Pain and the sounds of a reactor were the first things Rex knew as his head cleared from -- whatever had just happened -- and half of that made no sense. He shook his head hard, trying to clear it, looked around him, and realized what the other sound in his bucket's pickups was. Ignited lightsabers.
No surprise there, they were in combat, but something in the hum sounded strange. His eyes finally focused ahead of him (them, he knew brothers were right beside him) and profound confusion rocked him. A moment ago they'd been supporting his General and Cody's in a fight that had spilled into a Temple of some kind, with Ventress and a karking cadre of Magnaguards tangling up their jetiise, now... Now they were somewhere entirely different, somewhere with narrow catwalks and the hum of plasma, above --
-- two Jedi by their clothes, both knocked flat on two lower catwalks, and too close to one, the elder, was a mass of black clothes and cold danger with a red double-blade lightsaber-staff (Ventress? No, too tall) dragging itself back to its feet Red blade, cold feel, Sith. And near-helpless Jedi too close to it.
Chatter had hummed through his bucket as he got his bearings, Fives' strident "Fierfek" and Waxer's groggy "What happened?" and Echo's sharpening "What's going -- wait what's that?" and Boil's "Red 'saber!" warning almost in line with his realization, two yelps of "Sith?!" that he couldn't ID a heartbeat before Cody's "Yes, and fire on it on three, two," both Deece were in his hands already, and aiming at the back of the threat to the Jedi below was nothing but easy. And "one" unleashed fire from every brother.
To his surprise, they hit, with more than a dozen shots. Not as good as Ventress then, and Rex grinned viciously and took another pair of shots as the body started to collapse.
"Kriff yeah," Fives snapped, firing one more time with his off hand, while Echo tucked his rifle into a sniper hold, keeping the Sith covered even as he collapsed. "May not know what is karking happening, but that is good to see!"
Obi-Wan groaned and tried to pull his awareness back to the matter at hand, his survival and that of his master, even as the blaster and rifle fire ceased. Who -- had Captain Panaka managed to get them reinforcements after all?
"Too right, vod," Rex agreed, watching the Jedi below. The younger one, with the human padawan-cut, was getting up, that was good. "Too right."
He turned his gaze to his Commander, shifting his weight and tipping his head slightly in 'okay, next?'.
Qui-Gon's head was swimming from the sheer explosive wave of the Force that had flattened him, the roil of the Living Force with a cry of 'change, change, change!' that was somehow delighted. He pulled his breath back under control, forced his eyes to reopen, and dragged himself to his feet, his eyes finding the... fallen? form of the Sith warrior. He had heard blaster fire, he realized, taking a step backwards and rolling his lightsaber over his hand to bring it back to bear. The fallen body seemed to be still, and he looked for the source of the blaster fire.
Another set of catwalks, above, held men in armor that looked distinctly Mandalorian, except that it had the sheen of plastoid, not beskar'gam. That was confusing, his head ached, and Mandalorians often did not care for Jedi. He cast another look up, his head tilting slightly. "Greetings, gentlemen," he called, projecting his voice up to them. "And thank you."
"Of course, sir!" Cody answered immediately, being the ranking officer. "Not quite certain who you are, sir, but we serve the Jedi, no matter how strange our arrival!"
Serve the Jedi? Obi-Wan's head spun a little at that phrasing, even as his ear heard the decided inflection of Mandalorian accent in the words. Polished, like it had been educated, he added as he tallied up the oddities. There was a bit of a frontier edge to the way the words came out. He focused on details, seeing that every single member up there had distinguishing marks on their armor and helmets, with half wearing a shade of yellow and the others with a shade of blue, all against scratches and battle-worn white.
"Is it really dead, sir?" Wooley dared to call down, hands firm on his rifle, and Rex could read the tension in him. Tension he understood, because the idea that they might actually have brought down a Sith, not just supported their Jedi while they tried to... that was an incredibly powerful thrill and a vicious burst of joy.
Qui-Gon had shaken his head at first, as baffled as he could feel that his padawan was, at those words, but the question made him move towards the warrior.
"Careful, sir!" Rex called, afraid the Sith was shamming it, luring the Jedi.
Qui-Gon decided that strange or not, the man probably had a point, and pulled the lightstaff to his hand, turning it off and tucking it into a pocket. He'd examine it later. He rolled the body over with the Force instead of crouching down to move it, and studied the face. Yellow eyes thickly rimmed with red were glazing over, the pupils unevenly dilated, and the sharp-toothed mouth was open in surprise, not snarling as it had been.
Nothing moved in the body, and the Force was dissipating from it, so he nodded, looking back to the strangers.
"He does appear to be, my friend," he answered, as he turned to search for his padawan. He'd been knocked off the catwalk, was -- ah. There. There he was. His Obi-Wan, his dear student and pride and joy, safe, at least for a little while more. "Obi-Wan, are you well? We do still have a queen to aid."
The hush that fell over the men on the other catwalk was pronounced and thick with disbelief, with shock.
"Commander, your general's just a cadet, sir!" Fives blurted out into their silence, earning a well-placed smack to the back of the head by Boil. It saved Rex the trouble, and Echo's hands were full with his rifle, despite the supposed all clear.
"Yes, Master, and I know." Obi-Wan was trying to puzzle it out, but those words made no sense. "I take it Captain Panaka did not send you to aid us then?"
"Colonel Quarsh Panaka of Naboo?" Rex cautiously asked, as he'd heard that name before, when Captain Typho was keeping the survivors of the virus company, and regaling them with tales. "Never actually met him, sir."
Cody couldn't rip his eyes from the boy two catwalks down, subvocal command magnifying the display of his features. The spot just above his brows was there, the paired creases between them not so deep but correct, blue-grey eyes younger and confused (with none of the affection and faith that usually lit his General's eyes when he saw them), the cleft in his jaw right too... that was his General. Somehow. Just... still a padawan, like Fives had said, a cadet. Something in his chest seized, hard.
If that was his General, still a cadet, with a dead Sith on the catwalk of a reactor, and he'd asked about a Naboo Captain... Then the older man who he'd called Master... was Qui-Gon Jinn. "Oh, storms," he whispered, trying to keep it soft enough not to be picked up. This made no karking sense at all, but if that was his General's Qui-Gon... everything in the galaxy had just changed.
Qui-Gon shook his head, puzzled, and beckoned his padawan to return to him. "This is quite a mystery then, gentlemen, but we have a further mission to accomplish. This warrior was an obstacle, not our purpose. Will you accompany us?"
Rex, knowing that this had to be rocking Cody's world into oblivion, spoke up. "You're the Gen -- you're the Jedi, sir. We serve you, no matter what." He had no idea how his other general could possibly look shinier than a new soldier off Kamino, but he'd go with it. Jumping to their catwalk would be doable, but he really hoped the Jedi came up to them instead.
["Master, are you certain?"] Obi-Wan questioned, switching to the Phindian language they had learned to help better understand the natives of Phindar and their needs. It was rare enough for humans to know of it that it felt safe.
[What else are we going to do?] Qui-Gon asked in response, in the same language, [just leave them to wander around?]
What did these strangers mean, 'serve you no matter what'? While he occasionally wished for extra assistance, he could not imagine having men that were obviously soldiers that followed, 'served', the Jedi was nothing he could understand. And one of them, the one with yellow paint and a rank bar, felt... almost blank with pain and shock, focused on... Obi-Wan? "All right then. I suspect we can find our way out from your level as well as ours."
He leapt up and over, onto their catwalk. "I am Qui-Gon Jinn; this is my padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and you are?"
Cody took a single, shaken breath. It really was. It really, truly was. Kriff and fierfek and -- "Commander Cody, 212th," he made his throat work, shoving everything all the way down where it wasn't going to matter until later. Right now, he had Jedi -- and one of them his very own jetii -- to protect through whatever this insanity was. "Captain Rex, 501st. Boil, Waxer, Wooley, and Switch of my men. Fives, Echo, Jesse, and Kix, of Rex's."
Obi-Wan had leapt up as easily as his master, and listened to the introductions. At this angle, he could see the art, appreciating that these men had taken time to decorate themselves in a very Mandalorian way. Why was the Commander quite so … odd about him? The others in the yellow were also more shocked than the ones in blue.
And then he processed the Captain's decorations, and a lot of his unease dissipated. Even bounty hunters who wore the Jaig Eyes carried a strong sense of honor and fair play.
"Lead the way, sirs, and we'll have your sixes," the Captain said, even as it grated to have to give up the frontal position.
Qui-Gon nodded. and turned to search for their way back to the Queen. The Force was still roiling with 'change' and something that felt like hope, and his chest ached with it. But he had a task to accomplish. Meditation on what was going on, and the odd words from these men, would have to come later.
Rex ran at the big man's left side, a step back, trying to get a grip on the idea of the General as a padawan. They were, what, back in time somehow? How far? Why? And what were they in the middle of that had had a Sith there? They turned a corner, he saw tan metal, and fired with each hand, taking out two of the B1s. Cody, on the other side of the pair of jetii, took two others, and Echo shot past his shoulder to deal with the last.
"Tinnies -- B1 droids -- all over, sirs?"
"Is that their make?" Obi-Wan asked, even as he made his nerves stand down; of course Mandalorians would be that hair-trigger and accurate. "And yes, possibly with a few destroyers. Far worse, those are, with the shields."
"Tinnies and rollies, got it sir," Fives said, annoyed because he was on rearguard with Switch and hadn't even seen them before Echo notched up his count.
"Yes, sir," Rex agreed with the question, startled by it -- but then, if they were this far back, far enough that the General looked so young, younger than any cadet off Kamino, it sort of made sense that the General wouldn't know them.
The rest of the search -- and it was a search, he could tell that in the shifts of General Jinn's -- Master Jinn? -- head as they ran went much the same way. They picked off more tinnies, the Generals (was General Kenobi Commander Kenobi instead, at the moment?) deflected bolts back into the rollies, and then they'd reached a massive set of doors that were apparently both their destination and a dead end.
"One of them has destroyed the interior controls for this," Qui-Gon said, his fingers running over the framework of the door. "But was it the Queen, or Gunray?"
Jesse and Boil groaned in frustrated unison at the name of that damned Trade Federation Viceroy, and Rex was actually pretty tempted to join them. That sleemo slithered his way out of more trouble than any five sentients ought to be able to survive. "We can blow the door for you, sirs?"
"As I doubt even my lightsaber will go through these blast doors, that may be needed," Qui-Gon said, before Waxer cleared his throat.
"Go for the wall. Less likely to be reinforced the way the door is, and I'm sure that if the Queen is in trouble, she'll forgive us for pointing out the structural flaw."
Boil had to smile inside his bucket for just how brilliant his husband was.
Obi-Wan tipped his head, then nodded. "Likely to be too thick to cut, but he makes sense. I doubt the building was built with protections in place already; such things are almost always afterthoughts in reaction to security breaches."
General Jinn nodded, and Rex beckoned at Wooley to help him set the charges they all carried efficiently, then moved everyone to the closest of the alcoves. As they did, more droids trotted around the corner, made to open fire --
-- and froze? They were completely still, listing slightly to the side for a moment.
Fives and Waxer had already been shooting, and the entire squad toppled like dominoes. He winced as he thought it, trying to tell himself it was just a reaction to the explosion, not the phrasing in his own head.
"Evens us up, vod," Fives said.
"They were already shut down; no, it doesn't," Echo shot back.
