Star Wars: Kandosii'tal

Training, Part I

Next morning

Li-am residence, Obroa-skai

1 year, 7 months BBY

Xel watched in rapt attention as Telia lifted a cube-like device in front of her.

"This," she explained, "is a Jedi holocron, a repository of information that is given or held back by the holocron's guardian based on the student's knowledge, power, and motivation. I have two total, one that involves knowledge of the lightsaber, the other knowledge of the Force."

"Something tells me neither was easy to come by."

Telia smirked. "Well, one I had on me when Order 66 was issued, the other I found here, in an abandoned Jedi Academy, before the Empire rolled in and destroyed it all. The possibility that they might have missed something was my primary reason for settling here with Alen."

He nodded. "Makes sense. You're not worried that the Imperial presence here might put you at risk?"

"Why do you think we're all the way up here in the mountains? Besides, if someone who could pick up our signatures were here, we'd have sensed him."

"Gotcha. So…how does this work, exactly?"

She sighed. "Normally, we'd begin with youngling initiations. The holocron would run you through the Jedi Code, basics of accessing your Force Sense…" She suppressed a smile at Xel's steadily raising eyebrows. "But I can see you're a busy man, so I'll teach you to do the latter. Come."

He trailed behind his mother as she strode to the back door, opening it and letting in a burst of cold mountain air. Telia had insisted that he not wear his armor during training, so he borrowed one of Alen's robes. Speaking of, where is he? Telia had told him Alen was always early to bed and early to rise, so he was probably either taking a walk somewhere or meditating in his room. Can't for the life of me figure out how someone could just…sit there for hours on end.

"It helps him focus his Force," Telia said.

Xel's face scrunched up for a few seconds before his eyes turned to discs. "Did you just—?"

"Read your thoughts? Yes."

His face went completely red.

She laughed warmly. "Relax, I don't do it all the time, and I didn't really mean to just now. You just don't know how to block me yet, so you're easy to read."

"Oh," he said quietly, still a bit disturbed. The idea of someone sifting through his thoughts was…unsettling, to say the least.

"Trust me, it could be worse."

He glared.

She smirked.

It was then that he noticed how badly he was shivering, while she wasn't even batting an eyelash at the cold. He shook his head. "Figures."

"I know how to shield myself in the Force. Sit." She sat on her knees, and he sluggishly followed suit. "Close your eyes and clear your mind."

His eyes shut as he sighed.

"I said clear your mind, not use it to gripe."

He rolled his eyes internally. "I can't just stop thinking."

"No, you can focus on just one thing, yourself, and specifically the itch at the back of your mind. I know it's there, even if you don't think you can feel it."

Xel focused hard, using his training as a Mando and closing himself off from everything except what he wanted. The cold stopped biting. Distractions ceased. The wind's howling stilled to a dull hum in his ears. A small whisper reached his consciousness.

"Do you feel it?"

"Yes," he responded on instinct.

"Probe it, then. Pull on it. Coax it out."

Not quite sure what she meant, Xel just kept focusing on the "itch," as she called it, getting a better feel for it, memorizing every detail until more started to be revealed. Then he felt that out too. This continued for a long time, until he could feel a long cord unraveling in his mind, sliding between his mental fingers. It was so strange, yet so familiar.

"It is the Force you feel. You know it as instinct."

"What do you mean?"

"Have you ever wondered why you were so quick to grasp new concepts or techniques? How your reflexes and form have always been top notch? You've been subconsciously using the Force your whole life, to a very small and enhancing degree, instead of directly manipulating it."

"So what do I do now?"

"Now? Nothing. Practice getting to where you are now. Practice focusing on that place. Feel it, embrace it."

Xel took a deep breath, then opened his eyes, bringing the world back into focus. His mother did the same, and the two exchanged a glance. She nodded to him, and he closed his eyes again, calling on his training and focusing to get to that point.

Telia smiled when he did. "Very good, son. You learn quickly."

"I have a good teacher," he said aloud, opening his eyes and smiling back. "So what's next?"

2 weeks later

"Focus, Xel."

"I am focusing." Sweat streamed down his face as he held a hand up, concentrating on moving the cup two feet away from him.

Telia let out an exasperated sigh. "Look. Stop." She grabbed his arm. "Manipulating the Force isn't like firing a blaster or throwing a punch. The limb is just a focusing tool. A skilled Force user should be able to perform minor telekinetic manipulations like this without lifting a finger. Your mind—" she tapped his forehead, "—is your true source of power. Use it."

