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The Smith and the Woodcarver; or, the Legend of the Lone Warrior and the Flower Queen

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Part 1- The Enchanted Garden
Chapter 1— The Shadow

Din Djarin could not believe he was on Sorgan for a third time.

“A real backwater skug hole,” were the precise words he’d used to describe it to Grogu the first time. Well. It wasn’t exactly a skug hole, in fact it was rather nice, idyllic and almost unrealistically calm.

After the AT-ST was destroyed, of course.

But here he was, treading quietly through the dense conifer forest to the given coordinates, the silence broken only by the faint burble of a nearby creek, and the eager coos of his ad’ika Grogu hopping delightedly in front of him while his newly appointed second trudged alongside.

“Tired, Wren?”

Tristan Wren’s helmet turned sharply to look at his Mand’alor, and unfortunately missed the raised tree root in front of his foot. He stumbled, but caught himself, swearing quietly. Din chuckled.

“Did you time it for that reaction, alor?” Tristan groused, settling his shoulders and resuming his gaze upon the path so as not to repeat the mistake. Din shook his head in amusement and returned his gaze to his son, who had paused in his Force-assisted hopping to trap some slimy creature.

“Grogu. Drop it.” The long green ears of the foundling sagged with disappointment, and he turned his little green, wrinkled face to his buir, blinking his large brown eyes in what he evidently hoped was a convincing plead.

And it was. Mostly.

“Eat this, instead.” He handed the kid a piece of jerky. With a delighted coo, the foundling bounded ahead once more, gnawing on the jerky.

“We’re about 3 klicks out, yes?” Din chuckled inwardly at the adult version of are we there yet.

“You know, you can just tell Rau you’re tired, if the planning goes too long.”

“I didn’t say I was ti— and have you successfully gotten Rau to give up on something when he sets his mind to it? He’s as bad as my sister,” Tristan scoffed, tipping his helmet up for a quick swig of water. It was a fair point. One simply did not tell Tristan’s sister Sabine Wren— feared Rebellion fighter, one-time wielder of the Darksaber and partner of one of the galaxy’s few remaining Jedi— to do anything. Fenn Rau was no better.

“Besides, he’d just give me a hard time about not being able to keep up with someone old enough to be my grandfather.” He pitched his voice low and brassy. “‘When I led the Protectors, I didn’t sleep for ten years’.”

Ahead, Grogu had finished his snack, and sat in the undergrowth, lazily picking at flowers and clovers that blanketed the forest floor. Din bent down and scooped him up, to settle him in the sack for a nap. A half-hearted squawk of protest had Din pause. “What’s up, kid? Want some water?” As he offered a canteen to the child, he turned to Tristan. “See anything yet?”

Tristan tapped his vambrace, then shook his head. “I think we’re still too far out.”

Din sighed, glancing about then looking down at Grogu, who had managed to dribble water all down his front. Bleary eyes blinked apologetically up at him, and he ruffled his son’s head gently. Next to him, Tristan had pulled up his helmet for another sip of water, then dropped it, scanning the area. It was peaceful, only the sound of wind in the towering conifers, trilling birdsong, and the far-off burble of creek waters tripping over themselves in a race to the finish breaking the silence. The forest stretched in every direction, dappled sunlight breaking through the thick canopy to illuminate the forest floor in glowing pools. Tiny flowers dotted the undergrowth; Din presumed they were attractive, his helmet preventing him from seeing the full splendor of the quiet forest. The spicy scent of the conifers managed to get past his filters, soothing yet stimulating.

In truth, Din was glad for a quick stop as well. The flight from Krownest had been too short for a full sleep cycle, the Council of clans had peppered them with messages that could not be ignored even as they were taking off, and Rau had been eager to go over the plan one last time. Only Grogu had gotten more than a few hours’ rest. The spell of Sorgan’s tranquility teased at his tired limbs, inviting him to linger longer than was wise.

“What a beautiful place to hide a clan,” Tristan murmured quietly, the admiration evident in his tone.

“It’s even nicer in the summer,” A woman’s voice suddenly sounded. Din hastily dropped Grogu into the sack as his free hand went to his blaster, Tristan’s already pulled and raised.

They looked around and saw… nothing.

“Try infrared, easier to see my heat signature,” the woman’s voice sounded amused. It was not that much easier; the vegetation provided some excellent cover.

“Who are you?” To his credit, Tristan’s voice sounded steady and not at all unprepared for invisible enemies.

“Alor Prudii Vhett’ika, Triumvir of clan Gar Vod’e. Advance party sent to escort you to the Haven.” Din and Tristan lowered the blasters as a shadow moved, and suddenly a woman stood before them, pulling a helmet off and shaking black braids away from her tanned face. She observed them, a smile in her hazel eyes, then bowed slightly. “Welcome, Mand’alor.” Her tone was just on the other side of respectful, an impish quirk in the corner of her mouth suggesting a rebellious streak.

Din stared at her. Her armor had been painted to camouflage with the surrounding flora, a mottled mix of colors that blended perfectly with the surrounding environment, the body glove underneath similarly marbled. A cape with similar mottled markings was pushed over her shoulder; likely capable of obscuring heat signatures. The helmet tucked under her arm looked like a highly customized clone trooper helmet, also painted to match the armor. He’d never seen anything like it.

Then again, he’d never met a clan like Gar Vod’e. Brotherhood of the Grand Army of the Republic. They’d defied expectations right from the outset.

“Like the paint job?” she smirked. “Republic commando armor, my uncle’s that I modified. Not as strong as beskar but—” she cut herself off as the smirk gained a bitter twist.

“How long have you been following us?” Din finally managed.

“Since you landed. You parked pretty far away and didn’t announce your arrival; I take it old habits die hard. After that—” her eyes twinkled with mischief, “I was curious to see how far you’d get before noticing me.”

“But we didn’t,” blurted out Tristan, and Din winced, grateful for the helmet.

“Nope,” now Prudii was grinning. “But at least you didn’t make it all the way to the krill village this time.”

“This— you followed me the last time I was here?” Din was flabbergasted now, and more than a little ashamed. Some bounty hunter I was.

“I did tell you that we’ve seen you before. We make it our business to know who’s coming and going. In fairness, your adorable kid is pretty distracting. We were about to start our operation to take out the Klatooinian gang you so handily dispatched, when we saw a ship come in that matched the one our scouts in Nevarro had mentioned. Probably one of the more spectacular scout reports I’ve ever read. Oya decided to turn tracking you into an advanced recon exercise, since we weren’t sure why you were here and what your plans were— or what trouble might follow you. She told me I passed, but I have a little work to do still.”

Prudii chuckled, taking pity on their stunned silence. “Now, we’re actually two and a quarter klicks out, and there are refreshments waiting for you, so shall we? We can move your ship to our airfield once you’ve been settled.”

With that, she looked down, waggled her gloved fingers at Grogu, who had poked his head out and cooed back at her, and turned to lead the way. Tristan turned to Din, who shrugged and followed.

He wasn’t complaining. He was rather enjoying the lack of pomp and puffery that usually came with these types of visits. And no one had threatened to challenge him for the saber yet, either.

Din had admittedly low bars.

“If you knew about the Klatooinians, why didn’t the farmers come ask you?” Din called after her.

“How interesting that that is your first question.” Din didn’t know what to make of that, and so stayed silent. It had always served him well before, though the effect didn’t feel as satisfying in this moment. “They don’t know who, what we are. Or even where we are. So they didn’t know to ask. We normally handle security threats quietly, and we rarely socialize with other villages around here; if we do, we go to them— no one comes here. We were finalizing plans when you showed up. That was quite some strategy, very risky. We did a little tidying up for you after with the ones that fled, hope you don’t mind.”

“Are you criticizing the Mand’alor?” Tristan retorted incredulously.

At that, she paused, and looked back over her shoulder. “He was a bounty hunter at the time. And we don’t count as Mandalorians, so does our opinion really matter?” And kept walking. Tristan’s helmet swiveled back to Din, shoulders thrown back in shock and unease. Din merely nodded to Tristan to continue on, tucking his own discomfort deep within where it couldn’t be perceived. He hadn’t missed the bitter edge of her tone, a slight undercurrent of longing.

Well this just got more interesting.

 

 

As they drew closer, Din picked up indications that this compound would be like nothing he’d ever seen before. His covert had hidden in the sewers under Nevarro for years. The Night Owls had drifted from tavern to tavern. Others had hidden in cave systems on Dantooine.

Here, well-concealed sensors created several rings of perimeter security, likely to track speed of advance to the compound. Tristan had walked right past them, totally unaware; only years of bounty hunting had taught Din to notice the signs. Suddenly, the woods ended and they found themselves at the edge of a massive clearing, surrounded by what appeared to be a simple split rail fence. Din knew better. A young man lounged against the wall of a simple guard hut at the entrance, slightly too relaxed to be anything but ready to pull a blaster at a moment’s notice. He also wore full armor, some kind of repurposed trooper armor, albeit repainted in gold and orange. Vengeance and lust for life. Hell of a combination.

“All right, Prudii?” the man called, pulling off a helmet to reveal a pleasant smile that belied the sharpness of his golden brown eyes as they scanned the newcomers. He looked very familiar.

“Sentry duty, Adenn?” Prudii grinned at him, as they shared a warrior’s greeting, grasping forearms.

“Adenn?” murmured Tristan to Din softly.

No mercy.

Adenn had heard. “To my enemies,” he replied, his grin sharp and wolf-like.

“We have some unique customs here. I’m sure Mama and Saviin will be happy to explain them all to you.” She turned back to the youth, and let fly some direction in heavily-accented rapid-fire Mando’a that Din barely caught, before switching back to Basic. “And make sure there’s room in the airfield for their ship. Ret, vod.” Prudii waved at the youth, who offered a sloppy salute before resuming his post at the entrance. She gestured for Din and Tristan to follow.

Adenn. Prudii. Saviin. Vod. Din’s unease deepened. Mando’a was a rare language now. The Mandalorians who had begun to gather at their current base of operations on Krownest didn’t often speak pure Mando’a, frequently mixing in Basic. He could speak it fluently, but not like that. A whole community of fluent speakers, whose status as Mandalorians was in question—

Din tabled the thought. Observe first.

A variety of ships were parked right near the entrance on both sides, a few fighters, a passenger shuttle, and what appeared to be a refitted and re-painted Nu-class attack shuttle, early Empire. Din noted with some satisfaction that all appeared to have weapons systems of some kind. Straight ahead, a beaten-down grass path led straight through the middle of the clearing to the far end, and Din couldn’t help but marvel.

On either side of the path, fields of grain had started to sprout, nearly knee-high already. Small shrubs of nuts and berries, interspersed with flowering bushes, lined the pathway. The grain field gave way to over a dozen garden beds on each side, neatly tilled with early growth poking out. Fruit trees in full bloom were set between the beds, likely providing dappled shade for tender plants in the summer months. Some beds were already a riot of color, early-blooming flowers cheerily soaking in the morning sun between heads of lettuce.

Directly ahead, a series of cottages and buildings were arranged in a wide semi-circle, with a greenhouse behind the center cabin. A large shed stood off on the far edge, where a clanging sound could be heard ringing across the clearing, and on the opposite side, a pavilion sheltered long tables; the glimmer of a pond could be seen through the rails of the perimeter fence. An open hearth near the pavilion surrounded by beaten-down grass suggested a frequent tradition of bonfires. And spaced along the perimeter fence were what appeared to be old but well-maintained shield generators; Din hazarded a guess that they dated back to the Clone Wars, scavenged from battlefields and maintained by those who used them regularly.

In all, an idyllic, secure refuge.

Grass fields ran along the edge of the fence on all sides, and a gaggle of children were sprinting after a young woman on the southern side of the space, screaming wildly as she cackled madly, leading them on a merry chase. Grogu made an eager sound from his place in the sack, bright eyes watching the children closely.

“That’s Ruusaan, you met her at Boba’s. She’s a real natural with kids and usually manages them for us all, as you can see,” Prudii supplied, seeing their helmets swivel to follow the romping children.

“How many children are here?” asked Din. He hadn’t seen so many children since the krill village.

“Twenty-five under the age of majority, last I checked. You’d have to ask Mama or Ruusaan, they keep better track.”

“Twenty-five?”

Prudii shot him another wolfish grin. “We take in some foundlings, ones we find on missions who truly have nowhere else to go and can’t be safely left with a caretaker. And only if they’re interested in coming; most do. And my generation just started having babies like crazy, so the nursery is pretty full; Adenn’s twins are there. And the other families who don’t live here full-time will send their kids here for training and family bonding from time to time, or childcare if they’re off doing… things.” She didn’t elaborate, and he didn’t ask.

“You take foundlings?” Prudii nodded at Din’s question, watching him carefully. “Would you be willing to take in more? We find them too, but until Mandalore is established, we have nowhere safe to keep them.”

Prudii tilted her head, mulling over the question as she tapped a message into her vambrace. “We might be able to do that. I’d have to make sure we’ve got the resources for it, but I think we could take in another dozen or so.”

“And training?” Tristan had perked up at that, and Din couldn’t blame him. That had been his next question as well.

“Yeah.” Prudii’s smile faded into something fragile, bittersweet. “We have the best.”

—————

Inside the forge, two comms pinged.

Senaar glanced at hers. “They’re here.”

“Hmm.”

Clang, clang.

Senaar looked up from her carving knife to her sister. “Are we going?”

“I need to finish this first.”

Clang, clang.

Senaar snorted. “Are you keeping the Mand’alor waiting? Gutsy power move, Saviin.”

“I’m not losing three days’ worth of effort on this blade. I’ll be done in five minutes. It’ll take them at least that long to get through the throngs of curious people to get here.”

The village metal-smith and armorer examined the object in question, turning it this way and that with the heavy tongs, hammer at the ready in the other hand. Senaar glanced over her appearance, noting that she had failed to dress for the occasion; knowing Saviin, a very intentional decision. Worn tan leggings tucked into calf-high brown boots that hid a few slim knives. A pine-green short-sleeved tunic was layered over a thinner tan shirt and tucked into a heavy kama that encircled the waist. Unlike her father’s kama, Saviin’s comprised of four panels, forming a full skirt of reinforced armor weave that allowed a full range of movement. The pine-green kama had been decorated at Senaar’s insistence with scrolling leaves and tiny flowers in bronze and violet. Shoulder guards and vambraces painted pine-green and edged in bronze and violet completed her daily wear when within the confines of the village; enough for defense at a moment’s notice, but preserving her full kit from daily wear and tear, since priority for armor and body-gloves went to those who regularly left the village for work. Currently, a heavy apron covered the ensemble, protecting her more flammable clothes from sparks as she methodically beat a flat piece of durasteel into submission. Satisfied, Saviin shoved the blade into the water bucket, sending a rush of steam into the warm air of the forge. She set aside the tongs, and turned to face her sister, pushing up her face shield to reveal violet eyes meeting the golden-brown ones of Senaar.

Unlike many of her cousins, who had the more common golden-brown of Senaar’s, or on rare occasion hazel or blue, Saviin’s eyes were an arresting light purple that descended into dark violet flecked with gold around the iris. Currently they peered at her sister with a guarded, suspicious expression on her face, thick wavy black hair pulled back into a simple braid. “And why do you remain?”

Senaar’s golden-brown eyes twinkled with mischief. “We’re a package deal, aren’t we? The smith and the woodcarver. So if you’re busy, I’m busy.” Saviin rolled her violet eyes but laughed all the same as Senaar grinned and stood, brushing tiny curls of wood shavings from her tunic. Like her favorite older sister, Senaar wore the tan undershirt and leggings tucked into boots, but elected for a far brighter tunic of orange and fuchsia, with pops of purple. Shoulder guards attached to the tunic and vambraces matched these colors, while thigh guards protected her upper legs. Without a kama, Senaar belted her tunic, a blaster holstered on one side and a dagger sheathed on the other. A thin leather cord looped over one shoulder and across her chest. Her curly black hair bounced freely just above her shoulders, a thin braid at the crown to keep it out of her perpetually cheerful face. The tattoo of a bird in flight decorated her face at the hairline, just above her right temple.

Senaar reached over, grabbing her favorite hand-carved quarter staff and swinging it with practiced ease onto her back. It connected with the mag-locks on the leather cord to secure it to her back.

“You know, you don’t have to be so anxious. He’ll stand there like a statue, just like before, take his beskar, and go. Easy. Nothing to worry about.”

“Who says I’m anxious?”

“Saviin, you’re drowning in purple right now. It matches your eyes, but I’m starting to get a headache from just looking at you. We should have sparred this morning, get the tension out.”

“There’s plenty to be anxious about,” Saviin deflected, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves. “It’s a massive risk to bring them here. I should have met them somewhere neutral.”

“This is the right call. Maybe he’ll see that we belong too.” Senaar glanced down at her own hands. Shimmers of golden yellow danced around the edges of her fingertips. She clearly felt far more optimistic about this meeting than Saviin. Then again, she was always more optimistic than Saviin.

Saviin did not answer, pulling off the face shield and the rough, heavy gloves, untying her apron as the bright midday sun pouring in from the open entrance to the forge was suddenly cut off by the arrival of the visitors.

Chapter Text

“Saviin, Senaar— our guests have arrived,” Prudii announced as the group approached the entrance to the forge. Their sister’s smile was neutral, but the slight tightness around her eyes belied her exasperation.

“My sincerest apologies, it is entirely my fault. I did not anticipate this blade taking so long, and it was in the final stages,” Saviin offered smoothly, then turned to the newcomers. Raising her fist to crash across her chest, Saviin addressed the towering column of silver beskar, gazing straight into the Mand’alor’s visor. “Mand’alor, olarom at morut be Gar Vod’e. It is an honor to have you here. I trust your visit will be fruitful.”

“Thank you.” Saviin waited a beat, but as it became apparent that it was all the response she’d receive, she offered a small, tight smile, then turned to the other man, offering her forearm in a warrior’s greeting.

“Alor Wren, a pleasure to finally meet you. I am Saviin Vhett’ika, Triumvir of Gar Vod’e.”

“Well met, Alor Saviin,” Wren responded, keen eyes taking in her attire as well as the forge. “So you are the community goran as well?”

“I would not presume such a title, but I perform similar functions, to the extent that we have the resources to do so,” Saviin replied diplomatically. Until recently, she did not have the tools to do more extensive smithing. The larger, hotter furnace had been a gift from Boba, but the issue remained that she had no one with whom to apprentice. Self-education could only take her so far. It didn’t bother her— smithing was closer to a hobby than a career— but to be compared to the near-sacred role of a goran…

That was too much.

She continued, “I regret that the third Triumvir, my older brother Kote, is off-planet at the moment and will return in a few days, but hopefully you will get to meet him as well. This is Senaar, my youngest sister. Her twin Ruusaan is currently occupied with the children as our crèche master.” Saviin gestured to Senaar, who offered her forearm to Wren. Senaar paused, continuing to grip Alor Wren’s arm, as her eyes flickered around the edges of his armor.

“Oh wow,” Senaar breathed in wonder. “You have to be the greenest person I’ve ever met.” Saviin shut her eyes in exasperation. In all her preparation, she had entirely forgotten to address this.

“I— what?” Wren looked startled and unclear how to respond as she finally let go. Prudii rolled her eyes while the Mand’alor stood incredibly still.

“Your aura. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so driven by duty, so focused.”

“Ah— thank you?” Wren floundered, looking to the Mand’alor for help.

“No, don’t be anxious! The green is much nicer than the purple,” Senaar offered soothingly.

There was a brief pause.

“Senaar is ka’ra-blessed,” supplied Saviin hastily.

“Ka’ra—”

“Mildly force sensitive,” responded Senaar cheerfully with a smile. “Can’t read minds, see the future, or levitate rocks. But I see auras.”

“Auras?” Wren asked, still looking confused.

“It’s like a glow that emanates from your body. Different colors correlate with specific emotions.”

“So you’re a Jedi,” stated the Mand’alor.

Saviin frowned. This was not going at all how she imagined. She brushed a loose curl from her face, using the action to avoid pinching the bridge of her nose.

“Not a Jedi,” Senaar replied firmly. “Not interested in becoming one, either. They’re welcome here, and we embrace some of their teachings, but that’s it. No hidden lightsaber, no tricks, and no control over the abilities I do have, like seeing auras— I couldn’t stop it if I tried. We’ve tried to use ancient Mandalorian texts on the ka’ra-touched to help them, with mixed results.”

“There were more Mandalorian Jedi?” The Mand’alor leaned in slightly, gripping his ad, and the pieces began to fall into place for Saviin.

“The Mandalorians of old had ways to help the ka’ra-touched that were different from Jedi teachings,” interjected Saviin smoothly, taking the reins of the conversation once more. “You can be a Mandalorian force-user without being a Jedi, and there are several other cultures throughout the galaxy who have their own beliefs and teachings for Force users, outside of the Jedi Order. To our knowledge, the only Mandalorian who studied with the Jedi at their temple was Tarre Vizsla. But we have established a fairly extensive archives on Mandalorian history as well as several related subjects, and can provide you with the direct readings on this subject if you’d like. It would likely be clearer than our haphazard explanations. If you’ll follow Prudii, she’ll take you to your accommodations, and when you’re ready, we can meet to provide you with more of an overview of our community, including our archives. Can we send someone for your ship?”

“Rau is with the ship, I’ll tell him to bring it in,” Wren responded.

“Fenn Rau?” Prudii asked with a smile, as Wren nodded. “What a small galaxy. I’ve got someone here who will be very glad to see him. Saviin?”

“Let me clean up here, and I’ll meet you at the house,” Saviin offered a placid smile. Prudii’s eyes narrowed slightly, but she nodded, and Prudii led the group away.

 

Quickly, Saviin closed up shop, then sat at her bench, taking a moment to collect herself. That had gone about as poorly as possible, without anyone getting shot.

Talk about a low bar.

Saviin inhaled deeply the metallic, woody scent of the forge, letting the breath out slowly through her nose, forcing herself to focus on how to salvage the mangled introduction. There was no immediate need to abandon the original plan, and the tour should get them back on track.

It would be fine. The intention was to show what the community had to offer, not fixate on personal impressions.

That chance had passed months ago.

 

Light streamed in from above, illuminating the tasteful decor; a far cry from the rumored debauched setting of Jabba’s days. Saviin suspected that her aunt had a critical part to play in the new furnishings. Shimmers of dust glowed in the air as the light hit them, effecting an almost fairytale setting. She shifted slightly, hearing the grit beneath her feet scrape against the stone ground, as a bead of sweat slid down her spine under her heavy tunic and kama. She missed the thermoregulated body glove that went with her armor.

When they decided on who would attend this meeting, Saviin had been an automatic yes, being the most politic of the three leaders. Kote and Prudii were better fighters, and they didn't want to risk sending all of their leaders and best fighters at once. And Kote was the spitting image of his father and uncles; such a visceral reminder of Fett’s clone brethren might not be received well.

So Kote stayed behind; Prudii wore armor; and Saviin, to temper any implications of hostility by their appearance, abstained from all armor except for her vambraces and kama, given that it could pass as a skirt.

And Saviin had been a sharp study under her mother’s tutelage. How a message was delivered, down to the clothes and hair, was as important as the words themselves, even to those who considered themselves above such petty distractions.

The highly emotional reunion with her long-lost uncle Boba Fett and his new wife Cerium dispensed with, the reception had broken up into more sociable clusters of family and friends, who mingled over drinks and small bites. Setting aside her discomfort, she approached the silent warrior currently wielding the Darksaber, hoping her eagerness was not too obvious.

Saviin had been anticipating this meeting ever since they received the confirmation that he’d attend, eager to offer their support to the new Mand’alor, and hoping their desire to be recognized as Mandalorian would finally be fulfilled.

She had not anticipated her own reaction to seeing him when they had first entered the throne room. She’d frozen.

The Mand’alor had hung back behind the throne, as though he were a guard or hired hunter and not the presumptive ruler of an entire sector. Only the silver beskar betrayed his presence, the light glinting off the burnished metal. He was a tower of lethality, broad-shouldered and bedecked in weapons. The Darksaber hung from his belt, across from a blaster. The clan had kept up as best they could with his exploits, and had heard more from Cobb and Thenia the night before. The fight with the Klatooinians on Sorgan. Multiple showdowns with Imperial Remnants on Nevarro. The krayt dragon, and negotiations with Tuskens. The light cruiser on Trask with the Night Owls. The wipeout on Corvus. Tython. Morak. Gideon’s cruiser. Mos Espa. A mighty warrior, capable of legendary feats, he’d loomed large in Saviin’s mind, trying to imagine what kind of leader he could become. The tall fighter, standing quietly behind the throne, certainly had courage, and a good heart, fighting through the impossible for the child he’d found.

And yet for all his impressive stature, Saviin doubted that she’d ever seen a more humble figure of power. The ends of his ragged cape fluttered with a subtle shift of his posture, the torn ends threadbare and frayed. The beskar was unadorned save for the engraved sigil on his shoulder guard, no paint to declare any allegiance or intent. He stood like a man incapable of flaunting his exploits, as though he’d rather no one know. His T-visor swiveled as he took in each visitor to the palace. Her breath caught as it locked onto her face.

She couldn’t move. It felt as though a hook had latched itself behind her ribs and tried to pull her forward, a thrumming sensation buzzing throughout her body.

It lasted only a moment, the spell shattered when Senaar nudged her gently. “Jate gar?” she murmured quietly.

“Yeah, I’m good,” she replied, shaking her head slightly, the feeling dissipating. Just shock, nothing more. Certainly nothing so ridiculous as love at first sight.

She couldn’t even see his face!

And yet the feeling returned again and again as she glanced at him, corrected him during their introduction with Boba and Cerium. And now, she would speak to him one on one. She took a deep breath. Duty first.

“Mand’alor?”

He jerked slightly as he turned, startled at the address. “Yes?” he responded tersely. Saviin’s heart jolted slightly at the less-than-welcoming reply, but soldiered on.

“If you have a moment, I wanted to provide you with our coordinates, and elaborate on what we have to offer you.”

“I have a moment.”

Saviin forced a smile, the conversation much harder to sustain than she had expected. She held out a datachip. “This has the coordinates, and an overview of our resources that we pledge for your use. Our most immediate resource to hand over is a cache of beskar.”

“Beskar?” He tensed slightly.

“We have been retrieving stolen beskar from Imperials and criminals for the last thirty years while on missions, as well as archival records and any other Mandalorian relics that the aruetii have collected. We’ve been holding it until a new Mand’alor emerged to claim it.”

“I see.” Saviin had no idea how to read that tone. “I will check with my aides, and we’ll contact you when we’re ready.”

“We will be ready,” she nodded, then paused, searching for a new topic as the conversation quickly wilted. “How is your ad doing?”

His focus on her face sharpened, his posture menacing now. “Why do you ask.”

Saviin blinked, slightly alarmed by his reaction. “Thenia and Cobb mentioned that you two had been through some trials lately. Children are precious to us in my clan. I meant nothing sinister by it.”

“Oh.” He relaxed somewhat, and Saviin took a breath. “He’s fine now. He has a new teacher now, and is very happy with his lessons.” She smiled at the sound of fatherly pride in his tone. “His first teacher… didn’t work out. But he’s fine now.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” She still smiled, but felt her hopes falter as the silence stretched on. He clearly didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to know more about her people, or her. Anxious to avoid offense by over-talking when he stood there so silently for most of it, she cast about for any excuse to end what had amounted to a painfully stilted conversation.

“If you’ll excuse me, I think my sister needs me. Thank you for your time, Mand’alor.” He merely nodded. She gave a smile that she knew didn’t reach her eyes, but couldn’t manage any better, and saluted him, fist crashing across her chest. She turned away before she could gauge his reaction.

Heart unreasonably heavy, Saviin nevertheless soldiered on with her duty, making the social rounds. She had a lovely conversation with Cerium, who clearly had been a study in the language of visual messaging, draped in fine, thin fabrics appropriate not only for the weather but for her status as the daimyo’s wife, as well as her pregnant condition; her sun-kissed brunette hair braided in a crown and threaded with gold cording to drive home the royal intimation to stunning effect. The petite woman extracted a promise from Saviin to visit again soon, which she gave gladly.

Once the rounds were made, she found herself nursing a drink near Cobb and Thenia by the bar, and took a moment to watch the throne room’s occupants in action.

Fennec and Ruusaan had hit it off, her taciturn younger sister unusually engaged in a deep conversation with the master assassin on the topic of sniper rifle modifications. On the other side, Prudii had drawn Cobb and Thenia into an animated conversation, pointing out various aspects of their father’s armor to Cobb, the inheritor of that legacy. Senaar had found a dust-colored loth cat, and was petting it, likely taking a visual break from the amped-up auras of the room. Her mother sat on the step before the throne, her silver-brown hair catching the light as she quietly spoke with Boba, rubbing soothing circles into his hand, the small gesture belying his neutral, impassive expression. So reminiscent of her father’s…

Absorbed in her task, she nearly startled as the melodic voice of her newly met aunt, Cerium, sounded close by. Entranced by her Tatooine accent, it took a moment to register the words.

“— could be very helpful for your efforts on Mandalore, and your quest.”

“Maybe.”

“You’re worried about Kryze.”

“She has… defined opinions. About everything.”

“Doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion. About everything.”

“Maybe."

“Alor Saviin seems—”

“No, Cerium. Don’t start.” Saviin fought not to react to the soft modulated voice of the Mand’alor. The slight rasp had a velvet quality, almost mesmerizing in its intonation.
She’d barely heard it before, during that speeder crash of a conversation; he’d spoken so little.

“Djarin, I haven’t said a word, have I?”

“If I can read you, oh queen of composure, then yes, you certainly have. I need to focus. Now’s not the time.”

“Djarin. My stubborn friend. You need allies, friends to help you. Who’s to say she couldn’t be one?”

“Maybe.” The modulated tone now sounded irritated. "But the needs of Mandalore come first. I have to find the Living Waters. I cannot be distracted, no matter how beautiful or clever she might be.” Saviin’s heart stuttered, and she bit her lip. Cerium sighed.

“You walk a lonely path by choice, my friend. I hope you succeed, and do not regret your solitude in the end.”

“I know you mean well, Cerium. But I’ll be fine. I have to see this through, and keep my kid safe. It’s all that matters.”

 

Saviin blinked, taking in the bright sunshine the flooded the clearing of the Haven and poured in through the open door of the forge. She stood up, gripping the smooth wooden hilt of the dagger sheathed on her hip, its contoured shape reassuring in the palm of her hand.

It was fine, a compliment to her that he found her attractive and clever, and a compliment to the Mand’alor himself that such things were not enough to sway him from his duty. He didn’t know her, know what her people could offer. That was the purpose of this trip— their hope. She hoped he’d stay for longer than it took to retrieve the beskar they had so painstakingly collected and safeguarded for Mandalore.

What he thought of her didn’t matter. It was the mantra she’d told herself over and over, in preparation for this visit. She knew how the rest of the Mandalorians viewed her community, knew that even if he had the inclination, she would be a liability to him, not an asset. Her anxieties didn’t lay in that quarter.

Nor did she believe that the Mand’alor would betray their location. The fear and doubt lay with the real question: whether a Foundling Mand’alor with a Jedi child, friend to Rebel shock troopers and crime lords and assassins, would be willing to accept a clan comprised of freed Republic clone troopers and their families.

Or if her family would remain on the outside, unwanted, looking in.

Jamming the dagger back into its sheath, she squared her shoulders, and stepped out of the forge into the blinding sunshine.

—————

Din sat on the edge of the bed in the cabin, watching Grogu explore the room that had been thoughtfully baby-proofed. Whether it was Jedi-baby-proofed is the real test. A worn, patchwork coverlet draped down the side of the bed to the ground, ruffled as Grogu crawled out from under the bed, ears waggling in curiosity. He chirruped as he toddled across the wooden floor, making for the desk.

Din took the risk, and looked away from his ad to glance outside the window. The scene seemed so familiar, and yet so distinctly different, like two separate memories overlaid. He remembered Sorgan well, its forests and swamps, the rhythm of a small rural community. And yet, there was something other about it. No krill farmers were these community members.

I don’t belong here.

Those had been his words to Omera, on their first trip to Sorgan. And he hadn’t belonged, despite their welcome. They were peaceful, homely, cheerful folk. They moved with a freedom from awareness, bodies unprepared to react in an instant. They were loud, cheerful, unbothered by the inherent risk in drawing attention to themselves. He felt haunted then, memories of ugly deeds and tough fights dogging his steps, the need to roam still singing in his blood. Their way of life was anathema to him.

Here— faint echoes of his life with the covert reverberated in the clearing. Facial feature similarities aside, not one person aside from the children walked completely unarmed. Various amounts of armor and weaponry were evident, from the older women tending the gardens to the young guard they’d passed. Even the nursery worker was armed. And comfortable— they moved with an ease born of practice. More loose and cheerful than he’d ever seen among warriors, but it was a comfort derived from confidence in their security, not an ignorance of the danger. Aware, but not haunted by their history. This was not a show, or an affectation- this was normal for them. He thought back to the exchange at the entrance, Prudii’s rapid-fire Mando’a that rolled right off her tongue.

Whether or not they were Mandalorian, they certainly acted Mandalorian.

Din glanced around. Grogu had found a tooka toy, and was gnawing on it. Din hoped that wasn’t a sentimental object for someone.

He looked back out the window. One of the alor’e, Saviin, had emerged from the forge, and was striding with purpose towards the central building in the settlement— the Vhett’ika house, he’d been told. Her kama swung slightly with her pace, a dagger hanging from her belt. Her left shoulder guard held a painted sigil, a symbol he’d never seen before. Likely one they came up with themselves. Her mesmerizing eyes passed back and forth as she walked, taking in her surroundings, calling out to the gardeners, waving to the children.

She clearly knew how to be a leader.

Din sighed as she passed out of view. Saviin was still as gorgeous as the first time he’d seen her, just a few months ago. Her beauty shone despite her simple clothes, eschewing the glittering regalia that many arrived in at Fett’s palace, or the burnished gleam of a full kit of armor as he often saw at Krownest. He’d been slightly stunned by her at first, beautiful and well-spoken. His second reaction was suspicion. Distrustful of her perfect poise and magnetic attraction, her offers of help and resources, he had actively fought the feeling, almost deliberately rude. He’d been unprepared to be offered a mountain of beskar; the thought triggered a painful memory, and he barely noticed what she had said after.

And then she asked about his kid; that had really set him off. The welfare of his child was no one’s business, and after all they had been through, any mention of him by someone other than a close friend sparked every defensive instinct in his body. He’d snapped at Cerium for trying to egg him on that day; he was supposed to be the Mand’alor, whatever that was supposed to be.

He’d been right about Kryze’s response to the revelation of a clone colony, and their invitation to visit. He sighed at the memory of her apoplectic expression. It now made sense why Gar Vod’e had asked him to double-check their ship for trackers, and refrain from trackable comms while on-planet.

But now Din was here, and so was Saviin— and he didn’t know what to think. He’d passed the data chip to Rau and Wren, and put Saviin and her clan out of his mind. He'd barely listened to Fett go on about the quality of the knife Saviin had gifted him, or Cerium’s praise of Saviin as a gifted conversationalist; it didn’t really matter. And yet today, somehow, despite barely talking during that speeder-crash of an introduction at the forge, she had stunned him once again. He’d been an idiot, so tongue-tied that managing anything more than “thank you” had been impossible. It was a normal occurrence now, the constant sense of feeling overwhelmed and unprepared for this new role he'd fallen into, incapable of tapping his normal confidence to see him through these jarring and uncomfortable new activities. It ate at him, each small step towards a new sense of comfort in the role immediately accompanied by three gargantuan steps back. Saviin had looked almost disappointed at his paltry response, yet had smoothly, gamely tried to salvage the moment, only to have it derail immediately after.

Polished, yet artless; politic, yet sincere. Her mere presence was magnetic, he wanted to remain in her orbit, confess his fears and uncertainties, be soothed by her guidance. It still made him wary, distrustful. Such an instant sense of connection felt instinctive, yet he barely knew her.

And he didn’t trust that their support came with no strings attached. Nothing was free, ever; he learned that lesson as a bounty hunter. To claim a duty to a culture that did not recognize them, and fealty to a leader that did not exist until a few months ago— it was impossible to believe, to trust. He couldn’t get Kryze’s expression out of his head.

Then again, it was Kryze. And Saviin was a goran. Maybe it was right to trust her. Kryze had a poor track record, and Saviin hadn’t lied to him so far—

Grogu squawked, and Din looked around frantically before looking up, just as the kid launched himself from the upper rafter of the bedroom towards his chest.

Definitely a distraction, he told himself sternly as he cradled the child, willing his pulse rate to drop. He needed to focus. Get in, learn what we can, take the beskar, leave. No more distractions.

Chapter Text

Unpacking had been the work of a moment. After being cooped up in space, Tristan relished the chance to enjoy the natural beauty of Sorgan, and slipped out to claim a spot at a table in the empty open-air pavilion he’d seen earlier, setting his helmet aside to breathe in unfiltered fresh air. The ambiance of the compound enchanted him. So much warmer than Krownest at this time of year, a light, cool breeze slipped through the clearing, carrying the scent of conifers and fresh growth on its tender currents. Birdsong warbled and trilled from the nearby forest, punctuated occasionally by the shrill shriek of a winged predator circling high above, searching for a meal. Here and there, adults and children moved about their activities, upbeat and on-task. The cheerful scene was almost disorienting. But Tristan was nothing if not adaptable.

Admin work was admin work, but at least the view was nicer.

He’d been at it for an hour when something nudged his leg. Startled, he looked over from his data pad and nearly jumped out of his skin. The scaly, toothy head of a massif stood level with the table, its wide-set eyes blinking at him as it panted. Tristan sat very still, as the creature nudged him again, sniffing at his armor, then made a strange whining sound.

“He wants a treat.”

Tristan whipped his head around to see the aura-reading young woman in the fuchsia and orange tunic from the forge, suddenly standing before her. Had he really been that absorbed in his work, to not hear her approach, or the massif? She smiled, setting her cup on the table and reaching into a pouch on her belt.

“Leave him alone, you little mooch. Take your treat and go on,” she said, clicking her tongue. The massif bounded around the table, taking the treat oh-so-gently from her hand. She patted its scaly head, shaking her own with a smile.

“Go find Echo, boy. Go on,” she pushed him gently with her hand. He bounded off. She laughed lightly, watching him race across the clearing. “He’s the worst of the pack. His name’s Mushroom.”

“…Mushroom?”

“Ate one as a pup and threw up everywhere. Gave us all a scare, we didn’t think he’d make it. He did, and now he’ll forever be known as Mushroom. Daft as a dewback, but a real sweetheart. Rekr manages the pack for the community, his buir was an ARF trooper.”

“Ah.” Tristan’s mind had ceased to function some time ago, and was only now just beginning to come back online. He realized he was staring at the beautiful young woman, and cast about for a reasonable thing to say.

“Is there a meeting now?” Really? Work, is what you’re going with?

“Not that I’m aware of,” she responded cheerfully. “I’m just on my caf break.” She surveyed him for a moment, a small smile on her lips.

Tristan shifted. “Is it all right to sit here? It’s so nice out, but if I’m in the way—”

“No, you’re fine,” she smiled more widely now, and he blinked. Her easy, carefree demeanor was— not unsettling, but striking, like seeing the sun after a long storm. Nearly too intense in a quiet yet blinding way, feeding a deep need that had gone dormant for so long. “Mind if I join? Or would that be distracting?”

Oh, it would.

“Not a problem. Your home is so beautiful,” he deflected instead.

“It’s rustic, but it suits our needs,” she smiled. “A very healthy place for kids to grow up, amongst trees and running water. Out of the way, but not too far for steady trade. A nice quiet place to thumb our nose at the Empire."

Tristan gazed around the clearing again, marveling at its tidy organization, its industrious people. “It’s amazing how quiet you’ve managed to keep it for so long.”

“Training and diligence.” Senaar rolled her eyes. “Makes it hard to meet new people if you just stay here, but we’ve got family scattered across the galaxy that we can visit if we want. It’s just this place that’s the secret, so we’re extra-careful about it. I’m sure Mama and Saviin— Alor Saviin— plan to tell you more about it. I’m just an artisan, and guard.”

“Artisan?”

“Woodcarving.” She reached pulled a slim knife from her vambrace, gave it a twirl, and jammed it into the table with a cheeky grin. Tristan peered at it. The intricately carved design on the polished wooden hilt was exquisite. “For home use, and export. Tables, knife hilts, a new baking peel for my brother— if it involves wood, I’ll probably handle it at some point. And I specialize in quarterstaff and hand to hand. We’ve all specialized in something. I’ve gone on a few hunts with my cousins, but didn’t care for it, so I tend to stick to guarding here. My skills are better for defense, anyway. Aaaand I’m distracting you,” she laughed, a sweet trilling sound, as black curls of hair bounced in the joyful moment. She had an arresting beauty up close, a warm glow to her complexion that lit up her golden eyes. Tristan was utterly entranced.

“’S fine,” he managed.

“What are you working on?” She’d retrieved her knife and replaced it in her vambrace; now her golden eyes peered over at the data pad on front of him.

“Admin work.”

“Ugh, that sounds awful.”

“It’s important work,” he responded automatically, not even thinking about whether it was awful or not. It didn’t matter, it had to be done.

To his surprise, she blushed and looked away, the light dimming in her face immediately. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I forgot myself. I shouldn’t have judged.”

He watched her for a moment, then allowed himself a rare small smile. “It is awful.”

She looked up, wide-eyed, and caught his small smile, and began laughing again. He nearly shivered at the sound. He loved it, he could listen to that all day—

“I’m glad you like it, some people complain.”

Tristan frowned and tilted his head in confusion. “Complain about—”

“My laugh? Your aura shifted when I laughed. Oh, no wait, I’m sorry. I’m upsetting you again, I’ll leave you alone.” Tristan’s heart dropped like a stone as she leapt up from the table, blushing furiously.

“No, please, I— it’s unique, your ability, so I’m still adjusting to being read so easily, but don’t go. Really.”

She sat down warily, watching him carefully and biting her lip. She remained perched on the bench, as though ready to take flight again. Tristan’s eyes landed on the bird tattoo above her temple. He sighed. “I've spent a long time being unreadable. Mandalorian politics are brutal— especially during the Empire— and after, well. It’s been a long time since anyone’s been able to catch me out so easily— but you’re not just anyone, are you?” He offered her a small smile, which she matched reluctantly.

“I suppose not.”

“And I’m glad.” He watched her eyes flick around his form— ah, her tell for when she’s reading an aura. Her eyes lit up, and Tristan dimly wondered if he was the one seeing auras, because he had certainly been blinded by her dazzling smile of sheer joy.

“Good. I’ll try not to be overwhelming. Most people are used to it around here, I forget how strange it must seem.”

“Nope, don’t change at all. I’ll adjust. You’re— fine, just the way you are.” A movement behind her caught his eye; Rau had emerged from their quarters and was waving him over. Tristan was immensely thankful for Rau’s interruption at that moment, thoroughly bewildered with his own sudden openness. And to a near-stranger, no less. He stood up. “Ah, that’s my cue.”

“Just as well, I’m sure I wasted enough of your time,” she laughed, and he frowned, brow furrowed. That was the third time now that she’d done that.

Who was telling this beautiful, gifted creature that she was a waste of time?

“Not a waste,” he said firmly, and she met his eyes, surprised by his tone. He felt oddly determined to ensure that that glowing light in her eyes remained bright. “I’m glad you stopped by.”

Her smile was the sun streaking through a break in the clouds, and he blinked at its intensity.

“Maybe I’ll catch you later, then?”

“I’d like that,” Tristan responded seriously. She nodded, still smiling brilliantly, eyes glancing about then meeting his. She took off for the forge, while he made his way to Rau, who eyed him beadily.

Just as well. He hardly knew himself right now. Did he just admit to being happy to see her and eager to meet again? Dimly, he could hear his mother’s scoff echo through his head. Read like a book by a perfect stranger.

And yet, he wondered as he crossed the grounds to meet the elder advisor, maybe that was exactly why it was so easy. The stranger was, after all, perfect.

—————

Saviin took a steadying breath as she knocked on the door of the guest quarters, centering herself.

“Udesii, Alor’ika,” Ver’ika urged. Her mother, archivist, former alor and founder of the Haven, stood beside her, her petite frame radiating calm and confidence. Saviin looked down at her, annoyed.

“I am calm, Mama.”

The door opened, and Alor Rau appeared, helmet tucked under his arm. Sharp blue eyes took in the two women, the afternoon sun glinting off of the neat pate of silver hair atop his head. “Are we ready now?”

“If you are, we can give the community overview today,” Saviin replied. “Since it is rather late in the day, it would be best to save the beskar and the archives for tomorrow, if that is amenable to you.”

“Fine. I for one am interested to hear what’s in your archives. You must be Verity Vhett’ika.”

Ver’ika inclined her head, eschewing the warrior’s greeting as Rau stepped out of the house. She’d never claimed to be a warrior; quite frankly, her husband and brothers-in-law had ensured it wasn’t a necessity. “A pleasure to finally meet you, Alor Rau. My husband spoke of you often.” She exchanged a wistful smile with the elder veteran of the Clone Wars.

“I am sorry for your loss; he was a great man.”

“Not gone— merely marching far away,” Ver’ika replied softly.

“Indeed. Mand’alor?” Rau turned back towards the room, and the tall, broad tower of silver approached. Saviin watched him step into the afternoon light, sun glinting off of the silver beskar, helmet swiveling to take in the scene.

I am calm.

“We’re ready,” he said quietly. The child sat in the crook of his arm, blinking benignly.

“If you wish, we have a nursery where he can play with other children or nap, if he’s tired. Entirely up to you,” offered Saviin. The Mand’alor looked down at the child.

“What do you think, kid? Wanna go make friends?”

The child cooed and wriggled excitedly.

“Where is your nursery?”

“Ruusaan is on her way, she and her helpers manage the crèche. The dormitory for the kids is right there,” she pointed at a large dwelling next to the Vhett’ika’s house, “so if they’re not on one of their daily adventures, you’ll find them there.”

Right on cue, Ruusaan appeared, her terse demeanor transforming into a soft smile at the sight of the adorable child, and Grogu leapt into her arms.

“Name?”

“Grogu.”

“Got it. We’re wrapping up post-lunch meditation and will be painting at the pavilion with all of the kids not taking a nap or studying right now.”

“Thank you, Ruusaan,” Saviin replied. Ruusaan nodded, and turned away, chatting with the tiny green child. Saviin turned back to the guests. “Will Alor Wren be attending?”

“He’s—” whatever Rau had planned to say next died in a scoff. Saviin turned, following his line of sight. Senaar sat with Wren at the pavilion, chatting away. Saviin bit down on a smile, unsurprised in the slightest. At least no lasting harm had been done there.

“Wren!” Rau barked, waving an arm, and the younger man got up hastily, hustling over to meet them. Saviin spared him the scrutiny that he was already receiving from Rau, and launched directly into her walking tour.

“Clan Gar Vod’e, or the Brotherhood of the Grand Army of the Republic, comprises a network of the families of 30 surviving troopers spread across the galaxy, with the largest concentration of 60 clones, spouses and descendants on Sorgan. Families settled in other systems visit from time to time or send their children to the Haven for education and training.

“Our curriculum is certainly nothing like a Republic or Imperial education, and incorporates a great deal of the research that we perform, not only on galactic education standards, but also specifically Mandalorian customs, history, and philosophy,” explained Saviin, as they passed an afternoon class seated with an older woman. “Morning sessions are more classroom-like in terms of structure, while afternoons for most older students are spent apprenticed to a mentor or master craftsman for assistance with classroom topics and hands-on teaching of specialties. We encourage specialization in defense, which is also covered by mentors when feasible.”

“Do you have a fighting corps?” asked the Mand’alor.

“Well, not really… because we’re all trained to fight, unless physically unable to do so. Even then, specialized lessons for self-defense are applied. I think my mother and a few other widows are the only real non-combatants. That may change, as more in my generation find riduur’e who join the clan, but the rest of us, minus the Mandalorian widowed spouses, received the same education, then specialized beyond that. For example, my specialization is in kad-fighting, while Senaar is quite gifted in quarter staff and Ruusaan is the resident sniper.”

“Who teaches your combat classes?” Rau’s eyes gleamed. Saviin pressed her lips together and tried to smile.

“Before my father died, he recorded hours and hours of training videos. He designed a whole curriculum, based on the basic training they received in Kamino, plus the Advanced Recon Commando, or ARC training that he personally taught. I’m not sure I would say we’re all quite ARC trooper-level in terms of skill, lacking some of the genetic enhancements that clone troopers received, but that is the standard he set. Today, the videos are supplemented by assistance from our Mandalorian aunts and uncles, surviving clone troopers, and those of us who were old enough to be trained by Alpha directly.”

“Alpha?” Wren frowned.

“Alpha-17 was my father,” Saviin replied, far more calmly than she felt.

“Then you were trained by the best,” Rau commented, and Saviin smiled at the compliment, some piece of her heart settling at the words.

“The training was also enhanced by those Mandalorian spouses who married clone troopers and moved here. Clone trooper combat training was designed by a Mandalorian, but obviously there are variations from clan to clan, so we have benefited from adding those unique insights to our curriculum.”

“If I may, how many clones remain?”

“Onsite? 3. Rex, Echo, and Sorry. We lost Blitz last year, and Howzer, Bloodshot, and Sparky the year before. Outside of the Haven, 4 that we know of, not including Oya and Boba. Some do not check in regularly.”

“Of course, we did not set out initially to create a school,” Saviin continued, leading them to the gardens. “That idea was my mother’s brainchild after children began arriving at the Haven, and the idea of recording trainings for future use was born of her practice of collecting oral histories from clone troopers as they arrived and recuperated here from their bondage. As more clone troopers married Mandalorians, and the situation on Mandalore deteriorated under Imperial rule, we began collecting history and beskar that we came across in our travels. But originally, it was intended as a farm.”

She gestured at the rows of flowers. “The original primary export of the Haven was what you see here. This was originally intended to be a self-sufficient homestead, exporting salves, lotions, candles and teas from the flowers grown here to pay for the things we could not produce ourselves. Berry bushes, the fruit orchards, the grain fields, the vegetable gardens— all intended for self-sufficiency. Given our size today, it takes a bit more than what we produce here to feed everyone, even with hunting game, so we supplement with outside work. But our primary export remains the same as it was, as well as baked goods produced by my brother.”

“And your metal work,” chimed in Ver’ika, shooting a knowing glance at Saviin, who blushed.

“Right. I do some smithing for export. Senaar and I frequently collaborate on products like wood-handled knives and the like.”

“I saw your handiwork at the palace,” the Mand’alor contributed unexpectedly. “The craftsmanship is exquisite.”

Saviin gaped, then blushed. “You’re very kind.” She hoped that someone would step in to rescue her, but upon realizing her own mother had turned on her, she pressed on. “It is a passion of mine, though it has limitations, given the simplistic resources we have here, and the lack of training available. But we do our best with what we have, and have grown the Haven and Gar Vod’e into a successful clan and base of operations.

“You may have noticed our security on your way in; I do not advise hopping the split rail fence that marks our perimeter, it will end poorly. We maintain several concentric rings of sensors outside the perimeter, to assess threats before they get close enough. There are also a few other defense systems in place, and we constantly review our threat assessments and revise protocols as necessary.”

Saviin waved at the gardeners, several of whom waved back, then moved towards the houses once more, lowering her voice.

“You will notice that there are more older women than men here; most are widows of their spouses. A third of the troopers married exiled Mandalorian women and men, and most continued to stay or moved here after their partners passed. Most of them were declared dar’manda, for marrying a clone. So while there is great interest in the state of Mandalore and our relationship to its future, the sentiments are not uniform. We try to maintain those discussions to the Triumvirate, so as not to agitate family members with what-if’s and maybe’s. I do not ask you to self-censor, I simply wanted to let you know for your awareness.”

An older Twilek woman sat outside a small cottage, a basket of yarn and a pair of knitting needles in her hand. She waved them, hailing Saviin and her guests as they passed. “Alor! Kassurra!”

“Kass, ba’vodu Yuli,” Saviin smiled, pausing. “Yuli, this is the Mand’alor, and his aides, Alor Wren and Alor Rau. Alor’e, my aunt Yuli, wife of Howzer, who served with Cham Syndulla on Ryloth. Her twin sons Beri and Rex have lived at the Haven for many years now.”

Yuli smiled, her teal lekku curling. “Kah'lehalle so fendoon.”

“She says all guests are welcome,” Saviin translated. Yuli continued, and Saviin felt herself blushing again. “Ba’vodu, that’s not necessary, really—”

“What did she say?” Wren piped up.

“She, ah—”

“She said that she’s going to knit all three of you sweaters,” Ver’ika supplied, stifling a laugh.

Saviin shook her head in mortification. “We’ve had this argument before, ba’vodu. They wear armor, it’s—” she sighed as the Twilek cut her off. “She says that you can wear it when you’re not in armor. I’m afraid I’m not going to win this battle.”

Rau tried not to laugh. “It’s fine, Alor.”

The Mand’alor turned to Yuli, inclining his head. “Arni’soyacho.”

Koahiko! Ryma gesu'tak allesh,” Yuli replied with a smile.

Saviin blinked, glancing at her mother, who appeared slightly startled as well, though recovering swiftly with a smile.

“So, Alor Saviin,” Rau probed as they walked on, “you have mentioned two Triumvir. Where is your third?”

“Kote is on a delivery run for Gar Vod’e, and will be back by the end of the week. We had tried to push up the date to accommodate your visit, but circumstances prevented that,” Saviin offered apologetically.

“Kote?” Rau said sharply. “Is he—"

“No, only the namesake and nephew, as it were. My older brother, son of Commander Fox of the Coruscant Guard, adopted by my parents. His mother named him after Fox’s closest batch brother, Cody.”

“You have unique names here,” observed the Mand’alor. Saviin had wondered when that would come up.

“It is a tradition of Gar Vod’e, though certainly not a rule, that children pick their own names around the age of 5, certainly no sooner than. Clone troopers were not given names, only designations: Commander Cody was CC-2224. Fox was CC-1010. Rex is CT-7567. My father was Alpha-17. Many, though not all, either gave themselves names or were given them by fellow troopers, sometimes by Jedi generals and commanders. Names are very important, a symbol of our sentience, and so we honor our children’s right to name themselves if they so choose. There are of course exceptions, like Kote who was born before the establishment of the Haven, or Rex and Beri, who were born on Ryloth.”

“Speaking of Rex—” Rau started.

“He’s eager to see you,” Saviin assured him. “He’s over by the bonfire pit, with Echo. I realize that was a lot of information all at once, so if you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them as you think of it. You are most welcome to wander the premises, and come and go from your ship as you please. All we ask is that you refrain from using any comm equipment that is not heavily encrypted while on-planet, and to check your ship for trackers and tails. We have invested a great deal of time and effort into making this place secure for our family.”

“We will honor that,” nodded Wren. Saviin smiled.

“Thank you. Dinner is in approximately 90 minutes. We can also prepare trays if you’d prefer to eat in your quarters, or make them available for you to take and fill yourself. We’ll resume the tour in the morning, to show you the beskar and the archives.”

“We appreciate your hospitality,” Rau returned. Saviin smiled, stealing a glance at the Mand’alor, who remained silent. She held the smile as she gestured for Rau to follow her to Rex, trying not to read into the Mand’alor’s silence.

It’s fine. All fine. The real draw is tomorrow. It’ll be fine.

Chapter Text

Din had not truly known what to expect the next morning as he stepped out of the guest quarters. He had not expected for Grogu to leap out of his arms and take off running, just a bit faster than normal, to join his new friends at the pavilion for breakfast. As Din followed at a slower pace, he glanced about, taking in the scene in the clearing.

Everywhere he looked, children and adults were talking, joking, teasing; jostling each other, their comfortable camaraderie pervasive throughout the community. Two youths had decided to get a jump on lessons, warming up for a spar in a fence-lined pen. They joked and laughed, all easy affability; then snapped into a lethal focus as they crouched in a ready stance, all business as they began the spar.

The contrast with his own upbringing could not be more stark. The Fighting Corps had been severe, serious, harsh even. Students learned quickly to tamp down any overt humor. The training had been thorough, life-saving, but not fun. It seemed the Haven had sought a balance between business and pleasure, no one seeming to take themselves too seriously.

And from what Din had seen so far, that approach did not appear to diminish the results.

In all, he found this community charming, albeit surprising and somewhat disconcerting. Gar Vod’e’s approach to being Mandalorian was substantially different than his covert’s, and yet there was something that pulled him in, that made it feel familiar, like a long-ago memory. The Darksaber had been alarmingly responsive to this place, humming when he rested his hand on the hilt. No one had warned him that could happen, and he nearly threw the weapon across the room when it happened the first time.

It hummed louder when Saviin was around. Din chose not to think about the implications of that, at all. Nevertheless, the buzzing beneath the gloved hand resting on its hilt grew more insistent as she approached, her mother close behind her.

“Good morning, Mand’alor,” Saviin offered politely, inclining her head with respect. “We are ready when you are, to show you the beskar collection.”

Din moved his hand away from the hilt. “Wren and Rau are unfortunately occupied with Council business; it will be just me this morning.”

“Of course,” Saviin nodded graciously. “We do have an inventory of the collection, and will share it with them. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have after this, as well.”

Din merely nodded, and Saviin gestured for him to follow her to the greenhouse.

He had to admit he was impressed, as Saviin slid the rush mats of the greenhouse floor out of the way, revealing a hatch that Ver’ika opened. Saviin climbed down the ladder first, and must have turned on a light, as a bright glow suddenly shot from the hatch, battling against the warm sunny glow passing through the panes of clear glass that sheltered the rows of seedlings resting on shelves. Ver’ika gestured for Din to follow.

He stepped off of the ladder, and gaped at his surroundings. It was a well-constructed bunker, neatly organized. The front section held shelves of food, supplies, ammunition and extra weapons— everything to keep the community going in an emergency. He followed the two women deeper into the bunker, where shelves of emergency supplies gave way to shelves of boxes and crates, neatly labeled. At the end of each shelving unit, lining the pathway down the middle, a clone trooper helmet sat atop a small crate. The paint had been lovingly restored, each helmet maintained meticulously.

“This is the archives of Gar Vod’e, and the Mandalorian collection,” Ver’ika announced, slipping into her academic tone. “In these crates here, we have forged pieces, both fragments and full sets of armor that we have found in the hands of aruetii and confiscated. In these crates here, Imperial ingots, most of them collected after the Purge. Whenever a family member in the wider galaxy has come across beskar in their travels that is not clearly in the hands of a Mandalorian, they have sent it here to the Haven for safekeeping. If you wish to repatriate some of it, a fair number of the forged pieces hold clan sigils, or signets, which is also documented in the inventory.”

“Please feel free to take your time reviewing the collection, we’ll be over here at the research table,” Saviin waved at a table at the far end of the bunker. “And if you wish for us to vacate the archives for a moment, please let us know,” she added softly. “Armor is precious and personal, and it is… overwhelming to see so much of it at once.”

Din merely nodded, throat tight as he remembered the piles of armor in the sewer of Nevarro, nearly his entire covert’s loss relegated to a pile of metal. As Saviin and Ver’ika quietly moved away towards the table, Din resolved to make this quick, and began opening crates, not daring to linger over any one forged piece.

So many lives, gone. Dozens of sigils, some he recognized, some were new; with a sickening jolt, he realized that he might not be able to return the beskar to the clan— because the clan had been entirely wiped out. Tucking the pain tightly away, he moved more quickly through the collection.

To his consternation, he also found daggers, swords, spear tips, and more; weapons, forged of beskar. Who had forged these? They had been stamped with clan sigils in some cases, but he couldn’t believe a goran would have crafted such a thing; the Armorer had been very clear when she melted down that wonderful beskar spear. He set the thought aside, and continued on.

The sheer volume was staggering. Din’s camtono had been a handsome reward; he now was staring at easily twenty, thirty times that amount. Tens, hundreds of millions of credits sitting in a bunker, and Gar Vod’e was ready to hand it over without any expectations. It was… stunning. Humbling.

At length, he felt satisfied, and rejoined the women. They gestured for him to sit.

“I know that we offered the beskar as the most salient reason for your visit, but in our view, the archives can offer you just as much, if not more, for your efforts. It is right that the beskar return to Mandalore, for that is the heart of a Mandalorian, but it is not as useful in rebuilding a civilization, in my personal opinion,” Saviin said, turning to Ver’ika to continue.

“We have focused our collection on clones and Mandalore. It originally began as a collection of oral histories that I would collect as we— my husband and his vod’e— would rescue troopers,” Ver'ika explained. “Some got themselves out, but struggled with finding a place in the galaxy as a deserter with a highly recognizable face. Others were imprisoned, or on active duty. As we got them out, I would collect the stories they felt comfortable sharing, knowing that not only would there likely be no one else interested in collecting their stories, but that the Empire would likely suppress and destroy any and all narratives they considered counter to their own.

“As several troopers stayed, joined our clan, and met their Mandalorian spouses while on missions, we began to expand our collection’s focus to Mandalorian history and culture. It has not been easy; the New Mandalorian faction was quite successful in eradicating the old culture.

“A pattern began to emerge as we liberated caches of beskar armor and weapons. Those who held them seemed to also be avid collectors of all things Mandalorian. Data rods and flimsi books and all manner of Mandalorian memorabilia. We would take everything we could find, incorporated the information into our archives, and placed the rest in storage, in the hopes that someday Mandalore would break free of the Empire— then later, that it would someday exist at all,” Ver'ika finished sadly.

“How many items do you have in your archival collection?”

“Over fifty thousand.”

Din couldn’t tell if that was a lot, but it sounded like a lot.

“We’re very proud to have an original copy of the Supercommando Codex,” Ver'ika added, the pride evident in her tone and smile.

“The what?”

Ver'ika’s smile vanished, and she involuntarily glanced at Saviin.

“Alor Rau would be familiar with it, and Alor Wren may be as well,” Saviin supplied carefully. “It was written by Mand’alor Jaster Mereel, just before the civil wars. It expounds upon the Resol’nare as a code of conduct. If you’re interested, we can give you a copy for your perusal. It’s a defining document for our community.”

Ver'ika nodded. “We also have a fair amount on the Darksaber, if you are interested. I’m sure your goran has plenty of lore about it, but sometimes it’s helpful to read it for yourself.”

Din wouldn’t go that far; if his Armorer had a wealth of information on the Darksaber, she certainly hadn’t shared it.

“Would your archives have any information on the Living Waters?”

Ver'ika blinked, then gazed at him, expression troubled. “Yes, I believe so. I’m familiar with at least one version of the legend, and our archives are fairly extensive, though there are of course gaps that we are still trying to fill. Centuries of conflict have a way of erasing history. Is there something specific you are looking for?”

“I need to find it. I need to find the mines that hold the Living Waters.”

Both women stared at him, expressions conflicted. Din struggled to keep his shoulders relaxed and head straight.

“I can’t become Mand’alor until I find them. I’ve been declared dar’manda by the Armorer of my former covert.”

The two women looked at each other, then back at Din. Confusion and compassion warred in their faces. He sighed.

“I removed my helmet, to save Grogu. I don’t regret it, but I violated my Creed. I am considered no longer Mandalorian. I have to find the Living Waters to atone. I don’t think I could be the Mand’alor without it. Kryze has challenged me for the Darksaber, but we have agreed to set aside the challenge until my Creed is restored.”

Saviin stared at him searchingly. “Your covert let you leave with the Darksaber and all of your armor?”

“Yes.”

“They didn’t demand that you remove it and leave it behind, even though you were dar’manda?”

“No.” He hadn’t questioned it at the time, too caught up in the emotion of his excommunication. Perhaps they didn’t dare try to remove it after he had just beaten Paz.

Saviin frowned heavily, deep in thought. Din was ready for her judgment. He did not expect her to mutter quietly, “all of the other clans made the ba’vodu’e leave their armor behind. There must be some purpose behind this.”

Din gaped, but Ver'ika pushed the conversation on before he could respond. “And only the Living Waters can restore your creed? That’s what she said?”

“This is the Way.”

Or maybe not. He’d developed some serious doubts about that. His old creed felt more flawed with each passing day. He fought to swallow down his resentment. He’d completed his quest, and recovered the Darksaber from the enemy. Somehow these accomplishments were overshadowed by removing his helmet to save a child. (Not enough, never enough, will never be enough—)

But he’d been declared dar’manda, and that could not be ignored. And he felt drawn to see this through, certain that it was necessary, and that it was somehow bigger than just his own salvation. Finding the Living Waters was key to this destiny he’d found himself thrust into. One he still harbored doubts about. Just another job. Think of it as just another job.

“That’s… not much to go on,” Saviin commented, a frown still furrowing her brow. Din reared back in irritation. “I’m not saying we won’t be successful, it’s just… I wish for your sake you had been given more information. I can only imagine how difficult your quest must seem, based on the information you’ve been given.” It was true, but Din wasn’t sure he wanted her pity. His shoulders tensed.

Saviin turned to her mother, who nodded.

“To be frank, Mand’alor, the information you’ve been given is incredibly vague, and you don’t have time to chase false leads. I’d be surprised if you weren’t already feeling pressure to proceed with rebuilding Mandalore and taking the position of Mand’alor. So we can start by authenticating the legend of the Living Waters, then dig into the older texts to substantially narrow down possible locations and gather details about what you might face when you find the Living Waters.”

“What I might face?”

“While likely not as fantastical an experience as legends might regale, I seriously doubt that a mystical experience that restores your soul is a simple bath in some cold mine water,” Ver'ika responded, a faint line of humor lacing her academic tone. “If there’s more to it, and there surely is, we’ll do our best to prepare you.”

“Maybe we’re thinking of the terms too specifically,” suggested Saviin, looking down at the notes she had taken.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, your Armorer said ‘Living Waters,’ but maybe that’s not their name.”

“You think she lies?” Din demanded, bristling. Ver'ika blinked, and Din fought the urge to duck his head in shame. What had gotten into him lately?

“I think that words change over time,” Ver'ika replied carefully. “While Mando’a is fairly static as a language, it is possible that names have changed. What they called it then may not be what it is called in legends today. Much can be mis-remembered as stories change hands over time.

“That doesn’t mean the whole story could be wrong,” she added quickly, her eyes tracking Din’s shoulders as he slumped in defeat, “just that it might be beneficial to broaden search terms. ‘Living Waters’ might be too specific and inaccurately exclude applicable texts from the search. This is a perfectly normal thing in archival research, and we know how to adjust for it,” she soothed.

Saviin’s gaze flicked over him, then offered tentatively, “it will take Mama a couple of hours to pull together a relevant list of terms and leads to research. Beyond that, it’s not certain how long it will take to generate a usable list of leads, though I can assure you this will be our highest priority. In the meantime, it might be useful for you to review the list of coverts in nearby sectors, which I provided to Rau and Wren. You are welcome to use our home as a base for as long as you need, if you wish to make contact with them. All we ask is that you check for trackers and tails as you come and go, for security reasons.”

Din nodded. “Thank you,” he said softly. Saviin and Ver'ika sent him identical reassuring smiles.

“Happy to assist the Mand’alor,” Saviin responded kindly.

It should have felt like enough. And yet Din couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed, as he left the archives to seek out his aides, that the assistance was for the Mand’alor, and not for Din Djarin. But then, they owed him nothing.

—————

Saviin waited until the door was securely shut, then turned to her mother, dropping the smile.

“Well, that was karking strange.”

“You sound like your buir,” Ver'ika hummed in amusement as her fingers flew across the screen of the terminal, generating searches.

“I can hardly imagine how this day would have gone if he were here.” Saviin imitated her father’s gruff tone. “Listen cadet, your goran’s full of bantha. Tell her to pound sand, then start doing your karking job.”

“And that is why you learned strategy from your buir, and politics from me,” smiled Ver'ika. It was certainly true. ‘Alpha-17’ and ‘politics’ did not belong in the same sentence, unless separated by the word ‘hates’.

“It sounds like our intel on the Children of the Watch sect was sadly accurate,” Saviin sighed, the bittersweet humor lost in the face of reality. She stood up and began to wander down the hall, examining the helmet displays absentmindedly. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but why set such a ridiculous task? There are other ways to be restored from dar’manda. Seeking the Living Waters has to be the hardest of them all.”

“If I had to guess,” mused Ver'ika, brow scrunched as she tried a variety of search terms, “she wants to capitalize on what success could mean. Think about it,” she swung away from the terminal, staring at her eldest daughter. “There’s no way that fount is just for personal restoration. It would be a legendary feat. And what if it could restore all of Mandalore? Then she’s positioned herself as the goran of the man who restored a glassed planet. Her influence would be enormous.”

“Manda.” The implications were staggering. “You think it’s not altruistic?”

“You said yourself there are other ways to restore one’s soul. Other motivations are at play here.”

“Then we must be ultra-cautious to ensure that we give him everything he needs, and reject any and all opportunities to influence or use him,” Saviin stared down into an empty helmet, lovingly caressing its features with the tips of her fingers as she spoke. “I refuse to be anything like that. He’s being used by his council, we know this already, and it’s wrong. Worse still that he’s being manipulated by his goran. He is the Mand’alor, not a puppet.” She looked up to see her mother watching her closely, and frowned. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“I can’t look at my daughter in pride?”

"You taught me too well to believe that.”

“Well, not just pride.” Ver'ika’s smile twisted, bittersweet. “I know you’ll make us proud, and do the right thing, no matter the personal cost.”

“There is no personal cost.”

Ver'ika stared at her, and Saviin fought the urge to squirm. “Right.”

Chapter Text

Early the next morning, Saviin fired up the forge. She’d lost a fair amount of time yesterday serving as hostess to their distinguished guests; time to make up for it. Sipping her caf, she reviewed her to-do list.

Vibroblades for the Howzer twins

New lathe for Senaar

Repair blades on scythes for gardeners

Retrofit armor for Hotshot

She sighed. The work never ended. At least she’d learned enough to avoid the costly mistakes that had defined her self-study for years. She began setting out her tools, when a soft cough caused her to turn.

“Mand’alor!”

Her easy smile faded as he stepped in quietly, somewhat stiff and hesitant. Did I offend him somehow?

“I hope you found your accommodations comfortable enough,” she offered into the silence, watching him carefully.

“We did, thank you.”

She waited a beat, then turned to continue setting out her tools. The silence lengthened, thickened unpleasantly. But the Mand’alor didn’t seem inclined to start speaking, so she waited. Many who came to her forge initially needed a moment to collect their thoughts.

A sudden movement caught her eye, and she turned to see him leave. Her stomach dropped. Did she do something wrong?

“Mand’alor?”

He turned back, shoulders tight with tension.

“I won’t impose on you again. My apologies.”

What?

“You haven’t,” Saviin frowned. “I was waiting for you to speak. Many who come to my forge to talk need a moment to settle in. Was that not what you were doing?”

The silver helmet tilted in confusion. “I was waiting for you to invite me to sit.”

Oh dear.

“I think there’s been a miscommunication. Please come in.” It was an invitation, but Saviin pressed into the words as a command. She couldn’t let this stand; she’d been afraid something like this would happen.

He followed her in, and sat somewhat reluctantly at the bench before her work table. She sat down on the other side, taking a slow breath and pushing her black braid behind her back. It wouldn’t do to fidget with it.

“I am not a goran in the traditional sense. I am the village smith. I work on a lot more than just weapons and armor. In some ways, I perform the role of the goran— community members often find their way in here, seeking a willing ear to listen, bounce ideas off of me, accept what little advice I can dispense.”

“This is not treated as a sacred space?”

Saviin bit back a laugh, thinking of all the times various family members had wandered in to bitch about a botched mission or the latest squabble, bemoan the state of their love lives.

“Definitely not. It’s a far more… ah… casual environment. I understand if that makes you uncomfortable. But I am entirely self-taught. I have never met a true goran, just a few lessons from an aruetii blacksmith on Lothal. I have some understanding from my Mandalorian ba’vodu’e what it means to be one, but I’ve never insisted on the ceremony and treatment that comes with being a goran. I honestly wouldn’t even know where to start. Ne’paravu takisit. I did not mean to offend or reject you. Far from it.”

“I understand.”

She nodded with a small smile, grateful to have avoided a diplomatic strain. Of all the things she could have anticipated—

“I could teach you.”

She blinked. “Pardon?”

“How to interact with goran'e, what to expect. So that you’re prepared when you meet one.”

She smiled at the unexpected offer, rather touched. “Vor entye, I would appreciate that. I won’t adopt it myself, but it would be useful if I ever meet one.”

“When.”

“What?”

“You said ‘if.’ You mean ‘when.’”

Saviin’s smile grew fragile. “I will greet that day when it comes. Until then, I won’t assume that it will. Now that I’m done accidentally insulting you, what can I help you with?”

“We are going to Adumar today,” the Mand’alor started softly. Saviin nodded, using the motion to keep her on task and not fixating on the velvety rasp of his voice. Be professional. “I normally take Grogu wherever I go, but this time I’d like for him to stay here, if that’s okay.”

“Perfectly fine,” she smiled. “I thank you for your trust. He’ll be in classes and with children of his age group all day, and we are adept enough here to handle Force Sensitives. Is there anything we should be alert for? Visions? Force-amplified tantrums? Unstable telekenesis? Is he an empath?”

“He— what?”

Oh dear. “Why don’t you tell me what you’ve observed, and we’ll go from there.”

“He can move objects with his mind. Ezra has been working with him on controlling it, he’s a lot better now.”

“Ezra Bridger?”

“Yes. He’s my son’s teacher. Um, he can also heal people. But it takes a lot out of him and he shouldn’t do it.”

“Often, he shouldn’t do it often,” Saviin corrected gently, and the Mand’alor bristled. “It’s a very rare gift, even among Force Sensitives. But it’s like a muscle, it needs to be worked, or else a spontaneous use of it could be very dangerous. There won’t be a need for him to use it, certainly not without your approval and supervision. I swear it.”

The Mand’alor nodded, then shifted slightly. “You should know… he hasn’t done it in a while. But he has used his powers to choke people before. People he thinks are a threat. Ezra’s talked to him about it, and he knows it’s bad, but… well, you should know.”

A thought struck Saviin. “How old is he?”

“Fifty-one.”

Saviin’s face fell. She nodded. “He survived Order 66. Poor thing. Many have done hard things
just to survive that dark time. We would know. He will be safe and cared for here, I promise.”

The Mand’alor nodded, then stood. “I believe you.”

She felt her eye twitch in surprise, but otherwise remained placid as she stood as well. “Safe journeys, Mand’alor. I hope your trip is fruitful.”

He nodded, turning towards the entrance, then turned back again. “Your sister— Prudii?— mentioned that you take in Foundlings. Is that true?”

Saviin’s brow furrowed slightly at the non sequitor. “That’s right. Those who truly have nowhere else to go.”

“If… if I find some along my way, I would not be able to keep them with me until Mandalore is secured. Would you be willing to host them? Grogu has his teacher, but that is for his powers, not childcare, and I do not want to endanger ade anymore by bringing them along with me wherever I go.”

Saviin paused, slightly breathless at the stunning request, delivered in such a soft, hesitant tone. He could have demanded, it was his right to do so. He could forget about the children, focus on himself and rebuilding power on Mandalore. He did none of these things. Saviin swallowed down the rising emotion.

“I— yes, we would be honored to be entrusted with the Mand’alor’s children for however long it takes to secure the system. They are the future. We would care for them as our own, and put them through our schooling, if that is acceptable.”

“Vor entye.”

“Nayc entye,” Saviin countered, dropping her gaze from the visor of the man who unintentionally refused to make this easy for her. “It’s an honor to serve the Mand’alor.”

He nodded, then left. Saviin stared down at her tools for a full minute, then sighed and got back to work.

—————

It was a good thing that Tristan had a lot of experience acquiescing to the whims of Mandalorian leaders, and had cultivated an inordinate amount of flexibility.

Because very little of this ‘short trip’ seemed to be going the way he expected.

Their stay now extended, it made sense to accept the Triumvirate’s offer to use the Haven as a base while they made contact with nearby coverts. Kryze had had opinions about that, but Tristan felt sure it was more her concern that the Mand’alor was out collecting followers, as opposed to truly needing his presence on Krownest.

Well. Kryze could go pound glassed sand.

Now, they found themselves approaching Adumar, just a sector over. Ahead, the dust-colored planet came into view.

“So the kid stayed home, huh?” Tristan ventured to Rau, who snorted, eyes on the nav and hands on the controls.

“Home, Wren?”

“You know what I mean,” he retorted hastily.

“I do, actually,” Rau snorted again. “Alor seemed quite comfortable leaving him with them. It’s an interesting development.”

“Interesting?” Tristan didn’t know what to make of his tone.

Rau turned slightly, an eyebrow arched. “I have no problems with clones. Rex is an old friend, and I remember Alpha-17, the buir be’alor’e. And I haven’t seen anything questionable so far. The Mand’alor’s comfort in leaving his ad with them speaks volumes. But it will cause problems with Kryze.”

“Everything causes problems with Kryze,” Tristan muttered, turning back to his data pad.

“Big problems. I know you have eyes for the younger one—”

“I don’t—”

“—but Alor seems to pay a fair amount of attention to the alo,r Saviin. That could create a completely different set of complications.”

“It’s been a day.”

“Precisely.”

“I think you’re reading into things too much,” Tristan responded, sounding more confident than he felt.

“And I think I’m too old for this osik. We’ll see who’s right soon enough. For now, we have the Adumari covert to worry about.”

“What do we know of the Adumari covert?” Alor’s soft voice announced his otherwise silent arrival in the cockpit of the Gauntlet. Right. Former bounty hunter. He squirmed under the uncertainty of how much the man had heard of their previous conversation. Rau, for his part, seemed completely unconcerned. Old bastard.

“There’s a fair amount for a Mandalorian covert to like on Adumar. Successful economy, habitable planet. Rigid hierarchical social structure, the local populace is obsessed with flying and sword-fighting, specifically with blastswords. Disputes are handled via duels. I’m sure the covert there has assimilated well.”

“So they have little reason to leave,” mused Alor, a frown in his voice.

“Perhaps not at this moment,” conceded Rau. “But the desire to return to Manda’yaim should not be underestimated. And after years among the aruetii, they may need a reminder of what it means to be a Mandalorian.”

Alor didn’t answer. Tristan let the subject die.

 

They landed the Gauntlet on the outskirts of the city, near a large quarry. As they descended the ramp, Tristan looked out and saw a gaggle of children headed towards the quarry, laughing and screaming, attended by a bored-looking adult.

A landing party of Mandalorians had come out from the city to meet them.

“Olarom,” the clan alor greeted them. Tristan glanced around the group. Armor appeared pristine, barely scratched or dented. Either these Mandalorians had the means to keep their beskar’gam in mint condition, or they did not hunt often.

As the conversation dragged on, Tristan began to suspect it was both.

“I understand what you are asking, but I confess it will be difficult to convince my people of your claim and your efforts to restore Mandalore,” the clan alor stated baldly, the tilt of his helmet somewhat condescending despite the clear height difference between the Adumari and the Mand’alor.

“And what would convince them?” Alor asked, his tone deceptively soft. It really was his secret weapon, one that he should use more, Tristan mused. He looks lethal, but sounds soft. “What about a challenge, or an exhibition match?”

“Adumar is full of gifted blastsword fighters,” the clan alor countered, helmet angled doubtfully at the Darksaber. “Nearly everyone here is a fighter. I’m not sure asking you to fight really proves your claim or would convince us to leave this place.” The alor looked up at the Mand’alor, the shift of his shoulders communicating an apology. “Adumar has been good to us, our people are happy here. Why should we leave to restore a glassed planet?”

Alor’s posture shifted, ready to concede defeat— Rau and Tristan hadn’t prepared him for this kind of argument, and Tristan honestly had no great explanation as to why they should leave a comfortable planet for the harsh hellscape that was their cultural homeworld— when screams split the air. Alor stiffened.

Those were the screams of children.

Instantly, Alor turned away from the Mandalorians, who had also tensed in alarm, and rushed forward towards the panicked children running in from the quarry. Seeing the Mandalorians, they made a beeline for the armored safety of their ranks. Alor stopped one child, grabbing them gently.

“Hey kid, what’s happened?”

“The nexu den in the abandoned quarry, they came out after us.”

“Did everyone make it out?”

“No— those two alien kids got separated.” Tristan could still hear screams. He glanced at the Adumari Mandalorians, who seemed unconcerned about the fate of the two trapped children. A wave of disgust rose in his chest, and he turned to see that Alor had already activated his jetpack and taken off.

Of course. The one time I leave mine in the ship. Tristan sprinted after him.

Skidding to a stop at the entrance to the quarry, he looked down. There were a lot of nexu, at least 6 that he could count. Tristan quickly found the children; they had somehow managed to take refuge on a narrow ledge of the quarry wall; based on the scores in the quarry wall, one nexu had tried to follow the children along the ledge and fallen off, while others had attempted to scale the wall and slid back down. There was no way he’d be able to get to them, not without a jetpack or a lot of dead nexu.

The children appeared mostly unharmed; a boy of maybe 7 years old, with an umber complexion and black curly hair, who seemed to have a long but shallow scrape down his leg; and a tiny snow-pale girl with blinding white hair, possibly 2 or 3, who clung to his waist. However, they were perilously close to the edge of the crumbling ledge, forced to the limit by the prowling nexu. A fall would seriously injure the children— if the nexu didn’t catch them.

Alor had already dispatched two nexu and wounded a third, and now flew in tantalizing loops drawing the nexu’s attention away from the children and onto himself, blaster in one hand and a lit Darksaber in the other. He landed, still firing, taking out one more, until one cat leapt at him. He gunned the jetpack, leaping into the air. He’d left it just a second too late, and the nexu got a claw on his boot— not enough to pierce the leather, but enough to arrest his upward movement. He tensed to stabilize himself, then ignited the Darksaber and slashed down at the paw, removing it entirely. The cat yowled in pain and anger, falling back to the ground. He dropped back down again and beheaded the animal.

Four down, two to go.

The last two were more wily than the other four. They split up, prowling the perimeter, moving ever closer to Alor. Tristan shifted anxiously at the edge, moving closer but unable to get a shot at either nexu. On the far side, the toddler had begun to slip, and cried piteously, clinging to the older boy. The child tried to pull her back, but he didn’t have the strength to haul her back.

Time was running out.

And where the hell was everyone else?

Sensing the Mandalorian’s distraction, the two nexu pounced simultaneously. Alor shot the one point-blank, and the animal dropped, but could not turn fast enough to fire on the remaining animal. The nexu’s clawed paws hit him in the shoulders, one claw slipping past the beskar and slicing through his flight suit and into his shoulder. He grunted from the pain, and Tristan was grateful that the armor seemed to block the worst of the hit.

The power of the pounce had knocked Alor down, but carried the giant cat past him, giving him a chance to scramble up. He’d lost his blaster, but he still held the Darksaber, and he’d miraculously managed to not dismember himself with the ignited blade when the cat took him down. Switching to a two-handed grip, he faced the cat as it charged again. It swiped at him, and he swung out, slicing off a paw. Screeching, the nexu stumbled, and Alor closed in, lunging upward and piercing the cat’s skull from under its jaw, before slicing the head off entirely.

Manda. If there had been any doubt before about his leader’s abilities as a fighter, they were put to rest now. He’d never seen anything quite like that. And he made it look easy.

Bo-Katan didn’t stand a chance in a challenge, and she was a fool for thinking she did.

Before Tristan could even inhale from relief, a piercing scream ricocheted off the quarry’s cavernous walls. He turned to see that the toddler and the boy were slowly slipping off of the ledge. Alor had already powered down the Darksaber and flew towards the children, clipping the saber to his belt midair. He scooped up the children, and they clung to him, screeching in terror and relief, as they made for the quarry’s entrance, where Tristan steadied him upon landing. He tried to detach the toddler, but the child wailed and clung tighter.

The others had finally arrived, and stared down into the quarry, taking in the carnage.

“Mand’alor, are you all right?” Tristan gestured at his injured shoulder.

“It’s not too bad, it’ll keep,” reassured Alor. “The boy has a cut on his leg, though.” Turning his attention to the two children clinging to him, he said gently, “You’re safe now, ade. I’m going to put you down, and they’ll treat—”

“Noooooo!”

Alor exhaled in dismay and discomfort as the tiny hands gripped his armor and shoulders tighter.

“But you’re safe now. And I have to go get my blaster—”

“Noooo! Please!”

Alor looked at Tristan, who nodded. “I’ll go get it for you.”

“No, please—” it was one of the younger Adumari Mandalorians. “Let one of us go. Where is it?” The Mand’alor paused for a moment, then nodded.

“Vor’e. It’s by the beheaded nexu on the far side of the quarry.”

The young Mandalorian took off. Rau had produced a small medkit, and pulled out an antiseptic wipe. Alor addressed the children once more. “I’m not going to put you down, but I am tired. Can we all sit together on the ground?” The children looked at each other, then nodded. Alor sunk to the ground, and Rau began to clean the boy’s cut. “What are your names?”

“‘m Til, and that’s Maddi,” the boy gestured at the girl, who blinked up at Alor shyly. “She’s three, I think, and I’m seven.”

“And how did you end up surrounded by nexu in the quarry, ade?”

“What’s ade?”

“It means ‘children’ in my language.”

“Oh. Well, the wardens take the orphans on excursions sometimes, and we went to look at the quarry. Maddi and I stick together, since we’re the only non-humans at the orphanage—”

“Non-human?”

“Yeah, we look kinda human, but we’re not technically. I’m Kiffar, and she’s Sarkhai. So the other kids don’t talk to us.”

Anger began to curdle in Tristan’s chest, the reason for the slow response of the Adumari Mandalorians and the orphanage wardens suddenly clear. He wasn’t surprised, but the blunt admission of the children rankled far more than the unspoken.

They were children. They deserved better.

“—and I didn’t realize she’d gotten away from me until we heard the roaring. The other kids ran away, but I couldn’t let her get eaten, so I got to her and pulled her up onto the ledge, where you found us.”

Alor gave them both a gentle squeeze, mindful of his beskar against their soft little bodies. “You were both very brave.”

Til blinked in confusion. “But we cried.”

“Because you were afraid. But you still kept Maddi safe, and you tried to escape. Pushing past your fear to get to safety makes you very brave.”

“But you rescued us,” countered Til. “You killed all of the nexu. Can you teach me how to do that, so I can be even braver?”

Alor seemed to hesitate. If Tristan had learned anything about this Mand’alor, it was that the man’s deep-seated need to protect the defenseless was a mandokar of its own class. He clearly held the Mando instinct for caring for anything that moved, if not outright adopting it. And Tristan suspected that the actions of the adults surrounding these poor children, whose neglect soured the air in its injustice, was propelling that instinct. But he was still the Mand’alor, trying to rebuild a planet and people, as well as find the Living Waters.

All the same, it felt cruel to leave them here, where anything could happen to them again, on this planet where even near-human wasn’t good enough for equal standing. And in this moment, two imploring faces peered up at the man, begging for an answer.

“I am not sure, kids…” Alor began uncertainly.

“Please, sir. No one wants us here,” pleaded Til, and Tristan’s heart wrenched. “We’ll be good, and quiet. Just take us with you, please.” At Alor’s continued hesitance, Til leaned back, his dark eyes wide in uncertainty. “Are you human? Is that why you don’t want us?”

“No, no, kid,” soothed Alor immediately. “I’m human, but that has nothing to do with why I’m not sure if it’s a good idea.” He paused again. From the privacy of his helmet, Tristan watched the Adumari Mandalorians who were observing this moment and murmuring amongst themselves. The hair on Tristan’s neck stood on end; this had become a critical moment, that could turn an unseen tide.

“If they let me take you, ade,” began Alor, and he tilted his helmet in affection at the radiant beams of hope emanating from their small grubby faces; Tristan could feel Rau’s eyebrows shoot up at this turn of events, “you must know a few things. One, I am on a quest right now. My people are trying to rebuild a home on Mandalore. It is hard work, and dangerous sometimes. You will not be able to stay with me all the time while this is being done. But I have a safe place, full of children, where you can learn and grow. One of their leaders, Saviin, is very kind, and has promised to keep you safe and happy while I am gone doing the dangerous work. In this place, they love all people equally, regardless of where they come from. Do you still want to come with me, understanding that we can’t be together all of the time right now?”

Maddi looked to Til, and in that look was a cosmos of trust; Til stared back at her, and Tristan’s heart ached at the weight of the child’s expression. No child should have to bear such responsibility. Yet it had to be the children’s decision, and Alor waited patiently. Finally, Til turned back to Alor.

“Yes, we do. We want to be with you, and when we can’t, this place you talk about sounds safe enough.”

Maddi turned her large dark eyes on the man now. “You be our daddy now?”

“That’s a big decision, little one,” Alor responded calmly. “Let’s get back to the safe place, get you settled, and let you two think about whether you want that. I will take care of you no matter what, but it is your decision.”

They nodded, and leaned into him again, the small bodies sagging against him as the adrenaline wore off. The young Adumari Mandalorian reappeared, grasping Alor’s blaster.

“I think we’re done here,” Alor announced, pushing to his feet, arms still clasped around the children who were barely awake at this point. “Ade, do you have belongings at the orphanage?” They shook their heads, eyes glazed in fatigue.

“The Haven will have things for them,” reassured Tristan. Alor now turned to the Adumari Mandalorians. The Adumari alor stepped forward.

“We are comfortable here, but you have reminded us of what it means to be Mandalorian, and I cannot let our people forget that while living in comfort. It is more than just sword fighting and flying. How we fight, what we fight for—” they tilted their helmet at the slumbering children, “the importance of children in our culture, regardless of species. Thank you, for reminding us. You have our loyalty, and when you call, we will answer.” The alor crashed his fist across his chest in salute, and the rest of the clan followed suit.

Arms full of children, Alor merely nodded. “We will keep in touch.” He looked to Rau, who also nodded, and moved forward. “I trust that you can take care of the paperwork at the orphanage on our behalf?”

“A very small token of our appreciation,” assured the Adumari alor. “We will send you the admin work when it’s done.”

Lovely, more admin work. And yet, as he watched Alor later settle the children into a bunk on the ship, tucking a blanket under their grimy little chins, it is entirely worth it. He waited until Alor had returned to the galley. Tristan held up a med kit.

“Do you want to do the honors, or shall I?”

“It’s an awkward angle to reach, and I trust you.”

Tristan pulled off his helmet to reveal his own small smile, and watched as his Alor began stripping off his beskar’gam and flight suit to reveal the gash.

“Six nexu, Alor? Really?”

“There wasn’t exactly time, Wren.”

“Of course,” Tristan mock-agreed, dabbing at the wound. “The one time I leave my jetpack off, my Alor flies straight into a nexu den unattended. You must really want me to go gray early.”

Alor shrugged, wincing at the action. “I’m used to doing this by myself.”

“Your council is going to have a field day when they hear this. I’m going to get recalled as insufficient.”

“You’re not going anywhere, Wren. Sorry to disappoint,” Alor said tightly, as Tristan began applying the bacta. “Where’s the cauterizer?”

“The— you use a cauterizer?” Tristan stared at him. “How are you even still alive? No, you’re not getting the cauterizer. I’m not getting disemboweled by the bar’uur at the Haven because I gave you a cauterizer. Manda…” Alor merely shook his head. Tristan worked in silence for a moment more, before speaking again.

“You know you’re making it worse, right?”

“What.”

“When you do crazy mandokar stuff like that. Six nexu single-handed. Krayt dragons. Mudhorns. Dark troopers.”

“Giant ice spiders,” supplied Alor most unhelpfully.

Tristan stared, then narrowed his eyes in a glare. “Yeah, giant ice spiders. If you still harbored a shred of hope to not be the Mand’alor, you’re doing a pretty bad job of proving you’re unfit. This os’ik is the stuff of legends, some mythic Lone Warrior out there on quests, obliterating the obstacles. And might I remind you, going to the Haven was supposed to be down time.”

“Yeah,” Alor sounded tired now. “Maybe when I’m dead.”

Tristan shook his head in exasperation. Maybe Senaar had the right idea, with a nice quiet life on a farm. No nexu or ice spiders on Sorgan, that was for sure.

—————

Saviin shielded her eyes against the dirt kicked up by the Gauntlet’s descending engines. Rau had sent word ahead of their arrival; Saviin had notified the medics to stand by, but insisted on meeting the newcomers alone, so as not to overwhelm. The ramp descended as soon as the ship touched down, and Saviin’s heart warmed at the sight. A tiny silver-white-haired girl sat perched on the Mand’alor’s arm, clinging tightly to the edge of his cuirass, while a boy she recognized as Kiffar held his other hand. His helmet tilted towards each child in turning, murmuring something to them quietly. Saviin bit her lip, smiling; it was a tender, intimate scene. She noted that the Mand’alor’s shoulder had been bandaged. The baar’ur was going to have a fit when she found out.

“Su’cuy, Mand’alor, Wren, Rau,” she nodded respectfully, then smiled more gently as she knelt to come eye-level with the boy. “Hello, my name is Saviin. May I know your name?” She tracked the Mand’alor’s shift from foot to foot, but said nothing, patiently waiting for the boy’s response.

“Til,” he responded shyly, ducking his head. Saviin’s heart melted instantly, gazing fondly at the tight black curls of his hair, so similar to her own. “Are you the leader?”

“One of three,” she responded easily. “We like to share around here. I’m so happy to meet you, Til. And you, little one,” she looked up to see the toddler and the Mand’alor staring down at her, “may I know your name, too?”

“Maddi.”

“That’s a beautiful name, Maddi, thank you for telling me. I hope you will like it here. Everyone is excited to meet you, but let’s get you settled first, and maybe some food?” They nodded, and she stood up. She startled slightly when a small hand took hers, and she looked down to see Til looking away as he held her hand. She gave a light squeeze, and looked up just in time to catch a flying toddler who had suddenly launched herself from the Mand’alor, straight at her.

“Okay, Mad'ika, you only have to ask, all right?” She settled the child on her hip, and retook Til’s hand. Rau chuckled behind her. “Are we ready?”

They started walking, Til holding both her hand and the Mand’alor’s, gawking at his surroundings, while Maddi examined Saviin’s person. Almost like— she ruthlessly squashed the thought before it could fully take shape. There was no point. Still, there was no denying that these children were utterly adorable, and she felt herself swiftly becoming wrapped around their tiny fingers.

A pudgy hand landed on her cheek, and turned her head to face the toddler’s large, dark eyes. Maddi stared at her deeply, examining her face.

“Pretty,” she declared, and patted Saviin’s face. “Pretty eyes. Dat’s my favorite color.” Saviin smiled.

“Thank you, Maddi. I like your eyes too.”

“You gonna be my buir too?”

Saviin startled, stumbling slightly as her eyes shot to the Mand’alor’s inscrutable helmet, still staring forward, then back to the expectant toddler.

“Do you know what buir means?”

“Means ‘parent,’” supplied Til. “We decided the Mand’alor’s gonna be our buir.”

“Well, congratulations,” she smiled down at Til. “I’m sure you know that you’ve got the best, bravest buir ever.” She refused to look up as the Mand’alor’s helmet snapped in her direction.

“And you gonna be our buir too?” Maddi demanded, undeterred. Saviin’s smile grew more strained.

“You are so sweet, Maddi. I think cabur might be a better word for me— it means ‘protector,’ ‘guardian.’ I will always be here for you, and will keep you safe when your buir has to go on his adventures for work.”

“Isn’t that the same as a buir, then?” Til frowned, and Saviin chuckled uneasily.

“It does sound pretty similar, huh?” For the life of her, she could not understand why the Mand’alor, or Rau or Wren for that matter, were not stepping in to assist. Traitors. “Oh! Have you ever had a blackberry? They’re in season now. We’re not supposed to pick them without the gardeners, but if you can keep a secret, I won’t tell.” She gestured to the bushes along the path, and slid Maddi down to the ground to lead them to the bush. She’d probably regret teaching them how to pick the berries without pricking themselves on thorns, mentally apologizing to the clan gardeners in advance, but she desperately needed the distraction.

