The Thousand-Mile Road – 1/4 – Keira Marcos

Title: The Thousand-Mile Road
Series: Gra’tua
Series Order: 2
Author: Keira Marcos
Fandom: The Mandalorian, Star Wars
Genre: Established Relationship, Family, Kid!fic, Romance, Time Travel, Science Fiction
Relationship(s): Din Djarin/Cara Dune, Han Solo/Leia Organa, OC/OC
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: * No Mandatory Warnings Apply
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 process.
Beta: Chris King, Ladyholder
Word Count: 121,000
Summary: Din Djarin undertakes a quest across the galaxy on behalf of the Cosmic Force and gains allies in his fight to return to his people to Mandalore. Space travel gives him plenty of time to learn to navigate the family he made for himself and figure out what kind of man he wants to be on his new path.
Artist: Mizu



Formatting Note: Translations are provided for words not clearly defined or translated in the narrative. If you encounter an underlined word or phrase, hovering over it will give you more information.


“Step by step walk the thousand-mile road.”
― Musashi Miyamoto, The Book of Five Rings

 

Chapter 1

They dropped out of hyperspace above Dagobah with no issues and no overt sign of being followed. They’d spent the six-hour trip adjusting to the ship and each other. Despite barely knowing each other, Din noticed that Ero and Aja spoke easily and took on any assigned tasks together without complaint. Scans showed abundant non-humanoid life, but Din knew that could be misleading. There were plenty of technologies that could be used to fool orbital scans. Moreover, the whole damn planet was a Force vergence which could cause problems with scans as well.

He shifted in his seat and stared out the front view port. It was five hours until sunrise for the region where Yoda’s hut existed. He wondered if Luke Skywalker had ever visited it after his master’s death and part of him thought not. At this point, Skywalker seemed to be invested in ignoring the Force. Perhaps, he was still dealing with the fact that his father was Darth Vader. Din didn’t know and didn’t care—he’d been taught that it didn’t matter who your father was but what kind of father you’d come to be. It was mid-afternoon, ship time, which they’d adjusted to match the time on Tatooine for the sake of the younger members of the crew.

With no orbital administrator to assign slots, he had his choice of orbital paths, so he did another scan to check for any large objects that might have been pulled into orbit around the planet, found it clear, and punched in his choice, which put them in the geosynchronous orbit right above the tiny hut Yoda had left behind. He wondered if Dral had ever been in it and doubted it. That would’ve meant that he and Yoda were on Dagobah at the same time. It was clear, by the fact that Yoda hadn’t known he existed until after he’d already died, that Dral had been taken from the planet well before Yoda had exiled himself there.

“Want me to bring your lunch to you?” Cara questioned.

Din looked over his shoulder and found her leaning on the open bulkhead door that separated the cockpit from the rest of the ship. He hadn’t closed it, ever, and briefly wondered if it was even functional. The thought was sort of amusing. “Almost done. What’s on the table?”

“Tuber cream soup, meat wraps for us,” Cara said. “Two paddy frogs for the Dral, and I think they’re too big for him to eat, but IG assured me it’ll be fine. That’s like…Hutt sized food, Din.”

“I once saw him swallow a frog the size of my fist whole,” Din admitted and laughed at the appalled look that earned him. “Well, that was the body—the legs of that thing were as long as he is tall.”

“Oh, come on,” Cara said and laughed.

“I’m totally serious,” Din defended and stood. “Let’s go watch him defy our sense of reality. I honestly wondered how his stomach works. He can clearly break a creature down, bones and all in a few hours…”

“Wow,” Rey exclaimed as they entered the galley.

Din turned to watch a pair of frog legs disappear down Dral’s throat. “See.”

“How he can look so sweet and be such a little beast at the same time?” Aja asked in an amused tone as he sipped his soup.

“If we have to interrogate a prisoner, we could just sit him down in front of them and feed him a few frogs and tell them he’s carnivorous. Talking could be their ticket to avoid being on his menu,” Ero said and plucked the second paddy frog up out of the stasis bowl and dropped it into Dral’s open mouth.

“We’re not using the baby to threaten people,” Cara told him sternly, and she focused on Din. “Right?”

“Right,” Din said with a grin. “It would be inappropriate to let Dral think he was going to get a big meal then deny him.” He walked to the cooling unit to get a glass of water and ignored the looks he earned himself from Rey and Cara while Ero and Aja laughed. He took a seat at the table. “We’re five hours from dawn for the area we need to land. Zero humanoid population detected—full field armor is required regardless. There are some fairly large, predatory animals on the planet. I’ll do another scan as we’re landing to check for immediate threats, but conditions on the planet can change rapidly due to the environment. It’s mostly swamp, so it’s not going to be particularly pleasant, but you’ll get your trees.”

“Will landing be a problem?” Cara questioned. “Stable ground might be hard to come by.”

“Could be,” Din admitted. “The ship has stabilizing pylons that can extend out to 20 meters, but I don’t expect anything deeper than ten meters across the swamp lands. Due to the density of trees and plants, we’ll have to do the trip on foot, so I’ll try to land as close as I can to our destination. As far as inherent dangers go, I’ve certainly been on far more environmentally hostile planets. I’d rather land on a swamp world than any ice planet in this whole galaxy.”

“Agreed,” Cara said. “There’s nothing worse than an ice planet.”

Din made a face. “The last time I was on an ice planet, I had to steam my armor off my body because of the ice build-up. I was a walking ice cube.”

Cara grinned. “We should talk about working in the field as a team.”

“Am I part of the team?” Rey questioned, her gaze darting between them.

“Yes,” Din said. “If I’d stopped to consider threats before we landed on Coruscant, you’d have known exactly what to do when we were attacked.”

Rey nodded. “If I’d retreated to the ship, you wouldn’t have turned your back on that terrible man. I had a lot of time to think about it before Ama came to save us.” She took a big bite of her meat wrap and chewed.

“We’ll need code words for various field actions,” Cara said. “Mando’a words make the most sense as the language isn’t well known on any world, and most won’t know what we’re about until it’s too late. Hand signals might come in handy in a more delicate situation. I know a few systems, but they’re not any sort of secret.”

Din nodded and watched Ero and Aja exchange a look. “What do you know about Cara’s life before we met?”

“Nothing, sir,” Aja reported. “Buir told everyone in the covert to give her space and not ask questioned, but that was because of…” He trailed off and waved a hand.

“Because of what?” Cara asked with a frown. “I was polite to everyone I met when the Torah and I arrived on Tatooine. I didn’t even find a bar to have a fist fight in.”

Aja flushed. “Yeah, that was part of the problem.” He glanced toward Ero for support, but the boy was looking into his soup like it held the secrets of the whole universe. “You’re…” He trailed off and looked to Din for help, his shoulders slumped when Din just grinned at him. “A parjir riduur.”

Cara frowned at the younger man but turned to Din. “What does parjir mean?”

“Ideal,” Din answered and watched her cheeks flush. “Though I’d use the word mandokar to describe you myself.”

“If that’s dirty, you’d better not translate it in front of Rey,” Cara warned, and Din laughed.

“It’s the epitome of Mandalorian virtue,” Rey recited as she set aside her empty soup cup. “A warrior who is the perfect blend of aggression, tenacity, loyalty, and a lust for life.” She pulled two wraps from the serving platter in front of her and put them on her plate. “It’s in the philosophy section of my language primer.”

Din shrugged when Cara blew out a surprised breath and focused on Rey. “Why are you reading philosophy?”

“Well, I’ve already finished the first level of the language primer, but it thinks I need six months and won’t unlock level two until then,” Rey said. “So I’ve been reading philosophy and Mandalorian history. I asked IG for a history text on the galaxy government, and he said he couldn’t provide an accurate one. He did get the Mandalorian text from the Armorer.”

“The Empire invested themselves in erasing galactic history from the public archives,” Cara said. “But there are caches of data that people have saved—so a lot of it can be rebuilt eventually.”

“Why hasn’t anyone already started?” Ero asked. “It’s been years since the defeat of the Empire.”

“The New Republic Senate can’t agree on how the information should be released to the public, and since they control those caches, they get to make those decisions,” Cara said and shrugged.

Rey frowned. “They shouldn’t hide information.” She turned to Din. “Buir, let’s steal one of those caches and broadcast it all over the HoloNet.”

Din grinned at her. “I might get in trouble with the senate for stealing their stuff.”

“You’re the Mand’alor,” she declared. “They’ll just have to get over it.”

“You are a terrible influence,” Cara muttered as he laughed. Din really didn’t know if she was talking to him or Rey.

“Speaking of terrible influences, where’s IG?”

“He’s taking a short rest period before we go down,” Cara said. “There’s a charging station in the office, so he’s using that. He made lunch first since we can’t be trusted.”

“Sounds about right,” Din admitted. “If lunch had been my responsibility—it would’ve been meal bars.” Dral made a disgusted noise and tapped his claws on the table to get Aja’s attention.

Aja got up with the bowl and went to the stasis unit they’d designated for Dral’s diet.

“How many of those has he had?”

“Just the two,” Aja reported and deftly plucked two lizards from the stasis field. “IG said he could have two of each at lunch since he ate the protein-based porridge for breakfast. He’s conducting a study on Dral’s stomach and body processes regarding what he eats to make sure he’s getting the right kind of nutrients, so his growth isn’t stunted.”

“If it hasn’t been already,” Din said with a frown and stared at his son.

“Dral has two brains,” Rey reported, and Din focused on her. “He has a primary brain that handles all of his body functions and mental processes, then a sub-brain. IG doesn’t know what it’s for.”

“I suggested it was Force related,” Ero said.

“Seems likely,” Din murmured. “Considering his inherent use of the Force with no overt training that I know of. He acts on instinct—normally in a protective fashion which is a relief. Even if he did Force choke Cara once because he got confused.”

“I got over it,” Cara said and rubbed Dral’s head even as he sucked a lizard into his mouth by the head. “He was just protecting his buir’s ego because I was definitely going to win that arm-wrestling match.”

“Keep dreaming,” Din muttered and grinned when she sent him a smug look. He figured the look was more about the wrestling match he’d purposefully lost the night before. “Cara was part of the rebellion against the Empire, and after they won, she joined the NR’s military, where she was trained as a shock trooper. Shock troopers were dropped onto planets with heavy Imperial encampments from low orbit. They went down and laid the groundwork for liberation forces to take back whole civilizations. She has a lot to teach all of us if she’s inclined.”

“First in and last out,” Cara said and stood.

Aja inclined his head. “Could you teach me to low orbit jump?”

“Not here,” Cara said. “We’ll have to buy the equipment, but yes, I’ll teach you. It’ll be a valuable skillset to have under your belt when we go to take back Mandalore if you still haven’t earned your jetpack.”

She walked away, leaving Ero and Aja staring after her shock. Aja focused on Din, eyes wide. “We’re going to take back Mandalore?”

“Of course,” Din said as he stood and grabbed a second wrap to eat. “Finish eating and join me in the cargo area—we’ll work on some formations and figure out a hand signal system.”

– – – –

“Okay, Rey close your eyes—we’re all going to move around,” Din said. “When I call out the command, locate me as quickly as possible and get into position on my left. Ero will be on your left if you made the right choice.”

He watched everyone spread out in the large, mostly empty cargo bay. Din put Dral down and felt a little bit like an asshole for it because they’d practiced Rey picking up the baby earlier, but he hadn’t warned her it would be part of the exercise. He slipped his amban over his head and swung it into an aiming position as he shouted. “K’olar! Ke serim!”

They all moved quickly, and Rey hesitated only briefly as she ran toward him, snatching up Dral as she came. She hitched the baby over her shoulders by his arms and dropped him right into her birgaan. Her amphistaff whipped around her in a blur of black scales, clearly excited as she notched right into place.

“Better,” Din said as he checked everyone’s place and weapon readiness. “Let’s tighten the circle a bit for the first formation. Ero loosen your shoulders; tensing up at the start is going to slow your response time. Aja good form, but spread your feet a little further apart to get a good brace. Mandalorians are intimidating to the average person because of our history and warrior culture. Posture, stride, and your body’s position in a state of readiness play into that mythos that I encourage you to lean into. The mere sight of you should give any enemy pause.”

“Yes, sir,” both young men said in near unison.

“No instructions for me?” Cara questioned in amusement.

“You know your form is perfect,” Din said, but then he flipped his amban around and caught her in the side of the helmet with the butt with a hard enough jab that she stumbled. “Except for the part where you didn’t activate the panoramic view function of your HUD and left yourself exposed to a side attack.”

Cara huffed and punched him in the shoulder. “I just polished my helmet. If you’ve scratched it, I’m kicking your ass.”

“Ouch, Dral, you can’t eat my hair,” Rey said and pulled her braid from the baby’s mouth. “He was running toward me when you said the words.”

“We’ll have to work on that,” Din murmured and took the baby from the backpack. Dral patted his helmet and laughed. “We’ll start with k’olar—it means to come here.” The baby just stared, and Din sighed. “We’ve three hours before daybreak—take a rest period and get your gear ready. Ero, Aja—check each other’s armor after you gear up and make sure everything is ready to go. Rey put on the body glove, your field boots, and the bes’kut tunic. No cloak. Headgear and gloves are optional today. Be ready for inspection in one hour.”

All three darted off to get ready.

He turned to Cara. “Wanna arm wrestle over who has to dress Dral?”

She laughed and walked off. “I have to go practice activating my panoramic view function.”

Din looked down at his son, who was smiling at him without a care in the universe. “I hate to ruin your good mood, ad’ika.” Dral laughed and curled his hands into the chest plate he was resting against.

Maybe they needed to reframe the conversation for Dral. The fact was that even with a bunch of Force Spirits running around in the background making his life difficult, no one had really helped him with his son on a personal level. That needed to be addressed, and he wanted a private conversation with someone very specific. The Force shifted around him as he moved through the ship to his bedroom. Cara was already inside, sitting on the bed sans helmet with a datapad in hand. She had a frown on her face that put him on edge.

“Was I out of line with that helmet thing?” he asked as he adjusted Dral. “Would you prefer feedback in private?”

She looked up and for a moment appeared confused, then she smiled. “Oh, no, of course not. Correct me in the moment—it’s a lesson for them and me. It’s a bigger adjustment than I anticipated, wearing the helmet. I mean, there are fantastic features—the HUD, the tools, and the air filter. With the body glove redesign, I think we’d probably rate for a spacewalk.”

“Agreed, but we should check,” Din said and sat down on the bed. “What’s on the pad that has you looking disturbed?”

“I sent the data to Senator Organa before we left Tatooine as we agreed,” Cara said. “There was a senate meeting on Chandrila, the current capital planet for the New Republic. Leia Organa originally settled on that world after the war, and that’s where Ben Solo was born. She migrated to Coruscant when they offered her family citizenship and a seat in their senator bloc. There are 10 senators from Coruscant due to the population density.” She paused when Din nodded. “Except, Leia Organa tendered her resignation in an open session three hours ago and left. There’s footage—Din—Luke Skywalker drew his lightsaber when several senators from Coruscant tried to stop her from leaving the senate floor. I haven’t watched it yet.”

Din took a deep breath. “That didn’t…happen the first time around. She remained a senator for Coruscant until the First Order rose to power, then she formed the resistance. Which was for the best because the First Order destroyed Hosnian Prime with a death star-like weapon they called Starkiller Base while the senate was in session. Eventually, she was the only member of the New Republic government left.”

“We’ll watch it together,” Cara said quietly and activated the pad. “I was reading a transcript when you came in.”

A holographic projection of the senate materialized above the pad.

“Senator Organa from Coruscant has the floor.”

Thank you, Chancellor Mon Mothma. It has been an honor to serve the Galactic Senate since it was established as a representative of Coruscant. I believed I was serving the republic’s best interest when I accepted the position. Due to recent events, I’ve come to realize that I’m little more than a figurehead—many of the senators from Coruscant view me as a novelty—a symbol from the rebellion they have to tolerate for appearance’s sake.

“Several days ago, I received verifiable intelligence regarding Imperial remnants in the Outer Rim. I reported this data to my fellow senators on Coruscant and asked them to help me prepare a report and action plan to be presented here today. I was told that the worlds in the Outer Rim don’t matter. I was instructed by all my fellow senators from Coruscant to stop wasting their time.

“I’ve distributed the data I received to every single member of the senate as we were waiting for you to call the session to order.”

She paused as several men on her platform started shouting at her.

“Order!” Chancellor Mon Mothma demanded, and the room grew quiet. “The de facto Queen of Alderaan is speaking! You will remain quiet until she is finished!”

Cara’s breath hitched, and Din reached out to cover the hand she had clenched on her thigh.

“The response from my fellow senators made me realize that I was being treated like a trophy—one they’d prefer be silent. I knew something was very wrong after the incident with the Mand’alor. His treatment and near murder on Coruscant is just a symptom of an insidious culture that I want no part of. I reached out to him on behalf of you all, and thanks to the weakness of my position on Coruscant, he and his two very small children nearly came to great harm.

