"Sir, in the future, next time you say you have a good idea on how to collect intelligence?" Rex said, glancing at his General as they ducked behind a merchant's stall for cover. "Remind me to tell you to shut up."
"Noted," Anakin Skywalker said with a grin. "But, c'mon, you were just as bored as I was. Admit it."
Rex rolled his eyes and risked a glance around the corner. That was an awful lot of droids for a planet that really didn't seem to rate either a Republic or Separatist outpost. What the kriff was going on here?
"They're not here for you, don't worry," a heavily vocoded voice said from above them.
Rex and General Skywalker looked up, though it took a moment to spot where the voice was coming from in the shadows of the building. The speaker was seated cross-legged on an awning hanging from the opposite building Rex and the General were hugging, elbows on his knees, head in his hands as he looked at them. His eyes were covered by a pair of mechanic's welding goggles and the lower half of his face was cover by black fabric of some sort. What Rex could see of his skin was pale and marked up by black tattoos on the left side of his face and he had fiery red hair bound back.
"Hunh," the General said, tilting his head. "They're after you?"
"Maybe, maybe not." The humanoid stood and jumped off the awning, landing easily by Rex and the General. Rex's hands tightened on his pistols and tried not to shoot this possible...ally on reflex. He was dressed in dark leathers, like any other non-descript spacer out there, but well-armed with two pistols and definitely more weapons scattered about his body. "Does it matter to you?"
"It's making our lives a little more difficult," the General said. "We needed some information and we can't exactly get it now."
"Information? On what?" There was no way a vocoder allowed emotions through but Rex would bet credits the other was amused. "I have information and, for a fee, am willing to part with it."
Rex glanced around the corner again and swore. "We need to move."
The humanoid looked out as well and made some sort of noise the vocoder couldn't translate. "Follow me. I'm assuming you have a ship close by?"
"Er…" the General said, rubbing the back of his neck. "We were just going to call for a pick up. We didn't expect this much activity."
"Jedi," the humanoid said, the word coming out like a curse. "You never change and never will."
"Show some respect," Rex said, voice tight.
"Earn it," the humanoid shot back, leading them toward the back of the alley. "I have my reasons for disliking the Jedi. If you'd been one of the Council? Windu or Yoda, or even Jinn? I'd probably have left you to be turned into paste. The rest of you? Case-by-case basis."
General Skywalker and Rex looked at each other as they followed the humanoid, the other pressing gloved hands against a solid wall until a portion of it slid aside and a tunnel revealed itself. Those were some very specific Jedi their "ally" had named.
"What do you have against Master Jinn?" General Skywalker asked quietly. "He's a good man."
The humanoid waved them into the passage and sealed it behind them. He pulled a glow-rod from a pocket on his belt and snap it to activate it. "C'mon. We're further from the 'port than I'd like and we still might have to sneak past a few patrols."
"You said you had information," Rex said when it seemed like neither the humanoid or General Skywalker were going to talk any further about General Jinn. Kark, let this whole disaster not have been a waste.
"Depends on the information you're looking for and what you're willing to pay for it." The General groaned softly, but just enough for their guide to pick up on it. "You think living is free, Jedi? I need to eat and my ship needs fuel. You don't want to pay then I can take what I know and give it to someone else, someone who will pay. I have no love for the Seps either, but they pay, and you don't hide your troop movements as well as you think."
Rex felt himself go cold as both he and the General stopped short.
"What do you mean?" General Skywalker asked, his voice deadly quiet.
The red-headed humanoid turned to them, the light from glow-rod reflecting off his goggles. "The GAR is planning on moving on Muunilinst."
"How the--" the General started.
"Which, of course, is a brilliant plan because of the battle droid factories. Except for two factors--Asajj Ventress and Durge."
"Exactly," the humanoid said. He started walking again and was quiet for a moment. "Grant my ship access to your fuel depots for six months and I'll give you all the information I have on Durge and Ventress. As well as getting you off this rock, and back to your ship."
"Why would we care about these two in particular?" General Skywalker asked.
Vocoders did strange things to laughter, Rex found. "A freebie, then: Ventress is a Sith Apprentice of your Count Dooku." The humanoid glanced over his shoulder. "How's that deal sounding now?"
"I can't make that sort of arrangement on my own," the General admitted, straightening the leather straps on his bionic arm. "But I can take it before the Council."
The humanoid shrugged and kept walking. "You can make the transmission from my ship."
Aw, kriff. If the Jedi Council said no then their new friend would probably end up trading them to the Seppies for money. It's what he'd do. Haran, it's what any smart merc would do and Rex had a feeling that's exactly what this man was.
They made it to the spaceport without issue, though Red wasn't terribly surprised. The droids weren't looking that hard for him, and they weren't that smart to begin with. If Maul or any of the others had been on planet he would have left the Jedi and his clone to their fate and booked it. Nothing was worth his possible recapture.
His freedom was worth more to him than anything else in the world.
"That's your ship?" the Jedi asked, stopping when he should be moving. Idiot. Even the clone was still moving, but then again, he had Jango's genetics and most likely Jango's training.
"Would you kindly keep up?" Red asked, flipping open his vambrace and typing in a sequence. The ship hummed to life, lowering the boarding ramp as they got closer, and aw fuck. He could hear the droids closing in. He knew he should have just blown up that factory when the security systems made him.
"General," the Clone said, drawing his pistols.
"Nope," Red said. "No shooting, only running. I am not getting into a shootout when they can call for backup."
"Who the hell did you piss off?" the Jedi asked.
Red rolled his eyes. "You want an alphabetical list?"
"Get on the damned ship," Red said.
"You have an XS Freighter," the Jedi said, his voice almost reverent. "That thing can move."
"She would move more with you on it," Red said. The clone was on and Red was crouched down on the ramp, drawing one of his pistols. Those droids were getting a little too close for his comfort. "Here's a better incentive, Jedi, get on my ship or I'm leaving you behind."
The Jedi sighed and ran up the ramp. "All right, all right. It's just, you have a nice ship."
Red waited until the blond was halfway up the ramp before turning and running up it as well. He was tapping away at the comm embedded in his vambrace that was linked up with the Irredeemable's systems, programming the navcomputer as he went. The clone and the Jedi were in the hold, not sure what to do--fine by him--and he ran past them to the cockpit.
"Hey, girl," he murmured as he flung himself into the pilot's chair. "Time to make our getaway, yeah?" His fingers danced along her system panels and she chirped and hummed happily for him, giving him everything she could as he grabbed her controls and spun her up and out of the 'port.
"Your weapons systems are hot," the clone said.
Red grinned under his mask, not that they could see, but kept the Irredeemable steady and pushed more fuel her way. He needed a fast burn out of the planet's atmosphere. There was...something. Something coming.
There was a nudge, distant and almost too quiet to make out, and Red reached out to redirect the power to the shields. He grabbed the controls and, praying to every god he had ever heard of, sent the Irredeemable into a dive.
"What the kriff are you doing?" the clone demanded, grabbing the back of his seat.
"Oh shit," the Jedi whispered as two very large Separatist ships burned into the planet's atmosphere.
"Shut up and let me fly," Red said, pulling up from the dive and twisting past one of the ships. There wasn't a lot of space to maneuver past them but there was maybe just enough. He needed just enough to get through them, and there was a gap, and he could get into hyperspace.
One of the ships had spotted him and was turning to flank, guns powering up, but Red was faster. He flicked open the throttle more, pushing the sublights to their max, and shot past both of them. A blast barely slammed into his aft shield, but it held, and while some systems flickered warnings at him, his ship held and kept hurtling forward. Seconds later they were in the blackness of space and the nav had their path routed out to a decent spot where no one would bother them and the Jedi could contact the Council. Red grabbed the hyperspace control and slammed it down before anyone else could get the jump on him.
"You have the Force," the Jedi said after a moment. "I don't know anyone who isn't a Jedi who can fly like that."
Red spun in his chair and got up. "We'll be in Republic space in about three hours, so think about how you're going to convince your Council to agree to my terms."
"How did you escape the Temple's notice?" the Jedi asked.
"Do either of you need medical attention?" Red asked, gritting his teeth. "I have the basics."
"We're fine," the clone said, frowning.
"No, really, how--"
"Unless you want me to space you, I suggest you shut up," Red said, patience snapping. "I want access to your fuel but not that bad."
"Sir," the clone murmured, a hand coming down on the Jedi's shoulder.
The Jedi stared at him unhappily for a moment but nodded. "So, what do we call you?"
"'Red' works about as well as anything else," he said, arms crossed.
"I'm Anakin Skywalker, this is Captain Rex," the Jedi said.
Red froze. Skywalker? Aw, fuck. No wonder the Jedi had taken such offense when he'd bitched about Jinn. More than that, this was the Jedi that his Ma--No. No, he was done with that, done with all of that shit. He was free, dammit.
As free as he could get while he was being hunted.
"Well, then," he said, taking a step back and sitting down again. "Make yourselves comfortable. Like I said, three hours and you can contact your Council and then I'll drop you wherever you want to go."
Three hours passed slowly with company on board.
It made him twitchy.
Then again, it had been maybe four months since he'd last actually talked to another sentient--once he'd gotten Boba settled--so it wasn't terribly surprising that just the proximity of others near him made him want to twitch out of his skin. Add into the mix that one of them was Skywalker? That just made everything so much more wonderfully complicated.
He tugged his gloves off and tossed them over the navcomputer, not caring at the moment what readouts it was saying, and rolled up his sleeves.
"Hunh," he heard from behind him.
He froze, silently running through every curse he knew for getting caught unawares, before turning his head to look at the clone. No, not the clone: Captain Rex. "Can I help you?" he asked.
"Interesting mark," the Captain said, sitting in the co-pilot's chair.
Red frowned, covering the black tattoo on his left forearm with his other hand before releasing it slowly. "You know it?"
The Captain treated him to the most unironic stare he'd had the pleasure of being the subject of in years. Red tried not to grin. "You do know who trained us, right?"
"Yeah, I know," Red said. "Told him he was an idiot to get involved with the whole thing but, there we have it." He glanced down at the ink on his arm, one of the few things he had left from his friend, and traced the horns of the tattoo somberly. "Don't know if you or your brothers care, but Boba's safe. If the adiik will stay that way? That's up to him, but he has the tools to make a good life for himself."
"Think it'll work?"
"Depends," Red said, still looking at the tattoo.
"If he leaves Windu alone, then yes," Red said with a shrug, looking up. "If not, well. There's plenty of ways for that to go bad and plenty of people willing to pull his ass out of the fire."
The Captain was watching him, similar to that odd way Jango used to, but different. Red never could figure out what went through that man's head, which had been part of the draw, but especially in regards to Jango's deal with the Clones and Kamino and the damned Sith of all people. Part of him wanted to rail at his friend, find his ghost and demand if he was happy now, if he had gotten what he'd wanted.
He knew better. No one ever got what they wanted in this life.
Red looked down at the ink on his arm and then back at Captain Rex and slouched in his chair. "I might have disagreed with him about, well, a lot of things," he said carefully. "But I do know some of his wishes. This? The war, the Jedi? They weren't it."
"Shocker," the Captain drawled.
Red grinned. Oh, he liked him. "Look, if you or any of the others need." He stopped, trying to figure out he wanted to say. What was he offering? Help? How could he help an entire army? He knew what Jango had wanted to do--steal them all away from the Kaminoans and Sith and laugh the whole way--but that was Jango. He was at a distinct disadvantage but still, the mark on his arm reminded him of the debt he owed and, no. This wasn't just about a debt. "Need anything. If I can help, I will."
And they were back to that unnerving watching.
"Where's Skywalker?" Red asked, looking at a discreet console that flicked through vid feed of the ship. He didn't see the Jedi anywhere which made him a little nervous. There were a couple of areas of his ship that he didn't monitor and those were ones that he didn't want a nosy Jedi poking about in.
"Meditating," the Captain said. "Said he'd need the help for dealing with the Council."
Red nodded and nudged his gloves aside, checking the time. "We'll be out of hyperspace in a couple minutes, if you want to go fetch him. The only long-range comm is in here."
"What will you do with us if the Council says no?" the Captain asked.
Red ran a finger along the edge of the Irredeemable's console and stared out at the hyperspace vortex around them. What would he do?
"We're in the Inner Rim right now, plenty of planets to choose from," he said at last. "You and your Jedi come out ahead, to be honest. You got out of a situation that would not have gone well for you, you have some information that you would not otherwise have had, and you personally now know you have an ally out there if you need it."
On the other hand, it would be a total loss for him. Loss of fuel, credits, and time. And, if he had been made, the hunters would be closing in. This damned war had set the galaxy on fire and it was only just beginning. Soon there would be no place left for him to run to, and if he stopped running…
"You'll let us go, just like that?" the Captain asked, shifting in his seat, frowning.
Red straightened in his seat and brought them out of hyperspace. "Just like that."
"Didn't think mercenaries had any honor," the Captain said, though his words were slow, careful.
Red wasn't sure how to respond to that so he didn't, opting instead to coast the Irredeemable to a halt. Honor wasn't something he'd been able to afford since he was sixteen, maybe before that. Maybe since he'd been kicked out of the only home he'd ever known for trying to stand up for what was right--kind of. Perspective was a bitch sometimes.
