“I don’t suppose I can just persuade you not to go,” Cody said, sitting back in his chair and folding his arms.
“I’m afraid not,” the current bane of his life said, smiling at him with an unruffled placidity that nobody who’d married into the Skywalker family ought to possess. Especially when she’d also married Kenobi.
Cody remembered Rex laughing so hard he had to sit down when he met Owen and Beru Lars, and watched them deal so expertly with Kenobi that General Yoda was probably going even greener than usual with envy. Now Cody strongly felt like the joke was on him.
“Voting by electronic ballot is just as democratic as any other kind of vote,” he tried. “And it doesn’t put you within reach of Fennec fucking Shand.”
“Language,” Beru Whitesun Lars said gently. “I know, but it wouldn’t be the same, Cody. We’re all going, and we’re all going to cast our votes. Except for Leia, who remains an Alderaanian citizen. Of course.”
Cody ignored this tangent. “And you are all going to get shot. If you’re lucky.”
“I will be surrounded by Jedi Knights,” Beru said. “I don’t know what you think could possibly happen to me.”
“You haven’t spent enough time with Jedi Knights,” Cody retorted. “They attract trouble.”
“Have you forgotten I raised Luke?” Beru enquired.
Cody unfolded his arms and ran a hand over his face, pushing at his scar, which was aching with the onset of the Naboo rain season. So far as Cody could tell this was no different from any other season. “You just showed me a bunch of analysis that proves Imperials are working through the Guild to hunt Force-sensitives and that, incidentally, the assassin Fennec Shand who works for the Hutts has been contracted to kill high-value targets on Tatooine… and now you want to go back there, putting yourself right in the Guild and Shand’s sights with three Jedi.”
Beru gave him a mild look, which he took to mean yes, of course.
“I’m not sure you understand the gravity of the situation,” he tried.
“Spend your entire adult life negotiating with the Hutts for your livelihood while sheltering a man they could sell to the Empire for the entire GDP of Tatooine and then tell me I don’t understand the gravity of the situation,” Beru said politely. “Cody.”
Cody opened his mouth, closed it again, and tapped his fingers hard against his desk. “I should have spoken to your husband.”
“Even Owen would have told you the same thing,” Beru said. When Cody heaved a sigh, she smiled. “Do you know how long we’ve dreamed of a democratic Tatooine?”
No fewer than five systems had offered Cody honorary citizenship. Only one allowed clones to vote, and that was because Leia Organa had locked the entire Alderaanian government into a room with her for two and a half hours.
Cody shut his eyes. There was a long silence.
“Could you please just at least try to stay out of trouble?” he sighed.
“Of course,” Beru said, getting up and collecting herself. “Family dinner is at six tonight, incidentally.”
“I don’t mind if you’re late, we won’t eat until seven,” Beru assured him. “Luke and Leia are having tea with the Naberries and they need a plausible excuse to leave.”
“You weren’t invited?” Cody said, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” Beru said, mild and sweet. “Six o’clock, Cody. If you don’t show up I’ll send Artoo to get you.”
Cody waited until she was gone, then opened a messenger window on his terminal and typed: Did you have to marry the one individual in the galaxy more pigheaded than you are.
I’m sure Beru did the right thing, Kenobi wrote back almost immediately. His Provisional Senate session must be extremely boring. Since it was mostly a jolly designed for everyone to be very self-congratulatory about dissolving to make way for the New Republic, and Cody had disinvited himself on purpose, Cody wasn’t surprised.
How do you know I didn’t mean Owen.
Absolutely nobody ever means Owen, Kenobi replied. Show up for dinner or I’ll tell Luke you called Beru pigheaded.
“I think Uncle Cody was pretty mad we decided to come back,” Luke said, on the descent into Mos Espa.
“Don’t understate it,” Leia said, peering over his shoulder at the planet below. “He was hopping with rage. And he told me to keep you where I could see you.”
“Me?” Luke yelped.
“No,” Leia said. “You and Uncle Obi-Wan.”