"Troopers," Rex snapped, getting the immediate tightening up of spine and shutting of mouths he wanted.
Obi-Wan was first to move through the breach they had made, lightsaber ready and in a defensive pose that was not quite what Cody expected, even as he followed, cursing in his head at Jedi speed.
Naboo Security forces were aiming their blasters in the direction of the explosion, except for the woman at the center of the room who had her blaster trained on none other than Nute Gunray and another Trade Federation sleemo.
Obi-Wan called to them, "Peace, my friends, we're with you, not the Trade Federation," and waited until the blasters were turned aside to further clear the opening. His Master and these men were behind him, after all.
"So we are," Qui-Gon said, following his reckless padawan -- Force, could he stand to let Obi-Wan go, even for all the promise he knew Anakin held?
The Force felt like it struck him behind the shoulders, nearly knocking him to the floor, as a warning unlike anything he had ever felt hammered against his mind, flashes of Obi-Wan in shadow, distant, in clothing rich and sumptuous with his eyes sickly yellow, of an abandoned, furious scream so thick with pain Qui-Gon's heart nearly tore in two.
He would not lose another, not to his own stupidity, not to the Dark, not ever.
Padmé breathed a quiet sigh of relief, though her eyes never left the pair in front of her. "We are most pleased you have returned to us unharmed, Masters Jedi," she said. "We were just discussing with the terms of the Trade Federation forces' departure from Our world with Viceroy Gunray."
The voice was a little higher, a little lighter, than Rex recalled, but he would know those metal-slicing tones of satisfied threat anywhere. The Senator? What was she doing in the middle of -- was she the Queen, now?
She was shorter than he remembered, too, but her hand held a blaster in the same easy, practiced grip. And around the room were... he couldn't tell. For kark's sake, they all admired the handmaidens; why couldn't he tell?
Cody pulled himself fully away from the event that was his general as a shiny, coming to similar conclusions as Rex, even if he had less experience with the Senator. He used hand signs to move the men so that they were reinforcing keeping the Neimoidians under guard, without interfering with firing lines of sight from the local forces.
"Our little problem had a bit of a blast, allowing us to get back to you, milady," Obi-Wan said. "Or was that a round of blasters, I should say?"
Fives had to bite the inside of his cheek at the bad joke from Kenobi of all people.
Qui-Gon sighed at the irreverent comment, and tried to draw himself back together from the Force hammering him over the head with something he could not permit to happen enough to aid the Queen. "We will be happy to assist you with that, Your Majesty, but now that the situation is under control, would You be kind enough to send someone to get Anakin, before he can get into trouble, or worry too much?"
"You left our General alone? And expect him not to already be in trouble?" Jesse muttered, keeping it relatively quiet. Kix's snort, plus Fives' cough and Echo's shake of the head did not go unnoticed, though.
Rex, on the other hand, shrewdly looked at Obi-Wan, and wondered just what the kriffing haran his general was actually going to look like.
"Rabé, take one of the guards and go retrieve the boy, please," Padmé said, worried for her friend now that she could focus beyond the fight.
"Yes, My Lady," one of the handmaidens -- girls, still -- answered, and Rex looked at her intently, finding the differences he could use to know her later. Rabé, he knew her, and yeah, there was that slight difference in her stride. They were going to get his General, and he couldn't come up with any good reason for his men to accompany the handmaiden. But Jesse was right, General Skywalker was surely already in trouble...
"Captain," Qui-Gon said, feeling something torn in the man, something focused and utterly protective, "would you accompany Lady Rabé and her guard?"
"Yes sir!" Relief poured from the man in the Force, and Qui-Gon nodded to him as he moved to the Queen's side.
Cody gave a slight nod; there was never a doubt as to who was ultimately in command over both half-squads anyway.
Padmé had many questions about the sudden appearance of what looked like Mandalorian bounty hunters to her eyes, but she had a task to accomplish… and then Sabé was returning to her, further bolstering her confidence as she set to work.
Rabé led the small group toward the hangar that they had left the boy in, hoping that nothing had happened to him in the interim. Like her Queen, she had questions, but did not wish to press at this point. That the Jedi had vouched for the men -- more or less -- by simply accepting their presence worked for her at this point.
She was so tired, and knew there would be a stim tab in her future, very soon, to combat the effects of adrenaline. First, however, she would get the boy -- and hearing ships coming in had her pick up her speed.
Rex moved faster beside her, his eyes searching over the incoming ships and the hangar alike. Where was his General? What had he gotten himself into in the span of time they'd been running around after the other Generals?
Several ships touched down and taxied all the way into the hangar, pilots immediately bailing from them as another set landed. One of those wobbled slightly, and Rex had a sudden, terrible feeling.
"Wait, his ship… Laerté, wasn't the ship that shot the destroyers over there in that empty spot?" Rabé was asking, before scanning all the returning ships, thinking that the boy had been incapable of stopping it until he parked closer to the edge. Then her eyes fell on the pilot that was very much the center of attention, rather rapidly.
"I'd say he took it a bit further than just shooting the droids, milady," the guard said incredulously.
Rex's eyes had been searching for at least half his General's height, since the pilot of that one ship had disembarked down the far side, but the sheer hubbub at it yanked his attention back like a magnet. He couldn't see for a moment, then a very small boy (couldn't be more than five by their count, if that) was hoisted onto the shoulders of two others as the pilots let out a cheer. The boy was entirely delighted, grinning, until he saw Rabé, and then fear flashed through him and he folded in on himself, and even from this distance, Rex knew.
That boy, that tiny cadet-sized boy as blond as he was (and that was a shock and a half), was his General.
"Anakin! Are you alright?" Rabé immediately asked, hating that flash of fear, and remembering that the boy had special needs, given his past. It was still hard to believe that slavery really existed, but Padmé had been so upset over her trip into Mos Espa.
The sea of pilots parted for her, but one, a slightly older woman, was smiling broadly. "Milady, he's the reason any of us made it back at all! He took out the control ship, all on his own!"
Rex's heart seized for a moment, looking at the tiny boy in not-padawan clothes and hearing that answer from the woman. How had his General managed that, and why the flash of fright? He'd seen it before, but never tied to one of the handmaidens, never...
"I'm okay!" Anakin replied hastily, looking down -- and that was so weird, but also wizard -- at one of Padmé's handmaidens. He was almost certain that was Rabé; it felt, in the way he'd always had of knowing who was coming up behind him, like Rabé. Seeing her had reminded him that Master Qui-Gon and the others might not be as happy with him as the pilots. He'd stayed in the ship, sure, but he'd gotten into the fight, too.
Who was the stranger behind her, in the armor like a bounty hunter? He hadn't seen anyone like that come into the city with them, and he'd listened to all the talks. He patted the pilot under his right leg's shoulder gently. "Down, please?"
"If you want to, Droid-Slayer!" the young man said, laughing brightly with that exuberance which came with surviving a suicide run. He helped Anakin back to the ground, and Rabé, conscious of both Anakin's struggle and the massive debt the entire planet now owed him, knelt down a bit to be more on his level as she came to where he was.
"I am so thankful you are safe, and… overwhelmed by the risk of what you did. You have saved us all again, Anakin, and we shall never forget it." She opened her arms a bit, offering him the reassurance of a hug, but only if he chose to.
Anakin stared at her for a moment, swallowing hard, then bounced forward and wrapped his arms around her. She wore some of the nicest, softest things he'd ever touched, and she wasn't his angel, but she was one of the handmaidens, and that -- that made it okay, right? He held on for a few long seconds, trying to make sense out of what she'd said.
"...I had to help," he told her, maybe told all of them, head against her shoulder. "So many people were going to get hurt."
Rex, already so undone by the strangeness, by seeing his general so young, felt all solid support within his body seemingly dissolve into nothingness at that sentiment. He could not believe the openness with which it was said… but that was the core of his general, if so well hidden few glimpsed it. It was also, he realized, at the core of his Commander, which explained how the pair of jetiise fit so well together.
"It does you such credit, Anakin." She kept the hug careful, then stood and looked at the pilots. "Our Queen has captured the Viceroy. And She will be grieving with you, for those I see are missing from our ranks now."
"That She was successful brings great relief," the eldest of the male pilots said.
Anakin let go of her, slowly, smiling his pleasure at her praise -- it was just what he had to do, he had to help, for Mom. He wanted to keep hold of her hand, and he was overjoyed to hear that Padmé had won. Of course she had, without the droids to worry about she'd totally win against any people, but... he had been worried, once they were on the way back. So many bad things could have happened, after he couldn't see her any more.
The stranger in the armor... was focused on him? He blinked once, twice, looking at the designs on the helmet and the posture, and tried to decide if he needed to hide behind Rabé because it was the bad kind of attention (and he didn't have Watto anymore, that snarled disgust about that he wasn't old enough to breed and humans were sick, oh, sands) or a safe kind, like the pilots and Rabé. He focused, his head tilting... and what he felt was protectiveness and relief and something he couldn't name, something that promised he was safe no matter what, with this stranger.
"We should get you back to Master Jinn," Rabé said, settling a hand on his back, very carefully. "Laerté, will you remain and help make certain all of their wounds are treated, and find out what families must be notified? It would take a weight off of Saché to have the list, so we do not have to delay and keep the families worrying."
"Milady," the guard began to protest, but then he noted that the armored man had shifted his weight in a certain way, one that made him realize the professional fighter was recognizing a gap in security and planning to fill it. "I can do this, on your authority," he relented, despite the man being a stranger. The Jedi had suggested his presence, after all, and it did need to be done.
"Thank you. Come with me, Anakin, please, and Captain? I believe that's what I heard Master Jinn call you?"
"Yes ma'am," Rex said, falling in and being pleased to remember the right word of respect. "Captain Rex, ma'am." He looked at the boy who was studying him, and wanted to take his bucket off, but Jango Fett's face might be known to people who might take offense, and he wasn't ready to explain. "Good job, kid. You saved a lot of lives," he said instead, to start the awkward process of getting to know the boy.
There was no way around that being a necessity. After all, he, and his men, were programmed to be loyal to the Republic and their Jedi. Beyond that programming, though, they loved their jetii, even if he was cadet sized right now.
Anakin felt the smile burst out of him again -- he wasn't used to praise from anyone but his mom, and the pilots were awesome, but something about this man pulled at him -- as he looked up. "I... thanks! Has anyone heard about the Gungans? Are they -- did we do it in time?"
"We'll soon know, Ani," Rabé soothed. "We caught Gunray. And the Captain's men helped the Jedi with the strange warrior."
Rex filed that under 'things not known yet' as he was well aware and certain it was a Sith they killed.
Anakin sighed -- he hated waiting to know things, even if he had to do it all the time -- as his eyes shot back to the tall man in armor, wishing he wasn't in a helmet. The warrior had scared him, both times he'd seen him. He radiated cold, and danger, and something dark and creeping. "Okay. Really?" he asked, surprised and relieved and curious all at once. "Wow."
"Eight of us, kid. With the element of surprise. Couldn't have done it otherwise. Seen a warrior like him go through half a company to get at a Jedi before." Rex was finding his General to be far more open than he'd ever have suspected.
Anakin blinked, his eyes widening as they walked to the doors out of the hangar and the stairs beyond. He didn't know for sure how big a company was, but that sounded like a lot of people, from the way Captain Rex said it. "The stories make it sound like nobody could kill a Jedi, but Master Qui-Gon looked so sad when I said that, and when they fought back home, it was really hard on him...."
