The Malevolence. Grievous. The Rishi Outpost. New brothers welcomed into the 501st.
The war was picking up and Clone Intelligence had holos of Red lurking in the background of everything. Rex couldn't help looking at them, seeing the changes wrought in the other man, and he wasn't the only one.
"I can't get over the eyes," General Skywalker said, watching the footage with him.
"Sir?" Rex asked, unable to look away.
Before Red had bound his hair back in a braid down his back, low fuss he claimed, but the holos were showing him with a high bun, wisps of hair escaping to fall around his face, where he was growing a beard too. It looked good, but it drew attention to his eyes, which were different from any other Sith's. Where Maul's eyes had a ring of red around the sclera and a yellow iris, and Dooku's irises a simple amber, Red's were odd. His irises were the yellow of a Sith but it was the sclera that was unnerving as they were black, and shadows seemed to gather around his eyes and move.
He was dressing differently too. Red had always preferred clothes that granted him anonymity, clothes that wouldn't look out of place in any spaceport on any planet, but the clothes he wore now were black and even Rex could tell they were expensive. The fabric absorbed the light around him, had multiple layers, and the cut was ideal for fighting in, though Rex didn't know what combat Red would be using, and it covered near every inch of the man--high neck, long sleeves, bracers that bound the sleeves down that would also easily hide knives or who knew what that also shielded the backs of his hands, pants in the same style the Jedi preferred, and knee-high boots. He still had his leather thigh-holsters and blasters, but no lightsabers.
"The shadows," Skywalker said. "They creep me out."
Rex pointed at the next series of footage Intelligence had gathered--Red "playing" with the shadows as Dooku spoke to some CIS flunkie. The shadows were flowing over his hands, making shapes for the other man, entertaining him almost. What was unsettling was the way everyone in the footage was giving Red a wide berth, like they wanted to be as far from the redhead as possible.
"That's what creeps me out, sir," Rex said.
"That could be a lot," the General said. "A manifestation of the Dark side, magic, whatever. The fact that it is actually inside his body? That's worse." Skywalker chewed his lip. "I wonder if the Sith actually consumed Red, left nothing but Darkness behind? If Red wouldn't break..."
Rex felt his heart slam against his chest uncomfortably. "You don't mean that, sir."
"No," Skywalker said, watching more of the footage. The way Red switched between watching Dooku like he was something tasty to consume and like he was the biggest moron was both entertaining and concerning. "Qui-Gon said Quin's still trying to dig up people who knew Verath before but they're either not talking or dead."
Rex nodded. "How's training with Tano going?" he asked, desperate to change the subject.
General Skywalker turned a glare on him and Rex feigned innocence. "Keep your kid away from mine," he hissed finally.
"I don't know what you're talking about, General," Rex said.
"Do you know what those are have been getting up to?" Skywalker asked, smiling.
Rex waited, knowing better than to grin. Oh, he couldn't wait to hear this. Boba was routinely pissing off every brother on the cruiser, nominally because he could, but they knew the reasons behind it and let him slide by with some of his tricks. Fives and Echo, on the other hand, were razing him right back. There was an epic prank war erupting between the three of them that was eventually going to explode throughout the rest of the ship, and Rex was watching that to nip it before it did.
Tano, however, was Skywalker's problem--not his.
"Apparently, Boba knows ships inside out," Skywalker continued. "All ships. They were in the galley earlier, driving Kipper insane. You know why they were driving Kipper insane?"
Rex fixed his eyes over Skywalker's shoulder and made his face a mask. "No, sir," he said. This was going to be good. Kipper was a cheerful sort, if extraordinarily fond of his knives.
"All the stoves had their power converters messed with," Skywalker said. "All the pots, pans, everything in all the wrong places because they were bored. Didn't mess with the food, because they knew better, but everything else was apparently fair game."
Pretty tame prank, in Rex's opinion. "More meditation for Tano, I suppose?" Rex said.
"And for Boba?" Skywalker asked with a wide grin.
A reminder to stay away from annoyed Jedi, apparently. "I'll have a brother stay with him more often," Rex said.
"Do that," Skywalker grumbled. "Ahsoka's enough of a handful. I don't need her getting any more bad habits."
Rex kept his mouth shut by will alone. Tano was picking up all of Skywalker's bad habits and plenty of Jinn's as well. The worst part was that, for the short period of time she had spent with Red, she had some of his as well. Then again, as Rex was learning the hard way, kids were sponges. Boba was picking up the 501st's habits in a bad way and delighting in it, as they as stared at him in dismay or hilarity.
"General," the 501st's communication officer--Dyad--said, catching their attention as they were about to leave the bridge, "we have new information from Clone Intelligence."
General Skywalker sighed and looked at Rex. "You don't have to stay," he said, trying to be kind. They both knew what that information most likely held.
