at for decades for a sense of security.”
Din sighed. “I have to go make a damn holovid to send to Naboo.” He decided to ignore Rast’s laughter as he left.
– – – –
Rey caught the ball Dral prodded her way, and sent it back very gently. It was more a lesson for Dral than for her as he was still prone to going all-in given an opportunity. Din didn’t know if he’d chosen the right exercise to help teach his son moderation. There had been times, even recently, when Dral’s Force ability had saved their asses. It would just be nice if it didn’t render him unconscious for hours at a time in the process.
The ball sailed unexpectedly in his direction, and Din caught it. He raised his eyebrow, and both of them smiled at him. He flicked the ball back in Rey’s direction.
“How did you know it was me?” Rey questioned as she caught the ball with the Force and prodded it toward Dral.
“Dral would’ve started giggling as soon as he did it,” Din pointed out. “And he can’t bluff for anything, so he’d be looking really proud of himself.”
Rey looked at Dral. “We need helmets, vod.”
Dral caught the ball in both claws and tried to put it in his mouth. It nearly fit. Din shook his head and held out a hand. The ball sailed across the room and slapped against his palm. He flicked it off as Dral yawned.
“Time for bed, I think.” He plucked Dral from the floor as Rey stood up, stretched, and disappeared into the vac.
An hour later, the kids were in bed, and Din had recorded four different versions of the message they wanted to send to Naboo. The queen of Naboo was a young girl, so he didn’t want to sound intimidating. He knew that his armor presented an image he couldn’t get around, so he’d focused on tone and word usage. Politically, returning a stolen child to Naboo was not something that would stand out on a galactic front, but he wasn’t concerned about that. In fact, he wasn’t all that interested in getting more scrutiny from the senate or any of the Core worlds.
Naboo was in the Mid Rim, and the New Republic had demonstrated an interest in the world. He knew that Leia Organa had been on the planet shortly after the Battle of Endor, but he wasn’t certain of the circumstances. He wasn’t sure when Leia Organa had discovered that her birth mother was Padmé Amidala, former child queen of Naboo. Din also wasn’t certain how it had become known that Anakin Skywalker had become Darth Vader, but that was information he wanted to keep buried for as long as possible. It wouldn’t serve Leia Organa, and it wouldn’t serve her son either.
In the end, Ben Solo’s future was much more important to Din than his mother’s. He’d do all he could, of course, to preserve Organa’s legacy as it served to stabilize the republic, but he couldn’t allow it to deter him from acting. Din just hoped there wouldn’t come a time when he’d have to make a choice that would damage the woman’s career. He wanted to see her lead the senate; he trusted the leader she would one day become. She was an idealistic young woman—brave, strong, and extremely passionate. He hoped that in the new timeline that she wouldn’t face the same losses and heartbreak she’d clearly suffered in the first.
He discarded the two full-body recordings—they looked more menacing than he’d like, then activated the shorter of the two remaining. He’d prefer something concise that wasn’t open to a great deal of interpretation.
“Greetings, Queen Soruna and Boss Adu. My name is Din Djarin, and I’m contacting you both in the hopes that you can help me reunite a small Gungan child recently found on Tatooine with her family. From what we’ve been able to ascertain—she was taken from a transport ship and sold into indentured servitude on this world. My people do not tolerate the indentured servitude of children, and when that became known—many were released and abandoned on the streets. We’re seeking to reunite the Gungan child with her family. Her name is Majee Bowi, and her parents were both reported deceased six months ago when the transport ship they’d been traveling on drifted into the path of New Republic patrol and was discovered. I’ve attached a file containing her biometric data to this transmission. Majee is in good health despite her circumstances, and we are working to provide her enough water and a good diet to see her comfortable until she can be returned to Naboo. Please contact me at your earliest convenience with information regarding next of kin for the child.”
He frowned and considered asking Cara to record the message. In truth, his wife was just as intimidating as he was. They might as well ask IG to record it. He glanced toward the droid in question, unwillingly amused by the thought.
“Your tone in the shorter message is even and friendly without attempting to be falsely intimate,” IG reported. “The content clearly defines the situation, your position on indentured servitude, and your desire to return the child to her proper family.”
Din glanced toward Cara, who was encrypting the data that they’d put together. Her mouth was quirking gently as if she was trying to keep from laughing. “IG, where did Kuiil get your nurse programming?”
“We reviewed several different options on the way to Nevarro,” IG reported. “And chose one used by droids utilized in large commercial creches. It was always his intention that I would go with you and take care of Dral. He said Mandalorians tended to adopt many—he wished that I would be prepared for it. I believe the actual childcare protocols he installed come from his own people. I’ve been able to tailor them to the benefit of both Rey and Dral.”
Din nodded. “Let’s send the short one then and hope for the best. I don’t want this to be treated like a big deal.”
“It could make things difficult for Majee,” Cara said. “She has enough to overcome without having to be on display in some drawn-out political process.”
“How’s the data looking?”
“I’ve finished the encryption, and I’m writing a message to attach to request discretion as I don’t think we should be attached to the actual data as a source. It’s going to cause problems for a lot of people, and we don’t need to give the Imperials an even bigger reason to want you dead.”
“We can go out to the Tor tomorrow and send everything. I’d rather avoid using one of Tatooine’s comm public terminals for our business,” Din admitted. “We should order equipment to set up a comm relay for the monastery.”
“Agreed,” Cara said. “Across the board. I don’t know what the locals are doing about a new administrator, but I suspect that situation will eventually cause us some problems. I think most of our overt presence on this planet going forward should be at the monastery.”
– – – –
The Tor had a lot of luxuries he was still getting used to. He wondered if he’d ever have any sort of emotional attachment to it. The Razor Crest had once represented the faith his buir had, had in him. Nez had been so proud to pass the ship to him and put him on the path of providing for their tribe. His buir had told him he needed to get out in the galaxy and gain as much experience as he could. A part of him wished that Nez had shared his vision with him instead of just with Paz, but maybe the pressure would’ve been too much when he was younger. He’d always struggled under the weight of Nez’s expectations. No fault of his buir’s, Din acknowledged; he’d just wanted to never give the older man a single reason to regret saving him.
Din turned slightly in the pilot seat and found Cara leaning on Rey’s seat. “Yeah, just installing a nav update. This thing hasn’t been updated in decades. I didn’t have any problems on my trip, but I noticed some of the hyperspace routes were off a bit—the ship struggled to account for stellar drift.” He refused to mention that he’d noticed the maps were off because they still had Alderaan on them instead of the memorial marker that the New Republic had introduced to the galaxy map shortly after they gained power.
“Then this ship was part of Gideon’s private fleet for a long time,” Cara said. “Or they cloned the computer for this ship from another. But why would they do that?”
“To destroy all of the data the ship had irrevocably,” Din said and nodded when she made a face. “There’s no telling what that asshole used it for. I can’t even be certain he was acting on behalf of the former Empire when he targeted Dral. He was fucked up and delusional. Also, there are conflicting orders regarding the bounty. I’ve never been on a bounty where hunters were given different instructions—mine was dead or alive, but IG’s was…dead. I can’t even be certain that he was working on behalf of the same client. He had a fob, but there were many of those things. Every single hunter in Greef’s guild had been given one. Who’s to know how many guilds that Imp involved.”
“There’s no way to retrieve the data on IG’s former job, right?”
“None,” Din murmured. “And I’m grateful for that, Cara, because I wouldn’t be able to trust him at all if he could recall anything. But the fact that he has a protocol to identify Force-sensitive people is unnerving. It implies that he was probably originally activated and used to hunt and kill Force users for the Empire.”
“Like Dral,” Cara said and slid into his lap.
Din threw an arm over her thighs and nuzzled against her jaw. “Where are the kids?”
“Dral is playing with that little knob, and Rey is taking an assessment on her datapad for IG so he can figure out her education program,” Cara murmured. “We’re going to leave soon, right?”
“Within the next two weeks unless something happens,” Din said. “It’s difficult to stay but also to leave.”
“Because even on Nevarro, you lived outside of the covert.” She ran her hand through his hair, which she’d cut to suit herself since he didn’t care at all about how it looked. “You moved in and out of their lives providing but not really taking part.”
“I didn’t want anyone to…not have enough,” Din said. “Ram made sure we had everything we needed. The idea that I might not earn enough to support the tribe drove me to take risks I never should’ve taken. There was some personal greed mixed in there, too, and that was hard to swallow when I was younger.”
“Younger,” Cara said and kissed his forehead. “I kind of forgot how old you are, at least mentally—late 60s?”
“I was four months away from my 67th birthday when I was offered a chance to return to the past,” Din said. “Based on my adoption date and the age I reported at my adoption. Foundlings normally make their adoption date their birthday—it’s easier since some children have no idea when their birthday is when they’re found. Age is an estimate unless the child is old enough to know their own age. Physically, I turned 36 five months ago. You?”
“34, so I think that makes you a cradle robber, technically. You’re almost twice my age.”
Din laughed. “Seems like I deserve a gorgeous, young wife.”
“Maybe.” She relaxed against him despite the armor they were both wearing. “Have you picked a destination?”
“I’m going to have to…” He huffed. “Commune with the fucking Force.”
Cara laughed. “Can’t you just ask one of the…ghosts roaming around the place.” She flicked a hand.
“They all have their own agendas,” Din murmured. “Qui-Gon’s mission is to save the Force, and he’ll make the decisions necessary to achieve that no matter the consequences. I can’t necessarily fault him for that because when the Force goes, life in this galaxy will go with it.
“The others have…personal goals and sometimes scores to settle. Anakin Skywalker is deeply offended by the survival of the emperor. He also doesn’t believe that Qui-Gon Jinn has given Luke Skywalker his due. He’d have his son do most of the things Qui-Gon has asked of me.”
“The guy already failed once,” Cara said. “I think he means well but is that really enough?”
“It wasn’t the first time around, and Qui-Gon’s running the show, apparently, so Anakin Skywalker isn’t going to get his way. That being said, I’ve been told what the Force wants from me, but I’ve never heard it or seen it directly from the Force. I feel like I’m owed a conversation. The problem is that I’ve zero training in it, and I’m acting purely on instinct based on what I read. I’ve always done better with practical versus theory when it comes to learning.”
“Considering how much those ghosts clearly communicate with Rey and Dral, they’re here—just ask them. Isn’t that Mandalorians do? Ask.”
Din flushed. “That whole conversation was about my dick.” He sighed when she shot him a look. “Traditionally, in a covert, if there is a skill someone has that you want—you go ask for it. If you’re underage, your parent goes and learns the skill, if they can, so they can pass it onto you. It’s considered quite rude to teach another Mandalorian’s child without their permission.”
“Which is why you’re worried about bringing other Force-sensitive children into the covert to be adopted by other clans?” Cara questioned.
“Oh, no, it’s also a parent’s duty to seek out the knowledge their children need. It is likely that they will demand I instruct their children. Education is very important. I’m hoping to eventually run across a few Force-sensitive adults I can bring into the tribe and teach, so I have someone to share that duty with.”
“If I could, I would,” Cara said. “Skywalker isn’t an option?”
“Not as he is currently—he’s too wrapped up in dark and light. The Jedi and the Sith both lost their way. It’s why the Cosmic Force has tried repeatedly over the last thousand years to create a balance in the Living Force. It’s was Anakin Skywalker’s destiny, and it’s also why a second dyad was forged. I can’t let Skywalker…fail again.” He turned his face into her hair and took a deep breath. “We should check the stores and make a shopping list.”
“I would be pleased to do the shopping.”
Din turned and found IG standing in the entryway of the cockpit. “If you come back without meal bars, I’ll kick your ass.”
“I don’t have an ass. But, I am programmed for sparring,” IG said. “As long as you don’t draw that glowstick you call a saber, I believe I could sufficiently challenge you.”
“Are you getting an attitude problem?” Cara asked, amused.
“Master Kuiil did not believe in personality restraint codes.”
