The Thousand Mile Road – 3/4 – 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: Slavery, Canon Typical Violence, Explicit Language, Explicit Sex
Author Notes: Slavery is a canon concept in Star Wars but it’s not one I focus heavily on in the series. I warned for it just as a head’s up. Special thanks to my Alpha readers Jilly James & DarkJediQueen and my Betas Chris King & Ladyholder. This fic started out as some wistful idea and it bloomed organically out of me in a way all good ideas do. It wouldn’t have been the same without Jilly’s epic support throughout the entire writing 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



 

Chapter 11

The space station orbiting Ithor had 102 bays, and most of them could take the Tor, so Din focused on searching for a name he was familiar with. When that proved fruitless, he pulled up the invoice so he could at least dock somewhere close to the mech shop he’d have to go to.

“This one.”

Din looked up and found Obi-Wan Kenobi poking a finger through the holographic representation of the space station. “Jaybo Hood? Do you know him?”

“When he was a boy—brilliant and helpful young man. I met him on Iego decades ago during the war. He helped Anakin and me on a mission. After the war, I tried to find him before I went into exile, but he never answered any of my messages. I’m glad to see he survived and is doing so well for himself that he can afford to have a business on a space station of this size.”

The bay wasn’t far from the collections office or the specialty shop Peli had ordered her parts from.

“Iego was a terrible place to live on during that time,” Din muttered.

“Yes,” Obi-Wan agreed. “I did ask Jaybo if I could take him somewhere else, but he was quite pleased with the life he had there with his droids. He’d reprogrammed a squadron of battle droids to take care of and protect him.”

Din snorted. “Smart kid.”

“Very smart,” Ob-Wan agreed. “I did attempt to find him a family, but he would have no part of it. He said he was better on his own.” He frowned. “I do hope that is no longer the case. Looking back, it was clear he had little reason to trust adults.”

“Children who are orphaned or abandoned at a young age can struggle their whole lives to make deep, personal connections,” Din said roughly.

“Do you speak from experience?”

“Yes,” Din said and input a request to land in Hood’s bay. It was immediately accepted, so he transferred the required docking fee and requested an appointment with the collection’s office. “It took me three years to refer to Nez Vizsla as my parent in any single way. He was very patient with me.”

“Rey didn’t seem to have a problem accepting a new family,” Obi-Wan said. “That’s not normal?”

“It’s never the same way twice,” Din said. “Some foundlings adjust quickly—feeling safe is enough for them but never enough for others. Why?”

“I just…I’ve been thinking about all the children I retrieved and brought to the temple on Coruscant while I was a padawan. Qui-Gon was very good at finding Force-sensitive children and separating them from whoever might be looking after them—parents or not.”

“The same was done to you,” Din pointed out. “How does it feel, even now, to be so disconnected from your homeworld?”

“I was born on Stewjon,” Obi-Wan said. “And I have more distinct memories of Qui-Gon Jinn and Yoda than I do my own biological parents starting from an early age. I don’t know when they died or if I have any siblings that still live.”

Din cleared his throat as he finished the landing procedures. “You’ve never looked?”

“No, it never even crossed my mind.”

“Your parents died a year before Order 66 was enacted,” Din said shortly. “They had two children after you were…confiscated by the Jedi and were grateful that neither demonstrated Force abilities. Your brothers, Abé and Jri, were murdered by Darth Vader when they were 11 and 13 years old, respectively. He was looking for you and found them instead. He also killed the family that took them in after your parents died in their accident.”

“How do you…” Obi-Wan sighed. “Qui-Gon said you were a dedicated historian of the Force and the Jedi.”

“I learned more than I ever wanted regarding the crimes of the Empire and Vader,” Din said shortly. “If it helps, not a single person who lived to tell the tale of the attack mentioned torture. He killed them all very quickly when it became clear they had no information on your whereabouts.”

“Nothing would help,” Obi-Wan murmured. “In the end, the Jedi and the Sith were two sides of a heartless coin, Din Djarin.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Din said. “The Sith gloried in torture and destruction. Love was beyond them, and, in the end, they didn’t even value the weight of their own soul. The Jedi engineered their own destruction, and that was coming before Anakin Skywalker was even born.”

“Agreed,” Obi-Wan said and took a deep breath. “But failing to see what was coming will haunt me my entire existence. Qui-Gon trusted me with the Chosen One, and ultimately, I failed.”

“There must come a point when you all need to recognize that my weakness was just as much to blame as your inattention, Master Obi-Wan.”

Din sucked in a deep breath but focused on Anakin Skywalker as he appeared next to Obi-Wan. “You’re around a lot, but you never speak to me.”

Anakin nodded. “I can’t watch over Ben—Luke and Leia don’t like it. They insisted I stay away, and I can’t ignore their wishes like I did their mother’s.”

“So you watch over Rey instead.”

“She’s the other half of my grandson,” Anakin said quietly. “But I will stay away if it bothers you.”

“You won’t hurt her.”

“Never,” Anakin swore.

Din believed him, and that was annoying. “Don’t tell her any war stories,” he said wearily. “And if she asks questions about the dark side or the emperor—refer her to me.”

“Of course,” Anakin said and faded from view.

“He retains all of the knowledge of the dark side, but he is fully in the light,” Obi-Wan said quietly. “We’d have never been able to help him manifest into a Force Spirit if he were not.”

Din nodded as he stood and opened the cockpit door. Everyone was gathered in the galley, so he took a seat at the table and glanced over the food on offer. Tailring bacon seemed to be the main feature of the meal, and Dral had pieces in both hands. He made himself a wrap of Feelo eggs and the bacon. Rey had most of her field gear on. Her hood was covering her hair, and her goggles were perched charmingly on top.

“You don’t have to dress for the field today.”

Rey frowned. “I’m trying to figure out how private my face is.”

Din shared a glance with Cara, who shrugged.

He nodded. “That’s certainly your choice.”

He wondered if being on the ship with such a small group of people was isolating, but then Rey had spent just over a year on Jakku avoiding people as much as possible. Din resolved to spend a little more time with Rey discussing privacy and the helmet. It would be at least a decade before she could swear the creed, and he wanted her to know she had the freedom to say no when that day came.

He finished his sandwich quickly and went to start the bounty transfer. Two young boys were waiting when the ramp hit the floor. Din shifted the amban strap across his chest when they both took a step back.

The oldest of them stepped forward, face pale. “Welcome…wow.” The younger boy snickered a little, which earned him a dirty look. “Welcome to Ithor Station V—hmm—is it Mr. Mand’alor or just…”

“Just Mand’alor,” Din said in amusement. “We’ll be here about five hours and don’t require repairs. Your names?”

“I’m Jai Hood, and this is my little brother, Keno.” The older boy pulled a datapad out of the front of his coveralls. “Did you need cargo unloaded or uploaded?”

“We have some personal shopping to do, so I’m unsure about upload at this point,” Din admitted. “I have four bounties to turn over to the collection center—they’re all on carbonite. If you’ll get a grav, we’ll handle the transfer off the ship. Is there a dedicated route to the office for bounty delivery?”

“There is—I’ll contact the office, and they’ll send over a droid escort to handle the transfer. It’s their policy, whether the bounties are on carb or not. We have a big grav lift that can handle all four slabs. Any of them above standard size?”

“No, they’re two meters or below in height—average weight,” Din reported and watched the boy make several notes. He started to say more, but the double doors in the back of the bay opened and a four-man security team entered with weapons already drawn.

Aja and Ero swept out of the Tor on either side of him, hit the deck, and took aim before the doors were entirely open. Jai grabbed his brother by the back of his coveralls and dragged him out of the way. A man dressed as an officer came in behind the team, and Din watched the color drain out of his face. Before the man could speak, an older man burst out of the bay’s office.

“Hey now! You’re not gonna brawl in my bay!” He pointed at the officer. “You’d better have a damn good reason to come bursting into my place, guns drawn with my boys in the middle, Garme!”

He picked up a long iron tool from a bench and whistled sharply. Three battle droids unfolded from a rack on the wall and drew weapons which Din was relieved to note were pointed toward the security team.

“There’s no problem, Jaybo,” the officer said and raised his hands. “We’re just responding to a fob alert.”

Din pulled his amban over his head and took aim. “A fob for who?”

“Mercurial Swift,” the officer said and straightened his shirt. “You’ll have to turn him over.” His gaze flicked from Aja to Ero.

“I’m here to turn him into the collection office for bounty,” Din said shortly and lowered his weapon. “You can arrest him there after they take him out of the carbonite he’s currently encased in.” He put the amban on his back.

“I…of course,” Garme said and glanced between Jaybo, the droids, and Din. “Did you need help off-loading the bounty?”

“None of you are welcome on my ship,” Din said.

“He’ll meet you in the collection’s office,” Jaybo declared. “Get yourselves out of my place. I’ll be filing a complaint about this bantha shit!”

Garme motioned his people out. “I’ll need to stay to verify Swift’s capture and escort the slab to the collector.” He cleared his throat.

Hood glared at him but motioned his droids away. “You watch your step around my children, Garme, or you’ll pay for it.” He took the datapad from Jai’s hand and jerked his head toward the office. Both boys left as the side door opened to reveal a droid who came forward with a happy little chirp that Din found honestly distasteful. The main doors closed behind the security team. “My apologies, Mand’alor, I’d have warned you before you landed if I’d known they were going to be fucking idiots.” He shot Garme a look. “Like Swift would come here of his own accord.”

“It’s fine, Mr. Hood. You came highly recommended, and I find no fault with you for this insulting situation.” Din cleared his throat; Aja and Ero both lowered their weapons.

Garme flushed. “Look, Jaybo, just because your wife is the station admin doesn’t mean you can…” He trailed off when Hood walked away. “Stop ignoring me!”

“I bought this bay before my wife got her fancy new job,” Hood said. “You asshole.” He pulled a grav lift off the shelf and brought it to Din. “Also, I’ll be telling my wife that you accused the leader of an entire planet of consorting with a common criminal.”

Garme glared. “It’s not…”

“It was exactly that!” Hood declared. “Fuck off.”

“If he weren’t married, I’d suggest we introduce him to Peli,” Cara declared as she strolled down the ramp with Rey’s hand in her own. “We’re ready to go shopping. Did you forward me your list?”

“I did,” Din said and wondered how she’d feel about the optional items he’d requested. “And Peli doesn’t need a partner in crime.” He huffed when she laughed.

“Wila will bring the pram down when you’re ready to leave the bay. IG’s coming with Rey and me.”

Din nodded.

Garme actually squeaked when IG appeared and walked down the ramp. “That’s…hunter droids are illegal! You can’t bring that thing on the station!”

“IG, son of Kuiil, is registered as a nurse droid with the New Republic,” Cara said. “You can feel free to look that up while you’re looking up the protocols required of you regarding dealings with the Mand’alor. Your men have already violated the first rule—drawing their weapons on him without provocation.” She turned to Hood. “How do I contact your wife’s office to make an appointment? I’d like to discuss with her, at length, how insulted my husband is by Mr. Garme’s behavior.”

“I’ll contact her office for you,” Hood said and smirked as he walked off.

Din handed the grav lift to Ero. “Stack the slabs and get them out of the ship.”

“I should handle Swift’s transfer,” Garme said.

“If you attempt to step foot on my ship, I will consider it an act of aggression,” Din said and inclined his head. “Are you authorized by the planetary government of Ithor to declare war on their behalf?”

“No…but…” Garme glared at him. “I’ll meet you in the collector’s office. If you fail to deliver Swift, I will make sure the Senate is informed.”

“I know you think that’s a significant threat,” Din said. “But I don’t actually care what you tell the New Republic Senate. I don’t answer to them.”

Garme took a deep breath then turned on his heel to stalk away.

He stepped aside as Ero guided the carbonate slabs out of the ship, then he called Dral’s pram to him, and Wila trotted after it. “Wila, if you’d handle the conversation with the escort droid, I’d appreciate it.” She beeped her agreement and trotted across the bay to speak with the astromech waiting on them.

Cara returned from Hood’s office. “You ran him off?”

“He realized I wasn’t going to surrender Swift to his custody and that he can’t legally insist I turn my bounty over to him,” Din said. “Taking someone out of a carbonate slab without a maintenance frame requires equipment he doesn’t have, so either way, Swift goes to collections first.”

“You think he wanted the bounty for himself, or is it a fame thing? I imagine it’ll be considered quite a feat, in some circles, to collect the bounty on Swift.”

“Swift is famous in his own right,” Din agreed. “And if that’s the case, Garme will probably lose it when he realizes who else I have in that pile.”

“Might as well retire from that field of play a legend,” Cara muttered, and Din shrugged because he had no intention of retiring.

He glanced toward IG to make sure the droid had armed himself appropriately, then looked at Rey. She’d donned her full hood and goggles and draped her cloak over it all. Her age and species were entirely masked—some might even assume she was an adult alien of some sort. Her amphistaff was curling around her neck, tail flicking as if he were bored. Maybe he was. Din really didn’t know what the serpent did on any given day, and he figured that was probably a mistake, but there were a lot of moving parts in his life now that he really wasn’t prepared for.

Dral tossed his boots out of his pram at that point, and Aja laughed. Din picked them up and passed them to Ero, who took them back into the ship. Dral had his goggles on but not the hood. The kid was always invested in having his mouth uncovered so he could eat. He wed the pram to his own gauntlet just as Wila returned to them and let them know the escort droid was ready to proceed. Separating to run errands was the best choice to be made, but he hesitated to let his wife and daughter walk away from him, despite the added security of IG.

The trip to the collections office was uneventful, but he could tell that both Ero and Aja were still agitated by the brief encounter with station security. Garme was waiting in the collections office when they arrived with another officer at his elbow. Din almost laughed because the new officer was quite large for a human. The fact that he’d brought muscle to the meeting was more amusing than insulting. Aja snorted and prodded the slabs toward the receiving area next to the desk.

“Welcome to Ithor Station, New Republic Bounty Collections,” the young woman behind the desk said cheerfully and picked up her datapad. “Who do we have on deck?”

“Boba Fett, Embo, Cad Bane, and Mercurial Swift,” Din said. “Embo is wanted by his home planet, and the others are New Republic bounties.”

To her credit, the woman didn’t blink even as Garme choked on nothing but air. Din glanced briefly at the man and found him red-faced and furious, which really made no sense at all.

“I’ll be taking Swift into custody,” Garme announced.

She sighed. “You can’t arrest a slab of carbonite, Garme. Swift’s going straight to Coruscant on the first transport I have available and won’t be removed from the carb until they’re ready to question him.”

“He’ll be taken down to Ithor and made to answer for his crimes here, first!” Garme snapped, and his hand fell to his blaster.

“No, he won’t,” she said sharply and glared at him. “Swift is a high priority person of interest in an ongoing and sealed Galactic Senate investigation. He’ll be leaving this station inside the next half hour, and you have no say in the matter.” Her gaze dropped his gun, which he’d yet to pull. “You draw on me, Garme, and you’ll spend five years in a New Republic detention center.”

“This station belongs to Ithor, and you don’t get to decide…”

The woman held up a hand. “This station belongs to Ithor, but this room is the domain of the New Republic, which you are bound by treaty to honor. You have no choices here, Garme. Ithor will have to wait their turn to prosecute Mercurial Swift for his crimes, and honestly, it’ll be a long wait. Once his survival is revealed to the galaxy at large—dozens of worlds will step forward with charges. He’s guilty of murder for hire on several Core worlds—so his crimes against Ithor pale in comparison.” She paused. “Unfortunately.”

Pale in comparison,” Garme ground out through clenched teeth. “He stole children from us!”

Din’s stomach clenched, and he reached out to bring the pram closer to him. “How many?”

Garme focused on him and glared. “Like you give a fuck.”

“I care a lot,” Din assured him.

“Tell him,” the woman said. “Or did you overlook that whole event where he nearly got himself murdered by a guy doing your exact job on Coruscant because they tried to take his children from him?”

“Mandalorians steal children,” Garme accused. “For all I know, Swift worked for your kind!”

“We don’t steal children,” Din said. “We take in foundlings—children left on the streets to fend for themselves in situations where most adults would lay down and die. I was one of those children—taken in by a Mandalorian after my parents were murdered by the Empire. My daughter spent a year on Jakku living in the wreckage of AT-AT after her biological parents abandoned her there. She had to barter for food and water. She’s six.”

“36 before we figured out who and how,” Garme said through clenched teeth. “The last was taken 11 years ago.”

“Send me a list—include everything you’d put on a bounty,” Din said shortly. “I’ll distribute that list to my people. We’ll check our foundlings, but they won’t be amongst them unless they were rescued from sort of slavery situation.” He paused when Garme’s cheeks whitened. “The fact is, and I’m sorry to say it, most of those children were probably sold to the Empire, and if they were, then they were conscripted. I assume most of them were in their early teens?”

“Yes,” Garme said lowly. “The youngest was 14, and the oldest was 17, but she was small for her age.”

“Then they were most certainly conscripted into serving the Empire, and it is doubtful that any of them are alive. Most of the conscripts were forced to labor on the last Death Star and would’ve been on it when it was destroyed. Considering how old they’d be now—I think you’d have heard from at least one of them if they’d survived service to the Empire.”

“Swift cannot suffer enough,” Garme said and walked toward the door. “I’ll have that list ready before you leave.”

Aja took a ragged breath as the door shut on the two men. “The Empire’s crimes will be haunting us for generations.”

“Certainly,” the woman said. “Garme’s a good man—angry and heartsore but good. If he were capable of seeing past his fury, he’d be ashamed at how he’s behaved.”

“The last one—the 17-year-old who was small for her age?” Ero questioned.

“His little sister, Coran,” she said and shook her head. “He’ll never stop looking for her. You aren’t the first to tell him that she was probably conscripted by the Empire.” She turned and looked at the slabs of carbonite. “What? You weren’t famous enough?”

Din laughed. “That’s more of a by-product than a goal—just like the other three. I went for Fett and hit the bounty hunter lottery. If it wouldn’t make them targets for every asshole in the galaxy with a blaster looking to make a name for himself—I’d make these two take credit. As is, wrangling my toddler into shoes proves more difficult on a daily basis than capturing these four turned out to be.”

“That’s true,” Ero said. “I’m second-hand mortified on their behalf. It might keep me up at night.”

A half-hour later, Din found himself in a custom machinery shop full of machines and droid parts. It was, to put a fine point on it, a nightmare. He thought he was handling it pretty well until Wila started patting him on the leg like she did Dral’s pram to help him sleep. Fortunately, for his dignity, she didn’t start humming. The man behind the counter was chatty, and Din just didn’t understand chatty people. They made him nervous. He’d rather get shot at than have a conversation with a stranger that lasted more than a few minutes.

Ero cleared his throat. “We have a short-term berthing, sir, so if we could have Ms. Motto’s custom order as well?” He put the datapad Din had handed him shortly before they’d entered the shop to display the invoice on the counter. “I’ll be sure to pass on your good wishes. I don’t know her well enough to…huh…give her a kiss on your behalf.” He paused when Aja laughed. “And I think she’d sic her pit droids on me if I tried.”

Din would pay to see it, but he refrained from saying it aloud. The man, who’d introduced himself as Toby Oxma, laughed but gamely went off to collect whatever Peli had ordered.

“Hey, Mando.”

Din turned and focused on a large man standing a few meters away from him.

“Give you 500 Imperial for the droid.”

“She’s not for sale.”

“750.”

“She’s not for sale,” Din repeated. “And I know for a fact that she’s worth close to 5,000 New Republic credits due to her out of production status and the fact that she’s in mint condition.”

The man glared. “Don’t tell me no! 750 and you’ll be happy about it.”

“Or I could shoot you in the face,” Din said, and the man just frowned. “And I’ll be happy to step right over your corpse on my way out.”