He leaned down, popping a concealed hatch in the bottom of the console's bulk, and removed a case of pre-programmed encryption keys. He got up and went over to the comm unit, using his finger nail to jimmy open a panel, ignoring the eyes on him. The Jedi joined them as he selected one of the keys and slid it into the comm's override, humming softly to himself as he murmured gently to his ship. He knew the finicky system hated it when he used the keys but sometimes it was better to be paranoid.
He rocked back on his heels, boot leather creaking as he stood, and gestured for the Jedi. "Make your call."
Captain Rex had stood and moved off to the right, just in sight of the comm, while Skywalker put through the call. Red leaned against the wall of the cockpit, rolling his sleeves down to cover his tattoo and hooking his thumbs into his belt as he waited. He could feel his heart kick up and rolled his eyes at himself, safe behind his goggles. Really, what was wrong with him? Was he some sort of rookie who had never bargained for goods before? Honestly.
Captain Ramnel's ghost was probably going to come back to haunt him for his amateurishness.
The comm fritzed for a moment before it resolved into a projection of one figure, and Skywalker straightened in shock.
"Anakin," Qui-Gon Jinn said, voice fond but expression serious. "You were to stay with your fleet."
"Uh, well. I thought it was best to get some information on the ground?" Skywalker said, gesturing with his hands. "Rex and I ran into a little trouble but we did find the information we were after, and we wanted to talk to the Council about--"
"The Council is having you deal with me," Jinn interrupted. "I have joined up with the 501st and you need to join us immediately. Wherever you are calling from, the encryption really does not need to be that strong, transmit it immediately and I will send someone to come pick you up."
"Padawan," Jinn sighed. "What have you done this time?"
Red strode forward, into the comm's recorder, and gave a little wave. "They're currently aboard my vessel, Master Jedi, and very poorly attempting to broker a deal between us."
"Hey," Skywalker protested.
"I call it like I see it," Red told him, smiling at the muffled sound of the Captain's laugh. "And you have no idea how to do this."
"And what, precisely, is he supposed to be aiding you in?" Jinn asked, crossing his arms behind his back.
"I have information on two individuals that pose a great deal of risk to your Republic and the army in general," Red said, hands resting on his blasters. Calm. He was calm. "All I want in exchange for the information and the safe return of these two is six months of access to your fuel depots."
"Oh, that's all?" Jinn asked, arching a brow.
"Qui-Gon," Anakin said, "he knows about Muunilinst."
Red shrugged. "And others. As I said, Skywalker, you don't hide your troop movements as well as you think you do."
"I would have to take this to the Council," Jinn said. "Provide me something as a show of good will to take to them to consider you proposition."
"No. Aren't you part of the Council?" Red asked, gritting his teeth. "You can make the decision on your own."
"Perhaps," Jinn said. "This is something that would require a unanimous vote, however, and even then, we won't negotiate over comms."
Red shook his head, "No. You negotiate here, now, or I will--"
"Or what? You'll space a Captain of the GAR and a Jedi Knight? This may be an encrypted comm, sir, but that does not stop us from recording it. You harm them and I promise you, there won't be a safe space for you in the galaxy."
Red's jaw clenched. "Behold, the true face of the Jedi."
"Have you so much experience with the Jedi?" Jinn asked, a curious tilt to his head.
"Fine," Red said. "Talk to your Council. If I don't hear back--"
"We will contact you--"
"That is not how this is going to work!" Red snapped and he heard a panel behind him explode in sparks. Skywalker took a quick step back, eyes wide, and the Captain drew his pistols in reflex. Aw, fuck. Red rolled his shoulders and let out a breath.
There was a beat, then two.
"Four hours," Jinn said. "Will that be sufficient time?"
"That will be acceptable, yes," Red said and reached out, fingers tapping out a code. "I am transmitting an unencrypted comm line."
Jinn nodded and disconnected. Red stared at the deactivated comm unit for a moment before crouching down and yanking the encryption key, snapping it in half, then snapping those pieces again.
"You do have the Force," Skywalker said, a smirk on his face.
Red looked at him, weighing his options, before raising to his feet. "Yes, I do," he said finally.
"Where did you train? I can't feel you in the Force at all, even when you used it! How is that--"
Red narrowed his eyes and pushed, awkward in his use, though it worked just fine as it blasted the Jedi out of the cockpit and down into the cargo bay. From the sound of the impact, he might have even broken some bones.
Rex was trying very hard not to grin. His General was a banged up mess, yes, but kriff he'd deserved it. Red had been one obvious line of tension after that panel had blown and yet no, his General had not been able to resist pushing. What made him good at dealing with the troops--his guilelessness, sheer obliviousness for when a brother was being snide, and absolute kindness--was what made him bad at dealing with this situation. General Skywalker also had a habit of teasing when he really should back off, which while good with the troops, very bad with someone like their new friend.
"Sir," Rex said.
"Don't," the General muttered as he Force-healed his scrapes. He had already set the three bones Red had broken and was now just making just he didn't leak blood every which way when he moved.
"Maybe poking at the rabid gundark wasn't the smartest move?" Rex suggested, giving in and grinning.
"More like a feral nexu," the General said, flexing his healed hand. "What do you think about him?"
Rex glanced in the direction of the sealed cockpit. "I think he's a good man that's been shoved into a lot of tough situations that's forced him to make some bad calls."
"You don't think our lives are in danger?" his General asked.
"Do you?" Rex asked, looking at him. He wasn't the one with the mystical hoodoo, he didn't know what his General did, but until General Jinn pushed like he had things had been fine. Red didn't like being pushed and, from what Rex had seen, he tended to push back about a metric ton more than he was given. It was reflex, and it was learned.
"No, not really," his General said. He was looking at the cockpit too, his frown deepening. "I can't see him in the Force. Everyone has some sort of presence in the Force--you, me, plants, animals, everything--but he doesn't. It's like he doesn't exist. And when he threw me, it was weird."
"Weird?" Rex asked, prompting Skywalker to go on when the other fell silent.
"When that panel exploded, it kind of reminded me of initiates in the Temple," he admitted. "Before they're taught to get themselves under control. But when he threw me, that was different, that had intent and skill. Otherwise he could have crushed me or pushed me straight through the hull of the ship. All of it, though? I could feel the Force being manipulated, but not by who or where or any of that. He makes no sense."
"He's trained," Rex said, shifting in his seat with a frown. The pieces weren't adding up right.
"Maybe a Padawan whose Master died before his training finished," Skywalker shrugged. "But that doesn't fit, because the Temple would have sent out searchers to find him. None of this fits."
Rex remembered the mark of the True Mandalorians on Red's arm and the offer he made, in the awkward way of someone not sure how to actually talk to another sentient. There was something there, something he was missing. "That Force stuff, how strong you think he is in it?"
General Skywalker shrugged. "Strength is a matter of perspective, Qui-Gon always said. There are Jedi out there who have a very weak connection to the Force--a low midichlorian count--but they can still wreck a lot of havoc. Then there are other Jedi Masters who have a large count and they do nothing more than tend gardens and look after the well-being of other Jedi."
Rex waited, knowing eventually his General would get to the karking point.
"I don't know," he admitted. "It depends. Who his teacher was and what his focus in the Force factors into how strong he might be. And, like I said, perspective is everything."
"Fair enough. Think the Council will go for Red's deal?"
General Skywalker snorted. "Not a chance."
Red sighed, sitting on the floor of the cockpit, staring at the panel he had fried. Wiring was melted, sensors were damaged, it was just a mess. So much was wrong right now.
He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand and closed his eyes, wanting to take off his goggles but not daring to. Not while there were others on his ship. He wanted to get changed, relax, decompress, but he couldn't. He had to stay alert. Always had to be alert.
He was so tired.
The comm chimed with an incoming message--they were early--and he almost ignored it, just wanting everything to go away, but he knew better. Fuel. He needed fuel. And, honestly, if he could turn the Jedi onto taking out some of the hunters for him? That would give him a little more breathing room.
He dragged himself to his feet and went over to the comm, accepting the transmission, leaning against the console.
"Greetings," Yoda said, voice solemn.
Red choked down the instinctual response every Temple-raised youngling had to Yoda and instead just nodded at them. All three of them. Yoda, Windu, and Jinn. His personal fucking nightmare.
"Master Jinn neglected to gather your name the last time, sir," Windu said.
"We were a little busy trying to figure out logistics," Red managed around the stone in his throat. They looked at him, expectant, and he almost growled. "You can call me 'Red'."
"No other name?" Jinn asked.
"Names have power," Red said, quiet, the vocoder barely picking it up.
Yoda's ears lifted and Red could have sworn the demonspawn looked more alert. He knew, Red would bet every single last credit he had that the Grandmaster of the Jedi knew exactly what he meant by that. "Information, you have?"
"Good, good," Yoda said, hands on that stick of his. "Go to you, Qui-Gon will."
Red took a step back, startled. "What?"
"I told you before, Captain Red," Jinn said. "The Jedi do not negotiate by comm. We will arrange to meet on a planet where we may discuss terms."
Red cursed himself seven types of a fool. Of course the Jedi would do this. They would pick a planet, with their army as backup, where he had no one.
"What guarantee do I have that you won't just take my ship by force, liberate your Jedi and his Captain, and get your information for free by mind trick?" Red asked. The three looked shocked at his suggestion. "I'm not an idiot. I know your Order."
"I suppose our word is not good enough?" Windu asked.
"Not particularly," Red said.
"Trust, you must have."
"Trust is for fools," Red spat, the vocoder distorting the words even further.
"Is there anything we could do to reassure you?" Jinn asked.
Mind spinning, he shook his head. Reassure him? What kind of fool did they take him for? "No," he admitted. "Where do you want to meet?"
The three Jedi looked at each other as Red tried to calm himself. He was too tired for this. He shouldn't have gotten involved in the first place, should have just left the two of them to the droids, but no. He stuck his damned nose where it didn't belong. Just like he always did. One of these days it was going to get him very dead.
"Naboo," Jinn suggested at last.
Red grabbed the edge of the console and fought down the sheer terror that gripped his heart. He fought with himself, knowing that if he lost it here and now in front of these three that he might as well just hold out his hands, let them bind him up and toss him in a pretty cell. They wouldn't be able to sense him in the Force, but Skywalker? He would, and he'd rat. Focusing on breathing, remembering a better time, a less blood-soaked time, Red shook his head.
"Why not?" Jinn asked, a curious expression on his face. Windu just looked suspicious as Yoda closed his eyes. "It's a wonderful planet, secure and remote, with plenty of areas where we can conduct our business without interference."
"Not. Naboo," Red said. "You make that your only choice and I won't space them. I will send them straight on to Sorenno and you can bargain with Dooku for their release. And threaten away, Master Jedi, I don't care. This entire situation is becoming ridiculous. I am offering information, valuable information, and also offering to keep my mouth shut on what I know about the GAR. There is absolutely nothing stopping me from selling every bit of information I have."
"Except there is," Windu pointed out.
The gods were laughing at him, that was the only explanation for this.
"Be it fear or honor, something is keeping you from doing exactly as you threaten," Jinn said.
Red narrowed his eyes behind his goggles. Jedi. Perceptive and annoying. "Concordia," he said.
Now it was their turn to be surprised, and there were glances between Windu and Jinn while Yoda opened his eyes and watched him intently through the comm. Demonspawn. There were reasons Red avoided Coruscant.
"Kashyyyk," Windu suggested as a counter.
"Ord Mantell," Red said, grinning viciously. A planet full of Wookies, or a planet full of people Red could possibly blackmail into helping him. Take your pick, Jedi.
"This is ridiculous," Jinn muttered. "I do not have the time to go planet hopping."
"So pick a place that isn't stupid," Red said.
"Alderaan," Yoda said calmly.
Windu and Jinn turned to him and Red frowned, scratching at the line of his mask in consideration. Core. A little closer to Coruscant than he'd like, but not exactly a planet he could reject out of hand. Not to mention that they would probably have a decent market where he could get parts for his ship, ones he now desperately needed, and possibly access to the accounts Jango had set up for him ages ago.
"They are a peaceful planet," Jinn said. "There is a Jedi outpost there so our movements would not be remarked upon. There are many different cover stories we could come up with for our visit there that the royal family would be happy to go along with. Would this planet be acceptable?"
"I'm in the Inner Rim right now," Red said. "I'm assuming you are further out?" Jinn hummed a confirmation. "That will mean this will take time to arrange. Then time to figure out how we can do business with each other."
"Yes?" Jinn asked.
Red tapped the edge of the comm console with a finger idly. "I have some requirements, when you talk to whoever on Alderaan."
"Of course you do," Windu said, voice flat.
"I take my privacy very seriously," Red said. "Whatever room they give me must have no windows, preferably one entrance, and there must be no servants allowed access. No one is to go near my ship after we land, either."
Yoda's ears were climbing and the other Jedi looked stunned. Did they not understand what type of Galaxy they lived in? Red wanted to rage, to burn their precious Temple down, to make them see! But no. No, he was calm. He was as constant and steady as a field of stars.
"That is very specific," Jinn said.
"Who else will be coming with you?" Red asked. "I'm not dumb enough to think it's just you."
