50 minutes earlier
Imperial Purge Trooper factory, Lannik
The dozen rebels currently picking up the pieces of their assault nearly jumped out of their skins when they heard the harsh, mechanical voice. Eight of them immediately raised and pointed blasters at the immobilized Purge Trooper it came from.
The soldiers halted their aggression at the voice of the approaching Jedi. Alen strode over to the body of the battle droid and stood near its head.
"What do you mean by 'consensus'?"
The Trooper's head turned slightly to face him, its flat optics unyielding and intimidating as they scanned over him for a moment. "Male. Human." It hesitated for a few moments before adding, "Jedi."
Alen's eyes narrowed slightly. "Yes?"
"I was created to slay your kind. You are my prey, yet I find myself at your mercy."
Alen smirked a little as a small crowd started to form around him. "Quite the reversal, isn't it?"
"Indeed. However, such an occurrence would be even more shocking had you been the one to vanquish me."
The Jedi's brows furrowed.
"That honor, however, falls to your partner, the Mandalorian. He too wields lightsabers, but is not Jedi?"
"Then my conclusion is correct."
"What conclusion?" someone asked from behind Alen.
He turned to see who it was and found the blue-black haired Padawan from the Ghost and his Mandalorian comrade.
"His name is Xel Caden," Alen said.
Alen was confused. "Than?"
Both Padawan's eyebrows made a valiant effort to join their hairlines, but only Alen spoke up. "You're gonna have to explain that."
"I was programmed to believe that the Empire was the most powerful force in the galaxy, if not the universe. I was built to be a symbol of that power, to be the right arm of the Emperor's will."
"And?" the other Padawan asked agitatedly.
"I was also built to slay Jedi."
"And you failed in your mission."
"Yes, but not because of a Jedi."
Alen's expression changed subtly.
"I beg to differ," the blue-haired Jedi said. "My master and I took down a few of your buddies barely ten minutes ago."
"True, but you were working in tandem, and only neutralized two while the rest were bombarded by your ship. This…Xel destroyed all six of my squad…alone."
"What exactly are you getting at?" Alen asked, a conclusion of his own beginning to form.
"I was created to slay Jedi, those who use the saber and Force. Xel Caden did both. He fit the parameters of my primary function, and yet he defeated me and the rest of my brothers. He is stronger than Jedi, therefore he is stronger than anything."
The Padawan laughed. "What kinda warped logic is that?"
"Ezra," the Mando chided.
"The kind that says the Emperor fears the Jedi more than anything," Alen explained, hand on his chin. "It makes a certain kind of sense for it to come to this conclusion. After all, if a single Purge Trooper, the counter for the Emperor's arch-enemies and symbol of his power, was vanquished by an organic, much less six, how powerful must that person be?"
The other Jedi got his meaning. "Powerful enough to challenge its master, perhaps?"
"Precisely," the droid vocalized.
Alen stared at its head and furrowed his brows. "What I can't figure out is why you're even telling us this."
"I was programmed to serve the most powerful entity in the galaxy. I was led to believe that entity was the Empire. Current data suggests that supposition to be wrong."
Alen's eyes widened at its implication.
"Wait," Ezra said, "hold on a second. What you're saying is, because this Xel beat you…you want to work for him?"
It thought for barely a moment. "Yes."
The Padawan just stared before turning to Alen. "Do you believe this?"
Alen's eyes narrowed. "Actually…I do. The designers were likely given specific instructions regarding these things' loyalty programming, but they couldn't have foreseen such independent thinking."
"But it could be lying."
The Trooper shook its head. "I am designed for battle, not subterfuge. I cannot lie."
Alen snorted. "I can certainly testify to the former, and considering you're about as subtle as a rancor, I'm willing to take the latter at face value."
"But you've seen how dangerous these things are," the Mando pointed out.
"True," the younger Jedi said, crouching down, "but it won't be serving from a Purge Trooper's body." He closed his eyes and put a hand on its chest. "Your internal wiring is off, isn't it?"