Rex's breath caught in his throat, remembering those who had fallen already. He recalled hearing the names of those dead at Geonosis, some barely Knighted. "I wish Jedi didn't die, Anakin. I really do. But they are as mortal as the rest of us, no matter how gifted they are."
Rabé heard the grief in the man's voice, even if he was trying to suppress it, and wondered. Who were these armored benefactors?
Anakin moved from Rabé towards him, reaching up to take his hand if the Captain would let him, the grief in him -- his voice and his presence -- too much for him to stand without trying to comfort him somehow. "That's sort of what he said. They're... different, than what I thought they'd be."
Distant and detached and... unwelcoming, and they didn't want him. Master Qui-Gon had said it would be hard, and he wasn't afraid of hard things, but... what would happen, if they didn't change their minds? Would they send him back to Tatooine? He couldn't go back to Watto, he couldn't stand it, but without an owner's protection or money to start with, he wouldn't last very long. Or would they just leave him on the streets of Coruscant? It was so huge anything could happen...
Rex took the small hand, careful of his gloves on the boy's skin, even as he nodded. "They were different than anything I ever expected, when I first met them. And I found out fast, they're like most sentients, running the lot of arrogant and compassionate and difficult. But I've met some very good ones, and I'll fight for those, every time."
Anakin nodded, somehow reassured by that, even against everything he was afraid of. His lips tightened in a frown for a moment, remembering the little green ancient being acting like his fear was something awful, before he tried to smooth it away. Mom said fear was what kept you alive. If they thought it was bad, he would just have to learn to never show it, even just in his head.
Rex stopped and dropped down to be at his level, both hands coming to wrap carefully around the boy's shoulders. "I know one thing, Anakin Skywalker. You will be one of the greatest jetii ever. That's the Mando'a word for Jedi, and among my men, it means a Jedi that is the best of all they can be. Just keep your head up, and give it your best, no matter what the others say."
The Captain had long known his Jedi had issues with many of the others, that they carried those issues on their shoulders too. He would do anything he could, though, to support his jetii, even as he realized how much he might change.
It just all seemed so wrong, and so right, all in one.
Anakin sucked a breath, his eyes widening as the big man dropped and obviously looked squarely at him, the words sinking deep into his chest and somehow hurting. "They don't want me," he said, unable to keep it behind his teeth, "they said no, the Council did. I want to, I want to help, and you sound so sure... but I don't know how if they won't let me."
Rex kept his snarl back, barely, then remembered his Commander's fear about being sent back that had led to her willfully ignoring her own dietary needs rather than risk it. What the karking haran was wrong with those idiots?
"Listen to Kenobi. Ask him questions. Put your faith in his guidance, and we'll go from there, got it, kid?"
Anakin felt the flash of temper, but it wasn't at him -- he knew that, he could feel it -- and something about it was soothing. His head tipped a little, without meaning to, and he asked, uncertain, "We?"
Rex chuckled. "It's pretty kriffing -- pardon, milady -- complicated, but my men and I? We serve the Jedi. Specifically, we will serve you and Kenobi." That last was going to be agony for Cody, but Rex would be his leaning wall.
Anakin shook his head, hard, hands finding the Captain's wrists, despite the armor. He didn't want to have people that served him (images of Ann and Tann flickered through his mind); he wanted people to have freedom -- and besides, why would anyone let him have that kind of responsibility? He didn't know what to say, though, not to someone that had faith in him, how did he --
"Shh, kid," Rex soothed. "I won't let it weigh heavy on you. But I will protect you, always."
"Why?" Anakin couldn't help asking, even though that question was dangerous. "I mean, I'm nobody, just a freed slave good at mechanics, you're -- "
Good armor like that and multiple weapons meant power, wealth, why would someone with that think he was so important, when the Jedi didn't want him?
Rex carefully regulated his breathing, using the pattern Ahsoka had taught him she used for her temper. He then made himself answer once he had his horror and unease under control. His General? A slave?
"You are a person. A gifted one. And the rest of that, I may not answer without talking to master… Jinn, wasn't it?" There was a clue there, by him deliberately questioning the one name, when he spoke so familiarly of Anakin and Kenobi, but he hoped it was enough to get Anakin to let them keep going, instead of asking more awkward questions.
Anakin beamed at him, quick and intense, at hearing his own words days ago repeated at him. "I know I'm a person, and besides, I'm free now. Master Qui-Gon said so. But... that doesn't... never mind. Yes, that's his name. And we probably should keep going, huh? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to slow you down."
"It's alright." Rex stood and slipped his hand to Anakin's back, keeping it lightly on the boy's shoulder in a show of solidarity and comfort.
Somehow, he thought his breakdown was going to equal Cody's.
Despite oddities, the soldiers got through the 'treaty' negotiations, stood by as the Gungans reported in, and kept their mouth shut about the things they already knew. They had switched to in-helmet comms only, and decided that even if they knew about Dooku, about Gunray's ties to the Sith, they had to wait until they spoke to the senior Jedi.
They were finally getting the chance, as they had been shown quarters in the palace, and the two officers were asked to meet with Master Jinn. Cody led the way in, and once the door was closed, he indicated that Rex should remove his helmet and set about doing the same. Sometimes, showing was worth more than telling.
Qui-Gon had felt several flashes of unease and displeasure from the soldiers, through the rest of the events, but nothing specific enough to give him any information about why. He was grateful that they had adjourned for the evening, as that let him begin to get to the bottom of the mystery of these armored, deadly strangers who blazed with devotion to the Jedi, specifically to his padawan and young... charge.
The two entered, removed their helms, and Qui-Gon blinked. At one first glance, a military cut of dark hair and deep, vicious scarring that lashed across Commander Cody's forehead and then curled around his eye contrasted against Captain Rex's pale hair almost shaved to nothing and an unscarred if deeply care-worn face. At another, the bone structure of the two men was identical, as were the shape and position of their ears, their eyes gleamed the exact same dark amber/brown from matching orbitals and epicanthic folds... and Qui-Gon found himself baffled.
"...you're not twins," he finally said, remembering the similarity in all eight voices. the uniformity of height if not build, "and it's not just the two of you. But I cannot imagine where you have come from."
"Sir, we are not. Not even batchmates for all that the Captain and I work smoothly together." Cody settled his helmet between armor and gauntlet easily. "A pair in our shared squad are batchmates, but we are all clones. Made on the authority of a Jedi plagued by visions, and currently out of our proper time."
Rex quickly reinforced his Commander. "If I'm placing Skywalker's age right, we're just being commissioned for creation, or soon will be."
Qui-Gon reined in his first response and his second, while his mouth tightened in a displeased, uncomfortable line. There were at least a half-dozen things incredibly wrong with that, and all of them offended him. Cloning of tissues was not uncommon in some Republic worlds, even organs, but the cloning of any sentient being was strictly banned, and it was a ban that even the Hapes Consortium and some of the Hutt rulers also upheld. It was simply agreed upon that replicating living beings was immoral -- for any species that did not use that as their natural method of reproduction, anyway.
That a Jedi, any Jedi, would breach that law, go against that general understanding of morality in such a huge way, was deeply, personally infuriating and sickening at once. He would find it so for any purpose, but that these men were soldiers, fairly obviously created to be soldiers, made it even more horrific. "I don't care what visions he, she, they, or other are or were having, that is... profoundly awful. I am grateful for your aid, and life is a precious thing, but I would wish for better for you than a life of such violence."
"The sentiment is noted, sir. We appreciate it, but prefer to exist, no matter what," Cody said, head high. "The problem is now that we know some things but not nearly all. As my General had half the fleet and army under him, I may know more than the average Commander. But, I am smart enough to know my gaps could cause more harm than good.
"I also know that by following our standard procedure, we already changed events by killing the Sith. I believe, but cannot know for certain, your cadet, err, padawan should have killed him."
Qui-Gon could hardly argue with preferring to live, and he nodded at the proud young men in front of him, understanding the stubborn lines of their jaws. They would not tell him which Jedi, nor would they tell him where they were, even now, being created, in order to defend themselves, and their fellows. He could not find it in himself to blame them, and he focused instead on those last words.
"You say that one was Sith so easily," he observed softly, "when I could barely convince the Council I was sure of my reasoning. We will not be free of the Sith just because he is dead, then. And... Obi-Wan is more than capable, but the idea of him fighting that one alone fills me with more than a little dread.
"Though that's hardly the only thing doing so at the moment," that was a mutter mostly intended for himself, but it was aloud. "If you have changed your own past... That too is disturbing. I was never one for theoretical puzzles, or temporal mechanics, but that seems a self-evident problem."
Rex studied the older man, thoughtful, wondering what drove him, what made this man make his decisions, and what he would do now. His General had never talked about the man, and what Cody might know, he had held as tightly secret as Rex would hold any of General Skywalker's secrets he was entrusted with. He had freed one slave (and how had that happened, and why, and -- no, he had a job to do, he had to focus) and found their creation distressing but welcomed their lives... too many puzzles.
"Sir, I know of a Sith called Darth Tyranus," Cody said, while taking care not to yet give the name he truly knew the man as. "He employs an assassin who wields the dark side. There is a persistent rumor that Tyranus answers to a Darth Sidious, but intelligence has so far not been able to verify his existence, nor disprove that this master Sith is within the Republic, as Tyranus informed a Jedi he had captured, and a Senator."
He paused then, weighing those confessional moments with his jetii. Obi-Wan had firmly discounted the idea that Dooku could ever have swayed Jinn to his side, but… Cody was a cautious man.
Every word the young soldier in front of him said made Qui-Gon more concerned (more frightened, if he was honest with himself) for the future, for his Obi-Wan (as he had not forgotten the 'your General's just a cadet!' from the one called Fives to the Commander, no matter what they might think), and for the Order and Republic he had given his life to defending. "And they chose to break a thousand-year masquerade on this minor Mid-Rim world, in a trade dispute and conflict that is devastating to this world but almost entirely inconsequential on the galactic scale... why? Why show their hand now?"
An answer clanged across the back of his mind, discordant and obvious.
He tried in the next moment to reject that thought, to push it away -- he was fixating on the boy, as he had fixated on other things over the course of his life. So often, that had resulted in conflict and pain, not always for himself... but it would not leave him alone.
Anakin, Force-born child, so likely to be the Chosen One, nine-years-old and powerful, untaught and unaware of his potential, already frightened by the Council... he would be quite a prize to them.
As if reinforcing the thought, it was the Captain, who was so careful of Anakin, who spoke. All the ones in blue were focused toward Anakin, while those in yellow kept observing Obi-Wan.
"My General thought Naboo was a test, or possibly the first domino," Rex told him, keeping the grimace off his face for yet again falling to that analogy. "A starting point to tip the galaxy toward war on a larger scale."
Cody made a noise. "Mine believed that the testing point was further back, a different conflict that gave the military more prominence, and that Naboo is the actual first battle."
Rex shook his head. "I bet that debate was stellar, and possibly ended with more of their aggressive negotiations somewhere," he said softly, deliberately to show that there was a close tie between the generals they served.
Qui-Gon hummed thoughtfully, his fingers running through his hair as he considered that information along with the rest of it -- and that the man that followed Anakin had been the one to answer his questioning.
"...the Stark Hyperspace War?" he asked, sure of the answer already. "It did put Gunray into the Viceroy's chair, shook the Senate profoundly, and we Jedi lost an elder and mentor who is still dearly missed. I can see my padawan's reasoning there."