"Another Jedi Master, Quinlan Vos, and a squad of clones from the 212th," Jinn said.
Red frowned. He didn't know Vos personally but the name sounded familiar. He'd have to look over his data to see where he might have popped up. "That makes your side a total of, what, eleven?"
"Yes," Jinn said.
Red nodded slowly. "All right." He might reach out, see if Bane or Embo were free to back his ass up, but that would have to wait. "Would we be welcomed early? We're closer to Alderaan then you and, to be honest, your apprentice is a pain in the ass, Jinn. I might just stick him in a suit and tow him outside the ship before too long so I don't have to deal with him."
Windu was smirking. That was a--what the. No. Jinn was grinning and Yoda looked aggravated. What in all the gods' names?!
"I'd say your suggestion had merit, except Anakin would most likely find a way back inside all on his own," Jinn said. "We will make sure you can land early on Alderaan."
Red hesitated and then nodded. "You can comm the instruction back to this frequency. If I don't answer, it's probably because I'm either busy fixing the ship or trying to restrain Skywalker's curiosity."
"Good luck with that," Windu said mildly.
Red disconnected the call before it got any weirder. The Council weren't allowed to be normal. They were supposed to continue being stiff and unyielding, ready to berate at a moment's notice. This interaction was almost…
He needed to get his head on straight. If he tried to go into negotiation without knowing exactly what he was asking for and what he expected then it was doomed to fail from the beginning.
A knock on the cockpit's door startled him.
He went over and opened it, looking up at Captain Rex. "Yes?"
"Thought it was fair to warn you that the General is poking about," the Captain said, an easy smile on his face. "In all fairness, he's looking for food that aren't ration bars."
Red blinked, startled. "Actual food is more expensive and really hard to store? I only have ration bars and protein cubes. Some caff and stims, maybe, but that's about it."
Captain Rex nodded, "We've been living on the same things. I think he was just hoping for a change."
"We're heading to Alderaan," Red said. "Should take us about two days, maybe a little longer, to get there. He can have different food then." He went over to the navcomputer and input their route, checking the security feed as he went. The Jedi was not in the galley. "Looks like Skywalker got bored looking through my stores."
"I'm sorry?" the Captain said, sounding confused.
Red hesitated and then tapped the screen he was looking at, cycling through the different feeds rapidly. Where was… Oh, oh no. He took off at a run, leaving Captain Rex in the cockpit, and cursed everything in existence. If he got a moment alone, he swore, he was going to find a binding spell and make that Jedi stay where he put him. Nice and docile and not nosy at all.
"Get away from there!" Red shouted.
Skywalker was in one of the spare crew rooms that Red had converted to a work area for himself. Things he had taken when he had run were hidden in that room, some behind spells, some in the paneling of the ship itself. Skywalker, though, wasn't listening. He was drawn to one spot, one of the spelled areas, and Red growled under his breath. It didn't bother him most days, the siren call, but to a Jedi? Even one so obviously...tampered with? It would be too strong to ignore now that he was listening.
Red darted forward, between Skywalker and the artifact, and pushed him back. Captain Rex was in the doorway, a pistol in one hand, not sure where the danger was but knowing it was there.
"You fool," Red hissed. "Center and ground, lock it out. Don't you Jedi know anything? Focus on your blasted Light."
Skywalker tried to get away from him and Red stood his ground, laying hands on Skywalker's chest and pushing him back. Blast it all, the man was pure muscle and height and he really hated being short sometimes. The Jedi was too caught up in the thrall to care what was happening and Red didn't know what to do.
Before, always before, they would have laughed at whoever got caught up in the snare. He and… They'd watch, placing bets, as the newest sucker sat before the artifact's display and wasted away. Sometimes it would be quick, the artifact draining their victim dry, and other times it would be slow. Red had seen some people last months in enthrallment to the artifact. Always before he had thought it humorous; what a silly thing, to be so weak-willed and feeble to not even save yourself from death.
He didn't know how to break the enthrallment, not without dropping every shield he had and forcing the issue, and that wasn't an option. He didn't want to destroy the artifact, he took it with him for a reason, but this was…
Red pulled a knife from his boot, flipped it, and slammed the hilt into the side of Skywalker's head. The Jedi collapsed in a heap and Captain Rex raised his pistol, pointing it at Red's chest.
"What the kriff just happened?" the Captain demanded, voice steady, eyes cold.
Red held his hands out, slowly setting the knife down, before kneeling to check on Skywalker. He hadn't cracked his skull, good, just knocked him out. His breathing was good, no blood. Red checked his eyes, just to be safe, and relaxed. No damage he could see.
"There are...things, I guess, on my ship," Red said. "They're not safe for Jedi. Maybe he heard them when he was meditating before and decided to go looking now because he could. I don't know. We need to keep him out of this room. I don't know if I broke the thrall of not, but he might try to get back in here to find…" Red glanced at the Captain. "Find what he was looking for."
"You are making it very hard to trust you," the Captain said.
There was that word again. Trust. Why would anyone trust him? Didn't they know what he had done?
"You shouldn't," Red whispered. "I am not a good person, Captain."
There was a sigh and Captain Rex holstered his pistol. "You know, from everything I've seen? You are."
Red looked down at Skywalker. "There's bunks the two of you can use across the hall. Help me get him up?"
"Red?" the Captain said, coming over and grabbing at Skywalker. "My name is Rex. Not Captain."
Red looked at him and nodded. He helped heft Skywalker up and they got the Jedi over to the other cabin and into a bunk. "I'll see about jamming the access panel to the other room, so he can't get in."
"Don't bother," Cap--Rex said, hands on his hips. "If there's a way, my General will find it."
Red chewed his lip. "Shit. Well, that limits my options then."
"I'll keep an eye on him," Rex said. "Two days? Shouldn't be that hard. They say who we're meeting up with?"
"Jinn, Vos, and a squad from the 212th," Red said.
Rex nodded. "I know the 212th. They're good men. You'll like them."
Red hesitated before nodding. What? He'd like them? He didn't know what was going on anymore and he desperately needed to regain some sort of balance before he slipped back into bad habits. "Do you need me to bring you anything? Since you're Jedi-sitting."
"Got anything to read on this thing?" Rex asked, a crooked smile on his face. "Don't care what, could be a manual on shipboard maintenance. Just need something to keep my mind busy. And food and water would be great."
Red nodded. "I, uh, I can do that."
"Thanks, Red," Rex said.
"Don't mention it," Red said, fleeing.
It was late when Red crept into his workroom, making sure the door was locked, and focused on shielding not just himself but the room. He set aside a datapad that controlled the Irredeemable's systems remotely and took off his goggles, mask, and vocoder. It felt so nice to have just that little bit of freedom.
He dropped them all on the desk bolted to the wall and frowned at the spell pocket Skywalker had been so taken with earlier. It would be dangerous to try to deal with it now. He needed to center himself first.
He sat on the floor in lotus, back straight, and closed his eyes. He let his breathing even out, head lowering slightly as he began to breathe in the soothing rhythm of his youth, focusing on the memory of a fountain he had always loved in the Temple. In, hold, let it all out. In, hold, let it all out. The repetition soothed and he let himself fall deep within himself.
He was ragged, held together in pieces, and entire chunks were missing.
He touched the wrinkled mess first, smoothing out the tension, easing what he could. It would not give him a clearer mind, or make dealing with the Jedi easier, but it would make him feel better. His control would be not be so easily shaken. Next, he turned to what was missing, and worked on patching what he could.
When one did not have a true core, a sense of "self", it was hard to make the type of shields that Jedi and Sith relied upon. Red was neither, he simply...was. He searched his mind, calling upon faded memories of smiles of childhood friends, using them to patch what he could. He used the memory of Jango, claiming him as friend and family, for the rest. A hand grasping his, a forehead touching his, closeness. He filled the gaps, smoothing the edges down, until everything was seamless once more.
Wanted. He had been wanted.
He checked the concealment he kept himself under, strengthening it, making sure it would hold. He didn't know what his Force signature would read like, these days, but he didn't want to take a chance so close to so many Jedi and to Coruscant. He couldn't afford for it to fail mid-way through the negotiations and be skewered by a bunch of angry Jedi, or even for the hunters to find him with the Jedi. That might even be worse.
He gave his mental shields a hard look, not willing to overlook something that might be crucial when dealing with so many unknowns, and sighed. They were just as messy as his core had been. How had he let himself get this way? Lack of time, he supposed, though that wasn't quite right. Floating through space all on his own all he had was time. The neglect was his unwillingness to expose himself to the Force. It scared him as much as he delighted in it. He knew what it could do, what he could do with it, and he lacked...direction.
Better to not use it than to be used by it.
Red set himself to rebuilding his shields, layer by layer--fire, vine, stone, light, dark, an utter maze of elements that would destroy anyone who attempted to gain access to his mind. Where one stopped, another took its place. On and on and on he went, building his maze, until he lost track of how many layers he had. That would have to do.
He opened his eyes, slowly letting go of his breathing, and looked at the spell pocket. He reached out a hand and brushed aside the spell with a thought, beckoning the small, blue glass pyramid over to him. It floated, serene, innocent, but he knew better.
"Break it," he ordered.
A wisp of a figure curled around the pyramid, barely a suggestion of a person, but still her yellow eyes bore into his. "Greetings, Lord."
"Break the thrall," he said.
"But I'm hungry," the ghost whined. "You don't feed me. He used to feed me!"
"He also used to ignore you," Red pointed out. "Dismiss you. Leave you out to collect dust. You were a trinket to him, not something to be respected. You don't need to be fed to survive, you just want to drain the lifeforce of others because you can."
"Semantics," the ghost muttered.
"Break it," Red said.
"Or what?" the ghost hissed.
Red narrowed his eyes and twitched his fingers, applying the barest amount of pressure to the pyramid. The ghost wailed, a high-pitched sound that pierced his ears, twisting around her pyramid in a panic.
"Break the thrall, my lady," he said. "You cannot have him."
"You never cared before," she sulked, waving a hand and slinking back into her pyramid. "Why do you care now?"
Red contemplated the pyramid and pulled it to him, cupping it in his hands. "I need him alive if I'm going to succeed in my bargaining for fuel," he said. "I'll keep you with me, will that make you happy? You can see more than your little corner of the ship. However, you must behave. No enthralling people, no trying to eat them."
"You're no fun anymore, Lord."
Red smiled and dropped a kiss on one of the pyramid's smooth sides. "I was never any fun, Lady."
"You should try cleaning your crystals again," she said, settling fully into her pyramid. "I think you might be getting that one clean." Her energy curled up and vanished again, the artifact feeling null again unless he poked it.
Red sighed and set it down on the floor near his knee. His crystals...his lightsaber crystals. He had two blades, both of them were gorgeous works of art he had created years ago, but he could no longer bring himself to use them with the crystals screaming their pain at him. As time, and energy, allowed, he tried to cleanse them. His primary blade was coming along well, but he didn't know what was going on with the color. It was a multi-crystal blade and one of the three had turned white from his working with them. The other one had gone back to its original blue.
He had no idea what to make of that.
Red got up and went to corner where he stashed them in a floor panel, wrapped in soft cloth and leather, protected. He freed them from the cloth and ran his fingers over the hilts, flinching away from the one still steeped in Darkness, and picked up the one he had almost finished. One crystal left and he would have a blade he could call his again.
He bent over it, touching his forehead to the emitter, and sighed. He would not cry. He had too much work to do. He could cry when he had two whole blades.
He set the lightsaber in his lap and closed his eyes, centering himself, and got to work.
By the time they landed on Alderaan, Red didn't know if he wanted to shoot Skywalker or himself. The thrall had been broken and the Jedi had stayed away from the other cabin, but that meant he was curious. Apparently, curious Jedi decided they wanted to know everything there was to know about Red's ship.
Rex tried to run interference, when the traitor wasn't too busy laughing, but for the most part the clone just sat back and watched Red try not to murder the Jedi. Nosy, meddling little…
Red huffed, staring at the grinning blond. "I hate you," he gritted out.
"Nah, I just haven't grown on you yet!" Skywalker said. "And, I mean, your ship is a thing of beauty. I still have no idea how you managed to do all the customizations. I mean, yeah, the remote systems are amazing, and you can of course pilot it by one person, but you've raised it to an art form."
"Get off my ship," Red said tiredly, pointing down the ramp. The vocoder didn't translate emotions well, not that he cared, but by all the gods, he wanted to gag this Jedi. He would not shut up about mechanics. Red knew his ship and his engines, but some of the things coming out Skywalker's mouth baffled him, and he just wanted some quiet.
"You know," Skywalker said, wandering down the ramp, "there are a few more things you could do that would make your ship even better. Tweak the engines a little more and you'd get more speed, you could probably even figure out stealth for it!"
Red shook his head. "He doesn't ever shut up, does he?"
"He does," Rex said, following the Jedi. "Just not about things he's excited about."
Muttering to himself, low enough that the vocoder did not pick it up, he secured the ship and disembarked. There were security forces from Alderaan waiting for them, ones Skywalker was already talking to, and Red paused for a moment before nodding to himself. He could do this. He would be fine.
