Chapter 1: The Darksaber
In which Din misses Grogu.
Din holds Gideon at spearpoint as he tosses him the cuffs. It would be so easy to just kill the Moff and be done with it, but...no. Kryze wants Gideon in exchange for her help, and Cara wants to turn him into the New Republic, and either way the Moff is more useful alive than dead.
Still, Din can feel his patience thinning. Grogu is right there and so close and wearing tiny binders and Din wants him in his arms right now. He can’t help pressing the spear closer into Gideon’s throat as the Moff dawdles.
Gideon rolls his eyes, but complies. Once the cuffs are on and secure, Din drags him back to his feet and shoves him roughly towards Grogu’s cell.
“Don’t forget the Darksaber,” says Gideon. His eyes have an odd, gleeful glint to them. “You won it, fair and square.”
Right, Din remembers. Bo-Katan wanted that too, didn’t she? Din scoops the thing off the ground, replaces the spear on his back, drags Gideon back into the cell, and dumps him in the corner. He kicks the Moff in the diaphragm, hard, to make him double over on the floor wheezing and keep him distracted long enough for Din to attend to his real business.
Grogu is still sitting where Din last saw him, ears slightly lifted, eyes wide with fear that evaporates as soon as Din returns.
“Hey, buddy,” says Din softly, kneeling in front of him and cupping the back of his tiny head. Grogu coos weakly back. The child is a little too pale, moving a little too sluggishly, but he’s here and alive and there is so much relief and anger and shame and love twisted up behind Din’s ribs at the sight of him.
Grogu coos again, a bit stronger, and lifts his arms up. It takes a moment to twist the small cuffs off, and then Din scoops the kid up in a tight hug. Grogu babbles at him with tired, happy excitement and presses his tiny fingers up against the corner of Din’s visor. Din runs a hand down the kid’s back and chokes back a sob. Everything he did, everything he’s lost, was all worth it to have Grogu safe in his arms again, and Din wants to stand there and hug his kid and not move for hours.
“Ni kar'tayl gai sa'ad, Grogu.” The whisper comes out of his mouth unplanned, without him really thinking about it. Grogu’s ears perk, like they have every time Din has said his name, and Grogu beams back at him like he understands.
He shouldn’t have done that, Din thinks. He was always meant to deliver Grogu to someone else, someone who could teach him to use his powers. This, him and the kid and the galaxy, was never meant to be a permanent arrangement. But somehow, he doesn’t care. The words have been lodged deep in his being for a while now, like a brand burned into the inside of his soul, stronger and brighter than even the gleaming mudhorn etched on his shoulder. All Din has done has spoken them aloud, made the contract binding instead of hypothetical. The vow is real now, part of the manda and part of his soul, and nothing can take that away now.
The little green child—Din’s child—presses himself closer and buries his face in Din’s cowl, and Din regrets only that he didn’t say the words sooner. Grogu’s head pushes up under his chin, shifting the helmet a tiny fraction. Din has never wanted to remove it since putting it on decades before, but he has a sudden urge to rip it off, to actually feel Grogu’s fuzzy head and grasping claws on his face...
But the Moff is still there, finally regaining his breath, pushing himself up in his corner and even daring to smirk as he watches them. He’s going to try something if Din doesn’t keep an eye on him. And there are people on the bridge waiting for him. For them. There will be time later to reunite properly, but for now, the mission’s not over. He still needs to get Grogu to safety.
Din reluctantly shifts Grogu to the crook of one arm, then reaches for the Darksaber with the other. He’ll need something to keep the Moff obedient, but the spear is a two-handed weapon, and there is no amount of credits or beskar that could make Din put Grogu down right now. The weird one-handed laser sword will have to do. He finds the switch to ignite it, and Grogu looks at it and back up at him and tilts his head, trusting and curious.
Beneath the helmet, Din smiles back down at him. “It’s okay, kid. I’ve got you.”
The elevator door closes.
Din stands there a long moment, his hands at his side, fingers flexing at air. Empty now.
Grogu is safe, Din tells himself, knowing and desperately needing it to be true. The way the Jedi cut through those dark trooper droids means he is more than capable of protecting and training Grogu, and Gideon is captured and will no longer be able to pursue him. Grogu is probably safer now than he has ever been since Din found him.
And soon, Grogu will be able to protect himself. Din can’t train him how to move rocks or seal up wounds or crush things with his mind, and the kid needs someone who can. If Grogu learns even a fraction of the fighting prowess that the Jedi just displayed, he’ll be a formidable warrior in no time. Grogu is going to be strong, brave, capable, powerful, more than Din could ever hope to be, and Din is so, so proud of him.
He just wishes that he could be there to see it. He’s known this day was coming, laid awake so many nights thinking about it, traveled all over the galaxy and taken risk after risk to find Grogu the trainer he needs, but...somehow he thought they’d have more time.
He’d barely gotten to hold his son again before he was gone. He’d barely gotten to hold his son as his literal, legal son before he was gone.
“We need to talk.” Bo-Katan Kryze’s voice comes from behind him, unfiltered.
Din barely restrains from flinching. He doesn’t turn around. He has been so focused on Grogu, on those big, sad-but-hopeful eyes, on the feel of his son’s hand on his bare cheek, that he has forgotten that others are here, and they can see him.
He keeps his face towards the elevator as he bends over, picks up the helmet, and stands up again. Each movement feels like more effort than it should be, like the beskar covering him is twice as heavy as usual. His head tilts down to stare at his eyes’ reflection in the visor. Brown eyes, Mayfeld’s voice echoes.
Should he put it back on? Can he put it back on?
The air is cold and sterile against the drying tears on his cheeks. He feels exposed, vulnerable, raw in more ways than one. He’s removed his helmet twice now willingly in the last couple of days, and he’s not sure what that makes him exactly. It was all for the kid, and he knows that he regrets nothing, that he would do it again if he had to, that he made the right choice, but...he did remove the helmet. Just now, in front of others.
Is he dar’manda now? He does feel a bit like what he’d imagine living without a soul would feel like. Like a large part of him has been scooped out with a long hooked blade.
“Hey!” Cara yells behind him. Din can hear the sound of someone being shoved.
He slides the helmet back on. It still fits, molded to his face perfectly, like another layer of skin over bone and muscle. When it clicks into place, it is as if something inside of him shifts back into place as well. He feels a little bit better, stronger, more confident, a bit more like himself. Like he is merely badly wounded rather than dead and withered, and he has fought wounded before. He can do this. As long as he breathes, he is sworn by Creed to fight until the very end. He turns around to face the others.
Cara has placed herself between Bo-Katan and Din like a guard dog, one arm shoving back at Kryze’s collarbone, the other arm waving her large blaster rifle in a threat. Bo-Katan is pushing back against Cara, glaring icily. Fennec is off to the side from this exchange, glancing between the two with an eyebrow lifted, her rifle still pointed at the floor but clearly at the ready. Koska’s fists are half-raised as she stands not far behind Bo-Katan, ready to join in whatever fight is about to break out.
“So talk,” says Din.
Hearing the vocoder, Cara whirls back around to face him, and Bo-Katan seizes the moment to elbow past her and stomp towards him.
“You didn’t hold up your end of our deal!” she seethes.
Din shrugs, unable to muster any anger in return. “You said you wanted Gideon, and you wanted this. I got you Gideon, and I told you, I don’t want it. It’s yours. I yield.” Din holds the Darksaber out to her again.
She knocks his arm aside, nearly sending the thing flying. “You weren’t supposed to fight him! I told you, Gideon. Was. Mine!”
“He was in the child’s cell when I got there, threatening him. I had no choice.”
“That’s even worse!”
Din numbly waits to see what attack she makes first. He’ll try to block it—defending himself is second nature, drilled into him by his upbringing and training and habit—but he doubts he will win. He is too unfocused. He can’t bring himself to even really care whether she attacks. He already feels his thoughts wandering away, back towards the elevator. Grogu is probably at the X-wing by now. He’ll be in hyperspace very soon.
Grogu is safe. No matter what happens to Din, at least he knows that. He wonders if it would be worth it to attack Bo-Katan first. Maybe fighting her will make him feel something other than the emptiness threatening to swallow him.
He waits. Bo-Katan does not attack. She takes a deep breath, and some of the tension slowly leeches from her shoulders. Din wishes he could rid his own body of the tightness running through him as easily.
Her lips press together in a thin line. “Gideon planned this. He did this just to spite me, the hut’uun.”
Din thinks of Gideon, how the Imperial hurt his son and robbed him of the last few days Din could have spent with him, and that does evoke something dull and bitter. His fingers twitch open and closed at his side, still achingly empty. “That we can agree on.”
“Boba says he’s a few minutes out,” mentions Fennec idly. “In case you’d like to resolve this little dispute before we part ways. I’m assuming you still want a ride, Dune, Mando?”
Din answers on auto-pilot. “Yes. Thank you.”
“Same.” Cara hoists Gideon’s limp body over one shoulder. “We’ve got a bounty to collect.”
Bo-Katan whirls back to Din. “You’re leaving? What about Mandalore?”
“That wasn’t part of our deal.”
“Yes, it was.”
“The deal was that I would consider it. I’ve considered it, and the answer is still no. Are you changing the terms again?”
Bo-Katan glares, but remains silent.
“Great, glad that’s settled,” says Fennec, all business. “We should start for the hangar, then. Kryze, Reeves, good working with you. The offer of a ride still stands. Last chance.”
Koska shrugs and looks to Bo-Katan.
“We’re staying,” Bo-Katan says, drawing herself up to her full height. She manages to look down her nose at Din despite not being any taller. “Our planet still needs to be retaken, with or without the...Mand’alor’s support.”
Irritation breaks through the fog in his brain, and Din seizes it, lets it fill him for just a moment. “I’m not...Look, if you have to win it in combat, fine. We’ll fight, I’ll lose, you can take it.”
Bo-Katan lets out an empty laugh. “Oh, yes, that will win me support. ‘Bo-Katan Kryze wins the Darksaber in a thrown fight, from a warrior in pure beskar who defeated a Purge ISB officer in combat while defending his foundling.’ Do you even realize what you’ve done? I couldn’t top that if I tried.”
“I could...not throw the fight?”
“At this point, I’m not even sure that would matter. Kriff, I’m not even sure killing you at this point would make this situation any better, because I’d still have to explain where I got it.”
“Then just take it. I will tell anyone who asks that you defeated Gideon. I don’t care about a dead planet. I only care about the child.” And the child is gone, he adds silently.
No. Not gone. He’s safe and protected and getting the training he needs. Just....not with him. There’s a twinge behind Din’s ribcage that makes him wonder for a split second if Bo-Katan has actually stabbed him.
But Bo-Katan has made no move to attack, though her stance indicates she clearly wants to. “I’ll know. Koska will know. Gideon will certainly talk.”
Still lugging Gideon’s body, Cara shoves herself between the two Mandalorians. “If you’re not going to take the saber thing, then we’re going. Mando? You okay?”
Not even remotely, Din thinks, but he nods.
He follows Cara out, limbs moving as mechanically as a droid. Fennec takes up position behind him, her blaster rifle at the ready. How is it, Din wonders, that he trusts two aruetti more than what should be his vod?
The door shuts behind them without incident, although as soon it shuts Din thinks he hears the frustrated clang of a beskar helmet being thrown into a wall.
Ni kar'tayl gai sa'ad = I know your name as my child (Mandalorian adoption vow)
hut'unn = coward, an extreme insult
vod = brother/sister (gender neutral)
aruetti = outsider, not Mandalorian
Chapter 2: The Vod
In which Din thinks about Grogu’s future, decides Grogu is going to need a good home when he gets back from Jedi school, and misses Grogu.
Also, Boba feels the purest joy he has felt in his entire adult life.
Din can’t say he likes the close-quarters gyroscope that is the Slave I’s interior, but at least Fett’s ship has ample room for prisoners and the technology to deal with them. Fennec joins Fett in the cockpit, probably to debrief, while Din wordlessly helps Cara restrain Moff Gideon in the carbonite freezer, then store the slab next to Pershing’s. Cara can’t resist kicking Gideon again one last time before they seal him in. She seems to expect Din to get a shot in too, but he doesn’t bother. Giving Gideon another bruise won’t change that Grogu is gone, and Gideon deserves much worse than what Din can deliver in a cell without killing him.
They climb up to the navigation room and strap themselves into their seats without saying a word. It takes Din three fumbling tries to notice he’s trying to hook the seatbelt together wrong. He keeps thinking about how Grogu probably would have loved the way their seats spin around as the ship takes off. The kid is probably light years away by now. Maybe already on a planet. Somewhere like Tython, with rugged peaks and weird Jedi light pillars, or maybe like Corvus, with strange creatures for the kid to admire and dark, quiet woods. Wherever it is, he hopes the kid likes it there.
Cara finally breaks the silence. “So...what a day, huh? Could go for a ration bar right now. You hungry? I can go up to the cockpit if you need to eat alone…if that’s still a thing?”
Din thinks he should respond, but he just keeps staring down at his empty hands. He’s not sure when Grogu last ate. Did the Imps feed him? Is he hungry now? Does that Jedi have food for him? Something better than ration bars? There can’t have been much room on that X-wing for supplies. What about a blanket? Grogu gets cold at night…
Of course, Din doesn’t have a blanket for him anymore either. Even if Grogu were here in his arms, Din would have nowhere to take him and nothing to provide for him. No ship, no covert, no supplies. Din has nothing now but his armor, a blaster, a spear, that kriffing laser sword, and…
The ball. The ball that is still in its pouch on his belt. After all that, he’d forgotten to give it to the kid.
Din had imagined returning it to Grogu so many times over the past few days, whenever he hadn’t been plotting prison escapes or tracking down ships or fighting his way into an Imperial base. He’d imagined taking Grogu somewhere quiet, far away from anyone else, maybe somewhere like Sorgan. Letting him chase bugs or frogs or whatever he could hunt down and fit in his mouth until he was full and happy. Holding him close and encouraging him to take the ball from his hand again. Pulling off the helmet and letting him see his face....
Well, he’d done one of those things at least.
“I’m...I’m good.” Din cringes at the lie. His voice comes out too thick to be convincing.
Cara hesitates. She’s staring deeply into his visor, trying to read him, but Din can’t meet her eyes.
“...We couldn’t see your face. Just the back of your head.”
That’s a marginal relief, but does nothing to ease the weight in his chest.
“The kid loves you. That was pretty easy to see. He’ll be safe with Skywalker, and I’m sure he’ll miss you too. I bet you’ll see him again someday.”
Cara’s sympathy drops a moment for incredulity. “Luke Skywalker. The guy who has your son. Did...did you not know who he was before you gave him the kid?!”
Din half-shrugs. “He’s a Jedi. He’s the kid’s kind. The kid trusted him. And he killed two dozen of those droid troopers. He can protect the child.”
“...Well, I’ll give you that. I’d heard some weird things about him, but I wasn’t expecting him to be that good.”
“Wait. You...you know him? You knew a Jedi this whole time. And you never said anything?”
“I didn’t know him. Just, I’ve seen his face on some of the Rebel holovids. He was plastered all over Rebel stuff a few years back. He’s the pilot who blew up the first Death Star. Big hero. Hung out with the higher-ups and generals. There were always a lot of rumors about him, like that he dueled the Emperor’s right-hand man and won, or that he could fly an X-wing blindfolded, or that he could tell you who would live or die on a mission ahead of time. Dumb stuff like that. Never thought any of it was true, but after he took down those droid troopers, I’m rethinking that.”
Din rolls this new information around in his mind. Luke Skywalker. Worked with the Rebel Alliance. Probably with the New Republic now, if he’d been friends with higher-ups. Those same friends probably mean he has resources and connections that will keep Grogu safe and protected and well fed and far from any Imperials.
Resources and connections that will make Skywalker easier to track should Din ever need to find him.
Din cuts that train of thought off. He doesn’t need to. Luke Skywalker is not a bounty. Grogu has chosen this, Grogu needs this, and Din wants him to learn all he can and reach his full potential. He shouldn’t, can’t disrupt that. Ahsoka said Grogu’s attachment to him was an obstacle to Grogu’s training, so Din needs to let him be. But...Din’s chest does feel a bit lighter, having a lead on where the kid is. Just in case. And it wouldn't hurt to just check, right? Nobody even needed to know he was there...
The cockpit door opens with a hiss. Din expects Fennec, but it’s Fett’s armored legs that climb down into the navigation room. Fett’s face is hidden behind his T-visor, but something about his posture is...eager.
“Fennec says you have something. Something that Kryze was after. Show me.”
Din warily pulls out the Darksaber, igniting it so Fett can see the humming black blade.
“So you do have it. You stole it from Kryze?”
Din sighs. He has a feeling Fett knows exactly what the saber is. “I didn’t. Moff Gideon was threatening the kid with it, so I fought him and won.”
“You mean...you won it. You, not Kryze.”
Din nods, resigned. There’s a beat as Cara tenses, obviously wondering if Fett’s going to threaten Din like Kryze did.
Then Boba Fett laughs, a deep belly laugh that shakes his whole body. It’s a gravelly sound, like an old sand-clogged engine starting up for the first time in years.
Cara leans slightly away from Fett as his laughter grows more and more unhinged. “Okay, is someone going to explain what the deal is with this sword?”
Fennec descends from the cockpit, annoyance etched in her perfect brow. “Great question. I haven’t seen him like this since...ever.”
Fett collapses into the nearest empty seat, one arm pressed to his stomach and another to his helmet as he positively howls.
Din sighs again as he deactivates the blade. “I’m not...really sure. It sounds like a story I heard as a child. The Moff said...some things that I’m not sure are true.”
“You’re—the—Mand’alor,” Fett wheezes. “I missed it—the look on the princess’s face—”
“What story?” Cara prods.
Beneath the helmet, Din squeezes his eyes shut a moment as helmeted and unhelmeted faces flash through his memory. If it was anyone other than Cara, Din probably wouldn’t have bothered explaining, but...this is Cara. He trusts her. “Just a child’s story that went with a game we used to play during training. ‘Duel the Mand’alor.’ One kid has a stick, or if you’re older the kid has a blade, and everyone else isn’t allowed any weapons but what you can do in hand-to-hand combat. You duel each other until you yield or win the stick. Then the next kid fights the winner. When time is up, the winning kid is declared Mand’alor.”
