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set all your mind upon the steep ascent

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Maul’s hands were shaking. He glared at them, furious, struggling to repress the rumble in his chest as he willed them to hold still, but they wouldn’t. They just kept shaking, trembling like spark-roach feelers, and he couldn’t keep them still. He balled them into fists, digging his nails into his palms, and hissed. It was never going to work, it was a stupid plan, he’d be caught and—and punished, what was he thinking he wasn’t thinking it was stupid Master would be furious he—his chest hurt and his legs were all wobbly and he—he couldn’t breathe

After a while, he wasn’t sure how long, Maul came back to himself huddled in a ball on the floor in the corner of the cargo bay, shaking and gasping, but he could breathe again so—so he was fine. But he was running out of time. If he was going to try, to—to leave, and he didn’t know how much time he’d just wasted having some kind of baby fit on the floor, he had to do it now. Master would come back to the ship soon, probably, and then it would be too late, they would be back on their way to Tosste. Maul didn’t know what was going to happen on Tosste, but he was certain it would be painful and he—he didn’t want it. He didn’t want it.

His chest hurt. His chest hurt, and his breathing was weird, and his hands were still shaking, but he was going to do it. He was going to leave. All he had to do was go to the control panel, and put in the code he saw Master use when he left. Master didn’t know he saw it, he was pretty sure. Master had never let him see anything like that before, so if he knew Maul was looking he would have covered his hand, right?

...But what if he did know? What if it was another test? What if Master was waiting outside and if he put in the code and opened the door he failed the test he couldn’t—fail another test, he—no, no, it wasn’t a test, it didn’t feel like a test, it felt—he felt—something, he didn’t know what he felt, but it was something and he was going to do it. He just had to get up and go put in the code.

Get up. He took a deep breath, then another one, straining his ears for any hint that Master had returned, but it was silent. One more breath. He stood, slowly, leaning against the wall, and paused to listen again. Still nothing. Master was gone. On shaky legs he crossed the small hold to the control panel next to the door, jerking to a halt in front of it. He stared at it, holding his breath for a moment then letting it out slow, pretending he couldn’t feel his whole body trembling.

Heart in his throat he darted his hand out, not giving himself time to think about it, and punched in the access code. The hiss of the hatch opening made him jump, somehow unprepared for the sound and the sudden movement. His eyes wide, his breath now coming in panicked gasps, he staggered out of the ship, ready at any moment to feel the sting of his failure but—Master wasn’t there. He wasn’t, it wasn’t a test. He was out of the ship, away from Master, at least for now. But that was as far as his plan had gotten, and he had no idea where to go from there. With a hitching sob he wrapped his thin arms around his waist, staring at the deserted port, his mind blank.

No, not deserted. There was a ship in the adjacent dock being loaded with crates by a handful of droids, a being with scales like a lava eel and horns like Maul’s, holding a data pad shouting at them to hurry it up. Maul twitched forward a step, swallowing roughly as his eyes raced over the open cargo bay and jumbled stack of boxes and pallets. If they were in a hurry, then they must be planning to leave soon. If he could get on board without being seen, he could get far enough away from Master that maybe he wouldn’t be able to find him. Master always found him when he hid before, so he’d had a vague idea that he would just keep running, but he needed to sleep sometime so if he was on a ship, he could—he’d be moving fast, in space, so he could sleep then.

And if he didn’t know where he was going then Master couldn’t just pull it out of his head and follow him. He knew Master could read his mind, he’d done it before, so if he just didn’t know then maybe it wouldn’t matter. All he would need to do is keep hiding on ships and maybe—Master didn’t care about him, really, so maybe he would just—give up, if he kept going fast enough. Maul wasn’t worth that much trouble, he couldn’t be, he failed all the time. Maybe Master wouldn’t even care that he was gone.

Holding that thought tight, Maul slunk his way into the shadows, flitting from one to the next as quietly as he could, and made his way toward the open cargo bay. The ship was shabby, patched with different colored metals, and the pilot was even shabbier. The crates were all unlabeled, but there were remnants of labels on them, like someone had scraped them off with something sharp, but not very well. The droids loading the bay were even shabbier than the ship, and didn’t seem to be aware of much. The pilot looked sharp-eyed though.

Fortunately he seemed to be at least a little satisfied with the droids’ progress, because he left them to it and made his way into the ship. Maul waited for a moment, making sure he’d had time to leave the cargo bay and head further in before he made his own way toward the ramp. He timed it carefully, waiting until all five droids were occupied picking up the last few crates before he dashed behind them and up into the hold. Seeing no one, he quickly tucked himself in a corner behind a huge pile of already lashed down cargo, wiggling his way under a tarp lashed down over a small stack of boxes.

Hidden as well as he could manage, he tucked his arms around himself and held as still as possible, listening to the droids moving about and willing them to go faster. If Master returned to the ship and saw him missing before this one even left the port it would be—he didn’t want to think about how bad it would be. He hadn’t gone nearly far enough for Master not to be able to find him with ease once he started looking.

Luck was with him. It was only a few minutes before the droids were all clattering into the hold, and Maul heard the grinding, clanking sound of the hatch closing behind them. The ship rumbled to life only a moment later, the crates around him shaking with the engine’s rattle. Maul was starting to wonder if it would even be able to take off, with the way it sounded, when it suddenly jerked into motion.

He jumped, startled, as he felt the crates over his head shifted threateningly, but they didn’t tumble down and crush him. With the small amount of light filtering through the tarp he could just barely make out his own hands in front of his face. Rather than strain his eyes trying to see, he closed them and curled up into as small a ball as he could manage. Now that the ship was moving, the shivery tension was slowly, slowly draining from his limbs, leaving him shaking and numb.

Maybe it would be okay if he just—slept. There was nothing else he could do, really, either Master would catch the ship or he wouldn’t, so it would be okay to sleep, wouldn’t it? His head hurt, and he was cold, and he was so tired. He could sleep for a little while, then figure out what to do after that. He was away from Master, on a ship going somewhere hopefully far away, and that was what mattered. With one last hard shiver, he slowly drifted into a fitful sleep.

It seemed like no time at all, though, until a stab of blinding rage jerked him back awake with a bitten-off cry. Confused, dazed, he hid his head with his arms and waited for a blow to descend, but—nothing happened, what—another harsh pulse of anger pounded through his mind and he choked back a gasp as something raked through his thoughts with sharp claws and fury. Master, Master knew he was gone, he was going to find him, Maul was going to be punished—no, no he wasn’t, Maul didn’t even know where he was so Master couldn’t pick it out of his head, he was still safe.

Shuddering, arms over his head, he waited for the raking claws and fury to subside. Eventually, after he wasn’t sure how long, they died down to a simmering rage with an edge of cold intent, and Maul slowly, cautiously relaxed. He swallowed roughly, carefully ignoring the wetness on his face as he pulled himself to sit upright. Based on how angry Master was, he probably was going to come after him, so he would need a plan to keep moving long enough for him to hopefully decide Maul wasn’t worth the effort anymore, while still never knowing where it was he was going.

First, though, he needed to find supplies. He didn’t know how long he would be on the ship, but it had taken several days to get from Mustafar to wherever they had stopped on the way to Tosste, and while he’d gone longer without food before he would need water at least. Slowly, cautiously, he crept out from under the tarp, careful to make as little sound as possible. Fortunately the droids were all docked in charging stations, dark and silent, sensors probably powered down.

Flinching at each pulse of rage that set his head pounding, Maul crept unsteadily across the dark cargo bay, straining to hear any sound of movement from the ship’s pilot. Everything was quiet though, the bay empty except the powered down droids. The corridor beyond was dark and empty also, but there was a faint glow from the flickering light panels scattered along the walls. They seemed to be set on low power with how dim they were, but Maul could see in the dark really well so it wasn’t hard to make his way on quiet feet.

He passed two closed doors, one of them with a red light on the pad and one with blue, before he came to an open doorway with no door at all. The room beyond had some of the same type of machines as the little kitchen he was sometimes allowed in on Mustafar. Carefully he snuck across the room, keeping close to the wall, until he came to some cabinets. Holding his breath he eased one open, and the door slid silently to reveal what looked like ration packs. He let out a shaky breath, relieved to see a food he recognized, and grabbed a few from the back to stick in his shirt.

With a little more boldness he peeked into the other cabinets, finding colorful tubs and boxes that he didn’t recognize at all, so he left them alone. The last cabinet he looked in, one with a heavy door that stuck a little before swinging open, he found a bunch of squishy bulbs of liquid in different colors, and a whole big box of clear ones that looked like water. The bulb cabinet was cold, even colder than the air in the ship, and it made Maul shiver. He’d been cold since they left Mustafar, but this was so much worse. Why would anyone want their cabinets so cold?

With a glance over his shoulder to make sure the pilot hadn’t come in without him hearing, Maul reached in and grabbed three of the clear bulbs from the back of the box and tucked them in his shirt with the ration bars. He almost yelped in surprise at how cold they were, much colder on his torso than his hands, but managed to stifle it into a strangled squeak. With enough now to keep him alive for a few days at least, Maul silently dashed back down the corridor to the cargo bay, stealthily moving around the walls on the far side of the droids back to his hiding place under the tarp.

In relative security once more, Maul slowly started to relax a little. He shoved the crates a bit to make enough room to lay down, and tucked his supplies in the very back of the little cubby. He wasn’t so hungry or thirsty that he needed to open them yet, which was good. Maybe the water would be less cold when he got thirsty enough. With Master’s attention fixed on something else, and not on scratching at his mind, Maul could get a little more sleep, maybe. He was so tired.

The next few days, or he thought it was days anyway, passed in a haze of sleeping and waking, hiding under the tarp and silently shaking through more furious rages from Master. Fortunately there was a tiny ‘fresher in the cargo bay, so he didn’t have to make a mess somewhere that would be found later. With careful conserving he also didn’t have to sneak out into the main part of the ship again for more water, the last bulb still half full by the time the ship started shaking and rattling like it had when it was taking off. He needed to get out of the ship without being seen, once the bay was open. If Master ever met the pilot again he would be able to see where Maul had gone, if he wasn’t careful.

Clutching his remaining ration bar and the last of the water, Maul slowly, carefully crept out of his hiding place. The droids were still silent in their charging stations, so he had time to find a spot close to the hatch that he could leap out from when it opened. With a heavy jerk that made Maul’s teeth clack together, stirring his near constant headache roaring back to life, the ship landed. The hatch hissed and groaned it’s way open almost immediately, and as the droids behind him started beeping and twitching to awareness Maul slipped out the still partially closed hatch and dropped to the ground.

There were other people in the port, but it was night time and, at least from what he could see with a quick glance, nobody seemed to be looking in Maul's direction. Keeping his eyes down, doing his best to not get a good look at where he was, he dashed into the closest opening between two large buildings and out of sight before the pilot of the ship had time to even turn off the engines. He was away, on a completely different planet from Master, somewhere he had no idea to look.

Suddenly shaking, his hands trembling so hard he almost dropped his supplies, Maul stumbled around the side of a big bin of trash and slumped to the ground, curling up in the shadows. His chest hurt again but it was almost—good? Like pressure coming off his chest when he’d been crushed under something for a while, like he’d been trapped but suddenly wasn’t, and it hurt but it was—something. Good.

It made him shaky though, and his breathing was weird again, so he stayed in between the buildings until he was fine again. He should find another ship to hide on and go somewhere else, keep moving, but maybe he could find some more supplies first. And something to cover his face, like Master’s robe, so people couldn’t see him.

Just as he was about to go see what he could find, he felt Master scratching at him again, sharp and cold and so angry, so he dropped back down and buried his face in his hands so he couldn’t see anything. All he’d seen from the ship to the little corner he was in was a dirty space port, with only a few ships and people too far to see properly. Master wouldn’t find anything in his mind, he wouldn’t. He’d kept his eyes down the whole time. Still, better to be quick with his plan and get on another ship soon, just in case.

As soon as Master had stopped, Maul dragged himself to his feet, took a deep breath, and cautiously crept toward the other side of the buildings. There were more people over there, walking back and forth across the opening. So many different looking people. None of them looked like Maul, but some of them looked a little bit like Master. Most of them, though, didn’t look anything like either of them.

Keeping his eyes away from signs, not looking up very often, Maul edged out into the open space. There were vehicles going down the middle, and people walking on the sides, so he kept to the sides also. Nobody looked at him. He could feel them as they passed, and they weren’t paying attention to him at all. He felt a little braver, and started glancing to the sides into the openings between the buildings as he went past them, looking for anything that might be useful.

Mostly he saw trash, or sometimes people sitting on the ground. When the people sitting saw him looking they looked back, their notice making his skin shiver with unease, and he desperately willed them to stop looking. To his shock, it worked. The people who noticed him started making a weird face, like they were confused, then looking away again. He kept it up, wishing as hard as he could that no one would look at him, no one would see him or remember him as he slowly made his way along the open space.

He started smelling something after a little while, something he’d never smelled before that made his stomach go tight and twisty like he hadn’t eaten in too long. It smelled...hot. Hot, and familiar, but he knew he’d never smelled anything like it on Mustafar. Curious and suddenly a lot hungrier than he had been before he smelled it, he followed the smell between a couple buildings and away from the open space. There was no one sitting in this narrow gap, so he hopped over the piles of trash without hesitating and dashed to the other end before slowing to a halt.

The open space on this side was smaller, with no vehicles in the middle, but there were just as many people as there were in the other one. There were also little tiny buildings though, set up in front of the large ones, and the smell was coming from one of those. There were more smells, too, but none of the rest were as—as nice as the one from that little building. Keeping up his desperate wish that no one look at him, he crept closer to get a better look.

There was writing on a sign in front, but he couldn’t read it at all. It didn’t look like any letters he’d ever learned. There were pictures though, and it looked a little like the food that Master ate sometimes, but it was all red. It smelled even hotter up close, in a way that made his nose tickle and his mouth water.

Distracted, he almost didn’t notice that someone was looking at him, but when he glanced around to see if any of the other little buildings had anything similar to the red stuff he saw a couple people wearing all metal turned to face right at him. The taller one had red marks on his head, and the shorter one had blue marks, and Maul had never seen anything like what they were wearing. He—they didn’t feel like anything, not even the weird buzzy feel that droids had. He froze, his blood thundering loud in his ears as the bigger one tilted their head to the side. Maul swallowed roughly, edging a step back toward the gap behind him. They were too close and they were looking at him what if they remembered him later and Master saw?

The tall one lifted his hands to his head, and Maul flinched back another step, but all he did was lift the metal off it, and—Maul could feel him, sudden and startling. The metal had been—had hidden him. With a hitching gasp Maul scrambled back into the shadows, even as the tall one frowned and stepped toward him. He didn’t chase, though, and Maul stopped when he was just out of sight, watching the tall one peer into the darkness at him. He thought as hard as he could about being invisible, his blunted nails digging into his palms, and it worked that time, but—only on the one who took the metal off his head. He made the same face as everyone else had, looking away and walking up to the little building with the red food. The other one kept looking into the shadows for a moment, then slowly followed the other one.

The metal thing on his head hid him. Maul couldn’t feel him until he took it off. Then his wishing didn’t work, until the metal thing was off too. Maybe—the metal thing, maybe it could hide Maul. If he could take it, and get away after, maybe he wouldn’t have to keep hiding on ships. Maybe he could just...find somewhere safe, and stay there, and Master still wouldn’t find him. All he had to do was take it and run, and if he was fast enough, he would be safe.

Rubbing at his aching chest, trying to keep his breathing even, Maul slowly started creeping back toward the opening. He was fast, he could do it. He could.

 

 


 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

Jaster was having a very, very good day. It wasn’t often that he had the free time anymore to go hunting with his son, so when he did it was a rare treat indeed. Especially when it was for a quarry like the man they’d just turned in to the bounty office. An absolute monster of a man, a serial kidnapper who targeted children to wring money out of their frightened parents, but also a highly skilled combatant. It was always nice when Jaster had the opportunity to enjoy the thrumming satisfaction of not only taking down someone truly vile, but also getting a decent challenge out of him.

It didn’t hurt that he’d been able to show his son that the old man still had skill, either. The boy had sounded gratifyingly impressed by the time Jaster had their quarry trussed up on the ground in that warehouse. Maybe next time Jaster had to stay behind to deal with bickering clan heads or logistics catastrophes, Jango would have the decency to not look so damn smug about it.

Speaking of Jango, the tilt of his helmet as they were waiting for their food was a strangely speaking one, for how mundane their current activity was. Jaster raised a brow at him, his own helmet tucked under his arm as he leaned against the food stall’s decently sturdy post. “Problem? I thought you liked Akivan food.”

The tilt of Jango’s helmet was starting to look concerned, and Jaster frowned, baffled. “Really?” his son asked, the disbelief in his voice clearly audible even through the vocoder. “That’s it? You’re not even going to buy the kid a meal?”

Jaster stared for a moment, then glanced around looking for the kid he’d apparently missed, but the only children he saw looked to be perfectly well-attended. Bemused, he turned back to his son with another frown. “What kid?”

Before Jango could answer, their food was up. Distracted, the conversation already slipping from his mind, Jaster turned to grab their to-go boxes. Picking up the little stacks, Jaster suddenly realized with a quiet curse that he’d forgotten to leave a tip. He set his helmet down on the counter to reach into a pouch on his belt for a credit chip. He couldn’t have the hard-working people of Nal Hutta thinking the Mand’alor was a cheapskate, after all.

Before he could even get his fingers under the edge of the pouch flap, his helmet was snatched off the counter by a pair of small, starkly black and red hands. With a startled yelp, Jaster dropped the food back on the counter and jerked around to stare in abject disbelief. Who would have the absolute gall to steal a mandalorian’s helmet, right in front of them? Fortunately, he recovered from his shock quickly. He took off after the little thief, Jango pelting after him with a sharp curse.

That kid!” his son shouted behind him. “You looked right at him a few minutes ago!”

Jaster grimaced as he ran, wracking his memory but for some reason failing to pull up any images of the child scrambling through the crowd in front of him, despite their distinctive coloring and small horns. A zabrak, possibly, but not a zabrak like he’d ever seen before. He hissed through his teeth as the kid darted into an alley, putting on a bit more speed and dodging pedestrians as he pushed at his strangely fuzzy memory of the last few minutes.

