Paneau: capital city of Dalon
"NO! Want Mommy! Want Mommy! WANT MOMMY!"
Derek Rys'tihn's defiant screams had just echoed up the Manor's main atrium to the fourth floor where Rech Natiyr was walking, headed toward the turbolift to begin his day. Curious, he stepped over to the railing and looked down to the atrium's ground level, watching Derek's tantrum on the floor with a heavy heart. He knew why the four-year-old boy was so upset...
Derek's mother, Jedi Knight Elena Rys'tihn, had been gone on an extended mission for the Jedi Order. She had become embroiled, maybe even trapped in a volatile civil war on Montar while trying to negotiate with both sides, despite having been singled out for the task by both. Along with her and Mand, Rech had also had brief experience with the two warring groups years ago as a Jedi Academy student, some time before they had all ended up on Paneau. The situation hadn't resolved in the interim; actually, it appeared to have escalated, and Elena had been there for nearly a year and a half. The separation had long since begun having a wearying effect on her family, and Rech had been on hand to watch it worsen day by day. Koril's increasing solitude and silence, while expected, made recent interactions with him delicate and awkward, but normally well-behaved, Derek hadn't acted out so dramatically before.
More than a dozen people, including servants, officers, and other various staff members, had stopped their tasks to worriedly watch their High Commander as he stood paralyzed in the face of his son's loud crying fit. Eager to help, Rech quickly continued down to the ground floor, stepping up to Koril and Derek...just as his own five-year-old daughter Cordira approached them from the other side of the room.
The girl's long, fiery orange-red hair carelessly floated behind her as she ran up to Derek's side, having left her seat and her breakfast in the dining hall to comfort him. She knelt beside him and hugged him tightly, talking to him quietly as he began calming in her hold. Within a few moments, Derek's only sounds were a few soft sobs, but he firmly maintained his gaze on the floor in front of him, refusing to look back up at his father. Cordira spoke up instead.
"Daddy, Mr. Rys'tihn, can we go play outside?"
Cordira's sweet, innocent Coruscanti accent was still so foreign to Rech, even though she had left her silent phase behind months ago. He still even had to control the reaction on his face every time she spoke...
Though he still looked so lost, Koril nodded shakily to Cordira, earning the attention of Kollie and Raen who were waiting nearby. Cordira stood and helped Derek to his feet, too, as he rubbed his face dry, still staring at his feet with an occasional sniffle. Koril watched blankly as the two children left with one of their nannies, and Rech only stepped closer to him when the crowd had dispersed, observing him closely for a few moments. When Koril remained silent and seemed completely unaware of his company, though, Rech gripped his shoulder to give him some encouragement, but he only became more concerned when Koril closed his eyes as if in defeat.
But contrary to Rech's initial assumption, Koril let go of a long, tired breath that was more indicative of relief than despair. His shoulders sagged with the release of obvious tension that had apparently been holding him prisoner, and as he opened his eyes once more, Rech noticed they suddenly seemed more...alert, more focused, almost as if he had just woken up and had consciously forced the weariness from his eyes. As strange as it seemed to Rech, he didn't dwell on it long; Koril turned to him with a resigned expression.
"I just asked him to put his shoes on."
Rech nodded, dropping his hand from Koril's shoulder. "He's tired. We all are."
Koril gave a half-hearted laugh. "At least we know someone can keep him in line."
"Yeah, she did have a way with him, didn't she?" Rech grinned, hoping to keep the tone of the conversation light as he glanced behind him at the hallway the three had left through. "I promise, I had nothing to do with that."
"I know," Koril answered with a light sigh. "They're inseparable. It's like they have their own language." The same distant and saddened look from earlier returned to his eyes as he continued. "A language I'll never know..."
Anxious to keep Koril's spirits up, Rech tried to refocus his thoughts. "Derek will be okay, Koril. He's already made it this long." He paused a moment, again redirecting the conversation. "Have you heard from her recently?"
