He stepped barefooted on cold durasteel floors. The vibrations he felt indicated that he was off planet, in an unknown ship. A ship apparently large enough to have its own medical bay. Ori held his left side and got up from his bed, trying but failing to ignore the stinging from his scars and bruises. There was a bacta-patch around his chest. His body and face had marks of the fight despite the full suit of armor. He needed to find anyone on board so that he could return to Keldabe as soon as possible. He had lost track of time.
His armor was piled neatly next to his bed, cleaned up but still badly damaged from the beating. He found a few dents in his helmet, cuts and bends in the arm and thigh platings. His chestplate looked the worst with even a hole on the back section.
Ori walked slowly out of the medibay and lost himself in the narrow halls of a vessel he didn't know. It was definitely a cargo ship. He followed the sound of voices and found himself in a central lounge area. A man in his fifties, dark greying hair, golden armor, looked at him with a welcoming smile and the other people were easily recognizable. Runa Zanim, the enigmatic brunette in white and purple, she was wearing black plain clothes now. Her husband Bardan Jusik sat beside her on a couch. He got up as soon as he saw that Ori showed up.
“Put this on.” He handed him a large cloak-like tunic and helped him dress up. “We couldn't risk treating you on the ground,” he continued, answering Ori's worries. “Mij owns this ship.”
The man in gold, Mij Gilamar, was a doctor, field surgeon, medicine man. The Skirata clan had used his services for as long as Ori had known since the first time he got enrolled in their cause.
“Thank you,” he said, and winced. His throat was hoarse and it made him cough.
They all moved to have him sit comfortably among them.
“You should be in a more horizontal stance,” said Gilamar, “luckily for you there's enough Force power around to have you at one hundred percent in no time.”
Bardan, standing with his arms folded over his green armor, had a look of concern on his face. He was no more than ten years older than him, but Ori didn't like gazing him in the eye.
“Tenja told us what happened. She also told us it's not the first time you got yourself in trouble in Enceri. What are you thinking? Playing the martyr isn't going to help anyone.”
Ori gulped down some water from a mug.
"As long as I keep reporting to base it won't be of any consequence for us."
The man clenched his jaw in withheld disapproval.
"We're taking you back to Keldabe," suddenly said Mij. "But please don't make us take detours like this again. We have families."
Obviously they did, but the specificity of Gilamar and Jusik's families put them in a more delicate situation than most of Mandalorians. They had both adopted Force-sensitive children, or worse: Padawans. And Jusik himself was a former Jedi with a price on his head.
"Your armor's a little battered," said Jusik, "You might want to think of a fairytale to tell your superiors. If you wish to do so."
Everyone understood that the Empire wouldn't threaten the status quo on Mandalore for just one beating on a mere Stormtrooper. The beskar exploitation deals were too important to throw off the table for such futilities. Nevertheless, Ori had plenty of excuses up his sleeve to justify his long absences.
"I'll get creative if they ask," he simply replied.
It was time for Ori to take his leave and be on the move. They didn't hold him back and as he left, he realized that the robe he wore was a Jedi's cloak. There were holes burned through the large sleeves. Their voices rose up again as he went back to the medical bay to retrieve his things, revert to his old Stormtrooper self and only speak when spoken to. He was grateful that they had saved him, obviously, but he was out of touch with Imperial Command. They would fail to reach him, deploy a search party, and repercussions would ensue.
Wearing his black body glove he sat on the bed, the data chip from Enceri twiddling between his fingers. He grabbed a medical diagnostics datapad and, as instructed by one of the other Null ARC clones Jaing, accessed its root system to read the chip. Untranslated lines of codes filled the screen.
He looked up and Runa was standing at the door frame. Nodding to let her in he flicked the power switch off the pad. Years ago he had chased after her. He had gone through great lengths to win her attention. In a way she was the reason why he was in this mess, but now that he got her close to him she would only ever be just a friend and he had stopped hoping for that to evolve.
"We don't blame you for what happened back there," she said bitterly. "If anything we're in your debt, because obviously this isn't what you had signed up for. It's just so much work to hash through, until we can say: Okay, all is well and we're done with this crap."
"But it never really ends, does it?"
She shook her head.
"If it was up to me I'd have you wearing a T-visor and fake your death in one of those staged ruins."
A flash of an image suddenly came to him: the sea of painted armor with the Mandalorian masks looking at him.
