Star Wars: Kandosii'tal

Operation Deathmarch, Part III

2 hours earlier

Lannik

7 months BBY

"The way I see it, we'll need a damn good distraction to get the Imperials to raise the plasma bridge and send their troops to the other side. While that's happening, we come in on swoops and get to the other side, then kill anything in our way."

"That's a great plan," a rebel commando said sarcastically from Xel's right, "except for the fact that we'll be vaped before we get halfway across."

Caden smiled behind his helmet. "No we won't. The Kandosii'tal, my ship, has enough firepower and shields to do a single strafing run of any sentry cannons, and with Ms. Voss at the helm, we should have more than enough cover."

The Jerun girl smiled at the compliment.

"Even if she can't disable those turbolasers in one pass, she'll get their attention, which should give us more than enough time to close the gap and get inside the prison."

"Okay, better plan, but that still has us facing down several dozen, if not hundred, Imperial guards when we reach the interior."

Xel smirked, putting a little dark mirth into his voice. "Not to worry. I have a man on the inside." He turned toward the prison and smiled wider. "They'll have more than enough to worry about when it goes down." He was silent a while longer.

"No disrespect, Mr. Caden," one of the commandos said, crossing his arms, "but…who exactly put you in command?"

"I did." The image of Hile Tobin came from a holoprojector in Iola's hand. "He knows more about the prison complex than any of you, and he's been communicating with his inside man to get more details about the building's inner workings and garrison. Until this rescue mission is over at the least, you're all under the Consultant's command."

"Understood, sir." The same commando pursed his lips and stared at Xel hard. "So what are your orders?"

Xel reached out over his Bond and tightened his expression as he relayed everything to Alen. His eyes snapped open and turned back to the prison. "We wait." He crouched down and dug his fingers into the sandy rocks under his feet. "We wait for the signal."

"Which is?"

"I'll know it when it happens."


Present

Imperial prison complex, Lannik

The screams and yells of a dozen stormtroopers reached the ears of five rebels as a vengeful beast tore through them like flimsi in a shredder. White plastoid was shattered and dented under massive paws, bodies thrown dozens of feet by a massive head and the tusks that protruded from it. Alen's Boma ally stampeded through the first wave of guards, their volley of crimson plasma rounds doing little more than pissing it off as he drove it forward. E-11s were appropriated by the four rebel soldiers, and they added their firepower to Alen's charge…not that it was needed. Across the halls of the prison, the Jedi and his beast mount created a storm that sent wave after wave of Imperial soldiers in their direction.

Barely two minutes after their breakout began, the entire base shook and rocked. Alen smiled malevolently. You fierfeks are in trouble now. He slipped from his perch on the albino's back to roll on the ground next to Eran Riilos, the rebel handing him a procured blaster pistol. The Jedi took the weapon with a nod and began picking off anything in range, tagging first any stormtroopers who directly threatened their walking wrecking ball. His eyes closed as he ducked behind fallen rubble for cover.

"Xel," he sent over their Bond.

"Can't talk now!"

"Just letting you know we're still alive and well."

The feeling of laughter washed over the connection. "Was there ever any doubt?"

Alen smirked. "Maybe a little."

"Well don't worry. We'll be in there in no time. Just entering now…pleasantly surprised to find the entrance lightly guarded. I'm guessing that's your doing?"

Dark amusement was his only answer.

"Well in that case—" The link was disrupted for a moment as a sharp feeling of alarm surfaced for just as long. "In that case, keep up the good work."

"Will do."

"Hey, Jedi! A little help here!"

Alen frowned and looked over his cover to see the Boma relentlessly slamming the body of a stormtrooper commander was repeatedly and savagely slammed against a wall, the entire area shaking with the impact.

"Control your pet please!" Linn shouted irritably.

He rolled his eyes and walked toward it calmly but rapidly. "It's not a pet. It's an ally."

