It’s All About That Base

The new kitchen is settling in nicely. I’m starting to appreciate the nuances of my new oven, still marvelling over the fact that I can fit my roasting tin in sideways and generally finding that being in the kitchen makes me even happier than I was before I replaced units that were basically older than Methuselah. So when this month’s box arrived, I was well prepared for the fun and challenges ahead. Little did I anticipate the tragedy at the end of it all… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Note: Pecans, not Toucans. Toucans are birds. These are not birds.

I am a great fan of pecan pie, I freely admit it. It took all my self-control not to eat the pecans straight out of the bag before I even started baking. But I managed to remain focused and began the first all-important job of creating brown butter for the base.

I feel we need an aside here. How did someone discover that by staring at a pan of melted butter for a specific amount of time produced something that is almost but entirely not unlike the starting product, only COMPLETELY DIFFERENT at the same time? Was it a happy accident? That’s got to be it, hasn’t it? A chef, at some point in the past left the butter on the stove for too long while he popped out back for a crafty smoke or something, then said ‘uh, this is a new creation, I shall call it Brown Butter, for lo! It is brown and verily, t’is also butter…” and thus it came to be.

I digress. It happens.

This is butter. It is extremely boring to watch and in no way offers any form of entertainment.
This, however, is its demonic counterpart, brown butter which is bizarrely exciting. I kept shouting OH MY GOD LOOK, BROWN BITS until my husband quietly shut the door.

Butter excitement level sixteen duly reached, I moved on to adding the other ingredients, mixed it all up, chucked in into the tin and stared through the door of my eve-level oven for a while. I was harbouring a deep, deep suspicion that what would emerge, forty minutes or so from that point would be either:-

a) Horrendously wrong; or
b) Outstanding.

I am proud to announce it was the latter and this picture is so glorious, its content so screen-lickingly delicious that it is worthy of presentation without comment. Imagine some soothing background music is playing while you look at it.

Words would render this worthless.

Onward then, to the joy of the topping! Melting more butter (fortunately not to heart-racing levels of excitement this time), then adding the sugar mixture from the bag to produce what can only be best described as sugar napalm. The ‘roughly chopped’ pecans were added to this (sidebar: ‘roughly chopped’ in this instance involved my setting about the innocent nuts with a rolling pin whilst still in their bag. Eh. It worked). Entire mixture was set aside to cool a little and looked very much like Squirrel Nutkin had been out the night before on the booze with Peter Rabbit (don’t judge them, Mrs Tiggywinkle is known to be far worse) and his stomach had rebelled. But it smelled phenomenal.

Squirrel Nutkin needs the Resolve, STAT.

So I moved onto the final part. Spread the topping over the base, then melt the white chocolate in the microwave, put it into the piping bag and then drizzle onto the finished bake.

So simple, right?

I’m going to break that sentence down a little and analyse it so that I can share with you what I shall call ‘Topping: A Tragedy In Three Acts’.

Act One: Edges Are For Losers

In this act, there was comedy as I realised there was not quite enough of the pecan napalm to cover the entirety of the base, but you know what? It didn’t matter. It was enough. So despite a few naked bits on my bake, I girded my loins and moved onto part two.

Act Two: Death and Loss

‘Put the white chocolate into the microwave in ten second bursts, stirring between each burst until melted’. Ten seconds. Stir. Twenty seconds. Stir… ooh, it’s melting. Twenty two seconds… uh, pretty sure that the microwave shouldn’t make fizzing noises and melted chocolate rarely smells like burning electrics in my experience, hello power switch…

Yes, the microwave had run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. The only remaining item from the Kitchen of the Before Times had decided to go toes up during this final, critical phase, leaving me with a half-melted bowl of chocolate chips. I improvised using some water boiled in the kettle and sitting my small bowl in a larger bowl like some kind of weird baking Russian Doll thing, but it wasn’t good enough.

Act Three: Self-Flagellation (or ‘I Don’t Do Piping Well’)

So there I was. Half-melted chocolate, frantically being scooped into a piping bag. It wasn’t melted enough and my attempt at ‘in a circular motion, drizzle over the base’ became a desperate race against time before the dratted stuff solidified again. Thus, we ended with more of a Pollock than a da Vinci, but hey. This blog was always going to be warts and all, so here’s the horror of what happened.

Quiet in the cheap seats.

Regardless of the nightmares, the end product was nothing short of utterly delicious. I meant to take a photo of a singular piece to share with you, but I mostly ate it first. But here you are anyway. This bake may well have surpassed the Brookies for me. I can’t emphasise enough how delicious the base is. Would I make it again? Yes. Absolutely. So until the next bake… enjoy!

OMNOMNOM

Buttery Biscuit Base!

In Which Some Things Go Well. Others… less so.

So… here we are again, this time looking at one of my Baked In cake options. This wasn’t the mystery monthly box for October (I’m scared of that one), but a re-make of a previous box which I enjoyed so much the first time, I did it again. Welcome to the grand Brookie bake.

As ever, there’s always a ridiculous thrill on opening the box and seeing your ingredients so nicely packaged and laid out. One of the things I genuinely love about these boxes is the extreme lack of waste (both in terms of ingredients and in the eating of what’s left).

Things! Stuff! Stuff! Things!

So off we go. This is a lovely bake: a soft, chewy brownie on a chocolate chip cookie base and I remember it as being delightfully easy to make (and unfortunately easy to eat as well – they’re bordering on the obscene). Straight into weighing the butter for the Buttery Biscuit Base. 110g, says the recipe card. Well, would you believe it? This is a good sign, right?

It photographed appallingly, because FML, but it’s exactly 110g on just two guesses.

Add sugar. Cream sugar/butter together. Pause for thought and wonder which genius it was who discovered that these two unlikely ingredients, smashed together, produced what is indubitably the single most delicious by-product of baking. Don’t pretend you’ve never tried the sugar/butter mix, I know you’re fibbing. Egg, added. Flour, added. Chocolate chips added. We’re on a roll, guys. Everything is going 100% according to plan. Splat mixture into tin and use my shiny, brand-new offset spatula to spread into the tin before putting it into the fridge to chill while I make the brownie.

Whole process interrupted by my contemplating of the fact that an offset spatula is, without a doubt, the thing that I’ve been missing all my baking life. I’ve frequently wondered why people wax lyrical about the virtues of this handy little utensil and now I know why.

BUTTERY BISCUIT BASE BEAUTIFULLY BREAD… Uh.. spread.

Then comes the joy of making the brownie mix and I just don’t even care. Some of this fell out of the bowl into my mouth before it ended up on the chilled biscuit base. It was a terrible catastrophe and there’s so much regret. So much.*

*this may be a small lie.

No caption required.

Then, into the oven with it for between 35-55 minutes (turned out that 42 was perfect in my oven) and remove to sit for a while in the tin before stripping it of its papery coat and leaving it to cool fully on the side. We (Himself and me) stood in the kitchen and admired it for a while. “Are they ready?” The hopeful question was dismissed with the stern announcement that no, there was still white chocolate drizzle to be done and he moped sadly out of the kitchen, a man robbed of his chocolately joy.

This is the point at which things didn’t QUITE go to plan. This is nobody’s fault but mine. Don’t blame it on the Baked In, don’t blame it on the chocolate, don’t blame it on impatience, blame it on the boogie. Actually, impatience. Blame it on that, because I couldn’t be bothered to let the white chocolate melt properly. Thus, exit drizzle stage right, pursued by bear and enter the world of the white chocolate splat.

The moons of Jupiter were in my eyes.

Fear not, with assistance from my now indispensable sidekick, the Offset Spatula Kid, I managed to get something passably presentable – and I mean, just look at it in its completed glory. Note: chef’s privilege is the right to claim the first corner piece as your very, very own.

I mean…

The Brookie bake is really a very simple one – and the results it yields are nothing short of utterly delicious. I’m glad I decided to go for it again, but I fear my waistline may want to have words with my willingness to make them again!

Tune in next time when I may attempt the terror that is the Toffee Apple Drip Cake…

We’re Running Out of Thyme, Marty!

Well, we aren’t actually, but it was too good a title pun to *not* use. Deal with it.

So I decided my new kitchen has been in-situ long enough for me to make one of my Baked In boxes, but I didn’t have fresh ingredients for any of the cakes. So I went for the bread that’s been waiting for me – Olive and Thyme Loaf. As always, the first joy comes from opening the box. These little blue boxes of utter joy are what you get by joining the Baked In Bread Baking Club. Lookit! Look at those lovely neat little bags of STUFF. And… and… THINGS! You may be asking yourself ‘but where is Bag 5, Sarah?’ I asked myself that very thing. Bag 5 had become stuck to a leaflet in the box and I’d hidden it. But it didn’t get far, the sticky little customer and rejoined its companions in packaging heaven. Want a monthly box of your own like this? Check it out RIGHT HERE (RIGHT NOW).

Hey, Bag 6, what the devil are YOU? Just killing thyme. Also, you’re nothing compared to the suspicious thing that is bag 5.

There’s something wickedly enjoyable about looking at all these little beautifully numbered packets, so off we go! Bag 1 and 2 – bread flour. Dump into bowl. Add bag 3 – sugar and salt, bag 4 – yeast. So far so bread. Then we add bag 5. Let’s consider bag 5 for just a moment, shall we? Bag 5 is a substitute. It’s dried black olive granules instead of dried green olive granules (the horror). Or… IS IT?

Bag 5 is looking suspiciously like something that might get me written up at the roadside if I was caught with it.

Open bag 5. Sniff curiously. It’s olives. Pitch into bowl, add bag 6 (dried thyme) and stir about gleefully to combine. Add a tablespoon of oil. Tablespoon. Tablespoon? Oh yeah. New kitchen, thrown all old measuring things away, waiting for new ones to arrive in pack of Giant Kitchen Tat that’s on its way. Measure 15ml of oil. Added water, combined until I had a dough. A tacky dough, says the instructions, but who am I to question this dough’s lifestyle choices? Anyway, even with all the water combined, my dough isn’t particularly tacky, not so much. So in a moment that probably caused Paul Hollywood to suck in air over his teeth and shake his head disapprovingly, I went for it anyway. Eh. It’s combined. It’ll be FINE.

Tip dough out onto clean, floured surface.

I consider my newly installed kitchen worktops and for just a moment, am delighted that I have the house to myself for this venture. The Husband might well have a cardiac arrest at the thought of what I am about to do to these shiny new sufaces.

I am not even exaggerating: these worktops aren’t even a week old at this point. But in true Baked In Crusader style, I GO FOR IT!

OH MY GOD MY NEW WORKTOPS OH MY GOD

I knead. I knead. I KNEAD. Lawks, and probably a-mercy, this dough is a tough customer. It’s like trying to knead a steel bar. But eventually I find some give and end up with a silky smooth, entirely non-tacky ball of dough which I sit in its clean, oiled bowl to prove for the requisite time of 60-90 minutes. I give it 90 minutes because I can. It sits there in the kitchen, quietly covered with its tea towel. I resist peeking. Will it rise? Will it at least double in size? Enjoy the power of the written word, dear reader, because I can take you to exactly 90 minutes later without missing a beat.

Arrr, Cap’n, thar she blows!

Dough is punched a couple of times (question: does anybody else visualise the face of someone they don’t like when they knock back proved dough? Or is that just me?) and shaped into a ball of olivey-thymey doughy goodness to sit for another 25 minutes until I make my attempt to make it look just like the pre-oven image in the instructions. Now, I may be bragging just a little bit here, but look at this. THIS is picture perfect. Now, though, it gets to go in the oven for 40-45 minutes. The new oven. That I am still getting used to. But look at this pre-oven comparison shot. Look at it several times, because 40-45 minutes is a while. Back shortly.

Which is the image, which is the real thing? One thing is for sure, one of those two will taste better after being baked than the other.

And so the alarm sounds. Let’s approach the oven with extreme caution and see what we see, shall we? How has my new oven taken to its bready christening? Well, judge for yourself:-

CHECK IT AAAAAAAAAART.

WELL.