Xel raised an eyebrow and chewed on his lip impatiently, then focused once again, concentrating on clearing his mind and moving the cup, even just a little. After another ten seconds of no action, he sighed in frustration and closed his eyes, staying completely immobile and visualizing the cup, every ridge and facet, moving sideways across the table. He focused on that vision more and more, letting it completely fill his consciousness and mind's eye until he believed it was reality, then he touched the Force. A small, slight grinding sound reached his ears, and he smiled as he opened his eyes, watching as the ceramic vessel moved at his will. When it stopped, and he turned to the side, Telia was beaming at him, as was Alen, who was doing pull-ups by the dozen.

"You see?" she asked. "See how easy that was?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Not really. Took a lot of visualizing. A little too much for my taste."

"No," she corrected, "it took believing. If you don't believe in the power you wield, you'll fail at whatever you try to do, every time. All the time, I tell you to use your mind, but maybe that's a little misleading. It isn't the mind that uses the Force, it's the heart. Feel, don't think. Or, at least, don't think too hard." She let the lesson sink in for a few moments, then reached behind her to grab a handful of sand from a nearby bowl. "Let's try something a little different. I want you to move the cup again, but this time with a bit of a distraction." A quarter of the sand levitated from her hand and twirled in the air, twisting and turning in helix-like patterns. She nodded toward the cup.

Xel breathed out hard, knowing what she had in mind, and focused on that feeling of certainty once again, touching the Force and raising his hand to the cup, which started to move in the other direction. Just then, a sheet of sand obscured his vision, some of the particles stinging his eyes. He swatted at the storm with one hand, his concentration breaking at the annoyance and cup moving to a stop. His teeth clenched as he realized just how difficult this would be, and he reached out again as the sand approached. His eyes closed to remove that vulnerability. He didn't need them anyway. A dense cluster of sand flew near his nostrils, some of the particles flying in with an intake of breath and choking him. The cup stopped yet again.

"Haar'chak," he muttered.

"Language," Telia chided.

Xel's eyes rolled. He focused on the cup again, repeating the same cycle of attempt and failure for another ten minutes before throwing his hands up.

"How exactly do you do this?" he asked, exasperated. "I mean, I've heard stories of Jedi fighting in the middle of sandstorms, doing osik like this, and I figured it'd be a hell of a lot easier than this."

"The Jedi who are—were sent on those kinds of missions were Knights with years of training. You've barely had two weeks. Give it time, Xel, and work through your frustration. Don't let it get the better of you."

He sighed heavily. "Yes, buir."

Telia smiled to herself. Buir. He called me buir. Her smile widened as she reflected on it. In Mando'a, words were never by nature gender-specific, so the word for "father" was also the word for "mother." It was the first time he had called her that. Sure, he'd said "mother," or even "Mom," but never in Mando'a, and never with that tone of affection. As she sent another flight of sand past his head, she giggled a little, only partially annoyed that he was now swatting at the sand and acting mock outraged as he chased the cluster around the room, completely forgetting his task as his family looked on, the sand dropping to the ground a few moments later as both Telia and Alen doubled over with laughter.

With a few hearty laughs of his own, Xel waved his hand, sending the cup flying across the wide open space, right toward Alen, who ducked and spun as it careened into a wall, shattering on contact. He cringed, but was still grinning as he turned back to them, the same expressions on their faces.


1 week later

"Clear your mind."

Xel huffed, anger rising, as he breathed deeply once again, lifting the cylinder in his hands and staring at the white-and-red orb floating in front of him. His thumb lifted off the cylinder only to depress a small, round button near its top, sending a sapphire blade shooting from its sharply angled tip. He focused in the Force yet again, trying desperately to feel once again the tiny push that had put him on a roll with this shabla device. Xel was no stranger to pain during training, but the sharp stings this remote delivered dealt more psychological damage than physical. His frustration was rising with every passing second, and Telia knew it. Xel's instincts told him she would stop this element of his training if he didn't improve soon, and he desperately didn't want that.

Xel raised his brother's lightsaber to a two-handed ready stance, and Telia motioned with her hand, activating the remote and sending it circling around her son. Xel turned with it, his eyes watching its every twitch, memorizing its structure as he waited for its inevitable attack. Telia sighed to herself. He was missing the point of the exercise. To demonstrate this, she silently activated another remote and used the Force to guide it directly behind him. A sharp zap tagged Xel in the back, and he yelped as he spun toward the new threat, leaving himself exposed to the original remote.

The two remotes laid down a nearly constant pattern of shots, only a few every dozen deflected by the boy, who dove over a nearby couch for cover. Rolling her eyes again, Telia sent the remotes to pursue him, sending him groaning and yelping across the room. It would've been funny if she couldn't feel the emotions rolling off him in waves, turning from frustration to outright anger. Xel swung the saber wildly, batting one bolt after the next, but letting through as many as he stopped until Alen's lightsaber became a blur of interlocking spins. Telia's eyes widened as the blue light trail left behind by the blade practically eclipsed Xel's body, effectively putting a wall of light between him and the remotes.