Grogu would never get the chance to play that game now. Not that he was old enough or big enough yet. But he would have been so good at it, with his powers. Is Skywalker going to teach him something similar? Din imagines Grogu, a little older and taller, ripping the blasters from enemy troopers’ hands without moving, and his heart swells a little in pride at the thought.
Fett’s laughter is finally starting to taper off, and both Cara and Fennec are still staring at Din, silently demanding more info. He tries to refocus.
“It was supposed to be based on an actual weapon the Mand’alor had. A big black sword. But that’s not...there hasn’t been a Mand’alor since before the Purge. Longer than before the Purge.”
Fett’s words are ragged as he tries to catch his breath. “Not since the Civil Wars. And the Mand’alor at that time didn’t have the Darksaber.”
Din tilts his head, wondering what Fett knows. He himself knows very little about the Civil Wars—his buir had not been big on rehashing history, and his covert and most other Mandalorians he’s known never liked to talk about previous wars. Din had gotten the sense that some members of his covert had fought on opposing sides, but that whatever old feuds they had were not as important now, not with Manda’yaim glassed and its people scattered in the wake of the Empire.
Cara glances between them. “The Mand’alor? Different from the planet Mandalore?”
“‘Mandalore’ is the Basic word for Manda’yaim,” Din recites. “The leader Mand’alor is Mando’a. The sole ruler.”
“Sole ruler? So the Mand’alor is....what, the king of the Mandalorians? Are you telling me you’re like...the king of the Mandalorians now?”
“No,” says Din.
“Something like that,” says Fett.
"No," says Din again.
Fett brushes him off and continues. "Winning it gives the winner a claim to rule, but it means nothing if no one respects the wielder. I heard Kryze used it to unite some of the clans a while back...and she led all her people to ruin.”
“We don’t have kings, we have alor,” Din explains, “Completely different. And I’m not...Wait. Fett. If Kryze won’t take it, do you—”
Fett waves a dismissive hand. “I’m not interested in making you a corpse over a jeti weapon. Nor am I interested in ruling Mandalore.” There’s an odd emphasis in the last bit of that sentence, but Din doesn’t have time to question any further. Cara is gaping at him, open-mouthed.
“You are. You’re kriffing royalty! No wonder Kryze wanted it.”
Din grit his teeth. “It’s not...royalty. I told you, Mandalorians don’t have kings. The Mand’alor is more like...a general. Clans and tribes follow their alor, but if you want all the tribes to work together for a common goal, you need someone in charge to unite them, someone that everyone considers worthy enough to pledge to follow. That’s the Mand’alor. Which is exactly what Kryze was trying to do, getting Mandalorians together to reconquer Mandalore, which is why she should have just taken it—”
“You’re not getting it,” Fett says, gleeful. “She couldn’t. She’s already lost the thing once, before the Purge. She lost the whole planet—Got a lot of people killed, from what I heard. Now not many would follow her into a cantina, never mind into battle.”
Fennec frowns. “So she’d need something big to regain respect. A good story. Like defeating an ISB officer and winning the saber in combat.”
“Exactly. But our client here,” Fett gestures at Din, “Beat her to it and better. A warrior in full beskar fighting in honorable combat, against a hated enemy, defending a child. Did you use the spear?”
Din sags like the gravity on board has increased tenfold. “Yes.”
“While wielding a weapon of pure beskar. That’s the most Mandalorian thing I’ve ever heard. Sounds like a song, doesn’t it?”
Din sinks further down into his chair. When Fett put it like that....it sounded more impressive than it was. If anyone from his covert had returned with that kind of story, Din would have followed them without hesitation.
This was stupid. He hadn’t been thinking about glory or songs or power when he’d fought Gideon. All he’d wanted was to get that blade away from Grogu, to walk out of that room with his kid, to bring him home.
But Grogu wasn’t home. Din doesn’t even have a home anymore to bring him to. The Razor Crest is dust, and the covert…
Din misses them desperately, and has ever since he took the child into his clan and left behind a pile of bloodied helmets. He misses them with a dull ever-present ache that contrasts with the new fierce sharpness of the kid’s absence. He’s been searching for them, for any other Mandalorians, for months. The survivors have to be out there somewhere, although Din has found no trace of them, or any other Mandalorians besides Kryze’s crew and Fett. But there must be others. The Armorer, at least, still survives.
Din seizes on that thought. The Armorer will know exactly what to do with the Darksaber. And Grogu...Grogu is safe and training now, but when he’s done...He’ll need a home to return to, won’t he? Even after he trains, after he masters his abilities…he will need a place to call home. Somewhere he can be safe and be with his vod, long after Din is gone.
Because he will be gone. Din has thought about it in dark moments, lying awake on his cot on the Razor Crest and staring up at the kid sleeping in his hammock. Grogu does not age the same as most species. Even if Din had never found his kind, he would likely not live to see the kid reach adulthood. Some nights, Din had reasoned that finding a Jedi would fix the problem, because he’d imagined Jedi to all be like the child: long-lived, tiny, powerful. But Jedi, Din knew now, were a creed like his own, one that included humans and Togruta, who would not live much longer than Din himself would. And they seemed to be fewer in number than even the Mandalorians. The kid was going to be alone either way.
Other nights, Din had stared up at his sleeping kid and imagined never finding the Jedi, of finding other coverts instead, of watching Grogu grow up with other foundlings. Din had slept well those nights, knowing that as long as Grogu was a foundling, other vod would always be willing to take care of him, just like they had taken care of Din.
Just like they still will, if Din can find them.
If he’s not dar’manda, that is, the terrible thought comes. Din shoves it down.
Eventually, the Slave I docks on a New Republic ship just long enough for Cara to slip in with two carbonite slabs, collect their bounties, and slip back out before anyone asks too many questions about who owns the ship. She divides the credits into four bags as the Slave I speeds away for Nevarro, and Fennec whistles.
“How badly did the New Republic want those two?”
Cara grins as she hands Fennec her share. “A lot. And they’re alive, which means a very nice bonus.”
Din stares down at the credits in his hand for a long time, thinking about what to do with them. Get a ship, probably. Get off Nevarro. Start tracking...not Skywalker. Other Mandalorians. It will be easier, hopefully, without bounty hunters constantly searching for the kid.
Easier, but not necessarily better.
No, that wasn’t right. Of course this is better. It is better for Grogu to be safe and learning to use his powers than it is for the kid to be constantly in danger. Din would trade everything he had to keep his son safe...and he has.
He’d do it again.
No, the best thing to do now is focus on a new mission. Rebuild. Get a ship, find other Mandalorians, stay alive because he’d promised Grogu he would see him again, and he would sooner cut off his own arm than break a promise to that kid. Build a home so Grogu has somewhere to go when he is done training, whenever that will be.
Din can do that.
When they land on Nevarro, Fennec’s goodbye is pleasant and professional, and then she retreats back inside the ship. Cara stretches and yawns, eager to get back to town. She’s a dozen yards away from the ship by the time Din’s boots touch Nevarro’s soil again. He hesitates a moment and turns back to Fett, who lingers on the Slave I’s open bay door.
“Thank you, again,” Din tells Fett sincerely. “You have more than fulfilled our contract. The child is safe because of your help, and that means more to me than you can ever know.”
Fett makes a kind of satisfied, approving grunt. “I always get the job done.”
There’s a long pause while Fett looms, unmoving. Din is finally about to turn to join Cara when Fett speaks again. “You gave your child to a Jedi.”
Grogu peers over Skywalker’s shoulder as they leave, eyes staring back at him, full of fading fear as he tries to put on a brave face. Don’t be afraid, Din whispers again.
Din’s fingers curl and uncurl at his sides as he refocuses. “Yes.”
“Never liked Jedi. Hated them for most of my life, in fact. Why would you hand your child over to one of them so willingly?”
“He’s a foundling. But...he’s also a Jedi. And he needs training that I can’t give. He needs…he needs to learn how to protect himself after I’m gone.” Din has been repeating this argument to himself for hours. If he’s honest with himself, he’s been repeating this argument in the back of his mind since the Armorer first quested him to bring the child to a race of enemy sorcerers. His voice fills with resolve as he adds, “He is my foundling. I’ll see him again. I promised.”
Fett’s head tilts, and Din feels oddly like he has passed some unspoken test.
“What are your plans now?” Fett asks.
“Find more of our kind. There has to be more of us left. And one of them will know what to do with...the weapon.”
Fett nods. “Another Mandalorian bounty hunter was on Tatooine about six months ago. If I were to guess, she was supporting a covert. If I were to guess further, I’d say that covert was on Carajam. I would try the spaceport Danan Karr first.”
Din’s glad the helmet does not show his surprise. “Thank you. How—.”
“Take this.” Fett holds out a bag of credits—his share of the Imperial bounties.
Din stares at it before Fett shakes it at him impatiently. Finally, he takes it. “I can’t accept this. This is yours.”
“Take it in exchange for making Kryze miserable. That is worth a lot to me. More than you might ever know.”
“Also, I like you. I don’t like a lot of people. I pledge my allegiance to no one, Mand’alor, but if you have need of my services, you can hire me again from Tatooine.”
“You’re going back?”
Fett presses a button on his vambrace and steps back as the bay door begins to close. “I have unfinished business.”
The door shuts. Din’s cape billows around him as the Slave I takes off.
Cara comes up even with him, a hand over her eyes as she squints up at Slave I vanishing into the sky. “You coming?”
“Yeah.” Din silently wishes Fett the best of luck. It had been good to have a true vod again for a little while. There were so few of them now.
It would be good to have more vod again, if he can find them.
“Greef commed. Says he’s got a guy lined up who has a shipyard for you to look at.”
Din clutches the credits, heavy in his hand, and follows.
A few days and a lot of credits later, Din has a new ship.
The new ship is larger than the Razor Crest, with enough seats to fit five people in the cockpit. In the lower deck, there are two separate bed compartments with two beds apiece and three storage compartments large enough for a person or two to sit inside and eat in privacy. The walls and floor of the upper and lower deck are lined with smaller compartments to store food and supplies.
Most importantly, the ship is old enough to bypass most modern sensors, and Din could probably fit a small team of people in here comfortably. Or forty, maybe fifty people on it if they squeezed.
Cara raises an eyebrow as she follows Din into the vast lower deck. “I gotta say, not what I was expecting you to get. Bit roomy for one, isn’t it? Planning on lugging around more blurgs?”
Din runs a hand over the walls of his new ship, gloves catching at the worn ridges. “It’s not for one.”
“Oh, right. Sorry....but I mean, even for two, it’s kind of big, isn’t it?”
“It’s not for two either.”
Din pulls open the door to one of the wall compartments. This could be a good spot to store weapons, once he builds up an arsenal again. He’s lost almost everything along with the Crest. Most of his weapons can be easily replaced with enough credits, although the amban rifle will be much trickier. Din’s buir had modified that rifle himself. Although Din knew every gear and notch of it, had taken it apart and put it together more times than he could count, he isn’t certain he can get the same parts again. He’s never been as good at crafting as his buir had been anyway.
“...Well, that’s your business, I guess. Listen, I got you something.”
Din turns back to Cara, the list of parts dissipating in his head. Cara holds out the large bag she’d brought with her.
“It’s a couple thermal detonators, and a blaster rifle or two from my personal collection. I know it’s not much, but you let me pick from your armory once and well, I thought I’d return the favor. Greef threw in a couple vibroblades too.”
Din pulls one of the detonators out of the bag, weighing it in his hand, then places it in the new weapons compartment. It’s definitely a start. A rush of gratitude washes over him, and he looks back at Cara, face still hidden in his helmet but split in a genuine smile that he hasn’t felt since the kid left. “It’s great. Thank you.”
Cara grins back at him and claps his arm. “Figured you’d want to get that stash built up again. You off then? Got a bounty? A lot of bounties, maybe? You’ve certainly got the room for it.”
Din starts loading the rest of the detonators into the new weapons compartment. “I’m going to find more of my kind. There’s more of us out there. Some of my covert must have survived, and Kryze has proven there’s other Mandalorians out there too. Fett says he ran into one from Carajam.”
Cara nods. “Well, I’ll keep an ear out, let you know if I hear anything. Greef, too.”
“Thank you,” Din says again. “Let me know if you hear anything or if any pass through here.”
Din secures the last blaster rifle into the weapons compartment. “Tell them you are ruusaanyc.”
“Ruusaanyc. Means ‘trustworthy.’”
“What, like a passcode?”
“Like a word. In Mando’a. I can’t guarantee it’ll make anyone like you, but maybe it’ll help keep them from shooting first and asking questions later.”
Din half-chuckles. “Close enough.”
Cara holds out her hand. “Fly safe. Good luck. Until our paths cross.”
Din clasps her hand firmly, then releases it. “Until our paths cross.”
Now that Din’s lost his beloved 1998 Honda Civic, I propose we replace it with a minivan. Or better yet, a giant conversion van from the eighties.
Also, some Mando'a! Because I forgot to include it last chapter.
vod = brother/sister (gender neutral)
Manda'yaim = Mandalore the planet
Mand'alor = literally, "sole ruler"
ruusaanyc = trustworthy
Chapter 3: The Covert
In which Din returns home, goes to see his guidance counselor, realizes that making a nice home for Grogu means he might actually want to hang on to that Darksaber, and misses Grogu.
It takes a couple jobs to keep the ship fueled, but Din finally reaches Carajam. Most of the planet is desert, but it has a bustling trade port called Danan Karr, with ships going in and out constantly and the usual parade of shifty-looking people lining the streets. Din is selective about where he chooses to park, and uses credits he earned on the way here to pay for someone to look the ship over. It’s even harder to keep this large a ship maintained by himself. Hopefully he won’t have to for much longer.
He asks around for work and is pointed toward a cantina. It’s dingy and crowded, and perfect for what he needs. He orders a drink, picks a booth in a defensible corner with a full view of the window, and waits. There’s a terminal in the opposite corner with bounties posted and the usual hotshots gathered around it, eager to make a name for themselves. Most of them will give up during or after their first bounty, if they survive.
Din’s not looking for them. He sits in his booth with his untouched drink and waits. And waits. He tries not to pick out what item on the menu Grogu would most like to eat. (The nala frog chowder, probably.)
He waits some more. After a few hours, some newly arrived hotshots are clearly daring each other to talk to him. One actually risks sitting down across from Din, but he retreats after about fifteen seconds beneath the weight of Din’s silent, faceless glare.
Grogu would not have been able to sit still this long if he were here. Din wonders if Skywalker has an easier time getting the kid to sit still then he ever had. The kid would wander off at the first opportunity if Din didn’t keep a close eye on him. Maybe under Skywalker’s tutelage the kid will finally learn to sit still and stay put, but he doubts it.
Din waits until two of the planet’s three moons have sunk beneath the skyline, and the cantina is finally beginning to empty as the night ends. Satisfied that enough time has passed, Din finally stands up, exits the cantina, and turns down the narrow alley next to it. His beskar gleams in the streaks of sunlight that signal dawn. He does not bother to mask his footsteps or make any attempt to hide.
When he reaches the dead end at the end of the alley, he whirls in a smooth motion, pressing his vibroblade to a throat just in time to feel another blade pressing to his own.
The other Mandalorian is slightly shorter than he is, wearing red armor highlighted with gold around the T-visor and on the pauldrons. Despite the blade at his throat, warm relief radiates through his body at the sight of a T-visor like his own.
“How many corpses did you rob to get that much beskar?” the other Mandalorian demands, not lowering her blade.
Din does not lower his either. “The armor is mine. I’ve been looking for other Mandalorians for many parsecs. I heard there was one of our kind here. I’m hoping to find more.”
“You heard I was here? Guess it’s time to find a new hunting ground. Who are you?”
“Din Djarin of Clan Djarin. I was in the Fighting Corps.”
Her blade lowers a fraction. “Kote, darasuum kote.”
Din pauses. He hasn’t heard that chant in a long time, but the words spill out like he’s still a teenager, building confidence and eager for blood. “Te racin ka'ra juaan kote.”
The other Mandalorian’s posture relaxes. She drops her blade, and Din drops his. “Su cuy'gar. I’m Nessa Beroya, Clan Awaud. Sorry about the interrogation. We’ve had a lot of reports of people setting traps to get beskar.”
“I met quite a few like that on my way here.”
“No wonder, with that armor. Seriously, who did you have to kill to get all that?”
“A fort full of Niktos and a mudhorn.”
“Is that spear beskar too?”
“Nice. Fighting Corps, you said? The destroyed Nevarro covert?”
Din’s heart leaps. “Yes, are they here? How many survived?”
Nessa’s head lowers. “Around twenty, but...that wasn’t everyone, from what I gathered.”
“No...We were about sixty.”
The pile of helmets flashes through his mind, but Din lets the thought drift away to seize on the positive. Twenty. Twenty survivors. More than he had thought.
Nessa pats his shoulder. “Don’t worry, brother. There is strength in numbers, and we have around three hundred of us here. Come on. I’ll show you the way.”
Nessa leads him in a wide circle around the spaceport, avoiding crowded streets. Din doesn’t mind—he used to do the same when coming and going from the Nevarro covert, and it’s nice to talk to another vod, especially one in the same line of work.
She’s not the only bounty hunter for the covert. There are two others, but they all stagger their trips to avoid having too many Mandalorians visible at once and don’t see each other often. There’s no Guild presence here, so Nessa usually picks up a bounty at the cantina and then signs up for a protection detail at the spaceport to get to where she needs to be. She’ll repeat the process from planet to planet, following the smuggling routes and hitching a ride. The Hutts and Crimson Dawn both have smuggling rings running through Danan Karr, and there’s never any shortage of people wanting extra muscle to guard spice or illegal bacta shipments. Not having her own ship means she usually takes cold bounties rather than warm ones, but she’s fine with that. If she’s in a tight spot, one of the other two bounty hunters will come pick her up. She’d hoped to save up enough for a ship of her own, but the covert has grown a lot over the last five years, and she couldn’t justify withholding the money needed for the ship from the resources needed for the new members.
“The covert’s growing?” Din repeats with a touch of wonder.
Nessa’s helmet lowers in a grimace. “Yeah. Bit of a mixed bag, though. Some of the growth is ade, but most of it is an influx of people from other destroyed coverts. My clan used to live on Vlemoth Port. We’d thought after the Empire fell, it was time to regroup. We started broadcasting to see if we could locate any other groups, and it worked. We merged with three other clans and gained a lot of stragglers who’d been separated from everyone else when the Purge started. But then the warlords and pirate gangs swarmed out of the woodworks, looking for beskar. We fended off three separate attacks before finally some kriffing New Republic representatives showed up with a bunch of bounty droids, said they had arrest warrants for four of our members and please hand them over or they would come in and take them by force.”
