2 months later
1 year, 10 months BBY
"Wake up. Oi, Xel! Wakey wakey..."
A low groan came from under a pile of pillows and blankets as the boy in question reluctantly clawed his way from the bottom of a very peaceful sleep to the land of the living.
"Usen'ye," he groaned incoherently, just loud enough that he could hear himself, but the person calling after him in the distance couldn't. Something told him Uncle Teras would react less than favorably if he cussed him out this early in the day. Shaking the sleep out of his bones, he shoved the blanket off before yelping at the sudden cold and diving for the fallen item before wrapping himself in it. The musical laughter of his Zabrak uncle reached his ears as the much older man laughed at his reaction. "What happened while I was out?" Xel asked incredulously. "The sun vanish or something?"
Teras chuckled a few more times before offering the boy a hand. "No, you're just used to climate control and not the crisp, clear mornings of Manda'yaim."
Xel reluctantly took his hand and let the blanket drop off his shoulders, shivering at the morning air seeping through the door that he was sure Teras left open on purpose. "Cold or no," the boy said soberly, "it's good to be back."
Teras smiled widely and clapped him on the shoulder as he marched off to get dressed. "No arguments there, ad'ika."
Two minutes later, the younger Caden stepped out of the 'fresher wearing a pair of blue mechanic pants and a dark gray synthleather jacket with his typical boots. "So why the early wakeup?"
Teras' eyebrows shot up. "Early?" He checked his chrono exaggeratedly. "Half the day's gone already."
Xel's jaw dropped. "What?!" Before his uncle could stop him, he sprinted out the door of their one-story residence into the crisp cool of the morning, scrambling to find the nearest speeder bike they owned. He leapt aboard and gunned the engine, easily going well over 200 mph. He streaked past a cluster of Mandos at an intersection, narrowly missing clipping one of their shoulders as he spun the bike in a spiral. The loud expletives shouted in his direction were drowned out between the roar of the speeder's engine and the loud hammering of his heart in his ears. Can't believe I'm late…on my first day back!
The bike whirred to a stop as he kicked in the airbrakes hard, leaping off as soon as it halted and sprinting into the foundry ahead of him. Ducking under a piece of machinery, he spun around a metallurgist hard at work, finding who he was looking for a moment later.
"Elek!" he shouted.
The burly, thick-set man lifted a welding visor off his face and arched an eyebrow at Xel. "To what?"
Xel smirked at his customary joke. Elek, Mando'a for "yes." Xel wasn't sure why his parents named him that, because he was certainly no "yes man." "Sorry I'm late. Space lag takes its toll."
Elek nodded in understanding but still had a reprimanding expression on his face. "Forging beskar properly isn't just a trade, ad'ika, it's an art. One that takes patience, practice, and, most importantly, discipline."
"I'll set my chrono next time, alor."
He smiled and nodded, knowing Xel was good for it. Ever since he had gotten into the bounty hunting business with his father, the young Mando had forged a reputation of excellence. On the few jobs that they managed to lose, the circumstances were such that the results were out of their control, and thus far, that record had not been broken. As they bent over a chunk of raw beskar, Elek couldn't help but reflect on the incredibly focused expression on his student's face, one that he had seen on him many times, and not just in his foundry. Like anyone on this planet with half a brain, he could tell that the boy was most definitely his father's son. Whatever he put his mind and soul to, he would get done, no matter how difficult or far-fetched.
Xander sat at the counter of the tapcaf, mug of ne'tra gal in his hand, knocking it against one held by Teras and knocking back half its contents in one swig. Both of them cringed for a moment as they let the hard drink settle to the bottom of their stomachs before taking another couple of sips.
"That boy of yours is something, Xan," Teras said after a while. "Driven, loyal. Reminds me a lot of you back in the day."
Xander arched an eyebrow at his brother. "You mean to say that doesn't remind you of who I am now?"
Teras chuckled. "Well of course it does, but…it's not…quite as sharp as it used to be with you."
Xander frowned and nursed his drink. "Consequences of leading a life like mine, I'm afraid."
His brother raised an eyebrow. "Care to define that?"
Xander's bright hazel eyes met Teras' light brown ones in a stare. "You know what I mean."
"On the whole, maybe, but…which part exactly are you referring to? The solitude? The double life? The secrets?"
"All of the above and more. I've grown cynical, Teras. Paranoid, even. I don't want my son to grow up with a father like that, but under the circumstances—"
"You can't afford to be otherwise." The Zabrak pursed his lips at Xander's nod. "I understand." He sighed heavily. "I don't envy you, ner vod…but I do at the same time. You know me, I'm unmarried, and sterile to boot."