A few seconds later, she powered down the remotes and watched as her son, heaving and scowling, closed down the saber, huffing past her and tossing the saber onto a nearby table.

"Xel, wait."

He stopped mid-stride.

"Where did you learn that move?"

He turned his head toward her. "What move?"

"That…disc defense. At the end."

He looked away for a moment before shrugging. "I didn't. It was just instinct. Instinct and calculation. I figured if I can't be precise with my deflection, I could just put up a wall."

She nodded slowly. "Then you just dipped into a Soresu technique without realizing it. It's called Circle of Shelter."

He shrugged noncommittally and started to walk away again. "Whatever."

Telia exhaled slowly and followed him. "Look, Xel, I powered up that second remote to prove a point. You weren't focusing in the Force, otherwise you'd have sensed that attack coming from behind. You need to learn to calm your mind, even in the heat of a fight, or one day you'll find yourself on the wrong end of a blaster bolt."

He spun toward her. "And what if I can't calm my mind? What if I don't care about your damned serenity? I don't want to be a Jedi, I never have, and yet that's exactly what you're trying to make me into." They were both silent for a while. "Tell me something. Is this the way you trained Dad, when you first learned he was Force-sensitive?"

"I—" she started, hesitating and downcasting her eyes. "No. It wasn't." She exhaled hard, slumping into a nearby chair. "I'm sorry, Xel. I'm trying. I really am."

A little of his hardness melted at her tone, and he leaned against the wall next to her. "I know." He pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "I'm sorry too. I know I'm not the easiest student—or person—to deal with all the time. It's just…shab, I don't know. I think…I think I need some air."

Telia didn't respond, only watched him as he went for the backdoor, catching a glimpse of a second figure in brown robes following him out.

Xel ran his fingers through his near-shoulder length hair, the loose black locks cast about in the mountain wind as he tried to clear his head. He no longer minded the cold, having learned how to channel the Force into his body to sustain himself in it, at least for a while. He didn't this time, though. He needed the wind to cool his frayed nerves, and at the moment, it was doing an okay job.


He spun toward the source of the voice, clenching his teeth involuntarily. "Sorry, vod, but if you're looking for conversation, I'm afraid you're in bad company."

"I wasn't," Alen replied, striding over to him and standing a few feet away, looking out onto the horizon and setting sun.

While Alen was distracted, Xel examined his brother. At moments like this, the older boy was the picture of serenity, the essence of a stoic Jedi. At others…not so much. Pondering this, Xel realized just how little he knew about the kid, and cursed himself for putting training above family. Before Xander had died, he would never have done such a thing.

"Hey," Xel said, disrupting Alen's perusal. "I…" His voice trailed off as Alen looked at him expectantly. Damn it. Why is this so difficult? "Look, I don't think we got off on the right foot."

"Well, we didn't get off on the wrong one, either."

Xel shrugged. "Maybe not, but…we're family." He hesitated a moment before shaking his head. "Look, we don't know each other. We haven't for the last thirteen years." He outstretched his hand. "I'd like to rectify that."

Alen smiled and shook it. "Done. Just answer me one thing. If you don't want to be a Jedi, why are you learning about the Force? Or how to fight with a lightsaber, for that matter?"

"Well, like Mom said, I need to learn to hide myself from the Empire. Apart from that, the Force is another tool I can add to my belt, and in my business, that's always a good thing. As for the lightsaber stuff…" He crossed his arms. "Well, who says they're just for jetiise?"

Alen raised an eyebrow. "Fair enough." They were both silent a while, trying to think of anything to say.

"Look, can we just agree off the bat that this is an awkward situation?"

"I—think that would be appropriate, yes."

"Okay then." More silence.

"So," Alen said finally, "have you accessed the holocron on saber wielding yet? I mean, no offense, but it's pretty clear you're having some trouble."

"Well…no. I rarely access any of the holocrons. Damn guardians don't like my personality, apparently."

Alen smiled a little. "Don't worry, they'll get used to you. I definitely have."

"Well, you haven't had to spend training time around me. Not proud of it, but I've definitely noticed that I turn into a shabla rancor when I'm in training, especially if I just can't get something."

"Hm." Alen stood in thought for a while. "Well, we could access it together. Something tells me the guardian'll respond differently if it's talkin' to a group of students as opposed to just one."

"Maybe," Xel said thoughtfully. "But not right now."

He arched an eyebrow. "Oh? Why not?"

The young Mando nodded toward the horizon, and his Jedi brother shifted his gaze only to widen it as he saw what Xel did.

"Oh," he breathed out, unable to say more, as the setting sun cast a gorgeous pattern of colors across the evening sky. They watched it together, perfectly content to stand in silence until night reigned.

"Welcome, Initiate, Padawan." The saber holocron guardian, a balding Jedi, nodded to each of them in turn, standing at ease as he awaited their query.