Her aunt and uncle looked sideways at Obi-Wan, who was staring down at the spaceport, deep in thought.
“He said especially Uncle Obi-Wan,” Leia said, raising her voice slightly for emphasis.
“Hmm?” Obi-Wan said absently. “Yes, that sounds like Cody.”
“Something the matter?” Owen asked, deep creases folding between his eyebrows.
“No,” Obi-Wan said. “Hmm. Well. Maybe. In the spaceport.”
Everyone tensed a little.
“Something explosive?” Owen prompted.
“No,” Obi-Wan said slowly. “Just… curious. Yes. Curious.”
“Sometimes,” Leia remarked, crossing her ankles and looking meaningfully at the toes of her silver-trimmed indigo boots, “I understand how Uncle Cody got the way he is.”
“Lies,” Obi-Wan said automatically. “He was exactly that suspicious and grumpy before I worked with him.”
“I can’t believe you, Beru,” Elly Darklighter shouted, and ran headfirst into her friend’s arms in the main square of Mos Eisley, decked with banners. “And Owen! And Ben! Oh, I’m sorry, I mean -”
“Ben is fine,” Obi-Wan said, smiling and waving her objections aside. “I’m still very fond of the name.”
“I cannot believe what you’ve been up to,” Elly said. Her children - her remaining children, Beru thought - were hanging back, but Elly’s eyes were bright with joy, and her husband Samuel was smiling as he laid his hands on Elly’s shoulders, and told her to give them space.
“Half the time I can’t believe what we’ve been up to,” Owen grunted, settling his belt and associated blasters. At least one of them had been listening to extremely long-suffering Cody. “You know our nephew, of course, but this is our niece, Leia. Leia, this is Elly Darklighter, she’s one of our closest neighbours, and this is her husband, Samuel. They’re Biggs’ parents.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Leia said, with the lovely manners Breha and Bail Organa had no doubt worked very hard to instil in her. The Naboo liked them as much as, if not more than, her combat record.
Elly’s eyes widened slightly. “Likewise,” she said, and bowed her head to Leia. “The Huttslayer.”
Beru knew her niece: the flinch was contained, but she saw it. Beru had also taken apart the remains of the cantina girl costume, and given the last of the chains to Owen to dispose of. He’d had some of the links made into a set of throwing knives, and nobody ever talked about where Leia had got them from.
“Just Leia,” Leia said, with her pretty smile. It was not, Beru noticed, the real one.
Owen wrapped one of his hands around his niece’s smaller one, and gripped tightly. Her fingers turned white where they grasped his in return. “Come on, Just Leia,” he said. “Your aunt and uncle and I need to collect our polling cards. Can’t imagine they were sent back to the old farm.”
Samuel Darklighter snorted. “I can’t say that old place has got any less dangerous in your absence, Owen.”
“We weren’t expecting that it had,” Obi-Wan said dryly, straightening up from where he had been bribing the youngest Darklighter with sweets for some unknown purpose. “Anything in particular?”
“Just rumours,” Samuel said, in a way that strongly suggested they were just rumours in the same way Leia was just Leia. “Bounty hunters coming through - the Law Speaker terminated Tatooine’s contract with the Guild, the next government will renegotiate it, but they can still land here - heading off into the Dune Sea, not coming back.”
“Luke always told me the Dune Sea ate strangers,” Leia said.
“Yeah, well,” Samuel said. “Just so long as these ones aren’t spat out in time for the vote.”
“You think it’s Shand,” Beru said to Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan paused with his concealing hood half-on and one of his boots laced most of the way up. “I hope it’s Shand,” he said. “The other option is that the Hutts are collecting bounty hunters to strike at the elections.”
Beru, who had ample experience of Hutts both in wartime and theoretical peace, did not ask what the Hutts could possibly do with the two days’ grace they possessed. There were too many answers.
