Title: The Thousand-Mile Road
Series Order: 2
Author: Keira Marcos
Fandom: The Mandalorian, Star Wars
Genre: Established Relationship, Family, Kid!fic, Romance, Time Travel, Science Fiction
Relationship(s): Din Djarin/Cara Dune, Han Solo/Leia Organa, OC/OC
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Slavery, Canon Typical Violence, Explicit Language, Explicit Sex
Author Notes: Slavery is a canon concept in Star Wars but it’s not one I focus heavily on in the series. I warned for it just as a head’s up. Special thanks to my Alpha readers Jilly James & DarkJediQueen and my Betas Chris King & Ladyholder. This fic started out as some wistful idea and it bloomed organically out of me in a way all good ideas do. It wouldn’t have been the same without Jilly’s epic support throughout the entire writing process.
Beta: Chris King, Ladyholder
Word Count: 121,000
Summary: Din Djarin undertakes a quest across the galaxy on behalf of the Cosmic Force and gains allies in his fight to return to his people to Mandalore. Space travel gives him plenty of time to learn to navigate the family he made for himself and figure out what kind of man he wants to be on his new path.
The population on Boz Pity was small—no bigger than the one on Nevarro. Din had decided against landing pre-op and had instead left the Tor in a low orbit jump of his own. The jetpack performed very well, but he hadn’t expected any different. It didn’t remember him, but he’d spent decades with it in the other timeline, so he’d worked with it extensively on Lothal during the drop lessons that Cara had conducted. He activated his comm even as he studied the safe house Sarne was holed up in with a squadron of stormtroopers. They were about two kilometers outside of the only town of note on the planet.
“Local sold him out for 150 Imperial credits.”
Cara snorted. “He must be really popular then.”
“He’s not alone, either. Paltr Carvin is with him. I’m going to need you, Aja, and the team Bo-Katan offered. There are twenty-four stormtroopers—half are off duty in a small encampment outside of the compound building. We’ll need to strike both at the same time.”
“Yeah,” Cara said quietly. “I’ll get them ready. Set a rally point, and I’ll come down. Ero is on ops.”
Din shifted on his stomach and did another scan with his field glasses as his nephew took Cara’s place as his connection to the ship. “Check the bounty on Paltr Carvin.”
“Already searched,” Ero reported. “There are multiple bounties on him—how does that work?”
“Are they all NR member bounties?” Din questioned as he stood and collapsed the field glasses to store on his belt.
“There’s one official bounty, and the rest are incentive bonuses to encourage his capture. They’ll all pay out. How much in total?”
“Five million. Are we going to take this one?”
Din laughed. “Yes.”
“Why is he worth so much?”
“Because he took control of the Empire after the Battle of Endor, and he ran when his forces finally surrendered to the New Republic,” Din said. “They’ll put him on trial in front of the entire Senate to set an example. The current anti-death penalty sentiment in the leadership means they’ll keep him alive and incarcerated until he dies.”
“I’d rather die than spend the rest of my life in prison,” Ero admitted.
“A man like Carvin would fully expect to be released one day—he believes his people far more loyal to him than they ever would be. He probably thinks that all the so-called loyalty the emperor had become his by default, but no one was loyal to Palpatine—not even his apprentice in the end. He led with cruelty and banked on fear.” Din set the rally point as he walked and checked the night sky. He was relieved he’d waited until nightfall on the location before doing recon.
“They’re dropping,” Ero reported. “Second team to follow in two minutes.”
“Keep an eye on the dock—no ships leave until I’ve got both these assholes in custody. Aim to disable, but destroy if necessary.”
– – – –
“I’m genuinely disappointed,” Bo-Katan announced.
Din leaned against the wall and crossed his arms.
“I haven’t bounty hunted in decades,” she continued, “And this is what I get for jumping out of my own damn ship?”
Several of the storm troopers they’d captured had the decency to hang their heads. Din swallowed back a laugh. Only five of the twenty-four who’d been in the camp had stayed around to fight, and they’d surrendered pretty much immediately, then they’d fallen all over themselves to give Din the security codes to get into the safe room that Carvin and Krennel had locked themselves in.
“It’s never really been all that exciting,” Din said. “Most criminals are stupid and hardly any sort of challenge at all. And these guys don’t get paid enough to die for two piece of shit Imperial officers with more vanity than power.” He flicked a hand toward the storm troopers who were kneeling on the floor in front of an irate Bo-Katan.
“Not true believers in the Empire,” Cara said. “But they probably enjoyed the fear they caused by walking around town in that cheap plastoid armor. They’re weak, small-minded, easily led idiots who don’t have a single bit of respect for themselves or anyone else.”
“There’s no need to be mean,” one of them muttered.
“I can’t fucking believe…” Bo-Katan growled and stalked out of the room. “I’m never coming on one of your bounty hunts again!”
“I’m going to hold you to that!” Din shouted after her and pulled his blaster. He stunned all five of the stormtroopers. “Here’s hoping they die of embarrassment when they wake up.”
“It’s not like I want to fire my weapon,” Aja began as they left the compound. “But I just…raised my rifle at my targets, and they all dropped their shit and ran.”
“The most appalling part is that all the ones that ran are probably going to flounce around bragging about surviving an encounter with a bunch of Mandalorians,” Cara said conversationally, and Bo-Katan huffed from her place next to the ramp of the Tor. “Eventually, they’ll get drunk in bars and tell everyone they encounter they had to fight their way free of us, and some of their best friends died in the fight, and they’ll cry fake tears in their spotchka.”
“If this encounter gets any more offensive, I’m going to hunt the ones who ran,” Bo-Katan warned.
“A bounty like this is high-end and profitable because they’re hard to find. sometimes there’s a fight, but most of the time—not really,” Din said. “They both invested a great deal of money and time in building themselves a bolt hole where they assumed they’d be safe but never bothered to cultivate loyalty amongst their guards.”
“Your sources have improved by leaps and bounds since you became Mand’alor,” Bo-Katan pointed out. “How did you know Krennel was here?”
“The source will remain confidential,” Din said. “But they also provided the intel on Sarne.”
“Sabine expects to have him in on hand within the next 10 hours.” She checked her vambrace. “They’re probably already on the planet at this point securing a base camp. She sent a droid in to disable his ship after she received word from you that he was nervous and ready to move on. Did the Force tell you that?”
Din shrugged. He had difficult shit to do and had gone through a ton of terrible shit in the first timeline, so he figured if the Force was giving him a leg up on the money front by throwing easy bounties his way, he wasn’t going to complain at all.
“Got word from the escort ship. Apparently, the senator was quite surprised that you weren’t escorting her personally to her destination,” Bo-Katan reported.
“From now on, I’ll handle all of your communication to Lothal and that little tart,” Cara declared as she dragged Paltr Carvin up the ramp by one arm.
“I’d never find a woman who couldn’t fight off four pirates by herself attractive,” Din called after her and laughed when Bo-Katan nodded her agreement.
“And that’s honestly the low end of the standard,” Bo-Katan said. “One of them burst into tears when I dragged their ship into my cargo bay.”
Aja passed between them with Delak Krennel’s unconscious body over one shoulder, and Rey appeared beside him.
“Buir, Cyrus used the vac.”
“That’s a relief,” Din admitted. “I didn’t look forward to that clean-up.”
“Where to next?” Rey asked.
“I want to do a supply drop on Mandalore, then we’ll take the bounties to Naboo for processing,” Din said and glanced back into the cargo bay where they had the food and water rations they’d purchased on Lothal stored.
“How much did you get?” Bo-Katan questioned.
“Meal bars and hydration packs to feed 1000 for three months. A bigger shipment might show up in their sensors when I drop it. Cara told me that small, consistent drops will be easier for the assets on the ground to manage and hide. I’ve exchanged several messages with King Tawrra, who is also preparing a supply drop. Ketsu has made a good connection with the Wookiees on the planet but decided not to risk the Ugnaughts as of our last comm. Their job loyalty makes it risk, and more importantly, she learned every single one of them was born in Imperial slavery.
“She doesn’t know if they’re capable of resisting due to conditioning and brainwashing. It’ll be a long road with them. Fortunately, the miners are fed well due to the physical demands of their jobs, so they aren’t suffering in that particular fashion even if they do live in slavery.”
“It’s sad,” Rey said. “We’ll help them, right, Buir?”
“As much as we can,” Din said. “I’ll do my best to make sure they don’t suffer more than they already have once we liberate the planet. I don’t know much about Ugnaughts and how they build families—we’ll learn.”
Rey nodded. “The HoloNet doesn’t have much on them. I guess the Empire didn’t want anyone questioning how they were treated. They were on the list of aliens they declared to be non-sentient, like the Wookiees. Maybe we’ll learn more about them on Elphrona.”
“Palpatine made that list, so he could justify slavery,” Din said. “He created a narrative in his own mind that suited his needs and spread that ideal to everyone. Many agreed because it was easier than fighting him. In fact, most agreed with him because it was easier.”
Rey nodded. “Do you think maybe that was the real evil part? The part where people went along with him because it was too hard to tell him no.”
“It was exactly that,” Din agreed. “Go make sure your brother isn’t chewing on Cyrus.”
Rey laughed and hurried up the ramp.
“She’s smart of her age,” Bo-Katan said. “Perceptive and articulate in a way that is unexpected.”
“And unnerving?” Din questioned.
“I can’t say it’s not,” the older woman shrugged. “But there’s no need to expect her to hide her intelligence. She’ll be a formidable woman. Is your goal to have her take your place as Mand’alor?”
“No, my successor hasn’t been born yet,” Din said and ignored the helmet tilt from her that indicated she wanted more information.
“Yeah,” Din admitted. “Let’s get off this planet before my kid asks me if she can visit the giant grave yard. I can’t tell her no. It’s a problem.”
Bo-Katan trotted off toward her ship without a word, so he figured she wasn’t interested in watching Rey explore a graveyard full of huge gravestones, either.
– – – –
Din sat down on the bed and rubbed his face with both hands. The drop on Mandalore had gone perfectly, but it had left him drained and so miserable that he hadn’t allowed himself to hold Dral at all afterward. He knew he wasn’t doing a great job of keeping his emotions to himself, but adding physical touch to the mix would only make it worse.
“Are you okay?”
“You know I’m not,” Din murmured and looked up to meet Cara’s gaze. “I think getting old made me soft.”
She walked over to him and curled her hands against the back of his head. Din buried his face against her stomach and shuddered. “There’s nothing…wrong with hurting for your people.”
“I…” He blinked back tears and pulled her into his lap. She slid astride his thighs and brushed a tear from his cheek. “I understand grief—I lived with it for decades, but this…I don’t know how to live with this. It’s like an open wound nothing can ease. I don’t know how to return to Tatooine to prepare and train while there are more fucking Imperials on Mandalore than there are Mandalorians.”
“Don’t you know what you’ve given them?” Cara questioned. “Hope is priceless.”
“Hope won’t protect them from the environment they’re forced to live in. It won’t feed them or…” He took a deep breath and pulled her closer. “Fuck.”
“It’ll give them the resolve they need to survive, and with your support—Ketsu’s leadership of the resistance on the planet will thrive. The next time we drop supplies—we’ll give them tools to live better, get stronger, and defend themselves when the time comes.”
Din nodded. “Yeah.” He took a deep breath. “Getting old really did make me soft.”
“Letting your heart lead you won’t ever be a mistake,” she murmured. “It’s brought you here—to this moment where Dral lives and Rey is safe. There will be times when you’ll have to make choices that will hurt you, but you’ll make them anyway because you must. That’s what makes you worthy to be the Mand’alor.”
“There are plenty who would disagree with you,” Din said. “They would expect me to be hard, relentless, and…” He trailed off. “I don’t even know, really. I’m not a politician, and there will be times when diplomacy will be required. I’d rather shoot someone in the face than be diplomatic.”
“We’ll figure it out,” she promised. “You should sleep—you need the rest.”
“I’m exhausted,” he admitted and sighed when she slid off his lap. “Sometimes…” He flushed when she focused on him. “I hate to close my eyes…I guess part of me will always wonder if all of this is just a dream.” He turned and crawled fully onto the bed and sprawled on the mattress. “I’ll work on myself.”
“I’ll help you with that,” she assured as she turned off the lights and slid into bed with him. “And I’ll be right here when you wake up, I promise.”
He curled into her with a little huff as she pulled the blanket over them. “Can I say…that I’m kind of pissed off how easy bounty hunting has become? I mean, I know why the Force is doing it. We need the resources to follow the path she’s set down for me, but…”
“You’ve got enough challenge coming your way,” Cara said dryly. “There is no damn reason to be hunting for it on the side. I’m fine with easy bounties.”
“No person in this galaxy could hide from Rey with that compass of hers,” Din said. “She could be a genuine damn scourge as far as criminals are concerned.”
Cara laughed. “And they’d never know how the hell she found them.”
“I probably shouldn’t find that possibility a source of pride,” he murmured. “Do you think Dral would travel with her?”
“After we’re gone?” Cara asked. “I’d hope, so—they’ll be better and safer together no matter what else happens. They could take the Tor around catching idiots and putting them in carbonite for the good of society.”
“Or fun and profit,” Din suggested. “I don’t want them to bear the burdens many would put on them regarding the Force and the Jedi Order. I’m sure the Force Spirits that are fucking around us will do their part to try to shape them both into their vision of what is best.”
“None of our children will ever hold the opinion of one of those dead Jedi above yours,” Cara said. “Rey certainly won’t. I catch her arguing with Anakin Skywalker all the time. She’s really focused on making him atone for his sins so that he can be at peace with himself within the Force. In the end, I think she and Dral will do more to change and shape them than they can anticipate.”
It was a comfort all its own, so Din pulled his wife closer and surrendered to sleep.
– – – –
He woke with the Force quaking inside him and Rey screaming. Din stumbled out of the bed even as the door of their bedroom opened. Dral hurried in, tears on his face as he clenched his hands repeatedly in demand. He picked up his son at a run and found Rey sobbing in Ero’s arms on the hall floor.
“Something’s wrong,” Ero said. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Din admitted and passed a wailing Dral to Cara.
He went to the cockpit, checked the instruments with a glance as IG came down out of the turret. Wila rolled in and used her repulsorlifts to get to the top of the flight deck.
“What’s going on?” Cara demanded as she tried to console Dral.
“Something terrible has happened,” Din said quietly. “To a very powerful Force user—a living one.”
“Luke Skywalker?” Cara speculated.
“I don’t know.” Din checked the ship’s location and took a deep breath. They had another three hours before they reached Naboo, and he couldn’t wait that long. “Everyone sit—we’re about to have a very abrupt departure from hyperspace.” He glanced over his shoulder as Aja slipped into the cockpit and took a seat beside Rey.
The ship gave a brief shudder as he shut down the hyperspace engine. He ignored the tracking pings that hit almost instantly. The escort group dropped out of the hyperspace lane ten light-years away from them. He plotted a course for the nearest HoloNet repeater and did a microjump to get to it.
“Vendaxa,” Cara murmured as soon as a planet came into view. “The HoloNet repeater on this world will have a deep encryption kit—we had a rebel base here for five years, and the Empire never found it.”
Din knew that. He’d lived and worked on Vendaxa for a few months when he’d worked with the resistance before he’d ended up on Endor. He activated the comm just as Bo-Katan’s ship arrived, and he ignored her incoming message. It went off twice before she stopped trying.
“There’s a message from Torah and one from Leia Organa,” Din said. He opened the one from Torah Liss first. A full-body hologram appeared above the comm—no encryption.
“Return to Ramikadyc Redoubt immediately.”
The hologram snapped off, and Din hesitated briefly before opening Leia Organa’s message. Another unencrypted hologram appeared. Encrypted communications took three times as much time to transmit and receive. Clearly, both women wanted their message out as quickly as possible.
“Greetings Mand’alor. I must meet with you as soon as possible. I am traveling to Tatooine and will be there within a few hours. Please. I am begging you—meet with me. I need your help. May the Force be with you.”
Din started plotting the course to Tatooine even as he opened his comm and signaled Bo-Katan. “I have to go back to Tatooine—at top speed, so I’m going to have to leave you all behind. You’re welcome to join me as soon as your ships can get there.”
“I have the coordinates for the covert and codes to dock,” Bo-Katan said. “Can I know why?”
“I don’t even know why. The Armorer is demanding my immediate return.”
“She’d never make an unwarranted demand of you—we’ll follow as fast as we can.” She cleared her throat. “Do you have any information?”
“None. I’m sorry.” Din closed the connection and made the jump into hyperspace, then stood. “IG, in the pilot seat, please. Run full sensors and activate deflectors as soon as we leave hyperspace above Tatooine. Aja, Ero—suit up, full armor and gear up for a fight.”
“Do you think they’ve been attacked?” Ero questioned.
“I can’t say for certain—but what I can say is that we’ve hit several Imperial targets in the last month alone. It would be easy for someone to get that information, assume rightly that I’m a problem, and seek to rectify it. You’ve got about four hours to prepare yourself for the worst,” Din said and focused on his nephew. “The right headspace is the difference between life and death—for yourself and those around you.”
Din took Dral from Cara’s arms, and his son slumped against his chest with a shudder. “Obi-Wan?”
“Ben Solo has been kidnapped—the others are searching for him,” Obi-Wan reported as he shimmered into place. “Qui-Gon and Anakin went to Naboo. Han Solo lost both of his legs in the fight—lightsaber injuries. Luke was gutted.” He glanced toward Rey, who took a shaky breath. “I’m sorry to be so blunt.”
“Is Skywalker dead?” Din demanded, horror stirring in his gut at the implications.
“No. Fortunately, he was injured on Naboo, and their medical facilities are very good. He’ll spend a week or so in a vat of bacta, but he’ll recover. Solo is getting prosthetics attached as we speak. His wife left him behind to seek you out. I tried to speak with her, but she can’t hear me. She can’t hear any of us. There is a dark influence moving around her.”
“That would have to come from someone close to her,” Din said. “Proximity at least.” He patted Dral’s back and exhaled sharply. “Snoke?”
“That creature has been moving around in the shadows for decades,” Obi-Wan said. “Had I known…I’m, sorry, Djarin. I was blind to the bigger picture my entire life. I don’t know how to atone for that. You needn’t worry that I’ll use my current position to guide a single person down the path I took. Down the path, I put Anakin on with no regard to his personal worth.”
“Leia and Luke both made it clear that they didn’t want us anywhere near them or Ben,” Obi-Wan said. “As a result, none of us are close enough to Ben to be able to locate him without some outside knowledge. We’re not all-knowing or all-seeing.”
“And the Lady?”
“She is blind to the dark side on this plane of existence, and the Living Force doesn’t communicate with us in any sort of explicit fashion that would be helpful,” Obi-Wan explained. “You already know the best way to locate Ben Solo.”
“There are no pictures of his face on the HoloNet,” Cara said quietly, and Din turned to find her holding a datapad. “There is one of him as an infant being carried by Han Solo as Leia Organa took her seat on the New Republic senate—but all you see is a little bundle of blankets. It won’t help her visualize him.”
“I should hold my compass and think about Ben,” Rey said and trotted off before anyone else could respond.
Din let her go because he really didn’t know how looking for her dyad partner without a picture would go using the star compass, and he didn’t want to influence her ability to use it with his doubts or expectations.
“Ben must be really scared,” Cara said and patted Dral’s back.
“The Force is…aching with it,” Din admitted roughly. “I’m going to hold him until he calms down. Can you get my body glove? It’s in the sanitizer.”
“Of course,” Cara murmured. “I’ll get everything ready.”
“What about me?”
Din turned and looked at Wila, who was sitting patiently on the flight deck. “Can you put together a meal? And make that tea that IG bought on Ithor Station that settles stomachs—Rey and Dral both need it.”
“Of course,” Wila said and hopped off the flight deck. “Soup and sandwiches—something to comfort.”