"Sir," Alen said, "we'd like to know about the Seven Forms."

The hologram nodded, raising his right hand to project several images depicting silhouettes in various positions, most of them holding some form of lightsaber. "Is there any particular entry you wish to hear first?"

Alen gave his brother a look. "Well, Xel here used a Soresu technique without even realizing it, so let's start there, see if it's a good fit for him."

"As you wish. Soresu, Form III." Several silhouette images came up depicting a Jedi fending off multiple armed opponents. "Developed in response to the mass usage of blaster weapons, Soresu revolves around the deflection and reflection of blaster bolts, and relies heavily on Force Sense to guide one's lightsaber in combat. It is perhaps the most solidly defensive style in the Seven Forms."

Alen suppressed a snicker at Xel's cringe. "Not you?"

"So not me," Xel confirmed.

"Okay then, give us the rundown of the rest."

"Form I: Shii-Cho." Two duelists were projected. "The most ancient and basic form of lightsaber combat known to the Jedi, Shii-Cho is geared toward the disarmament of one's opponent through large, sweeping motions designed to distract and throw one's opponent off-balance. Shii-Cho favors aggressive action over passive counters."

"That's what you're learning now with the remotes," Alen added.

Xel nodded before motioning for the guardian to continue.

"Form II: Makashi." To duelists appeared once again, this time with one of them holding his saber in a one-handed fencing grip. "Designed as a counter to Shii-Cho, Makashi relies on precise strikes and firm defense to prevent being disarmed and assure exploitation of any weaknesses in the opponent's defenses. In recent memory, only a few have managed to master this form, as the sheer amount of control one must have is quite substantial. This has, unfortunately, led some to believe that Makashi is a 'dead' style."

Alen nudged his brother. "That's my style."

Xel raised an eyebrow.

"Form IV: Ataru," the hologram continued, showing images of Jedi performing intense acrobatic feats in the middle of combat. "Heavily acrobatic, Ataru practitioners use the Force to enhance their vertical movements and keep opponents guessing by constantly jumping around them and raining quick strikes from all directions. As one might expect, this has clear advantages over sluggish or overly concentrated opponents, but often leaves the practitioner open to Force attacks.

"Form V is a branched Form, with two tiers, Shien and Djem So." The silhouettes projected this time were of both blaster and saber-wielding opponents, one saber-wielder focused on in particular. "Shien utilizes elements of both Soresu and Makashi to defend against multiple opponents with both blasters and sabers while keeping the user receptive to opportunities for counterattack. Allowing a Jedi to fend off attacks from all sides is useful for crowd control, especially in war zones. This trait made Form V especially useful during the Clone Wars, although most Shien practitioners died during the Battle of Geonosis. Designed as the 'perseverance form,' Shien essentially makes its user a Force-powered tank that is able to bide its time until an opportunity for counterattack presents itself."

Xel raised an eyebrow at that.

"Djem So is similar. A more advanced and aggressive aspect of Form V, Djem So uses power attacks and sheer brute force to hammer through an opponent's defenses while keeping their own up through Soresu drills. Although the elaborate, ornate motions most often employed in the style seem like unnecessary embellishments to the untrained eye, an opponent discovers very quickly, and fatally, if they are not careful, that every spin and flourish is executed to build power. Djem So can be used against opponents with various types of weapons, much like Shien, but the style is designed primarily for saber dueling. This is most effectively used by physically strong practitioners.

"Form VI: Niman." Images of a Jedi facing off against several opponents came to the front of the projections. "A systematic blending of Forms I, III, IV, and V, Niman was designed as a less individual fighting style with little weakness and a much less demanding training regimen. Ideal for Jedi with other primary occupations than combat, especially diplomats. The movements of this style are also often employed when a saber-wielder uses two lightsabers."

"Not many of those around these days," Alen said. "Dual-wielders, I mean." He looked away mournfully. "Not many Jedi, period."

Xel put a hand on his shoulder, but turned back to the holocron. "Please, continue."

The Jedi nodded. "Form VII: Juyo." The image of a Jedi leaping toward an opponent was plastered onto the screen, along with several vicious assaults in other settings. "A highly erratic and unpredictable form, Juyo uses deception and explosive movements to keep one's opponent constantly off-balance. The moment a gap appears in an opponent's defenses, the user can immediately exploit this weakness and potentially eviscerate their opponent."

The Mando raised an eyebrow. "That sounds…useful."

"Yeah," Alen replied, "but it's really tough to master."

"I, personally, practice Niman."

Both boys turned toward their approaching mother, who had a small smile on her face.

"So," Xel said thoughtfully, "balance, huh?"

She nodded slowly. "Balance."

