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Erebus Rising

Chapter Text

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?"

Kix grunted.

"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.

No.

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?

He smiled.

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.

Alone.

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."

Chapter Text

Boba was bored. Everyone was on planet except for a few support clones and he was alone on the cruiser with no one to spar with. It was annoying, waiting for everyone to come back, not knowing who would come back.

He wandered through the ship, finding one of the other little communications rooms they had stashed away, and sat in one of the spinning chairs.

Bored.

Tired.

Mostly bored.

He missed his dad.

He missed Red, too.

This all really sucked.

Someone needed to kill this Sith so he could go home and Red could come home and everything could go back to normal. He played with the comm's console, typing in random numbers. He spun in the chair and sighed, groaning in annoyance. Boredom sucked.

"State your business," an electronic voice demanded.

Boba stopped spinning. What?

"State your business," the electronic voice repeated.

"Uh," Boba said intelligently.

"You are not a droid," the voice said.

"Noooo," Boba said.

"Boba?" a new voice demanded, a familiar one.

"Red!" Boba said, sitting up straight and lunging toward the mic. "Buir."

"Boba," Red said gently. "You shouldn't call me that."

Boba rubbed at his nose, ashamed at the way his eyes started to water. He was a big boy, he wouldn't cry. "I can call you whatever I want. If you hadn't been so dumb then you and dad could have done this the proper way."

"Oh, Boba. That was never going to happen between us," Red said. He sounded sad. "Things just...it wasn't possible at the time we knew each other. Maybe if it had been earlier for both of us, or even later for me, but then it wasn't possible." A pause, then: "Is there anyone with you right now?" Red asked.

"No?" Boba said, looking around. "Why?"

"Just curious," Red said. "The… Anakin, Qui-Gon, Rex, and Cody. They're all not likely to be very happy with me right now and I'd like a moment to explain to you what's going on before they say anything to you."

"What is going on?" Boba asked.

There was a sigh, although the comm distorted it a little. "Well, I fucked up," Red said. "Maybe just a little. You know that the Sith took me and that's why you went with Rex and the others?" Boba grunted in agreement, frowning and waiting for the other to get to the point. "I lost my temper."

Boba grinned. "You do have a temper."

"Just a bit of one," Red laughed.

"Dad hated your temper," Boba said, spinning in the chair. There were so many times Jango and Red had gone at it, yelling over stupid things, and Boba had just watched them before asking if they wanted to play to break it up. They'd always stop if they saw him listening, trying to keep him out of whatever argument they were having, and go back to kid-friendly activities.

"I almost broke his jaw that one time," Red laughed. "He would have deserved it, though. Anyway, I'm getting off-track. I, er, lost my temper and might have decided that survival was the better part of valor, so on and so forth, and…"

"And?"

"Jango taught you tactics, correct?" Red asked.

Boba frowned. Red's voice was all over the place, the way he was speaking, everything. "Yeah? So?"

"Okay, good," Red said. "So you will understand when I say that sometimes, when it seems you cannot defeat an enemy in outright combat at the beginning that, for a time, it sometimes is in your best interest to cooperate so as to possibly gain an advantage."

"You went Sith?" Boba asked, trying to figure out what Red was saying.

"Kind of?" Red said. "Only in the strictest of terms."

"And in the not strictest of terms?" Boba asked.

"Eh," Red said. "That's a little more complicated."

"I can do complicated!" Boba said, jutting out his chin. "I'm eleven, Red. I know how the Galaxy works!"

"Oh, Boba," Red said with a sigh. "Let me protect you?"

Boba crossed his arms and clumped back in the chair. "What else is going on?"

"I've protected your brothers," Red said. "All of you will be safe now that this farce of a war that Sidious concocted is over."

"Wait, what?" Boba asked, frowning. "But, Red, they're soldiers. What's the Republic going to do with an Army if there's no war to fight?"

Red was snickering. "Oh, they're going to have plenty of work to do, don't you worry. Just because they're not dying by the thousands every day doesn't mean the Republic doesn't desperately need them."

"If you can't beat them, join them…" Boba said softly. "And then wipe them all out."

"Salt and burn," Red purred. "Destroy everyone who ever thought they could get away with harming another sentient."

"Red," Boba started, then stopped, not sure what he wanted to say. No, he did. "I want to help you."

"No, Boba, ner'adiik," Red said. "You need to stay with your brothers, it's not safe where I am."

"I don't care!" Boba shouted. "I want to be with you! I want to help you stop those who hurt you! That's what you're going to do, isn't it? You're going after the slavers, those Zygerrians who branded you and sold you off."

The door to the comm room opened and Boba saw Rex and Cody. Aw, kriff. Busted.

"Boba," Red said, voice gentle. "Be good. Listen to your brothers. Try not to cause too much havoc, all right?"

"Shut it down," Cody said, striding into the room. "Dammit, Boba, shut it down!"

"No!" Boba shouted as Rex grabbed him around the middle. "Red!"

"I love you, Boba," Red said. "I don't know how you found this frequency, but it won't work again. I'm sorry. I can't allow it to."

"Red!!" Boba said, struggling to get away as Rex hauled him out of the comm room and out into the hallway. The Jedi were there, and Boba shouted insults at them, stringing words together in Mando'a that made no sense, furious and crying and not ashamed of his tears.

He knew what Red was saying, even if he hadn't said it.

His dad had never said good-bye, but Red was.

Red was going to die and he wanted to make sure Boba knew he was cared for.

He clung to Rex, giving up all pretense about being anything other than what he was--a child without his family, and cried.

=

"Is Boba all right?" General Jinn asked as Rex joined Cody and the Jedi on the bridge of the Resolute.

"No," Rex said bluntly, adding as an afterthought: "Sir."

General Jinn smiled sadly, "The comm unit was recording their conversation."

Rex glanced at Cody who just shook his head.

"He seems very…"

"He talks like Red for the most part," General Skywalker said. "Then his speech patterns shift, then they shift again. At least we have an idea of his plans, though?"

"Like what?" Rex asked, crossing his arms. "I'm sorry, I'm trying to see some good in this after dealing with a traumatized kid, sir."

"I get it," Skywalker said, grimacing. "From what I got, he's planning to go after the Zygerrians, probably other slavers. We know Red had a lot of hate for anyone who traded in other sentients and as Keres, he has the power to take them down."

"And the Republic can use us, now that the war doesn't actually exist anymore, to clean up whatever mess he makes," Cody said.

"The other Separatist Generals might find themselves other armies," Rex said.

"That will take time," Jinn pointed out. "And nothing is stopping Keres from taking them out before they do so."

"He'd see them as a threat to his plan," Skywalker agreed. "And a threat to the clones."

"Kark," Cody muttered. "We've been adopted in the worst way possible."

"We did want to take him home with us," Rex pointed out, trying to smile.

"Too bad the one we wanted to take home had claws," Cody said.

Rex tried to smile and found that he couldn't. He needed to tell Cody.

"Be that as it may," Jinn said, looking unsettled. "Master Yoda transmitted a holo while we were fighting that explains our odd situation. Keres, it seems, did indeed stage a coup by assassinating Count Dooku."

"There's more," Skywalker said as he frowned at Jinn. "Qui-Gon, what aren't you telling us?"

Jinn shook his head. "Anakin, it's enough to know that we were right. Let's let it end there."

"General," Cody asked. "How did Keres kill Dooku?"

Trust Cody to go for the throat, Rex thought, watching as Jinn bowed his head in grief. That was what had upset the older Jedi.

"I am merely guessing," Jinn said, holding up a hand, "however, it appears that while Keres killed Dooku by stabbing him in the back with two lightsabers, he. He utilized a very serious and heretical Force technique known as Force drain."

Skywalker swore in Huttese. "Qui-Gon, that's not something you learn from a book laying around somewhere. That's some seriously Dark juju. If Keres is using Force drain?"

Jinn looked grim. "I know. It's the only thing that makes sense from what I saw. The motions, the transfer of energy, the comments about hunger. It all fits with what the Order knows about a Force drain."

"Mind filling in the rest of us?" Cody asked.

Jinn nodded slowly and spoke quietly. "Keres spoke of being hungry when he taunted Ventress after killing Dooku. No, I won't show either of you the footage--you shouldn't have to see him like that. Force drain is a practice where a Force user can, quite literally, drain the life energy out of another living being, but it has a side effect of never-ending hunger. It can, in some cases, turn the practitioner into a living wound in the Force, someone who cannot stop consuming living beings."

"Darth Nihilus, Lord of Hunger," Skywalker whispered, sounding awed. "He ate an entire planet and a Jedi Temple before two Jedi survivors from the old Purges and the Mandalorians destroyed him."

"Yes. His is an extreme case, but a warning. If Keres is indeed draining those he comes across?" Jinn looked worried. "We might not be able to save him. There might not be anything to save."

=

It was such a tiny thing, a name, but so powerful in the right hands.

He had everything he needed to find it--blood, hair, skin, bone.

He could clone a new being from everything he held and yet he could find nothing!

He snarled and pushed the bowl away from him. It should have worked, why didn't it work?

He knew his apprentice had a True Name. He had gone to the Temple with a name and they had changed it there, but the records had been altered. He knew what tampering looked like.

A binding would not work without a True Name and Verath needed to be brought to heel. No more of this nonsense. The fact that Dooku was dead was acceptable, to a degree, but this business with the droids and clones was not.

The war must continue!

Did Verath not understand that? Or had he gotten sentimental with all that time spent with the Jedi? Unacceptable. He would burn that nonsense right out of Verath's mind, leave only that beautiful cunning and hatred behind.

Perhaps he'd capture a clone and have Verath torture it. Yes, that might do the job. Of course, his perfect apprentice would be reluctant at first, he always was. He'd blubber and cry but he'd do the job and by the end he'd be savoring in the power it gave him.

And then, he thought, he would have Verath on the floor of the cell, in the blood and mess. Verath always did look best when he was bleeding and wrecked, denying what he so obviously wanted. How could he say no when he so obviously was saying yes with his body, his eyes? Sidious did so love the paradox.

He missed his apprentice. He wanted him back, by his side, in his bed again.

But first, that spell. And that name.

=

Rex felt numb after everything that had happened in the last few days as he retired to his bunk for the night. Brothers were muttering amongst themselves, uneasy, cautious, wondering what was going to happen now.

Rex had no answers for them.

He stood in the middle of his room, not turning on the light, and sighed as he felt a weight in the room. Like eyes.

"You're making life complicated," he growled.

"I can stop," Red offered, sounding small and broken. "I think I figured out how I'm doing this, maybe. I could break it, leave you alone. If you wanted."

"You don't get to be hurt by this," Rex snapped, turning and taking his armor. He refused to look for Red in the room, or leave his armor on and let the other think that Rex thought he was a threat. He was, though, wasn't he? He was the ultimate threat, if Rex listened to his Generals talk. Aw, kriff.

Rex took his armor off in silence, setting it aside, and finally turned to find Red. Keres? Who was he actually dealing with? The other wasn't anywhere that Rex could see--not on his bunk, not at the fold down desk, but the room was very dark.

"All right, where are you?" Rex asked, tired.

"Are you going to yell at me some more?" Red asked, his voice still so small and sad. Rex had never heard him sound that way and, part of him ached to make it better, but most of him just wanted him to knock it off.

"That depends," Rex said. "You going to keep lying to me?"

Silence and then the darkness in the room ebbed enough that Rex could see, and Red was tucked into a corner, knees pulled to his chest. The other man had tried to make himself as small as possible and looked like a wreck, tear tracks on his face, loose hair pulled in every direction as shadows played over his body, trying to soothe him.

What was his life now that he could understand what shadows were doing?

"Oh, Red," Rex said, squatting down near him--but not in reaching distance. He was still armed and not stupid. "Do you have any idea what you've gotten yourself into?"

"Yes," Red whispered. "But, Rex, you don't understand! I--I needed to survive!"

"If I had any smarts at all, I'd spare us all a lot of time and energy and put you down now," Rex said, trying to ignore the way his stomach threatened to rebel at the idea.

Red giggled, slapping a hand over his mouth, eyes wide. "It wouldn't work," he said, voice soft. "I'm...here but not here? Not really. I can see you, touch you, be seen by anyone else around here, but I'm not actually here."

"Is that why you're actually sane and not trying to murder all of us? Suck out all of our life-energies?" Rex asked.

Red looked away. "Who figured that out?"

"Jinn."

Red buried his face against his knees, shoulders shaking. The shadows enveloped him for a moment, the room darkening to almost pitch-blackness, and Rex's hand moved to his pistol. He didn't know if a blaster would do anything against a shadow but he was willing to try it if he was attacked and, all else aside, the noise would bring every brother in hearing range running.

"Red," Rex tried after a moment, "you need to stop. Jinn said if you don't that they can't help you. They have a plan and this Force drain thing? It can destroy you. Turn you into a wound of some sort, some Lord of Hunger."

"I know," Red said from the shadows. They pulled away, leaving Red behind and the other was paler than Rex had ever seen him. "I. I know what I can turn into."

"Then you know that you have to stop," Rex said, nodding. The subject was closed, wonderful.

"No," Red said, shaking his head. "No, I, Rex, I can't stop, not yet. You don't understand what's happening right now, what I'm trying to do."

"Destroy the slavers?" Rex guessed.

"More than that, so much more," Red said, hesitating before creeping a little closer. Rex let him, hand still on his blaster. "All the pain and suffering I've seen and I know I can fix it. I finally have a way, a power, where I can remove the corruption that has been tying people's hands for so long. Once that rot is gone, maybe they'll finally be able to see sense."

"And if they can't?" Rex asked. "What then? Will you be this Emperor you've declared yourself?"

Red smiled, creeping even closer. "Clever boy," he said. "Of course you found that order, had to know why the droids ran off on you. Maybe I will be Emperor, maybe I won't. I don't want to rule. Never have. I've always just wanted to be left alone but no one does that. They never let me be." Red paused, almost knee-to-knee with Rex. "If...I was going to be Emperor, would you side with me? Would you and your brothers help me?"

"Why did you use Cody's numbers, Red?" he asked.

Red tilted his head. "Isn't it obvious?" he asked. "You're my heart, Rex, but Cody? He's my right hand. I need both of you so much."

"Do you visit him too?" Rex asked, curious.

Red shook his head. "I can't."

"You visited Kix," Rex pointed out.

"He was on the same ship as you in close proximity," Red said. "If the med bay wasn't so close by I wouldn't have been able to."

"How are you doing this?" Rex asked, letting go of his pistol finally, and crossing his arms. "You owe me an answer."

Red scooted a little closer, their knees touching, and a little of that wildness in his eyes--they were that odd blue-green color that Rex had always been fascinated by, not yellow, which was even more confusing--eased. "Remember, I can probably undo it if you want me to."

"Probably?" Rex asked, arching a brow.

"Eh, I'm still not sure what I did," Red said, smiling shyly. "I think what happened is when I, er, went looking for you when we met up the second time I might have inadvertently started a bond. Jinn rambles when he teaches, which is an excellent teaching method for someone who doesn't even know what questions to ask, and bonds had come up at some point. I was trying to find you by Force signature, which is how I found your bunk, but I, uh, might have...latched on a little deeper than expected and created a bond by accident?"

"What does that mean for me?" Rex asked, considering the possibilities.

"Nothing," Red said. "It's benign. It lets me find you, maybe know if you're in trouble? If it was developed, I suppose, it could do more, but right now I can just use it to find you."

"No influence?" Rex asked. Red shook his head. "And you can't listen in or monitor anything or do any of that hoodoo stuff that--"

Red looked sick. "No, Rex, your mind is your own. I wouldn't do any of that without your permission. Think of this as more like a flare into the Galaxy that only I can see."

Rex rubbed at his chin, considering. "And this bond, this you being here but not really here--is that why you're more like my Red than Keres?"

Red froze, breath quickening. "Rex," he whispered, the shadows beginning to writhe around them in distress.

"You said you wouldn't lie," Rex said, hand sliding down to his pistol again. Please, please, don't make him do this.

"I'm not going to lie," Red said, leaning forward and placing those ice cold hands on Rex's knees. "But I can't answer that."

"You could answer it but you won't," Rex countered.

Red hesitated before pulling away, his hands going up to fist his hair and bite his lip. Rex stared in horror as his eyes danced between yellow and blue-green, shadows caressing Red's face, blood running from his lip into his beard. Red shook his head, pulling his hair harder, fighting with himself as he hunched over, whimpering.

"Red?" he asked, praying to every god he had ever come across in the Galaxy for--he didn't know what he was asking for. Something good.

A hiss, and yellow eyes glared up at him, then a gasp and blue-green overtook.

"Rex," Red whispered. "I'm so sorry. I should go."

He didn't know what he was doing, he really didn't, but he let go of his pistol and reached out to pull Red's face toward his. Red was cold, colder than he had been before, but when Rex kissed him he tasted the same, despite the blood. The feel of Red crawling into his lap, clinging to him, was the same. Red felt thinner but Rex didn't care as he pulled him close, hands on the other's hips, grabbing and holding him tight.

"Why did you get rid of the scars?" Rex asked, breathless.

"Because I could?" Red said, looking dazed, running his hands over Rex's head. He seemed unable to stop touching Rex, needing to ground himself in this moment somehow. "Because I couldn't take another second with the reminder that someone else had owned me, had raped me, had taken something from me that no one had any right to. I needed to take something back and figured, why not that?"

Rex felt his heart hud painfully against his chest and kissed Red again. "If we do this, this doesn't fix anything, you know that, right?"

"Fix?" Red asked.

Rex brushed a hand through Red's hair, "Red, you know what you're doing is wrong, right?"

Red stared at him, emotions flitting across his face too fast for Rex to read. "What?" he asked, breathless. "No, it's. Rex, no, it's not. It's not wrong."

Rex could feel the moment twisting away from him, could feel Red getting further and further away, and closed his eyes. General Jinn was right, but he didn't have all the pieces. Rex didn't either, but maybe together they could figure out a way to save Red? It was time to come clean. He pulled Red in for another kiss, feeling the other relax against him, and hated himself for what he was about to do.

"Red," he said, keeping his eyes closed so he didn't see what Red looked like. "If you don't stop, you're going to end up becoming what you hate. You're going to become the slaver, become the murderer, become the rapist."

He heard Red's pained gasp, the denial, felt when the other man threw himself out of Rex's grasp. He kept his eyes closed until the room felt lighter, the weight of shadows of Red's presence gone.

And then he went to find Cody.

=

Qui-Gon used his private comm, encrypted, to contact Feemor. His mind was full of questions, he was ill at ease, and he was unable to mediate. Red was using Force drain on other beings. Who knew how long he had been using the practice. Had he used it before, as Verath? He did claim to not have many memories of the attack on Vaylara, if he had Force drained a whole planet it might account for that.

No, if he had done that then he would most definitely have already become a living wound in the Force. Red had been shadowed, slightly, but a bright white-blue flame dancing through the Force with curiosity and awe, and sadness. He was not the darkness Keres most likely was now.

"Qui-Gon," Feemor greeted. "I have Master Tahl here with me. We might have found something."

"I am about to complicate your lives," Qui-Gon said, bowing his head tiredly. His hair fell in his face and he pushed it back in annoyance. "It seems that our friend is using Force drain. Whatever we come up with the pull--"

"Qui-Gon," Tahl said, coming into view. "Has he ever been to Korriban?"

Qui-Gon frowned, trying to think. "Yes, I believe so. Why?"

"We know our friend has a habit of liking artifacts," Tahl said, narrowing her eyes. "Not just holocrons, but artifacts that spirits attach themselves to. That glass pyramid of his was a nasty piece of work. The Temple never found holocrons on his ship but that's not to say he didn't have them or other artifacts he didn't feel comfortable turning over to the Temple."

"There's plenty I wouldn't let us take a crack at," Feemor said with a roll of his eyes.

"Force drain is either an innate talent or taught," Tahl went on. "We know this. But, Qui-Gon, the Lord of Hunger was bound to his mask and buried in his crypt on Korriban. If our sneaky little thief took the mask?"

Feemor glanced at Tahl. "Master Tahl, you are certainly cheerful today."

Qui-Gon shook his head, cursing softly. "It is a legitimate possibility. We do not know the Sith Lord's powers, and our friend's keep growing. If this is the case, he may have other 'teachers' we do not know about."

"I was going to suggest letting out little thief take out the Sith Lord," Tahl suggested, idly toying with a strand of hair. "We know he wants to and it would make our lives easier. Then we could focus on stopping one Sith, not two."

"This is where the three of us begin to disagree," Feemor said. "Master Nu is of the opinion that we at least know the Sith Lord's identity and most likely their eventual goal. It is better to keep an eye on them and let things be. You know Master Tahl's position."

"And your's?" Qui-Gon asked, curious.

"I don't know what should be done about the Sith Lord," Feemor admitted, "but we need to stop our friend. He is quickly becoming the bigger threat. If what I've overheard from the Council lately is correct, he's not just ended the war by taking over the droids, but he's assassinated Dooku. Qui-Gon, you should know that the Council has gotten their hands on one of the droids and have cracked the code. They know about the order our friend sent out. Emperor?"

Qui-Gon grit his teeth. So much for trying to stop the information from being spread. At least no one knew the origin of the name Keres or Cody's service numbers. It wouldn't take long to piece it together, but any time at this point was time they desperately needed.

"You said you might have a solution?" Qui-Gon asked.

"Maybe," Feemor said. "Another thing we disagree on."

"There's a slim chance it could work," Tahl agreed. "What do you know about the Massassi?"

Qui-Gon frowned, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he thought. "A subspecies of the ancient Sith, if I'm not mistaken, but extinct."

"Yes and no," Tahl said. "Not completely extinct. They're trapped, from some of the scrolls I've been studying."

"Here's where we have a solution that could possibly work," Feemor said. "There are crystals--"

"Sith crystals," Tahl pointed out.

"That can strip a person of their powers--"

"But can also sometimes imprison them in an alternative dimension--"

"Like with the Massassi--"

"But the crystals could work!" Tahl said.

"Yes," Feemor said in annoyance, "but we could also be condemning him to living in a world within the crystal with no way back."

"Master Nu is also of the opinion that we just subject our friend to Force light and be done with it," Tahl said. "She says it has proven effective in the histories of disrupting a darksider's connection to pretty much everything. However, I don't know how it would impact Force drain at this point."

"I don't think it would stop him from attacking," Qui-Gon agreed. "The crystals sound like a better plan, though where you would find them is the question."

"Zoist," Feemor said. "Or Korriban."

"Both places are not easily traveled to right now," Tahl said. "The Council won't authorize either of us on this type of mission. You know that, Qui-Gon."

Qui-Gon sighed, "I know. I'll think of something. We need to find those crystals."

"Time is running out if he does have the Lord of Hunger's mask," Feemor said. "If he's receiving instruction from any other ancient Sith? The Galaxy is in for a lot of pain."

=

Rex drank the liquor Cody gave him, trying to ignore the look he could feel his brother giving him, and waited for the numbness to spread.

"We need to tell the Generals," Cody said, voice abnormally gently.

"I know," Rex said.

"It's going to be okay," Cody said.

Rex stifled a laugh. Okay? What part of this was okay? He nodded and poured himself another drink as Cody grabbed his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. He didn't know what to do anymore and honestly, he really just wanted to curl up with Cody and sleep until everything started to make sense. He wanted comfort and security, even love. It wasn't too much to ask.

He wanted Red, dammit, but that was impossible. Especially after what he'd just done.

"You did the right thing," Cody said.

"Still feel like shit," Rex said. "Go get the Generals. I'm not going anywhere."

Cody nodded and left, and Rex kept drinking. He wasn't paying attention to how long it took Cody to fetch General Jinn and Skywalker, just that another two glasses were gone, but he looked up at them and nodded. General Skywalker raised an eyebrow at him when he didn't salute--like he normally did, even if it sometimes was in jest--but he just felt numb to the whole situation right now. Besides, what did it matter right now?

"Cody wouldn't tell us much more aside than you needed to talk to us," General Jinn said, looking annoyed.

"Red's been visiting us," Rex said, smiling grimly when that got their attention.

"Excuse me?" General Jinn asked.

"It's definitely Red, not Keres," Rex said. "Eye color. Said he created a bond between us by accident but it's not more than a flare into the Galaxy to let him find me."

"May I?" Jinn asked, sitting down in Cody's abandoned chair and holding out his hand. Rex frowned but nodded, giving the General his hand as well. His eyes unfocused for a moment before he sighed. "There is a bond, very small and unfinished. It is, as he said, unable to do more than let him find you."

Rex hadn't thought he was lying but it was good to have that confirmed. "I don't know how many times he's been on the ship. I've only talked to him twice. Last time he admitted it helped him to just see me." He reached for the glass and emptied it. "I don't think he's going to come back after this time. I also think he's losing whatever fight he's fighting."

"Start from the beginning, Rex," General Skywalker said.

"No," Rex said, looking away. "I'm telling you what I think is tactically relevant. The rest is none of your business."

"Fair enough," General Jinn said gently.

"He said whatever he did he did to survive," Rex said. "I don't, I don't know what he meant by that, but you know as well as I do that that Sith Lord terrifies him. He knows the dangers of Force drain but, I don't know. The benefits outweigh the danger? He said he can't stop. He's going after not just the slavers, but anything he thinks is corruption. Whoever your Sith Lord is, figure out what his power base, that's what Red's going after. The whole Emperor idea? I think he made it up on the spot, he still wants to be left alone.

"He doesn't think he's doing anything wrong," Rex whispered.

"Why did he use Cody's numbers?" Skywalker asked.

"I know why, sir," Cody said. "Rex told me. It's not important."

Jinn nodded. "Rex, are you all right?"

Rex looked at them, at his Generals, at men he would glad die for. "He's fighting himself, I don't know what for, but he's fighting. I just told him that what is doing is wrong and he's going to turn into everything he hates most in this Galaxy. What do you think?"

=

He ached to be touched. He needed someone to touch him, to hold him, to--

Weak, the mask hissed.

He glanced at it, swallowing thickly.

Weak, weak, you are stronger than your flesh.

"You forget what it's like," he said, looking away.

This planet is full of life. Eat it. It will be enough to stop those thoughts.

Keres considered the mask's words. He could satiate the hunger growing under his skin, the gnawing that never fully went away, and with the power that would come from draining a planet dry he...could alter himself further.

Removing the physical reminders of his life before had been nothing, a barest expenditure of power. Removing this too-human need for touch, for connection? It would be laughably easy. And what did it matter now, when the one he wanted so much wanted him not at all?

He didn't want to break the bond but he thought Keres was wrong, that he was a monster.

He sneered, getting to his feet and walking through the halls of Dooku's ridiculous castle until he reached a balcony. Yes, this was a good vantage point. His cyare thought him in the wrong, thought that he was going to become the worst there was in the Galaxy when there was so much worse out there then him.

Fine.

If that's what it took to make sure no one else went through what he had? He would let his heart hate him. It wouldn't matter for much longer anyway.

Yes, he heard the mask whisper. Feast.

Keres closed his eyes, kneeling on the cool stone, and sank into the Force, grabbing deep at the threads of the planet and the creatures that lived on it, and pulled them toward him. He felt the power flow into him, euphoric and lightheaded from the inflow of energy, body filling with warmth for the first time in ages.

He heard the shadows, listened to them as he swayed on his knees, heard the Force weep around him. He didn't care as he looked inside himself and found where his own emotions dwelt.

He couldn't do this, fight this war, if he was weak. He had to be strong because he was going to be alone.

He had to survive.