The Trooper was silent a moment. "Yes. A significant blunt force exploited a design flaw in my chassis. I am what you organics would call…paralyzed."
"And since I don't really feel like rooting around in your chest cavity to figure out the problem, we'll have to find you a new body." Alen started pulling at one of its head panels uselessly.
"Allow me to help."
A click sounded from the helm before something came loose and dropped to the ground.
"My central processor is located—"
"I know what it looks like," Alen interrupted. "Been working with wires and computers since I could crawl." He reached in and snapped a few rivets out with the Force before gingerly removing the processor from its primary mounting, wires still connected.
"The critical cortex of my mind is located between the ventral and dorsal processors. Everything else is—"
"Extraneous," Alen finished for it. "Of course. Probably extra drivers to manage the blade, shield, and any other integrated weapons. If I'm transferring you to another body, chances are it's gonna be less advanced, so you won't need them."
"Well," Alen grunted as he started pulling off the extras. "Guess this is goodbye for now then."
"Indeed. Please inform Xel Caden that my services are at his disposal, should he choose to call on me."
"Will do." With one last yank, he pulled the processor free, the miniaturized computer powering down as he turned it over in his hand before pocketing the device.
"You're actually gonna give that thing a body?" the Mando asked.
Alen shrugged. "Eventually, sure. If, of course, Xel decides to cash in on its offer. After all, a droid programmed to be able to kill Jedi would be a great asset to the Alliance."
"True enough," Ezra conceded. "So," he chuckled. "You're a Jedi too?"
"Sure am, but let's get back to base before introductions are made. After all, if we're gonna be working together, everyone on our teams should get to know each other."
"Agreed," said a new, deeper voice.
Alen turned toward him and bowed. "Master."
"Please," the man chuckled, raising a hand, "I'm no Master. Just a simple man tryin' to make a difference in the galaxy. Name's Kanan."
"Well, you're a Knight at the least, which means I have quite a bit to learn from you."
Kanan laughed again. "Not sure I have the strength to take on another apprentice." He slugged Ezra in the shoulder. "I'm kinda hopin' we can learn from each other."
Alen scratched the back of his head and patted his pocket with his free hand. "Unless you'd like to learn how to reprogram an Imperial battle droid, I think you're outta luck."
"I'm…sure we could work somethin' out. But we Jedi have to stick together." He offered his hand.
Alen smiled and took it. "Agreed."
1 week later
The Makrin Star, deep space
6 months BBY
"Didn't the doc tell you to take it easy?"
Xel rolled his eyes and swung his arms in circles, wincing as a stab of pain lanced through his left shoulder. "You worry too much, Linn. I am the perfect picture of health." He grinned widely, but she wasn't convinced.
"Xel, you couldn't stay still if you tried, could you?"
"Just…try not to overdo it?"
"I'll try," he pouted, causing her to shake her head and walk away.
Caden took a deep breath of the rebel ship's filtered air, exhaling it a few moments later. His injuries from the Purge Trooper battle had been even more extensive than he'd thought. His self-diagnosis had been completely off, probably because his body was still pumping adrenaline to dull the pain. Even a week later, with intermittent sessions of Force Healing from both his brother and Kanan Jarrus, he was having some trouble standing or running for long periods. He couldn't lift above a certain weight without his shoulder giving him trouble, but his armor didn't seem to bother it. He assumed that was because it was like a second skin.
Drawn out of his reverie, the boy turned toward the source of the voice and smiled at the familiar pink-armored figure. "Su cuy'gar."
She smiled back, flicking a dyed strand of hair behind her ear. "Su'cuy, Caden. Been one heck of a week, yeah?"
Xel groaned a little when he leaned back against a wall, crossing his arms. "Can say that again. Still can't believe my vod barred me from helping the whole time."
"Well, considering the condition you were in when they brought you back to camp…"
He was quiet for a while. "Be honest with me." He locked eyes with her. "How bad was it?"
Her expression dimmed. "Bruises all over, misshapen muscles and bones, cuts in more places than I could count…" She shook her head. "I'm surprised you were even conscious when we arrived, much less still coherent enough to talk or run."
