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Lylek Squad

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When the damn brain worms infect Pulsar’s squad in Tango Company, all of the subliminal flash-programming for the Orders flares into existence, clear and unmistakable. The worms use it to their advantage; it’s the most normal thing in the world to try and infect or kill the pair of young Jedi commanders.

The first thing Pulsar thinks upon waking up from that nightmare is, “General Unduli is going to kill us.”

Shit. If Unduli didn’t kill them all, then Skywalker probably would.

It feels like an actual miracle when they’re cleared by Medical. Pulsar wants to think that they’ve caught a break…but the Orders are still there.

He knows all of them, beginning to end. There are contingencies to wipe out the Republic Senate. The Separatist Senate. Dooku. Separatist Generals. The Jedi Council. The geneticists on Kamino. Clone commanders from every corps, battalion, regiment, and legion. Every Jedi in the Republic. The list goes on and on.

His squad sits down in a lounge on the medical station, door closed and locked, as they try to figure out what in the hell to do about it all.

Ox is scowling before they’ve even started. “Nobody’s going to ask us to kill the Jedi.”

“It’ll never happen,” Scythe agrees, but he’s leaning forward, arms crossed and head down. Scythe was the first to pick up a worm, and even though they’ve all said to him that they’re fine, they’re alive—that’s guilt that is probably going to stick around for a while.

“One of the Orders is supposed to be us assassinating the Chancellor, and I don’t see that call being made any time soon,” Havoc says. “Do you?”

Edge tilts his head. “I dunno, he’s kind of a prick.”

“Come on, this is ridiculous!” Ox looks at Pulsar. “Honestly now—do you think there’s any chance of us suddenly needing to take out Commander Offee, General Unduli, or any other Jedi we might serve under?”

Pulsar has to shake his head. “Nah.” He can’t think of any reason that any Jedi would have to betray the Republic, not when they’ve spent so much time bleeding and dying for it.

“Wait—we’re not gonna to tell anyone about this?” Havoc blurts, wide-eyed. “We have to!”

“The Orders aren’t supposed to be active, Havoc!” Scythe hisses at him, lifting his head to glare at his brother. “We’d be considered defective!”

“Kriffing hells,” Havoc whispers, and Pulsar feels his insides turn to ice. “I don’t wanna be deactivated.”

“None of us do.” Edge sighs. “It’s going to look bad enough that we tried to hurt Tano and Offee. The rest of the 41st is already giving us the stink eye.”

“Let’s just let this lie,” Scythe insists. “Right, Sergeant?”

It takes Pulsar a minute to realize that Scythe means him. The promotion is still new, and he was exhausted and freezing when he received it. “Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s the best idea. But, if any of you think something is going wrong in your heads, you come and find one of us. Talk it out and decide if it’s a problem that we need to deal with. We’re going to sit on this unless we’re handed a reason not to.”

That’s what they do, and that’s how it goes. They continue to serve with the 41st, who eventually stop side-eying them every time Pulsar’s squad enters the room. Commander Offee is still twitchy when they fight with her, but Pulsar notes that she seems to be twitchy around everyone, and decides it’s not personal.

Pulsar refuses to fill the empty sixth position in his squad. It just seems right to keep their squad as their own. Gree doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t try to force a new brother on them, either. Besides, Ox, Havoc, Edge, and Scythe are good men, good brothers to have at his back, and the fact that they’ve stayed alive this long proves it.

The war goes on, and Pulsar gets used to ignoring the Orders, putting them aside as irrelevant, extraneous Bantha shit in his head. It’s like a lot of the flash-training—so much of that is kriffing useless. He’s a grunt in the GAR, and he is not going to be armed escort for some Core World gala anytime soon.

The forks. What is with that line of forks? He knows what they’re for and it’s still stupid as all hell.

Order Sixty-Six, when it’s given, bites so hard that even foreknowledge of what it means doesn’t keep Pulsar’s finger off the trigger. General Unduli doesn’t even notice when the Order comes in, too focused on Kashyyyk’s ground defenses. They have her down on the ground and dead before she can think to fight back.

Pulsar comes back to himself with a jolt, hours later. He’s already in orbit with his brothers in the 41st. The rest remained on Kashyyyk, performing Sep and Jedi clean-up alike.

“You were there?” Ox asks him, shock-pale. “You got the Order?”

Pulsar nods. He can’t think of anything to say, all but choking on guilt. Unduli hadn’t been doing anything wrong. She’d been commanding them in battle, as always, and doing a damn fine job of it.

Then the Chancellor reveals the Jedi’s plot against the Republic.

Well, fuck me, Pulsar thinks in tired resignation. They’d been wrong, after all—the Jedi did betray the Republic. He’s still a bit leery about the mass executions, but his brothers had their orders, and they were bred to follow them.

In the space of about a day, Pulsar isn’t a Republic clone trooper anymore. He’s an Imperial stormtrooper. The job doesn’t change much, except suddenly there aren’t Seps to fight. They’re just enforcement, making sure former Republic worlds are obeying the new Imperial laws and edicts. Pulsar makes sure his squad follows the regs, old and new. They’re not going to shoot a civvie unless they’ve got no choice.

There isn’t enough left of the 41st to make up a full unit. Tango Company gets folded into the 501st. There are a lot of faces missing, but there’s one in particular that he’s looking for.

“Where’s Commander Rex?” Pulsar asks, grabbing the arm of the first lieutenant he comes across. When the brother pulls his helmet, Pulsar doesn’t recognize him.

“Hands off, Sergeant,” his brother says, eyes narrowed. Pulsar lifts his hands and holds them in the air in a placating gesture. “Who are you?”

“CT-9521, Sergeant-Major Pulsar, from Tango Company. We’re Torrent’s replacement.”

“No offense, but no one can replace Torrent,” his brother says, and then rubs at his eyes with one gloved hand. He looks tired, but they all do—exhaustion’s been a damn heavy weight since the Order was given, and it’s been less than a week.

“I’m Parse. CT-67-8744, Second Lieutenant in Ruin Company.”

“Sir,” Pulsar nods acknowledgement. “The Commander?”

“Commander Rex was injured during the latter half of the Sieges. He was on Kamino when the Order came in, but…” Parse frowns and won’t look him in the eye. “But he hasn’t turned up yet. Commander Appo is in charge.”

“Appo’s a bastard,” Pulsar says, disappointed. He’d be glad to serve under Rex, but Appo isn’t the kind of officer that Pulsar prefers. Appo demands respect instead of earning it, and he should kriffing well know better.

It makes him long for Commander Gree, murdered by Master Yoda when he tried to carry out the Order. Gree wasn’t the same caliber officer as Rex, but he was leaps and bounds better than Appo.

Then a tall, black-garbed monstrosity walks by, and Pulsar stares until it’s gone. “What the hell was that?”

“That,” Parse informs him soberly, “is our new commanding officer, Darth Vader.”

“Darth—a Sith? They’re on our side now?” What the fried blue hell?

Parse shrugs. “Looks like it. Not sure yet what he’ll be like in battle, but at least he’s smart enough to wear armor.”

“Right.” Armor is smart and all, but their commanding officer is a Sith. There’s something wrong with that, Pulsar knows. He just…damned if he can remember why it had ever been wrong in the first place.

Well, if the Jedi can betray the Republic, I guess Sith can betray the Seps, Pulsar thinks, and that’s going to have to be reason enough. He never gets a better one, anyway.

Appo dies eight months later during an ambush on Ruuria, killed by a group of brothers gone rogue. After that, no one lasts long as the 501st’s commander, and despite Vader’s reputation, it’s not his fault. The galaxy is pretty much in an uproar that seems unending, and the 501st is cleaning up most of the mess. Pulsar has given up on the restriction against killing civvies, because they are damn sure trying to kill them.

Edge and Havoc die in the first year of the Empire. Ox holds out until Year Three before taking a stray blaster bolt to the face.

Scythe is with him until Year Six. Then resistance fighters on a fucking backwater use him for target practice.

Pulsar is so fucking infuriated that he storms their holdout by himself, wiping out every single living being inside. He destroys their cobbled-together base just for good measure. That gets him a commendation and another promotion, but he doesn’t give a damn about either one. It used to be one of his goals, to make lieutenant, but now it just feels hollow.

He does drink to his promotion, but he doesn’t do it alone. He has so many ghosts for company that he can barely remember all their names.

By Year Nine, Pulsar is still a lieutenant. He knows exactly why he’s never been promoted into the captain’s slot. It has nothing to do with chain of command and everything to do with the anti-clone bias that festers in the Corps. He still has brothers in Tango, and there are a few brothers holding out in the other companies, but most of the 501st is now comprised of non-clone soldiers.

Pulsar is not a stupid man. Traumatized, maybe, but not a fool. He knows his brothers have two choices: serve as they are, or die. He’s heard that retirement is a third option, but he doesn’t trust it. Retirement sounds too much like deactivation.

When Pulsar witnesses Darth Vader make allies of the Noghri, he knows which way the wind is blowing, and he makes sure he’s in the position to ride along with it. Maybe he wouldn’t have, if he hadn’t seen Vader bare his skin for the Noghri matriarch.

He knows General Skywalker when he sees him, but he doesn’t say a word.

Everything suddenly made a hell of a lot more sense. Vader never acts like a fucking Sith. There’s no lightning or threats or lack of concern for the people he orders into battle. The only thing Sith-like Vader has ever done is carry around a red lightsaber. Big kriffin’ deal.

The Jedi would have argued that Vader killed people in cold blood, but hells, so had Pulsar and his brothers. That was war. Killing people was what the Republic military had wanted them to do, and the Empire had continued that bloody tradition.

He’s starting to understand, though, why Rex defected right at the beginning. Why scores of his brothers defected or suicided during Year Two. Pulsar has probably spent ten years fighting the wrong damn people, but gods all, he didn’t know what else to kriffing do!

Vader doesn’t strike him as the most patient sort of ruler, but Pulsar knows in his gut that Vader will be a hell of an improvement over the Emperor. Vader actually gives a damn about the men under his command—fuck, Vader remembers Pulsar’s name. No one outside of his surviving brothers does that. To everyone else, he’s just another damn number.

Vader is as good as his word; Pulsar is promoted, and becomes captain of Tango Company. His few remaining brothers are thrilled; the non-clone officers are not. Fuck them, anyway. He doesn’t care what they think of him as long as they follow orders.

Being captain gives him the leeway he needs to assist Vader and the Noghri in what look to be some pretty big machinations to get rid of the Emperor. Sometimes he has concerns about getting caught, but he’s lived with the threat of dying for so long that he honestly doesn’t care.

Major Parse stops Pulsar in the hall about a week shy of Year Ten. Parse is the only man left from the original Ruin, and the company itself is nothing like it used to be. Parse is depressed and prone to a hell of a lot of drinking, but Pulsar doesn’t know what to do about that, either.

“Did you hear?” Parse asks him, after they greet each other. Pulsar feels the warmth of his brother’s hand on his arm for a long time afterwards.

“Hear what?” Pulsar asks, doing his best to focus on the conversation. A cluster bomb went off near him on his last trip out. He’s pretty sure he’s got a concussion, but Pulsar has grown as leery of Medical as he has of Retirement.

“Lord Vader was injured during a dogfight. Scuttlebutt says that it’s pretty bad.”

Pulsar forgets all about the concussion. “Are we about to lose our commanding officer?”

Parse shakes his head. “No idea. We’re not even supposed to know it happened—Command is keeping this quiet, but damned if I know why. Be safe, though, and don’t tell anyone you don’t trust.”

Pulsar nods. He doesn’t think he can risk telling his few brothers in Tango, but there is another option.

Whemmha finds Pulsar before he can send out a signal for contact. “Fucking clanker on a stick, woman!” he yelps when he enters his quarters and she’s suddenly there.

“My apologies,” Whemmha says in a way that isn’t really an apology at all. She likes making him jump out of his skin. “The Ary’ush has been injured?”

“That’s what I heard,” Pulsar says, sitting down on his bunk so that he’s not towering over Whemmha. “I don’t know anything else. I was hoping your people could find out.”

Whemmha frowns. “Perhaps,” she says, and leaves without a farewell.

It creeps him out when she can’t find Vader. None of the Noghri can locate him, and it’s making them all irritable. The Noghri love their Sith Lord, and they want him back.

The only thing they can confirm is that Vader is alive. The 501st is promised that Vader will return to command them when he is able, but months go by and there is nothing.

Pulsar wants Vader to hurry the hell up and heal, because the Noghri are driving him absolutely nuts. He had no idea they considered him second to Vader, and the short little murder machines want answers that he can’t give them.

The day finally comes. Vader arrives by shuttlecraft, striding down the ramp and standing before the assembled 501st in a silence that is broken only by his respirator.

Pulsar almost breaks formation, wanting to shift in place. There is an odd crawly sensation running down his spine.

Something’s wrong.

He knows it when Vader doesn’t recognize him, when he has to tell Vader his name…and when Vader insists upon his number.

He knows it when the 501st goes into battle, and Vader isn’t with them.

He knows it when a brother dies from friendly fire that was a purposeful shot, and Vader does not care. He disciplines the corporal who did it, but only because those are the regs to follow.

He knows it when Whemmha comes to him, frantic, because the Noghri went to Vader and the Sith didn’t recognize them.

“We had to explain it,” Whemmha whispers, her eyes huge in the dim light of Pulsar’s private berth. “All of it. Who we were, the debt we owed him. He is—he is the same man, Lieutenant. We have discerned this.”