He used the energy from the drain to form a knife of dark energy and set about cutting out every emotion he could find. He left the ones that would serve him in his war against Sidious--anger and hate--and pulled out everything else.

When he opened his eyes, a green crystal floated in front of him. It was jagged and shaped like a teardrop, and when he touched it, he could feel it chiming with everything he had just attempted to destroy. How odd.

He rose to his feet as he debated what to do with the crystal.

Destroy it, the mask hissed.

"Get fucked," Keres told it. What did it know? Some long dead Sith? Keres was the one in charge and it would do well to remember that fact. Besides, masks were quite easy to destroy.

He chewed on his thumb, still contemplating the crystal, as he summoned a droid.

"You," he instructed, "will fly to these coordinates. You will deliver this crystal to Chief Medical Officer Kix of the 501st."

"Yes, Emperor," the droid said.

"Upon safe delivery, self-destruct in a manner that harms no one," he said.

"Yes, Emperor."

Keres nodded and watched the droid carefully take the crystal and march off. If Kix, or Rex, or anyone else destroyed the crystal--well. Then it wasn't his problem anymore.

Serenno was a dead planet now. It was time to put his army to use.

He went back and gathered up the mask and the holocrons from Dooku's workroom, greeting both Bane and Zannath, before packing them away. There were other things he would take with him, tools he could use, but his mind was busy putting plans together.

He was wasting time.

Sidious relied on the Senate, on a Galaxy that ran on corruption and power. It was time to fix that now that he had an army to carry out his bidding.

Zygerria was first, maybe the Hutts as well--slavery could not be allowed to prosper any longer. Then, after, he would look toward the Trade Federation. Yes. This was a good plan. He would bring the wealthy to their knees.

Then, perhaps, as Sidious panicked over his "Grand Plan", he would kill the Sith publicly.

Or maybe privately.

He had yet to decide. He had time.

Sidious would die, that was all that mattered, the method would come to him eventually.

Chapter Text

The Jedi High Council convened as soon as Yoda could assemble them, utilizing holograms if the members were not physically present. They needed to discuss how to deal with this new threat to their Order, with Keres as this new self-declared Emperor.

"We should never have given him the freedom to be taken in the first place," Poof said. "He should have been locked--"

"As Maul was?" Adi asked mildly. "You forget, the Sith Lord knows our Temple. He would have taken them both and most likely sooner. Without having Red out there for the time we did we would not have the information we do now. It was in our best interest."

"And, likely, the Sith Lord would have another apprentice to add to his ranks," Qui-Gon added. "Red freed Anakin from the Sith's influence. Losing such a powerful Jedi would be a blow to the Order."

Poof sat in silence.

"Debating the past will get us nowhere," Mace said. "We must look forward. We have an extremely powerful Sith, who might or might not have been granted the title of Lord, bent on destroying an vested Sith Lord and certain establishments of the Galaxy that we ourselves have turned a blind eye to. That does not also factor in certain wild cards."

"Such as?" Plo Koon asked, waving a clawed hand.

"The third Sith Lord--Maul," Qui-Gon said. "Other Separatist Generals who may or may not be willing to go along with Keres."

"If they don't," Depa said slowly, "Keres will most likely destroy them."

"The Galaxy is going to be plunged into a war that we cannot fight," Mace said.

Yoda ran his hand over his gimer stick, ears drooped low. "Fight it, we can," he said carefully, considering the different futures the Force showed him. "Want to, we do not."

"Master?" Micah asked, looking tired even through the hologram. "Why would we not want to get involved?"

"It's the Sith," Saesee Tiin agreed. "It is our mandate to get involved."

"Politics," Yoda said, shifting in his chair. "Chaos."

"All those newly freed people will have to go somewhere," Qui-Gon said. "If only to stop their former owners from reclaiming them somehow and trying to force the issue."

"We can't help them," Mace said, shaking his head. "We don't have the manpower. We number too few, Qui-Gon. The same reason we have been ignoring the issue for so long holds true now--it is outside the Republic's boundaries."

"Not all of it," Micah said. "Slavery exists in many forms. We just don't want to see it."

Mace looked like he had bitten something sour.

"Involved, we cannot be. Neutral, the Jedi must remain," Yoda said. It was the only way to save the Order. The Republic was about to undergo a massive change, the likes it had not seen in centuries, but the Jedi must survive. He needed to see that they survived what came next. Neutrality. Close their doors. They would know when to act.

"Master," several of the Council protested at once.

"Tend to our wounded, we will," Yoda said. "Troops, we will see to. Wait and see, we must."

Silence and then assent. He had spoken and no one would disagree with him. It saddened him. There would come a time when he could no longer lead his children forward and they needed to start thinking for themselves. This blind following was good for none of them.

Still. Let this be enough to save them.

=

"You sealed his records years ago," Mace asked him quietly as he helped Yoda back to his room. "Why?"

Yoda looked up at his friend as he made tea. "Power, names have," he said. "A past we all have. Realized, after Naboo, who our friend was."

"Qui-Gon still doesn't know, does he?" Mace asked, seating himself.

"Saved him, Red did? No." Yoda poured the water over the tea leaves and floated the bigger mug to Mace. "Sealed, the security footage is. Much damage they did to each other. Ended on Naboo, it might have. Better, that might have been."

"His name wasn't always Obi-Wan, was it?" Mace asked, holding his mug and letting the leave seep.

"No," Yoda said. "Neither found on Stewjon, was he."

"Why change the records?" Mace asked. "Master, the amount of subterfuge in this case is extreme, even for you."

Yoda hummed, taking his tea and sitting with his friend. "A vision, a Master had, when the infant came to us. Masked, his records should be, though why he could not say. Cared not, the family did."

"Did you tell them what we changed it to?" Mace asked.

"No," Yoda said. "Only that it was done. From his records only, his true name can be found. Not easily unlocked can they be."

"Yoda," Mace said. "What could the Sith do with Keres's true name?"

Yoda sipped his tea, taking a moment to push back the terrible feeling of dread he had. "Terrible things. Puppet, he would be. Enslaved, forced to carry out every wish."

"Is there any way to check those records for tampering?" Mace asked.

Yoda nodded. He beckoned a datapad over and pulled up the records for Obi-Wan Kenobi, Initiate. His ears raised in alarm and his tea fell to the ground.

"Master?"

The records had been accessed.

=

Maul whirled, lightsaber ignited, intent on burying it on whoever dared creep up on him--

"Hello, brother," Verath purred, parrying his attack.

Maul stepped back, wary, twirling his blade--though never as good as his brother was. "Verath."

"No, not Verath anymore. Keres," the redhead corrected. "I refuse to accept the name he gave me. I have taken a new name. A better name."

Maul waited, trying to read the situation, but not able to. The other felt odd in the Force--there but not, like he was standing in the middle of a storm, or even like he was…

"Enough with the metaphors," Keres said, walking around Maul, evaluating him with cold, yellow eyes that leaked shadows. He had done something, made some contract with them, then. "I have come to offer you terms."

"Terms?" Maul asked, lips curving in amusement. "Of what?"

Keres smiled, a look so cold that Maul stepped back and brought up his blade in defense of an attack that never came. Keres snickered, waving two fingers that forced Maul's hand down. "Don't be stupid. We both know you'd lose that fight," he drawled, coming closer. He touched Maul's face, hands like ice. "I want to give you a choice."

"What have you done?" Maul asked. The shadows, the coldness of his brother's touch. He knew how he had been before, always pouring over books, reading spells, talking to holocrons and artifacts, the spirits of Sith long past that Sidious couldn't see. Keres had always had a talent for seeing what others could not, for knowing more than one wanted to admit to, but it looked like maybe that talent was finally getting him into trouble.

"Many things," Keres said. "Be more specific."

"Why're you so cold?" Maul asked.

Keres smiled, pressing full body against him. Even though both their clothes, Maul could feel no body heat from his brother. "Side effect," he said. "All power has it. Darkness corrupts, or something along those lines. My shadows feed off something, always have, I just never used them as much before. They feed off my life-force, I drain the life from others, it's a vicious cycle."

"Brother," Maul said, knowing the truth that Keres would not speak. His shadows were killing him.

Keres smiled, brushing a kiss against Maul's lips. "Are you worried for me?"

"I never stopped you when you ran," Maul said.

"You wouldn't have been able to," Keres said, stepping back. "I would have killed you to have my freedom."

"Are you going to kill me now?" Maul asked, trying to ignore the tremble of fear inside him.

"That depends on you," Keres said. He took a dancing step back, twirling around the wide receiving room of the Sundarian throne room. "The Mandalorians really know how to build grand rooms, don't they? Pristine, open, airy. Beautiful."

"Who cares?" Maul asked. "There's too many places here to hide an assassin. It's just plain stupid if you ask me."

Keres came to a stop and smiled at him. "That's my Maul. So practical."

"What are my choices, brother?" he asked.

"I could kill you," Keres said, walking back toward him. "You could go back to Sidious and let him kill you. No, don't act so shocked, you know he's going to. Sidious is never going to let anyone take over for him, we exist to do his bidding and then he'll slaughter us when we outlive our usefulness. So, you can go back to him and let him kill you."

"You're telling me I can die?" Maul demanded, furious.

"Or you can take your chances with the Jedi," Keres said with a snicker. "But for what you did to Concord Dawn? Yes, brother, I would have to kill you." He touched Maul's cheek with what would almost have been care if Maul could not sense the fury under it. "I know you were only doing what your Master told you to do, but you still should have known better. At least I am giving you the choice to decide how you are going to die."

"Why do you care so much for these people?" Maul asked. "Master never said and I don't understand. If I'm going to die for it, at least tell me why."

Keres arched a brow. "Because someone from this system once showed me care," he said. "When he, in all rights, should have killed me. He took something broken, a being who did not understand anything he said, and thought 'here is something I can use' and cared for his weapon. He gave it a name, a home, and that weapon refuses to let anyone harm his memory."

Maul stared at Keres. "You're insane."

"More so than usual, probably," he agreed. "What will it be, Maul? Me, Sidious, or the Jedi?"

Maul tucked his lightsaber in his belt and took a step back. He had no doubt what Keres said about Sidious was right, though his heart hurt at the thought. He loved his Master, he'd die for him, but Sidious didn't care for him. Sidious didn't care for anyone but himself. Maul would have thought Sidious cared for Keres, almost, when he had ran but Sidious had been more upset about the loss of a tool than anything else.

And having to pay for a whore at night when he wanted one.

Keres was giving Maul the chance to make his own fate, for the first time in his life.

If he went to the Jedi, though, he would most likely be asked to help hurt Sidious and Keres both. Could he do that? Could he hurt his Master and his brother? And, if he did, did that mean that he would be the only Sith Lord left?

Did that mean...he won?

He took another step back, and another. Keres was watching him, that cold smile full of fury still on his face, but he wasn't moving to stop him.

Maul turned and ran.

=

Rex woke up smooshed on Cody's bunk, tangled with his brother's limbs. It had been a near constant for the last week as the Resolute and Maverick sat in Inner Rim space near Bespine, doing absolutely nothing. Rex was moping--Cody's words--but he just wanted to have some normality in his life. Cody was normal.

They used to sleep like this before, when they were on Kamino, and training. Those stupid pods were awful and Rex would often climb into Cody's to sleep with him, when he wasn't seeking comfort of another sort from other brothers. Cody never wanted that type of contact, had nearly broken his face for trying once when they were still figuring things out, then rolled his eyes and held him when he cried like a newly decanted brother. Cody was safe, home, everything he needed right now. He made sense while his whole Galaxy was coming apart at the seams.

The door to Cody's room swooshed open and Kix stumbled in, spewing words that Rex couldn't make his brain understand just yet.

"Oh hell, it is too early for this," Cody grumbled, throwing an arm over his eyes.

"Captain!" Kix said, grabbing at Rex's shoulder. "I cracked it!"

Rex swatted at Kix and hid under Cody.

"Kix, go away," Cody ordered. "It's, kark, what time is it?"

"No, you two need to see this." A pause. "Why are you two all huddled up here anyway? What's going on?"

"Rex was an idiot," Cody said.

"I wasn't thinking," Rex muttered.

"No shit," Cody said. "If I was getting ship-visits from Red I wouldn't have been shouting at him or trying to get tactical information out of him. And this is coming from me, the one who doesn't do the whole." He made a crude motion with his hand that Rex smacked him for. His brother was such an asshole. The biggest of all their batchmates for being an asshole, and that included Wolffe.

"Red was here again?" Kix asked. "When? I could have used his… Captain, what did you do?"

Rex grabbed the pillow and pulled it over his head and kicked Cody out of the bunk. He would have taken pleasure in the snarl of pain from his brother, but Kix was yanking the pillow off his head and glaring at him. Aw, kriff. Kix was going to kick his ass.

"Explain," Kix demanded.

Rex rubbed his eyes and sat up in the bed. Cody immediately sat on the bed again, punching Rex in the shoulder--asshole--but otherwise providing support. How was he going to explain this? He probably should come clean to all his brothers, let them get their kicks in, and he also needed to talk to Boba.

"Rex," Kix said, grabbing the chair from Cody's desk. "What's going on?"

"Red set up some sort of bond between us," Rex said. "By accident, but that's how he's been able to find us and get on the ship, even in hyperspace."

"Still want to figure out how he's doing that," Cody said.

"You want to ask a Sith how he's playing with shadows?" Rex asked, pinching Cody's side. "Go for it."

Cody grinned. "Nah, that's you. You're the one getting information out of your cyare."

Rex's face fell and he let his head fall back. "Yeah, I know." He couldn't stop seeing Red, the way he looked so terrified, the struggle he was going through, the way his eyes kept changing.

"Wait," Kix said, voice hard. "You're saying that Red was coming to you, for one reason or another, but you were using the situation strategically?"

"It gets worse," Cody said, smiling cheerfully.

"You can stop at any point," Rex said.

"Not really," Cody said. "You done kriffed up."

"How much worse?" Kix asked, shoulders slumping.

"Rex, our brilliant brother, essentially called Red a monster," Cody said.

Kix stared at them for a moment. "Captain, remember when you asked about how to handle people with trauma? That's not how you do it."

"He's insane," Rex said, trying to defend himself, even as it sounded weak.

"Doesn't mean he's not still traumatized!" Kix shouted. "Worse case scenario, when he got taken by the Sith, Red's mind fractured and he has Dissociative Identity Disorder. Essentially, Keres and Red are two different personalities inside his mind with Keres being the dominant one, except for when Red gains control enough to come visit us. Which isn't good, because that could mean we're stuck with Keres pretty much forever."

"Us?" Cody asked.

"I told you," Rex said, absently, and with growing shame and horror. "First time he spoke to me he also came and saw Kix because he was close enough."

"What would happen if the Red persona becomes too weak to fight back the Keres one?" Cody asked.

"Nothing good. Keres would have complete control, integration, I don't know. Look, it's a theory," Kix said. "I'm not a mind healer, I don't work with the grey matter. All I know is that it could fit. Could. There's plenty of mind healers who would squawk at me that none of it fits but Red's always been close-mouthed about the shit that happened to him in the past."

"Not that silent," Rex said quietly. The nights of holding Red, the scars, the talking, kisses. He knew more about that man's past than probably anyone else ever had--maybe even Jango Fett--definitely more than General Jinn.

"I'm still trying to figure out how, after I stuff you full of how to look after a traumatized person, after you've been so good with all our brothers and Red, you messed up on such a massive scale!" Kix said.

"You didn't hear what he was saying," Rex said. "What he was like, it was. He was so cold, it was like touching ice."

"You didn't tell the Generals that," Cody said, frowning.

"Why should I?" Rex asked. "What would the point in that have been?" He rubbed a hand over his head, tiredly remembering that he need to buzz it down shorter again. "He wasn't so cold the first time, maybe just a little, but this time it was like." He shuddered. "Like touching death."

Cody grabbed his shoulder and shook him. "That is relevant, Rex."

Kix's eyes were wide. "Yeah, Rex. That's pretty important."

"Tell us everything, right now," Cody said. "Start to finish, leave out nothing. First encounter to last."

"But," he protested, looking at Kix.

"Talk us through it," Kix said. "I'll tell you my news after, but this is important too. Our ori'vod is important."

Rex nodded and swallowed, thinking back to...was it only a week ago? Two? Less? He couldn't remember. He needed to sleep. He told them about Red coming to him, thinking he was dreaming, how Red had gotten rid of his scars and that was what kept making everything so surreal. How Red didn't want him to think, just wanted him to think it was a dream, but none of it had made sense. He couldn't see Red's eyes, even looking right at him, and how Red refused to tell him the truth.

"Oh, kriff," Rex realized, burying his face in his hands. "He let me hurt him. I threw him against the wall and pinned him there harder then I needed to. And he just let me."

Kix made a noise and Cody shushed him but Rex just wrapped his hands around the back of his neck, trying to breathe. What the hell was wrong with him?

"What next?" Cody asked. Rex shook his head, not wanting to say it. Cody wrapped an arm around him, pulling him close. "Rex'ika, it's going to be okay."

Rex started, voice halting, about coming back to his room to find Red. Knowing he was in the room but not seeing him, Red sounding so broken, him being so angry without knowing why, and Red pleading with him to understand that he'd done this to survive. And, kriff, the shadows trying to comfort him. Everywhere the shadows wrapped around him, petting him, nuzzling him, creepiest thing he'd seen since Kamino.

Threatening to put Red down, Red saying it wouldn't work anyway since he wasn't actually there. Everything he'd already told Jinn. Red not wanting to be an Emperor, but that he would be it if he had to… Red asking if Rex and his brothers would side with him if he was the Emperor.

"That's not right," Kix said softly. "I mean, us? Helping subdue the entire Galaxy? He wouldn't ask that of us."

The reasoning behind Cody's numbers in that droid's orders. How he could visit Kix but not Cody.

"Kind of wish I could see Red, not going to lie," Cody admitted.

The bond. Offering to get rid of it. How just saying Keres's name near Red made him almost go into convulsions. Why he got rid of the scars, how sure Red was that what he was doing was right. Rex's suddenly certainty that he needed to save Red from himself and the cruel words he had said.

"Go back," Kix said, voice muffled. "The bond." Rex looked at him from Cody's shoulder. Kix was chewing on his thumb, looking thoughtful. "Red said it was just a way to find you?" Rex nodded. "Yeah, I call ossik. Maybe he doesn't realize what he's doing?"

"General Jinn looked Rex over too," Cody pointed out. "Said it was just as Red claimed."

"Like the Jedi have never kept something from us," Kix said, rolling his eyes. "These chips, for example."

"Chips?" Cody asked, arm tightening on Rex.

"Biochips in our heads," Kix said. "With a grand total of one hundred and fifty orders on there that can be activated at any point, by anyone from what I could see, and we would lose complete and total autonomy. Some of them are really scary, Commander."

"Like what?" Cody asked.

"One of them is to take out every Jedi in the Galaxy," Kix said. "Another is to assassinate the Senate. Ultimate protection of the Chancellor at all costs, though there are contingency orders if he's removed that it then falls to the Vice-Chair."

Rex sat up, feeling sick. "Kix."

"Yeah," Kix said. "That's why I was excited when you said Red was around. I wanted some answers. Like how to get rid of the chips without trying to quietly arrange surgeries for every brother in the GAR without the Jedi knowing."

Cody nudged Rex. "Think you could figure out how to get Red to show up?"

Rex stared at him. "After everything I said to him? And if it's true that that thing is making me act different?"

"Then it's even more important to get his attention," Cody said. "Maybe he can make it not influence you. Red'd be pretty cut up over that."

Rex stared at his brothers, both looking at him expectantly, and he groaned. "Oh, kriff this, I don't know!"

"Try?" Kix asked. "Worst that can happen is it doesn't work."

Rex huffed, tilting his head back to try and think. No, worst that could happen was that it did work. He had hurt Red, both with words and actions. He didn't deserve to have him show up when he asked. He didn't even know what to do, how to use this bond thing. How did the Jedi even do this?

"What am I even supposed to do?" Rex asked, frustrated.

"Usually, you just focus on the person you want to talk to," Red said, voice full of dark amusement.

"KRIFF!" Kix shouted, falling off his chair.

"By all the gods," Cody breathed, scooting back to press against the metal of the bunk's wall.

Rex looked at Red--no. No, it wasn't Red, not anymore. That was Keres, wasn't it. His eyes were yellow and leaking shadows, even with that damned Sith tattoo still there, and he was dressed head-to-toe in black, in those expensive clothes that screamed how much one could not touch him. Rex tried to smile and felt it slide off his face.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Keres tilted his head to the side. "Odd words to speak," he said. "Why?"

"I hurt you," he said. "The first time by accident, the second time on purpose."

Kix had gotten to his feet and was carefully approaching Keres. "We think it's the bond," he said, eyeing the shadows Keres was still standing in. "That, uh, whatever you're doing has some influence on Rex too."

Keres arched an eyebrow and made a considering sound. "Interesting theory," he said. "Was that all you wanted?"

Rex barely restrained his flinch. That was colder than he had anticipated.

"No," Kix said. "I wanted to ask you about the chips. I finally cracked the orders on one of them."

Keres stepped away from the shadows, motioning them away with a careless hand, though they clung to him still. Cody found Rex's hand and gripped it tightly, which Rex appreciated, but this was Kix's show now. He and Cody weren't important, not to Keres or Kix.

"You can sit," Kix said. "I have a lot of questions and it might be more comfortable?"

"No," Keres said, expression cool.

Kix blinked. "O-okay then. The chips, is there a safe way to remove them from all the brothers at once?"

"Kill the people who know about their existence," Keres said. "Short list, easily done."

Kix's jaw dropped open and he tried to speak but couldn't.

"Remove them, Keres," Rex said. "We want the chips out of our heads."

Keres considered the question for a moment. "Outside of surgery, perhaps seeing if there was someway to convince your marvelous immune systems that the exact makeup of these chips were a foreign object that needs to be destroyed? Nanites? You're the medical professional, you figure out how to do it."

"Who does know about the chips?" Cody asked.

"Sidious, his support staff, those on Kamino, I believe maybe two other people who will be dealt with shortly," Keres said.

Rex hesitated for a moment before steeling himself. "If we asked, would you tell us who Sidious is?"

Keres arched a brow and smiled that cold, furious smile. "Why, Rex, were you planning on trying to kill yourself a Sith Lord?"

"No," Rex said. "That's your plan. I'd just like to know how kriffed we all are in the meantime."

Keres took one step forward to tap Rex on the nose with a cold finger and winked. "Lord Sidious is your oh, so dear, Supreme Chancellor Sheev Palpatine."

Cody swore softly, viciously next to him as Kix sat down hard in the chair. Rex closed his eyes, feeling like his heart had stopped beating. It fit. No wonder Red had always been so terrified about going to Coruscant. No one could protect Red against the Chancellor.

"Do the Generals know?" Cody asked.

"Perhaps," Keres said. "Matters not to me. They didn't listen when I warned them and now look where we are. I'm here and everything must be put to rights. He will die, the Galaxy will burn, and I will have to do something about the mess left behind."

"No, they know," Rex said. He nudged Cody, giving him a tiny smile, trying to ignore everything Keres was saying. "Remember? They wouldn't tell us. This is why."

Kix coughed into his fist. "Uh, Red?"

"Keres," he corrected sharply.

"Right, sorry," Kix said softly. "We were ordered by the Jedi, weren't we?"

"No," Keres said. "Maybe originally but not for long. Some fool of a Jedi had a vision and Sidious's master, Plagueis, had whispered about clones for an army. Off he ran to Kamino with money Plagueis had provided, then Dooku killed him and took control of the order. They found Jango, who ignored every warning I ever told him about getting involved with Sith, because he had his own damned plan. Bastard. And here we are."

"Now what?" Cody asked. "If...If we're, what, tools of the Sith?"

Keres stretched out his arms, bones cracking as he did so, Kix's eyes widening in shock. Rex could tell that some of those noises should not be happening from such a simple movement. "In the strictest sense? Sidious created you to bring down the Jedi. I'm not letting that happen."

"Why not?" Cody asked. "You don't like the Jedi any--"

"Because no one deserves to have their free will taken away," Keres hissed, turning and grabbing Cody's shirt, pulling the other half-off the bed. Their faces were inches from each other and the glow from Keres's eyes was startling. The clones held their breath, watching as Keres worked to control his rage, letting go of Cody finger by finger, and backing away. "No one," Keres repeated, voice soft. "None of you asked to be brought into this mess but you were. The Jedi will...reasonably do their best to protect you and your brothers. If they do not, well, then I will have to revise my plans to deal with them as well."

"Cyare," Rex tried. "We can look after ourselves."

Keres giggled, clapping a hand over his mouth, looking startled. "You can, but not as well as I can," he said after a moment. He glanced at Kix. "Get rid of the chips, do not trust your Jedi. Some of them might be on your side but the Council is corrupt. Who knows what they might do with the information you have uncovered."

"Still looking after us, ori'vod?" Kix asked, smiling tentatively.

Keres reached out and cupped Kix's face. Rex knew how cold Keres's hands were and admired Kix's restraint. "I will always look after you, even if you don't want me to," he said. Keres tilted his head to the side, as if listening to something. "I have to go." He glanced at Rex, a pause.

"I am sorry," Rex said again, the words feeling empty in the face of everything he had done.

Keres was quiet but nodded before vanishing into the shadows. Apology accepted, he supposed.

The three of them were silent for long minutes before Cody broke it.

"He's lost it," he said. "Completely."

"That's my fault," Rex said. "What I said to him, it broke something. Whatever sanity he was holding onto, whatever safe haven I was giving him, I took that away. I can't take that back, but I can try to… I don't know."

"You're going to have to start getting sleep, Captain," Kix said. "You look like shit."

"You really haven't been sleeping, even with me," Cody said. "I forgot how much you kick in your sleep."

"Sedatives," Kix said. "Starting now. Mood stabilizers, if he's affecting you we need to try to combat that too. We don't have clankers for you to shoot so we're going to have to try to find a different way to keep you on an even keel."

Rex wrinkled his nose. "Sedatives for sleep, sure, but none of that other stuff."

"Rex," Cody said. "At least talk to the Generals about the bond?"

"After they lied?" Rex asked, wanting to stay secret, to hoard the bond for himself, to-- Aw, kriff. "Maybe."

"Progress," Cody said, smiling.

Kix nodded. "C'mon, to Medical with you. I got a nice bed and a sedative with your name on it."

"Joy," Rex muttered.

=

Keres watched from the bridge of his flagship--Moros--as the droids invaded Zygerria and began to slaughter the slavers. The slaves were freed, given money from the Zygerrians, and offered free passage on ships Keres had already arranged. There were medical depots that were standing by to take care of them--detonators to be remove, diseases to be cured, rape victims to be cared for--and from there, homes to be gotten to.

If those homes still existed.

But for now, Zygerria burned.

Feast on the planet, he heard Nihilus urge him. So many souls ready to be consumed.

Keres brushed him aside. He did not need the power right now, still flush from Serenno, and he did not want to carry the filth of the slavers inside him. He wanted nothing to do with them. He only wanted them wiped off the map.

"Emperor," a droid spoke to his left.

He glanced at it, motioning it to speak.

"We found a sentient who claims to know you," it said. "He says he has information for you."

"What's his name?" Keres asked, bored. Information was hardly useful at this venture. He craved destruction and destabilization, not knowledge.

"Quinlan Vos," the droid said. "Should we space him?"

Keres stared at the droid and hummed in approval. The Force smiled on him. "No. Bring him to my chambers. I shall be retiring for the rest of the campaign. Tactical Droid V-54231, you have command of the army and fleet. Do make sure there are no surviving slavers."