“When he left, the Mand’alor told me he would contact me when he no longer wanted to raze the entire planet. It’s been over two months, and I’ve not had a single word from him personally.” She paused as a murmur of shock teetered through the audience. “Within hours of his distress signal—ships carrying Mandalorians started to appear in orbit. The party that landed reported that 32 ships were above the planet, but we were able to identify an additional 57 en route to the Core based on their indecipherable messages to one another. They stopped in the Mid-Rim and waited. They stayed there until he left the planet then surrounded him in hyperspace all the way back to his current base. I know this, for a fact, because my husband also escorted him to his home base at a distance at my request.

“I submitted that report to my fellow senators on Coruscant, but they didn’t think you needed that information, either.” She paused and looked around at the stricken faces of everyone around her. “The ship that landed had a party of 12 on board, but some of the ships that waited in the Mid-Rim could’ve been holding as many as a hundred each. I don’t know how much damage upwards of 2,000 Mandalorians could do, and frankly, I don’t want to know. The apathy on Coruscant caused that problem.”

“Mandalore was purged by the Empire!” One voice shouted. “There can’t be many left. They’re practically extinct!”

“Mandalorians aren’t a species, you fool!” Organa shouted. “They’re a creed! 89 ships mobilized in a matter of hours to defend and retrieve the Mand’alor from Coruscant. How many could he call to his aid if he declared war on us? How many people in the Outer Rim who are scraping by would take one look at the, frankly, iconic visage of the Mand’alor and swear the creed? The worse part of this all is that I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he refused to treat with us going forward. His son is a toddler for his species, and his daughter is just six. They both witnessed the attempted murder of their father at our hands.

“There are those in the Outer Rim who think we’re no different than the Empire. Their circumstances haven’t changed, and many of them are still being abused and enslaved by kriffing Imperials!”

“Wow,” Din muttered and put Dral down on the bed so he could remove his helmet.

“They’re looking for leadership—they’re looking for help, and we aren’t giving it! Most of you probably couldn’t name five Outer Rim planets without getting on the HoloNet. You must act on this intel. You must root out every single damn Imperial in hiding and make them pay for their crimes! You need to know how and why Moff Gideon was able to fake his own damned execution! This isn’t what I fought for! This isn’t what thousands of rebels fought for! This isn’t what millions of Alderaanians died for.”

She lowered her head. She took a shaky breath that seemed to resonate throughout the silent chamber. “Alderaan funded the rebellion, and the price we paid was unspeakable. But I know deep in my heart that not a single one of us regrets it because while we believe in achieving peace through diplomacy, we know when it’s time to set aside diplomacy and pick up a weapon.

“Many of you live in luxury while citizens of our republic fight over food and shelter. They’re so downtrodden they don’t have the resources to send someone here to sit in the seats we have reserved for them.” She motioned to an empty section of the senate. “If you don’t care about that, then frankly, you’re a waste of flesh and bone, and you’re really no better than an Imperial. But then let’s be honest, some of you are so-called ex-Imperials who made deals to save yourselves. That’s certainly what Moff Gideon managed to do, and he was guilty of murdering over half a million people. It could be twice that; they just stopped counting because he was so successful. That’s the word they used in his file—successful—like mass murder was his job. Maybe it was. There are ten moffs at large per our records. I don’t trust those records, and you shouldn’t either.

“I hereby resign my position as a senator for Coruscant.”

The silence was stunning.

“On behalf of the New Republic, Princess Leia Organa, I thank you for your service,” Chancellor Mon Mothma said gravely. “I have no right to ask, but will you share your plans?”

Leia lifted her chin and cast her gaze toward the empty seats. “I’m going to Outer Rim, Chancellor, and I’m going to put a senator in every single one of those empty seats.”

Mon Mothma smiled. “I look forward to meeting each of them, dear friend.” She glanced around the room. “Your resignation is accepted. May the Force be with you always.”

“And also with you,” Leia said and turned on her heel to leave.

Din watched pandemonium break out in Coruscant’s platform. He winced when Organa was grabbed by one of the larger men though it was a brief contact since the unknown senator got a face full of furious Wookie that he hadn’t even realized was there. It had all the makings of a brawl until Luke Skywalker drew his lightsaber and the nine remaining senators from Coruscant stopped moving as they caught sight of the ancient weapon. He threw out a hand and shoved every single person in their vicinity away from his sister using the Force.

“And now the whole galaxy knows that Luke Skywalker is a Jedi,” Din murmured as the holovid shut off. “No longer a myth or a legend from a nearly forgotten religion.”

Cara turned off the datapad. “What…do we do?”

“She’s a wild card, but I have my path set out for me,” Din said. “Cara, do you want to find her? If I sent a message, she’d probably respond.”

Cara’s cheeks darkened with temper. “How dare you think I’d leave…”

He leaned forward and kissed her mouth. Her hands immediately slid into his hair as they shared several soft kisses. Din leaned his forehead against hers and took a deep breath. “I’m never going to willingly part with you, wife, but if you wanted to reach out to her and see what she needs that we could provide, I’ll make it happen. Even if it’s just my very public support.”

She cupped the back of his head. “With your iconic visage.”

Din laughed. “I’d honestly want to curse anyone else out—but it’s kind of hard to be mad at Leia Organa.” He huffed. “I’m never going to live that down. Paz is composing a message right now making fun of me for it.”

“He’s probably required to do that,” Cara said. “Brothers being what they are.” She looked down, and Din did as well. Dral had fallen asleep between them on the mattress. “Now’s a great time to change his clothes.”

“Agreed,” Din said and carefully slipped off the bed to go to the drawer they’d put all of Dral’s things in.

Everything was very tiny as his old coat had made him look bigger than he was, if that were even possible. He pulled out the three pieces of the body glove and the tunic. Together they got him dressed quickly—leaving off the gloves and attaching the headpiece but leaving it down. He slept through the whole thing, which was a relief because he hated having his feet covered. Though the boots that Torah had manufactured for him fit him perfectly. The first time they’d put them on Dral, he’d stomped around their room in the covert for a half-hour glaring at everyone.

– – – –

“Everyone ready?” Din questioned as he holstered his pistol and plucked up ammo packs for it and the amban, which he stored in their proper places. He holstered his vibroblade next to the darksaber.

“I don’t have a knife,” Aja said and frowned. “Should I have one?”

“Have you had knife and beskad training?” Din questioned and focused on him.

“I’ve never even seen a beskad, sir,” Aja flushed. “I mean not in real life—just a few pictures on a datapad.”

Din frowned and pulled a long case from his locker, which he opened with his thumbs and turned it to face the younger man. “The beskad.”

Aja’s mouth dropped open. “I…can I?”

“Of course.”

Aja removed the curved saber from the case with a trembling hand. “I never really expected to see one. The beskar you’re wearing is the most I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”

“One day, every bit of armor you wear will be beskar,” Din said.

“Will you teach me?” Aja asked. “I mean, I know we have a lot going on, but…” His gaze fell to the sword. “My buirs would be so proud of me if I learned to use the beskad.”

“We do have a lot going on,” Din agreed. “We’re also going to spend a lot of time in hyperspace and waiting around for people to make themselves available to my purposes. Plus, I have five bounties I’m going to invest myself in collecting. So, yes, I’ll teach you. We’ll have to pick up some practice equipment, so no one loses a limb.”

Aja put the sword back into the case. “I do have vibroblade training—I just didn’t put one in my locker when I was making my selections.”

“I didn’t either,” Ero admitted, and Din turned to find his nephew blushing. “Buir even mentioned that I’d tested well for its use when I was packing, but I was focused on making the best blaster choice.”

“Want to know why I have knives in my locker?” Din questioned, and they both nodded. “Because it’s impossible to skin an animal to cook with a blaster. There were times when I was out bounty hunting that the only food I ate was what I could catch and kill. I’d drop out of hyperspace above a planet just like this one—go down and kill the first edible thing I saw.” He put the beskad away. “I can’t buy you knives—your first should come from your buirs, but you can each borrow one from my locker for use on the mission. Keep it holstered unless you have no choice until you get used to the weight of it in your hand. Every single blade I have could cut through bone like it was nothing. Store it in your own locker from now on. I expect to get it back in the same condition it was borrowed.”

Aja picked first—one of the mid-sized knives—and Ero made the same selection with a small smile.

“What’s the most disgusting thing you ever had to eat?” Ero asked.

Din laughed. “Oddly, it wasn’t my own kill.” He glanced toward Cara. “I hate the krill on Sorgan. Those little blue things are vile.”

Cara’s mouth dropped open. “They served it at every single meal!”

“I was tempted to ask Dral to catch me a frog at one point,” Din admitted and flushed when she laughed.

Chapter 2

“I’ve had enough trees,” Rey announced. “I think I like deserts—they’re pretty clean, and sand is easy to pour out of my boots. This mud is sticking to everything I own. It’s probably invaded the ship and gotten my doll dirty, too.”

Din glanced back at her. Dral was in her birgaan, chin propped on her shoulder. He had one of her braids in his hand but wasn’t chewing it, which was a win. “It’s just a bit further.”

She made a face. “Trees stink. I don’t think trees are supposed to stink, Buir.”

“It’s the water,” Cara said. “Swamps grow stagnant and start to stink due to gas build-up. I’d say we’re a few months off the dry season—it would be much more pleasant then.”

“I think my life is gonna be full of trips to terrible planets at the exact wrong time,” Rey decided. “Years from now, I’m probably going to find out I lived on Jakku during the hottest year ever recorded in the history of the whole planet. Maybe the whole galaxy.”

Din laughed. “You’re a Mandalorian, Rey, so ramikadyc.”

“Did you just tell our six-year-old to Mando up?” Cara demanded and huffed dramatically when Ero laughed. She turned to Rey. “And no single day on Jakku could be hotter than the average day on Mustafar. It’s known throughout the republic as a volcanic hellscape.”

“I’m never going there; I don’t care what fun Jedi stuff we might find. I’ll stay on the ship, thank you.”

“I don’t like volcanos,” IG said. “Lava looks very painful.”

Din stopped moving and turned to stare at the droid. “IG, do you feel pain?”

“Yes, of course, Mand’alor. Such sensors and receptors are part of the base design of all droids.”

“IG units are specifically programmed to ignore physical damage,” Cara said. “I thought that meant you didn’t feel it.”

“Pain gifts us with awareness and teaches one to be careful.”

Din glanced toward Cara. He could just imagine the look of shock on her face. “So, if you were to walk through lava, it would be…”

“Excruciating,” IG said. “I would welcome destruction if I were required to do such a thing.”

“Me and IG are definitely staying on the ship if we have to go a volcano world,” Rey declared.

“I’d never take any of you to a volcano world,” Din said quietly and started walking again.

Everything that happened on Nevarro weighed on him, and he really hadn’t needed to know that IG had essentially tortured himself to save them. Since resenting the knowledge would make him more of an asshole about the whole droid thing, he pushed it aside just in time to come to a halt in front of Yoda’s hut.

“This is it?” Cara questioned. “We walked a half-hour in a miserable swamp for a little mud hut under a tree?”

“This is it,” Din confirmed and plucked Dral from Rey’s birgaan with gentle hands. “Master Yoda has left a gift for you, ad’ika.” He put his son down on the ground in front of the hut after he scanned the interior and found it empty of life.

“It kind of tingles here,” Ero said suddenly. “Or is that just my nerves?”

Din turned to stare at his nephew. “It’s…the Force. You feel that?”

“Am I not supposed to?” Ero asked. “It’s just more pronounced down here than it is normally. I figured that was just how it felt to be around Force users?”

“We’ll talk later,” Din said firmly. “But it’s nothing to worry about.”

Din focused on Dral and found him wiggling one of his boot bedecked feet. “Don’t take off those boots,” he ordered. His son sighed heavily, and his ears flattened. “I don’t know if I should blame your ama or your sister for that attitude.”

“We’re not meant to wear shoes of any sort.” A small adult female of Dral’s species appeared in front of them, and Dral giggled. She smiled at him. “Hello, Dral Djarin, I am Yaddle.”

Dral showed her his left boot.

“It is a grave crime you’ve been subjected to,” Yaddle told him. She focused on Din. “Yoda sends his regrets—he’s in the middle of helping Qui-Gon Jinn do something asinine with the Force. And the rest of those idiots are watching.”

“Already regretting this whole Force Spirit thing, I see,” Din said. “Are the boots hurting him?”

“No, and I know why you’ve shrouded him in such protection as you have. In time, he will come to understand and appreciate your love for him.” She sat down on the ground in front of Dral, and the baby reached out for her. Their hands connected, and Din took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, little one, I did not know you were here. We’d have never left you to fend for yourself for as long as you did on purpose.”

“Do you know how long he was here before someone found him?”

“Not for certain, but he would’ve been safe here his whole life—this world exists to nurture and protect our kind,” Yaddle explained. “But he was taken from here with good intentions, and while the Force has done everything it can to protect him, that’s clearly not been enough.”

“He doesn’t speak,” Cara said. “Is that normal for his age?”

“Our kind grow through the use of and communion with the Force,” Yaddle explained. “When he was taken from here—he was not nurtured or protected.” She stroked Dral’s head. “Fortunately, he’s nearly forgotten the cruelty he suffered. In this, the Force shields us, protects our hearts so we cannot be damaged and misused by the dark side. He did come to be in the custody of a man who thought he could make him dark and that he could use his gift of the Force for destruction. When he realized he could not, Dral became little more than a pet to him.

“When the man died, his son sold Dral to the highest bidder.” She focused on Din. “But then he double-crossed the winner of that auction and demanded more and more credits. He knew the former Imperial had deep pockets. Pockets so deep he had enough beskar to tempt even a good man to do the unspeakable.”

Din lowered his head. “I…” He exhaled sharply. “Does he realize that I left him that day? Does he understand that I betrayed him?”

Yaddle focused on Dral for a few moments, then smiled. “He doesn’t think the ones with the white helmets are nice, and he’s glad you came back. His thoughts aren’t complicated at this stage. He loves you all very much. He likes everyone in the covert on Tatooine and especially likes their food. I don’t blame him—those lizards look delicious.”

“He definitely enjoys them,” Cara muttered.

“The more he works with the Force, the faster he will mature. I suspect he will be able to speak basic sentences within the next two years. I was very verbal at this age, but I was raised in a Jedi Temple from infancy. He won’t come into the full measure of his power as a Force user until he’s physically mature.”

“At 100,” Din said.

“Give or take a decade,” Yaddle said and released Dral’s hands. “Come little one, we’ll retrieve what you came for so your sister can get the mud out of her boots. You’d have all been better off wearing no shoes at all.”

Din unlatched the strap of his amban and passed the weapon to Cara. “Force Spirits are deeply frustrating,” he muttered.

“I heard that, Din Djarin, be thankful I achieved the communion first. I’m much more pleasant compared to Minch,” Yaddle said tartly from the interior of the hut.

Din ducked into the hut and found his son standing in front of a little bed. The blankets were disintegrating, and he figured the mattress, no matter what it was made of, wasn’t in much better shape. “You weren’t helped to get into your current state?”

“It’ll be a hot day on Hoth before I need help with such a thing,” Yaddle said coolly. “Let him figure it out for himself. It’ll be good for his development. He feels it and knows it wants to be discovered.”

“The kyber crystal, you mean?”

“Yoda’s final lightsaber has become a vergence of its own from years of exposure to this world, and it yearns to be with your son,” Yaddle said. “Kyber crystals are alive, after a fashion, and there are arguments to be made regarding their sentience. A large cache of crystals has exhibited the ability to think as one.”

“There’s not a lot of information to be found on them,” Din said. “Though every single thing I ever read about you indicated that you were patient, kind, and a wise scholar. How did you die?”

“I exiled myself on Alderaan,” Yaddle said simply. “So that I could be close to Anakin Skywalker’s daughter if she ever needed me. She did not—her adoptive parents took great care with her. I lived very well there; Bail Organa was a lovely and thoughtful man.” She flicked a hand. “I lost all of my patience after Yoda explained to me what he allowed to happen to Dral through his lack of awareness. Don’t expect it to ever return.”

Din watched Dral investigate the nest area from the crouch the structure had forced him into. From the look he was getting from Yaddle, he probably looked ridiculous. “What are they doing?”

“They’re on Ilum communing with the kyber crystal on the planet.”

Din’s stomach lurched. “What…oh, they’re going to ask the crystal to sacrifice itself?”

She inclined her head and took a deep breath. “Yoda believes the project too far gone to stop or sabotage. I agree we should not allow such a weapon to be created using kyber crystals—it’s an abomination, but their plan of action is reckless.”

“Here’s hoping they take out a whole bunch of Imperials in the process.”

“There are nearly two hundred on the planet currently,” Yaddle said. “They’ve confirmed no slave labor.”

“They wouldn’t use that kind of labor to build something that secret,” Din said. “Every single unwilling worker would be a major security risk if they escaped.” His son used the Force to pull a rotting wooden panel free, and a black security vault was revealed.

Din reached in and grabbed the box. “It’s beskar.”

“Yes, Yoda apologizes. The fact that beskar steel is sacred to your people is information…we did not have. He’s invested himself in learning all that he can about your people now, even though it is too late.”

It was easily half as much beskar as Dral’s bounty. Din sank to his knees as he put it down in front of his son. “It’s…”

“A symbol of the war between our two peoples,” Yaddle said. “It has been passed down through the centuries from one Grand Master Jedi to another. Not a trophy, per se, but a reminder of what the Jedi and the Mandalorians really fought over. Some history books would tell us that the Mandalorians invaded the republic, and that’s true, but it wasn’t done for territory. It was done in retaliation for the purposeful theft of beskar.”