“That’s a yes,” Din muttered and slouched back in his chair. “Go ahead and handle the shopping—stock six months of rations. I think there are plenty of lizards in Dral’s unit but check around the market for frogs. He likes those a lot. Ask Rey about her favorite foods—she’s eaten everything I put down in front of her without complaint. But she did go without food a lot on Jakku, so I think she’d eat something she hated just because she never wants to starve again.” He paused. “Did you check to make sure the ship’s onboard charging station can handle your requirements?”
“I have a converter that will allow me to pull a charge from a variety of power sources,” IG said. “Ms. Motto did not wish for me to have issues with power as it might interfere in the care I provide the children.”
“Right,” Din said. “If you can get some muja fruit-flavored meal bars—they’re my favorite, and Dral likes them a lot as well. He devoured the last two I had.”
“I love bama bars,” Cara interjected. “Or candied blumfruit. We’re pretty far from Endor, so it might be an iffy purchase.”
“I can verify the quality of foodstuffs,” IG said and bent down. He picked up Dral and placed him in Cara’s lap. “Rey should be finished with her placement exam.”
Dral dropped back against Din’s chest and smacked his lips as IG left them.
“Don’t act like you didn’t just have lunch,” Din said in amusement. “You eat like a Hutt, ad’ika. I don’t even know where you put it.” The baby grabbed his feet in both hands and huffed like he was insulted.
Cara caught one of his feet and wiggled it a little, which made Dral giggle. “Can he commune with the Force?”
“I’ve seen him stare off into space for long periods of times,” Din admitted. “Even before the shift backward. He did it at least twice on Sorgan, but I shook him out of it whenever I saw him doing it because it made me scared. I do know that the Force Spirits we’re interacting with now didn’t know about him until after…just after.”
Cara nodded. “It must have deeply disturbed the Force when it happened.”
“The Force was hurt by those events,” Qui-Gon said, and Din sighed at the sight of the Jedi Master lounging in the co-pilot’s seat. “But it was Din’s grief that resonated throughout this galaxy. That’s when I was guided to him when I realized what had been done. If such a disgusting thing was allowed to happen, then the path the galaxy was on—was beyond hope. We still tried, of course, and it wasn’t until Yoda and I were alone that I realized that the Force had protected us from the fading as much as it could.”
Cara kicked her leg out, and her booted foot went right through the Force Spirit’s leg. “I got the impression I wouldn’t be able to see you.”
“You are part of the Force—as much as any living creature to ever exist in this galaxy,” Qui-Gon said. “You just don’t have enough midi-chlorians to use the Force.” He focused on Din. “As to communion with the Cosmic Force—you’ll find it very easy to accomplish as she’s waiting for you.”
“The Cosmic Force is female?” Cara questioned.
“After a fashion, and the Living Force is male. Between them—they create life as we know it,” Qui-Gon said. “It is a simplistic explanation of Force creation, but it’s how we were taught to think of the Force in the temple. Perhaps it is the opposite, or maybe they are neither, and they accept our clumsy attempts to quantify them with far more grace than we deserve. I found comfort in those teachings when I was a child.”
“Are you still comforted by the religion you were fed as a child?” Din asked.
“Are you?” Qui-Gon asked and raised an eyebrow. “Is that not what your Mandalorian father did for you? Did he not provide you with a belief system designed to protect and comfort you?”
“Are you comparing my code to yours?” Din questioned.
Qui-Gon laughed. “No, yours is built on family, loyalty, and sacrifice. The Jedi of old sought to eradicate emotion from their lives in such a way that it’s no surprise that the Je’daii eventually splintered so completely into light and dark factions.”
“You say that like the Dai Bendu had no role in the path that the Jedi and the Sith eventually took,” Din said mildly. “Religion and power are a terrible mixture to begin with, but when it’s combined with the destruction of personal freedom…” He trailed off and shook his head and focused on Dral, who was chewing on the side of his glove. “Fanatics on both sides were inevitable.”
“There is a vergence here—deep underground,” Qui-Gon said. “You’ll find your answers there, Din Djarin.”
Din sighed. “That’s why the monks built their monastery here? Is that why Anakin Skywalker was born on this planet? I never could find anything about his biological father.”
“Anakin Skywalker didn’t have a father,” Qui-Gon said. “His mother became pregnant with him—she believed the Force had given her a child. Perhaps she even considered him a gift. He was a charming child—bright, energetic, thoughtful, sweet-natured.”
Din shifted his son around in his lap. “Do not compare Dral to Anakin Skywalker, Qui-Gon.”
“The comparison is there to be made,” Qui-Gon said. “Dral is the child of the Force-Living and Cosmic.”
“Anakin’s father was the Living Force,” Din said and grimaced. “Forcing a pregnancy on a woman seems…”
“Dark,” Cara interjected. “Obscene.”
“Force users can manipulate the Living Force to their purposes,” Qui-Gon pointed out. “Sheev Palpatine was very talented—strong with the Force. If the Order had found him first, perhaps his path in life would’ve been different.” The Jedi Master grimaced. “Perhaps he would’ve been worse.”
“You’re going to give me nightmares,” Din muttered. “You think Darth Sidious encouraged the Living Force to impregnate Shmi Skywalker. Or was it more than encouragement?”
“The Sith don’t encourage,” Qui-Gon said. “They torture the Force with their use—evidenced by how kyber crystals respond to them. Anyone can use a lightsaber, but they are uniquely powerful in the hands of Force-sensitives. But such a weapon in the hands of a Sith is in agony—the kyber crystal bleeds from the trauma.”
“How did Anakin Skywalker manifest in the Cosmic Force after the life he led?” Din questioned.
“Yoda and Obi-Wan made way for him—as a gift to Luke. They’re both very fond of him and were proud of the changes he wrought in Anakin. Obi-Wan considered Anakin a brother, and to lose him to the dark side…was the most painful event of his life.”
“Do you think if you had lived to train him yourself, he would’ve still fallen to the dark side?” Din asked and let his gaze leave his son so he could focus on the Force Spirit.
“I think ultimately Anakin was set up to fail,” Qui-Gon said. “And I wronged him most of all.”
“How?” Cara asked.
“I took him from his mother,” Qui-Gon said. “I removed the only consistent and unfailing source of love from his life. I had no intention of ever seeking her freedom from the slavery she lived in because once I left this planet, she ceased to matter to me at all. I detached myself from her circumstances as I’d been taught to do. I didn’t think of her again until I was told how she died and how Anakin responded. He unraveled completely after that, and it was I who pulled the first thread.”
“Could you make way for other Jedi Masters to manifest in the Cosmic Force?” Din questioned.
“I could with Yoda’s help. Why?”
Din sent him a look. “You don’t honestly expect me to take lightsaber training from Luke Skywalker, right?”
“Who do you want?” Qui-Gon asked.
“There’s only one that would be well-received by my people,” Din pointed out.
“You want Tarre Vizsla?” Qui-Gon questioned and sighed. “Of course you do, fucking Mandalorians.” He stood and shook his head. “I should get started then.”
“Started?” Din shared a glance with Cara.
“You think it’s going to be easy to find a 1200-year-old Force Spirit? I can’t even be certain he’s still around. I’ve never heard his voice as far as I know. And I have to think he’d have something to say to me if he was…watching this.” He waved a hand and disappeared.
– – – –
It took a week to get any sort of response from Naboo. The first had come from Queen Soruna, in the form of a holovid, who had thanked them for their care of Majee and assuring them that a ship would be sent immediately to retrieve the child from Tatooine. The second, a text-only message, had come from Boss Adu—it had included Majee’s entire family tree, explicit instructions regarding her care, and an estimated arrival time for Kor, son of Boss Adu who had been tasked with retrieving Majee Bowi personally. Per Boss Adu, Majee had 734 close relatives, but her maternal aunt would be assuming custody, and she would be on board the ship with Kor Adu.
Din had responded and suggested that Kor land in Peli’s bay, which the covert already kept an eye on. They knew how to secure it, and he felt like that was an important factor since Kor was a son of the Gungan leader. He watched the shining silver ship land with a sinking stomach.
“That’s the royal starship,” Cara muttered under her breath.
“For fuck’s sake,” Din responded. “I don’t have time to play nice with a child queen.”
“Don’t focus on her age—she could run circles around you in the political arena,” Cara warned.
The ramp lowered, and a tall Gungan trotted out.
“Cara Dune!” The alien caught Cara up in a fierce hug, and Din barely refrained from drawing his blaster. His wife was by no means fragile, but Gungan were extremely strong.
“Let me down, you idiot, before I tear off one of your ears.”
Din relaxed as she was set back down immediately.
“How’d you even recognize me?” she demanded.
“Ah, I would recognize my favorite human being anywhere,” Kor announced. “Lovely armor.” He looked at Din briefly, then refocused his attention on her. “Lovely man—are you going to share?”
“No.” She punched him in the stomach. “We’re married.”
“Now that’s a fucking tragedy,” Kor declared without even pretending to flinch and sighed. “Congratulations, I guess. Saw the holovid of the whole darksaber thing.” He offered Din his hands in greeting. “You’re a fierce one—just what Cara Dune needs in her life.”
Din took his hands briefly. “Is the queen on board that ship?”
“Ah, no, she just insisted I use it to retrieve Majee,” Kor said. “Her aunt is with me. She’s never been off Naboo and is quite nervous. It was decided she would stay on board—it’ll be easier to help the child if she’s not a wreck.”
Din had never met a Gungan so articulate in his life, and he felt like an asshole for even noticing. Most didn’t bother to get a full and fluent grasp on Galactic Basic, which was common since they rarely left their homeworld, and those that did often weren’t the most educated of the species.
“Majee is in Peli’s office—she doesn’t like loud noises, and we didn’t know what kind of ship you’d be landing,” Cara explained.
“Her ears are sensitive at this age,” Kor explained. “She’s far too young to be out of the water for long periods of time. We’ve set up a tank for her—filled with water from her family’s pollywog pool. It will be a great comfort to her and help her with acclimatization.”
Cara nodded. “I’ll get her.”
Din focused on Kor has Cara left. The Gungan was glaring at him. “Right.”
“Cara Dune is important to me,” Kor declared. “If you hurt her—I’ll kill you.”
“Understood,” Din said. “What’s a pollywog pool?”
“We begin life as tadpoles,” Kor said. “Each family group has their own pool—a protected place for their young within our underwater cities. There are predators in our waters that would eat our young if they could. The pool can only be used to gestate the young of one female at a time—to ensure that the sanctity of our genetic lines.” He paused. “It prevents inbreeding—when one female can lay upwards of 20 eggs, it is important to make sure they don’t mate with a sibling by accident.”
“I see. I noted in Majee’s family history that she’s a single birth,” Din said.
“Yes, a terrible circumstance—there was a bacteria bloom in the family’s pool. Majee was the only survivor. It speaks to her strength just as much as her current circumstances. She has many older siblings, and they’re all waiting on Naboo for her return. The family had been forced to give her up for dead along with her parents. Your message was a gift to them.”
Majee darted out of the office and practically climbed Kor she was so excited. Kor patted her gently as he held her and murmured to her in their own language.
“Does she know you?”
“Not at all,” Kor admitted. “It is enough that I’m of her kind, I should think. If you ever find out who bought her from the slavers—I’d like to be told.”
“So far, no one is admitting to the contracts or to the abandonment of the children,” Cara said. “But I’ll certainly pass that information your way if we find it.”
Kor glanced between them and shook his head. “I literally grieve the opportunity I’ve been denied by your hasty and thoughtless marriage.”
Din laughed. “I like you despite myself.”
“Good,” Kor declared. “Call on me if you have a need—I work for food and alcohol when friends are involved.” He patted Majee’s back gently with one big hand. “Her aunt awaits. Until we meet again, Cara Dune.” He paused and inclined his head. “Mand’alor.”
The covert had taken on cleaning out the monastery and preparing it for their occupation with a fierce kind of determination. It’d be the first public stronghold his kind had held since the Purge, and Din knew that mattered. Perhaps it mattered even more to the former members of Death Watch, some of whom had lived in hiding since before the Clone War. Fully connecting the covert and the underground complex had taken Rast’s droid crew a solid week of digging and building, but it was complete.
