Turn, Turn, Turn
1 day later
8 months BBY
"So, you're ditching me."
"Think of it as temporary offloading."
Iola Voss crossed her arms in front of the brothers, Xel crossing his arms right on back. "Uh huh. Translation: ditching me."
Alen pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "Look, it's just for a little while. Maybe a day, two tops. We need to take care of something and...let's just say it's a private family matter."
Iola placed her hands on her hips. "I still don't see how a smuggler-slash-contractor pilot and Mandalorian are related."
"By blood," Xel answered immediately, shrugging. "It's just that simple."
"Whatever. I'm still not happy about this."
Before Xel could release whatever scathingly impatient remark he knew he'd been about to let loose, Alen responded. "Look on the bright side; Maila'll be able to tell you more about the bigger galaxy around you. Let you in on good job opportunities. She's...not exactly legit, but she's reliable, and she treats her people well."
"And if she decides to send me offworld? What then?"
"She won't," Xel assured her. "Her business is mostly local, though you will need a transport, considering some of her jobs'll take you to the other side of Nar Shaddaa."
"Okay then, still need a ship."
Alen motioned toward the T6 on the landing pad. "You can take mine. We'll probably only need one ship for our mission anyway, and the Kandosii'tal is the best vessel we have."
"You damn right," Xel muttered.
Iola still looked peeved, but placated. "Fine. Just don't...don't leave me here, okay?"
Alen smiled warmly and put a hand on her shoulder. "Promise. I meant what I said when I told you you'd be good for my crew."
The tanned girl bit her lower lip before nodding slowly. "All right then. Pleasure meeting you both." She extended her hand to Alen, then Xel, who kind of stared at it for a while before putting her in an excessively tight grip.
"Same," he said rather halfheartedly before releasing her hand and moving back toward his ship.
When she thought he was out of earshot, she turned to Alen. "What's his problem with me?"
"He's got issues. Lots of issues. It's...really not you. Xel is just...Xel. Short-tempered, ill-disposed toward strangers, slow to trust...it's just his nature."
"How long did it take him to trust you? I mean, it's pretty evident you two didn't grow up together, otherwise I think you'd be a lot more alike."
Alen raised an eyebrow. "Is it that obvious? Hm. Well...not long, actually. But I'm family, so that's another matter entirely. To him, and to most Mandos, there's nothing more important than family. Nothing."
"I..." Iola looked over at the fully armored boy standing impatiently on the top of the Kandosii's gangplank. "I see. Anyway, I should let you two get going."
"Right. See you in a few." Alen turned back toward the Striker and jogged up the ramp, past a silently stewing Xel, who turned and followed him into the cockpit. "Ya know, you could at least pretend you don't hate her, you know, for my sake."
"I don't hate her," he responded with a shrug, settling into the pilot's seat and turning on all necessary systems. "She just has nothing to do with this."
"And you'd like to keep it that way, I know. Protect her, protect the family." Alen sighed. "In the service of the greater good, though, some things can't be helped."
"From my point of view, our aliit is the greatest good. Period."
The Jedi gave him a sideways look. "Then we'll have to agree to disagree." He was silent a while longer as Xel performed the preflight check. "You sure you don't wanna see her?"
He tensed almost imperceptibly before resuming his task. "Yes. I'm sure."
"I mean, it doesn't have to be anything long, just hello."
"To a woman who hasn't seen me in months just to say goodbye again five seconds later? No thank you."
"My answer is no." He sighed. "Look, Alen, she and I...we were never anything special. We didn't have the time or opportunity to be, and we still don't."
"What, and that's the way you want to keep it?"
Xel nodded as he powered up the repulsorlifts. "For now. Maybe forever. She deserves better."
Alen arched an eyebrow. "So...a smuggler-slash-local crime lord deserves better than a devoted, honorable Mandalorian...remind me again how that calculation works?"
Xel just sighed and throttled up, rocketing them forward and up. A minute or two later, they had left atmo and were headed straight to Raydonia.
The Kandosii'tal, hyperspace
"So what did you learn?"
Alen raised both eyebrows. "What?"
"You spent a day with the girl and you expect me to believe you didn't get her whole life story? You're a Jedi, and my gossiping brother."
Alen shrugged. "Well, I talked to her, sure."
He scrunched his face up a bit. "She's...twelve standard years old."
Xel nearly had a seizure. "Say what?!"
Alen laughed a bit. "It's funny, but it's no joke. Apparently, her race ages a bit faster than most when it comes to reaching maturity, but their adulthood lasts something like a hundred years before they even come near seniorhood."
"I know. Don't think I've seen or heard of another species anything like that. Apparently all Jeruni, plural of Jerun, are very civic and environmentally-minded. Their coming-of-age ritual is to go out into the greater galaxy and make a change for the better in some community."
"Why haven't we heard of them before?"