Wila tucked herself against his leg and hooked her little metal fingers into the securing strap of his boot which reminded him of Dral. Din wondered, only briefly, if the droid was doing it on purpose. Due to being memory wiped so often, she had the mentality of a small child. Cara had been the first one to point it out, and it had stuck with Din. It certainly made it easier for him to accept her, which he’d acknowledged privately with his wife.

“Your kind always needs money,” the man declared huffily. “Stop acting like you don’t need my credits.”

“You know, my buir told me that I should always take no for an answer,” Aja said wryly. “She said that pressuring another person to change their response to your requests because you don’t like the answer you received is mentally abusive.” He turned to Ero. “Ero?”

“He’s not a great listener,” Ero admitted.

“Don’t mind them,” Din said and picked Wila up. “They think they’re my bodyguards. And I don’t need your money.”

“Don’t tell me no!” the man shouted. “Give me the droid!”

Din sighed and turned to the tech who’d returned. It was suddenly very clear that the man was damaged in some way and had no idea what kind of trouble he was inviting. “Does this man have a caretaker? Someone who watches him and keeps him from getting killed?”

Oxma exhaled sharply and hurried around the counter. “Yes, he does. Helm, does your brother know you’ve left his shop?”

“Want the droid,” Helm said and stepped forward, then tried to move around Oxma. “Make him give it to me, Toby.”

“You can’t take her from her family,” Oxma said sternly. “How would you like it if someone took you from your brother, Joye?”

“I’m too big for anyone to take me,” Helm said proudly. “I want it, Toby. You won’t sell me any more. I’ll just take it!”

“I don’t make droids for you anymore because you break them,” Oxma explained patiently, and Wila beeped in alarm. “I can’t have you in here messing with my customers. You go back to your brother, right now, before you get hurt.”

Din shifted Wila onto his left side and used his right hand to switch his blaster to the stun setting. The door to the shop opened. A man entered, Din figured he was at least 10 years younger than Helm, but he bore a striking resemblance.

“Oh, no, did he damage your droid? He doesn’t mean to—he just can’t control his strength,” the young man said in a rush. “I can pay for any damages—please don’t call station security. They threatened to throw me off the station if Helm…” He took a deep breath and looked toward Oxma for help.

“He’s not broken anything, Joye,” Oxma said wearily. “But you need to keep him in the back of your shop when you work. You know Garme is just looking for an excuse to get rid of you.”

“It’s just a few more weeks,” Joye said. “Our mother will have the new house ready then.” His shoulders slumped and focused on his brother. “Helm, I can’t afford for you to break anything, okay? Mama needs all of the extra money I make for the homestead. Remember?”

“Want the droid,” Helm said stubbornly.

Joye flushed red. “I told you that you can’t ever have a droid again, and I meant it!”

“But Joye…”

“No, buts! I can’t watch you torture another droid because you’re curious about their insides. Let’s go.”

“How about the other droid,” Helm demanded and tried to grab the pram.

“That’s not a droid!” Joye snapped as he got physically between his brother and the pram.

“It looks like a droid,” Helm said stubbornly and tried to move around his brother.

Din pulled the pram to him and opened it. “It’s not a droid, Helm. This is my son, Dral.”

Helm stared, wide-eyed. “Look, Joye! Look! It’s a baby.”

Dral reached out to him, and Din realized immediately that he wanted Wila, so he put the small droid in the pram with the baby. Dral grabbed her hand and held it tight as he pouted in Helm’s direction.

“See, the droid is for the baby,” Joye said. “Let’s go, okay? You don’t want to scare the baby, right?”

“Okay, Joye. I’m sorry I upset you.”

“I know you can’t help it,” Joye said wearily. “Let’s go.”

Din relaxed when the bigger man didn’t fight his brother as he was pulled from the shop.

“Sorry about that,” Oxma said. “Helm’s not harmless, but it’s not his fault. He got shot in the head during the Imperial occupation, and the poor bastard survived it.” He walked back to the counter. “I made two of these since I had the machine already set to do it—didn’t cost much more in materials. The real money was spent on creating the mold.”

“What’s it for?” Din questioned as he stared at the two cylinders in the box.

“It’s the firing piston for an automated laser canon,” Oxma said and grinned. “Peli always has the most interesting projects. I’m dying to know where she got a 100-year-old Corellian sentry-series laser canon. She acted like she had it laying around.”

“I’m coming to realize that it’s better not to ask,” Din admitted. He closed the lid on the box and passed it to Aja, who had ended up with the bag with Dral’s snacks.

Aja nodded. “She’s been known to have her pit droids drag bodies out into the desert.”

“She always was a mean one,” Oxma said and laughed. “My brother loved her for it instead of despite it, if you get my meaning.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. Your brother died on Hoth, right?” He wished Peli had told him that she was sending him to her brother-in-law. He’d have made a list of questions to ask the man.

“Yeah,” Oxma said. “Half-brother, at any rate. We had different daddies, not that it mattered to either of us. Sure I can’t put your little droid’s voice modulator in?”

“She said no,” Din said. “And body autonomy is very important in our culture. I have another droid onboard the ship who can install it for her.”

They went back to the bay after the mechanic’s shop since Cara had contacted him and told him they were on their way back with shopping and food for lunch. Garme was standing near the Tor, shoulders tight and back ramrod straight. Din opened the ramp so IG would have an easier time coming on board. Aja and Ero lingered just inside the cargo bay as Din walked over to the security chief.

The man offered him a datachip. “It’s all the information I have on…the victims that we know about. We can’t be certain there weren’t others who just didn’t get reported because of the Imperials. We managed to keep recruiters off the planet, so Swift was our punishment.”

“Have you asked the senate to search the Imperial records?” Din questioned. “As the next of kin for a victim, they’d have to at least review your request.”

“They said there was nothing,” Garme said roughly. “They said that conscripted children didn’t get to keep their names. Apparently, they would get a code.”

“The best way to create a biddable soldier is to strip them of every single bit of sentiment they have,” Din said. “Then when you’ve broken them—you train them, teach them to be loyal to your cause, and make them part of a machine where they have no safe place to confide their fears. They’re not allowed to have goals or dreams that don’t fit yours. You don’t allow them friends, allies, or even comrades in arms. You reward them for turning in others who don’t do as instructed. You make hesitating to follow an order a death sentence, then you tell them that the only way to get ahead is to kill whoever is in their way.”

A muscle in Garme’s cheek twitched so hard that it made Din’s face hurt. “And you think they did that to my sister.”

“If she was strong enough to survive, yes. Otherwise, she died shortly after she was sold to the Empire.”

“Maybe she was strong enough to resist.”

“The Empire used torture droids to prep their conscripts for training, and no one is strong enough to resist one of those things,” Din said. “Neither one of us would last more than a handful of hours. I’ll pass the data around.”

“We don’t have much to offer in bounty, the others like me, I mean. The government gave up on those children years ago.”

“I won’t accept money to search for missing children. Not even ones that would be adults now,” Din said. “I’ll forward you any information I get.”

Dral took that moment to toss his boots out of the ship. Din sighed as they hit the ramp. He looked up and found his son standing there, defiant and proud of himself.

“That’s…”

“My son,” Din interjected so Garme didn’t say something rude that would get him punched in the face as he picked up Dral’s boots.

“He’s cuter in person than on the holovid,” Garme said. “Disturbingly so, actually. It’s got to be hard to tell him no to anything.” He glanced at the boots. “I don’t like shoes either.”

“He threw them in a swamp on Dagobah,” Din said roughly and considered punching Garme anyway when the man laughed.

Din picked up his son and went to talk to Jaybo Hood about purchasing a small grav lift. Making Bossk’s removal from his ship a smooth process would only be to his aid, considering how uncertain he was regarding his reception on Kashyyyk.

Chapter 12

Din noted as they left hyperspace near Kashyyyk that the ship carrying Tal Aydi had returned to the group. He hit the HoloNet first and downloaded all of the comms in his account, then let the auto-sorting program Cara had set up for him handle the rest.

“What are you thinking?”

“That you make my life easier,” Din said and turned to stare at her where she was lounging, feet up, in the co-pilot chair. “I know I wouldn’t be handling any of this half as well without you.”

Her cheeks darkened. “Shut up.”

He laughed. “I mean it. I’d have had to take Aja to Naboo for treatment if you hadn’t been on board. If I hadn’t given in to fear and taken him straight back to his parents. I don’t know how Oddau has refrained from sending me a comm cursing me out for nearly letting his son get eaten by a giant swamp squid.”

Cara smiled briefly but then sighed. “The medical stuff—I guess I don’t resent it anymore. It helped me excel in the rebellion, and it kept me and others alive. My mother would be proud of that even if she’d be appalled by who and what I am today. Granted, neither of my parents would’ve wanted me to work in any sort of military setting. But I was angry a lot when I was younger about how my education was shaped. I didn’t fight her because ultimately, I knew it was the only way I’d ever be something she could be proud of.”

Din frowned at her. “What?”

Cara shrugged. “My sisters could’ve and certainly would’ve become professional dancers. That wasn’t in the cards for me, and that was made very clear to both my mother and me when I was barely a teenager. My final dance instructor said I had all the grace of a nerf heifer, and it would be great if my mother would stop inflicting me on her. Of course, that got her fired, and she was furious since she was convinced my sister, Armenithia, was going to be a prima ballerina, and she certainly wanted credit for that.”

Din didn’t get that because Cara was very graceful and sure on her feet. “I don’t understand.”

Cara huffed. “You’re such a man sometimes.” She laughed when he just frowned at her. “She was saying I was too big, in her own snotty sort of way. I already had too much muscle due to dance and various other activities. My father was an active man and favored outdoor games we could play as a family. My neck was too short, my shoulders too broad, and my thighs too thick.”

“You weren’t even a woman, yet,” Din exclaimed. “Who judges a little girl like that?”

She grinned at him. “I was already close to 1.5 meters which is the standard for a ballerina, and it was obvious I was going to get taller. It just wasn’t in the cards for me. I didn’t want it, honestly, but it was still hard to be told I wasn’t anything like my mother. She was lovely, and…” Cara shrugged.

“You’re beautiful, though,” Ero blurted out from behind them.

Din glanced over his shoulder and watched the younger man blush furiously.

“But not the ideal for Alderaanian woman or even my mother’s homeworld,” Cara said and picked up her datapad. “Here.” An holopicture appeared above the pad. “This is my mother—Madna Croix Dune. This was a promotional image from her first performance on Coruscant—years before I was born. I don’t have any images of anyone else. Just a holovid of them singing to me for my birthday shortly before the planet was destroyed.”

Madna Dune was enchanting and delicate, Din thought. Cara had all of her mother’s facial features—dark eyes and a lovely, full mouth. She didn’t have her daughter’s muscle definition, but she had a lot of lean muscle on display as she rose up on her toes and spun in the image.

“She looks like a bird,” Rey said as she slid past Ero and peered closely at the image. “Or a flower. Do all dancers look like this?”

“There is a certain appearance that many dance companies look for when it comes to the ballet,” Cara said. “My mother was blessed to possess all of those qualities naturally. My sisters were much the same.” She watched the image for another few moments then closed it. “Standards of beauty vary across culture and species. For the record, we’re going to all be hideous to the Wookiees.”

Rey laughed. “I’ve been reading about them! I’m looking forward to meeting one.” She focused on him. “So, how will it work?”

“If you’ve finished your reading, as assigned, you know that there is a Wookie council and a king. The council is made up of chieftains that oversee their major cities. I’ve sent a comm already to the Royal City announcing that I am in orbit and that I wish to deliver Bossk to their king personally if it’s allowed.”

Rey nodded. “What if they say no?”

“I’ll deliver him to the spot of their choice and leave their space,” Din said. “It would be disrespectful to linger if their king doesn’t wish to meet with me. Since I’ve already made it clear that I will not accept the bounty being offered for Bossk, I expect I will be required to explain myself.”

“We need the money,” Rey said. “Why don’t you want to take it?”

“Because it would cripple their planetary economy. The Empire left the Wookiees very poor compared to other worlds due to the destruction of the planet’s natural resources and the Wookiees’ enslavement. It will take decades for recovery to fully begin in earnest across their world. Bossk’s crimes against the Wookiees are so heinous that they’re willing to suffer immensely to get their hands on him. Taking the credits would make me no better than the Imperials who enslaved them for decades. We need to make the best possible decisions going forward so we can forge a new legacy for Mandalore.”

Rey nodded. “Because we did bad things before.”

“Our ancestors did bad things,” Din clarified. “We can’t bear the weight of their sins, but we must learn from them.”

His comm activated, and Din accepted the incoming transmission. A protocol droid appeared in a full-body hologram flanked by four Wookiees.

Greetings, Mand’alor, I am FR-3PX, royal protocol droid. His Majesty, King Tawrra, welcomes you to Kashyyyk and expresses his deep gratitude for the delivery of the war criminal, Bossk. You and your escort ships will land. King Tawrra wishes to meet with you after Bossk’s identity has been confirmed to his satisfaction. You will receive landing instructions shortly.”

The transmission ended, and Din shared a look with Cara.

“Thoughts?”

“They didn’t look like they wanted to tear your arms off,” Cara said. “Yet.” She blew out a breath and looked toward Aja. “You verified his chain code twice, right?”

Aja’s eyes widened, and he paled, which made Din laugh. His comm activated again, and he wasn’t all that surprised when Bo-Katan appeared when he activated it.

“Thoughts?” Din questioned.

She shook her head. “I had no dealings with the Wookiees as they were under a full blockade while the Empire was in power. I’m sure you’ve read the same things I have about their species and the occupation of their world. I don’t think they ever expected to get their hands on Bossk, and if it happened, it would’ve been controlled by the senate. The fact that you went around the New Republic to deliver the most wanted criminal on their world should work in your favor.”

Din nodded. “Sort your party for landing. They’re putting us on the ground to lower the threat to their cities.”

None of us are equipped to bombard them from space, but they can’t know that with any scans considering the existence of grav-bombs,” Bo-Katan said. “I don’t blame them at all for their demand considering how much of the planet was razed from orbit by the Empire. Looks like our instructions are coming in—private dock in Royal City.” She inclined her head. “He’s giving you a king’s welcome. I don’t need to tell you to tread carefully in how you spend your political capital today.”

“You don’t,” Din assured and started landing procedures.

– – – –

Wila was still on the work table, her back panel open. It made Din uncomfortable. He hadn’t been able to watch IG deactivate her so she could receive her new part and the upgrades she’d requested.

“Any surprises?” he questioned roughly.

“No, I know her construction well due to the initial inspection you requested before she was activated. When she wakes, I will update her on the time that has passed, and she’ll seek a digital update from the HoloNet when it is appropriate to do so,” IG explained. “I will have the upgrades finished by the time you return to the ship.”

Din nodded. “Rey’s comm will be on the whole time she’s out of the ship, and I’ve taught her how to wed the pram to her vambrace if needed. If things get hostile, she has instructions to return to you with Dral so that you can leave the planet. Bo-Katan will see to our extraction. Wait 12 hours at our rendezvous point, then make for Tatooine. I’ve left the darksaber in my weapons locker. You’re are to put it in Torah Liss’ hand no matter what anyone else says. Understood?”

“Understood,” IG said. “I will stay with Rey and Dral as long as I am able.” He paused in his work. “But I do not believe the Wookiees will harm you. You’ve done them an immense service.”

“They’re a particular species,” Din said. “And I agree—I don’t expect violence, but I must always plan for it.”

“To be a Mandalorian is to be both the hunter and the prey,” IG said.

“Yes,” Din agreed. “Where did you hear that?”

“The Armorer told Iggy, my counterpart in the covert on Tatooine, that during his orientation which I observed for safety purposes. She asked that I be available for his activation in case there was a problem with his programming.”

“Iggy,” Din repeated. “They named the hunter droid in the covert Iggy?”

“The children named him,” IG said. “He does not understand, yet, what it means to be a hunter. His base function is to protect the covert and your new dwelling. In his last communication, he discussed the security system he created out of parts from the junk shop, and he asks for updates on my…life.”

“He’s nosy?” Din asked, unwillingly amused.

“He considers himself my brother,” IG said. “I’ve decided to allow the familiarity for the time being.”

Din had never sympathized with a droid more in his whole life, which made him deeply uncomfortable, so he went into the cargo bay where everyone else was getting ready. Rey was seated on the front of the big speeder, a place she certainly had help to get to. Dral was toddling between Aja and Ero, making little happy noises since he’d clearly come to see them getting ready for a chance to get off the ship. He was wearing the body glove and a beige linen tunic, but there were no boots in sight.

“I left his boots in the gear locker,” Cara said. “He doesn’t need the benefits of the full environmental suit, and I figure him being in a good mood will lessen the…” she flicked a hand, “the burden of managing the situation.”

Din didn’t disagree, so he went to his locker and unlocked it. He slung his amban onto his back and holstered the blaster he favored.

“We shouldn’t…lighten our weapon load?” Aja questioned.

“No, that would be an insult,” Din murmured. “Keep your rifle on your back until I give you leave to draw any weapon.”

“Understood,” Aja said. “I…this feels like a big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” Cara said. “The New Republic, as a body, has done too little to nothing to help the Wookiees. There are plenty of worlds in the Mid and Outer Rim that don’t have enough to offer to the galaxy at large, so they aren’t essentially ignored by the senate. The Wookiees have a seat, but they haven’t bothered to send a representative to the council because they know what they want or need isn’t a priority. Resources are going to worlds that have the technology, wealth, and physical resources to offer so that the republic can rebuild.”

“Wookiees are hard to communicate with, and they won’t use their skills to benefit others without proper compensation, so they’re being ignored,” Ero summed up. “That’s…terrible.”

“It’s disgusting,” Din muttered. “And if it feels like a big deal to be here, it’s because if things go well, we’ll come away from it with an alliance the likes of which Mandalore has never had. It’ll be a relationship built on respect and friendship instead of violence and oppression.”

Aja grinned suddenly and picked up his helmet. “Honestly, you’re a lot to take sometimes.”

Din huffed. “Shut up.”

“There are people in the covert on Tatooine who…” Aja trailed off. “You probably don’t want to hear this at all, but someone called you the reborn Tarre Vizsla.”

“Jedi don’t live twice,” Din said. “If souls even do that, and I don’t know if they do. I’ve never believed it possible, personally.”

“How do you know?” Ero asked curiously.

“Because I met Tarre Vizsla when I communed with the Force,” Din admitted and didn’t look at either of the younger men because he wasn’t sure he wanted to see their reactions to that. “He’s agreed to train me when I return to Tatooine.”

“Aja’s right,” Ero declared. “You’re too much, Ba’vodu.” He laughed. “Buir thinks…”

Din focused on his nephew. “What?”

Ero bit down on his lip and took a deep breath. “He wonders if your destiny really lies on Mandalore at all. He thinks being Mand’alor will eventually hold you back, and it worries him.”

“Nothing is going to hold me back,” Din said. There was too much at stake to allow it. “And wherever I go, I’m taking Mandalore with me.” He pressed two fingers gently against Ero’s chest plate. “Because Mandalore isn’t and truly never has been a place, Ero. Mandalore is the heart of me, the heart of you.” He paused. “It’s the heart of every single Mandalorian to ever swear the creed. I saw it in you the moment you were born.”

Ero flushed. “Don’t make me cry before I have to go meet a Wookiee for the first time. Buir has this insane ability to get me to confess the most embarrassing things that happen to me.”

“Or me,” Aja muttered. “Apparently, the giant swamp squid is the talk of the entire covert.”

“That was me,” Rey said cheerfully, and they all looked at her. “I sent Ba’vodu Paz a holovid of it. IG recorded the whole thing.” She laughed when Aja groaned.

“We clearly need to review her outgoing comms,” Din muttered and huffed when Cara grinned. “There’s a holovid of me throwing the darksaber into the mud floating around the covert!”

Cara snorted and dissolved into helpless laughter.