Din had stayed clear of the process because, more and more, his irrational reaction to droids felt like a weakness. He’d certainly mellowed as he’d gotten older and had even enjoyed long conversations with Rey’s ball droid while they’d traveled together, but he’d never truly shed his distrust of droids in general.
Now they were walking through the second tunnel that led directly into the structure the monks had built. The Hutts hadn’t gone very deep, but they’d spread out far. There were probably unknown entrances and tunnels in and out of Mos Eisley. Rast had ordered a complete survey so they could seal up any weak points and set security alarms.
“The best part is that we’ve not found any brains in jars, yet,” Aja announced cheerfully.
“Let’s hope that Jabba’s people took care of those if there were any left,” Torah said and focused on Din. “Got any idea what we should be looking for?”
Din could feel something. Rey hadn’t said a word in nearly a half-hour, and Dral had started to tremble so hard halfway through the trip that Cara had handed him over.
“It doesn’t feel bad,” Rey said and ran her hand along the stone wall. “I don’t think we’re deep enough. There must be a way…down.” She turned and looked at him. “Right, Buir? You feel it?”
“I do,” Din said and patted Dral’s back when he made a soft whining sound. “If the monks did this on purpose—they were either trying to protect the vergence or use it for their own purposes. The power of a Force nexus might have been what kept their brains alive outside of their bodies. In some ways, the B’omarr Order was a lot like the Jedi. They believed in isolating themselves—removing any obstacle to mental enlightenment. That eventually came to include their own physical body.”
“How…” Paz leaned against the wall. “You ever meet one of them?”
“A B’omarr monk?” Din questioned. “Yes, unfortunately. He was profoundly devout in his beliefs. He tried to hire me to take this place from Jabba the Hutt.”
Cara snorted. “Seriously? By yourself?”
“I’m going to overlook your lack of faith in my abilities,” Din told her. “But he was willing to hire a team of my choosing. He had more credits than sense because he asked a lot of people to help him in Mos Eisley. Of course, it got back to Jabba, who sent Boba Fett after him. No one was surprised when he disappeared completely, and Jabba got a new sail barge the same week. I think your ship is parked in the spot he used to keep it, Paz.”
“Good,” Paz muttered. “Any more of those bastards around?”
“Well, we know Mos Eisley’s government ran some out of this place for Rotta,” Din pointed out. “They’ll try to come back, but if there is a Force vergence here—then they’re never getting it back. I’ll declare this an official outpost of Mandalore.”
“Let’s call it Ramikadyc,” Rey said and turned to face him—a small smile playing on her lips. “It stood strong this whole time—endured when perhaps it shouldn’t have. There’s life here.” She touched the stone wall. “You feel it, right, Buir?”
“What does ramikadyc mean?” Cara asked wearily.
“Basically…” Din began and shrugged when she looked his way. “A commando state of mind—a state achieved by a Mandalorian when they become extremely focused and achieve the attitude that they can endure anything.” He cleared his throat when she gave him a helmet tilt that spoke to a big lecture heading his way. “It’s part of the basic language primer—it’s not my fault she’s extremely gifted with languages. She’s already learned to talk to that droid in the main chamber that catches lizards for Dral.”
“Droidspeak is pretty simple,” Rey said. “Sometimes I get the tone wrong, but I’ll figure it out. I was thinking that maybe we could teach Dral a hand language if he can’t physically make words yet.” She smiled when they all turned to look at her. “What?”
Din sighed because he felt like an idiot. “It’s a very good idea, Rey.” His main focus had been learning telepathy through the Force to connect with Dral, which would leave everyone but Rey out of the loop. He felt a little selfish for that train of thought, so he pushed it aside. “Remind me to ask IG about different hand languages so we can pick one that doesn’t require more than three digits on a single hand.” He looked down at his son. “Claw.”
“Definitely a claw,” Cara agreed and took Dral. She rubbed the baby’s head with her ungloved hand. “I bet you have a lot to say.” She focused on Din, and a very small part of him regretted the helmet she now wore outside of their private spaces. She had a very expressive face, and it’d been easy to gauge her mood. Now, he only had body posture, and Cara was a warrior—she gave little away with her body. “You feel close, right?”
“Yeah,” Din agreed. “But Rey’s right—it’s lower.”
“What does a vergence look like?”
“Anything, really,” Din said roughly. “It can even be a person. I’m pretty sure Dral is one. A Force nexus can encompass an entire planet or be concentrated to a single tree. Considering our current location and the B’omarr Order’s militant desire to have this place in their possession, I do believe they once had direct access to the vergence.”
“They probably performed the surgery close to it or in it,” Torah offered. “If the vergence was responsible for the success of the brain removal, they’d seek to…bathe the subjects of such procedures in it.”
It made a terrible kind of sense. “Such locations were often considered sacred to both Jedi and Sith alike. It’s troubling that neither tried to take this place from the monks in the past.”
“I think it’s hiding,” Rey said.
“I didn’t feel it in any substantial way until we were a few meters from this room,” Din admitted. “I didn’t feel it in the dock, which isn’t far from here.”
“About 50 meters up,” Paz calculated as he focused on the ceiling, then he turned. “12 meters north. Do you think it will grow, expand out past the structure at some point in the future?”
“I don’t know,” Din admitted. “I really don’t know enough about it.”
“This is the point where Buir would give you a severe lecture,” Paz said mildly. “Jumping headfirst into something you don’t understand.”
Better him than his kids, Din thought, and it must have crossed Paz’s mind because his brother just sighed and inclined his head.
“I hope it stays as it is—we don’t need the attention it would bring,” Din said and took off his gloves as he glanced around the fairly large chamber. The tunnel had started under the large kitchen in the monastery. “Temperature readings are low—low enough for fresh food storage. Feeding a single Hutt would take a lot of food, and there were often more here than Jabba.”
“Food storage makes sense,” Cara admitted. “That or some kind of wine cellar. He had a large staff to feed as well if he wanted them functional to work and entertain him. Hutts normally eat their protein live, so there could be an additional storage space for that at a higher temperature.”
“He favored paddy frogs,” Din muttered and glanced toward his son, who smacked his lips eagerly. “None here, ad’ika.”
“Yeah, well, he also ate people,” Cara pointed out and shrugged at the disgusted noises she earned for herself.
“I’m glad he’s gone,” Rey declared. “Where did he go?”
“He was killed,” Din said as he reached out and touched the stone wall. “I’ve been told by several different people that Leia Organa strangled him.”
“That tiny woman on the NR Senate?” Aja asked. “Come on—he weighed over three tons.”
“It’s what I heard,” Din said with a laugh and reached out to touch the wall to his left. His fingers tingled, and he pushed slightly. The wall gave way, and he tumbled into darkness.
Din tried to catch himself but realized he was on a set of steep stairs as he fell several meters. He caught the roughly carved wall even as he hit his head. “Fuck.”
“Let me go! Let me go! The wall ate Buir!”
“I’m fine!” He shouted and took a deep breath as he activated his radio when Dral’s cries joined Rey’s demands. It was clear they couldn’t hear him. “Cara, I’m fine. Tell them I’m fine before they exhaust themselves.”
His wife’s ragged breath in his ear made him feel like a reckless bastard when all he’d done was touch a wall. He listened to her calm both children, which took a few minutes.
“The wall is solid,” she reported.
“It looks like a cloaking field from this end,” he reported as he got to his feet. “The stairs are very steep—probably 60 degrees. No railings, but fortunately, the staircase looks like it was carved right out of the stone, so there’s no dropping off the side.”
“Are you hurt?”
He started to lie, but he knew she’d see the bruises later. “I fell—not far and hit my head. Helmet took the brunt, but I’m already getting a headache.” Din walked back up the stairs to stare at the glowing portal. He squatted down as much as he could in the space and took off the cover of the control panel. “There’s a panel—looks old—Clone War era.”
“I have a slicer for security tech that old. I used several for that old bunker on Nevarro.” She paused. “On the datapad I have in my bag on this side of the wall.”
“I’m going to try something weird,” Din said and shoved his hand through the wall.
Cara’s hand clenched on his, and soon, small fingers he knew to be Rey’s gripped his wrist. “See, he’s fine.” Dral made a soft whining sound, and Din wasn’t surprised when his son’s claws scraped gently against his skin. “Okay, let me get your buir the datapad, and he’ll open the entrance for us.”
“He’s really okay?” Rey questioned.
“If you turned on your comm, you’d hear him for yourself,” the Armorer said dryly.
“Oh,” Rey huffed.
Din laughed as the little tone dinged in his helmet, letting him know that Rey had connected to him. He’d asked for the warning signal for all the adults connected to her comm because he didn’t want her overhearing anything horrible or alternatively intimate on the comm system.
“I’m fine, Rey. Just a little banged up. Hold your brother so your ama and I can work on this.”
“Okay.” There was some shuffling. “Sorry, I tried to bite you, Ba’vodu Paz.”
“Better you than your brother,” Paz said dryly.
“I don’t think he could chew through durasteel,” Din said. “I mean…probably shouldn’t try it.” Cara pressed a datapad into his hand, and he curled his fingers around it.
He pulled his arm back through and was relieved that the tablet came with him. He knew the cloaking field was probably attuned to allow Force-sensitives to pass through and was glad that Paz had grabbed Rey. The thought of her falling through after him was horrifying. He activated the pad and cycled through the different slicer options. There were many.
“Did you have a career in high-end theft that you neglected to mention?” Din asked in confusion. “We could rob half the galaxy blind with the contents of this pad.”
Cara laughed. “I have a wide and varied skillset—I wasn’t just a dropper, you know.”
“You wrote some of these,” Din noted as he found one he thought might work and connected the pad to the control panel.
“A few—it’s a hobby,” she said. “I stole ships and information for the rebellion on occasion and more so when I was a shock trooper since we’d go in first.”
“Does that make you a pirate, Ama?” Rey questioned. “Plutt used to complain about pirates taking his cargo and ships.”
“Pirates normally steal for their own gain,” Din said.
The cloaking field flickered and faded away. Din threw out a hand and caught Rey before she stepped too close to the entryway. “No, these stairs are very dangerous, and you’re not tall enough to navigate them by yourself.” He focused on his wife. “How did you get to Sorgan anyway?”
“I stole a ship and sold it when I got there,” Cara said in amusement.
Din turned to Rey. “She was, in fact, a pirate. My pride is immense right now.”
He stepped back into the chamber and handed Cara the datapad who stored it. Din cracked his neck and considered the Force energy moving around them. It was different than what he’d experienced in the past. “Master Obi-Wan, are you here?”
The Force Spirit appeared in a shimmer of blue light. Paz, Aja, and Torah all drew their weapons. Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow at them then focused on Din. “Master Qui-Gon is busy and ordered me not to help you find it. He said finding it was a test of your connection to the Force.”
“And if I’d fallen and broken my neck?” Din questioned.
“I caught you,” Obi-Wan said. “I’m glad I don’t have a physical body anymore—you’d have broken me. I’m quite elderly, I’d have you remember.” He focused on Dral. “Fascinating—I never expected to see one of his kind again. And you’re right—he is a vergence, moreover so are you, Din Djarin.”
“But not me?” Rey questioned with a frown.
“Oh, no, my dear, you’re something very unique and special,” Obi-Wan said. “I’m honored to meet you, Rey Sarad Djarin.”
Rey blushed and leaned against Din. “Your name is Obi-Wan Kenobi—Master Qui-Gon’s last padawan.”
“Yes,” Obi-Wan said. “I watched over you while you were on Jakku waiting for your father. I didn’t show myself because we were worried it would be a little too much for you—to meet a bunch of old ghosts.”
“You were there on the ship when the bad man hurt Buir,” Rey said. “I felt you—you helped me drag him away from the door, so I could guard it.”
“You can feel the difference in us?” Obi-Wan questioned.
“Yes,” Din said roughly when Rey hesitated. “There is a distinct difference in your manifestations—the way the Living Force responds to you. I can always tell when one of you is close by. You felt new, different, so I figured it was you since I’d already met the others, sort of. Unless you’ve compelled others to manifest?”
