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A Course to Steer By

Chapter Text

“Mando!”

The rear hatch of the Razor Crest hissed and groaned shut with a billow of hydraulic steam. Triska stumbled under Mando’s weight, sending them both falling to the deck. She felt the crunch of knees and palms against the grated metal; the dead weight of him beside her, not moving.

“Mando- shit-” she grabbed at his shoulder, curling her fingers under the pauldron and tugging, hands slick with sweat and blood. His chest was moving; quiet, too-swift breaths just audible through the helmet’s modulator. One side, close to the visor, had been scorched by blaster-fire.

A hail of shots pounded against the blast-doors. Triska hauled Mando onto his side and pelted to the cockpit, plugging in the launch sequence with her eyes fixed on the rear display. A swooping feeling in her stomach; the familiar rumble beneath her feet as they rose out of the dust. Two souped-up fighters followed them, weaving skittishly out of range of the laser cannons.

“All right,” she flung herself into the pilot’s seat, jaw clenching as she pulled the Crest into a punishing evasive loop. The fighters tailed her, gunning their engines at full-throttle to keep up, peppering the hull with pot-shots. They were fast, lean and hungry; Triska cursed as she skimmed through the shelter of a narrow desert gorge to catch her breath. The fighters didn’t have the stones to follow, but she could see their shadows, trailing her doggedly from above.

She and Mando had been staking out a bounty just before dawn, taking turns on watch. Timing was essential. The three suns of Iso rose once every thirty-seven hours, scorching the cold dusk into unendurable heat within seconds. Isonians called it “the blinding”. Every thirty-seven hours…

Suddenly Triska wrenched the Crest into a steep ascent, clearing the gorge, thundering vertically towards the upper atmosphere with the fighters stuck to her tail- then cut the engines and let it drop.

For one heart-clenching second they hung in suspended animation above the planet as the fighters sped straight for them- then they began to plummet, dragged back into the atmosphere by their own leaden weight. The ground roared up to meet them, terrifyingly close- one moment more, one moment- Triska closed her eyes and kicked the engines back online, slicing them upwards and away from the sudden blinding halo that broke across the curve of the horizon as the suns rose.

Two dots on the rear display collided and fragmented as Triska punched the Crest into hyperdrive. She collapsed back in the pilot’s seat. Her chest felt raw; the corners of her vision blurred.

“Let’s go,” she willed her legs to move. The tang of blood stained the back of her throat. “Come on…”

She pulled herself up, half-falling down the ladder and back into the hold. Mando lay where she’d left him. One arm was thrown out across the deck, palm-up, as if in surrender. She closed her eyes until a wave of nausea passed.

“Medkit,” she said to herself, ripping one from the wall as she passed, kneeling down beside him. “Okay. Okay, okay…”

The bio-readout picked up a familiar litany of fractures and contusions: nothing some bacta and synthskin patches wouldn’t fix. It was when Triska passed the scanner over Mando’s helmet that it struck up a chorus of alarmed trills.

“Diagnosis?” she asked, and a line of text tickered across the screen, accompanied by a droid’s voice.

“MODERATE. TO. SEVERE. CRANIAL. DAMAGE.

Triska’s ears started to ring. She ran her trembling hand over adrenal stimulators; infusion pads; tissue analyzers…

“Prognosis?”

“INTERCRANIAL. BLEEDING. PRESENTS. RISK. OF. DEATH. OR. SEVERELY. IMPAIRED. FUNCTION.”

“Fuck…” she pressed a hand to Mando’s chestplate, trying to steady her breathing as she felt it rise and fall. “Okay. Okay. Tell me what to do.”

“UNABLE. TO. COMPLY.”

“What? Why?”

“SCAN. INCOMPLETE. PLEASE. REMOVE. COVERING.”

“What cove-” she stopped, looking into the dark visor. “The helmet.”

“TO. PROCEED. PLEASE. REMOVE. COVERING.”

“I can’t…” she scrubbed at her eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. “Can’t I treat him with it on?”

“UNABLE. TO. COMPLY.” The scanner trilled again, flashing red. “VITAL. SIGNS. WEAKENING.”

“All right, just- just shut up,” she snapped.

She took the knife from her boot and slashed at the bottom of her shirt, ripping off a long strip of cloth. She scanned the medkit, picking out the neuro-stimulator and a pack of mechnosutures, and laid them close to hand. Finally she wound the cloth over her eyes, tying it tightly in place.

“THIS. COURSE. OF. ACTION. IS. NOT. RECOMMENDED.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”

Triska felt along the edge of the chestplate, to where Mando’s cloak met the underside of his helmet. Her fingers found a release hatch: she felt a hiss of air as she pressed in and lifted the beskar gently from around his head.

“Can you tell me something useful now?” She kept her palm at the base of his skull as she lowered it gently to rest against the deck. His hair felt wet; she wondered if it was sweat or blood.

“RUPTURED. BLOOD. VESSEL. DETECTED.”

“Where? Show me…” she ran the scanner slowly over Mando’s head until she heard an affirming beep.

“DEPLOY. MECHNOSUTURES.”

“Okay, lemme just-” she felt blindly for the pack, flipping it open as she brought it to Mando’s head. She heard a faint sound, like sand shifting, as the nanoprobes were drawn to the wound.

“SUTURING. COMPLETE.”

“Is- is that it? Mando, can you hear me?” she lowered her cheek close to his mouth, feeling for breath.

“APPLY. NEURO. STIMULATOR.”

“-Oh, right…”

“APPLY. TO. TEMPLE. ON. UNDAMAGED. SIDE.”

Triska felt along Mando’s hairline and took up the neuro-stimulator, pressing it firmly against his temple until she heard a click.

“BURUK!”

A beskar-clad arm shot out, wheeling hard into her solar plexus.

“Ma-” her voice cut out into a horrible, croaking gasp, white static bursting in front of her eyes.

“PLEASE. REMAIN. CALM-” the scanner fell silent as Mando batted it into the nearest wall, scrambling for the blaster in his belt. He had it pointed at Triska before he blinked, slowly, frowning at the weapon in his hand as if he’d never seen it before.

“What…” it took a moment for him to recognise her, crouched over with her forehead pressed against the deck, unable to focus on anything for the moment besides gulping air back into her lungs. “Tris? Maker, I’m sorry, I-”

His voice sounded strange. There was the chill of something wet against the nape of his neck. He turned his head, and for a moment the world shrank suffocatingly to the single point of light reflecting from his helmet’s visor. His helmet. Sitting on the deck of the Razor Crest.

Triska dragged herself up in time to hear a strangled gasp from somewhere nearby.

“Mando, it’s all right, look,” She reached out a hand, waving around in front of her in the hopes of catching hold of a limb, an edge of beskar, anything- “I didn’t see. Mando, I swear, I didn’t see you…”

She crawled forward until her hand hit something: a shin or an arm.

“Mando,” she reached out, knuckles colliding harder than she’d intended against his chestplate. “No living thing has seen your face. You kept The Creed.”

She felt a gloved hand touch the cloth around her eyes. His breath sounded too quiet, unfiltered by the vocoder. She could feel the heat of it on her face.

“Are you hurt?”

She almost flinched. He sounded too loud; too real.

“I don’t think so.” His hand still rested against her cheek.

“You operated on me… blindfolded?”

She laughed wheezily, wincing at the pain in her ribs.

“I’m sorry. It was that or lose you.”

He was silent for a moment.

“What happened?”

She felt him turn away, reaching for the helmet.

“They were ready for us, somebody must’ve talked- hey, just hold on a minute, okay?” she tugged sharply on his cape. “Not so fast with the tin can.”

“It’s damaged,” he muttered ruefully. She heard the slide of leather against beskar as he rubbed at the scorch-marks.

“Can you repair it?”

“…Not as well as some.”

Triska patted his leg gently.

“If you can bear to keep it off for a while, I don’t think half a ton of beskar pressing down on your skull is a good idea right now. There’s a lot of… excess fluid still in the wound. I’d like to use a vac-pack on it.”

“Hmm. I can take care of it.”

Triska bit her tongue, knowing better than to protest as she heard the clink of knee-guards against the deck, then a huffing groan as he pulled himself up-

“Dank farrik!” Mando grunted as he collapsed back down to his knees, no doubt having just discovered the hairline fracture in his ankle the scanner had warned her about.

“Need a hand?” she called, scooping up everything she could feel back into the medkit.

“…Okay. Yeah.”

She heard the creak of leather fastenings as he stretched out his arm. Picking up the medkit, she felt her way over to him and tugged his arm across her shoulders, rising slowly.

The weight of him made her knees shake. His head was ducked low, almost resting against hers; it was strange to feel the heat of his skin.

“Just- a few more- steps…” she gritted out, limping with him into the cabin. When her hip hit the side of the table, she leaned down and let him slope off her shoulder into a chair.

“Here- ” Mando tugged the other chair close to them with his boot as she laid out the medkit on the table. “Sit. You sure you’re okay?”

“I feel like I just got shat out by a Sarlacc,” she replied, sitting down heavily. “Other than that, I think I’ll live. Will you hand me a disinfectant pad and the vac-pack?”

She heard the soft huff of his laughter, followed by rustling as he rooted around in the medkit. She pulled her chair close, slotting her knees in-between his as he handed her the disinfectant pad.

“I’m gonna have to touch your face. I’m sorry.”

“…It’s okay.”

She reached up, softly tilting his chin. Stubble scratched against her fingertips.

“Look to the side. This’ll probably hurt.”

A faint tremor passed down the line of his jaw as she cleaned away the worst of the blood.

“Vac-pack?” she reached out her other hand absently, concentrating on the wound.

“It’s wrapped up in something- wait a second- ” she heard him pull off his gloves, then peel the sterile wrapping from the pack. The calloused heat of his skin startled her out of her concentration as he handed it over.

“Th- thanks. This shouldn’t take long. How do you feel?”

She felt Mando tilt his head, looking over her shoulder to the ‘fresher mirror.

“Glad you’ve got that blindfold on. I look like a Korim.”

Triska scrunched up her nose.

“Are they the ones with the- ”

“External nervous systems? Yeah.”

This was the tricky part: fastening the hermetic seal around the wound. She slid one hand to the nape of his neck to steady him, fingers sinking into a thick mess of gentle curls.

“What?” came Mando’s voice, close and quiet as breath.

“Hmm?” she tried to focus on the seal.

“What’s so funny? You’re smiling.”

“Oh, I-” she tugged gently on a lock of hair. “It’s just… longer than I imagined. That’s all.”

A beat of silence passed. She really needed to get this seal right. She took a long, steadying breath and kept going.

“You… imagined?” Mando tilted to look at her. She grabbed his chin and tilted him back.

Finally, the last strip of adhesive was set and the bag hissed as it pressurized. Triska sighed with relief.

“There. All done.”

Now was the moment to take her hand from his face; for Mando to thank her and turn away; for her to go put a shift in at the helm while he unstrapped the armour and dealt with myriad, less serious wounds. Neither of them moved.

“What-” his voice was low and soft, so close she could feel it in her chest. “What else did you imagine?”

Something in the air between them shifted: Triska felt it like a shot of isothane to the back of the throat. She let her fingertips trace along his eyebrow; past the pulse at his temple.

“Dark eyes… A strong jaw…” her heart pounded as she smoothed her knuckles over the ridge of his cheek, to the corner of his mouth. “…A kind smile.”

She felt that smile against her skin. His hand slid up her wrist, holding her palm against his face.

“Ner jate’kara,” he breathed against her lips, resting his forehead against hers. “Gedet’ye…”

The first kiss was soft as a sigh. She felt drunk, lost in the impossible softness of his mouth on hers. Trembling fingers caught in the leather strapping at his side as she reached for him. Mando’s breath hitched into a groan as he hauled her closer, deepening the kiss. His hand found her hip, her thigh; he lifted her into his lap with the strength of one arm, raking his fingers through her hair with the other.

“Mando,” Triska gasped as Din began sucking a trail of nips and kisses down her throat.

“Hmm… Jatisyc…” He ripped her collar to the side; she moaned into the crook of his neck as his teeth found her collarbone, her hips grinding down on his thigh-guard. He smelled of adrenaline and blaster-scorched metal; she felt a shiver trace her spine as he pulled her shirt down, past her shoulder…

“Wait-” she panted. “Mando…”

“Huh,” he mumbled in-between kisses.

“You-” Triska shoved him in the shoulder until he stopped. “You’ve got a bag of blood taped to your skull.”

His head fell against her chest.

“You can’t see it. Just pretend it isn’t there.” He dug his fingers into the exposed band of flesh at her waist. She bit her lip to stifle a moan.

“That’s- ah- that’s not the point.” She grabbed his chin, tilting his face upwards. “Look, you need a long rest and plenty of fluids. And I still need to get us out of Isonian space.”

He huffed, running his thumb across her bottom lip.

“Mesh’la…”

“Mando-” She pulled away gently. “I removed your helmet. I did it to save your life. But this…” Maker, she wished she could see his eyes. “I don’t want to be the reason you do something you’ll regret.”

He went still. She could feel him watching her. Eventually, his hand found hers and squeezed it tight.

“I could never regret this.”

There was such a sincerity in his voice, Triska felt her eyes sting beneath the blindfold. She leaned forward and kissed him again, long and slow.

“Tell me that in the morning… and we’ll see.”

She slipped off his lap and made for the helm.

Chapter Text

“Green Squadron, this is Green Leader: all wings report in.”

Never in her life had Triska seen so many ships. A vast armada of Star Cruisers, A-Wings, X-Wings, Bombers; flying wingtip-to-wingtip for miles on end, they seemed to block the stars. Far below them spread the broiling volcanic surface of Sullust: a beacon of hope for the Rebel fleet. From here, they would take the Sanctuary Pipeline to Endor.

“Green Two, standing by,” came L’ampar’s voice over the comm.

“Green Three, standing by,” she called in, her voice holding steady.

She triple-checked her Weapons Systems as Bey, Danurs, Dillems and Wred called in. Red and Gold Squadrons flanked them, holding station as they made their preliminary checks. Behind them loomed the colossal Mon Calamari Cruisers, each manned by a crew of thousands. An electric wire of tension cut through the crackle of their voices on the comm.

“This is it, Green Squadron,” said Arvel. “Today the Empire falls. Stay sharp out there; watch each other’s backs. And whatever happens- keep fighting.”

“Whatever happens,” he’d said to her the night before, his head against her chest. “Whatever happens out there, you keep fighting.”

Sullust was packed with rebel fighters marking their last night before the battle. Every bar and lodging thronged with people: some singing and drinking; some crying; some making love in dark corners. Triska and Arvel had slipped away after a few drinks with Green Squadron, back to their bed.

“You know I will,” she whispered, pressing a kiss into his hair. “What, suddenly you don’t trust me, Green Leader?”

The room was lit with an amber glow from the lava flows outside. He lifted himself up onto one elbow, looking at her with an intensity she remembered from their first night together. She’d pulled an unauthorised intercept with her shield generator down, giving an arms convoy time to escape an Imperial ambush. He gave her the dressing-down of a lifetime in front of the Squadron, then cornered her in the empty hangar that evening and kissed the breath out of her.

“I don’t mean tomorrow, Tris. I mean after. If something happens to me, you have to…” he ducked his head, but she heard the tremble in his voice. “You have to keep fighting. You have to live.”

She felt something inside her break: the sharp edges of love and longing and grief. The bitterness of all the lost days they could have spent like this, if only they’d known how little time they had.

“That’s not going to happen,” she pulled him to her, holding him tight against her heart. “I won’t let it happen.”

“All craft,” the lead Star Cruiser broadcast across every frequency, “prepare to jump to hyperspace on my mark.”  Triska watched the engines of Green Leader, on-point ahead of them in formation. She could hear the roar of her pulse over rumbling engines and static crackle.

“…Mark.” 

“Maker, look at that thing…” 

Even incomplete, the DS-2 was colossal. The blue-green halo of Endor framed it like a solar eclipse, with miles of starless darkness at its core.

“Focus, Green Squadron,” came Arvel’s reply.

“Arm laser cannons, keep formation and await my mark.” 

They had emerged from the Pipeline at speed, maintaining their trajectory straight towards the DS-2. It may not have operational shields yet, but it was bound to be heavily defended.   

“What’s taking so long to get a reading?” Triska mumbled to herself off-comm as they sped forwards, locked together. Her fingers tapped against the cannon-trigger, but still no order to fire came as they hurtled closer, closer- 

“Break off the attack!” Came Gold Leader’s voice, and her stomach dropped. “The shield is still up! Pull up! All craft pull up!” 

Arvel veered hard-left as a shimmering wall suddenly materialised around the DS-2. 

“Shit!” Triska hauled her A-Wing after him; her belly must have been scraping the shield before they wheeled off and around.  

"Take evasive action! Green Squadron, stick close to holding sector MV-7!” 

They soared together in an evasive pattern, stars streaking overhead. 

“What the fuck was that?!” yelled Danurs. “The DS-2… It’s operational!” 

Suddenly Triska’s proximity alarm shrilled in her ear. “Enemy fighters in sector 47- they knew we were coming…” 

A fleet of TIE fighters hailed down on them, spraying blaster-fire until the sky was lit vivid-red with explosions in every direction.  

"There's too many of them!” 

"Accelerate to attack speed! Draw their fire away from the cruisers-” 

Triska’s heart was in her throat; she sped towards the nearest Star Cruiser and took off after a TIE-fighter, blasting its hull with laser-fire. The TIE swooped low over the Cruiser and weaved across its hull, firing pot-shots at her from its rear guns. Triska dodged swiftly and moved to target the power conduits. 

“Green Three, watch your tail!”

She looked up just in time to see another TIE, locking onto her from above, engulfed in a cloud of flame. Bey wheeled off behind the cruiser’s flank.

“Thanks, Green Four,” Triska called, dodging chunks of burning shrapnel.

“You owe me a drink, Tris,” came the reply.

She grinned, turning back to the TIE still limping in front of her. She dodged a wing panel as it flew off and sliced past her, then plugged a final round straight into the rear of the cockpit, riding through the blinding flash of fragmented metal as it exploded.

Her face fell as she emerged from the blast and clocked the two Imperial Star Destroyers, hanging motionless away from the action.

“Why waste your TIEs when you’ve got those two on the sidelines?” she muttered to herself.

“Oh, Maker,” came Arvel’s voice, more panicked than she’d ever heard before. “Evasive manoeuvres!”

“What- what?!” she wheeled around, craning her head in the cockpit, trying to pick out anything distinct in the chaos of laser-blasts and explosions. Suddenly she saw it- a blinding pillar of light materialising from the DS-2, wheeling around like a giant, lidless eye, triangulating-

“It’s going for the Cruiser! Get out of there!”

“Red Cruiser, evade!” Triska screamed, but it was too late. The beam hit it full in the midsection: the blast seared across her vision as the entire eleven-thousand-foot ship was vaporised.

Alarms from all over the steering panel screeched at her as Triska’s A-wing was pummelled by the blast, sending her flipping nose-over-tail at deadly speed.

“Green Three- Green Three! Tris!”

The force was incredible: she felt muscles ripping in her neck as her head slammed against the side of the cockpit. She wrestled with the controls, engines groaning as she hauled the craft upright.

“I’m-” she took a sobbing breath. “Green Three Okay.”

“Get back in formation,” came Arvel’s reply, and she could hear the tightness in his voice. “Green Five, come in. Wred?”

No reply came through the crackling silence.

“Green Five,” Arvel tried again. “Respond.”

Nothing.

“All craft prepare to retreat,” came the order from the lead Star Cruiser. Triska twitched to avoid the broken wing of a Bomber wheeling crazily into space, then reached under her visor to scrub away the tears streaming freely down her face.

“Retreat?!” yelled Bey, “If they get that thing operational, we can kiss the galaxy goodbye!”

“We’re sitting ducks out here, what are we supposed to do?” Danurs shot back.

