Paneau: capital city of Dalon
Dalon Medical Center
Even though his eyes were closed, Horatio felt them stinging with the intense, excessive light that seemed to be hovering mere centimeters from his face. The cell he had been in for days on the spicers' asteroid had been almost pitch black, even before the base's power had been cut when the spicers left. The brightness, then, meant one of two things: either the spicers had come back for him and planned to torture him further aboard their flagship...or he was dead.
But if he was dead, why would his eyes hurt?
As the rest of his senses began returning to him, he realized he was laying on something...comfortable, no longer feeling the jagged asteroid floor stabbing into his bruised, broken body. Was he just numb to further pain? The more he thought, though, the more he noticed that no other pain was ailing him at all, not even his shattered shoulders that had seared anew as shards of bones tore new paths of damage through his muscles with each successive breath. Surely his captors hadn't treated him. Why didn't he feel any of his injuries anymore?
He listened to his surroundings intently, but it was exceptionally quiet, not giving him any clues as to where he was. Something told him he wasn't alone, however, so despite the discomfort, he began forcing his eyes open, anxious to see his company...
"We're back on Paneau, Horatio," Mand told him softly. "You're okay."
...if he was dead, then so was she.
He struggled to keep his eyes open long enough to look around, but finally able to, he saw the plush bed he was reclined in, the small, quiet room he was in, and only Mand seated at his side. She had her hair tied behind her, and though she hadn't yet returned it to its original color, it had at least been tamed and smoothed. The expression on her face wasn't what he would've expected, though; instead of her usual loathing and hatred for him, she looked almost...concerned, maybe even worried as she looked on him. It made him even less sure that she wasn't just a hallucination.
"Don't give me that look," she continued dryly, though her expression remained the same. "I suffered just as much as you did. It wasn't that different."
Taking a moment to process what she meant, he slowly looked down at himself, noticing his perfectly healed arms, freely resting at his sides as they hadn't during his imprisonment.
"...then why aren't there binders on my wrists?"
His voice was rougher than he anticipated, dulling some of the sarcastic bite he had behind it. If they really were back on Paneau, he'd expect her family and friends to have blamed him for what had happened to her, since he was an easy and favorite target for it. But again surprising him, her eyes softened as he hadn't seen in years...
"Paneau isn't charging you with anything."
He searched her face for any trace of betrayal, or even just a weak joke, but found nothing. She only looked on him with a strange kind of...compassion, but why? She should be feeling anything else besides that. She was so confusing...
"How did we... How are we still alive?"
Her eyes lowered to the floor as she spoke, as though she were reluctant to share. "I told you, I was trying to contact someone. Rech finally heard me, and he brought an extraction team to us." She paused a moment, looking back up to him with an almost repentant expression. "I put us both in a trance to conserve oxygen... Looks like it paid off. Rech was able to bring you back from the brink of death."
Her eyes saddened, though, after a moment, but he couldn't figure out why until she continued.
"...I'm sorry you couldn't rescue your nephew."
Horatio's gaze hardened, glaring at her. "I don't need your pity," he bit back darkly. He released a shaky breath, though, as he looked away, his anger fading with thoughts of Max. "...he does."
Though Mand remained silent at his side, asking no more from him, he continued anyway, again inexplicably sharing his thoughts with her when he normally wouldn't have said anymore.
"I met him," he said quietly, though he thought for a moment before going on. "Actually...he met me. He brought me food and drink, like he was his father's slave." He gave a short, bitter scoff, recalling his exchange with the boy. "I didn't even have to tell him who I was. He figured it out himself."
Mand simply nodded, watching him attentively. "Smart boy."
"He has his mother's sharp wit, too. He couldn't have survived among those spicers all this time without it." His expression faltered as she swallowed hard, considering what had happened to Max... "But he's gone now... I...I could've taken him away from them...but they're gone."
Mand's voice was reserved, if even somewhat sympathetic. "None of the intelligence agents in the area can figure out why they left. They just...disappeared."
...but he knew why.
Mand must have seen the realization pass over his face. "...Horatio?"
He could hardly talk in his shock. "It was Max... He...he said he'd get me released without angering Soran...and he did."