"Yes, Emperor," V-54231 buzzed.

Keres practically skipped to his rooms, twirling in manic glee. He had thought Vos lost to one of Dooku's little games, the other Jedi succumbing to the Dark Side, but this was even better. Did he have an ally? A toy? An assassin? What did await him on the other side of the door?

=

Boba looked up from his datapad as Ahsoka slipped into his room. "What do you want?" he asked, being as rude as possible. He didn't want friends right now. He wanted his family.

His family was dead.

"Well, aren't we in a mood?" Ahsoka asked, crossing her arms. "I get it, but you really need to stop it."

"You don't get it," Boba said, looking back at his 'pad. "You're a Jedi. You don't have parents. You don't get what it is to lose them."

"No, I don't have parents," Ahsoka said, sitting on Boba's bed. "But I have Master Plo, who found me. You saw how much trouble we got into for disobeying orders for going and finding him when Grievous attacked. I have Anakin, who I'd be pretty upset if I lost. I have Master Qui-Gon, who is pretty cool, for an old guy. I had Red."

Boba looked at her. He'd forgotten that.

"It was only for a little bit," she said. "But he was a wonderful big brother. He knew what the Jedi Council was sending me into with Anakin at the time and was worried for me. He gave me the tools to look after myself and then did his best to help Anakin as well." She wrapped her arms around herself. "I think him helping is what got him captured again by the Sith."

Boba looked down at the 'pad and shut it off. "Probably," he said. "But he would have helped anyway, not because of you or anyone else. That's Red. He's a grouchy bastard who says he wants to be left alone but when you actually leave him alone he yells at you for it."

"He's a good guy," Ahsoka said.

"For the most part," Boba said. "He's also an asshole."

Ahsoka smiled, reaching out and offering him a hand. "Want to go prank the troops?"

"Sure, what've you got in mind?" he asked, taking her hand.

"Shorting the sheets, switching about their armor," Ahsoka said, pulling him off the bed. "I mean, it's not like it matters at this point, it's just annoying."

Boba grinned. "I can do annoying."

"And it's always good to practice being sneaky," Ahsoka said. "Not getting caught is the most important part, after all."

"Score cards?" Boba asked.

"Eh," Ahsoka shrugged. "Mark each room you complete with a marker and Artooe can count it up after we're done."

Boba nodded. "Keep armor to the same room or switch rooms too?"

"Switch rooms," Ahsoka said. "No sense in making it easy on them!"

Boba snickered. His brothers were going to lose their minds.

=

Kix watched the Captain sleep, monitoring his vitals, when General Skywalker came into the med bay with a droid.

"Sir?" he asked, frowning. "That's a clanker."

"I am to deliver this to Chief Medical Officer Kix of the 501st," the droid intoned, holding up a green crystal.

General Skywalker motioned to the droid in a "what can you do?" manner and shrugged. "It won't let go of it."

"I'm CMO Kix," Kix said to the droid, twitching.

"Emperor Keres has sent me to deliver this to you," the droid said, opening its claw-like hands.

Kix took the crystal, frowning. Why hadn't Keres mentioned it this morning then?

"I will now self-destruct," the droid said.

"Wait, no!" Kix said, attention grabbed. "I have oxygen on in here! You self-destruct in here and the whole ship goes!"

"Please direct me to the safest location to self-destruct," the droid requested.

Kix stared at General Skywalker, who just looked baffled.

"Air lock?" Kix suggested.

"Yeah, that works," General Skywalker said with a shrug. "Okay, droid, follow me. Why are you self-destructing?"

"Because my Emperor told me to," the droid replied, following the General out of the medical bay.

Kix examined the green crystal, not seeing anything special about it, just that it was tear shaped and kind of pretty looking. He'd set it aside and gone back to the readout from Rex's biobed by the time General Skywalker came back.

"What's with the crystal?" the General asked.

"No idea," Kix said, pointing to it. He really didn't like these readings. He was going to rip Rex a new one when the man woke up.

The General went over and picked up the crystal before swearing and almost dropping it. Kix looked at him, startled. Skywalker had gone pale before carefully setting it down and sitting in Kix's chair.

"Sir?" Kix asked, coming over to check him over. Aw, hell. Was it some kind of Sithy trap crystal? It didn't seem like something Keres would do, especially sending it to Kix, but who knew with him right now. Kix still didn't know what to make of his cold hands.

"Kix, we are so fucked," the General said, his blue eyes wide.

"General?" Kix asked.

"I don't know why he sent it to you rather than Rex, or Cody, but that crystal? That...I think Red cut out his heart."

Kix reared back, staring at his General. "What?" Oh, kriff, that would explain a lot.

"The crystal, it's all Red, but it's all good emotions and feelings, even some bad ones, but it's just pure good. If he took all that out of himself and sent it here, to keep it safe? Kix, he's going to do something bad," the General said. "We have to stop him. Before it's too late."

"I don't think we can, sir," Kix said, looking at the crystal. He sighed, feeling the tiniest bit defeated. "I think we have to be there for him if he reaches out but otherwise ready to pick up the pieces at the end of all of this."

"Kix," General Skywalker said. "There isn't going to be an end to all of this if we don't stop him."

Kix shook his head. "You do whatever you think you need to, General. I'm going to look after my brothers. There's no war to fight anymore. We don't know what's going to happen to us right now." And he wasn't about to take up arms against family, not if he could help it. He cared for the Jedi and he loved the Republic--not as much as Jesse--but Red was family.

General Skywalker nodded, looking sad. "All right. I am working on that, you know that, right?"

"And how's that going?" Kix asked, grinning. "You and the Senator talking again, yet?"

General Skywalker flushed. "No," he admitted. "We're still, uh, figuring things out."

"How are you figuring things out if you're not talking?" Kix asked, crossing his arms. "I want to smother Jesse a good nine times out of ten but even we talk."

General Skywalker opened his mouth to respond and then froze. "You and Jesse?"

"We're not technically an army anymore with no war to fight," Kix said. "What're you going to do, swap our squads? Write us up?"

His General paused, considering the situation. "You know what, I'm going to let Rex handle that one," he said. "Turns out that with the whole, I don't know, Sith mindfuckery as Red put it once, me and Padme never really talked about anything. And now that I want to talk, she doesn't. I mean, to a point, we're in the same situation as before--come clean and we both lose our positions."

"How so?" Kix asked, curious.

"She'd lose her favor as a senator for lying for so long, hiding a husband, having an affair, take your pick," his General said. "And me, well. I'd probably end up kicked out of the Order."

"For being married?" Kix asked. "Because I'm pretty sure there are married Jedi."

"They have special permission granted by the Council before they went and got married," General Skywalker pointed out. "For the most part, it doesn't happen these days."

"Maybe it should change," Kix said. "Both of you, change it. That's what would make the most sense to me, anyway. Everything that's going on with Keres, with this Sith Lord, with my brothers? The Galaxy is at a tipping point, General. Something's going to give, better make sure it's not the Jedi."

General Skywalker stared at him. "Kix, what do you know that we don't?"

"Tons," Kix said dryly. "I'm your Chief Medical Officer, remember? You wouldn't be in one piece without me."

General Skywalker hesitated before sweeping Kix into a tight hug. Kix squawked, surprised, but hugged back after a moment. Jedi were so kriffing weird.

=

Cody looked up from the reports he was doing as Kix, General Jinn, and General Skywalker squished themselves into his room. Kix was carefully holding a green crystal and looking awkward but stern, and both Generals were looking solemn.

"What's wrong?" Cody asked, motioning them all to sit somewhere. The Generals took his bed while Kix sat on the floor near him. "You're all far too serious for this to be good. Is Rex all right?"

"The Captain's fine," Kix said. "Still sleeping. I've got Fives and Echo watching him right now."

"Guards?" Cody asked, looking at the Generals.

"We felt it would be wisest, all things considered," General Jinn said.

"You knew the bond wasn't some benign thing," Cody said, pressing his lips together tightly. It was one thing to withhold information that wasn't relevant in battle, it was something else entirely when it was a brother's life on the line. General Jinn knew Rex, knew he was a good soldier and would do whatever he could to help free Red, but this was a level of disrespect that Cody hadn't expected from the Jedi.

"No," General Jinn said with a sigh. "It's not. I'm not sure what kind of bond it is, to be quite sure, but it is more than what Keres told Rex it was. It might have started out that way but at the moment it is a little bit more complex."

"Can it hurt him?" Cody asked.

"It could hurt either of them," General Jinn said. "It's not a complete bond. As such, it will fluctuate and grow and as it does so, yes, it will have its problems. Until it stabilizes, or is severed, it will be a problem."

"How would you do that, then, either of those?" Kix asked. "Stabilize or sever."

"On some level, they both must have wanted the connection," General Skywalker said. "You can't just form a bond against someone's will. It's consent, no matter what, and if they want to end the bond there needs to be consent there too."

"That's not going to happen," Cody said with a sigh. Not those two idiots. Rex wouldn't want to let that piece of Red go and, from what Cody had seen, Keres was definitely too possessive to let Rex go--angry at him or not. No one just popped in for a visit across vast distances of the Galaxy if they hated someone.

"The only way to stabilize a bond is presence," General Jinn said. "Contact. Being around one another for a sustained amount of time."

Cody stared at his General. "What you're saying is there is no way to fix this mess they got themselves into."

"Essentially," General Jinn said.

"Well kark that," Kix said. "That's not acceptable. I like my brother alive and sane."

General Skywalker ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "We can teach him other methods to deal with the bond. Shielding to try to mitigate the influence, meditation to calm his thoughts, the basics a Jedi would use to know themselves and their own mind. He'd be better able to know what's his thoughts versus what's Keres's thoughts."

"It's also possible he might be able to influence Keres as Keres influences him," General Jinn pointed out. "I do not believe their bond has reached the point where they can communicate along it but at some point it will."

Cody glanced at Kix. Telepathy? Them? This was too strange for his tastes.

"Give Rex the choice on what he wants to do about the bond," Kix said. "But I think the training is probably the best idea. Also, we need to tell both of them about the crystal stuff."

"Right," General Skywalker said. "So! We had a droid visitor today who had a present for Kix."

"This," Kix said, showing the green crystal to Cody. "General Skywalker said it's basically Red, everything good and a little of the bad, but that Keres probably cut him out."

"Eh, I said Keres probably cut out his heart," Skywalker said. "And you could say that it's Red, but yes, it's all the positive emotions in that crystal."

"Wouldn't letting Rex touch that thing help the bond?" Cody asked.

"It could," General Jinn said. "Or it could drain your brother of all of his positive emotions as well."

Cody stared. "Right. No letting Rex touch the crystal."

"He might feel compelled to," General Jinn said, closing his eyes. "If I listen very carefully, it sounds like Red is speaking quietly just on the other side of the door. To Rex, I imagine, it will be even worse. Keres sent this crystal to us for a reason."

"Qui-Gon, we need to tell them," Skywalker said softly, bumping the other's shoulder with his.

General Jinn sighed, opening his eyes and looking older and careworn. "There is a lot currently going on right now, in regards to Keres. The Jedi are declaring ourselves neutral once more. No matter what Keres does to the Galaxy, we will not interfere."

"What?" Cody demanded, eyes wide. "But, sir!"

"It's politics," General Jinn said, a sneer crossing his face.

"Because of who the Sith Lord is?" Kix asked, rolling his eyes. "Please."

"Kix," Cody hissed, trying not to roll his eyes. They weren't supposed to know.

"What?" Kix asked.

"Do I even want to know?" General Jinn asked.

"Uh, Keres, sir," Cody said. "We asked and he told us."

"Of course he did," Skywalker laughed. "He would give you and your brothers the Galaxy if you but asked for it."

"Fortunately, none of you have," General Jinn said.

"What would we do with the Galaxy?" Kix asked, confused. "Most of us just wanted to know that we're going to live to see the next day and he's given us that. Now we need to figure out who we are without the battle, what rights we have, how we--"

"Kix," Cody said. "That's enough."

"Yes, sir," Kix said quietly.

"When Red was first taken, we told you and Rex that we were looking for non-lethal options," Skywalker said. "Qui-Gon's friends might have found something."

"Might," General Jinn stressed. "It's extremely contingent on Keres not becoming a living wound in the Force--which means not utilizing Force drain."

"You're assuming we know what that means," Cody said.

"And here I thought you'd just be relaying the information to him," General Jinn countered.

"He's insane," Cody said, leaning back in his chair. "Whatever he did, probably making that green thing, maybe before? I don't know. He's not right in the head. That's not saying Red ever was, General, but Red knew what limits were. Keres?" Cody shook his head. "He knows the limits are there and doesn't care."

"Keres has two disturbing talents," General Skywalker said. "The ability to drain a person of their life-force, rendering them dead, and complete control over shadows. I don't know any Sith in history that has dealt in shadows so it might be sorcery, but the Force drain is a relatively, uh. Not common practice? It died out with a lot of the Siths of the Old Republic."

"Force drain is either an innate talent, which it is not one of Keres's, or it is taught," General Jinn said. "Which we believe it is. Keres has a nasty habit of stealing Sith artifacts from places he shouldn't."

"Feemor, Qui-Gon's first apprentice, found out that Siths used to use crystals to strip their rivals of their Force abilities," General Skywalker said. "It's possible that, if we get these crystals and use it on Keres, we could stop him."

"If he's not too powerful," Cody said, seeing where General Jinn was cautioning this "wound" thing. "If he does become too much?"

"Then there is no non-lethal option," General Jinn said, looking down at his hands. "And we must all come to terms with what that means."

"I'm choosing to see this," Kix said, holding up the green crystal, "as Red's faith in us. He thinks you can save him. Why else would he do it?"

"Kix?" General Skywalker asked.

"Sure, it could be like you said, make it easier for him to go around killing people," Kix said. "But he wasn't having that problem before. Say you find this magic Sith crystal and we strip Keres of his powers. Why not just load him back up with all the good stuff too?"

Cody arched an eyebrow at Kix. The idea had merit even if he didn't know if it actually worked that way.

"All right," General Jinn said, stroking his beard. "Let's look at it your way, Kix. I believe that would be the most favorable. For the moment, however, let us leave guards on Captain Rex until he awakens and we can discuss with him his options regarding the bond--"

"And the extent of the bond," Cody said, less than thrilled with his General about that.

General Jinn nodded, trying not to sigh. "The extent and possibilities of the bond, and keep him away from the crystal. Despite your positive feelings on it, I would still rather not see what it might do to him."

"Agreed," Skywalker said. "I like Rex just as he is, even if he is a little grouchy right now."

=

Rex woke up feeling awful. His sleep had been full of odd dreams, feelings that hadn't been his, maybe even memories that weren't his. If this is what the bond was like with Keres, he wondered what it would be like with Red. Better? Would the memories be worse, or would he feel the other's warmth?

He could still remember that morning on Coruscant, holding Red while the other had still been asleep. It was a good memory, good feeling. He needed to remember that. He needed to remember the good in Keres, that even under all those shadows, Red was still there.

Fives was sitting on Kix's medical stool and spinning around idly, looking bored, as Rex yawned his way back into his armor. What, did someone set a guard on him while he slept? Echo wasn't far behind Fives, though that brother was reading through one of Kix's datapads. Kix was talking to Jesse nearby, talking too quietly for Rex to really hear or care about, but they stood close enough together that it left no doubt to anyone watching that they were together.

Rex's heart hurt.

He missed that easy closeness. He and Red had had that for such a short time but he had to have faith that they would have it again. Red would come home to him. Things would go back to normal. Red would go back to being Red, Boba would go home, Rex and his brothers would find...something to do, and everything would be fine.

Maybe farming. Wouldn't that be entertaining? He could see some of his brothers as farmers. Others would take one look at dirt, crops, and plows and beg for the nearest firing squad. Nah, maybe not farmers then. Hell, there were a lot of them, they could probably find some uninhabited dustball and run their own damned planet all on their own.

He saw a green crystal on Kix's desk and something in him warned him away even as it called to him. It sounded… No. Couldn't be.

"Captain?" Kix called.

"Hm?" he asked, stepping closer to Kix's desk.

Cody grabbed his arm just before he reached for it. "Sorry, brother," he said. "But not now, not yet."

"Cody?" he asked, trying to look at his brother. He hadn't even seen the other in the med bay.

"C'mon, Rex, let's get some food in you," Cody said, steering him toward the door. Away from the crystal.

Away from Red.

Go, it's okay, he heard the crystal chime gently. I'm not going anywhere. Don't worry your brothers, cyare. Let them fuss. Eat. Everything will be all right.

Rex felt a tension ease between his shoulders as Cody, Fives, and Echo escorted him to the mess. He didn't know what was happening but it was something good.

Chapter Text

Rex rubbed at his eyes. "All right, run that by me one more time."

"The bond you have with Keres is unstable and in a constant state of flux," General Jinn said. "It will likely continue to be that way as the bond grows from what it is now--a little more than a… Anakin?"

General Skywalker grinned. "So, right now the bond's the equivalent of shipboard lights at about twenty percent."

Cody, who had been sitting with Rex, nudged him. "Good job."

Rex scowled. "What does that mean?" he asked. "I already know that whatever he's done, the temper, it's being shared both ways. I get that part. If this is twenty percent, what are we looking at when it's full blown?"

"Well," General Skywalker said, "that's what Qui-Gon and I are going to try to help you with. Shielding the bond on your side, learning your mind to know what's your thoughts versus what might be Keres's, meditating."

"I'm not a Jedi, sir," Rex felt the need to point out.

"No," Skywalker said. "But learning how to meditate hurts no one. Jango Fett was not a null, you all have some sort of Force sense, although not enough to do anything with."

"That's news to us, sir," Cody muttered.

Rex buried his head in his hands. Why did his life have to get so karking complicated? Right. Because he had been fascinated by a skinny redhead who had a mouth on him and a strange concept of honor. His own kriffing fault.

General Jinn was chuckling. "It's all right. The shielding might be the hardest concept to figure out but it is the most important. As we are not fighting, or doing anything of extreme important, we have all the time in the Galaxy to figure this out."

Rex looked up, staring at the grinning Generals from his spread fingers. "No," he said. "Two hours a day, no more." Otherwise he might start shooting them.

Cody was snickering, the traitor. "C'mon, Rex, live a little. Three."

"Two."

"Two is fair," Skywalker laughed. "Especially in the beginning. We can always renegotiate as we get further along."

Aw, kriff. That's right. Jedi had been diplomats before the war. And these two had been the ones highest in demand. Rex was so kriffed. He let his hands drop back into his lap and squared his shoulders.

"All right, what do I need to do?"

=

"BOBA!" brothers starting shouting as Rex walked down the hallway. Cody had gone back to the Maverick with General Jinn and Rex was trying not to sulk. Right now he was also starting to wish they had taken him with them.

"That doesn't sound good," General Skywalker said.

"Where Boba is," Rex pointed out, "Ahsoka isn't far behind."

General Skywalker groaned, "Okay, good point."

Tup and Slick came storming into the hallway, both holding some other brother's armor and looking ready to commit murder. Tup's hair wasn't pulled back, instead free and poofed around his head in a riot of curls. That, more than anything, told him the situation was serious. Rex stared at them and then back at General Skywalker.

"This is more of a trooper problem, sir, I'll handle it. If I see Ahsoka, I'll send her your way," he said.

"They're both probably hiding somewhere out of the way to watch the chaos," the General said. "If I see Boba, he's all yours."

"Captain," Tup and Slick said the moment they spotted him. The General, chicken, quickly walked off.

"Look what that little--"

"All our armor--"

"We can't find any of it--"

"It's not just us--"

"Whole squad--"

"Whole ship!"

"Whoa, whoa, slow down," Rex said, holding out his hands and trying to calm his brothers down. Inside he was laughing. Oh, well done, Boba.

"And the beds!" Fives said, stomping over to them. "That little brat short-sheeted the beds!"

Rex kept his face military straight. "Really. How's your armor?"

"My armor?" Fives asked, confused.

Rex gestured to Tup and Slick. "They're saying that all the armor for their squads is swapped around and they cannot find the originals. I'm curious if your room managed to escape with just being short-sheeted or if your armor is also similar--"

Fives ran off.

"I get messing about with tech, with comms, with the kitchens," Slick growled. "But Boba should know that messing with a brother's armor goes too far."

Rex privately agreed--that prank was definitely Ahsoka's idea; the beds was Boba, most likely. The two of them together were unholy terrors and Rex appreciated that Ahsoka was distracting Boba from his grief, but this was... On one hand, he needed to find a private corner of the ship and laugh until he physically couldn't anymore. On the other, he needed to sit both kids down and have a conversation with them about the current tensions on the cruiser.

"Let's get every brother to gather the armor in the mess, it should be big enough," Rex said. "We'll lay out the pieces on the tables and floor and everyone can find what is theirs."

"Sir," Tup said, still looking angry. "That doesn't change--"

"No, but it will make everyone feel better. I will handle Boba. General Skywalker will handle his Padawan. Don't you remember the things you got up to on Kamino? We didn't have the downtime these two have to get bored but we made our own time then," Rex said, trying to calm his brothers. "See to it everyone is put at ease. If not, send them to me."

"Sir," Tup said, turning and walking away.

"Slick?" Rex asked, watching his brother.

"I don't like this," Slick said. "I don't like any of it."

"What's to like?" Rex asked. "The situation? The pranks?"

"What are the Jedi going to do with us?" Slick asked, eyes narrowed. "You've been talking to them an awful lot. Surely you have some idea now that the war's over."

Rex felt a warning go off in the back of his head and forced himself to keep calm. "I know General Skywalker is talking to his friends in the Senate. At this point we may as well wait and see what comes of that."

"And if nothing comes of it? What then?" Slick asked. "Are we still slaves?"

Rex felt cold fingers creep along his spine. "No," he said. "We are not slaves, Slick. We have free will. We have choices. Whether with the Jedi or not."

Slick frowned. "Captain?"

"See to your men," he said.

"Sir," Slick said, "what do you--"

"See to your men," Rex ordered, narrowing his eyes, putting all the power of his title and command into the words. Not yet. He wasn't going to talk to Slick, or any brother, about what could happen to them yet. Soon, but this was something that he needed to talk to with the other commanders first.

"Sir," Slick said, clearly unhappy, but walked off.

Rex wondered how many brothers felt the same as Slick did, that they were slaves--too many--and ran a hand over his head. He needed to keep it together. He needed to find Boba and talk some sense into the kid before one of the brothers overreacted.

He sighed and turned to go down a different hallway, trying to think like Boba would, when he literally collided with the scamp. Boba stared at him with wide eyes and turned to flee, but Rex grabbed him by the shoulders.

"Nice try," Rex said. "We need to have a talk."

"Uh?" Boba tried.

Rex grinned, steering the younger clone in the direction of Rex's room. It was close and would make it a safe spot to talk about a number of things they needed to discuss. Boba didn't fight him, thankfully, and dove for Rex's bed the moment he opened the door.

"It was Ahsoka's idea," Boba said immediately.

"And I'm sure she used her Jedi mind tricks to make you go along with it," Rex said, taking his armor off and joining Boba on the bed. The other craved contact constantly, though he'd never admit to it, and Rex didn't mind giving it to him.

"No," Boba muttered, latching onto Rex's side the moment the other sat down with him.

"You know the others are pretty angry right now," Rex said, stretching out and trying to get comfortable. Boba moved with him, not caring. "It'll take time matching up the armor you switched about."

"It'll give them something to do other than bitch about how much they have nothing to do," Boba said. "They're not happy, Rex. A lot of them are really mad at Red."

Rex sighed. He'd heard those mutterings too, though his brothers kept it away from him for the most part. The war being over was a good thing but it threw so much of what they knew into question. The worst part was his brothers didn't know the half of what was going on.

"You know you're going to have to apologize to them, right?" Rex said. It wasn't going to soothe any seriously riled tempers, but it might make some other brothers calm down.

Boba groaned and nodded. "Fine," he muttered. "Ahsoka too?"

"That's General Skywalker's decision," Rex said. He would cautiously suggest to him that Ahsoka apologize to the troops, though.

"Ugh," Boba sighed. He was quiet for a moment, tugging idly on Rex's blacks. "Hey, you know about Red and Zygerria, right?"

"Yeah?" Rex said.

"Newsfeed was blowing up a couple hours ago," Boba said. "Their main planet was razed, all the slaves freed, while the secondary planets and their ships and everything else was destroyed. Droids just dropped out of nowhere and blew everything up."

Rex closed his eyes and wrapped an arm around Boba, holding him tight. "He said he was going to do that. You know Red does his best to keep his promises."

"Yeah," Boba said quietly. "He promised me a lot of stuff. He promise you stuff too?"

Rex ruffled Boba's hair, "No. Red only makes promises he can keep, remember? We hadn't gotten that far yet."

"You sure?" Boba asked, a sly look on his face. "Red's sneaky."

Rex huffed out a laugh, smiling at the kid. "I know he's sneaky." He also knew the first time Red had actually said "I love you" had been that first visit on the ship when Rex had hurt him. Sure, calling him cyare was almost as good as, but sometimes the words mattered. He also knew how much Red had been hurt before, had been ready to wait forever for the other to feel comfortable with what they had, but that had been before.

Now, what did it matter? The Jedi had plans but Rex wasn't sure who would win in a battle of wills if that's what it came down to. Keres was still Red and Red was not about to let himself be taken down.

"So maybe he promised you something without actually saying the words," Boba said, wrapping his arms around Rex's waist and holding on. "That's who he is. He'll say the words if he thinks you need to hear them but mostly he does stuff."

Rex held Boba, blinking. Kid logic. Was it really that easy?

He looked down at Boba, wanting to tell him about Keres and Rex's part in it, to come clean--but didn't. He wasn't sure anymore what his part in all of it was. His mind hurt. It felt too full. He rubbed Boba's back and kept quiet, letting the other relax.

"It was a good prank," Rex said. "I am never admitting that to anyone else, but it was well done."

Boba snickered.

=

"Senator Organa," Anakin greeted when his comm connected. "Thank you for--"

"Oh, shut up," the other man laughed. "We're friends, aren't we? Enough of this stiff formality."

"Well, I wasn't sure how you wanted to play it," Anakin said. "We could go the friends route or the diplomat route. I was playing it safe!"

"The Hero With No Fear playing it safe?" Bail asked, propping his chin up on his hand. "That's new. Tell me, Anakin, what can I do for you?"

"I wanted to ask you a question, see if you could suss out the situation for me," he said. "It's about the clones and their position within the Republic."

"Ah," Bail said. "I see why you wanted to play it safe. This is a delicate situation indeed. Please, continue."

Anakin nodded and tried to organize this thoughts. "You know the Jedi were never given a choice to use the clone army when it was found," he said. "All of us were--the Jedi and the clones--were sent to the war by the Republic. The war is over now. The Jedi have some protections which allow us to retreat from the spotlight but the clones do not."

"No, they don't," Bail said quietly.

"They deserve rights, Bail," Anakin said. "Basic rights, anything we can get them."

"I agree," Bail said. "However, there will be many in the Senate who do not, and like it or not, they would have a basis to their claim in denying the clones rights."

Anakin braced him mentally and nodded. "Go for it, let me hear it."

"There are roughly a billion clones," Bail said.

"Roughly," Anakin said. "I don't know the final tally from the last battles."

"The actual number hardly matters right now," Bail said. "One thing barring rights that I can think of would be fear--fear of a new group of Republican citizens who have done nothing but fight their entire lives. Would their skills be turned on the Republic? On whatever system they chose to colonize and call home?"