"So, you think they made the right call benching me."
"Absolutely. If you'd gone into the field…shab, you would've collapsed on the dropship, much less in the field."
"And I would've been a liability to my team rather than an asset." Xel sighed. "Fair enough."
She slugged him in his good shoulder good-naturedly. "Come on. Somethin' I want to show you."
Xel followed her through one hall after the next of gray gunmetal and windows. At present, the Rebel Fleet was stationed near an uninhabitable blue star in the Outer Rim, and every time he passed by a window and saw it, he was tempted to stare. The shorter Mando girl led him into an open room with twenty-foot ceilings and a sparring ring in the center. He raised an eyebrow as a smile blossomed on his face.
"The doc said not to overdo it, ya know."
"Pssht," she scoffed, "doc doesn't know Mandos. If we can't fight hurt without injuring ourselves further, then what kind of fighters are we?"
He shrugged. "True enough. Armor or no armor?"
"Armor," she smiled as she stepped into the ring. "Don't want you to hurt yourself," she teased.
He rolled his eyes as disengaged his chest and backplates before joining her and stretching. "Ten credits say I could beat you with one hand behind my back."
"I'd take that bet," she quipped, "but I have a rule against stealing from cripples."
"Oh, is that how it is?" He shrugged. "Okay."
The first blow nearly blew past her defenses, and she was surprised at how strong he was, despite being a good five years younger. His next series of jabs were deflected with some difficulty before she crouched and spun in a trip-kick. The leg met empty air as he leapt eight feet clear over her, twisting midair to land in a crouch, favoring his right leg as he charged toward her. She deftly twisted out of the way, giving his recently healed ribs a series of quick shots. He just shrugged it off and spun counterclockwise with a left backhand that she ducked. He exhaled hard several times as they exchanged blows before withdrawing to their respective corners, the younger Mando noting a small crowd of onlookers starting to gather.
"You intentionally put yourself at a disadvantage, didn't you?" she asked, motioning to his unarmored torso.
He smirked. "Of course. We're always at a disadvantage in the field, aren't we?" He charged in for another rapid combo. "Outnumbered—" they grappled for a few moments, "—outgunned—" he threw her sideways, charging with a flying kick as she rolled to a crouch, then rapidly moved away from him. "It's like we're gluttons for punishment."
"Or just determined," she countered, kicking straight at his head and twisting in a wheel kick at his midsection.
He caught the blow and tucked her outstretched leg under his arm while his own leg kicked out her spare. She hit the deck hard, but grabbed his gripping arm and wrapped both legs around its attached shoulder, twisting her body and using the contact point as leverage to throw him to the ground. She rolled onto his torso and rained down punches as he kept his arms up, taking the blows before popping his hips upward, her lesser weight displaced by his much stronger shove. Adding a pull by his left hand on her shoulder, and she practically flew off his body and into the elastic railing of the ring.
She bounced back with a vengeance, planting a solid drop-kick on his crouching x-block and sending him rolling backward. Sabine kept coming and actually tackled him into the ring's boundary. He used the elastic to his advantage, snapping his body in a twist at just the right moment that they both shot away from the edge and fell back into the center of the ring. Xel curled his entire body as they fell sideways, performing a Force-assisted, one-handed handspring and landing agilely on his feet.
Sabine twisted her body in a windmill, using her hands to spring back onto her feet. Both Mandos sized each other up. They were coiled for another bout when several figures strode into the room.
"Xel!" a female voice shouted in exasperation. "This is your idea of not overdoing it?"
"Hey," he called, "I'm hurting less now than I was standing around."
"That right?" Sabine asked, using his distraction to plant her armored shoulder into his gut, then lift and swing him onto his back.
He landed hard, the wind knocked out of him. When he could breathe easily enough, he broke out into laughter along with his sparring partner. "I swear," he laughed, "no one fights like another Mando." He took her outstretched hand and allowed her to haul him to his feet. "I haven't had that much fun in the ring in…a long time." He rubbed his bruised chest gingerly. "But what was that...spin move you did, to get back up?"
