Two days later
Li-am residence, Obroa-skai
1 year, 3 months BBY
A gloved hand ran over the barrel of a Mandalorian Assault Pistol, the grooves felt even through the microionized beskar weave of the crushgaunt. A cleaning rag followed not long after, the item used to clean the weapon in a rote, mind-numbing process.
A black eyebrow arched very slightly, but the eyes below never left the blaster.
"Xel, you in there?"
You already know the answer, he thought absently.
The rapid approach of steps alerted him to the interruption of his solitude. "Are you intentionally avoiding us?"
Xel sighed softly, pulling the rag back to complete the shine of his blaster's finish, then inspecting the barrel for carbon scoring. "Maybe I just want to be alone."
"You've been alone for the past two days."
"So? I've been around you two for the last four months. I think I'm entitled to some alone time, vod."
His brother frowned and crossed his arms, leaning against the doorframe of the Kandosii'tal's armory. "Did you have this much when you lived on Mandalore?"
Xel hesitated barely a moment before continuing his maintenance. "More. I'm tired of all the noise. Need a break." He rose from his chair, blowing dust off the pistol barrel and placing it back in the holster belt slung over a nearby hanging peg. He strode to the crew quarters, taking a plasma torch from his bed and heading back to the armory. A welding visor went over his features as he set a chunk of durasteel down on the workbench and started melting sections of it away.
Alen watched him silently for a long time. "So what are you doing?"
Xel's sigh was barely audible over the hiss of his plasma torch. "Making a shell."
He turned the torch off and lifted his visor, holding up the durasteel to the light and scrunching up his face at the marred surface. "Haar'chak. It's supposed to be for my lightsaber."
Alen's expression darkened slightly.
"Which I know you won't let me build anyway."
His brother's eyebrows shot up. "But we never—"
"What, told me I was barred? No, you didn't." He tossed the ruined metal into a trash bin and picked up another ingot. "I decided to save you the trouble." He huffed as the plasma torch activated again and his visor went down. "Doesn't mean I'm done learning. See, you can't stop me from doing that."
Alen was silent a long time. "Xel, we—"
"Just have my best interest at heart, I know." The torch shut off. Xel pulled his visor off and tossed his tools aside, setting the metal where it would stay untouched, then cleaning up and heading down the ramp. This wasn't a conversation to be had with Alen alone. Half a minute passed before he found Telia. His eyebrows rose.
The Jedi Knight was taking on eight remotes at once, deflecting bolt after bolt in a non-stop pattern of arcs and parries, her feet hardly moving and eyes shut.
"Shab," Xel breathed out, his eyes hardly able to track her lightning-fast flow of moves, her blade a whirlwind of emerald light. That kind of skill…can I ever hope to match it? His eyes drifted to an inactive holocron, and he frowned. Not if I don't get new resources. He didn't notice the stop in the remotes' firing patterns until Telia's lightsaber deactivated.
His head snapped in her direction.
"I wanted to tell you a while ago, but…we're stopping your training for now."
He nodded. "I know. I understand why, to a degree."
Her eyebrows furrowed. "To a degree?"
"I understand how my…lack of control might put you both at risk of discovery, but…" He looked away, expression twisting in slight anger and pain. His dark eyes met hers in an intense stare. "Vader?"
She paled a little.
"You honestly think that I would ever betray you to him? Or anyone, for that matter? You're family. He killed my buir. He tried to kill me." His fists clenched and a heavy breath left his body as his tone turned pained and eyes drifted down. "Mom, do you really think so little of me?"
Two firm hands gripped his shoulders. "Never, Xel, but you have to understand something. You will never know just how tempting the Dark Side is until you face it, and though I desperately hope you never have to, the reality is that someday, you will. I love you, son, but I'm afraid for you if and when that happens. Your anger, your rage and hatred, all of it counts against you when facing servants of the Dark like Vader. They'll turn those feelings against you, twist you into something you're not, all with the promise of power."
He looked at her. "I don't want power. I just…I just want to live."
"The Dark Side is rarely so obvious. It'll disguise itself as freedom, or protection, or the ability to save those you love. It corrupts ordinarily pure desires and forces you to surrender more and more of yourself until the person in the mirror is unrecognizable." Her hands tightened around his shoulders. "I can't bear the thought of losing you like that."
Gloved hands grasped hers as he looked into her eyes. "Then trust me, buir." His expression set in certainty. "Trust me when I say you won't."
There was something in his voice, in his expression and stance, that pushed a button in her head. The Force whispered in her mind, and the pieces in it so excited and disturbed by his rampant emotions suddenly settled. A staggered breath left her as her mouth opened and eyes widened in surprise. What she felt coming from him, rolling off in waves…it was like Xander had never left.
Balance, a small voice whispered in her mind. Telia smiled as she recalled the memory, her house fading to the background of her consciousness as she practically felt the cold floor of the Venator-class Star Destroyer under her feet, smelled the metal of the parked LAAT/i gunships and acrid scent of engine fuel. The warmth of Xander's hand against hers, his bare index drawing patterns on her arm as they watched a Rylothian sunset. The reassuring cool of his armor against her back. The small, whispering voice in her ear as he opened himself to her in the Force, allowing her to sense every dreg of his feelings, every scrap of hate, love, resolve, anger, longing.
