Fighting a Rebellion
1 month later
5 months BBY
"Don't get cocky. Imp presence here may be minimal, but considering the importance of this particular shipment of explosives, most of it will be concentrated here."
"Agreed," Xel added to Eran's statement, flexing his left fist and aiming at the tall outpost in the distance. "We go in fast and hard, out in two minutes max."
"Really think we can pull that off?" Corporal En asked.
Caden grinned behind his helmet. "Fifty credits says we can." He focused on his grapple shot, breathing out slowly and firing once, then hooking the other end to his perch on a nearby plateau where Eran's team and the Kandosii'tal's crew were ready for their insertion. "Insert in five—four—three—two—one—go!"
Xel hooked in on the cable using the blunt edge of his knife, angling his body and moving down its length at a rapid speed, approaching within the space of eight seconds and dropping some distance from the outpost's third-floor ring platform. His feet slammed the deck a split-second before he fell into a recovery roll, Eran and Alen following not long after and backing him up as he sprinted into a patrolling stormtrooper, knocking him off the rail and into a 40-foot drop. They rapidly proceeded inside, gunning down anything in their way and blitzing into the storage area four floors down, deep beneath the surface.
Ridonium barrels littered the cargo bay of the outpost, clustered together in a very volatile and dangerous way. Idiots, Xel thought as he pulled a detpack off his belt and mounted it on a central barrel. He nodded to the Jedi and sergeant, following them back up to the site of their insertion and pressing a button on his gauntlet. The Kandosii'tal descended from the nearby plateau amidst rocket and blaster fire from the troops below, lowering its ramp and allowing the three saboteurs rapid entry within the space of six seconds. The ship accelerated away from the outpost, shields just starting to buckle, a moment before Xel hit the trigger on his detpack, sending the building's supports crumbling and the entire structure with it moments later.
"One staged terrorist attack averted," Eran said with a grin.
"The Imperials are shown to be shipping illegal explosives," Alen added, "and the Rebellion's good name remains intact. That's a win."
2 weeks later
4 months BBY
"Watch your six!"
Xel ducked just in time for a blaster bolt to sizzle over his helmet, returning fire with one of his pistols as he, Linn, and Ijul zipped through the crowded streets of this planet's Imperial-controlled industrial district. Two scout troopers were in pursuit, the underslung blaster cannons on their swoops spitting copious amounts of fire in the rebels' direction.
"You two keep going!" Xel ordered, nodding toward the scouts. "I'll hold them off!"
Linn glanced at him uncertainly but nodded, gunning the throttle of her swoop as Ijul followed her.
Caden cut his throttle in half, the scouts shooting past him and putting themselves directly in his own speeder's sights. His weapon of choice, however, was not integrated into his swoop. His hands rose as he kept the vehicle steady, eyes closing in concentration. The scouts felt an invisible grip around their chests a moment before Xel snapped his arms in opposite directions, sending the Imperials crashing into each other in a ball of fire that he swerved around with some difficulty. The Mando used the Force to find his two comrades, getting a message over his Bond that Alen and his team had already taken care of their end of the mission.
He rolled his eyes at the stuck-out-tongue feeling sent over the Bond and replied with an "usen'ye" before refocusing on his task. Linn and Ijul were already engaged in a firefight with the nearest corporate guards, their weapons having sent stun blasts into two already before Xel arrived. He thumbed his pistols' power settings to minimum, then plugged two of them in the knees while leaping off his still-in-motion swoop, the vehicle crashing into another two before the rest in its path wised up and dropped to the ground. Of course, once there, they were vulnerable to stun blasts from the other two rebels.
Xel stormed his way toward the administrative booth on the upper level, holstering his pistols when he was assaulted by three guards with stun batons and engaging them hand-to-hand. One fell to a hard elbow to his jaw, another's swing ducked and countered with a rising knee. He was dumped over the second-floor railing as Xel grabbed the last man's wrist and squeezed, breaking his wrist, then headbutting him into unconsciousness. Linn and Ijul joined him when he entered the administrator's office, the man behind the desk yelling at them indignantly. Xel just tuned out his protests and cut him off with an instantaneous jerk of his throat.
"You will halt production of this facility immediately and wipe the drivers for the assembly machinery," Xel said authoritatively, a small wave of his hand reinforcing the Force-powered command.
"I will halt production immediately, but I'm afraid wiping the machines' programming is beyond me," the administrator answered as he slipped a security key from his pocket and strode toward his master control panel.