“But he isn’t,” Pulsar says, and Whemmha utters a distressed whine. “I don’t know what happened, but he’s…”

Not Skywalker, Pulsar wants to say, but that isn’t quite right, either.

“What have they done to our Ary’ush?” she asks.

“I don’t know.” Pulsar kneels before her, a gesture the Noghri always appreciate. “But I think you all should keep your distance.”

“We cannot.” Whemmha bows her head. “He knows of the agreement to heal our world, and says he will uphold it. Honoghr will die without the Ary’ush’s assistance.”

Pulsar has a sudden, terrified thought. “You didn’t mention the insurrection, did you?”

Whemmha pulls herself together to look affronted. “I did not. I—there will not be one, will there?”

Pulsar thinks of the rote way that Vader has been ordering the 501st around. It’s been like dealing with an actual machine, not a man in armor. This new version of Vader—he won’t give a fuck about trying to send the Empire in a direction that isn’t iron authority and mass death.

“No,” he says bitterly. “There won’t be.”

Whemmha reaches out and touches his gloved hand with the tips of her claws. “I am sorry. I know you are displeased with those who lead you.”

“Yeah.” Pulsar smiles. “Guess there’s only one thing to do now.”

“What is it?”

“Whemmha of Clan Uroghr: I ask for your assistance,” Pulsar says formally. “I have no way to repay you for this favor—”

Whemmha snorts in amused irritation. “You are a friend. Your safety will be my payment. What is it you wish of me?”

Pulsar thinks about the brothers still left in Tango. They’re his responsibility, but they’re also still blindly loyal to the Emperor, marching in step to Orders that they don’t even hear anymore.

He thinks about Parse, who’s been with the 501st from the beginning. His brother knows which way the wind blows, but he’ll never abandon his legion. He’ll die in battle, or he’ll drink himself to death, but he won’t leave the only thing he’s ever known.

The decision he’s made is a betrayal of his orders, his brothers, his fellow soldiers, his legion, and his commanding officer. He’ll be traitor; he’ll be anathema. Just like the others.

He knows all their names, every brother that defected after Sixty-Six: Rex, Wolffe, Eel, Hero, Io, Arrow, Lichen, Gregor, Frog, Tunnel Rat, Break, Go, Tomas, Juri, Poe, Viktor, Kory, Fido, Boil, Notch, Click, Woods, Subliminal, Alpha, Scion, Krayt, Steel, Davijaan, Porter, Rys…

Pulsar sighs and adds a name to the list. “I’m defecting, Whemmha. Please get me the hell off of this ship.”

Whemmha touches his cheek, her claws scratching against the emerging bristle on his face but not slicing skin. “My brother,” she says in a soft voice. “I promise I will do so.”

Chapter Text

He’s been a stormtrooper for a full year before Boil starts to really wonder about Order 66. He gets that there was apparently some assassination attempt against the Chancellor—the Emperor—but days were when that would just get the actual plotters arrested and put on trial.

There had been a trial. Right?

Boil has to look it up. No, no trial. Not even a rushed military tribunal. The assassination attempt took place around 18:00 hours; the Order was given at 18:30.

He doesn’t get it, not then. Good soldiers follow orders, and they’d done their jobs.

He hears about brothers starting to go AWOL around that time, but doesn’t think much of it. There’s a lot of stress in the ranks, and not all of them were built to handle it. They didn’t even have clankers to shoot at anymore to blow off steam.

Cody still has enough pull in the military to keep the 212th out of the calls for settling insurrections. Cody can be a complete prick, especially lately, but he’s not stupid enough to fall for that shit. Everyone higher up in the 212th knows that “settling insurrections” is code for “exterminate everyone” and they’re better than that. Those are Imperial-aligned worlds, and they aren’t the enemy.

Then he catches one of Phantom’s sergeants in the middle of defecting. Thinks he recognizes the brother as the man who’d overseen the last team of Speedies that Cody had allowed into the 212th, but isn’t sure until he speaks to the man.

Sergeant Trip just glares at him when Boil asks what the hell he’s doing. “What do you kriffing think? I’m getting the hell out before the Emperor invokes another one of those Orders, and suddenly I’m guilty of participating in another mass execution!”

Mass execution. The words make Boil uncomfortable as all hell. “You know Cody isn’t letting any of us—”

“Like he’d have a damned choice,” Trip says, all but spitting at Boil’s feet. “None of us had a choice! Godsdammit, Lieutenant, if I’m going to shoot someone, I want it to be because I fucking well wanted to do it!”

The uncomfortable feeling gets worse. They followed the Order because they wanted to, because that was what Boil and his brothers were supposed to do. Their Jedi General had turned traitor, just like the rest of the Jedi.

General Kenobi never did a damned thing to earn that, his conscience whispers.

Trip is eyeballing him like he’s evaluating targets—as if Boil is a threat. Hells, maybe he is.

“Are you going to turn me in, Lieutenant?”

He should. That’s what he’s supposed to do.

Boil’s stomach turns over so sharply he almost vomits on his boots. “No. Just…we didn’t speak. All right?”

Trip frowns and clasps his shoulder. “Brother, if you’ve got enough of yourself back to make that decision, then you need to get the hell out, too.”

Boil just stares at him, and is still standing there long after Trip is gone. Why the fuck would he need to leave? He’s got no reason to do that.

Not for the first time, he wishes Waxer hadn’t gotten himself killed on Umbara. His idiotic, bleeding-heart brother would know how to sort through this mess.

Trip’s departure bothers him enough that he goes to talk to Cody after cleanup on the next op is almost done. At least this one had been a Sep holdout of droids, ones who didn’t get the memo about the Confederacy falling. He doesn’t have to give a damn about slagging droids.

“What is it, Boil?” Cody asks. His face is twisted up in a grimace as he stares at the holomap, which still shows a few red dots of holdout droids. It makes Boil realize that he hasn’t seen Cody smile in a long damn time, and that bothers him, too.

“Cody,” Boil says, which makes his commander lift his head to look at him. “Something’s been bugging the hell out of me, lately.”

Cody turns off the projector and sighs. “Heard that more than once this month. Is it Sixty-Six?”

It doesn’t make Boil feel any better to hear that he’s not the only one—that Trip is probably not the only brother to defect because of Order 66 in particular. “Yeah. More I think about it, the more it just seems like complete shit.”

Cody gives him a sharp look. “Stow that, right now. We had our orders, and we followed them, and that’s what matters.”

“Yeah, but—” Boil has to stop and figure out how to say it. “That was our General. We fought with that man for three years, but when the Order came, none of us hesitated. I just started wondering if maybe we should have.”

Cody’s eyes flash with what Boil knows is a bad sign of his temper, but he doesn’t shout. “That was an Order-wide conspiracy the Emperor revealed, Boil. Kenobi was our General, yes, but he was also a member of the Jedi Council. Do you really think Kenobi wouldn’t be involved?”

Boil nods, because Cody does have a point. “No, I guess not.” He hesitates. “Maybe it’s just because I miss the old days.”

Cody grips Boil’s shoulder, the same place where Trip had done the same just six days ago. “That, I kriffing well agree with. I don’t like the idea that we were trusting those traitors, but at least we knew that the Seps were the enemy.”

Boil smiles. “Give me more droids to fight, any damned day.”

“Yeah.” Cody nods at him. “Lieutenant,” he says, and Boil knows it’s time to go back to work.

When the realization comes a week later, it’s not gradual, but all at once. It hits Boil like a blaster shot to the gut, and he bends over and sicks up his last meal before he’s even had a chance to panic.

Fuck. Fucking kriffing hells, oh gods.

Conspiracy, his tanned and tattooed ass. Even if there had been, there was no justification for what they’d done. There was nothing in the fucking galaxy that would convince Boil that the 501st’s clean sweep of the Temple was even remotely all right. How the hell were kids supposed to be involved, even if there was a damned conspiracy?

Kenobi was no traitor. If anything, they’d betrayed him, and in the worst way imaginable.

That’s enough to make Boil throw up again. He’s glad he’s out on solo patrol, that all he has to do for cleanup is to kick dirt over the mess.

His commander fired on their General. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his finger on the trigger—Cody was the one who gave the order.

If Kenobi turned up tomorrow, Boil knows that Cody still wouldn’t hesitate.

Brother, if you’ve got enough of yourself back to make that decision, then you need to get the hell out, too.

Boil snorts, shouldering his weapon before scrubbing at his face. His eyes won’t stop leaking, gods dammit, and the salt burns his cheeks. “And go where?” he asks the empty air.

And what about Dogma, Cody? Boil wonders, sitting down on a rock when he finds one flat enough to be comfortable. We had orders for him, too.

Skywalker still hadn’t been back from whatever fucking fool’s errand the Chancellor had requested him for. Kenobi was the senior officer on site, and that’d made them all nervous. Command had ordered Dogma to Coruscant, “For a proper and fair trial.” Cody had read the order aloud in the snidest, angriest tone Boil had ever kriffing heard.

“What did the General say?” Rex asks, when nobody else knows what to say.

Cody crumples up the plast in his fist. “General Kenobi is petitioning the decision, but he didn’t look all that optimistic.”

None of them are stupid. There shouldn’t even be a damn trial, but they all know that the Republic’s response to a clone-killed Jedi, even a Dark, Fallen, psychotic murdering fuckstick of a Jedi, is not going to be good.

Rex is upset because he thinks it should be him in the hot seat, which at least would maybe net them a better chance of nabbing an inquiry instead of a trial. Rex is famous; Dogma is not.

Cody is radiating fury because Krell used them to play Ghost and Torrent against each other. They are not just brothers, they are friends, and now there are fifty bodies in the ship’s morgue from friendly fire.

Boil is just pissed off because he didn’t get to kill the kriffing son of a bastard that had caused Waxer’s death.

It’s easier to be angry right now, easier to manage the rage. If he starts to grieve, he is going to find a bottle and drink himself into actual oblivion.

Boil is with Cody, Rex, Kix, Jesse, Eel, and Gold in a small briefing room off the main hangar. Dogma is resting with his face on the table and his hands over his head. He hasn’t moved in at least fifteen minutes. Boil doesn’t know if he just doesn’t want to face them, or if he passed out. If it’s sleep, Boil is jealous; none of them have had a chance to rack up since the last clanker went down on Umbaran soil.

They’re all supposed to be babysitting Dogma—guarding him, if Boil was going to be command proper about it. It just feels a hell of a lot more like a protective detail, instead.

Everyone stiffens, hands on their weapons, when the door hisses open. Boil doesn’t even realize he’s done it until Kenobi is waving them down. “It’s just me.”

Cody nods an acknowledgement, but none of them relax. Kenobi doesn’t look happy, so the news can’t be good. Dogma lifts his head, jaw clenched, waiting to hear his fate.

“Sir?” Rex ventures, when Kenobi does nothing more than stare at them. The General looks tired…or maybe furious. Sometimes with Kenobi it’s damned hard to tell the difference.

“The orders stand,” Kenobi says. “CT-56-6163, known as Dogma, is to be placed under arrest and returned to Coruscant for a military trial. Such a trial is insisted upon due to the desire of GAR command to confirm the necessity of Dogma’s actions, or to find them unacceptable, and respond accordingly.”

Boil knows the General is just quoting, but loses his temper anyway. “That is such utter bullshit!” he roars. “My brother is dead because of that murdering bastard! If Dogma hadn’t taken the shot, and Rex was stupid enough to miss—”

“Hey, fuck you,” Rex growls.

“—then I would have been next in line to shoot the fucker!” Boil yells.

The General just nods at his outburst and looks at Dogma, who draws in a ragged breath. “Farce of a trial,” he says. “They’re going to execute me. Nobody will want to work with a clone who’s already known to kill Jedi.”

“Hello, what is this? I am not nobody.” Rex glares at Dogma. “You’re 501st, period.”

“But he’s right. Dogma is correct,” Kenobi says in a quiet voice. He’s looking down at the table, but his stance is parade-rest proper. Boil steels himself for a rebuke, or for Kenobi to give the official call to do as Command is stupidly insisting on.

Then Kenobi looks up. His eyes are pale gray, his expression cold and furious in a way that gives Boil chills. “I trust all of the men in this room with my life, and with the lives under your individual commands. I trust you with Anakin, and with my grand-Padawan.” He rests both hands on the tabletop and leans forward, looking each one of them in the face. “So, I will say this: Anyone who does not wish to commit treason against the Republic, leave this room immediately.”

Cody jerks back. “General—”

“Shut up, Commander,” Eel snaps. Rex’s lieutenant is all but snarling, but his attention is focused on Kenobi.

“I will not allow any of you to be condemned for performing an action that a Jedi would be lauded for,” Kenobi says. “Last chance.”

Boil shifts in place, feeling an itch all the way down to his bones. They were supposed to follow orders—

So follow your General’s orders, Boil tells himself, thinking of Waxer. “We lost people today who should still be standing here,” he says, eyes burning with tears that he refuses to allow to fall. He will not break, and he definitely will not bend, not for Pong-fucking-Krell.

Boil looks at Dogma. “You are one of the most annoying fuckers that I’ve ever met, but you don’t deserve to die for it.” He turns to Kenobi before Dogma can respond. “I couldn’t save my best friend today. Help me save my brother.”

He knows Cody is staring at him, but he doesn’t say a word before he also looks to the General. It’s Rex who asks, “What are we going to do, sir?”