Cabur. Just cabur.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Din left his quarters with a plan. Visit with his children until lesson time, resume his research in the archives, then discuss next steps with Rau and Wren. Already they had stayed far longer than anticipated, but the list of coverts provided by Gar Vod’e could keep them busy for weeks. This place would not serve as a good base for visiting the far-flung coverts, but it bought him some time with his new children while they sought out the closer ones.

It was a good plan. It did not survive contact with the enemy.

“Alor!”

Din turned to see Rau moving towards him, waving a data pad. “The Council has sent an urgent message, and I need your review before I send the response.”

“I was going to visit the children. Can it wait?”

“I’m afraid not. The situation is time sensitive, but if we head this off, we will be able to remain here a bit longer. Your children are with Alor Saviin at her forge right now, so I’m sure they’re fine.”

Din was not fine, but he swallowed down his irritation and followed the elder advisor back to the quarters, content that at least the children were with Saviin, tucking the implications of that knowledge away to explore later.

It was another hour before Din escaped, deferring to Rau’s expertise as usual. The politics of clan relationships baffled him, and he frankly didn’t care. He trusted Rau to help hold Kryze and others sympathetic to her in check.

He made for the forge, only to see Gar Vod’e’s goran emerge with his three children, waving as they bolted for their lessons at the pavilion, Till carrying Grogu. They blew past him, squealing.

“Hi buir! Bye buir!”

Din sighed. So much for that plan.

Saviin chuckled, offering a small smile as she approached. “They are truly treasures, Mand’alor,” her fond gaze followed the children as they entered the pavilion, mingling with the other youths. “So bright and curious.”

“I’d hoped to see for myself this morning,” he replied, still disgruntled at the missed opportunity. She turned those bright, strange eyes on him.

“Yes. Duty has a funny way of interfering with personal plans.”

Amused, Din tilted his helmet at her. “Speaking from personal experience?”

To his surprise, she suddenly averted her gaze, replying just a bit too softly, “Of a sort.” Recovering swiftly, she resumed in a normal voice, “Is there something that I can assist you with today?”

Din blanked for a moment, caught off-guard by her beautiful regard directed so fully at him. “Uh, yes. I was hoping to find your mother and spend some time in the archives again today.”

Inexplicably, her face fell. “I see. I will arrange for the archives to be open, and someone available to assist you.”

Din frowned. “Your mother cannot do it?”

She bit her lip. “Not today, she—” she broke off, turning towards the airfield with a gasp. An XS-stock light freighter had suddenly roared into sight, slowly descending to touch down.

“He made it,” Din could barely hear her breathy words over the sound of the engines roaring. She turned suddenly to Din, her face suddenly alive with relief. “I’m so sorry, will you excuse me for a moment? I will send for someone to open the archives for you.” He barely had a chance to nod before she was sprinting down the grass path towards the freighter, whose ramp had descended and a figure emerged— a man, dressed in drab gray spacer clothes, tall and lean. He watched, dumbfounded by her sense of urgency— and, if he was being honest, admiring her athleticism.

The feeling vanished as she leapt into the arms of the man, and he swung her around. He could hear their laughter echoing across the clearing.

An ugly, hot, sickly feeling suddenly coursed through Din. He couldn’t name it, refused to name it, and felt frankly bewildered by the strength of the emotion. He quickly turned away from the sight, and spotting Ver’ika by a garden bed, marched towards her— only to be smoothly intercepted by Prudii.

“Something I can help you with, Mand’alor?” She tilted her head as though she were still wearing her helmet, the effect of her half-smile undercut by the defensive, challenging glint in her eyes.

“I would like to access the archives.”

“Great. Sunshine?” Prudii called, and a young woman stood up and approached. She had bright gold tattoos on each cheek, three angled stripes resembling a simplistic sunrise. “The Mand’alor needs to access the archives. Please assist him, I will find someone to cover your garden rotation.”

Din glanced around the woman at Ver’ika, who remained hunched over a row of tender plants. She looked as though she had been crying. He looked back at Prudii, whose placid smile was anything but, clearly waiting for his next move. What was going on today?

They were hiding something. All of the bizarre behavior, there was something they didn't want him to see. Din felt the ice-cold sensation of distrust seep into his veins, and he cursed himself for having so easily let his guard down, for having trusted that instinctive pull that dragged him inexorably into Saviin’s orbit. He didn't know these people, he had no reason to trust them.

No more distractions. Get what you need, and get out.

He turned to Sunshine. “After you,” he said curtly. She nodded, somewhat cowed by his attitude, and they set off.

He spent several hours below, disregarding the mid-meal, reading and barely retaining the information despite his meticulous notes. He felt Sunshine’s apprehensive glance now and again, but he ignored her. Ver’ika never showed, nor did Saviin. It did nothing to improve his increasingly foul mood.

So Saviin had someone. So what? Din didn’t care. He’d thought that she might be— but it didn’t matter. He was here to get what he needed for the Living Waters and for Mandalore. It was his only concern. He barely knew Saviin. Her love life was none of his business.

And yet, as Din emerged from the archives, climbing out of the bunker into a glorious afternoon, that focus could not extract the sour poison flowing through him. He looked around the clearing, uncertain what to do with this ugly feeling, how to exorcise it. At the pavilion, his children sat quietly, coloring something as an instructor leaned over, murmuring something to them. Din couldn’t disturb their happiness, didn’t want to infect them with his foul mood.

Tristan sat near them at an empty table, working on a data pad as Senaar sat with him, chatting away as she carved something. A no-go; he didn’t particularly feel like exposing his current emotions to her scrutiny. Rau was sitting with Ver’ika at the bonfire ring, and she appeared to be… crying? And Rau was… holding her hand, comforting her? Uncertain of what to make of that, he looked away, and a flash of light caught his eye.

Saviin was in the sparring ring, wielding a training sword. He watched, mesmerized, as she moved effortlessly through a series of forms. Her eyes were closed, almost as though she were meditating, so certain of her form, footwork, and surroundings.

As much as he didn’t want to engage, he equally felt the need to spar. A spar would relieve this tension.

“You always practice alone?"

Her eyes shot open as Din approached, but Saviin continued her forms without interruption. “I don’t find many takers here for practice,” she replied, finishing the form and standing straight. She glanced over him. “Were you looking to use this space as well? There’s plenty of room—”

“I want to spar.” He knew his tone was all wrong, he sounded too angry, too pent-up, but he didn’t care now. He was facing her, seeing her being twirled around in front of that freighter, and he wanted to spar. To clear out the anger, the frustration, and the longing that he didn’t want to acknowledge.

To Saviin’s credit, she didn’t back down, merely assessing him with those strange, mesmerizing eyes. "Training swords are over there,” she pointed, moving away from the split-rail fence. She gave her own blade an experimental twirl.

Din vaulted the fence, and grabbed a sword. A quick warmup later, he squared off.

Saviin didn’t advance. She held her ground, and waited for Din to approach. It was not the opening he expected, but he adjusted, stalking across the ground, raising the blade for his first strike.

Quick as a flash, she parried, following up with a feint and a thrust that forced him back sharply. Din startled. He hadn’t expected that. He moved forward again, and was easily rebuffed. This time, she pressed her advantage. Under a flurry of blows, he gave more ground, until she suddenly backed off, resetting the spar. She was exceptional, and he could tell that she wasn’t trying very hard, the ease of her attacks and defenses too smooth and practiced. The thought irritated Din even further.

“How old are you?”

“That’s not what’s bothering you,” Saviin parried, forcing him to swing wide and regroup. Her attack grew slightly more aggressive.

“That’s not an answer,” he threw back at her, feinting to one side and following up with a slash that she blocked effortlessly.

“It’s a rude question, doesn’t deserve an answer,” she replied coolly, not even slightly out of breath. “You’re in a community of clones who were all subjected to rapid aging. My father married when he was standard age 15 and died when he was standard age 33. His body was that of an 80-year-old. Age is really relative around here.”

Din was distracted from answering that mind-bending revelation by a particularly vicious thrust that he blocked only at the last moment.

“I’m 27. Kote’s 29, Prudii is 25, and Ruusaan and Senaar are 23. What's the real problem, Mand’alor?”

Din’s mind grappled with the information even as he fought to gain the upper hand in the spar. He could tell that she was still holding back, and as challenging as this spar was unexpectedly turning out, it frustrated him to lose in a what was clearly not a no-holds-barred match. He hated losing in a pity match; he wanted to see her full potential.

“Why are you holding back?”

“Holding—” Din caught her in a lock against his blade, and he startled to see frustration and raw grief flit across her face before she regained control both of her features and the situation, executing a neat flick of the wrist and sending his blade singing away, the force of it dancing up the blade and into his arm with discomforting heat.

“My father used to ask me that. Always knew I could do better, pushed me to find that full potential. He died ten years ago today; he never got to see it.” Even in an emotional state, Saviin’s bladework was smooth, focused, deadly, her breathing light and easy. She forced him back several steps with a flurry of strikes. “I always practice on the anniversary, while my mother steps back from her normal duties and does whatever brings her comfort. Everything we have here was her vision, and she holds up so well every day besides. That’s why Kote came back early today, even though he was supposed to stay longer with his new fiancée, to be with Mama. And why Sunshine assisted you in the archives.”

Realization hit Din, and his arm went slack; Saviin seized the opportunity and disarmed him, sending his sword skittering to the ground. She straightened as he stared at her, her shoulders straight and proud, defiant. She stared back at him, her strange eyes fierce and hard as beskar, the line of her mouth grim.

“She didn’t mind,” a new voice chimed in, and Din turned to see a man leaning against the split rail fence surrounding the sparring circle. He recognized the clothes of the man that had rushed off the freighter earlier, but now close up, he could see the black, curly hair, the warm tawny complexion, the golden brown eyes and familiar facial features that he’d seen again and again in the Haven; this man’s expression was more guarded, the weight of responsibility pulled at his mouth and hooded his assessing eyes. “She wanted to come and be here for Mama, but with everything… else going on, she’ll come next time.” The man straightened, stepping towards Din with a tattooed arm out, his sleeves now rolled up. “You must be the Mand’alor. I’m Kote.”

Din grasped the man’s forearm, cursing his awkwardness. “Well met,” he managed. Saviin set the sword aside and slung an arm around Kote’s shoulders.

“The third member of our Triumvirate. Our resident baker, and best beroya until he hung it up to lead the Haven. If I’m the brains and Prudii’s the brawn, Kote here’s the heart.”

“Ugh, you’re all sweaty,” Kote’s solemn face broke into an affectionate grin as he tried to shove her off; she clamped her arm down to attempt a headlock. “Besides, you’re the heart, not me. Who mounted a rescue mission for a tooka that stowed away in the freighter and got loose in Garel?”

“Lula is a valued member of this family! And what, Prudii’s the brains?” She cackled as Kote finally got free, rolling his eyes.

Din wanted to disappear. He’d been rude, had assumed— it had been a complete accident to quote her dead father at her, but he’d still done it— had lashed out in misplaced anger at the one person outside of his aides who had been nothing but kind and supportive. So quick to distrust, when she had thrown open the doors of their compound to him, trusting him to not betray their faith.

The sibling camaraderie that he had stupidly assumed was something else, tore at something deep in his chest. Watching siblings tease and praise each other, offer and accept affectionate touches; something he’d never had. Watching Saviin be loose, carefree in a way he had rarely seen her be around him was agonizing. He wanted that, wanted to see her light up. He wanted to stop making her frown, loosen the strained smile and polite demeanor. He’d gotten her guard down in the spar, but this was the side he truly wanted to bring to life. And the sudden realization of the want was terrifying.

He realized, with a small thrill of shock bordering on horror, that he had somehow fallen for a near-stranger in the span of a week. And she seemed totally unaware. The revelation was as disorienting as finding himself leader of a glassed planet.

“Beroya?” Din tried to refocus.

“Not the kind you’re likely familiar with,” Kote responded, a glint of steel in his warm eyes. “We’re contracted by a private fund to hunt a specific industry.”

“Slavers,” supplied Saviin.

“You’re paid to hunt slavers? By whom?” Who had funds like that for charity work?

“Our client is confidential, for their own safety; ba’vodu Oya arranged it,” Kote responded, somewhat apologetically. “We’re also paid to get the freed to safety. We hand them off to another party who helps them re-settle. We’re the muscle.”

“Don’t let Kote fool you. He’s the brains, brawn and heart of this place,” Saviin had straightened back up, and was smiling affectionately at Kote. “He’s the best fighter of us all, and the oldest, and we’ve been following him since I could walk. We each have our strengths, but Kote is our leader. He’s the one each of us would gladly follow to glory.” Kote smiled, blushing slightly at the praise. “Also, a modest sweetheart who hates praise,” added Saviin cheekily as Kote swiped at her.

“All right, all right, I’m leaving! Sheesh. Buir’s tiingilar tonight, and I’ve got those berry pies to make.”

“I’ll be there,” she waved him off. Din watched her shake her head and chuckle at Kote’s retreat. She turned to face Din again. “Kote is by blood my cousin, but my buir'e adopted him as a Foundling. His birth father, my uncle Fox, was killed by Vader before they could free him, and his birth mother died in a Black Sun attack in Ord Mantell. My other uncles Tech and Echo, and ba’vodu Oya, were there, and brought him here when I was a year old. He’s named after another uncle, Marshal Commander Cody of the Third Systems Army under General Kenobi, and a batch mate of ba’vodu Fox.”

She hesitated for a moment, then reached out and placed a hand gently on his forearm. He stilled, stunned by the touch, though he couldn’t feel it through the beskar; only the weight, an impression, a whisper of the intent.

“We don’t have secrets here. Secrets get people killed. Ignorance, assumptions get people killed. We know that better than most. Our only secret is that we live. Don’t be afraid to ask. As the leader, it’s a disservice to you to withhold information that could tip the balance of a defeat into victory. All we do, all we have done here, is to keep safe the knowledge, and hope to one day restore it to Mandalore. We don’t let anyone remain in the dark here. What you think you see, what you think you know— don’t be afraid to question it; just be mindful of preconceived notions. All that we know, we offer freely. And I hope— whatever’s bothering you, if you need someone to listen, I’m here.”

“I am not used to things offered freely,” Din admitted, not willing at this moment to fully confess how much of an utter disaster he was, a breathing tower of error and ignorance, so thoroughly overwhelmed and out of his element that the smallest provocations now set him off. How dark and lonely his life must seem to these people, he mused, then inwardly jolted at the realization that it was true. Saviin smiled mischievously.

“That sounds miserable and expensive,” she observed, and he huffed, nodding as he shifted from one foot to the other.

“Thanks for the information, and the spar. And, I’m s—,” she cut him off with a firm shake of her head and a wave of her hand.

“It’s fine, you didn’t know.” She inclined her head in a small bow and made to turn away. He reached out and impulsively grasped her shoulder. She froze, and slowly turned her head back to face him, barely constraining the look of wonder on her face.

“Next time, I want to lose fairly.” Saviin's brows shot up, but she only nodded, and he reluctantly dropped his hand and watched her hop the fence.

“Although,” she called, walking backwards towards the house, “I don’t much fancy wanting to be Mand’alor.” She grinned, and turned away. That mantle would crush her, Din mused. He could never force that responsibility onto her. Saviin was nothing like Kryze, or the others. She truly was like no one he’d ever met before. It alarmed how much more he wanted to learn about her, when he should be focusing on his duty. And yet, as he walked back to his quarters, where he knew three smiling faces awaited him with their latest artistic creations, somehow it felt that learning more about Saviin was exactly what he needed to do right now— her goodness, kindness, and wisdom lighting a path for him to follow out of this dark morass of confusion that had become his life.

The Darksaber hummed under his hand as he walked. Din scowled at it. “Thanks for the input.”

—————

“So…is he always like that?”

Saviin and Kote stood in the kitchen. Saviin pushed a loose lock of freshly washed hair from her face— always so unruly after a shower— and glanced over from the pot of tiingilar she had been stirring, violet eyes taking in Kote’s handiwork as he deftly crimped the shell of a berry tart. The others had evacuated the kitchen after a few swings from Saviin’s ladle, and now crowded around the coffee table, playing a rousing game of sabacc. Their mother had even managed a watery smile, her red-rimmed eyes crinkling in affection at the antics of her family. Echo, ever the instigator, had riled her siblings up, and Rex looked ready to break up a brawl between Ruusaan and Prudii.

“No,” Saviin replied quietly, thinking back on the events of the day, wondering where it all went wrong. “He’s normally very polite, and thoughtful. Reserved, but affectionate with his ade. Intentional about every action. He gets frustrated, but it’s always directed at what he’s learning— or realizing that he didn’t know— not at any one person. Temperamental is a word I never would have ascribed to him. I have no idea where that outburst came from.”

“What happened before I got to the sparring ring?”

Kote’s expression was thoughtful after her recitation of their interactions up to today.

“I have a theory, but you’re not going to like it.”

Saviin groaned. “Not you too.”

“Saviin, I just got here. I don’t know what you’re talking about—”

“Lie.”

“— but from what I saw, he seemed… envious. Jealous, even. He watched you take off to greet me— probably rather enthusiastically, by his standards. He probably read into that way more than intended, and not knowing I’m your brother, jumped to conclusions.” He laughed at the appalled look on her face. “He doesn’t know me, and I’m sure he’s wondering how someone as beautiful as you is still single.” He raised his eyebrows at her scowl. “Don’t fish for compliments, it’s unbecoming. He looked ready to slice you in two at the end, if he could land a hit. That or propose. You know sparring is like a first date for Mandos.”

Saviin rolled her eyes. “Manda, you’re as bad as everyone else. There's a betting pool, Kote. A betting pool. After a week! Some are convinced that we’ll fall in love and our clan will be recognized as Mandalorian. Others are betting that I’ll seduce him, to the same result.”

Kote’s expression grew somber. “That’s a problem for a completely different reason. Your private life, and our clan’s status among Mandalorians, are and should remain separate. To do otherwise is a disservice to both you and the clan. Hopefully, if the Mand’alor is interested, he’ll make his intentions clear, and you can choose to accept or not. Miscommunication is bad for us all, especially in such a tenuous situation. I’ll do what I can to clarify with the clan, and shut down the betting pools, though you know how that is. But I do want to know, why are they still here? It’s been nearly a week, they’ve seen the beskar. Sure, they’re using us as an easy base to visit nearby coverts, but they don’t really need us to do that, now that they have the list. What is it that they seek here?”

Saviin stared at her brother, shrugging helplessly. She’d wondered the same.

“If I get the chance, I will ask,” she replied finally. “For tonight, let’s focus on our family. I…” she felt her composure begin to dissolve. “I can’t believe it’s been ten years.” She closed her eyes, as though the action could negate the cold light of the truth. She felt the secure arms of her brother wrap around her, and she melted into his embrace.

“It’s harder now, isn’t it?” he murmured. “Now that we’re in charge. I keep thinking I need to ask for buir’s advice, then realize…” he trailed off. “And now there’s only Rex, Echo and Sorry left here.”

“We have Boba now,” Saviin reminded him, but Kote made a disbelieving sound that vibrated against Saviin’s head.

“It’s not the same. It’ll always be different. He’s one of us, but he’s been apart for so long. Not a bad thing, it just is. Some days I just sit and watch the old trainings, so that I can hear buir’s voice again. I wish I could get his opinion on all of this, what to do about Mandalore.”

“We already know, vod. Remember when we were ten and twelve, and we stayed up and snuck out to the annual celebration, and heard them talking around the fire?”

“Kote, you have to be quiet!”

“Then stop whispering and use signals!”

“It’s too dark!”

“Shhh!”

They crept out of the house, past the dozing guard, and towards the fire pit, keeping to the shadows. The voices grew louder; they were talking of Mandalore.

“… still under the thumb of Gar Saxon, who’s kowtowing to the Empire. Even the Protectors are complying. I’ve found a number of coverts, but no one is positioned to do much of anything. And still decidedly anti-clone at that. So they can go pound sand as far as I’m concerned,” Oya aimed a vicious glare at the glowing log before her as though it had personally offended her. The Mando wives nodded, expressions twisted as the sour, bitter flavors of frustration and disappointment hit their tongues.

Rex shook his head. “They never learn.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Alpha declared. “We know who we are, and what we believe in. We’ve got it karking documented in the archives.”

“Buir swore!” Saviin breathed. Kote rolled his eyes and elbowed her.

"The opinions of a puppet state, or the leftover Kyr’tsad, don’t interest me. We’re clones, trained and beaten and bled by the Cuy’val Dar trainers, survivors of countless battles, men who wore and maintained our armor with pride We know what we stand for. I don’t need some karking high-born like Bo-Katan Kryze to tell me who I am. We’re free men now. No one can take our names away again. We’re Gar Vod’e, always will be, and so will our children, and theirs.
The others raised their glasses.

“Gar Vod’e.”

 

“He’d tell the Mand’alor to go pound sand too, but that was seventeen years ago, and the Mand’alor isn’t Kryze,” Kote mused. “Now… I’m not so sure.”

“Buir’s first priority was always our safety,” Saviin countered. “Whatever we do next, we must honor that priority.” Kote leaned back, gazing at her with the inscrutable expression their father had worn so well.

“Just remember there are three of us, Sav’ika. Don’t sacrifice a chance for happiness at the altar of duty. Ba’vodu Dogma told Buir the same thing.”

Saviin pulled away and glared at him. “The Mand’alor likely knows better than to fall for the daughter of a clone, he can’t afford the political fallout. And he’s not interested.”

“You know what I find fascinating? You are absolutely convinced that there’s nothing there, and yet you haven’t once said that you’re not interested, which actually would be the fastest way to kill rumors. But for all your politicking, you’ve never been a liar. That, to me, is very fascinating.”

Saviin had no response, and so turned back to stirring the tiingilar. Kote clapped a hand on her shoulder, then left the kitchen, making a beeline for their mother, who had begun to cry again. He swept her off the couch and into his arms, holding her close as they swayed to a familiar tune warbling out of the ancient radio on the counter.

Saviin watched them, heart aching and mind buzzing. It was all too much, and she felt herself spiraling as thoughts of her father, her family, the clan, and the Mand’alor flashed through her mind faster and faster.

“I think that’s enough thinking, Alor’ika,” Rex’s brassy baritone broke through her thoughts, and she turned to see his golden eyes twinkling above his snow-white beard. “How’s about a dance with an old man for a change of pace?”

She smiled, and took his hand. “With pleasure, ba’vodu. Let me just take the tiingilar off the burner, then I’m all yours.”

Chapter Text

The violet of early dawn had begun to fade to periwinkle outside the window when a light clatter from the kitchen roused Saviin from her bed. Slightly later than she normally awoke, but it had taken a while to clear her mind and fall asleep after yesterday’s conversations. Glancing around, Senaar, Ruusaan and Prudii lay sprawled across the massive bed. She smiled, then threw on her clothes and descended the ladder to the main floor.

Kote waved a floury hand from the kitchen as gold eyes met violet.

“You’re up early,” Saviin grinned.

“Bakers rise with the bread,” Kote grinned back, their morning greeting complete.

“Whatcha making this time?”

“I found this at the market in Garel, and have been experimenting,” he explained, pulling off a piece of pillowy dough and rolling it into a long strip under his experienced hands. “I made it a little sweeter for breakfast, but it seems pretty versatile in terms of flavor. The baker described the process, so hopefully I’ve got it right.”

“What’s with the shape?” Saviin examined it with interest; Kote had looped the two ends around, crossing them then tacking to the sides.

“Apparently it’s a religious recipe; the shape is supposed to look like a prayer posture.” Saviin tilted her head, then mimicked the gesture with her own arms.

“Yeah, I could see that. Feels like I’m giving myself a hug, though,” she giggled.

“Then we’ll call them ‘hug rolls,’” Kote smiled, setting the new roll aside and picking up completed ones, dropping them into a simmering pot of water briefly before setting on a tray for the oven and began brushing an egg wash over the tops, sprinkling something over the top of each before sliding the tray into the oven. Saviin turned to the carafe of caf, and pulled a mug towards her. They worked in silence for a while, Kote expertly rolling more dough while Saviin sipped her caf and read through messages and reports from far-flung family members as well as teams out in the field, reading out pertinent points to her brother as the heavenly aroma of sweet yeasted bread filled the kitchen.

At length, her caf cup registered as empty in her mind, and she stood up for a refresh.

“Ready for today, vod’ika?”

“Not sure what to expect, honestly,” Kote replied, pulling a fresh batch from the oven. A heavenly aroma wafted behind him as he moved to the table to deposit the piping-hot rolls on the cooling rack, dusting them with something golden-brown. “Like I said yesterday, I kind of thought they’d take their beskar and go, after a brief introduction to the community. I didn’t expect them to still be here. What have you observed?”

“We’re not what they expected,” Saviin started slowly, brow arched in thought. “We surprised all of them, and all three have very different backgrounds. I don’t think they expected us to be so well-organized. We’re not just highly trained, and well-defended, but we have a flourishing community rich in culture and we are financially successful. But that’s really a matter of having low expectations, not what sets us apart. Living on Sorgan is quite deceptive for setting expectations, which has worked heavily in our favor.”

“So then what sets us apart from them?”

“Besides the incredibly similar facial features?” Saviin snarked. “We’re chatty, and as a whole pretty cheerful. Seems the other Mandalorian groups are rather dour, which tracks with what our Mando ba’vodu’e have told us of their childhoods; it wasn’t always like that, but the clans have taken a heavy beating in the past fifty years, and the Death Watch-aligned clans are.… well. We know what they’re like. And our accent is unique, likely because of Kamino and our ba’vodu'e who taught lessons.”

“So we talk, and it’s funny, and we’re happy. What else?”

“Hugs.”

Saviin squealed as she found her arms pinned to her sides and lifted off the ground by Prudii, who had snuck up behind her. Prudii laughed as she set her older sister on the ground again. “They seemed caught off-guard by how touchy we are.”

“Also tracks— thanks to Kamino. I’ll bet other Mandos don’t sleep in cuddle piles,” Kote chuckled, hands constantly on the move as he prepared another batch for the oven. “That all?”

Saviin took another sip from her cup and sighed contentedly as the warmth seeped into her bones.

“We siiiiiiing!” Senaar’s melodious voice emanated from the ladder as she descended to join the rest in the kitchen. “But that’s probably more thanks to Mama and the radio.”

“True, but definitely different. We have our own songs, in addition to the traditional ones,” replied Prudii, moving towards the carafe to make her own cup. “Plus thanks to Mama, we’ve revived a lot of the old arts; even Yuli has adopted some of the traditional knitting patterns and design styles. I’ll bet the other clans have focused on fighting skills. I don’t think they expected to see a full revitalization of old Mandalorian culture, beyond just fighting— or that they even recognize what they’re seeing. Rau might.”

“That’s a really good point,” mused Kote, eyes drifting into a middle distance even as his hands rolled out a new coil. “Certainly something to offer the other clans, if they’re willing. Anything else that sets us apart?”

“Murder,” groused Ruusaan, glaring at them all as she made a beeline for the caf pot. Saviin choked on her caf.

“We don’t do that, and even if we did, Death Watch's got the corner market on that. I doubt we’d be well-known for it,” Prudii rolled her eyes as she snatched a hot roll from the cooling rack and bit into it, the edges of her mouth curling in satisfaction and delight at the pillowy texture and sweet-spicy flavor.

“We could be, if you keep making so much noise in the morning,” Ruusaan threatened.

“But you looooove uuuus Ruus’ika!” Senaar trilled in a singsong voice, tossing an arm around Ruusaan, sloshing her cup. Ruusaan swore, setting the cup on the table before she turned and swiftly secured Senaar in a headlock.

“Can’t sing if you can’t breathe.”

“I can try—hrk!”

Prudii choked on a piece of hug roll at that, and Kote began pounding her on the back. Saviin was doubled over in laughter, and therefore didn’t hear the door open.

“Should— I come back?”

Everyone stopped and looked at the door. Mand’alor Djarin stood there, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, Grogu perched in his arm watching the scene with an expression of delight. Ver'ika stood behind him, shaking her head in affectionate exasperation, and behind her, Fenn Rau observed the scene with raised eyebrows, while Tristan stared in alarm. The five siblings glanced around at each other, and began laughing.

“No, please, come on in,” Saviin managed. “This is how we start most mornings.”

The Mand’alor, predictably, said nothing.

Saviin picked up two platters of finished rolls. “I’ll be right back, I’ll drop these off at the pavilion, and then check on the new kids.”

“I’ll help.” Saviin startled at the Mand’alor’s unexpected offer. He stooped down to set Grogu on the ground, then took a platter from her hands.

“Ah— thanks,” Saviin replied somewhat uncertainly. He nodded silently at her. Feeling the eyes of the entire room on her and desperate to escape what had become an unexpectedly awkward moment, she led the way back out of the door, and towards the pavilion, where others had begun to set up the breakfast menu.

Saviin exchanged brief pleasantries with the others in charge of morning KP, the Mand’alor standing silently at her side. She wondered why he had agreed, no, offered to help. He didn’t appear to enjoy small talk. Or any talk. He seemed content to simply watch her interact with the clan. It’s like he’s— Saviin abruptly gave herself a mental shake, frustrated with her own lack of awareness or patience. Hadn’t she just told him there were no secrets, and that they were there to support him? The Mand’alor had never led a community before; maybe he was simply observing her methods. She couldn’t fault his curiosity, if this was how he chose to learn. Silently, she resolved to do better.

They were halfway to the children’s dormitory when the taciturn warrior finally spoke.

“Do you visit the Foundlings frequently?”

“Not daily, but often, under normal circumstances. We are a tight-knit community. As much as I have— had, a mother and father in my life, I was really raised by dozens of aunts and uncles. I try to be as present in their lives as I can be, as duty allows.”

“Under normal circumstances?”

“Well,” Saviin slowed her steps as they reached the door. “I should tell you, I guess. I have been visiting with the foundlings you brought at least a couple times a day. They are extremely attached to you, despite their short time in your care, and I seem to be the only one that can reassure them when you’re unavailable. That tends to be Ruusaan’s role, as she’s far more experienced in helping Foundlings adjust to our community, and handle whatever trauma they may arrive with. But your Foundlings have been… adamant. And they really like my forge. So I’ve stepped in, with Ruus’ika’s guidance.”

The door suddenly swung open, and a veritable stampede of small children charged out, thoroughly overwhelming the pair. A tackle at the knees by an overexcited toddler pitched Saviin to the side, nearly falling before a pair of arms shot out, gripping her by the waist and pulling her into a wall of beskar. The solid cool metal of his chest stunned her senses, and Saviin sucked in a breath, as though plunged into a pool of water. Before she could comprehend that the Mand’alor was holding her in an attempt to forestall a fall, and that her hands had somehow found their way to a pair of rock-solid biceps to steady herself, another tackle by a youth sent them both to the ground. All movement halted as the children’s faces dropped in horror at what they’d done.

“We knocked down Alor and the Mand’alor,” a child gasped.

Saviin’s face, on the other hand, had gone scarlet, as she realized that she had landed on top of the Mand’alor. Karking hells.

And the man had the audacity to chuckle as he helped Saviin roll off of him. “No harm done, ade,” he declared, a soft, indulgent tone in his voice that Saviin hadn’t heard before; it nearly distracted her from the mortifying situation. “But bold warriors should look before leaping into battle, yes?” One such bold toddler, the Sarkhai child Maddi, climbed into his lap, placed a pudgy hand on the cheek of the Mand’alor’s helmet, and bonked her forehead into the helmet.

“‘M sorry, buir,” she mumbled. The man wrapped an arm around the toddler, and scooped up a few more that had crowded around. That scene certainly provided a distraction; Saviin’s discomfort melted in the face of such a heartwarming scene. The humble warrior surrounded by children— the idea was irresistible. And despite her better judgment, she settled down in the grass for this impromptu children’s audience with the Mand’alor.

“This moment aside, have you been behaving yourselves, adiike?” Heads nodded. A few of the other children took this as a sign that Saviin was also free real estate for cuddles, and settled on the ground around her, leaning into her sides. Til claimed a spot on her lap, the Kiffar's black curls tickling Saviin’s cheeks as he nodded.

“Alor Saviin has been really nice. She showed us her forge, and takes us for walks when we’re not in class,” Til reported dutifully. “I really like the fruit trees, and Alor climbs up and gets the ripe jogans for us.”

“Is that right?”

Saviin couldn’t help but smile at the teasing tone in the Mand’alor’s voice.

“What can I say? I’m a good tree climber.”

“There’s a special one for climbing,” started one child excitedly. “It’s a big pe—”

“Shhh, that’s a secret! Remember?” Saviin mock-chided the child, and the children all giggled.

“You better all get to breakfast, adiike. You need energy to do well in class, grow into strong warriors,” the Mand’alor gently set Maddi down on the ground, stood up and dusted himself off, one child still clinging to his bicep. He extended his other hand to Saviin, who accepted it. She was surprised by the strength of his grip as he practically hoisted her from the ground. As she brushed grass from her kama, the children took off for the pavilion, including the one attached to the Mand’alor’s arm. Only one remained, wrapped around her leg. It was Maddi.

“Pwease, wanna stay with buir’e,” she whined. Saviin shot a startled look at the Mand’alor, trying not to blush at the ik’aad’s simple request. The Mand’alor bent down once more, level with the child.

“Our meetings are no fun, adika. Can you be a brave warrior and play with the others? Grogu will join you, and I will see you at mid-meal. In fact, there he is now,” he pointed as Ruusaan emerged from the Vhett’ika house with Grogu perched on her shoulder. Maddi nodded, reaching out for the Mand’alor’s helmet and bonking her forehead against his. She then tugged insistently on Saviin’s kama. Saviin knelt, and Maddi grabbed her cheeks, clocking her squarely in the forehead with her own. “Bye buir,” she chirped, and ran off.

“Oh dear,” Saviin stood up, rubbing her forehead bemusedly. “That’s going to be a problem eventually.” She turned to face the Mand’alor, who was staring at her, that inscrutable visor giving nothing away. Saviin cleared her throat uneasily. “Ah, shall we rejoin the others?” He nodded, and followed her silently to the Vhett’ika house. Saviin firmly shoved a host of thoughts, questions and feelings in a box in her mind, and set it far in the back. She was an alor, her people needed her solely focused on their wellbeing, their future. Everything else could wait.

—————

Din followed her back to the house, with only one thought in his mind, the one that had haunted him all night and survived the cold light of day: he was absolutely karked.

Chapter Text

Din had to admit that this was one of the stranger meetings he’d attended as the presumptive Mand’alor. Strange in its intimate comfort, and in its deference. Far more used to hostility, skepticism, or outright fawning, he found himself wrong-footed right from the outset. As he and Saviin returned to the Vhett’ika house, they found Kote, Prudii, Tristan, and Rau seated around the kitchen table, seats mingled instead of clear sides. That had Saviin’s handiwork written all over it; she must have told Kote to arrange it. A platter of rolls and a carafe of caf sat in the middle of the table, and easy conversation was punctuated by moments of silence as they ate and drank. It was a cozy scene.

Din expected a sudden hush as he entered, the conversations to fall away. It always happened when he entered a cantina as bounty hunter, and the annoying occurrence had only gotten worse since obtaining the Darksaber. Yet the conversation continued. Tristan stiffened slightly, making to rise, but Din signaled for him to remain seated, and he relaxed.

It was comfortable, comforting; an intimate moment that wouldn’t last. Saviin slid past him and into the seat at the end of the table between Prudii and Rau, leaving him the seat directly across from her, between Kote and Tristan.

Kote turned towards him as Din sat. “I apologize for the informal greeting yesterday, and my absence during your visit. I hope you have found your stay enjoyable so far.”

“I have, thank you.”

“I heard that you picked up some more Foundlings on your excursion to the Adumari covert?”

“Yes.” Children. A safe topic. “Til and Maddi. A seven-year-old Kiffar and three-year-old Sarkhai.”

“Foundlings are the future.” Din blinked, surprised to hear the familiar phrase. “A fair number of Til’s age-mates here at the Haven are Foundlings. From what I hear, they are excited to see new faces.”

“That is encouraging.” With a pang, Din remembered that they’d eventually be leaving these new friends as well.

Maybe.

In a lull, Saviin cleared her throat, then smiled at the assembled. “I appreciate you all making time for this meeting today. And I thank our guests for indulging the delay, so that our third Triumvir could participate.” After a due pause to acknowledge the appropriate acknowledgments from Tristan and Rau, she continued.

“I want to make clear from the outset that what we are about to discuss comes with no conditions, no caveats, no impact whatsoever on the resources and support that we have already offered. Regardless of the outcome of this conversation, we will continue to offer you lodging for the duration of your stay and for however long your children remain in our care, as well as any and all information related to Mandalore that you find useful for your efforts. The beskar is yours to take whenever you see fit.

“I think at this juncture it is no surprise that we wish to be recognized as a Mandalorian clan. We have shared bits and pieces of our story, but I think a more comprehensive overview is more helpful for the purposes of this meeting.

“My mother and father met at the end of the Clone Wars. My father had managed to get the organic control chip embedded in every clone’s brain removed from his own before they were activated by the Sith to force them to kill the Jedi, as well as the control chip of a junior trooper serving as his aide. After meeting my mother and escaping from Imperial service, they found other clones who had faulty chips and so retained their sense of self, or had learned of the secret chips and had removed them. After establishing this farm, my parents invited others to join, and so the community was established.

“My mother was born on Christophsis, but her mother was Mandalorian, Haat Mando’ade, clan Awaud who had been exiled after the civil wars. My mother grew up learning the culture from my grandmother. My father, as a clone and part of the Alpha class, studied directly under the template, Mandalorian Jango Fett, and the Cuy’val Dar trainers, many of whom were Mandalorian. With no other sense of culture or community, the clones adopted Mandalorian customs, culture and language as their own, reinforced by their trainers.

“When my parents established the Haven, several of the free troopers came with spouses, exiled Mandalorians they had met in their flight to freedom. Most of them were excommunicated from their families for marrying a clone, but they brought their understanding of Mandalorian history and culture to our community. This is why our accent is rather unique. We’ve recorded everything our parents and aunts and uncles could remember of Mandalorian history and culture, and collected everything we could find on the subject, particularly as the Empire’s grip on Mandalore continued to tighten, as well as after the Purge.

“As you’ve seen in our children’s classes, we apply everything we’ve found to our curriculum. Not just fighting and weaponry, but agriculture, arts and crafts, cooking and music. Our children undergo their verd’goten at 14, and swear the Resol’nare once they complete it.

“For our people, the circumstances of birth are what binds us together as a family, but it does not define us as different or somehow ineligible to be considered Mandalorian. We uphold the Resol’nare in our every thought and action. Your decision will not change this; it is who we are. But we want the chance to bring our skills, our resources to the table to rebuild Mandalore. The galaxy needs a strong Mandalore to stand as a bulwark in times of trouble, when the Republic’s ineffectiveness is fully laid bare. We can help.”

In the face of that, Din’s prepared rebuttal felt hollow and ill-informed. The knowledge that those who may or may not be Mandalorian knew more about the culture than he did sat uneasily on his skin, pricking him with discomfort. It was not as bad as the revelation that Moff Gideon was so well-informed. But it still rankled.

But that was hardly their fault, was it? That was a failing on the part of those who educated him— no, that was a spiral he could not indulge right now.

“It is clear that you are exceptionally well-informed on the culture, and dedicated to honoring the Resol’nare,” he started. He watched as a mask fell across Saviin’s face, a placid, unreadable expression. His heart fell, in spite of himself. “And if it were exclusively up to me, recruiting you would be a simple decision.”

“With respect, Mand’alor,” Kote interjected, “recruitment is not what we had in mind.”

Rau leaned forward. “No?”

Kote shook his head. “Recruitment implies that we would be inducted individually, integrated into existing Houses, as was done in the time of the Mandalorian Empire. We want clan recognition.”

Rau paused, expression shocked. “You realize that makes your goal more difficult to achieve.”

Kote’s jaw tightened imperceptibly, but he remained calm. “It shouldn’t. The Mand’alor’s goran established clan Mudhorn quite easily. Establishing a clan full of family members related by blood, marriage and gai bal Manda should not astonish anyone.”

“True, but joining an existing clan would confer their standing to you.”

“And eliminate our ability and right to stand on our own merits.”

Rau looked carefully around the table before responding. “I’m afraid we don’t yet have the numbers on the Council to effectively support that. Not at this time.”

Saviin and Kote nodded, acknowledging the truth they had likely suspected with grim understanding. Prudii barely concealed her glare.

“There is another option,” Rau began slowly. What other option? Din had no idea what he was referring to. Wren began to hunch his shoulders in, then deliberately stopped. Saviin and Kote seemed braced, as though they knew what was coming, but allowed the man to finish.

“There is always the Cin Vhetin. The white field, the blank slate. Each warrior would have to renounce any and all prior claims. Only then could they be claimed and sponsored by a House or clan. If Awaud would not be willing, then clan Mudhorn could be an option.”

The air fairly crackled in the tense silence that followed. Saviin and Kote remained impassive, unreadable, deliberately calm. Prudii on the other hand, looked ready to launch herself across the table at Rau. Wren, unluckily seated beside her, had unconsciously leaned away, towards Din.

“I’m afraid that isn’t a viable solution for us, or for you,” Saviin finally broke the tension, a placid yet firm tone working overtime to keep the proceedings on an even keel. “Some clan members were declared dar’manda when expelled from their families for marrying a clone; I’m not confident that a Cin Vhetin would be honored in their case, or for any other clone descendants, for that matter. There is also the matter of our culture. Some may be willing to forego affiliation for the opportunity to be Mandalorian, if that is the only path, and we will certainly make it available to them, with no hard feelings. But we are a very tight knit community, with a rich culture and a… complicated legacy, that many feel very… protective of. To demand that it be forgotten in order to be assimilated into a culture they already practice will likely not be received well by most. Even if clan Mudhorn took all of our people in and claimed them, an aliit within the clan, or elevating Mudhorn to a House and Gar Vod’e existing as a clan beneath that, it would be untenable for you. Mudhorn would instantly have the largest minority population of the clans, but without formal and effective alliances with other clans, it could also alienate Mudhorn, marshaling the rest of the clans against it. But Cin Vhetin can remain an option, on a case-by-case basis. As it stands, our preference is for formal recognition as a clan with its own standing, and a swearing of the Resol’nare again in the presence of the Mand’alor. Since that is not a path immediately open to us, we shall remain as we are, at your disposal for support, regardless of our current status.”

Din took a moment to absorb that. There was no question that Gar Vod’e had put considerable thought into their induction. Din hadn’t even considered adding anyone other than his children to his clan, let alone the political implications of Gar Vod’e joining any one clan or House.

“That is very generous, Alor Saviin,” Rau responded. “Your position is understandable, and we will ensure that the question is answered once and for all in due course. I’m sure your people want clarity on the matter, and we don’t want to leave them in uncertainty any longer than is strictly necessary.”

“Thank you, Alor Rau. That is appreciated,” Saviin inclined her head gracefully. “I hope this meeting has been useful for you. If there is any other assistance we can provide—”

“Your people have already done us a great service, Alor Saviin,” Rau interrupted gently. “We are heavily in your debt.”

Nayc entye, Rau. Just our duty,” Saviin smiled, a small, formal thing. Din hated it. He stood, and the others followed suit.

“Thank you for your time, and your support,” he finally said, dreading the moment Saviin turned those mesmerizing eyes on him, an expression full of duty and nothing more.

“Of course.”

 

“Well, that went poorly,” Rau stated bluntly as they settled in their lodgings. Tristan tapped the scrambler, and a small buzz filled the room as Rau and Tristan removed their helmets. Din had gotten comfortable baring his face to them, but right now, he wanted the privacy of the helmet. A bit of a giveaway, but one he would take now.

“It could have been worse,” Tristan countered. “Prudii could have actually stabbed you.”

“I would have deserved it,” Rau said with a groan, stretching out stiff knees.

“You are in their corner,” Tristan observed. He looked surprised.

“I wouldn’t go that far. But I am sympathetic to how they must feel. To fling open the doors, give all they have, only to be snubbed. No one asked them to do any such thing, and everything said in that meeting was accurate. But I can’t deny that, in the same position, I wouldn’t feel as they likely do now— frustrated, disappointed. But Saviin is canny, and Kote is determined. I’m sure they see this as a setback that they had anticipated, not an unexpected rejection. At least they’re very comfortable and successful here; I’d feel worse if they were being left in a very bad way. Still, it leaves a foul taste in my mouth.”

Rau swung his piercing gaze towards Din. “Alor, what are your thoughts?”

Din didn’t know what to think. But he couldn’t say that.

“I don’t know what to think.”

Or maybe I can.

Rau’s eyebrows shot up, and Din winced internally. But he only said, “it's a lot to consider. And unfortunately, the fate of one successful potential clan can’t be our priority right now. We can’t help them, but we need them. Their value is as high as their liability right now. Thankfully, they are waiving any debt. Once we make more meaningful progress, you’ll be in a better position to support them.” He paused, then added, “If you wish.”

Din… needed to think. Untangle his feelings for Saviin from the status of the clan.

“If there’s nothing to be done for them now, let’s focus on the latest from the council.”

—————

“Well, that went poorly,” Prudii growled, pacing in the forge.

“Before you kick that droid, remember that it did nothing to wrong you, and you will have to repair or replace it,” Saviin said sternly, as she caught Prudii balefully glaring at the mouse droid dutifully tidying up wood shavings.

“I take it the meeting didn’t go great?” Senaar looked up from her carving, wincing at the auras surrounding her. Her heart slumped. While grateful to leave the politics to her siblings, the outcome put a slight damper on her hopes for her green warrior.

“It could have been worse,” countered Kote. He was lounging on the bench, uncharacteristically casual, watching Prudii carefully. He took a bite from the roll and quickly swallowed. “They could have flat-out refused. Though given how they have stuck around for over a week now and accepted our help, that wasn’t a likely outcome.”

“Honestly, this was no surprise,” sighed Saviin, reaching forward for a roll from the platter on the work table.

“You’re in their corner?” Prudii fairly hissed.

“Manda, you’re worse than Lula,” Saviin frowned at her younger sister. As though summoned, the black and white tooka leapt out of nowhere onto Kote’s lap. “I said nothing of the sort. But they are not in a great position to do much about it. The Mand’alor’s status is in doubt, he’s a Foundling so he’s got no established clan to claim and support him, and he’s a former Child of the Watch, declared dar'manda by his goran. It’s a bad political spot. On top of that, he’s learning all of this on the fly, while trying to rebuild Mandalore and fend off challenges from Kryze, who I am sure is poisoning as many watering holes for him as she can. For all that we have to offer, we’re also a major liability to his already tenuous position. Strictly politically speaking, our best bet is to help him as much as we can, and hope it builds enough goodwill that when he’s more secure, he can support our claim. It’s going to be a long game.

“Bear in mind,” Saviin continued, slightly more loudly as Prudii showed every indication of protesting, “that we don’t have to do any of this. We can walk away at any time. We owe no one anything, other than the beskar. We are financially successful, strategically secure. We need nothing. We don’t need to rely on being recognized as Mandalorian in order to continue as we are. We must bear that in mind, whatever happens going forward.”

“I hate it,” Prudii spat, and Senaar looked away from her. The bitterness, the disappointment, the anger, wrapped tightly around her in an inferno of reds and grays. “How much is enough? When will it ever be enough?”

“That depends by whose standards you choose to live,” Saviin responded calmly. Senaar kept her eyes focused on the new baking peel she was carving for Kote, the soft wood smooth and reassuring under her fingers. She didn’t want to see the gray and blue that marbled in the air around Saviin; she could hear it well enough in her voice.

“No, Prudii, listen. Do I want to be part of something greater? Yes. Do I want our heritage recognized, our contributions accepted to restore Mandalore? Yes. I believe in Mandalore. I don’t think it’s a lost cause, I think it’s worth the effort. But I don’t need anyone’s recognition to tell me my value to the galaxy. We are a free people who bow to no one. Who bring freedom to others. Who spread healing and comfort with the salves and products we make from our gardens. I am proud of my people, and if at the end of all this our claim is not recognized by the current powers of Mandalore, I will die content, knowing that I lived its tenets to the fullest. This is not enough for some, I get that. Which is why we will still do what we can to support this Mand’alor, and hope that we can have a favorable outcome. But I won’t let it rule my life or my happiness, not when there’s so much to be happy and proud of right here.”

Silence followed that statement.

“Way to make me feel like osik, vod,” Prudii muttered, scuffing her boot on the ground and narrowing missing the mouse droid.

“That’s the exact opposite of what I meant to achieve, kih’vod!” Saviin laughed. Kote chuckled and threw a piece of roll at Prudii, who deftly snatched it out of the air with a glare. “Your feelings are valid. I’m just sharing my perspective because maybe it’ll help you find some peace. It sucks that this is not a situation where we can just execute an op and everything gets better. So we have to find a way to live with it. Tell you what,” Saviin stood up suddenly. “Let’s spar.”

Prudii raised her eyebrows. “You think me beating the osik out of you is going to make me feel better?”

Saviin flashed a feral grin. “You think you’ll be beating the osik out of me?” She taunted, backing her way out of the forge as Prudii stalked after her.

Kote barked out a laugh, then stood up, offering a hand to Senaar. “This I want to see. C’mon, let’s watch Saviin and Prudii grind each other into the dirt.” She shook her head, smiling as she sheathed her blade in her vambrace and set aside the peel. As she took Kote’s hand, he pulled her into a hug.

“I see you, little sister. I know you’re worried, Sen’ika, but it’s gonna be okay. I promise.” Senaar melted at her brother’s words, snuggling in tighter. He huffed in amusement, carding her curly black hair with gentle fingers.

“I know, ori’vod. I trust you. For what it’s worth, I’m glad that it’s you three in charge,” she mumbled into his chest. She leaned back, and he peered down at her, scanning her face with his kind golden eyes as though looking for any sign of fear.

“Hmm. All right, let’s go. And tell me about your ‘green man,’ as Sav’ika calls him…”

—————

Tristan glanced out the window again.

“For the love of all that is holy and decent, just go already!” Rau bellowed from behind the data pad. Tristan flushed as he spluttered.

It was evening, and as they had for the previous week, the Mand’alor and his two aides remained in their guest quarters after the late meal, while various community members lingered late into the night at the bonfire. Privately, Tristan had questioned this wisdom, but Alor and Rau had agreed that if they were wanted, then they would have been explicitly invited to join, and there was plenty of pad work to do in the evenings.

But Tristan couldn’t help picking out the bold fuchsia and orange of a familiar tunic by the light of the bonfire, nor how the light made her lovely face glow even more—

“I am working!” Tristan shot back. Alor looked up from the blasters he had disassembled to clean.

“If you want to take the night off, Wren, go ahead,” he said mildly, his soft, raspy voice barely audible. It was a neat trick, the way he never had to yell in order to be heard.

“Why don’t we all?” Feeling caught out, Tristan tried to pivot to a group outing, only to be rewarded with a snort by Rau.

“I highly doubt they want to see us right now. Today was not exactly an auspicious leap forward in diplomatic relations. I’m sure you heard about the sisters’ spar by now; don’t think that wasn’t a reaction to this morning.”

Oh, there was no doubt that everyone in the clearing had heard about the spar, if they didn’t actually attend it— the ring of people around the sparring circle had been several rows thick, and even the children had begged off their lessons to watch. If either of them could move in the morning, it would be by the grace of bacta. Tristan had heard the head medic, Uruna, screaming at them from his desk inside their quarters. Prudii’s win had evidently been a foregone conclusion, but from the snippets of conversation Tristan caught at dinner, Saviin had given her a run for her money, lasting far longer than anyone expected. That… was interesting. Suggesting that Saviin wasn’t so calm as she’d appeared at the meeting.

“Go, Wren. Maybe you can smooth things over,” encouraged Alor, the sound of a smile in his voice. Tristan sighed, setting the data pad down and standing up.

“All right. I’ll take one for the team…” not dignifying Rau’s scoff with a response, he gathered up his helmet and left.

It was a good night to be out. The air was cool, a gentle breeze carrying the sharp scent of pine and the heady wood smoke that smothered his senses in a blanket of comfort. The stars gleamed in the inky black like myriad jewels, a tapestry of dim light draped above like the roof of a blanket fort. It felt surreal, like a picture, and not a view of the rest of the galaxy so very far away. Nothing outside of Sorgan felt real right now, and Tristan found that oddly comforting.

Abruptly, his feet found the edge of the bonfire circle, right at a lull in the conversation. Kark. Heads snapped in his direction, and he felt his nerves founder.

“Hey burc’ya! Over here!”

And to his rescue, there was Senaar, in her bright fuchsia, orange and purple tunic and armor, waving at him with a cheery smile. With a few indulgent chuckles, conversations resumed. Someone had brought out a stringed instrument, and was thrumming harmonic chords in no apparent order. It formed a lovely accompaniment to the low chatter and crackle of the fire, and Tristan finally felt at ease enough to turn to Senaar, who was smiling widely at him.

“Better?”

Tristan tilted his head. “Better?”

“The purple’s gone now.”

Tristan smiled. “What does purple mean?”

“Anxiety, worry— and feelings tangential to that.”

“And the other colors you see?”

She faltered, her eyes scanning around him, then meeting his eyes. “You… want to know about my ability?”

He shrugged. “It’s a part of you, right? And I told you I want to get to know you. So yeah, if you’re comfortable, I’d like to know.”

She blinked, then grinned, that gorgeous megawatt smile nearly blinding him even in the dark of night. She put her hand over his, sending a warm zip of energy up his arm. “You’re really something, Tristan Wren.”

He lost track of time; someone added a log to the fire, a bottle was passed around the fire. Tristan barely noticed. His world was comprised entirely of the fascinating woman sitting next to him, his senses engaged exclusively in taking her in— the light fragrance of flowers when she shook her head in laughter, the glow of firelight in her golden eyes, the warmth of her hand in his. His warm bubble of happiness felt weightless, incandescent; a world where only they existed, and no ugliness could ever touch them.

And then the bubble popped.

If others were talking, Tristan didn’t hear them, but he barely registered a rapid-fire comment in heavily accented Mando’a. He frowned as Senaar stiffened, and the glowing smile faded from her face.

Scrabbling at the remnants of the happy moment, Tristan briefly squeezed her hand. “Hey, what is it? What’s wrong?”

She forced a smile. “Nothing. What were we talking about?”

Tristan paused, uncertain as to whether to press the issue or accede to her wish. “I think I was telling you about my verd’goten, after you told me about yours.”

“Right. I—” she stopped again, her head snapping towards the sound. Again, the Mando’a flew fast and thick, and full of slang that he guessed was local to the community. But it was clearly a dig at them. More specifically, Senaar.

Unconsciously, his hand closed into a fist. He couldn’t start a fight. Not here, definitely not now, no matter how warranted. But to let such an insult stand—

Warm fingers dug into his fist and pried it open. Startled, he looked at Senaar, who gave him a knowing look, a smile hovering on her lips. That mouth— no, focus. The smile turned dangerous as she turned back to the speaker across the fire, who looked like a cousin.

“You sure you want to throw fighting words around right now, Beri?” Tristan could tell that she had slowed down her Mando’a for his benefit.

Like you can back it up—” he added some colloquialism Tristan couldn’t make out, but judging by the crowd’s reaction, it was definitely insulting. “You couldn’t hack it on hunts. I can definitely take you.” Tristan glanced around the crowd to gauge the truthfulness of that statement. They seemed divided.

“Well then, let’s put that to the test, shall we? Chippy, lights!”

A spotlight suddenly blinked into existence; a C1 droid had turned on some sort of floodlight, illuminating the space just outside the bonfire ring. In the distance, a voice shouted in Mando’a; Tristan caught it this time, noting that it seemed to be the younger generation’s default language.

“Turn that light off!”

“Beri’s issued a challenge, Kote.”

A pause, then— “I’ll be right there.”

A figure came jogging through the dark— Kote, having thrown a sweater over some pajamas mid-run. He pushed up the sleeves, revealing impressive tattoos along both forearms, including a large ornate red one, somewhat resembling an arrow or sword.

“Me’vaar ti gar?”

Senaar stood up gracefully, unstrapping her staff and handing it to Tristan. “Will you keep this for me, burcy’ika?”

“Are— do you—” Tristan hardly knew what he was trying to say, and was stunned into silence as she stepped closer, looking down at him and cupping his face with one hand. He could feel her soft fingertips and the calluses on her palm against his cheek, smell the fragrance of her hair, and barely heard her response, too focused on the sensations of his face and the vision of beauty effecting them.

“Don’t worry about me.” She winked, then circled the fire, snapping out her response to the challenger, Beri, who also stood. He was tall, possibly taller than Kote, and brawny. For all Senaar’s reassurance, Tristan felt anxious. The bonfire ring emptied and formed a new circle around the challengers, with the exception of an older man with prosthetics and a device wrapped around his head, who shook it in amusement as he poked at the fire.

“And so here we are again, Senaar has accepted Beri’s challenge to a spar. At 2300, like a bunch of di’kute,” Kote announced tiredly, rubbing his brow in exasperation. “So I’m sure this will end well. Haven rules apply. Violation is grounds for immediate disqualification. No armor.”

“You should go watch,” the old man— a clone, Tristan realized belatedly— advised. “Beri’s an idiot, he’s spent too much time with his mother Yuli’s family and it’s puffed up his head. Senaar will wipe the floor with him, don’t worry.”

“What is it, that he called her?” Tristan asked, frowning at the man. “I didn’t catch it.”

The old man gazed up at him speculatively, and his pale expression slowly twisted into a lopsided grin. “Nothing that you’ll ever call her, I’m sure. She can defend her honor. No need to risk diplomatic relations over it.” He chuckled at Tristan’s disgruntled expression. “Better hurry. She’d rather be talking to you, so she’ll make it quick.”

Hoping the old man was right, Tristan nodded and hurried around to the circle, finding an opening next to Kote. They watched as the two divested themselves of armor and limbered up, then grasped forearms to start the match.

“Is this your fault?”

Startled, Tristan turned to face Kote, who still stared straight ahead. It struck him that the Gar Vod'e leader was likely his age, as well as his height. “I don’t think so?…”

Kote snorted. “I’m just giving you a hard time, Wren. Beri’s a bit of an idiot, he’s been looking for a reason to challenge Senaar. Or anyone, really.”

“The man at the fire wouldn’t tell me what Beri said to start it. It was some phrase I didn’t catch.”

Kote turned, his golden eyes catching the spotlight as he glanced at the bonfire. “Echo? Yeah, I’m not surprised he didn’t say. He likes to stir the pot, but repeating trash is not something he’s fond of.”

“So no one’s going to tell me.”

Kote’s gaze now fell on him, mouth crooked in a smirk. “Stick around and you’ll pick things up soon enough.” He turned back and stepped forward, barking out the start of the challenge.

Tristan blinked. Was that… a reverse-shovel talk?

I’ll take it.

He refocused, hands clenching into fists as Senaar dropped into a defensive crouch, her back foot digging slightly into the dirt to gain purchase. Tristan frowned, wondering what she had planned. He didn’t have to wait long— Beri came barreling in, overconfident in the reach of his long arms. Instead of waiting to parry the blow, Senaar blasted forward, catching him off-guard. She ducked, using her momentum to carry her through as she landed a vicious hook in his solar plexus, then dug her heel into the back of his knee as she blew past him and righted, arms back in a defensive posture as her opponent took a moment, utterly winded and down on one knee. Tristan watched credits quietly trade hands.

“That’s one of her flashier opening moves. She must be showing off,” murmured Kote. Tristan could hear the shit-eating grin in his voice.

“That’s flattering,” he observed, trying and failing to keep the amusement out of his own voice.

“See, what everyone seems to forget somehow—” Kote paused, as muted cheering followed another takedown by Senaar, “they think her Force abilities are exclusively her aura vision, because she’s not a Jedi, right? Doesn’t float osik in the air or see the future, the auras are a one-off, right? Except—” he paused again; Senaar had dodged a tackle and leapt on top of Beri’s back, one arm around his throat as the other disabled a flailing arm, “—it’s not just auras. She can enhance her fighting with the ka’ra, the Force. And she can control it, just a little, for combat. So she practices where people can see her, without the Force, then in secret with the Force. Everyone underestimates her, both her wits and her abilities. And then they learn the hard way.”

Beri had finally managed to grab ahold of her, and was using his weight to force her to buckle. A normal woman would not have withstood it; from that angle, even Tristan would have struggled. Senaar not only held, but twisted, pulling Beri down and slamming him into the ground with the force of his own weight. Quick as a flash, she was upon him, forcing him into a yield at the risk of dislocating his arm.

“I can’t see why anyone would ever underestimate her,” Tristan observed honestly. Nothing about Senaar was anything short of extraordinary.

Kote chuckled. “I suspect that’s why she likes you so much.” And with a pat on Tristan’s shoulder, he moved forward to acknowledge the winner and the loser, leaving Tristan to his soaring hopes. Accepting a quick hug from her brother, Senaar scooped up her armor, and bounded over to Tristan, grinning like the tooka who got the cream.

“Sorry— now, where were we? Your verd’goten?”

Chapter Text

The next morning, after being waylaid by yet another series of demands from the Council, Din set out for the forge. His night of restless sleep had yielded exactly no insights into how to untangle his attraction to Saviin from the status of her clan, or even whether he needed to.

Setting the matter aside entirely, he gave Rau the slip and crossed the sunny grounds. He frowned as he approached.

No smoke rose from the forge.

He hovered near the entrance.

“She’s not here, Mand’alor.”

He turned. Senaar sat inside the forge, partially obscured in shadow, holding a sander in one hand and a paddle of some sort in the other.

“She’s got petition duty this month. You’ll find her at a small table over by the storage shed.”

“Thank you.” He paused, looking at the paddle. “What are you making?”

“A baking peel.” She smiled at his obvious confusion. “For Kote. He’s the village baker, and he makes goods to sell at markets. For mass bakes, he uses a large, outdoor oven, so the wooden peel is to help him move loaves and baked goods around in the oven, as well as pull them out. Have you had Mandalorian sourdough?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’ll ask him to make it. It’s an old Mandalorian recipe from my grandmother. Tangy, good with lots of butter.”

Din smiled slightly. “Thank you, I look forward to it.”

“Of course.” She smiled at him, eyes flickering around him before landing back on his visor. He nodded and retreated quickly.

Her abilities still unsettled him slightly. Tristan had obviously adapted quickly, but Din couldn’t quite get comfortable yet with her ability to see beyond the beskar, to the emotions he had counted on the armor to safeguard as his own. He felt naked under her gaze; it wasn’t her fault, but he avoided the uncomfortable truth as much as possible, ignoring the prickle of guilt for giving the sweet girl a wide berth.

Just as Senaar had said, he found Saviin seated at a small folding table near the storage shed. She blinked at the bright sun as he approached. “Good morning Mand’alor. You are quite blinding today,” she grinned, shielding her eyes.

“What?” He glanced down, realizing that the bright sun ricocheted off of his unpainted armor and directly into her face. “Oh, sorry. I’ll move.”

“Much appreciated,” she said graciously, a small laugh in her voice. “Are you here to petition as well?” He tilted his helmet, amused at her teasing mood today, grateful that yesterday’s meeting hadn’t seriously damaged relations. He hadn’t realized, until this very moment, that this was exactly why he had sought her out. Something twisted tight inside his chest.

“Tell me about this petition table.”

“In our community, we are egalitarian, but it has to be practical. Everyone’s ideas and inputs are welcome and valued, but if we allowed them to be heard whenever the fancy hits, the Triumvirate would never get any other work done. So per our community charter, once per month, we take turns manning this table all morning, though we’re usually done by 9. Anyone who has a petition to start, change, or eliminate some aspect of our community is welcome to submit it during that time. Depending on the request, I might have the authority to make a decision, otherwise I’ll confer with Kote and Prudii and render a decision then, or convene a community meeting and present for the clan to vote on.”

“Sounds very efficient.”

“It works well for us, and was easy to implement. Much harder has been the process for selecting a leader. My parents were the leaders for decades. Then they opened it up for volunteers, but for one reason or another, the only volunteers were the three oldest kids groomed by the previous leaders. We don’t want a dynasty, but trial by combat is shortsighted; a good warrior doesn’t necessarily make a good leader. Speeches are also no good— a good speaker doesn’t mean you’re a good decision maker, either. It’s a work in progress, but no one else seems interested in the job at the moment, so we have time.”

Din smiled. “Are you saying accidental sword acquisition isn’t a good basis for selecting a leader?”

Saviin smiled, the bright light illuminating every lovely aspect of her beautiful face. Din’s breath caught. “If you’re fishing for compliments, Mand’alor, you’ll have to do better than that.”

Din chuckled. “Received any petitions today?”

Saviin blew out her cheeks in exasperation. “Just the usual. Every month, I get two petitions to purchase a herd of scorpal. And every month, I have to vote with the Triumvirate to turn it down.”

“Scorpal?”

“A herd animal from a Mid Rim plains system. You can harvest milk daily that’s edible for humans, as well as its meat, and the fur is long and shaggy and can be harvested annually to make fibers like yarn. Theoretically, it could solve several problems- providing a constant milk source, allow us to make cheese onsite, and produce fiber onsite for Yuli and her apprentice’s knitting, instead of buying all of those things off world.”

“So what’s the problem?”

She shot him a smirk. “Guess what scorpal eat.”

“No.”

“Oh yes,” she laughed. “And we’re not turning our primary export and food source into a buffet for scorpal. I think my gardeners would all quit. And you can’t leave them in the forest, due to the grinjers. We are considering expanding the clearing to build a barn, and establishing a herding rotation so that they can forage supervised outside the clearing, but that’s going to change the ecosystem, and we’ve been careful to avoid that. There are limits to what we can do on Sorgan. Anyway, I’ve received both petitions for that already this morning, so I think I can call petition hours a wrap.”

“Have you had any caf yet?” It was a lame opening, but he had to start somewhere.

Savin blinked, but recovered quickly. “One can never have too much caf,” she responded with a quick smile, and he nodded, gesturing for her to join him. She stood up, wincing slightly.

“Are you injured?”

“Wha— oh, no,” she looked sheepish. “Just stiff from sparring yesterday.”

“Then here, step aside.” She gaped slightly as he gently shuffled her to the side, folding up the table and chair and setting it by the storage.

“Um, thank you,” she stammered, her tone all surprise and gratitude. Din merely shrugged, and nodded towards the pavilion. They strolled slowly from the forge towards the pavilion.

“I didn’t get a chance to say yesterday, it’s incredible what you’ve accomplished here.” He gestured at the clearing.

“I can’t really take credit for it, I’m just a steward,” Saviin demurred. “My mother was the visionary, and my father and his brothers brought it to life. I’ve merely inherited a well-oiled machine.”

“It’s a model for what’s possible.”

Saviin made a sound of dissent in her throat, then dropped her voice as they reached the pavilion. “To an extent, yes. It is heavily based on Mandalorian history and culture. Our location and environment is critical. My clan members tried to settle on many planets before coming here. The lack of established government, the natural resources available— these are major factors. But yes, it certainly is a success story. One that unfortunately, you won’t be able to use.” Her tone was expertly neutral, as she poured a cup of caf, adding milk and sweetener, but the light had dimmed in her face.

Din frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you could, but you’d be better off referring to it as an aruetii community than a clone one. May get more traction with your council that way.”

“But you’re not a clone. Neither are your siblings.”

Saviin turned to look at him, her face entirely unreadable. “Our father, our uncles were clones. You’ve seen Kote; he’s the spitting image of his father, of Boba. And despite the status of the template Jango, clones and their descendants are not Mando’ade.”

“Nothing has been decided,” Din countered. It was a weak argument. “Boba is a clone,” he added. “I call him vod. I have no prejudice against clones.”

“Ah, but Boba is different, isn’t he? An outlier. The designated heir of his template who he called ‘buir,’ he doesn’t outright claim to be Mandalorian even though he mostly lives the tenets, and he has beskar. And he’s a hunter. He looks and acts the part of a Mandalorian. Once you saw his chain code in his armor, you didn’t question giving it back, did you?”

“That’s true,” Din acknowledged.

“If we had claimed the beskar we hold as our own, worn it as Boba has done, and claimed ourselves as Mandalorian, not acknowledging how we came by it, would you have questioned our status?”

“I… don’t know. I hadn’t considered it,” he admitted, realizing instantly that while accurate, it was the wrong answer. Only the slight tightness around her eyes suggested her deep hurt, a soft smile still lingering on her mouth.

“Then I suppose you have your answer. We are not Mando’ade by that definition, with no one to claim us or pass down their beskar, things we cannot control— but that is life. At least we could keep your metal and your history safe for those who can claim them, when Mandalore is ready to rise again.” Din had no response to that. He had ignored politics in order to avoid Bo-Katan, having no interest in the petty back-room dealings. He now saw his critical mistake, but had no clue how to start correcting it.

“Mand’alor—” his attention snapped back, sharper at the even softer, yet more formal voice, “like I said yesterday, know that whatever happens, we are here to support you in whatever you need. Here, we are vode an, brothers all. Our heritage, our values will not change, and we are committed to supporting Mandalore, even if it means from the outside.” Her face was perfectly calm, expertly neutral— only the depth of her gaze betrayed her pain.

He gaped, and as his mind grappled for a response, any response, Rau’s call of “Alor!” drifted across the field, and Saviin turned away, walking swiftly towards the orchard. Din sighed, his shoulders dropping. He’d really messed that up, and it had been going so well at first. This trip had revealed untold depths to his ignorance, and it was hurting people, could hurt more people, could ruin everything if he did not resolve it. So far in over my head— (not enough, it’s never enough—)

No time to spiral, he squared his shoulders and turned to Rau as he approached.

“What is it?”

“Kryze is requesting a meeting via holo, but we’ve been asked not to use our comms array while present.” Din sighed. As if this day couldn’t get worse.

“I’m sure she’ll want answers as to why we’re still here, and how much longer we’ll be.”

Rau nodded, the question reflected in his face. “This has become about more than beskar,” the older man offered carefully. Din nodded.

“This place is a wealth of information. The solutions we’re seeking could be here, more than just the Living Waters, but how to restore Mandalore. Time is short, but we need to stay longer.”

Rau chuckled, his stoic face cracking only slightly. “No complaints here, Alor. Kryze is the one to convince.”

“Not sure I should bother,” huffed Din, exasperated at the woman’s ability to frustrate him at a distance of several parsecs. “Let’s ask, uh, Alor Prudii or Lady Vhett’ika to use their secure comms array.” Rau’s brow furrowed slightly.

“Where’s Alor Saviin?”

Din fought to not squirm. “Just left.” Rau’s gaze narrowed perceptibly, but he only nodded, and gestured for Din to follow him to the Vhett’ika main house to find the women.

Prudii was not in the main house, but instead sitting outside the small shack that served as a cyber center, gripping some caf and ration bar as though her life depended on it. “Morning, Mand’alor, Rau,” she gave a lopsided grin.

“Rough night?” Rau asked, eyebrow raised and a quirk in the corner of his mouth. Din stared. There was something about this place that was inspiring some rather out-of-character behavior in his seconds. Or maybe— Din realized with a start— they felt free to be themselves here, a side he never got to see before. It was a curious notion.

“Buir’s super-soldier genetics didn’t fully trickle down, so you’ll have to forgive me for dragging after three nights of night-stalking, and a rather thorough round of sparring, though don’t tell Saviin I said that.”

Rau laughed, and now Din felt certain this place existed in an alternate reality.

“Night-stalking?” Din asked.

“Advanced recon,” Prudii smiled without further elaborating, standing up and gesturing for them to follow her back to the pavilion.

“We need to have a secure holo with the council. Rather than use our own array, do you have one that you feel comfortable letting us use?” Rau continued.

“Sure. Bob!”

Down the table, a head snapped up from the table, where he had been shoveling mush into his mouth. “Bob is Sparky’s son, he handles most comms and encryptions here. He’ll take you to our array and get you set up.”

Din stared. “Bob?”

Prudii grinned. “Sparky had a great sense of humor. Bob’s is even more extreme. He thought the name was hilarious, wouldn’t hear anything against it. He was also, like, five years old when he picked it. Still…”

Rau chuckled, shaking his head, and stepped towards the kid now slurping wildly from his bowl before leaping out of his seat.

“Ugh,” Prudii’s lip curled. “You’d think we don’t feed him. And Mando—” Din paused in his move to follow Rau. He was surprised to hear her use that term; then again, given their previous interactions, maybe he shouldn’t be.

“You’ll find her at the fourth pear tree on the left, near the hangar. Trunk has a flower carved into it.” Prudii smirked, then sauntered off, polishing off her cup in one gulp. Din gaped, grateful for the helmet to hide the stupid look on his face. How did she— right, ‘Shadow’. He firmly decided not to think about that, and followed after Rau.

 


 

Tristan checked their surroundings one last time. They were sitting at the kitchen table of the Vhett’ika’s home, long-range comms array set up before them. Nothing in the background of the holo would give away their location, per their promise. With one last check on encryption, he turned to the Mand’alor.

“Ready?”

“Let’s just get this over with,” Alor said tightly. Tristan swallowed any reply, and connected the call. This was not going to go well.

“Mand’alor, how gracious of you to finally reply.”

Yep. Not well at all.

“What was so important that you needed to speak directly with us?” Alor was too keyed up for this call. Tristan knew Kryze could smell blood in the water, and she didn’t hold back.

“Why, in part the assurance that you can even take a holo call from your current… location. You seem agitated, Alor. The locals not to your… taste?”

“Is there a point to this, Kryze?”

“We need your timeline for departure.” Kryze had dropped the baiting, but Tristan knew this dance well enough. She wasn’t close to being done yet. “You’ve already stayed longer than anticipated, and the Council wants to know when you’ll be back to continue the buildup efforts.”

“My work here is not yet finished.” That was unexpected. Tristan remained very still, forcing himself not to react as Kryze’s surprised expression moved off of the Mand'alor and raked his own face for weakness. “If the Council wishes to resume daily meetings, we can work with our hosts to attend. But there are more coverts to contact, more resources to plumb here for the return to Mandalore.”

“The Council is still meeting without you.” Offscreen, Rau winced. “I don’t know what those—” she caught herself “—people have told you, but we’ve been searching the galaxy for years. We’ve found nearly all there is. Anyone left out there is a coward and dar’manda.”

“I disagree, Kryze.” She blinked, not expecting the pushback. Tristan blinked too. “You may not have found many Mandalorians in your search, but so far, the list we’ve been provided has checked out. We’ve made contact with half a dozen coverts already, and visited several. Many had no idea we were attempting to retake Mandalore, and are eager to join when we’re ready. Not all are ready to take on the fight, but there are far more of us than we originally thought. If the goal is to rally and reunite Mandalore, then we need every warrior we can find.”

“Your clones don’t count, Mand’alor. But you have a point. You need to forward the contacts to the Council to establish regular—”

“I do not need to do anything, Kryze. You receive Wren’s reports. That is sufficient. Surely you are too busy tracking down arms and ships to bother with clan diplomacy.”

She leaned back, eyes calculating. “I don’t like your insinuation.”

“There’s just no point in duplicating work. We have established contacts. No need to jeopardize communication by duplicating it.”

She scoffed. “So the bounty hunter from the sewers is learning how to politick. How quaint.” Alor remained silent. “Fine. I will continue my efforts with seizing ships, so that there’s something useful to defend Mandalore. While you… politick.”

“Have fun with your piracy, Kryze.” He ended the call before she could respond, then stood up, and left the house.

In the gaping silence that followed, Tristan turned to Rau, who looked exhausted. “Well, that was pretty bad.”

Rau practically growled. “Kryze has become a poison. I once thought she had learned from her mistakes, but no longer; she's as dedicated to the destructive ideals of Death Watch as ever. She’s got the tongue of a viper and the hypocrisy to match. Alor’s too new to this game, it gets under his skin.” He sighed, scrubbing his jaw. “We need to work harder on finding leads for the Living Waters. The longer it takes for Alor to accept her challenge, the more she opportunities she has to undermine the rebuilding of Mandalore for her own vendetta.”

Tristan sighed, allowing the frustration to escape in a puff of air. Then startled as Lula jumped on the table and head-butted him in the face, demanding pets. Manda, even the cats here were Mandalorian in nature. He stroked the black and white fur as he sighed again. “I don’t even know where to start. The Living Waters— it’s a fairytale, a bedtime story. He talked to the Vhett’ikas about it, right?”

Rau nodded. “I’ll ask Ver’ika for an update, see if I can help.”

“Did you read Woves’ report? The Night Owls are considering a base in Sundari.”

Rau shook his head. “Kryze sitting on the throne of her dead sister, who she helped depose and condemn to death. It sickens me. It’s good Woves is there to keep tabs on her and keep us apprised. I wasn’t too sure of his loyalty when he offered, but he’s come through. Let’s hope he’ll survive this; Kryze is beyond dangerous.”

“Do you think Alor knows the story? He hasn’t said anything about it.”

“I don’t know how he couldn’t, unless the Watch really kept him in the dark,” Rau frowned.

“He didn’t know about the Jedi.”

“Kark. Well, first things first. Living Waters. And mitigate the damage that Kryze can do. Smart idea, managing the comms with the coverts.”

“Yeah, well,” Tristan dragged the data pad over, and began opening tabs, “I learned a thing or two under the thumb of the Empire.”

 


 

Din nearly burst out of the Vhett’ika house, putting as much distance between himself and the comm array as quickly as he could. He fairly seethed as he played back the conversation in his head. The insult, the audacity— he checked his speed immediately as the realization hit him like a ton of duracrete. It was no different than he’d been treated for years, not just by aruetii, but by other Mandalorians. The words weren’t new, so why did it rankle now?

Because you now know it doesn’t have to be that way.

When did Mandalore become a people of angry, dour fighters with hair-trigger tempers? The glassing of the planet and its many wars made a lot of sense now. Surely it could be better than that. It had to be.

Din began counting the pear trees along the outer edge of the clearing, slowing as he came to the fourth one. Examining the trunk, he found the engraving of a small flower, similar to one he’d seen on Sorgan before.

“Well, I’m here. There’s the carving.” Din huffed out loud. He shouldn’t be here. He was still too keyed up. He hadn’t even considered what he’d say. Just constantly winging it, hoping it would be good enough. He still didn’t even understand fully what he’d said to offend her.

Now he was here, to make some half-assed apology, and she was nowhere to be found. Another wild bantha chase—

“Did Prudii tell you where to find me?” a small voice filtered down, and Din looked up, startled.
Carefully hidden halfway up the tree, Saviin sat hunched in a ball, in the crook of a branch, looking for all the world like a small tooka trapped up a tree.

“Ah, yes she did,” he finally managed.

“Traitor,” Saviin mumbled, looking away.

“Do you need help getting down?” Din had no idea how he’d help, but it seemed inappropriate to not offer.

“I can manage, thank you. Bad call?”

“What?”

“Your meeting with our holo array. You seem agitated.”

“Yeah, something like that,” he muttered.

"Can I ask you something?”

“You can ask,” he responded cautiously.

“Why are you still here?”

“What?” It was not the question he expected. Without warning, Saviin dropped to the bottom branch, swung on it once, and vaulted to the ground, straightening to gaze at Din directly. She was not nearly as petite as her mother, considerably taller and willowy in figure, though he still had to look down to meet her strange, mesmerizing eyes directly. In this moment, he did not have to look far; she was very, very close. Stop it, focus. He still wondered what color they were.

“You’ve seen our clan. We’ve shown you the beskar, and it is yours to take with you whenever you are ready. You have the list of coverts, and the ability to contact us for any archival resources you need. So, is there something else you seek here?”

Din cocked his helmet in confusion. “Do you want me to leave?”

She appeared mildly irritated now. “Answering a question with a question may work as a bounty hunter, but as a community leader I want real answers,” she replied sternly, and he felt himself straighten under the chastisement. She continued more softly, “I have children asking me why you’re here, eager young ones who think there’s a chance they could be considered Mandalorian and get to fight for you. Older ones asking me if we’ll answer the call, and what happens if we’re not called. I don’t have the answers, and I don’t expect you to have them either, or pressure you into decisions. But I need to tell my people something, and I will not lie to them.”

He stared at the remarkable woman. A decade younger than him, yet already so comfortable in her leadership role. So certain of her duties, her priorities. So confident in advocating and defending. He wanted to be envious, but instead he just… admired her. Hoped to ever be half the leader she was (not enough, never enough—). He realized a moment too late that he’d been standing there a while, just staring at her, uncertain what to tell her. So he went with the truth.

“I don’t know why I’m still here,” he started slowly. “I think there is a lot I do not know, and I am not even sure where to start. I think your people might have answers, but I do not know what questions to even ask. That’s why I came to find you, to apologize for earlier. I had no idea my comment was so offensive; I still don’t fully understand what part of it was offensive, but I know that I’ve wronged you and have something to learn. I’m supposed to lead,” he sighed, “but how can I do that when I don’t even know what I don’t know?” He had turned away in his frustration, and now looked back at her. She had a contemplative expression as she surveyed him.

“My mother was a trained archivist from Christophsis and served in the Grand Army of the Republic. She’s spent the last thirty years collecting and curating information on clones, Mandalore, and many related topics. If you want impartial information, I don’t think even Coruscant could compare with what we’ve collected. But I would start elsewhere first.”

Din tilted his head, a slick of unease running down his spine. This sounded eerily similar to the many ridiculous side quests he’d found himself on in the past year.

“Rex and Echo are likely sitting in the bonfire ring. Go to them, and ask them about the clones and Mandalore.”

“What does Rex know?” Saviin gave Din a crooked smile, and a strange warmth shot through him.

“Rex knows everything— because he lived it. He fought in the battle of Geonosis, all the way through the Siege of Mandalore. He can tell you what it was like to grow up on Kamino, where the clones were created, what Prime— Jango Fett— was like, his experience with Kryze, all of it. From a clone’s perspective, what Mandalore has meant to them, and their shared history. Talking to him would be faster than listening to the many oral histories we have collected, and he’d be happy to answer your questions.”

“Understood.” He paused, feeling wrong-footed in a new way now. She seemed to pick up on it, because she smiled more deeply now.

“There is no debt, Mand’alor. We are fine.” Yet it felt wrong to leave it so. He wanted— he didn’t know what he wanted. Did he? Swallowing a multitude of emotions, he nodded curtly, and turned away.

“Hey—” suddenly, he felt her hand slip into the crook of his elbow, stopping him. He turned back, slowly, hoping the action didn’t encourage her to drop her hand.

“Truly, we are fine. I know you didn’t mean it as an insult. I get it— a lot of this is all new, and you’re under a lot of strain right now. I’d react the same if it were me. Yesterday, I told you that all you had to do was ask. You’re doing the right thing. And it takes a lot more than that to really hurt me.” She gave him a wry smile.

Somehow, that bothered him more than nearly anything else that had occurred this morning.

“I hope I never test that,” he managed, gently pulling away from her hand and stepping back. He turned away from her look of surprise, and left her by the tree. Moving away in this moment felt far safer than remaining.

 

 

As he moved back towards the main communal areas, he slowed his walk, taking in the compound with new eyes. Youths gathered around Prudii in the sparring arena as she demonstrated a technique to the class. A gaggle of smaller children nearly took out Din at the knees as they ran past on the main pathway, Grogu on the shoulders of the oldest, squealing as he held on for dear life. Several women were kneeling by the gardens, cheerfully chatting with each other.

And over by the cooled fire pit, sat a pair of old men. Hazarding a guess that one of them was Rex, he veered in their direction.

This place— it felt like a dream. Could this be what Mandalore had been, was always meant to be, more than just fighting and destruction? They’d done their research, they claimed to live the values, and beskar’gam aside, they seemed to; in regards to armor, they wore what they had, and maintained it with pride. There was something here he needed to learn; it felt less like a side quest, and more like the right path, to start with the elders.

Elders, he realized with a jolt, who were likely just a few years older than him.

The man with the impressive snow-white beard was talking animatedly, waving a paring knife around as a half-peeled jogan fruit rested in the other hand. His pale companion chuckled and nodded, tinkering with something in his lap. Din startled as he realized that the man’s legs and right arm were prosthetic, and as his eyes traveled up to the man’s sunken face, the sun glinted off of the metal ports embedded in his head. A device wrapped around the back of his head, covering his ears. He looked like he had been through the war.

Veterans of the Clone Wars, Din reminded himself. He had been through a war, and clones had been treated poorly by both the Republic and the Empire. Not mindless monsters, mind-controlled slaves. That realization was still sinking in.

“Ah, good morning, Mand’alor!” Despite his age, the bearded man’s voice was rich and solid, lively even, the voice of someone used to both authority and deference. Din normally hated being called “Mand’alor,” a reminder of what others expected him to be, and yet there was something about the way the clone said it, that appealed to him. It sounded easy and formal at the same time, with none of the bowing-and-scraping—or mocking— that others held in their tone when addressing him. It was the tone of someone used to referring to others by rank as well as first name, rolling off the tongue as easily as “Captain,” “Commander,” or “General.”

“Good morning,” Din replied softly. “May I join you?”

“Course! Pull up a log,” the bearded man chuckled genially, surveying Din with cheerful eyes. A sudden silence descended, as Din floundered. He had no idea where to start; his covert was not one for idle chatter. And yet, launching in with hard questions, while acceptable when hunting quarry, was not conducive to making friends. He saw the two men share a look, smiling, then the bearded man met his eyes again. “I’m Rex, and this is Echo.”

Din merely nodded. Bo-Katan would be screaming right now. The thought helped him relax slightly.

“We were just swapping some war stories.”

“War stories?”

“Sure,” Rex replied affably, leaning back then wincing at some protesting muscle or joint. “We served together in the Clone Wars, but spent a fair amount of time apart, and after, so there’s always some story to swap.”

“Ah,” Din replied lamely. The covert never—

“Your, ah, covert, didn’t tell stories like that?” Echo queried, cocking his head slightly. Din knew that motion— the movement of a person used to a life in a helmet. That realization helped him unwind further.

“No.” And what else was there to say? He’d never seen old men sitting around, laughing and telling stories. Not in his covert. Was this normal? What is normal?

“I’m guessing you didn’t come over to hear our dog-eared tales, Mand’alor, though you’re certainly welcome to if you’re just looking for company,” Rex offered. Din resisted a snort. Company was still a very foreign concept.

“Alor Saviin sent me. I seek knowledge, but I am not sure where to start, or what to believe,” Din replied honestly.

“Well,” Rex traded glances with Echo, “it helps to know its price, so that you decide just how much you want to learn. Not credits, son,” he added, laughing at Din’s creep towards his coin pocket. Din flushed under the helmet and dropped his hand.

“What price, then?” Please not another side quest.

Rex glanced at Echo, who answered. “Peace of mind.”

Din remained silent, absorbing that.

“We all learned quickly that we didn’t want the Captain’s job— Rex, here,” Echo clarified at Din’s head tilt. “We knew that he knew things that made it harder to sleep at night, harder to look us in the eye. And after the war, as we learned more about the formation of the Empire and what they were doing— well, it was a heavy burden.”

“So, bear that in mind, young leader, as you quest for knowledge. Your alor, or your armorer— what kind of helm did she wear?” Thrown slightly by Rex’s question, Din answered honestly before he could think.

“Gold, with a crown of horns. And gold and red armor.”

The two clones looked at each other with a heavy gaze, then back at Din. There was meaning in that look, but after Rex’s warning, Din wasn’t sure he wanted to dive down that particular womp-rat hole yet.

“What can you tell me about the clones, and Mandalore?”

Echo laughed, breaking off into a wheezing cough. Rex turned to him with a concerned frown, but Echo waved him off. “You’re in luck. Rex here commanded the siege of Mandalore alongside Commander Tano, and is a first-generation clone.” Din’s head spun with just that one sentence.

“Ahsoka Tano?”

Rex grinned. “Son, you’re about to find out just how small this galaxy is.”

 


 

Saviin watched the Mand’alor walk away from the pear tree, in the direction of the bonfire ring. As she had told him to. Saviin sighed, uncertain whether she felt appreciative that he took her guidance so readily, or concerned that he held an unearned trust in her, on the strength of his perception of her as a goran, wanting to be told what to do.

She reached up, and swung herself back onto the bottom branch, watching his progress across the clearing, replaying their conversation in her head.

“I’m supposed to lead, but how can I do that when I don’t even know what I don’t know?”
His covert was a cult, she felt certain of it now. There was no other explanation for his total lack of knowledge when it came to galactic politics and Mandalore. How could he not know about the Jedi or their abilities, when they were an ancient enemy of Mandalore, and so critical to Mandalore’s fate in the last four decades?

But cults— she knew nothing of how to un-do decades of indoctrination, how to ease him into information without setting off an existential crisis. But, she reasoned, wasn’t he having one of a sort right now? He asked for help. That had to mean something. Something important.
Entry-level information, she decided. Start with the basics of Mandalorian and galactic history. Mandalorian culture. Simple timelines, easy explanations. Children’s— children’s classes. Of course. She’d give him their children’s curriculum, and allow him to verify information via the HoloNet and their archives.

Saviin inhaled slowly, savoring the spicy scent of conifers mixed with the sweet scent of wildflowers that grew in neat rows alongside stout little bushes brimming with fat, juicy berries waiting to be plucked. The Mand’alor had grown up in secret, at one point living in a sewer on a volcano planet. A place like this had to be surreal, as surreal as his childhood felt to her.

And yet he was trying. Trying to understand, trying to be something that he never asked for. Trying to scope out the depth of his confusion, and address it. He was an impressive fighter, terrifyingly competent and brutally efficient. But this— stretching beyond his comfort zone to be what others needed him to be, as he had done with Grogu, taking on new assignments and expectations without complaint, humbled in his missteps and willing to do better— it was beyond anything she could have imagined of the man. It was hard not to—

No. Don’t even think it. It’s not an option. Not for you.

“I don’t think the pears are ready yet.” Ver'ika stood under the branch. She reached out and tugged on Saviin’s leg affectionately.

“Not quite,” Saviin agreed, smiling down at her mother. Ver'ika looked out at the trajectory of Saviin’s view.

“Did he apologize?” Saviin didn’t bother asking how she knew.

“Bold of you to assume he was in the wrong.”

“I know my daughter.”

Saviin snorted lightly at that. “You talked to Prudii, you mean. He apologized for hurting my feelings. But he doesn’t fully understand why it was hurtful. And he wants to learn more. So I’ve sent him to talk to Rex and Echo, and then I imagine he will be a frequent visitor of yours for however longer they stay.”

“He didn’t specify how long?”

Saviin sighed. “No. Because he doesn’t know how much he has to learn. Plus they are continuing to visit other nearby coverts in the meantime. I would expect possibly a few more weeks.”

Ver’ika hummed, and Saviin looked down to meet her mother’s bright green eyes. “Are you okay?” At Saviin’s frown, she continued, “I served in the GAR, Saviin’ika. I saw first-hand how cruel nat-borns can be towards clones. I’m not a clone, but I think I’ve witnessed enough of the hurt to understand it at least a little, even when it’s unintentional.”

Saviin took a slow, shaky breath. “It is forgiven. All I can hope is that he remains invested in learning, and maybe some day change his mind. But I have to accept that he may never see us as Mandalorian, or be willing to fight for our right to be recognized as such. We have expected this as a possible outcome, and are prepared.”

“Your heart’s not, though.”

Saviin looked away. “My heart’s inclinations are irrelevant.”

“Sav’ika—”

“Please don’t, Mama,” she cut across, voice tight. Ver’ika sighed, reaching out to give Saviin’s ankle another squeeze, then left her to her thoughts.

Which was arguably worse.

Chapter Text

As unpredictable as the life of a bounty hunter could be, Din was a creature of habit, relishing the actions that gave his days a rhythm and the illusion of normalcy. Habits had saved his life, had seen him through gain and loss and more loss, through strange lands and magical nonsense. They were his lifeline in a galaxy that changed rapidly before his eyes these days.

And so, Din quickly established a new set of habits as his days fell into a steady rhythm for the next three weeks. Dawn saw him up, reviewing messages and reports, as well as his notes taken the day before. He would meet his children at the pavilions for their breakfast, sometimes accompanied by Saviin. Then back to his quarters or the Vhett’ikas’ home for meetings with Rau and Wren, or with the Council; then the archives for the afternoon after seeing his children at mid meal. Evenings after the children fell asleep were spent cramming the classroom studies that Saviin had provided, or reviewing the files he found in the archives.

It brought him comfort, even as it taxed the patience of his Council. Bonding with Til and Maddi, quality time with Grogu that did not involve life-threatening events, watching his two trusted aides grow more comfortable with each other and themselves under the spell of the Haven. It reminded Din of those weeks at the krill village after the fight with the Klatooinians and the AT-ST, only more familiar. The deeper he dug into the archives, the more he recognized the Haven’s daily activities as uniquely Mandalorian. It gave him the sense sometimes that he had somehow stepped back in history, as though this clearing were a place out of time. This feeling was exacerbated by the occasional day trip to a nearby covert or clan.

Din’s reading list was admittedly haphazard in structure, sometimes predicated by issues facing the Council, other times by his classroom readings. He devoured everything on the Living Waters first— not hard, as there wasn’t much— then the training holos created by Ver’ika’s husband, Alpha-17. He found himself drawn to Mandalore’s ancient history, and records of its culture. It boggled his mind to learn how much existed beyond the Fighting Corps; he’d seen glimpses of the other aspects of Mandalorian culture in those few who practiced them in his covert, but to read of whole cities full of musicians, artists, writers and chefs, stretches of land tended by farmers using traditional agricultural methods— he could scarcely wrap his mind around the idea. Then he would leave the bunker, step into the late afternoon sunshine, and view these practices in action throughout the Haven.

If he’d had any doubts about the Haven and its practices, or the classroom readings, Ver’ika dispelled them on the first day he began his new routine at the archives.

“How do I know I can trust what you’re saying?” Din felt awkward challenging Ver’ika, the clear professional. Voicing his distrust felt ungrateful. And yet he’d been burned for years, accepting as fact what he was told about Mandalore. Ver’ika merely smiled.

“That’s the beauty of an archive. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can see the original text for yourself, decide if you trust the writer. The important thing to remember is that no writer, no historian is fully free from bias. The truth is usually somewhere in between two conflicting accounts.”

Before the Darksaber, and Grogu, it had never occurred to him to question what he was taught, especially if it came from the Armorer. Here, Ver’ika encouraged academic inquiry and source verification over unearned trust. It was a shock to Din’s senses, but under the archivist’s tutelage, he learned how to research, how to persevere if a reading seemed to point to a dead end.

Which was fortunate, as Din’s first venture into the archives was… not auspicious.

“That’s it?” The unvarnished dismay was unmistakable as he turned to look at Ver’ika. The reading list on the Living Waters was short.

Very short.

Ver’ika grimaced. “I agree, it is not a very substantial file. But I have family on Raxus and Chandrila who are posing as researchers, to see if their libraries have any resources available. It is difficult work, because Mandalore’s long-time trade partners were heavily impacted by Imperial occupation, which was extremely thorough in their efforts to eradicate histories and works contradictory to the approved narrative. Some librarians and archivists were able to hide their collections at great personal risk; others weren’t able to move fast enough, feared repercussions, or sympathized with the Empire. The intellectual debt as a result of the last 30 years will be felt for decades to come.”

The day after the Living Waters reading, he had implemented the most unpredictable part of his new routine: a trip to the forge to talk to Saviin.

It hadn’t been intentional; his morning meetings wrapped up early, and Din found himself aimless, mind preoccupied by his research on the Living Waters.

“Good morning, Mand’alor.”

Din blinked; his feet had brought him to the forge. Saviin sat at her work bench, delicate tools spread before her.

“What are you working on?” Din winced, realizing he should have returned her greeting. But his mouth didn’t ever work properly around her.

Her mouth quirked into a smile as she glanced down at her project. “The chain of my cousin’s necklace broke when her baby yanked on it a few too many times. I’m repairing it.”

“So you do repair as well as fabrication?”

She gave a wry smile. “I seem to do a little of everything. Jewelry, blades, and so on. And before you say it, my skills are extremely limited, because I’m self-taught. But I like to experiment. It sounds more impressive than it is.” She glanced up from her work to scrutinize him. “But I know you didn’t come in here to watch me tinker with jewelry.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying it.” Why did I just say that? That sounded stupid. She blinked, startled slightly, and he hurried on, “I read what your archives has on the Living Waters.”

She grimaced. “It’s not much. But my mother is still searching. The more ancient the topic, the slower the process, unfortunately.” She paused, gazing speculatively at him. “Was there something in particular that caught your attention?”