Karking mind tricks. Of course. He should have known something was off the first time Jango mentioned a child he hadn’t seen. But why in the ka’ra’s name would a force user care if he had eyes on some random street child? Whatever was going on, he’d have to get to the bottom of it after he got his helmet back from the little bandit.

As he rounded the corner into the alley, he felt himself slow unconsciously. It seemed much less important to go this way than it had a moment ago. There was no reason for him to be in this alley, after all. He stopped, breathing slow and even, deliberately not considering anything but replenishing the oxygen in his body as he pushed, pushed, pushed at whatever thought it had the right to muck around in his head.

Jango skidded to a stop next to him, hand on his blaster as he looked around the refuse-strewn alley. “What is it?” he asked, his voice low as he peered into the shadows of piles of trash.

Jaster raised a hand, his eyes closed as he hissed through his teeth. His son fell silent, radiating concern with every line of his frame, and pulled the blaster out of its sheath as he stood ready to defend. Jango. His son was in that alley with him. How was he supposed to protect his son if he didn’t fully have his wits about him? The thought of Jango being in danger was the last push he needed.

He felt something give, like a distant shatter of glass, and at the same time there was a sharp hiss from the shadows ahead. With a soft huff of satisfaction, his head now clear, Jaster strode forward, unhesitating, toward the noise. Stepping around the corner of a tumbled pile of what looked like broken fiber-grown furniture, he spied a faint gleam, a reflection of the light from the nearby street on the metal of his helmet. Tucked deep under an overhang of the pile was a small, skinny, red and black child, hugging Jaster’s helmet with one arm and brandishing what looked like half of a chair leg with the other.

A very small child. Jaster’s confident stride stuttered to a halt as he finally got a good look at the little thief. Their teeth were bared, and he could just hear a hesitant, stuttering growl coming from them in fits and spurts and quickly being suppressed. Wide gold eyes were flicking wildly from Jaster to Jango and back, as they pressed further back into the shallow cavern under a broken table. They were barefoot, dressed in a filthy black tunic and pants, the thinness of their wrists clearly evident with the too-short sleeves. There was a nasty cut bleeding sluggishly on one foot, probably the reason the kid stopped running to hide instead.

All of that was bad enough, but it was the sight of numerous scars peeking out from under the edges of their ill-fitting clothes that had Jaster’s blood suddenly boiling. Someone had hurt this child, hurt them badly. And if he was accurately judging the relative ages of the scars he could see, repeatedly. He waved Jango back a step, then slowly crouched down to not loom quite so badly over them, and pulled as soft a smile to his face as he could manage with the rage building in his chest.

“Hey kid,” he said quietly, showing his empty hands palm up. “I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise, but I’m afraid I do need that back.”

The kid stared, still wide-eyed and breathing fast, and somehow managed to squirm back a little farther into the pile. “...No,” they whispered after a moment, pulling the helmet even closer. The edges were going to leave bruises if they clutched at it any harder. “I n-need it, so—so just—go away.”

Jaster blinked, halfway to his feet already before he realized why his head felt fuzzy all of a sudden. It was the kid. The kid was the force user. Well, that certainly made a lot more sense than some random meddling bystander, but he didn’t know they had that kind of abilities that young. He shook his head roughly, waving off Jango’s sudden concerned jerk, and crouched back down.

“That’s not gonna work on me again, kid,” he said gently, with a sympathetic quirk of his lips. “Now, what do you need my helmet for? Maybe we can help you out.”

Before the little thief even had the chance to answer his question they jerked, their eyes slamming closed as they wavered, dropping the stick to clutch at their head with a high-pitched whine. Jaster lunged forward, hands reaching to catch the kid before they fell over, but with a frantic scramble the kid lurched back up with their eyes still shut tight and shoved Jaster’s helmet over their head. With how small they were, the horns weren’t enough to keep it from fitting, and in short order they had his helmet on and the chair leg was snatched back up in a trembling hand, sweeping out in a surprisingly steady and practiced swing that Jaster had to dodge back to evade.

There was a long moment of silence, broken only by the sound of the kid breathing hard enough in Jaster’s helmet to be audible over the speaker. “No,” they gritted out, the modulating effect of the vocoder somehow making them sound even younger. “It—it works, I need it, so just—please, just go away!”

The sheer desperation in the kid’s voice brought a knot to Jaster’s throat, and he had to swallow before he could speak evenly. No child should have to sound like that, not ever. “How about this,” he started carefully, “You can keep wearing it, but you have to come with us back to our ship. Then we can figure out something else that will do what you need it to do, and we can trade. You get the new thing, and I get my helmet back. Does that sound fair?” The kid was shaking, and Jaster ached to reach out to them, but judging by their tight grip on that chunk of trash he’d likely get himself stabbed for it.

They didn’t answer for a long, long moment, but slowly the shaking subsided to a faint trembling, and the end of the improvised weapon dipped lower. “...I—yes, if I can k-keep it on, then—then I’ll come with you.” They paused for a moment, then brandished the stick a bit with what was likely as menacing a posture as they could muster. “But if you touch me I’ll kill you.

Jango’s hastily muffled snort at the threat made it even harder for Jaster to repress his own charmed smile, but somehow he managed it. “That’s fair,” said calmly, raising his hands. “But your foot looks pretty painful, are you sure you don’t want me to carry you? I won’t if you don’t want me to, but I don’t mind at all.”

The kid was quiet for a while again, before answering. Jaster wished he could see their face. Something about his question seemed to unsettle them, judging by the strange tension in their frame. “No,” they said finally, their tone flat through the speaker. “D-don’t touch me. It’s fine.”

Well, fuck. Jaster really didn’t want to lead a kid with an open wound through Nal Hutta’s filthy streets, all the way to the space port. It wasn’t that far, even on foot, but still. “How about this,” he said, trying to keep his tone reasonable rather than pleading, “Do you know how to put on a bandage? I can give you one for your foot so it doesn’t get worse while we walk, is that okay?”

“Of course I know how to use a bandage, I’m not a baby,” came the sharp reply, with an offended tip back of Jaster’s helmet, like the little bandit was baring his teeth behind the beskar. Jango snorted again, and Jaster just barely refrained from rolling his eyes in response. As though his son was any less prideful at that age, honestly. Keeping his movements slow and non-threatening, Jaster reached into his belt pouch for a small, emergency bacta patch and held it out toward the kid, close enough to reach but not so close they would feel crowded.

The kid made no move to take it, though, pulling back defensively. “What is that?”

Jaster frowned, motioning toward the kid’s still bleeding, filthy foot. “A bacta patch, for your cut.”

“I thought—you said a bandage.” Their little hands tightened on the stick, and they pulled their knees up close. “I know what a bandage is, that’s not—is—is this a test?”

The bewildered fear in that young voice made Jaster’s breath catch, and he had to struggle for a moment to keep his composure. “No, kid,” he said gently, setting the patch on the ground and shuffling a little further away. “It’s not a test, I promise. A bacta patch is a type of bandage, better than the regular kind. You just tear it open and peel off the white side, and stick it on the cut. It’ll feel a lot better."

 

 


 

 

Maul flicked his gaze from the person to the little package he left on the ground. It didn’t look like a bandage, but it also didn’t look like something that could hurt him if he touched it. He’d been wrong about that before, but—it was small, so even if it was a test and it hurt him, it shouldn’t be too bad?

Slowly, carefully, he reached out of the shelter of the trash pile and let his fingers brush the edge of the thing, the—the bacta patch. It didn’t do anything, so he picked it up, keeping his eyes on the person just in case. He didn’t grab though, he just crouched there and smiled at him. His smile wasn’t—it didn’t feel sharp, it felt—Maul didn’t know how it felt, but it was—not bad, maybe.

“Don’t come close,” he said sharply, warning them away with his club. He was fast enough to set the club down to open the thing, and still be able to pick it up in time to fight if they moved, probably. The shorter one was further away, and the taller one was crouched down, not ready to fight. He set it down, resting the not-sharp end against his thigh, and carefully tore open the wrapper on the bacta patch. It had a flat thing inside with one white side, like the person had said.

Keeping a sharp eye on both of them, Maul slowly peeled off the white part. It was sticky and red underneath, and smelled really strange, but when he touched it with his finger it didn’t hurt. Maybe it was a bandage. At least it probably wouldn’t make his foot worse. If he hadn’t tripped when he cut it he could have kept running, it wasn’t so bad, but it would be good to not get an infection if the thing worked.

Decided, he carefully put the sticky part on the cut, watching the crouched person out of the corner of his eye the whole time. He looked relieved, when Maul used the thing, the bacta patch, and his smile was still not sharp. As he finished smoothing down the edges of the thing, he noticed that his foot was starting to feel better. He sucked in a sharp breath, cautiously poking at the middle of the cut through the bacta patch, and it—it felt better, it hurt less already, like it was almost healed, what—

He looked up to stare at the person, eyes wide, something weird and twisty in his chest. The person just gave Maul something really good, and Maul hadn’t even done anything to earn it. Maybe—maybe he would do what he said? Maybe he would give Maul something that worked like the metal thing, the helmet, something that would keep Master out of his head.

He took a deep breath, picked up his club again, then cautiously crawled out from under the trash pile. The person waited until Maul was standing up and could run before he got off the ground, and he didn’t try to grab, just stood up and stepped back a bit. Keeping an eye on them, Maul stepped down on his cut foot, and it almost didn’t hurt at all.

“Bacta patch, it’s—it works,” he said quietly, still watching the people warily.

The tall one smiled more. “I’m glad,” he said, tucking his thumbs in his belt. “My name is Jaster, and this is my son Jango. What’s your name?”

Maul glanced between them, confused. They just had names, like Maul? No titles, like Master had? “...Maul,” he answered after a bit, when they just stood there and waited. The shorter one had put his blaster away, and it helped Maul relax a little bit. Blaster bolts hurt a lot.

“Well, Maul, it’s nice to meet you, even if you did run off with my helmet,” the tall one said with a short laugh. His laugh didn’t sound sharp either. Maybe he just...wasn’t sharp at all? “Alright, let’s head for the ship and see about getting you a new hat.” He turned to the shorter one, still smiling, and gave him something out of his pocket. “Jango, can you run back and get the food, if they haven’t thrown it out yet? And some extra for our new friend, of course.”

Maul frowned, glad his face was hidden and they couldn’t see. He didn’t understand anything that was going on, but—the helmet worked, Master had started scratching at him and when he put it on the scratching stopped, so if they let him keep it he would go with them. They were faster than him, after all, he admitted to himself with a grimace. The tall one was catching up even before he fell, they would have caught him eventually. This way at least, they were letting him wear the helmet.

And they had a ship, the person said, so maybe after they traded the helmet for the other thing Maul could sneak back onto it, and they would take him somewhere else, just in case. Then...maybe after that, he could find somewhere safe to stay for a while, where Master couldn’t find him.

The sound of his name from the person, from Jaster, jerked Maul out of his thoughts, and he jumped a little bit. Jaster’s face went twisty, like he felt bad for scaring him, and that was—it made his throat hurt a little. Maul didn’t like it. “What?” he asked, sharp.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Jaster said, quiet. “I was going to ask if you would come with me to the ship, while Jango grabs our dinner from the food stall.”

He must be talking about the little building, with the red food. Food stall. Maul committed the words to memory, determined to find another food stall and get some of the red food someday. The hot smell was...interesting.

“Fine,” he said, as strong as he could. He was starting to get a little shaky, but he didn’t want to take his rations out of his shirt in front of the—in front of Jaster, in case he would take it. He’d wait, until no one was looking. The helmet wasn’t so tight that he couldn’t get a ration bar into it, probably, so he could eat it when Jaster was distracted with his dinner.

“Come on then,” Jaster said with another smile, did he ever stop? “If we don’t get there before Jango does I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Cautiously, Maul followed after Jaster, keeping his attention split between him and the rest of the people in the open space, careful to stay out of grabbing range. He would go with them, and they would trade a new thing to keep Master out of his head for the helmet, and then he would figure out where to go after that.

And if they tried anything, if they hurt him, he would kill them. Maul was fast and strong, and even though Jaster was faster, he wasn’t as strong as Master was.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Jaster kept the vast majority of his attention on the small form cautiously trailing him through the street market, sparing barely a fraction for his usual watch for threats. He had no intention of losing either his helmet or the child into the depths of Nal Hutta, and he didn’t quite trust a frightened kid to keep their word, no matter how firmly they gave it. It seemed, though, that either Maul meant what they said, or they just had nowhere else to go, because there was no indication that they were looking for an escape route as they followed him toward the port.

He did note, however, that they seemed just as wary of random civilians getting too close as they had Jaster and Jango, so it wasn’t the armor and weapons that were the issue there. That was good for their future interactions, at least. The generalized wariness though, likely indicated Maul felt the potential for threat from everyone, which twisted something deep in Jaster’s chest. Even other children were carefully avoided, the visor of Jaster’s helmet tracking any bodies that got within a few arms’ length of the kid whether they were attached to likely threats or not.

When out of the corner of his eye, Jaster saw the little thief skipped sideways to avoid a human toddler coming within a few feet of him, his breath caught in his chest and he grimaced, dismayed. What could have happened to this kid, to make them shy away from a child barely old enough to be running around? He almost didn’t want to find out, except for the urge to make whoever was responsible pay for it.

The kid still had a tight grip on the fiber-grown chair leg, which got them a few strange looks from passers-by (or maybe that was the too-large mandalorian helmet rattling around on their little head). Jaster would have to get them a more effective security weapon, once they were a little more settled and less likely to react badly to things. Maybe a small knife? A proper blaster might be a bit much for one that young, but a small knife, and maybe a stun blaster, that would probably suit.

Jaster was still considering what models of stun blaster might fit Maul’s small hands when the crowd started to thin as they left the street market and headed into the space-port proper. The kid was much less twitchy, not having to sidle around and dodge as they walked. Jaster kept his body language open and relaxed, hands visible but thumbs tucked in his belt, and was pleased to see the kid unconsciously responding to him by drifting a bit closer, which was easily done at the slow pace Jaster was setting in deference to the small thief’s damaged foot. Though without the visible bandage, there would have been no sign the child was even injured, with how little care they took to avoid stepping on the wound, Jaster noticed grimly. High pain tolerance, even with bacta numbing the pain.

Jaster’s ship was fortunately docked toward the edge of the port, so they reached it in short order once they left Nal Hutta’s thoroughfare. Maul got twitchier again as they approached it, but Jaster was pleased to see that they didn’t open the distance between them again, still following along a few arms’ lengths away. They hesitated at the hatch as Jaster opened it and stepped onto the metal and into the hold, but after standing there for a moment, clenching and unclenching their hands, they followed him into the ship.

“Welcome aboard,” Jaster said quietly, not wanting to startle the kid again. When they’d flinched earlier just from him saying their name, he’d been unable to keep his expression even, his palms itching to get around the neck of whoever made the child so wary. The harsh tone of the kid’s reply, though, seemed to indicate that they didn’t appreciate Jaster’s grimace, so he determined to keep as calm and friendly as possible. Judging by how Maul was hugging the edges of the space, protecting their back, that was his best bet to keep them calm.

“How about we get that foot cleaned up and rebandaged before Jango gets here with the food, hm?” he asked eventually, nodding toward the fresher as he tapped the panel and opened the door. "You could probably do with a shower, too, now that I think about it."

The kid’s hand tightened on the stick, and they took a half step back and bumped up against the wall of the ship. “I can do it myself,” they said quickly, voice tight, as though he expected Jaster to grab them and drag them into the sonics or something.

Jaster took a slow breath, then dragged a small smile to his face. “Of course you can,” he said cheerfully, stepping through the fresher door and gesturing toward the water shower. “I’ll just show you how the controls work, then find you something clean to wear, alright? And don’t worry about getting water on my helmet, it’ll dry and the water won’t hurt it.” Sonic may do the job, but there was nothing like warm water when you were feeling out of sorts, it might help the kid calm down a little more.

The kid froze, having hesitantly started to follow Jaster’s lead, visor trained on Jaster’s face. “...How would I get water on it?” they asked slowly, tense and suspicious. “I don’t have any water.”

Something about the insistent way Maul declared their lack of water rang as false to Jaster, but that thought was lost in the sudden understanding that this kid had no idea what a shower was. He was going to have to carefully evaluate everything he said to Maul for potential misunderstandings, as clearly their life up to this point was far from what it should have been, what with such significant gaps in their knowledge as bacta and showers.

The scope of what he had, somewhere in the back of his mind, already admitted that he was taking on, was coming clear. Maul definitely couldn’t be dumped into some run-of-the-mill fosterage, they were far too ready to respond to threat with violence. Even the average mando’ad might have trouble with a kid so damaged. Jaster suddenly smiled, rueful. At least Arla would be pleased to no longer be the “problem child” of the family.

“We have both sonics and water showers on this ship,” Jaster explained, keeping his voice even. “I like to have a warm water shower when I’m hurt, it feels better than the sonics do. I thought you might like one as well. I can show you how it works, or if you’d rather just use the sonics that’s fine too.”

“Sonics,” Maul said immediately, visor still trained on Jaster. “I know how it works, you don’t—I don’t need you to show me.”

“Alright,” Jaster said simply, stepping back out of the fresher and heading toward Jango’s bunk instead, keeping Maul in his peripheral. “You go ahead, then, and I’ll grab you something clean to put on after. I’ll leave it outside the door for you, you can grab it when you’re done.”

Maul waited until Jaster was well out of reach before moving toward the ‘fresher, but eventually slipped into the cramped space and closed the door. Jaster took a moment to lean his forehead against the ship and breathe deep, trying to corral his racing thoughts into something approaching a plan of action. First step, find something old enough of Jango’s that it wouldn’t just slide off the slip of a child. His son rarely threw anything out that might be useful, so there was probably something stashed away in a drawer. Second step, feed the kid, which had to wait until they were out of the sonics and Jango had returned with the food.

Third step...he’d get to that eventually.

 


 

Jango felt an itch between his shoulder blades the entire way back to the food stall. He did not like leaving his buir alone with that weird kid after he’d been acting so strange, but what else was he going to do? Jaster had obviously gotten attached, just like he did with every sad, pathetic creature that crossed his path and tried to bite him. Jango could see it in his eyes as he sent Jango back for the food. His buir would either make sure the little thief was settled somewhere safe, personally, or he’d adopt them himself. Kark.