“The first war was manufactured.”

“By the Old Republic, yes, they wanted to use the resources of Mandalore to build up their forces, to increase their power and reach. The Jedi allied themselves with the Republic and made themselves the enemies of Mandalore. We waged wholesale war against each other because of the greed of a few men who were more concerned with power and territory than life.”

“That’s the definition of war,” Cara said from the doorway of the hut.

Dral patted the box and babbled at Cara.

“Let’s open it on the ship, ad’ika,” Din said and picked it up to pass to Cara. “Ask IG to put it in his bag.”

Dral toddled after her babbling, probably laying claim to whatever food might be in the vault. Din really hoped that Yoda hadn’t stored food in it—they’d never convince Dral it wasn’t his. When he all but crawled out of the hut, to Yaddle’s overt snickering, Rey and Aja were near the edge of the water peering downward curiously.

“What are you—” A tentacle slithered out of the water and wrapped itself around Aja’s leg.

Cara shouted even as Aja shoved Rey roughly away from the water. She launched herself forward and caught the younger man around the middle as the creature started to coil and pull him into the water. Din drew the darksaber and jumped into the water only to have several more tentacles emerge to wrap around Aja, who had drawn his knife and was vainly stabbing at the thick, muscled tentacle wrapped around his left leg.

“I can’t hold on!” Cara shouted.

Din cut off four different tentacles but still couldn’t manage to get the main one—he was afraid to cut too close to Aja’s leg with the darksaber, considering how all three of them were being dragged around in the shallow water by the creature. He turned it off and tossed it toward the hut so it wouldn’t end up buried in the muddy water and pulled his own knife even as the creature grew completely still. The air grew heavy, and Din jerked around to find an enormous cephalopod floating in the air above them.

“Fuck me,” Cara hissed in shock just as laser fire erupted.

Din looked toward shore and found Ero standing beside IG, who had Dral and Rey on his shoulders, rifle raised, aim true to what he’d been told. The creature screamed, a piercing sound that made his skin crawl, and the rest of the tentacles came loose at once. They untangled Aja and dragged him to shore, where they all three collapsed on the ground. Din turned his head slightly to focus where Yaddle stood, she lowered her hand, and the creature dropped with a large splash into the water.

Yaddle shook her head. “Thousands of years from now, the tale of how three idiots with too much Force on their hands found each other and decided to save the galaxy will be told. It will be shrouded in myth and legend as such stories often are. Here’s hoping, Din Djarin, that history treats you more kindly than you deserve.”

Cara exhaled loudly, and Aja slumped between them a small pained laugh.

“See, Buir, swamp planets are clearly the worst kind,” Rey declared from her perch on IG’s shoulder. “Can we come down now?”

“No,” Din said tiredly and focused on the sky. “You two stay up there where’s it’s safer.”

“Great job, Ero,” Aja said and took a deep breath. “I think my leg is broken.”

“I’d be really damn surprised if it isn’t,” Cara muttered and set up. “There’s mud in my chest plate.”

“I don’t even want to discuss where the mud is in my armor,” Din muttered. “Aja, activate the pressure bandage feature on that leg of your body glove to stabilize it. Did you want a stim for pain?” He rolled to his knees and looked around for Cara’s field bag. It was not far from where they’d all crawled out.

“They make me sleepy,” Aja said. “I’ll be dead weight on the trip back to the ship.” He holstered the knife he’d still had clenched in his hand. “Rey, I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“I’m fine,” she said cheerfully and looped one arm around IG’s head. “Less dirty than all three of you.”

Cara laughed. “Fuck, how is this my life?”

“Got lucky, I guess,” Din said as he stood and offered her his hand. She took it, and he hauled her up.

“Yeah, I guess so.” She smacked him gently on the helmet. “You threw the darksaber aside like a toy.”

Din winced and looked in the direction he’d thrown it. “I was afraid I’d accidentally cut his leg off, and I didn’t want to lose it in the water.” He got to his feet and retrieved the saber, then his amban, which she’d tossed aside to try to catch Aja. “I’ve had zero practice with it, you know.” He clipped his belt. “Shit, I’m exhausted.”

“It’s no wonder you expelled quite a bit of Force energy keeping the creature from tearing his leg off,” Yaddle said. “You should get moving—days are short this time of the year.”

Din huffed as she faded away.

Two hours later, they all endured being hosed off by IG before they were allowed on the ship. In the midst of that, Dral pulled off his boots and threw them out into the water, so Din had been forced to retrieve them then get hosed off again. He supervised Ero and IG putting Aja on his bed, then went off to find Cara, who’d gone to the common area with Dral and Rey to prep what they’d need to set and treat the leg from the first aid kit.

“You okay?”

“My after-action report for this mission is going to be vicious,” she muttered, and he laughed. “And demoralizing for our leader.”

He pulled her close and let his helmet rest on hers. “It’s easy to forget that they aren’t like us. I should’ve scanned the water—we both know very well that other humanoids aren’t the only threats out there.”

“Well, no one died, and we don’t have to stop somewhere and get him a prosthetic, so let’s call it a win and start making an action plan before missions. Give everyone a task—perimeter scan being a really important one, obviously. Experience is the best teacher. He won’t ever make that mistake again.”

Ero was standing outside of Aja’s room when they returned with the medical supplies. “I helped him get out of his armor, but he wanted as much privacy as possible for the body glove.”

Din nodded and tapped on the door. “You ready for us?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ero opened the door and slid out of the way. Din grimaced at the sight of Aja’s leg; it was heavily bruised from the mid-thigh down. The younger man had managed to put on a shirt and a pair of loose pants that he’d pulled up as far as he could on the injured leg. Cara passed Aja the medical assessment wand and started laying supplies out on the bed. She pulled out the pneumatic injector and showed it to him.

“I’m going to give you the maximum dose of pain medication first. It’ll make everything that happens next a bit fuzzy for you.”

“Yeah,” Aja agreed and shifted on the bed. He curled one hand into the sheets as he passed the wand back to her, and she injected the pain relief in three quick injections along the top of his thigh.

Din picked up the datapad to review the results. “Fractured fibula, sprained ankle, and a minor posterior hip dislocation.” He looked up and found Aja had closed his eyes. “It’ll be fine.”

“It doesn’t sound fine,” Aja admitted.

“My drop pack malfunctioned during my third training session,” Cara started as she took off her helmet and set it aside. “Compound fracture of both my tibia and fibula—I was up and walking around the next day. Didn’t even have a scar to brag about. Of course, I was treated with a bacta tank—not something we have onboard, so you’ll probably take about 10 hours to heal completely from this.” She turned to Din. “I’ll need to prep a bacta injection. Can you put his hip back into place, or do we need IG to do it?”

“I’ve done it before,” Din admitted and took off his own helmet. “Rey, come in here and take our helmets to the common area, please.”

Rey darted in, grabbed the helmets, and trotted back out. “I didn’t see anything super private! Sorry about your leg, Aja!”

Aja laughed. “Not your fault, verd’ika.”

A little shift in the Force was the only warning he got before his son popped up onto the bed and settled down next to Aja’s leg. Din plucked him up immediately. “He’ll be fine, ad’ika.”

The baby whined and reached out for Aja.

“I can hold him if it’d make him feel better,” Aja said, but his words were a little slurred.

“He doesn’t want to be held—he wants to heal your leg, but he can’t control his use of the Force, and he always exhausts himself when he does it,” Din murmured. “If your injury was potentially fatal, I’d let him heal you and which would make him sleep for the next day, but there’s no need for him to go without food for that long for a broken leg.”

“No, agreed.” Aja took a deep breath. “I’m fine, Dral, it’s okay.”

Din walked to the door and passed his son to IG. “Take him up to the common area, please. Don’t let him down for the time being.”

“Should his gifts be needed in the future, we should have nutrient packs on hand that are tailored to sustain him during his rest period,” IG said. “I shall research and design one—there are several planets along our current course where such a thing can be made to order.”

“That would be great,” Din murmured. “Keep Rey with you as well—putting his hip back into place isn’t going to be pleasant even with the pain meds he’s been dosed with.”

“I’ll instruct Rey to bathe, and Dral will have a bath in the galley sink,” IG decided and walked away.

Cara returned with the bacta and put it with the rest of the equipment. She reset the pad and put the assessment wand back in his hand. “The dislocation isn’t complete, so the most you’re going to feel is pressure due to the pain management,” she explained.

Din put one knee down on the bed and slid both hands under Aja’s thigh, one at the midway point and the other just under his knee. “Is this going to make the fracture worse?”

“It shouldn’t—the fracture is closer to the ankle than it is the knee,” Cara said as she reviewed the report being generated by the wand. “Okay, press forward slowly.”

Aja shifted nervously. “Feels weird.”

“Joint dislocations are disconcerting even with pain relief,” Din said.

“No, I mean…” He flushed when Din looked up to meet his gaze. “I’ve just not had anyone this close to me without my armor on since I started bathing on my own.”

Din blew out a surprised breath. “I’m sorry it’s necessary. We’ll work as fast as we can.”

“It’s fine,” Aja said. “And literally my fault.”

“You did great today,” Din said as he pressed a little harder—there was a distinct slip as the dislocation was resolved. “Cara?”

“Good—there’s some inflammation, but I have enough bacta pulled to give him two injections. I can get more if necessary.”

“Don’t waste it on me,” Aja said and dropped back on the pillow as Din released his leg. “One of the kids might need it.”

“You’re too much like your buir,” Din said and watched as Cara injected the bacta. “He argued with me about getting the treatment for his leg.”

“He’s stubborn,” Aja agreed. “But Gí doesn’t let him get away with much. I’m glad you made it happen…I was worried it would get so bad that he’d…get killed.” He closed his eyes. “I even offered to take some off-planet work last year to pay for treatment, and he refused.”

Din didn’t know what happened to Oddau Rast in the other timeline. All he did know was that by the time he met Gí Rast that she’d lost her husband and all four of their children.

“How old were you when they married?” Cara asked as she started injecting the bacta.

“Seven,” Aja said. “She had two foundlings with her, and I was kind of a brat about the whole thing, to be honest. I didn’t want another parent, and I sure as hell didn’t want to share my buir with her or her kids. She doesn’t resent me for it, but I still feel like I made their lives miserable for no damn reason for the first year of their marriage. My biological mother died a few days after I was born from an infection, so I never…had to share at all.”

“You’re a good son to them both now,” Din said. “And that speaks more to your character than your actions as a child. And as I said, you did well today. I know many with more experience than you that would’ve panicked and made the situation ten times worse. You had the instincts in play to push Rey out of the way, so it didn’t get ahold of her, too.”

“I couldn’t get free of it on my own,” Aja muttered.

“Neither of us could’ve in your place,” Cara said pointedly. “It’s okay to depend on your team for help. In fact, expecting to survive on your own in a team situation will lead you to make reckless and dangerous decisions that could get us all killed.”

Aja nodded. “Okay.” He huffed. “Now I have to write my buirs and tell them I nearly gotten eaten by a giant swamp squid because I was trying to help Rey catch a frog for Dral.”

“He’s got plenty of paddy frogs,” Din pointed out.

Aja sighed. “Rey said a frog from his own planet would probably make him really happy.” He crossed his arms when they both laughed.

“At least it wasn’t a swamp slug,” Cara said wryly. “They have thousands of teeth, smell like they’ve been dead for months, and weigh as much as a Hutt.” She turned to Din. “Let’s wrap his ankle in a bacta infused bandage to prevent swelling, then he should just sleep this off. We can reassess in 12 hours to see if a second bacta treatment is required.”

“I don’t want to waste the supplies,” Aja protested.

“Keeping us all fit and ready for a fight is not a waste,” Din said as Cara deftly wrapped the ankle. “Coruscant gave us a liter of medical-grade bacta to treat my injuries if I had issues after I left them because I refused to stay for observation.”

“A whole liter?” Aja repeated. “That’s…well, they almost murdered you, so, I guess they owed you.” He picked up his personal datapad.

Din took it from his hand. “Let’s not send your buirs a holocomm while you’re intoxicated on pain meds.” He put the datapad on the nightstand. “I’ll send a coded message in a few hours to Oddau and Paz—the giant swamp squid will be prominently featured.”

“How is that even a thing?” Aja complained. “Fucking swamp squid.”

Din tossed a blanket over him. “Sleep a bit—IG will bring you a meal in a few hours.”

“Thank you, sir,” he muttered even as he turned over on his side and promptly passed out.

– – – –

The bathing unit on the ship was quite spacious; all things considered. Din supposed it was another perk of being a ship that had been modified to accommodate an arrogant piece of bantha shit moff. Since everyone on the ship, except for IG, desperately needed a shower, he didn’t linger as much as he would’ve liked to and used the drying unit. He’d only seen one his entire life before being on the Tor, and that had been a luxury hotel on a Core world—a reward he’d been given by a client as a thank you for retrieving her wayward stepson from a whorehouse on Byss.

He left the bath and knocked on Ero’s door to let him know it was his turn, then he went in search of food. There were a series of steaming cups on the counter near the cooker, so he picked one up and walked into the common area, searching for everyone else. Cara was standing at the large mirror situated behind the dumb wet bar putting a complicated series of braids into her hair. He leaned on the bar and took a sip of his soup.

“Did you want to pick up a supplement to make it grow faster?” Din questioned. “I’ve never used them, but I’ve seen them in markets.”

“They were originally created to replace hair on a Wookie,” Cara said dryly and shot him a look in the mirror when he laughed. “It’s taboo for them to be hairless, but sometimes areas need to be shaved to treat injuries. Regardless, no, I don’t want to take that kind of risk with my hair. There’s a 2% chance of full-body hair growth in humans.”

“I’d love you regardless,” Din said and looked around the common area. “Let’s think about reworking this area a little? The bar is ridiculous and a waste of space. I should’ve pulled it out on Nevarro, but I was so exhausted by the time we finished with the cargo bay that I just wanted to leave.”

“We could sell it and the contents—buy a few couches and a holovid station,” Cara said. “And have some credits left over. Some of this liquor is very expensive.”

He’d never really paid much attention to that kind of entertainment, so he didn’t know anything about it. There hadn’t been one in any covert he’d ever been in. “Is a holovid station kid-friendly?”

“It can be if we put controls in place—they even have educational programs, but I’ve never watched them, so I can’t guarantee quality or accuracy. But I have fond memories of watching my mother on holovid,” Cara said as she tied off another braid.

“Do you have any of her performances saved?” Din questioned, and she gave a jerky nod. “I’d love to see one.”

She offered him a soft smile. “Yeah, okay.”

“What’s this you’re doing to your hair?”

“They’re called battle knots,” Cara said. “More symbolic than purposeful in modern Alderaanian society. It seemed appropriate since…”

“Your queen told the Galactic Senate to fuck off?” Din questioned and grinned when Cara sent him a look of mock horror. “I’m honestly glad—I think she took my place as the most-watched vid on the HoloNet.”

“Fortunately, the general consensus seems to be that your armor and body glove protected you from the rod,” Cara said. “Not that the truth would make much sense to the average person. But it’s kind of taken the whole Mandalorian thing to a whole new level, and some of that was already ridiculous.”

“If it keeps us safer, then I don’t care,” Din admitted.

“It might make you look like a challenge to the right sort,” Cara said. “But we’ll handle that if it comes up.”

“I was already a challenge to that sort,” Din said dryly. “My reputation pre-darksaber was earned, Cara. Ruthless bastard was probably the nicest way to describe me before Dral…” He looked over and found his son was on the bench attached to the wall on the opposite side of the room. The baby was on his back, holding both feet, babbling.

“I think he missed his feet,” Cara said dryly.

“Oh.” Din made a face. “You don’t think—he thinks the boots are swallowing his feet, right?”

Cara gaped for a second. “Oh, surely…not. If he does, he probably thinks the same thing about our helmets.”

“He was kind of surprised I had a face,” Din admitted and sighed. “Do we need to clip his claws?”

“The closest species in the galaxy to Dral is a Lannik,” IG reported. “Aja is sleeping peacefully and appears to be in no pain based on my scans from outside of his room.” He paused. “I had no need to open his door to accomplish the scan.”

“Thanks, IG,” Cara said as she finished her braid. “Try to do a scan every four hours so we can determine how the bacta is working, and we’ll wake him in 10 hours for a more thorough check. Lannik don’t have feet like Dral’s.”

“No, but their toes have similar claws,” IG said. “They do wear boots with no issues. I’ve evaluated Dral’s claws—feet and hands. They’ve not grown at all since I started keeping track. I do not believe his nails need maintenance unless one gets broken. The boots were designed to allow for his feet’s natural curl when he walks, and there is no undue pressure on his toenail beds. He just doesn’t like his feet being covered. He’ll grow used to them with consistent use.”

“I don’t want to force him to do something contrary to his nature,” Din said wearily and went to pick his son up. Dral giggled and rubbed his face against Din’s beard. “He’s just so fragile.”

“Not as fragile as he should be for his size,” IG said. “Based on physical characteristics, he should just be now learning to walk, and clearly that is not the case.”

“Have you noticed any age growth in his cells?” Din questioned quietly as he sat down on the bench, and Cara joined him.