Alen reached out to it with his hand and the Force, sending a wave of calming energy over it. It slowly came to a stop, turning to face its liberator and benefactor, then snarling as it spotted something it didn't like and charged. His eyes widened in alarm before he dove out of its way as it barreled past him into an AT-ST none of them had noticed between the shocks and rumbles of both the external bombardment and the Boma's rampage. Gigantic tusks tore massive gashes in the walker's command module, lifting the massive war machine off the ground and crashing it into a wall, then ramming it again and crushing it completely.

Alen breathed a sigh of relief and sent his thanks with the Force. The Boma simply tipped its head, then turned toward another blast door and barreled through it as the rebels followed its trail of destruction.


Xel cleaned his knife on a nearby duracrete wall as he stepped over the remains of an Imperial officer, returning the beskar blade to its sheath a moment later. His comlink beeped and index tapped the side of his helmet to activate it.

"Caden here."

"How are things looking in there?" Iola asked.

Xel took a good look around at the various bodies, armored or otherwise, that were scattered across the halls of the prison and shrugged. "As good as one might expect. No casualties just yet. Alen must've done somethin' real nasty to draw them all off like this."

"Roger that. Do let me know when you find him."

Caden smiled and strode forward, two commandos at his back as the rest made their way to the security hub. "I'll be sure to tell him how worried you were."

"Wait, I never said—"

"Caden out." The line clicked off as he drew his right pistol, clearing another corridor and confirming a lack of guards before pressing forward and reaching a turbolift to the warden's station. He turned to the commandos. "Go find the others. They'll need your help to take the security center." Xel tightened his grip around his pistol. "I'll handle the warden."

The rebels exchanged a disbelieving look.

Xel just opened the turbolift and stepped inside. "Go. Now." His tone left no room for argument.

They nodded somewhat uncertainly before splitting off from him and making their way across the prison halls. Caden closed the turbolift doors and keyed the top floor of the prison, drawing both pistols and stretching out with the Force to feel out the area above him. A half dozen signatures reached his consciousness, plus one more that was vastly different from the rest. While the six were a curling whirlwind of fear, excitement, and arrogance; the one was a calm current of lethal intent, a deadly anger simmering just under the surface. Xel's grip tightened around his blasters. This isn't gonna be easy.

When the doors parted, a half-dozen blaster bolts perforated the inside of the turbolift with black, charred holes, the stormtroopers they came from staring in confusion at the empty vessel. That is, until half an armored body came into view upside-down, its arms pointing straight at them as its legs kept it hanging from the elevator's top hatch. Two automatic bursts from each pistol decked four of the six before any of them could respond, much less dive for cover. Another of the two fell to Xel's salvo before he dropped down in a flip, turning 180 and pinning down the last trooper as his eyes scanned the room for the warden.

Dark eyebrows furrowed behind his helmet as his eyes narrowed. Stretching out with the Force once again, Xel rolled behind a desk as blaster fire cut through where his head had just been. Actually, he wasn't sure it was blaster fire. There was no sound, no warning, no muzzle flash. If it weren't for a push from the Force, he may just have gotten shot. Xel peeked around his cover to take a shot to the shoulder, shrugging it off to plug the stormtrooper who'd fired it, then scanning the room for signs of his last attacker. The warning he'd gotten before the unexpected shot wasn't like the usual threat that preceded a blaster shot; it was warning of impending death.

Caden hesitated for barely a moment before reaching for the hardcase at his hip, dropping his lightsaber into his hand and standing a moment before he ignited it, the large yet claustrophobically lit office bathed in its deep blue glow. There was no sound except the soft hum of his blade for a long while.

"Interesting."

The single word set Xel's teeth on edge as he scanned the echoing room for the source of the voice.

"Not only are you a fellow Mando, but a fellow Jedi slayer, and yet…you would align yourself with one."

Caden was silent, blocking out most of his senses to focus the Force on finding him.

"The Rebellion is already doomed. Why go down with a burning ship? Do right by yourself. Forget whatever paltry sum they offered you and live."

