Rex had barely made it two steps into the room before Cody said, “You know the rule, vod.”
“I just got off shift,” Rex said, but pulled his helmet off at Cody’s raised eyebrows.
The rule was simple: for one night they were not soldiers but brothers sharing a drink. The last time they had all been together was before Keeli and the 104th shipped out for Ryolth. That was how Rex preferred to remember Keeli, loose limbed and grinning as he fleeced them at a sabacc variation he swore General Di taught him but Rex suspected Keeli invented just to fuck with them. It was a good memory, and one that Rex kept close.
He set his bucket and vambraces on the table listing under the weight of piled armor. He fumbled with the catch on the pauldron, the one damaged a few campaigns back that tended to stick. He always meant to have the quartermaster take a look, but there was hardly time between missions to requisition supplies much less get one faulty clasp repaired.
“Here,” Bly said, from where he was setting aside his greaves. “Hold still.”
“I thought you were on Coruscant,” Rex said as Bly lifted the pauldron over his head.
“We were.” Bly went for the clasps on the back of his chest piece. “Orders came down and here we are.”
Rex looked him over, but Bly moved smooth and easy, none of the stiffness that meant he was hiding an injury. Rex relaxed; he saw the reports for the fuck up that was Mygeeto, and the 327th had been in the worst of it.
“Remember the rule,” Cody told them.
“No debriefs, we know.” Bly scrubbed his hand through Cody’s hair, smiling at Cody’s scowl. Bly was the only one allowed to do that. Rex tried once and almost lost his fingers.
“Gonna take the rest off?” Bly asked, and kicked at Rex’s right greave.
“You know you’ll never get Rex out of all of it,” said Wolffe, keying the lounge door shut behind him.
“You’re one to talk,” Rex said, making one last concession in unclipping his belt. The gesture didn’t go unnoticed, and Cody knocked knuckles into his shoulder before heading toward the couches.
The Negotiator had a few luxuries, a perk of being aboard High General Kenobi’s flagship, and an officer’s lounge was one of them. There wasn’t much to it: a few couches, restricted access to the wider holonet, a few vids that frankly Rex was sick of, but most of all it offered a modicum of privacy that was unheard of in the barracks. And while Rex preferred to sit with all his brothers, sometimes he needed a moment of quiet where he could just breathe.
“What took you so long?” Cody asked. “You get pulled into another meeting?”
“You said it was in your footlocker,” Wolffe answered, cradling a bottle against his chest as he shed his vambraces and nothing else, hands left pale and vulnerable. “You didn’t tell me I’d need a fucking map and the answer to three riddles.”
Cody shrugged. “I had to be sure that Wooley didn’t steal it. He found Boil’s stash of whiskey in less than an hour.”
“And we’re still hearing about it,” said Rex, eyeing Wolffe. “Tell Wooley to let it go.”
There was no tension in Wolffe’s shoulders that Rex could see, but his scar still had the pink, tender look of newly healed skin. His hands were steady as he set out four crystal tumblers, nicer than anything they could afford, which meant they were probably a gift from General Koon. In the days following the extraction, the one person who spent more time at Wolffe’s bedside than Rex or Cody had been Koon, only leaving when another council member came and led him away.
Wolffe had hated it, refusing to let Koon or anyone catch his gaze, snapping that all the coddling was unnecessary.
“I'm fine,” he’d said, which was such a blatant lie Rex wondered why he even bothered.
“You’re not,” said Cody, calm and steady in the face of Wolffe’s shallow, quick breathing. “But you will be.”
“Fuck you,” Wolffe snarled.
“Shut up,” said Rex.
He was the one who found Wolffe, barely alive with half his face covered in blood. He was the one to carry Wolffe to the extraction site, feeling Wolffe’s wet breath on the back of his neck as every jolt sent him groaning weakly in pain.
And it was Rex who looked at the crown of General Koon’s bowed head, and said, “They took his eye, sir.”
“We got you, vod,” Rex had said, and touched their foreheads together while Cody stood guard over them.
And Wolffe had shuddered once and said, “Yeah, you got me.”
“What are we poisoning ourselves with?” Bly asked, and Rex blinked back to the present; rules were rules and there was no use dwelling on the past.
“It looks awful,” Bly continued with the confidence of a brother who had ingested some truly awful shit in the past.
Considering Rex had been right there matching him drink for drink, they were lucky the Kaminoans were good at their jobs or they would all be dead from alcohol poisoning twice over.
“Tell me it’s not Hardcase’s homebrewed rotgut,” he said. There was no label on the bottle and the alcohol was clear and ominous. “The last batch sent three shinies to medical.”
“You let them drink that shit?” Bly asked.
“Of course we did,” said Cody. “How else do they learn?”
“I almost forgot what a bastard you are,” Wolffe said approvingly before shaking the bottle. “What is it?”
Cody took a seat next to Rex. “It was a gift from General Kenobi. It’s supposed to be a specialty from Moltok. He said it’s rather mild.”
“Cody,” Bly said seriously, “you know you’ve always been my favorite. So why are you trying to kill me?”
“Don’t be dramatic,” said Cody, and then in a passable imitation of Kenobi’s accent added, “I think you and your brothers will enjoy it. It’s made from camba-fruit. Well, mainly camba-fruit.”
“That’s not reassuring,” said Rex. “I’ve seen Kenobi drink. His definition of mild is fucked.”
“Oh, so you know what he thinks fucking is,” said Wolffe with a terrifying smirk.
Rex kicked him in the shin. “Just pour,” he said, ignoring the way all three were grinning at him.
“Didn’t you have that undercover op with Kenobi?” Bly asked.
“It wasn’t undercover. He was meeting an informant and needed backup.”
“He needed a babysitter,” Cody corrected.
That was what Cody called it at the time, amused as he forced Rex into civilian clothes.
“Shouldn’t you be doing this?” Rex asked, looking longingly at his armor.
“I'm coordinating with Admiral Yularen,” Cody answered. “Skywalker and Tano are doing their own reconnaissance, and I need someone to keep him out of trouble. My men still think they should listen to his terrible lies about how he’s perfectly capable of going in alone because this is a simple mission where nothing will go wrong. I trust you to keep him alive when it goes to shit.”
The sad thing was that Rex couldn’t argue that as the mission did end with them running through the streets dodging blaster fire.
“What did you talk about?” Bly asked as Wolffe uncapped the bottle. “You were there for, what, a couple hours?”
“An hour maybe,” Rex corrected. “And we just drank.”
That wasn’t a lie, because he had watched in fascinated horror as Kenobi tossed back a row of worryingly green shots.
“Tharin tequila,” said Obi-Wan. “It’s an acquired taste.”
“And when did you acquire it, sir?” Rex asked.
“When Anakin hit his teenage years.” Kenobi’s smile took on a rueful curve. “Between you and me, Captain, Anakin can be trying at times. I’ve found a stiff drink can help.”
“Yes, sir,” Rex said at a loss.
“Here, try this.” And Obi-Wan passed over a glass of something that smelled faintly like citrus.
“Oh,” said Rex after taking a sip. It wasn’t sweet as he was expecting, just this side of too sharp with a nice tang that went down smooth.
Kenobi smiled. “I thought you might enjoy it. Ah, it seems our contact has arrived. Follow my lead.”
“So nothing happened?” Bly asked.
“We got the information and came back,” Rex said, resisting the urge to scowl. “What did you think was going to happen?”
Bly looked to Cody, who shrugged and said, “I can only do so much.”
“Lay off,” Wolffe said. “You know you can’t push him.” He slid the tumblers towards them. “Drink.”
“It probably won’t kill us,” Bly said, and touched his glass to theirs. “It’s not like we’re going to live forever.”
Rex lifted his tumbler to that and then downed the alcohol in one go. It didn’t burn, but then Rex wasn’t expecting it to. Kenobi had excellent tastes when it came to liquor, and this was smooth and mellow enough that he was going to savor the next glass.
“Not bad,” said Wolffe, pouring another round. “I take back all the shit I’ve said about Kenobi.”
“No you don’t,” said Cody.
“No I don’t,” Wolffe agreed, “but I feel bad about it.”
Bly snorted. “Liar. The only feelings you’re capable of are asshole ones.”
“And what,” Rex asked, “are asshole feelings?”
“All the ones Wolffe has,” Cody answered, “on account of him being a giant asshole.”
“And Cody would know from assholes,” said Bly, laughing as Wolffe tried to shove him off the couch.
“You weren’t saying that when I saved your ungrateful ass,” Wolffe said.
“Name one time I needed to your help.”
“That was the 426th. Doesn’t count.”
“That was us coming to your rescue.”
Rex leaned back and let their familiar bickering wash over him, content for the first time in months. It had been too damn long since they had a quiet moment to themselves as the war wound on. They were winning more than in the beginning, their causalities nearly bearable, but Rex held no illusions of his chances of making it out alive. When he went, he wanted these memories to be the ones to send him off.
Cody nudged his shoulder. “How are you doing?”
“I'm fine,” he said, surprised to find he had slid low on the cushions, limbs feeling pleasantly heavy. He could sleep right here, and it wouldn’t be the first time they finished a bottle and dropped where they stood.
Across from them, Wolffe pulled out a deck of cards and dealt out a hand for Bly and himself. It wasn’t a game Rex recognized, not that it mattered if he did; his brothers were shameless cheats.
“I'm not asking as your commanding officer,” Cody said. “Rules, remember? I know what Torrent’s been through. Half the time I'm the one issuing your orders. How are you really?”
There were too many answers to that question, and on the good days Rex could narrow it down to three. But the bad days outnumbered the good, and the truth was he was never prepared to be the commanding officer of General Skywalker’s strike team. He was meant to be a captain of a single company in a battalion, not a Jedi’s executive officer in command of a company that was sent to where the fighting was the worse. He never envied Cody’s position of Flight Marshal, overseeing all of the 7th Sky Corps, but he understood his brother now and the heavy weight that was a Jedi’s trust.
“I'm tired,” he said, and trusted Cody to hear what he really meant.
Cody kicked his feet up on the table, right foot dangerously close to Bly’s drink, who rescued it with a sharp rap of knuckles against the sole of Cody’s boot.
“Me too,” Cody said softly. “I keep telling myself it has to end one day.”
“You would know better than me.”
He watched as Bly and Wolffe both tucked cards into their sleeves. At this point he was pretty sure they were just trying to see who could cheat more outrageously than the other.
“You’re working well with General Skywalker,” Cody said. “I know you were worried in the beginning.”
General Skywalker’s reputation for improvisation had preceded him, and Rex had carried a certain amount of concern over his own ability to adapt. It took effort on both their ends, but they had reached an understanding.
“I trust his judgment.” And then because he had a certain amount of honesty in him, he added, “I wouldn’t mind if he followed a plan more. You got it easy with Kenobi.”
