Zal was quiet, fiddling with the dilapidated, rusty groundwater device. After a few short, sharp knocks to the device it finally started up. The start was shoddy, though, and the water it pulled up smelled rotten.
Lana stood behind him a few paces, but back to back. He sighed.
"Lana?" he murmured, just barely audible.
She looked back over her shoulder at his back, stiff and bent like the galaxy was seated on it, which she supposed it was. He was entirely too small in her opinion, and while she considered him far more talented and powerful in the force than she was, he looked more comfortable, and worked better from in the shadows. She watched a small flicker of electricity pass across his back and over his shoulder. "Yes?" she said back, just as quietly.
He took a breath and she watched his grip tighten on the machine's input panel, "Lana-" his voice cracked, and he cleared his throat before continuing unsteadily, "Lana, do you know where my kids are?"
She turned herself properly to face him, eyes wide, "Your kids-?"
He drew his shoulders up around his ears, interrupting her alarmed echo, "Yes, my kids. Xalek, Ashara. My apprentices. Andronikos said he'd take care of them, and I-" Lana watched a shudder shake his shoulders, and his next words were thick like molasses, "Xalek was just starting to open up properly, starting to speak his mind without excessive prompting. He never said much, he doesn't like small-talk, or unnecessary speech, but he was starting to share when something was bothering him instead of suffering through it. The last time we spoke he called me 'Father' for the first time-"
His voice cut out, no longer able to support his emotions as another shock of lightning crawled over his clothes and skin. He covered his mouth with one hand, the other near white-knuckling the panel. He took another few deep, shaky breaths.
"Ashara finally liked me, we never saw eye to eye, she was a fallen Jedi, and I was the one who destroyed her chances of ever making it. I helped her work through, actually process her emotions instead of letting her pride and resentment fester under the emotionless wall the Jedi keep, and we were finally getting along . Force, I can only hope that Rylee and Destris are doing some good, I told them to support one another, their little community on Nar Shaddaa, heal and become strong. Well, less community more cult if we're being honest, but I taught them- I taught them light side tricks because you can't possibly have a self-sustaining organization so low in society without helping each other."
He spoke faster, still unsteady and clearly rambling for a few minutes more before he ran himself out of steam, "Talos, Talos we found on Hoth, so he's got some sense for survival. I have no idea if Khem would stick around after they lost me, his relationship with the rest of the crew was minimal."
The Sith's voice evened out, and he took a few more breaths, "Andronikos, he didn't want to leave me behind, when I told them to run. I told them to run, and then I rammed the ship into the fleet. He's my best friend. He knows more about me than anyone else, I think. If he knew I'd been some trophy, a decoration , he'd be furious. He'd… I don't know what he'd do, but he feels the same way I do about turning people into property. If he didn't before we met, he did on Rishi," a pause, "It must have hurt. He told me. Last thing he said to me was not to get killed, to come back , and then I never came back."
Finally, the Sith turned, a few tears streaked down his cheeks as his burning, sulfurous eyes burrowed into Lana's heart. He shuddered, "It's been five years, and I don't know where my family is. I dreamed about them, watched them die in my mind with another kriffing ghost in my skull tormenting me ."
He turned away again, leaning forward and placing his head on the groundwater device, "I know Nikos can take care of himself, his backup is why I got as far as I did, but I just need to know that my kids are alright. I have to."
The finality and the defeat in his voice as he spoke his last sentence cracked something inside Lana. This was something she'd never seen from the Sorcerer, and had never known was inside the stony exterior he displayed throughout their adventures. Granted, the down-time had been minimal between all the crises, and the man had a good handle on his professional attitude.
She stepped forward, placed a solid hand on his shoulder, "I'm sorry, I can't give you the information you need, but we'll find them. They'd have to be insurmountably tough to fight with you, they're alive out there somewhere."
They stood like that, motionless, for several minutes. Another heartbeat and Zal nodded, "Thank you. This has been, well, weighing on me for some time I suppose. Their absence still stings, but your reassurance helps."
"Anytime," Lana replied sincerely. She then raised a hand to motion at his face, "What should I say about this?" she waved her hand a bit, pointing out the blotchy red on his face, and the tear-marks that cut through the dirt ground into his face.
Zal chuffed a laugh, "The truth, I suppose. Staying out here until whatever damage done goes away is impractical. Whatever you want to share, feel free. An extra set of eyes looking for my family won't hurt once we're out of this swamp."
When they finally made it back to the ship Zal's face was almost dry. It didn't look any better and it was clear he'd been crying to anyone who looked closely enough. He wasn't smiling either, really, but his shoulders were more relaxed than when they had left.
Koth was out front waiting for them. He stepped forward as if he was going to speak, but the Sith brushed right past him with a nod to Lana as he did so. He disappeared into the ship, stepped through the threshold and vanished in a ripple of darkness
Koth stood there, staring at the spot that the Sith had vanished. When Lana approached he turned back to her, "What's his deal? And he's been crying, hasn't he, this Outlander of yours?"
"You might try to be a little sympathetic, he just stepped out of carbonite, five years into the future, without a single word from his family," she countered.
"Family? He's got family?"
Lana gave him a Look, "Yes, and the last time he saw his children it was telling them to run, escape on his ship, while he stood on a crumbling deathtrap."
Koth crossed his arms with a softer look in his eyes, "Hard to think of that man as a father. I don't know if I'd call him the perfect role model for a bunch of kids."
She shook her head, "If what I was told is correct, he would drop everything for them, and I believe they were technically young adults when he first found them, they might even be around his age," she mused.
Koth raised an eyebrow, "How does that work?"
Lana took a deep breath to gather her thoughts, "From what I've seen and heard, Darth Nox loves furiously, deeply. His children, they were only meant to be his apprentices, but he calls them his children instead. His first two apprentices, he loved just as deeply as the current two," she placed a finger to her lip and furrowed her brow, "and from what I dug up surrounding his rapid ascension to the top, he watched them die. On the day of their deaths he very famously ran out of an Imperial debrief without a word, and I do mean ran, after receiving a distress call from them."
"He didn't make it, did he?" Koth murmured.
Lana shook her head, "It was a baptism by fire for his daughter, from what I hear. She was with him, and she had only just been recruited, just turned from the Jedi Order and still so young. She would have only been a few steps behind him when they arrived. He-"
She let out a heavy sigh, "He told me that he counts his failure to save them, arriving just barely too late, among his biggest. He lets his passion lead him, like the Sith Lord he is, but his passion is those he loves."
"He's just a man then."
"Yes, a man with the galaxy on his shoulders and untold power, who missed his family, and fears for his children."
Koth looked over his shoulder to where Zal had vanished again, "Does he know you told me all this?"
"I'm doing as he said, telling the truth. If you've ever a mind, you should ask him about his family. I'm sure he'd be delighted to absolutely gush about Xalek and Ashara to you."
"I just might."