Din Djarin manages to collapse mostly on top of the seeing stone.
The child is cradled in one of his arms — the one that isn’t hanging out of its socket — and Din tries to land easy so he doesn’t jostle him too much, but at this point it’s all he can do to get his body between the child and the door. The section of the temple that he collapsed on the way here won’t hold the Imps for long, and when they make it through, Din’s armor is going to be the only thing between the two of them and death. Well — death for him. Something worse for the child
There are distant booms. The temple walls shake around them. Dust rains down on the seeing stone. If the Imps aren’t careful they’re going to bring the whole structure down on top of them.
Din pulls his legs up onto the altar, curling so that the child is surrounged in shelter of his body. “Now or never, kid,” he says.
The child puts his tiny hands on Din’s helmet, cooing in concern.
“You have to call the Jedi,” Din tells him. Talking hurts. “Maybe try to one who’s close by.”
Another soft coo. If he wasn’t having so much trouble breathing, Din would sigh.
The booming sounds closer now. The Imps are blasting their way through the collapsed section of temple, getting closer to them with every second that passes. Din knows it’s too late for him — in a few minutes, he’ll heave himself up off this rock and fight them tooth and nail until he’s dead, but it won’t make any difference. They’ll take the child. The only chance is that he can call the Jedi before then, that he makes contact with someone who can rescue him in transit.
“Call them,” Din says again, patting the child’s head with weak, trembling fingers. “Come on, kid. You can do it. Like Ahsoka told you.”
He feels the child lean his weight against his helmet. Not for the first time — but probably for the last — Din is struck by how small he is, how helpless, this creature who has survived time and time again against all odds. He feels the sudden urge to say the words, now while he still has the chance, but he knows that he can’t, for the same reason he has never allowed himself to in the past. The child belongs with the Jedi, not with the Mandalore. Din is not his parent. He can never be his parent.
BOOM. Loose rubble blasts into the seeing stone atrium.
Time is up. “Call them!” Din says, rough.
He presses two fingertips to the child’s chest, moving him away from his helmet as he uses his ravaged core muscles — ribs screaming in protest — to swing up into a sitting position. He still has the broken shaft of a harpoon stuck through one thigh, and he can feel the broadhead scraping against his bone, an agony so intense it almost makes him white out, but he clenches his teeth as tight as he can and pushes himself onto his feet. He lost his beskar spear somewhere in the fight up the mountain; now all he can do to keep his balance is spread his legs and keep his center of gravity low.
Eyes on the door. A blaster in one hand and the broken shard of what used to be a dagger in the other. Din flips it to wield it backhand. Fronthand is for showing off, Paz used to tell him, playing like tooka kits on the mat when Din was still a foundling. Backhand is for business.
He hears a coo and glances back to see the child on the edge of the seeing stone, reaching for him. He swears under his breath. “Grogu,” he snaps, “call the damn Jedi.”
Then the Imps pour into the room, and Din’s too busy to talk.
No Mandalorian is ever alone. This is the first thing Din learns, on a ship rocketing away from what was once Aq Vetina, his face hot from crying and Paz Vizsla’s armor cold against his skin. Their creed binds them one to another as surely as blood. He loses two parents and gains another in the space of an hour, a cargo hold full of armored Mandalorians bearing witness as Paz kneels before him, his hand on Din’s chest, and says the words: ni kyr’tayl gai sa’ad, Din Djarin.
It’s not long after, in the covert on Corellia, that he learns there’s a price for such belonging. Learns that the fleeting brush of his mother’s fingers on his cheek as she left him is the last living touch he will ever know, beyond his own. In the years after Din will hear some beings — sex workers trying to peddle their wares from red-lit balconies — tell him that humans cannot survive without touch, that something inside him is doomed to curl up and wither away like a baby born prematurely and left in the cold. Din will recognize their words for what they are: almost-truths which, like many generalized beliefs about humans, do not account for Mandalorians.
Din Djarin is never alone; he has his creed, he has his weapons, he has his armor. He has the safety net of his tribe. He has evolved past the need for anything else.