It’s the first thing to come out of my new oven that didn’t start life out as the pizza the Husband brought home on Sunday. The first thing I have baked for myself. And when it’s cooled, I will no doubt enjoy eating it! Like all the bread kits to date, this one was super-easy to make, the instructions were crystal clear and I will also add that the loaf is cooling on one of the new stackable wire racks I got from Baked In with my well-earned Brownie Points.

Tune in next time for Probably Cake and Likely Less Success!

Resurrection

Well, I’ve been very quiet over here for a very long time. So I figured the time was ripe to stir the dregs at the bottom of the blogging pot and produce a delicious word stew. Or maybe a small, faintly tasteless snack.

I could wax lyrical for ages about the state of the world over the past eighteen months, but I’m pretty comfortable that topic has been done to absolute death and you do not need me to start blathering on about the pandemic, or the associated awfulness that has gone hand-in-hand with it. As you may (or may not, I’m not the boss of you) remember, I work for the NHS and am acutely aware of the impact the whole thing has had on the system and the people who work within it. Suffice to say, tough times for all and we aren’t out of it yet.

I am avoiding discussing it because the whole thing leans too closely into politics, conspiracy theorists and that collective group of utter crazies we call the ‘British Public’ – three topics that send me off into a state of ranting, so let’s avoid that and keep the blood pressure down, shall we?

Let’s start with what’s changed over the last couple of years.

The Son finished university, somehow completing his final year in the middle of the pandemic and emerging, blinking into the sunlight with a 2:1 Bachelor of Engineering degree in Biomedical Engineering. To say I was proud is the ultimate understatement. That he got such a good result under some pretty weird and unexpected conditions is nothing short of spectacular. It also means he has decided not to move back home and so my nest has remained empty since the day I drove him down to Uni in 2018. I’ve gotten used to it more now so it’s easier. I still miss him every day and his former bedroom has become a waste ground of ‘things we need to put in the loft but haven’t got that far’ yet.

Work remains work. Nothing has changed for me on that front, although I am more confident with the more complex parts of my role.

The Husband goes from strength to strength in his post-retail working life. Within a year of him starting what was basically a call centre job, he was identified as Someone Who Knows Their Stuff and has climbed the corporate ladder with an alacrity that is nothing short of startling. It also allows me to say ‘I told you so’ when he reflects on how glad he is to have left retail.

There have been films. We have even been to the cinema a few times once restrictions were lifted enough to allow us to do this. There have been TV shows. There have been computer games. Overwatch still makes me furious, Apex still makes me laugh… to a certain extent, because I live my life as a hermit, things don’t feel *massively* different to how they did before we weren’t allowed to go anywhere. The difference, I guess, is that in the Before Times, I could CHOOSE not to go anywhere. Now I feel annoyed that those decisions are taken from me.

What I have done a lot more of since lockdown, along with just about everyone else, has been baking. I subscribed to the Baked In baking club and it’s been one of the best decisions I ever made. There’s something inherently joyful about that letterbox-sized parcel hitting my doormat once a month without knowing what exciting contents it is going to contain. The quality of the ingredients is first rate, the recipes are nothing short of endlessly delicious and the community is an utter joy. If you’re so inclined, I suggest checking it out here! Tell them I sent you. That link sort of does that anyway. But you know what I mean.

Combined with the fact that I have just had my kitchen ripped out and replaced (a mammoth task that has given enormous stress, but resulted in what is frankly, a room I now love to be in instead of the small corridor through which I hurried to the bathroom), I am thinking of resurrecting my blog to do more stuff about Baked In. I think it’d be fun to do blow-by-blow accounts of my occasionally ridiculous Adventures in Baking. I have a backlog of delicious treats to engage in at the moment:-

  • Jaffa Orange Cake
  • Chocolate Brookies (brownies with a cookie base – have done these before and they are amazing).
  • Mocha Swiss Roll (another one I’ve done previously and ordered again because… coffee. Chocolate. What’s not to like?)
  • Toffee Apple Drip Cake (see picture below. This one has caused chaos in the Baked In Community. When is too soon to take your toffee off the heat? When should you pour it on the cake for Optimal Drip? I mean, I’m that impatient that I fear I would end up with a lava-like puddle on a plate).
  • Olive and Thyme Bread
Heads-up. My cake will *NOT* look like this. There will be a lot more drip and a lot less cake is my prediction.

That’s a lot of cake.

Is it too much cake?

Is there such a *thing* as too much cake?

Discuss.

Dragon of the South Wind

“Saké!”

The call came from the corner table. It was the most private table in the bar, thoughtfully set back from the rest of the tables and offering a reasonable air of privacy. It was the kind of table where Deals, capital ‘D’ were clinched. It was the kind of table where dark plans were hatched, where arguments were born – and sometimes died. By design, it was set in deep shadow and only the glittering eyes of its occupant could be seen. The air of deep brooding emanating from the table was palpable.

It was as though, the barkeep mused, a permanent cloud hung just above the head of its occupier. If that cloud of bitterness and rage had been capable of raining on the man below, or of creating its own thunderstorm, the barkeep posited that it might well have done so.

The barkeep hesitated for a moment or two before reaching for a freshly warmed bottle of sake. He set it on a tray with a new cup and the waitress took it without a word, delivering it to the man in the corner.

There was a grunt of thanks, the clink of coins hitting the table and the guest crawled into the new bottle. The waitress leaned closer and murmured something inaudible. The man glanced up sharply, then shook his head and reached out to touch the back of her hand with his own. It was a gentle gesture; a show of gratitude. The silent tableau spoke volumes.

The customer, the barkeep observed, had been drinking steadily since his arrival barely an hour previously and by now must be quite inebriated, or must have the constitution of an ox.

Or a dragon.

Discomfited, the barkeep shook the words out of his head. He had recognised the man on arrival: even despite the poorly thought-out hood that had been drawn up to cover his face – poorly at that – had failed to hide the familiar features of a Shimada. The glance had been too brief to be totally sure, but the eyes, the brow… he knew them.

Word from those in the know, those from the family’s inner circle, had been conflicting. One brother was dead, both brothers were dead, one had chosen exile, one had been expelled by a raging father, nobody knew the truth.

The man in the corner knew the truth. Perhaps with more saké in him, he might be prepared to reveal what that was. The truth was important currency in Hanamura, and Sojiro Shimada might well be prepared to pay handsomely for the word. The inn might be small fry in the vast ocean of the Shimada holdings, on the edges geographically, but its owner was nonetheless loyal to his masters.

Another hour passed and the saké bottle was upended many more times. The barkeep went about his business, which admittedly was not very much. The little bar did not see much in the way of footfall, but was a useful and out of the way place where meetings happened, occasionally violently and sometimes fatally. It was good enough – and that, in and of itself, was good enough. The barkeep tended his bar, cleared away the debris left in the wake of the Shimada clan and looked forward to a day when he could live a quiet life.

The door opened, briefly letting in a gust of the sweet spring air. It was heady with the scent of the cherry blossoms and the barkeep glanced over at the corner, hearing the deep inhalation of a man taking simple pleasure in the aroma. It was worth it: the clean scented air was welcome and pleasant. The barkeep noted that shadows were lengthening and the day was drawing to a close.

He also noted other new details. The newcomer was dressed in a sharply tailored dark suit that did little to hide his bulk and musculature. Everything about him screamed ‘henchman’. His parents may have even christened him Henchman. He was that sort. The barkeep further noted that the line of the suit was definitely ruined by the bulky outline of the sidearm strapped to its shoulder holster beneath the jacket.

The new arrival was carrying a long bag, free of design or logo and from behind dark glasses, he looked around the bar. His eyes fixed on the figure in the corner and then turned to the barkeep.

“Close up,” he said and there was threat in the two syllables. “No more customers. Then find work in the cellar or out the back. Understand?”

The barkeep understood and although disappointment crept through him that he would not be able to listen in on the exchange, he was also rather fond of being alive. He produced another bottle of saké along with a spare cup and reluctantly set about the business of closing the bar. He ushered the waitress out the door early, he collected empty glasses and he bustled for as long as he could manage. The entire time, he felt the henchman’s hidden eyes on him.

“Done?” The henchman took up the offered bottle and cup. “Good. Now go.”

The man in the corner had not so much as looked up during this exchange but now he did, Seeing the barkeep leave, he pushed back his hood and stared up at the henchman from eyes that known no sleep for days. They were red-rimmed from grief and alcohol and several days of stubble graced the previously clean-shaven face. The young man’s hair, once his great vanity, hung limply in greasy strands that had been nowhere near a shower.

The henchman looked him over and shook his head. He set down the new bottle and squeezed into the seat opposite. “You look like death looks when it’s feeling particularly bad,” he observed artlessly. “Everyone’s looking for you, but frankly, I reckon they’d be disappointed if they found you.”

He sighed.

“You found me.” Despite how much he’d drunk, the man sounded remarkably sober.

“Yes, but then I knew where you’d be.” The man gestured at the empty sake bottles on the table. “At the bottom of a bottle.”

“Well done. Pour another.”

There was a long pause, then the henchman sighed again. “Fine,” he grumbled and upended the bottle into the other’s cup. He pushed it across the table and poured one for himself.

There was another long pause and then the henchman leaned forward on the table. Despite his resolve, the young man shrank back. It was a tiny movement, barely perceptible, but it was there. The henchman shook his head and started a quick-fire conversation, the kind he had shared with the other man all his life.

“We’ve been friends since we were children, Hanzo.”

“That was before.”

“You have nothing to fear from me.”

“That was before.”

Eyes locked, a silent war ensued. Hanzo, exhausted, grief-stricken and bereft of reason, was the first to look away. He’d never been the first to look away.

That was before.

The henchman, whose name as it so happened was Hayato and who had, indeed, been Hanzo’s friend since childhood clenched his jaw.

“I am not here to kill you, Hanzo.”

“Has my father put a contract out on my head yet?”

“It’s not formal, no. Not yet. It’s still too soon. However, I cannot lie. The reward is quite healthy. A man could have a comfortable retirement on a reward like that.” Their eyes met again. “Very healthy indeed. A man with a price like that on his head would do well to get extremely far away from Hanamura.” He pushed a sealed packet across the table and lifted the bag. “A man with a price like that on his head would need money to get out of the country and the means to defend himself against those who might seek to claim that reward.”

Hanzo stared at Hayato in silence for a few moments and then unzipped the bag. His hands closed around the familiar grip of the bow, neatly packed inside, its limbs not attached, its string carefully set in its own pouch waiting to be strung. He took out the riser for moment or two and hefted its weight, then he looked at his childhood friend.

“Why would you do this for me?”

“I told you, Hanzo. You are my friend. I have two sisters. You are the closest thing I ever had to a brother.”

It was the wrong choice of words. Hanzo’s face, momentarily showing vulnerability hardened again.

“And you have seen what becomes of my brothers, Hayato. You would be wise not to allow yourself to remain close to me.”

“I have no intention to remain close to you, Hanzo. Indeed, I plan to report that I checked this far afield and found nothing. In a moment, I am going to leave this bar and you are going to finish that drink and you are going to head west.”

“Is this money yours?”

“Yes.”

Hanzo shook his head and pushed the envelope back across the table. “I cannot accept this. I will take the bow and you have my thanks. But I will not be a thief as well as a murderer.”

“Consider it payback for the times you helped me out.” The two men hesitated, both hands on the package and they met one another’s gaze. “If it helps, consider it a bribe for you to leave. Vanish. Let the Shimada clan continue their work and allow you to fade into obscure memory. It is easier this way, my friend.”

Hanzo, born and bred to carry himself with the grace and dignity appropriate to a scion of the Shimada clan, seemed to deflate. He buried his head briefly in his hands and Hayato coughed loudly and perhaps a little over-theatrically to cover the stifled sob that came from his friend and former employer. The uncomfortable moment passed and Hanzo finally nodded.

“Very well,” he said, “but I will find a way to pay you back.”

“That is a simple thing. Live, Hanzo. I have no wish to see both of my friends dead. I do this for our friendship and I do this because it is what Genji would want.”