Beru folded her arms and sighed, casting a glance out of the half-closed shutters. Obi-Wan had left the lights off - he regularly claimed he could navigate using the Force, usually immediately before whacking his shins on some low-slung item of furniture - and the slowly rising moon glittered over the rooftops of Mos Eisley, joined by a thousand lamps strung between the streets, and the laughter and chatter of party-goers excited almost to the point of hysteria. “You’re not going by yourself.”
“No,” Obi-Wan agreed. “I thought I’d take Luke. And of course Owen will be sufficiently irritated to join us.”
“And Leia?” Beru enquired.
A shadow crossed Obi-Wan’s face. “No - in case it is Hutts. They blame her rather than Luke for their lost grip on Tatooine. If they are there, they will stop at nothing to kill her.”
“So you expect me and Leia to sit here and twiddle our thumbs, is it?” Beru folded her arms. “Or is this a little hint that you’d like someone to go and look at the spaceport?”
Obi-Wan’s mouth twitched. “Take a blaster and start with Bay Three-five,” he suggested.
“You are a menace,” Beru informed him.
He kissed her. “I love you too.”
“Not more visitors,” Peli Motto yelled, bouncing the child on her hip. “I’m busy.”
“It certainly seems as if you have a lot of work to do,” said the young woman who had let herself in by means unknown to Peli, eyeing the amount of makework that Peli was in fact leaving to the droids. The ship was off-limits for the droids, which meant it wouldn’t be dealt with until the kid got to sleep, which (at this rate and taking into account unwanted visitors) would be a while. Peli considered telling her to fuck off.
“You ever tried getting a kid to sleep, lady?” Peli demanded. “Get off of my property.”
The young woman, who spoke with an obnoxious Core accent and moved with a kind of fierce assurance Peli would like to be sure she herself possessed, went to the gate. But instead of letting herself out, she let someone else in - a middle-aged woman with fair hair, kind blue eyes and a blaster in her belt, who closed the gate very firmly behind herself.
“I ain’t receiving callers,” Peli said with heavy sarcasm. The baby was squeaking and wriggling in her arms like it was possessed.
“Of course not,” said the older woman. She spoke like a local, but one who had maybe been off-planet for a while: she seemed kind of cuddly, friendly, like Peli’s favourite teacher at kid school. “You have work to do.” She smiled at Peli. “Can I ask why you aren’t using droids for such a big job?”
“Client objects,” Peli said gruffly. “You know. Some people just can’t stand them.”
“Funny how that occasionally goes,” said the older woman. “My name is Beru, by the way.”
A local name, too, Peli thought. “Peli,” she replied. “Yeah, I’m very busy with this job as a consequence, so if you ladies could just -”
“My niece is a very skilled mechanic,” Beru offered. “And I’d be happy to hold the child for you.”
The baby was reaching out for the younger woman, though, the one who had volunteered no name. She looked slightly alarmed at first, and then her eyes narrowed with curiosity and widened with astonishment.
“Hello there,” she murmured, and took two steps closer to Peli. Peli fumbled for her blaster, suddenly panicked.
“Hey, you gotta leave other people’s kids alone,” she snapped.
“It’s okay,” the younger woman said, ignoring the blaster with a confidence she probably learned on a battlefield, and holding out one pretty little hand to the baby. She had blaster callouses, but her nails were perfectly kept, her palms clean and white. “Aunt Beru, he’s like Master Yoda.”
“He’s like who now,” Peli complained.
“One of my brother’s teachers,” said the woman. “He’s Force-sensitive. The baby. Like me.”
“Now that must have been what your uncle spotted,” Beru said, as if pleased to have solved a mystery.
“What all are you talking about, that is a myth -” Peli began, and then the younger woman who still didn’t have a name lifted her hand and all three of Peli’s pit-droids rose into the air. The kid clapped with delight. “Put them down!”
“I’m not going to hurt them,” the younger woman assured her, lowering the droids gently. They bleeped to assure Peli they were still all right. “Can I say hello to the little one?”
“Can I stop you?” Peli retorted, shaking.