“It also shows you using the Force to physically restrain a creature 20 times your size,” IG said. “It was an astounding accomplishment.”

Din flushed and glanced briefly at the droid. “It happened too fast for that to be evident.”

“The entire event took 10.3 minutes,” IG said.

Din looked toward Cara and found her staring at him. “Seriously?”

“Yeah,” she murmured as her expression sobered. “You didn’t…realize that?”

“No,” he admitted and flushed. He was glad he’d already donned his helmet. “It felt like seconds—maybe as much as a minute. I’ll have to watch it.” He still hadn’t allowed himself to watch the footage that the Armorer had recorded of him taking the darksaber from Gideon or the incident on Coruscant, for that matter. “Let’s get the slab ready for transfer off the ship.”

– – – –

The protocol droid was waiting a few meters away from the ship, flanked by two Wookiees.

“Welcome to Kashyyyk,” the droid said crisply. “You and your people are confined to the dock, but King Tawrra wishes that you make yourselves as comfortable as possible. If you need to deploy moisture or energy collectors, you may do so. Outsiders may not hunt here, but if you require food—it is available for purchase. There are several options that are safe for humans to consume.”

“We just came from Ithor Station and resupplied there,” Din said as he prodded the slab out of the Tor. “I have a maintenance frame for the carbonite slab if you need it.”

“I do not,” FR-3PX declared. “But thank you. I will return when the identification process is complete.”

One of the unnamed Wookiees took the slab, and all three left without another word. The dock was open air, and the forest surrounding the Royal City looked rich with new growth. It was a relief to see, but he felt like it was largely superficial.

“Something wrong?” Cara questioned as she came to stand beside him.

“The planet is…wounded,” Din murmured. “Deeply, so. I always wondered why the Empire subjugated the Wookiees for no real cause. They weren’t opposing them and on their own, not much of a threat at all. Slave labor played a part in it, I’m sure, but they blockaded the planet very early on at the beginning of the Empire.”

“It’s a light Force vergence,” Cara said.

“Yes,” Din said. “The environment is rebounding rapidly—far quicker than it probably should.” He walked to the edge of the platform and stared out over the canopy of trees. “Would you get Rey? Looks like we found her some trees that smell good.”

He sat down on the edge of the platform, and a flock of birds fled a tree about ten meters away from him.

“It feels nice here,” Rey said as she sat down beside him. “But sad.”

Din took Dral from her hands and let his son rest on his chest as Cara sat down on his right. “It does. The Force is strong here.”

“Was it always?” Rey questioned.

“I think that’s why the Empire sought to control the planet and, in turn, the Wookiees,” Din said. “The Force is everywhere, but there are special places throughout the galaxy that exist as nexuses for it. It flows around us and through us.”

“What about the dark side?” Rey questioned. “Does it flow around us?”

“No, the Living Force is utterly neutral in its natural state. There is folly in that as it allows itself to be used for both good and bad,” Din explained. “Jedi scholars in the past actively sought a way to teach the Living Force to reject the dark side. It’s clear, in reviewing Emperor Palpatine’s actions, that he tried to break the Living Force and bend it entirely to his will.”

“That doesn’t seem possible,” Rey said. “How can you control something that is everywhere?”

“No one sane would even try,” Din murmured. “But insanity breeds in the dark side.”

“Some people seek it,” Cara said. “Why?”

“The power is worth the risk to them.” Din took a deep breath. “Power is a corruption all its own—no matter the form it takes. It’s important to pay attention to yourself and others around you.”

“Even you?” Rey questioned.

“Especially me,” Din said wearily. “No man should have the power and knowledge I have, Rey.”

“I trust you to do the right thing,” she said and leaned into him. “You’re not broken, Buir.”

Sometimes, he felt shattered, but he couldn’t tell her that.

“Can we leave the platform?” Rey questioned.

Din considered that and turned to Cara. “If Dral eats something, would it be considered hunting?”

“I don’t think…so.” She laughed. “But we probably shouldn’t take the risk.”

“No, probably not.”

“Do you think we could teach him not to eat random creatures?” Rey questioned.

“I think…” Din trailed off and took a deep breath. “I think he’s been forced for many years to eat what he could, whenever he could. When I found him, he was basically a hostage in a place that had been under siege in some fashion or another for a while. Considering how good he is at hunting for his own food, it’s probably a natural skill for him.”

“Okay,” Rey said. “I worry that he’ll eat something that will hurt him.”

“I think the Force wouldn’t let him catch and eat something that would hurt him,” Din murmured. “It takes care of him, in its own way.”

“But he was hurt in the past,” Rey pointed out.

“Would you agree that it would be wrong to make someone do what you wanted?” he asked and watched her frown.

“Yes.”

“Would you agree that one of your basic rights is free will?”

She huffed and crossed her arms. “Buir.”

“Rey.”

“Yes, fine. Free will is very very very important.” She poked her lip out. “And I can’t make people do what I want, and I guess the Force can’t either.” She looked around. “But how does that work, really? What about war? What about the Empire?”

“Free will goes hand and hand with the right to exist,” Cara said when Din hesitated. “Society develops rules by which we can work and live together—civilizations grow out of those aims. In the Outer Rim, many of the planets exist in a state of lawlessness. It creates untenable situations.”

“Like that man on Tatooine who said it was okay to make children slaves,” Rey said.

“Yes, exactly like him,” Din agreed. “On a world with a government and a justice system, the Armorer wouldn’t have had…” He trailed off. “Honestly, some people need killing.”

Cara nudged him.

“What? Am I supposed to lie about it? This galaxy is full of assholes, and most of them don’t give a damn about anyone’s laws.”

“So when someone’s not a good person…” Rey trailed off. “What do we do?”

“We have to make a choice that we can live with,” Din admitted. “And sometimes that means we have to do things that many would consider to be wrong or even illegal.”

“Like shoot a shabuir in his office for being a monster,” Rey said and laughed when Cara huffed.

Din focused on Dral, who was dozing against his chest. “Ultimately, we have to figure out to be good people while we survive without hurting the innocent.”

She nodded. “Okay, Buir.”

“I have an idea,” Cara said.

Din focused on her. “Does it involve blowing up an Imperial?”

“Not today,” she admitted and grinned. “It’s kind of Rey’s idea anyway.”

Rey quirked an eyebrow. “I don’t wanna blow up an Imperial.” She paused. “Yet. I mean, I haven’t ever met one, so I should keep my options open.”

“I think we’re probably terrible parents,” Din told Cara, and she laughed.

“You’re the best parents ever,” Rey exclaimed.

“You have very low standards, ad,” Din told her and laughed when she huffed dramatically.

“Well, you haven’t left me on a desert planet to fend for myself,” Rey reasoned.

“That’s a great baseline,” Cara muttered. “As to my idea, Mandalore has space on the HoloNet that isn’t being used for anything. Eventually, we’ll want to create a presence on the platform dedicated to the planet, science, history, culture, etc. A lot of data will have to be recreated from the archives that the senate is currently holding hostage.

“We could create a holosite to help search for lost loved ones,” she said. “If it gives one person closure, then maybe it would be worth it.”

“What if there are people out there that don’t want to be found?” Din questioned.

“We remove the data about them and tell the person who was seeking information that their family member is alive but doesn’t wish to have contact,” Cara said. “In the end, it will mostly be people seeking to confirm that whoever they’re looking for is dead. And that kind of closure could help people heal. There are a couple of people in the covert who would probably really enjoy working on the project. It would give them a chance to use tech skills that haven’t gotten much of a workout. They could start working on rebuilding our HoloNet presence as well.”

“That sounds great,” Rey said. “We should also work on stealing all that history information because it’s rude to not share it.”

“Remember the story Uvell told us about his friend?”

“The one we’re going to have a funeral for?” Rey questioned.

“Yeah,” Din said. “He was a historian, and he hid several holocrons with the Jedi artifacts—unaltered by the Empire. It won’t be without bias because nothing is, but it’ll be better than anything the NR is currently hoarding.”

Rey clapped. “Buir! That’s so amazing!”

Dral clapped his hands, too, and Din laughed because he figured his son really couldn’t care less about the information the senate was keeping to themselves.

“What are you doing?”

Din turned and found Bo-Katan and several others from her ship standing behind him. Properly armored and armed but at ease. Dral made a happy noise and crawled out of his arms. He toddled straight for Bo-Katan and gave her the universal demand to be picked up.

She hesitated and looked toward Din for permission, and he nodded. He watched Bo-Katan very carefully pick his son up. She huffed a little under her breath. “He weighs practically nothing.” She let him rest against her chest. “Do you think he’ll be able to wear armor of any sort?”

“He’s currently wearing it,” Cara pointed out dryly as she stood. “His body glove and tunic are both made of armor-grade materials. During testing, with the Armorer, I couldn’t penetrate the bes-kut with a single weapon I had available to me.”

Bo-Katan focused on Dral, and the baby offered her a bright smile. “You cute little beast.” She focused on Din. “You didn’t say what you’re doing.”

“Just planning some low-grade insurrection against the New Republic,” Din said wryly. “Rey’s deeply offended by the fact they aren’t correcting the damage done to historical databases by the Empire.”

“It’s pretty offensive,” Bo-Katan muttered and focused on Rey. “Let me know how I can help.”

Rey grinned, but then her smile fell from her face. “Buir…the Wookiees are back.”

Din stood and turned to find that FR-3PX had returned and had the same four Wookiees he’d had with him when he’d sent the comm. There were six more behind the party. Honor guard, he thought. One of the Wookiees standing with the droid was their king. None of them were wearing a damn thing—not even a weapon which he figured was on purpose. He took Dral from Bo-Katan’s hands gently and let his son rest against his chest as he focused on the droid. He felt Cara and Rey slot into place on either side of them. The warm presence of his nephew’s movement through the Force told him that Ero and Aja had stationed themselves behind him.

FR-3PX stepped back, and one Wookiee stepped forward. “His Majesty, King Tawrra, son of Derrwa, will speak with you now. I will translate his words exactly, and you may address him directly.”

Din nodded.

“Ohwoanoaooscwo aooo orracacrororoor, scrawhwa’raanoorc,” Tawrra said.

“Welcome to Kashyyyk, Mand’alor.”

“Thank you, King Tawrra,” Din said. “We’re pleased to be on such a beautiful world after our travels.”

“Rooohu ohahanan aowoanan scwo ohacro rooohu’howo rcwowwhucwowa aoacwo rhoohuwhaoro wwoorc aoacwo ohrarc oarcahscahwhraan, Rhooccor.”

“You will tell me why you’ve refused the bounty for the war criminal, Bossk.”

“I see no honor in accepting payment to deliver such justice,” Din said and hoped that Tawrra wouldn’t demand a more specific answer. “I would prefer to make a friend than gain another business associate.”

“Rooohu whwowowa aoacwo scoowhworo.”

“You need the money.”

“I can’t say that we don’t,” Din agreed. “My people are scattered all over the galaxy—some live in poverty where even their next meal is in doubt, but it would violate my deepest beliefs to take from you in these circumstances. The Empire’s crimes against Kashyyyk and your people have left you vulnerable to many abuses by the galaxy at large. I won’t add a crime of my own to theirs. Credits can be earned, but once honor is forsaken—regaining it is nearly impossible.”

“Rooohu’howo rrahhowowh huc shhucaoahoawo rawhwa ah ohoohuanwa waoo aoacwo crascwo wwoorc aoacwo akwoooakanwo ooww scrawhwaraanoorcwo.”

“You’ve given us justice, and I would do the same for the people of Mandalore.”

Rey’s hand curled into the strap of his gun belt. Din stilled the urge to move.

“I can’t ask your people to make war for us, King Tawrra. It would be obscene in the face of your great losses.”

“WWRC-3AKK, cacoooh acahsc.”

The droid produced a holoprojector and tossed it on the ground between Din and the Wookiee king. A hologram sprung full form between them and displayed an Accalamator-class transgalactic assault ship.

“King Tawrra used this ship to retrieve the last of his people from Imperial enslavement three years ago. It is currently sitting in an underground dock 100 kilometers from the Royal City with a full complement of X-wings and two Y-wing starfighters. It’s called the Victory Over Oppression.”

Din stared at the ship in shock. “This is worth over 100 million Imperial credits.”

“Yes,” the droid agreed.

“Wwrcwowowaoosc acrac whoo akrcahoawo.”

“Freedom has no price,” the droid translated quietly.

“Ohwo ohahanan akrcwoakrarcwo aoacahc cacahak wwoorc rooohu rawhwa ahao ohahanan rhwo aoraorwowh aooo Aoraaoooooahwhwo wwoorc rooohurc ohrarc wowwwwoorcao,” Tawrra said.

“We will prepare this ship for you, and it will be taken to Tatooine for your war effort.”

“Cacoohuanwa ahao churchoahhowo rooohurc oarascakraahrrwh aooo rcwoaoraorwo rooohurc acooscwoohoorcanwa, oohurc huwhahaowowa akwoooakanwoc ohahanan hucwo ahao aooo wawowwwowhwa rhooaoac Scrawhwaraanoorcwo rawhwa Orracacrororoor rac anoowhrr rac ahao rarhanwo.”

“Should it survive your campaign to retake your homeworld, our united peoples will use it to defend both Mandalore and Kashyyyk as long as it is able.”

It was more than he would’ve asked for. The Victory Over Oppression could be the difference between life and death in the war he was heading for.

“Thank you, King Tawrra. May our alliance survive us both for generations to come.”

Dral made a happy sound and reached out for the Wookiee king in demand. Din winced and relaxed only slightly when the Wookiee gamely took his son from his hands. Dral looked even smaller as the king’s large fingers wrapped gently around his body. The baby babbled incoherently for several moments, and the Wookiee stared in silence before laughing, which made Dral giggle and grab a fistful of hair.

“Is that taboo?” Din demanded lowly in his wife’s direction.

“No,” FR-3PX said. “And even if it were, Wookiees are known to be infinitely patient with children.”

One of the other Wookiees stepped forward, and soon his son was passed to him. Din forced himself to remain still.

“Ahc acwo rcwoanraaowowa aooo scro ooanwa wwrcahwowhwa Rooowara?”

“Is he related to my old friend Yoda?”

“No, but he is of the same species,” Din said.

“The Wookiee holding your son is Chieftain Tarfful. He fought beside Grand Jedi Master Yoda in the Clone Wars. If given enough time, he will brag incessantly about his war record and how he survived several hundred assassination attempts by the Empire,” the droid explained and got roared at for his trouble. The other Wookiees laughed.

– – – –

“What is it with you?” Bo-Katan demanded.

Cara laughed.

Din glanced between the two women but then headed for the galley. Talks with the Wookiees had taken most of the afternoon and evening. They were staying overnight on the planet, and he’d been promised a tour of the ship in the morning before they were due to depart. IG emerged from the cockpit.

“Where are Rey and Wila?”

“Wila is charging—reactivation was taxing due to the upgrades, and Rey fell asleep in her dinner, so I urged her to go to sleep early,” IG explained. “Do you require a meal?”

“We’ll fend for ourselves,” Din said. “You must be due a rest period.”

“I will charge in the turret this evening.”

Din just nodded as the droid left then put Dral in his chair. He really didn’t know how much the kid had been fed over the course of the day as he’d been given treats by the Wookiees repeatedly. He eyed his son, who was staring at his personal food storage with glee. He considered warning Bo-Katan but then thought she probably deserved to be just as shocked as anyone else who happened to witness his son devouring a paddy frog wholesale. He pulled a bigger-than-average frog from the stasis field just in case his kid honestly was hungry and not just putting on get more food in the bottomless pit called his stomach.

He brought the frog to Dral, who actually cooed as he grabbed the creature with both hands and sucked him right in, head first.

“What…how…” Bo-Katan huffed as Dral smiled proudly at her after he swallowed. “It’s a good thing you’ll never get very big because you’d be a nightmare.”

Din concentrated on making caf while Cara rummaged through their cooling unit and came out with a platter of meat and cheese. “When did we get bantha cheese?”

“Wila and IG are making it in the cargo bay,” Cara said.

He’d never really cared what color milk was, but he knew some people were deeply put off the bantha milk because it was blue. He shrugged and grabbed a loaf of bread from a shelf and unwrapped it as Aja and Ero joined them.

Aja yawned as he removed his helmet and put it on the shelf. “Standing around all day is exhausting.”

“Good call on mimicking their guard’s posture,” Bo-Katan said. “They clearly noticed and accepted it as a gesture of respect.”

“It was Ero’s idea,” Aja said and stretched.

“I’ve been reading about Wookiees since we left Dantooine,” Ero murmured and brought glasses to the able as Aja grabbed a pitcher of water. “They supplement their spoken language with posture and hand gestures.” He put his helmet on the shelf and slouched down on the bench. “As to my ba’vodu, he’s frankly a lot to take on a regular basis, so you should probably work on either getting used to it or ignoring it. Sometimes you can’t even ask him a simple question without getting some profound, life-altering response that you didn’t ask for and really didn’t want.”

Din flicked Ero’s ear and removed his own helmet. He picked up Cara’s and placed them both on the shelf as Bo-Katan removed hers. She offered it, so he accepted it and put it out of the way to clear the table for their meal. He sat down and watched Cara deftly slice the bread with a knife that had appeared in the galley after their shopping trip on Ithor.

“Tal Aydi?” Din questioned.

Bo-Katan grimaced. “We couldn’t find anything physical to connect to the poison or to him for that matter. If there was evidence, he’s already disposed of it. I told him that you sent her Tatooine with Fett’s former ship because of her pregnancy, and he smirked at me. He asked me how I felt when I found out my lover was pregnant with your child.”

“What did you tell him?” Cara asked.

Bo-Katan shrugged. “I told him the child was mine but that I wouldn’t have cared if she’d fallen pregnant naturally as our relationship is and always has been an open one. She’s going to live hundreds of years. I can’t tie her up in a marriage when I might live another twenty years at most. Zar Rook did that to her mother, and Els Rook spent a hundred years in celibate mourning, and if you know a single thing about the Rattataki females, you know that she suffered until she died. They require sex for good emotional and mental health.”

“How did he respond?” Din asked.

“He was furious,” Bo-Katan said. “He said I had no business making a child with Naova and called her a creature. I’ve told the matriarch of House of Aydi that Tal is not welcome on my ship or in my space indefinitely. He pitched a fit about it, apparently, and accused me of trying to turn his clan against him. I don’t have time for that kind of petty bantha shit, which I also made clear. I announced to the house that Naova was carrying my child and that someone had tried to kill her. I can’t prove he had a thing to do with it, and you were right—the lack of proof matters.”

Din made himself a sandwich. “So listen, I mean no insult by this…” He trailed off when Bo-Katan laughed. “You’re an attractive woman, obviously, but is this really about jealousy?”

Cara sent him a look.

“What?”

“You’ve never wanted someone you couldn’t have?” she questioned.

“I thought I couldn’t have you,” he pointed out. “But I didn’t plot anyone’s murder over it.” He paused. “I did consider killing that one guy that kept telling you how great of a shot you were. Then he invited you to his fire that one night…”

She laughed. “You sent the baby to interrupt us!”

“I did,” Din agreed and focused on his son, who’d lain his head down on the table and gone to sleep.

“I got him,” Ero said and stood.

“His nightshirt is on the sanitizer,” Cara said, and Ero nodded as he walked away with Dral drowsing on his chest.

“But still, I didn’t murder the guy or even seriously consider it.” Din paused. “I might have sort of threatened him.”

“What Din’s trying, and failing, to say is that Tal Aydi doesn’t look at you like he…loves you. It’s possessive…”

“And ugly,” Aja supplied. “I noticed. He’s not very good at keeping his emotions to himself. If someone was looking at one of my vod’s like that—I’d take them somewhere private and have a real long talk with them about boundaries and avoiding their own messy death.”