"That's quite all right. Just link a friend of mine into the system, and he'll take care of it."
The moment the machines came to a whirring stop, the administrator opened a channel on the MCP and allowed Xel to transmit a signal to Alen. The Jedi appeared on holocom a moment later.
"What do you need?"
"Assembly drivers," Xel answered sharply. "Hack. Now."
Alen smirked teasingly. "My baby brother. Tsk tsk. Gotta have me do everything for you, huh?"
"Usen'ye," Xel deadpanned with a frown.
His brother just chuckled and typed furiously on his end for about a minute, the shouts of incoming reinforcements heard in the admin booth.
"Any time, 'big brother'."
The Jedi held an irritatingly parental finger up, eyes still on his panel. "Patience is a virtue."
Xel hissed and went to the window, spying over two dozen stormtroopers coming up the stairs. He turned back to the panel and laughed nervously. "Not right now it isn't."
The MCP sparked a few times, ending the transmission, and Xel shot it several times for good measure before turning to the administrator. "You never saw me," he said with a wave of his hand and a good amount of extra Force input.
"I never saw you," the administrator affirmed.
Xel nodded once before clenching his fingers slightly and Constricting the man, Linn lowering his unconscious body to the ground a moment later as they stole out the emergency exit. Their swoops carried them away from the industrial complex and into the blank expanse of road that led back to the spaceport. That'll put a dent in weapons production for a while.
1 week later
"Hooyah, gar mir'shebs!"
"Oya manda! Kandosii, Xel! That was beautiful!"
Xel smiled at Sabine's declaration over comms., his head nodding slowly in agreement as he watched the orbital shipyard go down in flames. According to some veterans in the Rebellion, the original founder of the Alliance, one Galen Marek, had pulled a similar maneuver almost two years earlier, using the Empire's own ore cannon to launch a two-kiloton molten metal slug into a shipyard building Star Destroyers. Elsewhere on the junkyard world, just ten miles away, the Ghost's crew was handling another Purge Trooper factory, whose products were, quite thankfully, inoperable at present.
"Shall we go, Master?"
Caden turned toward the source of the voice and smirked behind his helmet, noting once again with glee how much better PT-37 looked in its new body. The armor plating was scuffed and blackened in some areas where it had been shot, but the general structure of the droid was more than intact. Its head's armor plating was made up of reinforced blast shield material, the look of it resembling a gray, t-visored head. Alen did most of the wiring and computer parts, but Xel just had to put his personal flair on the robot's final look. It was his droid, after all. In addition, he had been trying to teach Peetee the basics of Mando'a and what it means to be Mandalorian.
It had taken quite well to the gentle indoctrination, and would often engage him in surprisingly deep discussions about the meaning of Mando philosophies and specifically references to the Manda, the "collective soul" of all Mandalorians who die. Tee had even expressed anxiety about being left out of that soul, being that it had no life to begin with. Xel had told it that as long as it kept fighting, as long as it was known and remembered by even one of the Mando'ade, it would live on if it were ever destroyed, in the minds and hearts of those it once knew.
"Will you remember me, Master?" it had asked.
Xel had smiled and nodded. "Of course. You're my comrade and my brother in arms. Vode an." Brothers all.
Now, they were going back to the Kandosii'tal, which was perched on a nearby junk mountain and contained Iola Voss and Linn Riilos. Alen and the rest of Riilos' team were at a rebel base camp halfway between his crew and the Ghost's, their RV point once they were done with their respective missions.
Caden tapped his helmet and frowned at the near-panic in Sabine's voice. "Here."
"Got a…minor…major problem!"
"Imp AA guns…pounding the haran out of a shuttle me and Ezra used to get the others inside and run interference."
"You're both on board?" he asked with some fear.
The connection sputtered for a few seconds, and Xel concentrated in the Force to feel waves of fear coming from Ezra, since Sabine's Force signature was much dimmer at this distance. Shab is right. He growled and ran toward the Kandosii'tal, PT in tow. Xel sprinted into his cargo hold and powered up a swoop bike, towing it into the cockpit before speaking.
"Sabine and Ezra are in trouble, and they need our help. There are AA guns with quite a bit of range near their position, so I suggest you fly low and drop me off two miles from the factory."
"Roger that," Iola said sharply as she powered the ship's engines on.