Blinking repeatedly, Koril's eyes cleared again, and looking to Rech once more, he shook his head. "No, not for a few weeks now."
Rech struggled to refrain from frowning. "Well, from what you told me, it sounds like she's been making a lot of good progress recently, right? She's probably just really busy."
An odd twitch at the corner of his mouth delayed his breathy response. "Probably." Just as before, though, the distant look in his eyes was gone as quickly as it had returned, continuing to concern Rech. "I haven't seen Mand this morning."
"Early morning training sessions with Ri this week," he answered quickly, still watching Koril closely. "She's been leaving even before Cordira gets up."
Rech studied his friend's face for a moment, trying to determine if something else, something external and completely unrelated to his longing for his wife was behind the vacant stare that kept resurfacing... "Koril?"
"I have a long meeting with a group of Governors beginning this morning," Koril returned as he snapped back to attention. "I'll be in Kirodai for most of the day. Major Jax will be with me, so I'll be leaving Major Tidesetter in charge here. If you need anything, contact her first."
Rech nodded warily, but before he could ask a question, the other nanny approached them, holding a sleepy Dirani in her arms. Koril reached out and gently lifted the eighteen-month-old toddler from Raen into his hold, smoothing her fine white hair with his hand as she yawned and rubbed her eyes.
"Good morning, my sweet girl," he greeted her softly, giving her a light kiss at her temple. Dirani only made a tired, sad whine as she buried her face into his shoulder, tightly gripping a fistful of his uniform in her small hand. Raen looked apologetic.
"I think Derek kept her up through the night. She's usually very good about getting up in the morning."
Though Koril looked concerned, Major Jax earned his attention instead as he stepped up behind him, indicating that his transport had arrived for his trip. With another kiss on her head, Koril began handing Dirani back over to Raen despite the girl's delayed, sleepy cries. Raen gently bounced her in her arms to calm her, and Rech even rubbed her back, but Koril continued on out of the Manor with the same blank look on his face that remained unchanged even as Dirani's crying intensified.
"Elena! Elena! Elena!"
Hearing the other voice over her own pounding headache was just as painful as it was annoying.
"Stop yelling..." Elena managed to moan, keep her eyes tightly shut. Had she spoken loud enough to have been heard?
Beside her, her friend and fellow Jedi Knight Kihara Marelleck gave a short, amused laugh, confirming Elena's question.
"I wouldn't have to if you'd quit blacking out on me."
Elena still wasn't used to Kihara's informal and often irreverent attitude, especially while they operated as official ambassadors for the Jedi Order on Montar, but just glad to see Kihara back to her old self, the way she was before Master Noor's death, Elena couldn't complain too much.
She could tell she was laying on some kind of hard bench, and she was beginning to recognize the telltale hum of a ship's engines underneath her. The concern in Kihara's voice was new, too.
"Do I look it?"
Another short laugh. "Well, now that you mention it, you do look like hell."
If her eyes had been open, Elena would have rolled them. She sighed instead. "Appreciated."
She felt Kihara's heavy hand on her shoulder, and thankfully it didn't hurt. "Relax, you've just got a few cuts and bruises."
Was that all? She brought her hand up to her throbbing forehead, groaning. "My head..."
"...and maybe a solid concussion to round it all out," Kihara added reluctantly; Elena could imagine the wince on her friend's face. "Do you remember what happened?"
Finally forcing her eyes to open, she looked up through a haze as they watered reflexively, still traumatized by the...blast...
"An explosion in the marketplace."
The blurry outline of Kihara's face hovering over her nodded slowly.
Kihara shrugged. "A few. But don't worry. This time, it wasn't the Coerrel Government."
"How do you know?"
"A group of extremists were quick to take the credit. You weren't the target, though. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time...again."
A rash of small attacks had sullied her first few weeks of peacetalk efforts on Montar, though she had never been directly harmed by them. They were obviously designed to intimidate her, but she remained resolute, and they had even declined in frequency and lethality as the months wore on. Someone was apparently still dissatisfied, but she certainly wasn't going to back down now.