“What?” said Cody flatly, straightening from his slouch.
“General Skywalker’s plans work,” Rex continued, “but a lot of them involve jumping out of buildings or driving one star destroyer into another. I would just like one plan to go as smoothly as General Kenobi’s.”
Silence rolled from Cody so thick and heavy that it drew the attention of Bly and Wolffe from their suspiciously full hands of cards.
“What is it?” Bly asked.
“Rex,” Cody said slowly, “seems to think that Kenobi is somehow less destructive than Skywalker.”
Wolffe barked out a sharp laugh, only to be brought up short by the glare Rex gave him. “You’re serious. Rex, he trained Skywalker. Who did you think he learned it from?”
“He’s the Negotiator,” Rex said because he had witnessed firsthand how devastating Kenobi could be with just a well turned phrase and an arched brow. It was one of the reasons Kenobi and Cody got on so well.
“I’ve seen him jump out of windows,” said Bly.
“No, you haven’t,” said Rex.
“You were on Christophsis,” Cody said. “He let himself be captured. I didn’t even know what happened because he went off comms without telling me.”
“He told me,” said Rex, and had the pleasure of Cody being struck speechless. “He briefed me on the plan. I assumed he told you. You were coordinating the rest of the attack. He trusts you.”
“I know he trusts me,” said Cody, expression turned thoughtful. “It looks like he trusts you, too.”
Rex shrugged, stomach twisting pleasantly at that for reasons he didn’t want to examine too carefully. “Are you admitting I'm right?”
“No.” Cody finished the rest of his drink. “And I need to be much drunker if we’re having this conversation.”
Cody turned to Bly, who said, “Yeah, you’re going to need to drink a lot more to get through to him,” and topped off their glasses.
More alcohol had not, in fact, helped Cody to get through to him, whatever that meant. In actuality it just led to Cody repeating in increasingly incredulous tones, “Are you even listening to yourself?” while Bly nodded from where he had gently tipped into Wolffe’s side.
Between the four of them they had finished the bottle and lived, although Rex dearly wished they hadn’t. It was a good thing he wasn’t required to wear the dress grays of a bridge officer because he was certain that his helmet was the only thing keeping the top of his head from coming unscrewed.
They had lurched into the mess that morning where Bly had removed his bucket only as long as it took to drink the strongest, blackest cup of caf he could get his hands on before stumbling off to report to General Secura. Cody took one look at what was being served before retreating to his office, and Wolffe had taken a seat with Sinker and Comet and hadn’t so much as twitched in twenty minutes.
Rex managed one small sip of lukewarm water before giving it up as a lost cause. He was scheduled to meet with General Skywalker and Commander Tano to run readiness drills when all he wanted to do was find a nice dark corner to lay in until either his brain melted out his ears or death came for him. He was hoping for death.
“Good morning,” General Kenobi said, stopping him in the hall. He held a cup of tea in one hand and a data pad in the other.
“Sir,” Rex said, sounding terrible even through his helmet’s vocoder and resisting the urge to slide down the wall.
“I take it Cody shared the bottle with you?” Kenobi’s expression of polite interest didn’t change, but Rex could feel the amusement wafting from him, the bastard.
“Yes, sir. If I may ask, what the hell was in that?”
“Camba-fruit,” said Obi-Wan. “Well, mainly camba-fruit. I thought you would enjoy it.”
“We did at the time,” Rex said darkly, which only seemed to amuse Kenobi further.
“I saw Commander Wolffe in the mess hall. Please tell me that he didn’t actually die last night and you’re just propping up his corpse. Plo would be terribly upset.”
“Serve him right if he did,” said Rex, who had vague memories of Wolffe palming the back of his head and telling him that if they lived through the war he was selling Rex and Kenobi’s story to that one publishing company that printed the awful romance novels Cody pretended to hate. “Wolffe doesn’t deal well with hangovers. Give him a couple of hours and he’ll be fine.”
“Noted,” said Kenobi. “And what about you? Will you live?”
“Unfortunately,” said Rex, which made Kenobi smile at him.
“I'm glad to hear it. Although I do believe Anakin is looking for you. Something about running drills today, I believe?”
Rex didn’t do anything as undignified as groaning, but something gave him away because Kenobi added, “But Anakin and I have intelligence reports to review and Ahsoka has studies of her own to attend to. That should keep them occupied for the morning if not for all of second shift. Don’t you and Cody have your own reports to file, Captain?”
“Yes, sir,” Rex said, grateful. “Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t thank me. This is partly my fault. Oh, this is for you.” He pressed the cup into Rex’s hand. “Drink it. It’ll help.”
“I appreciate it, sir,” Rex said, “but I know you like tea in the morning.”
“I already had a cup. This one is for you. It really will help.”
“Oh,” Rex said, blinking stupidly in the safety of his helmet, “thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now hurry before Anakin finds you.”
Rex made a strategic retreat to what could generously be called Cody’s office, although closet would be more fitting. He found the lights off and Cody cradling his head in one hand.
“Shut the door,” Cody said, kicking a chair over. “You can hide here, but you say one damn word and I will end you.” His nose wrinkled. “What’s that smell?”
“Tea.” He set the cup carefully on the corner of Cody’s desk not piled high with data pads. He gingerly pulled off his bucket, relieved when his head didn’t immediately explode. “Kenobi gave it to me.”
Cody stared at him for so long Rex felt obligated to ask, “Didn’t he make you a cup?”
“No, he didn’t, and I cannot talk to you about this while something horrible is dying in my mouth. And what did I say about making words?”
Rex drank his tea in silence. It did help.
Rex heard them before he saw them. Fives and Echo may be some of the quietest bastards to come out of Kamino, but Rex had spent the better part of a year with Hardcase and out of necessity had learned to recognize the special silence that meant plotting was afoot. And right now there was a very significant silence happening just outside the door.
“Can I help you, troopers?” he said, amused by the furious whispering that followed before Fives and Echo entered, oddly hesitant.
“We didn’t mean to interrupt, sir,” said Echo.
He tossed the report onto the desk. “I need a break.”
Echo and Five couldn’t be called shinies by any stretch of the imagination, even if their pauldrons and kamas were still stiff and new, but they were holding themselves to near attention reminiscent of their first month in Torrent.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“Not wrong exactly,” answered Fives, expression tortured.
Fives was a terrible liar, and apparently making ARC trooper did nothing to change that.
“Do we have a problem?” he said just to see the facial contortions Fives pulled. It was quite impressive.
“No, sir,” said Echo when Fives elbowed him in the side. “We have some concerns about our last orders.”
“Go on,” he said, watching Fives twitch.
“I’ve been assigned to Ghost Company with General Kenobi,” said Echo. “Fives is with you and General Skywalker.”
One thing he learned from Cody was to let the silence slowly unspool until the brother became desperate to fill it. You learned a lot while giving nothing in return. Cody was a bastard Rex was grateful was on their side.
“We’re separated,” Fives said, loud enough that Rex thought it qualified as an outburst.
“Yes,” he said after a long pause that made Fives shift nervously. “We need you both on this.”
It was a coordinated attack on two Separatist outposts in order to gain access to the latest codes and frequencies the Seps were using, a quick in and out. The planning had been meticulous, which was to be expected with Kenobi, and whatever command expected to find was important enough to warrant both Kenobi and Cody leading one half of the mission.
“Of course I'm coming,” Cody had said, sounding annoyed even over the poor holo connection. “The last thing I need is Kenobi getting kidnapped again.”
“That happened once,” Rex felt obligated to point out.
“I'm counting Christophsis and Tibrin,” said Cody.
“Who’s on Kenobi wrangling detail?”
“Wooley, but Boil and Waxer know to stay close.” Cody’s shrewd look came through clear over the static. “Who’s with Tano?”
“Jesse and Kix,” Rex answered. “I got Skywalker.”
“Then good luck to you.”
“And you,” said Rex. “Make sure Kenobi’s got a backup comm. You know how he always loses them.”
“Yes, I know that,” Cody said, odd tone to the words, but before Rex could figure out what that meant they were both called away.
“You’ve received the briefing,” Rex said. “You know what’s at stake.”
“Yes, sir, we’re aware,” said Echo. “But with all due respect it seems inadvisable to separate us.”
“Inadvisable,” Rex repeated calmly, watching as Echo’s expression twisted to match Fives’. “I suppose a congratulations is in order.”
“Sir?” said Fives.
“For your promotion. You must have made at least major to have been read in on this.”
Echo, who always did draw fire away from Fives, said, “Sir, we meant no—”
“I did not give you permission to speak, trooper!” he barked, and Fives and Echo snapped to attention so quickly he practically heard their muscles twang. “You are both good soldiers, but don’t think that means you can question your commanding officers.”
“Permission to speak, sir,” Five said, gaze trained three inches to the left of Rex’s ear.
Fives and Echo were the kind of brothers Rex wanted at his back, and they wouldn’t have spoken out unless they felt it necessary.
“Permission granted,” he said, “within reason.”
Fives’ gaze drifted to him before darting away again. “We’re not questioning you, sir. Echo and I work best as a team, and we feel that the mission’s success rate would be higher if we were able to utilize our full potential. Sir.”
“You have a high opinion of your abilities if you think the entire mission rests on you,” Rex said, although he knew sometimes a single trooper made all the difference. “And what makes you think we didn’t take that into consideration?”
That startled them, judging by the quick look they exchanged, and for a moment Rex felt unbearably old.
“Cody and I both recommended you for this,” he said, “but it’s General Kenobi who trusts in your abilities to get the job done. Do you think he’s wrong?”
“No, sir,” Echo said, but Rex could see the uncertainty there, as if Echo wasn’t convinced of Kenobi’s plan.
He could officially reprimand them and consign them to the barracks when they were off duty, should do that probably, but soldiers had to trust their commanders. Without trust an army was nothing.
And so he said, “Echo, you’re one of our best when it comes to dealing with Sep programming. I’ve seen you unsnarl their code practically faster than General Skywalker. Alpha base is one of the key points in the Separatist’s communications line. Kenobi will need you to break through the encryption. Beta base is more heavily fortified with a strong droid presence. We’ll have to infiltrate, and we need you for that, Fives.”
“Sir?” said Fives.
“That’s why General Kenobi picked you personally for this. Because he knows your strengths and your abilities, and he trusts you to get the job done. Are you questioning his judgment?”
“No, sir!” they said in unison, and Rex watched them swell a bit from the praise.
“And do you trust him?”
That made them pause for a moment, before Fives said, “Of course, sir.”
Echo was slower to answer, and his “yes, sir,” was thoughtful. Another conversation would be needed there, Rex thought, but not now.
“Then do we have a problem here?”
“No, sir,” said Fives. “Sorry for taking up your time, sir.”
“Dismissed.” He waited for them to exchange relieved glances and turn to the door before saying, “One more thing, boys. When this is over you have latrine duty for the next month.”
