Star Wars: Kandosii'tal

Mourning

1 week later

The Makrin Star

2 months BBY

Eight hundred uniformed people were gathered in the main hangar of the Makrin Star, more than had ever been there previous. The crowd was so large that some of its denser sections found it somewhat hard to breathe. The reason for this was, of course, that several hundred more people were taking up a large section of the hangar. They, however, did not contribute to or detract from the air quality. A few words were spoken by a uniformed man elevated above the crowd, facing them with an expression as grim as the sight behind him: rows upon rows of filled coffins, each of them containing a fallen comrade or at least something to remember them by.

Sometimes the Empire took even that from them.

As the somber speech came to a close, many in the crowd simply passed through the rows and into various exits, too badly affected or busy to give more than that to honor the dead in public. Others hung around the containers, blankly standing in the middle of the whole battalion's worth of corpses in numb grief. Many were more open in their emotions, some going so far as to collapse to their knees and clutch the coffin of the one they lost, someone they loved or knew from prosperity to hardship. Still others strode up to a coffin, staring at its metallic surface with tense stances and unreadable expressions.

One such man stood over a clear-windowed coffin, the transparisteel at one end allowing the hangar's lights to illuminate the elegant red hair and pale skin of the woman inside, little more than a kid, really. The man was not in uniform, leastways not like the rest of them. He stood erect, stoic, and completely blank of visible expression or emotion. Of course, just because something is invisible doesn't mean it isn't there. A gentle hand on his arm left a few moments later when it got no response, the eleven other figures around him forming a ring around the coffin.

One stood directly opposite him, a man with the same piercing green eyes as the dead woman and sandy brown hair. They never made eye contact or said a word, either as the other mourners around them spoke in subdued whispers, or as the brother of the first man asked him a question, to which he shook his head. I can't, he thought. His brother heard him.

"Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc. Ni partayli, gar darasuum."

The words were spoken softly, uncertainly, their utterer less than confident in his pronunciation, but his brother gave him a reassuring nod. Silence reigned over the gathering for a long time, even as they began to file away one by one, numbers dwindling until only two remained, standing on opposite sides of the coffin. A quick glance around would have revealed the hangar to be completely devoid of life besides the pair. Slowly, their eyes rose to meet each other, expressions of grim understanding on both their faces.

"I'm sorry," one said suddenly, voice quavering despite his efforts to keep it even.

The other shook his head with a small, sad smile. "It's not your fault."

"It is when you think about it. She trusted me with her safety. You trusted me with her safety. I let her die. I betrayed that trust."

The other man remained silent a while, eyes returning to the face in the coffin. "She was shot. In the heart." He looked back at the man. "Were you the one who shot her?"

"No," he replied flatly.

"Then you have nothing to apologize for." He took in a deep, ragged breath, releasing it a moment later. "Xel," he whispered, "she was shot in the heart. Modern medicine can cure a lot of ills, but…" he gave Xel a long, intense look, "death isn't one of them."

Xel was silent a while, staring at Linn's dead form. "And what about the Force? There's nothing 'modern' about it. It doesn't abide by your rules, by anyone's. Only its own and those set by those who choose to use it. If I were stronger, more powerful…"

"That's crazy talk, kid, and you know it."

The Mando snarled at Eran. "I'm not a kid anymore," he hissed, each word spoken with considerable emphasis.

Eran let out a low, bitter chuckle. "But you are." He looked straight into Xel's dangerously dark eyes, watching as they narrowed slowly. "You are a kid. Mature, yeah. Experienced, absolutely. But you're still fourteen years old, with the fears and the insecurities and the emotional roller coaster we all have to go through. You have the idea in your head that you have to be some stoic killer, dead to emotion, impervious to pain."

"I'm not hiding my emotions," Caden protested.

"Maybe not, but you're not releasing them either."

The youth smirked sardonically. "Weren't you listening when I told you what happened to those Imperials?"

"Yeah, maybe that was a bit of a release. Maybe. But it's not just anger you feel when someone you love dies." He looked back at Linn. "Trust me, I know. There are other emotions you have to let yourself experience…so you can let them go. And you haven't. You're hiding behind a veneer of professionalism and a wall of anger, thinking it's for the best, that you can't feel pain unless you choose to. Well I've got news for you, buddy. You keep this in for much longer, and nothing, no blaster shot, no lava pit, no Imperial torture will be able to inflict more pain than all that pent-up grief will."