Cody didn't say the thought in his mind. The man he had followed would never exist, would not be this Qui-Gon Jinn's padawan. He had been too shaped by the very death they had prevented today to become that.
"We have no idea what pushed us back in time. As is the refrain of the army, 'Force Things' seems appropriate," Cody said instead. "We do not wish to cause damage, but we are duty bound to try and mitigate the worst of events that we are able to. This means working with the Jedi, by necessity, and eventually that may mean revelations that are troubling, at best, for whichever Jedi we are assigned to."
"The one concession we ask, immediately, sir," Rex said, "is that we be allowed to protect those Jedi we already are most familiar with. If our presence has disrupted the timeline, then it stands to reason that the Force may wish us here to protect them anyway."
Qui-Gon chuckled for a moment, looking at both of them with a mixture of amusement and affection. "I think it would take things I am utterly unwilling to do to keep you separated from Anakin and Obi-Wan, young ones. But neither of them are going to have any idea what to do with your squad's adherence to them. You know that, yes?
"Also, I expect that your revelations will be more than 'troubling', to the great majority of us. Or at least, they had better be."
"Well, he is General Kenobi's commander," Rex said easily, getting a glare from his brother. However, it was quite well-known that Kenobi was a master of understatements. "As to the rest, sir, I feel we will find the right balance. It is… difficult. None of us knew about the General's past," he said, going for honesty. "Being what we are, though, we will be able to keep from infringing his steps toward being free; we know what we don't care to be reminded of."
"We are adaptable, sir. We will not blindly follow orders when this is no longer within our original mission parameters," Cody said. "The responses are there, but can be tempered. Some of us," and he pointedly looked at Rex, "have even learned when to tell a jetii that they are kriffed in their thinking."
Qui-Gon shook his head, his fingers running through his hair again, studying both young men -- and far too able to hear the depths of pain and grief they had been through, in Rex's 'being what we are, though' and Cody's 'not blindly follow orders when ... the responses can be tempered' alike. He spared a moment to wish a few curses upon the Jedi that had lost his way so completely as to have had this mad idea, then refocused on what he'd just been told.
"You may be a greater help than I in that, Rex," Qui-Gon told him softly, though there was no 'may' in it if he was honest with himself. He had broken apart slaving rings before, helped to set people free... but helping someone make the mental shift necessary was nothing he knew. "Though I'm stumbling again over the idea of the Jedi as military commanders -- that's been forbidden to us for a millennia, and I am certain we must have made terrible mistakes that your... brothers?... paid for."
"Good Jedi listened," Cody said, trying not to think on some of those worst mistakes. "The ones who had fought in previous conflicts did try to give a 'crash course' in military concepts to those who had not. Others were quite naturals for the task." He knew that nearly all of those regretted that their skill set fell on those lines, as evidenced by Kit Fisto's amazing ability and absolute refusal to have a standing command. "However, Master Jinn, if the entire Republic goes to war, do you believe the Order would be allowed to be passive bystanders? Or able to decide their own course in how and when and where to throw their efforts?"
"Commander Cody has a solid point, sir," Rex said. "That bunch out of Cloud City had to be folded back in, to protect them from being accused of being traitors. The Corellians mostly escaped because Corellia opted for True Neutrality, like Mandalore, but many of the Green Jedi opted to take places in the main Order to assist anyhow."
Qui-Gon permitted himself the luxury of a single bit of angry, despairing Mando'a profanity on the entire situation -- something about the language of warriors and mercenaries just leant itself to expressions about futile stupidity -- as he raked his fingers through his hair. "No, of course not. Well, with the wrong people in power, anyway. Finis would not be so foolish as to wreck the accords his ancestor built, but with him out of power already... others would see only the advantages to re-mobilizing us.
"And that's a pity. Master Altis is one of the few others I know willing to give the Council a real piece of his mind."
...why hadn't he thought of that in Council, before he could hurt Obi-Wan? Djinn might well be the refuge Anakin had to have.
Rex and Cody exchanged a look; Jinn seemed fluent in their language to a degree that could make talking around him difficult, but they'd find a way. They always did. They had their battle sign language too.
"What next, sir?" Cody asked. "I'm fairly certain you should likely rest and eat, if my General picked up his bad habits in both from you. We came out of combat to your fight, but if there's a task we need to do, we will."
"...I can't actually argue against that," Qui-Gon admitted, and shook his head. "No, I think it best that everyone get some rest, and -- as you said -- eat something, in one order or the other. The Queen's people have things well in hand with the Trade Federation, and tomorrow morning should be early enough to start figuring out a story to explain your presence that doesn't scream to whoever our Sithly enemies are that somehow the Force has taken to meddling in ways I would have thought impossible."
Cody considered that, then sighed inwardly. "That is a headache and a half to consider, and given our faces, is going to take some thought. We can't always run around in buckets." He then nodded once, and made to leave, putting his helmet back on smoothly, as Rex did. They would set a guard rotation for the night, short shifts, then crash.
Just before sunrise, Qui-Gon left his room -- one of the two soldiers in the hallway left his position, falling into step a pace behind him, and Qui-Gon attempted to match presence and decorations to a name. "...Wooley, right? Good morning. Let's find the kitchen."
"Yes, sir!" No soldier turned down food, or a chance at it, especially as the squad was doing their damnedest to conserve what rations they had on them in order to feed their Jedi if needed. Naboo food suited them all anyway; the planet liberally restocked them any time they had to pass through the system. Nor was that a matter of playing favorites; Wooley had heard the 327th got the same treatment.
Qui-Gon smiled at that enthusiasm -- he should have known that would be the response from a soldier -- and followed the sense of presences in the building to the knot of all genders working with a quantity of food. He called a quiet, carrying 'good morning' into the noise, and in short order had a tray for himself and Obi-Wan, another for Anakin and Wooley, and had left a request for the staff to send food up for the other seven men that he had suddenly become responsible for. They promised it would be there shortly, and he turned back towards their lodgings of the moment.
Wooley helped carry, memorizing the route. While some brothers had figured out how to get currency on some worlds, they mostly lived on their ration draws and the charity of some places that were grateful after a hard-fought battle with fresh food. He was not above using the Jedi's authority, though, to get extra food for his brothers later, if needed.
Qui-Gon left the tray for Anakin with Wooley, and slipped inside the room his padawan had been granted. Well, rooms, really. Far finer accommodations than either of them were used to outside of trips like these, and the incongruity faintly amused him. How much worse, he wondered, must it be for the young soldiers suddenly in rooms like these?
"Dear one?" he called into the other chamber, "are you awake?"
"Mmm? Yes, Master." The distracted voice was less waking and more coming up from meditation… with certain tones that told Qui-Gon they had not been helpful. "What can I do for you?" Obi-Wan asked as he appeared from behind the drapes of a window, having been sitting in the rising sun.
"I should have realized I'd find you in a patch of sun," Qui-Gon said, soft and gently amused. "I brought breakfast up, and I would be very pleased if you would sit and eat with me."
There were shadows in his padawan's bright eyes, and a guarded edge to his presence that Qui-Gon hadn't felt since... oh, he was an idiot. He hadn't felt that particular edge since they were trying to get over the debacle on Melida/Daan.
"As you wish," Obi-Wan agreed, relying on politeness now that he was an adult, rather than fall into his questioning and prodding. He'd had time to put the event behind him, was at peace with the apology they had shared, but it still stung, deep down, where a scared, almost-thirteen year old boy still hid inside him. "Do you know the men kept guard all night? I could hear them, barely, changing out every few hours."
"I did realize," Qui-Gon agreed, shaking his head slightly at their stubborn determination to keep them safe. Who among his fellows would have made such a decision, allowed other beings to be so indoctrinated that they held Jedi safety above their own?
Obi-Wan settled with him at the table, keeping his thoughts close. On the one hand, he was objectively aware and in agreement that he could take and pass his Trials. On the other, he felt there was more that could be learned… yet his Master had eyes on another. He needed to reconcile himself to his Trials, and be ready to face them when they reached Coruscant.
Qui-Gon refused to sigh as Obi-Wan settled farther from him than he would have liked, and he took a single bite before his eyes found his padawan's again. "You weren't the one at fault, Obi-Wan," he told his padawan --
"Master," Obi-Wan cut in, quickly. "We do not need to retread that ground. We have far more important things to worry over."
Qui-Gon shook his head, frowning at his padawan and the light of his life. "No, dear one, we do. I allowed myself to become fixated, and I hurt you -- sssst, I know you well enough to know I did, now that I'm thinking instead of reacting; don't try that with me. And I am so sorry, my padawan."
Obi-Wan drew in a breath, then flashed that bright, disarming smile before quipping. "I can mark it up as a late lesson in emotional control?" He should have controlled himself better, if only for the youngling's sake.
"One you should not have had to face, and would not have, if your Master was not such a stubborn fool. I've balked at every mention of your Trials for years, as the Council is well aware, but that's no excuse." His padawan was too damned forgiving, or hiding himself too well, if he could find that smile so easily.
Obi-Wan took a sip of his juice to have time to find an appropriate reaction to those words. "I have been very fortunate in your indulgence, Master," he finally said. "I do hope to be a credit to you, as Knight Feemor is."
Feemor, who had been trained promptly to a schedule, to free Qui-Gon in time for Xanatos, Obi-Wan recalled, but the words were there. Well, if he was to be the journey between two wanted apprentices, so be it. Feemor was a good man to be like.
Qui-Gon closed his eyes at those words, aware enough of how his padawan thought -- when he was actually paying attention -- to hear the depth of the ringing slap in them. A slap he more than deserved, yes, but he would have preferred not to take it. That certainly answered the question of which it was, forgiven or hiding, Hiding, most assuredly. Kriff. "You have been, dear one, all these years, and I have every faith that you will be."
"Thank you, Master." Obi-Wan focused on his food then, hoping the topic of conversation moved to what their next steps were. They were, unfortunately, remaining on Naboo until Nute Gunray and accomplices were taken into custody for trial.
Qui-Gon focused on eating for a few moments, as a cover for how much the yawning chasm between them -- chasm he bore the responsibility for, he well knew -- ached, keeping his emotions firmly collected on his side of their bond. He didn't know what else to say, what other angle he could attempt to repair this from when his padawan was determined to act as though nothing was wrong. The thought of a distance like the one between he and his Master staying between them felt like a vibroblade sunk between his ribs, and he knew it was all too possible.
Obi-Wan was not willing to break silence, having already done so much damage, in his own mind, with his outburst at the Council. They had almost finished eating when Anakin came running in, full of excitement.
"Master Qui-Gon, Jar Jar wants…."
The words trailed off, as the very bright, very sensitive boy felt the atmosphere of the room. "I'm sorry. I can leave, so you two can finish the fight," he said softly, starting to back out of the room.
"We're not fighting, Anakin," Obi-Wan immediately said, but he flinched, just enough for Qui-Gon to see.
Anakin glanced between them, obviously unwilling to contradict him, but just as obviously not believing it, either. "If you're not fighting, why are you both so hurt?" he asked, one foot already out the door again.
Qui-Gon swallowed at the question, at the bravery it took to ask it, and looked at Anakin. If he could be brave enough to ask, a Jedi Master could damned well be brave enough to answer. "Because I'm afraid I've cost myself the best thing in my life, and I don't know how to fix it."