Alen smiled, knowing there was far more going on than was apparent, and stood, pulling his lightsaber off his belt and handing it to Xel, nerf-leather grip first. "Ready to get back to it?"

Xel sighed, giving his brother an arched eyebrow, but took the proffered weapon. "You know, we should do that more often." He motioned to the inactive holocron.

"Right," Alen chuckled sarcastically, "because learning how best to swing a lightsaber is a great bonding activity."

Xel shrugged. "Why not? Some of my closest friends on Mandalore were met during training."

As Alen chewed this over, Xel stepped back into the open central room, powering on his brother's saber and raising it to a ready position, facing the first remote as it approached, a gentle smile coming to his face as he thought of the headway he'd just made with his brother. Suddenly, it all just…came to him. The saber moved like lightning, intercepting one shot after the next as he let the Force flow. Both observers' eyebrows shot up, and ten minutes later, he was deflecting bolts from two sources at once, hardly breaking a sweat as he alternated sides of defense. The remotes finally powered down, and he deactivated the lightsaber, grinning at his audience.

"That was…how did you just do that?"

"I dunno, vod. If I had to guess, though, I'd say…" He smiled widely. "Interesting," he said, more to himself.

Alen and Telia exchanged an amused look.

"Well," Telia said, "whatever it was, you think you could get there again?"

He smiled. "Easily."


2 days later

Xel's teeth sunk into a flavorless ration bar as Alen did the same, the older boy grimacing as he chewed it.

"How do you not hate this stuff?"

"How do you not hate meditating?"

Alen paused for a moment, then shrugged. "Touché."

Xel looked up at the mountain peak facing them, pondering the massive distance they'd already climbed. He hadn't been completely out of armor for this long in years, and he had to admit, he felt vulnerable, practically naked. Until the Force holocron taught him to properly create and maintain Force Shields around himself, he would probably still feel that way. Telia had sent them on this climb to teach Xel to rely on the Force to maintain and regenerate his body when under large amounts of stress. Thus far, his considerable stamina from years of Mando training and months of bounty hunting had been enough that he didn't have to. Even Alen, who had far more experience with this, seemed a little more ragged than his brother.

"All right," Alen said as he rose to his feet, "this mountain isn't gonna climb itself." He offered Xel a hand.

The younger boy took it, pulling himself to his feet and brushing himself off. He was wearing one of Alen's many robes, and none too happy about it. I look terrible in brown.

"You could be wearing tan."

Xel glared at his twin. "Thought I told you guys to stop doing that."

"Thought we told you to keep your thoughts hidden if you didn't want us looking."

With that, Xel consciously slammed the door on his mind, a very strange feeling that had taken some time to get used to. Eventually, Telia had told him, he would be able to keep that door closed subconsciously, with several locks that, if broken, would alert him to forced entry. The Force was a whole new world beyond the one he knew so well, and despite the dark cloud of having to hide his presence, Xel couldn't help but love learning as much as he could. Of course, there were always the walls he would run up against.

Telekinesis was coming fairly easily now, but calming his mind seemed supremely impractical in combat. The holocron guardian had warned him against the dangers of emotion when it came to using the Force, but as they all knew, neither Xel, nor anyone else in his family, believed in serenity at the cost of humanity. The guardian sensed this from time to time and shut down as a result, but Xel had managed to advance his knowledge of the Force in leaps and bounds nonetheless. Even Alen had acknowledged that his brother had considerable aptitude for the Jedi Arts.

"I don't want to be a Jedi," he'd said.

Alen had laughed. "Nor would I want you to. You'd be a terrible Jedi."

Now, they were alternating between climbing and cooperating, Xel's superior physical strength serving to help his brother along, though the young Jedi was no weakling. The Mando reached for a handhold on a nearly vertical surface, cool confidence flooding him as they steadily scaled the rock wall. His foot landed on a corner, giving him leverage to make a small jump to an even higher hold.

"You all right, brother?"

He glanced down at Alen. "Fine. Let's just get this done. I may not hate those ration bars, but I'm ready for some real food."

"I'll second that," Alen grumbled, channeling the Force and leaping up ten feet to a craggy outcrop and holding on tight.

"Oi! No fair!"

Alen sent him a toothy grin.

Xel rolled his eyes. You think you're hot stuff? Xel called on the Force, letting it flow and fill him until he felt that supreme high he'd first felt when facing the remotes. The boy channeled it all into his legs, feeling the currents swirling around his body, and leapt. Alen's gaping expression was all he could see as he zipped past, leaping a full fifteen feet ahead of his brother, a total distance of twenty-five feet. Of course, he was so focused on the distance that he didn't realize he had nothing to grab onto until he started falling. Out of reflex, his right index slammed on his left forearm, launching a grappling hook from the gauntlet he'd hidden under his robe's sleeve. The metal head dug into the rock just above him, anchoring him solidly and keeping him suspended long enough to grab a more solid support.