Xel met his gaze angrily until he couldn't, instead looking down the hangar bay, down every row of the two-hundred soldiers they'd lost in the Ilum conflict. The bridge bombing had just been the beginning. After that day, the Empire finally showed its hand: dozens of AT-STs, hundreds of tanks and bombers, troopers flowing like the ocean. The rebels were practically overrun within days. It was a small miracle they managed to escape at all, and only due to a sacrifice by an unlikely savior: Garth.


"Get to the transport!"

"We're not leaving without you, Captain!"

"That's an order, you damned merc! For once in your life, follow it!"

Xel stared through the thick transparisteel door separating him from the rebel officer, who was locked in a staredown contest with the Mando. "You know…we never did see eye-to-eye…but you were a warrior, Garth, and a good man. I'm sorry."

Garth stared at him for another second, mouth hanging open slightly in shock, before his face lit up in a malevolent grin, a detonator gripped in his right hand. "I'm not."

Xel sprinted back across the tunnel at maximum speed, barely managing to leap aboard the last evac shuttle before Garth hit the button, engulfing the rebels' former base and the hundreds of Imperials there in purging flames.


Caden let out a long breath as he remembered the events of the previous day, eyes fluttering open as he looked back at an intently staring Eran. An internal groan ran through his system as he remembered his friend's last words.

"Thanks for the pep talk," he nearly snarled as he turned away, curbing his animosity when he caught sight of Linn's coffin again.

Not another word was spoken as he stalked from the hangar, helmet under his arm going over his features as his father's Mandalorian shoulder cloak flapped in the ship's stale filtered air.

He barely heard Eran say, "That's what friends are for. That's what she would want."


10 minutes later

The Kandosii'tal

"Do you need anything, sir?"

"No, Tee. Thank you."

His voice was flat and nearly emotionless, but Alen wasn't fooled, and he gave the droid a reassuring nod as its dark metal body passed him. The Jedi seated himself some six feet away from his brother, remaining silent and just watching him work as he sharpened his knife using a plasma torch. He'd thought he was getting better when he broke down on Ilum, but the moment he'd stopped crying, Xel had retreated into himself and locked his emotional walls tight. Alen had thought he knew why. After all, if he'd broken down in front of Eran in the middle of telling him what happened, the results could have been…catastrophic.

As it happened, Xel had managed to keep a straight face the whole time…until Eran asked him what happened to the troopers. He'd felt Xel's darkness from across the base, his rage. It had terrified him. After all, over a dozen men had been violently and agonizingly executed the last time he'd felt that. A rapid, Force-assisted sprint across the base brought him within sight of the pair, both their expressions soothing his nerves, though only slightly. Xel's features were still carefully schooled, but his eyes and tightened jaw betrayed the emotions clearly written all over Eran's face: anger, grief…vengeance.

He had thought after this that his younger brother would be able to release his pent-up emotions, but one week later, Xel's walls were still as tight as ever. Alen blinked again, clearing away his thoughts briefly to look at his brother. Xander's shoulder cloak was draped over Xel's left arm, one corner of it attached at the shoulder, its gray surface only broken by a single white stripe on its front edge and a small symbol of Mandalore in black at the shoulder connection. Alen understood the significance of the gray, since Xel had told him about his father's armor, and, after the events of last week, he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt what the gold sword on his left pauldron symbolized.

The black, however, was new. Although he had seen the color figure heavily in Xel's prized droid, he hadn't thought it a stylistic measure as much as practical. Black did blend in better with most environments, after all. Seeing the symbol on Xander's cloak, though, gave him the idea that PT-37's paintjob may not have been purely professional. It—correction, he—seemed to have gained a new sense of identity ever since the incident with Tenau, become less instantly subservient and more independent-minded. Though he'd initially been concerned at this development, Peetee's newfound free-thinking had saved their lives several times in the last week. Alen personally owed the droid, as did Iola, half the crew of the Ghost, and over a dozen rebel soldiers.


6 days ago

Ilum

"Get to cover!"

