After the Storm
The Kandosii'tal, hyperspace
1 month BBY
Alen stared at his brother in unabashed horror for several seconds before slowly shaking his head. "What do you mean you can't feel the Force?"
"My senses…they're dulled. I can't feel your presence anymore, can't feel the power I had before, can't feel anything outside my own body." Xel's eyes squeezed shut as he grimaced and tried to concentrate again. His eyes snapped open a few seconds later. "I feel color blind," he whispered shakily.
The Jedi just held his gaze, shaking his head slowly as he slumped to the ground.
Xel blinked a few times before standing.
"Where are you going?"
The Mando shook his head to clear out the haze. "This isn't gonna fix itself. The holocrons might know more about this." He made for the armory, Alen following at a slower pace, but stopped short the moment he stepped inside.
The Jedi's eyes widened. "Wait…is that—"
Xel stepped forward slowly, approaching his workbench and reaching down with his good hand to pick up a long, rectangular chip. A portable holoprojector next to it blinked with a recorded message. A single touch keyed it on, and the armored form of PT-37 filled the space above it.
"If you are seeing this, Master, then I did not make it back to the ship. I am sorry for that, but it was to carry out your orders."
The Mando just stared at the image.
"The Imperials had contingencies in place that would have prevented us from leaving at best and destroyed us all at worst. Since this message is playing, I would wager that my efforts were not in vain, and that I destroyed both targets."
Xel reached up slowly and curled his hand around the image's torso.
"If I am not here, however, then I was destroyed aboard the Retribution. Capture was not an option, so I rigged a failsafe should I be compromised. Rest assured, the Imperials who defeated me are now little more than vapor. But so is my body. Because I anticipated this, I created a full copy of my code and artificial brain, and uploaded them to the chip next to this projector. I will always be with you, Master. Ni kar'tayl gai sa'vod, Xel. Ret'urcye mhi."
Xel's hand closed firmly around the chip, both brothers standing silent after the recording came to a stop.
"What does that mean?" Alen asked. "What he said?"
Xel stared at the chip in his hand. "Goodbye."
"No, no, what he said before that."
The younger boy sighed and smiled sadly. "I know your name as my brother." He chuckled softly. "Metal chakaar finally got it…at the end." Xel tucked the chip into a pouch at his belt, sighing hard as he made for his room.
"What about the holocrons?"
He stopped in the doorway right arm braced against one as he turned his head toward his brother. "It doesn't matter." His face darkened. "None of it matters."
Alen stared at his retreating armored form until he was tucked behind a solid wall of metal, out of sight and out of mind…literally.
Caden residence, Mandalore
"Would you pass me that hydrospanner, dear?"
Maila reached over to a nearby toolbox and grabbed the required device, tossing it to Teras, who snatched it out of the air with a twirl. She smiled at his flair and leaned her chin on her palms as she watched him work on an old swoop bike. He screwed in two more sockets on the engine manifold before tossing the hydrospanner back to her. She returned it to its slot a moment later, eyebrows furrowing as she watched the Zabrak's movements, noting the smooth, professional feel to everything he did. It reminded her of Xel, just less rigid, stiff, and choppy. A frown came to her face at the reminder.
She hadn't heard much from the younger man since Iola dropped her off here three days ago, only that they were shipping out to a planet called Hypori, supposedly the heart of some Imperial production site. The Zeltron twisted a strand of her hair between two fingers, the rote task of swoop repair dulling and easing her mind of the worry that had gnawed at her ever since she was parted from Xel. Maila hadn't said anything to his brother, not only about the visions he'd been getting, but his state of mind as well. At this point, she was starting to regret that.
"You miss him, yeah?"
Maila blinked once, looking over at Teras, who was throwing her a knowing smirk. "Why do you say that?"
"Other than the blank stares into the distance and the way you've been keeping one eye on the sky since you got here?"
She blushed a little, the red almost invisible in her complexion. "I'm worried. He wasn't in the best state of mind when I left…and I'm afraid he's going to do something foolish."
Teras snorted. "That would pretty much be his MO, Mail'ika. The boy's always had a flair for the theatrical, even though he'd never admit it."
"I'm afraid this set of theatrics will be anything but entertaining."
The Zabrak frowned and nodded, wiping his hands on an oil cloth. "You're probably right." He sighed hard. "But then, women usually are."
Maila arched an eyebrow. "What does that mean?"