“I have not spoken his name since…”

“You will speak his name again. When you feel ready to.”

Hayato drained his cup and stood. “I must go,” he said. “And so must you.”

Hanzo stood and in a moment of rarely demonstrated emotion, clasped his friend’s forearm in a warrior’s grip of friendship

“Yes,” Hanzo said. “I must go.” He gathered up the envelope and dropped it into the bag with the bow. He shouldered the bag and without further hesitation moved across the bar. His hand paused on the door and he glanced over at Hayato one last time.

“Thank you,” he said. “The strength of the dragons go with you.” Then he pulled up his hood and slid out into the gloaming.

“And you, Hanzo Shimada,” murmured Hayato and rose to his feet. He put his dark glasses back on and turned, very slowly, to face the barkeep whose sudden movement from behind the bar had caught his attention.

“That was Hanzo Shimada!” A statement, not a question.

“Yes,” replied Hayato. “Yes, it was.” He reached into his jacket, a motion missed by the excited, nosey barkeep whose thirst for gossip had brought him to this, his very last afternoon on Earth. If Hanzo was to stand a chance of getting clear of his father’s extensive reach, then nobody must know where he had gone.

When the issue of the barkeep had been dealt with, Hayato paused.

Nobody must know where he had gone.

Nobody.

The gun fired for a second time and outside the inn, the cherry blossoms eddied on the winds, pulled ever onward in the wake of the dragon of the south winds.

Light and Shadow

The meeting was long and the meeting was arduous… and the meeting was, quite simply, boring. His father and those with whom he had been speaking had hardly taken in his attendance, although he had puffed a little with carefully controlled pride when his father had introduced him as ‘my eldest son and the man you will be dealing with in years to come’.

It had pleased Hanzo for two reasons. Firstly, the thought of running the Shimada Empire and having its far-reaching resources at his fingertips was pleasing. After all, had he not been groomed for such a future from the day he had been born?

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was the first time Hanzo could recall his father referring to him as a man. There was a simple pleasure to be had in that. Finally, he was recognised as a peer instead of being overlooked as a child.

“What do you think, Hanzo?”

So caught up was he in the moment of revelling in this, uncharacteristically having allowed his mind to wander, that it took a second or two to realise that the entire room was staring at him, patiently waiting for a response to a question he had entirely failed to hear being asked.

His father’s sloe-dark eyes narrowed at his son as Hanzo glanced from face to face. Panic threatened to surge, but he quashed it and without seemingly missing a beat. Getting this correct was important and he had long endured his father’s disappointment when he’d stepped wrong.

“A most excellent question,” he said and confidence dripped from every syllable. “And one which is certainly worthy of further consideration.” A subtle, sideways glance at his father whose head inclined in the tiniest of movements, and he continued, fiddling with his gold cuff-links in what he hoped seemed a confident and nonchalant manner. “In principle, certainly, I agree, but you respect that I must converse with my father before I am able to give a final opinion.”

I wonder, he mused silently, what exactly it was that I just agreed with?

The tension leached from the moment and the visitors nodded their approval at his tone. Hanzo shifted his glance again to his father and thought that for just a fraction of a second, the old man’s lips quirked upwards in a smile.

Such a thing, though, was a rare occurrence and had more likely been a trick of the light. Hanzo’s gaze turned briefly to the window and the darkening skies. There would be rain later and the rich, loamy smell of petrichor would be a welcome relief from the gruelling heat of summer. Aware that he was allowing his thoughts to wander again, he reluctantly dragged his mind back from the weather forecast and to the matter at hand.

Another hour of small talk ensued and this time, Hanzo paid closer attention. He learned much about the etiquette: how a simple conversation around planned vacations could be code for many underhanded dealings. He learned to respond without committing himself or the Shimada resources. He tuned himself fully into the negotiations and after a while, his father lapsed into comfortable silence and allowed his eldest boy to lead.

Afterwards, he grunted his approval in three words that brightened Hanzo’s day.

“You did well.”

Any elation Hanzo felt at that statement was crushed by the follow-up question.

“But where was your brother?”

Hanzo had looked in on his eighteen-year old brother first thing that morning to remind him that the meeting was taking place and the misshapen hump beneath the bed covers had grunted acknowledgement. But he had not shown. Torn between loyalty to his father and brother, Hanzo settled for the lie.

“He was feeling unwell this morning. I said he should rest. My apologies, Father. I should have explained before the meeting began. The fault is mine and…” Sojiro’s eyes narrowed as he studied his eldest son.

“What ails him?”

“It is nothing more than a headache, but you know how irritable Genji can be when he does not feel his best. I felt it more appropriate that he was not here than for him to be here and be disagreeable.”

He gave a well-practiced rueful laugh and hoped that his father bought the lie.

“Very well, Hanzo. I will leave management of your brother to you for now.” Sojiro Shimada rose from his seat and made his way to the door. He paused, with his fingers on the handle, before looking back at his son, no emotion readable in his expression.

“This lie does not become you, Hanzo. You must take him in hand before he becomes your ruin. Do you understand me?”

He had not fallen for it, not one bit. Hanzo should have known better than to believe he had gotten away with the deception. For the briefest moment, smouldering resentment built in his heart. But he let none of this show on his face. ‘Show the cold face, Hanzo’, his father had taught him. ‘Give away nothing. Show nothing. Feel nothing. It is the way we learn to cope with what we must sometimes do.’

Hanzo bowed his head in respect to his father and did not speak any word of apology. He would do as he had been tasked without question. He was the dutiful son and he played his role to perfection.

“Yes, Father. I understand you.”

Left alone with nothing more than his dark thoughts, Hanzo stewed in silence for a while. Over and over again his brother caused him problems and repeatedly he felt obliged to defend the younger Shimada. Every day brought some new humiliation or embarrassment and every day Hanzo’s patience and affections grew more stretched and threadbare.

“Why can you not just take it seriously, Genji?” He had asked his brother that question the previous night and the answer had bothered him.

“Because it’s your problem and not mine, Hanzo. You are the scion, I am the spare.”

It grieved Hanzo to hear his brother speak in such a way. From the moment the younger boy had come into the world, a squalling, pink-faced babe whose demands had wearied everyone around him, Hanzo had styled himself as the boy’s protector. He was the older brother. It was his duty to protect Genji. They were both Shimada clan. But it became apparent, as both boys grew, that they could not have been more different.

Deeply thoughtful, with a propensity for brooding, Hanzo was serious and while not without a sense of humour, less inclined to find the joy in life. Genji could not have been more different. Sunshine oozed from every pore, bringing light into the many shadows of Shimada Castle. Wherever Genji went, people followed in his wake, pulled along by his youthful exuberance and energy.

Everyone except Hanzo.

“You should try coming with me just once, brother,” Genji had suggested a few months previously. “You might actually enjoy yourself.”

Hanzo had tried, he truly had, but the sort of things that Genji found ‘fun’ did not stimulate him in the slightest. He couldn’t understand his brother’s simple joy at successfully retrieving pointless stuffed creatures that were somewhere between turnips and octopi from a machine’s claw, or relate to elated whoops of joy when he was able to enter his initials as a high score on a game machine. He couldn’t understand how drinking oneself into oblivion could constitute entertainment and, despite the acute knowledge that his own family dealt in any number of what could kindly be termed as ‘illegal substances’, he had no interest in partaking of them.

Genji partook. Genji partook with gusto and Hanzo, despite his best efforts, could see quite clearly where this downward spiral would lead. The thought of it kept him awake at night. He’d tried reason. He’d tried anger. He’d tried gentle persuasion, but it seemed that no matter what he did, Genji would do whatever he wished, whenever he wished and of more immediate concern to Sojiro Shimada, with whomever he wished.

The matter of appropriate marriages had been raised recently, now that Hanzo was certainly of an age and that Genji would not be far behind. Neither Shimada brother was comfortable with the thought of their romantic futures being chosen for them, but neither were they prepared to overturn many generations of tradition. After all, their own parents had not married for love, not initially. But they had grown to respect one another over the years.

His mother had been dead for a long time now, taken from the family when Hanzo had been seven years old. Genji, at four, had few memories of her, but Hanzo still recalled her with the same sense of love he’d known then. Sojiro had genuinely mourned her passing and it was the only time Hanzo could recall his father showing any sort of emotion in public. No, the funeral of his mother had not been a time to show the Cold Face.

Desperate for approval and desperate for the occasional kind word, Hanzo had taken to mimicking his father’s mannerisms and approach to the world. He had grown so good at keeping his emotions under control that at times, he feared he could not have loosed them if he had wanted to.

It was a challenging path, but it was a proven route and Hanzo followed in his father’s footsteps with the greatest of care. Genji, the study in contrasts, crashed blindly down a path of his own making.

For all this, Hanzo reluctantly acknowledged that if pressed, he couldn’t honestly say whether it annoyed him, or if he was simply jealous of the casual ease with which his brother careened through his existence.

Either way, Genji had let him down today. Again. And he would have to find his brother and deal out the appropriate remonstration.

Finding him was not difficult. He located his brother in the arcade where he preferred to loiter with his friends and hangers-on. Genji relished his status as a Shimada and welcomed adulation from the younger populations of Hanamura and Kanezaka. For their part, they fed Genji’s already over-inflated ego and sense of self-importance. It was poor nourishment and Hanzo feared it would end badly.

He stood in the door of the arcade, feeling awkward and out of place, dressed as he was in a three-piece suit. His clothing and demeanour marked him out as different. Once, he had been comfortable with that. He was, after all, different, something his father had impressed upon him. He was a Shimada.

Even at such a young age, there was something about Hanzo that suggested he was old before his time, a visible symptom of the weight that had been placed upon his (admittedly broad) shoulders. There was a gravity to his bearing that was sorely lacking in the younger brother who, even now, was lounging in a corner table, his sneaker-clad feet resting on the table. A gaggle of admirers surrounded him and for a heartbeat, Hanzo considered turning on his heel and leaving. But it was too late: his brother had spotted him.

“Hanzo!” The younger Shimada got to his feet and Hanzo felt a moment’s guilt. It seemed that his brother was absolutely genuine in his delight. “Have you come to join us?”

It would be easy to say yes. It would be easy to give himself over to the need to be liked, accepted and welcomed among his peers. It would, alas, be impossible to then have to explain to his father why he had shrugged off his responsibilities for such wanton frivolity.

Hanzo, thus tempted, allowed his mind to run through an assortment of possible outcomes and not one of them ended well for him. Usually occupied with shielding Genji from his father’s wrath, the older brother had long been used to bearing the brunt of the legendary temper that the leader of the Shimada clan possessed. He was reaching the end of his tether. He could make a simple choice if he really wanted to and he could adopt Genji’s blossoming playboy lifestyle, or he could follow in the footsteps that had been set for him before he had even been born.

It would be so easy…

For what felt like an age, he fidgeted with his cufflinks, his eyes fixed with great yearning on the scene before him. Eventually, his breeding took over and the thought of abandoning his responsibilities fluttered into the night. No. He would not fall for this trap of his own making. He must not falter. His shoulders set determinedly, his back straightening and he shook his head.

“No, Genji, I am not here to join you. We must speak.” He met the defiant eyes of his brother, eyes so like his own and he didn’t waver. “Alone. Now.” He turned on his heel and walked out of the arcade, not looking over his shoulder to see if Genji followed him. He half expected that he would not. But he did.

“How was the meeting?” Genji’s tone was affable, but there was a definite hint of mockery in there. Hanzo ignored the question and went straight to the point.

“You were missed.”

“You lied for me, though.” Such confidence and certainty. Such conviction that Genji knew his brother would always be his champion. For the first time in the life they had shared thus far, it annoyed the older Shimada.

“I cannot do so any more, Genji. Too much is expected of me now. You must speak to Father and you must explain yourself to him.” His brother’s expression became one of disgust, the nose wrinkling in distaste. “Our father thinks you are his shining jewel, brother. Of late, the shine is tarnished. You must repair that image before it is too late.”