“Quite a few wish it,” Obi-Wan admitted. “Especially since Yoda and Qui-Gon did the thing.” He flicked a hand. “They want a hand in. More than one has petitioned to be involved in your training. Personally, I think you’ve made an excellent choice for weapons training, but you might consider Mace Windu for hand-to-hand combat and Force perception. I once watched him catch and throw laser fire back at an opponent. He also learned to absorb and use blasts of Force lightning to strengthen himself before he was killed. That skill he learned from Yoda, who is the best of us all when it comes to telekinesis.”
“Let’s start with the saber,” Din said. “I’m not interested in trying to catch laser fire in my hand any time soon. As for Force lightning…that’s a tool of the dark side.”
“And the dark side rises even as we stand here,” Obi-Wan said and motioned toward the vergence entrance. “I installed that and blocked off this area when I came here after the war was over. The few Jedi that survived Darth Sidious’ purge had no choice but to run and hide if we were going to preserve anything of our culture. I stored tools, all the kyber crystal I could get my hands on here, and made sure Jabba’s people forgot the staircase ever existed. They didn’t use the area anyway—due to the depth of the cave and the stairs themselves. It wasn’t convenient. The most useful thing will be the training remotes—there are several Marksman-H remotes stored and a prototype for another that will get you started on saber training until we can get your choice of teacher ready.”
Din took a deep breath. “Are you telling me you made a training remote that can produce a lightsaber?”
“I had the idea because I saw a Sith-owned droid with a lightsaber once during the war. The result turned out to be challenging to fight and not something I would’ve deployed against a padawan. It’s a low-powered blade—it won’t cause permanent injury. Though it will deliver a painful shock for any mistake you make—a reminder of what could’ve happened to you if it was a real lightsaber. I’d hoped, at one point, to reestablish the Jedi Order myself, so I started gathering materials and resources I’d need for training. Then I discovered that the Empire was…hunting potential Jedi, and I was compelled to stay close to Luke Skywalker and keep him safe. The Force made it clear to me that he would be instrumental in the defeat of the Empire, so my duty was here.”
“Sometimes I wonder if the big picture victory was worth the immense loss of life the galaxy suffered while you waited for Luke Skywalker to grow up,” Din said and picked Rey up. “Especially since the emperor survived.”
“Is that something you should discuss in front of the children?” Obi-Wan questioned with a frown.
“What so they can be left in the dark, unaware, and unprepared for whatever he might do if he finds out about them?” Din asked. “Mandalorians don’t overprotect their children and leave them open to attack. It’s not the way.”
– – – –
The vergence was a big cave, a kilometer down and far larger than the central chamber in the covert. There were three crates lined up against the wall, unassuming and frankly, underwhelming. Cara didn’t want a surprise per se, but she wouldn’t mind seeing something interesting. Maybe some sparkles or something. She flushed as she considered that and was relieved for the helmet for the third or fourth time of that day. There was some serious damn comfort to be had with covering up your whole face.
Aja had left and returned with several others to move the crates up into the room on the Tor Din had chosen for their research. Oddau and Gí Rast had come down in the chamber to…well, Cara was certain there wasn’t going to be an actual show. Communion with the Force sounded like a very quiet, mental thing that wasn’t going to be entertaining for them at all. Still, the Rasts weren’t the only ones unnerved by the idea of Din giving himself over mentally to a supernatural entity that they couldn’t fight. Torah and Paz were stationed in the back of the room—bodies rigid with worry.
“Did you bring your field medkit?” Din asked.
“Yeah, of course,” Cara admitted and pulled the strap of her satchel over her head so she could put it down between them as she sat. “What do you need?”
“A concussion check,” Din admitted wryly. “I’d rather not try this with even a minor head injury.”
He started to loosen his helmet from the gorget, but Oddau cleared his throat.
“Aja, Nix—go up and guard the entry. Contact Byr about putting a physical door on it that we can put a lock and an alarm on.” Oddau crossed his arms as his children started up the stairs. “Did you want us to turn our backs?”
“No, it’s fine,” Din said as he finished loosening the helmet and removed it. He set it down and accepted the medical assessment wand Cara offered him even as she picked up a small light to check his pupils. “A pain stim would be good.”
“I wish,” Cara murmured, “that I’d stayed in medical school a bit longer, but my father was right—I was much more suited to engineering and computers. I think I’ll download some courses from the HoloNet on medicine, just in case.” She took the wand and picked up the datapad to review the results. “Bruises, no concussion, low-grade headache. How’s your vision without the helmet?” She cupped his face and turned his head so she could look into his eyes.
“Clear, focused,” Din said and accepted the stim stick Rey offered from the kit. “This the right one?”
“Blue for pain, red for fever, yellow for infection, green for energy,” Rey recited dutifully. “How much higher education did you take, Ama?”
Din pressed the stim to the bare skin behind his ear and handed the empty stick back to Rey, who stored it in the kit.
“Just 18 months,” Cara said. “But I took four years of preparatory education on Alderaan geared toward science and medicine. It was my mother’s dream for me, and I indulged it. When I was with the rebellion, I also took medic training for the field. I had a lot of knowledge going in, at least for humans, and I learned as much as I could about the other non-humans in my unit as I could so I could help them if necessary. It came in handy a time or two.” She stored the wand and put the kit back in her bag. “Okay, let’s give him some room.”
Din let her take Dral from his lap where the baby had sprawled the moment he could, and Rey scooted back on her butt until she was several meters away. Cara joined her there.
“Oh.” Rey leaned against her with a little shocked face as Din closed his eyes and blue energy started to swirl around him. “Can you see that?”
“Yes,” Cara said hoarsely. She looked up and found that Torah, Paz, Oddau, and Gí had all moved closer.
“Is this visible energy always present when the Force is used?” Torah questioned.
“I watched Dral heal someone, and I also watched him catch and throw fire at a stormtrooper—there was no visible evidence of his actions beyond the impact he had on others,” Cara admitted. “I’ve yet to see the holovid of the mudhorn.”
Paz snorted. “We’re going to have to work hard to get a look at that.”
Cara agreed, but she figured she might have an easier time of it than anyone else. The light misted around Din and stopped flowing around him in ribbons, which was a relief, sort of. The whole thing was off-putting, and maybe it always would be. She couldn’t resent it—not the Force and not the decision that Din had made from a future that would never come to pass. He might have put on his boot on the path without her, but she’d walk the rest of it beside him one way or another.
Din was slowing rising off the damn floor.
“And now he’s hovering,” Paz muttered and blew out a surprised breath. “Buir, I don’t know if you can hear me, but you really didn’t prepare me for this.”
Cara glanced at Rey and found her closing her eyes. “No, Rey, you can’t try it while he’s like this.”
She poked out her bottom lip. “It looks like fun, though. I want to learn to float.”
“Supervision is required,” Cara said and wrapped an arm around the girl. “The Force is a weapon, remember?”
“Master Yoda said the Force is life.”
“The next time you talk to him—ask him how often he used the Force as a weapon,” Cara said. “I think the answer will surprise you both.”
– – – –
The galaxy was spread out around him like a holographic map, and yet it felt alive. Din hesitated to even move—he felt like a clumsy, lumbering child amongst the seeming delicacy of his entire reality.
“What would you have me do?” he asked.
“Live.” The voice echoed around him—soft and sweet.
“That’s all I did the first time,” Din murmured.
“No, you merely existed.”
“You make it sound like I wasted my life,” Din said. “I did all I could to do the right thing—I tried to make up for failing him.”
“You drowned in grief, Din Djarin, and that is not the way,” a new voice said. “Fortunately for you, I find honor in the choices that led you here.”
Tarre Vizsla appeared in front of him—flesh and bone instead of the gentle glow of a Force Spirit. He’d seen images of the man in every single historical record he’d been given as a child to study, so recognizing him was easy and alarming all at once.
“Mand’alor,” Din murmured and fisted his hand above his heart in salute.
“Not anymore,” Tarre said with a laugh. “Watching you take the darksaber from Gideon’s hand was breathtaking. It’s not known the hand of a Force user since my time.”
“Qui-Gon Jinn is looking for you,” Din said and glanced around. “You’re not a Force Spirit, are you?”
“No, but I will be,” Tarre assured. “I’ll let him find me in a bit—playing the part of hunter will be good for him.”
“I feel as if I’ve asked you to make a sacrifice,” Din murmured. “You have peace here—a peace you may lose if you join the other Force Spirits.”
“We’re all part of the Force—just in different manifestations,” Tarre said. “Every Jedi who ever lived became one with the Cosmic Force when they died. To be a Force Spirit is…an intentional blending of the Living and Cosmic Force energies. It’s why they have some ability to interact with the physical world. They have limits—the connection can wane if they expel too much energy. Much like when your son uses the Force to excess.”
Din nodded. “I understand—that’s what happened on Coruscant.”
“They took the brunt of those hits for you,” Tarre said. “Except for the last one. Obi-Wan was the only one left to really help your children, and he expelled most of his energy, helping your son heal you as much as he did. You’d have died on the floor of the ship otherwise due to your previous heart condition.”
Din stared pointedly. “How long have you been watching me?”
“Since you let those two assholes throw you back in time,” Tarre said dryly. “Except for moments that are clearly meant to be private, I’m not that much of a bastard no matter what historians might have said about me.”
“History is rarely kind to anyone,” Din said.
Tarre laughed. “Our Lady has tasked me with showing you the beginnings of your path.”
“So the Cosmic Force is female?” Din questioned. “Qui-Gon didn’t seem to be entirely certain.”
“The Cosmic Force is everything,” Tarre said quietly. “But it presents as female to offer comfort—a motherly, maternal presence that most species would find comfort in. First, Dagobah.”
Din made a face. “Come on, I hate swamps more than deserts.”
Tarre only grinned at him, and the galaxy spun around them until Dagoba was front and center. “It is your son’s birthplace, and something waits for him there.”
“What?” Din asked warily.
“A lightsaber Yoda made while he was in exile there,” Tarre said. “It’s your son’s now. Your clan will hold it for him until he’s old enough to learn the way of it.”
Din nodded. “It’ll be in Yoda’s little hut, right? I visited it with Rey in the other timeline.”
“Buried in a security vault under the nest structure,” Tarre said. “Your son will be able to open the vault—it’ll respond to his genetics.”
“Genetic locks are rare,” Din said. “Not very secure.”
“It is very secure in this case,” Tarre pointed out.
Din wasn’t sure he agreed. After all, Gideon had been looking to extract blood and bone marrow from Dral. But then, who’d go to a tiny hunt on a swamp world and dig around for a security vault that no one knew about.
The galaxy spun around them and settled on a planet that made his stomach lurch. “Ossus. You want me to retrieve the Rammahgan?”
“It’s one of the paths to Exegol,” Tarre said. “Not your path—your path will lead you back to Mandalore, in time.”
“It’s not going to be Rey’s!” Din snapped. “She will not face Darth Sidious again—it was the death of her and Ben Solo.”
“I don’t disagree,” Tarre said mildly. “No one can stop you from pointing Luke Skywalker in that direction. Is it not his task? Sidious is plotting the rebirth of the Empire; he’s attacking Ben Solo personally and through the use of the Snoke clones. You know this already to be true. Present these facts to Luke Skywalker in the method of your choosing and give him a way to get there. Allow the man to defend and protect his family from an enemy that has stalked them since the birth of his own father.”
“Will it kill him?” Din asked quietly.
“It will reforge him,” Tarre said. “It will bring forth his destiny. He will become the Jedi Master he was always meant to be. He will become a man that you can respect.”
Din allowed himself to relax, and he nodded. He’d resented Luke Skywalker a lot at one time, but as he’d grown old on Sorgan, he’d come to understand, a little bit at least, his retreat from life. Skywalker had been destroyed by the mistakes he made, and Din could relate to that. Though at this point, he didn’t trust him at all.
“Lothal,” Tarre said, and Din made a face.
“The temple there was destroyed years ago by the Empire,” Din pointed out. “They also basically fucked over the entire planet.”
“It will recover in time, but the Force vergence there is waning. The temple is best left destroyed as the path forward for the Jedi is not one built on fear of their own emotions,” Tarre murmured. “You’ll go there—not for your clan but for the man that will one day stand at your daughter’s side.”