Xander scoffed. "Never stopped Mandos before."
Teras shrugged. "True." He knocked back the rest of his mug as they both drank in silence. His brother was right, and he knew it.
Mandos valued blood relations about as much as race when it came to bringing someone into the fold, and since the dawn of their culture, they had made a point of adopting orphans, strays, and all manner of malcontents who needed guidance and purpose. There was no race among the Mando'ade, the children of Mandalore. As long as you adhered to the Resol'nare, the "Six Actions" of being a Mandalorian, you were accepted. It still didn't mean that Teras' impotence didn't bite.
"You're probably right," the Zabrak said after a while. "Sooner or later, I'm just gonna have to bite the bolt, find myself a good Mando girl and a kid who needs family. I just…ach, it's useless to mourn what might have been."
Xander sighed heavily, staring into the black liquid in his mug. "Ain't that the truth?" He checked his wrist chrono and let out another sharp breath before downing the last of his drink and standing up, leaving the appropriate creds on the counter. "If you'll excuse me, I have a son to get back to."
Teras raised his mug in salute. "Ret'urcye mhi, Xan."
"Ret'urcye mhi, Teras."
1 hour later
A loud knock at the door of the relatively primitive residence elicited a sharp hiss of annoyance from the boy working inside.
"Yeah," Xel shouted, "gimme a second!" A slow breath was exhaled as his hands lowered to set a very delicate circuit. "Just a little more," he muttered. The second set of knocks caused him to wince involuntarily and put the circuit down faster than was prescribed, shorting out the whole thing and causing a small explosion. Xel rolled his eyes and huffed over to the door, jerking it open as the person on the other end leaned in to try and bash it down.
Suddenly finding nothing to stop his body, Cerril Ordo fell bodily through the open door, toppling and nearly faceplanting, stopped only by the recovery training he and every other girl and boy on this planet had had since becoming Mando'ade. He turned on his side and glared at Xel.
"What?" he asked, his voice agitated.
"Why didn't you come the first time?"
"I was busy," Xel answered simply, shutting the door and walking back into the house, brushing what was left of his failed project into a rather heavy waste bin.
"Tell me you didn't take something from the foundry, cause if you did, my buir is gonna have your—"
"I didn't take anything, Cerril, ori'haat. Your dad's paranoia is endearing, really."
"Hey, he didn't ask me to check up on you. This is my concern. Concern for your safety."
"I know my place, Ril. I'm just an apprentice, and believe me when I say I know I've got a long, long way to go."
Ril pursed his lips and nodded slowly before breaking into a small smile and clapping his younger friend on the shoulder. He walked past him over to the waste bin and took a quick look at what Xel had just thrown in there. "What were you workin' on, then?"
"Well, it's a charred mess right now, but I see your point." He gave Xel a look.
The 13-year-old rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. "It was supposed to be a modification to my jetpack. Gimme an extra strong burst on ignition."
"Ah…you do know how dangerous that is, right?"
"No," Xander interrupted, walking in from his study, "he's right, Xel. There are safety systems on our jetpacks for a reason. If you work with a thrust you're not used to and lose control, it could mean any one of sixteen unpredictable outcomes, none of which are good and all of which involve some sort of injury. I appreciate your attempts at optimization, but don't do it again."
Xel sighed and slumped his shoulders as he picked up the waste bin for disposal. "Yes, buir."
"Xander," Cerril greeted, holding out his hand, "good to see you again."
"Likewise," the father responded. "How's Elek these days?"
Ril wore a wry smile. "Tired, old, and grumpy." He shrugged. "His words, not mine, but most days, I have to agree."
"He still working on that beskad?"
"Yes, and he keeps telling me that it's going to be my coming-of-age gift, since 'old shabuire' like him don't have the dexterity for it."
Xander whistled through his teeth. "One hell of a gift, boy. You have any idea how rare those things are?"
"Sabers made of Mandalorian iron?" Ril smirked sarcastically. "No, I had no clue. On another note, he's finally getting out of the house and foundry for a bit, goin' down to the Oyu'baat for a few rounds. You're invited, and so's Xel."
Xander waved him off. "Nah. Already had my fill of drinks for the day, and I don't think I want my son to learn the virtues of getting haryc b'aalyc just yet."
"Right. Well, he could just watch. I'll keep him away from the hard stuff, I promise."
The older Mando smiled gently and took a deep breath, glancing at Xel, who was sitting silently in a doorway out of Cerril's line of sight. "All right. I suppose I can trust you enough for that. Not like there are going to be any Mando girls at this party." Xander picked up the slight gulp on Ril's end and narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Are there?"