"Sabine," Xel transmitted over comms. "Sabine, come in." No response. "Ezra. Ezra Bridger, pick up the comlink." His teeth clenched. His eyes spotted a ravine dead ahead and finger rose to point. "Take us in there. It'll give us some cover." He tapped his helmet again. "Sabine, so help me, woman…" He felt the danger a moment before turbolaser fire slammed into the side of the ship. "Take us down!" he ordered, gritting his teeth against their sudden downward acceleration.
Iola arced the ship back up, leveling off and coasting along the surface of the ground. She gave Xel a nod, and he moved the swoop to the lowering exit ramp before climbing on and accelerating out the back of the ship. His vehicle skidded against the ground with its rapid movement before rising and turning back toward the factory and a large pillar of smoke that rose from its direction. His eyes widened. Oh no. He reached out with the Force again to feel a massive wave of fear from Ezra.
He gunned the engine at max throttle and reached the outskirts of the factory minutes later, spotting the crashed shuttle in several dozen pieces. When he finally arrived at the crash site, he could see Ezra feverishly searching the wreckage, shouting Sabine's name incoherently and turning over piece after piece. Xel joined him a moment later, leaping from his bike and slamming his eyes shut as he searched for her signature in the Force. Apparently, Ezra felt it first.
"Sabine!" he yelled, relief flooding his voice and features as he spotted her arm under a large piece of wreckage. His fingers wrapped around its underside and lifted, the massive, eight-by-five plate flying off and into the distance.
Xel's eyes widened. Okay. He's got a bit of power there. He observed the exchange between the older Mando and her longtime friend as he helped her to her feet, pulling off her damaged helmet and inspecting her face for damage.
"You're sure you're okay?" Ezra asked her.
Even as she nodded, he put a hand on her cheek and turned her head in several directions to make sure.
"Ezra, I'm fine," she chuckled.
He just frowned and let her head go back to its normal position, his hand lingering on her cheek just a little longer than it needed to.
Xel's eyes widened. Oh. Oh. So that's why he doesn't seem to like me. He mentally facepalmed. Of course, you di'kut. You'd have to be blind not to see. Finishing that thought and tucking away a solution for later, he discreetly cleared his throat.
"Excuse me, but if the Imperials think they've shot you down, they'll be along soon to look for survivors."
Specters Five and Six turned to him, seeming to snap out of a brief trance.
Sabine took her helmet back from Ezra and donned it, nodding in agreement with Xel. "We should get outta here."
"What about your crew?" the younger Mando asked.
"Don't worry about them," Ezra assured him. "We got 'em another way out."
Sabine nodded in confirmation, prompting Xel to lead them to his bike.
Ezra scratched the back of his head and chuckled, "I don't suppose that thing can hold three…"
"No," Xel answered, "and I'm not leaving anyone behind, so you two are gonna mount up."
"What?" Sabine asked in disbelief. "We're not leaving you here alone."
Caden laughed. "Of course not, but I have a jetpack that's built for speed and long-distance flight. You don't." He jabbed a finger at her commandingly. "So get on."
The Mando girl looked and felt like she wanted to argue to salve her pride. After all, he was at least four years younger than her, and yet he had the audacity to—
"Right then," Ezra said, stepping just a little between them and taking Sabine's arm, half-dragging her over to the speeder and winking at Caden. Apparently, he had felt her intentions as well. "Shall you drive or I?"
"You," she spat out, pushing him onto the seat. "I'm a better shot mounted."
Her helmeted glare shut him up, as did the sounds of approaching speeder bikes.
"Go," Xel said sharply, drawing his pistols, "go!"
The swoop's throttle gunned as Ezra and Sabine took off, Xel kicking in his jetpack and escorting them from above. The scout troopers were fast approaching, and their familiarity with the terrain of Raxus Prime was giving them the advantage. Seeing this from his bird's-eye view, Xel descended to twenty feet off the ground and fired at one of the scouts repeatedly. The Imperial swerved to the side and drew a pistol off his speeder's frame, firing several shots that were surprisingly accurate.
The Mando sent a wrist rocket in his direction, and the Imp barely dodged a direct hit, but his hasty maneuver took him into a junk pile that flipped his speeder and sent him rolling across the metal ground. One of his partners maxed out the throttle of his bike, zipping toward the Specters and firing his underslung cannon madly. Sabine turned her torso and sent a trio of shots into his head and torso, then ducked down in concert with Ezra as another bolt whizzed over their heads. Even from where he was flying, he could hear the Padawan yell, "Switch!" as he nudged her and deftly switched places with the Mando girl.
