Star Wars: Kandosii'tal

The Consultant

1 hour later

Belsavis

8 months BBY

Cold wind blew over snow-covered mountains, bringing an approaching snowstorm ever closer to a pair of ships parked on a flat clearing. Smoke curled from a spot halfway between the two vessels, a small pillar of heat on a world of freezing cold coming from a lit pyre arranged in a rectangular pattern. Three figures stood watching it burn, two of them staring in melancholy serenity, the third in scowling anger. On the well-assembled stack of wood lay a body clothed in a tan Jedi robe, eyes closed, hair splayed in a fan pattern around its head.

Alen closed his eyes solemnly, breathing in and out deeply as Iola gently laid a hand on his shoulder. He gave her a reassuring smile, wondering at how such a tall, strong woman could be so gentle before turning to look at his brother. After they'd left the prison, Xel had insisted on carrying Telia's body the whole way, despite numerous burns and injuries that Alen had noticed on his form, a limp in his right leg and several blaster burns at unprotected joints being the most substantial. He also hadn't said a word since then, either as he cut down several trees with his lightsaber or built a sizable platform with the wood.

Alen hadn't bothered to ask how he knew Jedi were cremated.

"Ni su'cuyi," Xel said suddenly, voice almost a whisper, "gar kyr'adyc."

Alen looked at his face and reddened eyes, noticing a slight tremble in his jaw as he choked out the words.

"Ni partayli, gar darasuum."

The Jedi saw his brother's fists curl at his sides and jaw clench hard.

"Gar darasuum," Xel repeated brokenly, as if trying to convince himself.

"Xel," Alen said quietly, reaching for him.

The Mando simply lifted a hand, gently waving him off as he took a deep breath and released it.

It was baffling to Alen just how much Caden was affected. After all, he'd known Telia for barely a fraction of the time Alen had, yet apart from the initial severing of their Bond, Alen had only felt a dull ache, nothing compared to the outright agony he could feel over his Bond with Xel, despite the Mando's best efforts to block him out. The Jedi's lips pursed tightly as he approached his brother anyway, putting a hand on his shoulder. Xel exhaled hard and visibly bit his lip before breaking into a series of hard, choppy breaths.

"Don't hold it in."

Xel looked at Alen hard, shaking his head slightly as he forced his voice to work. "I'm not. Just…trying not to fall apart." He looked down and away, clenching his fists. "Takes ten times longer to put yourself back together."

Alen nodded slowly and turned his eyes back to Telia's burning corpse. "I understand."

They stayed like this, staring blankly into the flames, for nearly an hour as it all burned to cinders, the structure eventually collapsing in on itself. Xel's grim, brooding expression didn't change, and neither did Alen's solemn reverence. Their mother's ashes were gathered and stored in Xander's old room on the Kandosii'tal, the brothers splitting off to their separate ships and leaving Belsavis behind.

The Kandosii'tal

"So…what now? We try to lay low? Stay off the radar as much as possible?"

Xel gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes at the hologram. "We've been doing that for years, and look where it landed us."

"Xel, no one could've seen this coming."

"I know. My point is, we were careful in hiding, in keeping a low profile, and the Empire still found and hurt us. They won't stop until we're either dead or working for them, and since the latter isn't even a possibility—"

"Okay, I get your point, but…what other alternative is there?"

Xel looked out into the void of space, thumbing on his holoterminal. "We've been living in the shadows too long. I'm tired of running. It's time to take the fight to them."

Alen's eyes widened as Iola looked on confusedly in the background. "Wait. Wait-wait-wait, you're talking about—"

"Offering our services to the greatest anti-Imperial organization in the galaxy. The Rebel Alliance."

The two people on the other end were silent, one in shock, the other in curiosity.

Xel noticed Iola's piqued expression. "You've never heard of the Alliance, have you?"

She shrugged. "Been on my homeworld until a couple months ago. No holonet, virtually no contact with offworlders. Kinda hard to keep track of the news, you know?"

"The Alliance," Alen said, finding his voice, "is a coalition of various races and systems meant to resist the Empire and restore the Republic." He shrugged. "Thus far, they haven't met with much success."

"Which is why we're going to help," Xel cut in. "After all, what are the chances they have a Mandalorian warrior or Jedi on their roster? We'd be considerable assets to them, and they're hardly in a position to say no to that."