"Master!" Obi-Wan could not stop the gasped word, the immediate reach for Qui-Gon's hand, though he did abort the move a few centimeters from the man.
"That's why machines are so much better to deal with," Anakin said before making good his escape. He'd ask a handmaiden for permission to go with Jar Jar to see the water.
Anakin disappeared with that final comment and Qui-Gon was grateful for both the interruption and the departure as he turned his hand palm-up and grasped his padawan's reaching hand in his, returning his full attention to Obi-Wan. "Yes?"
"Why… Master, why would you even wish me around?" Obi-Wan made himself say. "You are not one for large social groups, especially since… since Master Tahl. And you will be busy with a padawan." It hurt, to bare those feelings of inadequacy, to think on Tahl at all, with what she'd had of his master, and ultimately why she had died. That guilt, like the guilt of breaking their trust and bond, would never be far from Obi-Wan, despite how much he knew he was supposed to let go.
"Tahl was not your fault," Qui-Gon told him, his padawan's grief and guilt wailing down the bond between them, aided by the skin contact, as he sought to put words together to explain that it was nothing half so simple as a wish, it was a need, Obi-Wan's presence in his life something as necessary as air to breathe. Had he failed him so badly as that, so much that Obi-Wan did not know what a difference he had made in his life?
"No, dear one," he repeated, as his padawan shuddered. "We'll come back to that. It's not 'wish', dear one. You're my student, my partner, and my friend, and the idea of you not at my side feels like sticking my heart into acid."
Obi-Wan blanched at the wording, looking away quickly to hide it. He had believed Qui-Gon, after Xan's body dissolved to nothingness, that the attempt to inflict more pain by the suicidal leap had failed. He and Qui-Gon had rarely spoken of that long year and more of the man's pursuit and deliberate psychological manipulations of both of them.
But he kept coming around to the fact Xanatos had been wanted from the beginning, with fervor, much like Anakin.
"Perhaps, Master, it is that we have grown too accustomed to one another," Obi-Wan tried from a different facet. "I have tried, in more recent years, to be an adequate partner to you, and I know I have been argumentative at times. Maybe your feelings now are influenced by my poor reaction in the Council meeting combined with a force of habit."
The bond was thick with fear, a fear that was only growing, cloaking around some hidden secret, and Obi-Wan was shifting his breathing to the patterned, metered rhythm he used in high stress.
Qui-Gon had no chance of hiding the utterly scathing look he cast his padawan. He wasn't that deluded about himself, and knowing how close he was standing to losing his dearest friend, the night of wrestling with the vision he'd seen had him willing to speak of things he had long bitten his tongue on. "You did nothing but attempt to support me, despite that I had as much as stabbed you in the back, my padawan. Why would that make the slightest difference in my reaction? And I value even your arguments, surely you know that by now."
Obi-Wan swallowed hard, and then he had to move. He could not sit, could not stand to keep the physical contact. He had come so far from the struggle to keep his physical agitation in check, but they were too close to Qui-Gon learning his deepest, darkest secret.
"I will be there, Master. Except when the Council sends me places. Which will likely be often, given they're used to sending us everywhere," he said, swiftly, trying to break the thrust of the conversation. "It's very unlikely we won't see each other. And I did already promise to show Anakin the ships we use when we're not traveling on freighters as refugees and the like."
Which one of them, Qui-Gon wondered, did Obi-Wan think he was protecting at the moment? The moments his padawan pulled away to pace were never good ones. His head tipped slightly, watching Obi-Wan in motion, and realized that there was an all-too-strong chance that his padawan did not know how much of a difference he had made in his life. How much richer his life was for Obi-Wan's presence, and how much he truly was valued and needed.
"Obi-Wan," he said, soft, and waited for his padawan to turn back to him. "That I was too broken and too angry, too bitter, to want any padawan was never a reflection on you. And we have had more than our share of devastating pains -- too often at each other's hands or voices. But I am grateful, every day, that you chose to return to me, to let me try to do better by you than I had."
Obi-Wan looked at him for one long moment, stopping all fidgeting, even losing the regulated rhythm of breathing, and felt a surge of hope strong enough to make his eyes light. Then it cycled back around to his secret, and he dropped his gaze to Qui-Gon's beard instead, struggling with his thoughts, his feelings, and decided he might as well be damned for good.
"I love you," he blurted out. "I have for so long I can't remember not. There… I said it, and you can stop trying to make this right between us, because I was an idiot and fell in love with my master years ago!"
Qui-Gon froze for a moment, feeling his eyes go wide and startled at the ferocity of that response as much as the words, and he wondered what was broken in their line -- but he would not do to his Obi-Wan what his Master had done to his 'sister'. Not when he was just as guilty as his student of that particular transgression against the Code. "...oh, my dear one. That? Is no reason for me not to try. In fact, it is more of a reason to try.
"If I did not love you too much, I would have let you face your trials two years ago."
That brought Obi-Wan's eyes back up and able to make contact again. "Truly, Master?" he whispered, the hope there yet again.
"Do I deliberately lie to you? Come here, my own," Qui-Gon told him, and took a step towards him, opening his arms, that wild hope in his padawan's eyes a knife slid light against all of his control on himself.
Obi-Wan hesitated just one moment longer before he moved swiftly into that invitation of physical comfort. "No, Master. I just fear I am dreaming," he breathed once he was tucked into the broad chest, breathing in the scent of comfort and safety.
Qui-Gon wrapped his arms around him, folding his padawan in as close as he could, arm behind his back and the other hand wrapped behind his neck, one finger looped tight around the padawan braid that was a symbol of their link to each other. "Your dreams should be kinder to you, dear one," he said against the crown of his padawan's head, taking a full breath for what felt like the first time in hours. Obi-Wan fit into his arms as though he'd been born to be there, completely different from his Tahl and just as perfect, "than to saddle you with this hard-headed inconsiderate idiot."
"That's my master you're insulting," Obi-Wan said, with just a bit of his usual cheek in the words. More, though, he was memorizing how this felt now with his full height, his cheek on Qui-Gon's shoulder, both arms snaked around the waist. His eyes closed, and the bond opened, more completely than in days, and this time, Obi-Wan stopped hiding that part of himself that needed and wanted Qui-Gon. All his love poured through,wrapping around the elder man.
Qui-Gon chuckled softly at the response, quietly agreeing, before the change in the bond between them, the feeling of his padawan's heart opened to him demanded all of his attention. He let his own side of the bond open, pulling his relief and joy and love to the forefront of it, trying to wrap his padawan in that, in how much he adored the young man in his arms, how proud he was of him... so much better he feel that than his sorrow and shame at what he'd done to him. He loved him; he well remembered what it was not to love him and pitied the man he had been for the lack... his padawan was so beloved to him.
Obi-Wan made a very soft sound at that, marveling at those emotions, and then just basked in those, in being held, in a future that was set in quite different lights than they had been when he woke that morning. He didn't know how it would go, but that no longer mattered.
He was Qui-Gon's, and Qui-Gon was his. All else could be figured out.
Obi-Wan was still uneasy with the concept of the clones, with their origin from a time that would not, now, be quite as they remembered. However, he accepted that they would have to stay near at hand, if only to protect them and the time stream. He was not, however, prepared for just how fiercely loyal they could be, or that they did not have qualms over calling out stupidity.
"What do you mean, they're not convinced to train Skywalker?" the captain, wearing those prestigious valor marks, asked in a hissing breath.
"I don't like it either, Captain," Qui-Gon said. "They are seeing shadows and darkness all over his future. I will continue to let him observe me, but that gets tricky if we return to Coruscant. I could--"
His next words were lost as the Captain shoved off the wall he'd been leaning into and went through the palace corridors to find the handful of Council members that had come to investigate the purported Sith's body. He strode in, not even stopping at the glare from Mace Windu, and pinned both that one and Yoda with a piercing evaluation, noting Generals Koth and Mundi were the other pair.
"Did a single one of you stop and think that the shadows, the darkness you perceive is the risk from the kriffing Sith master out there? Are you seriously going to leave the most powerful boy in the galaxy at odd ends, and let those shadows become a wall of evil, when the Sith Master lays hands on the boy?" he demanded. "Always in motion, the future is. Yes, I know your platitudes well; I've listened and watched the lessons my General gives his padawan!
"Don't. Make. This. Mistake! Skywalker needs the protection of the Order, needs guidance like Kenobi can give him in order to be safe from the Sith. I'm not just personally biased, either! I've worked with many Jedi, and each one, after spending a mission with Skywalker, could only find praise for him!"
The four Jedi Masters digested the words, and Mace could see a vague promise of the threat in this alternate that the Captain proposed. They had not been at ease with time traveling soldiers, or even half the story, but they had to accept the will of the Force.
"Kenobi isn't even knighted," Koth said. "Yet you seem convinced on that."
Rex realized those words meant he was being listened to, and eased off his aggression. "Kenobi would have been promoted for killing the Sith here, I think. All I know is that he and Skywalker are the face and symbol of hope for my Republic, and each is stronger in the presence of the other, no matter the personal conflicts they have from time to time."
Ki-Adi Mundi studied the young man before them, the way that he had slowly relaxed a little, and wondered at these men, at the future they came from. His passionate defense had raised many things that should have been obvious, and he had found the boy a likable child. It would be better, he thought, if they took the boy in. And yet it would not be a simple thing. "That would be quite the weight, for two so young to carry..."
"They won't be alone," Rex pointed out. "My Commander and I are in accord that we will continue to handle our secondary mission, to protect our Jedi. And… unless you all have your heads stuffed up your nethers, they'll still have Master Jinn to fall back on. Or don't you Jedi know how to do multi-generational support? Even we clones know that the eldest batches help the youngest batches."
Eeth Koth had to cough; he appreciated the bluntness but could only imagine how well it set with Yoda and Mace.
"Hmm. Aware of this, we are. Curious I am, how well Master Jinn handles it," Yoda said, knowing such a move could stress his grand-padawan.
Rex shrugged slightly -- that, he had no idea about, but... "My Generals both revered him, so I think he'll figure out how to deal with it. All of his years ought to be good for something."
And maybe he meant that about more than just Master Jinn, too.
Yoda's ears flicked, and there was something like amusement in the ancient eyes that regarded him for a long moment.
"We will accept Skywalker into the Order," Mace said after a moment to silently confer with each of the others. "His status is as an Initiate, at this point, until such time as Kenobi is knighted. Master Jinn may oversee his basic education, to help remedy any holes that testing reveals," he finished. "Your bluntness, Captain, was acceptable today, to prevent a potential tragedy. I do recommend, however, that you and your squadron take into account that the Order is not accustomed to such outbursts and disrespect to its senior members."
Fortunately for Mace, neither Koth nor Mundi pointed out Jinn was the exception to that rule as well.
"Maybe a little more blunt speaking would help you all to understand just what is coming, or might have prevented a couple of tragedies that already happened or are happening," Rex snapped at him, eyes lingering hard on Yoda a long while, before he turned and left them, biting his tongue to keep from further lashing the masters with mistakes not yet made.
Master Yoda walked out to the courtyard where the soldiers and young Jedi were, observing as he approached. Two of the soldiers, wearing the blue, were on either side of Anakin with datapads, involved in lessons, it looked like. The four junior soldiers in yellow, and the other pair of the junior blue ones, were currently sparring with Obi-Wan watching avidly, telling Qui-Gon bits about the martial arts as he recognized specific styles.