“Oh, dear,” is the first thing he hears when he resurfaces. It’s a clipped accent, male, Coruscanti. “Still living up to that puckish name of yours, I see?”
The child coos in reply. The sound lights a fire in Din’s chest, like an engine kickstarting, but it’s not enough adrenaline to help him do anything more than groan and roll over. He expects that he’s lying half-dead on the floor of the seeing stone atrium, listening to some karking Imp officer menace his kid, but when he rolls he realizes pretty fast that he’s on a cot, because he goes straight over the edge onto the floor. The impact hurts, but not as much as it should. Someone’s put his shoulder back in and pulled the harpoon out of his leg.
Captured, he thinks, and reaches for a blaster. His holster’s empty. He tries to get his hands underneath him to push himself up and realizes his injured arm is in a sling. He gives it his all with the other arm, but his broken ribs scream in protest and he collapses.
“Hey,” someone else says, as he’s trying again. “Kark, what are you trying to do, kill yourself?”
Din feels a very strange sensation, like being lifted by a jetpack he’s not wearing, and then he finds himself safely on the cot, flat on his back and staring up at the open sky over Tython. A small weight lands on his chest, and he recognizes it even before the child’s hands press against the visor of his helmet. Grogu makes a soft sound — happy, a greeting — and blinks those giant eyes. Din swallows down a nauseous rush of affection and reaches for him with his good hand.
He’s alive. Against all odds, again, he’s alive. “Hey, kid,” he rasps.
“Precious little creature, isn’t he?” says a third voice. “When he isn’t being a gremlin.”
Din finally looks at the other people in the room.
It’s pretty clear right off the bat that they aren’t Imps — what they are is another question entirely. Din can see right through them; it’s like their bodies aren’t really there, like they’re holos. He does a quick sweep of the room for any tech, but he doesn’t spot anything and his helmet doesn’t ping anything either. They aren’t holos. They’re some sort of beings, but they’re not like anything he’s ever seen. He recognizes those hooded robes, though.
“Are you…Jedi?” he croaks.
The being nearest him — the one who called Grogu a gremlin — smiles softly and inclines his head. “We are,” he confirms. “Or rather, the ghosts of Jedi. I am Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. This is my padawan, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi — “
“Hello,” says the one with the Coruscanti accent, with a polite bow.
“ — and his padawan, Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker.”
“I was on the Council,” the last being gripes. He has shaggy hair and bright, intelligent eyes, and there’s something about him that reminds Din of every maverick pilot he’s ever met.
“You were on the Council, my dear padawan,” Obi-Wan says, “but they did not grant you the rank of — “
“I know,” Anakin hisses.
“Peace, children,” Qui-Gon chuckles. “I think our new friend is still a bit confused.”
Din, who’s noticed that the place is strewn with the bodies of stormtroopers, is more than a bit confused. “If you’re ghosts, then how did you…?”
“Ah,” says Qui-Gon, following the tilt of Din’s helmet to where a stormtrooper has been impaled on an exposed length of durasteel that is nowhere near the floor. “Yes. I see. This is something that’s difficult to explain even from one Jedi to another, but I will try. The planet Tython, and this temple specifically, are places which are very sacred to our Order. There are ancient wells of Force energy which allow us to manifest corporeally and affect those in the physical realm.”
“So when he called,” Din guesses.
“We heard him,” Obi-Wan confirms, coming closer to run a transparent blue finger over the shell of the child’s ear. The cartilage bends gently under his touch. “And we came.”
“Jedi always come for our own.” Anakin hangs back on the other side of the room, near the collapsed ceiling, not getting any closer. “Even if our own are shameless cookie thieves.”
The child coos as if to say, who, me?
Obi-Wan, who turns out to be the most helpful of the three — Qui-Gon being given to esoteric lectures and Anakin skittish around the child for some reason — explains to Din that his presence in the seeing stone atrium during Grogu’s call was what enabled him, and, briefly, two dozen Imps, to see Force ghosts. “Normally, only Force-sensitives can see manifestations of a Jedi’s spirit,” he explains, as the child floats a stormtrooper’s blaster towards him. “But the Force works in mysterious ways. It judged that you needed to see and feel us, so here, you can.”
