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they say you gotta stay hungry, i'm just about starving tonight

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The saloon is different, in the evening. Hugged close with deep purple shadows, the yellow lamps hung on the front pushing bravely back against the gathering desert gloom. Tatooine’s two suns set hard when they put their mind to it. Din has been watching them flirt with the horizon the whole trip from Mos Eisley; at one point he’d blinked, and they had sunk. Just the edge of their brow showing over the endless red sand, and then that too disappeared, and all that was left was night.

The desert gets cooler when they go down. Quieter. Last time Din had been here the suns were so high and blazing he’d almost cooked his brain inside his helmet. Sizzling away in there like a fried egg, glossy with oil and spitting meanly. The child had been a weight on his hip. Now he feels thrown off balance; his centre of gravity shifted, but not readjusted to its new loss.

The lights of the saloon draw him in like homing beacons. Like a moth to a flame. Tiny insects beat against the lamps; Din hears their tiny bodies flickering against the glass as he passes through the open doorway. The dull roar inside the saloon flattens, stutters, and then swells.

Cobb’s face turns towards him as though Din had tied a noose around his neck, and yanked. Looking around if he knew it’d be Din who his eyes land on in the end. Expectant, mouth soft, eyebrows already raising in sweet surprise.

When their eyes meet, something goes slack inside of Din. Something he hadn’t even realised was coiled so tight. Light brown eyes in a busy room. The air is blue with smoke, dense with conversation, needled through with curious eyes. All Din can do is put one foot in front of the other, over and over until the edge of the table Cobb is sat at touches his thighs. Whatever had loosened is now melting. Din thinks it might be his vocal cords.

“Din,” Cobb says, visibly trying to wipe the shock from his face. The yellow light catches in his hair, in his beard, in his teeth as he smiles. “Is that really you?”

The way Cobb looks at him is the same way other Mandalorians look at him. So bizarrely familiar that Din has managed to convince himself that he somehow learned it in those years of wearing that ill-gotten armour. It’s a look like passes through beskar like its butter. A look that slips easily through the gaps in Din’s armour, and pulls him apart like a doll.

It means Din doesn’t have to answer the question. Besides, he’s not very convinced that he’d give the right answer anyway.

Cobb reaches a long leg out to nudge the seat opposite him away from the table. Inclines his head towards it, wordless. And after a moment of hopeless pause Din sets himself down; commits himself to the moment.

A long-necked bottle of beer sweats away in the hot room. A drained shot glass sits next to its recently-topped-up brother. Din can see the places that Cobb has picked the beer up from and set it back down; an array of wet circles on the stone table, all in different stages of drying out. He smears his thumb through the most recent one, though he doesn’t feel its wetness, or its temperature.

Across from him, Cobb takes the shot. He asks, “One for you?” and raises his eyebrows. Acting like the two of them saw each other last night, not last year. It’s very Cobb, to settle so easily and immediately into a strange situation. Still, his brows raise up higher when Din nods, and waves a hand toward the beer.

“This, too. Please.” His voice is rough from lack of use. Before he wouldn’t have noticed it. But then, he only had someone to speak to for a very brief time.

Cobb twists in his chair, signalling to the bartender with one huge, rough-hewn hand. Din watches him, feeling a faint pulse of longing, desire. The pleasing dip of Cobb’s narrow waist, the long muscles, an unshowy strength to him. The drinks arrive. New circles to be made in the well-worn stone.

Cobb, he quips, “So, you got that beskar straw installed after all —” and then all the words drop right out of his mouth, when Din pulls his helmet from his head and sets it down over the constellation of beer rings.

The room smells hot, acrid; beer sweat and cigarette smoke and human bodies. Cobb, all the muscles in his face lock up at once, and then ease a seamless second later. He clears his throat. He clears it again. Din drinks his shot, letting the liquor burn at him.

“Don’t say anything,” he says, in a low voice. The unspoken, please floats above the table.

Cobb closes his mouth. It’s a very valiant effort, the way he grinds his brain onto a new track and bites out, “Din. Mando. You’re lookin’ a little different. Didja get glasses?”

Despite himself, Din snorts. “That must be it,” he mutters, and lets his eyes skate away. It’s hard to hold up eye contact without beskar and glass to mute it. Nowadays Din stares into cobwebby corners, at splintered legs of chairs, at ears, shoulders, countless feet.