Her smile dampened a bit. "Just something I picked up in the Imperial Academy."
"Oh," he breathed. "You went to the one on Mandalore, didn't you?"
She leaned back against a corner post of the ring and frowned at the floor. "Yeah."
"You wouldn't happen to know a good-natured Zabrak or a foul-tempered little old man there?"
Her brows knitted as Alen and Linn approached Xel's end of the ring. "Why would you ask that?"
Xel smirked as he retrieved and donned his discarded armor. "'Cause one of them's my uncle and the other's my beskar forging teacher."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Well, I don't really recognize either by description."
"To be fair, they did decline the Imperials' offer, so." Xel chuckled at the disapproving glares from both his brother and Linn Riilos. "I think my new parents are scolding me." He smiled wider at the red that filled Linn's cheeks, then approached Sabine and gave her a Mando handshake, then pulled her into a one-armed hug. "Good match," he said warmly.
They pulled away from each other with a smile, each ducking out of the ring and walking off.
"I'm not mothering you, ya dolt," Linn protested as she and Alen walked by his side. "I'm making sure you're up to snuff so you don't get left behind again."
His smile faded to a warm smirk. "Of course. I do appreciate it." Xel couldn't help but notice a blue-eyed glare directed at him from the corner of his eye and turned just in time to see a glimpse of Ezra Bridger following Sabine out the opposite door. Hm…wonder what that's about. He seemed pleasant enough when we talked. He gave an imperceptible shrug before moving off, his medical babysitters flanking him on either side and making sure he made it back to his quarters…and stayed there.
The Kandosii'tal, Makrin Star hangar
"Welcome home, Master."
Xel turned toward the source of the deep mechanical voice and smirked, then started stripping off armor plates as it approached. "You know you don't have to call me that, Tee."
"I know, sir. But you are in fact my master. I have pledged myself to your service, in whatever capacity you require."
Caden turned back to PT-37 as he straightened out, stacking his plates on the armory workbench and observing the former Purge Trooper's new shell. The head had been scavenged from a defunct IG-100 MagnaGuard, the body from a newer IG-88 assassin droid, and the arms from various different sources. All of it had been painted alternatingly black and dark grey. Alen had tuned Peetee's new vocalizer to mimic his previous voice, and the Jedi had to admit, even without his previous ten-foot form, no other vocals seemed to match his personality or skill set. As he looked the droid over, he once again noted that the droid's body was…adequate, but not appropriate.
At least, not for his particular programming.
"I'm gonna have to build you a new body," Xel said, leaning back against a bulkhead and crossing his arms.
"I didn't know your expertise lay in droid mechanics."
He shook his head. "It doesn't. It lies in armor, but how difficult could it be to adapt that skill set, really?"
Peetee leaned back against an opposite bulkhead and crossed its arms, mirroring its master's posture and staring back at him just as intently. Somehow, even without facial features, Xel could read its emotions.
"I never thought to ask," the boy said, "what exactly can you do? I mean, what does your programming entail?"
PT-37 thought for a half second before beginning to list its specifications. "I am trained in several forms of close-quarters and long-range combat with a variety of weapons, including high explosives, heavy blasters, and other such armaments. I am also versed in the elementary aspects of Teras Kasi and elements of all seven lightsaber fighting styles."
Xel's eyebrows shot up. "Wait, hold on a sec. You're trained to use a lightsaber?"
"Of course. I was built to kill Jedi."
"And you had an energy blade installed in your last body."
Peetee nodded. "Although my current chassis seems to nullify that aspect of my programming."
"Maybe," Caden said thoughtfully as he strode over to a drawer at his workbench, "maybe not."
Inside was the energy blade emitter he'd cut off the arm of one of PT's comrades. He lifted the device out of the drawer, surprised at the weight of it before he handed it to the droid. PT held the emitter for a few moments before shaking its head.
