The Kandosii'tal, hyperspace
1 year, 7 months BBY
A pair of dark, troubled eyes fluttered open, only half seeing. A pair of arms pressed back against the cold metal floor weakly, barely lifting the body they were attached to off the ground. The eyes flitted about, their gaze finding an amorphous disruption among the even grate pattern. They widened in disgusted recognition, then closed completely as their owner realized why it was there.
Xel's fists clenched at his sides. Damn it...damn it...
His left fist slammed into the nearest wall, sending shots of pain up and across his arm. That pain was nothing compared to what was devouring his heart, though. It was as if he had just entered the digestive tract of a sarlacc, the beast's system slowly but surely eating away at him until there was nothing left. He collapsed to his knees yet again, another wave of nausea rushing up his throat until it closed on his command. His clenched fists held back the force of his grief, his shaking legs forced to cooperate and bring him to his feet. One foot fell after the other as he made his way to the cockpit, once again to futilely try and undo whatever his father did to the nav systems.
The moment he dropped into the pilot's seat was the moment the ship dropped out of hyperspace. His eyes widened a bit as he saw the green orb of Mandalore beyond his viewport. Suddenly, the controls were his again...and he had no idea where to go. Something scratched at the back of his head, and he vaguely remembered the assassin currently sitting in his cargo hold. 65K. He shook his head. Pointless now. What was he going to do with the money? Xel was a boy—a man of simple tastes, never one for extravagant purchases. What little he did buy was always geared toward preparing for the next job or getting souvenirs for his friends back home. Or...gifts for Dad.
He forced himself away from that line of thinking and powered up the sublight engines, flying toward his home on the surface of Mandalore. Xander had long told him that on the offchance anything happened to him, he would always be able to rely on Uncle Teras, and he intended to follow his father's advice to the letter. Ten minutes later, the Kandosii'tal touched down on Clan Caden's landing strip, and Xel stepped off the landing ramp, helmet tucked under his arm as a reflex from years of training. He saw the man he was looking for almost immediately, smiling and utterly oblivious to the utter hell Xel was going through.
"Xel! Verd'ika, what brings you two back home?"
The younger Caden's eyes met his, locking completely and staying there as they both stared at each other, the smile slowly but surely fading from Teras' face.
"Xel," he started quietly, "what...happened? Where's your father?"
"He's..." Xel's throat slammed shut, and everything started to spin.
His helmet hit the dirt along with his knees a second later. Teras' quick dash forward prevented him from outright faceplanting, the Zabrak's strong arms on his shoulders the only things keeping him up. The boy's head found its way onto Teras' shoulder as the larger man held him close, arms wrapped tightly around his torso. Xel's own limbs rose weakly, his fingers clutching his uncle's shoulder plates with a death grip as his teeth clenched until he couldn't hold back anymore.
So he just cut loose and emptied himself.
When it seemed like his angry tears had finally calmed down, Teras held him at arm's length, brown eyes searching his dark blue ones. "Ad'ika...I'm so sorry." His own eyes were glistening. "I know it'll be difficult, but please. Tell me what happened."
10 minutes later
Caden residence, Mandalore
Teras listened to the whole account with a carefully schooled, businesslike expression, only ever breaking this facade to lay a comforting hand on his nephew's arm when it looked like he'd break down. Xel knew he was trying to be strong, but this was his brother. Teras had known Xander far longer than him, and likely shared more than a few close scrapes with him. His hands curled into fists subconsciously as he realized that Teras would never have allowed his brother to die like he had, or at all, for that matter.
The boy looked up. "Huh?"
Teras' expression was the same one his father used to correct him. "I know that look, kid. Same one your dad used whenever he was unnecessarily blaming himself, and believe me, that happened a lot."
Xel looked away. "He tackled that monstrosity to save me, so how else am I supposed to feel?"
Teras laid a hand on his. "How about starting with gratitude?"
The boy gave him a sideways look.
"If I were you, Xel, I'd...yes, I'd be heartbroken. Hell, I already am...look, the bottom line is, your dad loved you more than anything in the galaxy." He sighed heavily. "You know you always hear from parents that they'll give their lives for their children, but...how often do you actually see that promise in action? I had hoped you'd never have to, but the fact that you did...Xel, don't you see?"
