Din was going to kill him.
Only Fett would send him out on a wild goose chase based on some tall tale trailing five parsecs on the lips of Lak Shivrak—of all the bleeding informants.
Din was grateful for the distraction, truly he was, but running around on some Outer Rim swamp was not his idea of a good time.
He was going to have to correct that old spacer’s definition of distraction.
There was something here though, to Din’s chagrin and Fett’s delight. Three ports later—all looking as though they were drowning in vegetation, water, and people—and he was convinced Boba had been right. Call it a feeling, which Din did not, or even an instinct, but he’d felt a flutter of it kicking in his gut the moment he’d arrived.
That was two weeks ago and nothing had changed. If anything, the feeling had only grown stronger.
Now Din was at his fourth port, and the largest. Drei’k Kobar was not the capital, but rather a major southern hub of commerce. Rammed up against the edge of a lake so large it stretched beyond the horizon, it maintained a vast jungle looming where the lake ended, hemming the city's populous into a slice. Between the razor-toothed fish and muddy bogs that swallowed chattel whole, Din was having a hard time seeing the port-city’s appeal.
Especially when the humidity threatened to drown him standing.
There’d been a tangible sign of his hunch in Drei’k Abul, the second city. Which was the only reason why the bounty hunter had carried on his pursuit—A room hastily emptied, a cleaning rag swollen with a type of polish no dar’manda would know how to make, and scratches on the door frame made by idle hands—children’s hands.
And so here he was, hopping between settlements on a trail that should have been warm, but slapped him cold at every turn. The Mando’ade knew his people were excellent at hiding, but this was excessive.
When desperation threatened to eat at his insides, Din Djarin felt keenly the weight of the Dark Saber strapped to his thigh.
There weren’t many children in these ports, at least not out in the open. The few he did see were with parents who either gripped their hands tightly or had them perpetually strapped to backs and sides. Din had always been observant, but he’d be blind not to read the signs. Something was decidedly off in Fortuna, and he had every intention of finding out why.
“Someone’s been stealin’ chitlins,” the spice trader whispered over the lip of his drink. They were tucked into the shaded corner of a well-to-do watering hole in the merchant's district. He’d taken one look at Din after he walked in and flagged the hunter down long enough to ply the cost of a drink out of him.
“Where are they being taken?” Din said, his voice controlled on a razor’s edge.
“No one really knows. There is a high demand for medi-trade here. Fortuna is a planet used primarily to grow the ingredients for bacta products. If you didn’t notice, you’re standin’ in a planet-wide swamp bucket. Plenty of bacteria here,” the trader griped, taking a long swig of the fluorescent grog popular around these parts.
“What do children have to do with bacta production?” And Din honestly couldn't say he knew anything about it. New possibilities began to swim in his head.
“Small hands,” and the trader held up his own larger ones, “Little bodies to get in between machinery, or perhaps they don’t sink as quick in the bog for material collection. It could be anythin', what with the lack of regulation this far out. Not even the Old Republic held much sway this far into the Outer Rim.”
Din inhaled. White-hot heat exploded from behind the plates on his chest. A clear image of little green fingers twisting into wires where they shouldn’t be—a crushing ache traveled up, then down each one of his extremities.
It was so sudden, so immediately felt, it was all Din could do to stay seated upright. It took him longer than it should to find his voice again.
“And what...Where do you think they are taken?”
“Who knows? It’s a big planet. Lots of jungle. Lots of scum lookin’ for a quick credit. Food’s not scarce, neither is buildin’ material…though the hands it passes through is few and far between,” the trader’s eyes swiveled in three directions, before he leaned back in, “If I were you though, with all that armor and angry feelin’ swirlin’ about, I’d go lookin’ in Drei’k Hugar. Nasty bit of business over there, but it'd be where I—if I was stealin’ what wasn’t mine ye kin—would go not to get caught.”
Din’s brow rose beneath his helmet, and somehow he felt that the trader could see it, “Why are you helping me?”
“Because I don’t like Boris Baggarty—and neither does his brother,” the trader said, weighty with certainty, “Consider it a favor. From the Gran of Kinyen to your people, Your Highness.”
The trader stood then, perhaps unaware of the kind of shock he’d delivered, and bowed his head before leaving Din to his thoughts.
He had honestly not considered anyone recognizing him. Sure, Din was Mando’ade and would catch attention regardless of where he went, but there wasn’t much rumor surrounding him, or even the results of his actions against Moff Gideon not more than a year ago. This was a double-edged sword, in Din’s personal opinion. Part of him wished the rumors would reach his people, and that they would come home hearing of his victory and reclamation of the homeworld. The other side feared at how troublesome it would make his traveling to find them. He’d have to consult the Armorer when he returned to Manda—Din cringed in his helmet.