He turns to cluck disapprovingly at Grogu, and with a wave of his hand the blaster goes back into the dead stormtrooper’s holster. “That’s not a toy, dear one.”
“We can’t stay here,” Din says. “When this squadron doesn’t report back, there will be another.”
Obi-Wan frowns, letting the child play with his transparent blue fingers. “Yes. I had meant to ask about that. What does the Empire want with you?”
“Not me. Him.”
The Jedi’s gaze takes on a distinctly knowing tilt. “What do they want with him, then?”
Din might know, if he were willing to take all the pieces and put them together, but he has a feeling he’s happier not knowing. It doesn’t matter, anyways. “I don’t know,” he says. “I just know it’s bad. And I know they’re not getting him.”
Obi-Wan looks as if Din has just confirmed his every suspicion. Thankfully, he abandons that line of questioning. “Tell me. How did you know to come to this place?”
“Another of your kind told me,” Din says. “A Jedi named Ahsoka Tano.”
“Snips?” Anakin says.
Din and Obi-Wan turn to look at him. Anakin, back from whatever expedition he and Qui-Gon have been out on, looks like he’s just had a bucket of ice water dumped on his head. He recovers fast enough, taking a few urgent steps before he seems to remember that he’s giving Grogu a wide berth and comes to an abrupt halt. “Ahsoka’s alive?” he asks Din. “You’ve seen her?”
“On the planet Corvus.”
“How is she?” Anakin presses. “Is she okay?”
Din’s not quite sure how to answer. “She seemed fine.”
The child says aboo, and Anakin looks at him sharply. Their eyes lock, and Din senses the same strange nonverbal communion that took place between Ahsoka and Grogu on Corvus, information passing between them without so much as a ripple in the air. Anakin’s the one to break the trance at last, looking away with a noise like he’s hurt to bury his face in his hands. Obi-Wan hands the child over to Din and goes to his padawan, drawing him into an embrace, murmuring words that Din can’t hear. He figures it’s none of his business anyways.
He feels his holster moving on his belt, and when he looks down the child is staring at his blaster with the intense stare he usually reserves for cookies. “No,” Din says, pushing his hand down. He jams the blaster back in the holster and snaps the clip shut. “That’s not a toy.”
Aboo, the child says.
“I mean it,” Din tells him. “Not a toy.”
There’s a soft chuckle as Qui-Gon crouches next to the cot. “The little ones in the crèche were always covetous of lightsabers. It’s the way of the young to want what they cannot have.”
Din remembers being nine standard, Paz handing him a rifle for the first time. He’d wanted to hand it back, he hadn’t felt ready to take another being’s life in his hands, but he’d been wearing the helmet for a month already and Paz had told him it was time. He’d learned to shoot sewer rats from the rooftop of the covert on Corellia, the rifle nearly as tall as he was. But the idea of this child — his own child — being given a weapon, makes him feel sick.
“We din’t give them real lightsabers until they were at least eight standard,” Qui-Gon says, like he’s reading Din’s mind. “Or, for this little elf, about a hundred.”
The child coos in the way that means he wants to be put down. “Okay,” Din says, “but no blasters, or you’re going in the bag.”
Boo, the child says, which Din knows from experience means he’s not making any promises. As he toddles off toward a dry, overgrown fountain, Din sighs and resigns himself to keep a very, very close eye. “You knew him at the temple,” he says to Qui-Gon. “All of you?”
Qui-Gon nods. “He was the terror of the crèche. There was no keeping him from the frogs in the Room of a Thousand Fountains — nor from Master Fisto’s Glee Anselm caviar.”
Privately, Din nurses a flicker of intense fondness. “His appetite gets us both in a lot of trouble.”