Genji made a noise that was somewhere between a snort and a laugh and shrugged his slender shoulders. In build, as in personality, the young men were different. Genji was his mother’s son: slender and lithe, the perfect build for the agility required of an excellent swordsman. He was always moving: he could barely stand still, giving the impression of a tightly coiled spring ready to unleash on a hair trigger. By contrast, Hanzo was solid: broad shouldered and powerful. He was no less accomplished a fighter, but his stillness granted him great skills of marksmanship.

“I don’t care what the old man thinks of me, brother. And neither should you.” Already bored by the conversation, the younger man turned on his heel, preparing to return to his night of excess. Hanzo closed the distance between them with startling alacrity and caught Genji’s shoulder in his hand. He turned his brother so they were staring at one another. Genji’s defiance was something palpable and it set a fear fluttering deep in Hanzo’s breast.

“You should start to care,” he said. “Before it is too late.”

Genji looked as though Hanzo’s words might have reached him and the fear was quelled by a surge of hope.

It soon died.

Genji’s lip curled upward in a sneer.

“Too late? You are too dramatic brother.” He pulled himself free of Hanzo’s grip and sauntered with the swagger of a man who believes himself to be invincible. “Who is going to stop me living the life I want? You?”

The laughter that followed this was derisive. Hanzo stared after him and then, with a clinical precision of thought that he had learned from his father, began to take every good memory of Genji  he had, metaphorically setting each one alight and consigning it to the past.

“Be careful, brother,” he said in a voice that Genji could not hope to hear. “It just might be me.” The words dissolved into the Kanezaka night and Hanzo stood for a while, as motionless as a statue before swivelling on a booted foot to begin the lonely walk back up the hill.

The Lonely Parent

tl;dr – I miss my son.

My son is twenty-one in February next year and that’s given me time to reflect on the last couple of years of parenting. The short version is that since he turned eighteen, it’s been the hardest years of my life as a mother. Because it’s all about the letting go. And that’s exceptionally difficult when you love someone as much as your child. Is it too over-dramatic to say that what I’m going through is a kind of grief process?

I don’t think it is. It’s what it feels like.

From the start, he was more than just my son. He was a fascinating, funny and sweet person in his own right from day one. We are friends as much as relatives. All these years, and we have never had any problem relating to one another, or talking to one another, or showing affection, or saying ‘I love you’. I am proud of the relationship we developed over the years. I am proud of the young man he’s become. I am proud of the messages I get from people complimenting him and saying what a nice person he is.

I love him every bit as much now as I did the day he showed up two months early and threw my world into chaos – and extremely sharp relief. I had never had anything to do with babies. I wasn’t remotely maternal. But here was this little life, hanging by a thread the day he was born, only to turn around, stick two metaphorical fingers up at the universe and make an exceptional recovery.

I remember looking at him, this little bundle in an incubator, made extremely pink by the additional oxygen he was getting, and with a covering of downy fuzz like he was a little peach. I remember looking at him – and bear in mind that I didn’t actually see him until a good 12 hours after he was born – and thinking ‘what do I actually do with this person now he’s here?’

I remember, when he was about six months old, failing to remember my life without him in it.

I remember, when he started secondary school, that he was moving further outside my circle of influence and I remember how I was scared of that.

My life has been irrevocably altered by his presence in it. How can it not be? I put my life on hold for eighteen years and the focus of everything became him. From those early, long-forgotten sleepless nights where I watched more news programmes than before or since through to the tears the day I left him at university, everything has been about him. And now I feel like part of me has been cut away, leaving this groping, seeking tendril that has nothing to hold onto.

How do you do it? How do you let go? How do you perform the act of separation and make it clean and painless, or is it always going to hurt? When he doesn’t get in touch for several days and you try to ignore it, or when he’s feeling poorly, or has an injury that might require surgery, how do you take that step back and acknowledge that he’s a grown-up? That he has to deal with life on his own terms? How do you weigh independence against thoughtlessness? Should you even try?

Me and his dad, plus his step-parents on both sides, have done a great job of equipping him to live in the real world and that’s a good thing. But the price you pay for raising a successful individual to adulthood, without them having exploded or caught fire in the interim is a high one.

Perhaps it gets easier, but right now, I find that every day is hard. Every day I miss him. Even writing this, the ache of separation is making me tear up.

One day, he was there. The next day, he wasn’t. But there’s an echo of him everywhere.

We have children because we want continuation, a perpetuation of our species and perhaps even of ourselves. I see in him a lot of my own traits (not all of which are good!) and I have felt honoured to share in the shaping of him as a person. But you don’t think about it at the time. You don’t think about the fact that one day, they don’t actually need you any more. Oh, they don’t stop loving you, of that I’m sure, but they survive from day to day without you always there.

These last three years have been immensely stressful. Between him going off to university, my husband’s complicated surgical situation and even losing a beloved pet, I’ve been shouldering a lot. Everyone tells me that I should now take a step back and concentrate on myself. Trust me, that’s easier said than done.

Because I’ve forgotten who that person is.

There is so much guidance and advice available to people when they have children. There should be more guidance available to parents who have to let go.

Being a parent is the most wonderful of things. It’s also one of the toughest.

Games!

I have a nark. This is my blog, so I’m going to vent it here.

Games, games, games.

When I was at school, (which was a very long time ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the land), one of my classmates threw a proper hissy fit because he didn’t win at a game of rounders. My then-teacher, the erstwhile Mr. Hodgkinson, told him to go back indoors and to look up the definition of the work ‘game’ in a dictionary. Let’s do that now, from the comfort of our own chairs, shall we?

Game [geym]

Noun

An amusement or pastime.

Key word there: ‘amusement’. A game is supposed to be fun.Boy-at-school was embarrassed by being called out and indulged a little more in the team spirit going forward. But, as I say, that was a long time ago, back in the days when ‘game’ was clearly more easily understood. Now, we seem to have entered a time where this definition has lost its meaning.

So, context. I like and enjoy video games, but I’m not a die-hard. I enjoy MMORPGs, I enjoy problem-solving. I like puzzles and strategies and what-not. I’m a mediocre video gamer at best, although I am more than competent in most cases. Games that have more than two sub-menus frustrate me and fail to hold my attention span for very long. (This is not a reflection on the quality of the game, just a commentary on my short attention span).

Anything that requires mechanical skill is a challenge. On PC, I’m OK with games like WoW or SW:TOR, where I just push buttons and don’t really have to coordinate. If I am in a situation where I have to move and shoot at the same time using keyboard and mouse, I literally fall over myself. On a scale of repeatedly falling off a cliff to balancing on the narrow side of the primary school balance beams, I’m a 2.

On console, I walk the average line. I can coordinate a lot better, though. (Although there was still that time when playing Destiny when I was in a PvP game, was startled by another player and flailed at the controller before I turned around, punching him off the edge of Venus).

But here’s the point. I have fun doing it. But there are a few things that have been conspiring for a while to make me have a lot less fun.

1) Hackers.
2) Gamer entitlement.
3) Toxicity.

Let’s start with hackers. The delightful Mr. Stylosa put up a YouTube video yesterday about the problems in Apex: Legends with those people who can’t actually be bothered to play a game for fun and just want to win. Aimbots, wall hacks… just so they can say ‘look at how good I am!’ But they’re not good. They’re cheating. And they think that’s totally OK. 

What a strange world it has become where people are firmly of the opinion that cheating for the soul benefit of ruining other people’s game is totally OK. It annoys me in a way I can’t quite express. It calls back to that long-ago game of rounders and that guy being told to go and look up the word in the dictionary. 

You get nothing tangible for winning in Apex: Legends. There’s not some sort of cash prize or prestige that goes with it. All you get is a player banner with impressive stats that largely make my other half shout things like ‘get a job’ at the TV screen. By not actually playing the game properly and effectively just being a lazy fucker, you impress nobody but yourself. You should maybe see a therapist about that lack of self-confidence.

Transition.

Apex: Legends is a fun game, but it doesn’t really float my boat in the same way that other games do. I am certain that once more content comes in, and perhaps some sort of skill ranking system, I might engage with it more enthusiastically. I play on console, so the risk of hackers is minimal compared to that on PC. So let’s talk about Overwatch. Which I do a lot, I know, but that’s because I like it.

Overwatch was the first real FPS I played and I didn’t think I’d like it anywhere near as much as I do. I’ve played it pretty much since launch, although never seriously (I only wandered into competitive play in about season six, I think). I’m firmly in mid to high gold level, along with the bulk of players, so am decidedly average. But I have fun playing it. I like that Blizzard provide regular updates. I like that Blizzard provide regular character buffs and nerfs. I like we get the animated shorts, the lore teasers, the new characters, the new maps. I like Overwatch’s art style and the engagement of the developers with the community.

Ah, yes. The community. A word that conjures the concept of a group of like-minded individuals who all work together for the same goal and who ultimately have the interests of one another at mind. The Overwatch community.

A community that turns round every five feet, complaining incessantly that the game isn’t being updated regularly enough. That each change to a character ‘breaks the game’. That the character they prefer to play doesn’t get buffed in the way they want it to be. LOL people still play this game? That they are stuck in the rank they’re in because of everyone else, can’t possibly be them, their other account is Grand Masters don’t you know?

Seriously. Cry me a river, build a bridge and get the fuck over it. Why can you not just play the game and adapt with its changes? At least in that regard it’s certainly not a static game. It’s a very different game now to the way it was when it was released. For some people, that’s a cool thing. It means you have to learn new strategies, try new combinations of characters. But for the vocal set, it means that the characters and strategies they’ve perfected have been unbalanced. They don’t seem to think ‘cool, I get to learn something new’, they just complain.

Then they complain some more.

Then they negatively post on every single one of Overwatch’ssocial media streams.

“Hey, everyone,” says the stream. “Check out Baptiste, our new character!” He’s been designed, says the subtext, to add a new level to the game. His skillset is designed to work with some things, to work against others, but we’ll leave that for you to work out. “Look at the way he fits into the lore, look at the way he fits in with the other characters!”

“OMG HE’S SO OP WTF LUL OMG BBQ”

“THIS GAME IS DED RIP”

And so on.

I have my own gripes about certain characters in the game (Bastion, f’rex, can totally get in the sea. But the fact I’m rubbish at countering him is my issue, not the game’s. This, perhaps, is the difference between me and others).

The other issue in Overwatch is that of people who play using the dreaded keyboard and mouse. For them, it provides an advantage similar to the aimbot/wall hacks I previously mentioned in Apex: Legends. For me, it’d just add a whole new level of complexity that would produce comical swear combos. But you can tell. When a Widowmaker or Hanzo get repeated critical hits and you watch back in the Play of the Game feed, and you see that snap to target, you know. And it’s annoying.

Overwatch has come in for a lot of stick lately because it seems to be felt that the changes to the characters have been designed specifically with the pro-level players in mind. But for me, that’s fine. I’m happy re-learning my characters and if they don’t feel to be a good fit any more, I’ll change onto another. 

Which of course brings me to toxicity. I will usually mic up in Overwatch competitive, just to listen for call outs and to make call outs when I’m playing relevant characters. But I’ve given up engaging in any sort of conversation for a variety of reasons, the most fun one of which was the toxic little shit on Lunar Colony.

I took a support character (because nobody else did) and he proceeded to mansplain everything to me. Told me how to play a character I’m perfectly capable with, then threw in the kicker.

“You sound like you’re in your thirties, soooo…” The sentence tailed off and he snickered at me like he was my superior.

As it happens, I’m not in my thirties. I’m older than that. And it fucked me right off. For the love of all that’s good and holy, you little shit, I was killing Space Invaders before I hit double figures. Why wouldn’t someone my age be playing a video game? You don’t threaten me you little toerag. My mortgage scares me more than you do.

And because of that, this was one of the rare occasions where I did have an immediate response and it worked. It shut him up because all his friends laughed at him. He spent the rest of the game being meek and deferential, but it still annoyed me. It extracted the ultimate in cursing from me.

“You sound like you’re in your thirties, soooo…”

“And you sound like a c**t, what’s your point?”