Feeling a few scrapes stinging on her face, she gingerly ran her finger over one on her cheek, rubbing some of the dried blood off her skin with a sigh. "My husband is not going to be happy..."
"A little bacta will clean up those cuts in no time, Elena."
But that wasn't the issue... "I promised him I wouldn't get hurt."
Instead of sympathy, a large grin spread across Kihara's face as she laughed. "Well, that was a dumb thing to do. You did tell him what happened to you the last time you were here, didn't you?"
The last time she had been on Montar, she had been much younger and much less experienced. What had happened back then shouldn't have had any bearing on how she'd perform now -
"Hey," Kihara continued with a muted, serious tone, seeming to have picked up on Elena's insulted thoughts. "The vote's in two weeks. We are almost through with this. We'll be going home soon."
Their transport's engines whined with the strain of a landing, and it rocked only slightly as it touched its struts to the ground. She could only assume that they had returned to their guest accommodations in Waeryll on the Bomarg side of Montar, the compound that had become her home for a year and a half...
"Home," she returned with uncertainty, thinking of nothing else besides her beloved Rys'tihn Manor and her family she missed dearly as Kihara and a few Bomarg Montarians helped her up and inside, tending to her wounds without much interaction from her. Before she was really aware of what all had happened, Kihara was already directing her to her bed within the modest compound, ready for sleep as night descended upon the city. As Kihara wordlessly climbed into her own bed on the other side of the small room, Elena followed suit, settling into her sheets as she thought through the day's events.
Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary as she left the Coerrel Council Chambers, as she had countless times before. The Coerrel Montarians were the aggressors in the ongoing fighting, determined to assert themselves as the dominant Montarians, but in recent months, she had been able to coax them into recognizing that their genetic similarities to the Bomarg Montarians made them equals, and that the two offshoots needed each other to survive. The Coerrel Council agreed to settle several border disputes with delegates from the Bomarg, but the majority of their policy changes was being left up to their voting public, and both Elena and Kihara had just earlier in the day arranged for the vote to be held in two weeks. Electing last minute to sample Coerrel cuisine before heading back to Waeryll for the night, Elena had apparently decided to visit the wrong marketplace; the explosion had been far enough away to not have immediately caused her serious injuries, but she must have been close enough to have been blasted back into a wall, earning her a concussion.
She could just imagine the look of worry and disappointment on Koril's face when he learned of the incident. He was so determined to keep her from ever getting hurt...
Except for what he was doing to her.
She hadn't physically been with him for the entirety of her stay on Montar, but she had done her best to keep in constant contact. Short messages, transmissions, even a few holos, but their conversations had become more and more one-sided over time, to the point where he hardly talked at all. She knew the distance was hard on him, especially with their two young children left solely in his care, but he had become increasingly distant and expressionless, and both Rech and Mand had confirmed on separate occasions that Koril was in that state almost constantly anymore. It saddened her, and if she was honest with herself, it scared her, too. How could she remedy it from the other side of the galaxy?
"I don't know what kind of home I'm going back to."
She had already spoken aloud before she realized that maybe Kihara had already gone to sleep. Looking apologetically over to her roommate, she was surprised to see Kihara still wide awake, meeting her gaze with sympathy. Initially, Elena regretted sharing such a painful, personal thought when she hadn't really intended to discuss it, but after considering it for a moment, she felt more relief than anything; maybe Kihara was feeling the same.
Her voice had almost stopped working, though. "...I think I'm losing Koril."
Kihara looked contemplative for a brief minute, but she shook her head knowingly, abnormally confident in her answer. "No, no you're not."
A bit put off by Kihara's certainty, Elena furrowed her brows. "He's hardly talked to me..."
Kihara shrugged nonchalantly, hinting at a grin. "He would have taken on the entirety of the Huxnel if you had asked him to. Oh wait..."