"Yeah, but…how would we even contact them? It's not like they're recruiting soldiers on the holonet."

"No, but Dad and I tracked their movements for almost a year. I know a good portion of the backchannels they frequent."

"There's a good chance the Empire does too."

"As long as we don't mention the words 'Jedi' or 'Force,' we should be fine, even if they're monitoring communications. We'll have to meet them in person if we're gonna pitch this."

Alen breathed out hard. "Okay. I don't think this is the best plan or course of action, but…" He shrugged. "I got no alternatives, and the Rebellion could use our talents."

Xel nodded and took a deep breath. "Here goes."

Bakura

After a bit of bargaining and assurances, the Rebel contact Xel had employed agreed to set up a meeting on the neutral world of Bakura, in a remote, abandoned mining facility. The two ships set down on a landing platform near the facility's administrative building next to a Taylander shuttle, a quick glance confirming that their hosts had arrived. Xel patted his hips and chewed his lip uneasily at their uncharacteristic lack of weight, his pistols and knife missed.

"No weapons," they'd said, and although Xel was hardly stupid enough to walk into a meeting unarmed, he meant to appear as such for the sake of their negotiations. Alen too had left his Bryar on the T-6, but his lightsaber was, as usual, tucked away under a fold of his robes. The pair gave each other a nod before walking toward the building's entrance, Iola in tow. The steel-gray structure looked down at them ominously from the outside, and the inside wasn't much better. As expected, two Rebel soldiers were waiting for them.

In the few seconds before they spoke, Xel took the time to size them both up, just in case. Young, moderately athletic. Visibly unnerved…probably by my armor. Trained, but not very well. He smirked. Easy pickings if they decide to try anything.

"The commander's waiting for you," one said.

Xel just nodded and kept silent, a sign for Alen and Iola to do the same as they walked toward a twenty-something man with an officer's bars pinned to his collar. The man was seated at a long table with two others flanking him, obviously his bodyguards. Caden noted with absent interest that he could probably take everyone in this room with his eyes closed and both hands behind his back, forcing himself to think diplomatically for the sake of everyone involved. The "commander" motioned for the trio to be seated, and they obliged, Xel taking the center seat as Alen sat on his right and Iola his left.

"I'm Commander Hile Tobin of the Rebel Alliance," the man said, extending a hand.

"Xel Caden," the Mando responded, intentionally deepening his voice and taking it firmly.

Hile's eyebrow raised slightly. "Quite a grip you got there."

Xel shrugged. "It serves my purposes." He motioned to his right. "These are Alen Li-am—" his hand swept left, "—and Iola Voss, my teammates. We'd like to offer our skills to the Rebellion against the Empire."

"So you indicated." Tobin's eyes narrowed. "What I can't figure out is why. I mean, you're Mandalorian, and the Empire pays much better than we can."

Xel scoffed loudly behind his helmet. "Don't believe all the stories you hear about Mando mercenaries. Besides, my reasons are personal."

"Oh?"

Caden's fists tightened. "They took something from us. Something dear." He took a deep breath as both his parents' faces flashed in his vision, forcing himself to calm and lean back in his seat. "Add to that the fact that they now occupy Mandalore and, well…let's just say Mandos don't approve of being herded."

"If that's true," said one of the bodyguards somewhat bitterly, "then why haven't we had more of your people join the cause?"

Xel gave the man a firm t-visor glare. "The Empire hasn't taken any overt action against us. In fact, they've given us somewhat preferential treatment, given the fact that any attempts at domination would probably cost them far more men and resources than they're willing to lose." He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. "Besides, the Republic you want to resurrect tried to herd us, too."

The glares persisted a while longer until Tobin rolled his eyes and spoke up. "Enough. You came to us with an offer. I want specifics."

Alen raised an eyebrow. "Specifics?"

Tobin nodded. "Experience, equipment, capabilities, specializations. Consider this an impromptu job interview for one of the most dangerous positions in the galaxy."

Xel shrugged and nodded. "Fair enough. I'm a professional bounty hunter, not exactly famous, but that's by choice. If you've heard of Brack Anthis or the Maltis slaver ring, I was partially responsible for the death of one and the crippling of the other."

"How much is partially?" asked the bodyguard rather skeptically.