One of them, a lieutenant from the looks of it, strode forward. "Captain Red?" she asked. She was dressed in a blue shirt, with a black armored vest, gray trousers, and black boots with one of those odd helmets Alderaanians were known for.
"Just Red is fine," he said.
She nodded. "I'm Lieutenant Teral," she said. "I was informed of your request to make sure no one will bother your ship. If it is all right with you, I will leave two of my men here to watch it."
"So long as no one tries to gain access, it should be fine. I should warn you, I have remote access and it is heavily armed. If someone were to try and force their way inside? They would not like the result."
Teral nodded. "Fair enough." She signaled to two other similarly dressed people over--one man and one woman--and they stationed themselves on either side of his ship. "If you'll follow me, we'll take you to the palace. Queen Breha has arranged for your rooms as well as a light lunch."
"Food," Skywalker said happily. "Food that isn't ration bars."
"Or bugs," Rex said, the slyest of smiles on his face.
Red looked at him, startled. "Bugs?"
"Hey, don't knock the bugs. They're good in a pinch," Skywalker said.
"Oh gross," Red muttered.
Rex wandered around the rooms he and General Skywalker had been given, checking the security, not used to so much downtime. He'd be thankful to get back to the rest of his men and the front. There, at least, he'd have more to do than play referee as his General wound up someone else out of boredom.
"Any idea when the others are showing up?" his General asked, flopping down on a disgustingly ornate couch. "I need something to do."
"Red hiding on you?" Rex asked, grinning.
"I don't know where they stashed him, but it's nowhere near us," Skywalker said. "And I love the Organas, don't get me wrong, but I'm not good at politics and diplomacy and I keep feeling like I'm going to say something to mortally offend Her Majesty."
Rex nodded. "I just want to get back to the 501st."
"Yeah, that'd be nice," the General said. "Something normal."
"Nothing is ever normal with you, sir," Rex said.
"Fair enough," the General said. "Red tell you any of the other information he knows?"
"Sir?" Rex asked, finding a chair to sit in that didn't look like it was going to eat him with its frills.
"You two just seem…comfortable around each other."
"Jealous?" Rex teased, grinning. "You know you'll always be my favorite, General."
Skywalker rolled his eyes. "Funny, Rex. You know what I mean."
"You're not usually so relaxed around people who aren't your brothers," Skywalker said. "I mean, you're okay around me too, and I like to think that's because we're friends."
"We are," Rex said, still smiling. "For all that you're my commanding officer, you are a good man and a good friend."
"You can see why I'm trying to understand how you can like a mercenary," Skywalker said. "He's all prickly and makes no sense."
"Maybe it's because he makes no sense," Rex said. There was more, of course, but those were secrets that weren't Rex's to share. Boba, Jango, aspects of the clones' culture that they kept fiercely theirs and hidden from all outsiders—even their Jedi—out of desperation. A thirst for survival, after all, was something he and Red had in common.
"Uh-hunh," Skywalker said. "Sure."
Rex chuckled. "Relax, General. Go find one of the Alderaanian Security Forces and go beat up on them. They'll enjoy the challenge. Or ask them if they have any droids they need fixing, you like that."
"I miss Artoo," Skywalker muttered. "I should have brought him with us."
Rex could only imagine the disaster that would have turned into. Artoo let loose in Red's ship? Red would have turned the tin-can into target practice in a second, and then Rex would have had to stop his General from killing their ally, and it would have been a mess. Better the droid had stayed with the rest of the 501st, bossing about the other droids and being a smug little scrap of metal.
Rex got up from the chair, remembering that the Alderaanians had provided new kits for them—clothes, wash kits, and datapads. There should be reports on there for him to catch up on.
"What…do you think about that thing?" Skywalker asked after a moment of silence. "That Red had on his ship, that I got caught by."
"The thing he said was a thrall?" Rex asked, finding the datapad. Yes, there it was, endless reports from the 501st. Rex frowned, what was Kix trying to do? Drown him in minutia in revenge for not being there? "What about it?"
"Usually objects like that," his General said, sounding thoughtful, "they belong to the Sith."
Rex looked at his General, attention caught. "The Sith. You think Red's a Sith?"
"No, not…well. I don't know? He doesn't make sense, I told you that," Skywalker said, sitting up. He wasn't looking at Rex, instead looking down at his hands, draped between his knees. He looked troubled and uncertain, something Rex had rarely seen his confident General. "Hear me out, all right? Here's this Force-user, definitely trained enough to know how to hide who he is, but not trained enough to actually use it well? Or maybe he's really rusty? I'm not sure which, but it's one of them. But if he's trained, who trained him? Was it the Temple and he went Darkside on them? Is that the reason for hiding who he is? You don't hide like he does unless you have a damned good reason."
"Scars," Rex said. "Bad memories."
"Bounties," Skywalker countered.
Rex shook his head. "Not with the types of sentients he'd be around. As a mercenary, he'd be around the less than legal type. If there were a bounty on his head, he'd be dead."
"Depends on the bounty," Skywalker said. "And who it was with."
Rex frowned but conceded the point. "He really bothers you."
"Yeah, he does," Skywalker said, rubbing the back of his neck and looking at Rex. "I don't know why, but he does."
"General Jinn and the others should be here in a few more days," Rex said. "We can avoid Red until then, if it would make you feel better."
"No," Skywalker said. "I want to keep an eye on him. I want to know where he is at all times, where he goes, what he does."
Rex shook his head, "All respect, General, that's not possible. It's you and me, and we can't manage that in unfamiliar territory. Maybe before, on Red's ship, but on a planet and in a palace, where he can literally go anywhere he wants unchecked? Impossible."
General Skywalker was quiet for a moment before he nodded. "You're right. Of course. He just…makes me nervous."
Rex reached out and grabbed his General's shoulder, giving it a squeeze. "We have access to water showers for once. Why don't you take one and unwind?"
The General rolled his eyes. "I'm fine, Rex."
"Sure," Rex said. "And I'm a Shiny."
General Skywalker stared at him for a moment longer before getting to his feet. "Fine. But you get one too. And then I'll help you with those reports."
Rex snickered, "Excellent. You can take the ones from Kix."
"Okay, see, that's just not fair."
Red had assembled all the parts he needed for his ship and gotten a few spares he had wanted as well. On top of that, he had managed to gain access to the accounts Jango had set up for him before, so he was a tiny bit richer than he had been. He gave an awkward courtly bow to the guards on his ship and waited for the ramp to lower before boarding, the crate of parts in his arms.
It would be good to have some backups for the smaller, more important parts. The bigger ones weren't ones he could keep on the ship and fly well with, so the fiddly bits he dealt with. And everything he had right now made him much happier. He sealed the ship behind him and got to work in the cockpit, fixing his mess as he hummed and sung random snatches of songs, content.
He tested the system, watching the diagnostics signal everything was in the green, when he felt like someone had dumped ice water down along his spine. He sat up straight and got to his feet, looking around. What…?
His fingers twitched toward his blasters, waiting, watching, but nothing more came.
His skin started to warm again and the sense of…whatever passed. He frowned and bent down to finish the diagnostic, disconnecting it and tucking it back in his toolbox. He carried it and the remaining bits he didn't need into his workroom and took a deep breath.
That had been a warning. Something had was coming and he'd be a fool not to heed the warning he'd been given.
He set the toolbox down and went to the corner, digging out his lightsabers. Enough was enough. He needed to finish cleansing the second blade. He set them on the desk and turned, frowning, and tried to remember where their sheaths were. Had he brought them?
Did it matter at this point?
He sighed, muttering under his breath about his own stupidity, and left the room. He went into the armory, his nice little cache of goodies, and found another blaster holster. This one was a shoulder harness, good for two pistols, and would be easily altered for lightsaber hilts. They would be easily hidden by his clothes, more or less, and he would feel better knowing they were there.
Was it close? Whatever was coming, was it close?
He tried to reach out, to See…
And hissed in pain.
It had been too long since he'd tried to use his gifts. Too long since he's actively used the Force that it barely responded to him. Those pathways were atrophying on him. What once might have gladdened him only made him sad now.
He went back into his workroom and began altering the harness, focusing instead on that.
The damage could be reverse, if he wanted. It wasn't too late, not yet, but the risk was there. So much risk.
But life was risk, wasn't it?
He sheathed his blades and pulled on his jacket, fussing with the way it lay for a moment. He sighed, not sure what his decision was, and lowered the ramp to leave.
"Sir," one of the guards said, stopping him.
"Yes?" he asked.
"Lieutenant Teral commed me to tell you that the other Jedi and their clones have arrived."
Red hesitated and then nodded. "Thank you. I will head back to the palace then." He sent the ramp back up and reactivated the ship's defenses. The time had come to see Qui-Gon Jinn face to face again for the first time in…a very long time.
"Qui-Gon!" Anakin said, bouncing up and grabbing his former Master in a tight hug.
Qui-Gon chuckled, hugging the other man tightly. "It is good to see you well, Padawan."
"Ugh, Qui-Gon," Anakin said. "Do you have to call me that? I'm a Knight now."
"Yes, a Knight for a whole year. And look what you've done in that time," Qui-Gon said, holding Anakin out by the shoulders. His former apprentice had the decency to look ashamed for the allotted five seconds before shaking it off.
"Are you actually going to go along with this?" Anakin asked, voice quiet, so that Vos and the other clones from the 212th didn't overhear.
"You don't think we should?"
"I don't disagree that Red had the information we need," Anakin said, "but I don't think we should trust him. There's too much we don't know about him."
Qui-Gon nodded. "Trust in the Force, Anakin. It will not lead us wrong."
"Yes, Qui-Gon," Anakin said. "C'mon, I'll show you to your rooms. They're near ours, though I have no idea where they stashed Red."
Qui-Gon smiled. "Red had some privacy and security concerns. His room is kept separate to accommodate those requests."
Anakin stared at him. "Like what?"
"No windows, one door, no servants allowed access," Qui-Gon said as they walked along the halls of Alderaan's palace. "I have the feeling he is running from someone."
"Who, the person we're meeting?" Vos asked, catching up. Qui-Gon made an affirmative noise and Vos nodded. "Master Windu said something about being very careful around him but to gather as much information as possible."
"That is why you, in particular, are here," Qui-Gon said.
"And here I thought it was because the Council wanted to know if this guy's information was linked to the people I was investigating," Vos said. "Or if I had any information on him. I'm the closest thing to a spy master the Order has right now."
Qui-Gon smiled, inclining his head, and continued on.
I don't trust this, Qui-Gon, Anakin said through the remnants of their training bond. This is a bad idea.
Is it him you do not trust, or the situation? Qui-Gon asked.
Anakin was his pride, a wonderful student who he had proven to the entire Jedi Order could be trained, but he still had the strangest blind spots. Anakin had such a strong, unique connection to the Force that sometimes he saw too much all at once and it got tangled up in his mind, blinding him to the real reasons behind his instinctual feelings on a matter. Often enough, Qui-Gon would have to slow him down and walk him through a snarl to get to the real problem underneath. Perhaps he had knighted Anakin too soon, months before the Geonosis conflict, but he had believed in his Padawan's abilities and maturity. Anakin had never let him down.
I'm not sure, Anakin admitted. But something is wrong.
Then we will figure it out together. Qui-Gon smiled at the man he considered a son and watched the tension ease out of him. Yes, everything would be all right.
They arrived at the rooms they had been given and saw Captain Rex conversing with a slightly shorter masked humanoid that Qui-Gon knew from their comms was Red, but it gave him pause. There was something about him that chimed in his memory, something familiar.
"That's him?" Vos asked quietly.
"He goes by Red," Qui-Gon confirmed. "Force-sensitive at the very least."
"Pretty sure he's trained," Anakin said, just as quietly. "Just don't know how."
Qui-Gon frowned but nodded. He and Anakin would need to have a talk later, it seemed. "Greetings, Red."
Rex gave the other man a smile and went to talk to Commander Cody and the others from the 212th, something rapid in Mando'a that Qui-Gon couldn't keep track of. It was hard to tell what Red was looking at, the goggles and mask hiding every tell that Qui-Gon would have used, but the other man stuffed his hands in his pockets and nodded at him.
"Hello," Red said, vocoder even more obvious in person.
"This is Quinlan Vos, Jedi Knight, and I am—"
"I know who you are," Red interrupted. "We really don't need to do the pleasantries."
"Straight to the point, aren't you?" Vos said. "I like it."
Red remained silent.
"It's mid-day now," Qui-Gon said, after a moment. "Why don't we get settled, have lunch, and begin discussions then?"
"This is acceptable," Red said. He hesitated a moment and went to leave, except that Captain Rex snagged him by the arm as he was passing and dragged him close.
Anakin? Qui-Gon asked.
Anakin shrugged and gestured to their rooms. Rex likes him. They spent a lot of time talking on the ride here and I don't understand it, but Rex thinks he's good people.
Vos watched the clones and Red for a moment longer before joining Qui-Gon and Anakin. "That's interesting."
"What is?" Anakin asked.
"They were talking about bonds," Vos said. "Family. Some of it I didn't quite get, but there were definitely some heavy implications there. Something about Mandalore and Jango, but I'm not as good at my Mando'a as I could be."
Qui-Gon arched a brow. "That might explain Rex's attachment."