Before Fives could do more than open his mouth to argue, Echo, who was quicker, dragged him away. “Yes, sir. Sorry for the interruption, sir.”
After they were gone, Rex finished editing his readiness assessment before sending it along to Cody. He stood, back cracking as he stretched—he hated doing desk work—and checked the hour. It was late, at least by ship time, but that meant little when it came to Kenobi. There was one place he would still be, and Rex found him in the aft mess, which was Kenobi’s favorite, tucked away at a corner table with a carafe at his left elbow and a stack of data pads at his right.
It was the informal system Cody and Kenobi developed: Kenobi would take up residence in one of the communal areas of the ship and if any troopers happened to be sitting near him voicing concerns that Kenobi just happened to overhear and could address right then outside the official chain of command, well, that was just a beneficial coincidence. Rex had taken advantage of it once or twice, mainly when he needed intel about Skywalker.
“Sir,” he said softly in deference to the hour and the dark smudges under Kenobi’s eyes.
“Hm? Oh, Rex.” Kenobi knuckled one eye, a sign he was verging on exhausted. “You’re up late tonight.”
“I had a report to finish.” He tactfully did not mention that Kenobi never seemed to sleep. “Do you have a moment, sir?”
“Of course. Have a seat.” Kenobi shifted the stack of pads to the side, careful not to send them cascading to the floor. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
Rex eyed the pot and said, “No, thank you.”
Kenobi shrugged and poured himself a cup, nose wrinkling when he realized it had probably gone cold hours ago, and set it to the side. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s Fives and Echo.” He hesitated and then added, “You assigned them to separate strike teams.”
Kenobi’s eyebrows rose. “You recommended them for this mission. Something happen to change your mind?”
“No, sir. They’re some of the finest brothers I’ve had the honor to serve with.” He wished for his helmet; it always seemed harder to keep his expression purely professional with Kenobi than with General Skywalker. “If I may offer a suggestion moving forward, sir?”
“You know I value your opinion, Rex.”
Rex had not known that, but it caused a small bloom of pride to unfurl under his breastbone.
“They’ll do their duty, but it’s best to keep them together.”
He expected an argument or, since this was Kenobi, a polite reprimand, but instead Kenobi just nodded as if a theory he had was just confirmed. “They’re like Waxer and Boil, then.”
Waxer and Boil were inseparable from their moment of decanting. Not even the Kaminoans, who never cared about bonds between brothers, attempted to assign them to different units.
“Yes, sir,” said Rex, and then because Kenobi couldn’t quite hide his yawn, added, “Or like you and General Skywalker.”
Kenobi blinked at him, looking genuinely taken aback enough that Rex fought to keep his expression mild. “I beg your pardon, Captain?”
“Where Skywalker goes,” Rex said, “you’re never far behind, and vice versa. Everyone knows that. Why do you think most of the Seps plans always involve trying to capture one of you?”
“Oh, they do not,” Kenobi said.
“Cody’s list suggests otherwise.”
“He’s keeping a list?”
“It has an index.”
“That bastard,” Kenobi said fondly, and Rex couldn’t bite back a surprised laugh. “I suppose we are sent on a good number of missions together.”
“Sir,” Rex said, “when our supply line on Ilial got cut off, you left Cody in charge of the offense in the Herios system and came on your own.”
“We needed to gain a foothold on Ilial.”
“Then why did you fight with him about Ghost Company accompanying you?” Rex asked because when communications were restored they all heard what would have been an enraged shouting match if it had been anyone other than Kenobi and Cody.
They all made sure to stay out of Kenobi’s way least they draw that ire. Well, everyone but General Skywalker, who spent the rest of the day damn near gleeful over Kenobi’s scolding.
“Time and speed was of the essence.” At Rex’s raised eyebrow he added, “I was hoping to keep casualties on our side low.”
“You can’t do that if you get yourself killed,” Rex said, sharper than he intended.
Kenobi appeared startled for a moment before he gave a rueful smile. “So Cody keeps telling me. I really should do something for him.”
“You can stop trying to promote him.” Cody already damn near outranked most Jedi, and with the way the war was going and the commendations Kenobi kept giving him, Cody was bound to end up a general by the end of it. “You know he hates it.”
“I'm well aware,” said Kenobi, wicked curl to his mouth that made Rex’s stomach clench in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
He cleared his throat. “About Fives and Echo, sir.”
“Ah, yes.” For a moment Kenobi looked disappointed. “Moving forward, I’ll do my best to make sure they stay together.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“No thanks necessary, Captain. We can’t go breaking up riduur’e.”
It was easy to forget that Kenobi spoke Mando’a and understood Mandalorain culture, even the bastardized version the clones had developed, but Rex was grateful for it because it meant Kenobi knew what brothers meant to one another.
“You should get some sleep,” Kenobi added softly.
“You too, sir.” He kept his voice just as soft, although he couldn’t say why. “Don’t make me tell on you to Cody.”
“Are you threatening a superior officer?”
“Of course not, sir. I'm merely offering a potential course of action.”
“I can see why Anakin likes you. You can stop making that face. I'm going.” He gathered up his data pads and Rex waited for him to thoughtfully return both the carafe and the mug to the kitchen before following him out into The Negotiator’s halls.
They walked in easy, companionable silence, and when they reached the intersection that separated their quarters, Kenobi gripped his shoulder and said, “Good night, Rex.”
Rex held himself very still and said, “Good night, sir.”
Kenobi squeezed his shoulder once and Rex turned and made his way on automatic to his quarters. Somewhere, he was sure, Wolffe had finished his first draft to send off to the publishing company, and Rex had no one but himself to blame.
His mouth tasted of dust and iron; something was wrong with his helmet’s filtration. Rex rolled over, blinking as his HUD display flickered wildly before dying. The explosion had thrown him away from the cave entrance, which was the only reason he wasn’t crushed by the resulting cave-in.
There was an awful throbbing in his skull that made it hard to think, and all his limbs felt heavy and sluggish. He pawed weakly at his helmet, trying to ignore the pain in his ribs that made drawing a full breath impossible.
He needed to find Skywalker and Tano and get a sitrep on how many of his men made it through the firefight. He needed to call for an extraction. He needed—he needed—in the hangar, before they shipped out, Kenobi had searched for him, catching and holding his gaze for a long moment before his attention was pulled away. He needed to know what that meant.
“I found him! Over here! Rex, can you hear me?”
Tano knelt over him, and as gentle as she was as she pulled off his bucket he still winced as his head was jostled. He hoped it wasn’t a concussion or Kix was going to be unbearable.
“Where are you hurt?” Tano asked.
“Head,” he said, coughing as he inhaled more dust. “Ribs.”
“Your chest plate took a battering.” She fumbled at the catch. “It’s stuck. Oh, I know. Hold still.”
Before she could do more than reach for a lightsaber that hung at her waist, Kix said, “I’ve got him, Commander, thank you.”
Rex focused just long enough to give Kix a grateful look. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Commander Tano, it was that he preferred not to have a lightsaber anywhere near his soft parts.
Kix gently felt along his neck and skull. “Looks like your bucket took most of the impact. I don’t think you’ve managed to concuss yourself this time.” Only Kix could turn that into an insult to Rex’s competence. “I'm going to cut through your chest plate. Don’t move.”
Tano smoothed her thumb along his temple as Kix pulled out a small vibroblade and sliced through the clasps. The pressure along his ribs eased as Kix peeled his armor off, and Rex took a cautious full breath. It ached, but not to the degree that would suggest he broke anything.
Kix confirmed that with a brisk, “Bruised but not cracked. You’re very lucky, sir.”
“I know,” he said, and carefully sat up with Tano’s help. “How’s River?”
Kix pulled out a bacta patch and smoothed it over the knot at the base of his skull. “He’s going to lose the leg. The bleeding’s slowed but I can’t—” Rex knew what Kix’s expression was under the helmet; he’d seen it often enough as brothers slipped away. “He needs more help than I can give him.”
His head cleared as the bacta did its job. “Any other injuries?”
“Just minor scrapes and bruises,” said Tano. “I don’t think your helmet is as lucky.”
It was cracked all along the right side from cheek to crown, and the visor wasn’t much better. Too much structural damage to bother salvaging, same as his chest piece, although that loss didn’t nearly sting as much. He’d poured a lot of time and effort into that bucket.
“Can’t be helped,” he said, and took the hand Tano held out to pull him to his feet.
When she was first assigned to them, Rex doubted she would have been able to carry a full rucksack much less lift him easily, but he had witnessed her take down sentients twice her size with a barely a hitch in her breathing. Pride flickered in his chest; their Commander was growing into herself.
“Comms down?” Rex asked. His eyes adjusted to the gloom, and he could make out the rest of the squad picking themselves up. They had been far enough away from the entrance that the shockwave had only rattled them, which was a mercy Rex hadn’t counted on.
“Of course,” Tano said ruefully. “We can’t have it too easy.”
General Skywalker moved among the men, favoring his left leg and trying to hide it. Kix didn’t seem too concerned, returning to tend to his other patients, but perhaps he hadn’t noticed. Skywalker was very good at hiding when he was hurt. A trait, Rex noticed, he had picked up from his master.
“He pulled some muscles and is going to have a nasty bruise,” said Tano quietly, “but he’ll be fine.”
Skywalker turned from Jesse, relief shining through the dust coating his face. “Good to see you’re up, Captain. I wasn’t looking forward to explaining your untimely demise to Obi-Wan.”
“I'm fine, sir,” Rex said for lack of anything else.
Skywalker looked to Tano, who said, “Kix cleared him.”
“You took the brunt of that explosion.” Skywalker frowned. “I told you to wait for me.”
“Sorry, sir,” Rex said. “Clankers were closing in and I couldn’t risk them overrunning us.”
The cave entrance had been their last position to fall back to, and as much as Rex wanted to avoid sealing themselves in it was that or die in a hail of blaster fire. He set off the chargers and hoped for the best, and for once he got it.
“So much for this being short and sweet,” said Anakin.
It was supposed to be an easy mission, at least by Torrent’s standards. The moon was small and unimportant enough it never got a name, not even by the mining companies that occasionally sent outfits to dig up what ore they could find. It was just strategic enough to provide a foothold to the Mid Rim but not overly so that it was an obvious choice. It came down to pure luck and one of the brothers in Intelligence picking up chatter that the Seps were making a play for it. Too bad that luck didn’t extend to figuring out there was a full company of clankers waiting for them.
Rex said, “You were the one complaining we were being wasted on a milk run, sir. I thought you’d be happy at being proven wrong.”
“Are you talking back to me, Captain?” Skywalker asked, delighted. “Ahsoka, I want this noted in the official report that Captain Rex is talking back to his commanding officer.”