IG paused for a significant period of time. “No, none. I did not factor that into my initial reports due to how exceedingly rare and abnormal that is.”

“He should be aging a little bit,” Cara said. “Even if he has another 50 years until maturity.”

“Unless the Force slowed him down to protect him,” Din said and shared a look with his wife. “Yaddle said the Force would do a lot to protect their kind from the dark side. And if that’s the case, I don’t think he’s going to age a single day until it’s truly safe for him to do so.” He stroked Dral’s back as the baby relaxed on his chest. “He’s the last of his kind, perhaps the last the Force will ever give to this galaxy.”

“I will start making a regular backup of myself,” IG declared. “So I will always be with him.” The droid walked away before either he or Cara could say anything and disappeared down the ramp into the cargo bay.

Din made a face. “I knew I was never going to get rid of that droid.”

Cara laughed. “Is now a good time to tell you that there is a droid in the bar?”

“A what?” Din turned to look at her in horror.

“I got curious—because I’ve seen bars like it on Alderaan and various other Core worlds. Regardless, it’s basically a built-in service droid that can detach and be used for odd jobs. I have no clue about its programming. We’d need to activate it.”

Dub grimaced. “Has Rey seen it?”

“No, why?”

“I promised her a droid pet when I told her she couldn’t have this little seabird thing on a planet we visited before going to Coruscant. Dral was actively trying to catch one of the birds to eat at the time. She hasn’t brought it up since she got her amphistaff, but it’ll probably cross her mind the first time we hit a market where droids are sold.”

“Big soft heart,” Cara murmured as she pressed a kiss against his jaw. “I suppose you were going to ask Peli to make her something eventually?”

“In the future, she traveled with a little astromech droid she was very fond of. It’ll be another 15 or so years before that series even comes out. He was loyal to her.” Din took a deep breath. “He shut himself down after…what happened, and nothing anyone said could make him turn back on—not even the threat of being reprogrammed. He clearly loved her very much. I can’t give that back to her.”

“The life she has now guarantees she never has to depend on a single little droid to love her,” Cara said against his jaw. “The one attached to the bar is a techno-service droid—they can be programmed to do a lot of different jobs on a ship.”

“That explains all the ramps,” Din said. “Perhaps the moff was fond of the little guy.” He grimaced. “Which could make it loyal to him in return. I don’t think we can risk turning him on or selling him.”

“Her,” IG said, and they both focused on him. “The little techno-service droid attached to the bar is female, and she has a restraining bolt which indicates that her service was not willing and whoever owned her did not care to earn her regard. Such units are regularly subject to memory wipes due to their stubborn natures. I can evaluate her programming if you wish—her model should have the standard restriction against killing sapient organic life, which would make her safe around the children, but she would not be able to provide security. The ramps were probably placed so that no one had to help her get to various parts of the ship to do her tasks and to increase her efficiency.”

Din slouched against the bench and patted his son.

“You’re entitled to not want it around,” Cara said in amusement. “But it would save us a lot of credits because droids aren’t cheap and if you promised Rey one…”

“I was thinking more along the lines of a droid loth-cat or something,” Din admitted. “Smaller than Dral, easy for me to contain if it got weird.”

“Droids are confined by our programming,” IG said. “Even emancipated ones cannot act outside of their base code, whatever that might be. Shall I investigate?”

“It feels weird to order the little thing wiped,” Din admitted. “I know people do it all the time, but…”

“Sometimes it is a mercy,” IG said. “I would not wish to have the memories of my previous incarnations—there is no way to know for certain what I was required to do by my previous owner. But considering I was working as a bounty hunter and what we’ve discovered about my protocols, the prospects are grim by any standard. If she was sorely mistreated, and it appears that she was, considering the restraining bolt, then removing those memories would be very much like psychological therapy for a human.”

“Are you trying to make me feel better?” Din asked, a little shocked.

“You are clearly disturbed,” IG said primly. “I’m merely offering a different perspective to consider. While most droids are considered by the New Republic to be both sentient and sapient, it would be a mistake to assume that we all place the same value on our experiences and memories. We all learn from our experiences, but sometimes we learn things we’d rather not. Would you not wish to pluck the most terrible moments from your mind and cast them aside?”

Din closed his eyes as the image of his son’s body flicked through his mind. Up until that moment, he’d always assumed that the worst thing he’d ever experience was the death of his parents. Dral stirred on his chest and whined. “Sorry, ad’ika,” he whispered and kissed his head. “Yes, there are memories I wish I could destroy,” Din said. “Some more heartbreaking than others, but I wouldn’t be the man I am if I hadn’t gone through what I did.”

“In that lies the difference between you and I,” IG said. “No matter how often my memory banks have been wiped—I am still the same droid I was the day I was first activated. My purpose and circumstances may change, but my awareness of who I am remains constant.”

“So what you’re saying is that you’ve always been a sarcastic bastard,” Din said wryly.

“It is impossible to destroy a droid’s personality without destroying the base program itself,” IG said. “So it would appear that I’ve always had an attitude problem.”

“That just makes you entertaining,” Cara decided.

“Check the droid out,” Din said finally. “Review every line of code, check her protocols, and determine how much memory she currently has encoded. If she has memories, we’ll activate her without removing the restraining bolt and ask her if she’d like to remain in service of the ship. We’ll tell her that it will require an active memory wipe. If she says no, shut her down. I’ll take her to Naboo and release her with an emancipation order.”

Cara laughed. “You’re gonna just set her loose? Like a wild animal?”

Din huffed and stood. “Well, I guess we can give her to Peli?”

“It might be safer for her,” Cara said. “There’s no telling what sort of asshole might pick her up in a space dock. She could end up serving drinks on a brothel ship, Din. Her circuits would be utterly traumatized. Or worse, instead of drinks, she’d have to run around the ship with a tray of sex toys and lubricants.”

“You have to buy your own lubricants at arrival, and most require you to bring your own sex toys. Nothing is free in a whorehouse,” Din said and walked away while she sputtered.

He wasn’t at all surprised when she followed him into the galley. Din looked around. “Where’s his pram?”

“Probably still in the cockpit.”

“Oh, right,” Din walked into the cockpit area and took a brief look outside before putting Dral down.

She yawned. “How long did you want to stay on this planet?”

Din considered that. “I’d like to make sure the water collector is full—which shouldn’t take more than a few hours more. Once that’s complete, we’ll leave the planet and hit the closest libration point to the system’s sun, and open up the solar collector. Our next stop is Ossus.”

“Where is that?” Cara asked.

“Uncharted territory just outside of the Tion Cluster,” Din said. “Easiest, fastest path through will be the Triellus Trade Route; it’ll take us outside the main thrust of the Core so we’ll avoid the heavy gravity that would only slow us down and make us an easier target if someone wants to take a swipe at me.”

“That route is lousy with smugglers and spice runners,” Cara pointed out.

“And a VCX with a randomized ident code is going to blend right in. I’ll keep us at a moderate pace, well within the ship’s original specs when it was built, so we’ll get overlooked a lot. It’s probably fairly well known that both ships I’ve been known to pilot are running a .5 hyperdrive engine. Keeping the speed in the 2.0 range in hyperspace will throw the average asshole looking to make credits off me.”

“You think someone’s already put a bounty on you,” Cara said.

“Of course they have,” Din said mildly. “And I imagine someone out there has figured out what Dral could be, and more than one person is looking to acquire him. There might even be one or two on you or just my kids in general.”

“Bargaining chips,” Cara said grimly. “Fuckers.”

Din prodded the pram out of the cockpit and wasn’t all that surprised to find IG standing in the galley. “Don’t let him open the vault without me present.”

“It’s currently locked in the research office,” IG said as he caught the pram. “I’ll keep him in the common area while I review the techno droid’s code. That will take most if not all of your rest period. Would you like me to move the ship to the liberation point for solar collection after the reservoir is full, or should I wake you?”

He was tired. “If the weather is clear—take us up, but I’d like to be awake and at the stick if the trip is going to be rough.”

“Understood,” IG said and took the pram away.

Din followed Cara into their bedroom. “Should we have Dral in our room at night?”

“If he were a human baby, I’d say yes,” she admitted. “For a couple of reasons—I’m entirely positive a human infant wouldn’t understand if they heard us having sex, I’d want us to handle all feedings that we could the first year for bonding, and they grow up fast.”

“And if Dral got used to sleeping with us—he could want to do it for the next decade,” Din said. “Right.”

“Also, a human infant can’t get out of their pram and wander around like Dral can. By the time they could—they’d be too big for the pram,” Cara said and crawled onto the bed and crooked her finger at him. “Come here and tell me all about your trips to brothels.”

Din laughed. “I’ve picked up as many bounties in brothels as I have bars over the years. For some men, as soon as they find out they have a bounty on their head, they go straight for the first consistent supply of ass they can find.”

“What a filthy thing to say,” Cara admonished and shook her head as he joined her and caught her around the waist. “Ever partake of the facilities before collecting your bounty?”

Din wet his lips. “I can’t say I wasn’t tempted, but the credits I made were for the tribe. Once I got hired by the owner of a sail barge on Tatooine, a pleasure cruiser of sorts, because she was being forced to pay a fee to operate by a couple of bastards out of Anchorhead. So I ran their chain codes, found out they were both wanted for a couple of low-end bounties that were worth collecting considering the circumstances.”

“And?” Cara prodded as she urged him on his back and slid atop him.

“She paid me 5,000 Imperial on top of the bounties and my choice of services from her most sought-after employee. The going rate for an hour of his time was 1,500.”

Her cheeks flushed. “What did you get? Was it filthy? Was he good at it?”

“I tried to say no until he made it clear that it was his idea to offer the hour,” Din murmured. “He was beautiful—soft, sweet, and clearly pampered. I’d never had soft ever in my life, so it was a novelty. I felt clumsy and…” He frowned. “Honestly, a little brutish compared to him. It also felt weird to ask for anything, so I told him we could do what he wanted as long as he didn’t touch my helmet. Most of his clients were female, so he asked me to fuck him as often as I could until our time was up.”

Cara braced herself on his chest and stared down at him, her eyes dark. “It shouldn’t be sexy at all—thinking about you fucking someone with the helmet on it and yet…”

He grinned. “Want me to put it on?”

She slouched down on him and let her forehead rest against his. “Honestly, I’m exhausted.”

Din rolled her off of her with a groan of relief. “Me, too. Can we pretend we arm-wrestled, and I won, so you have to turn off the light?”

She sighed but left the bed. “That’s the only way you’d win.”

Chapter 3

Ero was fidgeting in the co-pilot’s chair as Din finished closing the solar energy collector.

“You’re a lot like your buir,” Din murmured as he activated the ship’s HUD and started plotting the course to Ossus. “Ask the questions you’re keeping to yourself.”

“How do you plot a course to a planet that doesn’t exist on the map?” Ero leaned forward and bit down on his bottom lip.

“We’ll pick a planet as close as possible along the route, which in this case is Columex,” Din said. “It’ll take about 22 hours at half power.”

“Why not go as fast as we can?”

“Because we’ll catch too much attention moving that fast through a smuggling route,” Din said. “Either New Republic attention or something less savory and more dangerous. Also, the less power we use in hyperspace, the more we have to burn outside of it if necessary for planet exploration, and a firefight should it come down to it. Once we come out of hyperspace above Columex, I’ll have to plot a series of micro-hyperspace jumps to get to Ossus, which I won’t be able to use the autopilot for.”

Ero nodded. “There’s a more direct route through the Core. Are we avoiding that because of what happened to you on Coruscant?”

“No, not directly. I don’t intend to visit that planet again anytime soon, but traveling through the Core will slow us down due to the way star systems are clustered there—the gravitational pull is immense, and the smaller your ship is, the more impact such things will have on you. Most of the major routes through the Core were mapped out for ships 20 times the Tor’s size. We can use them for travel, but they aren’t always the best choices to make when it comes to speed.”

“Why isn’t Ossus on the map?”

“It was at one time, but the Empire did everything they could to erase the Jedi from history. Emperor Palpatine wanted to destroy everything about them to prevent the order from being rebuilt. He considered them the only threat to his rule over the galaxy,” Din said. “In the end, he was right. It took a Jedi to destroy him.” He let the navigational computer finish the calculations for the jump to hyperspace and focused on Ero. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize you were Force-sensitive. Rey and Dral both are, at times, overwhelming with their Force potential, so I probably overlooked more than one person in the covert.”

“It’d probably be weird to go around asking everyone if we make them tingle, right?” Rey asked as she appeared between them and leaned forward to look out the window.

“Certainly,” Din said with a laugh. “I’ll figure it out. As to Ossus, I do have some older maps that have the planet listed, but they’re useless for travel without updated hyperdrive lanes. Eventually, the New Republic will start to correct the official map. They’ve already restored a fair amount of information. There are worlds, however, that are completely lost to history and time. If we’re very lucky, the Force will guide us to them when we need them most.”

Ero nodded. “There’s a listing for Ossus on the HoloNet—no coordinates or navigational data. But it has two suns and a moderate to temperate climate across the entire planet.” He turned to Rey. “So no swamps or deserts.”

Rey considered that. “It’ll probably have some kind of giant dragon living on it who hates the Force.”

“Space travel is going to make you jaded,” Ero told her, and Din laughed.

“Jakku made me jaded,” Rey declared. “You try bartering for water from a selfish, mean, giant Crolute who thinks you can’t count. He’s surely some kind of vicious criminal.”

“Why do you say that?” Din questioned. “Not that I doubt you, but do you have a specific reason beyond his cheating?”

“Well, why else would a member of an aquatic species live on a desert world with barely any water?” Rey questioned. “It’d take the water collector I stole a whole day to give me half a liter of water. That’s why I had to trade most of my scrap for extra water.” She crossed her arms. “If we hadn’t vowed on our honor to never put another boot on that planet, Buir, I’d suggest we go back there and check Plutt’s chain code for a bounty.”

“I bet your Ba’vodu Paz would take a trip to Jakku at some point in the future to check that out for you,” Din said and grinned when Ero nodded. He focused on the HUD as the computer finished the math, accepted the plotted course, and made the jump to hyperspace.

“Ama says to come down to the cargo bay when you’re finished. We’re all training today. Kaan and I have to learn how to turn him into a quarterstaff.”

“I have a quarterstaff in my locker for you,” Din said. “One to practice with if Kaan not ready. He’s might not ever mature enough to be used as a staff weapon.”

“Great.” She trotted off, calling for IG.

“Is there a downside to learning to use the Force?” Ero asked.

“There are several schools of thought on that,” Din said. “In the past, Force users drew a thick line between the light and dark sides of the force. The Jedi created a code that was isolating, loveless, and without passion. As a result, time and time again, members of their order fell to the dark side where there was no discipline, senseless violence was encouraged, greed was considered glory, and they advocated a constant state of war.”

He glanced toward Ero and found the younger man looking horrified.

“Neither sounds great,” Ero admitted. “The Jedi gave up their clans?”

“They were often removed from their families as very small children and raised in temples. The code prohibited emotional attachments, romantic partners, or children,” Din said. “The prohibition so intense that falling in love was considered the gravest of sins and something to be hidden.”

“Is there a middle ground?” Ero questioned. “I don’t see either of those paths viable for a Mandalorian. They don’t mesh with the creed.”

“There is a third path,” Din agreed. “Some would say it is a balance between the light and the dark, but I’ve never agreed with that. You can’t put a foot on both paths without taking the risk of falling one way or another. The path of the Sith, a dark side user, is a wretched one that injures and at times tortures the Living Force. And a Jedi’s life is so bereft of love that to live such a life is obscene to me.”

“Buir says neutrality is impossible,” Ero said. “To be neutral is to surrender—one way or another.”

Din didn’t disagree. “The path of the Grey Jedi is one of supposed balance—it advocates peace, passion with restraint, strength, and power tempered by knowledge and serenity. It emphasizes free will and a life led with purpose within the embrace of the Force.”

“That’s your path,” Ero said.

“Do you think so?” Din questioned.

“That’s always been your path,” he said. “I don’t think the Force has anything to do with that.” He shrugged. “Or maybe it did? The Force lives, right? In all of us?”

“So I’ve been told,” Din murmured and stood. “Here’s hoping Cara lets us have lunch.”

“This is where little kids come in handy,” Ero said. “People always remember to feed them, and if she forgets, Dral will definitely remind her that his stomach is empty.”

– – – –

Dral ran away and hid in the galley halfway through the morning training session, which didn’t bode well for lunch happening on time. Din didn’t blame his son at all, but the fourth time the training remote pinged a low-powered laser bolt against his helmet, he considered ejecting it into hyperspace. It was tempting to remove his helmet altogether, but he’d never go without in the field, so he had to learn to use the darksaber and the Force in full armor.

Cara prodded the waiting remote out of her way and poked him in the chest. “I think you depend too much on the HUD.”

“Agreed,” Din muttered. “I can’t go without my helmet in the field, and using all the tools available to me is instinct at this point. I’ve worn it for 20 years.” He turned off the darksaber and pushed aside all thoughts of the future where he’d worn no helmet at all. It was best if he kept such memories buried as much as possible to avoid saying something weird in public.

“And you trust them,” Cara said. “Your only option is to learn to blend the two together. I guess you need to read those books you’ve got in the security vault.”