Anakin shrugged. "Maybe. We'll find out later, I suppose."
"I'm with the kid," Vos said. "We'll find out if it becomes important, but not before. What's important right now is lunch."
Rex watched Red escape—that was definitely panic—and grinned widely at Cody's unimpressed look.
"What?" he asked.
"You are such a pain in the ass," Cody said, bucket perched on his hip. "First you get your dumb ass captured, and by that sticky little human, then you're practically wanting to adopt him."
"You said he knew Jango?" Waxer said. "That's pretty big, Commander."
"And he's been looking after Boba," Rex pointed out.
"Was hoping the little ankle-biter was okay," Boil said, a smile on his face. He was twirling his bucket on an outstretched finger, looking bored.
"Though, yeah, Commander's got a point, Captain," Trapper said. "You got caught by a stick. He's all short and skinny. Can he even fight?"
"Haven't been able to see," Rex said. "Why, you want to go find out for all of us?"
"Maybe," Trapper said, glancing in the direction Red had taken off in. "If he didn't break in half when I poke him."
"Poke him with what?" Gregor asked, pulling his own helmet off and winking at his brother. "I mean, c'mon now."
Wooley reached out and pushed Gregor, "Don't be gross."
"I think that's what the Captain's hoping to do," Waxer whispered loudly. Rex tried not to flush brightly.
"Oh for," Cody groaned. "All of you, find rooms and shut up. We're professionals, act like it. I don't care if this is a fluff assignment or not, you're all to act like the representatives of the GAR that you are."
"So," Longshot drawled, "what about that downtime you were promising us?"
Cody stared at him.
"Right, then. Shutting up, sir."
Rex snickered as their brothers scattered and Cody turned to him. "Really?" he asked Cody. "You're going to make them behave here, on something where we really don't need to do ossik?"
"Watch me," Cody grinned, with just a bit too much teeth.
"The power of command is going to your head, brother," Rex teased. "C'mon, you can bunk with me."
Cody arched a brow. "You sure you want to make that offer? Who knows, you might actually get lucky with your 'Red'."
Rex rolled his eyes and shoved Cody into a nearby wall. "It's not like that."
Cody let the armor take the brunt of the impact and bounce right back into Rex, slinging an arm around his neck and squeezing. Ow. "So tell me, brother mine, what is it like?"
Rex kept quiet until they reached the room and nudged Cody in before closing the door. "I told you lot he knew Jango, that he's got the mark of the True Mandalorians, and he's looking after Boba."
"Yeah," Cody said, sitting on the second bed in the room, the one Rex wasn't using. "And?"
"Red isn't good with people, you can see that immediately, and still he offered to help us," Rex said. "All of us. If any brother needs help, he said, he'd help us."
Cody looked up, eyes narrowed. "What?"
"We all know Jango didn't like the long-necks, that he put up with them because of Boba, but maybe he put up with them for another reason," Rex said. He sat on his own bed, wishing he had his armor, that he could fiddle with his bucket like Cody was, but General Skywalker had been adamant about them attracting no attention. He'd been stuck in normal spacer clothes for way too long; Cody better have brought his armor. "I think, going from what Red was saying, that Jango was going to double-cross them all. Somehow get us off Kamino. I don't know what for, but that's what I was hearing."
Cody frowned, thinking. "Clan," he said finally. "Clan is important to Mandalorians. Insane as it sounds, maybe Jango was going to claim us as his clan? Restart the True Mandalorians, try to fix Mandalore again? I don't know. What do we even really know about him?"
"We know what we saw, we know what the Jedi told us, and we know what's in our blood," Rex said. "Got to count for something."
"The truth can always be twisted," Cody said.
"Exactly," Rex said. "What does your General plan on doing about Red?"
Cody groaned, "You're ridiculous. You really do want to adopt him, don't you?"
"He'd look a little weird in armor," Rex said.
"Too short," Cody snickered. "The Generals are nervous, all of them. They're talking about him being Force-sensitive, if not trained, and what kind of threat he might be. Whatever information he has is secondary to evaluating the threat."
Rex nodded. "Yeah, I thought that was what was going to happen."
"He probably knows it too," Cody said. "He's paranoid about something."
"He thinks he's a horrible person," Rex said, remembering Red's words. "He's done nothing but try to save us, and protect my General from his own curiosity sometimes, and I think he expects for the Jedi to do…I don't know. Something horrible."
Cody shrugged. "Brother, you know more than I do about this whole situation."
"You're better at figuring these things out," Rex growled. "I just shoot things that piss me off."
"We wait," Cody said. "We'll get it straightened out eventually."
Rex nodded. "We wait. I can do that."
Cody grinned. "And maybe you should try to see what's under the mask. Maybe give him a kiss if you like him that much."
Rex grabbed his pillow and threw it at his brother. Why the hell did he miss the asshole again?
Yellow eyes stared into a field of stars and smiled.
A slip. A mistake.
Finally, after so long.
"Hello, Verath. I've found you."
Red wanted to scream.
No, he wanted a drink, but doing so would mean removing his mask and he wasn't doing that around the damned Jedi. Especially since Jinn kept giving him those odd little looks that screamed "I Know You".
"No," Red said. "Look, this whole deal is very simple. You grant me access, I tell you the information. Skywalker already has a part of it that I gave away for free."
"He's neglected to share it," Jinn smiled. "Why don't you repeat it?"
Red tried not to ball his hands into fists and slumped further down in his chair. "Asajj Ventress is a Sith Apprentice, specifically to Count Dooku. She will be involved in your attack on Muunilinst, along with Durge."
Vos was watching him with interest. "I do know the name Durge, but not Ventress. How do you?"
"I'm not telling you my sources," Red said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. That was just bad business. "And just because you know the name doesn't mean you know the man. I'm willing to turn over everything I know about them—strengths, weaknesses, the lot of it."
"Why?" Vos asked. "I mean, I know you want fuel, but there's some other reason. I want to know why."
"Because," Red said, settling more firmly in his chair. "That's why."
Vos grinned. "I like you. Can I keep you?"
Red blinked, crossing his arms. What was it with people trying to claim him lately? First Rex and the other Clones and now this Jedi.
"Enough, Quinlan," Jinn murmured. "Red, we do need to know your motives."
"Fuel?" Red said. "I've been up front about that from the beginning."
"That is not the only reason you are giving the Jedi this information," Jinn said. "Please do not think us fools."
Red bit back his automatic retort and weighed his options. These negotiations weren't going to go anywhere unless he gave them what they wanted, and he burned at the very idea. Why was he doing all the giving? Give up his secrets, give up the information, and possibly get nothing in return. Although, by revealing the information on Ventress and Durge, he was already tipping his hand. Was it really so awful to admit one more fact in the face of possibly having fuel?
"They work for a common enemy of ours," Red said finally. "The Jedi having the information on them and possibly taking care of Durge and Ventress means I don't have to worry about them."
Every clone trooper in the room perked up at that—not Rex today—and Skywalker narrowed his eyes at him. Vos leaned forward, looking far too interested in him for Red's taste, and Jinn just stroked his beard in thought.
"Common enemy?" Jinn asked.
"You're getting more out of this than just the possibility of fuel," Skywalker accused.
"I never denied it," Red said. "I just never admitted to it. It depends on your point of view."
Vos's eyebrows flew up. "That's a Jedi saying."
Red froze. Aw, fuck. "Is it? How interesting."
"Who are you?" Jinn asked, a frown on his face and arms crossing over his chest.
"Does it matter?" Red asked. "Aren't you people at war? One would think the information is more important than the person you're dealing with."
"Yes," Jinn said, voice soft. "We are at war."
Red had such a bad feeling about this. "It's getting late and we're getting nowhere. Let's call it for the day, eh?"
"The question still remains," Jinn asked.
Red got to his feet and left the room. Who was he? He didn't even know the answer to that anymore, Jedi, so how was he supposed to answer that? Red was the best answer he could give people these days, and that was always what Jango called him. Did it matter what name he was born with—he doubted it was actually his name since he could never find birth records under "Obi-Wan Kenobi" on any planet he looked, definitely not Stewjon—or the one listed on his ident cards? Even if they scanned his prints, a different ID would pull up, which had taken more of his soul than he had wanted to give away at the time.
Then he'd been captured, sold, and owned—wholly. And remade, renamed. He'd escaped, or maybe let go? He still couldn't figure that part out, and the implications made him want to retch, but that name was his too.
Who was he?
Who knew these days?
He sure as hell didn't.
Rex was knocked back on his feet as he collided with Red in the hall, his armor--thank the gods for Cody--absorbing the slight impact. The other wasn't looking where he was going, unusual, and had his head down. Rex put his hands out to grasp Red's arms to steady them both.
"Hey, you okay?" he asked.
Red snorted. "No."
"Anything you want to talk about?" Rex asked. Kriff, that was stupid. When did Red ever talk about personal matters?
Red shook his head. Point proven.
Rex tried to smile. "Anything I can help with?"
There was a moment, where it seemed the universe was holding its breath, before Red leaned forward and let his head rest against Rex's armored shoulder. He said something, the vocoder garbling it, but Rex could have sworn it was "who am I?" and his heart clenched. He brought his arms up to hold the other close, loose so Red didn't feel trapped, and tried to offer comfort. He could do that. He did this for his brothers, he could do this for a friend too.
Red shuddered slightly at his touch but didn't reject it, staying where he was. Just leaning. Rex tugged Red a little closer, testing, and the mercenary shuffled in willingly.
"Negotiations not going well?" Rex asked, quiet.
"Hate Jinn," Red muttered. "Didn't like him before, hate him now. Pushy."
Rex chuckled, "Yeah, Cody's General gets that response a lot. The pushy comment, I mean."
Red's vocoder made some sort of odd noise that Rex took as a hum of agreement, or something, but otherwise he stayed quiet.
"Might I make a recommendation?" Rex asked, trying to look at Red. The other moved his head off Rex's shoulder, turning his face toward his. "The hallway is probably not the best place to try to relax. Cody's going to be dealing with his General for a while, so you can come back to my room with me. It's safe."
Red nodded and Rex noticed his slumped shoulders; he was tired. Rex nudged Red, trying to keep it light, in the right way. Red's vocoder let out a burst of static—a huff?—and there was an elbow being flung in Rex's direction. Better.
"I know where you're staying," Red said.
"Good, because we have no idea where you are," Rex said as they walked.
"I think they cleared out a closet and stuck a bed in it," Red said. "Works well enough."
"You're not sleeping anyway," Rex guessed.
Red shook his head. "Don't know if I could here."
Rex hesitated a moment. "I could watch your back?" he offered. "Make sure you get some rest undisturbed. I do it for my brothers in battle all the time and, being honest? You sound like you're waging your own battle."
"You're not wrong," Red said. He was silent as they continued to walk but nodded as they approached Rex's door. "All right. That would be all right." He touched his goggles hesitantly but entered when Rex opened the door for him. "You don't care, do you?"
"About?" Rex asked, considering the door as he closed it. He couldn't really lock it, not with Cody bunking with him and the other still doing his job, and barricading it would be even worse. There were chairs, more of those plush monstrosities, and he could be comfortable enough in one of them with his pistols drawn to stand guard.
"Who I am," Red said, but his voice wasn't modulated. It was soft, Core-accented, and very pleasant to listen to. "Who I was."
Rex looked over, startled. Red had removed his goggles, mask, and pulled the vocoder off his throat. He was holding the objects in one hand, frowning at them, and Rex was staring. He knew he was staring. Red looked up and arched an eyebrow, a twisted little smile on his face that looked more like a grimace than anything else. It pulled at the black tattoos covering the left side of his face but it didn't detract from his looks. The tattoos formed almost a pattern--triangles interlocking with circles and the odd swirl and spot--and went from hairline down to his throat, even covering his eyelid.
"I didn't think…" Rex started and shook his head, trying again. "No, I don't care. You've proven who you are through your actions. That's what matters."
Red's eyes were wide, some blue-green mix, and he looked away. Was he...blushing? "Pretty words," Red said, wrapping an arm around himself. "You wouldn't say that if you knew."
"You won't know until I do," Rex said with a shrug. He pointed to the low table between the beds. "You can set everything down there. It's within easy reach of the bed. Cody and I have been using that for our weapons when we sleep. That bed's mine, make yourself comfortable."
Red hesitated before stepping over to the table and dropping the goggles, mask, and vocoder there and then drawing his blasters from his thigh holsters and setting them down. Rex wasn't an idiot, he knew Red was still very armed, but if he wanted to sleep with them then that was his problem. Rex settled himself in the chair, pulling a datapad from his belt and flicking through more of the reports he'd missed in his absence, while Red laid down.
"Thank you," Red said softly.
"Don't mention it," Rex said.
"Well?" Qui-Gon asked, watching Vos examine the knife Anakin had swiped from Red's ship.
The Knight was turning it over in his hands, a distant look in his eyes as he frowned. "Qui-Gon, I don't know what you're expecting me to pick up from this, but whatever it is? I… We need to help him."
"What?" Anakin demanded, obviously not liking that answer. Qui-Gon wasn't sure what was going on with Anakin and Red, but it needed to be solved.
