Din and Luke went back to Ronion with the children.
The others offered to stay behind to chase out any storm troopers that might have been left behind and scour the city's computers and databases for any information that hadn’t been wiped yet. Boba linked up him com with Din’s to keep him updated and Paz had found them a ship big enough to get them all back, and as Din gently lead the kids onto ship Bo-Katan had watched with a haunted look on her face, her knuckles nearly white from how hard she had been holding her helmet.
Din had not been able to shake that image off as Luke flew them back.
“We had heard rumors of Empire sympathizers recruiting children,” Luke spoke softly, sitting close enough to Din that he could feel the warmth of the Jedi even through his beskar. “That’s why I--I was hoping I was wrong, when you said there were Empire troops on Mandalore.”
Luke glanced at him, his eyes full of a sadness that Din was starting to understand.
“Guess I wasn't.”
“This isn’t your fault,” Din murmured.
Luke smiled, bitter and hard, and didn’t answer. He looked back to the children, now back in the dining halls in Ronion and wearily eating the food Din had given them. They took tentative bites, glancing back at Din and Luke each time they did, like they were afraid it would get taken away.
Din and Luke themselves were sitting at one of the corner tables, far enough away to give them space, but close enough to keep an eye on them.
Artoo was running around the dining hall and checking in on the children. Din tried to pretend that it didn’t irk him that the children seemed more comfortable around Luke’s droid than him.
“What are you going to do with them?”
“They’re foundlings.” Din answered. He looked back at Luke, wanted to reach out and take his hand in an offer of comfort and understanding. “They are in our care until we reunite them with their parents or they choose to leave.”
Luke crossed his arms over his chest. He glanced at Grogu, who was sitting with the boy Din spoke to back in Sundari. He wasn’t frightened of Grogu, not like he had been with Luke. He let Grogu climb over his shoulders and into his lap, shared his food with Din’s son without the hesitation the other children were showing.
The sight of it made Din’s chest feel tight.
“I’m not sure you’ll find many of their parents,” Luke mumbled. He closed in on himself, like he was trying to hide himself away in his cloak.
“Then we’ll care for them.” Din did not say it harshly, but he spoke firmly enough for Luke to look up at him with thinly veiled surprise. “Until they are of age or brought back to their kind, they are our children.” Din swallowed as Luke’s eyes went wide. “This is the Way.”
Luke looked at Din for a while. His eyes searched Din’s face, pausing to hold eye contact for a moment before breaking it. Din realized, rather belatedly, that he had never put his helmet back on.
When Luke finally looked away he didn’t seem as sad.
“That boy,” Luke looked back toward Grogu and the child. “He’s Force sensitive.”
Din blinked, not nearly as surprised as he should be.
“A few others are too,” Luke paused. He chewed his bottom lip, fiddled with the hem of his robes. “But they’re like Grogu--they’re suppressing it, so I can’t really tell who else has Force abilities.” Luke paused again, this time reaching up to tug his glove. “I don’t think the Empire knew--I think they were just trying to train them to be troopers.”
Din nodded slowly. Luke had said as much back in Sundari, about them being used as troopers. “Do you want to take them back to Yavin?”
“I--” Luke started, then stopped. He bit his lip again, then looked back at Din and shook his head. “They need stability. Keeping them on Mandalore is the best option right now.”
Din nodded again.
He would care for these children, of course, but right now Din wasn’t sure he had the supplies and the ability to properly do it. Ronion’s broken down buildings and limited food supplies had been fine when it was just the five of them but now--
Din felt almost nauseous as he looked back at the children.
There were so many.
“I can talk to Leia,” Luke reached over and took Din’s hand, squeezing gently. “She can get supplies out here--food, water, things the kids might need.”
Din laced his fingers with Luke’s, opened his mouth to reply, but then his com unit was trilling pleasantly. Luke smiled softly, drawing his hand back as Din got up from the table and ducked out of the room.
“I’m not interrupting, am I?”
Din frowned at Boba and didn’t answer the question. “What did you find?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. ” Boba answered. He glanced behind him for a moment before looking back at Din. He looked tried. “The city’s completely empty--the princess thinks the Imps probably jumped ship once they found out you were here. Computer systems are mostly wiped clean too. I can’t tell you much more than flight logs and supply drops.”
Din nodded. “Anything on the kids?”
Boba’s face soured. “Your Jedi was right. They were being trained to be troopers.”
Din took in a deep breath, held it until it hurt.
“Come back, then,” Din finally said. “Not much use in being in an empty city.”
Boba nodded. “I’ll gather all the data files for you,” he said. “You might find something I missed.” Then he ended the call.
Din stood in the hall for a moment, dropping his head back against the wall. He took in a few deep breaths to even his breathing, then he pushed himself off the wall and slipped back inside the dining hall. The kids looked up when he entered, relaxing when Din headed for Luke and took back up his quiet vigil.
“They find anything?”
“No, not much,” Din sighed. “You were right, though, They were training the kids to be troopers.”
Luke bit out a few curses in a language Din didn’t know.
“I’m going to have to let Leia know about this,” Luke said. He sighed, lifted a hand to tug his hair back. “I know you wanted to stay out of New Republic business, but I don’t think you’re going to be able to.”
Din knew enough about politics and the New Republic that he knew once they learned that the darksaber had been reclaimed the Republic would come knocking on Mandalore’s door and demanding treaties and negotiations. Din wasn’t so naïve to think that it would never happen, but he was optimistic enough to hope that he could put it off until he had grown more adjusted to being Mand’alor or he had pawned the saber off onto someone else, regardless of the Armorer’s instructions.
But things never seemed to work in his favor.
Luke blinked. “What?”
“Stay on Mandalore with me,” Din repeated. “If I have to deal with the Republic, I’d rather do it through you.”
Luke blinked again. His eyes were incredibly blue. Din had never really noticed before, not through the glow of a holoscreen and his helmet's visor. “Din, I’m not a senator. Or a representative.”
“Your sister is,” Din said. Luke stared, then conceded with a nod and a sigh. “And you can stay with the kids--the wizard ones, too.” Luke snorted out a laugh, and Din smiled before continuing. “They need someone to watch over them, and I’m not stupid enough to think that I can do it by myself.”
“You want me to babysit?” Luke asked it with a smile.
“If they’re like Grogu, they’ll eventually need help controlling their powers. You can do that here.” Din hesitated for a moment before he reached over, taking Luke’s hand in his own again. “And--I would like you to stay.”
Luke smiled, soft and sweet.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “I’ll stay.”