“I’ll make a note in my file,” said Rex while Tano hid a laugh behind her hand. “Comms, sir?”
“Either they’re jamming us,” said Anakin, “or we’re deeper than I thought and can’t get a signal out.”
“I think this connects to some of the old mines,” Tano said, frowning. “We might be able to find a way out through another tunnel.”
“There were other entrances a few klicks from where we landed,” said Rex, although he had studied the same maps Skywalker and Tano had, and there was a conspicuous absence of any markings for the tunnel system. Still, it was only a matter of time before the clankers broke through the entrance Rex blew or they ran out of rations. “It’s a good plan, sir. I’ll get the men ready.”
“Let me know how River is,” Tano said, flicking a worried glance over Rex’s shoulder. Tano didn’t play favorites, but Rex had seen her and River sitting together often enough to know there was a budding friendship.
“Of course, Commander,” he said, and gripped her shoulder.
He waved Jesse over and relayed the orders, leaving the actually planning to him. Jesse was shaping up quite nicely, and it was time he spoke to Skywalker about a promotion. Rex could use more help in wrangling Torrent, and Jesse could use more responsibility to keep him out of all the trouble Hardcase dragged him into.
With Jesse overseeing the rest of the men, Rex went to River, who was pale and shaky and pretending he was neither. Jacks was at his side, as always, River’s hand in his. They had been inseparable since River was sent in with the new replacements following the Orto Plutonia fuck up, and Rex didn’t like to think what River’s death would do to Jacks.
“How you doing, kid?” Rex asked, easing himself down.
“Fine, sir,” River said, and that grimace was probably meant to be a smile. “And don’t call me that. I'm not a shiny anymore.”
“Could have fooled me,” he said, and brushed affectionate knuckles over River’s shaved head, “what with the way you tried to catch that grenade. I taught you better than that.”
“My apologies.” River’s jaw was tight. “This fucker needs to learn to move quicker.”
Rex carefully kept his gaze away from the ruin of River’s leg. When the grenade detonated, River had thrown himself desperately over Jacks, and Rex had been too far away to do anything other than listen to Jacks scream.
“You were in my way,” Jacks said, voice steady and calm, but River must have heard the anguish underneath because he tugged their linked hands close enough to press a kiss to Jacks’ knuckles.
“Like I would leave you,” River said softly.
Rex cleared his throat. “We’re moving out soon. Kix is getting a stretcher for you.”
“Yes, sir,” Jacks said without looking away from River, and Rex gave them privacy.
“How long?” he asked Kix.
“I can keep the blood loss minimal,” said Kix, “but he needs plasma and a transfusion in a few hours. A day, maybe. Probably less.”
Rex sighed, and said, “Do what you can.”
And then they were moving out. Rex set Hardcase on point; hyperactive or not there was no one better at spotting ambushes. Tano was covering their rear, and Rex quietly signaled Ironside to join her, just in case. Skywalker, who was favoring his leg more as they made their way through the winding tunnels, Rex kept in the middle of the pack, which didn’t go unnoticed judging by the look Skywalker cast him, but for once Rex got no argument.
Between their handheld lights and Skywalker’s lightsaber, held aloft like he was a hero in those old holos Hardcase streamed, they weren’t in danger of stumbling onto anything blind, but beyond the thin ring of light it wasn’t hard to image a nightmare of teeth and bone was lying in wait.
“How far does this go?” Gauge asked.
“What, you getting tired?” Skywalker said.
“No, sir. I was tired five klicks back. I'm fucking exhausted.”
“We’ll rest soon.”
They pressed on as the weight of the rock above them grew heavier. The men were quiet, even their usual muttered complaints dying away. The darkness swallowed everything.
Skywalker called them to a stop, and Rex saw to it that the water rations were passed around. When Skywalker tried to pass the canteen on without drinking, Rex merely stared him down until he muttered, mulish, “You’re worse than Obi-Wan. I'm drinking, I'm drinking. Stop with the face.”
Kix administered another dose of painkillers to River, who blinked sluggishly up at the ceiling. Jacks hovered next to him as the stretcher bearers switched out. No death was easy, not in this war, but River didn’t deserve to die down in the dark of some unnamed moon over nothing.
Rex touched Jacks’ shoulder, offering what comfort he could. River groaned very quietly as he was lifted, and Jacks bent over him, cupping River’s cheek as he said quietly, “I got you, vod. You’re going to be fine.”
Rex had said the same to Wolffe, thumb tucked under the empty space where Wolffe’s eye had been carved out. It had been true for Wolffe and it would be true for River. Rex would accept nothing else.
“Move out,” Rex said, and Torrent picked themselves up and kept going.
It took almost an hour before Rex noticed the strange growths along the tunnel wall, and if they hadn’t been glowing faintly in the weak light he would have missed them entirely. Thin stalks curled from the rock, some grown so thick and long that they folded over, resembling slugs. Moved like a slug too, Rex saw, all of them inching in an eastern direction.
It didn’t mean anything, Rex told the hopeful kick of his heart. The growths were too few and far between to be considered sufficient evidence, but it was better than the nothing he had before.
“Sir,” Kix said quietly at his elbow, and Rex reluctantly turned his attention away. “It’s River. He needs a transfusion.”
“Shit,” said Skywalker from his other side, and called them to a stop.
Within minutes Hardcase had peeled off his vambraces and rolled up the black under sleeve so that Kix could slide a needle into the vein at his elbow. Jacks held the line for the transfusion, gaze fixed on River’s pale face. River was unconscious, breathing gone shallow, and Rex didn’t need Kix to tell him the kid was running a fever.
“We need to get out of these damn tunnels,” Skywalker said. “Any luck with the comms?”
Tano shook her head. “They’re working, but we can’t get a signal through. I think maybe if we were closer to the surface we might be able to piggyback off a Sep frequency.”
Rex studied the cave wall. A clump of the slug-like growths were definitely heading towards the right branching tunnel.
“I need light over here,” he said.
Anakin brought his lightsaber close. “What the hell is that? Wait, did that one just move?”
"It’s called a grex, sir. Certain varieties of slime mold form them when resources are scarce.”
“That’s mold?” Tano snatched her hand back from where she was prodding one. “Gross.”
“Rex,” Skywalker said seriously, “please tell me you don’t spend your free time reading about slime mold. As your friend, it’s very important to me that you have healthy interests.”
If he had his helmet, Rex would have given in to the urge to roll his eyes. “Do you remember when we were on Imdaar, sir?”
“The swamp moon? I remember Obi-Wan obsessing over—oh, Rex.”
“He brought back a few samples to study,” Rex continued, ignoring the flush working its way up the back of his neck.
“He’s always bringing back disgusting slimes.” Skywalker made a face. “You should see his room at the temple. It’s filled with petri dishes.”
“He trapped me in the dining hall once,” Tano said in a haunted voice. “I never knew moss reproduction could be so horrifying.”
“You’re lucky you weren’t around when he was on that kick about Trellian worms. I didn’t sleep for a week.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Rex said, tacking on a belated “sir” when Skywalker’s gaze swung to him. “It’s interesting.”
“Interesting,” Skywalker repeated, giving Rex a concerned look. “I'm not sure you’re using that word correctly.”
“I don’t know about you, sir,” said Rex, “but I find it quite interesting that if this strain can’t find any food it will release a pheromone that draws all the spores together to form a grex.”
“I guess that’s kind of interesting,” said Tano, as if she were humoring him.
“A grex can move.” Rex motioned to one that was slowly inching towards the right. “It feeds on bacteria, like the kind found on decaying vegetation. And,” he said, the pause just short enough no one would claim it was for dramatic effect, “it has an unerring sense of where that food is located.”
“Wait,” said Skywalker, “you mean these things know the way out?”
“It knows where to find food,” Rex corrected, “but considering we haven’t run into anything organic down here than I think that’s a safe assumption to make.”
“You even sound like Obi-Wan,” Skywalker complained. “You’re suggesting we follow this, uh, grex?”
“Yes, sir,” said Rex.
When they were aboard The Negotiator, Rex took his meals with Cody, which meant he also took them with Kenobi when Kenobi could be bothered to remember to eat or, more likely, Cody bullied him into it. That dinner Kenobi had been so eager to explain the discovery that the grex could not only move but also sense where a food source was located his words just about tripped over one another, the least articulate but most charming Rex had ever heard him. The few other brothers at the table fled at the first mention of slime, but Cody had stayed out of an overdeveloped sense of loyalty, and Rex had lingered because, well, it was impossible to look away from Kenobi when he was passionate about something, even if that something was mold spores.
Rex hadn’t followed most of the explanation, too many unfamiliar terms thrown about, but Kenobi had been willing to go over it again when Rex asked. Cody had delivered a vicious kick to his shin for that, but it was worth it for the way Kenobi smiled, clearly happy someone was taking an interest in his studies.
“It’s not like we have any better ideas,” said Tano, shrugging.
“I can’t believe I'm agreeing to follow weird slime slugs,” Skywalker said. “Obi-Wan can never know. I mean it, Rex. If this works, we are never telling him.”
“Of course, sir,” said Rex. “We don’t need to encourage his interests and experiments just because one managed to save our lives.”
Skywalker gave a theatric gasp. “Ahsoka, that’s twice now Captain Rex has sassed his commanding officer. Do you know what this means?”
“He does it a third time and you’re going to promote him?” Tano said.
“Exactly.” Skywalker thumped his shoulder. “It’s a good plan, Rex. As soon as River’s stable we’re moving out.”
Rex briefed the men on the greges, and when he was certain they knew what to look for, he went to find Kix. “River?” he asked quietly.
“Stable for now,” said Kix. With his helmet off, there was no hiding the tightness around his eyes. “I gave Hardcase extra rations. He should be fine.”
Hardcase was gnawing on a protein bar with the resigned look of a brother who knew nothing better was coming. He was a bit pale but steady on his feet as he peered at one of the stalks.
Knowing what was coming, Rex said, “Don’t touch it.”
“I wasn’t gonna,” Hardcase said, and then, when he thought Rex was looking, poked it. Jesse slapped his hand away.
“I don’t know what I expected,” Rex said on a sigh. “Drink some water, Kix. We’re moving out.”
Their progress was slow, especially during the stretches where there were no greges to indicate they were heading in the right direction. They had to backtrack twice, and each time Rex pushed away the fear that he was going to get them helplessly lost.
And then the tunnel began sloping upward, and Rex was not the only one to let out a sigh of relief. As they climbed, the frequency of greges increased until it seemed the entire wall was covered in them, their hides pulsing faintly with a weak light.
“Air’s fresher,” Jesse said. “I think we’re close, sir.”
“Scout ahead,” Rex said. “Take Hardcase with you.” Tano cleared her throat from behind him. “Commander Tano should accompany you as well,” he added without a missing the beat, “if she finds that agreeable.”