Xel gave him another glare. "Greater than 50%."

Sensing another glare contest coming on, Alen spoke up. "I'm an expert slicer and shot with a blaster. I can pilot a ship in a combat role, and I've been known to negotiate a good deal or two."

Iola spoke up. "I can nail a womprat with a blaster pistol at 200 yards, got significant technical savvy, and a decent repertoire of covert skills."

At the last statement, everyone at the table gave her a look.

"Is that right?" Tobin asked. "And what's your stake in this?"

The girl shrugged and crossed her arms. "I'm no fan of the Empire, especially after what I've recently witnessed." Both brothers gave her a stern look to keep quiet. "Besides that, I'm a part of their crew, so as long as I agree with what they're doing, I go where they go."

Tobin nodded. "Fair enough." His lips pursed and eyes perused Xel's faceplate as a long silence reigned. "I doubt you three are suited as front-line soldiers."

"And you'd be right," Xel agreed.

"So, what do think about being consultants?"

"In what capacity?" Alen asked.

"Any capacity that suits your specialties. Xel might be assigned to scope out an area or eliminate a target, and if we need to negotiate with locals for supplies and whatnot, we might send you. Tactical consulting, we like to call it."

Xel shrugged. "Sounds fair to me. Just one thing, though, and this is non-negotiable."

"Okay?"

The Mando leaned forward for emphasis. "Do. Not. Bench me."

Tobin looked even more confused. "O…kay? Sure. I mean, it's not as if we're in a position to refuse competent help."

Xel just nodded.

"And what about payment? If you're consultants, we'll need a rate."

The Mando crossed his arms. "Since we do have a personal stake in this, you'll get the family and friends discount. Five thousand a month."

Tobin smiled. "Done."

Xel raised an index. "Each."

He smiled less. "Okay…I think we can make that work."

Seeing the commander's peeved expression, Alen raised a hand. "I can't speak for Iola, but I myself don't need that much. Let's say one thousand."

Xel gave him a sideways look. "Really?"

Alen smirked. "A Jedi should be able to survive on a set of robes and past-due rations for weeks on end." He crossed his arms smugly. "Compared to some more ascetic Knights, I'm practically robbing these people."

"Wait," Tobin interrupted. "You're…a Jedi?"

Alen smiled warmly and tipped his head slightly. "Still learning, still training, but yes. I am ready, willing, and able to assist you in any way I can."

The bodyguard scoffed even as Tobin gave him a stern look. "What a load of bull. The Jedi are all gone, Empire hunted 'em to extinction."

Alen's smile faded, his eyes drifting down. "Almost," he said quietly, "but not quite." He forced a smile onto his face and met Tobin's eyes. "I assure you, I am a Jedi."

"Yeah?" the guard asked with a sneer. "Prove it."

"That's enough, Lieutenant," Tobin said sternly, a hard edge to his voice that immediately told Xel he knew how to take charge.

The man scowled but slumped back into his seat.

"He's gonna be trouble," Xel said over his Bond.

"Let it go, Xel."

His teeth gritted. "He's disrespecting my vod. Can't just let that go."

Alen sighed audibly.

Tobin mirrored the action. "I have to apologize for my associate's attitude. He's a bit of a zealous skeptic."

By the time we're finished, Xel thought, he won't be.

"Well," Alen said with a smile, "I wish I could say I'm used to it, but not enough people know I'm a Jedi for me to be."

"Understandable," Tobin answered. "Well…that…changes things." He gave Alen's companions a once-over, his gaze lingering on Xel for a longer period. "So how exactly do a Mandalorian and a Jedi fit in with each other?"

The brothers exchanged a look before the older twin answered. "We'd…rather not say. Suffice to say our loyalties lie with each other. Period."

"So a Mando merc and a Jedi wannabe," the guard muttered.

"Garth," Tobin chided.

The man threw his hands up in surrender.

Alen raised an eyebrow and pressed his fingertips together. "If it would put your friend at ease, I can demonstrate my abilities with the Force."

"That's not necessary," Tobin answered quickly.