“Yes,” the younger woman said. She waved at the baby instead, and it waved back. “If you want, I’ll fix up this ship with you, I won’t say a word to you or the baby, and I’ll go away at dawn.”
“What’s supposed to happen at dawn?” Peli demanded.
The woman frowned, looking off-kilter for a second. “I’m not sure. Something.” Her frown deepened. “You might want a spare pair of blasters around.”
“Why, Jabba gonna rise from the grave and roll on Mos Eisley?”
“Nothing that dramatic,” the woman said. “I don’t think.”
The baby was going completely nuts in Peli’s arms, to the point where he kicked her in the stomach. “Oof! Okay, pumpkin. You can get down.” She put the child down, mostly because she felt like she didn’t have another choice. He toddled straight to the woman, who smiled at him and knelt down to say hello. They were waving at each other and touching hands in seconds, and the baby even climbed into her lap.
Peli looked at Beru, who was levelling a doting smile at her niece and the baby. Grandkid fever, Peli assumed. She looked back at the woman and the Mando’s kid, resigning herself to a spare pair of sentient hands. “Do I gotta pay you?” she demanded. “And what’s your name?”
“No, I’ll work for free,” the woman said, swinging the baby into her arms and spinning in circles with him. He chuckled with apparently unrestrained delight. “Since I’m not a certified mechanic. And my name is Leia.”
Peli’s jaw dropped. “Leia like -”
“Just Leia,” the Huttslayer said, like she had this conversation regularly.
Out in the Dune Sea, Obi-Wan and Owen and Luke found the remains of a wrecked speeder and two dead bounty hunters. One had been dragged for some distance, probably by a dewback, before something - probably also the dewback - had chewed off the foot stuck in a stirrup that kept him attached to the beast. Obi-Wan found the bounty hunter, who had obviously been dead for at least a day in the full suns’ heat; Owen found the foot.
Luke informed Obi-Wan through his training bond that he’d found the other bounty hunter, and wasn’t Fennec Shand supposed to be Mirialan?
Obi-Wan replied that no, she was human.
Well in that case she’s dead, Luke said. Really dead.
Obi-Wan collected Owen, who had just reunited the foot with its dead owner and was grimacing with distaste and cleaning his hands, and returned to Luke with great speed. Luke was kneeling over the body of a human female dressed in black, severe-faced with a distinctive purple tattoo and dull wires braided into her black hair. She looked like she’d been shot in the stomach, and had died in pain and fury.
“Well,” Obi-Wan said. “That certainly is Fennec Shand. I don’t know where you got the idea she was Mirialan, Luke.”
“Maybe I just remembered something about the tattoos?” Luke hazarded.
“Mirialan tattoos are always black.” Obi-Wan looked around, and up into the lightening sky. “Now, my question is - who killed her?”
“Someone who’s not here any more,” Owen said. He had lain down on the ridge with a grunt and several complaints about his old back, and was scanning the area through Shand’s sniper scope. No doubt her equipment was pricier than the Alliance’s had been: one of Cody’s attempts to dissuade Obi-Wan from returning to Tatooine had involved a list of her clients, all of whom were wealthy, and most of whom were either convicted war criminals or awaiting trial. “There’s blowback trail from someone gunning a speeder down there. Not a very good speeder.”
“Hmm,” Obi-Wan said.
“There’s also a Mandalorian,” Owen added, sliding back down the ridge. “In full beskar. Unpainted. Leading a dewback. In case you felt like saying hello.”
Obi-Wan smiled. “Do you know,” he said. “I think we will.”
Din Djarin rounded a corner into the space where he had left Shand and Calican, and found Shand (dead on the floor, gut wound), no Calican, and two old guys and a kid. The oldest of the guys was wearing some kind of robe, and had an empty metal hilt attached to his belt; a slightly younger, stockier man, more heavily armed, had appropriated Shand’s rifle.
The kid, who was probably younger than Calican, was carrying an honest-to-fuck lightsaber.
Din Djarin considered shooting, and decided that the odds were not in his favour.