Rex shook his head. "I do."
"All right. Can we loop in Qui-Gon and Cody too?" Skywalker asked, walking back to the holotable.
Dyad tapped at his console and nodded. "Getting them now, General."
"Thanks, Dyad," Skywalker said. "How's the footage?"
"Haven't seen it. It was sent encrypted but we've got it ready for you."
Rex waited, shoving his anxiety down deep, as General Jinn and Cody were synced up with them. The Maverick wasn't far behind the Resolute but it certainly felt like it these days from how often he saw Cody. They were trading on-and-off with whatever assignments the Jedi Council and the Chancellor sent their way, though their Generals dropped out of hyperspace without warning to pick up or drop off other Jedi at the oddest moments—without Council or Senate approval.
Cody and Rex both know it was because of General Jinn's plan, the one he wasn't sharing with anyone. Maybe General Skywalker had an idea, but if that was the case he wasn't telling either. It was frustrating because Rex wanted to help, just as much as Cody did, but whoever this Sith Lord was must have the Generals spooked well.
"Hello, Anakin, Rex," General Jinn greeted. He looked tired and Cody next to him looked like he'd just barely escaped medical.
"What'd you do?" Rex demanded in Mando'a.
"Later," Cody replied in kind.
Skywalker was frowning at Jinn but sighed. "We have an encrypted file from Clone Intelligence. We don't know what's on it yet but it's been unscrambled so that we can view it."
"Go on, Anakin," Jinn said.
Skywalker motioned to Dyad, who synced up the file. It started to play, but it had no sound.
"Dyad?" Rex asked.
His brother shook his head. "Came in that way, sir."
The footage was of Dooku, Ventress, and Red. Dooku was talking as he slowly paced in front of a library of some sort—were they on Serenno?—and Red lounged in some high-back chair playing with his shadows. He was letting them trickle from hand to hand like sentient running water. Ventress was sneering at Red, saying something that caused the other's head to snap up and Dooku to stop pacing. A slow, pleased smile crossed Red's face and Dooku looked annoyed.
"Do we have any way to run this through a lip-reading program?" Jinn asked.
"I don't think so, sir, but I'll check," Dyad said. "Haptic, run through our mods, would you?"
"Right away, sir," Haptic said.
Dooku said something, then, and Red sat up, his face morphing into such a twisted mask of rage that Rex's hand went for his blaster on reflex; Skywalker gulped.
"Oh, Red," Jinn whispered.
The rage melted into a smile as he stood, head tilting to the side and he lifted his hands. Shadows crept out of the floor and from the ceiling to wrap around the Count, wrapping around him and lifting him into the air, sinking into his mouth and nose and eyes, wrapping like a vine around his throat and tightening. Red was speaking as he stepped closer, smiling pleasantly the whole time, until Ventress drew her lightsabers and attacked Red's undefended back.
And Red just spun, kicked her in the stomach, and laughed soundlessly as she flew out of the frame, barely sparing her any attention. He turned back to the Count, who was still struggling as one does as they're being suffocated, and beckoned the shadows closer. They brought the Count down to him and Red brushed a hand over the Count's cheek, spoke something against his ear, and released him.
Count Dooku fell to the floor, gasping for breath, looking around as he did.
Ventress came back into the holo and Red yawned in obvious boredom. She attacked him again, yelling, and he did some complicated hand motion that bound her in shadows. He leaned down, kissed her on the head, gave her a pat like a pet, and walked off.
"What…was that?" Skywalker asked faintly.
Rex turned to his General. "Sir? That was two Sith getting their asses handed to them by someone who does not consider them a threat. At all."
"He was bored," Jinn said, covering his face with one hand. "He was toying with them. This wasn't even about fighting them, this was teaching them their place."
"Teaching Dooku his place, maybe," Cody said. "That bit at the end? I've seen that behavior before with other sentients and their pets. I'd put credits down on the idea that he doesn't even consider teaching Ventress where her place is, he'd just put her down."
"He was ignoring them until Dooku said something that pissed him off," Skywalker said, then paused and rubbed his forehead. "No, wait. It was Ventress that said something first, but it was Dooku that made him act."
"We need to know what they were saying," Jinn said. "Knowing Red's skills will only get us so far if we don't know his triggers."
"Sir," Cody said quietly. "Should we really be calling him 'Red' still? It seems like it's a disservice to… It might confuse some of the Shinies."
Rex silently agreed. Many of the brothers still talked fondly of Red, and Boba too, but Echo and Fives only knew that they were to be on the lookout for him. Once it was explained why they were looking for him, it…got complicated.
"Qui-Gon," Skywalker said gently. "I know it hurts to admit that Verath exists, but we are going to get Red back."
"All right," Jinn said after a moment. "Verath it is then."
"I'll let the troops know," Cody said. Rex murmured agreement.