Din walked the length of the ship, holding Dral as he wept. He wished he could build a little bubble around his son to buffer and protect him from the overwhelming emotions surging in the Force around them. On his third trip through the ship, he found Yaddle waiting patiently in the common area. She was seated on the sofa, her legs folded together as if in meditation. Her little robe was spread out around her.
Jedi drama definitely on point, Din thought and took a deep breath.
“You’re not helping in the search?”
“Obi-Wan took my place. He believes that I will be more of a comfort to both children than he is, and the others agreed. I’ve decided to ignore their overt sexism. Being female does not automatically gift one with the ability to soothe children. I have no more experience with them than they do—probably less as I never took a child padawan at all.”
Rey came in at that point, her star compass and Dral’s blanket in hand. “Master Yaddle said she could help me with the star compass.” She offered the blanket, and Din took it. “Ben’s so scared. It’s hard to concentrate.”
“I know, but we have to try—it’s very important for us all to get a handle on this. The Force is overreactive right now. It couldn’t have always been like this.”
“No, that’s true,” Yaddle said. “The Force has not cried out like this since the destruction of Alderaan. The deaths of so many was an immense blow to the Living Force. You know how important Ben Solo is to the future of this galaxy and the Force itself. He is in a very precarious situation, and it must also be acknowledged that the child probably thinks both his father and uncle are dead.”
Din took a deep breath. “Is someone working to keep Skywalker alive?”
“Anakin is with his son and will do what must be done,” Yaddle said simply.
Din nodded and wrapped Dral up in the blanket. He needed Luke Skywalker to live, but Anakin Skywalker was problematic and always would be. A part of him would never trust the former Jedi, and it wasn’t all to do with his acts after he’d become Darth Vader. His road to Palpatine’s side was still wet with the blood of murdered children, and there was no forgiving that. Nothing Anakin could ever do could make that right.
On his tenth trip through the ship, Dral started to drift off to sleep. It wasn’t a good sleep, and it was a mark of emotional exhaustion more than anything else. He put his son in the pram and guided it into the common area where Rey sat with Yaddle. Then he went to put on his armor.
Cara was dressed in her body glove and vambraces. She had a datapad on the bed which appeared to be married to the small computer built into her vambrace.
“What are you doing?”
“I bought a few components on Lothal for my vambrace and sent Torah what I had, so she could plan my upgrade. I received the new configuration shortly before we left but hadn’t had a chance to finish the software update. I’ve added a slice tool—it won’t impact the other functions if it doesn’t work as planned. I also added the ability to control my drop pack through the vambrace. If it works well for me—Ero and Aja will get those upgrades in the future. For now, they’ll have to wear the drop tool in addition to their vambraces.”
Din pulled his shirt over his head first and fired it toward the basket they used to collect dirty clothes, then shed the loose pants as well. The bottom half of the body glove went on easier every single time he did it as if the material was getting used to the shape of his body. He flexed his toes against the fabric briefly before putting on his boots, then the tunic and harnesses.
“I think the boy’s unconscious,” Din said and looked toward Cara, who winced. “It was abrupt—unnatural.”
“He might have lashed out with the Force—he’s untrained and emotional. His grief was starting to give away to fury. Ben Solo is a powerful presence in the Force, obviously, or it could be that those around him couldn’t stand the bombardment of his emotions a second longer. Being dark side users wouldn’t have protected them from that assault, and maybe that’s why the Living Force didn’t try to contain it. I hope their close proximity made it worse.”
“Me, too,” Cara said as she started to braid her hair.
“Your birthday is three days.”
She glanced at him, clearly startled. “I don’t…celebrate that. Traditionally, Alderaanians didn’t, but my mother did on her homeworld, so our family always acknowledged birthdays in some fashion, but never like other races do.”
“Age days for Mandalorians are different—it becomes more about training levels and decision making,” Din said.
He went to the dresser and opened the top drawer, where all of his personal belongings had eventually migrated. He only had one drawer. She had the rest, a testament to how much she held onto over the years versus his own lack of attachment to things that weren’t weapons.
“At any rate, I bought you something months ago on Tatooine and thought it might be nice to give it to you on your birthday. It’s not much.” He pulled the small package from underneath a stack of shirts and brought it to her. “I don’t know where we will be or what we’ll be doing in three days, so…”
Cara took it with an amused look. “You only shopped once on Tatooine.”
“My first trip wasn’t great,” Din pointed out. “There’s no telling what Rey might have found if I’d let her go out to shop again.”
“Granted,” Cara agreed and unwrapped it carefully. She inhaled sharply at the sight of the hair clip. “You…” Her cheeks flushed. “Do you have any idea what this is?”
“No clue at all,” Din admitted and joined her on the bed. “You seemed enamored with it, but you put it back, and I thought perhaps you didn’t want to spend the credits on it.”
“The flower design on the barrette is one often worn by married women on Alderaan. I was startled to see it in the market and realized that a refugee must have sold theirs to make way for themselves. I did want to buy it, but it was too expensive. I couldn’t justify that kind of personal purchase. If the seller had known what they had—it would’ve cost several thousand credits. He probably didn’t realize the gems and gold alloy are real. One of this design and made with these materials would not have been out of place in Leia Organa’s trousseau.”
“What’s a trousseau?” Din questioned as Cara carefully put the clip down on her thigh and continued her braid arrangement.
“A collection of goods for a bride, normally collected by her family in the years leading up to the proper age of courting. I received a barrette of this design, without gems, when I was fifteen. I kept it in a hope chest. A hope chest I left on Alderaan.”
“What else was in it?” Din asked. He deeply regretted not giving it to her when he’d bought it. She would’ve had it when they married if he had.
“A dress—from my paternal grandmother. She wore it the day she married, and we had a similar body type. I wouldn’t have had to alter it much to wear it.” She took a deep breath. “A datastick full of music that I wanted to play at the wedding party. Jewelry pieces like the barrette, earrings, and a gray pearl necklace that my mother’s aunt sent me when I was twelve. Three baby blankets, one of which was my own when I was an infant. They were all handmade by family members. A leather baby sling my father tooled himself—he made all of his children one. Losing it all paled in comparison to losing my whole family, but still, it hurts.” She picked up the clip and slid it carefully into place above her left ear.
“I don’t know what the sling thing is,” Din admitted.
“I commissioned one from Torah—sent her several designs, and she promised to have one ready when we return to Tatooine. I think Dral would benefit from being worn in one—it would give him comfort that he doesn’t ask for. He really only seeks us out when he’s hungry or tired.” She focused on him. “I don’t know if that is the way of his species or not, but he does like to snuggle against us when we seek him out, so I think…it’s worth trying to increase his comfort with us.”
“A form of bonding,” Din said.
“Yes, but also the sling is used to make it easier to breastfeed—not a thing for Dral, but one I would certainly want to do with any child I birth or if we adopt an infant small enough for it in the future.”
Din hesitated in pulling on his shirt. “How would you…nourish a baby you didn’t birth? Would that involve a medical procedure to produce a milk supply?”
Cara laughed. “No—my body would start producing milk if I had a child in my care who needed it. That’s true of all women of Alderaanian heritage.” She paused. “And males as well if they can carry a child. There were never many of those—less than one percent of the population. My brother was disappointed not to have the potential since our paternal grandfather did, and he hoped genetics would favor him, but it was clear that was not the case when he entered puberty.”
“How would he have known?” Din questioned.
“His auxiliary womb would’ve opened,” Cara said and grinned when his mouth dropped open. “By the time he reached physical maturity, it had been reabsorbed into his body.”
“I’ve never heard anything like that,” Din admitted. “At least not about Alderaanians.”
“Our genome isn’t entirely human, but the knowledge regarding the secondary species we interbred with is lost to history. There were scientists on the planet studying the origin of our alien genetics, but there were no known records of the species left to study, and they could find no common genetic markers between currently known species. Precious little remains, apparently human genes were dominant.”
“The loss of that rich genetic history is another crime to hold against the Empire,” Din admitted.
“Enough of us survived to make a viable new population,” Cara admitted. “But I’ll admit that it didn’t help those efforts that Leia Organa chose to marry a Corellian. Some believe she should’ve set an example for the rest of the survivors in an effort to preserve our culture and our unique genetics.”
“What do you think?”
“I think I married a man who has no idea where either of his parents were born,” Cara said dryly. “I walked away from three different opportunities to breed for my former world, Din. The last one phrased it exactly like that.” She rolled her eyes when he laughed. “He firmly believed in preserving the purity of Alderaan.”
“Your parents wouldn’t have approved of me.”
“No, but it wouldn’t have had a damn thing to do with your genetics,” Cara said and shrugged. “They’d actively mourn the woman I am, and I’ve accepted that—I can’t be what they would’ve wanted, and frankly, that was never going to be a real possibility for me. Maybe they knew it, or maybe they were content to ignore the inevitable as long as I pretended like I was going to live a life they found reasonable. Sometimes, a very small part of me is relieved they aren’t alive to disapprove, then I feel like a complete monster for it.”
Din leaned in and pressed a kiss against her mouth. “I understand.”
“I know you do,” she admitted and let her forehead rest against his. “I think this all probably going to suck a lot, but I have your back, and I’ll do what I can to put a buffer between you and Leia Organa. She’s perceptive, very intelligent, and in a terrible place right now. She doesn’t need to know more than you want her to know about your circumstances or our kids.”
Din nodded. “I’m going to finish dressing and work with Ero in the cargo bay. Can we launch the shield to protect the hull from the saber remote?”
“I’ve already set it up for that,” Cara said. “You’ve gotten used to working with it every day, so I wanted to make sure the option was available as we traveled.”
Nothing looked out of place as they approached the outpost. Din took note of the stationary turrets set up around the structure and the new doors on the dock itself. They opened on his approach, and four guards appeared. One had a surface-to-air missile system on their shoulder. He received docking instructions and landed without speaking to anyone.
“Rey, you and Dral will stay with IG until I give the all-clear.”
“Okay, Buir.” She bit down on her lip. “We’ll wait.” She patted Dral’s back. “He’s better now—still upset, but not as much. Ben’s still asleep.”
“I think they’re keeping him sedated,” Din explained. “That might sound horrible, but it’s not because it means he’s not being traumatized further by what is happening around him.”
“Cyrus, I’ll need you to stay on the ship. Leia Organa has a lot on her plate, and I’m not sure learning she’s stuck with you for the rest of her life is going to go well in the moment.”
“I’m a gift,” Cyrus said coolly.
“A giant gift,” Din agreed. “One that will barely fit on her family’s ship inside the next decade. One that could, theoretically, swallow her child whole.”
“I’d never eat a human,” Cyrus declared but threw himself on the ground next to Rey. “I will stay.”
He lowered the ramp and found Torah was standing alone.
“Armorer,” Din said. “Your message was brief.”
“There are security matters to consider, and I couldn’t afford to wait for an encrypted message.” She motioned toward a shining silver transport next to his and motioned him to follow. “We have visitors—Leia Organa and a woman named Amilyn Holdo. They sent a message to the covert requesting to meet with you on a matter of immense importance. I told them that you were not on the planet and I did not know when you planned to return. I received another, where she begged for help getting in touch with you. She was already en route to the planet. I sent you a message, but I did not expect you to get it even within the day.
“Upon her arrival, I was told that her five-year-old son has been kidnapped and that both her husband and brother were severely injured in the altercation. Princess Organa has expressed concern over trusting anyone inside the New Republic government with helping to find her son. In the wake of her resignation from the senate, a faction arose within it that has been attempting to compel her brother to train Jedi specifically to work for and protect the republic. Luke Skywalker has avoided all comms sent his way on the subject.”
“She thinks that someone within in the senate took her son in an effort to control her?” Din questioned.
“Or to prevent him from being a threat. I’m sure they meant to kill Luke Skywalker,” Torah said. “She’s unsure and emotionally compromised, as would anyone be in such a situation. Her man nearly died on the street, where she was forced to leave him. He fought like the devil; they had to cut off his legs to stop him. The doctors on Naboo aren’t certain her brother will recover at all. He was apparently gutted by a lightsaber. His initial survival is being considered a wonder. We did receive an update on Han Solo’s condition—he’s been fitted with two prosthetic legs, and a Wookiee named Chewbacca is standing guard over him. They’ll be joining us as soon as Solo can stand.”
Din activated his radio. “IG, you can bring the kids and Wila. We’re being led into the outpost proper itself.”
“I can trace your location through your vambrace, Mand’alor,” IG reported.
Din made a note to have a talk with the droid about tracking him but then realized that IG had, had no issues locating him on Nevarro. “IG, did Kuiil give you the ability to track me?”
“Of course, he said you required supervision.”
Ero and Aja took positions by the door as their group entered the large chamber the tribe had turned into a meeting room, and Din wondered what their buirs thought of not being greeted at all. Din paused as Leia Organa stood. Her face was pale, but her eyes were clear, determined. Her gaze drifted from him to Cara and the Armorer before refocusing on him.
“I’m sure you’ve already been briefed on my situation,” she wet her lips when he nodded. “Your daughter demonstrated knowledge of Force Spirits—entities that I cannot communicate with for reasons I can’t fathom. I’m hoping she will ask them to help me find my son.”
“They’re already searching for your son—unfortunately, none of them have been successful because they have no personal connections with him,” Din explained. “You told them years ago, when your son was an infant, that you didn’t want them near him, so they obeyed. The end result is that he cannot feel them moving in the Living Force, and he doesn’t know how to reach out to them at all.” He watched her face crumple in grief and no small amount of shock. “And they can’t communicate with you now because someone has erected a barrier around you—a dark side barrier that repels them entirely.”
“I don’t understand,” Leia admitted. “Who?”
“They don’t know for certain, but it’s being investigated on their end of things. It’s difficult for them to see or act against the dark side as it an antithesis to their current existence.”
“My father is a Force Spirit, so that doesn’t make sense,” Leia said.
“He’s currently on Naboo using every single bit of Force energy he has keeping your brother alive,” Din said. “He could not manifest as a Force Spirit, at all, if the issues that plagued him in life followed him into death, but you shouldn’t discuss such things, so openly; it will only undermine your ability to function within the New Republic, and you know it.”
Her cheeks flushed, and she took a deep breath. “In my current circumstances, I can’t bring myself to care.”
“Circumstances change, and your son’s future depends on the legacy you build for him,” Din said as IG entered with Rey and Dral. Dral reached out for him immediately, then pointed insistently at Leia. “We need to leave better situations behind us.”
“A violent group of terrorists stole my son from me,” Leia said. “Getting him back is all I want, and all that currently matters.”
Din turned to Torah. “Armorer, I need the room cleared and sealed for privacy. You know who can stay and who must go.” He walked across the room to stand in front of Leia Organa. “My son wants to help you—I must warn you that whatever is keeping you locked away from Force Spirits is preventing you from feeling your son’s distress and trauma which is resonating everywhere. I felt his kidnapping happen—it woke me from a dead sleep and sent both my children into hysterics. We were traveling in hyperspace at the time.”
“You as well then,” Leia said. “I thought so—when I saw the holovid of you taking and using the darksaber. My brother isn’t convinced. He seemed to think it was probably the…baby.” She focused on Dral. “Luke was horrified to find out this child was in your custody. He said you have no right to him—that he’s too special to be left in your hands.”
“You need to convince your brother before we ever cross paths that I will rip him limb from limb if he tries to take my son from me,” Din said evenly. “His name is Dral.”
Leia hesitated before reaching out and taking one of the claws Dral offered. “Hello, Dral Djarin. I’m Leia Organa.” She smiled when he giggled. “It is my great pleasure to meet you.”
Dral made a grabby motion with his claws.
“He wants you to hold him,” Din said. “I think the corruption around you is making him uncomfortable. He was too exhausted to notice your issues on Coruscant, or you might have already been subject to his attention. Master Yoda tells me that his kind is uniquely protected from the dark side of the Force. Do your best not to push against whatever Force energy you feel from him.”
“Should this not wait?” Torah questioned.
“I need to know she’s not being influenced by the darkness around her,” Din said evenly. “I need to know that whoever is doing it isn’t using her to spy.”
“Could a Force user do that?” Paz questioned.
“I don’t know for certain, but I won’t risk it,” Din said.
Organa reached out hesitantly and took Dral. “I’d hope to see Cara Dune again, but no one would tell me where she is.” She smiled and focused on Dral. “I’ve not held a child this size since Ben was small.”
“What do you want with Cara Dune?” Din questioned as he watched Dral put his hands gently on Leia’s cheeks.
“I’d hoped to hire her,” Organa admitted. “I could use people on my personal staff I can trust. She’s a former rebel and from Alderaan—both things I value greatly in others.” Her eyes fluttered shut. “It’s like holding a little star.”
“Less painful, I would assume,” Din said. “Is that the only reason you want to speak with Cara Dune?”
“Yes, of course. Why?” Leia looked up and took a shuddery breath. “What…is that?” She focused on Dral. “Am I scaring him?”
“No, that’s not my son—it’s yours. It’s what we’ve been feeling since the moment he was taken from you. It is what every single Force user in this galaxy is feeling. It was worse, but I believe his captors sedated him because it was making them miserable. The Force is unbalanced and unpredictable right now.”
Tears slid down her face. “Oh.”
Cara stepped forward and gently plucked Dral from her hands. “Thank you for thinking of me, Princess Leia, but I’m unavailable to take any outside work at this point. My husband and children require a profound amount of attention.”
Leia blinked. “Cara…you’re…oh. I didn’t recognize your armor.” She glanced toward Din then focused again on Cara. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Cara hummed under her breath and patted Dral’s back. “IG, are there any active listening devices in this room?”
“No, and the thickness of the walls makes it unlikely that an exterior device could penetrate to listen in,” IG reported. “I can broadcast a scrambling signal if you wish.”
“Yes,” Din said. “Rey, are you ready?”
“I think so,” Rey said and took a deep breath. “What if I can’t find him?”
“Then we’ll search the old-fashioned way, and it won’t be your fault in any single way,” Cara promised.
Rey nodded and focused on Leia. “Do you have a picture of Ben?”
“A picture?” Leia questioned even as she touched a locket she wore. “Yes…why?”
Rey pulled the star compass from her pocket. “The Cosmic Force gave me a gift—she said it would give me peace of mind my whole life. I didn’t understand at first, but then Master Uvell told me how it worked—with a name and a clear visual of a person I supposed to be able to find anyone in this whole galaxy.”
Leia’s mouth dropped open. “What?”
“This is a star compass—it’s been passed from one Force user to another for over a thousand years, and now it’s loyal to me. It was designed specifically to find people using the Force. It’ll only work for me, so it’s important that only people we can trust know that I can do this. Buir says people would try to use me for terrible reasons, and I think if that happened that the star compass would no longer work for me. I think it would…die.” She focused on the star compass. “It feels fragile in that way. I know I can’t be selfish about it or cruel.”
Leia pulled the locket over her head and dropped to her knees in front of Rey. She opened the locket, and a holoimage projected immediately—a family photo. “This was taken just a month ago on Birren.”
“Ben Solo,” Rey murmured as she stared at the image.
“Ben Organa Solo,” Leia said. “If that matters.”
“I’m not sure. I’ve only used it to track dumb Imperials,” she said. “I tested it on a few others here at the covert—to make sure it worked. I followed Gí Rast around a little. I started to send her a comm once because she was on Jakku, and I couldn’t figure out what she could possibly be getting out of that.”
“A small bounty on an old friend of yours,” Gí Rast said dryly. “And we’re breaking down a star destroyer for salvage—the Armorer needs the platinum.”
Rey offered the woman a smile. “He had that coming.” She focused on the picture again. “Is General Solo going to be okay?”
“Yes,” Leia said. “But he was unsuccessful in getting the doctors on Naboo to make him taller.”
“He was already quite tall,” Rey said. “Okay, Wila, I’m ready.” She walked away from Leia, and Din noted that the woman almost reached out of her but thankfully restrained herself.