As she opened her eyes, the dark blur in front of her materialized into her son, who was staring at her with those same piercing eyes, different in color but not in quality. He cocked his head slightly at her sudden lack of focus, or so she thought. A small smile came to her face as she gripped his shoulders a little tighter.
"I trust you, Xel." She pulled him into a hug, pressing against him tightly, as if her hold were all it took to keep him in her life. I don't want to lose him to the Dark Side, but if I keep pushing him into my mold instead of his natural bent, I'll lose him to his resentment. "And I'm sorry if I've done anything to make you think otherwise."
He pulled away gently. "Does this mean my training's back on?"
She narrowed her eyes slightly. "Not yet. I'm still not comfortable with how badly you let loose the other day."
He avoided her gaze. "I'm not either, but stopping my training isn't going to help with that."
Telia pursed her lips. "Fair enough, but the holocrons can only tell you to keep your anger in check. They can't teach you how." She backed up a few steps, using the Force to activate several remotes at once. "I can."
Without warning or prelude, all four remotes fired at once, the sharp zaps resonating through Xel's beskar'gam though the armor deflected the worst of it. In reality, all he felt was a slight punch whenever the bolts hit him, but as he'd decided months before, the true damage of these remotes was psychological. Despite his evasive maneuvers, Xel kept getting shot repeatedly, a small chunk of his professional pride dying with the zaps' contact. Gritting his teeth, his mind raced for options, reaching out to the Force and Gripping two of the remotes, sending them flying into two others before ducking a zap from the unaltered one.
Using Force Focus to effectively slow down time, Xel spotted Alen's lightsaber hanging on his belt and reached out to it, calling it to his hand within the space of a second and thumbing it on to deflect two bolts from returning remotes. As he settled into a familiar pattern of Focus and defense, Xel closed his eyes and used one hand to activate the saber's nonlethal function, just in case things got out of hand. A zap got through his defenses, and he grit his teeth as his anger rose.
"Use it," a voice whispered.
His eyes opened and locked on to Telia, who was standing with her arms crossed just twenty feet away. Use it, he reminded himself, smiling malevolently and taking that internal spark in both hands. As he reached out to the Force, he felt a rush of power flood into his system, not as powerful as what he'd felt when he saved Alen or so uncontrollable as when he'd nearly killed the Gran, but just enough to keep the remotes at bay while allowing him room to breathe and think about his next move. With this rush of confidence came a startling realization. His anger wasn't really fire, it was fuel. What that fuel was used for was his decision, but he had to decide or risk letting it decide for him.
Focusing in the Force, he kept the remotes at bay with relative ease, struggling just a little more when Telia upped their difficulty setting. Telia! Of course! Since he had decided to focus on the Shien style of saber combat a few days earlier, Xel had done all he could to learn about the form, even going so far as to access the holocron behind his mother's back. As he'd told Alen, they couldn't stop him from learning. That said, Shien wasn't just meant to defend you against multiple opponents, it was meant for counterattack. With remotes, the point of the exercise was defense, so counterattack was virtually useless…or so he'd thought.
Deflecting two more shots and spinning his blade in a wide arc to intercept three others, Xel called on the Force and leapt over a couch, rolling on impact to fall into a sprint toward the source of their direction. Telia's eyebrows shot up as her son sprinted straight for her, saber going to position four at his back to deflect an incoming bolt, then swinging at her center mass. The Jedi ducked the strike, unclipping her own saber as the remotes chased, but not activating it. Xel adapted quickly, spinning back around and executing a 360 degree slash at her midsection that never landed.
Xel simply smirked and pressed forward, almost absently deflecting two shots and ducking a third as he lunged toward her again, settling into a pattern of slashes and thrusts, all of which were dodged by the highly experienced Knight until she was backed into a corner. Green met blue in a flash of light and sparks, Xel grunting as two shots zapped him in the back. He pulled away, executing a tight backflip after briefly deactivating his saber, then reactivating it upon landing to catch four bolts in quick succession. His eyes widened as the green glow of his mother's blade approached. Uh-oh.
Xel blocked a strike at his leg followed by a neckward slash that he ducked. Zap-block, slash-duck, combat roll. His teeth clenched as he tried to put some distance between them. Shien's a lot harder to pull off than it looks in the holocron. A slash at his arm was deflected and countered with an upward cut. Telia sidestepped it and motioned for one of the remotes to flank him. Xel also motioned, but he sent the remote clattering into a wall, temporarily taking it out of the game as he kept her relatively infrequent attacks at bay, repeating the same tactic with each of the remotes in turn until it was only him and Telia.