"They can learn new skills," Anakin said. "They are incredibly smart, very adaptable. Just because they are soldiers now does not mean they always will be or even have to be. We have plenty of non-combatants in the GAR, Bail. They deserve every chance we can give them to be better than what they were created for."

Bail sat back in his chair. "I agree. They were created to die for the Republic and there is no war for them to fight. There are also some who may call for outright...well."

Anakin's fists clenched out of sight of the holocam. "No. That is not an option, Bail."

"No, it is not," the other said. "The Kaminoians are not going to like this, no matter what. They will get involved in the situation, claim they are not free to chose, that they are a product and a commodity."

"I don't frankly care," Anakin said, cheerfully. "I am looking out for my men, Bail. All of them. They are not property. I refuse to let the Republic treat them as such. If the Senate tries, well. They're going to have a fight on their hands."

Bail considered him for a moment in silence. "Tell me about this," he looked at a piece of 'plast, "Keres."

"Any particular reason?" Anakin asked, wary of the sudden subject change.

"He took out Zygerria," Bail said. "There's some noise that he might be going after the Hutts next."

Anakin tried not to smile. "Couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of people," he said. "Keres is the Sith Lord who killed Count Dooku and took over the Separatist Army."

"Is he the reason the Jedi are declaring their neutrality?" Bail asked. "I'm curious. This incident is also raising the topic of slavery in the Senate and might give me some room to bring about a motion to discuss the clones's situation."

"It goes no further than the two of us, right?" Anakin asked. At Bail's nod, he sighed. "There is another Sith Lord, Keres's former Master, and that's why the Jedi are pulling back. We're not getting involved in a Sith's pissing match."

Bail snorted out a laugh. "You'll leave the rest of us to deal with it?"

Anakin rolled his eyes. "I'm trying not to think that far ahead because then it makes my head hurt. There's enough going on to keep me focused on the here and now, to Qui-Gon's utter delight." He did try to look ahead, though, for Bail's sake. The future was always something he was good at, little points here and there--big things hit him like a sledgehammer--but he could always go and seek what he wanted and the Force would offer him a tiny peek.

Bail, in rich robes of a different office, talking with Senators. He looked good, maybe a few years older, but it was a meeting that looked to be going well. Anakin didn't recognize the Senators around him, but they were all shaking hands and Bail was looking pleased in that overly political way he had sometimes.

Rex, on a green planet with three suns and a distant moon, dressed in simple clothes and looking pleased as he helped someone--someone Anakin couldn't see--in a field, laughing. A child with bright red hair came running out of rows of what looked like corn--or some other tall crop--and collided with Rex's legs, pointing eagerly at something.

The Senate Building in flames, explosions erupting everywhere, in the darkness of night. The beginnings of a fight? The end of one? He couldn't tell. The building began to collapse.

Keres in the Senate, smiling in cold fury at them as he spoke, haughty and defiant. He pointed to something, a document on display, the words too much for Anakin to make out, as Keres's face morphed into pure rage. This, this was important. Something about that document was crucial. He tried to focus on the words--something about rights. Galactic rights.

The Temple, bodies of slain Jedi everywhere, Jedi fighting Jedi. Something bad had happened, but not the Sith, something internal? He tried to push, to see more of that, but the Force knocked him out.

He came back to himself, furious. What was that last one? He needed to know!

"Anakin?" Bail asked.

Right. Not the time or the place. "Sorry," he said. "When the time comes, it looks like the Senate will meet Keres themselves. I don't know what that means, or what good it'll do, but he's definitely going to come talk to all of you. Something about Galactic rights."

Bail hummed softly. "Thank you, Anakin. I think that actually gives me something to work with."

Anakin scratched the back of his head. "You're welcome?" He hesitated for a beat. "How is she?"

Bail raised an eyebrow. "You know, you really need to talk to her yourself."

"She's not answering my comms!" Anakin protested in an explosion of breath.

"Ah, to be young and stupid again," Bail grinned. "She looks fine, tired, but she is running several subcommittees. I will say that she does seem to be a little more relaxed now that the war is over."

"Would be nice if she actually said anything to me about that," Anakin muttered.

"Maybe this is a conversation you two need to have face-to-face?" Bail suggested.

Anakin rubbed his flesh hand over his face. "Would you kindly inform her that I do not know when, or if, we will be returning to Coruscant? At this point, Qui-Gon is playing it extremely close to the chest and I agree with him. If the Council demands we go to a Temple, any Temple, we'd have to report to the closest one, which is not Coruscant. At the moment, we're in a holding pattern, which means ships, which means no one goes anywhere. If she doesn't want to pick up, fine, but please tell her that holding out hope for a face-to-face at this point is impossible."

"Do you think it will become that serious?" Bail asked.

Anakin shrugged, thinking about that last momentary flash of vision from the Force. "I think things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. I would really like to talk to her, to try and figure out where we stand with each other, before that happens."

"I will let her know," Bail said. "May the Force be with you, my friend."

"And you," Anakin said, smiling.

=

Keres watched as Vos walked around the ship, inspecting it curiously. The other--Jedi? Dark Jedi? Fallen? Keres didn't know what to call him and honestly didn't quite care--man was not used to being surrounded by droids and it was making him twitchy in the best way.

"I'm letting you stay," Keres said.

"Because I have leverage on you," Vos said. He mouthed Keres's true name at him, taunting him, smiling.

"I could just kill you," Keres pointed out.

"If I don't transmit the all clear to the datapoint, the information is broadcast out, your name goes everywhere," Vos said with a wide smile. "You're a good hacker, kid, but you're not that good."

Keres dipped his head in acknowledgement of a game well played and made himself comfortable on the decking of the bridge. Vos was still exploring, poking droids and control panels, and would soon tire of it. Keres was patient. He could wait.

He closed his eyes and drifted, listening to the stars around them, hearing the whispers of what lay in the shadows.

"What's our next move?" Vos asked, sitting down in front of him.

"The Hutts," Keres said as he opened his eyes. "I have sent ships aheads to each location where a Hutt rules with instructions to destroy them and then make sure that the governments are wiped out and the slaves freed."

Vos looked surprised. "You were serious about that."

"Quite."

Vos set his hands on his knees, looking interested. "You want to right the injustices in the Galaxy."

"As much as I can, yes."

"I want to help," Vos said. "I'm sure there are others out there who would help too. We see a lot as Jedi, not all of us are good at believing everything we see is the 'will of the Force' like the Council would have us believe. Didn't Qui-Gon teach you that?"

Keres was silent, watching him quietly. He didn't need help, not the help Vos was offering. The Jedi would never help him. They would destroy him, lock him up, see him dead before he could do what he needed to. They would leave Sidious in power, let harm come to his brothers, let the Galaxy rot from the inside out until it collapsed in on itself.

No, Keres could not trust what Vos said. The Jedi could not be trusted. He had to do this himself.

And yet, Qui-Gon had…

No.

"You have free reign of the ship," Keres said as he got to his feet. "Don't break anything."

He left Vos on the bridge as he walked the length of the ship, thinking. He had much to think about before he considered his next steps. If he did...Was it possible? Did he dare?

He needed the assistance, that was not news. He could not hope to accomplish his next goal if he was still focused on helping the slaves, and they needed help. Help that he could not provide. Help that, perhaps, Qui-Gon could provide? If the Jedi helped, and not all of them would help, that was clear, but if some of them helped, then he could commit himself fully to removing the rest of Sidious's power base.

He had a list. He ached to complete it. So many organizations needed to wiped from the Galaxy before he could begin strangling the life from specific individuals. Some of them he personally wanted to wrap his hands around, remembering them from his time before.

It all came back to whether or not he could.

He stood in front of his door, tracing his fingers over the keypad, and took a deep breath. He had to make a decision.

=

Qui-Gon felt the tap-tap-tap against his shields and frowned, excusing himself from the conversation he was having with Admiral Yularen and other ship personnel. He found a conference room, one of the smaller ones, and sealed the door for privacy and had a seat before turning his attention inward. The request didn't feel like Anakin, and his former student would have just commed, and very few others had the ability to reach him so far out in space by bond.

He waited and the tap-tap-tap came again, this time he acknowledged it.

Hello, Qui-Gon, Keres greeted. It's been a while.

Qui-Gon smiled sadly. The feel of the other's mental voice and mind was different--Darker, raspier, stronger than Red's had been--and full of patience. Hello, Keres.

You greet me by name, Keres said. You honor me.

I know why you chose to do what you did, what you're doing, Qui-Gon said. He knew Red, as much as the other would have hated it, and even understood him to a degree. Is there something I can help you with?

Perhaps, Keres said. Vos is with me.

Is he? Qui-Gon asked, pleased. I'm glad to learn he's alive.

Keres was quiet, though Qui-Gon didn't think he had dropped the connection between them. Instead, he waited, letting the Sith gather his thoughts before continuing.

What do you know of the Sith? Keres asked. What we believe, how we view the Force, and how that guides our actions?

Qui-Gon sent his amusement through what remained of the training bond. A philosophical discussion from you? I'm intrigued. You always refused to have this discussion with me before.

Bad memories, Keres said. The question remains.

Qui-Gon considered the question. Dooku had been his Master and he remembered many times when the older man had pontificated at length--although Qui-Gon hadn't bothered to listen all that much when he was younger--over the differences in philosophy that the Sith and Jedi held. While the beliefs the Jedi held were likely to change from time to time, Qui-Gon wasn't sure if the Sith's changed. The Rule of Two left both little, and large, amounts of interpretation of philosophy to occur.

Might this not be easier face-to-face? Qui-Gon asked, curious.

A sharp burst of fury that was quickly banked. You do not wish to answer me.

That is not what I said, Qui-Gon sighed. Merely a suggestion that such debates are usually conducted better when face-to-face.

Silence, and then: You do not consider me the enemy the other Jedi do. How curious.

You are extremely dangerous, I have no doubt about that, but you will not attack us unless we give you cause to, Qui-Gon said. The Jedi have declared neutrality, if you have not heard. We will not involve ourselves in your fight with Sidious.

No, you will wait to see who wins and then destroy the victor.

Are you so certain?

It is what I would do, Keres murmured. Do you agree with this...neutrality of your Order?

No, and I know there are others who do not either.

Keres mulled that over and Qui-Gon had the distinct impression of his student pacing while chewing his thumbnail as he thought. It brought a smile to his face; often he had caused Red to do the same thing.

I would not be opposed to meeting and discussing our differing philosophies, Keres said finally. I would like to see the 212th and the 501st, to see that they are well, maybe even meet some of your friends who disagree.

Qui-Gon was surprised and did not try to hide it from Keres. That sounded suspiciously like an offer of friendship, even an alliance.

The slaves, Qui-Gon, Keres said, red-hot fury in every word. They may be free now but they still need help that I cannot provide. I have removed their detonators, broken their chains, killed their Masters, but they have no true homes, no education, no knowledge of what to do with themselves now that they are free. Many of them are traumatized and, and I do not know how to help them.

You want us to, Qui-Gon realized. Or, perhaps, needed was the right word.

A good man once told me that I had to learn to take a leap of faith every now and then. He said that because he knew how much I hated the word "trust". Idiot couldn't see that I already trusted him. Qui-Gon felt the swell of sadness-grief-rage and let it flow over and through him. Jango Fett always seemed to inspire odd feelings in Red. I took a leap of faith on you, once, and you have not given me a reason to expect that you would betray me.

You honor me, Qui-Gon said, repeating Keres's words back to him.

It was Vos's idea, Keres dismissed him, clearly uncomfortable. Do you believe we can have this accord or not?

With myself, Anakin, and a small group from the 212th and the 501st at a undisclosed location--certainly. Just because I do not think you will bring us harm does not mean I will tempt fate, or your temper.

Fair enough, Keres allowed, vicious glee leaking through. I take it you are too far out for others to join you?

I can set up holos for them to speak, if that will be sufficient?

Perhaps, Keres said. I will let you know.

Before Qui-Gon could say anything further, the bond twisted and shut off with almost an audible slam. He winced, grabbing his head, and swore. Red didn't have Keres's fine way of speaking--the Chancellor's doing, perhaps?--but he'd alway had manners when dealing with any bond-related matters.

It took several minutes to have his head stop ringing before he got to his feet and he left the conference room, finding Commander Cody waiting for him outside. The clone gave him a quick once over and sighed.

"Sawbones?" he asked.

Qui-Gon smiled, "No, thank you, Cody. I'll be fine."

"Sir," Cody said, though the tone told him that his Commander believed him not at all.

"We've had an interesting development," Qui-Gon said quietly as they passed a few troopers in the hall. "Our friend has reached out to request assistance with his current project."

Cody stared at him, startled. "Sir?" he asked. "I didn't think, that's to say. What kind of assistance?"

"Clean up, from the sounds of it," Qui-Gon said as they came to his quarters. He gestured Cody inside so they could speak freely, which the Commander ducked inside at his invitation. "Helping those he's freed, keeping them free if need be. Helping them adjust. Humanitarian, primarily."

Cody stood there, looking stunned. "Keres is asking for help?"

"That theory that Keres is influencing Rex?" Qui-Gon said, gracing Cody with a small smile as he turned to find his good alcohol. "I believe Rex might also be influencing Keres. He blamed it on Vos, who is alive and with our friend, but I doubt that's the actual reason."

"Are we going to help?" Cody asked.

"This ridiculous neutrality is doing nothing but hamstring all of us," Qui-Gon said. "I understand where the Order is coming from but the good we could be doing is being ignored." He shook his head as he poured them both drinks. "Yes, Cody. We will be helping. Select a few men from the 212th, coordinate with Rex--if you think he can handle it--to do the same with the 501st, and we will find a planet within the nearby area that will make a decent spot for a meeting."

Cody accepted the glass and sat down at Qui-Gon's desk as Qui-Gon sat on his bed. "Sir, this won't sit well with the rest of the Jedi," Cody said. "You're breaking rank."

Qui-Gon saluted him with the glass. "I will not be the only one to do so, Commander."

Cody's eyes widened slightly but he smiled. "Sir," he said and took a drink.

=

Maul slid through the halls of the Temple, shielded just enough to not be killed on sight, watching as the Jedi moved around him, curious. He'd been young when Sidious had brought him to the Temple to watch the Jedi and before he had not been in any condition to care about being inside it. Now, though, he could observe.

He did not care for what he saw.

He wasn't even sure what he was looking for, or who, just wandering the Temple.

He had picked up watchers when he had entered, but they weren't doing anything to him and he wasn't actually doing anything more than wandering the main hallways. He supposed if he went for his lightsaber, or made a move to go into any of the rooms he noticed, they would stop him.

Did they not consider him a true threat?

Or did they not know what to make of three Sith Lords in the Galaxy?

The Jedi were truly as blind as his Master had always said. They would have been so easy to kill but Keres had destroyed their advantage. Did Keres have some plan that Maul did not know about, some way to carry out the Grand Plan? Was that still his ultimate goal? He was Sith enough to agree that the Grand Plan needed to be carried out, wasn't he?

What did it matter anymore? Sidious would fall, Keres would see to that. Keres would fall, Maul would see to that. The Jedi would fall, Maul would see to that. Thus, the Grand Plan would succeed and everything would be as it should.

Yes, this was acceptable.

He let his shields drop and flared his Darkness bright for the Jedi to see.

He felt the alarm, the fear, the burn of lightsabers pointed at his back and throat. He smiled and raised his arms to show he was unarmed and not going for his weapon. He was not a sorcerer like Keres, nor skilled in Force lightning like his Master. He was no threat to these Jedi.

"Take me to your Council," he requested. "I believe we can come to an arrangement that will benefit everyone."

The masked Jedi were silent, their lightsabers not yielding, but finally one of them nodded. They slapped cuffs on him that suppressed his sense of the Force--how interesting--and lead him to a large windowed room. Three Jedi were seated and they regarded him with suspicion.

"Why are you here?" a dark-skinned male asked.

"To make a deal," he replied. "You will need help dealing with my brother."

"Why would you help us?" a woman asked.

"The lesser of three evils," Maul said, honest.

"Believe if Keres and Sidious are gone, win you do?' a small green creature said.

Maul was amused by him. "Don't I?"

"Hmph," the creature said, slamming his stick against the floor. "Need your help, we do not."

"You do not know how to stop a Sith Sorcerer who has made a contract with shadows, who is in possession of Darth Nihilus's mask, or the holocrons of Darth Bane and Darth Zannath," Maul said with a smile. "Nihilus is fond of my brother and has passed on his teachings. Lord Bane and Lady Zannath have taught him skills in sorcery and 'saber, though I am sure there are other things they have whispered to him."

The three Jedi looked at each other, startled.

"Are there other ancient Sith he listens to?" the dark-skinned one asked.

Maul shrugged. "Dooku last had the holocrons and my brother always wanted them for himself. Our Master refused, but I caught him with them several times before our Master hid them away. As for the Mask of Lord Nihilus? I watched him remove it from Korriban, along with other items that, I'm sorry, I do not recall."

"Other skills, Keres could have," the creature said.

"Most certainly," Maul agreed, walking over to one of the empty chairs and sitting down. Horribly uncomfortably. "My brother was always fond of the old ways of the Sith, to our Master's displeasure. It always earned him extra beatings. But then, he is of a contrary nature."

"You would help us to what gain of your own?" the woman asked.

Maul smiled. "Isn't it obvious, Jedi? You remove my competition. We all would gain from this alliance."

The dark-skinned male looked at the creature and then the woman. The three of them seemed to confer mentally while Maul waited, looking down at his gloved hands in an exaggerated show of patience.

"Accept, we do," the creature said. "Know how to kill him, you do?"

Maul smiled. "You cannot kill a Sith Sorcerer, Jedi. You must first unmake them. It is harder with my brother as it happens. His shadows are actually eating away at his life-force, but as he uses Lord Nihilus's ability to Force drain energy from others, he bolsters his own life."

"How does Sith Sorcery work?" the dark-skinned one asked.

"The same as your Jedi sorcery," Maul said with a sniff. The two humanoids looked at him blankly but that green creature looked curiously evasive. Interesting! "Will, you fools. All the crystals, bones, blood, herbs, and candles in the Galaxy will not help your pretty words if you do not have will and intent. I do not practice sorcery because it is not for a Nightbrother to do such things." And it was one choice that Sidious could not take from him.

"You are saying that Jedi could practice these spells as well?" the woman asked, sounding bewildered.

"Do you not have an archive?" Maul asked, uninterested. "Ask your people for your old texts. If you do not have spell books, I will be very surprised."

"Help us, this will not," the creature said, waving a clawed hand in clear dismissal.

"Won't it?" Maul asked with a sly smile. "If you understand what you fight you stand a better chance of destroying it."

The creature's ears lowered and his eyes closed to little slits and Maul shrugged.

"I can show you how to unmake him," Maul said. "But you will need to kill him."

"Why us?" the woman asked. "Why not you?"

Maul considered her question. "Do you have any siblings, Jedi?"

"Yes, a sister," she said, startled.

"Ah, perhaps you would understand then," Maul said, pleased. "He is my brother, I have known him since we were but children. Regardless of our manner of upbringing, often we were all each other had, despite how we tried to kill each other. I will give you the means with which to destroy him because that is what must be done, as Sith we know this. But do not ask me to be the one to put the blade in his heart, that is something I will not do."

The woman nodded after a moment. "Would he be--"

"Oh, no," Maul said, chuckling. "He would fight back. You will need to fight to end his life because, my dear Jedi, my brother will not go down easily. Being unmade, however, he will have no access to the Force or magic. Just a man, however talented, and all men can be killed."

=

Rex yawned as Skywalker and Ahsoka settled on their ridiculous pillows. When the General pointed to one he gave in and sat on it as well. He was glad he'd left off most of his armor if this was how the morning's "meditation" was going to go, pillow sitting and...incense? What in the stars?

"Yeah, Red hated the stuff too," Ahsoka said. "Qui-Gon used to use it to tease him."

Rex wrinkled his nose. "I can see why."

"All right, you two, knock it off," Skywalker grinned. "We're going to meditate. It's a little different this time, Ahsoka, because I'm going to guide it for Rex."

"That's fine," Ahsoka said with a bright smile. "I haven't done guided meditations in years!"

Rex raised a brow and tried not sass his General. They were doing this to help him, he needed to remember that. Helping.

"So, Rex, you comfortable?" Skywalker asked.

"What do you think?" Rex asked.

"Sassy," Skywalker grinned. "Get comfortable. No point in doing any of this if you're going to be thrown out if it because armor's pinching or something's riding up or whatever."

Rex would have rolled his eyes but was too much of a soldier to do so. He did get rid of the pillow and set it aside because, kark that, and then raised a brow at his General in a clear "get on with it, sir" manner. Ahsoka was laughing but his General just nodded, as if this was a Very Serious Matter, and Rex really needed caff to deal with these two earlier than he normally did.

"Okay, so we close our eyes to start with and relax," Skywalker said. "Try to match Ahsoka's breathing, Rex, the deep push and pull. Think of the waves on Kamino, actually. A deep breath in, hold, and then empty completely."

Rex closed his eyes and listened to Ahsoka and Skywalker, letting his breathing be his focus. The idea of waves helped, letting the memory of the oceans guide when to breathe in and when to breathe out.

"Breathe in strength, breathe out tension," Skywalker said, voice light and easy. "Find your own rhythm in the Force. As thoughts enter your mind, observe them and do not cling, be aware but unaffected. Float above the thoughts, not with them."

Rex felt himself frown, the knee-jerk reaction to Jedi hoodoo, but tried to go with it. Above the thoughts? What the kark kind of ossik was that?

"Observe the thoughts, let them go," Skywalker said.

Rex went back to his breathing, ignoring the idea of "thoughts", since breathing was easier.

"Now listen to the thoughts inside you, be among them, know them," Skywalker said. "See where your mind goes, who or what it centers on, what memories your mind pulls to the forefront."

Like a switch had been hit, Rex's mind began to churn. Red, that night on Coruscant, training on Kamino, those few times he had met with Jango and the other Mandalorians, the trainers he would love to find and put in a shallow grave, those clones "culled" for defectivities that the geneticists on Kamino deemed too significant, Red's smile, Cody and Wolffe--the only ones of his batch that he knew were still alive.

Rex jerked himself upright, eyes opening. Nope. Nope, he was good, he was done with this experiment.

"Thanks, General, but I think I'm good," Rex said, getting to his feet.

"Rex?" Ahsoka asked, frowning.

"Are you okay?" Skywalker asked, reaching out to take Rex's hand.

"I'm good," Rex said, shaking his General off. "Just need a little air."

And then he beat a strategic retreat.

=

"Emperor, there's a comm for you," a droid said. "From a clone."

Keres tilted his head in question, curious. Ever since Boba had accidentally hacked into their comm systems, he had made sure it was harder to get in contact with them. That someone else had managed the same was very interesting.

"Go ahead and put it through to the speakers," Keres said. Vos was elsewhere and it didn't matter if the droids overheard anything.

"Hello?" the clone asked, sounding annoyed.

"Yes?" Keres answered, amused. Jango was always the most fun in his worst moods.

"Er," the clone sounded startled. "I didn't. Sergeant Slick of the 501st, sir. I wanted to speak to you about how I might be of use to you."

Keres walked to the front of the bridge, crouching down next to the droid manning the communications array. "Of use to me? And how would you be useful, trooper?"

"I can provide intelligence, sir," the clone said. "Access to the Jedi. Anything you require."

"Are you doing this with the knowledge and support of your brothers?" Keres asked. The droid was working on pinpointing the location of the comm.

"I am doing this for my brothers, sir," the clone said, voice fierce. "We are slaves, to the Jedi, to the Republic. The war may be over, thanks to you, but that doesn't mean we're going to get a fair deal from them in the end."

"So that would be a no," Keres said. "Sergeant, I will let you know something that only a few of your brothers are aware of--I am inside your commanding officer's mind. I have no need for your information because I can take it from him."

The tiniest gasp of denial and Keres snickered. The droid had the coordinates. Keres motioned for the droid to mute the comm. It didn't really matter that Keres had the coordinates earlier than Qui-Gon would have provided them, but perhaps he could do something with this information later.

"Should we navigate a course to the Jedi?" the droid asked.

"No, not to them," Keres said. "Near. A couple systems away will do just fine. The Hutts have been dealt with and it's time to begin planning our next attack, after all."

The droid nodded and several of its kin began tapping away at their consoles. Keres unmuted the comm and continued speaking.

"Furthermore, I wouldn't worry about what the Republic will try to do to you and your brothers," he said. "If they even think of moving against any of you, I will give them cause to regret it."

"Sir," the clone said.

"Be a dear," Keres murmured, "and run back to Rex now? Although, Slick? If you, or any other brother, try to betray him, I do warn it it will not end well for you."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I was just trying to look out for my brothers," the clone babbled.

"I know," Keres said, almost cooing. Poor dear. "And I appreciate it. Talk to him, and Cody, if you are so worried. There are bigger plans in motion than you could possibly know about, but I will protect all of you."

"Y-yes, sir. Thank you, sir," the clone said, disconnecting.

Keres smiled, snickering, and looked at the droids. "How long until we are in the same quadrant?"

"A week, sir," a droid said.

"Excellent," Keres said, getting to his feet. The should give Qui-Gon plenty of time to arrange everything on his end, and time enough for him to decide what to do about the Trade Federation.

=

Cody was trying to figure out how to ask Rex if he would be able to handle seeing Keres up close and personal, in all his possible psychotic glory, when Slick sat down across from them in the mess. Rex, who had been trying to drown himself in his caff, looked up and Cody just wanted to scream inside. Slick was a good brother, competent, but he tended to bring them issues whenever he wanted to talk and this time looked like it would be one of those times.

"Commander," Slick said with a nod, and then he looked at Rex with a uneasy look. "Captain?"

Rex rolled his eyes. "What is it, Slick?"

"Er, how are you feeling?"

Cody stared at him, trying to hinge his jaw back in place. What? Did Slick--? No. Slick was a good brother, he knew this, but he was not the type to ask how anyone was feeling. He was the sort to ask if they could shoot straight and attack the enemy without karking up.

"I'm fine," Rex said through gritted teeth. "Any particular reason you're asking, brother?"

"I may have figured out how Boba contacted--"

"Oh, you kriffing didn't," Cody groaned, burying his head in his hands. Was the 501st full of morons? Kix, at least, was smarter than the lot of them, but he had hitched himself up next to Jesse, which wasn't saying much. There was Hardcase and his hyperactivity, though the brother was a karking good shot, but stars he got on Cody's nerves. Then, of course, Rex had to go ahead and adopt Fives and Echo and those two chuckleheads ended up causing reports that made Cody stare at his brother and wonder how he stayed sane.

There, that was the answer. Rex was not sane.

"Do I even want to know what he said?" Rex asked, sounding pained.

Cody looked at his brother, and yep, that was Rex's "please kill me now" face.

"He's in your head?" Slick said, eying his Captain uncertainly, like he wasn't sure if he should go for his weapon or not.

"You talk to anyone else about this, Slick?" Cody asked, leaning across the table, eyes narrowed.

"No, sir," Slick said, leaning back.

"Good," Cody said, sitting back down. "Don't." Rex had picked up his caff and started drinking again, muttering under his breath. Cody kicked him, only to be kicked in return. Fine, if Rex didn't want to deal with the issue, he would. "Why would you contact him?"

"I wanted his help to protect us in case the Republic tries to do to us like the Kaminoians did," Slick said. "He stopped the war, figured he had an interest in us surviving."

"Could say that," Rex snorted.