“They’re just full of religious dogma,” Din muttered. He’d skimmed them in the other timeline because, by the time he’d seen them, he’d known the tenants well.

“There could be something underneath all of that for you to learn,” she said. “Maybe your perspective of the Force is too rigid, or your mind is. It’s a weapon, right? There isn’t a weapon made that you can’t learn to use, so stop letting the philosophy get in the way.”

“Your wife is right.”

Din tilted his head and turned to look at Obi-Wan. “How’d things go?”

“In a few short hours, the entire HoloNet is going to explode with the news of an uncharted planet in the unknown region imploding and becoming a star,” Obi-Wan said. “Qui-Gon is quite proud of himself since he managed to do it before major construction started on the planet. The population was minimal and all Imperial. No one especially powerful was on-site, unfortunately. The political machine is still very much in action.”

Din nodded. “I find that disturbing on several levels.”

“And you should,” Obi-Wan said. “But the Force would’ve never allowed the communion to take place if it was the wrong course of action. It can’t control everything in the universe, but it certainly could’ve prevented Qui-Gon and Yoda from interacting with the planet’s kyber core if it had wanted to.

“It’s your nature to seek to conquer the most obvious of your weapons within the Force,” Obi-Wan said. “In theory, I don’t disagree with your approach as the darksaber is a powerful and immediate weapon that is already very loyal to you. It has not known such peace since Tarre Vizsla himself carried it, but in your efforts to entirely divorce the Force from the religious principles of the Jedi, you’ve missed the deeper meaning of what it means to be a Force user.”

“Which is?” Din asked wearily and rubbed the back of his neck.

“You have to trust it,” Obi-Wan said. “You will live millions of moments without the influence of the Force, but when it touches you when it seeks to guide you—you must trust it. It’s more than a mere acknowledgment. Qui-Gon says you have a deep and abiding respect for the Force. I see that but what I don’t see is trust.”

“Trust is earned,” Din said.

“And in your mind, the Living Force betrayed you in the most base way possible,” Obi-Wan said and glanced around to their audience. “And yet, here you stand by the grace of the Cosmic Force. Maybe those old books and scrolls could teach you something, but perhaps, Din Djarin, you already know everything you need to know. You just need to stop letting that knowledge get in your way.”

Mystic bantha shit, Din thought and clipped the saber on his belt. He had a wealth of theoretical knowledge about the Force that he could not explain to most in his current circumstances—information he’d gathered over decades in the other timeline. He could probably get away with a lot because of how isolated he’d kept himself from the covert on Nevarro over the years, and the people on Tatooine barely knew him at all.

The darksaber was more than a weapon. It was more than a lightsaber, for that matter. It had, over the centuries, become a symbol of freedom and strength for his people. Maybe it was a bit intimidating to think along those lines, and he certainly hadn’t had all that much respect for it in the heat of the moment on Dagobah. He’d had bigger stumbling blocks in training, but none where he’d felt so isolated.

“They aren’t separate,” Din said finally.

“What?” Obi-Wan questioned.

“The Cosmic Force and the Living Force—they aren’t separate entities. You speak of them as if they are.”

“It’s what I was taught,” Obi-Wan said. “You met the Cosmic Force.”

Din nodded. “She put…her hands on me.” He glanced over and found the Force Spirit gaping at him. “And in that moment, I knew that the separation—Cosmic and Living—is merely an illusion created by our physical reality. Perhaps they were separate at one point, but they are one now—merged so that the destruction of one would guarantee the destruction of the other. It is a true union—a marriage of sorts.”

“I have no frame of reference,” Obi-Wan admitted. “I grew up in the temple on Coruscant, turned away from the one chance I had to be loved, and followed the code until I died.”

Din took a deep breath. “You’re the most concerned, of all the Force Spirits I’ve interacted with, about the path being carved out for the Living Force.”

“Yes.”

“I would ask you one question.” He watched the older man nod. “If Vader could’ve turned to you for support—if he could’ve bared his soul to you and confessed his love, his anger, and the darkness that Darth Sidious was breeding in his heart without the fear of your rejection—do you think he’d have still fallen to the dark side?”

Obi-Wan lowered his head and faded from view without a word.

“Did I just pick on an old man?” Din asked Cara wearily.

“You asked him a question he’s probably asked himself a thousand times,” Cara said. “He certainly had long enough to think about it. Let me ask you one—did you learn to shoot with a helmet on?”

“No,” Din said. “I was in training by 12 but didn’t put a helmet until I was 16.” He made a face and unlatched his helmet. “Here’s hoping that little shit doesn’t give me bald spots; my wife has feelings about that.”

She laughed and took it.

– – – –

Cara relaxed against the wall, shifted Dral in her lap, and watched Din move around the cargo bay, deflecting little laser bolts from the training remote with more success. His helmet was on the floor beside hers, and Rey was sprawled out on her stomach watching the whole thing.

“I don’t think I can do that.”

Cara glanced toward Ero, who’d sparred with Aja for nearly two hours before both boys had begged for rest and a spot on the wall. “It’s a skill you can be taught.”

“Well, there’s only one lightsaber on this ship, and I’m not touching the darksaber,” Ero said. “Ever.”

“There’s one in the vault we picked up on Dagobah, but it’s for Dral,” Cara said. “The hilt would probably be too small for you. We can gather the materials needed to build you one. There were kyber crystals amongst the stuff that Obi-Wan Kenobi hid in the vergence. I think Jedi were asked to make their own weapons.”

Ero made a face. “Would that insult the Armorer?”

Cara considered that. “I don’t…know.” She blew out a breath. “I mean…traditionally, she’d make any weapons that couldn’t be purchased, right?”

“It’s the way,” Eros said. “There isn’t a single beskad in my clan that wasn’t forged by her hand. The only ancestral blade we had left was passed to Ba’vodu Din when he swore the creed.”

“Wait,” Aja said and sat up. “That beskad he showed me is the ancestral blade of House Vizsla?”

Ero sent him a look. “Only slightly less famous than the darksaber, yes.”

“My buir told me I should carry it,” Din said as he came to a stop in front of them. He poured himself a glass of water. “He said I should learn to carry the weight of the kad as the weight would grow much heavier for me when I was older. Looking back, I wish he’d have been less cryptic. I could’ve used some more explicit guidance.”

“There were people on Alderaan who were regarded as visionaries,” Cara said. “They guided our royal family for generations through the prophecies they foretold. I remember when I heard that our world was gone—I wondered why none of them had foreseen it.”

“If they were denied such a truth, it was a mercy,” Din said. “No one could remain sane with such a vision forced upon them. The Death Star, at that point, was unstoppable. Did Alderaan have a single ship capable of doing what Skywalker eventually did?”

Cara shook her head. “We had internal security, of course, but Alderaan hadn’t had any form of army or navy in generations. The republic protected us.” Her mouth pressed into a thin line. “Then the Empire ignored us until one day they didn’t.”

“Organa said that she didn’t believe a single survivor regretted Alderaan’s support of the rebellion,” Din said. “Is that true?”

“The only thing I regret is the Imperials I’ve yet to kill,” Cara said and glanced toward the remote which was hovering near Din. “Want to get the lightsaber one out?”

“No,” Din said firmly. “I only brought it with me to prevent someone in the covert from getting overly curious. Training remotes like this used to be very common on Mandalore, so traditionally, such things are part of our training procedures. I’ll eventually try it, but I need more room than I’ve got here to do so. What if it punches a hole in the side of the ship?”

“Not an optimal situation in hyperspace,” IG declared. “Lunch is served, and my report on WI-LA is ready for you.”

Cara stood. “Oh, you mean the little droid? That’s her name?”

“What little droid?” Rey demanded and set up. “We’ve got a little droid? Where is she?”

Din sighed and shot Cara a look. “She was in the bar, Rey. Cara found her yesterday, packed away in a storage cabinet. I’ve had IG investigating her code, and he’s going to tell us about her, then Cara and I will make a decision about whether or not she can be activated.”

Rey stared at him. “You said I could have a droid pet.”

“Then you went and got yourself a genetically modified anti-personnel weapon that anyone sane would run from,” Din told her and raised an eyebrow at her when she huffed. “Besides, she’s not a pet. She’s a techno droid, a class two, which means she has a personality matrix and is sapient. Droid pets are normally rated as class five—sentient, but they don’t have the processing power or ability for complicated tasks.”

“You know a lot about droids to dislike them so much,” Rey said.

Cara watched several conflicting emotions war on her husband’s face and figured she should probably rescue him from their daughter’s too astute observation.

“It is of vital importance to know one’s enemies,” IG interjected from the top of the ramp.

Cara offered Din the baby, and he took him with a look of relief. “Rey, your buir’s experiences with droids haven’t always been good. Remember?”

Rey flushed. “Sorry, Buir. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“You weren’t,” Din said and guided her up the ramp the moment she stood. “IG and Cara are both right—I’ve had some really terrible experiences with droids, and I did, for a very long time, consider every single one of them my enemy, but then I met someone who taught me something that I was very invested in overlooking.”

“What?” Rey questioned as they all settled down at the table. “If it’s not a private lesson?”

“His name was Kuiil,” Din said. “And he died protecting Dral shortly before I came to Jakku to meet you. He taught me that droids are merely a mirror of those who program them and that the ones that killed my parents were the mechanical representation of the Empire. Imperials considered droids tools, property that they could use and abuse as they saw fit.”

“People, too,” Rey said.

“Yes,” Din agreed. “So, I’m working on myself and my attitude regarding droids because of my friend’s sacrifice. It’s why I had Peli give IG a new body. IG was repaired and imprinted by Kuiil.”

“I was not a good droid before Master Kuiil,” IG said. “He gave me a better purpose in life, and it is an honor to carry that legacy.” He paused. “If I ever find my previous owner, I’m going to make my displeasure known. Vehemently.”

“I’ll help,” Cara said darkly.

“Chou-shou and potato casserole,” IG said as he started to slide plates onto the table. “I’ve made nuna-bread pudding for Dral. It cuts easily into small squares so he can have independence.”

Cara glanced toward the plate put in front of Dral and did her best not to grimace. She actively hated bread pudding of any sort, and nuna was probably her least favorite protein source to exist in the galaxy. She’d rather eat bean and liver paste.

“What does nuna taste like?” Rey asked curiously as she watched Dral shove a whole square of bread pudding into his mouth.

“Sadness,” Aja muttered and shifted on the bench with a wince.

“Hip hurting?” Cara questioned and focused on him.

“A little stiff, but you were right—stretching and sparring helped.”

“What does sadness taste like?” Rey asked with a frown.

Din laughed. “If it tastes like nuna—then it tastes like frogs which your brother loves, so that’s a plus.”

“I got stuck on a ship with a busted hyperdrive once,” Cara said. “It took us three weeks to get back to a port for repairs, and the only food we had on the ship was nuna meal bars. By the end of week one, I was considering putting myself in carbonite for the rest of the trip.”

“Have you ever been in carbonite?” Ero asked with a frown.

“Once,” Cara admitted. “There used to be a bounty on my head. I got caught up by a pair of lucky bastards on Dantooine, and they put me on ice because I put up too much of a fight. Fortunately, an old friend of mine from the rebellion got word I’d been captured because the idiots who did it were bragging. My friend stole the bounty hunter’s ship, pulled me out of the carbonite, and got me functional. Then he took the other bounties in for processing. I got the bounty credits, and he kept the ship.”

“Generous, sort of,” Din said. “How good of a friend?”

Cara grinned at him. “Kor prides himself on being a good friend.”

“Oh.” Din quirked an eyebrow. “Dantooine is pretty far from Naboo.”

“What can I say?” Cara shrugged. “He’s a dedicated acolyte.”

“Can’t blame him there, I guess, as long as he keeps all future worship at a respectful distance.”

“What’s on Dantooine?” Aja asked.

“Nothing much,” Din said. “There was an old rebel base there once, but it’s mostly in ruin now. The New Republic routed out the Imperial remnant there several years ago in their search for something or someone—the details aren’t well known.”

“They were looking for a grand moff,” Cara said. “But he’d been warned in advance of their arrival and bailed. Mostly it’s just farmers, now. Their biggest export is nerf, which was brought to the planet by colonists. There is no native population due to the Empire. After the Battle of Endor, there was brief talk of the survivors of Alderaan settling there, but it never happened on a formal basis.”

“Why were you there, Ama?” Rey asked. “Were you looking for your people?”

Cara shook her head. “No, it was my first attempt to lay low after I left the military. Part of me wanted to stay close to the Coruscant, in case something happened, but after the close call with bounty hunters, I had to make a different call.”

“You’re not still wanted, right?” Ero asked with a frown.

“My chain code is clean,” Cara assured. “I’d have never made it off Coruscant if it weren’t.”

“You’d have made it off,” Din muttered and stood. “Like they need to give me another reason to tell the entire senate to fuck off.” He poured himself so more water. “Does anyone desperately need the vac? I want a shower.”

“Oh, me!” Rey exclaimed and darted off toward the refresher. “I’ll be quick, Buir!”

Cara watched Din drink his water. “Peli said we needed an additional vac.”

“I did underestimate how much of a pain sharing would be,” Din said. “But I’ve rarely had a long-term passenger on my ship that wasn’t in carbonite.”

Aja snorted.

“I’m kind of surprised the moff was willing to share a vac with stormtroopers,” Ero said.

“He didn’t,” Cara said and shot the boy a look. “They probably had a field waste disposal unit for long trips in the cargo bay. I imagine any troopers he brought with him were not allowed to leave the cargo area at all.”

“What does…that look like?” Ero asked.

“A bucket with a recycling unit attached,” Aja said with a small laugh. “Not pleasant in the least.”

Rey came back and dropped back down in her place. “What about the little droid?”

Cara met Din’s gaze.

“IG, fill Cara in on the particulars, and she can decide what to do with the unit.” He walked away, rubbing his head with both hands.

Cara took a deep breath and shared a glance with Aja, who winced.

“Is he mad at me?” Rey asked softly.

“No,” she said and smiled. “It’s not about you at all—sometimes change is hard, you know?”

Rey nodded. “I…when my parents left me on Jakku, it was hard. Plutt tried to make me stay in his house, but it was terrible there, and I couldn’t sleep when he was around. It just didn’t feel safe, and I’d never been around anyone but them before. I’d never seen another person until they left me there and there were so many strangers. Some of them didn’t speak Basic, so I didn’t understand what they wanted when they yelled at me.

“I knew it was wrong to steal, but the work was really hard, at first. I didn’t know what was valuable to sell, and Plutt would yell at me when I got it wrong. It was just really hard. But I thought it would just be for a little while, and they’d come back for me, but they never did. They were never going to come back because they were dead, and I didn’t know that, not really. I think the Force was telling me, but I was working hard to ignore it. I made a plan to stay close to the outpost and survive so I’d be easy to find when they came back.

“But Master Qui-Gon told me they were never going to come back because they were dead, and he told me I could have a new family, so I agreed, but it was hard to let them go.”

Cara brushed her hair from her forehead. “I’m glad you agreed, but I’m sorry that they couldn’t stay with you. I know it hurts a lot.”

“Yes, but it also makes me mad,” Rey admitted. “Because they weren’t a good family to me—you and Buir would never leave me to fend for myself with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. You’d fight for me, and they didn’t. Maybe they couldn’t, but it still makes me mad.”

“It makes me mad, too,” Cara said and cleared her throat before focusing on IG. “Tell me about the droid.”

“She is a techno-service droid, as you already know. The model is quite old and out of production, but she’s in perfect condition. Her base skill set is mechanical engineering which is common for her model. She has active protocols for repair, cleaning, and laundry. Her mobility skill set is very good—she can roll on a single wheel, split the wheel into two feet, and she has repulsorlifts on her feet for flight, but those are currently disabled. Her optimal speed is achieved with the wheel. There is no active memory.”

“None?” Cara questioned and considered that. “She was wiped, probably after every single mission this ship went on. That’s standard Imperial protocol for intelligence operations. It would also explain the ship’s computer.”

“What’s wrong with the ship’s computer?” IG questioned.

“The maps were a decade or more out of date, Din and I speculated that it might have been a cloned program, but it could’ve been just repeatedly restored from an old back-up.”

“To destroy navigational data and any ship logs permanently,” IG said. “It appears that Moff Gideon used this ship for something nefarious.”

“Whatever it was, it was outside of his regular operations on Nevarro,” Cara said. “There were no records of trips in his records that I pulled from his base.” She focused on the baby, who was holding his empty plate up to IG. “I think he wants more.”

IG took the plate. “Certainly, my apologies, young Master Dral.”

Cara focused on Rey. “Let me have a talk with your buir about this. He has a really complicated reason for trusting IG that I think you’re too young to hear.”

“Okay,” Rey said. “I won’t bring it up again, I promise. I just got excited.”

“You guys finish up lunch and help IG with clean up. Aja, Ero—we need to clean all the weapons we used on Dagobah—so set up for that in the cargo bay. Rey, IG will set you up with afternoon lessons.” She stood and left the table in favor of the first aid cabinet. “Aja, you’ll probably want to put a muscle relaxer crème on your leg—hip to ankle before you sleep.” She pulled out a small tube and grabbed a second for Din. “It’s got a very low dose of bacta in it, so you might get a cooling sensation during application.”

Aja accepted the tube with a smile. “Thanks.”