Cerril took in a deep breath, but Xel cut him off. "We'll be careful, buir. Trust me, I remember what happened last time. If anything, I'll be the one watching out for him."
Xander considered it for a few moments before nodding his assent. Xel gave a small arm-pump of triumph before grabbing his jacket and the hem of Cerril's, practically dragging him out the door. As they trudged along, the older boy's expression was somewhere between a cringe and a pout.
"What?" Xel asked him.
Ril sighed. "I'm never gonna live that night down, am I?"
He grinned. "Nope. Considering that was both the first time you ever got drunk and the first time you'd been beaten senseless by...her, I'm surprised you don't have a dozen people snickering at your presence at any given time." His friend's expression darkened.
"Anyone willing to try would quickly find out that I'm not so easy to beat when sober."
Xel laughed and looped an arm around Ril's shoulder. "I'm just teasing, ya know. Trust me, if I weren't your friend, I definitely wouldn't be laughing. Now come on, we've got a party to get to."
The tapcaf was already bustling with activity when the two boys got there. Elek had already gotten his party started, and he wasn't the only one. Between a team of mercs from another clan and a fellow beskar forger who had the same idea, the elder Ordo was busy beating them all in a drinking game. Ril beamed with pride as he watched his old man barely sway as he got to his feet to assist a collapsed patron from Clan Bralor. Xel sat at the bar, grinning and laughing with the raucous gang as he admired his teacher's incredible ability to hold his liquor. The man's drink of choice was tihaar, a clear, fiery liquor hyper-distilled from fruits, and those in the group who weren't used to drinking it in quite the same quantities as Elek were quickly feeling the consequences.
Ril, for his part, was abstaining, keeping to his word about watching over Xel, although he knew full well that his younger friend didn't need the supervision. He had never been particularly attracted to alcohol, and truth be told, neither was Ril. He only got that wasted because he lost a bet with a kid from Clan Vizsla, something that Xel wisely tried to talk him out of. In short order, Elek, as expected, outdrank anyone and everyone who dared to challenge him to a contest of sobriety. He laughed as he slumped onto a bar stool and tapped the counter for the smiling bartender to hand him a mug of ne'tra gal.
"Bunch'a lightweights," he mocked, indicating the passed-out clumps of bodies in various corners and booths of the room.
"Ain't no one can beat my old man," Cerril laughed, clapping his father on the shoulder as he sat down next to him, watching as Xel nursed a virgin drink on his other side.
"Not even mine?" Caden asked. "I've seen Dad knock back that kind of punch and keep standing."
Elek chuckled. "That would be a contest for the ages. In all honesty, I don't know who'd come out on top." His smile faded. "He's certainly had enough practice, life as hard as his."
Xel's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean by that?" Ordinarily, he was not one for manipulating the loose tongues of drunks, but if his father wouldn't give him the answers he wanted, he was going to get them elsewhere.
"Ah, nothin'. Your father wouldn't want me to—"
"I'm here," Xel said sharply, "he's not…and I'm just about out of patience."
Elek looked at him firmly. "It's not my right to tell you, boy, and no amount of prodding will compel me to answer you. Drunk as I may be, I'm still lucid enough to know when I'm being manipulated."
Xel looked away, only half ashamed and more frustrated than anything. "Fair enough," he snarled, knocking back the rest of his drink and rising to his feet.
"Xel," Ril tried.
Caden just waved him off and walked for the door.
10 minutes later
The cool night wind whipped through Xel's lengthening hair as he gunned the engine of his speeder bike, his rage and frustration finally at a fever pitch. I've had it up to here with his secrets! He rounded a copse of trees, shooting past another set of bushes as he came upon a massive set of ruins in the distance. Before him stood the once-sparkling capital city of Mandalore during the Clone Wars. The ruins in front of him were all that was left of the reign of Satine Kryze and the "New Mandalorians." Xel scoffed at the thought. No such thing. Kryze and her pacifist ilk had brought prosperity to Mandalore, but at the cost of everything that made them who they were. Of course, she had never forced the traditionalists, Jaster Mereel's True Mandalorians, to abandon their customs, only somewhat ostracized them.