His fists clenched and unclenched repeatedly on the table, his eyes down. "Yes. I see."
They were both silent for a long time. "Ad'ika?"
Teras stood up. "Come with me. There's...something your father left for you. Something he told me to give you if anything happened."
Xel's eyebrows furrowed as he followed his uncle. "What are you talking about?"
The boy followed Teras through one room after the next until they reached Xander's old study. His throat closed as he remembered all the times they'd both spent in this room, especially when he was younger. Dad...holding me on his lap...reading by the fire. His eyes closed as a small, sad smile came to his face, tears spilling out of his eyes.
His eyes snapped open. "Coming."
Teras nodded solemnly and reached over to a wall, pressing on a particular section of it to reveal a false panel. Reaching inside, the Zabrak drew out a small, cubic object and carried it to a nearby table, where they both sat facing the same direction.
"What is it?"
"A datacron, a repository of information or messages. Xander always said it was like his...last will and testament, or some such osik." He tapped it a couple of times. "Never could figure out how to work it myself, but maybe that's the point. Maybe it only responds to you."
They exchanged a look before Xel shrugged and reached out, pressing his index to the top, where a section of the cube's surface gave way like a button. Suddenly, the entire cube shifted, its corners spinning to turn the cube into a makeshift holoprojector. A sharp intake of breath preceded the armored picture of a smiling Xander Caden. Xel reached out. Buir...
"Hello Xel," the recording greeted. "If you're watching this then...well then I'm dead." His smile faded. "I once promised you that I'd be here as long as you needed me, but if you're hearing this then I've likely broken that promise. I'm so sorry." The hologram closed his eyes for a moment before opening them again. "I'm sorry that I won't be there to see you take your first steps in the Force, or get married...or be reunited with the rest of our family."
Xel took a quick intake of breath, noting the lack of surprise in Teras' face.
"I had...wanted to tell you in person, but it looks like I never got the chance." Xander's holographic eyes seemed to bore into Xel's. "Your mother is no ordinary woman. We met during the Clone Wars, when I was a mercenary under the Republic. She was my commanding officer, a general in the Grand Army. Xel, she was a Knight of the Jedi Order."
The boy's eyes shot as wide as they could go as he gaped at the message.
"I know that must be a shock for you, but please hear me out. No matter what you hear about the Jedi, and I hope I instill this in you, they never did what the Empire said they did, nor were they all the same. Your mother was special, and not just to me, but to all the men under her command. That's why when Order 66 was carried out, there were enough conscientious objectors to allow us to leave without a fight. Four years later, you were born, along with your older brother. You must think it cruel to have split you two, but trust me when I say there was a reason for it."
Xander scratched his head. "Your…mother would be able to explain this better than me." His eyes became determined as he returned his gaze to Xel's. "Which is why it's high time you two meet. I had hoped to be there for that reunion, but it looks like it wasn't to be. Take the data stick in this datacron and input it into the Kandosii'tal's nav computer. The subroutine will send several pings over a closed channel, which will then in turn be answered by an automated system giving you a set of coordinates. Go to those coordinates. Find Telia. If the circumstances of my death are as I suspect they would be, then you must learn about the other side of your heritage at all costs.
"She'll know what I mean." He smiled sadly. "Tell her…I'm sorry, just as I've told you." His gaze drifted away. "No matter what, Xel, I always want you to remember something. Your choices are yours, and yours alone. Don't ever give up your free will for any reason. I didn't raise my son to be a slave to anyone or anything, and I don't ever want you to relinquish your right to choose to anyone, not even me." He smiled. "Above all, I want you to know just how proud I am of you, how proud I am to be your father. My only regret is not being there to see the kind of man you'll become, but I know that whoever that is, he's going to change the galaxy." Xander smiled wider. "Ni kar'tayl gar darasuum, Xel."
Xel smiled back, his eyes red and running over, the table below already bearing several fallen drops. "Ni kar'tayl gar darasuum, Buir."
Xel did a double-take as Xander's image faded and the datacron's side panel opened to reveal the data stick mentioned. The boy carefully removed it, holding it up and exchanging a look with his uncle. Xel's eyes narrowed at the look on his face.