The two senior officers were sitting apart from the rest, communicating if Yoda guessed correctly, on their own private band.
"A word, I seek, Master Jinn," Yoda said formally, not intruding further than was polite to make the call to them.
Qui-Gon squeezed his partner's shoulder for a moment, then rose to join his grandmaster. "Of course, Master." He dropped his fingers to Anakin's hair lightly as he passed, then reached Yoda, curious about what had their revered Grandmaster seeking him out.
Anakin had looked up at the voice, tried hard to hide the flinch, but didn't manage to keep the frown back, which Echo and Fives would push at later, in privacy. They were very caught up in helping their general, to Rex's relief. They both were still young, to his way of thinking, and given to too much impatience.
Yoda let Qui-Gon reach him, then angled their walk more away from the others. "Decisions made, yes. Hard ones, in ways, easier in others. Gratitude to the Captain, you should have. Brave and confident he is."
"So he is," Qui-Gon agreed, even as he tipped his head slightly, considering. Rex had vanished from his side in mid-sentence, stalking off in such a state that he had wondered what the young man was going to do... and now Master Yoda came to talk to him? "And what decisions have the Council come to, Master?"
Yoda looked up at him, then focused on their walk. "Accepted into the Order, the boy is. Initiate, he will be. Teach him what is not known yet, you may, to ready him as a padawan." He paused, giving Qui-Gon time to adjust to that reversal.
"I'm very glad to hear that, Master," Qui-Gon said, and he was. The idea of absconding with the boy and Obi-Wan to Djinn Altis had merit, but he did believe that they were needed in the Order itself -- and not just because of what Rex and Cody had told him. He still believed in the Order, fallible as it could sometimes be, and wrong as he thought some parts of the current interpretation of the Code were. "It will be an interesting challenge, rounding out his education -- the young men have already found a couple of places where Anakin needs aid."
Yoda nodded. "Continuing their protection, we are promised by the Captain. Further guidance for him, needed it is." Yoda then looked back up at him. "His master, you will not be. Delay in becoming a padawan is necessary, for the right master to be ready."
Qui-Gon did not protest. For one thing, he had no mind to, not when Anakin was going to be taken into the Order, and for another, with any luck it would startle his grandmaster, something he greatly enjoyed doing. He was deeply enjoying the time spent with Anakin -- the boy was utterly unlike Jedi younglings, open and loving and amazingly uninhibited (given his background -- but he had discovered that he was no longer quite young enough to keep up with the unbridled energy of a nine-year-old experiencing freedom for the first time. "And who, Master, do you believe that 'right master' to be?"
Yoda smiled, approving of Qui-Gon's control and restraint, even as it did surprise him. "Kenobi, it must be. Careful in changes, even not knowing the fullness of their knowledge, we must be. Your padawan, the Trials he shall face." That last was said firmly, as Qui-Gon had balked for so long. "Once knighted, a padawan he shall take."
Qui-Gon chuckled for a moment in the face of Yoda's stubborn certainty, and nodded. He no longer feared Obi-Wan's Trials would be the end of their partnership, the end of their bond, and that made Yoda's firmness a simple thing to accept. "I thought that might be who you chose," he admitted, "given how utterly firm Rex and Cody are on that the two of them should be a unit. And I agree. That they remain here, after changing things so drastically, implies that the Force believes there is much we have yet to learn from them.
"The thought that in a world without them, I would have failed so badly as to die and leave them without me, does distress me somewhat. I choose not to focus on that, but to do a better job at living."
"Hmm. Hope for you yet, padawan-mine," Yoda teased him. "Teach them, support them, you shall. Believe in the prophecy, I do not. Deny Skywalker's power, I will not. Care that he not Fall, we will all take."
Qui-Gon made a quiet, amused noise at Yoda's comment, smiling at the teasing, and nodded... though some of those words did startle him. "You don't, Master?"
"Suspicious of such things, I am, knowing of Sith surviving. Little known of how the prophecy came to be, hmm?" Yoda suggested, playing the part of the Skeptic. If the prophecy existed in truth, his belief in it could not matter one way or the other. But such ancient words… in his life, he had watched words change meanings. Care had to be taken in how one listened to words.
Qui-Gon nodded thoughtfully -- he had never truly considered where the prophecy had come from, believing that if it was kept in the Order's Archives, it had been evaluated by thousands of others since it was first recorded. "A point, Master," he had to agree. "And I will be glad to take care of Anakin until Obi-Wan is ready to take him on."
"Responsible for the men, you now are," Yoda added before beginning to make his way out, a giggle escaping him. "Under life debt you are, after all."
"...really, Master?" Qui-Gon asked, casting his Grandmaster a scathing look. Jar Jar's insistence on remaining near him was becoming somewhat wearying, though he had developed a fondness for the excitable Gungan.
Yoda merely laughed more fully, and kept going, allowing Qui-Gon to return to his rather sizable responsibilities.
"Is everything well, Master? I have learned to be wary of our Grandmaster's laughter," Obi-Wan admitted once his master was beside him, just as Kix put Waxer flat on his back with a beautiful flip.
"Everything is well," Qui-Gon told him, laying his hand over his padawan's. "Anakin is to be an Initiate for the moment, allowing us to catch him up to the point he would be a candidate for the usual Exhibition... and you, my own, are to face the Trials when we return to Coruscant.
"After which -- unless you have some profound objection -- the Council believes he should be your padawan. As we have been repeatedly informed should be the case, after all."
"I… still don't know what to make of that. But it is not as if I can't ask you for help," Obi-Wan said calmly. "And, he is a very engaging person, if overly young."
Obi-Wan had avoided creche duty like the plague, and didn't always know how to interact with children… or he still had far too much trauma around them, given his experiences on Melida/Daan.
Qui-Gon smiled at his padawan and nodded his agreement. "I will be here for you both," he agreed, meaning it entirely, "and... yes he is. I think you will do well together, actually."
"I know we both will strive to be a credit to your teaching, Master," Obi-Wan agreed.
Anakin lay still for a while, alone in the big room he'd been given, trying to stop thinking about everything that could be happening to Mom without him there and with Watto having lost so much betting on Sebulba, but... he couldn't make the thoughts stop, and he didn't want to be alone. He wondered about maybe going to Master Qui-Gon, but he needed to rest, and besides, he was a Jedi, so that he was so scared and lonely wouldn't be good. And he couldn't go bother Padmé, she was the Queen, and so very, very busy. He curled up tighter... and then realized there was somewhere he could go. Where it might even be okay that he was scared.
He slipped out of the bed, put on outside clothes, and quietly left the room.
"Sir?" That was Jesse, currently the member of the 501st on watch, sharing a shift with Boil. The armored man came closer, crouching as Anakin had stopped on being spoken to. "What can I do for you? Or are we raiding the kitchens this late? I'm fairly certain you can't work on the Naboo ships without permission, after all."
Anakin blinked, staring into the visor. He hadn't realized that the soldiers weren't sleeping through the night, that part of them stayed awake outside the doors, like the guards at the palaces, and he shook his head slightly, hand coming up to quickly scrub the traces of tears off his face. He hadn't thought about that the halls would be lit, either. "I -- "
Even with Jesse crouching down, with one of them awake and looking at him, he felt stupid and too young, and couldn't come up with words.
Jesse hurriedly stripped off his left glove and reached out, running his thumb over those tear traces. "Ahh, alor'ika," he said softly. "Feeling lonely, nightmares, or other?"
Boil focused on the task of guarding, letting the two have their privacy as best he could.
Anakin pushed into the bare hand on his cheek, the quiet, gentle voice making him bite into his cheek to keep from crying again. The soft endearment didn't help with that, either, and he nodded a little jerkily. "Yes, yes, and yes... worried about Mom, and I couldn't sleep, so I thought... maybe you all would let me in -- but you're out here."
"I have to stay on duty, but I know the others will let you in, alor'ika," Jesse said warmly. "Why are you -- wait, your mother? No, no, shh… not here. Let's get you in with the Captain, and you talk to him, you hear? He'll listen. We all will, but I have to keep all of us safe right now." He pushed to his feet, used the bare hand to rest on Anakin's back, and guided him to the suite where his brothers all were, opening the door quietly.
His ears said no one was currently having sex, so he pushed further in, letting Anakin step in as well. He guided Anakin to the bed where Rex was quickly waking, sleeping alone tonight because Cody was brooding and not in the mood to be comforted currently.
"Sir, Anakin is lonely and scared. Can you listen to him?"
"Of course, Jesse. Come up here, Ani… I'll sit up if you prefer me to, or you can have this pillow and I'll take the other one," Rex said, careful of stepping on any triggers the boy might have about such closeness.
Anakin scrambled up onto the bed, letting his faint vexation with Jesse saying what was wrong slide away at the 'of course' and the offer. But... there hadn't been any judgment in his voice, or in Rex's answer. He shook his head at the words, then realized that he had to say something, because it was dark. "No... don't sit up, it's okay," he said, low. He paused to slip his shoes off and then settled next to the big, broad body that everything in him knew he could trust. He reached out, finding Jesse's hand in the almost-dark to pat it and say a very soft "thank you", hoping not to wake up anyone else.
There were soft breathing-sounds, and the sleeping presences of the others... and, over there, in the window, someone sharp and alert, but not really paying attention to him. He thought that was Cody, the Commander, but Rex was right there and warm, and he patted carefully until he found the curve of a shoulder to rest his hand on.
Rex reached and covered that hand, rather than risk touching the boy at all on terms not his. "You can speak as freely as you need, Anakin, softly. We're very used to filtering voices out, and yours is part of our aliit, so safe and welcome."
"Aliit," Anakin repeated, very softly, "that's... clan, right? Fives said it, today, and I asked." He felt Rex's agreement before the soft 'yes', and something went warm, deep in his chest, where the cold of losing mom sat, because they wanted him as family. He left his hand resting on Rex's shoulder, clasped under his, and curled up a little more. "I'm so scared for my mom," he admitted. He'd already said it to Jesse, and... he wanted to talk to Rex.
Rex's breath caught, then he let it out very slowly. "Your mother, Ani?" He was best of his batch, knew what that had to mean. She was a slave, not with him… and none of them had known anything about her. Which, knowing his general, Rex was certain meant Bad Things. "She's on Tatooine? Still?"
Anakin nodded, swallowing against that it hurt, that he was so scared for her. "I know I'm not supposed to be scared, but -- she's alone now, Threepio can't really help, and just because Watto wouldn't sell her to Master Qui-Gon doesn't mean he won't to someone he's not mad at, and I know he has to have lost so much money betting on Sebulba because he always did bet on him and this time I won, and -- " He choked on everything he was afraid of, and clung.
Rex gave a low growl at the idea of his alor'ika losing his buir like that, and then forced himself to listen to everything. He squeezed Anakin's hand gently.
"Pretty sure the Queen won't stand for this, if she's just reminded," Rex finally said. "If she can finance it and loan us a ship, I can send a man or two to go get her off that planet, get her free like you." That his men would kill the slaver if refused did not need to be said; they were soldiers, and slaving was not something any of them took well. There was a reason so many of them were fairly well liked by Twi'leki around the galaxy, even without their assistance at Ryloth. There was an understanding between two peoples who were slaves in all but legal fact.
Anakin's eyes widened in the dark, swallowing against the flare of hope that lit in his chest, and he shifted to get closer, pushing his cheek and side against Rex's body, holding on. "I -- she was so shocked, that we were slaves. That slavery existed," he corrected himself, because that had been the real thing that surprised her. "Maybe... maybe she would help."