“Our orders are to send Dogma to Coruscant via armed escort on the shuttle Talsus,” Kenobi says. “The route will be changed from standard to account for possible attack or sabotage, of course.”

“Of course,” Cody says, frowning.

“Longer flight times are so unhealthy,” Kix says dryly, and Eel stifles a laugh.

“Halfway through the journey, Dogma, you are going to escape confinement, take yourself a hostage, leave the others in an escape pod, and make your way to a safe location.”

“Escape? Hostage?” Dogma looks like he’s on the verge of panic. “But—but sir!”

“It has to be you,” Kenobi says in a firm voice. “I can’t order you to do this Dogma, but for your own safety, you need to go dark, possibly for the duration of the damned war.”

Dogma leans back, stunned. “But if I take someone with me, they might fall under suspicion.”

“Guess it should be me, then,” Rex says, but Kenobi is shaking his head.

“It can’t be anyone from the 501st. Conflict of interest, Captain.”

“Dammit. I can’t, either,” Cody says, and then looks surprised to have spoken at all. “No one who was on the ground with Ghost and Torrent can go.”

Boil rubs his stinging eyes. “Kriffing hells.” Playing hostage would have been a fantastic way to thumb his nose at GAR command.

Lieutenant Gold gives them all an amused smirk. “I’ll do it. I’ve been with the 212th for the shortest amount of time, and I was topside during the worst of the campaign. I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to tell folks that the crazy little bastard kidnapped me, and then abandoned me on some rock in the back of beyond.”

Dogma’s eyes are huge. “This is a terrible plan. I don’t want to get anyone killed or thrown in jail because of me.”

Gold snorts, unswayed. “If it seems like things are turning sour, I’ll just stay out there with you. Looking after a brother in trouble is part of our training, remember?”

“I didn’t give you permission to AWOL, Lieutenant,” Cody says, but there’s a faint smile on his face.

Boil feels himself begin to relax. This could work. This could actually save Dogma’s life, get him hidden away until cooler heads prevailed, so that his brother wouldn’t be executed for doing his damned job.

“Then where—where am I going?” Dogma asks, giving in to the inevitable. There is something almost like hope on his face, which is a hell of an improvement over slumping despair. Waxer would be so kriffing happy for him.

Boil doesn’t realize there’s byplay happening until Rex starts talking. “Oh, I see. You know, Cut’s going to be so damned pissed off about us not asking first.”

“He can think of it as further assistance,” the General replies blandly.

Jesse whirls on Rex. “You told him?”

Rex shrugs. “Yeah.”

Jesse looks like he’s about to punch his commanding officer, or chew through duracrete. “You told our senior officer, a Jedi General, about the location of an AWOL brother?”

“A what?” Cody barks, glaring at Rex.

“He could have—” Jesse tries, but is cut off.

“Could have done what?” Kenobi asks, still with that same too-bland look on his face. “Drag a farmer back to Command, subject him to a military court martial, and then oversee his execution? I don’t think so. In fact, that is rather like the thing we are trying to avoid right now.”

Jesse nods, but he’s still grumbling at Rex. “You told him. I can’t believe you did that, sir.”

Dogma just sighs. “I hate farming.”

“You’ve never farmed before,” Eel points out, clapping Dogma on the back. “It could be fun.”

“It’s dirt,” Dogma retorts.

“Who’s piloting?” Cody asks, before things get out of hand.

“None of our people,” Kenobi answers. “Only the pilot and two armed crew members are inbound, though. I did manage to convince Command that the prisoner was docile, and would not require a full escort.”

Dogma is miffed. “I’m not docile.”

Jesse rolls his eyes. “That’s kind of the point, man.”

“All right, sir,” Dogma says, looking at Kenobi. “I stuff the crew into an escape pod, kidnap the lieutenant, and then what?”

“You’ll memorize the coordinates for this planet. None of us are going to mention the planet’s name—the less both of you know, the better,” Kenobi says. “You can drop Gold off at the Fondor Waystation—”

“That is way the hell out of the way,” Boil says, whistling.

“Fondor is a pit,” Eel comments. “Better you than me, Gold.”

Kenobi just smiles. “Dogma, once you’re alone, you’ll add the coordinates to the nav computer. When you come out of hyperspace…well, it’s a good thing that you served with Anakin.”

“Oh, no,” Dogma whines, while Eel grins at him.

“Wipe the navicomp once you get out of hyperspace. Then, you’ll set a course to crash the ship into the largest body of water available.”

Dogma flinches. “I assume I’m bailing out before the crash, sir.”

“That would be advisable, yes,” Kenobi says, but he’s gentling his normal high-set sarcasm.

“If they do trace Dogma’s route and retrieve the flight box, an investigation crew would know that the crash was deliberate,” Jesse says. “Then they’d have a reason to search the planet.”

“It’s not like there’s much there to find,” Kix says. “Good place to get shot, though.” Rex gives Kix a glare that should have lit him on fire.

“Dogma?” Kenobi looks sympathetic. “I hope you are very good at writing suicide notes.”

Dogma goes pale. “I’d considered it, if they did put me up on trial and it didn’t go well. Shit—I mean, sorry, sir. Yes, sir. I think I can—I think I can write up something believable.” Dogma clenches his jaw and then gives them all a much more confident look. “If I find this Cut fellow, how am I going to convince him not to tell me to go away?”

“Verbal message from me,” Rex says. “It’ll be easy enough to remember, even if you’re half-panicked from now until touchdown.”

Dogma nods. “Okay, sir. Thank you, sir,” he says to Obi-Wan. “Thank you for…for thinking I’m still worthwhile.”

“You all are.” Kenobi straightens to his full height, almost like he’s giving orders. “You are all men I am proud to have at my back. Any time the opportunity is presented me to save one of you from bureaucratic stupidity, I’m taking it.”

Cody and Rex share a completely undecipherable look. “They might catch on, if you keep conveniently losing soldiers, sir,” Cody ventures.

“I don’t fucking care.” Kenobi’s eyes frost over again. “Besides, I can just see those headlines. ‘Famous Jedi General imprisoned for protecting innocent soldiers from execution.’ Yes, I’m sure the politicians will be very fond of that sort of negative publicity.”

“Still evil, sir,” Rex says. It sounds like a private joke.

Kenobi smiles. “I already have a reporter on my contact list who is ready for that song-and-dance, if it ever becomes necessary.”

Boil feels grim and proud, all at once. “That’s our General. Not to be fucked with.”

“Absolutely not,” Kenobi agrees, and then approaches Dogma before helping him to stand. “It has been an honor, Corporal.”

Dogma smiles and nods. “Sir.”

“I have to go be political and presentable. Make this happen, gentlemen,” Kenobi says, and leaves the room as quickly as he’d first entered it.

Boil turns just as Cody sits down hard on the closest chair. “Shit.”

“You all right?” Rex asks. Jesse is murmuring to Dogma, probably giving him the first lesson on those planetary coordinates.

“Just having trouble coping with the fact that we’re contemplating—performing—treason,” Cody says.

Boil shakes his head. “The hell we are, sir.”

Rex just sighs and sits down across from Cody. The man suddenly looks exhausted, but Boil knows why. Ghost just had to deal with Krell setting them up the one time. Torrent and the 501st dealt with that bastard for half of the fucking campaign.

“We’ve been staring treason in the face for almost a full cycle now, Cody,” Rex says. “That fucker wanted us to execute Fives and Jesse for saving all our lives.”

“Dear weeping gods, this has been the worst fucking campaign,” Cody whispers.

“Hey, look at it this way,” Eel says, gaining their attention. “If this is the worst we see, then the rest of the war will be a hell of a lot easier to get through.”

Boil is jolted out of the memory by his comm chirping. He pulls it and turns it on, noting Cody’s ident code. “Sir.”

The sad fucking thing is that Eel was right—the rest of the war was nothing like Umbara. It’s just the end of it that was worse.

“You are twenty minutes overdue, Lieutenant,” Cody says, sounding pissed off. “Care to tell me what the hell is going on?”

The lie comes out so smoothly, it sounds like he’s been practicing for hours. “Got weird readings I was looking into, but I just realized about a minute ago that the signal’s too far out to get to on foot. I’m coming back in to get supplies and a speeder, check it out before the sun comes up.”

“You should take a squad for that, Boil.”

Boil winces. “No, it’s all right. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Probably just Sep garbage lying around from the last campaign. Better safe than sorry, though, especially if there’s intel that might still be useful.”

“All right. Check in when you figure out what the hell’s going on,” Cody says. “I’m taking Phantom and Wraith out to assist the 142nd in the next sector. Lieutenants are in charge while we’re gone. Think you can keep Ghost under control?”

Boil scowls. “They’re not Ghost.” There were a few brothers left in Ghost from the Outer Rim Sieges, but restock hadn’t been clones—they were new army volunteers. Boil hates them with the fire of a thousand suns because they are bad at their fucking job.

“That’s exactly why someone has to keep an eye on them.” Cody doesn’t sound angry anymore, just tired.

Boil steels himself. “You’ve got it, sir. Take care of yourself, all right?”

“Yeah. You, too, Boil,” Cody says, and the comm clicks off.

“Gods dammit,” Boil mutters, bowing his head. “I am so fucking sorry, Cody.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Everything goes smoothly. Boil loads up a speeder with supplies, maybe a bit more than a standard recon mission should require, and tells everyone else that he’ll be back in six hours.

It only takes two hours to get to the nearest spaceport, the one they left to the civvies so they wouldn’t overload the crews with space traffic. Boil ditches his armor and buries it on the city’s outskirts, grateful again that this region is full of loose sand instead of rock. He’s still going to look like a clone when he goes in, but there’s not much help for it.

Boil sells the speeder to the first disreputable bastard he can find. It’s half the value, but he doesn’t care—he just needs local currency. He sticks to used goods and gets a couple of civvie outfits, but wearing trousers and a shirt instead of his blacks is probably the weirdest sensation he’s ever experienced in his life.

It is a painful experience to shave his goatee, and not because his hand is shaking and the razor slips. When he removes the hair from his head, it’s like Waxer is suddenly glowering at him from the mirror.

“Oh, fuck you, too,” Boil says, scowling at his reflection. “If you were still alive, you’d have dragged my ass out of the army weeks ago.”

Boil puts on an ugly, floppy hat that reminds him a bit too much of Cad Bane, and starts looking up public transports that leave before his six-hour mark is up. The pickings aren’t going to be good, not in this sector of space.

He’s pretending that he’s not panicking. The military is the only thing he knows. The only thing. He has no idea what the hell he’s going to do aside from avoiding capture.

One transport catches his attention. It’s a shitheap of a vessel, but it’s going to Ryloth.

Boil stares at the listing until his vision blurs. He’s thinking about a tiny green Twi’lek, a brave little fiend who’d called him brother.

The flight is boring as all hell, and the ship stinks, but Boil gets to Ryloth in one piece. He’s wandering around the spaceport in Lessu when he realizes he doesn’t know where to go. Sure, Numa’s family could still be living in Nabat…or they could have gone literally anywhere else. He doesn’t even know if the family stayed on the planet.

Boil pulls his hat and uses the ugly damned thing to wipe the sweat from his face. He’s contemplating the nearest cantina entrance when he hears her voice. “Nerra!”

No fucking way, Boil thinks, but he turns around and sure enough, there is a green-skinned Twi’lek girl shoving her way through the crowd. He raises his arms out of instinct and suddenly has an armload of kid.

“Nerra! It is you, I knew it!” Numa chants, burying her face against his shoulder.

Boil can’t figure out if he’s smiling or crying. “Hi there, Kid. I see you’ve got real vocabulary this time.”

She giggles, but doesn’t loosen her hold. “If you stay long enough, I’ll teach you my language.”

“Staying. Yeah,” Boil says, watching as Numa’s father weaves his way through the crowd. When he sees Boil, his expression settles somewhere between curiosity and concern.

“Hi,” Boil says, sticking out his only free hand. “Nice to see you again.”

Numa’s father shakes Boil’s hand cautiously. “It is a pleasure, yes. I am Gerrin’arru. You would say Gerri. You have already met Numan’arru. You are Waxer?”

“Uh, no, I’m—”

“Boil!” Numa insists, correcting her father before Boil gets the chance.

“That’s me,” Boil says, a little impressed that she knew the difference. He glances down at the (larger) little Twi’lek fiend, who doesn’t look to be releasing her grip anytime soon. “Uh, I hope you don’t mind—”

“My daughter has talked of little else aside from her nerras for several years now,” Gerri says, an indulgent smile crossing his face. “It is you who I hope does not mind.”

Boil swallows, emotions swamping him from out of nowhere. “No. I don’t mind at all.”

He doesn’t have to ask; Gerri and Numa all but drag him back to Nabat. Gerri offers him shelter, calling him an honored guest, which is apparently the signal Numa needs to let go. She doesn’t migrate further away than an arm’s length, though.

“I can—I can help out,” Boil offers uncertainly. It’s occurring to him that he doesn’t really have much in the way of skills beyond shooting things or blowing them up.

“Soon, I may take you up on that offer,” Gerri says. “But for now, you are our guest. Tell us of what has become of you since your departure.” Then he lowers his voice. “And perhaps, tell us what became of you when our Republic became an Empire.”

Numa sobs herself into an exhausted heap after Boil tells them about Umbara. That really doesn’t do much to help Boil’s state of mind. It’s way too tempting to join in.