"Despite the apparent complexity of their culture, they're somewhat primitive and isolationist. Only developed large-scale space travel after they were discovered during the Clone Wars. Since they're not really a threat to anyone, the Empire pretty much left them alone. Most can still be found on their homeworld, which is somewhere near Kamino, I think."
Xel pulled off his helmet and started fiddling with its internal circuitry. "Interesting. And what about her personally?"
"Well, Iola kinda didn't know what to look for as far as fulfilling her ritual, so she just started traveling across the galaxy, getting a feel for things, helping who she could. Nothing major enough to stand out, though. A bad deal with some shady smugglers landed her on Bogden, and she was stuck there for months trying to eke out enough of a living to leave."
"Bad luck, especially for a twelve-year-old."
"Xel, you rescued her, saw her fight. Does she really seem twelve to you?"
Xel snorted and thumped his chest. "Hey, I was that way two years ago."
"You're also Mandalorian."
"And any race-slash-culture that's famed for killing Force-users is kind of the exception to every rule."
They both fell silent as an uneasy feeling filled them.
"Do you...feel that?"
The Jedi closed his eyes for a few moments, frowning deeply and nodding. "Yes. It's...a warning from the Force. It means something's coming, and chances are we're not gonna like it."
"Plenty of situations matching that description have happened in the last six months. None of 'em have felt like this."
"I know." Alen sighed and closed his eyes. "We'll just have to trust in the Force, and in our training."
As much as Xel hated to admit it, he was right. They were going into this blind, and unavoidably so. Whatever happened, or didn't, would be virtually beyond their control. As long as we get Telia back, anything and everything else can go to osik.
Xel blinked a few times, gently cursing their telepathic bond, not for the first time. "Anyway, we should get some rest. Dunno about you, but I've been running on five hours since before Bogden."
Alen's eyebrows shot up. "And you were flying?" He pointed toward the crew quarters. "Get over there and sleep your ass off, right now. I'll let you know when we're close."
Xel nodded with a sigh as he stood and walked to his room, the door hissing closed behind him. Since their hunt had begun, Xel had taken over his father's old room. It was unfamiliar but comforting, knowing Xander had felt it secure enough to lay his head for years before Xel had even been born. Of course, after a bit of personalization and mounting his Boma tusk, among other trophies, it felt a bit more "his." The moment his dark-haired head hit the pillow, Caden fell into something of a trance, not quite asleep, not quite waking. A soft, familiar voice tickled the edge of his consciousness.
"I'm simply to convince them then? I see. That shouldn't be too difficult. I am their mother, after all, and mother knows best. Of course, sir, I understand."
His dark blue eyes opened as a confused expression dominated his features. That...was Telia, he was sure of it. Though he couldn't see her, her voice was unmistakable. Whether the one-sided conversation was real or just a figment of his exhausted mind, though—not so unmistakable. Groaning, he closed himself off from the Force Bonds and anything else Force-related that could interfere with his rest before head-butting the pillow again, passing out from exhaustion a moment later.
The Kandosii'tal, orbit over Raydonia
Xel stared through his visor and the ship's viewport at a temperate, forested world.
Alen flicked a switch to cut the engines and let them drift. "Welcome to Raydonia in the Outer Rim. Population of several thousand human colonists, Imperial presence next to nil, no major commercial centers." He looked over at Xel's faceplate. "Perfect place to stash a rogue Jedi."
Caden nodded slowly, thumbing a zoom to pinpoint the exact location specified in the Corellian's manifest. "These coordinates point to an isthmus in the northern hemisphere. Pretty heavy fog there, and according to planetary records, there's a massive electrical storm in that area every other week."
"Good defense mechanism against any prying eyes, and it'll damage any ships that try to land there."
Xel nodded. "Thankfully, we're here on an off week, so it shouldn't give us too much trouble. Still have to worry about the fog though."
Alen snorted. "You're worried about fog damaging our ship?"
"No, I'm worried about something being implanted in the fog. Weapons, sensor jammers, troops, droids, you name it. Fog is a dangerous thing when you're not the one living in it."
"Riiiight. So, any more words of encouragement?"
Xel rolled his eyes. "Just keep an eye open."
"Two, long as I have a choice."
Xel activated the engines again, shooting them toward the planet's atmosphere and entering a few minutes later. "Tell me something, is it your job to gripe about good advice?"
"Is it your job to make sure morale is shot to hell before a mission even starts?"
"I'm just being realistic about our chances. After all, it is Mom's life at stake here."
"Yeah, well, try being optimistic instead. We didn't scour the galaxy for her for six months to bitch out now."
Xel raised an eyebrow. "I've been a bad influence on you, haven't I?"
Alen smirked. "Maybe a little. But that influence has kept me alive more than once, so I'd say it's worth it."
The Mando made another adjustment to their descent vector as they dropped through the clouds. "She might disagree when we get her back."
His brother's smile went wider. "See? When. Optimism. Doesn't that make you feel a little better about our chances?"