As though she wasn't already an angel. If she could help Mom...
"I'm sure she will. It will work out, Anakin. We'll see to it." Rex squeezed his hand. "Go ahead and sleep, alor'ika. I have you safe."
Anakin leaned against him, holding on, and said quietly, "Master Qui-Gon did try. Watto just wouldn't. I... I'm tired, now."
Slowly, the boy did let himself sleep, reassured by the soldier. The sharp brooding presence that had heard it all slipped from the room when the sun began to rise, going ahead to find a Handmaiden and see to setting things in motion. He would not let the boy continue to hurt and fear like that.
It felt good, Cody admitted, to provide a solution for that pain, even as he continued to ache for all he had lost in keeping his General from tragedy.
Getting free of Naboo took a bit of persuasion on the part of Qui-Gon Jinn that no, really, they could not travel with the official Jedi envoys, as the entire team of soldiers had been omitted from official reports and stayed hidden through all of it on a hunch by Obi-Wan.
The soldiers agreed; if the Sith had no idea how Maul actually had died, then they had a small advantage.
The Queen offered an old transport to them, parts, and any assistance they wanted… which led to Anakin and Obi-Wan beginning to bond in truth, making Rex and Cody relax somewhat. The soon-to-be Knight and the new Initiate worked together to overhaul the transport while the soldiers worked with security to get what they thought the ship needed.
In theory, due to Jedi prohibitions, the ship belonged to Cody now. It would be their mobile base in the coming storm of saving the Republic and Jedi alike from the war, with a priority on stopping it before their brothers began to die in numbers.
The handmaidens taught each of the men ways to use makeup to introduce subtle changes in the contours of their faces, during the time it took Obi-Wan and Anakin to be as satisfied as they were going to get over the ship.
They also all took the time to meet Shmi, privately, learning that the gentle nature of the boy came from her, as well as the steel in his spine, when he chose to dig in on an issue. Padmé had invited the woman to take a position on her staff as a teacher of Huttese and Toydarian dialects, aided by Threepio.
Soon enough, they were on their way to Coruscant, where they would lay out what they needed to for the Jedi High Council, to try and avert the war as much as they could… and flush out the Sith.
The meeting with the High Council in full went about as well as either Cody or Rex had predicted, but using their knowledge of various weaknesses, such as Plo's protectiveness over younger lifeforms and Windu's need for perfect order in all things allowed them to get their points over about how bad it really was going to get.
They would not reveal where they had originated for at least three years by mutual choice. Three years would see the bulk of the brothers they belonged with into the jars, and the Jedi would not kill lives already formed and attached to the Living Force. With any luck, they would be able to keep the Jedi from terminating the production lines so that even their younger brothers would come into being, but three years worked as their compromise point.
Even if they only had those first three years' worth of brothers, they could still save so many lives if they could just avert the war before year ten. None of them were doing spectacularly at coping with their Generals being mere cadets, but things were settling out as they worked with the political Jedi and their visionaries to figure out the puzzle.
It was in one of those discussions, with Qui-Gon there because the situation had been dumped in his lap and the Council had decided that he was to keep an eye on it, that Adi Gallia said something that shook things up yet again. They'd been discussing the Trade Federation, and Gunray, when she shook her head.
"I can't understand how he could still hold so much influence nearly twenty years from now, they're not a long-lived species and he's already not young..."
Cody and Rex exchanged a look, then shook their heads as one. "Not twenty, sirs, but ten. You've only got ten years, a little less actually right now," Rex told them all.
"What?" came almost as one from Qui-Gon, Master Gallia, and Plo Koon -- he, too, Rex had been surprised to learn, had been keenly political, once. Master Gallia was the one that went on, though, looking at both of them. "But you told Qui-Gon your young selves have only recently been... 'commissioned', and Sifo-Dyas only disappeared a few months ago."
Cody nodded. "As the longnecks are fond of saying, they sped things up. Or else it would have taken a lifetime to produce a proper army.
"We age two years for one, roughly. Some go a bit more, some a bit less, but that's the general rule of thumb."
All three Jedi stared at Cody in horror -- Rex could see it in the set of Plo Koon's tusks and the lines of his body, despite the mask protecting his eyes -- and it took several seconds of silent glances between them before Qui-Gon spoke slowly.
"All of you are... only in your early teens, chronologically?" He sounded almost sick, and Rex glanced at his brother uncertainly.
Cody shrugged. "It is who and what we are, sir. We were close to ten years at the beginning of the war," he told them. "We start training pretty much straight out of the jars, and are far better trained for it than even the senior most Jedi."
"That," Plo Koon rumbled, and Rex knew that tone a little better than he would have liked, General Buir displeased with a situation and trying to figure out how to resolve it, "does not make this acceptable, Commander. No beings so young should suffer such hardships."
Cody stood his ground. "It is in our nature. Made or not, we draw satisfaction from serving well. Not a man that went that day wasn't eager to finally have Duty Call."
"You have trouble with physically mature and adapted men going to war, but you sent your padawans into the conflict?" Rex asked abruptly. "Beg pardon, sir, but my commander was only fourteen when she came to us, and a bit on the small side at that."
"I have trouble with everything about your pasts, Rex, Cody," Plo Koon replied, eyes behind the goggles resting on each of them before his focus turned entirely to Rex, "and that idea -- that we would have sent yet more younglings into such horrors makes me wonder what possessed the entire lot of us, between now and then."
Master Gallia made a softly agreeing noise, her mobile expression still horrified and almost haunted... while Qui-Gon's face sank into his hand and he made a quiet sound that slid uneasily along Rex's spine. Master Gallia looked at him for a moment, and then she sucked a distraught breath. "Oh, that would -- and with what they've said -- your poor padawan, Qui!"
Cody felt a moment's vindication to see that there was some sympathy being expressed, but at the same time he wondered what part of his beloved General's past had been omitted in their many late hour discussions.
Rex relented some from his anger; he was not about to have his people's service held up that way when the Jedi had been worse! "The Commander was the youngest in the field," he admitted. "And more naturally suited to certain skills than most others. But … it was difficult, at times, to work with her on certain issues. For her sake, sirs, not mine."
"I think, Captain," Plo Koon said as he looked away from Qui-Gon and back to them, "that there is little you would consider difficult for your own sake, when it comes to... your particular Jedi.
"And... I am sorry, both of you. What was done to create and shape you was wrong, I will not be convinced otherwise, but you are people that I am glad to know, and I meant no insult to you, or the brothers you defend so passionately. My ire lays entirely in... other directions."
Cody gave a little smile, and Rex's lips quirked a bit. "We know, Sir. You are always one we count on to protect our brothers to the best of your ability," Cody said. Both Captain and Commander were convinced that no one, not any other soul even in their own ranks, could have kept Wolffe sane after the Malevolence, let alone his period of torture by Ventress.
"Still adopting interesting young ones, I think, Master Plo," Adi said warmly, even as most of her attention remained on Qui-Gon in empathy for his realizations.
"I am pleased to hear that, at least," Plo Koon said, apparently regaining some more of his calm. "Ten years. Only ten years, to attempt to avert so much. Well. It is what it is, and we must do our best with it. Adi, what were we discussing, before this revelation?"
"Gunray," Master Gallia answered, though she kept an eye on Qui-Gon. "And his position."
They fell back to the discussion then, and let the shocks fade, so they could focus on business.
Cody was still evaluating the entirety of the Council, trying to decide when and how he could break the news of who Tyranus was (as both he and Rex had seen too many moments of the Jedi Council being idiots already, and didn't want to tip their hand too soon with that knowledge). The discussions of what they did know were going relatively smoothly, and they'd managed to find something of a routine in the Temple.
Everything was working out just fine, until the day that a tiny youngling ran smack into Fives' legs, and Rex realized he had a new panic on his hands in his ARC trooper.
Specifically, said tiny youngling was a Togruta, with tiny buds where montrals would one day grow, the tiniest of nubs at the base of her head, with a blue and white pattern standing out as vividly as the 'wings' on her cheeks.
Fives' yelp was not entirely too unpredictable, as Rex's recognition had kicked in slightly faster and he'd been mentally preparing himself since Kamino. He doubted, given the fascination they all had for tiny little open-hearted Anakin Skywalker that any of the others had really made the logic leap about their even-younger Commander. Well, other than Cody.
"Calm down, Fives," Rex said before he knelt down to not tower over his future Commander. "Hello little one," he said softly before pulling at his memory to whistle the simple greeting Ahsoka had taught him from her culture.
The youngling's face lit up with so much joy at that, even as he saw her take in his species, that he'd used the simplest greeting, and make the effort to use Basic to reply.
"Ko -- no, wrong word. Hello!" She smiled brilliantly at him, and he found himself being pulled into her charm all over again. "Who?" As she asked it, her hand came up to rest on his chest, and the smile suddenly broke with a whimper and high-pitched whistle-chirp of distress in her native language.
"Kriff!" Rex growled, even as Fives dropped down to try and help, not knowing any more than Rex what to do. Luckily for them both, Plo Koon and his padawan Lissarkh appeared from the nearby corridor, having come with some haste in response to the youngling's cries. Rex and Fives moved so Plo could reach down, and the tiny Togruta scrambled into his arms, holding on tightly as she spoke rapidly in Togruti.
"Shh, shh, little 'Soka, shh," Plo soothed, a small mental 'stay' aimed at both men as he tried to get the child to calm. "Ahsoka, I need you to use Basic," he said when her distress had mostly petered out and the bird-sounds were fewer. She looked from his masked face to the two men and back, her small lekku both twitching.
And then she made Fives' heart fall out all over again with one of those too-bendy, fearless twists that small younglings did, reaching from Plo's arms for Rex in such a way that the Jedi Master had to support her with the Force and Rex was instinctively reaching out to steady her. This time when the contact happened, Rex could see her eyes flare wider (impossibly huge as they already were) and go darker than the usual shade of blue.
"Big water. Sad. Hurt."
The four words sliced through Rex even as he accepted the transfer of the youngling to his hip, and Fives soon paled beside him as he caught up to what had just happened.
"That… is your nightmare, little 'Soka," Plo mused softly, getting a solid nod from the small girl before she made firm eye contact with Rex.
"Home, 'Soka," Rex told her. "Not always bad." She looked exceptionally dubious at that, then wrapped her arms around his neck tightly.
"So the attack hugs started early," Fives said in a very quiet voice, but Plo heard, given that his species normally vocalized at those lower levels. Logic dictated that this, then, was the unnamed commander and padawan to Skywalker in several years. The age gap was small, but there was precedent.
"Easy there, little one. Already very strong in your arms," Rex said, once that hug had bolstered even more of his will to make this war go away before it could begin. This child was every bit as loving and giving as Anakin… and he didn't want either one to be broken by unremitting violence.
"Safe." Ahsoka did let go enough to breathe his scent in fully, almost tasting the air, reminding him one more time that her people had evolved from highly successful predators. "My friend," she declared.
"Always, 'Soka. You can call me Rex. And that is Fives."
That high intelligence that had driven Ahsoka Tano to be the most brilliant commander possible kicked in at hearing the other name, and she spread all the fingers of one hand wide. "Fives!"
The other man smiled broadly and nodded. "Right!"