The yelled command was enough to send the entirety of the rebel contingent diving behind rocks, snow banks, and fallen rubble large enough to block the hail-fire of a dozen rotary cannons firing at once. Red plasma streaked and peppered the landscape, melting their cover bit by bit until Ezra and Sabine performed a maneuver with Zeb that launched them both thirty feet into the air, giving them perfect shots on two of the Imperial gunners. They went down with identical salvos from the teens as three others angled their large weapons upward at the falling pair. They twisted wildly in a series of midair rolls and spins, dodging the incoming fire as they fell with considerable grace.

Briefly wincing, Alen stretched out with the Force when he saw a rocket launched in their direction, yanking them both back behind the firing line and away from an explosion that impacted a rock column five feet to their right, showering their former position with jagged rock splinters. They sent their thanks before returning fire on the enemy, the rest of the rebels following suit in coordinated bursts, section by section to keep the Imperials off-balanced. Two more gunners went down before the rebels began taking casualties. Three fell when a rocket shattered their cover, sending shards of durasteel slicing through their bodies.

The lack of cover there created a window of opportunity for a concealed sniper to take out two more. Though the consultants and commandos of the group were easily keeping their cool, the rank-and-file soldiers were starting to panic, firing haphazardly with poorly aimed shots doing little more than giving away their positions. The Imperial snipers gladly obliged them, taking out eight more within less than twenty seconds. Alen's teeth gritted as he stretched out with the Force, the battlefield fading to the edges of his consciousness as he focused on the enemy.

His senses tagged at least twenty-four contacts, the gunners, snipers, and several snowtroopers before finding a mobile artillery team consisting of three Imperial technicians and a mortar. Ice-blue eyes snapped wide open, shifting to give Ezra a look. The older teen returned it, indicating that he'd felt it as well. Alen motioned to the commando team at his back, waving them forward as he ignited his lightsaber. Several high-velocity bolts ricocheted off his blade as the snipers attempted an assassination, the Jedi managing to protect his team as well as they advanced.

Ezra followed suit with his side of the column, their lightsabers acting as banners to the frightened men and spurring them forward. It was a form of potent psychological warfare, one they were both taking full advantage of, especially when the gunners focused on the advancing troops before stopping to stare briefly at the two Jedi. That momentary hesitation was all they needed for Zeb and Sabine to perform counter-sniping operations, taking out all but one of the remaining gunners and confusing the stormtroopers running up the rear. Alen pressed forward, a small, malevolent smirk gracing his features as he cut down the last gunner and began deflecting bolts from eight different sources.

The rebels took up cover behind rocks, columns, and rubble once again, this time at a much smaller distance as they laid into the enemy, whittling down the troopers' numbers bit by bit. Snipers killed four more rebels as they kept up the pressure, Ezra alternating between deflects and returning fire with his gun-saber while Zeb closed in and pounced on a squad of snowtroopers. The massive Lasat tossed two into a metal building, one of six built into the staging area, drawing his bo staff and electrocuting a third with one end. His weapon spun in a blur of violet electricity as he carved a path through the remaining guards, Sabine covering his back and suppressing two of the concealed snipers.

Alen felt a warning flash from the Force and stretched out to the Specters with the Force even as Ezra tackled Sabine to the side. Zeb similarly went flying fifteen feet into a snow bank from a Force Push by Alen an instant before an explosion impacted on the exact spot they'd been standing. The Jedi turned his eyes upward to see a brightly glowing arc coming from the other end of the camp.

"Mortar!" he yelled to the troops, sprinting for cover far from where he calculated the incoming projectile would impact.

Sure enough, it did, sending chunks of rock and ice in all directions but otherwise doing no damage. The troops on the ground, though, were another story. Alen stretched out again, tagging a massive influx of snowtroopers and surmising that there was a ground-based troop transport somewhere out there. He picked up the driver a second later and felt his heart jump when he sensed it heading toward them. That kind of mounted firepower would devastate their group. Seeing Ezra, he gave the older youth a nod. Sabine pulled something from her cloak, the winterized addition hiding a great many extra toys.

She strapped one to her left gauntlet, raising the appendage and allowing the antenna on her helmet to angle downward. Alen waited with bated breath as the transport came into view through the never-ending blizzard, ten snowtroopers acting as escort. His comlink clicked on as Sabine's voice drifted over.

"Gotcha."