Torah walked across the room and offered Leia her hand up from the floor.
Wila sat down in the center of the room and projected the galaxy map like she had in the cargo bay.
“Let’s start on Naboo,” Rey said, and the map shifted around her until the planet of Naboo spun gently in near her feet.
“Does it matter that he’s probably asleep?” Din questioned.
“No, I don’t think, so…” Rey trailed off. “The Force knows Ben—I think the compass is really a conduit for the Living Force. I wonder if there are others? Visions and dreams, perhaps since communion seems to be a direct path to the Cosmic part.” She started to walk, staring intently at the compass. “Ben has a lot of Force ability—like me.” She wet her lips. “He’ll have to be careful—Master Yoda says that the dark side can be extra seductive to the strongest of us, and we must guard our hearts and minds closely as a result.
“He said that one of the mistakes the Jedi Order made in the past was ignoring and trying to suppress their emotions. It made them easy to manipulate and control, especially when it came to those with great Force potential.” She frowned. “They’re in a dark Force vergence, Buir.”
“I assumed as much since Master Yoda couldn’t find them,” Din said quietly. “Don’t push too deep—they might sense you and run.”
She nodded thoughtfully and turned slightly to her left. “Ben doesn’t know where he is—apparently, that’s something the star compass can tap into my target’s knowledge. I don’t think I need it for it to work, but it moves more quickly if it can get information from whoever I’m looking for.”
“His age could be an issue as well,” Din suggested.
“Maybe,” Rey agreed. “Also, I’ve never looked for one of us before—someone with the Force. I should’ve tried that.” She frowned, and her shoulders tightened. “Why does this feel different, Buir? Is it really just the Force?”
“It’s…” Din considered what to say that would soothe her but keep the secret of the dyad. He didn’t think Rey was ready for that conversation, and it would put Leia Organa on the defensive. It might even convince her that she should have custody of Rey. “He’s very gifted with the Force and has no training—not even meditation.”
“Plus, he’s deeply traumatized,” Cara said. “And his mind is stressed as a result—stress that followed him into sedation. All of your previous searches were for people who were basically content and feeling safe in their circumstances.”
“We showed them,” Rey muttered as she shifted on her feet. Her gaze remained focused on the star compass as she moved. Wila magnified the area Rey was in to give her more room to move. “They didn’t go far.”
“Agreed,” Amilyn Holdo interjected, and Rey focused on her. “It was a crime of opportunity, not one they planned for extensively. The market trip wasn’t on any schedule. They disabled the Millennium Falcon but didn’t have time or the resources on the planet to destroy it. It was a very sloppy job, but they still stopped to do it, which means their ship had no hope of outrunning it.”
Rey nodded. “Makes sense—they just needed a little bit of time to get away from Naboo and hide. Being so close to Ben when he had his Force meltdown probably didn’t help them with any sort of critical thinking. When it first happened, I could barely breathe.”
“It was difficult to concentrate at first,” Din admitted. “It would’ve been worse the closer you were to the epicenter. There are probably people on Naboo that are near-catatonic…even a small amount of Force ability or sensitivity could’ve made them susceptible to Ben’s trauma.”
Leia’s breath hitched. “One of them—a man of an alien species I’ve never seen before—was very gifted with the Force. He’s the one that cut off Han’s legs. When he did it, Ben started screaming, and the man stumbled, clearly shocked by something. The others had to drag him away when they grabbed Ben and ran. I almost caught up with them because they were basically carrying him.”
“Ben’s emotional response overwhelmed him,” Din said and looked across the room. “Master Qui-Gon?”
Qui-Gon Gin appeared, and Leia Organa took a ragged breath. “Luke said there were only three of you—who are you?”
“My name is Qui-Gon Gin. Obi-Wan Kenobi was my last padawan,” Qui-Gon said but then focused on Rey. He went and knelt beside her. “Master Uvell’s star compass, I believed it lost and destroyed until it was revealed to you.”
“It feels good to hold it,” Rey admitted. “Like I’ll never be alone again.”
“Rey,” Qui-Gon tilted his head and smiled sadly. “You’ve never been alone. The Force has been with you since your birth, and she will stay with you throughout your long life. She will give you strength when you need it most, power when it serves those around you best, and comfort in your moments of most immense loss.”
“Even if I don’t follow the Jedi path?” Rey questioned.
“Such distinctions are beyond the Force—the Jedi existed merely as a structure to provide guidance and training. I would not wish to see you strip the love from your life in favor of the Jedi way of old. It is not for you, and perhaps it is no longer the healthy path for anyone gifted with the Force. There is strength to be found and protected in the love of one’s family.”
Rey nodded. “Why can’t I find Ben?”
“Because you aren’t looking for the right part of him,” Din said and took a deep breath.
“Indeed,” Qui-Gon said. “The dark side vergence isn’t going to be penetrated by the star compass alone, as powerful as it is. It needs an additional element that Rey can provide, but she must know what it is.” The Force Spirit stood and walked away.
Din reluctantly walked across the room and knelt. He carefully took the star compass from Rey’s hand, and it dimmed. He closed it. “Close your eyes.”
Rey’s eyelids fluttered shut, and he focused on what Rey Skywalker had told him about her experiences in the dyad before and after she met Kylo Ren.
“Sometimes you have flashes of feelings that aren’t your own,” Din said. “There were times when you were on Jakku that you felt a mother’s love, and you believed it was your own until Qui-Gon told you she was dead and had been since shortly after leaving you on Jakku.”
Rey nodded. “Yes.”
“Sometimes, you even heard the echo of a song, deep in your mind.”
“How do you…know that, Buir?” Her eyes flew open.
He took off his helmet and put it down on the floor between them. He ignored the intakes of breath from their guests. “Remember what I said, Rey, the day I adopted you?”
Her mouth trembled. “You said one day I would come to understand how I came to be with you.”
“Yes, and I swear to you that I will explain it, but that truth must rest with me alone until you’re much older. It would be too much.”
“Too much of what?” Rey questioned.
“Pain,” Din said. “Loss. It is a burden of a sort, the kind that could plague you and shape you in ways that wouldn’t be fair. You don’t deserve that.”
“But you don’t regret your path to me,” she said, and tears streamed down her face. “You don’t regret carrying this burden for me?”
“I don’t, and I never will. Think about that song you heard in your head, the one that helped you sleep even when you were hungry, and there was no water.”
“It was cold, too,” Rey said. “I didn’t know a desert could be cold, but Jakku was so cold at night that my bones hurt, but the song helped. I stole a blanket from Plutt’s house while he was at work, and that helped, too.” She took a deep breath. “It wasn’t for me. I thought, after I found about the Force, that maybe the Lady was singing to me.”
“It was the echo of a song sung for another child, and his comfort became your comfort. And though he did not know it, he shared his mother’s love with you, too.” He ignored Leia’s ragged gasp. “There have been times in the history of the galaxy where two very special people are born that are uniquely connected—bonded through the Force. It is a phenomenon called a dyad—two individuals that are one in the Force. The Force doesn’t see you as two different people, Rey.”
“Oh.” Her eyes widened, and she snatched the compass from him. “That’s what that is!” Force energy appeared around her and started to swirl in waves of blue as she opened the compass. “I’ve been feeling this echo every single time I use the compass! When I got disgusted about finding that drunk old shabuir on Byss, the echo was really amused.” She paused. “Ben was amused.”
“Yes,” Din said and stood. He picked up his helmet and placed it on the table at the side of the room. He noted that Cara had removed hers—it hit him then that she always did. If he trusted someone with his face, she did as well. He made a mental note to talk to her about it later. She put hers with his.
“Dom-Bradden,” Rey said. “The echo is here—I’m here.” She paused. “We’re here.” She focused on Din. “Go get my…whatever he is, Buir.”
“Soulmate,” Leia supplied tightly. “Though that might be the least of it.” She looked pointedly at Din. “Something I should’ve known as soon as you did.”
“You don’t trust the Force,” Din said flatly. “You turned your back on it and got so entrenched in your fear of it that you allowed the dark side to blockade a source of energy in your own body. It’s not something I would’ve discussed over the HoloNet at any rate, and our first meeting left something to be desired.”
Organa flushed brightly and cleared her throat. “It’s clear I have a lot of catching up to do. I hope you will allow it.”
Din inclined his head. “Master Yoda.” Yoda appeared, and Dral made an excited sound but then yawned dramatically. “You’re the most powerful of all the Force Spirits, correct?”
“Powerful I am,” Yoda agreed. “More so Anakin, but busy he is on Naboo.”
“Yoda puts the rest of us to shame,” Qui-Gon said roughly. “In both power and control.”
“I’m about to ask something taxing of you, and I apologize, Master Yoda, in advance,” Din began and waited until the smaller being nodded. “Could you carry field glasses to Dom-Badden, surveil the operation, and bring the data back to me?”
“Exciting it will be,” Yoda declared and held out a hand for the field glasses.
Dim removed them from his belt and passed them. “Thank you.”
“Hmmm.” Yoda faded away.
“How do you know that’s even possible?” Amilyn questioned.
“I’ve witnessed a Force Spirit moving an object across space, but it was empowered by the Force itself…I didn’t know if that would make a difference, but I have a feeling it would be difficult, if not impossible, for most of them to accomplish with a regular object. It’ll probably exhaust Yoda and leave him…incapable of interaction for days, if not weeks. When they interact with the physical world in a profound way, there is a price to be paid.”
“I could not form a single conscious thought for many days after the events on Coruscant,” Qui-Gon admitted.
“What do you mean…” Leia trailed off. “They took the shock rod blows for you?”
“Yes, there were just four of them at the time. That asshole only managed to hit me once despite his efforts, and it nearly killed me.”
“It did kill you,” Rey said hotly and glared at Leia. “It killed him! You don’t get to be mad at Buir for not telling you about me. Trust is earned.”
Din cupped the back of Rey’s head. “Hey, calm down. There were a lot of mistakes made on Coruscant—I was an idiot about that whole situation.”
“It’s not stupid to trust people to do the right thing,” Paz said. “It’s just naïve.”
“Fuck you, honestly,” Din said and took a deep breath. “Aja, prep the Tor for the trip—top off all of our resources in case we have to lay siege. Cara, send a message to Bo-Katan direct her and her entire group toward Dom-Badden. Use that same tracking ping she uses on us to get her attention.”
Cara nodded, plucked up her helmet with one hand, and put it on as she left the room with Aja at her side and Dral asleep on her chest.
“IG, take Rey and Wila back to the Tor and remain there. Ero, deliver Peli Motto’s parts to her.”
“You’ll find her down in the covert’s dock,” Paz interjected.
Din frowned. “Why?”
“The situation got a little out of hand in the Mos Eisley docks, so I invited her to run ours. She has a hangar out on the plateau for her private commission work and doesn’t have to pay taxes or rental fees,” Oddau explained and shrugged. “Her business hasn’t suffered at all, I assure you. If it would’ve been to her benefit for her to stay in town, I would’ve just killed the ones making her life difficult.”
“The new administrator didn’t complain about that?”
“Greef Kraga gives us a pass on everything because of his boner for the Armorer. He doesn’t even care that she’s married.” Oddau shrugged when Paz sighed.
“Greef Kraga is on Tatooine?”
“Recruited,” Paz said dryly. “We think to make you happy. It’s like that whole part where he actively hunted you for months didn’t even happen.”
“I guess he came through when it mattered,” Din said roughly and focused on Amilyn Holdo. “How fast is that transport of yours?”
“It has a 2.0 engine, nothing like what you have.” She pushed her hand through her hair. “It was the first thing I could get my hands on—I stole it, basically. Leia has already made that right—well, she just bought it—so I do wish I’d stolen something better.” She glanced toward Leia and shrugged. “Or at least something with some weapons. I took some idiot’s pleasure boat.”
Din focused on Qui-Gon, who was silently staring at Leia Organa. “Where is Obi-Wan Kenobi?”
“He’s with Ben now,” Qui-Gon said simply. “He won’t leave his side until he’s safe.” He tilted his head. “You remind me of your mother.”
“Which one?” Leia questioned.
“Both actually, but your warrior’s heart is certainly a gift from your birth mother. Padmé was a fierce and savvy young lady. I wish I’d lived long enough to see her grow into a woman. Her reign over Naboo, as Queen, fortified the republic in the short term. Unfortunately, there was no stopping Palpatine.”
“My brother stopped him.”
“Not yet, he hasn’t,” Qui-Gon said evenly. “But I have faith he will complete the job he undertook. I met your father when he was just nine years old—a child born to a slave and therefore a slave himself. His owner ran a junk shop. He was a charming child, actually. Brave, selfless, and dedicated to his mother. I did him an immense disservice the day I took him from her. He had too much heart to walk the Jedi path. He held onto emotional pain—the murder of his mother proved to be more than he could take. It is a regret I will battle with my entire existence.”
“I didn’t know he was a slave,” Leia said. “Luke didn’t tell me that.”
“I don’t think that your brother knows,” Qui-Gon said. “Obi-Wan didn’t tell him much about Anakin and with good reason. If you wish, I will visit with you later in private, and you may ask all the questions you’ve ever wanted to ask about your birth parents.”
Leia nodded. “After Ben is safe.”
“Ben is safe in this very moment, I assure you. Obi-Wan doesn’t have Yoda’s gifts, but he’s very capable of protecting Ben from harm in this moment. He’s stolen a lightsaber from one of the men in the compound already and hidden it in the boy’s cell.”
Leia took a deep breath. “Thank you.”
“You trust Obi-Wan Kenobi the most of us all, and that matters in times like this,” Qui-Gon said. “We’ve always done our best to honor your wishes, Leia Organa. Even to your detriment.”
She flushed and nodded. “Thank you. I let my bitterness and my brother’s grief guide me. I haven’t made him deal with his emotions regarding our father’s death. He’s faltered in his path as a Jedi because he can’t reconcile what he wants with what he feels like he must do to preserve the Jedi Order’s legacy. I can’t imagine what the dark side influence has done to him during this time. Has he been cut off as well?”
“Not the way you have,” Qui-Gon said. “He would’ve noticed it—what’s been done to him is much more subversive, but we have time to address and deal with it. They know they can’t turn him to the dark side, so they have no intention of trying.”
“I don’t understand,” Leia admitted and turned to Amilyn.
“If you can’t make your enemy your friend, and you can’t kill your enemy, then the only choice you have left is to neutralize them,” Holdo explained. “On Naboo, all of you were made vulnerable in a way you haven’t been since the Battle of Endor. You left behind all of the security given to you by the senate when you resigned and haven’t hired a proper team to act in your defense and manage your public appearances.”
Leia flushed. “I wanted to give Ben something normal.”
“I know, Leia,” Amilyn murmured. “But normal isn’t in the cards for him, and now it’s clear it never was. I know you understand the implications of Ben being Rey Djarin’s soulmate. I can’t imagine what the death of one of them would do to the other.”
“It would destroy the survivor,” Qui-Gon interjected, and they all turned to look at him. “They would live a short, half-life full of the deepest emotional pain that can be held within an organic body, then the survivor would die—fade to nothing. There would be no spirit left to join with the Force.”
“They have to die together,” Din said. “In order to be reunited in the Force.”
“They are one,” Qui-Gon said. “Born in two bodies.”
Leia’s face shuttered, and she exhaled. Din watched her think—calculation came and went from her face. “Right.” She focused on him, and Din raised an eyebrow. “I guess we’re a team then.”
“How will your brother feel about that?”
“He’ll accept it,” she said simply. “Or he can go his own way. I love him, but I won’t sacrifice my son’s physical and emotional health for anyone. Ben and Rey haven’t met, but clearly, they’re already connected. We can’t prevent it, so we have to manage it.”
Yaddle appeared at Din’s side and offered him the field glasses. “Yoda could not make the trip back.”
Din took the glasses. “Thank you, Master Yaddle. Will he be well?”
“He’ll need to rest awhile but will recover—far faster than he did after Coruscant.” She looked around the room. “I will go stay with Rey and Dral so that I can blunt the feedback they’re getting from young Ben. They will rest better.”
“Thank you,” Din said, and she faded away.
Leia took a deep breath. “How many are there now? How do you know them all?”
“I have no idea how many there are—the originals have been teaching the others and sometimes helping others manifest as Force Spirits,” Din said. “They come to me to have a conversation whenever they want. Fortunately, they let me shower alone most of the time. Some aren’t fully manifested as spirits, but they aren’t any less bossy or involved when it suits them.” He shot Qui-Gon a look, and the Force Spirit shrugged.
“Why him?” Leia questioned and focused on Qui-Gon as she spoke. “Why are you all so focused on the Mand’alor? Is it because of Rey or Dral?”
“It is because of him,” Qui-Gon said simply. “His children are important—the ones he has now, the ones he will take in the future, and even the ones he’ll father biologically, but Din Djarin is the future of us. The Cosmic Force has deemed it so, and when our Lady speaks, we all must listen. It is from her that all life springs, and in her absence, death could come to every living thing in this galaxy. She chose him as her champion, and it is the duty of all living and dead Jedi to help him in any single way we can. It is a truth your brother will come to deeply understand in the months to come.”
“Why?” Leia asked again.
“Feel free to ask her,” Qui-Gon said. “But be warned, Leia Organa, you cannot hide from the Cosmic Force. She knows all of you—every thought, every doubt, and every single bit of bitterness you’ve already admitted to would be laid bare before her. When Din Djarin stood before her—she comforted him as if he were a favored child, and when she set down tasks for him, he did not argue, and as soon as he could, he did exactly as she asked of him.”
“Not a single question?” Leia asked Din.
“Faith in myself, the way, and in the Force is what will keep me alive to defend my family and tribe,” he said simply. “Nothing was asked of me that I could not accomplish. I trust that she would never ask more from me than I can deliver.”
Her mouth tightened into a thin line. “I don’t…”
“You turned your back on the Force, and it was used against you—to isolate your mind and prevent you from seeing a threat coming. You couldn’t seek help because you were being attacked and confined mentally in a way you didn’t recognize. Think about how the events of Naboo could’ve gone down if you hadn’t been isolated and in the dark. You’re lucky that your husband and brother will survive—it could’ve easily been the death of all of you, and Ben would be alone.”
“Not alone,” Leia said. “You’d have still gone after him—he would have had you and your family.” She took a deep breath. “But I would’ve died thinking the exact opposite.” She lowered her head and rubbed her face briskly with both hands. “I can’t think. Ben’s so scared.”
“Take heart in the fact that those that are holding your son hostage are probably suffering three times as much. They probably can’t stand to be anywhere near him. It’s keeping him safe from physical mistreatment as much as Obi-Wan is currently,” Din said. “It’s the least of what they deserve.”
A knock on the door caused Paz to cross the room and answer it.
Cara reentered with her a datapad in hand. “They were on alert for a message, so she’s on her way. Her first order of business will be to drop an asset on the ground and disable their ships.” She took off her helmet and put it with his. “Dral’s asleep, and Rey promised to contact us if he wakes upset.”
He focused briefly on her helmet, then on her face. Cara met his gaze with no hesitation, and after a few moments, she quirked an eyebrow.
“What?” she asked.
“Does she always do it?” Paz questioned curiously.
“Yes, every single time,” Din admitted as he continued to stare at his wife. She bit down on her lip. He hadn’t meant to draw attention to the behavior, but clearly, he wasn’t the only one who’d noticed. “You don’t have to remove your helmet when I do, Cara.”
She frowned at him. “Of course, I do.”
“You really don’t,” he said firmly.
Her cheeks flushed. “I…you’re…” She took a deep breath and her gaze lasered in on Leia Organa, who was staring at the pair of them in amusement. “Yes, I do.”
“I don’t understand,” Paz admitted roughly, and Din was glad he’d voiced the confusion.
