6 months later
8 months BBY
"Where did you see her last?"
"Lower plates, about two miles downhill from here."
Xel looked down, fingering the holo in his gloved hand as his potential client looked into his black visor for any sign of acceptance. He nodded once. "I'll take the job." He pocketed the holo and turned around, moving downhill and tapping the side of his helmet. "Alen, you there?"
"I am," he responded evenly, though the background noise on his end indicated he was climbing rather briskly.
"How's the gravity treating you?"
The other boy snorted loudly. "Like a gundark mother treats an intruder."
"Just watch for sinkholes. This whole planet's surface is like sand. One wrong step and you'll find yourself buried under a couple dozen tons of rock."
"The Force will guide me."
Xel rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "You know, sometimes I question your sanity."
"Come on, how can you say that if you've felt it?"
"Because I don't blindly rely on it," he retorted, mounting onto a speeder bike and throttling up. "I don't blindly rely on anything, not my beskar'gam, not my blasters." He rounded a corner of rocks, noting the vibrations and slight movement brought about by Bogden's constantly shifting tectonic plates. "You can arm yourself with the fanciest kit and shiniest armor, but at the end of the day, the only things you can rely on are your body and mind."
"Well, seeing as how the Force is connected to both, doesn't that just make it an extension?"
Xel opened his mouth and thought about it for a moment before shrugging. "Fair point." His bike zipped through the rocky crags and went over a rocky bridge, a gust of heat coming from an exposed vent in the ground 20 feet below. "Who the shab would ever want to live here?"
"Those who don't have anywhere else to go. I reckon we'll find a good number of fugitives and/or criminals here."
"Agreed. That also means that my bounty may not have just been a victim of the shifting ground."
"Speaking of, who is your bounty?"
Xel glanced at an image in the upper-left corner of his HUD. "Iola Voss. She's something called a Jerun, a species I've never even seen before."
"I haven't heard of them either. You have a holo?"
Caden tapped a key on his left forearm, sending the picture to Alen's datapad.
"Well…she doesn't look all that different from a human, apart from the, er, eyebrows."
"Yeah, those are a little weird, like the rest of her hair. It's almost like they're…fleshy, not dead cells."
"We've seen stranger things on the streets of Nar Shaddaa."
Xel grunted as the bike's side plating smacked briefly against a shifting boulder. "True. Anyway, I'm coming up on her last known location now." The bike shot toward a steadily widening rift, the throttle maxing out as he barely cleared the gap. "Too close," he muttered.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. I'll be going underground soon, so I may drop out of contact for a bit. Send me an update when you have something."
"You got it."
Xel pulled his speeder to a stop by the entrance of a cave, laying it down on a patch of flat ground and powering it down completely as he dismounted and marched into the hole, drawing his right blaster and turning on his night vision, all six senses trained on the ominous darkness ahead. He made sure his suit was air-sealed before striding forward into the mouth of a potentially suffocating death.
Just ten miles away laterally, but actually over twenty given differences in elevation, Alen climbed the last set of rocks that led to his target. Clambering into a crouch, he dashed behind a rock and pressed his back against it, slowly leaning to peek around the corner. Just like we thought. He withdrew behind cover, taking a deep breath and reaching for the cloth hanging off the side of his open helmet, drawing it up and left to clip its loose side to an identical position, masking the lower half of his face and leaving only his eyes exposed to the harsh atmosphere and prying eyes. Alen moved from cover to cover, staying as low as possible and timing his movements with the patterns of the guards patrolling the perimeter.
There wasn't supposed to be any fighting on this op, and if the now-fourteen Jedi had anything to say about it, he would stick to the plan. The trick was not getting seen. As he glanced around another corner, two Mirialan guards passed by, toting BlasTech A-280 blaster rifles. He figured the rest would have similar kit. Light footfalls took him toward the small outpost, within ten feet of its massive circular base, the tower jutting upward about seventy feet with five floors. He closed his eyes and called on the Force, channeling it into his legs and leaping twenty feet upward to the second floor, a quick Force scan of that level showing no one in sight.
If the intelligence that had brought them here was good, what he was looking for was on the fifth floor. He carefully made his way to the nearby turbolift and keyed a summons, scanning the elevator for life and finding nothing. That said, he was almost perfectly calm and relaxed when the doors slid open—
Revealing a half-dozen B-1 battle droids on the other end.