Trying to resign himself to dealing with a feral child for the foreseeable future occupied Jango’s thoughts the entire way to the food stall, during the wait for another meal to be boxed up, and all the way back to the port. Kids were unpredictable, wild animals at the best of times, in the most ideal of circumstances. This...was going to be a disaster.

By the time he got back to the ship, Jaster was slumped in a chair in the galley, head on the table, and the kid was out of sight. Judging by the sound of the sonics running in the fresher and the little pile of clothing outside it with a bacta patch resting on top, they hadn’t run off with his buir’s helmet again. That was something, at least. Jango dropped his burden next to Jaster’s head with a thump, and flopped down in the chair next to him.

“So…” he started, then trailed off awkwardly, staring up at the ceiling.

“Yup,” Jaster replied into the table, muffled by his arms.

Jango sighed, slumping down lower in his seat. “You’re keeping them, aren’t you?”

“The likelihood is high,” his buir admitted immediately, still muffled.

Jango rolled his eyes with another sigh, but even as he made to slip lower in the chair in resigned dismay, the fresher door slid open and a small hand cautiously reached out to poke the pile of clothes. Jaster had jerked upright at the sound, so the two of them watched silently as tiny black and red fingers tested the innocuous stack of what looked like Jango’s old tunic and pants, as though the hand’s owner was expecting a mine to be hiding underneath it. Maul having clearly decided it was, indeed, what it appeared to be, the pile was pulled into the fresher and the door closed once more.

“I would very much like to cause someone a great deal of harm,” Jaster mused idly, still staring down the corridor.

Kark. They were definitely keeping the kid. With another deep sigh, this one from the very depths of his soul, Jango pulled off his helmet and set it on the table, then started pulling open the boxes of food. “Hope the kid likes spice, because that was all they had.”

His buir quirked a smile, still distracted watching for Maul to come back out but listening. “If not, I’m sure we can figure out something to feed them from what we have on board. I’d bet spice will be fine though, zabraks tend to be fond of heat in their food, in my experience.”

“So they’re a zabrak, then?” Jango asked, muffled, already shoving half his dao-ben into his mouth and talking through the spiced meat and fluffy dough to Jaster’s obvious disgust. “Thought I saw horns, but I’ve never seen a zabrak that color before.”

Jaster hummed noncommittally, shrugging one shoulder. “That’s all I can think of that fits, but you’re right. Maybe a mix?”

Jango hummed back, leaning over a bit to see as the fresher door slid open again. The kid was practically swimming in his old tunic, and the legs of the pants were rolled up several times and still dragging the ground. With Jaster’s over-sized helmet still awkwardly perched on their head, they were...kind of ridiculously cute, actually.

“I guess we could always ask,” Jango said thoughtfully. “Hey, kid!” he called down the hall, waiting until he got an acknowledging tilt of the helmet to ask, “What are you?” His buir’s groan of embarrassment was music to his ears, and he happily stuffed the rest of his dao-ben into his mouth. Akivan food really was delicious.

 


 

Maul stared at the shorter person, bewildered and alarmed by the sudden question. What...was he? What kind of answer did the person, Jango, his name was Jango, what—what kind of answer did he want from Maul? Master said he hadn’t proved worthy of being called apprentice, so he wasn’t that. He wasn’t a droid, so—a person? But Maul was obviously not a droid, he wouldn’t need to ask that, so it had to be something more specific. What if he answered wrong? Would—would they take the helmet away?

He noticed abruptly that he hadn’t answered yet, and both of the people were frowning at him. He twitched, his hand tightening on his club just in case as he took a step back. Master called him boy, sometimes, instead of his name, maybe that was what he—what Jango wanted.

“...A—a boy?” he offered hesitantly, shifting from foot to foot. Would that be good enough?

The people looked at each other, and their eyebrows went up like he’d said something strange. Maul shifted again, watching for any sign he would need to run, but—they were just sitting. They didn’t look mad, but that didn’t really mean anything, Maul wasn’t stupid.

“Well,” Jaster said, smiling again, “That answers a question, if not the question.”

Despite himself, Maul felt his breathing speed up and his mouth go dry. He got it wrong. “S-sorry,” he said quietly, his gut sinking. Maybe if he just admitted it, they wouldn’t try to punish him for failing. “I d-don’t know the answer.” And anyway, they weren’t Master, if they tried to punish Maul he would—he could fight them, he could.

Jango was staring at him again, looking confused, but still not angry. “That’s...fine,” he said after a moment, and he sounded confused too. Maybe—was Maul’s answer right after all? “We were just curious. Come get some food.”

There were three boxes on the table, and the hot smell from the food stall was coming from them. Maul had snuck a couple bites of his ration bar while he was in the fresher and they couldn’t see, but the smell was still making his stomach tight and twisty. If they were going to give him another ration bar, he could keep the rest of his last one for later. When he got closer though, he didn’t see any rations on the table at all, just the boxes, and he stopped a few arms away, not willing to get any closer when he didn’t know what the trick was.

Jaster tilted his head, and his brows were pinched in the middle. “Do you not like spicy food?” he asked quietly.

Maul frowned, his face safely hidden by the helmet. He didn’t know what that was, and even though Master didn’t like Maul to ask questions, he couldn’t answer if he didn’t know what it was. Or he could just...say that, say that he hadn’t had it before and didn’t know. That was an answer. And anyway, Master wasn’t there.

“I don’t know it,” he said, keeping his voice as firm as he could. “I haven’t eaten a spicy before.” He waited for a reaction, but all they did was look at each other again. They still didn’t seem mad, at least.

“Well, if it’s too hot we can find you something else,” Jaster said after a moment. “And there’s koshar melon for after, that’s not spicy at all. Come sit down.” He gestured toward a chair at the table, like he wanted Maul to sit in it. With them.

Maul stared, his chest feeling weird and tight. Jaster wanted him...to sit with them? There was no ration bar on the table, there was an extra box, and he wanted Maul to sit at the table. Was—was the extra box for Maul? It didn’t make any sense, but nothing made sense off Mustafar, so he would just—he would do it, and see what happened.

Slowly, he edged over to the table and tugged the chair out a little. With a careful eye on both of them, he hopped up into the chair, setting his club on across his legs. As soon as Maul was settled in the chair, Jaster slid the box and a spoon over to rest in front of him. Maul tried to think how it could be a trick, but...Jaster was smiling again, and it wasn’t a sharp smile, it was...warm.

“If you tip the helmet back,” Jango said suddenly, making Maul jump, “You should be able to eat with it still on.”

Maul reached up to touch the metal, swallowing roughly. “If I do, will it still work?”

They looked at each other again, and Jaster leaned forward with his arms on the table. “Work for what, exactly?” he asked. “Why do you need my helmet?”

Maul stilled, thinking furiously. If he told them about Master, they could tell Master where he was, or—or send him back to Mustafar, or to Tosste. But if they were going to trade the helmet for something else that he could keep then they needed to know it was to keep Master out of his head, didn’t they? If it could do that, it could probably do lots of things, and he only needed the one thing, so he had to be specific. But if he was too specific, they might figure it out, and—and do something, he didn’t know what, but they could do something bad if they knew.

“My head—it hurts, sometimes,” he said hesitantly, wary. “It—it scratches and burns, and—I put it on, the—the helmet, and it stopped.”

Jaster started frowning, but he didn’t look mad just...frowny. “Do you know why your head hurts? And how the helmet makes it stop?”

“No,” Maul answered quickly, his voice tight. “I d-don’t know that.”

 


 

Jaster leaned back in his chair, considering the obvious lie carefully. There were a number of things that could cause headaches, and he was sure if he asked a medic he’d learn about a good number more, but for any of those things to be fixed just by putting on a helmet? Fixed instantly, at that? Very unlikely. A helmet being able to block some kind of signal, or other outside source of the pain, that seemed far more plausible. Which meant something external was harming the kid. And if it was external, it was possible that there would be some way to detect and track that source.

And if that source was whatever had put all those scars on Maul, had taught him that every single person he encountered was a potential source of pain, well. Jaster had some ideas for how to deal with that.

“Alright,” he said finally, pleased to see a bit of tension drain out of the boy as his lie went unchallenged. “Why don’t you tip it up enough to eat, and see if it keeps working. It’ll be a lot harder to eat if it doesn’t, but I’m sure we’ll be able to figure something out.”

Maul hesitated, his fingers still resting on the front of Jaster’s helmet as though to reassure himself it was still there, then slowly eased it up to expose his chin. He stopped there for a moment, then swallowed visibly and pushed it up to his nose. Jaster found himself holding his breath as he watched for any signs of pain, but Maul didn’t flinch. He tipped it up just a bit more, until Jaster could just see his eyes under the edge of the metal. Wide, darting between Jaster and his son, tense at the corners, and a bright gold with a touch of red.

His eyes fixed on Jaster after a moment, one hand still clutching at the bottom edge of the helmet, the other reaching out to hesitantly tap the box in front of him. “Eat...this? Not—not a ration?” His voice was tense, but with a strong undertone of confusion that set alarms going off in the back of Jaster’s mind.

“Yes,” Jaster said calmly but firm, leaving no room for doubt. “That box is all for you, eat everything in it if you want to. If you don’t like it, we’ll give you something else.”

“The buns are full of meat,” Jango, already half done with his arguez sausage stew, chimed in with his mouth full again because he had absolutely no respect for his buir. “Spicy, but sweet too. You should try that first.”

“He can pick what he wants to try first,” Jaster said, kicking his son in the leg as subtly as he could and pairing it with a meaningful glance.

Jango winced apologetically. “Right, yeah, eat whatever you want, just a suggestion.”

Maul flicked his gaze between them again, searching for something with wary eyes, but it seemed he didn’t find it. He popped open the box carefully, easing the lid up with one finger, but as soon as his eyes caught the vibrant red of the stew and the golden, pillowy buns, he seemed to forget Jaster and Jango even existed, for a moment.

The moment didn’t last long, that wary stare twitching back up, but the kid did reach for one of the dao-ben, pulling it up to his mouth for a hesitant nibble. Jaster heard Maul’s breath catch as his teeth sank into the soft dough, and the boy froze for a moment before a faint shiver rattled his frame. He didn’t say anything, but he did curl around the bun as he ate it slowly, wide eyes still watching Jaster and Jango like a feral loth kit in a trap, ready to bite if they got too close.

Judging that Maul had gotten far enough into the bun to get to the filling, and not wanting him to force himself to eat it if it was too spicy, Jaster gave the boy a nod and an encouraging smile before asking, “Do you like it?”

Maul paused again, his hand tightening until his small fingers were digging into the fluffy roll like he was worried Jaster would take it from him, but nodded hesitantly.

“Good,” Jaster said softly, then turned his attention to his own food and let Maul eat at his own pace. Maybe if they weren’t so obvious about watching him, he’d be more comfortable eating in front of them.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jango still watching the boy, obviously curious. He nudged his son’s leg with his toes, then looked meaningfully down at his own food when Jango turned to face him. With a look of understanding, Jango tipped his chin in a barely perceptible nod, then turned his shoulders a bit away from the boy and conspicuously focused on polishing off his meal. Hopefully the lack of attention would encourage Maul to finish his meal, he clearly needed every calorie they could get into him.

Ah, fuck. He still needed to come up with a step three, didn’t he?

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 


 

 

The things, the—the dao ben, they were called dao ben, they were soft. It didn’t hurt his teeth at all to bite them, so Maul didn’t have to stop and take breaks while he was eating. They smelled hot and bright and other things he didn’t have a name for, that he’d never smelled before. Rations only smelled like wet dust and something metallic, and Master’s food only smelled like cooked animal or vegetable, not other smells on top. The color was gold, not brown or gray, and the other stuff in the box was bright red. It was nice, looking at it.

He watched the people, Jaster and Jango, while he was eating, but they barely looked at him. It was like they didn’t care that he was sitting there and eating their food, like it wasn’t anything important. Even when both of them finished all their food, they just kept sitting there, not looking at him. Jango was using a data pad and sitting low in the chair, and Jaster looked like he was falling asleep. Maul still didn’t understand what was going on, but it was getting harder to stay on high alert like he should be.

He was...tired. He was really tired. The thought of still needing to find somewhere safe to sleep when he was already so tired made his eyes burn, and he had to stop eating for a moment to breathe slow, pinching his leg hard. Jaster and Jango were right there, he couldn’t have a baby fit in front of them, what if they did something? Anyway he wasn’t so tired that he wouldn’t be able to train, so he couldn’t be too tired to find somewhere to sleep, that didn’t even make sense.

Dry-eyed, Maul went back to eating. There were two dao-ben left, but only a little of the red stuff. He was starting to get too full to be fast, so he needed to save some of it. The dao-ben would be easier to hide, they weren't wet like the red stuff was, so he should eat the red stuff. Maul carefully looked over at Jaster and Jango, from under the edge of the helmet. Jango was still looking at his datapad, and Jaster had his head resting on his hand, and his hair was hanging down in front of his eyes. They weren’t looking at Maul, so he quickly put the buns in the pockets of the pants, one on each side so they didn’t stick out.

He dared another swift glance at them, and it didn’t look like they noticed. Master definitely would have noticed, and it would have been—it was bad, when he noticed things Maul tried to hide, so it was good they were less observant. Maul managed to keep his sigh of relief from escaping, pushing it back down in his chest, and went back to eating.

There wasn’t much left of the red stuff, so it didn’t take him long to eat all of it. He didn’t know what to do after that, though. Was he supposed to get off the chair? Or maybe he was supposed to stay on the chair, until they said to move. But if he stayed on the chair for too long he would get even more tired, and he was really slow when he was too tired, and that was bad. But if he got off the chair and they got mad because he wasn’t supposed to, and he had to run, they would chase him because he still had the helmet, so he had to stay until they traded him something else.

“All done?” Jaster asked suddenly, making Maul flinch with surprise.

Maul had been so busy trying to figure out what he was supposed to do that he didn’t notice that Jaster had sat up again until he spoke. He pulled the helmet back down to hide his face, all tense and shivery, his stomach tight. He hated being startled, it made him feel small and careless and weak. He should be more aware of his surroundings. No wonder he failed tests so often, when he couldn’t even pay attention to someone sitting right in front of him.

“Yes,” he said quickly, when he realized he hadn’t answered yet. “I ate it all.” Through the helmet’s clear part he watched Jaster smile again, and for some reason it made the tense and shivery feeling not as much. It was strange, and Maul wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.

Jaster was still leaning on his hand, his chin resting on it like he wasn’t worried about anything at all. “Well done,” he said with a warm voice, like he was happy.

Maul sucked in a sharp breath, and he wanted to look away but he didn’t know why. Looking away would be stupid and careless, that didn’t make any sense. He frowned instead, bunching up the edge of the blue shirt they gave him in his fists. He didn’t know whether Jaster wanted him to respond, so he kept silent, waiting. Out of the corner of his eye he could still see Jango, and he looked like he didn’t care about anything other than his datapad. Except then Jango looked up at Maul, and he twitched, nervous. It was never good when Master looked at him, not ever, but it hadn’t been bad when Jango and Jaster did so far, so he didn’t know what to do.

“Do you want some melon?” Jango asked, looking bored and tired.

Maul didn’t know that word, so he didn’t know if it was good or bad, but if it was bad Jango probably wouldn’t ask if he wanted it, he would just make him take it. If it was good, and he wanted Maul to say yes, what would he have to do to get it? But it looked like he didn’t care if Maul said yes or no, so maybe it wasn’t important? Jaster was happy that Maul was done, so maybe he should say no. Maybe he wanted Maul to do something, or they were going to find a thing to trade for the helmet so delaying would be bad. Maybe it was a test, to see if he was really going to do the trade, or if he would try to keep the helmet. That made sense.

“No,” he said firmly, flicking his gaze between Jaster and Jango and waiting to see if he got it right. They didn’t look angry, so maybe he did. Jango still looked like he didn’t care, and Jaster looked...Maul didn’t know what that expression meant, he’d never seen it before, but it didn’t look angry, so maybe it was fine?

 


 

Maul was going to break his heart over and over for the foreseeable future, Jaster could feel it in his bones. He’d watched through the curtain of his hair as the kid tucked a pair of buns away, looking terrified of being caught at it the entire time but obviously desperate enough to try, and he’d been hard-pressed not to leap to his feet and start filling a bag with snacks for him to keep on him. Instead he let Maul think he’d been sneaky enough, nudging Jango’s leg again when he caught the flick of his gaze toward the boy. They would let him do whatever he needed to feel more secure. As much as they could, anyway.

Jaster also had a feeling that Maul didn't know what a melon was, judging by the tightness of his voice when he declined the offer, but he let it pass without comment. There would be time enough to introduce him to all sorts of foods later. At least they managed to get a good meal into him, he was far too small. Regular meals, medical check, and a safe place to heal, that was step three.

But first, step two and a half: the helmet.

“Alright,” he said quietly, keeping his tone calm and even. “If we’re all done, we should talk about that trade.”

Maul’s breath hitched, a pause in the slightly too fast rise and fall of his small chest, and his clenched fingers tightened on the hem of Jango’s old tunic. Jaster gave him as reassuring a smile as he knew how, leaning back in a relaxed slouch as he folded his hands together, fingers laced. It seemed to help, the boy responding unconsciously to his body language by relaxing ever so slightly, looking a bit less hunted.

“I’m afraid until we know how the helmet is helping you, we can’t replace it with something else and be sure it will work. But until we can,” he added quickly as Maul tensed again, looking on the edge of a full flight response, “You can keep wearing it. You just have to stay with us, so I know where it is. Does that work for you?”

He didn’t answer for a long time, holding perfectly still as though the slightest movement was an invitation for attack. “Stay...here? On—on the ship?” he asked finally, his voice as tight as a rappelling line.

“For now, yes,” Jaster replied, sliding a bit further down in his chair. His back was not going to be happy if he kept up this position too long, but the more relaxed he looked the less Maul seemed like he was just going to bolt, consequences be damned, so he would deal with it. “We just finished some work, so we’re heading back to our home on Concord Dawn. We should be able to figure out what’s causing your headaches there, I know a very good doctor who can help.”