He scoffed. “No. And I think that’s the problem. I read the authoritative version of the legend; the book made it pretty clear that it’s a fairytale. And somehow I feel worse than when I started this quest; at least before I thought it was a real thing.”

To his surprise, she smiled. “All legends are based on a true story; fairytales are just the embellished versions. So, you know that some body of water in a mine existed that held importance to the Mandalorian people. Call that fact #1.” She gestured for him to sit, then picked up a pair of pliers. “What else did your readings say?”

“The legend has been traced back to before the days of Tarre Vizsla, but the first known use of the term Living Waters was 300 years ago. The archives didn’t say what it might have been called before then. And that the Living Waters was in a beskar mine.”

She smiled more broadly. “That’s actually very useful information.”

“How so?”

“Well, for starters, you’ve narrowed down that it’s a beskar mine. So you can count out any other ore mine, taking your number of possible mines on Mandalore from around 400 to 200. Then you noted that the legend is quite ancient, even if the name isn’t documented as such. So, you can narrow down which beskar mines might be the right one, by eliminating any new mines; probably anything within the last 500 years, easily. That cuts your eligible mines down to, what, 90 or 100?”

There was a pause.

“How could you possibly know those figures?” Din watched her closely, and sure enough, she ducked her head, sheepish.

“Sometimes I help my mother puzzle out clues when researching elusive topics in the archives.”

Not sure what to make of that, Din pressed on. “Right. Any other insights to share? What should I do?”

Saviin shrugged, meeting his eyes again with a speculative glint her strange, mesmerizing ones. “I can’t tell you what to do. You’re the Mand’alor. I’m just a clan alor and smith on a backwater planet, I’m in no position to even advise you. I’m happy to listen to your thoughts on your readings, make suggestions. But I’m sure you don’t want me telling you what to do next.”

Din gaped as she mulled a thought then said, “It’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t it? More clues will help narrow that down. What the legend doesn’t say can be as important as what it does say. Bear in mind that what the legend says today is an evolution; I could be very wrong that it’s in a beskar mine. Maybe it’s not. But it seems like an important detail if it was included and retained over generations of storytelling, and thinking about the importance of beskar to Mandalorians, it’s likely true. So, consider the clues, and their context, and see where it leads you.”

“That’s it?”

Her brows shot up. “You are looking for a legendary place. Legends don’t become so for being easy. But I think if anyone’s going to figure it out, it’ll be you. You're a gifted bounty hunter, you excel at tracking, right? This is just another form of that. And my family’s looking for more information. Something will turn up, and you will find it. I have faith in you.”

Din… didn’t know what to do with that. And so he absorbed the conversation in silence as she returned to her project, and eventually excused himself. She’d given him valuable assessments, flatly refused to tell him what to do, then confessed her faith in his ability to achieve the impossible. That last— that was something he did not hear often. Ever, really. Surrounded by skeptics at their staging base on Krownest, and overwhelmed by a role he’d never wanted or prepared for, it was hard to feel confident.

And it was perhaps this confidence, and Saviin’s refreshing insight, that brought him back day after day, whenever the previous day’s readings had stumped him and time that morning allowed for a visit. He’d set a fresh cup of caf down on the work bench, and then talk when invited to do so. She never mentioned the caf, though she would sometimes regard it with a look of confusion, as though she didn’t know where it had come from.

If Din were honest, he also visited to learn more about her, observing the woman who was quickly becoming very precious to him, in her native environment. He had no idea how to demonstrate his interest, or intentions, and watched for opportunities.

“So you grow all of the ingredients to make your own Mandalorian spice blends?”

Din sat in the corner, watching Saviin attempt to solder the lid on a very old spice shaker. He had been reading about Mandalorian cuisine the night before; the diaspora of Mandalorian food was far larger than what he had been exposed to in his covert.

“That’s right,” Saviin frowned at the tin in front of her. “The climate here doesn’t really get warm enough for some of the ingredients, so we convert the greenhouse into a hothouse after the seedlings have been moved out. Took a while to get the ingredient blend just right; the old recipes didn’t include measurements.” She sighed. “I don’t think there’s any saving this shaker, it’s shot.”

The memory of her disappointed gaze lingered in Din’s mind on the next trip to find a covert. He roamed the city’s market, and found a shaker. Its design was ingenious and yet simplistic; Saviin could certainly fabricate something like this, if she had a model.

She’d been a bit stunned when the shaker was set down on her work bench.

“Thought you could use it as a model for more shakers, if another one fails,” he offered lamely. Her bright, albeit surprised smile rewarded his awkward fumbling.

And so for three weeks, he researched, reviewed with Saviin, and brought her trinkets like a glitterclaw feathering its nest with shiny objects, treasuring each soft smile as its own reward. He hoped, unlike his abysmal efforts to find the Living Waters, that he was at least making progress with Saviin. Progress towards what, he hadn’t quite figured out yet.

—————

Saviin hardly knew what to make of the new rhythm her life had taken recently. Somehow, improbably, the Mand’alor and his party had folded neatly into the Haven’s daily activities, and their presence was not disruptive, per se, but… it was not helpful for Saviin. Repeated close proximity with the Mand’alor in particular was a problem.

He was fine— respectful, considerate, generous to a fault, despite the fact that she pushed him, sometimes needling him, to look beyond the texts and challenge his worldview, broaden his perspective. She could tell that she was not what he expected, but in the absence of a wiser, more educated goran, she was all that was available, and so he made do.

It would have been easier if he had been more difficult, more unpleasant.

Still, the Mand’alor would not be here forever. She would survive. As sure as the seasons’ change, he’d exhaust what he could find here, and move on, eventually taking his darling children with him.

The thought sent a chill through her. Till and Maddi had quickly wormed their way into Saviin’s heart. Grogu as well, but he had his own teacher, she knew he’d leave soon. Til and Maddi would be here for the foreseeable future.

Until they weren’t.

 

A soft rain beat gently on the roof of the forge, well into the third week of this new routine. She sat sharpening a lathe, awaiting the near-inevitable visit of the Mand’alor. He’d returned from visiting a covert on Mygeeto yesterday, and had been reading about the Darksaber while in hyperspace.

Saviin glanced out the small window at the clearing. This year’s crops were coming in well, the new rotational plan yielding even better results than before. Tender warm-season shoots poked through the earth, eagerly drinking in the refreshing rain. Early blooms bowed beneath the weight of the water droplets, their purple and pink faces drooping to the mulch below in acquiescence to gravity, the strength of their stems promising a return to power with the passing of the rain. Muddy children shrieked as they jumped in puddles, much to the chagrin of their soaked minders. Saviin grinned, thankful for once that she was excused from that rotation as clan alor.

“Good morning.”

Saviin turned to see the Mand’alor standing in the doorway, a thoroughly doused Mushroom at his heels.

“Please come in,” she smiled. “I see you’ve made a friend.”

“I made the mistake of showing him where I keep the jerky in my belt,” the Mand’alor huffed. He moved to his usual seat.

“Do you need a blanket or towel to dry off—”

“No, I’m fine, thank you.”

“How was Mygeeto?” Saviin picked her tools back up and began sharpening the lathe once more.

“Cold. But no giant ice spiders this time, so I can’t complain.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“We did find the clan, and they were willing to talk. They want to wait and see what happens. They’d prefer to help with rebuilding than engage in any direct fighting, which is strange, but we need that too, I guess. It’s the most I could hope for, since they’re clan Kryze but not aligned with Bo-Katan.”

“I’m surprised she hasn’t found them yet. I suppose that it makes a lie of what I said to you a few weeks ago, about having no secrets. Although, they are not really our secrets. I’m sure they were worried about you revealing their whereabouts to their long-estranged clan member.”

“Extremely. I told them where we got our information from. They seemed more inclined to support our efforts after that.”

Saviin paused her sharpening, looking up in surprise. “Really? That is not what I expected.”

“I think they’re sympathetic, being in a somewhat similar situation.”

As Saviin mulled that thought over, the Mand’alor reached into a pouch. Mushroom perked up, wide-set eyes staring beseechingly at the Mandalorian.

“You are relentless,” he reached into a different pouch and tossed the massif some jerky, then returned to the other pouch.

“I found this while on Mygeeto, thought you might find it useful for something.” He set a dull green crystal on the workbench. Saviin slowly set down her tools and picked up the crystal.

“It’s an artisan crystal. A Kryze told me the color means good fortune on Mygeeto. Just needs a little polishing to remove the exterior. You could use it for another nursery mobile or, uh, a necklace, I guess. Since you like to experiment…” he trailed off.

Savin held the crystal in the palm of her hand. Hints of its brilliance peaked out from polished edges, the dull exterior obscuring much of its beauty. It was a perfect size for a pendant. She curled her fingers around the rock, hiding it from the world. Selfish as it was, she didn’t want to share this gift. It wasn’t meant as a gift of affection, it was idiotic to pretend otherwise.

But she wanted him to leave so that she could craft it for herself.

“Thank you,” she barely managed. “I’m sure it will shine beautifully when it’s done.” She looked up, to find the Mand’alor staring at her, the impassive helmet trained on her face. Hardly knowing what expression she was making right now, she cast about for any topic to deflect.

“So, were you able to read up on the Darksaber?”

Chapter Text

Tristan leaned back against the padded booth of the galley and sighed, giving his tired eyes a break from the monotony of the data pad. Ord Mantell was only a few hours out, and this would be their last stop before returning to the Haven.

Thankfully, he thought, glancing over at the Alor, who was cleaning his blaster for the third time this rotation. One apparently not prone to overt manifestations of tension, it seemed to be the only outlet he allowed himself to exercise his anxiety to get this over with. Probably eager to get back to his kids. It had been 3 weeks since the clan of 2 had grown to a clan of 4, and a little over a month since they’d first arrived at the Haven. Tristan allowed himself a momentary twinge of envy for the Mand’alor, then neatly tucked it away and refocused on the data pad, reviewing the trip summary he intended to file away. After consulting Rau, they had decided not to report back to the Council on the contacts they made with the clans yet; not until they had visited ones further away from Sorgan. As it was, it would too easily narrow down the number of sectors in which the clan could be hiding.

And Kryze was far too interested for his liking.

He flipped back to the beginning of the entry.

Ansion. Decent-sized covert, with children. Open to multiple species. Pledged to answer the Mand’alor and relocate when the time came.

Keitum. Either abandoned or wiped out; scant evidence suggested the former, and somewhat recently.

Orinda. Small covert, no children. Humans-only. Neutral on whether they would support Alor, preferring to remain in a wait-and-see position.

Genassa. Small covert, with children. Open to multiple species. Not much armor or beskar left in the clan, but eager to support the Mand’alor, offering agricultural skills to help rebuild. Tristan put an asterisk on this entry, tagging it as one for Rau to handle; several of the women— and a few men— had been rather persistent in their attentions to both himself and the Mand’alor.

Best not to encourage that.

Which left Ord Mantell. Based on the intelligence Gar Vod’e had collected on this covert, they tended to be more traditionalist, though not quite as extreme as the Alor’s old covert. Resistant to outsiders. Likely human-centric, but unconfirmed. Living in a safe house in a seedy section of the main city. Tristan suppressed a shiver of disgust; it was hard to not resent what his people had resorted to in order to survive, hunted to the point of extinction.

Both hunter and prey. Tristan had never heard that phrase before meeting the Alor, and yet his old covert’s saying seemed to uniquely fit the position Mandalorians often found themselves in. He had considered it while crafting the arguments for why the coverts should risk their current comparative safety for Mandalore. It was a hard argument to balance against the overwhelming evidence of recent years, of what happened when Mandalorians had tried to band together.

Tristan had to wonder, then kick himself for hoping, if his Alor’s quest for the Living Waters could be the missing key to restoring Mandalorians to their homeland once and for all. It was a children’s story, surely, and yet Alor seemed confident that he’d find it, and that it would make a difference, not just for himself, but for their people. Tristan sighed, setting the data pad down once again.

Children’s stories wouldn’t save them. Only the hard work they were currently putting in could do that. That, and strategizing against Kryze.

“What is it.” Tristan tried not to startle as the soft, raspy voice of the Mand’alor suddenly cut the silence. He scrubbed his face with a gloved hand, looking over at the man still methodically cleaning each component of the blaster, helmet focused on the task before him.

“Sorry, Alor, it’s nothing. Just reviewing notes, thinking about our progress in the context of the bigger picture. Composing my next message to Kryze,” he gave a small wry grin at the last. He hadn’t actually done that yet, procrastinating it. Ensuring that the misdirection was thorough had proven taxing.

The man paused for a long moment before responding. “You know, in private, you can use my name. You don’t have to call me Alor. I trust you and Rau above anyone else. I’m not really one for ceremony.”

Tristan blinked, surprised. He supposed he shouldn’t be, since the Alor had actually taken his helmet off in front of him and Rau, claiming that as his closest advisors, they’re like family. Still, using his name— as though he were an equal. Yeah, not likely happening. “I’ll bear that in mind. Vor’e,” he added awkwardly. He was rescued from the oddly intimate moment by the arrival of Rau, who groaned as he dropped into the seat next to Tristan, who shot him a smirk.

“I thought the herbal teas and exercises from Gar Vod’e were helping, Rau.”

“Kark off,” sniped Rau without any heat. “I’m old. I’ve earned my aches and pains, and the right to complain about them. We’re an hour out from the city. Still no response to the message you sent out?”

Tristan shook his head, checking the comm line again. When comm contacts for the clans were available, they had tried to send advance notice of their arrival, as a courtesy.

No one on Ord Mantell had responded.

“We go in quietly, then,” Alor—Din, ugh nope, Alor— decided. “Land in a hangar like a normal spacer, no drawing attention to ourselves. Fully armed, comms hot at all times.”

The other two nodded. Tristan didn’t want to admit it, but he felt that itch.

The hunters may have become the prey here.

 

As usual, Alor took point. Tristan felt more than happy to defer to the far more experienced bounty hunter, even as Rau grumbled about “really needing the current Mand’alor to not die before all of this os’ik was done,” and watched as the Mand’alor melted into the crowd ahead of him, despite his distinctive armor. Tristan pulled his cloak tighter around him, forcing his helmet deeper into the hood. This section of Ord Mantell gave him an uneasy feeling.

And it only got worse once they arrived at the safe house.

“This wasn’t abandoned,” Alor moved around the rooms, scanning their contents. “They were taken, by surprise. And alive.” Tristan looked at Rau, whose inscrutable helmet was betrayed by the tight line of his shoulders under the cloak.

“So now what?”

“We hunt.” And with that soft pronouncement, they followed the Alor back out into the street. Giving him some space, the two aides followed him further down the street. Tristan had never been a bounty hunter, he had no idea what Alor was looking for. The silver helmet scanned back and forth, picking his way around piles of crates and knots of people with unassuming skill, a quiet, confident focus on the task at hand. To Tristan, everything looked the same— a grubby, crowded street full of the sounds of vendors shouting their wares, droids chirruping, the creaks of machinery and vehicles. Suddenly, they saw him stiffen slightly.

“Do you hear that?” Tristan heard him ask over comms. He amplified external audio to pick up the sound of whistling, and gasped.

Vode An.” They all knew the song, every Mandalorian knew it. The haunting melody rose above the din of the street, conjuring ghosts of bygone glory amidst this disgusting cesspool of vice. But where—

And then they saw him. A generic-looking spacer, leaning against the corner of a building near an alley, casually fiddling with a small gadget in his hand. The humanoid reached up to scratch his neck below the face-covering helmet he wore, and they saw the flash of field sign.

Follow me.

“On my lead, be ready for anything,” commanded Alor. They moved forward, following the spacer at a distance deep into the alley, as he whistled Vode An nonchalantly. At last he stopped, slowly pulled off his helmet, and turned.

It was Kote.

“Small galaxy,” he gave a wry smile. “They’re gone,” he added, smile dropping. “And I suspect that the covert you’re looking for is the same group of slaves we’ve just been hired to liberate.”

“Slaves?” Tristan swallowed a gasp at the ignominy of the prospect.

“Pretty common after the Purge,” Prudii materialized from the shadows. “Forced into the mines to work, gladiator pits, you name it. Mandalorians are strong fighters, so why not put that strength to work if you can leash it?”

“Where are they.” Alor’s voice cut through the conversation like a knife, controlled fury in every syllable. Tristan swallowed thickly.

Kote didn’t even bat an eye. “Zygerrians contracted some mercenaries to pick this crew up and deliver them. They’re using a bar nearby as a front; they keep them secured in the back. We’ve scoped it out, but haven’t been able to get past the bartender, whose got an eye on the front door and whose back door leads straight behind the counter, and that’s the only way in or out. Crowd is a mix of regular barflies and visitors, so it doesn’t attract attention to go through the front, until you try to get past the bar.”

Tristan cocked his head at Kote. “I thought you were retired from running liberation missions.”

Kote smiled sharply. “I only go out when needed.”

Suddenly, a female armored figure dropped in from the rooftop, landing lightly next to Rau.

“Adenn decided to be an idiot and attempt Kote’s little spin-kick on a Devaronian. It didn’t end well. So we needed an extra hand. Hi, name’s Oya,” she added, offering a hand to Tristan and Rau.

“And our contact warned that this would be a difficult one,” added Kote. “One of the ringleaders is a purple Twi’lek. She’s been bragging about how easy it was to capture them, claimed to know how Mandalorians think because she ran with one as a mercenary for a while. She’s a nasty piece of work.”

“I want in.”

Kote gazed at the Mand’alor, expression inscrutable.

“I figured as much, Alor, which is why I brought you here.”

“I want to take point. And there will be no quarter.”

Kote observed Alor speculatively. “I don’t disagree, but there are two issues to consider. One, a straightforward assault when there’s only one way in or out will not end well for the captives. We’d never make it in time to stop the slavers from executing them. We’ve seen it happen. I have a solution: we take one of you in as bait. Binders on, a runaway we captured. Distracts the bartender so that the others can slip in and ahead via the backdoor, and gets the distraction team past the bartender once the diversion is successful.”

“I’ll be bait.”

“Wait, no,” Tristan burst out.

Rau sighed, shaking his helmet. “Here we go.”

“You’re the Mand’alor,” protested Tristan. You’re not going in as bait.”

“I’ve done this before—”

“In Nevarro, I know. And you don’t have to this time, so I’ll go.”

“Not a chance—”

“Damn it, Alor, you’re too important!” Tristan was shouting now. “The distraction could go any which way depending on who’s in the room, and we’re not risking you for that. It’s bad enough that you’re doing this at all, but at least let me be the obvious target. You’re better at working in the shadows anyway.”

There was a pause.

“Damn, Wren, didn’t know you had it in you,” Prudii sounded impressed. Kote looked like he was fighting a laugh. Din sighed.

“Fine. I’ll be on the back door team. With you, I’m assuming,” he turned to Prudii, who cocked her helmet in agreement.

“I’ve seen you work, should be fun,” the grin was apparent in her voice.

“Oya and I will escort Tristan through the front door,” Kote affirmed. “Our gear is sufficiently non-Mandalorian enough that it won’t raise scrutiny.”

“I’ll hang back in case it all goes horribly wrong and we need reinforcements,” Rau sighed irritably, as though all of this pained him deeply.

“What’s the second issue?” Din asked Kote. Tristan dimly wondered when he had started calling Alor ‘Din’ in his head, then refocused.

“Our client prefers for us to leave the slavers alive, and dump them with New Republic law enforcement. Killing them all puts us in a bind with our client.”

“That purple Twi’lek has already escaped prison at least once,” Din ground out. “She’s vicious, and will not hesitate to do it again. You don’t have to violate your contract. I will deal with them myself.” No one asked how he knew that, just as no one doubted his ability to follow through.

“And what do I tell my client?”

“Tell them the Mand’alor does not tolerate slavery.”

They all paused, feeling the moment and the weight of authority in the words. Then Tristan spoke.

“Alor, are you sure you want to announce your presence? Word will spread—“

“Kark, Wren, way to stomp on the man’s moment,” jabbed Prudii irritably. “We’ll be more vague and say that Mandalorians in general don’t tolerate slavery, and leave it at that. Now if we’re done here, can we get started?”

Tristan flushed, while Rau shook his head and turned away to head back for the ship. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and froze as he realized it was Din. His leader said nothing, merely nodding, but Tristan felt his shoulders sag in relief. The man was a master of saying so much with no words at all, and it was everything Tristan needed to hear right now. He turned to Oya and clasped his hands. “Ma’am, will you do the honors?”

“Ugh, please, call me Oya. Ma’am makes me feel old.” She clasped the binders on as Kote slipped his helmet on as well.

“Now, please don’t be offended by anything we say or do to sell this, and I have to ask that you don’t lean too much into the character. We don’t want to give the game away by being obvious,” Kote tilted his helmet at Tristan. “Once we’re past the bartender, we’ll set you loose and re-arm you. Ready?”

Tristan shrugged. “Oya.”

Prudii sighed, resigned. “Cid’s gonna be pissed,” she muttered, then gestured to Din to follow her deeper into the alley.

Kote and Oya frog-marched Tristan back around the corner and in through the front door of the cantina, shoving him callously ahead as they reached the bar. The Theelin bartender paused in his wipe down of the bar with a grimy towel, and stared suspiciously.

“Is da boss in? Dey didn’t leave yet, right? Finally caught dis one,” Kote announced confidently in a thick accent, roughly jostling Tristan who stumbled somewhat dramatically.

Rein it in, Wren,” warned Oya through internal comms.

“They’re in. Who’re you?”

“Oh good,” Kote breezed past the question. “After d’amount of work it took to track dis one down, if I didn’t get paid, I’d-a be pissed. Though maybe da armor’s worth some’fing.” He leered at Tristan, who leaned away in disgust.

“This one got away?” asked the bartender.

“I dunnow, I was just told to bring ‘im in. And I better get paid for it!”

The bartender squinted at Tristan, who stood stock still, ice sluicing through his veins. Had they been made?

“Give you 100 credits for the helmet.”

“Kriff no!” barked Kote in a rough laugh. “Dat’s my trophy.”

Tristan whipped his head towards his ‘captor.’ “Slaver scum,” he spat.

Oya decked him pretty decently in the stomach, and he doubled over. “Who asked you, skug?”

“Take off these binders and we’ll see who’s asking!”

“We did, and still kicked your ass, skug. Now shuddup, I’ve heard enough of your yammer on dis damned trip,” growled Kote. “I just wanna get paid already.”

In the commotion, Tristan clocked Din and Prudii slipping through the back door behind the bar, moving as silent shadows down the hallway, the bartender too focused on the squabble in front of him.

“Well, you know the drill, in through the back,” the bartender waved them on. “But next time don’t bring them through the front, right? Got a business to maintain.”

Kote gave the bartender a sloppy salute, and pushed open the door, Tristan and Oya following. He felt Oya slip his blaster back into its holster as they walked, and Kote quickly turned as he unlocked the binders.

“Sorry about that,” he whispered, his voice resuming the normal tone of the village baker and devoted son.

Tristan chuckled at the warrior’s acting skill. “All in a day's work.”

Kote nodded, and they moved forward, clearing the rooms as they pushed towards the back.

It was sheer carnage. Bodies of bounty hunters and mercenaries lay beyond each door, bearing the telltale char marks of the Darksaber. Prudii and Din had moved silently through the rooms, though this appeared to be primarily Din’s work; he had given no quarter, as promised. Prudii must have covered his six as he cleared each room.

He had not seen the work of the Darksaber up close in a long, long time. He shivered as he looked more closely at the vicious char marks, so exacting in their devastation.

A distant yell brought them back to the urgency of the moment, and they hurried, casting more cursory looks in the rooms as they rushed past towards the sound of conflict.

Kote signalled for a halt as they drew near the back, the sound of blaster fire and yells apparent on the other side of the door.

“I’m clocking two on the left side— the Mand’alor and Prudii if I’m not mistaken— two on the right and one up above, and a mass of life in the center. Those must be the slaves. The slavers are using them as cover. Oya, can you take the one up top?” Kote turned to Oya, who nodded. “I’ll go for the two on the right. If I can’t take them out, I’ll smoke them out. Wren, you’ve got the beskar; cover the slaves as best you can.”

Oya ignited her jetpack, and tensed for takeoff.

“Ready? Go.”

Tristan slammed the door open. Oya rocketed upward to the upper railing, while Kote sprinted for the slavers on the right. Tristan threw himself in front of the huddled masses on the ground, preparing to block shots and return fire. He therefore had a front-row seat for Kote’s handiwork.

Kote had already closed the distance, knife in one hand. He had shot the slaver on the far side twice in the chest before engaging the closer mercenary, but somehow lost both his blaster and his helmet on the way there. He was trading blows with the purple Twilek, and who had armed herself with knives as well upon seeing his approach. He swung the helmet like a hammer, landing brutal hits and blocking her stabs. He got in too close and she lashed out, slashing at Kote who parried and danced back, wincing as one of her blades scored a hit.

“Such a nice face,” she purred, re-setting for an attack, her smile ghastly with bloody pointed teeth from a blow to the mouth. “Too bad.”

“Eh, now I match my namesake,” Kote shrugged, grinning like a feral fox with all of his teeth and blinking blood out of his left eye. He let her lunge first, pushing the strike to the side and kicking her in the stomach as he pulled the blade from her outstretched hand. As she fell back winded, he didn’t hesitate, instantly moving forward to disarm her other hand with a devastating blow and sliding the vibroblade under her ribs and into her heart in one fluid motion. He stared into her face of shock.

“Should have stayed in prison,” he chided lightly. He pulled the knife, and she fell to the floor, dead.

Oya landed near the huddled slaves that Tristan had been covering, and he turned to the group.

“Anyone hurt?”

A few had been grazed in the crossfire, and several had older injuries from the initial capture, but none were serious. Prudii worked swiftly to dismantle the shackles. Tristan looked down, to realize he had been covering two kids, inexplicably on the outside of the huddled group. “You kids okay?”

The Tholothian had a half-closed black eye, and he peered up at him. “You saved us!”

Oh no. I am not adopting anyone today. “Not me,” he said hurriedly. Credit goes to that guy.” He pointed at Din. The Togruta boy sported a split lip, and a tiny trickle of blood snaked down his chin as he grinned.

“Wizard.”

“Do you know where they put your armor?” Din was speaking to an older human man who nodded, slowly moving to stand with Din’s help.

“It’s in those crates there,” he pointed at the hover-skids loaded with two crates. Tristan moved quickly over and pried them open.

“Everyone, get your gear quickly, carry what you can’t wear,” he urged them. “The bartender is still out front, and may have called for backup. Do you have any ships?”

“Not anymore, no,” said the man. “Our hunters died when one of our ships burned up on reentry, and we had to sell the last one for food.” Tristan grimaced in sympathy.

As the adults moved swiftly to the crates, the center cleared, leaving the two boys alone and watching the scene, shuffling uncertainly. And predictably, Din had gathered them to him, kneeling to speak with them.

“Basic?”

Both boys nodded. “I’m Kass, and this is Kiro,” the Tholothian gestured to himself, and then to the Togruta. Kiro nodded, tossing a golden arm around his friend. “We’re six, or, at least we think so,” he scrunched up his white facial markings as he pondered the notion.

“How did you end up here, adiike?”

Oh, here we go. He’s adopting more.

Kass shrugged, jostling his head tails. “We ran away from the orphan’s home, looking for food. Got picked up by those skugs.”

“Language, adika.”

Tristan rolled his eyes.

SUCH a buir.

“I’m guessing that’s how you got that shiner and the split lip, huh?”

Kass grinned. “It wasn’t hard. And they had it coming.”

“And you have no parents or guardians? None of the Mandalorians here have taken you in?”

Kiro looked at him suspiciously. “Were they supposed to? We don’t look like them. They didn’t seem to like us much.”

And just like that, the boys’ fate was sealed. Din glanced sharply at the adults around the crates; even behind the helmet, Tristan could tell a conversation would be taking place later. He looked back at the boys, and his response was slightly louder for the adults’ benefit. “Yes, adiike. They should have. Children are precious in our culture, and should be cared for. I’m sorry that no one has done that for you. If you’d like, you can come with me. I have to warn you that I can’t always be with you right now, as we are currently trying to reclaim Mandalore, the homeworld of our kind. But I have a safe place where my other children live, a Kiffar and a Sarkhai, and a…. well, I’m not sure what he is, but his name is Grogu. All are welcome there, and the leader is very kind and loving. Food, training, warm beds, friends, until we reclaim the planet and can go home. You can stay here and I can find you a safe place, if you want, but if you’d like to come with me, there is a place for you.”

The boys looked at each other, then back at Din. Kass squinted speculatively. “We’ll learn how to fight?”

“If you want. If not, they teach many skills there, and you can find the one for you.”

“No, no,” Kass waved away the offer, and Tristan chuckled at the kid’s brazen attitude. “We wanna learn. You were super wizard fighting all of those guys. And we can become Mandalorian too?”

“Not until you’re older, but if you want to, I would be proud to train you. I was a Foundling too, not originally from Mandalore. Mandalorian isn’t a race, it’s a creed, a religion. If you learn and train, and accept the oaths, you can become Mandalorian.”

“All right, we’re in. What do we call you?”

“Names are very important in our culture, Kass. I will tell you mine in private. My children call me buir, which means parent or father, but you can call me cabur, which is guardian, or something else that fits better if you’d like.”

“Never had a buir,” frowned Kiro. “We’ve only ever had each other, at the orphanage. Buir is good for us.”

And done. In record time, too.

“All right, we’re ready to roll,” Prudii strode up to Tristan and Din. “We’ll move in a two-wide column out the front door and to our hangar. How do you want to keep the kids safe?”

“They’ll stay with me, in the middle of the column,” Din replied, standing straight now. The boys huddled close on each side.

Kote joined them. “We have a new issue though. They’re not our usual slaves who get repatriated or put into a refugee program. They’re Mandalorian. And judging by their condition, they’re on their last legs. Malnourished, no ship— they’re effectively stranded. We could still send them to the refugee program, but they’d get settled on a New Republic world, not repatriated to a Mandalorian one. Somehow I don’t think they’ll go for that.”

Din looked to Tristan, who shook his head. “Even if we took them to Krownest, I couldn’t get one clan to take them in that quickly. No one’s got the resources for that. What about Tatooine?”

“Boba would probably do it, but it’s the exact opposite direction we need to be heading,” Din’s voice held a frown. He turned to Kote, who sighed.

“We’d need some assurances first. No one can know where they are while on-planet, or during takeoff or landing. Full comms blackout for them—”

“Wait,” interrupted Prudii, her voice nearly a hiss. “Are you suggesting we give them shelter?”

“Just until Wren can get something set up for them on Krownest and the Mand’alor’s party leaves—”

“Are you insane?”

“We already take in kids, Prudii. We can handle a dozen adults.”

“A dozen Mandalorians from clan Eldar, the same ones who ran off Uncle Lucky and Aunt Truus when they got married. And you’re just going to throw open the doors?”

“I know that Saviin would be in favor of this. Prud’ika, it’s the right thing to do, and we’ll take precautions,” Kote replied calmly. “We swore that we would support the Mand’alor in his endeavors. What other measures could we take that would help you feel comfortable with this?”

Tristan turned away from the argument to look at Oya, who shrugged, and murmured placidly, “I’m not in charge, they are. I don’t interfere.” He turned back to Prudii, whose entire body radiated tension and frustration. He could understand her anger and fear. What they were asking of Gar Vod’e was far more than what had been originally expected when they showed up weeks ago to check out the beskar. And with no guarantee of being accepted as Mandalorian— Tristan shifted slightly, uncomfortable in his guilt. Not that it was his decision, but it felt wrong, as Gar Vod’e continued to give and give without any hope of seeing their claim validated. Their identity assured.

Saviin and Kote seemed resigned to it, accepting— but Prudii. The pain sat right on the surface for her.

“Haar’chak! Fine. I hope I don’t have to say I told you so,” Prudii snapped. She turned away as the alor of the clan approached.

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear— did you say Truus of clan Eldar?”

Kote cocked his head slightly. “I did. Why?”

“Is she still alive? She’s my sister.”

Tristan blinked.

“Yes,” Kote said softly. “She’s still alive. Her husband passed three years ago. Their children are my sister’s age.” He gestured at Prudii.

“Thank the Manda,” sighed the alor, the relief drenching his tone. “Our former leader was Kyr’tsad, and I haven’t been allowed to reach out to her in decades. He was also the one who implemented the humans-only rule. And you,” the man paused, taking in Kote’s appearance, “you must be descendants of the clones. As we see it, we owe you our lives. Our word isn’t worth much right now, but we will support the Mand’alor, and your clan, if your status as Mandalorians is in doubt.”

Tristan swallowed a gasp, stunned.

“A lovely sentiment, but we still need to survive our exfil, so if we can focus on the task at hand and save the bargaining for home,” Prudii snapped.

Kote sighed, evidently pained by his sister’s lack of decorum. “Prud’ika…. she is right though. We’ve stood here long enough. I appreciate your words, alor, and look forward to discussing more when we’re in a more secure location. Let’s get moving. Once we’re back on the street, with respect, Mand’alor, we’d feel better if clan Eldar flew back with us on the freighter, so that we can ensure that they remain ignorant of our location. Rau can fly with us, as well.”

“The kids will stay with me.”

“No arguments here,” Kote smiled as he glanced down at the boys, who smiled shyly back. “We’ll see you there.”

As Tristan began to fall in behind his leader, his helmet chimed with an incoming call. “Watch him on the flight back.” It was Prudii. Tristan raised an eyebrow.

“Did something happen before we got to the room?”

We cleared the building fine— he’s slightly terrifying, by the way, I barely got to do anything— but he hesitated when that purple chick, Xi’an, began running her mouth. She made some comments that seemed to get under his skin, and he doesn’t seem like someone easily rattled. She clearly knew him from his bounty hunting days, asked him if the soulless Mandalorian finally found a heart. Dumb os’ik that shouldn’t have rattled him, but it did.”

“Thanks for the heads up.”

They made it back to the street without incident; no one in the bar objected when the alor of clan Eldar blasted away the bartender in recompense for his complicity. Splitting up when they reached the street, Tristan stuck close to Din and the boys, comming Saviin and Rau with an update and warning them about the child count going up.

The boys had joined Din in the cockpit, so Tristan closed the ramp to signal he was onboard, then gave them space. There was, after all, an art to keeping an eye on this Mand’alor, and the key was not getting too close. He waited until they had slid into hyperspace and they left the cockpit for the galley. He took off his helmet.

“Anyone hungry?” The boys nodded eagerly. Tristan began pulling out ingredients for a noodle dish, then turned to Din, switching to Mando’a.

Alor, I apologize if I was out of line earlier, in the alley. That wasn’t my place—” he stopped as Din raised a hand to forestall him.

I’m glad you did. I count on you and Rau to have my back, and advise me. And I trust that you know when and where to be brutally honest, and when to play politics. We are good.”

Tristan smiled at him, and nodded.

Din Djarin might get into the craziest situations. But Tristan felt in the very marrow of his bones— the humble bounty hunter gently offering food to the ravenous young boys and chiding them for swallowing big bites, was exactly who Mandalore needed. And Tristan would do whatever it took to make that happen.

He just hoped he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his own happiness to do it. Then he considered clan Eldar, and the Adumari Mandalorians. If anyone could change minds, it was Din Djarin.

Chapter Text

Senaar stared resolutely at the skyline, observing the tops of the conifers as they pierced the serene atmosphere like so many serrated teeth, nearly black against the saturated blue and soft white clouds.

“That bad, huh?”

“If I look down, I’ll get a migraine.” Senaar tracked a pair of birds spiraling higher and higher, riding a thermal into the thinning atmosphere. She smiled, admiring and slightly envying their absolute freedom.

“What do you see?”

Senaar closed her eyes, still seeing the birds like a mirage behind her eyelids.

“What do you see, Sav’ika?”

“I see a bunch of family members who have practiced hiding their emotions for a lifetime. So yes, I need a cheat sheet, please.”

Senaar sighed, resigned.

“A lot of purple. They’re anxious. But also a sour yellow, like grief and fear and joy mixed together.”

“Aay’han?”

“More like hope. Repressed hope.”

Saviin hummed.

“I’m sorry this is causing you pain, Senaar. I didn’t consider that when we decided to do this.”

Senaar shrugged, opening her eyes to stare at her sister, a small but genuine smile pulling at her mouth.

“You can’t control people’s feelings, Saviin. It’s not your fault.”

“But we decided—”

“This is the right thing to do, alor,” their mother interjected, standing on the other side of Saviin. “Change creates turbulence, and change is part of life. We will adjust and adapt, as always.”

Saviin sighed, uneasy despite the reassurance. Senaar pulled her eyes away.

They stood together at the hangar, watching the arrival of the Gauntlet and the freighter. A small crowd had also joined— the medics, a few children, and Truus. Senaar avoided Truus, her aura too painful to look at. The welcoming party stood silently, the children fidgeting a little.
Grogu sat nestled in Ver'ika’s arms. He looked up. “Bah?”

Ver'ika nodded. “They’ll be here in a moment.”

The Sarkhai toddler sat snugly on Saviin’s hip, clinging tightly. “Buir okay?” Saviin angled her head and tapped it gently against the child’s. Senaar watched with joy as the child’s deep purple aura instantly smoothed into soothing tones of blue and white.

“He’s fine, Mad'ika. No ouchies this time. He rescued some more people, too.”

“More kids like us?” Til held Saviin’s other hand, and she tugged him closer, pulling her hand free and wrapping it around the boy’s shoulders. Senaar caught Ver'ika’s eye, who shot her a half-grin, eyes crinkled in amusement.

Such a buir.

“Yes, Til’ika. Two, about your age. And I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun with them.”

The roar of incoming engines silenced any further conversation. The freighter landed first, and as the ramp descended, Senaar watched as Saviin moved forward to greet them. She nodded to Kote, Prudii, and Rau, then addressed the alor who had come down with them.

Olarom, alor of clan Eldar. We are happy to receive you here at the Haven.”

Vor entye, alor Vhett’ika,” responded the alor. “We are most grateful for your sanctuary and assistance. It will not be forgotten.” He paused, taking in the children for the first time. Maddi was staring at him shyly, her large, dark eyes wide in wonder at his armor. “Hello, little one.”

“Hi,” Maddi responded. “Did buir wescue you?”

The alor’s lined face crinkled in confusion. “In a way of speaking, I suppose she has,” looking to Saviin for clarification. Saviin blushed.

“They are the Mand’alor’s children. I am just their cabur when he is gone,” she explained hastily. The alor’s eyes surveyed the scene, both children clinging tightly to Saviin.


“I see.” He didn’t sound convinced.

Senaar suppressed a snort.

“I’m sure you had a long journey and would like to get settled,” Saviin pressed on smoothly, regaining her composure.

“I thank you, alor— Truus?” A movement from the crowd had caught his eye, and his gaunt face paled, stumbling around Saviin’s little party towards the older woman who had stepped forward.

Truus stared at him warily.

The alor slowly approached, then fell heavily to his knees. “Ni ceta, vod’ika. I should have left, should have tried harder to find you. I am so sorry.” His shoulders shook as the elder fought back sobs.

Truus stood frozen for a moment, her aura a painful maelstrom of whites and yellows and grays, then knelt to hug her brother.

“I missed you so much, vod.” The Eldar alor lost all semblance of composure then, tears streaming down his face as his chest heaved, sobs broken with grief and relief. Truus held her brother tightly, stroking his silver hair and murmuring comforting words as she smiled through her tears.

Senaar caught her mother’s eye, who smiled sadly and nodded. She knew as well as Saviin that many in the village who dreamed of such a moment. For many, like their mother, that chance had long since marched far away. To deny this chance to those who still had it to seize— it would have been unconscionable. Even Prudii appeared moved, her fierce frown softening somewhat.

She watched as Kote turned to the rest of the clan who had descended the ramp and watched their alor grovel in the dirt, somewhat stunned. “We’ll give them a moment. If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to your lodgings. We’ll have food sent to you, and the medics will accompany you there.” The medics and onlookers moved forward as well, offering their own welcomes and assisting the malnourished newcomers towards the village, who appeared dazed by their surroundings, allowing the children to tow them forward gingerly. Senaar watched them go, then turned back as the Gauntlet finally landed.

The Mand’alor descended first, two boys gripping his hands. Senaar watched Saviin’s aura shift and swirl as the Mand’alor approached, her sister’s hand dropping from where it had been holding something beneath her tunic, something that hung from a leather cord around her neck. It was a new addition, and she refused to bring it up, which made Senaar suspicious.

“I know this is asking a lot.”

“The more, the merrier, Mand’alor,” Saviin offered a reserved smile, guarded but genuine. “As we have said before, we are here to support you. Which,” she smiled more broadly as she looked at Maddi, “includes childcare.”

Su cuy'gar, buir,” Til said politely, and the Mand’alor tilted his helmet down at the boy.

“Su’cuy, adika. You have been practicing. Have you been keeping out of trouble?”

“Yes, buir. Grogu tried to eat a frog—”

“Bah!”

“—but we stopped him,” Til reported triumphantly.

“Very good, Til’ika,” the Mand’alor said softly, his voice warm with affection. “I have new siblings for you to meet. This is Kass, and Kiro. Boys, this is Til, Maddi, and the little green one is Grogu.”

The boys awkwardly exchanged hellos, then Kass looked up at Saviin speculatively. “You our buir too?”

Saviin blushed again. “No, no Kass.” She paused, glancing up at the Mand’alor, who notably said nothing.

Senaar shot a glance at her mother, whose aura radiated amusement. And a little grief.

Yes, I suppose it is a bit sad.

“My name is Saviin, I am one of the three leaders here. I am here for you, whenever and however you need me, when your buir can’t be here. I can show you the forge where I work, and my home, so that you always know where to find me. I know it’s hard to trust new people, but I hope you can count on me for anything, even if it’s just to talk.”

Kass’s eyebrows shot up in disbelief, and he glanced at Kiro before looking back at Saviin, skeptical. “Sounds an awful lot like a buir.”

“Ah, let’s call it cabur, a guardian or protector,” Saviin offered hurriedly. “Are you hungry? It’s nearly mid meal, and they’re serving a delicious casserole. And then I think the kids are playing capture the flag later, if you want to join in.”

“Yeah, that sounds good!” Kiro exclaimed enthusiastically. Saviin glanced at the 
Mand’alor, who nodded at her to proceed, and they set off for the village, Ver'ika following closely with Grogu in her arms chirruping happily.

Senaar turned back to the ramp, and couldn’t help her grin of joy as Tristan finally appeared. He looked tired, but unharmed. He shot her an amused smile.

“You waited for me?”

“Of course!” She leapt forward, and flung herself into his arms, holding him tightly. His breath stuttered as he froze, stunned by the contact. Her heart fell like a stone.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—“ she cut herself off as his arms came up and held her close, his head falling onto her shoulder.

“No, this is good. I just wasn’t expecting it.”

She let herself melt, pushing aside the now-familiar ache of grief that a simple hug could be so overwhelming to the warrior. “I’m so glad you’re back, and unharmed.” He held her tighter at those words.

“And you are a sight for sore eyes,” he murmured into her collarbone, setting a buzzing sensation alight in her chest. He pulled back. “And I’m disgusting, I need a shower.”

“You say that like I care,” she grinned, reaching up on tiptoes and tapping her forehead against his. He blinked, slightly shocked.

“Too much?”

“Just right,” he grinned, pulling her back in for a slower, longer kov’nyn, closing his eyes as he rested his forehead against hers. Senaar sunned herself in the glow of his aura. “Always full of surprises.”

“Good surprises?”

“Good surprises,” he affirmed, then pulled back reluctantly, gesturing for them to walk towards the village.

“Did you really offer yourself up as the bait, Tristan?” Senaar knew her tone was too reproachful, but she had been mildly terrified at the initial reports from Kote.

He shrugged. “It was me or the Mand’alor, and obviously it couldn’t be him. Would you feel better if I told you the rest of the trip was infinitely more peaceful and boring?”

“A little. You’re Mandalorian, danger’s part of life, but still…” she trailed off. He knocked her shoulder with his own.

“I’m fine, Senaar. Not a scratch. And we were with your siblings, who are some of the most elite professionals I’ve seen. So, what did I miss here?”

“Yesterday they covered takedowns in class, so you missed me getting thoroughly bruised by eight year-olds. And today the gardeners planted the beans and squash for the summer season…"

 


 

“All right ade, let’s settle.”

Din found himself surrounded by children. His children. His gut instinct to take the foundlings in had suddenly netted a rather large family. He sighed.

Being a single parent to Grogu had been hard. The language barrier and perpetual toddler behavior, plus magic powers, had made it more difficult than expected, but it was still hard with Til and Maddi. He knew the signs of trauma, knew they had all dealt with far more than they ever should have at their ages. They had adjusted remarkably well, but they were still children, full of wonder and confusion and mischief and love and fear.

And now he had five of them.

The boys had been slightly suspicious of each other. Kass and Kiro weren’t sure what to make of Til, or of Din for that matter; but Til had taken the lead on showing the boys around and introducing them to the other kids, and the two twin-like boys had warmed up to their new older brother. Maddi had toddled along behind them, hand-in-hand with Grogu, chirping her own strong opinions on each matter raised by Til. His little brood had gelled together alarmingly fast, and with less fuss than he had personally experienced when joining his own covert.

Carefully tucking away that painful memory of his first introduction to Paz Vizsla, Din refocused.

“I thought we could spend a few moments before nap time, getting to know each other better.”

“Where Sav’buir?” demanded Maddi.

Din swallowed tightly.

“Saviin is busy, adika. It’s just our family right now.”

“Want Sav’buir,” pouted Maddi.

“I thought she said she wasn’t our buir,” frowned Kass in confusion.

“Do you always wear the helmet?” demanded Kiro.

“Patoo!” chirped Grogu.

Oh Manda.

“Let’s take this one at a time,” Din gently regained control, electing to ignore Maddi and Kass’s questions for now. “Kiro, I keep the helmet on always, because that is how I was raised. But I can take it off for family. I would need to adopt you, for you to see my face. But that is your choice, and I will respect whatever you decide.”

“I mean, we already call you buir,” shrugged Kass.

“Yes, but adoption is forever. And you are old enough to make that choice for yourself.”

Kass looked at Kiro, who nodded, and then at Til, who nodded as well. “I think we all want that, buir,” Til announced.

“Okay, if you’re sure.” Din took a breath. He gathered them close. “Ni kartayl gai sa ade, Til, Kass, Kiro, Maddi.”

There was a pause.

“That’s it?” Kiro looked distinctly underwhelmed.

“Uh, yes. It’s pretty short and sweet. Mandos get straight the point,” Din chuckled.

“What about Grogu?”

“I already did him.”

“Oh. So… what now? Can we see your face?”

Din removed his helmet with a soft hiss, gazing at his children hesitantly. They blinked.

“You have brown hair.”

“Yes, I do.”

“And brown eyes.”

Brown Eyes. Din smiled. “Yes.” Maddi reached out to touch his mustache.

“Pokey.”

Din rubbed his whiskery cheek against her soft snow-pale one, and she squealed.

Kiro reached out hesitantly to touch his hair.

“Wizard.”

“So, now what?” Kass looked at Din.

“Um, well, now you’re part of aliit Djarin, clan Mudhorn.”

“Is there a secret handshake or something?”

“What? No, um. Our signet is a Mudhorn though? That’s unique to just us.” Din pointed to his shoulder guard, where the silver embossed Mudhorn gleamed.

“Can you tell us a story?”

“A story?” Din paused, staring at the five expectant faces. Five kids. What was I thinking.

“…yes, I can tell a story. But this will be a secret story, okay? Just for our aliit. Can you keep a secret?’ Heads eagerly nodded. Good. A shared bond that wasn’t about their orphan status.

“Once upon a time, there was… a Lone Warrior. He had been a simple hunter and fighter for many years, and lived in the desolate kingdom. The kingdom had once been lush with water and vegetation, but years of war and conflict culminated in a vicious curse that rid the land of all growing things. The people suffered for years. In their misery, they turned to the Lone Warrior as a symbol of strength and hope, and made him their leader.

“The Lone Warrior did not feel like a leader. He was a warrior, a fighter, a hunter! Yet he respected the wishes of the people, and tried to do his best despite his doubts.

“And well that he did, for there was another, the Red Shriek-hawk, a vicious bird of prey, who wanted that position for herself. She had longed for the power, and did not care about the lives of the people. Her cruelty had poisoned several, and they followed her blindly to help her achieve her goals, no matter the cost.

“One day, the Lone Warrior found a magic bean. He knew it was magic, for it would jump of its own accord in the palm of his hand. Knowing this to be a precious gift, he took the bean to the elder of his village. ‘What shall I do with this bean?’ he asked. ‘Why do you worry about a bean?’ cried the elder. ‘We need water, and crops! You must lift the curse!’ ‘I will do so, but I do not know where to start,’ said the Lone Warrior. The elder replied, ‘there is a magical fount, hidden deep within a cave somewhere in the kingdom. It is said that the waters of the fount will lift the curse and restore the kingdom. You must find the fount, and make the waters flow again. Now go! Do not come back to this village until you have succeeded. And take your magical bean with you.’”

Din swallowed. If only it had been so simple.

“He knew he must accept, and succeed, for if he failed, the Red Shriek-hawk would take his place, and his people would suffer more. And so, with no real leads to start his quest and not much confidence in himself, he traveled with the magic bean to the palace of old friends, the Sand Mother and the Sand Warrior. ‘Sand Mother, you are wise in magic. I have found this bean, which must be magical too. It is precious to me, but I must quest to lift the curse upon my people’s kingdom. Will you protect it for me?’

“The Sand Mother smiled, and accepted the magic bean with gentle hands, soft as a sand dune. ‘It will be well-cared for here,’ she promised. ‘No harm will befall the magic bean. I cannot help you on your quest, but there may be ones here who can assist you, if you are willing to listen.’ She raised a dusty hand to gesture to the courtiers standing around her. Hidden in their midst was a beautiful woman, who watched the Lone Warrior carefully.

“‘I do not know these people,’ declared the Lone Warrior, ‘and therefore cannot trust them. This quest is important, and I shall not leave its fate up to chance. But I thank you for your hospitality and your care of my magic bean, and I will take my leave.’ The beautiful woman hung her head in sorrow, and slipped out of a back door, while the Sand Mother bowed in response to the Lone Warrior’s words. ‘Good luck, Lone Warrior, and may happy suns shine upon your quest.’”

Din paused briefly, thinking back on that first meeting. How different things could have been. He pushed past the ache and continued.

“The Lone Warrior set out, and was immediately overwhelmed by harrowing trials. He lost his food stores, his trusty mount, his favorite weapons and became injured while battling strange and dangerous creatures. One day, after vanquishing an evil foe while searching for a clue to the cave, the Lone Warrior came across four little seeds. Though he was hungry, and low on supplies, he dared not trade the seeds for food, considering them as precious as the magical bean. They were hard-won, and he hoped they would have a home in the desolate kingdom once it was restored. He put the seeds in his pocket, and continued on. Exhausted, he wandered into a forest, and came across an ivy covered wall. He walked around and around the wall, finding no gate. Despairing his bad fortune, he grew tired and fell asleep— against the invisible gated entrance to an enchanted garden.”

Wide eyes and mouths met that pronouncement.

“Then what?” blurted out Til.

“I guess we’ll have to wait and find out later, hmm? For now, Maddi and Grogu have naptime, and you three are going to be late for capture the flag. If we can all listen and behave, and we’ll continue on with the story.” As they began to stand up, he stopped them, bringing them all in for a hug. “And never forget that I am proud of you, because you are my ade, okay? We are aliit. We take care of each other, all of us.”

“Yes, buir,” they all mumbled, lingering in the hug. They pulled away, and he slipped his helmet on and followed them outside, the two younger yawning as they took the hands of the nursery warden, the older three darting off for the pavilion. He watched them go, an ache in his chest.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Din found himself collecting a cup of caf with extra milk and a dash of sweetener, and walking towards the forge once more. He’d been surprised that he missed this little routine. Saviin always seemed surprised by the caf, as though she thought it was something she had grabbed herself and forgotten until spotting it again. Maybe she didn’t see him set it down for her?

He thought of the small gift in his belt pouch. He’d seen a delicately carved seashell at a vendor’s stall when on Ansion, and on an impulse, bought it, avoiding Rau’s judgmental stare. Now, he had no idea how to present it to her.

Just set it next to the cup?

Hand it to her?

Would she ask why? And what would he say? This was not like the shaker, or the crystal, or the usable objects he brought her before. It was a decorative gift, not easily explained away.

He’d asked Boba for advice, explaining what he’d done. Boba had laughed so hard he had to step away from the holo— which was weird because Din had never heard him laugh before, ever— while Cerium stepped in and kindly explained that Boba had also unceremoniously presented her with gifts he’d picked up on bounties when they were younger—before the sarlacc— and that it didn’t matter how it was delivered, it was the thought that counted. While somewhat reassuring to hear, it did not settle Din’s nerves much. That could mean Boba was as bad at this as he was, even if it worked out for Boba in the end.

Saviin’s back was turned as he entered the forge and set the cup of caf on the work bench. “Good morning,” she called over her shoulder.

“Good morning.” He sat down.

Saviin turned, a somewhat guarded yet engaged smile on her face.

“Everyone made it through their first night here with minimal fuss, I take it?”

“Appears so.”

Saviin’s eyes fell on the cup, and her brow furrowed in confusion. “Is that yours?”

He blinked. “No.”

“Of course not, sorry,” she said absently as she picked it up, and took a sip. Her frown deepened.

“What’s wrong.”

“What?” She looked up at him, not really seeing him at first. “Oh, nothing, I’m just wondering, I don’t recall getting— it doesn’t matter. Unexpected perfect caf is always a joy,” she smiled.

He nodded, still slightly confused.

The pause lengthened.

While the gift burned a hole in his belt pouch, he continued to sit there, like a di’kut, with nothing to say.

Thankfully, Saviin didn’t seem to need a pre-selected topic.

“It seems your trip was very successful, though I am sorry to hear about the covert on Keitum. We’ll let you know if we come across them in our travels.”

“Thank you,” he replied softly. “Your list has been invaluable.”

She nodded, and turned back to the fire, pulling a red-hot bar out with a pair of tongs and laying it on the anvil, beginning to temper the bar with a hammer. The rhythmic clang rang out like a bell, a soothing song Din had heard for so many years, and yet sweeter than ever before.

“I’m not sure the Eldar clan leader will want to leave with you now. The others might, but he seems devoted to staying with his sister,” she observed.

“Family is important,” Din shrugged. “I guess the clan will need to figure out their next steps, in consultation with your triumvirate, of course. I didn’t expect them to stay forever.”

“I’m not sure we could sustain so many in perpetuity,” she acknowledged, pausing to examine the bar for imperfections. “But I’m glad they’re comfortable enough that they’d entertain the idea.”

Din said nothing to that, his mind suddenly blank after staring at Saviin’s face for a moment too long.

“I’m starting to think you never have simple trips, do you?” She had quirked a smile at him over the bar she was tempering.

“Doesn’t seem like it.”

Her eyes skimmed over him, as though his appearance held a sit-rep on his current wellbeing. She frowned for a fraction of a second before smoothing out her expression into one of neutrality. His least favorite.

“Kass and Kiro seem like they’ll make friends quickly here. They have ‘troublemakers’ written all over them.”

Din was suddenly wary; leading with the topic of his children had to be a way to soften him up for tougher subjects.

“Probably. I was at that age.”

“And they seem to get along with their other siblings well, so that must be a relief to you.”

Din tilted his head in confusion. “What gives you that impression.”

If he were more vindictive, he’d be pleased to see her caught out. Her eyes darted away as she answered, “I did promise to take care of them while they’re here. So I sought out your newest family members, and brought them to the forge to spend time with Til and Maddi here.”

Din blinked. “When?”

“This morning, before early meal. Til and Maddi usually visit me before the classes begin. And they usually pop in during other free times during the day, if I don’t come see them first.”
He sat there for a moment, somewhat stunned. He had tried to spend all of his free time with his growing little family; to know they were seeking Saviin out, so regularly and confidently—

He couldn’t decide whether he felt jealous, relieved, or something else entirely.

“Will you let them become Mandalorian?”

Din met her eyes, startled at the question.

“Yes. If they want. They’re my children. Why wouldn’t I?”

Saviin stared at him, trying to read something in him. She evidently didn’t find what she was looking for. “They’re not human.”

Instantly, his shoulders drew back in offense, and she sighed, as though weary at having to forestall yet another fight. She shoved the bar back into the fire, watching it regain its fiery glow within the steel. “It is not said in offense; how could it be, when we’re human and our status is— well— anyway, when’s the last time you saw a Mandalorian who was obviously not human? The True Mandalorians, Haat Mando’ade, had many in their numbers, but they were massacred. The New Mandalorians and Kyr’tsad were both pretty pro-human. That’s why I ask. But,” she continued, musing more to herself now, “I guess that’s part of the bigger question you have to answer, isn’t it?”

“What question?”

“What do you think it means to be a Mandalorian?”

Din stared at her. What kind of question is that? “Wear the armor, speak—”

“I know the Resol’nare,” Saviin interrupted, striking the steel with rhythmic grace. “I asked what it means to be a Mandalorian.”

“You wear the armor,” he retorted, stubborn defiance rolling off his taut shoulders in waves.

Saviin sighed, as though this conversation pained her deeply, dropping the hammer and plunging the blade into the bucket with a sizzling hiss.

“What about cripples?”

“What?” Din didn’t know where this was going.

“What about people who want to fight, but physically can’t? 99 was a deformed clone who was never allowed to wear armor, consigned to janitorial duties. He died a hero’s death at the Battle of Kamino, saving the lives of several cadets and troopers. His heart had mandokarla, even if his body couldn’t keep up. Clone status aside, could he not be a Mandalorian?” Din remained silent. He’d never considered it, honestly.

“We lay no claim to the beskar we collect, and we have some plastoid and durasteel armor, but not much. You’ve seen my armor, I don’t wear a full set usually. How much armor is enough, and what if beskar isn’t available? What if clan Eldar hadn’t been able to recover their beskar and durasteel sets? What if they remove their helmets?” Din’s mind reeled at the implications. Saviin pressed on.

“Speaking Mando’a is easy enough to achieve, unless your mouth can’t physically form the words. So that rules out a number of species, even if claimed as foundlings. Or if you’re not exposed to someone who can teach you. Answer the call of the Mand’alor; most here would answer in a heartbeat, but how can you answer if no one calls for you?”

Din could see what she was doing now.

“If you’re just going to pick apart the Resol’nare and not answer my questions,” he began, snarling, but she cut him off again, shoving the blade back into the flame with a roar. Her strange eyes had hardened slightly.

“I am not refuting the Resol’nare. We live and die by it, even if we have no right to. I am encouraging a valuable skill.”

“And what is that?” he threw back.

“Critical thinking. You have asked me for my opinion, but what you want is for me to tell you what to do, isn’t it? That’s what your Armorer did, isn’t it? That’s not what we are taught here. Leaders don’t have the luxury of having someone tell them what to do, what to believe; they’re not really leaders, then. They’d be puppets. So what do you have? Your critical thinking skills. You can believe in something, but you must see its limitations so that you are prepared. You can guide your people, but you must know the cost of your decisions.” She paused, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. She opened them again, pinning him to his seat in a look just a shade too close to pity.

“Alor. You doubt yourself, far too much. You’ve been given a huge responsibility, but you give yourself no credit either. You have been told what to believe, in conflicting accounts, from various people. Now that you realize there are limits to what you know, it makes it all that much more daunting. But when you were out there as a bounty hunter, you didn’t doubt your instincts, right? You observed, assessed, and acted accordingly, with no one there to correct you. You took all four of those kids in, on instinct, knowing it to be the right thing to do. Now you’re a leader, and you must decide what is true, what is right, because others will look to you for guidance. You are clever, and honorable. You are the right person for this job. But you seem to lack a vision for this new Mandalore. That is the first step— define your vision for the future. And in order to have a vision of what you want Mandalore to be, you have to define, for yourself and for others, what it means to be a Mandalorian. So I’ll ask you again. What does it mean to be a Mandalorian?”

Din stilled, thinking, listening to the question this time. What did it mean to be Mandalorian? What could they all believe in, that still set them apart from others? He stared at the ground, thinking.

“Loyalty, solidarity, honor,” he started slowly. “Prioritizing children, they are the future. Being willing to fight to protect your family, your values, and fearing nothing in the pursuit of righteous victory, even death. Pushing yourself to be better, always. Having mandokar, and shereshoy, that passion for life. Valuing the weapons you have to not just defend yourself, but others as well. Safeguarding and respecting the beskar, which holds the spirit of the Manda. Knowing that you are a hunter, and yet also the prey.” Din looked up, to meet Saviin’s inscrutable expression, her light eyes softer and yet unreadable.

“That sounds like a good start. Here,” she tossed him a rag. “I need help polishing these blades.” His stare must have translated through his visor, as a small smile quirked the corner of her mouth as she took a sip of her caf. He was a little ashamed of how attractive he found that. “Are you familiar with the concept of moving meditation?”

“Not really.”

“My uncles who served with Jedi have shared with us a lot about their meditation techniques. One is a repetitive process that engages the body while allowing the mind to settle, process, ponder, and explore. My mother runs as her form of moving meditation. Many here use weapons cleaning. Now that you have a basis in your mind for what it means to be a Mandalorian, you can ponder what you’ve learned so far, see how it stacks up against your definition, and think about the next questions for which you’ll need to seek answers.”

It was not what he had expected, entering the forge this time. And yet, as they sat together, silently working through mundane tasks with their hands and complicated ones with their minds, it was exactly what I needed. Once again, she’d read his needs, and delivered the advice he needed to hear, that thing to push him just a little further, make him just a little more prepared for this awesome responsibility. And interestingly enough, it was guidance that he was sure his Council, Kryze, and the Armorer would hate. And yet it felt right.

The small gift in his pouch now felt more inadequate than ever. How could such a small thing measure against the gifts she gave him on a regular basis?

“It’s Din.”

Saviin’s head shot up from her close scrutiny of the steel bar she had tempered. “What?”

“My name. It’s Din. Din Djarin. I… wanted you to know.”

Saviin was silent for a long time, gazing at him with a complicated expression. It felt an age before she finally responded, clearing her throat softly before speaking, “I am honored by such a gift, M— Din. Thank you. It will be kept safe.”

Of that, he had no doubt.

Chapter Text

“Buir! Buir!”

Kiro and Kass crashed through the door of the Vhett’ika’s home. Din looked up in alarm, and Kryze’s holo stared irritably at the unseen interruption.

“They’re starting, buir! Come on!” Din chuckled at Kiro’s near-panic. He gestured for them to wait then turned back to Kryze, who was scowling, and the rest of the Council, expressions and body language ranging from indulgent to blank to offended.

“We’ll pick this back up tomorrow.”

Her scowl grew thunderous at his dismissal. “This is kind of important, ‘Mand’alor’—”

“As are they,” Din replied calmly, not rising to the bait of her contemptuous emphasis on his title. Kryze’s mouth snapped shut, her lips pulled in a thin line of undisguised resentment. “I hear your concerns, but hunting for a Rid’alor is really not a priority at the moment. Besides, I think I’ve given you plenty for the Night Owls to look into, Kryze. I want to know where the clan on Keitum have gone, and extract them if they’re in trouble. We need the strength that numbers provide, and no one should be left behind.”

“Yes, Mand’alor,” she responded tightly. “Though I’m sure you’re closer to the system than we are?” Her sharp eyes watched him for a reaction. Her expression soured as he barked out a soft laugh.

“Give it up, Kryze. Meeting adjourned.” He hung up before she could respond, then stood up.

Hunting for a Rid’alor. Manda. As if there wasn’t enough to do than worry about courting someone as a potential spouse. A half-formed thought began to take shape, and he shut it down ruthlessly before it could consume him.

The boys shuffled sheepishly. Din chuckled. They’d only been here a week, and Manda knew what their life had been like before. He should have expected that they wouldn’t knock first.

“Sorry, buir.”

“No harm done, adiike, and you’ll be more mindful next time. History lesson now?”

“Yeah buir, with baji’Truus.”

“Let’s go, then.”

Din let himself get tugged across the clearing to the bonfire, to the apparent amusement of the gardeners tending the beds. At the bonfire pit, several other students sat on the logs surrounding the empty grate. The Eldar clan alor’s sister sat on the far side. Her eyes twinkled.

“Now that the tardy Mand’alor has joined us—” the children giggled, “—we can start. Today, we are starting our lesson on the Jedi and their shared history with Mandalorians.

“Now, why is this important? Because our shared history is full of misunderstandings and bad communication. Many have been badly hurt, or worse, because we didn’t stop to listen to each other, we leaned into rumor and assumption. So today we’ll do our part to fight that cycle, by listening and learning.

“Yesterday, with baji’Caré, you learned about the Manda, the collective soul of Mandalorians, and the ka’ra. The Jedi Order is like the Mandalorians, in that it is not a race, but a creed, a belief or way of life, or code as they call it. It is a religious group of persons who immerse themselves in the study of the Force, an energy similar to what what we call ka’ra. The Jedi believe that the Force is an energy that resides in all living things, that binds the universe together. With time and study of this mystical energy, Force users can gain insight through flashes of the possible future called visions, use the energy to move or throw objects, heal wounds, and more. There are limits— they cannot bring back the dead, and diving too deep into the Force can be very dangerous— and some Jedi are more powerful than others. To protect themselves and those around them, the Jedi would offer to teach child Force users how to control their abilities at their Temple.”

“They took children?” One student looked horrified.

“No. If children lived with their parents, the parents would have the final say. Children could always choose to not go. And some parents were scared of their child’s abilities, and would happily send their child to the Jedi. But that brings us to the first of the misunderstandings. Even to this day, Mandalorians have believed that Jedi were children-thieves. Mandalorians cherish their children, and the idea of losing them to supposed magic-users was awful, not realizing that it was often for the child’s own safety. Mandalorians refused to send their children to the Jedi temple. Which is why Tarre Vizsla, the first Mandalorian Jedi, was also the last.”

“Are all Force users Jedi?”

“Excellent question. No. The Jedi believe in two sides of the Force— a light side, and a dark side. The Light side is full of peace, calm, compassion. The Dark side is fueled by anger, hatred, passion, and pain. The Jedi immersed themselves in the Light side, rejecting anger, pain, and attachments. Given that those are normal feelings to have, you can see that it’s a hard way to live. Can you imagine never holding a grudge, never hating someone no matter how badly they hurt you? Yet that is how the Jedi trained themselves, to let go of those feelings and to never act on them. Darksiders who used pain, anger, passion to fuel their power, were called the Sith, a group that represented everything the Jedi weren’t. And then there are those Force users who never choose a side. Maybe they didn’t feel like they could believe in the two extremes, or were so far away from the temples that the Jedi or the Sith never found them to offer a place at their schools. Or their potential strength wasn’t enough for the Order to consider teaching them. Or some who were trained by the Jedi, but were called to a position somewhere more in the middle. They were often called Grey Jedi by others.”

Din shifted uneasily. “Attachments?” he asked.

“This meaning has changed over time, and been interpreted more and less strictly,” explained Truus, her expression inscrutable. “At one time, Jedi could have families. Attachments means possession— the inability to let go, the fear of loss. If a Jedi could love, but let go of someone for the sake of duty or a person’s best interest, that wasn’t attachment, that’s just love. Not dissimilar to the Resol’nare— you can love a family, but if the Mand’alor calls you to duty, you have to go. If a Jedi couldn’t let go, though— feared losing someone, to the point of being willing to do anything to keep them— that’s attachment, and a path to the Dark Side. After the Ruusan Reformation, which we’ll touch on later, they tightened the rules to mean no relationships, seeing them as a slippery slope. Which, unfortunately, ended up having the exact opposite effect of what was intended. Sentients aren’t meant to live without personal connections. Avoiding bad feelings by refusing to understand them or even acknowledge that they exist will only lead to failure. ”

“Are the Sith still around?” asked another child. Truus smiled tightly.

“Another good question. Has there always been pain, anger, hatred in the galaxy? The bad feelings that make you feel terrible inside? Then there will always be those who lean into that pain and anger, and channel their powers for personal gain. The same goes for Force users. When the Jedi and the Mandalorians fought each other many centuries ago, the Mandalorians allied with the Sith at times to defeat the Jedi. They believed they had more in common with the Sith than the child-stealing Jedi. The Mandalorians are a passionate people, proud of their warrior history. Surely they could be nothing like the peace-loving Jedi?

“But any alliance with a Sith is a trick. You are a pawn in their plans, not an ally. Sith can never be trusted, and history shows this. When your ba’vodu’e fought with the Jedi in the war, Death Watch allied with a pair of Sith brothers, and overthrew the pacifist regime of Mandalore. But Death Watch, and Mandalore, were only a pawn in the Sith’s game, and Mandalore burned for it. So far as we know, the Sith are gone now. But they could always return, which is why this lesson is important. History does not repeat itself exactly, but it is cyclical. Only by learning from our mistakes, can we break the cycle.

“Back to the philosophy of the Jedi. It’s important to know that like anything in life, it has changed over time. While always dedicated to the Light, the rules they follow to stay in the Light have evolved, changed over time. So now,” Truus pulled up a holoprojector, with text and pictures, and the children and Din stared at it, “we’re going to take a look at the old Jedi Code, and compare it to the Resol’nare. Perhaps we’ll see that there is more in common than we really thought. We’ll wrap up with a discussion about Tarre Vizsla, and what we can learn to do better today…”

 

An hour later, Din sat down heavily on the stool in Saviin’s forge, uncertain of whether his feet were still on solid ground. The history lesson had opened up far more questions than answers, and challenged more than one solid premise Din had clung to for dear life for decades. Saviin turned around at the sound, her smile and greeting dying on her lips.

“Spar, or talk?”

“Not sure.”

“All right,” she answered easily. “Take your time.” She moved to the anvil, gripping the glowing rod by its cool end as she shaped the metal and beat it into submission. The sounds of the forge that normally soothed him only served to heighten his tension. Saviin stole glances at him, tracking his increasing agitation.

Finally, she stopped. Shoving the rod into the furnace, setting her tools down and slipping off her gloves, she looked at him directly.

“You know that you are always welcome here to talk, or not talk. But I’m getting the sense that this place is not giving you what you need.”

“You want me to leave?” His tone was harsh, too harsh. He knew it but he couldn’t stop it. Still, she took no offense.

“That’s not what I said. I said that you seem to be getting more agitated than less by being here, and I’m not sure that whatever I’m doing is helping you right now.”

“Fine, I’ll go.”

“I’m not saying you have to go. But I don’t know how to help if I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Maybe I don’t want your help. Maybe it’s only making it worse!”

She leaned back in surprise, face instantly going blank, then sliding into an inscrutably neutral expression. Her I-can’t-be-hurt face. Din closed his eyes behind his helmet, hating himself.

“I’m sorry, I should not have come here. You didn’t deserve that.” He stood up.

“Mand— Din.”

He froze. She had grabbed his hand.

“It’s fine. You’re overwhelmed. You’re allowed to be frustrated and angry. Sit. Breathe. Just talk. Maybe there’s an answer.”

He nodded, and sat back down, slightly stunned and overwhelmed. He never would have spoken to his Armorer like that. And she probably would have beaten him senseless if he’d tried, if the rest of the covert didn’t do it first. Saviin gave his hand a light squeeze, then let go, and slipped on her gloves to retrieve the glowing rod in the furnace, her face graced with a small smile as though his little tantrum had never happened. He burned with shame.

“Now, let’s start over, see if talking helps. You went where today?”

He took a slow breath, hating everything about this moment, but willing himself to proceed.

“Children’s history class. I— all that they learn. It’s… so much. I’m… struggling with the realization that a great deal was kept from me. Not just of Mandalorian history, but galactic history in general. I don’t like questioning my upbringing. But I think I have to. And I don’t know how I can do this job, with how little I know of history.”

Saviin hummed, gripping the glowing end with tongs to begin the tempering. “Well, that is the benefit of history. It’s not going anywhere. You can consume it at your own pace.”

“I’m overwhelmed though. I’m working through the curriculum you gave me, and attending the odd class, but I can’t tell if it’s the most urgent information to consume right now. The council has started breathing down my neck about old traditions they want me to revive, and I don’t even know how legitimate these traditions are. They’re insisting I find a Rid’alor—”

Saviin’s hand slipped. Din stared at Saviin as she stared at the angry slash just above the elbow that immediately sizzled, the flesh puckering and pulling back in a sickening burn. She blinked, her face utterly blank.

“Saviin, you’re burned.”

Saviin looked up, not really seeing him, as though coming out of a fog. “Oh… ow…. um, there’s a medkit on the shelf there, can you grab it?” She shook off her work gloves and rolled her tan undershirt up out of the way as the flesh and skin around the point of impact reacted to the unnatural contact with broiling iron. As Din returned with the medkit, his eyes traveled up the toned arm, and saw a stylized V tattoo on her inner bicep, peeking out from under the rolled-up shirtsleeve. Curious, he nevertheless refrained from asking, and set the kit down. “It doesn’t seem too bad.”

“Nothing that some bacta, burn salve and a good wound dressing won’t fix,” she agreed, shooting him a tight, wry smile. “No need to rat me out to Uruna.” She reached for the kit awkwardly with the uninjured arm.

“No, let me,” Din objected, quickly stripping off his gloves. “My hands are clean.”

Saviin’s eyes widened, then she quickly averted them, nodding. Confused, he pulled out the necessary materials. With one hand he held her arm steady, and then—

Froze.

As the realization that he was touching her soft, tawny skin with his own bare hands, hit him like a blaster bolt. It was— so soft. Firm muscle under the silkiest texture he could possibly imagine. He could feel her pulse under his thumb, could feel the life thrumming through her veins and the sensation traveled straight through the naked pads of his fingers and up his arm, straight into the deep recesses of his chest. It was incredible—

“Use the bacta swab first, then the burn salve. The swab will be enough. We try to conserve our bacta, since it’s so hard to get.”

Din snapped out of it, flushed with the realization that he had no clue how long he’d been admiring a bare arm, like an idiot. “Right,” he managed to not sound too strangled. Saviin nodded, but she seemed slightly agitated as well. He began cleaning the wound.

“So… Rid’alor…” Din congratulated himself silently on not flinching at the resumption of that particular topic— “as far as history is concerned, I think we could provide you with a listing of examples. From what I remember, Mand’alors were married as often as they were single; it’s not exactly a prerequisite. Given the tenuousness of the current Mando’ad population, there are certain advantages to a political alliance, but historically, Mandalorians and the Mand’alor have married for love, or not at all, the notion of political marriages being more of a Republic practice. Oddly romantic for a bunch of warriors,” Saviin gave a twisted smile. “Passionate people, you could say.”

“What kind of advantages?”

“Well,” Din wasn’t sure if it was the topic or his nursing skills that were causing that face, “a political alliance via marriage could bring a strong clan who’s on the fence, fully on-board. It could strengthen the legitimacy of a claim; for example, Vizsla’s have long been Mand’alors. Marrying a Vizsla would bring the clan and the Darksaber back in proximity, and possibly quell any challenges to your rule. In theory, of course. It could also be used to send a different message, uplifting a smaller clan into greater prominence, or signal neutrality. It depends on the clan and marriage candidate in question.”

“Marriage candidate.”

“Sorry, ah, possible ven’rid’alor?”

“No, the whole thing sounds stupid. Not what you explained, just… not marrying for love. When everything else about the job is planned by everyone else, you’d think you get to have that one thing to—” he cut himself off, huffing in frustration.

Saviin frowned. “Everything shouldn’t be planned by everyone else. You’re the Mand’alor. You belong to the people, and the people belong to you, but there are some things that stay just yours. And you set the agenda, it’s your vision they should be executing, not their own personal— I’m sorry,” she cut herself off abruptly. “I’m overstepping. My point is, your destiny is your own. You were set on this path, but you get to decide where it goes. And Mandalore will follow.”

He sighed, tying off the bandage, then closing the medkit. He began pulling his gloves back on.

“Sometimes I wish—” He aborted the thought. He didn’t get to wish anymore. Wasn’t that the point everyone kept making? He was the Mand’alor now.

“You wish none of this had ever happened? That you could be a simple beroya again? But think of the krill village, Boba, Fennec, Freetown, the people you’ve saved. And Grogu. Do you really wish that, now?” The ache weighed on him, pulled his shoulders down, as he realized, no, he didn’t want that. He’d never trade that for a simple life. He’d pay any price to have Grogu in his life, and Boba and the others. But—

“The cost is so high,” he sighed, his tone aching with exhaustion, despair, but not resentment. Never resentment, not for Grogu.

“Indeed,” assented Saviin, nodding as she picked up the rod that had burned her, and began to inspect its surface, the small movement loosening a whip of hair to fall into her face. Din clenched his fist, resisting the urge to sweep it back.

“I just don’t understand— why me? If it’s really destiny, if it’s really the will of the Manda— I’m just a man, one man, a hunter from a group others consider a cult, living in the sewers his whole life. I’m not a good man. I’m not meant to do this.”

“Sabine said the same thing, when she found the Darksaber. She gave it to Bo. Bo lost it. I don’t think it was because she didn’t win it in battle; by rights, it actually probably belonged to Ahsoka, who defeated Maul. It’s just a blade, with a very old kyber. Bo felt entitled to rule, and still does. So did Maul. And look what happened to him. He followed the rules, and Mandalore fell to ruin, because he wanted it to. Sabine had the strength to do it, but not the confidence, and she ceded to those who she thought had a better claim. So maybe it’s not meant to be the high and mighty, those with old claims. Maybe what Mandalore needs now is a humble man who just wants a stable home for his children, whose sense of duty far outstrips his sense of self. You didn’t seek this out, but you didn’t turn away when the responsibility was presented to you, either.

“The Emperor was just a man, one man who made it possible for many horrible things to happen, billions and billions of people to die for no reason. Skywalker is just a man, who blew up the Death Star because he had the right people at his back. Tarre Viszla was just a man, who saw a way to unite two opposing cultures for a while, and created an eternal legacy. Ba’vodu Boba is just a man, and he’s reforming Tatooine in a way it’s never seen. And maybe it’s not really about you at all. Grogu is—” she paused, smiling as she struggled to identify him. Din smiled at her effort. “—a super cute green kid, but maybe he’s important in the future. Or any of the other four children you have, none of whom you ever would have met if you hadn’t been set on this path. Maybe you are meant to lay the groundwork for something extraordinary in the future, thanks to one of your kids.”

That… actually helped, a lot. He had never wanted to be the center of attention. Finding himself there a lot lately had been incredibly disorienting. Envisioning a destiny that wasn’t really about him sounded much more palatable than anything the Council had pushed.

“If you’re doing it right, leading is not about you, or your importance. It’s not even about the planet, not really. It’s about the people you care for, the people you’re responsible for. Cobb told me about the peace you brokered between the Tuskens and Freetown, how you stepped in to mediate and lead like it was as easy as breathing. So, maybe you just need to breathe. One breath at a time, not worrying about greatness or destiny or what other people think. We learn in meditation about the difference between awareness and control. You can acknowledge that something is, without letting it control you. You cannot control destiny; it just is. Acknowledge it, and set it aside. Then focus on the things you can control.”

She paused, smiling sympathetically at him.

“And since you were already feeling overwhelmed and I’ve now given you even more to think about instead of making things easier, I’d recommend you go see Caré, who teaches meditation here. I think her tools will be more useful to you right now. When I’m done here, I’ll consult with our teachers, see if we can get a more tailored curriculum for your needs. You’re right, you don’t have time to blaze through what is normally covered in several years of education here.” Saviin withdrew her gaze, focusing back on the rod before her, standing to thrust it back into the flames. She paused, then turned back again. “And thank you, for the bandage.” She gestured to her arm, a small smile on her face.

Din blinked, then stood, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. Something was wrong. He felt far more at ease, settled somehow in his mind, but he had the impression that he had rattled Saviin somehow. It felt wrong to leave her like this, but she had clearly dismissed him. Was it the burn? Something he’d said? Would he do more damage by staying, or leaving? His peace dissipated the longer he considered the problem, then suddenly realized he’d been standing there too long, and with a short nod, abruptly left the forge. Perhaps meditation would yield some answers.

—————

Senaar glanced up from her carving as a flash of silver caught her eye. The Mand’alor was striding purposefully from the forge, towards the tables where she sat with Tristan. “Caf break’s about to be over, burcy’ika,” she nudged him with her arm, then let it lean against his shoulder. She smiled as he hummed absently and pressed back slightly, not looking up from his data pad.

Senaar would have happily sat there all day, sipping her caf, leaning against the greenest person she’s even seen and watch the light dancing along his arms shift into tones of blue, yellow, and white, whittling on her latest blade hilt— but a glance around the broad profile of the Mand’alor, whose aura was a migraine-inducing rainbow of shifting colors, she could see Saviin staring after him, a rippling aura of the lightest purple, blending in with solid gray. Well, that couldn’t stand. “Looks like work is headed your way, and I’ve got some waiting for me in the forge. Ugh, he’s a walking migraine.”

“I could have told you that without looking up,” mumbled Tristan, still gazing at the data pad and tapping away.

“They still can’t see it, how annoying.”

He hummed and nodded again, leaning harder into her shoulder.

“So you can see auras through beskar? What if you’re the one wearing the helmet?”

“Yes and yes— as long as my eyes are open and I'm physically present, I see them. Nothing blocks it, even beskar. The only way to avoid it is to close my eyes or turn away. And I’m not sensitive enough to use the Force to replace my eyes, like a Miraluka. I’ve tried meditating to gain control, but without a trained force sensitive teacher…” she trailed off, shrugging. “So I cope as best I can.”

Tristan glanced up, expression somber. “That’s a heavy burden.”

She tipped her head back, closing her eyes as the sun warmed her face. "You think so?”

“You don’t?”

“It’s the only way I’ve ever known. To know the unvarnished truth of what everyone around you is feeling— it’s daunting, but also freeing. I suppose if my family weren’t who they were, it’d be harder. But clones were made for the Jedi, they understood that they’d never fully understand, and accepted that their leaders had strange powers. I’ve never been ostracized for it.”

Tristan did not respond, and she blinked her eyes open, glancing over at him. His eyes were back on the data pad, but he wasn’t seeing it; a very familiar color began to shimmer around him, a brilliant pearlescent hue. She nudged his shoulder harder, cupping his cheek with her free hand.

“Whoa there, burcy’ika,” she smiled. He blinked, startled. “I’ll be fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“How—”

“That particular color is what I call the Mando protective instinct. I see it a lot around here. And yours is blaring like a laser beam right now.”

He blushed, and she laughed, knocking her head against his, before standing up.

He was so easy to fall in love with. So accepting of whatever she gave him, never pushing too hard. A little repressed, but all of these Mandalorians seemed to be afraid to show emotion. It was baffling to her, but given that all of them were slowly relaxing, she didn’t think too hard on it. Well, all except for the walking migraine before her. How painful it must be so live in such an emotionally constipated state.

She picked up her knife and slipped it into the sheath hidden in her vambrace.

“I’ll find you later, burcy’ika,” she said softly, swiftly passing a gentle hand along the nape of his neck. She smiled wider as he glanced up at her in surprise, spiking in bright yellow and white. It took all of Senaar’s self restraint to not groan aloud as the moment faded with a soft cough, and Tristan’s aura faded with disappointment and embarrassment as he turned a stoic face towards his alor.

“Senaar, do you know where I can find Lady Caré?” Senaar blinked at the direct address, then glanced at her chrono, looking back up and twisting to peer behind herself.

“She’s over there,” pointing to the pond beyond the perimeter, “likely wrapping up a meditation class by now, since it’s nearly mid-meal. But she’d be happy to meet with you now, since there are no more classes for today.”

“Good.” You’re welcome. Seriously, is it that hard to say? “Tristan, anything pressing right now?”

Taking that as her cue to leave, Senaar slung her staff over her shoulder and set off for the forge. The Mand’alor’s unexpected visit to the forge set her work schedule back— and she had a feeling that Saviin was about to torch it entirely.

No matter. Family first.

“So…” Senaar didn’t need auras to read her sister right now. Saviin stood at the forge, back rigid, arms flexed in a manner that was unnatural for her task, Senaar knew this from years of working side-by-side.

“How’s your green man?” Saviin’s voice was strained. Senaar would have to ease into this.

“Adorable, as usual,” Senaar tossed out carelessly. “Watching his colors shift into yellow, blue, white, is very encouraging.”

“White?” Saviin dropped her tools with a clang, and whirled around. “Senaar— he’s falling in love with you!”

“Nice to see that it’s mutual,” Senaar smiled widely at Saviin’s gasp of delight. “I’m so happy, Sav’ika. I have no idea how this will work, and I frankly don’t care.”

“Aww, Sen’ika…” Saviin stepped around the table, pulling her sister into a hug. Senaar could see her aura change as her face fell. “Just— you’ll work it out, I know it, but just be careful. He’s green for a reason, and he’s got duties. Our status with Mandalore might make it a little harder than it should be to get to your happily ever after.”

“I’ll do everything I can to avoid forcing him to choose between his duty and his happiness,” Senaar said seriously. “You’re right, green is who he is. Focused, serious, duty-bound. I wouldn’t change that for anything. I— I just want to be a spark of color in his life.”

“Spark,” snorted Saviin. “You’re a whole rainbow in a bottle, Sen. Don’t sell yourself short.”

Senaar rolled her eyes, then raised her brows at Saviin. “What about you and the Mand’alor? He nearly gave me a migraine after he left the forge.”

“Then you’ll be glad to know I sent him to ba’vodu Caré for meditation lessons. That should help him settle down. He’s in a tough place. I don’t blame him for being an emotional mess, even if he can’t afford to be right now. What colors did you see?”

“Using the auras like a cheat sheet is, effectively, cheating, you know,” grumbled Senaar. “A lot of purple, a bit of red, gray, brown, blue… white. It was like he was cycling through thoughts, returning back to the beginning as he worked it out.”

“Anxiety, anger, grief, duty, peace, love,” murmured Saviin. “Makes sense. I gave him a lot to think through. Hopefully with some meditation, he can sort out what I told him and find a path forward.”

It was a strong effort, but Senaar knew a deflection when she saw one.

“And you?” she persisted. “You were more purple than a meiloorun when I came in here. What’s got you so anxious?” It was a lie, and Senaar waited to see if Saviin would acknowledge it.

Predictably, she didn’t.

“In my defense, the safety of this community and our future in relation to Mandalore are perfectly valid reasons to be anxious. And they are part of it. But I worry. About him. He wants guidance, and I’m doing my best, but I’m not qualified to advise the Mand’alor! What if I give him bad advice?”

“Well, based on what Rex told us about his suspicions of the Mand’alor’s goran, I think you could hardly do worse. It sounds like you’re merely helping him broaden his horizons, challenge narrow-minded thinking, and pointing him the right direction to make better-informed decisions. Can’t see how that’s a bad thing.”

“I suppose…” sighed Saviin.

“It’s more than that, though,” probed Senaar, glancing at the colors dancing around her sister, noting the changes. “If you really don’t know why he comes to see you so often—I think he likes you, Sav’ika. You haven’t seen the way he watches after you, how softer he speaks to you than the others. Whatever he said before, I think he cares about you now.”

“No,” Saviin replied firmly. “There’s no way that’s possible. Everything in his tone, his words— I think he respects me, as a leader of our community. And he’s kind, if a little stiff. But that’s it. Nothing else, Senaar, no matter what colors you think you see. And it wouldn’t matter anyway. His position is tenuous. He has to be smart about a relationship.” Senaar shrugged, sighing internally. Saviin didn’t deny an attachment on her side. And she wouldn’t— Saviin never lied, and she knew Senaar would be able to tell regardless. But she rejected any hope of something coming of it.

Her family had great faith in her abilities— until she saw something they didn’t want to acknowledge. Senaar learned long ago to not take it personally, no matter how frustrating it was to watch unnecessary struggle and suffering. She knew what she saw; those weren’t the colors of a professional working relationship, or even a friend. But she’d done her sisterly duty; now she could only stand by Sav’ika and be there for her through the inevitable.

“You know what? You could use a spar. Get that purple out, get you to green, maybe even yellow or blue?” Senaar teased, smiling at her scowling sister. Happiness or peace might be out of reach at the moment, but anything would be better than purple. “Some good exercise would— what did you do to your arm?” Senaar spotted the bandage.

“I slipped while tempering.”

“You slipped,” Senaar echoed in disbelief.

“It’s been known to happen,” Saviin retorted with some asperity.

“Maybe we shouldn’t spar then—”

“Yeah, let’s spar. It’s not a deep burn, and the bandage is solid.”

“Yeah it is,” Senaar examined it closely. “This is better than your usual patches.”

“I didn’t do it,” Saviin stared at the bandage, lost in thought. “He did.”

Senaar’s eyebrows flew clean off of her head, but she only said, “Then let’s go. We’ll grab food after.”

Senaar was getting no woodworking done today, but plenty of progress elsewhere. And maybe she’d get to show off in front of her green man. She felt her own aura glow sunny yellow, shimmering along her arms as she swung them towards the forge entrance. “Oya!”

Chapter Text

Tristan was so karking tired of administrative work.

Was it important work? Yes. Was he honored to be trusted with it? Yes. Did he like it? No. No, he did not. But that’s what Din needed, and he would pull his weight.

When they first arrived, Tristan had dimly entertained the hope that he’d get a break from it— a short in—out job, not long enough to keep up with the work. Alas, while he happily lingered in this little paradise and swiftly fell in love, there was a fly in the ointment.

Admin work.

At least Din was easy to work with— nothing like the leaders he’d followed in the past. Saxon had been a living hell. Kryze— a slight improvement but far from ideal. His own mother— well. Strict parent, strict leader. He couldn’t fault Sabine for not sticking around, even if he occasionally wished he could follow. But he was needed here, so here he remained. Mand’alor Djarin was refreshingly low-maintenance, albeit difficult to wrangle into a meeting and even more slippery when it came to social events. Stubborn. But after five minutes with the man, Tristan had happily committed to joining his commando squad as a representative of the Wren clan, and somehow became the Mand’alor’s second. The former beroya treated them more like a family; at least, some version of a family— Tristan’s idea of a family was probably a bit warped. Cheer had been a bit thin on the ground in Krownest for the last three decades.

Here— he began to see what he had been missing. He could see the ideals of Mandalorian culture lived out in every activity, every interaction, without the dour, sullen, perfunctory attitudes that typically accompanied them. It was warm, vibrant, cheerful, accepting— and there was a place in the community for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or background.

And then there was Senaar.

Tristan’s fingers fluttered automatically across the data pad as his mind continued to wander. To hear her sweet voice trill like her namesake, her bright and direct manner, still so sweet, so sure. So innocent, and yet no fool, fully aware of being underestimated and wielding it to her advantage. She moved with a deadly grace that reminded him of Ezra, and he itched to see her in action. And at the same time, he ached at the prospect of any harm ever befalling her. He found himself triple-checking encryption on messages, to safeguard their location. If he were the reason they were compromised, attacked— he could never forgive himself. He knew why Kryze called so often, and it wasn’t particularly subtle, either. The latest reports from Rau's agents were not encouraging. They’d need to plot a circuitous course back to Krownest. Just in case.

Tristan reached up and touched the back of his neck, remembering her touch. He shivered again, smiling slightly as he maintained his gaze on the pad in front of him. Oh, he was a goner. Whatever she wanted, he’d give her. Mandalorians fell hard and fast, and he was all in.

“Hey, lover boy.” Tristan’s head snapped up, hand falling away from his neck, and he flushed. Shouldn’t have reacted, shouldn’t have given away—

“Relax,” Rau sat down with a groan in front of him. “Alor’s so lost in his own head, he’s clueless. And he probably won’t care, anyway.” Tristan schooled his face into a blank expression.

“I don’t know what you’re—”

“Spare me, Wren. I’m old enough to know it when I see it,” Rau huffed in a long-suffering tone. “You won’t hear any objections from me. Rex and Alpha were old friends. I’ve no quarrel with clones. It’s your family you have to convince.” Tristan winced despite himself, and Rau chuckled.

“Anyway, thought you’d like to know that a certain young warrior and her sister are currently sparring with quarter staves near the airfield. Nothing new has come in from the Council, and my eyes need a break from data pads. I was thinking of walking down to watch with Rex and Echo, if you want to come along.” Tristan slowly, deliberately powered off his data pad and stood up, unwilling to betray his excitement. Rau snorted, shaking his head. He stood up as well, wincing as he did so.

“Come on, old man,” Tristan cajoled cheekily.

“I could still flatten you, Wren.”

“No doubt, but it’ll be worth it to get some returning fire across for teasing about my cyar’ika.”

“It’s cyar’ika now, huh?”

The good-natured ribbing, which Rex and Echo joined in happily as he met them at the path, carried them to the end of the field.

“Oh, haran,” Tristan breathed.

Senaar and Saviin had stripped down to light, loose tunics and leggings to spar, both wielding quarter staffs. Saviin was obviously good, but Senaar— she was a vision of deadly grace, just as he suspected. Lean, lithe arms and legs moved sinuously as she ducked, darted forward, jabbed, danced back, and swung out. She moved with a speed and smoothness he’d never seen before, all fluid movement. He completely missed Rau’s meaningful look that he sent towards Rex, who leaned over with a faint nod and murmured in his ear. All Tristan could see was—

“Yeah, she’s the one. I’m giving her a vambrace.”

He didn’t even care to blush at Echo’s inelegant snort or Rau’s sigh as his eyes remained glued to the vision of deadly beauty before him. It took him a moment to realize that Prudii had joined the fight, and that Din was standing near them now too. In fact, a small crowd had now gathered, to watch the youngest Vhett’ika take on her older sisters. And it was marvelous— a blur of movement, Senaar’s meticulously carved staff sung through the air as she struck, blocked, swept, jabbed, and stabbed. She flitted back and forth between the lightness of a songbird and the terrifying intensity of a Shriek-hawk. Her sisters tag-teamed, darting in and out, rushing forward and falling back. But they were no match for Senaar, who danced around them, moving seamlessly from classic forms to improvised moves with fluid grace. The entire spar was at Senaar's whim and mercy, as she deigned recoveries to her partners to extend the fight when a winning blow was within easy reach. Round and round they went, Senaar in complete control, until Saviin began to visibly tire. With blinding speed, she disarmed Saviin and Prudii, pulling her staff into a salute as they bowed in defeat, collecting their staffs from the ground. The crowd exploded into cheers— at least Tristan guessed so, based on the waving of arms and the group surging around the combatants. It all sounded muffled as his eyes remained trained on the flushed grin of his sweet songbird.

“I’m in love,” he sighed to himself, watching his beautiful warrior accept congratulations with a distracted cheerful grace, her head swiveling about until she locked on to his gaze. Waving wildly with a blinding grin, she beckoned him closer, and like a ship caught in a tractor beam, he found himself drawn in as the crowd dispersed.

“You free now?” At his nod, her smile widened, and it was like staring into a star. She called over her shoulder, “You good, Saviin?” At the woman’s wave, she nodded. “Swords next time, I promise— I will practice!” Turning back to Tristan, she snaked her arm around his and pulled him towards the perimeter path. He lurched forward, slightly stunned by her soft touch.

“We’ll walk, I need a cool-down— oh, I’m sorry. Is that too much?” She started to pull her arm away, and he immediately clamped it against his torso.

“No! I mean, no, I like it, just not used to it.” He blushed at the realization that he was crushing her arm, and eased up. She patted it affectionately with her other hand.

“I’ve noticed,” Senaar smiled. “No cuddle piles in clan Wren, I assume?”

“Cuddle… piles?”

Senaar laughed, and Tristan felt his heart soar above the trees even amidst his confusion.

“Our uncles grew up very close, clinging to each other for comfort because frankly there was nothing else. They’d sleep in piles on the ground or jammed into a bed, even as adults. My cousins and I grew up doing the same.”

“That makes sense,” mused Tristan, mulling over the subtle differences that set Gar Vod’e apart. Although Tristan could get behind this particular cultural norm. “Senaar, there’s something I wanted to say, but I guess you know what I’m going to say, huh?”