“Clan Aydi wants house status,” Bo-Katan said. “And they have wanted that for generations, but they foster an ugly amount of competition and ambition within their ranks that rightly makes many uncomfortable. They expected me to remain Mand’alor, and they expected me to create new houses from my vassals.” She motioned toward Din. “But you happened, and no one was prepared for that. Most are relieved, but there are a few who hate what you are.”

“A foundling?” Cara questioned.

Bo-Katan shook her head. “I mean, yes, there are a very few who’d resent that, but they aren’t Mandalorians as far as I’m concerned. To reject a foundling amongst us is to reject the basic tenets of our kind, and I’ll have no part of that. At the end of the day, no matter the name he carries—Din is a Vizsla. And a very small minority of Mandalorians would prefer that House Vizsla never come to rule over Mandalore again. They’re wrapped up in ancient feuds, and insults delivered hundreds of years ago.”

“I’d be happy to set them up a camp on Concordia,” Din said, and Bo-Katan snorted. “And you can tell every single one of them that.”

“What’s on Concordia?” Cara asked.

“It’s where Death Watch was exiled by my sister, Satine,” Bo-Katan said. “And incidentally, Mandalore’s only moon. Most believed if we hadn’t exiled our warriors to Concordia that we’d have stood a chance against Darth Maul’s Shadow Collective. It’s an often debated topic among the older generations of Mandalorians. My sister’s memory is forever tainted by that decision.”

“And they were exiled because they refused to give up…their creed,” Cara said carefully and raised an eyebrow when Bo-Katan flushed. “You realize that cultural annihilation is a form of genocide, right?”

“Yes, but my sister didn’t see it that way,” the older woman murmured. “I can’t change it. I wish I could.”

Din cleared his throat. “Naova is safe for the moment and should be landing on Tatooine within the next few hours unless she slowed down to avoid something or someone in her travels. What do you plan to do about Tal?”

“I’m going to send Clan Aydi to the Mid-Rim. I’ve already contacted Sabine and filled her in. She’s agreed to root out the problem and figure out if Tal worked alone or with others. She thinks she can convince Tal that she agrees with him about the darksaber. It won’t take much considering her history with it. She’s the one that put it in my hand. Most would expect her to support my being returned to the role.”

“But she doesn’t?” Cara questioned.

“She knows I don’t want it and never did,” Bo-Katan said. “And she understands what is required of the Mand’alor going forward, and I don’t…I’m not the one.”

Din nodded. “How do you think the New Republic is going to respond to our alliance with the Wookiees?”

“They’re going to be horrified,” Bo-Katan said. “The Wookiees have never made an off-world alliance with any other planet, and their only political overture was willing participation in the republic in its various forms throughout history. Immediately, they’re going to understand how badly they’ve misstepped with them, but it will be too late. It also needs to be said that Han Solo and his wife led the liberation forces for the NR on Kashyyyk. Leia Organa’s resignation from the Senate has made some deep waves in the republic that I don’t think anyone fully anticipated.”

Din nodded and retrieved the caf urn and brought it to the table.

“I can’t make decisions based on how a bunch of politicians in the Core are going to respond,” Din said mildly. “Organa wasn’t wrong, at all, about the circumstances in the Outer Rim. People are desperate, angry, and so broken by the Empire’s actions that it could be generations before they recover. I can’t let that be our future.”

Bo-Katan nodded. “Have you finished sorting through the data you pulled from Boba Fett’s base?”

“No, but we know where the bounty came from and how much it was,” Cara said and grimaced. “10 million Imperial. Delivery to Mandalore and whoever it is, wants the darksaber, too.”

Bo-Katan’s face tightened briefly in fury. “They’re using our own goddamned money to fund a bounty on you.”

“It seems that way,” Din said neutrally. “We don’t know who is in charge on the ground on Mandalore, and we need to find out.”

“Gar Saxon was an Imperial through and through,” Bo-Katan said reluctantly. “I’d go so far as to say he’d consider himself an Imperial first and a Mandalorian second. He was profoundly loyal to Darth Maul, and his brother was no better. I can’t say Clan Saxon is any different even a decade after their deaths, and I don’t know what that means for those left behind on Mandalore. I don’t even know how many of our people are left.”

“Who did Moff Gideon answer to?” Din questioned.

“Grand Moff Randd.” Bo-Katan grimaced. “I was told that he was in orbit above Mandalore during the purge. I don’t believe he’d have allowed Gideon to keep the darksaber if he’d known about it. He’d consider it a trophy worthy of only his hand.”

“Fortunately, he’s wanted dead or alive,” Din muttered.

“When are you going to give up bounty hunting?” Bo-Katan asked wearily.

“Honestly? Never,” Din admitted. “This galaxy is full of people I can hunt legally, and I’m going to do it as long as I want.”

– – – –

“Is this what you wanted?”

Din shuddered and fought the urge to close his eyes. He spread his legs further apart and lifted into the sweet roll of his wife’s hips. It had been decades since he’d let someone fuck him, and confessing to that had led to his wife offering to get a strap-on. He’d let the subject rest until she’d asked him to put together a list of things he needed for the shopping trip on Ithor.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “You’re exactly what I want.” The dildo wasn’t very long, but it was on the thick side, which was perfect. It was a toy made strictly for pleasure rather than dominance, and he appreciated her choice.

Cara ran her hands down his thighs and wrapped one hand around his dick as she worked the dildo in his ass with the kind of skill that made her level of experience very clear. It was such a turn-on that he could barely concentrate on the deep and intense pleasure she was giving him. Her dark eyes and flushed cheeks told him exactly how much she was enjoying being in charge.

“One day, you should tell me all about you learned to do this so well.”

She laughed and rubbed the head of his cock. “You can comm Kor and ask him. He’d be thrilled to tell you all about worshipping at my altar.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Din muttered and arched against her as she pressed in hard and hit his prostate. “He’s probably built a temple in your honor on Naboo if you gave it to him this well.”

The ache building at the base of his spine was getting harder and harder to ignore, so he gave into the burn and relaxed against her thighs—the tensing of her muscles under his weight just highlighted her physical strength, which he loved. Din gave into orgasm between one deep thrust and another, coming all over her hand with a groan. Cara worked him through it with a pleased grin.

Din relaxed on the bed as she pulled free of his body. “That was great.”

“You look fucked out,” she said as she released the magnetic straps of the harness and pulled it free from her body. Cara stretched as she left the bed and put the strap-on on the trunk at the end of the bed, and picked up a towel she’d left there after their shower.

He watched her wipe her hands clean. “Come back over here.”

She came back to the bed and crawled on top of him. He loved the sweet heat of her body and smooth, soft skin. Being with her felt like a luxury he didn’t deserve. Din sought her mouth, and she hummed against his lips as he rolled her onto her back. He moved down, rubbed his beard against the swell of her breast before sucking her rigid nipple into his mouth.

Cara’s hands fisted against the back of his head then she arched her back to press hard against his mouth. He released her nipple and moved down again, stopping to scrape his teeth against the underside of her breast. She moaned soft and sweet as he shouldered between her legs. Her fingers clenched in his hair as he licked her from hole to clit. She liked it slow and deliberate—and Din had no problems whatsoever in savoring the taste of his wife.

She came with a low moan as he sucked her clit. Cara ran her hand over the back of his head and shivered as he tongued her hole. “You…fuck…you’d better be hard again, or I’m going to have to kick your ass.”

Din laughed as he levered his body over hers and settled between her trembling thighs. He pushed into her cunt with one deep stroke. “We can fight if you want.”

She laughed a little and wrapped her legs around his waist. “Shut up and fuck me.”

Chapter 13

The Victory Over Oppression had been stolen, Din learned, from the low-ranking Imperial who’d been running a mining operation with Wookie slaves. FR-3PX had also been liberated from that operation. It was in great condition, and he’d been given a list of upgrades that King Tawrra considered both necessary and easy to accomplish with salvaged Imperial equipment they currently had on the planet.

The ship was large enough to have an actual bridge and would require a minimal crew of 50 but could support 700 crew and thousands of troops. It was a daunting project, and he wondered how many people on Tatooine could be trained to operate the ship.

“Is something wrong?” FR-3PX questioned.

Din turned and found the droid and King Tawrra staring at him from across the bridge. “No, it’s amazing.”

“But?” the droid prodded.

“It’s the biggest ship I’ve ever been on,” Din admitted. “I don’t currently have enough people with the right knowledge to provide a minimal crew for it.”

“A ship this size will practically fly itself,” the droid said.

“Rooohurc akwoooakanwo rarcwo rrraaoacworcahwhrr aooo chuakakoorcao rooohu oowh Aoraaoooooahwhwo,” Tawrra said.

“Your people are gathering to support you on Tatooine.”

“Yes,” Din agreed. “And there are more in the Mid-Rim—training and preparing to join me for the campaign. None of them anticipate having this kind of asset at our disposal. It’s my goal to liberate Mandalore without using resources from the New Republic.”

“Rooohu waoowh’ao aorchucao aoacwosc,” Tawrra said.

“You don’t trust them,” the droid dutifully translated.

“I want to trust them, but there are many factions in the senate that are selfish, and the focus of the body is narrow. I don’t want to owe the republic anything when it comes to the retaking of our planet. They’ll use it against me, and precious few would consider it a problem due to the reputation of Mandalorians.”

“Rooohu waoohurhao aoacworo’anan aorcworaao rooohu wwraahrcanro rhwooarahucwo ooww aoacwo raaoaoraoaor oowh rooohu ohacwowh rooohu ohwowhao aooo Oaoorchucoarawhao.”

“You doubt they’ll treat you fairly because of the attack on you when you went to Coruscant.”

“I know they’ll attempt to manage and control me for their own benefit,” Din said. “The moment I get my feet under me on my own world, they’ll consider me a threat—like a bomb that has to be handled carefully to avoid an explosion. Perhaps it’s weariness because of the Empire’s actions, or maybe they’re all wrapped up in the ancient history of Mandalore. I don’t have time to care which.

“The Empire isn’t entirely gone—there are pockets of Imperial occupation throughout the galaxy and especially in the Outer Rim where whole planets are still under their control. Many of them have retreated to uncharted space, but they will rise again if we don’t everything we can to stop it. Many in the Senate believe that the conflict is behind us—they want to rest and forget about war and death. They’ll ignore the signs until it’s too late if we allow it. I can’t allow it.”

“Woscakworcoorc Akraanakraaoahwhwo anahhowoc.”

“Emperor Palpatine lives.”

“Yes,” Din said and watched the Wookie king absorb that information. He unlatched his helmet and took it off so he could meet Tawrra’s gaze. “He’s beyond my reach, and the Force tells me it’s that path of another to kill him. But I’ll do everything I can to make sure he never comes to power again even if I have to hunt him myself.”

“Ahww aoacraao wararo oaooscwoc, Ah ohahanan achuwhao ohahaoac rooohu, Crawhwa’raanoorc.”

“If that day comes, I will hunt with you, Mand’alor.”

Din felt the Force shift gently in him—urging him to accept. “It would be my great honor, King Tawrra.” He took a deep breath. “Let’s talk about an ordnance wish list.”

– – – –

He wrote a message to the Armorer before they left the surface and joined the escort ships at the system’s liberation point so he could access the HoloNet at his leisure. Wila had followed him in the cockpit, without speaking, and had gotten comfortable on the flight deck. She was small enough to fit between the top of the deck and the viewport with no issues at all. The way her eyes were flickering told him that she’d connected to the HoloNet to get an update.

When she finished, she shifted around so she could stare at him. Din knew she hadn’t said a word since she woke up. If she’d ever had a voice modulator, she had no memory of using it. Perhaps that was holding her back. He figured she had a lot to say considering the constant stream of beeps they’d been subjected to before the upgrade.

Cara settled into the co-pilot seat and the pram slotted into place between them as the others settled sat down on the bench behind him. “Something is bothering you.”

“No, not really,” Din murmured, but he took a deep breath. “This is the closest I’ve been to Mandalore in more than a decade.”

“Just a few hours in hyperspace,” Cara said. “We couldn’t risk landing. Maybe even getting within range to scan the planet would be dangerous. The cloak would give us about an hour, but I don’t know what the other ships are capable of.”

Din activated the comm and signaled Bo-Katan. Just a few moments passed before she appeared. “Do any of your ships have the ability to cloak?”

Mine and clan Rook’s,” Bo-Katan reported. “I could, in theory, bring the other two underneath my ship and carry them as cargo. It would spread the cloak over them, but it would cut my cloaking time down to about two hours.”

“I only have an hour of cloak,” Din said. “I want to go to Mandalore.”

We could drop a communication network on the planet,” Bo-Katan said. “Working together—we could scan the whole Imperial operation in about thirty minutes. It would give us a population count and a working knowledge of how the Imperials are encamped. Holocomms are probably closely monitored, but I doubt they would even look for a radionic signal. They have a HoloNet repeater in orbit, or at least they did during the purge. I doubt they’d remove it as it would cut their own ability to communicate with the galaxy at large.”

“The Empire had internal comm channels built and hidden in the HoloNet,” Cara said. “The NR has a large team working to infiltrate and destroy them, but the last information I had on it indicated that the Imps had dozens of private networks set up, including one that they kept hidden from the emperor himself. The Senate has been debating how to moderate, control, and cleanse the HoloNet since they formed. It’s a political hot button considering how the Empire used the HoloNet to control information and distribute propaganda. The damn thing is still full of their propaganda, and there are hundreds of hidden forums dedicated to spreading the Empire’s truth.”

Is it worth the risk?” Bo-Katan questioned.

“I don’t know,” Din admitted. “But if they know about me—about the recovery of the darksaber…”

Then they deserve to know you won’t forsake them,” Bo-Katan said quietly. “Like I did.”

“You didn’t forsake anyone,” Din said. “Had you allowed Moff Gideon to capture you—he would’ve executed you brutally, in public, and that would’ve done more to demoralize and destroy those left behind than anything the Imps have done since. Considering what we both know of Gideon, he’d have probably used the darksaber to do it. To watch another Mand’alor cut down by an outsider would’ve been the final blow for most.”

She sat back in her seat and nodded. “I’ll prep our ships.”

“I’ll send you my flight plan shortly.” Din closed the comm.

“I need to make a priority contact—it’ll be a little costly,” Cara said, and Din focused on her.

“Do you need privacy for it?” he questioned.

“No, but it should just be the two of us,” she glanced over her shoulder. “I’m going to ask someone to do something illegal, so she’s not going to want witnesses.”

Aja nodded as Ero stood. “Come on, Rey, we can practice your throwing.”

Rey snagged the pram. “Okay, Kaan said we can use him the next time we practice; he likes being thrown around.”

Din shared a look with Cara, who grinned. He really wasn’t on board with Rey throwing her amphistaff around at all, but the serpent was a weapon, so he wanted her to know how to use him safely, but it was galling, actually how good she was at it already. He knew it was Force related, but that didn’t make him feel better at all. He closed the cockpit doors.

“How costly?”

“1k NR for the priority comm line plus whatever it costs to get what I need,” Cara said and raised an eyebrow.

“What are you going to ask for?”

“A dedicated comm channel from Mandalore through the HoloNet’s NR encryption protocol.”

“And the Imperials on the ground won’t find it?”

“They were used for decades by the rebellion and were never discovered,” Cara said and shrugged. “Now, those same people running those channels are running the HoloNet.”

“And you trust her?”

“With my life more than once,” Cara said.

“Yeah, okay.” He left the pilot seat so she could be the central focus of the holocapture. “Want me to stay out of visual range?”

“Not necessary,” Cara said as she started to prepare the transmission. “I updated my chain code before we left Lothal, so it’s no secret I’m married. But put your helmet on because she’s in an NR communications hub, and her station will automatically capture images for facial recognition.”

Din picked up his helmet and slid it into place. “You don’t want yours?”

“She’ll need to see my face; my code won’t be enough.” Cara finished creating the connection and took a deep breath. “Zan was in my unit—dropped with us for about 50 missions before she was elevated into Techcomm, and I had to get a new LT to handle all the crap I didn’t want to mess with.”

Din considered that. “What was your rank when you left?”

She opened her mouth to respond, but the comm connected, and a woman appeared in the holoprojector.

Commander Dune, fuck me, hold on! I gotta get…don’t go anywhere!”

Cara laughed when the woman disappeared from the hologram. She relaxed in the pilot’s chair. “I was field promoted to commander shortly before the Battle of Endor, and I entered the NR military at that rank.”

Two faces appeared then, fighting for space in the holo capture.

Don’t get handsy, Varko, she contacted me! I didn’t have to share,” Zan declared hotly, and the younger man sharing the space with her laughed. “Commander! Sorry, I’ve moved to a more secure location. This idiot has the best office space, but he only got it because General Haws likes his ass.”

“Varko does have a really nice ass,” Cara said dryly. “Can’t blame Haws for noticing. I need a favor. It’s illegal as fuck.”

I’m all in,” Zan said immediately. “Did you want me to slice the Senate? Because I’ve been looking for an excuse.”

“No,” Cara said firmly. “I need a dedicated, encrypted comm channel buried in the HoloNet so deep that no one will notice it. Full bounce protocol, indefinite priority status, multi-directional, and I need it active in the next four hours.”

Zan pursed full lips and shoved a dumbstruck Varko out of the holocapture. “From where to who?”

“From the HoloNet repeater in orbit above Mandalore to a shadow account I’ll be setting up shortly.”

That kind of setup is going to require a hardware slice,” Zan said as she started to work on a computer that was outside of the holocapture. “The HoloNet repeater in orbit around Mandalore is functional, but it hasn’t accepted a firmware update in twenty years. Just neglect as far as I can tell instead of anything nefarious. I could put together a physical package—meet up with you at the place of your choice for delivery inside the next 48 hours, depending on where you are. If you’re looking to set up a ground communication system for a resistance movement on the planet—you’ll need an infiltrator as well.”

“I can handle the hardware—I just need the protocols inserted at your level so they’ll go undetected.”

And the infiltrator?” Zan questioned.

“Communication comes first in this instance. We don’t know the situation on the ground well enough to send in an infiltrator to start building cells,” Cara said. “Name your price.”

Zan huffed. “Price? Fuck you. Come on. You think I’m going to charge you credits for this? There are fucking Imperials on that planet living on it like they own it, and that offends the shit out of me.” She leaned in. “Hey, I saw the update on your chain code. Is your man around? ‘Cause I gotta ask—does he keep that helmet on all the time? I heard some do. That’s hot.”

Din laughed.

“The next time I see you, I’m spanking your ass,” Cara told her.

Zan grinned. “Geez, Commander, don’t threaten me with the sexy stuff. You’re an old married lady now.” She leaned back a little. “I’ll have the channel ready inside the next hour, but the hardware slice is going to be tricky. The repeater above Mandalore is old.”

“How old?”

The size of an x-wing old,” Zan complained. “This thing was probably put into orbit when my daddy was a toddler.”

“I can handle it.”

Well, I know that, but it would be easier if you had a second pair of hands.” She wiggled her hands. “Come get me. Let me play.”

She shook her head. “This is personal, Zan. It’s a fight for Mandalorians.”

Zan raised an eyebrow. “Wait. Did you…oh.” She grinned. “Come on, how does that whole getting naked helmet thing work?”

“She should come to Tatooine. I’m sure someone with a helmet would be very interested in showing her how that works,” Din suggested, and Cara sent him a dirty look.

“Don’t encourage her—she’d probably take over the planet before we even get back to it,” Cara told him. “I’ve got a techno droid that can help with the hard slice—Clone War era no less. She was probably built around the same time as the repeater.”

Din glanced toward Wila, who was staring intently at Cara. He watched the droid give a little nod of assent and clasp her hands together. Clearly, she was pretty interested in the prospect of slicing some old HoloNet asset.

Okay, I’ll work my end and be ready for the connection when you are. Look for it where we always put them—you’ll know it when you see it.”

