Paneau: remote Naeron Mountains
Fighting a lingering headache, Cade sat at a table in the Retreat's main banquet hall, alone as he usually was. His nephew's family and his accompanying staff had all returned to the Manor in Dalon, relieved to finally be rid of the Kel Dor threat. It left the Retreat once again as Cade's safe haven for solitary reflection, the one place where he remembered that he actually belonged to a royal family, where he felt normal and not like the secret outcast he was born to be. The burden he bore as the Rys'tihn Master Ghost Heir was rapidly taking its toll on him, as his broken but mending ribs reminded him with every aching breath.
As much as he tried to keep it at bay, he couldn't prevent his thoughts from returning to that terrible encounter he had only barely managed to survive. He had gone over every detail of the events leading up to it that he could think of, desperate to figure out how the Kel Dor had bested their security so handily, but it only left him with more questions.
And more guilt.
The Royal Guards who had perished at the Kel Dor's hand had been Cade's charge; though they willingly protected the Retreat's guests, Cade was supposed to have been their first line of defense, but he had failed them, just as he had so very nearly failed his son...
It had been more than a month, but even just a brief flash of the memory, of holding Garran's lifeless body in his arms, still pained him deeply. Of course, Garran had survived thanks to Elena's quick work, but the raw emotion of that moment had brought back all the shame, the longing, the lifelong regret he had buried after Solienne had left Paneau with their son more than eighteen years ago. He had just gotten Garran back, sent home to him by Deilia, and the Kel Dor had tried to take him away again. He didn't think he could handle another loss.
With his rising anxiety, he rubbed his forehead to ease his worsening headache. He still suffered from the injuries he had sustained in his brawl with the Kel Dor, refusing more treatment than what help he had already received. The physical pain was a welcome distraction from his heartache, he feebly reasoned, even though he knew how ridiculous it sounded.
Another distraction came in the form of approaching footsteps, suddenly removing him from his thoughts. As he looked up to his new visitor, he stood immediately, not caring that his headache intensified with his swift movement. He could hardly breathe.
His son gave him a small, cautious smile as they met, but it didn't put Cade at ease at all. He could already tell there was a reason Garran had sought him out, and as the boy's expression fell before he spoke, Cade could feel his legs about to give out underneath him.
Those two words had stopped his heart just the same so many years ago, when Solienne had decided to accept exile in Cade's place. There was no way Garran could have known that, nor could he have intentionally been so cold. Cade knew Garran had his mother's gentle nature, her warm heart; he had seen that much as his son cared for Koril and Elena's children over the past few months. But this situation was so far removed from what had motivated Solienne's choice, all Cade could think to ask was...
For some reason, Garran looked momentarily surprised at the question, as though he had expected a different reaction entirely. He took a few breaths, slowly working up the courage to answer.
"It's not that I...want...to leave Paneau, leave you," he managed with a shaky voice. "But I owe it to Deilia. I won't...I refuse to let her suffer exile alone. When she can come back home...so will I."
It wasn't so dissimilar after all. The words were already leaving Cade's mouth before he realized what he was saying.
"You sound just like your mother..."
A brief twinge of pain and uncertainty registered in Garran's eyes, and it was with that small glimpse of fear that Cade understood what Garran had expected from him: an ultimatum.
"I won't stop you," Cade answered, the weakness in his voice a subtle indication of his reluctant resignation. "It's your choice." Against his better judgment, he added, "...just as it was hers."
Appreciative and relieved, Garran let go of a long, weary sigh, very nearly smiling once more as their gazes locked.
"She taught me a lot, Mom did, without ever really trying. I didn't know what I had learned until I got here and...faced a real test."
Staring down a lethal mercenary without any means of defense would have tested the resolve of even Cade's most skilled covert agents. Garran had already gotten the Rys'tihn children to safety, and yet he put himself between the Kel Dor and the rest of the Retreat's guests, offering up his own life to slow the intruder... Cade had no doubt Solienne would have done the same.
"She would have been so proud of you...as I am." With a light laugh, he even smiled in spite of himself as he shook his head. "I know I couldn't have done as good a job as she did."
Garran gave a wan, knowing grin. "...she didn't give you the chance, did she?"
How could such wisdom and maturity have come from an eighteen-year-old boy who'd just had his entire world turned upside down little less than a year ago? Fighting his rising emotions, Cade swallowed hard and released a short, shaky breath, moving the subject forward to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
"Your cousins are going to miss you."