As Alen's right hand fell to the new Bryar blaster pistol at his left hip, one voiced thought came to his head.
Xel rounded another corner, blasters held high at the ready as he scanned the dark rocky corridors for any signs of his target. The walls around him groaned under the stress of the moving tectonic plates and small rocks and dust started to rain down on him. His teeth gritted. Gotta hurry this up. Much as he hated to admit it, he would never get this job done in time to avoid being buried if he didn't rely fully on the guidance of the Force to keep him alive, so he opened himself completely and started running. The hunter side of his brain was screaming for him to take more caution, but the animal side was screaming for him to get his business done and get the hell out.
No matter how disciplined one is, when fear is involved, the animal side usually wins. Heavy booted footfalls carried Xel rapidly through one chamber after the next, the darkness starting to light up a little as he got closer to a life sign. She must have gone toward the light in hopes of escape. The moment he entered a fairly large, circular room, he felt a warning from the Force and ducked just in time for a large rock to sail over his head. A quick glance was enough to confirm his suspicions.
"Stand down!" he shouted, aiming both blasters at the attacker's center mass.
Two slender hands raised, but not in surrender. Another rock flew toward him, and he cocked his head as it bounced harmlessly off his armor. Xel's blasters slid into his holsters solidly as he strode toward the shadowed form on the other side of the room. She shrunk back slightly, her stance shifting to a coiled crouch, as if she were preparing to pounce. "It won't do you any good. Really."
A sharp hiss preceded the figure's leap. Xel effortlessly sidestepped and dumped her on her back, pinning her there with his right forearm.
"Are you done?"
Sky blue eyes looked up into his unyielding visor, forest green "hair" complementing them beautifully and contrasting with tan skin.
"Who are you?" a feminine voice asked.
"Your ticket out of here," he answered, letting off the pressure and offering his hand.
She took it.
"Mel Yonis sent me to find you," he added as he pulled her to her feet, noting for the first time that this woman was a good inch taller than him.
Iola Voss smirked and snickered derisively. "I'll bet he did. Soon as he figured out I slipped that ingot out of his bag when he dumped me down here."
Xel's eyebrows furrowed. "Wait…what?"
A sudden shove from the Force prompted Xel to tackle Iola behind a fallen rock, narrowly pushing her out of the way of a blaster salvo.
"Cease fire!" he yelled, drawing a blaster and preparing to nail whoever was shooting at him. As he reached out with the Force, he realized there were four of them. "Yonis!"
The blaster fire stopped abruptly.
"Ah," the man said mockingly from the shadows, his voice echoing off the walls, "Mister Caden. A shame you had to go digging."
"I didn't dig for anything. Voss volunteered the information the moment I mentioned your name. But now that she did, I'm curious. What's this about dumping her here?"
"That ingot is worth over 100K on the black market."
"And you just couldn't help yourself with the obligation of splitting it with your partner." Xel shook his head. "Typical criminal scum." He popped out of cover, nailing one of the attackers with a trio of shots to center mass before returning behind the rock. "If you were planning to stab me in the back, you should've brought more men." He shot the base of a hanging stalactite above an enemy, sending the shard crashing onto him. "And tougher." Caden could feel Yonis' anger in the Force and rolled his eyes as a result. Fool. As if your anger helps any.
"I don't need to beat you, Caden. I just need to get that ingot and make sure you and your new friend never leave here alive."
"Fat chance!" Iola yelled, firing a blaster in the direction of Yoris' voice and, surprisingly, tagging him, if the screams were any indication.
When Xel looked at her, he realized she'd pilfered one of his own blasters. His eyes narrowed. Smooth. Not many people can pickpocket me. A nudge in the back of his head prompted him to turn around, but the attacker was faster. His helmet slammed against the rock they were hiding behind, dazing him as the large figure disarmed Iola and picked her up by the neck. As she sputtered for air, he tried to regain his footing, eyes glancing up to see a Togorian holding Iola suspended and reaching into a bag at her hip, pulling out an aurodium ingot and pocketing it before dumping her unceremoniously on Xel.
The massive bipedal cat sprinted back toward Yoris, handing him the ingot, which glinted faintly in the minimal light.
"Pleasure doing business with you," Yoris hissed painfully, placing a device on the entrance's archway.
The rapid series of beeps coming from it was Xel's only warning as he picked up the half-unconscious Jerun at his feet and ran for cover.