“Yes, I’d imagine it would.” Smiling, Qui-Gon watches the child toddle up onto the ledge of the fountain, and peer down into the ivy. “He once stole Obi-Wan’s last muja fruit. My padawan was enamored with muja fruit in his younger years. He chased Grogu around the comissary for what must have been hours, but your child is very adept at evasion when he has stolen food in his hands.”
Din’s breath catches in his throat. Your child.
“So you won’t train him either,” he says. “You know that he’s…attached. To me.”
“We are ghosts. Ghosts cannot take padawans.”
“But you came when he called.”
“Yes. We came because he was in danger. Because the two of you were in danger.” A shadow passes over the old master’s face. “I sense that you are still in danger. So long as that is the case, we shall remain by your side.”
“Why?” Din asks, though he can guess.
“Grogu is one of us,” Qui-Gon answers simply, “and he is a child. There is no more worthy cause than the protection of a child.”
Mandalorians call them foundlings. Jedi, from what Din has observed, call them younglings, but he thinks their codes are largely the same when it comes to the matter of parentless children. When you cease to be the child of two, you become the child of many. The child of all. Grogu is protected now by dual creeds, the Way of the Mandalore and the Jedi Code, and Din’s too tired to lie about being grateful for the help. He’s got the entire Empire on his tail. He’ll take what he can get.
“Thank you,” he says to Qui-Gon. “I know that Jedi and Mandalorians aren’t usually friendly.”
Another of those kind smiles. “We have finally found common ground, I think.”
There is no self, the helmet declares. There is only the Way.
When he committed himself to his tribe, he agreed that Din Djarin would cease to be; that he would leave behind the fears and uncertainties of his childhood to become one cell in a larger organism. Now he is not Din. He is Mandalorian; he is, to some people, Mando. He has not touched another being with his bare skin since he was nine standard and he doesn’t need to, he doesn’t want to, because he is something greater than a normal man. Pain cannot bow him, fear cannot call him to heel, he weathers the long empty dark of space with nothing but his rifle, his carbonite prisoners, and his own reflection for company.
And now — the child. Din is duty-bound to care for him, even if he has never said the words, but he cannot help the creeping, shameful suspicion that he’s guided by more than just obligation.
A soothsayer in a smoky cantina on the ruined world of Jedha once asked him, Where does your love lie down to sleep, Mandalorian? Gnarled, jewel-studded fingers moving over the table, distracting from a third arm creeping towards his coin purse. Where does your heart go when it leaves your body? And Din had put a knife through her wandering hand and growled, I don’t have time for your games. Tell me where to find the Cloud-Rider.
Now, he lingers on his way past the small makeshift hammock where the child dozes, tiny hands curled up in the overlong sleeves of the jumper Din sewed himself, and remembers Ahsoka Tano saying I sense much fear in him, and thinks of the vastness of the galaxy he’s seen and the vastness of the galaxy he hasn’t, how fragile this small brilliant creature is and how easy it would be to lose him, and in the privacy of his own mind he admits that he knows what the soothsayer meant when she said your heart when it leaves your body, and he thinks, here. Here, my love lies down to sleep.
There’s not much room on the Razor Crest, but luckily noncorporeal beings don’t take up a lot of space, and they don’t eat a lot either. Obi-Wan does gaze longingly at a muja fruit as the child slurps it down, but that doesn’t affect Din’s inventory so it doesn’t matter. They’ve brought something with them from the temple on Tython — an artefact that Anakin and Qui-Gon went to retrieve while Obi-Wan and Din were talking — that allows Din to see them even now that they’re out of the planet’s range of influence, and even theoretically touch them, though he hasn’t tried.
They certainly carry the child around enough — all three of them, now that Anakin seems to have overcome whatever block was preventing him from interacting with Grogu before. It leaves Din’s hands free to fly the ship, a luxury he’s become unaccustomed to since the child has started trying to eat anything and everything in the cockpit, but as he listens to the muffled sounds of voices and happy coos through the floor he finds himself nursing a feeling in his chest that’s almost like the sharp ache he felt when he found his covert gone. It’s the wrong thing to feel, he tells himself. He’s not the child’s parent. He’s never said the words. He’ll still have to turn him over to a Jedi, someday. Turning him over to three Jedi ghosts is just good practice.