A single twitch of her wrist sent a small dart streaking from her gauntlet, impacting the transport at one of its armor joints. A series of quiet beeps preceded the four-foot radius explosion that engulfed the vehicle and the air around it, along with several snowtroopers, the rest opening fire on the rebels as they responded in kind. Seconds later, the smoke cleared to reveal a charred and dented, but mostly intact, Imperial transport. Alen's heart skipped a beat when its rooftop turbolasers activated and swiveled in their direction.

"Scatter!"

Despite his order, the vehicle-mounted cannons sent explosive plasma streaking into concentrations of soldiers, incinerating some in the initial blasts and throwing others into the snow with third and second-degree burns. Agonized shrieks came from the wounded and dying in equal amounts, Alen's heart leaping out of his chest as his lungs went on overdrive. The two Jedi charged toward the vehicle, firing and deflecting in equal amounts in their fight to reach the transport. Then the cannons swiveled toward them. Force Leaps at exactly the same time barely carried them out of danger before the snowtroopers opened fire on the airborne Jedi.

Several deflects were made before they touched down on the roof of a nearby building, the transport's cannons shifting to target them. Perfect, Alen thought with a smirk, easily batting away incoming fire when he saw Sabine sprinting for the target. Two snowtroopers had the misfortune of getting close, but they held their own regardless and actually managed to disarm her of her pistols, one getting an arm around her neck while the other tried to cheap-shot her. She kicked him in the gut hard, her hands on the arm around her throat as she used the unfortunate trooper in front of her as a springboard to perform a backflip. Her newfound placement behind her initial attacker allowed her to kick out one knee and bring his helmeted head down into hers. The satisfying crack of white plastoid on her beskar was like roughly played music.

Unfortunately, the other troopers and transport had managed to suppress the two Jedi, allowing the guards on the ground to shift their attention to her. A dozen plasma bolts shot toward her at once. Three found their mark. Sabine yelped in pain as she fell backwards, one of the shots having found a gap in her armor, the sleeveless aspect of her suit coming back to bite her. Her left arm fell limp as she crawled back, pulling one of the unconscious troopers up to serve as a shield against the incoming fire.

Alen knew it wouldn't last long, and nodded to Ezra when the boy shot him an alarmed look. The blue-black-haired teen leapt off the roof into a rapidly executed roll, cutting down two snowtroopers and getting the attention of the rest as Alen kept distracting the transport. He too leapt to ground level, ducking between buildings as turbolaser fire continued to pursue him. He was so distracted by the vehicle that an incoming mortar was nearly overlooked. As it happened, he leapt forward suddenly only to have his jump elongated when the explosive shell hit his former position, launching him twenty feet into a durasteel wall.

He shakily rose to his feet, his shoulder sore and body aching all over. The transport's turbolasers both leveled against him at the same time it deployed more snowtroopers, Ezra and Sabine virtually surrounded by angry E-11s. There was no way either of them could move in time. As it turned out, they didn't have to.

Another voice growled through the team-wide comlink, one Alen knew all too well.

"Imperial meatbags acquired."

A half-dozen missiles descended from the sky, three of them slamming into the weak point made by Sabine's dart and cracking the transport in half. Alen angled his eyes upward, catching a rocket-powered black blur that angled its arms downward. Blue plasma streaked from gauntlet-mounted repeaters, the t-visored figure of PT-37 raining death on the Imperials below. Ten of them went down within the first eight seconds, the rest following not much later as Sabine retrieved a blaster and opened fire with Ezra and Alen. Another explosive shell landed not far from what remained of their approaching strike team, and Alen turned his eyes in the direction of the mortar crew.

Peetee picked up on his thoughts, as evidenced by the flaring of his jump-jets and flight toward the source of the artillery. A series of explosions rocked an area in the distance, the droid having put his new shoulder-mounted missile launchers to use. No further sounds were heard except the blowing of icy wind, Alen's face starting to numb as the adrenaline slowly sapped out of his system. Sabine was hissing as Ezra fussed over her injury, though whether in pain or annoyance the younger boy couldn't tell. A heavy form touched down behind the Jedi, and Alen turned to face their robotic savior with an appreciative smile.

"They had us dead to rights." He bumped the droid's shoulder with his fist. "We owe ya one, Tee."

His head tilted slightly, the t-visor, of course, betraying none of his emotions. "You are welcome, but no thanks is necessary."