"All I can hear is screams," Vos said. "I know, without a doubt, they're his screams. This isn't a normal knife either, it's...tainted, somehow. There's blood, a lot of it, and a fight. A Zabrak? Red and black, tattoos all over, yellow and red eyes."
Qui-Gon drew in a deep breath. "Maul," he whispered. Anakin looked at him, eyes wide. "I thought he was dead."
Vos shook his head. "These impressions are old but not that old. Five, six years. Not much older than that. There was a fight, a bloody one, and neither Red or Maul won, but both were pretty badly hurt." He set the knife down and rubbed his palms on his thighs. "Ugh, that's a nasty blade. There's some serious Darkness on it."
"Red has something else on his ship like that," Anakin said. "I heard it and went to investigate, but it caught me. He knocked me out to break it and I stopped hearing it."
Qui-Gon looked at the knife. It was plain looking, the hilt wrapped in leather with a steel blade, but he had learned that the most innocent of looking objects could be the most dangerous. "You think we should help Red?"
"Anyone who goes up against Maul is good in my books," Vos said. "From what I could see of the fight, Red's damned good. He'd make a good ally."
"What were they fighting with?" Qui-Gon asked.
"Lightsabers," Vos said automatically, then stopped, his eyes going wide. "Oh shit."
"What color were their blades?" he asked, though he thought he already knew the answer.
"Red," Vos said. "And we don't know what color Red's eyes are because of the goggles."
"Just thinking out loud here," Anakin said, "but this is all starting to sound like Red is a Sith who is fighting with the other Sith and is trying to use the Jedi to take out his competition."
"The fact that there is more than two Sith is unsettling," Qui-Gon said. "They have long been thought extinct and now we're practically tripping over them. If Red is to be believed, there's this Ventress as well. That brings our count to, what, four?"
"Maul, Dooku, Ventress, and this unknown Master," Vos said. "And maybe Red." He scratched at his chin and frowned. "You know, I did hear about someone else, maybe twelve years ago, going by the name Verath. He was stirring up a lot of criminal elements on a few planets in the Outer Rim but I can't remember what about. He had yellow eyes and red hair, and a very distinctive black tattoo."
"Your contacts have any holos of this Verath?" Qui-Gon asked.
"I could ask," Vos said. "It was twelve years ago, but you never know. Some of my contacts are hoarders."
"How do we treat him?" Anakin asked. "As a threat? An ally?"
Qui-Gon looked at both Vos and Anakin, considering. One pushing for ally, one pushing for enemy, both with valid reasons for each position. He couldn't make a decision based on such little information.
"I must meditate on this," Qui-Gon said.
Rex looked up as Cody came back to the room, shushing him and motioning to the sleeping figure on the bed. Cody looked at him, eyes widening, and pulled Rex out of the room.
"You fool!" Cody hissed, shoving Rex against a wall.
"What?" Rex asked, startled.
"The Generals figured out who he is," Cody said, keeping his voice quiet. "Or at least they think they do. That tattoo of his will confirm it. He's a Sith."
Rex slumped against Cody, "I know what you're saying, I do. But I don't think that's the whole truth."
Cody growled low under his breath. "Wake him and ask?"
"We have to take that chance," Cody said. "My General doesn't know which way to go right now, but we've got one on each side. General Jinn is the tie-breaker on how the Jedi deal with him."
Rex swore softly and nodded, opening the door. Red was sitting up in bed, rubbing at his eyes, looking at them in sleepy confusion. Cody closed the door behind them and locked it. Red woke up a lot faster at that.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"You need to tell us everything," Cody said.
"Cody," Rex said.
"The Generals have figured out you're probably some Sith called Verath," Cody said. "If they knew about your tattoo for sure then you'd be--"
"I'm aware of how the Jedi treat those who Fall to the Dark," Red said, voice flat. "I used to be one."
Cody and Rex were stunned silent.
Red sighed, running his hands through his hair, the shoulder-length strands sticking up every which way. "Fuck. How did...no, wait. Vos. Psychometry. Skywalker must have grabbed something off my ship."
"A knife," Cody said.
Red rolled his eyes. "Should have spaced his ass."
"Used to be a Jedi?" Rex asked, not sure how that was possible. Nothing in their flash training said anything about...well. There was Dooku, but Red didn't. This was such a mess.
"They kicked me out," Red said. "I aged out. Take your pick. Jinn was supposed to be my last shot to be a Jedi Knight but he was...cold. Cruel. He didn't care and, in the end, it doesn't matter. They were going to send me to the AgriCorps and I decided that I didn't want to be part of an Order that believed might was right and got on a different transport. Shit happened."
"This 'shit' have anything to do with how you became a Sith?" Cody asked.
"I'm not a Sith," Red snapped. "I'm not a Jedi. I'm neither. They can both go get hanged. I was trying to get the two of them to take each other out and leave me alone!"
"The Generals aren't going to see it that way," Cody said. He sat down on his bed, pulling his bucket off and setting it down next to him. "They're going to figure it out sooner or later. General Vos is contacting people for holos of Verath."
Red pulled his knees to his chest. "Fuck," he said. "They'll piece it together. Even with the mask and goggles, they'll be able to match me."
Rex sat in his chair again, mind whirling, relief feeling fuzzy quickly followed by dread. They couldn't help Red, not without breaking a lot of non-explicit orders, and basically committing treason against the Republic and the Jedi.
"Do you have a blank datachip?" Red asked quietly.
"Hunh? Why?" Rex asked, not following.
"The information," Red said, not looking at them. "Doesn't do me any good. Maybe it'll help you lot not get slaughtered wholesale. Durge, Ventress? They're not ones you want to take lightly. Give it to the Jedi if they'll listen, if not? Give it to your brothers so you're prepared."
Cody looked stunned. "Your life is in danger and you're thinking about us?"
Red gave a tiny shrug. "I left the Order because they didn't help people. I helped where I could, when I could, before everything changed. Now? I don't know what to do anymore. Might as well start trying to do the right thing again, whatever that is." He looked at Cody and tried to smile. "Besides. You and your brothers are going to hear a lot about what Verath did. This doesn't make up for any of it, but maybe it can start."
"Where's the information?" Rex asked.
"My datapad," Red said. "Room they gave me."
"C'mon," Cody said, standing and slapping his bucket back on. "Let's get that and get you off planet."
Red nodded. He holstered his blasters and set the vocoder against his throat before pulling the mask and goggles back on. Rex grabbed his own helmet and pulled it on, letting Cody take point, and setting Red between them. They made their way through the hallways silently, Red giving them quiet directions, until they really did arrive in front of a closet.
Red opened the door, checking what were obviously traps he had set, and let them in. There was barely enough room for all three of them, but they made it work.
"Chip?" Red asked, holding out his hand. Rex passed it to him and Red nodded, sticking it in the datapad and began the download. "I'm adding the contact information I have on Boba. If anything happens to me, someone needs to look in on him."
"Anything happens to you?" Cody repeated.
Red looked at them. "I'm not a Sith, but that doesn't mean I wasn't and that they don't want me back. Ventress, Durge, Dooku, Maul? They all have orders to find me. The battle droids too. They see me, they call it in, and the entirety of the Separatist army comes crashing down on my head. I'm good but one of these days that good isn't going to be good enough."
Rex flicked his HUD comm to a private channel with Cody. "There's nothing we can do?"
"This is all we can do," Cody said. "We have to take this data and then back off. We can't help him in the future if we're decommissioned."
Rex sighed. He hated the fact Cody was right.
Red tapped his fingers against the edge of the pad and then nodded, popping out the card and handing it back to Rex. "Thank you," he said.
"For what?" Rex asked, switching his external speaker back on.
"Trying?" Red said. "It's been a long time since someone tried."
Rex didn't know what to say so he nodded, throat tight.
Cody saluted. "I think it would have been a honor to have had you as our Jedi."
Red hesitated for a moment before he got to his feet. "My comm frequency is on the chip, too, use it if you need it. If any brother needs it."
"Get out of here," Rex said. "Quickly."
Red gave a sharp nod, looking around the room, before pushing between Rex and Cody and running down the hall.
Red made it to his ship, but that's only as far as he made it.
Qui-Gon Jinn was waiting for him.
Red cursed, coming to a stop, and waited for the other man to make the first move. Either he would step aside and let Red go, or he would draw his lightsaber and that would be that.
"Why are you running?" Jinn asked instead.
Red stared at him, "I didn't expect you to ask such a stupid question."
"I do not think you are a threat," Jinn said, arms clasped behind his back. "Not anymore. Maybe at one point you were, but no longer. Not for a long time now."
Red made a frustrated noise. "Then let me leave!"
Danger, danger, danger crawled up his spine. Where was it coming from if it wasn't from Jinn? It was what had woken him before Rex and his brother in orange had come in, what had driven him to move so fast and give them the information. Something was coming and it was not going to turn out well for him.
"What are you afraid of, Red?" Jinn said. "Between the two of us, not as Jedi and...whatever you are. You are running from something and, in my experience, the harder you try to run from something, the worse it is when it finds you."
Red grit his teeth. "Is that why you finally took a Padawan? You faced your damned demons?"
"I do know you, don't I? I don't know where from, but you seem very familiar," Jinn said.
Red didn't know what to say to that. His sense of danger turned from a tiny trill into an outright scream in an instant and he spun, pulling the lightsaber from his sleeve and igniting it to block the downward stroke of Maul's blade.
"Hello, brother," the Zabrak purred as he let go of the shadows he had used to cloak himself. "It's been too long."
"Run!" he shouted at Jinn, pushing Maul back and pulling his second 'saber free. That one he hadn't finished cleansing and the crystals had become unstable, spitting and swirling in red and yellow. He didn't look to see if the Jedi had done as he said as he focused on Maul, the taller male the threat he needed to eliminate.
"You thought you could hide from me?" Maul asked. "You might shield, Verath, but I can always find your lightsabers. One still screams so beautifully into the Force."
Red's eyes widened behind his goggles. He'd taken the blades with him, off the ship, away from their shields. He'd practically drawn Maul a map to himself. How stupid could he have been to have forgotten that? He backed away, twirling his blades across his hands, searching for an opening as Maul activated his lightsaber into a staff.
Red growled. He'd always hated that staff.
"Why do you hide so?" Maul asked. "Such a pretty face. Our Master did so love it."
"There's your answer," Red said, settling into a defensive position.
He closed his eyes and let go of the concealment he hid behind--what was the point now?--and at the same time, welcomed in the Force. He felt the ground under him buckle and crack but he held steady. He breathed in and there was the Force, welcoming, warm, embracing him in it's power. He opened his eyes, knowing his path, and smiled.
He could do this.
It was time to stop running.
"Commander," Qui-Gon spoke into the comm as he dashed into a nearby alley that would still afford him a view of the fight. "I need you to gather Master Vos and Knight Skywalker, as well as your men and Captain Rex, and meet me down at Red's ship."
A pause and then, "Sir?"
"Darth Maul is here and engaging Red in combat," Qui-Gon said. He missed what Commander Cody said in the swelling of the Force and the rippling of the ground underneath him. He fell to his knees and looked up, watching as Red stepped forward to slam his blades against Maul's.
"Commander?" Qui-Gon said. "Hurry."
"What did you think was going to happen here?" Maul asked as they fought, saber's clashing again and again.
Red frowned, ignoring Maul's words, searching for a way in. The problem with fighting Maul was that they had learned how to fight together, grown up together, bled together. They knew too much about the other and it made fighting next to impossible.
"Did you think the Jedi would take you in?" Maul mocked. "You know better, Verath! They tossed you away like used refuse before, did you really think they'd take you back? Treat you better? You should come home to us, your family, we know what you need."
"You were never my family," Red said. "Sidious bought me. I was his slave. You were no better, Maul! Do you even remember your name, your real name?"
"Maul is my name!" the Zabrak shouted, attacking in a flurry of blows that Red barely managed to block.
One scored a hit on his upper arm and he hissed in pain but did not drop his blades. He would never drop his blades. Red feigned, trying to draw Maul into lunging, but the Zabrak just grinned and stepped back. Dammit, he knew too many of Red's tricks. This was a problem.
"You cannot beat me," Maul taunted.
"I've beaten you before," Red said.
"You were better then," Maul agreed. "Stronger, beautiful, so consumed by the Dark."
"Coercion does wonderful things," Red said, spinning his light blue 'saber as he thought. He needed to get rid of Maul's blade, but Maul was keeping him too far away to do anything about it.
Spells, the Force whispered.
Red hesitated. The Jedi were close, he could feel them. Jinn was still here. If he resorted to magic, to the arcane, that was far more Darkness than the Jedi would chance leaving alive.
Trust, the Force soothed.
Red took a step back, deactivating his 'sabers and hooking them on his belt before bracing himself, and swore. This was going to hurt a lot later. He called on the Force, the words coming easily to his lips as he concentrated the power around his hands, and pushed it at Maul. The Zabrak's eyes widen and he dashed aside, but not fast enough. Large swaths of the ground had been carved out, along with Maul's legs below mid-thigh, which the Sith stared at in shock before he started to scream in pain. Red looked down at his hands, red with black skin peeling, burned badly.