He chuckled lightly. "Telia. When Xander worked for her, he always said that following orders wasn't his strongest suit, especially when those orders seemed wrong." His head shook slowly, a grin on his face. "But she didn't need her authority to boss him around. That man was whipped barely two months into his employment."
Maila frowned. "He doesn't talk about them much. His parents, I mean."
Teras followed her example. "When it comes to grief, that is not a good thing." He motioned her over and strode one room over to Xander's old study, pulling a cube-like device from his desk. "This is a datacron, kind of a…family archive, if you will."
Its top projected a menu of various lists and images, Teras scrolling over to a particular set. On it was a list of about a dozen names—all bearing the surname of Caden, minus one. Telia Li-am. Maila also saw Xander's name there, but neither Teras nor Xel.
"Wait a minute," she said. "These…these are the names of the dead."
Teras nodded once. "They are. Every day, we speak them, as a memorial, and a reminder that none of us have forever to live, but that even in death, as long as we are remembered, we live on in the manda."
Her raven brows furrowed. "The what?"
"Manda. It's our…collective soul. All Mandalorians become a part of it when they die, passing on their knowledge and increasing the strength of the whole."
She blinked. "Like the Force."
Teras' head cocked as he looked off to the side. "Huh…never thought of it that way." He shrugged. "Guess you're right."
Maila played with her hair as the Zabrak stored away the datacron. "So…all Mandalorians become part of this…collective?"
He frowned. "All true Mandalorians, yes."
Her brows knitted. "What does that mean?"
Teras sighed. "It means that…sometimes, members of our culture fall away, forget what it means to be Mando'ade, forget the Resol'nare, the five actions of a Mandalorian. When that happens, they become 'dar'manda,' no longer Mandalorian. It is, by far, the highest form of shame and disgrace among our kind. Only being declared dar'buir comes anywhere close to second."
"Buir… no longer a mother?"
Teras shrugged. "Or father. It's a sign of disownment by one's children." His head shook. "Not a pretty sight. I only know a few Mando'ade who've had to suffer that shame, and one…well, let's just say he didn't deserve it." He smirked. "And now he's got three times the family that he ever did before, both in number and quality, only one of them related by blood, the rest by bond."
Maila smiled. "Aliit ori'shya tal'din."
The older man grinned and chuckled. "Indeed."
The girl kept smiling, looking out the window absently. Her eyes widened and jaw dropped when the thick clouds parted and a familiar ship descended. "Teras—he's here!"
She laughed and grinned wildly as she sprinted out the door, arriving at the estate's landing pad moments later, the backdraft from the Kandosii'tal's repulsorlifts sending her skirt flapping and her hand rising to shield her face from dust. Maila kept smiling until she saw two forms descending the ramp, one armored, the other robed, each with completely different body language. Her smile dropped when she saw their faces. Alen was…angry, in his own tense, Jedi-like way, his features expressionless, but too stiff and drawn to be anywhere in the vicinity of calm—which was a surprise in itself.
What shocked her was Xel. It wasn't the fact that he was missing several pieces of armor around an injured arm, since he was reckless enough to break something every time he went out, or that he had a considerable limp to his left step. It was his face, and, as she got closer to him, his feel. Her inborn empathic abilities were going all kinds of haywire at the emotional turmoil he was projecting, but there was something else as well, some kind of interference, dulling it. The signal wasn't nearly as clear as it had been for the past month, and it wasn't just the overwhelming depression she could feel radiating off him.
He gave her the answer when she enveloped him in her arms, careful not to touch his damaged one. "I failed. It failed."
She didn't need him to say what "it" was, holding him closer and saying nothing. His right arm curled around her back, pulling her to him rather weakly, his face buried in her neck and the hair falling over it.
"They're all dead."
Her brows furrowed. "Who?"
Xel's hold on her tightened, his voice dropping to a whisper. "Eran. Ijul. En. Tobin. I abandoned them to chase after Vader. And he expected me to, so when I broke off…reinforcements jumped in. Wiped them all out."
Something wet splattered against her neck, and she had to start blocking him out to avoid getting a migraine.
The Mando chuckled humorlessly. "You wanna know the best part? I think if I'd just stayed put, kept fighting…we would've won. Or at the very least, our friends would still be alive."
"You don't know that," she said softly.
"Yes I do. This whole engagement was about me, finding a way to isolate me from anyone who could help. If I'd stayed among the rebels, he would've had no opportunity to crush them so completely, because then he'd have been risking me." His head shook against her shoulder. "The mad chakaar played me like a kriffing bes'bev."