“I find that more than agreeable,” she said cheerfully. “Come on, Jesse, let’s find a way out of here.”
Rex watched them lope forward with amusement, especially when Jesse snagged Hardcase by the elbow and dragged him along. He turned his attention to Gauge, who had pulled out a complicated tool and was poking at the radio.
“Anything?” Rex asked.
“Not yet.” Gauge muttered something uncomplimentary when the radio spit sparks. “But I think whatever’s jamming us is weakening.”
That was better than nothing, Rex supposed, counting the hours in his head. They missed a few check-ins, and Cody would be scanning all frequencies for a distress call. He would find them, if they could just get a signal through.
And then Hardcase came rushing back, skidding around a bend and practically knocking Skywalker on his ass.
“Whoa,” Skywalker said, catching Hardcase by the shoulder. “Tell me this is your good news run.”
“We found an exit,” Hardcase said. “It’s caved in, but there’s no sign of clankers and Commander Tano thinks we can dig out.”
That picked up their pace, and soon they reached the end where it became obvious that Tano was being optimistic if she thought they could dig out. The entire opening was blocked, probably by a landslide, and it looked unstable enough that Rex was wary about even breathing on a single pebble.
No one told that to Tano, who was balancing on Jesse’s shoulders and gently nudging aside a rock at the upper right corner where a bit of light seeped in through the cracks. She was frowning in concentration, fingers outspread as she carefully used the Force to pry the rock free. No matter how many times he saw the Jedi do impossible feats, the awe of it never dulled. Rex wasn’t inclined to believe in miracles, not after everything he’d seen and done, but the Jedi were the closest thing to it, and he believed in them.
“Ahsoka,” Skywalker cautioned.
“Almost got it,” she said as the rock popped free.
She had only a moment to flash a triumphant grin before the entire corner collapsed inwards. Rex watched helplessly as Tano flipped from Jesse’s shoulders, landing neatly on her feet. She pulled Jesse behind her, one hand thrown desperately out. Skywalker mirrored her, and Rex swore quietly as the rocks were violently shoved away from them.
A cloud of dust was thrown up, and Rex didn’t wait for it to clear before rushing forward, pulse jumping in his throat, to find Jesse and Tano bent over, hands on knees, coughing so hard they nearly choked.
“You all right?” Rex said.
“Yes, sir,” Jesse said, eyes watering. “The Commander kept the worst of it from hitting us.”
“Ahsoka!” Skywalker barked, and Tano winced.
“In my defense,” she said, straightening. “I thought it would work.”
Skywalker was working himself up to quite a scolding, if Rex was any judge, so it was good thing that Gauge said, “Sir, I think I'm getting something.”
Tano’s reprimand was forgotten as they all clustered around where Gauge was prodding at the radio. It was mostly static, but Rex could make out a rhythmic clicking underneath.
“Let me,” said Skywalker, nudging Gauge to the side.
After a long moment of fiddling they heard it, the unmistakable call of the 212th searching for them. Wherever they ended up, it was outside the Seps’ jamming range.
It was quick work to encode and send their response. After several minutes an answer came in, and Skywalker’s shoulders relaxed in relief.
“Activate our distress beacon,” he said. “They’re on the way, but that’s no reason to let our guard down.”
“On it, sir,” Rex said, and set men guarding their rear and front, just in case the clankers figured out where they were.
And then it was a matter of waiting, which Rex was never good at. He circled among the men, pausing long enough to make sure each was as well as could be expected before sitting with Jacks.
“They’re coming to get us,” he said. River was still but for the rise of his chest, his hand lax in Jacks’ grip. “He’s going to make it.”
“He better,” Jacks said. “The asshole owes me a drink for this shit.”
Rex palmed the back of Jacks’ head, ruffling the short hairs, and they sat together until there came the unmistakable sound of shifting rocks.
“Rex,” Skywalker called, but Rex was already on his feet, blaster in hand as he signaled the rest of the men to ready themselves.
Pebbles and small bits of dirt slid from the upper left section, and Rex took aim as chunks of rocks scraped together before tumbling free. And there, backlit by the setting sun, was General Kenobi, gazing fondly down at them.
“I heard you were in need of a rescue,” Kenobi said. “Again.”
“He’s going to be impossible to live with,” Skywalker said, but he was smiling all the same.
It took time to clear an opening large and stable enough to send River through, but they managed, and River was passed over into the capable hands of Sawbones. Rex sent Kix squeezing through after, followed by Jacks because Rex wasn’t heartless enough to make him stay behind.
And then it was the work of another couple hours to widen the gap. The rest of Torrent climbed out one by one until Rex was the only one left. He’d won that honor through the expedient method of shoving Skywalker through the opening when he was distracted doing the same to Tano. Never let it be said Rex didn’t learn from his commanding officers.
It was close to full dark when Rex slid down the rocky slope, stumbling when he hit the bottom. Strong arms caught him before he went sprawling, and Rex found himself in the unusual position of looking up at Kenobi.
“I have you, Captain,” Kenobi said, the last of the fading light caught in his hair.
“Yeah,” said Rex, “you got me.”
It was like that moment in the hangar, time stretching out slow and sweet as Kenobi, gaze intent, steadied Rex back on his feet.
And then Cody said, “We need to move out, sir,” and the moment evaporated. This time Rex had a pretty good idea what it meant.
He didn’t have time to dwell on it because there was a debriefing and an after action report to see to, and then getting Torrent settled back into the barracks, an intelligence meeting to sit through, and eventually River to check on.
Cody finally took pity and kicked him out of the last meeting with a firm, “You look and smell like bantha shit. Get checked out by Kix and then get some sleep before you pass out on your feet.”
Normally Rex would argue about leaving Cody with all the work, but his entire body ached and his vision was starting to blur from exhaustion. He bumped Cody’s shoulder in gratitude and dragged himself to med bay where more bacta was slapped on his ribs and skull.
Between proddings, Kix told him that River came through surgery fine; he lost the leg but he would live. Someone, probably Kix, had set up a chair at River’s bedside for Jacks, who was sleeping in a position so twisted it made Rex’s back ache just looking at him.
“I’ll wake him in a bit,” said Kix. “You’re all set. Go get some sleep, and that’s an order, sir.”
Rex went. His commission afforded him his own bunk, and in the privacy of it he shed his surviving armor. In the morning he would need to requisition a new bucket and chest piece and scrounge up some blue paint. But that was hours away, and just as Rex was preparing to fall face fist into his bed the door chimed.
He ignored it, opting to peel out of his top when it chimed again. “What?” he snapped and keyed the door open.
“Oh,” said Kenobi, because of it course it was him. “My apologies. I didn’t meant to wake you.”
“You didn’t,” said Rex, stepping back to let Kenobi in. “I haven’t slept yet. Do you need something, sir?”
Kenobi’s gaze drifted towards his chest and what skin wasn’t covered by bandages wrapped around his ribs before he caught himself, and Rex swore Kenobi was blushing under the beard. “No, Captain. I heard you lost some armor down in the tunnels.”
“It was badly damaged. Didn’t seem worth the effort to salvage it.”
His bucket was the real loss as he had taken great pains to weld the older Phase I visor to the new model. With the Phase I’s retired, it was unlikely he was going to find another one, which was a shame because he hated the Phase II’s HUD display and its poor visibility.
Kenobi cleared his throat, an oddly nervous gesture, and said, “Yes, well, I know you have particular tastes. I thought you might appreciate this.”
He held out an old Phase I helmet, and Rex really was tired if he missed him carrying that.
“Where did you get this?” He ran a hand along the edge. It was scarred and scratched, which just gave it personality, but there was no structural damage and the visor was in good shape.
“Oddball never gets rid of anything,” Kenobi answered. “His footlocker is a nightmare. Cody’s been threatening to space everything unless he cleaned it out, and you were in need of a replacement.”
“Thank you, sir,” Rex said, encouraged by the pleased smile that earned him. “This is very thoughtful.”
“It’s the least I can do.” Kenobi hesitated a moment before adding, “Anakin mentioned you were the one who found the way out.”
Rex set the helmet aside. “I just noticed the greges, sir. I remembered what you said about how it would search out food. It seemed like our best option to follow them.”
“The gre—you remember that? That was months ago.”
Rex shrugged. “It was interesting.”
Kenobi’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Most people would find mold spores to be terribly dull dinner conversation.”
“Their loss.” And then riding the bravery that came when exhaustion softened all the world’s sharp edges, he said, “I have a theory of my own, sir, if you’ll permit me to test it.”
Rex stepped in close, and Kenobi must have guessed what he meant to do because he said, “It’s just us, Rex. Don’t call me that.”
“Obi-Wan,” he said, quiet.
Kenobi breathed out once and said, mostly to himself, “Blast.”
And then he touched gentle fingers to Rex’s chin and tipped him into a kiss. It was sweet and soft, and Obi-Wan let it linger, as if to savor it.
He drew back, their noses brushing together. “This is a bad idea.”
“Maybe,” said Rex, and touched the hair curling at the nape of Obi-Wan’s neck, “but it’s not like we haven’t lived through bad ideas before. And I'm tired of pretending I don’t want you.”
“Well,” said Obi-Wan, eyes sliding closed as Rex slid a hand along his waist, “when you put it like that,” and kissed him again.
This kiss was wet and deep, and Rex licked into Obi-Wan’s mouth because he could, because Obi-Wan wanted him to. Obi-Wan gripped him by the hips, pulling Rex along as he backed up.
“We can’t tell Cody about this,” Obi-Wan said when they broke apart. “He’s going to be unbearable.”
“You could try promoting him again,” Rex suggested.
Obi-Wan laughed as his knees hit the edge of the mattress. “I have it on good authority he hates that. But I believe we have more pressing concerns right now.”
Rex swallowed, sliding his hands into the fold of Obi-Wan’s tunic to skim along the bare skin of his ribs.
Obi-Wan kissed his jaw and said, “Tell me you want this, Rex. I need to know.”
“I do,” Rex said, the words a heavy vow. “Do you?”
“Yes,” said Obi-Wan, his gaze a steady and sure. “I’ve wanted this for, well, long enough to be embarrassing.”
“That makes two of us.”
Obi-Wan smiled and fell back onto the bed, pulling Rex with him. “In that case, it seems foolish to waste any more time.”
They did, eventually, sleep.
Rex’s list of responsibilities was long and unending. He needed to meet with Cody so they could keep the 212th and 501st from imploding. He needed to track down Skywalker and drag him from his grief and fury before it consumed them all. Tano needed to be pried out of whatever corner she had hid in so no one would see her cry. He needed to stop being so angry.
What he should not be doing was sharing a bottle of something sharp and bitter with the Duchess of Mandalore on one of the temple’s rooftop gardens.
“I doubt we’re allowed up here,” Rex said.