“...Did they really think that would work?”
“They did. Karking di’kuts. So, naturally we smashed their droids and smashed in their faces for good measure. Then we let them go running back to their precious capitol to cry to their stuck-up senators that if they tried that again, we’d break more than a few noses. By that point, our scouts had found a larger place on Carajam to move the covert because space was becoming a bit cramped, and we figured we were better off moving. When the New Republic knows where you are, everyone knows where you are, and the foundlings were starting to have nightmares about it. You ever try to calm down a foundling who’s just had a nightmare? It’s not fun.”
Din sucks in a breath and tries not to think of Grogu’s ears, twitching frantically in sleep before relaxing when Din rubbed the right spot on his tiny back. “No. It’s not.”
Eventually they arrive at a small, derelict shop with a sign advertising used blasters and stun guns. Nessa steps past the droid manning the counter to a back room and pulls aside a shelf to reveal a stairway leading down.
“We think it used to be a smuggler’s den or a Rebel base or something. Anyway, come on.”
The covert is even larger than Din had hoped for. There’s a huge network of rooms and tunnels that Nessa informs him lead all over the city, each guarded by rotating teams of four. There’s not as much natural light as Din remembers having in Nevarro, but the walls are lined with electric lights that reflect off the armor of everyone passing by.
More importantly, there are people passing by: Mandalorians, more than Din has seen in one place in decades, wearing armor painted in various shades and patterns. Not everyone is wearing helmets, but a lot of people are. Din sees dozens of different family signets, some painted on and some forged on like his. He thinks he recognizes the Armorer’s work on the pauldron of a Mandalorian he doesn’t know, and the thought makes him newly aware of the Darksaber pressed into his hip on his belt. If she’s here, she’ll know what to do with it.
A couple of people call out a greeting to Nessa and Din as they pass by. Nessa waves back, points out different clans and groups Din has never met, and a few names he has not heard since before the Purge: red-and-gold-painted Awauds, a couple of yellow-painted Wrens, a cluster of people with blue and white armor who hailed from a group called the Protectors, a young Skirata who bounces enthusiastically when he sees them, more names and clans and houses, painted and unpainted Mandalorians alike who came here from other destroyed coverts or were scattered after the Purge and found their way here. Everyone and everything here is a beautiful mix of new and familiar and an older, deeper sense of belonging Din hasn’t felt since before the Purge, and he feels so content to be home that for a moment he reaches to his side to position Grogu’s bag and make sure he is seeing this—
The space is empty. Grogu isn’t here, and for a moment the loss rips through him anew, like a small knife has stabbed into Din’s gut and ripped a chunk of flesh free. But Grogu’s safe, Din reminds himself. Safe with Skywalker, learning all kinds of great Jedi stuff that will make him an amazing warrior. He’s where he should be, and Din is where he should be, no matter how much that hurts.
And still...something warm and hopeful curls in Din’s chest. This can be Grogu’s home too, when he’s done with his training. He can belong here, does belong here too. Din just needs to make sure they’re ready to take care of him here.
He sees movement in his peripheral vision and turns to see foundlings running by. He has just enough time for his breath to catch because he knows these foundlings, when one barrels into him.
“Beroya, you’re here!” Kata declares. “You took AGES! Did you bring candy this time? What’s this?” She points at the Darksaber on his belt, and Din has to gently nudge her away before she grabs it. “That’s not a blaster. Is it a staff? A mace? A really small one? Can I see it?”
“It’s a hilt for a laser sword.”
Nessa cocks her head. “Laser sword? That’s a new one.”
Din’s not sure he wants to show it to anyone, not yet, but fortunately, Kata’s attention span is shorter than she is. She grabs his hand and sticks it on top of her training helmet, and Din obligingly pats her head as she chatters on.
“Do you have any new stories? I bet you have a lot! Buir said you got a new foundling! Can I see him?”
Din’s hand drops back to his side as he sucks in a breath. “Is...Is your buir here?”
Nessa bends over a bit in front of Kata, her voice taking on a warmer tone. “Hey, ad’ika, can you show him over to your buir? I gotta get back to work.” She straightens, claps Din on the arm. “Got a nice gig on a Hutt ship to a triple-head bounty on Nar Shaddaa. Sorry I can’t stay, but the covert’s not going to feed itself and my ride’s leaving soon. Let me know if you want to go hunting too when I get back. Wouldn’t hurt to add another beroya to the roster. We could definitely use the credits. Got a lot of mouths to feed. Have fun. And welcome home, vod.”
“Happy hunting,” Din returns gratefully.
Kata tugs at his arm impatiently and besieges him with more questions as she drags him to a larger common room. On one side of the room are a cluster of Mandalorians, poring over the scattered pieces of a blaster cannon and gesturing animatedly about some kind of wiring problem. In the far corner are two teenagers brawling, with three more cheering them on. Din’s stomach swoops when he sees a cluster of unhelmeted people at another table watching the fight, laughing over tihaar. When was the last time he had tihaar? A year ago? A couple years?
And there, on the far side of the room, are four familiar helmeted figures arguing over a game of cu’bikad.
Din freezes in place, breath held tight in his chest. They’re not dead. They’re not dead and they’re here, the same people playing the same ridiculous game they always were on Nevarro when he returned from a hunt, like nothing had ever happened. They’re okay, and they’re alive, shoving each other as they bicker.
Kata throws herself at Paz Vizsla, nearly knocking over some of the knives used in the game.
“Whoa, whoa, what is it, ad’ika—”
“Look, buir, our beroya came back!”
Kata points, and all four helmets swivel to face Din at once.
A thousand things clamor to get out of his throat—apologies, confessions, pleas for forgiveness, and a stupid desire to know who is winning—but in the end he just...stands there, one hand almost half-lifted toward them, unable to make up his mind whether to step forward.
But not for long. It’s only a second before they’re all speaking at once.
“Well, su cuy’gar! Get over here!”
“You’re back! Good to see you!”
“When you’d get here?!!”
“Sit down already!”
Paz beckons him forward with a jerk of his chin, and the game lies forgotten as Din joins them and they all welcome him back in the fold. Familiar gloved hands are on his back and running over his new pauldron in admiration. Friendly voices trade jokes and insults and tease him, Mando’a and Basic and the occasional choice Huttese word all spilling over each other. Din just sits there, overcome, soaking it all in as something like contentment settles in his stomach.
For the first time in a long while, Din feels at home.
When the laughter starts to fade, an impatient Kata wriggles on Paz’s lap and demands a story. All four adults agree that Din must have tales to tell.
So Din talks. He talks about krayt dragons, prison ships, dogfights with X-wings and TIE fighters, tiny towns in need of saving and stormtroopers in need of killing, beskar-hungry scammers and trustworthy friends, vod who alter deals and vod who will cross the whole galaxy to fulfill a contract.
But mostly, Din talks about Grogu. How his face scrunches up in dismay when Din gives him ration bars instead of fresh meat. How his ears perk whenever Din says his name. How he always tries to help when Din cleans his armor, but makes a mess instead. How his eyes shine with awe at the streaking lights of hyperspace. How brave he is in the face of danger, how clever he is with his powers, how quick to get into trouble and how quick he is to get out of it again. How Moff Gideon stole him, and how Din rescued him just in time to finally have a Jedi show up.
Din talks long after the tiharr-drinkers have left and the teenagers have declared a winner, long after the blaster cannon’s been repaired and taken elsewhere for target practice, until his throat runs dry and the burning need to hold Grogu subsides, just a little bit, because these are his vod and they understand.
In return, they share their own stories. How Moff Gideon and his troops had swooped in shortly after their attack on the bounty hunters in the marketplace. How those with foundlings had evacuated first, commandeering some of the Guild’s own ships or killing Imperial pilots and taking their ships instead. How the Armorer later told them of how the rest of the covert had fought valiantly and slaughtered most of Gideon’s men before succumbing to a third and fourth wave of reinforcements. How the ships that escaped had struggled to stay in contact with each other, how one of the evacuated ships carrying the Raus and their three foundlings had never been seen again, how most of the survivors had finally managed to regroup on a tiny trading moon. How they’d tried to contact Din, contact the covert, contact the Raus’ lost ship, contact anyone, and brought scavengers down on their heads seeking to peel the beskar from their corpses and sell the foundlings into slavery. How they’d fought until their munitions ran thin but the blood of their enemies ran thick. How they’d finally had an incredible stroke of luck, coming across a Mandalorian bounty hunter who had sent them here, to Carajam. How a precious few other survivors had trickled in after them in the following weeks. How the Armorer had found them much, much later, her tools nearly blunted from the number of skulls she’d smashed, escorting the beskar of their fallen comrades here.
Din sits in numb silence as they finish, a chasm of guilt and loss dragging him down into a void. He brought this on them. Abstractly he knows that if if the situation had been reversed, if Kata or another foundling had been in danger, the covert would have made the same choice—he would have made the same choice, to defend his vod at any cost. He wonders if he had known that day how badly the Empire had wanted Grogu, how many vod it would cost to save the baby, if he would have still made the choice to go in and take him back.
He knows the question is a flawed one. If he had known, he would have made the choice he should have made the first time, to forsake the beskar and not turn Grogu in at all.
The other Mandalorians repeat their welcomes and assurances before taking their leave. They have their own foundlings to care for, and mealtime is approaching. Only Din and Paz are left—Din, because he still feels too empty and heavy all at once to move, Paz because Kata has fallen asleep in his lap.
Paz finally says, “You know it’s not your fault that remembrances take even longer to say around here.”
“We chose to help you and your foundling. You would have done the same for me and Kata, or any of us.”
“We would have done it even if there was no child, if it was just you.”
Paz pats Kata’s back softly as she breathes, heavy and deep. “I’m sorry your foundling is parted from you.”
“He’s...where he should be. This is the Way.”
“This is the Way. Still, it’s not easy, being separated from the little ones.”
“...No, it’s not.”
“Moff Gideon has a lot to answer for, it sounds like. For the covert and for what he did to your foundling.”
Din’s fingers clench. “Moff Gideon is a prisoner of the New Republic now. They won’t be kind to him.”
Din’s fingers slowly loosen as a solution to one of his problems occurs to him. He glances around. No one else is here. He looks back at Paz as he slowly places the Darksaber on the table.
“I told you I defeated Moff Gideon to save the child.”
“Yes. With that beskar spear. You always did have a way of getting the best toys.”
“He fought me with this.”
Din turns the Darksaber on. The odd, eerie hum makes Kata stir a tiny bit, but a soothing circle rubbed into her back settles her back down.
Paz stares at it, then back at Din. “That’s the Darksaber.”
“...Looks like it.”
“I’ve seen this before. My ba’vodu wielded it when he tried to retake Manda’yaim from the pacifists.”
“Do you want it?”
Paz jerks, then has to stop and rub Kata’s back again until she drifts back into full sleep.
“No, I don’t want it,” he hisses, “My ba’vodu wouldn’t shut up about that thing and how our ancestor forged it and how that made it rightfully his. It was one of his favorite topics, right after murdering unarmed civilians and lecturing my buir on how she should have picked a less pathetic foundling. So no. No, I think Vizslas should sit out being Mand’alor for at least another generation or two.”
Din’s shoulders slumped. This was not going how he hoped. “I knew about your ba’vodu, but you say your ancestor forged it? Then you could easily claim it. It’s yours by birthright.”
“I don’t care what my ba’vodu said, that’s not how the Mand’alor’s weapon should work. And even if it did, as someone of Tarre Vizsla’s line, I happily bequeath it to you.”
“I don’t want to be Mand’alor.”
Paz’s head tilts, considering. “Why not? You’d be a lot better than my ba’vodu was. You won it in battle while defending your foundling, clad in pure beskar with a beskar spear and everything. A surprising amount of mandokarla from you, but still. That’s much more honorable than inheriting it.”
Din lowers his head until his helmet bangs softly on the table. He is so, so tired.
“You’d actually probably make a good leader. You’re only slightly worse than me in most areas of combat. And you were never were one for picking fights. Pretty good at negotiating. A real stickler for the Creed. Not half-bad at planning missions. Granted, it’s been a while since we’ve been on a mission, but still. I’d follow you into battle. You probably wouldn’t get us all killed. Probably.”
Din lifts his head and softly bangs it against the table again. And again.
“Also, imagine the sheer entertainment value. What do you think they’ll call you in the songs? Mand’alor the Puny? Mand’alor the Too-Serious? Mand’alor the Late Bloomer?”
Helmet still facedown on the table, Din says, “If you weren’t holding a foundling, I would take my spear and stab it straight through your throat.”
“You’d have to land a hit on me first.”
Blood rushes to his head as Din sits straight up and tries to summon some dignity. “I’m going to give it to the Armorer.”
Paz scoffs and waves a hand. “Go on then. Go back to the main passage and follow it down until you hear her forge. She should still be working.”
Din stalks off, the rush of gratitude and irritation that accompanies any interaction with Paz fueling each step.
Din finds the Armorer at the far end of the covert, in one of the few rooms that allows fresh air and light to come through the ceiling. A freshly gleaming mythosaur skull hangs above her new forge, watching over it like a well-loved protector as Din crosses the threshold. The quiet clang of his beskar boots on the floor resonates through some sense he can’t name, like the metal knows it is once again in a sacred place.
The Armorer is hard at work, forging what looks like a beskar alloy into a chestplate. There are many fresh armor pieces around her, Din realizes. It’s good that there are so many here that need her services. A hot forge is always a sign of hope, of strength, of determination in the face of struggle.
It’s not enough to drown out the dread pooling in his gut as he waits for her to finish.
He doesn’t have to wait long before she lays the chestplate down to cool. “Din Djarin. You have found home at last. And the foundling? I do not see him with you.”
“I returned him to his kind.”
The Armorer sits at a table near the forge and beckons him to join her. “Permanently, or temporarily?”
Din sits. “Temporarily, I hope. His powers have grown. The Jedi I found is formidable in battle, and will train and protect the foundling as his own. The Jedi also says the child is very strong. He needs the training. But...I promised Grogu—I promised the foundling I’ll see him again.”
The armorer’s voice is warm and sympathetic. “Then your mission is complete. I hope the tribe can meet Grogu of Clan Djarin soon.”
Din’s fists clench where they rest on the table. “You will. I want...I want to bring him here when he’s finished training. To be with his vod. So he can be safe. There’s so many people out there who wanted to kill him. And I hope after his training, he will be better able to protect himself.”
“As he should. A Mandalorian must always do their best to fight and defend themselves and their clan. He will be a welcome addition to the tribe, and the tribe will always protect him as we would any of our own. This is the Way.”
“And we will protect the tribe in turn. This is the Way.”
The Armorer nods approvingly. “In the meantime, what do you wish to do now? This covert’s size has warranted three other beroya for support, but a fourth would certainly be welcome.”
“I can do that, if that’s what the tribe needs. But I’ve been...thinking. The Empire is still alive and hunts us. And they are not our only enemy. There are others.”
“This we know. It is one of the reasons why we have needed to make this covert so difficult to find. Our secrecy is our survival.”
“But our secrecy also makes it very difficult for our scattered people to find each other. Those of our tribe who survived are safe now through luck as much as skill, and it seems like our covert was not the only one hunted.”
“This is true.”
“I searched a long time to find this covert, and in that time I met many others who were not hunting for the child. Scavengers, hut’uun looking for beskar. Some of them were organized, as if they had sprung a similar trap before, and some mentioned successful traps in the past. One of those groups would have killed me and the child if more Mandalorians had not come to my aid.” Din remembers Grogu’s little pod, flung into the gaping maw of a mamacore, and shudders.
“You met more? From another covert?”
“Just three. Their leader calls herself Bo-Katan Kryze. She spoke of retaking Mandalore.”
The Armorer makes a small, disgusted sound. “Kryze? I know that name. So she is still alive. Who exactly does she plan on sending to live on Mandalore? Farmers, who will till the glassed ground? Warriors, whose children will choke on the poisoned dust? Miners, who can only hear the echoes of beskar song in the empty mines?”
Din shrugs. “That’s what I told her, but she was undeterred. She seems to think the planet isn’t dead. Maybe she has a plan?”
“Maybe. But I would question why she is fixated on a planet long destroyed when there are so few people left to live on it, partly due to her leadership.”
“Maybe there are more of us left than we think. She made me realize...there must be more of us out there. Securely hidden, like we are, or others alone for one reason or another, searching and only finding traps. I want to find them first.”
The Armorer dips her head in a silent, go on.
“Secrecy keeps the covert safe. Broadcasting our location is a bad idea. But maybe, I could—or a team could—go out and chase down rumors, track down any others who are also looking for a home. Start our own rumors, so others can find us. Kill those who come looking for prey, and point any Mando’ade we find here.”
The Armorer sounds faintly amused. “You want to hunt Mandalorian bounties.”
“Guess that’s one way of pointing it. I already have a ship for it. My old one was destroyed, but this new one has more space for more people. A hunting party could live on it comfortably for many months while we search.”
The Armorer nods. “It’s a worthy goal, and a good way to serve the tribe. Our enemies, especially the Empire, are scattered now, but they grow stronger as they gather. If Mando’ade wish to defeat them, we would be wise to do the same. There are many here who are of similar mind, and would likely join you in your search. It may also be a good outlet for some of our seasoned warriors who long to fight again, as well as an opportunity for you to train a few of the older recruits. We have quite a few who need some hands-on training.”
“I...I would like that. Training some recruits.”
The Armorer’s head inclines knowingly. “You miss your foundling.”
“I...yes,” Din looks down at his empty hands on the table, then closes them tightly. “But also...he is fifty years old, and still a child. His kind, the Jedi, are even fewer than we are. My foundling...Grogu….He needs a home. He needs someone to take care of him, long after I’m gone. He needs a strong tribe to return to.”
“Then your path is clear. Stay a while to pick out a team. Take as many as you need to fulfill your mission who want to go. I will prepare additional munitions for anyone who wants to join.”
“Thank you.” Din clears his throat. Here goes. “I...need to talk to you about something else.”
“I found...something. On my travels. I was hoping you’d know what to do with it.”