“Su cuy’gar, Mando’ad,” said the older man, in perfect Mando’a with a Sundari accent the likes of which Din hadn’t heard for decades. “Copaani gaan?”
“You kill her?” Din asked, ignoring the older man’s question. It might be kindly meant - an offer of help in his own tongue - but then again, it might be some kind of trap, especially since it was obvious that neither the kid nor the other man spoke Mando’a.
“No,” said the other man. A local, Tatooinian. “She was dead when we got here. We thought she might have been sent to disrupt the elections.”
Din looked down at Shand’s body. She’d died in pain. And quite surprised, too, from the look of her. “Nah. There was a claim code out on her. I was supposed to be bringing her in.”
“Any ideas who did kill her?”
“Must have been my… partner,” Din said. “I was working with another bounty hunter. Not a full Guild member yet. Maybe he decided to swindle me. Ran off with the proof.” The back of his neck was itching. He looked out over the ridge, and swept the skyline with his helmet. No sign of Calican, no sign of the speeder - but a trail heading for Mos Eisley.
It doesn’t mean anything, he told himself, feeling his heart race. It doesn’t mean he knows about the child. He came from Mos Eisley. Maybe he has his own ride here -
“Tion’aad hukaat’kama?” said the Mando’a speaker, quite gently. Who’s watching your back?
“Naasade,” Din snapped, tensing across his shoulders. Nobody. And I’m fine, old man, so -
“I used to get that look when I knew Luke’d gone racing in Beggar’s Canyon, I just hadn’t found the missing speeder yet,” observed the other older man, with resignation.
“Hey!” said the kid with the lightsaber. Luke. Wasn’t there some kind of famous Rebel guy called Luke?
Both the older men ignored him, and the one with the rifle sighed and hitched up his trousers. “Well, whatever you two are nattering about, Mando, take it from a parent - you won’t feel better until you find your kid. You heading back to Mos Eisley?”
“Yeah,” Din said gruffly.
“We’ll give you a lift.”
Peli Motto felt extremely exposed. She shut her eyes and licked her lips, and remembered Beru saying it’s all right, I won’t let him hurt you, and neither will Leia.
The personal protection of the Huttslayer had sounded a lot more reassuring before the bounty hunter guy had actually shown up and drawn a blaster on her. Even if she knew that both Beru and Leia were lying in wait, and she’d talked enough to Beru and seen enough of these podunk moisture farmers’ wives to know they shot better than their husbands and definitely better than this wet-behind-the-ears thug.
The child in her arms was snoozing happily, apparently totally unbothered by mortal fucking peril. He probably thought the Mando would show up and it would all be a-fucking-okay. Nice to be able to rely on your dad like that; Peli, personally, would not know.
“Walk towards the ship,” Toro Calican said gently. “Go on.”
He had a blaster at her back.
Peli squeezed her eyes tight shut. “I don’t wanna go anywhere. I mean, like, I don’t wanna go off-planet. I’m strictly a grounder girl.”
“All we’re going to do is wait for the Mando.” His blaster nudged against her spine.
Peli took one shaky step after another. In the silence of the hangar, she heard the blaster click, and sobbed involuntarily, her grip on the baby tightening.
“It’s okay,” said Toro Calican. “I’m not going to shoot you if you don’t make me.”
“You’re not going to shoot her at all,” said an ice-cold, Core-accented voice Peli had got very familiar with over the last eight hours, mostly because it swore like a Rebel dropper in the educated tones of a princess. “Drop your weapon.”
Toro Calican tried to fire instead, and Peli cried out and stumbled forward, falling to her knees. The baby woke and burbled at her, and she sobbed again, but choked it off when she realised she was not in pain and her stomach was not one giant gaping wound. The click must have been the blaster breaking, not the safety catch going off.
“I said,” repeated the voice, “drop your weapon.”
“Hey, I don’t know who you think you are,” Calican said, obviously scrambling for another blaster. Peli spun on her knees and staggered to her feet, just in time to see a figure step out of the shadows where there had been no figure before, and a purple bar of light shoot from a metal hilt in her hand, its blade hovering by Calican’s neck. He froze.