“You’re my king.” Cara took a deep breath. “On Alderaan, it would’ve been the basest of insults to allow our queen or king to take such action alone. You remove your helmet; I remove mine. You take a knee; I’m taking it with you. It may not be the way, but it most certainly is part of my way.” She crossed her arms and frowned at him. “Is that a problem?”
“No,” he said simply as his heart thundered in his chest. He pushed aside the emotional response to the loyalty his wife gave him so freely and cleared his throat. “I’d change absolutely nothing about you.” Din put the field glasses down on the table. “Yoda’s sent the intel back.”
“How many do you want to take?” Cara questioned as she interfaced with the field glasses to pull the data. “With lightsabers in play, we need to be very careful. Especially they’ve already shown a penchant for limb removal. You’re the only one in full beskar.” She focused on him. “That’ll matter.”
“The Razor Crest and the Tor are the fastest we have on the ground and the best geared toward combat,” Din said and watched as a holographic display of the compound was revealed. “Just three buildings.”
“Twenty-two life signs,” Cara murmured. “One is Ben. Do you think this is the Knights of Ren?”
“They’re the only concentrated group of Force users that we’re aware of that embrace the dark side,” Din said. “They’ve hidden in a dark force vergence and…” He frowned and focused on Yaddle. “Is Snoke with them?”
“Yes, but he has been laid low—nearly catatonic,” Yaddle reported. “He was in no single way prepared to deal with Ben Solo’s emotional response to the attack, but that is not a surprise considering the corruptive way he was created and grown.” She focused on Leia. “He’s artificial—a clone of sorts—created by Sheev Palpatine decades ago, before he was Emperor as part of his far-reaching plan to take over the galaxy and rule. It is very gifted with the Force, unfortunately, due to its construction, but not a true Sith. It was Palpatine’s way of getting around the rule of two that has kept the Sith Eternal together as an organization all these many years. They lurk, even now, in the shadows due to Palpatine’s survival.”
“Have the others recovered?” Din questioned.
“Yes, but they’re furious—because they can’t block it out. The Force is magnifying all of Ben’s emotions and projecting them purposefully toward his kidnappers to keep them from coming near him. Snoke, due to his artificial growth, does not have the emotional tools or development that a traditional childhood would’ve given him.”
“He doesn’t have coping skills,” Cara murmured. “He can’t self-soothe. That could certainly be used against him in the future.”
“You act like he’s going to survive this,” Leia protested. “He’s not. They’re all going to die for what they’ve done!”
Cara focused on her. “Of course, he is, but there are other versions of Snoke waiting to be woken up. Exact copies, actually, who won’t have his decades of experiences, but will still work on behalf of the emperor in the shadows with the ultimate goal of bringing the Empire back to its former glory.”
“How do you know all of this?” Leia looked around the room and focused on Din. “It’s your connection to the Force? They’re helping you—guiding you down some particular path.”
“Din Djarin knows his role within the Force,” Qui-Gon Gin announced. “And in time, Leia Organa, you will learn yours. If you wish to continue to ignore the gifts given to you at birth, then the consequences of that will be yours to bear.”
“I won’t,” Leia said quietly. “I’ll complete my training and will accept any help that can be offered in that, no matter the source. I didn’t want to be my father’s legacy, and I ignored…everything else in order to achieve that. It was clearly a mistake.”
“Among Mandalorians, there is a saying,” the Armorer said as she stepped up to the table to stand next to Din. “Gar taldin ni jaonyc; gar sa buir, ori’wadaas’la.”
“What does it mean?” Leia asked quietly. “I’ve been unable to find a language primer for Mando’a, and I apologize for my ignorance.”
“We’ll provide you with one if you truly wish to learn our language,” Torah said. “And it essentially means—no one cares who your parent was because you will be judged by the parent you become. Parenthood is an immense responsibility amongst us, much like it was on Alderaan. Though there was much more focus on the role of the mother on my former homeworld.”
“You’re from Alderaan,” Leia said, and her face softened. “Really?”
“My sister and I were left orphaned on Coruscant when our parents died in an accident, but yes, we were born on Alderaan. Gí has no memories of the world due to her age when we lived there and the trauma of losing everything,” the Armorer glanced toward her sister as she spoke. “I am Torah Liss, daughter of Aman and Norah Liss.
“I…” Leia took a deep breath. “Daughter of Senator Aman Liss. My father, Bail Organa, looked for his children. He searched for over a year for you both. Eventually, he had no choice but to give up the search, but please know he looked desperately. What happened to you?”
“My sister was a beautiful child, and anyone who looked at her knew she would be a beautiful woman,” Torah said. “We spent one day in the care of the embassy on Coruscant before I overheard one of the administrators of the place suggesting that we be separated. They intended to sell us both but considered me undesirable because of my age—they said I wasn’t trainable. I took my sister and ran. I do not regret it. Perhaps your father would’ve found us if I’d allowed that shabuir to sell us, but there’s no telling what would’ve been done to her in that time period.”
“Do you remember his name?” Leia questioned.
“Her name was Soovi Nad, and I killed her three years after I ran.” Torah focused on Cara. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” Cara murmured. “Din, you didn’t say—who do you want to take?”
“Ram can fly the Razor Crest,” Din murmured and focused on his uncle. “Right?”
“I can handle her,” Ram assured. “You’ll want to put Ivaa in one of the gunners on the Tor. She’s in the covert but told me to tell you that’s she willing to do that or take the auxiliary fighter from the Tor to guard the perimeter during the infiltration.”
Amilyn Holdo cleared her throat.
Din focused on her. “Your input is welcome.”
“Is it wise to put such an asset as Ram in a pilot seat? Wouldn’t the mission be better served on with him on the ground?”
Din grinned at her. “This is one of those moments when wearing a helmet does my uncle all kinds of favors.”
Ram huffed. “Shut up, ad.”
“I don’t understand,” Amilyn admitted.
“I’m eighty-one years old,” Ram said. “And human.”
She blew out a surprised breath. “I hope I’m half as fit when I’m your age.” She wet her lips. “Do you have any sight deficits?”
“Nothing my helmet isn’t designed to correct for,” Ram assured. “The Armorer keeps me useful. Outside of Din, I’m the best pilot in House Vizsla.”
Din focused on Oddau and Gí Rast. “I need one of you on the mission and one to stay here to protect the tribe. Someone might see too much movement out here and assume we’re vulnerable.”
“I’ll stay here,” Gí said. “Torah and I both have made enough appearances in Mos Eisley for people to make assumptions. I also took a pretty rough bounty last week and had to go through six hired thugs to do it.”
Din nodded. “Oddau, you’ll join us on the Tor.” He focused on Paz. “Well?”
“Ivaa and Shad are your best choices for gunners on the Tor. Lios, Zox, and Jhil can all drop from the Razor Crest with jetpacks. You put any single one of us on the ground in a complex this size, and it’ll be ours inside of an hour. The problem becomes the boy. We need to make sure they can’t use him against us—either as a shield or a bargaining chip. They have no honor and no code. They believe themselves superior and invincible because they can use the Force. They think they’ve taken out the only Force user that could be a threat to their plans.” Paz shrugged. “Let’s go show these shabuirs the error of their ways.”
“Ben’s here,” Cara said as she shifted the projection of the compound around and marked the building. “We don’t know if he’ll be awake or not when we get there, so we need to keep that in mind. He’s going to find the sight of most of us petrifying.”
“No, he won’t,” Leia interjected. “He was looking forward to meeting the Mand’alor and has been reading about Mandalorians for weeks. He even managed to watch the holovid of him taking the darksaber on Han’s datapad when we weren’t looking. He saw it before I did. He’ll see any single one of you as a savior. I told him he can’t trust every single person that looks like a Mandalorian, but I think it went in one ear and out the other.”
“That could be Rey’s influence,” Din said. “There’s no telling what sort of echo he’s getting back from her, and she’s immersed herself in our culture and language because…she fears being abandoned again. The day of her adoption, she went around and introduced herself individually to every single member of our tribe—a little over 300 people at the time.”
“She asked for a list of new people in the covert,” Torah admitted. “So she can go around and meet them. She said it was important since she’s a princess.”
Leia grinned. “A good princess puts her people first and understands their troubles as if they were her own. My mother taught me that.” She focused on Din. “Amilyn and I will go on the Tor, if you agree. I know you see a politician when you look at me, but I can fight.”
“And if one of them kills you?” Din questioned.
“I fought the Empire for a decade in some fashion or another—I was on the ground during the Battle of Endor, but that was just one of many battles where I was an active participant in the rebellion. Plus, they had a chance to kill me on Naboo and didn’t. I picked up Luke’s lightsaber…”
“And?” Din questioned.
“She killed three of them before she was stunned,” Amilyn said. “They stunned me first—it was how the attack began. I had to watch security footage to get the story since Leia was beyond speech for hours afterward.”
“I’d have taken you out first, too,” Din admitted. “You and Skywalker were the biggest threats.” He paused. “Where was your Wookiee friend during the attack?”
“Chewie was at the Wookiee embassy on Naboo having a conversation with King Tawrra. He’s asked him to go to Mandalore and join the enslaved Wookiees there as an asset he knows and can trust,” Leia said. “I assumed he’d already discussed that with you.”
“He told me he wanted an infiltrator but refrained from using his name in our comms—a security measure if nothing else,” Din said. “I have no problems with Chewbacca joining the rebellion effort on Mandalore.” He paused. “I ask you not to inform the senate regarding my activities.”
Her gaze narrowed. “I have no intention of spying on behalf of the New Republic. It would do more to damage my reputation and political worth than the issue with my biological father. Once personal trust is destroyed—it can’t be regained. The Queen of Naboo has offered my family citizenship, and I’m considering it. I have a feeling she will ask me to be her senator, but even then, I wouldn’t divulge secrets to the senate at large. It’s not how I work.” She looked around the room. “I came to you for help for no reason that I could discern. I just felt as if you were the only one who could help me. Our children are clearly going to be preternaturally attached to each other whether they meet or not, so I guess what I’m saying is that I think you’re all going to be my family in some fashion or another.” She blushed when Paz laughed a little. “It could be worse, I suppose, and a language primer would be much appreciated.”
“Shabuir means motherfucker, by the way,” Cara said and grinned when Leia’s mouth dropped open. “Basically.”
“Shabuir,” Amilyn said carefully then mouthed the word silently with a nod.
“Ami.” Leia frowned at her.
“What? I never pass up an opportunity to learn a new curse word.”
“I’ve got extra drop packs that I’ve cleaned and prepped for low orbit jumping,” Cara said. “Can either of you handle them?”
“I can drop,” Amilyn said. “Leia never learned, and she’d probably try it given an opportunity, but no.”
Leia frowned at her.
“No, Leia.” Amilyn sent her a look. “You’ll be useless on the ground if you break both your damn legs trying to jump. At last count, we have two people on this strike team that can use a lightsaber.”
“Four,” Din corrected. “Aja and Ero are both carrying sabers. Ero is Force-sensitive, but Aja took to the weapon easily and with a great deal of skill since he has extensive training with melee weapons.”
“Better odds. The best strategy will be to shoot every single of them before they can get close enough to use their lightsabers against us.”
“I have a few beskar melee weapons—a quarterstaff and three beskads,” Torah said. “Beskar can’t be damaged by a lightsaber.”
“I can use a quarterstaff if you don’t mind,” Amilyn said. “I’ve had no saber training, but I’d love some in the future if there is one among you who’d be willing to teach me. I tried using a lightsaber once, but the weight distribution proved impossible for me to adjust to. I think I’m just utterly devoid of any sort of Force…stuff.”
“Are you Princess Leia’s bodyguard?” Torah questioned.
“The head of her non-existent security team,” Amilyn said sourly and shot Leia a look.
“I tried to hire three different people, but you refused all of them, and now you can’t have the one you really wanted because she got married.”
Cara laughed. “I’m honored, truly.”
“Your military jacket is a wet dream,” Amilyn said mournfully. “Honestly, it hurts my feelings that I didn’t know about you during the rebellion because I would’ve had your whole team put in my squadron. I’d have loved to make war with you.”
“You’ll get your chance in a few hours,” Din said. “We need to get the gear ready.”
“Come to my forge,” the Armorer ordered. “I’ll put you both in body gloves—a layer of armor you can wear under your clothes. I’d also like to test the material against a lightsaber that is not the darksaber.”
“Like the one you’re wearing?” Amilyn questioned. “That won’t be a violation of your religion? Neither of us would want to insult your entire culture by accident.”
Torah inclined her head. “Thank you for considering it, but our armor is more than that—more than a simple body glove. We shroud our bodies, and that is a principal of the Resol’nare, the way. Armor is about the defense of—oneself, one’s clan, and one’s tribe.”
“This is what Rey will be taught,” Leia said.
“It’s part of what she’ll be taught,” Din agreed. “We raise warriors, and by the time Rey is an adult, she will be every inch the warrior she’s meant to be. Does that bother you?”
“No, I just worry that Ben…not having the same cultural beliefs could hurt them, cause conflict when there should be none. I’ve not raised my son in the traditions of Alderaan in full because I cannot, with a clear conscience, advocate pacifism. I assumed he would eventually train as a Jedi, but that path seems…unsafe, and I don’t know why.”
“Don’t worry about this,” Cara said decisively. “It’ll be fine. Rey is adaptable and patient. There’s nothing in the way that would genuinely be contrary to the social norms on Alderaan, social norms that Ben will learn from you just by being around you.”
“Okay,” Leia said. “Good.” She turned to Torah. “Will I have to undress in front of you for this? Because I’d rather not. No one, outside of medical personnel, has seen…I’m married.” She blushed.
“I have an assessment wand designed to take extremely accurate measurements,” Torah said. “And you will remain fully dressed throughout that process.”
Cara left the cockpit, rubbing the back of her neck. She’d managed to get Din to eat a meal bar, but he was on edge, and it probably had a lot to do with their extra passengers. Oddau Rast and Paz Vizsla were both, in their own way, a source of stress for her husband. They had expectations—some of which Din found deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps he’d been prepared for most of the situations that he would face in the past, but having Paz Vizsla prepared to take a knee for him was probably not one of them.
Amilyn Holdo and Leia Organa were in the common area. Rey had Dral in her lap, and they were making the hover ball dance around in the air above them. Cara sat her datapad down on the table and slid onto the bench across from where the other two women were sat. They both focused on her, but she was saved from any immediate questions when Dral nimbly crawled up onto the bench and into her lap.
“Hungry?” she questioned and got a slow blink and a deep yawn for her trouble.
“Shall I put him in his pram?” IG questioned.
“No, he’s fine for the moment,” Cara said. “Doing whatever he did for the princess has made him tired, and I don’t think the ball game helped on that front either. Let’s keep him up until we achieve orbit, at the very least, and maybe he’ll sleep through most of the mission.”
“Very well,” IG said and walked away.
“How did you end up with a hunter droid acting as your nanny?” Leia asked.
“Din had him built to spec,” Cara said. “The program was a gift from a friend who gave his life protecting Dral.” She shifted the baby around, and he curled a claw into the top of her chest plate.
“The Mand’alor left Death Watch,” Leia murmured, and Cara focused on her. “Many in the senate would find that information relieving. They’re deeply leery of him because of the fact that he was raised in House Vizsla.”
“Death Watch is gone, as far as Din is concerned,” Cara said. “But you should know that my husband does not care what the senate wants. He finds the body largely ineffectual and infuriating.”
“Is that why he took Bossk straight to the Wookiees?” Amilyn questioned. “Because that’s raised some eyebrows.”
“That was about justice. It’s something the Wookiees deserve, and the NR has been reluctant to give them. The Empire committed genocide on Kashyyyk, declared the Wookiees non-sentient, enslaved them, and tried to destroy their natural resources. Even now, they have to buy food from off-world regularly.” Cara focused on Rey, who’d curled up in a chair with her datapad, but it was clear she wasn’t reading. “Rey.”
The girl looked up. “Yes, Ama?”
“What are you doing?”
“I…” She blushed. “I was trying to talk to Ben, but he’s still asleep.” She bit down on her bottom lip. “Is that okay?”
“I have no issues with you trying to reach out to him in theory, but I don’t know how that works in practice,” Cara began. “But now is not the time to expend a great deal of Force energy—not for you or him. I don’t know what that communication could cost either one of you when it comes to physical resources. We know that using the Force exhausts Dral, and you’re certainly no different.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I’m just worried about him. He thinks his parents are dead, and I know how much that hurts.” Rey shifted her datapad around in her hands and took a deep breath. “Is Buir okay? He doesn’t normally stay in the cockpit in hyperspace.”
Cara considered how to answer that question in a way that would put her daughter at ease. “Do you remember the day your buir named the monastery? It was your suggestion.”
“Ramikadyc Redoubt,” Rey said thoughtfully. “A commando state of mind.”
“No one can stay in a state of combat readiness,” she said and watched Rey nod. “Everyone prepares for a fight differently.”
“Buir traveled and worked alone for a long time,” Rey said.
“Yes, he did, and he’s done very well to adjust over the last few months, but sometimes we need to give him space to get his head around whatever situation we’re facing.”
“Okay, can you send me the camp layout?”
“Why?” Cara questioned as she reached out for her datapad.
“Well, if you guys are planning the fight, then I should figure out a plan for salvage. There’s no need to let their stuff go to waste or leave it behind,” she pointed out. “We can take the ships and weapons for the war chest, plus prefab buildings are usually steel, right? The Armorer can break down their whole compound, so we have more armor or whatever.” She flicked a hand. “Plus whatever gets taken off the bodies. We should probably go ahead and prep the carbonite freezer, too. Just in case any of them have bounties that can be collected even if they’re dead.”
“Good thinking,” Aja told her as he came through the common area heading for the galley. “I’ll handle that and move the two slabs we currently have into storage.”
Cara used her thumb to transfer the data Rey wanted. “Make sure to be prepared to answer his questions.”
Rey nodded and stood. “I’m going to ask Wila to project this for me, so I can get a better look at the buildings and ships. We’ll try to get specs on those, too.” She walked into the galley.
“Will the Mand’alor really follow her plan for salvage?” Amilyn asked curiously.
“He’ll review it, give feedback, and ask questions to streamline whatever she comes up with, if necessary, but, yes. Mandalorians teach by doing a great deal of time. Teaching her critical thinking skills at an early age will keep her alive as an adult. There will always be someone hunting her or hunting those like her. Her Force potential will make her a target.”
“More so than being the daughter of the Mand’alor?” Amilyn questioned.
“A hundred times over,” Cara said. “Her Force potential makes her so attractive a target that many would court war with us to get their hands on her if they knew about her. Dral is already that kind of target, and now, so is Ben Solo.”
“I don’t see the benefit…” Leia took a deep breath. “A child would be easier to train and corrupt.”
“A trick they learned from the Jedi,” Cara said dryly and shrugged when both women gaped at her. “The Empire did the same thing in a way—enslaving children and raising them to fight for them. Most of the stormtroopers that we fought were raised in indoctrination camps to replace the dying clones. The Imperial Academy was where they cultivated their true believers for the officer corps, and even that could be iffy, but their troopers…you didn’t see many of them betraying the emperor. Some of them are so damn loyal they’re still following moffs around, hoping for the best. Or maybe they don’t know how to live outside of that structure, so they cling to what is familiar. I wonder how many star destroyers there are out there?”
“At least four,” Leia murmured. “Confirmed, but the intel on the rest is iffy at best. Moff Gideon supposedly had access to one, but we weren’t able to trace it before he was killed and his organization scattered.”
“If he had access to one, it was probably through Grand Moff Randd, who is currently on Mandalore acting like he owns the place,” Cara said and focused on Dral, who was staring up at her. “What do you want, little man?” She got a little flash of her hand on his head, and her mouth dropped open. “Oh.”
“Is something wrong?” Leia questioned and leaned forward a bit in her seat.
“I think he just…gave me a picture of what he wanted in my head,” Cara said and flushed when she focused on the princess. “Is that possible?”