Xel's left blaster met its holster as he thumbed his lightsaber off, his entire body shaking silently for a bit before laughter, loud, bitter, and mocking, rang through the room. "Ah, that…that's actually funny. The truth is, Warden, the rebels didn't offer me anything. I named my price…well, monetarily anyway. My real fee is a debt they couldn't pay me if they wanted do." His empty fist clenched. "A debt that can only be paid with blood."

"Ah, so you have something against the Empire, some bone to pick with these auretiise."

"I do, and I will not stop until I and all my fallen aliit have been avenged."

"A noble cause, to be sure. Sadly, I can't allow you to continue. It's nothing personal, you see."

Caden's teeth gritted. "And was torturing a Jedi child mercilessly nothing personal?"

The other Mando laughed bitterly. "You of all people should know how much the Jedi need to pay. After all, where did you get your trophies otherwise?"

Xel stared at the two hilts on his person. "They're not trophies." He ignited his saber. "They're reminders, reminders to never forget what happened to those I loved."

"And you claim you do not hate the Jedi?" he asked disbelievingly.

"Yes…because this Jedi was my family."

Silence answered him.

"Didn't expect that, did you, chakaar?"

And you won't expect this.

The blue disc of Xel's thrown lightsaber lit up the room as it streaked death toward its target, the man narrowly escaping it by a small margin, the blade skidding off the top of his helmet nonetheless. The weapon returned to its owner a moment later as he charged at his target, spinning his blade as the man fired several times. Interesting…they're definitely not blaster bolts…more like slugs. The "slugs," however, were not the clumsy shells used in most slug throwers. They were thin, long, and quite obviously deadly. A closer glance at the weapon itself was enough to confirm his fears.

Verpine shattergun. Nasty weapon. As Xel batted shot after shot out of the air, the sizzle of the incinerated rounds quite loud in the still air, the last question about that mental push was answered. Verpine weapons, especially those meant for assassination or other covert ops, were some of the few that might actually do real damage to beskar'gam. Of course, he thought with a smirk, it would take more than one shot to actually pierce it. His theory was about to be tested, since a massive thump slammed into his chest, the Verp's magnetically-accelerated round actually stopping his advance as a round slipped past his guard.

Diving behind a desk for cover, Xel checked his armor and confirmed a millimeter-deep hole in his chestplate. Osik.

"So, you learned a thing or two from him, did you?"

Xel snarled and peeked around cover just to withdraw as another pellet tore a hole in the desk next to his head.

"Won't matter soon. You're good, but not good enough. You don't have the strength to face me properly."

"Why don't you put down that insect railgun and find out?"

"No thanks. Honorable though it may be taking you on in single combat, I have a job to do, and I can't if I'm dead. I don't fancy taking on another Mando in the first place, much less with a lightsaber."

"You saying you don't have one? After all your Jedi kills, you don't have one?" Xel laughed mockingly. "That's surprising."

"Oh, I have one, all right."

A familiar snap-hiss reached Xel's ears, and he stared at the hilt in his opponent's hand for a moment of panic before reaching out over his Bond to remind him of his brother's continued existence. "That's not yours," he hissed.

"And why not?"

"Because a trophy is only a trophy if its previous owner is dead…which is not gonna happen."

"Such intensity in your words…one might think you have a soft spot for this one."

Caden remained silent.

"Ah…I see. So he's family too. Unfortunate."

Two more Verpine rounds tore into Xel's cover, the pellets going through to barely miss his body.

"You gotta do what you gotta do. It really is nothing personal."

"Like hell." Xel stood up slowly, facing him as he walked out of cover, lightsaber in his hand but turned off as he reached out to the Force. He could almost feel the man smirking behind his helmet.

"So, you mean to test your skills? See if you can move fast enough to deflect my shot?"

Xel's lightsaber rang to life at his side. "Not exactly." His eyes closed as he focused on the man in front of him, on the weapon in his right hand. If there was one thing he'd learned from his father and research about Verpine weapons, it was that they were fragile as all hell. His left hand curled into a claw, and he smiled malevolently behind his faceplate.