"You knew," he accused.
"You knew about all this." He motioned to the datacron.
"If you mean I knew about your mother, then yes, but as far as the rest..."
"Define 'the rest.'"
"Did you know that my father was a Jedi, or that I had a twin brother, or—?"
"All of the above, and your father was not a Jedi, not even close. Xander made me swear not to tell you anything about her or your brother. Said we'd be safer that way."
"Safe from whom?"
"From the Empire!"
"Well..." Xel clenched his teeth. "Well Dad's dead because of them anyway, so what good did that do?!"
Teras looked away, fists curled. "I—I'm not proud of what we did, but it was all to keep you safe, and you are, Xel. For that reason alone, I know that if he could speak to us, your father wouldn't regret his decision."
"His decision..." Xel broke his stare and looked off into the distance. His look became hard after a moment or two, and he strode determinedly out the door, right toward the Kandosii.
"Xel, where are you going? Xel!" Teras ran to catch up to him as he strode up the ramp. "Xel, ad'ika, wait a minute—"
The boy spun on his heel and fixed his uncle with a piercing stare.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to see my mother. Alone."
Teras' eyes widened. "Are you crazy? The Empire is looking for you, and if Vader's involved, they'll never stop searching." He put a hand on his nephew's shoulder. "Please, your father wouldn't want you to go alone."
"My father wanted me to make my own choices." Xel's eyes narrowed and bore into Teras'. "Well, this is my choice. I'm going alone." His expression softened a bit, and he put his free hand on his uncle's shoulder. "I'll comm. you when I get there and keep you informed. I promise."
Teras swallowed hard, but eventually nodded and stepped off the ramp as Xel entered the ship. The boy closed the hatch behind him and put the data stick into the nav computer. As expected, a program ran through the ship's systems, sending several pings over high-frequency channels. A mere five minutes returned a set of coordinates. When input into the galaxy map, the digits pointed to one particular planet: Obroa-skai. Guess I'm headed to the Inner Rim then. The Kandosii'tal rose from the plains of Mandalore, leaving Teras and the Caden settlement behind. For all he knew, Xel was saying goodbye for good, and that suited him just fine. After feeling what he felt in Xander's study, he wasn't sure he could face that home again.
At the same time, though, the ship itself carried just as much, if not more, in the way of potentially painful memories, yet it didn't make him feel that way. If anything, between the familiar smell of metal, the constant hum of the engines, and the beskar'gam he always kept here, Xel felt at peace, comforted. Here, he was free to choose his own path and destination, free from the shackles of atmosphere or gravity. Yes, life as a space nomad certainly had its advantages. No matter what happened to you, no matter what memories were forged that cut scars into your mind and soul, you could always start anew somewhere else. A series of bangs from the posterior of the ship prompted rolling of the eyes, and Xel programmed a side stop before making the jump to hyperspace.
Durga's Palace, Nal Hutta
Xel strode through the front door of Durga's throne room in full armor, hand clenched around Kell Hammer's intact arm. Even from this distance, without any magnification, the hunter could see his Hutt patron's fat eyebrows raise at the condition of his former employee. Hammer was bruised and battered, his face barely recognizable. His right arm was in a rough sling and his left leg in a makeshift splint. Xel was sure Durga had never expected this to happen, so allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction at the shock on the Hutt's face.
"One traitorous accountant, as ordered." He shoved Hammer to his knees in front of Durga's dais, and the Hutt stared at him for a few moments before giving his response.
"What became of your partner?"
"Bit irrelevant, don't you think? I brought you the bounty, and we had a deal."
Durga laughed. "So we did."
Xel's eyes narrowed within his helmet.
"I received word from my contacts on the Smuggler's Moon indicating that the Empire had a small strike force sent to the surface. Would you know anything about that?"
Xel crossed his arms. "You don't pay me to know. You pay me to get results." He waved at Hammer's prone body. "Results."
Durga's lips curved into a smile. "As you wish, Mando." He waved to his major domo, who stepped forward with a heavy briefcase.
Xel moved toward him and took the handle, laying it on a nearby table and opening it to reveal over six layers of stacked credit chips.
"Sixty-five thousand, as promised." Durga chuckled. "Don't spend it all in one place."