"All right," Jinn said. "Dyad, let me know the moment we have a transcript of the footage?"
"Yes, sir," Dyad said, saluting.
General Jinn disconnected the call and Rex looked at Skywalker.
"We're kriffed, aren't we?" he asked.
Skywalker looked lost. "I really, really hope Feemor can find something."
Rex lay down on his bunk and closed his eyes, letting out a deep breath. He was so tired of all the shit that was going down. Even a good, old droid shoot out wasn't straightforward anymore.
A third of Torrent was in medical and Kix was having a fit over Jesse's injuries. Rex was trying very hard not to look too closely at them, because if he did he was going to have to swap their squads to keep them impartial, not that Kix would let it get in his way. Not that either of them would, but if any of the higher ups started poking their noses into the 501st's business they'd see it and there'd be trouble. Easier to just move the squads, move their bunk assignments, keep things calm.
Kix could punch him a couple times later if it would make him feel better.
His CMO was stressed and unhappy, had been ever since Red had left and they'd brought Boba on-board.
"I'm sorry," Red murmured, lying down next to him.
Rex sighed, figuring he must have fallen asleep, and pulled Red into his arms. His cyare had his hair loose and was only wearing a pair of loose, black sleep pants that rode deliciously low on his too-sharp hipbones and had almost flawless, scarless skin. Rex nuzzled his neck, breathing in the scent of clean skin and mint, but Red's skin was cool.
"Don't be sorry," Rex said. "Just be here."
"I wish I could be," Red said, trailing almost-cold fingers along Rex's back. He could feel them through his blacks and he wondered exactly how cold Red really was, even in his dream. "I didn't want to leave."
"I know," Rex said. "Kix is so mad at you, so's Boba. Kark that, we're all mad at you. We're madder at the Sith who has you."
Red grinned, a sharp look that sent fear curling through Rex's hindbrain and he shivered. No, no nightmares tonight. "I'm not with Sidious anymore, and he's hardly a threat." Red leaned in and kissed him, barely warmer than his hands. "If you're going to complain about how cold I am then the least you can do is warm me up." An arched eyebrow and a smug little look.
Rex laughed and kissed him again, savoring Red's lips, his tongue, his taste. "I know it's bad when my mind is telling me to get off," he said.
Red traced his fingers over Rex's face. "Sure," he said, with a wistful smile. "Go with that."
Rex kissed him again, pulling Red closer, not wanting to think. He wanted his Red, he wanted his cyare with him, warm and laughing and awful all at once, and this creature with him now was all in his mind.
Red murmured reassurances, nothingness that Rex cared for, as they both got the blacks out of the way. Rex pushed at Red's pants, tossing them to the floor of his room, kissing his way down this altered body. Red moaned softly, arching and whispering encouragement, as Rex licked and bit and sucked. All the scars were gone, all of them. The good, the bad, they just didn't exist. Why would his mind remove them?
"Don't think, love, please don't," Red begged, pulling Rex up and pressing his face into his neck. He sucked and kissed and bit, murmuring the words over and over again and they rocked their hips together. Kriff, he missed how Red just fit against him so well.
Rex leaned over him, grabbing the lube from under the pillow where he usually stashed it, and kissed him again. "You make no sense," he said.
"Do I ever?" Red asked, smiling and scratching his nails over Rex's scalp.
"No," Rex growled and pushed Red onto his front, biting at his shoulder. The slave tattoo was gone too. What?
Red rolled over and sat up, taking the lube from Rex's numb fingers. "Don't think, just feel," he said, eyes bright and—
What color were Red's eyes? Why hadn't he looked at—
"Shh," Red said, kissing him. "Feel."
Red had his hand wrapped around Rex's cock and was stroking him, nice and slick, and Rex's eyes rolled back in head. Fuck, so good. How long had it been?
"Too long," Red whispered, crawling into Rex's lap. "Let me, please? I need you."
"Red," Rex said, hands grabbing the other's hips. "What's going on?"
"You're dreaming," Red whispered, stroking him just the way he liked. Tight and teasing but with just enough speed to make it good. "Let me ride you, love, please. I want to feel you so bad."
"Red," Rex groaned, digging his nails in, listening to the other gasp.
"Rex," Red said, thumb moving over the head of Rex's cock. Rex cursed, burying his face in Red's neck, breathing him in. There was, he could smell something under the mint. What was that? "Yes or no. I, I can't be like them. Please."
"Tell me the truth," Rex groaned, "and I'll say yes."
Red pulled away, hurt crossing his face. "I can't," he whispered. "I love you too much to do that."
"But you'll lie to me?" Rex demanded, trying to think past the haze of sex and need and want.
Red looked like Rex had stabbed him and slid out of bed. He bent down, grabbing his pants, and Rex could see Jango's mark still there. The only mark still on his body. Red dressed, silent, before leaning over and kissing Rex again.