Ahsoka squirmed and clambered down when Rex realized why, before smiling up at both. "Bye!" She then took Lissarkh's hand, almost pointedly, and Rex didn't have to stretch hard to know Ahsoka Tano had been roaming without permission. The Trandoshan let Ahsoka have a finger to hold onto, and headed for the lower levels with her, leaving Plo to look at the pair of men.
"If she continues to have the nightmare, may we call one of you to the creche for her?" he asked after a long moment. Fives opened his mouth, but Rex cut him off.
"Me, sir. She's my responsibility, has been since my General took her on. Just because I'm backwards to her time doesn't change that," the captain said.
Plo nodded, then turned to follow his padawan.
"Sir. Can you explain any of that?" Fives asked, once they were walking away together.
"The Commander has visions, Fives. You know how hard she tried to learn our ways, how quickly she was picking up the language?" Rex asked.
"She watched us grow up, in visions that never made sense and were cast aside by the adults as bad dreams," he told his trooper. "The first time she met a vod, it all clicked in place, and she set about trying to make up for failing to save the ones the longnecks culled."
There was silence between them, an anger and grief for the ones that had never had a chance. Then Fives sighed heavily.
"Always did take on more than she ought."
"Now there's a truth and a half."
It didn't take long before the small changes began adding up to larger ones, and Cody had to admit that events were detouring beyond the information his General had shared with him. They were apparently still on track to the crisis, but assassination attempts on certain Jedi and Senators were pieced together that Cody didn't know about. The Masters who were working directly with them, though, were not as clouded in their ability to see, as the interference from the vod'e had led to cracks in the Sith control on everything.
At six months into their stay in the past (which seemed to be permanent so far, and Qui-Gon was convinced the Force wanted them there), Cody requested that Qui-Gon and Yoda meet with him privately in a shielded part of the Temple.
"We've been keeping the name of the Sith Apprentice from you for reasons," Cody said bluntly. "With you alive, Master Jinn, I couldn't be certain which way it would go, but the noises out of certain systems questioning their place in the Republic are telling me that his actions had nothing to do with your death.
"Which makes my fingers itch for my blaster, quite bluntly, because I shared my General's opinion that you don't spit on the memory of someone by becoming who they would despise."
"What?" Qui-Gon asked, puzzled, his head tilting at the young man he had come to trust and rely on. Who in the galaxy could he have had that much of an impact on, that the Commander had even momentarily thought his survival might have been enough to change things?
Cody set his shoulders back, firmed his jaw up, and then looked at him squarely. "When's the last time you spoke to your master? Or you, Master Yoda, to your padawan? Because his retirement is a sham. He's agitating the worlds that will become the Separatists, and he will be their leader.
"In my timeline, it was his capture of and near-execution of Kenobi that brought it to open warfare. The Jedi staged an intervention, to get him out of there, with an intention of cutting off the movement before it could expand. Only, that was just what they were planning on, and it took the lives of many, many Jedi as well as my brothers who were brought in, hoping to avert it all with one strike."
Yoda's ears had gone flat against his head, and he looked down, closing his eyes. "Festering, his mistakes have been." He knew the only reason Qui-Gon had not cut Cody off in denial was the sheer inability to actually grasp that this was possibly fact.
Qui-Gon shook his head, everything in him wanting to deny those words, wanting to deny the possibility... but his sense of Cody told him that the young man was entirely sincere. Sincere, and grieved by it, but resolute that it had to be said. His Master, Fallen?
The horror of that clawed at his throat, the pain as razored as a vibroknife in his ribs, and the name he hadn't thought in most of a decade was a throb in his mind. //No, not like Xan, no, I can't -- I can't...//
"Calm yourself, padawan-mine," Yoda said softly, reaching over with a hand to calm Qui-Gon away from his emotional chaos. "Through this, think we must! Together, yes… together, perhaps, aid your master we can."
/So the old master can feel compassion for those who are suffering?/ Cody kept his face and thoughts carefully controlled, hiding that sentiment. He'd heard from Thire of the Jedi's compassion and warmth, knew Obi-Wan looked up to the ancient one greatly, but from Rex, he'd heard other stories. And he'd seen it, to a degree, in how edgy Yoda could be around Skywalker.
"It's early yet, in the timeline, but Tyranus had a hand in so many formative events, Masters. If he could be dissuaded, perhaps it will help us all?" Cody said neutrally.
He knew the genetic donation had already been made. Even now, those first, rushed batches that produced Nulls and ARCs were being observed and tested and prodded. They no longer needed to guard against the destruction of their own people quite so closely, which was the other reason for their timing.
If Obi-Wan was correct, though, and the Fett had not lied, what did it say about all of the Vod'e that their genetic donor was chosen by the Sith?
There was something in that string of thought to pursue later, Cody told himself.
Qui-Gon pulled himself back from the pain and dismay clawing at him, taking his grand-master's taloned hand in his own, grateful for his steadying presence, his calm surety. "I -- yes, Master. Your pardon, Cody, I need a moment."
Or a few hours, but a few moments' meditation would be enough to put his reactions off to the side for later, so that he could look at this idea without his emotions sending him into... overreactions. He focused himself, determined to do so, and succeeded almost entirely. He opened his eyes again, and nodded to them both. "All right."
"I am apologetic for the shock of it, but I still remember the anger that my General had as he … explained details to me," Cody acknowledged. "I only know the man as an adversary. My General didn't know him at all, on a personal level. But if you, Master Yoda, feel that he might be turned aside, great.
"I also do not know how early he recruited his pet assassin, a pale witch that… well, my scar is her doing. Skywalker bore one too, and so did a good brother of mine. Dangerous, uses two lightsabers that can become one -- Master Plo told us he suspected the lightsabers had belonged to a former student of Dooku's, once -- and absolutely sociopathic. That's a danger you'd need to watch for."
"Vosa, used such, she did," Yoda said to the lightsaber comment.
Qui-Gon nodded, thinking of his abandoned and lost youngest 'sister' with regret -- and a flicker of anger that his Master could possibly have given her lightsabers into another's hands. An assassin's hands, at that. He hadn't known her well, but this, this put everything in a different light, too. He pushed that away, and focused on the moment.
"It's hardly your fault, Cody," he told him gently. "And no... Obi-Wan has never spent any time with my Master, he retreated years ago. Even before that, it had been decades since we were truly close."
He had long given up his resentment at that, his sorrow... but now that too was tainted. How long had this been brewing? "But I will hope that he can be convinced away from this bit of boneheaded asinine descent into betraying himself, until events prove otherwise."
"I hope so too, Sir, for the sake of the Republic." Cody was willing to let it go at that; they would need to get their new armor pushed through and fast, if they were to accompany the pair to deal with Dooku; the issued armor was not allowed to be seen, but wearing ponchos only went so far. Although, that was going to be its own headache, getting the shine off new sets, painting them… and he could already hear Rex's junior pair over if they were told to lose the kama.
No, let his ARC brothers, including Rex, keep that. It wasn't standard to the original armor, anyway.
Shockingly, to Rex and Cody, Yoda and Qui-Gon were able to turn Dooku's Fall toward the better good after all. The aged former Jedi master was willing to turn double agent, for as long as such a deception could be pulled off.
None of the clones actually trusted it, but their part was completely unknown to Dooku, allowing them to independently investigate, protect key Jedi and politicians, as well as work their own skills against the growing momentum for war.
At year three of their exile in time, Cody talked to Plo Koon, Shaak Ti, Kit Fisto, and Ima Gun Di privately, after much debate among the squadron as a whole. After a long discussion, and extracting their word to not end the program, since it was bought and paid for through ten years of production anyway, he told them where to go, to see to the Vod'e.
A week after they had left, Kit Fisto came back, rounded up several of the six to eight year old Jedi younglings as well as his former padawan Bant Eerin, then left again. Rex noted Ahsoka Tano was in the group that went, and wondered just what plan the Jedi had hatched that required the younglings.
About three months later, Dooku turned up looking like he had been badly beaten and nearly killed, supported by none other than the witch they all hated in their proper time. She had a defiance to her, even as she demanded aid for her master, aid that was delivered quickly.
"He is aware of the meddling at Kamino," Dooku ground out. "He knows the Jedi are imprinting the soldiers more carefully on Jedi methods. He has Dark Acolytes in his service, and they attacked us."
Qui-Gon noted the 'us' with some pride, but the rest was concerning.
"Do you know his name, Master?"
"I do. And you are all in grave danger, along with the entire galaxy." He rested his hand on Yoda's, who had come closer to help with his padawan. "Darth Sidious is the Chancellor."
It was Yoda who reacted first to the conflict that spread through Cody and Rex, the only two men from the squadron present at the moment. Behind the ancient master, though, was Ventress, her eyes narrowing as she jerked her gaze up, hand raising to keep them away from her master.
"Vod," Rex managed to say, even as he forced his hands up and away from the blasters, seeing as Cody struggled to do the same.
"Can't… think…" Cody managed to say, as one hand edged closer to a blaster. Ventress snarled warningly, but Yoda reached with the Force first, gently capturing both soldier's hands.
"Sleep now, you will," the ancient one said, and they collapsed, caught in Qui-Gon's belated use of the Force.
Rex woke to see he was in a medical bay, all of his brothers around him, all of them still unconscious. His skull felt a little odd, and he noted they all had a shaven patch now, with a bandage.
The healer on duty was one Rex had met before, a Devaronian named Nimpur, and she came over at his reach to touch the bandage on his own skull.
"The Masters have stepped out, but wished you to know you are all under orders to rest as your brains heal," the healer said.
"What… can you tell me what happened?"
"Apparently, you and your brothers had a device implanted, one with ties into your more primitive thought patterns. They have been removed, and word sent to Master Ti to investigate on Kamino. We originally only investigated you and the Commander, but Master Jinn suggested all of you be brought in.
"I apologize for the intrusion of bodily autonomy, but as all of you have been so protective of the Order's members, and could not have consented, it was deemed best to incapacitate the men and perform the surgery quickly, en masse."
Rex nodded to that. "It was the right call. We all would have chosen it, had we been able."
She gave him a reassuring smile, then returned to checking on each of the others. Rex settled back to rest, and tried very hard not to think about the implications of what might have happened, in this time or his proper one.
Between the evidence Dooku and Ventress had brought, what Adi and Plo quickly were able to find based on their memories of Palpatine's associates during the Stark Hyperspace conflict, they soon had all they needed to begin moving to bring the Senate around to their side.
Qui-Gon, being a bit more practical, cornered Mas Amedda with Obi-Wan and Anakin to help him, and soon had the Chagrian convinced his only hope to save his career and reputation was to turn on the Chancellor, providing names and incidents that had been arranged.
Sidious did not go down without a fight, but the Vod'e were there to protect those in harm's way, supporting their Jedi.
After, nursing their own wounds back to health, Cody looked around at them, and took a deep breath.
"I suppose the Force decided not to wipe us out of existence with the mission done," he said.
"That was a possibility?!" Fives demanded, even as he fidgeted with the new arm, so much like his general's had been, and never would be now!
"It was theorized," Rex agreed. "But no, we live. We are free. And… there's a whole new future for all of our brothers now."
"Then I suggest, sirs," Jesse said, "that we make certain we are a part of building that for them. Even if it means running into our miniatures."
"I agree," Boil said, getting assents from everyone around him.
"Alright then. Let's tackle this new mission," Cody said, at peace with having shaped a life where Obi-Wan could live without so much added pain, at seeing Skywalker growing into a strong Jedi without so much torment in his eyes.
They would adapt, as ever.