He holds out the Darksaber, and activates it. The odd glow reflects off the Armorer’s helmet as her whole body goes rigid. As always, her helmet betrays no facial expression, but she is more shocked and unsettled that Din has ever seen her.
He sighs, defeated. “You recognize it as well.”
“Are you aware of what you’re holding?”
“Bo-Katan Kryze says it is the Darksaber, that Mand’alors of old wielded. Paz Vizsla says the same.”
“Moff Gideon captured the foundling. I got him back, but I had to defeat the Moff in combat to do it, and he wielded this when we fought.”
“Then...Then by right, you may claim the rank of Mand’alor. You would be the first in many years. Some would say the first in generations.”
“No. I can’t be Mand’alor.”
“I am not worthy to be Mand’alor. I’m...” Din’s voice sunk into nearly a whisper. “I’m not even sure I’m worthy to be Mando’ade.”
The Armorer’s head tilts. “Not worthy?”
“I...I removed my helmet. Twice.”
If the Armorer is surprised, she does not show it. She does not even flinch. “Why?”
Din does his best to gather himself. “The first time, to protect my foundling. Moff Gideon had him, and I needed coordinates to find him...and the only way to get them was in the middle of an Imperial base...”
He hesitates for a moment, trying to think of how to explain, to justify how far he’d gone despite his best efforts, remembering the cold air on his cheek and the colder gaze of the Imperial officer boring straight into him. Brown eyes.
“And the second?” the Armorer prods gently.
Din takes a deep breath. “The second, because...I returned my foundling to his kind, and he asked to see my face. There were others in the room, but I...I don’t think I really cared. I was not sure when I would see him again. I wanted to...to say goodbye.”
The Armorer is silent for a moment. Then, “You protected and comforted your foundling. This is the Way.”
Din shrugs listlessly. “I know. And I don’t regret it. I just...”
“Caring for foundlings is vital. Still, you feel unworthy?”
“I’m...not sure what to feel. Even if it was for a good reason, I still...I don’t know. Especially now that I’ve met...other Mandalorians. Ones who do not follow the same customs we do. Ones who share their faces freely. Like Bo-Katan Kryze. Like some of the clans of this new covert. I don’t think less of them. But...they did not swear the same Creed. And I...I still broke mine.”
“Did you? You fulfilled your highest calling, and you did not remove your helmet lightly. Tell me, do you feel a kinship with your armor? With your clan? With your tribe?"
“Yes. I would feel...incomplete without my armor. My clan is...separated, but strong. And my tribe...I am happy to join you again, to help it grow, if the tribe will accept me. If I’m not dar’manda.”
“Do you still want to be Mando’ade? To live up to the Creed you swore?”
“Yes.” Din’s heart pounds. He knows this deep in his bones, that he wants to belong here with his vod, that being cut off from them as well as the kid would be a burden too great to bear. That for all its hardships, this way of life is what he wants.
“It is not in my power to give you the absolution you seem to seek. You must come to terms with your own decisions. But I can give you this: I still see the soul of manda when I look upon you.”
Din’s head bows as his throat closes up. It feels like a great vise he didn’t realize was wrapped around his lungs has been released, like he is finally able to take a full breath.
“I still see you as part of our tribe, if you’ll have us.”
“And I would be honored to follow you, Mand’alor.”
Din’s head shoots up. “Alor, no, I brought it here to give it to someone else. I can’t be...I’m no leader. I’m a bounty hunter. I can provide for the tribe, not lead it.”
“A bounty hunter who holds the Way of the Mand'alor in high regard, who follows the Resol’nare, who has single-handedly supported a tribe through hard times, who has slain many of our enemies in battle, who has made many powerful allies, who wishes for Mando’ade to prosper, who has won the Darksaber in honorable combat defending his clan.”
“I was hoping I could give this to you.”
“To me? I did not win it. Nor do I want it. I am an armorer. I am no Mand’alor.”
“And I am? I don’t want it either.”
“Tell me, who is better to do the job?”
"Bo-Katan Kryze. She made her intentions to rule clear."
"The one who already lost Mandalore?"
"She's a great tactician."
"But can she unite people?"
Din thinks of Kryze’s sneer, thinks of a deal altered midway, thinks of the words you are a disgrace to your armor aimed at Fett, and sighs. “I...don’t know. But she is right: Mandalorians are stronger together. Someone should be Mand’alor. There must be someone here who will take it.”
“You say you wish to find others of our kind? You have been presented with the perfect means and opportunity to do so. Do you not remember that the Mand’alor can rally Mandalorians to his call? Did you not just tell me moments ago that your goal was to find more Mando’ade and bring them here?”
Din blinks. That’s...different. Isn’t it? It is true that the Mand’alor can call other Mando’ade back home. That’s one of the tenets of the Resol’nare. But still...Not once since he parted from Bo-Katan has he even considered actually becoming Mand’alor. He just wants to find more of his people, protect them from some of the dangers he had faced traveling without other vod, and make sure the tribe is a safe place for his foundling to live.
...That isn’t too far off from the Mand’alor’s job description, is it.
“Your cause will only be aided by the presence of a Mand’alor to unite us once again.”
“Din,” the Armorer says gently. “You are a beroya. You have always been focused on your target, on achieving a goal, then the next goal, then the next. It’s made you an excellent hunter and provider for the tribe, and we have all benefited. Now you have set a new goal for yourself to achieve, one more complex than your previous missions. You need not be Mand’alor to fulfill your purpose, but it will certainly help. If you are truly dedicated to your goal of finding more Mando’ade, why not use every weapon you are given?"
“But I’m not...I can’t…”
“You can. And I can only speak for our tribe, but I have no doubt this entire covert would rally to your cause. If you are successful in finding more coverts, they will most likely rally to your cause. It is a worthy one.”
Din reaches out, wraps his fingers slowly around the Darksaber hilt. He thinks about his plan, of traversing the galaxy with a small team of vod, no longer alone, filling the covert with Mando’ade who will take care of Grogu after he’s gone.
“Then…” Din swallows. “Then I will wield this with honor.”
The Armorer nods, pleased. Though he can not see her face, Din knows she is smiling encouragingly. “This is the Way.”
“...This is the Way,” Din repeats, returning a hidden, shaky smile of his own.
The Armorer rises from her seat. She stands rimrod straight, formal and poised. “Mand’alor, the Fighting Corps is with you.”
Din takes a deep breath and stands too. Guess he’s doing this.
The Armorer’s posture relaxes. She pats Din’s pauldron. “And welcome home, Din. Get some sleep, will you? You look like you need it.”
Kote, darasuum kote. = Glory, eternal glory (part of a Mandalorian war chant)
Te racin ka'ra juaan kote. = The stars pale beside our might. (part of a Mandalorian war chant)
Su cuy'gar = Hello (literally, "So you're alive.")
ade = children
di'kut = idiot (literally, someone who forgot to put their pants on)
beroya = bounty hunter
buir = mother/father (gender neutral)
ad'ika = child, little one
cu’bikad = Indoor game that involves stabbing blades into a checkered board - a cross between darts, chess and ludo
ba'vodu = uncle/aunt (gender neutral)
mandokarla = having the *right stuff*, showing guts and spirit, the state of being the epitome of Mando virtue
Also, I figure Din's group probably doesn't call themselves "Children of the Watch," or Din would have heard that phrase before. But we have heard Din say he was "raised in the fighting corps," which kind of seems like a weird thing to say because 1) most if not all Mandalorians are trained to fight anyway and 2) If he meant the Mandalorians raised him to be a soldier, wouldn't he just say that? But "Fighting Corps" seems like it'd be a decent name for a Mandalorian group, especially one that wants to distance itself from its Death Watch roots.
Next time, a time skip! And Mandalorians kicking butt.
Chapter 4: The Mand'alor
In which Cara sees Mandalorians in action, and Din keeps doing his thing. (Being a Mandalorian, helping random members of his covert with their problems, and missing Grogu.)
I ended up splitting this one in two because it was pretty long. There's a bit of violence, but no more violence than the show.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
One year later...
Today has not been a good day. So much for a simple mission. Cara’s still not sure how clearing out what was supposed to be a sparsely populated Imperial base had gone so wrong, but then, she’s not thinking very clearly right now. The last thing she remembers is herself, screaming at her team, “Go, I’ll hold them off!”
She probably wasn’t thinking very clearly then, either.
Cara’s been in a bleary daze for the last few hours—being cold-cocked and captured by Imps, then waking in a cell on an Imperial ship will do that to you—but her gaze still snaps to the door when she hears the shuffling of someone on the other side. She forces herself up from the floor, ignoring the way her head spins. If an Imp’s coming to question her, she’s going to die trying to escape or fight so hard they’re forced to kill her before trying a mind-flayer.
Cara peeks out one of the hollow panels in the round door. An armored figure moves confidently past her cell through the hall, but the armor is not Imperial.
It’s a Mandalorian. Not her Mandalorian, or at least, not the one she knows, Din. It’s not any of the other Mandalorians she’s ever met either, Fett or the two blue ones that wanted to fight Din. This one’s bigger and bulkier and less shiny than her friend, but there's no mistaking the familiar T-visor design.
She has no reason to trust this Mando, but It's something. Cara will use any resource she might have and try literally anything to get out of this Imp hellhole, so...It’s time to make a new friend.
Her voice comes out in a croak. “Hey! Hey, Mando!”
The Mandalorian ignores her, continuing his (probably his?) swift walk past her cell.
“Look, Mando, uh, ad’ika!” Cara tries, and that makes the Mando at least pause and glance in her direction, almost startled. Cara’s not exactly sure what that word means or why that was the word that popped first into her head, but she heard Din say it to his kid once. What was the other word Din told her about, the last time she had seen him? The one that meant “trustworthy”? That’d be a useful word to remember right now, if she could just think—.
“Copaani mirshmure'cye, vaar'ika?” says the Mando pointedly.
“I don’t...I don’t know what you’re saying. But get me out. Please.”
There’s a crackle from the Mando’s helmet like a scoff, and he turns to leave again. Cara slams her hands on her door, desperation leaking out over any dignity she has left. “Uh, Din Djarin! Do you know a guy named Din Djarin? Beskar armor? Beskar spear? Might still have a big, black laser sword? I’m friends with him. He told me I was, uh...ruusaanyc.”
The Mando stares at her, somehow managing to convey a level of judgment through the helmet that makes Cara actually feel a bit like a child.
“My name’s Cara Dune. Please.”
The Mando tilts his head, then taps the side of his helmet briefly. He turns away from her and stands completely still, although still alert, and Cara hears the faintest rumble of speech, like the Mando’s talking to someone. The vocoder in his helmet is too quiet for her to hear though, and she doesn’t see anyone else—maybe he’s talking to someone through a comm?
There aren’t many words exchanged before the Mando turns back to her, vocoder crackling back to life. “Your pronunciation is terrible. Step back, Dune.” He doesn’t wait before hoisting his very large blaster cannon up to point at her. It’s already whining as it warms up.
Cara stumbles back just as a flurry of heavy fire pounds into the door. An armored kick makes the rest of the door crumple, and the next second the Mando is filling the doorway.
“Come on,” he says, shifting his weapon to one hand so he can extend the other to her. She takes it and lurches forward a bit unsteadily.
“You’re injured,” notes the Mando.
“A bit. Got clocked pretty good. Still ready to kill some Imps.”
“Heh.” The Mando nods in approval, then ushers her out and forward. “Din has vouched for you. Says you can be trusted, and you’d probably want to be invited to the party. Here, you can use one of my spares.”
He shoves a blaster rifle at her, smaller than the blaster cannon he’s already carrying, but a very welcome weight in Cara’s hands. She blinks at it a moment, reconsidering how bad her head injury is. She didn’t even see him draw it, and this is not a small blaster. Where was he hiding that…?
You know what, it didn’t matter.
“He says...he’s here, too? On an Imp prison ship?”
“Yes. Come on, we’re already behind,” the Mando says, already continuing his journey down the hall, to a door marked as leading to a maintenance hallway. He rears back for a moment, then smashes his heavy cannon into a control panel on the wall. It bursts in a smattering of sparks. The Mando pries the door open wide enough with one hand to slide the bulk of his body inside, then braces himself against the archway and shoves the door the rest of the way open with his foot so his heavy blaster cannon fits through too.
He doesn’t even sound out of breath when he speaks again. “You can try to escape on your own, but a patrol will be by in about twenty minutes. Or, you can come with me. I’ve got a few stops to make before I leave.”
“Do these stops include shooting Imps? Because then I’m definitely in.”
The Mando lets out a dry chuckle. “Not if we miss our window. We’re already behind. We need to be in position in seventy seconds. Can you keep up?”
“Yes,” says Cara, focusing on walking straight and matching the Mando’s pace, her new blaster rifle primed. She can tell the weapon’s been well maintained. It’s a bit smaller than she’s used to, but it’s better than nothing. She wonders what it would take to get her hands on a weapon like the one the Mando is carrying, because that baby looks very fun to shoot.
The Mando nods and says nothing else for the next minute, during which he navigates them through a series of tightly winding maintenance hallways and stairs that he clearly has memorized.
They finally stop at a closed sliding door. The Mando glances at her briefly before speaking to someone else.
“Platform D, in position. Eight hostile detections and fatalities, but no alarm. Here with the Mand’alor’s aruetti, not a target.”
“Who am I shooting?” Cara asks quickly. The last thing she wants to do is be friendly fire.
“Anyone not wearing beskar."
The big Mando taps a few buttons on a panel near their door. His finger hovers over a last button for a moment. “And...now.”
He pushes the button, and their door sweeps open. On the other side is a large room containing a lot of data computers and Imperials.
Four other doors on each wall of the room and a hatch in the ceiling open at the same time, revealing at least thirty or forty Mandalorians. Cara doesn’t have time to take in much beyond the gleam and various colors of their armor before the room fills with blaster fire, and she promptly joins in. Most of the stormtroopers and Imp officers don’t even get off a shot before they crumple, bodies riddled with carbon scoring.
The big Mando next to Cara nudges her inside, then turns around and enters a code, sealing the door behind them. A few Mandalorians hurry to the computers and begin typing. Other Mandalorians are doing the same at each of the other doors, then standing guard, while the rest are kicking over Stormtrooper bodies, checking for life, and confiscating weapons. Everyone in the room seems to have an assigned task except Cara, who suddenly feels a bit awkward.
Still, though, one of the fallen troopers near her has a nice blaster rifle. She pries it from dead fingers and holds her borrowed blaster rifle back out to the big Mando.
The big Mando shakes his head. “Keep it. I have more.”
Cara raises an eyebrow. “On you?”
The big Mando’s weight shifts to his other foot, but he does not answer. Well, Cara’s happy to duel wield two nice blaster rifles if nothing else.
She looks for Din in the sea of T-visors, but spots a different familiar Mando first, the one from the Nevarro tunnels with a gold helmet and curved eyeholes.
The Armorer speaks into a commlink. “We have secured the data room.”
“Still on the port side near deck K. No sign of our target yet.” comes a vaguely familiar voice on the other end of the commlink.
“Nearly to you. Start searching. The Moff’s not onboard, but I found someone that might have more info.” That voice sounds like Din.
The Armorer gestures at the others. “Ordo, report?”
A shorter Mando at the main computer replies, “No alert yet. We’ve got fifteen minutes before they notice this room is no longer transmitting and send someone to check. Probably twenty minutes before they sound an alarm.”
“Excellent. Can you access the data?”
Each of the six Mandalorians at computer terminals answer affirmatively. Three of them take their helmets off and rest them on top of the devices. Cara blinks as she takes in their focused faces. Maybe not all of these are part of Din’s covert? She’s never been clear on why the other Mandalorians she had met were fine with taking their helmets off when Din would rather die, unless his kid was involved.
“We might have less than that,” the Mando next to Cara calls. He gestures at her. “I left a bit of a mess when I broke her out.”
The Armorer considers that. “Your route was through Cell Block D, correct? There should be no patrol through there for another fifteen or twenty minutes. We will be fine, assuming our intel is correct, and so far it has been.”
“Didn’t Din just say Moff Crail wasn’t here?”
The Armorer’s head shifts like an exaggerated eyeroll. “With one exception. Hello again, Cara Dune.”
“Uh...hi.” Cara waves, then feels a bit silly. A lot of the Mandos give her a curious glance before returning to their work.
“Skirata,” says the big Mando next to her. “She might have a head injury. Could you…?”
One of the Mandos, this one painted in blue and green, almost bounces away from the door he’s guarding and approaches Cara. His voice sounds way too peppy for Cara’s tastes. Possibly he’s on the young side, but Cara can’t tell since this one doesn’t take his helmet off. “Hey there, mind if I take a look?”
“Head injury,” the big Mando next to Cara supplies, “Still shoots fine, though.”
The blue and green Mando touches the side of his helmet, and then there’s a very bright light shining directly into Cara’s eyes. She wrinkles her nose, tilts her head away, and resists the urge to swat him.
“Ha, yeah, looks like a pretty mild concussion or the tail end of one. Spray this on your head. Or I guess, I can do it for you.”
He takes out a spray bottle with a very long, thin nozzle. For reaching under a helmet, Cara realizes, just as he starts spraying her head with it.
The blue and green Mando chuckles. “Rub it in past your hair and give it a few minutes to sink in. You’re fine. It’s only pain.”
Oh, sure, just pain, what a relief, Cara thinks. She’s a bit more relieved when the blue and green Mando gets out of her personal space and returns to his door. He looks back at her and tilts his helmet sternly. She huffs and rubs whatever he sprayed deeper into her scalp.
“I found records of three Rau children,” a dark blue Mando on the computers calls out. “Cellblock A. Records say they’re healthy and uninjured.”
A cluster of four blue and white Mandos, who Cara presumes are also named Rau, all turn to the dark blue Mando as one. The tallest of them steps closer. She sounds on the older side. “No record of Joull or Nera?”
The dark blue Mando shakes her head, and the tall Rau’s shoulders dip.
“Then it’s confirmed. There is no way the children would be here if they were still alive.”
The blue and white Mandos all bow their heads, quietly murmuring something together in what must be Mando'a. Cara watches them and tries not to think of the days after Alderaan’s destruction, when she’d murmured prayers she hadn’t muttered in a decade, alone and lost in her own grief.
“They have cellmates,” adds the dark blue Mando worriedly. “Three other children.”
“More children?” asks the Armorer, indignant.
“...I’m going to focus on an age-based search. Hold on. Tristan, Jona, can you handle cross-referencing the known missing persons list on your own?”