"I don't know." He could hardly hear his own voice. "The kid had some kind of plan," he added with a laugh of disbelief. "It worked." The more he thought about what Max must have done, though, a pang of fear gripped him as he realized what it meant... "But I'm never going to see him again."
Mand's voice was still soft. "We found them this time. They can be found again. All you have to do is keep an eye out for more of those spice deaths. They weren't finished refining their new formula, so they'll need to keep testing it."
Suddenly angry again, he put as much venom behind his words as he could, narrowing his eyes at her. "Why do you care? You only came on this mission to get revenge for Veon. Max isn't your family."
"No, he's not," she returned quietly, seeming to have expected his reaction. "But I know what that's like...trying to chase down the family you never knew before they're taken away from you."
He could feel himself still trembling, infuriated that she would even dare to compare his situation to hers. "Out here, Max is all I have. Your family is always within reach. You don't need any of the Tarthos from your past."
She nodded calmly. "I know where I am right now, but that doesn't tell me where I came from. I know what you're feeling, Horatio... I want to help you."
Frustrated and refusing her help, he looked away from her. "You can't help me."
"Tzymo hired me to bring Max to him," he confessed, his voice shaking as he kept his gaze focused elsewhere. "...but I can't do that. I won't...just like Tzymo won't take no for an answer." He slowly shook his head, resigning to his fate he saw no way out of. "You can't help me," he repeated weakly. "I'm a dead man."
Though she didn't move from his side, Mand said nothing, not even to argue with his statement. He hadn't really expected her to, but her continued silence went on for minutes, heightening his anxiety. He was about to tell her to leave when she finally spoke up again, though her train of thought had taken a different direction entirely as she was seemingly thinking back to their argument more than seven months prior.
"You really did give Koril his antidote, didn't you?"
Blindsided by the change in the discussion, he looked up at her, his brows furrowed in confusion. How had she gotten back to that issue she had brought up so long ago?
Her eyes were only inquisitive, her voice soft. "Like you said, Tzymo could've killed you for it back then. Why'd you do it?"
With Tzymo's other mercenaries no doubt already on the hunt for him for failing his mission, he was going to have to disappear, and quickly; this was probably going to be the last time he ever spoke to her...
"Because I owe him."
Slightly confused, Mand looked down in thought, but when she returned to him, she seemed even more unsure.
"No, you don't," she began carefully, "and you didn't then. The first time you met on H-" Broken mid-sentence by her own realization, her expression saddened as she searched his eyes, her voice even softer with compassion.
Even after all the years that had passed since that disastrous mission on Hoth that had cost Tarin Scorne and Jaala Rys'tihn-Scorne their lives, Horatio still cringed each time he heard her name. He felt ultimately responsible for her death, since it had been his choice to help Mand, his partner at the time, instead of protecting Jaala as a band of rival pirates threatened her in the skies over the ice planet. He rushed to Mand's side to save her from a blast that would have killed her instantly, leaving Jaala even more vulnerable...
"Horatio," Mand soothed with care, "that wasn't your fault. If you hadn't come back for me, you would've been killed, too, even if you had managed to get back to Armiger with the painting. My master Cyrix would not have been merciful to you for my death." She sighed lightly, looking over him briefly before she continued. "Your choice was made for you before you even made it. You've more than repaid your debt; it doesn't have to burden you any longer."
Though he wasn't sure why, her assurances only angered him further. "I don't need your absolution, either. If you're going to continue patronizing me, you should go find one of Tzymo's hired guns and bring him here to put me out of my misery."
Even though he had spoken with all the malice he could muster, Mand's expression didn't change, and she even seemed more sympathetic than before. After all the time they had spent at each other's throats when they weren't putting on an act for the spicers, he was completely baffled by her change in attitude towards him. They had nearly suffocated to death together, left behind on the spicers' asteroid, but could that have really erased more than seven months of mutual loathing?
"You're free to leave whenever you choose," she told him calmly as she slowly stood from his side. "Your ship will be waiting for you in the hangar on ground level." She began to say something more, but she stopped herself, stepping out the door quietly and leaving him alone in the room.