Li-am bowed before getting out of his seat. "Oh, but I insist." His gaze flickered to Xel, who he could sense was giving him a strange look behind his helmet. He just smiled and winked in response, and as a result felt a flicker of anticipating amusement over their Bond. He closed his eyes and started to sit, but with no chair below him, focusing the Force and crossing his legs, noting with a smile the quiet gasps as he levitated both himself and the chair off the ground. He widened his smile as his Force Grip extended to "Garth" and his chair, practically grinning as the man yelped rather femininely before being returned to the ground.

"I hope," Alen said to the guard as he reclaimed his chair, "that allays your fears."

Garth gulped and nodded stiffly.

Tobin was genuinely amused, but he was hiding it well. "Well, now that that's settled." He stared at Xel for a few moments. "Would you take your helmet off please?"

Xel almost laughed. "What's wrong? Is it too intimidating?"

The commander scoffed. "Buddy, I face down Imperial stormtroopers on a daily basis, for a living. I just prefer to look a man in the eye when I'm considering a deal."

The boy smiled. "Wise choice." He popped the seal on his buy'ce and removed it, placing the beskar helmet on the table between them.

Garth stared at him agape. "Are you kriffing serious?"

Xel raised an eyebrow at him bemusedly.

"A kid. We're taking on a kid for five thousand a month?"

Caden scowled at him and thrust a thumb at his own chest. "This kid knows more about warfare than most of your soldiers ever will, especially since a good portion of 'em will be dead within a few months."

Garth snarled at him and started to rise, Tobin grabbing his arm firmly. "Is that a threat?"

Xel crossed his arms, not at all intimidated. "Just pointing out a general trend. Your illustrious Alliance has been making a total of jack when it comes to headway, and one of the key factors in that is your lack of properly trained soldiers."

Tobin raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you offering to help with that?"

The Mando chuckled. "Oh, hell no. I don't have nearly enough patience. My point is, like your commander said, you're in no position to be turning away able help." Xel rose to his full height, his posture and presence still intimidating despite his lack of a helmet. "And I do believe we qualify."

"That you do," Tobin answered, practically yanking Garth back into his seat before standing and extending his hand. "Do we have a deal?"

Xel stared at the appendage, then at Tobin's gray eyes. There was intelligence there, a savvy and aptitude for war that was rare in auretiise. There was presence and charisma, the ability to inspire followers. Above all, there was conviction. The Mando smiled and took his hand. "We do."

Tobin smiled back. "Excellent. We'll review your claims and history, just to be sure, and then get to work finding you jobs."

Xel smirked. Probably gonna verify we're not Imperial spies.

"Shouldn't be too hard, considering how hard we've been getting hammered lately."

"You should have my holonet frequency," Xel said, tapping a few keys on his left gauntlet and transmitting the number in question to Tobin's nearby datapad.

"So I do," the commander agreed. "In the meantime, feel free to take some time off, get yourselves equipped for a fight. We don't have much in the way of military hardware, so I'm afraid you'll need to get your own equipment."

Xel smiled malevolently. "Don't worry. Firepower is never an object with Mandos."

Tobin nodded. "Glad to hear it." He checked his wrist chrono and cursed under his breath. "We should go. Never a good idea to stay in one place for too long. I'm sure you understand."

He nodded and retrieved his helmet, donning it as his companions rose. "Of course. We'll be waiting."

Alen bowed to the Alliance personnel and Xel and Iola gave a slight tip of the head before they went their separate ways.

30 minutes later

The Kandosii'tal

"So, Xel."

"Hm?"

"What are your reasons for joining the Rebellion?"

Xel gave Alen's hologram a confused look.

"'Cause I honestly don't know. You have no love for the Republic, or for auretiise in general, so…"

The Mando looked away and pursed his lips. "I'm joining to fight the Empire, to bring the pain to those who brought it to us. The Alliance serves that need." He shrugged. "It's just that simple."

"You make it sound like you're using them."

Xel chuckled. "That's because I am. And in turn, they're using us."

"How can you say that?" He sounded incredulous.

"Don't take it the wrong way. It's an uncomfortable truth of any war that any soldier is used by his or her commander. Not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a necessity. In a total war like this, with literally millions of soldiers at stake, competent commanders, especially in higher echelons, typically start seeing their soldiers as assets rather than people, and that's just as well. Without that kind of cold, calculating perspective, many opportunities would be wasted being cautious and fearing casualties. At the same time, commanders on the ground, in the trenches with their men, have to be more compassionate, more understanding and empathetic, or morale will tank."