When Boil can get to the newsfeeds, he breathes a sigh of relief. Kenobi’s name is still on the short list of Jedi fugitives. He’s learning to be grateful that the 212th was never tasked with Jedi-hunting, and that Cody can’t fucking aim.

It’s also a relief to discover that Numa’s mother isn’t dead because of the Sep occupation. Numa’s parents are divorced; she remarried. Numa stays with Gerri because he’s the one with no other heirs for his family line, and Numa’s mother can still make more of her own.

Boil gets to meet Hallen’inotai when she visits about a month after he arrives. He’s no longer classed as a guest, which is a relief, because it was starting to feel really damned awkward. Numa has finally gotten to the point where she can get through a day without plastering herself to Boil’s leg for six hours. Gerri gives him beer every day after sunset, which is apparently Twi’lek gossip fuel.

Halle looks Boil up and down and says in halting Basic, “Why you?

Boil sighs. “Ma’am, I have no idea. I was the asshole of the group.”

“Good,” Halle says decisively, which surprises him. “Gerrin’arru is soft.”

“What the fuck does she mean?” he asks Gerri, once Halle is gone and Numa is asleep.

“Halle means that I spoil our child,” Gerri answers him, all but rolling his eyes. “She thinks you will keep Numa from ruination.”

Boil raises an eyebrow. Numa speaks three languages fluently now, is working on a fourth. She absolutely rules the academy playground in any game that involves evading capture, and Boil didn’t have a damn thing to do with that. She’s top of her class for grades, and Lessu’s primary academy is already prodding Gerri about gaining Numa as a student when she turns ten Standard.

“Your ex-wife is fucking blind,” Boil says, and Gerri laughs.

Boil thinks maybe he could learn to like this life. It’s not the military, but he has things to do—structural engineering with explosives is a thing on Ryloth, it’s kriffing grand—and he lives with people who like him. Boil has somehow made friends with the Syndulla clan, family to the Narru clan. Cham is still leery, but his younger daughter, Hera, has joined Numa in being clingy. It’s like having twin green growths, but he’s realized that he doesn’t mind.

Yeah. This could work.

Then the fucking Empire comes along and ruins everything.

Numa has just turned nine when a group of Star Destroyers drop into orbit and launch an invasion force. “What the actual hell,” Boil says, staring at the news reports coming in. Lessu has already fallen, and they’re going for the capitals on the other continents.

“They are here for Ryloth’s wealth,” Cham says. Gerri packed up and rushed them to the Syndulla hold, refusing to wait for the Imperials to come along and round them up like the Separatists had four years ago. “Our Senator sets a poor example by flaunting his prosperity, and once again, others have come to try and claim the wealth we must surely have.”

“Shit,” Boil whispers in stunned realization. “I have to leave. I can’t be here when they come calling.” He refuses to put any of them in danger. He’s discovered in the last few months that rogue clones don’t get arrested. They get executed.

“None of us can be here,” Cham says, which makes Gerri and Cham’s wife turn to stare at him in surprise. “To the Imperials, I would already be a known troublemaker, one who they would feel the need to get rid of. My presence is also a danger to my clan.”

Word comes in that Imperial patrols are shooting civilians—clan heads in particular. The Imperials aren’t just looking for wealth, or to confirm Ryloth’s loyalty to the Empire. This is an occupation.

Suddenly it’s not a planned escape, but a mad dash to get off-world. There are family groups running for ships hidden in different places. Boil knows two things that squeeze his heart—there aren’t enough transports, and a lot of the ships don’t have the power to outrun Imperial vessels. The only thing working in their favor is how many ships are about to launch at once. The Imps can chase, but they can’t get them all.

They lose Cham and his family to the chaos. Boil has no damned idea what happens to them after their arrival in Kalu’saat; all he can do is hope they get out.

Boil is the only reason Numa and Gerri get off-world at all. He hasn’t needed to shoot anyone in a year, but that doesn’t mean he’s gotten bad at it in the meantime. Nobody fucks with his family, especially second-rate stormtroopers.

The transport they get is rickety even by scavenger standards, but it flies well, and it gives Boil the speed he needs to outrun pursuing Imperials. Hyperspace has never looked prettier.

“And now we are refugees,” Gerri says, weary and sad.

Being refugees was gods-awful. Boil did not recommend it at all.

Boil grows out his hair again, bleaching it to the tune of snickering thoughts about the 501st’s Captain. He hasn’t thought about Rex in a while, but now he has no way to check the feeds. He hopes Rex is alive and causing trouble.

Boil used to pride himself on avoiding ambushes and obvious setups. It was his fucking job, and he was pretty good at it. He still loses Gerri to an Imperial ambush on Corellia. He can’t even stop for Gerri’s body; he’s got Numa plastered to his side and he’s running for all he’s worth as blaster bolts rain down around them.

He can’t stop. Not for anything. He doesn’t feel safe until they’re in hyperspace again.

Gerri’s loss is a gut-punch that he wasn’t prepared for. Numa is a wreck, crying for hours before she finally passes out from sheer exhaustion.

Boil strokes Numa’s face when she stirs in her sleep, reassuring her, calming her down.

Shit. He isn’t just a brother anymore, not for Numa. He’s a Dad.

He did not sign up for parenting, but he doesn’t have a choice. Numa isn’t even ten Standard yet. She still needs a competent adult to watch out for her.

“Waxer, this is all your fucking fault,” Boil grumbles. That asshole should be here. Boil already knows that he’s going to need help. What does he know about parenting, anyway? He’s military.

If being military is the only thing he’s got, then that’s what he’ll use. Boil gives Numa time to grieve, and then starts in on discipline. He knows how to teach that. Did it all the time for the Shinies. The trainers on Kamino raised all of them to it once they were old enough to hold up a rifle and aim it properly.

He knows in less than three days that his plan is complete and total bullshit. No one on Kamino was dealing with an actual nine-year-old. The Shinies weren’t capable of this kind of obstinate stubbornness. Military discipline, at least the way Boil knows it, is not going to work with Numan’arru.

Also, who taught her those words?

Shit. He taught her those words.

Boil finally gives in and sits down with her, frustrated beyond belief. “I have no damned idea what I’m doing.”

Numa considers it. “Well, I’m not starving. Nobody is actively trying to kill us at this moment. You’re probably doing okay?”

Boil smiles. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, lia’ry.

Numa smiles back, preening. “You’re welcome!”

Boil decides he’ll teach her the physical side of it; concepts such as discipline, duty, and honor can go take a flying fuck. Weapons. Trigger discipline. (“You keep your finger off that trigger or you’ll never touch a blaster again as long as I live!”) Explosives. (Never, ever without Boil.) Hand-to-hand combat, and how to be a merciless cheater at it. (“Yes, punching there works,” he wheezes, and Numa giggles while Boil crawls off to recover, cradling his exceptionally bruised balls.) Creation and dispersal of artillery he saves for last—the awesome shit that happens when you turn a target into a crater. Numa is definitely enthused by that one.

He teaches her to sleep anywhere. Literally anywhere. That’s six weeks of whining that Boil could have lived without, but it’s worth it when Numa starts to get enough sleep during night cycles, even if they’re sleeping in a mud hole.

Someone should be sleeping, at least. Boil doesn’t think he’s slept at all since they left Ryloth.

Boil does the best he can, but he wasn’t trained to go dark. He knows he’s losing muscle mass, but it’s hard to get enough to eat when you’re on the run with a kid; Numa gets a full calorie load first. He can lose weight and be fine as long as he doesn’t starve. She can’t.

Numa’s right that he’s got the feeding part of parenting down, but Boil doesn’t seem to be able to do shit-all about her grief, or how to deal with…with…girl things.

He didn’t know girls actually did that. Fucking useless flash training.

Boil can’t figure out how to explain…that…without blushing so hard his head implodes. He bribes a Twi’lek dancer to do it instead, a Rutian with a great ass and kind eyes. Tamarris’annat laughs at his request, but Numa learns what she needs to know. He hopes. Maybe.

Please actually have learned it all. He can’t take another conversation like that.

Tamarri apparently has a thing for Dads, because she comes to him after Numa’s asleep for the night and sits in his lap. Without clothes.

Okay. He can work with this.

It’s the best month they’ve had. Numa has steady meals, a warm place to sleep, and gets to download the next year of academic lessons she needs.

Boil gets the same, plus he gets well-fucked. He’d marry Tamarri if she’d have him, but she isn’t interested in romance. That’s great for his sex life, but kind of disappointing in the long-term department

He understands, though. He isn’t the best prospect, anyway. He’s a fugitive clone who ages at twice the rate of a standard human, and he grew up in a tank. It’s not exactly the sort of résumé that attracts women.

The Imperials come calling. It’s just a single search team, nothing to panic about, but after they’ve passed on, Boil knows they’ve got to go, too. Numa gives Tamarri a throat-strangling hug. Tamarri puts her down and then gives Boil a kiss that does wonderful, ill-timed things to his anatomy.

Then Tamarri puts a plast strip into his hand. “For safe haven,” she says.

Boil looks at the strip once they’re in orbit. Planetary coordinates, he thinks. Somewhere Mid Rim, but he doesn’t know the sector number.

“Up to you, lia’ry,” Boil tells Numa.

Numa’s lekku twitch at the ends as she thinks about it. “Let’s try it, nerra.”

It leads them to a vaguely hospitable planet. The only source of tech below turns out to be a cave, home to a Rebel cell. Boil has heard there were such things in different regions of the galaxy, but never had the means to find one.

The discovery is fantastic, except for the part where Boil immediately has at least fifteen blasters shoved in his face the moment his ugly, floppy hat comes off. “What the hell?” he asks. Numa is hiding behind him, trying to stealthily get to his blaster so she can defend herself.

One of the rebels, a Devaronian man, barks, “ARE YOU DE-CHIPPED?”

Boil stares at him. “Am I fucking what?”

“Your inhibitor chip,” a human woman clarifies. Much more reasonable tone of voice, and her blaster is steady. “Do you still have it?”

“Uh, yeah?” Boil offers, since he has no kriffing clue what these assholes are talking about.

She nods. “Then you need to have it removed,” she says, just as the Devaronian is shouting, “The FUCK?”

Another man sighs, rolling his eyes but not lowering his weapon. “Gaiel, stop shouting at the man. He doesn’t have a damned clue what we’re talking about.”

“He’s a damned Jedi killer!” the Devaronian retorts.

That pisses Boil off. He was trying to mind his manners, but he is not going to stand there and take shit from a loudmouth asshole. “Hey, FUCK YOU. I’ve never fired on a Jedi!”

Numa uses the distraction to get his blaster out without concern for noise. Then she steps out in front of Boil, weapon aimed right at Gaiel, before the rebels have the chance to realize that Boil’s not alone.

“Do you want me to shoot him, nerra?” Numa asks. At this point, she’s just as versed in weapons as Boil and his brothers had been at the same age.

Boil is tempted to let her, but he doesn’t want her first kill to be someone who could turn ally on them when he stopped being stupid. “No, not as long as they start explaining why they want to cut my skull open.

“I’m Rhoda,” the woman says, lowering her blaster. That seems to be the signal the others need, and it gets a lot easier to breathe without that many blaster barrels trying to climb up his nose. “I’ll tell you.”

Finding out about the chips is an actual fucking nightmare…but it also explains everything. Why it took him so long to think about the Order. Why Cody straight-up did not recognize the problem with their actions.

“The chips biologically degrade after a certain amount of time. It’s probably why you bolted,” Rhoda says, and Boil just nods. The realization hitting all at once—that must have been the chip dying.

“Rumor is that you’re not the first clone that the Alliance has picked up,” Daveed tells him. “Probably won’t be the last, either.”

“Well, that’s…good,” Boil hedges. It would be fucking great if his other brothers survive, but he’s worried about any of them making it out at all. He hasn’t run so dark that he’s missed hearing about the suicides.

“What about her?” Gaiel asks, jerking his head at Numa. Numa stuck her tongue out at him.

“She’s family,” Boil growls, feeling his hackles rise. “Leave her be.”

Gaiel ignores him. “What the hell is a clone doing with a tail-head, anyway?”

Boil clenches his fist, but fuck, he knows how to handle that. “Numa.”

Numa is fast and sly. She dives between Gaiel’s legs and drives her boot directly into the asshole’s crotch. The gargling cry of pain is music to his ears.

Rhoda laughs. “You deserved that, Gaiel.”

“Fucking. Kids,” Gaiel gasps.

Boil offers Numa his fist, and she bumps her knuckles against it. “Good job, lia’ry.”

“Thanks, nerra.”

Maybe he’s not completely awful at this parenting thing.

Boil goes under the knife. Fuck his luck; the damned chip might try to go active again if he doesn’t get it out of his head.

“What can you bring to the Alliance?” Rhoda asks him, while he’s still recovering from the surgery. The stink of bacta is up his nose and his head hurts like someone used it to drive a nail home. He’s pretty sure he’s still drugged, too.

Maybe she thinks the drugs will net her a more honest answer, but he doesn’t see the need for a lie. “I’m—I was 212th. Kenobi. Skywalker.”

Rhoda’s eyebrows go up. “All right, those are three pretty good reasons. What about her?”

Boil glances over at Numa, who is sleeping on a cot parked in the corner of their makeshift medical unit. “Remember the Ryloth Occupation during the war? Numa was six years old. She survived on her own in an empty village for months before we liberated the planet. Oh, and I’ve been training her,” Boil adds with a proud grin. “She wasn’t bluffing with that blaster.”