"You don't want me to help you, then?" he asked her. "You forget that I'm still free to choose who I take orders from. If getting beaten down to a pulp allows me to sleep at night, then I'm happily declining a possible transfer to Coruscant."
Runa raised her eyebrows and seemed to think it over.
"What would you have to do to get that transfer?"
Ori meshed his gloved fingers over his lap.
"Hand everyone over to Demako. All it takes is a comm signal from me and I'm out of here."
"Okay, I already knew that. I just didn't think you'd want to go to Coruscant."
He really didn't. Mandalore was his home now; he knew every inch of Keldabe, every road to all the towns and villages. He would never have to patrol through dense crowds, nobody would go through his pockets, no one would ask him directions to anywhere, and even the kids were well-behaved. Coruscant, on the other hand, would be the death of him.
"This is my planet, too." He knew he was being a little pushy. "Even if it's difficult I know I'm doing the right thing."
She took a caring expression that turned into an awkward mix of pain and misunderstanding. She came over to hug him gently, minding his wounds.
"For what it's worth, I consider you family," she said, her voice cracking. "We'll always have your back."
Like him she was fairly new to the Mandalorian culture, but she was soft and warm unlike all other young mando'ade who took pride in their strength and resilience. She could tear down his defenses and shatter his will if he'd let her.
Once she was gone he finished putting on his armor, resuming back to his usual, detached state of mind. Sure, it hurt to feel alone. But at the end of the day his sense of purpose kept him going. He focused on the slight pain coming from his chest now and then. It was real, it kept him in the here-and-now instead of wallowing in self-pity.
He retrieved the datapad and switched it on. The stick was still being read and was now properly decoded for him to read: WRONG OUTPUT DEVICE. INSERT IN CORRECT DATA READER. Ori sighed in his helmet. It was going to be a long day.
The Imperial base was at its lowest in terms of activity at this hour of the morning when he stood at attention in front of his superior in chief. Governor Demako arrived, his perfectly pressed uniform falling straight over his slim chest, face pinched in a scornful expression as he laid eyes on Ori's armor.
"At ease, Captain."
"Care to explain to me what you were doing all night?"
"Sir, I'd rather not."
It was time to cut the bullshit, Ori believed. They would just assume that it was collateral damage from wandering too close to the enemy lines which was partly true, anyway.
"You may not consider your work to be gratifying, Captain," insidiously continued Demako, "but you might want to hear my proposition."
They walked together within the complex of elevators and dark hallways.
"With all due respect, sir, I have everything I need right now."
"Apparently, you don't." Demako eyed him up and down.
They finally got into the Governor's office. A large room in the underground. He opened up a closet, revealing a set of Stormtrooper armor. It looked similar to his own, plain, glossy white plating, this time without a dent in it. If it was in the governor's office instead of the barracks it surely had something more to it. Demako picked up the helmet and handed it to him. Ori's heart skipped a beat: he couldn't get his helmet off, not in such close quarters with his superior. He'd notice the extra wiring, the layer over the lens that supported his secondary HUD. He took the new helmet anyway and inspected it.
"It's heavy," he noted.
"Well? Try it on!"
He cautiously flipped the bucket over and lifted part of the black rubber seal around the edges. The inside plating was of a silver color. Trained eyes would recognize that it wasn't just durasteel.
"Sir. How many of these have we got?" he asked.
"This is our first prototype," Demako answered in an impatient tone. "I was expecting a little more appreciation from you, Captain."
"This is beskar." Ori stared at the face of the helmet. Only Mandalorian warriors who had passed the trials were deemed worth of wearing armor made from Mandalorian metal. "Who made this?"
"We did, of course. Were you thinking that some local would beat it against an anvil and get this good a result?"
Ori took a deep breath and walked towards the rest of the suit, feeling the weight of each piece as he lifted the sleeve of the body glove that kept it together. This is was the product of Death Watch collaborations, and the reason why Mandalorians needed a way to end it. Lots of them were being enrolled to work in beskar mines already.
He was allowed to return to his quarters to equip and adjust his new gear before heading out again for an assignment. Once a week Ori would lead routine inspections of the town with a team of trainees. He used the little downtime to check the bacta padding around his chest, making sure it was going to hold for another eight hours. After he used the refreshers, ate from canned rations and slept for twenty minutes Ori left his ten square meter room wearing a full set of laser-proof armor.