“Thanks, Zan,” Cara paused. “Don’t get caught.”

I only get caught when I want to,” Zan boasted and offered Cara a little salute before ending the comm with a smirk.

“I don’t know how you kept from crawling on top of that,” Din muttered.

“How do you I didn’t?” she questioned with a laugh.

“She wouldn’t have called you commander if she’d ever gone to bed with you. What was she talking about—what did infiltrators do in the rebellion?”

Cara hesitated, then took a deep breath. “We’d set an asset—an elite combat specialist—on an Imperial-controlled world. Their goals would vary based on the needs of the rebellion and the planet itself. Encourage dissent, recruitment, sabotage, raiding, and in some cases, assassination. We’ll need to put one or more assets down on the planet in advance of our arrival, so you need to start thinking about who that will be.”

Din frowned and took off his helmet. “I…”

“You’ve got a while before the time comes,” Cara said gently. “But be prepared for it because you’ll have to make the best possible choice for the mission, and that might hurt.”

“Because it could get whoever I send killed,” Din said.

“No matter how you look at it, Din, we’re going to lose people in the fight to take back Mandalore. No war is without loss, you know that.”

He had nothing to say to that, and she must have realized that because she stood from the pilot seat and opened the cockpit door. Din settled in the chair and plotted the course to Mandalore, then sent his flight plan to Bo-Katan and requested information about the escort ship’s hyperspace capability. It was something he probably should’ve asked early on.

“Are you afraid to talk?” he asked as he focused on Wila.

“Hi,” Wila said in a hushed whisper.

He laughed. “Hi.” Din relaxed in his seat. “Do you like your upgrades?”

“I’m adjusting,” Wila said and tilted her head. “Everything is…bigger.”

“Is it overwhelming?” Cara questioned as she returned to the co-pilot seat. “We could moderate the evolution protocol if it’s too much.”

“The adjustments are personal,” Wila said. “I’m fine. I can do the repeater work with you. Can I use the materials from the wet bar to create a spindle? I’m ready to start making my yarn.”

Din had no idea what a spindle even looked like. He glanced toward Cara, who shrugged. “Would it be an automated machine?”

“No, I would operate it manually. I found a design on the HoloNet. It will fold down for storage when I’m not using it.”

“Okay, but don’t let Rey and Dral around when you’re doing the construction project.”

“Great,” Wila declared.

“Will your upgrades change your rest schedule?” Din questioned.

“I will need less rest—my new CPU is more efficient.” Wila hopped down from the flight deck and left the cockpit with an excited beep.

Din checked the comm and read the message from Bo-Katan. “Their fastest ship has a 1.0 hyperspace engine, and their slowest is running at 3.0. I’ve been staying around 3.0, so that’s not an issue currently, but I’d have to leave them all behind if I had to make an emergency jump.”

“Let’s hope we don’t have to do that,” Cara said. “We’re very far from Tatooine right now, and if they had an emergency…” She sighed. “Should we send Peli’s parts back to her using one of the escort ships? She’s clearly building defenses for the tribe.”

“If she needed them immediately, she’d have said,” Din murmured. “But I’ll send her a message and ask just in case.” He made the jump to hyperspace and took a deep breath. “About three hours.”

“I have some work to do,” Cara said. “But I’ll be ready. Did Torah give us specs for a spacewalk?”

“Her last message…” Din trailed off and checked his comm. He opened the message from Torah and scanned it quickly. “Temperature control proved to be excellent, but she’s concerned about radiation exposure. Suggested maximum time is 30 minutes. She’s testing alternate configurations for a specialty body glove for future use.”

“30 minutes is more than enough time,” Cara said. “I’ll do most of the work before we even go out. And I have radiation treatment patches in the med-kit if needed.”

“I didn’t realize how…advanced the kit was until Naova expressed surprise,” Din admitted. “No one mentioned it in the covert.”

“Technically, I have a med-tech license due to my training in the rebellion and the military after the New Republic was formed,” Cara explained. “Each shock trooper squadron normally had at least five trained field medics. I’m also licensed to deploy bacta grenades—I have six in the kit.”

Din blinked in surprise. “Where did you get them?”

“I bought them on Ithor Station with the money we got from the liquor sales,” Cara said. “Gideon had some nice stuff. Anyway, I haven’t been able to use my license in years because I was wanted, but I can get access to better supplies with my clean chain code. I’ll need to retest in about a year to keep my certifications, but I can do that on several different worlds. It won’t be a problem.” She stood. “I need some space to work. I’ll be ready when we arrive. Are you going to stay in here?”

“I…yes.” He didn’t want to explain it and was relieved when she just leaned down to kiss his mouth briefly before leaving.

Rey came in after a few minutes and crawled up into the co-pilot seat after she deposited Dral into his lap. “Wila threw us out of the cargo bay so she could use her welder.”

– – – –

Everyone was back in the cockpit for the arrival. Rey left the bench seat as soon as they achieved orbit and frowned a little as she stared at the planet. “She’s hurt.”

“Yeah,” Din agreed and took a deep breath. “But we can…heal the planet.”

“She’s been hurt for a very long time,” Rey’s hand clenched on his arm, and tears welled in her eyes. “Buir, why does it hurt so much?”

“The planet’s wounds are being magnified by the trauma of the people living on it,” Din said quietly. “It’s like an open wound.”

“We need to touch her,” Rey said. “Make her feel better with our hands.”

“Not yet,” Din murmured and pulled her into his lap. She turned and buried her face against his shoulder. “But we’ll come back and do everything we can to heal her and our people. I promise.” He looked back and found Ero pale and dark-eyed. “Okay?”

Ero nodded. “I didn’t know…”

“You didn’t know what?” Aja questioned, and Din watched the younger man reached out and took Ero’s hand. He watched their fingers lace together easily—not a new thing.

“That a planet could have a broken heart,” Ero murmured and took a deep breath. “I hate this. It’s worse here than what I felt on Kashyyyk. Is it the enslavement?”

“It’s cultural genocide,” Din said as he patted Rey’s back. “And enslavement and a rabid disrespect for the planet itself. The Force is gathering here—perhaps a response to my taking the darksaber.”

“That’s good, right?” Rey questioned. “The Force wants to help us.” She sat up and wiped her face. “I’m sorry for getting so upset.”

“It’s fine,” Din said. “Sadness in the face of such pain is normal, expected.” He reached out and activated the scans he’d planned for the planet. “IG, you’ll take the pilot seat while I work with Cara outside. We’re in orbit 20 meters from the HoloNet repeater. We’ll go out through the auxiliary craft hatch.”

Rey slipped off his lap. “Can I watch?”

“No.” Din brushed her hair from her face. “I need to concentrate on Cara while she does this, so I need you and Dral to stay in the cockpit here with IG where you’ll be safe. I mustn’t split my focus. Okay?”

“Okay,” Rey said and glanced between them. “Is it very dangerous?”

“Space is a vacuum,” Cara said. “There’s no air, no ability to control your own motion without equipment, and there is the possibility of getting struck by debris. I’ll be between the Tor and the repeater, so I’ll move from one disruption field to another—so there will be a small window where I’ll be utterly exposed to debris and radiation. If my body glove fails to handle the pressure of the environment, I’ll have precious little time to return to the ship. So, yes, it’s dangerous, but I was trained for low orbit jumping and spacewalks when I was in the military. This isn’t something I can’t handle.”

“Okay.” Rey bit down on her bottom lip. “We’ll stay with IG.”

The Tor didn’t have an auxiliary fighter, but the bay was in perfect working order on top of the ship. Din had been a trifle irritated to note that it was missing when he’d first stolen the ship. He wondered what had happened to it and why Gideon hadn’t had it replaced.

Cara had all of her equipment in a satchel already up in the bay, so Din watched her put on his climbing harness as it was the best option they had for him keeping a line on her. He’d checked the rappel cable in his gauntlet half a dozen times while he’d sat in the cockpit for the trip. Not replacing it was starting to make him deeply uncomfortable, so he’d put that on the new shopping list.

Din watched Cara go up the ladder first, then he passed Wila to her and followed. They closed the first hatch behind them and opened the second that would’ve led straight up into the auxiliary fighter if they’d had one.

“Irritating,” Cara said. “I wonder why he didn’t have one.”

“Might have gotten damaged or lost in a fight,” Din said. “Or he didn’t want to give anyone on the ship a way off outside of the escape pods.”

Cara sat Wila down, and Din attached the cable to her harness. They both paused when Wila pulled a thin cable of her own from her internal toolkit and attached it to Cara’s harness as well. He went up the second ladder first and magnetized his boots as soon as he was on the surface of the ship. The HoloNet repeater was directly off the port side.

“It’ll be fine,” Cara said. “I probably did this a hundred times in stimulation—never had to do it for real in space, but I’ve done it plenty of times on the ground. I’ll need about ten minutes for the hardware placement and another twenty for the software.”

Din nodded. “It’s odd that they don’t have a single ship in orbit and no overt security either.”

“Imperials are arrogant fuckers,” Cara said and oriented herself toward the repeater. “Okay, give us a push. Wila says she can control our direction with her repulsorlifts.” She offered the droid a hand and picked her up when Wila nodded.

Din hesitated only briefly as Cara put her back to his. He cupped her hips, lifted, and shoved. His comm channel pinged in his helmet, and he glanced briefly to his left where Bo-Katan’s ship was in orbit before activating it.

How long?” Bo-Katan asked.

“She thinks about 30 minutes. I have IG running my scans. How’s yours going?”

As expected. The dome is interfering a bit when it comes to counting the population within, but I’m getting enough to know that most of our people have been forced to live in a tent city outside of the capitol dome. Mining and ship construction seems to be the central focus of the entire operation on the ground. If all of our people are in the tents—we’re looking at a population of about 8,000 near the ship works and another 20,000 or so in the mines. The numbers keep jumping around. The Imperials are running some disruption fields on the ground, so we’re not going to get accurate counts.”

“What was the population count the last year you were on the planet?”

4,000,328,” Bo-Katan said tightly.

“Murder or conscription,” Din said. “Both.” He kept his gaze intent on Cara as she made contact with the repeater and started to work. “Any estimation on the population inside the dome?”

The only functional one appears to be Sundari—of course, they’d want to ensconce themselves in our fucking capitol city, and no, I can’t get any data. We need to do an in atmosphere pass to get anything useful on that front.”

“Then it will have to wait,” Din said. “Let’s assume they have twice as many Imperials on the ground as they do prisoners and work from there. They’ve certainly got slave labor working in the ship works. The Empire favored Ugnaughts and Wookiees for that—my sensors aren’t sensitive enough to make that distinction.”

No, mine aren’t either,” Bo-Katan admitted. “I hate this. I want to bomb the shit out of them right now.”

“I understand the desire, but we’d just get innocents killed, and I don’t have enough onboard ordnance to do the job properly.”

Yeah,” Bo-Katan said. “Fucking Imps.”

“I’ve got a radionic signal coming from the planet,” Cara reported. “It’s in dadita. I’m still learning that, but it looks like…ah.”

“What?” Din prodded.

“Someone’s set up a shadow comm channel on the ground. I’m slicing it into the one that Zan built for me.”

“Is it solid?”

“Very,” Cara said. “This is rebel alliance work.”

“There’s a rebel on the ground,” Din said. “Are you sure?”

“Very sure,” Cara murmured as she worked. “Looks like you’ve already got an infiltrator.”

“Yeah,” Din said, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. “Do you think the senate sent someone in?”

“Organa said it would take 48 months for the NR’s libration forces to reach Mandalore,” Cara said. “They wouldn’t put an infiltrator on the ground to start building resistance cells this soon—maybe a year out, but that sort of mission is reserved for political coups. There were a few Mandos in the war beyond Sabine Wren and Bo-Katan. I don’t know names. Looks like one of them came home and stayed.”

He’d much prefer one of his own over someone from the New Republic. Din knew he really had no choices in the matter—the people on the ground knew more about the situation than he did. He just hoped that whoever had risen to the top to lead them was someone he could trust.

Done.”

“Faster than you estimated,” Din said as he activated the retract function of the cable. There was a small tug on his vambrace as the cable grew taut between them.

“Someone did half the work for me,” Cara reported. “The previous slice wasn’t complete—more the fault of the repeater than the person trying to install the backchannel. I think this thing went into service when Zan’s granddaddy was a toddler. We ran into some of these when we were using Outer Rim planets for the rebellion—we’re lucky it’s still working.”

He caught her and held fast. “Let’s not do that again any time soon.”

She knocked her helmet against his. “I need about five minutes to finish the encryption, then you can make contact. Someone’s definitely going to be listening. It’s SOP to run shifts on that kind of signal. We can move out of sensor range of the planet, now.”

He moved the Tor to the opposite side of Concordia, shut down the cloak, and launched his solar energy collector. The first message to land in the shadow account was the coded message outlining the secure holocomm channel set up on the ground. No names or dates—which was a little worrisome. Cara seemed to think the slice attempt was relatively new, but what if it was decades old?

“I have no idea what to say,” Din admitted quietly and was relieved that Cara had prodded everyone out of the cockpit. He reached out and activated the comm, and sent a signal. Just a few seconds passed before the connection snapped open, and a hologram appeared. He took a deep breath and briefly closed his eyes as soon as it solidified. “Ketsu Onyo.”

The woman held a fist against her unarmored chest. “Mand’alor.”

“You are supposed to be bounty hunting in the Core,” Din said.

I came to Mandalore the day I saw the holovid of you on Coruscant,” Ketsu admitted. “I have a small ship and no clan—I don’t believe I’d serve any real purpose in the Mid Rim training camps or on Tatooine. But I have a unique skill set that is serving you well here.”

“You’re an asset no matter where you put a boot,” Din murmured. “What can you tell me?”

The Imperials are confining themselves to the dome—Grand Moff Randd is sitting on your throne. I was able to land my ship, hide it, and integrate into the tent city near Sundari with no issues. They don’t keep a headcount—we’re required to provide 100 workers for three shifts in the shipyard—in a rotation, but beyond that, we might as well not exist.”

“What do you know about the mining operation?”

They’re having a hard time getting the beskar out of the ground,” Ketsu reported. “I’ve heard reports that the unprocessed ore is crumbling in their hands. Randd has replaced the operations manager for the mine four times in the last three months—they blamed sabotage and mismanagement at first, but they removed all the Mandalorians from the mine and started using Ugnaughts exclusively. Still can’t get more than a few kilos of beskar out of the ground—which separates when they try to smelt it.”

What are they trying to use the beskar for?”

To shield drive and weapon cores on their ships—so far, that’s not been working at all. They brought in a shipment of kyber crystal last week. I heard, from several different sources, that the kyber crystal exploded when it was inserted into the weapon housing. Plus, Randd apparently pitched a genuine fit about some planet imploding in the Outer Rim. Blamed you, specifically. Speaking of you and Randd—he hired Boba Fett to capture you and the darksaber.”

“Fett’s on carbonite in the hands of the New Republic,” Din said. “We took out his whole crew in a story so embarrassing that their ancestors are ashamed. My wife finished the channel you were building and buried it in the HoloNet. We can exchange messages that way through this shadow account. How many of our people are in the dome?”

A few thousand,” Ketsu said. “I can move in and out of the dome—we have a tunnel system in process. In a few weeks, I’ll have eyes and ears on Randd 28/7. He’s very comfortable here and getting more so by the day. I think he believes that the Senate isn’t going to bother to remove him from power, and he considers you more of a nuisance than a threat. He’s arrogant, but I also think he’s had so much power for so long that he’s gone insane with it.”

“Are there any Wookiees on the planet?”

Ketsu nodded. “Yeah, close to a thousand—all adult males as far as I can tell. They’re housed in the dome in a prison facility. They’re collared and forced to work in the shipyard. I think beyond the work conditions and collars that they’re being treated about as well as we are, which isn’t saying a lot. Should I work to make contact with them?”

“Yes, tell them that I’ve allied with King Tawrra yesterday—mutual protection agreement,” Din explained. “I’ll have to tell him that his people are enslaved on Mandalore. He’ll be, rightly, furious.”

Will he wait for you to act?”

“I think so—Kashyyyk hasn’t recovered well from the occupation, and he knows I’m preparing to return to Mandalore. Work to get the Wookiees involved in your resistance efforts but don’t take unnecessary risks with their lives. They might have intel to share. Try to get the specs on the collars they’re wearing so you can deactivate them.”

I already have those codes,” Ketsu reported. “I bought them a week after I landed from a lazy and greedy administrator in the dome. Once I verified that they worked, he had a tragic accident in his shower.”

“How many tragic accidents have you arranged?”

Enough that some of these idiots are convinced that three different buildings in the dome are haunted by our infuriated ancestors.” She shrugged. “But I have nothing to do with what’s happening with the beskar. At this point, they can’t even melt down armor and reform it.”

Din was pretty sure that was the Force doing its part to make Imperials on the planet furious. If you get a chance, steal and hide the remaining kyber crystal.”

Shouldn’t be a problem—they’re all afraid of it now. The ones guarding it will be relieved when it disappears. I’ll leave the container behind—make them think the crystals just faded away. Or maybe, I’ll leave sand in it.” She inclined her head. “Anything else?”

“Where’s your armor?” Din demanded because he couldn’t stand not asking a single second more.

We’re not allowed armor of any kind—I reconned for a week before infiltrating. My armor is on my ship. I only brought a single blaster with me into the tent city, and it’s small enough to hide. We’ve smuggled some weapons out of the dome, but they’re buried right now. No one on the ground will be ready or able to assist you in liberating the planet as it currently stands. Most of them are exhausted, underfed, and borderline dehydrated. The Imperials don’t allow them to get strong enough to become a threat.

Grand Moff Randd broadcasts speeches once a week—exalting the power and supremacy of the Empire. He encourages enlistment as they learned the hard way that conscripting a Mandalorian is difficult and a waste of resources. I’ve heard, but can’t confirm, that many from the Purge were taken off-world. They must have other facilities spread throughout the galaxy because they bring in supplies for shipbuilding once a month.”

“I’ve been told that there were millions of people on the planet before the Purge.”

One of the first stories I heard when I joined the tent city—was how the Imperials forced them to burn the bodies of the dead. The fires burned for months.” She closed her eyes briefly. “I felt like a coward for being relieved that I would not have to witness such a thing. The warrior class was entirely destroyed on the planet—all that is left are miners, artisans, hydrofarmers, and techs.”

“And you.”

“And me,” Ketsu agreed.

“If we start dropping equipment and rations—can you hide it?” Din questioned.

I’ll need time to build cache locations,” she said. “I’ve stolen three droids from the dome—we have our eye on a few more that will be easy to slice and free from Imperial control. The first thing I did when I entered the system was to destroy their sensor net. It was sloppily done and hadn’t been maintained, so it was the work of nothing to push the orbital platform they were using into the atmosphere. The dome’s sensors are locked down, still, and they haven’t cracked the codes Bo-Katan Kryze left in place to open it up. They have to run their own security for the capital city without sensors or cams. I’ve put together a core group to pass around information.

I made sure they knew about you—I made sure every single one of them I could get to watched the holovid of you taking the darksaber. They needed that justice fresh in their minds. It’s fortified them, given them hope when they frankly had none. We need food, water, weapons, and medical supplies. If you can give me that—I’ll do everything I can to get them ready for your arrival.”

“I fully expect you to be alive when I land, Ketsu. Don’t disappoint me.”

It’ll take more than a half-assed piece of shit Imperial to kill me,” Ketsu informed him. “I won’t take any risks. Too many depend on me down here to get it wrong. I have a message I’d like to send to Sabine Wren. Can you arrange it?”

“I can. Does she know where you are?”

No, I never acknowledged her request that I join her in the Mid Rim.”