Paneau: capital city of Dalon
The tranquility of the cool, starry night did nothing to ease the strain that still wore on Koril even as he stood out on his bedroom balcony in light, casual clothes, enveloped by the Manor's serene violet landscape. He could see Dalon's silent, twinkling lights in the distance, appearing like a distorted mirror situated just at the feet of the Naeron Mountains that bordered the city. As much as it would have calmed him in any other situation, the sight only deepened his despair, for the city served as a constant cruel reminder of everything that had happened over the past year. The one thing he couldn't accept, no matter how hard he tried, was the thought that his twin sister, his Rys'tihn Tyro Ghost Heir...was gone, and that she had died protecting him and his son.
It had been more than three months since the disastrous, final encounter with Brylie Herrell, his former flame who had so easily spread chaos and fear throughout the entire sector. She had conspired with a band of spicers to shame and disgrace him, and she killed countless innocent citizens along the way to spread his attention so thin that he couldn't respond effectively. She would have accomplished her mission had it not been for Deilia's timely intervention, but it brought him little relief; with her dying breaths, she had killed Brylie before the insane woman could hurt Derek.
But Brylie's dagger had already done its intended damage.
He had gently cradled Deilia in his arms as she died, connecting to her in a way he still wasn't able to comprehend, nor had he been able to explain to anyone. Elena had described what someone's death would have felt like to him in the Force, but he hadn't experienced anything like it; in fact, he had felt quite the opposite effect. Instead of feeling numb or empty like she had said, he was nearly overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions he was very certain weren't his own. It was as though he were hearing a handful of other people's minds in his own head, people he didn't know and had no connection to previously. Elena had helped him to quiet the noise form time to time, but more often than not, he kept it to himself, sifting through it all on his own. How had he come by this strange new...ability? Did it have something to do with how he had tried to save Deilia with the Force he didn't yet understand?
All these months, and he still couldn't get his uncle Cade, his Master Ghost Heir, to answer him after dozens of attempts to contact him. Koril not only wanted to know what had happened to Deilia, but also if the spicer threat had really disappeared as Mand had reported. The Ghost Heirs' covert agents had been keeping close tabs on the group, but other than what little his officers could tell him, he had no idea how anything had been resolved, and it frustrated him immensely. Even when he tried to meet Cade at the Rys'tihn Retreat, the elder Rys'tihn declined to show. Koril knew his uncle was getting his messages; why wasn't he returning them with answers?
As much as he refused to believe that his sister was dead, he never could tell if what he felt, all those new connections he had incidentally forged in that moment months ago, meant that she had survived somehow. He very distinctly recalled her slowing heartbeat, her weak, desperate last breaths, her body becoming still against him, so why didn't he feel that hollowness Elena had told him he would?
His bedroom behind him was empty, despite the late hour of the night, but it allowed him to think without worrying that Elena would pick up on his thoughts. She had gone to the room beside theirs to check on Derek and feed Dirani before she came to bed; she hadn't been gone long enough, though, when he heard a door slide open in the room behind him...
He was afraid to turn around, unwilling to suffer the embarrassment of false, desperate hopes despite being alone. He could even hear her soft, hesitant footsteps...he had to look...
"Try to not seem so surprised... I have been a Ghost all my life, you know."
He could hardly breathe.
Though her hair was a bit longer, she looked exactly as she did before as she gave him a tired, genuine smile, stepping toward him with no discernible impedance. She looked healthy, as though nothing had happened, and she hadn't lost her ability to accurately read his expression, either.
"I'm sorry you've been kept in the dark," she apologized softly, but her smile returned a moment later. "Cade assumed you knew...that you had saved me."
Still in shock, he barely moved. "No...I didn't."
She grimaced in sympathy for his prolonged suffering, but as she pulled him into a tight, meaningful embrace, he felt every ounce of tension leave him immediately, nearly reducing him to his knees. He held even more tightly to her for a moment before he released her slightly, suddenly afraid he'd caused her pain-
"You can't hurt me, Koril," she told him softly with a worn smile. "I'm all healed up."
He even began to smile, too, but the longer he held her gaze, the more he realized her eyes were holding back not physical pain, but something much deeper. His own expression fell as tears slowly built in her eyes, though she refused to shed them. He gripped her shoulders, searching her face intensely, but she remained silent.
"Deilia? What is it?"