One of the dark-haired Mandos with yellow-painted armor nods. “I’ve already got three in cellblock B. Still searching.”
“Four in C,” chimes in the second yellow-painted Mando. “None in D, but I do have two more people with a Mandalorian designation.”
“Two life forms incoming on the upper door,” warns the shorter Mando on the main computer. “Opening. Be ready to reseal.”
A panel of the ceiling opens, revealing a gleaming, familiar person hovering in mid-air. Din glides in on his jetpack carrying a flailing, white-coated figure, who he dumps into the middle of the room. The man in the white coat lands practically on his face, then flops over onto his knees. He takes in the many armored warriors around him and panics, scooting around as best as he can in one direction, then another, until he finally just sits there and shakes as he realizes he’s surrounded.
Din lands behind him as the opening he entered through reseals. His beskar armor gleams like it was freshly forged, and Cara can see the matching beskar spear strapped next to the jetpack. His once-tattered cape looks like it’s been replaced with a new, darker cloth as it billows behind him.
Cara gives him a small, sheepish wave.
Din’s shoulders sag in a quiet sigh. “Cara. What are you doing here?”
“...Long story. What about you?”
“...Longer story.” Din glances down to see the white-coated man attempting to crawl away, and kicks him hard enough in the stomach to make him flop over in a quivering mess. “Any word on the Raus?”
“The Rau ade are here,” answers the Armorer.
Din turns to the Raus standing near one of the doors. “Joull and Nera?”
“Have marched on,” says the tall Rau woman.
Din dips his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. They died well, protecting their ade. You did all you could for them, and for us. Thank you.”
Din nods. “We will get your bu’ad back.”
On the floor, the white-coated man whimpers as he tries to crawl away again.
“Who is this?” asks the Armorer.
“Says his name’s Dr. Seff,” says Din darkly. A cord shoots out from his wrist and snags the terrified Seff’s leg. Din keeps talking as he methodically hooks the cord on a piece of the ceiling and strings Seff upside-down while the panicked man thrashes. “I didn’t find Moff Crail, but I found him in a lab on the way here. I destroyed the lab. It looked similar to what I saw in an Imperial base on Nevarro.”
Cara’s veins turn to ice as she remembers that lab, the way the fleshy mounds had bobbed in their tanks, how a holovid of Pershing had spoken of donors and blood. The quiet fury in Din’s voice, much later on the Slave I, as he explained to her why Moff Gideon had taken the kid.
“Please, please don’t kill me, I’ll tell you anything—”
Din leaves Seff to dangle as he joins the Armorer and the other Mandos working at the computers. “How many?”
“Here.” The Mando with the dented helmet brings up a map of the prison ship. “We’ve got some from our list of missing persons in cellblocks B, C, and D.” Dots appear on the map in the areas where she points.
“I’ve found one more on A,” adds one of the yellow Mandos. “Hold on, I’ll transmit it.” Another dot appears.
The Mando with the dented helmet nods. “And we’ve got a few more who aren’t on the list, but their designation in the system is Mandalorian.” More dots appear.
“That’s what, thirteen retrievals?”
“Fourteen. Plus the Rau ade makes seventeen.”
“Din,” the dark blue Mando adds grimly. “There’s more than the Rau ade. There’s fifteen others in cell block A. Including the Raus, that’s eighteen kids.”
“Why is the Empire keeping eighteen children here?” the Armorer demanded.
“Hostages?” guesses a red and gold Mando at the door on Cara’s left. “Wouldn’t be the first time the Empire used an ad to control their parents.”
The dark blue Mando shrugs. “Maybe? None of their names sound familiar other than the Raus’.”
“Could be politicians’ kids or something,” the red and gold Mando replies. “How many New Republic senators are there now, and how many can you name?”
“...Probably like three. Fair point.”
“I can tell you!” cries Seff. “I’ll tell you if you let me go.”
Din tilts his head back at him, then turns back to the Mandos on the computers. “Cross-reference the foundlings’ names with all other prisoners. See if they’ve got relatives on board, and add them to the retrieval list.” He paces back over to Seff. “Talk.”
“Promise you’ll let me go and—and not kill me!”
“Okay. If you answer all my questions truthfully, I’ll let you go and I won’t kill you. Why are those children on this ship? What do the Imps want with them?”
“And that is?”
“I...I’m not on that project, I don’t know all the details. But it’s a replacement for the Stormtrooper program. It started just before the end of the war. Trying to improve the quality of troops by starting young. Raising them from childhood, restricting their information, imprinting on their minds, training them to be loyal—But like I said, that’s not my project! I have nothing to do with that!”
“If you’re not on that project, then what do you do?” asks Din, his voice now almost eerily level. “How many other projects are there?”
“Just—just mine. Based on a previous project some other Moff was working on that Moff Crail wanted continued. I...I don’t know why he wants it. I just get the materials, run the tests, keep the patients healthy, and so on. The project focuses on Force-sensitives. Trying to transfer their abilities into artificially grown—”
“Tell me about the subjects.”
“Y-yes. The other Moff’s main subject was lost when the Moff was captured. We weren’t likely to find another subject with that high an m-count, but I figured out a way to get similar results from multiple subjects with lower counts. The Inquisitor program culled most of the Force-sensitives of the last generation, but I got the idea to try the new generation instead. I’ve been testing the children in Project Graft to see if they qualify, and I found a few. The childrens’ m-counts are a bit higher, which makes them...they’re more resilient. They can provide more...more materials before...”
Seff swallows, clearly reaching a new level of terror. Cara can’t blame him. Din’s expression of murderous rage is somehow conveyed perfectly well through the helmet.
Cara has her own unpleasant feeling uncoiling in her stomach that has nothing to do with the healing concussion. At her side, the larger Mandalorian’s entire body is taut with fury, and he’s not the only one. Every Mando in the room is listening intently, fuming in a barely-contained stillness.
Sensing the danger, Seff tries to backtrack. “But listen, they’re fine! The younger patients. I’ve been keeping them alive. Please! Without me, they’d be—”
“How many children are there in this project? What are their names?”
“Th-three. I don’t—I don’t know their names, but they’d probably be on the raw materials list in the file registry for research level G.”
Din looks back at the computer team. “Find them.” The Mandos at the computers nod and resume typing furiously as Din turns back to Seff. “Where are they, exactly?”
Seff’s face is red and puffy. Tears and snot are running down into his hair. “Research level G, in the containment room next to one of the labs. Please, I held up my end, you promised to let me go—”
“Last question. Where is Moff Crail?”
“I don’t—He’s been missing since yesterday, I don’t know, he’s supposed to be here, I swear I don’t know—Please—”
In one swift motion, Din takes out the Darksaber and swipes the black blade through the cord, sending Seff crashing to the floor.
“Pick a door,” Din orders. Then his voice raises, speaking to the whole room. “As agreed, I’m letting the demagolka go without killing him. Our deal is fulfilled.”
“I hope he picks our door,” the Mando next to Cara mutters.
Meanwhile, Din turns his back on Seff and rejoins the computer team. “Anything?”
“Found their records for research level G,” says one of the yellow Mandos, his lip curling in disgust. “They didn’t record names. Just gave them numbers.”
Behind them, Seff gets to his feet and bolts for the door guarded by the blue and white Raus.
“Dank farrik,” says the Mando next to Cara in disappointment.
“We do have five possible parent matches for the group in cell block A,” offers the dark blue Mando. “Won’t know for sure until we ask the foundlings, but the names, and in most cases the species, match.”
Din nods. “Good. Show me the map again? There’s more retrievals than we thought. We’re going to have to adjust the plan a bit. Still one team per cell block, but cell block A’s retrievals are mostly foundlings, so they’ll need more people to carry and defend.”
At the door Seff ran toward, the tallest of the Raus seizes Seff by the throat and smashes her other fist into his skull with an audible crunch. Another Rau draws a vibroblade.
“The other retrieval teams should free Mandalorians first,” the Armorer points out. “That will increase the number of fighters on each team, provided the Mandalorian prisoners are not injured.”
Din nods. “Sounds good.”
Behind him, Seff gurgles his last breath on the floor.
“That’s a lot of heavy fire to take on while escorting ne'kaan...” the Mando with a dented helmet points out.
“We need something to throw the Imps off,” Din agrees, “A diversion.”
“Prison break,” Cara suggests. Din whirls to face her, and Cara smirks a bit. Din obviously forgot she was even here. “Open all the cells. It’d be pandemonium.”
“And probably free a lot of New Republic agents,” says Din with a faint tone of accusation.
“Is that so bad?”
“Guess not.” Din turns back to the data team. “Any chance you can get access to the prison cell door controls?”
“Yes,” says the Mando with a dented helmet. “But we’ve got about five minutes before the Imps realize we aren’t pinging and know this data room’s been breached. We’ll need at least ten to slice in that far.”
“I will stay to guard the data team,” volunteers the Armorer.
“Okay…” Din thinks a moment. “Open all doors except the ones holding the retrievals. That’ll keep them from moving so each team can locate them in the chaos. The data team can open cells as each retrieval team reaches them. Once the prisoners are freed and gathered, retrieval teams can provide an escort to the evacuation point.”
“Nite Owls here,” interrupts a voice from the Armorer’s commlink. “We’ve found some armor and what looks like a lot of melted down beskar. Also a lovely amount of weapons. Did you find any prisoners this armor might belong to?”
Din takes the commlink. “Kryze. Perfect. We did. Can your team split up and distribute the armor to each cellblock? We’re not sure which armor goes with which prisoner, but it’s better than nothing and we can sort it out later. You can have whatever else is there for Mandalore.”
“Much obliged. Got coordinates?”
The Mando with a dented helmet nods at Din. “Sending now.”
Din nods back, then looks around the room at the group of Mandalorians around him, all tensed in ways that Cara knows from years of battle experience means they’re itching to fight.
“Teams?” Din calls out.
Mandalorians, Cara soon realizes, are nothing if not incredibly efficient at divvying up the work of killing Imps. In less than two minutes, with rapid-fire conversations in Basic and Mando’a, the platoon of Mandalorians in the room and however many are on the other end of the commlink divide themselves into teams and assigned tasks, with a surprisingly low amount of input from Din.
Cara tries her best to keep up. The data team is staying here, guarded by the Armorer and another Mando, to orchestrate the prison break, scramble the rest of the ship’s communications system, and pull out any other useful data they can find. A team of twelve will rescue the eighteen children and one Mandalorian prisoner in cellblock A. Smaller teams of six are each assigned to retrieve Mandalorian prisoners and possible relatives of the captured children from cellblocks B, C, and D. A group called the Nite Owls on the other end of the commlink are tasked with providing reinforcements, weapons, and armor to each team, as well as collecting the stolen beskar. The goal: Extract the prisoners and supplies and retreat to Hangar A, where another Mandalorian will be waiting with Din’s ship and a Nite Owl will be waiting with a second, smaller ship. As soon as everyone is squeezed aboard, the ships have orders to deposit reunited children and parents to the nearest safe populated area, drop off any foundlings that still have homes to an appropriate location, and then return to the covert with everyone else, including the remaining new foundlings.
There’s less than fifty Mandalorians in this boarding party, Cara realizes. Fifty people, trying to rescue another forty or so prisoners and escape from an Imperial light cruiser that from what Cara can tell is nearly fully manned. There might be thousands, possibly tens of thousands of Imps on this ship. This is a suicide mission.
“...And I’ll take research level G,” Din decides. “We’re sure none of them have relatives on board? Maybe a rare species in common?”
“It says two humans and a Twi’lek,” says the dark blue Mando. “Too broad to narrow down parents based on species. And the records don’t have the names recorded, so I can’t make a name match. That’s about all we can do without asking the foundlings directly.”
“That’s okay. He called them Force-sensitive. I know where to take them.”
“The research levels are near the main barracks,” the Armorer points out. “They will be heavily guarded. And it is very far from Hangar A. Take someone with you.”
Din nods. “Cara.”
Cara snaps back to reality. “Yeah?”
“You still in?”
Cara thinks of the terrifying odds again and decides that all things considered, this is still better than a mind-flayer. Dying in battle trying to take as many Imps down with her as possible is not the worst way to go. “I’m in.”
Din takes a deep breath and turns his helmet to face the large Mando at Cara’s side. “I could use some heavy firepower.”
The big Mando next to Cara hmmphs. “You mean, you need someone who can carry more foundlings than the sticks you call arms.”
“You should take more,” the Armorer warns.
“We’re spread thin as it is,” Din argues back. “And I’m not taking anyone else off the cellblock A team.”
The Armorer sighs. “K'oyacyi.”
“Oya!” Din responds loudly.
“Oya!” every Mando repeats in unison, and they scatter, jetpacking up through the hatch in the ceiling or moving in sync as a group through the various exits.
As the Mandalorians depart and the data team starts sealing the doors behind them, Din makes his way over to Cara and the big Mando.
“Force-sensitive?” asks the big Mando. “So they’re like your ad? Magic Jedi kids?”
"Sounds like fun."
“Are you out of your mind?” Cara hisses. “Taking an entire Empire prison ship with what, fifty people?”
“Forty-one. Kryze and her Nite Owls are here too, which makes forty-nine.”
“Forty-nine? Kriff. I can’t believe you’re trying to take this entire ship with less than fifty people.”
Din tilts his head. “Cara,” he says slowly. “Fifty Mandalorians. And there will be closer to sixty of us once the Mandalorian prisoners are free. And we’re not trying to take the whole ship, just get people off of it.”
“We’re all going to die,” Cara says matter-of-factly.
“Not with that attitude,” says the big Mando cheerfully. “Just think, it’s a good day for someone else to die.” He snakes an arm around her waist. Cara has barely enough time to give him the side-eye before his jetpack activates and they both soar, a little clumsily due to the added weight, up to the hatch opening, with Din close behind.
ad'ika = child
Copaani mirshmure'cye, vaar'ika? = You looking for a smack, runt?
ruusaanyc = trustworthy
aruetti = outsider, not Mandalorian
bu'ad = grandchild
demagolka = someone who commits atrocities, a real-life monster, a war criminal - from the notorious Mandalorian scientist of the Old Republic, Demagol, known for his experiments on children, and a figure of hate and dread in the Mando psyche
ne'kaan = non-combatant
K'oyacyi! = "Come back safely." Literally, a command; "Stay alive!"
Oya! = Many meanings: literally *Let's hunt!* and also *Stay alive!*, but also *Hoorah!*, *Go you!*, *Cheers!* Always positive and triumphant.
ad = son/daughter
Chapter 5: The Foundlings
In which Cara is out of her depth, Din and Paz save some magic kids, and Din misses Grogu.
Riding a jetpack is not as exhilarating as Cara had imagined. Or rather, being carried by someone wearing a jetpack is far more terrifying than she had anticipated. She does her best to not scream and cling to the Mando flying them both through the hatch, and she’s proud of herself for managing it. Her stomach lurches and her head spins as they land in a long corridor, but neither sensation is as bad as it probably should have been. That stuff the other Mando sprayed on her head must be working.
The big Mando lets go of her the moment they touch down, and Din lands right in front of them. The hatch to the data room seals tight beneath them.
“Patrol will be here in two,” says the big Mando.
“And the alarm will go off in four. Let’s move.” Din takes the lead and swiftly strides ahead, blaster out.
Cara waits for the big Mando to move ahead, but he is apparently waiting for her. The pause is long enough for Din to notice they aren’t behind him, turn around, and sigh.
“Sorry, she’s usually in the back. Cara, you’re in the middle.”
“Uh, okay. Why?”
“Standard Mandalorian formation if we’re all armed,” Din explains quietly as she scoots to the middle and they hurry down the hallway. “Best armor in front, worst armor in the middle in case we’re ambushed from behind.”
Huh. Makes sense, Cara thinks. She tries to match her pace to the other two. She’s no stranger to battle, but both Mandos move in the perfect sync that only comes with soldiers who have been drilled in the same formations and been in the same unit a long time.
They near a corner, and Din holds up a hand to signal quiet as he peeks around, then makes more hand signals. These at least, Cara recognizes.
Ten dead Stormtroopers later, they continue down the hall as alarms begin to blare.
“Guess we’re not going for stealth?” Cara comments, stepping over the charred body of a stormtrooper who got too close to a flamethrower.
Din shakes his head and motions for them to keep moving. “No. I’d rather clear out as many as we can before they reach the prison blocks. Also, some of us are not stealthy.”
“Am too,” grumbles the big Mando. “Can’t be detected if everyone is dead.”
Cara grins. She likes this guy.
Din shrugs and beckons them on. “Elevator’s this way.”
They fall back into their loose formation, more of a cluster than a line, following Din toward the elevator. It’s weirdly quiet, and Cara has about a dozen questions bubbling beneath the surface.
“So, Mando—” Both their heads turn. “Uh…”
“Paz,” the big Mando offers. “There’s a lot of Mandos here.”
“Just use Din for now.”
“...Din.” The name feels weird in her mouth. She’s known it for a long while now, since Gideon said it on Nevarro, but he’d never really told her she could use it. She’d hate it if he called her “Carasynthia.” Only seemed fair to keep using Mando. “You know, on Nevarro you said you hadn’t heard your name since you were a kid, but like...everyone seems to know it.”
“But everyone’s using it.”
“Everyone’s using Din.”
“So what, nobody uses Djarin?”
“They didn’t, but they do now. Djarin was my birth name on the registers of Mandalore, but I was adopted, so I got a different name to use from that point on. But now I’ve started a new clan, so the clan is called after my birth name: Clan Djarin. Incoming.”
There’s only five Stormtroopers this time. Cara, much to her chagrin, only gets one. The other two Mandos move fast and brutally, barely breaking stride as they keep moving down the corridor. Once again, Cara is silently grateful that they are on her side.
Also, she still has questions. “...So Din. You still have the Darksaber thing. Did you become king of the Mandalorians or what?”
Paz sniggers, and Din heaves a long-suffering sigh. “Looks like it.”
“How’s that going?”
Din’s head rolls slightly back at her in exasperation. “We’re really doing this now?”
Cara shrugs. “Haven’t seen you in a while. Guess you’ve been busy kinging. I’m not going to make you answer or anything, but you know. Can’t help but be curious. I’m pretty sure we’re going to die. Might as well die with answers.”
Din sighs once more, fiddling with his helmet as he runs some scans. “Being Mand’alor is going fine.”