Their exchange that day before he handed himself over to the Huxnel, the last time she would see him for almost a year, still sent chills through her, vividly recalling that terrible virus's effects she had felt from him through the Force. She stared straight up at the dark ceiling overhead. "I didn't ask him to do that."
Kihara kept her tone light. "Even better, then. You didn't have to ask him."
Not appreciating the direction Kihara was taking, Elena shot her an irritated look, but Kihara was quick to counter.
"The point I'm trying to make...is that I know you would never lose him, not like this. It sounds to me like he's just...a bit lost without you. Lost like a little bantha cub."
Finally able to, Elena laughed, amused at the familiar children's story reference. "My mother used to read me that story..."
Kihara nodded after a moment, her voice more somber. "Mine, too."
Elena's expression fell, as well, recalling Kihara's traumatic childhood. Early in her life, Kihara had lost her entire family in a fire, and she was the only survivor thanks to the intervention of a Jedi Master who happened to be nearby and sought out the Force-sensitive girl. She still bore the scars around her eyes from the injuries she had sustained in the blaze, and she had been blind for years until her pregnancy with her daughter Danyielle, who was also Noor's daughter...
"I'm sure Dany misses you terribly."
Releasing a slow breath, Kihara nodded sadly, but as she looked back up, her expression was more reticent. "But I haven't been here nearly as long as you have. She's done okay so far. She's tough." A bittersweet smile spread across her face as she thought a moment longer. "She looks just like him, you know," she mused affectionately, "especially in the eyes. She even gives me the same 'I know I'm right and you're going to fold to me' look he always used on me..." Her smile faded, though, as she swallowed hard, refusing to lose herself in her emotions. "Genes are strong."
Though no one had ever said it outright, Elena still felt that in an indirect way, Noor's death had been her fault, as he had sacrificed his life to protect her unborn son Derek from a Force Lightning attack that would have killed him. The guilt had weighed upon her daily for years, and until now, she had never discussed her feelings on the matter with Kihara so personally...
"I know what he did," she interrupted Elena quietly, looking to the side as her voice shook. "And...as much as it hurt, losing him... I am glad he saved your son."
Unsure how to respond, Elena remained silent for what felt like several minutes, gathering her thoughts. She, too, cast her gaze elsewhere as she spoke, mostly because her eyes were refusing to focus...
"There was a long period of time...where not a day went by that I didn't wish I could have stopped him somehow. I've thought through that day over...and over...and over... I should've done something differently, so he wouldn't have had to... But recently, something's been stopping me. It's like a...a calmness...a sense of peace that I haven't had since that day. It's a feeling like...I should be okay with it. But why? Not for closure, not for the sake of my own conscience...but because I've realized that his sacrifice didn't just save my son's life...it saved others, too.
"As a Force Ghost, he brought Rech back from the Dark Side when no one else could have found him. He consoled Mand after her first traumatic miscarriage when even her husband couldn't get through to her. And I'm convinced that he's saved Koril's life numerous times, always bringing him back from what surely would have killed anyone else. I know it'll sound...stupid, or trite, but...I believe it was the will of the Force...and he obeyed to the last."
Kihara stared hard at the ceiling, pursing her quivering lips together to force slowed breaths in and out of her nose. After a few moments, tears fell from her eyes as she nodded, agreeing with a saddened smile. "He gave me my sight back." With a short laugh, she added, "Both kinds." Her expression fell again as she thought a moment more, her eyes closing drowsily. "You're lucky. You knew him longer than I did."
Though tiring, as well, Elena looked over at Kihara, keeping her voice quiet. "...doesn't he visit you?"
She looked up at the ceiling again, her brows furrowed. "Not since he healed my eyes. That was...a few years ago..." Her voice trailed off, as though she were reliving the memory, and she began to say more before she stopped herself and turned onto her side on her bed, facing away from Elena. "We should get some sleep. We have more Coerrel Councilors to talk to tomorrow."
Though Elena's lingering headache was going to keep her from getting much sleep, she agreed and put herself into a light regenerative trance, anxious about the two weeks' worth of work that still lay ahead of them.