The other Mando raised the weapon and squeezed the trigger with a smug feeling in the Force. Xel nearly laughed at his shock when the pistol refused to fire, actually letting out a low chuckle when he inspected the weapon and found its firing pin inexplicably crushed. The youth's fist clenched into a fist, and the rest of the weapon followed, crumping into a ball in the warden's hand. Their t-visors met.

"Well now," the older man said, "seems your sabers aren't the only gifts your old man gave you."

"My 'old man' was a Mando'ad, and I was given so much more by both my parents before your masters had them killed."

He bristled at Xel's implication. "Fair enough." The man checked his chrono and tossed the useless pistol aside as he strode toward a nearby window, retracting its metal shutters and tapping a few keys on his gauntlet as Xel advanced. "It's not yet time for our confrontation, boy, but it soon will be." His armored gauntlet slammed into the glass, shattering it and allowing him opportunity to leap out the window, a rocket-equipped jetpack carrying him away from the tower and toward another section of the prison.

Xel was about to chase after him when his comlink sounded.

"Caden," one of the rebel commandos said, "we're in the security center, but we're locked out of all the controls."

"Shab. The warden must've expected us to go for it."

"It gets worse. It appears he's set this place for a timed self-destruct in less than nine minutes."

Xel's eyes widened. "Get your men out of here, now."

"But what about the prisoners?"

"I'll take care of our people. As far as I'm concerned, the rest of these lowlifes can burn."

"…Understood, sir."

"Caden out." Xel stormed toward the window, jetting out to follow the warden's smoke trail, knowing he'd be going for an escape vehicle, then contacting Alen over the Bond and informing him of the danger.


Imperial prison complex, Lannik

7:30 to detonation

Alen's teeth gritted hard. "Understood," he sent, closing Xel's Bond and returning his focus to the rest of his team. "We need to get out of here, now. This whole place is rigged to blow. There's a hangar some ways down where we should find a shuttle or some other means of escape."

The rebels looked alarmed but determined as they nodded and followed him, the Jedi brandishing his newly retrieved Bryar as they stormed toward the location Xel had indicated. Running to the end of a long hallway, Alen barely had time to register an alarm from the Force before a blast door slammed shut between him and the rest of his fellow prisoners. His fists thumped on the durasteel portal several times before he tried to focus on the door's locking mechanism and override it with the Force.

"I wouldn't bother, Jedi."

Ice blue eyes snapped open and turned toward the source of the voice. His empty hand clenched into a fist as red-hot anger swept through him for a moment before he shoved it down. "Jes Tenau. Good to finally meet you when I'm not strapped to a chair." He felt the man's amusement.

"The feeling is mutual. I'm afraid I can't let you leave this place alive, though, and I'm on a tight schedule, so our time together will have to be extremely short." He drew a blaster from his left hip, evidently a spare, as his primary holster sat empty at his right.

"A gunfight?" Alen smirked. "Is that really what you want? I mean, after all, where's the fun in killing a Jedi who isn't at his best?" He spread his arms mockingly, giving the Mando an inviting target. Again, dark amusement rolled off the man.

"You know, you're absolutely right." He checked his chrono. "And besides, I have time to spare before this place is rubble."

He reached to the back of his belt and pulled out a familiar metal cylinder, hefting and bouncing it in his left hand tauntingly before it flew out and across the large, high-ceilinged room to land in its owner's hand. Alen's eyes closed as a contented sigh left his body, feeling like a missing piece of himself had just been restored. A familiar, comforting snap-hiss rang out as his eyes opened and stared malevolently at the Mandalorian sixty feet in the distance.

A flash of malicious intent was Alen's only warning before blaster bolts started flying toward him with a rapid pace and surprisingly good accuracy. Blue danced and flashed with green as he deflected one shot after the next, charging at Tenau with the full intent of killing him. The Mando kept firing, scattering his shots everywhere from Alen's center mass to his legs, trying anything and everything to trip him up. The Jedi, for his part, was having quite a bit of trouble keeping up, and that trouble increased the closer he got. Deciding to take a play out of Xel's book, he kept up his defense with his right hand and reached for the holster on his left hip with his left.