"Kaysh mirsh solus," Cody told Rex with a roll of his eyes.

"He doesn't know any better," Rex said.

"Not an excuse," Cody said. He looked at Slick, then nudged Rex under the table. "What do you think we should do?"

"Depends how much ori'vod told him," Rex said. Smart, using Kix's name for Keres. It wouldn't do to bring the other's attention to the conversation, and who knew how that bond worked?

"Just that he's looking out for us and, well, about you, Captain," Slick said.

"That is not information you share," Cody said, pointing a finger in Slick's face. "Any of it."

"Our brothers deserve to know that we'll be taken care of!" Slick hissed.

Rex glanced at Cody, uncertain. "It's the manner of 'care' that we're concerned about, Slick. Our ori'vod is…"

"Dini'la," Cody muttered. "He didn't used to be but he is now and we're trying to figure out to what degree."

"Insanity has degrees?" Slick asked, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably.

"Have you met your brothers?" Cody asked.

"Leave my men alone," Rex said. "Or I'll start transferring them to the 212th just to mess with you."

"Try it," Cody smirked. "I can deny all requests, I outrank you."

Rex narrowed his eyes at him. "You don't outrank General Jinn."

"We're not even fighting, why in all the stars would you--! Because you're an asshole, that's why, why did I ask?" Cody huffed and stole Rex's caff. "This is mine now. No more for you."

Rex leaned against Cody, pressing close and trying to get his caff back. "Brother, be kind? I had to deal with Skywalker too early this morning."

"Not my problem," Cody said, tipping the mug back and emptying it.

Slick cleared his throat, badly hiding a smile behind a hand. "About our ori'vod?"

"Well," Cody said, handing Rex the empty mug and dodging the punch aimed at his head--the kriff?! "He is going to be here in less than a week to talk to General Jinn. I would recommend, Rex, that Slick come with us."

"I didn't even know he was coming," Rex growled.

"My mistake," Cody said smoothly, smiling widely in the face of Rex's anger. It was a little more dangerous pushing Rex's buttons these days since his usually predictable brother would behave in new and interesting ways--like trying to punch him in the head for stealing his caff--but it was still fun. "Our ori'vod and your dear cyare will be here in less than a week to speak with General Jinn. I'm not sure if he's told General Skywalker or not, but he's asking that you and I both select a few men--five maybe?--to go down to a planet with him."

"Seven," Rex said absently.

"Seven?" Cody asked.

"Total of sixteen brothers," Rex said. "With three Jedi."

"Why so many?" Slick asked. "You don't think we'd need to fight him, do you?"

"No," Rex said, still not quite focusing on them. Cody didn't like that and jabbed Rex between his armor plates, right in the side. His brother jerked, blinking at him. "Sorry, no. It's just. A feeling? A weird one."

"Good weird, or bad weird?" Cody asked. Bad weird meant grab more ammo and find a hole to wait out whatever shitstorm the Jedi had gotten them into this time.

Rex reached out to fiddle with the empty caff mug, focusing intently on it. "Good weird. Slick, we'll find you later to tell you what to bring with you for whatever dirtball we end up on, otherwise--get lost."

"Yes, Captain," Slick said, getting up. He looked wary but not about ready to commit any further crime on them. He walked back to his squad, ready to watch out for them again, and Cody shook his head. He didn't trust it.

"We're going to have to watch him," Cody said, quiet enough for only Rex to hear.

"Cody," Rex said, still messing about with the cup, "he wants to see us. As many of us as he can. I don't, it's all sad. When I was running through names trying to think of who would be good, it was like I felt Red sighing. Seven from each company makes it manageable without threatening."

"Barely," Cody agreed. "Five would be better to lessen tension, but if he wants to see us?"

"I think he does," Rex said. "I'm not sure why?"

"Make sure we're okay?" Cody shrugged.

"That's ridiculous," Rex said, looking at him. "He knows we're fine. There's something else."

"Does there have to be?" Cody asked. "You didn't used to be so suspicious of him."

"He's not Red," Rex murmured.

"He is and he isn't," Cody said. "He's asking General Jinn for help. That's a Red move. Wanting to see us? That's pretty Red too. The coldness, the general disregard for life? Keres. The willingness to kill everything and anyone who gets in his way? Keres. You damn well know that if anyone had tried to mess with us that Red would have done what needed to be done."

"You don't think Kix is right about that, kark, what'd he call it--"

"Dissociative Identity Disorder," Cody said. "And no. I've spent a lot more time around Red then you did, sorry to say. I saw him do a lot of crazy shit, lot of impossible things with the Force, things that made my General go white. I heard a lot of their arguments and the way Red would shut my General down fast the moment an argument went a certain direction."

"Cody?" Rex asked, leaning against him.

Cody wrapped an arm around Rex. "Trust your cyare, Rex'ika. He knows what he's doing and I think that he's trusting us all to have his back."

"He hates that word," Rex said.

"Hate or not, he's doing it," Cody said. "Maybe you should ask Kix about trust issues and not just trauma."

Rex bumped his shoulder and rolled his eyes. Yeah, loved him too. Jerk.

=

Kix was having a good morning. He'd had a lazy morning with Jesse and then gotten to the med bay to find that Sawbones had finished doing what Kix had harassed him about the last cycle. They were going to crack the mystery of getting rid of the chips once and for all. He just knew they would.

"Nantines," Kix murmured. "If we could get nanites it would actually solve the whole issue."

"Where are we going to get enough nanites to infect the entire GAR?" Sawbones asked, scratching at his truly impressive facial scar. It put Cody's to shame the way it started at mid-cheek with three deep gouges and sliced deep over his head to his hairline like a droid tried to peel his face off and failed. "They're expensive, Kix, and they're usually programmed for one specific purpose."

Kix chewed his lip. "Nanites would be easier than us trying to find a way to reprogram our own immune systems."

"Surgery would be easier," Sawbones argued.

"You want to start putting brothers under the knife with Jedi not knowing?" Kix said. "They find out, someone says one of those orders? Everything's kriffed."

Kix wanted his morning to stay good. C'mon good morning, stay good.

"So how--"

A datapad pinged nearby.

"Find that pad," Kix said, looking around.

Sawbones and Kix started searching along with a few of the other clones who helped out. Kix found it, calling out in triumph, and accessed the message waiting. Sawbones leaned over his shoulder and swore, his eyes widening.

There was bank information attached, a very large amount, and a short message.

I recommend Apolyta-III. They can manufacture the amounts you require in a reasonably short amount of time. Even better, they will not ask questions. -O'V

Kix looked at Sawbones, eyes wide. "Can we?" he whispered.

"We need to talk to the others," Sawbones said. "I think this needs to be decided by all brothers, Kix, not just us. If we--That might be money from the Hutts or the Zygerrians. You know where it's been."

Kix chewed his lip, hating what we was about to say. "Sawbones, he's trying to free us same as he freed the others. Does it really matter how he's doing it?"

"This is why we all need to--"

"You saw those orders!" Kix snapped. "Do you want to be nothing more than a flesh clanker?"

Sawbones was quiet. "We're too close to this, Kix. We know him. Let's ask the 104th and Hydrops. They had some dealings with Red but not enough to really be impacted."

"It'd be good to get Wolffe out here too," Kix said with a smile. "He'd do Cody and Rex some good."

"Shit," Sawbones muttered. "They'd tear the cruisers apart. I remember the three of them on Kamino. I thought the trainers were going to kill them."

Kix hesitated before forwarding the message and the collected data on the chips to Hydrops. He gave the other a primer on the subject, though a general alert on the chips existence had gone out through the medical gossip chain not too long ago, but this was a little more formal. He didn't know what Hydrops had investigated, if he had, so it was only right that Kix shared what he knew in full.

He set the datapad aside when he was done and looked at Sawbones. "Now what?" he asked.

The other medic shrugged. "Now nothing," he said. "Now we wait and see what happens."

"Kriff," Kix muttered. He hated waiting.

Chapter Text

Rex looked up from the communications report he was reading as General Skywalker laid a gentle hand on his elbow. The General looked apologetic and Rex set the report aside, following when Skywalker gestured him off the bridge. He had a feeling he knew what this was about--the morning's atrocious start--and wasn't keen on anyone being around to watch the fallout.

"How are you?" Skywalker asked bluntly once they were alone in one of the side rooms.

"I'm fine, sir," Rex said.

"Liar," Skywalker smiled. "You looked pretty spooked earlier. I should have warned you that sometimes meditation, especially when you just start out, can bring up bad memories. My first six months with Qui-Gon were horrible, trying to learn everything I needed and adjust, and that's without having an active bond."

"It wasn't the bond, sir," Rex said, curious despite himself. He knew a little about his Jedi's past, mostly from Red's inability to keep his mouth shut, but this was the first time Skywalker was offering anything freely. "I have enough of my own bad memories without Red's."

Skywalker nodded. "They don't all have to be bad," he offered. "Sometimes meditation is the only way I can remember what my mom looked like--how she smiled, what she smelled like, the sound of her voice. It can help focus memories you want to remember as well as push away those you want to keep away. It helps to--"

"I'd rather not, if it's all the same, sir," Rex said.

Skywalker hesitated for a moment before nodding again. "I'm going to make you an offer that you are more than welcome to tell me off for," he said. "Qui-Gon would have a lot to say about it and so would Ahsoka, but I think it might be the best for you."

"Sir?" Rex asked.

"If you want, and only if you want, I can go into your mind and set up shields on the bond for you," Skywalker said. "It won't be as good as if they were your own. You won't have control of them, which means you can't raise or lower them whenever you want, but it will at least stop some of Keres's anger leaking through."

Rex looked down at his hands, adjusting his arm guards absently, thinking it through. Shielding the bond would stop the boil over, but what else would it do? Would it prevent him from reaching out to the other if he needed him? Did he want to give up that connection to Red?

Stars, was that even him thinking or was that Keres?

"Could I take it down if I wanted to?" Rex asked, looking at Skywalker. "Or would I need someone else to do that?"

Skywalker hummed thoughtfully. "I could show you how to raise and lower, maybe, if you worked with me. It would mean you'd need to actually meditate."

Rex viciously swore inside his head. "General," he started.

"You can use my name," Skywalker said with a smile. "We're friends, Rex, or at least I think we are. There isn't a war anymore. Rank really doesn't matter much, does it?"

"That's just weird," Rex muttered. "All right. Anakin. Meditation isn't an option. I'd rather those memories stay where they are."

Skywalker nodded. "I can think about other ways of controlling shielding, if you'd like? Usually meditation is the best way as it clears your mind and you learn to know what's you and what's not you. If that's not in the cards, I can still set up the shielding--"

"Please," Rex said softly.

Skywalker nodded. "Okay. I'll look into how you can control it other than what ways the Jedi use."

"What do I need to do right now?" Rex asked, just the slightest bit hesitant. Force hoodoo in his head. What was he thinking?

"Just relax," Skywalker said, reaching out to lay his gloved fingers on Rex's temple. "I'm not going to hurt you or look for anything. I'm just setting up some blocks to give you some privacy from the bond."

"Will he know?" Rex asked.

"Probably," Skywalker said, his eyes closing and a slight frown appearing between his eyes. "Maybe, only if he's looking. I'm not sure how much attention he's actually paying to you and the bond."

"Probably more than any of us want," Rex said, focusing on a point over his General's shoulder and letting himself think about nothing. He could feel the slightest tingle in the back of his head but nothing bad seemed to come of it. After a moment his mind seemed to settle, calm, the low churn of thoughts constantly swimming anxiously in the back of his mind stilled.

"There," Skywalker said, letting his hand fall away from Rex's face. "Shields on the bond. Hopefully it'll do some good."

Rex rubbed at his forehead, frowning. All that thinking, all those worries, that had been the bond? He thought he'd been trying to figure out… There was a lot going on, it just made sense that he was working through the problem. "Thank you, sir," he said.

"Anakin," Skywalker correctly gently.

Rex glanced at him and tried to smile. "It'll take some remembering, and time, but I'll try." He hesitated. "Did General Jinn talk to you about the, er, meeting?"

"Yeah, a bit," Skywalker said. "Any idea on who you want to take with us? Qui-Gon found some random uninhabited moon that's just barely breathable."

"Cody and I have been talking about it," Rex said. "Slick, Fives, Echo, Kix, and Jesse. I'm just trying to decide on the last two. Hardcase would be good if there's a fight, but if Keres spooks him it might go south too fast."

"Why not Fox and Denal?" Skywalker asked. "Both are pretty even tempered, good judges of character."

"I had been thinking Dogma," Rex said, "but Denal works. Fox, too."

"Wonderful," Skywalker said. "So we're all set for the meet!"

"Now we just have to wait," Rex pointed out.

"Right," Skywalker said, visibly deflating. "Crap."

=

Qui-Gon smiled at the comm of his friend. "Micah," he greeted. "It's been too long."

"Your own damned fault," Micah pointed out. "You're the one running off all over the Galaxy while the rest of us are perfectly content to have normal assignments."

"Normal assignments are boring," Qui-Gon said, waving a hand in the air imperiously. "Which you agree with, since you aren't even on Coruscant these days. You won't even tell me where you are, sending me these highly encrypted channels to contact you through. You know who my Master was, Mic, all of this is unnecessary."

"Not totally unnecessary," Micah said. "I'm on a mission. Precautions and all that. We're far out in the Outer Rim, Qui-Gon, that's all I can tell you right now."

"That's a shame," Qui-Gon said. "I could use you here." He paused, knowing the encryptions on the comm were Shadow-quality and trusting his friend, but still he hesitated to put his actions into words. "Keres asked to meet with me and Anakin so that we could figure out a way to help the slaves he's been freeing. I wanted you and Tahl with us, or any other Jedi that would be sympathetic to the cause."

"You always were more critical of the Council and the Order before Anakin," Micah said, "but you toned it down. I thought we lost our Maverick, that you actually were calming down and letting Yoda win. For fuck's sake, you let him name the damned flagship the Maverick and I thought you lost your damned mind."

"Mic," Qui-Gon said, startled.

"And now you're saying you want to tell the whole Order to go fuck itself," his friend continued. "You want to start a schism."

"I wasn't exactly thinking of it that way," Qui-Gon said slowly, "but yes. Yes, Micah, I do. This neutrality is wrong. We should be out in the Galaxy helping everyone, regardless of borders. Isn't that what our Order is about? We help everyone, no matter what? Instead we go where the Senate sends us, hampered by what serves them best, dictated by a Council that listens to politics over what is good? And what of the Force? The things I have seen Red do? Anakin? Micah, we have lost so much of our knowledge. How long before we simple fade away because we lack the knowledge to do anything?"

"There's more going on than you know," Micah said, a curl to his lip. "Files you were blocked from, Council meetings that were never recorded, missions that have never been logged. The Master of Shadows has a book that isn't even on record."

"What?" Qui-Gon demanded, outraged.

Micah sighed, sounding tired. "You're serious about this?"

"Utterly."

"You need to talk to Plo," Micah said. "He's been wavering lately. He's saddened over the Order's lack of understanding of the Force and is starting to think we have lost our way. He is a Baran Do sage, remember? He has a different view of the Force than your typical Jedi, than any Jedi Yoda would prefer, and he is extraordinarily fond of his clones."

Qui-Gon murmured assent. He hadn't considered Plo Koon.

"Record your conversation with Keres for me?" Micah asked, running a hand over his head. "I'm interested, I just doubt I'll be able to be there even by comm. I'll try to think of others who would support this. Ki-Adi might, but I wouldn't put credits on it."

"I would only approach those who are sure, Mic," Qui-Gon said. "This is more than Dooku ever did. This isn't just about leaving the Order but establishing our own."

"I know," Micah said. "Secura, probably, maybe Unduli. Shaak Ti?"

"I doubt Luminara would side with us," Qui-Gon said. "She and I have had disagreements in the past."

"You never know," Micah said. "We do this, we announce we're setting up somewhere else, and I'm airing the Council's dirty laundry. All of it. I've been quiet too long because it's what was needed, even if it was wrong."

"What are you talking about, Mic?" Qui-Gon asked, leaning back in his chair. "You're not making any sense. Just come out and say what you want. You know the comm is safe."

"Safe is relative," Micah said with a snort. "We can't trust our own people, Qui. Haven't been able to in years."

"Mic--"

"You weren't the first to find Kamino," Micah said.

"What?" Qui-Gon asked, eyes wide. "But, how?"

"Not here, not this way," Micah said. "Later. I have to go, but ask your Commander. He and Anakin's Captain are first batch. They'll know what I'm talking about, maybe. I don't know how the Kaminoans played it on their end or how much the clones know, but they're observant fuckers. If only our Padawans were as brilliant as the clones were at fighting and… It doesn't matter. I'll comm you back when I can."

"Stay safe," Qui-Gon said. "Whatever you're doing, just stay safe, Mic."

"You too," Micah said before disconnecting.

Qui-Gon ran a hand over his mouth and beard, trying to process everything Micah had told him. Names of fellow Jedi were all well and good, but the information about the Council and the clones was what preyed on his mind. How much went on in the Temple that none of them knew about?

He knew Dooku had a deep mistrust of the Council and it was a given reason for leaving the Order. He also tended to hoard information, storing it away for his own private use. Qui-Gon wondered if his former Master had taken any of it with him when he had left.

Something to ask Keres later.

He reached for the comm again and sent a text query to Plo's unit. He trusted Micah, and if he said Plo Koon would be an asset then he would be, and he was extremely fond of the 104th. Plo had also been on the Council for a long time, perhaps he knew what Micah was talking about.

He was surprised when Plo sent back a quick response saying he was already en route to Qui-Gon's current location on Sawbones's and Kix's request and should be there shortly. Qui-Gon smiled. Plo would be there in time for the meeting with Keres.

=

"Thank you for inviting me to dinner, Bail, this had been lovely," Padme said with a smile as the plates were cleared from the table.

"It's always nice to catch up with friends outside the bustle of the Senate and committees," Bail said. "You, in particular, have been very hard to pin down lately."

"You know how it's been," Padme said, picking up a glass of water and taking a sip. "With the war coming to a close we can finally start pushing through new policies to undo everything that was approved in such a rush. We can scale back emergency powers, start looking at fiscal matters--"

"Clone rights," Bail murmured with a smile.

Padme blinked. "Y-yes," she said. "That has come up."

"I know," Bail said. "I put it forth."

"It's causing quite a stir," she said. "Many senators, even on our side, are uneasy at the idea."

"That is not reassuring," Bail said with a frown. "What is your opinion on the matter? Though, I admit, I did not ask you here tonight to discuss work."

Padme chuckled, "No, it's all right. I agree that we need to grant them rights, but maybe not as broadly as you proposed? Doing so all at once, right now? The influx of so many votes to one home system would destabilize the Senate and, the state of our Republic right now… I'm not sure. There has to be a way to do it in stages, maybe, to allow the Republic to get used to the idea of cloned sentients having these rights and also to allow our Republic to get back in some sort of rhythm."

Bail made a thoughtful noise, considering Padme's words. She had a point. Broad, sweeping changes at this time could be damaging to all involved parties. He'd been so eager to have the issue considered that he had not thought of the possible ripple effects. Shame on him, it was a mistake of a first-year senator, not a veteran like himself.

"Would you consider penning an counter to my proposal?" Bail asked. "Stating what you did now, a better way to grant them the rights they deserve."

"You know doing so will signal to our compatriots that anyone can do the same," Padme said.

"I want to start a discourse," Bail said. "This might be the best way to do so."

"All right," Padme said, looking pleased. "I will do so when I have a moment to compose my thoughts."

"Excellent," Bail said, looking over as Sheltay came in with the portable comm. Wonderful timing as always. He loved that woman. She smirked at him, sharing in the plot. "Padme, I must admit, I did lure you here under a false pretense."

"Dinner was a false pretense?" Padme asked, watching his aide. "If so, you at least carried through on your threat to feed me."

"Yes, I do at least make good on my promises," Bail said. Sheltay set the comm in the middle of the table, closer to Padme and squeezed the other woman's shoulder, before leaving the room. "However, I have recently become a sounding board for a mutual friend of ours."

"Oh no," Padme whispered, raising her hands to her face. "Bail, you didn't."

Bail got to his feet and went over to her. "You two need to talk. Consider the current state of events, not just in the Senate, but in the Galaxy. That man is not going to be coming close to Coruscant for a long time. You are friends, at the very least--"

"BAIL!"

"I have eyes," Bail said, trying to be kind. "Also, your lipstick stains quite obviously sometimes. I did give him advice once on how to remove a very obvious mark." Padme was blushing furiously and Bail smiled, patting her knee. "It is all right. I understand why you two are keeping it a secret. You have faced enough criticism for your part in the beginning of the war and then his position within the Order does place the whole matter very precariously."

"I don't know what to do," Padme said.

"Talking to your spouse is generally a good place to start," Bail said. "If I'm reading between his words correctly, the war between two separate governments may be over, but there are other wars that Jedi fight. His life is not out of danger."

Padme looked down at her hands. "It's that obvious?"

Bail smiled and placed his hand on hers, giving them a reassuring squeeze. "I have been married for a bit longer than you. Breha has had several words for me during this past year, and during my previous attempts to be involved with refugee situations. Communication is key. I do recommend that you two make that abundantly clear to each other."

He got up and flicked the comm on before Padme could stop him.

"Hey Bail," Anakin said, sounding distracted as he looked over a datapad. He wasn't expecting this conversation either. "I saw the thing you sent about the clones. I have no idea what any of it means, so I sent it on to Qui-Gon to decipher, but thank you. Anything helps at this point."

"Not a problem," Bail said. "I'll keep you both up to date on the situation in the Senate?"

"That'd be wizard," Anakin said, frowning over something he was reading. "Hey, how's the Senate reacting to the Hutts being blown to smithereens? I know there's probably a few with their fingers in that pot."

Bail sighed. "Anakin, would you please look up?"

"Hm? Sorry, there's." Anakin made a frustrated noise and tossed the datapad out of the comm's view. "Qui-Gon and I are trying to run logistics on what equipment we can still actually requisition and what fuel depots are still open, weapons, trying to--"

Ah, he had looked up.

"Hello, Anakin," Padme said.

"Padme," Anakin said, sounding reverent.

Ah, young love, Bail thought fondly as he left them to it. Breha, remember when we were young and in love and so incredibly stupid? No, I don't either.

=

"Bail is sneaky," Anakin said after a moment.

"He's a good friend, though," Padme said.

"Still sneaky," Anakin said. "Glad he's on our side."

"How are you?" Padme asked. She looked nervous.

"Good, I guess?" Anakin said, running a hand through his hair. "Stressed. Things aren't good right now. It was easier when we could just, I don't know, go fight something. Blow up some droids. This is worse."

"What is?" Padme asked, looking concerned. She had gotten up and chosen a chair closer to the comm. He could see her better now and stars, she was so beautiful. How could he have forgotten how beautiful she was? "Anakin, talk to me?"

"You didn't want me to talk to you before," he pointed out, still stung by the way she shut him out.

"I panicked," she said. "I was scared over something stupid and it turned out to be nothing anyway and by then we had already settled into the holding pattern we're in."

"You got scared?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "Padme, you're one of the bravest people I know. Nothing scares you."

"I thought I was pregnant," she said. "That's pretty scary. Turns out I just caught a bug and was sick for a different reason which messed up my cycle and. It was a mess. Sabe's been making fun of me for months now."

Oh. Okay, yeah, that would do it. He wasn't ready for kids yet. Force, he was barely ready for a Padawan and she was almost fully grown! He couldn't really mess her up too much, though that was debatable depending on who you asked, but she at least had the vocabulary to tell him off if he did or said something she didn't like. Babies were something else altogether.

"You're panicking," Padme said. "See? This is why I didn't tell you."

"No, well, yes, but for different reasons," Anakin said. "Probably. I have a Padawan now, Ahsoka? I think I tried telling you about her but you were pretty determined to ignore me. Completely get it now, wow. For the record? I am very much on-board for kids, but later. When we can get the Galaxy straightened out. Right now is not a good time or place for them."

"They gave you a Padawan?" Padme asked, smiling. "You're barely a knight."

"Yeah, thanks for that," he made a face. "I don't know what the Council was thinking either, but she's a good kid. She and Boba are hell on the troops, though, the pranks they get up to. I had to convince her that apologizing to them all was in her best interest before they retaliated. We have two bored kids and an entire battalion of bored troopers on the Resolute and it's not a good situation."

"Boredom never killed anyone," Padme said.

"It's...not that easy?" Anakin said, running both hands through his hair in frustration. "You know about Keres from the Senate, about how he's going after slavers." Padme nodded. "Qui-Gon and I are meeting with him to find out how we can help the slaves he's freeing, like the Jedi should be doing instead of hiding in the Temples. It's the start of a huge break, and there's more going on than Qui-Gon's telling me. I don't blame him, this is something we need to be careful with.

"Then there's the clones. Some of them are fine with the war being over, it means they can live. Others are worried about rights, what comes next, where are they going to live. I'm trying to help with that, talking to Bail. Others? They're pissed, Padme, they're so angry. I think it's less anger and more fear? But it's hard to tell sometimes. I'm trying to figure out who so we can keep an eye on them before they snap, but Rex. I don't want him to have to deal with it."

"Why not?" Padme asked. "Rex is your second, it's his responsibility."

Anakin huffed out a laugh and tried to smile. "Because Rex and Red were a thing?" he said. "It was ridiculously cute before everything happened and now it's horrible."

"Maybe having something else to focus on would be good for Rex?" Padme said. "That was he doesn't have to think about Red, or Keres, or whatever his name is."

Anakin looked away from Padme for a moment, thinking that over. Would that work? Would that help Rex? He knew that any time he tried to find Rex these days, he was either with Cody going over reports, or on the bridge...going over reports. Rex was focusing on work if he wasn't with Boba. Letting Rex weed out which brothers were the ones that posed a possible danger to the rest of them would probably be something he'd be thrilled over, if only to try to work with them and find out how to help those brothers.

"You're brilliant," Anakin said with a smile.

"I try," Padme laughed.

"How are you?" he asked. "You said you were sick?"

"Just a bug," Padme said, waving a hand. "I'm okay. Senate work has kept me busy. Committees working on trying to put the Republic back in order, to undo the damage the war did to our laws."

Anakin hesitated for a moment, wanting to warn her not to cross the Chancellor, but didn't. There was no way to know how secure the comm they were on was, and if he said anything it could put her in more danger. Better to let her act normally around him.

"I love you," he said simply. "I miss you so much."

"I know," she said. "I do too. Is there no chance you'll be close to Coruscant in the near future?"

Anakin shook his head. "I don't think so. Qui-Gon knows about us, he might cut me loose long enough for a visit, but it wouldn't be long. I don't even know how possible it would be with everything happening, but I can ask."

"Please?" Padme asked. "I want to see you."

Anakin nodded. "I want to see you, too. I'll ask. I'll comm again later?"

Padme smiled and nodded. Anakin made himself turn the comm off before burying his face in his hands. For all that they were talking again it felt harder now to end the comm. It felt like the Galaxy was closing in around him and he didn't know how to stop it.

Something bad was going to happen, and soon, but he didn't know what. He just wished he knew.

=

Kix strode into the med bay, clutching a mug of caff and yawning, and saw Rex.

Nope! Bad! Not good!

He marched over to his Captain and hooked his arm through the other's, spinning him away from the green crystal.

"Hello, Captain," he said with forced cheer. "What brings you down here?"

"Weird dream," Rex said, looking over his shoulder. "I wasn't going to touch it, Cody already told me why it would be a bad idea. I just, I don't know."