“Green Squadron, shape up!” Arvel snapped. “Prepare to-”

“Belay that order!” Came Gold Leader’s voice on the comm. “Move as close as you can and engage those Star Destroyers at point-blank range.”

“That’s more like it!” Bey whooped.

“You heard the man, let’s go!”

Arvel led them in a swan-dive straight towards the nearest Star Destroyer. The belly hangar spewed TIE fighters in an endless stream, its massive arrow-shaped body bristling with Turbolasers. Green Squadron weaved through its cannon-fire until they were skimming along its hull.

“Fire at will!”

They strafed the Destroyer with laser-shots, swarming like flies across the colossal flank of a bantha. Suddenly, the squadrons flanking them started to wheel upwards and away.

“Red and Gold are peeling off,” Triska broadcast to Green Squadron. “Looks like the DS-2 shields are down!”

“Maintain present course,” said Arvel. “We’ve gotta buy them some time.”

Triska risked a glance behind her at the embattled DS-2, and lost her breath for a moment at the sight of a squadron of TIE-fighters doubling back towards the Star Destroyer.

“TIEs on an intercept course!” she yelled, spraying her rear cannons into their path as she kept one eye in front of her, weaving through the Destroyer’s vents and pressure-docks.

“The bridge deflector shield is down!” Arvel cried triumphantly, and for the first time, Triska felt a flicker of hope ignite in her chest. “We’ve got them on the ropes; keep it up!”

“Green Leader, watch-”

Triska froze as a shot from the TIE-fighters above them sliced through Arvel’s left wing.

“Green Leader!”

The A-Wing lurched to one side, its velocity ripping chunks of metal and wiring from the widening hole in its side.

“Arvel! Get out of here!” Triska yelled, pulling herself up between his craft and the TIE as he veered crazily across the Destroyer’s hull. They were coming up to the bridge, lying defenceless ahead of them; Arvel skittered across the hull and began to spin straight towards it, building speed uncontrollably.

“Arvel!” Triska screamed, ghosting close above him but powerless to stop his deadly trajectory.

“Green Squadron,” came his voice on the comm, quiet and clear. “Keep fighting.”

“NO!”

Arvel’s craft pummelled into the Star Destroyer’s bridge, setting off a colossal explosion that ripped open its flank and sent it careening into the DS-2 below. Triska and the rest of Green Squadron were flung backwards by the blast, followed by a burning hail of debris all around them.

“All craft, get away from the Death Star!” called the lead Cruiser.

Alarms blared from every corner of Triska’s craft. She could hear faintly, as if from underwater, the voices of Green Squadron in her ears. She was spinning slowly, rudderless, her engines dead; white flashes from the blast stained her vision. Keep fighting. Her throat felt raw: was she screaming? From somewhere below her, another explosion buoyed her A-Wing upwards. The DS-2 was destroyed. The Empire would fall. She felt nothing.

Chapter Text

Kergans was a shithole.

In its defence, it used to be worse.

Din preferred its half-ruined hotels and faded casinos to the playboy’s paradise it had once been. The planet itself was tidally-locked, its entire population crammed into a thin band around its centre: the sweet-spot of eternal dusk between a dark, frozen wasteland and an uninhabitable desert. Strip City, the locals called it.

Kergans had one thing going for it, and that was podracing. Thrill-seekers and profit spinners from across the galaxy were drawn to the track here, said to be one of the deadliest still in existence after the New Republic “officially” had them all shut down.

You had to be a real fanatic to risk ten years shovelling shit in a correctional facility on Garen IV, just to make a living speeding around Kergans in an electrified tin can. In Din’s experience, podracers were either adrenaline junkies, mech-heads, or misfits with a death-wish. He wondered which of these his target was.

His contact had given him the coordinates for Strip City Auto-Parts: a repair shop and junkyard in what had once been the grounds of a luxurious private home. The pool had been drained and repurposed into a huge vehicle inspection pit, currently being used to service a Landspeeder with one thrust turbine hanging off. Somebody was in there: he could see sparks flying from a welding tool.  He knelt down and knocked three times on the hull of the speeder.

“We’re closed!” came a yell from beneath his feet.

“I’m not here for repairs.”

Whoever it was banged their head loudly against the underside of the speeder and swore in Twi’leki.

“Okay, okay- listen, I swear our permit is in order, I just need a few more days to get it-” The Twi’lek emerged, dressed in baggy mechanic’s overalls and a rough-spun scarf covering her lekku. She peered up at Din and froze.

“You’re not the permit inspector.”

He shook his head.

“I’m looking for someone. A podracer.”

She looked him up-and-down, wiping engine grease from her hands with an old scrap of cloth.

“I might know who you’re after,” she replied warily. “Depends who’s asking.”

“Niva!” came a yell from the shop behind her. “I need a hydrospanner!”

Niva huffed, rolling her eyes.

“You know what? Never mind. She’s in there.” She fished around in the toolbox beside her and pulled out a hydrospanner. “Give her this, will you?”

*

Din stepped into the dark back-room of the repair shop. A human woman was slouched in a window alcove, tinkering with an energy binder.

“You took your time, what’s-” she glanced over at Din and stopped short, then pointed the binder at him. “If I shoot you in the throat with this thing you’ll swallow your tongue. What have you done to Niva?”

Din raised his hands, showing her the hyrdrospanner.

“Nothing. She asked me to bring you this.”

She looked at him, then at the spanner. After a moment’s thought, she tilted the energy binder away from him and stretched out her hand. Din took a step forward and passed her the spanner.

“Thanks.” She went back to repairing the binder without another word.

She was fit and well-muscled, like she could handle herself in a fight, but the hollow cheeks and dark circles under her eyes gave her a lean, rangy quality. She must have been his age or thereabouts, but she put Din in mind of an old racing fathier put out to pasture. A long-healed seam of scar tissue forked its way across one side of her face and down, under her collar. He could see a patchwork of younger scrapes and inexpertly-cauterized wounds, including fresh bruises on her knuckles.

“I’m looking for a pilot,” he said.

She took a long pull of spotchka from the bottle at her side.

“This is Kergans; everyone’s a pilot.”

Din gritted his jaw underneath the helmet.

“I’m looking for one in-particular. They call her The Xandu.”

She chuckled mirthlessly, lolling her head in his direction.

“Is it my ears?”

This was getting tiresome. Din shifted, hands on his hips, shoulders squared. If she noticed, she didn’t let on.

“They say you’re the best pilot in the quadrant,” he replied, trying to keep the tone of disbelief from his voice. She shrugged.

“People on Kergans will say whatever you want to hear; for a price.”

“Do you have a price?”

She looked at him sharply, and seemed to take him in for the first time. Her eyes flickered from the helmet to the blaster at his hip. There was a long pause.

“If that’s what you’re after, you can try the Pleasure District.” She turned back to the energy binder.

“Listen,” Din growled, taking a step forward- until he was interrupted by a guttural snarl from a dark corner nearby. He froze as a huge Massiff prowled into view from the shadows, rattling its spines defensively.

The Massiff placed its huge, scaly body between them, watching him hungrily through three-lidded black eyes. Thick strings of drool began to drip from its open mouth.

“Horg doesn’t like it when I talk to other guys,” the woman deadpanned.

Din took a long, calm breath and held it, sinking slowly to one knee. The Massiff didn’t charge, but it followed his movements without blinking. Its every scale seemed to vibrate with anticipation. Din waited until his chest began to burn, then released his breath with a low, rumbling roar.

The Massiff closed its jaws abruptly and tilted its head. It gave the air a cautious sniff, then answered him with a similar rumbling sound from deep in its abdomen. Din reached out a hand, and it bounded forward, butting his palm with its long snout.

The woman had put down her energy binder and was watching them with interest.

“He likes you,” she said, surprise lightening her tone.

“I’m good with kids, too,” he replied. Horg’s clawed foot clacked rhythmically against the ground as he scratched over a particularly good spot.

The woman was still for a long moment, then sighed.

“My next race is tomorrow,” she said, resting her head against the alcove behind her.  “Take out a bet; put everything you’ve got on Triska Xan. If I come out alive, your winnings can be my fee.”

Din looked up.

“What if you lose?”

She turned and looked back at him, somehow straight into his eyes despite the blackened visor. Din felt something tighten in his chest.

“I don’t lose.”

*

“This is great,” Niva strode along beside him, chewing on a fried nuna leg. “Feels like we’ve got the whole place to ourselves!”

Everyone on Kergans not sitting in a podracer right now was gathered in a massive, writhing throng around the trackside. The scent of engine oil, mingled with spice-smoke and cooking meat, hung in the permanent orange glow of dusk around them. People were perched on every available shop roof and balcony, clustered around the energy-barriers that protected the track. Kids scurried through the forest of legs with colourful team insignias painted on their faces, picking pockets as they went.

Despite how crushingly busy it was, Din cut his customary swathe through the crowd, leaving him and Niva to walk freely. She’d helped him to place an eye-watering chunk of credits on Triska at the nearest betting booth, and had promised to find them good seats near a holo-screen.

“This way, come on!” Niva led him to a makeshift grandstand bolted together out of old girders. It was cordoned off by a security field, with a tall Yarkora standing guard outside. Niva groaned.

“Ugh, this guy… Listen, he’s a real sleaze- just pretend we’re together, okay?”

Din looked down, bemused, to see Niva grab his hand as they approached.

“Niva! I always enjoy seeing you,” the Yarkora leered, looking her up-and-down.

“Oh, hey, uh- you,” she replied. “Two seats, please? Front row if you’ve got ‘em.” Niva nodded up at Din, flattening herself against his arm. “It’s his first time.”

The Yarkora turned on Din with a derisive snort- then clearly though better of it when he clocked the armour.

“Last two at the front,” he grumbled, deactivating the field-gate. “Enjoy.”

Much to Din’s relief, Niva dropped his hand as soon as they were inside. They sat down, crammed just as tightly against other spectators as those in the streets below, but with a clear view of the starting grid.

“There’s Tris, at the front,” Niva pointed to a dark grey racer striped with green. On the cockpit’s nose was painted the head of a Xandu, baring its needle-like teeth in a snarl. “Looks like we got here just in time-”

“Welcome, all sentient beings, to the Strip City Classic!” a booming voice broadcast over the crowds, drowning out Niva’s voice as a giant holo-screen materialised above the track. “We’ve got a stellar line-up on tonight’s grid for your viewing pleasure, so let’s meet… YOUR… RACEEERS!”

The crowd went wild, waving flags and throwing drinks, clambering over one another in the streets below to get a closer look.

“Beautiful in blue, it’s our very own Sky-walker: LIARE!”

A Chiss woman waved from the cockpit of a pod with two wide-nosed engine units, painted the same light shade of blue as her skin.

“She’s a former Navigator,” Niva shouted in Din’s ear in-between bites of her nuna leg. “Used to be Force-sensitive. The Chiss use them to steer their ships, then dump them when the Sight wears off. I swear she must have some of that Jedi witchcraft left in her, the way she takes blind corners…”

“Once you’re in his sights, he’ll track you down and pounce!” Boomed the announcer. “It’s The Hunter: GURIK!”

The holo-screen showed a broad-shouldered Trandoshan just barely crammed into a rust-red podracer, its livery marked with the sigil of a curved white claw. He roared, shaking his fists at the crowd.

“Gurik’s in it for the thrill of the chase,” said Niva. “All that extra body weight makes him slow, but he chases down back-markers and picks them off. See the black stripes on his helmet?” She pointed towards the screen. “One for every racer he’s killed.”

“He’s head and shoulders above the rest: POL-NA-REI!”

The Cerean was instantly recognisable. His cockpit had been fashioned with a fin-like roll cage to protect his elongated skull, and was even painted to look like the open jaws of a Sea Killer.

“Two brains: can you believe that?” Niva jostled Din in the shoulder. “Talk about being able to think fast! And Tris says the pointy head cuts a great slipstream when you’re running behind him. Speaking of Tris…”

There were half a dozen other racers gearing up further down the grid, but nobody was interested in the ones who hadn’t yet made a name for themselves. A drumroll sounded over the loudspeakers, and the crowd grew hushed as the holo-screen zoomed in on Triska’s pod, sitting on pole position.

“Just like her namesake, her wings are swift; her aim is deadly; she stalks down her prey and smashes them into submission! Here she is- your reigning champion, undefeated in twelve straight races- it’s The Xandu: TRISKAAA XAAAN!”

The crowd erupted, leaping to their feet.

“XANDU! XANDU! XANDU!” came the thundering chant, making the grandstand tremble. Triska didn’t turn her head to the crowds or wave from the cockpit. She didn’t even twitch. Her lack of reaction seemed to spur the crowd on, howling and cheering until the air crackled with pent-up energy.

“Tris doesn’t bullshit,” said Niva. “She does her talking on the track. That’s why they go crazy for her.”

“And now, racers: START YOUR ENGINES!”

Across the grid, each craft’s twin engines roared into life, energy binders flashing and buzzing. Niva whooped, slapping Din’s knee excitedly.

“Hold on, shiny- this is gonna be good!”

At the side of the grid, a Twi’lek girl in a short dress picked up a white flag and waved it wildly as the announcer’s voice thundered over the crowds one last time.

“THREE, TWO, ONE… RACE!”

Chapter Text

Triska felt the engines’ roar humming in her chest and took a long, deep breath, flexing her fingers around the steering handles.

“XANDU! XANDU! XANDU!” came the voice of the crowd: a rhythmic drumbeat in the air, like distant thunder. She closed her eyes.

Keep fighting.

“THREE, TWO, ONE… RACE!”

The flag went down and she kicked the throttle, the force of the pod’s momentum thrusting her body back against the seat as she sped forward. Engines screamed in close pursuit behind her, but she’d been quick off the mark: she was ahead coming into the first corner.

She pummelled into the bend at top speed, skimming so close to the ruins lining the track that she could see through their shattered windows. Liare flew up close on the left, her engines slamming against Triska’s pod, but the inside line was slow: Triska pulled away as they both punched into a higher gear to take the uphill slope.

The pod’s forward momentum fought her as she wrenched it into a sharp left then right again, arcing into a long, slow bend that would spit you straight into the wall if you didn’t pay attention. Now came the real killer: Triska gritted her teeth and flicked her racing goggles to dark-vision as they thundered along the straight towards a towering wall of shadow.

The icy air hit like a punch to the gut as they crossed from the Strip and into Kergans’ eternal night. There were no buildings to dodge here, and no emergency barriers to save you, either: if you crashed in the Night Zone, you’d be dead before you hit the snow.

Triska took turn five flat-out then slammed on the brakes, skidding into a right-angle corner. She swung right out across the track, making her pod as wide as possible to block a potential overtake. Glancing in her mirrors, she saw she needn’t have bothered: Pol-Na-Rei had scraped back some time and was riding side-by-side with Liare, forcing the Chiss wide.

Triska braced for the pod’s rear end to swing out as she rounded into the next straight, feeling her fingers begin to seize up in the brutal cold as frost-crystals bloomed across the steering handles. In around sixty seconds she’d begin to lose consciousness; only a skilled racer could make it back to the Strip in under fifty-five.

She hurtled at maximum velocity towards turn ten: the Graveyard. A hard left into a narrow tunnel carved through the ice. High cliffs lined either side of the approach, littered with crumpled wrecks and storm-flayed bones. Triska kept her foot on the throttle, breathing short and fast through her nose to protect her lungs. Twenty pod-lengths to the tunnel… fifteen… ten… five-

She slammed her full weight into the brake pedal, throwing her body to the side to give the pod momentum; it ricocheted off the tunnel walls then snapped back into position, catapulted into a long, slow right-hander.

Triska was about to breathe a sigh of relief when a flaming chunk of podracer flew across her field of vision and slammed into her left engine.

“Shit!” she screamed, inhaling a stinging lungful of cold air as her craft scraped sickeningly against the icy wall at high speed. The Pol-Na-Rei had tried to out-brake Liare into the tunnel and had lost control, exploding on impact. Liare neatly dodged the shrapnel and soared past Triska, forcing her to slow as she was buffeted by the slipstream. Gurik and one other racer sped by as she fought to steady herself.

“Fuck… fuck!” Triska pummelled the dashboard, hauling herself back upright and stepping on the throttle, speeding faster than she normally would have dared through the tunnel and out-

The eternal twilight of Strip City was blinding after being in the Night Zone. Triska screwed her eyes shut and flicked off night vision, relying on muscle memory to keep her steady on the long straight as her eyes adjusted.

She flew half-blind into the next corner, coasting briefly before she shunted back to full power. The crowds with their painted faces and coloured flags were a blur, their voices muted by the scream of her engines.

Liare was pulling away towards the line ahead of Gurik and the other pod, flown by some rookie from Dantooine. The kid kept twitching across the track, looking back in his viewscreen at the Trandoshan sticking solidly to his tail.

“Eyes on the track, buddy…” Triska mumbled, but it was too late: as they sped into the complex of twists before the main straight, he clipped the apex with his right engine and went hurling off-line.

His energy binder snapped; Triska dodged one engine as it bounced back along the track before bursting into flame. The second catapulted out towards the crowd, dragging the rookie in his pod behind it. People screamed and ducked, but they needn’t have bothered: what was left of the craft and its pilot slammed into the energy field, buzzing and twitching in its grip until they were incinerated.

Triska focused on the pair of s-bends up ahead, rallying in at full speed and resisting the urge to slow until the second turn, then dabbing the brake softly as she hugged the inside line. Position out of the final corner was crucial: she used the whole track to swing out for maximum velocity onto the long straight past the grandstand.

One lap down, one more to go: Gurik was so close she could smell the molten heat of his engines. He tried to push her out wide into the first corner, but she stuck to his pod and rammed across the track as they came to the uphill straight, shoving her nose in front. He fought back into the brutal left-hander and she ran wide, her hull sparking along the energy field.

“Stoopa sleemo!” She yelled, flipping him off from inside the cockpit as they were swallowed by the cold dark of the Night Zone.

She stuck hard to his tail through the next bend, his engines like glowing red beacons in the blinding haze of snow. Braking hard, she swung into the near-hairpin of turn eight, slaloming up the cliff walls and clean over Gurik’s head as they pummelled into the straight. The back-end of her pod kicked out like a scalded bantha but she wrestled it back into position as the Graveyard thundered ever-closer for the second time, Gurik’s pod now pulling back in her rear viewscreen.

Tendrils of frost spread and cracked at the edges of her goggles as Triska screeched into the ice tunnel, dodging jagged shards of Pol-Na-Pei’s destroyed craft now lodged into its walls at odd angles. Ahead of her was Liare, running smoothly in clean air with only six corners to go until the finish-line.

Keep fighting.

Triska drifted into the next wide turn, leaning on her steering handles to fight the understeer, then planted herself at the inside of the track to get a quick run back into the Strip. She rocketed out of the tunnel barely a pod-length ahead of Liare, her engines shrieking as she pushed them to maximum velocity.

Liare was lightning-quick, but she lacked control under pressure. She ran out wide by the tiniest fraction into the next high-speed bend, forcing her high, and it was enough for Triska to sail in under her belly as they approached the s-bends.

Triska could’ve reached up and touched the underside of Liare’s pod as they snaked through the compound in perfect unison, neither giving way by a single hair’s breadth as they sped towards the final corner.

They were neck-and-neck arcing round into the straight when Triska felt Liare’s hull start to press down on top of her, pushing her perilously close to the track surface.

“Oh no you don’t,” Triska gritted out, hearing the rattle of sand and small stones kicking up against her engines. She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a small flick-knife, slashing through the safety harness keeping her in place. With one hand still on the controls, she vaulted out of her seat and pressed her body into the side-pod cavity, flattening her spine against the thin panel of metal between her and the rapidly-speeding track below. Pulling in her limbs as far as she could, she held onto the controls until she could make out faces in the crowd at the finish line ahead- then closed her eyes and slammed her fist into the ejector button.