Maila briefly considered asking him what that was, but dismissed the notion instantly. He had enough on his mind. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah," he breathed. "Me too."
30 minutes later
A pronounced sigh left Xel's lips as he leaned back. "This passive-aggressive osik is annoying. Out with it."
Alen threw his brother a surprised look, his hands coming to a stop on Xel's injured shoulder.
The Mando rolled his eyes. "I don't need the Force to know when something's bothering you."
The Jedi's eyes narrowed, turning down to his shoulder as he resumed his healing session. "I'm leaving."
Xel blinked hard and stared at him. "How?"
Alen's lips pursed. "While you were out during transit, I got a message at one of our fuel stops. Small piece of good news." He looked up at his brother. "Iola survived. She was still in hyperspace when the fleet was decimated. By the time she got there, the Imperials had finished up. When all she saw was a blockade, she jumped out and contacted us. She's headed here now."
Xel breathed out hard and closed his eyes, a small smile creasing his lips as he nodded slowly. "Good," he whispered, sighing again as his head leaned back. "Good."
A long silence passed before Alen spoke again. "You're gonna ask why I'm leaving?"
The younger brother opened his eyes to stare at the ceiling. "Why would I ask a question I already know the answer to?" He looked over at Alen. "You don't trust me…and you're right not to." He turned back to the ceiling. "Just promise me one thing."
Xel's jaw tightened for a moment, his voice lowering to a pleading whisper. "Stay safe, vod. I couldn't live with myself if you got hurt because I drove you away with my…treachery. And yes, that's what it was, so don't even bother denying it."
The Jedi sighed hard. "I love you, Xel." He held his younger brother close, both of Xel's arms looping around his midsection. "That'll never change. I hope you know that."
Xel's jaw clenched as he nodded into his chest. "I know."
They stayed like that for a full minute, their moment disrupted by a beep from Alen's belt. The Jedi pulled a comlink from it, looking over its small display and frowning.
"She's here." He took a long breath and looked down at Xel. "Are you gonna be okay?"
Caden briefly considered being glib about it, smiling and shooting off some cocky answer. Instead he found he just didn't have the strength, so he went for the truth. His blue eyes looked up into his brother's concerned expression. "I don't know." He took Alen's hand in both of his, patting it with his right. "But don't let that stop you. You know your path, vod, or at the very least your identity." He looked off to the side. "But me? I've lived for vengeance for so long…I don't know who I am without that mission. You deserve better than being stuck taking care of someone like that…like you have been for the last year."
"Xel, that's not—"
"It is, and you know it." Dark blue eyes narrowed. "The time for restraint and deception is over. Call it how it is." He pushed himself upright with a groan, working out the cramps and cricks in his mostly healed shoulder. "And for once in your life, stop following orders. Make your own decision."
"I already told you my decision."
"No, you phrased a possibility as a statement." He arched an eyebrow when Alen gave him a confused look. "You do that a lot, especially when you think the idea'll be shot down. But, if you insist on taking orders, then take this one." He put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Do what you want, what you need."
Alen chuckled humorlessly. "And what's that?"
Xel shrugged and walked toward another room. "How in haran should I know? I'm not in your head anymore, remember?" He stopped in the doorway, turning his head to face Alen. "Goodbye, vod." He smiled a little. "Keep in contact, 'kay? Without this—" he tapped his temple, "—I got no way of knowing if you're alive otherwise." He gave a lopsided smile. "It kinda sucks, to be honest."
Alen laughed softly and nodded. "Will do. Take care of yourself." He made for the exit, stopping halfway through the door. "And don't forget to let yourself be taken care of. No matter where I am, you're not alone, Xel. Remember that."
The Mando just stood in place, numbly staring at the place his brother had stood. He lost all track of time, and what felt like hours passed before Maila came and shook his arm, pulling him toward dinner.
"Hey, slick. How you holdin' up?"
Alen gave Iola a week smile as he boarded the ramp of the T-6 shuttle. "I'll be okay. I think."
"And Xel?" she asked, following him into the cockpit.
The Jedi exhaled slowly, slumping into the pilot's seat and just sitting there. "Truthfully…I don't know." He looked up at her. "Did you get a chance to read my message?"
"Then you know what happened to him."
"Yes. Though I'm still a little confused as to how that happened."