She might actually kill him.
Especially with the trouble he was about to cause.
The location and owner of the Dark Saber was supposed to remain under the radar, at least until the reestablishment of the capital, Keldabe. Din could almost feel the weight of her glare at the back of his helmet as he landed the ship in Drei’k Hugar.
Barely even started, and he was already fekking it up.
And yet, what did Din care if some goaty Gran got a favor out of the Mand’alor? It wasn’t like he was going to be the leader long enough for the bastard to cash it in. Inevitably it would become someone else’s problem—that same someone who was bound to win a trial-by-combat against Din, obtaining for themselves the title and the Dark Saber.
The Mando’ade wasn’t modest enough to claim to be anything but strong, yet even he knew there was always going to be someone stronger. The cluster-fuck he’d found himself in would go away soon enough and then he would be able to get back to...back to—
Din shut his mind from that train of thought. He’d get nothing done dwelling upon things that couldn’t change and questions he couldn’t answer. Let the others figure out his future. His people were priority now. Just because an Empire or two fell didn’t make their situation less dire.
“Find your people, Din Djarin, and don't get killed.”
The Armorer’s voice rang clear around in his helmet—the last piece of advice before shoving him out of her forge.
The hardest part of any stakeout was not jumping the gun, Din thought.
For the last two days he’d looked up the Baggarty Pharma Co., haggled with a grocer over a pack of rations, and managed to get into her good graces long enough to get a lay out the city. Drei’k Hugar was not the largest city on Fortuna, if one could even called it that. Most of it was taken over by a labyrinth of manufacturing and industrial complexes. The townie side, small as it was, was damp and half eaten by vegetation. Its people were modest, but firm. Blunter than Din had expected, but he could appreciate a lack of duplicitousness where he expected to find nothing but smugglers and slavers.
He hadn’t seen a single child while doing recon in the city. It made a sick slither creep up his spine to find silence in streets where there should have been play and laughter. The trader had been right about Drei’k Hugar—it was a viper’s den.
"Youez know, I saw one of youez a while ago. A big one too. Almost as big as me! Pretty banged up, though, in the armor. Blue and gold, of all colors. I didn’t know youez guyz came in blue. Moonz above, youez wouldn’t believe the ruckus he was making—barging through a Fortuna port like them Imps were racing after him! Naught but a little human it was. Fire-eyed and swinging a blaster like she knew what she was doing with it. Lupa’s Mane! Make a Vrakka howl any day. So anywayz, that blue Mando anyone youez know?”
Lak Shivrak’s story looped over and over in Din’s head. Yeah, he had an idea of who the Mand’oade could be. If it was—with what he’d figured out this far into Fortuna’s interior—Din would be hard pressed not to burn the city down to find him.
Opportunity appeared in the form of a weasel—or rather a weasel-looking human in a Baggarty uniform rushing down the (almost) unoccupied lane wedged between two reinforced complexes. Nothing but trash compactors and bio-locked fire exits, one of which the Mando’ade was shadowed in the overhang of.
If a man was trying to get to work, having realized he was going to be late, Din expected these entrances—well away from the heavily guarded service docks and main thoroughfares—to be the preferred choice. Eight hours into the stake out, and his instincts had proven correct.
Din was almost sorry to knock the man unconscious. Then again, he did work for possible kidnappers—a thought that gave the bounty hunter enough reason and pleasure to tighten the man’s restraints with more force than necessary. And when the door not only required a PARtag but a fingerprint as well? Well Din was more than happy to relieve the man of both.
Thankfully the weasel had high enough clearance to get Din easily through the service corridors into the laboratories beyond.
“Xeno-genetic specialist, what in all haran is that?” the hunter muttered, properly s seeing the PARtag for the first time as he was sliding through a grid-like office block.
It was the off-shift. Like most of the city’s other factories and plants, the laboratories cycled through thirteen-hour shifts. Din watched the Baggarty’s comings and goings for a little more than a day before deciding to set his trap. The labs were bound to have projects that needed constant monitoring, but the off-shift didn’t require a full rack of employees milling about. Made Din’s weaving in and out of hallways and rooms easier.
Instinct said discretion was the better part of valor for now.
Besides, there were plenty of supply closets to stow himself or others away. Din was, however, going to run out of room for fingers.
Damn it. He needed bigger pockets.
Hours passed and Din was no closer to finding what he needed. What he just knew had to be there. Time pressed into the back of his helmet like a warning. He’d been lucky this far.
That luck could just as easily run out.
Eventually, someone was going to notice that many missing bodies.
Din Djarin was not prone to panic. Desperation, on the other hand, was an old friend. It liked to slap him when he least expected it.