“Not a Jedi, Trist’ika,” and he thrilled at hearing that endearment. “I see emotions, can’t read thoughts. Plus I like hearing you talk.” Now that certainly was not something he’d ever heard before, and his heart swelled.

“I love hearing you talk,” he replied. “It’s like listening to music, it always brightens my day. And you always have the most interesting things to say—”

Senaar stopped him abruptly, levering his arm to swing him around to face her with a strength that surprised him. “Do you really like hearing me talk?”

He frowned at the look on her face. It was open, vulnerable— anxious.

“Of course I do,” he leaned in, reaching up with his other hand to stroke the one gripping his arm tightly.

“You don’t think I’m a senaar’mirshe?”

A bird-brain?” Tristan felt his eyebrows fly up into his hair, before they crashed back down in thunderous anger. “Who called you that?” Senaar gave him a sad smile.

“Lots of people do. I picked Senaar for my name because I loved to watch how they floated in the air, then dove with precision, soaring with perfect freedom. But most think I chose it because I twitter like a bird.”

“That’s—” Tristan choked on his words, struggling to control his outrage. “Your voice reminds me of birdsong, and it is beautiful. But Senaar— you are brilliant, and so sweet, and open with your affection, and so deadly, and I love all of these things about you. Anyone who can’t see that, I—” anything else he had planned to say fell by the wayside as Senaar rushed forward, grabbing his face with two hands and—

Oh, stars. He’d been kissed before, but nothing like this. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tightly as her tongue slid along the edge of his lips, and he opened them on instinct and—

Ka’ra. Tristan could die happy now, if this were the very last thing he ever did.

Too soon, Senaar pulled back. Tristan felt slightly dazed, and he smiled at her. Her eyes widened in delight— did he really not smile that often?— and with a deep inhale, he finally pushed the words out.

“I love you.”

Her smile was blinding, joy radiating like heat waves from a star, and she leaned in again, capturing his lips for a blissful moment, before whispering against them—

“Ni kartayl gar darasuum.”

Tristan’s breath stuttered. Declarations of love in Basic could be temporary, but in Mando’a— they were eternal, solemn as a vow. Dimly, in the back of his head, he could hear his mother shrieking in disapproval. More quietly, he could hear his father’s chuckle. It seemed impossible, to fall so deeply in love in a matter of weeks.

But Mandos fall hard, and they trust their instincts. These two truths were the bedrock of being mando’ad. His instinct told him this was right.

Ni kar'tayl gar darasuum, ner Sen'ika,” he mumbled against her mouth. “I swear it. We’ll find a way.”

“No matter what, Trist’ika,” she sighed happily, leaning her forehead against his. Eyes closed, Tristan basked in the moment— until reality set in once more.

“Cyar’ika, approximately how many of your cousins are staring at us right now?”

She giggled, and the sound made his impending embarrassment worth it. “At least half a dozen. Everyone, except maybe your Alor, will know within the next fifteen minutes.” He laughed, and saw her shiver. “I love that sound. It might just be my new mission to make you laugh as often as possible.”

“And I will love you for trying. There hasn’t been much reason to laugh in… ever.”

“I can fix that!”

He kissed her lightly again, then reached for his belt. “I want you to have this.” He unclipped a sheathed dagger, and presented it to her. “An official courting gift. I know you already have a dagger, but this has been in my family for generations, and I want it to be yours.” She accepted it solemnly, yet the light in her eyes burned even brighter, as she detached her own dagger and replaced it with his.

“I’ll wear it with honor, ner karta.

A gaggle of kids raced past, followed by Ruusaan who huffed loudly. “Get a room, eyayah!”

“Got one, mirsheb!” Senaar threw back, then sighed. “Seriously, you’d never know we were twins, sometimes.”

—————

Saviin watched Senaar head off with Tristan, then tossed her staff to Prudii, who caught it without breaking from her conversation with Rau, Rex and Echo, and slipped away, making directly for her pear tree. She could feel the Mand’alor— Din’s eyes on her, even through the visor, she knew she couldn’t hide from him if he wanted to talk, but for once, she hoped he wouldn’t.

She needed… a moment. Just a moment, then she could go back to being everything that everyone needed her to be.

Glancing around to ensure no one saw her, Saviin swung herself up into the pear tree, and climbed into her favorite perch, well-concealed from the naked eye of humans who rarely looked up.

From her vantage point, she watched the dregs of the crowd who had gathered to watch the spar disperse. They’d chosen the airfield to avoid such a crowd, but in typical Mando fashion, the clan found the fight anyway. So much the better for Senaar— she could see her sister pull Tristan in for a kiss on the far side of the field, and watched as various cousins stopped and pointed. Saviin didn’t need to see auras to know how happy both of them had to be. Saviin was profoundly grateful that she had practiced meditation, to bury her true feelings under a facade of calm and happiness, so that Senaar could have this moment; she wouldn't have left Saviin’s side otherwise.

And Saviin needed a moment, too. Just a moment, to feel. Acknowledge it, then set it aside again.

Saviin twisted in the tree, looking back to the knot of warriors walking slowly back towards the village. Rex, Echo, and Rau were talking to Din, who had briefly looked at her pear tree, his visor locked on her perch. Haar’chak. But then Echo pulled his attention away with a question, and Din looked away. Probably on purpose, Saviin mused. It was impossible to have real privacy in the Haven, and her uncles protected what little Saviin clawed away for herself when she retreated to her tree. They understood when she needed a moment.

With each passing day, this got harder. The pressure in her chest had increased exponentially a week ago, a gift that hung heavier than the crystal pendant beneath her tunic.

“It’s Din. My name. Din Djarin. I… wanted you know."

The knowledge ate at her, mocking the twinges of her heart. The gift of a knife in the ribs. It had taken everything she had to not let the gift of his name overwhelm her in the moment. She knew what it meant to him, to his covert, she understood the weight of it, and was confounded by the fact that he’d given it to her.

And then the sucker-punch today: that the Council wanted him to choose a Rid’alor. Once again stripping him of agency, and instilling a finality that he was beyond her reach. She knew he was, but the definitive reality of marriage—

Saviin pulled absently at the bandage around her upper arm, letting the dull ache of the burn pulse, grounding her. She… just needed a moment. A moment to feel, grieve, and move on. Her duty was here, to her family. Heroic, humble, overwhelmed single fathers who would rebuild a planet were not for the likes of her. He was kind, and thoughtful— and that was all he’d ever be, and she would be fine with that. Her duty was to the Mand’alor.

Her feelings for Din could not come first.

She just had to hold out a little longer— his party had to be leaving soon, surely. They’d exhausted the nearby coverts to visit, archival materials could be sent via comms and didn’t require onsite presence. They’d already stayed for several weeks beyond their original plan, and she knew the Council was losing patience despite the fruitful results of this trip. They would be gone, and everything would return to as it was before. Nearly.

Not at all.

Who was she kidding? A tear rolled down her cheek. There was no way things could go back to the way they were before, not now.

She missed her father. Missed his blunt assessment, his keen understanding of that strain between duty and desire. What it meant to be a clone, a descendent of a clone. She needed his gruff demeanor, his terrible bedside manner, his keen assessment and ability to get straight to the heart of it. He’d understand, in a way that her beloved mother never quite could.

Saviin watched the silver beskar disappear into the guest quarters and sighed, sniffing as another tear slid unchecked down her cheek. She was being selfish, she knew. Her feelings were her problem, and not anyone else’s. So she would deal with them. She’d take this moment, set it aside, and move on, to be what everyone needed her to be once again.

The light scrabble below her nearly startled her off her perch. Looking down, she saw Til’s bright eyes peering up with a small smile as he climbed the branches to reach her. On reflex, she reached down to help him up to her branch, where he settled quickly. Silently, he looked around, wide-eyed, taking in the view. Finally, he met her eyes, his dark ones meeting her violet gaze briefly before glancing at her wet cheeks. Still, he said nothing.

“Til, are you all right?”

“Yup.” And without another word, he merely scooched closer, wrapping an arm around her waist and leaning against her shoulder. Pressing his comfort into her side, a balm for the unstated pain. With a controlled sigh, Saviin wrapped her arm around him, gripping the child to steady him on the branch, and wiped a runaway tear on her shoulder.

Another moment wouldn’t hurt.

Chapter Text

Din had been a father of five for two weeks when he woke up one morning and headed straight for the dormitory to find his new Foundlings and Grogu, who had insisted on staying with his new siblings. By this point, Din had adapted from his customary panic upon waking and finding the child gone from his quarters, and the heartache of bunking down each night alone. Breakfast as a family sounded like a nice idea. Familiar now with the layout, he picked his way through the space towards the beds that the five children had claimed for their own, pushed together to create one large sleeping spot, piled with blankets.

They were gone.

Breathing through the rising panic, Din forced himself to calmly leave the dormitory, and look around. Some children had wandered over to the pavilion for breakfast; his children not among them. Scanning the clearing, he found no tiny terrors pelting around.

“They come visit me at the forge often.”

Din made swiftly for the forge, slowing his gait in relief as the familiar sound of laughter, and the unfamiliar sound of banging, echoed out from the forge. He silently approached, taking in the scene.

All five children sat on benches and stools crammed into the small forge, crowded around the low work table. Saviin sat in the middle, eyes shining with laughter. They were playing some kind of complicated drumming and clapping cadence game, with Saviin breathlessly chanting while trying not to laugh. The children laughed and squealed, trying and failing to keep up, until Til alone battled against Saviin. She lost— or rather threw the game, Din suspected— dramatically throwing up her hands as the children cheered, pounding Til on the back. Maddi flung herself at Saviin for a consolation hug. Grogu toppled over on his own, and Kiro picked him up, setting him back on the bench.

His heart swelled. The feeling had a name, one that terrified him to name, but he felt certain of its identity. It was incredible how quickly the current occupants of the forge had become the most precious things in the world to him.

“Rematch tomorrow, Til!” Saviin laughed, then quickly checked herself at the sight of Din. “Mand’alor.”

His children had no such reservations, flinging themselves at him.

“Buir!”

“Have you played this game?”

“Patoo!”

“Did you see me win, buir?”

“Congratulations, Til’ika,” Din squeezed the youth’s shoulder affectionately. “You’ll have to teach me that one later.”

“It’s a hand-eye coordination exercise, though naturally much more appealing if introduced as a game,” supplied Saviin, composure regained. Din felt a small stab of disappointment at the change in her demeanor, then dismissed it.

“Very clever.” He was rewarded with a brief smile of gratitude. He turned back to his children. “Have you eaten yet? Your companions are out there now for breakfast—” he didn’t get to finish the sentence as the children stampeded past him for the pavilion. “Well, that was easy.”

“Enjoy it while they’re still amenable,” Saviin smiled wryly, reorganizing her workspace.

“I will. Do you have a moment? I had some thoughts while reading the Supercommando Codex last night. Are you familiar with it?”

“At this point in my tenure, it’s nearly memorized,” Saviin smiled more genuinely now. Din silently cheered.

“Show-off.” He smiled as she scoffed through a grin, her eyes crinkling and dipping in demure gratitude.

“The section on community…”

—————

Mid-morning sunshine burst through the entry of the forge, dousing the room in a warm glow. The metallic taste of hot metal and the acrid smell of melted plastoid saturated the air as Saviin consulted her measurements, then picked up her hand torch, pulling down her face shield. Torch lit, she grasped the trooper cuirass and applied the heat carefully.

Across the room, Tristan lounged on the bench, armored back leaning against the wall and one leg propped up on the bench, the other hanging down. Senaar sat in between his legs, leaning back against the propped-up leg, her own legs twisted in a cross-sit beneath her. She chattered away as she sanded a table leg propped in her lap, while Tristan smiled at his data pad, responding and commenting dutifully as he tapped away at his own work.

Saviin smiled to herself behind the face shield, glancing up at the cozy scene. Tristan had made a point of dropping in every other day since the oh-so-famous kiss; it wasn’t clear if he was trying to get to know Saviin, soak up every possible moment with Senaar, or simply hide from Rau; whatever the reason, Saviin enjoyed his company, and relished the chance to watch the couple in action. Kote had given the couple his big-brother blessing, but Saviin was more cautious, highly protective.

As was her right.

So far, her takeaway impressions were that they were well-matched and almost disgustingly adorable. He took Senaar’s fuchsia and orange tunic and armor, her high energy and effervescent demeanor, her melodic chatter in calm stride, only startled slightly by her affectionate touches. And she’d watched him come alive in the glow of Senaar’s orbit, smiling more often, laughing and teasing. For Senaar’s part, she’d become more sure of herself, on a steady diet of Tristan’s affection and quiet confidence.

In all, she loved to see them together, and tried not to feel like a spare bolt in their presence. She’d never begrudge her sister the true happiness that she’d improbably found in a matter of weeks. But Saviin couldn’t deny that it often sparked a longing, a pang she’d immediately try to crush with distraction. She’d felt the same, watching her father and mother together. She knew, watching her mother ten years after his passing, the perils of finding one’s perfect match. The ache still lingered.

Senaar glanced up, and stiffened slightly, leaning slightly away from Tristan. Tristan glanced up at the shift, an eyebrow raised. Kark. Saviin hadn’t been fast enough to quell the thought. Casting around for anything to distract her—

A shadow fell across open doorway.

“Alor,” Saviin pushed the face shield up and greeted him with no small amount of relief at his timing. Din paused, as though taken aback at the eagerness of her greeting. He stepped in, then paused again at the sight of Senaar and Tristan, who had instantly come out of his lounging position at the sight of his leader.

“You’re early today, but please, have a seat. Wren, go back to lounging— ah, my forge, my rules,” she added in a teasing tone. Senaar laughed as Tristan huffed, awkwardly attempting to resume his casual posture. Stiffly, Din sank into a chair.

“So Alor, what have the readings yielded today?” she set down the torch and the face shield, and gripped the cuirass with the tongs as she positioned it over the horn of the anvil.

“This is more of a planning issue, but I’m curious for your thoughts on what to check next. The Council has drawn up a list of cities on Mandalore to prioritize for rebuilding.”

“Well, that’s a difficult task without knowing how badly the cities were damaged during the Empire era. Have you sent engineers or recon to the surface to assess?”

“Not yet.”

“Something to consider, then.” He’d gotten better about not asking for direction, but she still weighed her advice carefully. It had to be his choice. “Although if it was me, I know where I’d start.” Saviin smiled eagerly. Senaar groaned.

“Here we go—”

“What?” Din turned to look at Senaar.

“I’m a great admirer of Keldabe,” Saviin attempted, fighting a blush as Senaar immediately interrupted her with a cackle.

“No, you’re not. You are a colossal nerd on the subject and have been for what, almost twenty years?”

Din’s helmet swiveled to face Saviin, and she cringed.

“You’ve been in love with a city since you were seven?”

“Okay in my defense, I was eight. And I was assigned a homework lesson. We were told to research a Mandalorian city or world. I chose Keldabe, the ancient Mandalorian capital, and fell in love with it. Better than Kalevala, Kote,” she added with a grin, and both Senaar and Tristan guffawed. Sensing that Din didn’t get the joke, she hurried to explain. “Kote picked Kalevala because the name sounded pretty. He didn’t know it was the ancestral seat of the Kryze clan.”

Tristan struggled to rein in the laughter. “I am never letting Kote live that one down.” Din glanced over at him in surprise, evidently unused to the sight of such levity by his dutiful aide. Saviin bit her lip, smiling at this rare opportunity for all four of them.

“Getting back to Saviin’s obsession with Keldabe—” Saviin gasped at Din’s betrayal, “what makes Keldabe so special?”

“Keldabe is not just a symbol of the seat of power for Mandalore,” Saviin began, warming to her favorite subject, “it is an architecture gem and a major strategic advantage for whomever holds it. It was devastated during the Mandalorian civil wars, but it wasn’t abandoned because it was destroyed; it was abandoned because it wasn’t destroyed, and it was a symbol of a fighting spirit that did not suit the new government that chose Sundari as the new capital.

“Keldabe was designed to withstand a siege, structurally sound and intricately laid out. Since it was largely abandoned and lost its symbolic importance with the government at the time long before the Empire, it likely wasn’t hit as badly during the Purge and may be more salvageable than the other cities. Its streets and blocks designed as a maze with stone foundations and reinforced fortifications, it was difficult to storm if you weren’t a local. Its perimeter could withstand bombardment, and the city held stores to last against a months-long siege, if you were prepared.”

“And,” Tristan jumped in, “its location in proximity to beskar mines and several export resources made it a critical asset, necessitating its defensive design.”

“Right,” Saviin beamed at Tristan. Senaar merely grinned and turned back to her table leg, shaking her head as she sanded.

“And as the capital, it was a hub of culture. Sparring rings dotted the city, as well as arts centers for traditional music concerts and local markets. Imagine— a thriving city, where you can literally get lost wandering the streets, winding alleys ending in open squares where fighters spar, or warriors dance to the traditional songs played by musicians, on instruments created right there in the city. The smell of heavily spiced Mandalorian foods lingering in the air, and the thick, sweet scent of uj cake and the tang of sourdough breads. Here and there the bell-like clang of a goran’s forge, and shouting from the occasional cantina. If you finally make it to the city center, you climb the stairs to the palace, a solid, fortified structure dominated by a keep. Gardens dotting the exterior perimeter, filled with Mandalorian peace lilies, tended by royal gardeners. It’s what Keldabe used to be, and if the foundations are still there, what it could be again.”

In the silence that followed as they all digested the image, Senaar waved the sandpaper at her sister. “Giant. Nerd.”

The forge rang with laughter. “Never claimed to be otherwise,” Saviin shrugged good-naturedly.

“I can see the appeal,” Din commented. “Not sure about peace lilies.” Mushroom wandered in, nosing about the wood shavings for something edible. Din pulled something out of his belt, and the massif bounded over, nearly taking out a stand of wooden broom poles in the process. He eagerly snatched the treat then sat, his scaly stubby tail wagging in the dirt, as Din scratched the back of his head.

“What’s wrong with peace lilies?” demanded Tristan.

“I’m pretty sure they’re toxic, and I have two toddlers.”

“This is true,” Saviin mused, reaching for an auger. “Toddler-proofing a palace will be a challenge. You could make it a rock garden.”

“And give the boys available ammo?”

“Yeah, not ideal, Sav’ika,” teased Senaar. “What about saviin’e?”

“They need part shade,” Saviin replied automatically.

“They need what?” Tristan stared blankly.

“Finding those musicians will be tough,” Din mused, and Saviin fought the urge to stare. Din was in a mood today. The atmosphere in the forge felt surreal, laughing and teasing like old friends, as though they weren’t discussing the restoration of a whole karking planet.

“Pretty sure we’ve got diagrams for building instruments and lesson books in the archives,” Senaar tossed out, unconcerned. “A few of my cousins wanted to learn, they’re pretty good, too. Nothing quite like making your own instrument to help you decide how invested you are in your hobbies.”

Saviin turned to Din, grinning. “Sold on Keldabe yet?”

“Sounds enticing,” and Saviin had to look away at that tone, “but it also sounds like I need to do some recon before I get my hopes up.”

“I’ll send out directions to the engineers and the recon teams,” Tristan volunteered, tapping at his data pad.

A glance outside, and Saviin suddenly realized how much time had passed. “It’s already lunchtime.” Clan members had begun to line up at the pavilion. The forge’s occupants all stood, Senaar leading the way out of the forge with Tristan hot on her heels and Mushroom sniffing the air hopefully. The sudden silence of the forge struck Saviin, and she trembled slightly. Din turned to her, gesturing towards the door, and she silently followed.

The bright midday sunshine bleached the color of the normally vibrant grass, and Saviin blinked against the sun’s onslaught. Din took a step, then turned back to Saviin, who shielded her eyes against the reflection of his unpainted armor. “Are you coming?”

Coward that she was, her heart quailed suddenly. The discussion in the forge had been heady, dangerously comfortable. She had to remember who she was, who he was.

“Thank you, but I will have to pass. I volunteered for snare trap duty today,” she hadn’t exactly, but she knew there was an opening in the roster.

“Can I come?” Saviin blinked, looking down. Til had suddenly appeared at her elbow, squinting up at her solemnly.

“You want to skip lunch?”

“I want to go out with you,” he corrected firmly. “I’ve seen dead game before, it doesn’t bother me. I want to help.” Saviin looked up to Din’s visor, expressionless as always.

“It’s up to your buir,” Saviin deflected.

“Sure,” Din replied, his tone easy. “I’ll—”

“Alor!”

Din turned to see Rau waving at him.

“—I’ll tag along next time,” Din finished with a sigh. He placed a hand on Til’s shoulder. “You’ll listen well and follow all of Sav— Saviin’s instructions?”

“Yes, sir,” Til replied eagerly.

“Good. Have fun.” With one last glance at Saviin, he left.

Saviin had no clue what look she wore on her face. The firm grip of a small hand in hers startled her into action. She looked down into Til’s smiling face.

“Well Til’ika, let’s get going before the whole herd sees us and wants to come along.”

Chapter Text

It had been two months since they had first arrived at the Haven, a visit that was supposed to last three days. Din could put it off no longer.

“My little warriors, it’s time. I have to go now.” As Maddi’s wailing waxed into a full tantrum, Din took in the silent, blank faces of his older children. His heart sunk.

He knew keenly the aching feeling that throbbed in their chests, remembered feeling it every time a trusted adult left and promised to come back. Sometimes they did.

Sometimes they failed.

He couldn’t, wouldn't fail them. Not these precious children.

(Not enough, never enough—)

“This is not forever. If it were safe where I am going, I would bring you with me. But you must stay here, learn the ways of the warriors, and then you can join me. Can you do that for me?” The three older nodded mutely, expressions cracking under the strain of their heartache.

“It’s okay to be sad.” And the dams broke. Din took a steadying breath to soothe the hitch in his own voice, and gathered them in close, savoring the unfiltered scents of their little bodies, freshly cleaned after a hard-fought bath with their new comrades. “I have to come back to tell you more of the story, remember?” Nods amidst the sniffles. “And I will holo you as often as I can. And the minute it’s safe, you will join me. Haat, ijaa, haa’it.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s a vow. A promise not lightly broken. I know your names as my children, that is another promise.”

“What about Grogu?”

“Your vod is going to his Jedi teacher for a little while. So you will say goodbye here. Come,” as tears refreshed in blinking eyes, “it’s only for a little while. And you will have Alor Saviin here, isn’t that good?”

“Yeah,” Til scrubbed his eyes. “Sav’buir is the best. We’ll be okay here with her. Haat, ijaa… umm…”

“Haa’it,” supplied Din absently. Sav’buir. He put the bubbling thoughts aside. He swallowed thickly past the lump in his throat. He couldn't think of all he was leaving behind.

“Yeah, that. Can we hear a little more of the story before you leave?”

“Sure, Til. Where did we leave off?”

“The Lone Warrior had entrusted the magic bean to the Sand Mother, and had set off on his quest once more, and after many trials, found himself wounded and weary at the gates of an enchanted garden.”

“Right. The Lone Warrior was so tired from his travels, bruised and scratches from fighting off beasts as he searched for clues to find the cave where the fount resided, to lift the curse on his kingdom. He had many doubts that he would succeed, for he had not been a Prince or any royalty; he was a hunter and warrior, chosen by the people to lead. He did not feel ready or confident. And so, brought low by fatigue and doubt, and having walked around and around the garden’s ivy-covered walls without finding a door, he found himself asleep at the garden’s invisible gate, though he did not know it.

“When he awoke, he found himself in a warm, comfortable bed, his hurts tended, and by his bedside sat the most beautiful person he’d ever seen, who looked strangely familiar.

“‘Do not strain yourself, Lone Warrior. You are safe here, and can stay as long as you need,’” the beautiful woman said, and the Lone Warrior was entranced by her voice. Yet he did not trust himself, or her, and responded harshly. ‘What have you done to me? What magic is this?’ ‘Only the healing magic of the enchanted garden, Lone Warrior,’ she responded. ‘We found you at our gates, brought you in, and tended your wounds. You are free to leave whenever you’d like.’ ‘But?’ ‘But nothing, Lone Warrior. You owe us nothing, we want nothing. We have more to offer, if you wish. But we only wish to aid you in your quest, not keep you from it.’ ‘How do you know my name?’ asked the Lone Warrior. ‘Why do you look so familiar?’

"At this, the beautiful creature looked sad, and the Lone Warrior’s heart was full of guilt, though he did not understand why. ‘We have met, Lone Warrior. I was at the Sand Mother’s palace when you stopped in for food and shelter. I looked simpler than I do now, as it was not safe to shine there. But you did not see me. You were too focused on your quest, and distrusting of all around you. I hope that in time you will see we can be trusted to assist you.’ And the Lone Warrior was filled with great shame. ‘I cannot trust a creature whose name I do not know,’ he replied. ‘Will you share it with me, so that I may start?’ She smiled. ‘I am the Flower Queen,’ she replied. ‘If you are well enough, you must come with me. There is much to do before you can resume your quest.’ ‘Forgive me, Flower Queen, but why do you care about my quest?’ She beckoned for him to follow, and he left the bed to walk with her.

“They passed through abundant flower beds, vegetable patches, and fruit trees. ‘Once, the desolate kingdom looked like this,’ the Flower Queen said, waving an arm around the enchanted garden. ‘We loved the land of the desolate kingdom, and tended to it with love. When the curse was laid, we were exiled, for without the rivers we could not survive. We have lived in the enchanted garden for many years now, yet still dream of a restored kingdom, even if we are no longer welcome from our exile.’ ‘Why would you not be welcome?’ ‘The Red Shriek-hawk will not let us return,’ she said sadly. ‘But she is not the leader,’ he argued. ‘One does not have to have power to hate and make life difficult for others. Power simply makes it easier to do so.’

"At last they stopped at a massive rosebush. ‘If you are to succeed in your quest, you must be armed.’ ‘I have weapons,’ protested the Lone Warrior. ‘None like this,’ replied the Flower Queen, and she thrust her arm into the rosebush, and pulled out a thorn. This thorn was as long as her entire arm, black as night, and shimmering. ‘This is an Enchanted Thorn,’ the Flower Queen explained. ‘It is a powerful weapon, born of a rosebush we saved from the desolate kingdom before the curse destroyed everything. There is no weapon like it. If you trust me, I can teach you its secret ways, and share with you what we know of the cave that hides the fount that will restore the desolate kingdom, to aid you in your quest. But you must guard it. There are many who would try to take it from you.’

“The Lone Warrior stared at this beautiful, generous creature, and knew in his heart that he would do anything to please her, for she was pure goodness and kindness. ‘I trust you to teach me all you can,’ he replied, and her smile glowed like the dawn.

“The Lone Warrior stayed for three days, learning all he could and falling more deeply in love with the beautiful Flower Queen. At the end of three days, before he resumed his quest, he took her hand. ‘Fair Flower Queen, my quest is perilous. I will succeed in my quest, to restore the desolate kingdom and bring you happiness. But there will be dangers, and I bear precious treasures that must stay safe. Will you take these four seeds and keep them safe?’ ‘Of course,’ replied the Flower Queen. ‘I will plant them and tend to them with love as if they were my own.’ ‘Thank you,’ said the Lone Warrior. ‘My heart will rest easy knowing they are in your gentle hands, fair Queen. I will return to bring you to the restored kingdom when my quest is finished, so that you may grace it with your presence, ner cyar’sarad.’”

“She is so wonderful,” sighed Til wistfully. “I wish she was real now.”

“What happens next, buir?” Kiro demanded, but Din shook his head.

“We’ll just have to wait until the next time, my loved ones.”

There was a knock, and Din pulled his helmet back on as Kass opened the door. It was Saviin.

“I’m sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting—”

“No,” Din reassured her. “You have good timing. We were just saying our ‘see-you-later’s’, because it’s not goodbye, right ner adiike?”

As eyes began to brim again, Saviin knelt before them, and the children clustered around her, her arms stretched wide to hold them all. They nestled in close, pulling each other tight in her arms. As she rested her chin between Kiro’s montrals, Din reached up to press against his cuirass, trying to ease the sharp stab of longing that had dug in behind his ribs, settling like a buzzing vibroblade nicking at his lungs and heart.

“I promised your buir that I would take care of you, my sweet little sprouts. Everyone is here to help and support you, but I will always be here to cherish you, okay? Just as we’ve been doing, if you have bad dreams, a tough day, a good story, anything— I will be here, and you can tell me, or just get a hug, or a bedtime song. And before you know it, your buir will be back. And you’ll have the most amazing stories to tell him of all the things you learned and the cool adventures we’ll have here. Do you think that will be okay?”

Til looked at the others, got the answer he sought, and looked back at Saviin. “Yeah, Sav’buir, we’ll be okay, as long as we’re with you.” The boy seemed oblivious to Saviin’s embarrassed splutter, and continued on, “it’s just that he’ll be so far away. How do we know he’s okay?” Whatever objections Saviin had been mounting to her moniker melted away under the traumatized child’s hopeless stare.

“Til, ner adika, your buir is a Mandalorian. The toughest warriors alive. Do you know, he was swallowed by a krayt dragon, and not only survived, but conquered the beast?” Four sets of round eyes stared at her, and Din stifled an embarrassed chuckle. “No one lives forever, but your buir is very strong, and a man of honor, and if he promised to come back to you, he will do everything he can to make that happen. And if you are clever and learn well in class, you can write him as many messages as you want, using all of the new words you’ve learned, and he can respond as soon as it’s safe to. Okay, Til?”

Til nodded, still digesting that bit about the krayt dragon.

“Now, it’s really nice outside, and I think that baji’Ruusaan has some snacks set out. How about we walk with your buir to his ship, then come back for snacks?” Somber moods forgotten, the children leapt up. Din reached out and offered a hand to Saviin, who took it and stood up, appearing mildly surprised at the gesture.

Din… Din did not want to let go of her hand, needing the reassurance that she was actually there. For all he’d seen seemed as unreal as his fairytale, too good to be true. Easing their fears, offering them unconditional love.

So he held on. And she did not pull away.

Maddi had taken Saviin’s other hand, and once outside, Til had appropriated Din’s other one. With Grogu riding on his shoulder and the twins gamboling ahead, the little party set off for the hangar at the far end of the compound.

They walked quietly, watching the children and calling out when one or the other was in danger of being scolded for recklessness by a gardener. Saviin turned to Din.

“I meant to ask— since it’s getting warmer, we take the kids to the pond. Do you have any objections to the children leaving the perimeter and learning to swim, under supervision?” Din turned to look at her.

“No,” he said simply. “I trust you.” Opening his hand, he laced his gloved fingers between hers. Her eyes widened in shock, but did not withdraw her hand, and she ducked her head, covering her reaction by turning to check on Maddi. Hidden by the helmet, he smiled. So unassuming. So sweet.

Rau was already onboard the Gauntlet with half of clan Eldar, warming up the engines. Several had decided to stay at the Haven with the alor, who refused to leave his sister again. They’d chosen a new alor, who would represent them on Krownest, along with five others. Tristan was also there, standing stiffly and failing abysmally in his attempts to conceal his serious connection to Senaar; Din would have made a lousy bounty hunter if he hadn’t noticed Tristan’s dagger now firmly clasped to Senaar’s hip. She had no such restraint, laughing at him as she intentionally tried to draw out his more playful side. Finally, he cracked, giving in to a fierce kiss and instantly rushing up the ramp into the ship. Senaar cackled, turning her attention to Kiro and Kass as they attempted to sneak-attack her.

“Well, I think you can rest easy knowing those two will have a blast here,” Saviin commented, a wry smile on her lips.

“I heard they came up with some new rules for Capture the Flag thanks to my kids,” he replied. “I’d be embarrassed if I wasn’t so proud.”

Saviin looked up at him as she laughed, free and easy. Din’s chest warmed, knowing he had made her laugh like that. “I think that’s fair.” He looked down at her. This time she did not look away.

“Din,” her face sobered slightly, growing earnest. “I want you to know that your children will be safe and well-loved while they’re in my care. They will want for nothing. I will love them like they’re mine, until you’re ready to take them to Mandalore, and even then— they’ll always have a place here, if ever you need it.”

“I can see already that you love them,” replied. “I’ll rest easy knowing they’re in your hands.” He smiled as he recognized in his own words an echo of the Lone Warrior’s response to the Flower Queen. His cyar’sarad.

My cyar’sarad.

“And we will call you regularly,” she promised. “I know it’s not the same, but it’s, well—”

Din squeezed her hand gently. “Thank you.”

She nodded, gazing up at him, somehow meeting his eyes despite the visor. Her expression was unusually open, unguarded, and he was struck by the intense emotion on her face, before she quickly looked away. It looked almost like…

Heartbreak.

He wanted to pull her into his arms. Pull her aboard the ship. Take her wherever he went, so that he didn’t have to feel so alone in this strange destiny he’d found himself in. So that he could chase away whatever had caused her face to look so broken, so that he could make her smile.

Instead, he gently squeezed her hand, and let go.

Kneeling before Til, he brought the child in close, embracing him before carefully tapping foreheads. “Be good for Alor Saviin and help her look after your siblings, please?”

Til nodded solemnly. “I’ll help Sav’buir. Promise.”

Saviin’s attention snapped towards him, but Din elected to not correct the child, turning instead to Maddi.

“Be helpful too? Can you do that?” Maddi nodded, placing her pudgy hands on his helmet and crashing into his forehead.

“Careful, Mad'ika! Gentle tap!” Saviin scooped up the toddler as she giggled, rubbing her forehead. Kiro and Kass made identical insincere promises to behave, and waved at Grogu in farewell.

As the ramp closed, Din’s last view was of his newly adopted children, crowded around Saviin, waving madly with tears and smiles on their faces. He made his way to the cockpit, Grogu gripping his arm and whining.

“I know, kid. I know.”

Chapter Text

Part 2: The Forest of Deception

Chapter 18: Krownest

 

Tristan had never been more excited to lose a bet.

Evidently he’d had more faith than Rau or Woves in Din’s ability to resist. Alas, Tristan had been proven wrong, and was given the honors of sending the message.

Din had made it exactly three weeks before sending an invite to Gar Vod’e to visit at Krownest.

Personally, Tristan had bet that he’d make it at least 5 weeks. Saviin and Din traded messages daily; he was included on at least half of them, and figured that the consistent communication would suffice. Woves, who had missed all of the excitement and had to rely on second-hand accounts that had thoroughly hyped personal interactions to the level of a holodrama, had guessed two weeks. Only Rau, that crafty old bastard, had guessed it accurately, to the day, no less. If Din weren’t so fiercely private and awkward about the whole thing, he would have suspected the two of colluding.

As it stood, Tristan was now down a canister of caf grounds, and tasked with issuing the invitation for representatives of Gar Vod’e to visit Krownest at their convenience, as personal guests of the Mand’alor.

Completely worth the lost caf.

With a grin, he opened a new message, triple-checking encryption, then froze, fingers hovering over the pad as the grin slid off his face.

Personal guests of the Mand’alor.

Not as clan representatives.

“Haar’chak,” he breathed heavily, running a hand through the short strands of his black hair, ruffling it. He’d been so excited at the prospect of seeing Senaar again so soon— of course she’d come, and so would Saviin, no way they’d send Kote or Prudii— the implied insult had completely slipped past him. And yet insult it was. That language had gone through the Council, with Kryze’s claw marks all over it. And Din had either missed it or elected not to pick the fight.

And that— that made no sense. Tristan ground his teeth in frustration. For all the progress Din had made in the past few weeks, there were some aspects to politics and identity that still escaped him completely. Befuddled by the thorny morass that was Mandalorian politics maneuvering, he elected to bypass it entirely, to his own detriment. In that respect, Saviin was very, very good for Din. And if anyone could overlook an insult for the greater good, it was she.

Still, it rankled. Tristan had rarely questioned duty for personal reasons, but this— Tristan was no Jedi, but he had this niggling sense that allowing this to stand would seriously hamper any chance for Gar Vod’e to be addressed as a clan of equal standing.

The Manda seemed to agree, delivering the Mand’alor to Tristan’s frigid ammo-can of an office a moment later.

“Wren,” Din leaned against the doorsill, “have you sent the invitation to Gar Vod’e yet?”

“I was just about to, Alor,” the door was open and the conversation wasn’t exactly private, “so you have good timing. I have a concern about the language of the invitation.”

“Let’s hear it.”

This was what made him so much easier to work for than Kryze or Saxon.

“We’re inviting them as personal guests of the Mand’alor, not as clan representatives.”

“That’s right.”

Tristan blinked. “Why?”

“They are my guests.”

Tristan took a steadying breath. “That is not how we have approached other clans. Why aren’t we addressing them the same as other clans?”

Din stood very still for a long moment, then stepped inside the tiny office and shut the door. “I don’t understand.”

Holy kark. Saviin could do this so much better than Tristan could. He took another breath. “By inviting them as personal guests, you are sending the message that they are welcome as your personal friends, not as Mandalorians in equal standing with other clans. I understand that not everyone is in agreement on that question yet, but sending a message like that sends a pretty clear signal on your stance.”

Din stood quietly, contemplating. Personal feelings on the matter aside, Tristan pitied him; it was an impossible situation.

“So my options are to take a stand by inviting them as clan representatives and possibly paint a target on their backs—”

“And yours,” interjected Tristan, huffing indignantly when Din waved that particular concern away.

“—or to insult them by inviting them as personal guests, and signal to others that I don’t view their claim as legitimate. Or to put off the issue by not inviting them at all.”

Tristan fought a grimace. He’d considered that one, and had hoped Din wouldn’t think of it at all.

“Maybe a compromise is in order. Invite them as my personal guests, and mention that they will be invited to attend the council meetings while here, as well as with individually with clan heads who are currently here.”

It wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, and Tristan’s love for Gar Vod’e and Senaar warred with his duty.

“Very well. I’ll make the change.”

“Vor’e. Let me know when you hear back.” Din gave him a swift nod, then slapped the control panel and strode off quickly. Tristan stared after him, his excitement now a small pile of ash in his stomach.

He had a very bad feeling about this.

 


 

Senaar fought to contain her vibrating excitement as she stood near the ramp of the shuttle. Beside her stood Saviin— a quick glance at her only served to jangle Senaar’s nerves further.

“How are you so calm?!”

“Well, for starters, I don’t have a lover that I’ve been chatting to every night and am anxiously waiting to see.”

“What about—”

“And secondly,” Saviin smoothly rolled right over her attempted jab, “I have a fair amount of practice at this. We are here as personal guests of the Mand’alor. We must also remember that we are the clan’s representatives, even if we are not recognized as such.”

Senaar remembered clearly Saviin’s frozen expression, and Kote’s uncharacteristic explosion of frustration in his aura, when she read the message out to her family the first time. Prudii had broken a chair, and was promptly sent off-world to find a replacement by an extremely disappointed Ver’ika.

“For most, we will be their first introduction to the freed clone community. Many still do not know our story and will have certain notions in mind of what that means. We will set the expectations on this trip of what it means to treat with Gar Vod’e. With that in mind, it is easy to focus on only duty. There is much at stake.” Saviin glanced over at Senaar, her violet eyes scrutinizing her younger sister. She gave a small smile and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“You’ll do fine. Try not to pick fights, finish them if someone starts them, and keep your public displays of affection and overt cheerfulness to a minimum, and it’ll be smooth sailing.”

“Sounds like I shouldn’t have come, then,” mumbled Senaar, suddenly anxious. She fingered at the bird tattoo above her temple, an old habit. She hadn’t done it much since meeting Tristan.

“Think of it as just dialing it down. Your true nature is a gift to those who deserve it; these people haven’t earned it yet. Hold the gift in reserve, until you’re sure they deserve to see how brilliant and amazing you are.”

Senaar gave a small smile, feeling somewhat reassured. Saviin squeezed her shoulder, then dropped her hand, reaching over to the control panel to drop the ramp. The shuttle hatch opened, a blast of cold air slipping through to assault Senaar’s face, whipping her black curls into a frenzy.

“Fierfek.”

“Told you the vests would be useful.” They’d traded their armor for their thickest tunics and quilted vests under their thick jackets, reinforced with armor weave. Saviin had kept her kama, and both wore their vambraces.

“The body gloves and armor would have been more useful.”

“We’ve been over this.” Saviin’s tone was even, patient as they descended the ramp. “When our status is in doubt, we’re not going in with what we consider a full kit, marked up with our clan symbols. It’s just asking for a fight. We’re trained well enough that we’ll be fine, if it comes to it.”

Except against grenades, thought Senaar, then fought a shudder and pushed the thought away. Saviin understood this better than she did. She trusted the clan diplomat.

Try not to mortify the family and doom our chances of becoming Mandalorian. I can do this.

Tristan, Rau, and the Mand’alor stood there, flanked by two armored Mandalorians with green auras she didn’t recognize. Everyone wore their buckets, and Senaar fidgeted, feeling unusually exposed. She didn’t even have a traditional helmet, and yet she felt far more out-of-place than she could have imagined by arriving with a bare head. She chanced a glance at Saviin, whose aura betrayed just a hint of anxiety before smoothing it over with peace-focus-duty-confidence as she strode down the ramp towards the welcoming party. Senaar hurried to catch up.

“Olarom, Alor Vhett’ika,” the Mand’alor greeted her first, offering his forearm. Senaar hung back slightly, feeling wrong footed as the leaders greeted each other so formally. She peeked over at Tristan, and relaxed a fraction. He appeared to be intentionally emoting as he trained his visor straight at her, his aura resembling a sunny morning, all searing blues and yellows with the white of puffy clouds lingering throughout. Reassured, she shot him a tiny smile, then refocused on the conversation.

“It is an honor to be welcomed, Mand’alor,” Saviin replied, accepting his offering after saluting him with a fist across her chest. “I hope we can find some way to be of service to you.” At his nod, she turned to Rau and Tristan, greeting each in turn.

“If you’ll come with us, we have refreshments to warm you up,” Tristan offered, helmet tilted inquiringly. “Krownest is cold, you must be chilled already.”

“Not too bad, but thank you for your hospitality,” Saviin returned cordially with a small smile. The Mand’alor’s helmet tilted in confusion.

“You have no armor on. Why—”

“Alor!”

Senaar watched Tristan’s shoulders jump at the shout, and he whipped his head around as the Mand’alor turned with a sigh towards the voice. A female warrior in blue and silver armor was marching towards them, sure steps crunching through the ice and grit of the path. She heard Saviin’s breath catch, but it sounded far away as she stared at the approaching figure.

There was a reason Senaar did not volunteer for the hunts to break slaver rings.

This Mando’s aura was terrifying. Reds, blacks, purples swirled and pitched in a miasma of anger, hatred, ambition. Senaar stumbled back, finding herself gripped firmly by Saviin.

“Rau, if you would lead the way, I’m sure Alor Wren and the Mand’alor will meet us,” she stated firmly, brooking no opposition.

“I think that would be best,” he nodded, gesturing with one arm to follow him. Senaar didn’t dare look back in Tristan’s direction, for fear of seeing that woman again.

Senaar barely noticed where they were going as they passed an encampment of temporary shelters, making for a partially restored structure at the end. It had been a beautiful building at one point, but had clearly been bombarded somewhat recently. It was lost on her as the horrifying miasma of reds, blacks and purples that had seared her senses blocked out awareness of anything else. The bile rose in her stomach and her throat tightened, her mind curling in on itself to get away from the darkness.

Senaar somewhat came back to herself someone pressed her into a hard chair. She locked eyes with Saviin, who had kneeled before her and placed her hands on Senaar’s shoulders, her eyes closed. All around Saviin beamed strong, reassuring waves of yellow and blue. The panic began to recede as Senaar eagerly drank in the emotions, allowing it to smooth out the horror that rippled off of her own body.

“Thanks.”

Saviin opened her eyes, and gave her youngest sister a lopsided smile. “Always. Just glad it worked, we haven't had to do that in a long time.” She stood up, and turned to share a grim look with Rau, who had pulled his helmet off and held out two mugs for Saviin and Senaar.

“That was her, wasn’t it?”

Rau nodded.

Saviin’s aura had shifted once more, radiating anxiety and determination, which faded into pale tones as she looked down at Senaar. “Are you all right now?”

Senaar nodded. “Who was that?”

Saviin shared a look with Rau, who looked down at her, handing her a warm mug of shig. “It would be best if you keep your abilities to yourself while you’re here, as best you can. It’s been a long time since anyone has been so obviously ka’ra-blessed, and they may not react well. Especially to an ability so revealing as yours.”

“It was ugly, wasn’t it?” Saviin’s expression was steady, unsurprised.

“Yeah, like I used to see on the hunts. It’s been a while since I’ve seen one that dark.”
On a supposed ally, no less. That aura belonged with slavers and scum of the earth. The implications were chilling. Senaar suddenly longed for the warm safety of the Haven, surrounded by honor and goodness. She sniffed at the herbal brew in the mug; even the shig smelled different here.

Rau scoffed, slowly dropping onto a chair with a wince. “Not like we didn’t suspect that. Though visual confirmation is somehow entirely different.”

“Seeing is believing?” Saviin shot him a wry smile, and he chuckled, relaxing somewhat.

“Something like that.”

“What did she want?”

Rau shrugged. “Who knows. Probably to steal your moment, ultimately.”

Saviin raised an eyebrow at that, but turned instead to Senaar, softening immediately. “We’ll be careful with who you interact with.”

“I’m not a child,” Senaar bristled. “I was just caught off-guard. Now that I know what to expect, it won’t happen again.” Savin frowned, but nodded, tensing slightly as the door opened and she turned to face it.

“I’m glad to see you got a head start on the warm drinks,” the Mand’alor offered awkwardly as he entered the room, Tristan on his heels. Senaar glanced around, realizing suddenly that they were in a reception room of sorts converted from what must have been a study before, with seats and a service table.

“We did, thank you,” Saviin replied graciously. “I apologize if our arrival interrupted your schedule—”

“No. You have good timing, I would like your thoughts on a few matters facing the Council. But perhaps your sister would like to get settled. We do not have accommodations in the building, but we’ve prepared temporary quarters nearby. Tristan can escort her, if that works for you.”
It was clumsy, and Rau didn’t bother to hide his smirk, but Senaar didn’t care. She nearly bounced out of her seat before remembering herself, standing gracefully and setting her mug aside with feigned gentility.

“Of course. I will see you later,” Saviin addressed her seriously, face unreadable, yet her aura radiated amusement. Senaar fought a blush as she nodded, then turned to face Tristan, who already faced her.

“Lead the way.”

He nodded, and they stepped out. They walked in silence the entire way out of the building, past the first few shelters, and into a red one marked with a large black mythosaur. Easy to find.

She’d barely closed the door when Tristan was upon her, helmet flung to the bed, lips crashing down upon hers. She surrendered to his passion, melting in his embrace, allowing him to tow her towards the low bed, one hand buried deep in the tight curls of her hair, the other gripping her waist tightly. With a quick twist, she found herself flung back onto the bed, and he loomed over her, chasing her mouth.

“Armor,” she mumbled against his lips, gasping as the edge of a gray and yellow upper arm guard dug into her side.

“Haar’chak, hang on.” In a matter of seconds, he divested himself of his upper armor, then fell over her, caging her in on all sides.

“Hi,” she beamed at him. He chuckled.

“Hi. I missed you.”

“I can tell.” She wiggled her hips, trapped under Tristan’s weight, and he groaned. “I missed you too, Trist’ika. So much.” She ran a hand through his short black hair, and he closed his eyes, savoring the feel. She let her eyes roam across his face, reacquainting herself with every beloved scar and freckle. His hazel eyes opened to stare at her in turn, meeting her golden ones.

“I have never been more excited to lose a bet.”

Senaar laughed, and she scrunched her nose in joy as his aura shifted, reflecting his delight in hearing her laughter. “I brought you more caf grounds. Kote picked them up from Garel specially for you.”

"You are an angel.”

 


 

Din thought he’d be relieved.

His heart had leapt into his throat at the sight of the small passenger shuttle breaking atmosphere, then settle in contented anticipation as the shuttle descended, landing gently before them. His cyar’sarad.

Life had felt empty in the intervening weeks on that cold and dreary world, devoid of the warmth and comfort the imbued the Haven and its people. He hadn’t realized how grim the return would feel after two months in that enchanted place, the strength he derived from his children and Saviin on a daily basis. Holo calls could not sustain in the face of hard, hollow expressions from his Council. Tristan and Rau had struggled to adapt as well, and their evenings together felt like a small island amidst a freezing sea, where they huddled together to make the dwindling warmth last.

In desperation, he’d reached out to Boba, to get his opinion on inviting Gar Vod’e to present their request for clan recognition to the Council. He’d received a heavily arched eyebrow above a deeply unimpressed expression from his vod for his efforts, while Cerium had called from the background “yes! Invite her!”

He’d heard the snickers from his aides when he announced his decision, but couldn’t regret reaching out to invite Gar Vod’e to Krownest. The prospect became a lifeline, that dragged him through each day, knowing each dawn brought him a little closer to the light that made this all seem possible, doable.

If absence made the heart grow fonder, then Din Djarin felt absolutely certain that he loved Saviin with every fiber of his being, as every fiber screamed for her loss and yearned for her return. It was terrifying and relieving to admit to himself. And so he had eagerly awaited her arrival, and the relief that would come with her nearness once more.

And then the shuttle hatch opened.

Saviin had been so, so formal. Perfectly appropriate, perfectly aware of the public setting, but it had stung. And then with Kryze’s interruption, Saviin had disappeared. It— it was fine, Kryze had planned an interruption and succeeded, there was no point in giving her little victory any more breath, but it left Din feeling increasingly wrong-footed as he followed his guests to his own reception room.

In all, not the start he’d hoped for. Not the sense of relief he’d needed. It was a selfish thought though, and he tried to shelve it as he focused on Saviin’s comfort. She seemed stiff, uncertain of how to act. He ached to take her hand and reassure her, but at her half-glance at Rau, who had parked himself in a chair on the far side and begun to drowse over a data pad, Din refrained.

“Are you sure there’s nothing I can get for you?”

“No, thank you, Alor. The shig is plenty,” she managed a small but genuine smile. “And it is delicious.”

“It’s swill compared to the Haven’s, you don’t have to impress me,” Din deadpanned, and Saviin laughed, checking herself as Rau startled in his sleep. “Are you okay?”

“I am fine, thank you, really. Just out of practice, it seems,” she gave him a sweet, wry smile as he tilted his head in confusion. “It’s been a while since I have had to self-censor to this extent. I know I am appearing too stiff.”

“You don’t have to put on an act—”

“I do,” her smile dropped. “It’s why I’m glad we have Rau napping here, and likely why he stayed behind. I’m sure there are rumors already about our visit, so close to your own extended visit with us, and it would be unfair to both you and to Gar Vod’e to feed that rumor mill with any behavior that is anything less than perfectly formal and appropriate.”

“I hope,” he dared to hesitantly placed a hand over hers, gently squeezing it, “that you can treat me normally in private, then. I don’t like the ceremony, and I need someone to treat me like I’m still a bounty hunter at least sometimes.”

She smiled again, leaving her hand in place, which he took as a good sign. “I don’t believe I’ve ever treated you like a bounty hunter.”

“No. But I’m not on a pedestal with you.” Her eyes tightened slightly as though she disagreed, but said nothing.

“So,” she gently slid her hand back to retrieve her mug. He mourned its loss but took comfort in the growing sense of relief that had finally, finally emerged, seeping into the room like the waves of heat emanating from the small fire in the hearth. “As your officially designated “normal” person, Mand’alor— what shall we discuss now? Shall I help you pick apart your latest planning session, or catch you up on the latest gossip from the oh-so-exciting world of the Haven?”

Chapter Text

“We are for your inclusion. We’re just not sure if there’s any momentum for real change right now.”

Saviin sat in the meeting room of clan Awaud, staring across at their clan leader, as well as that of clans Eldar and Wren.

“I understand, and appreciate your support and honesty,” Saviin responded. “I knew coming in the odds weren’t great for immediate changes, and it is good to hear the unvarnished truth rather than hope-filling platitudes.”

“We are Mandalorian, not the auretii Senate,” Lari, a representative from clan Eldar, snorted. “We’ll do what we can to fight the rumor mill. We owe you a great debt— no, we do— and leaving the Kryze rumor mill to run unopposed is dangerous for us all. But it will take time.”

A stiff breeze snuck in through the open doorway of the meeting room as someone entered the main doorway to the quarters, slicing at her legs. It felt like a reminder, a warning. There is not much time left.

“We shall see what the full Council says tomorrow. But regardless, we will keep you apprised of our developments, and try to send you warning if things seem to shift.”

“Likewise,” the representative from clan Awaud stood, offering his forearm. “It has been a long time since clans, families have been reunited. Verity Vhett’ika has been gone a long time. We’re committed to a united Mandalore, and that includes clones.”

“Same for us,” replied the representative from clan Eldar, while the Wren clan representative nodded, murmuring assent as they accepted Saviin’s forearm. She felt the clack of the vambraces, plastoid against beskar, and tried not to think about it. Tried to remain merely grateful that they met her as equals. Tried to remember that this was already more than they could have hoped for two months ago. She forced a polite smile, swallowing down the emotion lodged in her throat, and nodded her thanks.

She was grateful, truly. It was just that—

It wouldn’t be enough.

She felt herself scrabbling for the edges of her composure, beating back the nasty voice suggesting that it would never be enough.

Saviin stepped outside of the quarters into the frigid air— nearly colliding with a wall of unpainted beskar.

“Mand’alor,” Saviin breathed, too distracted and shocked by his appearance to do anything.

“I heard you were to meet with the goran of clan Wren now, and wanted to, uh, offer to escort you. Since you don’t know where the forge is.”

Distantly in the back of her mind an alarm blared, suggesting it was a bad idea, but Saviin, too shocked to really comprehend the implications, merely nodded and fell in beside the presumptive planetary ruler.

“Are you okay?”

Saviin looked up, finding his visor trained on her face, tilted in concern. “Just a lot going on. I'll be fine, thank you,” she managed, in a reasonably even tone and with what she hoped looked like a convincing smile. It seemed enough to assuage his concerns, as he nodded.

“I hope your meetings are going well,” Din offered awkwardly. Saviin smiled more genuinely now. She never failed to find his awkwardness somehow endearing— likely because he kept trying, despite the clear struggle.

“Yes, though tiring— I certainly don’t have so many meetings at home, not back-to-back like this. But we need to get them done, and I can’t stay too long. It seems the children are quite desolate without their— cabur.” She tripped over the word, certain that he caught it, but Din said nothing.

“I am not surprised. I understand that need to latch onto a stable adult. It’s a feeling that as a Foundling, you learn to live with. But they seem to be adjusting very well— the Haven is such a loving place, it is no wonder."

“You… are all Foundlings.” She’d known this, but to hear it so plainly, hammered home a truth she’d never fully understand. She had her parents, for at least 17 years with her father.

“It is something I wish we didn’t have in common, but we are fortunate to have all been claimed and loved as children. I worry sometimes about Grogu, how long he went without care it seems, but he’s a tough kid.”

Saviin opened her mouth, reconsidered, and closed it. Din seemed to know and took pity. “I lost my parents during the Clone Wars. I was about Til’s age.”

“So early, to lose your parents…” Saviin’s heart wrenched. “You were born on Mandalore?”

“Oh, no. I was born and raised on Aq Vetina, until the Separatists—” Din broke off. The name rang ominously familiar in her mind, and she made a note to send a message to her mother for more information from the archives about Aq Vetina. Something sour had slipped into her stomach; she hoped she was wrong.

“Anyway,” Din rallied, “the kids seem fine in the holos. Surprised they let you leave.”

“They were surprisingly devastated,” Saviin smiled thinly, “but I’ve been calling them frequently, and my mother and siblings have stepped in to help.”

“Good. That’s— good.” Saviin wasn’t sure what to make of that tone, but a familiar blast of heat put an end to the conversation.

“Thank you for the escort, Mand’alor,” Saviin inclined her head, to which Din snorted quietly.

“I will see you later.”

Squashing each and every flutter fly in her stomach from that parting, she turned, squaring her shoulders, and walked into the Wren clan goran’s forge.

“Saviin Vhett’ika.”

“Goran.” Saviin couldn’t tell what species or sex they were, a rarity in this human-dense encampment. The goran nodded and gestured for her to take a seat, which she did with some small relief.

“Tristan has intimated that you are a goran for your community.”

Saviin winced. “Oh, no. Not at all. I am a smith and I do make some weapons, but I also make and repair a variety of…. armor, equipment and personal items. And I would not presume to take such a title.”

“What do you make?”

Saviin hesitated for a moment, then pulled the blade from her boot, handing it over. “Primarily blades. I do the metalwork while my sister crafts the hilts. But I am almost entirely self-taught, so there’s only so much I can do…” she trailed off under the goran’s intense scrutiny.

But their only comment was, “Well, grab an apron and some face gear. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

 


 

“Are you sure this is okay?”

Senaar could tell by his aura that Tristan’s patience was beginning to thin, despite the broad smile and bright eyes that he wore continuously as he loaded the last basket into the speeder bike.

“Positive, cyar’ika,” even his voice was steady, soothing, and patient. “I know this area like the back of my hand, these are my family’s lands. The other side of the lake will be secluded, no one will see or bother us.”

“Okay,” Senaar said for what had to be the third time in the last half hour, “I just—”

“Don’t want to compromise diplomatic relations by engaging in public displays of affection, I know, cyar’ika,” now Tristan’s voice was losing the smooth edge. “So, slip on the helmet, jump on, and we’ll take the long way around so we can avoid the encampment.” He paused, bringing his hands to her arms, rubbing them gently. “I’d never take an unnecessary risk, not if it risks you. I promise.”

Senaar smiled into a kiss, feeling the tendrils of the white aura lick about her own happy glow, ethereal flames of a divine happiness. “I know, I’m sorry. I trust you.”

Tristan smiled, bussing her forehead affectionately. “No sorries allowed. Now let’s get going.”

She climbed on behind him, holding tightly despite the thick cloak that he’d given her to fight the pervasive chill on Krownest. Opening the hangar, he urged the bike out, bolting for the woods before taking a scenic, circuitous route.

“Do you always go for picnics in the winter?” shouted Senaar. She could feel Tristan’s laugh through her hands tightly clasp to his waist.

“This is summer!”

Privately, Senaar desperately hoped that Mandalore would be warmer, and that Tristan planned to move there with the Mand’alor. A future on Krownest was… not perfection, certainly.

Although, she slightly revised the notion as the speeder bike slowed to a stop on the far side of the lake.

“Oh!”

The the snow had cleared on the lake, its surface appearing smooth as glass, reflecting the turbulent clouds above. Weak beams of sun pushed through, the effort sapping them of their strength. On the far side, the Wren stronghold overlooked the lake, harshly beautiful in its clean lines and spare architecture amidst the snow; a man-made reflection of the environment’s aura, surrounded by sharp evergreens spearing the sky, drifts of cloud-white snow, and bare patches of earth.

The air nipped at Senaar’s nose, and Tristan made a disgusted sound as she buried her face in his neck. “Ugh, Sen’ika!”

“It’s karking cold, but it is truly beautiful here,” she declared, her muffled words buried in the collar of Tristan’s flight suit.

“You wouldn’t be as cold if you wore armor— cyar’ika, why did you leave it home?”

“You have to ask Saviin, something about armor and appearances. I wasn’t really listening,” Senaar answered honestly, and Tristan chuckled. “Let’s eat, I’m starving.”

Grateful for Tristan’s thoughtful preparation of hot soup and rolls, Senaar dug in with gusto, leaning against Tristan and gazing at the beauty of the lake as they ate.

“Pets?”

“Hmm?”

“You want pets? I grew up with massifs and tookas, so I’m biased, but I love an animal that can curl up with you at the end of the day.”

“You mean— yeah, I could see us with pets. Not sure about cats though. Cagey, a little too independent. Massifs would be good, or fathiers.”

“Ooh, fathiers! Yes, definitely need a few of those. We’ll need land, then,” Senaar sipped her soup contentedly as Tristan wrapped an arm around her waist.

“Of course. Not sure I’m cut out for farming, though. Not much farming on Krownest. Maybe just land for family and animals?”

“A small garden, at least? Enough to grow crops for us?”

“Whatever your heart desires, cyar’ika.” He kissed the bird tattoo above her temple, and she leaned into it, sighing happily.

“And what does your heart desire, Trist’ika?”

“Right this moment? To get you back home and into my bed. But— a dojo. Nothing fancy, just space where I can train, stay sharp.”

“Would there be room for my quarter staffs?”

“They could have their own rack, a whole wall dedicated to displaying them.”

“I like that. This house— I’d like it near a lake. For swimming and fishing.”

“We’ll need a boat then. Nothing fancy, just a little craft.”

“I can make it. I helped uncle Drift make one for the pond at home. What will we call it?”

“Shereshoy.”

“I love it,” she turned, kissing him. She could taste the warm broth on his lips, savoring the seasoning that flavored his kiss. “Long engagement or short?”

“Short as possible.”

“Good, me too. I’m ready for forever.”

Tristan groaned. “You can’t say things like that outside the bedroom, I’ll forget where I am and just take you, right then and there.”

“We can go practice.”

“We will. Let’s just— let’s savor this moment, while we’re over here and everything else is over there.” His arm tightened around her waist, and she snugged into his side, admiring the turbulent reflection in the still water.

 


 

Blinking away the morning light streaming through the skylight in the quarters, Saviin glanced again at the agenda for today; a pointless exercise, she already knew what to expect.

Council meeting.

In many ways, this felt like the last opportunity to convince the clan heads to consider their request for recognition. Don’t get desperate. Stay calm. She had prepared for this. It would be fine.

She could almost hear her father’s snort.

Shaking away the thought, she stood up, straightening her vest. She felt naked, vulnerable without any armor on, but it was necessary. And it wasn’t like she was unarmed, despite the lack of a beskad at her side.

She glanced at Senaar’s untouched side of the bed, and felt a wry smile curl her lips despite the tension of the moment. At least someone’s enjoying the trip. Two people, actually. Senaar had given her the short version of her picnic with Tristan across the lake yesterday, belaboring the safety precautions they had taken more than the substance of their date, but she gathered enough that they were steadily moving in the direction of a proposal. She thought back to her own predicament, and felt the smile slip. Being here was torturous; it had been hard enough on her own turf, but here, being subjected to D— the Mand’alor’s solicitous near-hovering… that was agony. She touched the outline of the green crystal pendant, hanging safely under her shirt. The heat of the crystal, warmed by her body, brought her both reassurance and reality.

Don’t mistake his kindness. He’s not for you, and you can’t be dumb enough to think it possible. Good fortune can’t make the impossible, possible.

The reminder firmly in her mind, she swept up her data pad and glanced at it again. Her mother had responded to her request for information on Aq Vetina. Saviin’s stomach flipped. She glanced at the time; just enough time to read it now. Her fingers paused above the pad as a soft knock sounded at the door.

Somehow, she wasn’t surprised by the visitor.

“Good morning, Mand’alor. Come in, please.” He stepped in and sighed as the door slid shut.

“Din.”

“Din.” She couldn’t help a smile at his insistence. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Oh, not you too. I need someone to treat me normally right now.”

Saviin let loose a surprised laugh. “And what is normal, to you?”

He sighed. “I don’t even remember. Not hostile and not fawning. Something in the middle, I guess.”

“Not formal either,” she smiled, and gestured to a chair as she sat down on the bed. “So can I guess that you’re hiding right now?”

He tilted his helmet, and she could feel the exasperation radiating through the helmet. “I’m not sure teasing is what I had in mind.”

“Oh no, my guest quarters, my rules,” Saviin smiled, but her eyes held a challenge. “Good-natured ribbing is our clan’s specialty, so if you’re going to take refuge here, then you’ll just have to suffer.”

“I think it’s my guest quarters, actually.”

Saviin mock-gasped, clutching her throat. “The audacity! What a diplomatic outrage!”

Din laughed, and Saviin felt her heart crack slightly. “You can demand justice.”

“Uh uh, that’s a trap. I don’t trust you to not throw the match and make this whole planet my problem.”

The tilt of his helmet was clearly a skeptical expression. “I wouldn’t have to throw the match for you to win, and you know that.”

“Hmm, flattery. Good diplomatic move. You’re learning.” Din just shook his helmet, shoulders shaking in silent laughter. She grinned, and stood up, fetching her cup of caf from the table. She frowned at its warmth; didn’t she get this over an hour ago? Taking a tentative sip, she confirmed it was hers. Strange. She smiled as Din shifted in his chair, settling into a more comfortable posture, then caught herself scanning him. Stop it, he can see you. “So who are we hiding from?”

“We’re not hiding.”

“Who are we taking a break from?”

“Do you want the list alphabetically, or in order of importance?” Saviin snorted at his reply.

“It’s not even 9 in the morning!”

He shrugged. “My day starts at 5.”

“When does it end?”

He tilted his helmet at her in amusement. “Why, you have plans?”

She blushed at that neat trap. “Purely leader-to-leader professional curiosity,” she answered primly.

“Depends on the rotation. Midnight, usually.”

Saviin’s smile dropped. “Your medics must threaten to sedate you all the time.”

“What medics?”

“Are— is that a joke?”

“...no?”

“Manda…” Saviin ran a hand over her head, smoothing flyaways from her face. “Then in the name of medics across the galaxy, I’m declaring this a medically necessary rest break. And I’ll be having a chat with Wren and Rau about your stunning lack of a personal medical team.”

“I’m sure your authority—” a comm beeped. Din looked down at his vambrace and sighed sharply in irritation. “—was greatly appreciated for the four minutes that it lasted. I won’t be able to escort you to the Council meeting after all, I’m needed at the ship field. But I'll see you there shortly.”

Saviin fought to hide her surprise. She hadn’t expected a personal escort to the Council meeting, the optics of such a move sending messages he likely didn’t intend.

“That’s all right. And yes, I’ll see you there,” she managed to get out.

He stood up, nodded to her, then left her quarters.

Saviin sat for a moment, simply digesting the interaction, then set it aside. She needed to focus. This Council meeting was important. She needed to focus.

Standing up, she swept up her data pad and stepped out of the quarters into the frigid air. A bright gray sky shone like beskar above, harsh enough to bow her head yet not enough to cast a shadow. This was indeed a starkly beautiful yet grim place to reassemble a warrior population; the somber attitudes of the Mand’alor’s party at the start of their visit to the Haven now made sense. If their preparations to retake Mandalore dragged on, the morale here would dip as precipitously as the temperature.

She started towards the Council meeting room inside the Wren stronghold, when an armored figure stepped into her path. Saviin halted abruptly. Something slimy slid into her stomach. Not the ideal moment for this inevitable confrontation, but the moment had arrived all the same.

And so Bo-Katan Kryze stared down the Triumvir of the clone community.

“So. You are the new Alor, I suppose? Gar Vod’e, you call yourselves?” Kryze’s eyes were twin pools of jade; they would have been beautiful, had they not reminded Saviin of a deadly Felucian viper’s scales. The expression on Kryze’s face did nothing to dispel the comparison.

“Yes, I am,” Saviin replied firmly. Kryze was looking for weakness; she’d find none here. Saviin had prepared for this moment, ever since her conversation with uncle Boba during his brief visit to the Haven. Know your enemy, her father had often said.

“A family of clones, hiding in a hole all this time,” Kryze’s voice barely restrained the sneer. “Are you hiding in a sewer as well?”

“I’m here, at the request of the Mand’alor,” Saviin responded evenly, face betraying nothing. Kryze’s expression soured.

“Clever, hm? They were well-programmed, I’ll give you that. Killed any Jedi, lately?” Expected. And ironic. She knew for a fact that Kryze had tried to kill Ahsoka Tano when they first met. Jedi allies were a means to an end for Kryze’s goals, not a friendship. Sending Din to find Ahsoka on Corvus without any warning had been a nasty trick.

“Stupid meat droids,” chuckled a helmeted Mandalorian beside her. Reeves, Saviin guessed. She raised an eyebrow. Unoriginal.

“Not a terribly creative insult,” she observed mildly. “And I’m not sure that a discussion of body counts is one that a leader of Kyr’tsad should start, Lady Kryze.” Yes, Saviin knew her enemy very well.

Kryze’s eyes narrowed, as Saviin anticipated. “You’d do well to remember to whom it is you speak,” she snapped. “If you know of such things, then you are aware how hellish I can make your life— and that of your fellow spawn. Just because you’ve been forgotten up to now doesn’t mean we can’t find whatever swamp you’re slithering around in; if you become a problem, I can make it worth my effort.”

Saviin didn’t even blink. “You sought me out, Lady Kryze,” she reminded her coolly. “Was there a point to this discussion, or is this simply an exercise in schoolyard bullying?”

“Only to remind you of your place. You and your kind are an abomination, mediocre copies of a dar’manda bounty hunter. You may try, but you will never be accepted here, even if Djarin intercedes on your behalf. He doesn’t have the ability to make people forget what you are.”

Saviin remained impassive even as her heart sank. She knew Kryze was right— without changing public opinion, her people could be legally protected but socially discriminated. It burned at her, yet there was nothing to be gained by indulging Kryze in a fight over hypotheticals. She saw Rau approach in her peripheral, and dug just a little deeper to remain calm and polite.

“I’m not sure where all of this animosity is coming from, Lady Kryze. I thought we all wanted the same thing: a restored Mandalore.”

“And you think your cultish sewer rat is the one to do it?” Green eyes bored into violet ones.

Saviin shrugged lightly. “With full support he’d probably have done it already.”

“Are you implying something, girl?”

“No, I said it. Good day, Lady Kryze.” And without offering her another chance to respond, she turned to Rau, who met her with something of an alarmed expression, and gestured for him to lead on as they made for the Council room.

 


 

Tristan could never get enough of the way the light in his room framed Senaar, making her skin glow as she slipped back into her clothes while people-watching from the window.

“You are radiant, cyare.”

Senaar giggled, tossing a saucy look over her shoulder that made Tristan want to start shucking armor once again. “Odd choice of words, ner runi. That’s normally a word reserved for pregnant women.”

It caught him by surprise, but that idea really did it for him. He willed himself to be calm. “And would that be so bad?”

She turned to regard him carefully, eyes flickering around to read his aura as he approached. “Not for me, it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe for you it’d be bad, if it happened now. But I want that, some day.”

“Good. I want that too.” The idea of her cradling her stomach as he lavished praise over every inch of her skin— he couldn’t help but pull her tight against him. She surrendered to his searing kiss, and the thought to get carried away lingered, but he reined it in. Not yet. Soon. Dropping a chaste peck to her forehead, he looked out the window. “What were you looking at?”

“Just people watching,” Senaar shrugged. “Your people are so interesting. So different from what I grew up with. Kinda sad, but interesting.”

He frowned slightly. “Sad?”

“Not much cheer around here. It’s a lot of grim people. Some excitement for what is building, but a lot of trepidation. The Mand’alor has inspired them, but they carry grief that weighs them down.”

Tristan sighed. “I did not have a very happy childhood. Trapped under the thumb of the Empire, trying not to step out of line. Losing my sister when she defected and became a bounty hunter, then a rebel. I was even a hostage for a while as a teenager, to keep my family in line. So was my father. And then the Purge…” he trailed off, losing himself in the warmth of Senaar as she nuzzled him, pressing her warmth and comfort into his chest. “I just don’t like to talk about it. I know what you can see, and it doesn’t change what happened. I’m not surprised everyone else looks as you say; they don’t have someone like you in their lives.”

“It’s so different from my childhood, to be sure,” her voice was muffled against his flight suit. “The grief was there, sure. But we had no active threats. And our parents tried very hard to give us happy, carefree childhoods. It was only later that we realized how deeply buried in layers of security the Haven was, and the measures they took to keep us safe. But it seemed normal, and the adults seemed happy with it. I never really saw the violence that the greater galaxy was capable of, until I started running missions.” She looked up, a flicker of something passing across her face then smoothing immediately after, and she kissed him quickly and turned back to the window, looking out at the encampment.

“Personalities aside, the Mandalorians are very interesting. We studied the culture, but we also had our own. Our paint styles are very artistic, so it’s interesting to see what more traditional armor looks like, the colors and symbols that are most prevalent. A lot of blue—” she stopped suddenly, her breath held, as something caught her eye. She shuddered and looked away.

Tristan frowned and glanced down in the direction she had been looking. “Why is your sister talking to Kryze—“ he cut himself off, his heart squeezing under the pressure of a sudden foreboding. He looked back at her. “Cyare, you never told me— why did you stop going on hunts with your siblings and your aunt? You have Force-enhanced combat skills; surely you could keep up.”

Senaar turned her golden eyes on him, wide and vulnerable. “I— you’ve killed. You’ve seen evil. You know it’s ugly. But to see it, the way I do— the anger, ambition, the avarice, the evil. So much red and black, it’s ugly, so ugly, it burns your eyes and turns your stomach, assaults all of your senses and you feel as though you’re drowning in darkness, something trying to pull you under and hold until you succumb. That kind of aura— when I see it, it’s no longer visual after that point, the air tastes acrid and foul, choking to swallow, even with a helmet on. I can feel it on my skin, it digs in like claws, no matter what I’m wearing. And the fear, as life leaves their bodies— and to know I can inspire anger and fear and cause death if I use my enhanced skills— it’s sickening. And when innocents die— I still see it, the anger and evil and fear in my nightmares. I can do it, but the stench of it can’t be outweighed by the satisfaction of justice served, not on a regular basis like we do. My mental shields, you could call them, aren’t strong enough; maybe if I meditated more, I don’t know, but it hits me hard, especially if I didn't expect it, and I can’t stop it. Maybe I just lack the bloodlust. Maybe it’s not Mandalorian of me, maybe it’s a little Jedi of me, but when given the option to sit out and stick to home guard and wood carving, I chose it.”

Tristan pulled her away from the window, holding her close. “That’s not why I asked, cyare. I don’t think any less of you for sitting out on hunts, and you’re massively talented with your carvings.” He hesitated, kissing the bird tattoo on her temple as he gathered his courage. “I asked because of your reaction to Kryze. What— Senaar, what do you see when you look at Kryze? Particularly when she’s looking at the Mand’alor?”

Senaar leaned back and stared at him, wary. “Do you understand what you’re asking me?”

He nodded, tucking a curly wayward lock before her ear. Her wide stare suddenly grew fearful, and her voice came as a whisper.

“Black. Red and black. Every time.”

 


 

Saviin sat in the seat Rau had gestured for her to take; not seated at the table, as a clan representative, but a seat against the wall; an observer.

His embarrassment and regret at such a snub was so palpable, she had to look away.

“I understand, Rau,” she said gently, pushing as much compassion into her voice as she could manage. “It’s not a reflection on you.”

Rau bit his lip, as though he wanted to argue, but instead shook his head and turned away.

No one else had arrived yet, the spartan meeting room utterly empty except for Rau pottering about to set up. With time to spare before the meeting began now, Saviin opened her data pad again. The notes for her speech glowed brightly in the center, a well-worn litany that she could give in her sleep, honed to include the critical and tantalizing for the other clans, the extraneous and controversial excised.

Off to the side, the red blinking icon of a new message flashed its siren call.

She should be rehearsing…

She opened the message from her mother.

Saviin paled as she read on, feeling increasingly sick and regretting that she had chosen now of all times to read this. She had wanted to be wrong about Aq Vetina, could not fathom how Din could bear to associate with the Children of the Watch. As a child, he’d likely had no choice, but now—

“Are you all right?”

Saviin’s gaze snapped up, only just now registering that armored figures had begun to enter the room and take their seats. Din stood before her, a broad silver column of power and humility, ignoring the entire room in his solicitude. The concern in his voice was unmistakable.

She wanted to crumble. She wanted to confess that she was not all right. She wanted to take his hand, pull him away from this place, beg him to help her understand why, after everything, the word of his goran held any weight. She wanted to confess things she had no right to feel, no hope of receiving in return from this kind, selfless man.

Instead, she took a subtle steadying breath, mustered up a smile and tried so hard to push it into her eyes, and deflected. “Just nerves, I suspect,” she offered obliquely. Not an outright lie, she couldn’t do that to him (not after everything—) but Din did not appear satisfied with that answer, shifting in that tell-tale sign of protest when Saviin’s glance cut over to Rau. “I believe Rau is ready to start, Mand’alor.”

The title seemed to snap Din out of it, at least a little. His gloved hand clenched into a fist, then slowly relaxed as he nodded, and turned away. Saviin fought a flinch as she realized Kryze had arrived, and sat watching the interaction closely. Smoothing out her expression, she sat placidly, utterly unreadable as the meeting commenced.

This day could not end soon enough. And it was only nine in the morning.

To Saviin’s surprise, the meeting was held in a mix of Basic and Mando’a, very few speaking exclusively in the mother tongue. She fought a frown, the revelation helping to contextualize the reconnaissance that her people had been doing on the status of the Mandalorian people. She tried to bury the thought of bitter smugness that her people, pretenders as they were, spoke better Mando’a than real Mandalorians did. It was an uncharitable thought towards a decimated people, holding onto existence by a thread.

But it lingered.

Saviin sat silently for nearly an hour as the meeting dragged on, discussions bogged down. It didn’t escape her notice that certain clans seemed to coordinate their efforts, prolonging and tabling discussions where it met their clan’s agenda to do so. She watched Rau grow increasingly impatient, his thumb tapping the table in an agitated staccato. Din was utterly motionless, and barely interacted during entire segments of the agenda driven purely by politics; he could have been asleep. She fought a smile at first, when he did come alive and push back, enforcing his will; the clan representatives were clearly unused to it, and did not enjoy showing deference, some glancing at her as they did so.

Her pride shriveled into ash.

“In our remaining time, I’d like to invite our guest, Alor Saviin Vhett’ika of Gar Vod’e, to speak about her family, and potential contributions to the rebuilding of Mandalore for us to consider.” Rau gestured for her to rise and approach the table.

“Hasn’t this already been discussed?” Kryze interrupted, the disgust unconcealed in her expression. “We said no.”

“We did not say no,” the representative of clan Wren frowned, as did the representatives of clan Awaud and Eldar. “We tabled the discussion in favor of collecting information. And now their leader is here to speak on their behalf. It is only fair to hear them out.” Kryze scowled, but did not reply, leaning back in her seat to watch Saviin with sharp, predatory eyes.

Like a shriek-hawk.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak before this body,” Saviin began in fluent Mando’a; the Council members startled, glancing at each other. “You are no doubt aware that we are a family descended from freed clone troopers who formerly served in the Grand Army of the Republic, and that we have been collecting beskar for some time and have transferred this collection to the custody of the Mand’alor for repatriation to the system whence it came, when the time comes. I believe everyone here is also aware of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the clone army, and their role in the Clone Wars. To explain how my family was established and came to a position of collecting beskar, I need to explain the end of the war, the implanted inhibitor chips, and Order 66.”

Inhibitor chips?” the Rook representative interrupted sharply. The pale man’s ice-blue eyes flashed between Saviin and Kryze, clearly unprepared for the curve ball.

As Saviin explained the chips and their removal, the establishment of the Haven, the marriage of clones and excommunicated Mandalorian spouses, the development of a clan thoroughly steeped in Mandalorian traditions and values, with the inflection of practices unique to the vod’e as a result of their upbringing on Kamino, she watched their expressions carefully. Some were astonished, others troubled; a few wore hardened expressions that did not so much as flicker as she continued. Saviin hadn’t expected to sway these ones; the real test lay with the ones in the middle, the truly undecided.

“This is a lot to digest, thank you for sharing this with us,” the representative from clan Awaud spoke first. Saviin tried to focus; the woman looked remarkably similar to her mother, with light tanned skin, curly dark sandy hair, and bright green eyes that matched her armor. “This certainly changes things in certain respects, particularly the role of the inhibitor chip.”

“It changes nothing for us,” Kryze responded. “I won’t entertain the idea of recognizing them as Mandalorian, regardless of what they have to contribute to rebuilding.”

“I wonder how you can so easily dismiss that,” the Ordo clan representative frowned, “when the clone troopers were so instrumental in putting you in power to begin with.”

“They served their purpose. That does not confer the right to be recognized as Mandalorian. And I would remind you of how easily they were programmed to become an occupying force with the dawn of the Empire.”

“The clones are nearly gone; we are now talking about natural-born descendants, who live the way of the Mand’alor. Isn’t the genesis of their clan irrelevant now?”

The clan Saxon representative leaned forward. “We’re assuming that they’re born naturally, and qualify as fully sentient, which has yet to be determined—”

Saviin let the words wash over her, not visibly reacting. Words are weapons that hurt, but only if you let them… she remembered the first time she heard an aruetii disparage clones. Her father had brushed it off, while Blitz had stiffened, but it had been Saviin’s un-helmeted face that had nearly started a fight in Garel, unable to contain her offense and rage. The blinding fury of an eight-year-old had simmered with time, banked over by reason and logic, but the scar of that first slash at her heritage— that would ache forever.

Words are weapons that hurt—

“— they do not presume; that is the point of this petition,” Din’s soft voice cut through the rising tension. “They speak the language and live the values because that is what they believe in. Presumption would have been to claim the beskar, but they did not. The issue at the heart of this is what it means to be considered Mandalorian, and if— based on that understanding— they can be recognized as such.”

Saviin stood very, very still.

Those were her words. But they left his stance unstated.

“It is a question worthy of careful consideration, as it impacts not only the clone community, but any others who seek a home on Mandalore once it is reclaimed,” the representative from clan Ordo looked around the table, light glinting off the black and silver armor as he leaned forward. Dark eyes scanned the other faces, and the weathered ochre skin of his face tightened in a grimace. “Whether we will insist on all inhabitants swearing the Resol’nare, and what to do if there is philosophical dissent. I think, at this juncture, we do not yet have consensus to make such a decision. In light of several more pressing issues, and the complexity of the question at hand, such a weighty concern may take time to resolve. But I thank you, Alor Vhett’ika, for bringing the question to our attention. This will remain a topic of discussion, and we will let you know if a decision has been made, or more information is needed.”

Saviin inclined her head, expression placid.

She had failed.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry that did not go exactly as you had hoped,” Din volunteered hesitantly into the silence of the empty council room. Saviin closed her eyes briefly, willing the pain away. He’d tried to approach her immediately after the meeting; Rau managed to intervene and Saviin threw herself into a conversation with Lari of clan Eldar and the representative from clan Ordo, Hresh, who had expressed a promising amount of sympathy and support during the discussion. Too much solicitude would fuel speculation that could only harm Din, and she still had a job to do.

But the infinitely kind man would not be denied, and so patiently waited out the departure of the others to speak to Saviin. She’d clocked Rau’s swift glance at them both before he passed through the door, shooting her a brief warning. She’d given a tiny nod in response.

Saviin sighed inwardly, tired of the self-denial, tired of the politic responses that she knew she should give. She wanted to retreat to her quarters and simply cry.

But she had to keep going.

“It went as I anticipated, and so is not a surprise,” she replied in a voice that was only slightly toneless, avoiding his gaze as she collected her data pad and coat.

“Saviin, you know that you don’t have to be politic with me. You can be honest about your disappointment.” She froze.

Oh, that stung. He offered her the one thing she couldn’t have in this moment. She straightened and turned to face him, ensuring that he was watching, and raised her hand to brush a flyaway hair, flashing hand signals.

Walls have ears.

Din sighed audibly, shaking his head, but said nothing.

“Regardless of the outcome, I thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Council, and begin to set the record straight on the clone community,” Saviin continued out loud, her tone formal and deferential. Her skin crawled even as she spoke, and she fought the shiver. “If the Council decides to revisit the issue and seeks evidence, we will of course be happy to provide whatever is desired to assist in that decision.”

He nodded. "What will you do now?”

The million credit question. “That will be a topic of conversation for the Triumvirate and the whole clan to have, but as we previously promised, our immediate activities will continue as they are. Our resources and services remain at your disposal, and we will continue our trades. We may have to revisit security, now that we have so publicly revealed ourselves, but otherwise we will continue as we have for thirty years now.”

He shook his head. “Seems wrong to take without giving something in return.”

At that, she managed a genuine smile, just a touch of bitterness twisting it. “Our loyalty isn’t transactional, Alor. I’d be ashamed if it was.”

“There— if you are free right now,” he started, hesitantly. Saviin steeled herself. “There is someone I would like you to meet. A goran.”

Saviin frowned. “The goran of clan Wren? I met them a few days ago, remember? They tested me and found my smithing skills barely passable, which as a self-taught smith I take as a great compliment.”

“No,” he huffed. “Not that goran. The Armorer of my old covert. She has agreed to see you, I asked her to talk you about lessons in forging beskar.”

Saviin froze for a moment, staggering slightly under the implications of that statement. “I did not realize that your covert was here, and that they spoke to you still.”

“I was surprised too. I didn’t expect them to show. Paz still won’t talk to me. But the Armorer has spoken to me twice since arriving about a month ago. I am hopeful that they will stay for the rebuilding of Mandalore.”

Saviin’s thoughts were not nearly as altruistic, but she could not fault Din’s hopefulness. Her heart sunk at the thought. “Well, if you have arranged the honor, then I will certainly attend.” To her shock, he reached out and gently squeezed her arm, his hand retreating just as quickly, and gestured for her to follow as he opened the door. The touch reminded her of the dossier her mother had sent, and her heart wrenched. This man, this wonderful man, the victim of his covert’s machinations, collateral damage of Death Watch and the Children splinter. And somehow he’d found a way to live with that, and still felt the pull to his old covert.

(Which means he’ll return to their ways and there is no hope for you—)

She pushed the thought away and followed him out.

The Children of the Watch had sequestered themselves at the far end of the encampment. A semi-permanent structure had been erected for the forge, and Saviin could hear the clanging of a hammer striking steel as they approached. The peal echoed through the frigid air, each abrupt strike cutting off the echo of the last. It should have been a reassuring sound, but as she glanced at Din, the sound struck her as a summoning to a final moment. Din led the way, passing by a giant blue Mandalorian who watched in silence. Saviin’s eyes flicked up to take in the visor of the mammoth warrior, and found it locked onto her, turning to follow her steps deeper into the structure.

Just before the threshold, Din stopped and turned to her. “You will enter alone,” he informed her softly, then chuckled softly at the naked look of alarm she failed to conceal. He took her hand and squeezed it gently. “You’ll be fine. I will come back for you later, I have a debrief with Rau right now.” He returned her nod, and left.

She would be fine. She could do this. He’d be back for her soon enough.

(That’s not what he meant, don’t fool yourself—)

Alone, Saviin squared her shoulders and entered the forge of the goran, feeling the familiar heat-blast assault her skin. The woman in question had her back to her visitor, working at a table on the far side of the furnace that stood in the center of the room. Saviin glanced about briefly; it was a simple setup, few advanced tools. It was… archaic, in a way, from what Saviin had read. Determined to maintain an open mind, she returned her gaze to the goran, who had finally turned to regard her.

“Goran,” Saviin hailed her, nodding respectfully and waiting to be invited to sit, as Din had taught her. The woman stood silently, regarding her. Seconds stretched, and Saviin felt the knot of anxiety in her chest unspool into a puddle of dread in her stomach. She knew what was coming.

“You are the child of a clone,” the goran stated. And there it was.

“Yes.” Saviin waited for the final blow.

“I will not train you.” The goran stood, and gripped her tools, turning back to the forge where she had been working and pressed a half-formed plate into the white-hot flames.

“Was that ever a serious consideration?” She had intended to remain utterly respectful; since this conversation intended to look nothing like she had expected, Saviin decided to dispense with the pleasantries. And she could not suppress her morbid curiosity.

“No. I would not train the offspring of a clone and one who had not sworn the Creed.”

Saviin pushed aside the jab at her heritage in favor of a more pressing consideration.

“Your presence here is confusing, given the circumstances.” The goran’s helmet tilted to the side at that observation.

“Hardly, child. Din Djarin will be Mand’alor, and we will follow him once he has completed his quest.”

“His—” The truth hit Saviin like a thunderbolt. “You’re waiting for him to find the Living Waters. Of course. Because you know if anyone can, it will be him. And once he has purified himself and sworn himself to the Creed again, you will follow him. Because you believe he can reunite and restore Mandalore.”

“He is the one they sang of in eons past.”

Saviin was inclined to agree, but not inclined to give the goran the satisfaction. A more pressing issue remained.

“You seem certain that he will rejoin your covert.”

The goran looked up from her work, her visor pointed directly at Saviin. “He will. This is the Way.”

No, it’s not. Saviin’s stomach plunged as a horrifying realization hit. “He has no idea, does he?”

“Speak plainly.” Saviin didn’t want to. Didn’t want to unveil this dirty truth and all of its devastating consequences.

But she had to know.

“He has no idea that you’re Death Watch, and what your people did during the war, your deals with the Sith. He doesn’t know about Aq Vetina, does he?” The goran stilled, and in the very, very long pause, Saviin took a steadying breath, quelling the rise waves of nausea as each heartbeat that passed in that awful gap confirmed what the goran clearly would not.

“We are the Children of the Watch,” the goran responded finally. “We follow the Way of the Mandalore, as it was intended. What Death Watch did is of no consequence to us.”

This, this was so much worse than she could have imagined. These people were responsible for his village’s destruction, and he had no idea. Abruptly, Saviin’s hard-won calmness fled.

“I beg to differ,” snapped Saviin. “Just because you choose to block out recent history doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Not when you still have those cursed horns on your helmet, and you wear those colors, and your ranks are filled with its victims. Not when the very premise of the Mand’alor’s entry into Mandalorian culture is in question. You would have him rebuild a society upon a lie. I—” she stopped herself, remembering who she was supposed to be, who she was speaking to. There would be no convincing the leader of a cult, and it was foolish to try; all Saviin could manage in this moment was to be the face of her people. It would not do to conform to any stereotypes these ignorant people had formed. The goran watched her, utterly silent in the face of her accusations.

Fighting to re-center herself, Saviin continued, “since you clearly had no intent of teaching me anything, why did you accept this request to meet?”

“To give you this warning: you must let him go, and return home.”

“I— what?” Saviin gaped blankly, utterly confused.

“You are not the one for him, but he cannot see that. You must do what is best for Mandalore, and return home.”

“I— you think—” Saviin stuttered, then began laughing. The goran remained silent. “You think— what, he’s in love with me?” she gasped between laughs, fighting to not become hysterical. It wasn’t funny at all, nothing about this was funny, but the alternative to laughter was not useful here. “Because I am young and attractive? Or that I’ve somehow bewitched him? You could not be more mistaken. He’s made it very clear that he is not interested in anything more than possibly friendship, and surely friendship with those who kept the beskar safe is not so threatening.”

“It was not yours to safeguard.”

“How telling, that you’d prefer it to remain in the hands of murderers and thieves across the galaxy who have no conception of its value to Mandalorian society. Regardless, your new empire is in no danger from me, I assure you.” Saviin tried very hard to sound casual, but the tilt of the goran’s helmet suggested that the bitterness may have seeped out slightly. It didn’t matter, not really— she wasn’t planning on staying now, anyway. Her heritage was not welcome on Mandalore, and there was no need to remain where they were not wanted.

“Then there is nothing keeping you here,” returned the goran calmly.

“Nothing at all,” Saviin replied with all the grace she did not feel, bowing slightly though expecting no reaction in return. Straightening, she turned to leave, then paused. The woman did not deserve the warning, but Din did; Saviin pushed aside her feelings once more and forced herself to speak.

“Goran, a word of caution, though surely you do not need it: he shall not hear it from me, but if you think that on Mandalorian soil where memories are long, that he will not learn of it eventually, then you are in for a painful surprise. And he does not deserve that from the likes of you— not after what you’ve put him through.” Not waiting for a response, Saviin left the forge.

 


 

“Well, that went poorly.”

Din was hardly surprised by the blunt assessment from Rau; he only wondered why they had to meet to discuss it. By this point, Din felt confident he could recite Rau’s anticipated commentary from a Council meeting. Nonetheless, he stood patiently as the older Mandalorian stiffly paced in his office, shaking out the discomfort of an hour in a chair.

“She said that it was anticipated,” Din replied, and frowned at Rau’s sharp look.

“Of course she said that. She’d never imply otherwise to you.”

Din shifted slightly in the silence, letting it lengthen; it was a subtle move, but he knew Rau saw it, and checked himself. “N’eparavu takisit, Alor. I did not mean to imply that she would lie to you. Only that she would never be so honest as to put you in a position where you felt you had to act, if that action could compromise you or your goals.”

“She’s babying me?”

“She’s prioritizing Mandalore, and its leader.”

Din frowned, and began pacing himself, slowly prowling in a circle as he considered it. Walls have ears. She was always so careful with what she said where someone could hear. But he was sure she was honest with him in private; wasn’t she?

Maybe he shouldn’t have sprung the visit to the Armorer on her like that, right after the meeting; she did seem surprisingly rattled by the idea.

Rau seemed to read his thoughts. “Where is she?”

“She has a meeting with my old Armorer right now.”

To his shock, Rau paled, a horrified expression as he gaped at Din. “Right now? By herself?”

Din tensed. “I don’t understand. What is the—“ his comm chirped, and he glanced down. Woves. Woves never commed him, it was safer to minimize their contact. “Yes?”

“I think you need to get down to the guest quarters right away,” Woves’ hushed tone barely registered, as though he was afraid of being overheard even on an in-helmet comm line. “She just went past me, alone. She looked pretty upset. Woves out.” In the appalled silence, Din and Rau stared at each other for a beat, then Din turned and left, slamming the controls to open the door. As he passed through, he heard Rau’s breathless,

“Fierfek.”

Chapter Text

Saviin walked blindly, hardly knowing where she was and who she nearly collided with, barely focusing enough to keep from slipping on the ice and slush of the path. Her mind reeled from the conversation. Unbelievable— Saviin kicked herself over and over, for naively thinking there was even a chance that Din saw a path forward without his old Covert, a chance that her people would be accepted here. She had known better, had seen this outcome, how could she have lost sight of it? For once, she couldn’t see the stares, glares and side-eyes as she made swiftly for the safety of her quarters where—

Where she’d prepare to leave.

Her eyes burned as her mind stretched and contorted to soothe and seal the fractures multiplying in her chest, papering over with logic as the stain of heartbreak and rejection bled through.

And Din— he had no idea how he had been used, lied to— still being used and lied to. It sickened her. And yet, there was no way she could be the one to warn him. It’d look like yet another agenda.

She dimly recognized that she had found her quarters, and began throwing things in a case as she considered her options.

Din had to know. There was no way around it. She didn’t lie to the goran, Saviin would not be the one to tell Din, couldn’t be the one, but she’d make damn sure he found out one way or another. The deception ended now.

Fenn Rau would be her best bet; he’d have the gravitas to be taken seriously, the age to be respected, and the political position to be impartial on this. Anyone else would appear biased. He’d also remember those times, would be able to corroborate at least the methodology of Death Watch, if not the specific event; he’d been busy working with the Republic at the time, but surely he’d kept up with news on Mandalore. She’d give him the data that her mother had sent, which included primary sources. He could show them to Din. Din would figure out eventually that it came from her, but maybe he’d listen to Rau.

This was going to crush Din. And he would hate her, for digging up his painful past, for arguing with his goran, for leaving when she promised to support the Mand’alor. And she would deserve it. He’d given her a chance to make her case, and she had failed. Now she would repay his kindness with the delivery of painful truths. Tears sprang to her eyes, blurring her view as she threw clothes haphazardly into the case. She would be hurting him, for his own good and for the good of her people, and she would have to live with it.

And she would.

It was her duty.

She’d have to—

A firm hand gripped her shoulder, and she startled, instinctively rolling it away and pulling a knife as she turned to engage—

Din. The knife at his chin slipped from her nerveless hand as the realization of what she could have done hit her, and he reached out to catch it, setting it gently on the table.

“I’m sorry I startled you— you didn’t answer to your name,” he offered warily, hands up and outstretched as though approaching a wild animal. Shame, and the weight of the conversations with Bo and the goran hit Saviin hard, and her eyes burned as she fought to stem the tears.

“My apologies, Mand’alor,” she managed.

“It’s Din, you know that— please, sit.” He took her hand firmly, leading her to the bed to sit. “Why are you ups— no, first, drink.” She found a mug of cold shig thrust in front of her. She accepted it gingerly, taking a sip as she forced her breathing to slow. She ducked her head down and to the side to covertly wipe her eyes.

“Stop that,” Din said softly, softer than she’d ever heard him speak to anyone other than his children. “Here.” She turned to find a soft cloth offered to her, which she accepted with a nod. “Why are you here? I left you with the Armorer.”