As it goes, I’m lucky that it’s the worst I’ve experienced in Overwatch. I’ve seen screenshots of messages sent by ridiculously vile people, that are far worse and I’m glad I’ve never experienced that in the game (although I have certainly experienced it due to having the wrong chromosomes in a male-dominated fandom where I have written novels). 

As a contrast, I was in a game where I (as Sombra) and the enemy team’s Sombra were quite literally running round and round the payload on Eichenwalde like we were in some sort of cartoon. After the game was over, I got a message from the enemy team player saying how hard they’d laughed and to thank me for cheering up their night. I felt the same and it was nice.

That, right there, is what a community should be. Not whining and moaning, but enjoying the fun of a shared experience.

Am I ranting? I’m ranting. I’ll stop. Let’s summarise with this:-

1) Hackers – stop cheating. It’s bollocks, impresses nobody and just gives you an over-inflated sense of ego. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
2) Gamer entitlement. By repeatedly biting the hand that feeds you, the hand will eventually stop. So stop complaining and embrace change rather than be endlessly whiny about it.
3) Toxicity. Oh-so-simple. If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.

Vent over. Please go about your business.

The Drifter and the Jawa [Star Wars]

Tattoine

The day had dawned with such promise. When Daro had woken, he’d done so with the sheer luxury of that experience being enjoyed in an actual bed, with sheets and everything. It had been some days since he’d slept anywhere since in the alleyway behind the cantina, that the joy of a scutty little bunk in the docker’s room at the spaceport had filled him with joy.

Being well over six feet in height had meant that his feet hung over the end, but it was still infinitely preferable to sleeping on the floor.

A day spent lugging boxes on and off ships that came and went had yielded little progress in his hunt for a job to get off this bloody planet, but it had put a few credits in his pocket, and given him a bed for the night. So when he had woken up, he had done so feeling refreshed and glad to be alive. Being alive was always a positive start to the day.

He queued for a while to use the shared bathroom, which was a grubby affair, but it was a simple delight to emerge feeling clean and fresh. His clothes were in need of a good wash, which didn’t help with his current odour situation, but these things would come. It was easy enough to locate cheap used clothes that were serviceable enough. Not for Daro Keers the luxury of opening a wardrobe and choosing his outfit. No, his options were definitely more limited. It was more a case of buying a new shirt when the current one literally fell off him.

He glanced down. That day was imminent.

He studied his reflection in the cracked distorted mirror, then elected to look away again. he was most certainly not at his best: too many days of poor sleep and a Distinct Lack of Razor had left him looking like the worst kind of space bum imaginable.

He returned to the bunk room and gathered his pathetically small pack of belongings together. He cheered up by repeating the mantra he’d been living by over and over in his head.

Travel light, travel fast, travel far.

If that was true, suggested his mutinous inner self, you’d be the other side of the galaxy by now.

He hated that guy.

Shouldering his pack, Daro headed out of the digs and back to the space port offices. He’d offer up his services for a second day, although they rarely gave casual work out for more than a day at a time. He joined the queue of hopefuls and just like the several dozen people and aliens ahead of him, was turned away without work. No work, no money, no food and back to sleeping in the alleyway.

For a long moment, he sank out of his usual optimism hitting a quagmire of self-pity and misery. But Daro’s nature was not the sort to allow him to wallow there for long and with a mental slurp, he extracted himself from the swamp of depression.

“Today,” he said aloud, “my luck is going to change.” He was right, he knew it.

And yes… he was right in that regard, but whether that change in luck could be considered good or bad was subjective. Because that day turned out to be the day that Daro Keers, space drifter, met Glix the jawa.

The day had worn on, as these things are wont to do, and Daro had moved with increasing despondence throughout. He amused himself for a little while with a stint of people-watching in the space port and even contemplated the feasibility of stowing away on board a cargo ship. Once he realised that said ship was populated with Rodians who sounded collectively pissed at the cosmos, he changed his mind. It was too much like hard work having to deal with angry people.

He headed out into the heat of the afternoon and decided to trek a little further afield than the space port. He made sure he took water – which was expensive and ate into his credits without so much as a by-your-leave – and, tugging his hood up over his head, made his way out into Tatooine proper.

He considered the sights of the Jundland Wastes, the lonely expanse of… golden sands and endless, cloudless blue skies punctuated at odd intervals by the desiccated skeletons of creatures long dehydrated. He studied them thoughtfully. Some were recognisable as human, others not so much so. Apparently, an overly-enthusiastic trader back at the space port had told him, if he headed even further out, into what was known locally as the ‘Infinite Desiccation’, he could see the apparent ‘tourist attraction’ of a krayt dragon skeleton. (He’d come to realise that here, on Tatooine, a ‘tourist attraction’ was something that was visited more than once by more than two people. His hopes weren’t high).

Mentally, he weighed up the pros and cons. Then he declined. No thanks

He continued on his way. The guide he’d flicked through back at the space port had promised him that he would encounter splendour unlike anything he’d ever known.

Well, if sand is your thing…

He trudged onward, heading towards the outpost where he would try to get a room as cheaply as possible for the night. Failing that, he’d find himself a comfortable few feet of space behind a building, dig in and stay there. The temperature always dropped to killer cold levels at night, but he’d mastered the art of imbibing just enough spirits to keep the chill from his bones, and trapping as much heat as possible in a small space.

About twenty minutes further in, he was distracted by a noise nearby. He wasn’t entirely sure, but he suspected the noise sounded like a jawa in distress. He didn’t have that many frames of reference for the infernal squawking coming from a short distance to the east, but the occasional utini! was a bit of a giveaway.

He hesitated. Thus far, his encounters with jawas hadn’t been entirely peaceable, but that definitely sounded like someone who needed help.

Daro considered his options. It was a short list.

Go investigate. Help if possible. If I can: win. If I can’t, at least I tried.

Ignore the noise. Ignore the sounds of a creature in terrible distress. Keep walking. Go. Go. Go!

Like that was ever going to happen.

He adjusted course, heading for the noise, all the while regretting his own inability to avoid helping those in need.

For Glix the jawa, today was not a good day.

He was young, as jawas measured these things, and he was curious. That by itself was no cause for alarm: many young jawas were curious and many young jawas ventured out by themselves into the Jundland Wastes to see what fortunes they could find. Tales abounded of a hero in jawa history, known to all in the words of legend as the Great Utini. The Great Utini, it was said, had been able to find salvage anywhere on Tattooine. The Youth of Today aspired to be like the Great Utini.

Glix was not like the Great Utini. He was realising this. Glix, Glix realised, was a fool. Glix had been curious enough to wriggle in through a small hole in a rock face, his small mind filled with dreams of glory. There could be anything behind that hole. There could be salvage. There could be credits. There could even be food, one of those things that young jawas cherished above all other things.

(It should be noted at this point that traditionally, jawas did not have long, deep, philosophical thoughts. Glix was no exception to the rule, although his peers considered him far too deep and thoughtful).

So, his mind filled with thrilling thoughts of salvage, credits and/or food, Glix wriggled deeper into the hole.

What Glix found was a womp-rat nest, with a nesting mother protecting a litter of about twenty ratlings.

What the womp-rat mother found was a curious little jawa dropping several feet on top of her nest and squashing a large proportion of her ratling family. Glix, a little stunned by the unexpected fall, got to his feet and staggered slightly, rubbing his head and muttering to himself about his dire misfortune. It transpired that it was a dire misfortune that was made somewhat worse when the womp-rat mother, distraught at the squashing of a handful of her offspring decided she would turn Glix into lunch.

She attacked.

Glix screamed.

And somewhere, not so very far away, Daro Keers heard the commotion and was coming along to see what could be done.

Nothing could go wrong.

Right?

Daro had encountered womp-rats before. He’d come to understand a number of important things about them. One was that ‘omnivorous’ meant that the little bastards would attack anything with a face. The second was that around two metres in size was surprisingly huge when you came directly into contact with it.

An old-timer in the cantina back at the space port had wheezed a tale one night, after application of a good quantity of alcoholic lubrication, about how a pack of womp-rats could bring down a bantha if they worked together and Daro didn’t doubt the veracity of the claim. His own encounters with the rodents had been kept to a sort of ‘who will back away first’ face-off style of meeting. He’d blasted one out of his way a few nights ago and that was when he’d made his third discovery about womp-rats.

They tasted like shavit.

So it came as no surprise as he approached the noise that had caught his attention, that the screeching sound of the jawa was being underpinned by the vocal chittering of an angry womp-rat. The noise, Daro determined, was coming from the other side of a low wall.

(It is important to maintain perspective here. Daro, our illustrious hero, is six feet four inches in height. At full stretch, Glix the jawa barely reaches his kneecap. A low wall to Daro was a rock face to little Glix).

Daro peered over the top and took in the scene before him. An angry womp-rat was savaging the bottom of a jawa’s robe, whilst said jawa was attempting to prod the womp-rat in the face with a shock-stick. The stand-off would have been funny if it hadn’t been for the infernal racket.

The altercation continued in this way for a while as Daro assessed the practical options. Eventually, he realised, there was only one. He unholstered his blaster and levelled it at the womp-rat, which backed off a little on spying the newcomer. It transpired that this small shuffle of the back paws would be the tiny motion that saved the womp-rat’s life, because as it moved, one of the previously squashed ratlings moved slightly and let out a sad little ‘mew’.

Mew.

Pitiful, plaintive, tragic.

Mew.

The noise would have softened the hardest of hearts. The mother womp-rat turned her attention instantly to the bedraggled baby and let go of the jawa’s robe. Leaning over the wall and going to full stretch, Daro caught the jawa by the hood and yanked it free of the nest, back over the wall and dumped it unceremoniously on the sand, where it lay, stunned for a few moments, before scrambling to its feet.

What occurred at this point can now only be be relayed through the medium of the written word. It is important to note the following two facts, however.

1) Daro Keers speaks no Jawa-ese.
2) Glix the Jawa speaks only Jawa-ese.

Sitting comfortably?

Good.

In order to best convey the discussion that took place, one has to make an assumption as to the style of the jawa spoken language, as heard by one another. Just as, for example, the humble Ugnaught’s grunts and squeaks translate into a flowing, archaic language, so does that of the jawa.

“So,” said Daro, studying the little creature in front of him. There were many things he could say. He could ask the jawa if it was alright. He could ask what it had been up to, but he knew that it would be pointless. All he’d get back would be ‘utini’.

“Utini!” said Glix. “Glix!”

Those two words conveyed the following.

“My giant friend! You have saved me from the accursed terrors of the womp-rat’s teeth! I am a young jawa, but handsome, and had it mauled me, my looks would have been stolen from me and my parents, poor, alas, would have been unable to marry me off. We would have all ended up in squalor and horror. But you have saved me! I pledge to serve you in order to repay this life debt. My name is Glix!”

As he said the last, the jawa pointed to himself. Daro understood that bit at least.

“Oh, Glix? Right. Daro. Daro Keers.”

“Utini!”

“Daro Daro Keers, you are a beacon of hope in a dark world. Let us travel together now to the outpost, where you can buy me a drink to help me recover from my ordeal… ah! You are walking away! Let me follow you!”

And so on.

* * *

A day had passed since Daro and Glix had become inseparable companions and heroic adventuring buddies. Well, that’s how Glix saw it. How Daro viewed the situation was slightly different.

“Is he still there?” The whispered voice belonged to Daro Keers and the girl to whom he whispered it had been his companion the previous night. It had taken everything in his power to firmly deposit Glix outside the girl’s door. Had the jawa had his own way, he’d have sat on the end of the bed and jabbered endlessly throughout the entire…

process

…and even Daro Keers had limits. He’d tolerated the jawa’s cheerful presence for a full day, realising quite quickly that the little creature had bonded itself to him – presumably as an act of gratitude for rescuing him from the Great Womp-Rat Massacre of the year. He’d been amused, then annoyed, then irritated and finally resigned to the fact that until he found some way to communicate with Glix, the little alien would be his shadow indefinitely.

“I don’t know. Look out the door.”

“No. You do it.”

“And if he’s there?” The girl, whose name was Mari, propped herself up on one elbow and tipped her head quizzically at her bed partner. “Then what?”