Xel scoffed. "I always assume our chances are good. Mainly because they are."
Alen gave him a strange look.
"What? You're a Jedi, I'm Mandalorian. That alone tips most scales in our favor, especially since most stormies haven't faced Jedi in years. Add to that the fact that we both have lightsabers and are strong in the Force, and it's pretty much over for the enemy before it even starts."
The Jedi just smiled and shook his head. "And there goes the fabled Caden modesty. According to Mom, Dad had the same thing."
Xel sighed and nearly clapped Alen in the back of the head. "Underestimating one's own abilities does as much a disservice as overestimating them. Excessive humility is something I'll never understand."
"Well, when you're trying to avoid people discovering the fact that you're a Jedi, you learn to downplay things pretty well."
"Hm. Fair enough." Xel raked his scanners over the target area one more time, but when he stretched out with the Force, everything became obvious. "Well well well, what have we here? Looks to me like a concealed Imperial outpost, complete with a small garrison of stormtroopers and thirty-foot walls on every side."
"Too bad for them we have no intention of walking through the front door."
Behind his faceplate, Xel gave his brother a feral grin. "Our first point of business is to take out their communications network. The last thing we want is them calling for help, and trust me, the moment we pull our lightsabers, they will." His finger tabbed over the scanners, throwing a wave of infrared pulses outward, mapping the base through the fog. He pointed to a large dish some distance away. "There. That dish looks like it's connected to their long-range holocomms." He smiled as the Kandosii's weapons powered up. "One proton torpedo oughta do it."
"Proton torpedoes? You do know those are illegal, right?"
"You do know we're illegal, right?"
Alen shrugged. "Point. Let 'er rip."
Xel's thumb depressed the firing button of his torpedo system, sending a single glowing rocket toward the communications tower. The resulting explosion was brilliant, several dozen tons of duracrete and expensive circuitry falling to the ground, useless.
"Problem solved. Ready to lay down some hate?"
Alen smirked wryly. "A Jedi does not know hatred...but yeah."
Just then, a repeating alarm blared in their ears and faces, sending a string of curses from Xel's mouth.
"What does that mean?"
"It means this outpost just called in TIEs for backup."
"So we now have two options. We stash the ship somewhere, hoping they don't find it, and risk being bombarded into molten slag on the way to the outpost, or we stay in the air and engage the TIEs."
"If we bother to stay airborne, though, they're bound to figure out we're after Telia. We'll lose our window of opportunity."
Xel's teeth gritted hard. There was no way he would let this slide, not after six months of searching. "Then that settles it. We land and get in there. What's a little bombardment between us?"
"Or we can split up. One of us goes on the ground and gets inside while the other gives those TIEs hell."
"Alen, infiltrating that compound would be difficult enough with two of us, but one—"
He laid a hand on the Mando's shoulder. "I trust you to get the job done."
Xel did a double-take. "Wait...what?"
"I'm volunteering you for the ground op."
"But Alen, she's your—"
"She's our mother," he corrected, tightening his hold on Xel's shoulder. "I know how much you regret not being able to save her on Obroa-skai, so...think of this as a second chance."
"Alen," he kept protesting.
"Look, it's not a sentimental decision. I can take those TIEs just as easily as you, and although I am a better Jedi than you, you're a better operative, and right now, Mom needs an operative. It's logical. It's tactical."
Xel thought it over a moment, coming to the same conclusion seconds later and nodding. "Keep those bucketheads busy in the air, and make sure the base doesn't launch anything. The last we need is for me to get inside and them to spirit Mom away anyway because they had a shuttle on standby."
Alen nodded as he stood and switched places with Xel, the TIEs getting closer on the Kandosii'tal's scanners. "You better get moving. I'll fly to a hover just beyond that wall. Look for her in the central building. Most Imperial outposts have some sort of brig, and it's most often placed in the hub."
Xel nodded as he double-checked his pistols. "Got it." Looking to the side, he spotted something he'd never even considered using, but as he cocked his head and thought about it, figured the extra firepower would be useful. His father's T-27A2 Blackjack found its way onto the magnetic grip of his jetpack as he strode over to the lowered landing ramp, air above and below disturbed with the force of the ship's repulsorlifts. He could already see several TIEs approaching on the cloudy horizon, not to mention about a dozen stormtroopers flooding the courtyard below.
A malevolent grin settled onto his features. Never know what hit 'em. Xel took a flying leap off the ramp, falling with a smooth triple-flip and landing feet-first in a kneeling position, the stomping steps of his approaching enemies filling his ears as he stretched out to the Force. The clicking of a dozen weapons readying and aiming in his direction got Xel's attention, but little more than the word shouted at him a second later.
Xel stood slowly, hands up as he surveyed his opponents. Two flanking, eight at my front, two staying at a distance to take potshots. A smile settled on his features. This is going to be fun.
"Drop your weapons and surrender, Mando."
