Breathless, Koril Rys'tihn could hardly move. In the back of his mind, he had always known it was going to happen someday, but he hadn't expected to feel such...mixed emotions about it.
Stepping up behind him in the Celestia's main corridor, his friend Mand Natiyr gently gripped his arm, her voice soft as if to keep from startling him.
"Koril? Are you alright?"
He couldn't tear his gaze away. It was all just as he remembered it, right down to the gleeful laughter and clatter of sprinting feet echoing through the ship's open dining hall.
"This is it," he finally managed to respond, his words barely audible. He still had a hard time believing it. "This is what she showed me."
Close to ten years ago, a debilitating virus given to him as part of his capture had all but done its job. Tortured for four straight months with its agony-inducing attacks, he had barely survived, very nearly succumbing to the psychological damage it had caused. His friends had saved him from physical death, but his soul had never been in a darker, more desolate place. To give him the will to continue, an old friend, though long deceased, had intervened, showing him a vision of his family's future...and now he was standing right in front of it.
His oldest son, Derek, sat at a table in the middle of the room with his closest friend Cordira Natiyr, busy playing a fun, challenging card game. Separated by only a year in age, the two were more like siblings, almost always together, and almost always accompanied by Derek's shadow, his younger sister Dirani. At seven years old, she was staunchly determined to keep up with the older two, though they had two and three years on her.
Running circles around the oldest three were the younger ones. Rech and Mand's twin girls Aruun and Arlen were enough of a handful themselves, and with his daughter Kaylina, the four-year-old girls kept each other plenty well entertained. And just along for the chase was Koril's youngest, Kyren, who had just turned three and matched his sister's and friends' playful squealing with amused laughter of his own.
Seven children, a mix of both families and full of nothing but love and affection for each other...and Koril couldn't help but wonder just how much longer it could last.
Still beside him and unaware of his anxiety, Mand sighed wistfully. "It's better than I ever could have imagined."
He had only told Rech and Mand of his vision after their twin girls had been born, a lengthy, difficult ordeal that had nearly killed Mand and drove Rech into deep despair. Because of his vision, he knew the twins would survive, but he had no idea what it would end up costing Mand. Time after time, it had seemed inevitable over those months that the struggle would indeed claim her life, and he had even added to her frailty himself. Thanks to overwhelming help and support from their friends and family, Mand had recovered well, and Aruun and Arlen had grown up completely unhindered, avoiding any further health problems since.
But another issue entirely threatened to break their tightknit families apart, and again, it was partially his fault.
Finally picking up on his distress, she gingerly tightened her grip on his arm in support. "Koril... Things will improve. Please don't give up."
He turned to meet her gaze, appreciating her small, hopeful smile. Though he couldn't return it at all, her friendship during such a strenuous time was...relieving. He tossed a furtive glance at the Celestia's bridge behind them where he knew his wife was, but as much as he wanted to see her, his muscles were frozen. He couldn't bring himself to move.
Again, Mand spoke up quietly, having followed his line of sight. She could read his mind, he was certain.
"I think Rech's trying to talk to her."
Instantly snapped out of his daze, he left her side, making his way to the stairs on the opposite side of the dining hall. The children continued their antics uninterrupted, hardly even noticing his presence.
"I'll be up on the observation deck, then."
If his dark, heavy tone hadn't gotten his point across, his warning glare he gave her as he looked back certainly did.
He was to be left alone.
"Have you tried to think about it from his perspective?"
Frustrated with Rech's casual insistence, Elena Rys'tihn crossed her arms over her chest in a huff. This was not the topic she had wanted to begin their week-long vacation on. They had only been in hyperspace for a few hours, but apparently their troubles weren't left behind on Paneau as she had hoped. Indignant, she said nothing in response, prompting Rech to continue unsolicited from his seat beside her.
"This was his decision to make, Elena, not yours. You can counsel and lecture him all you want, but ultimately, it's his choice. I'm sure I don't have to remind you that Cordira's was made for her, as much as we tried to fight it."
He'd only angered her further. "So you're taking their side. Obviously, you don't see it from my perspective."
"Maybe I don't. Tell me how you see it." It was unbelievably infuriating how calm he remained. He should have been a diplomat, not a Master Healer...