Alen looked away from her, toward the house outside his viewport. "He's had the Force all his life, even if he didn't know it. To be so suddenly stripped of it…" He sighed and shook his head. "Forget the how or why." He nodded toward the house. "I'm worried about what it'll do to him." He frowned. "I can still feel him. Through our bond. It's still there…but it's weak. So incredibly weak, like there's something blocking it, keeping us apart." His head shook slowly. "It's like he's barely a ghost of his former self."
She knelt beside him, looking out at the building. "You know…your brother and I didn't get along at first. Like, at all."
He smirked. "I remember."
"You know when that changed?"
Alen glanced over at her. "When?"
"When you were captured on Lannik, Xel and I went to scout the prison for a breakout. When we backed off, he accidentally did something, saw one of my memories."
"Yeah, you told me about this."
"Well…did I ever tell you that the link went both ways?"
His head snapped in her direction.
She smirked. "He saw Jeros…a favorite place of mine I liked to visit." Her smile turned wistful. "But, when he lost himself in the emotion of the scene…his mind relaxed, and he accessed one of his own memories, something I don't think he even knows he has." Iola looked over at him with her striking sky blue eyes, their irises almost crystalline in appearance. "Would you like to see?"
Alen's head cocked, and he nodded. She knelt next to him as he turned in his chair, putting both hands on her head and closing his eyes in concentration. Something flickered through his consciousness briefly before he was suddenly flooded with a myriad of emotions and senses. It all sharpened rather abruptly, and he was suddenly standing in the house he'd just left. Something was cooking over in the kitchen, and he had something in his hand, a toy of some sort. It looked suspiciously like a practice knife.
He looked up and around, spinning in circles as he made inane baby noises, his conscious mind noticing a few changes to the house, most notably a pair of cribs. Alen took a sharp breath. Two cribs? He watched in unabashed shock as Xander strode through the door and grinned at him, a petulantly wailing toddler in his arms—a toddler with brown hair. He strode over to Xan'buir, leaning against the bars of one crib as his younger self was placed in it. One hand poking through to grab his chubby hand in reassurance.
"How did you not get married before me?"
Alen turned his head to see Telia standing in the doorway, grinning at Xander and their sons. His heart ached painfully.
"You so obviously love children."
Xander took his bride by the waist, holding her close to his side. "I love my children. Others…well, let's just say 'bratty' is being gentle."
Telia chuckled. "Oh, of that I have no doubt." She nodded at baby Alen. "What was his problem?"
"Oh, nothing, he just refused to eat like a proper gentleman…and that's despite my wise counsel about how to get a proper woman."
"Is that right?" she asked ina teasing tone. "Barely two years old and you're already indoctrinating our children with your manly wooing ways."
"Okay, Tel, I'm not gonna lie, that was a really creepy way of putting it."
She shrugged and threw her hands up. "Hey—" she leaned in close and kissed him soundly, "—it worked, didn't it?"
Xander grinned as he went back for another kiss. "That it did."
"What?" he asked, annoyed.
"The kids are watching."
Telia sighed good-naturedly, arms looped around his neck. "Where would you be without me, you sad, sad man?"
Xander smiled wanly. "An even sadder man." He nuzzled her neck lovingly. "With an empty heart."
They kissed once more, tenderly, then turned toward their children, Xander's free hand taking Xel's as the boy reached out and took his sleeping brother's.
"I love you, Tel. I love us." Xander sighed hard. "Shab…I don't know if I can do this."
She gripped his hand hard. "I know," she whispered, leaning her head against his shoulder. "But however this ends…I'll always be with you."
He kissed her temple. "I know. For now…we're going to enjoy this rest. Force knows we've earned it."
"That we have, Xan'ika. That we have."
Alen's eyes opened as he gasped loudly, shoulders heaving as his fingers carded through his hair. With a few blinks, he wiped at his cheeks and eyes, clearing his throat and looking up at Iola.
"Thank you for that."
Iola smiled warmly. "Don't thank me." She nodded at the house. "Thank him." Her gaze shifted back to Alen as she crouched down with him, hands on his shoulders. "You're worried about him. Don't be. He's stronger than you know…and better than you think. I know your faith in him has been shaken in recent memory, and I absolutely understand why, but he is your brother." She smiled widely. "If he's even half the man you are…he'll come back from this. And he'll come back stronger."