Her eyes continued to sadden, and as she released a shaky breath, she struggled to maintain her gaze with Koril, her voice suddenly faint.
Koril blinked. "I don't understand."
She swallowed dryly, still fighting her tears. "They're...relieving me of my duties for a while."
"Overexposure," she continued weakly. He could feel her shaking in his hold. "Too much...visibility..."
His shock was beginning to convert into outrage. "For what you did in the hangar? For me? For Derek?"
She nodded. "There were too many people."
"They were all Royal Forces-"
"I know," she quieted him, lightly stroking his face. Her voice was even softer as she tried to give him a weak, sad smile. "But this is the way it has to be."
Struggling to comprehend her punishment, he rapidly thought through any reasoning that would make sense, but he remained baffled. "You'll still be here, though...right?"
Her eyes saddened even more and her lower lip trembled as she shook her head. Her tears finally fell with a soft sob that escaped her, nearly breaking down. "I have to leave my son..."
Feeling her heartbreak and his own, he somehow managed to find his voice again. "For how long?"
"Five," she whispered, "maybe ten...years."
Stunned, Koril stared wide-eyed, stepping from her toward the door. "That is unacceptable. I will talk to Cade, force him to meet me-"
"No, Koril, you can't!" she pleaded sadly, gripping his arms to stop him from leaving. "They don't know I'm here... I wasn't supposed to see you before I left."
He felt powerless, but there had to be something he could do. "Deilia..."
Despite the tears still flowing down her cheeks, her eyes sharpened as she tightened her hold on him. "I don't regret anything I did," she told him strongly, "and I don't want you to feel responsible for any of this, do you understand me?"
Only barely able to, he nodded, looking over her sadly. Her eyes softened again as a brief silence passed between them, and as she took in a deep breath to calm her sobs, she loosened her grip, looking up at him once more.
"It'll be better this way." She could barely continue, though, as she stepped back from him. "Look in on Malin for me. He'll have Cade and his father, but...let him know how much I love him."
"Deilia..." His heart wrenched into a searing knot; the two most important women in his life were leaving him within hours of each other...
But she stood firm, her voice only wavering slightly. "Goodbye, Koril." A bittersweet smile was the last thing he saw on her face. "Try to stay out of trouble, if you can."
Paneau: capital city of Dalon
As Mand gently tucked the blanket around her sleeping three-year-old daughter, she sighed sadly but quietly, hoping Cordira would stay asleep despite her presence there beside her. She had become used to shielding her emotions from the young girl because of the heightened sensitivity she had to them, but she wondered if perhaps it was doing more harm than good.
In the three months since she had returned from her seven-month absence, Cordira hadn't said a word to her, only answering her questions with a nod or shake of her head or pointing at whatever it was that she wanted. Cordira had always been very vocal since she was an infant, and even up until the day Veon had been killed, she was vibrant and happy. All of that had changed, though, following those events, and Mand felt helpless to reverse it. Cordira wasn't...afraid of her, but the distance she kept hurt just as much. Reassurances, affection, interaction...nothing seemed to be getting through to her. Even their connection in the Force seemed weak. Had she unintentionally severed it, and Cordira didn't know how to process it?
Rech slowly stepped up behind her, putting a hand lightly on her shoulder as they stood in silence, watching Cordira sleep. They were still repairing their own distance after he had learned of her mission with Horatio, but strangely enough, it seemed to be far easier to earn his forgiveness than Cordira's, saddening her further.
"She's been sleeping better this week," Rech whispered, squeezing Mand's shoulder gently. She nodded, leaning into him a bit as her worry continued to fatigue her.
"Hopefully, it'll keep up. Elena's leaving for Montar in the morning, and I'm afraid Derek won't take it very well, which means it might affect Cordira, too."
Concerned and interested in continuing their conversation without waking Cordira, Rech wrapped his arm around Mand's shoulders and walked with her out of the room, closing the door behind them as they stood in their main living room in the Manor.
"Montar? Paneau business is taking her there?"
Mand shook her head. "No, she's accepted a mission from the Order. The Bomarg Montarians asked for her specifically. She got a lot closer to their government than we did when we were there."