“It’s one of the skills Luke taught me,” Leia said. “I never practiced it much—mental communication seems a little too intimate to share with someone outside of my family. If that makes sense?”
“It does,” Cara said and ran her fingers over the top of Dral’s head. “Where did you learn this?” She received a fleeting image of Leia Organa holding him. “Ah, you little bandit.”
“What?” Leia questioned.
“He picked it up from you when he was removing that dark…stuff from your head. It’s, honestly, probably how he developed most of his Force abilities since he has no training to speak of as far as anyone knows.” She cleared her throat. “He’s fifty years old, so there’s no telling what he learned or who he was exposed to before Din found him. We know he was taken from his homeworld and eventually ended up in the hands who tried to corrupt him. When he failed, he kept Dral as a pet until he died, and his son auctioned him off. Then he decided to cheat Moff Gideon and demand more money, and…that situation fell into chaos very quickly.” She stood. “Excuse me, I need to tell Din about this. We’ve had no success in teaching him any sort of communication system so far.”
In the kitchen, Aja was pulling wrapped sandwiches out of the cooling unit, and IG was stacking meal bars into sets of two.
“I’m preparing field rations in case the conflict on the ground is prolonged,” the droid reported. “The Mand’alor will create drop points for supplies if that is the case.”
Cara nodded and continued on into the cockpit. Din was still staring moodily at hyperspace. She shut and locked the door before speaking. “Dral sent me a mental picture.”
“What?” He turned to look at her.
“I asked him what he wanted, and he sent me a picture of me rubbing his head, and when I asked him where he learned to do it—I got a picture of Leia Organa.” She put the baby down in Din’s lap and noted that her husband’s hands were shaking.
Din took a deep breath and caught one of Dral’s claws with his fingers gently. “Ad’ika.”
He was immediately bombarded with one image after another—starting with the moment they met and ending, oddly, with the moment Dral saw his face for the first time. Din stroked one finger down the side of Dral’s face as he realized what his son was telling him.
“You noticed, huh?”
Then more images—Moff Gideon, the client, the stormtroopers, and IG jumping out of the barge into the lava.
“I’m so sorry, Ad’ika.”
Dral just smiled at him, and there was another wave of images—Cara and Rey mostly in the covert and on the Tor. Love seemed to radiate out of Dral, and Din let himself relax into it, which was a mistake because it all ended, and he was confronted with an image of Dral…dead on the ground after Moff Gideon had shot him. He sucked in a ragged breath and picked his son up to hold against his chest.
“No, don’t think about that ever again,” Din ordered. “Ever.” Dral sent him a picture of Qui-Gon Ginn and Yoda. “Yes, they helped me. Helped you.” The final image was of the garden Din had planted on Sorgan. He closed his eyes and let his face rest against his son’s. Dral patted his face with both claws. “I don’t regret it.” He stayed where he was and couldn’t bring himself to speak even as Cara ran her fingers gently through his hair. Then he got a visual of Dral swallowing the stupidly large frog the day they met.
Din laughed and relaxed. “Hungry?”
Dral shook his head and patted his face with a little giggle.
“I wish he saw less,” Din said hoarsely and closed his eyes. “He showed me…images of the other timeline.” She kissed the top of his head and gently extracted Dral from his embrace. “I can’t…he got all of that from me because I have no fucking mental discipline.”
“Don’t berate yourself for things you cannot control,” Cara murmured and cupped his face. “I mean it. You had no idea he could even do it—we probably don’t know a tenth of what he’s learned to do in the 50 years he’s been alive. We have to move forward with what we have and accept what we can’t change.”
“I can change a lot,” Din admitted. “You know?”
She laughed. “Yeah, I know, but try really hard to accept what you can’t, okay? Dwelling on it will just leave you distracted; I need your head in the game.”
“I can handle what’s coming,” Din murmured. “Let’s put him in the pram—it’s time to mission prep.”
“It’s in the galley,” Cara said and took a deep breath. “I’m worried about you facing someone with a lightsaber.”
“You needn’t be,” Qui-Gon interjected, and they both focused on the Force Spirit as he manifested in the co-pilot’s chair. “That ridiculous lightsaber remote has prepared him to handle whatever the Knights of Ren might have to offer because none of them have any sort of formal training. They are brutes—brandishing lightsabers like sticks. Moreover, their relationship with the Force is built on disrespect and avarice. Perhaps in the future, such behavior will be enough for the Force to ignore such users entirely. The end of neutrality on her part could be near.”
“Is that a warning or a threat?” Din questioned mildly.
“In your case, it is neither—I believe she has chosen her champion very well and that you will stand in our lady’s defense all of your life.” Qui-Gon stood. “I’ll stay on the Tor during the course of this conflict to stand guard over your children, so you can give this problem your full attention. Nothing and no one will cause harm to the occupants on board this ship while I’m on it.”
Din took a deep breath and glanced down at Dral as he stood. His son had dozed off. “I’ll hold you to that.”
In the galley, they put Dral in the pram and stood staring at him for an embarrassing amount of time. Cara’s fingers curled into his, and he took a deep breath.
“It feels different this time, leaving them on the ship.”
“This is nothing like a bounty,” Cara agreed. “And the threats loom large in comparison. Those who have fallen to the dark side aren’t open to the Cosmic Force’s influence, right? So, she can’t make things easier for us on the ground.”
“Right,” Din agreed.
He kept her hand as they left the galley. Aja was leaning in the doorway that led to the ramp into the cargo bay. Guard duty, he thought, which meant the others were probably eating and didn’t want to risk exposure to their guests.
“We’re forty minutes out,” he said.
Aja nodded and left the doorway.
Ero appeared a few moments later, helmet in place. “We’re ready.”
In the cargo bay, Din opened his locker, chose his own weapons, and pulled out the beskad. “Armorer, I’d like this to be fitted to Cara’s armor under her drop pack.”
Torah took the case with a nod.
Din focused on their guests. “Captain Holdo, Princess Leia—you can have your pick of anything in my weapon’s locker.”
“Or mine,” Cara said. “I have a few lightweight weapons.”
“Leia can handle anything in the Mand’alor’s locker.”
Cara laughed. “I made the offer for you, Captain Holdo. You’re not from Alderaan. I know, very well, that the princess can lift about twice her body weight on any given day and more in extreme circumstances. I don’t doubt the story of her strangling Jabba the Hutt at all.”
Leia glanced between them but then focused on Din. “I have a blaster, but I can handle any rifle currently in production, so please give me whatever you aren’t inclined toward using.”
Din took an A280 from his own locker, ammo packs, and offered it to Leia Organa, who took it all. The ammo went into a pocket of the field vest she was wearing, and the rifle slipped easily over her head. She nodded and stepped away. He noted that Holdo picked a similar rifle from Cara’s locker.
“Are you sure I need to carry this?” Cara questioned even as she turned to allow Torah to thread the scabbard behind her drop pack into the slot made for it in the backplate.
“A little back up never hurt anything.” He motioned toward her. “I enjoy your current physical arrangement, so there’s no need to allow anyone to cut off anything.”
She huffed. “You asshole.”
Din looked down and found Wila standing next to him. “Did you need something, Wila?”
“Can I go down with you?”
“It’ll be night,” Din said. “And based on star charts, no moon.” He watched her process that.
“You might need help slicing locks,” Wila said. “Cara gave me copies of all of her slicing programs.”
“So you’re prepared to live a life of crime if you ever leave me,” Din said.
“I’d never leave you, Mand’alor,” Wila declared. “I can be brave. IG made me a light to carry in my toolkit if I get scared. Can I go?”
“You’ll have to jump with Paz,” Din cautioned. “I’ll be taking Princess Leia with me and won’t have the resources to manage your transport, too. Your repulsorlifts aren’t powerful enough for a low orbit jump from the ship, so don’t suggest it.”
“I’ll jump with Paz,” Wila said though she was clearly reluctant about it.
“You know girls normally like me,” Paz pointed out.
“You make a lot of noise,” Wila declared and trotted off. “I’ll get my satchel!”
“Why does she have a satchel?” Leia questioned curiously.
“Well, the last time she brought it on a mission—she came away with several thousand credits,” Din said. “She has hobbies and needs stuff.”
“Hobbies,” Amilyn repeated. “She has hobbies?”
“Currently, she’s making her own yarn, so she can knit,” Cara said as she rotated her shoulders at Torah’s silent prodding. “I’ve been promised a sweater, and Rey’s getting a blanket.”
“Dral’s getting a blanket as well,” IG reported. “Mand’alor, I require a clarification regarding tactical retreat protocol.”
Din slid a vibroknife into his boot and nodded when Amilyn raised an eyebrow. He motioned toward the locker, indicating she could have her pick of the knives he had. “I’m listening, IG.”
“My instructions are to take your children and the darksaber to Torah Liss in the event of your death. Considering our current crew, that instruction is contrary to my ability to retreat. I need a second option.”
“Gí Rast,” he said.
“Very well.” IG turned and left. He shut the cargo bay doors behind him and the locks engaged.
“You aren’t going to say goodbye to your children?” Amilyn questioned.
“That’s not the way,” Din said. “The implication is that we’ll not return to them, and going through such a ritual repeatedly would be emotionally damaging.”
“This is our life.” Cara closed her locker and activated the locks.
“We are hunter and prey,” Torah said. “Our children are warriors. My own buir’s last words to me were not a goodbye.”
“What were they?”
Torah sighed. “He told me the chest piece I was forming was a waste of durasteel, and I should start over.”
Oddau laughed. “Not a surprise.”
“He wasn’t known for giving praise,” Torah admitted. “But he walked out of our home wearing my armor that day like he had every day for a year.”
“How did he die?” Cara questioned.
“His ship was destroyed in hyperspace,” Oddau said when Torah hesitated. “Boba Fett did it on Horba the Hutt’s order. Never enjoyed a kill more in my life.”
“That’s the one you used the shock rod on?” Amilyn questioned and grinned when he nodded. “Genera Solo speculated for weeks on who it could’ve been. Why did Horba want him killed?”
“It was believed that my buir was the last of his kind—the last true armorer from Mandalore with the ancient knowledge of beskar,” Torah explained. “He was mistaken.”
“Is it…what does it mean to be an armorer?” Leia asked.
“It is a position of honor,” Oddau said. “A title given to the most gifted of blacksmiths among us. Torah is the only one we have left thanks to the Empire and creatures like Horba—they were systematically hunted and executed as a method of demoralizing us before they bothered with purging our homeworld. Our resources and shipbuilding yards were the backbone of the Empire’s fleet near the end of their reign.”
A small lurch in the ship told Din they’d left hyperspace. His comm pinged immediately, so he activated. “Bo-Katan, report.”
“Four ships in the compound, all disabled. There are now 36 assets on the ground and ten children. Identities unknown, but none have left the planet since my arrival, so if Ben Solo was here—he’s probably still here. All of the children are humanoid and small—under ten, I would say with some certainty unless they’ve found another of Dral’s species. Some are very small; one is clearly an infant.”
Din took a deep breath. “Are all the children in the same place?”
“In the same building, but being held in separate rooms—there are four caretakers in the building. No adult on the planet is wearing a single bit of armor. Weapons storage is near the back of the compound. I have two assets on it, so we can take it as soon as you hit the ground.”
“How many do you have on the ground?”
“I sent down two to start and came down with 20 more when the report came in on the number of children these bastards have stolen. I’m on the ground, and I’m going to kill a lot of people before the night is over. If you want some of that action—I suggest you put some boots down on this shit hole world immediately.”
“On the way, send me a nav point,” Din ordered and closed the comm. He focused on Leia Organa.
She finished attaching the mag clamps to her own boots, stood, and adjusted the strap of her rifle. Finally, she pulled the hood and mask Torah had given her into place. “Let’s go.”
Din hit the manual control on the ramp, and it lowered. “Ero, Aja—you’re up first.”
They walked down the ramp, turned, and for the briefest moments touched helmets, then jumped.
“How long’s that been a thing?” Oddau questioned.
“Since before they left Tatooine the first time,” Cara said roughly as she walked between them and stepped right off the ramp.
“I had to be told, too,” Din said like that was any sort of consolation. “But I didn’t feel bad because I’m not a parent to either of them, and it’s not my job to keep up with their romantic shenanigans.” He offered Leia his hand. “Ready, Princess?”
“Just Leia, please, and yes, I’m more than ready,” she said and took his hand. She put her back to his chest and stepped up onto his boots without instruction. She jumped just a little as her boots adhered to his. “Sorry, this is the closest I’ve been to another man since I married.”
“My apologies then for what comes next,” he said roughly as he slid his left arm around her waist and pulled her tight against his body. “Paz, Torah?”
“We’re on sentry,” Paz agreed.
“Sentry?” Leia questioned.
“Using a jetpack is an intuitive skill,” Din murmured as he took two steps back to the edge of the ramp. “And one that requires that I be conscious as the jetpack takes commands from minute body language that is monitored by the harness system. If I take a hit or pass out due to pressure, we want to make sure there’s someone around to catch you.” He jumped before she could respond.
To her credit, Leia Organa didn’t make a single sound the entire trip down. The moment they touched the ground, Din released her boots and set her gently on her feet. “You okay?”
“Honestly, that was great,” Leia admitted as she pulled her hood and mask off. She shoved both into a pocket of her pants. “The last time I had to leave a ship from low orbit, I had to tandem jump with a shock trooper who was torn between protesting the responsibility and excited to touch a princess.”
Din grimaced. “If you give Cara his name—she’ll kick his ass for you.”
“I kicked his ass,” Amilyn announced as she walked by. “Repeatedly, that asshole required a lot of physical training after that jump. I’m pretty sure he got the message.”
Din activated his comm and changed to the channel that everyone was on. “Bo-Katan, we’re on the ground. Set the perimeter and start taking out their guards. We’re not taking hostages.”
“Considering the number of children in play, I’m going to move straight through the compound to them with Leia Organa. If they’re from industrial worlds of any sort, they’re going to recognize her and see her as a source of safety and comfort.”
“Agreed, we’ve got your back.”
Din focused on Leia. “This is going to be quick and, for them, merciless. Bo-Katan’s people are already picking targets to shoot at range. When we start moving, you don’t stop no matter who falls.”
“The body glove you’re wearing is blaster proof, but we’ve not done extensive lightsaber testing. If you take a blaster hit, it’s going to hurt, but it’ll be just impact injury. That could include broken bones—being from Alderaan gives you an advantage in this. Have you had bone reinforcement treatment since leaving your homeworld permanently?”
“Yes,” Leia said and cleared her throat. “And I take the supplements. I won’t get brittle as long as I have the funds to prevent it. Han runs a heavy-grav environment on the Falcon for my benefit, and we’ve done the same in all the homes we’ve lived in since Ben’s birth. He’s a sturdy and strong child as a result.”
“Good,” Din turned to Cara, who gave him a nod and motioned Ero to follow her. The two disappeared into the darkness.
Wila tugged on his bootstrap, and he looked down. “I might make noise if I walk.”
Din picked her up and hitched her over his left shoulder. Her feet adhered to his jetpack easily, and she curled one hand into the top of his backplate. “Let’s go.”
“Getting married has done a lot for his personal growth,” Paz said dryly as they started toward the compound. “Even a year ago, he would’ve refused to lay hands on a droid.”
“I’m special,” Wila declared in a whisper.
Din barely refrained from laughing. He supposed she was special, and he had no tangible reason for it. He trusted the programming because of Cara and IG, but he gave Wila a lot more leeway physically than he did IG. Perhaps it was her size, but he wasn’t going to dwell on it overmuch.
They slipped between two buildings as the first shots rang out. He heard the sound of a lightsaber activating before he saw the light of it. The man came at them at a run only to be hit by sniper fire—his body fell just meters from Din. He scooped up the lightsaber and tossed it to the Armorer. There was no need to leave a weapon like that on the ground for someone else to pick up and use against them.
“Great shot,” Din said.
“Thanks,” Ero murmured in his ear.
Din ignored the way his stomach clenched and Paz’s ragged intake of breath that followed his nephew’s response. Part of him was relieved that it happened with Paz nearby to handle the fallout. No one’s first kill sat well, and he didn’t think his tender-hearted nephew would be an exception, no matter the circumstances. At least, there was no doubt in the justice of it—every single enemy on the ground was an immense threat.
“Mand’alor!” The man he knew to be Ren stalked out into the middle of the compound and brandished his lightsaber. “I look forward to taking the darksaber from you. Don’t worry, I won’t bother trying to rule your people. I don’t give a fuck if they all live or die.”
“The dark side makes people really dramatic,” Din said. “And in the spirit of full disclosure, Ren, if you take the darksaber from me—my wife is going to shoot you in the head.”
Ren laughed and pointed his lightsaber at him. “No one is going to take me down! I am invinci—”
Din watched him crumple to the ground as the report of Cara’s sniper rifle filled his ears over the comm.
“I really don’t like being underestimated,” Cara muttered. “You’ve got four lying in wait around the next corner—I don’t have a good shot on any of them.”
“We got it,” Din said.
He motioned Paz to cross the courtyard and got a half-assed salute for his trouble as his brother trotted off. Amilyn moved around him, leveled her rifle and darted across the alleyway, and took a position similar to his own against the opposite building. She shot him a look as one of their targets tried to slide around her corner. She caught the man by the vest, jerked him around, and broke his neck before dragging him into the darkness. She reappeared, barely lit by a security light above their heads that was missing half its bulbs.
Din waited roughly thirty seconds, then exposed himself because clearly, the other three weren’t going to be stupid fast enough to suit him. He aimed his blaster and took out all three before they could draw the lightsabers they had clipped to their belts. He plucked Wila from his shoulder.
“Wila, start hiding their weapons for salvage. Keep the lightsabers in your bag.”
“Sounds fun!” Wila darted off in the direction of Amilyn’s kill and returned with a blaster and a lightsaber. “I got this!”
Torah huffed a little under her breath. “She’s adorable—a lot more fun than the one Naova brought to the covert.”
“Get your own,” Din muttered.
“I have control of the building containing the children,” Paz announced. “Five ran from the compound.”
“Ram, find them—kill them,” Din ordered. “IG, start scanning for hidden craft on the planet and make sure they don’t get off the surface.” Both orders were quickly confirmed. “Paz, we’re heading your way.”
“Wait,” Cara murmured. “Looks like they’re preparing an assault run to the biggest of the ships. Sixteen heat signatures in the building next to the one that Paz is in. Give a body count!”
Din listened to everyone rattle off their numbers. “We took out a four-man team here in the alley.”
“And all four of my targets are dead,” Paz reported. “Looks like the sixteen in that building are the last of them except for the five that ran.”
“They’re dead,” Ram said, and the Razor Crest did a fly-by overhead. “Confirming sixteen in the building next to Paz.”
“Paz? How thick are the walls in that building?”
“Not thick enough,” Paz admitted. “One stray shot, and someone gets hurt. I don’t have the tools to unlock the doors, and the cells are soundproof, but it’s electronic. They have these kids in complete isolation.”
“Rally on Paz,” Din ordered. “The children come first—get them out of the line of fire. Wila, drop whatever you’re doing—we need you on those doors. Cara?”
“On my way,” she said.
Din moved, allowed himself to check Leia Organa’s position just once as they crossed the courtyard. He motioned her and Amilyn Holdo into the building with Paz. Wila trotted in after them and the door shut. Bo-Katan’s people moved past him quickly and formed a wall of bodies between the two buildings. Cara dropped down from the building and hit the ground a meter away from him, and Ero followed suit.
She pulled her datapad and went to the door. “What are they up to in there?”
“Procrastinating,” Din speculated as he scanned the building. “Most of them are seated, and the rest are pretending to check their weapons. They have blasters—must be new recruits, or they aren’t currently trusted with lightsabers. No idea how Ren trained his people but based on what we’ve seen, it wasn’t much of anything. Looks like his operation was built entirely on a pretense of power.”