Maul went quiet again for a moment, almost vibrating with tension, before finally jerking his head in a tiny nod. “F-fine. But you—you’re not my master,” he said sharply, squaring his shoulders and radiating almost as much fear as defiance.

Jaster bit down on his first three responses, discarding them as unhelpful and more likely to confuse Maul than reassure him, and instead just gave him a solemn nod. “I understand,” he said firmly, no doubt or hesitation, and a little of the fear started ebbing away.

Beside him, Jango’s fingers were tapping rapidly against his knee, silent and out of Maul’s view, as he tried to contain his own anger at Maul’s need to clarify that. “You can sleep in my bunk,” he offered, his own tone carefully even, and Jaster’s chest warmed with pride. He was such a huffy, prickly teenager, but even at his worst Jango was kind, and Jaster couldn’t believe how lucky he was to be his father.

“And I’ll sleep in Jaster’s,” Jango added with a sidelong glance and a smirk, shattering the illusion.

Jaster somehow managed to keep his irritation off his face, but gave his son a look that said exactly how unamused he was. If Jango thought he was going to be shifted out of his own bunk, after torturing his spine with the sprawl he was doing in that chair, he was mistaken.

Across the table, Maul still looked one wrong word away from bolting, but there was no hiding the exhaustion starting to make itself known. He’d twitched a bit, when Jango offered his bunk, but after a long pause his only reply was another small, hesitant nod. His hands untangled from the soft, worn fabric of the tunic, wrapping around the chair leg instead. That grip wasn’t white-knuckled and tense, though, Jaster noticed. It was practiced, firm. Not like a child clutching a comfort item. More like a fighter with a familiar weapon. It was one more very strange bit of data about a very strange child.

He filed the thought away for later consideration, and slowly and casually straightened in his chair. The second he moved, Maul slid off his own seat and took a quick step back, his make-shift club not quite raised but definitely held in a low guard. Jaster kept his face in a pleasant, neutral state, his lips curving easily into his habitual half-smile even with the simmering anger in his chest and the creaking of his spine. He’d had plenty of practice hiding anger, after so many years as Mand’alor, and while he would usually play the ‘old man’ card over his spine to get a laugh out of Jango, he had a feeling Maul wouldn’t get the joke. Not yet, anyway.

“It’s been a long day for all of us,” he says calmly, tucking his thumbs in his belt. “How about I show you to your bunk, and I’ll get us underway before we all get some sleep.”

 


 

Jango stayed at the table while Jaster led the kid out of the room, slouched low in his seat. Seeing his buir project Not A Threat wasn’t exactly a new thing for him, Jaster could put even the twitchiest verd at ease after interacting with them for barely a handful of minutes, but he’d never seen Jaster try to make himself small before.

It felt...strange, watching how cautious and soft he was with the kid. It made Jango think of his own early days with Jaster, back when he was all rage and pain and lingering terror, ready to fight at the first sign of danger, ready to run and hide at even the slightest reminder of all he’d lost. Jaster had been the only safe and steady thing in the galaxy, and seeing him try to offer the same thing to someone else was...it was strange, that’s all.

He could still just see Jaster down the corridor from his spot in the galley, and he watched as Maul sidled into his bunk room, stick still held ready as he kept as far away from Jaster as possible without phasing right through the wall. The slump of Jaster's shoulders as soon as the door closed behind Maul twisted something in Jango’s chest. He looked tired, the way he always did when he had to deal with hurt kids, and it brought a frown to Jango’s lips, worry drawing his eyebrows together in a pinch.

A fleeting spark of resentment tried to flicker to life in Jango's gut, but the memory of Maul's panicky twitching and wide eyes doused it before it could do more than whisper. It wasn't the kid's fault he needed help, blaming him for it would be a pretty shitty thing to do. He imagined the look on Jaster’s face if he was sharp with him or something, and even the thought of it made him feel cold and small inside.

Jango watched as Jaster breathed in, deep enough to move his whole body, then let it out slow as he pulled himself back upright. It was like watching a tower being built in the span of a single breath as his buir pulled on the armor of the Mand’alor, hiding away his soft underbelly behind beskar. The chill in Jango’s chest warmed with a strange pride, knowing that he was one of the few people ever permitted to see that soft side at all.

As Jaster turned back toward the galley, Jango rearranged his features into something closer to neutral than whatever they were currently up to. Couldn’t let the old man think he was getting soppy, he’d never hear the end of it.

“Well,” Jaster said wearily, leaning his hip against the galley counter and crossing his arms, “That’s sorted for now, I suppose.”

Jango hummed noncommittally, still slumped with his chin on his hand. “Sorted until we get home, at least.”

Jaster tipped his chin to stare blindly at the roof of the galley, his Planning Face settling on his features. “Mm. I’m going to give Hiralaan a heads up after I get the course set. Maybe get some recommendations on what to feed him until we get home.”

“You sound like you just adopted another pet,” Jango grinned.

His buir gave him a wounded look, like he didn’t regularly bring home yet another pathetic creature to find a home for because it looked sad. “I haven’t adopted anyone!”

“Yet,” Jango sighed, his tone as resignedly hopeless as he could make it. “I give it a week. If the kid doesn’t somehow manage to bail before we get home and take your helmet with him, anyway.”

Jaster snorted, but then brightened a bit, his ridiculous optimism apparently finally kicking in. “Maybe he’ll settle some, while we’re in hyperspace. It’ll be a few days. Time to get used to us, maybe start feeling a bit more secure.” Jango’s doubt must have been obvious, because his buir huffed with a small half-smile as he straightened up and headed toward the cockpit. “Let your old man dream, brat,” he said, ruffling Jango’s hair as soon as he got within reach.

Jango ducked away from Jaster’s hand, just too slow to avoid the brush of his fingers, batting at his hand with an offended hiss. His curls were already a mess from wearing his helmet, if he let Jaster at them he’d be forever untangling them, and he needed to get to the bunk before his buir finished getting the ship into hyperspace. As soon as Jaster disappeared behind the cockpit’s door, Jango hopped out of his chair and scrambled toward his buir’s bunk. If he got his own armor stashed in the locker first, he wouldn’t have to be the one to somehow make two full sets fit in a space designed to comfortably hold one.

It was a matter of moments to shimmy out of his armor and stash it away, and a quick hop in the sonics only a few moments more. Jango thought about a water shower, but the satisfaction of outmanoeuvring Jaster outweighed the pleasure of that particular indulgence. The ship was just beginning to lift from the port by the time Jango was crawling under his buir’s thick blankets, the heavy weight of hand-woven muunyak wool keeping the chill seeping through the hull well away from his skin.

He had every intention of waiting for Jaster to arrive, if only for the free entertainment of watching him try to get his armor in the locker. Unfortunately, the blankets were warm, and they’d been up and hunting that bastard bounty for far longer than Jango wanted to contemplate. He was still waiting by the time his eyes just refused to stay open any longer.

 


 

Jaster dropped down in the pilot’s seat with a weary sigh, feeling every one of his years. He’d been awake nearly a full rotation, on the tail of their bounty, and had been very much looking forward to a leisurely rest after they’d dropped him off before even starting back home. The needs of a frightened child took precedence over his tired, creaky bones’ desires, though. If only he trusted Maul not to just try and sneak back out of the ship while they were asleep.

There he was, a full hour after he’d planned to be in his bunk, and instead of being cozy and warm and fast asleep, he was plotting their course to Concord Dawn and getting clearance to leave from the port. At least with how slow the port controller was to respond, Jaster had time to comm his chief medic before they got underway. He could do with some reassurance that he wasn’t going to poison their little thief.

The doctor’s holo popped into view without delay, his call immediately answered, like always. Jaster still didn’t know when Hiralaan actually slept, and she’d been his doctor for nearly a decade at that point. It seemed like she was always awake and alert, no matter what time he called her. Then again, Jaster didn’t know if anx did sleep, come to think of it.

“What have you done to yourself now?” Hiralaan’s deep rumble always sounded strangely flat over comms, the system not capable of picking up the lower registers. Her deep set eyes scanned over him quickly, a flick of her gaze from weak point to weak point of his armor, checking for wounds. “You don’t look like you’re bleeding out, at least.”

Jaster huffed, leaning back in the chair and crossing his arms. “I don’t only call you when I’m dying, Hiralaan.”

She rumbled, dubious, but waved a long-fingered hand at him, a slow, encouraging motion. “Go on then, what do you need? Whatever it is, it’s not a social call, so spit it out.” She never did have patience for small talk when there was work to do. Jaster appreciated that in a friend.

“How familiar are you with zabrak?” he asked, a frown settling on his lips once more, despite his efforts. “We picked up a kid, red and black markings, no hair, crown of little horns. He couldn’t answer when Jango asked what he was, and he’s so flighty I didn’t want to push, but I’m not sure what to feed him until we get home. Zabrak is the only thing I can think of that fits, but I’m not certain by any means.”

Hiralaan is quiet for a moment, blinking at him slowly, and Jaster quietly crushed the urge to twitch under that considering stare. “I am unaware of any other species with near human features and multiple horns. Has he eaten anything yet? Any notable injuries?”

“He cut his foot, running,” Jaster said grimly, still feeling a bit sick over letting a child walk on a wounded foot, no matter how little choice he had in the matter. “Other than that, nothing obvious. And yes, he ate. A spiced sausage and sweetened meat buns. Akkivan street food. He has claws and horns like a zabrak, so I made an educated guess. He seemed to like it, no sign of distress so far, but he is tucked away in Jango’s bunk for the night, so I suppose we’ll find out if I guessed wrong.”

Hiralaan rumbled again, concerned that time, but at least she didn’t didn’t look like she thought Jaster had completely fucked up with Maul already. “See if you can get him onto the biobed for a scan when he wakes up,” she said finally. “I’ll be able to tell you more after that. In the meantime, stick with the basics, protein rations are designed to be compatible with the widest range of systems as possible.”

Jaster grimaced, but nodded reluctantly. With how Maul reacted to his dinner, Jaster had a feeling that real food was a rare experience, if he got it at all, so giving him nothing but rations until they reached Concord Dawn felt almost cruel. Better that than make him sick, though. There’d be plenty of time to spoil him once they figured out what they could spoil him with.

“Alright,” he sighed, then the flash of a communication from port control caught his attention. “Looks like we’re finally cleared to depart. I’ll comm you tomorrow with an update, and hopefully with some biobed scans along with it. Thank you, Hiralaan.”

Hiralaan’s typical wordless, rolling dismissal of his gratitude again fell flat over the comm, the lack of that subtle vibration in his sternum making her feel strangely distant. Without another word, her holo vanished, and Jaster set about getting their ship underway. For as long as it took to get a single ‘yes fine you’re clear to leave’ from the port, it took barely moments before they were breaching atmo and Jaster was setting the nav to take them home.

Alone in the cockpit, Jaster let himself have a moment. Just a moment, to collapse back in the chair and stare at the streaks of light through the viewport. There was a powerful rage simmering in his chest, a snarling beast on a chain, just waiting for a target, waiting for a hunt. More importantly, though, there was a little kid on his ship who needed protecting. The hunt would have to wait.

Jaster took a slow, deep, fortifying breath, then heaved himself to his feet. He locked down the cockpit, just in case, setting the door to biometrics, then dragged his weary carcass across the ship to his bunk. As expected, he stepped through the door to find his bed thoroughly occupied by a sprawl of snoring teenager. Jaster leaned against the frame of the door for a moment, watching his son sleep, a rueful smile quirking his lips at the sound of his nasally whistle and the drool on Jaster’s pillow. Absolutely disgusting, but somehow still managing to be cute.

Jaster wanted to take a holo to cheerfully torment his son with later, but fortunately for Jango he was too tired to go dig out the holocam. Instead he started quietly unlatching his vambrace as he pulled open the armor locker. The full armor locker, he noted with irritation. Jango was no longer cute. With a longsuffering sigh, Jaster silently, slowly managed to store his armor without waking his son. At least his helmet was still in Maul’s care, and he didn’t have to leave it out on the counter or something.

He considered using the sonics before finally, finally getting some sleep, but the feel of stale sweat and the grime of Nar Shaddaa sent him to the water shower instead, his most comfortable sleep pants tossed over his shoulder. It was worth the extra few minutes to feel properly clean again. He even managed to not fall asleep in the shower. It was the small victories that kept him going, really. And after the day he’d had, didn’t he deserve as many small victories as he could get?

With a faint smile, Jaster made his way on silent feet back to his bunk. Without a sound, he ghosted over to the bed, stopping just beside it to see if Jango would wake at his approach. His whistly snore never even stuttered, and with a feral grin, Jaster dropped directly on top of him, all his six feet of moderately padded muscle flattening the teenager into the mattress. The pillow his face was suddenly crushed into muffled Jango’s startled yelp and the following hissed curses, but Jaster’s honking laugh rang loud and clear through the small room as Jango wiggled out from under his bulk.

His son’s hair was a wild mess of curls by the time he squirmed free, still hissing like a feral tooka as he untangled himself from the blankets. The look on his face nearly set Jaster off again, but he managed to restrain himself to a smug grin. By the time Jango managed to get the hair out of his eyes, Jaster was comfortably situated in his bunk under his blankets. Unlike his son, however, he was kind enough to not take up the whole mattress. He certainly wasn’t going to make Jango sleep on the bench in the cargo hold after he’d so kindly offered his bunk to their little guest.

Jango crawled back under Jaster’s blankets with a huff, curling into his side and sticking his now-cold toes directly under Jaster’s leg. “You’re such a shabuir,” he muttered darkly, his eyes already sliding closed.

“Go to sleep, brat,” Jaster murmured, already heading that way himself even with amusement still bubbling in his chest. “It’s been a long day. You can wreak your horrible vengeance tomorrow.”

With Jango’s familiar whistle guttering back to life in his ears, Jaster slowly let the tension from the day drain out of him. There would be time enough to worry about his next steps in the morning.

 

 


 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

The room Jaster put Maul in was small, even smaller than his room on Mustafar, but bigger than the cargo pod he slept in on Master's ship. The first thing his eyes landed on as Jaster closed the door and he could look away was what looked like a sleeping mat, but it was thicker than any mat Maul had ever seen before. It was high off the floor in a hole in the wall, and there were even more thin mats piled on top of it with bright colors and patterns all over them. It had a piece of fabric hanging in front of half of it, with hooks on the bottom. There was a bar that some of the hooks were attached to, like it was supposed to cover the hole, but the fabric didn’t hide the hole at all so he didn’t understand why. Maybe the hole was warmer with it there?

Next to the hole on one side was a little table covered with pads and tools Maul didn’t recognize, and another thing partway taken apart with wires hanging out and a screen sitting next to it. The walls near the door had pictures stuck to them, gold fields of grass and a blue sky in one and a nebula in the other one, all orange and red and blue and swirly. There was a small pile of crates in one corner, too small to hide behind, and tucked up against the wall secured with straps besides.

Maul stood by the door to the room and held tight to his club as he stared at everything through the helmet, shifting from foot to foot as he tried to decide where to sleep. There were cabinets all along the wall next to the hole with the mat, different sized shiny metal doors with latches, but most of them were much too small for Maul to fit inside. The only one big enough was tall, not long, so he’d have to scrunch up into the bottom, and anyway it had a pad on it with a red light so he wouldn’t be able to open it anyway.

The door was closed behind him, but that didn’t mean nobody would come in later, so being out in the open and near it would be bad. But the room was small, and everything was stuck into the walls, so there wasn’t really anywhere that would be a good hiding place either. The floor was bare, so Jango must sleep in that hole with the mats, but there were so many of them, it didn’t make any sense.

Maul probably wasn’t supposed to sleep there, but maybe he could just...borrow one of them. He never slept very long anyway, so he could probably put it back before Jaster and Jango saw. He took a slow, deep breath, then another one, then nodded sharply and went to the sleeping mats and grabbed the one on top. It was...really soft. He put his hand on it to pick it up, but it was so soft his fingers squished into it.

Maul felt his breath catch as he rubbed his fingers over the orange stripe, then twitched as he looked over at the door, suddenly nervous. He definitely wasn’t supposed to use it, it was...really nice. But Jaster was falling asleep at the table earlier, so he was probably really tired too, maybe he would sleep for a long time? Maul never slept for a long time, not ever, so if Jaster did then Maul would definitely wake up first, and he could put the mat back before anyone saw.

With another quick glance at the door, Maul pulled the top mat off the rest of the pile and dragged it over to the wall by the pile of crates. It was the farthest corner from the door, and even with a small room he could get off the floor quickly if the door opened. He set his club down to spread it out and laid down on his side, but the helmet pushed hard on his horn, so he had to tip it back a little. The edge was hard against his neck that way, but it probably wouldn’t give him a headache like it would if it pushed on his horn all night.

The mat was much bigger than Maul’s, he could lay on it and still have extra to pull on top of himself, so that’s what he did. It was so soft, and it was warmer than anything Maul had felt since he left Mustafar. He was even more tired suddenly, his eyes closing even when he tried to keep them open to watch the door for a little while. He couldn’t sleep yet, he had to wait long enough for Jaster and Jango to sleep, and the ship hadn’t even left the port yet.

Just as he had that thought, he felt a rumble through the floor as the ship turned on, a quiet hum starting up that came from somewhere below and behind him. Maul twitched and curled into himself as much as he could without smashing his horn against the side of the helmet, grabbing his club again as he kept his eyes on the door. Soon, he could sleep really soon. He just needed to wait until they were in hyperspace and a little after, enough time for Jaster to go to sleep first.

Then when he woke up again in a few hours, he could find some more supplies. Just in case.

 


 

The quiet bell tone of Jaster's alarm woke him far earlier than it had any right to. The lump of blanket next to him groaned, desperate and pained, and Jaster replied with a weary grunt, rolling over to smother himself in the pillow. The bell didn’t stop chiming, unfortunately, insistent for all its softness, and after a moment of vain wishing for a much later morning, Jaster began to heave himself out of the bunk with a resigned sigh. He had a small child on his ship that needed taking care of, after all.

He crushed Jango slightly more than strictly necessary on his way out, the corner of his mouth twitching up as his son cursed and snarled under the blankets, but he also let him stay in bed. Jango had worked hard the day before, and he was still a growing teen no matter how much he insisted he was an adult. He needed his rest more than Jaster did. “I’ll come get you for breakfast in a bit,” he said with amusement, patting the still muttering lump fondly. The lump twitched for a moment, then relaxed back into the bunk with a huff that carried a distinct note of badly hidden relief, and Jaster couldn’t help but smile.