Xel wondered at what he was doing until he faced backward and ignited his lightsaber, batting away any stray bolts that came too close for comfort. The flying Mando smiled and fired on the two remaining scout troopers, triumph ringing in his blood as they both fell to the combination of his fire and Ezra's reflections. It turned to fear when a push from the Force warned him of the approach of two AT-STs flanked by two TX-130T repulsorlifts tanks. The vehicles stormed toward the rebels, firing weapons madly and sending both the Specters and Caden twisting in a series of dodges.
The walkers were slower than Xel's swoop, but if they managed to tag the pair or anywhere close, they would lose balance and be at the mercy of the Imperials' next ruthless barrage. Caden gritted his teeth and arced down toward the nearest walker, spinning sideways when its side-mounted blaster cannon turned upward and fired at a rate of twelve bolts a second. He turned and swerved through the air, descending and dodging until his boots planted on the roof of the walker's command module. His lightsaber ignited and plunged into the cockpit hatch, slashing sideways and cutting through the pilots below. The walker came to a stop moments later, and Xel yanked the hatch open to drop inside.
How hard could it be? he thought, pulling one of the dead pilots away from the controls and seating himself at them, then yanking on a few levers until it responded to his commands well enough to aim at the other walker. The nose cannons of the AT-ST fired twice, punching blackened holes in the other's command module when cannon fire from another source slammed into Xel's. He gritted his teeth and activated the side-mounted concussion grenade launcher, firing one at the walker's legs and crippling one of them as the TX tanks leveled all their guns against him.
A shove from the Force prompted him to Force Leap out the open hatch and add his jetpack's thrust, shooting him two-hundred feet upward and out of range of the fireball that consumed the AT-ST and its surrounding area. He arced back toward the fleeing rebels, noting with smiling satisfaction the considerable lead they'd gained due to his distraction, as well as his own luck. The TX tanks were meant to take on large, slow-moving targets, not airborne Mandalorians. Xel was able to deftly dodge and weave around their slow laser fire with ease, especially at this range, and managed to get halfway to Ezra and Sabine when they stopped a long distance off, realizing he was no longer with them.
Additional engines were heard from a half-dozen new scout troopers coming from the direction of the tanks, and Xel scowled as he descended to ground level, falling into a crouch not ten feet from his swoop.
"Climb on!" Sabine shouted. "There's no way we'll outrun them like this, and your jetpack's gotta be overheating."
Xel checked his HUD and noted she was right, then turned back toward the enemy. "Unless we don't outrun them at all."
"What are you talkin' about?" Ezra asked incredulously. "We can't fight an army with just the three of us, even if we are two Mandalorians and a Jedi."
"I don't plan to," Xel said firmly, standing and walking closer to the enemy, toward a relatively narrow gap between two large plateaus of rock and junk. He cocked his head to the side curiously when he observed the tops of those plateaus.
"What are you thinking?" Sabine asked with suspicion.
Xel thought about it for a few moments, a malevolent smile coming to his face. "I'm gonna drop the mountain on them." He shrugged. "So to speak." He turned to the Padawan. "Gonna need your help, though."
Ezra's eyebrows shot up, but the orbs beneath them sparkled with excitement. "You mean—?"
"Yep. Think you can pull it off, Jedi boy?" he challenged.
Ezra grinned. "You're on."
They both raised their hands in tandem, focusing on the junk piles sitting in unstable heaps on the plateaus above, the sheer tonnage enough to crush even the toughest armor. Sabine looked on in wonder as the gigantic metal piles started to vibrate and shake, the haphazard supports creaking and bending under the strain of the Force-users' efforts. Both Ezra and Xel had their eyes scrunched closed, concentration at the absolute max as everything else was tuned out in favor of focusing the Force.
Sabine glanced nervously between her friends and the approaching scouts, drawing her blasters and taking aim as they drew closer.
"Come on," Xel growled. "Come on and break, you miserable shabuir!" His anger rose and crackled to life, building and mounting on itself until it was an open flame. "Fall!" he roared, flexing his fingers and snapping his upper body forward tensely.