Speaking of. Cobb’s boot nudges against the side of his own. Din follows a hairline crack that webs from beneath the windowsill with his eyes, and says, “Tell me what you’ve been doing.” Again, the please is an unspoken guest at the table.

A moment of silence passes, which the battered old juke in the corner fills pretty well. The wall of conversation that Din had stepped into has lessened, just very slightly. Maybe it’s just paling in comparison to all the new things he becomes hyperaware of when he removes his helmet. The taste of the air and the feeling of it on his skin; hot, gritty, humid. Like a slick layer on his face. Beer, liquor, the fog of it clouding him, or maybe that’s just the shot? Alcohol always settles uneasily into him; he’s not very experienced. Eyes prickle the back of his neck. He can feel Cobb’s on him too; a warm trace from temple to jaw, to nose, to throat. That tightly wound thing inside of Din eases again when he glances Cobb’s way, and their eyes catch.

“Oh, y’know me,” Cobb drawls, at the moment of contact. Melting back into his chair, the picture of long-legged ease. “Protectin’, servin’, fightin’ the good fight and all that.”

His eyes crinkle, lines like rays popping up in the sun-beaten skin. When Din looks away a second later, he hangs his eyes on a stranger’s shin and thinks warmly, caressingly, of tracing bare fingers over the freckle beneath Cobb’s eye.

The truth floats the surface before long. Cobb’s still Sheriff though mostly only for show; somebody to come and talk calmingly at people until they stop being stupid. Like a therapist, or a preacher; some strange cross of the two. Apparently crime rarely blows through Mos Pelgo, and when it does come it’s often in the form of something reptilian, several metres high. It means Cobb has taken some time to relax, refocus. He sells scrap metal to whoever’ll have it, and grows something out on his back porch that he won’t name but just tells Din is ‘medicinal’. There’s a new looseness to him; a certain air of having been ironed flat and stacked warmly somewhere dark and quiet. Din wonders how he comes across to Cobb. He begins to wonder if he looks as Cobb expected him to, but then has to cut that train of thought short. It doesn’t serve him to dwell on his face. He still has such a tenuous grasp on it himself that he hates to think that he and Cobb are both as equally unfamiliar with it.

Cobb doesn’t once ask about what had happened between the time he’d waved Din off, and now. Somehow Din had known he wouldn’t. It’s a large part of what had sent him here, to this saloon in the middle of a purpling nighttime desert. The night sky beyond the window is all the colours of a very vivid bruise. Din can’t stop probing at it with his eyes.

The last time they’d been alone together, Cobb had spread that huge hand across the cheek of his helmet. The other had pressed flat to Din’s breastplate; his palm so warm that when he took it away it had left a foggy mark on the beskar. Had Din really been so cold? Then Cobb kissed the curved metal cheek of the helm. He kissed the brow, the glass of the visor. And Din just stood there, stiff as a board, screwing his eyes shut even as his mouth opened. The noise that came out cut them apart.

Din still cradles the memory very close to him; delicate like a little flame. He wonders if Cobb still thinks of it too, or whether it was barely more than a blip on his emotional radar.

The side of his boot is still pressed affectionately to Din’s ankle. Every so often, he shifts it; taps idly against Din for a few beats, and then stops. Din’s roaming gaze is swinging in a tighter orbit with each idle touch. Now he focuses on the way Cobb is flicking his thumbnail to the side of his beer bottle, sending beads of condensation shattering, and listens to all the man’s conversation slowly run out.

Cobb could talk a brick wall into submission. Din wants to ask, what, is that really all you’ve got? But then he looks up, and finds Cobb watching him, and feels the tide turn under them.

Cobb’s nail rings against the brown glass. In the few hours they’ve sat together, the saloon has slowly emptied; leaving only them and a few stragglers slumped over the bar. The juke is still playing, something slow and blue that fits his mood so well that Din jumps up to change it. When he comes back to the table Cobb is still looking at him, something settled and thoughtful in his brown eyes. Din wonders what his own face is showing.

“So go on,” Cobb murmurs, once Din sits again. He’s smoking a cigarette, the smoke gauzy and hanging between them in the still air. Cobb flaps his hand through it. “I’m not askin’, but I am.”