From time to time on his way to the ’fresher he observes the four of them — the ghosts and Grogu — sitting in what looks like meditation, Grogu’s eyes closed and the tips of his ears twitching like they do when he’s asleep. Din can feel that strange energy that he felt when the child communicated with other Jedi in the Force, and he always slips into the ’fresher a little faster than usual, closes the door a little softer, not wanting to let his presence disturb them.
Once they invite him to join them for Jedi katas, and he tells them in no uncertain terms that it would be against his religion to participate. They’re very respectful of that, and none of them press him — not even when he stops halfway up the ladder to watch. The masters are very obviously making their way through a youngling’s form — Din might not know how the Jedi fight, but the basics aren’t all that different from what Paz taught him on Corellia. They move slowly so that the child can keep up with them, lifting their feet, moving their hands through the air in slow motion.
Din watches the intense concentration on his child’s face and feels a sudden lurch, the same as when he first saw him use his powers. This foundling is something much more than Din can comprehend. He is part of an Order that no longer exists. He has suffered as much loss in his life as Din has — more, even. Din feels woefully ill prepared to care for him in the way he deserves.
He knows that the child is, technically, older than him, but he doesn’t like to think about it, just like he doesn’t like to think about how Grogu will still be just a kid when Din dies. Eight standard years is about a hundred, Qui-Gon had said. Din’s not sure he has ten more years left, let alone fifty — not with his lifestyle. He only hopes he can find someone to give the child to before then.
“Far be it from me to offer advice to a Mandalorian,” Obi-Wan says one ship’s-morning, when they’re alone in the cockpit. “But you ought to stop thinking of giving him up. There are very few Jedi left, and besides, he doesn’t want to go anywhere.”
“Children don’t know what they want,” Din mutters.
“Children are much wiser than we give them credit for.” There’s something old and pained in Obi-Wan’s voice, some regret that echoes on his face. “How old were you, when you chose the creed?”
Older than him, Din wants to say, but he’s not sure if it’s technically true.
“Old enough,” he says instead.
“Ah,” Obi-Wan chuckles. “Now you sound like my padawan.”
Din, who has spent more time with Anakin than he has with most beings at this point, is adequately offended. “What do you want me to do?” he asks. “I can’t keep taking bounties if I’m raising a child for real, and I can’t train a Jedi in the Way of the Mandalore.”
“Like I said,” Obi-Wan hedges, “far be it from me to offer advice.”
Din sighs. Typical.
He’s learned over the past few weeks running away from the Imps that the Jedi are a very cryptic people. He thinks that this, as much as their conflicting creeds, is why the Mandalore and the Jedi are ancient enemies. Mandalorians speak their minds, they speak directly, and they don’t bother with metaphors or parables. Jedi talk like they don’t want you to understand what they’re saying. It drives Din insane, and though he’s careful not to let on, at least one of them notices.
“I pray that this little one does not inherit my grand-master’s speech patterns,” Qui-Gon says, when Grogu is curled up napping in his arms, “or miserable, you shall be.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Din tells him, and goes back up to the cockpit.
One thing ghosts can’t do is produce credits out of thin air, so Din takes a job on Tatooine, an easy job that should only take a day but pays enough to fill the Razor Crest’s tanks. The Jedi must draw straws, because it’s Anakin who’s assigned to accompany him, while the others remain with the child, and he spends the whole time glowering at shop owners and droids and unremarkable walls like they’ve all personally wronged him.
“What?” Din asks at last, after several hours of this.
“I hate sand,” Anakin says.
Din just stares at him.
“Fine,” Anakin caves. “I grew up on Tatooine, as a slave. I only ever came back once after I left with the Jedi and it was to find out that Tusken Raiders had killed my mom. Plus, I hate sand.”