“The goran didn’t have much to say,” Saviin responded, slightly more terse than she had wanted. “It was a short conversation.”

“She will train you?”

Saviin barked out a laugh, slightly hysterical sounding, and she winced, wiping her eyes quickly with the cloth. “I’m sorry, I just—“ she swallowed thickly, forcing herself to finish the sentence, hating the taste of each word, “I wanted you to know that I am leaving.”

In the silence that built, boiled and curdled after her statement, she felt the haze of inner turmoil clear, and a hyperawareness of her surroundings return; the distant clang and chatter of warriors moving through the camp, the drifting smoke of morning fires dancing lazily across the ground, the blinding brightness of the sun outside and the dim interior of the quarters; the utter stillness of the man in silver next to her.

“Leaving?” Din stared at her, and while she couldn’t see his face, the emotion ran clear through his voice. “Why?”

“We are not welcome, and I won’t stay where I’m not wanted.”

“But— you are welcome,” he returned, confusion and hurt lacing his tone. “We want you to stay. I want you to stay.” Saviin set the shig down and stared at him, baffled. What was he trying to say?

“I— am not good at this, but I, uh, care for you, Sav’ika,” he continued softly, slowly reaching for her hand, “more than care for you. I have, for a while now. And I want you to stay. Please.”

Saviin felt rooted to the spot. In a day of ground-shaking revelations, this surpassed them all. He cared for her? More than-- was that why he kept stopping by the forge so often? Why he was so angry about how she greeted Kote? The times he helped her, brought her things— was that flirting? Courtship? She looked down at her hand. He held it so gently in his own gauntleted hands, the fingers of one hand interlaced with her own, the other hand carefully cradling the link, softly caressing the skin with his thumb. Senaar’s words came back to her.

“I think he likes you, Sav’ika. You haven’t seen the way he watches after you, how softly he speaks to you compared to the others. Whatever he said before, I think he cares about you now.”

But after the surprise, after the blush of realization, as a strange, feral and persistent sensation that dangerously resembled hope tried to claw its way out of the locked chest in her heart, came the suffocating crash of reality settling in; she’d have to set it aside, it didn’t matter, even if she found him kind, caring, and intelligent, even if she wanted, even if she loved— her want didn’t matter. The goran was right in one respect: Saviin was not the one for Din Djarin, the Mand’alor. He couldn’t. If she truly loved him, she couldn’t encourage it.

“I don’t know what to say,” she raised her violet gaze back to his visor. He leaned back, dropping her hand. It stung worse than the burn she’d given herself, the one he’d tended—

“I guess I hoped you’d say yes,” he huffed, confusion and hurt underneath the attempt at humor.

“I’m sorry,” she offered. “I had no idea.” That at least was mostly true. How could she know if she didn’t allow herself to believe it?

“You— didn’t?” He sounded baffled, and she winced again at his tone, at his longing, her own feelings—

“No. There was a moment where— but I was fairly reconciled to it, I didn’t realize, didn’t think it possible— it— it doesn’t matter. I can’t stay.” She was floundering, couldn’t find the words to evade the truth without lying.

“But wait— if you— I don’t understand. You know now that I care. That I want you to stay. Why can’t you? Are you saying that you don’t feel the same?”

What a question. What a simple question, devastatingly deceptive in its simplicity. Of all the things to ask her— and she knew the truth. Had denied it, buried it beneath the beskar vault in her heart that caged her hope. But her love had sparked in a disastrous first meeting and improbably endured against all logic and prudence, had sunk deep roots and latched on, tightening its grip until the thought of tearing it out set a screaming pain that vibrated in her bones and flayed her flesh til the martyrdom couldn’t be borne.

She couldn’t lie to him. But to speak truth to those feelings, to give them air and shape and reality— she wouldn’t survive the self-denial that would come after. She sidestepped the question, and threw herself on the sword of duty.

“I can’t stay where my people aren’t welcome, where they’re treated at best like second-class citizens. The prejudice— it runs deep, even now. My uncles were meat droids, abominations of the Creed, pretenders to the culture, and my cousins and I are sub-par as a result. And those who are ambivalent or even supportive, can’t see the value in standing against the prejudiced. Politically, I understand. Personally— I can’t stay, can’t encourage the others to join me where they’re not welcome.”

“I don’t understand,” frustration bled into Din’s voice. “Why do you care what people think? Why is their disapproval so important to you?”

“Because they’re not just repudiating our customs or actions, they’re repudiating who we are. By that train of thought, why does the opinion of your Armorer have such sway over your decisions, when you’ve seen that there are other ways to be Mandalorian?”

Din reared back, his entire body leaning away from her. “That is my religion.”

“And we are talking about my identity. I shouldn’t have to go through a Cin Vhetin, wipe away my entire past, in order to be accepted, when I did nothing wrong except be born to a clone, who had no say in any aspect of his life until he freed himself. You accept foundlings from any species, you accept freed slaves, but somehow clones are just pretenders.” Saviin was losing control, she felt the tears building again; not here, not here. This day had been a steady crescendo of painful revelation, stripping layer after layer of Saviin’s carefully built endurance, patience, self-control. She felt raw, exposed, unable to grasp the shields that had protected her from the galaxy’s unlimited capacity for pain.

“We have dedicated ourselves to preserving Mandalorian culture in all its forms, not just martial arts or beskar, but it’s not enough. We’ve tried Cin Vhetin, and it was not honored. Everyone’s fine with clones helping out in a fight until beskar is involved. We can help, but we’ll never be one of you. That’s the way it is, but I can’t stay here and have it shoved in my face over and over, much less bring my people here to be subjected to it. We know what it means to not be considered citizens, to be barely more than droids, with no rights or protections. We are not droids, we’re flesh and blood, with feelings. I am bound to them, and I can’t subject them to such a life, not again.” Her chest heaved with the effort to reaffirm to him, to herself, her sworn duty. It was as she said before— her heart’s inclinations were irrelevant, and she could survive this. She stood and began to move away.

Din stood as well, crossing his arms. “So you’ll just give up and run home? I guess you’re not the fighter I thought you were.” His tone was uneven, forced, scathing and bitter. It was a cheap shot, and instinct nearly made her turn to issue a challenge. But she wasn’t just a fighter. She was a leader.

Which sometimes meant walking away from a fight.

He’d never understand. How could he? How could she expect him to understand what it felt like to be regarded as a thing without sentience, the equivalent of a programmable hunk of metal? To grow up amidst a shame and frustration that sometimes permeated the air of her home with a choking, acrid taste, that a hidden village on an underdeveloped planet was the best that her parents and aunts and uncles could do because her father was sub-human, wayward property of the Empire?

How could Din Djarin, the saved, welcomed Foundling, understand how it felt to be rejected at the point of birth from the culture they had painstakingly embraced, preserved, safeguarded, simply for the crime of existing?

He couldn’t. She’d been a fool for thinking he could see beyond the limits forced upon him by indoctrination. She wasn’t mad. Merely heartbroken at the realization.

Instead, Saviin merely paused at the door, not turning around to face him. It would hurt too much. She gripped at the pendant hanging beneath her tunic, grounding herself in the solidity of the crystal, willing it to carry her through this last part. He was in pain, and it was her fault. She loved him too well to lash out.

“We will always answer the call of the Mand’alor, and assist their people, regardless of their feelings for us.” She paused, hating how her voice cracked and hitched, then continued, fighting through the pain lancing through her chest, “watch your back with your Council, and do not underestimate Kryze. If you should ever find yourself in need of objective information, my mother’s archives are only a comm-call away.” And with that, she forced herself to leave, head held high.

 


 

For a moment, Din simply stood there in shock. She was… gone. Had rejected him, and left. The realization seemed too terrible to comprehend, and yet as the seconds stretched into minutes, the awful truth sunk in.

She had rejected him, and she was leaving.

If the ground had swallowed him up in that moment, it would have been a mercy. There would be little to bury, an empty chasm in his chest where hope had sat, swinging back and forth in cheery ignorance of its terrible fate.

But as the sounds of camp life began to filter through his helmet’s audio once more, filling the gaping silence created by her departure, the chasm in his chest began to fill. Rage and despair boiled within, giving way to a desperate, dangerous desire for reckless destruction. Everything felt too much, and the need to relieve the rapidly rising pressure burning under his skin and excise the poison of resentment from his system drove him to move, to do something, anything. He—

With a sudden jerk, he snatched his hand away from the Darksaber, to which it had drifted in his mindless agitation. The hilt felt hot and heavy under his glove, and a faint buzzing feeling had gone unnoticed until now. With effort, he gripped the edge of his cuirass near his throat, hands far away from weapons. He had never been one to lash out in anger; he would not start now. The blade seemed to resonate with the emotion, and it was an ugly, nauseating sensation, one he did not need to amplify any further.

He needed out, away from any chance that she could come back to pack— he couldn’t face her, not now. Slamming the control panel to open the door, he stepped out and made resolutely for the Wren stronghold. For once, no one tried to stop him for some meaningless conversation; he knew the anger rolling off of him in waves as he stalked down the halls would travel through the whispers, but he didn’t care. Let them talk. Their words had already cost him dearly.

Tristan wasn’t in his office. Slamming the door shut, he made for the reception area of his own office, the other location in which Tristan often camped. With a rush, the door flew open, and he stormed in.

Tristan sat at the small table, surrounded by data pads, dutifully working as always. He looked up at the sound, and shot up in alarm at the sight of Din. “Alor, what’s—”

“The Vhett’ikas are leaving. See to it that they are not delayed,” Din all but snarled.

Tristan blanched, gobsmacked by the turn of events. “Did something—”

“They want to go, so get them out. Now,” he said tightly. He couldn’t— how could words— at a slight sound behind him, he turned. Senaar had entered, eyes on the two mugs to avoid spilling. She looked up into Din’s visor, and as her eyes flickered around him, she choked, flinching painfully and stumbling backward. She didn’t seem to register the hot shig sloshing over her hands, a wide-eyed expression of horror locked onto him. His heart twisted, knowing what she saw, then the anguish redoubled as he spiraled further into anger and grief, enraged that she could see what his beskar could hide from everyone else: the raw heartbreak of rejection. He turned back to Tristan.

“Make it happen.”

He hated himself as Tristan nodded, the action jerky and forced.

“Yes, Alor.”

Senaar stumbled back out of the way as he brushed past, needing to escape this building, this whole compound with its prying eyes. He needed a release— and yet he’d never felt more alone. Rejected by what remained of his covert, and now the woman who had captured his heart. Surrounded by the skeptical and hostile. And Rau was not an option, he didn’t want to dissect what went wrong. Because the truth had painted itself clear as day: Saviin had become the partner he’d always wanted, and he only realized it now in the outsized shape of her absence. She was the sounding board he needed, the one to push him just a little further, to give him support and reassurance every step of the way. She made this destiny feel possible, something to look forward to, instead of dread. She was his inspiration, and his distraction, the one he trusted with his children. And now she was gone, and he couldn’t begin to comprehend what a life without her in it again would look like.

How could he have been so wrong? He trusted his instincts, and they had been so certain. Saviin wasn’t a flirt, and her demeanor had been entirely different around him than with others. He’d been so sure. Had it all been merely duty, for her? His eyes burned, and he willed away the pain.

He didn’t want to think, he didn’t want to feel right now, he needed—

“Alor?”

Din spun around, right into the helmeted face of Axe Woves. To his credit, the man didn’t back down, holding his ground without picking a fight. In one moment, Din bitterly wished he would, for the simple joy of having something to do. In the next, he despised himself for such a selfish wish.

“The sensors of the eastern perimeter have gone out. They’re fifteen klicks out, through the forest. Someone shot the droid that repairs them, and I hear you’re good with tech. Are you free?”

Din wasn’t stupid. Of course Woves somehow knew already, and the man was offering him an escape— from his daily duties, from the compound, from everything, if only for a few hours. Woves might have shot the droid himself, just to create the opportunity. It was reckless, impulsive, everything Din wasn’t and everything he needed right now.

“Let’s go,” he replied tersely.

Woves nodded, then turned towards the speeder bikes, tapping a message into his vambrace. Likely letting Tristan and Rau know, Din thought grimly, acknowledging the thought as uncharitable even as he thought it. They were responsible for him, he didn’t need everyone panicking if he disappeared. The days of the lone bounty hunter slipping out were long gone.

He swung onto the bike, and gunned it after Woves.

They rode in silence for nearly a half hour, weaving quietly through the giant pines. The slow slalom between the trees gave Din focus, and he breathed in the spicy scent of the veshoke, and the earthy odor of the muddy forest floor. The bikes broke the silence of the forest, dark and still, and he felt the rage in his chest bleed away, leaving behind a hollow ache.

At length, they reached the base of the rock scrag upon which the sensor had been placed. They dismounted, and shouldering the repair equipment, engaged the jetpacks, rocketing up to the ledge.

“Can’t imagine life without a jetpack,” Woves finally broke the silence as Din crouched in front of the sensor, and Din grunted.

“It’s slower,” he commented, and Woves chuckled. “What’s the issue?”

“The relay’s not connecting; not sure if it's the power or the signal.”

Silently, Din got to work, opening up the control panel and testing the sensor.

“Coupling’s shot. Hand me the spanner?”

Woves sat down, legs hanging over the ledge, and passed him the tool. “At least they picked a good view for sensor repair,” and he chuckled again as Din scoffed. “Seriously! Look! Not bad, all things considered.”

Din glanced up. A weak afternoon sun broke through the gloom of the cloud cover, glancing off the lake in front of the Wren compound, which had finally thawed. It was pretty, in a dreary, haunting sort of way, the beauty of a consolation prize. It tore at Din’s chest, and he looked away, refocusing on the sensor panel. “Not bad.”

“Better than some of the skug holes Kryze has dragged us to,” Woves commented, his tone an audible grimace. Din glanced over.

“Is it that bad?”

“I willingly signed up for it, Alor.” Din could hear the attempt at reassurance, the absolution of guilt, and yet the strain in Woves’ tone betrayed him. “It’s important work. You need to know what she’s up to, and I’m the best candidate for a double agent role. I’m not quitting now. But I won’t lie, its—” he sighed.

“It’s gotten harder. Partly because she’s more angry, more desperate. She’s vicious, a real throwback to Pre Vizsla these days.” Din had no idea who that was, and made a note to ask Saviin— then remembered with a sickening jolt that he’d be doing no such thing.

Rau, then.

“But it’s also knowing that it doesn’t have to be like that, that there’s another future that doesn’t look like Kryze’s vision,” Woves continued. “Hope somehow makes it harder to keep pretending.”

Din thought on that, his hands continuing to repair the sensor as Woves’ words echoed in his mind. Woves, and the others, were supposed to be his people, they were counting on him, and they were suffering. Somehow, he gave them hope, and the longer he took, the more they languished. At any point, Woves’ true loyalties could be exposed, and Kryze would not be merciful.

They needed Din, needed him to be better. There was no time to wallow, to dwell on a broken heart. Saviin had rejected him, but he could still use her lessons and guidance to help his people. He could simply acknowledge the pain, and set it aside, focusing more closely on the Living Waters and rebuilding Mandalore. That was something he could control.

He closed the panel door and turned to Woves, reaching out to grasp his shoulder. Slightly startled, Woves turned to look at him.

“I know you volunteered and there is no debt, but I am grateful for all you’ve done. And when you’ve had enough, there is no shame in pulling out of the arrangement. I have places I can send you if it becomes too hot for you to stay here, where you can still be useful if you wish. And I promise that I will work harder to speed up rebuilding preparations and my search for the Living Waters.”

Woves acknowledged his vow with a nod. “None of us who support you doubt that you are already doing everything you can. You have two impossible tasks ahead of you. And if anyone can do it,” he laughed, “it’s you.” He reached out and grasped Din’s shoulder as well. “We’re here to support you, whatever the challenge.”

Din nodded, grateful for the acknowledgment of the unstated. He let his hand fall, and Woves stood up.

“Now for the other great thing about jetpacks,” he announced with a grin in his voice, and he stepped off the ledge, dropping out of sight. Din shook his head, a small smile under the beskar, as impossible as such an action had felt a few hours ago.

He could do this. Acknowledge the pain, set it aside. His people needed him here, now. There would be time to heal later.

He glanced over the ledge to make sure Woves was at the bottom, then leaned back, lifting his helmet just enough to wipe his cheeks. Then dropped his helmet and stepped over the ledge.

Chapter Text

Saviin sat alone in the cockpit, accompanied only by C1-11P, gazing into the blurring view before her.

Once they had slipped into hyperspace, Senaar had flitted out of the cockpit, claiming a headache. Saviin felt guilty for that, certain that the headache was caused in part by her own aura. She suspected that Senaar also needed to go cry. Her youngest sister was such a sweet soul, so full of a light and optimism that Saviin herself had never felt, not to the extent that Senaar lived and breathed every day. If any of the vod’e could or should have been a trained Light-Sider, it was Senaar, so thoroughly sunk in Light side of the Force that her childlike bafflement of the uglier side of life made Saviin want to protect her from the galaxy’s harshness. Senaar had not yet revealed what made her change her mind on leaving with Saviin; she had been so insistent on staying to prove everyone in the camp wrong, and Saviin had not had the heart to convince her of its futility.

Saviin bit her lip at the thought of the immediate aftermath of her departure from the guest quarters.

 

She put distance between her and Din, walking blindly until she ended up at their shuttle. The At the sight of the ship, reality snapped back into place; she couldn’t just rush off, feelings hurt. There were optics to consider: she had just received a lukewarm response from the Council, and a warning-off by the goran. Both stories were likely to spread. To leave so soon after would send a terrible message. And she couldn’t just force Senaar and Tristan apart with no warning. She could survive the Mand’alor’s displeasure, if it bought the lovebirds more time.

Her vambrace chimed, and she turned back for the Wren stronghold, ducking behind a tent like a coward at the sight of the Mand’alor who had just stormed out of the building in question. To her shame, she quailed at the sight of his anger; it was palpable, rippling like waves off of the steely beskar. He had always appeared like a tightly coiled tower of lethality, but it had never frightened her before; now, it was as though the control holding the violence in place was fractured, anger seeping at the cracks and looking for the weakest point through which to burst. And it was her fault. With guilt and relief she saw him jet off with Woves, and she continued on to the office where Tristan and Senaar told her to meet.

Her stomach fell through the floor at the sight. Senaar, inconsolable, sobbing in Tristan’s arms as he held her, a lost expression transforming his typically calm countenance.

“What happened?”

“We were hoping you could tell us,” Tristan replied, his voice hollow. “The Mand’alor informed us that you were leaving, and he ordered me to see to it without delay.”

And like a coward, Saviin closed her eyes, pushing away the sight of heartbreak, the grim light of reality, the ever-sharpening pain in her chest. As if by shutting her eyes she could pretend that she was not the architect of this moment, responsible by dint of her duty.

“Then we must leave without delay.”

 

Saviin sighed, remembering her little sister’s stubbornness in that conversation, her adamant hope that they could be forces of change. The hollow expression with which Senaar had wordlessly boarded the shuttle at the last minute an hour later, darting up the ramp with grim determination. Saviin had stared after her sister as she flew past, then looked back down the ramp at the landing field. Tristan had stood there. Saviin had not needed to read auras to see his emotions; he wore his love, grief, guilt, and resolution openly, in a way she hadn’t seen him do since they left the Haven. He had taken a meaningful, reluctant step back from the ramp. Saviin swallowed thickly before stepping forward down the ramp, hand held out.

“Please give this to Rau, with my apologies. He will know what to do with it.” He’d taken the holo puck wordlessly, nodding.

“I’m so sorry,” she’d whispered, then turned and climbed the ramp once more, making her way to the cockpit for takeoff.

Poor Tristan; he had his duty, and it certainly wasn’t his fault that things had come to a head so quickly. Now, Saviin only hoped that their romance was not over for good. Senaar still wore the dagger; a good sign.

Saviin’s mind turned to the problem of her clan, and the news she had to deliver. She had no idea where Gar Vod’e went from here. They had acknowledged their rejection by the Mandalorians as a likely outcome, and had prepared alternative plans for their community accordingly, but to face the prejudice so clearly, to realize how pervasive it remained decades later, irrespective of the truth, of all they’d done for Mandalore and its people—

Saviin felt herself floundering, adrift, like a ship pulled out of hyperspace. Her eyes felt gritty, raw, and heavy, but there was no time for rest, for weakness. She had set this in motion, and had to see it through. The tears would fall later, much later after her people’s future was secure. She could not let herself succumb to emotion, nor dwell on personal loss. Settling more comfortably into the pilot’s seat, she sunk into a meditative state.

I am a winding creek
My waters and borders shift and change
But I am ever-constant.

Saviin breathed deeply, repeating the mantra in her mind. It had always brought Saviin comfort and resolve. She would adapt, she would persevere. Saviin would be the leader she promised her people.

Firmly anchored again, she opened her eyes and stood up, turning to C1-11P. “Chippy, I’m going to get some tea, and will be back. You swept for trackers before we left, correct?” Chippy beeped an affirmative, then continued. Saviin’s expression hardened.

“Were you able to figure out who placed them?”

Chippy gave a mournful trill. Saviin shook her head.

“It’s okay, Chippy. It was a long shot; I think I know who did it, anyway. Thank you. We’ll stick to the plan of three jumps, just in case they try to tail.” Chippy emitted a cascade of querying beeps, and Saviin felt her expression tighten. “If we’re not welcome to Mandalorian society, we could be perceived as a threat. A low-level threat, but it is possible. And outsiders now know where we live— trusted ones, but still… we need to mitigate the chance of being followed back home by others less trusting, and then review our security once back at the Haven.”

Chippy warbled a complicated staccato, and Saviin barked out a startled laugh. “Yes, I suppose ba’vodu Wolffe would be pleased to know his additional security plans will be implemented. He was a bit paranoid, wasn’t he? I’m sure he’s grunting in approval somewhere right now.” She patted the astromech’s dome as it chirped an affirmative, and left the cockpit in the droid’s capable manipulators as she made her way to the tea station, eyes averted from her sister’s form huddled in the back. Saviin would let her choose when to engage; she had no right to insist otherwise.

 


 

The first week after leaving Krownest was sheer torture for Senaar.

Though they’d parted with their courtship intact, Senaar had asked for time to process, and Tristan had given it willingly, encouraging her to call only when she felt ready. And she forced herself to take that time and reflect. The silence, coupled with the realization that they had no clear idea of when they’d next reunite, sent her into a tailspin for a while. She’d taken her carving commissions and her tools and decamped for a spot outside the perimeter by the pond, working quietly in the shade while listening to the quiet lapping of the water’s edge. It soothed her aches, allowing her to concentrate on her craft.

Kote had watched her from afar, and Senaar couldn’t decide if she was grateful or irritated. To his credit, he waited at least three days before attempting to get her to talk. The protective older brother wanted to know if he needed to plan any murders. It had made Senaar smile.

Ruusaan was… well, Ruusaan about it. Acerbic and hurtfully blunt. She avoided her twin.

Always close with her mother, Senaar found herself frequently haunting Ver’ika’s steps when not carving, hanging out in the greenhouse and the archives and the garden beds. Ver’ika’s calm, soothing aura was a balm to Senaar’s frayed emotions, and she was the perfect sounding board to replace her usual one.

Because she was avoiding Saviin.

And that arguably hurt the most.

She just couldn’t look at her oldest sister, her closest friend. The guilt, the heartache, the grief that swirled around her in a thick fog of iron gray, intensifying whenever Saviin looked at Senaar til it nearly blocked Senaar’s ability to even see her sister’s face and body— it was too much. She knew there was nothing she could say to ease Saviin’s suffering, and it hurt to look at her, so she stayed away.

A week felt sufficient to work out her feelings, and so promptly called Tristan. Her heart clenched for an instant, fearing that he wouldn’t answer— then released as he picked up the call after only a moment.

“Trist’ika.” She couldn’t help a smile at the first glimpse of her beloved.

Sen’ika.”

“I’m so glad you answered.”

“I will always answer for you.”

Her smile faltered as she took in Tristan’s appearance, distorted as it was over the holo.

“Cyar’ika, you look unwell. Are you not sleeping?”

“Ner karta, I thought you were going to distract me from my woes, not remind me.” He grinned, then sighed at her frown. “It’s fine, things are a little stressful, but it’s really nothing. I promise.”

Senaar huffed, then relented. “If you say so. I’d rather talk about happy things, but it makes me sad to see you look so tired. And I can’t even see your aura, so I don’t know how you’re really feeling.”

“Oh, so it’s an even playing field now, eh?” Tristan shot her a cheeky grin, to which she stuck out her tongue in defiance. “Careful, that tongue will get you into trouble.”

“Promises,” Senaar snarked, then cackled at his spluttering. “I’ve missed you.”

“Really?” He sounded so hopeful, and it had been the very last thing she expected to hear. Senaar spluttered incoherently. “I’m sorry,” Tristan added quickly, his abashed expression struck Senaar clean through her chest. “I wasn’t sure when we left things on Krownest if you’d—”

“Well, that’s just rude. I am not in the habit of making promises I don’t keep, and I don’t believe for a second that you’d do that either,” Senaar snipped, her mocking indignation forcing a reluctant smile to hover on Tristan’s lips.

“Will you ever forgive my stupidity?”

“I suppose I should get in the habit of doing so now, shouldn’t I?” she grinned cheekily at his splutter of outrage, which melted into an indulgent chuckle.

“How did I ever survive without you in my life?”

“Haven’t a clue, cyar’ika, though I’m so glad you did,” Senaar smiled genuinely. “It wasn’t your fault, none of it. It’s not even Saviin or the Alor’s fault. It just is.”

“Has she told you anything of what happened?”

“No…” Senaar glanced away sheepishly. “I’ve been avoiding her, to be honest.”

“Sen’ika… your favorite vod—”

“She’s not—“

“Yes, she is.”

“I just needed time. Her aura is painful, and I was still trying to process. But you’re right, I should have told her that. I’ll go talk to her now. If she shares anything, I’ll let you know.”

Tristan glanced off-screen. “I have to run anyway. I’ll call you again soon, my love.”

“I look forward to it. In the meantime, I have an assignment for you.” She broke into a mischievous grin, unable to contain herself. “Have you heard heard of The Zeltron who Loved Me?”

Tristan shot her a flat look. “You’re kidding me.”

“I can’t be there to distract you, and it’s my favorite holo-drama. Season 3 just started, so get cracking. We’ll recap next call.”

“Senaar—”

“Can’t hear you, love you byeeee!!!” She blew him a kiss and hung up, cackling to herself.

Spirits restored, she marched out of the house and directly to the forge. Saviin stood at the forge, examining a broken fence rod with a frown. Ascertaining that she held nothing hot or dangerous, Senaar rushed her sister, wrapping her in a tight hug.

“Sen— oof!”

“I’m not mad at you,” declared Senaar firmly. “I never was. I just needed space to work out my feelings about leaving Tristan and because your aura hurts to look at and I knew there was nothing I could say to make you feel less guilty. I didn't realize I was hurting your feelings by staying away. I’m sorry.”

“Oh Sen’ika,” breathed Saviin, her arms wrapping around her littlest sister, hugging her tightly in return. “I wouldn’t have blamed you for being mad. You had every right—”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Senaar said firmly. “And I have an idea.” She stepped back, averting her eyes from Saviin’s aura, and sat down on the bench. She pulled a cloth out of the clean bag and wrapped it across her eyes. She heard Saviin chuckle.

“Been a while since we've had to do that.”

“I should have thought of it sooner,” shrugged Senaar. “Now I want you to listen to me, okay? Tristan and I, we are fine, as fine as the circumstances allow. I just commed him before coming here. In fact, you can thank him for helping me realize that I wasn’t being very helpful to the situation. No, shut up, let me finish,” she hurried over Saviin’s protest. “I was going to stay, but then Tristan talked to Rau to find out some more about what happened at the Council meeting, since Tristan had missed it. We realized that the status of our clan was in doubt and causing issues. I could tell that Tristan felt conflicted, duty-bound to step back even though he loves me, so I made the decision to come home, so that he wouldn’t have to choose. I told you I would never force that on him. But we’re still courting. We have faith that it won’t be like this forever. Once Mandalore is established and things settle, there may be new opportunities we aren’t seeing right now.” She smiled confidently in Saviin’s direction, hoping that the woman was looking at her.

“I’m so glad you told me, Sen’ika,” Saviin’s voice sounded relieved, but she knew her sister and did not take it on faith. “It’s a relief to know that you are still happily in love, and that I did not destroy that in my actions.”

“No offensive ori’vod, but it would take a lot more than just you to destroy what we have,” Senaar countered, feeling just a touch smug. Saviin chuckled.

“Good to know.”

“I think you’re still feeling guilty though,” Senaar hazarded a guess. “And I know you’re not going to tell me all of it, but I wish you would tell me at least a little of what happened, beyond what little you told us on Krownest, so that I can help you feel less guilty and pained.”

Saviin sighed, a tight, controlled sound as though she were breathing away the pain. “We… argued. I made him angry because I said I couldn’t stay.”

Senaar frowned. “He got mad because you couldn’t stay? We never planned to stay forever.”

“No, I… he asked me to stay. And… I refused. I told him I couldn’t abandon my people, and they weren’t welcome.”

“He— oh, Saviin…”

“I was a bit worked up and had already started packing, so I think that’s why he had us leave so quickly, he figured we’d be out in minutes anyway. Once I calmed down I realized the poor optics of such an… abrupt departure, but… it doesn’t matter now. He’s angry and hurt, and rightfully so.”

Senaar felt there was a lot more to than conversation, and that it wasn’t nearly as much Saviin’s fault as she was assuming, but Senaar didn’t press.

Saviin sighed. “And he’s going to be more hurt very soon, if he’s not already, and it’s of my doing. It’s the right thing to do, but I feel guilty for causing him pain, then and now or very soon.”

“How—”

“Have you ever heard of Aq Vetina?”

 


 

Saviin watched Senaar flit out of the forge, having received one last hug, her eyes averted. She knew she needed to put the time into meditation; it wasn’t fair for Senaar to be bombarded by Saviin’s unresolved emotions, simply because she couldn’t help seeing auras. But there always seemed to be something—

“Saviin!”

— in the way.

Prudii met her near the Vhett’ika house. Saviin didn’t need to see auras to read Prudii’s; the tight shoulders, the deep scowl, furrowed brow. She remembered that look on ba’vodu Wolffe’s face. It didn’t bode well.

“What’s up, Prudii,” Saviin tried not to sigh; evidently unsuccessful, Prudii’s scowl deepened.

“I want to know why the Triumvirate isn’t meeting for another two days, when we have serious security issues right now.”

Savin blanked. “What security issues?”

“Is that a joke?” Prudii nearly yelled. Catching herself, she hissed more quietly, “let’s start with the fact that you reported in the initial debrief that you confirmed our existence to Bo-Katan Kryze and she threatened you.”

That debrief with Kote and Prudii had sucked.

“Couldn’t really get around that, to be honest.”

“You were seen walking around with the Mand’alor repeatedly—"

“How do you know that?”

“— and she will make assumptions. She will come for us. We need to revisit security. The new system I proposed—”

“Will bankrupt the community in a standard year,” Saviin stated firmly. “It is not a feasible solution. I am open to new ideas, but we have already increased our threat level and implemented the new satellite protocols, and increased guard rotations. The threat is not so urgent that we need to drop what we’re doing to react beyond what has already been done.”

“Alor Saviin!”

Saviin turned; Rex waved at her from the pavilion. She waved back, then glanced at Prudii.

“Can we talk about this later?”

Prudii scowled, but nodded. Stifling a sigh of relief, Saviin jogged over to where the clone captain stood, Echo next to him.

“We need a third to go check traps, and Kote volunteered you.”

“Oh he did, did he?” Her mouth twisted into a frown.

“Ah, humor a couple of old men, will ya?” Echo nudged her with a grin.

“How did you two end up on the trap rotation?”

“Now Alor, just because we’re old doesn’t mean we won’t pull our weight,” Rex mock-chided. Saviin smiled reluctantly, unable to remain stern with her uncles.

“Lucky for Kote, I’m free, and actually in need of an escape, so let’s go.” She shouldered the basket for small game and the bait sack, ignoring Echo’s squawk of protest. “Lead the way.”

The afternoon sun dipped in and out of clouds, a game of hide and seek that alternately blasted the clearing with blinding sunshine and blanketed it in a dim dullness that seemed to suck the life out of the very grass upon which they trod. Rows of wheat and rye danced lightly in the breeze, swaying back and forth in a whispery song along both sides of the flower-lined path to the entrance. It was mesmerizing; after the grimness of Krownest, the enchantment of the Haven had redoubled its spell on Saviin. She almost regretted agreeing to check traps, yearning to simply meander amidst the bounty of life springing joyfully from the lovingly tended earth of her home. Alas, duty called from the dark, thick forests just beyond their borders, and forward they moved.

As they neared the guard hut by the entrance, they could hear voices in the hut arguing.

“C’mon, just one game, Rex!”

“Shouldn’t you be watching the sensors, Beri?”

“Yeah, sure— oh, what do you know, all clear! Just like the first hundred times I looked at it. Now can we play?”

“Boy, is that familiar,” Echo said softly, a faraway look in his eyes. Rex glanced at him, then straightened as far as his back would let him.

“Boys!”

Amid cursing and clattering, Howzer and Yuli’s twins tumbled out of the guard shack and jumped to attention.

“Sir!”

“Next time a little more professional behavior. You’ve got a job to do, and we’re counting on you to do it,” he eyed them sternly.

Thoroughly chastened, they snapped a salute. “Sir!”

“We’re going out to check the traps. Mind the monitors and call it in if we’re not back in 2 hours.” They nodded, and Rex raised an eyebrow. “As you were.”

As they beat a hasty retreat back into the hut, Echo chuckled. “Should have named Beri, Hevy instead.”

“Almost feel bad for Rex junior,” Saviin grinned, as they strode out of the entrance and entered the dark forest surrounding the clearing. “Everyone must expect him to be a hard-ass too.”

“A hard-ass, eh?” Rex matched her grin. “When your father was the king of them? I could tell you stories about the things we got into as cadets, me and the CC’s. Cody spent half his time making sure Alpha didn't toss us off a platform just to get a good night’s sleep.”

“You, a troublemaker?”

“Oh no, that was mostly Wolffe and Fox. Ponds and Cody a few times, too. I was just the tagalong. But they always looked out for me, on account of my hair. They’d stow me in their barracks until the coast was clear— I’m pretty sure Alpha knew I was in there, but he was a secret softy, too. Used to give Howzer heart attacks, though. The rest of my batch didn’t care much— if I wasn’t around, then I wasn’t drawing attention to our batch— but Howzer would stay up all night panicking that I got taken away for decommissioning. Eventually Cody came up with a system so he could let Howzer know I was okay.”

“I liked uncle Howzer,” Saviin said sadly. “I’m glad Yuli stayed here, even after he passed.”

They made their way to the first trap. Rex bent down with a groan to remove the rabbit from the snare.

“I think Yuli’s here solely so that she can knit more sweaters for children.”

Echo chuckled. “I think she’s taken making me a knit hat that accommodates my headset as a personal challenge.”

Saviin giggled. She took the rabbit and dropped it in the game basket as Rex reset and baited the trap, and they moved on.

“So, Alor’ika— the trip to Krownest went poorly.”

Saviin squinted slightly. “Is this an interrogation?”

Rex shrugged, his golden-brown eyes surveying her. “Not if you don’t want it to be.”

Saviin considered. “Permission to speak freely and confidentially?”

“Granted.”

“It was a complete and utter disaster,” the words burst from her chest. She’d been aching to vent to someone. Someone who understood what it meant to be a clone, who understood the whole fraught relationship with Mandalore, who understood the tension between duty and desire. Someone like my father. And so she poured out her soul, leaving nothing out.

Rex’s eyes were sympathetic, and Saviin relaxed with relief. The only pity she wanted was that of commiseration.

“I’m so sorry, Sav’ika. That’s a lot on such young shoulders.”

“I know it’s nothing compared to what you—”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Rex interrupted firmly. “I would not wish the horrors of war on my— okay, maybe my worst enemy, but certainly not on you. Misery is not a competition.”
Echo nodded.

“I’m proud of who we are, what our people, what you’ve overcome in order to get to where we are today,” Saviin insisted. “It’s complicated, and I wish that all of that pain hadn’t been necessary, but I can’t regret being the daughter of a clone. Our freedom’s price was high, and we still mourn all those who died under the control of the chip, or on the battlefield. I can’t imagine renouncing my heritage, the pride and the pain, just so that someone else can tell me I’m Mandalorian-enough now. And it’s so frustrating that I can’t find the words to help nat-born Mandalorians understand. Am I being too defensive of our heritage? Is that why they don’t understand? Is that even possible?”

“Your words are fine, Alor’ika,” reassured Rex. “You can’t force people to open their minds.”

“And you know the worst part?” Saviin aimed a resentful kick at some mushrooms, then caught herself and picked them to take home for soup. “I have to be the bad guy here, to everyone. I’m sure you’re no stranger to that— I have to give the bad news to the clan; I have to keep Prudii from murdering the council and trying to implement ridiculously expensive security systems; I have to try to parent four wonderful children that I can’t keep, I have to keep telling them I’m just their cabur, and not their buir, and watch their little faces crumple every time. And I have to break the Mand’alor’s heart and hope it doesn’t harm our chances at clan recognition because he can’t afford to be linked with someone like me. And none of it is anything I didn’t sign up for, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Echo sat heavily on the ground and stared pensively into the forest as Saviin emptied the trap.

“I’m not a romantic by any stretch, but are you absolutely certain that you must, on that last point?”

She sighed heavily, grateful despite the pulsing ache in her chest that she’d trusted these two. There was no need to argue against romantic notions of fairytale endings; she wouldn’t get them from Rex or Echo.

“Every way I slice the intel, the same solution emerges. I’m more of a liability than a benefit to him.” She swallowed past the knot in her throat.

“I think you might be underestimating the value of moral support,” suggested Rex. He looked at the cord on the snare and frowned, lowering himself to the ground with a grunt and pulling out his kit to repair it. “But you’re right, until something happens to swing the tide of public opinion on Mandalore, the deck is stacked against your potential relationship, and that wouldn’t be very fair to your odds of it working out in the long term.”

Saviin bit her lip, her eyes burning. “I didn’t even think of it from that perspective, but you’re right.” She sighed. “It doesn’t matter now. He hates me now, thinks I don’t feel the same about him, and doesn’t understand why I care so much about my people. Senaar told me what his aura looked like after… he was so hurt. I hurt him so badly, I had no idea he cared so much, he was so shocked—” she stopped, swallowing hard. “It was never going to work. I’ll get over it.”

Echo snorted. “Now you sound like your father. There’s still hope. It’s a turbulent time; who knows what opportunities lie in the future.”

“I don’t hold hope for myself. I keep that for others.”

“Then we’ll hold hope for you,” Rex replied gently. “But some advice? If you meet him again, be honest with him. He deserves it, even if it changes nothing.”

“Even if it inspires false hope?”

“Alpha felt the same way, til Dogma talked some sense into him.” Rex’s eyes fell on the tattoo on Saviin’s inner bicep. “Do you still love him?”

Saviin looked down to the moss-covered ground, nodding at it.

“And how did it feel when you thought it was unrequited?”

“Like torture,” she admitted.

“Tell him the truth, if the opportunity arises. If he’s over it by the time you see him again, let it go, but if the feeling is still there on his side, you owe him, and yourself, some honesty. Rau’s there, I’m sure he’s knocking some sense into the guy. He’ll realize soon enough the sacrifice you made for him. Talk to him, if you get the chance. He might surprise you, and you shouldn’t have to carry that weight alone.”

“Thank you,” she gazed at both men, meeting their soft smiles with her own. “This stays between us, yeah?”

“You’ve got a heavy burden, Alor’ika,” Echo replied. “We’re not going to make that any harder for you.”

A sudden flicker of Rex’s eyes killed Saviin’s response.

“Now what do we have here?”

Saviin froze, feeling the barrel of a blaster pressed hard against the back of her neck, and the whine of charge packs priming around them. “A lady and two old men, out in the middle of nowhere. What are the odds?”

Saviin found herself wondering the same, unable to see how many intruders stood behind her. She glanced at Rex, who made eye contact, then dropped his gaze to his hand. Four. Four wasn’t terrible odds. Not great, not the worst. She made eye contact with Rex again, and winked. Play along.

“Please don’t hurt us,” she whimpered. “We don’t have much, we’re just stopping over, but we’ll give you what we have.” The blaster point remained at her neck, but the others moved to surround the three, and Saviin took a quick glance. Generic spacer clothes, not necessarily affiliated with a syndicate. Grubby, not well-maintained; low on resources. Grim, scarred; dangerous. They had managed to get the drop on two distracted ex-troopers and a well-trained native of these woods. They were good enough.

Saviin glanced around again; they were within the external perimeter, the activity should have registered on the sensors. Hoping that Beri and Rex Junior were actually paying attention to the terminals, she attempted to turn her head to see the speaker. It was a move only a true civilian or a true expert make; she banked on him counting her as the former.

“Please sir, you can have the meat—”

“We don’t want meat, girlie,” the sentient slid the barrel around to press at her temple as he came into view. So, all four were near-human or human. That made things easier. No obvious armor.

“We don’t have much,” she pleaded, mentally mapping out the next 90 seconds.

“Now that can’t be true,” drawled the human closest to her. “Ain’t got no bags or extra clothes, you look clean. Looks like you got a ship or a settlement nearby. So I think you got plenty. And if not, there’s always you.”

She glanced at Rex and Echo again, and saw agreement on a change of plans. Scum like this didn’t get to walk away.

“Look, I’ll take you, just leave my companions alone,” she whimpered.

The man nudged her hard in the temple with the blaster. “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Stand up. If you’re good, maybe we’ll leave your friends alive.”

Cold, clear focus coursed through her body. Nobody threatens my family and lives. Rage burning hot led to mistakes, but Saviin’s anger burned like ice; solid, sharp, and deadly. No passion, all precision. It made the next steps as easy as breathing.

Rolling slowly from seated into a crouch, she slipped the blade from her boot and palmed it as she stood, shoulders hunched in an expression of terror. All four raiders relaxed their stance as the speaker moved the blaster away and went to place a hand on her shoulder. “Now let’s—”

Saviin exploded into action.

She gripped the man’s hand on her shoulder, pinning him in place, swung around to face him, and drove her blade into his throat. Without pausing, she swiveled back and flung the knife into the chest of the raider directly behind Rex.

The two clones hadn’t been idle; both had rolled tucked and rolled away, drawing blasters. Rex had finished off the one Saviin had stabbed in the throat, while Echo caught the one closest to him under the chin. Saviin glanced around for the fourth; the hut’uun had taken off running at the first sign of trouble. Drawing her blaster, she lined up the shot— only to see a blast take him down from a location 30 meters away.

“That was my shot,” complained Saviin.

Kote chuckled, emerging from behind a tree. “You let him get too far away, he was fair game.”

Saviin scrunched her nose at that critique, then looked around to see Rex and Echo, who were slowing rising to their feet.

“I’m too old for this shit,” grumbled Echo.

“You’re old! I’m first-gen!” groused Rex, rubbing his hips.

“Still got it, though,” consoled Kote as he drew closer. Rex snorted.

“It’s in our blood,” he retorted.

“What are you doing out here?” Saviin frowned at Kote. “You’re not on watch.”

Kote raised an eyebrow. “You missed a check in on your comm, so the boys called me. Then we picked up movement from the sensors that wasn’t you, so I volunteered.”

“Dank ferrik, I knew I had forgotten something,” Saviin sighed, annoyed.

“Do we need to notify parents? The Mand’alor?”

Saviin winced, then schooled her features. “No. Just some smugglers looking for a quick score or a live captive to do who knows what. They didn't appear to know who or what we are. And they didn’t get any closer than the outer ring of sensors. No threat to the Haven. But we should send a squad out to sweep the area outside the sensor field, make sure they’re the only ones.” She bent down and picked up the basket of rabbits that had been dropped in the scuffle. “And a team to throw these skugs in the ravine. The grinjers will take care of the rest.”

Kote nodded, turning away to give out the order into his vambrace.

Echo sidled up alongside her. “You good?”

Saviin stared at him blankly. “Yeah, course. Why?”

Echo surveyed her for a moment, then chuckled. “You are your father’s daughter, all right.”

She smirked. “Just doing my duty.”

“How did they get the drop on you?” Kote had turned back, frowning. Saviin gave a small sigh of relief; he hadn’t been eavesdropping. Then tensed as she floundered for an answer, always a bad liar—

“I have tinnitus,” Rex responded promptly, not an ounce of remorse in his voice. Kote and Echo shot him an unimpressed look. “What? If I have to listen to that ringing for the rest of my life, then I will definitely use it as an excuse as to why I couldn’t hear something.” Saviin burst into laughter while Echo shook his head.

“I should have thought of that.”

Kote rolled his eyes and left them cackling by the snare, tossing a warning over his shoulder to hurry up.

Chapter Text

Tristan stood behind the Mand’alor and Rau as the day’s Council meeting dragged on.

It had taken months to get the man to sit for the duration of an entire meeting; somehow a former bounty hunter capable of long stakeouts could not manage the formality of a conference room table and chairs for more than an hour, at first. Now, he could sit still, and managed to contain the fidgeting to a hand flex on his thigh below the table.

Progress.

Tristan couldn’t help but let his mind wander as the Council revisited the same painfully worn topics. He’d given his reports and suggestions, and watched them get picked apart and summarily set aside as tomorrow’s problem, which meant never; duty dispensed, he could quietly check out of the meeting.

He felt confident that Saviin would never have let meetings go on in this matter.

It was a painful thought; so many lost opportunities in her departure. Senaar’ika had commed again last night, recapping her conversation with Saviin for him. It helped to fill in some blanks, though it ultimately changed nothing, not yet. A great deal hinged on Din’s reaction to the news of Aq Vetina.

Tristan had done his duty, painful as it was to put his clan and the Mand’alor before his beloved. That did not stop him from wondering whether it had been a mistake to do so. Should he have taken a stand, thrown his support behind Gar Vod’e? Would it have made a difference?

Probably not; Tristan suspected there was much more to the “argument” that Saviin and Din had that precipitated his rather terrifying entrance into the office to demand that Tristan throw them out. He’d never seen Din lose his self-control like that. The man faced six nexu and showed less emotion than he had after talking to Saviin.

If he had to guess, Tristan bet that Din had finally told Saviin how he felt. It was obvious— obvious to Tristan at least, having lived and ate and fought with the man for months now. And the man had had the worst luck— catching Saviin after the disastrous visit with the goran, the Council meeting, and a run-in with Kryze. And despite her clear love for him, she did her duty and turned him down. Not that Din would be able to see it as duty, thinking too highly of her and caring too little for politics and identity to understand the cost of a relationship with a clone’s daughter, to understand that she’d put his needs above her own wants.

They really needed to talk. Though at this juncture, it looked increasingly unlikely to ever happen.

The flutter of movement clued Tristan back in to the end of the meeting, as various clan representatives stood up and filed out.

“Alor, if you have a moment, there’s something we need to discuss,” Rau had remained seated at the long table, while the former beroya had stood as soon as the meeting was over, stretching his legs.

Tristan caught Rau’s eye, who nodded. “Alor, If you don’t need anything else right now, I have a few reports to review…” At Din’s curt nod, Tristan saluted and left. He knew what Rau was about to tell the Mand’alor, and he did not want to be around for that. He knew informing the Mand’alor was the right thing to do, but he wasn’t sure he could silently bear witness to whatever impact it could have on his future plans.

 


 

Din watched as Tristan left, and sighed regretfully. The younger man’s service had remained flawless in the wake of the Vhett’ikas’ departure. He had continued his quiet duty, unflinching under the assault of snide comments, uncomplaining, un-… anything. Tristan was exactly like he’d been when he first met Din.

And that was the problem.

Senaar had brought something alive in him, an easiness, a relaxed happiness. A tight knot of tension had begun to loosen within a young man who had lived through too much. She’d managed to crack the impassive facade he wore as securely as his beskar armor; Tristan’s face transformed with a smile.

Maybe the Haven had been enchanted after all.

And now the magic had worn off. With the departure of his songbird, Tristan had returned to the impassiveness and steady duty that helped him survive the tragedy of Mandalorian politics for so long. If Din could see auras as Senaar could, he felt sure he’d see the solid hue of grief and heartache, wrapped tightly around the younger man like a thick cocoon, impermeable to any attempt to change his feelings.

A shame.

And for what? Din heard the squeak of his leather gloves as he clenched his fist. The pride of a people? Din had spent too long among aruetii who disparaged his Mandalorian culture to care much about the opinions of others. He knew there were many in the camp who considered him unworthy to be Mand’alor because he was a Foundling from Aq Vetina, and not a native-born Mandalorian. He did not care for their opinion; they were welcome to challenge his status the Mandalorian way, and put the issue to rest once and for all. Mandalorians were not a people who wasted efforts on extravagant welcomes, or doled out unearned respect.

He pushed away the small voice that scoffed at that thought, that challenged with images of beskar stacked neatly in a bunker, rows and rows of archival records available for review, small children speaking fluent Mando’a as they learned safe knife handling, the Triumvirate who never once questioned his right to rule.

It didn’t matter, they weren’t here.

“I’ve sent you the itinerary for the next round of covert visits next week. Have you had a chance to review it yet?”

“Yes.” He didn’t dwell on the origins of that list. “I want to add clan Skirata to the list. Their covert is in the same sector, it would be a good use of our trip.”

Rau stared at him, expression inscrutable. “If you wish. Do you know anything of the old clan leader? Kal Skirata?”

“No.” He could ask— he squashed the thought immediately.

That had occurred frequently over the past week.

He tried so hard to just not think. Not think about the shock, the pain of rejection. Not think about how he still loved her, despite it all. The shock had been hardest— when he had said goodbye to Grogu, he’d known it was coming, could somewhat prepare for the loss, as gut-wrenching as it had been. When his covert expelled him, he knew it was a likelihood. It wrecked him, but it wasn’t completely unexpected. Saviin though— he just couldn’t fathom how he’d misread her, and tortured himself at night, trying to understand what he’d missed. There was something missing, but he kept getting lost in the feeling of emptiness, no urgent mission to focus on, replace the gaping chasm that was always there now—

With effort, he forced himself to focus back on the conversation with Rau.

“He was a trainer in the Cuy’val Dar, the trainers of the clone army.” Rau’s eyes seemed to be looking for something. He evidently didn’t find it, as he shrugged and continued, “Should be an interesting visit. I’ll notify Wren. Speaking of, the reception to Wren’s ideas and intel in today’s meeting was disappointing. I’m concerned that the council is rejecting inconvenient facts.”

“They’re suspicious,” replied Din. “They suspect his new intel and ideas come from the clone community, and they have no reason to trust them, given that they’ve been hiding all this time.”

Gar Vod’e has kept their location secret, just like any other clan or covert,” Rau responded sharply. “Unlike them, Gar Vod’e has completely opened their archives and intel streams to us, on top of handing over a small mountain of beskar without any strings attached.”

“To what end, Rau? Nothing is free,” replied Din bitterly. He would know.

“In the hope that they would be accepted as Mandalorian. And yet, despite the clear rejection, they are still sending us intel, that I independently verify and not once has it been wrong or a trap. You shouldn’t lose your trust in them on the strength of other people’s spite.”

Din scoffed quietly, his thoughts and emotions too turbulent for anything more articulate.

“Alor— Din,” and now Rau had Din’s undivided attention. “You see agendas where you’ve been told they exist, by those who have long harbored their own hidden agendas. You’re denying what your eyes have seen, on the word of those who keep secrets from you.” Rau sighed, as though steeling himself for something, and held up a comm puck. “This was given to me, to handle as I see fit. I watched it, and I think it best that you see it directly, before I elaborate any further.” Din straightened, and nodded curtly. Rau started the holo, and to Din’s shock, the spectral form of Saviin rose from the device.

Alor Rau, I am sorry for the hastiness of my departure; n’eparavu takisit. I hope this will help explain why, and justify why I must set you with a task to assist the Mand’alor.

“Before the meeting with the Council, you caught the tail-end of my run-in with Bo-Katan Kryze and her followers. I will not bore you with the details; it went as you would expect. Assurances that we would not be accepted in Mandalorian society even if we were legally recognized, potshots at our heritage and genetic makeup, thinly veiled threats. Nothing I didn’t anticipate, but I must ask that you continue to carefully encrypt your comms to us if you should wish to continue speaking with us; there was a great deal of interest in where we live, and I fear there’s now heightened interest in exposing our location.

“After the meeting with the Council heads, which made it clear that the political appetite for our recognition as Mandalorians was nonexistent, I met with the goran of — the Mand’alor’s covert.” Din felt Rau’s half-glance at him for the slip-up. “Fenn, I feel bad because I laughed at the Mand’alor when he asked me if she’d train me. She was never going to; she didn’t even invite me to sit down.” Din stiffened at the insult. He hadn’t known that; why would the Armorer grant the visit if not to welcome her? He’d suspected nothing amiss when he made the request. “I wasn’t allowed to visit in order to discuss training— she simply wanted to warn me to leave. She assumed there was some attachment and informed me that the daughter of a clone was not good enough for the Mand’alor.” Saviin raised her chin and quirked a sad half-smile at that.

“I already knew that. It was never something I allowed myself to entertain. Even if that were his inclination, the political disadvantages of my birthright are such that even a Cin Vhetin would not be honored. Uncle Lucky and b’avodu Truus tried that with clan Eldar; the clan declared her dar’manda and they escaped with her buy’ce and beskad after the clan had taken everything else. The Mand’alor can’t afford that kind of political backlash, and I’d never presume to force the issue.”

The squeak of Din’s gloves was audible as he clenched his fists, watching as she closed her eyes briefly and straightened her posture again, opening those mesmerizing eyes with a stoic expression. “It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that she attempted such a bold warning-off. And then she confirmed: D— the Mand’alor doesn’t know about the Separatist attack on Aq Vetina.” Din’s breath caught. “About the Children of the Watch’s origins. About Kyr’tsad, any of it. He— he has to know. I couldn’t tell him— how would that look? Pretenders to a culture seeking entry, besmirching existing members to gain leverage. Truth is subjective when politics are involved. But Fenn— he has to know. They’re keeping him in the dark, and it’s wrong. The Council members, excepting you and Tris— Wren, have agendas, and they are not subtle about it. They will try to execute their agenda through him by keeping him in the dark; it’s no wonder they were unhappy with how long he visited at our archives, their displeasure when he pushed back with knowledge they didn’t know he had. He is too good, too right for this moment, to be a simple pawn. They can’t be allowed to keep him in the dark. You must find a way to tell him about Aq Vetina, and Kyr’tsad. He must know exactly what he’s facing in Bo-Katan Kryze, what she’s capable of— and the same for the goran who is using him to establish their Creed as the only Way of the Mand’alor. He will be angry, and he might reject it. He may hate m— us, after this,” she paused, biting her lip, “but if this helps him in his quest to restore Mandalore and avoid the machinations of others, I can live with that, it will be worth it. My people know what it’s like to be kept in the dark, to be pawns in the plans of others’ ambitions. Knowledge is power, and it should be his, not theirs. It was a heavy price, but knowledge set my people free. Help him, warn him. I’m sorry to put this on you, but Tristan’s too young to know or remember, and there’s no one else close to the Mand’alor that I trust with this. Vor entye— and if I can pay off that debt with Kote’s hug rolls that you love so much, I will pay handsomely.”

She managed a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Ret’urcye mhi, burc’ya— and please, tell him that no matter what, we will answer the call of the Mand’alor, regardless of our status. Our people believe in him.” She raised a fist across her chest and bowed slightly, obscuring the crumpled expression on her face as the holo ended.

The room was utterly silent as Rau watched Din, expression utterly inscrutable. He didn’t flinch as Din pulled off his helmet, merely observing the riot of emotions apparent in Din’s face. Din could hardly breathe, his skin crawling beneath armor that suddenly felt oppressive instead of safe. He knew, just knew, his whole world was about to be turned upside down, and there was no escape. He had to face this. But in his mind’s eye, he could only see a scared little boy, a red hooded tunic swallowing his form, curled up in a bunker and dreading the next time he’d see daylight.

“Tell me.”

It came out tighter than he wanted. Rau exhaled sharply, his head dropping.

“I thought you knew,” he shook his head sadly. “It seemed odd, but I thought you knew and had somehow made peace with the fact. I never dreamed that they’d kept you in the dark this long.” With a stifled groan, Rau dropped into a seat at the table, while Din elected to stand. Rau seemed unsurprised, and continued. “You talked to Rex and learned about the Siege of Mandalore, right?” At Din’s clipped nod, Rau proceeded. “To explain why Kryze considers herself the heir apparent to ruling Mandalore, and how Aq Vetina happened, you have to go back to the Mandalorian civil wars. Our people had split into three groups; Jaster Mereel led the True Mandalorians. When he fell, his adopted son Jango Fett stepped up and was considered by some the true Mand’alor.”

He nodded knowingly at Din’s startled look. “Yes, Boba’s father, and the template for the clone army. The other factions were the Kyr’tsad, or Death Watch, and the pacifist New Mandalorians who were backed by the Republic. After a terrible battle involving the Jedi and the betrayal of Kyr’tsad, the True Mandalorians were wiped out. Eventually, Fett took his opportunity for vengeance by becoming the template for the clone army after being selected by the Sith Lord Count Dooku; ironically, Dooku was formerly a Jedi who had led the battle that killed the True Mandalorians. Why Jango agreed to work for a man who had destroyed his people, I don’t know; Boba may know more of that story. The New Mandalorians took charge of Mandalore with the support of the Jedi and the Republic, and Kyr’tsad became an exiled terrorist organization. As the Clone Wars went on and Mandalore tried to remain neutral under its pacifist leader, Duchess Satine Kryze, her sister Bo-Katan was second in command to Kyr’tsad leader Pre Vizsla— yes, that Vizsla— and conspired with Dooku to gain control of Mandalore. Clans that supported Kyr'tsad included Saxon, Kast, Rook, and several others; I—” he paused, evidently struggling with what came next, “don’t know to what extent Kyr’tsad members all participated. What I do know is that they worked with the Separatists under Dooku to stage attacks, which would then be thwarted or ended by Kyr’tsad, to demonstrate Mandalore’s weakness under a pacifist leader and rally people to their cause.”

Din felt his stomach drop.

“Aq Vetina?” he managed quietly. Rau nodded, looking down at the table.

“I don’t know much about it, I saw what the Vhett’ikas' archives covered and it wasn’t much more than I heard through the trades, but yes— a coordinated hit with the Separatists to portray Death Watch as the heroes, win converts from the wreckage and with the footage. Kryze worked closely with Vizsla to take down her own sister. When Dooku’s machinations weren’t enough to achieve their goals, they allied with another Sith named Maul, a Zabrak who used to be the apprentice of Dooku’s master. They were using each other, as Maul hoped to use the capture and imminent execution of Satine to lure his longtime nemesis and Satine’s one-time lover, Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Mandalore, to kill him. Vizsla betrayed him, and Maul challenged him for the Darksaber. Maul won, and Kyr’tsad split; Bo-Katan believed an aruetii shouldn’t be Mand’alor, while Saxon and Kast followed the Darksaber. Kenobi came for Satine, and Maul killed her; Bo-Katan helped Kenobi escape, thinking the Jedi would be willing to help her take down a Sith, but they did not come immediately. She then reached out to Ahsoka, who had left the Jedi Order by that time, to ask for help in reclaiming Mandalore from Maul. Ahsoka convinced the Republic to send troopers with her. They fought with the Night Owls to reclaim Mandalore, which you’ve heard from Rex, I’m sure. Maul was beaten and his Mandalorian followers were captured. Some eventually worked for the Empire, ruling Mandalore as proxy. The others… I am not sure.”

“And the Mandalorians who followed Maul,” Din swallowed hard. “What did they look like?”

Rau raised his eyes to meet Din’s, and they could not look more apologetic. It was unbearable.

“Red and black, with horns on the helmet. Before that, the colors of Death Watch— blue and black, with the three white jagged streaks of their symbol, the shriek-hawk.”

Din dropped heavily into the chair, his mind reeling, the sound of explosions roaring in his ears. Memories flashed of blue armor descending from the sky, taking aim on droids, the safety he’d felt in the arms of the Mando who’d rescued him— all a lie. His parents’ death, victims of propaganda and selfish gain. All of those years of loneliness, living in squalor among a harsh people, abiding by a Creed that few followed— but it was his Creed. But was it? Or had he been forced to believe that? Was he seeking the Mines for their absolution, or his own now? Did it even matter?

And Kryze— willing to let her own sister die, to rule Mandalore? Had lost the Darksaber, and rule of Mandalore twice now— and she still wanted, still felt a right to the throne? That made her even more dangerous than he could have guessed. That must have been why Saviin wanted him to know—

His mind screeched to a stop.

Saviin.

She’d known, and hadn’t told him. She made Rau do it. He shut down that train of thought ruthlessly. His mind was in enough turmoil without thinking of the woman who had run away.

“Where’s your head?”

“I can’t—” Din could hardly string a sentence together, rage, grief, betrayal rising and collapsing in on itself.

“Drink.” A mug of shig was thrust into his hands, and it took everything to not throw it.

“I don’t want a drink,” Din snarled, but it was a weak response— he didn’t know what he wanted. Well, that wasn’t true— but those were things he couldn’t have.

“We’re calling your ad,” announced Rau abruptly, pulling Din from his thoughts.

“What? Why?”

“Because I’m old, and I’ve put too much work into seeing you succeed to watch you storm out of here and put some well-deserved holes in Kryze and your Armorer and start another civil war. You need your aliit, so we’re calling them.” Rau resolutely punched the holo transmitter as Din slipped his helmet back on, and the pale blue forms of Grogu, Cerium, and Boba immediately appeared.

“What— how—” Din strained every last nerve to pull himself together for his ad.

“Grogu told Ezra you’d be calling, so we decided to wait up with him and talk as well. He seemed to think it was a good idea, especially when he managed to negotiate an extra cookie for sitting still so long,” Cerium supplied with a smile. The knot in Din’s chest eased, as the waves of turmoil receded. Whatever had happened, whatever he had lost, whatever lies he had been told—he wasn’t alone anymore. He had his clan, and his friends. Din could never repay the debt to the Fetts for hosting his ad and his Jedi teacher at the palace while he dealt with Mandalore. Knowing that his child— children— were safe, made this all a bit easier to bear. Better than endangering him with me— he set aside the guilty spiral for another time. He was doing right by them all this time, it was all he could do.

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting, then.”

“Grogu’s not sorry, he got cookies for his trouble,” Boba grunted.

“How’s the betting pool?”

Boba’s neutral expression soured immediately as Cerium laughed.

“Don’t mind him, it’s all in good fun. There’s a lot of money running on me delivering a boy next week. Our jetii friends can’t partake though, so Ezra’s been hiding whenever the topic comes up, so that he doesn’t spoil it. I’m definitely ready for this little one to arrive though, I feel like a bantha!”

Din smiled slightly, shaking his head. “And Grogu, how are lessons?”

“Patu! Bah bah patu!”

“He’s doing very well, according to Ezra. His meditation continues to improve, as does his control in lifting and moving objects. There was an incident with the orchid last week, but everything is fine now.”

Din sighed, resigned. “Did he try to eat it?”

“What? Oh, no. He was talking to it, and things got kinda weird—”

“Talking to it?”

“Murakami orchids are Force Sensitive.”

Din sighed again. “Of course they are.”

“Anyway, everything’s fine now, it’s bonded to me again, and Ezra’s figured out how to make sure that doesn’t happen again. So, all good.”

“What— you know what, I don’t want to know. If it’s fine now, that’s good enough.” Grogu had to be responsible for half of his gray hair, he was sure. Weird bonding with a flower that sounded suspiciously like possession was somehow not the craziest thing he’d encountered with the kid. Sometimes ignorance was bliss.

Grogu yawned. “I think someone’s ready for bed now, say night-night, Grogu?”

“Bah.”

“Night kid, be good for your ba’vodu’e and baji.”

Boba lingered as Cerium waddled away with Grogu tucked in her arms. “You look like osik, vod.”

Din smirked faintly. “I can always count on you for the unvarnished truth.”

“What is it this time? Princess? The Council? Your cyar’ika?”

“Not mine, vod,” and Boba’s uncharacteristic grin vanished instantly, “and it’s Aq Vetina.”

“What about it?”

“I just found out what Death Watch did to it, to my parents, during the war. It was a false flag. My covert’s a splinter of Death Watch.”

“Fierfek.”

“Yeah.”

For a moment, they just stared at each other.

“So now what?”

“Well, I’m past the urge to murder everyone I find, so I sleep on it, and go back to work tomorrow.”

“Just like that?”

“I— it… won’t bring them back,” Din said slowly. “It won’t change what happened. And how is it different than Saxon or Kast or anyone else who sided with the Empire? Nearly everyone here’s got blood on their hands in some way,” he sighed. His eyes stung, and he looked to the ceiling, willing them to retreat. “I can’t just kick out Kryze, and expelling the goran who named me dar’manda would be equally bad, even if the others think they’re a cult. But I want them kept away. I… am not sure I can handle them right now. I need time. I— want to move up the covert visits. I need space.”

“Did you talk to Saviin’ika yet?”

“No. She’s gone.”

“What?”

“It’s… a lot.”

By the time Din finished explaining, Boba’s expression was now uncharacteristically shocked.

“That doesn’t sound like her. I know you want nothing to do with it right now, but I’m going to see what I can find out. In the long run, she did you a favor, but it’s a shame it didn’t work out.”

“She’s just so… fixated on whether everyone else considers them Mandalorian.”

“What did you expect? She’s a triumvir of a community of clone descendants. They actually want to be considered Mandalorian, unlike me. They want to be claimed. My buir claimed me. He didn’t claim them, so they claimed themselves, and they want it recognized. Makes sense that the need is still there.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Why would you? You were a foundling. You were wanted. They weren’t.”

Maybe it was Boba’s blunt observation. Or the realization that Boba, claimed clone child of Jango Fett, could see what Din could not. But somehow, the words finally sunk in. Manda. No wonder the Armorer’s behavior as well as that of the council hurt her so badly. The sick feeling of failure as a result of his ignorance began to rise once more.

As painful as Boba’s commentary could be, Din needed this. It was Boba’s precision-strike commentary that snapped Din out of a panic-induced spiral when Grogu was taken, that helped him work through those dark days after he gave the child to the Jedi, that helped him come to terms with the state of his soul after that trip to find his covert. Boba’s blunt, terse tough love meant more to Din than he could ever express, especially in moments like this, when he evidently needed his head rammed through a wall to see clearly the other side.

Boba’s other comment suddenly registered.

“You say you’re not Mandalorian. But you live the Resol’nare, you have honor—"

“Of a kind. I could never swear to follow a leader I didn’t believe in, though.” He looked at Din, cocking his head as he would if the helmet were still on. “I might now, if it were you. But it’s a moot point. To them, I’m a clone.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” Din retorted automatically, not even thinking about his words, still caught on the last revelation. His vod would follow him. That— that, in so few words, meant more than Din could possibly hope to tell him. Then Gar Vod’e’s predicament cycled back around in his mind, and the turmoil ramped up once more. Boba’s eyes sharpened.

“No?”

“You live up to all the tenets. You’re Mandalorian."

“Because I have my father’s armor?”

“Because you and your wife support the local orphanages, and you speak the language, you helped me get Grogu back long after any debt was paid. You honor your weapons, all of them, not just the Mandalorian ones or the armor. You live it without flaunting it.”

“And you fought alongside me against the Pykes, even after I told you to scram.”

“This is the Way.”

“Is it?”

Din thought about that. For all the deception, the lies, the betrayal— being Mandalorian was a choice. One of honor, purpose. Boba chose it every day, whether he knew it or not. Din could walk away right now, drop the Darksaber in the mud and never look back. He didn’t have to be a Mandalorian.

Choices. Wasn’t that Saviin had tried to tell him, tried to give back to him? Destiny had happened, yes, but it was only a path, not a sentence. He could choose to walk away. For so long now, he felt out of control, set on quests and impossible missions that he felt he couldn’t turn down. Honor-bound to succeed. Unable to say no, or find another way. Trapped by what he had been told it meant to be a Mandalorian. Now— now, he was Mand’alor. He was the leader they sought, accepted. This— this was the difference now, he could feel it. Between freely choosing, and being forced to accept. He was a Mandalorian, wanted to be a Mandalorian. He was no longer a boy, without options. But the meaning, the values— they were baked into his very marrow, something that no excommunication could claw from him.

He wanted to be a Mandalorian.

And restore what that meant. Find a better way, one that didn’t depend on deception or murder. And they would follow.

Din met Boba’s eyes, and the older man shot him a ghost of a smirk. “Get some rest, kih’vod,” Boba chided him. “You’re not that sad kid sifting through the ashes of his ship for the fragments of his past life, the one who reminded me too much of myself. Not anymore. Your road is long, and littered with skugs and vipers, not to mention Princess there. But you’ve got allies; use them. You’ll figure it out.”

Chapter Text

Saviin sunk deeply into the rhythmic vibrations zinging up her arms, acknowledging and embracing the slight burn in her arms. A request for a metal pole arm had come in, and she’d spent the last few days bathed in the scorching warmth of the forge, pushing the limits of her upper body as she worked the weapon. Gripping the glowing metal with her tongs, she brought her hammer down over and over, watching with satisfaction as the desired shape began to emerge. The end was in sight for this weapon.

Saviin had been the one to suggest a Triumvirate, over the initial objections of the community. She’d agreed to be an alor, but only if she could split the duties sufficiently to keep her smithing. Kote had also agreed to cut back on missions, in order to take the position and ensure Prudii could still go out as often as needed. It had felt selfish to ask, even though a community smith was needed. She needed this, the ability to lose herself in a grueling task, her total focus on pushing physics and chemistry to its limit under the pressure of a furnace, losing herself in the task of making something when the pressure of unsolvable problems proved too much.

She set down the hammer and turned to plunge the metal into the oil barrel, smiling slightly at the tendrils of steam that rose in protest to the sudden introduction of solid heat to the cool reservoir. Saviin wiped her forearm on her upper sleeve and sat down, taking a quick break.

“Buir?”

Saviin turned with a smile just barely strained towards the entrance to the forge, where Kass stood tentatively at the threshold.

“Cabur, little sprout,” Saviin corrected gently, then shot off her seat in alarm as Kass flinched and dropped his head, muttering, “uh, it’s nothing, never mind.”

Saviin dropped her tongs and ripped off her protective gloves, hurrying around the corner of her table to kneel in front of Kass before he could escape the forge. “No, Kass’ika, please— I’ve upset you. Will you please talk to me?”

Kass scrutinized her face, searching for something, then relaxed slightly, nodding. As though summoned by thought, Kiro appeared, scrunched up next to his adoptive brother. A package deal. She saw Til loitering at the corner of the forge, fascinated in the etching of a lantern she’d hung outside. It would have been more convincing if she hadn’t seen him examining it a few days ago when she first crafted it. Standing up and brushing off her leggings, she guided the duo to her bench and pulled up a chair. She left her hands relaxed in her lap, there for the children to take if they wanted comfort. Her heart sank at their hunched shoulders, their wide, wary eyes. She hadn’t seen that look in a couple months now, not since the children had first arrived. But she knew it, all too well. Kiro fidgeted with his nails while Kass tugged on a head tail, agitated yet determined now, his demeanor gaining a borrowed sense of defiance. Hurt me, if you can. Saviin’s heart cracked where it lay in the pit of her stomach.

“We want to know what’s really going on.” The Tholothian seemed to expect Saviin’s confused expression, and soldiered on with his demand. “We think you’re really nice, and out of anyone, you’ll tell us the truth. So tell it. He’s not coming back, is he?”

“I don’t want to assume that I know who—”

“Buir. The Mand’alor. He doesn’t want us anymore, does he.” Kiro’s shoulders hunched in further, as though to protect himself from the truth. A quick glance at Til by the door revealed that the boy had stiffened, utterly still, staring determinedly at the lantern.

“T'ika, come here, please,” Saviin called softly. He jumped, then shuffled in, head hung low. He remained standing but leaned heavily against Saviin. She wrapped an arm around him, pulling him close. “Do you think this because he’s been gone so long? Or did something else happen to give you this idea?”

Kass aimed for a knowing, bitter look; he couldn't quite hide the marrow of his emotion— betrayal.

“C’mon, Buir,— I mean Cabur,” the word bit out like a repudiation, “it’s been how long? He calls once in a while, doesn’t know when he’ll see us again. You’re more of a buir, from what we can tell, and even you won’t claim us. We’re not stupid. We’ve been left before. I just want you to be honest and tell us the truth. Cuz if he doesn’t want us anymore, we’d like to stay here with you. And if you don’t want us, we wanna know where we’re going next, and if we can’t at least stay together.”

Saviin bit her lip, but the tears wouldn’t obey, spilling down her cheeks. He was trying so hard to be brave, to face a future he’d already seen before, one he should never have known. And she wanted nothing more than to claim them, reassure them of their place in her heart, in her home.

And she had no right to do it. Never would.

Ner cyar’iike, you will always have a home here. You are the lights of my life, my little sprouts, and you will always be welcome here. I love your visits to my forge, and your stories. I am overjoyed to watch you learn and grow and make friends. No matter where you are, I will hold you in my heart forever— I just can’t claim you as my own. I would, in a heartbeat. But you have a buir already. So I love you like you’re mine, and you can always, always come here. And I will always, always be there for you, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Do you understand?”

Kass and Kiro leapt off the bench and threw themselves between Saviin’s knees at her chest. Wrapping her free arm around them, she held the three boys close.

“I know you’ve been through so much already. I wish I could take that away from you. It’s normal to be afraid. And I will be here to reassure you every time you need it. And when I have to travel, I will always do everything in my power to come back. I want to see my beautiful sprouts grow up, and see the amazing things you will do. Okay?”

She felt their nodding heads.

“Just know,” Kiro’s voice was muffled against her shoulder, “we’re still gonna call you Buir anyway. You can’t claim us, but we’re gonna claim you. We don’t care if that’s against the rules.” The Kiffar and the Tholothian made noises of agreement, and Saviin let loose a shaky sigh, trying to will the tears to stop.

“As for your real buir,” and at that the three boys leaned back to look at her, complicated expressions wrinkling all three faces. “I know for a fact that Din’buir truly loves you, and wishes you were with him. If he wasn’t so worried for your safety, you’d be with him now. Do you understand? He keeps you here because you’re safe here, not because he doesn’t want to see you.”

“It’s not fair,” the Togruta bit his lip with his sharp teeth.

“I know, Kir’ika. But he wants you to have a safe, happy life, and right now, the only place that’s possible is here. But he’s the Mand’alor; he has many responsibilities, and they’re trying to rebuild Mandalore, to make it a place where you can live safely and happily with him. It’s hard, boring work, getting people to agree and get organized, and dangerous when people don’t agree. Remember, I visited and saw it. It wouldn’t be very fun to be there right now, there are no other children. It won’t always be that way; once things are set up, he’ll have the time he really wants to be spending with you.”

Til made a disbelieving sound; it was the saddest thing Saviin had ever heard.

“You know, in Mandalorian culture, there is a word for when a child repudiates, or rejects their parent. Dar’buir. No-longer parent. Children who have bad, abusive parents can reject them. But there is no word for a parent who rejects their children. You know why? Because children are precious to us, and we honor our promise and responsibility to them. Din’buir has committed to you, claims you as his own children, and loves you. It’s a vow he won’t break, and he’s trying to honor that by keeping you safe here until his work on Mandalore is done. It’s hard, I know— no one knows how long it’ll take, but when it’s done, he will come for you. I’m not sure how to help you believe that, but if you trust me, I believe it, and I hope you can believe me when I say it.”

“So— it was all true? What he said? He wasn’t lying?” Kass’s eyes could not have been any larger or more hopeful. “He meant it that we’re his kids and he’ll come back for us?”

“Yes, Kass’ika. He meant it.”

“He can’t take it back?”

“No, Kir’ika.”

“I miss him,” Til mumbled into her shoulder, and she pulled them all close again, giving them a gentle squeeze.

“It’s hard, I know. I wish I could tell you when he’ll be back. But we can call him, if that would help. And I am here for you, however you need it. And you have the chance to learn lots in school to prepare you for Mandalore, and becoming a Mandalorian. That’s good, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Kiro nodded, perking up. “I like school.” I should have recorded that, Saviin smiled.
“And let’s call Buir.”

“Great. I’ll tell baji’Ver’ika to contact—”

“Why don’t you do it?”

Saviin startled, staring at Til. “What?”

“Why don’t you call Buir and set it up? You used to, before you left to see him with baji’Senaar.” Kass was now watching her awfully closely.

“Did you get in a fight?” Kiro also eyed her. Til’s expression was far more guarded.

“No, we didn’t fight—”

“You’re lying.” Saviin stared at Til, who stared right back. “You said you wouldn’t lie.”

Saviin closed her eyes, a gentle sigh escaping her lips. This hurt. She opened her eyes to her lap.

Ni ceta, Til. I did promise I wouldn’t lie. It’s just hard to explain. I upset the Mand’alor, and I am trying to give him space until he feels comfortable talking to me again. Please don’t ask me for details. And please don’t worry— it has no effect on how much I love you, or how much he loves you. It’s just between us. I’m sure in time he’ll… well. It’ll be fine. In the meantime, it’s just easier to let baji’Ver’ika and Alor Rau coordinate the calls.”

Yes. Some day, Din would forget his feelings, and they’d return to cordial relations. And it would be fine. It’d have to be fine. She would make it fine.

Suddenly, a small forehead was pressed into her own, and she looked up slightly to see Til’s face right near her own, his dark brown eyes filled with adoration.

“We love you, Buir. No matter what.” Saviin bit her lip as Kiro and Kass crowded in to deliver their own kov’nyn, echoing Til’s affirmation. Her chest ached as it strained to contain the supernova of emotion inside her. It had never occurred to her how easily they could slip behind her defenses and steal her heart. How effortlessly she’d come to love them as though they were her flesh and blood. How dangerous such an attachment could be. She knew, just knew, that she’d happily give her life for these sweet boys, without a second thought.

And giving them back would someday irreparably shatter it.

 


 

“… and so we return again to the topic of munitions.”

The councillor from Clan Rook stared around the table expectantly as he continued to drone on about current efforts to stockpile materiel and weapons supplies to establish a depot. Din sighed internally. He had not missed these daily meetings for the past three weeks while visiting coverts, only calling in when possible, but he’d hoped that today, finally, they could talk about community planning, specifically the school system; yet here they were, back to ammo. Again.

“You’re the Mand’alor. You set the agenda, it’s your vision they should be executing.”

Of course the council rejected the one person who advocated for implementing his agenda. No one had even asked what his agenda was, apart from Rau and Wren. He couldn’t expect them to fight that particular battle for him, though. He needed an advocate, an ally on this council, and had made no headway. Of course not, he mused, as the Rook clan councillor’s voice buzzed on. You’re a bounty hunter, not a diplomat. The Lone Warrior. Worst possible candidate for nation-building.

(Saviin didn’t think so)

He squashed that thought immediately. She’d rejected him, and his people had rejected her. She’d kept things from him. She’d answer if he called on her, of course she’d do her duty. But seeing her face, reading her words, knowing that’s all he’d ever—

Din’s comm pinged inside his helmet; he opened the message.

Hey mud scuffer, if you don’t respond to this one I’m going to make Greef put a bounty on you. Fennec says you’re ignoring us. Send proof of life— preferably with a life update— or bounty goes up tomorrow. Dune.

How Cara of all people had found out about Saviin, was a question worth a bounty on its own. Probably Fennec; Cerium wouldn’t have turned on him. Din supposed this was the cost of having good friends. The nosy kriffers.

Din flexed his hands unconsciously. He was fine, it was all fine. He’d figure it out on his own. Saviin gave him some good advice, he could take it from here.

Din checked back in on the meeting. The councillor from Clan Awaud now stood, reporting on their efforts to secure agreements with the Bounty Hunters Guild to generate income.

I am so karked.

In a pause, Tristan interjected. “Apologies, council, but the hour ends and we must conclude this meeting. We shall resume tomorrow where we left off today.”

And the schools go undiscussed once more.

Rau and Tristan lingered as the councillors filed out, until only the three men remained. No one spoke for a moment, the air too heavy to lighten even with a joke. They all knew it was a wasted hour, a whole precious hour that could have been put to use elsewhere.

“Shig?” Tristan finally offered, then stood and grabbed three mugs and the pot, bringing them to the conference table.

Five quiet minutes later, Rau finally spoke. “We need to think about restructuring these meetings. They’re getting bogged down on pet projects, and the critical topics are skipped.”

Din nodded, but said nothing. What did he know about project management? Receive puck, buy supplies, set course, plan attack, execute, receive funds. Nothing in his training prepared him for such a complicated endeavor.

Tristan opened his mouth, then shut it.

“Go ahead, Wren. I want to hear your thoughts,” Din encouraged wearily.

“We know people who have done this. On a smaller scale, but they know how to balance the immediate needs against long-term planning. How to ensure all aspects of a community are addressed adequately.”

There was no need to identify who “they” were.

“Pose the question. See what advice can be provided. You’d think clan heads used to running families would already know this, but clearly we need some outside perspective,” Din sighed.

“Yes, Alor.”

“I think we need to talk again about creeds, and who can be Mandalorian,” Rau stated baldly, and Tristan risked a nervous glance at Din. “Establishing a system without having the baseline philosophies agreed-upon is kicking the can down the road.”

“You heard the Nite Owls, and Rook, Saxon, and Kast clans,” Din replied wearily, his tone betraying his feeling. “They want to get a rudimentary system in place before philosophical differences pull us apart again.”

“That’s osik, and we all know it,” Rau replied sharply, and Tristan began chugging his shig. “We are leaving potentially valuable insight out of the equation simply because we’re not willing to make the hard decisions first.”

Tristan stood up, setting his mug on the sideboard. “I’m gonna go make that call,” he mumbled, and fled as quickly as he could. Rau rolled his eyes, then pinned them on Din. Din chose that moment to conveniently lift his helmet to drink, blocking his view of Rau’s piercing gaze.

“You know they’re doing this deliberately.”

Abruptly, Din dropped his helmet back down and faced Rau, startled. “What?”

“They’re dragging this out— the Nite Owls, Saxon, Rook, Kast— so that you take too long to find the Living Waters and re-establish Mandalore. The longer it takes, the more it looks like you’re not up to the job, the longer they have to whisper in ears and spread doubt. We are running out of time. They’re also blocking the discussion, because they know that the inclusion of new clan heads like Gar Vod’e and Skirata will tip the balance of the Council in your favor.”

Din leaned back, helmet tilted accusingly. “Speaking of, you could have told me that the Skirata clan was another clone covert, before we showed up. That introduction with Alor Venku Skirata would have been a lot smoother.”

Rau shot him a look. “I asked you if you knew anything about Kal, and mentioned that he trained the army. You didn’t ask any follow-up questions. Not my problem that you didn’t recon first. Would you have refused to visit if you had known?”

“No. I just might have avoided tense topics, like why they’re separate from Gar Vod’e, or anything that would lead to threats of kneecapping by ten-year-olds.”

Rau shrugged. “The Nulls were always rude, no surprise that their kids and grandkids are the same. It was bound to come up and be an issue, anyway. At least it worked out in the end. Now, getting back to the sabotage by the Council.”

Din continued to stare at Rau as the man maintained a level gaze at him and lifted his mug for a long pull. The delay tactics made sense. And it’s not like Din had made it hard to do so. He didn’t know what he was doing

(Not good enough, never good enough—)

“I haven’t found any new leads,” Din admitted, hating how helpless he sounded. “And I can’t let Kryze challenge me yet, not while I’m still declared dar’manda by the Armorer.”

Rau nodded, his expression grim. “I haven’t received anything new from Ver’ika, either— other than the file you asked for, of course. I can ask, but I know if she had found something, she’d tell us.” He sighed. “Maybe it’s time for some ka’ra osik. Get your ad, see if he can help.”

“Grogu’s not exactly…” Din struggled to find the words. “He’s an ikaad? And the Jedi magic is unpredictable. I’m not sure how much help he’ll be. But you’re right, it's the only option we have now. If he can’t help—”

“You may have to simply let Kryze challenge you, and manage the fallout,” Rau’s expression had soured, as though the thought alone held a disgusting flavor.

“Try contacting Ver’ika, and I’ll leave for Tatooine in a few days. The Fetts had their baby, and everyone’s healthy, so the jetii’ade don’t need to be there anymore. Did Ver’ika say anything about the Death Watch file request?”

“You know them— all she said was that if there are any follow-on topics you’d like information on, just let her know. They’re just happy to help, they don’t second-guess your requests.”

“I’ll read it on the flight to Fett’s, let you know if I need more. Actually, ask her for the Mandalorian Civil Wars—”

“She already included it, everything pre-Empire, she guessed that you’d be curious about the origins of Death Watch as well."

Rau’s gaze had turned speculative again; Din had learned to be wary of that look. He began chugging his own shig. The herbal infusion soothed his senses, restored a feeling of clarity.

First, finish the shig, escape, contact Fett—

Which will be an awkward conversation; their last holo had been about Saviin, and Boba had done a lot of shouting.

“Vod, she left. What do you want me to do about it? Hunt her down?”

“I want you to fight, di’kut. You karking know where she lives. Stop being a laandur and fight, or better yet, use your karking words, if she means that much to you. You’re a Mandalorian, for dank’s sake. Start acting like it. Then call me when it’s done so that Cerium, Fennec and Cara can stop badgering me for updates. I’m a crime lord, not a holo-drama narrator. ”

Din reconsidered his plan. Finish the shig, escape, contact Cerium—

“Have you talked to her?”

Din choked.

“Wha— who—” he spluttered, coughing up the herbal liquid.

Rau rolled his eyes. “I am too old for this osik,” he complained, shifting in his chair with a grunt. “Saviin. Have you talked to her since she left? Since the holo?”

Din tried to hold his gaze, but ultimately looked away. “No. She did her duty. There’s no need to call.”

He looked back at Rau, whose eyebrows had raised in a spectacularly impressive expression of disappointment.

“Ka'ra. You mean to tell me that after hosting you for months, taking in your foundlings and a Mandalorian clan, traveling here at your request, ensuring that you were given information that should never have been denied to you— you haven’t talked to her?” Din fought the urge to squirm.

“Are you saying I owe her something?”

“Are you— are you saying that you don’t?” Rau spluttered, incredulous.

“Rau. She knew all along and left without saying anything. How can I trust—”

“That’s not true,” interrupted Rau. “I spoke to Ver’ika about it. None of them knew you were from Aq Vetina, not until the girls arrived here. When you mentioned that you were a Foundling from Aq Vetina orphaned during the Clone Wars, she sent her mother a request for more information because it sounded familiar— ominously so— but she didn't want to pain you with sharing more details. Her mother sent her the file right before her meeting with the Council. Do you remember asking her if she felt okay, and she played it off as nerves? It wasn’t that— not entirely. She had just read the file, and was absorbing the implications of that history and who you now surrounded yourself with. And she didn’t know at that point that you were unaware. It was only during her meeting with the Armorer that the full realization hit, and you just happened to catch her right after that moment. And of course she couldn’t tell you. Remember her words? How would that look, a pretender culture besmirching existing Mandalorian clans to gain entry. So she sent it to me— because as a Protector with no clan or personal interests, I could give you the unaltered history. And she was right— you deserved to know exactly who you were working with. I would have told you sooner if I had known you weren’t aware. Saviin figured it out first.”

Din stared into space, letting these facts sink in.

“You just had to fall for the one woman who has more humility and sense of duty than you, didn’t you?” Rau huffed irritably, groaning as he shifted again in his chair. “Truly exhausting to watch. They’re going to call you two Mand’alor the Humble and Rid’alor the Dutiful, mark my words. That is, if either of you ever put your own wants first for once.” Din stood up, too full of— something— to sit still any longer.

“I think you’re overstating her interest, Rau. She left.”

“She was upset, and you ordered them to leave. You never gave her a chance to calm down and reconsider.”

“That’s not—” he cut himself off. That was exactly what had happened.

Rau stared at him, then deadpanned, “Mand’alor the Blind. Mand’alor the Shortsighted. Mand’alor the Pining—”

“Rau. She made it pretty clear she wasn’t interested. She didn’t even realize I was trying to court her. I—” kark, this was hard to admit, “I practically begged her to stay, and she wouldn’t.”

Rau’s expression softened into something that was arguably worse than the condescension.

“Djarin, that’s not why she left. If all she had to worry about were her own feelings, she would have stayed. She made that pretty damn clear in the holo. She didn’t say that dumb di’kut thought I liked him, what a shab. She said, it was never something I allowed myself to entertain. Even if that were his inclination, the political disadvantages of my birthright are such that even a Cin Vhetin would not be honored. The Mand’alor can’t afford that, and I’d never presume to force the issue. It wasn’t you— not you as a person, anyway. A woman who says she won’t “let” herself feel something means she’s certainly feeling it, and trying to deny herself the hope that something could come of it, because the deck is stacked against it.”

“Rau—”

“Did she specifically state that she didn’t care for you?”

Din thought back to that fraught day. He’d replayed it over and over in his mind, laying awake deep into the night for weeks, wondering where it had gone wrong. He’d asked her, “Are you saying that you don’t feel the same?”

And she would have told him directly, gently, if she didn’t feel the same. He knew her, knew her style. She would have been honest, letting him down as easily as possible. And she hadn’t. She'd been evasive, uneven, distraught.

“No. I asked her that, and she didn’t answer the question.”

“Because she won’t lie to you. She clearly cared enough to take in your Foundlings and love them like her own. She cared enough to listen to you work through your questions and doubts in her forge. I watched her closely; she couldn’t help but reach out to you, even as she tried to remain professional and respectful and fight that connection. She cared enough to attempt to avoid putting you in a position where your status or ability to lead could be questioned. Simply put, while she has great pride in her family, she knows that in the eyes of other Mandalorians, she’s too lowly to be considered a good match for you. The Armorer told her so, do you remember what she said in response? I already knew that. And to spare you and herself, she told herself that it wasn’t happening, even as the rest of us saw the signs. But for all her analysis and planning, she didn’t factor in the possibility of you actually falling for her as well.”

Din stood in silence, absorbing the information as Rau continued.

“You forget that for all her humility and sense of duty, she’s a leader. Mentored by both her mother and father, trained by Command-Class clones, and a self-trained goran. Leadership might be a democratic effort in the Haven, and Kote is the undisputed leader, but Saviin has been groomed for politics and leadership for decades now, and she’s better than most. She’s the undisputed advisor. It’s what makes her so dangerous to people like Kryze, and even your Armorer; to anyone who has a very specific vision for the future of Mandalore. You’ve seen how her ideas have riled up your council; surely you saw the looks they shot her when you pushed back on them, certain that it was her doing. To be fair, her acumen could be dangerous for you too, if she had her own agenda. I watched for that, too. But she’s opened up their archives to anything you could want, encouraged you to not take the information on faith alone, and has repeatedly rejected opportunities to further specific goals, let alone personal ones. She’s assessed the status of Mandalore, the political makeup, the alliances and rivalries. They are concerningly well-informed on this point; the clans here have been sloppy. She likely made the decision to deny her heart from the first time you met, prioritizing your goals and political needs over her personal ones.

“Then layer on that her duty to her people. Unwanted cannon fodder, who dared to dream of freedom, or community. Who had arguably lived the Resol’nare and the Supercommando Codex more fully than most bucket-heads here. They are her whole world, and in accepting a leadership role, she promised to care for them, to put their needs ahead of her own. And if they are rejected as unworthy of Mandalorian society, that must mean she is unworthy as well, and honor-bound to keep them safe as best she can, away from Manda’yaim. She cannot make the verde accept the clones. And when you found her, she had just listened to Kryze’s vitriol, the Council’s apathy, and the Armorer’s condemnation that the daughter of a clone wasn't good enough for the Mand’alor. Faced with that, and the knowledge that my duty to keep my clan safe remained, I would have done the same. Senaar could entertain the option of staying; she had the freedom to pursue her stubbornness, that Saviin’s duty prevented. And in the end, they both left, because the goals of the Mand’alor took precedence over their personal feelings. Senaar would not ask Tristan to choose her over his duty, nor compromise his effectiveness on your council with whispers over her heritage. Those are not the actions of women who don’t care. Senaar told Tristan that Saviin’s aura is still a thick wall of gray and white. Grief, and love. Does that sound like someone who doesn’t care?”

Rau fell silent now, simply watching his Mand’alor pace and mull over these revelations.

Unwanted. Unworthy. Not good enough. If anyone was unworthy of her love, it was Din.

Din stopped abruptly, and turned to Rau.

“Rau, I’ve been a di’kut.”

Rau chuckled. “Welcome to the club. Women have that effect, you know.”

“So— what now?”

Rau eyed him speculatively. “What do you want to happen?”

This had to be done right. He had failed too many times already. He had to do better, be better, then maybe it would be enough— “If there is any hope for a future for me with Saviin, Mandalore must welcome all, including clones. And if she— if there is no— it is still the right thing to do. It should be The Way.” There was a strange ringing in his head as he said those words, and he felt the truth of them in the marrow of his bones, a sensation that crowded out the gaping chasm in his chest at the thought that for her, it might not be enough— shaking off the feeling, he continued. “Tristan should continue his efforts, but I want you specifically to look into whether and how I can change the laws to support this. Ones to undo, loopholes to close up, all of it. I want it to be my first official act after I answer Kryze’s challenge. I will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of birth, species, or ability.”

Rau nodded approvingly. “Then what?”

Din shook his head. “I have no idea. But my place is on Mandalore, and I have to start by making Mandalore a potential home for her too.” Din cocked his helmet at Rau’s stare. “What?”

Rau looked impressed, smiling faintly. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you state that your place is on Mandalore, and really mean it. It’s encouraging.”

“Rau, I just want a safe place to raise my growing collection of ade to be warriors in their own right, safe from Kryze’s population-killing warmongering. All Mando’ade deserve that.”

Rau chuckled. “Mand’alor the Humble. Who would have thought.”

Din sighed, turning to look out the window. “Sav’ika did,” he murmured softly.

“When’s the last time you talked to your ade at the Haven?”

“Too long,” Din sighed again, a familiar guilt gnawing at him again. Fool to think I’d ever be enough, my own children don’t get enough of my time. “What time is it there?”

Rau glanced at the chrono. “Not too late. I’ll call Ver’ika and she can round them up.”

Before long, four shining faces appeared in the holo, and Rau stepped out to give them privacy.

Buir!”

“Adiike,” Din smiled, and was glad they could see it. They were his children, and he was glad to share his face with them.

“We miss you buir,” Maddi’s pale face was screwed up in an attempt to not cry, and Din’s heart twisted.

“I miss you all so much, ner ade. We are busy building a home for you here. It won’t be long now. Are you all doing well there?”

He listened as Til gave a recital of their activities over the past few weeks, notable firsts (lost teeth, first fight won) and a variety of craft projects were dragged in front of the holo projector for his review and acclaim. Guilt for all he’d missed warred with pride for their accomplishments, and he greedily drank in the glow of victory and joy that suffused their bright little eyes, even in the ghostly pale of the holo.

“Lookit, lookit what I made, buir! And Til helped!” Maddi waved a panel wildly, the blurry movement nearly nailing Kass in the eye before Kiro snatched the edge and helped control the wild swings.

“Hang on, bring it closer to the projector.” It looked vaguely like— but it couldn’t be— “it’s, ah, hard to see, what is it?”

“It’s a picture of Sav’buir’s necklace,” Til supplied, a pained tone in his voice. He seemed offended at the implication that it wasn’t a good imitation.

“He dwew it, and I colored it in!”

“Sav’buir— I mean, Saviin has a necklace?”

“Uh huh, a pretty green rock, sparkly. She said it was a gift, she made it into a pendant all by herself and wears it on a leather cord. Senaar said she’d make me some beads that I could paint and give to her to wear on the necklace with the rock.”

“Yup. She never takes it off. I think it’s a lucky charm, she likes to hold it when she’s sad,” commented Kiro, frowning slightly at the thought. “Doesn’t seem to be working though.”