"I…I guess that makes sense."

Xel shrugged and programmed a course in his nav computer. "I'm goin' to the apartment on Nar Shaddaa. Gotta get some shut-eye. Get outta this tub for a while."

"Right," Alen said quietly. "Are you sure you don't wanna see her?"

Caden sighed and rolled his eyes. "Yes." His lips pursed. "No."

Alen's interest flickered to life.

"I don't know." He sighed and scratched the back of his head. "Ah hell. We'll see. I need a nap first though. A long, long nap."

Alen chuckled. "Roger that. We're gonna do a job while we're waiting, Iola and me. She picked up something from a friend of hers she met on her 'quest,' and I'd like to help her out."

"Fine," Xel said tiredly. "Be careful, and if you run into any problems, let me know." He clicked the connection off and pulled the Kandosii'tal's hyperdrive lever a moment later.

Nar Shaddaa

Faceplant. Xel's head followed his thought a moment later as the pillow gave way, the mattress doing the same considering he hadn't bothered to strip off much armor. It didn't matter. He could sleep in his armor for all he cared.

Knock knock.

Dark blue eyes snapped open at the disturbance, upper lip curling in annoyance as he dragged himself out of bed and went to the front door, not even bothering to check the peephole before watching it hiss open. The person on the other end sent his eyes widening.

"I…I heard you were back on Nar Shaddaa…and I guess I figured you'd come here."

Xel blinked and nodded, gulping slightly. "Hey Maila…been a while."

She tried for a smile, but it came out as something of a grimace as she nodded. "Yeah."

The disconnect in Xel's mind was palpable. He'd never seen her looking so vulnerable and unsure of herself. "Come in, please." When the Zeltron stepped past him, he checked the area outside his door, reaching out with the Force to sense any ill intent. Finding nothing, he closed the door and locked it, then joined Maila in the apartment's small living room. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"No thanks," she answered quietly.

Xel furrowed his brows and leaned against the back of a couch, facing her. "What can I do for you?"

She blinked and locked eyes with him. "I...I don't know."

Okay, now I know something's wrong. "Since when?"

Maila clenched her teeth. "Since you."

Xel blinked. "Oh," he said quietly.

She smirked mirthlessly and crossed her arms. "Yeah. Against my better judgement, you've been plaguing my mind for weeks, months even. And it's always when it's quiet and I'm alone."

"Why do you think that is?"

She raised a raven eyebrow. "Why do you think? I always found you intriguing, and ever since you've blocked me out—and yes, I know that's what you're doing—that intrigue has only increased."

He smirked and raised an eyebrow at her. "Intrigue? Is that all?"

The Zeltron rolled her eyes. "Stang, you're such a smooth operator."

Xel grinned.

"I admit, I am still attracted, but you've made it very clear where we stand, and I respect that." She sighed. "All the same, I would very much like to see you more than every six months. Or at the very least talk more."

His smile faded as he nodded. "I've…been a fool. I thought that by isolating myself from you, I'd be protecting you from reprisal, but…the fact is that if the Empire wants to know something, they'll find out. And if the Empire wants to hurt someone, they will." His lips pursed. "Right now I'm working to make sure that changes."

Her eyebrows shot up. "Wait, are you saying…oh kriffing hell, you didn't."

Xel smirked. "I did."

Maila crossed her arms. "You joined the Rebellion."

His smile turned malevolent. "It's about time someone started to put the screws to those hut'uune, and since the Alliance has been trying with little success…" He shrugged. "I guess I just figured I might as well lend a hand."

"And…this wouldn't happen to have anything to do with your deceased father, right?"

Xel's face fell. "If I get vengeance while I'm working for the Rebels, what does it matter?"

"I doubt your Jedi brother will approve."

"He doesn't need to know, and if he finds out…frankly, I don't care." He shrugged. "It's my choice."

"What isn't?"

Xel looked down and away. "How much time I have left, that anyone has left. I'm done trying to cheat death."

"So you're not afraid to die?"

"I am, actually. I'm afraid of dying at the wrong time, with my life's purpose unfulfilled."

"And what's that, exactly?"

Dark blue locked with ice blue. "What do you think?"

Maila chewed her lip and nodded slowly as a long silence passed.

"In the meantime, can I tempt you with that drink?"