“What does Ben Solo need?” Din questioned. “He’s five years old right now.”
“There is a loth-wolf on Lothal,” Tarre said. “He’s been chosen by the Force to protect Ben Solo.”
“Loth-wolf,” Din repeated. “You want me to give a giant Force wolf to a five-year-old? His parents will…”
“Gladly accept a diplomatic gift,” Tarre said wryly. “A gesture of acceptance from Mandalore to the only two known Force users from the rebellion. For generations to come, your gift will be regarded as the solace that healed old wounds between the Jedi and the Mandalorians. Potential Jedi from all over the galaxy will come to know that on Mandalore, they will be safe.”
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Din said. “But, I honestly can’t stand you right now.”
Tarre laughed. “Well, now we can be friends.” He smirked and crossed his arms over his chest. “Your last stop before returning to Tatooine to begin your training with me will sweep away the last of the first timeline.”
“Elphrona,” Din guessed. “The place where Ben Solo met the Knights of Ren.” He took a deep breath. “Where is Ren now?”
“Collecting the weak-minded and grooming them to embrace the dark side. None of his knights are very talented with the Force. He’s not a great teacher, and he knows it. It’s why he eventually sought to recruit Skywalker’s prized padawan. It’s also why Ben Solo defeated him easily and assumed the persona of Kylo Ren. Ren’s men followed Kylo because he was stronger, and they feared him. He also let them continue to rampage around the galaxy, murdering as many people as they liked.”
“You know I’m not going to tolerate that,” Din said. “Ren and his knights are on my list of problems to deal with.” He cleared his throat. “Are you still here, my Lady? Do you wish anything of me?”
“I’m am here, Din Djarin,” the voice said, and he closed his eyes briefly. “Ultimately, everything you do, you do for me. Qui-Gon Jinn has done nothing without my explicit permission. I guided him to you. I told him your story. And when the time came, I held you all in my arms as you traveled through space and time.”
Din took a deep breath. “Are you a deity?”
“I am everything,” she said simply. “I’m in the beat of your heart, the air you fill your lungs with, and the armor you shroud your body in.” Unseen hands cupped his head.
“Don’t touch my face,” he pled even as he relaxed utterly at her hold.
“I would never,” she promised. “Go in faith, Din Djarin, and know that I will always be with you.”
Cara was the only reason he made it to their rooms in the covert before passing right out, and if he were entirely honest, he didn’t remember the climb out of the vergence at all. He ran his hand through his hair and stared in the mirror above the small sink in the private bathing room. It was nice, perhaps too nice to have been vacant when he first arrived.
“Do you think Oddau and Gí gave us their rooms?”
“They have four children,” Cara pointed out. “It might have been their rooms when they were younger, but with all the room they have in this covert, there would be no need to make all of their children share a single room.”
Din nodded. “Someone did get misplaced.”
“Yeah,” Cara agreed. “It’s clearly the most secure area of the entire covert, and your station demands consideration.”
“My station,” Din muttered and turned his head slightly to look at her where she sat on the edge of their bed. “I don’t want to stand above any single Mandalorian, Cara.”
“I know,” she said and smiled. “But what choice do you have? The only way to go is forward. Paz asked me to make sure you made time for him today, so I told him that he could join us for breakfast, which IG expects to put on the table momentarily. He made flatcakes.”
“I love flatcakes,” Din admitted. “Is there cooked fruit as well?”
“Yes.” She shook her head. “I think he’s been asking your auntie questions about your favorite foods since you loathe porridge.”
“It’s really disgusting,” Din muttered. “I only eat it when I have no choice at all. It was, unfortunately, one of four foods the synthesizer on the Razor Crest was programmed to make. Upgrading it would’ve been expensive and…selfish. The covert needed the credits more than I needed variety.” He dropped his towel in the basket and left the bathroom.
Her gaze flicked over him, and she tilted her head.
“We don’t have time for another round,” Din said. “Paz won’t save me any flatcakes.”
She grinned. “That’d be terrible.”
“And IG probably wouldn’t make more,” Din muttered. “Because he’d know why we were late for the meal.” He pulled the lower half of the hodas’kute on and grabbed the shirt. “How’s yours fitting?”
“Like a glove,” she said wryly. “I’ve honestly never had a better supporting garment in my life.” Cara motioned toward her breasts. “The girls are high and dry.”
Din laughed. “Glad they’re comfortable.” He walked over to her as he pulled on the shirt. He cupped her face, and she turned to press a kiss against his palm. “Before we go out there—you need to know what’s coming.”
“I think he’s going to ask us to take Ero with us.”
“He’s a boy,” Cara said and frowned. “I mean—he’s a great shot, actually. I watched him on the range last night after I got you settled. But he’s sheltered as fuck, Din. Paz kept his whole clan confined to the ship he stole. He was the only one that ventured out for supplies for them when they landed.”
“He’s almost 17, and I was younger when I started traveling with my Uncle Ram. He’d taken over the duties of the provider after Laras Vizsla was killed.”
“Killed,” Cara repeated. “In a covert?”
Din shook his head and took a deep breath. “By an Imperial stormtrooper—Death Watch allied with the separatist faction that would become the Empire, Cara. Pre Vizsla and Bo-Katan Kryze were leading Death Watch by that point, and they wanted to take Mandalore back from Satine Kryze, who was a pacifist. Eventually, Death Watch broke the agreement because of a betrayal and made a pact with a Sith Lord named Maul. That decision would cost Pre Vizsla his life and the darksaber. Death Watch really was no more than a terrorist organization during the civil war that led to the formation of the Galactic Empire.”
“You should teach history,” Cara said. “The topic is terrible right now, but you’re an engaging speaker.”
Din laughed. “I did teach history, actually, to the children on Sorgan after I retired there. I didn’t have much else to do with my time. Regardless, eventually, Maul betrayed Pre and Bo-Katan. He took the darksaber from Pre and declared himself Mand’alor. Bo-Katan disagreed with that and barely managed to escape. She manipulated the Galactic Republic into invading Mandalore and driving Darth Maul from the planet. They declared her the Mand’alor.”
Cara made a face. “That…couldn’t have gone well.”
“No, many viewed her as a puppet and nothing more. She lost her position when the Empire was formed because she refused to declare her loyalty to the Emperor. Clan Saxon took over Mandalore’s leadership and followed Darth Sidious. Of course, by that time, the cell of Death Watch that adopted me had left Mandalore space and gone into hiding. Nez didn’t trust Bo-Katan and blamed her for Pre Vizsla’s death. The day I was taken in by Death Watch—the planet was attacked by battle droids deployed by the Empire. House Vizsla took four foundlings off that planet—me, Zox Krow, Shad Cyrd, and Jhil Vizsla.”
“Those droids came for the covert,” Cara said. “And people like your parents were just collateral damage.”
“We never knew how they found out about our covert there, but the assault wiped out half of our tribe. As far as Nez was concerned, it was a direct attack on Death Watch and House Vizsla. Laras died that day. I never got to meet her.”
“And Nez stopped working outside the covert so he could…” She trailed off when Din laughed. “What?”
“Laras was the provider—she worked as a mercenary and a bounty hunter. Nez traveled with her rarely. The Razor Crest was given to her by Nez’s father when they married, then Ram used it for the job before Nez decided I was ready to work on my own. But it’s been owned by House Vizsla for generations, as you know.”
“Torah told me that when we traveled. She was really surprised when you turned it over. I was, too. I know why now, but it was startling at the time how relieved you were when Greef took it away. What happened to Bo-Katan?”
“She eventually was given the darksaber and regained control of Mandalore. She lost it to Moff Gideon when he purged the planet for the Empire. I don’t know where she is. We don’t even have clear numbers on how many of our people are still alive on the planet. And the rumors regarding Imperial remnants on the planet are quite disconcerting. I’ve heard as many as 10,000 stormtroopers remain on the planet under the control of some general.”
“So she lost Mandalore twice, and Hab Wren thought you should give the darksaber to her?” Cara grimaced. “Honestly?”
“Yeah, his opinion got spread around a bit in the covert before he left Mos Eisley. Thankfully, no one seemed to share his belief.”
“Her weakness is disconcerting,” Cara admitted. “I don’t know that I could follow her. A real leader would’ve gone down fighting to protect her people from Moff Gideon, and clearly, she didn’t. Perhaps I’m being unfair since I’ve never even met her…”
“You’re a fighter,” Din said. “And fighters don’t go down easily if at all—Bo-Katan, for all of her training and ability, is not a fighter, in my opinion. She’s a survivor and a politician. Moreover, I don’t think she wants to lead. She clearly loves Mandalore and is dedicated, but that’s not enough.” He tucked his shirt into the bottom half of the suit, and a partial seal formed of its own accord. He went to the table at the front of the room where they’d started placing their armor. The harness would complete the seal when it was activated. “All of that is to say that I’d like to say yes if he asks.”
“Because Ram Vizsla did it for me. Because it would mean that Paz truly trusts me, and I have to say I’ve worried about that since we were children.”
“Okay, so you’ll say yes.”
“Only if you agree,” Din said mildly. “He won’t just be asking me—he’ll be asking you, too. Fostering a foundling in a tribe is an immense responsibility.”
“And an honor,” Cara said as she stood and walked to him as he started to pull on his armor’s control harness.
“Yeah,” Din said roughly. “One I’m not entirely sure I deserve. I’m going to try not to be disappointed if that isn’t what he wants, though.”
She cupped the back of his head and kissed him soft and slow. “You can be disappointed with me in private.” She trailed her fingers through his hair. “You need another haircut.”
“I could shave it off.” She sent him an appalled look. “Or, you could keep cutting it if you’d like.”
“I would very much like,” Cara said and shook her head. “I can’t let my husband run around with a shaved head, Din. It’s contrary to my entire culture.” She made a face. “Unless you like it shaved?”
“I don’t—the helmet is horrible to wear when it’s cleanly shaved, but it’ll be easier now since the new body glove Torah made us comes with a full hood as well if you don’t want the hassle of maintaining my hair, yours and Rey’s.” He paused. “And probably Ero’s. I noticed his was a bit jagged when he swore his vow, so he didn’t really learn the hair routine well at all before putting on a helmet. I didn’t either, so I can’t judge him too harshly. It seemed a foolish waste of time until I had to cut my own hair the first time.”
“It’s fine. I taught Rey how to pull her hair into the hood yesterday. She said she wants to wear a flat braid off the ship from now on, so she can get her hood and goggles on easier in an emergency.”
“She’s got great instincts,” Din murmured.
“Dral hates his,” Cara admitted. “Though he’s thrilled about wearing the goggles properly, so good call on shortening the strap and getting them tweaked to fit his face. He patted them and giggled the whole time I was checking the fit.”
“It’s disconcerting that Torah made those suits for the kids without discussion,” Din admitted. “I mean, I appreciate it, but…it’s like she prepared them for environments I have no intention of putting them in, ever.”
“What you intend and what happens are two different things,” Cara pointed out. “I’m glad for them, to be honest, it masks Dral’s appearance a lot. Can’t do much about his feet and claws because they don’t look human in the body glove, but it gives him a bit of protection. If people look at him, they’ll be looking at a toddler covered head to toe in a puncture-proof environmental suit—at least they’ll see as much as his cloak allows, which won’t be much.”
“Yeah,” Din sighed. “I know she’s making them for everyone in the tribe but seeing…” He braced one hand against the table and took a deep breath. “I associate that kind of gear with battle.”
“I know—surely most of us do, but what Torah has created is more about survival and than battle. It’s even made living here in the covert a lot easier.”
“Yeah,” Din admitted with a nod. He hadn’t gotten overheated once since he’d started wearing it. He kissed her again and activated the control harness—the suit magnetized the body glove, and he placed all of his armor quickly because Paz would definitely eat all the flatcakes if he could.
Paz was indeed working his way through a large plate and sauteed fruit. Din shot him a dark look and got a big grin return. He poured his own caf and sat down at the table. IG slid a plate in front of him, and his mouth watered.
“I like you more and more every single day, IG.”