The crowd screamed as the seat of Triska’s pod suddenly burst upwards, pounding into Liare’s hull and catapulting it backwards. Liare’s energy binder snapped, her engines flinging in opposite directions with a metallic screech and hurling her craft into the dust.

Ahead of her, Triska’s pod jolted crazily forward and barrel-rolled sideways across the line, its engines exploding with a belch of black smoke and its cockpit turned upside-down in the sand.

*

“Osi'kyr!” Din yelled, leaping to his feet as Triska’s pod screeched to a stop over the finish-line.

“And we have OUR WINNER!” The announcer bellowed as the craft sat in the dirt, smoking and motionless. “Undefeated in thirteen straight races: THE XANDU!”

A side-panel was kicked off the pod from the inside and Triska flopped out onto her back, raising one first weakly in the air.

“XANDU! XANDU! XANDU!” came the bone-shaking chant as the remaining pods pulled in to land at the back of the grid, and a medical droid wheeled out to pull Triska from the wreckage.

“Hey, buckethead!” someone called from the seats behind. “Siddown, will ya?!”

He didn’t even notice, standing with his eyes fixed on Triska being dragged out by the droid until Niva tugged sharply on his cape.

Din sat down heavily.

“She’s-”

“Incredible, right?” Niva slid him a sly grin. “She won’t tell you this, but she was in the Rebel fleet. Fought at the Battle of Endor.”

Din sighed, shaking his head. Triska Xan: a hero of the New Republic. The most beautiful flier he’d ever seen. What in dank farrik was she doing here?

Chapter Text

“The medical tent’s just down this way,” Niva led him through the rapidly-dispersing crowd, looking back at him with a wink. “Ain’t you glad I convinced you to bet so high?”

Din sighed; he’d put a beskar pauldron’s worth of credits on Triska. Unfortunately, when Niva’s back was turned he’d evened it out with a bet on Pol-Na-Rei, just to be safe. He’d never been any good at gambling.

“VISITORS. ARE. NOT. PERMITTE-”

“Move it,” Niva swatted a security drone out of their path.

“Heeey!”

Triska waved at them as they entered, clearly loopy from some kind of pain-reliever. She was surrounded by a gang of medical droids: two working on repairing her ribs whilst one fixed a synthskin patch to a nasty gash on the side of her head.

“How’s it going, champ?!” Niva ran up and threw herself onto the gurney, grabbing Triska around the neck in an over-enthusiastic hug and almost pulling them both onto the floor. The droids shrilled with alarm, bumbling around them as they tried to complete their work.

“Not so bad,” Triska laughed, shoving Niva off her. “Listen, they just re-inflated that lung, quit squashing me…”

“That was badass!” Niva got down and began pacing around, rifling through shelves of medical kit. “The overtake on Gurik; the way you pulled it back after that crash-”

Triska smiled as Niva continued her blow-by-blow recap of the race, then cast a sideways glance at Din.

“I told you, “she said quietly under Niva’s chatter. “I don’t lose.”

He tilted his head, looking down at her.

“That’s exactly what I need.”

“YOU!” came a yell from the other side of the medical tent. The flap flew open to reveal a Chiss woman, absolutely incandescent with rage.

“Hoo boy,” Niva whistled, suddenly pretending to be very interested in the contents of a nearby surgical tray.

“What the hell do you think you were doing out there, you sculag wrench-jockey!” The Chiss limped forward, tailed by a medical droid still desperately trying to perform a bone graft on her leg.

“Hey, Liare,” Triska gave a little wave.

Liare lunged at her, straight into Din’s outstretched arm.

“Get off me, tin can!” She yelled, struggling in his grip. “Who’s this: your bodyguard? You’re gonna need one…”

“PLEASE. REMAIN. CALM,” burbled the droid hanging off her ankle. “ADMINISTERING. SEDATIVE. NOW.”

“No- aagh!” Liare suddenly clung to Din’s arm as her legs collapsed beneath her. “That was my race!”

Triska leaned forward.

“I don’t see the credits in your account.”

“Fuck you,” Liare slurred, then collapsed in a heap on the floor. Din scooped her up onto the nearest gurney.

“PATIENT. RECOVERY. IN. PROGRESS.” A team of droids surrounded the bed and began wheeling her away. “PLEASE. STAND. CLEAR.”

Triska shook her head with a low huff of laughter.

“She’ll be raking in the wins once I’m gone.” She poked Niva with the toe of her boot. “You should get in there.”

Niva scoffed, rolling her eyes. “She’s not my type. You good to go?”

“I. REQUIRE. ADDITIONAL. TIME. TO-”

“I’ll live, little guy,” Triska brushed the one remaining droid away as she stood gingerly, holding her ribs on the left side. She looked up at Din. “Let’s get packing.”

*

Din sat on the Razor Crest’s loading ramp. He’d flown over to Strip City Auto-Parts whilst Triska was packing, hoping she’d be ready to go by the time he got there. She didn’t seem to have much in the way of possessions- a bag full of clothes, a toolkit, some holonovels- but there was a great deal of disagreement about which were hers and which belonged to Niva.

“No, that’s definitely my rivet-gun,” Niva pulled one out of the box Triska was packing. “Yours has the stripes on it, remember?”

“Ugh, what does it matter?” Triska huffed, grabbing it back from her. “There are two in the shop; I’ve taken one, that means there must be another one in there somewhere for you…”

“Oh, and the one that gets left behind just happens to be the one that jams every time I try to use it, I see how it is…” Niva picked up a battered-looking holonovel. “Meet Me on Corellia?! This is mine too!”

Triska leaned over the box with a groan.

“Now that is bantha-crap, I distinctly remember buying it-”

“Yeah, you bought it for my birthday, for me!

Din lay back against the ramp with a sigh, watching distant craft flicker into hyperspace in the violet dusk.

“You, um-” Niva’s voice went suddenly quiet. “You taking this?”

Din tilted his helmet just slightly, watching from the corner of his eye. Niva had picked up something round, wrapped up in an oil-stained rag. She removed the cloth carefully to reveal an old A-Wing fighter helmet, striped with green like Triska’s pod. The visor was cracked badly on one side.

Triska looked up at it, not moving.

“I don’t know,” she said eventually, looking back at the box.

Niva knelt down and placed it carefully in the bag with Triska’s clothes, then picked up the rivet-gun.

“Y’know what,” she said as she put it back in the box, “I’ll keep yours. I want you to have mine.”

Triska didn’t look up, but she leaned over and took Niva’s hand, squeezing it briefly.

“Thank you.”

The ensuing silence was broken by a snorting groan from the shop doorway as the Massiff padded out into the yard, blinking sleepily. Seeing Niva crouched down by the box, he bounded over and tried desperately to lick her face with his long, forked tongue. She laughed as he toppled her back onto her behind and threw as much of his big, scaly body as he could into her lap.

“Aw, I’m gonna miss you, big baby-”

“Hey,” Din scrambled to his feet. “No. No pets.”

Triska, Niva and Horg all turned to look at him, scandalised.

“But he likes you!” Niva protested. Triska tossed a hydrospanner into the box and stood.

“Horg comes with me, or the deal’s off.”

Din shook his head, jaw clenching inside his helmet.

“Listen. I have my reasons.”

“Such as...?” Niva probed.

“I can’t-” He shuffled, casting about for some excuse. “I can’t tell you that.”

Triska stepped forward.

“Horg comes with me,” she repeated, “or the deal’s off. Your choice.”

It was a risk. But he needed her. Eventually, he ducked his head and sighed.

“…Fine. But it stays in the cargo bay.”

He is very well-behaved,” Triska replied as she turned back to her packing. “He’ll do as I say, don’t worry.”

Din could only hope that was true.

“Okay…” Triska dumped a second pair of boots into her clothes bag and fastened it, slinging it over her shoulder. “I think that’s me.”

Horg padded over to her side, looking up at her with round black eyes. She smiled, smoothing a hand over his head. Niva stood, glancing over to Din and back to Triska.

“It’s uh-” she chewed her lip. “It’s getting kinda late; you could always stay for dinner before you-?”

Din looked out at the sleepless sky. He’d lingered here too long already.

“I’d rather be on our way,” he replied.

Triska tugged Niva into a tight embrace, then pulled back a little.

“You’re too good for this place,” she said thickly. “If I come back, don’t let me find you here.”

Niva laughed, tears falling down her face.

“I’ll tell Alema at the Reek Horn where I’m headed, if you ever wanna look me up.” She reached out, brushing Triska’s cheek. “I hope you find what you’re looking for… whatever that turns out to be.”

Triska touched her hand against her chest and forehead, mimicking the traditional Twi’leki farewell gesture.

“Ka’ta, numa,” she whispered.

Niva, not trusting herself to speak, signed silently with her lekku: ka’ta, numa.

Triska hugged her one more time then quickly picked up the box and turned away, scrubbing at her eyes with one hand as she strode towards the Crest. Horg gave a concerned whine and trotted after her, disappearing into the hold.

“You take care of her, Mando!” Niva yelled as Din raised the loading ramp. “Or you’ll have me to answer to!”

He raised a hand in silent acknowledgement.

*

Stay, Horg.”

Din dropped back into the cargo bay after launch to find Triska laying out a padded bed for Horg, along with a tray of water and a bone so big it looked like it could’ve come from a Tauntaun. The Massiff curled up obediently with a less than enthusiastic grumble, his spines wilting.

“I know, buddy,” she scratched under his chin. “Good boy.”

Din glanced over at the hidden storage panel as Triska straightened up, casting an appraising eye over the Crest’s interior.

“Pre-Empire?” She glanced at him, and he nodded silently. She gave a low hum of approval. “She’s holding up well.”

Din cleared his throat.

“Uh, cabin’s through there-” he pointed rather redundantly to the only doorway in the hold. In preparation for a new crewmate, he’d panelled off some of the cargo bay and had it retrofitted into slightly more habitable living quarters. It wasn’t much: a narrow galley and ‘fresher, two berths built into the wall, and a bolted-down table with a couple of chairs. Triska nodded.

“Cockpit?”

“Up here-” Din put a hand on the ladder, then paused. Triska looked at him with amusement.

“After you, Captain.”

Din felt his ears go hot.

“Mando is fine,” he cast back over his shoulder as he climbed up.

His heart clenched at the sight of the cradle sitting empty on one of the co-pilot chairs, but he had time to drape his cloak over it as Triska pulled herself up. He hadn’t exactly decided yet, what to do about the kid. For now he was safely stowed in the new hidden storage locker.

“I thought you said no pets?”

Din tensed, wheeling back around to see the damned little goblin burbling happily away, tugging at the leg of Triska’s flightsuit with his claws.

Shabla.

Chapter Text

“I thought you said no pets?”

The kid squealed, still trying to grab at Triska as Din scooped him up.

“He’s not-” he sighed, shaking his head. “He’s a child.”

Triska’s brow furrowed as she looked from the kid’s voluminous ears to Din’s tight-fitted helmet.

“Is he… yours?”

“What? No! No.” Din shifted uncomfortably. “He’s a foundling. I’m his-” he looked down, into the kid’s expectant little dew-drop eyes. “…I’ve been tasked to return him to his own kind.”

Triska took a cautious step closer, holding out her hand as if greeting a timid porg.

“What is he?”

The kid took one finger in his three-clawed hands and shoved it straight into his mouth. Triska looked bemused, but didn’t pull away.

“I don’t know,” Din replied. “But he can… do things. Like the Jedi.”

Triska glanced upwards at him.

“And you were worried about Horg gobbling him up?” She gently took her hand back, wiping drool on her trouser-leg. “If he’s a Jedi, I’m sure he could explode us with a single wiggle of those ears.”

“Do you know much about them?” asked Din. “The Jedi.”

“Only stories. Back when I was-” Triska cut herself short. “I heard about one of them. They called him Skywalker.”

Skywalker. He hadn’t heard the name before. The kid burbled; Din smoothed a hand absently over his head.

“Any idea where he’d be now?”

Triska shrugged.

“I don’t remember much from back then.”

She was lying. He could tell by the way she reached up, as if to brush her fingers across the seam of scar tissue lining her cheek, then stopped dead. He thought of Cara: of how reluctantly she'd shared specifics of her time in the Rebellion.

"He's part of the reason I hired you," he deflected. Triska raised an eyebrow at him.

"I'm a pilot, not a nurse," she quipped as she slid past him to run her hands over the Crest’s controls.

“I know that.” He shifted out of her way, feeling suddenly clumsy in the tight space. "I can't fly the ship and keep an eye on him- believe me, I've tried.” His fingers twitched at the sight of her flipping dials and readjusting settings he hadn’t touched in years.

“But that’s not the only reason, is it.” She wasn’t asking as she turned back to look at him. “You have something you can’t bear to lose.”

Din swallowed. For a moment he found himself speechless under that cool, even gaze.

“…There are people who know about him,” he managed eventually. “How powerful he is. How valuable. Even with Gideon gone, I can't- he won't ever be safe until I can bring him to the Jedi."

Triska looked at him blankly.

"Gideon?"

He gave her the whole story: the bounty, the Client, the flight from Nevarro. Karga’s would-be trap and Gideon’s death. The Armourer’s last words to him: a quest to search the galaxy for a race of enemy sorcerers.

"I followed up a few leads, but the tracks all turned cold.” He eased himself into the co-pilot seat as the kid nodded off to sleep in his arms. “I'm hoping Karga will have some intel- and enough work to keep us flying."

“Well- hold on- ” Triksa pulled the Crest effortlessly into Hyperdrive, leaning back into the kick of speed. “I can out-fly any Imp you drag in our wake, but I sense your line of work is… specialised.”

Din hummed softly.

“It’s dangerous,” he replied, tilting his head to look at her. She shot him a grin.

“I’m counting on it.”

 

*

 

“When one chooses to walk the way of the Mandalore, you are both hunter and prey.”

Liquid beskar in a blue flame. The constant, steady heartbeat of the forge.

“Our secrecy is our survival; our survival is our strength.”

Shivering with pride, the helmet heavy in his grip. The words of the Creed, unfiltered and weak, in a child's voice. He would be strong. He would never be alone again.

“Why did Mandalore resist our expansion? Look outside. Is the world more peaceful since the revolution?”

Crushed into the shadows: like sand-rats, Vizsla had said. Like children cowering in the dark of a bunker. Had he simply exchanged one hiding-place for another? A carapace of beskar steel. 

“Show me the one whose safety deemed such destruction.”

Bright eyes gleaming in the dusk: an innocent flame. He was drawn to them, transfixed, as if he was still staring up at that sliver of light through the closing blast-doors.

“I love you, Din, my sweet boy. Always remember how much I loved you.”

An empty howl of longing in his heart.

“A foundling is in your care.”

A hand on his bare face, hot like a wound. Something fragile pressed tight to his chest.

“You are a clan of two.”

 

Din sat up sharply, almost smacking his helmet on the bunk-roof. As the sound of his breathing quietened, he heard the soft hum of the Crest’s engines. They were still in hyperspace, sailing towards Nevarro.

He lay back with a sigh. He’d fitted curtains to each of the bunks, but even so, it didn’t feel right to take off his helmet with a relative stranger in such close quarters. Triska Xan. The kid seemed to like her, which was a good sign. Then again, the kid had taken a liking to Karga, so there was no accounting for taste.

There was a soft noise: the slide of the door to the cargo bay opening. Footsteps, then a pause. Triska knocked three times against the doorframe.

“I’m up,” Din pulled back the curtain and swung his legs out, sitting on the edge of the bunk. The kid was asleep in his cradle, close-by.

“We’ll be in Nevarran airspace soon,” Triska hovered near the doorway still, her hands shoved in the pockets of her flightsuit. Din nodded appreciatively.

“You made good time.”

“Couple of tweaks to the hyperdrive; nothing huge, but it shaved off a couple of hours.” She looked him up-and-down. “You ever take that thing off?”

Din felt his hand rise to the side of his helmet without thinking.

“All the time,” he shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant.

“…But not while sleeping?” She raised an eyebrow.

He took a breath, leaning forward against his knees.

“I took an oath. To never remove my helmet in front of another, or allow my helmet to be removed.”

Triska sat down at the makeshift table, tilting her head.

“Why?”

Why. Because this is the Way. Somehow, he knew that answer wouldn’t satisfy her.

“When you become a Mandalorian, who you were before ceases to be. Your fears… your weaknesses…” He looked over at the kid, breathing softly in his sleep. “Nobody cares what happened to you before. Only how you choose to act now.”

“How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

He looked up, and felt his heart stumble as he saw her face. She looked stricken; lost.

“Stop caring. About who you were before.”

A sudden memory came to him, of his hands wrapped in his father’s robe: burying his face in its warmth, as if he could hide from the destruction all around them.

“I don’t know.” The vocoder smoothed out the crack in his voice. “I’m still trying.”

She looked away from him, at her hand resting on the table.

“Me too.”

A loud trilling sound echoed down from the cockpit. Triska stood.

“We’re almost there.”

Chapter Text

Curls of acrid smoke wreathed around the Crest’s opening blast doors.

“Karga likes to shoot his mouth,” Mando called over his shoulder as she followed him down the ramp. “Just ignore it, and let me do the talking.”

A pack of lava meerkats scattered as their boots touched the ashy ground. The air smelled sulphuric; the sky hanging low and dark despite how early it was. Triska looked up at the settlement gates, and the well-armed stream of travellers passing through. Horg kept close to her side, his spines rattling softly.

“Are you sure we should be bringing him with us?” she murmured, nodding down at the kid in his sling. “Seems like a rough town.”

“I’d rather risk bringing him than risk leaving him.”

Mando didn’t look at her; didn’t break stride as he was talking. She saw others- clearly fellow bounty hunters- clock his approach and flinch away like pack-fish in the path of a Sea Killer.

“Seems like they’ve missed your sparkling conversation.” She heard a short huff of what could have been laughter from beneath the helmet.

“In here,” he led her to a side-door that opened onto narrow, twisting steps, carved down into the black earth. “Let me go first.”

“Gladly.”

Horg gave a reluctant groan as she motioned for him to wait outside, then they descended, the door slamming shut behind them.

After a few moments of darkness, Triska sensed light approaching, along with the muffled sounds of people talking and glasses clinking. They emerged into a subterranean bar, lit by high slits of windows at foot-level outside.

“Mando!” a well-built, well-fed human called to them from a nearby booth, spreading his arms wide with a grin.

“That’s Karga.” Mando tilted his head down to her. “Why don’t you get yourself a drink first? We’ve got some catching up to do before we talk business.”

She shrugged.

“I’m guessing you don’t want anything?”

If he heard her, he chose to ignore it. She smirked, turning towards the bar as Mando went to sit down with Karga.

There were a few battle-scarred regulars slumped against the bar, which was being manned by a particularly harassed-looking Rodian. She took up a free spot and waited to catch his attention.

Motes of grey dust flecked the air, thickened with spice smoke. What little light entered the cantina was filtered through rows of bottles lined up behind the bar, casting stripes of green, red and gold across the floor. She could feel every eye in the place trained surreptitiously on Mando and Karga- every eye, save one.

“How’d you get the scar, shayl?” came a growl next to her ear. She turned her head slowly towards the Bothan slouched on a barstool beside her.

“Why- you want one?”

“What’ll it be?” the Rodian cut in, clearly sensing trouble.

“Spotchka. One.” Triska replied. He swiftly poured a glass and slid it across to her.

“You with shiny over there?” he asked, nodding towards Mando.

“Yeah.”

“Then it’s on the house- just tell him to keep his cool, Norr didn’t mean no disrespect.”

Triska turned, puzzled, and saw that Mando was sitting rigid at the table, one clenched fist resting on its surface and his helmet turned clearly in their direction. Karga was playing with the kid, pretending not to notice.

“He’s not-” Triska shook her head. “Don’t worry about it.”

She slapped a credit down on the bar anyway and took her spotchka back to the table.

“…she’s routing an Imp base still dug in across the flats, such a shame you’ve missed each other- but who is this?” Karga looked up at her, reaching out a hand. She set down her glass and shook with him

“Triska Xan. And you must be Greef Karga,” she said, taking a seat.