Several blaster shots answered Tenau's assault and pelted his armor, which, Alen realized with significant dismay, looked just as impenetrable as Xel's. The Mando laughed off the rounds, but activated his jetpack nonetheless, throwing off Alen's aim and raining down fire from above, forcing him to cease his counterattack and focus on deflection. As his eyes turned upward, however, he spotted a pattern of skeletal girders above his opponent, supports that were keeping the ceiling up. Ice blue eyes closed as Li-am gave himself to the Force, allowing it full control of his saber and body as he focused on those girders, the metal beginning to crack and crumple under the force of his will.

Tenau noticed it a moment before it was too late, and jetted out of the way of falling metal and duracrete—right into Alen's flying kick. The Mando hit the ground with a painful roll, scrambling to his feet with an audible snarl as the Jedi advanced. Several shots rang out as he tried to keep Alen back, then reached to his jetpack with his left hand and pulled off a collapsible metal quarterstaff about the length of his opponent's lightsaber. Violet electricity danced off the surface of the blunt weapon as he blocked a blow aimed at his torso, countering with traded swings and blaster shots that were deflected with some difficulty over the course of thirty seconds, the Jedi backpedaling slightly to keep up his defenses.

Tenau took full advantage of his withdrawal to slam Alen's blade with his quarterstaff, knocking the Jedi momentarily off-balance and his guard away from his chest. The Mando radiated dark glee as he fired into Alen's chest twice, once at his heart, the second time at where his spine would be. The Jedi sputtered incoherently for a few moments, saber hanging in his hand limply as he stumbled backward a step. Tenau's perverse mirth increased as he raised the blaster to his head.

Only to have it cut in half when Alen's saber spun counterclockwise. Tenau instantly reacted, striking him in the head with the pommel of his quarterstaff, stunning him long enough for a solid blow to be landed on his right shoulder. The boy yelled in pain as electricity shot through him, then withdrew and countered with an upward strike, trading blows with the Mando until a strong thrust kick knocked him backward. An equally strong swing separated him from his lightsaber a moment later, and the Mando clenched an iron fist around his throat, lifting him off the ground and slamming him back-first against the wall they had steadily approached during their duel.

Despite his lack of crushgaunts, Tenau's ability to crush Alen's throat was one the Jedi was made acutely aware of. Fingers grasped at the warden's fingers for barely a moment before he realized it was futile and instead stretched out to the Force, barely keeping enough focus to pick up a piece of fallen debris that slammed into Tenau's exposed upper arm hard. The man seethed with rage as he dropped his Jedi opponent and kicked him repeatedly in the side and ribs, the boy barely managing to keep his arms up as a weak defense against his larger enemy's armored attacks.

"Enough!"

Hope rang in Alen's blood at the enraged roar from his right, the hole he'd created in the ceiling having admitted a familiar armored figure who was now pointing two blasters at Jes Tenau, who just chuckled and gave Alen a long look.

"Another time, Jedi," was all he said before his jetpack kicked in, taking him toward the open exit and away from Xel's savage assault.

The Mando in question rushed to his brother's side. "Are you okay?" he asked, alarm heavy in his voice as Alen felt his eyes staring at the burning holes in his tunic.

"Yeah," Alen hissed painfully, pulling the fabric aside to show the blackened but intact armor plate underneath. "No permanent damage."

Xel sighed in relief, then checked his wrist chrono and cursed sharply, only three minutes and forty-five seconds left before detonation. "Get that door open for your people, then get to the hangar. I'm going after him."

Alen nodded grimly. "Be careful."


3:30 to detonation

Jes Tenau climbed into his ship, a MandalMotors Kom'rk-class fighter, and keyed the engines on just as Xel sprinted into his personal hangar, firing uselessly at his shielded hull. With a rush of malevolent mirth, Tenau activated his ship's laser cannons and opened fire on Caden, the younger Mando leaping behind several large crates that were summarily slagged before Jes saw him stride out into the open, staring at him defiantly through his viewscreen. The warden just gave him a sloppy salute and jetted out of the hangar bay into the open skies of Lannik.