“Then everything is going according to plan,” IG announced and walked away.
Din decided to ignore that and focused on his breakfast. Cara sat down with a tablet in her hand. “What are you up to?”
“I’ve sent the schematics for Master Obi-Wan’s cloaking device to Peli,” Cara said absently. “She’s researching options for expanding it to cover the Tor. The energy requirements would be immense, but she thinks she has a few power cells we could install that we’d have to charge with solar energy.”
“How long would it last?” Din asked curiously.
“Just an hour, right now, which would be more than enough if we got caught up and had to hide until we could make the jump to hyperspace,” she said as she stared intently at the pad. “I also asked her to source some parts for a scrambler. We’ll need to shield the Tor’s computer before installing it to keep it safe from the device.”
“Won’t work against Imperials,” Paz said. “They have their ships shielded from that.”
“Imperials dug in on various planets after the war,” Cara said absently. “And their equipment is getting older and older by the day. Most of them don’t have the funds to replace what is destroyed. But this is more about bounty hunters who might still be hunting for Dral.” She focused on Paz and put the pad down. “Gideon’s death didn’t deactivate those fobs as far as we can tell, and there are plenty of hunters out there that don’t know he’s dead. Greef Karga is doing his part to cancel the bounty, at least with his own guild. But we’ve come to believe that Gideon wasn’t the only one hunting for him.”
Paz nodded and refilled his caf. “Right.” He sat back with his mug and focused on Din. “I’m supposed to be in here trying to talk you into taking guards with you. You could host four in the barracks in the cargo bay.”
“But you’re not,” Din said.
“You don’t know anyone in this covert as well as you know our own house, and we all have very young foundlings to take care of. Torah could go with you, in theory, but she’s the only armorer the tribe has right now, and I think we’re better served with the matriarch on the planet. She’s considering an apprentice, but that’s a decade or more in the making.” Paz shook his head. “I wouldn’t ask you to take to a bunch of strangers on your ship, Din, not when you have two very small children on board.”
“I will allow no harm to come to the Mand’alor or Mistress Cara,” IG said as he replaced the caf pot on the table. “It would upset the children and damage their emotional development. Finding them new organic parents worthy of them would be difficult as well; I’d rather not undertake such a task at my age.”
Din shared a look with Cara, who was trying not to laugh. “How old are you, IG?”
“I looked up my serial number as I was curious about my own activation date. I was first activated in 198 BBY.”
“How long is that?” Rey questioned.
“209 years,” Cara said and took a deep breath. “Long time for a droid, especially one designed for your original purpose.”
“It appears I’ve suffered more than one incarnation,” IG said. “I find my current one satisfying.”
That was good to know, Din thought and focused on his brother. “Rast wants to send the guards.”
“I told him you can handle yourself,” Paz said roughly. “And you couldn’t have made a better choice for a partner. I’m pretty sure she could take me in hand-to-hand.” Cara laughed.
Din was entirely positive that she could and picked up his caf. “When I went to get her from Sorgan, I found her having and winning a fistfight with a male Zabrak.” He grinned when Paz’s mouth dropped open. “Got a holovid if you want to watch it.”
Cara laughed. “I won over a thousand credits for that fight.” She pulled a small bowl of jogan fruit toward her and plucked a fork from the cup in the center of the table.
“Can I watch it?” Rey questioned.
Cara cleared her throat. “It would show a big alien with horns hitting me. Would that upset you?”
“You won, right?” Rey shrugged.
Din laughed when Cara sent him a sour look. “It needs to be said that Alderaan had a gravity level 5% heavier than the galactic average. Which would help explain Leia Organa having strangled Jabba.” He paused. “Well, that and she’s Force-sensitive. Because she’s barely one and a half meters and can’t weigh more than 50 kilos.”
“What does that do anyway?” Rey questioned. “Living in a high gravity environment?”
“Humanoid species which grow up on planets with a high-G environment are normally stronger due to bone and muscle density that is required to function on their homeworld. It is easier for them to move and explore other worlds as well—as they do not suffer as much as those from low-G worlds would. Some species in the galaxy cannot safely leave their own worlds because of how they evolved. Kartillie IV has the lowest gravity in the known galaxy that can sustain life and atmosphere,” IG reported as he cleaned Rey’s plate away and deftly gave Dral a lizard in the same maneuver. “Kartilliens cannot leave their world, but they do have a thriving tourist industry due to their unique circumstances.”
“What’s that mean?” Rey questioned.
“Humans go there to fly without the benefit of a craft,” IG said. “Amongst other activities that would be physically impossible on other worlds. Of course, such trips must be very short and monitored carefully to avoid issues with organ health and blood volume.”
“I’d like to fly,” Rey decided.
Din was already convinced he’d never take either of one his children to a planet like Kartillie IV. They didn’t need less structure or gravity, for that matter, considering their Force gifts. He focused on Paz and found his brother staring into his cup.
“You have a solution?”
“Aja Rast is 17, ready to explore, and he’s great with kids. I’ve watched him. He has good instincts, an even temper, and is quick to lend a hand with any task. He clearly doesn’t put himself above others because of his father’s position. He’s got a little bit of hero worship going on when it comes to you, but that’s to be expected. It would honor the House Rast, and no one would argue against his inclusion on your trip because he’s Oddau’s oldest son.” Paz cleared his throat. “And I’d like you to take Ero—I should’ve asked this of you last year, but I wasn’t ready to let him go, and I knew once he joined you on the Razor Crest that I’d never get him to stay in the covert again longterm, not even if it meant he couldn’t return to Nevarro at all.”
“You still don’t look ready,” Din said mildly. “It’ll be dangerous—life-altering. He might have to kill—self-defense only. I don’t see a need for assassination work with our current credit situation.” He glanced toward Cara, who shook her head. “I think IG is the only one amongst us who made a career of it, at any rate.”
“I’m not a bad droid,” IG declared as he started to clear the table. “I just had some unfortunate programming. I’ve decided to move on from my past and not dwell on things I cannot remember. If these two young men are joining us—I will need to add more foodstuffs to the Tor. Two human male teenagers will eat like four additional adults.”
“He swore the creed both times with an honest heart,” Paz said with a glance toward the droid. “He’ll follow your orders without question.”
“I have four pucks from the New Republic,” Din said. “And a war chest to build so bounty hunting is on the agenda while we do what the Force has asked of me. I expect once I’m out and about in the galaxy that other offers and opportunities will present themselves. I have a reputation, good and bad when it comes to bounty hunting.”
“Good, I’d say they both need experience with that kind of thing,” Paz murmured. “You’re right—I’m not ready, but he is, and I can’t stand in the way of the man he becomes. Buir never held us back, even when he clearly wanted to. I trust that you’ll be careful as you can be considering the fact that you’re taking both of your children with you.”
“I can’t leave them here with you,” Din said. “I certainly trust that you’d protect them, but there are enemies out there that would target them both, and you wouldn’t stand a chance against them. I don’t want what happened to the covert on Nevarro to happen here. Gideon is gone, and his people are scattered, but that…could just be the tip of the Imperial iceberg.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll take them both—have Torah inspect their armor, and if she needs materials to see them field ready, go buy it on my credit account. Don’t let Rast argue that. Have them each assemble their own weapons locker for me to inspect. I want to see where their heads are regarding the mission and what they pack will tell me that.”
Cara laughed. “What did my locker tell you?”
Din offered her a sly grin. “That you learned things during the rebellion that no lady should learn, you clearly anticipate blowing things up a lot considering how many V-1 thermal detonators you packed, you have sniper training which every lady should have, and you love me.”
She laughed. “How’d you get that out of my weapons?”
“You brought a repair kit for my amban and ammo for it. If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is.”
“Agreed,” Paz said with a laugh and stood. “I’ll go speak with Rast and get both boys ready for you. Time to departure?”
“Inside the next 12 hours is my preference. We’ll need to refit the barracks on the Tor, so I’m going to ask IG to move it to Peli’s bay. I already have a landing slot paid for,” Din said. “We’ll give Aja the barracks for his quarters—put a real bed in there, and Ero will have the room next to mine and Cara’s. I want to meet with them individually regarding their weapons lockers. No need to make a full performance out of it.”
Paz nodded, snagged another flatcake off the serving plate, and picked up his helmet as he left.
– – – –
“That’s the biggest motherfucking mudhorn I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s the only mudhorn you’ve ever seen,” Din said and huffed when Paz laughed. They were at the forge while Torah accessed Aja and Ero for what the two brats were calling deployment. “Just wait for it.” And shook his head as the mudhorn started to float on the holovid.
“I wish I’d seen this before I watched you hover three meters off the floor for two hours. You kind of rubbed the shine off levitation,” Paz said dryly. “Still, that’s…stunning. How much weight do you think he could lift?”
“He shoved an x-wing across a hangar,” Cara pointed out.
“I don’t know what the upper limit is,” Din admitted. “Considering what I experienced yesterday—I think a Jedi of Dral’s potential could…” He trailed off and cleared his throat. “Perhaps there would be very few limits to his abilities, so it’s important that he be raised with all due care.” He focused on his son, who was lounging against Gí Rast’s chest. The woman was only wearing gauntlets and her pauldrons. “Hmmm…” He looked toward Cara for help even as Dral started to wiggle into a more comfortable position as he curled his ears, a clear sign he was about to make a nest of the cleavage he’d found himself resting on. He nudged his wife with his knee and inclined his head toward Dral.
Cara laughed. “Be careful, Gí; he thinks breasts are the best possible pillows.”
“He’s not remotely wrong about that,” Oddau declared and laughed when his wife sent him a dirty look. “You’re lucky, Din. I often wished my kids would slow down—not grow so fast.”
Din figured that was a popular sentiment. “My biggest concern is that I’ll die before he’s an adult,” he said quietly, and Oddau winced. “I’d like to think I have another fifty or sixty years in me, but maybe I don’t.” He focused on Torah, who was checking the fit of Ero’s chest plate. “Maybe give him some room to grow? Even six months leaves a lot of room for development at his age.”
She nodded. “I was considering a padded bes’kut vest for them both. I have a whole bolt of material left from when I made cloaks for your clan. Which will give them room in the chest plate that they can remove later if needed.”
“What’s bes’kut?” Rey questioned.
“It’s laser-proof armor material,” Din said and watched her nod before she wandered away. She found the forge fascinating, which he understood since he’d often spent time in the forge when he was first adopted. Watching armor get melted down and remade had often been the highlight of his day. “Is there enough to give them cloaks as well?”
“Perhaps, not as full coverage as what I made for Dral and Rey but enough to give them an extra layer of back protection.”
“Great,” Din said and checked the time on his vambrace. “I need to make a few contacts, so we’re going to head to the Tor. Let’s get them both onboard the ship in the next five hours, if possible?”
“My part will be done within the next two,” Torah declared. “I’ll handle their ammo supply and weapons inspection while the garments are manufactured by Odd-boy.”
“Odd-boy?” Din questioned. “You named your droid station?”
“Your daughter was appalled that it didn’t have a name,” Torah said and returned her attention to Ero’s chest plate. “I named him after the thief on Coruscant who taught me to pickpocket. I only ever knew him by his gang affiliation name—Odd-boy 22.”
“The Odd-boys are the biggest criminal syndicate on Coruscant that’s not affiliated with the Hutts,” Cara said with an amused laugh. “You named your manufacturing machine after one of them?”
“He was helpful,” Torah said. “So is the droid.”
– – – –
Peli was fussing at one of her little droids when Din found her in the barracks. He watched the interaction for several moments before one of the little guys noticed him and squeaked in alarm. He kind of felt like a bully since they were still clearly afraid of him. Three of the racks had been removed, and the fourth had been moved, so it was at a desk height. One of the little bots was attaching a stool to the floor in front of it.
“This looks good.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You went from one kid to four?”
“Well, the two new ones aren’t mine,” Din said mildly. “One’s a foster situation—it’s how we pass around skills without insulting each other. It’s considered rude to instruct another Mandalorian’s child without permission. The second is a…little political. I’m demonstrating trust in him and, in turn, his father. I noticed you hadn’t gotten your security droid together.”