Alen looked over toward the house, reaching out to his brother over their bond and still finding it blocked. He sighed hard, shaking his head, then standing and turning toward the pilot's seat. His hand brushed Iola's when they both went for the nav controls, a faint blush rising to his cheeks when he looked up and saw her eyes trained on him, gentle amusement dancing in them.
The girl let out a chuckle and waved at the controls. "Please, by all means. This is your ship."
Alen smirked and entered an atmospheric exit vector. "Nah…not really. Not anymore." The Jedi looked over at his copilot, the Jerun staring back blankly. "It's our ship."
They shot into space minutes later, and he could tell she wanted to say something.
"Something on your mind?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing, it's just…does this thing even have a name? The shuttle, I mean."
Alen's brows furrowed, and he shrugged. "Not that I'm aware of."
She smirked wryly. "Well, if you're gonna be a proper captain, you should have a ship with a badass name."
Alen chuckled and grinned at the dashboard, thinking about it for a while. "How about…" His lips quirked upward. "Shereshoy?"
Iola blinked and shook her head. "The what now?"
The Jedi grinned. "Shereshoy.In Mando'a, it means a…a lust for life. The need to…live as fully and completely as you can."
She nodded slowly, a smile rising on her face. "It's a good sentiment, Mr. Li-am."
He chuckled lightly. "I happen to agree, Ms. Voss."
They exchanged a look and a laugh, his head shaking as he stared out into the vast expanse of stars in front of them.
"So…where do you want to go?" she asked.
Alen thought for a few moments. "You know…you actually got me curious." He looked over at her. "What's Jeros like?"
Iola grinned and let out a decidedly girly giggle as she turned on the nav computer and plugged in a set of coordinates. When the hyperdrive was fully primed, she reached for the controls, her hand covered by Alen's an instant later. She looked up at him to see a small, warm curve on his face, something unfamiliar yet exciting in his eyes. A broad smile spread over her features as heat rose to her face, and they pulled the hyperdrive lever in tandem.
The Shereshoy shot off into the vast celestial expanse a moment later.
2 weeks later
2 weeks BBY
A loud gasp filled the bedroom as Xel shot upright, eyes wide open, sweat pouring down his face as his lungs heaved for air. Maila stared at him in unveiled shock as she felt out his emotional state, making a point to stay down and appear sleeping for his sake. Physically, he was breathing heavily, sweating, shaking—all symptoms of his previous night terrors. The only difference was his state of mind, and the predominant emotion in him at the time of waking. There was no rage, or frustration, or malevolence, no murderous intent or feral savagery. There was only fear. Fear, and overwhelming pain. Guilt, regret, sadness, shame.
The girl ached for her lover, wishing so badly that he still had the Force, that he could bring her into these dreams instead of having to explain them, to have them stuck in his own head. She wished that he didn't have to face them alone. But her wish was not granted, so instead she looped her arms around his chest, pulling him to her as he laid his head against her chest, gently stroking his hair as his breathing slowly calmed. They stayed that way for several minutes, just listening to each other breathe.
"I see their faces."
Maila blinked. "What?" she whispered.
"The dead. I see their faces." He looked up at her, the pale moonlight casting his face in a ghostly light. "All of them, all at once. All three thousand four hundred and fifty-five. The exact number of rebels soldiers to die that day. See, that's the scar that betrayal leaves on your soul when you're like me. Details that…seemed unimportant before, like the way En liked his caf with three packs of sugar, or the fact that Ijul could never figure out even the most basic phrases of Mando'a. I can't forget them. Can't block out the pain of losing them. Can't get them out of my head."
Maila's thoughts drifted back to what Teras had told her before he came back, and she pursed her lips, fingers crossed as she gulped to clear her throat, voice barely above a whisper. "Goros Ijul."
Xel tensed in her arms.
"Treyvan En. Eran Riilos."
Maila's voice increased in strength as his head rose to her shoulder.
"Hile Tobin. Jeel—" Her voice broke on the name of her friend and bodyguard. "Jee—" Maila's throat closed completely as her eyes stung.
"Jeel Imar," a deep voice said from her shoulder. "Linn Riilos."
"Xan…" Xel's voice broke, eyes squeezing shut as his grip around Maila tightened and he took a deep breath, slowly releasing it as his voice stabilized. "Xander Caden." He took another deep breath and exhaled. "Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc. Ni partayli, gar darasuum." A ragged breath left him as his eyes opened, a sharp gasp following a second later. "No way," he exhaled.