“That is good enough for me,” Rhoda says, smiling. “Welcome to the Rebellion, Lieutenant. Please do not shoot Gaiel unless he does something to truly deserve it.”

They wind up being a good fit for the group, Boil and Numa. They’re a rough bunch, but some of them served in the war, so there are skilled people in the cell. Boil only calls Gaiel out on his stupidity three more times before Gaiel gets himself shot—by the Imps, not by him.

Rhoda puts Boil into the position Gaiel held before his untimely death. They keep fighting; he gives suggestions that give them advantages more often than not. Boil starts to keep a kill tally of Imps on a scavenged, repainted vambrace.

Numa keeps learning what Boil can teach her, and the other rebels contribute lessons he didn’t know were necessary. By the time she’s fourteen, Numa is fighting with them, and Boil is so damned proud. She’s just as terrifying in a fight as his brothers had been.

He has no damned idea how he keeps them both alive, long enough for Numa to grow up and for him to grow old, but they’re still snarling defiance at the Empire when their cell receives word of the Emperor’s death.

Chapter Text

The Imperials were on their asses almost from the start, a month solid of chases and narrow escapes until they finally (hopefully) ditched the bastards. They’re camped on a world that isn’t trying to kill them, either by Imp or by wildlife. The evening gets less tense as they allow themselves to realize that no, nobody is suddenly going to stand up from the brush and shoot at them.

It’s their first break since leaving Kamino. That nightmare is slowly starting to fade enough so they can sleep at night, but that's usually preceded by an exhausted haze of mocking each other and laughing until they hurt.

They can afford the levity, and the look on Hero’s face... The moment they find out Hero’s rank, none of them can leave off. Major Hero. That shit is fucking hilarious.

“Did you choose your name, sir?” Poe asks, while Lichen is desperately trying to keep a straight face.

“General Ti gave it to me during training,” Hero says, looking like he’s about two seconds away from blushing or exploding. “Said I was such a hero, always stopping to help my brothers to not get themselves killed, even if it was just a sim.”

“Well, you’ve kept us alive for an entire month, so far,” Rys says. “Good job, sir.”

Hero sighs. “You guys are such assholes.”

“Makes me so glad I chose my own name,” Lichen says.

Notch rolls his eyes. “You’re named after moss.”

“Edible moss. I’m fucking useful, asshole.”

Rys pokes too hard and winds up tossed into the nearest mud puddle by Hero, who walks away dusting off his hands and looking pleased. Rys didn’t stop giggling even when he submerged. It’s a sharp reminder for Lichen that Rys is last-gen, the last properly slow-grown brother before the advent of the Speedies.

“What about you, Notch? What’s your name from?” Rys asks, crawling out of the puddle.

“They said I fit my team like a key fitting into a notched lock. Course, I had to fucking well look up what they were talking about, because that sure as hell didn’t sound like a data card.”

Poe raises his hand. “We don’t even know what the hell that is.”

Rys sloshes his way back over; they all listen as Notch explains old-fashioned keys and multi-tumbler locks. They sound awesome, way more interesting than keycards.

“Easier to break into, though,” Notch points out.

Hero grins. “Yeah, that’s what makes them fun.”

Rys slaps a wet hand onto Poe’s armor. “You started this. Where is your name from?”

“Dunno,” Poe replies. “One of our first-gen brothers had the name, and when our squad met his, he slapped me on the back and said I looked like a Poe, too. There were two of us in the ranks until he died. Fucker never would tell me where he got his name, though.”

Poe shoves Rys back when Rys seems too intent on rubbing most of the muddy water off onto his brother. “Your turn,” Poe says. “Why Rys?”

Rys ducks his head. “Well, I was being stupid.”

“Oh, like that’s news,” Lichen says, grinning. It still hurts the side of his face when he smiles, what with the scar refusing to finish healing in any great hurry.

“We were still in classes, and I was, uh, prone to daydreaming. I’m still trying to figure out how I got to adulthood, really. One of the trainers comes by, whaps me on the back of the head, and yells, ‘RYS!’ I asked her what that meant. She said, ‘Read your screen!’” Rys smiles a bit bashfully. “It stuck.”

The others go to sleep in good spirits. Lichen lies awake for a while, looking up at the stars. He’s seen so many dark skies on so many planets that they tend to blur together. He can’t remember constellations for shit, especially if he’s trying to reorient himself from halfway across the galaxy, so he doesn’t know the names of the stars and planets overhead. That’s okay, though. Sometimes it’s just nice to look up and appreciate that there are millions of burning fires in the sky.

The next ten months aren’t all that bad. The group is overlooked more often than not, and when they are recognized, it’s not by Imps, but people they’d worked to save during the war.

Rogue clones have become preferable over stormtroopers out on the Outer Rim.  Not that that's hard to manage.

They know what their former comrades are doing. Rumor gets confirmed too often. The army isn’t fighting an enemy—they’re reinforcement squads, sent to “placate” worlds where the populace dares to speak up about how they aren’t too fond of the new Empire. Even Lichen’s old company is in on it. Stupid bastards.

They just never expected to see direct evidence of it, especially when they’re in the middle of nowhere on Bestine. They’re foraging in the woods for food, maybe wood for a good fire that night. They hadn’t intended to visit any settlements, but the village they stumble onto is small enough that their scans missed it.

It’s a bombed-out wreck, charred and blackened.

“Bodies,” Rys says in a strangled voice. “No evacs.”

“Do we have the means to bury anyone, Major?” Notch asks Hero.

Hero just shakes his head. “We don’t know these people. We bury them in the ground, any relatives coming to claim them won’t know where to mourn.”

In the end, they lay the bodies out in the homes they were found closest to, hoping they’ve guessed right.   These aren’t the first fire-blackened skeletons that Lichen has had to haul around, but dear gods, he hopes it’s the last bunch. He hates the way the smell of death just lingers on his gloves, on his armor.

“I need a shower,” Poe mutters when the job is done, and they’ve regrouped in the center of the destroyed village.

“I need to throw up,” Rys announces, and walks off to do exactly that.

“That two-story dwelling still has a functional ’fresher. I don’t think these folks will mind if we take the time to clean up,” Notch says.

“Yeah.” Hero nods. “Let’s chance it. We haven’t had a decent trip through a ’fresher in a while.”

Lichen’s had his turn in the shower—fucking bliss, thank you stars—and is out on guard duty when a speeder comes screaming into town, side-landing up against a wall so the repulsors have something to push against to stop the bike. When the pilot jumps off the bike, they pull goggles and hat to reveal a brown-haired kid with blasters strapped to his hips.

The kid stares around at the village in horror, and then looks at Lichen. “Stormtroopers?”

“Yeah. You live here?” Lichen asks.

The kid nods. “I wasn’t—I wasn’t family or anything. I was apprenticing to the chemist, getting my qualification done for…well…” The kid hangs his head. “Shit.”

“Captain,” Lichen says, and Notch comes outside and hops off the low porch, giving the kid a curious look. “I need to go with him to see if he’s got any belongings left to claim. Take over for me?”

Notch nods. “Yeah, but make it quick. Place is making me nervous. Kid, the bodies—they’re not kind. Try not to look at them if you can avoid it.”

“I’m Jek,” the kid says as they walk. Their destination is a house on the far end of the village, one that had smelled like stale sulfur.

“Lichen.”

“Like the moss? That’s cool,” Jek says, and Lichen decides that he likes this kid.

Jek sighs at the sight of the dwelling’s lone corpse. “I’m sorry, Thom. This is such…” The kid runs out of words. “I’ll be right back,” he says, and goes into the back room, where the chemical smell is stronger.

“What in the hell was he teaching you to do?”

Jek comes back out with a loaded pack and a sad, lopsided smile. “To make explosives, of course. Problem is, I think we waited too long to learn.”

“Yeah.” Lichen knows the feeling.

“I was getting intel, scouting along the other towns. I started doing it on my days off, once the Empire began sniffing around our planet,” Jek says.

“What are they up to?” Lichen asks. He can tell the kid wants to act on what he knows, to focus on something that isn’t death and bodies.

Jek scowls. “New Imperial base. A new launching point to subject other systems to Imperial control. It’s such complete shit.”

“Imperial base.” Lichen shakes his head. “How much time do you think we have?”

“Maybe a week. They’ll come in with heavy artillery and put down our insurrection pretty fast.” Jek scowls. “Not that there is one. Then they’ll move in with the pre-fabs and set up shop.”

“How old are you?” Lichen asks.

“Nineteen,” Jek says, lopsided smile on his face again. “I know; I have a baby-face. People tend to think I’m twelve.”

“Tell ya a secret, Jek,” Lichen says, giving Notch a quick wave to let him know that they're still secure. “I’m just twelve, myself.”

“Seriously?” Jek stares at him, wide-eyed. “Is that good, or terrible?”

Lichen thinks about it. “I used to call it a good thing. Every kid is in a hurry to grow up, right?” That was the impression he’d gotten after leaving Kamino, anyway. “But now? Kid, I don’t know.”

Jek bumps shoulders with him. “Make sure you live long enough to figure it out. That’s what my grandma says.”

Lichen and his brothers end up helping to direct the evacuation of Bestine. It’s a rush job, and they don’t really have the transports for it, but the Imps have made it clear that they don’t want any civvies on-world. They get these people out, or they leave them to die, and Hero has decided that they’re not letting that happen.

Hero gets them out on the last transport—their own—but only when they’ve got the all-clear that there’s no one left to evacuate. Jek has stuck with them like glue, and he’s been intelligent, insightful help.

“We’re adopting the kid, right?” Notch asks, grinning.

Jek ducks his head, blushing. “You don’t have to.”

Lichen smiles and musses the kid’s hair. “Too late.”

Bestine’s Imp-chosen evac site was supposed to be a planet about a system over. It had been advertised as a relocation effort for the Bestine natives who were “willing” to be moved.

They all wind up pretty damn glad that no one had taken the Imps up on the offer yet.

“Empty space,” Rys mutters, staring out of the viewport. There’s nothing for light-years in any direction.

“Yeah.” Hero’s mouth is turned down in a harsh line. “They’d have spaced them.”

They’re surrounded by the other transport ships, all of them drifting together in a cluster. They can’t do this for long—no ship has the supplies to feed the amount of people they’re carrying. Hells, they’ll run out of fuel right after they run out of food.

Poe is on the comm, listening to the other ship’s chatter. “Nobody has any ideas yet—no, wait.” His expression goes intense, eyes narrowed as he listens to whatever new idea is being proposed.

“Someone has an Alliance contact,” Poe reports, looking up at Hero and Notch.

“Trustworthy?” Hero asks.

Poe nods. “They think so. It’s a captain from the local militia, Kreef.”

Jek lights up. “It’s legit. Nab Kreef used to be a con man before he settled on Bestine to retire. He knows if someone is trying to bullshit him.”

“You know some strange people, Kid,” Lichen says.

“Sure do,” Jek agrees. “I’m hanging out with you guys, after all.”

The Alliance sends a cruiser, one that definitely used to belong to the Imps. It looks like they’re still trying to scrape the Imp White paint off the hull, and some of the old GAR emblems are partially visible underneath.

They meet in the cruiser’s hangar bay, those of them with ships small enough to land.

The Alliance rep makes Lichen miss a step. It’s a cloaked Togrutan, by the shape of them, and all he can do is flash on General Skywalker’s famous Padawan Commander.

The voice, though, is definitely not female. Lichen thinks it’s a modulator, a pretty good one given the lack of distortion. Maybe it is Tano, maybe it’s not, but it’s damn obvious the Togrutan doesn’t want their identity known. Lichen decides to leave it be.

The Alliance extends an invitation for all of the Bestine refugees to join the fledgling rebellion that’s coming together.

“And to you also, of course,” the Alliance rep says in their weird modulated voice. “Clones who refuse to follow the Empire are always welcome. Your skills are valuable and needed.”

“Cannon fodder, right?” Notch says. He’s fourteen, and third-gen, so he can be a cynical bastard. Granted, right then? Lichen is thinking that, too.

“Not at all,” the rep reassures them. “We need teachers badly. We have many young volunteers, and most of them have never held a blaster in their lives.”

“Teaching,” Hero muses. “Well, that beats the hell out of being on the front lines.”

“We would, of course, not say no to continued use of your stealth,” the rep says, and no mod can hide the fact that they sound amused. “Special ops teams are also in demand, but the body count has so far been minimal.”

Lichen glances at his brothers, who all look like they want to jump at the chance. There is a tight longing in his chest, the urge to belong to something again. The Alliance isn’t the GAR, but they’re a group, they have a mission, they have a fucking purpose. He’d like to have a reason to keep going that isn’t just about escape and survival.

“Major,” Lichen says, so Hero will know the way his thoughts have gone. “We could do a hell of a lot of good, if this Alliance will give us the resources to make it happen.”

“I’m in.” Rys looks half-terrified. “Even if the rest of you aren’t. I want to feel like I have a home again.”

They all go for it, even Jek, who’s almost bouncing with excitement. “I’m pilot-trained, too, and I’m really good at it,” he tells the Alliance rep. “Oh, and I know how to make things explode.”

“I can see why you like him,” the rep says. Lichen has to resist the urge to beam at the kid.

Most of the Bestine natives want to stay in their home system, even if they can’t live on their own planet; they opt out of the Alliance’s offer. Going to war isn’t appealing to them in the slightest unless it's a war meant to liberate Bestine.