“Kryze didn’t show up and kill you for the sword?”
“Kryze showed up after we made contact with three other coverts,” Paz adds a bit gleefully, clearly enjoying Din’s discomfort. “Word was getting around that there was a Mand’alor. She showed up at our covert, took one look at how many people were rallying behind him and his cause, made a face like she’d had a bad batch of tihaar, and asked very politely if he would consider retaking Mandalore.”
“...And you said no?”
“I told her what I told her before,” Din says irritably, “I don’t care about retaking a dead planet. But if she wants to, or if anyone else wants to help, they’re more than welcome. I’m certainly not going to stop them. I just care about—”
“Gathering Mando’ade and building a strong home base for his foundling,” Paz interrupts. Cara can’t see his face, but she’s pretty sure he’s grinning. “Doesn’t care if it’s on Mandalore, and doesn’t care if he’s in charge so long as the job gets done. And it’s that kind of thinking that’s made him so popular. People are more interested in building strength and numbers than reclaiming the old planet. Probably because everyone’s lost people, and most of us who are still alive were off-world when the Empire took over anyway. A lot of us have never even set foot on Mandalore.”
“...You’ve never even set foot on your own home planet?”
Paz shrugs. “I have. But a lot of people haven’t. Long story short, the Empire did a lot of damage, and before that, Kryze’s sister exiled a lot of people.”
“Wait, Kryze’s sister—”
“Anyway, the Nite Owls swore allegiance right then and there. Kind of a prissy bunch, but they’re good fighters.”
“Wait, Din, have you been to Manda—”
“About thirty lifesigs coming our way ahead on the left,” Din interrupts, pointing his blaster at the upcoming T-shaped intersection, “If you two are done gossiping.”
Paz glances at Cara with a conspiratorial shrug and begins the five-second charge-up cycle on his blaster cannon. Cara hefts both her blaster rifles up as they near the corner. Yeah, she and Paz will get on just fine.
Before Din can give the signal, all three of them shrink back at the thud of mechanical footsteps; a team of about four security droids are approaching from the right.
“We’ve got the left,” Paz offers, and Din nods, pulling out his beskar spear.
Din charges to the right, spear in hand. Cara curls around the corner to the left and opens fire on the marching stormtroopers as Paz flings himself toward the shelter of a protrusion in the wall on the other side of the hall. Cara ducks back just as the stormtroopers start firing back, blaster bolts pinging inches from her head. Before they can switch aim, Paz emerges from his cover with the blaster cannon activated and mows down the remainder.
The last trooper falls, and Cara turns to see Din stabbing his spear straight through the neck joint of the last droid standing, then ripping the head clean off with a vicious twist. The head falls, sparking, to the ground, where it joins an assortment of torn wiring and mechanical limbs littering the floor.
“That way,” Din indicates back toward the stormtroopers, and they continue down the hall. “We’re coming up on the barracks, so get ready.”
Paz kicks one of the bodies over as they pass. “Dead center. Good shooting. Not bad for an aruetii. Where’d you find this one, Din?”
“He brought me in on a job,” Cara answers for him, “Teamed up to take down an AT-ST for a village of krill farmers.”
“Krill farmers?” Paz directs at Din drily. Din sighs.
“Tried to lay low with the kid, right after I left. Took down some very lucky and well-armed raiders, stayed too long, got tracked, and left. Made some friends along the way.”
“Oh, you’re that shocktrooper.”
Cara cocks her head. “You got a problem with shocktroopers?”
“Not if they keep shooting like you’re doing.”
The lights in the hall darken and turn crimson as a new alarm blares, and Cara hears nearby doors begin to slide close. That’ll be the prison break. Right on schedule.
The passageway ahead of them stays open, but every side hallway door seals shut.
“This hallway’s going to be flooded with Imps soon,” Cara warns.
Din’s grip on the spear grows tighter. His pace quickens. “Good.”
They round another corner. Cara sees exactly why Din goes first when a barrage of blaster bolts slams him backwards as soon as he turns the corner. Din groans as the force nearly knocks him over, and Cara instinctively reaches out to hold him steady, only for Paz to yank her arm back down as he surges ahead with his blaster cannon. As he unleashes a wave of heavy fire, Cara uses his armored form as cover to pat Din’s arm and check him over.
“Yeah,” Din groans. He’s right. He doesn’t have so much as a burn down the front of his armor. With an air of determined vengeance, he twirls the spear around in one hand and curls his elbow.
He lunges forward, coming up even with Paz, and launches the spear forward like an ancient javelin. Cara catches a glimpse of it slamming through the chest of an agonized stormtrooper holding a heavy blaster cannon. Then there’s a noise on her left. An unsealed door opens to reveal a stormtrooper, who jerks to attention when he sees her. Cara shoots him dead before he can swing his gun in her direction. Behind him, she sees half-dressed stormtroopers getting out of numerous beds.
Cara walks backward just behind the Mandalorians, shooting any of the stragglers that emerge into the hallway as her armored allies soak up all the blaster fire from the front. Their little formation advances down the hallway, inch by inch, and Cara gets lost in the thrill of each shot meeting its target, in matching her steps to Din’s and Paz’s, in the whine of her and Paz’s blasters and the haunting hum of the Darksaber. Every once in a while Din’s shoulder slams back into hers or Paz’s rhythm is thrown off as the Mandos take a hard hit, but Cara adjusts so her shots don’t go wide.
When they reach the other end of the hall, the ship is eerily silent except for the Mandalorians’ quiet gasping and the still-present alarm. Din’s helmet swerves as he checks on both of them. “Okay?”
Cara and Paz both nod, although Cara raises an eyebrow when she sees the front of Paz’s armor. It’s still intact, but considerably more banged up than when they started.
She glances back at Din as he yanks the spear out of a dead body. His armor still looks pristine.
“I thought beskar was immune to blaster bolts?” she asks Paz.
“Hmmph. He told you, best armor up front. His is pure beskar. Mine’s an alloy. Most armor is. Beskar’s rare, more so nowadays. Mine still does the job, though.”
Din returns the spear to his back as he nudges them both toward the elevator at the end of the hall. “We’re getting close.”
As the elevator ascends, Din sends an update through comms: “Still en route, no injuries, multiple hostiles taken down.” Cara can’t hear the other end, but both Mandalorians’ shoulders relax shortly afterward.
“No fatalities,” Din says, “All retrievals in custody, including the foundlings. We’re the last ones.”
“We’ll probably be the last to make it back to the ships as well,” Paz points out. “Back-up plan?”
Din nods. “Hangar H isn’t too far. We could steal a ship from there instead.”
“Might have to if things get dicey,” Cara agrees. She’s not sure what ships the Imps have available for stealing, but it probably beats fighting their way through the entire ship again.
“That’s fine. Unless the foundlings have somewhere to go, we’re taking them to a different destination than the rest anyway.”
Cara’s head tilts. “Where?”
Din stays silent, shifting his weight slightly in a way Cara recognizes from every other time she has pressed Din for details on something deeply personal. (Or at least, what Din considers personal. He is a weirdly private guy sometimes.) She represses a frustrated groan, and instead raises an eyebrow and waits. Din’s always been incredibly cagey, but from her experience he’ll divulge a little information if she waits patiently.
Sure enough, Din finally answers, “Yavin 4.”
“What’s on Yavin 4?”
“...Skywalker’s Jedi academy. They’re like my foundling. They’ll be with their own kind there.”
Oh. Oh. Cara considers him again, but his T-visor betrays nothing. Cara’s not surprised Din tracked down a closely guarded New Republic secret like Skywalker’s location—He is an excellent bounty hunter—but she is more than a bit curious how he actually managed it. What’s more, has he been there already for a visit? How is the little green guy anyway?
But before she can think of how best to ask any of these questions, the elevator finally halts. All three of them ready their weapons as the elevator doors open, but there’s only a small group of four stormtroopers. They have just enough time to turn their heads toward the elevator and cry out in alarm before Cara’s taken down two and Din’s killed the other pair. Paz’s blaster cannon doesn’t even have time to warm up.
Outside the elevator is another long corridor lined with sealed doors on either side. Din fiddles with the side of his helmet. “He said containment room next to a lab. Are you picking up anything?”
Paz’s head tilts as he looks on the opposite side of the hall. “Heat mass over there. I only see one, but it’s not very tall. They might be standing next to each other?”
Din starts toward the cell Paz indicates and presses buttons on the panel. “Dank ferrik. Nothing.”
“Shoot it, maybe?” Cara suggests. Paz starts to swing his blaster cannon toward the door, but Din holds his hand out to stop him.
“Too much ricochet.” Instead, Din stares at the door a moment thoughtfully before taking out the Darksaber. He ignites it and stabs it right through the door. The blade slides through the durasteel with the ease of a ship cutting through atmosphere. Slowly, he draws it through the seal around the door, then turns it off and steps back. He nods at Paz, and the bulkier Mando slams his foot forward with all his weight.
The door crashes down to reveal a small, bare cell, with two cots pushed up together along the nearby wall.
In the opposite corner from the door is a saffron-yellow wisp of a Twi’lek child, about seven or eight years old, standing as tall as her slight frame will allow, with her arms stretched out protectively. Two even smaller human children, a boy and a girl with dark skin and big blue eyes, peer out from behind her, terrified. All three of them are way too skinny and wearing thin short-sleeved jumpsuits that reveal deep discolored bruising up and down their arms.
“St-stay back!” orders the Twi’lek girl, in a sort of trembling but determined squeak.
Both Din and Paz stop short and immediately sheathe and holster their weapons, leaving their hands open and raised as if in surrender. Behind them, Cara flails internally—what do you even do with scared kids, should she put down her weapons too?—before Din finally murmurs, “Cara. Watch the hall.”
Deeply relieved, Cara retreats to give them space, taking up position across from the door so she has a good view of the hall. But she can’t help peeking back into the cell. The sight of two heavily armed and armored Mandalorians trying to appear as non-threatening as possible to a child barely as tall as Din’s waist is a little funny and a little weirdly adorable.
However they’re doing it, though, it’s working. The Twi’lek girl’s arms lower as Din crouches, then tentatively moves closer and closer until he’s on one knee in front of her.
“Hello,” says Din in the same soft, patient voice Cara has heard him use on his green kid. “We are Mandalorians. We’re here to take you someplace safe.”
“What about her? Who’s she?” Chepi gestures back out at Cara.
Oh, kriff, Cara thinks. What should she say? “Uh, I’m Cara Dune, ex-Rebel shocktrooper. I’m here to kill some Imps.” There, that was easy enough, right?
Paz’s helmet turns to her a moment, somehow radiating pure what-is-wrong-with-you. Okay, maybe that wasn’t easy enough.
“She’s a nice lady who also came to help rescue you,” says Din reassuringly. “Are you all okay? What are your names?”
“...Chepi,” says the Twi’lek, still watching him closely. The two human children worm their way around her to get a better look, and she points at the girl and boy in turn. “This is Mag and Saldvis.”
The little girl looks between them and slowly smiles. The moment she does the little boy drags her forward by the arm, exclaiming, “You don’t feel bad like everybody else. Are you going to save us from the mean doctor? He said we can’t leave or he’s gonna punish us.”
Paz’s fist tightens at his side. “Did he now?”
“Dr. Seff is dead,” says Din calmly. “He’s not going to hurt you anymore.”
Saldvis and Mag both gasp, wide-eyed at the news, but Chepi looks at Din sharply. “Did you kill him?”
“No, but another Mandalorian I came with did.”
“Yes. We came here with many other Mandalorians to rescue some prisoners from this ship. We saw that you were here too, so the three of us came to get you. We’d like to take you with us, either to your families or somewhere else that’s safe. Do you have any family you’d like to go back to?”
Chepi bites her lip. “I don’t have family. At least, I don’t think so. I used to have a mommy. She put me in an escape pod and said to be quiet, and then the ship blew up and some mean people found my pod.”
“What about you two?” asks Paz. The little girl tugs on the little boy’s arm, but doesn’t say anything.
“Just Mag! She’s my twin sister! We’re five!” says Saldvis proudly.
Mag shakes her head.
“She doesn’t talk anymore,” her brother explains. "Not since we’ve been here. Except in my head. Sometimes Chepi's too!"
Paz glances at Din skeptically. Din nods back. “Yeah. They do that.”
With a slight shrug of acceptance, Paz looks back at Saldvis. “Sounds like you’re a good brother.”
“She likes your big blaster! I do too!”
“Thank you. I like it too.”
Cara’s attention is jerked back to the whirring elevator at the end of the hall. “Uh, Mandos? Looks like we’ve got incoming.”
Din and Paz’s shoulders both tense, but neither of them shows any other signs of concern.
“Want to get out of here?” asks Paz. The two younger kids throw themselves at him in response, and the big Mandalorian scoops both five-year-olds up in one arm and braces his enormous blaster cannon against his thigh with the other.
Din holds out his hand to Chepi. “Do you want to come with me?”
Chepi hesitates a moment, then nods and takes his hand. Din leads her out of the cell after Paz to rejoin Cara. As soon as Din stops, Chepi huddles behind Din’s leg, peeking out at the elevator fearfully.
Cara keeps her blaster rifles at the ready, aimed at the elevator doors. “I’ll provide cover. There’s got to be another way out of here, right?”
“Save it, I’ve got detonators,” Din says, gesturing with his head in the opposite direction of the elevator. “Paz first, then Cara, you follow, and I’ll bring up the rear. Cut around the labs. There’s another elevator. We can turn left from ten levels down and then head for either of the hangars. Chepi, is it okay if I carry you?”
“Y-yeah,” says Chepi, squeezing Din’s hand even tighter.
Din heaves her up in a one-armed hug so that the little girl is balanced on the front of his hip, with her arms wrapped around his neck and her knees wrapped around his torso. He pulls a couple of detonators off his belt with his free hand. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got you, okay?”
Chepi’s voice sounds a bit more confident this time. “Okay.”
Paz adds to the two kids in the crook of his elbow, “If it’s too loud or too scary, you can cover your ears and close your eyes. We’ll try to be quick.”
Cara knows she should be focused on their impending doom, but she finds herself focused on the Mandalorians and their charges instead. She’s seen Din with his kid, and the tender way he holds the baby, and she's seen him in battle, muscles coiled and ready to kill. But she's never seen him do both at once, and it’s weird how well the poses mesh. Every movement is alert and deliberate, calculated to guard the child at his side.
Both he and Paz have shifted their battle stance, Cara realizes. Their whole bodies are poised to strike in a way they weren’t before, when their primary strategy was to tank more hits than the enemy. They remind her of Vorn tigers protecting their young.
What’s more striking is that both of them still move perfectly in sync with each other, like they’ve practiced fighting like this as much as the other formations Cara’s seen them use today. As if fighting while holding a child is a battle style they are both used to. Maybe that makes sense for Din, since he had the little green kid, but Paz? Have they done this before? Is this standard training for Mandalorians? She’s starting to think it is.
Din presses down on each detonator and tosses them, just as the elevator doors open. “Go!”
Cara bolts in the opposite direction on Paz’s heels as she hears three explosions go off in quick succession. She spares a glance over her shoulder to see Din running, a blaster drawn and firing back into the smoke, his body angled to keep beskar between Chepi and the elevator.
Paz leads them through several passages until they reach another elevator, this one open. He pushes the button to lower it before Cara’s even crossed the threshold. Din slides in with Chepi just as the doors shut behind him.
“Everyone okay?” asks Paz as the elevator sinks down.
The kids all nod while Din and Paz check them over. The twins are staring up at Paz in open adoration. Chepi is clutching fistfuls of Din’s cowl in an iron-tight grip, eyes darting over to check on the twins. Din holsters his blaster a moment to pat her back reassuringly.
“They’re fine, they’re safe. You did a good job taking care of them. And you’re being really brave right now, Chepi. Good job.” Din’s voice is soft, and Chepi almost seems to melt at the praise. She sniffs and wipes her face with the back of one hand, nods, then settles her head on Din’s shoulder.
Paz bounces his arm slightly in a practiced motion, much to the delight of the two kids he’s holding, as Din tilts his head, then touches the side of his helmet.
“Go now. We’ll change our evac route. We recovered all three foundlings and are returning them separately. Finish the mission.”
“We are going for H, then?” asks Cara. Good. The alarm is still blaring and fighting their way back to Hangar A is going to be hell.
Din presses Chepi into his chest a little tighter. “Hangar A was taking heavy fire. Ships were fully loaded, so I told them to go without us.”
Cara inhales sharply. That means they’re alone now. Two Mandalorians, one ex-Rebel shocktrooper, and three traumatized children, deep in the bowels of a fully alert Imperial ship. Death is still definitely on the table, although both Mandalorians still seem way too calm about it. Cara’s not sure if Din and Paz are actually as unworried by these odds as they seem or if they’re putting a show on for the kids.
Suddenly, the elevator jerks to a stop. Cara nearly crashes onto the floor, Paz leans back and braces himself against the wall, and Din twists and throws his weight sideways to slam the shoulder not guarding Chepi into the wall rather than sprawling onto the floor.
All three of them look at each other for a moment.
“...They know we’re here,” Paz guesses.
“Looks like,” Din agrees, already pulling out the Darksaber. He cuts a rough circle into the ceiling, then presses himself and Chepi back as the fragment of elevator thunks onto the floor. He looks pointedly at Cara, then jerks his chin up toward the hole.
Cara holsters her blaster rifles and heaves herself up and through the hole, taking a look around. Their elevator is not between floors, but halted at an opening to a level. The elevator fits snugly in the passage—it’s too narrow for her to climb around the side. She calls back down, “The shaft doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room. We can climb back up, or you can cut another hole in the bottom. Not sure how much farther down we have to go—”
Below her, Cara hears the elevator doors slide open. Her heart catches in her throat; she doesn’t have a good angle on whoever's opposite the doors—
Din and Paz both open fire, literally, turning their bodies as one to face the kids away from the doors and igniting their flamethrowers at maximum power. Cara hears a chorus of garbled screams, and then nothing. She lowers herself back down into the elevator. There’s a faint smell of rocket fuel in the air, and a blackened mess of charred plastoid on the other side of the door.
“If this one’s stuck, how about we try the other elevator again?” Paz suggests. The kids in his arm are trying to get a better look at the bodies, but Paz has them at an angle that makes it difficult for them to see the carnage.
Cara shrugs. “Worth a shot.”