In the past, Rech, Mand, Elena, and their late friend Gith had all gotten tangled up in the Montarian civil war during a break in their studies at the Jedi Academy. The situation had been dangerous at best back then, more than seven years ago, and even though they had left the mess in the capable hands of a few Jedi Masters, it appeared that not much progress had been made in the interim.
"It'll be a good opportunity for her, though," Rech continued quietly. "How did Koril take it?"
Mand sighed. "As well as can be expected. He's still so...distraught, but I don't think it would've made a difference. I told Elena I'd keep a close eye on Dirani."
Rech nodded and released a slow, heavy breath, his shoulders sagging with exhaustion Mand was well familiar with herself. She brought her hand up to the side of his face, lightly caressing his cheek.
He nodded again. "Veron isn't taking to his therapy very well, and it's made using his new hover chair that much more difficult. I'll have to talk with some engineers and mechanics tomorrow, see if it can't be modified to stabilize his legs since he can't hold them in place himself."
Sensing his frustration, Mand hugged him tightly, keeping her voice soft. "It will be an adjustment for everyone, Rech. He just woke up a week ago, and it's a miracle that he's doing this well already. It will get better."
Feeling him return her embrace calmed her own worry, and not only just about his tiredness. Veron Banarecc had been in a coma since the deadly attack on the Banarecc Estate a year ago, and though it had claimed the life of his brother Veon, Veron had finally woken up, much to the delight of his family. It was soon discovered, however, that Veron was paralyzed from the waist down by the neurotoxin he had breathed in during the attack, and the prognosis had been difficult for him to accept. Rech had been working with him every day, though, along with a team of medics to help him adjust, and though Mand had resumed Ri's training, the girl spent her free time with her uncle to keep him encouraged.
A soft knock at their door interrupted their moment, but Mand kissed him lightly on his cheek before he turned to answer it.
Standing in the hall were the Manor's two nannies, Kollie and Raen. They watched Cordira, Derek, and Dirani during the day in the Manor's nursery and playroom, so seeing them in the evening was unusual.
"Mr. and Mrs. Natiyr," Raen addressed them politely. "We hope we're not disturbing you so late."
"No, you're not," Rech answered just as kindly. "Is there something wrong?"
Kollie and Raen exchanged uneasy looks with each other, and Kollie spoke up next. "We wanted to...discuss something we've noticed about Cordira recently."
Concerned, Rech immediately invited them into the living room, and Mand sat beside him as the two nannies sat opposite them on another couch.
"It's nothing...serious," Raen prefaced carefully, "but...well, you've noticed that her accent has changed, haven't you?"
Mand furrowed her brows as she glanced at Rech. "...her accent?"
Rech sighed sadly. "She hasn't said much of anything to either of us for a while."
Kollie looked confused. "She's very conversational with us and the Rys'tihn children during the day. And we've noticed that...gradually...she's begun to sound Coruscanti."
"But we can't figure out who she would have heard it from," Raen continued. "None of the staff here in the Manor are Coruscanti, nor are any recent visitors or other children she's had contact with... We're a little lost."
Mand struggled to swallow with a dry throat. "Has anything else changed? Her behavior?"
"She's been a little quieter," Kollie confessed, "but she's still very playful and energetic, and she carries on extended conversations with Derek like nothing's changed. Like we said, it's not serious, just...somewhat odd."
Completely baffled, Mand stared at the floor, running all the Coruscanti she knew through her mind. Jedi Master Amina Kanomin was the only one she could think of who had had extended contact with Cordira, but even then it had been fleeting, and it hadn't been recent...
"Thank you both for bringing this to our attention," Rech said as he stood from his seat, leading the two out. "We appreciate your concern. We'll do some investigating and let you know what we find out."
Master Noor had grown up on a Mid Rim junkyard, Ord Mantell; he spoke normal Basic. And hadn't Tascit come from Aquilaris, an Outer Rim water-covered planet?
"Mand," Rech interrupted her thoughts, standing in front of her once more. As she looked up at him, he held his hand out to her, slowly helping her to her feet.
"We can figure it out later," he soothed quietly as she stood with him. "She's asleep right now, anyway." Still holding her hand, he squeezed it gently, looking at her with a tired gaze. "Come on... It's late."
Though still trying to process it, she nodded and quietly walked with him to their bedroom for the night.