"I'm afraid," he started quietly, anger rising within him, "that's just not going to happen. See, you Imp fools took something of mine. I'd like it back."
"You're the fool. You think you can defy the Empire and get away with it?"
Xel cocked his head. "Well...yeah. Wanna try and prove me wrong?"
The lead trooper gave his comrades a sideways look before approaching Xel with binders.
Oh, so unwise. The moment he was within grabbing distance, the stormtrooper was thrown ten feet into one of the men behind him. The rest of his squad opened fire on empty air, since Xel had shot into the sky with his jetpack, two wrist rockets silencing half of them a moment later before he descended, plugging another with his pistols and rolling on impact. The remaining five troopers kept up a pattern of interlocking fire, moving from cover to cover in order to suppress him. Xel just dodged their shots with ease, the Force lending speed and foreknowledge to his movements as he picked them off one by one. More stormies flooded out of the central hub once he finished, and the Blackjack left his back a second later.
A microgrenade flew toward the approaching crowd, sending clouds of dirt and white plastoid shrapnel in all directions as crippling layers of crimson plasma fire were laid down in their direction. Xel was having far too much fun with this, a dark, perverse kind of fun that came from months of restrained anger finally being released. They were fish in a barrel. Nerfs to the slaughter. They were the prey, and he was finally back to being the hunter. One or two managed to escape the slaughter and flank him using supply buildings for cover. One of them was fried by plasma fire the moment he stuck his head out, but the other managed to close the distance and plug Xel a few times, the blows barely felt through his beskar.
Deciding this one had enough guts for one-on-one, he mounted the rifle on his pack and unsheathed his knife. The stormtrooper also had a blade, standard vibrating durasteel, nothing special. They traded a few empty swings before settling into a deadly rhythm that the buckethead simply had no chance of winning. It wasn't that he was slow. In a normal fight, without the Force, Xel would be enjoying the challenge of keeping up. It was that the boy was just so kriffing fast. Twenty seconds in, and a thrust was parried by the knife in Xel's left hand, his fingers releasing the blade as they wrapped around his opponent's armed wrist.
The beskar knife fell just under a foot—into Xel's waiting right hand. The blade punched through a gap in his opponent's armor, shooting straight into his gut and causing an unhealthy amount of blood to flow.
"You fought well, auretii."
The blade was withdrawn and its former target slumped to the ground in the middle of bleeding out as Xel strode calmly toward the hub, knife returning to its sheath in favor of his pistols. He sprinted through the front doors, catching a glimpse of green and red laser fire through the clouds above. A laugh over his comlink signaled the end of another TIE pilot, as did Alen's comment.
"Don't get cocky, vod. Those TIE pilots are a tricky bunch."
"I know my limits, Xel. And this ship's. You just focus on your mission."
Xel sighed and nodded, pressing further into the building where his mother awaited.
5 minutes later
Imperial outpost, Raydonia
Five minutes, twenty more guards, and a half dozen expended power packs later, and Xel could finally feel himself getting close. A nudge from the Force here, a pull there, and he could feel his mother's presence just ahead. The only problem? A small army of twenty-plus stormtroopers in his way. Ordinarily, he would just collapse the ceiling on their heads, but seeing as how they were standing in the one way to get to Telia, he needed a different solution. The direct method had worked well thus far, but he could feel the cold calculation and intelligence in the commander of the garrison, who was waiting for him to come through with a strategy in mind.
Much as he tried, he couldn't get an inkling of what this man had planned, and it scared him a little. Just a little. So he decided to try something a little different.
"Commander!" he shouted across the atrium. "You've seen what's happened to your men at my hands! Do you really want to end up that way?"
No response came except a half-dozen shots that landed far too close for comfort.
"I'll take that as a yes," Xel hissed through clenched teeth. This shabuir doesn't know what he's just unleashed. Slowly, he stood and moved out of cover, right pistol finding its holster as his now-empty hand went to the hardcase at his belt. He strode toward the center of the atrium calmly, left hand still grasping his other pistol, the barrel pointed at the ground yet still seeming threatening to the stormtroopers eyeing him. A metal cylinder dropped into his hand as he stopped, stance widening, his t-visor glaring straight at the tan-pauldroned commander.
"Last chance," Xel almost whispered.
When they all raised their weapons in his direction, all bets were off. The ringing snap-hiss was enough to jolt his opponents, but the blazing azure shaft coming from his right hand seemed to take the cake. They all opened fire at once, not panicking but fairly close to it. Their shots and stances were still professional, but there was no mistaking the fear radiating off them in waves as he batted one bolt out of the air after the next. With one hand he put a Force-powered wall of light between them, and with the other returned fire, tagging two of them with his pistol before they caught onto the fact that he was coordinated enough to do both and scrambled for cover.