Maila looked down at him. "What?"
He held up a finger and closed his eyes, sitting there for nearly a minute before his expression shifted to something halfway between elation and confusion.
"What?" she repeated.
A small smile fought for control of his features as he looked up at her. "I can feel him. It's…not like before, not that strong…but I can feel my brother." He finally let the grin spread across his face as tears streamed down his cheeks and his eyes closed serenely. "Mail…you have no idea how good it feels…just to be able to sense him."
She placed a hand on his cheek, smiling warmly as she reached out with her own abilities and reveled in the sheer unadulterated glee running through his veins. "I dunno. I think I have a pretty good idea."
Xel laughed, the sound sending a jolt of pure bliss through her system as he hugged her tightly, releasing her a moment later to put a smacking kiss on her forehead. She laughed with him at the action, nuzzling his cheek as he kept chuckling, the pair content to hold each other as they shared this moment.
He had no more nightmares that night.
2 weeks later
2 days after the Battle of Yavin
Xel breathed out slowly, his concentration firm as a bowl of soup levitated just a foot from his outstretched hand. A satisfied smile came to his face when he got it to spin twice as fast as the previous day, extending the distance to just over three feet before recalling it to his hand and taking a victory spoonful.
A barked laugh came from the kitchen entrance, his uncle stepping through. "Getting stronger every day."
Xel smiled sadly. "Maybe…but I've taken such a massive step backward. I feel…I feel even worse off than before I'd met Telia. Like I'm learning to walk again."
"That's because you are," Teras replied with a hard pat of his shoulder. "But don't worry. You'll get through it. You always do."
The boy smiled and nodded, returning to his breakfast as Maila walked through the door with a holopad in her hand. He grinned at her. "Su cuy'gar, mesh'la."
The Zeltron blushed at his greeting, a shy smile coming to her face as she sat down next to him and Teras sighed.
"Ad'ika, leave the poor girl alone, will ya?" Teras shook his head as he exited the room.
"What?" he asked innocently, grinning and looping an arm around her waist as he tucked her against his side protectively. "I like my cyar'ika to know she's appreciated." He kissed her cheek. "And beautiful."
She chuckled and smacked his chest playfully. "Flatterer."
"You know it," he purred, curling both arms around her midsection. He nodded toward the device in her hand. "So what's with the 'pad?"
"I checked on your ship today, ya know, to make sure everything was still intact. Oh, by the way, your work on Peetee's new body? Professional-grade, if I may say so."
Xel chuckled. "Well thank you. I had to be good at something if I deserved you."
Maila giggled and brushed her cheek against his lips. "Anyway…I found something on your terminal. Something I think you should take a look at."
He snatched the 'pad from her grasp, stuffing a spoonful of soup in his mouth as he tabbed it on. The next spoonful froze halfway to his mouth.
"Hello, Xel. Sorry this is so late. I know I promised to keep in contact, so…I'm sorry I didn't send this sooner, but I haven't exactly been somewhere with great tightbeam reception."
Was it just his imagination, or was Alen actually putting on muscle mass?
The Jedi's blue-tinged image paced back and forth. "I uh…I have some news, most of it good." He grinned. "I finally got to see Jeros. Iola took me." He exhaled slowly, eyes closed. "Man, it was…amazing. The planet's huge, but…the gravity was barely any more than any terrestrial planet. It's like parts of it were hollow or something. Anyway, we gotta go there sometime, together. I think it'll be good for you. That's…actually not what I wanted to talk to you about." He chuckled. "Sorry, I'm rambling. In case it wasn't immediately obvious, I'm not exactly good at making these things."
Xel smiled and snorted softly.
"I um…" he bit his lower lip, "I reached out to the Rebellion."
The Mando's smile vanished.
"They were, shall we say, a bit shocked to find out we'd survived. Probably about as shocked as I was to learn that Hile Tobin and the majority of the Makrin Star survived the battle because of my warning. They escaped before I even boarded the Retribution."
Xel let out a breathy laugh as one hand wiped over his face.
"Now, notice I said the majority survived. A…good part of the ship was blown away by explosive rounds that punched through their shields. Five full sections of the ship had to be detached for the Star to make the jump to lightspeed. One of the demolished sections…contained Ijul and En."
The boy's heart dropped with his jaw.