“I don’t know!” A slight hint of panic crept into Daro’s voice and the volume raised involuntarily. “Tell him I left out the back door or something!”

Mari laughed, leaning over to kiss the end of Daro’s nose fondly. He’d not expected to find a girl like her here. She, like him, was from Corellia, and was a few years older. She’d known his family. She’d known his older brother. The vague connection had drawn them together over a bottle of wine, and for a while, he’d enjoyed the warm sense of recollection and memory.

They’d slept together, but sleeping hadn’t really been much of a thing. Now that morning had arrived, though, the anxiety about the presence of the jawa flooded back into his system, metaphorically elbowing the sense of well-being out of the way.

“Fine,” Mari said eventually, wrinkling her nose at him. “But only because you’re cute when you’re anxious.”

“I’m not anxious,” Daro protested. Anxiously.

Mari got out of the bed without any hint of self-consciousness and for a few moments, Daro forgot his troubles, admiring her naked curves as she crossed the room to the door. She tapped the lock and it slid open. She stood there, in her entirely naked glory, everything on display for the entirety of the outpost to view should they so choose.

But the corridor outside was empty.

The door closed again with a quiet swish and she turned back to him. “No jawa,” she announced and Daro heaved a sigh of relief that started somewhere at his toes and spread the warmth of joy through his veins. Mari smiled at him, then bent down to pick up their clothes, discarded where he’d left them.

Except they weren’t there.

An entertaining panic ensued as the pair, naked as the day they’d been born scrabbled around the room attempting to find their clothing. Eventually, they ran out of places to look.

There was a scraping sound outside in the corridor, and then a clattering. Then, the buzzer went. Mari blushed furiously, her easy exposure of a few moments ago completely gone, and snatched the only sheet from Daro’s body to wrap around herself. She opened the door.

There, standing, on a chair, with folded, neatly pressed clothes on the floor next to him was Glix.

“Utini!”

Ah, Daro Daro Keers and female companion! I trust you had a most excellent night’s sleep? Although I’m sure you did more than sleep, am I right? Hahaha, of course I am. Anyway, I took the liberty of your being busy to sneak in whilst you did sleep and collect your clothing. It’s all been laundered. I do hope you don’t mind my method of folding, the jawa elders are always so particular about how well seams should be creased…

An awkward silence ensued and Glix scrambled down off the chair he’d used to reach the buzzer, lifting up the pile of clothes and offering them up to Mari. She stared at him, then looked at Daro.

“What the hell did he just say?”

Utini, thought Daro, in despair. What did it even sound like?

“I think he did our laundry,” he managed weakly.

“You mean he broke into my room, stole our clothes and then… washed them?”

“…yes?” The word rose in a rising, tremulous tone.

“That,” she said, taking the neatly pressed clothes from the jawa and throwing Daro’s at him, “is the creepiest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Daro could only smile weakly and get dressed.

* * *

Three days.

For three days, Daro had found himself accompanied everywhere by the eager jawa. And by ‘everywhere’, he meant everywhere. He’d even found the jawa standing beside him as he’d stood in the back room of the cantina emptying his bladder. That had been unnerving and it was at about that time that Daro realised a couple of important things.

Firstly, he needed to draw lines in the sand. Not that there was any other kind of ground to draw lines in around here, but still. The analogy served. Boundaries, he had come to realise, were important. But this meant, of course, somehow getting through to the jawa. He could hire the services of one of the translator droids that served the space port, but their owners generally charged an arm and a leg. He’d sat, earnestly attempting to communicate with Glix, but they never got beyond ‘utini’.

Glix had attached himself to Daro Keers like a little brown-clad shadow with disconcerting yellow eyes. Everywhere Daro went, Glix went as well. As a result, Mari had informed him that morning that she no longer appreciated Daro’s company in her bed, because nobody – and she meant nobody needed the horror of opening their closet to dress in the morning and having a jawa fall out from its hiding place and land on top of them.

Still, it was probably for the best. He had been spending too much time with Mari. For Daro Keers, three nights of unashamed passion was steering dangerously close to the ‘this is long term’ and it was time to extract himself. This had been a little different, of course, because he’d actually liked Mari.

Easy going to a fault, Daro shrugged off this latest romantic rejection with ease and considered what he needed to do in order to get through to the little creature who was even now trotting along happily by his new friend’s side.

And then it came to him in a flash of inspiration. Alright, perhaps not a flash; Daro’s brain cells didn’t exactly fire that fast, but it was certainly a much brighter thought than usual. He needed someone who could help him crack the programming of a translator droid and get it to work for free.

Gileas.

His younger brother, although only fifteen years of age, had demonstrated a startling and uncanny ability to work with droids. He could understand the ‘gonks’ of the family’s power droid with apparent ease and had seemed very surprised that nobody else in the family did. He had built several small droids from scratch and their uses ranged from automating certain chores that the boy hated – such as washing the dishes – right through to half a dozen spy-bot droids that were so tiny they could skitter up and down walls like little electronic spiders. The uses for those were endless, and if the Empire ever got their hand son such technology, the stars above knew what could ensue. But Gileas – being a fifteen year old boy, and a Keers boy to boot – mostly used it for spying on the girl he rather liked in the apartment down the hallway.

Daro found himself a shaded corner of the outpost, beneath an arching canopy that protected him from the worst of the sun and pulled out his personal communicator. He didn’t have enough credits to send a holoproject message, but he put together a message to his brother that would arrive in text format.

He hated doing those. He felt so self-conscious talking to himself as the device recorded his words and converted them into the written word.

Hey, kid, hope you and the aged P’s are doing OK. I’m on Tattooine. It’s a dump, kid, seriously. Don’t let anybody ever tell you adventuring around the universe is glamorous, because it’s not. Listen, I need your advice. There’s this jawa. His name is Glix and well, I can’t get rid of him. And I can’t ask him what he wants, or needs, because all he ever says is ‘utini’. I wonder if you can help me get some sort of sense out of him? There’s translator droids here, but they’re programmed to work for credits and… yeah, you know that one. Situation normal. Look, I know it’s a long shot, Gil, but if you’ve got any ideas on how I can tap into the translation subroutines… I’d appreciate any lines you could throw my way.

He hesitated, his finger over the ‘send’ button.

No. This needs to be done.

Send.

He glanced down at the jawa, who was sitting on the floor not too far from him, its brown robe like a mucky puddle around its form. “Well, Glix,” he said, “hopefully that’ll get us some way of at least establishing boundaries.”

“Utini!”

Ah, Daro Daro Keers, your mood seems oddly melancholy on this, the third chikda of the solar cycle. Would that you could only understand my language, I could offer you words of comfort or advice. It saddens my jawa heart to see you so unhappy. Perhaps it is a gentle pat on the arm that you need from me… ah, no, I can tell by the way you snatched your lanky limb away that perhaps the hands-on approach isn’t best. How about I simply sit here? Yes? Yes, that seems to please you. Perhaps you can find a way to communicate with me, because frankly, your lack of ability to speak jawa is making me a little sad. I want us to be friends. I owe you a life debt, remember? And I will not leave your side until you tell me that debt is repaid. But it would be good to be friends, no?

“Utini!”

Daro sighed. “Yes,” he said. “Utini.”

Gileas’s reply came sooner than Daro had expected and it warmed his soul to receive the notification that his younger brother had sent him a holo-message. He had been in the spaceport at the time that the alert had beeped quietly in his pocket, lugging boxes – which seemed to be his mainstay these days. He wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, but he kept working. He’d learned very quickly that casual labourers were given the boot pretty fast if they kept taking breaks. Whatever Gil had to tell him could wait a little longer.

Glix trotted back and forth beside Daro, occasionally chattering away in his odd language and from time to time, Daro nodded in an understanding kind of way, because it was what he felt was expected of him. It seemed enough to keep the jawa content and everything was just fine.

The dockers at Mos Eisley worked damned hard and Daro, for all his tendency to become distracted, was no exception to the rule. He sweated out the previous night’s alcohol fairly swiftly and by the time that the workers were allowed to take a break, he was exhausted from a combination of back-breaking effort and dehydration. He ran his hand down his jawline, feeling the stubble beneath his fingers and letting his eyes flicker to the cantina. Just one Rodian ale couldn’t hurt, right?

If he told himself that enough, he’d start to believe it.

Then he remembered that he had a message from his kid brother and it became much, much more important to deal with that.

Outside of the spaceport, the hustle and bustle was magnified. An Imperial ship was in dry dock at the moment, and the Empire’s increased presence was felt in a variety of ways, not least of which was the increase in the number of white armour-clad Stormtroopers patrolling the area. Glix pointed to one and tugged at Daro’s coat.

“Utini!”

I say, Daro Daro Keers. Don’t you think that the sudden appearance of all these frightful armoured oiks is pushing on an infringement of our civil liberties? Mos Eisley has its own militia, we don’t need their sort around here. I think it’s quite shocking, personally. They don’t even acknowledge my people as existing. Speaking of which, that’s my Uncle Nyn. I’ll just pop over and have a bit of a chat. Will you be alright on your own? Of course you will, you’re strong and tough. Now don’t be shy about it, I saw you lugging those boxes. I’ll be back shortly.

…and off he trotted.

Daro watched the jawa move away, his attention caught by a strange kind of grim horror, before shaking himself free of the thought. He wove his way through the crowds, brushing shoulders with more than one of the Stormtroopers, all of whom made him feel guilty for the heinous crime of simply existing. So many people meant that the streets were dustier than usual, all of those tramping feet kicking the sand up in a perpetual haze that caught in the back of the throat. His abject dislike of the planet was growing increasingly strong by the day, and as he turned to head down one of the quieter alleyways and the welcome shade of a canopy, he vowed, for the sixteenth hundred time that day alone, that he was going to get the hell off this planet.

He slid down, his back against the rough stone of a domicile, and settled onto the ground before taking his communicator out of his coat pocket and flicking it open. He keyed in the clearance code and a blue haze shimmered up from its surface. It wavered for a moment (his communicator was not exactly top of the range), and then held in the form of a tall, lanky teenage boy smiling at him.

Hey, big brother! I’m glad you’re alright. Well, as alright as ever you are. Thanks for the message. Tattooine doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of place where anything interesting is ever likely to happen. Things here are… well, they’re pretty much the same, really. The parents are fine – they said to say hello and to remind you that you promised to come visit. Six months ago, Daro. You’re useless, you know that?

It was nothing but affection. Daro and Gileas were extraordinarily close. Daro had been a thirteen year old, sullen teenager when his brother had been born and he’d vowed to make the kid’s life a misery. He’d failed to bank on the fact that Gileas was born with the sort of sunny personality that could only end in winning over those close to him. He was smart, he was funny, he was…

…he was going to end up in a whole world of trouble if Daro didn’t address the Issue at some point…

…he was talking again.

I’m sending you a set of files in a separate transmission. If you can offload those onto a slicer stick, you should be able to access any of the core modules of the translator droids. Gileas paused, then grinned – a grin that was startlingly like Daro’s own – that means, save this stuff onto a data stick and you can plug it into a translator droid. It’ll assume you’re its owner and it’ll do whatever you ask of it. I hope it helps. Failing that, I’ve also done a bit of work in trying to translate some jawa-ese for you. There’s a list in another file.

Gileas shook his head and turned to look to the side. Dad’s coming. I have to go. You take care of yourself, alright? And for the love of all that’s good and holy, get in touch with the parents. Bye, Daro.

The holo-image remained steady for a second or two longer and then Gileas faded from existence. Daro closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath he hadn’t even realised he’d been holding. He was… so far from his brother. Stuck here, on this planet, without any sort of chance of getting home any time soon…

He let his thoughts linger in the mire of doubt for a while before he sighed again and picked up the other two messages. One was a list of commonly used words and phrases used in the jawa tongue.

By some fortuitous turn of events, Glix reappeared. Daro had no idea how he knew it was Glix and not some other jawa, but he did. It startled him to realise that over the past few days, he’d actually started to develop a certain fondness for his new companion. He flicked down Gileas’s list of words and tentatively tried one.