He carried the smile with him out into the corridor, but it started to fade as his eyes lit on Jango’s bunk door. Still closed, which Jaster had more than half expected, with how wary and frightened the boy behind it was. Jaster let that one be also. If anyone needed his rest, it was a terrified child in an unfamiliar ship on their way to an even more unfamiliar planet with a couple of strangers.

After a quick detour to the cockpit to check for messages and make sure they were still on course, Jaster made his way to the small galley to get started on breakfast for two hungry boys. Halfway through opening the cabinet to get out some flour for fresh hotcakes, he grimaced with genuine dismay. Right. Basic rations only until after the biobed scan and Hiralan’s review of the data.

With a sigh, Jaster went instead to the ration pack cupboard and dug out some of the less objectionable flavors. He paused when he got to the box in the back, the box of protein cubes that he hid his nerf jerky ration bars in. Jango never even looked at the protein cube stores if he could help it, so the box wouldn’t be lighter than it should be because of him. Sure enough, when Jaster opened the box, there were at least a handful of bars missing. Shoved all the way in the back like they were, Maul had likely thought no one would notice their absence.

Once again, a pained regret for things he had no control over twisted through Jaster’s chest, and he leaned his forehead against the cupboard while he wrestled the feeling back down. Whatever the kid had gone through, at least he was away from it. And if Jaster had anything to say about it, Maul would never need to worry about going hungry again, even if he didn’t end up wanting to become part of his family.

With a fortifying breath, Jaster pushed his sudden melancholy away and got back to setting out a decent selection of options for Maul to pick from. If he couldn’t make the boy fresh hotcakes, at least he could let him choose his preference of protein rations. Setting out a pile of ration packs didn’t take nearly as long as actually making breakfast would have, so Jaster busied himself with some of the paperwork that always piled up like snowdrift in winter the moment he turned his back.

It felt like only a moment later that he felt Jango’s hand shove lightly against his shoulder, a presence and a touch so familiar he didn’t even register it coming. Jaster blinked up from his datapad, still mulling over how to transfer an excess of green verde from one company to another that had more experienced and steady officers to balance them without making them feel coddled, and tried to figure out what his son could possibly be looking at him with such a longsuffering expression for.

Jango raised a brow, crossing his arms with a huff of distaste. “You said breakfast,” he complained, his nose wrinkling in that way that he insisted he never did. “That’s not breakfast, that’s a punishment.

Jaster shook his head, forcibly dragging his thoughts away from an issue that really wasn’t all that pressing, and back to the problem that was actually at hand. “No,” he said with a grimace of his own, “it isn’t. But Hiralan said to give Maul protein rations until we know more about what he needs, and I’m not going to eat hotcakes in front of a child eating a ration bar, and I didn’t think you would either.”

Jango winced, then sighed, resigned. “Fine. Has he come out yet?”

Jaster paused, glanced at the chrono, then frowned in concern. He’d lost more time with the backlog of paperwork than he thought. Maul had been shut up in the bunkroom for around nine hours at that point, and Jaster hadn’t heard a single peep from him the entire time he’d been awake. “No, he hasn’t,” he murmured, setting his pad on the table and getting up from his chair. “I’ll go see if he’s awake.”

 


 

Maul jumped at the sound of something hitting the door, and couldn’t stop himself from glancing over at the sleeping mat hole with a nervous twitch. He couldn’t see any sign of the ration bars he’d pushed underneath the pile of sleeping mats though, they were hidden too well, so nobody else should see them either. It would be fine. Even if they wanted him to stay in here the whole way to the planet they were going to, he knew where to get more. He could just sneak out again.

There was another hit on the door, weirdly quiet, like someone was trying to make some noise but not a lot of noise. Wedged in next to the stack of boxes, Maul wrapped his arms around his knees and stared at the door, sucking on his lip as he thought. Was he supposed to open the door? Maybe one of them wanted to come in but his hands were full so he couldn’t touch the pad, so he wanted Maul to do it.

He picked up his club and stood up, then hesitated, but when there was another hitting sound on the door he went to the pad and tapped it, then stepped away again quickly as it opened. Jaster was there in the corridor, and he smiled when he saw Maul was looking at him. He wasn’t holding anything, and there was a pad on both sides of the wall, so Maul didn’t know why he didn’t just open the door himself.

“Good morning,” Jaster said, and put his hands in his pockets. “Did you sleep well?”

Maul frowned from the safety of the helmet, not sure what Jaster wanted to learn with that question. After sleeping though, Maul was less...shivery, inside, so when he couldn’t figure out what the right answer was he was feeling brave enough to just not answer at all. Better to not answer than answer wrong. Instead he shifted on his feet, tipping the helmet like he was looking down, and watched Jaster’s face to see if not answering would make him mad.

It didn’t seem to. Or if it did, he hid it really well. He looked...something, but not mad. His shoulders got lower a little, and he stepped back into the corridor so he wasn’t in front of the door anymore, and he didn’t demand an answer. “There’s breakfast in the galley if you’re hungry,” he said instead, tipping his head that way. “Only rations this time, but after you eat I’d like to talk to you a bit, if that’s okay?”

Maul hesitated, reluctant to leave the relative safety of a room without anyone else in it, but if he said no they might not offer again, so he really should say yes. But what did Jaster want to talk to him about? He already said he would go with them, what else was there to say? But talking was just words, so it would be an easy way to earn more rations than he’d taken already. Maybe even enough that he’d be fine if they didn’t ask again.

“I’ll talk for the rations,” he said finally, watching Jaster’s face really close to see if he was lying, if it was a test. There was a weird flicker around his eyes and his mouth went flat, and Maul took a little step back as his hearts started going faster. Jaster didn’t grab at him though, didn’t look mad, just...strange.

“It’s not a requirement,” he said quietly, his voice soft. “You can have the rations whether you talk to me or not, Maul.”

Maul shivered, his chest going tight and twisty. He didn’t look like he was lying, didn’t sound like it, but that didn't mean anything, not really. "... I'll talk," he said again, just to be sure, in case it was a test.

Jaster nodded a little instead of saying he didn't have to again, so Maul must have got it right. "Alright," he said, starting to walk down the corridor. "Come eat, then we can see about that conversation after."

 


 

Jango was already gnawing his way through a bar of the nerf jerky Jaster had been hoarding by the time he got back to the galley. It served him right for being selfish with it, honestly. Jango was still growing, no matter how much Arla insisted he would never get any taller. He needed high quality protein to fuel his bones, or whatever. Also Jaster gave him that resigned look when he saw Jango with half a bar of jerky in his mouth, which only sweetened the flavor.

Maul was trailing behind him like a muunyak calf behind its mother. Jaster's helmet was wobbling on his head with every step like one of those tacky collectibles of famous holo stars you stick on your speeder console, if you have bad taste. Somehow Jango managed to keep his laughter contained to a single snort of amusement, so he only got a sharp look from his buir instead of a disappointed one. It was too early for disappointed looks.

While Jaster sat down next to Jango, Maul hesitated a few feet away from the table, just like last time. He was still holding the flimsy chair leg like it would do him any good and not just shatter the second he tried to hit someone with it. They really needed to find him a better security weapon, that was just sad. Maybe one of Jango's spare knives or something.

For some reason when Maul finally stepped up to the chair, he froze again when he looked at all the rations spread across the table, an almost hunted stillness to his small frame. His head twitched like he was trying to look at both of them at once, hovering next to the chair instead of sitting on it. Jango frowned, confused, and glanced over at Jaster just in time to see him look over with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Whatever that was about, his buir clearly knew, which made it not Jango's problem.

"Take your pick," Jaster said with that smile he used when he was trying to make someone feel comfortable. "And have as much as you want. There's plenty of food on the ship, don't worry."

Maul shifted back and forth on his feet for another moment before finally sitting down. Or hopping up, really, he had to do a little hop to get up onto the chair. Jango hid a smile with another bite of jerky, glancing over at Jaster just in time to see his face go all gooey like Maul was a tooka kitten or something. Soppy old man.

The kid stared at the pile for a solid minute at least, Jaster's helmet tipping a little every time he twitched his attention from the rations to Jaster and Jango. Eventually, he slowly reached for the closest package, a bag of protein cubes, and closed his fingers around it like he was picking up a blast detonator. Jango watched, fascinated, as the weird kid set the chair leg across his lap and started peeling open the wrapper with his sharp little claws, watching the two of them the whole time like they might suddenly decide to eat him.

Once he'd gotten the bag open and pulled a cube out of it, he lifted the edge of Jaster's helmet just enough to free his mouth for a cautious nibble. At the first bite he seemed almost startled, pausing as soon as his teeth sunk into the soft sticky cube. Startled, but weirdly pleased. He actually seemed to like the horrible, too sweet things, for some reason. Jango despaired for his good taste.

Jango on the other hand, had excellent taste, which is why he snatched the last nerf jerky out from under Jaster’s hand before he even touched it. Unfortunately, Jaster also had excellent taste, which is why he grabbed Jango’s wrist and pulled the packet right out of his grasp with an unpleasantly smug look. The smug look vanished as soon as he looked over at Maul, and Jango followed his gaze to see the kid frozen in his chair, another protein cube halfway to his mouth. He’d pushed Jaster’s helmet up a little further, and he was watching them with his wide eyes just barely visible under the edge, looking tense and twitchy.

“Sorry,” Jaster said with a grimace. “We didn’t mean to startle you.”

“I wasn’t,” the kid shot back, then twitched back in the chair until he was as far back as he could go. “I’m fine.”

“My mistake,” Jaster murmured, slouching down in his chair in a way that was definitely going to have him wincing later.

Jango suppressed a frown, trying to strangle the irritation welling up in his chest at how weird Jaster was acting, just to make the kid who stole his helmet more comfortable. Not to mention the strain on his back from his contorting in the chair, like he was trying to make himself shorter. He was too old to be twisting himself up like that. He was gonna stick that way if he wasn’t careful, and then Jango would have to cart him home and explain to Arla how he let their buir hurt himself again. Haar’chak.

 


 

Jaster was still kicking himself for grabbing Jango’s wrist by the time Maul had obviously had his fill of protein cubes. He was fidgeting with the top of the bag and watching the two of them with wary eyes from under the edge of Jaster’s helmet. He’d clearly settled down again, but Jaster kept remembering the flinch back and the frozen terror at his sudden movement. He almost decided to table the discussion for later, maybe after lunch, but he didn’t want to waste the opportunity to learn more while Maul was already primed for questions.

After the talk, he’d broach the subject of the bio bed. He really did want to get those scans to Hiralan as soon as possible. He didn’t want to find out about something dangerous when it became a problem. Also he really wanted to feed the kid properly. Jaster wasn’t a betting man, but if he was he would bet without hesitation that Maul had never had someone make a meal for him.

With his hands crossed over his stomach and his back curved uncomfortably low in his chair, Jaster waited until the next time Maul glanced over at him and caught his eyes with a smile.

“Alright,” he said quietly, keeping his tone even calm, “how about that talk?” He would tell him again that he didn’t have to speak if he didn’t want to, but he wasn’t sure Maul would believe him. Not after that first assumption that he would need to earn his food.

Maul froze again, but he looked a little less tense than he had earlier. He seemed to settle when he got some food in him. Jaster made a mental note to put a good stack of rations in Jango’s room for him to snack on so he didn’t have to dip into his purloined stash.

“What—what do you want me to say?” he asked warily, wrapping one of his small hands around the end of his chair leg while the other kept hold of the bag of protein cubes.

Jaster considered for a moment, trying to order the information he needed by priority, and weighing the likelihood of actually getting an answer. Then again, it didn’t hurt to ask, and sometimes he learned more from someone’s lies than he did from direct answers.

“How did you end up on Nal Hutta?”

It was subtle, but Maul definitely flinched at that question, an almost alarmed twitch of what little of his face Jaster could see. “A ship,” he said quietly, fidgeting in his chair. “I don’t know whose ship,” he added quickly, almost defiant. “Just...just a ship.”

“That’s fine,” Jaster said soothingly. “Can you tell me where you come from?”

Maul said nothing, tipping the helmet back down to obscure his face with a small shiver, and Jaster was hard pressed not to curse. The entire conversation was an asteroid field filled with unexploded mines; he could sense the weight of tragedy hanging over the kid and he just….didn’t know what he could ask without touching an open wound.

“Okay…” he said slowly, considering and immediately discarding question after question. Eventually he gave up, setting aside the idea of digging into the mysteries around the boy until he was more settled. Who knew, maybe he would even offer up some information of his own accord, at some point, whether he meant to or not.

“How about this, instead of a talk, why don’t we just take some medical scans?”

Maul froze again, his head tipped a bit to the side in a way that reminded Jaster of an akk pup confronted with something new and potentially dangerous. “Scans...like from a droid?”

Jaster gave him an approving smile, as warm as he could make it, only for Maul to look away from him immediately. He sighed quietly, reminded himself that traumatized children don’t connect with strangers in the span of a single day, and answered, “Very much like that, yes. It’s a biobed scan, to let us know if you’re sick or hurt, so we can help.”

There was a long pause before Maul spoke again, and his fingertips rubbed across the chair leg as he thought. Eventually he looked up at Jaster again, the helmet tipping a little with the motion. “D-does it hurt?”

His voice was small and resigned, his shoulders rounding as though ready to take a blow, and Jaster was hard-pressed to keep the stabbing pain in his chest off his face. He took a steadying breath, and pushed the feelings back down in his chest. “No,” he answered softly. “It doesn’t hurt at all. There’s just some lights, a little noise, and then it’s done.”

Maul considered that for a moment, shifting in his chair, then jerked his head in a sharp nod. “I’ll do it. The scan.”

Jaster sighed silently, a wave of relief turning his bones to water. That was one important step soon to be taken care of. He would feel much better once he got that data to Hiralan, and she told him how to care for Maul properly.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Maul followed Jaster down the corridor away from the galley toward the back of the ship, his hands tight around his club. His chest was all tight and twisty, and he didn’t—he didn’t want to do it. Jaster said it wouldn’t hurt, and Maul had been scanned by droids before, and it usually didn’t hurt but sometimes it did and what if Jaster was lying?

Jango stayed behind, so at least there would be only one person to get away from if it was a trick, but if it was a trick and he did get away, where would he go? He couldn’t sneak off the ship while it was in space, and it wasn’t big enough to hide from them for very long. Better to just...do it, even if it was one of the kind of scans that hurt. None of them had ever been so bad he couldn’t bear it, anyway.

By the time Maul had made his decision Jaster was stopping in the narrow corridor to open a door, the pad lighting up green and sliding open as soon as his finger touched it. The room inside was a little bigger than the one Maul had slept in, and had a lot more stuff in it, cabinets and a couple chairs and other things Maul didn’t recognize. There was a long metal platform against one wall with screens and control panels on the side of it, and what looked like a droid arm hanging down over it with a big square on the end instead of graspers. It was cold in the room, and Maul shivered, hesitating by the door.

Jaster went straight for the platform, and started touching the control panels until screens lit up and the droid arm moved, shifting higher and out of the way. He looked over at Maul and smiled, then put his hand on the platform.

“Alright, hop on up. It will only take a minute or so to get the scans. If you can push the helmet up as much as you did yesterday while you were eating, that would help.”

Maul shivered again, shifting on his feet as he looked at the platform then back at Jaster. There weren’t any straps attached that he could see, so if it hurt too much maybe he could just...get off the platform? He took a deep breath and nodded, small and sharp, then walked over to the platform with as much confidence as he could muster.

It was easy to get on it, so Maul wasn’t sure why Jaster was so surprised when Maul set his club on the platform, then put his hands on the side and lifted himself up. Maul frowned when Jaster shook his head after a second, then smiled with only half of his mouth.

“You’re stronger than you look, aren’t you?” he asked, and his voice felt kind of like a laugh, but not...mean. Just a laugh.

Maul didn’t understand what was funny, but he didn’t ask. He just sat on the platform, stiff and tense, his club in his hands. Jaster didn’t say anything for a moment while he touched a few more things on the control panels, then he looked up at Maul with another smile. He smiled so much, it was strange. Not—not bad, the smiles weren’t sharp or hard, it was just...strange.

“We’re all set,” Jaster said quietly, then tipped his head toward the end of the platform. “Go ahead and lay down, tip the helmet up a bit, and I’ll start the scan. Light will come out of the scanner arm, but you won’t feel anything. It will take about thirty seconds, so try not to move, alright?”

Thirty seconds. That wouldn’t be too bad, even if he was lying about not feeling it. Maul could handle thirty seconds. He took a deep breath, then let it out really slow, then one more. His chest was tight, and he felt shaky inside, like maybe he might have a baby fit if he wasn’t careful, so he breathed again. Jaster just waited, not saying anything or pushing him or anything, and it was—it made the tight feeling not as much. He could do it.

Without giving himself any more time to get shaky inside again, Maul laid down on his back the platform, one hand tight on the club and the other one holding the bottom edge of the helmet near his chin. Slowly, carefully, he lifted the helmet just far enough that he could see Jaster instead of the metal blocking his eyes.

“Like—like this?” he asked. His voice was more wobbly than he wanted, and he bit his lip, but Jaster didn’t say anything about it. He just looked at Maul, and his face was...Maul didn’t understand it, didn’t know what it meant, so he ignored it.

“That’s perfect, thank you,” Jaster said, his voice quiet and soft. “Hold still please.”

The droid arm started moving with a quiet click and a soft buzzing, and Maul couldn’t help his flinch as he looked up at the sudden motion, his hand going tighter on the club. The tight shivery feeling in his chest got worse, his breathing going quick and shaky, but he held still and closed his eyes tight. Maybe if he didn’t look, it wouldn’t be as bad.

 


 

There was nothing Jaster wanted more in that moment than to cancel the scan and sweep Maul off the table, wrap him up in the softest blanket on the ship, and hold him until he stopped shaking. Instead he firmed his jaw and initiated the scanner, stayed right where he was, and tried not to hate himself for terrifying a traumatized child to the point of hitching breaths and shivers.

“You’re doing very well,” he said softly, infusing as much warmth into his voice as he could muster. “The last time I had to get scanned like this I sneezed right in the middle, and they had to start over.”