"I love you, Rex, so much," Red said. "I'm sorry."
"This is real, isn't it?" Rex asked, the first stirrings of horror growing.
"Rex," Red whispered.
"We're in hyperspace," Rex said.
"Don't," Red said, almost begging.
Rex lunged, pinning Red against the wall on his room, and the other let him. He held his hands out and watched him sadly. "How are you doing this?" Rex asked.
"Don't know," Red said, sounding resigned. "Just am. Wanted to see you, found myself here. Watched you sleep a few times. Wanted to touch you tonight. You looked so sad. I couldn't… I can't."
Rex didn't know if he could trust that, this, and he pressed harder on Red. There was a tiny flinch, but Red let him and didn't fight back. He let up, frowning, and drew away.
"What did Dooku say that made you attack him?" Rex asked instead.
Red blinked in surprise. "Which time?"
Rex stared, breathless. Which time? Oh, kark. "You tried to suffocate him with shadows."
"I do that a lot," Red said slowly. "He's annoying."
Rex felt his heart break. "Red…"
A snarl, there and gone, and then Red looked away. "Sorry," he whispered. "I should go. I'll stay away, if you prefer."
"Does it help?" Rex asked, cursing himself seven times a fool. Red tilted his head, studying him with eyes whose color he couldn't see in the dark of his room. "Coming here, seeing me."
"More than you know," Red said.
"You can come back," Rex said. "Just, don't try to tell me it's a kriffing dream again?"
Red hesitated and then nodded. "Okay," he said, voice small. He reached out, brushing his fingers over Rex's face, smiling a little before stepping back into a dark patch of moving shadows Rex hadn't seen.
"Oh, that's not right," Rex said, eyes wide. "That's not right at all."
Kix slammed his tray down in front of Rex the next morning and glared at him.
"Good…morning?" Rex asked, eyeing his brother.
"I want you and three other brothers you trust implicitly in my medical bay after breakfast," Kix growled, sitting down and starting to eat with more violence than he gave anything.
Rex stared. "Okay?"
"You want to tell me—"
"No," Kix snapped.
"All right then," Rex said, getting up and clearing his tray. He was done anyway but Kix was making him nervous. Between his late-night visitor and his CMO possibly going 'round the bend, the day was shaping up to be phenomenal.
He found Fives, Echo, and Jesse and herded them to medical immediately, ignoring any complaints they might have had--especially since Jesse had just escaped Kix's not so tender mercies. Hardcase had given them curious looks but, as much as he loved his brother, the man couldn't keep his mouth shut sometimes.
"Hey, uh, Captain?" Fives asked as they waited for Kix. "Someone explained to us that you and Red used to be a thing and all, but he's not—"
"Jeez, nice hickey, sir," Kix said, peeling back the top bit of Rex's blacks.
Rex froze. Oh, kark.
"Yeah, that," Fives said, coughing into his fist.
"I thought you were going to wait for Red, though," Kix said, crossing his arms, glaring. "That? Doesn't look like waiting."
Rex slapped a hand over his neck. "What did you need to see us about, Kix?"
Now it was Kix's turn to look uncomfortable. Interesting. "I, uh, received some information last night and I want to confirm it. All of us are from different batches, except you and Echo, Fives, which will gives an idea of how widespread the issue is."
"Issue?" Rex asked, letting his hand fall to his side. And last night? He narrowed his eyes and grabbed Kix, pulling his brother away from the others and growling softly. "Did you see our ori'vod last night, Kix?"
The other's eyes widened. "Captain?"
"I know he was on the ship last night," Rex said. "I don't know how but he's been doing it for a while."
Kix slumped against him in relief. "Yeah," he said softly, so the others didn't hear them. They were looking at them curiously though. "He gave me a bunch of information, this was the first thing I saw and. Oh, kriff, Captain, this is huge. I need to confirm it."
Rex let Kix go and his CMO went back over to the others, grabbing a portable scanner as he went.
"I need to check your brains," Kix said and Rex's eyes widened. What? "There might have been something the long-necks implanted in us during the third-stage of embryonic growth and I want to confirm it before I decide what to do with the information."
"Go for it," Jesse said, reaching out to squeeze Kix's hand.
Rex was going to ignore that. Kix was obviously unsettled and Jesse was being a good brother, offering comfort. And any higher up could go get karked if they tried to tell him otherwise. Kix made a shocked noise as he scanned Jesse, though it took some fiddling with the scanner, then he moved onto Echo, then Fives. He turned to Rex, looking pale, and Rex nodded. Kix scanned him and cursed low and viciously.
"Kix?" Jesse asked.
Kix shook his head. "No," he said. "I need to talk to the other CMOs. See how widespread this is. Figure out if this is something we want to deal with quietly or talk to the Generals about."