Garran gave a small laugh. "No, they won't. They'll forget all about me in a few months. And they're supposed to, because I...I'm not supposed to exist."
Shards of ice tore through Cade's veins. If he thought so little of himself... "Garran..."
But Garran still smiled. "No, it's okay," he buffered reassuringly. "I understand what I am. I'm supposed to be like you, like Deilia. I'm...I'm a ghost. It's what I was born into, and it's all I've known." The compassion in his eyes was so familiar. "I'm not angry or bitter about it, now that I know. I think...I think I'm okay."
Cade struggled to find his voice again. "I don't think any of us are ever okay with it, but...we each make it our own."
"Then you understand. That's why I have to go with Deilia. I don't want her to be alone. If that has to be my job, to be her friend in her exile...then I'll do it."
The mix of pride and grief was a difficult combination to master. He couldn't stand the thought of losing his son a third time, but neither did he have the heart to force Garran to relinquish the debt he felt he owed to Deilia. He would have to watch his son walk away, just as Solienne had, without any guarantee that he would return. Knowing that Deilia would have a companion, though, was almost a relief, as much trouble as she had attracted in her few years of exile. As desperately as he wanted to fight against it...he had to give in.
"You take care of her," he mandated with as much strength as he could muster. "She likes to pretend she doesn't, but she needs someone just like the rest of us do. Don't let her tell you otherwise."
Nodding with understanding, Garran smiled. "I'll make sure she's okay." Before Cade could add anything more, Garran dug into his pocket and pulled something from it, handing it to him without hesitation. "Here. I want you to take this."
Cade knew what it was the instant he felt its cool, smooth surface. He didn't have to look at it. "Garran, this is yours..."
"I know," he answered with a grin. "I want you to keep it for me. Keep it safe. I have my Crest, but...I'll be back for my Life Stone."
Clutching the green marbled stone in his palm, Cade only barely managed to nod in agreement. It seemed so...surreal, so final, even moreso than how Solienne had left him. He had no more words, he could only look on his son with worry, regret, pride, hope...
With only a heartfelt smile, Garran stepped closer and embraced him tightly, unintentionally destroying Cade's last remaining reserve of strength.
"I love you, Dad."
He wasn't sure if Garran could hear him, because he was certain his voice had ceased to work. "I love you, too, Son." Before he became too lost in his emotions, he held his breath a moment as he took a step back from Garran, looking him in the eye once more. "You should get going. She won't like having to wait on you."
Garran agreed with a grinning nod, turning to leave the way he came. He didn't look back as he walked away, but Cade didn't expect him to; he had already made up his mind before he'd even stepped into the room.
Just as his mother had.
Paneau: capital city of Dalon
The sound of her daughter's soft cooing from across the room slowly brought Mand out of her light slumber. She was reclined in a comfortable, angled bed in the medical wing of the Manor, her home since being released from the Dalon Medical Center a few weeks ago. Along with a number of nurses, her mother-in-law, Untra Natiyr, had been her constant company, which afforded Rech a break Mand knew he appreciated. Still without the strength to even stand, Mand was forced to rely on others to care for her twins. As much as Untra was enamored with the newborn girls, though, Mand didn't think she minded much.
Lifting her heavy eyelids open, she looked over and saw Untra, as she expected, gently rocking Aruun in her arms as she made small noises. But just beside her, she saw her sister-in-law Yhren holding the other girl, Arlen, as she quietly slept. Yhren was first to meet Mand's gaze, and as she carefully made her way over to her with the infant, Mand smiled broadly at her.
"Yhren," she managed weakly. "When did you get back?"
Yhren smiled in return, keeping her voice low to avoid disturbing Arlen. "A few hours ago. And I'll be here as long as I...need to be."
Though Mand thought her brief hesitation had been odd, she still appreciated the pledge as she laughed lightly. "We'll see how long that lasts. I'm sure you'll have your fill of these two in a few days."
Looking down at Arlen in her hold, Yhren shook her head. "But she's so quiet, even when she's awake. Like she's just...watching, studying everything."
"Rech was the same way."
Stepping over to them, Untra couldn't contain her smile as she continued. "He was such a good baby. He hardly ever made a fuss. They may be identical twins, but this one," she indicated Aruun still quietly grunting in her arms, "sounds like she's going to more than make up for the difference."
"She can scream and cry all she wants," Mand answered softly. "It reminds me how strong she is. How strong they both are."