Alen smiled wider and tilted his head in respect. "Send Xel a thank you too."

The droid tensed up—if a mechanical being could tense.

Ice-blue eyes narrowed in confusion for a few seconds before a possibility dawned on him. "Wait…you mean…he didn't send you?"

Peetee shook his head slowly. "Thanks to your upgrades to my processor and communications systems, I was able to monitor several teams at once, yours among them. I heard your communications become frenzied and desperate, so I wished to intervene." He looked down and away, as if embarrassed. "Xel…gave me permission, not an order."

Alen just stared at him for a few seconds in disbelief, blinking several times to clear it away. "So…you decided to help us, of your own free will?"

A moment's hesitation. "Yes."

One more heartbeat of shock passed before Alen's mouth spread into a face-splitting grin, genuine laughter coming from his throat. "Well, if I had any doubts about your loyalty before, I don't now." He slapped the droid's shoulder playfully, his head shaking. "Leave it to this crazy-ass family to produce a free-thinking robot. Well done, vod."

If he had eyelids, or eyes, for that matter, Alen was sure Tee would've blinked. "Thank you," he replied, voice relaxed.

Wait…relaxed? Alen rubbed his face, scrunching his eyes up tight. Must've hit my head harder than I thought if I can pick up emotions in a monotone voice. Sure enough, though, there were tonal shifts in Peetee's vocabulator. Very minor, but still there. He shook his head again, smiling slightly as he turned back to his strike team. Well done, Xel. Well done.


Present

The Kandosii'tal

Alen blinked once more, returning his focus to a mind-numbed Xel and frowning in concentration. "Hey Xel."

"Hm?" the other boy asked without looking up.

"You seen Maila recently?"

The Mando's hands stopped moving.

"'Cause…I dunno about you, but I don't think she takes loss well, and since Linn was the one taking care of her—"

Xel stood suddenly, his blank mask slipping for the first time as guilt flowed unhindered over their bond. "I need to go," he said flatly, marching toward the exit. He paused in the doorway and looked over his shoulder. "Thank you for reminding me."

He was gone before Alen could say, "You're welcome." The Jedi was sure he felt his sentiments.


10 minutes later

"Maila Yar?"

The white-clad medic nodded toward a storage room in response, ushering Xel inside but staying out.

The armored Mando halted in the middle of the room, letting his eyes close and stretching out with the Force. He found Maila seconds later, curled up next to a crate and twisting a rope into several dozen small knots, forming an intricate pattern of curls and twists.

"Another flower?" he asked quietly, his boots clicking noisily on the tiled floor as he came to a halt, hands on his belt.

Her head shook, not even sparing him a glance, her complete focus on the rope as she put an end of cable through a small loop and pulled it through. Xel approached slowly and sat next to her, staring intently at the rope as if trying to guess its eventual shape. Given how her last ones had turned out, he had a feeling it would be spectacular.

"So…the funeral was today."

Maila's hands hesitated for a moment before working again.

He was silent a while. "I didn't take it well."

The red woman snorted in mock disbelief, arching an eyebrow at him though her eyes were still locked on the rope.

"I…she liked me, I think." He chuckled mirthlessly. "Scratch that, I know."

Maila stopped working and looked at him for the first time, giving him a raised eyebrow and a knowing smirk, mouthing, "Who wouldn't?"

He gave her a sarcastic look and a tilt of the head before rolling his eyes and shaking his head. "Me, for one."

A small giggle escaped her throat, one hand leaving the cable to rub his arm. "Of course not," she mouthed. "You haven't for as long as I've known you."

"Almost," he corrected, knowing exactly the linchpin that caused his shift to self-loathing.

Maila stared at him for a few seconds before shaking her head and looking down. She looked back up at him a moment later with a small smile. "It's nice to be able to talk with someone." She shrugged. "So to speak."

"Well, most of these auretiise haven't had the fine art of lip-reading drummed into them since birth. On the battlefield, you can't hear worth osik anyway, so you gotta be able to."

Her eyebrows furrowed. "How does that work with Mandos, though? I mean, you're always wearing helmets."

"In which case you have helmet-to-helmet comlinks and external noise dampeners." He gently took the rope from her hands, cocking his head and reaching down to gingerly fix a knot that had come loose. He handed it back to her, and she smiled and nodded her thanks.