"This weapon was meant to be used strictly within a Purge Trooper chassis. Severing it from such a body engaged several safety systems that prevent activation."
Xel's brows furrowed. "And you can't perform a workaround?"
"Apologies, perhaps my description was misleading. The safety catch self-destructed the internal wiring of the device. It is…irreparably defunct."
"Oh." Xel looked disappointed.
"Why did it occur to you to give me such a device?"
He looked at the droid. "My brother's not always available for practice, and besides, he still thinks I should heal more before resuming any kind of strenuous training."
"You are looking for a…sparring partner?"
"With lightsabers, yes. If you're trained in several forms of lightsaber combat, then I now have the ability to practice against an opponent that can adapt to several styles at once."
"How useful will this be, Master? After all, so few saber-wielders exist anymore."
"I'm thinking of one in particular," Caden said darkly as he opened a secret compartment in his workbench and picked up a data drive, then inserted it into a holoprojector and powered it on.
Peetee observed the image for a few moments. "Lord Vader. Where did you get this recording?"
Xel crossed his arms and scowled at the vid. "From personal experience."
The droid turned to stare at him.
"This happened eight months ago. This feed is from a built-in recorder in my helmet."
"You survived direct contact with the Emperor's right hand…impressive, Master. I was indeed right about you."
He scrunched up his face. "Yeah, I still don't quite get that. How did you rule me stronger than the Empire?"
"Right. Well, anyway." He looked back up at the recording, which repeated on loop. "I've been studying this fight for months, observing Vader's style, tracking his movements and comparing them to the lightsaber forms found in that holocron." He pointed to a cube in the corner of the room. "Everything has led to one inevitable conclusion." He froze the vid on a still of Vader effortlessly deflecting and countering strikes from both Xel and Telia, the latter staggering away with the sheer force of his swing. "He uses nearly every style of lightsaber combat in existence, favoring Form V but adapting to various situations with elements of several others.
"He's assimilated I through VII into a combat style that has all of their strengths and few of their weaknesses." Xel's right fist clenched. "His method is nearly impossible to match, at least with just theoretical practice." He turned to Peetee. "But with someone who could potentially mimic that, especially a droid with his kind of brute strength…"
"You could test methods of defeating him in a practice environment."
"I am…uncertain of just how effective a replacement I would be for Lord Vader, but I can try, if I am given a functional energy blade." It inspected its motley parts with some disgust. "I will, however, need an improved chassis."
Xel nodded. "Agreed. In fact—" he powered down the holoprojector and hid the drive again, "—I'm gonna get to work on that now." He gave the droid a glance as he gathered raw materials, wiring, and tools. "Care to join me?"
PT cocked its head. "For what purpose, Master?"
"Well," Xel laughed, "it is your body. Wouldn't you like to have some input in its construction?"
Its optics flashed for a moment before it nodded.
He waved the droid over to his workbench, where he pulled up a holographic design software. "Then let's get started."
2 weeks later
Xel turned his head at the voice, lifting his welding visor up and off and wiping his hands on an oilcloth before marching toward the source. "Commander Tobin. Didn't expect you to come see me in person."
The man smiled and tipped his head slightly. "You do good work, and you're quickly becoming quite the talk of the men. That business on Toydaria was nasty. I was surprised you managed to get our men out at all, must less with less than ten percent casualties. And this is me, who knows your track record."
Xel smiled. "I appreciate it, sir. So what are you here for?"
He shrugged. "Just checking up on the welfare of my men, although I know you're not strictly one of ours. You're an asset, and a considerable one at that."
The boy grinned. "Nice to be appreciated."
Tobin nodded to the inside of his armory. "So what are you working on?"
Xel glanced inside before waving him in and motioning to a large table in the center of the room. "What do you think?"
The rebel commander's eyebrows rose dramatically. "That's…quite impressive."
In front of them both was a black-and-gray metal body missing a head and a central processor, its surfaces contoured in some places, and hard and angular in others.