"I wouldn't worry about that." Xel closed the case. "Mandos aren't known for being heavy spenders." He waved at Kell. "Enjoy your present, Lord Durga." Without another word, Xel strode from the throne room, making the long trek back to his ship. His ship.
The Kandosii'tal, hyperspace
"Above all, I want you to know just how proud I am of you, how proud I am to be your father. My only regret is not being there to see the kind of man you'll become, but I know that whoever that is, he's going to change the galaxy. Ni kar'tayl gar darasuum, Xel."
Xel hit the "replay" button for the fourth time since the jump to hyperspace, absently listening and more focusing on the last vision of his father that was contained in the datacron's message. He took a deep breath and released it, wiping his hand over his face. Still can't believe he's gone. Xel looked over at the medical berth in the next room, the last place he'd seen his father smile, and felt his eyes prick with tears. He did a double-take as he saw something else, rising from his seat to move into the makeshift med bay.
His jaw dropped. On the table next to Xander's berth lay his Mandalorian crushgaunts and beskar knife. Xel picked up the latter, slipping it from its sheath and giving it a few experimental swings. It was a little heavier than his durasteel knife and a good two inches longer, razor-sharp on the entirety of one edge and of the same sharpness about a fifth of the way from the tip on the back. There was a small ring on the upper front of the knife's handle, and Xel put his finger through it, lightly snapping his wrist in one direction and watching as the ring served as a pivot point for the knife, allowing it to spin forward or backward.
He smiled slightly and returned the weapon to its sheath, noting that his own knife was gone. He blinked twice and sighed, looking at the crushgaunts as well and narrowing his eyes. Had he known? Had Xander known he was going to die? Whether he had or not, Xel resolved to keep using both items, to keep a part of his father with him. You said you couldn't keep your promise because you're dead, but that's not true. He slipped his own gloves off and pulled the crushgaunts on, curling and uncurling his fingers to get a feel for them. He reached over and strapped the knife to the right side of his belt, where his durasteel blade once sat, and drew it underhandedly, the front edge angled forward.
As long as these are with me, you will be too. He sheathed the knife. Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum. I'm still alive, but you're dead. I remember you, so you are eternal. His eyes closed as he breathed in deeply. Join with the Manda, Buir. I'll take it from here.
An hour after landing on the terrestrial world, Xel had managed to find the location specified by the coordinates, tracing it to a relatively remote settlement in the low mountains. As he got closer, his datapad, which held the data stick from the datacron, started to flicker. New data streamed across the screen, and more specific directions were presented. He made his way to a two-story house on the peak of a hill, the front door on a level section of the plateau, two long walls running parallel to each other and pointing to the door. The walls stretched out about 20 feet, where they turned at 90 degree angles and kept going around the settlement's modest but spacious grounds.
He marched up to the door, tucking the datapad into the back of his belt and raising his right hand to the bell. His index hesitated over the button. If I do this, there's no going back. His finger moved forward with certainty. A half-minute passed and uneasiness settled into his gut. He turned away, not wanting to look as expectant as he was, and folded his hands together behind his back. As the possibility of leaving occurred to him, Xel heard the door click open behind him and turned around halfway before he heard a familiar and disturbing sound.
Before he even registered the emerald shaft that lit up the night, he leapt six feet away from the door, dive-rolling and spinning toward the entrance, drawing his pistols as he rose. With adrenaline cramming into his system, everything slowed to a near-stop, allowing him to take a good look at who was holding the lightsaber. The weapon's pale green glow cast deep shadows over the face of its owner, the shorter figure wearing a hooded cloak that completely masked their features. All he could see was the glint of the lightsaber's reflection in this person's eyes, as well as the way they widened a few moments later.
"Xander?" a female voice asked.
Xel's heart skipped a beat, and he slowly lowered his pistols as she did the same with her saber, one being holstered as he pulled off his helmet with one arm. "Not...exactly."
The pair looked at each other for a long time, the hooded figure deactivating her weapon as she gaped at him and stepped forward slowly, one hand reaching up and pulling back the hood. "Xel?" The saber was clipped to her belt absently as she continued to approach, the boy suddenly feeling at ease and holstering his other pistol without a word. She reached up and laid a gentle hand on his cheek. "My boy," she breathed out.