Repainted metal clattered to the floor as a Bryar blaster pistol discharged once again. Great, just what I needed. Alen gritted his teeth as he entered the turbolift, hurriedly keying the top floor as loud footsteps reached his ears. The doors closed and the lift shot upward, taking him to the fifth floor mere seconds later. When they slid open again, he was only a little surprised to see more droids on the other end. A Force Push sent most of them flying back into a wall, but two or three managed to heft E-5 rifles and fire in his direction, but he dodged their shots and returned three of his own, all of them neatly severing their metal heads.
Shouts and more rushing footsteps reached his ears as he ran out the door, sealing the room beyond with the intact droids inside as he rushed for his objective. The loud bdapps of A-280 rifles rang out, several crimson laser bolts smacking into the walls next to Alen as he ran on the circular balcony of the outpost, managing to get to another door without incident. He sealed himself inside, turning toward the far end of the room to see a Corellian man sitting at a desk, blaster in hand and aimed at his head. Alen raised his hands, blaster held loosely.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?"
The ice in the other man's voice was enough to freeze Mustafar.
"I can tell you what I'm not doing here. I'm not looking for a fight."
Green eyes narrowed at the boy.
"I need information, on a shipment that you oversaw just two weeks ago."
"I don't discuss business with strangers."
Alen slowly holstered the Bryar and removed the cloth from his face. "Then let's not be strangers. I'm Lan Milae." He held out his hand, slowly withdrawing it as it became clear the man wouldn't play along. "Look, just a few answers and I'll be out of your hair for good."
The man's finger tightened around the trigger of his weapon. "No deal."
The shot missed Alen's head by barely a half inch as he snapped sideways, raising his right hand simultaneously. His fingers made a grabbing motion, and the man sputtered and froze for a moment before faceplanting on his desk, blaster falling out of limp fingers. Alen sighed and strode over to him, pulling his chair back and thumbing through his datapad. Shipment…two standard weeks ago…Rishi system. He pulled the exact coordinates from the 'pad, downloading them to a data disc and putting that disc in a pouch at his belt. He laid the 'pad down, wiping all traces of his hack, and put a hand on the Corellian's forehead, channeling Force into his mind and erasing the memory of their meeting before walking toward his secondary exit.
The door opened a few seconds later when he read the latent Force energy and punched in the correct sequence, allowing him full access to a secret turbolift. The lift went straight down six floors, to an underground hangar with a small airborne speeder. He quickly keyed it on and shot out of the hangar's exit into the fading light, pulling his comlink from his belt.
"Xel, if you can hear me, mission accomplished. I've got the numbers."
Several sharp coughs gave Xel extra proof that his bounty was still alive despite her former partner's best attempts. His armored boots met the dust and pebble-covered ground, body rising to a kneeling position as he got his bearings.
"Voss? Miss Voss!"
"Here," she coughed, crawling toward him and brushing off rocky debris. "Can't believe that bastard."
"I can," he replied coolly, approaching where the entrance had been to see a pile of massive rocks they could never hope to move.
"This sort of thing happens all the time then."
"In my world, yes." He ran his fingers along the rock walls, looking for any fault lines, anything he could use a wrist rocket to make an exit with. "In most of the galaxy, actually."
"I wouldn't know."
He gave her a sideways look before returning to his task.
"If you're looking for another way out, there isn't one. Trust me, I've checked."
"I tend to be a lot more thorough than most people."
"My people don't overlook details, even in this darkness."
Xel blinked as a thought occurred to him. "Darkness," he whispered, turning toward the faint light. "There has to be a gap where that's coming from," he added, pointing in the light's direction.
"There is, but the rock around it is unstable. Any explosives would send the whole place caving in on us."
Just then, a massive rumble shook the cave, and they were both made acutely aware of the planet's shifting.
"Then again," she said, "it looks to me like a cave-in is damn near inevitable. Follow me."
They both ran across the chamber, rounding a corner to find a small, hand-sized gap where the fading sunlight was streaming through.
"See? The wall where this hole is supports the ceiling of this whole area. If we blow it up—"
"We'll be crushed," he finished, looking over the rock and focusing in the Force. It's not terribly thick…I could probably Blast it open. He looked back at Iola and pursed his lips. Which would thoroughly expose me. He clenched his teeth and stared at the hole taunting him, noticing larger and larger rocks starting to fall near and around them. We don't have time for subtlety. He reached down to a slim, long hardcase on the right side of his belt, thumb depressing a button and opening its bottom as a cylinder dropped into his hand.