Xel clenched his teeth and cursed sharply in Mando'a before keying his comlink on. "Iola, bring the Kandosii'tal to the prison hangar on the east side. Alen and his team are headed there now, and they're gonna need a quick extraction."

"Roger. What about you?"

"I'll find a way. Caden out."

2:50 to detonation

"Move!"

The other rebels followed Alen's command with no qualms whatsoever, as it seemed like every stormtrooper in the prison was now converging on their position in the prison's massive hangar bay. Eran's despairing cry was almost as painful as getting kicked repeatedly in the ribs.

"They're gone!" He turned to the others, who had stopped laying down fire on the enemy and ducked behind cover. "Every ship in here is gone! We're trapped!"

Defeat and despair gripped all of them except one, who instead smiled gently, eyes closed.

"No we're not," Alen answered firmly. "We just need to hold out a little longer. Help is coming, I promise."

The soldiers looked skeptical, but still dared to hope. The Jedi had given his word. At the moment, Linn Riilos was watching him draw the attention of every trooper within range with a series of spinning deflects while she was finding a better position to flank the enemy, the others laying down withering fire that cut through their ranks like a hot knife through butter. When she was finally in position, a malevolent smirk made its way onto her face, her procured E-11 charging and firing several times as she let loose a salvo on the unsuspecting Imperial soldiers.

"Linnie, get back here!"

She wondered at her brother's desperate tone and glanced in his direction when blaster fire perforated her cover repeatedly. The girl shrieked and fell onto her back, crawling backward as a squad of stormtroopers advanced toward her from some distance away, most of them turning their attention to the Jedi, who was trying to get to Linn to no avail. One, however, was not deterred, and at just twenty feet away, he had a clear shot.

"No!" Eran roared.

Her green eyes widened to their max as the soldier pulled the trigger, the whine of his blaster's discharge filling her ears and eyes slamming shut as the crimson bolt streaked death toward her. She was almost too adrenaline-overcharged to hear the ringing snap-hiss of another lightsaber coming to life. When a full second passed and nothing happened, she opened her eyes and looked up to see an image that had haunted her week in captivity now standing between her and a bloody death.

And holding an ignited lightsaber in his hand.

Green eyes once again went circular as the Mandalorian deftly deflected several more shots before raising his right hand in a clenching motion. Linn looked past him to see her would-be killer seizing and sputtering madly before dropping to the ground, limp and dead as a boned fish. And then he turned to her, that deadly blade held in his left hand as he outstretched his right. She stared at him for an instant, for that moment blinded by the incredible light of the sunset reflecting off his armor and visor, before taking his hand and being hauled to her feet with incredible speed and strength.

"Go," the man said firmly and reassuringly, nodding toward the hangar exit. "I'll cover you."

Just then, she noticed that a ship was actually flying into the room and landing all the way at the far end. Linn gave her rescuer a nod before sprinting toward it like a madwoman, adrenaline and fear lending speed to her steps as the crackles and whines of deflections rang from behind her.


1:50 to detonation

Xel's lightsaber twirled and spun as he deflected bolt after bolt, the stormtroopers hard-pressed to advance on two saber-wielding opponents with such skill. The Mando turned to his brother, still blocking shots. "Go! Fall back to cover them!"

Alen gave him a stiff nod before withdrawing, still batting away whatever flew in his direction as Xel took the full brunt of their attacks. The Force filled the younger boy as he called on his anger and reached out to the ceiling above his enemies. The metal supports buckled and snapped with his efforts, dumping chunk after chunk of duracrete on the troopers as he began pacing backward, saber flashing with every stray bolt to fly his way. Adopting a more mobile approach, he rolled behind cover and drew a blaster, setting it to automatic fire and pelting the Imperials with crimson plasma while continuing to dodge and deflect.