"You three are dismissed," Rex said, putting all the authority of his title behind the words. They looked startled, and Jesse looked about ready to argue, but they left. Rex needed them gone, especially with Kix looking freaked out and with Rex about to ask about their late-night friend. "Kix, talk to me."
"Captain," Kix said. "These are…I don't know what they are. They're some sort of chip? Bio-chip, so you wouldn't find them unless you really look for them. That's why it took me a while with Jesse, I was searching the different frequencies and the different compositions. He said it might take a bit to find them but that I had to do it, that it was important."
"Kix," Rex said, taking the scanner away and making his CMO sit down. "Deep breath."
"We were made for the Jedi, right?" Kix asked, looking at Rex. "They're the ones who did all this, who ordered us made. Are they the ones who wanted a chip in our heads too? What does the chip do? I, I want one. I need one out of one of us to see what it does."
Rex nodded, rubbing his brother's back, trying to soothe him, as he thought. "Lancer," Rex said. "Didn't you tell me yesterday he died on ship? You put him in cryo until we got to a medical station?"
Kix nodded. "Right. I'll scan him and see if he has a chip and, if he does, remove it. Then we can see what's on it."
"Talk to Dyad if you have trouble getting into the chip," Rex said. "He's good with that sort of stuff."
Kix leaned against Rex. "I don't understand this, Captain. How did he get on the ship? How did these things get in our heads? Why are they there?"
"I don't know," Rex said, rubbing Kix's scalp with gentle fingers. "But we'll figure it out.
He huffed, pouting, as he settled in the chair in front of Dooku's terminal.
Why did Rex have to go and figure everything out? Why couldn't his love just go with the idea it was a dream?
Because he was smart, that's why.
Frustrating, so frustrating.
He burned with need, but it was getting dangerous.
Maybe it was good thing Rex had put a stop to things.
He scrolled through Dooku's data some more, idly storing the information away and crafting scenarios as the Force showed him maybes and possiblys. He was growing desperately hungry and his skin ached for the touch of another, even if it wouldn't be the one he wanted.
He supposed it was a trade-off for accepting the shadows and the Dark as fully as he had. Perpetual cold. Perpetual hunger. Unending power.
He stopped the flow of information, seeing something that was immediately relevant. This…could help him get rid of the dear Count for good. If he could, actually, do that, then the Count was irrelevant and unnecessary. Far easier to kill him than to try to bend his mind and will away from Sidious.
He shut the console off and stood. He closed his eyes and breathed in the shadows, feeling them on his tongue and how they trickled down the back of his throat. They filled his body, curling in his lungs, his stomach, his heart, and he hummed with their power and their life. He listened to them as they directed him to the brightest source of power on this wretched planet—no, not Dooku or his little pet, not yet—out away from their silly castle.
There were others on Serenno, some sort of caste system that he had never really cared about. He knew Dooku had wealth because of it but cared little for it. They were the people he had always despised; they believed that because they had money that they could do whatever they wanted. Oh, something was wrong in their lives? Throw money at it. The homeless, the sick, the broken? Give them money and make them go away.
Don't fix the problem, just make it go away.
Sidious was the same way. He didn't want to fix the Galaxy, he just wanted to rule it.
The Jedi weren't fixing anything either, they were keeping the status quo—the rich, rich, the poor, poor, and the downtrodden, down.
He was going to fix all of that.
But first, Serenno. He would fix this planet.
He found a speeder in Dooku's hanger and took it, ignoring the annoying titters of a droid, and glided through the night. He passed family castles and estates until he found the one he wanted, landing in a secluded garden.
He didn't care about the man's name. He was young, maybe around his own age, and he was arrogant. He blustered and threatened to call the guards as he teased, pressing close.
In the end, it didn't matter. He had the young lord on the garden bench, riding him hard, needing the sexual release as much as he needed what came next. The young lord was pathetic, no stamina—he'd been spoiled by his cyare. He was so close when the bastard cheated him, coming before he'd gotten the chance, and he stared down at the sleepy looking lord in rage. He didn't think, just snapped the man's neck and pulled away, stumbling a few steps away into the garden and drawing the shadows close, trying to calm himself.
There was no need to be calm.
He let go of his control, and screamed, his power in the Force rippling outwards. The garden, the manor, and the people were flattened in the blast and he stood there, panting. He shook from the physical exertion of effort, but in a good way?
That had felt…good.
Was control really a negative thing, then? Some vague idea that was taught to students to hold them back?
He knew he had to control his thoughts, his shields, but did he need to control the shadows? His magic? The Force? Letting go of his carefully crafted control was freeing, so insanely addicting, not adhering to rules, not…
He looked up and scowled as he saw Dooku's personal speeder approach. Interfering fool.
Soon, he would be able to rid himself of the elder Sith.