“You okay?” Mando asked softly, tipping his head towards her.

“Fine,” she replied, “but those two over there are shitting themselves.”

Karga laughed, a little nervously.

“Bounty hunters aren’t known for our table manners; I must apologise. But what brings you to Nevarro, and in such fine company?” He smiled down at the kid, who was busy pulling things out of his pockets and dropping them on the floor.

“She’s my pilot,” Mando cut in before Triska had a chance to speak.

“As I recall, Mando, you’re quite a skilful flier yourself,” Karga gave him a shrewd look. “She isn’t your Jedi, is she?”

“If she was, the kid wouldn’t be here and neither would she,” Mando replied shortly, and Triska shot him a sideways glance. “I’m here for pucks.”

“Okay, okay,” Karga held up his hands placatingly. “But I’m not paying double now, Mando, your rates are extortionate as it is-”

“I charge Guild rates; it’s not my fault you let any drifter with a blaster take pucks at undercut prices.” He nodded meaningfully towards the Bothan, who was sitting rigid at the bar, clearly desperate to leave but unwilling to attract any further attention by moving. Karga shifted in his seat. The kid’s ears drooped as he looked up at him.

“Look,” Triska interjected, motioning to the bartender. “It’s been a long journey- you know how it is. Standard Guild rates will be fine for our mutual friend. What you can offer me…” The Rodian scurried over with the spotchka bottle and a second glass; she poured one and slid it across the table to Karga. “Is some alternative payment.”

Karga leaned forward.

“I’m listening.”

“You know we’re searching for a Jedi. In your line of work, I’m sure you come into possession of a great deal of sensitive information.” She swirled her glass, meeting his eyes steadily as she took a sip. “A man of your intelligence could surely source a bounty with something of worth to us as well as you.”

Karga grinned like a loth-cat.

“Formidable,” he rumbled, flinging his arm across the back of the booth as he sat back. “Your logic, I mean. I see why he likes you.”

Mando shifted in his seat; Triska ignored him.

“The puck,” she countered with a smile, reaching out.

Karga held her gaze for a beat more, then sighed, pulling a puck from his inside pocket.

“Saleucami. There’s Outer Rim, and then there’s places like this.” He passed the puck to Triska, who tossed it onto the table and tapped it, revealing a holo of a Gran male. “The target is Zossal Tand: wanted back on Hok for kidnap and extortion. Should be easy pickings for the likes of you. Rumour has it that a Jedi Master was murdered on Saleucami, some years back.”

“And what do you expect us to do,” Triska raised her eyebrows at him, “dig up her bones? I was hoping for something a little more… recent.”

Karga shrugged.

“These days, Jedi are about as rare as pelikki’s teeth. That’s the best I can do- for now. But come back with the carbonite to show for it, and I’ll see what other information I can… come into possession of.”

Triska considered for a moment, then nodded.

"Deal."

 

*

 

"What happened to me doing all the talking?" Mando asked impassively as they emerged back into the street. Triska patted Horg’s flank as he scrambled up to greet them.

"You strike me more as the strong & silent type." She glanced up at him, and saw the helmet dip. "Are we done here?"

"Not yet," Mando replied. "There's someone I need to see."

They walked out past the town limits and the Razor Crest, boots scuffing in the volcanic sand. The air shimmered with heat from the lava streams, cutting through rock like glowing arteries all around them. After a while they reached a slope that evened out into a wide plateau, overlooking the settlement from afar. 

"Who the hell lives out here?" Triska asked incredulously, panting and sweating after the climb. Mando, seemingly impervious beneath his beskar, said nothing. A short distance along the plateau they came to a burial cairn, its foremost stone topped with an old, weather-faded flight cap.

Triska pulled up short with a jolt in her chest. Mando knelt by the cairn, carefully replacing some stones which had rolled out of place.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly.

The broad line of his shoulders gave nothing away as he righted the stones, kneeling with his back to her.

"Who were they?"

Hearing him fussing, Mando let the kid free from his sling and watched him waddle over to a nearby pebble.

"Kuiil." He reached out to steady the kid, who picked up the pebble and began to laboriously copy his repair of the cairn. "He was our friend."

Keep fighting.

Triska closed her eyes against the sudden, singing wire of grief pulled taut through her, so sharp she felt a kick of nausea in her stomach. When she came back to herself, she saw the kid looking at her intently with those dark, round eyes.

A noise on the horizon startled them all: the high-pitched whine of a Landspeeder engine. Horg stood to attention, rumbling low in his belly.

“Trouble?” Triska glanced at Mando, reaching for the blaster at her hip, but he stood leisurely.

“Just another old friend.”

The speeder made short work of the lava flats, soaring towards them at a decent clip. Triska could make out a single human pilot; no droid. It skidded to a halt nearby, and a tall, well-muscled woman with dark hair leapt from the pilot’s seat.

“Mando!” She pulled him into a bear-hug. "Karga said you stopped by; figured I might catch you here before you left."

“Good to see you,” he gave her a hearty slap on the back and she grinned, turning to Triska.

“You must be Triska Xan,” she extended a hand, and Triska clocked the band of kill-stripes around her arm as they shook. “Karga was desperate to tell me about you. Cara Dune.”

“Cara took down Gideon, with Karga and I,” Din explained. “Could you, uh, take him for a minute?” He pulled his cloak out of the kid’s grabby claws, gesturing back to the cairn. "I need a moment."

Cara nodded, swooping down to pick up the little one.

“Let’s take a stroll,” she said to Triska.

They wandered a little way along the plateau, Horg padding close behind them, and stopped to look out over the town.

“So, did Mando give you the lowdown on this little womp-rat?” Cara asked, grimacing as he chewed on a lock of her hair.

“He said he has powers, like the Jedi. That the Imps wanted him for experiments.” Triska looked down at the kid, cooing to himself in Cara’s arms. “I know he’s afraid of losing him.”

“It’s a lot of heat, even with Gideon out of the way.” Cara fixed her with an even look. “What’s in it for you?”

Triska nodded to her tattoo.

“I think maybe you know.”

As she spoke, she rolled up the sleeve of her flightsuit to reveal a stylised “A” shape inked along her forearm, mimicking the coloured panels of an A-wing’s midsection.

“A starbird, huh?” Cara whistled, eyebrows raised. “You didn’t wanna stick around and help rebuild the Republic?”

“I’ve got no interest in becoming a cop.”

Cara smirked.

“Me neither.” She paused for a moment, looking out at Nevarro’s subterranean sprawl. “Was it worth it, d’you think?”

Triska gave a heavy sigh, then shrugged.

“For us, or for them?”

Cara smiled grimly, patting her shoulder.

“Come on, lemme give you a ride back to the Crest.”

Chapter Text

“Had a hunch I’d find you here,” Shara leaned in the doorway of the darkened berth. “I was hoping you’d prove me wrong.”

Triska lay in the camp-bed, an empty bottle of spotchka by her side. The mechnosutures were still spread in a rigid spiderweb across one side of her face, freezing her expression into a twisted grimace.

“What is it,” she croaked. Pain pulsed through the wounds with every beat of her heart.

“You forgot this.” Shara tossed something onto the bed; Triska looked up stiffly at the pointed disc of metal on its silk ribbon.

Admiral Ackbar had spoken of freedom and bravery to the thinned ranks of fighters in a brief ceremony aboard the Capital Ship. Triska had pulled the sagging weight of the Hero’s Medal from her chest and let it fall as soon as they marched from the cargo bay. That had been days ago. Shara must’ve gone back to retrieve it.

“I don’t want it,” she replied, turning towards the wall.

Shara ducked her head and sighed, rubbing at her temples.

“Our orders came in. We’re being redeployed to the Core Territories.”

“Under whose command.”

There was a long silence.

“L’ampar will be Green Leader.”

Triska closed her eyes, but the drowning sting of tears welled up within them. The skin of her face was raw from weeping, her throat torn past the ability to scream. She wanted to throw that medal on the ground and crush it beneath her boot; rip the sutures from her face; punch the wall until her knuckles splintered to pulp. She barely had the strength to lift her head.

“You’re on mandatory rehabilitation leave for another two weeks,” Shara pressed on, “but we can bring you with us on the medical frigate. Or you can take an honourable discharge.”

Triska barked out a mirthless laugh.

“Honourable,” she croaked.

In their grand speeches, Ackbar and Organa painted the war as a rising-up of good against evil; freedom against tyranny. Triska had spent her childhood as a transport pilot in the junkyards of Korad, working her way up to shipjacking for hire. Before the Rebellion, Arvel had run bacta for a Thyferran cartel. Neither of them had been good people.

For those like them, fighting this war hadn’t offered any great change to the realities of life under the Empire or even the Republic. What it had promised was a hot meal every day and a pair of good boots, an escape from indentured servitude, or even just a quicker route to oblivion than spice and spotchka. Once, she had been grateful for that alone.

Somewhere along the line she’d allowed herself to believe in the dream of the New Republic: that life could be about something more than just survival. But ultimately, life is like war, no matter which side you’re on: a brutal, bloody struggle in the dirt. All winning gets you is another battle.

“Tris,” Shara whispered softly. “It would break his heart to see you like this. He wanted us to keep fighting.”

Keep fighting. Maker, she’d never fought so hard in all her life.  

The silence stretched on for a long time. Shara was waiting for her to do something: to weep and howl, swearing cold-blooded revenge on the Empire. Triska wanted to oblige her- but she felt as if she was still tumbling in the bloodstained stars above Endor, suspended forever in that moment.

Eventually, Shara broke.

“Okay. Fine. Wallow in self-pity all you want,” she snapped, grief trembling in her voice. “But you know what? Arvel wouldn’t just be sad to see you like this. He’d be disappointed.”

Triska felt the air leave her chest, her ears ringing as if she’d been struck by a stun-grenade. She turned sharply towards the doorway- but Shara had already gone.

 

*

 

The close walls of her bunk took shape around her as she woke. Triska hadn’t dreamed of that day in a long while, though there had been a time where it seemed all she had to do was close her eyes and the whole scene would begin to play out again in agonizing detail. She sighed, passing a hand over her face.

It was dim in the cabin, and quiet, save for the thrum of the hyperdrive. Mando must have taken the kid with him to the cockpit for his shift. Sitting up, Triska felt cold sweat still clinging to the nape of her neck. She got out of the bunk and dropped down, making for the ‘fresher.

Saleucami was known for its swamplands. They’d be able to replenish their water supply, which meant she could probably risk a shower with what they had left. She stepped into the ‘fresher and pulled the door half-closed, tossing her underclothes out as she undressed.

Pulling off her shirt, she caught sight of herself in the thin strip of mirror above the sink. She hadn’t bothered to keep a mirror in her room on Kergans, and the sight almost startled her. Bruises mottled over her ribcage from the pod crash, the synthskin patch on her head not quite matching the tone of her skin. The scar on her face travelled down her neck, forking out across her shoulder and one half of her chest. She traced the hardened seams of tissue with her fingertips.

Only a few months ago, she’d learned that Shara Bey was dead: killed in a craft malfunction during a routine civilian defence patrol on Yavin 4. After that incident on the Capital Ship, they’d never spoken again.

Triska had taken an honourable discharge on medical grounds, and spent the next few months living above a bar in a Bakur mining town until her credits ran out. She’d worked for a while on a freighter crew; flown escort missions for trading convoys; even revisited her shipjacking days. She’d deliberately taken the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs: the kind they wouldn’t even risk droids on because it was a waste of valuable parts. The reason she’d taken the job on Kergans was because she believed she’d be roadkill within a matter of days- but it seemed the galaxy had other plans.

Shara, on the other hand, lived the life she’d won for only a few short years. She married and had a son; her reward for everything she’d given the Rebellion was to never see him grow up. An ignoble and untimely death for a woman who’d fought with everything she had for a life worth living.

Triska had often imagined seeing Shara again, yet she’d never sought her out; never even sent a holo. And she’d made damn sure nobody from the old squadron could ever trace her. She wasn’t angry for what had been said all those years ago. For Shara, it must have felt like she’d lost both Arvel and Triska in that fateful crash.

Still lost in thought, Triska absently cranked the water on. It sputtered erratically, but at least it wasn’t completely cold. Closing her eyes, she imagined all her memories sluicing off down the drain, like the film of sweat and volcanic dust that covered her skin.

After a few minutes the Crest juddered, lights flickering as it dropped out of hyperspace. Triska was jolted against the wall, just managing to keep her feet.

Feather the DIS-panel, lead-foot…” she muttered, quickly rinsing off and grabbing a towel from outside the stall.

“We’re approaching the-” Mando appeared briefly in the doorway, then wheeled away as if he’d been shot. “Sorry, I’m- osi'kyr, I’m sorry…”

Already wrapped in the towel, Triska side-eyed him with amusement as she stepped out of the ‘fresher.

“It’s alright, I’m decent,” she tugged a fresh set of overalls from the recess next to her bunk. “But I do need you to turn around while I put these on.”

“Uh, right-” Mando turned his back, standing awkwardly in the doorway. “I’ll pick up some sheets next time we pass a market. For- privacy.”

Triska shrugged. In the fleet they hadn’t had the time nor the inclination to worry about such things.

“I’m used to close quarters,” she replied, tugging on some underclothes. “But if it makes you feel more comfortable-”

“No- I mean, yes-” Mando sighed, shaking his head. “…I’ve had this place to myself for a long time,” he finished by way of explanation.

“Okay, coast is clear,” Triska fastened up her overalls, cocking an eyebrow at him as he turned to face her. “To be honest, Mando, after living on Kergans I’m not used to such good manners. I thought you might have x-ray vision on that thing,” she nodded towards the helmet.

For a moment he squared his shoulders indignantly, pulling himself up to his full height.

“You-” he caught sight of her grin, and visibly deflated. “You’re fucking with me.”

“…Only a little.” She sat down to pull on her boots, glancing up at him briefly. “You don’t mind, do you?”

She heard a soft huff of laughter from the vocoder.

“Only a little.”

His voice was low and deep; she could tell he was watching her from the angle his helmet tilted down. She felt something shift quietly in her chest.

“Where’s the kid?” she asked, more to break the silence than anything else. Mando straightened up suddenly.

“I thought he was with you-”

From the cargo bay came a familiar high-pitched giggle, followed by the ominous rattle of Massiff scales.

“…Oh no.”

Chapter Text

“HORG!”

Din heard Triska yell behind him as he sprinted into the cargo bay, his heart pounding and his hand already on his blaster. Bursting through the doorway, he turned- and saw the kid perched on Horg’s back, his little hands waving in the air. Hovering above them both was the large container of dried meat for the Horg’s meals, which Triska kept on top of the weapons locker.

“What the-” Triska skidded into Din’s back, but the Massiff didn’t even glance at them. He was transfixed by the floating box, claws tapping expectantly on the floor as strings of drool dripped from his jowls.

“Hey!” Din called sternly, pointing at the kid. “No. Put that down.”

“Mando, wait!” Triska grabbed his arm, but it was too late. The kid swivelled to look at them, the picture of innocence, and dropped his hands.

The box crashed instantly to the floor, scattering dried meat everywhere. Horg leapt forwards and shoved his snout into the closest pile, toppling the kid from his back as he went.

“Dank farrik-”

“Spit that out right now!”

Din grabbed the kid from where he rolled across the deck, wailing, whilst Triska tackled Horg and started trying to prize his jaws open.

“You’ll be sick, you stupid beast-” Horg was frantically trying to swallow as much as he could until Triska just about managed to shove her whole forearm into his mouth. “Give. Me. That!”

Jogging the howling kid under one arm, Din quickly scooped as much of the meat as he could find back into the box then put it back on top of the locker.

“MMBLEEARCH!”

He wheeled around to see Triska, soaked in drool up to the shoulder, pulling a ball of half-chewed leathery flesh out of Horg’s mouth. Horg made another horrible retching noise and shook his spines as she turned and threw it into the waste-chute.

This scene seemed to have shocked the kid out of crying. Still sniffling quietly, he wriggled until Din let him down.

“You alright?” he asked, putting a hand on Triska’s shoulder.

“Semi-digested, but yeah,” Triska shuddered, wiping her arm on her overalls. “So that’s what the kid can do, huh?”

“Among other things.”

They both looked down just in time to see the little creature waddle over to Horg, lose his footing, and grab hold of the Massiff’s nostrils to right himself.

“No!” Din & Triska yelped in unison, but Horg just snorted, setting him back on his feet with a nudge.

“…Seems like they like each other,” Triska said, shrugging. Din felt her turn to look at him.

“He’s still sleeping in the cargo bay.”

The kid giggled as Horg licked his face.

 

*

 

It took them a while to touch down after that. Triska had to change out of her ruined overalls, and Horg puked an inordinate amount of half-digested dried meat all over the cargo bay. When they eventually did land, the yellow-tinged light over Saleucami was at its brightest point, filtering through an ever-present haze of humid mist.

“Stay close,” said Din, pocketing the tracking fob as the blast doors opened.

They were near the remains of a city: ruins of tall buildings reclaimed by forests of bubse-trees. On their outskirts were clustered small roundhouses, mostly constructed with scavenged materials: chunks of allacrete and duro-plastic fashioned into walls, with polyskin tented over them. Din clocked Triska’s puzzled expression as she gazed up at the crumbling towers.

“This place used to be a major trading power,” he explained, “until the Outer Rim Sieges almost destroyed it. Saleucami means “oasis” in Pantoran.”

“Oasis…” Triska murmured incredulously, watching as a crowd of raggedly-dressed locals emerged from their huts.

A Pantoran female approached them, her face marked with daubs of yellow ochre.

“Basic?” she asked, raising a hand in greeting. Din nodded.

“Are you in charge here?”

“In… charge?” She cocked her head, frowning. “I have the trust of these people. Do you come to trade?”

“We need information,” Din replied. “Perhaps there’s something you need in return.”

He pulled out the puck and tapped it, revealing the image of Zossal Tand. Behind the Pantoran, a couple of Gran gasped and began muttering amongst themselves. She glanced back at them, then beckoned Din and Triska towards the nearest hut.

“I am Olu. Please, follow me.”

Din had to crouch to get through the doorway. Behind him, he could hear Triska telling Horg to stay outside before she followed them into the smoky gloom.

The single round room was windowless, lit only by a hearth at its centre and what little daylight filtered through the small flue in the roof.

“Sit,” Olu gestured to a carved wooden bench by the fire. “Will you take tea?”

“Thank you.”

Over the years, Din had learned it was better to accept such offerings rather than risk upsetting a potential lead. He’d grown practiced at the sleight of hand required to empty out bowls of spit-fermented corn beer or curdled thala-milk behind the back of a gracious host. Triska wasn’t so lucky, but then again, this tea smelled fairly normal.

“The Gran you seek passed here three days ago,” Olu passed them two small bowls. “He traded a fine breeding pair of Eopie and a water-purifier for these...”

She gestured to a stack of medkits by the doorway, one of which lay open. Triska picked it up. From over her shoulder, Din could see how badly they’d been short-changed. The spray splint was clogged and half-used, the laser cauteriser covered in rust. There was a plasma bag in there, but its contents had turned a putrid shade of brown.

“He said they were old; that some parts might be used.” Olu took a sip from her own bowl. “He wanted a deal right away, or he would take his custom to the next village. We were desperate.”

Din knew how valuable supplies like these were in the Outer Rim; he’d seen whole villages eradicated by diseases long-since wiped out in the Core Territories. Tand would’ve known these people would trade anything for medical equipment, no questions asked. He felt his fist tighten around the edge of the bench.

“We’ve been sent to capture him,” he replied. “If we can find your property, we’ll return it to you.”

Olu bowed her head in thanks.

“He travelled South, into the old city. If he is still alive, you will find him.”

“Still alive?” asked Triska.