He shook, the power still surging through him, demanding he use more. He could practically taste it, the Dark, knew what he could do with it if he only gave in. But he didn't want that, he didn't want to be Verath. He had stood on a planet surrounded by nothing but corpses he had created and screamed, not knowing why he had done it aside from the fact that he could, and that had broken something so deep inside him that he didn't know if he would ever heal from it.
Coercion, Red though, touching the left side of his face above his mask. Verath only began when that blasted tattoo was carved into his flesh. Sidious had strapped him down and whispered such sweet promises in his ear as he bled.
"Red?" Jinn said, careful to keep his hands where Red could see them.
"I am...going to pass out now," Red said, still shaking.
The clones were dealing with Maul, the Zabrak bleeding heavily and struggling. Red felt the world tilt and yanked at his mask, turning his head and throwing up, before he fell over and the world was blessedly dark.
"You really want me to do this?" Vos asked, holding up the print reader.
"Can we even do that with his hands so burned?" Anakin asked, poking at Red's face.
Commander Cody and Captain Rex both made tiny noises of protest at Anakin's treatment of the unconscious man, not that Qui-Gon blamed them, but he shushed them.
"Better to know who it is we are dealing with before we meet back up with the Maverick," Qui-Gon said. "Then we can immerse him in bacta and let him heal."
They were on-board a shuttle, hurtling through Alderaan's atmosphere, back toward Qui-Gon's ship with all the medical facilities it provided. They were also towing Red's ship, knowing better than to leave it for others to find. Maul was stabilized and sedated with Gregor, Trapper, and several other clones standing armed guard over him. The others were scattered through the shuttle, watching both the Jedi and Red with interest. The mask had been pulled down but Qui-Gon had removed the goggles and vocoder as well, pocketing all three, just in case.
"Here goes nothing," Vos muttered, looking for the least damaged digit and scanning it. The reader whirled away and beeped twice. "What the fuck?"
"Vos?" Qui-Gon asked.
"He's got two idents in the system," Vos said. "And I don't? How? One of them's a Temple ident."
Anakin stared at him, "What?"
"Initiate," Vos said. "Obi-Wan Kenobi."
Qui-Gon's heart sank. No wonder he had seemed so familiar.
"What's the other ident?" Anakin asked.
"Deseex Krug, Mandalore," Vos said, fingers flying across the datapad. "Not old, if you know how to rip it apart. If I'm reading the ages right, he probably had the name created when he was fourteen? Oh fuck. I know this slicer. Kid must've been some type of desperate not to be found out as Jedi, former or whatever, if he went to this guy."
"Why?" Qui-Gon asked.
Vos sighed, rubbing his eyes. "Judicial broke up his operation maybe fifteen years ago? He's a predator, likes going for the easy marks. And if you don't have credits, he'll take his payment in other forms."
Anakin drew back. "But he was an initiate! Why would he need--"
"Anakin," Qui-Gon said softly. "Let it go." He knew the reason why and it shamed him, but it would do no good admitting it out loud.
"I can't get into his Temple records," Vos said after a moment. "They're sealed."
"By who?" Qui-Gon asked. That was surprising.
"Master Yoda," Vos said, looking up from the pad. "About ten years ago."
"Ten years ago?" Qui-Gon asked, stroking his beard. "Not when he left?"
"You make it sound like he left voluntarily," Anakin said. "Why would an initiate leave the Temple?"
"Anakin," Qui-Gon said, voice firm.
"You know him," Anakin pushed, eyes narrowed.
"Yes, I do," Qui-Gon said. "Let it go." Anakin sat back, crossing his arms over his chest, and glowered at the decking. "Quinlan, can you get through them?"
"Get around Master Yoda's lockdown?" Vos asked with a grin. "Yeah, probably. He'll know about it, though."
"Do it," Qui-Gon said. "I want to know what changed ten years ago."
Vos nodded. "It'll have to wait until we're back on the Maverick. Can't do it on this reader. I need something with a little more power."
They passed the rest of the flight in silence—Anakin sulking slightly at not being immediately handed the answers he wanted, Vos working on something else unrelated to this mission, and Qui-Gon still contemplating Re…no. Obi-Wan.
Or, no. Red. Hadn't he warned them that names had power? Maul was proof that perhaps the Jedi weren't taking the Dark side of the Force quite as seriously as they should. All those years ago, on Naboo, he had never expected to face off against the Zabrak and especially not live to tell about it. Something had happened, though, and the Zabrak had broken off the duel and ran. Qui-Gon had gotten in a lucky shot, though, and the Zabrak had been badly injured during his retreat. He had hoped, foolishly now it seemed, that Maul had died. What called him off? Maybe, though, it wasn't a "what" but more like a "who".
Was it possible Red had the answers he needed? He reached down to brush aside some of the red hair, less vibrant than it had been when he'd been younger, and wondered at the lines of the tattoo.
Was this his doing? Had he set this young man on this path by refusing him? Had he inadvertently created something even worse than Xanatos because of his own fear and grief? And what, exactly, were they going to do with Red? The Order's stance was clear—all users of the Dark side of the Force should be eliminated—but perhaps instead they could cultivate an ally, someone who could go where they could not.
He needed to speak to the Council.
Red woke in a medical bay, surrounded by equipment and clones dressed in white, and feeling like seven shades of hell. He rolled over in the bed, head swimming, and his stomach immediately protested. He started gagging, only to have a clone shove a bucket in his hands and start talking to him, though he couldn't focus past the nausea. When nothing came up and his body finally settled, he pushed the bucket away and curled up in a miserable ball.
Oh, someone was still talking to him. He opened his eyes and stared at the clone, who had a very interesting hairstyle—"a good droid is a dead droid"—and tried to focus on his words.
"—reaction to the bacta," he said.
Red groaned. "Fuck bacta."
The clone straightened. "Bacta's why you still have hands."
"Messes with my head," Red muttered, curling up tighter. Now he knew why he felt so awful. Bacta immersion would work, sure, but it would take whatever injury he had and spread it around to his entire body and exacerbate the pain threefold for a couple of hours, if not days, before vanishing. He never knew why but he figured it had something to do with Sidious. The man liked to "play" with his apprentices.
"If you tell me what's wrong then maybe I can make you feel better," the droid-clone offered. "I have a fully stocked med bay."
"Go 'way," Red muttered. "No use wasting shit like that when they're probably going to kill me."
"Right," the droid-clone said, his tone of voice indicating that he thought Red was a moron. "I'm going to get the Captain. He can fill you in and then maybe you'll let me actually treat you."
Red dragged the pillow over his head, trying not to smile. Snippy. He liked the droid-clone already.
Rex looked up as Kix walked into the command center with a stiff back. In fact, every clone and Jedi turned and looked at the 501st's chief medic, waiting to hear what he had to say. The 212th's medic, Sawbones, had asked for him when they'd brought in Red and Maul but Kix had laid claim to Red in seconds.
"Red is awake," Kix said. "Maul's still sedated and Sawbones is keeping him that way until we reach Coruscant. We should be fine unless he can burn through those things when he's unconscious."
"Has Red said anything?" General Jinn asked.
"He hates bacta and seems convinced we're going to kill him," Kix said. There was a moment of hesitation that made Rex frown; he'd never known Kix to hesitate in the face of anything. "We're not going to kill him, right?"
"No," General Jinn said. "We are bringing him to the Temple, however, and before the Council."
They all knew what that meant--the Jedi Council could still determine Red was a threat and order his execution. More likely he'd end up in confinement for the rest of his life in the cells under the Temple that the Jedi liked to pretend they didn't have.
Kix looked at Rex, "Captain, if you could come with me? He's refusing treatment and it would help if someone he knows was there."
Rex glanced at General Skywalker, who was looking increasingly sour, but General Jinn nodded. Rex was also pleased to see that Skywalker's former Master was eying the younger Jedi with some confusion. General Jinn should be able to knock some sense into Skywalker, hopefully.
"That should be fine, Kix," Jinn said. "Keeping Red calm is in our best interest."
"Who knows what other Sith spells he knows," Skywalker muttered. "Could blow the whole ship up."
"Anakin," Jinn chidded tiredly. "This is not the place."
General Vos was grinning. "Kid's got a point, Jinn. I don't think he's about to go crazy on us, not the way he's been trying to avoid notice, but I'd love to pick his brain."
"Sir?" Rex asked.
"Go on," Jinn said with a smile. "I promise, this is the boring aspect of the planning. Cody can fill you in on anything you miss."
Rex nodded and followed Kix out of the command center.
"They are not allowed to hurt him," Kix said viciously in Mando'a the moment they were in the hallway.
Rex frowned behind his helmet, unsure of where Kix's strange loyalty was coming from. Kix cared for his brothers, first and foremost, then for their Jedi, but that was his stopping point. As far as Rex knew, none of the 212th had spoken to the medic once they'd gotten Red on board, but Rex had been caught up in the endless bullshit that came from being in command.
"Kix?" Rex asked. "Clarify."
"Scars," Kix said. "Lots of scars. I'm not talking the ones you pick up in battle, sir, but the ones you get from repeated, long-term torture. Then there's the tattoos."
"Tattoos, plural?" Rex asked, filing away the information about scars and torture for later. Now was not the time.
"Aside from the one on his face and the one Jango gave him, there's a tattoo on his right shoulder blade that's Zygerrian in nature," Kix said. Rex looked at him, startled, at how angry his brother was. "Slavers, Captain. Not just that, but with the scars he has? Someone spent a lot of time doing their best to break our ori'vod."
Rex was quiet as they walked to the med bay, turning Kix's words over in his head. He wasn't sure what to do about the information, if there was anything to do about it, but maybe it explained some of Red's running? Rex shelved all other thoughts as they entered the med bay, though, and he saw Red. They had put him in the bed furthest from the door—smart. Red was dressed in standard medical garb from what Rex could see, a flimsy white short-sleeved shirt, and probably the same white pants that everyone hated.
"At least you stayed in the bed," Kix said.
Red muttered something, muffled by the pillow he had over his head, and pulled his knees closer to his body. Rex was grinning. Kix wasn't joking when he said Red didn't like bacta.
"I brought the Captain," Kix said. "He can tell you that they are not going to kill you. Will you let me give you something for the nausea?"
Red peaked out from under the pillow and Rex pulled off his helmet. "Hello," he said. "I can confirm what Kix said, the Generals aren't going to kill you. We are on our way back to Coruscant so they can—"
"What?" Red asked, sitting bolt upright, the pillow going flying, before going white.
Kix grabbed a bucket and shoved it at the redhead as he started to gag. Red clutched at it, groaning, and Kix rolled his eyes and muttered about stubborn idiots as he searched for a hypo. Rex set his helmet on the end of the bed, setting a hand on the small of Red's back. Kix came over and stabbed Red in the neck with the hypo, twirling the used pen as he watched the pale man.
"I can't decide if I hate you or if you're my new best friend," Red said, squeezing his eyes closed.
"Undying gratitude is acceptable," Kix said, tossing the hypo in the disposal bin.
"What's wrong with Coruscant?" Rex asked softly.
Red looked at him, still startling to see eyes instead of goggles, and there was such fear there that Rex almost pulled away. "He's there," Red said, voice tight. "It's bad enough Maul found me, but I. They can't bring me there. Anywhere but there."
"Hate to break it to you," General Vos said from the doorway, "but we're in Coruscant's orbit."
Red's face went blank and he swallowed as he nodded. "How long?"
"Less than an hour," Vos said. "We'll be landing at the Temple."
"That doesn't matter," Red said, looking off into the distance. His eyes were unfocused, doing that weird hoodoo thing that Rex had seen every Jedi do, but he didn't look calmed by the action. "He already knows. It's too late."
Vos frowned. "You're talking about the Sith Lord."
Red's hands fisted in the thin medical blanket that was twisted about his legs. "You're not giving me back any of my weapons, are you?"
Kix looked like he wanted to kick everyone out to keep his patient calm but gave up and walked away before he gave in. Rex had to hand it to his brother, he knew when to beat a strategic retreat. Though it looked like he was harassing Sawbones over something more than retreating and that was not a fight Rex was looking forward to breaking up. Kix fought dirty.
"Sorry," Vos said. "Even if we wanted to, the Council wouldn't allow it."
"And none of you want to give me more weapons than I already have," Red said.
Vos shrugged, "You've got some pretty powerful ones already, my friend."
Rex rubbed Red's back gently as he felt the other tense. "General," he said. "Is there anything we can do?"
"About what?" Vos asked. "The Council?"
Red leaned into Rex's hand. "There's nothing you can do about the Council. You suffer them and hope for the best, or deal with the consequences. I've been dealing with the consequences of their decisions for decades now."
"We, uh, know who you--"
"I figured," Red said. "Let me guess, still in the Temple database."
"Very few slicers can actually crack our data cores," Vos said.
Red sighed. "Probably still in Judicial then too. Not that it matters at this point. Are you going to give me my clothes back before we land or do you Jedi get a sadistic kick out of forcing people into facing the Council as vulnerable as possible?"
"I'll see what I can do," Vos said with a grin and a bow before he left.
Rex sat next to Red on the bed. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"No," Red said, a tiny twitch of his lips. "I'm going to have to be, though, aren't I?"