“Check in every 48 hours—get me a headcount. Try to get the names of any of the Wookiees that you can. Figure out what they need and tell them that their king has not and would never ignore their circumstances. He thinks he’s freed all of his people from Imperial control.”

I’ll make sure they understand,” Ketsu promised. “They’ll be ready, too. Until we speak again, Mand’alor.”

“May your blade stay sharp, your aim stay true, and your heart burn with the righteous fire of our ancestors.”

This is the way,” Ketsu said.

Din took in a ragged breath as the holocapture closed. He didn’t have to wait long for a signal from Bo-Katan.

Who’s on the ground?”

“Ketsu Onyo,” Din murmured. “Cara’s going to make you a copy of the conversation I just had and send it your way. Destroy it as soon as you’ve finished watching it.”

Ketsu.” Bo-Katan sat back in her chair with a sigh. “At least she’s alive. Sabine was worried that she was dead when we didn’t get a response from her about joining the group in the Mid Rim. As hard as Ketsu is, she’d have never ignored such a request without a good reason. I honestly couldn’t have picked a better resource to have on the ground—she’d have been on the list I was compiling for you if I hadn’t thought she was dead.”

She could use a couple of experienced operators with her, so forward me that list,” Din said. “My next stop is Lothal.”

Great, I have some friends there. Sabine’s man was born on Lothal, so we have connections on that front as well. We helped liberate the planet when we were in the rebellion.” She inclined her head. “The Jedi temple there was destroyed decades ago.”

Din nodded. “I’m picking up a passenger.”

A passenger,” Bo-Katan said and frowned.

“Yep,” he said and tossed his feet up on the flight deck. “A giant Force wolf wants a ride.”

Bo-Katan snorted. “For fuck’s sake.” She ended the comm with an obscene hand gesture.

He plotted their course and entered hyperspace despite his reluctance to leave Mandalore behind, then stood. “I need…”

“Din.” Cara curled her fingers against his palm. “Hey.”

He shuddered and let his helmet rest against her bare forehead. “I’m so furious I can barely breathe.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want them to see me this way,” he admitted hoarsely. “I…” He shuddered against as her grip tightened on him. “I expected worse, but this…how do I prepare for what is to come when my people are practically starving on that fucking planet?”

“We have to trust them to do what they can survive—as they’ve been doing since the purge,” Cara murmured. “We give them the supplies that we can and prepare them for our arrival by providing an action plan that they can focus on. A resistance effort is built on hope, Din, and you’re providing that already. We’ll start sourcing food and medical supplies—it’s the most immediate need. We need a manufacturing droid like Torah’s that we can send down—already programmed and supplied to make body gloves. We can’t give them armor, but the body gloves could be designed to hide under their clothes. That alone would approve their lives immeasurably. It made living in the covert on Tatooine easier.”

Din nodded. “You write Torah. I need to prepare a message for King Tawrra.”

Chapter 14

Wila was seated in the middle of the cargo bay projecting a galaxy map, and Rey had her star compass out. The four bounty pucks he’d been keeping on the flight deck were activated on the floor in front of the droid.

“What are you two doing?” Din asked.

Rey looked up from her compass. “Bounty hunting.” She focused on the compass again. “We need more money to save Mandalore—these guys are money waiting to be made.”

Din glanced toward Aja and Ero, who were seated on a supply crate watching the proceedings. They both just grinned at him.

“Okay, Grand Moff Randd is definitely on Mandalore,” Rey reported as she moved around the room. “Too bad. He’s worth a lot of money.” She huffed, and Wila turned Randd’s puck off. “I guess we can use those credits to rebuild. Wila make a note about that—he’s wanted alive, so we should make sure he survives long enough to be turned over to the senate.”

Din started to protest but then just shut his mouth and leaned on the wall to watch. “Are you sure it’s working correctly?”

“I practiced by searching for people I know—Plutt is still on Jakku, and Gí Rast was on Naboo when I checked. Aja verified that his buir went there to turn in a bunch of bounties she picked up on Tatooine and was invited to stay to have a conversation with Boss Adu. King Tawrra is on Kashyyyk, but Chief Tarfful is on a ship—he’s heading for Taanab.” She looked up. “What’s there?”

“It’s an agricultural world—their major export is food stuffs in a variety of forms—meal bars being the major one,” Din said. “We’ll buy food from them as well in the future. Most worlds in the Outer Rim, that can afford it, import food from them.”

“That’s great,” Rey decided. “We should make friends with them. Food is very important.” She looked up and frowned. “Do our people on Mandalore need food? Water?”

He knew that subject would be a trigger for her. Din wished, desperately, that he could give his daughter a lush green world for a home, but Mandalore had been a desert for thousands of years due to war. Lying wasn’t an option—he wasn’t entirely certain he could lie to her. Rey’s grasp on the Force was growing by leaps and bounds, and she seemed uniquely attuned with the emotions of others.

“I’ll make sure they have everything they need,” he said and watched her process that information with a frown. “It’s the best I can do, Rey.”

“I know, Buir. Imperials are terrible.” She focused on her compass and shifted around in the room through the holographic map. “Ubrik Adelhard is on Lorta. He seems…settled, content.”

“You can feel their emotions through that thing?” Din demanded, horrified at the thought.

“Not really,” Rey said absently. “I just…sort of know. I’m not feeling it like I would when Dral projects.” She looked up. “It’s not upsetting.”

Din took a deep breath and wished he’d asked Uvell more questions about the star compass before he allowed Rey to keep it. He briefly considered asking her to give it to him but knew that was the wrong choice almost immediately. The Force had given it to her, and taking it away would demonstrate a lack of trust that he shouldn’t advertise to anyone but Cara.

“How did Randd seem to you?”

Rey frowned. “He was really happy.”

That was annoying as fuck.

“We should ruin his life,” Rey continued. “And he should live a long time, so he’s really sad for as long as possible.” She walked over to Wila and picked up a puck, stared at it, and put it back down. “Then when he dies, they should just eject his corpse into a star, so no one can visit his grave and pretend they cared that he’s dead.”

Aja snorted. “She’s a Mandalorian down to her bone marrow.”

For a moment, Din allowed himself a small amount of grief for the woman he’d known in the other timeline. The woman that his daughter would never become. The version of Rey standing in front of him using a Jedi star compass to bounty hunt would never be that woman. He didn’t regret it, but he could admit privately that he missed her. He’d always miss Rey Skywalker, but she hadn’t been his daughter.

“Kentor Sarne is on Byss,” Rey reported. “I think…he’s drunk.” She paused. “A drunk. I think he’ll be easy to pick up unless he has people hired to keep his drunk butt safe.”

Din laughed. Dral toddled into the cargo bay and went to sit with Wila—the display clearly fascinated him. Rey retrieved the last puck, picked it up, and studied the image for a few moments before giving it back to Wila. She meandered around the hologram as she studied the compass before circling Boz Pity twice and stopping.

“He’s here, but it’s weird.” She inclined her head. “What’s here?”

“A graveyard,” Din said roughly. “One of the biggest known in the galaxy—some species carry their dead to Boz Pity just to bury them there. It is a place of mourning for many. Population is low. There’s one settlement on the planet as far as I know, and it’s no much bigger than the outpost on Jakku. Resources are great, and there are no large predators on the planet. It wouldn’t be a bad place for large-scale settlement, as long as the colonists weren’t bothered by all the graves and the death monuments from the Gargantelle.”

“We should take this one,” Rey declared. “Delak Krennel—and something extra. I don’t know what it is.” She focused on him and raised an eyebrow. “It feels special, and I’m not sure it’s about the graveyard. Maybe it’s…” She frowned. “I don’t know why.”

Din nodded. “I’ll pass the others on.” He glanced at the star compass. “Be careful with that, okay?”

She closed it and nodded. “Of course, Buir. It’s not a toy. I remember what Master Uvell said. I wouldn’t want the Force to decide I shouldn’t have it, and she might if I used it for something wrong.”

– – – –

Din lowered himself into the pilot seat a few minutes before they were scheduled to leave hyperspace. His pucks were back in place. Wila had updated them with all the information that Rey had provided through the star compass. He’d decided to send the information about Ubrik Adelhard to Gí Rast, and Kentor Sarne would be a test for Sabine Wren. Nothing like a 100k bounty to test the loyalty of a woman he’d never met. He prepped the messages, so he could send them as soon as they entered the Lothal system.

They left hyperspace a light year away from the planet. It was the first planet they were visiting for Force-related matters that had a population and a government. He hadn’t warned them in advance of their arrival as there was no need for anyone to prepare an unpleasant surprise.

“Do you think the NR is tracking you?”

“I would try if I were them,” Din said mildly as Cara sat down with him. “They must have realized I’m running a randomizing code on my ship at this point—I haven’t used the same one twice to dock. They know I’ve been to Naboo, Tatooine and Ithor Station. The only place they could’ve gotten a tracker on my ship was on Naboo, and they didn’t know who I was when I landed there. My current security package has not been breached as of yet, so they didn’t manage to get anything onto us while we were docked on the space station. Considering who’s leading the senate right now, former rebels will have been assigned to evaluate and track me. What do you think?”

“If it were me—a four-man team with broad skillsets. Close combat, slicing, infiltration, above average piloting skills, drop-capable. I’d want them to be able to set down anywhere and everywhere you do.” She paused as Aja and Ero eased completely into the cockpit. “No warmongers to avoid a diplomatic incident. Chancellor Mothma is a politician, not a soldier. She’s savvy, forward-thinking, and dedicated to peace. She isn’t going to court war with Mandalore. Ultimately, she’d prefer a politician like herself in the role of Mand’alor. It won’t be a personal judgment on her part, but it will be one defined by her own experiences—she sees value in the warrior spirit, but I don’t think she would trust it to lead a whole world. It’s beyond her comprehension. She’s old enough to remember the Jedi Order at full strength, but she also knows very well how the Force can be used in darkness and may see you as an immense threat because of it.”

“I can’t control how her personal experiences shape her or her opinions,” Din said wearily. “And I’m not going to bow down to the senate like a beggar.” He activated his comm, retrieved their messages, and sent out what he’d prepared. “I don’t want to make an enemy of her or the senate, but I won’t let them get in my way. There’s too much at stake to…” He sighed. “If the New Republic can’t stand on its own, does it deserve to?”

“Maybe not,” Cara conceded. “But I’m not sure we can risk what might rise up in its place. The Empire was built on fear, cruelty, and apathy. All of that is still out there, waiting for it an opportunity to swell up again.”

“It’s not the way to shore up the weak,” Din said roughly even as he privately acknowledged that was exactly what he’d agreed to do when Qui-Gon Jinn gave him the chance to go back in time.

He didn’t know how to make the New Republic stronger, and he also didn’t know how to let go of the resentment he carried about the organization’s failure in the other timeline. The First Order hadn’t been contained and destroyed by the New Republic’s forces but by a small band of rebels and desperate people who answered that final call. The senate had neutered the NR’s military forces long before Snoke had made himself known to be a threat.

Din checked his own messages and didn’t find anything requiring his immediate attention, so he sent a request to the Lothal’s orbital administrator requesting permission to land. He felt no need to go to the ruins of the temple, which was a relief because he didn’t know how difficult it would be to negotiate permission to do that or if the locals would even care at all.

“How long do you think we’ll be here?”

“I don’t know, why?”

“I should be able to buy drop kits here,” Cara said as he focused on her. “I looked on Ithor Station, but I didn’t like what was available. There’s a dealer on the planet that reportedly has what I want. If he doesn’t, we can stop on the way back to Tatooine—Naboo or another Mid Rim world will be optimal. Military-grade drop kits aren’t necessarily hard to come by, but some of the crap on the market is more dangerous than useful. It’s marketed to glory seekers and mercs who don’t know any better and never actually trained for low orbit jumps. Lothal had an active rebel presence; their people were liberated by the Spectres—the group that Bo-Katan was part of.

“Maybe the republic doesn’t deserve to stand, but the people who fought for it deserve peace,” she said. “And the people who couldn’t fight, for whatever reason, deserve to live free of the Empire and the Imperials left behind.”

Din nodded. He knew she was right, but he kind of hated it. Propping up a weak government wasn’t going to be good in the long term. He realized, then, that he needed to have a long conversation with Leia Organa about the New Republic, the Force, and the future of the Jedi. He couldn’t trust Luke Skywalker to have that kind of conversation, at least not yet. He could only hope that Leia could influence her brother at their current ages.

“Let’s send a message to Leia Organa,” he murmured. “Something simple to start—supportive of her departure from the senate, open to further communication, etc.”

“Text or holovid?”

“Text,” he decided. “Basic encryption—the senate is probably monitoring her communications, so there’s no need to make them curious or suspicious about her motives. They already think the worst of me.”

“Well, not the worst,” Cara said. “I’m pretty sure they don’t think you’re a secret Imperial.”

Din laughed. “Small favors.”

– – – –

“When will the loth-wolf show up?” Cara questioned.

Qui-Gon Jinn appeared and made a show of sitting down on the floor near Dral. The baby made an excited sound and immediately walked over to the Force Spirit. “There’s been a complication.”

“What, sort of complication?” Din asked wearily.

Qui-Gon held out his hand to Dral, and the baby patted it gently. “Cyrus, the loth-wolf who has chosen to be Ben Solo’s companion, is an ancient soul reborn to this life to serve the Cosmic Force. His mother believes he will be physically ready to wean in three weeks.”

“I expected…an adult.”

“He is an adult in spirit, but a child in form,” Qui-Gon focused on Dral. “He will be quite small for his kind of years to come, but considering Ben Solo’s age, that isn’t a bad thing. Most won’t consider him a threat—which will work to his advantage. He is already a deeply powerful creature.”

Din nodded. “Three weeks—there are worse planets we could sit on for that length of time.” He stood and returned to the cockpit to check messages and arrange for landing.

They were directed to a private dock and offered lodging. Din declined the rooms as he preferred that his family sleep on the ship. The escort ships landed with him, and many disembarked in favor of shopping and entertainment. Bo-Katan replaced the guards they’d been assigned to the dock with her own people with no apparent issues. A host of people had come to see her and had disappeared into her ship, and the current governor of the planet had offered a meeting only if Din desired it.

He sent the man a simple greeting, outlined his plan just to relax and train for a few weeks then thanked him for the private space. He’d responded with an expanded perimeter that included a large field next to the dock and a security terminal to monitor the area. He really didn’t know what to think about the whole thing—but figured the space and the consideration were a result of Bo-Katan’s presence. Din didn’t resent it. He figured that Bo-Katan and the Spectres had more than earned the consideration being given by Lothal’s government.

Several hours after landing, Bo-Katan’s people had set up a full training field the likes of which Din had not seen in decades. His former tribe had retreated deep into the covert system of living shortly after he swore the creed. Cara had immediately picked out a range slot and had taken Ero and Aja with her. There were children out of the ships now—a testament to how much Bo-Katan trusted the people on Lothal.

Din reached out and retrieved Kaan with the Force. “Next time, you have to retrieve him. It’ll be part of using him as a weapon—the ability to call him back to you with the Force.”

The serpent sailed through the air and hovered in front of Rey. She plucked him from the air and braced her feet as she’d been taught and started to rotate the amphistaff in a full circle above her head—a motion that Kaan, himself, had instructed her on. Din felt the Force shift around them as she targeted the target dummy, and when she let go—the weapon slammed into the target with such force that it rocked like it had taken a severe blow.

The amphistaff wrapped around the target’s neck and restricted until a ping sounded, indicating a fatality. Rey held out her hand as the serpent loosened and slid down the target. Her gaze narrowed, and her fingers trembled briefly before the snake lifted off the ground and flew into her hand.

“Good,” Din said and caught Dral when he tried to stand and toddle away. “Stay close, ad’ika, or I’ll have to take you back into the ship to stay with IG.”

His son huffed dramatically and flicked a hand toward the target—it rocked back sharply.

“It’ll be your turn shortly,” Din promised.

“Mand’alor.”

Din looked up and found Bo-Katan standing a few meters away with a young girl. “Does the governor want to talk to me?”

“Not unless you desire it,” Bo-Katan said. “This is my foundling, Eliasa. We found each other on Endor. Her birth parents were lost in the Battle of Jakku. I told her that Rey was found on Jakku, and she wanted to ask…about the planet.”

Rey offered the girl a smile. “Hi.” She trotted over, slinging her amphistaff over her shoulder as she went and offered the older girl her hands in greeting. “I’m Rey Sarad Djarin of House Vizsla.”

The girl blushed furiously, and Din was pretty much immediately charmed. “Eliasa Connor Kryze of House Kryze. Buir said you were on Jakku. Were you born there?”

“Oh, no, I have no idea where I was born, so I just decided to tell people I’m a space baby,” Rey said. “Jakku’s a desert world—there’s not much there, but the Empire’s broken ships. I lived outside the only sort of town and salvaged junk to feed myself. My parents left me there. I was alone for a year before Buir and Dral came to save me.”

Din released Dral when his son started to squirm.

Eliasa’s face fell. “It’s a terrible place then?”

“It is…” Rey hesitated and bent down to pick up Dral before he could even demand it. “This is my brother, Dral.” She cleared her throat. “I don’t think it matters what Jakku is like—your birth parents died fighting the Empire in the battle that ended the war. There’s no word for ‘hero’ in Mando’a because we’re all expected to be brave and heroic when our people need us.” Eliasa nodded. “But that’s not true of other peoples and cultures. No one expected your parents to be brave and strong, but they were anyway. That’s the important part.”

Eliasa nodded. “Did your birth parents die fighting the Empire?”

“They died hiding me from the Empire,” Rey clarified. “I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. They weren’t warriors, so I can’t compare them to my buirs.” Rey smiled. “You’re going to be a big sister soon. It’s a lot of responsibility.”

Dral took that as his signal to demand that Eliasa hold him and held out his hands insistently. The girl glanced briefly at Din before taking him.

“He’s adorable—like a doll.”

“He eats his food alive,” Rey reported. “It’s pure carnage at every single meal.”

Din laughed and relaxed back on his hands as Bo-Katan joined him.

“I want you to know that every single child on my ship wants to know why they can’t train,” Bo-Katan muttered and huffed when he shrugged. “I told them that Rey’s circumstances were different because of her accidental bonding with the amphistaff. The unimpressed looks I got in response were amusing, to say the least.”

“Well, I can’t leave her untrained considering her bond with that thing,” Din responded. “But I have to tell you—it was not a thrill to have a sentient anti-personnel weapon bond itself to my six-year-old.”

“I’d be horrified,” Bo-Katan agreed. “Still, I imagine it will be an issue going forward for a lot of parents, especially when you return to Tatooine.”

“Perhaps just a reframing of the lessons they already get would solve the problem,” Din said. “Add operational security, observation skills, and the like. Physical training can’t start soon enough as far as I’m concerned. My own buir put all of his foundlings into a sparring regimen starting at seven. I was being taught hand-to-hand by eight as well as target management.”

“Your buir was a taskmaster and an asshole,” Bo-Katan muttered and just sighed when Din laughed.

“I passed a bounty Sabine’s way.”

“I heard,” Bo-Katan admitted. “She’s thrilled with your trust, and her crew is planning the bounty extraction. I suspect they will enjoy themselves far too much. I also suspect to get a message in a few hours when she realizes that you’re testing her and her clan.”

“I can’t say I’m not,” Din murmured. “A 100k bounty couldn’t be anything but a test for a variety of reasons. Taking down a moff isn’t going to be easy—unless he’s utterly unprepared to be caught and the money is enough to make anyone pause and consider their choices.”

“Granted,” Bo-Katan said. “But Sabine’s a patriot, and the deployment of the duchess striped ambition out of her long before this day. She’ll live with the guilt for the rest of her life—for good and bad. It broke her wide open, and that wound will never heal.”

“Her parents were ardent supporters of the Empire,” Din said.