By the time the dust settles, their transport is the only one left in the hangar. They did get a few Bestine holdouts aside from Jek, but the refugees claimed all the ships.

They learn the agent’s name, Fulcrum, after a pretty stiff debrief. It gets easier when Lichen tells them about what went down on Kamino, and how they’d never fired on a Jedi. Never would.

He doesn’t get why, but Lichen decides not to mention the chips. It just—it might be relevant, but the idea of telling anyone makes him nervous. He’d like the chance to get to know these people before he trusts them with his fucking surgical history.

Lichen feels better about the decision when he finds out that all of his brothers did the same.

“Do you know if any of the other defecting clones that left Kamino are still alive?” Fulcrum asks, when the debrief is officially done.

Lichen shakes his head. “No. We were all traveling dark. If the Imps caught on, we didn’t want them to be able to get all of us.”

“Wise decision,” Fulcrum says thoughtfully. “I hope they are doing well. Hero says that you have a meeting scheduled in a month’s time, so that you can reconnect with your brothers.”

“Hero is awfully damn talkative,” Lichen replies, eyes narrowed. “Then again, I think we both know who you are, so maybe he’s got a reason to be a blabbermouth.” It wasn’t the best way to speak about his CO, but Lichen’s had a long fucking string of months, and he wants to push things.

Fulcrum tilts her head, revealing her chin and the orange-copper burnish of her skin. “That is something that needs to remain quiet, Sergeant.”

“I know. But I know your rep. You’re good people—at least you used to be. Make sure our squad can do good things, all right?”

Fulcrum nods. “Of course. We will make sure that you have the time allotted to make your meeting, as well.”

“So we can give them the Alliance pitch, too, right?” Lichen asks, annoyed.

“If you wish. It is not a requirement.”

They start out with teaching. Lichen didn’t put much thought into it, at first, but it turns out he’s got more patience than he thought. This…this is something he can do. He’s even pretty good at it.

Jek is his first student. The kid can fly like a kriffing ace, and he’s got basic explosive chemistry down, but he can’t fire a blaster for shit. Lichen wants that rectified before the kid sees combat.

“Come on, Porkins,” Lichen says, eying the unblemished target.  The kid’s unloaded half a blaster charge and hasn’t hit a damn thing. “I know you can do better.”

Jek scowls at him. “Sorry, Sergeant. It’s just…it’s just an old droid. It’s not really—it’s not an inspiring target, okay?”

Lichen nods, pretending to consider it. “You saw some of the war footage, right? The stuff they let go out on the Holonet if there were no trooper bodies on the ground?”

Jek nods. “Sure.”

“Pretend that damned droid over there just killed your grandma,” Lichen suggests.

Jek sucks in a breath, raises the blaster, and nails the droid with a hail of blaster fire. The blaster gives an angry-sounding click when the charge runs dry.

“Well, that’s an improvement,” Lichen says, bringing Jek over to show him the damage. “That’s a center mass shot. Not necessarily a kill shot, but it’ll usually convince your enemy that they don’t wanna get back up.” He lifts the droid’s still-sparking arm. “Disabling shot. Even if your enemy picked up a weapon in their other hand, chances are pretty good that they’re not going to be aiming well, which could save your ass. A lot of people never think to train with both hands.”

“I’m really not right-handed,” Jek says, his expression turning to wide-eyed mock sorrow.

Lichen snorts, amused but refusing to smile. “That’s terrible. Go try that on someone stupid. Won’t work here.”

Lichen is with Rys and Notch in the mess when they get a recall signal from Hero. The five of them invade a briefing room, tossing out a tech who’d been inside just to catch a nap.

“Alliance has an ops job they’re asking us to do,” Hero says, expression set and serious

Notch looks surprised. “Asking? Not telling?”

“Asking,” Hero confirms. “It looks like all their dark jobs are volunteer-only. Nice change, getting to choose the way you get to die.”

“Har har,” Poe grumbles. “Tell us what we’re supposed to destroy, I still want to finish my lunch.”

Hero fills them in. It’s pretty basic, even if four of them aren’t ops-trained like Hero was. Hit a known Imperial intelligence point, rescue an Alliance prisoner (if they’re still alive) gather intelligence if possible, and destroy the facility. It sounds like a cake-walk.

Everything goes to shit the moment they discover that the prisoner is already dead—probably has been for days.

“Bait,” Hero growls, gesturing for them to cover both sides of the corridor as the alarms blare. “Kriffing trap!”

“That’s a lot of stormtroopers,” Rys whispers when company comes to call. “Some of them are still brothers—look at the way they move, you can tell.”

“I don’t want to kill brothers,” Poe says, but he’s already settling his rifle against his shoulder.

“Not much choice, not if we want to get out of here,” Hero tells them. “Right now you can’t think of those men as your brothers. The chip told them to kill Jedi, but the Jedi are gone, and they’re still serving the Empire. Show no mercy, because they won’t show you any, either.”

Hero dies like…well, a hero. Bastard probably enjoys the pun. He shields Poe with his own body until Poe jerks out of shock-stillness and runs after them, Hero’s shouted orders still echoing in their ears.

“You’re up, Captain!” Lichen growls, making three shots in succession with his off-hand. Three stormtroopers go down, and Lichen’s lip curls up. Honestly, didn’t anyone teach these assholes to duck? They're only winning by numbers alone, not by skill.

That gets them a temporary path clear to the next section of the base, but Lichen doesn’t know where the hell they’re going to go. At this point, their options are to either kill all the Imps or suicide, because if they’re caught—they’re in an Intelligence facility. Lichen is not going to stick around for torture, thanks.

Lichen is starting to feel a bit more confident about their chances with every minute that passes. Then a fucker garbed in black from head to toe, armored and masked, steps out of nowhere and guts Rys with a red lightsaber before any of them have a chance to react.

It goes down in the records—Rys’s death is how the Alliance officially meets their very first Inquisitor.

“Sith!” Notch shouts in fury. Lichen feels like his gut is on fire, he’s so godsdamn angry. Poe is creeping into position behind and just to the side of Lichen, ready to provide a second layer of blaster fire. Lichen gestures to him: Not yet. He’s got something else in mind.

“Not a Sith, clone,” the black-garbed fucker says, oozing confidence. “I am an Inquisitor, and I bring the Empire’s justice.”

Notch rolls his eyes. “Doesn’t sound much different from Sith, asshole.” While Notch is antagonizing the Inquisitor, Lichen pulls a pouch from his belt and throws it right at him

The bastard responds just like Lichen wants him to—he swings his lightsaber through the pouch. The plasma beam ignites Jek’s concoction and turns the hallway into a blinding white phosphorus cloud.

They’ve got automatic filters in their helmets that protect them from rapid light changes. From the way the Inquisitor is stumbling around, it’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t.

“Come on!” Poe yells, yanking Lichen’s hand and pulling him into the closest turbolift. Notch leaps aboard, slams the door-close button, and then gets them moving to the easternmost lowest level.

“Thinner outer wall there,” Notch tells them, panting for breath. “Got enough explosives on me to make us a door.”

“Got it, sir,” Lichen says, swapping out the charge on his rifle.

Fuck. Fuck a droid on a stick. Hero and Rys.

Lichen takes a breath and shoves it all aside. Not now.

Poe shoulders his rifle and pulls his blasters, but he’s white in the face, his hands shaking. “I don’t care if it was an Inquisitor or a kriffing Sith. He just—Rys—”

“Hey. We get it,” Notch says, and Lichen nods at his brother. “But can that shit for later. We get ourselves out, then we mourn the dead, Corporal.”

Notch has the explosives set up, detonator in-hand, when the Imps flood the hallway. “Gods dammit, get down!” he shouts, and Lichen throws himself to the ground, hands over his helmet to keep the force of the blast from yanking it free. Serves him right for not fixing the damned atmo seals when he had the chance.

The hallway roars with the blast. Lichen feels debris and rubble land on him and around him, but nothing hits that can pin him down. He cautiously looks up. The Imp squads are on the ground, but they’re not out, just stunned.

“Come on,” Notch says, breaking the creepy silence that always follows a good blast. There is dark sky and sand visible through the jagged hole in the base’s outer wall. It looks like paradise.

“Go,” Poe says, and when Lichen turns to look at him, he feels his stomach turn into a cold knot. There is blood staining the armor protecting his brother’s gut, and it’s spreading fast.

“Not without you, asshole,” Notch says, but Poe just smiles.

“Spinal shot. I can’t move, and I’ll bleed out before you get ten meters. I’ll cover your exit. Go.”

Lichen takes a few desperate seconds to grip Poe’s shoulder. “You’re a brave fucking bastard, Corporal. We love you. Give them hell.”

Poe’s smile widens. “Yes, sir, Sergeant.”

Notch looks like he’s going to fracture, but all he says is, “Don’t let them take you alive.”

Poe nods, like he understands that Notch means something else entirely. “Captain.”

Lichen takes a shot to the leg when they’re almost outside. He curses and ignores the pain. There are troopers emerging from the base’s primary entrance and exit points, and he hears the prep for aerial pursuit. He can whine about his leg later; right now they have to run for their fucking lives.

By the time they hole up in a building that’s half-collapsed, stinking of mold and aging piss, Lichen’s leg feels like a line of fire, and Notch is dry-heaving.

“All right?” Lichen gasps, listening for stormtrooper noises before he opens a belt pouch. Bacta patches. Pain patches. Tiny hypo that holds a single dose of epinephrine. He’s good at remembering to pack the essentials.

Notch waves off the concern and then dry-heaves for another few minutes. When he finally sits down next to Lichen, his skin is shock-gray and sweat-soaked. “Gods fucking damn it.”

There was more resignation in Notch’s voice than Lichen expected. “What is it?”

Notch sighs and holds up his comm. “Our ship’s compromised. Got a warning from the droid on board before it sent the bug-out code and signaled its own self-destruct.”

“So we’ve got no way off this rock,” Lichen says, disheartened.

“Not unless the Imps give us one, and I have a feeling that base will be locked down tight until they’re certain we’re dead.”

“Fuck.” Lichen tries not to groan in relief when the pain patch kicks in. “We’re supposed to be on Tatooine in a week, Captain.”

Notch gives him an exhausted glare. “I’m aware, Sergeant.”

They wait for another patrol to decide that nobody would be willing to camp out in the collapsing section of the piss-building, and then pull a map. “We’ll have to make for the spaceport.”

Lichen has a strong urge to throw things. “It’s halfway across the planet, Notch.”

“I know, Lichen, but what the fuck else are we going to do?”

They stare at each other, faces echoing each other’s regret. They aren’t going to make the Tatooine meet. Unless their brothers turn up in the Alliance, Lichen and Notch will never know what happened to them. Hell, the others won’t ever know what happened to them.

“Dammit,” Lichen whispers, and goes back to planning their long, insane dash across hostile territory.

They both live through the experience. Lichen thinks he’s too tired to give a fuck by the time it’s over.

When they get back to Tierfon Base, Fulcrum and Jek are both waiting for them. She doesn’t wear her robe or use her modulator around Jek and the clones, but Fulcrum is the only name they ever call her.

Notch wearily gives her the report to take to Command. Tells her it was a trap. Tells her about the long-dead prisoner. Tells her about the Inquisitor. (“Sith fuck, carrying around a red lightsaber like that!” Notch growls.)

Notch tells them about Hero, Poe, and Rys, but it’s like the words are being ripped out of him.

“I am so sorry,” Fulcrum says, and rests her head against Notch’s shoulder.

Jek hugs Lichen. He holds onto the kid, grateful, but there is a crawly sensation on his skin that takes him a while to figure out.

Suddenly, it’s like his armor is the worst barrier he could ever imagine.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Notch stares at him in absolute consternation when Lichen turns up the next day in the mess. It’s kind of funny, but Lichen doesn’t know if he’s in the mood to smile yet. Too damned early.

“What the hell are you doing, walking around naked?” Notch hisses at him.

Lichen glances down. Trousers, shirt, and jacket. Weapons in place. It looks completely normal, and it keeps shocking him every time he sees it.

“I couldn’t take it anymore, Notch. I can’t wear it again.”

“Why the hell not?” Notch demands in quiet fury.

“Because we’re not clone soldiers anymore, Notch.” Lichen manages to dredge up a half-hearted smile. “We’re just men. Just people. That armor—gods, I love it, and Force knows it’s saved my ass so many times I stopped counting. But it also sets us apart, tells the others that we’re Republic relics.

“I don’t want to be a relic of a dead Republic, brother. I want to be a man, and this man is going to be Alliance, through and through.”

“You’re just—grieving,” Notch tries, but Lichen shakes his head.

“I am grieving our brothers, but not just Poe, Rys, and Hero. I’m mourning all of them, every single one of the insane bastards. Whether they’re dead or Imperial, they’re fucking gone, Notch.” Notch flinches at that, but Lichen keeps talking. “I’ll keep fighting, and I’ll do it in their memory—but I’m doing it as myself, and who I’m gonna be. Not who the Republic told me to be.”

Notch lowers his head. “Yeah. I think I—I get it.” He raises his eyes and gives Lichen a quirk of a smile. “You’re not going to bitch out your ranking officer if I go ahead and keep mine, are ya?”

“Nah.” Lichen smiles, hiding his relief. He’d worried about this all damned night, wondering if Notch would leave him behind in disgust. Abandoning his armor was…well, a brother just didn’t do it, not in the GAR.

The GAR was as dead as the Republic. He’d rather make the Alliance live.