20 minutes later

Nar Shaddaa

Warm laughter echoed off the walls of a small apartment, reverberating and echoing back toward its source as the other person in the room just shook his head and smiled.

"Are you trying to get me drunk?"

Xel raised an eyebrow and smirked widely. "Trying? I'd say I succeeded."

"Uh huh, sure." Maila took another swig of Xel's ne'tra gal, tipping back her mug and draining the last dregs as her friend laughed at her expense.

"It takes a while to develop a tolerance for Mando liquors, Maila, and you took that mug way too fast." He tipped back his own mug and drained it halfway. "Should've taken my advice."

"So," she slurred out slightly, "I never thought to ask, how old are you?"

Xel raised an eyebrow and shrugged. "What does it matter? I mean, honestly, what difference would it make?"

Maila shrugged. "None, I guess. Just curious."

Xel's expression became serious. "But I'm wondering now. Would it change the way you look at me?"

"I guess it all depends on what you say."

He frowned into the remains of his drink, narrowing his eyes. "I'm fourteen."

Laughter, warm and hearty, rang through the apartment as Maila doubled over on the couch, setting down her mug to avoid breaking it. She actually clapped a few times before laying back on the cushions and meeting his gaze again. "Oh, stang. You're serious."

He nodded slowly.

Her smile faded slowly. "Fierfek."

"Something wrong?"

"No, I just…I knew you were young. Just not that young."

"Would it have changed anything had you known earlier?"

She looked at him seriously. "Maybe. At least until you showed me what you were made of."

He nodded and drank again.

Their separate thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. Xel groaned as he got to his feet and checked the peephole, thumbing the door open a moment later.

"Alen. What are you doing here so early?"

The Jedi furrowed his brows. "Early? Not at all. Our destination was pretty close to Nar Shaddaa in the first place, so it wasn't much of a shift to get here once our job was done."

Xel nodded. "Speaking of, where is Iola?"

Alen stepped inside and pulled back his hood. "Oh, she went to her own apartment here. Couple dozen blocks away. Needed some rest after all the excitement lately. Speaking of which, have you slept at all?"

The Mando's eyebrow raised as he smirked wryly. "Well…"

"Alen!"

The slurred, flamboyant voice nearly made Alen jump out of his skin as Maila charged into him, catapulting into his chest as she hugged him tightly.

"Maila," he said rather hesitantly, patting her head as she pressed her face into his robed chest. "Fancy seeing you here." He gave Xel a pointed look, to which his brother only shrugged and mouthed, "Drunk."

"Fancy that," she said into his chest, voice muffled.

"Um…" Alen was quickly and steadily turning bright red as the older woman continued to make herself comfortable, Xel barely containing his laughter as he reached out over their Bond.

"You and her…"

Alen scowled at him. "Shut up!"

Xel grinned toothily, silently mocking his brother until he heard a soft snore and looked down to see Maila's body go limp in his brother's arms. The twins exchanged a look before cracking up, Alen carrying the unconscious Zeltron to the couch in the living room before joining his brother in the kitchen.

"What did you do to her?" he asked Xel.

He shrugged. "Nothing she didn't do to herself. I specifically told her to take it slow, but no, women always know best, right?" Xel smirked and shook his head, leaning back on the counter.

Alen crossed his arms and faced him, expression turning serious. "How are you doing?"

Xel shrugged noncommittally. "Fine, I guess."

The Jedi gave him a pointed look. "If this is your version of 'fine,' I would hate to see you having a breakdown."

Caden smirked mirthlessly. "Didn't you hear me before? I don't have the luxury of a breakdown."

Alen put a hand on his shoulder. "But you can mourn. Apart from that funeral on Belsavis, I haven't seen—or felt—you even acknowledge the fact that she's gone."

"I've already acknowledged it once," he bit back, shrugging off his brother's hand and crossing his arms. "I see no reason to do it again. Mandos don't mourn like auretiise." He looked away thoughtfully for a moment. "Aay'han bal shereshoy," he said quietly.

Alen's brows furrowed. "What?"

"There's…really no direct translation. Aay'han is…kind of a bittersweet feeling. Comes with remembering the dead, both the joy that was experienced when they were alive and the fact that they're gone."

"And shereshoy?"