The world outside the window is black. Like someone has thrown a sheet over the glass, it’s so absolute. Din looks to it, then looks to the crack in the wall, to the shadows pooling outside of the reach of lamplight. He thinks of the pitiful flitting bugs outside, and the man whose shin he’d been staring at all night, whose face he’d never looked at. He thinks of everything that’s happened; such a huge series of events that it makes him mute, unable to start.

Din settles on the crux of it all. “I don’t have the child anymore.”

Cobb, because he is a kind man, raises his eyebrows as if he hadn’t even noticed. Din, because he appreciates the farce, inclines his head.

“I got him to his people.” It’s still hard, to say it. To dig his hands back into it all and upset the sediment, send it drifting through him from where it had settled so uneasily. “So, it’s over, it’s —” He cuts himself off, sharply. Stares hard at the flagstones. At the tapping toe of Cobb’s boot, no longer fitted up snugly next to his. It’s because Din is sitting rigid as a droid in his chair. Clutched into himself. He manages a sharp, “I’m free again, now,” and then gives up.

He can’t even look at Cobb. But Din can imagine his expression. His voice is gentle when he asks, “Back to bounty huntin’?”

“Ha,” Din says. “Yeah. For a little while.”

He keeps coming back to the memory of his and Cobb’s last moments together, back when Din still had a son and a clan and a purpose. Gloved fingers knotting together over the drying collection of rings sunk into the table as he remembers. The slide of Cobb’s thumb over his would-be cheekbone. A razor-thin selfish sliver of himself wishes badly he had let whatever that was snowball. But the rest of him is big and selfless and domineering; reminding him that the child is in the only place he could be. Trouble has a keen nose. Better to part than to be constantly in a state of fleeing. Better to part than —

Cobb’s hand settles over Din’s hands, twisted together on the tabletop. “C’mon,” he murmurs, and Din flicks his eyes to gauge the man’s expression, only to get stuck in its softness. “Come with me. You look hungry.”

Din can feel the warmth of the man’s hand through the thickness of his gloves. Spreading through his body, warming all the chilly corners of him.

Behind the bar is a door, which leads through into a close, modest kitchen. The bartender is in there, whistling over a notepad as he counts bottles; when he sees Din and Cobb, his whistle cuts short, as though Din had reached out and put a hand over his mouth.

“Sheriff,” he says, and Cob smiles. They’re left alone a moment later.

Cobb gestures for Din to sit; a little wooden table ringed by a few low stools in the corner of the room. It’s nudged in between the icebox and a long wooden bench scored with knife marks, like deep brown wounds. Din sits. He sets his helmet on the stool next to him. Cobb brings him another beer, and for a moment the only sounds are of Cobb moving around the small room. The clank of a heavy cast iron pan onto the hob, the clatter of cutlery as Cobb pulls open a drawer and begins sifting through it. The music is muted by the door; nothing more than a low thrum. The sound of the night through the open window over Din’s head drowns it, and everything else. His racing thoughts replaced by the call of some lonely, hungry animal. Birds, bugs, all dying and eating and breeding and living pointless lives, because what else is there?

Cobb lets a thick curl of butter drop into the pan, where it begins to sizzle and melt. Din can see it from his seat; the oily foam of it. Cobb adds a little more. Little by little, Din feels himself begin to relax. The wall at his back is comforting; the sounds and smells of cooking even more so. He watches Cobb crack a couple eggs into the butter, breaking their shells against the rim of the pan before letting them slip into it. Immediately, they begin to sizzle and spit. Cobb nudges at the dial, turns the flame lower. Din, he lets his eyes close. Presses his fingertips over his eyelids and lets himself go limp against the wall at his back.

He’s been just as hungry and lonely as that unknown howling creature since the child had found his home. Restless and roaming, no place to call his own despite so many options. But nowhere settles him. Not Nevarro, not Mos Eisley, not one of the many towns and hamlets Din passed through in his quest to find the child’s people. He’d grown to accept it. Without the Crest he’s untethered. It’s just the way that life has to be, sometimes.