Alen's expression turned mournful as he took a moment, looking off to the side. "Eran made it. Barely. He's still in recovery from third and second-degree burns, but they say he'll make it. The Ghost got out too, though that's not much of a surprise. They're bein' deployed all over, probably to pick up the slack we left behind." He took another long breath, pinching the bridge of his nose and exhaling sharply when something occurred to him. "Oh, and there's another…particular point I have to tell you."
Xel's brows furrowed.
"The Alliance had a major victory just two days ago. Destroyed a secret Imperial superweapon capable of wiping out entire planets. They uh…tested it on Alderaan."
Maila gasped next to him.
"There's this new pilot…Luke." Alen nodded slowly, a sly smile on his face as he looked off to the side. "He's the one who destroyed it." He looked up at the projector. "And he's strong in the Force. How do I know that? Well…for starters, he survived flying against Darth Vader."
Xel stared at the image blankly, his jaw on the floor.
Alen chuckled. "Crazy, huh?" His head shook slowly. "Didn't believe it myself at first, but…well, we met. He was sent to oversee a supply run to the Star, and I ran into him when I was getting ready to leave." A low laugh came from his throat. "He doesn't know it yet, but Xel…this kid's powerful. And I mean powerful. It was hidden, under the surface of his innocent farmboy personality, but…the amount of sheer Force energy within him…" He smiled into the camera. "Let's just say the Rebellion's odds just went up considerably."
The smile left Alen's face as a pinched expression replaced it. "And now, finally, to the real reason for this message. Before Iola and I met with Tobin…we kind of wandered the Outer Rim, visiting places she'd gone on her pilgrimage, you know, before she met us. Somewhere along the way, I…caught a glimpse of something. A signature in the Force, faint, but still detectable if you were looking hard enough. I followed it to a planet called Athiss. Xel, what I found…it's not supposed to be possible."
He leaned in close to the mic and lowered his voice. "There are people here. Force-sensitive people. Dozens of them, all living in the same area. And they've been here for years, Xel. Years. No Imperials, no hunters, not even a kriffing municipal police force bothering them. And the guy in charge, Master Fenrim, he's…" He exhaled hard as his head shook. "You've gotta see for yourself. I understand if you're not yet ready to take on an environment like this, something so new and unfamiliar, but…if you can…" His eyes closed as a pleading expression filled his features, opening a moment later. "If you can, I think I'm ready to trust you again. Or at least try."
Xel took a deep breath as his brows furrowed, looking away in thought, chin on his hand.
"He can teach you things, vod. Things that neither I nor Telia ever knew. Things that I doubt even our holocrons know. I know you're feeling guilty, and rightly so, but you cannot let that guilt keep you from who you really are, because whoever that is…he's gonna change the galaxy." Alen smiled into the camera. "I love you, Xel, and whatever you decide…I'll be here waiting."
The message winked out of existence a moment later, the pad going inactive as Maila stared at it blankly. She eventually looked over at him, eyebrows knitting. "So what are you gonna do?"
He kept looking out the window. "I don't know," he said absently.
Maila sighed and laid her chin on his shoulder. "Yes you do."
Xel's jaw tightened for a moment as he sighed hard.
"But you're afraid to commit."
She nodded into his shoulder. "I understand. Whatever you decide, I'll support you all the way."
He smiled back at her and held her hand. "Thanks."
5 days later
1 week ABY
Xel let out a long exhale as he looked down at his armor, only one piece missing. He leaned down and stared at the left pauldron, its golden sword blazing as brightly as the day he'd forged it. He had briefly considered extracting it, to rid himself of its message, until he'd realized that he hadn't been wrong to seek vengeance, he'd just gone about it the absolute wrong way. Laser focus to the detriment of everyone and everything he held dear. That was the Dark Side through and through, and he didn't need an ancient Sith controlling his actions for that to happen.
That was the day he realized the true corrupting power of the Dark Side. It wasn't when evil stared you in the face, offering you ultimate power in exchange for your soul. It was in the quiet, desperate moments, when it felt like everything you loved had been torn from you, and nothing could be felt except the grief of the loss and the rage at the perpetrator. The true Dark Side didn't control you or take over, it simply waited for you to be at your lowest, for you to be frail and broken enough to see it as the only way out. And it was true. It was a way out for him.
It just wasn't a way up.