"Stand back," he ordered, nudging her with his right arm as he pointed the cylinder out to the side.
A blazing sapphire blade sprung into existence with a loud, ringing hiss, its edge's color nearly matching Xel's eyes and definitely matching their fury as it plunged into the rock wall. Molten rock spat from where he was cutting a doorway just large enough to fit one of them at a time, trying to make an exit without immediately destabilizing the cave. Just as a large rock smacked the ground right next to Voss, causing her to yelp, the door was finished and dislodged with a firm, Force-enhanced kick from Xel. Rocks tumbled out of the hole as the Mando crouched and edged himself through, his lightsaber powering down with a hiss as Iola followed.
"Woah!" he yelled, holding her back with one arm as he stared into a mile-long drop.
"Okay," she said panickedly, "this is a problem."
"Not really," he said confidently, putting both arms around her midsection and leaping off the side.
She screamed at the top of her lungs as they free-fell over 200 feet before he kicked in his new jetpack, turning their drop into a glide that became a climb. His left hand raised and thumb flexed in a particular way, firing a grappling hook that adhered to the highest point on the mountain the cave was carved into, reeling them in and giving extra push as they shot upward. He arced off at the last second, detaching the line and taking them toward the entrance of the cave on another side. His eyes widened at the steadily opening rifts between the mountain and the way he'd came even as they touched down next to his battered speeder.
"Well," he said, successfully activating its engine, "at least they didn't sabotage it. Climb on!"
Iola held onto his armored midsection for dear life as they shot off away from the sunset, speeding over rocks and flat ground to make their way back up the way he'd came. The rift he'd jumped over last time was even bigger than before, and this time they were going uphill. Gritting his teeth, Xel maxed out the throttle as he felt the fear of the woman behind him and closed his eyes, focusing all of his own fear and anger in the Force. A slight nudge to the forward steering vanes tipped the bike upward, its engine giving a massive diagonal thrust as they cleared the edge of their side.
The bike flew through the air, arcing steadily downward as the girl shrieked and the Mando kept his focus on keeping them aloft. A loud skidding noise reached his ears as a jolt reached his body, the bike sputtering for a few beats before resuming its normal suicidal pace. He glanced back and down before returning his eyes to the road. We made it…actually made it. A smile came to his face as he leaned forward against the handlebars.
"You all right?" Xel could hear Iola trying to force back her vomit as she answered.
"Please…don't—ever—do that again."
The Mando grinned as he noticed a blinking light on his HUD, opening the message and hearing his brother's voice blare through his helmet's internal speakers.
"Mission accomplished. I've got the numbers."
His smile widened as he absently guided them back to Yonis' base of operations. After all this time…finally. His eyes closed reverently. We're coming, buir. Just hold on a little longer.
A loud beep from Alen's comlink prompted him to pull it off his belt. "Alen here."
"Got your message, vod. So we're in business?"
Alen smiled and nodded. "We are. How are things on your end?"
"Uh…slight issue. My 'employer' decided to double-cross me and maximize his profits. I got the girl out, but he stole an aurodium ingot from her before leaving us for dead."
"Ohh…bad idea on his part. Never leave a Mando to die, and especially not my brother."
"Damn right. Might need your help though."
"Got it. Just send me the coordinates." Alen's datapad beeped, and he checked it briefly before nodding. "On my way. Sit tight 'til I get there."
"No promises. I don't take kindly to attempts on my life."
Alen just rolled his eyes and closed the connection. Always on the move.
Xel's right index pressed against the side of his helmet, zooming his built-in macrobinoculars out as he finished surveying the small complex below.
He turned to the speaker. "So?"
Iola nodded at his belt, specifically the right side. "Where'd you get it?"
Xel turned away and returned his eyes to the complex. "None of your business."
"Hey, it's just a question."
"A question with a lot of uncomfortable ramifications for me. These—" he retrieved his saber from the hardcase, "—are highly illegal under Imperial law."
"Then why do you have one?"
He gave her a long look behind his t-visor. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly a law-abiding citizen." He reloaded his pistols, having gotten his second back from Iola. "Furthest thing from it," he muttered to himself.
"What do you mean?"
Xel sighed. "You ask too many questions."