Soon, the droid army would be his.
Soon, all his plans would be set in motion.
Soon, the Galaxy would burn.
"Sir," Buzzer said to Qui-Gon, looking troubled. "We're getting some news from Mandalore?"
Cody looked up from the reports he was studying and exchanged a looked with him. Qui-Gon let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding and nodded. It had to be Verath.
"Go on," he told Buzzer.
"Concord Dawn seems to have had high casualties," Buzzer said. "And there are more reports that a Zabrak matching Maul's description has allied with Death Watch and is marching on Sundari. With a black lightsaber."
Cody set the report down. "Jango Fett was from Concord Dawn," he told Qui-Gon softly.
"This sounds like in-fighting, not a move by the Separatists. And I do not know anything about this black lightsaber," he said. "Buzzer, do you think you can try to raise Vos?"
Buzzer shook his head. "He's gone dark. We haven't been able to raise him for two months now."
"That's not good," Qui-Gon said. "I know he was trying to gain more information by seeming to play acolyte, but to be non-responsive?"
Buzzer shrugged. "Sorry, General."
"Not your fault," Qui-Gon smiled. "I need to speak the Council about this. There are many possible repercussions for this, political and otherwise. Especially if this is in-fighting."
"Do you want me to arrange the call?" Buzzer asked.
Qui-Gon scratched at his chin and then nodded. "Please."
Buzzer did whatever he needed to, the wondrous magic of Communications Officers throughout the Army, and then turned to him. "I've managed to get you in touch with General Windu, sir. I can't boost our signal much further than his cruiser."
"That will be fine, thank you, Buzzer."
"Qui-Gon," Mace said, flickering into sight on the holotable. "Have you seen the report about Mandalore?"
"That's what I was going to speak to you about," Qui-Gon said. "We've come to the conclusion that it's in-fighting."
"How can you be so sure?" Mace asked. "We know that Verath has strong ties to Mandalore. He might have had input on this attack."
"The prior attack on Mandalore was an attack on one of their moons, Concord Dawn," Qui-Gon said. "High casualty rate. Jango Fett was from Concord Dawn. If Verath has any ties to the Mandalorian system, it's there. He'd want that protected, not raised to the ground."
Mace rubbed his forehead. "Qui-Gon, I'm not disagreeing with you. This move makes no sense."
"Is the Duchess asking for assistance?" Qui-Gon asked.
"No," Mace said. "She's telling us to stay out of it, as usual. This is a Mandalorian matter and they will handle it as such."
"Of course," Qui-Gon said, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. Pacifists. "Can we send any aid to them?"
"I'll extend the offer but you know her better than I do," mace said. "She will likely refuse."
"Pride," Qui-Gon agreed. "Very sure in the knowledge that she is right and we are wrong."
"It will get her people slaughtered, if not herself as well," Mace said. "There is nothing we can do on that front. We must continue defending against the Sith. Master Fisto is engaging General Grievous at the moment, so we do not have to worry about him. Dooku and Verath are still on Serenno, but Ventress is on the move."
"We'll see her sooner or later," Qui-Gon said mildly. "She always turns up."
He watched, burning with unquenchable rage, as Dooku addressed Yoda—taunting him in the ridiculous manner Dooku had. He was on this ridiculous battle cruiser with Dooku for some treaty that the older Sith wanted to mess up and Ventress was there in his stead to face off with Yoda, boring.
He was here with Dooku.
The droids were already reprogrammed.
They would not move against him.
Sidious had attacked Concord Dawn in a bid to remind him of his place and it had failed. It had only made him speed up his plans. Did Sidious think, that by destroying what little remained living of Jango's past, that it would make him cling to it any less?
How fatally shortsighted of someone so strong in foresight.
He had, finally, built new lightsabers. They were wonderful in their song of sadness and desire, matching the scars of his heart. He drew them both as Dooku continued to pontificate.
The shadows masked his footfalls as he crept up behind the older man, but Yoda saw him at the last minute.
"Yan!" he called in warning.
Too late, fool.
He activated the blades and slammed them into Dooku's back, ripping them down. He grabbed the other's death energy, his life-force, and breathed it in. Yes, this, this was what he needed. This was what he ached inside for.
He pulled his blades free and kicked the body aside, smirking at the horrified wail of denial from Ventress and Yoda's tears.
"This is a coup," he said with a smile, shutting his blades down. "The droid army is mine."
"Red," Yoda said.
"Oh, don't worry," he told the demonspawn, ignoring the name. It was not his any more. He could not be the man Jango had named him. "They'll stand down and leave the Republic forces largely alone. I have my own agenda."
"You'll pay for this!" Ventress said.
"Yes, pet," he laughed, twirling the hilt of one of his 'sabers. "Come to me. I'm still so hungry and you'd make a good snack."