Din wisely elects not to mention that he’s only recently killed a Krayt dragon with a tribe of Tusken Raiders. He wisely elects not to say anything else as they barter for a speeder and head out into the wastes, where Anakin offers helpful directions based mostly on what kind of sand they’re flying over. He keeps electing not to say anything until they’re set up on a ridge overlooking the mountain pass Din’s mark usually cuts through on his way to Mos Eisley, Din laying on his stomach peering down the green-lit scope at the empty night, Anakin swinging one leg out over the drop beside him.
Then he says, “Tell me what you did to my kid.”
Anakin startles. “What?”
Din doesn’t look away from the scope. “You were strange around him, at first. I thought you were afraid of him for a while. Then I realized it wasn’t fear. It was guilt. So. Tell me what you did.”
Anakin takes a deep, watery breath, staring out over the blue expanse of the planetwide desert. After a long minute he asks, “You ever hear of Darth Vader?”
“Yeah,” Din says.
“Well. He was a Jedi who fell to the Dark Side.” Anakin winces. “He was me, actually. I fell. My wife, she was… No. There’s no excuse. I went to the temple, the night that I fell. I did things, horrible things. The younglings…he was there. I sensed it in him, when we first came to you on Tython. He watched me slaughter his brothers and sisters in the crèche. He remembered.”
The rifle creaks under Din’s grip. His finger twitches on the finger. He wonders if there’s any way he can kill a ghost. He must be radiating strong enough anger that Anakin picks up on it, because the Jedi knight draws both his legs up to his chest and hugs them, like a small child.
“He forgave me,” Anakin whispers. “He reached for me in the Force, and he felt what I am now — he felt that I had turned back, that I had killed the Sith Lord who was my master. He felt my guilt, my regret, my remorse. I couldn’t believe it at first, but he showed me, when I found out about Ahsoka. She wouldn’t train him because she worried he was too much like me.”
“Like you?” Din echoes.
“Attached,” Anakin says, and laughs hollowly. “He loves you too much. She was worried if he was fully trained, and you died, he would fall — like I fell, when I knew my wife was going to die. He knows that she was right. He understands why I turned, and he…he forgave me.”
Din still has trouble attributing such complex emotion to a tiny creature who wants to swallow every egg and most frogs that he sees, but he’s too poleaxed by He loves you too much to really register the rest of it.
Anyway, his mark chooses that moment to appear. Din squeezes the trigger once and watches the man fall headfirst out of his speeder.
“Nice shot,” Anakin comments, sounding impressed.
“I was picturing your face on his head,” Din says. He wants no illusions about the fact that he’s not so quick to forgive.
“Fair,” Anakin says. “That’s fair.”
Din sleeps that night with the child curled up against his chest, his back turned to the ghosts in the cargo hold. It’s illogical, and overbearing, and Din knows that he’s not doing a very good job anymore of pretending he’s only here because of his creed, but in those long dark hours he doesn’t care; he feels an animal need to protect what’s his, and no one’s around to see but dead people, anyways. It means he sleeps with his helmet on, but it’s a fair trade, to hear the soft mindless sounds the child makes in sleep and let him grab onto Din’s finger and know that he’s safe.
“When is the last time a living being looked into your eyes?” Qui-Gon asks, on Takodana.
They’re in a room at the local inn, waiting until dawn to go find an Imp batallion in the forest that needs killing before the Razor Crest can take off without a dozen TIE fighters on its tail. Din has tried to get Qui-Gon to step out or at least disappear for a minute so he can scarf down the stew the proprietor brought up, but Qui-Gon has for some reason refused to leave; he’s sitting on a stool which is much too small for a man of his size and watching Din unwaveringly as Din puts on the awkward show of eating lastmeal without fully taking off his helmet.
“Few minutes ago,” Din answers, peeved, “when that wrinkly orange being came in to squint at me. You remember, you were sitting right there.”
“No, Din Djarin,” Qui-Gon says. “You know what I mean. When was the last time someone looked into your eyes unimpeded — without a pane of plexisteel in the way?”
Din remembers IG-11, the vertiginous shock of suddenly having his face exposed in a room big enough that he could feel the air moving through it, the pain of staring into the droid’s roving eyelight and wishing that there were something staring back.