“Hold on.” Din carefully adjusts Chepi, who has her eyes squeezed shut as she presses her face into Din’s neck. He leads them all a ways down from the bodies, then slices a hole in the floor of the hallway with the Darksaber.
Cara jumps down through the hole first. “All clear.”
“That was so big!” Saldvis announces, as Paz passes each kid down to Cara. She struggles to keep him from splatting on the ground while holding out her other arm for his sister. “Like whoosh!”
He leans over to gesture with his hands, and Cara curses as he almost wriggles out of her grasp. She finally manages to snag him around the middle, upside-down with his head pointed at the floor. This position does nothing to diminish his excitement—if nothing else, his hyperactive babble increases in speed—but it does do a lot to remind Cara why she doesn’t like kids as his flailing feet kick her in the face a couple times. Mag stays somewhat withdrawn, moving very little in contrast to her brother, but she solemnly nods in agreement with every one of his points.
Paz drops through the hole with a heavy clang, then extends his arm to take the kids back. He pats each of their heads in turn as they happily settle back into his hold. “Have you never held a child in your entire life?” he whispers at Cara indignantly.
“I don’t do the kid thing!” she whisper-snaps back. “And the little terror kicked me! Be glad I didn’t drop him!”
“Terror?! This kid’s a natural-born warrior and an utter joy, what are you talking about—”
Meanwhile, Din seems as reluctant to put Chepi down as Chepi is to let go of him. Rather than copy Paz’s maneuver, he sits at the edge of the hole, then shoves off, landing lightly beside Paz while cushioning Chepi’s head.
“You’re doing great,” he says softly. Chepi bites her lips and nods back, eyes brimming with determination rather than fear.
“Are we on the right level?” Paz asks, giving each twin one last encouraging head rub.
“I think so. Just need to get to the hangar and find a ship.”
“We’re going on a ship?” Saldvis asks delightedly.
“Yes,” Din confirms.
They continue on, all three adults on high alert as Saldvis quietly resumes talking to his attentive sister. They meet no opposition, and soon Cara’s attention is drawn a bit more to Chepi, peering at her over Din’s shoulder as if trying to see straight through to her soul. Cara wishes she would stop that, because the intense staring is starting to freak her out.
“How much longer?” she asks.
“Not much,” Din answers.
“We should have run into more troopers by now,” Paz mutters. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”
Just then, Saldvis goes quiet as all three kids suddenly look around, alert.
“Oh, boy.” Din quickly picks up his pace, and Cara and Paz follow suit into a near-jog.
“Is this a magic thing?” Paz asks. “Are they doing a magic thing right now?”
“They really hate us,” Chepi whimpers. Her lekku curl in closer to her face.
“They’re not going to get you,” Din promises firmly.
Behind them, a door whooshes shut, sealing off the hallway. Then another. Then another. Cara breaks into a run along with the other two Mandos, watching in horror as ahead, more doors are closing.
“They’re going to box us in!” she realizes.
They slide to a stop just as a door slams shut in front of them. Din, Paz, and Cara instinctively all stand back-to-back, weapons pointed out, watching the doors. Finally, one of the doors opens, slowly and invitingly.
“It’s a trap,” Cara points out.
Din waves them through. Another door opens, guiding them forward. “Yeah. But we’re still going in the right direction. Paz, you have birds?”
They tread cautiously through the hallway, following the open doors until they reach what Cara recognizes as a large hangar door. They made it. Still, the hangar door does not open, and the door they entered through seals shut behind them. For a moment, there is only the quiet whimpering of Saldvis and Mag, and silence.
Then at once, the hangar door and two doors on either side of them unseal and open, revealing three walls of black. Cara’s heart drops. They’re surrounded by Death Troopers, a lot of them, with heavy weapons all aimed at their chests. This is it. She can take down some, the Mandos can probably take down some, but there’s no way they can take down all of them before the troopers kill them. Worse, she knows why they were led toward the hangar: looming behind the wall of Death Troopers in the hangar is a four-legged AT-AT, whirring as it warms up its guns, which are also pointed directly at them.
“Surrender,” orders the lead Death Trooper. “Put down the research subjects, and maybe we’ll kill you before we tear off the beskar.”
“Cara, hold very still,” Din murmurs. He slowly raises the hand not holding Chepi.
Cara glares to the side in disbelief—surely he isn’t suggesting they just surrender?—when she hears a piercing whine of an explosive powering up. On her other side, she feels Paz shift his stance to point out at the Death Troopers.
Din’s wrist explodes with tiny missile after tiny missile like an auto cannon, sparks of light zipping through the air in tight loops to pierce into chests and necks and guts. On her other side, there’s a crashing boom as what looks like miniature rockets burst out of Paz’s wrists and knees and elbows, sending several Death Troopers flying with each impact.
There’s a single Death Trooper still standing, barely, when the barrage is over. Cara unloads her blaster rifles into him, and he finally collapses to join his fellows.
Paz and Din both shove her toward the archway of the hangar door as the AT-AT opens fire. The resulting blast leaves a smoking burn mark where they’d stood moments before. Cara’s thoughts race—there’s barely any cover, no Sorgan swamp to sink the monster into this time—when a new form of panic takes over as small arms wrap around her neck.
Din is shoving Chepi at her. “This nice lady is going to hold you for a while. I’ll be right back.”
Cara has barely wrapped an arm around the wide-eyed Twi’lek girl to keep from strangling herself when Din breaks through the hangar door at a run, jetpack igniting as he pulls out the Darksaber. Cara, Paz, and all three kids peek around the archway as Din zigzags through the air, taking stabs at the AT-AT’s head and drawing its guns away from the hangar door. He dodges another blast that explodes a ship behind him, then flies in a wide loop, dragging the Darksaber through the top of the massive vehicle’s hull. He circles through the thing’s legs and then up again to the top of the hull, then spins around and zooms backward, surveying his work.
The AT-AT splits cleanly in half across the middle, front and back halves cleaving apart and falling in a screeching arc to crash to the ground, a sparking mass of twisted metal.
Paz and Cara emerge from cover as Din touches down, sheathing the Darksaber and putting it back on his belt.
“I gotta get me one of those,” Paz says wistfully.
“I offered,” Din points out as he reaches his arms out to Cara for Chepi.
“One of those, not that one in particular. If Tarre could do it, I bet I could figure out how to make one.”
“You’re both insane,” Cara declares.
Both Mandalorians ignore her, looking over the destroyed AT-AT in shared appreciation. Saldvis takes up the cheer, “In-sane! In-sane!” while Mag shakes her fists in time with his shouts. Chepi wraps herself around Din again so tightly that it would probably take a small army to pry her off.
Paz ignores the noise. “Which ship, do you think? The bomber looks big enough.”
Din points to the back of the shipyard. There’s mostly TIE fighters, but there’s a single Lambda-class T-4a shuttle in the back. “That one.”
Cara follows in their footsteps, stepping over the corpses littered in their way.
“Ship! Ship! Ship!” Saldvis chants anew as they move toward the three-winged ship. Beside him, Mag shouts her own wordless cheer. Paz beams facelessly down at both of them, bouncing his arm and making them squeal louder.
Cara sighs and takes a deep breath, trying to calm the adrenaline still pumping through her. Somehow, she feels like this is going to be a very long trip.
Mandalorians get a +5 buff to all combat skills when a child is involved. Change my mind.
Up next...the return of the little green guy.
Chapter 6: The Father
In which Din finally gets to stop missing Grogu.
“...And that button’s for landing,” Din explains. “More specifically, on this ship it starts the folding cycle for the wings. We could probably also use that if we needed to fit this ship through a tight crevice in a chase, but that would be dangerous. We’d be better off shooting them down, unless we’re outnumbered.”
Chepi nods, satisfied, and takes another bite of her sandwich. She’s sitting in Din’s lap in the cockpit of the Imperial ship they’ve stolen. Din’s not sure when exactly this turned into a lesson on piloting or strategy. Mostly he’s just grateful that Chepi is less prone to pressing buttons without permission than Grogu.
A light on the dashboard flickers on, and Chepi switches focus to point at it instead. “What’s that light mean?”
“It’s part of the navigation system. It comes on when we’re ready to drop out of hyperspace. If you finish your sandwich, you can help me with that part if you want.”
Chepi immediately stuffs the last of it into her mouth, cheeks bursting as she struggles to chew. Din watches her carefully to make sure she actually swallows it. Grogu has never had a problem with swallowing things half the size of his head, and Din’s not entirely sure he remembers what to do if Chepi actually chokes.
They’ve been traveling now for hours, with only one quick stop to fuel the stolen ship and send Cara to get food. (Cara had jumped at the opportunity to get off the ship. Apparently, she had not been lying when she said she didn’t do the kid thing. Din thinks Paz might be a little heartbroken over that.) It had also given Din and Paz the chance to search for and destroy every tracker, transmitter, or device on the ship that might let Imperials follow them.
Mag and Saldvis have finally fallen into a nap, after exploring every tiny cranny of the ship and using Paz as an armored jungle gym for most of the trip. Chepi, on the other hand, has gravitated to Din’s side as he pilots, studying his every movement as if committing it to heart. She reminds Din a lot of himself when he’d first been found by the Mandalorians: scared of the whole world, but eager to learn so she can face it again and come out on top this time.
She also reminds him of Grogu in the first few months after Din had found him, quiet but observant. Watching his every move intently, and silently demanding an explanation of what all the buttons on the Razor Crest did. Chepi, at least, is a lot better at voicing those questions instead of directly pushing buttons against Din’s dire warnings.
It’s really nice to have someone to explain things to again, if nothing else.
“Don’t choke,” Din warns, but Chepi’s managed to half-unhinge her jaw and swallow. Din tries not to think of Grogu similarly (but more successfully) swallowing a live frog.
Chepi looks up at him hopefully, lips still covered in grease. Din wipes her mouth with his cape. Then carefully, mindful of the bruising on her arm, Din guides her hand onto the lever they need to pull. “Okay, nice and slow...there, you got it.”
The streaks of light outside snap back into pinpricks as they leave hyperspace. Yavin 4 is already visible, swelling to fill the view as they near closer and closer. Din’s breath hitches as he takes in the moon’s mossy greens and splashes of blue. Grogu is down there, getting closer with each second.
“It’s so big!”
Din smiles, although he knows she can’t see it. “Not really. But it’s bigger than the ship you were on, that’s for sure. There’s not a lot here, besides some Ewok villages and the school.”
Chepi is still quiet, hands massaging her lekku like human fingers brushing through hair.
“It’s okay to be nervous.”
Chepi looks up at him, then back down at her knees. Her lekku curl a bit tighter. “I...I don’t know if I want to go to school.”
Another set of bright eyes, wide and pleading, looking up at him. He wants your permission.
“You don’t have to go. If you want, I can adopt you instead, raise you to be a Mandalorian like me. I would know you as my child, train you like one of my own.”
Chepi tilts her head, considering. “Do I get a helmet?”
“If you train and swear the Creed, yes.”
“But my lekku won’t fit.”
“There are special helmets and headgear. It can work.”
“Will you teach me how to beat mean doctors and giant droids and protect Mag and Saldvis?”
Din nods. “If you want me to. But you should at least consider the school first, okay? There are other kids like you there, with the same abilities. The Jedi trainer is very nice, and he can teach you how to use your powers properly. Not a lot of people can move things with their mind, but you could.” Chepi still looks skeptical, so he adds, “If you don’t like it there, you don’t have to stay. But check it out first before you make your decision.”
He hears a throat-clearing sound, and turns to see Cara, in the doorway of the cockpit.
“Hey.” She slides into the co-pilot chair. “Paz sent me up here. Said he wanted to eat something before we land. Not that the twins left a lot of food untouched, but I guess there’s still some sandwiches left.”
Chepi perks up.
“You want another sandwich?” Din asks. Chepi nods shyly. He’s not surprised; all three kids clearly hadn’t been fed much on the Imp ship, a fact that makes his blood boil inside him if he thinks about it too hard. “Go ahead, take one. Make some noise before you go down there so everyone knows you’re coming.”
Chepi seems a little reluctant to leave the safety of Din’s lap, but she finally climbs down and scurries off. Din listens a moment to make sure she’s noisy enough that she doesn’t catch Paz off guard and helmetless, then lets his head fall back against the headrest, eyes drifting blissfully shut. Just for a moment. Today had taken a long time to plan, and the day isn't over yet, but at least everyone is safe now. The Raus got the closure they needed, which is what he had set out to do in the first place, and the covert has new members. Including, possibly, his own new foundling.
That is, if she wants to be a Mandalorian instead of a Jedi. Or be like Grogu, with a foot in both worlds, leaving his Jedi training on occasion to be with his vod and getting Mando'a lessons from Din when he visits. He'll have to see what she chooses.
“So that’s Yavin 4,” Cara says, shaking him out of his thoughts.
“Do you think it’s going to be a problem that we’re on an Imperial ship?”
“This ship doesn’t have their call codes, and Paz and I ripped the transmitter apart. I couldn’t signal them if I wanted to.”
“So we’re going in hot?”
Din takes a deep breath, sits up, and takes hold of the controls. The ship has breached the atmosphere, and he needs to actually steer. “They don’t have any heavy arms that could take this ship down, against my best advice. And anyway, Skywalker will sense the kids.”
“You’ve been there before.”
Din says nothing, but Cara seems to understand his silent acknowledgment anyway.
“How’s your kid?”
“He’s...good. Learning a lot. Building stamina.”
“Stamina? What, has he grown?”
“Stamina as in, he doesn’t pass out anymore.”
“Well, that’s...handy.” She hesitates a moment. “You know, I don’t think I get you. Or Paz. Mandalorians in general. I thought I did, but now I’m not sure.”
“...What’s there not to get?”
“The kids. I heard what you said to Chepi. Paz told the twins something similar. Are you seriously going to adopt her?”
“...Yes? If she doesn’t like the school. I think she will, though. My kid likes it there.”
“How do you just...take a child in?”
Din lifts his head to look at her incredulously. “It’s a child. How can you not?”
“But that’s...I thought the green kid, he was special. Unique.”
“But these kids...You and Paz didn’t know they existed this time yesterday. And now you’re willing to make this huge, lifelong commitment and adopt a kid you just met?”
Din frowns beneath the helmet, not quite understanding what Cara is getting at. “You don’t have to raise every child you find. If you don’t have the resources to care for the child, another of your clan can do it. And some of them still have parents or people they need to be returned to.”
“But that! That too! You’re upending your entire life almost on a whim and then you just...let them go?”
“Are you saying we should kidnap them?”
Cara makes a frustrated sort of groan. “You know what I mean. I just...Last time, after the kid left, you were devastated. And you’re going to do that to yourself again?”
Din stares at her, not sure what’s so hard to understand here. “It’s not about me. It’s about what Chepi needs. And what my son needs. He made his decision. And Chepi will make hers.”
“Even if that means leaving you?”
“Even if that means leaving me.”
“But doesn’t that...hurt?”
Din’s not sure what to say. He thinks of Grogu, hugging his helmet, leaving sticky trails down his visor. Grogu climbing out of his hammock and snuggling next to his side as they both drift off to sleep. Grogu holding on to his thumb as Din carries him through hunt after hunt, through distant moons and bustling planets. Grogu on the cruiser, clinging to his leg, wanting to train but not wanting to leave.
But he also thinks of Grogu, staring down an enemy right alongside him. Grogu’s face scrunched in concentration as he tries to lift something with his powers. Grogu’s determined little waddle to Skywalker’s droid, scared but willing to take the leap. The last time Din had been to Skywalker’s school, when Grogu had shown off how much stronger he had grown, eyes shining proudly back at him as Din showered him with praise.
Din misses him every day, and he knows Grogu misses him too. But Grogu has grown so much stronger and more confident and at peace with himself, and Din knows in the depth of his heart that it was the right choice.
He’s not sure how to put that all in words that Cara will understand. He’s not sure he has words for it himself.
Skywalker’s school is visible below them now, and Din pulls the ship level for a landing. He glances back at Cara, who is still staring at him expectantly.
“This is the Way,” Din finally answers as the ship touches down.
Din’s relieved that his guess about Skywalker sensing the kids is right; the Jedi is already making his way over to greet them as they exit the ship. If Skywalker is surprised at seeing Din emerge from an Empire ship, with friends and foundlings to boot, he doesn’t show it.
Chepi keeps a tight grip on Din’s hand as she follows him out of the ship, but her grip relaxes as they get closer to the cluster of buildings that make up the school.
“This place doesn’t look very magic,” Paz half-whispers to Din. “Is that the Jedi? That’s the fierce warrior you said took out a whole squad of Dark Troopers? He doesn’t really look like much.”
Din pointedly looks down at the kids in Paz’s arms. Mag is pointing at Skywalker and tugging on her brother’s arm, while Saldvis nods excitedly and gestures, despite not saying a word.
“Fair point. Guess the magic makes up for it.”
Din shrugs back. He doesn’t really understand Skywalker or this place either, but Grogu’s powers are flourishing here, so apparently the place is magical enough.
“It’s nice here,” says Chepi, looking around in wonder. “It feels...safe. Like a friend.”
Din squeezes her hand as they near where Skywalker is waiting in front of the nearest building. “See? I told you you’d like it here.”
By the time they’re close enough, Luke is waving cheerfully. “Hello, Mando!...Mandos?”
“Two Mandos,” says Paz, helmet slowly moving as he sizes Skywalker up. His grip on the twins tightens the tiniest fraction. Din feels the corner of his lips twitch. He's very familiar with that exact feeling.
Luke tilts his head at Cara. “Weren’t you there on the light cruiser when I picked up Grogu?”
“...Grogu?” Cara blinks. Din suddenly realizes he never actually told her the kid’s name. Great. She’s definitely going to chew him out for that later.
Chepi hasn’t let go of Din’s hand, but she’s inching forward. Her lekku swish as she turns back once again to Din to gauge his reaction to the new situation. There’s something very familiar in the gesture that makes his chest twinge.
“It’s okay,” he urges. “You don’t have to go, but you can if you want to. He’s a friend. You said you could feel that, right?”
Chepi nods as Luke turns back to Din. “Hey, Mando, good to see you! I sensed someone, but I didn’t realize you’d be with them. Who have we got here?” Luke bends over slightly, hands on his thighs. He frowns as he takes in the bruises trailing down Chepi’s arms.
“Chepi,” she says confidently.
Luke holds his hand out. “Hello, Chepi. Pleased to meet you.”