And so with this realization, he forged a new piece, something to remind him of the lessons his parents and brother had tried to teach him all his life. Something just behind the sword, yet overshadowing it in size. Xel picked up the newly re-forged pauldron in his right hand, eyes scanning over the black shield that now served as the mounting piece for the sword. He lifted it to his shoulder and assembled it as the last piece of his armor, still looking over at it.
Vengeance…tempered with justice. A deep breath entered his lungs as his eyes closed and he reached out to his brother. Balance. Dark blue eyes snapped open, and he turned toward the door to see Maila watching him with an approving smile on her face.
He didn't smile back.
She noticed. "Xel?" Maila began to approach him. "What's wrong?"
Xel took her hands and pursed his lips tightly. "I don't think I can still be with you."
Instead of looking heartbroken or even angry, Maila rolled her eyes and sighed hard in annoyance, looking every bit like she wanted to slap him. "Xel—"
"No, just hear me out." His expression turned grim. "A month ago…I died. Not out here, not this…crude matter." He tapped his chest. "In here. In my soul." Xel inhaled deeply. "I turned my back on everything I thought I was. Everything I was raised to be. I not only betrayed myself, but I betrayed my parents and their memories by abandoning the ideals and responsibilities they instilled in me from birth." His head shook slowly. "When I first went after Telia…I told you that if I ever came back, I wouldn't be the man you wanted.
"I was right." He was silent a moment, his eyes looking elsewhere. "I let my anger control me. Threw myself into the very abyss I wanted to destroy so badly. I became the thing I hate, because I knew nothing but hate, and in the process, I gave up my identity." He shrugged limply. "I don't know who I am anymore. But I know I'm not the man you fell for two years ago." He smirked ruefully, shaking his head slowly. "I'm nothing. Dar'manda…dar'jetii." Xel could feel her heart tightening in her chest. "Mail, I need to figure out who I'm meant to be…and until then, I can't let you wait for me."
The Zeltron sighed hard, running a hand over her eyes. "What makes you think I'll have to?" She threw her hands up. "Who says I can't take that journey with you? Not…literally, of course. I have no desire whatsoever to hang around a bunch of mystics for who knows how long." She cupped his cheek with her hand. "But I want to be with you, every step of the way."
"No," she said firmly, a finger on his lips. "You're not getting rid of me that easily." Maila shrugged with a smirk. "Besides, Athiss isn't even that far away. I'm sure I can come visit sometime."
Xel stared at her for a few seconds before his face split into a grin and he kissed her soundly, the Zeltron squeaking in surprise before responding in kind. They pulled away a few seconds later, staring at each other with gigantic grins.
"Mmm," she purred, "well if that's the kind of response I'm getting every time I visit, I'll be sure to do it frequently."
He chuckled. "You better."
She nodded seriously. "I will."
After a few more seconds, Xel released his girlfriend and headed for the door, stopping halfway through and looking back at her. "Goodbye, Maila."
She gave him a nod. "Goodbye, Xel."
Taking one last look at the house, the hunter strode toward his ship, helmet tucked under his arm, a new Merr-Sonn jetpack adorning his back as two hardcases sat on his hips, just above blaster-laden holsters, the right one just forward of a sheathed knife. The Kandosii'tal's engines powered on as the droid brain hooked up to his nav computer calculated the hyperspace jump and began a pre-flight check. When he reached the halfway mark to the ramp, his t-visored helmet rose and fell over his features, sealing him in high-grade Mandalorian iron, a universally-recognized symbol of warrior perfection.
The ramp closed with his entry, the cockpit in sight within seconds, his armored form taking the pilot's seat as the ship began climbing into the atmosphere.
"Tee, give me controls."
"Yes, sir," the ship replied.
The ship thrummed with life as he gunned its sublight engines, shooting out of Mandalore's atmosphere in seconds as he reveled in the sheer euphoria of the movement. Everything felt so new, every feeling fresh and crisp and wonderful as he reconnected with the life he'd once known. The life he had again. His eyes closed as a smile blossomed behind his helmet, an image of Xander's smiling face flashing through his vision. Thank you, buir. He looked down at the left hardcase on his hip. Thank both of you.
"Hyperspace coordinates set," the familiar metallic voice said.
A confident smile creased his lips as he leaned forward in focus, his right hand falling to the hyperdrive lever as his left stayed on the control yoke. Cin vhetin. Let's get started. As the Kandosii'tal accelerated past the speed of light, Xel could've sworn he heard two gentle whispers over the roar of the hyperdrive. They both said the same thing.
"May the Force be with you, son."
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