A brief, reflective silence hung over the women before Untra reached down and gently squeezed Mand's hand. "After all you went through for them...you think there's any way they wouldn't be?"
Appreciating her support, Mand smiled warmly, returning Untra's grip on her hand. "Thank you both for your help. Rech needed this."
They both nodded in response, but it was Untra who answered her.
"It's really nothing, Mand. We're happy to do whatever we can for you and the girls." Pausing a moment as a wry smile formed on her face, Untra turned and began to return Aruun to her cradle on the other side of the room. "Besides...Yhren could use the practice."
Surprised and thoroughly embarrassed, Yhren struggled to form words as her cheeks flushed bright red. "Wha - but - ...Mom!" She looked to Mand, almost sounding defensive. "Listen, I - I'm not..." But she couldn't finish her sentence, still upset with her mother.
"What, Sweetie?" Untra innocently directed back at her, lightly tucking Aruun into her bed. "It's never too early to start planning for the future. You are going to give me more grandchildren, aren't you?"
Taking some strange pleasure in making her daughter so uncomfortable, Untra returned to them, still grinning. "Oh, it's not any secret, Yhren. You and that sweet pilot have been seeing each other for a few weeks now. You're happy, and I'm happy for you. You friends should be, too."
Mand glanced between the two, her curiosity piqued. "You'll have to fill me in. I have been out of it for a while, you know."
Yhren had opened her mouth to respond, but new footsteps echoed into the room from the door. Before Mand could turn her head to look, Untra had already spotted their new visitors.
"Speaking of, there he is."
Finally able to, Mand turned to see Elena being carefully helped into the room by Lt. Saross Wip, a pilot for Paneau's Edgepoint Squadron. Heavily pregnant, she was slow on her feet as she made her way to a chair beside Mand's bed, and though her expression remained light, Swip beside her looked little less than nervous with her.
Mand watched as Yhren returned Arlen to her cradle with her sister, seeming to take extra care with her to afford herself some time to recover her composure. Untra followed Mand's gaze, staying silent but still grinning.
"I sure hope you weren't as hard on Rech," Mand teased lightly. To her surprise, Untra's expression became more solemn as she thought.
"You and Rech were...different."
Mand furrowed her brows, unsure what she meant. "We were...younger?"
Untra shrugged. "Well, yes, there was that. But before he even brought you to us...you two had already been through a great deal together. It wasn't hard to see how much...and how deeply he cared for you. I worried for him more than anything, but...what mother wouldn't."
As Yhren stepped over to them once more, Mand returned her attention to Elena as her friend eased herself down onto the chair beside her. The effort seemed to have exhausted her, and Swip still looked her over with concern, worrying Mand, as well.
"Elena? Are you alright?"
Before she could deflect, Swip answered for her. "Early labor."
"I'm fine," Elena was quick to counter. "I can slow it down." She looked to Mand for sympathy as she wrapped an arm around her round belly. "You know how long I postponed it with Derek."
"You had to," Mand responded weakly. "He was way too early. But you're nearly full term with this one, and you're safe at home. You shouldn't interfere with it."
But Elena remained resolute, shaking her head. "I want Koril and Rech to be here for it. This is my third child. I think I know what I'm doing, and I can hold it off for a few hours, without any problems, until they get back from the ceremony."
Though Mand was far from pacified, the others seemed to accept Elena's assertion as they left Mand's side, stepping over to the twins' cradle to talk quietly with each other. With a small smile, Mand watched the somewhat awkward introduction Yhren gave her mother, which Swip returned with a polite bow. In true form, though, Untra simply pulled him into a warm embrace he wasn't expecting on their first meeting. Mand laughed lightly as she turned to Elena.
"So, your pilot is stealing my sister-in-law? When were you planning on telling me?"
Elena rolled her eyes with a playful grin. "He's not 'stealing' her anywhere. In fact...the Manor is about to get another new guest."
"What do you mean?"
Looking over at Yhren with Swip, Elena smiled with memories of her own. "You and Rech were the first to meet Koril before I did. Do you remember why?"
Mand nodded, slowly recalling their first introduction to the friendly pilot so many years ago. "He brought us to Paneau from Hoth, before Cordira was born."