"What exactly is your definition of fair, Xel?!"

"Well, I could've been using it to scale the mountain a lot faster," he called back, "but instead I just kept it as a backup. Safety first, ner vod." He gave Alen a cheeky smile and a thumbs-up, prompting a deadpanned look from his brother as the Jedi climbed to his level. "How about this? Whoever makes it to the top first gets to learn a secret from the loser. Don't worry, I'll continue not to use the grapple except in emergencies."

Alen narrowed his eyes. "You're on."

Xel grinned. "Perfect."

The brothers had been growing closer for the past two days since their initial foray into "bridge-building," but there were still topics that seemed…unspeakable. After all, though they were family by blood, the twins were strangers to each other, and as Mandos always say, aliit ori'shya tal'din: family is more than blood. Mando-raised or not, they both knew this, so Alen understood the meaning behind his gesture.

"All right," Xel said, coiling up for a "vertical sprint," "on my mark. Three-two-one-go!"

And like that, they were off, scrambling for handholds and making their way steadily upward. The Force spoke to their minds and limbs, guiding them to safe holds and paths up the mountain's surface. In mere minutes, the peak was in sight, and they were still neck and neck. This might just be a tie.

"Not if I can help it," Alen thought to him, too out of breath and focused to say it aloud. He coiled up and Force Jumped another twenty feet to a slippery handhold, channeling the Force into his grip to keep from falling.

Xel's heart dropped as he watched his brother dangle precariously, and he paused for a moment, scanning the area above to see a more secure route to his level, then leaping the distance there. Once his grip was secure, he shimmied across the cliffside to Alen's position, firing his grapple into the wall next to his left hand and using the cable as an anchor to lean back and offer his hand. Alen struggled with his position for a few more seconds before sighing and reaching for Xel. The Mando's grip was as strong as ever despite their vigorous climb, as was the Jedi's, and Alen knew his brother had learned the lesson.

"You all right?"

Alen gave out another sigh at his own failure and impatience. "Yeah. Thanks."

"Don't mention it."

He laughed nervously. "You know, I half-expected you to just leave me there."

Xel gave him a piercing, narrow-eyed look. "I'm competitive, not homicidal. And you're my brother." He reached for a higher hold and hoisted himself up another two feet, stopping to look down at Alen. "Family always comes first."

Alen opened his mouth to speak before shutting it and joining in the climb much more cautiously. It seemed Xel had had enough close calls too. Finally, they both slammed their palms onto the peak, a relatively flat plateau, and pulled themselves onto solid ground, collapsing a second later in exhaustion. Force or no Force, they were only human. The brothers exchanged a long look before breaking into laughter.

"Good job, bro," Alen breathed out, raising a fist in his direction. "Couldn't have done it better myself."

Xel just bumped his fist with his own, focusing on keeping his breathing regular. Night was falling, temperatures were dropping, and the air on this mountain was thin enough as-is. Xel looked at Alen when he was unable to speak.

"I know."

"We should…we should get back." Xel struggled to his feet, brushing dust off his robes as Alen joined him with a nod.

Before either of them could move, though, a loud roar reached their ears and a rugged-looking ship descended from the clouds.

"What the hell?!"

The exit ramp opened and four figures leapt out, dropping ten feet to roll and shoulder weapons.

"Oh shab," Xel breathed out. He recognized this bunch.

"Been a while, Mando," the toughest-looking of the group, a burly, scarred Sakiyan said. "Or should I say, Jedi."

Xel arched an eyebrow before rolling his eyes. "Really? Have you ever even heard of a Mandalorian Jedi?"

"First time for everything."

"You…know these guys?" Alen asked his brother.

Xel crossed his arms, less than intimidated by their weaponry. "Unfortunately, yes. These are the shabuire who tried to pressure me into joining their little crew when I first got here."

"When you said no, I got to thinkin'. Why would a Mandalorian refuse good pay, good comrades, and a good old nomadic life?"

"Did you find an answer?"

"'Cause he's a wanted man, that's why. Hence the 'low profile.' I decided to follow you, and it's a good thing too. See, my men and I have been out of work for quite a while, and for mercs, that's a very bad thing. Fortunately for us—and quite unfortunately for you—you have quite a sizable bounty on your head by nature of existing."

"Okay, let's play this out logically then." Xel sounded and genuinely was annoyed at this point. "Jedi carry lightsabers, yes?"

"They wouldn't if they were trying to hide their identity."

Xel raised his hands to indicate the mountain. "From who? Who is there to fool up here?"

The Sakiyan was silent a while, and Xel could feel the gears turning in his head, his previously solid conclusion starting to evaporate until his gaze shifted to Alen. He gave Xel a nasty smile. "Even if you're not a Jedi, he is."