Neither of them ever tell anyone that they made the Tatooine trip anyway, coordinates input the moment they cleared Thyrussi orbit. They were two days overdue, so it was a hell of a long shot, but neither of them could let it go.

They were going to the meeting point. Just in case.

It wasn’t a surprise to find that there was no one, but sometimes his brothers had been really bad at following orders.

Lichen leaves Notch to pester the bartender, trying to get him to speak Basic so he can grill him. He stands out on the sandy street, feeling sunlight scorch his skin through his clothes. Kriffing hells, how do people live on this planet?

He glances up at the sky, and says the closest thing he knows to a prayer. He hopes his brothers are safe.

Jek trains with the Tierfon Yellow Aces, clears all the piloting sims with flying colors, and makes lieutenant before the year is out. He’s made friends with another Alliance baby-face, a fellow pilot named Wes Janson. Lichen does the proper thing and plies them both with some really awful beer to celebrate their permanent placement in the flight squad.

It’s not just a celebration. It’s goodbye. He has new orders, and he’s shipping out to a different cell.

“I’d planned for it to happen anyway,” Fulcrum tells him, sharing a much better liquor with him that tastes like fruit and kicks like a fucking bantha. “We need teachers for each cell that has a low ratio of experienced officers. I just hadn’t planned for it to be like this.”

“It’s fine,” Lichen says. It’s all right, even if it feels bittersweet. He’s not leaving Notch so much as ensuring that the two of them don’t fucking kill each other. They are brothers and they are friends, but the last month has taught them that they really do not work well together. Not without the buffer Hero, Poe, and Rys had provided.

“Take care of yourself, Kid,” Lichen says, holding out his hand the day he ships out. Jek uses it to pull Lichen into another hug.

“Stay alive. You’ve still got things to figure out,” Jek whispers.

Lichen nods and then glances at Janson. “You look after him, or I’ll make you eat your own X-Wing.”

Janson smirks. “So noted, sir.”

Asshole kid, Lichen thinks fondly, and goes to Notch.

Notch refuses to say goodbye, the bastard. “It’s bad fucking luck,” he insists, but he hugs Lichen anyway. “You take care, Sergeant. Kick ass, take names, and make the Empire regret the fact that you exist.”

“Same to you, Captain,” Lichen says, ignoring the fact that his chest feels too tight. “I want to see a lot of tally marks on that armor when I see you again.”

“Six months,” Notch promises. “See you then, you complete bastard.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

New posting isn’t bad, settling in on some converted asteroid. The base is new enough that they’re still carving out living space, and there is dust on everything that the cleaning droids just can’t keep up with. He’s in a primary teaching role, and yes, he is damned good at it.

Still doesn’t stop him from picking up his rifle, extra charges, and the right sort of supplies before going out to make a new batch of stormtroopers regret that he’s a better fucking soldier than they’ll ever be.

He gets the news of Notch’s death four months in. He sits on his bunk and stares at the plast sheet for a long time.

Lichen wakes up a few hours later, rubs the grit from his eyes, and makes a decision. He folds the plast and slides it under his pillow. He doesn’t have time to grieve, not right now.

He’ll mourn all of his brothers when the fucking Emperor is dead.

Chapter Text

Click joins the 104th in the second year of the war, helping to fill the ranks left vacant by the Malevolence. Except for Commander Wolffe, Sergeant Sinker, Corporal Boost, and the General himself, the Wolfpack might as well have been an entirely new battalion.

Not that Sinker and Boost keep those ranks for long. By the time Click’s platoon has shipped in, they’re both captains, joined by Comet and Gopher to command the four companies of the battalion.

Click can’t resist. “Gopher, sir?”

The Captain smirks at him. “Small, annoying animal you can’t get rid of that fucks up your shit. What’s your excuse, Sergeant?”

Click grins. “I liked flipping switches. Drove my batchmates nuts.”

“You’re still driving us nuts,” Pike mutters. “Asshole and the clicking. I will smother you in your sleep, I swear.”

Click isn’t bothered. Pike threatens to smother him at least once a week.

The war isn’t all that bad, really, once he gets used to the way the Wolfpack functions. It helps that they have a sane General in Plo Koon. Most of the brothers have bets going on the regular about the shit the 212th and the 501st get into, trying to figure out what’s legit and what’s complete bunk.

It’s never the normal stuff. Click gives up on the betting unless something truly bizarre crosses his feed. Kriffing hells, what is in the water on those command ships?

Click makes lieutenant by the end of the year. He’s not bad at it. It’s obvious he’ll never be a stunning example of leadership, but so far he’s keeping his people alive.

The 104th gets sent to the Outer Rim during the second month of what turns out to be an extended ass campaign that they all just call The Sieges. They’re all but dying in droves, despite all of the General’s cautious, canny planning. Click winds up riding herd as captain of Bundle Company.

What the hell—why Bundle? It’s been almost two kriffing years and he still hasn’t figured that out.

“You could always ask the Commander,” Second suggests. “If anyone will know, he will.”

Commander Wolffe hasn’t knocked off with that teeth-baring grin of his for a month and a half. He does not currently strike Click as a man who will tolerate questions that aren’t related to destroying every Sep thing in sight.

“No thanks,” Click says. “I wanna live.”

He should have been a kriffing prophet.

They lose Commander Wolffe in a space battle around month seven of the campaign. The man isn’t dead, just grounded, which is all but a kriffing miracle. The Seps have been trying to kill Wolffe, Sinker, and Boost since the start of the war, and nobody’s managed to do it yet. Gopher thinks they’re gods-touched.

“Yeah, they’re touched, all right,” Comet says when he thinks nobody’s listening. Click has to bolt or he’s going to laugh at the wrong time and earn shit detail.

They’re in the Quellor Sector when Dooku dies during the Battle of Coruscant. The scuttle from Coruscant is that, with the Sep Senate dissolved by the prick himself months ago, the war is pretty much over.

“Someone should have told these fucking droids that!” Pike shouts over the roar of battle.

Click gets his company into place, coordinates with Pike and Rucksack Company, and cleans out an entire nest. “Hey, it just means we get to keep shooting them.”

“Here’s the deal,” Commander Boost says, speaking to them over holo when most of the dust has settled. “There are still a hell of a lot of droid nests, and part of a fleet coming in. The General is taking some of us to Cato Nemoidia to meet them in space. Sinker is overseeing you topside, and I’m doing the same for the General here. The rest of you can continue the Erussi cleanup. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” Click and his fellow captains chorus.

Pike looks at Click. “You’re the one who wanted to keep shooting droids.”

“Pfft. You hate space battles, anyway.”

“Stow it,” Sinker interrupts, sounding tired. “Commander Avarin is coming to join you. He’s still pretty new to the war, so you’re going to babysit the kid and make sure he survives.”

“That one? Is not my fault,” Click says, while the others groan. The Pack spent the war overjoyed that General Koon has no Padawan. It’s stressful enough to keep the General in one piece.

Avarin is a humanoid—standard human build, but purple skin. Click has no idea what species the kid is, but he’s quiet, competent, and more than willing to let the others take the lead.

“I’m thirteen,” Avarin says, embarrassed. “The only reason they sent me out here was to rack combat experience until there isn’t any combat to be had.”

Click tries not to make a face. That was a good point, one he hadn’t even thought about yet. What the hell were they going to do when the Seps were routed? Sit on their asses? They were military! He doesn’t think any of them know how to be civvies.

He gets the order on Avarin’s second day. Click has been calling it good because the Commander’s still alive. It’s not the worst combat they’ve seen, but it’s not a great place to be a kid.

Click taps his comm, frowning. He’s not the resident commanding officer—that’s Tanker—but he’s still got to do his job. “Say again—what was that order?”

He gets another burst of static. “Great. Open channel and repeat order, we’ve got a bad receiver on this end.”

He doesn’t get the message through his comm, but he can hear it from Pike’s. “Execute Order Sixty-Six.”

“Order Sixty-Six? What the hell is—what are you doing?” Click shouts, horrified. Half of his company is shooting at the kid. “Pike, help me—” he breaks off in shock because Pike is firing, too.

There is no protocol for when every brother collectively loses their kriffing minds, and shouting counter-orders isn’t getting him anywhere. Click charges forward, ignoring blaster fire, and slides to a halt in front of the kid. Avarin is already down, but not dead. Tough bugger.

“What the hell are you all doing?” Click roars, once most of the shots stop coming.

“Good soldiers follow orders,” Scatter says in the creepiest tone Click has ever heard.

“The Jedi are traitors,” Pike says. It’s that same weird monotone.

He thought he knew fear, thought the Sieges were pretty bad.

Click has never been more terrified in his entire fucking life. “That is—who the hell—nobody said anything about traitors! That is one of our Jedi!”

“Order Sixty-Six, Captain,” Pulley says. There is an uncomfortable moment when Click realizes that blaster rifles are starting to turn in his direction. “By order of the Supreme Chancellor, the Jedi are to be executed for treason against the Republic.”

“HAVE YOU ALL LOST YOUR FUCKING MINDS?”  

“Execute the Order, Captain.”

Click takes a breath, feeling it burn in his throat. “That is our commanding officer. We do not fucking shoot our commanding officer, whether they are brother or Jedi!”

“You’re protecting the traitor,” Cheat says. “You are not following orders.”

“Because I’m not fucking daft!” Click yells, letting fury hide terror. “Weapons down, troopers!”

“Defiance of orders is treason,” Click hears, and then everything is pain.

He’s been shot before. Not a lot of brothers who haven’t been, once you’d served more than a month.

Click loses count of how many shots he takes before he blacks out.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Click wakes up, which is so much of a surprise that he just lies on the ground. His bucket is off-kilter, and he can see nothing but sky. It was early morning when the engagement began; either it hasn’t gotten dark yet, or it’s tomorrow already.

Everything hurts. Everything. He could name each internal organ by the number of holes in them.

By the time he pulls himself together and sits up, the sun is lower in the sky…and the commander is alive. His eyes are wide, pupils blown, but he is staring at Click with something like panic on his face.

“Hey. It’s fine,” Click says, and then has to yank his bucket and puke in the grass. “Okay, so I lied.”

“What is…what is Order Sixty-Six?” Avarin asks, while Click is checking his wounds. He doesn’t know if they’ve got enough bacta patches between them to deal with this mess.

“Damned if I know, Commander.” The kid’s not dying, but lying on the ground all night won’t do either of them any good. “Think you can walk?”

Avarin shakes his head. “No. You?”

“No, but we’ve got to.” Somehow between the two of them, they get upright. Click’s not sure who’s propping up who, but bless their luck, Avarin’s at least tall enough not to collapse under Click’s weight.

The 104th is gone. If Click is judging the gouges in the dirt right, they bugged out hours ago. No supplies on the ground, either, which means he’s not supposed to be alive, and neither is the kid.

They should both be dead. Those were close range shots. A lot of them.

Avarin directs them east, muttering about the Force. That nets them a cave that doesn’t smell like animal, so there’s a good chance nothing will eat them if they go inside.   A decent amount of dry wood is scattered around from a blast that must have happened in a previous campaign.

“They were trying to kill me,” Avarin says when they go in. Click pulls his bucket again when he realizes that the auto-filters aren’t working.

Click tries not to be annoyed by the kid pointing out the obvious. Avarin is worse off than Click; for all he knows, the kid’s hallucinating or dying. “Yeah.”

“You saved my life. Why?”

“Because I’m not fucking stupid,” Click says, but he has a bad, bad feeling that intelligence has nothing to do with it. “You hadn’t done anything wrong.”

“They thought I had. I heard them, saying I was a traitor.” Avarin slumps down against the cave wall. Click joins him, almost done in.

“You haven’t betrayed shit,” Click says, sighing. “Think I might’ve, though.”

“You did nothing wrong. I’ll speak for you, if there is an inquiry,” Avarin says. It’s a nice thought, but Click is a lot more worried about surviving. He’ll panic about an inquiry later.

They work together to patch their wounds, which is a slow process. Neither of them were carrying pain patches—that was supposed to be the medic’s job.

The kid is in awful fucking shape. Click feels like hell, but at least he was wearing armor.

“It’ll heal,” Avarin says in a shy mutter.

Click stops what he’s doing and stares at him.

“It will. I have a gift for healing.”

“Fine.” Click opens the last pocket in his e-kit and pulls the epinephrine hypo, injecting it before he can talk himself out of it. He’s seen too many brothers go down from adrenal exhaustion. It’s a stupid damned reason to be grounded, and the kid needs him.

“Heal up, Commander,” Click says, making sure the kid knows it’s an order, ranks be fucked. “I’m going to scout and see if there’s a way off of this rock.”

The Sep pockets of resistance have been efficiently eliminated, but Click expects that. His brothers are good at destroying things, but the destruction ends when the droids stop moving.

He wanders through the rubble in the late afternoon sun, taking note of what might be a few functional blasters. They don’t have any supplies. Click doesn’t know a damned thing about this planet aside from intel provided during the initial briefing, and that had boiled down to breathable atmosphere and the reassurance that nothing would want to eat them unless they actively encouraged it.

Erussi is a harmless, unpopulated rock floating in a sea of inhospitable rocks. No cities. No ports. No settlements. It really limits their prospects, and those were shit to begin with.

He finds one lone, intact ship. It’s fighter class, but not a Vulture droid.

Click pops the canopy long enough to ensure that it’ll fly, then makes his slow, hobbling way back to the cave.

He knows who he’s putting in that fighter.