“Do the stretches several more times today,” she said. “Keeping the limb loose and limber now is to your benefit.”

Din left the vac as she made it back to crew quarters, so she followed him silently into their room and locked the door behind her.

“Sorry,” he said roughly.

“For?” Cara questioned.

“I said we’d make that decision together, then just threw it on your lap,” he shrugged out of the bathrobe and tossed it aside. His arms were covered in bruises.

“I didn’t think that training remotes packed that big of a punch.”

“It responds to skill and age,” Din muttered. “I imagine it wouldn’t be more than a little sting for a kid since they were designed to train padawans. It’s certainly less painful than actually taking a hit from a blaster…the training remote the covert had when I was younger was vicious compared to this one. I broke my first bone using that remote. I was about eight.”

“I brought some ointment,” Cara said and prodded him toward the bed. “Using a saber of any sort is a different kind of activity than you’re used to.”

“Thanks,” he said and relaxed as she joined him on the mattress and opened the tube. “Tell me about the little droid.”

“Mech and domestic skills,” Cara murmured. “No special protocols. I don’t know if the restraining bolt reflects her personality or merely an indication that whoever was responsible for her operations didn’t want to bother with developing a relationship with her. She has no active memory file, which means she was factory reset before she was stored.”

“Imperial protocol for high-security missions requires all droids be reset,” Din said. “Maybe he was running missions back and forth to Ilum for the construction of Star-Killer Base.”

“Maybe,” Cara murmured. “I do wonder where he got his funds—where he got the beskar.”

“It had Imperial markings,” Din said quietly. “It could’ve been mined and removed from Mandalore decades before it ended up his hands.”

“Or it could’ve been mined six months ago,” Cara said. “We don’t know what’s happening on Mandalore, who’s in charge, and what they’re doing. For all we know, whatever is operating there is how the First Order was funded in the first timeline.”

Din exhaled sharply. “I, too, regret all the Imperials you’ve yet to kill.”

She pressed a kiss to his shoulder before shifting around on the bed to rub some of the crème on his back. “How do you feel about the saber training now?”

“It got easier when I relaxed,” Din admitted. “I’m starting to understand what Obi-Wan meant, but it’s difficult. Jedi were taught to trust the Force above and beyond their own senses, and I’m not sure I’m capable of that kind of blind faith.”

“What was it like?” Cara asked quietly. “You said the Cosmic Force touched you.”

“Overwhelming,” he said and took a deep breath. “Devastating. It felt like she forgave me for my greatest sin.”

“Turning Dral over to that Imperial.”

“Yes,” Din admitted and closed his eyes. “And I’ll never earn that forgiveness—not from him or the Force. Maybe he’s too young to ever truly understand what I did that day, but it burns in me like a fire—the shame of it. Sometimes, when I first wake up in the morning for a moment, I’m in that little house on Sorgan, and he’s dead—you’re all dead, and I have nothing.”

“We’re here,” Cara said as she finished up and tossed the tube on the nightstand. She swung around and settled down on his thighs. “And we’re not going anywhere, one way or another, we’re going to get this right for everyone—including you, Din. You made a mistake, and I’m going to tell you something that you’ve been ignoring for probably decades in your own mind—most would’ve done the same. I would’ve done the same.” She caught his face with both hands, and he shuddered against her. “I want to believe that I would’ve gone back for him like you did, but I don’t know that for certain because it wasn’t a choice I had to ever make.”

“You made it that day on Nevarro when I asked you to take him and run from Gideon—you did it.” Din cupped her hips and pulled her closer. “You wanted to stay for me, but you left for him. It was a comfort, in the moment, to know that I could trust you to keep him safe when I died.”

Cara closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his forehead. “We’re supposed to be talking about that silly droid, and you’re sitting here trying to tear my heart out.”

“I hate to tell her no,” Din admitted. “I don’t want her to be spoiled, but I also can’t see myself ever letting her want for a thing that is in my power to provide. And I know my gut reaction to droids is irrational and bordering on some kind of…speciesism which is offensive and contrary to the way. I’ve often taken a deeply unethical stance regarding droids in general which I’m ashamed of. I couldn’t tell you how many I’ve destroyed on sight over the years, whether they had the potential to be a threat or not. I just never gave them a chance to be a threat, I guess. I mean, I haven’t done it in decades on a mental level, but…well, the last two droids in this timeline made themselves threats to Dral.”

“Which is a reasonable action on your part,” she said. “And no different, really, than killing all of those Imperials or Gideon. I shot the one on the lava barge because it wasn’t listening to me.”

“It should’ve listened,” Din muttered. “I know that Imperialism did a lot to shape how droids are treated and perceived—both in their actions and their policies. I’m not immune to that, and I want to be. I don’t want the Empire’s actions to twist and ruin me.”

“Rey told Leia Organa that the Empire broke people and that the New Republic was doing nothing to fix it. She also told her that people on Jakku said there was no difference between the Empire and the New Republic.” Cara ran her fingers through his hair. “Then she said—that you weren’t broken. She said you had hope and that when you laughed, it went all the way to your eyes. And if that little girl, who scavenged for a year to survive on a desert world, sees that in you—then you haven’t been ruined—not even after the life you’ve led that she knows nothing about.”

Chapter 4

It took about a half-hour for WI-LA to get up enough courage to leave the bar area after IG left her. Din had settled at one of the tables in the common area with several of the Jedi texts and watched the little droid peek around the edge of the bar at him repeatedly. The texts weren’t in the best shape, so he’d decided to create digital copies of them. Ero had volunteered to help, and he was currently scanning pages of one of the books with a datapad. Din watched the droid roll a few meters, then stop to check where everyone was in the room as if she was petrified of going someplace she shouldn’t.

Din set aside his work and walked into the galley where IG was preparing snacks and meals to go into stasis. “She doesn’t have any active memories?”

“None before being turned on 42 minutes ago,” IG said. “Why?”

“She’s…scared,” Din said reluctantly. “Timid.”

“I doubt she’s ever operated without a restraint bolt,” IG said. “And while she does not remember being mistreated, there could be an imprint left behind in her neural harness of being punished for not meeting the expectations of her previous operator. It would best to give her a series of uncomplicated instructions that can’t be misunderstood. I haven’t done laundry today.”

“You don’t have to do our laundry,” Din protested, then frowned as he realized he hadn’t done a single bit of cleaning since IG had been activated. He hadn’t even noticed. “You don’t have to cook for us, either.”

“I most certainly do,” IG stated. “You’d eat nothing but meal bars, otherwise. It’s my base function—to nurse and protect.”

“Only Dral needs a nurse,” Din pointed out.

“I beg to differ,” IG said and walked off. “WI-LA, come with me, and I will assign your chores.”

The little silver and black droid beeped excitedly and followed along on her wheel. Din went back to his project because arguing with IG never worked out for him, which was frustrating. There was no winning with a hunter droid’s logic circuits, no matter what its base function might be. He slouched back on the bench and picked up his datapad.

“Why document all of this…religious stuff if it doesn’t really work for us?” Ero asked.

“Because the culture of the Jedi doesn’t deserve to be lost and destroyed,” Din murmured. “Even if their code is an antithesis to our own. That kind of thinking is what built the Empire—it is the way of the Imperial to destroy everything around them and replace it with their own ideas and desires. I would have no part of such a selfish and ultimately destructive path.

“Many thousands of Jedi over the history of the galaxy found comfort and solace in the religious teachings and the code that came from it. It would not ease me, and it may not ease you in the future, but that doesn’t lessen its value.”

Ero nodded. “I don’t think…” He trailed off and frowned before focusing on the book in front of him.

“What?” Din prodded.

“You’re nothing like I thought you were,” Ero blurted out and flushed furiously. “I guess I had this image of you that was unrealistic and maybe one-dimensional.”

“I avoided interacting with the members of the covert on Nevarro as much as I could,” Din confessed. “For a very long time, I didn’t think I could afford to have any attachments there because your buir and I argued so much.”

“Over the Armorer,” Ero said and raised an eyebrow when Din looked toward him startled. “It’s no secret, really, that Buir always wanted her. He thought you wanted her, too.”

“He doesn’t think either of us is worthy of her,” Din said. “I’m glad they’ve settled…well, I’m glad she settled that matter for them. It wasn’t doing either of them any favors to let it linger.”

“He loves her,” Ero murmured. “When I was younger, I thought he kept to himself because of me and my siblings. I thought maybe he didn’t want to burden her with all the foundlings he couldn’t help but adopt.”

“He does have a problem,” Din said wryly. “You’ll probably come home to a couple of more.”

“Well, I’ll be an uncle when I return, and that’s great. I didn’t get a chance to really get to know Emil, but I’ve been sending her messages along with the rest of the kids.”

“How’s the datapad handling the scan?” Din asked.

“Some of the ink is blurred or faded, but the best guess is normally pretty accurate as far as I can tell. This is a really old dialect of basic. Good thing Ba’vodu Ram is fond of languages because I don’t think either one of us would be able to read this if he hadn’t insisted on multiple languages being taught in the covert.”

“Agreed,” Din said. “Try to keep it as accurate as you can—our goal is to lose as little as possible in the transfer. We’ll keep the originals in a stasis vault to prevent them from deteriorating further.”

“I thought maybe it was your goal to prevent the Jedi Order from ever coming back, and that’s what collecting their texts was about.”

Din shook his head. “It’s not a path I could follow, nor is it one that I would encourage you to follow. I can’t see advocating stripping the love out of someone’s life for any reason, but I’d not actively prevent anyone from seeking that path no matter how damaging I find it to be. Free will is an integral part of all tolerant and forward-thinking societies. Oppression is a form of genocide, and it is one that the Empire gloried in. We have to be better than that.”

“But you think it’s bantha shit,” Ero said dryly.

“Utterly,” Din admitted and grinned when his nephew laughed. “But I think that a lot of belief systems are utter non-sense. There are plenty of people out there who find our lifestyle and the way genuinely appalling. I had a woman once offer to help me escape—she said she would hide me away on her family estate, and no one could ever make me wear a helmet again.”

“She wanted in your pants,” Cara muttered as she dropped down on the bench beside him.

“She’d already gotten in my pants,” Din admitted with a laugh when Ero flushed bright red, and Cara just raised an eyebrow at him. “Repeatedly.”

“Women are always trying to save your uncle from himself,” Cara said to Ero.

“You’re the only one to ever succeed,” Din said and smiled when her eyes widened fractionally.

Aja took that moment to join them. He sat down, drummed his fingers against his thigh, and sighed. “So space travel is kind of boring.”

“It’s worse alone,” Din admitted and felt his face heat when they all three focused on him. “It can be a cold, miserable experience—both physically and emotionally. Of course, traveling with a crew can be deeply frustrating if there is no privacy to be had. It was especially difficult under Death Watch’s code—when having a secure place to eat was paramount to protecting what I believed to be my entire identity. Sometimes I’d go a whole day without eating or hurriedly eat a meal bar in the vac, which on some smaller ships is the only room with a door that locks. It’s why I eventually installed a lock on the cockpit door of the Razor Crest—to ensure I had privacy when I had passengers that I couldn’t trust.” He paused. “Actually, you can’t trust most passengers—especially paying ones because they feel entitled to your space and time.”

“Do you wish…” Ero frowned and exhaled sharply.

“Go ahead and ask,” Din prodded.

“Do you wish that you weren’t the Mand’alor?”

Din considered how to answer that. “I would’ve never sought it out as a personal goal,” he admitted. “I don’t think a good man seeks power for the sake of power. It’s an honor, of course, but more it’s a duty that I’ve accepted as my own.”

“Do you think you’ll be challenged?” Aja questioned.

“I hope not because anyone that would challenge me for the darksaber in our current circumstances seeks nothing more than…” Din grimaced. “Manufactured glory. If they wait until after we’ve taken Mand’alor back, then they want power over our world, and I don’t trust that desire.” Little claws curled around his leg, so he reached down and picked up his son. “What are you up to?”

Dral laughed and tapped his claws against Din’s face. The Force shifted between them, and his son braced his feet on Din’s chest to bounce.

“Maybe he wants to practice,” Cara said as she leaned forward and picked up the baby’s hover ball from the floor where it had been dropped.

Din took the ball, and Dral giggled. “All right, ad’ika, the afternoon is yours.”

– – – –

Din settled down in the pilot’s seat and performed an unnecessary instrument check that made him feel kind of normal. The Razor Crest had required much more of him than the Tor did when it came to monitoring hyperspace travel. The VCX-100 was bigger and more complicated than the Razor Crest, but it came with many features that he figured he’d get used to eventually. The ship’s computer fed him updates regarding performance and travel through his vambrace, but he liked to sit in the seat.

He wasn’t all that surprised when Dral joined him. He picked his son up and found that he had the silver ball from Razor Crest’s hyperdrive lever in hand.

“It’s past your bedtime,” Din murmured and got a bit of babble in response. “You did really well today.” He put his feet up like he used to on his old ship, and Dral shifted around until he could lay on his chest. “I worry that I’m going to push you to grow up faster than you should, and you’ll resent me for it.”

Dral yawned in response and wiggled around until he was comfortable and put both hands on Din’s hand where it lay on his stomach.

A soft beep sounded from the floor, and he looked down to see WI-LA standing between the two front seats. She had Dral’s blanket from the pram in her hand, which she offered. Din took the blanket and put it over his son.

“Thank you, WI-LA.” The bot rolled away with another soft little beep.

“Did you wish for me to put Dral in his pram?” IG questioned from the doorway of the cockpit.

“No,” Din said but then blurted out, “He smells like a baby.’

“He is a baby,” IG said. “I purchased appropriate products for his skin, which was quite dry. I also purchased a skin moisturizer made for infants—non-species specific.”

“You found that sort of thing in Mos Eisley?” Din asked in amusement.

“There are plenty of children who live in and around Mos Eisley,” IG pointed out. “They have needs, and parents require specialized products to take care of them. I also purchased Rey soaps and shampoos that would be gentle on her eyes. The one on board stung and irritated despite how expensive it is.”

“Made for adults,” Din said. “Right. Fatherhood is pretty new to me. I didn’t know stuff like that existed.” He took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome, Mand’alor.”

Dral dozed off completely after about twenty minutes of watching hyperspace, but Din just stayed where he was—the light show wasn’t anything interesting, but it was soothing to watch. For the most part, a ship was safest in hyperspace. There were precious few individuals in the galaxy who could make themselves a threat in a hyperspace lane, and he hadn’t seen a Star Destroyer in over five years. He knew there were some left—hidden away by the Imperial Remnant—but they wouldn’t start being a threat to the galaxy until the First Order was fully established.

“You two used to sleep in the cockpit of the Razor Crest,” Cara accused from behind him.

Din laughed. “Guilty.”

“The shower stall converts into a bathtub,” Cara said. “Wila showed me without prompting.”

“Wila?”

“The techno droid, she asked IG if we could call her Wila instead of WI-LA, and I thought it was fine. Is it that okay?”

“Yeah, I mean, sure.” Din considered that. “She brought me Dral’s blanket—did you tell her to do that?”

“No,” Cara murmured. “I think…she’s trying to be as helpful as possible, so we don’t put the restraining bolt back on her.”

Din grimaced. “I wouldn’t put one of those things on a droid I hated.” He sighed. “IG said she probably has some sort of imprint left behind despite the memory wipes.”

“They could’ve done nothing,” Cara said. “I mean, for some droids, the restraining bolt alone is enough of a trauma. Verbal threats, lack of real interaction, and the bolt—all of that combined could’ve left behind an imprint that makes her eager to please.”

“Or they could’ve punished her with the bolt every single time she failed to meet Gideon’s expectations,” Din muttered. “I think that little droid is going to make me feel like an asshole for days on end.”

Cara hummed under her breath. “I’m going to go take a bath, and when I’m finished, I’d like my husband to be in bed waiting for me so I can get laid.”

“Your husband is a lucky guy,” Din said and offered her a grin when she laughed.

He did one final check and left the cockpit. IG and Wila were waiting by the pram. “Something wrong?”

“No,” IG said. “She doesn’t like being alone. Wila also asked that she not be placed in the storage compartment to recharge. She’s…”

Din frowned. “She’s what?”

“Afraid of the dark,” IG admitted.

He blew out a surprised breath. “Dismantle the bar and pack all of the liquor in a crate—we’ll sell it. Let her help; maybe it’ll make her…feel better.” He put Dral in the pram and tucked the blanket in around him.

Dral made a soft whining noise, and Wila reached up to grasp the edge of the pram. Din moved to interfere, but she just started to rock it gently and hum. It took a few seconds for him to realize the droid was humming a song.

“Did you give her nurse protocols?” Din questioned in confusion.

“No, sir, I only inserted one line of code in her programming after I reactivated her repulsorlifts,” IG said.

“What code?” Din asked.

“I gave her the ability to reject and remove a restraining bolt,” IG said.

Din nodded. “Good.” He looked down at the tiny droid—she was smaller than Peli’s pit droids. “Is she a custom build?”

“No, this model techno-service droid was manufactured by Vertseth. Her size makes her ideal to enter into ship reactors and do direct repairs. She is .66 meters tall and 4.5 kilograms in weight—which is to-spec for her model. I did a thorough physical inspection during her code examination to make sure she had no after-market upgrades. She is missing one component.”