“Nexu hunt there. You must take care with your little one,” Olu nodded towards Din’s lap with a smile, and he looked down to see the kid slurping on his bowl of tea. At least that solved the problem of trying to get rid of it, he thought ruefully.

“Thank you for your guidance,” Din took the corner of his cape and dried the kid’s face. “We’re looking for another, too, though they must be long-dead. Do your people tell stories of a Jedi who was killed here, many years ago?”

Olu’s brow furrowed in thought.

“A Jedi?”

“A sorcerer… someone with great powers.”

“Ah!” her expression brightened. “You mean the Moon Goddess! Her shrine is not far from here; I will show you.”

 

*

 

Olu led them out beyond the camp and away from the old city, across undulating hills of bog and fen that seemed to roll endlessly towards the horizon.

“So,” Triska murmured as they trudged behind Olu through the marsh, “do you reckon this “moon goddess” is our Jedi?”

“I don’t know.” Din checked that the kid was still dozing safely in his sling. “Either way, we shouldn’t set off after Tand until first light tomorrow, especially with Nexu out there. In the meantime, we might as well check it out.”

“A water purifier and a pair of Eopie…” Triska slapped at a biting insect on her neck. “Sounds like he’s planning to dig in here until the heat dies down.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Just a little further!” Olu called, turning to wait for them at the crest of a small hill.

The ground suddenly became hardened and slippery, littered with stones that tumbled under their feet as they walked. Looking down, Din realised they weren’t stones. They were treading on moss-covered fragments of gunships and escape pods scattered across the landscape, worn into small pieces by the passing decades. He touched Triska’s arm and gestured silently downwards.

“What’s-” she looked to her feet, and Din realised too late what kinds of memories this wreckage might dredge up for her. He watched her jaw tighten.

“That’s Imperial,” she murmured, nodding towards the blackened shard of a TIE-wing jutting up like slate from the ground. She looked up, towards Olu ahead of them, and stopped short. “That’s… not.”

Olu was kneeling in front of a BARC speeder, or rather, several hundred pieces of a BARC speeder which had been painstakingly collected, cleaned and welded back together. It was decades-old at least: covered in markings of the same yellow ochre that daubed Olu’s face. It rested on a low, narrow cairn of stones, about six feet long.

Din went and knelt by Olu’s side.

“The Moon Goddess is buried here?”

She nodded, taking a small pouch of bubse-spice from her pocket and placing it with onto little pile of offerings at the nose of the speeder. Others had left seeds, woven pendants; even locks of hair.

“Look,” Olu whispered, tilting her face up towards the sky. It was darkening slowly, and on the horizon directly above the grave, the shimmering amber moon had begun to rise. The markings on the speeder seemed to glow in the low light: circles and crescents, arcing over its body in a mirror-image of the moon’s slow path.

“Who was she?” whispered Triska as she looked down at the speeder. Olu took out a pot of ochre and daubed a fresh, curved mark on its side-panel.

“War darkened the sky. Machines and cloned men fought, in the stars and on the land. The old city was destroyed. Our parents told us of the woman with a sword of light, who fought to free Saleucami from darkness. When she was killed, she became the moon in our night.”

Din felt the kid stirring and took him gently from the sling, setting him down near the grave. His ears drooped as he looked up at the speeder. Taking a few unsteady steps, he placed his little claws on the stones of the cairn.

For a moment, the looming stillness of dusk enveloped them. Then the air began to sing silently with a kind of sweeping tension, like clouds pulling in close over the earth before a storm. Olu and Triska glanced around in alarm, but Din had felt this before: when the kid had healed Karga on Nevarro.

“Hey,” he murmured softly, taking the kid’s arms in his hands and lifting them from the stones. “We’re too late. I’m sorry.”

The strange feeling abruptly stopped, and the kid turned his head to look up at him. Those big, innocent eyes were brimming full of confusion and sadness. Din felt a pain deep in his chest. He swept the kid up and pressed him close to his heart, cradling his tiny head with one hand.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered again, his eyes squeezed shut.

Chapter Text

“Definitely a Jedi,” Triska sighed, rubbing her temples. “And definitely a dead-end. What was she doing on Saleucami?”

They were back aboard the Crest for the night. When they’d reached the village, Olu had sent them off with a pot full of steaming broth for their evening meal.

“There was fighting everywhere back then,” Mando said distractedly, stooping in his seat to spoon some into the kid’s mouth. “The Republic, the Empire, the Separatists…”

The kid was stolidly ignoring all attempts to feed him, choosing instead to stare unblinkingly at Triska as broth dribbled down his front. She watched him as she scooped a spoonful from her own bowl, and when she raised it to her lips he copied her, finally letting Mando shovel some into his mouth. She smiled.

“What was he trying to do?” she asked, taking another sip. Mando gently wiped a drip of broth from the kid’s chin. His helmet tilted as he glanced over at her.

“He wanted to heal her,” he replied, his voice quiet.

Triska felt a sudden tightness in her throat. Her childhood on Korad was a dim memory, but she recalled huddling around the garbage fires for warmth, telling each other the stories all children seem instinctively to know. The hero died, but the sorcerer revived them. The villain got away this time, but he’ll be defeated in the end. My parents didn’t abandon me. They’re coming back.

“He’s a good kid,” she whispered.

“Yeah,” said Mando fondly, “He is.”

A few moments of silence passed, punctuated only by the kid slurping his dinner. Eventually Mando set the empty bowl down.  

“Things could get heated tomorrow- do you know how to use that?” he nodded towards the blaster in her belt.

“I’m better with a laser cannon, but yeah, I can shoot.” Triska stroked the handle with her thumb. “Are we bringing the kid?”

“Wherever I go, he goes,” Mando cocked his head at her. “Are we bringing the lizard-dog?”

“Ditto,” she grinned, then pushed the pot of soup across the table towards him. “You should have something to eat.”

“I’ll take it to the cockpit,” he replied, moving to stand up.

“No, you stay,” Triska interrupted, getting to her feet. “There’s some rewiring I wanted to see to up there anyway.”

Mando sighed, shoulders slumping as he relaxed back into the chair. Without thinking, Triska reached out to pat his shoulder as she passed- then stopped herself.

“Uh, goodnight,” she waved lamely at the kid instead, making for the door.

“Night,” Mando’s voice floated out into the cargo bay after her.

Up in the cockpit, it was colder than the rest of the ship. Triska could feel the chill of night pressing against the transparisteel. She tugged a blanket from one of the storage crates and wrapped it around her shoulders before sitting in the pilot’s chair and cranking it back until she could half-lie with her feet up on the dashboard. There was wiring up here that could do with fixing, but that could wait. She wanted Mando to get some warmth in his bones, food in his belly, and a proper rest.

Why? A treacherous whisper echoed in the back of her mind. Why do you want that?

She shoved the thought away, tugging the blanket tight as she looked up into the night sky. Stars shivered above her, like embers cast out by the moon’s auburn flame. She closed her eyes against their glow and tried to sleep.

 

*

 

“We’ll get more for Tand if we bring him in alive.” Mando was strapping on his gauntlets, strong and spare in his movements as he talked. “Leave him to me- you worry about the Nexu.”

Triska winced, rubbing the back of her neck. She’d given herself a cramp from lying huddled up in the cold cockpit all night.

“Nexu, got it.” She checked the power pack on her blaster and the blade hidden down the false panel inside her jacket-sleeve. “Fast but fragile, right?”

Mando nodded.

“They can sense body heat. If things go bad then run, don’t hide.” He unstrapped the Amban rifle from his back. “Take this.”

“Woah,” Triska took a step back, raising her hands. “I, uh, appreciate it- but I’d be happier with the blaster.”

Mando looked down at her, one hand on his hip.

“I thought you said you could shoot.”

She scoffed, rolling her eyes.

“I can, but-” but this felt more like heavy artillery than a gun. The damn thing was almost as tall as her.

“Take it,” Mando shoved the rifle into her hands.

“Hey-” Triska felt herself jostled forwards as he took up position behind her, tugging her arms none- too-gently into position around the weapon.

“Feet shoulder-width apart,” he tapped at the inside of her ankle with his boot. “Gentle grip on the handguard: keep your wrist straight. Aim at that bubse-tree straight ahead.”

“Mando, I don’t really-” she huffed, trying to wheel back around to face him, but he held her firmly in place.

“Please,” his voice was steady and low, close to her ear. “For my own peace of mind.”

Triska felt her jaw clench. The rifle was heavy: made for someone of Mando’s strength and size. She could already feel her arm starting to tremble under its weight.

“Fine.”

She raised the sight to her eye before he could start pushing her around again, and squeezed off a shot.

The kickback was immense: she felt Mando’s arm swing up behind her head to stop her from keeling over backwards. She’d just grazed the side of the tree’s bulbous pod, but the whole thing exploded into a cloud of ash.

“Woah!” she let out a shocked breath of laughter. “Okay, yeah, this thing is cool-”

Mando’s hand fell heavy on the barrel as she tried to lift it back up for another try.

“That was… better than I expected,” he said, and she could hear the tone of curiosity in his voice.

“I’m a woman of many talents, shiny,” she tilted her head to grin up at him and heard a tinny sigh through the vocoder.

“I said better than I expected,” he replied, poking her sharply in the shoulder blade as he yanked the barrel back upwards. “I didn’t say good. Pay attention.”

His palms rested over the backs of her hands, adjusting her grip. She could feel the solid curve of his chest-plate against her spine.

“Pull back firmly with your trigger hand,” he tugged the rifle until it was flush against her shoulder. “Imagine a weight pulling on your elbows… down to your hips… to your feet and through the floor.”

Triska felt her pulse kick as Mando took her hip in his hand and tilted, his fingers tracing the curve of bone. If he noticed, he showed no sign of it.

“Rest your cheek against the stock and take aim- that tree to the left.” His hand came back to cup hers around the pistol grip. “You’re going to breathe in, then out… right before you need to take another breath, squeeze the trigger. Breathe in…”

Triska had the bubse-tree in her sights, her vision trained right towards the middle of the pod.

“…And out.”

She felt her lungs empty into a moment of pure stillness. Mando’s presence was warm and steady, surrounding her. She squeezed in one fluid motion and felt the rifle pull straight back into her shoulder.

The bubse-tree vaporised from the centre outwards.

“There,” Mando said quietly. She felt the rim of his helmet tilt against her temple. “Perfect.”

Triska turned to face him, then almost stumbled as he pulled away.

“Stay relaxed and remember to breathe,” he said in clipped tones, standing with his back to her as he rifled through the gun-locker for extra power packs. “You’ll be fine.”

He slotted some spares into his bandolier and made off down the loading ramp without another glance at her, the kid following behind in his cot.

She blinked, the rifle still crackling slightly in her hands.

 

*

 

Some of the villagers drifted out of their huts to watch them strike out into the old city. Olu stopped them just before they left, holding out a pot of the same yellow ochre she’d used on the Moon Goddess’ speeder.

“For luck,” she explained, gently daubing a crescent shape onto Triska’s cheek. She did the same to the kid and even- hesitantly- to Horg, before turning to Mando.

“I will not spoil your armour, sir,” she bowed her head. “But good fortune to you.”

To Triska’s surprise, Mando stepped close to the Pantoran and offered the side of his helm.

“I would be honoured to accept your good fortune,” he replied, stooping a little so she could reach. A ripple of approval passed through the villagers as Olu marked the shining beskar.

“Go well, friends,” she smiled, raising a hand as they turned back towards the ruined towers.

It only took a few minutes of walking before the village behind them was completely obscured by golden mist.

“That was kind,” Triska said softly, picking her way through large cracks in the old road. Mando nodded.

“They’re good people.”

She glanced at him, smiling.

“I meant you.”

He turned sharply towards her, then pretended to be scanning the rooftops.

“…Well, it pays to make friends,” he replied gruffly, clearing his throat.

Triska decided not to tease him further. She looked up, at columns of glass and steel wreathed in low-hanging clouds; small birds flew in scattered patterns through the patches of sky that showed through.

“This place was huge,” she murmured, wondering if the Jedi woman had seen it in all its former glory.

The kid made a sputtering noise, and she glanced into his cot to see him happily smearing yellow paste from his face to his hands, then licking it off.

“All that little womp-rat thinks about is his tummy,” she chuckled, reaching down to wipe his cheek.

Suddenly Mando stopped dead. Triska straightened, grabbing the side of the cot to still its movement.

“Don’t move,” he said, so quietly she could barely make him out. Behind her, she heard Horg give a low, uneasy rumble.

Some distance ahead, a figure limped unsteadily through the mist. Triska squinted, trying to make out its form.

“What is that?”

Chapter Text

“What is that?” Triska hissed.

Mando raised a hand to hush her as a large, indistinct shape lurched through the mist towards them. Triska kept her hand on the kid’s cot, ready to push him out of harm’s way. The Amban rifle was an unfamiliar weight across her back- right now, she wished it was in her hands.

“BLUUAAGH!”

The figure let out a trumpeting bray and charged forward, mist billowing as it barrelled towards them- Triska yanked the clasp on the rifle-strap and brought the gun to her shoulder, taking aim-

“Woah!” Mando rushed forwards, his arms raised. “Woah, woah…”

He caught the bridle that hung around the creature’s head, and Triska gave a sigh of relief as she lowered her weapon. It was just an Eopie.

“One of Tand’s?” she ventured, dodging out of the way as the creature snorted and stamped.  “Can’t imagine Olu’s people let their livestock just wander out here.”

Mando nodded, raising a placating hand to the Eopie’s trunk. Its left flank was bloody with long, deep claw-marks, its eyes wide and rolling with terror.

“Looks like his plan to lay low hit a few snags.”

He looped the creature’s bridle across its back and slapped it on the rump, sending it galloping back towards the village.

“You think it’ll make it back?” Triska asked, watching it disappear into the mist. Mando shrugged.

“It could’ve drawn Nexu after it; keep an eye out.”

They pressed forward again, slowly, pausing at every faint sound. Horg pressed close against Triska’s side as they walked, his spines raised.

“There must be thousands of buildings here,” she said after a while. “He could be anywh-”

Click.

They all froze. The sound of a cocked blaster-pistol was unmistakeable.       

“Weapons down,” came a deep, raspy voice from a doorway just up ahead. “I’ve got that little gremlin in my sights, so no funny business.”

Triska felt her heart stop. She glanced over at Mando and saw the helmet tip just slightly in her direction: the ghost of a nod. He held his blaster out and lowered it slowly to the ground. She followed suit with the Amban.

“Good.”

Tand emerged from the building. He was limping, and there were partially-healed claw marks across the side of his head. One cow-like ear was almost torn off entirely. He was pointing an evil-looking old DH-17 straight into the cot.

“Now, back away from the kid.”

Mando raised his hands.

“Listen, you win,” he replied. “We’ll leave, just don’t hurt the child-”

Tand laughed, and his breath sounded laboured. Triska wondered how long those wounds had gone without bacta… maybe he should’ve kept some of those near-worthless medkits for himself after all.

“Oh, I won’t hurt him- he’s worth more alive.”

Triska felt the air change as Mando tensed, shoulders drawing back to his full height. Tand noticed it too, a smirk crawling across his face. He was too busy taunting Mando to notice her. She slowly curled her fingers around the edge of her jacket-sleeve, reaching for the small clasp that held its false panel closed.

“News travels faster than light in this sector,” Tand drawled. “A Mandalorian in a suit of priceless beskar, protecting a child worth more than its weight in credits? I knew if I could stay hidden long enough, eventually the Guild would send its finest after me.”

Triska could feel the tip of the hidden blade; she would have to be quick-

The next thing she knew was a shattering crunch of agony punching through her kneecap.

“Triska!”

“DON’T MOVE!”

She couldn’t breathe. Her vision went dark, her ears ringing: it felt like someone had doused her leg in fuel and set it alight, flames licking all the way down to her foot and up across her thigh. Her knee was a molten-white core of pain, every nerve in her body scorched by its proximity.

She managed to suck in a ragged gasp and scream, her voice like a knife-edge.

From somewhere dim and far away she heard more shots and a pained yelp from Horg, then sensed a figure standing over her. Through a blurry haze, she could just make out Tand, with the kid struggling under one arm.

“I should’ve brought a woman out here with me; those hicks were desperate enough to sell me one of theirs, but the beasts were more useful. Maybe I’ll take you with me, niboba cheeka…” He cocked his head, grinning down at her. The dark barrel of the gun was pointed at her face. “Or would you prefer to stay here with Mando and feed the Nexu?”

She could feel her pulse through the wound in her knee like a hammer striking hot iron. Mando and Horg where nowhere in sight: there was just the kid, wriggling and shrieking in Tand’s grasp. She tried to drag herself towards him and sobbed at the jolt of pain in her leg.

Tand chuckled, kneeling. He forced the blaster-barrel under her chin and jolted her face up towards his.

“Damaged goods,” he rumbled, twisting her chin to the side to look at her scar. “Still, beggars can’t be-”

“REEAAOWR!”

Tand disappeared in a blur of grey-striped fur, followed by a blood-curdling scream and a wet crunch. Triska heard the kid yelp, then saw a little green bundle tumble towards her. She threw out her arm and scooped him up, pulling him close to her chest.

“Mando!” she yelled, scrabbling around blindly for the Amban.

“Here!” came his voice from somewhere in the mist; it sounded like he was running. “Coming in hot!”

Triska found the rifle just as a guttural snarl sounded close to her ear. A massive Nexu stepped over Tand’s body, its purple lips pulled back to reveal a rictus-grin of jagged teeth. Unable to aim while holding the kid, Triska grabbed the Amban around the muzzle and swung it handle-first into the side of the Nexu’s head.

“Pretty hot here, too!” she called, hoping Mando could hear her.

The Nexu had given a piercing shriek when she hit it, but aside from knocking a few teeth out, all she’d done was make it angry. She tried to drag herself upright using the Amban as a crutch, but a fresh wave of agony hit her as she moved to put weight on her injured leg. The beast gnashed at her, crouching, its muscles rippling beneath its fur as it readied itself to pounce-

A stout, scaly body sailed over her from behind and pummelled straight into the Nexu. Horg snapped his long, scissor-like jaws around its throat, cutting off its piercing yowl of pain, then shook it like a rag-doll between his teeth.

“Watch out!”

Mando came hurtling through the mist to their left, firing over his shoulder at two more of the giant cat-like creatures. One of them flinched back and turned to flee when a shot clipped its flank, but the other took a soaring leap and clamped Mando’s ankle in its jaws, sending them both somersaulting to the ground.

Mando’s blaster skittered out of his hand.

“The Amban!” he shouted, tussling with the Nexu. Triska was close enough to the cot to drag herself towards it, bundle the kid inside and slam the panel closed.

“Horg!” she shoved the cot over to him. “Guard it!”

She hauled the rifle up and steadied it against her shoulder, but Mando and the Nexu were wrestling so violently she couldn’t take aim. Mando grunted in pain as the beast crunched down on his arm, crushing one of his gauntlets. Triska was gasping for breath, her hands shaking, sweat and blood stinging in her eyes.

“I need a clear shot!” she yelled, and Mando twisted his arm inside the Nexu’s mouth with a strange roaring sound-

The beast reared back, howling, its mouth suddenly ablaze with a belching mushroom-cloud of flame.

Breathe in…

Triska willed herself to focus, fighting the darkening blur at the corners of her vision as she took aim.

And out…

She felt her lungs empty, the world around her narrowing to a pinpoint of light, still and silent. The Nexu shook its head and screamed, raising a colossal paw to swipe at Mando’s head.

She squeezed the trigger.

 

*

 

“Stay with me. Stay with me.”

The ragged static of modulated breaths. Triska felt cool beskar against her cheek, warming to the press of her body. A muggy, yellowish haze gave way to warmth and smoke-filled darkness.

“You made a promise, Tris,” said Arvel, his face swimming into view before her eyes. “You promised me you’d keep fighting.”

She wished she could reach out towards him, but her body wouldn’t move. She couldn’t even summon the energy to speak, yet her words seemed to materialise in the air between them.