"Verath," Yoda said, his ears dipping.
"NO!" he shouted, shadows shrouding him, trying to comfort him in his rage. "That is not my name!"
"Want to be called what, do you?" Yoda asked, gripping his gimer stick.
He snickered, turning to gentle the shadows away. Kind shadows. He was all right. "Does it matter?"
"To you, it does."
He considered it for a moment. Hadn't she named him before, at the beginning of all of this, and he just hadn't listened? He had focused on the wrong part of her words, in his fear to never again be under Sidious's thumb, he had only heard "will be Verath again" and never heard "I rename you".
He was reborn now. Different. New. Better.
He giggled and then swept a bow for Yoda, "I am Keres."
It was a joint operation between the 501st and the 212th and they were losing. Generals Jinn and Skywalker and Ahsoka had gotten pinned down good back at the start, and Rex had ordered men back to try to dig them out but he wasn't sure those brothers ever made it back. He hoped so, for their sakes, that they were all right and just holes up somewhere fighting off the enemy.
They were just clankers, no Sith or Seppie General in sight, but there were so kriffing many of them!
"Rex!" Cody said over the comm unit in the HUD. "We have to pull back to a better position. We can't defend—"
"Us either," Rex said, firing at clankers as quick as he could. He tried not to notice as brothers next to him, behind him, all around him fell dying, screaming. No, he needed to keep going because they looked to him. If he stopped now then there would be no point to their deaths, to their sacrifices.
"Can you see that spire?" Cody asked. "About a klik away?"
Rex turned, shoving his pistol in a clanker's face and firing until it didn't exist anymore. "Yeah, I see it. Regroup there?"
"Probably best. Can probably meet the Generals there too. I got my General for a second, Tano's hurt, but they might be able to get there as well."
Aw, kark. No wonder they fell so far behind if they were shielding the kid. "They say how bad?"
"No, wait, what?" Cody said, sounding confused.
Rex spun, about to clobber a clanker with the butt of his pistol when it stopped moving, turned, and walked off. All around them, clankers were stopping.
"Roger, roger," they began to broadcast as they marched off. "New orders accepted. Retreat to the ship."
"What in the stars?" Jesse asked, coming up on Rex's left.
Rex was breathing hard, adrenaline still surging. "Cody? This happening near you?"
"They're just walking off," Cody confirmed. "A couple of the Shinies started shooting at them and they just let them. Didn't fight back, just kriffing fell over!"
Rex whipped his helmet off, staring at the nearest clanker. Impossible. No karking clanker was just going to let a clone shoot them. He made sure the clanker saw the pistol, gave it plenty of time to fire back, and started firing.
Clanker fell right over, fritzing, and it powered right off in pieces.
"By all the old gods!" Fives shouted, grabbing at Rex. "Why'd you do that?!"
Rex let his youngest brother jostle him, numb with shock. What was going on? He managed to get his helmet back on, trying to figure out how speech worked.
"The spire?" he asked Cody.
"Kark the spire!" Cody shouted loud enough to make Rex wince. "Seps aren't in the karking way! I want to get back to the Generals!"
Shit. Rex hadn't even. He wasn't thinking straight. "Right. Generals. Cody, what is going on?"
"No idea, the Generals might have a better idea then we would though," Cody said.
Rex flipped the external comm on and started barking out orders, getting his brothers back into their proper squads. He didn't completely believe the threat was over, and refused to not take proper precautions, but taking care of the wounded was high on his priorities. He let Kix organize that, but he sent scouts ahead to make sure their way back to the Generals was clear as they double-timed it to their last known location.
When they got there, General Skywalker was poking at a downed clanker and General Jinn was tending to Ahsoka. The brothers Rex had sent to them earlier were there, minus a few men, but otherwise in good spirits. He let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding and saluted the Generals.
"Cody's on his way with the rest of the 212th," he said.
"Excellent," Jinn said. "I except you had the same strangeness as well?"
Rex nodded, directing the 501st to set up camp since they'd need to wait for the cruisers to come pick them up. "Yes, sir," he said. He watched Skywalker for a moment before asking, "Any way to find out what order made them take off like that?"
Skywalker shrugged. "Maybe," he said. "I can get Artoo to hook into the droid, see what's hanging around in its chipset."
"Do that," Jinn said. "I'd like to know if this was an isolated event or if this is happening all over the Galaxy."
Skywalker nodded and walked over to the R2 unit, passing an affectionate hand over Ahsoka's montrals as he passed. The younger Jedi had a bandage wrapped around her arm and a pale tint to her orange skin. She was usually energetic and acted far more confident than she was, Rex knew, and now she was quiet and withdrawn. Someone, apparently, had gotten knocked down a couple of pegs by a clanker. Poor kid.
"Did you and your troops get far?" General Jinn asked.