"You need me to knock you out?" Kix asked, leading Rex over to a bed so he could look the other over. Rex gave him a look and humored him, the way he would have before and without a foul temper. Hunh. Improvement!

"No, I'm good. I actually slept last cycle and ate my breakfast, just had some weird dreams," Rex said.

Kix checked the readings, poking his brother, who teasingly poked back. Kix grinned. Aw, he had his Captain back. "You're fine," he said. "If your head hurts or anything, let me know and I'll have a hypo waiting."

Rex glanced at the crystal and nodded. "Keep it safe," he said, looking concerned.

"What, want me to throw it in an ammo carton and lock the damned thing up?" Kix asked, not really paying attention as he logged everything in Rex's file.

"Actually, yeah," Rex said. "Do that."

Kix looked up, "What?"

Rex nodded to the crystal. "Stick it in a secure box and then lock it up. Better than if it's just sitting on your desk."

Kix raised a finger to point at Rex and then thought about what he said. "Okay, fair point, Captain. Will do."

Rex clapped Kix on the shoulder and ambled out. Kix shook his head and finished logging what he needed to before comming Jesse.

"What's up, love?" Jesse asked.

"Can you find me an empty ammo container, maybe something with padding or even shove some sort of padding in there?" Kix asked.

"You know, I could be busy," Jesse teased.

"None of us are busy," Kix said. "Well, I'm busy because all of you just fight each other and then I have to patch you idiots up. But you are not busy, so get searching."

"Why do I love you again?" Jesse asked, sounding mournful.

"Because I'm good in bed," Kix said, disconnecting the comm and grinning.

"I'm marking that under 'things I want to unhear'," Hydrops said from the entryway.

Kix looked up to see Sawbones facepalming and Hydrops looking pained. The CMO from the 104th was one of the genetic anomalies among the clones--gold eyes and red hair--and his face had been hit with some sort of acid attack early in the war.

"You got here fast," Kix said.

"This is important," Hydrops said. "My General was also itching to get away from Coruscant. He's not very happy right now and I think he was looking for an excuse to deploy us somewhere."

"The whole 104th is out here?" Kix asked, eyes wide.

"What's left of us," Hydrops said, looking tired. "Us and our ships. We broughts more supplies for the 212th and the 501st as well." The other medic hopped up on the closest biobed and idly swung his legs back and forth. "Let's talk about these chips."

Sawbones grabbed a chair and Kix did as well, after locking the med bay so no brothers could bother them, bringing it over to crowd around Hydrops. The last thing they needed was for one of the hotheads to find out about the chips and to spread panic through the ranks.

"We've figured out that the orders have to be issued verbally," Sawbones said. "Otherwise Kix and I would have triggered all one hundred and fifty just reading them. Same with Dyad for just hacking the chip."

"Makes sense," Hydrops said. "It'd also align our loyalty to the one issuing the order. Which is so many levels of karked."

"The Jedi most likely do not know about the chips," Kix added. "Keres, Red, whatever you want to call him. He told me, Rex, and Cody how we came to be actually ordered. The Jedi barely had anything to do with us, so I don't think--"

"Considering one of those orders? I doubt they'd order us to wipe them out," Hydrops interrupted. "Not a surprise but good to know. A lot of brothers are going to want to blame them first, so having that knowledge is good. Better if we can get proof."

Kix shrugged. "We can ask him later."

"The question at hand is how to get rid of the chips," Sawbones said. "Red provided us with the means--money, a company's name--to order nanites. They are the safest option and we would be able to deploy them to every brother without the Jedi knowing or involving them. My hesitation is that the money he's provided is from the Hutts and Zygerrians. It's blood money."

"And I don't think it matters where the money came from when it would save us," Kix said. "As Sawbones just said--safest option, the Jedi would never know, easiest to get to everyone. No down time as well. Surgery would be the only other option at this point and, honestly, brain surgery does not fill me with warm fuzzies. The chips are in an area of the brain that is not easy to go into, and if we have to remove billions of chips? There is a wide margin for error of us just karking up. I don't think I could live with myself accidentally killing a brother."

Hydrops was quiet for a moment, one hand cupping his chin as he thought. "I've been thinking both options over on our way here," he said. "I see both sides of the argument. One thing you're forgetting, Sawbones, is that Red is determined to free slaves and anyone he sees as imprisoned through any means he can. He's freed those bound by actual chains. Us? We're a gray area. This he can help with and he is."

"You're saying go for it?" Kix asked, smiling.

"To a degree," Hydrops said. "I'm cautioning that if we accept his help at this time that he might want to start helping more and more. I know Red before was close with the 212th, he pulled Commander Cody into some ridiculous shit that made my Commander laugh his ass off, but he's not Red anymore. General Koon has told us about Keres, not much, but enough to mourn."

Sawbones sighed. "They did get up to some shit," he said. "All of the 212th did. And none of you assholes believe us."

"Space whales that can go into hyperspace?" Hydrops said. "You all must have been hallucinating something. I still don't believe Commander Cody's story of spell versus turbo laser. That's just pure bullshit."

Sawbones smirked. "You'd think so, wouldn't you."

Kix was quiet, not wanting to explain Rex and Red to Hydrops, to pull the 501st into the mess of everything. He remembered Keres turning on Cody, the fury and outrage, the way he was so willing to protect them even against themselves. It was too late, most likely, to refuse Keres's help. Not without seriously pissing off the Sith.

"Place the order?" Kix asked. "For the nanites?"

Hydrops nodded. "Do it. The faster they make them, the faster we can get rid of the chips, the faster we can find a way to not be beholden to anyone--not Keres, not the Jedi, not the Republic. We would serve because it is our choice."

"Let's hope it's that simple," Sawbones said. "I just want us all safe."

Kix nodded. "Safe and alive."

=

Rex found Cody in the hallway, his brother having stopped walking while looking over a datapad. Smiling, he slowed his steps to sneak up on Cody, planning on tackling him, or something, because why not? They could both use some mindless fun right now. Other brothers in the hall were smiling, clearly getting out of his way but not alerting the Commander, obviously they all could use a little mayhem.

Only, it didn't exactly go the way he planned when someone else leaned over and went "Boo!" in his ear right before he flicked Cody's ear. Which made him flail like a godsdamned Shiny and also had Cody drawing his sidearm.

"WOLFFE!" Rex shouted, rubbing his ear and trying to get his heart rate under control. He didn't even have to turn around, only his batchmates were ridiculous enough to pull crap like that.

Cody rolled his eyes and holstered his weapon. "Oh, great, we have to deal with you again? What the hell are you doing here?"

"Oh c'mon, you assholes didn't miss my charming presence? I'm hurt! Wounded, I tell you!" Wolffe said, grabbing at Rex and dragging him in close. Rex lashed out with elbows and fists but Wolffe had already gotten a decent hold on him and, aw hell, what was Wolffe's fascination with dragging his knuckles through his hair?! He slammed his elbow into Wolffe's gut and stomped on his foot to free himself.

"More like insufferable presence," Cody said, unimpressed.

Rex backed away, eyeing Wolffe, wary for any more of his brother's tricks. Revenge would be sweet and come when Wolffe never expected. He was thinking slimy things in Wolffe's bunk. The engines produced the weirdest by-products he had ever seen and he would take great pleasure in making sure Wolffe could never, ever get clean.

"Kix and Sawbones sent for Hydrops and my General dragged the whole battalion out to your spit of space," Wolffe said, grinning at Rex. "I know what you're thinking, brother. It'll never happen. I sleep with one eye always open now." He pointed to the bionic. "What are you idiots up to?"

"Plotting your imminent demise," Rex said. "You will never see it coming, implant or not."

"So snippy," Wolffe taunted. "Obviously you're not getting laid enough. Shame and all about Red, but there's plenty of others out there, brother. And even if not, you still have a working right hand."

Rex lunged for Wolffe, who cackled and danced away, but Cody grabbed him by the back of his chest plate and was reeled in closer. He growled, knowing Wolffe was only trying to bait him into a fight, but that was low. Slimy things was officially upgraded into outright destruction sometime in the very near future.

"I'm jealous of the people who don't know you," Rex said, still struggling against Cody's hold.

"Why, because I'm obviously the better brother?" Wolffe asked with a smug tilt to his lips. "Better rank, better battalion, better hair."

"Seriously," Cody asked, interrupting whatever Rex insult was about to throw at Wolffe--it would have been good too, once he thought of it. "Hair? Rank? The 501st? You can do better than that, Wolffe."

"Oh, can I?" Wolffe asked, a unholy look of glee on his face.

Cody let go of Rex and stepped in front of him, chestplate bumping Wolffe's. "At least Rex can keep his men alive, Wolffe. How many times has the 104th needed to replenish from nothing?"

Rex blinked. Oh kark. That was cold. Even Wolffe looked stunned at the angle of attack. He knew Cody was stressed but that was, that was a low as hell blow. They'd seen the reports days before Red had issued the orders to the droids that Wolffe's Wolfpack within the 104th had been practically decimated; only four of his pack had survived including Wolffe. It hadn't even been that long after the Malevolence attack.

"Now, run along, puppy," Cody said with a smirk, datapad still in hand. "We're busy, we'll ignore you some other time."

Rex could almost see the moment Wolffe's brain rebooted from the shock because his eyes narrowed and he pounced. Wolffe drove his armored shoulder into Cody's gut, causing the datapad to snap out of his grip and go flying. Cody snarled and skidded back a few steps in the hall before planting himself.

"You think you can take me? You we all know you couldn't hack it in the waves without me," Cody said. He grabbed at the edge of Wolffe's chest plate and used it as leverage to flip the other over his hip. Wolffe landed on his back and when Cody went to land a punch in the other's face, Wolffe rolled out of the way and pushed himself up, laughing.

Rex got out of the way, silent as the other brothers snickered.

"Any time, any where," Wolffe said as Cody swore, shaking his hand out from having just punched deck. "You think you're so high and mighty, Cody, but you're no better than the rest of us grunts."

"I am better than you!" Cody snapped as Wolffe launched himself at Cody's back.

The two grappled, elbows and fists flying. They rolled and someone's hand grabbed Rex by the knee, yanking him down into the pile. His head snapped back as he went down, cracking against the wall and he swore, pitching forward and trying to control his fall. Stupid batchmates. His fist came down on someone's something and he heard a crack as an elbow hit his nose hard enough he saw stars and felt hot blood.

"If you were better than me, you'd be dead!" Wolffe roared. "Just like the rest of them! Like Ajax and Red Dog and Git and Node and karking Surge!"

Rex froze for a second, feeling a kick to his ribs and something gave there, before he slammed his leg out, trying to free himself of the tangle of his brothers. No, this was more than just their normal roughhousing. Something was up with Wolffe. More than just the Wolfpack being killed and Cody pushing his buttons.

Not if he was talking about their dead batchmates. They never did that.

"Is there a name for what's wrong with you?" Cody demanded. "Did they decant you too--"

Rex punched him, shutting him up before Wolffe did any more damage. Cody swore in Kaminoan, slipping, spitting blood, before twisting about and grabbing at Rex's armor. There was fury there and Rex thought maybe losing Red hadn't just been hard on him.

A sharp, piercing whistle made them all freeze--as did the darts hitting them wherever there was flesh. Rex's buried itself in his neck. Ow.

Kix was standing there, Jesse at his shoulder, some of the 501st and 212th looking stern. Kix looked like he wanted to set them on fire with his eyes alone.

"You shitbags are brothers!" Kix shouted, voice reverberating in the hallway. "More than that, you're batchmates. You're some of the first made and we know you've seen a lot of fucked up crap but you are supposed to be there for each other! Not, kriffing hells, Commander--not deliberately taunt your brother about his losses!"

They started to pull away from each other, but Rex could feel himself getting dizzy and his vision began to swim.

"Darts?" Cody asked, voice slurring.

"Sedatives," Kix said, coming over with Jesse and some others that Rex couldn't place from the 212th. They pulled the three of them apart and onto boards. "You three are cooling off in the med bay."

"Krrriiiffff yoooou," Wolffe mumbled as he was loaded on the board, trying to wave his arm around.

Rex just closed his eyes and didn't resist. He knew better. Dammit, why did Wolffe have to bring up the others? It wasn't because they weren't good enough that they were still alive; Cody had figured out that the good ones, the exceptional ones, were being taken or put down or something was happening to them. So the three of them had figured out how to match the newer batches, to taper themselves down to a different baseline. They'd almost gotten Surge and Ajax to mimic the same way they could, but they'd vanished overnight and Wolffe had never forgiven himself for that.

"You okay, Captain?" Kix asked, a hand on Rex's shoulder.

Rex could barely open his eyes. That must have been some sedative. "Set the bones while we're out," he said, struggling to get each word out clearly.

Kix snorted. "Would serve the lot of you right if we made you wait, but we'll fix you up right. No worries. Just rest."

Rex closed his eyes again and let the black pull him under.

Chapter Text

Rex woke up in the med bay with a pounding head. He ached all over, though that wasn't really a surprise, and sitting up was a challenge. His ribs hurt. He didn't remember what had happened to injure them--if it was Cody or Wolffe--not that it mattered.

He could hear Wolffe in the next bed, talking softly with General Koon, and he watched them for a moment. Wolffe looked horrible, even aside from the fight, like he had been running himself into the ground on purpose. Rex knew how that felt. The 501st didn't have the losses the 104th had had but it still wasn't pretty. Cody and the 212th had gotten off light, in a lot of ways, being dragged off the battlefield to follow General Jinn and Red around on whatever they were doing.

Rex loved his brother, but Cody didn't understand what it felt like to lose so many brothers all at once, especially when they had looked to you to keep them safe.

He forced himself off the bed, loving whoever had gotten him out of his armor, and crawled into Wolffe's bed. His brother bared his teeth in a wordless snarl and Rex rolled his eyes. Yeah, yeah, very scary.

"Wolffe," General Koon chided gently. "Behave. You are in no position to start another fight, my son."

That too. Rex wrapped an arm around Wolffe's neck and knocked their heads together, which sent his spinning. Damn, that was a concussion. Probably minor, nothing he was going to worry over. Wolffe muttered something in Mando'a and leaned against Rex.

"Yes, General," he said.

"You seem determined to fight with your batchmates every time you see them," the General said, reaching out to stroke Wolffe's hair. "Please be kind to yourselves."

Rex grinned. "This is us being kind."

"I do not doubt it," the General chuckled. It sounded odd, being filtered through the mask, but nice at the same time. "I must speak with Qui-Gon about this meeting with our friend tomorrow. Talk to your brothers, Wolffe. Take comfort where you can."

Wolffe gave a little wave as General Koon walked away and Rex nudged his brother. "You okay?" he asked.

"No," Wolffe admitted. "The 104th was already out of commission on my General's orders before the war ended. He was having us see some of those Jedi Mind Healers, those of us who were all messed up from that last run. It wasn't really taking."

"Didn't work out so well, hunh?" Rex asked, closing his eyes.

"Didn't like their questions," Wolffe said. "Kept trying to pry. Kept asking about our batch, our brothers, nothing about the battles. What good was any of that?"

Rex hummed softly, thinking about the books he had read. "Maybe they saw something else? That the reason you were beating yourself up so much over the 104th and the Wolfpack was because of Ajax and Surge."

"Bullshit," Wolffe huffed.

Rex nudged him gently. "You're with us now. We'll look after you."

"Maybe. If Cody will stop trying to bash my skull in," Wolffe said, pitching his voice loud enough for the other to hear. A pillow was throw in their direction, which Wolffe caught and tossed back. "Really? What is your problem? I've got a reason for my head being all karked up, Cody, I've seen my entire company wiped out twice over. Rex has a reason for being a mess. You? I've got nothing."

Rex turned watch Cody, worried, as his brother rolled off the bed and stalked over to them. He looked angry, face still bruised from the black eye and split lip, his jaw bruised. They really had done a number on each other this time.

"I have nothing to be upset over?" Cody asked, jaw moving stiffly. "Are you out of your mind? My company might all be alive and my cyare might not be insane, but that doesn't mean my life is all sunshine and roses."

"What's making Cod'ika's life so awful?" Wolffe asked, getting off the bed and nearly falling as his balance wavered. Rex got up with him and grabbed his arm, holding him up.

"Talk to us," Rex said softly. "If anyone is going to understand, it should be us."

"Rex, your temper is off the rails," Cody said. "I never know how you're going to react. Even the Generals are treading carefully with you."

"That should be fixed," Rex said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Skywalker put some sort of shield on the bond to stop any bleed-through."

"Like that's going to go over well," Cody said after a beat of silence. "Twenty credits says Keres shows up and finds a way to rip that down."

"Bond?" Wolffe asked, frowning. "Shows up? The kriffing hells you two talking about?"

"Fill you in later," Cody said. "We've got brothers in both the 212th and the 501st who are so angry that I've heard talks of mutiny against the rest of us."

"Dammit," Rex muttered. "We can't let that happen. They don't know what's at stake."

"We're going to have to tell them eventually," Cody agreed, "but right now that's not going to help the issue. We're sitting on a kriffing powder keg of angry brothers. That's here, Rex, imagine what it's like across the rest of the Galaxy. Bly's already dealing with his own pockets of brothers fighting him and his commanders but I've been ignoring the comms because I don't know what to tell him."

Wolffe swore softly. "Wonder how many brothers have already just said the hell with this and gone off on their own."

Cody's shoulders slumped. "I don't want to think about it. Those are brothers we won't be able to help."

"Having something to do might ease the strain," Rex said. "I think that's what Keres and the Generals are hoping for. Give us something to do except for sitting around with our thumbs up our asses."

"Or it might send more brothers into outright defiance," Cody said. "More of them who are done taking orders, who don't want to risk anything for anyone else anymore."

"What's happening to us?" Wolffe asked, nudging them back onto the bed. Cody struggled for a moment but Rex growled at him and he collapsed in on himself, letting Wolffe and Rex tuck him between them. "Why are we falling apart now that there's nothing to fight?"

"We're fighting ourselves because we need to fight something," Cody said, face against Wolffe's shoulder. "We've never been idle before. Kamino kept us busy with training, the Jedi have kept us busy with a war. Now what are we going to do?"

"Shit," Rex said, mind blanking out. "Hadn't thought about that."

"No wonder the brothers are panicking," Wolffe said.

"We're all spread out," Cody said. "We can't talk to every brother at once, can't even get messages out to try and comm in. The logistics alone, to try to figure everything out? How are we going to save ourselves?"

"Ask for help?" Rex suggested, hooking his chin over Cody's shoulder. "You're taking on too much and you went nuts."

"Didn't want to think," Cody said quietly. "You have your own problems with Red being gone. Felt wrong to bitch to you about wanting my best friend back too."

Wolffe thumped Cody's back, not hard because Rex was in the way, but hard enough Cody growled. "Hey, asshole, here's an idea--next time karking well tell us something's wrong instead of trying to turn me into a blood smear on the decking?"

"I mean, this is Cody we're talking about," Rex said thoughtfully. "He does emotions about as well as he does sex."

"Oh, get kriffed," Cody grumbled. "I do emotions just fine."

"Not talking about them," Wolffe said.

"Like you're any better," Cody said.

"No," Wolffe said. "But I don't punch first. You have always started our fights first."

"No," Cody said, a pleased note in his voice. "Rex has started five of our fights. You started one, that one time on Kamino, and I've started the rest. But Rex is definitely the shithead who has started the others."

Rex pinched Cody's side through his blacks, grinning as his brother snarled wordlessly at him. Yeah, he might have started some fights, but five? He didn't think it was that high. Maybe two or three.

"Lash was always the worst," Wolffe said after a moment. "How much shit detail did the trainers give us because Lash had started another fight?"

"Rip Batch, reporting for KP duty," Rex muttered, snickering. "Stars, I hated KP. Food prep was the worst when you found out what actually went into the gruel they fed us."

"What was Ajax's idea again?" Cody said. "Swap some of the vitamin supplements out with whatever fish the Kaminoans were eating? Something outrageous."

"Dose the fish with our supplements and see what happened," Rex said, remembering. "We never did it. Would have been interesting, though."

"Yeah, one of the other batches found out and told a trainer. Got us taken off KP forever," Wolffe said. "Kriff, Ajax was so mad."

"General's been asking me about them," Cody said suddenly. "About brothers going missing before he found us, before the war. I don't know what to tell him."

"Nothing to tell," Wolffe said, angry. He shifted, making them all move on the narrow medical bed. "They're dead."

"What if they're not?" Cody asked. Rex looked at him, startled. "I mean, we never thought they were. We went to bed one night and they were gone the next morning. When we asked about them, we were told to shut up and get back to training."

Wolffe shook his head. "No, Cody. They're dead. Ajax and Surge and everyone else, they're dead. The trainers marked them because they were too good, they stood out too much, and they're dead. We're alive because we figured it out."

"Doesn't make any sense," Cody said and Rex wrapped his arms around him. "None of it makes any sense. Didn't then, doesn't now."

"Death never make sense," Wolffe said. "Haven't we learned that by now?"

=

Eventually Kix discharged them all from Medical, glaring at them, but they ignored him. Wolffe went back to the Maverick with Cody, the two of them murmuring about something Rex couldn't catch. It probably meant bad things for him but that was for future Rex to worry about. Present Rex wanted sleep.

He was exhausted and still injured--his face hurt horribly from the broken nose someone had given him, along with the cracked ribs, split lip and black eye, and wrenched knee from when he got pulled in. Not to mention that kriffing concussion.

He rubbed the back of his neck as he palmed his door open and stepped inside, letting it swish closed before pausing. The room felt different somehow. He looked around, not seeing shadows or anything else suspicious, but his bed had someone in it and there was a pair of black boots kicked under the bunk itself.

Rex took his armor off--Kix or someone in medical had been kind enough to clean the blood off--and kept an eye on the bed as he set it on the rack. When he was in just his blacks, he sat down and hesitantly reached out, running a hand through loose red hair.

"Mm?" came a sleepy murmur.

"I didn't think you slept anymore," Rex said.

Red-ringed eyes opened as Keres shifted onto his back and Rex's breath caught in his throat--blue-green, not yellow. The other reached up and brushed a hand over Rex's nose with a small smile.

"Sleep is still a necessity for me, though I do not sleep as much as I once did. Kix did a good job setting that," he said. His voice sounded different, harsher and raspier, almost like he'd been breathing nothing but smoke for the past few months.

"How long have you been on board?" Rex asked. There was a flare of warmth and his face stopped hurting. "What did you do?"

"Healed you," Keres said as he sat up, blankets pooling in his lap. He was still dressed but had shed most of his layers and was only wearing a simple black tunic from what Rex could see. "I've been checking on all of you and Boba. No one saw me, or will see me, but I wanted to see how you all were for myself."

"You're here, then, not showing up through the bond?" Rex asked, shifting closer. Keres was calm, mild, almost deceptively normal like this. Rex wanted so badly to believe that everything was all right, that this was Red, and this was any normal night between the two of them.

Keres rolled his eyes and crawled into Rex's lap, obviously not caring one lick about Rex's hesitation or that he was supposed to…well. It didn't matter much, did it? He couldn't help the flinch as cold skin met his, but Rex wrapped his arms around Keres anyway.

"Why are you so cold?" Rex asked, grabbing the blanket to pull around him.

"Side-effect," Keres said, tucking his head under Rex's chin. "Sorry. You're still hurt…"

"Wolffe, Cody, and I went after each other," Rex said. He was slowly angling them both to lie down on the bunk.

"I know," Keres said. "I saw a little of it before the hallway got too crowded. No sense in getting caught out of idle curiosity."

"Not our finest moment," he admitted. Keres's hands ran over his ribs, warmth following in their wake, and Rex relaxed against him. He hadn't noticed how much pain he was still in until it was gone. "Thank you," he said.

Keres was quiet except for a tiny hum of acknowledgement.

"Why are you here?" Rex asked after some time had passed, one hand tangled absently in Keres's hair, cupping the back of the man's head.

"I'm not allowed to do things simply because I want to?" Keres asked. "Odd. I thought that was what freedom meant."

Rex snickered. "All right, fine, point made."

"Do you truly think me a monster?" Keres asked, fingers restlessly moving over the edge of the blanket. "You had Skywalker block the bond. I can't, I couldn't feel you anymore."

"Is that why you came?" Rex asked.

"I was already on my way," Keres said absently. "But it, it hurt? I don't know. I remember what pain feels like, what fear feels like, but this was different. I don't have a name for it."

Rex moved his hand, rubbing the thin skin behind Keres's ear. "It wasn't meant to block it but to shield. The General might have gotten a little overly enthusiastic because I freaked him out earlier that morning."

Keres was quiet, waiting, but he did lean into Rex's touch. Trusting.

"He and Ahsoka were trying to show me how to meditate, to see where the bond was so I would know what was your temper and what was actually mine," Rex said.

"Not a bad idea," Keres admitted.

"I'm not much for it, apparently," Rex said. "Whatever the General was saying, being among your thoughts, memories, it's bullshit. I can't get my head to shut up now. I keep remembering things I don't want to." Keres made a soft noise of sympathy and Rex knew he got it, being haunted by memories he'd rather stayed buried. "The General thought a shield was the easiest solution for the moment and at least I've been able to sleep better."

Keres freed a hand from the blanket before touching Rex's forehead, between his eyes. "I know you're here with me right now, I can feel you with my hands and see you with my eyes, but to the rest of me it's like you're gone. Like you don't exist anymore. It's… I believe the word is distressing."

"Skywalker didn't know of a better way to build the shield, I think, than just a wall," Rex said. "Is there a better way that I can control without knowing the Force?"

"Maybe," Keres said, hand sliding down to cup Rex's face. "Doors instead of walls, at the least. I built a door on the training bond I have with Jinn."

"I need it to stay up," Rex said, trying to find the words to speak his thoughts but they were all jumbled up.

"I know," Keres said, looking away. "You shouldn't have to be bound to me. I can break it, if you want."

"Did I say that?" Rex asked mildly, arms tightening on Keres. He wasn't letting Keres go, not if he had any say in the matter. "No. I said I needed the shield because your temper was making me want to punch Cody too much. He's an asshole but he's not that much of an asshole."

Keres looked to be fighting with himself over something but stayed silent, hands flexing against Rex's chest. Red would have snarked, made some ridiculous comment or changed the subject, but Keres just avoided talking. He pressed closer instead, one hand going to Rex's and tangling their fingers together, as they lay on the bunk.

"I don't think you're a monster," Rex said, shifting them so he was on his back. Keres moved with him, curling up against his chest. "I'm worried for you."

"Why?" Keres asked.

Rex tried not to roll his eyes, knowing what Keres had done with the crystal and that he wasn't exactly playing with a full sabaac deck, but he did sigh in exasperation. Why did he have to get attached to such a smart idiot? "Why am I worried for you? Red, you're waging war against one of the most powerful men in the Galaxy and doing some seriously scary shit with that hoodoo." He was trying to keep his voice light, not wanting to send Keres skittering away like he had last time. "I, we can't--Cody and me, the 212th, the 501st, none of the us can help you fight that war. I don't want you to die trying to take him down."

Keres muttered something in a language Rex didn't know, the words guttural and with harsh sounding ks. He sighed, tugging Rex's hand between them so he could play with his fingers, avoiding his eyes. "I don't need anyone's help with my former Master," he said finally. "When the time comes, he will fall and everything will be...it will be."

"Red?" Rex asked, frowning.

Keres gently kissed the tips of Rex's fingers. "Amusing as it will be to hear, trust me."

"It took you going crazy to learn how to trust people?" Rex asked, leaning forward to kiss Keres's forehead.