“She broke with them over it eventually—they claimed to be ashamed of her treason. Later, her mother softened a bit, but that relationship remained fractured until her death. Sabine, for her part, never forgave her parents for their loyalty to the Empire after the duchess was used on our people.” She shifted and started to stand as Rey offered Eliasa her amphistaff.

“He won’t hurt her,” Din said. “He’s…deeply attuned to Rey’s moods despite his immaturity.”

“That must be annoying,” Bo-Katan admitted but settled back down on her butt.

“I can’t separate it from her if that’s your meaning,” Din said. “And yes, it’s deeply frustrating to have such a weapon in my child’s possession that I cannot confiscate or control in any single fashion without upsetting her in a profound way.” He paused. “That being said, Kaan is a fiercely loyal companion who will never betray her for any single reason. He’ll also outlive her by decades if not more, so she’ll never have to suffer the loss of him since he’s damned-near indestructible.”

“She’s lost quite enough,” Bo-Katan murmured. “Her acceptance regarding the death of her parents appears to be healthy. Some foundlings her age have a difficult time with that adjustment.”

“She spent a year alone, and I think that makes a difference,” Din said. “The only adult on Jakku who really paid her any positive attention was another scavenger who used to lower her down into the wreckage of destroyers to gather parts they could sell. The thought of her on a single rope being dropped down into one of those things makes me so furious I want to go back to that planet and kill most of the adults there.”

“It is a commonplace circumstance throughout the galaxy,” Bo-Katan said. “Children are often misused and endangered by the very people who should be protecting them. I’ve always thought that parenthood is a gift that not everyone deserves. I once killed a man for beating his own child in the street. The bystanders were startled that I interfered. I took the child back to her mother, and she was furious with me for murdering her man over what she considered a worthless child.”

Din cleared his throat. “I hope you killed her, too.”

“I was tempted, but she just kept screaming and sobbing over the child-abusing bastard she’d married, and all I could feel was pity for her. Eventually, she walked away from me and came back with an infant, who didn’t appear to have been bathed in days, which she shoved at me. She told me to take them both and leave—she said she never wanted to see either of them ever again. They were both adopted into the Kelborn clan. The baby, a boy, just turned 10. The girl swore her creed a month ago.”

“I’m glad they’re both safe,” Din murmured. “Cared for—despite their terrible start in life.”

– – – –

Cara brought six drop kits back to the ship and stored three with their supplies. She gave one each to Ero and Aja then sent them an instruction manual to read. Din figured they were both deeply disappointed to find out they had at least two days of reading to do before they’d begin any sort of lessons. He’d watched drop training in the other timeline, so he knew they wouldn’t even be making a small jump for a week or more.

After dinner, Din kept himself occupied archiving the Jedi texts until Dral and Rey both went to bed then allowed himself a water shower since it would be easy to replenish. Cara was on the bed, wearing her nightshirt and brushing her hair, when he entered their bedroom. She looked up and glanced him over. “You’re a mess.”

“I’m…” Din sat down on the bed and took a deep breath. “Yeah.”

“I know it was hard to leave.” She set aside her brush and slid down the bed to sit with him. “Tell me about her.”

“Ketsu Onyo—mercenary with a hard heart,” Din murmured. “She’s a survivor and a Mandalorian by birth. I don’t know much about her parents, but she was born on Shukut. She told me that she attended the Imperial Academy on Mandalore with Sabine Wren and had once considered her a dear, loyal friend. They had a bad parting but eventually mended fences as much as two mercs could. I doubt they’ll ever be as close as they once were.

“She’s smart, savvy, and an asset in any fight to be had. Her faith in the way is deep and abiding, though not orthodox. I once invited her Nevarro, and she told me she could not spend nearly every waking moment in her helmet. I found her lax attitude regarding her helmet offensive as hell and told her so. She laughed so hard she cried. She was honestly one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen in that moment.”

“The sex must have been outstanding.”

Din huffed. “I don’t fuck every person I find attractive.”

“I didn’t say that,” Cara protested with a laugh. “But you definitely slept with her. You sounded gutted when you realized she was on the planet.”

“It would be easier to…handle if it had been a stranger. Her circumstances are dangerous, and the conditions on the planet are unspeakable. I was going to hate it no matter who the infiltrator was, but I’ll probably have fucking nightmares about Ketsu being captured by Imperials. If they just killed her, it would be a mercy, and I can’t do a single thing to protect her from it. I wish she’d asked me before going there.”

“I wouldn’t have,” Cara said mildly. “And honestly, I’d have done the exact same thing in her place. I briefly considered suggesting you send me to infiltrate, but I came to realize that it would be more stressful to you than helpful in the long run.”

“I’d put you on carbonite, first,” Din told her seriously. “You’d wake up after the planet was liberated, and Wila will have knitted you a whole blanket to wrap up in.”

“I would kick your ass,” she told him and shoved him when he laughed. “You asshole. You can’t just threaten to put your wife on carbonite!” She crawled on top of him and braced herself on his chest.

“I can when she says insane shit that pisses me off,” Din told her crossly and glared at her even as she offered him a grin. “Don’t smile at me like that—I should make you sleep in the cargo bay.”

She laughed. “If anyone’s sleeping in the cargo bay—it’d be you. Maybe you could sleep by the fucking carbonite freezer.” Cara poked him in the chest.

Din flipped them over, caught her wrists in one hand, and pinned them to the mattress over her head. “I never want to go to sleep a single night without you beside me.”

“Don’t try to talk sweetly to me after you threatened to make me a carb slab,” Cara muttered and turned her head.

He’d have been worried if she wasn’t utterly pliant in his hold. She spread her thighs, and he settled between them. “Would you prefer something dirty instead?”

She huffed, but her cheeks flushed, and her eyes fluttered shut.

“Because I’d like to fuck you as often as possible for the rest of my life, too, and that would be difficult if we were on different planets.” He paused. “Or if you were in carbonite.”

She laughed. “You asshole.”

He hummed under his breath. “Of course, I loved it when you fucked me, so I’d hate to miss out on that opportunity as well.”

“I was trying to make you feel better, but I derailed that, sorry.”

“Being with you is enough in any moment to make me feel better,” he admitted, and he released her hands. She immediately cupped his face then trailed her fingers through his hair. Din resisted the urge to press into her touch. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she said with a glare. “Also, the next time we spar—I’m going to ruin your self-esteem for weeks.” She untied his robe and ran her fingers in a delicate trail down his sides before wrapping one hand around his dick. “But right now, you should fuck me.”

“Should I?” Din questioned and sucked in a deep breath as she pressed the head of his cock against her entrance.

“I could get the dildo out and do myself,” she said and sucked in a breath as he pressed into her. “Make you watch.”

“I’d love to watch,” he admitted and grinned when she laughed. “But I prefer to touch.” He cupped her hip as he started to move. “And be inside you.”

Cara wiggled out of her shirt and stretched out on the mattress. “Din.”

She wrapped her legs around his waist, and he relaxed against her. The slow grind of their bodies together was delicious—he caught her mouth in a soft kiss, and she moaned into his mouth. Cara slid her hands underneath his robe and clenched her fingers against his back. He felt desperate and on the cusp of losing control—a state that was unnerving and exciting at the same time. Her lush, strong body was eager under his, and Din let himself get lost in it.

Chapter 15

“Son of a bitch,” Din muttered and bent the waist to catch his breath. He shoved the training remote across the shielded space with the Force. It spun against the energy shield that they’d erected around him and stilled. Nearly three weeks in and the damn thing was still kicking his ass.

“You okay?” Cara questioned.

“Fine.”

At least he was as fine as he could be considering he was basically in a shield bubble on display for everyone in the hangar bay. He hadn’t wanted to train with the darksaber outside, so Cara had gone and found a shield that could be erected around him to protect the kids from the lightsaber remote. It was low-powered, but Din still wasn’t sure how much he trusted the remote since it was a prototype. He’d taken it a part, cleaned it, and verified the power level of the saber before activating it.

It wouldn’t take off a limb, but getting hit by it was actually deeply unpleasant. There was no way he’d let anyone under age train with it, and he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted Ero to use it either. He straightened, reactivated the darksaber, and the remote came back at him. He deflected more than half of the blows and kept at it until the build-up left him breathless with pain, then shoved the remote away again.

“Better,” Cara said. “It’s far more random than an actual opponent would be. Anyone trained to use a saber of any sort is taught forms and styles—something the remote is completely devoid of. It’s also immune to physical exhaustion. It’s like a berserker.”

Din nodded. “It’s vicious.” He eyed the remote. “It doesn’t telegraph either—the way a real opponent would. It’s like fighting…a madman.” He closed his eyes briefly and cleared his throat. “Probably exactly that, considering who designed it.” He really didn’t want to think about Obi-Wan’s state of mind after the betrayal of Anakin Skywalker.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “You ready for a break?”

“No, I’ll go another thirty minutes. Let Aja and Ero know that they’re both working on deflection after I’m finished here.” Din cracked his neck and activated the darksaber again.

– – – –

“Buir used to make me dodge laser bolts with the training remote on Nevarro,” Ero said as he took a deep drink from his canteen. They’d retreated to the ship for a break. He rubbed his shoulder. “It didn’t hit this hard.”

“That same remote broke my arm when I was around eight,” Din reported. “Your buir runs it on the lowest power setting for his children—something your ba’buir found mightily offensive, by the way.”

Ero laughed.

“But Nez had ideas about how training should go, and he never spared any of the children he trained the pain of making a mistake.” Din plucked a piece of cheese from the tray as he watched Cara and Aja spar across the area in front of the ramp.

“I’m kind of glad to have already sworn the creed,” Ero admitted. “I don’t think Torah will be as kind in training.”

“No, but you’ll have to work your ass off to get a jetpack now,” Din warned. “You’ll have to work twice as hard anyone else to prove yourself to her. It’s a dangerous piece of equipment to own. It’s one reason why she doesn’t trust many with them.”

“Was there an incident or something?”

“Her story to tell,” Din said, and not one he wanted to repeat. “Just remember that her job is twice as stressful as it once was considering her role to the tribe on Nevarro and her future position on Mandalore. I think she will also take her position as your second parent very seriously. Far more seriously than you’d want, to be frank.”

“She’s always been a mother to me,” Ero confessed. “The only one I ever wanted. The day she came to Nevarro, everything changed for the tribe. Hab Wren didn’t understand what an honor it was to have her join us.”

“He did not shroud his body,” Din said roughly. “He just wore armor, and there is a difference—it was clear he never respected her craft or the ancient methods she was taught by her own buir. Her legacy is immense, and I’m glad she’s chosen to teach Emil the way of it. I hope the girl proves as talented as Torah.”

“I don’t think she’d allow Emil to complete the training if she were not,” Ero admitted. “It’s not the way, and I’ve never met anyone more deeply invested in the way than Torah Liss.”

Din nodded.

“This is a nice planet—too bad we couldn’t set up our outpost here.”

“The vergence on Tatooine is vitally important,” Din said after a moment. “It’s been so for many years, and I can’t ignore it. Whatever I have to learn about and from the Force will happen on that world. I can’t say explain it, but whatever questions I have about my future as a Force user will be answered there.”

“I suppose that could be said for me as well then,” Ero murmured. “I don’t even know what those questions could possibly be.”

Din hummed and watched Cara kick Aja in the chest. The younger man hit the ground with a startled shout. “She’s had more martial art training than I have—it’ll come into play with Force training, so be prepared for that as well. What we were taught as children won’t serve us with the use of the Force.”

“Buir’s not a fan of melee combat forms,” Ero said.

“He’s a bruiser,” Din muttered and grinned when his nephew laughed. “Don’t get me wrong—he’s good in a fight, but he doesn’t have the kind of agility that Cara does due to his sheer size, and we’ll need that agility to make the most of Force and the lightsaber.”

Ero nodded and finished his water. “I’m ready to go again if you are.”

“I need to work with Rey and Dral,” Din said. “Ask Cara for another drop lesson. Clan Rook was going to practice that this afternoon with the drop kits they brought in—that’s why their ship is outside. Tomorrow, we’ll do some saber training.”

Rey was sprawled on the sofa in the common area, reading from her datapad. Dral was curled up behind her legs, snoozing. Din removed his helmet and set it on the low table in front of the sofa before sitting down in front of her.

“How’s it going?”

“It’s interesting,” Rey declared but set the datapad aside and sat up. She shifted Dral on his belly, and the baby chuffed a little in his sleep. “We played the ball game for an hour, but he got a little too excited, so I think he used more Force than he should’ve.” She folded her legs together and stretched. “I think…that Force users in the past retreated deeply into philosophy and religion to make themselves feel better about the amount of power they had.”

Din nodded and rested back on his hands. “Belief systems have been coming together for thousands of years based on the desire of groups to understand the power that moves around them—no matter the source of that power. The Force is different because, at the heart of it, there is a deeply intelligent presence.”

“And it’s powerful,” Rey said quietly. “Most only see the evidence of the Living Force moving around them, but the Cosmic Force is…where everything began. I can see how that could make people worship her.”

“Even without her encouragement,” Din agreed. “What do you think?”

“Personal discipline is important, but the Jedi code is very restrictive, and it’s cruel to those that follow it and their families. It must have been so hard for all of those parents to lose their children to the temple. IG suggested I look up the impact of religious cults on societies at large, but most of the information turned out to be censored because of the age filter Ama has on my datapad.”

Din winced. “The Jedi Knights didn’t exist as a cult in modern times, but I don’t know how they’d have been classified in the very distant past. sometimes large groups fall together and create deeply abusive situations that you’re too young to read about.”

Rey nodded. “I understand.”

“Good—since the two of you already practiced today, what did you want to do with your lesson time?”

“I think you should let Dral open his box from Dagobah,” Rey said.

“He has been patient,” Din agreed. He still wasn’t sure he wanted to know what else was in the box because he knew that it contained more than a lightsaber. He just hoped that Dral wouldn’t be stubborn about the whole thing.

“I think I’ll go watch Ama throw Aja around like a doll,” Rey decided. “You and Dral can do the box thing alone. I think…” She trailed off.

“What?” Din prodded.

“I think that sometimes he misses not having you to himself,” Rey explained. “It doesn’t feel like jealousy, but more like…disappointment.” She shrugged. “Not a lot because he clearly loves having everyone around.”

“We were alone for a while,” Din admitted. “He used to sleep on my helmet.” She grinned when she laughed. “I’ll figure it out—your ama might give you some quarterstaff lessons if you ask nicely. Ero is going to ask for a few drops as well, so that’s fun to watch.”

“And listen to—yesterday he screamed halfway down,” Rey declared and hopped up. “Have fun with the creepy swamp box.”

“Creepy?”

“It feels creepy,” Rey declared. “Old and creepy.”

Since Din had zero Force perceptions from the lock box, he felt he should sit with it a while before allowing Dral to open it. He picked the baby up as Rey trotted off. Dral yawned and blinked slowly as he woke up. Din walked through the ship and stopped briefly to watch Wila, who was at the table kneading dough.

“What’s for dinner?” He questioned.

“I’m making sandwich buns now,” Wila said. “Bantha burgers—Rey requested them from all the recipes we’ve downloaded off the HoloNet.”

“Sounds good,” Din said and walked down the short hall to the office. He opened the lock, and Dral made a soft excited, sound. “I’m pretty bad at this whole parent thing, ad’ika, so I hope you’re keeping that in mind.”

He shut and locked the door before going to the desk where the box had been sitting since they’d retrieved it from Dagobah. Dral immediately reached out for it, and Din caught his hands. He took a deep breath and pressed a quick kiss to the top of his son’s head.

“The most important thing I learned about the Force…is that as much as you can shape the world around with it, it will shape you as well. It is the most powerful exterior influence in the galaxy, and with it comes an immense burden.” He closed his eyes when Dral relaxed against his chest. “When I made the choice to come back in time for you—I knew there would be sacrifices to be made. Taking the darksaber was necessary in order to kill Gideon, but I have to admit I barely considered the ramifications of that action.

“I wouldn’t change any of it—because getting a second chance to make things right for you is worth any price I have to pay,” Din said and released Dral’s hands with a sigh. “I’ve been putting this off because it feels like the start of a path for you that I’m…very worried about. Giving a weapon to your child, in Mandalorian culture, is a very big deal. I’m not ready to put a weapon in your hand. I may never be ready for it, and it has nothing to do with your abilities or my beliefs concerning your strength.

“Everyone, who meets you, questions your ability to swear the creed. They look at you, but they don’t see you or your potential. I want you to know that I do see you—and when I look at you, I see everything you are and could become.”

He set Dral on the desk, and the baby put both hands eagerly on the box. The locks flicked open immediately then the lid slowly opened. Din was relieved to find only a small lightsaber and a holocron. He picked up the saber, lowered the power setting as far as it would go then offered it to Dral. His son leaned forward and touched the hilt of the saber with his claw but didn’t take it.

“Not ready he knows.”

Din wasn’t all that surprised when Yoda appeared on the opposite side of the box and sat down. Dral made a happy noise and reached out to the Force Spirit.

Din put the lightsaber down. “When will he be ready?”

“Never maybe,” Yoda murmured as he took Dral’s hand. “Need not carry a lightsaber.”

“Most Jedi Knights did.”

“Some did not,” Yoda replied. “Many paths there used to be. Narrow our focus became.”

“War does that,” Din said grimly. “The Jedi Order was entrenched in the politics of the republic for generations. If I am to preserve what a Jedi should be—then I must change the course.”

“Precious few alive to disagree,” Yoda said and focused on Dral. “Teach him holocron will.”

“Teach him what?” Din questioned.

“Control and communication.”

“Verbal communication?” Din picked up the holocron. “I wish you’d said something sooner. We tried teaching him a hand language, but none of the ones we attempted appeared to interest him at all.”

“Tools his hands are,” Yoda pointed out. “For the Force.”

Din unwillingly got an image of Greef Kraga waving his hands at Dral and asking him to do magic. “And eating.”

Yoda snorted. “Yes.”

Dral picked the holocron up and focused on it. The device lit in his claws, but nothing was projected.

“Is that how it should work?” Din questioned.

“No fuss,” Yoda declared. “Very helpful. This way teach Yaddle and Minch.”

“I haven’t met Minch.”

“Minch stubborn.” Yoda waved a hand. “Unreasonable.” His gaze narrowed, and he looked away to stare at a bare wall in the office. “Something…comes.”

“Something bad?” Din questioned as he stood. He picked up Dral’s saber, so it could be stored in his weapon’s locker, then Dral, who was clutching at the holocron.

“Complicated,” Yoda declared and disappeared.

“Son of a bitch,” Din muttered and left the office at a trot. “IG, take Dral—do not put him down until I say so.” The droid immediately responded, discarding his task in the kitchen without a backward glance. “He can keep the holocron. It’s just a teaching device.”

Din grabbed his helmet from the common area and shoved it on as he entered the cargo bay. He snatched his amban from his locker when he stored the little lightsaber and trotted out of the Tor just as the hangar doors opened and a group of strangers hurried in.

K’olar!!”

Rey, who’d been speaking with Eliasa Kryze on the other side of the hangar bay, turned and trotted toward Aja, who was the closest. The young man snatched her up and crossed the bay quickly to stand with Ero, who’d drawn his weapon but had it pointed at the floor.

Bo-Katan came toward Din at a run. “Wait—wait!” She held out her hands—one in Din’s direction and the other in the leader of the intruders. “What’s going on?”

“Ask the man who just barreled in here with ten New Republic military assets at his back,” Din said.

“I…” The man flushed. “They go everywhere with me—our government isn’t stable since the liberation. The rebellion forces retreated from the planet once the Imperials were defeated, but we have pirates and renegades to deal with. I didn’t mean…I’m Governor Kawl Tholan.”

“Kawl, your assistant has been very accommodating and kind to us during our stay,” Bo-Katan said. “But you should’ve warned us before coming here! Our children have been leaving our ships—that’s how much I’ve trusted you, but I’m sure you realize how this must look to the Mand’alor.”