Both structures buckled violently as Ezra stared at Xel with an open jaw, then at the piles of metal that were unleashed on the valley as easily as if they had been raindrops from a storm cloud. Xel roared, releasing his rage and frustration with the Force, sending the metal avalanche careening toward the scouts and TX tanks. The Imperials tried to turn away before it landed. Their efforts were rendered useless when several tons of metal crushed them into metal-strewn pulp. Xel was breathing heavily, shoulders heaving up and down as he recovered his strength and senses. A malevolent smile came to his face at the veritable massacre he'd caused with the avalanche.
Ezra just stared at him, feeling and recognizing all too easily the feelings rolling off his younger comrade. Less than four years earlier, he too had tapped into such dark, powerful emotions during a battle with the Inquisitor, a sadistic Sith monster hell-bent on destroying all traces of the Jedi. He exchanged a look with Sabine, knowing she was thinking the same thing without seeing her face. After all, he'd known her for years. Every emotion she had, every notion and feeling, he could read in the Force. It was almost as strong a bond as the Force Bond he shared with Kanan, and he knew she felt the same way, even if A: she wasn't Force-sensitive, and B: she refused to admit it.
As he turned back to Xel, he could feel the same darkness he had tried so hard to root out in himself ever since becoming a Jedi. Giving in to such…hatred was not the way to protect those he cared about, and Ezra knew that perhaps better than anyone. Caden was no Jedi, but surely he had to know where his path led, even if he didn't subscribe to the other. One thing was for certain, the older youth couldn't keep this to himself. He had to tell Alen, Kanan, someone. He couldn't fall, couldn't be allowed to turn. He was far too loved for his family to lose him like that.
20 minutes later
Rebel encampment, Raxus Prime
Ezra and Sabine whirred to a stop as Xel flew down and landed some distance from the pair, pulling off his helmet and tucking it under his arm. Gone was the malevolent, disconcerting smile that had dominated his lips after causing the deaths of over a dozen Imperial soldiers, now replaced by a thin line of calm determination. I should've done this months ago, when I first noticed something was off. He approached them and smiled warmly, looking straight at the boy.
"Hey Ezra, you got a minute?"
The Padawan flinched, seeming to be startled from some deep thought, before facing him. "Uh, I was gonna go see Kanan, but yeah."
Xel nodded toward a nearby tent, noting the look shared by the Specters and ducking inside. Ezra joined him a moment later, the slightly shorter boy standing a neutral distance away.
"So what's up?"
Xel wore that same small smile. "You've got nothing to worry about."
Ezra knitted his eyebrows and stared at him, confused. "What?"
The Padawan seemed to understand, and his expression changed subtly, half with disappointment, half concern, for just a split-second. "Oh," he said softly.
Xel wondered at the brief flicker but said nothing. "I see the way you look at her." He laughed. "And, as a result, the way you look at me sometimes." He smiled at the slight blush that crept into the older boy's cheeks. "Just wanted you to know—" he put a hand on the boy's shoulder, "—you've got nothing to worry about."
Ezra shrugged off his hand and crossed his arms defensively, raising an eyebrow at Xel. "And why would I be worried?"
Xel grinned cheekily. "Come on, man, no sense denying it. I see—hell, everyone sees the way you look at that girl, the way you care about her." His smile faded to a warm curve. "That's powerful." Pairs of identical blue eyes stared at each other. "Hold onto that."
Ezra's mouth opened slightly as he stared at the other boy, willing his mouth to work after a while. "I…" he scratched the back of his head, "guess I felt I was being a little more subtle about it."
At that Xel broke into loud, wheezing laughter that doubled him over and kept him there for a good eight seconds. "W-Where did you get that idea?" he managed between laughs. "You couldn't be more obvious if you were openly leering at her shebs."
Ezra went bright red. "I guess…I guess I just thought since you two were so alike. You know, you're a Mando, she's a Mando. You like big explosions, she loves big explosions…"
"And yet that's not how I see her." Xel looked away, pensive. "Maybe I could," he said quietly, eyes glazing over wistfully for a moment before hardening again and meeting Ezra's. "But I don't. I can't." He smiled to cover his morose mood. "Besides, haven't you heard? Opposites attract."
Ezra shrugged despondently. "Yeah, so they say, but three and a half years later, she still hasn't noticed me."
"Well…" Xel cocked his head sideways and thought for a few moments before smiling. "Have you ever asked about her past? Or her culture?"
"Well, uh…yeah, not so much the culture, but—"
"There's a new topic for ya then. It's extremely important to Mandos that we remember our culture. Otherwise we're Dar'manda."