Maul’s eyes flicked open at that, his startled gaze landing on Jaster’s face. The gold light that had begun emitting from the scanning arm made him flinch again, but once he seemed to realize that the scan had already started without him feeling it at all, he settled. He didn’t look a breath away from a panic attack anymore, at least.

Jaster caught his eyes when he looked back at him with a smile, wry and a little sheepish. “It’s true! I had a terrible cold, but my doctor was convinced I’d picked something else up when I came back from a hunt coughing, so she insisted on a scan.” Maul didn’t speak, but his grip on the chair leg was less white-knuckled, and his fine tremors were beginning to ease. Jaster felt some of his own nervous tension start to drain out of him.

The scan ended with a soft beep, the light cutting out as the arm returned to its resting position with a soft whirr. As soon as the scanner shut off Maul was tugging Jaster’s helmet back over his face and sitting up, tense and wary, but there was an edge of uncertainty, almost, to the tilt of his head. Jaster kept his own frame as relaxed as he could, leaning his hip against the scanning bed and crossing his arms.

“Thank you,” he said, keeping his lips curved, light and easy. “I’ll send the scan information to my doctor friend, and we can make sure you’re healthy.” With a nod toward the door, he added, “Why don’t you go tell Jango we’re done, and to show you where the holobooks and games are. I’ll join you in a bit.”

Maul hesitated, with an almost frozen stillness, then twitched his head in a sharp little nod and hopped off the table. He slipped out of the room without a sound, tossing another uncertain look over his shoulder as he turned into the corridor.

Jaster’s smile dropped from his face the second Maul was out of sight, and he turned back to the scanner’s screen, his throat tight and aching. There were...a lot more Unusual Reading indicators than he’d hoped to see. He dragged his hand roughly over his face with a grimace, then shook off his dismay and sent the readings directly to Hiralan. He would let the boys interact a bit while he talked to her. He had a feeling she’d be pinging his comm sooner rather than later.

He was right. He’d barely made it to the chair two steps away before it began chiming insistently, sending a trickle of apprehension down his neck. He answered the comm on the holotable without even looking at the sender. Sure enough, Hiralan’s blue form popped up a half second later, her nostrils flared wide in displeasure.

“Where did you find that boy, Jaster,” she asked sharply, her furious rumble audible even over the comm signal. If she were in the same room as him, Jaster had a feeling he’d be bruised to the bone by the sheer force of her displeasure.

“He stole my helmet off the counter of an akkivan food stall,” Jaster said wryly. “Chased him down to get it back, and ended up with a kid attached to it.”

“And before that, where was he?” Hiralan insisted, her head shifting slowly back and forth, her eyes opening wide.

Jaster felt a thrill of alarm, his gut twisting, and he knew more of his frustration was making it to his face than he generally allowed. “Is he alright, or is there something wrong?” he asked sharply, straightening his shoulders and looking her straight on.

Her head stopped shifting, eyes going half-closed even as she looked away. “He’s not in active danger,” she said quietly, but her nostrils were still flared fully. Jaster had never seen her so angry, not once, and he was more than a little unnerved by it.

"You’ve likely already seen the scarring on his skin, so I’ll just say that at least it shouldn’t interfere with mobility, as long as it’s appropriately tended to as he grows,” she said more evenly, but Jaster could see the shifting of shades on her crest even if he couldn’t see what color it was. By how dark it went as she continued, he would’ve expected nothing but the darkest black her chroma cells could muster.

“Most, if not all of them, can likely be at least reduced in severity with treatment.” Her eyes slowly widened once more as she spoke, her head beginning to sway again. The motion was strangely mesmerizing, though considering it was meant to confuse predators, Jaster supposed it wasn’t that strange after all. “As for his bones, judging by the way the scar tissue has been distorted by the growth patterns, the oldest breaks the scan detected probably healed up when he was around four years old, if that.”

She paused, a deep rumble crackling at the lowest range of the speaker, and Jaster took the opportunity to take a fortifying breath. As he’d expected, if worse than he’d hoped. “But nothing immediate we need to worry about?” he asked before she could get going again.

She stilled once more, her crest shifting again in a slow wave, all blues on the holo, but obviously a complicated emotion. “He's small for his age. Not so small that I suspect long term malnutrition or starvation, but he likely either didn't receive as much food as he needed or he didn’t eat enough of what he received to grow to his full potential. He’s underweight. Give him as much as he’ll eat, as often as he’ll eat it, as long as it isn’t so much that he’s likely to make himself sick.”

She paused again, some of the tension around her mouth and nose easing, and her voice carried just a touch of amusement as she continued, “I trust you to be able to judge that, after feeding two teenagers for so many years.”

 


 

Jango nearly jumped out of his skin when looked up from his data pad and Maul was hovering silently near the table, barely three feet away from him. He managed to contain his reaction to a hard twitch, but even that had Maul quick-stepping back and away, his grip tight on the chair leg. Jango rolled his eyes, firmly suppressing any guilty twinge for scaring the kid.

“Make some noise next time, kid,” he said with a huff, dropping his pad on the table and crossing his arms.

Maul hesitated, shifting from foot to foot, then tipped Jaster’s helmet to the side. “W-what kind of noise?”

Jango stared at him for a long moment, trying to determine if that was a genuine question or just a terrible joke. He decided on genuine, just in case, and because if it was a joke he refused to acknowledge it on the grounds of it being terrible.

“I meant don’t sneak up on people, it’s dangerous,” he said with a frown. “We’re fighters, we might react without realizing and hurt you by accident.” Maul took another step back, and that time Jango couldn’t help but wince. “Not...not on purpose,” he added awkwardly, slouching down in his chair like Jaster had been doing. It seemed to work, much to Jango’s irritation.

Maul stopped looking like he was going to bolt back down the corridor and took a deep breath, the rise and fall of his chest visible even through Jango’s baggy old tunic and across the room. “J-jaster said—” He paused, took another breath. “He said to say the scans are done.”

Jango raised a brow, but managed to repress his sarcasm for the moment. “Okay?”

Maul was quiet for another moment, then seemed to find his spine as he firmed his stance and tipped his chin up. “He said to say to show me the—the holobooks. Also.”

Jango’s other brow crept up to join the first. Jaster was either feeling very optimistic about Maul making himself comfortable, or he seized on the first opportunity he could think of to get him out of the medbay so he could talk to Doctor Hiralan in private. And while Jaster was at times obnoxiously optimistic, Jango was betting on the latter. Still, it couldn’t hurt, maybe the kid would end up being a bookworm.

“Alright,” he said with a sigh, heaving himself out of his chair. He’d been meaning to finish that short story collection Silas let him borrow so he could give it back anyway. Maybe then he would stop getting less and less subtle hints from him about it every time they saw each other.

Maul didn’t skitter away when Jango moved, that time. He was almost impressed. If only he would stop carrying that stupid chair leg around. It made Jango want to give the kid a knife, and he probably shouldn’t give the kid a knife. At least not until he was less likely to stab one of them in a panic.

“Come on then,” he muttered, and headed back down the corridor toward the rec room, Maul trailing awkwardly a few feet behind him. Jango glanced into the med-room as they passed the open door, and sure enough Jaster looked to be deep in conversation with Doctor Hiralan over holo. He glanced up long enough to make eye contact with Jango, and the grim look on his face made Jango’s chest go tight.

Whatever the problem was, there wasn’t anything Jango could do about it. Jaster would tell him if there was. In the meantime, apparently Jango’s job was babysitting duty. He huffed, amused. Jaster really ought to know better, Jango was a terrible babysitter. At least this kid was quiet.

Too quiet. Jango had to glance over his shoulder just to be sure Maul was still behind him as they reached the rec-room. He was tempted to put a bell on the kid, honestly.

“Go ahead and sit wherever,” he muttered with a vague wave toward the overstuffed cushions against the wall as he headed toward the storage locker.

There was probably still a good pile of kid books in there; Jango kept meaning to go through the collection and toss the old stuff, he just...never got around to it. He dug through the haphazardly stacked and disorganized pile in the locker, picking out any titles that he remembered being at least decently entertaining, until he had a good selection for Maul to choose from. Seven was probably enough, unless the kid was as picky as Arla.

Snagging Silas’ holobook off the top of the stack, Jango turned from the cabinet only to pause, something in his gut going cold and twisty. Maul hadn’t picked one of the cushions to sit in; instead he was sitting cross-legged on the cold, hard floor, chair leg in his lap, back to the wall.

“Why—” He bit his tongue with a grimace, realizing suddenly that he probably didn’t want to know why Maul picked the floor over a comfortable cushion. “You’ll freeze if you sit there,” he muttered instead, looking away as he walked over to flop into his favorite spot. “Sit on one of the cushions.”

For a long moment, Jango thought Maul was going to ignore him, but eventually he heard a shuffle as the kid got off the floor. He watched from the corner of his eye as he turned on his holobook, flipping through the contents to find his spot, as Maul cautiously settled into the depths of Jaster’s usual seat and was nearly swallowed by the orange fabric.

He went still as he sunk into it, looking almost startled, then cautiously curled up into a little ball, Jaster’s helmet tipped warily in Jango’s direction, chair leg tucked next to him. Jango reached over with the handful of holobooks, moving maybe slower than he would normally, and kept his own eyes on the pad in his other hand.

“Here,” he muttered, his tone as bored as he could make it. “Pick one of these to read. If you don’t like any of them, tell me and I’ll grab some more.”

 


 

Maul wasn’t sure if he wanted to take the holobooks from Jango. He wanted them, he wanted them so badly, but what—what would he have to do for them, later? But Jango didn’t offer them, he said to take them, so did he have a choice? Jango twitched the holobooks in his hand, and glanced sideways at Maul with impatience, and Maul’s hands were wrapped around the stack and pulling it towards him before he even realized they’d moved.

“S-sorry,” he whispered, shifting back into the soft chair.

“It’s fine,” Jango huffed, turned back to his datapad and then seemed to stop caring about Maul at all.

Maul held the stack of holobooks against his chest and watched him for a while, trying to decide if it was really okay for him to read them, or if it was a test. Jango never looked at him though, didn’t even seem to remember Maul was there, just flipped through the holobook in his hand with a lazy finger as he read.

Maul bit his lip, then finally dared to look away from him and down at the titles. They...didn’t look like any training manuals he’d ever read before, even if they were all in basic. One of them looked like some kind of animal care manual. Why would Maul ever need to know how to care for a tooka? He stared at it for a moment, trying to figure out the lesson, but he couldn’t, so he put that one aside.

Maybe that was the test? Choosing an appropriate use of his time? He glanced up at Jango just to check, but he was still reading and not looking at Maul. He shifted in the soft chair, tucking his legs up under him so they would be warmer, and started looking at the rest of the holobooks.

“We’re Going on a Purrgil Hunt” could be useful, if it had tracking strategies. Maul didn’t know very much about tracking yet, since Master said he wasn’t fast enough or strong enough for more advanced training, and he didn’t know what a purrgil was either. Another one looked like it might be a history of a warrior named Curious Jon, but Maul didn’t know if he was a good warrior. Master said learning bad habits was worse than learning nothing, so probably not that one.

The other holobooks all had words in the titles that Maul didn’t know, even if he knew the letters and how they fit together. What if one of those was the best choice, and he picked wrong because he didn’t know what they meant? He looked at Jango again, this time trying not to move the helmet at all so he couldn’t tell. He still wasn’t looking, though.

Maul took a quiet, deep breath, rubbing his thumb up and down the hard edge of the hunting manual while he tried to think of what to do, biting on his lip. He should probably pick the hunting manual, hunting was a useful skill. Even if it wasn’t the best choice, it wasn’t a bad one, probably. But maybe he should open all of them, just in case the titles were a test.

Decided, with another quick glance at Jango to make sure he wasn’t looking, Maul turned on “My Tooka and Me.” He almost immediately realized it wasn’t actually an animal care manual at all. He frowned as he swiped through the pages, skipping over unfamiliar words and looking for anything useful, but it—it was just saying what a boy and a tooka were doing during the day, starting when they woke up.

Maul’s confusion peaked when the boy and the tooka went somewhere to watch other people do some kind of group physical competition, and he turned the holobook back off with a sharp jab of his finger, setting it aside. That one was clearly a test, there was nothing useful in it. He picked up the history of the warrior Curious Jon instead, only to find that he wasn’t a warrior at all.

Maul frowned at the holobook as he skipped through the pages, more confusion making his chest feel tight and twisty as he tried to figure out the lesson. Curious Jon was a fool, failing over and over and requiring rescue by others due to his foolishness. Maybe it was meant to be a warning? Maul chewed on his lip some more, biting harder until some of the tight feeling went away, then he set that holobook aside too.

He thought about turning on the ones he didn’t understand, but two failures in a row was making his throat hurt, so he picked the hunting manual instead. Hunting, at least, couldn’t be a complete waste of time.

 


 

For several long minutes after Hiralan ended the transmission, Jaster sat slumped at the little table with his head in his hands, trying to wrestle his thoughts into some kind of productive order. The scope of damage, even when all Hiralan had to work with was a partial scan, was far greater than Jaster had hoped. Maul would need careful tending as he got older to ensure there were no complications, no pain that could be avoided as scarred tissue stretched, broken and healed bones grew.

Jaster had long accepted that he’d be offering Maul a place in his clan the moment it seemed like he would understand the offer, but even if he didn’t want it, Jaster had every intention of making sure he got the care he needed. And the first thing he could do, the only thing he could do at that moment, was to feed the kid as much as he could eat and make sure he was safe and comfortable until they got home.

Having a plan for the immediate future settled the tight twisting in Jaster’s chest, and he took a deep, steadying breath then heaved himself to his feet and headed for the rec room. It wasn’t quite lunch time yet, but there was no reason he couldn’t go see what the boys wanted to eat and get started preparing it. Better that than sitting in the med-room alone and brooding.

But when he got to the rec room, he had to stop in the doorway, warmth filling his chest. Jango was asleep in his favorite cushion, head back and mouth open, snoring quietly. Maul, on the other hand, looked like he’d fallen right into the holobook in his hands, curled around it like he was worried someone would take it from him, his finger slowly advancing the text and the viewport of the helmet fixed. Jaster wished, suddenly and far stronger than he was ready for, that he could see the expression on the boy’s face as he read.

Rather than disturb either of them, Jaster silently backed away from the doorway and turned toward the galley. He knew what Jango liked well enough, and Maul had obviously enjoyed the Akkivan food, so he would just extrapolate from there and figure something out.

Or he could make hotcakes. Everyone liked hotcakes, after all.

 


 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

It was a smell that woke him. Jango blinked blearily at the ceiling, breathing in deeply through his nose to let the smell soak in, and waited for his brain to catch up. It smelled...really good. Especially after the breakfast-that-wasn’t. Hopefully Jaster was making the hotcakes he so cruelly denied Jango earlier.

Without moving much, he rolled his head just enough to glance over at Maul from the corner of his eye. The kid was still thoroughly absorbed with the holobook in his hands, like he’d been when Silas’ boring short story collection dragged Jango into slumber against his will. Judging by how quickly Maul was scrolling as he read, Jango couldn’t have been asleep for too long, because he hadn’t finished it yet. Good. Maybe Jaster didn’t notice him sleeping on the job.

He debated for a long moment just going back to sleep rather than disturb Maul’s reading. It was the first time he’d ever seen the kid relax, and he wasn’t looking forward to a return of that twitchy tension. But also, whatever Jaster was cooking smelled really kriffing good and Jango was hungry. Besides, Maul was like a little stick; he obviously needed to eat as much as they could stuff into him, so really Jango would be doing him a favor.

“Hey,” he said quietly, trying to keep it soft like Jaster would. It still made the kid jump about three inches, hands going tight enough around the holobook that the case creaked a bit.

Jango sighed, rolling his head back to look up again. “I’m not gonna eat you, kriff,” he muttered, half to himself.

Maul didn’t speak, just waited, tense and watchful in Jaster’s cushion. Jango repressed the urge to groan, reaching up to rub his hands roughly over his face in a half-hearted attempt to bring himself to alertness. It still felt as though he hadn’t caught up on all the missed sleep over the last few days, one night not nearly enough to wipe away that debt.

“Jaster’s cooking something,” Jango said around a yawn, carefully not looking in Maul’s direction as he climbed slowly to his feet. “We should go see what it is. Probably lunch. Bring the holobook you’re reading, you can hang onto it until you’re done.”

He dropped his own holobook on his cushion, tucked his hands in his pockets, and waited for a response. He didn't start heading for the corridor until he heard the sound of the cushion moving as Maul got up, and he didn't turn and look as he started walking. The kid seemed to get exponentially twitchier when someone's eyes were on him.

When they got to the galley, Jango was very pleased to see that his suspicions were correct. He had smelled hotcakes, and there was a hefty stack of them already sitting in the middle of the table. Dr. Hiralan must have given the go ahead to feed the kid properly, which meant Jango was also going to be fed properly.

Jaster glanced over his shoulder at them with a crooked smile, genuine if not exactly carefree, and Jango felt a bit of the lingering tension from earlier ease. Maul must not be too badly off, if Jaster was smiling like that and making hotcakes.

"Jango, grab the plates? Go ahead and sit down, Maul, lunch will be done in a moment." Jaster turned back to the stove, flipping the plate-sized cake with a twist of his wrist. He was radiating that contentment he always got when he was about to feed someone, Jango noted with amused fondness.

But as he set out three plates, the sight gave him a faintly uneasy feeling that he determinedly pushed aside. The third plate didn't have to be Arla's. That it was Maul's right then didn't mean anything other than that was who was on the ship with them.

Maul hovered by the doorway for a while before sitting, because of course he did, but it didn't last as long, and he was still holding the holobook. He looked a bit less like he thought they were about to murder him when he finally hopped up on the chair, too. Jango didn't wait for Jaster to finish the last cake, he just dropped three on each plate then drizzled his own with spiced honey.

“This one is spicy,” he told Maul with a waggle of the jar. “The purple one is meiloorun, sweet fruit, and the brown one is disgusting.”

“It’s not disgusting, you just don’t like it,” Jaster interrupted obnoxiously, sliding the cake around in the pan. Apparently done, he turned away from the stove to drop the fresh hotcake not on the plate in the center, but on top of Maul’s stack. He gave the kid a warm smile, put the pan back on the stove, then eased himself down into his own chair a bit more carefully than usual.