Iola immediately fell silent as they watched the complex for another minute before the whine of a speeder's engine reached their ears. Xel drew one pistol and turned halfway before he recognized his brother's Force signature and lowered the weapon. The helmeted boy had returned the cloth over his features and dismounted from his vehicle, opting to crouch-run toward them and slide into cover.
"Took you long enough," Xel chided.
"Sorry if I don't drive like a demon," Alen quipped, raising a pair of macrobinoculars to his eyes. "How many?"
"Hard to tell. I'd say just over a dozen."
His brother gave him a long look. The Force would be able to tell him without a doubt how many living creatures were inside the facility, but as Alen had just found out for himself, living creatures weren't the only threats on this planet.
"That said," Xel added, "we've taken worse odds."
Alen turned to the source of the voice and appraised her as if noticing her for the first time. "Iola Voss?"
Her eyebrows furrowed. "Yes?"
"Hm." He nodded and stretched out his hand. "Alen Li-am."
Xel gave him a scalding look behind his faceplate, and Alen sent just as much annoyance back over their Bond. The Mando rolled his eyes. "Let's just get this done. We can exchange introductions later."
"What exactly is this?" Voss asked.
"What do you think? We're taking your old friend down and claiming what's ours." He glanced at her. "Or, rather, yours. If at all possible, though, I'd like the fee he promised me. My generosity doesn't come with an excessive price tag, but it doesn't come free either."
Though Alen was staring at him judgementally, Iola simply nodded.
"Sounds fair to me. You did save my life. If all you want are a few credits, I'll gladly settle that debt."
"Here," Alen said, passing her a small hold-out blaster.
"Follow my lead," Xel said, his deep voice filtering through his helmet's speakers intimidatingly.
They both nodded in response as he sprinted down the rocky hill they were perched on, Xel reaching down to his belt and snatching a detpack off his belt, throwing it twenty feet toward the wall surrounding the complex, then hitting the trigger. A sizable explosion tore a six-foot hole in the wall, the smoke just starting to waft out when a six-foot Mandalorian stormed through, pistols firing full-auto as he tagged two human guards, Alen and Iola following close behind in a staggered pattern. Xel's jetpack fired up, taking him over a salvo of blaster fire and getting their attention as he fired off two wrist rockets near a cluster of them.
Guards flew through the air in charred masses, Alen slotting a Rodian dead center as Iola pegged two others in a similarly precise and expert fashion. Both brothers gave her a quick look before returning their attention to the battle. The complex they were fighting through was a mining center, built to take advantage of the shifting rock formations and find precious or industrial metals. Granted, some of both required advanced and volatile processes. The materials required for such processes often served as capable booby traps, and Xel aimed to take full advantage of them.
A small, malevolent smile came to Xel's face as he spotted a set of particularly volatile barrels and descended to ground level to reach them.
"Alen!" he shouted, tipping one over and rolling it in his direction.
The other boy ran toward it, ducking a shot and rolling to give it a firm mule kick in the enemy's direction. The kick propelled him backward into a roll, and he brought himself to a crouch, aiming his Bryar at the barrel and firing once. A rainbow-colored explosion greeted a cluster of three guards as the ridonium exploded beautifully, sending burning shrapnel and heat washing over them. Another barrel flew toward the next two, but they pulled back before Xel could detonate it. One of them whipped out a datapad and punched a few keys, prompting the sounds of metallic marching.
"Uh, Xel?" Alen said.
"You remember Dad's stories about the Clone Wars?"
"Don't tell me. Battle droids?"
"Battle droids?" Iola asked, eyes wide.
"Just stay behind us and you'll be fine," Alen assured, reaching for another gas cartridge to load into his Bryar.
A loud pssht was the only warning before Voss rolled behind cover, blind-firing the holdout pistol and managing to slot two droids before withdrawing her hand.
Alen gave Xel a long look.
"She's good," he sent over their bond.
Xel just readjusted and fired a wrist rocket into a cluster of droids, plugging two others in the neck and severing their heads before spotting the man pulling the strings. The Force flowed through him as he released a long breath and lined up the sights of his right blaster. One squeeze of the trigger sent a single crimson plasma bolt into his head and the droids skittering to a stop.
"If you know what's good for you," Alen shouted to the last man, "you'll get the hell out of here!"
He considered it for barely a moment before dropping his blaster and tucking tail toward the nearest ship.