“And I don’t really care,” the Duchess said, and pulled him down onto the bench overlooking the snarled mess of Coruscant’s traffic. The small garden was empty, and while Rex didn’t have the authorization to lock the door he did put up a request for privacy, which meant there were no witnesses to how the Duchess used her teeth to break the seal on the bottle or the very crass pull she took. “Drink.”
She shoved the bottle at him, and Rex eyed the contents before shrugging and doing as told. “This is awful,” he said, eyes watering. “What is it?”
“Something terribly esoteric and alcoholic.” She took another drink. “I stole it from Obi-Wan’s room. It’s the least he can do, considering.”
Since Rex agreed with that sentiment, he was amendable to sitting with the Duchess and passing the bottle back and forth. The air was filled with the smell of green and growing things, the sounds of traffic distant enough that Rex felt like he had stepped into another world where there was no war and where Obi-Wan hadn’t spent the last several weeks pretending to be dead.
It was, Rex realized with a start, a nice moment.
He took a contemplative drink, watching as the Duchess’ posture slowly eased until she looked like any other soldier tired of the fighting.
He handed over the bottle and said, “If I may ask, Duchess, why—”
“I think we’ve moved beyond formalities, Captain.” She arched one brow, looking sly and amused. No wonder Obi-Wan cared for her. “Today it’s just Satine.”
“Rex,” he offered.
She tipped her head in acknowledgment. “What’s your question, Rex?”
They made admirable progress with the alcohol, but her only tell was the faint flush riding high on her cheeks and the careful way she cradled the bottle, as if she didn’t trust her own grip.
“Why did you come find me? You don’t know me or my brothers.”
“We have done poorly by you, haven’t we?” she said, although the question seemed to be directed at herself. “It’s hard enough keeping our neutrality. If we tried to claim any of you it would be—”
“That’s not what I asked.” He did his best to keep the sharpness out of his voice; he was so damned sick of politics. “Why did you bring me here?”
If she was irritated by his interruption she didn’t show it. “I thought you might need a sympathetic ear.”
Rex took a long drink to hide his confusion, but she noticed anyway, leaning across the space between them to tap one finger on his right vambrace. “I am of Mandalore. I know what this means.”
Rex schooled his expression into a perfect blankness that Cody would have been proud of. “I'm afraid I don’t understand.”
“Don’t play dumb.” Her nails clicked against the plastoid. “This is Obi-Wan’s. I recognize the marking, and it’s missing your customary blue paint.” Her gaze was cool and assessing. “Does he wear yours?”
The denial rode sharp and quick on his tongue. What he and Obi-Wan were to one another was no one’s business but their own.
But he thought of the heavy weight of Cody’s hand on the back of his neck when he said, voice wrecked and broken, “He’s dead, Rex. I'm sorry.”
This was Satine being kind, even though she wasn’t particularly skilled at it, and Rex didn’t know how to stop mourning a man who still lived.
“Yes,” he said, a bite of defiance to the word. “He wears mine.”
“Oh, Obi-Wan,” she murmured, “you always did have a type.”
He took in the sharp arch of her cheek and the angle of her brow, the blonde hair meticulously coiled atop her head, and said, “Damn, he really does.”
It wasn’t particularly funny, but Satine laughed anyway, the last tension she carried bleeding away until she shifted to face him on the bench, legs tucked underneath her. He could see why Obi-Wan loved her once, loved her still in his own quiet and sad way.
“What about you?” Rex asked. “Did you and he ever…?” He gestured towards the vambrace.
“I explained what it meant. You know how curious he is. He picked up our language quickly. Much better than his master ever managed.” Her smile turned wistful. “But no, we never did. I thought maybe after we—it hardly matters now. I had my duty and he had his.” The wistfulness dropped away, and Rex couldn’t decide if the look she turned on him belonged to Satine or the Duchess of Mandalore. “You understand that.”
“I know duty,” he said.
A month back they had lain in Obi-Wan’s sad excuse of a bunk where both of them were in constant of danger of falling over the side, and Obi-Wan said, “You know I care for you.”
“I know,” said Rex, and licked the sweat from the hollow of Obi-Wan’s throat.
Obi-Wan made a quiet noise and dragged his nails along Rex’s skull. Rex bit down lightly in retaliation, relishing the hitch in Obi-Wan’s breath.
“Stop distracting me,” Obi-Wan said, hand to the back of Rex’s neck urging him up.
Rex pressed one last kiss to the skin under his mouth and obliged, settling himself along Obi-Wan’s side, left leg dangling over the edge. “Something wrong?”
“No,” said Obi-Wan, although there was something sad in the way he couldn’t seem to stop himself from stroking his fingers along Rex’s jaw. “I just need you to know.”
“I do,” Rex said.
He kissed Obi-Wan, more for comfort than anything else, but Obi-Wan kept him close, mouth hot and desperate under his. He got like that sometimes, so caught up in his own head Rex was afraid he’d get lost entirely one day. But he picked up a trick or two since they’d been together, and he used them all until Obi-Wan was gasping, the odd melancholy falling away until it was just the two of them present in the moment, together.
It was obvious now that Obi-Wan knew what was coming. What he was going to do to Rex. And Rex couldn’t decide if the bitterness that rose in this throat was from sorrow for the choice Obi-Wan was forced to make or the fact Rex knew he would have done the same if their positions were reversed. Their lives would never be their own.
“Rex,” Satine said, gently prying the bottle from his tight grip. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said, flexing his fingers.
“You’re as bad a liar as he was. Is.” She hesitated before touching the thin slice of wrist exposed between the articulated edges of the vambrace. “It’s all right if you’re angry with him. You should be. I am.”
“I'm not,” Rex protested before giving up. They both knew it would be a lie. “I am angry, but I know why it had to be him.”
He knew when Satine understood because for one terrifying moment she was furious. If the Jedi Council hadn’t been safely tucked far away or if Satine had been any more sober Rex was certain she would have hunted them down in a storm of righteous retribution. As it was, Rex didn’t discount the fact he may have to respectfully tackle her if she made a break for the door.
“They needed our grief to sell it,” she spat.
“And it worked,” said Rex. “Here, drink. It’s already done. We can’t do anything about it now.”
“Watch me,” Satine said, but she took a solid pull anyway. Rex liked her.
“Better?” he asked when she swallowed.
“No,” she said, but she looked less murderous. “They knew he wouldn’t say no. He’s got an overdeveloped sense of honor. He’s always been that way. You should have seen him back when he was young. The mouth on him.”
“I’ve seen the mouth on him now,” said Rex, any embarrassment he might have felt smoothed away by the alcohol.
“I'm sure you have.” Her smirk was worse than Wolffe’s. “I had hoped he would learn to be a little selfish before his damned honor gets him killed.”
Rex said, quiet and fierce, “He’s a good man. And we both know why he did it. You said it yourself. He has his duty. He wouldn’t be Obi-Wan if he abandoned it.”
“And we wouldn’t be us if we didn’t love him for it,” Satine said, rueful. “What a pair we are.”
Rex gripped her shoulder as if she were a brother. “But we’re the ones making sure he stays alive.”
“God knows he can’t be trusted to do it.” She pulled away, although she wasn’t unkind about. “I do believe I like you, Captain Rex.”
“The feeling is mutual, Duchess Kryze.”
“That’s as a good a toast as any,” she said, and drank.
Between the two of them, they had made quite a dent in the bottle by the time Obi-Wan found them, looking equal parts disapproving and horrified. Satine smiled sharp and mean from where she had listed into Rex side.
“The dead walks again,” she said.
“What,” Obi-Wan said slowly, “is going on here?”
“I think it’s obvious, sir,” Rex said just to see Obi-Wan flinch.
“The good captain and I,” Satine said in a regal tone that was at odds with the way her head was still on Rex’s shoulder, “are becoming great friends.”
“Friends,” Obi-Wan said, horrified winning out over disapproving.
“Best friends,” Rex added.
“Oh, look at his face,” Satine said, delighted. “He’s terrified. This should be very entertaining for you, Rex.”
She patted his chest once before, with the careful precision of the truly drunk, levering herself to her full height, smoothing her hair back into place until she was once more the untouchable Duchess of Mandalore. “My dear Obi-Wan, it has been a pleasure like always.”
“You’re leaving?” Obi-Wan said, looking caught out.
“The conversation between you and your captain is private.” On her way past him, she paused long enough to add, soft and threatening, “But don’t think we’re not discussing what you did later.” Obi-Wan paled. “Rex, it has been a genuine pleasure. Do let me know what time works best for you.”
“Thank you, Satine,” Rex said, and meant it.
Bottle in one hand, Satine made a dignified and graceful exit, leaving Obi-Wan and Rex alone.
“I'm not sure what’s happening,” Obi-Wan admitted as he locked the door behind her.
“I think it’s pretty clear, sir,” said Rex, who was far from sober and angry enough that he had no intention of making it easy for Obi-Wan. “Satine and I understand one another.”
And there it was, Obi-Wan bowing under guilt and despair. “Rex, I'm—”
“Don’t,” Rex snapped. “You don’t get to apologize. I understand, but I can’t forgive yet.”
Obi-Wan hovered awkwardly just out of reach, as if he was unsure of his welcome. As if Rex could bear to send him away. “I don’t expect you to forgive me,” Obi-Wan said quietly. “I don’t think I deserve it.”
Rex snorted because that was Obi-Wan all over. The man turned self-flagellation into an art form.
“I can’t do that either,” he said.
Obi-Wan carefully stilled, as if resigned to taking a beating. “You can’t do what?”
“Comfort you. We buried you, Obi-Wan. I had to watch them bury you.” He looked to Obi-Wan’s vambrace on his arm. “And the worst part is I'm pretty sure you gave this to me out of fucking guilt.”
Obi-Wan made a desperate, pained noise and said, vehement, “I would never.” He dropped to his knees before Rex. “I wanted this with you. I want it.”
Obi-Wan wore Rex’s vambrace on his arm openly and proudly in the temple, a proclamation to anyone who understood it for what it was.
“I'm sorry,” Obi-Wan said as Rex touched his hair, his jaw, the fine skin of his throat. “You have to know that I—”
“I do,” Rex said, and then Obi-Wan was holding him with only a locked door keeping his order at bay, a declaration so loud that Rex had no choice but to trust it.
Rex pressed a kiss to the corner of Obi-Wan’s mouth. “And you know,” he said.
“I do,” said Obi-Wan, and touched his forehead to Rex’s. They stayed there until Obi-Wan’s knees had to ache and Rex’s head grew heavy from all the drinking.
Time, as always, was against them, and so Rex eased back, saying nothing about the way Obi-Wan’s hands shook as he let Rex slip from his hold.
“I need to report to Cody,” he said.
Obi-Wan winced. “I'm not looking forward to that conversation.”
When Obi-Wan stood and offered a hand, Rex allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. “Don’t forget the one you’re going to have with Satine.”