“I don’t like it because it’s disgusting,” Jango replied with a curled lip, eyes sharp and looking for weaknesses. He found them, eyes narrowing, and added with a frown, “You kriffed up your back, didn’t you.”

Jaster stilled, caught, then too casually relaxed and held himself with his typical easy grace, leaning on one elbow as he reached for the stack. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said brightly, but notably didn’t deny it. Jango settled back in his chair with a huff, but didn’t argue, just started eating his lunch and pointedly ignoring his idiot buir. Nobody had better blame him for this, because it was not his fault this time. From the corner of his eye he watched as Maul tore off a piece of his plain hotcake, cautiously slipping it up under Jaster’s helmet. He twitched the same way as he had when he tried the dao-ben, almost startled. Jango didn’t care for it, for reasons he wasn’t in the mood to think too hard about.

“Do you want anything on top of them?” Jaster asked Maul quietly. “Hotcakes are good on their own, but they’re even better with a topping. You can try all three of them, if you want.”

Maul went still for a moment, visor trained on Jaster’s face and a strange, confused tension hovering around him. “...No,” he said eventually, his voice tight and wary.

Jaster wilted, just slightly, but enough for Jango to see it. He was hard-pressed to not glower again, but this time at the kid who kept tying his buir up in knots. He restrained himself to tightened lips, and turned his attention conspicuously to his plate instead.

Jaster apparently noticed his shift in mood, because he hummed thoughtfully in that way he did when he was about to find something for Jango to do. Kriff.

“You should comm your sister when you’re done eating,” Jaster said casually, tone perfectly even. When Jango darted a suspicious look at him, he too was paying conspicuous attention to his own plate. “She would probably appreciate the update. You know how she gets when we go out without her.”

“Well maybe she shouldn’t stay home so often then,” Jango muttered rebelliously.

Jaster gave him a Look, and Jango sank lower in his chair with a huff, stuffing a large bite in his mouth in lieu of conceding. Jaster rolled his eyes, his face more fond than it had any right to be, and Jango resigned himself to being the one to break the news that they were getting a new brother. Kriff.

 


 

Arla stared balefully at the chiming comm, seriously considering just ignoring it. She had three papers due in a week, not a single one of them under twenty-thousand words, and not a single one of them done. Nothing Jango had to say could possibly be more important than the sleep she wasn’t getting in favor of those kriffing assignments, and if she wasn’t stopping for sleep than she certainly shouldn’t be stopping for Jango.

But what if it was important? It wasn’t like Jango was a particularly good communicator, so if he was contacting her it was either because Jaster told him to, or something was wrong and he needed backup. With a deep, tired sigh, Arla leaned forward and failed at the comm on the other side of the table until she caught it with her fingers.

That glancing blow sent it skittering right off the table. She slumped forward to smack her forehead against her stack of flimsi with a petulant whine, a sound that would never have left her mouth if anyone else were there to hear her.

“I’ll kill you,” she muttered gloomily. Jango would regret this, even if he never learned what, precisely, he was regretting.

It was more effort than it had any right to be to get out of her chair and walk around the table to pick her comm up off the floor, which meant she was already scowling when she stabbed the screen with a stiff finger to accept the call. Jango’s fuzzy blue holo immediately recoiled, a theatrically alarmed expression on his face.

“When did you join the ranks of the undead?” he asked, his voice at once impressed and horrified, his miniature features just large enough to properly convey his amusement.

Arla just stared, flat and unamused, waiting with growing impatience for him to explain himself. His amusement quickly faded, though, and Arla frowned as it was replaced by poorly masked concern. Poorly masked to her, anyway; he’d likely do a decent job of fooling most people.

“What’s wrong,” she asked sharply, her eyes narrowing and her exhaustion fading under the surge of adrenaline. Her alarm eased even as her dismay grew when Jango sighed deeply, dropping his head back against the pilot’s chair. He was calling her from the cockpit, then. That was unusual, and Arla was starting to grow impatient with the lack of immediate information. She did not like unusual, not around her little brother.

Apparently he sensed her growing displeasure, and feared the consequences enough to quit stalling.

“Buir picked up a stray,” he said with a grimace. “Sentient, this time. Pretty sure we’re getting a vod’ika, providing the kid agrees, and I wanted to give you a heads up before we dropped him at the table for dinner.”

Arla snorted, relaxing back into her own chair with an unpleasant rush of relief that no one was injured or dead. “You mean Jaster told you to give me a heads up,” she said with a smirk.

Jango ignored her loftily, his stubborn little pout that he insisted he’d grown out of appearing on the holo. “Anyway, if you care, his name is Maul and he’s about as fucked up a kid as I’ve ever met.”

Arla frowned, crossing her arms and cocking her head. “Bold claim.”

Jango sighed wearily, and her concern started to rise. “He’s real twitchy. Pretty sure he expects us to kill and eat him at any moment. He’s been carrying around a broken fiber-grown chair leg since we picked him up, like the second he leaves it somewhere he’ll need to defend himself.”

Jango went quiet for a moment, chewing on his lip and looking away from the console, and Arla felt her stomach twist at the tired, sad look on her little brother’s face. “I’m pretty sure he’s sleeping on the floor,” he said finally, his face twisting in a way she hasn’t seen since her own early days of recovery.

“Why do you think that?” she asked calmly, keeping her face even. It’s a good thing she managed it, because Jango flicked his eyes toward the holoprojector, and whatever he saw from her seemed to settle him somewhat.

“Because he’s staying in my bunk, and when I went in there after he got up only one blanket had been moved, and it was the one on top,” he said grimly. “No sign whatsoever that anyone had slept under the rest. No dip in the pillow, which there should have been with Jaster’s helmet pushed into it all night.”

Arla frowned, baffled. “What the kriff does Jaster’s helmet have to do with anything?”

Jango huffed, slumping back in the chair and once again frowning at nothing as he looked away. “That’s another thing entirely,” he muttered balefully. “We picked him up in the first place because he stole Jaster’s helmet off a food stand. Said he needed it for something, and refused to give it up.”

She snorted, incredulous amusement momentarily overwhelming her concern. “And Jaster let him keep it?” she asked, fully expecting the answer to be yes. She wasn’t disappointed.

Jango rolled his eyes, fondness warring with frustration and winning, like it tended to do whenever they talked about their buir. “Of course he did, because he’s the biggest sucker who ever lived.”

Arla huffed a quiet laugh, slumping back in her own chair. “He absolutely is,” she muttered tiredly, dropping her head back. No one else would have taken a chance on her, after all.

Even after she slipped into his compound armed to the teeth, her head absolutely scrambled by Death Watch, her entire purpose bent towards slitting his throat, Jaster still tried to save her. And then kept trying. Even as she raged at him, half-mad with bitterness, barely even recognizing her own brother through the haze of bloodlust, he kept trying. Over and over, until finally his calm, steady care and Jango’s desperate love broke through her conditioning, and the two of them dragged her kicking and screaming back into something approaching sanity.

If they could manage that, their feral little thief had no chance to resist them. Arla half-expected the kid to already be thoroughly attached by the time they got home. “Alright, enough about our new brother. How was the hunt? Tell me everything.”

 


 

Jango ate much faster than Maul. By the time Maul had eaten one of the things, the…the hotcakes, and started another, Jango was already done. He was still working on the second one when Jango finished washing his plate. Maul watched as he left the room without a word, headed toward the cockpit. Jaster watched him go with a tired look, but he was smiling too. He kept smiling when he turned to look at Maul, and he jerked his eyes away, feeling strange.

He...he liked it when Jaster smiled at him like that, he realized suddenly. He liked smiles that weren’t sharp.

Liking things was dangerous. Liking things meant they would be taken away. He didn’t want the not-sharp smiles to be taken away, the thought made his stomach feel cold and twisted. Maybe...maybe if he only looked sideways at them, Jaster wouldn’t be able to tell he liked them, and he would keep doing it.

“Did you find a good story to read?” Jaster asked suddenly, but Maul didn’t jump this time. He was getting used to Jaster talking to him, even though it was strange, so his voice wasn’t startling.

That didn’t mean he had any idea how he was supposed to answer the question. Story might mean history, or something like it, but there was only one holobook that looked like a history. If that’s what he was talking about, why would he ask if Maul found a good one?

But he did find a holobook to read, even if he still wasn’t sure what the lesson in it was supposed to be. It didn’t seem to have one, as strange as that thought was, but he…wanted to keep reading it. He liked it, liked the way the words fit together even if he didn’t understand all of them, and he liked the images attached in places. Without any other ideas, he offered a hesitant nod.

That seemed to be the right answer because Jaster looked pleased, smiling again and relaxing back in his chair. He didn’t ask anything else, so Maul went back to eating the hotcake. It was soft, like the dao-ben, but tasted…different. He liked it, enough to want to keep eating even if he was getting too full to be fast again.

If he kept one, hid it in his shirt when Jaster wasn’t looking, he could have it later instead of a ration. It tasted better than a ration, a lot better. But…Jaster kept giving him more food, and he didn’t even offer a trade for it this time, so maybe there would be something else later too. And the hotcakes were warm still, later they would be cold. He hadn’t had to run at all so far, and the ship didn’t have that much space to run anyway, so maybe he wouldn’t have to. Maybe it would be fine if he ate all four hotcakes.

Hesitantly, Maul finished the last bite of the second one, and instead of trying to hide the third, he just…started eating it. He still felt like maybe he shouldn’t, that maybe he would have to run later and he would regret eating three, but…it was warm, and it tasted really nice, and Jaster hadn’t chased him at all since the first time, so maybe it would be okay.

“Remember the doctor friend I mentioned?” Jaster asked lightly.

Maul frowned. Why wouldn’t he remember? It was just a little while ago, of course he remembered, he wasn’t stupid. He nodded, watching Jaster’s face suspiciously, looking for the trick. Again, it didn’t look like there was one. Jaster’s face was just…it didn’t look like it was trying to hide anything.

“We had a talk, and she looked at the scans,” Jaster went on, looking down at his plate instead of at Maul as he slowly cut his hotcakes into pieces.

The bite of hotcake in Maul’s mouth suddenly felt really dry and pasty, and it was hard to swallow it. He hadn’t…forgotten, exactly, that the scan was to see if there was anything wrong with Maul, but…what if there was something wrong with him? But he wasn’t worrying very long before Jaster talked again, and his words startled Maul into stillness.

“She said you’re a little too thin, and need to eat more to keep your growth on track, so let me or Jango know if you get hungry outside of meal times, alright?”

Maul stared at Jaster for a long time, trying to figure out the trick, but he just…he just looked calm. His face changed after a little bit, when Maul didn’t answer, an expression Maul didn’t understand but that made him feel…twisty, in his chest, and tight. He was starting to think there wasn’t a trick, or a test. Jaster just wanted him to say when he was hungry to…give him food.

Maybe so Maul would be a better fighter? If he needed to eat more to grow, maybe Jaster wanted his loyalty, like Master did. Maul could be useful, if he put in the effort, Master always said so. Maybe Jaster could tell too, that Maul could be useful, and he wanted to make sure he would be.

He relaxed slowly, the tension easing as he figured it out. Jaster was already much better than Master, and hadn’t hurt Maul at all even once, so if he wanted Maul to be loyal maybe…maybe he would be. Maybe Jaster wanted an apprentice, and wasn’t sure if Maul would be good enough, and that’s what the tests were for. Not tricks, just…aptitude tests. That made sense.

“Okay,” he said finally, nodding sharply. He would tell Jaster when he got hungry, to make sure he grew enough to be useful later. That was the right answer, he could tell. Jaster stopped making that face he didn’t understand, and smiled again. Maul looked away from it down at the hotcake, and instead of twisty his chest felt…warm.

It could be good, to be Jaster’s apprentice, maybe.

 


 

Jaster had nearly held his breath while Maul thought about his request, frozen stiff like a shatual fawn under the eyes of a strill. He wasn’t certain what, precisely, Maul was deliberating, but he could hazard a few guesses, and he didn’t much care for any of them. The relief when the boy finally agreed was immense, and Jaster couldn’t help the warm, approving smile.

As he’d begun to expect, Maul immediately looked away from his face, occupying himself with his last hotcake instead. Jaster repressed a sigh as the smile faded, but the warmth lingered. He’d honestly thought Maul would either not answer at all, or somehow refuse his request, but the agreement seemed genuine even if Jaster had no idea what motivated it. Whatever it was, as long as it meant Maul was eating enough, Jaster would take it.

The two of them finished their breakfast in, if not a companionable silence, at least not a tense one. By the time Jango reappeared to snag a second lunch, Jaster and Maul were both finished with their own.

"Put the rest away when you're done?" Jaster asked as he slowly unfolded himself from his chair. He was very much looking forward to being back home, where he could boil his old bones in his tub until they stopped complaining.

Jango grunted through his mouthful, slumped against the table with his eyes lidded, and Jaster decided against asking him how the call with Arla went. He could always find out later when Jango looked slightly less close to a full on sulk.

Lacking anything else to do, since he was largely caught up on his flimsiwork from the morning, Jaster decided to get in on the fun the boys had before lunch, and do a little light reading himself. His decision may, possibly, have had something to do with how cozy and comfortable they'd looked, along with his desire to see Maul relax a bit more.

Maul was still perched on his chair even with Jaster standing, he realized suddenly. It was the first time he hadn't scrambled to his feet as soon as one of them got up. Not only that, but the broken chair leg was nowhere in sight.

Rather than show any overt sign of approval and scare the boy right back into his shell, Jaster casually turned towards the door, and over his shoulder said, "Maul, I'm going to go read in the rec room for a while, if you'd like to join me."

He carefully didn't make it an order or a request, nor did he pay any particularly visible attention to the boy as he walked past him. He couldn't get into the cargo bay, the cockpit, or the weapons lockers, so if he didn't want to join Jaster in the rec room it was probably safe enough to let him go wherever he pleased.

To Jaster's delight, the nearly silent pat-pat-pat of bare feet on the floor followed him down the corridor. He tucked his thumbs into his pockets and tried not to smile too broadly as he stepped into the rec room.

As he moved over to the cabinet to start rifling through their collection, he spied the absent chair leg still sitting on his favorite cushion, apparently forgotten. Rather than make Maul think he'd chosen the wrong place to sit, Jaster settled himself in Arla's yellow monstrosity instead.

As he'd hoped, Maul hesitated only a moment before following Jaster into the room, and headed straight for the spot he'd claimed earlier. He seemed startled to see the chair leg still sitting there, but he shook it off and settled in, holobook in his hands. He looked incredibly small, half-swallowed by the orange fabric, and Jaster desperately wished he had the camera on him.

They would have to get another cushion, he realized suddenly, for the rare occasions they were all on the ship at the same time. Maybe Maul would like to pick one out for himself once he felt a little more secure. He was tempted to try and tease out the boy’s favorite color, but he was clearly already absorbed once more into his holobook, so Jaster let him be.

Besides, he’d been meaning to read this treatise for months, but he kept getting sidetracked by various responsibilities. Keeping his young guest company was a perfect excuse to finally get further than the introduction.

 


 

Chapter Text

 

 


 

 

Not for the first time, Arla was desperately glad for the presence of her helmet. Nobody waiting with her at the landing could see her dark circles, and with her vocoder off they also couldn’t hear her yawning. Jaster insisting on landing right after dawn was a deliberate and heinous crime against her in particular, and he would be made to regret it as soon as she could muster up the energy.

The fact that she didn’t have to be present for their arrival, that she did, in fact, set several alarms to ensure that she would be entirely of her own volition, went unacknowledged.

She wasn’t the first one to spot the ship descending, mid-yawn as she was. Silas beside her let out a relieved breath loud enough to be heard over his vocoder at the sight of Jaster’s ship breaking through the clouds. Arla echoed his sigh with one of her own, though silent and accompanied by a roll of her eyes. She had long since passed through the protective outrage phase at Silas’ crush on her brother, settling on amused disgust at his blatant pining and Jango’s complete lack of awareness. Idiots, both of them.

Fortunately, she didn’t have long to contemplate whether or not it was her duty as his sister to lock Jango in a closet with his best friend. Jaster was at the helm, judging by the smooth descent. Jango was always a bit faster, a bit less cautious when landing at home. One of these days Arla would have to tell him how cute it was, his eagerness to be home when he’d been away for a while. She was just waiting for the ideally embarrassing situation to do it in.

In front of Silas could be a good option, actually. Something to consider later, after she met her probable new sibling. Which was a thought she was still testing, cautiously. Knowing Jaster as she did, the odds were good that he would be hoping for just such an outcome, but Arla wasn’t so certain she was interested in attaching herself to someone else. Jango and Jaster alone were about as much as she could bear, to be honest.

Then again, who’s to say the kid would even want a sister? Arla was abrasive, standoffish, scary. Children did not gravitate to her, not even mando’ade, so really she probably didn’t need to worry about getting attached at all. The kid would take one look at her and hide behind his new buir, and that would be that. She could go about her life as before. With even less demands on her time, probably, with Jaster and Jango occupied taming a feral child and smothering him in aggressively familial care. Less time fending off Jango’s grumpy affection and Jaster’s fussing and more time for studying could only be a benefit to her sleep schedule.

With that thought held determinedly in place, and the accompanying uncertainty and dread shoved firmly into the dark corners of her mind, Arla raised a hand in a lazy greeting as Jango trotted out of the ship, steps quick and eager. As soon as he caught sight of his audience he slowed to a casual saunter, though, and Arla couldn’t repress the quiet snort of amusement at her baby brother’s attempt to look cool and collected.

Behind him on the ramp Jaster descended much more slowly, head turned to look behind him into the depths of the ship. He was clearly trying to coax the kid out, and having only minimal luck. The audience likely wasn’t helping.

“All of you, clear out,” she switched her vocoder on to order, reinforcing it with a wave of her arm at her father’s advisors and lackeys. “You’re going to make this take all day, the way you’re gawking, and I’d like to get to my breakfast before it’s cold.”

Beside her, Silas slumped just enough to notice as he turned to leave. “Not you,” Arla added with another roll of her eyes. She took silent note of his poorly hidden delight, then went back to ignoring him as the rest of the onlookers dispersed, grumbling.