Xel's blood ran cold as his eyes closed with a sigh, his right eye flickering open for barely a moment to see the silver and black cylinder hanging from his brother's belt. "Well…osik." He bolted diagonally toward them, trying to close the distance before bolts started flying, but before he could, a stun bolt slammed into his leg, completely shutting it down and causing him to collapse onto his elbows. A blazing snap-hiss alerted Xel to Alen's entry of the fight, the young Jedi deflecting bolt after bolt as Xel desperately tried to get his limbs to wake up. Alen was good, but there was no way he could fend them all off at once, especially since they all split up in opposite directions, two of them flanking his brother, one at his front.

Wait, where's four?

"Nighty night, Mando."

A flash of black, scaly skin was all he saw before another stun bolt rendered him unconscious.

"Shabla osik," Xel groaned as he slowly regained consciousness, his eyes snapping open to see his darkened surroundings. Cargo hold. He snarled. Classy. He groaned again, trying to push himself to his feet only to find his hands cuffed behind his back. "You've gotta be kidding me."

"Unfortunately not."

His eyes snapped to the source of the voice, straining against the dark to see a familiar silhouette. "Alen!"

"Yeah, I'm okay. A little the worse for wear, maybe, but alive."

He heard his brother's groan as he too got to his feet. "How'd they get you?"

"Stun bolt to the back. Saw it coming. Wasn't fast enough."

"Don't worry about it. We'll get outta this."

"I know. I'm just worried about Mom."

Xel's eyebrows furrowed. "Mom?"

"What if these guys found out about her too? What if they told someone?"

"They wouldn't," Xel said with certainty. "Trust me, as a bounty hunter, I know there's nothing worse than competition swiping your target. Unfortunate as it is, Jedi are the juiciest bounties, so naturally they would produce more competition."

Alen sighed in relief.

"Don't relax just yet. We're still in trouble, and if these mercs do realize they can't take us on their own, they'll definitely go running to the Empire."

"Right," he said resolutely, tugging at his cuffs and focusing the Force on uncoupling them.

He was at this for less than a second before the door of the hold opened, letting in light and five mercs.

"So," the leader said, "what are Jedi worth these days, like twenty mill?"

"Fifty," another responded, "alive anyway."

The leader nodded slowly as if pondering something. "Alive doesn't necessarily mean intact, though."

Xel scowled and stepped between them and his brother. "You're not touching him," he snarled.

The Sakiyan chuckled. "And who's gonna stop us, you? You're cuffed without use of your hands, out of armor, with no weapons. What're you gonna do?"

Xel's eyes narrowed. "You di'kut. The armor doesn't make the man, and nature gave me fists and teeth. Since I don't have my fists, I'll just have to use my teeth."

"Uh huh," he mocked, motioning to two mercs.

Both brothers snapped into action, Xel barreling toward the one on the left and slamming his shoulder into the man's gut as Alen jump-kicked the other in the jaw. The rest of the mercs rushed in, their sheer mass slowing the twins down enough that they were restrained at opposite sides of the ten-foot room in a matter of seconds, the Sakiyan cracking his knuckles threateningly.

"So, which one first?"

"You lay a finger on him and I will gut you!"

"With what blade?"

The merc backhanded Xel hard, knocking him to the ground as he roared back, landing a solid kick on his gut as Alen yelled at them. The Jedi had the wind knocked out of him a moment later by the same man, who laid into his face with vicious blows. Blood streamed from a busted lip and broken nose as Xel roared from his place, rising with almost inhuman strength and delivering a hard thrust kick to the side of the leader's knee. The Sakiyan shrieked in pain before wheeling on him and driving a hard cross into the side of Xel's head. He flopped back, his body going limp as Alen looked on in horror, barely glimpsing a bright flash of metal fall from the merc leader's pocket.

His eyes widened as his lightsaber bounced twice, the cylinder kicked behind the unconscious Xel by the shuffling feet of the oblivious captain. If he could reach it with the Force…

That idea fled with the reintroduction of his captor's fists to his body. I'm sorry, Xel, he thought as the pain started to overwhelm him and black spots swam in the edges of his vision.

Fools, Xel mocked mentally. Contrary to what everyone else in the room believed, Xel hadn't been knocked out, only faked it to escape their attention. As his right eye cracked open, he saw that his two restrainers had swallowed his act and released him, stepping toward their leader to watch the show. He scowled hard, silently bringing himself up into a sitting position. A clink from behind caught his attention, and he spotted the lightsaber rolling into the wall. Xel couldn't reach it from where he was, and he didn't trust himself to move quietly enough to get there.