Obi-Wan pinched the bridge of his nose. “Please tell me you and her were making a poor joke about being friends.”
“We’re having lunch before she leaves for Mandalore.”
“Well,” said Obi-Wan, “that’s appropriately terrifying.”
Rex choked out a laugh, and Obi-Wan softened, leaning in one last time to kiss him swift and sweet. “Walk me out,” Rex said.
And then, Obi-Wan alive beside him, Rex stepped forward to face what came next.
A sandstorm was blowing in, just as Ayo said it would. Rex could feel the change in the air, a slight shift he would never have been aware of when he first came to Tatooine. Back then he didn’t know there was more than one kind of heat and that some were better than others. Funny what a difference a few years could make.
As the wind picked up, Rex went to secure their moisture vaporator. The last thing they needed was for the damn thing to get clogged again. It took Rex nearly a fortnight to repair it after the last storm, and the cost for the parts just about drained their account dry. They couldn’t afford that again, not when they were expecting a transmission from Cody or Fulcrum in the next month, and the cost of hitching a ride off planet was always high.
Years of weathering Tatooine’s storm season meant Rex had settled into a routine for when one blew through, and he went through the tedious process of resealing every crack and gap in order to keep the sand out. It was an impossible task, seeing how the shit got everywhere, but at least this way he and Obi-Wan wouldn’t be wading through it after a few days even if they were going to spend the next month sweeping it all out.
Everything braced and secured as well as could be expected, Rex went down the stairs into their house proper, pulling the cover closed behind him and effectively locking them in until the storm passed. He hung his cloak next to Obi-Wan’s in the cramped entrance hall, noting the shed bantha hair caught along the sleeves.
Obi-Wan saw to the herd then, shepherding them down into the valley where they could safely wait it out. That first year after Rex tracked Obi-Wan down, Obi-Wan had insisted on spending the inaugural storm of the season with the bantha to keep them calm, which meant Rex was out there too, huddled in the lee of their great bodies. It was only the satisfaction that Obi-Wan had run out of excuses for avoiding him that made the entire miserable nonsense bearable.
He found Obi-Wan in the kitchen carefully measuring water into the ancient kettle Ayo had found for him. Xe had a hand in about everything imported to Tatooine, both through legal and less legal routes, and had taken a shine to Obi-Wan, who xe called sweetheart much to Rex’s amusement. And Rex, to Obi-Wan’s delight, xe referred to simply as Sweetheart’s Nice Young Man without a trace of irony.
“You got the herd settled?” he asked.
“Yes. Nari is a bit jumpy, but she’ll calm down one she realizes none of the others are panicking.” As he set the water to boil, Obi-Wan pulled out their battered press to start a cup of caf for Rex, who never developed a taste for tea, no matter how many cups Obi-Wan plied him with over the years. “How long will it last, do you think?”
“Two days. Three at the most. We’re still early in the season.”
Obi-Wan leaned against the corner, eyebrow cocked. “Any idea on how we could pass the time?”
Never one to turn down the perfect set up, Rex moved in close, settling his hands low on Obi-Wan’s hips. “A few. Cody sent along a few new novels in the last transmission. And I need to reply to Satine’s last message.”
“You know I’ve given up on understanding your friendship with her,” Obi-Wan said.
“Because it still scares you.”
“Of course it does. You’re both very intimidating people.”
Satine was right; Obi-Wan had a definite type. Lucky for Obi-Wan, Rex had one too.
“I'm open to suggestions,” he said, letting his lips brush along Obi-Wan’s cheek.
Obi-Wan turned his head and caught Rex’s mouth, sliding one hand into his hair. “It’s getting long,” Obi-Wan said when they drew apart. “Are you going to cut it?”
It had been a few weeks since he last ran a razor over it, and it was just starting to curl over Obi-Wan’s fingers. “Maybe,” said Rex. He hadn’t bothered to cut it in the early years of the Empire, relying on that and his beard to hide his face. When he came to Tatooine, he had kept the beard but lost the hair. “You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that.” Obi-Wan dragged his thumb along the rim of Rex’s ear. “I always wondered if you bleached it. Fives said you did.”
“Fives said a lot of shit,” Rex said. “You should have known better than to listen to him.”
Gray had crept into Obi-Wan’s hair and beard, a little more with each passing year to match the deepening lines around his eyes and mouth. Soon he was going to look the part of the mad man of the desert everyone had cast him in. Rex wouldn’t be too far behind.
“You’re quiet.” Obi-Wan’s fingers dipped under the collar of Rex’s shirt to send shivers down his spine. “What are you thinking?”
“That you’re beautiful,” said Rex, because it was true and because Obi-Wan never believed him. “And you should take me to bed because we’re too old to have sex in the kitchen.”
“I'm certain we’re not,” said Obi-Wan, and went on to enthusiastically prove it.
They spent the morning of the first day in bed, a rare luxury that Rex was determined to enjoy. Judging by the beard burn Obi-Wan left on his inner thighs, he agreed.
In the afternoon they decoded the files Cody sent, sifting through the intel for anything useful. There were no surprises—Steela was in the wind again, Satine was still playing nice with the system governor, and the Empire had little interest in Kel Dor—but Rex made note of a few bits and pieces that could prove useful down the line, transferring them to a heavily encrypted drive to pass along to Fulcrum at their next meeting.
Rex was the one who left to do work for the fledging Alliance. One of them had to stay behind to watch over Luke, and Rex understood why it had to be Obi-Wan, who wore his grief like a mark of shame. Rex couldn’t ask him to walk away from the life they carved out, and, if he was being honest, it felt good to have a purpose again. He had been without one for too long, lost and alone until Fulcrum brought him back into the fight.
And then he did the same for Cody, who held him tight one day and said, “Rex, he’s alive.”
Now it was Obi-Wan who turned that fine mind of his to the intel Cody passed along and Rex who took it and did what needed doing in the here and now while Obi-Wan guarded the future. Rex held no resentment; it was more than he ever hoped to have, back during the war and then after. It was everything.
The second day passed much as the first. Rex kept Obi-Wan in bed late into the morning before reluctantly releasing him to go forage for food. He spent a few hours drafting a careful reply to Satine’s last message and then forced Obi-Wan to read aloud from the novels Cody sent while he prepared dinner. Cody’s tastes hadn’t improved, and Rex found the faces Obi-Wan kept pulling over the terrible prose hilarious.
“This makes no sense,” Obi-Wan said, giving up four chapters in, three longer than Rex expected him to last. “It’s like Cody finds the worst novels on purpose just to torment me.”
“Obviously,” Rex said. “This is his revenge for all the times you got kidnapped.”
“That happened once,” said Obi-Wan.
“Three times by our count.”
When the storm broke they would need to head to the market. They were almost out of flour and their stores of grain wouldn’t last the week
“Christophsis doesn’t count,” said Obi-Wan. “I had a plan. I told you it.”
“You did,” Rex agreed, the argument old and familiar. “That doesn’t mean it was a good one.”
“I suppose you prefer Anakin’s where something always exploded.”
Rex very carefully didn’t react, turning his attention to measuring out the water to cook the rice he traded a couple skeins of bantha wool for. It was difficult to predict Obi-Wan’s reaction when he would forget himself and talk as if Skywalker was in the other room. On the good days Obi-Wan would manage a bittersweet smile, as if he was merely mourning a friend long gone. On the bad days—well, Rex knew how to deal with those.
Rex set the rice to cook, and said, “Didn’t you jump out a window once?”
“I fail to see what that has to do with anything.” Obi-Wan moved in close and said, “The storm isn’t letting up.”
“We have another day at least.” He passed over a bowl of taro roots. “Make yourself useful and peel these.”
The third day brought with it howling winds that ripped the shutters off the south wall, blowing in sand that piled high in the corners. Rex sighed and wrapped himself in careful layers, and, goggles pulled over his eyes, went to repair it as best he could.
He managed to secure the shutter back in place, a stop-gap measure until the storm died down and he could get back out there with the necessary supplies. When he made it back in, Obi-Wan was just finishing sweeping up the sand.
“Anakin hated sand,” Obi-Wan said as Rex unwrapped himself. “I never understood it until I came here.”
“Yeah, I remember how he used to complain,” said Rex. Obi-Wan wasn’t looking at him. “We got stuck on Shintel during the monsoon season. It rained more than on Kamino. He loved it. He kept saying we’d miss it next time we were sent to a desert planet.” Rex glanced at the pile of sand. “He was right about that.”
Obi-Wan’s gaze was distant and far away. “After Naboo, I took him to the ocean. He’d never seen so much water before, and he was so angry when I explained that he couldn’t drink it. He asked me what use was all that water if people still went thirsty? I should have—”
“Stop,” said Rex, firm. “Obi-Wan, stop it.”
Obi-Wan looked at him, and Rex didn’t know how a body could hold so much pain without breaking.
During that first year after Rex found him again, Obi-Wan woke early and walked out into the desert without a word, leaving Rex behind, terrified and furious.
It took hours to track him down, and in the end he found Obi-Wan sitting in the sand with his face tilted towards Tatooine’s twin suns, eyes wide and empty. For one horrifying moment Rex was sure Obi-Wan meant to leave him completely.
“You can’t,” he said, falling to his knees and gripping Obi-Wan’s shoulders so tightly he left bruises behind. “I need you here. You have to be here with me.”
And Obi-Wan had blinked, and said, something like wonder in his voice, “Rex? What are you doing here?”
Rex’s hands shook as he cradled Obi-Wan’s face. “I came to find you, remember? So you have to stay. I need you to stay.”
It happened again and again, and every time Rex went and brought him back until, finally, Obi-Wan stayed.
Now Obi-Wan folded in on himself and said, “I promised to keep him safe. I failed him.”
“Maybe you did,” Rex said, and Obi-Wan’s gaze swung to him, surprised. “You made mistakes and you didn’t see the signs. But if this is your fault than it’s mine, too.”
“No,” Obi-Wan snapped, an automatic protest because he wouldn’t be Obi-Wan if didn’t take all the blame onto himself.
“I left. Ahsoka left. We weren’t there when he needed us. It’s as much our fault as yours.”
Obi-Wan shook his head, a sharp denial. “He was my brother. I raised him. I should have seen what was happening. I should have stopped it.”
“How?” Rex snapped. “Tell me how, Obi-Wan, because I honestly don’t know. Your damn council couldn’t help him. Ahsoka couldn’t. I couldn’t. Not even Senator Amidala managed to stop him. So tell me what you could have done!”
“He listened to me,” Obi-Wan said, but the words were soft and exhausted from the countless times he spoken them before.
“Sometimes, yeah, but a lot of the time he didn’t. He made his choice, and you’re dishonoring the man he was by taking that from him.”
Into the silence that followed, Obi-Wan said, “I promised I would take care of him.”