Xel smiled. "That's for you to find out from her."
Ezra smiled back and nodded. "Fair enough."
Caden started to walk past him, but paused just behind Ezra and looked back over his shoulder. "By the way, if you think she hasn't noticed you…" Xel smirked, "then you're blind and oblivious." He hesitated a moment, letting it sink in. "And that gives me hope, 'cause I thought I was the only one."
Ezra and the younger Mando shared a look that seemed to resolve months upon months of unresolved tension, and a comradely smile graced both their faces. Xel turned away and walked out of the tent, the entrance flap rustling with his exit. He left Ezra with more questions than answers, less about the girl he cared about and more about the boy who, for all his comparative lack in age, seemed a thousand years older than him.
1 month later
Rebel camp, Ilum
3 months BBY
The sing and crackle of dueling lightsabers split the air in the Ghost's corner of the rebel camp, two sapphire blades clashing and pushing against one another in a dance-like pattern of strikes. One focused on sharp, quick movements at precise angles and the other on flowing arcs that deflected every strike and threw in a few counterattacks amidst its defense. The latter was clearly holding back, not that anyone except his opponent could tell. The rebels who weren't on duty or otherwise occupied with catching some shut-eye were observing the spectacle that, for some, had become a common but still-exotic occurrence.
Though it had been almost two decades since Order 66, many of these soldiers were old enough to remember the Jedi, and to see just two of them training in such a beautiful display gave them hope, much less two others looking on as well. Of course, no one in their right mind could call Xel Caden a Jedi by any stretch of the imagination, but to most, the distinction between a Jedi and someone who just used a lightsaber was rather slim. When seeing the Mando's near-flawless track record, it became even harder to tell, considering the stories that surrounded the legendary Knights of the Old Republic.
Xel was currently flanked by Ezra on one side and PT-37 on the other, the droid and his master focusing completely on the duelists while the Padawan's gaze flickered occasionally to the boy on his right. Caden pretended not to notice. His brother flipped over Kanan and slashed at his back, but the older Knight brought his saber to position four and blocked the strike before shoving it away and kicking Alen firmly in the gut. The fourteen-year-old Jedi withdrew and rolled away, deactivating his saber and reactivating to catch a blow aimed at his shoulder. Several testing strikes were traded and deflected, the younger sword specialist somewhat awed at his opponent's skill.
Kanan Jarrus was a particularly balanced combatant, much like Xel, relying on neither the Force nor his saber, but blitzing the enemy with all of his skills at once. Alen was currently holding his own only because Kanan was exclusively utilizing his lightsaber…a fact that changed a few moments after he attempted a counter. A small rock was sent careening at Alen's back, and he threw his lightsaber into position four to incinerate it, withdrawing two steps to dodge a stab from his older opponent. Kanan spun his lightsaber several times before stabbing at several locations, a technique he'd picked up from Makashi, then used one of the stabs over Alen's shoulder to position his blade for a downward swipe.
Li-am deftly dodged to the side, smacking Kanan's lightsaber away and shoving him back with a shoulder charge before swinging his blade upward and locking with the Knight's.
"I gotta say," Ezra told Xel, "your bro's pretty good."
Xel scoffed. "He should be. Been doing this since he could walk. He regularly thrashes me during sparring, even when I get inside his blade range and supplement with hand-to-hand. The guy's reflexes are sharper than a Verpine razor."
This very fact was demonstrated when Kanan cut horizontally, slashing right over his hair as Alen ducked just enough, barely a millimeter of space between the blade and his head. Alen brought his saber up underhandedly, pointing it straight out and nearly landing a stab.
"Woah!" Ezra exclaimed, lunging forward and bracing both hands on a crate between him and their makeshift fighting ring.
Both duelists withdrew from each other and faced off for a few moments before nodding in tandem and deactivating their blades, then bowing respectfully and walking off to chat.
"I—I don't believe it," Ezra breathed. "I don't think anyone's gotten that close to beating Kanan. Apart from the Inquisitor," he added darkly.
Xel's eyebrow rose. "The Inquisitor?"
Ezra met his look. "Yeah. Sith or Dark Jedi or something. He reports directly to Darth Vader, or sometimes a Grand Moff or two."
At this, Caden's eyes flashed wildly. "You've met him then?"
"Well, yeah. Three years ago, he started dogging our every step. Been that way ever since, but with the founding of the Rebellion, it became, shall we say, very difficult to get close to us."