"Promise me something?" Red interrupted. Rex frowned but nodded, surprised at the request. Red didn't seem like the type of person who asked for promises. "If everything works out for the best and all I get is a cell at the Temple, come visit me?"
"That is not the best outcome," Rex said, grabbing Red's hand and squeezing. "That would be a waste."
Red watched him for a moment, studying him with those fascinating eyes that shifted colors, before tilting his head to the side. "I don't...understand you," he said at last.
"Do you want to?" Rex asked, curious despite himself.
Red looked down at their hands, a tiny frown on his face. "Surprisingly, yes."
"You should have kissed him," Cody said as Rex left the med bay.
Rex kept walking, even as Cody fell into step with him.
"We're landing," Cody said.
"I know," Rex said. "That's why I left."
"And here I thought it's because General Vos brought him clothes," Cody said. "Didn't want to see him--"
"I will tell Wolfe who sabotaged his gear next time we see him if you finish that sentence," Rex said. "Better yet, I'll tell Bly about that time you thought you--"
"You wouldn't dare," Cody hissed, grabbing Rex by the arm and pushing him into the nearest wall.
Rex cackled as he bounced, "Try me, brother."
"You little shit, you would," Cody groaned. "You live to see me in pain."
"Fair's fair," Rex agreed.
"Bly's a kriffing gossip," Cody said. "It'd be all over in a week."
"Less," Rex said. "So much less, especially once he tells Wolfe? Your life would be over. You'd never live it down."
"Asshole," Cody said.
"Completely," Rex said cheerfully. "So let this asshole suffer, all right?"
"Still should have kissed him, especially before they lock him up and you can't anymore."
Rex shoved at Cody as they started walking back to the command center. "You don't know that. They might decide he'd be better off on their side, as an asset. I would. Tactically, think about it. You saw the information he had on those two, think about what he might have on the other Seppies. Then there's what he can do with the Force hoodoo."
"It's the Force hoodoo, as you put it, that they're thinking about," Cody said. "That's what has the Generals spooked."
Rex shook his head. "Not mine. Skywalker's not happy about something else."
"No clue," Rex said. "But us being on Coruscant means he can go off and see the Senator. Maybe that'll put him in a better mood."
"Sex puts most everyone in a better mood," Cody said. "You should try it."
"What would you know about that?" Rex demanded. "You think it's gross!"
"It is gross!" Cody said. "That's why I said most!"
Rex grinned. "Crushing on--"
"I will kriffing end you," Cody growled as Rex laughed.
Red stared at the set of stun cuffs that Skywalker held out to him. "No," he whispered.
"I'm afraid it's non-negotiable," Skywalker said with a triumphant smile. They stood in the hanger of the Maverick, having landed on Coruscant and Temple grounds, but now this. These cuffs.
Red felt his heart rate increase as he took a step back, but there were clones he didn't know at his back in white and yellow armor. He felt dizzy, his head swimming, and his blood pounded in his ears, vision tunneling as Skywalker advanced on him. He was cold, so cold, and there was nothing he could do to get warm.
He thought he could hear people shouting as his knees buckled and his heart continued to race. He felt someone grab his arm and he flinched, hunching in on himself, not knowing what to do except make himself smaller. Smaller, not to be noticed. If he wasn't noticed, they would leave him alone, right? Oh, Force, please, let them leave him alone. He was so cold.
There was someone in front of him and comfort, warmth, humming.
He gasped and curled in on himself and shoved with everything he had. He denied, denied so strongly, that there were no cuffs, no cold, no nothing. He was nothing, he was no one, they didn't see him, they would leave him alone. No more, he couldn't--just, no more. Please, no more.
"Shield!" Mace Windu shouted as a Force wave surged around them, trying to contain the damage Red was unintentionally inflicting on the Maverick and everything around him. "Dammit, try to lock him down!"
Anakin had dropped the cuffs and was doing his best to protect the troops from the Force maelstrom Red has unleashed. It was pure panic and Red was using any means he had to protect himself, the main one being the Force, but it would only be a matter of time before it turned on him. Qui-Gon could see how out of control he was, not knowing what he was doing, but unsure of how to try to redirect it.
Master Yoda had tried to soothe the young man but he'd lashed out, sending the old Master flying into a line of troops and ripping a hole in the hull of the ship. Qui-Gon was afraid that Red was going to burn himself out in the process if he wasn't careful.
He stepped forward, being careful of where he stepped, and broadcasting "no harm, no harm" as loudly as he could. Let the other Masters focus on protecting the others, he needed to stop this at the source.
Red was standing in the middle of a mini-tornado, body arched backwards, hair-whipping around with his eyes glowing an unnatural white. Qui-Gon didn't hesitate before he took Red's hands--so cold, like ice!--and tried to pull him out of his panic.
He was locked in a series of memories, that much Qui-Gon could see, and they weren't pleasant. They were, however, looping and Qui-Gon could do something about that. He started feeding Red different memories, ones from the Temple, from training Anakin, from his travels through the Galaxy, of his dear friends Tahl and Micah until they were overwriting the panic.
Slowly, Red began to slump into Qui-Gon until his body went limp and the pressure in the Force vanished. Debris crashed to the ground as Red passed out, blood seeping out of his nose and from his left eye, and Qui-Gon lowered them both to the ground.
"What in the name of the Force was that?" Mace demanded, approaching cautiously.
"A panic attack," Qui-Gon said, looking up at his old friend. "Do not restrain him, ever. We have other methods of keeping him in line, if we need to, than resorting to physical restraints."
"This was a panic attack?" Anakin asked, coming close. The clones were hanging back, unsure, many of them clutching their weapons at the ready. "The hell kind of panic attack does this sort of damage? Qui-Gon, your ship is destroyed! He nearly killed us!"
"Ships can be replaced and he did not harm anyone," Qui-Gon said.
Mace knelt down and placed a hand on Red's forehead, face smoothing as he focused. "You're right," he said finally. "No restraints. That expenditure drained him quite far. We'll take him to the Halls of Healing and place a guard on the door. We'll have your ship towed to the drydocks for repair. Another team will be dispatched to oversee the Muunilinst operation."
Qui-Gon nodded and stood, hefting Red in his arms. The young man was too light, too thin, and Qui-Gon gathered him closer. Anakin was scowling, unnecessarily. Yoda joined them, borne by one of the clone troopers.
"Calmed him, you have?" Yoda asked.
"I did," Qui-Gon said.
Yoda nodded, seemingly pleased. "To the healers, you will take him?"
"Yes, Master," Qui-Gon said.
"I think we should just dump him in a cell," Anakin muttered. "He's dangerous."
Yoda humphed, clutching his gimer stick tight. "Dangerous we thought you once," he said. "Dump you in a cell, we did not."
Anakin had the grace to keep his mouth shut and bow. "Yes, Master."
Yoda hummed, eyes half-closed, as he regarded Qui-Gon. "Yes. To the healers, you must go."
Qui-Gon bowed his head and left, Mace falling into step with him, Red barely a weight in his arms.
Waking to unfamiliar surroundings was becoming a habit he wanted to end, and fast.
Red put a hand to his head and groaned. Oh, fuck, he hurt.
"Good, you are awake," someone said.
He turned his head, trying to find the speaker, and instantly regretting his very existence. Lights stabbed his eyes and his head swam, stomach beginning to revolt.
"No, that won't do at all," the someone said, laying cool hands against his forehead and stomach. Instantly his stomach settled and the pain lessened. He closed his eyes and sighed, relaxing slightly, as the pain continued to fade in increments. "Better."
"Who?" he rasped.
"I am Healer Ailep," the someone said. "Try opening your eyes again."
Red did, slitting them open just the slightest bit, and oh. "You're Miralukan."
The Healer, a female with brown skin and a white metal mask over her eyes, smiled. "I am. Most do not know what we are."
"Met one before," Red said. "Slave. Died few days later. Detonator went off."
Ailep's smile faded. "May Ashla and Bogan guard their spirit."
Red closed his eyes and hummed, too tired to care that he had upset someone unintentionally or that he was obviously in the Temple. He hurt. He didn't remember what had happened. He didn't care. He let the exhaustion pull him back down into the black and slept.
When he woke next, Jinn and the demonspawn were in the room with him. Jinn, at least, was sitting in the room's lone chair, but Yoda was sitting on the bed next to him. It was childish of him but he wanted to throw the pillow at one of them--both of them--and hide.
"Childish it is not," the demonspawn said.
Red sat up, pleasantly surprised that his head didn't try to explode in agony, and scowled. "How so?" he asked.
"Poorly, you have been treated," Yoda said, his ears low.
Red stared at him, biting back the retort on the tip of his tongue. Yelling at Yoda would do no good.
"The Council has already discussed your," Jinn paused, frowning, "situation. While we would still like to speak with you, we have decided on a solution that we believe would benefit all parties."
Red swallowed thickly and looked away. The cells. He yelped, scrambling away from the demonspawn as the minute Master smacked him with his stick, and promptly fell off the bed in a tangle of limbs and blankets.
Jinn stood and helped him to his feet, smiling. "Master Yoda, that wasn't necessary."
"Hmph," the demonspawn muttered. "Bad habits, he has. Work hard on that, you must."
Red looked between the two of them, catching the words they were saying but not processing them correctly. It almost sounded like… But no, that was impossible.
"I think the first order of business will be better shielding," Jinn said.
Red yanked his hand away and took two steps back, not caring that it put him in a corner of the room with no way out of the room, not unless he wanted to take on two Jedi Masters. "Talk plainly," he said through gritted teeth. "I don't have the patience for games."
Jinn looked at the demonspawn, who gestured with that stick of his, and nodded. "The Council has decided that, in light of your earlier panic attack, that it would be in everyone's best interest to teach you proper control. While you may have had prior instruction from the Sith Lord…" Here, Jinn faltered.
Red stared and couldn't help the hysterical giggle that escaped before he slapped a hand over his mouth. What was his life? His legs felt weak and he let gravity win, sliding to the floor, as he stared at the two Jedi. "You...want to make me a Padawan?" Red asked, speaking in between the giggles. "I'm thirty-something--I don't know, actually. Maybe younger, older? That doesn't matter. You kicked me out of the Temple when I was twelve because I aged out and now you?"
Jinn's face was impassive, a perfect Jedi mask, and Red gave into his laughter. He hid his face in his knees and laughed as the tears ran down his face. What in all the seven hells? The Jedi wanted to train him? What, to try to purge the Darkness from him? Why wouldn't they just kill him instead? This made no sense!
"Train you, Qui-Gon Jinn will," Master Yoda said.
Red stopped laughing, looking up with wide eyes. "What," he croaked.
Jinn gave him the slightest of bows. "I have some experience with handling unusual Padawans."
"No," Red whispered. "I refuse."
"Good together, you would be," Master Yoda said.
Red shook his head. "No."
"May I inquire as to why not?" Jinn asked.
"A question for a question," Red countered. "Why did you take Skywalker as your Padawan?"
Jinn looked surprised. "Many reasons. He was an incredibly powerful, untaught Force-sensitive child and needed to be trained. To leave him untrained would be to invite chaos and danger." Jinn offered him a smile, though it held no joy in it, only sadness. "You know about Xanatos, and what happened to him."
"I knew him," Red said. "Offworld."
Jinn nodded. "I was not the Jedi I should have been when you were an Initiate. It took me a long time to see that, many long hours with the mind healers. Anakin helped a lot, reminding me why I enjoyed teaching in the first place, and--"
"Blah, blah, blah," Red muttered. "Pretty words."
"You asked," Jinn said.
Red huffed and rested his chin on his knees, looking at the sterile walls. Part of him, the small and scared twelve-year-old he had never gotten rid of, wanted so badly to say yes; the other part of him, the one who had grown up seeing far too many horrors of the galaxy knew better than to trust this.
"You want to know why I don't want you to train me, want you in my head?" Red said, looking at Jinn and Yoda. "Because your precious Skywalker is compromised by my old Master. The claws aren't deep, not yet, but it wouldn't take much. If you, or any of the other Jedi in this cursed place, couldn't see that happening? What makes you think I'm going to trust you to help me keep him out?" Red smiled, bitterness welling deep, as he looked away. "Especially when you can't even sense him when he's so close to you."
"Explain this, you will," Yoda said, voice sharp.
"You Jedi are so blind," Red said. "To the evil you invite in among you, to all the suffering in the galaxy, to everything but your supposed greatness. Why should I trust anything you offer?"
"We can help you," Jinn offered, though he looked unsettled. Good. Let them be concerned, disturbed. Let them question everything. Let them know what it feels like to have the very bedrock of their existence ripped out from under them. "Let us help you, as we should have helped you before."
This is the path, the Force soothed.
"You're never going to last long in this life, kid, unless you learn to take a leap of faith every now and then," Jango had told him. "Leap with me."
Bastard. He should be here, not in a grave that Red had had to dig out on Concordia because of the Jedi, because his friend hadn't listened to him.
Leap, something--or someone--whispered.
Red felt his heart squeeze uncomfortably and sighed. "Fine," he relented. "Teach me."
Jinn knelt down in front of him and offered his hand. "You don't have to call me Master, and I don't have to call you Padawan or apprentice. We can set the boundaries together."
Red looked at Jinn and then his hand before reluctantly taking it. "Together, I suppose."