"High-grade durasteel chassis," Xel explained with pride, "ciridium-beskar alloy-reinforced joints. Internal and external wiring cases. Magnetic holsters on the back, hips, and chest. Removable panels for concealed weapons, and a series of high-quality, military-grade combat drivers. All it'll take is integration of the head module and its central processor, and we'll officially have a newly minted, one-of-a-kind class-four commando droid."
Tobin crossed his arms and furrowed his brows in concern. "I take it this 'central processor' is the one retrieved from that turncoat Purge Trooper on Lannik?"
Caden sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yes, sir."
"And you're sure we can trust it."
"Alen's been working with computers since before he could talk, and just in case he was wrong when he examined its programming, he got the opinion of over a half-dozen other analysts. It's clean of any worm viruses or other malicious software, and the loophole in its programming that allowed it to switch sides can't be exploited again. Apparently when it self-modified its coding to join us, the 'Biggest Akk' protocol was overwritten with it."
Tobin's eyebrows shot up. "The what?"
"Sorry, it's the nickname Sergeant Riilos came up with for its tendency to side with the biggest, baddest dog in the room."
"Which it decided based on the results of its 'test run' was you."
"Exactly." Xel sighed, mock annoyed as he pouted slightly. "So now I've got an ex-Imperial Purge Trooper with enough combat training to be worth a dozen soldiers in even a substandard body following me around and kowtowing to my every request." He shook his head in mock disappointment, and Tobin chuckled.
"Must be terrible."
"Well, it would help if it didn't call me 'Master' all the time." Xel's expression dampened genuinely. "Almost makes me feel like a slave owner."
"Except most slaves aren't given a choice in their masters," Tobin pointed out. "It deserted its previous employers to serve you. Just remember that."
"True," Caden admitted with a cock of his head. "Not sure I'm giving it a better life, but that's still true."
"In its mind, I guess if you're stronger, it automatically means you're better."
Xel shrugged. "Maybe." He leaned against the table, suddenly pensive and silent.
"Well," Tobin said softly, getting his attention, "I'm gonna go. I do have my rounds to make. Be seeing you, Caden."
"You too, Commander."
2 days later
The Makrin Star
"Vaii cuyi gar jetii'kad?"
"Back on my ship," Xel answered, pointing toward the hanger he'd just exited. "I don't take my saber everywhere with me."
"But that gauntlet's another story," Sabine pointed out, motioning to his left arm.
He raised it to his chest level as he kept walking, the girl in tow. "This thing's saved me more times than I can count, either with its rocket launcher or grappling hook. I remember this one time when I was thirteen, I accidentally ran my speeder bike off an 1800-foot drop." His right hand tapped the gauntlet affectionately. "Only reason I'm still here."
She nodded and looked at him closely. Xel had forgone donning his armor in favor of casual pants and his matte-gray synthleather jacket, the fairly wide sleeves allowing him to conceal the gauntlet from all but the sharpest of eyes. Of course, as an artist, both in combat and out, Sabine had those sharp eyes. Eyes that could tell if a spray paint can or random article in her room on the Ghost was so much as a centimeter off from the last time she touched it. Ezra had been caught several times sneaking around her room from such discoveries, though usually because he was trying too hard to find something to impress her with.
She smiled at the memories, the mirth slowly ebbing away as she directed her eyes to Xel's. He wasn't looking at her at present, just kind of staring off into the distance as he strolled the halls of the Star at a leisurely pace. It was clear he had a lot on his mind, if the way he wasn't trying to keep up a conversation in the least was any indication. Her neutral expression slowly turned into a frown as she kept observing him. Those eyes, she thought. I can't even imagine what they've seen to look like that. Indeed, he looked light-years away, but not even his voluminous thoughts and expression of intense concentration could conceal the pain behind his eyes.
Suddenly, he tensed for a moment and blinked rapidly, then turned his eyes to her and smiled warmly, as if noticing her for the first time. She took a quick intake of breath, realizing she'd probably been caught staring, but he didn't remark on it, just kept smiling and looking forward again as they kept walking together. Sabine resolutely refused to look back at him, focusing on keeping herself relaxed. Over the last three weeks since they'd met, they had spoken almost every day, training and conversing in Mando'a, a welcome change of pace for them both from the world of the auretiise, although it was clear neither of them would have their friends any other way.