A well-executed Barrier of Blades sent blaster bolts from multiple opponents scattering, some of them returning to their sources and sending white-clad soldiers to their deaths. Xel's Shien form had only improved with time, and the style definitely seemed to suit him as he advanced constantly, confidently, one soldier falling after the next to his relentless pattern of fire and defense. Before anyone knew it, only five were left standing, including the commander. Xel roared as he leapt through the air, deflecting a bolt coming at his right and falling with a vertical cut that severed his target's left arm. A pivot and strike severed his head.
Anger drove his every move, Xel taking the emotion and swinging it as he did his lightsaber, cutting them down one by one until the commander brandished a long electrosword off his back and swung it at him. The Mando deflected the strike with ease, countering with two horizontal cuts that came from opposite directions. The commander kept his defenses up with some difficulty, the metal of his weapon starting to char but the electric field holding back the lightsaber enough to keep it from cutting through. Xel was relentless, leveling strike after vertical strike and battering his defenses away until he could tell the Imperial was getting tired, then slashed diagonally upward, the sword flying out of his hand and into Xel's as the boy kicked him to his knees.
Caden held both blades in an "x" on either side of his neck. "Where is she?" he hissed.
"The woman who was sent here! The Jedi! Where is she?!"
"T-There is no Jedi here."
"Don't lie to me!"
"I'm not! Lord Vader sent an agent to oversee our progress here on Raydonia..."
Xel blinked rapidly, scanning the man for any signs of deception. Much to his shock, there weren't any. So either he was extremely good at lying, or this agent could mimic his mother's signature in the Force, or... He shook his head hard. The last possibility wasn't even a possibility.
"Where is this 'agent' then?"
"S-She went to the landing platform behind me to wait. Never said for what."
She? No, he refused to even consider it. If she was an "agent" of Vader, it was a ruse. It had to be. Right?
He turned his attention back to the man at his mercy. "Thank you for your cooperation." Briefly considering executing him, Xel dropped the electrosword and deactivated his saber, opting instead to use Force Constrict on him. The commander was sleeping soundly by the time he sprinted toward the landing pad's primary lift. On the way up, he tried in vain to steady his racing heart. One way or another, he would know the truth in a few moments...and either way he would have his mother back. A large smile came to his face a moment before the lift doors opened.
Drawing a pistol just in case, he cleared the cluttered pad, observing the various crates scattered about, as well as the Lambda-class shuttle parked on the far side. His blue eyes went wide.
And found the dirty blonde woman facing away from him.
His blaster quickly met its holster. His feet moved of their own accord. His heart was racing a mile a minute. Before he knew it, Xel was standing just five feet away from her.
For one long, awful moment, he thought he'd made a mistake, that this woman was just another Imperial trick meant to screw with his head. Shab knew he'd endured plenty of those these last few months. When she turned to face him with a brilliant smile, he knew he was wrong.
"Xel," she said warmly, outstretching her arms invitingly.
Relief coursed through him like nothing else, overpowering all his senses and the long-ingrained instincts that were blaring alarms and raising massive red flags as he rushed forward and embraced the woman, holding her tightly and not letting go for a full ten seconds.
She laughed the same way she always did. "Easy there, kiddo." Telia held him at arm's length and looked into his eyes, amused concern in hers. "I'm right here."
"It," he choked, "it's been so long."
She smiled wider, the skin around her eyes wrinkling. "I know, and I'm sorry about that. But it's all right now." Telia held him close again, one hand stroking his hair, his helmet lying discarded a few feet away. "It's okay."
Slowly but surely, he pulled away from her and locked gazes, the small and annoying part of his hunter's instincts compelling his next words. "How did you get away?" He regretted asking as soon as the words left his lips.
Her eyes darkened and jaw tightened just a little, the smile on her face seeming more than a little forced all of a sudden. "Xel, dear, isn't it enough I'm back safe and sound?"
Caden's relief-driven haze cleared almost immediately, instincts blaring alarms full-volume as his expression hardened. "How did you get away?" he repeated, Force Sense hammering into her ironclad mental walls.
She sighed and closed her eyes, as if scolding an obstinate child. "I didn't."
Xel just stood there, jaw hanging open. "Mom, you…you've kinda gotta explain that a bit."
"No I don't."
"Telia, you were captured by Darth Vader and you expect me to just relax when you tell me there was no escape involved?"
"I expect you," she scolded, jabbing a finger in his face, "to trust me." Seeing he wouldn't relent, she sighed in resignation. "Fine. I'll explain. First off, you can relax, because no one will be hunting you or your brother anymore."
Xel snorted and crossed his arms. "I'll believe that when I see it."
"The reason is because Vader no longer needs to chase you down."
Xel was completely unnerved. She smiled, actually smiled after saying his name.
Telia put her hands on her son's shoulders and looked at him earnestly. "You see, we don't have to run anymore. He showed me what he truly wanted from us, and let me tell you, it's nothing like I expected."
Cold shivers ran down his spine.