His eyes fluttered closed, and a small, shuddering breath escaped him as an unimaginable feeling of peace washed over him.
"My boy." She threw her arms around him, and he instantly returned the action, holding her tightly. She laughed softly, tears streaming down her face. "My dear boy."
The small, delicate fingers she stroked through his hair felt so familiar, and he was instantly certain that they weren't separated at birth. His mind may not have known this woman, but his heart and soul did.
Slowly but surely, she pulled away, cupping his face with her hands and holding him at arm's length. "Xel...you've grown so much."
"Your name...it's..." He scrunched his eyes together hard, trying desperately to remember something that was scratching at the back of his mind. The blue orbs snapped open. "Telia. Telia Li-am."
Telia beamed at her son. "That's right." She looked over his shoulder, eyes darting side to side, searching. "You're alone?" Her gaze returned to his. "Where's your father?"
His face fell instantly, and he looked away.
"Xel, where is Xander?"
All the breath left her, and she bit her lower lip hard, stifling the shriek that threatened to erupt. After a few moments and calling on the Force to calm herself, Telia gripped Xel's armored shoulders and nudged him toward the door. "Come inside, please."
Xel nodded numbly, noting the gentle light from a fireplace on the other side of the rather spacious entrance. The house screamed of wood architecture, giving it a very antique yet homey feel as he entered. One good look and he knew that was the exact effect intended. Like her, it was...calming, peaceful. Guilt still nagged at him as she closed the door, and he spun to face her. "Telia, I—"
"It's not your fault, Xel." She avoided his gaze, curling a lock of brown hair around her finger. "We...we knew something like this could happen someday. It was always possible, likely even." She let out another sharp breath, shaking her head slightly to ward off her tumultuous emotions. Telia forced a smile onto her face. "My boy's home, at long last. That's all that's important right now." She motioned to a chair by the fire. "Have a seat, please. I'll be right back."
He gulped and nodded, complying and laying his helmet down on a nearby table before leaning his elbows on his knees, chin braced on his intertwined fingers. His eyes watched the fire dance, casting dim shadows and red light over his face. Before he knew it, his eyes grew heavy with the mesmerizing sight and drooped completely until his body followed. A warm, gentle hand on his shoulder woke him. His body usually made him scream at such disturbances when he was this tired, but not this time. This time he just looked up at the source drowsily and rose at its prompting, following her lead to another room on the second floor, where he numbly stripped off his armor and fell onto a cushioned substance, passing out almost instantly.
I can't believe it. They said seeing was believing, yet Telia had seen for the last twenty minutes and still couldn't believe it. All those lessons from Master Yoda about the tricks of the eyes came rushing back to her, but as she stretched out to see him in the Force as well, there was no denying that he was unquestionably hers. Although it was much fainter than that of his brother, Xel's Force Bond was still very much present, and although she couldn't tell whether it had been formed at infancy or in the last half hour, it was there, and she wasn't sure it mattered. A soft hand stroked through his helmet-tousled, jet-black hair, smoothing it all out as he unconsciously snuggled closer to the touch.
Telia smiled gently. There was so much she wanted to tell him, to learn from him, so much she wanted to talk to him about, yet she was perfectly content to just watch him sleep. I missed the first thirteen years of his life. Her smile faded. It's time to start with the little things. Reaching out to him across their Bond, Telia couldn't help but wince at the pain radiating across it, yet another melancholy reminder of her husband's passing. Her eyes slammed shut and every fiber of her being channeled her Jedi training to keep from breaking down. She focused on Xel, on calming his troubled mind and heart, and slowly, bit by bit, he relaxed, whatever troubled dreams he was having fading away.
Telia withdrew from their Bond and his new room, closing the door and walking down the hall to check on her other son, his gentle snores no more than a small rumble. She smirked. Always early to bed. Her head shook slowly. Some things don't change. She stretched out to the Force, touching both their Bonds before finding a third that ended all too abruptly. Walking into her room, she completely closed herself off from anything and everything else, shielding herself in the Force so no one, not even her oldest son, could feel anything from her.
And she poured out her grief to the silent walls.