She had also worked with him and his team multiple times, the combination of the Ghost and Kandosii'tal's crews quite effective in almost any situation. Eran Riilos had been given command of his squad once again, but often consulted and deferred to Caden's opinion on operational matters. A certain friendly…ish rivalry had sparked between him and Ezra for some reason, and while Xel genuinely thought it an inside joke, the older Jedi Padawan seemed to take it seriously. Oh right, she concluded once again, he's easily jealous. She smirked and shook her head slightly.
"Credit for your thoughts?"
Sabine raised an eyebrow and glanced at Xel. "Oh, it's nothing. My mind's kinda just all over the place."
Xel smiled understandingly. "Same here." He took a deep breath as he came to a stop, leaning against a nearby railing overlooking the rec room and a hand-to-hand match between Kanan and Alen.
Sabine smiled when she saw the scene. Alen had taken right to the older Jedi, but not as an apprentice, more a fellow student of the Force. Kanan, like Xel, had stressed learning to fight well without a lightsaber, and Alen had been working tirelessly to sharpen his skills. Xel too had been training relentlessly, even before he was fully healed, though his practice was far more…serious, for lack of a better term. He just seemed so much more focused on deadly efficiency than his older brother.
"Ten credits says my brother loses in forty moves."
The Mando girl glanced at Caden and his smirk. "In twenty."
He grinned "You're on."
They watched the two Jedi spar back and forth, their movements fluid and blending together one after the other as over a dozen other rebels observed their fight. Sabine was only an absent observer, her glance drifting over to Xel every once in a while. He had forced that smile in the hallway, she just knew it. That pain, whatever the cause, permeated every aspect of his life, and it showed. In training, there was that deadly, predatory focus. In combat, there was an almost reckless disregard for standard tactics in favor of radical maneuvers that caught the Imperials completely off-guard, but also put him at significantly higher risk. In private, he rarely smiled, and when he did, it was genuine, but lacking a certain quality she couldn't name.
There was always something keeping him from being himself, though certain bits of it shone through on occasion. Like now. He was grinning and cheering for his brother, even though he knew Alen would most likely lose to the more experienced Knight. He looked…goofy, for lack of a better term, and for just a moment, she could swear she saw him in a circle with other Mando boys, cheering on a friend or family member as they engaged in a drinking or sparring contest. He looked carefree, like he was finally letting himself be the fourteen-year-old he was. It was a welcome change, and she just had to smile. He apparently noticed her staring again, because his eyes flickered to hers, and his grin dampened a bit. It wasn't much, but it was enough to send the spark out of his eyes.
Sabine looked away and sighed softly so he couldn't hear, eyebrows knitting and lips turning into a frown, face turned away so he couldn't see. What could affect someone like him so much that he gives up his identity? I just can't believe that reckless, ruthless soldier is the real him. She forced her expression to become neutral and looked at his features. I know it's not, and if he thinks he's fooling anyone with this 'tough guy' act, he's a bigger di'kut than most fourteen-year-olds. A smile involuntarily came to her face at the memory of her first meeting with Ezra. Well…maybe not most.
Xel whooped, pumping his fists in the air as Alen finally hit the deck and the
room erupted into applause. "See?" he asked her, grinning widely.
"Told you he'd last longer."
She rolled her eyes and reached into a pocket, dumping the ten credits in his open palm. "So you did," she deadpanned.
His smile faded slightly. "What's wrong?"
"Hm?" She looked up at him. "Oh, it's nothing."
Dark blue eyes narrowed slightly as one side of his mouth tipped up. "Is that right?"
She nearly shivered at his tone, jaw muscles contracting slightly. How does he do that? The way he said it was, intentionally or unintentionally, dark. For a fourteen-year-old who, generally speaking, looked his age, Xel could be shabla intimidating, even to someone like her. Maybe it was his abnormal height, or his tone, or the way his eyes could become hard and cold as a block of ice on Hoth as easily as they could flash with fire hotter than the volcanoes of Mustafar in battle.