"Xel, if we go with him, if we play along, we'll finally be free from the fear of pursuit or discovery. We'll be free to just be us. To be period, no longer hunted like animals. We'll be safe, finally." Telia was genuinely beaming.
"I don't…" Xel gulped, looking away. "I don't actually believe this."
"Neither did I at first. I let my hatred get in the way, but after a few months of reasoning, I finally saw the truth."
Reasoning. Xel didn't want to imagine the kind of "reasoning" Darth Vader was capable of. "Mom…this is wrong. This isn't you."
The woman snorted, hands on her hips. "Of course this is me. When have you ever known me to put my own needs ahead of yours? Ahead of anyone else's? I'm willing to put aside my differences with them, for your sakes."
Caden stared at her incredulously. "Differences," he almost whispered, anger rising unbidden. "Differences? Vader killed Father. He murdered him, with his own two hands!" He motioned with his own for emphasis. "Did you somehow forget that?!"
She seemed to falter, the darkness clearing for a moment as something akin to pain showed in her eyes. But then the cloud fell again, and her expression turned stern. "Xel, I am doing what's best for you. I would've thought you'd be mature enough to understand that…but maybe I was wrong." It was like Telia didn't notice the distance growing between them. "Maybe you're still a child in need of proper discipline."
"Buir, don't do this." He could feel the darkness rolling off her in waves, clouding her mind and judgement, but his mind barely registered it. All that was present was the panic settling into his bones, and the pain at slowly but surely losing his mother once again.
"You leave me no choice," she accused icily, eyes fiery and wild. "Xel Caden, you need to be put in your place."
Xel's eyes went wide in shock as they perused the newly ignited green shaft in front of him. No…no-no-no this is not happening. It can't be happening. He willed it not to be, concentrated with all his might on making this a practical joke, or a really bad dream. Focused on anything and everything to avoid the cold, hard, agonizingly painful truth. She's been turned. The split-second after that realization was barely enough for him to register a sudden tension in her stance, the kind that preceded a blurred saber charge.
He would dare to reject my offer…after everything I've sacrificed for him! Telia's teeth slammed together as her expression matched her steadily building rage. How dare he reject me like this! Her lightsaber was a green blur, anger and frustration driving her strikes as she put the boy on the defensive, realizing distantly that the weapon in his hand was new. A small flicker of pride ran through her at the sight, and she smirked a little. At least he hasn't been completely useless these past months. Xel was looking for an opening, as was expected for a Shien practitioner. She knew he wouldn't find one.
All the feelings of anger, self-loathing, betrayal, and hurt warring within Xel gave way to impenetrable fear as he felt his circle of defense slowly but surely closing in on him. He redirected a strike aimed at his thigh upward and countered with a weak thrust at her left arm. She parried the blow easily and strode toward him, a spinning combo adding power to a vertical strike that left his chest exposed to a follow-up thrust. He withdrew as rapidly as possible, still wincing as his chestplate picked up another black mark and throwing a series of slashes Telia's way. Strikes at her shoulder and hip were blocked, and another aimed at disarming her was dodged with more ease than pushing over a child.
It made him angry. A guttural yell came from the boy's throat as he lunged toward her, their blades catching together as he used his superior weight and size to shove her back. Telia was smirking the whole time, seemingly on the verge of laughing at his pitiful attempts. Really, he wasn't leveling everything he had, but that was the point. Dark Side or no, she was still his mother…and there was no way he was going to lose another parent to Vader's trickery.
He struck at her left thigh, following with a quick cut toward her rib cage and a vertical strike at her head. All three were blocked, and she easily sidestepped the lunge that followed, planting a firm kick on his shebs as he rushed past. Red flooded his face as he set his stance again, facing her in an even more defensive posture.
Telia laughed out loud at this point. "Boy, have you learned nothing? Have you just been twittling your thumbs these past six months? Certainly seems so, since your skills haven't improved a bit." A series of stabs at various locations on his body were blocked with some difficulty, and he responded in kind, seeming to just want to keep her at bay. "Though I'm not exactly surprised, since you found a way to distract yourself from my absence that long."
An expression of true horror crossed his face at her implication.
"Honestly, I don't blame you for staying away."
It was a lie. Telia couldn't have felt more betrayed. Of course, when she had pushed both her sons out of harm's way in that building, it was with the full intention that they would vanish into the shadows and never reappear, but the more she thought about it and the more pain she had to endure, the more she realized that her sons were perfectly capable young men. They could have found and retrieved her any time they'd liked. They simply chose not to. Her grip tightened around her lightsaber. Well, Telia Li-am does not appreciate being abandoned.
She lunged forward, yelling in anger and driving her blade downward. Xel caught it easily, saber swinging downward to meet hers as she cut at both his legs in quick succession, the two glowing shafts meeting a moment later in a saber lock at their midsections.
"Buir," he was saying, "how could you ever think we'd abandon you?"