He pressed the attack, trying to break her focus on the remotes and keep them out of the fight. Her blade met his again and again in a blinding series of flashes and explosive sizzles, both of them calling on the Force more and more, the house around them fading into the category of irrelevant noise as their duel intensified. She was holding back, and he knew it, so he pressed the attack, practically slamming their sabers together and actually adding Force to his strikes. The new tactic threw Telia off a bit, and she withdrew for a moment to reassess her situation. When he charged forward and leapt into the air, she rolled to the side, barely dodging his downward-cutting Falling Avalanche.
But that small margin was intended.
As she spun to face him, climbing to her feet simultaneously, her blade slashed horizontally, grazing his chest armor as he withdrew. Immediately, she followed this strike with a Force Push that sent him careening into a nearby couch. Xel awkwardly rolled off the cushions to his feet, throwing up his hand to Push a reactivated remote into its partner and Force Jumping the distance to Telia, curling and flipping midair to dodge another zap. As he fell toward her, a sharp feeling of unease ran through him, his mind wondering at the smirk on her face until she raised her hand and increased the rate of his descent.
"Woah!" he yelled, throwing up his forearm and saber as she sidestepped out of the way, slashing both his defensive measures as he flew past her. Xel clambered to his feet, thrusting his saber toward her blindly and having it knocked from his hand a moment later. Big uh-oh. Even knowing her saber wasn't lethal at the moment, he couldn't help but feel fear at the lightning-fast thrust she directed at his chest. His eyes snapped shut and hands closed into fists. The sizzles of lightsaber contact reached his ears, as did Telia's sharp intake of breath. When he opened his eyes, he could see why.
Both his hands were wrapped around her blade, actually holding it in place just three inches from his chest plate. His eyes widened.
"How?" he asked. "I mean, I know it's non-lethal, but…it always hurts."
She looked down at his hands and smirked. "Of course."
Telia withdrew, and he released the blade as she deactivated it. "Your gloves."
"What about—?" He stopped in his tracks, looking down at the crushgaunts. "Oh," he breathed in realization, Alen's confused figure approaching in his peripheral vision.
"What's 'oh?'" he asked.
Telia and Xel looked at him, then at his gloves. "Mandalorian crushgaunts," she said. "Made with a microionized beskar weave."
"So…oh Force, you've gotta be kidding me." Alen approached, mouth wide open, grabbing his brother's hands and inspecting them. "He can catch lightsaber blades?"
She smiled and nodded.
"Useful?" Xel suggested.
"Amazing. I'd never heard of anything like that before."
"There's a lot you don't know about Mandos."
Alen scrunched up his face a bit. "Startin' to think it'd be in my best interest to." His blue eyes locked with Xel's. "And I'd like you to teach me."
"We'll both teach you," Telia said, looping arms around both their shoulders. "No reason Xel should be the only one learning."
Alen was silent a while. "It's a shame it took me so long to realize that."
Xel thought about it for a few moments. "Well…I can't say I blame you for not considering it. After all, Mandos, war, anger. I represent all those things, and I'm so completely opposed to the way you were raised. I get that it'd be a little off-putting."
"Well…consider me 'put on.'"
"Have you found him?"
"No, my lord, but I have narrowed down his location to the Obroa-skai system."
Darth Vader was silent for so long, his apprentice began to think he hadn't heard him. "I see…and how to you intend to rectify this lapse in knowledge?"
The silver-eyed man kneeling at his feet bowed his head and pursed his lips. "I am…considering several options."
"A trap, my lord. We will have to draw him out."
"With what bait? What do we have that he could want?" Vader knew the answer to that question, but he left its acquisition to his apprentice. For all his time in my service, he is still lacking.
Suddenly, the pale man's eyes widened and a small smirk settled onto his face. "You, my lord. Xel Caden is Mandalorian, and in my research, I have found them to be a vindictive people. If you are seen in the Obroa-skai system, he may attempt to take his revenge."
Vader smiled behind his helmet, striding away and folding his hands behind his back, once again staring out into the dense metropolis of Coruscant. "I see." His eyes closed as he recalled a memory. They opened a moment later and focused on his kneeling guest as he once again verified his suspicions. "He is not alone."
The man's eyes narrowed in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"When I slew his father on Nar Shaddaa, I could feel the hint of his presence, even after he jumped out of the system. His anger was like a signal flare, obvious but imprecise. Barely two days later, that presence and anger vanished."
His apprentice rose to his feet. "You mean…someone is concealing him?"
Vader looked out at the metropolis again. "More likely, someone is training him."
The man got his meaning. "A Jedi. Caden is under the protection of a Jedi."
"Which means we must have supplemental bait, one for the boy and the other his guardian." Vader could see the gears turning in his apprentice's head.
"I see, my lord. I will…meditate on this."
"See that you do," Vader ordered with a point of his finger. "Failure in this matter will not be tolerated. If he vanishes because of your incompetence…"
The man bowed low. "I understand, my master. I will not fail you."
"Then you are dismissed." With a whirlwind of black cloak, Vader strode away from his apprentice back toward the window, crossing his arms as he stared up into the night sky. That boy will be mine. Let the Jedi try to defend him. His mechanical right fist clenched hard. Not even the Force can save those who oppose me.