"Well…that was easy," Xel remarked.
Iola gave him a wide-eyed look. "Easy?"
He didn't answer, instead making his way to the administrative building he'd received his job from. His Force Sense swept over the structure, tagging just three life signs inside, one of them a swirling whirlpool of frustration and fear. A malevolent smile came to the Mando's face as he entered with an even stride.
"Mel," he said deeply.
"Caden," the man hissed back, his bodyguards leveling A-280s at his chest.
"I think you owe me something." He nodded toward the two figures in the doorway. "And her."
"You have to understand, it was nothing personal…just business."
Xel laughed darkly. "You tried to kill us. You did it to me, and her. It doesn't get more personal than that."
Yoris actually smirked. "Can you really blame me though? I mean, an aurodium ingot that size...it's a hefty, hefty payday. Can you honestly tell me you wouldn't do the same thing? You are a mercenary, after all."
"I'm a bounty hunter," Xel corrected. "Big difference, and even if I were a merc, I'd never have turned on my partner." His right hand holstered its pistol. "Mandos don't do that."
"I stand corrected." Mel was silent for a moment. "So what now, Mando? You gonna kill me and my men?"
"You're the only one who's guaranteed death." A shiver was felt over his Bond. "The others still have a chance to walk away." When the bodyguards in question made no sign of leaving, Xel shrugged. "Suit yourselves."
Just then, a dark blur flashed through Xel's peripheral vision, prompting him to fire his left pistol on instinct, starting a chain reaction of ducks, rolls, and blaster fire. As soon as he had pulled the trigger, he knew he'd missed and braced himself for imminent impact. An instant later, he was bowled over by a massive Togorian and pinned to the ground, the massive, bipedal cat baring his fangs in his face. Okay... Xel brought his helmet forward hard, breaking one of his opponent's lower fangs and shoving him off with some effort.
The cat scrambled to his feet, clawing at the Mando several times, the strikes ineffective against his beskar shell. Xel raised his left hand to plug his opponent when he realized he'd dropped his blaster in the scuffle. Enough playing. None of them are leaving here alive anyway. Caden dropped his empty right hand to his belt, waiting for the Togorian to charge again to make his move. He could feel the rage in his opponent, the predatory confidence. If I were you, I'd feel the same way. Xel almost regretted how one-sided this was going to be.
The coiled spring released its tension as the massive cat leapt forward.
The smell of burning fur and flesh filled the small room as nearly every eye turned in the direction of the tangling hunters. Though all but two couldn't believe their eyes at first, the glowing blue shaft protruding from the Togorian's body was unmistakable. Xel reverently pulled his dead opponent off his blade, laying him on the ground and snapping his head upward to give his two living enemies a predatorial stare through his visor. As if the last bodyguard could feel what was about to happen, he sprinted for the nearest exit, only to be gunned down by Iola. Finally, only Yoris remained.
The man had literally backed himself into a corner, and was holding both hands up in a placatory gesture as the trio approached him.
"Hey," he said somewhat shakily, "we can work something out, right? I'll just give you the ingot, and you can let me be on my merry way…right?"
Xel cocked his head slightly as if thinking his offer over, the hum of his lightsaber the only audible noise other than that of the constantly shifting ground.
The Mando lunged forward, impaling him and staying there as he wheezed out his last breaths. His saber deactivated, dropping Yoris with much less reverence than the Togorian as he strode over to Mel's desk and retrieved the aurodium, along with several thousand credits. Xel handed it to Iola without a word as he strode past her, out of the building and into the fading sunlight.
30 minutes later
"Took a nasty hit there."
Iola shrugged as Alen wrapped a bandage around her shoulder, around an injury she hadn't even noticed she'd sustained in the cave collapse. The rock that had acted as makeshift shrapnel was over two inches long and just under a half inch wide and thick. Honestly, Alen didn't know how she could be so nonchalant about it without considerable pain suppression training.
"Thanks," she said, shrugging on her jacket once he finished, "and not just for the patch job."
The brown-haired boy smiled widely and bowed as he closed his medkit. "I live to serve." He carried the container to his T6 shuttle and stowed it in a side compartment before returning to her, Xel mending a few scratches on his armor a few feet away, helmet on.
Iola jumped a little when she felt yet another tremor, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. "I swear I'll never get used to this damned world."
Both brothers could sense more behind her words, but only Alen decided to comment on it. "If you don't like it here, why not leave?"