She snarled at him and shoved him back, several strikes thrown and blocked as she drove him closer to the edge of the platform. He barely managed to twist away from a lunge that would have slipped between the plates and skewered his shoulder, leaping over a crate to put some distance between them. She simply motioned and sent the box flying off into the distance.
"We looked," he was pleading, saber held aloft defensively as she kept coming. "We scoured the galaxy trying to find you. We never forgot."
Telia almost froze at the pain in his voice, refusing to accept the sincerity in his words and instead seeing weakness. He can't beat me, so he thinks by making a show of crying he can stay my hand? She gave him a nasty grin. I don't think so. Her lightsaber slammed against his hard, the jolt running up his arms and actually driving him back a step. A crate vibrated at her right before flying into him, knocking him another couple of feet. A pipe tore itself loose and rocketed at his back, but he turned and rolled out of the way, a quick rising cut bisecting the object as he regained his footing.
The fallen Jedi just kept advancing.
I can't win this. The realization dawned on him the moment random osik started flying. He couldn't beat her in his wildest dreams before, neither in single combat or with remotes present. This situation, from his point of view, was no different. Except this time the sabers aren't in training mode. Fear ran his blood cold. He was going to die…by his mother's hand. The cruel irony of it tightened a vise around his heart, and he knew when Vader heard the news, he'd laugh his black head off. No…no! As Telia rushed forward again, he rushed back to meet her, the added force actually jolting her for a moment.
I refuse to give him the satisfaction!
Xel no longer took the defensive. The moment their lock broke, he was swinging—hard. Telia actually had to duck out of the way of several strikes as he laid every pound of his weight behind them. Green clashed against blue in a storm of golden sparks, the boy spinning counterclockwise and slamming his blade against Telia's, knocking hers a good distance away from her center. Taking the opening, he tried to drive his lightsaber into her lower midsection, away from any vital organs, but she was ready for him.
Pivoting out of the way, the fallen Jedi swept her arm around his armed hand, twisting the appendage until he released the beskar cylinder. The blade fell and died with a hiss before she dragged her blade across his chestplate, following with a powerful Force Push that flattened him against a nearby wall on the pad. When he tried to move, he found all his limbs stuck in place, plastered against the cold durasteel at his back. Her steadily advancing body filled his vision, the green sword in her right hand glowing threateningly as her empty left held him in place.
"You know…you have no idea…the hell I've been through lately." She turned away, hand still up and pinning him still. "I've sacrificed so much for you…yet you still don't appreciate it."
"Telia…Mom—" he said desperately.
"Maybe Vader was right. Maybe you are too weak to be worth that kind of devotion."
No, he thought desperately. Vader is never right about anything!
Her eyes flashed at him fiercely. "But you're my son, and no son of mine will ever stay that weak. Your father didn't raise a priss, and I'm sure as hell not gonna let you soil his memory!" Her saber raised in a stabbing position, angling toward his left shoulder. "I need to toughen you up. Teach you how to be a man."
Xel's heart lurched in his chest. "Buir…please!"
"And the first lesson begins…with pain."
Fear. Terror like nothing else. The merciless cramming of fight-or-flight chemicals into the bloodstream. The wide-eyed, nerf-in-the-headlights expression as one prepares for unimaginable pain. In every animal and sentient who experiences this predicament, there is always one more factor that's ignored in the rush of actions and feelings. Anger. Frustration at failing to protect oneself. If the cause of the situation is someone they know and trust, the sentient often feels betrayed and angry at him or herself for failing to see it coming. Sometimes there are pent-up emotions surrounding this person, feelings kept at bay because they are seen as counterproductive and doing more harm than good.
Feelings like Xel's rage. Like his disappointment, his self-loathing. Like the insidious voice in his head from even before his mother's capture telling him he would never be good enough, that he would always bring misery to those who loved him. Like the outright hatred he felt for the Sith and Darth Vader in particular. These feelings he held at bay for months because he didn't want to disappoint his Jedi mother or brother. At this particular moment, he realized he'd already done both.
So he just said, "Screw it."
An animalistic roar left Xel's body—along with a powerful wave of Force power that slammed into Telia and sent her shooting across the landing pad. Her lightsaber deactivated as she slammed into a stack of crates hard, rolling to a stop a moment later, more than a few bruises now where there had been none. A pair of boots hit the deck, moving with sedated speed toward the prone former Jedi. Xel's lightsaber flew to his hand and ignited as he reached the halfway point, the blade held offensively when he finally closed the distance, its tip hovering just inches from her throat as she tried to regain her footing.
Surprisingly, she wasn't looking at him, and her saber lay forgotten at her side. Telia was on hands and knees, seemingly just staring at the ground as she breathed heavily. Xel reached out to her Bond with the Force and found confusion, fear, and most powerfully, shame. The combination confused him. After all, she'd just been trying to torture, if not kill him a few moments earlier. The position was held for nearly a half minute, Xel's saber poised, the woman before him barely moving. A quiet voice reached his ears through a sudden wind.