"I'm not crazy," Keres said, frowning slightly. "I have an overabundance of sanity."

"Dini'la," Rex teased.

Keres huffed, biting the pad of Rex'x thumb through his blacks. "Why do I put up with you? You're a complete asshole."

"Not nearly as bad as my other batchmates," Rex said. "I'm the nice brother."

"True enough," Keres said. He leaned forward and kissed Rex, careful and awkward in a way that Red had never been with him and kriff, but Rex's heart squeezed in a mix of protective fury and sorrow. "Sleep, Captain. I may have healed your hurts but you still need to rest."

"Will you be here when I wake up?" Rex asked, pulling Keres even tighter against him. The other gave a surprised squeak. "Don't sneak away on me. Stay the night, please."

He wasn't imagining the hesitation--was it possible that Keres's eyes were red-rimmed from more than exhaustion?--or the way his cyare didn't even bother protesting. He simply made himself comfortable within Rex's too-tight grip and closed his eyes.

"You're going to need more blankets," Keres said softly. "I don't know if my body will warm up and I do not want you to be hurt from it."

"I've got two extras in the foot locker," Rex said. "Use your hoodoo to float them over here. I'm not letting you go."

Keres nuzzled against Rex's neck, his nose cold, but Rex could hear the sound of the locker moving and then feel the weight of the blankets being laid out over them. He smoothed a hand over the other's back and relaxed his hold to something less approaching desperation. It wasn't perfect but he'd take it.

=


"I'll be there shortly, Vos," Keres said as Rex woke.

"You're cutting it close, Ben," Vos said. "Getting back here and then down to the planet in time? Very small window."

Rex rubbed at his eyes, still waking up. Ben?

"When I get back to the Moros, you and I are going to have words on how you are allowed to address me," Keres said in a low voice. "Your continued survival is dependant on how well you understand the lesson."

"Leverage," the Jedi sung out over the comm. "Just get back here? I want to see how this meeting goes down. By the way, I was poking through your things--"

Keres growled.

"--don't be a child. One of those comms from your ship is flashing."

"Don't touch it," Keres snapped.

"Oh, look," Vos said, deadpan. "I'm touching it."

"I will shove you out the nearest airlock, I swear by the old gods," Keres muttered. Rex reached out, touching Keres's wrist, startling the other slightly. Keres rolled his eyes and shook his head and Rex grinned at him. Rex didn't know whether this was actual anger or a play-fight, but it was entertaining to listen to.

"Yeah, yeah, try it, Ben," Vos said.

Keres grumbled and disconnected the comm rather than reply.

"Morning?" Rex ventured, still grinning. Keres grabbed the pillow and threw it at him. Rex rolled with it, chuckling as he sprawled back on the bed. He knew he had to report for duty soon--of a sort. There was always work to do, even if they weren't at war, and there was later to consider as well. Keres was still muttering, that odd language he had spoken in last night, and Rex poked his thigh. "What is that?"

"What is what?" Keres asked, the pillow back in his hands. There was the slightest narrowing of his eyes that warned Rex that he might be hit again if he wasn't careful.

"The language you're speaking," Rex said.

Red hummed softly, considering, as his fingers absently kneaded the pillow. "It is the language of the Sith," he said. "The specific dialect is Massassian. At one time it was the only language I knew."

Rex sat up, curious. "What do you mean?"

Keres shrugged. "It was all we spoke. I suppose my mind simply disregarded Basic and anything else it did not use."

"You speak Basic fine now," Rex said.

"Jango," Keres said. He frowned, hunching over the pillow. "I think it was Mando'a first, then Basic? Those first few months are hard to remember. I was not in good shape."

"Surprising that he knew how to deal with that," Rex said, reaching out to take Keres's hand.

Keres squeezed Rex's fingers. "He didn't. He was awful at dealing with me and I didn't know how to deal with anyone else except by attacking them. We made it work, somehow, long enough for us to figure out language."

"Are you going to hit me with the pillow again?" Rex teased after a moment of quiet had passed between them.

Keres smiled, a sly little look. "Is there something you have done that deserves hitting?"

"I could do something if you'd like?" Rex said.

"There is quite a lot I'd like you to do," Keres murmured, straightening and setting the pillow aside. "However we do not have the time for that."

"We could make the time?" Rex suggested.

Keres leaned over and kissed Rex, something that was meant to be quick, but Rex wrapped a hand around the back of Keres's neck and pulled him close by his waist. Keres laughed into the kiss and Rex pushed his advantage, licking into the other's mouth. Keres's hands found the edges of his blacks, sliding under the top and pressing those cold hands against his warm skin. He shuddered, pressing into his cyare's touch--

"No," Keres said, rolling off the bed and licking his lips. "We both have places to be, Captain. It would not be wise to have people come looking for you and find me here."

Rex huffed. "Logic does not belong in the bedroom, chayaikir gar."

Keres tilted his head to the side and drifted over to where Rex's armor rested on its rack. "You could come with me, later today. You and Cody, Wolffe too."

Rex stared at his back as Keres dragged a finger over the blue painted patterns. "Red, I...I can't. My brothers need me. All of them."

Keres nodded, not looking at him. "Of course, alor'ad'ner. I understand."

Rex ran a hand over his head and got up, tugging Keres into his arms and hugging him. The other was stiff, unyielding, before hesitantly returning the embrace. "I would, Red, but we have a mess going on right now. Not just with the chips but with brothers trying to take off on their own and rebelling against other brothers all over the Galaxy."

Keres hummed softly before pulling away. "I should leave you to it, then."

"Be safe," Rex said, knowing that his refusal had hurt Keres.

Keres arched a brow with a wry smile and palmed the door open. Rex wasn't sure what he did but as the other stepped into the hall, Rex was unable to see him. He knew, somehow, that Keres was there but his eyes simply slid aside.

Rex let it go, grabbing his kit and getting ready for the day. Sonics, shave, get into his armor, and to the mess. He checked with his brothers in charge of their own squads, seeing if they were aware of their own dissent, what the other brothers thought of the upcoming meeting. Not a lot of it was positive but Rex was expecting that. There was too much fear and uncertainty, even with the talents of the 501st.

They were, to a man, made to be adaptable but when the variables were so vast that one had no idea what to even adapt to? It made them nervous. Nervous brothers started to look for ways they could gain that inch of normality and control back. Those were the ones Rex looked for. After today, depending on what happened, he'd take them aside--one by one--and he'd talk to them, find out what he and Cody could do to ease their minds.

"Here," Wolffe said, nudging Rex into a seat and putting a tray in front of him. "Eat."

Cody was yawning into his caff, jaw clicking slightly as he did so. "What's the word?"

"Torrent's in the best shape," Rex said. "Execute is probably the worst."

"We really took the batch name too far," Wolffe snickered. Rex and Cody looked at him, confused. "Rex named everything in the 501st for ripping shit to bits. Cody named the 212th for resting in peace? And I 'rip' things with my pack. Riptide Batch. You will not forget us."

Cody gave Wolffe a blank stare and went back to his caff. Rex had to admit that he had never thought of it that way but it was pretty damned accurate. He focused on eating, watching other brothers clear out of the mess until it was just him and his batchmates. Wolffe was reading off a datapad, scratching idly at his scar.

Rex reached for his caff when he felt something inside him pulse and the mug shattered.

"The kriff?" Cody asked, frowning at him.

Rex didn't know but he felt wrong, felt off. His head hurt and his eyes burned, even when he closed them. He tried to breathe through whatever was happening, his stomach churning in distress--no, not distress, fury.

"Not me," he said through gritted teeth. He felt a scream building in his throat and his head throbbed as he forced it back, but something inside him broke.

"Holy shit," Wolffe said, and Rex could hear the bench screeching backwards as his brother probably stood too quickly.

"Rex!" Cody said. "Open your damned eyes!"

He didn't want to, though. He felt like one of those dams on Kamino, the small ones, that had been shot full of holes and was leaking everywhere. He was trying to plug up the holes, to force everything back inside, but new holes kept springing everywhere. The water--the fury--had to go somewhere eventually but he didn't want it to come out through him.

Someone grabbed his shoulder and pulled him off the bench and his eyes opened, if only so he didn't fall on his ass--

Shadows.

The mess was full of shadows, reaching for him, climbing the walls, blocking the doors so no one could threaten them. Shadows that were protecting him and his brothers as someone pounded on the door to get in.

Wolffe had a pistol in hand and was staring at the shadows like he was trying to figure out if he could shoot them. Cody had Rex against his chest, holding him upright, keeping him close. Rex was feeling lightheaded and the shadows began to react to him, to come closer to him.

"Oh kriff," Wolffe said, pointing the blaster.

"Don't," Cody said. "They're not attacking."

Rex watched, wide-eyed, as the shadows shrunk from filling the room to only a few, but they curled around him and Cody, offering--what? Affection? Sympathy? Protection?

"Cody?" Rex tried to say, his voice coming out strangled.

A lightsaber began to cut through one of the walls since the door was still blocked.

"What in all the oceans in going on?" Wolffe asked, lowering his weapon.

"I told you about the bond, right?" Cody said. "I'm guessing something seriously pissed Red off and whatever shields Skywalker set up got blasted in the crossfire."

"You said the bond was weak," Wolffe said.

"Was here last night," Rex said, squeezing his eyes closed. He didn't want to see the shadows curling around his arms and hands, didn't want to feel the not-feeling of them through his gloves. "He stayed the night, just slept. Might have made it stronger."

Cody swore softly. "Do you know what has him so upset?"

Rex shook his head and swallowed, looking down at the shadows. "Thanks for trying to protect me, but I'm good?" he said, feeling stupid. "I think Keres is the one who needs you more than I do right now."

The shadows slithered up his arms and Rex could have sworn it nuzzled him, a cold brush again his bare cheek, before fading into nothingness. The shadows on the door hesitated, if one could call it that, obviously feeling attacked.

"Really," Rex tried, not wanting whichever Jedi was coming to see this. "I'm good. You should leave." The shadow swirled in on themselves and winked out. "They're gone? All of them?"

Cody and Wolffe looked around before nodding. Rex's knees gave out and Cody eased him to the decking as the Jedi finally got through the wall. Rex turned and put his arms around Cody and clung. What had just happened? He was vaguely aware of Wolffe running interference as Cody spoke to him in Mando'a, helping him to focus on the now and the here, and not the chaos in his mind.

When someone tried touch him that was not his batch, he pulled his blaster and aimed, finger just barely skittering off the trigger. That was not Keres; that was him and pure Kaminoan breed instinct. You always trust a brother to have your back, everyone else was likely going to try to stab you in it.

General Skywalker held his hands up, giving him a tiny smile. "Got it," he said. "My bad. Permission to touch, Captain?"

Rex lowered his weapon and rested his head against Cody's shoulder. "Sorry, sir. Anakin. Go for it."

The General smiled and touched Rex's hand, surprisingly, eyes unfocusing for a moment. "Thought I was walking in on a massacre, to be honest," he said. "There was a lot of rage and pain coming from this area of the ship. You're okay, though. Whatever happened didn't hurt you. Bond's blasted almost wide open, no way to shield that without both of you setting up some blocks you control."

Rex muttered unpleasant things against Cody's armor.

"How open is open?" Wolffe asked from behind Rex. There was a hand on his shoulder and Rex felt himself relax a little more.

"Maybe eighty percent?" General Skywalker said. He poked Rex's cheek and arched an eyebrow. "Someone spent a couple of hours in close proximity with Keres."

"He was checking on the 212th, the 501st, and Boba yesterday," Rex said, batting at his General's hand. "He wasn't sleeping. I asked him to stay. He did."

"I'm more upset that we didn't pick up his ship," Skywalker said.

Cody cleared his throat. "We, uh, might have picked up a shuttle docked on the Maverick yesterday that didn't belong? Mostly we watched it and it left without causing an issue."

"Did Qui-Gon know?" Skywalker asked.

"Of course," Cody said, sounding offended. As if Rex's brother didn't know how to do his damned job.

General Skywalker shrugged. "No worries," he said. "Any idea what Keres got hacked off about?"

Rex shook his head. "None. Just that he was furious and betrayed."

"Betrayed?" Skywalker asked, startled. "That's different. That could mean a lot of things."

Rex wondered if it had anything to do with the comms that Vos had mentioned but… No. It didn't matter.

Skywalker shrugged and got to his feet. "Well, it doesn't much matter. We can ask Keres all about it when we see him later today." He paused and cocked his head to the side. "Unless you three have something you want to tell me? Anything unusual happen?"

"No, sir," Cody said.

"Nope," Wolffe said.

Rex closed his eyes. "Nothing to add, Anakin."

A beat of silence and then a sigh. "I'll have one of the droids come in and clean this mess up. You three should check in with your squads to make sure everyone's ready for later. Wolffe, I think Plo was just planning on taking you with him."

"He's spoken with me already, General Skywalker," Wolffe said.

"Good," Skywalker said. "Good… Okay then! I'll leave you three to it."

Rex opened his eyes and watched the Jedi leave, his General glancing at them every now and then, but he left all the same. Cody helped him to his feet and Wolffe tilted his head to the door. Rex nodded.

They were being watched.

Chapter Text

Three Jedi stared at him suspiciously as Maul smiled pleasantly at them, sitting perfectly proper in a chair in their archive. No, none of them trusted each other but that was part of the game, was it not? A Noorian, an old woman, and a blond man who did not look like he belonged amongst all the musty scrolls. He looked more apt for combat than anything else.

He would bear watching.

"The Council wants you to help us," the old woman said, frowning severely. "And you agreed?"

"I do wish to stop my brother," Maul said. "There are quite a good number of plans that have been in motion for thousands of years that he is currently working quite diligently at screwing up."

The man snorted. "He's good at that."

Maul's smile widened. "Indeed. Now, I have the information and knowledge on how to stop him but I will not be able to execute it."

"What do you mean?" the Noorian asked.

Maul blinked slowly, trying to decide how much to reveal to these three. "There are crystals that are Sith in nature that reside on Korriban that can strip my brother of his magic and access to the Force, to essentially render him nothing more than a null."

None of them looked surprised. How very interesting. Naughty little Jedi had already been looking for ways to neutralize his brother, but they did not know the full extent of those crystals.

"However," Maul continued. "A Jedi cannot retrieve the crystal."

"Why not?" the man asked. "Jedi have gone to Korriban before. While it is not the most pleasant of planets it is hardly going to kill us."

"No," Maul said, adjusting his gloves and fixing the sleeves of his tunic. "But the tomb that these crystals grow in can only be accessed by someone who uses the Dark side of the Force. They are useless to us, pretty crystals to make into jewelry or the like, so our kind care not for them."

"Only a Sith can retrieve them," the Noorian said slowly, "and only a Jedi can use them."

"Exactly so," Maul said. He'd let these smart little Jedi use the crystals, have their Council kill his brother, and the Galaxy would still be his for the taking. He was, however, disappointed, when the Jedi began to talk excitedly amongst themselves, that they never asked what the crystals did to the one who used them.

If a crystal stripped the target of their magic and their Force-ability one should have logically wondered what it did to the wielder. Maul supposed, propping his head up on his hand as he watched the three begin to make travel plans, that Jedi simply were not logical.

He knew that the tall Jedi, the one he had battled long ago, still lived. He had watched him through his spies. He knew, from his brother, the history that Master Qui-Gon Jinn had with him and that for some bizarre reason the two had been seen together quite often recently. Maul's brother had always had such vitriol for the Jedi and for three specific Masters, strange that he had been caught laughing with one he had loathed so much.

Maybe, Maul thought, closing his eyes, it would be Jinn who would use the crystal to unmake his brother. Ah, there was a term for it, something in Basic that his brother would have found entertaining--yes. Poetic justice.

=

"Why can't we go with you?" Boba demanded, arms crossed as he stared up at Kix. "We know how to fight, we're not dumb or anything."

Ahsoka was looking equally annoyed but kept her mouth shut, letting Boba throw the tantrum for her. Smart, Kix thought, but ultimately useless.

"Because," Jesse said, "if shit goes south, the Captain and the General want you both safe. No chance for Keres to kidnap you, Boba, no chance for you, Ahsoka, to get hurt."

"That's just insulting," Ahsoka said as she crossed her arms. "I'm a Jedi. I can take care of myself."

"No one ever said you couldn't," Kix said. "They just don't want to take the chance."

"Still insulting," Ahsoka muttered.

Boba was frowning, face looking pinched. "I want to see him, though."

Jesse squatted down in front of Boba, hands on his shoulders. "If this works the way everyone is hoping, from what the Captain has said, you might be able to. Let us check it out first, make sure it's safe?"

"Meanwhile," Kix said with a smile. "You two could get into some mischief while no one is around to stop you."

"Kix!" Jesse said, turning to stare at him. "Shut up!"

"Like what?" Ahsoka asked, eyes narrowed.

"We've been told to stop pranking everyone," Boba added. "Rex said it would be better if we knocked it off."

"You two went too far with the armor," Kix agreed. "This idea would be a little less likely to get you two beaten to a pulp. Well, maybe. Fifty-fifty."

"Kix," Jesse groaned.

"Shut up," Kix said. "We're going to be spared because we won't be here."

"What do you have in mind?" Ahsoka asked, starting to smile.

"The best part about all of this is that the Maverick and the Resolute are going to be joined together via airlock so everyone can fly down in one shuttle," Kix said with a wide grin. "So it'll be easy to move between ships. And brothers will be doing wash, taking showers, the normal stuff you do. If you were to, oh, dump some dye in each ship's water filtration system?"

"501st blue and 212th gold?" Jesse asked, looking intrigued for a moment.

"Our brothers would be very colorful," Kix said, face lit up in unholy glee.

Boba looked at Ahsoka. "How would they wash it off? Water wouldn't do it."

Kix looked smug, too smug. "Alcohol-based solution they could only get from medical."

Jesse started laughing. "You are one sly bastard," he said. "No wonder I love you so much." He sobered. "Dammit, I'm not supposed to be encouraging you. Kix, this is wrong. They are going to get in trouble, again, because everyone will know it was them. Our brothers will know where to find them and will be itching to get back at them."

"So make sure you two get dyed too," Kix said with a shrug. "It's not a big deal. It'll come off, eventually."

Ahsoka shrugged. "It's a good way for everyone to blow off steam."

"We'd both have to be 501st blue," Boba said. "Can't allow any gold on us at all or it'd be really obvious."

"That's easy," Ahsoka said. "I'll use the Force to set the dye off for that."

Kix smirked. "I take it that means you want the dye?"

"Sure," Boba said. "Might as well be entertained while everyone's off doing something else."

=

There was no one there when they touched down on the uninhabited moon in the shuttle. Cody, Rex, and Wolffe had a quick discussion on a private channel before sending the men who had come with them on small three-man scouting parties. Constant communication, comms open the whole time, if they saw anything, report it back immediately.

The three Generals were conversing quietly as they set up a table and chairs with the Force, spending their anxieties a different way.

"You feeling anything through the bond?" Cody asked Rex through the comm.

Rex shook his head, gripping his rifle tight. Ever since the mess, things had been quiet but odd feeling, like the build-up before a storm. Something was about to happen and it wasn't going to be pretty.

The scouts returned, reporting nothing, and all the brothers looked uneasy. Wolffe muttered something and went to hover near his General, not that Rex blamed him. Paranoia was running high for everyone right now.

An hour passed before a ship--not a shuttle, a karking ship--burned into the atmosphere of the moon.

"Qui-Gon?" Anakin asked, looking up.

That's when the droids began unearthing themselves. They'd been deeply buried beneath them in several rings, and as they crawled out of the loose packed dirt, they aimed their weapons on the Jedi and only the Jedi.

"Not good," Cody said, readying his rifle as the ship landed. "Not good at all."

Every brother was armed and armored, because that's what they did, and trained on the ship. The Jedi had their lightsabers out and lit and the clones knew their Generals could deal with a couple of clankers if they really needed to. The real threat, if there was one, was Keres.

As the landing bay lowered and more droids marched out, Rex had a very bad feeling that whatever comm Vos had been teasing Keres about touching had not been good.

"That's a lot of clankers," Echo said, sounding faintly worried.

"We can take 'em," Fives said, definitely grinning.

"Shut up," Boil growled. "Just because we can doesn't mean we need to. Let's see what the situation is first."

"Situation normal, all karked up?" Gregor drawled, all dry humor and prepared to throw down.

"Everyone steady on," Cody said. Rex could hear the click that signaled the private comm. "This is a show of force. This is a 'don't make me do it' move."

"Something happened," Rex agreed. "Something bad."

Keres came down next, Vos to his right, looking like fury incarnate.

"Oh shit," Slick whispered.

"Yep, still insane and scary," Kix said with a sigh. "Awesome."

"Permission to shit myself?" Fox asked.

Rex flicked his comm back to broadcast, grinning. "Permission denied."

Keres advanced on the Jedi, the droids all parting for him, shadows billowing around him. From this close, Rex could see what looked like tear-tracks on his face.

"Is this really necessary?" General Jinn asked, gesturing with his free hand. "We agreed to meet peacefully to discuss--"

"Did you know?" Keres asked, voice harsh and raspy. It sounded like he'd been screaming for hours.

"Know?" Jinn asked. "Keres, you will have to be more specific."

"Tholme," Vos said as the ground began to tremble. "He got to Kamino about four years before you did and started taking clones. One or two from a batch here and there, nothing huge, but there are clones apparently doing the Council's dirty work all throughout the Galaxy."

"Clones of me," Keres hissed, fissures opening up in the ground as the trembling stopped. "Brothers who have been so violated by the Kaminoans that they can use the Force."

"Kark me," Wooley whispered. "We thought they were just dead."

"Commander?" Waxer said. "You and… You were one of the first batches. Did you know about this?"

Rex felt sick. His, their brothers. Their batchmates. The Jedi might have taken them? Was it possible they could be alive? After all this time, Ajax and Surge and the others?

"Do you know which ones?" Wolffe asked, pulling his helmet off. "Which batches, which brothers?"

Keres looked at him, yellow eyes burning, mouth pressed into a thin line. "Be careful in asking me questions right now, Commander Wolffe. You might not like the answers you recieve."

Cody pulled his helmet off next--oh, great. Rex's batch had collectively lost their minds. "Red, please. We need to know."

Keres looked to Vos and nodded. The Jedi, if that's what he still was, pulled a datachip and handed it Wolffe. Wolffe slid it into a compartment on his armor and backed up to stand near Cody and Rex, still gripping his helmet tight in one hand. He looked wrecked, and Rex reached out to grab at his forearm, digging into the the spaces between his armor to let his brother know he wasn't alone.

"I did not know," General Jinn said quietly. "However, I do know someone who might. He recently informed me that there were several files I have been locked out of, that there were Council sessions that were never recorded, and missions that never made it on the books."

General Koon holstered his saber and bowed to first Rex and the clones, and then Keres. "I did know about the first contact with Kamino," he said. "And fought against what several members of the Council chose to do. As such, I do not know the extent of what happened as I demanded to be left out of the plotting. What little I know I will share."

"May I ask," Jinn started, hands held out, "how you came by your information?"

"Jango," Keres said, fresh tears spilling down his cheeks. "Not long before he died he started slicing Kamino's databases and Dooku's. No, I'm not sharing. They're messages for me and while I may choose to share the information, you have no right to the original content."

General Skywalker had been quiet, watching, but he nodded. "He was family, right?"

Keres stared at him, eyes narrowing. Rex could see his brothers shifting, nervous, but Cody was relaxing slightly out of the battle-ready stance he had been holding.

"No one is going to ask you to share what little you have left of your family," Skywalker said. "Holos, memories, last wishes--sometimes these are all we have left of those who leave us."

"You're not as stupid as you look," Keres said after a moment.

"He surprises us all, time and time again," Vos said, nudging Keres's shoulder with a wide grin. He didn't seem to mind as Keres turned with a wordless snarl. The dredded Jedi just smiled and mouthed a word at him that had Keres storming toward a droid with command-stripes and saying something. "So! We have a lot to talk about."

"Are we still talking?" Jinn asked.

"Considering that Keres over there wants to smash the Jedi Order to absolute paste?" Vos said, watching as two-thirds of the droids marched back to the ship. "I believe we have much to discuss."

"You okay, brother?" Rex asked Wolffe quietly as Cody walked toward Keres, intercepting the redhead before he could join the Jedi.

"Ask me later," Wolffe said, the muscle in his jaw jumping wildly. "I need to see the list and. And try to settle my thoughts."

Rex pulled his helmet off so he could face Wolffe, bump their heads together, force his brother to acknowledge him. "Wolffe, brother, he has done everything he can to look out for you and yours. He is here. That has to count for something."

Wolffe slumped against him, nodding. "How can we trust any of them?" he asked in Mando'a.

"Faith?" Rex said. "We know our Generals. We know which ones are the good ones, which ones are the bad ones. Ones who listen to us, who respect us. We can go from there."

"Captain?" Fives said. "Commander? Should we, er, what should we do?"

"Baby brothers," Wolffe muttered. "Why did you bring karking babies with you?"

"Because they're good at what they do," Rex said, cuffing Wolffe lightly on the back of the head. "Let's make ourselves comfortable with the Generals, Fives. We're as much a part of this conversation as the Jedi are."

"Oh, are we?" Wolffe mocked, straightening. "We're so kriffing special now?"

"Always," Keres said from behind Wolffe.

Wolffe swore, startled, and pulled his pistol. He was firing before anyone could stop him. Keres grunted, doubling over as he wrapped his arms around himself, and Cody moved with him. Kix was pushing through, shouting at Cody to get out of the way, grabbing medical supplies out of his belt as he moved. Rex felt his heart stop, panicked at the idea of losing him to something as stupid as--

But Keres straightened with a huff. Cody's eyes were wide, his right hand and forearm stained with blood from the injury, but shadows were surrounding the wound. Rex could see it--a decent sized hole in Keres's middle that should have put him on the ground with Kix up to his elbows in his guts. Rex had seen that kind of damage on the battlefield before. Rex had seen men die from those wounds.

"What the…?" Kix asked, taking a step back. A bacta-patch falling from his hand.

Keres grinned, teeth stained with blood. "I'm very, very hard to kill," he said, spitting. Shadows pushed inside the gaping hole, filling it, before shimmering to create pale freckled flesh.

Cody crowded in next to him, hands pushing against newly healed skin and smearing blood, cursing at him lowly. Keres let him, a hand on Cody's shoulder, both for balance as the other prodded and for reassurance. Rex drifted near, his heart still beating too fast, but he froze as Cody snarled.

"What have I told you about scaring the piss out of people?" Cody shouted, smacking the back of Keres's head.

Keres blinked, freezing. "Not...to?"

"Not to!" Cody yelled, voice climbing. "It gets your dumb ass shot! I don't care if you have spells and magic and whatever, you crazy bastard, you are still mortal!"

"Currently up for debate," Vos chimed in, having drawn closer. They all had, in fact, closed in out of morbid curiosity. Keres was actually looking chastened in the face of Cody's anger and oh, Rex knew that anger. That was the "my idiot batchmates have done something stupid and I need to pound it into their heads how much they have kriffed up" expression.

"Oh, what," Cody said, eyes narrowed at Keres. "You think you're immortal now, is that it? You think, nothing can hurt me so I'll be a sneaky shit and scare brothers and if they shoot me it's fine?"