“Maybe he hadn’t gotten his feet under him,” Cara murmured as she worked. “Someone’s noticed my slice, but they can’t stop it.”
“They’re getting agitated,” Din said.
Din looked at the comm speaker on the control panel Cara was working on.
“I mean it back off, or we kill all the brats! We’ve got the building wired with explosives!”
Din knew that Paz wouldn’t have missed something like that in his security sweep, so he just crossed his arms and watched Cara continue to work on the door. “We’re going to kill you all.”
“Wait! We just want to leave, okay? Let us leave, and you can have those kids! We don’t care what you do with them!”
“And I’m going to kill you personally—so please keep talking, so I know which one you are,” Din announced as he focused on the life sign sitting in the very back of the one-room building.
The man was too still, too calm for the circumstances. The Force shifted around him, and the man moved.
“Cara!” Din grabbed her by her drop pack, hauled her back from the door, and shot into the air as the door blew open and Snoke stalked out.
“Drop me and get that guy!” Cara demanded.
“What’s your hard limit?”
“For fuck’s sake, are you sure?”
Din let her go, but it was the last thing he wanted to do, and he relaxed only slightly when her drop pack activated. He landed and drew the darksaber just as Snoke started to the building with the children in it.
“You think you can fight me?” Snoke demanded. “I was trained by a true master!”
“Yeah?” Din shrugged. “Let’s go then.”
“I’m on the ground—safe,” Cara announced breathlessly.
Snoke came at him, madly swinging his lightsaber. The bright red blade should’ve been menacing, but Din saw nothing but weakness in the dark side. The cloned creature looked desperate as he fended off one blow after another. Snoke screamed at him, but it was just, sound, and threw out a hand. There was a small, barely felt tug on the darksaber, but he knew the weapon wouldn’t leave his hand willingly.
He pushed with the Force and threw Snoke across the courtyard. It was almost impressive that he managed to keep ahold of his lightsaber even after he hit the ground.
Snoke sat up, clearly shocked, and glared at him. “You have the Force.”
Din inclined his head. “I don’t like to brag—it’s unseemly.”
Paz snorted in his ear. “Stop playing with that asshole. Your little droid is beside herself with worry.”
“I’m not worried!” Wila protested. “The Mand’alor will kick that lousy shabuir’s ass!”
Snoke came to his feet and held out his lightsaber with one hand while he used the other to push against Din with the Force. He felt the pressure of it but shoved back, and Snoke shouted as he was lifted off the ground.
“What are you?” he shouted in demand. “What the fuck are you?”
Din jerked him in and caught his body with the darksaber. Snoke shuddered as he pushed him down on the ground and held him down with one boot as he pulled the darksaber slowly from his chest. “Do you really want to know?”
“Tell me,” Snoke hissed. “Tell me!”
“I’m the hand of the Cosmic Force,” Din said as he watched the life fade out of Snoke’s eyes. There was a brief moment of startled horror on the creature’s face before he went slack in death.
He turned off the darksaber and turned to find bodies sprawled out behind him. Cara and Torah gave him nods as he focused on each of them.
“We’re the only adult life signs left within two kilometers,” Torah reported. “Ram marked the location of the ship the runners were trying to reach. It’s under a cloak.”
“It was probably Snoke’s,” Din said. “Have him land and guard it. I want it taken back to Tatooine and stored until I can search it personally. No one should be allowed in it, so it should be towed.”
“Understood,” Torah said and left.
He focused on Cara. “You okay?”
“There wasn’t really enough height for your drop pack to be useful.”
“I used it for directional purposes—to get out of your way,” she said. “I promise—I don’t even have a sprain.”
“We don’t have the ship adjusted to offer you a heavy-grav environment.”
“I have an implant,” Cara said. “And we’ll have to get one for Rey fairly, soon. I’ve been monitoring her bone density and muscle development. There are a few different ones on the market that will monitor and protect her bone growth. There’s no reason to let such a valuable physical attribute fade due to her environment. I’m researching current bone shoring implants to make the best choice for her.” She walked over to the building and picked up her datapad. “I need to help Wila get those doors open.”
“Confirmation on the infant,” Paz reported. “Looks less than a month old—human.”
“Son of a bitch,” Din muttered. “IG, you can land. Tell Rey to have her salvage plan ready for my review.”
He walked into the building and found that several children were already huddled into a group in what amounted to a lobby. None of them looked injured or malnourished, so that was something, but they all looked terrified. Din walked over to them and the oldest of them, a boy of less than ten, stepped forward with a small child clutched in his arms.
“I’m Din Djarin.”
“The Mand’alor,” the boy said. “I saw a story about you on the HoloNet. My father said that you’re a warrior…a warrior king. Is that true?”
“I’m the leader of the Mandalorians,” Din said. “Were your parents hurt or killed when you were taken from them?”
“They snatched us in a market on Vulpter. My parents work for a droid construction company—our nanny droid was running errands, and she was destroyed when we were kidnapped. This is my sister Kesla.” He paused and flushed. “I’m Joran. Can we go home?”
“Absolutely, we’ll contact your parents as soon as we can,” Din said. “Do you know if any of the other children were taken from Vulpter?”
“Just me and Kesla that I know of. They only wanted her, but…I couldn’t let her go. The guys that took her said I could take care of her if I was good, so I tried to be good. When they got here, the weird alien was angry that I was here, too. He said I was useless for their cause. I thought he was going to kill me. That Ren guy said they could sell me. They still separated us—put her in a room by herself, and she was really scared, and I couldn’t take care of her.”
“We won’t separate you,” Din promised. “We’re going to have to organize all the data we can and figure out where all of these children belong, but we’ll make sure you can contact your parents as soon as it’s possible. Okay?”
“Thank you, sir.” He paused. “If you get me a datapad, I could start gathering names?”
“My wife will be out here soon—she’ll be doing medical scans, and we’ll get started on identifications then. Just take care of your sister and try to keep the others calm if you can.” He watched the children crowd closer to Joran. “Everything will be fine—we’ll do everything we can to return you to your families.”
“And if they don’t have a family to go back to?” Joran questioned.
“Then we’ll make sure they’re given one,” Din promised and relaxed when that earned him a small smile from the boy. “You’re all safe now. None of the ones that took you survived.”
He walked down the hall and watched as two of the last three doors opened. Ben Solo wasn’t in either of them. Cara went through three slicing programs before the final door gave way. Leia Organa made a soft, wounded sound when the room looked to be empty. Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared and offered her a smile. “He’s here—just hiding.”
Leia hurried in. “Ben?” She dropped to her knees beside the cot.
“Mama?” A small hand reached out.
“I’m here,” Leia said hoarsely and caught his hand.
The boy slithered out from underneath the cot and launched himself at his mother. “Mama! He said you were dead!”
– – – –
“Ren’s records regarding the children are sparse,” Torah reported as she put a datapad down. “The infant—her parents are dead. Snoke brought her to the compound himself and told Ren that she’s the product of an experiment gone very right.”
Din’s stomach lurched, and he took a deep breath. “An experiment? Like a clone?”
“I don’t know,” Torah admitted. “Sparse records, as I said.”
“She’s not a clone as far as my scans can discern,” Cara said. “And she’s not related to Rey if that’s your concern.”
“I can’t say I wasn’t,” Din admitted. “I don’t know what her biological father was forced to do before his death. I don’t want her put into the adoption process in the covert. Keeping her close feels like the right choice, but we’re not in a position to take on another very small child.” He glanced toward Cara and was relieved to see she didn’t look disappointed.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Paz said. “Jhil hasn’t put the baby down since we found her. Cara had to scan around her. She’d have already made a declaration, but she’s waiting for proof there’s no family waiting for her return.”
“And Zox is on board?”
“You know Zox is of the opinion that her wife should want for nothing,” Paz said dryly. “They’d mentioned seeking a sperm donor after we retake Mandalore. Getting a head start tonight on building their family won’t be a hardship for either of them.”
“And the others?” Din questioned.
“We’ve found reports on all of them, but the infant,” Paz said. “She’s a mystery—pure and simple. If she’s Force-sensitive, then I agree that she should stay within House Vizsla. There’s no need to paint a target on anyone else in the tribe if someone like Snoke comes looking.” He paused. “Or another Snoke comes looking.”
Din agreed with that, so he just nodded. “So they all have next of kin to be returned to?”
“It appears, so, but we’ll know for certain once we start making contact. Nearly all of them were taken in very public circumstances, so criminal reports were generated whether a parent or relative survived the encounter or not.”
Ivaa Vizsla came into the room holding Dral. She passed him to Din. “He was pitching a fit on the Tor.”
Din looked down at his son and found him frowning. “Don’t frown at me. You know you can’t go on missions.” He got an image of Dral redirecting fire from the stormtrooper in the canteen on Nevaro. It was an event he barely remembered. “I know you’re useful, but you’re too young. Try to be a child for as long as possible, ad’ika. Growing up is a terrible trap.” He focused on his aunt. “How is the salvage operation going?”
She inclined her head. “A few of Bo-Katan’s people were a little startled to be taking orders from Rey regarding the whole thing, but IG’s presence is making them keep any complaints to themselves. He’s following along behind her, looming in a way only a hunter droid possibly could.”
Torah stood. “I need to set up my recycling forge and start working on compacting the materials we’re taking with us.”
“We have enough ships on the ground that you can take Leia Organa and her son back to Naboo,” Paz said. “We’ll handle the rest of the breakdown.”
“Take Snoke’s ship back to Tatooine personally and secure it,” Din said. “I have one more trip to make after Naboo, then I’ll be returning to Tatooine. Did you want me to handle the family contacts for the children personally?”
“No, I’ll do it,” Torah said. “We’ll keep it quiet and as non-political as possible for the sake of the children. If I require the weight of your position, I’ll let you know.”
Din nodded and focused on Paz. “Did you want to keep Ero with you?”
“No, his place is on your ship until your mission is done. Oddau feels the same if you’re concerned.”
“And the relationship?” Cara questioned.
Paz sighed. “It has the potential to cause some political headaches, but I’m not going to let anyone tell my boy he can’t love as he wishes. And it’s clearly a very emotional connection. They’re probably both too young for it, but…” He trailed off with a shrug. “Heartbreak teaches its own lesson.”
The door opened, and Bo-Katan entered. Din resisted the urge to put a hand on his brother since he wasn’t sure how Paz was going to respond to seeing a woman he deeply resented.
Bo-Katan tilted her head. “Want to go outside and have a brawl, Vizsla?”
“I’m never opposed to a brawl, Kryze,” Paz said, but he stepped forward and offered his arm in a greeting of truce that surprised Din.
Bo-Katan stepped forward, and beskar met beskar as their vambraces connected. “Never known a Vizsla who was.” She stepped back and focused on Din. “Clan Woves and Rook will stay here to help with salvage. I’ll be ready to leave when you are.”
“I’ve one-stop left—you don’t want to go to Tatooine? Your son was born a week ago.”
“Naova and I agreed how things would go once she left the escort,” Bo-Katan said. “I’ve received a dozen holovids, so far—including one of the birth. My duty to Mandalore and to you comes first, in this instance.”
Ero and Aja were lingering on the ramp of the Tor when he approached.
“No,” Ero shook his head. “I gave the princess my room, so she could have some privacy. IG kept Rey in the cockpit until they were on board and behind a shut door as you ordered. She’s mad, but I understand why. I mean, what happens when two halves of a Force dyad meet? The boy is really upset right now—no need to add to his burden.”
It hadn’t gone well the first time, Din thought, so he hoped history wouldn’t be repeating itself. “I have no idea. The books don’t mention dyads at all, but you already know that. We’re taking them back to Naboo, so say your goodbyes if you haven’t already. You have ten minutes.”
Rey was seated on a bench in the common area when Din came through. She looked…furious. He inclined his head, and she glared at him. He sighed and took off his helmet, then slouched down on the sofa beside her.
“I didn’t even get to see him,” she said. “How’s that fair?”
“How fair would it be to put all of this stuff about the Force and the dyad on him after what he’s been through?” Din questioned. “You felt his grief, Rey.”
Her shoulders tensed up, and she looked away from him. “I could’ve seen him at least, but IG took me into the cockpit and wouldn’t let me out. I didn’t even get to finish my salvage operation.” She crossed her arms when he laughed. “Buir.”
“You think the Armorer can’t finish it up for you?”
“Of course, she can, but that’s not the point.” She leaned into him. “I wanted to see him.”
“I expect that you’ll see him before very long,” Din said gently. “Just give his mother time to adjust. Plus, she has to tell Ben about his father and his uncle. They were both gravely injured during the attack.”
“I’m being selfish.”
“You’re acting like a six-year-old,” Din said and laughed when she huffed dramatically. “Which is a relief because you don’t often act your age. It’s okay to be upset, I didn’t expect you’d be happy about it, but I can’t make every single decision around how you will respond. I have a deeper responsibility that…would be difficult to explain to you right now. Ben Solo is in a very delicate place emotionally, and we have to consider that in all the things that we do and say around him.”
“I wouldn’t want to upset him. Is that why Cyrus is hiding in your office?”
“I really didn’t think it was a good idea to introduce him to Princess Leia before her son was recovered, and he agreed. They’ll meet before we land on Naboo, and I don’t believe she’ll keep her son confined to Ero’s bedroom the whole trip. She’ll want to send a message to her husband—to alleviate his worry, and that’ll have to be done in the cockpit.”
Rey nodded and took a deep breath. “Right. I know I’m not being fair.”
“Life is not fair at all, but you know that already,” Din said. “I just need you to be patient, Rey. I don’t know what it really means for you to be part of a dyad and how that will impact you, your personal development, or your use of the Force, but we must tread very carefully with Ben Solo.”
“The Force is powerful, and your connection to Ben Solo could give you powers and abilities that could prove to be intrusive. You’ll need to learn to guard his privacy as much as you guard your own. Respecting the physical and mental autonomy is a founding principle within the way.”
“I’d never invade anyone’s privacy, Buir,” Rey said, her eyes wide with shock.
“So you didn’t try to reach out to Ben to have a conversation while we were on our way here?”
She blushed brightly, and her eyes welled with tears. “That’s not…I just wanted to make sure he was okay and to tell him…to tell him we were coming to get him and that his mom was with us.”
“He doesn’t know about you,” Din said gently. “He doesn’t know much about the Force at all because his mother didn’t want him to learn about it. And you didn’t have his permission to touch his mind. The awareness you have of each other through the Force is beyond your control and his, but to reach out to him with purpose without his permission is, in my mind, an invasion of his privacy.”
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “It didn’t work! I’d never…I won’t ever do it again!”
“Just…don’t do it without his permission,” Din said. “There are no hard and fast rules with this, Rey because the two of you are the only ones of your kind in the galaxy right now. We just need to make the best possible choices that we can possibly make in every single situation, which means we have to be thoughtful and considerate in all of our actions with Ben Solo and his family. They’re vulnerable right now, and that can be exploited, even by accident. We have to be better than that, in every single way.”
She nodded and scooted closer to him. “Right.” She brushed the tears from her face. “Do you think he’ll like me?”
“Well, you’re pretty amazing,” Din said thoughtfully. “A little bossy and stubborn, too, so I think, so. Those are great qualities.”
She huffed. “Buir.”
He laughed. “Don’t worry so much.” Din tugged gently on the braid that was looped just under her ear. “Princess braids today, huh?”
Rey blushed and shrugged. “I wanted to look nice.”
“You are far too young to be caring about how you look,” Din told her and laughed when she rolled her eyes. “I need to set up the trip—why don’t you get Dral and keep him occupied, so your ama can concentrate on the data we pulled from this place?”
He stood and walked into the galley where Amilyn Holdo was seated with a cup of caf and a datapad. “Captain.”
Her head jerked up, and she focused on him. “Don’t take this the wrong way—but you’re horrifying.”
“In what way?” He questioned curiously.
“I’ve not had a lot of exposure to Force uses, obviously, but I watched Luke train Leia to use a lightsaber and various other gifts within the Force, and neither of them ever looked like that in a fight. You told Snoke you were the hand of the Cosmic Force…” She wet her lips. “You meant that, right? Literally?”
“Yes,” Din said. “That bothers you?”
“I can’t say it doesn’t,” she admitted reluctantly. “You’ve done a lot for Leia and her family—so I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but power like yours is scary and could easily be a source of corruption.”
“Immense power in the Force is not the path to the dark side,” Din said evenly. “That path is forged through personal weakness—often rooted in deep emotional trauma that is exploited and manipulated by selfish and greedy outside influences. The cycle of Sith in this galaxy speaks to that, and the fact that their own corruption reduced them to the rule of two is telling. No more than that could exist without causing deep strife in their faction. There is nothing in the dark side for me, and I know that—it can’t give me more power, it can’t protect me or those that I love.”
“Are you sure about the power?” she questioned.
“I already have as much Force ability as a human being can physically contain,” Din told her and watched the color drain from her face. “It’s what the Cosmic Force has trusted me with, and I’ll do my very best every day that I live to honor that trust. The results of doing otherwise would be…catastrophic for my people. In the end, none of this is directly about me, but the path I create for others to follow.”
“There he goes laying down epic shit for other people to pick up whether they want to or not,” Aja declared from the doorway.
Din laughed. “Ready?”
“Yes, sir. We pulled in four bounties, and they’re on carb for storage purposes, including that guy Ren. There were a few others, but they were wanted alive, so we put a list together for anonymous reporting to clear the bounty records. Buir said that Administrator Kraga on Tatooine could handle that for us later. Nothing all that exciting on the money front considering what we already have on board, but every credit counts, right?”
“We have a lot of mouths to feed on the ground,” Din said. “In several locations throughout the galaxy, so yes, every single credit counts.” He focused on Amilyn. “If you need privacy, I can open my office for you. There is a fold-down cot in there if you want some rest.”
“I’m good,” she said and shifted her datapad in her hands. “You’ll hit a HoloNet repeater, right? Leia wants to contact Han.”
“Of course, the man deserves to know what’s going on with his family as soon as possible.”
“You’re not what I expected.”
“My reputation as a bounty hunter was entirely earned,” Din said. “So if you received intel on me from people you trust that you’re questioning—don’t. I’m a ruthless and merciless bastard when I’m crossed. I’d rather bring a bounty in dead than alive—less trouble—and there was a time when I didn’t care where my money came from as long as I could earn enough to feed the small tribe I was supporting. That’s how I ended up taking a bounty from a fucking Imperial.”
Cara came into the galley with Dral at that point, and his son reached out for him. “He wants to help pilot the ship. Rey tried to distract him, but he isn’t having it.”
“He’s a terrible co-pilot,” Din said but took Dral anyway. “I’ll do a microjump to the nearest HoloNet repeater and set up for secure communications. Shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes.”
“I’ll let Leia know and thank you.” Amilyn paused. “For everything. It was clear the encampment was temporary, and given another day, the situation could’ve been much more difficult. I couldn’t have assembled a strike force as efficient as yours with even a week of leeway. A week, we didn’t have.” Her gaze narrowed. “You trust Leia in a fashion she hasn’t earned and in her current position can’t earn. She’s an icon, at most, and if she returns to politics, she’ll be able to position herself as an ally. I just don’t…it’s Force related, right?”
Din laughed. “And if it is?”
“I hate what I can’t see and can’t plan for,” Amilyn admitted. “The Force was an abstract concept for me until I met Luke Skywalker, and even then, I considered it little more than a weapon. It’s clearly far more than that, and I don’t…know what to do with that information.”
“Give yourself time to think about it—you strike me as someone who needs to figure out all the angles of a situation,” Din adjusted Dral in his arms. “Cara has a database full of information regarding the Force and the history of the Jedi if you want it.”
“I do,” Amilyn said immediately and focused on Cara. “I’m sure Leia would find it beneficial as well. Everything she and Luke knows was given to them through oral teachings, and that was minimal, as far as I’m concerned. Both Jedi Masters they met and interacted with—died before they could impart a serious amount of knowledge.”