"At Veon's request. Koril was the Banareccs' personal pilot and bodyguard, chosen from the ranks of the Edgepoint Squadron. And, well...we've asked Swip to do the same for us." Looking back up at the group, Elena smiled contentedly. "It'll be a good fit for him, and for us. The children can't get enough of him, and Koril knows how much I trust him. So he can be on call when we need him, he'll move into a room here in the Manor. He'll be more...available, at least moreso than he was with the busy schedule the Edgepoints kept, and I'm sure he won't be the only one who will appreciate that."
Smiling as she, too, looked over to the enamored pair, Mand released a slow, contented breath. "They look...happy. Reminds me of a certain couple, not so many years ago..."
Elena nodded absentmindedly, not understanding Mand's meaning until she met her gaze. The shift in conversation to herself made her laugh, blushing with memories of her own relationship with Koril in its similarly early stages. Her thoughts didn't linger in the past for very long, Mand could tell, as tears slowly formed in her eyes with a wan smile.
"You have no idea how...relieved I am...to have him back."
With the little strength she had left, Mand slowly lifted her arm and reached over to Elena, only able to lightly grip her hand to share her support. Mand was only recently made aware of the specifics of Koril's final fight with the spirit of Morden Tarthos, but even in her severely weakened state, she could sense that her father's evil influence over Koril was completely gone, thanks to both his and Rech's combined efforts just a few weeks ago.
"I'm sorry he had to go through that," Mand soothed softly, "but I never lost faith in him, Elena. I want you to know that. And I want him to know that, too."
Holding Dirani in his arms and tugging Derek along behind him, Koril stepped into the room with a warm smile, as did Rech just after him with Cordira at his side. Both men were dressed in their finest uniforms, prepared for the ceremony they were about to attend, and they each greeted their wives with a small, sweet kiss. Mand was only able to lightly stroke Cordira's hair before she and Derek ran over to the opposite side of the room, more interested in seeing the sleeping twins. Elena shook her head as she laughed at the two, taking Dirani from Koril's hold into her limited lap.
"How are you feeling, Sweetheart?"
Shooting a brief challenging look at Mand, Elena answered Koril with confidence. "I feel good."
"That baby should be here any day now, Elena," Rech looked her over with mild concern. "Barring any new...developments, you should finally be able to deliver here at home." He paused a moment, teasing with an affectionate grin. "It'll be a new experience for all of us."
Holding Dirani with one arm and Koril's hand in her other, Elena had to laugh as she rolled her eyes. "Yes, I remember very well the trying circumstances under which my first two were born. Please, don't curse my third."
"Have you decided on a name for her?"
Koril and Elena exchanged meaningful glances before he answered. "Kaylina. It's a combination of the first names of our paternal grandmothers, Kayvier Rys'tihn and Morlina Lyran."
"We thought that since Derek was named for Koril's ancestor and Dirani for my maternal grandmother, this one should incorporate both sides."
Mand could only smile at her friends. "It's beautiful."
Reluctantly interrupting their discussion, Swip stepped toward them, addressing Koril directly. "The Celestia is ready for you, High Commander, whenever you wish to leave."
"The Scepter Guard will be expecting us to arrive early anyway," Koril nodded to Swip, looking up at Rech for his agreement. "Whenever you're ready."
Rech, however, looked to Mand and Elena first. "Is there anything you need us to bring you before we leave?"
"No, we're fine," Mand answered with a tired smile. "Untra and Yhren will be here with us."
Both Koril and Rech still looked hesitant to leave, though, forcing Elena to offer further reassurance. "I was there for the small, intimate wedding, but this event will be nothing less than grandiose. You both should just relax and enjoy it."
The official wedding of Verojec Banarecc and Seyiri Ordeel and the subsequent installation of Seyiri as Queen of Paneau was certainly going to be a joyous celebration that the beleaguered planet hadn't seen since Jec's coronation almost six years prior. As much as Mand wanted to attend, she was nowhere near being recovered enough, a fact that apparently kept Rech from leaving her side. With further gentle encouragement from her, though he eventually left with Swip and Koril, taking both Derek and Cordira with them.
Wearied from the lengthy conversations, Mand had to rest. Though none of her questions had been answered about the Kel Dor, such as who had employed him or why, she took comfort in the fact that he remained incarcerated in the Dalon Detention Center. Cordira was no longer the target of a kidnapping, and her twin girls were no longer being threatened by the spirit of her deceased father. Aruun and Arlen were healthy, and they were safe. Mand herself had a long way to go, but surrounded by her family and friends, she felt certain she would be back on her feet in no time.