“Um… Glix utini?”

Greetings, Glix of the jawa. I would like to buy a gallon of chicken soup.

The jawa stared.

* * *

Two more days passed.

Daro’s foray into the world of jawa vernacular had not gone spectacularly well. Every time he attempted one of the phrases off Gileas’s carefully composed list, Glix would shake his little jawa head and gently correct his giant friend. The conversations went a little like this.

Daro would glance down the list, find what he wanted to say and attempt the right inflection. “Utini,” he would say earnestly. “Utini.”

I am a bantha. Look! Look! The composite is pretty in the artefact!

Glix would shake his head. “Utini!”

Ah, poor Daro Daro Keers. Your continued and concerted efforts to learn my language are deeply appreciated. If only you knew just how entertaining it was. Would that I could convey this to you.

“Um… ut… utini?”

In triplicate, the colour orange is frowned upon most dismissively.

Somehow, the two managed to muddle along.

It had taken a couple of days for Daro to find himself the piece of slicer’s kit that he needed in order to transfer protocol droid command codes from Gileas’s message. It hadn’t come cheaply, either, and as he winced at the cost, he wondered if it had all been worth it, just to have a proper conversation with his new friend.

In the event, it transpired that it was worth every penny.

Daro picked his moment carefully. He had been watching the translator droid at work on the docks, passing along messages from one freighter captain to another, bustling back and forth like a shiny errand boy. Eventually, a lull had come and the droid had moved off (politely) in order to remain out of the way until it was needed. Daro approached the automaton cautiously.

“Greetings…” it said as Daro approached. It scanned up and down the man’s scruffy form and seemed to be processing the next word. When it came out, the slight rise in pitch suggested a question rather than a statement. “…human?”

It took all of Daro’s self-control not to trash the thing there and then.

“Good afternoon…” He checked the thing’s tag. “NX-4B. I require use of your services.”

A pause.

“Please.”

“Certainly. My fees are sixty credits for half an hour and… what is that? I do hope, sir, that you aren’t planning to use that in order to hack my systems… oh! My!” The damn thing sounded so distressed that Daro almost changed his mind. Then he cast a sideways look at Glix, who was looking… expressionless. Like he usually was. With grim determination, Daro plugged the slicer stick into the port on the droid’s shoulder. The lights behind its eyes dimmed momentarily, then flickered back into life.

“Good afternoon. NX-4B online and requesting instruction. Please state nature of language translation required.”

“Universal to jawa, jawa to universal.”

“Parameters accepted. Please proceed.”

“So… uh, Glix. Hope this thing actually helps. Look, little buddy, I’m just gonna come right out and say this straight. What is it that you want from me? Because I’m not entirely sure I’ve got anything you could possibly want. I’m broke, pal. Out of readies. So far down on my luck that I’ve hit rock bottom and started digging.” Daro ran his fingers through his messy hair and sighed. “I’m a nobody, Glix.”

There was a long pause, then the droid repeated his words to the jawa who tipped his head on one side and let out a long stream of syllables (periodically punctuated with the obligatory ‘utini’) back at the droid.

“Daro Daro Keers… I want nothing more from you than to simply be your friend and companion. You saved my life. I owe you. And a jawa never breaks a life debt. It is a poor jawa indeed who would abandon a friend.”

Daro stared. Then he determined that it must be particularly dusty that day, because there was a tear in the back of his eye and a lump in his throat. Since he’d packed his bags and left Corellia, he’d never encountered anybody who simply wanted to be his ‘friend’. There had always been ulterior motives.

For the first time in his life, Daro Keers was completely speechless.

“Awaiting response, master.”

“Yeah, yeah. Uh… OK, Glix, here’s the deal. I don’t know what’s going to happen, little buddy. But… if you want to tag along…” Did he mean this next bit? Yes, he realised, yes he did. “You’re welcome.”

The droid burbled his reply. Glix patted Daro’s arm in a friendly sort of way and chattered a response.

“Most excellent news, Daro Daro Keers. Let us be friends. Let us explore new worlds together. Perhaps you can find whatever it is that you need to be happy and perhaps I can be remembered as Glix the Great. For now, my friend, our paths run parallel. Where you go, I will be there….” Daro raised a hand to interrupt the flow of translation.

“About that, Glix. Let’s discuss the matter of… boundaries and personal space…”

The conversation continued for a while in the same vein until they eventually reached something of an agreement. Taking pity on the droid, Daro unplugged the hack chip and it wandered off, looking decidedly confused. Daro gave Glix a grin and putting everything he had into it, convinced he would certainly be right through sheer determination alone, he tried one more time.

“Utini!”

In all cases, three Star Destroyers and a womp-rat will converge upon the zenith day. Free! Free the trapped killiks and rejoice forevermore.

Glix just nodded.

it seemed they were now a team.

Their lives slid into something of a rhythm. After the long chat with the aid of the translator droid, Glix began to give Daro a little space every now and again. The jawa was never far away, however, and Daro began to adjust to having Glix’s company. As it appeared he was stuck on Tattooine, at least for the time being, he forced himself to slow down with the drinking and wasting money and to focus on getting as much work as possible to build the credits back up again.

Of course, such resolutions were made to be broken. Daro made it through a day and a half before he was back to his usual habit of working hard and then spending the day’s credits in a single night, usually on booze. Most days he slept outside which was fine by him, and he resumed his illegal practice of breaking and entering in order to take showers.

My life has actually become a cliche, he realised, somewhat morosely.

For his part, Glix seemed happy and content to just scuttle along at Daro’s side, ‘helping’ the man lift the heavy crates that made up the majority of cargo transfer from ship to port and from port to ship. ‘Helping’ in this context largely translated as ‘get under Daro’s feet with startling regularity and nearly trip him up’. But the jawa’s intentions were clearly good ones and the good-natured Daro didn’t have it in him to get irritated or annoyed with his little friend.

His efforts to speak jawa were coming along just fine. He had definitely begun to pick up some of the greater subtleties of what was actually, when you stopped to break it down, was a remarkable complex language. The fact that he still failed to understand what Glix was saying back to him didn’t seem to worry him, though. He had reached the point where he simply chose his own interpretation and it seemed to be working out.

“Keers. Hey, Keers!” The voice belonged to one of the space port supervisors, the man who’d given Daro three days work and had driven his cheap labour so hard that for the first time in months, Daro was genuinely exhausted. “Come here.”

“Me?”

“Ya see anybody else called Keers standing around like a great lump of bantha shavit? Shift your ass over here. Now! I gotta job for you.”

More lifting, no doubt. Perhaps, just to break the monotony, some carrying. Maybe even some lugging as well. Feeling the aches in his bones more than he’d ever done before, Daro headed over to the supervisor a man so monumentally dull that Daro couldn’t even remember his name.

“Yeah, boss?”

“This your jawa?” He pointed to Glix. Daro looked down at the jawa who raised a hooded head upwards.

“Utini!”

Daro Daro Keers, you are going to like this news! I have worked hard to convince Albrecht here of your skill and talent and he’s prepared to give you a try! Oh, this is so very exciting!

Glix clapped his hands in childish delight.

“Um… well, he’s kind of his own jawa, but yeah, we’re sort of… travelling together.”

“He’s suggested that you know your way around starship engines. That right?”

Daro blinked. “My background is in designing starship engines. I…”

“Yeah, yeah, I don’t need or want your potted life history. Can you repair engines or can’t you?”

“Well, yes, but I don’t have any tools or…”

“There’s a crate in my office. Should have all you need. Get to it. Docking bay sixty three. Starboard engine needs checking out. You’ve got three hours. Go.”

Daro blinked again and remained where he was.

“Two hours, fifty five seconds.”

“Utini!”

You see, Daro Daro Keers? I finally got someone to give you a job worthy of your talents and believe you me, convincing this fine fellow was no easy task. I had to flatter you outrageously, so you’d better make sure you do a good job. And of course, I can help you. Because Glix knows his way around engines too, oh yes.

It was the first truly nice thing that had happened in days and with a grin at the jawa and a nod to the supervisor, Daro headed off to docking bay sixty three and the possible chance of getting himself more credits. All thoughts of that afternoon’s drinking session fled as he immersed himself in the sort of work that he had once loved and enjoyed so much. He missed having a ship to work on. The Nebula hadn’t been much, but she’d been home and he’d spent many happy nights down in the engine room, avoiding the temper of the captain and seeing just what enhancements he could deliver to the ship’s aging engines.

They fell into an easy partnership whilst working. Something in Daro Keers flipped from the airheaded layabout into a fully competent technician when he was working on an engine and Glix picked up on this interesting new… sober aspect of his friend and didn’t get under foot once. Instead, he fetched and carried tools and held things steady and as a consequence, Glix and Daro completed the task half an hour ahead of schedule.

“Good work, Keers. There might be more of that if you’re lucky.” The supervisor nodded his approval and paid Daro for his day’s work, including a handful of additional credits, a small commission from the fee he’d got for himself from the ship’s owner. “You want to thank Glix there. Got yourself a real champion, ain’t you?”

The jawa bounced up and down slightly. “Utini!”

You see, Daro Daro Keers? With your technical expertise and my faultless assistance, we will soon earn enough money to buy our passage off Tattooine. Oh, my dear friend, the big wide universe awaits us! Such adventures we will have!

Daro nodded at the jawa, not understanding a word. Instead, he chose to interpret it the way he wanted.

“You’re right,” he said, clinking the credit chips together in his coat pocket. “This calls for a bottle of best brandy tonight!”

Three hours later, Daro Keers was roaring drunk, sprawled face-down on the cantina table and Glix sat opposite, wondering for the first time if he hadn’t made a terrible, terrible mistake in chancing his future to this man.

He was dying.

There was no other plausible explanation for just how terrible he was feeling. Every time he opened his eyes, the harsh, unrelenting sunlight of Tatooine pounded at the back of his retinas. It wasn’t even a regular rhythm. It wasn’t a gentle ‘thump thump thump. This was an irregular tattoo of THUMPthumpthumpTHUMPTHUMP.

He was dying. Definitely.

On waking Daro followed a certain process. He took a mental stocktake of his body parts, making sure everything was still attached. Limbs, there. Eyes, hurting, but there. Ears, still on the side of his head. His hand absently reached round to the front of his trousers. Yep. Still there. That was something, at least.

So everything was still attached. There was no blood on the ground beneath him. Every muscle in his body was aching. He felt as though he had been wound up so tightly that it was a wonder he hadn’t snapped.

The banging in his head started up again and he moan softly in protest, bringing his arms up to cover his eyes. It did little to help, but he did it anyway.

I. Am. Dying.

He felt, on a supremely bizarre level, exceptionally disappointed. He’d always thought his death would come with a bang, not a whimper. Instead, he was going to waste away, unnoticed in this place.

Where was this place?

Slowly, inch by painstaking inch, he dragged his arms away from his eyes and forced his left eyelid to prise itself upwards. He was… it was hard to make out exactly where he was. Everything was glaringly bright.

Other senses kicked in around this point and after his blurred sight was just starting to focus, his sense of smell turned up with several weeks’ worth of luggage and announced its arrival quite powerfully with a sudden, overwhelming stench of rotting meat and vegetable matter.

Daro felt his stomach react to the arrival of his sense of smell. It bounced around in his torso like a thing possessed and then it cruelly squeezed tightly. He barely had time to catch his breath before he was violently, loudly and comprehensively sick. He vomited repeatedly until there was nothing left to throw up and then he lay back, shaking from a combination of dehydration and horror as the true realisation of his whereabouts permeated his hungover brain.

Apparently, he was in a waste bin.

The first three attempts to clamber out were hindered a little thanks to the smooth sides of the container. By some curious providence, he was able to avoid falling backwards into the veritable ocean of puke that he had generated. On the fourth attempt, he got himself over the edge and then fell the reasonable distance from the bin to the ground.

He landed with a sickening ‘crunch’. He lay there, covered in litter and several half-eaten meals from the cantina that had been thrown out the previous night stunned and startled. After a short time had passed, he began the stock take of his body parts again. Everything was still attached and by some incredible twist of fate, nothing appeared to be broken.