“I’ve fought so hard, ever since that moment. I’m tired.”

She was dimly aware of pressure on her leg; the jostling of hands lifting her up. Cold metal and stars.

“You’re fighting the wrong battle.” Arvel was watching someone: the shadow of a person, kneeling by her side. She could sense them moving. She felt something cool and damp pressed gently against her forehead as he looked back towards her.  “What use is surviving, if you refuse to live?”

“It should’ve been me, not you.” Hot tears welled up in her eyes, streaming down her face, yet the vision of Arvel remained clear and unmoving. “I wish it had been me.”

He reached forward, and she felt his fingers brush against her cheek.

“I’m glad it wasn’t.”

He gently swept the hair from her face, and like a breeze on the surface of dark water his image began to ripple and warp.

“No,” she whispered, her throat cracked, her mouth clumsy and swollen. “Don’t go…”

The gloved hand on her face stilled. She could smell the faint scent of leather and gun-oil.

“I’m not going anywhere,” came a filtered, crackling voice. “And neither are you. We’re almost there, just- just keep fighting.”

Chapter Text

“Listen, Mando, I know I performed miracles gettin’ that rust-bucket back in the air last time, but my expertise is strictly mechanical…”

Peli paced the hangar with the kid in her arms, glancing warily at Triska where Din had set her down on a stack of pallets. He’d strapped a tourniquet to her leg, but her clothes were soaked black with blood and she’d lost consciousness a long time ago. The three pit-droids were huddled around her, trilling and cooing in concerned tones.

“I’m not asking you to operate on her,” Din snapped, rounding on Peli, “I just need-”

“Look, if she wants a replacement fitted once the surgery’s finished then I’m her gal, but right now you need to take her to a Medcenter!”

He could feel the panicked thunder of his heartbeat reaching up through his throat. The kid was still wailing hysterically: he hadn’t stopped since they left Saleucami. Even if Din had known how to ask, the little guy was clearly in no fit state to heal anyone right now.

“I don’t know what kind of heat she might have after her, I can’t risk someone running her chain code. Now are you gonna help me or not?”

Peli frowned, chewing her lip. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes under the helmet for a moment, then placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Peli, I’m sorry. But you know someone; I know you do. Please.”

She looked up at him in silence for a moment, then shrugged ruefully.

“All ya had to do was ask nicely. I’ll see what I can do.”

 

*

 

A few enquiries later and Din was carrying Triska through the streets of Mos Eisley, to an unmarked door at the end of a back alley and down a twisting flight of stairs. He reached an inner blast door and knocked as Peli had told him: twice, once, then twice again.

“State your business,” came a voice from a panel on the wall.

“Peli Motto sent me,” Din replied. “I have a job for you.”

“And the credits to pay for it, I hope.” The doors slid open. “Follow the lights.”

Inside, Din found himself in a corridor, dimly-lit by clumps of blue organic-looking matter which clung to the transparisteel walls. A narrow space behind them was filled with water, teeming with strange aquatic life-forms the like of which he’d never seen before.

Past the tightening knot of fear in his chest, he dimly noticed fins and scales which glinted a little too brightly in the gloom. The creatures all had biogenic implants: some to heal injuries, others clearly just for show. A few of them even looked like they might be entirely artificial creations.

At the end of the corridor stood another set of doors, which opened to reveal a Kaminoan, busy inspecting a tray of surgical instruments.

“Place her here,” they gestured to a nearby medbay, barely glancing up as Din entered the room. He set Triska down and gently took the blanket from around her shoulders.

“Her right kneecap is shattered,” he heard himself say, his voice too-fast and breathless. “I don’t think it’s salvageable. She’s lost a lot of blood-”

A slender hand gripped his shoulder, gently but firmly pushing him away.

“Leave me to my business, please. You may wait outside.”

Before he knew it, he was looking back at Triska’s motionless form on the medbay as the doors to the operating room closed in his face with a decisive click.

Din stood there, looking at their solid, featureless metal. His breath was too loud through the vocoder. Should he go back to the hangar, check on the kid? Yes, that was something he could do- he strode towards the staircase leading up towards the street exit - but how would the Kaminoan know how to reach him? What if something went wrong? He abruptly turned on his heel and hurried back in the opposite direction. The doors were firmly closed. No sound reached him, save for the bubbling of water.

He’d felt like this too often recently: that sensation when he rolled over in his sleep and reached for the kid in his cot beside him, and for a moment his hand fell on empty air. He’d thought bringing Triska aboard would help to steady him, but instead he’d found himself tilting, thrown further off-balance, as if stuck in a dream of falling. Slowly he let himself slide to the floor, trying his best to grip at the smooth wall behind his back.

He’d felt it when he first watched her fly. The savage grace as she cut through the air. The power driving her movements. Something he sensed but couldn’t touch, like the blur of heat rising from a flame.

He admired her, he told himself. Respected her skill. Did that explain why he’d fumbled and stuttered like an adiik simply for seeing her step out of the ‘fresher? Did it explain why he’d lain in the warm darkness of his bunk afterwards, that first night on Saleucami, trembling with a want he hadn’t known in years?

Things had almost spiralled out of control the next morning. Reckless and stupid, to indulge himself in that lesson with the Amban. He could still feel the press of her shoulder blades against his cuirass; the strength of her spine as she aimed. She holds herself like a warrior, he’d thought. Even now, gripped by fear and exhausted down to his bones, the memory sent a low tug of desire through him.

Afterwards he’d forced himself to turn away, suddenly afraid that she would see right through the armour; as if all she needed to do was look at him and she would know everything, right down to his name. What frightened him most was that, in that moment, he’d wanted her to.

It had to stop. He’d leave her with Peli while he delivered what was left of Zossal Tand to Nevarro. He’d bring back what he owed her, and they would part ways. After what she’d suffered today, he was sure she’d be glad to find herself released from their deal. He would manage the kid on his own. Somehow.

Long, empty hours passed, and at some point he must have fallen into a half-sleep. A noise startled him back to his senses, and he turned to see the doors to the operating room slide open.

The Kaminoan’s head drooped low on their slender neck, their eyes bleary with exhaustion. Din scrambled to his feet as they gestured for him to follow, wiping their hands on the front of their red-stained robe.

“Your companion is strong,” they said, sitting down heavily next to the medbay where Triska still lay. “The joint was destroyed, but I have saved the lower leg, as you see.”

Triska was still unconscious, but restless as the Symoxin wore off. The Kaminoan had cut the leg of her overalls to expose the knee, which was… gone. An intricate cage-like structure of dark metal blended seamlessly with the flesh of her leg, protecting a fully-synthetic joint inside.

“The prosthesis is connected to all major nerves and arteries,” the Kaminoan continued wearily. “Sensation may be slightly diminished, and there will be intermittent pain, likely for the duration of her life.”

“But she’ll live?” Din blurted out, feeling the vice-like grip of tension suddenly spring loose from around his chest. The Kaminoan gave him a patient look.

“Yes,” they sighed. “She’ll live.”

“Hmm-”

Din’s attention shot back to the bed, where Triska had just begun to open her eyes.

“Tris,” he said, taking her hand without thinking.

“Mando…” She blinked up at him groggily. “Where-?”

“Tatooine, with a medic.” He glanced down at her knee, then cursed himself internally as she followed his gaze. This would be a huge shock. “You were injured, but it’s okay, just-”

“The kid?” she interrupted, glancing sharply up at him, “and Horg?”

He paused, caught off guard.

“Both fine. Horg got a few spines shot off.”

She gave a hoarse chuckle that turned into a cough, then looked down at the prosthetic again. Din braced himself for the shock, the rage, the screaming-

“Looks cool,” she said, wincing as she tried to move. “…Hurts like a bitch.”

Din felt relieved laughter bubble up in his chest before he could tamp it down. He let his head drop down onto their hands, still intertwined on the bed.

“What happened to Tand?” came Triska’s voice, quietly.

“In carbonite,” he replied. “Also in pieces.”

There was a pause.

“Karga’ll cut the bounty.”

He raised his head, looking at her. A smear of dried blood still clung to her cheek, scored through by the tracks of tears.

“I’ll gladly pay that price.”

Through the visor, her eyes always seemed to find his. He felt her fingers tighten around his hand.

“Speaking of price,” the Kaminoan cleared their throat loudly, “I believe it’s time we settled up.”

 

*

 

“How does it feel?”

Triska was leaning heavily on his arm as they limped through the sand-strewn alleys of Mos Eisley.

“Like my knee just got shot off,” she replied through gritted teeth, “but the Symoxin’s helping.”

“Let me carry you,” he said for the third time in as many minutes. “The hangar’s still pretty far-”

“No, I-” she stopped, sweat beading on her furrowed brow. “I need to know I can do this. Just…” she squeezed his arm, casting him a weary smile. “Just don’t let go, okay?”

It had to stop. That’s what he’d told himself, only hours before. He could pretend it was for her benefit, to protect her, but still the truth echoed over and over in his mind.

How can one be a coward if one chooses this way of life?

Thinking of the Covert was like a fresh brand pressed into his heart. He feared he wasn’t strong enough to take another loss like that. The truth was that he had sought to protect himself. That he was afraid.

This dala was no coward, and no fool. She would plot her own course. And, Maker help him, he would follow- if she let him.

Don’t let go, she’d said. He looked down at her hand on his arm, and covered it with his own.

“Never.”

Chapter Text

Triska woke to the dry heat of Mos Eisley clinging in her throat. Coughing weakly, she reached for the tin mug of water Peli had left beside her bed and took a long draught. It was lukewarm already, though the sun was still rising.

After Mando left, she’d slept for sixteen hours and spent another full day and night in bed. On their return from the medic, they’d scarcely made it back to the hangar before he was powering up the Crest to make his way to Nevarro.

“I can come too”, she’d protested, trembling with the effort it took to stand. The thought of him leaving had filled her with a strange sense of unreality: dreams and memories still muddled by the Symoxin. She thought she recalled being underwater, but that couldn’t be right. Had she felt his fingers entwined with her own; the cool touch of his bowed helm against her hand?

“You need to heal,” he replied, squeezing her shoulder, “and the kid needs to rest. There’s no place outside of my own arms where he’d be safer.”

She glanced over at Peli, chattering away to the kid as she bounced him on her knee.

“You trust her,” she said quietly. Mando sighed.

“I trust you.” He paused, then dipped his head to touch gently against hers, just for a moment. “K’oyacyi, Triska.”

“Hey!” Peli’s voice, floating in from the hangar, startled Triska from her memories. “Hold still please, mister, and don’t you splash me!”

She heard the sound of water sloshing, and the kid’s distinctive giggle. Sitting up on the mattress, she dragged her feet out onto the floor and wiggled her toes experimentally. She was wearing a long nightshirt whilst Peli washed her bloodstained clothes, leaving her new knee exposed. The joins between flesh and metal were almost seamless, as if the same synthetic bones lay hidden under every inch of her skin.

Setting her mug of water down, she braced one hand against the wall and stood gingerly. She’d made a couple of limping trips to the ‘fresher next door already, but insisting on walking back from the medic had taken a lot out of her. Trying not to hold herself too stiffly, she took a few cautious steps towards the entry to the hangar.

The joint itself felt like… nothing. It was an unnerving sensation, akin to climbing down a ladder in the dark and finding yourself at the bottom before you expected it. She could feel her lower leg and foot, but faintly, shot through with pins-and-needles. She stopped for a moment at the foot of the bed to catch her breath, then stepped out into the sunlight.

“Aha, there she is!”

Peli was elbow-deep in a tub of soapy water, giving the kid a bath. All around them, the hangar was festooned with clothes strung up on drying-lines, fluttering in the breeze.

“Morning, Peli,” Triska replied, her voice still heavy with sleep. Horg lifted his head from the tub where he’d been lapping up the dirty bath-water and yelped with excitement, galloping over to her.

“Hey buddy,” she grinned, scratching his head. She could see a couple of scorched stumps where Tand’s shot had grazed his spines, but he seemed unfazed, following her over to the tub where she sat down heavily next to Peli on an old ammo-box.

“Y’know, Mando oughta be ashamed of himself,” Peli grumbled, still scrubbing away. “Have you seen the dirt behind this little guy’s ears?! Ugh! You could grow balka greens back here…”

The kid trilled and blew bubbles happily, slapping Horg’s snout when the Massiff tried to drink more of the water. Triska smiled at them as she straightened out her knee.

“How’s it feelin’?” Peli asked.

“Not so bad… I’ll get used to it.” She cast a sidelong glance at Peli. “Thank you. For helping me.”

“Aah,” Peli shrugged, squeezing a sponge over the kid’s head. “Lemme beat you at sabacc sometime and we’ll call it even. Unless you wanna help me kidnap this little critter while Mando’s away…”

She grinned conspiratorially at Triska, who snorted with laughter.

“He’d hunt us down before we reached Guermessa.” She leaned back on her hands, tipping her face up into the sunlight.

“Hmm,” Peli chuckled as she lifted the kid from the tub and wrapped him in a towel. “If only his fatherly instincts stretched to cleaning between these little toes once in a while, huh?”

The kid squealed as Peli tickled him.

Horg laid his head gently on Triska’s thigh, closing his eyes with a deep sigh as she reached out absently to stroke his scales. She wondered where Mando was now. It felt strange, not to feel his presence near her.

"D'you know much about Mandalorians?" she asked, trying to keep her voice steady; disinterested. Peli shrugged, absorbed in towelling the kid.

"Our Shiny's the only one I've met,” she replied, “but something tells me he's not a typical Mando."

Triska thought of him, alone on the Crest. Kneeling in the black sands of Nevarro by the grave of his friend.

"He told me he took a vow,” she said quietly. “To leave behind who he was, before he put on the armour."

Faces flickered in her memory. Arvel; Shara; Niva. Her old friends on Korad, long ago.

Peli hummed thoughtfully, tossing the towel away as she got the kid back into a clean robe. She gently guided his little arms into the sleeves, then dandled him on her knee as he burbled away to himself.

"I'd say most people this side of the galaxy came here lookin' for a fresh start,” she said eventually, then cast Triska a keen look. “Speaking of- what's your story?" 

Triska gave a wry huff of laughter, rolling up her sleeve to reveal the A-Wing tattoo.

"You've heard it before, I bet.” She ran a hand over the faded ink. “Pretty tough to wipe clean."

Peli looked at her for a long moment, then leaned down, tugging the leg of her coveralls to reveal her ankle.

Triska felt a lump form suddenly in her throat. The distinctive electrical burns left by stun-cuffs were unmistakeable. Everyone knew that slavery had been rife on Tatooine under the Hutts… she should’ve guessed.

"We can't always forget the past.” Peli smiled thinly, letting her pant-leg drop to hide the scars. “Doesn't mean we can't heal. Life, huh?” she chuckled, stroking the kid’s ear as he looked up at her with those big, dark eyes. “Has a way of clinging to you… even when you wish it wouldn't." 

Triska nodded, watching them.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, the sudden sting of tears almost surprising her. Sorry to who- Peli? Arvel? Herself? Sorry for the whole sad mess of it all. Through the blur, she saw Peli’s hand come to rest gently over her own.

“So am I, kiddo.” Peli patted her hand. “Now come on, I know just what we need…”

 

*

 

“Junk, again?!” Triska threw her head back and sighed theatrically as the pit-droid tossed his cards onto the table with a forlorn bleep. “C’mon DUM-DUM, work with me here…”

“Quit stallin’ and play, missie,” Peli looked up from her own hand with a mischievous grin. “Don’t tell me you’ve got a handful of junk there, too-”

Triska scoffed.

“I’ll draw,” she replied, leaning over to grab another card.

“Heh, I can read you like a holo,” Peli rapped the table with her knuckles. “I stand.”

“You’re bluffing…” Triska took a swig of spotchka. “Throw down.”

“And that’s Sabacc!” Peli slammed her hand down with a victorious whoop, but Triska flipped her own cards with a flourish.

“Two can play at that game,” she crowed, “read ‘em and weep, old lady!”

“Now hold on just a minute there, Rhylet beats a Squadron fair-and-square!”

“Oh yeah? In what rulebook?”

“In every rulebook from here to Corellia, ya little womp-rat!”

Suddenly they were interrupted by a roaring gust of wind as the Razor Crest hovered down into the landing bay, the updraft from its thrusters sending the entire table- Sabacc cards and all- tumbling from under them.

“Heeey!” Triska raised her now dust-filled mug of spotchka in a toast as Mando tramped down the loading-ramp.

“Having fun?” he deadpanned, tilting his head towards her.

Peli coughed and spluttered, pulling the table upright.

“Y’know Mando, if you wanted to rob me blind you could’ve just held me at blaster-point like a normal person, instead of letting this little chroma-neeka swindle me outta house and home…”

Mando looked down at his boots and let out a long sigh.

“How much do you owe her?” he asked, reaching into the credit-pouch at his waist. “I’ll settle it-”

“Hah! You think we were playing for credits?!” Peli gave a snort of laughter, almost tripping over the pit droids as they scrambled to pick up every Sabacc card fluttering around at their feet. Triska beckoned lazily, her feet still propped up on a stack of crates.

“C’mon, grandma, cough up.”

Peli rolled her eyes, pulling a pair of tools from her belt with great reluctance.

“That’s my best set of laser-calipers,” she grumbled as she handed them over. Triska glanced up sharply.

“I’ll trade you back for my uni-wrench if you’re gonna be sore about it,” she replied, sounding hopeful, but Peli wasn’t buying it.

“Ach, a bet’s a bet,” she shrugged. “I’ll get over it. Hey- lemme fetch the kiddo for ya, he’s been missing his daddy…”

As she headed off inside, Mando turned to Triska.

“I’ve got us a bail-jumper over in the next system, not too far from an abandoned moon. Karga’s intel claims there’s some kind of Jedi ruin.”

Triska nodded.

“Did we get much for Tand?”

Mando silently produced a heavy stack of credits, pressing them into her palm.

“Turns out this one was worth more dead than alive.” His hand cupped hers for a moment, the credits still warm from his body. “How are you?”

“Oh, me? I’m-” glad you’re back.

The words formed, unbidden, at the tip of her tongue. She caught them with a breath, but perhaps he noticed some flicker of expression on her face. His fingers tightened, just slightly, around her own.

“Theeere we are!” Peli called, bustling over with a rather disgruntled-looking bundle. “Poor little guy was just taking a nap…”

She handed the kid to Mando, and Triska turned away to pocket the credits, her heart suddenly racing.

“I take it you’ll wanna be on your way?” Peli asked, tweaking the kid’s ear as he grizzled sleepily in Mando’s arms. “You’re welcome to stay, of course-”

“We’ve got another job,” Triska replied, turning back to them. “On- what’s this planet called?”

Mando looked up, and she saw her face reflected in his visor.

“Iso.”

Chapter Text

Triska must have fallen asleep at the helm after flying them out of Isonian space. She woke to the shiver of a deep cold leaving her, as Mando’s cloak draped over her huddled form in the pilot’s seat.

“Go back to sleep,” came his voice, buzzing through the vocoder. He’d put the helmet back on.

“Hmm…” she wondered how much time had passed- if she should give him a hard time for taking the vac-pack off- but a bone-heavy tiredness was pulling her back under. She watched the streaking lights of hyperspace stripe his cuirass as he leaned over to plug in a new course.

“Where’re we going?” she mumbled, already closing her eyes again.

“Heliope.”

The Jedi moon. She felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder, then slipped back into slumber.

 

*

 

She thought it was an alarm that startled her awake: a high trilling sound, faint and far away. She stumbled groggily out of the cockpit and down the ladder, Mando’s cloak still draped around her shoulders. As her feet hit the deck of the cargo bay, she turned- and wondered if she was still dreaming.

The blast doors were open, revealing a sea of lush, tall foliage which spread out before her, framed by a distant treeline. A warm breeze curled its way into the ship, carrying the sound she’d awoken to. It was birdsong, she realised, a smile spreading across her face.