As Alen yelped with another impact, red-hot sparks filled him, and his fingers reflexively stretched out toward the saber. Come on, idiot, think! The answer came to him in a whisper. He took a deep breath, fighting to drown out the screams of his beaten brother. Then he stopped, letting them ring loud and clear, letting the fire inside increase and anger permeate every fiber of his being. Serenity was a lie at that moment, a goal as far and unreachable as the ghosts of past dead. His eyes fluttered closed as his fingers stretched out yet again, this time in expectance instead of desperation. In his mind's eye, he could see his brother look in his direction with the eye that wasn't swollen closed, hope and wonder filling him and momentarily drowning out the pain.

Just like that, the Force was there, watching, waiting. He focused on it, gritting his teeth harder and harder until there was nothing but his rage, the Force, and the lightsaber. He pictured the saber in his hand, believing with every fiber of his being that Alen would die without him.

And he let the Force flow.

The impact of leather on skin startled him a bit, but not nearly enough to distract him.


The blue blade sliced through his cuffs instantly as he shot to his feet, cutting down the men who'd restrained him within less than a second, then snapping his attention to the Sakiyan, who drew a blaster from his right hip and fired twice. His arms snapped like lightning, the blade batting both bolts aside as he snarled in rage and threw the weapon end over end, its shaft imbedding itself in his target. Xel dove toward his falling body as the last two mercs let his brother go, ignoring the distinct thump of Alen's body hitting the floor to snatch up the captain's blaster. As he rolled to a crouch, a pair of double-taps finished off his targets, and he reached over to Alen's fallen saber to thumb it on.

Walking to his brother, he crouched down and carefully cut his cuffs before closing down the weapon and taking his pulse. He breathed a sigh of relief. Thank the Manda.

"Alen." He gently shook the teen. "Alen, come on, ner vod, talk to me."

"," he groaned back.

Xel exhaled hard and smiled. "Good man. Come on now." He slung his brother's arm over his shoulder, hoisting his body upright as he sluggishly put one foot after the next on their way to the cockpit.

"Where the hell were you two?!" Telia's next exclamation died on her lips when she saw Alen's condition as Xel half-carried him down the ramp of the unfamiliar ship. "Oh, Force." She dashed toward them, supporting Alen's other side as they carried him into the house.

"Looks...worse than it is, Ma."

"The hell it does," she scolded, grabbing a first aid kit and stabbing a painkiller into his neck. When Alen's nose had been splinted and his other injuries tended to, she spun to Xel and glanced over his injuries in a half-second, noting a few swelling spots but nothing much more serious...that he was showing. Her eyes narrowed. "You. Explain."

Xel looked at her incredulously. "Why me?"

"Because you're the only one who can talk."

"What're you talkin' about?" Alen slurred. "I'm still conscious."

Telia's eyes warmed as she put a hand on his shoulder. "Not anymore." Her hand lifted to the side of his head, and his body went limp a second later. She gingerly lowered him into a nearby chair, making sure he would wake up comfortably before turning to Xel. "Jedi healing trance. Now, spill."

He told her about the hunters and how they'd used him to track them down. Xel also made sure to tell her that they were all very much dead, excluding the details of their escape. His mental shields were going at full strength, and he chose his words carefully. There was no way he wanted her to know how much he lost control of his emotions. No, he didn't lose control, he consciously chose to use them, and quite specifically every single one she and the holocrons had warned him against.

"So," she said when he finished, "you and your brother were captured, held, and nearly beaten to death by a team of bounty hunters, and the only reason we're even having this conversation is because you managed to get your brother's lightsaber and cut your way to freedom."

He shrugged. "Essentially."

Her smaller hands grasped his. "You know you can tell me anything, right?"

His eyes widened. How does she know? Xel didn't even realize he'd let his shields slip.

"Because I'm your mother." She smirked. "And because you are, at heart, very much your father's son." She looked away, smiling in reminiscence. "He never believed in the power of serenity. Thought that closing yourself off from emotion was the fastest way to lose yourself, to lose who you were." Telia shook her head as memories flew through her mind.

Subconsciously, some of them flew across their Force Bond, and Xel's eyes went wide as he was suddenly given a second pair of eyes. Xander stood on the hull of a starship in...silver armor, looking out on a jungle world. A feminine hand reached for his shoulder, and he turned toward the source, smiling in a way Xel had never even seen. So...this is what the gray meant. His eyes slammed shut as he tried to block out the visions, his eyes burning with tears. A hand on his shoulder followed the disappearance of the vision.

"Xel, I—I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

He raised a hand. "It's all right," he choked out. "I just...his armor. It was gray when I knew him."

The wide-eyed expression on her face told him she knew the color's significance.

"He sacrificed his life with you...for me." Xel's fists clenched. "I...I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

Telia's grip tightened before she pulled him into a hug. "I know, Xel." Her hands stroked through his hair as he returned the embrace, her lips pressing against the top of his head. "But you were worth it." She pulled away and looked into his reddened eyes. "You are worth it."

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