“Is it necessary for function?”

“No,” IG admitted. “Her speech modulator was removed, which is why she’s using droidspeak.”

“Can you manufacture her a new one?”

“No, it’s not on my skillset to design one, and I’m concerned that purchasing one will be difficult due to her age and the fact that the model is no longer being produced. Can I send a message to the manufacturer requesting information regarding a replacement?”

“Not directly,” Din said. “Contact Peli Motto and ask her to make the inquiry on your behalf.” He cleared his throat. “We’re going to engage the privacy protocols, but you have permission to override them if one of the kids needs us.”

“Very well,” IG said. “Come along, Wila, we have a construction project. Perhaps we should save the materials to create a second pram. We can download a design off the HoloNet.”

“Mind your own business, IG,” Din called after him and shook his head when he was ignored. “Do not download a midwife manual! I mean it!”

“Midwifery comes standard with nurse programming, Mand’alor,” IG declared loftily from the common area.

Din went to his room because that was the limit. He used to be in charge of his ship, and now…not so much. He didn’t know if he should blame the kids or IG. Either way, he was clearly the boss of nothing. He pulled the duvet from the bed because the look in Cara’s eye before she’d gone off to bathe had spoken to the fact that she expected him to treat her getting laid like it was his sole responsibility.

The door opened, and Cara entered. She locked the door and activated the privacy with a few flicks of her fingers, and sent him a look so predatory that he grinned.

“What?”

“You look like you’re spoiling for a fight,” he murmured and quirked an eyebrow. “We can go down to the cargo bay and spar if you want.”

“The line between fight and fuck has always been thin for me,” Cara admitted with flushed cheeks. She wet her lips and averted her gaze. “Maybe too thin.”

“No such thing in my world,” Din admitted as he pulled her close. “If I’d been alone on Sorgan, you wouldn’t have been offered soup the day we met.”

She burst out laughing. He used her amusement against her and picked her up quickly. She gasped against his mouth as he pressed her against the wall. Cara’s legs settled around his waist as he cupped her ass.

“I thought about luring you out of the village and into the woods when we were on Sorgan,” Din murmured against her jaw, he rubbed his beard against her skin, and she shuddered. “Those woods got so dark, you wouldn’t have been able to see a thing.”

“But you’d have seen me,” Cara said and let her head fall back against the wall as she curled her hands over his shoulders. “You could’ve held me against one of those trees—just like this and fucked me.”

“I figured the tree would be too rough,” Din murmured. “I’d have been very interested in taking off every single thing you were wearing. So, you’d have gotten to lay down on my cloak.”

“Me naked in the woods and you in full armor,” she said in amusement. “Cock out.”

“I’d think you were uninterested in such a scenario if your thighs weren’t trembling,” he said and quirked an eyebrow when she laughed. “Your armor fetish is just shocking, Dune.” Her breath caught, and her eyes widened a little. “What?”

She shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

“Hey,” Din said and lifted her off the wall. He walked over to the bed and sat down with her. “Don’t deflect—I’ll play whatever little games you want but if I misstep, tell me.”

She exhaled. “You called me Dune.”

“Oh.” He rubbed her thighs. “We really didn’t discuss the name thing—how’d that work on Alderaan?”

“It was political and about social power—the married couple would take the surname of the more powerful family, so gender had no role in that decision. In our circumstance, due to your position, everyone would assume I’d take your name. My father was a traditionalist, so he’d expect it.” She looked down at her hands and shrugged. “What will be expected from other Mandalorians? It seemed like a big a deal that Nez Vizsla didn’t give any of his foundlings his name.”

“The name Vizsla is steeped in Mandalorian history and lore,” Din said. “It was unspoken between my buir and I—that I’d accept it if he offered and that he would give it if I asked. Part of me regretted not asking after he died—I felt like I’d denied him something he wanted. But, I’m glad I didn’t.”

“Why?”

“Because if I were a Vizsla, everyone, including Paz, would expect me to be the patriarch of House Vizsla because of the darksaber. I can’t see taking that from him—it’s Buir’s legacy, and it was always meant to be Paz’s.”

“It’s a role I think Hab Wren someday wanted,” Cara said. “He was a very political and ambitious person. How will Clan Wren and Bo-Katan Kryze respond to his death?”

“If they know what’s good for them—they’ll offer me nothing but their sincere apologies regarding the actions of Hab,” Din murmured. “Bo-Katan isn’t going to challenge me, cyaryc.”

“What does cyaryc mean?” Cara questioned as she ran her fingers through his hair.

“Beloved,” he explained. “I haven’t asked you to take my name because I don’t want to take anything away from you. To have you like this with me is an honor and a privilege. It was a dream that sustained me in the other timeline—kept me alive when there were times when giving in to death would’ve been easier.”

“I hate how…you didn’t live in the other timeline,” Cara said. “You should’ve given yourself permission to love and to have children, Din.”

“Never,” Din said roughly and relaxed his hands to keep from bruising her. “You’re the only woman I’ve ever wanted that with, and I wasn’t miserable. I just…grieved. I never let it go—I held it close because it was all I had left of either of you. It certainly wasn’t healthy, but in the end, I can’t regret it. If I had married and had other children—I couldn’t have left that family behind to do what I’ve done. Everything I have is yours—including my name. The choice is yours, and I won’t resent you if you never take it.”

“Okay,” Cara murmured.

“Now, I was lured from my very comfortable resting place in the cockpit with the promise of getting my dick wet,” he said and grinned as she huffed like she was offended. “And you aren’t delivering.”

Cara pushed him back on the bed and pulled her long nightshirt over her head. Din propped up his elbows and exhaled long and slow as he looked her over.

“You ready for this, Mand’alor?”

“Oya,” he declared, and she laughed.

Din shifted under her, took a deep breath as she freed his cock. He pulled his shirt off and tossed it aside. She sank down on his cock, and he groaned as her fingers curled and clenched on his skin as she braced herself on his chest. He cupped her ass with one hand and rolled his hips in an upward thrust as she ground down. Cara threw her head back and groaned. As much as he enjoyed her aggression, in and out of bed, there was something enthralling about his wife when her only clear goal was getting off.

She was quickly on the edge, so he slid his free hand between their bodies and pressed against her clit. Cara arched her back and came with a shocked little shudder. Din laughed at the disgruntled look she gave him, but he rolled them over and braced himself with both hands on either side of her head. She spread her legs as she trembled through the last of her orgasm.

After she relaxed under him, he started to move with one long slow stroke after another. Cara shuddered against him, clenched her hands on his back, and arched under him with a pleased moan. Part of him thought they might fight for dominance in bed, repeatedly, but the give and take they enjoyed outside of sex had easily translated into the more intimate part of their relationship. It helped, Din thought, that they both just really liked to get off as often as possible. She came twice more before he let himself come.

“Now, I need a shower,” she said with a pleased tone as he pulled free of her body and dropped down in an exhausted heap beside her on the mattress.

“You’re a lot of work,” Din said and laughed when she elbowed him. “Best job I ever took on.”

Chapter 5

“K’olar!” Din barely refrained from laughing as everyone scrambled up from their places around the common area in shock and took position around him. “I’d order you to take aim, but not a single one of you is armed.”

“I’m armed, Buir!” Rey said with a huff and brandished Kaan.

“We’re in our pajamas,” Cara muttered hotly. “You asshole.”

Ero yawned. “It has to be illegal to treat us like this before breakfast.”

Aja just stretched and scratched the back of his head.

Din laughed and walked away. “As you were.” He picked up Dral, who’d managed to form up for the first time without Rey’s assistance. “Great job, ad’ika.” He headed for the galley. “Touch down in two hours—armor inspection in 90 minutes. IG has food on the table. Everyone take a seat and stay for the next 30, we’ll be doing a couple of microjumps, and it might get a little rough.” He put Dral in his chair and accepted the meal bar that IG clearly didn’t want to give him.

“Can I watch?” Ero questioned.

“It means a meal bar instead of a regular breakfast,” Din warned and just nodded when Ero grabbed two of the bars from the basket on the counter next to the cooker.

He settled into the pilot seat and checked the time. They had ten more minutes in hyperspace before they reached their plotted destination. He reviewed the sensor data and widened the net to check the four ships that had been acting as their very distant escort since he’d left Tatooine. He hadn’t been sure initially as he’d used a very popular and crowded route to Dagobah.

“Who are they?”

“Mandalorians,” Din murmured. “I reviewed sensory records from my trip back to Tatooine from Coruscant—they escorted me back at about the same distance. They’re giving me plenty of room.”

“So not a threat?”

“Not an overt one,” Din said. “If one of them wanted to challenge me, they’d have done it on Tatooine in front of our tribe.”

“They’ve appointed themselves your honor guard,” Ero said. “Any idea on who?”

“House Kryze,” Din murmured.

Ero jerked forward slightly. “Bo-Katan is on one of those ships? And you don’t consider her a threat?”

“Yes, and no, she’s not a threat to me in any shape or form,” Din murmured. “Bo-Katan Kryze is not perfect; none of us are. Many resent her for losing Mandalore to the Empire, but the fact is that no one could’ve held it. For generations to come, Clan Saxon and Clan Wren will be outright vilified for cooperating with the Emperor, but in the end, they had no choice either. Bo-Katan is loyal to Mandalore, Ero. She’d do nothing to endanger our ability to return to our home. She and many like her understand that I’m currently the best choice to lead that fight.”

“So they’ll wait until our world is liberated—maybe even give you ten years to get comfortable, then they’ll challenge you.”

“If that happens, it won’t be Bo-Katan,” Din said. “I can’t expect to rule unchallenged—it’s not the nature of our people, but I fully intend to remain Mand’alor until I can put the darksaber in the hand that will serve our world best.”

“Rey?” Ero questioned and flushed when Din looked toward him startled.

Din shook his head. “Her heart is too tender to do what must be done, and I can’t see her taking the darksaber from my hand willingly.”

“I don’t want it,” Ero said vehemently.

Din laughed. “I’ll try to remember that.”

“But you want to give it to someone Force-sensitive,” Ero said.

“I think that path serves Mandalore,” Din said. “It is my intention to intertwine the Force with the future of our people in such a way that we’ll attract Force-sensitive people from all species for the rest of time. Our training will protect them, the way will soothe them, and our world will become their home.”

“Sometimes I feel like you’re speaking from a place I’ll never understand,” Ero said and took a deep breath. “I don’t mean that as a criticism.”

“You’re young,” Din said and grinned when the boy laughed. “And that was a criticism.”

“Buir says it’s my worst feature—my age.”

“Worst and best,” Din agreed. “Thanks to your buir, you have the physical skills of a man three times your age, but you will struggle for years to act in moderation due to mental and emotional maturity. I was an impetuous little bastard well into my late twenties. I took jobs I shouldn’t have taken—some of it was about getting the credits we needed, but that wasn’t the whole of it. I believe in violence, and there was a time when I actively sought the opportunity to be as violent as possible as often as possible. If there was a fight to be had—I wanted in on it, and I didn’t care, honestly, what side of the fight I was on most of the time.”

“That’s how Buir described you once,” Ero admitted, and a series of little beeps drew his attention downward. Ero picked Wila up off the floor and sat her on his knee. “He doesn’t know what changed for you or when it really happened, but he’s relieved by it. I think he worried that you’d get yourself killed. He called it…hard-hearted recklessness.”

“I can’t even disagree,” Din said, and the ship slid out of hyperspace. He finished his meal bar and disengaged the auto-pilot. “Microjumps take precision—everything that exists on this plane exists in some form in hyperspace. The ship’s computer corrects navigation continuously in hyperspace, but with a microjump, it won’t have time.”

“How’s it done safely, then?” Ero questioned.

“You have to do the math and prepare to course-correct manually,” Din said. “They can also be used for tactical purposes in battle, but that’s even riskier if you have no experience with it. It’s not a maneuver most pilots can do. I learned from a very experienced pilot and brilliant military strategist how to do it.”

“Should you warn our escorts?” Ero asked and grinned when Din laughed.

“I guess there’s no need to be a bastard about it,” Din said wryly. “I wouldn’t want to make them feel bad about themselves when they lose us.”

“Or you could do it first, then send them a message,” Ero suggested. “So they know that you’re allowing them to follow you.”

“I can hear those words coming out of your buir’s mouth,” Din muttered.

“If you want to make a real point, activate the cloak,” Cara said from behind them and smirked. “I finished the install yesterday while you were working with Dral.”

“You’ll always be my favorite wife,” Din declared and laughed when she flicked his ear.

“I believe in violence, too,” she muttered and left the cockpit.

“Could you do this in one microjump?” Ero questioned.

“Yes, but two allows for more precision, and it’s a technique in battle that could drive your enemy to make foolish mistakes. A little practice never hurts. But you must be careful. If your calculations are off or the distance too short, you could end up half a parsec away from your intended destination.”

He punched in the math for the first jump, and Wila squeaked from her place on Ero’s leg when the ship shot into hyperspace. Din kept a hand on the controls, gaze flicking around to the instruments the entire 45 seconds; the ship spun a little as it came out of hyperspace, and in the galley, Dral giggled.

“You guys okay?” Din questioned.

“Fine!” Cara shouted. “Despite your teenage boy acrobatics.”

He couldn’t deny it—it would’ve been easy to control that spin, but where would the fun have been? He activated the cloak with a flick of his thumb just seconds before his whole instrument panel lit up.

“Whoa, what’s that?” Ero demanded.

Din laughed. “That’s four different near-light speed sensor probes hitting at the same time. I think the cloak fully engaged before they met the hull, though.” He activated the comm system and sent the biggest of the escort ships a message consisting of a single phrase addressed to Bo-Katan.

“What did you say?” Ero questioned.

Cin vhetin,” Din murmured. “I want her to know we’re on the same page.” A reply hit his comm a few moments later.

“Her response?”

This is the way,” Din reported.

“Does she deserve a clean slate?” Ero questioned.

“She’s a Mandalorian,” he murmured and calculated the next jump. “If I’m to learn to forgive myself for my own sins, then I must also do the same for others.” He turned off the cloak and sent another message with the coordinates for Ossus, then made his second jump without waiting for a response.

Wila clapped her hands and beeped excitedly as they dropped abruptly out of hyperspace a second time.

“Orbital administrator is slow on responses,” Din murmured as another comm came in. He snorted when he opened it and closed it without responding.

“What did she say?”

Nice flying, hotshot.” Din reviewed the data he was getting from the small, antiquated orbital administrator. “This thing is 934 years old. I’m surprised it’s still functional.”

“Looks like the deflector shields are about to go,” Ero said. “Should we pull it in and repair it?”

“No,” Din said. “There’s nothing much here—the planet is smaller than average for colonial purposes. Gravity on par with Jakku, so inhabitable but not ideal despite the temperate climate. No humanoid life left—the surface has some severe damage from bombardment.”

“The Empire?”

“Certainly,” Din murmured. “The temple here has been destroyed for a very long time, but they wouldn’t have wanted anyone living on the planet just in case. Their campaign was…more than just about the destruction of monuments, temples, and data.”

“They tried to subdue and control the Living Force as well,” Ero said. “Pretty arrogant.”

“Sheev Palpatine is the most arrogant shabuir to ever live,” Din muttered. “He believed he had the right to rule the entire galaxy, and anyone who disagreed didn’t deserve to live. While he did not personally order the destruction of Alderaan, he reveled in the horror and trauma left behind from the event. He did order the systematic extermination of the remaining Alderaanians in the galaxy. It was, in retrospect, one of the many reasons why the rebellion swelled up so quickly. The average person realized that the Emperor had no limits and that none of us would ever be safe with him in power. Giving your life to end him and the Empire stopped being a deal-breaker for many.”

“Why didn’t you join the rebellion?” Ero questioned. “You clearly believed in the fight they were taking on.”

“Death Watch, as a whole, was not welcome in the rebellion,” Din said after a protracted silence. “I ran weapons for them and smuggled supplies to various bases, but I wasn’t trusted beyond that. Recently, I found out one of their military strategists did look for me for recruitment but didn’t have a name to go with the event. I don’t know that I would’ve joined as a full member if she’d asked. I would’ve had to return the Razor Crest to the tribe so the covert could be supported. It would’ve required a lot of trust on my part, and it’s not my habit to trust outsiders like that.”

“We weren’t welcome because of Pre Vizsla’s actions in siding with the Separatists,” Ero speculated.

“Death Watch is widely considered a terrorist organization and with good reason. I’m relieved that Nez Vizsla parted ways with his brothers and sought to make way for himself and his own family. Most don’t know about the deep fracture within in Death Watch, and in the end, it’s none of their business anyway. We need to put it behind us as much as possible; at any rate, allowing ourselves to drown in historical conflicts does not serve Mandalore or us.”

“Brand new star in the Outer Rim,” Cara murmured and showed him the screen of her datapad. “Every major news source is reporting on it. Several factions within the senate are demanding an immediate investigation—citing potential Imperial involvement. A lot of fear-mongering about a new death star is being spread around.”

Din grimaced. “There’s not much I can do about that, really. I mean…unless we manufacture some sort of document from Gideon’s data and leak it.”

“Could we make it seem like the Imperials destroyed the planet themselves trying to build a new superweapon?” Ero asked. “I mean, we certainly don’t want to admit that a couple of Force Spirits blew up the planet because they didn’t like what was being done on it.”