"Funny how everything you do has practical purpose, not just for aesthetics."

"Not really. That's my culture."

She shrugged. "True. But don't you think some days that…maybe you could slow down? Just…enjoy the moment?" Her eyes locked onto his, though the darker blue were locked on the ground. She tipped his head up to read her lips. "Or a night?"

He stared into her eyes, searching from one to the other several times as his jaw tightened. "No." He turned away, absently fingering the cloak that had fallen over the front of his left arm. "I feel…numb. Like I'm not supposed to feel anything anymore. But I do, and it's not what I want to feel, but…it's necessary." He'd hissed the last word out with force and clear loathing, as if he were trying to convince himself as much as her.

She tipped his head up again, leaning closer and searching his face, concern written all over hers. Her face drew even closer, inches from his, and the breath caught in his throat at the lack of distance between them until she turned her head and put her lips next to his.

"Liar," a nearly inaudible whisper said.

Xel blinked hard, his eyes going wide for twofold reasons. One: she was accusing him of lying…which he had tried really hard not to do to her, and two: she had just…

He looked her in the eyes, mouth halfway open. "You just…you just spoke."

Maila smiled sheepishly, nodding slightly and keeping her face just six inches from his. "I can whisper now," she said in the mentioned volume. "Sometimes," she added, one hand tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "My point—is that you're not just angry. Trust me—" she tapped her forehead, "—I can tell. You're hurting, and hurting badly. Linn was your friend—our friend."

He sent her a look. "So?"

She gave him a look that seemed to pierce right through him, then sighed and shook her head in reprimand, eyes closed. "Xel, for everything you try to do to limit your pain—dulling your emotions, distancing yourself from others, keeping a cold, professional façade—you have the capacity to feel…far more than anyone I've seen outside of Zeltros. That's why you can't—or at least shouldn't—restrain your emotions. You think you need them for fuel, to keep yourself going 'til the end." Her head shook gently, tossing her raven hair about her shoulders. "Did it ever occur to you that if you need such instability to drive yourself toward your goal, maybe the goal is wrong?"

Xel blinked hard, staring at her with furrowed eyebrows and a frown. "Yes. I know it is. And I don't care."

Maila leaned in again, closing the distance between their faces, any trace of mirth completely gone.

"Liar."

She let the word roll smoothly off her tongue, letting it permeate the still, stale ship air as they stared at each other. Xel couldn't explain it, but he felt a sudden need to just go limp and fall into her arms, the exhaustion of several days of no sleep pulling at his eyelids…

His eyes snapped wide open and locked onto hers. "You…you're projecting your emotions onto me, aren't you?"

The sharp intake of breath and widening of her eyes told him yes.

Xel couldn't really nail down how that made him feel, and it showed in his blank, openmouthed expression. On the one hand, empathic projection was effectively a form of mental manipulation—which was not acceptable—but on the other hand, this was Maila we're talking about. He stopped his train of thought to gather more data for a decision, noting the details in the moment. Her face close to his, her hands on him—one on his arm, the other his neck. The way her hair glided over the skin of her shoulders exposed by her white hospital gown. The concerned frown adorning her features. The ice-blue eyes staring into his with laser intensity.

And the way they flickered down toward the bottom half of his face.

That one took a few seconds to sink in, as did the fluctuation of current in her emotions, which were, admittedly, about as all-over-the-place as his. One particularly intense one rose to the fore, and before he could put a name to it, it happened.

Dark blue eyes went as wide as saucers while ice-blue eyes closed in enjoyment. So soft, Xel thought in a daze, eyes blinking rapidly several times before he realized what was happening and gently pushed her back. Her lips left his with a quiet smack as she stared at him in surprise and a little hurt.

"Mail," he rasped, "I—I can't. With you—with everything that happened—"

His gloved fingers traced her throat gingerly, and to his surprise, she shivered—and pressed into his hand even more.

"Maila," he whispered. "What happened to you—"

"Has nothing to do with you," she interrupted at the same volume. The red woman lightly guided his hand onto her cheek and pressed her face against it, eyes fluttering closed. They opened halfway a second later, looking up into his. "This is my choice."

He just stared at her for a while, eyes searching hers and sixth sense probing her mind and emotions for any signs of doubt. There were none.