Din just nodded and left them to it. The fact was that Luke Skywalker had actively avoided learning more about the Force after Yoda’s death. A lot of it could be due to Snoke’s background influence of the Skywalker twins, but Din didn’t know where the line was drawn, and he wasn’t going to invest that much mental energy in worrying about what the emperor was doing in the background. The old bastard didn’t know what was coming his way, and that was enough for the moment. If Luke Skywalker didn’t recover as he should from his injuries, then the plan would have to be adjusted.
He sat down in the pilot seat, and Dral grabbed for the controls. “Not, so fast, ad’ika. We have to prep first.” The baby huffed and slouched against his chest. Din laughed. “Your lack of patience is a real problem.”
Rey dropped down in the co-pilot seat and swung her feet a little. “Buir.”
“Are you about to ask me for something crazy?”
He glanced her way as he activated sensors and navigation. “Are you certain?”
“Well, maybe,” she admitted. “Wila wanted me to ask if she’ll have time to do some research while we’re at the HoloNet repeater. She wants to make her own dyes for her yarn—natural ones.”
“It depends—she might have to wait until Naboo. I don’t know if the princess is going to send a message or attempt to make a live connection. She probably has priority communication access going into Naboo’s comm relays, so it might be an option. If that’s the case, then Wila will have plenty of time to access to the HoloNet.”
“I’ll let her know,” Rey declared and left.
Cara slid into the co-pilot seat with her datapad as he lifted off. Dral crawled out of his lap and climbed onto the yoke with a giggle. Since his son weighed very little, it didn’t make the process more difficult, so Din left him where he was.
“Something on your mind?”
“Always,” Cara murmured absently as she flicked through screens. “I feel like we’re clinging to the side of a mountain, and there’s a fall coming.” She looked up and focused on him. “And it’s a fall that neither of us can prepare for.”
He guided the ship up and into space as he considered how to answer that. “There was a time when I would’ve made some crazy promise—one built on reckless hope and bravado, but I’ve seen too much and know too much to do such a thing. I sometimes wish that I was that man again.”
“I don’t,” Cara said evenly, and he focused on her. “Because we know where that road led, and I’m willing to do some pretty wretched things to keep that from happening again.”
He inclined his head and focused on plotting a course for the microjump. “Then let’s just…plan to take the mountain down with us if we can’t keep a good hold.”
She laughed. “Deal.”
– – – –
Han Solo was seated in the holo-capture. Not a surprise considering the man’s injuries. Din stood from the pilot seat as it provided the best position for communication and motioned for Leia Organa to sit. She gave him a nod and did so, pulling Ben into her lap.
“Are you hurt?” Solo demanded roughly. “Is he okay? Are those bastards dead?”
“We’re fine,” Leia assured and pressed a kiss to Ben’s head as Din drifted toward the entryway of the cockpit. “And yes, they’re dead. The Mand’alor’s people took care of the entire operation. There were other children—stolen from their parents. They’ll be reunited if it’s possible. How’s Luke?”
“Stable and expected to make a full recovery with a week or so of constant immersion. I forced the people here to move his bacta tank to the Falcon, and we’re waiting on Lando to arrive before leaving. Don’t come back here, Leia. It was an inside job, at the very least. He’s not safe here and neither are you. If the Mandalorians will let you—stay with them. I’ll come to you.”
“But…” Leia took a deep breath. “You’re not safe either, and you’re injured.”
“I’m very safe, currently,” Han assured. “I have a whole platoon of Gungan guards surrounding the Falcon, and Chewie is handling security until the repairs are complete. 3PO downloaded a rehab manual for my injuries, unfortunately, and is bullying me through the exercises.”
“Gungan guards?” Leia repeated. “The Gungan Boss refused to meet with me while I was there.” She huffed and ran her fingers through Ben’s hair. Din noted the boy was staring intently at his father’s image.
“I was told the guard rotation was courtesy of Kor Adu—a former rebel alliance shock trooper. He was here personally yesterday but left to…do whatever the son of the Gungan Boss can do, I suppose.” Solo shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”
Din figured that was for the best. He also figured that Cara was responsible for Han Solo’s current security situation.
“Hey kiddo, you gonna talk to the old man?” Han questioned.
Ben leaned forward a bit and took a deep breath. “Daddy, are your legs gone? Are you okay? That mean man is dead! I saw his body though Mama tried to hide my face when she walked past him, but he’s really, really dead, and I don’t hear him in my head anymore. And I don’t think my echo is imaginary. I think she’s really close!” He paused to take a deep breath. “He said you were both dead and that you didn’t love me anyway, so I’d be better off with him, but that wasn’t true! You fought really hard to keep me, so that means you love me, right?”
“Of course, I love you,” Solo said hoarsely, and Din took another step away from the cockpit despite the fact that Leia Organa had asked him to stay close in case Solo had questions for him. “I’ve got new legs—came with a control panel and everything. How long have you been hearing the mean man in your head, Ben?”
Ben paused and shrugged. “Always, I think. I don’t remember not hearing him.”
Leia shuddered and pressed her face against Ben’s hair as her breath caught in a sob she clearly tried to swallow. “Ben, why didn’t you tell us?”
“I thought it was…normal,” Ben admitted. “Because of the Force, but he’s gone now, so I feel better…” He shrugged. “I tried to ask once, but you said I should ignore the Force because it was bad for me.”
“I’m, so, sorry, Ben,” Leia whispered. She took a deep breath. “Han, the Mand’alor is here if you want to ask him anything.”
“I do,” Solo admitted. “Have you both been looked over by a medic at least?”
“We’ve had health scans—we’re fine,” Leia promised. She leaned forward a bit. “I did a low orbit jump from the Mand’alor’s ship.” She grinned as Ben gasped in shock. “With a jetpack.”
“He let you fly a jetpack?” Solo demanded, clearly horrified by the idea. “Where is that asshole?”
Din laughed and leaned on the frame of the door.
Leia blushed furiously. “Han! Don’t call the man that saved our son’s life an asshole! Also, no, he flew the jetpack. I was just along for the ride.”
“Can I meet my echo now? She’s on the ship, right? She seems upset.” Ben looked around then focused on Din with an expectant expression.
“She’s in the cargo bay,” Din said when Leia hesitated. “Her name is Rey, and she’s my daughter. Let me answer your dad’s questions, and you can go see her, okay?”
“Okay,” Ben agreed and relaxed against his mother.
Din shifted, so Solo had a better view of him but didn’t ask Leia to move because, in the other man’s place, he would want to stare at his family as long as possible. “Concerns, General Solo?”
“Call me Han,” the man said roughly. “You’ve been jaunting around the galaxy for a while now—earning a lot of credits and ruining Imperials lives. I approve of both of those activities, but that’s just your public front. What’s your real agenda?”
“Right now, I’m gathering resources, so I can teach my children how to use the Force safely. The money is for Mandalore and my people, who are scattered across the galaxy. Some of them live hand to mouth on worlds that can barely support life—others live as nomads on ships that are held together with little more than hope. I have one more stop to make before I return to my base of operations. I’d rather not discuss the particulars over the comm relay.
“I agree with you—someone on Naboo helped with the kidnapping. My wife trusts Kor Adu, so I believe your security is well in hand and that whoever helped Snoke take your son was not a Gungan. As a species, they are family-oriented and protective of children. That being said, we can be there in just a few hours and oversee your removal from the planet if that’s the best course of action.”
“We have at least twenty hours of repairs left, and I don’t want them here for that length of time,” Han said roughly. “I’m not a target by myself. I accepted the security for Luke’s sake though I don’t think anyone would be interested in taking him, considering how that creature responded to him during the attack. It was clear they had no intention of trying to take him hostage during the…altercation.”
“An adult would be too hard to influence, and he’s already failed to turn Luke once,” Din said, and Han Solo reared back in shock.
“I’m afraid, so,” Din said. “But he’s not in a position to be a direct threat to anyone and anything. Snoke, the creature that attacked you, is dead, but there…are other circumstances that should be discussed later in a more secure fashion with fewer little listeners in play.”
“Agreed,” Solo said wearily. “Your last stop—is it dangerous?”
“It shouldn’t be, but I have a hunter droid whose base function is to protect the children in his care. Ben will be counted amongst that number for the rest of this trip. IG killed dozens of stormtroopers on Nevarro to keep my son safe—he’d do no less for yours.”
“That’s yet another reason to reprogram 3PO. He could even be useful as a hunter droid.”
“No.” Leia frowned at her husband. “He’s…lost enough. I’ll send you a message when we’re on our way to the Mand’alor’s base.” She paused. “Oh! The big green Mandalorian killed Horba.”
“Horba—that’s great.” Solo smiled. “Chewie owes me fifty credits.”
Din retreated from the cockpit at that point to give them privacy for their goodbyes. He walked through the galley and paused in the doorway of the common room where Rey was playing the ball game with Dral. His son was toddling back and forth in front of her, knocking the ball around with the Force while she made it bounce around in the air.
“Such an exercise would’ve never been considered in the temple.”
Din glanced briefly to his left as Qui-Gon appeared. “Why not?”
“It’s joyful…we did not teach our padawans to have fun with the Force. My own relationship with the Force was quite clinical until my death. I didn’t understand the depth of our Lady’s movement in my life until then, which is a shame as I was limited in many ways by the teachings of the Jedi. Yoda tried to tell me once…to make me understand that there were precious few limits when one is genuinely with the Force, but I didn’t understand.”
Din focused his attention on his children. Dral was as happy as he’d ever seen him, and that was such a relief that he could barely define it. “Limits create advancement through innovation and creative spirit—it’s how we grow as people and as a society. My buir taught me that. He provided a structure by which I could grow and learn, then when I was ready, he shared with me the code that all Mandalorians live by.”
“Creative spirit,” Qui-Gon repeated. “In truth, Din Djarin, I don’t remember a single moment of genuine inspiration in my life. I wasn’t taught to think that freely or to explore my environment for personal growth.”
“You were shaped—made to be a weapon for the republic. That circumstance was repeated itself for thousands of years. First, it was probably a response to the Sith and the wars that dominated the Old Republic. By the time of the High Republic, such things were merely a habit that mostly worked out for them, so what if they threw a Sith out every once in a while with their restrictive teachings? The Sith had learned long ago that there could only be two. It wasn’t even really a problem until it was, but by the time any of you realized that—the Empire was in power, but the real issue is that thinking like that totally ignores the fact that there are Force users all over the galaxy who never bothered to pick a side. Maybe they never even knew there was a side to pick.”
Qui-Gon made a face. “It’s awful having a discussion with a man like you because you know too much.”
“Must make appearing wise and mysterious difficult,” Din acknowledged.
Leia appeared between them, and Qui-Gon shifted away. Din had noted early on that all of the Force spirits gave her room whether they were visible or not. He didn’t know if they were put off by her or merely offering her respect.
Rey turned, her hand steady she guided the ball. “Ben.” Her eyes brightened. “Come play?”
The boy hesitated and leaned into his mother. “I don’t know how…I’m not supposed to…”
“It’s fine, Ben,” Leia soothed. “I made a terrible decision years ago, and you’ve already paid too much for it.” She ran her hand through his hair. “Maybe Rey can teach you how to play?”
“It’s not hard,” Rey said. “Master Yoda says you just have to believe you can do it. We’ll just have to be careful not to do it too much since you’re new at it, and it’s easy to get tired.”
Ben left his mother and walked across the room to sit down in front of Rey. Dral immediately walked right over to the boy, crawled into his lap, and rested against him. The boy grinned down at him, and Rey caught the ball.
“It’ll be fine,” Din murmured.
Leia glanced toward him. “Can we speak privately?”
“Yes, of course.” Din motioned her back through the galley. “I have an office space that I never use, but there’s a…well, you should probably meet him regardless.”
“Him? There’s someone else on board the ship?” Leia questioned.
“Sort of,” Din admitted. “My previous stop was Lothal. Are you familiar with the loth-wolf?”
“A Force-sensitive creature believed to be extinct, yes,” Leia said.
“Not extinct,” Din murmured as he opened the door. Cyrus was sprawled, snoring on his side in front of the desk.
Leia stared at the wolf. “You…I don’t want to offend you, but did you steal a loth-wolf?”
Din grinned and removed his helmet as he walked around the still sleeping wolf. He put his helmet down on the desk and used his vambrace to shut the door and activate the privacy mode. “No, I didn’t steal him, and I’m not offended. His name is Cyrus, and I was instructed by the Cosmic Force to pick him up for Lothal and bring him to your family. Officially, formally, he was to be a diplomatic gift from the Mand’alor to Senator Leia Organa—a protector for your child, but circumstances changed a bit since I received the instructions. Regardless, he’s for Ben.”
Leia stared for a moment, and her cheeks flushed. “The Force doesn’t trust us to protect Ben.”
“Can you blame her?” Din questioned and leaned on the desk. “I don’t mean to hurt you with this, but you and your brother allowed your son to be tortured since he was an infant, maybe even in the womb. We can’t know for certain. Snoke was in his head before he took his first steps, certainly, and that wouldn’t have been possible if either one of you were genuinely paying attention. That asshole should’ve never been able to influence you or Luke, but he did, and the end result is that your son is fragile. Palpatine intended your son to replace his grandfather. He sent Snoke out to accomplish that goal for him.”
Tears brimmed and fell. Leia took a hesitant seat and covered her mouth with one hand as she shuddered. Din said nothing as he really had no words of comfort to offer, and he knew, intimately, the grief and regret she was battling.
“Is it too late?” Leia questioned hoarsely. “Have we already lost him to the dark side?”
“No,” Din said firmly. “It’s never too late, and your own father proved that. Anakin Skywalker overcame decades of indoctrination and manipulation to save your brother from Palpatine. Do not doubt him in that regard—he did turn completely from the dark side in the moments before he died.”
“How can you be…so sure about my father?” Leia questioned. “Please, make me understand.”
“There is no place for the dark side within the embrace of the Cosmic Force,” Din said. “A Sith could never manifest as Anakin has—it would never be allowed as she would not allow such corruption to touch her. A Force Spirit can exist only because she allows them. No Sith has ever ascended to that plane of existence and never will. When they die—they cease to exist, or they linger in the place they died for eternity. When I communed with the Force, I stood in front of her—she touched me.” He paused when Leia focused on him. “And I’ve never felt anything so pure in my life. I was bathed in love and forgiveness in that moment. I can’t…really explain it better than that.”
“How would she respond to me, I wonder,” Leia questioned and wiped her face with trembling fingers. “A woman, so damned…bitter she turned from the Force and didn’t notice her own infant being…tortured.” She closed her eyes. “He cried a lot—the doctors told me it was normal, but it never felt normal. Sometimes, the only time he would stop crying would be if Han held him.”
“Your husband has no Force potential,” Din said. “Perhaps it created a null space for Ben in a way. Snoke had to use the adults in Ben’s life as a proxy since he had no ability to touch him.”
“So he used the Force in my body?” Leia demanded. “In Luke? How?”
“Force potential is determined by the number of midi-chlorians inside our bodies,” Din said. “These microscopic creatures live in our cells. They give us the ability to manipulate the Living Force, and they allow us to communicate with the Cosmic Force. Sith, in the past, have demonstrated the ability to manipulate the Living Force within themselves and others to do unspeakable things.
“Midi-chlorians are ultimately responsible for the manifestation of Force Spirits who use them to bridge the gap between the Cosmic and Living Force. A circumstance they can only accomplish through the embrace of the light side.”
“So in ignoring the Force, I allowed an outsider to use it against me,” Leia said grimly. “Against my family.”
“Yes—I don’t know Snoke’s long-term plans, of course, but it stands to reason that he would’ve eventually worked to destroy your family unit to make Ben more vulnerable to his manipulations. He would’ve certainly fostered a hatred toward the boy’s father, and if he were very lucky, Ben would’ve become known as the grandson of Darth Vader. It would’ve been easy to manipulate Ben into following in Vader’s footsteps if everyone around him expected it, feared it.”
“I…” Leia closed her eyes briefly. “Let me think.”
“Of course.” He glanced downward and found that Cyrus was awake and staring at them. “Have a good nap?”
“I’m bored and wish to meet the boy,” Cyrus said.
Leia laughed abruptly and focused on the wolf. “I don’t know what to do with you.”
“Leave me to my task,” Cyrus said simply and stood. “I will certainly not be dissuaded from it, and trying to make me would just be unduly stressful for you. It would also deeply insult our Lady, whom you already owe an immense apology to. She has been very patient with you, Leia Organa. You’ll have to work to prove to me that you deserve such from her.”
“You’ll keep him safe from Palpatine?” Leia questioned.
“I will keep him safe from everyone,” Cyrus said evenly. “It is the task I agreed to before my reincarnation. I will stand with him all of his days.”
“Because of the dyad,” Leia murmured.
“Because of him,” Cyrus corrected. “He was our Lady’s child before he was ever yours.” He turned and walked straight through the door without another word to either of them.
Din shook his head. “Cara will take care of it.” He cleared his throat. “You had questions, right? Beyond Ben and the dyad.”
“Many of them will have to wait until after I speak with Han. I can’t make unilateral decisions for our family—it wouldn’t be fair. Just being married to me has changed Han’s life in ways that he wasn’t prepared for and kind of hates.”
“A good man will make all the sacrifices required for his family, and I’ve never heard anything about Han Solo that would make me think he isn’t a good man,” Din said. “Besides, being married to a beautiful, courageous woman is no hardship. Don’t let him tell you otherwise.”
Leia blushed and then slouched back in her chair with a frown. “I don’t know how your wife stands you, honestly.”
“I have my uses,” Din said wryly and grinned when she rolled her eyes.
“I need more training,” Leia said quietly. “Training that my brother is unable to provide for many reasons. I can’t wait for him to get…his head right. There was a lot of pressure from the Senate for him to open a temple and start training Jedi, but he doesn’t believe he’s ready for such a thing, and having met you, I agree. He’s not comfortable with the Force—I think he fears it, and that can’t be healthy or light. I allowed his fear and my bitterness to create a situation that would’ve destroyed my son.
“He wasn’t like this after the Empire fell. He taught me a lot about how to use the Force and even trained me to use a lightsaber. Then I had a vision…I saw my son cut down by my own lightsaber. I was horrified and shared the vision with Luke. I told him that I couldn’t continue. Looking back, I watched his fear of the Force bloom right in front of me. He adores Ben. Before we found out about our family on Naboo, we believed that we were all we had—just the two of us. Then Ben was born, and Luke fell in love basically.
“Those men on Naboo had no choice but to kill Luke because only a mortal wound was going to take him out of the fight once we realized that Ben was the target. I thought…he was dead, but even that didn’t stop me from pursuing that monster who took my baby.”
“Parental instincts are nothing to trifle with,” Din said. “Whether you could feel it or not—the Force was probably pushing you that day as well. I’m in no position to train you, but if you want to learn with me, then I’m willing to allow that. We’re currently gathering data and historical texts for an archive. I think most of it useless as I have no need for the Jedi’s religion. It’s not…the way to divorce yourself from your emotions or your clan, and that’s what they required.
“Maybe there was a time when I would’ve welcomed such a restrictive lifestyle,” he shrugged when she focused on him. “It’s hard to hurt when you care for nothing and no one, but I’ve learned along the way that I want to be a better man than that.”
“I married for love when many would’ve wished I married for politics,” Leia said quietly. “I believe love to be the only legitimate reason to make war.” She cleared her throat. “On Coruscant, former members of the rebellion kept their distance because of my political position. I can’t say for certain they will continue if I go to Tatooine with you.”
“I have no problem with former rebels,” Din said. “They did the work that many could not or would not do that gave us the freedom we have today. You’ll need a private security force of your own, as you must know, and I won’t be able to house you or them in the covert directly. You can stay in Ramikadyc Redoubt, the former B’omarr monastery if you wish.”