He shakes it off. “I last took my helmet off when I was nine standard.”
“Nine standard?” Qui-Gon’s eyes are wide.
“It is the Way,” Din says, aiming another piece of beef up under his helmet.
“Why?” Qui-Gon asks.
“It is the Way,” Din repeats, as Mandalorian foundlings are tought to do whenever they want to question the Way. “I don’t ask about the reasoning behind your Jedi Code.”
“Oh, kark the Code,” Qui-Gon says.
Din stops with his chopsticks halfway to his face, fingers hooked under the edge of his helmet. Of all of them, Qui-Gon is the calmest, the most serene. He’s never heard him speak like that, and certainly not with such vehemence. Slowly, he returns his chopsticks to the bowl, hackles raised.
“My Order,” Qui-Gon begins haltingly, “was brought to its knees by our Code. The unattachment we preached was in direct conflict with a force much stronger — human nature. The nature of all beings to seek love and to love in return. We believed we could survive on the strength of our doctrine, but we were wrong.”
“Anakin fell because of attachment,” Din says.
“Yes. And he turned back to the light for the same reason. It was not attachment that drove him to the Dark — it was the Jedi’s insistence that he deny it. That he release his love to the Force and honor the Jedi way. But what use is a creed when it offers only suffering in return?”
“What are you trying to say?”
Qui-Gon looks extraordinarily tired. “Only that you are hurting yourself without reason — as I once did, as my padawan and his padawan and every member of our Order once did.”
“You think I should abandon my creed.”
“I think,” Qui-Gon says carefully, “I would have been happier had I abandoned mine.”
Din sits back, quiet. How can he possibly explain to this man that his creed, the Way of the Mandalore, is all he has ever known? That without it he’s nothing more than an orphan with a very expensive suit of armor? That it warms him at night and promises to catch him when he stumbles, that happiness is such a distant concept he doesn’t even remember what it feels like?
Except. Where does your love lie down to sleep, he remembers, and he knows the answer now, down to the exact coordinates, the Razor Crest pinging his helmet once a minute.
“My creed is all I have,” he lies.
Qui-Gon gives him a fond, patronizing look. “No, it isn’t,” he says. “Not anymore.”
After a long, awkward pause, Din goes back to trying to angle beef up into his helmet without exposing his mouth. Qui-Gon watches, amused. “My original point was that I am not a living being.”
“What?” Din asks, around a paltry mouthful.
“I am not a living being,” Qui-Gon repeats. “I died nearly three decades ago. It should not violate your sacred creed to remove your helmet in my company.”
For the second time tonight, Din freezes.
He thinks about it, about IG-11, reviewing everything he knows about the Way, but one thing it has never been is confusing. Everything is straightforward. There are no hidden traps, no gray areas. The code states that if he removes his helmet in front of a living being, he can never put it back on. But Qui-Gon is right — he’s not a living being.
Slowly, like he’s approaching an armed explosive, Din eases his helmet off. The curtains are already tightly closed, the door locked. He was planning on being able to scare Qui-Gon away to eat in peace, and those are his usual measures to make sure no one observes him accidentally. He puts his helmet down next to his bowl. His eyes stay locked on the tabletop for a long minute, until Qui-Gon says, “Oh, dear one.” Then they snap up all at once, and…
It’s not quite the same as locking eyes with another human, but it’s as close as Din has come in more years than he cares to remember. He feels the hot pressure of tears at the back of eyes, but fights them down and picks up his chopsticks instead. It doesn’t matter that his throat is so tight he can hardly swallow his food. This is not so Qui-Gon can look at him, so he can feel Qui-Gon looking at him.
It’s only so he can eat.
Din can’t feel the Force. Anakin has called him Force-null as they come, but Obi-Wan tried to explain to him once how two beings can feel each other’s Force-signatures, like knowing someone for so long that you don’t have to speak to them to know what they’re thinking. Din understands that. A Mandalorian doesn’t need to see another Mandalorian’s face to know them, to recognize them. He doesn’t need to be able to read his child’s mind to know what he needs.