She shrugged. "And go where? The one ship that's still functioning was taken, and I don't know…anything about the greater galaxy."
Alen exchanged a look with Xel. "Well…we do." He felt his armored brother freeze.
Iola looked at him questioningly. "What are you getting at?"
"Alen," Xel interrupted, "can we talk for a second?"
The Jedi sighed and walked some distance away, joined by his brother a second later.
Alen's eyebrows knitted. "What?"
"Xel, what are you talking about?"
"We are not picking up every waif and stray we come across. I thought we discussed this."
Alen rolled his eyes heavily. "And we haven't been. You think I'd be making the offer just out of pity? She's a crack-shot with a blaster and I've only seen reflexes like hers among Force-users. She'd be a great addition."
"To what? It's only been the two of us for the last six months, and I see no reason to change that."
The Jedi sighed and looked away. "Don't you ever feel…lonely? I mean, you spend most of your time on that ship of yours, alone."
Xel's hands curled into loose fists. "You could say that. It's necessary, though."
Ice blue eyes met a black t-visor. "Is it?"
"Alen…I know you were raised to think like a Jedi, to have compassion for others, but…this is not the time for it. We don't have the time."
"What are you talking about? If I don't use what Mom taught me for the purpose I was trained, then what the hell am I doing?" Alen kept staring into his brother's unyielding visor until something clicked in his head. "Wait…" He let out a breath and smirked slightly. "You think…you think you're protecting her, don't you?"
Though Xel had blocked their Bond, his surprise was still evident in the Force. "Yes," he said quietly, looking away. "This life we live, the dangers we face…it's not something I'd wish on anyone."
"You mean like Maila?" Alen shook his head slowly. "Honestly, man, do you really think she'd have chosen to leave if you hadn't waved her off?"
"No, and that's the problem. She didn't understand the full gravity of what we're going through." They were both silent a while.
"Look, she can stay on my ship. You'd never even have to see her."
Xel sighed. "It's not about that. Do you really want to put someone else in danger? To drag her into the bloody mess we're in?"
Alen gave him a piercing look. "Xel, you can't honestly say that your decision with Maila was exclusively for her safety, can you?"
"Of course not. The less contact we have, the less reason the Empire has to cause trouble with her…and the lesser the chance of anyone trying to use her against me."
The Jedi gave Xel a long look. "Fair enough." A long pause followed.
"Look…I may not like it, but…it's your ship, your life, your call. If you think you can handle this, fine, just…make sure you're ready to deal with the consequences."
Alen nodded and turned back toward a patiently waiting Iola, both of them walking back, Xel arcing off to board the Kandosii'tal. "Hey, so…if you still wanna get off this planet…" Alen jerked a thumb toward the T6. "I've got an extra bunk."
The Jerun's eyes brightened significantly as she sat up straight, rising to her feet a second later. "Really? You'd do that…for a stranger?"
He shrugged. "I've got the room and you seem like a capable person, someone who could add value to my crew."
She cringed slightly. "Not sure how much help I'd be, but…if you're offering—"
The tanned woman smiled widely and nodded. "Yes."
Alen smiled back. "Right then." He nodded toward the entrance ramp of his ship. "Come on."
Xel flicked several switches on his upper dashboard, balancing his ship's ascent as Alen followed him out of Bogden's atmosphere. He pulled a holocommunicator from his belt, putting the coordinates he'd received from Alen into the nav computer. Outer Rim…Raydonia. His eyes narrowed. Remote, not well-known…perfect place to hide a Jedi prisoner. He glanced at the shuttle in his peripheral vision and opened a comm. channel to Alen.
"You alone?" Xel asked.
"Yeah. Iola's still getting settled in her new quarters."
"Well tell her not to get too comfortable."
"This isn't a mission for auretiise. It's personal."
"Right. Where are we gonna leave her then?"
Xel thought about it for a moment. "Nar Shaddaa. You think she'd be a valuable asset? Let her prove it by working for Maila a bit. Who knows? She might just learn something."
"That…actually sounds like a plan. Diverting to Nar Shaddaa."
Xel closed the channel and programmed a course to the Smuggler's Moon, hitting the hyperdrive a few seconds later. Not for the first time, Xel reached over the Bond between him and Telia, once again finding nothing but numbness at the other end but still sending as much love and reassurance as he could. We're coming, buir. You are not forgotten.