"No, sir," Rex said. "Not as far as we'd like. I'm not sure how much farther Commander Cody got but the 501st got about halfway to the designated extraction point before having to consider alternative positions. The clankers had it too well fortified."
General Jinn nodded, stroking his beard and looking concerned. "It makes no sense why they would abandon it, then."
"Uh, Qui-Gon?" Skywalker called. "I got in, but you're not going to believe this."
Cody walked up, the 212th in tow, and greeted Rex with an arm grasp. "Not going to believe what?" he asked quietly.
"My General cracked a clanker's order center," Rex said.
"Well, let's hear it, then," Jinn said, herding them all over to Skywalker and R2.
"How're you doing, kid?" Cody asked Ahsoka.
"I'll be okay," she said, subdued.
Rex grinned at her, tugging gently at the silka beads. "Start making up a story to tell Boba," he recommended. "Something badass. He'll never know the difference."
Ahsoka wrinkled her nose. "Lying's bad," she pointed out.
"White lie," Cody said, holding his fingers the barest width apart. "Harm's no one, save's your pride. Always good in the long run when dealing with family."
"Ain't that the truth," Rex muttered, elbowing Cody and grinning.
General Jinn smiled at her and dipped his head in approval. "Anakin?" he asked.
Skywalker was sitting in the dirt in front of his R2 unit, the clanker's head in his lap, wires hooked up between them. He looked upset, which wasn't unusual these days, but he also looked confused.
"I don't," he started and then stopped. "Qui-Gon, I don't understand."
"Play us the orders, Anakin," Qui-Gon said.
Skywalker nodded and R2 played the holographic recording of Verath.
"Execute subroutine 2224. If currently engaging in combat with clones, immediately disengage. Clones are no longer to be considered enemies but non-combatants. If they point a weapon at you, you will do no harm. You see them, you will do no harm. You will harm no clone. To harm a clone will be considered grounds for immediate self-termination.
"Return to all carrier ships if on a hostile planet and transmit coordinates to await further instructions. If holding a planet in Separatist space, transmit coordinates to await further instructions. If in the middle of a secret operation previously overseen by no one other than Count Dooku, self-destruct immediately.
"I am Keres, your new…Emperor. You will see to my wishes above anyone else's."
The recording ended.
Rex had stopped breathing and it was taking a while to remember why he should start again.
"That's…those're my numbers," Cody said.
"Emperor?" Ahsoka asked, confused. She looked at Jinn and then Skywalker, then Cody and Rex. "Emperor?"
Skywalker disconnected the clanker's head from R2 quietly. "Artoo made a recording," he told them quietly. "So he can transmit it to the Council if we need to."
"No," Jinn said, shaking his head. "Destroy it." He looked troubled, a hand over his mouth, as he walked off.
Skywalker stared after him, stunned. "What? Did—did he just say to destroy it?"
Rex took the clanker's head from his General. "Sir, what do you think your Council is going to do with this information?"
"I, but," Skywalker stuttered. He looked at Rex, then R2, and closed his eyes. "Aw, hell. Kill order. Immediate kill order. Every Jedi Shadow they have, clones too now that droids won't touch you guys, and do everything they can to take him out."
"It's a coup," Cody said finally, getting over his shock. "He. Red. He kriffing. He must have killed Dooku for real and this is him stealing the clanker army away from the Sith Lord."
Skywalker, who had been in the process of standing, sat back down. "Oh shit."
"He just ended the kriffing war," Cody said, holding his head. "He kept ranting, back in the beginning, that this whole thing was a big distraction. That we couldn't see what was really going on because of all the fighting. Kept pissing off brothers all over the place about it too."
"He said something like that on Ord Pardron," Rex said. "I think Jesse nearly took his head off."
"If that's true," Skywalker said slowly, "then he's about to show the whole Galaxy what we've been blind to. He's made you and your brothers non-coms, which means you…"
"We have no place," Cody said, look at him.
Rex went cold. If they couldn't fight, if there was no war…what use did the Republic have for them? They had no rights. They had no home. There were millions of them and more brothers being decanted every day.
"We need to talk to someone in the Senate," Skywalker said. "Someone who can help us."
"Amidala?" Rex asked. "Could she help?"
Skywalker hesitated. "Maybe? We've been fighting lately. I know some others who might be willing to help, though. I'll reach out to them, see what they think. We have to be able to figure this out."
Keres… Rex cursed himself a fool. Names. Hadn't Red always said names had power? That old woman had said something about that name—Keres, destructive death?—and how Red would be Verath again. Names, though. If names had power, what was Red's real name? Wasn't that maybe the key to everything in the end?
Skywalker sighed, dragging Rex out of his thoughts, and took the clanker's head from him. "All right. Let's destroy this thing before it gets us into more trouble."
"Yeah," Rex said. "We have enough trouble as it is."