Once the rabble disappeared into the compound, Jaster finally managed to coax the little nuna out of the ship, and led him across the landing with a slow, easy stride. The boy was…small. More so than Arla had expected, and his waif thin frame looked even smaller with Jaster’s helmet bobbling around on top of it. If that wasn’t enough, he had the wary, precise steps of someone waiting for a mine to explode under his feet, and the closer he got the more his tension became visible.

She didn’t like it. Once again, Arla was glad of her helmet to hide her face, so she didn’t have to worry about terrifying the kid with her frowning.

“You made good time,” she said as soon as Jango was near enough, her tone deliberately bland.

Jango snorted audibly, glancing over his shoulder at Jaster patiently escorting the kid towards the compound. “Someone was impatient,” he muttered, resignedly letting Arla dragged him close by the neck of his armor to tap her helmet against his, staggering only slightly with the force as she released him. “Think he wants to get Maul to Dr Hiralan sooner than later.”

Arla’s frown deepened, her attention sharpening on the small form. Barefoot, she noticed suddenly, and wearing what was clearly Jango’s old clothes. “Is he sick?” Concern hardened her voice, turned it sharp in a way she’d started to hate but didn’t know how to prevent anymore.

Jango’s shrug, as noncommittal as it was infuriating, told her nothing. Arla repressed the urge to thump him, if only for the sake of not scaring the kid right back into the ship before he even reached the compound. Instead, she shoved Jango directly at Silas while he was off balance, earning herself a hiss of outrage as he collided with his friend.

“Breakfast is on the table, go stuff your face.” Arla crossed her arms and kindly ignored the nearly vibrating tension in Silas’s form as Jango casually threw an arm over his shoulder, immediately turning towards the compound like a strill on the hunt. If anything could reliably divert Jango from whatever was bothering him, it was the promise of food.

With them on their way to the kitchen, it was only Arla still there to receive them as Jaster and the kid finally reached her. Without a word, Jaster reached out and pulled her into a loose hug, lightly knocking his temple against the side of her helmet. As always, he showed no sign of distress or upset at her lukewarm response, the awkward way she leaned slightly into the embrace but didn’t fully return it. The understanding in his face ached.

“Arla, this is Maul,” Jaster said once he’d pulled away, a crooked smile curling up the corner of his mouth. Turning half around, not looking directly at the boy in a way that reminded her uncomfortably of times she didn’t care to think about, he added, “Maul, this is my daughter, Arla.”

The boy, still several feet behind, tightened his hands on the stick in his hands, Jaster’s helmet shifting slightly as his attention flicked back and forth between them. Arla waited with as much patience as she could muster--more than she would have expected, honestly--for him to answer. Jaster’s small smile never wavered as the boy took a slow, hesitant few steps closer. Arla couldn’t help but notice that he kept at least part of Jaster between himself and her, and it made something in her gut twist uneasily, despite having prepared herself for that very thing.

“...I don’t know that,” Maul said finally, his voice a small thing trying to be strong. “Daughter. Is…is he your apprentice?”

Arla blinked behind her helmet, bemused despite herself. Jaster, though, looked at first puzzled, before a grim realization spread across his face as his smile grew forced. “No,” he said softly, without censure, but even with the obvious care he took to make it factual rather than chiding, Maul still took a step back. “She’s family, not my apprentice. It’s a different type of relationship. I can explain more later, if you’d like to learn.”

Again, a long pause. Arla was beginning to get the feeling there would be a lot of those, with them all waiting for the little nuna to untangle whatever nonsense he’d gotten twisted up in his head. “Okay,” he said finally, his voice a touch less tense as his grip on the stick eased.

Jaster’s smile widened, his entire face softening, and Arla looked away. “There’s food in the kitchen,” she said as softly as she could manage, but she could see from the corner of her eye that the sound of her voice still made the kid twitch. She swallowed a sigh and turned to head into the compound, in no mood to watch the kid flinch over and over every time she moved or spoke. She would eat later. It wasn’t as though she didn’t have plenty to occupy herself with in the meantime, anyway.

As she started to walk away, Jaster called her name, his voice a concerned question all on its own. She paused, her head half turned, but didn’t reply. “I’ll find you in a bit,” he said, calm and understanding in a way that used to make her rage, but now brought more relief than anger. “Just let me get Maul settled first.”

She nodded, then left them there. Jaster had Maul well in hand, he certainly didn’t need her there to re-traumatize a clearly traumatized child.

 

 


 

 

Jango was never overly animated while in motion, more prone to graceful precision than sweeping gestures, but even bearing that in mind he seemed unusually withdrawn. Silas tried to ignore the steady warmth against his side as Jango leaned into him, focusing instead on the tired movements and distant expression as Jango ate. Efficient as always, Jango was done quickly, but instead of getting up to leave, he stayed right there, leaning against Silas’ shoulder.

As nice as it was to bask in his commander’s trust, the way he let himself rely on Silas even though he didn’t need to, Silas couldn't help but worry. Even for a long hunt like the one he just got home from, Jango looked exhausted. Normally, the trip back usually left him with enough time to recuperate, no matter how grueling it was, so to see him so worn made something in Silas’ chest tighten.

Sacrificing the greater clarity and the ability to record for the ability to catch Jango’s eye with no viewscreen in the way, Silas reached up with his free hand to pull his helmet off. He hadn’t bothered to when Jango did, because he wasn’t hungry. It had nothing to do with how much sharper his vision was with the helmet on, the better to read his commander’s face.

As always, Jango’s eyes flicked to meet his as soon as they were visible, a faint crinkle of warmth creasing the corners as his mouth quirked up in a half-smile. Silas could almost fool himself into calling the expression ‘fond.’

“You look tired,” he blurted out, then bit his tongue and flicked his eyes forward before he could see the furrow of irritation form between Jango’s eyes. He hurriedly added, “I mean, for the drill this afternoon. Since—I mean, for the drill, since you only just got back, do you—I could lead it for you, if you’d rather relax? Or you could cancel it! I’m sure the squad won’t mind, if you did.”

Jango huffed, either in amusement or irritation, Silas wasn’t sure. No matter which it was, that steady warmth didn’t move away, so Silas forgave himself his blunder and patiently waited for a reply.

“Probably should, yeah,” Jango muttered after a moment, shocking Silas into stillness. “Cancel it. I’ll probably be otherwise occupied.”

No matter that he made the suggestion, that every word he’d said was true, Silas hadn’t expected Jango to actually do it. “Of—of course,” he stammered. Obeying Jango’s commands was hardwired well enough that he was typing before he finished agreeing. “Anything I can help with?”

Jango snorted again, and before Silas could do more than twitch in dismay, Jango dropped his head against Silas’ shoulder with a jaw-cracking yawn. “Sure,” he groused. “You can hang around and keep me from dying of boredom or falling asleep when I inevitably end up babysitting again.”

Silas firmly sat on the flood of questions that had been building since he’d seen the strange child step out of the ship with Jaster, not wanting to do anything to jeopardize Jango’s relaxation with prurient interest. “Alright,” was all he said instead, shoring up Jango’s slumped form as firmly as he was able. “I’m pretty good with kids, too, I’m sure I can entertain them for you if you need a break.”

Jango huffed a weird little laugh that Silas couldn’t quite read, though he didn’t think it was derisive. Resigned, maybe? But that wasn’t quite right. “Thanks,” is all he said.

Resigned to his confusion lingering, Silas settled in to wait, ready to support his commander however he was able.

 

 


 

 

Maul watched the person, Arla, he watched Arla walk away with a weird twisty feeling in his chest. He…she? She, she had armor like Jaster and Jango, and stood tall and straight like they did, and Jaster said ‘my’ but, daughter instead of apprentice. Maul didn’t know what a daughter was, if it was even like an apprentice at all, but Jaster obviously liked…she. Arla. Jaster touched Arla like he touched Jango, so daughter was probably like son. He still didn’t know what a son was, hadn’t dared to ask, but maybe Jaster would explain that too, later.

Jaster probably didn’t need an apprentice at all, Maul realized with a shaky exhale. He had a daughter and a son already, which were probably much better than an apprentice anyway. But maybe…maybe if he was good enough, learned fast and kept getting stronger, Jaster would still want him as an apprentice. Maul could be useful, he knew he could be, so maybe it could still be good.

Movement jerked Maul’s attention away from the door closing behind Arla as she went in the building, and he twitched his gaze back over to Jaster. He was smiling again, and Maul felt his tension easing a little bit to see it. Nothing bad had happened to him at all since he saw the smile the first time, so maybe it was safe to relax a little?

“This way,” Jaster said, and started walking to a different part of the building than the one Arla went into. Or maybe it was a different building? Maul couldn’t tell. It looked like it connected to the bigger one, so maybe it was all one thing but just shaped weird.

This place wasn’t anything like Master’s palace on Mustafar, not even a little. It was short, probably only two or three levels high, and it looked like a bunch of buildings all connected together with short, skinny buildings between. He could see green things sticking up over the top, like irontrees with green fluff stuck to them. Even the rocks and dirt were a different color than they were on Mustafar, the ground like dull gold, and the rocks a brown so light it was almost white. More fluffy green things were growing out of the ground near the building, too. They looked…soft. He liked looking at them.

When Jaster went inside the smaller piece of the building, Maul hesitated at the door, but Jaster just stood inside and waited. He didn’t snap at Maul to hurry up, or even look at him, so it was easier to go inside than it had been to go into the ship, before. Nothing bad had happened to him in the ship, so maybe nothing bad would happen here either, as long as he was careful.

It was cooler inside. Not as cold as the ship got when it was in space, so Maul wasn’t shivering, but it was good that the clothes they let him wear were thicker than his. He blinked a few times while his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, then cautiously looked around. The floor was hard and cold under his feet, made out of a lot of squares of stone fitted tight together, with a little seam of rough stuff between. It felt nice, under his feet, even though it was cold. It wasn’t slick enough to slip, or rough enough to hurt, but in between, so he had good purchase. He could move fast on it, he was pretty sure.

The room inside the door was almost empty, like Master’s audience hall but much much smaller, and with no chair. It only had some containers with more fluffy green things in them, and three doorways with no doors that had corridors past them. One of them looked like it went towards the bigger part of the building, but it angled so Maul couldn’t see all the way to the end. It had windows in the corridor though, and the other two had doors instead.

“Doctor Hiralan has her office and exam room this way,” Jaster said, and started walking across the room towards the doorway on the left. Maul took a slow breath, but kept the club at his side instead of up and ready, following a few steps behind.

It didn’t feel dangerous to walk close to Jaster anymore, he realized with a quiet, shaky inhale. That probably meant he should avoid it even more, but Maul couldn’t help but speed up just a little bit to close the distance some. He still wasn’t sure what a ‘doctor’ was, but with how Jaster talked about it, it sounded like something kind of like a med droid. Maul didn’t like med droids. But the scan hadn’t hurt at all, so maybe whatever was going to happen with the doctor wouldn’t hurt either.

At least he didn’t have too long to wonder about it. The corridor was a short one, and the door at the end was open. Inside the room there was a person, but not like any person Maul had ever seen before. He was tall, maybe the tallest person, with a long, narrow face with a ridge that stuck out on top of his head and curved back. His eyes were set on the sides of his head, and his chin was long and pointed.

Also he was naked, Maul noticed suddenly. People usually weren’t naked in Maul’s experience, unless there was a reason to be, but he wasn’t taking a sonic shower or changing clothes, he was just…naked. Maul hovered near the door while Jaster went across the room, trying to take everything in. He noticed cabinets, a few platforms, some machines, and a powered down med droid in the corner, but most of his observations were of the person, because he was just so strange.

Green skin, but only a little green, like a color between green and brown. Except the ridge on top was changing colors while Jaster talked to him, from green and blue to gold to black, then back to green and blue. It was…interesting, to watch them change. The person had a tail like a roggwart’s, but thicker and without the prongs at the end. It looked strong, so Maul decided to stay well out of reach of it swinging. It would probably knock him across the room if he couldn’t avoid it. He had big hands, too, and long arms. He would be hard to fight, with that kind of reach, unless he moved really slow. Maul had the feeling he didn’t move slow at all.

He looked at Maul when Jaster stopped talking, his big eyes only half-open like he was tired, and smiled. The smile wasn’t the same as Jaster’s, but it wasn’t sharp, so Maul felt himself relax just a little anyway. The tension came right back when the person spoke, though, the sound was so startling.

“Hello,” he said, and his voice was deep, and louder than Maul expected. It made his chest feel funny, like a ship’s engine was vibrating it, even though it didn’t hurt his ears at all. It still startled him enough to take a step back, further out of range just in case. Maul might be starting to think Jaster wouldn’t punish him without warning, but that didn’t mean he would stop someone else from attacking him, if it would be a good test of his abilities.

 

 


 

 

Hiralan had long outgrown the temptation to hide her darker emotions under an iborų, but the prickling wash of black sweeping across her crest when she thought too hard about the old scarring written into the child’s bones had her wondering if perhaps she ought to find one before she scared the boy. Jaster’s quick report on Maul’s improvement allowed her the space to collect herself, to remind herself of her duty and responsibility. By the time she turned her attention to the child directly, she had regained enough equilibrium that the itching in her crest had ceased.

He was too small. The scan was enough to tell her that, but the child looked even smaller in full dimension. Small, but definitely not weak. Highly developed musculature, lean and fast, with the easy grace of a predator species accustomed to moving and fighting for high stakes. Too young for such developed musculature, even for a predator species. There was an obvious tension rattling through the small frame as he observed her silently, with no response to her greeting. It was the wariness of a child who expected no protection from a potential threat, who expected an attack at any moment from any direction, and the injustice of it caused a dull ache to bloom in Hiralan’s chest.

Her first impulse was to be soft with him, like she would with a very young and frightened mando’ad in her care, but she discarded the thought almost as soon as it formed. The boy was clearly a fighter, distrustful and waiting for the knife; softness would be either disbelieved or misunderstood. Straightforward honesty was far more likely to be effective at calming him.

“I am Hiralan,” she said after a long silence fraught with tension, her smile fading and leaving calm neutrality in its wake. “The doctor for this compound, and Jaster’s family and soldiers. Jaster has brought you to me for further testing. The scan was insufficient to determine your health fully, so I require blood tests and a visual examination as well.”

Beside her, Jaster stiffened, his expression carefully even, but she had known him long enough to know how deeply he disapproved of her approach. As Hiralan had expected, however, some of the tension started to ebb from Maul’s frame at the clear setting of expectations. He looked far less likely to retreat at her first movement, so Hiralan made her way over to the biobed and tapped the surface with her hand. Her tail she let drag across the floor without swaying, minimizing extraneous motion so as not to startle the boy.

“Place yourself here, for the tests,” she said as quietly as she could manage, but with the audible expectation of compliance, then turned to the console. “One will be a test of blood, one a more thorough scan than the ship’s med bay was capable of, and then a physical examination. Do you have any questions?”

Jaster was clearly biting his tongue, only his respect for her keeping him silent at her matter of fact not-quite-command. He would wait for her explanation, she knew, and once he received it he would understand her reasoning. He was a good man, and a good mand’alor.

Maul hesitated for only a moment more before slowly making his way over to the biobed she indicated. He placed himself upon it with ease, glancing first up at the sensor array before fixing his attention on her once more. “...will the tests be painful?” he asked finally, only the slightest quaver buried deep in his voice.

“One of them will hurt a small amount,” she answered calmly, firmly suppressing the urge to comfort with a gentle touch. “The test of blood requires that I obtain it. This is done with a very thin hollow needle pressed through the skin of the arm. The pain is minimal, and will end after a very short time. The physical examination may cause slight discomfort but there should be no pain. The more thorough scan is painless, just as it was on the ship.”

Maul considered her words, his hands wrapped tight around his makeshift weapon, then carefully nodded. Jaster’s helmet wobbled slightly on his head, and Hiralan could not prevent the faint flush of amusement that shimmered across her crest and disappeared. Jaster’s lips twitched, some of his own tension easing as Hiralan’s approach visibly calmed the child.

Still he hovered near, thumbs hooked on his belt as he slouched against the wall and waited. His posture was terrible. Distracted as she had been by her patient, it took an embarrassing amount of time for Hiralan to notice how Jaster was favoring his back, the careful way he moved to avoid aggravating an injury. The tip of her tail twitched in irritation, but she let it go. She would track him down later if he did not come to her once Maul was settled.

Keeping her hands within Maul’s line of sight, Hiralan readied the needle and vials, and set the tray next to him on the bed. Rather than being distressed by the sight of the needle Maul seemed strangely reassured. Likely due to its small size, Hiralan realized suddenly. It would not be much of a weapon, short as it was, and far more slender and obviously fragile than any blade.

He tensed as she held out her hand, but to his credit he did not hesitate long before raising his arm for her to grasp. The strap she tied around it confused him, judging by the slight tip of the helmet, but he asked no questions. As she went through the process of obtaining a decent sample, she watched carefully, but saw no sign of a flinch even as the needle penetrated Maul’s skin. He radiated surprise as she finished, slowly pulling his arm closer to himself as she released him, and watched her carefully while she placed the sample into the analyser.

“Is…that all you need?” he asked slowly, hesitant.

“The amount is sufficient for the tests,” she replied calmly, turning her attention once more to her patient. “For the physical examination and the scans, I will need you to undress, and also to remove the helmet for a short time.”

Before she even finished speaking Maul stiffened sharply, to the point that Hiralan worried he would leap from the table and flee. Jaster, too, grew tense with worry, his eyes darting from Maul to her then back again, though he kept quiet. Hiralan waited patiently for Maul to respond, her own posture remaining loose and relaxed, and shifted her gaze to the sensor array rather than look directly at the child, keeping him well within her peripheral vision.

Interestingly, Maul looked to Jaster before he spoke, as though for reassurance or direction. A promising response. Jaster mustered up an encouraging smile, his easy warmth ready as always for those in need of it. It seemed to be as effective as always. After another long pause, the boy nearly vibrating with tension, he turned back to her and gave a bare twitch of a nod.

“...Okay. But…but if my head hurts, I’m putting it back!” he said with a voice trying desperately for firm, but only managing a fearful determination.

Hiralan nodded gravely, accepting his stipulation as she would with any patient. “That is acceptable. Thank you for your cooperation.”