Keres looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh, though Rex could definitely see brothers from the 212th were already losing that battle. Waxer and Boil were leaning against each other, shaking from laughter; Wooley had his helmet off and was bent in half as he held his sides from how hard he was laughing; Crys and Gregor had found nearby rocks and sat down, also removed their buckets, and had some impressive shiteating grins going on. Oddball had pulled out a tabaac stick and lit it, smug as anything else, and Longshot was just shaking his head as he pulled off his helmet.

"Sir," Longshot called. "Maybe you should go easy on him?"

"Why," Cody asked, voice flat.

"We always knew Red was a few cards shy of a sabaac deck," Oddball said, tapping ash off his tabaac. "Picking on him right now just seems mean."

"Fuck you!" Keres said, turning and kicking dirt at Oddball.

"Nope," Oddball laughed, dancing away from the dirt. "That's the Captain's job!"

Rex stared at the 212th, stunned. What the…? Then his mind processed what Oddball said and he threw his helmet at the brother. "Excuse you!"

Longshot caught Rex's helmet and tossed it back to him. "Sir, we've seen Red do a lot of kriffed up stuff before. Spontaneous healing is probably the least of it."

"That is, unfortunately, an accurate statement," General Jinn said with a sigh.

Keres glared at them. "I hate you all."

Cody smacked the back of his head again. "Don't."

Keres rubbed his head, huffing and edging away from Cody and closer to Rex. "Slimy, slimy creatures," he said.

Cody didn't look impressed. "Red? You literally could not even stealth past my bed that one time. What makes you think you could try it now?"

Keres slunk away, twining around Rex's arm and chest, muttering under his breath in that language of his. The 212th were laughing again, and even the 501st looked a lot more at ease--Jesse and Kix had also found seats on nearby rocks with Crys and Gregor and were talking softly together. Fives and Echo had started grabbing the chairs the Jedi had previously set up before and were dragging them over. Slick and Denal had noticed and were chipping in, though Slick was giving Keres odd looks.

"You make them nervous," Rex said.

Keres eyed them, a little smirk on his face. "Good," he said.

"Not good," Rex said. "We're supposed to be showing that we can work together, that you have our best interests at heart. Scaring the very living ossik out of them is not the way to do it."

Keres sniffed and pulled away from Rex, only to walk over to Wolffe--and poke his cheek. "You," he announced, "have shitty aim."

Cody sighed and shook his head, going to help other brothers fetch the table, while their Jedi spoke to Vos too quiet for Rex to hear. Besides, he needed to keep an eye on the situation to know if he had to separate his cyare and brother.

"What," Wolffe demanded in that flat voice he had definitely picked up from Cody.

"If you're going to shoot someone? Don't go for the gut, go for the head," Keres said brightly, smiling. "Works for droids, works for humanoids, works for most alien species I know of too. Always puts your target on the ground and makes sure they can't get up. Always go for the kill shot, and never, ever fucking hesitate."

Rex sighed as Wolffe just stared at Keres in stunned shock. He went over to them and grabbed Keres's elbow, tugging the other with him.

"You're insane," Wolffe said.

"Most definitely," Keres called over his shoulder.

"Stop it," Rex said, pushing Keres down onto a rock.

"Stop what?" Keres asked, arching a brow, barely suppressing a smirk.

Rex squatted down next to him, glancing around to see if anyone was paying attention, and sighed. "Earlier, when you saw the messages, you lost your temper." Keres nodded, all play at humor gone. "Your shadows came to me."

Keres frowned. "What?"

"Your shadows," Rex repeated, voice soft. "They showed up in the mess. I don't know what they were doing but they were trying to protect me? They went away when I asked, though."

Keres looked away, scratching at the edge of his beard, "I don't know why they did that, or even how. You shouldn't be able to use them."

"I don't want to use them," Rex said.

Keres leaned forward, resting his head on Rex's pauldron. "Using the shadows have a cost, love," he said quietly, reluctance dragging at his words. "I don't want you to have to pay it too."

"What cost?" Rex asked, curious.

"You two want to keep flirting or we going to talk about taking on the Order and making them regret, oh, everything ever?" Vos asked.

Keres pulled away, fury burning in his eyes, and Rex sighed. He squeezed Keres's hand as his cyare stood and walked past him to find a seat with the other Jedi.

"Vos, one of these days," Keres said, voice full of promise.

"Mm, so you keep saying and I keep promising," Vos said.

"Promising what?" Skywalker asked.

Rex got up and found Cody, who was apparently determined to stick close to Keres--perfect--and grabbed Wolffe on his way. He could keep an eye on all three of the trouble magnets at once.

"Have we adopted Red into Rip without me knowing?" Wolffe asked, leaning into Rex.

Rex grinned. "I think Cody did it ages before I claimed Red."

Cody leaned forward and glared at them. "Kriff you both, yes I did, get over it, he's ours, say the goddamned vows to make it official already before I do."

Rex stared at him. "What."

Cody smirked at him and leaned back, a casual hand on Keres's elbow. That was about as obvious a claim as Cody ever got and Rex couldn't even get angry over it.

"Oh kriff," Wolffe gasped, slapping a hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh.

"What's so special about a true name?" Skywalker asked loudly, snagging their attention before Rex could punch Wolffe or Cody--he hadn't decided which one yet.

"A true name is very important," General Koon said. "If someone, like a Sith Master, knows your true name, they would have absolute control over you and your actions."

"A slave in name becomes a slave in everything," Keres said, inspecting his nails. "No freewill beyond what is granted, no thoughts in your mind that are your own. If he told me to stop breathing, my body would immediately comply without my own input."

"That's horrific," General Skywalker said.

"That's karked up," Slick said, his helmet off. At some point, all the brothers had removed their helmets, tucking them by their sides or at their feet. "Sir, how have you kept it away from everyone for so long?"

Keres stared at him. "And why, pray tell, should I tell any of you?"

General Jinn chuckled. "Peace, Keres. I believe what Slick is asking is how many people know your name."

"Yoda and Vos," Keres said, looking displeased. "My birth parents, my younger brother. I don't think we'd recognize each other if we were to ever meet face-to-face again. It is not likely the Temple notified them when they changed my name."

"They didn't," Vos said. "Also, you have two more sibs now, about three and five years younger. Temple kept tabs on your family in case anyone else had the same talents you did, which they didn't. No, I haven't gone digging to see what they're up to."

"Don't," Keres said, startled. "I don't want to know."

Vos shrugged.

"Let us start," General Jinn said. "You asked me, once, what I knew of the Sith. While this might be quite boring to our troopers, it is a good place to begin."

"Is it?" Keres asked with a curl of his lips. Rex snorted softly; Keres was playing with Jinn.

"A place of mutual understanding is always a good place to start," Jinn said. Keres gave a fluid shrug and gestured for the other to continue. "The Sith believe, or so we are taught, in power. The stronger you are, the more powerful you are, and the more accomplished you become. The Sith want to conquer everything to prove their power."

Keres sneered but did not interrupt.

"The Rule of Two was established to continue the belief of that power," Jinn said.

"Okay, no, stop," Keres said. "Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong!"

Jinn was smiling and Koon was stroking the edges of his mask, but Skywalker looked troubled. Rex nudged Cody, motioning to his General. Cody shrugged and shook his head. He didn't know either. Maybe it had to do with the friendship General Skywalker had unknowingly had with the Sith Lord?

"Would you care to enlighten us?" General Koon asked.

Keres huffed. "Yes, power has something to do with it, but not as much as you make it out to seem. Maybe in my former Master's mind it's all about power and gathering as much as he can because that's all he cares about, but that's not what the Sith are about. Conflict, first of all, for growth. How can you grow if there is no conflict? The Jedi avoid it and you see what your Order has become. With conflict you also have survival."

"You, in particular, focus a lot on survival," Jinn said.

Keres stood and walked away from the close confines of the table and chairs, pacing between the loose ring of brothers on rocks and those seated. He was silent, hands linked behind his back, as he moved. "You know the theory of natural selection?" he asked.

"No," Fives said, looking put out.

Keres smiled. "Only the strongest survive," he said. "Those who, with the best genetic traits, are able to survive in a galaxy absolutely out to render us dead. If you do not know how to survive, if you cannot fight, if you cannot thrive on conflict, if you cannot claim the right to exist from the Force? Then you do not deserve to exist and there is always someone willing to take your place."

"That is the way of the Sith?" Skywalker asked, frowning.

"No," Keres said, halting his pacing. "That is the way of all sentients. That is the reason I left the Temple. I fought, I survived, and I thrived on conflict and yet I was punished for surviving. Perhaps the methods were the wrong ones, perhaps I was foolish to give into my temper, but then perhaps the adults overseeing the Initiates should not have turned such blind eyes to bullying? I was not the only one who was taunted but I was one of the few who stood up to them." Keres spread his hands with a lazy smile. "And look what happened to me."

"I think I got off easy," Skywalker said, running a hand through his hair. "I just had to deal with Padawans."

"Who were already locked into the mindset that might is right," Keres said with narrowed eyes. "There are good Jedi, but how many of them are dead now?"

"Too many," Jinn said quietly.

"Because their too kind hearts did not know how to survive," Keres said. "Self-reliance is an important aspect of the Sith. I don't think I need to explain that one?" Snickers met that and Keres rolled his eyes. "Finally, you all have some sense. If you are strong enough to take something, it should be yours--so, yes. Power, but more strength of character and strength of mind and soul. Power is all well and good but if you take something by force? Someone else can always come and take it back. Being able to keep what you take is just as important."

"The slaves," General Koon said.

Keres smiled and gave Koon a little bow. "Exactly so. We'll come back to them, however. Passion--while the Jedi disdain emotion, the Sith embrace it. We understand the usefulness of emotions and understand where they can be of use." He hesitated. "Not...all emotions are good. Feel too strongly and they can distract you from your goals. There are several cautionary tales of Sith who have either killed their lovers or children when they realized they have become too much of a liability, or done terrible things because such individuals were threatened."

"Rex," Cody murmured. "The crystal?"

Rex frowned and shook his head. No. Keres had a different reason for that one. He wasn't the one in danger.

"Through passion and the Force, through conflict and self-reliance, through knowing the galaxy has tried to snuff you out and you are still alive? All things are possible," Keres said. "That is what it means to be Sith."

"Infinite power," Skywalker said softly, looking haunted. "The power to control life and death."

Keres arched a brow and spun, taking a free seat. "You could, if you wanted to, but at what cost?" he asked. "Infinite power means nothing because eventually someone will come along and take it away. There is always someone out there stronger because the Force will create a stronger being to bring balance, it just might take a little bit of time for them to grow up."

Jinn chuckled. "The prophecy of the Chosen On?"

Keres stared at him, "Prophecies are nonsense, you do realize this, right? No one person has ever been able to see the currents of the Force that far into the future to correctly predict what will happen. Even if they could, free will destroys any actuality of a prophecy ever coming true. Your choice to not train me, my choice to leave Sidious, everything has a consequence. Our choices change the very landscape of the Force itself."

Rex nudged Cody, grinning. "Your General looks like he swallowed a frog," he said quietly in Mando'a.

"He likes his prophecies," Cody murmured in kind. "Always nattering on about staying in the present but mention a prophecy and he is gone."

"Palpatine always made allusions to being able to control life and death," Skywalker said. "And you, right now, you healed yourself from a fatal wound."

Keres slumped in his seat. "First of all, no. I didn't...exactly heal myself. The shadows took the damage." He tugged his hair out of the bun he wore and braided it quickly. "That is a spell, it has nothing to do with anything you speak of. What he was trying to snare you with? Ehh, he can't really do? There's cloning, obviously, and ensnaring souls, transferring one's essence, alchemic nonsense I've never bothered with. It would not, to put it kindly, be the same person. It would be a chimera, a fusion."

"And these shadows?" General Koon asked. "Is this not something everyone should learn, if they are so helpful?"

Vos was smirking. "Go on, Ben, tell them how helpful your shadows are."

Keres's eyes narrowed at Vos, who yelped, shooting up out of his chair as his cloak caught on fire. He flung it away from himself, scattering brothers who got out of its way, and patted himself down as he cursed. He threw a nasty look at Keres, who was shaking out the braid he had just done and plaiting into a new one. Vos sat down as his cloak burned, snarling something in a language Rex didn't know, and crossed his arms.

"No," Keres said, voice calm. "While the shadows are a good ally and do have their benefits, the downside of using them far outweigh the positive."

"Such as?" General Jinn asked.

"They feed on the lifeforce of the one who summoned them," Keres said, giving up on the braid and rapidly twisting his hair back up into a bun. "Eventually the shadows fully consume the sorcerer, burning them out to nothing but a new shadow, and the cycle begins again. I am slightly mitigating that charming aspect by using a technique called Force Drain. It bolsters my lifeforce so there is--"

"Are you insane?" Rex whispered.

"I think we already know the answer to that," Cody muttered, glaring at Keres.

"Using that practice can make your situation worse," General Jinn pointed out.

"Living Force wound," General Skywalker added. "Really, really big problem. The stories about Darth Nihilus are terrifying."

Keres smiled. "He's not so bad," he said. "Mostly he's a mouthy bastard who has a very vocal opinion on the Galaxy as a whole."

"You have Nihilus's mask?" General Koon asked, sounding alarmed.

Keres shrugged. "Who do you think taught me? My former Master? No. There were holocrons and books and I am not one who would disregard the teaching of the spirits bound to objects. It's remarkable what our ancestors can teach us, afterall."

"Such as?" General Koon asked.

"Did you know there were once Jedi sorcerers?" Keres asked. "They wielded lightsabers and magic much like I do to a devastating effect. Curious, isn't it, how it only started to die out from the Jedi Order some seven hundred years ago?"

General Koon got to his feet and walked away, arms crossed as he stroked the bottom portion of his mask. Wolffe half-rose, looking toward his General, but Cody put a hand on his arm to stop him.

"Our Order has declined much," General Jinn said. "We…" He paused and looked at the clones and then at Keres. "If we do begin this break, certain things need to be taken care of first."

"The Senate and the Jedi will never be allowed to touch the clones," Keres said. "They will not like the results if they try, I promise you that."

"I've, erhm, been talking to a few senators," General Skywalker said. Every brother stared at him, eyes wide, hope obvious on their faces. Rex should have known, but it warmed a part of his heart hearing that his General was looking out for them. "Bail Organa of Alderaan introduced a proposal for clone rights. It's getting a little beat up right now, and every senator has the right to add their thoughts on how it should be enacted."

"It's a mess," General Jinn agreed. "But there is hope that, legally, you will have rights granted. How long it takes it another matter."

"That's, that's amazing," Echo stuttered.

"Rights," Slick whispered. "We'd be actual people."

"May we spread this throughout the GAR?" Cody asked Skywalker, who nodded. "It could help end a lot of the fighting."

Keres hummed softly. "Would giving them something to do help as well? Purpose?"

"Maybe?" Cody said. "I'd recommend having it volunteer only."

"The slaves I freed," Keres said, glancing at Vos who nodded. "They need help of a kind that I cannot provide."

"We'd be babysitting?" Denal asked, sounding less than thrilled.

"No, no babysitting," Vos said.

"They'd need medical help," Kix said.

"No," Keres said slowly. "Medical help has been mostly obtained. Those who still require medical aid are pregnant, drug addicts, or were hiding serious illnesses from their former masters."

"Why hide it?" Fox asked, leaning forward, his armor creaking. "Wouldn't a serious illness be treated?"

"No," Vos said grimly, crossing his arms. "A serious illness means you are defective goods and are not worth the investment. Those with serious illnesses would be put down immediately to save the master money."

"Deactivations," Oddball said, clutching his helmet in his hands.

Keres nodded. "They do not make up a large portion of those freed, but all of the slaves are trauma victims and could use help. They need to feel safe and help finding permanent homes somewhere in the Galaxy. Education can come later, safety must come first."

"A cause that we choose might appeal to a lot of our brothers," Cody said.

"It's not like there won't be fighting," Vos added. "Plenty of people are trying to fill the power vacuum Keres has been so kind to leave vacant and claim these people back."

"That's what droids are for," Keres said. "Anyone who tries to set up slavery again will find themselves very dead, very quickly. Sooner or later the Galaxy will learn that slavery is no longer profitable."

"Good luck with that," General Skywalker said, voice bitter.

"If I have to burn whole planets to ashes to make my point, I will," Keres said, smiling.

"Slavery or a Sith Lord, you have to pick one," Skywalker said with a scowl. "You can't do both. One or the other, there's only one of you, and either is a life's work that would probably kill you."

Keres stared at him. "There are forty-one of me, actually, and while I do not have their current locations I will shortly. So, you see, all things are possible."

Rex leaned against Cody, who was swearing feverently and rapidly under his breath, and Wolffe gave a low whistle. Godsdamn the Kaminoans. He hated them for what they had done to him and his brothers but he could just imagine what they had done to clones of Red.

"Do you know what alterations they made?" Rex asked. "How many to a batch? How they were trained?"

Keres nodded. "Jango sent me information on the entire program, which is still running."

"You're going after Kamino," Cody said, jaw tightening.

"I don't know whether to cheer you on or beg you not to," Boil said, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I would not be harming you or your brothers, those still in development or in training," Keres said. "It would not be too hard to keep one scientist alive to show anyone who wanted to learn how to care for the younger brothers. But the rest of them? Yes. The Kaminoans will die. For what they have done to you, to me, to Jango, to countless scores of sentients across the Galaxy? For the deals they have made with my former Master? They must fall."

"How much of his power base have you taken out?" General Jinn asked.

Keres turned an innocent expression, so cold that Rex shivered, on the General. "Qui-Gon," he purred. "Why do you accuse me so?"

"Because you are terrifying at tactics," Jinn said.

Keres shrugged. "A fair bit of it," he said. "Most of the criminal element has been eliminated and I will be working my way along the legal ones soon enough. There are a few players that pose quite a danger to the Jedi and the brothers as well as me, so it is in everyone's best interest if they simply...do not exist any more."

"Like who?" Skywalker asked, getting up and starting to pace. He looked troubled even as little groups of brothers were talking together, Rex catching the word "Kamino" every now and then. "It would be good to have a head's up."

Vos shook his head and Keres shrugged. Skywalker looked annoyed when he realized there would be no sharing of information.

"I asked you once," Keres said as he turned to General Jinn, "if you believed in the Order's neutrality. You said you did not. Do you still feel such a way?"

Rex felt every eye shift to the General, the conversations stop, and he held his breath.

General Jinn nodded and held his hand out to Keres. "I do. While I believe Commander Cody's idea of letting the clones decide for themselves who will help the slaves is the best idea, I will encourage that we assist you. I know the 212th looks fondly on you--"

"That might be putting it mildly, sir," Wooley said, grinning.

"Tiny bit," Waxer agreed.

"We'd karking go to war for you and you know it, Red," Boil said, grinning.

"Oy," Keres muttered.

"It might take some time to find everyone who would wish to leave with us," General Jinn said, "but I believe we have a good start."

Keres took Jinn's hand and nodded. "A start is all we need."

=

Micah rubbed the back of his neck and looked up as one of his men came into his cabin. Clink was yawning and waving a datapad at him, and Micah waited for the clone to stop moving before reaching for it. Any of the clones from Riptide Batch had a tendency to be a little odd, especially when tired, but Clink was also usually running on too much caff.

Byproduct of being a good comms officer, Micah supposed.

"We've gotten a good bead on the bastard," Clink said, dropping into the free chair in Micah's room. The clone wasn't wearing armor like his brethren did, none of them did, he was dressed like a heavily-armed spacer. Micah started going through the information, noting the ship's flight path and likely boltholes their target might end up at. "Chatter's picked up and I locked on his ship's locator beacon."

"He know you turned it on?" Micah asked, looking up from the pad.

"Psseah, no," Clink said, shifting in his seat. "Surge is getting twitchy, by the way. He says we're nearly out of those detonators he and Hawk love so much."

Micah hummed, looking back at the pad. "We need to drop out of hyperspace soon anyway. I need to contact a friend about a possi…" He frowned at Clink. "You know what, let's go talk to the others. This is something they all should hear."

"Ajax is asleep, same as Piper," Clink said as he levered himself out of the chair. "I don't really feel like waking an angry Piper. He sleeps with his wrenches and he throws with the Force."

Micah smiled. "You fetch the others into the galley, I'll wake those two."

Clink tossed him a lazy salute and Micah set the datapad aside. Their hunt was important, yes, but it was a Council-ordered one. Depending on the information Qui-Gon had for him the chase may change from trap-and-kill to trap-and-convince.

He left his cabin and went to wake Piper first.

When the Jedi Council had found out about the Force-sensitive clones they had been… Micah didn't know how to quantify their reactions, even years later. Some had been horrified at the blasphemy, some had been fascinated it had been possible in the first place; Micah had just wanted to protect the poor children who had been grown like their normal brothers, trained the same way, but had the added danger of not knowing how to control the Force.

When the Council had offered to let him put together his own private squad of clones for missions that would be completely off the books--recorded on a separate book that no one save the Master of Shadows would have access to--he accepted. How could he not? Other Council members had agreed as well, having clones either work with them or for them, but Micah prefered to work and live with his men on a ship that had no registration in any system.

They lived dark, not existing, because Micah could protect them best this way. If they were ever hailed or boarded by any legal entity? His men stayed out of sight and let him handle it. He was a Jedi Councilor, kindly get the fuck off his ship, and off the boarding party went with apologies and minor grumbles. Pirates? Never lived long enough to try it again.

Micah squatted down next to Piper's bunk and nudged the clone's shoulder, smiling when the man mumbled and flailed out a wrench. "C'mon, kiddo, time to wake up," Micah said.

"Nnnn," Piper slurred, rolling back over.

Micah brushed against the training bond he had with Piper and tugged on the thin braid, threaded through with colorful threads and beads, nudging the other closer to wakefulness. "I'll let you wake Ajax," he said. "I need to speak to all of you."

Piper cracked open an eye and glared at him. "Sleeping," he said, grumpy.

"Yes, and you can go back to sleep after this," Micah said. "But this is important."

"We catch up with the asshole?"

"Not yet," Micah said.

Piper muttered, letting go of his wrench and sliding out of his bunk. "I want chocolate when we get to the next port," he told Micah. "You are getting me chocolate."

Micah nodded. "Fair enough. I will get you chocolate."

"The good stuff!" Piper said. "Not that bullshit synthetic stuff, I can taste the chemicals. The real stuff."

Micah nodded again, wrapping an arm around Piper's shoulders and leading him out the door. "You want to wake Ajax?"

Piper ran ahead to the cabin Ajax shared with Surge and Clink, yelling a Mando'a warcry, and Micah laughed. He could hear Ajax screeching and the sound of a scuffle.

Really? Kite sent along the training bond.

Piper talks to the engines all day, Hawk sent back. You think he's not going to be crazy?

You have no room to talk, you would say the riduurok to your damn rifle!

"Children," Micah said as he walked into the galley, hands out to placate. Kite and Hawk were glaring, faces bare inches from each other. "Peace."

Surge was putting out mugs of caff for everyone and shaking his head, well used to the insanity on board the ship. Clink was helping set out food--Micah's boys were always hungry--and stealing bites here and there as he went. Ajax stomped into the galley and threw himself into a chair, arms crossed and looking furious, a whistling Piper on his heels.

"All right, ba'vodu, what's up?" Surge asked. "You don't call a lot of these family meetings."

Micah sat down and took a sip of the caff. "I want us to be on the level," he said. "I have a chance to right a wrong but I won't do it without your input."

"Sounds fair," Hawk said, his brothers murmuring their agreement. "What's the wrong?"

"What was done to you and yours," Micah said, startling them. "Among other things, but this I can right. A friend of mine, Qui-Gon, is proposing a schism, a way to leave the current Jedi Order and start his own."

"That's good for them," Ajax said, jerking a thumb at the three Force-sensitive brothers with their Padawan braids. "But what does that mean for us?"

Micah rubbed the back of his neck. "You three are Riptide Batch," he said and they nodded. "I've kept tabs on the rest of your--"

"Bullshit," Surge said, eyes wide. "They're dead."

"Don't, ba'vodu," Ajax said, looking away.

"Rex is with the 501st, assigned to Qui-Gon's former Padawan, Anakin Skywalker," Micah said, ticking them off on his fingers. "Cody is with the 212th, assigned to Qui-Gon. Wolffe is with the 104th, assigned to my friend Plo Koon. All three Jedi would be willing to defect and you would see them again, if we did this. The others of your batch I could not confirm as alive, I'm sorry."

Clink got up and put his hands on his head, walking in tight circles, whispering too quickly and quietly in Mando'a for Micah to catch. What little he could hear sounded like a prayer. Ajax had laid his head on the table, shoulders shaking, and Surge had a hand on his back, trying to soothe the other.

"We could see them?" Surge asked.

"I'm not going to stop you," Micah said. "We do this, though, and everything comes out. You, how you were taken, all our missions. No more going dark."

"I'm not wearing kriffing armor," Hawk said. "I'm a sniper. Can you imagine me trying to set up a good nest somewhere in that crap they make our brothers wear?"

Micah reached out and tugged on Hawk's braid, smiling. "I would never make you do anything you didn't want to."

"I want to see my brothers," Clink said. "I want to see Wolffe and Rex and Cody. I owe Rex a punch, Cody a, a, kriff. I can't even remember what I owe him anymore. And Wolffe! I. I need. I want to see them. I just know I need to punch Rex for that thing with the sim. It was his fault, I'm sticking to that, and I'm punching him for it."

"Cody got us stuck with KP duty that last time," Ajax said, looking up from the table. "Punch him too."

"Let's just punch all of them," Surge said. "Surprise, we're not dead, have a punch to the face."

"Your batch was brewed different, wasn't it?" Kite asked, reaching for the food.

"Maybe," Ajax said, shrugging. "What positions do they hold?"

Micah frowned, pulling out the datapad and accessing the records. "Cody is a Marshall Commander, Wolffe is Senior Commander, and Rex…"

"Rex is?" Clink asked, sitting down and grabbing the caff.

Micah rolled his eyes. "I should be used to your insanity by now. His listed rank is Major, yet he has a notation here by Skywalker that he goes by Captain and yet he is in command of the entire 501st, which you need to be a Commander to do. I can't decide if that's Skywalker or your brother, because it could be either."

"Either," Ajax and Surge said.

"I'd go with Skywalker, actually," Clink said. "That sounds like a mess and Rex really hated messes on Kamino. Total hotshot with the sims, but he liked them clean."

"What started this?" Kite asked, chewing loudly.

"Good question," Piper asked, snagging some of the food and shovelling it into his mouth. "You don't let us go to Coruscant and you avoid it if you can, but this sounds like you've been waiting for the chance to stick it to them."

"I have," Micah said. "I've watched the Council chose the wrong path too many times. Qui-Gon is a rogue, someone who does what he believes is right and fuck the consequences and the Council."

"Please don't fuck the Council," Hawk said into his caff mug.

"I can't unsee that now," Kite whined. "Stupid brother."

"Aw, kriff you!" Piper whined. "Bad mental picture! Stop it!"

Micah smiled; sometimes training bonds were a bad thing when a thought trickled from one clone to the other. It was very helpful when he taught them if one of the three figured it out before the others since then they could shuffle the method back and forth until they all got it, but the downside was mindworms at the worst of times.

"There's another piece of this," Micah said. "His name is Red, or Keres, depending on his mood."

Clink sat up, eyes wide. "Oh, shit. I know that name."

Micah raised an eyebrow. "You do?"

"The Seppies are kriffing blowing up the back-channels over him," Clink said. "Grievous is planning something big, wanting to take him down and preferably publicly. Someone else, Sidious? They're backing that metal-monster."

"Clink," Micah said, "I need you to tell me everything you know right now."