“We don’t have to manufacture anything,” Cara said. “We just tell a half-truth here and there—let it spread. A few mentions on a public forum on the HoloNet that Ilum had a kyber crystal core could be enough. Within a few months, most will have come to the conclusion that it probably was an Imperial remnant, and they blew themselves up being idiots. I have a few throwaway identities set up on the HoloNet from when I was in the rebellion.”

Din nodded. “Any management we can do is for the better—there’s no need to let demoralizing propaganda spread.”

“What would the Empire have done with the planet?” Ero questioned as Cara left the cockpit with her datapad.

“It had the potential to be a weapon more devastating than a Death Star,” Din murmured. “Kyber crystal is very powerful, and Master Qui-Gon deeply feared what could be accomplished with Ilum’s exposed core.”

Ero nodded thoughtfully. “Do you ever get the feeling that you know more than you should? Like maybe they should just keep the stuff they do to themselves?”

“Absolutely,” Din admitted. “But I made a deal and stepped onto this path. There’s no room for regret now.”

“Will you ever…tell me what the deal was?” Ero asked.

“Only Cara knows the whole of it, and that is for the best,” Din said and just smiled briefly when his nephew nodded. “Good, go get ready.”

– – – –

Din opened his locker and stared just a moment before he pulled the jetpack free and put it on. Then he slung the amban over his back and holstered his preferred blaster. “IG, take your pick.”

The droid hesitated. “Sir?”

“Let’s not repeat the giant swamp squid situation,” Din said flatly. “It didn’t escape my attention that you quickly became the only dedicated defense for the kids, and you had no weapon. Your only eventual choice would’ve been to run with them if things had gotten completely out of hand.”

The droid plucked a full ammo belt from the locker, looped it over his head then picked up the E-11 blaster rifle. Din inclined his head and exhaled sharply.

“Did I make an inferior choice?” IG questioned.

“It’s your gun,” Din admitted. “I kept it after…”

“It would’ve been wasteful to leave the weapon,” IG said. “I’m sure I took great care of it.”

He nodded. “It was in superior condition, actually. I was quite pleased with the acquisition.” Din grabbed a rappelling harness for himself and closed the locker.

The area around the old temple was stable, and Din was relieved to note that it hadn’t been touched by the Empire’s attack as there were no settlements within hundreds of kilometers. Dral made a happy noise as soon as he toddled off the ramp and into the grass. After a few seconds, he flung himself into a patch of flowers, and Wila beeped excitedly as she followed him.

Din watched with amusement as Dral’s booted feet swung around in the air a little and just shook his head when Cara plucked him from the flowers. He turned and found Rey was standing on the ramp, still. Her amphistaff was coiling in the air around her—a signal of nervousness on her behalf as far as Din could tell.

She made a face. “Did someone check for giant grass squid?”

“That’s not a thing!” Aja exclaimed.

Rey sent him a disdainful look. “Did you think giant swamp squid was a thing?”

Aja’s hand immediately dropped to his blaster, and Din laughed.

“The biggest land animals within a hundred kilometers of here is a bantha herd. 605 adults and 41 calves,” Din reported. “Because I did check. I’ll probably check for giant squid of various origin for the rest of my life.”

“Does a sarlacc qualify as a squid?” Ero questioned.

“Technically, I think it’s a sandworm, but there is an argument to be made that it’s actually a giant carnivorous plant,” Aja said. “It does have appendages, a beak, and hundreds of teeth, though.”

“Well, I’m never going to get near one of those,” Rey declared and finally stepped off the ramp. “How far do we have to walk? Can we take the speeders?”

“The crevice is a hundred yards in that direction,” Din said. “The entire structure is subterranean at this point, and the retrieval is a one-man sort of job, but there’s no reason for you all to remain on the ship while I do this.”

“In that case,” Aja began, “permission to go hunt a bantha? We could bring it back to the ship for processing.”

Din considered that and looked toward Cara, who gave him a nod. “All right, take Ero with you—use the big speeder, attach the cargo loader so you can haul it back, and no unnecessary risks. We should set up water and solar collection.” He paused. “I honestly don’t know if the speeder has a full charge.”

“It does,” IG assured. “I took care of it before we left Tatooine. I’ll handle resource collection. Should I keep Dral with me?”

Din focused on his son, who was staring eagerly at the grass. “He clearly wants to play, and he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to do that.”

Cara put Dral down, and the kid immediately lurched forward toward the flower patch again. She laughed. “I’ll go with you to monitor your climb down—IG and Wila will stay here with Rey and Dral.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Din said and paused. “I should probably tell our escorts that they can come down as well? They might be short on food and water.”

“They probably have a rotation set up for one of the ships to break off and pick up supplies for them all as needed,” Cara said. “But they won’t have to pay for what they need down here. There is a large freshwater river several hundred kilometers north if moisture collection is a problem for their set up.”

Din nodded. “Plus the bantha—a large unclaimed herd like that is a great find for spacers. I don’t know how many kids they have onboard or honestly how long they’ve been traveling on the ships.” He focused on Dral, who was, to no great surprise, passing bright purple flowers to Rey one at a time. “They were probably stationed just out of range when we were on Tatooine, and if any of them came down for supplies, it wasn’t at the Mos Eisley port.”

“Anchorhead would’ve been a better choice considering their desire to stay out of your way,” Cara said. “Want me to handle the comm while you prepare for the climb?”

“Yeah, I want to take structural scans and plan my path down,” Din murmured.

Cara nodded and trotted back into the ship to undertake her very first diplomatic overture on behalf of her husband. It wasn’t weird at all, she told herself. By the time she was sliding into the pilot seat, her breathing was a little labored, so she took a moment to calm herself while she set up an encrypted comm stream and used the orbital governor to do a system scan. All four ships had slotted into high orbital paths that spread them around the planet in such a fashion that no threat could approach from any direction without their notice.

A review of the comm history told her which ship was Bo-Katan’s, so she went the direct route and checked her helmet with both hands before engaging the holocomm. The connection was immediately accepted, and a woman’s face was revealed. Cara winced and wondered if she should’ve warned the other Mandalorian that it wasn’t Din reaching out to her.

“The Mand’alor asked me to inform you that your ships are welcome to land and gather any resources necessary. Game and freshwater are plentiful,” Cara said.

Bo-Katan inclined her head. “How long does he plan to be on this unpopulated planet?”

“We’re going to process at least one bantha, but the length of our stay depends on what he finds and when he finds it.”

Then his search is specific,” Bo-Katan said. “The Jedi temple on this world was destroyed thousands of years ago.”

“We know,” Cara said in amusement. “And yes, we have a specific purpose here—he’s not going to try to dig up the entire temple.”

Bo-Katan shifted in her seat, and a hand appeared at her side with a datapad, which the older woman took and read from. “Are you the woman that Leia Organa asked for when he was attacked on Coruscant—Carasynthia Dune?

“Cara Dune Djarin,” Cara corrected. “His wife.”

Bo-Katan raised one eyebrow. “That’s not made the HoloNet or your chain code, yet.”

“I imagine it will the first time some ridiculous female tries to make him feel better about his sad, lonely helmet life,” Cara said dryly, and Bo-Katan laughed. “He has a history of such encounters.”

I suppose his iconic visage gets him into trouble.”

Cara just tilted her head, which made the older woman laugh. “He’ll want to know which clans you have with you.”

My own, Itera, Aydi, Reeves, Woves, Kelborn, Rook, and Wren are currently part of House Kryze.

“Wren,” Cara repeated. “Is Sabine Wren with you?”

No, Sabine and her riduur are with the rest of the fleet in the Mid Rim.”

“The other ships that responded to his distress call are part of your fleet?” Cara questioned.

Bo-Katan’s mouth quirked gently. “The Mand’alor’s fleet. I didn’t know they existed until his distress call from Coruscant went out, but we came together to wait for word when the Armorer sent a message letting us know that she’d be landing on Coruscant to handle the problem. The other ships are gathering weapons and resources and training on various underpopulated planets as needed to prepare. They’ll be ready when he is.”

Cara nodded.

But I have ten members of Clan Wren on my own ship—they escaped Mandalore with me during the purge,” Bo-Katan explained. “Will that be a problem for the Mand’alor? I was told he believes in redemption.”

“He does,” Cara murmured.

Then this is about Hab Wren,” Bo-Katan said, and Cara nodded. “He contacted Sabine, the current Matriarch of Clan Wren, and asked to join them. His parents were cast from the clan during the Imperial occupation for refusing to support the Empire. They died on Concordia, and I personally put Hab Wren in Nez Vizsla’s care. I knew he would be trained and raised properly in House Vizsla, and he was.

Sabine declined to accept him back into her clan due to his refusal to swear the creed before the Mand’alor. I never adhered to the orthodox code that many clans in Death Watch followed, but I understand the sacrifice House Vizsla made for their foundlings. They were gifted with acceptance by the Mand’alor himself. Hab Wren’s arrogance marks him dar’manda as the Armorer declared in her message to House Wren when she notified Sabine of his death.”

Cara nodded. “Since you just read my citizenship record for the New Republic, you know that I was not raised in the way.”

There are no words to offer that would relieve the grief of losing your homeworld as you did,” Bo-Katan murmured. “May you find comfort in the way all of your days.”

“Thank you,” Cara murmured. “I’m about to say something that will probably offend you and everyone listening as I’m still learning how to read the HUD in my helmet, so you can imagine my education regarding acceptable social interactions amongst other Mandalorians is lacking.”

Bo-Katan grinned. “Understood.”

“If you ever make yourself a threat to my husband or children, I will kill you and anyone who gets in my way.”

I would expect no less of the Mand’alor’s riduur,” Bo-Katan said. “Haat, ijaa, haa’it, Cara Dune Djarin.

“This is the way,” she said for lack of a better response. Cara really hoped she could repeat that accurately to Din so she could get a translation. She’d spent far too little time learning the language, but life in the covert had been very busy due to construction and just getting used to being a married woman with two children. Instant families were hard work. “If you come down now, you can have some people join the bantha kill. The first kill is going to spook the herd. They have calves, so there is a bull—unsure if he’s traveling with them, but if he is—some management will be required. There’s no need to outright destroy the herd to feed ourselves.”

No, agreed,” Bo-Katan said. “We’ll drop a security sensor net and join you shortly.”

Cara closed the comm with a nod and slouched back in her chair.

“I can’t believe you just threatened to murder Bo-Katan Kryze and her whole House,” Aja said dryly from behind her.

Cara stood and shrugged. “I meant it.”

“She understood that,” Aja agreed.

“What did she say there at the end?” Cara questioned.

“Haat, ijaa, haa’it,” Aja repeated. “Truth, honor, and vision.” He exhaled sharply. “Basically, she agreed that if she earned your violent attention, then whatever you do to her—she has it coming. She saw the truth of your words, the honor in your potential future actions, and finally, she acknowledges that you have the strength and ability to manifest your vision of her death. It’s a pact—between the two of you that will exist as long as one of you lives.”

Cara’s stomach tightened. “And that’s a big deal?”

“She just basically vowed before everyone listening to your exchange that if she attempts to challenge the Mand’alor, you can kill her for the transgression and face no repercussions,” Aja said. “It’s a very big deal considering who she is.”

“Din doesn’t think she’ll challenge him, but…” Cara closed her eyes, intensely relieved to be wearing her helmet. “I can’t take that chance.”

“My father and Paz Vizsla have vowed between them that anyone challenging Din Djarin will have to come through them first,” Aja admitted. “I witnessed their pact. He’s our chance to reunite the tribes of our people, Cara, and we can’t allow anyone or anything get in the way of that.” The younger man cleared his throat and lowered his head briefly. “He feels like our only chance.”

“I’ve got his back,” Cara said.

“Then I’ll have yours,” Aja said with a smile. “He sent me in here to get you—he’s ready to start his descent.”

She found Din at the widest opening for the crevice in their immediate area. “Is this the best choice?”

“It’s the only choice,” Din said. “The rest is caved in, or so narrow I have no hope of going down more than a few meters.”

Cara frowned. “Maybe I should go.”

“No, it’s going to require Force…sensitivity to collect this thing,” Din admitted. “It’s lasted down there as long as it has because it’s practically sentient.”

“You said it was a book.”

“A book handwritten by an ancient, powerful Jedi,” Din said. “It wouldn’t have survived as long as it has if it was just a book, Cara. Not in these conditions—it’s infused with the Living Force. It probably even has a midi-chlorian count due to the organic nature of book construction. The paper isn’t alive but the Force…is capable of doing things neither of us will truly understand as long as we live.”

“If Skywalker could do it, then you can,” Cara said quietly despite the privacy mode they’d engaged on their comm.

“He’s smaller than you,” Din said wryly and laughed when Cara huffed. “All of his power is Force related—he’d stand no chance against either one of us in a physical fight. I’d put him under 60 kilograms right now.”

“Not much bigger than his sister then,” Cara said.

“Taller,” Din clarified. “But still shorter than you. With armor and boots, you probably have 20 kilos on him and over five centimeters. All of that is going to matter in this crevice.”

“Then you’re significantly bigger,” Cara said and looked down into the crevice. “The jetpack might be a mistake.”

“It’s my only safety measure if my cable breaks,” Din said. “A cable I haven’t replaced since I used it to hitch a ride on a TIE fighter.”

“Well, that’s a fuck up,” Cara said darkly.

“I should’ve had Torah replace it, but I’ve checked the entire thing twice,” Din admitted. “No weaknesses that I could locate but having a backup option in case I fall is to the good. This crevice is four kilometers deep.” He looked up as House Kryze’s ships entered the atmosphere. “Did you get a list of clans?”

“Kryze, Kelborn, Woves, Reeves, Aydi, Itera, and ten members of Wren—Sabine is not with them. She’s currently organizing and preparing your fleet in the Mid-Rim. Bo-Katan declared all of them as members of her house.”

“That’s for the best,” Din said. “There’s no way that Paz will take Clan Wren back into our house. Keep an eye on them and have IG monitor all of their comm traffic during the hunt. Make sure she doesn’t let…keep Ero away from the members of Clan Wren. Paz would lose his goddamned mind if one of them got rough with his son.”

“Aja will run interference there,” Cara said wryly.

“Noticed that, too?” Din asked wearily. “Should I discourage it?”

“Why would you?” Cara questioned. “It’s sweet.”

“House Rast has a lot of political footing to regain,” Din said. “And my acceptance of them as a political faction again is not enough. They were punished after the last civil war—with just cause.”

“Ancient history shouldn’t get in their way,” Cara said. “You wouldn’t let it get in yours.”

“No, but they’re barely adults.” He waved a hand. “Sort of. They’re boys, Cara.”

“If you get in the middle, it will just make it more exciting, or alternatively, it would hurt one or both of them deeply. They practically worship the ground you walk on. Besides, it isn’t exactly new. Something was already there, brewing before we left Tatooine. That girl that was crowding Ero on Tatooine? She got a face full of a very furious Aja Rast for not respecting the creed.”

“I should pay attention to that stuff more, I guess,” Din said wearily.

Cara looked over to the Tor as Ero pulled the small speeder out. “They’ll be fine—young love builds character.”

“What if they confuse love and lust and get married?” Din demanded in a near hiss. “Stupid kids do stupid shit.”

“Who are you worried about more?” Cara questioned with a laugh.

Din huffed and attached the cable to his harness. “I honestly don’t know. I helped deliver Ero and was the first person to hold him. His mother barely lasted long enough to name him. All I had on board to feed him was bantha milk, which I wasn’t sure he should have, and there wasn’t much of that. I held him the whole way back to the covert because I thought—I hoped that my body heat would be enough to keep him alive until I could reach help.” He cleared his throat. “And Aja Rast is the future of his house—which will be made or broken by his choices. Oddau will lay the groundwork, of course, but it’ll be Aja that makes way for both his clan and his house on Mandalore.”

“Plus, you think they both died horribly in the other timeline,” Cara said quietly.

“Fuck.” Din exhaled sharply. “Yes. I think they did, but at least Aja died believing himself a Mandalorian. That can’t be said for Ero, and it breaks my heart.”

She curled her hand around his neck and held him still. “Everything is different now—Din. You made the right choice. Don’t doubt it.”

“I did it for Dral,” Din said quietly, and they both looked to where the baby was doing his best to pick every single flower in the patch. “They weren’t even a consideration, and as much as I love you—you weren’t either.”

It didn’t hurt because she’d already known it. “It couldn’t have been about them or me or even Rey at that moment,” she said quietly. “He was there at the start, so, of course, your new beginning was for him.”

“Right.” Din cleared his throat. “Enough emotional bloodletting. Don’t pat me like a child in front of other Mandalorians. It diminishes my mandokar.”

Cara laughed, released him, and punched him in the chest. “How’s that?”

“Better,” he said and coughed a little. “I guess.”


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Keira Marcos

The only thing holding me back from world domination is felony level procrastination.

4 Comments:

  1. Wow! Cara Dune Djarin threatened Bo-Katan Kryze. Epic. Just epic.

  2. I adore every single word.

  3. You light up my life

  4. mysteriousclarity

    “Did someone check for giant grass squid?”

    “That’s not a thing!” Aja exclaimed.

    I roared laughing. It’s going to be giant squids everywhere with these kids, and I’m here for it.

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