Xel frowned slightly. "A 'lust for life.' The need to experience as much as possible and live as much as possible, because losing the people you love shows you how fragile and short life really is."

Alen actually smiled a little.

"Problem is I only have the former."

His smile faded.

"Mandos…value family above all else, but the fact is…apart from you and my uncle, I don't have one. I feel…bereft, robbed." His fists and teeth clenched. "So in lieu of family, I live for battle."

Alen's lips parted slightly.

Xel's shoulders set. "It's the only path I know to follow, and frankly, I wouldn't want it any other way."

"I see," Alen said after a while, his own stance sharpening. "Well, for what it's worth, I'll be right there with you the whole way."

Xel smiled. "Glad to hear it." As he retrieved his mug and downed the last of his ne'tra gal, he couldn't help but feel the unease on Alen's side of their Bond, though the Jedi probably hadn't meant to leave it open. Whatever. I'm no Jedi, and I won't be weighed down by their self-righteousness. My mission is far too important. His dark eyes narrowed as he set the mug down and strode into his room, retrieving his left pauldron and heading into the makeshift workshop he set up in the apartment.

Alen followed him and watched in interest as he brandished his tools and began working on a chunk of raw beskar and continued for several hours, a symbol forming in the half-centimeter-thick piece after a while. Because of the additives he used to harden and lighten the beskar, this particular piece took on a gold color, and Xel inspected it for a few moments before beginning the process of bonding it to his left pauldron. When it was finished, Xel wiped his hands on a nearby rag and toweled off his sweating face, two pairs of eyes looking on, as Maila had awoken at some point, looking a bit bedraggled.

Xel raised the pauldron so he could see it better, then nodded in satisfaction at his work, the image of a gold-colored longsword embossed in his pauldron.


1 week later

The Kandosii'tal, Nar Shaddaa

"All right, try it now!"

Sparks flew from the control panel, spraying Xel in the face as he shrieked and raised his hands as protection.

"Shut it down! Shut it down!" Belatedly, the sparks stopped coming, and the Mando scowled at the charred mess in front of him. "Shab." He reached in and gingerly pulled the tangle of fried wires apart, then tore half the panel's contents out irritably.

"Are you sure this tub can even handle the power draw of this thing?"

Xel sighed and rolled his eyes as he moved to Alen's position at the power core. "Dad once told me that he jury-rigged this generator from a light frigate. It's meant to power something three times the size of the Kandosii'tal."

"So…that's a yes?"

"That's a yes." Xel sighed again and dug his hands into the wiring connecting the core to the new rotating turbolaser cannon he was trying to mount on the top of the ship. "Oh, there's the problem."

"What?"

"Power converter, two rows down."

"Yeah, I saw that, but that isn't even connected to that area of the ship."

Xel shook his head. "Don't believe what those schematics tell you. Everything in this ship is connected. It's a very intricate wiring system, kind of like a web."

"Seems inefficient, and dangerous. If one part malfunctions, the whole system could go down."

"Not quite. See, if one strand of a web breaks, does the whole thing fall apart?"

"Depends on the strand, I guess."

"Well," Xel grunted, heaving the blown converter out and reaching for a new one, "let's just say there are backups for the backups. The only reason this thing's not working is 'cause I haven't found a way to integrate it fully just yet." The converter slipped into place with a firm thud, and Xel got to soldering the necessary parts together.

"Why the weird wiring system?"

"One, it makes it kinda difficult—and inconvenient—for anyone to steal the ship. They'd have no idea how to fix any power problems, should they arise, and in order to get things into 'standard configuration,' they'd have to rewire the whole ship…which would be damned expensive."

"And two?"

"Two, the integrated wiring's necessary to balance out the overclocked power generator, keep the whole system from overloading."

"Ah…I see. Yeah, that makes sense."

Xel grunted once more as he shoved the converter and its connecting wires back into place. "There. That should do it. Now we just need to rewire the connecting junction at the cannon itself, and we're all set."

"I should be able to handle that."

Caden nodded his acknowledgement and wiped his hands on a nearby cloth, going over his task checklist in his head when a female voice was heard from the exit ramp.

"Mind if I help?"

The Mando stuck his head out the door of the engine room to see her striding up to the halfway point. "Not unless you blow something up. We do need it intact for combat scenarios, you know."

Iola chuckled and nodded as she walked past him to join Alen.