Rex gripped the back of Obi-Wan’s neck, holding him steady. “And you did for as long as he let you. You’re a good man, Obi-Wan, and you love him, but Anakin made his choice, and we have to live with that.”
Eyes closed, Obi-Wan swayed into him, face pressed into the curve of Rex’s shoulder. “I was going to bring him home. I was going to save him.”
“I know,” Rex said, and pressed a kiss to Obi-Wan’s temple.
And they leaned into one another, grieving, as outside the storm howled on.
Rex had been on a lot of ships over his life, destroyers, larties, dreadnoughts, cruisers, escape pods when one of the above inevitably crashed or was driven into another ship, but none of them could quite compare to the Millennium Falcon. The closest was the ancient spice freighter Skywalker swore he could overhaul and turn into a first class lancer but instead it just kept catching fire if anyone so much as breathed on it. At least the Falcon didn’t make ominous rattling noises, or if it did it couldn’t be heard over all the other worrying sounds.
But Rex had been in far worse spots in far worse company before. At least the supply of caf was fully stocked, and Rex made himself a cup as Luke sat at the table with curved shoulders and a bowed head.
Rex fixed another cup, and, remembering the kid’s sweet tooth, dumped in what was probably half the sugar onboard. Solo could pick up more when they got to Alderaan.
“Here,” said Rex, placing the mug in front of Luke, who blinked up at him with wet eyes. “You’ll feel better with something warm in you.”
“I can’t feel worse,” he said, and wiped his eyes. “My aunt would make me this drink. I never knew what she put in it, but it was the best thing I ever tasted.”
Rex took a seat beside him. It had been years, but he remembered what to do when a shiny lost someone for the first time.
He placed one hand between Luke’s should blades, feeling the knobs of his spine lift and fall with each breath, and said, “It’s all right to miss them, and it’s all right be angry at them for dying. It’s going to hurt for a long time, and that’s all right too. There’s no shame in crying over someone you loved.”
“Does it get better?” Luke asked in a small voice.
Rex thought of Fives and Tup, Waxer and Hardcase, the brothers that bled out in his arms, the ones he dragged to safety only to die days, weeks later. The ones dying out there right now, still fighting because it was all they knew.
“Yeah,” he said, “it does. Now drink up.”
“Thank you.” He drank, and when he made a face Rex pushed the sugar closer to him. Luke took his caf like Kix did: with enough sugar to make the spoon stand upright. “I don’t care what Han says. I like you.”
“He’s been talking about me?” Rex asked as Luke turned a bright red.
“No?” Luke said, and stirred his caf furiously. “He, uh, said some things about the war. And clones.”
It would have been a surprise if he hadn’t, Rex thought. Solo was angry and hurting and trying to hide it all under a cockiness that reminded Rex of himself twenty years ago.
“To a lot of people we were on the wrong side of that war,” Rex said, which was truer than Luke knew. “There’s bound to be some resentment leftover.”
“I guess.” Luke turned the mug around in his hands. “I remember when you came to Tatooine. Well, sort of. My uncle, he was worried you worked for the Empire.”
No, Owen worried he was there to steal Luke away. Rex hadn’t known Luke existed, much less who his parents were, although Owen was right to be wary. If Rex had known about Luke, he couldn’t say he wouldn’t have grabbed the kid and run.
“But then they realized you were just looking for Ben,” Luke continued. “Everyone said that made you—”
“As mad as him?” Rex asked, biting back a grin at the face Luke made. “They’re not wrong.”
“He’s not mad,” Luke protested.
Rex snorted. “You barely know him. Give it time.”
“I know him. I know both of you. I wandered off when I was little and got lost. You found me.”
Rex took a sip of caf to cover his surprise. “I didn’t think you remembered that.”
Luke had been young, six, maybe seven, and Rex wouldn’t forget how Luke grinned brightly at him from Obi-Wan’s hip.
“He saw something interesting in the canyon and wandered off,” Obi-Wan had said before Rex could do more than raise his eyebrows. “And there’s a storm coming. I’ll let Beru and Owen know he’s safe.”
“Hi,” Luke had said, letting Obi-Wan pass him over.
“Hello,” said Rex, whose experience with children was limited to his young brothers. “Want to learn to shoot a blaster?”
When Obi-Wan found them later, Luke squinting as he took aim at a group of rocks, he heaved a great sigh and said, fond, “I don’t know what I expected.”
“You let me shoot a blaster,” said Luke. “Aunt Beru wasn’t impressed by that.”
“She should have been. You had good aim for a kid.” Luke ducked his head at the praise. “Could be better now though. We’ll work on it later.”
Luke’s offended look was interrupted by Artoo’s shrill beeping. Rex picked up a working knowledge of binary over the years, mainly expletives, and Artoo was using them all in highly creative ways.
“What’s got into him?” Luke asked, frowning.
“Hey,” came their answer by way of Captain Solo, “don’t take that tone with me. I'm being practical. We all know what they’re capable of.” There was a suspicious crackle of electricity, as if Artoo had pulled out his electrical prod. “Ow! Quit it!”
“That’s enough, Artoo,” said Obi-Wan.
Rex sighed. He knew that tone of voice.
“Look,” Solo continued, unaware the Falcon’s strange acoustics were funneling the conversation straight to him and Luke, “I'm just looking out for us is all.”
“And here I thought I was paying you to get us to Alderaan,” Obi-Wan said. The asshole was going to pick a fight, Rex just knew it.
“He’s a clone,” Solo snapped. “And we both know what clones do. There are whole planets gone because of them.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Obi-Wan said, “How old were you when the Clone Wars began? You must have been young.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Solo asked, suspicious.
“You don’t remember what they were like before the Empire took them. They were men, good men, and the Empire stole everything from them, even their names.”
“Um,” Luke said quietly, eyes gone wide.
“I don’t know what your life’s been like, Captain,” Obi-Wan continued, “what hardships you’ve suffered, but I doubt it’s anything compared to what Rex and his brothers have lived through.”
“Hey, you want to keep a clone around, it’s none of my business,” said Solo. “Just don’t come crying to me when it blows up in your face.”
There was the sound of a body hitting the wall, and Rex wished Cody was here; his vod would find this hilarious.
“His name,” Obi-Wan said just on the edge of hearing, “is Rex. He is one of the best men I have ever known, and I trust him with—”
“Your life?” said Solo. “I gotta say, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.”
“No,” said Obi-Wan. “I trust him with Luke’s life and with your own, Captain. I trust him more than myself, and you would be wise to do the same.”
Artoo beeped in agreement, only with a lot more insults to Solo’s genealogy and facial aesthetics, and despite himself Rex was touched. Well, mostly he was annoyed Obi-Wan thought Rex would let a shiny like Solo get under his skin, but it was a nice gesture all the same.
“Now,” Obi-Wan continued, “our course is set for Alderaan?”
Solo cleared his throat. “Yeah, should get there in another day.”
“We’re making good time, then.”
“Um,” Luke said, “they’re heading this way. Should we…”
“No,” said Rex. “Watch their faces. It should be good.”
Sure enough, Solo and Obi-Wan drew to a sharp stop when they saw Rex and Luke at the table with their forgotten cups of caf.
“I suppose you heard all that,” said Obi-Wan, resigned.
“We heard enough of it,” he said. Obi-Wan was too old to shift guiltily, but Rex could tell he wanted to.
Solo glanced between them and said, “Chewie needs help with the engine. Hey, kid, does C3-whatever come with a volume switch? He hasn’t stopped talking since coming aboard.”
“No,” said Luke, near running out of the room after Solo. “I’ve looked.”
“Hey, Artoo,” said Rex without looking away from Obi-Wan, “keep an eye on them for me, would you?”
Artoo beeped an affirmative, affectionately nudging up against Rex’s leg before trundling after the kids.
“You,” Rex said as he stood, opting to lean against the table with his arms crossed, “are too old to be picking fights like that.”
“I'm hardly too old to pick a fight,” Obi-Wan said, looking like he wanted to add something but thought better of it.
“You were about to say he started it, weren’t you?”
“No,” said Obi-Wan, which clearly meant yes. “I won’t abide anyone speaking of you or your brothers that way.”
“We both know a lot more people have said worse than that.” He sighed at Obi-Wan’s frown. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s sweet, but I don’t need you defending my honor. And he wasn’t wrong.”
“First of all,” said Obi-Wan, stepping between Rex’s knees, “I will defend your honor whenever I see fit.” Rex snorted. “And secondly, it wasn’t your fault. None of you were at fault.” Obi-Wan ran gentle fingers over the scar just hidden by his hair.
Rex leaned into the caress. “They don’t know that.”
Obi-Wan moved to touch the corner of his eyes. Rex was aging well, as far as clones went, but he wasn’t young anymore, but then neither was Obi-Wan. Somehow, against all odds, they had grown old.
“Hey,” Rex said quietly, settling his hands on the curve of Obi-Wan’s waist.
“Hm?” Obi-Wan stroked a thumb along his cheek.
“I trust you with my life.”
Obi-Wan kissed him. It was as sweet as the first time but made all better for the years since.
“Don’t think this lets you off the hook,” Rex said when they slowly drew apart.
“Of course not,” said Obi-Wan. “You’ve never learned to let someone take care of you.”
“You would know something about that,” said Rex, and kissed Obi-Wan again before he could protest. One kiss turned into two, into four, Obi-Wan familiar and dear against him.
“Solo’s a good man,” Rex said later, a bit breathless as Obi-Wan straightened the fall of his robes. They were too old to be making time like this, especially with Luke onboard.
“There’s anger there,” said Obi-Wan, “and pain. He thinks he can hide it under all that empty bravado.”
“I thought the same thing once,” said Rex, and had the pleasure of genuinely surprising Obi-Wan.
“You were never like that.”
“You didn’t know me when I was a shiny,” said Rex. “I had a lot to prove. I know Cody told you stories.”
“I thought he was exaggerating to embarrass you.”
“He was.” Rex placed a hand on Obi-Wan’s back to steer him towards engineering. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
“This certainly puts our early interactions in a new light.”
“Don’t forget I know what you were like back in your youth.”
Obi-Wan smiled and said, “We are well matched.”
They rounded the corner to find Luke practically falling into the Falcon’s inner workings, saved only by Chewbaca’s hold on his belt. Artoo was egging them on.
“Don’t look at me,” said Solo as Chewbaca scolded him. “The kid wanted a closer look.”
“I'm fine!” Luke called up. “Actually, could you lower me down a bit? I think I see the problem.”
Obi-Wan pinched the bridge of his nose as Rex said, “They’re can’t be any worse than what Torrent and Ghost Company got up to.”
“That’s what I'm afraid of,” said Obi-Wan, but he was smiling, and so Rex leaned in for one last kiss because he could, because he loved him, because they were well matched indeed.