“Mando?”

She stepped out into the wilderness, taking in a deep breath. The air smelled grass-sweet and green.

“Here,” came his voice from the other side of the Crest. He’d set them down next to a thin strip of sand at the edge of a lake, and there he sat, watching the kid and Horg paddling in the shallows.

“I can see why they chose this place,” she said, sitting down next to him.

“The temple is on that hilltop, across the lake,” he pointed to the high ground, covered in thick forest. “We can set off tomorrow at first light.”

“Nobody’s moved in, since the Jedi left?”

Mando shook his head.

“We’re alone.”

They sat in silence for a while, watching the kid pick up stones and shells, babbling to Horg as if telling him a story.

“I wanted to-” Mando paused, then pulled a cloth-wrapped bundle from the pack at his side. “I have something for you.”

“Oh?” Triska took it from his hands, surprised at its weight. “What-”

Her breath snagged in her chest as the cloth fell open to reveal a set of armour, skilfully-crafted from some dark metal, the same shade as her new knee.

“It’s not beskar’gam,” Mando rapped the breastplate with his knuckles, “but it will protect you. I made an extra stop, before I picked you up on Tatooine.”

Triska just stared at the armour in wonder, her heart leaping.

“Mando, this is- how did you-” even with Tand’s bounty, how could he have afforded all this? She glanced at him, and saw for the first time that he was missing a thigh-guard. Suddenly she felt sick. “Please tell me you didn’t.”

“Didn’t-” Mando followed her gaze, down to the missing armour. “…Oh. Yes. I did.”

Triska gasped, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.

“Mando, I can’t-”

“Burc’ya,” he interrupted, one hand falling on her shoulder. “You saved my life; you protected my Creed; you almost died to defend the child. Please, don’t dishonour me by refusing this gift.”

His voice was soft, but she felt the force behind it. She reached out, hesitantly, and smoothed her hand along the curve of one gauntlet. Her gauntlet.

“It’s beautiful.”

 

*

 

“Are you ready?”

It was dusk on Heliope, the sky blushing warm with afterglow. The kid was safely tucked away on the Crest with Horg standing guard.

Triska pulled the last strap of her cuirass into place and took a few experimental steps forward, rolling her shoulders as she walked. The armour felt moulded to every curve of her body: an extension of flesh. She felt strong. Powerful.

She made her way to the other side of the ship where Mando was waiting.

“Ready.”

He turned to her, and froze. She looked down at the suit, wondering if she’d put something on backwards.

“Does it… look weird without a helmet?” she ventured, glancing up at him.

He still didn’t speak. She saw him clench one first, then release.

“It, uh- it looks fine.” He cleared his throat gruffly. “Take your position.”

She stepped towards him and lowered into a fighting stance, hands raised around her head.

“Okay,” he raised his fists, “let’s start with-”

Triska didn’t wait for him to finish: she charged forward and scissor-kicked him straight in the gut. Mando staggered back, slipping down onto one knee as she pivoted onto the other foot, swinging a roundhouse kick at his helmet.

With impossible speed his arm snapped up and he grabbed her ankle, yanking her down onto her back and using the momentum to pull himself upright, over her. Bracing herself against the ground, she used her free leg to boot him square in the face.

Mando lost his grip on her ankle and wheeled backwards, out of reach.

“Good,” he craned his neck, shaking out his shoulders. “Get up.”

Triska got to her feet and faced him again. She’d been in plenty of brawls, but never wearing armour. It made her feel bold, trying moves she wouldn’t normally risk against a much larger opponent. Her breath quickened, a surge of adrenaline tingling down her spine.

Mando advanced, moving to grab her shoulder. She sliced upwards with a block, her gauntlet clashing against his, but he was so damn fast- she felt his other fist crunch into her ribs before she’d even registered its movement. He grabbed her arm and twisted, aiming to trap her in his grip, so she folded down and tried to surge up with her shoulder into his solar plexus, but the angle was wrong: she felt tendons strain in her trapped arm.

“Yield,” he said.

She tried to scrabble with her free hand, reaching behind his knee, until he twisted her arm again.

“Ow, okay, okay!” she yelped, gasping as he released her.

“You’re quick; creative.” He circled her, breathing a little more heavily now. “You play to your strengths- that’s good. Just don’t get distracted.”

She scoffed, rubbing her arm.

“In a real fight you’d have stabbed me in the lung through the cuirass. I’d be dead by now.”

That made him go still again, cocking his head in her direction.

“…What would you do,” he asked eventually, “if this were a real fight?”

She thought for a moment, looking at him. He was broad and tall: a formidable opponent, even to someone of his own size. Even if he hadn’t been bristling with weapons and armoured up like a battle-droid. She had no chance of matching him, in strength or technique.

“I’d run,” she replied, honestly.

As soon as the words left her mouth, she felt something change, as if the ground had suddenly tilted beneath their feet. An electric charge crackled into life, filling the space between them as he turned to face her: shoulders squared, muscles tensed. She felt a thrill shiver through every nerve in her body.

“Then run.”

Operating on pure, blind instinct, She felt herself turn and sprint before she even realised what she was doing. Her breath was a clean song pulling through her, feet pounding to the thunder of the heartbeat in her ears. Ducking and feinting, she weaved through the long grass and felt him close behind, the weight of his body pressing in on her. She veered off into the woods, dodging between trees in an attempt to shake him off. She felt the snatch and brush of his fingers almost closing on her hair.

A half-fallen tree blocked the path ahead: she pelted towards it and slid under the low-hanging branches, pulling them with her until they sprung back and struck beskar with a ringing crack like the sound of a whip. Breaths burned in her chest now, white spots dancing in front of her eyes as she kept running. She fled at full-pelt until the trees cleared and she was thrown out into the open plains, tall grass swaying all around her.

Slowing to a jog, she realised the presence behind her was gone. No other breath stirred the air around her; no figure cut through the grass. She turned, enveloped by a sudden silence.

“…Mando?” she called, glancing around at the empty field.

A hand reached out and pulled at her ankle, toppling her onto the ground. She swore, twisting in his grip as he tried to pin her, reaching for her throat. She side-swiped him in the neck with her gauntlet, raking the sole of her boot down the back of his knee, then kicking with all her weight. His leg folded and he fell backwards with a grunt. Thrown on top of him, she grabbed his wrists, but he easily broke her grip. Fingers dug into her thigh, gaining leverage to flip her onto her back-

Without thinking, Triska rolled her hips down. Mando froze beneath her, and the burning in her lungs sank down to a soft fire in her core. It was still there: the crackle of tension between them, the predatory urge that made her blood sing. She moved again, rocking into the hardening bulge between his legs. Grip tightening on her thigh, Mando let out the softest, strangled moan, barely audible through the vocoder. The answering throb of arousal inside her made Triska press her face to the cool metal with a gasp.

She raised her hands to his wrists again; pushed them down into the flattened grass. He let her do it.

Her breath misted against his helmet.

“Yield.”

Chapter Text

They headed back to the Crest as darkness fell, urgent and silent, the rush of their breaths masked by breezes through the tall grass. Triska’s head was swimming. Heat prickled at the back of her neck, every movement of her legs sending an echo of want thrumming in her core. To a stranger, Mando might have looked distant, even distracted- but she felt the catch of his glove against her thigh-plate, the touch of his gauntlet against her own. He didn’t break contact with her once as they journeyed back to the ship.

Once they were inside, Mando sent the crib up to the cockpit and ushered her through to the crew quarters, closing the door behind them. He still hadn’t spoken, but she could hear ragged breaths through the vocoder.

Suddenly she felt his hand on her shoulder, spinning her around, crowding her until her back-plate clanged against the hull. His thigh pressed between her legs and she reached out, fingers curling around the edge of his neck-guard, suddenly desperate to feel the heat of his skin.

“Ner verd,” he growled, rolling his hips against her. “Wait-”

She stumbled forward slightly as he pulled away, turning to pick up the strip of cloth she’d used as a blindfold last night. He ripped off his gloves impatiently, and for a moment she caught sight of his hands- large and powerful, marked with old scars- before he was covering her eyes.

“Get this off,” she reached for the fastenings on his pauldron, but he caught her hand. “Mando, what-”

“This armour will save our lives, many times. It must be treated with respect. I will show you…” his breath hitched, fingers closing on the straps of her cuirass… “how to remove it.”

He pulled her forwards, into the centre of the room.

“First, the gauntlets.”

He guided her hands to the beskar at his wrist, tracing her fingers along the release mechanism. She pressed down until she heard a click, and the cuff fell open. She did the same to his other arm, and felt him turn to place them carefully on the table beside them.

“If you had a helmet, that would be next,” he continued, and her stomach swooped as she heard the tell-tale hiss of Mando removing his own. “Now, let’s take care of you…”

He took each of her arms in turn and removed her gauntlets. Like the others, these were laid gently on the table. Triska’s heart was pounding. She opened her mouth to speak, then gasped as she felt Mando lift her arm with his naked hand and press an open-mouthed kiss into the soft flesh of her wrist.

The heat of his breath was searing as he sighed throatily against her skin; she felt her knees threaten to buckle when the tip of his tongue traced up towards the base of her palm. 

“Mando…” she traced her fingertips along the rough line of stubble at his jaw.

“Din,” came his voice, close to her ear as he turned and rested his cheek against hers.

“Huh?”

“Triska… my name is Din.”

She stopped, processing what she’d just heard. Then, as she had last night, she reached up and smoothed her hands gently over his face: the fine creases at the corners of his eyes, the bump along his nose, the pulse that raced at the edge of his jaw.

“Din,” she breathed, feeling a smile tug at the corners of her mouth even as her eyes stung with tears. His forehead touched against hers, his hand reaching up into her hair, and then finally, he kissed her.

She melted into the plush softness of his lips; the simmering heat of his breath as his tongue met hers. Their chest-plates separated her from his body, and she pawed ineffectually at the plane of beskar in front of her.

“Tell me,” she gasped against his mouth, not willing to break the kiss. “Tell me what to do.”

“Here-” he guided her hands to his pauldrons, his own fingers shaking as he released the catches on hers. When he turned to set them down on the table, she took advantage of his exposed side, fumbling with the straps of his cuirass.

Din unstrapped the last of it and lifted it over his head. She heard the clunk of it hitting the table, a little less reverentially than the earlier pieces, and grinned as his mouth found hers hungrily again. Now she was free to slide up his under-shirt, clenching inside as she felt the hot expanse of muscled flesh, traced with rough seams of scar tissue. Din let out a soft, dizzying gasp, twitching under her touch, before ripping off the under-shirt entirely and twirling her around.

“Hey, what-” she laughed breathlessly, almost losing her footing, then heard the scraping sound of a chair being pulled up in front of her. Din sat, then reached out and tugged her by the hips, pulling her in between his legs.

“Raise your arm.”

His voice was low and rough, striking a harmony with the deep, insistent thrum of emptiness growing at her core. She did as he said. He yanked hurriedly at the straps, cursing under his breath as he struggled with the smaller catches.

Din pushed up her under-shirt, the heel of his hand smoothing along her stomach and over her ribs. She pulled it over her head along with her bra, placing her hands on his shoulders to steady herself. For a moment, neither of them moved. She could feel that his head was tilted up, just looking at her.

“Mesh’la…”

The heat of his breath sent a shiver across her skin. One hand slid up her back and he kissed a burning trail down her stomach, towards the waistband of her leggings. His other hand grabbed her ass and squeezed hard, pulling her into him. She moaned softly, fingers carding through his hair as his head pressed into the crook of her thigh.

“Gar cuyir jatisyc,” he growled, breathing deeply, scenting her. “Ni linibar…”

Triska moved to raise her knee between them, expecting him to start working on her thigh-plate, then let out a surprised yelp as he surged to his feet. He lifted her up, holding her against his chest as she wrapped her legs around his waist.

With one sweep of his arm, the meticulously-placed armour went clattering to the floor and Triska was laid onto the table. She arched up from the cold metal surface, a dizzying contrast to the furnace-heat of Din’s body rolling against her.

He kissed her greedily, sucking her lower lip into his mouth. She felt the hard swell of his erection pressing between her legs and gasped, canting her hips upwards. Din made a soft, breathless sound in the back of his throat and ducked his head. Moments later she heard the rip of fabric as he tore her leggings & underwear, and then-

“Ohhh…”

Her head tipped back at the sensation of his fingers, broad and strong and perfect, stroking through her folds and circling her clit. Her legs fell open, thigh-plates clanging against the table-top. She could feel the muscles trembling in his arm as he braced himself above her; could smell the clean warmth of his hair as he mouthed a breathless trail across the curve of her breast. She moaned again as his hand moved against her, sliding two fingers into her aching, empty cunt.

It was so close to what she needed; he flexed his wrist and pushed in deeper, smoothing the pads of his fingers against her walls and tilting up into the pressure of his thumb on her clit. She grabbed at the broad, shifting plane of his shoulder blade, trying to pull him upwards, towards her.

“Din, I’m ready- please-”

She felt a shiver pass down the nape of his neck. He rose over her until she could feel the heat of his breath on her face.

“Say it again,” his voice rumbled in her chest. “My name.”

“Din…”

He traced her lips with his fingers, still wet with her slick; the scent of her arousal on his skin was dizzying. He licked into her mouth, and then his hand was on the inside of her thigh, pushing, and the thick heat of his cock was spreading her open, filling her.

“Triska… ner cyare…” he’d ducked his head, breaths trembling against the hollow of her throat. She traced her hands through his hair, guiding him back to her kiss, wrapping her legs tight around him until his hips rocked into her again.

She’d almost forgotten how good it felt; how much better it was than chasing her pleasure alone in a cold bunk. The solid, heavy presence of him grounded her. She felt calm- safe- even as her heart kicked at the animal scent of his need.

They moaned together, building into an undulating rhythm, faster and deeper each time. The edge of the table clanged against the hull and she reached back, pushing against the cold curve of metal. She was so close, and it had been so long: she was like a thread unspooling, ready to be pulled taut. At that moment he reached under her, spreading his palm across the small of her back and tilting her hips upwards and oh-

“Din, I’m gonna-”

White lights sparked across her vision as the pleasure burst and shimmered through her core, cascading along every nerve from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. She felt Din thrust into her a few more times then shudder, his shoulders dropping as his head fell against her chest.

“Cyare,” he said again, whispering into the crook of her shoulder. “Ner cyare.”

Chapter Text

Din woke to a breath-warm silence, deep in the belly of the night. He was lying in Triska’s bunk, his arm draped over her as she slept. The kid was safe in his cradle with the panel closed. A warm and unfamiliar feeling rose in his chest: a bone-deep sense of rightness, beyond mere physical comfort. Triska shifted & sighed in his arms, half-waking, the blindfold still covering her eyes so he could sleep without his helmet.

“Mesh’la,” he whispered to himself, smoothing his hand down the curve of her waist.

“What does that mean?” she asked sleepily, and he smiled.

“Beautiful,” he replied, pressing a kiss to the nape of her neck. Triska gave a soft huff of laughter.

“I’m not beautiful.”

There was no hint of self-pity in her words, only a statement of fact. He remembered first catching sight of her in that repair-shop on Kergans: his blunt, pragmatic assessment of her. What a fool he’d been.

“Mandalorians have a saying: a blade’s beauty comes from its sharpness.”

“So you keep me around because I’m useful?” Triska teased, her mouth quirking with that delicious little half-smile. He leaned over and chased it, kissing the half-moon line at the corner of her lips.

“A person’s beauty comes from their Mandokarla,” he replied, his voice rough and low.

“What’s that?”

“I guess you could call it… warrior-spirit,” he stroked the strong arc of her shoulder. “Persistence… or stubbornness. Duty and loyalty until the end. A hunger to live: to fight for every day.”

Triska sighed, her smile turning sad; wistful.

“If you’d met me back when-” she paused, a tremble in her breath. “I left my Mandokarla behind, somewhere…”

Din shook his head, reaching out to trace the line of her cheekbone.

“I see it in you,” he said softly. Yes, it was there: the last ember in a dying fire; a seedling’s naked roots in rocky ground. It would return.

“Why did you become a Mandalorian?” she asked, glancing back at him though her eyes were covered. He laid his head back against the pillow, reaching down to take her hand.

“I was a foundling. When my parents were killed, Mandalorians rescued me. They took me in, trained me…”

Her fingers tightened around his.

“They became your family.”

A twinge of loneliness caught him in the gut, like the memory of a long-healed wound.

“As a foundling I had no Aliit- no clan- but yes,” he replied. “They’re like my family.”

A few breaths came & went in silence.

“Will you go back to them?”

Din’s heart ached as he remembered the Armorer, standing over that funeral cairn of empty Mandalorian helms.

“Since the destruction of Mandalore, we’ve lived in secret. There was a Covert on Nevarro, but…” his throat tightened, and he found he couldn’t say more. Triska pulled his hand to her chest, pressing a kiss against his knuckles.

“I’m sorry.”

He turned her hand outwards, so the A-Wing tattoo stood out against her forearm.

“Were they your family?” he asked gently, feeling the catch in her breath as he lay against her.

“The ones who were are gone,” she replied in a small voice.

He knew there was more to that story, but he wouldn’t push her. She would share it with him when she was ready.

“Dral,” he said, after they had lain for a while in silence.

“Hmm?” Triska mumbled, on the edge of sleep again.

“You were right: mesh’la doesn’t quite fit you.” He traced his fingers up her arm and down the length of her ribs, luxuriating in the softness of her skin. “Dral is better.”

“What does that mean?” she asked, her voice sharpening into wakefulness as she moved under his touch.

“It has many meanings. Bright… glowing…” his hand smoothed down the valley of her hip, to the soft wetness between her legs. “Strong… powerful…”

He curled his fingers inwards and felt her arch against him with that plush, perfect ass. He groaned into the crook of her neck, hips rolling upwards as he stroked her in slow, lazy circles.

“Din…” she sighed, breath hitching at the back of her throat.

Cyare… he had to bite his lip to keep from saying it aloud again: he wasn’t quite ready to tell her what it meant. He kept his mouth busy by kissing every inch of her he could reach: the petal-soft skin under her ear, the rolling line of her shoulder blade. He felt a swelling tension build from the base of his cock, harder with every pound of his heart.

Triska was grinding against him now, matching the rhythm of her hips to the swirl of his fingers against her clit. The noises she made, dank farrik- sweet little throaty moans that tugged at something deep inside him.

Their legs tangled together, kicking the thin coverlet down to the bottom of the bunk. He felt drunk with half-glimpsed flashes of newly discovered beauty: the crook of her knee; the dimple at the very base of her spine. He longed to explore them all.

He was painfully hard now, leaking against the cleft of her ass. She tilted her hips, and his cock twitched as his tip slid along her slick, swollen lips. The urge to push into her tight heat knocked a shuddering breath out of him.

“Okay?” he breathed, and heard a soft, petulant moan of need as she rocked back into him. Grinning, he reached up between her breasts, anchoring his hand at the base of her throat to hold her in place as he thrust into her with one long, steady roll of his hips.

She was wet and tight and perfect, so fucking perfect- he heard himself make a thin, wounded noise and squeezed his eyes shut, wondering faintly if his brain was going to short-circuit like this every time he moved inside her. As if sensing his thoughts, she reached out, her hand splayed against the side of the bunk- and pushed back to meet him.

He wasn’t sure how long he lost himself in the tide of their bodies, caressing and lapping in an endless rhythm. His fingers spanned her collarbone, her breast, holding her close; he could hear the lewd, liquid sounds of her stretching around him.

She tipped her head back and grabbed his hand, opening her legs to guide him back towards her clit. The bunk was filled with her scent, sweet and warm as honey- Maker, he couldn’t wait to taste her. To sate himself he leaned down and traced greedy, open-mouthed kisses along the crook of her neck, savouring the salt-tang of sweat.

He worked her clit with steady, urgent strokes, dipping his fingers low to feel himself pumping into her.