So he leaned forward and closed the distance. Once, twice, three times he returned; each time lasting longer until their lips stayed pressed against each other for a full ten seconds, parting slightly to deepen the kiss as Maila's left hand tangled in his hair and Xel's right moved from her cheek to the back of her neck. A small hum of enjoyment left her lips as they broke away for air, panting slightly. Xel pressed his forehead against hers, looking down until he caught his breath, then locking onto her gorgeous eyes.

"Can you…leave the medical wing?"

Amusement danced in those eyes, such a welcome sight after everything that had happened to them both. "They only keep me here because I let them." The smile left. "And I don't have anywhere else."

It was relatively awkward and unusual, but Xel felt the twitch of a true smile curve his lips, the ones that had just a few moments ago been pressed against the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. He leaned in and whispered throatily, "You do tonight."

Maila shivered slightly again, her arms looping around his torso and pressing herself against him. "I'll follow your lead, Xel."


He nodded slowly, rising to his feet with her and getting a small surprised shriek when he quite literally swept her off her feet. She giggled in his arms, looping hers around his neck and keeping her head pressed against his armored shoulder. To his surprise, she didn't seem at all uncomfortable, either as he carried her through the entrance of the medical bay, his fierce eyes daring any of the rebels to stop him, or as he boarded the entrance ramp of the Kandosii'tal. She wasn't uncomfortable as he used the Force to remove her gown without looking and handed her some of her old clothes, or as he disassembled his armor, hanging the shoulder cloak neatly on a hook in his room.

She wasn't uncomfortable as her lips met his again and again with months of separation and frustration and need, or as his mouth traced a pattern of kisses down her neck and curves, then back up to hers as his hands looped around her midsection. She wasn't uncomfortable when he removed his shirt and gently pulled her atop him, her head tucked under his chin as his hands stroked her hair and gently traced a pattern down the skin exposed by her backless blouse, her own hand drawing circles on his bare chest. The resounding thump-thump of his heart was the strongest and most comforting sound she'd heard in months, if not years, and it would take the end of the galaxy to pull her out of his arms…maybe not even then.

A whispered phrase filled the still air of the captain's cabin as Maila nuzzled his shoulder and snuggled closer, one leg hooking around his, her eyes fluttering closed.

"Thank you."

In her half-conscious state, it took Maila a few seconds to realize she hadn't been the one to say it.


4 hours later

Xel barely restrained a shriek as he shot bolt upright in bed, body drenched in sweat, every sense trained on his darkened environment, eyes narrowing as both fists clenched painfully. He nearly emitted a Force Push on instinct when a gentle touch fell on his right arm, instead his head turning to face the appendage and watch as a red hand traced its way down his taut, defined forearm and drifted to his hand, slowly causing it to relax. His fingers uncurled and hand pivoted to lace them through hers, his eyes locking onto Maila's and staying there as she gently pulled him back to the pillows. She leaned over, pressing her hand into his chest, right over his heart, and waiting for it to slow as he breathed heavily for a few minutes.

His hand covered hers, slowly bringing it up to his lips as he turned to face her and wrapped his arms around her slim body. Maila gladly pressed herself into his secure frame, holding him close and smiling into his shoulder as she felt the tension leave his body with a sigh. He drew away from her to kiss her his thanks before once again holding her close. A mental shield blocked his emotions a moment later as his smile faded completely. No amount of emotional manipulation could wipe that nightmare from his mind.

Black void. Stars. Red. Green. Slate gray. Drab brown. Polished black. Breathing. Death.

It was like nothing he'd ever experienced—and he never wanted to experience it again. He would ask Alen about this, in vague terms, and probably the holocrons too. He needed answers, because if what he'd just seen was what he thought it was, and it came true…

He almost shook his head before realizing he was cuddled up against Maila. It was too terrible to even think about…but if it did happen…it would happen soon. That much he knew.


The Executor, Kuat Shipyards

Pale blue eyes snapped open inside a hyperbaric chamber, their owner letting his badly burned lips part slightly before turning upward in a malevolent smirk as his uncanny Force connection verified what he thought he'd felt. Injured…but not physically. You are afraid, Xel Caden…and you should be.

Darth Vader reached to his right and pulled a datapad off a nearby table, tapping out a message to one of his commanders. I believe it's high time we reactivate the droid factories on Hypori.

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