She had it. She kept it for herself, as he’d hoped, and she wore it— still wore it. That had to mean something, didn’t it? Holds it when she’s sad. A strange sense of hope unspooled in his chest, coursing quickly through his veins. He had no idea when he’d see her again, and yet this kernel of knowledge, coupled with Rau’s assessment, led him to conclude there was a reasonable chance that all was not lost with her.

And he’d done a lot, on less than a reasonable chance of success.

“Buir, can you tell more of the story?” Kiro’s sharp eyes pierced him through the projector.

“Of course. Where did we leave off?”

“The Lone Warrior met the Flower Queen, received the Enchanted Thorn from the Flower Queen, and had left to search for more clues to find the cave where the fount was hidden.”

Din bit back a sigh. So long ago.

“Right. So, with the Lone Warrior back on the quest, the Flower Queen contemplated the state of the desolate kingdom. Her heart ached that the people there suffered so. The enchanted garden was too small to take them all. But the flower people had secret and magical ways that they could improve the lives of the people in the desolate kingdom, even while the Lone Warrior continued on his quest. And so the Flower Queen left the beloved sprouts in the tender care of her people, and departed from the safety of her enchanted garden, to travel to the desolate kingdom, in hopes that she could aid the people there. She hoped that she could show them the ways of her flower people, ease their suffering, and find a new path forward, even if the Lone Warrior couldn’t find the fount.”

“But he will!”

“Ah, but he hasn’t yet, has he? And the Flower Queen was very wise. She knew that there were many things that could be done while the Lone Warrior searched for the fount, and that the people of the desolate kingdom needed a backup plan, in case it could never be found. She did not want them to suffer any longer.

“But the Red Shriek-hawk knew she was coming, and hated her. She thought the Queen’s soft petals and strange ways were a threat to her plans, and did not want the Queen’s help. So she used her dark magic to summon a great wind, that blew the Flower Queen away from the desolate kingdom, and tore at her beautiful petals.”

“Oh no!”

“I’m afraid so. And the Lone Warrior did not find out until it was too late. His search had taken him to a spooky, dark forest, full of dangerous creatures. He battled his way through, slaying beasts ten times his size and growing weary with the effort, until he came to the center of the forest. He was weary, and confused. This was supposed to be a good lead, and he had hunted well, but there was nothing here but a small stream. ‘The Flower Queen was false, and has led me astray!’ he cried in despair. ‘I shouldn’t have trusted her!’

“No she didn’t! She wouldn’t!”

“I know, ade, but the Lone Warrior was alone, tired, confused, and in despair. He was not as wise as you. With no other plan in mind, he sat by the stream. The water looked delicious, and he was thirsty. So he drunk his fill, and fell asleep. He woke up suddenly, but he could not see! The Red Shriek-hawk had sent one of her followers to track and trick the Lone Warrior, and poisoned him as he slept.

‘“You fool!’ The traitor cried. ‘You have fallen for our tricks! You are lost in the Forest of Deception and now blind! You shall remain here forever until your body molders into dust, and the enchanted thorn and your precious armor shall be stripped from your carcass! And then we shall destroy your precious Flower Queen and her people, for their strange ways!’ Blinded but certainly not dead, he swung out with the enchanted thorn and struck the traitor, who retreated to tend their wounds. The Lone Warrior was safe, but now alone and blind in the Forest of Deception. All seemed so very dark and hopeless. Who would help him? Who would even hear him if he called out for help?

“Suddenly, he heard the voice of an old man. ‘Hail, Lone Warrior!’ ‘I would greet you, stranger, but I cannot see,’ said the Lone Warrior. ‘Are you friend or foe?’ ‘That is a matter of perception, and you have none being blind right now. But if you will trust me, I can restore your sight.’ It was hard. The Lone Warrior had long been alone, unable to trust anyone. He still felt confused about the Flower Queen. But he needed the old man, and decided to trust him. ‘What must I do?’ ‘You must listen carefully to me,’ the old man said, ‘as I speak the Words of Illumination. Then your eyesight will be restored.’ So the Lone Warrior listened carefully, absorbing each word and fully understanding, until he blinked and his sight was restored.

“‘I am in your debt,’ said the Lone Warrior. ‘There is no debt,’ replied the wise old man. ‘I only ask that you allow yourself to listen well, and you will know whether they are trustworthy or not. The Flower Queen did not lead you astray; that was the work of the Red Shriek-hawk. Now that you can listen, you will understand and trust only the trustworthy. You will need allies on your quest, and you must let them help you.’ ‘I will,’ said the Lone Warrior, ashamed that he had ever doubted his cyar’sarad. ‘Will I ever see you again?’ ‘Of course,’ chuckled the wise old man. ‘I will always appear when you need help and are willing to listen.’ And with that, he vanished in a flash of light.”

“Wow,” Til breathed. He leaned against his brother, heavy eyes fighting to stay awake.

“But what about the Flower Queen? Will she be all right?” Kiro’s eyes were wide and anxious.

Will you, Saviin? Will you be all right?

“I hope so. But we will have to save the rest of the story for another time. It is time for bed now.”

“Okay. Night, buir.”

“Good night, ner cyar’iike. Sleep well.”

Chapter Text

Part 3: The Palace of the Sand Mother

Chapter 25: Ade

 

“Su cuy'gar, alor’e,” Saviin bit down on a smile at Cerium’s accent, a curious mixture of her native Tatooinian and Boba’s clear Concordian-Kaminoan influence.

Su’cuy, ba’vodu Cerium,” Saviin nodded formally, while Prudii and Kote echoed the gesture behind her. Really need a formal comms center, mused Saviin for the hundredth time as she and her siblings crowded around the kitchen table to get in view of the holo. “Our congratulations to you and your new ikaad.”

“Thank you,” Cerium’s smile was tired yet very proud. “She is a very good baby, and Boba is already as overprotective as you can imagine. Which is partially why I am calling.”

“What can we do to help? I seriously doubt we can manufacture a reason serious enough to give you a moment’s peace from your doting riduur,” Prudii teased. Kote’s expression was muted, yet disapproving of this notion. Saviin suspected that he sympathized with Boba in this instance.

“Nothing of the sort, I assure you. Rather, I would like to request your presence at the palace for a few weeks, Saviin, as well as Ruusaan,” Cerium replied.

Saviin fought to keep her expression neutral. “We can certainly arrange for that, I’m assuming you’d like for an immediate departure and we can accommodate that. But I’m not sure how helpful I will be; I do not assist in the creche as often as the others. Surely another—”

“No, I quite insist that you come, Saviin,” Cerium gently yet firmly cut her off, and Saviin’s mouth snapped shut. “Your presence is required for a dual purpose, my dear. I know for a fact that you are underselling your helpfulness with children, as I hear you are quite the favorite with the Mand’alor’s five foundlings. And my riduur wishes to discuss contingencies with the Haven. Your presence will be needed if negotiations with the Tuskens take place, as a diplomatic courtesy. Which, to that end, I think you should bring wood.”

“Wood?” The three siblings stared blankly at each other.

“Yes. Call it a feeling. Wood is precious here, and I think you may need it.”

“Ah. Well, this is a forested planet, that should be easy to accommodate. We’ll bring water as well, more certainly can’t hurt.”

“Most generous of you. We look forward to your arrival.” After a few more pleasantries, the call ended. Savin rounded on her siblings.

“So, who wants to fess up?” They stared at her blankly.

“Come on,” Saviin frowned impatiently. “That was hardly subtle. Clearly one of you has an opinion and thinks a change of scenery would do me good. At least tell it to my face.”

“I did.”

Saviin’s head snapped to the doorway of her mother’s bedroom, where she stood, arms crossed, expression serene. Saviin sighed. “I can’t leave the kids, what were you thinking? I just told them I’m not going anywhere. They’re already so worried that they don’t hear from— the Mand’alor often. I can’t leave.”

“You can and you will,” Ver'ika responded firmly. “And we will reaffirm to them daily that you are coming back. You need a change of scenery, and we need better contingencies established, now that we are interacting with Mandalore more. You know this.”

Saviin looked to Kote, who shrugged, deferring back to her. “This is more your area of expertise than mine. But more contingencies sounds like a good idea.”

She sighed. “Fine. I will go. But I will only stay for three weeks. With as many missions as we have going, and Kote going out more often, I can’t afford to stay away too long. And it is not for a change of scenery.”

Kote wrapped his arms around his eldest sister as Prudii snorted, drifting over to the counter to grab a jogan. “You keep telling yourself that.”

“Prud’ika,” Ver'ika responded sharply, and Kote hugged Saviin tighter against Prudii’s harsh words. “Uncalled for. Sav'ika, the last few months have been a lot for us all, but for you more than anyone. A change of pace will do you good. Think of it as an opportunity to get immersed in another culture, glean what useful ideas there are, and bring them back to us. Like a research trip. Build bonds with extended family. All things you excel at, but don’t get to do often from here.”

Saviin grumbled, even as she leaned back into her older brother’s embrace. Kote gave the best hugs. “Still suspicious, but I’ll allow it. I’ll go pack.”

“After dinner.”

“I’ll go pack after dinner,” Saviin amended. Prudii snorted again.

“Don’t bother. If you really want to immerse yourself, buy local once you’re there. Tatooine’s hot, arid, everything we’re not. Your clothes are too heavy for that environment.”

“A diplomatic babysitting trip is not an excuse to spend precious credits on a shopping spree,” Saviin retorted severely. Kote’s sigh of exasperation ruffled her hair.

“When’s the last time you splurged on yourself, Sav'ika?” he cajoled. “You don’t even keep the profits of your smith work. Live a little, vod’ika.”

“I’ll be fine, Kodes. It’s just a couple of weeks.”

“Well now that that’s settled, let’s get dinner going, since it’ll be our last as a family for a few weeks. Kot’ika, can you pull those delicious rolls out? We’ll have them on the side with the tiingilar. Prud’ika can help me pull lettuce from the garden for the salad.”

“Sure, Mama.” Kote gave Saviin one last squeeze, then made for the kitchen, kissing his mother’s cheek on the way. Saviin smiled at the domestic scene, then felt it fall as she pulled plates and cutlery for the table, wondering at the ache in her chest that resided alongside the love for her family. It wasn’t the anticipated loss of being apart; it was a strange, here-and-now loss, that something should be here that wasn’t. She shook her head, pushing the feeling down. It was ridiculous, and served no purpose. The only here-and-now feeling she should have is the love and comfort of her family, and admittedly some excitement in exploring a new planet. For all the derision directed at the dustball planet, Tatooine held several vibrant cultures, and a certain grit to persist in such a desolate landscape. Surely there was much to learn from such a place. Maybe even lessons that could be applied to repopulating Mandalore.
Mandalore.

Everything always went back to Mandalore.

Saviin exhaled slowly, pushing away the pressure on her chest, glancing out the window at the darkening sky, to the inky black pines standing stark against a radiant sunset.

 

“There’s just one thing I don’t understand, buir,” Saviin stared up at the looming figure of her father as he reached for the top of the greenhouse and adjusted a pane. She had been nine.

“Just one?”

“Buir,” Saviin complained, then wound it in, preferring to have her question answered over the inevitable teasing if she persisted in whining. “Boba works for the Empire. The Mandalorians are controlled by the Empire. Why do we protect Mandalorian heritage for Mandalore, instead of for ourselves, if all the Mandalorians are part of the Empire and we don’t want to be?”

Buir looked down, turning his heavily scarred face towards hers. He ran a hand through thick silver hair. “Why ask me this? Why not your mother?”

Saviin frowned at the question. “I think… because she’ll give me one answer. And there might be more than one answer. So I want to hear yours.”

Buir’s eyebrow shot up. “Perceptive.” He sat down heavily with a grunt on a log, hands reaching towards his aching knees, pulling back before he touched them.

“I don’t know if Boba considers himself Mandalorian. I’m not sure that Prime— Jango Fett— did, by the end. He’s got the armor, but that’s only part of the equation. He’s been on his own since he was 11, doing what he has to, to survive. He doesn’t trust anyone. So we can’t judge him too harshly for following the money, which sometimes means the Empire. We can only hope that some day he wants something different.

“As for the beskar and the history and everything we hold in trust— we honor our adopted culture, and preserve it for the future, when this Imperial insanity is over.”

“What if Mandalore doesn’t accept us when it’s over?”

“Duty isn’t about any physical or metaphorical reward, nor is it conditional. The reward is a job well-done, knowing that you did the right thing, even if you did not personally benefit from it. And we do, regardless. Our culture here is much more rich than the sorry state of Mandalore today. We benefit from doing our duty, too. And if in the end we’re not accepted, that’s okay too. We’ve done just fine on our own.”

Even at nine, Saviin could tell that her father didn’t really believe that. That need to be claimed ran deep, Saviin and her siblings had felt it in how fiercely their family loved and protected them, trying to fill a void that exists in every unwanted being.

There was a good chance that Boba didn’t believe his own lies about his Mandalorian status, either, Saviin mused as she pulled salad dressings from the cooler. If nothing else, getting a better measure of her long-lost uncle would be worth the trip.

 


 

“Su’cuy, ner Trist’ika!”

“Sen'ika, cyare. I have missed your birdsong.”

Senaar blushed, grinning as she bit her lip. It was a relief to fall back into this habit again. She clutched her mug of tea resting on the table and leaned forward.

“You are on a ship?”

“Rau and I are visiting a few more coverts and checking out some income generating opportunities. Hard to rebuild a planet without capital.”

“Better you than me, my love. Finances were never my specialty.”

“You have gifts aplenty, cyar’ika. It wouldn’t be fair if you were perfect in everything.” She laughed.

“Always building me up. Now, onto gossip. Saviin has just left for Tatooine for the next few weeks, so Kote and Prudii are here, and Prudii and I have taken over creche duty. So far, we’ve had one fight, three tantrums, and an overextended round of Hide and Seek that ended with a child covered in Kote’s bread flour. And I’ve discovered I love babies, but that’s mostly because they can’t really get into trouble.” Even through the light of the holo, she could see the gleam in Tristan’s eyes when she talked about babies.

“So weird that you call it a creche.”

“Apparently one of my uncles learned that’s how the jetii’ade called it in their temple, and the word just stuck. I think Ruusaan just wanted to be known as the creche master. Which is a pretty cool title, all things considered.”

“Tatooine, huh? Some coincidence…” Tristan appeared to be lost in thought.

“How is that a coincidence?”

“Well, Alor just left yesterday for a multi-stop trip, and should arrive in Tatooine a few days after your sister. As a guest of the palace.”

Senaar gaped, then began cackling madly. “They are shameless!”

“Who?”

“My mother and ba’vodu Cerium. Clearly they planned this, since there’s no way either of those two would do it themselves, preferring to wallow in silence, right? Oooh, I bet Rau is in on this too. I wish I could see it happen!”

“I don’t,” Tristan shuddered. “Alor’s been… distracted. But also intensely focused? Definitely not his normal self. But the less I know about my Alor’s private life, the better I’ll sleep at night.”

“Oh, it won’t be anything so bad as that, Trist’ika. Think more awkward conversations, hesitant pats on the arm, weirdly overlong stares. Maybe culminated with a hug, if Alor doesn’t spontaneously combust.”

“Yeah, I still think I could happily live my life without experiencing second-hand embarrassment from cringe-worthy courting.”

“Not everyone’s as blessed as we are with straightforward feelings, my love,” Senaar smiled fondly at her grumpy beloved.

“Well you’ll have to keep me posted on updates as to any progress they have; I really don’t want to get them from my boss, even if he’s inclined to share, which I sincerely doubt,” Tristan looked ready to crawl out of his skin at the thought.

“Of course. Now, onto better things. Did you get caught up on the holo-drama I told you about, or did you fall asleep on your admin work?”

“Yes, it made an excellent backdrop to reconciling spreadsheets. I am not feeling confident that Torval will take Sears back; after all, she did sleep with his brother.”

“But that was last season! Plus she was drugged and thought it was Torval, not his twin! I think you’re not giving their tragic-love story arc enough credit…”

 


 

Din shifted uncomfortably in the cockpit of the N1. He’d been occasionally searching, in vain, for a way to prop up the data pad on the instrument panel, or the edge of the cockpit hatch, or something, for the past 2 hours, to avoid looking down into his lap and developing a crick in his neck. Giving up, he refocused.

The archives of Gar Vod’e truly were a treasure. How they’d managed to collect some of it defied explanation. Besides journal articles and published books, they’d managed to procure report files from the Grand Army of the Republic, ship’s logs, correspondence, diaries, meeting minutes, community records such as census and tax records, oral history accounts, judicial records— the list went on. Ver’ika had tagged the most pertinent passages, and he had started there.

The best he could tell, Death Watch had begun forced recruitment under Tor Vizsla during the Mandalorian civil wars to supplement their depleted forces, preferring children as they were more ‘moldable.’ Bile rose in Din’s throat at this perversion of the Resol’nare. Foundlings are the future. It gave a whole new sinister meaning to the Armorer’s second-favorite phrase. The kidnapping of children had continued even when they were exiled -not cloistered — on Concordia at the end of those wars, under the leadership of Tor’s son, Pre Vizsla.

According to the oral history of a former Death Watch member— Din cross-referenced this against records of intercepted communications back to Concordia collected by the Protectors— Maul’s establishment of the Shadow Collective had escalated the false flag operations, using the crime syndicates instead of Separatists to play the role of the bad guy, allowing Vizsla and Maul to easily take control of Sundari. Din shook his head, huffing in disgust. The children had remained behind on Concordia while Death Watch campaigned with Maul, just as they had when working with Count Dock and the Separatists. Maul’s defeat of Vizsla after the Mandalorian attempted to double-cross him, and the split of Death Watch into those led by Nite Owl Kryze and those who followed Maul, led to orders back to Concordia to prepare the children for relocation, until— something— happened, leading to a rescue of Maul from a prison by Saxon and Kast. Din had been looking, but couldn’t find any account for how Maul went from leader to prisoner, or what happened to his brother, Savage, other than his body was found. Regardless, Kast sent orders to those caring for the children of the Watch to remain on Concordia, as a fall-back location for Death Watch in case the situation in Mandalore deteriorated.

Children of the Watch.

Reports from Concordia back to Kast documented changes to the indoctrination program, pushing for more and more traditionalist teachings, until communication broke off with the arrest of Kast by Republic forces after the Siege of Mandalore, led by Kryze, Ahsoka and Rex. In a vacuum on Concordia, suffering from decades of emotional trauma from constant conflict and with no one to push back, Din could see how the leaders of the Children of the Watch had swiftly radicalized.

“Religious zealots who broke away from Mandalorian society.” Well, Kryze had been right and wrong, as usual. It seemed Mandalorian society was hardly monolithic, and zealotry was a matter of perspective; Death Watch philosophy could meet that definition as well. He read through Padawan Tano’s report on her dealings with Death Watch and their destruction of a village on a snowy planet, simply because they could— Din’s mind spun at the idea of Ahsoka, as a child, going toe-to-toe with Kryze and Vizsla—and his stomach rebelled at the idea of wanton destruction, remembering the fear and pain in the krill village before he and Cara had defeated the Klatooinian gang. Then again, Kryze’s methodology for collecting weapons and materials today very easily fell into that category. Din made a note to check with Wren and Rau that the Nite Owls’ targets were strictly Imperial in nature. Mandalorians as marauders did not fit in Din’s vision for the system’s future; there was no honor in that.

Din wondered at how Ahsoka had reconciled this past behavior enough to help Kryze retake Mandalore. This Sith must have been a serious threat for Ahsoka to ally with a lesser evil. He made a note to ask Rau and Ver’ika about this. It seemed their time at the Haven had fostered a strong friendship between the two. Good. Rau needed a friend that he’d have a hard time needling.

Din sighed, moving on to the next marked passage. Records on the Children of the Watch trailed off after the Clone Wars, and he found himself digging into his early memories to fill the gap. The harsh lessons, the refusal to answer questions about recent history, the focus on the ancient ways of the Mandalore. Remembering the relocation to the sewers of Navarro, he realized that they left Concordia before the Purge, which according to confiscated ISB records did include a sweep across Concordia for any survivors, and wasn't that interesting, how the covert managed to avoid discovery and destruction.

Din set the data pad down on his lap and looked out into the blurring miasma of hyperspace. He didn’t like to think of himself as a victim, but faced with the evidence, thinking of Paz and his rage, it was hard not to. These readings told a story of devastation and radicalization on both sides, the New Mandalorians trying to escape the bloodshed by erasing all trace of what it meant to be a traditional Mandalorian; Death Watch and the Children reaching deeper and deeper into perverted versions of history for inspiration to survive and restore Mandalore.

Apostate.

It had sounded like a death sentence, a brand he’d wear for the rest of his life and carry into his soulless beyond. Now, it was beginning to sound like a matter of opinion.

While painful, it did not escape his notice that all things considered, he was taking this fairly well, and that was all due to Gar Vod’e. Ver’ika’s gentle guidance to take nothing on faith and question everything, Saviin pushing him on his pre-conceived notions for months— it somehow made it all less jarring, easier to accept this new understanding of his covert and Death Watch. The betrayal of being kept from this information still burned, but it no longer dominated his thoughts.

Din glanced at the nav-computer; three more hours to Lothal for a short stop. Enough time to switch gears and read up some more on Jaster Mereel. Somehow the leader of the True Mandalorians had become Din’s comfort read; Mereel’s moral code and activities resonated with Din’s slowly-coalescing vision of the future.

But first—

Din opened a draft message to send once he landed, to compose while thoughts of Death Watch, the Children, and the New Mandalorians were fresh in his mind. Korkie had seemed like a reasonable leader when they met on Mygeeto; time to see whether they were willing to compromise.

Alor Kryze— Are you free for a meeting? I’d like to talk to you about ways to reconcile your non-violent philosophy with the Resol’nare…

 


 

The sand… was literally everywhere.

“We just got here,” groused Ruusaan, flicking a grain off of her shoulder. “How is it everywhere already?”

“Arriving on the tail-end of a sand storm probably didn’t help,” conceded Saviin, tasting grit in her mouth. They’d landed at the Fett palace on Tatooine, and even the air in the hangar had carried the dust that clouded the air, shrouding the midday in a perilous haze. “Let’s get inside quickly— ah, that looks like someone meant to greet us,” her eyes landing on a familiar figure clad in black with a distinctive orange helmet, quickly striding towards them.

“Saviin and Ruusaan Vhett’ika?” The women nodded, attempting to shroud their faces. “Leave your bags, the droids will get them,” Fennec waved at a caravan trundling towards them, “follow me.” She moved away swiftly, Saviin and Ruusaan following in her wake.

“Welcome back to the palace,” Fennec Shand pulled off her helmet once the door to the hangar closed, then cracked a small smile. “Yeah, you’ll get used to that,” she added, watching the pair beat the dust and sand off of their clothes and hair.

“Thank you, Madame Shand,” Saviin attempted to reply with some dignity while scrubbing down her clothes, only to be waved off.

“Fennec. Madame makes me sound like I should own a brothel.” Saviin smiled as Ruusaan smirked. “I’ll take you to your quarters for your stay; Cerium’s busy feeding the baby at the moment. Then a quick tour of the palace. I hope you brought your rifle,” she added, sharp eyes assessing Ruusaan. “Based on our last conversation, it sounds like your scope is in dire need of modification.”

Ruusaan sniffed. “It works for me. And I’m the only one who needs to make sure it works.”

“Ah, but poor child, you haven’t been introduced to the wondrous world of modifications that are possible with a newer MK sniper rifle…”

 

Saviin tried not to gape as they entered their temporary quarters. Far larger and more lavish than anything she had ever stayed in, the airy room boasted a balcony with a gorgeous view of the setting Tatooine suns, bathing the room in a golden glow.

“Cerium’s put you in her favorite guest quarters; she really went all out on decor for this room,” Fennec noted, stepping aside for the sand-covered droids who trundled in, bearing their luggage.

“She has exquisite taste.”

“More like exquisite skill; furnishing the palace was a contract with her shop before she and Fett got together. Well, together again. It’s a good story if you haven’t heard it, ask Cerium to tell it when you see her. Anyway, this is her handiwork, she’s a master weaver and seamstress.” Fennec’s comm pinged. “She’s ready. Go ahead and get settled, I’ll bring her here.” Fennec stepped out and disappeared.

Ruusaan flopped down on the extra bed, a cloud of dust rising like a puff of smoke in her wake.

“Ruus! Get up! You’re getting dust everywhere,” Saviin hissed. Ruusaan merely raised a hand and flashed a rude symbol. Rolling her eyes, Saviin picked up her luggage, and set it on the bed. Prudii had had a point, it was warm here. The lighter tunics might still be too heavy, and layering with her usual undergarments would not work. She opened the latch.

BAM.

Ruusaan rolled off the bed and hit the floor, looking around for the bomb, only to see Saviin standing stock still, covered in wet paint from the waist up.

“PRUDII!”

Ruusaan rolled into a ball, doubled over in laughter, as Saviin spat out paint and wiped it from her eyes, glaring at her luggage in dismay.

Should have known.

“You should have just listened to her,” commented Ruusaan unhelpfully, once she stood up and stopped crying from laughing so hard. “She told you to pack lighter clothes—”

No, she told me to pack light and buy clothes here, dress local for once,” snapped Saviin, checking to make sure that her armor, body glove and kama buried at the bottom had been spared. Everything else in the luggage had been thoroughly doused, though. “Who in haran rigs a paint bomb to make a point?!”

“Her point was to put yourself first and treat yourself, since you’re always putting everyone else— you fling that at me and I won’t hesitate to put one between your eyes,” hissed Ruusaan, eyeing a sopping wet tunic with a glare.

Saviin let fly a string of obscenities in rapid-fire Mando’a just as Cerium and Fennec arrived at the door.

“I only caught about a fourth of that,” Cerium tried valiantly not to laugh, while Fennec had no such restraint, “but I feel like the context fills in the blanks. I take it you need a new wardrobe?”

“My ‘well-meaning sister’ wished it to be so,” Saviin sighed, mortified. “I’m so sorry for the mess.” Cerium glanced around.

“Actually, it looks like it was well-contained. My thanks to your sister.” Saviin’s jaw tensed, and Cerium burst out laughing at that point; the baby squawked slightly at the sudden noise, and Cerium reined her laughter in, gently jostling the baby back into slumber. “You’ll feel better after you wash up. I’ll have a loose dress sent down— you’re much taller, but it’ll do— and tomorrow, you can go shopping. There are a few shops I would recommend, so you can dress ‘local’ but still feel comfortable. Showers and sonics are through there,” she pointed at the door. Saviin bowed lightly, striving for some dignity, and made for the refresher, while Ruusaan cracked up again.

 

It was a disgruntled Saviin who appeared in the private dining room of the Fetts an hour later, bearing a bundle of parcels that had thankfully been packed in a separate case and thus spared the mischief of Prudii. Cerium was substantially shorter than her, and so the dress hit more like a long tunic. She felt uncomfortable exposed, and compensated by adding a sheathed dagger to the slim belt Cerium had provided, plus a few in her boots. Not that she feared the crime lord who was also her uncle.

But crime lords have enemies.

Saviin stood up from her seat as Boba entered, and he waved her down as he threw himself into a chair, slumping with exhaustion. Dark shadows circled his eyes. “None of that. Don’t care for ceremony unless it’s in the throne room or public. Besides, you’re the clan leader.”

Saviin’s eyebrows rose, and she bit down on a smile. “I suppose that’s true. Well, as clan leader, I come bearing gifts.” She handed out the wrapped parcels. Fennec’s eyebrows rose.

"I get one?”

“You’re basically family, for better or worse,” Ruusaan smirked. Saviin shifted uncomfortably as they began unwrapping.

“I tried to explain to Yuli— my aunt— that it was too hot for such things, but she insisted—”

Fennec began laughing as Cerium gasped in delight, holding up the baby sweater and her own matching one. Even Boba’s mouth curled in a reluctant smirk.

“These are wonderful, please share our thanks with your aunt, Saviin,” Cerium smiled graciously. “Night in the desert is cold, so they will certainly get some use. Well,” she amended, as Fennec and Boba shot her disbelieving looks, “I’ll certainly use mine, as will my little sunburst.” She smiled down at the drowsing baby floating in the pram next to her. Boba gazed at his wife, and Saviin was slightly stunned by the emotion softening his hard, guarded eyes. Cerium had not bothered to dress finely for the evening, still wearing a simple unadorned bedroom wrap. Her sun kissed brunette hair fell over her shoulder in a loose braid, tousled and messy. Shadows threw her bright blue eyes into sharp relief, and her tanned skin seemed slightly faded. And yet Boba stared at her as though she had not hung the stars, but that she was a sky full of stars, endless in her beauty and mystery; a galaxy full of wonder in human form that he could spend an eternity exploring and worshiping. Saviin felt her throat tighten, and quickly grabbed her cup, the action helping her refocus her thoughts.

“So how can Ruusaan and I help? I’m a pretty early riser, and wouldn’t mind taking the baby on morning shifts…”

Chapter Text

Senaar glanced at the chrono on her wrist-comm, then looked across the grass field. Evening had fallen, and as a last-ditch effort to expend their never-ending energy, the children of Gar Vod’e were racing about, attempting to capture lightning bugs in the warm, late-summer air. Shrieks of laughter rang out as they pursued the glowing tracers of light through the air, some pouting when they missed, others howling in alarm when they actually succeeded.

Better lightning bugs than some other creature. Senaar wasn’t sure she had fully recovered from the misadventure with the frog in the dormitory last night.

“Clan Mudhorn, to me!” Four heads snapped in her direction, and with many whoops and unintentional face-plants into the ground, the pajama-clad children of the Mand’alor raced over, Maddi’s stubby legs bringing up the rear. The night-shift crèche master sighed in resignation as she attempted to wrangle the rest of the children back into the dormitory. “Alor Saviin is about to call, are you ready?”

Prudii leaned against the doorsill of the Vhett’ika house behind Senaar, the golden light of the living room behind her spilling out into the night and disappearing into her matte black armor, idly amused at the eager enthusiasm of the children.

“Yeah!”

“Let’s call Sav’buir!”

“Yeah, time to call Sav’buir,” Prudii chuckled. Senaar rolled her eyes at her older sister’s wolfish grin.

“Seriously, why do you encourage them—”

“Why do you not?”

“Because as funny as it might be to see Sav'ika get worked up, it’s just feeding the kids a delusion,” Senaar scolded softly, unheard by the eager children who bounded past them. Prudii scoffed.

“She’s the one who promised to care for them as her own. She gives them stability, support, and unconditional love. If you’re telling me that she doesn’t act like a buir—”

“I didn’t say that—”

“Then you can hardly fault the kids for claiming her as theirs.”

“We don’t have to feed it,” argued Senaar, following the children into the Vhett’ika house. She certainly didn’t try to; one look at those kids’ auras at the mention of their guardians, and the painful hope-fear-love colors that flickered about them was enough to tempt Senaar into doing something rash, like kidnap said guardians and lock them up until they reconciled. For once, Senaar wished for more Force abilities, to soothe the children’s hurting hearts.

Prudii shrugged. “Ruusaan does, and she’s the baby expert. I follow her lead. Manda knows I don’t know anything about kids.”

Senaar shook her head. Ruusaan doesn’t have to see the auras that I can, but there was no point in breathing air into that argument.

“Alor Prudii, do you have ade?” piped up Kass, catching the tail end of the adults’ conversation.

“Stars, no. Not a buir,” Prudii looked horrified at the idea.

“Do you want ade?”

Prudii appeared to do some quick thinking. “Why would I want my own ade when I’m so busy chasing after you four gremlins?” She swooped suddenly and tickled Kass’s ribs. He whooped and squirmed away.

“You never want your own?” Til frowned, black curly hair swinging into his face as he cocked his head in confusion.

“Never is a long time, Til'ika. But probably not.” Senaar caught Prudii’s eye as Til turned away. Prudii shrugged again. “I like my job. It’s dangerous and fulfilling. I can’t imagine doing anything else. And it’s hard to be an ori’ramikad, to face death and do what is necessary, knowing you have children at home who depend on you to live. There are enough foundlings in the galaxy without me making more. Plus they’re always sticky.” A quick glance at Prudii’s yellow aura confirmed it, to Senior’s surprise.

“‘M not sticky!” Maddi’s little hands latched on to Prudii’s armor as she climbed her way onto Prudii’s lap. Prudii wrinkled her nose.

“Yes, you are. Ugh, and now it’s on my armor. Mad'ika, we’ve been here thirty seconds, how did you get sticky so quickly?!” Maddi squirmed guiltily as the other children whipped their hands out of a jar on the counter, crowing with glee at their successful swipe of candied pear slices. Prudii grimaced, her yellow aura souring.

“Yeah, no ade for me, thanks. I’d rather hop them up on sweets and dump them with Ruusaan.”

“Who’s not here,” reminded Senaar, eyes trained on the comm as she punched in the code. “So they’re our problem now.” Prudii groaned. The blue light of Saviin’s holo form suddenly appeared.

My little sprouts! How are you?” Saviin smiled just a touch too brightly.

“Buir!”

Cabur, darlings,” she reminded them gently in a voice that acknowledged a lost cause, her smile now slightly pained. “Tell me about your day. Boys, today was knife lessons again, right? Did you learn anything interesting?”

Senaar stood back and watched as each child proudly recited their daily accomplishments, and preened under her loving praise, leaning in towards the blue glow of Saviin’s projection like tiny moths to a flame.

“I’m so proud of you Til. I can’t wait to see it in person. Kass, honey— are you sleeping okay? You look tired.”

“Bad dreams,” mumbled Kass, drooping with fatigue and embarrassment. Saviin flicked her gaze to Senaar, who nodded.

“You know what always helps me when I have bad dreams and can’t sleep? A cup of baji’Ver’ika’s sleepy tea. Makes me feel all warm, and I sleep so well. Would you try that for me, brave boy?” Kass nodded, looking hopeful and relieved, and Senaar flinched as a flash grenade of sharp sparks in his aura overwhelmed her vision.

“Buir, when you come home?” Maddi’s porg eyes were functioning at full capacity. Saviin’s smile tightened but did not correct her this time.

“Two weeks, my little sprouts. Just two weeks. I’ll be back before you know it. And I bet by the time I get there, my little sprouts will be giant saplings!” They giggled.

“Maybe I’ll climb on you, instead of you climbing on me!”

“Buir, you’re silly,” giggled Kiro, his striped lekku bouncing. Saviin’s gaze flicked over to Prudii, who had melted away when the conversation began, and suddenly reappeared with Kote. Senaar’s heart sunk as she took in their auras.

More bad news.

“My little sprouts, it’s time for bed— you need lots of sleep to do great things tomorrow, and I want to hear all about them! Kass darling, baji’Ver’ika has your tea ready, I see—" Senaar startled, she hadn’t even noticed her mother in the kitchen, shamelessly eavesdropping as she prepared the tea— “and be good for Senaar when you go to bed, okay?”

“Okay, night, buir,” called Til as he took his siblings’ hands and followed Senaar. Senaar looked back to see Saviin’s fractured smile.

“Good night, ner cyar’iike.”

As Senaar passed through the door, she could hear Kote’s soothing baritone, “Kot, Sav'ika. Udesii…” She sighed, and followed her mother and the children back to the dormitory.

“Sen'ika, do you think Buir will call again soon?” Til mumbled sleepily as she shooed him into bed; like many of the Haven’s children, clan Mudhorn had claimed two beds shoved together and slept in a pile. Senaar had laughed when she showed Tristan this sleeping arrangement and took in his perplexed expression.

“I’m sure he will. He’s traveling right now, but as soon as it’s safe,” Senaar made a mental note to let Tristan know the children wanted a call. The children’s auras all radiated in white and silver with flecks of purple— too close to grief for Senaar’s liking. She felt a knot in her throat at the thought.

“Good,” Kass yawned, the tea already kicking in. He dove under the soft, rusty-red blanket and popped his head out, snuggled up to Mad’ika who had already passed out. “He needs to tell more of the story.”

“The story?”

“The Lone Warrior and the Flower Queen,” Kiro mumbled, catching Kass’s yawn. He crawled under the blanket, bracketing Maddi safely in the middle between himself and Kass. Til stretched out on the edge of the bed, to keep his siblings from falling off, pulling a faded blue blanket up to his chin and over the others.

Senaar hummed, eager for the distraction. Anything to not think about— “That sounds like a good story. Is it exciting?”

“Yeah, it’s—” Til gasped, eyes wide in horror. “It’s a secret! We can’t tell you!”

“But she’s Sav'buir’s sister, she’s practically clan,” pointed out Kiro. He propped himself up on one elbow to face Senaar, and his sleepy eyes were now sharp and calculating, every inch the tiny Togruta predator. “We can tell you. But we need to know you’ll keep it a secret, too.”

Senaar’s eyes were wide and disarming. “Of course,” she soothed. “What can I do to prove I’ll keep it a secret?”

Kiro turned to trade looks with Kass, his partner in crime, completely bypassing Til’s authority as the oldest child. Whatever he was looking for, he found, because he returned his gaze to Senaar.

“A bowl of sugared pear.”

Nothing easier.

“A whole bowl? That’s pretty steep for a story,” Senaar mock-gasped at the exorbitant bribe, while Til squawked at the usurpation of his seniority. Kiro shrugged unrepentantly, playing hardball. He grinned, flashing his sharp teeth.

“That’s the price. So if you want the story, we need a bowl of sugared pear and your vow to keep it secret.” He laid down, casual as can be, and offhandedly tossed out, “you know where to find us.”

A six year old should not be this good at bargaining.

“I’ll see what I can do,” promised Senaar. “For now, bedtime, cyar’iike.”

Senaar stepped out into the cooling night air just a few minutes later, leaving behind the sweet sounds of little snores and snuffles and entering a symphony of cricket and frog song, filling the air with their hopes for an amorous connection tonight. She looked up into the sky, breathing in deeply the spicy scent of the nearby conifers to ease the ache in her chest, breathing away the tension of the day.

The yearning for a life with Tristan and a bevy of little warriors of their own lay deep in her bones. Lives like lights in a sky, her future brood a constellation of fireballs bursting with energy to leave their mark on the galaxy, to fill her past the brim with love and fear and pride so many times over she wouldn’t know where she ended and her children began. She looked down at her outspread hands, held in front of her. Even in the dim starlight, she could see her own aura. White pulsed, as tendrils of green and dark golden yellow flickered in and out alternately along her fingers. No despair, just hope, love, determination. It would happen someday. The path wasn’t clear, but she grew up wandering in the forest. This was only another trail to blaze.

 


 

Saviin flopped back on her too-soft bed, staring at the ceiling as she breathed in the dry, dusty air floating in from the balcony. The second sun of Tatooine lay low on the horizon, bathing the landscape in a lush magenta and violet, the star itself a dim fireball of bloody orange. The breathtaking scene was lost on Saviin as her eyes followed fine cracks in the plaster covering the ceiling, her mind on the other side of the galaxy.

Things were moving fast. Prudii and Kote had reported movements in multiple sectors of the Outer Rim by Imperial Remnant forces; spikes in violence in unusual locations; new slaver rings in areas they had already cleared. The covert movements weren’t surprising, given the spreading knowledge of a new Mand’alor, but the rest of it… Saviin had plotted the intel onto a galactic map as they spoke, and it painted a worrying picture.

“The Imperials are growing bolder, which suggests desperation, but for what it’s unclear. They’re still somehow well-funded,” Saviin had surmised. Kote nodded, his face grim.

“They’ll want to hold anything they have, and dig in. It will get more violent.”

“The violence in the Mid Rim and Core Worlds— it’s too coordinated, too showy. I think it’s Imperial too— likely trying to destabilize the New Republic,” Saviin’s eyes roamed over the map, brow furrowed.

“We can’t help the New Republic,” Prudii pointed out. “I’m more concerned about the slaver rings.”

“I think it’s all connected, but you’re right. The slave rings come first. The volume of people being taken— someone’s trying to build something. These aren’t small groups of domestic servants— this is Spice-Mines-of-Kessel scale. Death Star-scale. Or conscription army. Targeting children is extremely worrying. So we might be dealing with Imperial contractors running these rings; no one else has a need like that. Do we have any teams in reserve at this point?”

“Just us,” Prudii frowned. “The client has more targets than we can handle, we’re stretched to the limit. We’re running smaller crews than is wise, and we’ve run out of craft to retrieve the rescues on, unless we start commandeering craft, and we don’t have the space in the hangar for that. If things had gone differently we could have— well, doesn’t matter. It’s just us to handle this, and we’re not enough. No surprise— a little batch of vod’e against the sprawl of the Remnant?”

“Where are they getting the funding for this, though? It’s been five years,” Kote argued. “I’m not disagreeing, I just don’t understand how these womprats keeping multiplying without any obvious source of funding. And then where do they take them?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Saviin. “My gut says Wild Space, but it’s only a guess. The Imperial Remnant movements, where did you say they were moving towards?”

“They’re being careful to not draw a straight line through space, but a growing concentration is appearing near Quelli sector.”

“That is uncomfortably close to the Mandalore sector,” noted Saviin, her stomach tightening.

“Agreed.”

 

Saviin sighed, too focused on the puzzle at hand to get up and turn the light on as the room grew darker. It was hard to not draw very ugly conclusions based on the reports. Sorgan would be fine, for now. Tatooine as well; Imperials had no serious interest in this dustball before, and would not put their limited resources into taking it now, especially if they were amassing near Quelli sector; Sorgan would be at risk long before Tatooine, and Sorgan was too remote to be of immediate interest to Remnants or anyone else. Prudii sent warnings to family members located on impacted systems, with an offer to take refuge at the Haven if needed.

No, the immediate concern was Mandalore. And how to warn them.

Saviin wanted to believe they were already aware. Surely a group of warriors, long used to being hunted, were leveraging resources to track their enemies, assess threats, and plan accordingly.

And yet.

Saviin wasn’t spying on Mandalore’s planning councils. But she might have been using several resources to collect information on the status of their planning, and using her own resources to feed information to fill in their gaps. Didn’t know about an abandoned supply cache on Anaxes, if one can get past the monster cats that hid in the shadows? Mama might have mentioned it in passing to Fenn Rau, and suddenly the cache was cleared. A spike in violence on a Mid-Rim planet happened to coincide with some weapons smuggling? Senaar may have let it slip to Tristan as a problem they didn’t have the people to get to right now, and magically the gang providing protection for the smuggling disappeared, along with the proton bombs. The Red Arrow might have found the missing Tervho clan from Keitum in the belly of a slave transport while tracking some slavers who had apparently made off with the ones they were contracted to find, and dropped the clan back on Keitum with weapons, construction materials swiped from under the nose of the marauding Nite Owls, and a comm code for clan Beviin.

But not all intel could be so easily doled out. Some too sensitive to be overheard, to be misinterpreted, to be handled in any other environment than a closed-door debrief. Saviin also couldn’t burn out her sources at Krownest. Too much information, and it would look suspicious, and damage their credibility. She had risked a lot to notify Rau of a developing threat, and couldn’t afford to repeat the attempt unless it was dire. Rau and Wren were too important to D— the Mand’alor to lose over intel, and she was still building relationships with the representatives of Eldar, Awaud, Ordo, and Wren, Gar Vod’e’s unofficial allies, as well as Tervho, who was still getting settled again; they weren’t in usable positions yet.

Saviin hadn’t heard from the Mand’alor since her departure. Not that she expected to, with the way she left it. She knew that he called occasionally for the children, and sent information requests to her mother. But nothing for her.

He didn’t want her intel. No matter how valuable. But he needed it, whether he realized it or not; loving him had not rendered her blind to his weak spots. So she had to find some other way to get it to him.

And she would. She had a duty, and she would do it. Sorgan, the galaxy needed a strong Mandalore, to stand against whatever was brewing in Wild Space. The speed of this threat’s growth was far faster than the machinations the Emperor had set in place to establish the Empire. He had taken decades to destabilize the Old Republic; this fledgling government was barely strong enough to manage the Core Worlds, coping badly with the Remnant’s nefarious activities that did catch their attention. The New Republic was too weak; the galaxy needed warriors, united warriors. Without it, the growing threat would eventually consume everything in its path, Sorgan and Tatooine included. And if her intel, Gar Vod’e’s support could make the difference, then they had a duty to make sure it got to the right people on the council.

Nothing else mattered.

The lights flicked on, and Saviin blinked, biting on a curse as Ruusaan sauntered in.

“Sulking in the dark fixes nothing.”

“Interrupting someone’s critical analysis is also counterproductive.” She heard Ruusaan’s snort of skepticism. Of the five of them, Saviin and Ruusaan at best tolerated each other; Saviin had already grown weary of close, uninterrupted proximity to her sister’s caustic sense of humor. Thankfully, Ruusaan seemed to be hitting it off splendidly with master assassin Fennec Shand, ba’vodu Boba’s right hand. With matching attitudes and comparable skills with a sniper rifle, the mentor and mentee delighted in needling everyone who had the misfortune to encounter them.

“You coming?”

Saviin rolled over on the bed to face her sister. “Where?”

“Just down to the bar, meet some people—”

“Get laid?” Saviin smiled. Ruusaan’s notched belt wrapped around her waist several times, and she was quite proud of it.

“Jealous?”

“Not really my style, but glad it works for you,” Saviin replied honestly. She did sometimes envy Ruusaan’s ability to have those… liaisons, and not get hung up on attachments and meaningful connections. Sex for the sheer fun of it. It sounded great, in theory. And for Ruusaan, it was.

“So maybe try a new style,” Ruusaan pressed. “You finally ditched the sad old threads for some new dresses, not that that outfit is really branching out—”

“Only because Prudii paint-bombed my luggage!”

“—so what’s stopping you from finding some cute bounty hunter and taking them for a spin? Get over the shiny planet-ruler with someone else’s blaster.”

“Stars, Ruus’ika, you can be crass when you want to.”

“What a thrilling comeback,” Ruusaan rolled her eyes and swung her glossy burgundy hair behind her. The dye job was new, courtesy of a trip into Mos Espa with Cerium and Fennec. “Well, change your mind and you’ll know where to find me. Or, at least, for a while. Fennec says there’s a couple new ones down there, might be my lucky night.”

Knowing Ruusaan, it would be.

Saviin heard the door slide closed, and she lay there, contemplating what to do next, pushing Ruusaan’s commentary from her mind. It was still early, time normally spent cleaning up after dinner, tidying up the home, chatting with family. Here, an unfamiliar silence echoed through the space, broken only by the light whisper of a faint wind at the balcony, teasing the gauzy drapes. A week into the visit, and the silence and scale of the palace still felt strange, after so many years of close quarters, dozens of cousins and family everywhere.

She could visit the rancor, but she’d already gone there earlier today. Ba’vodu Cerium had issued a standing invitation to visit her whenever, but she hesitated to intrude on family time.

Saviin rolled off of the bed and stood up. Checking her tunic and boots for the knives she kept hidden (stars, this tunic was so much thinner than her usual ones), she strode to the door and began to wander aimlessly, grit crackling under her feet as she paced the halls. At least walking beat laying on the bed, wondering for the tenth time today why she had agreed to come here—

“Hey, Saviin!”

Saviin turned. Ezra Bridger had just emerged from the kitchens, a plate of food in hand and a friendly smile in place. Saviin returned the gesture.

“Ezra.” He paused a moment, taking in her appearance in the hallway. Probably doing some Jedi assessment like Senaar’s auras, Saviin considered ruefully, then carefully hid that thought behind her mental shields. Jedi were tricky. Her uncles hadn’t insisted on teaching mental shielding for nothing.

“If you’re looking for food, the cooks set some things out, but if you’re looking for company, I was just taking this up to Grogu if you want to join us.”

Saviin blinked.

“Yes, thank you. It’d be great to play with him. I miss my little gremlins at home.” Not mine, she reminded herself belatedly. D— the Mand’alor’s. They would be leaving as well, soon.

Ezra grinned. “Of course! Follow me.”

“How is training Grogu?”

“As a first-time teacher? Terrifying and awesome,” Ezra grinned, scratching his short black beard with his free hand. “As a Jedi, I shouldn’t fear— path to the Dark Side and all— but it’s hard to not secretly fear you’re screwing up the kid, especially one that cute. But he’s already pretty advanced, it’s more about giving him confidence and coaching on technique.”

“Do you think he’ll ever speak a language we can learn? Or sign?” Saviin kicked herself again. Not my child. WE don’t need to learn.

If Ezra noticed the slip, he didn’t acknowledge it. “Probably, though I can’t say when. I knew another of his species, and he spoke Basic, albeit strangely. ‘Go forth, you must. To defeat the enemy, a new path, you will find.’ A bit confusing. But there’s hope Grogu will speak. We’ve been practicing ways to push thoughts and images to Force Nulls, so that he’s got that communication option at least.”

“The Mand’alor seems very happy with your teaching and care,” observed Saviin.

Ezra chuckled. “He’s very protective of the kid, and rightly so. I’m honored to be trusted with him. Besides, can’t do much worse than Skywalker.”

“Sky— you mean Luke Skywalker? The Jedi of the Rebellion?”

“Yeah, didn’t you hear? I never met the guy— my purgill trip took me out of known space before he blew up the Death Star— but he was Grogu's first teacher. After Grogu left with Skywalker for Jedi school, the Mand’alor went to visit him with a small chainmail shirt of beskar, to keep the kid safe. Which, fair, given how many people tried to capture or kill the kid. He was intercepted by Ahsoka, who urged him not to actually meet the kid, since it would make separation even harder, since they’re so bonded. Not sure I agreed with that, but she’s old school, Temple-raised and all. Anyway, she took the shirt to Luke, who gave the kid an ultimatum— take the shirt and go back to dear old buir, or have a shiny green lightsaber, and forget about dad. Grogu, being a child, and you know, a witness to the destruction of the Jedi Temple and everyone who had clung to the rigid beliefs, obviously chose the Mand’alor who clearly loved him and did his best to keep him safe. So, Skywalker stuffed him in an X-wing with an astromech and sent him off to Tatooine.”

“HE WHAT?!”

Saviin’s shriek echoed off the empty halls as Ezra smiled and shook his head.

“Yeah. Between Fett’s past with Jedi, and Skywalker, it’s a kriffing miracle I wasn’t shot on sight coming here, and by miracle I mean entirely Sabine’s doing. And I wouldn’t have blamed them at all if they had. I’m just glad they listened to Grogu, who called me here, and gave training another chance. He needs guidance, the kind he can’t get from just anyone. And I’d hate for him to be hurt by his own powers because he can’t control them. He and Skywalker were a bad fit; according to Grogu, he was pretty impatient. Grogu’s a traumatized kid, and I sure know what that’s like. Given safety and time, he’s really blossomed in his abilities, and made some rapid progress. He talks a lot more now; I think his physical growth was stunted in the past few decades. Yoda lived to nine-hundred, so relatively speaking that means one hundred is maybe like ten years old for us? So Grogu’s like five, and he still looks and acts like a toddler, though he’s getting better.”

“Skywalker had better stay far from our system, either,” Saviin growled. Her family would have a lot to say to Skywalker, especially Uncle Rex and Uncle Echo.

“I have no doubt. And it says a lot about your family, that the Mand’alor will leave his kids with you, including Grogu. He obviously trusts you a lot.” Saviin refused to meet those bright blue eyes, and instead looked ahead. She— couldn’t think about that now. Couldn’t think about the fact that regardless of how they’d parted, he’d still left his children in her care. Temporarily. Never forget, Saviin. They’re not yours.

They’d arrived at Ezra’s quarters, and as the door slid open, a tiny green-brown blur whizzed towards her and leapt into her arms.

“Grogu, we talked about Force-leaping onto unsuspecting people,” Ezra chided. He rolled his eyes at Saviin with a smile. “Kids.”

Saviin didn’t care. She held him close, protectively, letting him nuzzle her affectionately as she tried not to think of all the ways she could disintegrate Skywalker, too righteously furious to remind herself that Grogu wasn’t her son.

And with this sudden protective urge singing through her veins, Saviin found herself playing Force-catch with Grogu and coaxing him to eat while Ezra chatted with Sabine via holo. The adorable little gremlin toddled about, jumping onto impossibly high objects while Saviin tossed him the ball, like a strange mix of catch and bolo-ball. Grogu giggled madly, babbling with delight even though Saviin wasn’t sure what the point of the game was. She was so engrossed in the activity, she nearly missed the turn in Ezra and Sabine’s conversation.

“How’s Tristan?” Saviin tried not to stiffen.

“Miserable, but not hopeless. He’s still working to change minds, it just takes time. But if anyone can do it, it’s him. He’s been mired in Mandalorian politics since he was a teenager,” Sabine grimaced, “so if anyone can find a way to navigate it, it’s him. It’s just sad. He misses her a lot. He’s pretty good at not moping, but I can tell.” Saviin nearly missed the small ball sailing for her head, and caught it at the last second. Grogu squealed, evidently enjoying these higher stakes.

“Well, we know all about waiting and being patient, don’t we,” Ezra replied, smiling wryly, and Saviin abruptly felt ashamed. Here she felt frustrated by the circumstances separating Tristan and Senaar, while Ezra waited for ten years for his Mandalorian love to find him, knowing full well that as a Jedi he’d never be fully accepted by those who saw him as an ancient enemy—

“Hey now,” a firm voice broke through her spiral, and a gentle arm slung around her shoulders and towed her to the holo. With his other arm, Ezra lifted Grogu off of the shelf and floated him through the air, bouncing him gently to the child’s delight. “No sad thoughts, okay?” At Saviin’s gape, he chuckled. “You were feeling pretty loudly. Things are going to work out for everyone, I have a good feeling about it. Just gotta get through this.”

Sabine rolled her eyes but smiled anyway. “Sounds like something you say when you’re trying to feed Grogu his fruit.”

Ezra grinned. “What can I say? It’s a good line!”

Sabine shook her head, then turned her attention to Saviin. “We are still working on this, I promise. Mandalore should be for everyone, and clan Wren knows this. We’re just working to get everyone else on-board too. We won’t give up.”

A small tug at her boot had Saviin look down into Grogu’s sleepy brown eyes peering up at her, slowly blinking. She picked him up and cuddled him close. “I know, and thank you. If there’s anything we can do to help you—”

“We know where to find you,” Sabine responded, and Saviin flinched. “Ah, yeah, not what I meant. We know how to reach you? That’s better?” Ezra chuckled.

“Isn’t it normally my job to stick my foot in it?”

“Oh! Speaking of, have you talked to Hera recently?”

Saviin glanced down, to find Grogu nestled in her arms, his steady breath tickling her bare arm. She leaned down to kiss his fuzzy head gently. Saviin’s chest warmed with aching affection. She had missed this sweet child dearly, as had his siblings. Tomorrow, we’ll do a call all together, she resolved. Then remembered once again, with a heart-rending jolt, that these were not her children and they would leave her soon. Quickly, she imagined the thick stone walls of her mental shields, tucking the emotion safely where Ezra couldn’t feel it. Ezra was different than the Jedi of old, clearly comfortable with relationships, but Saviin did not feel up to explaining why, despite being willing to let them go, the loss of these five remarkable children would ache in her bones long after their departure. Not unlike the absence of their father—

With effort, she brought herself back to the here and now. “Hera’s grounded Jacen for the next ten years, apparently. I guess he decided that the ripe old age of ten was sufficient to take Phantom II for a spin by himself without asking. Chopper went too, but somehow they ended up stranded in a herd of nerf, and there was dung everywhere…”

Chapter Text

Saviin’s days quickly fell into a routine, and the following afternoon found her in Cerium’s weaving room to join Ezra and Grogu’s meditation.

Long before Boba’s ascension as the major power player of Tatooine and reunion with his long-lost love, Cerium had been a master weaver in Mos Espa. Exceptionally gifted with textiles, her woven works were highly sought after, but the secret behind her success had remained closely guarded. The repetitive motions of Cerium’s weaving allowed her to slip into a zen-like state of mind, a kind of meditative trance where she could mull over thoughts, examine her feelings and process emotions.

Cerium’s meditation had a curious by-product, in that the very atmosphere of the room shifted to reflect her meditative state. It swirled, ebbing and flowing around Cerium as her mind wandered and settled each thought and emotion lingering in her heart, like an ocean’s tide. Time became elastic, irrelevant as peace and serenity took shape, flowing out like a single ripple to calm the air’s texture lapping at the edges of the room. A tangible contentment pooled in the room, tinged a deepening golden by the light from the window, rising slowly from the floor like heatwaves under the twin suns until the entire room brimmed with peace and serenity that seeped out the windows and under the door like a contagious happiness for those who cared to feel it.

In this meditative state, Cerium’s perception of sights, sounds and people continued to shift, as she went deeper into her active trance. Hands flew of their own accord, a gorgeous, complex tapestry unveiling itself on the loom, but Cerium’s focus was elsewhere. Heart and mind settled, she often followed the call of an intangible… something… that beckoned her attention. Sometimes it was a memory, that she could recall with startling clarity and find insights previously hidden. Sometimes it was something like a memory but she couldn’t remember it having happened already, or like some place she’d never been because how could she have seen it if she’d never left Tatooine? Sometimes it was simply a deeper awareness of her surroundings, blurred and unfocused though they were to her eyes, it was as though she could really see. People became blurry forms of light, their color revealing far more than that person would likely care to share about themselves. Sounds from impossibly far away came through clearly.

Cerium had explained to Saviin that it was the only time she could touch the Force, and that some could feel the effect on the room, while others couldn’t. Saviin privately doubted that, having witnessed the woman’s calming influence on others including her husband and others in the palace. And like moths to a flame, the Force Sensitives in the Palace were drawn to the room during the weaver’s moving meditations. Though fairly certain she was Force-Null like her many uncles, Saviin found the experience soothing, and appreciated the invitation. She reclined on the couch, data pad of work forgotten as she basked in the golden haze of the moment.

“Naptime,” Ezra said softly, scooping Grogu up as the child yawned. He left quietly, and silence reigned again, punctuated only by the soft snuffles of the baby and the hushing sound of the shuttle passing through taut fibers as Cerium wove.

“I think I could use some tea,” Cerium said, not pausing her movements. “Would you be a dear and use the data pad on the table to order a tray?”

“Of course,” Saviin rose from the couch and dutifully placed the order. In due course, a droid trundled in, bearing a platter. Saviin retrieved it and set it on the settee as Cerium rose from the loom, the golden haze of the room slowly fading. Saviin lifted the lid. “This smells delicious!”

“A local blend, I’ll send you home with some. No, I insist— it stimulates the local economy, and I love to proselytize this particular blend and its maker. It’s best straight, but there is sweetener if you’d like.”

“No, I will trust the local to know best,” Saviin smiled, accepting her cup and sipping the brew. “Oh my. I don’t know that I could go back to normal tea after this.”

Cerium chuckled lightly. “This does seem to be rather popular with Mandalorians, so I am unsurprised. I suspect it’s the spices involved.” Saviin could tell that Cerium had clocked her unintentional flinch, but graciously did not comment.

“I am so grateful you were able to come here, my dear. For all that they sleep, babies are exceptionally time-consuming, and I am grateful to have your support as I heal,” Cerium smiled benignly at her. Saviin gazed fondly at the newborn resting peacefully in the pram.

“Of course. You are family, and we are here to help as promised. I hope you are using us to your maximum benefit.”

“Certainly, but I hope you are also finding time to relax for yourself. I’ve heard that you have been quite busy these last few months. That dress does absolutely lovely things with your eyes, by the way.”

“I'm glad I was forced into it, then,” Saviin grinned cheekily, rewarded with a laugh. “And I’m very pleased with the rest of my purchases, and the new dress made of your woven cloth is certainly my favorite. It has been a nice change of pace to be here. It helps to take a step back from it all, gain new perspective.”

“Leadership is a heavy burden, all the heavier if one does not have a partner to share it with.”

Saviin glanced at Cerium; that was no idle comment. “True.”

“I led my family from a young age; my older siblings weren’t capable, and my parents died when I was still quite young. I only had the four of us and my great-aunt to worry about, plus my shop, but it was enough. Meeting, falling in love with Boba— that had been something just for me, and I cherished it. Being asked to choose between love and duty was excruciating. I am so grateful that now, after a long separation, I no longer have to choose.”

Saviin considered that, sipping her tea. “Five years is a long time.”

“And I suffered every minute of it, when I thought him forever lost. We needed each other— him, to move past old demons and let himself be loved; I, to learn to value myself, to consider my own wants as valid as the needs of others. And now we hold each other up as we remake all we can for a brighter, fairer future on Tatooine. I wish it hadn’t been necessary. But I can’t be too unhappy, given the outcome.”

Saviin smiled at Cerium. “You’ve been talking to my mother.”

“Of course I’ve been talking to your mother! We are good friends now, you know. I’m closer in age to you than her, and she has rather adopted me. Your family is unlike any I've ever known— not for your heritage, but for your generosity and welcoming embrace. Tatooine is a harsh world, not one prone to such habits. As I said, leadership is a heavy burden, and she is a willing ear and a fount of wisdom. But yes, I’m well-aware of what has transpired over the past several months. We do host Grogu here, you know.”

“Gossips everywhere,” Saviin teased, a rueful smile dancing on her lips as she took another sip of tea.

“That is an unflattering characterization, though perhaps not unwarranted,” Cerium fully faced her now, her bright blue eyes gazing deeply into Saviin’s violet ones, her expression unguarded and sincere. “But I do keep confidences. And I hope that if you wish to talk freely, you know I am here. You remind me a lot of myself, and I think I understand how you're feeling better than most. I am happy to listen whenever and if ever you want to share.”

Saviin set the empty cup down, giving Cerium her undivided attention. “Thank you, truly. You are very generous, and I will keep it in mind, when I feel the need to talk about it."

Cerium’s smile was radiant. “Good.”

Saviin glanced back over at the loom. “What are you working on?”

Cerium’s eyes never left Saviin’s face, watching her carefully. “A tapestry for Mand’alor Djarin.” At Saviin’s sharp look, Cerium smiled. “He came here right after being declared dar’manda, and hated being called the Mand'alor. I think Boba was as surprised as anyone to find himself calling the Mand’alor vod, let alone hosting his child and a Jedi here. Djarin has that effect on people, it seems. I feel confident in his prospects, so I’ve started a tapestry for his hall, though I’ve had to restart it.”

Saviin barely managed to reply steadily, “Why is that?”

“I’d begun with a silver background, to match the beskar. But then I felt… compelled… to tear it out and start again with a new color. I have a feeling pine and brown will be important to him, so those are major colors, with silver for the Mudhorn, of course.”

“Guardian, and valor,” Saviin commented absently, her mind reeling.

“Is that what the colors stand for? How interesting, I had no idea. Rather fitting. Like I said, I just got a push, no explanation. But it’s a bit of a surprise; I’d like to be vindicated, and see whether he paints his armor, and with those colors.”

The door opened, and Ezra stepped back in. Saviin felt his electric blue eyes scanning her, and hurriedly conjured the stone walls in her turbulent mind.

“Saviin, I’ve heard you’re a master with a sword, would you be up for a spar?” Ezra offered with a smile. Saviin laughed.

“Where did you hear that?”

“Around,” he grinned, waving his hand vaguely. “I also heard you have a beskar sword, which I would be curious to test against a lightsaber.”

“You are singularly well-informed,” Saviin responded, somewhat suspicious. She turned to Cerium. "Would Boba be okay with us training with a lightsaber in the training salle?” The last thing she needed was to alienate a long-lost uncle with an insensitive act.

“I’ll let him know you’ll be there. Besides, he’s busy in the hangar right now, it won’t be an issue. But it does you credit for asking,” she added with a smile. Saviin returned it, and turned to Ezra.

“Then let’s swing by my quarters to grab my sword, and we’ll test your katas against my training.”

“Oho, it’s fighting words, huh?” Ezra grinned.

 


 

Boba stood waiting for him in the hangar.

Din had to admit he was touched by the personal gesture.

“Olarom, vod,” Boba held out an arm to Din, who grasped it firmly once he had levered himself out of the N1 star-fighter. It had been a fight and a half to get his guard detail to let him take it, let alone leave without any guard.

Haar’chak, he’d survived decades on his own. A quick trip would be fine.

Su’cuy, vod,” Din nodded. “I appreciate you hosting me.”

“Get the kark out of here with that,” Boba snapped, no heat behind his words. “Besides, you’re doing me a favor. I need another level head around here not crammed full of sarcasm. I’m averaging 2 hours of sleep on account of the baby. Ezra’s lessons lately have involved a lot of levitating fruit, and if I get hit in the face with a meiloorun one more time, I might have to owe you a new Jedi tutor.”

Din winced. “And they’re a rare commodity.”

“The Jedi?”

“The meiloorun.”

Boba squinted at him, then snorted. His comm pinged, and he looked down to read the message.

“Speaking of, your kid is napping. Bet you want a spar to loosen up after your trip. Ezra’s in the training salles if you want a sparring partner.”

Din tilted his helmet at Boba in confusion. “Thanks. It’s been a while since I’ve practiced. You sure you can’t—”

“No,” Boba responded brusquely, waving him off. “Go loosen up, you’re wound tighter than ever. I’ll catch up with you over dinner.”

Bemused, Din nodded, and veered off towards the training salles. To be fair, he was feeling rather tightly wound, and in need of some exercise. The N1 certainly wasn’t designed for armored Mandalorians, or long hyperspace trips, for that matter. Speed and style, at the cost of comfort. Still, Boba’s behavior was off.

Then again, maybe long nights with the baby were the cause.

The halls were empty as he moved towards the rooms quietly, the sound of a disturbance ahead echoing from an occupied room. He had expected the thrum of a lightsaber, moving elegantly and unhurriedly through the air as Ezra executed his katas.

He was unprepared for the sizzling screech of the lightsaber clashing against something that pushed back against the plasma blade. Then nearly staggered at the sound of a woman’s laugh.

Saviin.

How?

Silently, he moved forward towards the open door, staying out of the combatants’ lines of sight; he had a feeling that Ezra sensed his presence anyway, as the man’s loose expression pulled into a knowing smirk. The Jedi nearly paid for it too, as a flurry of blows forced his attention back to the spar.

“Smirking during a spar is dangerous, Ezra,” chided Saviin, pulling back to re-set her attack. “Telegraphing your overconfidence—”

“Maybe I’m goading you into a foolish attack,” he tossed back lightly, twirling his lightsaber with a flourish, grinning good-naturedly. Saviin laughed, and Din shivered at the sound.

“That would probably work with others—” she suddenly darted forward in a blur of movement, her limbs fluid, her strikes precise. She was deadly grace, and Din watched as Ezra gave ground, ultimately leaping over her to re-set the battleground— only to find the beskad at his throat. Din felt a strange rush of pride, watching the Jedi yield to his Sav'ika—

No. Not mine.

His chest tightened at the reminder.

“I’d blame my poor showings on ten years of exile, but truly Saviin, you’re just that good,” Ezra chuckled ruefully, extinguishing his lightsaber and moving to pick up a towel. “My master could only teach me so much, since he was a Padawan when the Order fell, and we mostly fought against blaster fire, but you use moves I’ve never seen before.”

“I studied both Jedi and Mandalorian kad-work, to the best that I could. We collected recordings and diagrams of trainings, some of them pretty ancient so Sabine might not be familiar with them. We’ve also got hours of battle footage that my mother found for our archives, so I adapted what I learned into some new forms. I’d be happy to share what I have, if that’s helpful to you.”

“Nothing beats practice, but I’d be glad to learn more theory, thank you,” Ezra replied with a small bow of thanks, as Saviin sheathed her sword. “Plus I’m sure the Mand’alor would prefer that my little student learn both, if possible.” He briefly flicked his gaze towards Din’s location. Sensing the game was up, Din moved forward into the room.

“Yes, I would,” he responded quietly, and Saviin whirled around. It was hard to see the difference through his visor, but even with his limited view, he could see her face change color as her eyes widened, and his visor’s vitals reading shot up. Din ignored Ezra’s polite bow to move more quickly towards Saviin.

“Alor Vhett’ika, are you all right? Do you need water?” Ezra followed his gaze and frowned, stooping to grab the water jug and hand it to her.

“I’m fine, my apologies,” accepting the water from Ezra and avoiding Din’s gaze. “I don’t know what came over me.” At that, Ezra covered a snort with a cough. Din ignored him again and drew closer, gently grasping her elbow.

“Maybe you should sit a moment.”

She stilled at the contact, her gaze whipping up to meet his. In the moment, he felt naked; she had somehow found his eyes behind the helmet, and stared straight at him, her expression searching despite the beskar barrier. She only nodded, never breaking eye contact, and he steered her to the bench along the wall.

“I’m gonna go check on Grogu, he should be waking up from his nap soon,” Ezra offered, aiming for a smooth exit from the awkward moment. “Same time tomorrow, Saviin?”

“Sure thing, Ezra,” she replied, still staring at Din. Din could hear him swallowing a chuckle as he left.

As they sat down, Saviin seemed to snap out of the moment, and looked away, examining the incredibly fascinating water jug in her hands. Reluctantly, Din let the hand grasping her elbow fall away. After a moment, he shoved aside the swirling thoughts and emotions in his mind and broke the silence.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” he opened with an honest observation, curious to hear her response. She hadn’t tried to leave yet, which was promising; but that could be merely deference to his position as Mand’alor. The tight knot in his stomach sincerely hoped that wasn’t the case.

“Ruusaan and I were invited to visit and help out with the baby, since Ruusaan is so good with infants. And Fennec was excited to mentor Ruusaan in sniping.”

“And you?” he pressed gently. She grew slightly uneasy, shifting in her seat.

“Officially, I came to discuss trade and leadership with Daimyo Fett and Lady Cerium. We could benefit from new export options, and want to find out what Tatooine can offer us. We also want to explore and expand potential contingencies.”

“Contingencies?”

Saviin shrugged, still staring at the water jug in her hands.

“Boba and Cerium are family. And things are in motion now. If something should happen to them here, or to us in… our location, or anywhere else where our people dwell, there must be plans in place to keep everyone safe. If the Haven should fall, or this Palace, or both, where can we fall back to, to keep our children safe? Those are the contingencies that we’re working. Ret’lini, you know.” Din nodded. Gar Vod’e’s dedication to plans, back-up plans, and back-up plans for the back-up plans, had inspired Tristan to push for similar planning within his own council, with limited success.

“And unofficially?” Din hadn’t missed that distinction in her initial response. She raised her face and turned away from him, looking towards the window.

“They thought I could use a change of scenery,” was all she offered. Din had a feeling Cerium could share more. “Are you here to pick up Grogu?” She turned back to face him, face carefully blank and polite. It seemed to be an expression her whole clan had perfected.

“Not immediately, but yes,” he replied. Silence fell, and Din looked around the room, wracking his brain for an eloquent way to address the bantha in the room. He turned back to begin, when she spoke, her eyes trained on her water jug again.

“I’m surprised you’re even speaking to me right now, Mand’alor—after how I left Krownest.” Her voice was soft, hushed like silk slipping across the skin, yet taut with pain, self-flagellation in every syllable. He glanced at her bare neck— the familiar leather cord was still there, disappearing into the front of her tunic. She still wore the pendant. His heart clenched, and he reached out slowly, carefully, covering her hand resting on her thigh with his own. She froze.

“It’s Din, I told you that,” he chided gently, smiling so that she could hear it in his voice.

“I was angry at first,” he rubbed his thumb against her knuckles for reassurance, regretting that he had kept his gloves on. “Especially after the holo. But then I had some sense knocked into me, and I couldn’t be angry. Only grateful, and sad.”

“I’m so sorry—“

“So am I,” he cut her off. He squeezed her hand, then let go, flipping it over, palm-up. An offering, for her to decide whether to accept or reject. She stared at his hand, biting her lip, then slowly slid her hand into his, interlacing his fingers. Din took a steadying breath, and they sat in silence for a moment, appreciating that nothing more needed to be said right now. It could wait.

He wondered what she was thinking; her gaze remained straight ahead, those arresting eyes calm and yet filled with something he couldn’t define. He wondered if she was allowing a kernel of hope to take root, like the one currently sprouting in his own chest, sheltered from the fear and doubt currently trying to drown it. Such a small thing to many, the holding of hands, yet for him, this touch— how he had craved it, dreamed of it. It was a delicious torture, this blasted glove separating him from her skin, feeling her warmth seep through the leather. Too much and not enough all at once, and his mind warred between thoughts of the possible zooming into overdrive and the simple awareness that she was holding his hand and it was everything and enough. He willed every feeling of affection, adoration, devotion down his arm and into his fingers, hoping against hope she could feel what was too soon to say.

But it was too much to hope that this moment could last forever, and Saviin broke it first.

“So what brought you to the training rooms?” He huffed in amusement.

“Training. Boba told me Ezra was here.” He neglected to mention you, he thought. Sneaky bastard. She turned towards him, those mesmerizing eyes knowing and a small smile dimpling her beautiful face.

“Yeah, he suggested it after putting Grogu down for a nap. At the risk of sounding arrogant, it’s not often that either of us find a sparring partner that offers a real challenge.”

“From what I saw, there must be very few who offer a real challenge to you. I can see now how easy you were taking it on me when we sparred.” She ducked her head and laughed, and he squeezed her hand lightly for emphasis. He adored her humility.

“Just lots of practice,” she demurred. “I could stand to spend more time training on other weapons, I just really love the kad. You want to see?” With a light squeeze of her own, she slipped her hand out, and he mourned the loss even as his chest warmed at her obvious enthusiasm for her passion. She had unsheathed the sword, and carefully presented it to him. His breath caught at the simple action, so full of meaning, and took it gently. Immediately he picked up on a detail he hadn’t noticed before.

“It’s beskar.” He aimed for a tone that was simply observation, yet the question slipped out as well, and he saw Saviin’s shoulders tense and draw back slightly.

“This was given to me by my ba’vodu, when I completed my training. She felt it was appropriate given my position within the clan and my skill level.” This made sense, although he could tell she was waiting for him to accuse her of wielding beskar as an aruetii. Saviin confirmed his suspicion as her chin tipped up, and she added, “I am the only one in the clan who wields beskar.”

“Weapons should not be made of beskar, it is not the Way.” He hated it even as he said it, the words slipping out unbidden. Saviin stilled, staring at him for a long moment.

“Did your goran tell you that?”

“Beskar is meant to protect. Beskar weapons that can pierce armor—”

“Did you ever test that theory?” She cut across, and he froze. He hadn’t, of course he hadn’t, he wouldn’t ruin his armor like that, he just accepted what the— he accepted what the Armorer told him. Haran. The corner of Saviin’s mouth quirked up and tilted her head, and Din realized just how much he missed this back and forth, her quiet defiance. “Here. Look closely at it. This beskad is over three hundred years old. You can see the markings here and here, and where the grip has been worn; this kind of deterioration takes ages to occur, it’s not something that happens quickly. And these marks in Mando’a here, the old ones and the new ones? It’s been passed down through my ba’vodu’s family for generations. Our archives contains a fair amount on Mandalorian weapons; I can ask my mother to pull some files and send them to you if you’re interested.”

What a kind way to inform him that the Armorer had lied—misinformed him once again. He did not doubt Saviin— if there was a word in Mando’a describing a sword made of beskar, and the archives contained information on historical beskar weapons, that was good enough for him. The only real question that remained was why the goran had lied, and melted down his spear. He suspected the archives wouldn’t be able to answer that. He shut that line of thought down ruthlessly; the Armorer would not mar this hard-won reunion.

It took him longer than he liked to hand the sword back with a quiet “thank you, I’d like that.” She smiled, looking slightly surprised. Din frowned, confused. Whatever else would happen, had happened with Saviin, he had never doubted the utility of the archives. It was a literal treasure, and it remained high on his list of reasons why Gar Vod’e should be considered Mandalorian. He had not given up that fight. But would she believe it?

“Does the Darksaber have a power modulation setting?”

Din blinked, snapped out of his thoughts.

“Yes.”

Saviin nodded. “Ba’vodu Boba has training swords here as well. I know that you had a little training from your goran, and Sabine’s helped you a bit. If— if you’d like, I can show you how Kryze will fight, and how you can mix Jedi and Mandalorian forms to maintain the upper hand.”

“You think I can’t win?” he asked, a teasing tone lacing his voice. Saviin smiled more genuinely, and Din’s heart ached at the sight. He so desperately wished this could have been a spar for them, and not another act of duty for the Mand’alor. But he couldn’t help but hope; she offered. She held his hand. She was trying, as much as she’d let herself. It had to mean something.

“Ba’vodu Boba and Cerium have told me more about your exploits. I know you can win. You’re younger, stronger, and honestly probably ka’ra-blessed, for all of the crazy situations you find yourself in and manage to survive. But,” and Saviin’s smile slipped, like a sun dipping behind a cloud, “you can’t count out determination. Kryze is older, and cunning. She wants this more than anything, and will stop at nothing to get it. She may not even stop after yielding.” Saviin stood suddenly, pacing with her beskad gripped tightly in one hand. “Kyr’tsad was known for its mantra of victory at any cost. Jedi had only their sabers and the Force, to defend against Mandalorians armed with an array or weapons, many of which were designed specifically to fight Jedi. Understanding how they fought with limited options against a variety of opponents is useful, especially when up against former Kyr’tsad. I— I’m sorry,” she cut herself off, dropping her light eyes to the floor. “I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you haven’t heard from your advisors already.”

“Actually, no,” Din countered. “Our focus has been primarily on marshaling forces, identifying spies and resources. There hasn’t been much time for training, or planning for Mandalore’s long-term future.” He tilted his head in question at Saviin’s frown.

“Who suggested that approach?”

“An advisor from clan Rook.” That response seemed to trouble her even further.

“A leader needs to have a vision that they can clearly articulate, and a plan to achieve it. It can’t be just about immediate threats; the people need a future they can see and believe in, that gives them something to look past their differences and fight for. Something that presents an alternative to the future that Kryze offers. And none of it will matter if you’re not preparing to defend that future via Kryze’s challenge.” Saviin had begun pacing again as she spoke, twirling the beskad in her hand almost reflexively. “It doesn’t have to be fully fleshed out, but even when you win, if you want to stave off civil war, they’ll be looking to you to deliver a message. It will be your moment to define the future, and rally everyone to work together to achieve it. Not everyone will agree, but it will be your best chance to start that momentum towards peace and restoration. Restoration will mean something different to various groups, and that will be the moment to articulate the vision so that everyone knows what the Mand’alor is striving for. And how— will it be the way of Kyr’tsad? The Haat Mando’ade? Or the way of our ancient forebears during the golden age of the Mandalorian Empire? What does it mean to restore Manda’yaim? That will be the moment, before Kryze has a chance to further poison her followers against you.” She stopped abruptly, looking back at Din with those strange, arresting eyes.

Now more than ever, he wanted to know what color they were. She was so beautiful in her element, twirling her ancient weapon and ruminating on how to secure the peaceful future he wanted so badly for his children. As always, her advice was so different from that of his advisors; not contradictory, but more nuanced, perceptive. Anticipating a wide array of issues, and preparing to address them. He needed to pull her into his arms, and just hold her in gratitude for merely thinking of him, his goals, the responsibilities that weighed so heavily on him. Din fought the need to clench his fists at the thought of the Council’s hesitation, the Armorer’s offensive warning. She and her people had been rejected, and Din had hurt her, and she still offered her thoughts, her skills, for his use. Mandalore did not deserve her.

Din did not deserve her.

“I’m sorry, I keep doing that,” Din snapped out of his thoughts, to see her sheathing her sword and collecting her things to leave.

“No,” Din responded, slightly more forcefully than he intended. Saviin froze. “I mean, don’t stop. Your insight is more valuable than you know. It always has been. And I want to learn the forms, if you will teach me.” Saviin straightened slowly, gazing at him with an inscrutable expression.

“How much longer are you here?”

“Three days.”

“Not much time,” Saviin conceded. “But we can make the most of it. Unfortunate that Kote and Prudii are not here; they are far better all-around fighters than I am, and could better help in sparring against a weapons array. But Kryze will likely stick close to a beskad, to show that she is capable of wielding the Darksaber. If I can show you how to disable her weapons array— flame throwers, whistling birds, weapons embedded in her armor— and end the fight quickly while she’s still relying on the beskad, a decisive victory will give you the capital to bring her followers into the fold.”

Vor entye. This means a great deal to me,” Din inclined his head.

Nayc entye,” Saviin offered a small smile. Then she arched an eyebrow and a mischievous light gleamed in her eyes. “Better warm up— and take off your armor, minus the helmet.”

Din startled, pausing just a second too long. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve watched you fight— you use your armor as a shield, battering through obstacles. It’s effective, but you take more damage than you need to through that method. Boba told me about your fight on Morak, the damage you took in sub-par armor. You’re used to that protection.

"If something were to happen to your armor— flight suit is cut away, clasps lose integrity— you need to feel comfortable fighting without it. Kryze knows what your armor means to you, how much you rely on it. She’s seen you use it as a shield— Cerium told me about your fight in Trask. I wouldn’t put it past Kryze to directly target your armor, make you vulnerable physically and emotionally, to gain an advantage. If you can protect yourself without armor, as I do, then you’ll have more options and energy at your disposal  to mitigate how much damage you take that could cost you— and Kryze won’t be expecting it. So we’ll start without, and add it back in.”

He hesitated still. For decades, his armor had been a second skin. Willingly taking it off to engage in a fight, to fight in just a flightsuit— it was beyond foreign, a level of exposure that made his skin crawl just to contemplate. Saviin caught the hesitation, and sighed softly. Compassion, sadness, and encouragement warred on her lovely features as she gave a small smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“Your weapons are your religion, correct? Can you still fight when you are forsaken? You do so already, don’t you?”

He froze, stunned at the thought.

“All I am suggesting is to start with just yourself and the Darksaber. Your own body and mind as the weapon, bonded with the saber. When everything else is gone, you are still a warrior. No one can take that from you. I would encourage you to hone your skills and comfort at that elemental level, then layer back in the armor and the additional weapons. But it’s your choice, as always. We can proceed either way.”

Din stood stock still, letting the truths wash over him. He was a warrior; that hadn’t changed. His body as a weapon— it was true, wasn’t it? Honed over years of training and experience, lethal in its own right. These were elemental truths that nothing, no one could take from him. Not the Armorer, not Kryze.

He nodded, and moved off to the side, unclasping and neatly stacking his armor until all that remained was his flight suit, boots, and helmet. He felt strangely naked, even as he took in her bare arms and exposed neck. Flushing at the realization he was gawking, he cleared his throat and began stretching, before picking up the Darksaber.

“Ah, may I see it?” Din’s helmet swiveled, startled at her soft request. He hesitated for the slightest moment, then wordlessly handed it over. It lay in her hands, as though it were a sacred artifact, and she looked at the hilt closely, peering at it from several angles. “Has my mother examined this?”

Din shook his head. “It didn’t come up. Why?” Saviin hummed, turning it over once more.

“There are markings here that I recognize as ancient Mando’a, but I can’t read it. If you’re looking for something ancient like the Living Waters, maybe there’s a clue here that can help. Do you mind if I take some holos and send them for her to analyze?”

Din’s stomach twisted at the mention, but he merely replied, “sure.” He continued to warm up as she set the hilt down and angled her data pad at the sword from several angles. Then she set the data pad aside, picked up the hilt once more, and after closing her eyes and taking a few, even breaths, ignited it.

Din jolted; only the Armorer had dared to do that. He stared warily as Saviin grinned in sheer delight, immediately moving into a series of forms that Din had never seen before. The black blade zipped and swung, its movement humming a haunting melody as Saviin wielded it effortlessly. As she finished the form and powered down the saber, she looked like she was trying not to laugh from sheer joy. “How— how did you do that?” he managed to ask, forcing the words past the tightness in his throat as awe, envy, and shame battled in his chest. She smiled enigmatically and handed the hilt back to Din with a small bow of respect.

“It’s hard to explain, but— essentially, I opened myself up to the blade, and it accepted. And no, I’m not Force-sensitive. But I’ve read about this blade a great deal. I’m sure you read in the archives that the kyber crystal inside is near-sentient, having a collective conscience as a result of being attuned to the Force— ka’ra— and can communicate if you are open to it. And it has a long, long memory. Probably more than most Jedi lightsabers, since they don’t tend to pass them down to their Padawans. Finding a crystal that sings to them and creating their lightsaber is a rite of passage, like our verd’goten. But I’ve read that this one has a long and dark history. If you are willing to open your mind to it, which I’ve practiced in meditation, even Force Nulls can connect. So I did. It knows what it wants, and it is angry and hurt, very angry and hurt. It’s been misused for so long, done dark deeds. I centered my mind and focused, pushing forward my thoughts so that it knew that I only wanted to make it dance and sing for a moment, and it accepted, in a way? It didn’t fight me, and didn’t try to establish a major bond. Seemed content to dance for a moment.” Din nodded, struggling to comprehend but somehow understanding on a deeper level that it was true.

“Sabine Wren has talked about bonding with the crystal. It… doesn’t come easily.”

“No, making oneself vulnerable enough to see your own fears, desires, and strengths and be honest with yourself and the blade, is very difficult. And finding the time to meditate has probably been difficult.”

“Your aunt, Caré, was helpful with that.”

Saviin smiled. “I’m glad to hear it. Take a few moments to center yourself, acknowledge and let go of anything holding you back, and when you’re ready, set it to a training level with the dial at the base of the hilt. Take as long as you need— it’s between you and the blade right now. We’ll worry about doing it under fire later.”

Din nodded, and grasped the hilt, staring at it, letting his eyes fall out of focus as he attempted to clear his mind and connect to the blade. At first, nothing happened, other than thoughts of I feel stupid right now floating across his mind. Taking a deep breath, he tried a different tack.

I don’t know if you can hear me, he started, resolutely squashing his nerves, but I want to connect. I know we’ve tried this before, but— I want to work with you.

To whose end? Din nearly dropped the sword in his shock. The sound of a thousand voices bound into one had echoed— not in the salle, but in his mind. No one had warned him that could happen.

The restoration of Mandalore.

Is that all? Each word felt heavy with intent and scrutiny. He fought the urge to shiver.

Din contemplated the loaded question. To serve justice. Protect my aliit, and the weak.

You could do that without me. Din paused. That was true. And he hadn’t wanted to, before. He’d fought this destiny in his mind, tooth and nail. The anger, resentment- the pain of the Darksaber was palpable, clawing at his mind like a wounded, feral predator.

You did not want me, tried to give me away. What has changed? It took a massive effort to not push away the clawing pain, to acknowledge it and remain firm in his resolve.

I felt unworthy, unequal to the task. I still do. But there are people are counting on me, hoping that I might not only restore Mandalore, but make it one that will accept them too, and I have to try. All Mandalorians deserve a home, and if I give up, those who take you up next won’t allow all Mandalorians to return. The clawing stopped, and a different pressure grew in his mind, as though testing the sincerity of his thoughts.

All Mandalorians? An image pushed through his mind, one he had not conjured— it was the Haven. Adults tending the garden beds, children training with staffs while Senaar watched, smoke rising from the forge as the sweet clang of steel rang out like a bell. Then— Mygeeto, standing in the frigid air with clan Kryze as light reflected off crystals half-buried in snow. Clan Skirata, with those half-feral children threatening his kneecaps as Kad stood and laughed at the Mand’alor. Adumar. Ansion. Genassa. Bandomeer. The images went faster and faster.

If we do this together, it must be for the good of all Mandalorians. This is the Way. New images, faded and fuzzy on the edges, flashed by, of a crumbled city ruins, desolate yet resolute; of a dark, narrow cave, jagged rock walls threaded with veins of a strange glowing light; a glittering cavern, the sounds of lapping water ricocheting off the high ceiling; of a geyser of water, rocketing high above a desert plain; of verdant fields, thick forests, shriek-hawks soaring in clear skies, warriors and artisans and musicians and elders and children celebrating in town squares. Din’s chest ached, feeling the mourning and longing of the Darksaber, and yearning for the same. He felt the thrum of the saber hilt in his hand, buzzing with a warmth as though it had bonded to his skin. It flicked on of its own accord, the energy zipping up his arm and through his chest.

He could feel the connection, finally; it would not obey his commands, they would work together, no longer resisting each other. The blade was light, and he gave it an experimental twirl; or, rather, he intended to twirl it, and the blade acted accordingly, almost pulling his arm along with it. Strangely involuntary, yet synchronized with his thoughts. A symbiotic relationship, an extension of his mind, melded together with the past, present, and future that the Dha’kad’au’s crystal held. Finally, finally, a sense of peace pervaded his senses, even as the potential for violence thrummed in his hand; the conflict settled, the way forward clear. The training salle reappeared as the images faded, the afternoon glow of the twin suns suffusing the room in a dusty, near-ethereal glow.

“This is the Way,” Din whispered to the Dha’kad’au, powering it off.

He blinked, and looked around. Saviin sat on the floor with her back against the wall, head crumpled into her chest. Din panicked for a moment, before he realized she was asleep. He clipped the saber to his belt and crouched before her, well out of range just in case, then gently took her hand.

“Saviin.”

Her eyes shot open and her free hand flew up; he caught it swiftly, chuckling at her quick reflexes.

“Sorry,” she muttered, then froze, staring at him. He realized just how close they were. If he leaned in… clearing his throat, he released her raised hand (selfishly continuing to hold the other, she didn’t seem to mind—) and rocked back on his heels.

“No need. You must be tired. We can continue later.”

“No, I’m fine,” she countered, running her free hand through her hair and gently tugging her other hand out of Din’s grasp to check the time. “I sat down when I realized you would be a while, and must have fallen asleep. I’m good to go.”

Din stood up and frowned, tilting his helmet. “How long was I meditating?”

“An hour.”

An hour! That conversation took an hour? If it had really happened at all— then Din reconsidered. He’d been swallowed by a krayt dragon and gnawed on by a rancor. Anything was possible at this point, including talking to a sword.

“Yeah,” Saviin grinned, and accepted his hand to stand up. Din unclipped the Darksaber and held it in his hand. It felt lighter now. “I take it you were successful?”

“Yes,” he replied simply. How could he explain—

“Yeah, I could tell,” Saviin was looking at his hand grasping the hilt. “You hold it more comfortably. Before it was like a foreign object. You’re bonded now. Makes you wonder,” she added softly, almost to herself.

“Wonder what?”

She met his eyes, searching. “How you can be dar’manda when the Manda has bonded you with the Darksaber.” Din gaped, then deliberately put that thought aside to examine later; he’d had enough mind-blowing revelations for one day.

She smiled disarmingly. “Just the words of a heretic. Anyway. Let’s dive in. Don’t want to give Lady Kryze another crack at bonding with it.” Suddenly, the hilt thrummed in his hand, and a small flicker of rage that wasn’t his own passed through his mind. That will take some getting used to.

“I don’t see that going over too well for her.”

Chapter Text

The next morning found Saviin up early. Ruusaan had hit it off with the lady bounty hunter, and wasn’t much of a morning person anyway, so Saviin had taken over the pre-dawn hours with the baby, to give Cerium more time to rest. She couldn’t complain today; her mind full from the unexpected reunion with the M— with Din yesterday.

They’d spoken so little of Krownest, and yet— she couldn’t help feeling relieved. Deeply. She didn’t want to dwell on memories that already haunted her sleep. It was enough to acknowledge the hurt, the mistakes, and let it rest in the past. Not that it left the future looking much brighter but— she could be content with his friendship. She would. Rex’s advice lingered in her mind, but she dismissed it for now. Just because he felt regret for his actions, and offered her his hand, did not mean that those feelings remained. Maybe he accepted that it could not be, and simply wanted friendship. And even if he still— well, it didn’t change anything. The circumstances remained the same.

He might surprise you.

She had just returned the sweetly napping infant to her mother, carefully nestled in her floating crib, and headed for the bar in the throne room for caf.

“Saviin.”

She turned at the familiar modulated voice, to see Din moving towards her, two mugs of caf in-hand.

“I was just on my way to find you,” he awkwardly held out the second cup, which she took with a quizzical smile. It melted into surprised delight as she tasted it.

“How did you know how I like my caf?”

The armored warrior offered only a one-shouldered shrug. “Bounty hunter.”

Which… explained nothing. But before she could protest—

“If you’re not busy this morning, I have to take a meeting, and was hoping you could join me to assist.” Saviin couldn’t help her look of surprise, and he continued. “The council has been hitting several roadblocks without much success. If you could listen in, I’d like to hear your insights after. You can remain unseen, if you wish.”

Saviin contemplated the request. On the one hand, she was supremely unqualified to advise the Mand’alor. She’d told him this before. On the other hand, creative thinking was her forte. She resolutely squashed the thrill of excitement that he wanted her opinion— and her opinion, not orders on what to do next. He was growing as a leader. How can I not help?

“My sunrise hours are yours, Mand’alor, as fair payment for excellent caf,” she declared with a smile, and was pleased to see his shoulders jump in a quiet laugh. “I’d be honored to assist as best I can,” she added seriously, following his gesture towards the hallway. She saw his helmet tilt in her peripheral.

“You think too little of the gifts you give to others.”

“I’d claim humility, but it seems hypocritical to do so.” She saw him begin to lift his helmet to take a sip of caf, and she looked away discreetly to afford him some privacy.

“You think so little of your instructors, that they failed in teaching you?”

Saviin stopped abruptly, staring in wide-eyed surprise. It took Din a moment to realize she had stopped, and turned to face her, helmet back in place.

“I… had not thought of it that way,” she admitted softly, resuming her steps to catch up to him. “You have a very fair point. I should honor their efforts with more confidence in myself. Thank you,” she added, “for pointing that out.” Din merely hummed in neutral acknowledgment, and stopped before a door. Coding it open, he stepped in first, and she watched as he briefly checked the room, ever the bounty hunter scanning for threats. As she followed, he turned slightly, and she was shocked to feel his warm gloved hand press gently on the small of her back as he steered her towards a comfortable seat in the far corner, out of view of the hologram at the main table.

He had indeed come a long way since that terrible first meeting at the palace. She sipped at her caf, relishing the bitter and sweet flavors of the fortifying brew. Somehow, Din had perfectly recreated her favorite way to prepare her caf. The realization was bitter, and sweet.

“We have a few minutes before the meeting begins,” and Saviin snapped out of her reverie, refocusing her attention on Din. “I’ve been meaning to ask— why did you decide to become a goran?” She flushed, the memory of that disastrous meeting in Krownest flashing before her eyes.

“I’m not a—”

“Saviin, you work on weapons and armor, you are the fount of wisdom your community turns to, and you’re a leader. You may not have apprenticed, but you’re a goran.”

Well. When put that way— she swallowed thickly. How could she have forgotten so quickly the kindness that made him easy to love? Friendship was beginning to look like a struggle again.

“I think I was ten, when I asked my buir to add sword work to our training,” Saviin started slowly, sipping her caf as she answered. “I had already made a couple knives, just whittling and filing. I wanted to know how to turn them into vibroblades, which after several confiscations and scoldings, I did eventually learn. I started reading into the role of a goran, and it spoke to me— the role they play in Mandalorian society, the skill and dedication that goes into metalworking. I’d always been a good listener. The more I read, the more I wanted to be that for others— not just a weapons maker, but a listener. Someone to help them find their place in the community, just like I found uses for metals in my shop. I knew it would be limited, because I’m mostly self-taught, but I hoped I could make at least a small difference for my community. And that’s enough for me, I’m happy to be just a smith. I wouldn’t want to be a full-time goran in the true Mandalorian tradition, I’m a little too forward-thinking for the role. I care about people too much to be so impartial.” She paused, then blinked up at Din in surprise. “You’re the first person who’s asked me that since I was a kid.”

“So, yesterday?”

Saviin laughed as she swiped a hand out at him in mock outrage. “Din Djarin, did you just crack a joke? Are you feeling well?”

He chuckled as he leaned back out of range. “Probably not.” The comm behind him began to ping, and he sighed. “Time to go.” He started to move away, then turned back. “Thank you, for telling me.”

She smiled, not totally sure what to make of this whole conversation. “Thank you for asking.”

It was a dull meeting. Saviin quietly took notes as the meeting proceeded, paying close attention to who was making specific arguments for and against certain actions. Patterns emerged, and she noted them carefully. It was as she had suspected and observed before; Din was not in charge of the agenda. And progress was mired in conflicting priorities amongst the council members.

Din’s shoulders slumped as the holo faded, and he turned back to face Saviin as she rose to meet him at the table. “Are your leadership meetings like this?” he asked wearily, and she smiled.