“Din,” she gasped, half-sobbing, “I need- I need-”

“I’ve got what you need,” he growled against her ear. “Ner dral kara, let me give you what you need…”

He pulled her against his chest with one arm and shifted over her, pressing her face-down into the thin mattress with his body covering hers. He tugged roughly at her hips, creating enough space beneath her to snake his hand down and caress the sweet, soft nub of her clit as he entered her again.

Her face was turned to one side on the pillow: mouth wide, lips swollen and flushed. Each time he thrust into her she let out a quiet, huffing gasp, and he could tell how tantalizingly close she was, pulsing and quivering around his cock. He had to fight his own need from bursting past his control, burying his face in the sweat-damp tangle of her hair. It was too much to see her beneath him, lost so utterly in a pleasure he was giving. She was magnificent, this woman who had stood before him in armour like a warrior of Mandalore; wielded his weapons; defended his Aliit, shoulder-to-shoulder. This woman- his woman- his-

“Triska,” he blurted out, his voice ragged with a keen, desperate edge, and thank the Maker she was right there with him.

“Yes,” she moaned, reaching down to press her slender fingers against his on the sweet, slick heat of her cunt. “Din, yes-”

His hips snapped into a punishing rhythm, chasing the fluttering clench of her walls around him, mindless of everything but the ecstatic pulse of his body inside hers. He felt her tense and shudder; felt the shout of her climax vibrate in his chest; felt himself breaking, spilling, sinking against her and into the lull of their bodies, rocked only by breath.

 

*

 

Din fought against the cling of sleep for the few hours of night remaining, trying to ingrain every detail into his memory. The scent of Triska’s hair. The rhythm of her pulse. The warmth of her back pressed against his belly.

Months ago, after he’d fled Nevarro with the kid, he’d felt a similar way: checking the crib every hour; taking off his glove and holding it above the little gremlin as he slept, just to check he was still breathing. He listened to Triska’s breath, drawing back and forth in a slow, calming tide, and cursed the thinning darkness of dawn.

“Hmm…” she twitched in her sleep, half-raising her arm, as if to cover her face. “No- Arvel-”

Din felt himself go perfectly still, heart clenching. He’d heard that name before, when she had fallen asleep in the cockpit one night and he’d come to check on her.

He wasn’t blind: on the day they met he’d seen that she was raw; sick with grief. Set adrift in her own life. He closed his eyes, and wished with all his heart that he could draw that pain from her like a poison; carry the weight of it in himself.

She shifted in his arms again, turning until her face rested next to his on the pillow. He heard the change in her breath as she woke; felt the curve of her smile against his skin.

“...Din.”

Chapter Text

Late afternoon light filtered through a canopy of lush, damp foliage as Triska & Din hiked towards the Jedi temple. The air was warm and humid, clinging to the back of Triska’s neck as her boots slipped in the mud.

“This thing is broken,” she rapped at her gauntlet, producing a warped and flickering projection of the landscape around them. The dot which was supposed to be marking their current position kept flitting randomly from place-to-place. “Maybe we tested the armour with a little too much enthusiasm…”

She glanced behind her at Din, and heard a modulated snort of laughter.

“I don’t think so,” he replied, tinkering with his own nav-system. “Mine has the same issue: must be a dampening-field.”

Triska frowned.

“Would that kind of thing have survived all this time?”

“Hmm…” he shrugged. “The Jedi seem capable of surprising things.”

After a while, Triska switched off her nav with a disgruntled huff.

“Well, if that doesn’t work, let’s try the old-fashioned way…”

She found a foothold on the nearest tree and scaled up into its branches until her head poked above the canopy, looking for a source of light to catch her bearings from. The only problem was, she could see one source too many.

“Two suns,” came Din’s voice from below. “No use trying to triangulate.”

“Stupid planet,” she muttered, climbing awkwardly back down. “You could’ve told me that before I got all the way up here: what are you up to?”

She glanced down, grinning as she caught Din’s helmet tilted lazily upwards, watching her descend.

“Enjoying the view,” he answered, offering her a hand. She took it and jumped the rest of the way down.

“I guess we just keep heading uphill and hope for the best, then.”

They hiked for another hour or so, stopping every once in a while to give the kid a sip of water and let him stretch his legs. He wasn’t too happy about spending so much time in the sling, ears drooping as he grizzled quietly to himself.

“He misses Horg,” said Triska, tweaking his ear gently. Din chuckled.

“We should make a saddle, then Horg could carry him.”

The trees began thinning out around them as they walked, the ground levelling slightly until they found themselves on a thin, bare plateau. Far above them, Triska could just glimpse the edge of a wall- but they were separated from it by almost twenty feet of sheer cliff-face. She shook her head, glancing at Din.

“We can’t scale that without climbing gear.”

Din rolled his shoulders and swept his cloak to one side, revealing the jetpack on his back.

“I’ll get us up.” He moved into her space, tilting his head down as he looped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. “You’ll need to hold on tight.”

Triska smirked, hands clasping around the back of his neck.

“Y’know, if you wanted to dance you could’ve asked me back at the Crest.”

“I don’t dance,” he answered quietly, an undercurrent of heat simmering in his voice. She could tell from the angle of his visor that he was looking at her mouth.

“I never would’ve guessed.”

Without warning he sent them rocketing up into the air.

Triska yelped, tightening her grip and grabbing onto him with her knees as they soared into the air. Heart pounding, she ducked her head against his chest and saw the kid in his sling, giggling and flapping his chubby little arms like wings.

After only a few seconds they touched down on the clifftop. Triska lowered her legs, just barely keeping her knees from buckling as her feet touched the earth again.

“You wampa-jockey!” she smacked him on the pauldron with a breathless laugh. “You could’ve given me a little warning…”

“You were making eyes at me in front of the kid,” Din replied, and she could hear the grin in his voice. “I was protecting his innocence.”

She rolled her eyes, turning to get a proper look at the temple.

“When we get back to the Crest I am gonna kick your ass again.”

“Looking forward to it.”

The temple stood before them, its walls and roof one seamless, elegant dome of white marble: shell-like and glistering in the sun.

“It’s beautiful…” Triska stepped forward and smoothed her fingertips tentatively across the stone. There was a tension, a gravity to the air up here: as if this place had been waiting for them.

“What d’you think, buddy?” Din took the kid out of his sling and set him down. “Look familiar?”

The little guy tilted his head, looking curious, then started waddling towards the open doorway. Din followed, with Triska close behind.

Inside, cool lakes of shadow obscured all but the entry-chamber. There was a plain dirt floor, packed hard by centuries of passing feet, and Triska could just make out the ghosts of long-faded murals on the walls. Looking around, she felt a swoop of disappointment in her stomach.

Whatever traces might have remained of the Jedi, they were too late to discover them: the chamber had been ransacked of anything remotely valuable. Judging by the large, flat blocks of marble lying in haphazard piles on the floor, someone had even tried to remove the altar before the stones’ enormous weight defeated them.

“The Empire really hated these people…” she shook her head in disbelief. “It’s like they were cut clean out of the galaxy.”

She turned, and saw Din running a gloved hand over the wall. His shoulders dropped, and she knew what he was thinking: another dead end.

“There’s a second room down there,” she said gently, pointing to some kind of antechamber to the right of the altar. “We might find something yet.”

Din nodded.

“I’ll take a look: you keep an eye on the womp-rat.” He headed for the doorway, then glanced back. “If that dampening-field survived all this time, there might be more surprises hidden around here: stay alert for traps.”

He ducked into the next room, and Triska turned her attention to what little she could see of the murals. She thought she could make out figures in long, hooded cloaks, holding staffs… no, they looked more like energy-weapons of some kind… she remembered what Olu had said, about the Jedi buried on Saleucami. A sword made of light.

She sighed, wishing she’d paid more attention back in those last days of her time in the Fleet. She’d heard people talk about Skywalker: the legend who destroyed the first Death Star. They’d said that he had some kind of magic sight, like the Chiss navigators. Then again, idle gossip was a soldier’s favourite pastime: she’d also heard that Admiral Ackbar slept in a giant fishbowl.

She heard a scuffling noise nearby, and looked around to see the kid crawling under a tall slab of marble leaning vertically against the wall.

“Hey, be careful!” she scrambled after him, ready to scoop him up if the slab started to wobble- then froze.

There was another doorway. The stone had been carefully manoeuvred to obscure it from view.

“You Jedi are sneaky little creatures,” Triska remarked to the kid, but he’d already waddled through, leaving her to crawl after him.

This room was a round, vaulted chamber very similar to the last, but with a skylight cut into the stone above. A perfect sphere of sunlight pooled across the centre of the floor, motes of dust floating lazily through its path. Apart from that, the room was empty. Too empty, Triska thought suddenly. Open to the elements like this, the place should be scattered with dead leaves. There should be birds and bats making nests, or water-marks on the dirt floor. Instead, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“Din?” she called, trying to keep her voice low. She knelt and picked up the kid, but he wriggled in her grasp with a petulant squeak.

“What is it?” she whispered. The kid looked up at her, then reached out towards the far wall of the chamber. Taking a cautious step towards, Triska felt centuries of cold radiating from the stone.

“There’s nothing-” she began, then stopped mid-sentence as the cold moved against her cheek. An airflow…

“Tris?” Din called from the entry-chamber. She whistled quietly in reply, and moments later his head appeared through the blocked doorway. “What-”

She held a finger to her lips. Din slid through without another word and hurried to her side.

“There’s something behind this wall,” she breathed. “Can you see anything?”

He looked at the wall, touching something on the side of his helmet. After a few moments, he reached out to what looked like nothing more than a hairline crack in the marble, and pushed.

There was a whoosh of cool air as a hidden door opened outwards into a narrow tunnel, carved roughly into the dark earth of the mountain. The kid gave a soft coo of excitement in Triska’s arms.

“Give him to me,” Din whispered. “He’s safer between the two of us. There’s a light on your right bracer: tap the button under your wrist.”

Triska did as he said, and a pale stream of light cut a slender path through the shadows ahead. Heart thumping, she unholstered her blaster and stepped through the doorway.

A spiral of rough stairs had been hacked into the stone, then worn soft by condensation leeching in from the soil above. She took each step carefully, her feet threatening to slip on patchy blankets of moss. Din kept close behind with the kid in one hand and his blaster in the other, pointed over her shoulder.

The air plunged from cool to chilled as they descended. Triska tried to keep her breaths quiet as they misted in front of her face. Eventually she went to take another step down, and almost stumbled as the floor levelled out beneath her feet.

“Okay?” Din put a hand on her shoulder.

“Yeah,” she whispered, casting her torch around a dark, empty chamber. The only thing here was a strange symbol daubed on the wall with red ochre. It looked like a skull, with a fearsome pair of horns curving downwards towards its elongated teeth.

“What is that?”

She heard Din turn his head; felt the hand on her shoulder tighten at the very same moment as the cold edge of a blade pressed under her jaw.

“Nushaad’la.”

Chapter Text

“Ke’pare- ni cuy’ Mando,” Din’s voice was tight, his hand still clamped firmly on Triska’s shoulder. “Ner gai Din Djarin.”

“Ne’johaa!” the other Mandalorian hissed, and Triska fought the urge to swallow as the blade pressed into her neck. “Goorar gar besbe’trayce.”

Din dropped his blaster, and Triska copied him.

“Udesii, vod…”

“Ni cuy’ nayc gar vod,” came the clipped reply. Maker, she wished she could understand what they were saying.

Suddenly, she her pulse leapt against the cold edge of steel as the red-painted skull on the wall split into two halves, revealing a second hidden door carved into the stone.

“Tion’cuy?” came another voice from within. Triska couldn’t risk turning her head, but she could hear the tell-tale crackle of a modulator.

“Meg vaabir?” they called again, sounding more irritated than alarmed. “Kaysh Mando!”

The blade at her throat twisted slightly; she felt a seam of blood welling around its point.

“Ibac nayc.”

The chill in their voice settled it. Without warning, she ducked her chin and twisted, yelling in pain as the knife sliced against her jawbone rather than her throat. For a split-second, the Mandalorian’s hand was trapped between her chin and her collarbone: she took advantage, hunching down then driving her fist upwards into the exposed strapping along their ribs. They were slim and small- smaller than she expected- and the blow actually knocked them back a couple of steps: enough for Din to yank her behind him before they had a chance to recover.

“Gev!” Din yelled, holding up his hands. “Vi nayc aru’ese!”

Triska panted, touching her jaw to feel a short, deep slash across the bone. She sensed Din glancing back at her and squeezed his hip briefly in reply: the bleeding was strong, but not dangerous.

Looking up, she saw two Mandalorians: one around Din’s height, in red-painted armour beginning to flake with age. He was holding the arm of the one who had attacked them: a girl, clad in mismatched pieces, most of them damaged.

“Ni ceta,” said the taller one, bowing his head towards them. The younger one looked away in disgust. “I am truly sorry. Brother, is your riduur hurt?”

“She’s not-” Din’s voice faltered. Triska straightened up and he took her arm, steadying her. “She’s not badly wounded. Do you have bacta? A cauterizer?”

“Of course: please, come to our Karyai.”

They followed the Mandalorians through the hidden doors and into another narrow tunnel. Din took off his cloak as they walked.

“How bad?” he asked, pressing the coarse wool in a bundle against her jaw to stem the bleeding.

“I’ll be fine,” she replied. “Din, these are-”

“I know.” There was a tremor of excitement in his voice. “Maybe they can help us.”

The girl glanced back at them sharply, but the other Mandalorian jerked her by the arm, whispering something to her in a stern tone.

Triska felt a twist of uncertainty in her gut, wishing she’d asked Din more about what his people were like. Something tells me he's not a typical Mando: that’s what Peli had said. Triska hoped she’d been wrong.

The flickering warmth of firelight faded into view at the end of the tunnel. With it came the scent of cooking and woodsmoke; the sound of voices echoing.

“Ibic cuy Manda,” the red-clad Mandalorian called, and a sentry appeared at the mouth of the tunnel.

“Ibic cuy Manda,” they replied, then hesitated at the sight of Din and Triska.

“We have company,” he said, patting the sentry’s shoulder. “Fetch the Goran.”

Din’s head snapped up at that.

“Goran?” His grip tightened on Triska’s arm as the Mando looked back at them and nodded.

“Yes: she is our Alor.”

Triska didn’t have time to ask what that meant before they emerged into another chamber: about the same size as the last, with more tunnels branching out along its walls. Hammocks and bunks circled a large fire in the centre of the room, topped with a grill and cooking-pots. Another Mandalorian stood from where they had been stoking the flames. Beside them sat three children. Triska blinked, unsure at first why the sight surprised her, until she realised: the kids weren’t wearing helmets.

“Galaar-” the fire-keeper straightened up, moving her body in front of the children and making as if to raise the poker in a defensive stance-

“Be calm,” the red Mando raised his hand. “They are friends in need of medical supplies.”

She paused, then nodded briskly, shoving the poker back into the fire.

“Ade,” she called to the children as she turned to rummage through a crate nearby. “Nuhoy, jii.”

The three of them scrambled to their feet and hurried to the bunks, glancing at Din & Triska with huge, wide eyes.

“Please, sit,” the red Mando motioned towards the fire. “I am Galaar, and this little fool is Parjai.” He elbowed the one who had attacked them, then nodded towards the children.

“Go and help them,” he said to her.

“But-”

Go, now.”

Parjai huffed, leaving them as they sat down with Galaar.

“Please forgive her,” Galaar said softly, leaning forward over the fire. “She’s young and… overzealous.”

“When did she swear the Creed?” asked Din.

“Three years ago,” Galaar replied. “Just after her parents were killed.”

Din went very still, then bowed his head with a sigh.

“But… she wears foundling armour?” he asked, keeping his voice low. Galaar’s shoulders sagged.

“There was- nothing left to salvage.”

Triska’s heart sank. She wasn’t sure what exactly they meant about the armour, but it didn’t sound good. She cast a glance at Parjai, who was scrubbing the children’s faces with a scrap of cloth before bundling them into their bunks. From her size and build, she couldn’t be any older than sixteen.

“May I see the wound?”

She turned to see the female Mando who had been stoking the fire, now kneeling beside her with a medkit in hand.

“Thank you,” she replied, wincing as she peeled the rough-spun wool of Din’s cloak from her bloody chin. The woman gave a low hum, touching the edge of the wound with gloved fingers.

“It is shallow,” she pronounced, shaking the bacta-spray. “Parjai must improve the strength of her kom’rk.”

“Senara!” Galaar snapped, but Triska was just grateful for the distraction from the sting of bacta against her skin.

“I meant no offence to you,” Senara offered, tilting her head as she applied the cauteriser. “I simply mean that Parjai shouldn’t be so quick to fight, until she has learned to win.”

Parjai made no reply from where she was tucking the children into bed, but by the tilt of her helmet, it was clear she was listening.

“She has the stubbornness of a warrior,” Triska replied, then had to grit her teeth against the charring pain of heat in her jaw. From what Din had told her of Mandalorians, she hoped this would be taken as a compliment. She was pleased to see Parjai’s chin tip a little higher.

“…Finished,” Senara switched off the cauteriser and started packing her medkit away. “It should heal quickly now.”

“We have medical supplies on our ship,” said Din. “We’ll replenish your stock.”

Senara nodded.

“Vor entye.”

“Ke’sush!” called an echoing voice from somewhere nearby, and everyone stood suddenly.

From one of the tunnels emerged the sentry they’d met earlier, followed by another Mandalorian. This one wore a chest-plate of deep coppery red, and a helm unlike any Triska had seen. It was gold, burnished until the firelight blazed across its intricately-engraved patterns, with a crop of short spikes rising from its crown.

“Din Djarin,” she said, spreading her hands in welcome. “Olarom.”

“Goran!”

Din leapt forward, then faltered, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.

“I thought our next meeting would be in the Manda,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion as he reached out to clasp her hand.

They linked hands briefly as he lowered his head, touching his helm against hers. Triska felt a low, anxious swoop in her chest. Din had told her he had no clan- no parents- yet clearly this woman was important to him.

“The child is well?” she asked, stepping back rather stiffly, as if not used to such a display of intimacy. She knew about the kid.

“He is,” Din replied, tugging the sling from where he’d hidden the little creature close to his side. Triska heard whispers of excitement from the children in their bunk, cut short by a sharp glance from Parjai. “Thanks to my companion, Triska Xan. She has saved his life and mine, more than once.”

Din looked back at Triska, and all the other Mandalorians followed his gaze. She tipped her chin up, determined not to quail under their blank, visored scrutiny.

“Triska Xan,” the Goran echoed, not offering her own name. “We owe you a debt, for defending our brother.”

“He has done the same for me,” Triska replied. “You owe me nothing.”

She could feel the congealing slick of blood drying on her neck, and was suddenly aware of how terrible she must look: her armour splashed with mud from the climb, her face burnt raw and swollen from the cauteriser. The woman standing before her was tall and majestic, her voice like the ringing of a blade on steel. Her helm shimmered in the gloom as Din turned back to her.

“How did you escape Nevarro?” he asked, his voice full of wonder. “And what drove you here?”

“Who would think to seek Mandalore in the home of our enemy?” The Goran gazed into the fire, its light casting golden beams across her visor. “But I knew of your quest: I hoped that your search might lead you here.”

“Our secrecy is our survival,” Din nodded. “This is the Way.”

“This is the Way,” the Goran replied. “As for the rest, there is a great deal we must discuss. But first you must accept the hospitality of our Karyai. Please, rest and eat. We will speak again in the morning.”

The Mandalorians stood to attention as the Goran turned and walked back towards the tunnel. At its mouth she stopped, turning her head by the barest fraction.

“Parjai,” she called. Triska saw the girl’s shoulders hunch in trepidation. “Follow.”

The two of them were soon swallowed by the shadows of the tunnel, leaving Triska & Din by the fireside.

“Please, brother,” Galaar motioned back towards the flames. “Join us.”