The air fills with the smell of frying bacon, the sizzling sounds from the pan growing louder. Cobb is whistling tunelessly. Din presses the heels of his hands to his eye sockets now, grateful to be allowed this moment with no prodding from Cobb. He’s been on the move for a year. They say everything settles at some point; that there’s little that can stay drifting forever. But Din’s got no bottom to settle against. Not yet, anyway.

Slowly, he unfolds. Drops his hands to his lap. Watches Cobb stick a few slices of thick bread under the grill, bent low to fiddle with the knobs on the front. He’s a funny, tall shape in the small room, a little bit too big for the space. Wearing brown pants and a sage green singlet, his reddish tan making the long muscles in his arms gleam. On the windowsill next to him, a cigarette smokes away in a glazed red dish. Cobb plucks it from there every few seconds, takes a drag, and abandons it again. Unwatched, Din lets his eyes linger on the man’s face; drinking it in hungrily. The mole under his eye and the disarray his silver hair has descended into over the course of the night, the delicate sweep of all his features. Some people are just put together right, Din thinks. Cobb’s one of them.

“I learned to cook in this kitchen,” Cobb says, out of the blue. He flips a rasher of bacon, glistening with butter. Slides a sidelong glance Din’s way. “Didn’t get to learn until I was thirty-five, or thereabouts.” His tone is light, conversational.

Din only knows fragments of Cobb’s past; only those parts that were important to explaining away his Mandalorian armour. He thinks this anecdote must be going somewhere, must have some arrowhead that Din can’t see. So he manages a low, “I’m no chef either,” and waits. But all Cobb does is hum, and juggle the toasted bread from under the grill with his fingertips.

“Mos Pelgo is a good a place as any to hide out a while,” he tells Din, who feels as though he’s trying to follow the thread of a conversation long lost to him. The eggs slip from the pan onto the plate, glossy under the lights. The smile Cobb levels him with is kind. “What’s something you’ve always wanted to learn?”

The plate advances across the tight space between stove and tucked-away table. Then it hits the table, and Cobb sits himself down with a sigh. His rangy figure crowds the space, makes it seem as though there are more legs under the table than just two pairs. Their knees bump. Their shins bump. Cobb’s foot insinuates itself in between Din’s, a familiar, companionable touch.

Din, mesmerised by the smell of the food in front of him, by Cobb’s closeness, by the whole strange night, says the first thing that rises out of his head. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to knit.”

Cobb stares at him, a smile growing in increments until it splits into a loud laugh. His foot kicks at Din under the table. “Alright,” he says, amused and faintly drunk; eyes bright and cheeks pink. “Perfect. That’s an easy one, Din.”

“You think so?”

Cobb winks, moustache twitching as he tries to keep his laughter inside. “The old ladies’ll be clamouring to teach you,” he says, fondly, and then his eyes flick to Din’s plate. “Go on, eat. Stop talking.”

Din has gotten into the habit of eating only when his body feels fit to rebel from hunger. He thinks it’ll take a long time to break it, but if Cobb keeps cooking meals like this, the process at least won’t be a hard one. His knife barely has to touch the yolk of the fried eggs before they’re splitting, steaming, bright orange yolk flowing out around the tines of his fork as he splits them further. The bacon is salty, crispy, perfect when slid through that orange yolk straight into Din’s mouth. He eats like a man possessed; no conversation flowing at all. Only the distant music of the juke, playing to nobody in the next room. Only the sounds of the night, those lonely animals, all that lonely starlit sand. Cobb is watching Din with his chin propped on his knuckles, something indulgent in his smile and in his eyes. Stub of a cigarette smoking away between his knuckles, that glazed dish moved between them now, and catching the light, catching Din’s amorphous reflection.

Din travelled very far to get here. Dragged through space by some whim he hadn’t known lived inside of him. A fish hook in his guts, only he can’t remember when he swallowed it. Was it on that gasp of air that had followed the sound he made, the foggy heat-memory of Cobb’s hand on his chest? He can imagine it, lurking there in the darkness of Cobb’s small, neat home. Waiting for the moment to strike, and then lurking inside his chest, waiting for the moment to return home. Even now, Din can feel it tugging; the span of the table between him and Cobb practically as vast as the desert he’d crossed.

The food is warming him from the inside out. It’s been a very long time since Din has been the one taken care of.