“No, but we have only a small community, not a whole planet. And we had the advantage of inheriting a well-planned organization, and the mentorship of a founding member. Mama was the visionary, and everyone there had bought into the vision, so there’s not much conflict. Kote is the new visionary, but he’s fairly modest in his ambitions; mostly we are custodians of a well-oiled machine.”

“They didn’t cover community organizing in the Fighting Corps,” Din sighed, sounding forlorn. Saviin couldn’t help herself; she reached out to grasp his arm consolingly, just above the vambrace.

“If no one else has told you this lately, you’re doing great,” she soothed. “You’ve brought more clans together than Kryze ever did; they believe in you. I heard them, at Krownest. There’s hope, where none had existed before. And you don’t have to do it all yourself. Good leaders tap the strengths of their people, supply the vision and direction, and trust that they’ll carry out your vision for you. These are hyper-competent Mandalorians you’re working with; delay and obfuscation is by design. I think half of your issues that the council discussed will be resolved if you set the agenda by aligning it to your vision, then delegate from there. It’s work, but nothing you can’t inspire them to achieve, and once inspired, they’ll work quickly.”

Din nodded, his helmet trained on her hand, then tilted up to face her. Blushing slightly, she pulled her hand back, and took a half-step back, thrusting the data pad towards him.

“I, ah, took some notes during the meeting,” she stammered. Stars, get it together! “I’m supposed to meet my ba’vodu for a breakfast meeting, but you can return it when you’re done.”

“I’ll walk you there,” he offered. She nodded, smiling, and they walked out.

Saviin had hardly realized where she was going, absorbed in their conversation of the meeting, when she nearly ran into Boba. Din caught her arm as she stumbled, and she blushed at her clumsiness, the red deepening at the look on Boba’s face.

“Saviin. Meeting now? I’m glad you’re here too, vod. We’re meeting the Tuskens this evening at the encampment, if you want to join.” Din merely nodded. “Good. Let’s go,” Boba addressed Saviin, and she nodded, realizing as she turned to bid farewell to Din that he still held her elbow. She fought her blush.

“Are you sparring with Ezra again this afternoon?” Din asked, tone perfectly calm. Saviin nodded. “I’ll see you then.” He released her elbow with a gentle squeeze, and walked away without another word. Saviin gazed after him, then turned back to see Boba watching her with an inscrutable expression.

“I’m assisting the Mand’alor,” she said defensively, tilting her head up in challenge.

“Is that what it’s called these days?”

“Not a word, ba’vodu,” she huffed. “Not. One. Word.” Boba barked out a laugh.

“That’s ner riduur’s job, anyway. I’m supposed to be a crime lord, not a holo-drama narrator.”

“So he just magically found his way to the training salle yesterday, is that it?”

 


 

Tristan considered himself even-keeled, not prone to fits of temper.

But right now, shooting his data pad sounded very tempting.

The latest report had come in from Woves, on Kryze’s movements. Heavily encrypted and written rather obliquely, the report read more as a general warning than anything truly actionable. Nonetheless, Kryze’s violent acquisition of munitions and materiel for Mandalore left Tristan feeling more dispirited than ever.

Morale in Krownest had officially hit an all-time low. No one had abandoned the effort yet, but months of waiting, building up, with no timeline for actually relocating to Mandalore, had chipped away at the initial excitement of discovering there was a Mand’alor to rally around.

Now, Kryze’s rampage for supplies was actively burning bridges. She confiscated in the style of Death Watch, her might-as-right approach targeting Imperial Remnants mostly, but also syndicates, and even legal shippers. It evoked an image of Mandalore that Tristan and Din had hoped to leave in the past: one of vicious, lawless raiders, not honorable warriors. This was not a war, where hard decisions had to be made; this was conquering for the sheer enjoyment of doing so.

And Woves was suffering. Tristan could see it, when the Nite Owls periodically returned to Krownest. Shadows clung to his eyes, the set of his mouth grim, more silver streaking his black curly hair. His haunted expression lingered in Tristan’s mind long after the man had left. Now more than ever, Tristan wanted to believe in a fairy tale, one that could end Woves’ suffering as much as everyone else’s.

But they’d made no progress in finding the Living Waters.

Worst of all— at least for Tristan— he’d made no progress in finding a way to have both duty and desire. Poor Senaar remained cheerful and optimistic as always, but he couldn’t help feeling the heavy guilt that he’d made no meaningful strides towards a future that saw them together. His only saving grace was her inability to read his aura through the holo; she got enough from reading his face alone.

Tristan tossed the data pad onto the desk with a little more force than necessary. Rau’s head snapped up.

“Take a walk.”

“What will that fix?” Tristan snapped back, his aggravation getting the better of him.

Rau’s gaze sharpened. “Take your romantic woes elsewhere.”

Tristan scoffed. “You really think it’s just that?” He glanced at the door, confirming that it was closed, then reached forward and activated a security scrambler. As the device hummed, Tristan vented.

“That is just the tail of the blurrg, Rau, and you know it. You saw Woves’ report. We’ve made no progress on the Living Waters, we have no timeline on taking Mandalore, the Council meetings are still a mess— it’s all a mess!” He stood up, kicking the chair out of the way.

The frustration, the futility, his inability to do a damn thing about it, boiled in his blood.

Rau leaned back in his chair, seemingly unfazed by Tristan’s sudden desire to damage property. “Have you read clan Ordo’s report?”

Tristan stopped mid-step. “Ordo’s report?”

Rau raised an eyebrow. “Seems they found a major cache of black market supplies that a smuggling ring had abandoned on Raxus. Apparently, the smuggling ring had been arrested for transporting slaves. They’d been found somewhere far from the warehouse where they operated, and a tip-off to the Ordo clan directed them to the abandoned materials. They found a massive cache of seeds, farming equipment, moisture vaporators; all kinds of things one would need to start a farm.” Rau smirked faintly. “Isn’t that interesting.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What kind of smuggling ring traffics in slaves and farming equipment?”

“… one that plans to open a farm?”

Rau shot him the flattest look Tristan had ever seen. “Let’s try this one, then. Did you read the third paragraph of Woves’ report?”

He frowned. “The line about the botched raid? They went in but everything was already gone?”

“Yes. Interestingly enough, Beviin reported in that they were checking in on Keitum again, to see if anyone had returned. They’d gotten a strange comm from an unknown code. It turned out that the entire covert had come back, with construction materials that somehow matched the description of the missing materials from the botched raid. And they somehow know about the Mand’alor’s return, and pledged their support and newly-gotten materials. Curious, isn’t it?”

Tristan stared at Rau, the frustration draining away as something perilously close to hope began to emerge. “Even still?”

“They said they would support us, no matter what. You think it’s coincidence that Senaar has accidentally dropped actionable intel in your conversations? It’s an accident to her, but who do you think fed it to her? How else did I find the mole in the Kast clan?” Rau’s expression softened slightly. “We’re not alone, Wren. Things look pretty grim, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been. We just need to find those karking Waters, and I have some ideas on that.”

Tristan’s glow of hope faded quickly. “What about morale? Even if the reality is optimistic, optics are bad right now.”

“Djarin will be back in a few days; I think then we’ll be making some moves. From what I hear, he’s got Saviin and Ver’ika working on an analysis of markings on the Darksaber, that could provide some new leads.” Rau smirked. “And of course, everything’s always easier with Djarin when, ah, relations with our friends at the Haven are operating smoothly. Hang in there, Wren. We have fresh eyes helping us. I think the time is fast approaching.”

 


 

“What do you know of the Tuskens?”

Boba’s rumbling, raspy baritone pulled Saviin out of a daydream about a very different voice. Her eyes shot up to meet her uncle’s; achingly familiar, yet so different. Harder, harsher than she ever remembered her father’s appearing. But that stoic, impassive face was unmistakable, despite the scars.

“Nothing more than the conjecture of outsiders,” she replied carefully, watching his reaction. His eyebrow shot up.

“Not much of an answer.”

Suddenly feeling like she was back in study with her father, she straightened slightly in her chair. “They are a nomadic people, believed to be near-human. Opinions differ on their sentience, but I would agree that they are. They are the true natives of Tatooine, and know more about this land than any other sentient could possibly know. They are allegedly fearsome to behold, and their culture is harsh and somewhat simplistic in comparison with many other sentient cultures— likely a direct result of the environment in which they live— and fiercely protective of the few resources on this planet. Beyond that, merely conjecture, though I confess to being sympathetic.”

“How so.”

Saviin shrugged. “They are a persecuted people, underestimated and undervalued. I can understand that. I heard about the slaughter of the village by the Jedi Anakin Skywalker, and the slaughter by the Sith Darth Vader. And the fight at Freetown.” Saviin elected to skip the massacre by the Pykes; she’d made her point. “The Tuskens give as good as they get, and their code and culture is foreign to those who think them lesser. For me, at least, I think I understand them to a point, without having actually met them.”

Boba watched her, expression impassive. Saviin waited.

“I think that is a fair assessment,” he said finally. “Given their ways and their history, their response to our request could go either way. Do you have plans for both outcomes?”

“We have discussed it. If they approve, we can add check-ins to our rotation, have teams drop in and re-stock as needed, to make sure it’s ready at a moment’s notice. It would minimize traffic to and from the Palace, minimize the possibility of tails discovering it. If they refuse, I have a list of other worlds to consider; no need to force the issue. Do you have any alternatives for either scenario?”

“No, your plans are fine.” He sat back, eyes scrutinizing her. “You think Mandalore is going to be a problem?” She stood up, pacing at she contemplated her answer. Her eyes took in the view of Boba’s office; it was more utilitarian than most of the other rooms she had seen in the Palace, unadorned stone walls and a large, plain wooden desk with multiple holo screen displays, currently powered down. A rack holding a gaderffi stick provided modest decoration. Only the wispy drapes at the window and the comfortable chair cushions suggested a woman’s touch.

“For us and our business primarily, not for you and Tatooine, though it may be presumptuous to say so; in theory, I should think there will be nothing to stop business between Tatooine and Mandalore, or Tatooine and anyone else, and no one would dare come after you personally. If Kryze were to become Mand’alor, that could change, but I should think picking a fight with Tatooine would not be high on her to-do list. In either—scenario, we are far more vulnerable. As vengeful as Kryze is, she ought to paint her armor gold; I expect her to at least try and make our lives difficult, no matter— no matter what happens.” She chastised herself internally as his eyes caught the slip.

“That princess is a viper; if anyone’s disgraced their armor, it’s her. Kryze’s claims to the throne are as valid as mine, the claimed heir to Jango Fett, last true Mand’alor. And that’s a lot of bantha; Mandalore isn’t a dynasty.” He paused, thoughtful. “I don’t care for politics, but that seems like an unexploited angle to shut her down.”

Saviin looked away, staring out the window into the expanse of the Dune Sea, the sands shimmering under the bright morning sun. It had not been said in scorn, but the comment still stung. Kote’s words echoed back to her; Boba was different. He was claimed. They weren’t.

With effort, she smothered the simmering burn of unwanted. “I’ve considered it. That’s… a difficult perspective to push into the conversation without tipping one’s hand, or compromising allies.” She heard a soft snort, and looked back to see her uncle smirking faintly at her, his gaze slightly softened and speculative.

“I think you’ll manage, Sav'ika. You seem quite good at driving change, when you’re not underestimating yourself. Your eyes are fresh to the dejarik board, which is an advantage; especially, if no one realizes you’re playing.”

Chapter Text

Din stood still in the hangar entrance, Grogu nestled in his arms and peering about with wide-eyed interest. Now that Grogu had a teacher and they had several safe places for the child to stay, Din had become more selective about the trips that Grogu took with him. He still felt the shame of having repeatedly endangered his ad; he’d done his best given the circumstances, but failure still tasted like ash in his mouth. But a ride in an open speeder to visit allies seemed safe enough for his thrill-seeking son to indulge.

“She’ll be here in a moment,” Boba tossed his way, emerging from a side door and moving to the speeder to store his sen’tra and gaderffi stick. Din merely nodded. They had sparred earlier, then split up to refresh and prepare for the trip into the Dune Sea. The spar had gone much better today, Din picking up the new forms with ease thanks to the bond with the Darksaber. Fighting without armor, on the other hand, came more slowly.

Din jostled Grogu gently as the child grew squirmy.

“Patience,” he chided fondly. A movement near the door caught his attention, and he stiffened.
An armored, helmeted figure was moving towards them. Female, judging by the gait and figure. It stopped suddenly as he tensed, raising hands slowly.

“Alor, it’s me.”

Saviin.

He relaxed immediately, taking in her armor now as she moved forward warily. A skin-tight bodysuit covered her from neck to calf-high boots. Her usual heavy kama encircled her waist, holstered blaster on one side and sheathed sword on the other, but instead of her usual loose tunic tucked into the kama, a chest plate sat snugly on her upper torso. It looked like a modified scout trooper chest piece, cut down and shaped to size. She wore her usual shoulder guards and vambraces, with additional upper arm guards, and thigh guards peeked out from the bottom of her kama. Her helmet was metallic, dark paint outlining the visor. It wasn’t a traditional Mandalorian helmet, nor a clone trooper style, but the visor shape resembled that of Kryze and the Armorer’s, albeit wider and without the central drop-down, and included decorative grooves that ran around the head and below the visor in rings. It was hard to tell from his visor’s view, but the helmet paint rimming the visor appeared to match the dark paint of the rest of her armor. A stylized V shape was prominently displayed on the chest piece, and a dark cape fell behind her.

“You haven’t seen me in full armor before, I apologize for the alarm,” the vocoder of her helmet was disorienting; it was her, and yet the soothing melody of her voice had gained a harsh edge. He fought a shiver. "We can’t afford to replace bodysuits regularly so I wear other clothes in the village, and Prudii rigged my luggage with a paint bomb to force me to buy climate-appropriate clothes here. But I didn’t want to disrespect them by showing my face.” A long pause followed the question as both men looked at her. Her chin tipped up slightly in defiance. “I can’t tell if that look is because of the lack of resources, the paint bomb, or my armor-wearing habits, but—”

“You’re fine,” Din cut across. “It does you credit. I just…” he trailed off.

“Don’t remember the last time you felt safe enough to leave the armor off?” Boba supplied. Din nodded, and as did Boba. “Same.” At least, that’s part of it, thought Din. She looked stunning in full armor. He just wasn’t going to say that in front of Boba.

“Pine, violet, and bronze. That’s fitting,” Boba grunted in approval. Saviin nodded.

“As alor, guarding is part of the job. And they insisted on me taking my mother’s bronze helmet, since I’m in a leadership role. I took it on the understanding that I’m not royalty.”

Boba chuckled. “Not a princess?”

“I’ve made my point before.”

“No time to spar now,” Boba waved away the threat. “Where did you find the body glove? I’ve never seen that color brown.”

“You’d have to ask Senaar, she’s in charge of besbe.”

“Why didn’t you wear the full kit at Krownest?” Din interjected. He regretted it, seeing her shoulders draw back as though squaring herself for a fight.

“The optics were already poor going in. Showing up in what we consider a full armor kit would have only provoked those issues further.” Din couldn’t argue with that logic. Nothing provoked a fight more than the sight of an opponent who considered themselves ready for one. 

“We’re leaving now, Fennec,” Boba spoke into his comm, bluntly breaking the tension.

“Copy that. We’ll debrief when you get back.” He jammed his helmet on and climbed into the speeder.

“This is not just a social call?” Din asked, confused. He handed Saviin into the speeder, then passed Grogu over to climb in after her unimpeded.

“For you, it is,” Boba replied, switching over to in-helmet comms. Din startled slightly to hear Saviin’s voice so close to his ear, soft and soothing once more.

“We’re negotiating to secure one of our contingencies. We’re offering water and wood, and ba’vodu’s offering weapons, to gain permission to establish a permanent fallback location in the event that the Palace and the Haven are compromised, preferably somewhere in the Jundland Wastes, but we’ll see what can be negotiated.”

“Smart.”

“If they agree,” Saviin shrugged, bouncing Grogu lightly on her lap as the child squealed and waved his hands in the dusty air whipping by. “If not, we’ll look elsewhere. Rex might know of some more abandoned Republic bases that haven’t already been used by the Rebellion. From what I’ve read of the Tuskens’ history, they may be sympathetic to a people who have been hunted to the point of extinction. But they’re also nomadic, so they may not understand why we want a stationary location in their territory, no matter how temporarily it would be used. And concerned about whatever danger chases us there. It will be an interesting conversation, to say the least. Ba’vodu, I’ll need you to translate, we didn’t learn Tusken sign at home.”

“What other languages did you learn?”

We’re all fluent in Basic and Mando’a, plus Ryl, Huttese, Shriywook— comprehension, not speaking— and GAR-sign; it’s pretty close to Galactic Sign Language from what I hear, but we learned from clones, so who knows. I think there’s a lot of Mando field sign mixed in.” She turned to face him, her metallic helmet catching the light of the dying suns. “I hear you speak something like a dozen languages. You know Tusken?”

“Spoken and sign.”

“I’d love your help then, if you don’t mind.” He could hear the smile in her voice. Not trusting his own, he merely nodded. After a beat, Boba’s blatant silence registered, and he turned away. Saviin switched to external comms, cooing at Grogu who was still squealing continuously, ears flapping in the breeze. Din’s helmet registered a comm ping, and he groaned internally as he answered.

“What.”

“If you’re going to flirt the entire way there, I’m making you walk home.”

“Kark off.”

“Maybe I should take the kid and leave you there. You can fly her back with the jetpack, pretty romantic—”

Din ended the connection, but scowled as he saw Boba’s shoulders shake in laughter. Damn him. Now Din couldn’t get the image out of his head.

 


 

They reached the Tusken settlement just as the first sun hit the horizon, the second not far behind.

Saviin had never seen anything like the Dune Sea in her life. She’d been to Tatooine before, she’d seen sand. But as far as the eye could see, it undulated in waves, dark and ominous as an ocean amidst the dying light. Windswept dunes rose and fell, swelling and dropping under the power of an invisible current, immovable as a monument yet as ephemeral as a cloud. She knew this landscape could change dramatically with one swift sandstorm; it was a terrifying marvel to behold.

Before them, a mixture of tents and semi-permanent structures were clustered in groups. More than one tribe present, then. A thrill shot through her as figures stood and approached; a mixture of garbs confirming her suspicion. Some wore long robes that fully encased their bodies— brown, if she had to guess, though the visor distorted the color— their flowing design reminding her of holos of the Jedi. Others wore black, or something that seemed to blend into the sand, in robes that revealed leggings and tunics underneath. Yet all wore the famous mask, and not an inch of skin could be found anywhere. She had been right to wear the armor and helmet.

The speeder stopped, and Din jumped out, again offering a hand to Saviin as she debarked. Trepidation shot through her and she suddenly faltered, hesitant to move forward.

What was wrong with her? She’d met masked individuals before. She’d met warriors before. She was a— not a real Mandalorian, she chastised herself bitterly— but ingrained in the culture nonetheless. She’d met with beings with whom a language barrier existed. She could defend herself; she was with Din and Boba. She was an alor, a diplomat of her people, the most capable of her clan in negotiating. And they were counting on her. There was nothing to fear.

And yet—

As though sensing her thoughts, a warm hand descended on the small of her back, below the back plate, and she glanced up at Din. He nodded reassuringly, gently propelling her forward to join Boba who had already moved ahead to greet the leaders.

“Saviin,” Boba turned as she approached. “The leaders of three tribes have agreed to meet with us.” He presented them, making some guttural sound for each that she had no hope of replicating. Each in turn nodded, the third immediately greeting Din enthusiastically.

“He is the leader of the tribe allied with Freetown,” Din explained.

She nodded respectfully, then turned to Din. “Can you please ask if they will accept a gift, which in my culture is a gesture of goodwill?” He nodded and relayed the question. His speech seemed effortless to him, as easy as Ryl or Mando’a, his hand signals confident. She nearly missed the response, entranced with watching him.

“They said they would accept,” and she glanced at the leaders, their postures curious as they tilted their masked heads at her. Handing Grogu over to Din, she reached into the satchel she had brought, and pulled out three sheathed ceremonial daggers, secretly grateful that she had brought five just in case. She presented one to each leader, watching as they examined them, drawing the blades to inspect the craftsmanship.

“Wise,” commented Boba, observing the exchange. Din set Grogu down into the sand, and began speaking in Tusken again.

“What’s he saying?” Saviin asked Boba quietly.

Boba snorted softly. “He’s telling them that you crafted the blades, and your sister the hilts. And now he’s explaining your role in the clan.”

Saviin flushed under her helmet. One of the leaders responded, gesticulating at Saviin, then at Din. Din shook his head, grunting a response as his hands flew. Boba reared back in surprise.

“What are they saying?”

Boba turned and stared at her, expression hidden by the helmets. He tilted his head consideringly, then snorted again. “Nothing.” Saviin scoffed, but didn’t bother arguing. She wasn’t about to get Boba Fett to do anything he didn’t want to.

The tribe leaders conferred quietly, then called to a child, who ran up brandishing a black ball. The leader friendliest with Din cracked it open and handed it to her, speaking solemnly.

“They are honored by your gift, and offer something precious to them in return, a black melon,” Din translated. He added quietly, “turn away to lift your helmet and drink, and don’t smell it. It tastes better than it smells.”

Saviin accepted the melon with a small bow. “What is the sign for thank you?” Watching Din carefully, she repeated the gesture, and was rewarded with a guttural response. She then turned away to lift her helmet slightly to drink. The flavor was sour, somewhat bitter and yet oddly pleasant. Lowering her helmet, she handed it to Boba to drink, and the Tuskens murmured to each other. Concerned that she had just committed a faux pas, she turned to Din.

“They are impressed by your generosity, that you share with your gift with your comrades,” he told her quietly, accepting the melon from Boba and turning away to drink.

“Well done,” Boba praised her. Saviin blushed; Boba was not one for compliments. “I’d say we’re off to a good start.”

 

Din ended up translating everything for Saviin, relieving Boba of the task and enabling both to engage in the conversation fully. As they sat around the fire, she described her clan of warriors, a persecuted people, electing to skip over the clone detail; it would not matter to them. Boba explained his relation, and his current position at the palace, the assurances he had set into place to respect their rights to the Dune Sea, before they launched into their request for a fallback location for their children and non-combatants, a temporary safe refuge intended for use only if the worst should happen to their primary homes.

The Tuskens listened respectfully, asking questions mostly related to territorial rights and resource use. Saviin had expected that; in such a harsh landscape, any imposition could be a drain on precious resources. It was the heart of their fight with the moisture farmers.

Saviin pointed to the crates attached to the speeder. “They are full of water and wood, and will be an annual tribute,” she said, as Din translated. Boba signed his contribution of weapons and ammunition. “Any resources we need, we will import, without taking from this planet, and any adjustments to a secured space in order to fortify it would be done without severely altering the landscape.”

The leaders conferred quietly, then one spoke. Boba stiffened. “What is it?” Saviin asked uneasily.

“There is an abandoned home in the Jundland Wastes,” Din translated. “It is defensible, and they would be willing to let you have that and expand it some to accommodate your family. They say a wizard used to live there, but he hasn’t been seen in ten years.”

“Kenobi,” Boba said tightly. Saviin gasped.

“General Obi-Wan Kenobi?”

Boba and Saviin stared at Din.

“Vod’ika, you’d never even heard of Jedi. How do you know Kenobi?”

Din shrugged. “I read about him in the Gar Vod’e archives. Said he was a Jedi, one of their best. Supposedly died at the end of the Clone Wars.”

Saviin gaped, rather proud of her— she killed that thought immediately.

“He didn’t, he managed to survive, lived in exile on Tatooine for decades. My father served under him for a while during the war, as did many of my uncles. He’s…” she faltered suddenly, “he’s the one who found them on Kamino.” She turned to Boba. “We can ask for somewhere else, if it’s too much.”

Boba was silent for a long time. The Tusken leaders watched them quietly. “I’ve been there, on a bounty,” he said finally, sighing deeply. “It’s a good location. And it’s only for emergencies, for the noncombatants. With any luck, I’ll never have to see it again. It’s a good deal, we should take it.”

Saviin turned back to the leaders. “If the terms are acceptable to you, we accept them as well. Our presence will be minimal, only to maintain the site for emergency and to deliver the annual tribute by whatever means are acceptable to you.” The leaders nodded, then stood at Boba’s invitation to inspect the crates. Din stood up and followed.

Saviin made to stand as well, then stopped abruptly. A small crowd of children had suddenly congregated in front of her. They chattered to each other, cocking their heads at her and pointing to her armor. They wore a variety of outfits, but each wore the mask ubiquitous among the Tuskens. The sight of children set something at ease within Saviin, and she relaxed slightly, letting loose a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Glancing past them, she saw a small gaggle of Tuskens, whom she presumed were mothers and fathers, watching the interaction closely.

“Um, hello,” she offered to the children with a tentative wave. Grogu waded through them, and climbed into her lap, blinking his large eyes at the children. The children chattered to each other even more insistently. Making a sign to wait, she slowly reached into her satchel, and withdrew a dozen wooden figurines, stained dark brown. Senaar had a cult following in Gar Vod’e for her whittled figurines, and so kept a stash of prepared animals to hand out to children. No one seemed to like the banthas, so she had happily handed over her collection to Saviin, on the off-chance that this exact scenario would occur. She handed out all that she had.

“You may have to share,” she tried to pantomime. The children examined them excitedly, then stared at her.

“Um, they’re toys. You play with them? Here,” she gestured for the children to set them down in the sand. She began to move them around, dancing on the sand, forming herds and making them jump. The children howled excitedly, taking the figurines back, and rushing off to show their parents the new toys and make their own games. She watched them go, smiling behind her helmet. Suddenly, a child darted back in front of her, and held something out. She took it carefully, examining it. Intricately designed beads, carved from bone, were threaded on a thin leather cord as a necklace. The child said something, pointing back at a woman who gestured something that Saviin guessed meant gratitude for the toy banthas. Saviin inclined her helmet respectfully to the child, hoping they understood. Evidently they did, reaching out to pat her shoulder before rushing off again.

Saviin looked down at the beads, admiring the craftsmanship, musing that they likely felt the same about the bantha figurines. Grogu cooed, clearing eyeing the beads. She handed them over. “No chewing, okay?” He waggled his ears, and she took that as assent. As he settled comfortably into her lap turning each bead over in his little claws, she reflected on her earlier apprehension. She felt that she began to see why both Boba and Din maintained good relationships with these fierce people.

It hit Saviin suddenly as she looked across the fire, watching Din converse with the Tuskens. They had returned from the crates, and he had been drawn into a conversation with several, while Boba discussed the Pykes with the clan leaders. Surrounded by them, Din sat comfortably, confidently signing and uttering that enigmatic guttural language. The Tuskens murmured and gesticulated, their postures expressing respect and admiration. And he listened as much as he talked, the Tuskens responding enthusiastically as he nodded along.

Saviin had never seen him so comfortable, so at home. For so long, she had only seen Din when he was clearly out of his element, overwhelmed by a responsibility for which he’d never been trained. Awkward, uncertain around Mandalorians, deferring to consensus. And now she was the one wrong-footed, watching Din interact so effortlessly amongst an alien race. They were drawn to him, his presence magnetic, because they had known Mando the bounty hunter long before he became Din Djarin, the Mand’alor. They had seen him prove himself as a warrior and a leader, knew his dealings to be fair and honorable, and respected him for it. It was as though she were finally seeing the leader she knew he could be, but had never witnessed in practice, not like this.

She hunched over Grogu slightly, shrinking in on herself at the enormity of her realization. She could see a power about him that she’d never seen before. Din Djarin at his full potential had the strength, presence, courage and honor to be a hero of mythic proportions and that was… daunting. She wasn’t afraid, but she felt more keenly than ever her own inadequacies. How much more Din deserved. That she had ever failed to see this side of him, boggled her mind, and she hardly knew what to do with this revelation.

Now she understood why the goran had allowed Din to retain his armor, had come to Krownest and awaited his redemption in the Living Waters, beyond her own selfish aims. The woman had seen this side of him, knew that he was so much more than the humble father of five asking for answers in a simple forge on a backwater planet. Din was extraordinary; Saviin had believed it, but to see it—

“You are not the one for him.”

Saviin swallowed thickly, willing the burning itch in her eyes to pass. The goran had been right in ways she hadn’t comprehended. Whatever he might feel for her, the man Saviin loved felt further out of reach than ever before.

 


 

Din glanced across the fire. Saviin appeared tucked in on herself, withdrawn. Very unlike her previous behavior in diplomatic settings. Din frowned. Surely she had gotten over her early trepidation; the negotiations had gone well, and she was a firm favorite with the kids. Maybe she was cold?

He excused himself from the conversation and stood up, and stepped around the circle towards the Tusken he had talked to earlier. A few quick signs and grunts, and Din had gained a blanket and lost a cartridge of slugs that he had brought expressly for this possible trade scenario. Signing his thanks, he took the blanket to Saviin, and sat next to her, handing her the blanket. She startled slightly, straightening up and tilting her helmet inquiringly as she accepted the blanket.

“What is this?”

“A gift.” He thought that was obvious.

“From the Tuskens?”

“Ah, no. From me. I traded the Tuskens for the blanket. You looked cold.” So, maybe not that obvious.

Saviin stared at him, and despite the two helmets separating their faces, he felt her gaze keenly. He flushed beneath the helmet, realizing she had not only a thermoregulating body-glove, but also a cape. But before he could feel too stupid, she laughed lightly.

“Alor, you are too generous.”

“It’s a blanket,” he pointed out. Not even a really great one. Nice by Tusken standards, but—

“It’s the thought,” she countered warmly, and he flushed again. She unfolded it and straightened out her legs, spreading the blanket over her lap, tucking it around Grogu who had fallen asleep in her lap and running her gloved hands over the woven threads, examining the design. “Thank you. It seems I’m going home with many souvenirs from Tatooine.”

He settled beside her, and declined with a wave of his hand her offer of some blanket. “Not a bad thing.”

“No, but it feels selfish to hoard them all to myself. I’m sure the kids will love to snuggle up in it with me while—” she stopped abruptly, the silence so damning. “While they’re at the Haven,” she finished. Din could taste the pain in her words, offered so lightly to mask the devastation that would come with separation. The image of his cyar’sarad surrounded by his children, snuggled together under the Tusken blanket, seared itself into his mind and he struggled to swallow past the burning ache of want.

“The children seem very happy at the Haven,” Din finally offered into the breach, struggling to smooth over the jagged edges.

“It’s a happy place to grow up, especially now,” and her calm, neutral tone was back. “There’s a reason many parents send their kids there, even if they choose not to live there full-time, and it’s not just for training. My childhood was—” she paused, searching for the right word. “Aay’han.”

“Bittersweet?”

“It was peaceful. I never feared conflict or danger, beyond that which we sought out for training. I never went hungry, unless I was stubborn and refused to eat. I never wanted for companions, and everywhere I turned, I had loving family that raised us all. You’ve seen us— tactile, expressive. It’s a very nurturing community. Yet, there was an undercurrent of grief, that never fully dissipated. Amidst bounty and peace, there were the shadows of those who should have been there too, lost too soon. And for some of my Mandalorian aunts and uncles, families who had cast them out and called them dar’manda for loving a clone. The haunted looks never fully went away, even as they smiled at us and loved us with every fiber of their being. You ever seen a battalion commander get dragged to a tea party? Or an ARC trooper made to dance? As kids, we made it our mission to chase the darkness away. But it was always there. And the trauma— we all learned the triggers, navigated more carefully around some uncles who would never fully recover from the violence and loss. They were genetically modified to withstand trauma better than nat-borns, but there are some things— anyway, no one ever asked us to, but we love our family, and adapted accordingly. It left an echo on our childhood, molded us into who we are today. The kids living there now— well, hopefully one generation removed, they cannot sense the lingering trauma. They seem more carefree than we were, more reckless; not children dancing on eggshells as we sometimes did because we loved our elders too well. It’s as peaceful and secure as one could reasonably expect, surrounded by trained warriors who no one knows exist.”

“It’s more normalcy and stability than my children seem to have ever known,” observed Din. “They don’t say much, but the looks in their faces. I remember that look.” He resolutely pushed away the memories of Aq Vetina, trying to stay grounded in the present moment.

Saviin said nothing, merely gently leaning on his shoulder, letting comfort soak through the contact. He dimly wondered again at how far he’d come, that he now pressed back into the contact where before he would have pulled away, and allowed himself to enjoy the comfort of that touch.

“So what’s the story behind your sigil?” she offered into the silence.

“It’s not my proudest moment, but we own it now,” he started with a sigh. “Grogu was a bounty. It was an Imperial client, and they gave me only the bounty’s age— fifty years old. No other information. Money is money, and they offered beskar stolen during the Purge as payment. The clan needed it, and I couldn’t leave it in Imperial hands. So I went off to find a fifty-year-old bounty.

“I found a child, under heavy guard. I still don’t know what they were doing out there. Between Jawas and rival bounty hunters, it was a fight to get off-planet. I had some help; an old Ugnaught named Kuill. He helped me negotiate back the parts that the Jawas stripped from my ship, but I had to give them the egg of a Mudhorn in exchange.

“I found the Mudhorn cave; the damn thing nearly killed me. I was ready to be trampled to death, when the beast started to float in the air.”

“Grogu?” Saviin breathed. Din nodded.

“I didn’t know what a Jedi was, or the Force. I just knew a baby stuck its hand in the air, and stopped a Mudhorn in its tracks. I stabbed it dead, and Grogu fell asleep from Force exhaustion.

“I turned the bounty in; that’s how the Guild worked, I accepted a commission and had to finish it. I told myself I didn’t have a choice; it was a lie. And I knew it as I accepted a camtono of beskar, and watched them carry away the crying child. I tried to leave for a new bounty as soon as my new armor was done, but I couldn’t do it. I was supposed to forget, not care— but it was a child. A fifty-year-old baby, in the hands of Imperials. I couldn’t— I went back for the Child, shot up the Imperial safe house and ran. The covert helped me escape, and they were murdered by Imperial reinforcements after they revealed themselves. They died for me and my child.”

“No.” Din turned towards Saviin, who had reached out and gripped his arm above the vambrace. “They died because what’s left of the Empire is full of monsters. Your covert’s choices, and the choices of the Empire, are not your fault. There’s no greater honor than saving a child, or greater humility than recognizing and correcting your mistake. You can’t— don’t carry that weight.”

Din reached over and squeezed the hand clutching his arm in gratitude. Saviin ducked her head shyly. “I wear the Mudhorn with pride now. It was our first fight together, and it’s a symbol of the many hard lessons I’ve learned to become who I am now.”

She looked up at him and nodded, slowly pulling her hand back to her lap. Din let it go.

“What about yours? I saw your tattoos earlier,” he blushed, then kicked himself for being weird about seeing her bare arms. “But I didn’t get a chance to ask.”

Saviin leaned back, and shrugged her left shoulder. “This is the sigil of Gar Vod’e, I’m sure you saw it enough at the Haven.” Two arms grasped forearms in a warrior’s salute, encircled by a broken chain. “The yellow arm for remembrance, not only of our fallen, but also for the history of our community, and of Mandalore. The dark green arm for guarding— protecting the history, the beskar, our family. The greeting of warriors, and the grip of support— for we are family, and support one another. And black broken chains for justice, originally to symbolize how we freed ourselves, now to show that we also fight for those still dreaming of freedom.” She laughed. “My parents and aunts and uncles had very long, spirited discussions about designing it. It took a lot of liquor and shig to get to this design.”

Din chuckled. “And the design on your cuirass?” Chest— no, stop being weird! “I saw that before on your other arm,” he amended lamely. “When you burned yourself.”

“My family’s symbol.”

“Vhett’ika?”

“Mmm. It was the armor design and facial tattoo of Dogma, my ba’vodu.”

“I don’t think I met him.”

“Neither did I,” Saviin replied sadly, placing a hand to her chest, fingers splayed across the V. The light of the fire danced across the burnished metal of her helmet. A massif wandered over, sniffing her, then flopped down next to her. She reached out absentmindedly to scratch its scaly hide, visor trained on the flickering fire ahead.

“My mother was an archivist for the Grand Army of the Republic. She joined after her whole family died during the battle of Christophsis. She was there when the Republic became an Empire, and the clones whom she had befriended suddenly changed. She didn’t understand why, but she knew something was deeply wrong with this Empire, and struggled to adapt.
My father, Alpha-17, and Dogma, had discovered and removed their inhibitor chips before the end of the war. They stayed hidden in plain sight, searching for other brothers who had faulty chips and wanted out. But so many older clones had died, and these younger ones must have had stronger programming, because they didn’t find anyone.

“My parents and Dogma ended up at Antar. My mother struggled more and more with the orders she was given, and fell hard for my buir. He was gruff, and frankly terrifying at times, but he loved his vod’e fiercely and protected them. And he still acted normal, like a person, not a mindless soldier like the other clones had become since the end of the war, cold and unfeeling. She’d always believed they were people, individuals, and grieved the loss of her old friends who became strangers to her. Alpha fell for her as well, and tried to protect her from scrutiny of other nat-born officers who were looking to root out people like her— intellectuals, people with a conscience— but denied his feelings to even himself, because he was ‘just a clone’, and he had a duty to his brothers. Saving his brothers had to come first, over any potential personal feeling that he didn’t have a right to feel in the first place. It was Dogma who pushed to include her escape in their plans, because they knew she needed to get out before the Empire crushed her— and that someone like her could help my father see his own value, beyond what duty called for, that being a clone did not make him any less worthy of love.”

Like father, like daughter, Din realized with a jolt.

“Eventually my mother was arrested for aiding another natborn defector and refusing an order. As much as he wanted to rescue her, buir feared that the attempt could jeopardize their escape, and he owed it to his brothers. Dogma convinced him that she was worth saving— he could see that she was good, and he cared for her as a sister, and he knew that buir needed her in his life. They used the chaos of the Antar Atrocity to steal a ship and escape.

“Dogma died when a mole in the Rebellion compromised an op they were on. His last words to my father were an order to let himself be loved, to protect my mother, and go make warriors.”
Saviin chuckled sadly. “Ironic, that the soldier best known for his unquestioning loyalty to a cause and dedication to the rules, was the one to convince my father to take a chance on love. And so, thanks to Dogma, my parents did not drown alone in their grief, but came together, held each other up, and created a home for the brothers that did escape to freedom. We honor him by wearing his symbol.”

Saviin paused, then added with a smile in her voice, “plus tattooing and body modification is pretty popular in our community. When everyone wore the same face, the clones used tattoos and hairstyles to individualize themselves. Kote’s got some massive tattoos, as does Prudii. Senaar only has the flying bird on her temple, an homage to another uncle who died too soon. I’ve kept mine pretty small and only on my arms.” She turned to look at Din. “You have any tattoos?”

Din chuckled. “No tattoos. Tattoos would require revealing my skin to a stranger.”

“So it’s not just the helmet, you keep all of your skin covered then?”

“The Creed is the helmet, but yes, we stayed fully covered. You’ve already seen more than most,” he teased, holding up his gloved hands.

“How scandalous, Alor!” she laughed. “Bare hands! What will the gossip rags say!”

Din chuckled. “I suppose that’s not entirely true. My children have seen my face, and they will always have that right.” Saviin stopped laughing.

“The Creed allows it? An exception?”

“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I heard that it was allowed only for family, but I was never in a position to know for certain.”

Saviin hummed, nodding thoughtfully. The silence between them thickened, and Din fought a squirm. He had a feeling he knew where her thoughts were headed.

“I haven’t decided what to do about my Creed,” he blurted out suddenly. Saviin sat very still, not looking at him. He would never go back to his covert, that was certain—nor Death Watch, or the Nite Owls, not even to reform them from within. He had a vision for Mandalore, but he didn’t know how that translated into a Creed. Did he make the Creed as Mand’alor? Would swearing the Resol’nare alone suffice as a Creed? Could he simply point to the Supercommando Codex and call it a day? It was on his list of questions for Rau and Ver’ika.

“But you will still seek out the Living Waters,” stated Saviin, tone expertly neutral. Din’s skin stung beneath his flight suit. He fought the urge to claw at it.

“Yes. I— I think I have to. I’m still named dar’manda, but more than that, it feels right, and important. For more than just me, for Mandalore. It must be done.”

Saviin finally turned to face him once more, leaning slightly away, helmet inscrutable. The black of her visor was a fathomless void, where those supernatural eyes in a stunning face should have shone. Din shivered slightly.

“Then this is the Way. I have faith in your success.” She turned back to the fire.

But none in your own happiness, thought Din. He stretched out an arm around her back, gently pulling her into his shoulder. After a moment, she tilted her helmeted head, resting it carefully against him. In silence, they watched the fire slowly die down.

Chapter Text

Despite the late night, Saviin was up early again the next day. Her dreams had been fragmented and unsettling. At the memory of a phantom warmth across her back, she flinched hard and rolled over to check her comm. She exhaled sharply. Somehow, she was not surprised by the first message. Wow, he really does get up at five in the morning—

I have a meeting during our afternoon training. Are you free this morning?

Well. Who was she to deny the Mand’alor?

I am. What time?

Now?

Fierfek. Saviin leapt out of bed, sprinting for the fresher and snatching a sleeveless tunic and leggings along the way. A breathtaking two minutes later, she burst into the hallway, black curly hair whipping wildly about her shoulders as she clipped her beskad to her belt.

“Oh, sorry.”

Saviin turned to see Din standing in the hall, shifting sheepishly.

“Thought you were already up.”

Saviin slumped slightly, smiling as she sighed. “Normally, yes. I just usually take my time, answering messages and reading reports, and Cerium had offered to give me the morning off of early baby duty, since we were out late. But this is fine, really.”

Din merely nodded, so Saviin gestured for them to head to the training salles, quickly pulling her thick hair back into a messy bun piled high on her head. Not here to impress, anyway.

(Lie.)

“I heard this is the time when ba’vodu is up training with the gaderffi stick. I should have Senaar visit and study with him. I’m sure she’d love it.”

“He’s been complaining about a lack of a sparring partner,” commented Din.

“Well, we can’t have that,” chuckled Saviin, and yawned. He handed her a cup, and she blinked, not realizing he’d been holding it.

“For you,” he said simply. She blushed, accepting it with a murmured thanks and took a sip— prepared exactly the way she liked. The implications swirled in her mind as they walked in silence.

Again, he’d brought her caf, prepared to perfection, hoping that he’d see her this morning. It hit her suddenly that those magically appearing cups of caf in her forge were likely his work too— small tokens of his attention. The blanket last night. The little touches, the hand holding. Questions about her passions, who Saviin is as a person, not as Alor. This was more than friendship. He still cared— more than care for you.

He was in love with her. Still in love with her.

Saviin swallowed the caf, pushing past the tightness in her throat, extinguishing the light that had flared in her chest at the realization. It didn’t matter. (It does!) But it didn’t, not really.

Nothing had changed. She was still the daughter of a clone, duty-bound to safeguard her family, and he was the Mand’alor, preparing to take on leadership of a planet that had no place for her people. She couldn’t leave her family, and Mandalore wouldn’t accept her. And she saw last night a glimpse of what he could become; she couldn’t hold that potential back.

Nothing had changed.

And yet, in a way, it was changed. She had laid it all out to him, all the reasons it couldn’t work, why he could do better, should do better. And here he was, still trying, wanting to connect with her, not allowing his destiny to make every decision for him.

Rex’s words floated back to her. “Be honest with him. He might surprise you.”

There was no hope for a happy ending. But to know she had Din’s love, for now— somehow, that was everything. And it would have to be enough.

It was all she’d ever get.

Soon. I’ll tell him soon.

 

A bruising two hours later, the pair headed back down the halls towards the throne room, thoroughly satisfied with the progress Din had made in just a few sessions.

“When you can, keep practicing dual-wielding, even with just a training sword if you must,” Saviiin advised. “If you can disarm her and take her blade, and use it comfortably, it will give you more options at your disposal. And practice where you can’t be seen; she won’t expect it. No offense to Tristan, but he won’t be as useful to you in sparring. But he’s seen Jedi fight so he might be able to anticipate and force you to improvise, which is always good practice. If the reverse grip feels strange, don’t force it, but keep trying, see if it gets more comfortable.”

"I will. This has been invaluable,” he praised her, and she blushed, looking away.

“We want you to win, so why not give you every advantage? Kryze is—” she paused, searching for the right word, then settled on “—not good for Mandalore. I don’t want to add pressure, but we really believe you are the best for the job. A continuation of Kryze’s reign would only bring more darkness and death. She has no greater claim to the position than any other Mandalorian, no matter what she says. We— Mandalorians,” she corrected herself, wincing, “do not hold the Mand’alor as a position to be inherited by a descendent, and Kryze’s sister was the Duchess, not the Mand’alor. Kryze didn’t even beat the last Mand’alor— if you would consider Maul as such,—Ahsoka did. Kryze won Mandalore with the Republic Army at her back— ironic, isn’t it— and then lost it. Then, when literally handed to her, she lost the actual Darksaber and the title. If there is one person least fit for the position, I’d say it’s her. And I think she fears that truth, which is why she’s so dangerous. I’m not sure she’d let you yield, actually. She’d fear what desperation could drive you to, as it has for her. So! Might as well give you every possible advantage when you’re fighting someone like that.”

A grim silence followed that thought. The idea of Din losing, dying— it hardly seemed possible, given what he’d already survived, but the notion sat under her skin and festered, racing along her limbs and settling between her shoulder blades like an open wound. She shifted her shoulders and tossed her head, trying to dislodge the sensation and the thought.

He wouldn’t die. He couldn’t.

Is that the sound of hope? a snide little voice in her mind lashed out.

“You okay?”

Saviin blinked. They had stopped walking, and he had his hand on her arm, helmet tilted in concern.

“Lost in thought. Sorry,” she smiled tightly. He seemed unconvinced, but nodded, and they continued on.

“So, Alor,” his helmet tilted towards her, encouraging her to go on. “Professional curiosity— do you have a favorite weapon?” He chuckled, then remained silent for a moment while he considered the question.

“I had an amban pulse rifle. It was perfect. Got vaporized with my ship by Moff Gideon.”

Saviin made a sympathetic sound. “They are beautiful, deadly pieces of equipment, temperamental to repair, not to mention extremely illegal. We’ll keep an eye out for one, though.”

She could hear the smile beneath the helmet as he merely said, “thanks.” She shrugged.

“Such a small thing to make the Mand’alor’s life easier, we’re happy to help.” He hummed noncommittally. “That reminds me of a time when I was out helping bust a slaver ring, a few years ago now. There was this bounty hunter, he had an amban rifle. He was Mandalorian too, but he had brownish-red armor. Anyway, we were undercover, just watching. He was after a bounty, and we watched him just light up a room with that thing. Coolest thing I ever saw.”

He chuckled. “Coolest thing you ever saw?”

“Of course! If you’d seen this guy, you’d—“ Saviin looked at him as he continued to laugh, then widened her eyes. “That was you?”

“If you think that’s the coolest thing you ever saw, then it was definitely me—”

“Ah, right, you got new armor last year. I knew that, I just— seeing you now, I completely forgot that you were Mando.”

“You followed me?”

“I wouldn’t say follow. We kept tabs on you, trying to make sure we stayed out of your way when on bounties, keep an eye on your covert on Nevarro in case it moved—”

“You knew we were there?!”

“It wasn’t obvious, I promise. It was our business to find the hidden coverts, so that we could assist the future Mand’alor with reuniting everyone, and offer assistance to the covert, if either need ever arose. And we helped take care of those who stumbled upon it, those that your covert didn’t catch. We kept our distance though, figuring that your orthodoxy wouldn’t let any negotiations get too far.” He did not respond to that. It was likely too close to several painful topics. Saviin sighed. “I can’t believe I saw you before we actually met.” He sighed as well, a reluctant sound.

“You wouldn’t have liked me then. I wasn’t who I am now. Grogu has changed me.”

Saviin smiled. “Children have that effect.” She heard his laugh soft through the vocoder.

“What about you? Favorite weapon?”

“Me?” Saviin chuckled. “I thought it was obvious.”

“I try not to assume. Assumptions get you killed.”

Saviin smiled, conceding an extremely fair point. Then smiled more broadly as she realized he was quoting her. Din Djarin, you clever, clever man.

“Blades are my first love. Swords, then vibroblades. Dangerous in the wrong hands, deadly in the right. You could say the same for any weapon, but the mastery needed to control a blade has alway fascinated me. The self-restraint needed to be efficient and compassionate, not vicious and cruel. The elegance and art of good form and footwork. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it, though Senaar’s staff work might come close. Sword-work is admittedly a bit obsolete these days, but it still has its place in an arsenal of skills. Beyond that? Maybe bow and arrow.”

“A what?”

“Oh! It’s neat, I’ll show you. I’m sure you’ve seen one before. You ever seen a Zygerrian energy bow? It’s like that, but the whole thing is made of wood and cord, even the bolts. It’s common on planets with low-tech populations. Now that takes some skill, too. No point-and-shoot, it’s a real workout. We make all of our kids train with them. You never know when you could be stranded without weapons— if you can make one from what you find around you, you’ll never be undefended.”

Din just stared at her, and Saviin felt her smile shift from enthusiasm to uncertain.

“What?”

He reached one hand up carefully to push a loose lock of hair that had escaped her bun away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. His hand lingered there just a second longer than necessary, and Saviin felt her face flush despite her best efforts.

“I always enjoy learning something from you.”

Saviin’s mouth dried, and she couldn’t summon a response to that, just continuing to gaze up at him.

“Thank you for accommodating the schedule change. I’ll see you later?”

“Sure,” Saviin replied, a bit breathless. He nodded, and she watched as he took off down an adjacent hallway, as calmly and confidently as ever.

There was something exquisitely thrilling and torturous about this escalation. Saviin tried to take a breath, but the vice on her chest wouldn’t loosen. Why couldn’t she just treasure these interactions for what they were, and not dwell on what could never be—

“Well, that was something,” a voice drawled, and Saviin nearly jumped out of her skin, sucking in a breath.

“Stars, Fennec! Make a noise or something!”

“And miss the show? Not on your life,” Fennec emerged from an alcove. “This is better than a holo-drama. Not my fault I was scanning for bugs when you two decided to have your moment at this intersection.”

“I regret Ruusaan meeting you now,” groused Saviin. “She’s going to be unbearable for the foreseeable future.”

“That’s high praise for my protegé,” snarked Fennec. “Anyway, better hurry if you want any breakfast at all, the kid made an unholy mess at the bar and Ezra’s turned it into yet another Force lesson, so there’s levitating food everywhere.” She waggled her fingers. Saviin took a deep breath, setting aside the matter of Din Djarin to explore later.

“I’ll go see what can be salvaged. I heard ba’vodu Boba’s on his last nerve with levitating fruit.”

 


 

“Whipcords are cheating!”

Senaar cracked her staff down on Kote’s vambrace with blinding speed, and he yelped.

“Haar’chak, Senaar, I thought we said no injuries!”

“Then stop cheating!” She struck out at Prudii, who had edged up behind her in the sparring ring. Prudii grabbed the staff, pulling Senaar with it, then tackled her younger sister. Senaar fought to get her arms free, then gave up as the leg around her neck tightened.

“I yield. Reset? Kote’s turn.”

Springing up from the ground and dusting themselves off, the sisters began circling their brother, waiting for an opening. Senaar prowled, shifting to force Kote into the golden afternoon sun. Kote gave a feral grin, pulling tight the scar along the outside of his left eye.

“Let’s go, ladies. I still have a tea time with the ik’aade to make.”

“Mir’sheb,” snarked Prudii, feinting a hit and swinging a low kick as Senaar rushed him from the side. Kote moved with the kick, allowing the move to collide with Senaar. He ducked and lunged towards Senaar, catching her in the chest and taking her down. Prudii capitalized on the distraction and leapt on top, hooking her legs around his torso with her hands at his neck. Kote reared back, then reached up, flinging Prudii over his head. Somewhat recovered from the stunning introduction to the ground, Senaar tapped into the Force and dove for Kote’s knees, and found herself also being chucked towards Prudii, who was back up in a flash, trading standing open-handed blows with Kote. Kote eventually ducked, catching Prudii in the stomach. She stumbled back, and Senaar prepared to pounce.

“Wait.”

Everyone stopped, staring at Prudii. This was not how sparring sessions concluded; they went to a yield. And Prudii never stopped without being nearly incapacitated.

“Something’s not right,” Prudii’s brow was furrowed. Senaar stared at her in alarm; Prudii’s expression was about as close as the woman ever got to looking scared, and her aura was a violent purple.

“What’s not right?” Kote watched her carefully.

“It’s too quiet. Near Mandalore. Nevarro. There hasn’t been any intel of notice. It’s— something’s wrong.”

Kote eyed her, then glanced at Senaar, who got the sense that this was part of a conversation they’d been having before. Senaar had never been more happy to be part of the home guard, and not on mission rotation; the tightening faces and darkening circles around the eyes of her older siblings was worrying.

“I think we’ve been involved with Mandalore a lot lately,” Kote suggested, a soothing tone in his voice. Senaar felt like warning him it wouldn’t work on Prudii, not with her this agitated, but refrained. “We don’t normally involve ourselves in galactic politics. Now we have, and normal life seems quiet by comparison.”

“Kote, normally I’d agree, but this—” she looked around, staring into the forest beyond the fence. “This feels like the silence of a forest when a predator approaches.

“What if the reason for the manufactured violence and unrest in the Core and Mid-Rim is to keep the New Republic away from the Outer Rim? Think about the map. The red dots; all over sectors not near Mandalore. What if that intention is twofold; one, to destabilize the New Republic, but two, to make sure there’s no chance they could marshal forces to defend Mandalore if the Mand’alor called for aid? Most wouldn’t, but this Mand’alor is unconventional. For all his traditional values, he’s flexible on who he works with— Republic shock troopers, ex-Imperial sharpshooters, crime lords, assassins, New Republic magistrates. He’s unpredictable. So if you want to take his defense options off the table, why not make sure they’re busy elsewhere? And what if—”

Prudii cut herself, lost in a thought. Senaar hardly dared to breathe, while Kote stood perfectly still. In the silence, birds chirped cheerfully from the wildflower meadows, hunting for the chirruping crickets. The absence of a bell-like clang from the forge echoed throughout the clearing. “Manda. The Quelli sector. Shipping issues in Nevarro. We assumed that it wasn’t con— but—it’s— I need to make some calls.” The siblings watched her sprint to the Vhett’ika house, then glanced at each other.

“You should probably call your ven’riduur and reschedule your trip,” Senaar advised Kote. Kote exhaled sharply, then bent down and began picking up their sparring tools.

“Kark. I’ve half a mind to go get her and bring her here until this is all over— or forever, really. The idea of her out there in a major port system, with all of this going on…”

“Aaaand the overprotective Mando instincts have been activated,” Senaar chuckled, eyeing her only brother as he flushed with embarrassment and annoyance. It was cute, albeit headache-inducing; that pearlescent aura was a bit much. “Udesii, vod. N’eparavu takisit.”

“Naas, you’re right. She’s safe where she is. I just want her here.”

“So once Prudii’s shebs aren’t on fire anymore and the long-range comm is free, call your girl, make some plans. See if someone’s willing to go pick her up for you; I suspect you’re going to be busy. I think Werdla left yesterday for the same sector as Garel, maybe she can pick her up.”

“What about you? Going to call Tristan and update him?”

Senaar shrugged. “I’ll call, but probably not to talk about that. I’m not read in, and he gets that from Saviin and Prudii I think. I’m his escape from all that nonsense, I trust you all to do the dirty work,” she smiled, though it slipped slightly at the thought of Tristan in danger. Kote caught the falter.

“He’s gonna be okay, vod’ika.”

Senaar looked up at Kote and forced a smile, glad he couldn’t see auras. She really did have the best brother.

“Course Tristan will be okay. He’s a Mandalorian.”

Kote smiled reassuringly, then moved ahead. Senaar watched him walk away, her smile falling again. Prudii’s panic lingered, like a waft of smoke bearing a bitter scent on the air, and left an itch on Senaar’s skin. She shook it off, aiming for the children’s art tables.

Chapter Text

Din found Boba in Skir’ika’s enclosure, feeding the rancor scraps of bantha meat. The rancor looked up at his approach and growled.

“You know, I don’t think he’s ever going to like me.”

“Eventually,” Boba smirked. “He did try to bite your head off, so maybe he’ll eventually consider you even.”

“You wanted to see me?”

“Yes.” Boba turned and stared at him; despite the helmet, Din got the feeling that Boba could see every inch of him. It was unnerving; for years, most just glanced at him, put off by the armor and weapons, afraid of the consequences for staring.

“Better. But not quite there yet, right?”

Din frowned, tilting his helmet. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Your cyar’ika.”

Exasperated, Din huffed. “I rearranged Sav'ika’s schedule, and mine, so that you could grill me about…” the first part of his sentence came back to him and he trailed off, flushing as Boba snorted.

“That answers my question. What are you going to do about it?”

“…do?”

“He means, how do you plan to make it abundantly clear how you feel, and get her to acknowledge the same?” Cerium’s voice sounded from the tunnel behind him, and he turned as she floated past him with a knowing smile, patting Skir’ika as the rancor purred. Boba leaned over and planted a kiss on the forehead of his diminutive wife.

“Is this some kind of intervention?” Din huffed.

“Not if you can get your buy’ce out of your shebs,” Boba snarked, scratching the rancor’s hide.

“My love, that’s hardly helpful.”

“He’s a Mandalorian, sarad’ika. This is how we are.”

“Perhaps sisterly advice would be more useful where brotherly advice fails,” Cerium shot a winning smile at Boba’s scoff, then turned and took Din’s arm, gently urging him forward. “Come. Your meeting is with me now. Let’s wander towards the nursery and chat.”

Resigned to his fate, Din allowed the tiny queen to tow him forward and up to the halls.

“You both seem happier,” Cerium observed mildly, as they walked. Din snorted lightly.

“You’re just glad to be proven right. I should have listened to you that first day.”

“What a terribly uncharitable thought, Djarin. Maybe I won’t make you a tapestry. Speaking of, have you considered painting your armor?”

Frowning, he tilted his helmet at her. “I have, but I hadn’t decided on colors yet.”

“Let me know when you do. If my guess is right, then you will see how smug I can be.” She smiled, then let it fall as she continued. “You know how I was when we first met at Peli’s hangar, my grief for Boba when I thought him lost. How difficult it was to be near each other when he and I weren’t sure of the other’s feelings. And how things snapped into place once the air was cleared. You must know all we want is much-deserved happiness for you both.”

“I don’t know about deserve. But I want it. But I can’t make her want it too.”

“I don’t believe that for a second, Djarin. The problem isn’t want, and I don’t think you believe that either. She thinks she’s unworthy. No, she didn’t tell me that— she didn’t have to. You’re a man of honor, and action. You know there is more you can do, without crossing a line. Sometimes you have to be brave enough for both of you.”

Cerium’s fine, flowing dress whispered along the ground as they walked towards the nursery. Din glanced down; her head barely came up to his shoulder. As much as Boba had become the vod he hadn’t anticipated, Cerium was like a sister; younger, less traveled, yet far wiser than he could ever hope to be. He remembered their first meeting well; he’d been exhausted, and she’d been generous in her assistance with Grogu at Peli’s hangar. But it was the pain that escaped her steady composure as she held Boba’s helmet that had haunted him on that flight to Trask; her grief for a lost Mandalorian resonated deeply within him. He couldn’t fathom letting Saviin suffer like that, if she felt the same, not if there was something, anything he could do to change it. But—

“I can’t make Mandalore accept clones, Cerium. That’s the crux of it.”

“That is a challenge. I suspect that as long as you publicly support them, Gar Vod’e will do the heavy lifting themselves. I can’t explain why I think that, but I do.”

“I… do too,” Din said slowly. The vision from the Darksaber rose in his mind, growing brighter the more he recalled it. Its blinding light burned away all doubt, leaving only certainty and confidence in its wake. They had reached the door of the nursery; Ruusaan sat inside, rocking the infant. Cerium turned and smiled up into his visor.

“Don’t leave it unsaid, brother. It’s all the advice I can give you. I have a feeling that you need to leave with the air cleared between you. Then your heart will be clear to focus on what comes next.”

Din stared at her, pulse skipping. “What comes next?”

Cerium shrugged. “I’m a weaver, not a Seer. Things are in motion, that much is obvious. Regardless, you strike me as someone who thrives with a clear focus. Do what you must to regain that.”

 

 

It was late in the afternoon when Din found himself headed to his quarters in the guest hall. A quick check on Grogu in the Jedi’s quarters found his son fast asleep, and so the next few hours were Din’s alone. He felt oddly restless, uncertain what he’d do once he reached his quarters. Meditate with the Darksaber? He should; time like this was rare, and instincts honed over years of bounty hunting told him that something was about to happen. He needed to bond further with the ancient lightsaber if they were to not only survive, but succeed in their quest.

He had nearly reached his door when the sound of laughter had him pause. In another moment, the door to the Vhett’ika quarters slid open, and Saviin rushed out, breathless, looking about excitedly. His own breath caught at the sight; she wore a long, relaxed dress that slipped about her willowy figure as she moved, her lean, tattooed arms bare and delicate neck exposed, adorned only by the leather cord the dropped beneath the front of her dress. He recognized the thin, fine fabric and its design as the work of Cerium. A dagger hung from a thin belt slung around her waist. Long, glossy curls tumbled down her back, the upper portion pulled back from her face. She looked so soft, softer than he’d ever seen her before. She lit up as her gaze landed on Din, and a swooping feeling in his chest left him slightly dizzy. He suddenly realized he was shamelessly ogling her, and he flushed behind his helmet.

Admiring. I am admiring, respectfully.

“Alor! Perfect. Are you free right now?”

There was only ever one answer, when Saviin was concerned.

“I am,” he tilted his helmet, encouraging her to continue.

“Your ade called, and they want to see you. I did not promise that you’d be free, they know you’re busy—”

“I always have time for ade,” he chuckled, stepping away from his own door and joining her in a few quick strides; he caught the softened smile at his comment, and his breath caught as she grasped his gloved hand. He let her drag him eagerly to the table where the holo sat, relishing the small touch. Respectfully. The ghostly forms of his children clustered together, hovering in the holo’s blue light.

“I found him!”

“Buir!”

The four children began chattering as he sat down in a chair, a crescendo of sound as each tried to be heard above the rest.

“Settle, adiike,” Din chided calmly, and they settled, still wriggling with excitement but remembering their manners. Saviin took a step back from the table.

“I’ll let you talk in private—“

“No, don’t go!”

Saviin laughed at the plaintive cries.

“You see me every day! You don’t need me—”

“Every day?” Din turned fully in his seat to look up at Saviin, who ducked her head in embarrassment, biting her lip.

“Lek, just like she promised!”

“We’re her sprouts,” Kiro added proudly. “Her light and joy to tend while you’re away, buir. Right, Sav’buir?”

Saviin now covered her face and turned away. Din swiftly reached out and latched onto her other hand, towing her back to the table, nudging over a chair with the toe of his boot.

I will care for them as my own, she had said. And she has.

“It sounds like you need to stay, Sav'ika,” he teased, and she shot him a startled glance as her freehand fell from covering her face, turbulent with emotion, before returning her eyes to the children, struggling to smile. Her expression was that of a person who loved to the point of pain.

Din knew the feeling well.

“‘Din’buir, lookit what I made for Sav’buir!” Maddi held up a crude drawing of scribbled blobs. Saviin’s pained expression deepened as she frowned gently at the toddler.

“Mad'ika, it’s lovely, but we talked about this, I’m not—”

“It looks wonderful, Mad'ika,” Din cut across Saviin. “It’s very kind of you to make such a gift.”

The child puffed up in pride, extremely pleased with herself as the other children presented their latest creations in turn. Din glanced over at Saviin, who leaned towards the projector, eyes soft as she smiled proudly at their accomplishments, interjecting questions and praise. She knew which ones weren’t sleeping well, which ones had growing pains, which kid licked a frog and was under observation. A galaxy away, and she still fastidiously cared for them; they were her children, as much as they were his.

“Have you all been helpful, and paying attention in class?”

“Yes, buir,” the children chimed together. “When will you come home?” asked Til.

Din’s throat tightened. Home. On Sorgan. Their temporary home, before he took them away to Mandalore. Away from Sav’buir, who could not follow, not yet.

He needed to make this right.

“Buir, what about the Lone Warrior and the—” Kass was cut off by Maddi.

“Shh, that’s apposed to be a secwet!”

Din chuckled. “I can tell a little more, but yes, it is a secret, just for our clan. Where did we leave off last time?”

The children nodded, wide-eyed. Saviin made to stand again; he clamped a gloved hand down on her forearm against the table, pinning her in place.

“The Lone Warrior was lost in the Forest of Deception, blinded by poison, but the wise old man restored his sight. And the Flower Queen had left the enchanted garden to lend her aid to the desolate kingdom, but a great wind arose and blew her away, tearing her petals,” recited Til.

“Yes. Our heroes were not in good shape, were they? The Flower Queen was found by the Sand Mother, who healed her with glowing magical threads that bound her wounds, and and took her back to the enchanted garden. Yet her heart was heavy, and her petals drooped, for the Lone Warrior was still out there on his quest, and the desolate kingdom still lay under the dreaded curse. She had done all she could to help the Lone Warrior and his people, at great cost. Now her people needed her, to safeguard the magic of the enchanted garden and keep the darkness of the Red Shriek-hawk away from its ivy-covered walls.

“The four seeds that the Lone Warrior had entrusted to the Flower Queen had sprouted, and from them grew four magnificent tree children. They brought the Flower Queen great comfort, and she tended for them as if they were her own, though she knew she would have to give them back to the Lone Warrior once the kingdom was restored. Under her loving care, their trunks grew straight and sure, and their leaves shone in the sun. And she would rest among her beloved saplings, hoping that the Lone Warrior was safe and close to achieving his goal.

“As for the Lone Warrior! His sight restored, the Lone Warrior used the Enchanted Thorn to cut his way out of the Forest of Deception. When he had gotten out, he turned and used his flamethrower to burn the cursed forest to the ground, so that no others could get lost. Yet he fell into despair, and sat among the ashes of the forest. He had lost precious time in there, and he knew not where to continue his search. The Red Shriek-hawk knew he bore the Enchanted Thorn, and she would come with a great multitude to take it from him by any means necessary. Time was running out to find the entrance to the cave where the magical fount dwells, to restore his lands. If the Red Shriek-hawk took the Enchanted Thorn before he could find the fount and lift the curse, his kingdom would be doomed to another thousand years of darkness and sorrow.

“And his precious Flower Queen needed the waters. The Flower Queen could only thrive in the kingdom if the water was restored and the earth replenished, a welcome place for her flower people to beautify with their tender ways. Without it, they would wither and die.

“Suddenly, the Enchanted Thorn spoke to the Lone Warrior! ‘Fear not, Lone Warrior. For you are not truly alone.’ The Lone Warrior fell down in fright, shocked that the Enchanted Thorn could speak. ‘How is this possible?’ ‘Your land lays under a curse, you seek a magical fountain, your blindness was cured by a mystical man who disappeared in a flash of light, and your beloved Flower Queen lives in an enchanted garden, yet you ask how it is possible that I speak?’”

The children giggled. “Silly Warrior,” chided Kiro.

“‘I am sorry,’ replied the Lone Warrior. ‘I am alone, and afraid. I fear failing my people, and my beloved Flower Queen.’ ‘Fear not,’ replied the Enchanted Thorn. ‘You belong to me as much as I belong to you. You are the chosen warrior, for you above all have the courage and humility to do what is right, not what is easy or selfish. Together we will find the fount and restore the desolate kingdom!’ And the Lone Warrior took heart, and continued his quest. For the future of his people, and the happiness of the fair Flower Queen, his cyar’sarad, depended on him. And he went back to the desolate kingdom with the Enchanted Thorn, though danger lurked behind every blackened stone, to continue his search for the cave. For it had to be somewhere in the desolate kingdom, and he now had the secrets from the Flower Queen to guide his way, and the ability to listen well from the wise old man, to discern the trustworthy from the false.”

“The Lone Warrior will do it,” Kass piped up confidently. “If anyone can, it’s him.”

“But what about da Fwowwer Queen?” Maddi was wide-eyed in her concern. “Will da Lone Warrior get to be wif his cyar’sawwad?”

My beloved flower. I hope so.

“I guess we’ll have to wait and find out, huh adiike?” Din chuckled again at their groans. A voice in the background pulled their attention away.

“We gotta go, buir. We’re playing Capture the Flag tomorrow, so we need lots of rest,” Til informed him. Din nodded gravely.

“That is important. Go win, my clever children. And Til, remember what I told you about Kass. He’s your ace; deploy him wisely.” Til nodded firmly.

“Lek, buir. Bye, Sav’buir— oh wait, baji’Ver’ika wants to talk to you,” the holo’s image suddenly jostled, as though the table had been knocked. Din stood, briefly touching Saviin’s shoulder. She startled, as though pulled from deep thought.

“I’ll leave you to talk privately. Thank you for coming to get me, I—”

“Saviin, are you with the Mand’alor?” Ver'ika’s excited voice cut across, her animated face suddenly appearing in the holo. Saviin glanced up at him, and he flushed at the phrasing.

“He’s right here, Mama,” offered Saviin more diplomatically, and Din sat back down. “Did you need something? Or— did you find something?”

“Yes! Or at least I think so,” Ver'ika responded excitedly. “But I’m pretty sure this is a very solid lead. I’ve sent you a file, can you pull it up on your data pad? I did some deep digging in the archives, comparing the markings against similar ones in ancient texts we’ve managed to find— and I apologize for it taking so long, I haven’t done work like this since graduate school.”

“Mama, it’s been two days,” laughed Saviin, and Din smiled despite his rising anticipation. “Did you sleep at all? It’s fine. So what did you find?”

“A journal, kept by a historian in the time of Mand’alor Tarre Vizsla. It was recovered in an Imperial cache that your father raided. I don't think the Imperial realized what he had; it was in poor shape, and I had to restore it some. But the text I’ve sent you comes through clear. The markings on the hilt were indeed Old Mando’a, and a few of the translations revealed phrases that haven’t been used in centuries. They correspond with those in the journal, which helped me narrow down the search to a more specific timeframe. There is one particular marking for what roughly translates to ‘mystical’, and another for ‘spirit-fount,’ again a very rough translation, which led me to the poem I’ve sent, which the historian describes in his journal, alongside a description of the Living Waters as they allegedly appeared in the day. However, this historian wasn’t just a keeper of history; he was also a Seer, ka’ra-blessed. He noted that this poem came to him after visiting the Living Waters to document it.”

Saviin had pulled up the text on her data pad, and Din shuffled closer to read as well.

Darkest is just before the dawn,
When all hope is finally lost,
Enemies surround, cavalry gone,
Sword edges dull, resolve to dust.

Supplications shouted to the winds,
Swallowed by a roaring sky.
Alive, surrounded by those who fell,
An endless torture, endless cry.

But the night shall never last,
Though darkness seems forever grim,
The Manda smiles upon the Warrior
who trusts and bends unto its whim.

For the Manda’s righteous Hope,
Victory in death is not the Way.
If the Mystic Fount wills it,
On this mortal plane they stay.

If restoration is what you seek,
Start at the heart, and reach out
With purity of mind and intent,
And you shall be led to the Fount.

But beware to those of nefarious design,
Peril awaits them in the deep,
For it may cleanse the wayward warrior,
But the evildoer it will keep.

Come to the Fount, Gift of the Manda,
Hunter who among stars roams,
Be cleansed and blessed by its waters,
Reclaim yourself and our people’s home.

“It’s Keldabe,” Ver'ika continued breathlessly. “The original heart of Mandalorian society. You have to start at Keldabe, and then venture to the mines there.” The Darksaber hummed under his hand absently resting upon it, but Din didn’t need the input; he felt the rightness of Keldabe in his bones. But—

“That narrows it down considerably, but there are still several mines there,” Din protested. “How will we know which one it is?”

“I think you can narrow it down further,” offered Ver'ika. “‘Victory in death is not the Way.’ The mines historically had names; I’ve found a few so far. The southernmost mine was known as Death’s Mouth. If the rhyme is an indicator, you can rule that one out. By the same logic, you can rule out the two northernmost mines, know as Sword and Hope; they’re also newer mines, so it couldn’t be them. That leaves three; Warrior seems likely, but maybe too likely. That’s where the rest of the verse kicks in: ‘if restoration is what you seek, start at the heart, and reach out with purity of mind and intent, and you shall be led to the Fount.’ I think the Darksaber might come in handy then, to help guide you, so long as you have a clear purpose. You’ll have to warn those in your party of the subsequent verses though. ‘But the evildoer it will keep’ is ominous. It will be perilous for all, but possibly fatal for any who don’t have Mandalore’s best interests at heart.” Ver'ika turned slightly to look at Saviin, who nodded thoughtfully.

“The last verse suggests that this could be bigger than a personal cleansing,” murmured Saviin. “ And it’s incredibly specific. Prophetic, even.”

“I think you’d know better than I,” a smile hovered on the older woman’s lips.

Din sighed in impatience. “My covert didn’t spend much time on poetry lessons,” he bit out. Ver'ika’s eyebrows rose at his tone, and he winced, shifting in embarrassment.

“Mama, just a moment.” Saviin reached over and muted the projector, then turned to Din. She gazed at him intently.

“It references you, Din. Rather specifically. ‘Gift of the Manda?’ Your name is ‘Din,’ as in dinui, ‘gift’. And that’s an old word— it hasn’t changed over time.” Din gaped as she nodded emphatically, then unmuted the call. “The ‘hunter line,’ Mama? Will you explain?”

“‘Hunter who among the stars roams.’ Many Mandalorians are hunters, yet a beroya roams farther than most. And the final sentence suggests that it may not just cleanse yourself and restore you to the Manda, but maybe be used to restore all of Mandalore. I’m not sure if it means metaphorically by leading its people, or a more physical transformation, but it would be wise to expect everything and anything to happen in there. Whatever happens, it likely won’t be just a simple dip in some cold water. There’s no mention of sacrifice, or duplicity other than that of the petitioner, but there is no way that the trial for restoration is simply in finding the correct mine and picking your way through the rubble to get there. This historian’s subsequent writings seem to indicate his belief that the Waters would be lost to Mandalore’s people. Only the Gift of the Manda, the Hunter described in the poem—or vision— would find it. The poem and the writing doesn’t seem to care much about personal restoration, nor does it mention anything about dar’manda. A cleansing could mean many things, not just a loss of the soul. It seems that part of the legend has evolved over time, to become a personal restoration of one’s soul. But all of the other details match what little we know about the legend, and align with everything else I’ve been able to find. So if you’re going to find the Living Waters, I think this is the key.”

Saviin turned her gaze towards Din and peered at his helmet searchingly. She reached out and gripped his hand. “If anyone can do it, it’s you,” she stated, confidence and reassurance lacing her word, echoing Kass’s comment about the Lone Warrior. “You’ve dealt with mud horns and krayt dragons and ice spiders and Dark Troopers and massive droids and Manda knows what else.”

“I had help with all of those,” he admitted, finally voicing the doubt that had festered in his chest since he first laid eyes on a tiny green child.

“So take help,” Saviin returned easily. “You’ve got to be the most selfless, mandokar warrior with the worst sense of self-preservation that I’ve ever met, with an incredibly colorful assortment of friends. Any one of them would follow you in there to watch your back, because they know you’d do the same for them. So take a few. The poem doesn’t say anything about going in alone. Just that they can’t be shabuir’e.”

“Saviin!” Ver’ika scolded. Saviin ignored her, staring steadily into Din’s visor, unknowingly right into his eyes.

Din swallowed thickly. He did have wonderful friends. Dangerous, deadly, loyal friends. None however, with the exception of Cerium, were quite as eloquent as Saviin. None fought the shadows of his mind with simple reassurances, illuminated the dark with insight instead of riddles, like she could. No one could fill his soul with unearned confidence like she could.

And now he had to leave her. To find the mines.

“Thank you,” he turned back to Ver'ika, who wore an inscrutable expression in the glowing haze of the holo. “I am in your debt.”

“No debt, Mand’alor. We are honored to serve.” She bowed, and disappeared.

Din turned, and realized quite suddenly just how close he and Saviin had gotten when they huddled around the data pad, facing the holo. Saviin dropped her eyes to their joined hands, and slowly, gently withdrew hers. It took all of Din’s restraint to not chase it with his own.

“I hope that Mama’s information pays off for you,” Saviin offered into the silence. “It seems like a solid lead.” She leaned back, and stood up from the table, the chair screeching across the floor with a horrible, abrupt sound. She made swiftly for the door. “I’ll go let my ba’vodu’e know that you’re leaving—”

“Wait, Sav'ika,” Din cursed the slight waver in his tone. She stopped. He stood up quickly, but she would not turn to face him.

“You should go,” she said softly, each syllable deceptively light, laced with a barely-there ache. “Your people need you, and the sooner you find the mines, the sooner you can claim the title and restore Mandalore for its people.”

“That includes you,” he approached her slowly, reaching out to grasp her shoulder and turn her to face him; she moved at his touch, yielding, yet trained her eyes on his chest, staring down at his kar’ta. “There’s a place for you and your people on Mandalore. Please, don’t— don’t go away again.”

“Din…” she sighed, her tone trembling under the pressure to hold herself together. But she didn’t step away. “There’s not a place for us. Not unless you can enshrine our rights in law, convince the right minds to lead the change. So few will accept us. We know that we are unwanted. Gar taldin ni jaonyc; gar sa buir, ori’wadaas’la. Unless, of course, he was a clone. Then everyone does care who your father was. Descendants of meat droids who dared to adopt the culture of their template. Protecting the beskar, safeguarding the history, learning the language— none of it matters to the mando’ade, not enough of them. You saw that. The only person who can change that is you, as Mand’alor, if you embrace that destiny and bend them to your vision for Mandalore— but I won’t put that on you. I’ve never wanted to, and I never will. You are extraordinary, Din,” her eyes flashed up, brimming, then back down. “You can achieve the impossible, and you’re going to be a hero, I know it. I— we, could never ask for something that would hold you back from making Mandalore a better place.”

“Sav'ika… why can’t you see how extraordinary you are? You said this is my destiny, that I get to choose for myself, and others will follow. I choose you. How can you say you believe in me, if you won’t allow yourself to hope for a future I want to give you and your people? Why can you not hope for us?” Din held her with both hands now, desperate to understand, desperate for her to understand, desperate to get her to look up at him with those haunting eyes. He’d never been more disappointed to have his wish granted as she finally looked up, despair naked in her expression. She opened her mouth, closed it, something fighting to surface. Din waited, breathless.

So many hopes and fears stood on a precipice.

“If I start to hope, I won’t know how to stop. I’ll start to want things that I have no right to want. And this is—is already so hard without hope. You don’t know how much it broke me to walk away last time,” she whispered, tears spilling down her lovely face. Her hand unconsciously slipped to her chest— right where Din knew the hidden pendant hung.

Din exhaled sharply, the air punched out of his chest. So much remained unspoken, but her expression said enough. Rau had been right. To speak it into existence terrified her, but it was all there— she loved him as well. Too well. She knew her duty, and would sacrifice her heart for her people, for his future.

Din’s chest tightened, his stomach in a free-fall; but it fell into a pit of light, not darkness. There was love, and that was enough for him to step off the ledge and tip head-first into whatever came next, if it meant there was a chance that the future would be with her, a chance to give her and her people and every Mandalorian who felt unwanted, that feeling of belonging and comfort that came with being home. Now more than ever, his path felt certain, felt right. His shared vision with the Darksaber for the destiny of Mandalore was the true path to restoration. A home for all, where prejudice would not stand in the way of love. Din wanted so badly to give her a reason to hope for a future, for him— to convince her that he was committed to a path that would make it possible.

His hand grasping her waist came free, and he reached up to release the seal on his buy’ce.

“Din, what are you doing!” Saviin’s panicked tone matched her wide-eyed expression, and she tried to pull away. He dug his fingers into her shoulder, pinning her in place. Her eyes slammed shut as he pulled the helmet off and set it on the table, moving his hand back to her waist again.

“Please look at me, cyar’sarad,” he murmured quietly, and he saw her shiver at the unfiltered sound, but she shook her head, eyes firmly screwed shut.

“I can’t, Din’ika. I can’t do it, I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Why, Sav'ika? I need to understand.”

Saviin bit her lip, her expression tormented. “I… can’t look at something… I’ll never get to see again. I… just can’t, can’t do that to myself.”

He gazed down at her, drinking in the loveliness of her face unfiltered by the visor, hating that he couldn’t finally see those arresting eyes. He pulled her in, holding her tightly. He could feel her breath stutter, her arms come up to embrace him, and they just stood there, stretching a moment that would end long before they were ready. It felt so right, her body molding to his, feeling the shuddering rise and fall of her chest, her temple pressed against his jaw. Her lovely mouth, so achingly close.

And yet it also seemed so strange, this quest begun to restore his place in his covert, lost by removing his helmet; now, removed to see with his own eyes the one thing that refused to dishonor his creed. A creed that meant very little to him now, tarnished by deception. How it must look to her that he was still searching for the Living Waters, seeking restoration. Thinking she’ll never see his face again, unworthy of the one right that his old creed allowed as exception: for family. Denying herself the hope that she could ever have a future with him.

“Do you doubt me, cyar’sarad?” he murmured, stroking her hair as it flowed down her back.

“Never, Din’ika. Not you. But they’ll never give us a chance,” she forced out in a broken tone, her voice hitching as she leaned into him. He felt the shudders reverberating against his armor, and pulled her tighter to him. Din knew she was right, in more ways than one. But she hadn’t seen his visions with the Darksaber, didn’t know what he knew his path would bring, if he had the courage to see it through. And with his cyar’sarad’s fragile heart in his arms, he felt the confidence of certainty anchor his limbs, holding her steady. She could not hope, the fear of failure too heavy. But he could carry hope for them both.

At length, he drew back slightly, to see tear tracks trailing from the tightly shut eyes. He raised a gloved hand to gently wipe them away, then leaned down slightly, meeting her forehead with his own. He smiled slightly as Saviin’s small gasp amid her sniffles.

“I will make things right, cyar’sarad,” he murmured. “I swear it.”

He no longer needed to hear her agree; words would not suffice. Only action could, and it was time for action. He kissed her cheek, slowly, firmly, pressing into it everything words could never say— then released her, grabbed his buy’ce, and swiftly left the room. The Darksaber thrummed eagerly, reassuringly under his grip as resolve coursed in his veins like molten beskar. He had a destiny to meet; a vow to keep.

Chapter Text

Tristan paused for the final time before punching in the comm code. He had been dreading this call. Not dreading a conversation with his cyare, but dreading that it would be the last for however long it took to enter the mines and find the Living Waters. If they existed. No one was to know that they were on Mandalore as the Mando’ade began rebuilding Keldabe, and the Mand’alor’s team searched for the Living Waters; the Council recommended a comms blackout to avoid any leaks. Senaar would be fine, safe, and the blackout would be temporary. But something about going to Mandalore filled him with foreboding, as though he were missing some important detail.

Di’kut. It’ll be fine.

He punched in the codes.

Senaar replied almost immediately. “Trist'ika! Right on time as always, cyar’ika.”

He smiled at her. Her sunny mood had broken through his clouds, as always.

“Su cuy'gar, cyare. I missed hearing your birdsong.”

“It’s been two days!”

“Two days too long, cyare. We’re entering the desolate kingdom soon, I wanted to see you before we go in and the magic binds our tongues.”

Senaar had managed to bribe the Mand’alor’s children into telling her the story, with an exorbitant amount of sweets; the terrors were wily negotiators. Tristan documented the story as it was relayed to Senaar, and they frequently spent their holo time correcting misremembered bits and filling in gaps where a child’s mind had failed to grasp the tale. A clever spy would easily decrypt the allegory, but it was an amusing code to indulge in. It beat endlessly discussing their current reality, and gave them hope. Surely the storyteller was committed to a happily ever after. One in which they all could share.

Although, so many legends ended in tragedy, or bittersweet triumph. Tristan resolutely pushed the notion away.

“I hope you have your spells and wards ready, cyar’ika. Stay away from the Pits of Despair, and take a toll for the bridge troll.” Tristan chuckled.

“Of course.”

“How is the Lone Warrior?”

“Very determined, more driven and focused than I’ve ever seen him. I don’t know what happened in the sand kingdom, beyond the magical clues that led us to the caves, but there’s a new optimism. The wise old man has seen it too. The council of legions is different now too, far more organized and effective, the Lone Warrior has worked miracles there already. I am hopeful. Hopeful for a happy ending for all of us.”

“And the Red Shriek-hawk?”

“As dangerous as ever. The shadows whisper of gathering rage, but the night still obscures her movements. The obsession with the enchanted thorn will be her undoing, but it could doom us all, as the storyteller said. We are watchful.”

Senaar stared at him, her expression loving yet worried.

“I am careful, cyare. I swear it. I have survived far worse, with less to live for.” She smiled, but the worry lingered. Tristan couldn’t bear that look.

“What of the Flower Queen?”

Her stem is sure and straight, but her petals still droop. The garden feels her pain, though she tries to hide it. Her four sprouts that are normally always with her, miss her dearly now that she’s at the Sand Warrior’s, and they can't wait for her to return. They call her every night, and will come pester me in the… ah…greenhouse, yeah let's call it that, I think just to feel close to her. They’ve made friends with the other flowers, but the Flower Queen and her greenhouse is their refuge.” 

Tristan chuckled. “Sarad’buir?”

OH, don’t even get her started on that. She gets all worked up about how determined these kids are to adopt her as buir. It’s incredibly amusing, because the Lone Warrior does absolutely nothing to correct it. Don’t get me wrong, the Flower Queen loves them as her own. She just doesn’t want them to get attached to her when she has to stay in the enchanted garden and the sprouts gain their own thorns and travel to the restored kingdom.”

“Well, let’s hope that fear never comes to pass, and we can all go to the restored kingdom,” murmured Tristan, spiraling under the weight of his own hopes and fears. He raised his eyes from the table to meet Senaar’s. “Ner Sen'ika, I don’t know how you put up with me. I cause you pain. Your life could be less complicated—”

“Don’t you dare, Tristika,” Senaar’s tone was stern, her expression fierce. “Ni kartayl gar darasuum. Forever, Tristika. I will wait for as long as it takes, because you are worth the wait. We will find a way.”

Tristan forced out a wet chuckle. “How did I find such a hopeful little bird?”

“I was just sitting in the garden, waiting for you to hear my song. There’s a reason my armor is orange and fuschia, cyar’ika. I’ve always been sunny, with a firm faith in the joys of life and happy outcomes. Even when I have no right to think that. And you know? It’s always worked out. Not always the way I imagined, but good enough, sometimes even better. We’re gonna be okay, Trist’ika. I just know it.”

“Ner nau,” he sighed, smiling at her. Even in the holo, she radiated light and goodness. He felt her hope like a flower feels the rays of the sun, drawn to it. His vambrace chirped, and Tristan felt his smile fall. “It’s time, cyare.”

“K’oyacyi, Trist’ika.”

“Haat, ijaa, haa’it, Sen'ika.”

—————

Saviin lounged on the chaise in the corner of ba’vodu Cerium’s weaving room. Ezra had commandeered the sofa, and lay quietly, levitating a ball of string while he meditated. Saviin’s own meditation was less showy; she merely allowed herself to bathe in the calming aura of the room.

Saviin heard a gentle snort, and opened one eye at her aunt. “What?”

“This room looks like it’s full of napping loth-cats.”

“Correction: there is only one loth-cat,” Ezra didn’t look away from the ball of string as he pointed at Cerium’s tooka Dusty, who watched the levitating ball of yarn balefully. The golden cat sat perfectly straight and still, tail flicking back and forth, as it waited for the perfect moment to pounce. “And it just so happens he’s the only one not lounging.”

Saviin snickered, and closed her eye again. This reprieve felt earned. The weight of the past few months had gone on without a break, and these hours of peace felt more restorative than a week of sleep. And after the emotional confessions and Din’s sudden departure a few days ago, meditation offered the only appropriate escape from the maelstrom of feelings that had overwhelmed her from the moment he had left the room.

Cyar’sarad. Saviin recalled the holo call, and the children’s story. Maddi had called the Flower Queen cyar’sarad too. Who cared for the four sprouts as though they were her own. A Lone Warrior on a quest to restore a destroyed kingdom, so that his beloved Flower Queen and his sprout children could live there together in peace. The same offer, the same promise Din had made. She tried to push the thought away and quell the rising tightness in her chest. It didn’t change anything; she was the daughter of a clone, and he was a Mand’alor in a politically tenuous situation. It could never be.

“Why can you not hope for us?”

Rex had told her to be honest. But as she stared up into that bright helmet, the dark depths of the visor that hid her beloved’s eyes, the words got stuck in her throat.

I can’t tell you that I love you. I can’t take it from my chest, where it dwells evergreen, secret and safe; and give it air, to breathe and live and die in the harsh elements. Better that I cherish it where no frost shall touch it, a flower ever-blooming.

He knew anyway. Of course he knew, and he promised her a place in his restored kingdom, as his cyar’sarad, his beloved Flower Queen. And he believed in it, she could hear the conviction in his tone, rattling her bones with its surety. She wanted to believe it, with a yearning that defied logic and physics; and for a moment, held safely in his arms, she’d felt the promise of what could be, soft and secure. But unless he knew something she didn’t, it was a promise he couldn’t keep, no matter how hard he fought.

Grief hit her hard, and her eyes burned as she clenched them tightly closed. A fool she’d been, to not realize that it was not just one beloved soul that she stood to be forever parted from, but six. She’d not allowed herself to hope, but had fallen in love with all of them just the same. And now he was gone, off to complete a quest that would restore his creed and put him and his darling children beyond her reach for good, no matter what he hoped for; there was no way he could be the leader Mandalore needed, and commit to her as well.

How gutted the children would be, when they discovered how the story ends.

A sudden wave of calm-comfort-strength wrapped itself around her, soothing the jagged edges of her grief. Like the petting of an agitated cat, she felt herself settle and relax under the ministration. Grateful, she thought thank you as loudly as she could, and was rewarded with an audible “ow.”

“You don’t have to yell,” murmured Ezra, and Saviin chuckled.

Calm once more, she let her mind wander through quiet, blank space, just enjoying the present, listening as Cerium’s breathing evened and deepened, accompanied by the soft snuffles of a sleeping baby in the nearby bassinet. The texture of the golden atmosphere thickened, and Saviin sunk more deeply into it, lulled to the point of sleep. She’d never been very envious of Force Sensitives, knowing the gift to be a heavy burden; but if this was the level of peace they could reach through meditation—

The energy shifted. It roiled, snapping and harsh, and Saviin shot up and recoiled back into the couch, away from the feeling. Ezra had dropped the ball and sat up as well, staring at Cerium.

The door slid open, and Boba began to walk in, when he too recoiled as though physically repelled. “What is this?” Eyes only for his wife, he moved swiftly to her side, where she still stared at her loom, hands moving of their own accord. A wail signaled the baby’s agitation.

“Fett, wait—she’s safe, but don’t pull her out of it, she’ll be out in a moment,” Ezra urged him. “Trust me.”

Boba did not, if his expression was any indicator, but he scooped up the infant, cradling gently against his armored chest, trying to soothe as he waited impatiently for his wife to snap out of it. After a moment, Cerium blinked, and Boba sighed in relief. Saviin grabbed her data pad, and sent a message to the service droids for tea.

“Boba,” Cerium sighed in relief as he kissed her forehead, standing to seek out his comfort. He held her close, one arm around her as she slipped one around his waist and the other behind his neck, pulling him into a kov’nyn with their baby safely nestled between them. Saviin glanced away as something sharp lanced through her chest, breathing through the pain and willing the sting in her eyes to pass.

Cerium then pulled slightly away from her husband, staring up into his golden brown eyes with her bright blue ones. “You have to leave.” Her voice was firm.

Boba stared at her, baffled.

“I just got here—”

“You have to go, right now. And you have to take Kote and Prudii with you.”

Now Boba looked truly alarmed. “Go where, sarad’ika?” Instead of answering, Cerium looked to the door a moment before it slid open. Instead of the service droid bearing tea that Saviin had hoped for, it was Fennec, with a dark look on her face.

“Boss, we have problems in Nevarro.”

Boba turned back to Cerium, who nodded. “Take Kote and Prudii with you.”

Boba turned to Ezra, who was watching the scene carefully. “Did you see this too, in the Force?”

Ezra scratched his jaw in chagrin. “Well, the Force doesn’t really work that way.” At Boba’s thunderous look, he amended hastily, “I sensed the Force shift as the vision, or warning, hit Cerium. I think we all felt that— but I also felt the Force more explicitly. That was a clear warning, like the kind I get before a blaster bolt is coming for my head. What she saw was important, to everyone in this room. I’m not sure what that means, since I didn’t see or feel the warning directly, but the Force was very insistent on its urgency.”

“Why take Kote and Prudii?”

“I don’t know,” Cerium shrugged, eyes wide in her confusion. “I’ve never felt something so clear or urgent, it was pretty alarming.” Boba’s brow furrowed in concern, and fussed over her as she continued, “I just felt this overwhelming sense that something incredibly bad and extremely important was happening, and the impression in my mind that you three have to go, immediately. If you leave now, you’ll make it in time. But I saw nothing, and felt no clearer instruction than that.”

“That makes sense, since you’re untrained,” Ezra commented. “The fact that you got that much says it’s big, whatever it is.”

“We have contacts and business interests in Nevarro. Maybe they’ll be useful or important to whatever you find,” supplied Saviin.

“Prudii already contacted me,” cut in Fennec. “That’s how I knew to look into our Nevarro business. There had been some issues with shipping, but not enough to be a priority, until she pointed out some inconsistencies in the logs. If it’s what we think it is, they’ve hidden the theft well. She alluded to some concerns on your side of things there as well.”

“And this could involve Mandalore, which would make this everyone’s problem,” suggested Ezra.

“I don’t care about Mandalore,” snapped Boba.

“Djarin is your vod,” scolded Cerium, her countenance now severe and disapproving, the weight of authority saturating each word. Saviin flinched. “Don’t pretend that you don’t care about him.”

“I wasn’t planning to go off-planet so soon,” grumbled Boba, staring down at his firstborn child, and Cerium’s foreboding demeanor melted.

“I know, my love,” Cerium reached up to cup his cheek, laying her other hand on the nestled bundle in Boba’s arms. “But I have a strong feeling you have to go. It will make all the difference. For us, and for others. We’ll be safe here.”

Saviin and Ezra glanced at each other, and made for the door to give them some privacy.

“I’ll find Ruusaan and pack,” Saviin declared once in the hallway, Fennec hot on her heels. “If Prudii and Kote are going, I’ll need to be at the Haven.”

“And I need to call Sabine, see what our next steps will be,” Ezra frowned, his eyes falling out of focus even as he walked swiftly beside her.

“Boba will escort you and your sister home, and pick up your siblings; I’ve already been talking to them,” shared Fennec from behind them, and Saviin turned slightly to include her. “Prudii tipped me off to look at our business in Nevarro, and her hunch was correct. Something’s very wrong there.”

“Are you going too?”

“As nice as it would be to flex my assassin skills, someone has to stay here with the royalty and defend our turf.”

“How selfless of you.”

“Passing up a fight, to babysit the throne? You’re karking right it’s selfless.”

Saviin smiled. Despite the tease, Saviin wasn’t fooled by Fennec’s tone. She knew how close she was with Cerium, and the baby. Din was a friend, but if this fight went to Mandalore, keeping Tatooine stable was the higher priority for the gotra, as the fallback location for so many. Saviin only wished they had more time to outfit the contingency location. But it seemed time was as precious as water on Tatooine— and just as rare.

 


 

Prudii silently picked her way through a dingy alley full of garbage, followed by her older brother and uncle. Working with Boba was still an adjustment; to see her father’s face, but so young compared to her aged uncles, was unnerving. His terse, blunt manner was even more reminiscent of her father. Prudii was slightly disappointed that Fennec hadn’t come too; the acerbic assassin was far more amusing company. Prudii spent the flight to Nevarro sparring with Kote while Boba cleaned weapons and watched silently, a slight jump of his eyebrows the only indication of his approbation.