Alen, for his part, was standing by the entrance ramp of the Kandosii'tal, covering the others as they filed on one by one, the Jedi running down the clock as he waited for them all to board. Finally, Linn sprinted up the ramp just as Xel jetted into the air and fired two wrist rockets that scattered the enemy forces and sent bodies flying in several directions.

"Xel!" Alen yelled across the gap, the Kandosii starting to take off as he stood at the edge of the ramp.

The Mando holstered his pistol and sprinted toward the ship, the Force lending speed to his steps as the timer ran down to a mere twenty-five seconds. Armored steps resounded through the echoing chamber as well as the repeated fire of E-11s as he flew across the room. The Kandosii'tal was hovering in place, but Xel could feel the pilot's intense fear.

"Jump!" someone yelled as he got within twenty feet of the ship.

Xel leapt over a fallen crate, then jumped for another stack, vaulting over the lowest one to boost himself higher before handspringing off another to land on the topmost crate in a ten-foot stack. His feet hit the ground for barely a moment before he launched off again, flying twenty feet through the air with his hand outstretched as Alen's and Eran's clamped over it, yanking him aboard.

"Go, go, go!" the Jedi yelled furiously, prompting a rapid acceleration on Iola's part as they streaked away from the doomed prison.

The complex exploded mere seconds later, blossoming in a mushroom cloud of fire and smoke as the Kandosii'tal bore its passengers to safety.


The Kandosii'tal, Lannik

Iola's hands were shaking when Xel gently pulled them away from the controls with one hand, activating the ship's autopilot with the other and easing her from the chair.

"Relax, Iol'ika," he said softly, patting her back. "You did great."

She flashed him a small, relieved smile before her eyes locked onto an approaching Alen and her shaking legs carried her into a near-tackle of the Jedi. Xel grinned behind his helmet as his brother let out a small, pained laugh, his ribs probably screaming in protest. The rest of the rebels looked too tired and relieved to notice anything except the warmth, both in the Jedi's reunion with his crewmate and the "uncharacteristic" display of affection Xel showed her. Eran stared at him with narrowed eyes and crossed arms, the Mando's visor turning to face him dead-on. Surprisingly enough, he didn't turn away or seem intimidated, just curious.

"Don't look so surprised," Xel said with a slight sneer as he dropped into the copilot's seat and began checking his ship's systems and scopes for any signs of trouble. Barely ten seconds later, he felt a presence at his shoulder and turned to face it with some annoyance. It faded when he saw the outstretched hand.

"I owe you an apology," Eran said genuinely. "I'm sorry, both for mistrusting you and doubting your loyalty. I had no cause for either."

"I think we all owe him an apology," Linn said, the other two in her squad rising to their feet and looking contrite.

Xel took a breath and looked away before shaking Eran's hand. "Apology accepted."

To his surprise, the man smiled and leaned closer, speaking in low tones. "You saved my sister's life. I won't easily forget that."

Caden smirked, letting some mirth leak into his filtered voice. "I appreciate it." He sighed and smiled wider as he saw Alen and Iola talking, the two looking very comfortable with each other on a bench near the entrance of the armory, then turned back to the controls, shaking his head. Another relieved sigh left him, and before he knew it, his helmet seal was popped, and the buy'ce was laid on the dashboard. A series of gasps, one of them quite loud, resounded from behind him. His head turned to face the sources and eyes saw all four of the rescued rebels staring at him with gaping mouths.

"Just…how old are you?" Linn asked.

Xel smirked. "Fourteen." He nodded toward Alen. "Just like him."

If possible, their mouths and eyes widened even more, and because he just couldn't help himself, Xel laughed loudly and infectiously, the entire ship's occupants joining in involuntarily a few moments later. When he had enough breath to speak, Xel ordered, "You betray our secret, and you're dead." The grin plastered to his face betrayed his stern tone.

They broke out into fits of laughter once again, Eran the first to recover, though tears of joy and relief were streaming down his face nonetheless.

"I have…definitely underestimated you, Xel Caden."

"Don't worry." The Mando shrugged, his grin fading to a warm smile. "It's a pretty common mistake where I'm concerned."

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