“I need help,” Kawl burst out. “We have no planetary security forces—we’ve sent many to Coruscant to be trained, but none have returned. We have a volunteer militia to handle domestic security, but they’re unprepared to handle what’s happened. The military from the NR aren’t authorized to…”

Bo-Katan huffed. “Kawl, speak plainly before I punch you in the face.”

“My daughter—she volunteered to represent us in the senate. Her ship was overtaken by pirates shortly after it left the planet. They’re demanding a ransom we cannot pay—we must not pay. The New Republic does not allow its member planets to negotiate or capitulate to such demands.”

“It would set a disgusting precedent,” Din said roughly. “Are you asking me to retrieve your daughter from the pirates?”

“I didn’t think you’d agree to do it personally,” the governor said and took a deep breath. “I’ll accept any help you’re willing to give, and while I can’t pay a ransom, I can pay a bounty.”

“I can make money anywhere, but making allies can be difficult considering my people’s history,” Din said. “Lothal has a robust food industry—I need a consistent supply of food for various operations going forward. Mandalore hasn’t been able to grow its own food in generations outside of domes.”

“I am very happy to make a friend, Mand’alor,” Kawl said and turned to the soldier next to him. “Take your people outside.”

“But…”

“No, buts,” the governor said sternly. “You can’t help me, and I don’t resent you for it, but what happens in this hangar going forward is not your business nor is it the business of the New Republic, despite what they might think. My daughter’s life is at stake!”

“Are you sure you can trust them?” the young man demanded. “What do you even know about this man?”

“I know that there were two Mandalorians on the ground fighting for the freedom of Lothal on our liberation day, and one of those brave women is standing in front of me—having come to the immediate defense of the Mand’alor. I know that a Jedi was responsible for getting rid of the Imperial ship in orbit above our planet. I know that Din Djarin is a Mandalorian and extremely gifted with the Force. I also know he nearly died defending his own children. On Lothal, a man is judged by the friends he has and the sacrifices he’s willing to make as a father.” Kawl shook his head. “So, in this, Captain Berend, I know him better than I know you, and I met you a year ago.”

Berend inclined his head. “Very well, Governor, we’ll be outside waiting to escort you back to your office.”

Din relaxed as all the soldiers left, but he put a hand on Rey and brought her closer when she started to drift out of formation.

Kawl looked down at Rey. “They grow up so fast—it feels like it was just yesterday when my Rieva was that small.” He focused on Din. “I have ten hours to deliver a million NR credits in hard currency—the only way I could gather that much would be to basically rob the entire populace blind. Nearly all of our wealth is abstract and exists in accounts the New Republic can track. Even if I agreed to a transfer of funds, the pirates would be stupid to take it.”

“How did they board her ship?”

“Small infiltration craft—it’s attached to her transport like a leech,” Kawl explained. “She used hand signals during our single communication to tell me that there are four pirates and all of her security guards are dead. They haven’t killed her administrative staff yet, but they’ll start killing them once the ten hours lapses.”

“We can take my ship up,” Bo-Katan offered.

“We’ll all go up,” Din said.

“Your plan?” Bo-Katan questioned.

“I figured we’d go up there, surround them, and I’d introduce myself,” Din said and shrugged when Cara sighed. “They’ll probably try to run in their ship—it’ll be built for speed. You can hunt them for sport afterward, and the rest of us will escort Senator Tholan back down to the planet. When we leave, she can travel with us in hyperspace. I’m not willing to go deeply into the Core, but one of the escort ships will follow her the rest of the way.”

Bo-Katan nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, okay.”

“Just an introduction?” Kawl questioned. “That’s all it will take?”

“They aren’t going to want us to board,” Din said. “They’re probably all wanted by someone, and it’s well known that I’ll collect a bounty any chance I get. While we’re retrieving your daughter, you need to figure out who sold you out.”

“Sold…oh.” Kawl’s face fell. “It was an inside job.”

“It’ll be someone who knew her schedule but isn’t in the know regarding your financial situation. They made assumptions about your ability to get your hands on liquid currency. It’ll be a low-level employee in your administration,” Bo-Katan said. “Do you want me to send someone with you? One of my people?”

“Yes, please,” Kawl said. “I need…please.”

“Rieva will be okay,” Rey said and smiled when the governor focused on her. “My buir will get her back for you, and we got plenty of carbonite to put the pirates in. That’s just money waiting to be made.”

Din turned to Cara. “I’m going to tell them that on the comm—it’s almost as good as asking if they want to taken in warm or cold.”

“Wait. You actually used to say that to your bounties?” Bo-Katan asked, then started to laugh. “I thought that was just…mythos.”

Din shrugged.

– – – –

The transport ship from Lothal was drifting a lightyear away from the HoloNet repeater, and the small infiltration craft the pirates had used to board it was still attached to the top airlock. Din situated the Tor directly in front of the transport vessel and activated his comm.

I told Governor Tholan to send one ship with the money!”

Din activated his holo capture and relaxed back in his seat just as Bo-Katan’s ship activated a tractor beam to keep the transport ship in place between them. “I’m not here to deliver a ransom, asshole. If you’d bothered to do a single bit of research, you’d know that the New Republic strictly forbids its member planets from paying a ransom. Even if Lothal had the funds, and they don’t, paying the ransom would get them thrown out of the republic.”

You…you’re the fucking Mand’alor! What are you doing here?”

“Governor Tholan wants his ship and his daughter back—we’re friends.” Din inclined his head. “So I’m doing him a favor.”

A favor,” the pirate said sourly. “This is bullshit! Why do you even care about this backwater planet?”

“Look, pal, you can go peacefully, or I can come over there and run your chain codes. You’re money waiting to be made.”

You…I can’t believe…this was supposed to be easy money! We’re out of here!”

Din listened to the commotion on the ship—not surprised the pirate hadn’t bothered to close the channel between them, and after a few long, hectic moments, a holo appeared above his comm and displayed a disheveled young woman. “They’re leaving. I don’t understand—who are you?” She shoved her hair back from her face.

“Can you pilot that craft, or do we need to send someone over to get back you back to the planet?”

I can fly it,” she said and frowned at him. “I’m not helpless. You aren’t going to let them escape, right?”

“We put a tracker on their ship—Bo-Katan is going to follow and collect them.”

Right, money to be made,” she repeated. “Thank you for…scaring them away. Who ever you are.”

Din laughed as the comm cut.

“Is it weird or insulting not to be recognized?” Ero questioned.

“It’s nice, actually,” Din admitted. “And getting rarer than I’d like. I considered asking Torah to redesign my helmet.”

“She’d never,” Cara interjected. “That iconic visage of yours is the last thing Moff Gideon saw, and that’s really important to her. She takes an immense amount of pride in the fact that you were wearing her armor when you killed him.”

– – – –

They were back on the ground nearly five hours before Governor Tholan returned to the hangar with his daughter. Din was relieved to see he left his military escort outside. The ten men were lined up on either side of the door, probably staring at the currently empty training yard. Bo-Katan had returned with all four pirates alive and the small infiltrator ship, which she’d put in her own cargo bay. All four had bounties—small-time, but Din had put them on carbonite anyway. There was a small collections office for the NR on Lothal.

“I was told that you had all four men in custody,” Tholan said. “We’ll be charging them with six counts of murder—I’ve allotted a 10k bounty to each man. I had to outbid the other bounties in the system for them, so I could try them first.”

Din motioned toward the pile of carb slabs. “They all survived the process.”

Kawl’s eyes widened briefly. “Thank you—I’ll send someone to retrieve them and transfer the funds.” His gaze flicked to the Tor. “Also, I’d like to fix your auxiliary fighter problem.”

“I don’t have an auxiliary fighter,” Din said.

“Yes, that’s the problem,” Kawl said. “It’s ruining the lines of your ship—she’s a beauty and doesn’t deserve that. I have dozens of auxiliary fighters for this series ship—spoils of war as it were. Can I have one delivered? A gift to celebrate our new friendship.” He wrapped an arm around his daughter’s shoulder. “I’m told you didn’t formally meet—my daughter Rieva.”

“Senator,” Din said and inclined his head.

She flushed. “I’m so sorry about being so abrupt with you…it was a stressful situation.”

“Certainly, you’d just watched people you knew and valued murdered,” Din said. “I don’t expect anyone to kowtow to me because of my position.”

“You’re a king,” Rieva blurted out. “That’s an important detail to tell people.”

“Mandalore doesn’t have a king,” Din corrected. “So I am no one’s king and never will be. Mand’alor is a position gained through strength and battle prowess. I could easily be replaced tomorrow.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Kawl said. “I’ve watched you in the training field—from a distance, of course—and it would be difficult to imagine anyone successfully taking the darksaber from you.”

“I learned long ago to take nothing for granted, and yes, please feel free to send the auxiliary fighter. I’d be a fool to turn down additional security for my ship as it houses my children.”

The door leading out to the training area opened, and Aja trotted in. “Sir, she’s here—big giant ass wolf. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

“A loth-wolf is here?” Kawl asked. “What does she want?”

“She’s here to meet me, Governor,” Din said. “Nothing is wrong.”

“Having a loth-wolf come into one of our settlements is considered a bad omen,” Rieva explained. “They normally bring terrible news to us.” She wet her lips. “And their females never venture into our spaces due to their rarity. May we watch this encounter?”

“Of course.” Din picked up Dral, who was trying to sneak past him. “Not, so fast, ad’ika.” Dral huffed and started chewing on a claw. “You just ate two giant frogs, don’t pretend you’re hungry.”

“He’s always hungry,” Aja said.

“If your child prefers to eat amphibians, we can offer you a robust selection,” Rieva said as they exited the hangar.

“I know—we already bought quite a bit from the market,” Din said as he walked.

The large female loth-wolf was sprawled in the middle of the empty field, and another a third her size was crawling on top of her. Din stopped a few meters away and let the female stare at him. After several minutes, she stood and grabbed her son by the scruff of his neck. She put Cyrus down in front of Din and sat down. She towered above him, even sitting, by at least a meter.

“His name is Cyrus.”

“Master Qui-Gon said,” Din murmured. “Does he speak?”

“Incessantly,” she said. “Practically from birth. Had I known what a burdensome pup he would be—I might have reconsidered agreeing to carry him.”

“It was an honor, right?” Din questioned.

“I was told as such,” the she-wolf said. “I am Leagara, daughter of Sornara. When the Lady came to my pack and asked one of us to carry a reborn spirit, I knew it was my duty. My mother taught me to lead by example. If my pack is to survive and thrive, then we must have the grace of Force. The vergence that has sustained our kind for thousands of years is leaving this planet.”

“How can I help?”

She leaned down and pushed her snout against his chest. “When you have taken your world back—come for us. We will thrive on Mandalore with you.”

“But…” Rieva trailed off when Leagara focused on her. “This is your home.”

“This world will be our death,” Leagara said. “It is no fault of yours or any that currently live here, but the damage has been done, and the Force calls us to the side of Din Djarin. This is our destiny, and I will not be denied.” She focused on Din. “By anyone.”

Din took a deep breath. “How many?”

“Our numbers are small—just 36, but more will return once we are safe. Many retreated into the Force itself decades ago.” She stared pointedly. “You’ll need a bigger ship.”

“I will have access to a bigger ship in the future,” Din admitted. “And if I survive the retaking of Mandalore, we’ll come back for you and your pack.” He focused on Cyrus, who was staring at Dral. “And your son will be safe in my care.”

Leagara chuffed, and it sounded much like laughter. “He does not need you to protect him, human. Don’t let his size confuse you. He knows what he must do. I trust that you will take him to the place he must go as soon as you can.”

“I have one stop after this one, and I’ve made contact with the boy’s mother,” Din said. “I’ve been assured that whole exchange will work out in our favor.”

“I’ve been assured of the same.” She paused. “And the Lady has promised me that you will survive and eventually thrive on Mandalore. I look forward to your return, Mand’alor.” She stood and walked away without another word.

Din focused on Cyrus. “Rey says you can sleep in her room.”

“Good,” Cyrus said and trotted off toward the hangar.

“Many will think the worst of us and our world if the loth-wolves leave us,” Rieva said quietly to her father. “We cannot…”

“You have no choice,” Din said, and they both turned to look at him. “As she said, the Force vergence here is dying, and they must have a new home. Would you rather be known as the world that interfered with the migration of the loth-wolf and caused their extinction or the world that sought a new home for an extraordinary species to ensure their survival?”

“Savvy,” Rieva allowed, gaze narrowed. “You are willing to allow that narrative?”

“I don’t care at all as long as you don’t accuse me of stealing them when I come to migrate them,” Din said dryly. “I can be a good friend to Lothal, or I can be a bitter enemy. The choice will be yours.”

“Certainly a good friend,” she said and took a deep breath, then offered him a smile. “Perhaps you could come to our home and have dinner this evening? We can discuss a formal treaty.”

“Formal treaties will have to wait until my boots are on Mandalore,” Din said. “We’d like to leave within the next 12 hours, so if you want an escort to the Core—you’ll need to focus on getting your transport ready. My wife will contact your father’s office with the details.”

“Your wife,” Rieva repeated, and her smile dimmed. “Of course, I’ll expect her comm shortly and will be ready for departure when you are.”

Aja made it all the way to the door of the hangar before he started to laugh.

“What?” Ero asked as he followed them into the building.

“She asked him to come to her house and have dinner,” Aja reported, and Din sighed. “Her disappointment on discovering that he’s married was obvious.”

“She’s a beautiful woman,” Din said. “And used to controlling men around her with her looks—in a variety of ways. It’s more insulting than anything else to assume that I would bargain the fate of our world and people for a piece of ass.”

“Wow,” Ero muttered. “Is that arrogance?”

“It’s an assumption,” Din said as he walked up the ramp of the Tor. “Most people don’t bother to learn a single damn thing about our culture or the way. The next time I cross paths with her—she’ll ask me if my marriage is open because she’ll have read on the HoloNet that Mandalorian culture allows for that because of our nomadic lifestyle. She’ll have learned my children’s names and probably a fair amount about Cara, who has an extensive service record for her to review.”

“What’s her end goal?”

“Considering the events of the day and the lack of military presence on this planet—protection and perhaps help in creating a military force. I’ll have to make sure her father knows exactly what is and isn’t on offer when it comes to a treaty.”

“Maybe you can work it, so she isn’t on the planet when we come back,” Ero said. “To avoid a diplomatic incident or whatever when Cara finds out.”

“When I find out what?” Cara questioned.

“Rieva invited him to dinner,” Aja tattled. “So they could discuss a formal treaty.”

Cara sighed and rolled her eyes. “What is it with you?”

Din really didn’t know, and he didn’t think he should speculate in front of Rey, who was staring intently. He just shrugged and went to the cockpit. He sat down in the seat with Dral and hit the HoloNet repeater to get their comms. There was no response from Leia Organa, but he wasn’t expecting one immediately considering her own situation. The desire to warn the woman about all the potential heartbreak in her future was overwhelming, but he knew he couldn’t take that risk. The best he could do was imply that the Force was guiding him and that it would be to her detriment to continue to ignore it in her own life. In the end, he’d do what he had to do to protect Ben Solo because his destruction would lead to Rey’s, and that wasn’t going to happen again.

He sent the planned route to Bo-Katan, and his comm activated within a few minutes. She appeared in the holo-projector with a frown on her face.

There’s nothing at the coordinates you’ve given me on any map I have.”

“There’s a planet there—I don’t know who erased it from the galactic maps, but it’s there.”

And what’s on it?”

“A repository of Jedi artifacts, texts, and a few dozen protected holocrons holding the documented history of the galaxy—unaltered by the Empire.”

You’re going to release it on the HoloNet.”

“First chance I get,” Din assured. “Cara’s already setting up space to store it.”

And you aren’t going to ask the senate in advance?”

“No, I’m not.”

Right.” Bo-Katan sat back and shook her head. “Honestly, Din, there’s going to come a point when it isn’t safe for you to appear in any single public situation without dozens of guards. Do you have some far-reaching plan to make as many enemies as possible?”

“I plan to save this fucking galaxy from itself,” Din said plainly and watched her mouth slowly drop open. “I’m going to prevent the resurgence of the Empire one way or another, and there may come a day when I’ll have to hunt whatever is left of Emperor Palpatine, so I can end him personally. King Tawrra already agreed to hunt with me.”

The King of the Wookiees offered to hunt with you,” Bo-Katan said. “If that day comes and I’m still young enough to hold a weapon—I expect to be invited.”

“It’ll be a party,” Din said and shifted Dral around when he started to wiggle. “But that asshole isn’t going to live to be a threat to my children. I’ll give Luke Skywalker a chance to finish the job he started, but I have to be prepared to do whatever is needed.”

It seems like you’ve been making a habit of doing exactly that for months. A lot of people don’t know why. Some don’t care, but there are those who would demand answers from you.”

“Precious few people alive in this galaxy have free reign to question me,” Din said and shrugged when she shook her head at him. “I’m not going to be anyone’s puppet, Bo-Katan, and I don’t intend to let anyone shape me into something they can live with. If they don’t like me or my decisions, they can feel free to challenge me.”

I think people will quickly realize that challenging you will mean dealing with your viciously vengeful wife afterward,” Bo-Katan said dryly and just shook her head when he laughed. “I’m going to send Clan Aydi’s ship to escort Senator Tholan to the Core, then they will go to the Mid Rim and join Sabine’s camp.”

“How’s the situation with Tal going?”

He’s still furious,” Bo-Katan said. “He’s asked to meet with me several times, but I’ve declined. If I get in the same room with him—I’ll kill him. He denies knowing anything about the poisoning, and there’s still no proof to be had, but I can’t be near him. He’s openly accused you of causing the rift between my clan and his. His patriarch threatened him with exile if he didn’t learn to keep his mouth shut.”

“This situation needs to be resolved, sooner rather than later—I can’t trust that asshole with my back in a fight, and that’s exactly what I’d be expected to do the day we land on Mandalore.”

Sabine’s plan will work,” Bo-Katan said. “She’ll get him to confess everything, then she will kill him.”

“Just like that?”

Tal’s is looking for an ally against you, and he probably already sees her as a potential recruit to whatever else he’s planning. It’ll be handled long before we land on Mandalore, and no one in his clan is going to hold it against you. I’ve made it clear to every clan in my house that I don’t want to be Mand’alor, and they’d probably be the only ones that would support me in doing it.”

“Neither of us can afford to assume the heart of every Mandalorian alive,” Din said. “Making it clear that we’re on the same page going forward serves us both.” He picked up the puck for Delak Krennel and activated it briefly. “I’m considering a stop by Boz Pity. I need to confer with my source regarding some information. I’ll update you shortly on that.”

She sighed and ended the comm by giving him a dirty look.

He put Dral in his pram since he’d drifted off to sleep during the conversation. The holocron glinted gently where it was tucked amongst his blankets. Din noticed that it had been placed with the hyperspace knob. Clearly already considered a prized possession.

“Are we going to Boz Pity?” Rey asked when he sat down at the table. “Because I double-checked this morning, and Delak Krennel is still there. Ubrik Adlehard is on Naboo—feels weird now, so I think he’s on carbonite.”

“He is,” Din confirmed. “I had a notification indicating that the bounty had been added to the war chest. Did you check on Sarne, too?”

“Yes, but he seems worried. Maybe he realized he was being watched.”

“I’ll send a message,” Din said. “And yes, we’ll go to Boz Pity.”


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Keira Marcos

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

2 Comments:

  1. My love for your brain continues to grow.

  2. And another family dinner is being put off as I sit with soaking wet hair (well, now actually it’s at that slightly frizzy & trying to be wavy but really just looking like a hot mess stage) saying, “just one more chapter” of one of your stories to my anxious spouse. lol
    Good thing he loves me despite my “reading habit.”

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