“My name is Leia Organa,” Leia said, coolly. “You are under arrest.”
“I’m afraid I can’t find any handcuffs, dear,” called Beru, emerging from the ship. “But the Mandalorian seems to have a carbon-freezing facility on board, which ought to do the trick.”
“Thanks, auntie,” said Leia.
“What the fuck?” yelled Calican.
“Shut up!” Peli said. Her knees were shaking so hard she collapsed onto a crate, and the baby squeaked because she was clutching him too tightly. The pit-droids clustered around her ankles. “Just shut up! You’ve upset the baby. And you’ve ruined my beauty sleep.”
The Mandalorian charged into the hangar like he fully expected to find it on fire. Instead he found Peli Motto and Beru having a nice cup of tea while Leia taught the child to lift small mechanical items, for lack of anything more delicate. He was having trouble with control, but then he was extremely small.
The Mandalorian came to a dead halt, and the baby bumbled upright and toddled to him. He picked the child up and checked him over frantically.
Obi-Wan, Luke, and Owen followed behind.
“I had a feeling things might get a little difficult,” Obi-Wan said serenely, “so I asked my wife and niece to take a look at the spaceport. Did you have a nice evening, sweetheart?”
“Lovely,” Beru said, rising to kiss both him and Owen. “Except for the bounty hunter. A very unpleasant young man. We took the liberty of using your carbon-freezing system, Mister -”
“Mando,” said the Mandalorian, who now had a small child attached to his helmet. “Mando’ll do.”
“Well, he took Peli here hostage, and tried to kidnap the baby, so I think we can assume criminal charges will be forthcoming,” Beru said cheerfully.
“I’m not sure that will help,” the Mandalorian said darkly. “I might just deal with him permanently.”
“That would be murder,” Owen said. The Mandalorian gave him a disbelieving look. “I’m not saying it isn’t an option. I’m just saying you have better ones.”
“The Imps want the kid,” the Mandalorian explained. “They keep sending people after me. They will keep on sending people after me. No-one’s safe. Calican can give them my last whereabouts, he knows I still have the child.”
“Lucky for you we know a thing or two about dealing with Imperials,” Leia said, rising to her feet. “Do you know why they want him?”
The Mandalorian shook his head. “They ran… experiments. Some kind of experiments. I didn’t ask. I just shot and left. I’m guessing they didn’t get what they wanted.” He cradled the baby protectively. “They would have taken him dead or alive. I didn’t give them the choice.”
Owen grunted his approval.
“He’s Force-sensitive,” Luke said. “And wow, he looks a lot like old Master Yoda.”
The baby waved at Luke over the Mandalorian’s shoulder. Luke waved back.
“He’s a cutie,” Luke announced. “Unlike Master Yoda.”
“He’s mine,” said the Mandalorian.
“We all,” Obi-Wan said definitively, “know better than to get between a father and his children.”
Beru gave him an unimpressed look; Owen gave him a narrow one. The siblings ignored them with the ease of long practice, but the Mandalorian and Motto watched them in confusion.
“We also know a thing or two about raising a Force-sensitive baby when you yourself are not.” Beru walked right up to the Mandalorian, who tensed, but the baby giggled and reached out a starfish hand to pat her hair. She smiled, and held up her own hand to let him touch her fingers. “We can help you.”
There was a long silence.
“Okay,” said the Mandalorian.
Cody made a point of being there to see the Tatooinian delegation disembark, back on Naboo. He counted off Leia, Luke, Obi-Wan, and Owen, the three men with voting ink stains on their fingers, and tensely wondered where the hell Beru had got to.
Beru strolled down the gangway talking to a Mandalorian in full, but unmarked, beskar, carrying a very tiny carbon copy of Master Yoda in his arms.
Cody’s jaw dropped. He shut his mouth with difficulty, rubbed his eyes, and stared. His jaw dropped again.
“What the everlasting fuck?” he said.