“All right, this is the spot, according to Fennec. They should be here soon,” Prudii said softly in Mando’a, speaking slowly for her uncle’s benefit; they’d realized quickly that he wasn’t as fluent as they were. He wouldn’t want her pity, but the thought of being a lone bounty hunter for so long, separated from native speakers and any semblance of family, struck a deep chord within her. If he was willing to be reincorporated into the family, they’d happily speak slowly for him.

“Who’s meeting us?”

“Marshal Cara Dune, and Greef Karga.”

“I know Karga. We go way back,” volunteered Boba, and Prudii saw Kote’s helmet tilt in such a way that communicated his doubtfulness.

“…in a good way?” Kote asked somewhat skeptically. There was a pause.

“… it was a long time ago, I’m sure he’s forgotten,” muttered Boba. Prudii snorted, brushing a speck of grime off the new paint job on her armor. For Nevarro, she’d gone with a drab duracrete color over a charcoal body glove. It was boring, uninteresting— the perfect camouflage.

Two cloaked figures came around the corner swiftly. Boba tensed, gripping his carbine. It was an intimidating sight. Kote, on the other hand, remained utterly relaxed. He was wearing his usual spacer outfit, the one they used for export deliveries and undercover missions. His loose, unaffected posture made him appear unassuming, uninteresting… nonthreatening. Prudii felt a rush of pride for her older brother, their clan’s best fighter. He’d been a gifted student in their training; when he learned about his namesake uncle’s penchant for spin-kicking droids during the Clone Wars, he’d taken to the move with gusto, and had used it in close quarters against thugs and slavers with extreme prejudice. He was brutally efficient, and lethal. Where Senaar’s Force ability gave her a natural physical advantage in a spar, Kote’s extreme focus and warrior mentality made him a far more effective fighter, never hesitating. And yet where Boba leaned into his infamy to intimidate and control a situation, Kote leaned into the exact opposite impulse, allowing others to wildly underestimate him. It had served him well, and she missed having her brother on their missions with Oya. The Red Arrow and The Huntress, with Prudii as their Shadow. With Kote as a community leader, Adenn had taken his place on the mission roster. Adenn was a great fighter, but he wasn’t Kote.

The figures slowed, approaching cautiously.

“Fett.” Boba nodded.

“Dune,” he responded neutrally.

“Where’s Fennec?”

“Stayed behind for this one,” he replied tersely. The figure nodded, then pulled her hood back slightly to reveal her face.

“Who are these two?”

“They’re with me,” Boba replied; Cara Dune seemed unimpressed with that introduction, not budging an inch. Kote pushed off of the wall, slowly reaching for his sleeve and pulling it up to reveal his forearm.

“Dank ferrik, really?”

Kote chuckled and nodded, pulling his sleeve down again. “In the flesh,” he responded easily, ignoring Boba’s helmet tilt of confusion.

Cara turned to the other figure. “They’re good. Let’s go.” At her gesture, they followed, and swiftly moved into an abandoned building.

Once secured, she threw off her cloak, revealing teal and black armor. “I’m here as Cara Dune, not Marshal Dune. This is off-the-books. As is everything that seems to involve you nerfherders,” she added, sighing. The other figure removed his hood, to reveal Greef Karga. Prudii and Kote removed their helmets, while Boba kept his on.

“Karga,” Boba acknowledged, tone perfectly even.

Karga huffed. “Fett. Never thought I’d see the day.” His expression indicated a struggle to let bygones be bygones, and Prudii stifled a smile. "I’m also here off-duty, since this has nothing to do with Nevarro. Who are your companions?” He turned to the siblings. “You two look somewhat familiar.”

“We’ve passed through,” offered Kote vaguely. Better for their operations if Karga didn't remember them too well. “I’m Arrow, and this is Shadow.” Prudii offered a sloppy salute, again ignoring the questioning tilt of Boba’s helmet, and Cara snorted.

“Don’t worry boss, I can vouch for them,” Cara volunteered.

Karga’s confusion deepened. “You just said you didn’t know them!”

“Let’s talk business,” Cara deflected, steamrolling over Karga’s protest. “Shand said Imperials are impacting your business here, but we cleared them from this system.”

“Unfortunately, just because the Imps aren’t wearing armor, doesn’t mean they’re gone,” countered Kote, a somewhat apologetic tone in his voice. Gar Vod’e had encountered this sting of disappointment far too many times lately.

“Our intelligence, and Fett’s business logs, suggest that they’re still here and operating, just better hidden and more subtle with their actions. They’ve established a new safe house, and they’re skimming off of Fett’s shipments to stock up; probably from others who pass through as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re also tracking ships that pass through here, to hijack later. Any reports of piracy from ships who recently left your port?”

Prudii watched the two carefully. Kote’s question had been a test, to see how aware they were of the problem— and how honest they would be. Cara glanced at Karga, who sighed in resignation, nodding.

“We have. Not many or enough for the New Republic to send anyone out to investigate beyond an Outer Rim Ranger or two, but enough that we have been concerned about what it could mean for trade. A pirate problem could doom the whole sector if shippers start avoiding Nevarro.”

Prudii met Kote’s eyes, and saw her satisfaction reflected in his. This would be much easier than they’d hoped. Then again, these two were the Mand’alor’s friends.

“We suspect that it will impact far more than your sector, Magistrate.”

“Karga.”

“Karga,” Kote acknowledged with a nod of respect. “My people suspect that the Imps are preparing for a more overt move.”

“Against who?”

“Mandalore,” Prudii answered, tracking Boba’s slight shift of discomfort. “Our intelligence so far supports that. If there’s a threat that the Imperials would want to squash in its infancy that could stabilize the Outer Rim, it’s the restoration of Mandalore. A strong Mandalore would limit their ability to use the major hyperplanes out here that the New Republic is too thinly spread to properly patrol, and prevent them from moving as they please in and out of Wild Space and the Unknown Regions.”

“It’s a solid theory,” allowed Cara, “but only a theory, right?”

“Which is why we’re here,” said Kote. “For proof, and more specific details about their plans to attack.”

“So why include us?” Cara asked, frowning.

“For starters, professional courtesy,” Kote smiled. “Unlike the Mand’alor, we don’t like to rip up Imperial safe houses without at least letting you know first, since this is your jurisdiction. If you want to arrest them for questioning instead, we can— I can accommodate that,” he amended at Boba’s grunt of dissent. “And second, since you are the Mand’alor’s friends, if we’re right about the target, we figured you’d want to know, whether you choose to get involved or not.”

“Well I appreciate the professional courtesy,” smirked Cara. “And how do you know Mando? You’re not Mandos too, that’s not Mando armor,” she nodded at Prudii’s clone commando armor. Prudii forced herself to breathe, and looked to her brother to handle the response.

Kote’s smile tightened. “So we’ve been told,” he replied in a colorless voice.

“They’re Mandalorian,” Boba interrupted. His deep, raspy voice invited no contradiction. “It’s not just about the armor.”

Cara raised her hands. "No offense. Mando’s such a hard-ass about the armor, and we don’t see many other Mandalorians, so we didn’t know.”

“They’re Mandalorian,” Boba repeated, and Prudii ruthlessly squashed a welling emotion within her chest at her uncle’s words. There would be time to examine that feeling later.

“They’re Mandalorian,” Cara echoed, evidently trying to put the issue to rest. “So, what's the plan?”

 

 

Moments later, the party stepped back into the alley, and split up. While Boba took to the sky, Karga moved swiftly towards the main street, while Kote, Prudii and Cara slid deeper into the alley, making for the back side of the safe house near the end of town. Prudii glanced down at a sudden movement.

“Is that a lava meerkat?” Prudii asked, unfeigned interest in her tone. Cara looked down, and rolled her eyes.

“Saved the rat from some Aqualish during a raid last year, now it won’t stop following me.” She paused, pulling a large chunk of a ration bar out of a pocket and tossing it to the meerkat. “Stay here, you stupid animal. It’s not safe where we’re going.”

“That’s awesome,” Prudii commented excitedly, bending down slowly to look at it closely as it munched on its ration bar. “Have you seen it do the fire thing?”

“The… fire thing?”

“Yeah, where they breathe fire!”

“That’s just a story, isn’t it?” Cara asked, now staring uneasily at the meerkat.

“Totally true. Remember the story, Arrow? Our uncles and father were rescuing some friends from Imperial prison on Ryloth. Uncle Rex had somehow captured some lava meerkats from Nevarro, and took the tracking collars from the prisoners, and attached them to the meerkats. The bucket-heads spent ages following the meerkats while the rescue team and the prisoners got away. Uncle Sorry used to cry from laughing so hard, describing how one meerkat torched a bucket-head’s shebs in retaliation for shooting at it. They’re apparently quite explosive!”

Cara edged away from the meerkat now. “Now you’re definitely not coming in my house,” she told the meerkat sternly. It chirruped and scooted closer.

“Dank ferrik, stay!” Cara took another piece of ration bar, and chucked it back the way they had come. The meerkat darted off to find it. “Come on,” muttered Cara, and they swiftly followed.

“You never know, might come in handy at the safe house,” chuckled Prudii quietly. Cara huffed.

“Only you crazy people would think of that. I’ve heard the stories of the work you’ve done on the Outer Rim. Makes dropper missions look like security guard work.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, but we are a crazy bunch.”

“In position now,” Boba’s raspy tone broke through on helmet comms. “Karga as well.”

“Copy. ETA 2 minutes.” Prudii switched back to external mic. “Fett’s in position.” She pulled out a wicked-looking vibroblade. Cara’s eyes widened.

“Nice.”

“Thanks. My sister made it,” Prudii replied, grinning sharply at Cara’s look of surprise.

Turning the corner, they slowly advanced on the rear entrance, hugging the shadows. Blade at the ready, Prudii advanced, remaining in the ground security holo’s blind spots. Breathing evenly as she worked the control panel, she fell into the easy, adrenaline-tinged flow of her battle rhythm. Door sliced and opened, she entered, silently and methodically dispatching Imperial troopers on patrol with extreme prejudice. Kote and Cara followed, stashing bodies out of the way to obscure the intrusion. Kote stopped at the comms array to begin downloading everything he could find, while the two women advanced, drawing towards their priority targets.

“Got a lock on the targets, they’re in a room on the western side of the building.”

“Do not engage unless they try to escape,” Kote demanded, working feverishly at the comms array. “We need their intel and it might not all be documented here.”

“Sure thing, Alor.”

“Seriously?”

“Shut up!” Prudii interjected sharply. “I’ve tapped the room they’re in.”

“… are you absolutely sure?” a voice asked in a high Coruscanti accent. “You’re certain that the Mand’alor and his followers are on-planet now, and comms dark? It seems too easy.”

“Positive.” The second voice was distorted. “Our informant was clear- they were given orders to go comms-silent while on-planet to disguise their presence. He is set on finding the mines to perform some ritual. Our plans can proceed as ordered.”

“Once they’re wiped out, once and for all, we can continue with the beskar harvest. We will not be able to continue with the construction without the material.”

“Then we need to move as many supplies from here as we can in the next 24 hours, without attracting notice. The Fett gotra will catch wind soon enough that we’re skimming the shipments; it’s a miracle they haven’t noticed already.”

Prudii grimaced. There’d be a lot of conversations in Tatooine about that later.

“The Moff thinks this will be enough?”

“Mandalorians are isolationists, and they’re proud. They won’t ask for help. We’ll catch them on the surface just like last time, and finish what we started.”

Prudii was done. She glanced at Cara, who nodded. Prudii switched back to helmet comms. “I think we got what we needed.”

“Then let’s go. Stun priority targets; everyone else is fair game. Fett, light it up.”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

Prudii flipped her deecee to stun as Cara opened the door, the blue rings of a stun blast dropping the two targets as the front of the building rocked under the force of an explosion. They darted in to bind and drag the Imperial targets out of the building, past Kote who was proceeding through the building while covering the rear exit. Boba had charged through the front door after bursting it open with a rocket, and between the two, the safe house had become a scene of carnage. Cara took off to find a speeder while Prudii guarded the targets.

Prudii was in the middle of checking messages on her comm when Boba and Kote strolled out the rear entrance, looking for all the world like old pals.

“I’m just saying. If you get bored, let me know. I can get you some jobs. That was fun,” Boba offered in his usual terse tone.

“High praise indeed, thank you,” Kote inclined his head graciously. “I think my fiancée might kill me if I did, but I’ll keep it in mind.”

“She’s not a Mando?”

“Pantoran, by way of Garel,” Kote chuckled. “Very open-minded, but she’s marrying a baker-warrior-clan chief, not a bounty hunter, and she’s made that very clear.”

“Good luck with that.”

Cara reappeared with Karga and a speeder. “All good?”

“One safe house down,” confirmed Kote. “The dock workers on the Imp payrolls that are moving shipments around need to be neutralized before they can get the word out, though.”

“Did you find any details about the attack?”

“I did,” Kote responded grimly. “It’s set for 2 days from now. I’ve got their rendezvous coordinates. They’re marshaling in the Quelli sector, and will jump out to immediately attack Mandalore so that they remain pinned on the surface.”

“Fierfek."

“Odds of orbital bombardment?”

“Not likely,” Prudii responded. “We haven’t found many Remnant cells with that kind of firepower. But still possible.”

“We need to clean up the shipyard, then contact our people while you talk to the targets and see what else you can learn,” Kote directed at Cara and Karga, who nodded.

“Yes. I’d love to know who’s been stealing from me,” Boba added, and Prudii fought a shiver at the ice-cold rage in her uncle’s tone, matched by the steely tone of resolution in her brother’s response.

“Oya.”

Chapter Text

Part 4: Restoration of the Desolate Kingdom

Chapter 33: Into the Mines

 

Tristan stepped out of the palace into the pale sunlight that shone weakly above Mandalore, illuminating its barren wasteland to grim effect. Before him, the foundations of Keldabe, the ancient capital of Mandalore, rose from the gritty plain; behind him, a small mountain range just beyond its outskirts to the north. Gravel ground into the stone beneath his boots as Tristan shifted, staring about the cityscape and nodding to guards, engineers and warriors who bustled past, swiftly executing their orders. The sounds of smartly rapped-out orders, cheerful calls, and snatches of working songs belied the grim atmosphere, injecting enthusiasm and eagerness into the dismal air. Teams had been established to stabilize, fortify, and begin reconstruction, once the initial assessment had been completed yesterday; debris removal teams were already in motion, cheerfully clearing away the rubble of the old to make way for the new. The city had once been a formidable fortified city, capable of withstanding a siege for months, impregnable against aruetii offenses. Now though, as he gazed at the battered stone and warped durasteel, Tristan hoped against hope they would not soon put it to the test.

He thought back to that warm spring morning, when he and Din sat with Senaar and Saviin, laughing and joking about Keldabe. The corner of his mouth quirked into a smile at the memory of Din bemoaning where he’d find musicians to fill his new capital; of Saviin, warming to her topic with the eagerness of a university lecturer. Senaar, laughing at all of them for their enthusiasm for city planning. It had been cozy, intimate, easy. Nothing about what would come next was going to be easy. But they were here, and a far-flung idea had now become possible. Tristan’s eyes roved the ruins, trying to imagine what could be.

He’d never been creative. But the Vhett’ikas were, and Tristan would bet his helmet that Din would do whatever Saviin suggested. Excepting those Mandalorian peace lilies, Tristan had faith that the palace and the capital city surrounding it would be restored to its former glory, even if he couldn’t envision it for himself. Thus, the future looked bright. Or would, once they found the Living Waters.

He turned his gaze to the western outskirts, which had been established as an airfield. His eyes roved over the ships, then doubled back and scanned again, realizing that something was missing. A feeling like ice crawled through his veins. He ran back into the hall, not daring to break the comms blackout even in his panic, where Rau and a guard from Din’s protective detail stood speaking, postures tense. They turned at his approach.

“Where the haran is the Mand’alor?!”

 


 

“Bedtime, little sprouts.”

The pajama-clad children of clan Mudhorn looked up from their data pad to see Saviin entering the dormitory. Ever one to share her affection with all, she paused on her trek to the beds that the four had claimed, buying the children time to stow whatever mischief they had started as she greeted the other children of the community. As the evening-shift creche-master signaled for lights out and settled the rest of the kids, Saviin approached the “clan Mudhorn corner.” The four children sprawled across beds pushed together, a tangle of limbs.

“Hi, buir,” Til greeted her cheekily, a challenging gleam in his eye. She smiled, shaking her head. She’d given up that fight.

“Hi Til'ika. Everyone washed up and ready for bed?”

They nodded, flashing toothy grins. She chuckled, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “Everybody feeling okay?”

Amid nods, Maddi crawled into her lap, dark drowsy eyes fixed on hers. She patted Saviin’s cheek with a pale chubby hand. “You so pretty, buir.”

Saviin nuzzled her nose. “You are so sweet, Mad’ika.” Maddi melted under the snuggles, going boneless in her arms.

“Din’buir pretty too,” she yawned.

Saviin fought a startle.

“Boys aren’t pretty!” countered Kass, outraged. “They’re handsome.”

“Boys can be pretty,” corrected Saviin gently. “But you’re right, the word usually used is handsome. They mean close to the same thing.”

“Well,” Kass grumbled, scratching at his headtails, “Din’buir is handsome, I guess. As far as humans go.”

Saviin would not indulge her own curiosity, but she could not fight her racing imagination, or quell the ache. She wanted to know.

“His eyes are brown though,” countered Kiro with a frown. “Kinda boring. Not like Sav'buir's eyes.”

“But it’s a nice brown,” argued Til. “Like his messy hair.”

“Pokey face fur,” mumbled Maddi, eyes closed. Saviin gently shifted her off of her lap and onto the bed, where she immediately latched onto Til.

“It’s called a mustache, Mad’ika,” Til corrected patiently.

“Pokey.”

“I’m sure Din’buir appreciates that you think he has a nice face,” Saviin managed, throat tight. “Now, let’s settle in under the covers. The lights are going out. Do you want—”

“Yes!”

She smiled, blinking at the dark as the crèche-master turned off the lights. The dim glow of the moon filtered through the treetops and streamed faintly into the windows, gently illuminating the faces of the children. She gazed at them, heartsore. It had to be enough to have Din’s trust when it came to the care of his children. Enough to know that he loved her, even if it could never be more than simply knowing. Taking a centering breath, she began the lullaby.

Lowly swings the shriek-hawk mother
Winging to her nest
Bringing tasty fish to her babes
The kind that they like best

Sleep my darlings, sweet dreams be yours
The watch is mine to keep
While you grow strong, my little warriors,
Within your blessed sleep

Til blinked bleary eyes at Saviin, curled closely around Maddi who had nestled her head on his stomach. Kiro and Kass had snuggled in on her other side, keeping their baby sister safe from being squished between the bed and the wall.

The mother shatual herds her babes
Back to their cozy den
Nestled in the deep dark forest
To rest their furry heads

Sleep my darlings, sweet dreams be yours
The watch is mine to keep
While you grow strong, my little warriors,
Within your blessed sleep

Saviin fixed the tousled blankets, tucking the children in. Maddi kicked out, already asleep, and Kass tossed a leg over her, clamping her down in place. Til’s eyes had finally closed.

Close the strill mother guards her pups
Once the hunt is done
Giving sweet kisses to her babes
As in their sleep they run

Sleep my darlings, sweet dreams be yours
The watch is mine to keep
While you grow strong, my little warriors,
Within your blessed sleep

Four even breaths rose and fell from the bed, but out of habit, Saviin finished her song. Any other children still awake in the dormitory would raise hell if the song went unfinished. She reached out and gently swept a wayward curl off of Til’s cheek, then stooped and kissed each warm forehead before starting the last verse.

My heart is wherever you may be,
My dearest joy and pride,
You will always find your way back
The stars will be your guide

Sleep my darlings, sweet dreams be yours
The watch is mine to keep
While you grow strong, my little warriors,
Within your blessed sleep

Saviin crept out of the dormitory full of rustling blankets and snuffled snores, into a cool night sky. Croaking frogs and chirruping crickets performed their cacophonous love songs, the clearing echoing as they called for their mates. She stared up into the velvet blanket of glimmering stars, the crescent moon not yet fully risen to overshadow their crystalline beauty as they winked in the inky black of space. Din was out there, in the mines or soon to be. And her family, out there searching for answers in Nevarro. Weighty fears mocked her from a weightless sky. The Flower Queen could do no more, only keep her sprouts and her people safe. So she held the wish in her heart and hoped the Manda would hear.

Let the ka'ra be Din’s guide.

 


 

Din climbed out of the N1 star-fighter and opened the hatch for Grogu, his hovering pram rising immediately from the view port and descending to his side. The kid had gotten very good at manipulating the controls; Din knew he’d eventually regret that, but for now he simply felt proud. It relieved the protective instincts that occasionally surprised even himself, that the child was more self-sufficient and not as vulnerable as he’d been when they first met.

The idea of his child with a tiny lightsaber though— he was not ready for that. He’d seen it, the kid was gifted. But he also ate frogs. Din wasn’t ready.

He glanced about as he made for the palace. These were not his first ruins; he’d seen destruction before. And yet the blackened and twisted fragments of the once-vibrant city of Sundari held a haunting despair that seemed to claw at his nerves. The jagged edges of the dome that once protected the city formed a perimeter resembling the gaping mouth of a sarlacc, lying in wait to consume the unwary. The ruins revealed a soft, unfortified architecture, no interior defense; the New Mandalorians had counted on the dome alone to protect them. And once overcome, they were easy pickings.

We were prosperous once, the ruins moaned, unstable structures groaning in the light wind. We eschewed war, and war consumed us anyway. Din knew there was no point in dwelling heavily on the past, but he could not help but wonder: what could a strong Mandalore have done to prevent the destruction of the past? Could it have prevented the Clone Wars? The Empire? Din felt no resentment, no disgust; just grim acceptance of what had been, and sorrow for all that had been lost to bring them to this moment.

A balance of war, and peace; peace, through war. A path that avoided the two extremes of Death Watch and the New Mandalorians, and any sects of similar radical philosophies. That neatly described Din’s vision for the future; the real test would be convincing the Mando’ade, although— Din glanced around again, taking in the hollow window frames and bombed-out homes — if the sight of this destruction did not convince them, nothing likely would.

He had taken Saviin’s guidance, and his history lessons to heart. Never again would the tragedy of Sundari occur, not on his watch. And the poison of Death Watch would be excised, as much to blame for this senseless loss as the pacifists.

The remnants of foolhardiness crunched beneath his boots as he climbed the stairs to the hall of the throne room.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

Bo-Katan Kryze cocked her bared head, looking very pleased with herself as she lounged on the throne at the far end of the hall, one leg propped up on the arm of the chair. As Din advanced, he clocked the pennants bearing the sigil of the Nite Owls hanging from the angled columns.

Din wasn’t sure whether to be concerned or relieved that she had selected that sigil instead of the mythosaur, traditional symbol of the Mand’alor.

“And so the Mand’alor returns to Sundari.” Her smile was cruel, an ugly thing.

“This is pretty grim, even for you.”

Kryze scowled. “This is my family’s seat,” she sneered

“Your family was from Kalevala. This was your sister’s throne. Then Maul’s.”

“My, you have done your homework,” Kryze regarded him carefully, a crafty glint in her eye. “I’m sure your meat droid friends fed you all sorts of stories about me, too. You must feel very brave coming here then, all alone with just your Jedi child. And this your first trip to Mandalore, right? This must feel strange to you, since you hid from the last fight here. When our people fought and died— when your cult fractured our people, where were you, Mand’alor? In fact,” she straightened, leaning forward, “tell me, Mand’alor— what’s to stop me from doing our people a favor and killing you right here and now, before you find your Living Waters?”

“The same thing that stopped you on the bridge of Gideon’s cruiser,” he returned evenly, his tone unconcerned even as he performed a mental check of his hands in relation to their proximity to the Dha’kad’au and his blaster. “You won’t kill me when you need an audience, and no offense, but Reeves and Woves don’t count.” Their cover blown, the two materialized from the wings behind him, moving past to flank the throne. “And let’s not pretend that you don’t know why I’m searching for the Living Waters, Kryze. It’s not my covert anymore."

She sniffed, her lip curled in disgust. “Is there a point to this visit, then?”

“If I do not return from my quest in the mines, leave my family alone. Don’t try to find them.”

“Aren’t you the dedicated buir.” She surveyed him, eyes hard and calculating. “I’m surprised you’re not begging the same for your droid spawn girlfriend. Did her programming not meet your needs, after all?”

Din fought the urge to clench his fist. The Darksaber’s rage danced in his head, and he sent it a quelling thought. Not helpful. “I’m not begging. I’m warning. Don’t try it.”

“But resentful, grieving children can be so troublesome. After all, Jango Fett was one such child, and look at the damage he did. Nevertheless, I have no interest in hunting children, you have my word.”

Din swallowed a laugh; between Bo-Katan Kryze’s track record on vows and Death Watch’s history with children, that promise was worth less than the air it took to make it. But the warning had been delivered; the Fetts and Gar Vod’e would take the necessary precautions. Everything else was outside of his control. So he merely nodded.

“Who is entering the mines with you?”

“Wren, and Grogu.”

“I want Reeves and Woves to accompany you. Consider it a gesture of good faith.” Din considered the offer. Reeves would be outnumbered, though she wouldn’t know it. Still, he had to at least pretend to push back.

“Aren’t we past that?”

“Think of them as hostages. I would not risk their safety. So you can rest assured that so long as they’re with you in there, I won’t be attempting anything.”

Din didn’t think much of that logic— if he didn’t plan to have the Darksaber with him in the mine, he felt confident that she’d happily sacrifice them to collapse the damn mine on their heads. But he needed to end this farce of a conversation, and get back to the task at hand. By now, someone would have noticed his absence.

“Fine.”

He turned and strode back through the hallway, Reeves and Woves on his heels. Kryze called after him, her tone cold and mocking.

“I wish you success, Mand’alor. I look forward to releasing your restored soul when this is over.”

Din’s step did not falter.

Reeves and Woves split off to their own fighter as Din installed Grogu in the viewport.

“Ready for another adventure, Grogu?” he tweaked the child’s ear fondly.

“Patoo!” cooed the kid, waggling his ears excitedly.

“Yeah you are, adrenaline junkie,” Din sighed. He really had no one to blame for that but himself.

 

 

As he flew back to Keldabe, Din’s mind remained in the city he’d just left. The images captured by the recon team that had scouted Mandalore’s surface, did not do justice in adequately illustrating the extent of the city’s damage. The destruction, the horror-soaked earth— he couldn’t imagine why Kryze would want to establish Sundari as the seat of her power. Setting aside the twisted personal pull for Kryze, strategically speaking Sundari was a horrible choice. Structurally, everything would have to be scrapped, the entire city scoured and rebuilt from its foundations— if those were even salvageable. By comparison, even with the devastation wrought during the Mandalorian civil wars, Keldabe’s architecture boasted strong bones, durable foundations designed for a fight. The engineers had agreed that the restoration of Keldabe was an achievable goal.

And Din had enough impossible tasks to accomplish, without rebuilding cities beyond hope.

The capital came into view, and a sense of anticipation and rightness flared in his chest. Home. Or at least it would be. He could feel the kyber of the Dha’kad’au humming with joy and eagerness, its emotions blaring brightly in his mind. The history lessons on Keldabe and its vibrant culture with Saviin in her forge felt so long ago, like a dream. Even in its ruined state, he could see the potential, the promise.

I will make things right, cyar’sarad. I swear it.

 

Din managed to get there and land before Grogu began his customary banging for a second application of the sub-light turbo. Glad to forestall one argument, he opened the viewport and hauled himself out, landing lightly next to the ship and directly in the sight-lines of his trusted aides, who immediately rushed over. Even with the helmets on, he could tell that they were beside themselves. Din felt a twinge of guilt; he hadn’t meant to panic anyone, giving them the slip. But it still rankled that everything he did seemed to run through a committee.

“Where the kark were you?!”

“Sundari.”

“Sundari? Why were you in Sundari? And why didn’t you tell anyone? I think I just lost ten years off my life,” Tristan could barely contain himself.

“Can it, Wren,” Rau barked.

“Found out why we haven’t seen Kryze around Keldabe yet. She’s in Sundari; set herself up on her sister’s throne. There are banners in the hall and everything.”

There was a long silence.

“Somehow, the banners don’t surprise me,” Tristan’s tone was tight, tense.

“Woves and Reeves are coming with me into the Mines. Hostages of good faith, so she says. I’m glad to have Woves, and not worried about Reeves. But it makes me more wary for what she’ll try while we’re in there.” He glanced over as their Gauntlet landed next to the N1 and the two Nite Owls emerged.

“At least we know where she is, and we’ll be on guard,” Rau stated. “It’s all we can do.”

“Since everything is proceeding smoothly here, I want to get into the mines first thing tomorrow morning. Is everything ready?”

“Everyone knows their jobs and have jumped in with both blasters,” Tristan replied. “Engineers are moving through quadrants quickly, assessing structural conditions more in-depth as we speak, and the supply team is getting organized near the city center to deploy resources to the rebuild teams. Security’s setting up the perimeter. And I’m ready to head into the mine as soon as you are, Alor.”

“I’ll keep everything on task, Alor,” Rau saluted him, the formality underscoring the importance of this moment. The one all three had been working towards for months now.

Din nodded, then turned to the mountain on the far side of the city. The rough-hewn opening of the mine entrance yawned from 30 meters up the side of the small, steep mountain. The path up the side of the mountain to its entrance had been blasted away. As he stared at it, the Darksaber hummed in anticipation beneath his hand.

“‘If restoration is what you seek, start at the heart, and reach out; with purity of mind and intent, and you shall be led to the Fount.’ I think the Darksaber might come in handy then, to help guide you, so long as you have a clear purpose.”

Ver’ika had been correct, as usual; gazing upon the mountain, he just knew it was the right one, the path he needed to take. “What’s that mine called?” He pointed to the mountain. Wren glanced at his map.

“Dinui.”

Din fought a snort. A bit on the nose there, Manda. A flicker of outrage that wasn’t his flashed across his mind, and he checked his mirth. It was a little funny.

“That’s the one. We start there.” No one argued.

Din glanced at his jetpack fuel levels, then nodded at Reeves and Woves who had joined them. He turned to face the mountain again, taking a steady breath. The time for turning back had long since passed, but in this moment, the reality of what lay before them hit with all its magnitude. The true point of no return lay somewhere deep within that mine. He could feel it in his bones.

The Darksaber hummed reassuringly under his palm, and his nerves settled. “At dawn, we’re entering that mine.”

Chapter Text

The first part of this dream was familiar.

Saviin stood in that sandstone room, the press of a scratchy jaw against her temple, the cool beskar under her hands as she held the man for whom she harbored a doomed love. Of course she loved him. How could she not? Denial didn’t change that he felt like the other half of her soul. Telling herself that she couldn’t, had not made a damn bit of difference to her heart, and now her dreams would replay a moment that would only ever be that— a moment. She felt his forehead press against hers in that most precious of Mandalorian gestures, the tickle of a mustachioed kiss firm against her cheek, trying to say all of the things they never managed to find words for.

“I will make things right, cyar’sarad. I swear it.”

The vow had echoed in the room long after the feeling of emptiness had swallowed her whole, as she listened to his receding steps move down the hall. Eyes pressed tightly against the truth, that she truly, hopelessly loved him and that the sound of his promise and the fading footsteps would follow her into her dreams and nightmares, as it had every night since his departure. As it did now, when she opened her eyes to an abandoned room.

Except it wasn’t the room in Tatooine.

This room was dark, an acrid smell of smoke lingering in the air. She moved to a window that was shuttered, and peeked through the cracks. Daylight streamed through, nearly blinding her; as her eyes adjusted, she realized that she was seeing grayish rock everywhere, a strip of fiery red liquid sluggishly moving nearby. Lava flats. She turned back to investigate the room. It appeared empty, a data pad on a table but locked. A few chairs. Try as she might, she couldn’t interact with the room, so she waited. And not for long.

A door opened, and obscured figures walked in, muttering to each other. They did not look familiar, nor seem to see her, so she moved closer.

“… are you absolutely sure?” The one figure asked in a high Coruscanti accent. “You’re certain that the Mand’alor and his followers are on-planet now, and comms dark? It seems too easy.”

An Imperial.

“Positive.” The other figure’s voice was distorted, unfamiliar. “Our informant was clear- they were given orders to go comms-silent while on-planet to disguise their presence. He is set on finding the mines to perform some ritual. Our plans can proceed as ordered.”

An attack. Saviin ran to the door, banging desperately at the control panel, anything to get out and warn them, somehow. But she remained trapped, unable to do anything but listen. Urgency rapidly shifted into panic.

“Once they’re wiped out, once and for all, we can continue with the beskar harvest. We will not be able to continue with the construction without the material.”

A rage unlike any Saviin had ever felt coursed through her, burning white-hot, and she turned towards the figures, stalking forward. She wanted to destroy them, how dare they— the room vanished, and she fell forward into nothing. Swirling fog enveloped her, and a voice that sounded like millions at once, whispered to her:

Wake up, Sav'ika. Sound the alarm, tell the child. Go protect my gift to Mandalore.

 

With a start, Saviin woke up, bolting upright. Hands slippery with sweat scrabbled for her data pad on the nightstand and she fell out of bed, sliding down the ladder and making for the long-range comms in the kitchen even as her eyes began to fully focus. She punched in the comm code, staring wide-eyed at the sight of her brother, sister and uncle.

“Saviin! It’s four in the morning there, how did you know—”

“Mandalore’s going to be attacked, you have to go now,” she cut across, adrenaline from the dream coursing through, rendering her senseless to meaningless gestures like manners. When they said nothing, she squinted at them. “You already knew?”

“We just found out. That’s why we’re calling,” Prudii responded, brows furrowed. “How did you find out?”

“A dream— a nightmare, I don’t know, but it was on Nevarro, I could see lava flats outside the window. Two figures discussed an attack on Mandalore, Imperials. They know the Mand’alor is looking for the mines, that he’s preoccupied and there’s a comms-silence order, they have an informant. The Manda spoke, it told me to wake up, sound the alarm, tell the child. ‘Go protect my gift to Mandalore.’ I think it means D— Alor. We have to warn him.” Total silence met that explanation. Lula chose that moment to jump up on the table and slam her head into Saviin’s chest, diffusing the tension.

“Ka’ra osik,” muttered Boba finally,. “We believe you, Sav'ika. It’s just karking weird. We found an Imp safehouse and managed to bug that exact conversation. Course, if the Manda had planned to just tell you, could have saved us a trip—“

“But now you have proof and suspects to interrogate, not just a dream. And you can tell Marshal Dune and Karga, and maybe they can contact help,” Saviin broke in, absentmindedly petting the tooka. “Not New Republic, unless they’re willing to provide aerial support off-the-record. And they might— the Outer-Rim rangers, anyway. They know something’s brewing. And you’re closer to Mandalore than we are, that’s a benefit. I’ll sound the alarm and get us underway in the next hour, I just don’t know if we’ll get there fast enough. Did the Imperials say when they planned to attack?”

“Thirty-six hours from now,” Kote responded grimly. “Best-case scenario, we’ll get there after the planetary blockade is established, and can batter them on their unprotected flank while they start their ground attack. If we get there too early, we could get caught either in atmo between them and the planet, or on-planet with the rest of the Mandalorians. If we get there too late—” he left the sentence unfinished.

“We’ll get there on-time,” Prudii said confidently, and Saviin wished she shared her optimism. “Or at least enough of us will. Some are too far away, but we’ll raise what we can. The question is, how do we get word to the Mand’alor?”

“The child,” Saviin spun around at the sound of her mother’s tired voice. Ver'ika moved forward, smiling at them all. “Sorry to interrupt, four in the morning just seemed like a good time for caf.” Even Boba managed to crack a small smile at that. “In Saviin’s dream, the Manda said ‘tell the child.’ If we are to take that literally, the Mand’alor and the Imperials called Grogu ‘the child’ before he learned his real name. If you contact Ezra, he might be able to reach Grogu through the Force to share the message. Grogu’s learned how to share information without speaking; he’ll be able to tell his father, and they can prepare.”

“Jetii os’ik, that could work,” nodded Boba. “I’ll comm him now.” He turned away from the holo, leaving Kote and Prudii.

What about the other Jedi?” The siblings stared at each other. Ver'ika watched them carefully. Lula sprung from the table to Ver'ika, who caught her midair and held her close, stroking the cat’s long black and white fur.

“Skywalker’s definitely not welcome on Mandalore,” Saviin snapped out sharply. It was a slightly unreasonable tone, given the circumstances, but she felt unreasonably protective of Grogu. “Not after sticking Grogu in a kriffing X-wing and sending the galaxy’s biggest bounty off alone. Shabuir.” Prudii, Kote, and Ver'ika chuckled.

“Tell us how you really feel, Sav'ika,” jabbed Prudii.

“There’s Ahsoka,” suggested Kote. “Maybe others.”

“We don’t have a good way to reach any of them,” argued Prudii. “And Ahsoka’s a wild card. She’s got ties to Mandalore, but just as many reasons to avoid it like the Hissian plague. I don’t think we can count on her.”

“Have Ezra send a message letting her know, if he can, but let’s not expect her to come,” advised Saviin, and the others nodded.

“Prudii, contact Oya, see if she can pull off their current mission and get there in time. They should be only a few sectors over, she’s got the Havoc Marauder and Adenn’s with her; that firepower will be needed. And message Sabine directly to sync up, in case Ezra is too busy to read her in on the situation; she’s off-planet with him, and they took the Nightbrother. If they can get there in time, that’ll be useful in a dogfight,” ordered Kote.

“Who stays behind?”

Saviin hated this question, but they couldn’t avoid it. Not now. They stared at each other, the silence only broken by Lula’s purring, since the cat clearly couldn’t read the room.

“I will, with Ruusaan,” interjected Ver'ika calmly. “Leave me the small shuttle, and take the Nu-class, the star-fighters, and the freighter, they have the best weapons arrays. If something should happen, we’ll enact the contingencies, and you’ll find us on Tatooine.”

“Is Ruusaan ready?” Prudii asked hesitantly. “We never intended for all three of us to be gone at the same time, it’s a lot to ask without any preparation—”

“Not much worse than four toddlers pulling you in separate directions,” groused a familiar voice, and Ruusaan slid into the room, rubbing her eyes blearily and shoving her tousled burgundy mane out of the way. “Not a sniper for nothing. I’ve heard a fair amount of the planning, and Mama can catch me up on the rest. This is what we trained for. I know my part and I’m ready.” It was true; in every exercise, Ruusaan had been the last line of defense, sniping from a distance, keeping the threat as far from the precious children as possible. They were ready, thanks to buir’s training. Saviin took a deep breath.

“Then I’ll sound the alarm, and we’ll rendezvous in the Mandalore sector, near Concord Dawn. I’ll send you our ETA as soon as we’re underway.”

“Oya.”

“Oya.”

“Oya,” nodded Saviin, and the holo faded. She turned to Ver'ika. “After I sound the alarm, prepare to contact every covert we’ve found and send them a message. I don’t know if anyone will come, but it’s better than nothing. The Adumari Mandalorians promised to come if he called, so hopefully they’ll answer mine on his behalf. Genassa, Ansion— call them all.”

“They’ll know we exist, if they didn’t already,” warned Ver'ika, though she was already moving to the data pad to queue up a recording.

“The Mand’alor can’t call; I’m doing it for him,” Saviin replied, and she saw Ruusaan still at that. “I have no right, but I’m doing it anyway. I think I’m meant to, why I was sent the dream. ‘Protect the gift to Mandalore.’ I have to try. Besides, they’ll know after tomorrow we exist. Triple-check encryption before sending, to make sure it’s not traceable back to here; at least we’ll have that. If anyone responds, give them the coordinates and patch them through to me to sync up.” She turned back to the comm, and plugged in a new code. One they tested every year, but had never used in a real-life scenario. One that went to every member of Gar Vod’e across the galaxy.

Anade be Gar Vod’e, this is Alor Saviin Vhett’ika. Code vorpan, I repeat, vorpan. All verde to depart for listed coordinates within one hour. This is not a drill. Vorpan. Haven leadership to Ruusaan Vhett’ika. We depart in one hour.” She paused, then squared her shoulders. “Oya!”

Repeating the message in a written comm then signing off, she turned to face Ruusaan. “Can you go notify clan Eldar, then help get rations and fuel cells down to the ships? And make sure no one tries to prep your shuttle for takeoff now.” Ruusaan saluted and took off as Saviin climbed the ladder to her room.

 

 

Saviin was halfway through kitting up when a ping came through on her comm. “Boba made contact with Ezra. Waiting for confirmation that package has received the message.” Good news, but Saviin didn’t dare hope. Hope was dangerous, distracting. Not for her to indulge in. She knew little about the mechanics of the Force, but sending a message like that from parsecs away had to take time and energy. It was a warning they couldn’t necessarily count on. She focused on securing each piece of armor, tightening straps until it felt like a second skin.

Weapons check, clipping on her beskad. Hair woven back into tight braids. And finally— she paused, staring at her helmet in her hands. Her mother’s, now hers: bronze, with decorative grooves running around the back. The visor shaped somewhat like a cross between a third-gen clone trooper and a female Mandalorian’s helmet. Saviin had taken the colors of her kit— violet, pine— and framed the visor. Senaar had added a few small violets on the side for her. It felt heavy in her hands, as the weight of what was about to happen settled about her.
Now, more than ever, she missed her father. He knew, better than anyone except for maybe Rex, what it meant to lead, the weight of the responsibility. Her mother had never fought; for her, the helmet was a disguise, not a defense. In Saviin’s hands, it was the face of leadership, the one calling others to fight and die, those losses hers to carry.

Her duty. She tucked the helmet under her arm and returned to the kitchen.

“Ready?”

“When you are, alor.” Her mother gave her a half-smile; she’d never been very good at hiding her emotions.

Saviin exhaled, squared her shoulders, and nodded.

“This message is for those who would call themselves Mandalorian. A Mand’alor has risen, and has returned to Mandalore. He has visited many of you in the past year, to marshal forces for this return. And now, he needs your help. Someone has betrayed the covert mission to the planet’s surface, and Imperial Remnant forces are jumping to the sector, to begin a surprise attack within the next thirty-six hours. All attempts to contact verde on Mandalore have failed. I am calling on you to join us in defending the Mand’alor.”

She stopped, then repeated in Mando’a. There was little else at her disposal to convince these clans.

“I am sure you are asking yourselves how you can be sure this is not a trap for you, or why support a Mand’alor who is trapped, when you could cut your losses. They are fair questions, and if there was more time, I would provide more proof. All I can offer is this: I am Saviin Vhett’ika, alor of clan Gar Vod’e, the Brotherhood of the Grand Army of the Republic, descendants of freed clone troopers. Like many of you, we escaped the rampant genocide of our people at the hands of the Empire and have hidden ourselves from the galaxy for decades, avoiding and resisting Imperial oppression. We swore the Resol’nare and waited, hoping for the restoration of Mandalore, our parents’ adopted culture. We believe this Mand’alor is the one to do it. He won the Darksaber in combat, and he has unified rival clans in his quest to restore Mandalore. We have assisted him in finding your coverts to achieve this, because we believe in him. Now he needs our help.

“Imperials have taken much from us all. They now threaten to crush the hope that has returned to Manda’yaim, and we are willing to risk our secrecy and safety to defend that hope, and destroy our longtime enemy. Mandalorians are always stronger together. The Imperials believe that the small force on the planet is all there is; they have underestimated what a single Mandalorian can do, let alone all of its people combined. If you would follow the Darksaber once more, if you would honor the Resol’nare, we will be assembling for an attack on Imperial forces at the coordinates provided in this message. If you need transport, contact this comm code and our people will help coordinate pickups with others in nearby sectors. It is time to remind the galaxy to never underestimate Mandalore and its people.”

She paused again after repeating in Mando’a. So much was riding on this.

“Oya manda.” She crashed her fist across her chest, and Ver’ika cut the transmission. Saviin took a deep breath. “Now we’ll see who answers.”

 

Saviin strode out of her house, triple-checking her weapons kit as the rest of the fighters stumbled out of their dwellings, kissing family members and joking about bad early-morning caf. Her heart wrenched at memories of watching her uncles make this very trip, all gallows humor and good-natured ribbing, laughing in the face of mortal peril to rescue fellow vod’e. She touched her shoulder guard’s sigil, breathing deeply for strength. Children of warriors, trained by the best for most of their lives. A muffled argument caught her attention; Ruusaan was dragging two youths back by their ears, shouting at them for trying to sneak off to fight.

She met them all assembled by the ships, engines already warming thanks to Chippy and their other astromechs. Thirty fighters, barely more than a few squads. But there were more out there, among the stars, and they would come. She glanced down at her comm; it was flooding with responses, some comm codes familiar, others brand-new. She felt her resolve deepen.

“Need some pilots?”

Saviin glanced up. Rex, Echo and Sorry stood there, as straight and proud as their aged bodies could manage. Saviin’s heart cracked.

“After everything you’ve given—” she started, when Rex’s raised eyebrow stopped her in her tracks. For all her mentoring and practice, she’d never quite managed to hold a room with an eyebrow or a shoulder tighten like Rex could.

“We’re volunteering, Alor,” Rex chided her, still respecting her rank. “Our skills aren’t exactly as sharp as they used to be, but we can ferry troops and keep the lights on while the verde are chasing glory.”

Outmaneuvered, Saviin smiled and offered her forearm. “I’d be honored. Crew the freighter and the Nu-class shuttle, if you please. My fighter pilots will be very sad if you steal a star-fighter from them.” She paused, then added softly, “Hopefully we do you proud.”

Rex clasped it, then watched as Saviin gripped the forearms of Echo and Sorry. “Course you will, Alor. We trained you.”

Saviin turned to face the rest of the assembled warriors. Familiar, similar faces loomed in the darkness, expressions of eagerness, wariness, dread, and determination. Men and women and undefined, old and young, Gar Vod’e and clan Eldar. She knew them all, knew not all would come home. Knew that it was her word that sent them into this uncertain fate. But now was a moment for strength. Saviin merely grinned sharply at the assembled warriors.

“Let’s hunt.”

Chapter Text

Morning dawned cold and clear in Keldabe. Din paced, fully ready to go as the other assembled. With Grogu safely tucked in his hovering pram, the party silently made their way to the entrance of the mine. They were clearly not as destroyed as he’d thought prior to arriving; he’d expected leveled mountains. It could have been true elsewhere on the planet, but here at Keldabe, a mostly abandoned city at the time of the Purge, the Imperials had not bothered. It was enough to eliminate all who could have worked them, without destroying the mine itself. The thought gently stoked a simmering rage that he shared with the Darksaber, but he quelled it. Now was not the time for rage.

Din glanced back, for just a moment. Below him, the city had begun to stir, cooking fires lit and the telltale clang of a forge already at work. His heart ached strangely to leave so soon after arriving. Already it had begun to feel like home, as though he had been a missing piece and now felt himself being stitched back into the fabric. In Keldabe, he felt at peace, one with the stone and steel and pulsing blood of bodies hard at work. He felt changed, for the better. But a stronger sense of duty-salvation-important extinguished these thoughts, and he turned once again to the pitch-black cave, Tristan at his side and Woves at his back, subtly shielding him from Reeves. Squaring his shoulders, he led the way.

Helmet lights lit, the party slowly made their way into the rough-hewn mine. They spoke little; the sound of gravel crunching beneath their boots ricocheted off the walls and disappeared unto the inky void before them. Small clouds of dust rose at their footsteps, decades of peace disturbed in their trespassing. The rough rock walls were equally dry, piles of dust decorating the crevices. Even with the helmet filtration, the mine felt airless and stale. Din glanced down in concern at Grogu, but the kid just looked up at him, blinking benignly. Din drew closer to Tristan.

“Wren, do you know the last time this mine operated?” Din murmured to Tristan, the sound nearly swallowed by the echoes of their feet.

“Not certain, but sometime during the Empire, I think,” came the reply. “There’s a lot of dust here. No one’s been here in years.”

They continued on; the mine seemed to go on endlessly, gradually descending and switching back on itself. Progress was slow, picking their way around abandoned equipment, minor ceiling collapses, and rubble. Their first junction led to a moment of panic, where the three Mandalorians and Grogu stared at Din, seemingly afraid to offer an opinion. Fighting a spiral of panic, Din recalled the poem. Purity of mind and intent. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply the stale filtered air, and placed a hand on the Darksaber.

“That way.”

No one questioned how he knew that.

 

Din looked more closely at the cave walls as they proceeded; strange glowing veins threaded the rock, not banded like most ore, but spidery, arcing here and there, thick and thin, like some primitive artwork.

“Anyone ever seen rock like this before?”

No one responded. He sighed. It felt important, and he resisted a strange urge to reach out and touch it. He withdrew his hand, and looked at the others, who were staring at him.

“Let’s keep moving.”

They went deeper into the mine.

Din Djarin.

Din stiffened, looking around. Nothing out of the ordinary registered, other than the glowing veins in the rock wall thickening and intensifying in brightness. For a moment, it almost appeared as though the glowing pulsed in the rock, but he looked again— nothing. He resumed his pace.

Din Djarin.

This time he stopped dead, the other three nearly running into him. His helmet swiveled about, searching for the source. The audio had been strange, not canned like it normally sounded in the helmet— it was unfiltered, breathy.

Ghostly.

Beneath his thermoregulated flight suit, he felt a bead of cold sweat slowly trail down each vertebra of his spine, slipping into the pool of fear he refused to acknowledge, laying black and still, deep within his gut.

“Do you hear that?”

Grogu cooed in what Din took for assent. Woves’ helmet swiveled back and forth, the tension tight in his shoulders.

“Yeah, but I don’t think we’re hearing the same things. Not unless you’re talking to my dead father too,” he replied, a constricted tone emanating through the vocoder.

“I don’t hear anything!” Reeves’ voice was high, unnatural, too forced to be true. Tristan merely nodded. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, Din decided. They were at the mercy of the Manda. Whatever happened next would be beyond their control.

“You okay, kid?” He looked down at Grogu, feeling that familiar weight of guilt for dragging him into whatever this was. His spiral of self-flagellation was interrupted by a tiny pat.

“Patoo,” Grogu replied calmly. Right. Of course. Ka’ra osik. If any of them were prepared for this, it was the baby Mandalorian Jedi. Purity of mind and intent. With a deep breath, he continued on, stepping quietly, trying to settle his nerves and mind for whatever the Manda had to say.

The path continued on, curving this way and that, growing narrower as they continued further in. The glowing veins in the rock grew thicker and brighter; Din switched off his helmet’s light, the path fully illuminated by the pale glow. He glanced down at Grogu. The child was awake, yet his eyes were closed— meditating, Din assumed. Maybe he should do the same—

Din Djarin.

This time he did not react outwardly, other than to stop. The sound of a thousand voices melded into one, the same he’d heard when he bonded with the Darksaber.

I hear you, he replied in his mind, fighting the fear, projecting calm he didn’t really feel. What must I do?

He was surprised to hear a chuckle. It was warm, indulgent, ethereal. The fear dissipated, slightly. My gift to Mandalore, always thinking of others, of duty. My honorable child. Yet you are lost. Why?

I… am lost? I came here to find the Living Waters.

These Living Waters? Din stifled a gasp as the glowing veins in the rock next to him rearranged themselves, forming the image of a churning pool of water.

I was hoping for something a little more calm, but yes.

The voice laughed, a whispering sound that rippled across his mind.

And what do you think you’ll find there?

Restoration.

Of what?

Din swallowed tightly. Of my soul. Of my place amongst Mandalorians. Of Mandalore, if it is possible.

Do you think you lost your soul?

Din’s resolve faltered.

Over thousands of years, many have lost their way. The glowing veins in the rock changed again, rapidly flashing through images of armored figures. Din bit back the taste of bile, watching horrific scenes of torture, genocide, child abuse— the worst of sentience. The Living Waters restored them. Over time, my children began to use it as a quick fix, to cleanse themselves of horrific wrongs, so that they could go out and do it all over again. It made us angry. We hid the Living Waters. My children found other ways to restore their soul. Your goran did not tell you there was another way, did she, Din’ika?

Din’s chest felt gripped in a vice. No. She said this is the Way.

She is right, but it has been an impossible task for a millennia. Din knew this, and yet the feeling of betrayal lingered.

Betrayal. Hmm. You have been used, indeed. By many.

Din resisted, even though he knew the truth of it. Suddenly, he thought of Saviin.

True. Not all. She is good for you. Tell me, Din’ika, do you restore Mandalore for others, for Saviin, or for you? Many have wished for the restoration of Mandalore. Their visions have been very different. The veins rearranged yet again. Warriors bearing the jai’galaar of Death Watch stood over cowering civilians, plumes of smoke rising behind them. A glistening domed city of civilians, not a weapon in sight. Scenes of subjugation, peace, annihilation, flickering in and out of existence faster and faster.

There must be balance. War, and peace. Passion, and serenity. Destruction, and rebirth. In the golden age of Mandalore, this balance existed. Yet this galaxy is not as it once was; returning to the past is impossible. To restore the balance, a new way must emerge.
There is a darkness coming once again. It grows, seeking domination and annihilation. You know this. Where there is Light to be consumed, it will ever follow, hungry as a wolf at the door. You, my sweet child, are a gift to Mandalore. You can restore it, to stand against the darkness that creeps ever closer to known space. You have the strength, and the dedication. And you are not alone. But if you do this, your life as you knew it before will be over forever. You cannot go back to the life of a bounty hunter. Your fate will be tied to that of Mandalore’s. You must choose.

I have to do this. I don’t have a choice.

Oh, my gift. You’ve always had a choice. Suddenly, he saw himself sitting in the cockpit of the Razor Crest, grasping at the joystick missing a silver ball, deciding whether to leave, or to go back for the Child. My gift to you— knowledge of what would have happened had you chosen otherwise.

He saw the future in which he didn’t go back for Grogu on Nevarro.

The future in which he let Omera remove his helmet on Sorgan.

The future in which he chose to keep his helmet on, instead of removing it to learn the location of Gideon’s cruiser.

In which he refused to give his blessing for Grogu to leave with the Jedi.

In which he lied to the Armorer about removing his helmet.

In which he indulged his need to see Grogu face-to-face, disregarding Ahsoka’s warning.

In which he left Boba to face the Pykes alone.

In which he turned down Ver’ika and Saviin’s offer of access to their archives.

In which he left Til and Maddi on Adumar, and the one where he left Kiro and Kass on Ord Mantell.

Din had no idea how long he stood in the cave. Time seemed to have no meaning as images of futures that never were flashed before him, one after another.

Some futures were good, some bad. But none would have brought you to this moment. You have ever chosen the harder path, knowing it to be the right one. It is why I have chosen you, Din’ika, gift to Mandalore. But you still have a choice to accept this. When you reach the Waters, you must decide.

I understand. Din straightened, resolve firm. He moved to take a step, then paused. Will I remember all of this, when it is done?

Blessings can be burdens. The ka’ra-blessed know this better than most. To know all possible futures that could have been, is a heavy burden. When you leave the cave, all that will remain is the knowledge that you made the right choice. But you already knew they were the right choices, didn’t you?

The voice faded away, and Din blinked, looking around. He felt stiff, as though he’d been standing for hours, and shook out his limbs. The other three suddenly stirred, as though coming out of a trance. Tristan appeared slightly tense, but otherwise unchanged. Woves appeared relieved, as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. By contrast, Reeves’ posture was agitated, nearly frantic. She hugged herself tightly, muttering “get away, get away…” He looked down, to see Grogu blinking benignly at him, cooing softly from the pram.

“Let’s keep moving.”

As they pressed on, Din moved close to Woves as Reeves lagged behind, still agitated.

“You good, Woves?” he asked quietly, his words obscured by the crunch of stone beneath their feet.

“I think so, Alor. But I think I’m gonna need a change of duties when we get out of here. It told me I had done well, but it wouldn’t tolerate my… current work anymore.” There was no need to identify who “it” was.

“A lot will change when we get back.”

“I was glad to do it. But I’ll be glad to stop, too. It was… hard. To pretend.” Din nodded, allowing the conversation to die as Reeves caught up to the group.

 

 

An hour or so later, Din called for a quick break. Grogu hopped out of the pram, wandering about and inspecting rocks.

“I don’t suppose anyone bothered to map this mine out?”

“Our friends didn’t have one,” Wren replied quietly, pausing to lift his helmet and take a swig of water. “You worried we’re off-course?”

“No. I know we’re not. But a map measuring distance would be nice,” Din replied drily. “Let’s— Grogu?”

The child had seated himself into a meditative pose, but now sat rigid, eyes clenched tightly. Din crouched before him, hesitant to disturb him, remembering Tython well.

“Kid, we can’t stop here. I need you to come out of it. Grogu, can you hear me?” Din’s panic spiraled as the child continued to ignore him, caught in some vision or trance. Wren, Woves and Reeves stood around them uncertainly, watching the scene as the minutes stretched.

Suddenly, Grogu’s eyes snapped open, and he nearly toppled over. Exhaling sharply in relief, Din scooped him up. “Kid, what was that?”

Grogu reached under the helmet, and placed a clawed hand on his bare neck. He closed his eyes.

Instantly, Din was flooded with images. Ezra, standing on a ship, talking to Boba via holo. Ezra in a meditative position, trying to reach Grogu. Keldabe, as Imperial ships appeared in orbit.

Mandalore under attack.

Din gasped as Grogu removed his hand. “Keldabe's under attack. Imperial Remnant is in orbit, or will be. We need to warn them, if it hasn’t started already.”

“How do you—“

“Comms are jammed,” interrupted Wren. He hadn’t questioned it, merely jumping into action. “It may not have started yet, but they’re here, and they’re jamming signals.”

“Or it’s the mine,” suggested Woves. “We can’t be certain. We have no idea how far down we are, or if these rocks interfere with signal. But someone should go and warn them, in case it’s true.”

The four stared at each other. Din’s heart ached. His people were in danger, but he was so close. Something whispered continue on, but he couldn’t be sure if that was his own desire, or something else.

“Reeves should go,” suggested Woves. She looked at him sharply.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she snapped. “I was ordered here, and I’m staying. Wren should go. He’s the Mand’alor’s second, he should be coordinating the defense.”

Din didn’t like the idea of losing Wren, but keeping an eye on Reeves down here was preferable. “Wren, you go. I trust you. We’ll be back as quickly as we can.” Tristan hesitated for only a moment, then nodded, taking off at a run back up to the mine’s entrance. Din turned to the other two.

“Let’s keep moving.”

They continued on, Reeves bringing up the rear and continuing to attempt to hail anyone on her comm. Under cover of the comm static, Woves drew close, and Din leaned towards him slightly. “Okay, Woves?”

“Feels like the fairy tales left a lot of os’ik out,” Woves tried to joke, his own tone too agitated to land well. He paused, then looked up at the mine’s ceiling. “Do you think they’re okay up there? I’m not even sure how long we’ve been in here.”

Din placed a reassuring hand on Woves’ shoulder. “Hey—I believe they are. The Manda wouldn’t have brought us here if it was all for nothing.” And somehow, Din believed that too, despite the temptation to panic. He knew this was the right path to take, just as he’d somehow known which tunnels to follow when the cave had branched off, just as he’d known which mine to pick. The Darksaber hummed joyfully, eagerly at his hip. It felt right, and good, to believe in something again, to not feel forsaken. It still confounded him that he of all people had been chosen, but now, as they continued in the glowing dark towards the Living Waters, he had accepted it, felt the rightness of the Manda’s choice, felt the certainty of his own.

He had faith in the Manda. He had to believe.

Chapter Text

Boba sat in the cockpit, staring out the viewport at Concord Dawn. He felt blank, uncertain what he should be feeling. Mandalore. So long the one place he could never go, the desert wasteland a forbidden fruit, the symbol of his denied heritage.

“You are not a Mandalorian.”

“Never said I was.”

And yet here he sat, clad in the armor of his father, staring out at a half-destroyed planet and feeling the pull.

A small cough behind him announced the arrival of Kote. Damned kid was silent as they come, making it up the ladder without so much as a rattle of the plastoid. Boba had tabled the argument with Kote to take the beskar armor set he’d found in the bowels of Jabba’s palace, the kid stubbornly yet politely insisting that Rex’s armor was just fine, thank you, knowing full well he didn’t feel entitled to it. Boba could be patient, had planned to enlist Cerium in this effort, having already discussed with Din the plan for distributing the rather large collection of beskar from the Hutt treasury to outfit his young clan members once Din recognized them as Mandalorian. Din had agreed, relieved that Boba could outfit them himself without tapping the other supply. Now though, Boba wished he had pushed harder to outfit them all sooner, especially Kote, as the reality of battle hovered in space between them and the planet.

“Advanced recon reports the Imperials are about to begin their attack, ahead of schedule. They do have the capability for orbital bombardment after all, but they had not anticipated a shield generator, which means our warning got through to them. We had good timing. First ships have started arriving. You ready?”

Boba didn’t answer immediately, still staring out at the pale planet ahead. Kote’s gloved hand came to rest on Boba’s shoulder, just above the shoulder guard. He could feel the calming warmth soaking through the flight suit. Belatedly, Boba remembered how tactile the clones had been; they must have passed that down to their children.

Another thing Boba had missed out on.

“I remember your fathers— both of them,” Boba replied. Kote did not respond, did not even flinch. Boba remembered well that perfect control over emotional responses— anything to avoid the scrutiny of the long-necks.

“I was six, and buir had just left for another bounty. I was too little to go with him, so he left me with some nanny droids, and the trainers promised to check in on me. But Skirata was drinking again, and fell asleep on the couch. He always drank and cried when he watched me, I think I reminded him of his kids… I slipped past the nanny droids and into the rest of the facility, no real plan, just to get away from the man who cried himself to sleep. Cody found me crying in the hall. He knew who I was, could have taken me back to my apartment. He took me to his batch instead, and called Seventeen. Seventeen held me while the CC’s cuddled up close, including your father Fox, and I learned their secret names, the songs they had made up. I never felt so warm, to hear them laugh and bicker and tell inside jokes. I woke up in my own bed the next morning, and told myself it was just a dream, because it was easier that way.

“After buir died, I was angry and alone. I believed I was special, buir had chosen me, and buir was mine, and he was all I had. The Jedi took him away from me, and I wanted revenge, just like buir had wanted revenge against the Jedi, at all costs. He’d been a leader too, and lost everyone. He was willing to do anything to make the Jedi suffer. It didn’t matter how much the vod’e suffered, how dar’manda his actions were, he couldn’t see that… I let a lot of brothers die on my own quest for revenge. I didn’t want to, I hated it, but I let it happen. I carried that shame for a long time.” Boba cleared his throat; he never spoke this much. And the ache burned, had never truly stopped burning. Jango hadn’t been perfect, but he was Boba’s, and that loss still cut clean and sharp even now. But Kote needed to know.

“I met Fox again in prison; the Coruscant Guard pulled security duty there. He knew what I’d done, but he tried so hard to reach out, to connect, to help me not feel alone. But I was a dumb kid, and had told myself they weren’t my brothers. I was so angry over what had been taken from me, I couldn’t see what I was being offered. It took your aunt and a dip in sarlacc acid to make me realize.”

Boba turned to face Kote, who was staring out the viewport, face unreadable. But Boba knew that face, knew it like his own. His eyes fell from the scar along the left side of his face to the young man’s armor; if not for the missing karta in the center of the cuirass, one could hardly tell it wasn’t beskar’gam, painted black with green trim, the red V of the Vhett’ika aliit seared into the center. Justice; duty; honor to one’s parents. His eyes then fell on the left shoulder guard. He knew the right held the sigil of Gar Vod’e.

The left bore the bright red symbol of the Coruscant Guard.

“Kote.” The younger man turned to face him, eyes searching.

“However this goes today, don’t make the mistakes my buir and I made. Don’t lose sight of what you still have by focusing on what you lost. Make Seventeen and Fox proud; don’t let revenge poison your heart.”

Kote bit his lip, and nodded slowly. Boba nodded, and stood, grabbing Kote by the back of his head and tugging him forward to tap foreheads.

“Now, let’s go hunt some Imps.”

Kote’s eyes gleamed, a righteous sense of justice lighting his face as he gave a grin that was all teeth. “Oya.”

 

Four hours later, Boba watched as Kote finally tore himself away from comms, and approached the display Prudii had commandeered for attack coordination. Boba smiled under his bucket as the young leader stood erect, his own helmet neatly tucked under his arm. Something pulled tightly in Boba’s chest.

“How many ships do we have?”

“Sixty are here now. Twenty more are inbound but will not make it by the start of the assault. They were given instructions to jump straight to Mandalore,” supplied Prudii.

“Eighty total?” Boba was deeply impressed. And he considered himself not easily impressed.

Kote smiled grimly. “We haven’t exactly sat on our hands these past few decades. And the Mand’alor is a big draw. It seems that a few clans got their hands on some Fang fighters and a Gauntlet or two, so that will be very useful in addition to the X-wings. Could really use a Keldabe-class battleship or a light cruiser like Kryze has, but we’ll make do.”

He turned to Prudii, who gave a quick salute and braced her shoulders for report.

“The newcomers have been organized based on party and ship type. Ships ferrying large teams will join the main assault team that will punch through the blockade once enough damage has been done. The first objective is to eliminate the comms jamming; second objective is to establish contact with clans Wren, Eldar and Awaud. Right now, they’re the only ones we know will work with us. Third objective will be to land and attack the unprotected rear of the Imperial forces. In order to have any element of surprise, the first three objectives will need to happen quickly before ground forces can be warned; we may have to press forward with objective three before objective two is complete. Ground teams have been assigned quadrants; we move in pincer, push them towards the main Mandalorian force, and ensure no one escapes.”

“Good,” Kote nodded curtly. “Do we have any heavy artillery?”

“Negative, Alor. Once the fight in the sky is secured, fighters will be redeployed to provide aerial support to ground forces. Hera Syndulla and her Spectres are friends of Ezra, and will head up wing 2 in the initial assault; once we make landfall, Syndulla and the Ghost will lead the X-wings with Boba. Advanced recon teams will drop in via jetpack from high atmo and relay specific targets to aerial team leaders.”

“If ground teams come across or secure any Imperial materiel that’s not total garbage, they’re to seize and use. I especially want speeder bikes secured; we have no idea what our retreat will look like, win or lose, and I want full mobility.”

“Yes, Alor.”

“Aerial teams?”

“Being incorporated and read in on attack plan delta as we speak.”

“I want all leads on the same frequency at all times. No one gets left behind, or hung out to dry. Establish a new comm line, with my instructions.”

“Yes, Alor.”

“I also want someone assigned to scan for incomings, friendly or foe. If friendly, they’re responsible for reading the newcomer in and assigning station.”

“I’ll put Bob on it. Also, clan Kryze is here. They won’t fight, but they’re offering medical care to the wounded.”

“Have them sweep behind our advance, for triage and evac. Notify the teams so that they are aware of the medical support behind them-- and they are to make sure no one gives them haran for not fighting. They showed up when they could have sat out, and every medic not tied down on triage is another fighter we can use.”

Yes, Alor."

Kote nodded. Boba watched as the light shifted in the young man’s golden-brown eyes, and he shivered faintly as memories of that similar look in so many similar faces flashed through his mind. Boba hadn’t doubted Kote exactly, but it was an entirely different thing to see his leadership in action.

Suddenly Kote turned to him, eyes soft again. “Everything secure in Tatooine?”

Boba blinked. He hadn’t expected that. But Kote was clan leader; and now, that included the Fetts. Of course he felt responsible for their people on Tatooine. The realization that Boba was now part of a clan had yet to fully sink in.

Recovering swiftly, he replied, “Lek. Shand has the palace secured and the contingency location cleaned up and stocked, Santo and the Mods are monitoring orbital traffic and ports, and Vanth’s on patrol. No one is getting on-planet or near the contingency location without our knowing.” Kote gave a firm nod.

Boba watched as the young leader moved to stand in front of the holo projector, back ramrod-straight, helmet tucked under his arm. With a salute, Prudii engaged the call, and Kote began.

“Verde. By now you should be aware of the situation facing us on the ground and prepared for your roles in this attack. None of us here are strangers to battle, to the threat that faces us. And none shall back down. For while some among us are Mando’ad, former Mando’ad, dar’manda, or outsiders, we are all here for one purpose: to fight for the Mand’alor, and Manda’yaim’s future. Who you are, what you were before does not matter now. You have come because you believe in it; our hearts sing together for a free Mandalore, and a better future. Oya manda! Trust one another to protect your six, trust in the strength we have when we fight as one. Ib'tuur jatne tuur ash'ad kyr’amur. Today is a good day for someone else to die. Today we hunt Imps for the Mand’alor.”

Kote paused. Staring, Boba no longer saw Kote. He saw Cody. He saw Seventeen. He saw his father.

“No quarter. Oya!”

 


 

Grit crunched beneath Saviin’s boots as she ran forward, 5 squads fanned out around and behind her. Rex had dropped her team off in the freighter; in the distance, she could see Boba’s Firespray lifting back up into the atmosphere to provide aerial support after depositing Prudii and Kote with their respective teams.

The fight in space had been terrifying to watch; some truly inspired piloting by the Ghost, accompanied by a Captain Teva in an X-wing, had effectively taken out the communication jammers along with the entire cruiser, while Boba had deployed sonic charges amidst the swarming TIEs, to devastating effect. They’d lost an X-wing, and Saviin’s aunt, a widowed Theelin who had been overwhelmed in her starfighter by TIEs. But the Fang fighter battalions and the Havoc Marauder had quickly punched a hole in the blockade, and with the fight in space turned firmly in their favor, the assault teams raced for the surface.

Quickly they reached the ridge, and stopped to regroup, giving all a chance to catch their breath before the major push. Saviin broke cover and crawled forward, raising her head above the ridgeline to scope the valley below. An open expanse lay between their cover at the ridge and the city limits. A formidable array of Imperial troops, walkers, and heavy artillery was pressing into the city.

“Boba, Syndulla, Teva, we need those walkers taken out first,” Saviin ordered. “They’re too big to advance into the city, so they’ll be turning them back on us once they realize we’re here.”

Copy that, Alor,” rasped Boba.

Alor, I’m getting a strange reading,” it was Bob, who remained on the freighter with Rex.

“What is it?”

“Gauntlet fighters inbound, at least 90 minutes out. Based on their trajectory, they came from Sundari.”

“What the kark? Why weren’t they in Keldabe with the rest of the clans?” growled Prudii.

“Could this be a false flag?” someone chimed in.

“Keep the chatter down,” Kote barked. “Whatever the reason, we know the Imperials aren’t here to make friends. Watch your six, and keep an eye out for friendly fire, but keep the focus on the objective. Aerial teams, keep eyes up and watch for friendly fire. Let me know when and where you see them land.”

“Oya.”

“You got it, Commander.”

Saviin smothered her laugh. Commander. Kote would never live this down.

“Saviin, have Senaar try to hail Wren again. Something’s not right.”

“What is it?”

“Kote’s right. There’s not a single jetpack in the sky.”

“Even at 20-1 odds the forces in Keldabe shouldn’t be so pinned down.”

“They might be short on firepower.”

“Maybe. We need more intel on what it looks like inside. In the meantime, we press on. Kote out.”

Saviin switched to external audio, and turned back to her five squads. Her eyes roved over the teams, plastoid mixed in with durasteel and beskar, warriors quietly chatting with each other as they waited to move on to their next objective. She allowed herself a small smile before returning to the task at hand. “Saviin ol’averde, weapons hot, we’re pushing for the city now. Move fast, but watch each other. Those with jetpacks, don’t get too far ahead, and watch the aerial teams. No one gets left behind.”

Amid a chorus of oya’s, the fighters stood, and began moving swiftly over the ridge and down the side towards the valley. Saviin glanced left and right to see Prudii and Kote’s teams advancing as well. Ahead, the Imperials reacted slowly, pointing and shouting but evidently waiting for orders to engage. Saviin mentally shook her head. Sloppy. Overhead the aerial teams rained hellfire down on walkers trying to turn and face the new threat. Saviin couldn’t suppress a feral grin.

Oya.

 

They’d been at it for an hour, slowly and methodically cutting down Imperial troopers, encountering little significant resistance. These troopers were poorly trained, and younger than expected. Saviin had a sinking feeling these were forced recruits, the slaves they had failed to rescue. Kote had insisted on no quarter, and these recruits did not beg for mercy, fighting to the last. But Saviin ached at the needless loss. Pushing the thought aside, she refocused as a new message came through.

Alor Kote, I’m sending in reinforcements your way— well, trying to,” reported Bob.

“Trying to?”

“They’re not exactly listening to me, but they said they know yo—”

“Kote!"

“Oh, no. Skirata," groaned Kote.

“Kote! You old son of a CT, how are ya?”

“CC,” gritted Kote. "And cut the chatter, Kad. This line needs to stay open.”

“Still as prissy as ever,” chuckled Skirata. “Coming up on your left, tell your vod’e to keep their heads down, we’ll strafe then land, soften ‘em up for ya a bit.”

Saviin bit down on a grin. The Skirata clan were the epitome of a wild card; them actually showing up had been a wide open question (and possibly the subject of a betting pool). The Nulls had always been insular and distant from the rest on Kamino, and even after the war, those leading the clan had kept their distance from the rest of the surviving clones of Gar Vod’e, interactions being somewhat prickly and only when absolutely necessary. And their current leader, Venku, son of Darman Skirata and known by his nickname Kad, wasted no opportunity to needle Kote as effectively as his father and uncles had done. Saviin could practically hear the credits exchanging hands over the open comm line, with Kad setting a new record for getting under Kote’s skin. It was a mark of how tense Kote felt, that he didn’t throw it right back in Kad’s face, allowing it to get to him.

Well, that was what siblings were for.

Backup.

“Better hurry, Skirata, or there won’t be much left to strafe,” jabbed Prudii. “You took your time strapping on your armor.”

“Don’t worry, little cousin, we’ll pull our weight,” chuckled Kad. “Gotta show you bucket-heads how it’s done.”

A contingent of star-fighters streaked overhead, splitting up and beginning their run on the Imperials’ positions. Dodging anti-aircraft shells, they rained hellfire down upon the enemy. Saviin watched as stacks of ammunition and materiel exploded in quick succession, bathing the horizon in fiery light.

“Nice going,” snapped Kote. “That was reusable ordnance we could have commandeered.”

“Oh, little cousin, don’t worry. We brought toys to share.”

The fighters split up once again and landed amidst each prong of the attack, and down the ramp streamed Skirata clan warriors, clad in durasteel armor, pushing large crates of supplies.

“If you need resupply, come and get it!” called a fighter jovially, as though they were on a picnic. Saviin shook her head in disbelief. A large figure in red and blue armor approached.

“Alor Saviin,” Kad Skirata’s grin could be heard in his voice, and Saviin held out her arm, smiling behind her helmet.

“Alor Skirata. Su cuy'gar. I didn’t think you’d make it.”

“And miss a party? Fat chance,” he chuckled. “Besides, I’ve got a good feeling about this guy. I know our people have had our differences, but you did the right thing sending him to us, and calling for our aid. We’re onboard. Especially if it means we can go back to Kyrimorut.”

“What guy?”

“The Mand’alor?” Kad sounded confused. “He said he spent a few months at your Haven, and we were on your list of coverts— yeah, I know you keep a list. I’m not stupid. He came and visited us. A little stiff, but a good guy. Anyway. Got a battle to fight now. Oya!” He gave a sloppy salute, and turned back to his team.

“Oya,” echoed Saviin, trying to refocus her thoughts on the fight.

“Well that was interesting,” Senaar sidled up alongside her.

“Yeah.” Saviin watched him saunter away, calling to his clan members to form up and advance. “I forgot about Kyrimorut, no wonder they’re onboard. Let’s hope them wearing durasteel armor doesn’t cause problems— not that Skirata clan would care, you know they love fighting for the hell of it. Ah well, one problem at a time. Hey, any luck reaching Tristan?”

“Finally, yes. His position with clan Wren is two clicks dead ahead. We should get there in the next hour, barring complications, and once we secure that position we’ll hold the center as the east and west flanks push in. And Kote managed to connect with clan Awaud, they’re expecting him at their position, to push west.”

On the far side, X-wings were still strafing the ground in front of Prudii’s team, pushing the Imperials back into the Mandalorians at Keldabe. The Ghost and Boba were targeting armored walkers.

Somehow, everything was going to plan.

“Then let’s get to it,” Saviin grinned.

“Oya.”

 


 

It was another hour before Senaar and Saviin made it to the Wren position. Caught between the pinned-down Mandalorians and Gar Vod’e’s reinforcements, the Imperials had grown desperate, and the fighting intensified. The closer they got to the Wren position, the harder Senaar was finding it to focus; hoping, praying that Tristan was all right.

“We need to split up and slip through to reinforce the center, he’s stretched too thinly,” Saviin determined, listening to reports from Ghost and Boba. They’d lost a Fang fighter from the clan on Adumar, and Kote had ordered the aerial support to withdraw from the hottest parts of the city until the ground was better secured, and to avoid further destruction to the city if possible.

“Teams one, two and three, you hold the line here, link up with Kote and Prudii’s teams, and press forward. Teams four and five, with me and Senaar. We move quietly to Wren’s position to reinforce and push them back to the city limits. Got it?”

“Oya!”

Saviin pulled up a map of Keldabe. “I’m not sure how accurate this is, but we’ll do our best. On my lead.” She holstered her blaster, and pulled her dagger .

Silently, they crept through alleys and crumbled foundations. Responsible for watching Saviin’s six, Senaar forced herself to not look away as Saviin silently dispatched troopers in their path, their life force disappearing in a flash of fear and pain. She swallowed down the nausea rising in her stomach. It had to be done, it was the only way, but it did not change the feeling of wrong-wrong-wrong that accompanied each death. She did not belong here.

But here she was.

They managed to get to Tristan’s position without detection until it was too late for the troopers to react, blasting a path through to the ruins where the Wren clan had stationed themselves.

“Wren! Din’kartay,” Saviin barked out before Senaar could speak. Senaar took a steadying breath. Battle now. Survive.

“Not too many casualties, but we’re pinned down with no way out. If the city were more restored we could withstand a siege, but we only just landed a few days ago. I’m glad you got the warning through when you did, we barely had time to prepare. If we hadn’t, this would be over already.”

“You didn’t have shields?”

“We did, so we withstood the initial bombardments, but the generator failed by the time they landed, we didn’t have backup. By that point they had deployed ground forces. And with Kryze’s people in Sundari, we were too separated to repel them on our own here. If you hadn’t shown up when you did, I don’t think there’d be much left.”

Senaar firmly pushed that thought away to consider later. “We’re here now. Who’s in charge?”

“Me,” Tristan replied grimly. “So fold your people in where you can— we have to hold the center while the other two wings fold in.”

Saviin signaled to the fighters, who streamed in, filling gaps where Wren forces had been cut down or stretched too thin.

Senaar ducked as a mortar ripped into a crumbling wall, sending stone fragments everywhere.

“Damn, this spot is hot,” Saviin had crouched next to them behind a pile of rubble, sighting her targets and picking them off.

“I’m glad we’re here with you,” Senaar directed at Tristan, who covered the left flank of their rubble pile. He scoffed.

“I’m not. Of all the places to be in this fight, I don’t exactly want you in the hottest spot, cyar’ika.”

“No. We go together,” she growled at him.

“Guys, not exactly the best time for an argument,” Saviin interjected. Tristan snapped his attention to the alor.

“Saviin, how we looking on the right.”

“They’ve pulled back for the moment, re-forming.”

“Great. Cover me on the left.” Suddenly, Senaar felt herself whipped around to face Tristan. “Cyar’ika, I’m so sorry I didn’t do this sooner. I thought I was doing right by all by waiting, but I’d rather live with the anger of my leaders than die without your name on my heart. Ni kartayli gar darasuum. Will you say the vows with me?”

Senaar’s heart leapt into her throat. Unable to speak, she nodded, and tipped her head forward to meet Tristan’s forehead.

“Not to be rude, but make it quick- they’re coming back again. Senaar, give me your blaster.” Saviin took position, dual-wielding in opposite directions, head swiveling back and forth. “I’m still witnessing, just multi-tasking. Get going."

Senaar looked at their clasped arms. “We can’t trade vambraces right now, we’re too differently sized.”

“Shoulder guards,” hollered Saviin over her shoulder, wielding both deecee’s to cover them. “Ugh, shouldn’t have neglected blaster training,” Senaar heard Saviin mutter to herself, twitching her shoulders in annoyance. “Dual-wielding is so weird.” Senaar giggled despite the magnitude of the moment, unclipping her left shoulder guard with the Gar Vod’e sigil.

“Mhi solus tome,
Mhi solus dar’tome,
Mhi me’dinui an,
Mhi ba’juri verde.”

With trembling hands, she traded shoulder guards with her beloved, slipping the heavy beskar onto her shoulder. Tristan pulled her into a kov’nyn.

“We’re gonna live and make those warriors, cyar’ika. During a very long honeymoon. But for now, let’s fight.”

Oya, riduur,” Senaar grinned, and Tristan groaned.

“I love the sound of that.”

“All right lovebirds, congrats. Now get your shebs back up here. We need to start pushing them back.” Saviin handed back the blaster to Senaar.

“The pincer must be working, with how hot it’s getting here now,” Senaar grunted. The heat from her blaster bled through her gloves, stinging her hand. “Got any more charge packs?”

“Here, courtesy of Skirata. Tristan, you need a fresh charge pack?”

“Yeah, if you’ve got one—unghh!”

Senaar whipped around, biting back a scream. Tristan clutched his arm, position exposed. A blaster bolt had punched straight through the plastoid of the shoulder guard she had given him and into his shoulder, leaving a smoldering hole. Past him, an Imperial sharpshooter lined up for another shot. Without thinking, Senaar raised her blaster and pulled the trigger, trusting the Force to do the rest.

The bolt found its mark.

Threat eliminated, Senaar flung herself towards her lover, knocking him down behind the rubble pile.

“Tristan!”

“Ah kark,” he gritted.

“Fierfek. Senaar, give me your blaster again, I’ll cover for you and call in reinforcements,” Saviin ordered. Senaar handed it back numbly, then turned, hands fumbling at her waist pouch for her med kit.

“It’s fine, just hit muscle, I can keep going,” Tristan gritted. “I just need a stim—“

“Let me get some bacta on it at least, riduur. They got you pretty good.” Senaar took a calming breath, willing her hands to settle. Tristan placed the hand of his good arm on her hands, stilling them.

“It’s not that bad. The plastoid slowed the bolt down enough. It hurts like hell, but it’s not serious. Promise.” She nodded, then moved quickly, ripping open a bacta patch. “Sorry I ruined your wedding present so fast, riduur.”

“S’okay, runi. You can pay me back in Imp buckets,” she snarked, the relief bleeding into her voice.

“Looks like you’ll have plenty of chances,” Saviin jumped in, voice grim. “No reinforcements, and we need to push them back, now. I can see Kote, and Prudii, and Ezra and Sabine finally made it, sword-and-shielding their way to Kote’s position, but the fighting is just as thick there too. This fight is nowhere near over, the Imps are dug in now and they just keep multiplying; we’re going to have to keep pushing them to the city limits, take them down in the open on the flats. Where the kark are Kryze’s people? And—” In the sudden pause, both Senaar and Tristan looked to Saviin, who had gone rigid.

“Tristan, where is the Mand’alor?”

“He’s still in the mines, outside the city to the north. It’s been a full day now.” Heart in a vice, Senaar stared at the violent purple of panic radiating from Saviin, and they all looked to the mine entrance in the distance.

And at that moment, rocks the size of starships shot into the air as the mountain above the mine exploded with an ear-splitting roar.

Chapter Text

Din had lost complete track of time and distance when the mine finally emptied into a large cavern. The glowing veins jetted up the walls and arced across the cavern in thin, spidery lines, ran through stalagmites and stalactites and the cavern walls, bathing the space in a cold, eerie light. The sound of lapping water rippled against the walls, filling the silence with a soft churn. Reeves peeled off to the inspect the perimeter; Woves stuck close to Din.

Din looked down from the wondrous cavern ceiling just in time to barely avoid colliding with something hard and massive.

“Are these… bones?”

“Mythosaur bones,” Woves’ voice breathed in wonder. “They were real. How did they get down here?”

Din swallowed hard. These beasts were huge. And ancient Mandalorians rode them?

“We can add that to our long list of things to ponder later.”

“Where’s Reeves?”

Woves pointed. The dim gleam of a headlight flickered on the far side of the cavern.

“Surprised she’s not closer. I’m sure she’s planning to drown me,” Din commented drily. In the silence that followed, he huffed a laugh.

“Really?”

“Well, she was supposed to try. Obviously I wouldn’t let that happen.”

Karking Kryze… so much for a fair and square challenge, huh.”

“Classic Vizsla move. Something tells me the Manda will decide who lives and dies here, though.”

“Do you see any water?” Din toggled through the settings on his helmet. “I can hear it, but I’m getting nothing on the scanners.”

“I think…” Woves trailed off, then pulled off his helmet. “You have to remove your helmet, Alor.” His tone was firm, but apologetic.

Din closed his eyes. This moment had been coming, he’d known it. And yet, now that it was here—

Courage, my dear gift.

With a deep breath, he reached under his chin and pulled. With the soft squeak of the pressure seal breaking, he slid the helmet off, and blinked. The helmet had not done justice to the beauty of the cave. The veins in the jagged rock not only glowed, but they glittered, throwing a cool white light that shimmered as it ricocheted off the other veins in the walls. It was a stunning beauty, and his breath caught. The strange feeling that had been building in his mind intensified, and he wanted nothing more than to sit and stare up into the intricate designs of the glowing veins. But the sound of lapping water had grown into a more turbulent churn, and it pulled his attention away from the ceiling, scanning left and right for the source of the water that echoed off of the cavern walls, broken only by the soft crunch of gravel beneath his boots. Woves glanced at him, but thankfully didn’t stare, choosing to track Grogu with his gaze; the child had leapt from the pram, toddling towards the jaws of a mythosaur.

“Is that—”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Din reassured Woves wearily. “He’s got a thing for animals. And they’re just bones.” Not that Din felt entirely confident about that second sentence, but if Grogu could tame a rancor, Din wasn’t about to panic over even sentient bones.

“Alor?” It was Reeves. She jogged back to where they stood, in the middle of the cavern. She slipped off her helmet and stared at him.

“There’s no water.”

Din startled. That couldn’t be possible, the sound of water was nearly deafening. “Then where is the sound coming from?”

“What sound?”

Din stared at her. “Can’t you hear the water? It’s deafening.”

Reeves looked askance at him. “Is that why you’re yelling? There’s nothing here.”

Alarmed, Din turned to Woves. “Do you hear it?”

“Yeah, but it’s faint, like it’s in another room. Maybe we have to keep going?”

“This cavern is a dead end, I checked the perimeter—”

That couldn’t be— his mind reeled. No— I’ve come all this way, it has to be here. It— the Manda said it would be here— I can’t fail now—he took in Reeves’ scornful judgment, and Woves’ confused, sympathetic frown.

Din felt like he was drowning.

It had to be here, he needed it to be here. I wanted this, I want to choose, my people need me. Please, I need the Waters to restore Mandalore. And yet, despite the deafening churn of water filling the silence of the cavern, the icy chill of failure crept into his chest.

He felt a tug at his leg, and looked down to see Grogu peering up at him, arm pointed to a spot on the ground. Din knelt carefully next to Grogu.

“We’re wasting time, there’s nothing here,” Reeves snapped. “We need to get back up to the battle.”

“Three fighters won’t make that much difference, Reeves. And we’re not done here yet.”

“Then we should get it done and go back.” Her voice had a menacing tone.

Din ignored them.

“What do you see, kid?” Grogu took his hand and tugged him forward, pointing insistently at the ground. Din reached out, and brushed the loose gravel. The ridges of a carving registered under his hands, and he brushed more quickly, revealing an engraved stone. The marks made no sense to him, but Grogu squealed, quickly settling into a meditative pose.

“Right, ka’ra osik,” Din mumbled, awkwardly following his son’s lead.

“We don’t have time for this!”

“Shut up, Reeves!”

“Wanna make me, Axe? I'm starting to wonder about you—”

Din tuned them out, taking a deep breath, and on an impulse, placing his hands upon the stone before him.

What do you seek? Din gasped from sheer relief. He’d never been so glad to hear a disembodied voice.

Restoration.

Of what?

Myself and Mandalore.

You do not require restoration.

What? Yet even as he said it, he knew. He’d never needed it, just as he’d never regretted removing his helmet. Saviin had guessed right, when he bonded with the Darksaber— “Makes you wonder how you can be dar’manda when the Manda bonded you with the saber.” The others demanded it of him, but between his soul and the Manda, there had never been a true doubt.

You must choose. You can turn back, or embrace your destiny as Mand’alor.

Memories of his life as a lone bounty hunter, of meeting his children, of Saviin, and Boba and Tristan and of Tatooine and the Haven and Trask and Tython and everywhere he’d ever been flashed through his mind. The visions from the mine, showing him all the possibilities that could have been. And with the memory of his bonding with the Darksaber lingering in his mind, he decided.

I choose Mandalore. We choose Mandalore.

Then release me, gift of the Manda. Together.

Din opened his eyes, leaning back. He knew what he needed to do. He looked at Grogu, who smiled back at him, head cocked. “Hop up, Grogu, and hold on tight.”

“Bah!” Grogu seemed delighted at the prospect of something dangerous happening.

Din stood up, and unclipped the Darksaber. Reeves and Woves’ argument trailed away as they stared at the glowing blade.

“You might want to step back for this,” was all the warning he gave, before he hefted the blade above his head, and drove it deep into the carved stone at his feet.

And the ground exploded.

Din was thrown high into the air. Gripping Grogu and the Darksaber tightly, he activated his jetpack, hovering above a roiling, churning mass of water that steadily rose towards the ceiling. He quickly unclipped his helmet and jammed it on, then looked around for Reeves and Woves.

“Alor! I, ah, got us a ride!” Din blinked, nearly falling out of the air. Woves was seated on the back of a mythosaur skeleton. Well. Why not. Din frankly gave up on expecting normal things to happen anymore. He flew over, only to be nearly batted down by another larger skeleton, that stared him down.

“Are you my ride?”

The mythosaur roared, the sound rattling Din’s helmet. Taking that as a yes, he flew around the massive tusks and landed on the skeleton’s neck, holding Grogu tightly in front of him. It was massive, somehow floating above the rising water.

“Where’s Reeves?”

“Help!” Through the churn, he could see Reeves fighting to get out of the water and onto a skeleton. Her arms flailed above the waves, her jetpack sputtering as it fought to ignite. Din made to jump off the skeleton, when a force pressed him back onto the skeleton.

No.

He watched, as a wave shaped like a claw wrapped itself around Reeves and dragged her under the water, cutting off her terrified scream. In the appalled aftermath, Din recalled the chilling warning of the poem.

But beware to those of nefarious design,
Peril awaits them in the deep,
For it may cleanse the wayward warrior,
But the evildoer it will keep.

Din supposed that confirmed his suspicions on Reeves.

“Alor, we’re running out of room!” Woves’ panicked call snapped Din into action. The water had continued to rise in its surge, and they were in danger of being crushed against the ceiling. It was getting crowded too; more mythosaur skeletons had risen, roaring and stomping above the water.

Din had no idea what to do. But before he could even admit as much, a column of water suddenly surged in the center, punching a hole through the cavern ceiling. Chunks of rock the size of starships fell down as the water gushed upward, defying gravity and racing to the promise of sunlight above.

“The Manda provides, Woves!” And gripping Grogu tightly, Din held on as the mythosaur leapt into the column of water and rushed to the surface.

Din barely had a chance to take in the flight, surrounded by surging, churning water, racing past crumbling boulders that dropped even as he rose. The water soaked his flight suit, dousing his skin. The icy sensation sunk into his flesh, and it— Din couldn’t describe it if he tried. It was as though someone had lit a freezing fire in his bones, a flash of not-pain, instantly replaced by this sense of other, a feeling of connection that extended in every direction— to the Darksaber, the mythosaur, the water and rock churning around him, and beyond. It overwhelmed for the briefest moment before settling like a dull pulse, always there, never enough to overcome him. The bond with the Darksaber felt stronger than ever, though, and it pulsed in his mind, eager for what came next. In the next moment, he found himself blinking in the bright sunlight, perfectly dry, wind whipping at him as the mythosaurs pawed at the sand. A moment later, Woves had joined him, blinking bemusedly. The Living Waters continued to gush as a geyser behind them, sending floods of water in every direction, and more mythosaurs flew out of the roaring water, landing with a thundering crash on the ground around him.

“Guess we’re not drowning today. Oya!” Din’s rallying shout seemed to amplify, until he realized it was the mythosaur skeletons roaring. Only they weren’t skeletons anymore. Coarse fur lay under his gloved hands, and he could feel the heat of the beast’s body radiating outward. Grogu settled in front of him, his tiny claws fisting the coarse fur, ears waggling in delight. And with a final roar, the beasts charged forward, Din’s monstrously large one in the lead.

Inspiration is a powerful weapon. Din drew the Darksaber and powered it on, feeling the kyber sing with joy down his arm and straight into his heart. This was right, and Din leaned forward in determination.

The streets of Keldabe were littered with bodies, yet the fighting still raged. The fighting had been pushed to the outskirts, and Imperial forces were attempting to hold the line. Din’s blood burned for justice, and the mythosaur circled east around the city, taking him to the thickest fighting. Both sides wore buckets, yet Din could feel the slack-jawed expressions as he approached.

“Oya!”

Hoarse shouts of joy echoed back as Mandalorians came out from their positions, emboldened by the mythic reinforcements. Panicked, troopers began firing wildly, abandoning their positions to retreat, only to be trampled by mythosaurs patrolling the perimeter of the fight. The battle renewed in earnest, Mandalorian and mythosaur fought side by side, overwhelming the Imperials.

In front of him, safely tucked in the hollow of the mythosaur’s neck behind its skull, Grogu stood in the long, thick fur, one tiny hand entwined in the fur as though holding a rein, while the other hand waved at the troopers. Din followed the direction of his waving, to see troopers pulled off-balance here and there, making them easy prey. Gripping the mythosaur with his legs and pulling his blaster, Din began picking off the troopers that Grogu unbalanced. The massive beast beneath him continued its rampage, crushing the troopers underfoot or else catching them with its tusks and teeth, the screaming of the troopers silenced with a gut-wrenching crunch. Din noted with wonder that while the mythosaurs continued on their deadly path of destruction, their efforts had not further pulverized the ruins of the city, somehow sparing the remnant architecture. Thank the Manda.

Sweeping through the battle atop the crowd-clearing beast, Din whipped his view back and forth, taking in his fighters. There were far more than he had anticipated. Suddenly, he caught sight of painted plastoid. Gar Vod’e had come. Looking more closely, he recognized the paint of the Adumari clan, and Genassa, and Skirata as well, and sigils unfamiliar to him.

Gar Vod’e had rallied the clans to his defense.

Saviin.

His heart swelled. She had come. He’d found the mines, and she had come. With a surge of determination, he stepped up the fight. His mythosaur roared, evidently in agreement to end this once and for all.

He saw Tristan covering Senaar, shielding her despite the arm sling as she wielded two blasters, effortlessly taking down trooper after trooper. A flash of silver— he found Saviin. She had pushed her advance from a side street into the open desert, blaster in one hand and sword in the other, a blur of movement as she sliced and shot at the troopers trying to hold their defense in the alley. Judging by the bodies behind her, she had been ludicrously outnumbered, but she cut them down like wheat in a field, closing the distance again and again, her sword a bloody harbinger of doom. As he drew level, she shot the final trooper, turning at the sound of the mythosaur’s roar. Din saw a trooper rise from his cover behind an overturned crate to take advantage. She’d never turn in time— he aimed and fired, taking out the trooper. Saviin didn’t flinch, staring at him from behind her impassive bronze helmet. He wanted to stop— but the mythosaur surged onward, crushing a troop transport beneath its massive claws. There was no time— all he could do was raise the Darksaber and hope she understood.

Saviin raised her bloody beskad in response.

Din turned back to face forward. There would be time after. For now