Her mouth quirked briefly. “Yes, I heard you’d taken over Jabba’s palace. Han laughed until he cried. Even over five years later, he still enjoys any circumstance that would make that Hutt furious.”
“Can’t say I blame him; Jabba was a monster in every single way. Great job on killing him, by the way. You’re probably owed half a million credits from various planets in the bounty system as he was wanted dead or alive by many. No one has successfully claimed those rewards despite his death.”
Leia’s mouth dropped open briefly, but then her gaze narrowed. “How would I go about collecting that?”
Din grinned. “Your husband will think we’ve corrupted you. I’ll send the information to your datapad. A holovid file of the killing will serve as proof.”
“He’d have no room to talk,” Leia said tartly and stood. “I guess I’ll go make nice with Ben’s new friend.”
The outpost loomed large, carved into a stone mountainside. It was breathtaking, really. Din had never bothered to visit Elphrona in the future, but BB-8 had shown him footage of Rey’s trip to it. He knew that Ben Solo had destroyed much of it in his fight against other students from Skywalker’s temple when he was seeking to join the Knights of Ren. He really had no intention of ever showing the boy the planet or the temple, as it was a turning point for the kid in the other timeline.
Leia had tried to keep the boy on board the Tor, but his disappointment at not being allowed to see the giant Jedi statues up close had been so obvious that she’d caved immediately. Din hoped that Ben didn’t realize how much power he had over his parents any time soon. He’d had a brief conversation with Bo-Katan, who had stayed in orbit, before landing, so he checked his comm signal to make sure he had a solid method of reaching her ship if required.
Rey came to stand with him and put her gloved hand in his. “Buir, are we going to do the funeral first?”
“It would be the respectful thing to do,” Din said. “I’m going to go inside and find Master Uvell’s friend, first and if…well, I just need to see it before you do, okay?”
“It might be gross and stuff.” She looked around. “Or like the dried-out bodies on Jakku. It’s very dry here.”
“What dried out bodies on Jakku?” Din questioned and focused on her as he knelt.
“When I had to scavenge in the big ships, sometimes I’d find bodies.” Rey shrugged. “Plutt said I shouldn’t be afraid of them because they were just dead Imperials. He said they were…desi…” She frowned and took a deep breath as she concentrated. “Desiccated?”
“That’s the right word,” Din said faintly and glanced toward Cara, who had lowered her head. They hadn’t asked questions about how the salvage operation was going on Jakku, and now he wished he had. “How many did you see?”
“Lots,” Rey admitted. “I never counted them, not that I could count that high then. Many hundreds. Plutt said I should ignore them, but it was hard because they smelled bad, and he said I shouldn’t be weak. Troade got me a mask to wear over my nose and mouth. He promised to get me goggles, too, for our next haul, but that didn’t happen because I said yes to Master Qui-Gon.”
“That shabuir, Plutt…” Amilyn Holdo raised an eyebrow. “You did something about him, right?”
“Gí Rast ran in his bounty,” Rey said cheerfully. “I wish I could’ve seen him on carb!” She focused on the temple. “It feels nice here. Safe. I’m glad Master Uvell’s friend came here before he died. The Force protected him in her own way.”
“Who is this man you speak of?” Leia questioned as Din stood and released Rey’s hand.
“His name was Antron Bach, and he was a…friend to the Jedi during the Galactic Republic era. After Order 66 was enacted, he fought to save as much of the Jedi’s information and relics as he could. Eventually, the Empire found him, and Jedi Master Uvell, and his two padawans, died in Bach’s defense. Bach escaped with the texts and various other artifacts. He continued to collect whatever he could all of his life and stored those finds here.” Din motioned toward the outpost. “I don’t know what caused his death, but he died here during his final trip. Perhaps he came here to die. Master Uvell has requested that we bury the remains to honor Bach’s sacrifice on behalf of the Force.”
Din adjusted his amban as the strap had slid a little when he’d knelt to speak with Rey, and he focused on the structure. “Report.”
“Scans don’t indicate any structural weaknesses,” Cara said.
“No giant squid of any sort,” Aja declared. “Zero animal life of any substantial size outside of us within five kilometers. There is a herd of bantha further out—we’d need ship scanners to get an accurate number, but certainly a resource worth keeping an eye on if we need food in the future.”
Din nodded. “Ero, you’re with me. Cara, Aja, Holdo—on the entrance until I say. IG, ship duty. Keep it prepped for immediate take-off.” He plucked up Dral, who’d climbed down from IG’s shoulder, and passed him to Leia Organa. “You’re on toddler duty, Princess.”
Leia flushed as Dral giggled and wrapped a hand around her braid. “I’ve got the best job.”
“But not the easiest,” Cara said wryly as she motioned Rey to come with her. “Captain Holdo, pick your spot for sentry duty. Aja and I have a wider view range due to our helmets.”
“Can I go inside with you, Mand’alor?” Wila asked.
“It’ll be dark,” Din warned even as he picked her up and put her on his shoulder. “Go ahead and record all of this—someone might find it interesting in the future.”
It took nearly thirty minutes of exploration to find Bach’s cache, and his remains were propped up against the entryway as if he’d used his last moments to guard the place.
“Mummification is kind of a nightmare,” Ero muttered.
“Don’t keep any footage of the body, Wila,” Din said quietly.
“It would be disrespectful to do, so,” Wila agreed.
Din activated his radio. “You can come in. I’m sending a nav point to a small courtyard that will serve as a good resting place.”
“Got it,” Cara confirmed.
Din pulled a thin but durable body bag from his pocket and started to unfold it after deactivating his radio.
“Why would you…” Ero trailed off.
“There’s nothing worse than carrying a dead body unless it’s a dead body that’s leaking any sort of body fluid,” Din said wryly. “I always keep a bag on me, so I can transport a bounty back to the ship with as little mess as possible. That was especially important when I was the only one around to clean up.” He put Wila down on the ground, and she moved away to make a record of the rest of the room.
They quickly transferred Bach’s remains to the bag and headed for the courtyard. Din was relieved to find the others waiting when they arrived. It was open-air, which was a surprise and quite lovely in its own way. Not something his own people would build, but he had a feeling that Bach would’ve been honored with such a burial. Working together, they built a cairn from broken masonry, and Dral managed to find several vibrant purple blooms to put near the head of the grave.
Din didn’t know what to say as they all gathered around the cairn, and he started to turn to Cara for input when Rey cleared her throat. She raised an eyebrow at him, and he nodded.
“Mr. Bach, you don’t know us, but Master Uvell asked that we bury you as you buried him and his students. You must have been a good person for him to worry about you after so many years.” She looked to Din.
“We know you were strong because you defied the Empire. We know that you were clever because you survived the Empire. And we know that you were loyal to the Force and the Jedi because of the great lengths you went to protect their history and their teachings,” Din said and inclined his head toward Ero.
“Because of your strength, Antron Bach, the Force-sensitives left in the galaxy will have a place to grow and learn. We will understand the truth and history of all those like us who came before, and for that, no simple thank you is enough.” Ero lowered his head.
“An enduring and persistent legacy is yours,” Leia murmured. “And ours, thanks to your sacrifices on behalf of the Jedi and the Force.” She touched Ben’s shoulder.
“May the Force be with you, always, Mr. Bach,” Ben said and leaned into his mother with flushed cheeks. “Thank you for your service.”
The archive was organized well and simple to collect. None of the Force Spirits made a visible appearance, but Din felt them moving around the whole time they were on the planet. After they’d finished packing everything, Din returned to the courtyard alone. The spirits shifting around him clearly wanted something from him, but he didn’t know what it could be. He’d completed the tasks set down for him by the Cosmic Force, and the only thing left was for him to return to Tatooine to begin a journey that by all rights should’ve never been his.
“You are troubled.”
Din sat down on a stone bench not far from Bach’s grave and stared at the cairn.
“Cara worries that we’re going to take a big hit,” Din murmured. “I can’t say I don’t worry about the same thing.”
Tarre Vizsla sat down beside him, shining with the Force, and Din took a ragged breath. “You’ve proven throughout your long life, Din Djarin, that you can handle whatever comes your way.”
“There are things I’d rather not face again,” Din said and took off his helmet. It felt wrong to wear one while Tarre Vizsla sat beside him with a bare head. “I’m not that strong.”
“You are all that you need to be and all that he needs you to be, as well. The guilt and grief you carry is a deep burden, Din. You know that such a thing could be used against you within the Force itself. The Jedi of the past sought to eliminate that threat by removing as much attachment from their lives as they could. They failed, of course, repeatedly, but they still tried over and over again.”
“I don’t know how to let it go,” Din admitted. “I don’t see anything in the dark side that could tempt me.”
“That’s not the only path to darkness.” Tarre looked around the courtyard. “I nearly fell to the dark side seeking to avenge myself. I thought I needed the power that could be found there, but fortunately, I came to see that such a thing would ruin me. Your desire to protect your clan and our world could be compared to my circumstances, Din. What would you do to protect them?”
“There should be a limit,” Din said. “But there doesn’t feel like there is one. I let weakness make a terrible decision for me, and I’ve been paying for it for decades. The failure burns in me like lava.”
“And those around you are responding to that,” Tarre pointed out. “Your wife is on edge, and soon, your children will start to cling desperately to you in a way that can only bring them harm. Such is the risk we take when we love.”
“I lived without love long enough to tell you that it’s worth every single risk,” Din said. “I am working on myself, you know. I’m trying to get to where I need to be. Our people need a strong leader.”
“You are everything Mandalore needs,” Tarre said. “You will unite the tribes, and you will reclaim our homeworld. There will be losses as nothing comes free—no matter what anyone would say. Freedom often exacts an immense price. Your wife knows that intimately—fighting as she did in the rebellion and losing her entire planet. There is solace to be found in your riduur’s arms for more than one reason. Some consider such love a weakness. The Jedi certainly did.”
“You don’t consider yourself a Jedi.”
“I’m long past such distinctions,” Tarre said. “I couldn’t commit fully to the order when I was alive, and death merely made it more unattractive. The more you come to know, the more you realize how much you’ve been denied. I was never meant to be a Jedi, and my destiny on Mandalore proved that. I could not turn my back on my clan or the man I loved. It was beyond me, and in the end, I’m glad for it.”
“Even as you linger for hundreds of years in the Force without him?” Din questioned.
Tarre glanced at him, startled. “What?”
“You don’t have your partner. Does it eat at you to exist when he does not?”
“He’s here,” Tarre murmured. “He continues in the Force just as every other living being has in this galaxy as long as they never allowed themselves to be tainted by the dark side. The Lady accepts all into her embrace though manifestations vary based on Force ability. My riduur has not been far from my side since he died. He cannot speak with you or manifest as I have, but he’s here—even now listening to our conversation and probably judging me harshly for failing to soothe you as I meant to do.”
Din laughed. “Sounds familiar.”
“She’s a fierce one, your wife. Watching her shoot Ren in the head was an absolute delight.”
“Arrogant bastard had that coming,” Din muttered. “So I won’t…lose her?”
“Well, I can’t guarantee she’ll still be talking to your broody ass by the time you both die, but that won’t be the Force’s fault.” Tarre offered him a wry grin, and Din decided that he was just as awful as the other Force Spirits he’d met.
“Are all Jedi assholes?” Din asked.
“It was damn near a requirement at one time,” Tarre said and shrugged when Din sighed.
“You lured me back to Antron’s grave to have a conversation, right? I felt the push. Surely your whole purpose wasn’t to pat my feelings.”
Tarre grinned. “Some would be honored if that were the case, but no, I do have another reason.” He looked around the courtyard. “Master Uvell has retreated into the Cosmic Force with his sons, but he would have me tell you that you honored him and Antron Bach this day.”
“What does it mean to retreat?”
“It is a respite like few others—many Jedi in the past died violently, and there is precious little more comforting in this universe than the embrace of our Lady. You’ve experienced it.”
“Yes,” Din agreed. “Such solace is rare in the lives of most. And?”
“She wishes to thank you for your patience regarding Luke Skywalker. You’ve righted Leia Organa’s path, and she will not falter again, but Luke…will be difficult. At this point in his life, he doesn’t want his nephew exposed to the Force in any way and will work to convince Leia that she’s wrong to follow your lead.”
“How did Snoke manipulate him in the other timeline then? What’s their plan?”
“There would’ve been a course correction coming in the next few years, and Snoke would’ve encouraged Luke down a deeply spiritual path in his exploration of the Force. Luke would’ve become confident in his ability to protect his nephew, and only then would he have established a temple on Coruscant as the New Republic wishes. Leia would’ve been reluctant, to say the least, to allow it, but Snoke would’ve started to give the boy nightmares and so-called visions that would scare any parent.
“Due to Snoke’s constant bombardment, Ben would’ve started to act out and do things that his parents considered dangerous and dark. They would’ve turned to Jedi training in the hopes of keeping Ben in the light. As you know, they failed.”
“It’s a convoluted path.”
“But it worked—Leia Organa lost her son, husband, and brother within the space of a few years, and she had no support whatsoever when she was betrayed and essentially forced from the senate when her true bloodline was revealed. Obi-Wan has taken it upon himself to search out and destroy all links between the Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader. It must not ever be known as it is information that Palpatine used like a weapon against the republic and Ben Solo.”
“Which caused the death of Rey Skywalker.”
“Does it help to keep them separate like that?” Tarre asked curiously.
“Rey Skywalker’s death saddened me,” Din said roughly. “But Rey Djarin’s death would destroy me, so yes, it helps to keep them apart in my head. That breathtakingly sad woman from the future was not my daughter, and I can take some comfort in that.”
“One final thing,” Tarre said quietly. “The emperor’s clone left Exegol a month ago with instructions to find human female Force-sensitive to mate with.”
Din’s swallowed hard to keep from throwing up. “Rey was originally born in 15 ABY. Did they start this early the first time around?”
“Yes, but the clone is disquieting, and he fails many times to lure a woman into his embrace. He has no Force-sensitivity at all, so he’s using a droid to scan for them. He’s not a perfect copy of Shiv Palpatine, clear by the fact that he doesn’t have the Force, but he does have all of the emperor’s potential for mania lurking inside him. He fears his ‘father’ a great deal at this time in his life, and he’s doing exactly as he was told to do.”
“When does he break away?” Din asked curiously.
“He doesn’t,” Tarre warned. “Not completely, and even shortly before his death in the other timeline, he was considering taking his daughter to Exegol in the hopes that he could win his own freedom.”
“Will Rey be born again?” Din asked wearily, stomach heavy with dread.
He nearly slumped with relief.
“I don’t know the circumstances, but our Lady assures me that Palpatine’s clone won’t find the same woman to make a child with, and that closes the path to another version of Rey being born. I’ve been told that the clone is on the path to getting himself killed, but I can’t see the circumstances. He’s a threat, of course, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because he’s desperate to escape his circumstances and like the original—he has few limits on what he’ll do to get what he wants.”
“Should I seek out the woman that birthed Rey in the other timeline? Do I have any sort of duty to her?”
“The way would tell you that you do,” Tarre said. “But Rey’s mother is dead, Din. This woman—out in the galaxy living her life as a junk trader has never given birth and rarely allowed a man close enough to her to even allow conception. Life has taught her to be very leery of others, and even now, the Force is gently guiding her away from any circumstance where she might even meet Rey.”
“I worry that Rey will try to use her compass to find her biological parents,” Din admitted.
“She already did,” Qui-Gon said and sat down on the other side of Din. “But it did not work. The Force would never allow her to be hurt in such a fashion. There will come a time when you will explain her circumstances, and she will understand what you’ve done and why. She won’t resent you or Cara for giving her a family that she can depend on. Even before she used the compass to search, she’d already decided that she wouldn’t tell you because she feared you’d try to find them, and she doesn’t trust either of them to keep her safe.”
“I know I’m not supposed to complain about such gifts, but until she used that compass to find Ben, I wasn’t sure about letting her keep it all the time. It doesn’t seem…appropriate for her age.”
“It comforts her immensely,” Qui-Gon said. “Every evening before she sleeps—she uses it to seek out everyone she cares for to make sure they’re safe and sound. Sometimes she wakes up and checks on you specifically.”
“She has faith in you and has since the moment she saw your face, but that doesn’t necessarily quell the lingering feelings of abandonment due to what her parents did.” Qui-Gon stood. “It took us a while, but we did find out what your son’s original name was. Do you wish to know it?”
Din wasn’t entirely sure. “I’m not changing it—naming and adoption ceremonies amongst my people are very important.”
“He’s very content with the name you’ve given him,” Qui-Gon assured. “His name was Grogu.”
“Grogu,” Din repeated and grimaced. “It’s awful. How did he get it?”
“He was found as an infant on Dagoba by a Jedi and was meant to be taken to Coruscant to be raised in the creche there as Yaddle was before him. The Jedi was killed before he could return to the temple, and the child changed hands many times over the years before he was found by someone who knew what he was and wanted to use him for his own gain. You know, already, that he eventually became little more than a pet to that bastard,” Qui-Gon explained.
“Did that Jedi tell you why he named him Grogu?” Din asked.
“No,” Qui-Gon said. “But it should be said that those of his kind look very much like the frogs they like to eat as infants. He spent the first few years of his life living in a small pond. He left it when his gills started to close.”
“You’re saying he was a tadpole,” Din said with a laugh and shook his head. “Like a Gungan?”
“Very much like a Gungan,” Qui-Gon agreed. “We did go back to Dagoba and verify there are no others like him. I don’t think our Lady will allow that for many generations to come. She’s promised, however, to make sure Dral knows, so he can retrieve the child.”
“You’re saying the Cosmic Force will give him a child to raise,” Din murmured. “A foundling.”
“Yes,” Qui-Gon said and shared a glance with Tarre. “Provided it is safe to do so. Our Lady has seen the value of parenthood in watching you make a family. She finds it endearing in a way she never has before. She’s declared it a good and honorable path for the Jedi going forward. We would’ve been stronger and more loyal to each other if we’d been allowed to form clans and to create familial connections. That’s clear.”
“I’ll do everything I can to create a safe path for us,” Din said, and both Force Spirits faded away. He started to stand, but a soft giggle caught his attention. He turned and found Cara and Rey standing in the doorway of the courtyard and Dral toddling toward him as fast as he could.
He reached down and picked his son up. “Grogu, huh?” Dral made a face and shook his head. “It’s okay, we’ll keep it between us. I wouldn’t want anyone to know if I were you, either.”
Dral curled both of his claws against his chest plate and bounced in his hands. “Buir!”
Din blinked back tears as his hands curled into the tiny robe Dral was wearing over his body glove. “Yeah.”
Dral giggled as Rey and Cara joined them.
“He kept showing us pictures of you here,” Cara said. “It’s lovely, actually. I didn’t think a Jedi temple would be. Maybe we could restore it in the future—create a genuine outpost for Force users to retreat to in this sector if needed.”
“Did you have a good talk with the Force, Buir?” Rey questioned.
Din looked down at Dral, who’d relaxed against him in a drowsy way. “I did.” He cleared his throat. “Where are the others?”
“On the ship,” Cara said. “I figured you needed a little bit of space.”
“She’s a lot to take,” Din admitted. “Leia Organa has the potential to be a political hot button for years to come. Part of me isn’t sure I want her that close to me, but I can’t leave her vulnerable to the dark side.”
“You’re worried about her brother?” Cara questioned.
“No, not particularly. He can’t afford to be my enemy, and he’ll understand that soon enough.”
“We just have to trust the Force, I guess,” Rey said and focused on Antron Bach’s grave. “And the good we find in other people.”
“This is the way,” Din murmured and grinned when they both responded with the same.
“Way!” Dral declared. “Way, Buir.”
“Let’s go back to the tribe and prepare for war,” Rey said and smiled when he looked her way.
“Yeah, let’s,” Din agreed and stood.
Cara picked up his helmet and put it back into place with what felt like deference. It wasn’t as unnerving as he thought it would be. “That mountain isn’t going to know what hit it.”