Chepi reaches her other hand out, and Skywalker takes it gently. They both stay like that for a long moment, completely silent.
Meanwhile Saldvis loudly whispers that Mag likes it here. Paz keeps meeting visors with Din, silently asking what the kriff is happening what are they doing while Din inclines his head ever so slightly back at him. Just go with it. Cara looks like she’s caught somewhere between an incredulous laugh at the entire scene or the desire to shake Din until more answers fall out.
Suddenly, Chepi lets go of Din’s hand and flings herself at Luke in a hug. Din pulls his hand back and feels his shoulders ease down as he watches them. He’s prepared for the rush of pride, relief, and loss that swells through him, but that doesn’t decrease the feeling’s intensity.
Luke pats Chepi’s back. “Hey, hey. It’s okay. You’ve been through a lot.”
The twins wriggle in Paz’s arms as Saldvis waves. “Hi, I’m Saldvis! And this is Mag. We’re twins!”
“Hello. I’m Luke. I’m a twin too.”
“Do you have rockets too? Or a big laser sword? I wanna get a big laser sword and make the big walking things go—” He waves his arms, miming the AT-AT crashing with loud, hissing sound effects.
Luke smiles. “Just a normal laser sword, sorry. Sounds like you’ve had a big adventure as well.” His neck cranes as he looks up and up at Paz. “May I?”
Paz stares at Skywalker a long moment, than glances at Din, deeply skeptical. Din nods back at him. The Jedi stuff takes some getting used to.
Paz dips his head in a short, reluctant nod, and Skywalker takes the twins’ hands in each of his. He stares deeply into Mag’s eyes for a moment, then smiles and looks back up at Paz.
“Mag’s very grateful to you for taking care of her and her brother. She’s sorry she ate so many sandwiches. She meant to save you more, but they were really good.”
Paz’s shoulders slump. “Oh, hey, no, no, adi’ka, don’t worry about it. You can eat all the sandwiches you want. And I’m sure that includes the sandwiches here...or whatever food is here. You do have food for them, right?” The last bit is aimed at Skywalker, and has the air of threat.
Skywalker chuckles. “Don’t worry, we’ve got plenty. Why don’t you all come in? We can get Chepi and those two settled, and you,” he points at Din, “Can go ahead and find Grogu. Or just stand in place while he finds you. He probably already senses you’re here.”
They make their way toward the nearest building. Apparently Skywalker has passed Paz’s initial inspection, because his hold on the twins has loosened considerably. Chepi holds Luke’s hand, but looks back at Din again and holds out her other hand in question.
Din takes hold of her other hand and squeezes. “You’re good, right, kid?”
Chepi nods. She seems content to walk between them.
Luke smiles down at her then looks back at Din. “I’m not sure where they were before, but...it wasn’t good. Thank you for bringing them here.”
“We found them on an Imperial ship. Seems like Moff Crail wanted to pick up where Gideon left off. We have more information too, that you can pass on to your contacts.”
Luke raises an eyebrow. “You’re telling me this so I can pass it on to the New Republic? You’re being weirdly cooperative today.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Seems like they’re trying to take Imp bases down too. Might as well let them know.”
“Actually, I was thinking instead of telling me, you could tell my sister. She’s here visiting as well. More like been camping out here, actually.”
“Leia Organa. She’s a senator for the New Republic. Fair warning, she’s been trying to find a Mandalorian to talk to for a while now—”
Cara bursts in, “Did you say Leia Organa? As in, Princess Leia of Alderaan? She’s here? And she’s your sister?!”
“Yes, yes, yes, and long story, but yes. Are you from Alderaan too? I’m sure she’d love to talk to you as well.”
Fantastic, Din thinks, steps a little lighter. Now he won’t have to talk to the New Republic senator. She can talk to Cara, and he can just tell Luke what he knows about the Imperial ship. Or better yet, make Paz do it.
Paz couldn’t care less about Skywalker’s senator sister. Instead, he seems intent on putting Saldvis to shame, bombarding the Jedi with questions—he said there was food, is he feeding the kids a balanced diet? Does he give individual attention to each child, how does he protect the school from external threats, do they get regular medical check-ups, what sort of training do the kids get, what is this Force thing anyway? His tone indicates that if Skywalker’s answers are not to his satisfaction, he’s fully prepared to keep the kids and possibly shoot him in the face.
Luke, at least, doesn’t seem perturbed by the interrogation at all. By the time they enter the building and wind their way down a hall, even Paz seems to be at least a little mollified. It helps that the twins are both squirming, indicating they’d like to be put down, and Paz finally does.
“Some of the kids are practicing over in here,” Luke explains, opening a door to let them inside.
The room is tall, light, and airy, with large windows that let soft sunlight in. There’s some squashy cushions on the floor that look like they were once aligned in a perfect circle, but have since scooted around considerably, possibly because some of the cushions are floating in midair. They are held up just above the small hands of three children: a rosy-cheeked human, a lanky Miralan, and a green Rodian. All three of them drop their cushions as soon as the group enters to swarm around the exciting newcomers. Chepi lets go of Din’s and Luke’s hands to approach the Miralan, who looks about her age. The twins wave brightly at the other kids as Saldvis asks if the cushion will still float if he’s sitting on it.
Din scans the room for a different green face, but Grogu’s not here. But then, Din thinks with a touch of smugness, Grogu is leagues ahead of all of these kids. Bet none of these kids can lift a mudhorn. Grogu’s probably...somewhere else. Lifting an entire X-wing or something. In a more advanced class.
Luke beams at all the kids. “Hey, everyone! We’ve got some new students to welcome...Leia? Where’s your cushion?”
Behind the kids, a short human woman pushes aside a stray strand of brown hair that’s escaped from the elaborate bun piled on top of her head. “I’m afraid I may have lost patience with my cushion. The kids are picking it up a lot faster than I think I ever will.”
Luke’s shoulders sag. “Come on, Leia, you know you can do it.”
“I’m trying, but—”
“I told you, don’t try, do!”
Leia’s head tilts back a bit, eyebrows raised. “Oh, you did not just—hold on. Hello!”
Luke sighs, then sweeps his hand out towards Din’s group. “Leia, meet Cara Dune, of Alderaan, and uh…” He waits, as if expecting Din or Paz to give their names. Din joins Paz in staring back at him, silent and unmoving. “...Mando and Mando.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Leia pushes past Luke. She smiles warmly and nods at each of them, then settles on Cara. “Good to meet a fellow Alderaanian. Now, more than ever, is the time to band together.”
“It’s a great honor to meet you,” says Cara, more reverent than Din has ever seen her, almost starstruck. There’s something far-away and sorrowful in her gaze, but also hopeful.
Leia smiles warmly. “Likewise. Let me buy you lunch sometime. I know a place that still serves roast Gorak. And you…” Her gaze switches between Din and Paz. “I’ve been looking for a Mandalorian for a while. Luke mentioned one of his students had a Mandalorian father.”
“The student is a Mandalorian too,” Paz points out sharply.
“Yes, of course. My apologies; I didn’t mean to imply your son—”
“He’s my son.”
Leia switches her laser-sharp focus to him. Din’s nearly a foot taller than the senator, but something about her makes him not feel like it.
“My apologies,” says Leia once again. “I simply meant that I’ve been trying to find a Mandalorian to contact, and a child is not likely to have any answers for me. I’ve been hoping to catch you here. We have a lot of things to discuss.”
“Do we?” Din says wearily. He glares at Luke, and the Jedi at least has the decency to look sheepish. “I was assured this school is neutral territory.”
“That’s correct. This school is under the protection but not jurisdiction of the New Republic.”
“Great. Then I would tell you that this school is also under the protection but not jurisdiction of the Mandalorians.”
Leia nods. “Fair enough. I didn’t come here to interfere with Mandalorian access to the school. I came here to establish a line of communication on behalf of the New Republic so we can negotiate, maybe exchange information. Your people are notoriously difficult to track. I’m hoping you can pass on the New Republic’s intentions to your government. Do you have a leader?”
“We do,” Paz answers.
“Great! I’m not as familiar with your customs or system of government as I’d like to be. The Empire and pre-Empire records indicate the mode of government changed frequently. But I’d like to learn, if you let me. And if possible, I’d like you to put me in contact with your leader directly.”
“...I can do that,” says Din reluctantly. Beside him, Paz shifts slightly in a way that lets Din know he is stifling a laugh. Cara looks between them like staying silent is causing her physical pain.
“That would be great. Like I said, we have a lot to discuss.”
Din’s hands clench reflexively, but he forces them to relax. “If this is about the arrest warrants you have for some of the Mandalorians on Vlemoth Port—”
“Not at all. I’m actually in favor of dropping the charges, if we’re able to create an alliance. On behalf of the New Republic, I’d like to formally apologize for interfering with Mandalorian sovereignty. We invite you to join us, but recognize that the Mandalorian government and its citizens therein are not currently under our jurisdiction.”
Paz’s helmet tilts minutely, and Din knows he thinks what Leia just said was a load of bantha fodder. Din’s not sure if he agrees, but he is very sure that he would like to leave this conversation immediately.
“...Besides,” Leia adds, looking directly into Din’s visor. “You and I both know the Vlemoth Port group is no longer gathered there.”
Din sees Paz twitch and shoots a warning glare at him. Luke, and Cara for that matter, will probably not appreciate Paz retaliating to what was likely not intended as a threat.
Leia frowns slightly as her eyes dart between the two of them.
Luke eases forward, hands out, exuding calm like an almost palpable force. “...Ooookay, let’s step back a bit. You both have a common enemy. Mando here says they found these kids on an Imperial ship.”
Din glances back at the kids. Chepi, Saldvis, and Mag are all loosely playing or chatting with the other Jedi children, all of whom have decided to collectively ignore whatever the boring adults are talking about.
“Yes,” Din agrees. If nothing else, it is worth telling the senator that. “A group of us tracked some of our members to Moff Crail’s ship in the Esstran sector.”
“Moff Crail? We’ve been looking for his ship. He was killed yesterday in a skirmish with some of our pilots, and we weren’t able to get the ship’s location out of him. It’s supposed to be one of the most heavily manned ships the Empire has left, and we’d very much like to find it.”
Luke beams at both of them. “See, perfect! You can work together on that. Glad we’re all getting along.”
Leia nods. “Let’s compare notes then—”
The door crashes open, shoved by an invisible force, and Din and everyone else whirls. Most of the others look at eye level for a moment before lowering their gaze, but Din fixes his gaze downward immediately to where he knows his son is. Every heavy feeling he’s ever felt evaporates as his breath catches and his vision tunnels to focus on the most wonderful person in the world.
“BOO!” Grogu screams joyfully, and runs straight at him.
Din’s half-bent to pick his son up without another thought, but his hands never actually reach Grogu. Instead, when the kid has gotten a little closer, he leaps up into the air and keeps going, slamming into Din’s chest like a tiny green missile and knocking him back so far he almost tips over. Din yanks his arms back in to keep Grogu from slipping down his chestplate, then bends over to throw himself forward with just enough momentum to keep from falling onto his back.
“That’s new,” says Din, a little out of breath for more than one reason.
Luke grins. “He’s been getting frustrated with not being able to reach things, so I thought we’d work on jumping. He’s been very excited to show you.”
“Boo-wee?” Grogu says again, slightly worried.
“No, that was so good! I just wasn’t expecting...you’re doing so, so good! I’m so proud of you.”
Leia says something else, something Din vaguely registers has the cadence of a question, but he doesn’t care. Grogu is grinning up at him and waving his arms, enthusiastically explaining something with syllables Din doesn’t quite understand.
When Grogu finally pauses for breath, Din hears, “...So are we in agreement?”
Right. Din finally tears his gaze away. There’s a senator here. He should probably do something about that.
Leia’s expression softens. “Your child is very cute.”
Grogu waves at her.
“I realize that you’d rather spend time with your son. Perhaps you could at least give me the name or some contact information for your leader? I do still have a lot of questions.”
Din nods. He knows exactly how to handle this. “That would be the Mand’alor. You should talk to him. He’s right here.”
And without further ado, he swiftly shoves a sputtering Paz forward, then sweeps out of the room, Grogu pressed to his shoulder and giggling.
“You’re a great kid, you know that?” Din murmurs. His voice is clear with no distortion. The helmet is off, as are his boots and gloves, laid carefully against a rock to his left. He sits at the edge of the pond Grogu has taken him to, calves dipped into the water. The water feels nice. He’s not used to the feeling of mud squished between his toes, but Grogu’s gotten him used to a lot of things he never thought about doing.
The pond is Grogu’s favorite place here on Yavin 4. It’s quiet, surrounded on all sides by building-sized trees, but not too far from the school. Din had been worried the first time Grogu had taken him out here—Skywalker let him go out here? Into the woods? By himself?!—But there aren’t a lot of predators in these woods, according to the Jedi. The nearest settlement of the locals, Ewoks, are miles away. And Grogu’s got a good enough handle on his powers now that he can shove away just about any animal that dares to cross his path. (And choke them. Or snap their neck. Din’s not sure if Skywalker’s realized that part, but he doesn’t seem the type to encourage that. Fair enough. It’s probably a good idea to make sure the kid’s got a firm grasp on who’s an enemy first. Din does not want another repeat of the arm-wrestling debacle with Cara.)
Luke has told him that Grogu likes to meditate here. Din’s pretty sure the real reason this is Grogu’s favorite place is because he likes to grab tadpoles from the pond and slurp them up whole as if he’s never been fed in his life, even though Din has checked and double-checked with Luke that Grogu’s getting plenty enough to eat. Din likes it here as well, because it’s secluded and quiet enough that he can hear anyone coming. Being a bounty hunter and being a Mandalorian both mean there is danger everywhere, and some part of Din is always, always on guard. But this place, with just him and Grogu...it feels the same as being in the middle of covert, completely safe.
Grogu’s eyes are closed, but at Din’s words, one eye peeks open. “Eh?”
Din smiles. “Sorry, sorry, keep going. Six, resol...”
Grogu refocuses on the flattish rock he is floating through the air and carefully places it atop his tower of six other stones. The stones aren’t particularly big, but the fine control required is much improved from Din’s last visit.
“Seh! Eh-ta!” Grogu says triumphantly, checking back to make sure Din saw that.
Din’s smile widens as he nods encouragingly. “You want to go for eight? Sh'ehn?"
With a sharp cry, Grogu shoves his hand through the tower, knocking the whole thing down.
“Guess not. You’re done with tower-building, huh?”
Grogu coos in agreement, then climbs onto Din’s knees. He leans over to look at the pond a moment, ears twitching, eyes gleaming....
And snatches a tadpole out of the water, then slurps it down.
“You know if you keep doing that, there won’t be any frogs later,” Din comments with only the barest hint of disapproval.
Grogu tilts his head back up at him, ears raised in blatant skepticism.
“What? It’s true.”
Grogu scoffs at that, then leans over and snatches another tadpole. This time, however, he scoots himself around and holds the wriggling thing up to Din’s face.
“No, thank you.”
“Boo-weer!” Grogu shoves the thing closer and nearly mashes it into his moustache.
Din leans away. “Whoa, whoa, kid! I said no thank you. You’ve got to listen when people say no thank you.”
The kid’s ears lower, and his lip trembles. He points back at Din’s helmet, then back at him.
“Grogu...It’s not the helmet. I just don’t eat tadpoles.”
Grogu’s lip continues to tremble. His bulbous eyes swell with the beginnings of tears.
“But you can. And I’m fine, I promise. And you’re doing a good thing, offering to share. That’s very good. I appreciate it. Thank you. But no. Nayc.”
Grogu scowls for a moment, any trace of tears vanishing. Then his shoulders lift in a sort of shrug, and he shoves the tadpole into his mouth.
Din’s head rolls back with a laugh. “You little womp rat! Does the Jedi ever fall for that trick? I bet he does, because you’re getting better at that too.”
Grogu looks slightly put out and glares back at him, betrayed.
“Hey, hey, don’t be like that. I’m all for it. Give Skywalker a run for his money.”
Grogu’s glare softens as he stares up at him for a long moment, then reaches into the depths of his little coat. He pulls out a tiny, silver ball, and hands it to him.
“Oh, right. It’s my turn with that, huh?”
Grogu nods solemnly.
Din puts it in a pouch on his belt. “Thank you. Same deal as before. I’ll bring it back for you next time, okay?”
Grogu warbles back at him, and Din carefully runs his finger along the length of Grogu’s fuzzy ear.
“Hey, I meant it, what I said before. You’re a great kid. I hope you know that.”
Grogu slowly reaches out for Din’s hand. Din holds very still while the kid curls his fingers around Din’s thumb. His gaze goes back up to Din's face, the wrinkles on his face deepening as he concentrates.
“Are you...trying to tell me something?”
Grogu keeps staring. His grip around Din’s thumb tightens, claws nearly breaking skin.
Din sighs. “Kid...Grogu, I can’t...I can’t do the Jedi mind-talk thing. I’m sorry.”
Grogu huffs and lifts his arms.
“You want up? Okay.”
Din lifts his son up until they’re at eye level with each other. Grogu blinks at him slowly, bright eyes gazing deep into his own. His fingers press up on the sides of Din’s head, right where the visor usually ends, and he leans his head in closer, eyes closing once more in concentration.
Din leans his head in too until their foreheads touch. His own buir had done this with him, before every mission and upon every return. If he thinks back even further, he thinks his parents did something similar, pressing lips to his forehead every night before they tucked him into bed.
Din only feels the cool dryness of the kid’s skin for a moment. There’s no burst of communication, no eloquent prose or even fully-formed words, but Din thinks he might sense...something. Something that roils and bubbles beneath his skin until it fills him, something bright and familiar and terrifying in its largeness all at once. The feeling is faint, but clear and distinct, like a battle cry from very far away. It builds until it crystalizes into one muddled sensation, then several of them, cool metal and soft flesh and sparkling stars and his mother’s eyes and his father’s smile and his buir’s visor—
No. His eyes, his smile, his visor.
Then the feeling snaps, and Din’s in the woods by the pond again. Grogu sags in his arms, tired but very pleased with himself. He looks at Din and smiles, eyes bright and shining.
Din kisses the top of the kid’s fuzzy head and smiles back. “I love you too.”
Buir = pronounced boo-eer, meaning parent (Dad)
resol = six
e'tad = seven
sh'ehn = eight
nayc = no
Thank you everyone so much! I hope you enjoyed it.