“Been busy,” Peli muttered and went back to bolting the bed frame into the floor. “Congrats on the marriage. I suppose outsiders can’t attend those?”
“Oh.” Din took a deep breath. “No one attends them, actually. It’s done entirely in private—we consider it intimate. If it had been a public event, you would’ve been invited like you were invited to the adoption ceremony.”
“I didn’t want to intrude—it seemed like a big thing when the boys were telling me about it,” the older woman said. “Thanks for the holovid of it—it was nice. You picked a good name for him. Been learning your language in my spare time, so I looked the names up. Rey told me all about what hers meant and why you chose it.” She stood and waved a droid over. “Get the gel mattress adhered and make the bed.”
“I think she likes it,” Din said.
“She loves it,” Peli corrected. “You said in the adoption that you’d done terrible things.”
“You’re making up for that—every single day,” Peli said. “You’re a better man in this very moment than I ever hoped you would be, and I had some damned high expectations.”
“Stop being nice to me immediately before I hug you,” Din said, and she laughed. “Did you need parts for your new droid? Something from off-planet?”
“I have everything. Even have two very eager assistants from the covert who want to help me build it. Their mother came around and asked me about it. Now I know why,” she said. “I thought she was just overprotective. If you could have someone come by and give me the particulars on how all of that works with you guys, I’d appreciate it.”
“I’ll let Oddau know,” Din said. “Still getting grief from the other bay managers?”
“Here and there,” she shrugged. “It is what it is. Heard there was talk about reestablishing a bounty hunting guild here—the last one faded away after Fett was supposedly killed. Hope they don’t make a come back. Every single member of Krayt’s Claw was bad news, and they cheated people as much as they could. I got this bay when they ran the previous manager out of business because he refused to cut prices on docking and the like.”
Din made a face. “If Boba Fett or any of his old crew put a boot down on this planet—tell Oddau immediately. Fett’s not one of us and never has been, no matter the armor he wears.”
“I know a pretender when I see one,” Peli said tartly as she moved up the ramp to the second level. “Been around long enough to know a Mando—in or out of armor for that matter. Fett doesn’t move like one of you, act like one of you, or speak like one of you. And if I see him, I’ll put his ass in carbonite for you to turn in. He’s wanted for questioning by the NR’s War Crimes Department—it seems like he did a lot of business with Imperials during the war. The last act was capturing and helping to facilitate the attempted execution of General Solo. I guess that wasn’t a crime considering who was in charge, but they want to know what he knows. So, if you see him—snag him. The bounty is 50k.”
“I’ve never seen a puck for him,” Din said. “I’ll cut you in for 10% for the info.”
“Won’t turn it down,” Peli said and pulled a tool off her belt, which she used to check the bolts on the dining table in the galley. “Added an insert to your table, some more stools, so everyone has a seat for meals. I’ve got an X-34 landspeeder in my garage; want it?”
Din considered it as such a vehicle would allow them to park the ship and travel as necessary over a lot of terrain without wearing themselves out just to get somewhere. The speeder they had would seat two—big enough for Ero and Aja to share certainly or for him to use to recon a situation while leaving the rest of the crew at a distance.
“I’ve got the room, and I don’t plan to run cargo.”
“Let me show you,” Peli said. “The previous manager of this bay sold me his toolshed on the cheap, and the speeder was in it. I’ve been working on it as a hobby, did some upgrades, but I don’t need it for personal transport. I’ve got a V-35.”
Din grinned and was glad he was wearing his helmet because she’d probably get her blaster if she knew how amused he suddenly was. “You’re darting around this planet in a V-35?”
She shot him a look over her shoulder. “A red one—upgraded to my own specs. Out on the plateau, I’ve gotten up to 400 kilometers an hour. Put a laser cannon on it for personal protection last year.” Peli pulled open the shed doors, and the two speeders were parked side by side. “Put four blaster cannons on the X-34—two in the front and two in the back. Give me an hour, and I can install a clamp on the back deck for IG to sit and do his thing if needs must. Painted it black because the paint job was jacked and black paint was the cheapest. Interior is original, great shape. The motor is from a wrecked XP-38 that I bought for parts and dismantled. I’ve put about 4000 credits into it, all said and done. You can have it at that price.”
“What about the work hours you put into it?” Din questioned.
“You’ll do the work catching Boba Fett,” she said and grinned. “I look forward to the payout on that.”
Din laughed. “Deal. Add the price to my invoice, and I’ll handle the credit transfer before we leave. And Fett just rose to the top of my bounty list. Put an ear to the ground and pass me any intel you can on his whereabouts. I’ll check for comms every 24 hours. I can’t guarantee a response to you—there might be situations where I have to send a coded message which will go directly to the Armorer for distribution.”
Peli nodded and whistled sharply. Two of her little droids came trotting over. “Move the speeder into the Tor’s cargo bay and get a turret clamp from storage. I just made a place for you guys to get your own room.”
“I do have four pucks from the NR,” Din said as they left the shed and headed back across the large bay. “All former moffs.”
“I’ll reach out to a few friends,” Peli said. “If they’re moving around and making plans—I’ll get word of it.”
“I’ll send a comm with the details. Just don’t draw any undue attention to yourself,” Din cautioned and held up a hand for peace when she turned to him with a glare. “I know you used to be a spy for the rebellion, but…”
“I let some half-wit get the drop on me,” Peli muttered and walked away from him with a glare. “Instincts got dull—that’s all. Hell, I figured you’d leave his body out in the desert. Didn’t expect it to be the other way around!”
“Neither one of us took him seriously,” Din acknowledged. “So we do better next time and mitigate our risks.”
“And shoot rookie bounty hunters with no sense in the fucking face,” Peli muttered as she went into her office and headed straight for the food synthesizer. She punched moodily at it. “Caf?”
“I’d love one, honestly,” Din admitted. “Can I shut the door?”
“Yeah, let me get mine, and you can have the office,” she declared and pulled out the first mug of caf which she passed his way. “I made it plain.”
“That’s my preference, and you can stay. I’m no longer part of Death Watch, and I swore a new creed.”
She raised an eyebrow and pulled her on caf out, and took a seat. Din removed his helmet and ran a hand through his hair, which was a curly mess at the moment.
Peli shook her head and took a long sip of coffee before sighing. “No wonder you do dumb shit—look at that face. My mama always said to marry smart because looks get a man exactly nowhere. What did I do? Married the prettiest bastard I’d ever seen. ‘Course he was braver than he was smart, which sums up every single rebel I ever met during the war. He died on Hoth during an Imperial attack. I barely made it out myself.
“Our kids—they didn’t understand why we joined the rebellion, but hell, they’d both been gone from home and married for several years when we got involved. Just seemed like the thing to do—we had the skills they needed. After Hoth, I worked my way into a fulcrum position. To this day, nothing makes me happier than a dead Imperial.”
“Oya,” Din said and saluted her with his cup.
“What does that mean?” Peli asked and picked up her tablet. “I don’t think that’s in the language primer I bought off the black market.”
“It’s a battle cry of sorts,” Din said. “It can be used to signal victory or to spurn to action—let’s hunt being the most common translation.”
“Then, oya,” Peli declared. “My retirement fund awaits your contribution.”
Din laughed. “If you see anyone interesting in town and worth the effort moneywise, let the covert know. You’ll get a finder’s fee.”
Din snagged a meat wrap from the platter on the table, took a bite, and rubbed Dral’s head as he stood. “Aja and Ero should be on board soon.”
Cara nodded. “I’ve finished the package for Senator Organa. I’ve double-checked to make sure there is no information on midi-chlorians or Gideon’s plans for Dral. Mostly all that is left is the correspondence between him and a few other moffs from the war and a few bases that are probably empty but might yield some data they can use. Gideon didn’t discuss Dral with anyone in any sort of communication, so I’m left to assume if he was getting orders from someone, it was done in person.”
“Who would he have taken orders from?”
“A Grand Moff or the Emperor himself. Perhaps, someone he knew to be a direct representative to either. He was Imperial to his Core—a true believer,” Cara said with a frown. “For this sector of space, that would be Grand Moff Randd or someone in his ranks that is trusted to handle delicate intel.”
“Grand Moff Randd is one of my pucks,” Din said quietly. “The highest bounty I’ve ever picked up from the New Republic.”
“How much?” Cara questioned.
“1.5 million. Dead or alive.”
Cara took a deep breath. “He has to be entrenched and well-guarded wherever he is. Getting to him won’t be easy or without extreme risk. We’ll need a good plan and a strike force.” She glanced toward the back of the ship. “That doesn’t include a couple of sweet kids with big hero crushes on you.”
“Agreed.” Din leaned down and kissed her mouth. He lifted away with regret as the cargo ramp started to lower. He’d given Ero and Aja codes for it since they were crew, so one of them had arrived. “IG, did you get the foodstuff squared away?”
“Two months of fresh food for the entire party,” IG reported. “Plus a crate of meal bars that would sustain you all for 12 months in hyperspace. RD-D87, the covert’s astromech, also supplied me with two hundred lizards. I’ve put them in stasis in a new compartment I built into Dral’s cooling unit.”’
Din made a face and glanced toward his son, who was gleefully gnawing on the teeth-sharpening bone that IG had bought for him. He was 100% certain that the kid’s teeth didn’t need sharpening.
“I’ll be down in the cargo bay getting their weapons lockers secured,” Din said and finished his little wrap.
Cara grabbed his hand. “Hey, be careful with this.”
Din considered that. “I don’t make a habit of tearing children, not even ones who think they’re adults, to pieces, Cara.” It was kind of hurtful that she thought he would.
“Oh, I know you wouldn’t,” she said and took a deep breath. “You’re…not just Ero’s uncle, Din. What would’ve meant to you if the Mand’alor did for you what you’re doing for them?”
It would’ve greatly depended on who the Mand’alor was, Din thought, but he understood her point. It had been humbling to stand before Tarre Vizsla. “I don’t deserve it, you know.”
She scowled at him. “Don’t make me punch you in the helmet in front of the kids.”
Rey laughed and buried her face in her datapad when Din looked her way as if that would mask her giggles.
“I’ll be careful,” Din promised and left them.
Oddau Rast was waiting with his son in the cargo area. Aja was as still as Din had ever seen him. The younger man was nearly always moving in the covert.
“Let’s see what you’ve got,” Din said. “You can go ahead and put it in one of the clamps.”
Aja easily attached the locker to the wall of the cargo bay beside the two that were already there. “I’ve got three locks on it—one has an alarm on it that will alert me if Dral gets it open.”
“He’s managed to get through one digital lock on mine before I caught him,” Din said. “Locks tempt him a lot for various reasons—I think he’s spent most of his life locked up in some fashion or another, so he feels compelled to open things either because he’s practicing or because he’s checking to make sure no one has been locked in.”
“Bastards,” Oddau muttered.
“Fortunately, he seems to understand that the carbonite freezer is for bad people, and he leaves it alone.”
Aja opened the locker to reveal a DC-15A blaster rifle and four Defender-5 blaster pistols, and ammo cartridges for each. The kid had enough ammo to invade a mid-sized village, but Din wasn’t going to judge him on that front—he had twice as much.
“Why did you pick the DC-15A?”
“It’s older but the most reliable blaster I’ve ever practiced with. Ammo is easy to manufacture and easier to purchase on the fly. It’s relatively cheap as well. The long-range accuracy is the best feature, and it also has a stun feature—handy for a bounty that is wanted alive. I have a sniper scope as well in my auxiliary pouch. I also have a full tool kit to do my own weapon repairs as needed. It’s been married to my helmet, so I can use the full holographic display options as needed with verbal commands. I don’t have an ascension cable for it, but it is configured, so I can easily install one if we come across the option as we travel. I couldn’t locate one here. The blasters are standard ones—no specialized ammo required. I added a flame thrower to my gauntlet this morning when I was with the Armorer.” He sighed. “She said no to the jetpack.”
Din laughed. “She only recently allowed me to have one.”
The boy’s shoulders relaxed. “Oh, good. So she doesn’t think I’m totally a lost cause.”