The voice was tenuous, fragile even. The tone was not as strong or confident, nor as clear as before. The name was spoken as a question, not a statement. And as Xel looked past the glow of his own blade to see it reflected in her dark brown eyes, he could see the tortured soul behind them. His eyes widened and brows raised in realization, his weapon going inactive an instant later as he kneeled at her level, gaze never leaving hers.
"My son…" Her lower lip trembled significantly, along with the rest of her body. "W-What have I done?"
It was the whisper-quiet volume and agonized tone that broke down the rest of his defenses as he threw his arms around her, the woman returning the embrace with an even tighter grip.
"What have I done?" she repeated quietly.
"Nothing…" he pulled away and made eye contact, "that can't be fixed over a mug of caf."
She laughed weakly as he shot her a comforting smile, tears filling her eyes and spilling over. She kept laughing somewhat hysterically as her eyes trailed over his figure, over the char-marks on his armor, and settled on the device in his right hand. Her left rose to meet it. "So you…you built your own."
He smiled. "I did. Wanted to make you proud." And screw Vader over.
Telia laid a hand on his cheek and gave him an expression that was halfway between smiling and sobbing. "For…whatever it's worth…I am."
Two heads snapped in the direction of the voice, but their eyes registered the danger a moment too late as he stretched out his hands. Two ear-piercing screams split the silence as mother and son writhed in agony, Xel's eyes opening briefly to catch a glimpse of blazing blue and white tendrils streaming toward them both from a tall, black-hooded figure. Vaguely, in a distant corner of his mind, Xel understood that this is what Force Lightning feels like...and he instantly never wanted to feel it again. Ten seconds later, the agony stopped, leaving them both curling and prone.
"L-Leave him...alone," Telia choked out.
"I intend to," the figure responded as he drew closer, face shadowed and hidden under his hood but silver eyes glinting in the fading sunlight. His left hand raised a little before another stream of Lightning engulfed her body, the woman shrieking incoherently for another five seconds before passing out. He reached down and grabbed her arm with his left hand, slinging her over his shoulder and turning back toward the Lambda-class shuttle as her lightsaber floated up and clipped to his belt. He stopped when a surprisingly strong grip fell on his ankle and turned toward its source, kicking Xel in the face and crouching, free hand wrapping around the Mando's throat.
"I could snap your neck with but a thought, boy." His grip squeezed a little tighter, prompting a snarl from the prone Mando. "But my master has other plans, so I have no choice but to obey him...for now." The man released him, straightening and striding toward the shuttle with slow, confident steps.
Xel painfully rolled onto his side, eyes flickering away from the retreating figure to spot his own lightsaber lying just a foot away. His studies with the holocron returned full-force. Force Lightning... Dark blue eyes widened, then narrowed as a scowl adorned his features, his hand reaching out and body scrambling upright.
Rapid steps were the man's only warning, and he turned with a snarl, right hand raised, as Xel closed the distance. Caden's lightsaber flashed to life as a half-dozen tendrils of deadly Lightning streamed from his hand, slamming into the sapphire shaft and stopping him short with the sheer force that carried through the blade into the boy's hands. Gritting his teeth, Xel pushed back, one foot going after the next as he fought against the tempest driving him away from his mother. The man's anger rose as Xel failed to fall, the Lightning slowing him down but not stopping him. A moment later, he'd had enough.
With an enraged yell, the silver-eyed man snapped his entire body toward Xel, adding a Force Push to his assault that sent him flying through the air. His saber went inactive as it twirled out of his grasp, his body hitting and sliding across the deck, toward the edge and a hundred-foot drop. Desperately driving his hands against the floor in an attempt at getting some friction, he pulled his beskar knife and drove it into the metal hard, yelling in effort as he rapidly approached the edge and groaning as his one arm supported his weight, the blade finally catching on something and keeping him hanging precariously over the edge.
Xel pulled himself up and laid his other arm on the pad, hand gripping a protruding pipe as he watched the figure board the shuttle, Telia slung over his shoulder. With another angry yell, he pulled harder, scrambling onto solid ground with some effort and sheathing his knife, his lightsaber returning to his hand as he charged. The shuttle rose from the ground and seemed to hover in place for a few moments, mocking him until it took off in earnest, rocketing into space and carrying his buir far, far away.
Both fists clenched as his lightsaber deactivated, teeth gritting together as rage swept through his body. He poured out his frustration into the falling night, roaring at the interloper, at the forest, at everything around him, the force of it all sending everything within a four-foot radius flying away. His empty hand flew to the side, recalling his helmet a second before he pulled it back on and activated comms.
"Alen, lock onto my coordinates now. We're done here."
"Roger that," his brother grunted, clearly still in a dogfight some distance away. "What happened?"
Xel hissed his answer through clenched teeth. "She's gone...and there was nothing I could do about it."