The woman had had at least enough sense to realize that if she'd ever tried to eradicate the old ways, Mando or not, she'd be assassinated by any one of several thousand traditionalists, Xel's father among them. Xander had actually met her in person once during the war, as a mercenary working for the Grand Army of the Republic while her life was under threat from the Death Watch. She had asked him why he was so willing to defend her, and in short, he told her that as much as he hated what she'd done to their people and culture, he hated what the Death Watch wanted more. Given what he had heard about the organization, Xel had to agree. They were terrorists, plain and simple—cold-blooded murderers, even by Mandalorian standards. Regardless of his efforts, though, the organization eventually took control of Mandalore.
Some time before or after Kryze's death at the hand of Darth Maul, the Death Watch splintered, and those who were reluctant to participate before joined with the True Mandalorians, of which Xander was one. During something of a lull in the Clone Wars, he left his post with the Republic and returned with an army of his comrades, Teras and Elek among them. Together, they absolutely decimated the Death Watch and returned Mandalore to its pre-New Mandalorian state. Those who belonged to the old regime were ignored, neither supported nor attacked, by the restorers. They were, as the Mandos of old, left with the choice to forge a new path or die. The ruins that faced Xel now were all that was left of their urbanized civilization, the stronghold city the last point of attack by the True Mandalorians and the site of their most vicious battle.
Xel zipped through the half-collapsed streets, decreasing his speed to negotiate the tight, cramped corners. On a whim, he swerved onto a thoroughfare that led to the higher ends of the ruined skyline, gaining massive altitude as he observed the city. The evidence of warfare was practically shoved in his face, from pockmarks on the streets to gigantic craters carved into buildings by turbolasers. He shuddered to think of the sheer amount of firepower expended that day, and had a sudden urge to ask his father about it…about a lot of things. But he knew Xander wouldn't answer, not likely anyway.
The boy was so lost in his thoughts that he failed to notice the rapidly approaching curve until he was less than 400 feet from the edge, and considering he was going over 120 mph, that left him with less than a fourth of a second to respond. A momentary flash of panic flashed through him before his training kicked in and a cold feeling of confidence settled in his system. He immediately slammed on the airbrakes, decelerating to 100 mph by the time his bike went over the edge and leaping backward off it, decreasing his velocity further. Reaching up and back with his left arm, he fired his grappling hook, a device he kept on his person at all times, the metal head digging into the ramp above and anchoring itself as his trajectory arced downward. Waiting until gravity had more pull than his inertia, Xel hit the locking system on his hook, stopping any more cable from deploying.
The snap of the now-200-foot cord occurred with such force that his left arm was immediately dislocated. He roared in pain as his body swung under the elevated thoroughfare, his body the end of a pendulum that slowly swung to a stop. Every fiber in his left arm screamed in pain as he hung there, unable to cut the cable for fear of falling to his death in a 1200-foot drop or pull himself up to safety…but he intended to try the latter. Hissing and huffing in agony, Xel reached up to his grapple gauntlet and hit the "retract" button, causing the device to reel him up to the edge of the road.
He grasped the part of the cable still exposed with his right hand, pulling hard and groaning through clenched teeth at the stabs that ran through his left shoulder as he slowly but surely pulled himself within reach of safety. What he didn't know was that the surface his anchor was attached to was unstable—the duracrete was starting to give. He felt the shifting and crumbling just a split-second before it gave completely, and his right hand reached madly for the edge.
His fingers missed it by inches.
As his eyes widened to their max, a mixture of emotions ran through him. Fear, frustration, and, most powerfully, regret. Regret that his blind search for answers would rob his father of the one good thing he had left. In the half-second between his realization and downward acceleration, acceptance filled him, and he closed his eyes.
Only to open them as a vise-tight grip wrapped around his right wrist. His dark blue eyes widened as they looked upward to the face of his rescuer, or in this case, faceplate.
"I've got you, son."
Xel had never been so happy to see that gray t-visored helmet in his life, either as Xander curled his entire body weight with one arm, pulling him to safety, or as he pulled off his helmet and helped his son to his knees. With relief came a dispelling of adrenaline, and with the lack of adrenaline came the full force of his pain. Though all he released was a series of choppy breaths and small whimpers, Xander could easily tell that his son was in sheer agony. A painkiller syringe went into the boy's dislocated shoulder as the Mando curled an arm around his shaking shoulders, the chemical taking the edge off. Xel's functional arm shook as his hand raised to the edge of his father's chestplate and gripped it tightly, his face pressing against the cold yet reassuring metal as Xander held him close.
Xel stayed there for a moment before breaking into hard, heavy sobs. "Buir," he choked.
"Shh," Xander whispered. "I know, Xel. I know. It's going to be all right, son. Everything's going to be all right." He gently ran a gloved hand through Xel's hair and held him close. "I promise…I promise."