Taking in a slow breath to keep a civil tongue, she had to steady the waver in her voice, too. She'd had this argument with Koril a dozen times over the past week already, but it still chilled her to the core with each exchange.
"Master Noor sacrificed his life so Derek could live," she managed, her strength sapped by her deep pain. "He had to know then that Derek was worth that sacrifice. Somehow, he knew what Derek had the potential to become, how powerful and how useful he would be. For him to refuse to attend the Jedi Academy would be to refuse to honor Master Noor's legacy."
He remained contemplative a long moment before he countered softly. "You think Master Noor would have let your son die...if he didn't think he was worthy enough of being saved?"
Feeling her cheeks blushing with embarrassment, she stared hard at the floor, finding imperfections in the otherwise smooth durasteel. He had twisted her words uncomfortably. "That night at his funeral...Master Kanomin told me that there was always a reason for everything Master Noor did. There's no way we can ask him why now, but...it seems pretty clear to me." She returned her gaze to Rech, her voice quiet and trembling but intense. "He chose to save my son's life...at the cost of leaving his own children behind. If that doesn't speak to the high expectations he had for what Derek would do...I don't know what does."
Though initially Rech seemed sympathetic to the point she was making, he calmly blindsided her with another observation she hadn't even considered.
"What about this... Couldn't it be possible that Master Noor's sacrifice wasn't about Derek at all?"
She stared at him blankly, too stunned to even breathe. Of course it had been about Derek, how could it not? The Dark Jedi she had been dueling on that Coruscant landing platform was preparing to attack her with Force Lightning when Master Noor intervened, sparing Derek's tiny life within her. There was no other explanation, no other reason than that.
"If you had...lost him in that duel," he continued carefully, "especially since you didn't even know about him in the first place, would you have stayed on Paneau? Would you have stayed with Koril?"
Immediately incensed, her eyes narrowed. "How dare you," she breathed darkly. "I loved Koril before we...before I knew about Derek."
"And yet you still left him, even after you found out."
Her fury was quickly replaced by pain and regret as memories of her poor choices flooded back to her. She couldn't steady her voice any longer.
"I was...scared," she confessed quietly, "but I realized that what I did to Koril was wrong, and I came back."
"And think about everything that happened after that, everything that we were all involved in. If you hadn't stayed, Mand and I wouldn't have had any reason to stay, either. We would have gone back to Coruscant to be closer to my parents. Where would that have left Paneau? A scarred, wounded planet having to recover with only a young, inexperienced king to guide it. Koril wouldn't have survived long, if at all, and that would've left the Rys'tihn Royal Family without any more Known Heirs, and the Royal Forces without a leader to unite them as they faced attack after attack.
"Master Noor only told you that he had to protect 'him'," he concluded. "Maybe you're right. Maybe he did save your son because he knew what Derek could become. But...maybe you're wrong. Maybe Master Noor was much wiser than we ever knew, and he was protecting much, much more than just one life."
As much as she didn't want to admit it, she could see his point. Still, it didn't make the pain of disappointment and betrayal hurt any less.
"Derek can still be a Jedi, Elena. He doesn't have to go to the Academy for us all to teach him what we know. That's what Mand and I plan to do with Cordira now."
She gave a soft snort as she shook her head. "He told me he'd rather be a pilot."
Despite her condescending tone, Rech weakly grinned in response. "Well, his father started out as one, and look where it got him. He could do worse." She didn't share his lighter mood, though. "Come on, don't dwell on this too long. I know you've been planning and looking forward to this trip for months, so you should enjoy it. This may be the last chance we have to take a vacation like this, all of us together."
She couldn't argue with that. Releasing a light sigh, she glanced forward at the cockpit where their pilot, Lt. Saross Wip, was seated at the controls. Since his presence there was needless in the middle of their hyperspace flight, he was only focused on Yhren Natiyr, his girlfriend of several years, who sat beside him. They were happy and wholly engrossed in each other, completely unaware of the weighty discussion taking place just behind them. Their quiet, carefree laughter was almost comforting, and it brought back a lightness to Elena's heart she had been waiting for since her difficulties had begun earlier in the week.
For the sake of her children, she finally allowed herself to smile, earning an even larger one from Rech in return.