Xel must have realized his mistake, because immediately a flash of guilt and regret swept his features, and he coughed discreetly before turning to walk away, head down slightly. Sabine opened her mouth slightly and stared at his retreating back, pushing off the rail and walking after him a few steps before realizing he probably wanted to be alone. It's not good for him, though. She knew he'd never hurt her, but did he know she knew? Wren started walking again, but stopped when she saw Linn Riilos in the corner of her eye. The older girl gave her a knowing expression, and Sabine nodded in thanks as the redhead walked after the young Mando.
Good luck, Linn. I hope you can get through to him better than I can.
5 minutes later
Observation deck, the Makrin Star
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
Xel turned his head slightly at the voice before stretching out with the Force and verifying the identity of the approaching woman. "Yes," he answered softly, eyes perusing the glowing blue sun beyond the viewscreen in front of him. "Yes it is."
Linn leaned her arms against the railing next to him, her shorter body somewhat dwarfed by his sheer height, if not physique. "I come up here a lot too, when it's too noisy or I just need to be alone and think."
She could almost detect a hint of something remotely hostile in his tone, but ignored it. "Mhm. I love Eran and the boys, but sometimes a girl's just gotta be alone." She smirked and slugged his arm. "Apparently you can relate."
Xel smiled a little and arched an eyebrow, arms crossing. "Sure, except for the part where I'm not a girl."
She rolled her eyes. "Of course, silly. You know what I meant."
He nodded, smile fading as he stared out into the endless void. "Did Sabine send you to check up on me?"
Linn was apparently surprised by his observation. "You read my mind to figure that out?"
Xel stared at her, mouth slightly agape with incredulity. "You think I'd do that without your permission?" He genuinely sounded hurt.
She was quick to allay his fears, putting her hand on his arm. "Woah, no of course not. Stang man, you've gotta learn to take things less seriously."
He blinked several times and turned away, looking very much like a scolded kid. "Sorry," he said softly.
Linn's green eyes swept over his posture and expression, and she was reminded for the first time in a while just how young he was. "Hey," she said, smiling warmly and holding out her arms, "come here."
He just stared at her for a few seconds, then almost reluctantly acquiesced and wrapped his arms around her. She did the same to him, smiling into his shoulder and releasing him a few seconds later.
"You know," she said, "if there's something bothering you, you know you can tell us, right?"
He looked down and nodded slowly. "I know," he said, voice slightly deeper as he turned back to the star. "But this isn't something you can help with, trust me."
She leaned against the railing again. "Sometimes just talking about it helps."
"I'm…not really one for words," he said hesitantly.
She put a hand on his. "Try."
His eyes flickered to her face for a moment. "You know that lightsaber I carry…on the left side of my belt? The green one?"
"It's not mine. It was my mother's."
She blinked rapidly and opened her mouth slightly.
"She was a Jedi Knight. Darth Vader had her killed."
"Xel…I'm so sorry."
He shook his head slightly, voice starting to crack a little. "There's more. My father—" His throat closed.
Linn's hand tightened over his.
His fingers clenched around hers. "My father he executed personally."
"Xel," she whispered.
He shook his head. "And there's nothing I can do about it. Nothing except carry on what they would have done given the opportunity."
"That's why you joined the Rebellion."
He clenched his teeth and nodded slowly.
She pulled his hand and wrapped her arms around him again. "Xel, I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault," he said, voice slightly hoarse. "I know exactly whose fault it is, Linn. Trust me, I know."
The last sentence was said in a much deeper, darker voice, and Linn couldn't help but shiver a little at the subtle but clear hatred lacing the words. She just kept holding him until little by little, the tension flowed out of his frame and he relaxed in her embrace. "If you ever need to talk," she whispered, "I'm always here."
He nodded against her hair. "I know," he said softly. "Thank you."