Xel's expression was still dark and jaw clenched. "So you know what he looks like."
"Yeah. Nasty piece of work."
Ezra looked at him confusedly, but complied. "Bald head, pale skin, yellow eyes. Inhumanly sharp teeth. Honestly, I don't think he's human."
"And did he wear a hood or cast Force Lightning?"
The older boy's eyes widened. "Wait…what?"
"Hm. I'll take that as a no."
Ezra stayed silent for a while before piping up. "Why did you ask that?"
Xel clenched his jaw again. "Because he sounded like someone I knew."
"I'm guessing you two don't get along."
Caden glanced at him before returning his gaze to the horizon. "You could say that," he growled. He was silent a while. "He killed my mother."
Bridger's jaw dropped a little before sympathy flooded his features, turning to mirror his companion's posture and focus. "I can understand your pain. I lost my parents to the Empire too."
Xel's eyes narrowed slightly. "Were you responsible?"
Ezra glanced at him. "No."
His jaw clenched again. "Good."
"If…if you don't mind me asking, how were you responsible?"
Xel shrugged noncommittally. "It doesn't matter. I just am." He scowled slightly. "But not entirely."
"So…you want revenge."
Xel glanced at the older boy, then turned to show him his left pauldron, right hand fingering the sword pattern. "That's what this means. In Mandalorian culture, colors are symbolic. Gold is the color of vengeance."
Ezra stared at it for a while, that uncomfortable feeling from the valley rising again. "I take it your brother doesn't know about this?"
Xel shrugged. "I haven't explicitly told him, but he's a perceptive chakaar, and even if I haven't told him the full significance of the sword…" He sighed. "If he hasn't figured it out yet, then he's a bigger idiot than I thought." He turned back toward the horizon, then looked sideways at Ezra and raised an eyebrow. "Why do you ask? You think he'll try to stop me?"
The boy looked away and tried to shrug nonchalantly. "Like you said, he's pretty perceptive, so if he hasn't stopped you yet, he won't. I was just curious."
Xel closed his eyes. "And worried, apparently."
Bridger sputtered for a moment and looked at him incredulously. "What? Why would I be worried? You're my comrade, friend even."
Caden just waved his hand dismissively. "I'm not angry, Ezra. A little disappointed, maybe, but I suppose I can understand your position. After all, you've been trained as a Jedi, and the kinds of strong emotions I tap into are the ones you're taught to avoid, because they make you lose control." He pressed his lips together tightly. "The thing is, I've been using my emotions and, unconsciously, the Force, my whole life. It's not only habit for me, it's natural." He put a hand on the Padawan's shoulder. "I can take it."
Ezra smiled a little. "I know. And I know you can tell friend from foe, I just…" He sighed and shook his head. "I remember the times I cut loose some of the ways you have, and it wasn't pretty, or so I'm told. I…scared people. People I cared about, who felt the same for me. I don't want that, for me or you, or anyone. You don't deserve to be feared."
Xel smirked. "Actually I do. In fact, I need to be feared." At Ezra's look of shock, he smiled reassuringly. "But not by you, or anyone else in this camp."
Ezra blinked rapidly. "Oh. I get it."
"Thought you might."
They remained there in companionable silence, staring into the falling sun obscured behind a canopy of heavy clouds, snow flying and whirling about them. Xel kept looking on absently, expression going loose in a rare moment of pensive passivity, just enjoying the moment and environment. His eyes fluttered closed as a sudden feeling of peace fell upon him, the cold, crisp air ever so briefly numbing the agony in his heart. It lasted for only half a second, but in that long half-second, he could almost see his parents, laughing and holding each other, eyes drifting to two bundles on a table in front of them. He could have sworn that they exchanged a look with each other, then turned their gazes directly to him.
Xel's heart skipped a beat at the sympathetic, knowing expressions in their eyes. His own snapped open instantly, and he released a ragged breath. He swiped his hand over his moistened eyes, breathing somewhat labored as he tried to calm his raging emotions. A hand on his arm snapped him back to reality.
"Hey," Ezra said, "you okay?"
Caden put on a smile and nodded. "I'm fine," he said evenly before turning and walking away from the horizon, cursing himself for his weakness. It was just a flight of fancy, a desperate effort by the fractured heart of a child to mend itself through impossible means. It was just a daydream.
It had to be.