“You packed four pistols, but your armor is configured for two,” Din pointed out.
Aja shrugged. “I didn’t know what Ero was packing and figured bringing a couple of extra wouldn’t be a bad idea, just in case.”
“Good, we’re a team, and watching each other’s backs is what will keep us alive.” He cleared his throat. “Lock up, and I’ll show you where you’re sleeping.”
The old barracks were down a very short hall from the cargo bay. Din opened the door with a push of a button. He leaned on the wall just inside the room while father and son deposited several duffle bags on the bed platform.
“Is this okay?”
“It’s great,” Aja said. “I’m not sharing with Ero?”
“No, he’s…” Din blew out air, grateful to be wearing his helmet. “So young. I realize you’re only 6 months older but the first time he left the covert on Nevarro was when it was attacked by Imperials. I’ve put him in the cabin next to mine. He’s never spent a night away from his clan, you see. His buir has been within his reach since he was two days old.”
Aja nodded. “He’s had great training, though. I think he’ll adjust well. I’ll do what I can to help with that. I’ve never had a room to myself before. Didn’t seem right to take up too much room in the covert.”
Din nodded. “This door locks from the inside, but I can open it with a security code. The only reason I would is if I believed you ill. Rey won’t bother you if the door is shut—make sure you do shut and lock it whenever you’re in a state of undress. You don’t have to wear your armor all the time on the ship, but a shirt and pants are required outside of your own room.”
“Understood, sir,” Aja said. “There are a lot of curious little ones in the covert, more so now than ever before.”
Din nodded. “I’ll leave you two to your goodbyes. Oddau, Peli needs a discussion with you when you have time.”
“Thank you,” Oddau said quietly.
Paz and Ero were standing in the cargo bay. Ero’s locker was already attached to the wall. Din regarded the posture of his nephew as he approached. “The only one that bites around here is Dral.”
Ero laughed. “He tried to bite Jhil yesterday. I told her not to feed him by hand. Her hand smelled like food, and that kid loves food.” He motioned to toward the crate. “I’ve added all the required locks and set an alarm on it that will sound if he manages to get through all the locks before we can get to him.”
“Show me your choices,” Din murmured and glanced toward Paz, who was leaning against the bulkhead, helmet tilted in full asshole mode. His brother’s default when he was having an emotional reaction to a situation he didn’t want to have.
“I have two thigh holsters in my armor—fit for the DL-44 specifically,” Ero said as he pulled one of the weapons and offered it to Din. “Buir gave me his buir’s, Laras, pistols. I’ve cleaned and sighted both. I also installed the cooling modification on both to prevent overheating inherent in the model. I rated at 98% on the range in dual-use on moving targets.”
Din took the gun and checked the configuration. “Nez offered me these once. I told him they should stay in his clan. He would be proud to see you with them.” He passed the blaster pistol back to Ero and focused on the rifle in the locker. “Where did you get an A280-CFE?”
“I took it off one of the bounty hunters trying to kill you that night on Nevarro,” Ero said. “He had it in sniper configuration. I was supposed to be providing visual support from the roof cantina. But one of them climbed up there, so I stunned him and took his gun. I replaced the original clip on the barrel for the sniper attachment to allow for a high-powered electron gas firing system, which the Armorer tooled. I only need one kind of ammo pack—the same one you use. I figured you’d be able to easily source the ammo if we run low.”
Din laughed. “Kid, we have enough ammo on this ship to lay siege to a moderately populated planet.” He paused. “Most of it is Cara’s. Go ahead and lock that up. You’ll room next to me in the main crew quarters. Aja will be in the old barracks section.”
“I’d be fine rooming with him,” Ero said. “I don’t need a lot of space.”
“There is only one bathing facility on this ship,” Din said dryly. “You definitely want your own room.”
“Oh.” Ero huffed and scuffed his boot on the floor. “Wow.”
“All jokes aside, privacy is short supply on a starship. Your room is your space—where you can retreat for whatever reason that suits you. Rey knows better than to open a door without an invitation, but Dral doesn’t understand privacy at all.” He watched his nephew nod. “Lock the door when you’re in a state of undress, just in case. You don’t have to wear your armor all the time. Learning to relax and adjust to the ship’s schedule will be to your benefit. Shirt and pants are required outside of your own room. Understood?”
“Great, crew quarters are upstairs. The ship has been heavily modified over the years—the moff separated out a barracks section down in the cargo area. The racks that come standard with the ship were removed, and standard beds were placed. This isn’t the sort of ship normally used for leisure. Perhaps he’d just been making do.” He led them through the galley, the common area, and up a ramp into the crew quarters. “Rey is here, Cara and I are across from her and Ero—you’ll be here. The fourth room is an office space which I haven’t done anything with yet. Dral considers the whole ship his, so he doesn’t have an official room. His toy box is in the common area.”
Ero put one of his bags down. “I don’t think I’ve ever slept in a room by myself.”
“You haven’t,” Paz muttered and took a deep breath.
“I’ll be in the cargo bay, Paz,” Din said quietly and left them to their goodbyes.
When he got back down to the cargo bay, the new speeder was already clamped to the wall, and Peli was standing on the back seat while one of her droids welded the turret clamp into place. It would give IG a secure to sit, and it would also give him a place of sentry. He figured it would make the droid happy. She waved him off when she caught him watching them work, so he walked down the ramp and into the bay where Oddau Rast was standing with his wife.
“Thank you for this,” Oddau said. “It’s a big thing for House Rast considering the history.”
“Sometimes history is best left far behind,” Din said and looked around the bay. “She’s getting a lot of grief from other bay managers about receiving all of the covert’s business. It’s probably four or five times worse than she’s actually told me, so keep an eye on the situation.”
“How did…” Gí trailed off. “How did you become friends with an ex-rebel fulcrum?”
“She saved Dral’s life,” Din said. “I don’t think he’d have survived being held hostage by that asshole without her there. Considering her ability to get ahold of information, she had to know who I was within a few hours of finding him on the ship where I had him hidden. She could’ve turned him in for the bounty easily, and I’d have come back to this bay with him gone. I’d have probably never been able to find him again. Fortunately, for Dral and me, she hates Imperials, and the payday wasn’t worth dealing with one.”
“We’ll watch out for her,” Gí agreed. “I’ll give her a comm that will allow her to connect with us if there’s an emergency.”
“Good,” Din said and focused on Oddau. “I told Peli to keep an eye out for bounties to pass the covert’s way, and she’d get a 10% cut on any captures that come from her data. If you’re quiet and quick about—the covert could easily pull 10k a month in bounties without drawing any undue attention. Paz could take them to Naboo for processing and payment easily enough in the Razor Crest. You’ll need to add a carbonate freezer.”
“We have one,” Oddau said. “Sitting in storage.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Paz said as he walked down the ramp.
Gí offered Din her hands, which he immediately took. “We can’t thank you enough for the opportunity you’ve given Aja. We’re honored with your trust in him and our clan. I don’t know how to begin to repay you.”
“You owe me nothing,” Din said. “This isn’t going to make any sort of sense, Gí, and I can’t explain it, so please don’t ask…but once in a different life, you saved me from myself.” All three of them took a ragged breath. “And because of your generous and amazing spirit, I had the strength to become who I am in this very moment.”
“This whole Force thing has made you so damned weird,” Paz said complained.
Oddau and Gí laughed. Oddau took his wife’s hand as Din released her. “We’ll leave you in your brother’s hands. Until we meet again.”
“Expect a message every roughly every 48 hours,” Din said. “If we go 72 hours without contact, something will be wrong, and in all likelihood, IG has defaulted to the protect part of his base function. He has orders to return the Tor to Torah Liss no matter where she is with any surviving crew.”
“Understood,” Oddau said, and the Rasts left him alone with Paz.
Din didn’t know what he’d done to deserve that. He turned toward Paz and found himself jerked into a borderline violent hug. His brother’s helmet thunked heavily against his.
“You brute,” Din said and laughed when Paz snorted. “I’ll take care of him—like he’s my own.”
“I’ve seen what you’ll do for your own son,” Paz murmured. “Take care of everyone, vod, including yourself. Buir would never ask you to get yourself killed trying to…” He sighed. “I don’t even know what you’re doing, Din.”
“My first stop is Dagobah—for Dral. He came to be there.”
“Came to be,” Paz repeated. “Right.”
Din laughed. “Ossus is next—there is an ancient Jedi temple there, and I need to retrieve something for someone else. It involves a far-reaching goal that I can’t discuss right now. After that, I’ll be heading to Lothal to pick up a gift that will help pave the way for a true and permanent treaty between the Mandalorians and the Jedi. The last official stop will be Elphrona. You’ll not find it on any single map you can get your hands on. It also has an ancient Jedi temple on it—one that the Empire never touched during its rampage through the galaxy. It became something of a storage facility over the last ten thousand years and contains a lot of information that will help us in the years to come. I’ll attract Force-sensitive children and their parents for the rest of my life, Paz. I need to gather all of this, so I know what to do with them and how to lead them.”
“Ramikadyc Redoubt will be ready for your return,” Paz said and released him.
“It’ll be a good foundation for us to build on,” Din said, and his brother nodded. “I can’t promise I’ll bring the same boy back to you that you’ve given over to my care, but I’ll do everything possible to return Ero to your side.”
“The growing up part is terrible,” Paz said, then turned and walked away with a half-assed salute that looked more resigned than angry.
A soft cooing sound caught his attention, and he turned to find his son standing on the ramp. Din bent down and picked him up. “Escape IG’s clutches?”
“Indeed, he did not,” IG reported from the interior of the ship. “I did not wish to demoralize him, so I stayed back and observed.”
Din laughed. “Can you do a final check to make sure everything is secure? I’ll start prepping the ship for departure.”
“Of course, Mand’alor.” IG walked away as Din came up the ramp and closed it.
There were a few ladders throughout the ship, but the Imperials had modified the whole thing, so there was ramp access throughout as well. Din figured it was for the benefit of serving droids. He doubted the moff ever felt inclined to get himself a glass of water. Everyone was gathered in the common room. He stopped for a moment and stared at them.
Cara looked up and offered him a wide grin. “Ready to leave this dirtball?”
“I need trees, Buir,” Rey declared. “And water! And more trees!”
Ero nodded. “I wouldn’t mind some trees as well.”
“Well, as it turns out, our first stop is Dagobah. A world full of nothing but trees and water and an abundance of life that will probably try to eat us.”
“Sounds great,” Aja said with a cheerful laugh.
Dral bounced a little in his hands, and Din focused on him. “Let’s take you home for a little visit, ad’ika.”
He wasn’t all that surprised when they all followed him into the cockpit. What did surprise him was the fact that Rey’s seat had been removed and had been replaced by two bench seats that were on either side of the entrance. There were safety harnesses attached to the wall and a magnetic claw clearly designed to keep the pram in place.
“I asked Peli about it,” Cara said as she dropped down into the co-pilot seat. “It opened the area up nicely, and no one will have to stand if they want to watch.”
Din slid into the pilot seat and took a deep breath.
“What?” Cara asked.
“I just…I was on my own very for a very long time, and now, I’m not.” He started pre-flight procedures without looking in her direction. Because no matter the look on his wife’s face, he’d probably cry, and he was entirely too old to cry in his helmet.
Dral rested against his chest with a contented sigh as they left the dock. A vibrant and rich happiness drifted over Din, and he realized it was coming from his son. The atmosphere gave way to space, and he set the coordinates to Dagobah. Dral giggled excitedly.
“He’s so happy, Buir,” Rey said in wonder.
“Is that what I’m feeling?” Cara questioned.
“He’s projecting,” Din murmured and used a free hand to rub the baby’s head. “He’s not doing it on purpose—I guess he’s just bursting with it.” He looked toward her and found her smiling.
He reached out to activate the hyperdrive, and the soft, sweet voice he knew to be the Cosmic Force spoke, “Good luck, Din Djarin.”
Din closed his eyes and pushed the levers forward with his heart thundering in his chest. Cara’s hand settled over his as the ship jumped into hyperspace, and he relaxed. He pulled their hands free from the lever and laced their fingers together. He had everything he needed.