On Corvus he asked Ahsoka, Can you teach me to feel him?
No, she answered, with an apologetic look. I’m sorry. But know this. He feels safe with you, for the first time since the fall of the Jedi Order. He knows that you’ll take care of him.
Aboo, the child agreed, curled up in Din’s cloak.
“He reaches for you in the Force, when you have nightmares,” Obi-Wan tells him, in the quiet vast and middle of the night. “You’re not Force-sensitive, but he wants to calm you.”
Din feels like there’s a towel in his chest being wrung dry, over and over. “He tried to heal me,” he confesses. “Ahsoka said he had to hide his powers to survive. But he used them for me.”
Obi-Wan gazes across the cargo hold to where his padawan is dozing — Force ghosts, apparently, need sleep too — with Grogu curled under his arm. “I kept Anakin at arm’s length for his entire life,” he says softly. “But children are meant to grow up with parents, not principles.”
Din should argue, but he’s tired, and he doesn’t want to. “Maybe."
“What do you dream about?” Obi-Wan asks. “When he reaches for you?"
“Nothing,” Din says.
His nightmares, when he has them, are similar to one he had as a child, where a stranger stole Paz Vizsla’s armor and walked around wearing his face, and Din was the only one who knew. Only now he’s the one whose armor is stolen, and he can do nothing but watch, voiceless, frozen, as a stranger wears his face and goes to his child. Hurts his child, pretending to be him. The child’s cries, his fear like thick paste in Din’s throat…
When he wakes he always goes to the child, looks in on him, and Grogu is always awake, blinking up at him with those big eyes, cooing softly.
Looking at him now, Din feels something enormous and fragile unfurl inside him. Like the tremulous certainty of deciding to wear the helmet.
He gets up from the pile of bags near the cockpit and walks over — boots clanging, the child never waking because he sleeps like a log — over to Anakin. Crouches and removes the child gently from Anakin’s arms, taking him into his own. There isn’t anything else that calms Din quite like holding his child, being able to feel exactly where he is in space and know that he’s safe.
Still, he feels a selfish, desperate urge to do this, and do it now, so he says, “Hey, kid.”
The child’s ears twitch, but he doesn’t wake.
Din sighs. “Grogu,” he says.
There he is. He blinks awake, eyes still half-lidded, cooing sleepily up at Din.
Din goes down on one knee and places the child gently on the floor. He sits down, placid, patient, feet peeking out from under his jumper. Din notices that the ghosts have all woken, that they’re watching, but he doesn’t pay them any attention. They may have helped him get here, but this isn’t about them. This is about him, and his kid, and words he should’ve said a long time ago. Something he should have done a long time ago.
He takes the helmet off and sets it on the floor.
The child stares at it for a moment, like he understands the gravity of what just happened, then looks up at him. His eyes go — somehow — even wider. He coos, and Din recognizes the soft happy sound he makes when he manages to steal a cookie.
He smiles a helpless, watery smile, and picks his child up. Those tiny hands reach immediately for his face, and Din’s lungs stop working. The child must sense it, because he pauses, looking at Din as if to make sure he’s okay before proceeding. Din says, “Go ahead, kid.”
For the first time in many, many years, a living being touches his face.
Din had forgotten how warm skin was. The child’s is soft, baby-soft. Tears slip down Din’s cheeks. He leans forward and presses a light, trembling kiss to the child’s head, where there’s wispy, ticklish hair. He hasn’t kissed anything since his mother died.
“You might not understand what this means,” he says, in a voice that sounds much steadier than he feels. “But these words are important.”
The child watches him, hands still planted on his cheeks.
“Ni kyr’tayl gai sa’ad, Grogu,” Din says. “I know your name as my child.”
Aboo, the child declares.
Din doesn’t need a Jedi to tell him what he already knows — that he’s not alone, that he has more than his creed, that he’s just issued an adoption vow to a gremlin with a bottomless stomach. That Grogu, for all that he pretends not to comprehend a single word of standard when it benefits his mischief, understands these words perfectly.