OK, I’m not dying, he grudgingly acknowledged.

He lay on the dusty ground for a while, staring up at the azure blue of the Tatooine day. There was the faintest wisp of cloud set against the endless sapphire welkin and he marvelled at it as though seeing a cloud for the first time in his life. Somewhere, he reasoned, a moisture farmer is getting really excited.

More time passed. The hangover wasn’t getting any better and now it was made worse by the fact that he smelled vile.

Maybe if I just lie here long enough, there’ll be a sandstorm and it’ll cover me up. And all my worries will go away. He considered life as a sand dune for a little longer and then, with a sigh, he realised that he needed to move.

The act of going from lying flat on the ground to all fours took a concerted effort and by the time he managed it, he was exhausted. He must have been going at that brandy hammer and tongs last night to be this broken. Then he became aware of a slight shadow falling across his own. He raised his head slowly. Very slowly. An ambulatory dark brown robe with piercing yellow eyes stood in front of him.

“Oh, hey, Glix.”

Silence.

Daro waited until the silence became too uncomfortable not to fill.

“I… er… dropped something. I’m looking for it. You want to help me, little buddy?”

Silence.

I think he hates you, Keers.

I think you might be right.

He’d never known the jawa to be so very silent and it made him feel more than a little uncomfortable. Several more moments passed and he became acutely aware that a sense of extreme disappointment was radiating from the small figure. A spark of rebellion flared in Daro’s gut and he almost… almost told the jawa to leave him alone, that Glix wasn’t his kriffing mother, but he thought better of it.

“Um… utini? You couldn’t give me a hand to get up, could you? I really, really need some water.”

The day is filled with glass lemons. I like pies!

“Utini.” Just that. Just the one word. No emphasis on the end. It was so severe and so cross, that Daro didn’t even pretend that he’d understood it. Because he had. Perfectly.

“I’m… sorry, little buddy.” All Daro’s bravado left him and with extreme caution, he moved from all fours to sit down, cross-legged in the sand. He was more or less at eye level with his jawa companion and that somehow didn’t help one little bit. He had to look away. The sense of disapproval was too strong. “I get it, now. You want me to buy passage off this planet so we can do… our thing. I… just couldn’t help it. I like a good drink. Maybe too much. I know. Don’t look at me like that, OK? I’m sorry.”

This is what it’s come to, Keers. You’re being schooled in how to grow up. By a jawa. Good going.

Gilx hunkered down and peered closely at Daro.

“Utini?”

“Yes. I promise. I won’t spend any more of my earnings getting drunk.”

“Utini?”

“No, I won’t go back on my word.”

Glix nodded. “Utini.” Then he unclipped the water bottle he wore on the belt across his robe, handing it to Daro. The man took a long pull of life-giving water and sighed heavily. It had taken the friendship of the strangest of little creatures to teach him that he was losing control. It was time, he realised, to stop acting like an idiot and to start getting his shavit together. He gave the water bottle back to Glix, who took it wordlessly.

“Utini?” Daro chanced another one of Gileas’s phrases.

A nexu has eaten my raspberry. Do you know the way to the cantina? A fearful switchblade upon the house of Organa.

Glix reached over with a little gloved hand and tweaked the end of Daro’s nose. It was such a friendly gesture that Daro almost cried. Later, he would blame his tearfulness on the fact that he was so badly hungover, not on the fact that he’d finally found someone to steer him right.

The jawa offered out his hand again and although it was about as much use as nothing at all, Daro took it and got shakily to his feet.

“No more hangovers,” he vowed. “At least, not like this one.”

* * *

Daro’s head was hurting again, but it wasn’t from trying to fight off a hangover. He’d been booze-free for several days now. No, this time, his head was hurting because he was learning.

Both Daro and his older brother, like many of the children on Corellia, had been home-schooled. Kevan had always been the one who understood, who solved complicated maths problems, who wrote the best stories and who even learned to cook the best cake. But Daro always outshone his brother in matters of physical challenges. Daro was the better runner, the better swimmer, the best at climbing trees… and then falling out of said trees and breaking his arm. Daro had been the reason Kevan had almost died at the age of ten, when he’d tried to stop his little brother from climbing too high, had fallen himself and landed on a pane of broken glass that had sliced open his lower abdomen.

Kevan hadn’t died, but he’d never really got on with his little brother after that. Then, of course, he’d left home at fifteen. At that point, Daro’s parents had tried for a late baby in an effort to fill the void left by their older, definitely more beloved son and Daro’s home-schooling had come to an end. He’d been put into an engineering apprenticeship programme and he had finally shone, finding his skill.

But since he’d left Corellia, seven years ago, learning hadn’t been much of a thing for him. Now he was sitting, cross-legged in the sand, with three jawas who were tinier even than Glix. That particular jawa was standing up in front of them and he was teaching.

The three tiny jawas were, Daro had realised, jawa children. It was hard not to pick them up and hug them.

Glix made a barking cough to draw everyone’s attention.

“Po,” Glix began, and the three little jawas immediately picked up the cue.

“Ko, kyo, yo, dyo…” Glix held up a hand to stop them and pointed at Daro encouragingly.

“Oh, gods… uh… Po, ko, kyo, yo, dyo, lyo… the – ah – non-existent seven, ho, toe, ki… ki…”

“Kisewa!” The three little jawas (jawa-lings?) chimed in with the missing number and Glix nodded. Learning the basics of the Jawa trade language was an important lesson for young jawas. And for young humans as well, it seemed.

Daro ached to ask questions. Why was there no number seven in the jawa language? Was it a superstition thing? Were the jawas even superstitious? The more time he spent around the rodent-like creatures, the more curious he was getting. Slowly, bit by bit as he’d started earning Glix’s trust back, the jawa had visibly relaxed. He’d watched Daro like a hawk for a few days, noting the effort the big man was putting in to sorting his life out and this, it seemed was his reward.

One of the tiny jawas got up and scuttled over to Daro, clambering into the big man’s crossed lap. It looked up at him and offered up a slow blink of its yellow eyes.

“Ayafa,” it said.

Glix nodded. “Ayafa.”

Later, much later, Daro learned that ‘ayafa’ translated as ‘clan’.

Squared Away [Overwatch]

5B1D0A6C-FA89-44B4-A3D9-817EA093AB7F

“No. Absolutely not.”

Reinhardt’s ham fist slammed down on the table and the machine parts jumped a clear four inches into the air before clattering back to the surface. He scowled and looked across the table at the young woman. She met his uni-glower calmly and even had the audacity to smile with indulgent affection.

“No,” he repeated, although there was slightly less conviction in his tone. “Absolutely…”

“Reinhardt, I know you mean ‘absolutely’,” she interjected, cheerfully – the way she did most things. There was an incorrigible side to Brigitte Lindholm that even adversity did not seem to supress. At least she wasn’t as infernally cheery as Lena Oxton, whose never-ending energy was exhausting. And there he was, thinking of Overwatch again…

Nein, honigbiene,” he said, a tone of desperation creeping in as he used the term of endearment he’d adopted for her not long after becoming her godfather. Honeybee. It suited her, too: Brigitte was always busy, working on this thing or that thing or the other thing and he had, over the years, encouraged her. Now that was coming back to boot him quite squarely in the posterior. “It is too dangerous to…”

He’d chosen his words poorly. He could tell by the way her eyes hardened suddenly. “I am not afraid.”

“I know that, schatzi, I know. But…”

“I know your armour better than you do.”

“I have managed without…”

“Why manage without when you can have assistance? Trust me, Reinhardt. I know you look at me and see that baby girl pulling your beard, but I grew up.”

Yes. She’d certainly done that. Torbjorn had related to his friend over dinner the previous night just how he had already had to interpose himself between Brigitte and a number of would-be suitors. She attracted the sort of element who weretaken in at first by her pretty face and who later succumbed to her extraordinary ability to drink them under the table.

“Bees,” Torbjorn had said, sadly, “around a honeypot.”

Yes, Brigitte had certainly grown up. She was no longer a child, but a young woman. As gifted and stubborn as her father, as warm-hearted and compassionate as her mother and, he reluctantly conceded, apparently as fearless as her godfather.

And as foolhardy?

It was Ana’s voice in the back of his mind and a small smile quirked his lips upward. Brigitte’s moment of anger had subsided and she sighed heavily. “When I was nine years old, I asked you a question. You wouldn’t tell me the answer. You said you’d explain one day when I was old enough to truly understand. Do you remember what it was?”

Why don’t the Crusaders protect us any more?

Yes, he remembered. He put his hand briefly over his eyes and drew a shuddering sigh. He’d not wanted to explain to a child why it was that after the battle at Eichenwalde, the Crusaders had fallen apart. After Balderich’s death – a death he still carried the weight of responsibility for – the protectors had fallen away one by one, returning to their own lives. He’d taken Balderich’s place on the Overwatch team…

“Reinhardt?”

“I remember.”

“Then tell me.”

He let his hand drop and stared down at the table. In a low voice, so soft that she had to strain to hear him, he began to relate the answer to a question she’d asked so many years ago. When he was done, when the words finally passed his lips and into the air, he could not look up at her. He was afraid to see the disgust in her eyes. Brigitte was the daughter he had never had; the child he had indulged outrageously. He’d known how to handle her when she’d been a child. It was easy. But this woman… she was different. The child had been an extension of Torbjorn and Ingrid. Now she was a person in her own right.

Reinhardt had never understood women. Looked like that wasn’t about to change.

The silence stretched out. Aeons passed. Ice ages came and went, but nobody noticed.

I have lost her. The sense of grief was profound. He coughed to cover the moment of emotion and made to stand. “I should go.”

“Reinhardt… sit down.”

Alarmed at her tone, he sat. She nodded firmly, then absently stroked the cheek of the cat who had jumped up onto the table and who was winding itself around her hand with feline joy. She studied her godfather intently and he shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. All these years, you’ve filled me with stories of honour and chivalry… of heroes and valour. Of how honesty is the only true way forward. Have you really carried this around all these years? What did you think I would do?”

He looked up then, his single bright, blue eye clouded with emotion. “That you would be angry. That I would lose you.That you will hate me for the fool I was.” He shuddered. “That is why I never told you the full story. You are everything to me. Your father, your mother, you and your siblings… the closest I have to family. You wouldn’t see me as a hero any more. Just… just as a man with flaws and secrets.” Even as he said the words, he resented their selfishness.

“Oh, Reinhardt…” She moved from her side of the table to stand in front of him. The cat came as well, tripping lightly over the cluttered debris on the table. It leaped lightly from the table and sat on Reinhardt’s lap, treadling happily until it was comfortable before curling up in the big man’s lap.

Brigitte took his hand in her own smaller one and squeezed gently. “You still are a hero. Haven’t you and Papa taught me that accepting your flaws is all part of becoming who you’re meant to be?”

“Yes, but a man died because…”

“You’re making a chicken out of a feather,” she said, quoting her father’s nonsense with such ease that the big man could not help but smile. “You’ve told me stories of Balderich before. He would be proud of what you achieved. Of all the people you helped when you served with Overwatch. And if you are going to crash around the world without direction, attempting to redeem yourself because of a poor choice you made in your youth, you are going to need an engineer. So let me come with you. Let me learn what it is to be a true hero. Flaws and all.”

A wave of affection washed over him and he squeezed her hand back. She was a gifted engineer, that was absolutely fair. She’d already worked on – and even improved – elements of his aging Crusader armour. She was bold. She was self-assured. She was…

“My squire,” he said, suddenly.

“Pardon me?”

“You can be my squire! Responsible for my armour.”

“And for you as well, I expect.”

He ignored that.

“Do we have a deal, then?” Torbjorn would object, he could see it already, but that was an argument for later. Brigitte studied him for a moment, then shook his hand firmly.

“Deal.”

She threw her arms around his neck, much as she had done when she’d been a child and hugged him. “You won’t regret it, Reinhardt, I promise you.”

“No,” he said, amiably, “but you might.”