Maker, he was going to find that fucking goat after this and hang him up by his fat toes. No one gave a false tip to a Mando’ade and lived.
It was just bad for business.
Din backpedaled. The two uniformed guards hadn’t seen him, thank feck, but they were headed his way with a purpose.
Somebody must have noticed Karl hadn’t come back from the crapper.
Quietly, Din turned around the corner he’d just come—some unadorned hallway much like the rest of this part of the perimeter block.
He needed a door, and he needed it locked behind him. Now.
Din’s eyes scanned his options. Seven doors. Two labeled. Three of them obviously opened to storage or supplies. That left the one in the center right with no markings, or the one on its other side labeled ‘The Hemmer’—which meant absolute fekking crag to Din.
But it didn’t sound good, nor empty.
He cursed under his breath, and chose the unmarked door. Scrambling with a quickly chosen PARtag and finger, he dropped them both trying to see the identification. Lunging for the thumb as it rolled away, he managed to smashed it against the door’s sensor as heavy boots came around the corner.
Falling backwards into the room, the door slid closed in front of Din with a snap. Silence. Makers above, he hoped to have gotten lucky.
A soft gasp behind the hunter sounded as the low light sensors caught his movements and flickered on. Within seconds and a swift twist of his boots, the Mando’ade had his blaster leveled, charged, and pointed at a human face.
Years of training alone froze Din’s trigger finger. Dank farrik, he was glad for that as his mind finally registered the image.
Dark eyes, like twin skies, were wide and staring. A child—barely a meter high topped with curls inky black—was strapped to a chair in the center of the cramped room. Machines and wires wove all around, were attached to the kid. A faint heartbeat beat away on the monitor for all to hear as the bright orbs grew impossibly wider, taking in the imposing figure of a Mando’ade in full baskar.
Din had never seen so long of lashes or as full a mouth on a human so pale and small. He looked no more real than a doll.
A doll that didn’t immediately cry out with a blaster aimed at his face.
“You’re a Mandalorian.”
It certainly got right to the point of things.
"Yes, I am. And who are you?”
He was never more thankful for a voice modulator. It wouldn’t do to frighten the kid more, not with the grit grinding at Din’s throat. The walls around the pair felt oppressive, as if they were closing in on him.
The question seemed to catch up in the kid’s head. Perhaps he’d sensed the bounty hunter’s intentions or—by the kriffing forge— maybe he realized he wasn’t in immediate danger anymore. And like a flipped switch, the kid's face scrunched up, mottling skin from white to red, and became bountifully wet with a hiccuping sob. Twiggy, bird-thin arms stretched out beyond the restraints as far as they could reach. Towards him. Towards Din.
He was desperate for Din Djarin, of all people, to hold him.
That white-hot fire burned again as the bounty hunter rushed forward. He shut down everything he could think of. Pulled at any wires his hands could reach. They couldn’t afford some alarm sounding because a fist crushed one of the machines—no matter how tempting.
All the while the boy just cried. Eerily silent as little hands grabbed and gripped at Din’s armor. Too impatient to fiddle with buckles, he broke the boy’s restraints and gloves hands lifted.
Din found himself so full of shivering, crying, clinging kid. A deep ache, one he'd tried to forget, eased a little with the sensation. He couldn't help but run his glove up and down a barely clothed back. Even with his baskar on, the kid felt hot to the touch. A fever? Din removed a glove to confirm as his sensors whirred.
What kind of fekking monsters made a sick kid sit in a cold room in the dark? Rage resurged from the low simmer inside him, a righteousness that had arms tighten and a body sway—He rocked the child to keep himself occupied. To keep the Mando’ade present and far from revenge.
Now was not the time.
Din tried to salvage his scattered thoughts. He wanted to call Fett, Cara, bring in fekking anyone come to help him.
The reality of stealing a kid out of this place—the child being confirmation that there may be more—Well, he knew he wasn't going to get a second shot. Din'd have to get them all now, if there were any more to save. If he didn't...if he didn't—
"One thing at a time, oh great Mand'alor. Don't frick it up because your head was too far up your ass to see the big picture."
Only when the kid had settled to hid his face in the space between Din’s neck and shoulder did he deign to finally speak.
“What?” Din couldn’t understand the muffled sounds coming from his shoulder. The little one heaved, one great big sigh, and came to a decision.
Snot connected from chest plate to a ruddy nose as the little one pulled his head back, putting some distance between them.
Din could care less about the mess, transfixed as he was by night skies and smoky wisps.
The kid whispered, entreating the Mando’ade to understand, so exhausted and worldweary—
“Ben. My name is Ben, and I knew you would come save me, Din Djarin.”