Xel sighed and stepped into the hallway, glancing at the cockpit to see if his holoterminal was blinking with any messages.

"Hey."

He turned back to the ramp and smiled a little. "Hey." The boy strode down and patted Maila's arm before moving past her to check the ship's landing struts and hydraulics. "What's up?"

"Nothing, just wanted to see how you were coming along."

"Ah, it's fine, minus a few problems. Mostly just maintenance." He swiped his fingers over the underside of a strut, grimacing as his hand came away wet. "Shab." As he retrieved his tools and started to plug the leak, he could feel Maila staring at him and reached out with the Force to feel her curiosity. "What is it you want to ask?"

"Is it that obvious?"

He gave her a deadpanned look.

"How far are you planning to take this whole 'rebel' thing? I mean, I know you're only in it for…you know, but…what about after?"

Xel shrugged. "I'm a consultant, so whenever I want to leave, I can. I just have to stop taking their money. And I will, once he is dead."

"You're not worried about the Rebellion failing?"

The Mando scoffed. "I don't give a vrelt's shebs about their auretyc politics. Both parties can blow each other into the next century for all I care. Besides, once I take my vengeance, I'm pretty sure the odds'll tip in the rebels' favor."

"Right."

Xel's belt-mounted comlink beeped, indicating a call at his holoterminal, and he wiped his hands to sprint up the ramp into the cockpit. The holoterminal activated a moment later, and the image of Commander Hile Tobin filled his view. "Commander," he said with a respectful nod.

"Caden. I'm pleased to inform you that everything checks out. If you're ready, we've got a mission for you and your team."

Alen and Iola walked in, Maila staying out of view of the terminal.

"Two standard days ago, one of our scouting teams went missing on Lannik. They were investigating intelligence we received that indicated an Imperial military research and development center in the world's northern hemisphere. That same intelligence gave a glimpse of some of their more recent projects: biochemical weapons, enhanced power armor, and even T-7 ion disruptors."

Caden snarled in disgust as Alen and Iola stared at the rebel in confusion.

"T-7 disruptors?" Alen asked.

"Capable of taking out the electrical systems of entire ships."

"And killing multiple organics in a single shot," Xel added with a bit of a snarl. "Quite painfully." He crossed his arms. "It's a coward's weapon."

"Regardless," Tobin cut in, "it's extremely dangerous to the Rebellion. We're not exactly sure of the extent of their power, but if the rumors are true, then the Empire cannot be allowed to mass-produce them. They'd slaughter us, both on the ground and in the air. They'd have anti-armor weapons that can be held by infantry, knock us out of the game before we even get close."

"What do you need us to do?" Alen asked.

"Get to these coordinates—" the holoterminal flashed with numbers, "—and find out what happened to our team. Pick up their trail and the one they were trying to follow. Since you're such a renowned hunter, finding the facility should be child's play."

"We're on it," Xel assured him. "Anything else?"

"The dossier on the team was just sent to your holoterminal. It may help to understand the path they may have taken. Apart from that, good luck, and may the Force be with you."

He nodded as Alen bowed and the image winked out of existence. Xel heard a heavy sigh from behind and turned to see Maila leaning against a bulkhead, arms crossed.

"Guess you're off then."

"Yeah," said Xel somewhat hesitantly. "Don't worry. We'll be fine and back before you know it."

She raised an eyebrow and smirked. "Don't make a girl a promise if you know you can't keep it."

Xel grinned. "You'll notice I said, 'before you know it.' I mean that quite literally." His grin faded to a small smile as Maila laughed. "And I always keep my promises." He gave her shoulder a quick pat as she walked off the ship and back into her office, Iola and Alen moving toward the T-6 as he suited up.

"So, how did you know about the T-7s?"

Xel shrugged at his brother's voice over comms. as he powered up the ship's engines. "I'm Mandalorian. I know all the best firepower." His smirk faded. "And worst."

"We'll stop them, Xel."

The Mando nodded. "I know. It's just a matter of how many bucketheads we have to go through to do it."

To his surprise, Alen said, "Amen to that."

Xel smirked again and pushed the repulsorlifts into action, raising his ship as Alen followed and they both streaked out of atmosphere. Barely two minutes later, both vessels basked in the light of Nal Hutta's sun before flashing into hyperspace.

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