Click wakes up Avarin and tells him so. Avarin is not impressed with this plan. “We can go together!” he insists. “We can make it work!”

“Yeah, until something goes wrong. Then there’s only life support for one person,” Click retorts. He’s done arguing, so he picks up Avarin and (gently) tosses the Commander over one shoulder.

Avarin protests. Loudly. Click’s gritting his teeth the entire way back to the fighter.

Avarin knows some truly vicious swearing, too. Click is trying to memorize it all for later use. He’s going to need it.

Click uses the wreckage as a rickety stepladder, and worries more than once that the entire mess is going to dump them on the ground. Finally, he’s lowering Avarin into the seat.

“You need to leave.”

Avarin isn’t angry anymore. He just looks stunned, and very, very young. “What are you doing, Captain?”

“My job.” Click boots up the ship’s systems with one hand, bringing readout screens and systems to life. “Get out of here. Find someplace safe to go.”

Avarin’s voice cracks when he asks, “But what about you?”

Click makes a show of looking around at the messy remains of the Sep camp. “I can probably cobble something together. I’m not helpless, Commander.”

“But—”

“Before everything went to hell, my orders were to see to your safety,” Click interrupts. “That means I rescue you, first. Go back to the Order—”

“Master Plo is dead,” Avarin whispers, which floors him. “I felt it happen.”

“When?” Click asks, feeling like the bottom has fallen out of his stomach.

“When the clones—” Avarin hesitates. “When they shot me.”

“That has to be a coincidence.’

Avarin shakes his head. “There are no coincidences.”

What the hell is Order Sixty-Six? Click wonders, and then decides that it’s a question that has to wait. He taps on the nav screen for the fighter. “Look. Find a neutral station and fuel up, or you won’t make it very far. Be smart, be cautious. Scout for intelligence before you make a move. If we’re lucky, then this Sixty-Six shit was isolated to our battle group.”

“There’s no such thing as luck,” Avarin says.

Click scowls. “Aren’t you a fucking bucket of cheer? You get your religion, I get my cobbled-together nonsense.”

Avarin smiles. “I’ll come back for you. May the Force be with you, Captain.”

Click waits until the burn of the sublights is gone before he slumps in place. “Fuck.”

He was the only sane man in his entire company. Now he’s the only man on this entire planet.

It’s not a nice feeling.

 

*         *         *         *

 

He never sees Avarin again. He hopes the kid is alive, but it’s obvious after a couple of weeks that the commander isn’t coming back.

Click has enough training that living off the land isn’t too much of a hardship. His blacks were built to last, his armor holds up against most abuse, and at least the local wildlife is tasty. It’s not food that is a problem, but basic supplies. The kits that make water drinkable without having to boil it first. Fire-starters, which only last so long. The bacta is already gone, and he doesn’t have shit for basic meds.

He’s trying to survive using scavenged supplies from an army that didn’t have to eat. It’s hilarious, except for the part where he might die from it.

He runs out of juice to power his gear in the second month. He keeps adding tally marks to a droid’s arm, but he runs a fever for a few days in month four. No meds, so the hallucinations are fun, but when he recovers, he has no idea how long he’s been out of it.

It isn’t long before he loses track of time completely.

 

*         *         *         *

 

When he hears the ship, he honestly thinks he’s hallucinating at first. Then the roar of the sublights continues, and it’s getting louder.

Click almost panics before he remembers that yes, he actually does want to get off of this fucking planet. He grabs a blaster, one of the few that still have a charge, and runs.

The arrival is a small freighter, and the Wookiee that owns it is nice enough not to shoot the crazy lunatic that comes running out of the woods. Click is so damned desperate to talk to someone—anyone—that he talks to the Wookiee for ten straight hours, even if he can’t understand a damn thing the Wookiee says in response.

It turns out that most of it was just variations on, “Please shut the hell up and go take a shower!” but Click’s sense of smell went on vacation a long fucking time ago.

In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that the Wookiee let Click anywhere near the ship at all. It’s an actual miracle that the Wookiee lets him aboard.

The Wookiee gives him real food (Oh, fuck, he loves ration bars. He’ll never mock them again.) and lets Click sleep for a day and a half. It’s just as well; it keeps him away from the smugglers that the Wookiee was meeting.

Things get easier, and a hell of a lot more complicated, once the Wookiee gives him a datapad with a translation program. [I’m Chalnikka. Who did you serve with?]

Click gives Chalnikka a cautious look. That’s a hell of a starter question. “104th.” It takes him a while to realize that it’s a very curt, blunt response. “Sorry. Yesterday was—I’m not really used to conversation.”

The Wookiee pats his arm while Click has the belated, embarrassing realization that Chalnikka is female. [It’s all right. How long have you been on Erussi?]

“What fucking day is it?”

When she tells him, Click honestly wonders for a few seconds if he’s going to pass out. “Wow. Four years.”

[This is a surprise?]

“Yeah. Huh. I might have actually been nuts for some of that. Doesn’t feel like it could have been four years.”

It doesn’t escape his notice that Chalnikka is suddenly a lot more wary of him. He’s paranoid and possibly nuts, but that just made him more observant, not less. [I need, very specifically, to know what happened to you in the last month of that year.]

Click does some quick math. He’s gotten better at that, too, since math sometimes meant the difference between living and dying. “You mean that weird Order Sixty-Six shit?”

[Yes.] Chalnikka tilts her head. [You do not actually know what that is, do you?]

Click sighs. “Look, all I know is that when someone called in that Order, everyone lost their minds and tried to kill the Jedi Commander. When I tried to stop them, they did their best to kill me, instead.”

[I see that they did not do a very good job,] Chalnikka says. Indecipherable Shyriiwook or not, he knows sarcasm when he hears it. [And the Jedi?]

“They left us for dead, but he lived, too. Padawan Avarin. There was a Sep ship left behind, a single-man craft. I sent the kid off in that—though I guess he’s probably not such a kid anymore.”

Chalnikka stops looking him in the face. [Perhaps.]

“Why do I get the feeling you’re gonna tell me something that I’m not gonna like?” Click asks.

[You will like nothing I have to tell you,] Chalnikka growls.

Click smiles. He’s been marooned on a rock by himself for four years. It can’t be that bad. “Then you might as well get it over with.”

Chalnikka isn’t amused. [You are no longer a GAR soldier,] she says, which he kind of figured, but she continues with, [because there is no longer a Republic.]

Click stares at her. “Fucking what?”

The Wookiee howls out a long, lengthy speech that the translator program can’t keep up with. By the time it’s all translated, and he’s read it through twice, he’s numb.

Please let this be a fever dream. He’s had some bad ones.

He’d rather be alone again on that stupid fucking planet than for this to be real.

Chapter Text

“It’s just a kriffing head wound!”

General Skywalker looked down at him, arms crossed, in a pose he definitely learned from Kenobi. “Uh huh. I’d be more inclined to agree with you if, y’know, you could stand up.”

Eel glared at him. “I can so stand up.”

That didn’t work so well.

Skywalker was at least nice enough to catch him. “Sorry, sir,” Eel whispered, and hoped he wasn’t about to vomit on his CO. Skywalker would never let him live it down.

“Hey, it’s fine. You’re still alive to whine about it.” Skywalker glanced over his shoulder. “Think of it as an excuse to go keep an eye on our Captain, huh?”

Eel tilted his head just enough so that he could see Appo, standing a few paces away. He was talking to Dice, who looked like he was two seconds shy of stabbing himself a commanding officer. Their younger brothers were all right with Appo running things, but Eel and Dice were not adjusting. Eel still hadn’t figured out if it was because he didn’t like Appo, or if it was just because Appo wasn’t Rex.

“Want me to kidnap him back here, sir?”

Skywalker grinned. “Only if you think he’s up to it—and you, too, for that matter. Seriously, though. Go keep an eye on Rex, make sure he’s not doing anything stupid, and then get back here.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Eel replied with feeling, trying to ignore the fact that the ground was now the sky. Stupid head injuries.

“And now here are the nice medics.”

Eel glanced at the closest medic, one of whose features he’d memorized a long time ago. “Vix is not nice.”

“Bitch, bitch,” Vix said, and stabbed him with a hypo. Proved Eel’s point, dammit.

Getting grounded by the Kaminoan medics for the foreseeable future was not the quick treatment-and-return that Eel had expected. What the actual hell.

“There’s a bunch of rookie assholes shadowing my General,” Wolffe growled, which gave Eel a damned uncomfortable jolt as he realized that Skywalker had the same problem.

Eel breathed that out; panic definitely wouldn’t fix anything. “Well, Cody’s still watching Kenobi’s ass, so that’s something. Appo is doing a good job of keeping an eye on Skywalker, but that brother is a right prick.” He’d decided that while in bacta and drugged, but it was a decision he was sticking with. “You couldn’t have let me take the legion?”

Rex shook his head. “You get scattered if you’re thinking tactically about more than one platoon, Eel. Maybe in another few months you could handle it, but you weren’t ready yet.”

“You are an asshole, sir,” Eel said, just to make sure his commander remembered that pertinent fact.

Eel entertained the idea of actually kidnapping his brother for all of five minutes before he observed Rex gray in the face, hunched over the table in the commissary because the walk from the barracks was about three meters too far.

Eel had been routing droids with Raze and Damage, so he hadn’t seen the commander’s injuries before the medics lifted him out. Now he really understood why Cody had almost flipped his shit. There was not going to be any sort of illicit rush back out to the front.

Oh, well. His head still hurt, anyway.

Eel considered himself fortunate; he was in good company, he was actually getting some sleep, thank you, the food did not taste like recycled dirt, and Wolffe’s grumbled diatribes were hilarious.

He liked Gregor, too, even though the captain was just as all-fired as the others to go back to the front. Eel would do his job, if he got cleared, but in the meantime he was going to enjoy not hallucinating from sleep deprivation. Eel did not even want to discuss the shit he’d started seeing in his peripheral vision. Nope, nope, and still nope.

Experiencing actual crazy helped when it was his turn on Gregor-sitting duty. Eel was a lot more patient with his brother than he’d realized he could be. More than once, he talked Gregor back to reality when his brother spaced out and tried to stay that way for the day.

Wolffe spent a lot of time pacing Tipoca City’s halls, grinding his teeth because Giri Ta wouldn’t clear him. Rex holed up in empty corners with his comm, communicating with their Generals and Cody via HoloNet-boosted text. Most of the news that came back wasn’t good, but it calmed Rex the hell down to know what was happening.

Eel was a very good officer, and did not subject his brother to mocking conversations about regs. If anyone could shag and still be professional afterwards, it was Kenobi and Rex.

Fuck, he missed both of his Generals, even if one of them was kind of terrifying. Skywalker did intense and dangerous, but Kenobi was the Jedi who smiled like he could kill everyone in the room as easy as blinking, but was too polite to do so.

Honestly, in retrospect? Eel really understood why Kenobi and Rex meshed so well.

Eel was on Gregor-sitting duty when Gregor spaced out again. Eel was about to give his brother a nudge—sometimes that was all it took—when Gregor snapped back. “Hey, I don’t get it.”

“Get what?” Eel asked, surprised that Gregor had gone from Not-Here to Serious Officer Face. “Also, stop making that face. Wolffe is not a good standard model to be mimicking.”

Gregor smiled. “He gets attention, though. No, see—I keep the roster lists for the 212th and the 501st in my datapad so I can…you know. Try to keep at least part of the overall command structure in my head. I tried for all of 7th Sky but…that was just too much.”

Eel nodded. “I do the same thing, but that’s because my memory is shit by nature.”

“I kind of doubt that.” Gregor tilted his head like he was trying to listen for something. “Rex keeps calling you a lieutenant, but Wolffe doesn’t use your rank, and you’re listed as a Regimental Commander in the official records.”

“Well…I kind of am one.” Eel grinned at the eyebrow raise that got him. “It’s a 501st tradition.”

“Rex does keep insisting that he’s a captain,” Gregor said, looking doubtful. “I couldn’t figure out if he was trying to be sympathetic for my, er, problems, or—”

“No, it’s not that,” Eel interrupted, because that was a theory that needed to be stomped dead. Cody was going to need this particular captain back in the 212th in proper functioning order, not as a self-doubting mess.

“The first year of the war, every time the senior command ranks in the 501st were filled, those brothers would all manage to get themselves killed in less than a week.”

“That is a brutal casualty rate.” Gregor frowned. “I think…maybe I remember hearing about that. The bad cannon fodder jokes?”

Eel grimaced. “Don’t remind me.” They had all done their absolute best to make sure those fucking jokes hadn’t made it to Rex’s ears. He’d taken charge of the legion and ran it like he’d been trained for it from the start. Problem was, there had still been a shit Jedi General to contend with, and they were bred to follow orders—even if they were orders given by an idiot.

Things had gotten a hell of a lot better once Skywalker had come along and decided to adopt himself some brothers.

“So, the captain and the lieutenant thing?” Gregor asked.

“With those casualty rates, it didn’t take long before every single damn one of us thought those positions were cursed,” Eel said. “Rex took on Bell’s job, but when he didn’t let us call him our commander, and he kept surviving…well, we all took that as a pretty big fucking hint. Most of us from that first year refuse to go by our listed rank.”

Not that there are many of us left, Eel thought.

Gregor’s face twisted up in confusion. “I’m glad I’m part of a normal battalion.”

Eel snorted. “If you think the 212th is normal, you’re not remembering General Kenobi properly.” Gregor granted him that point, but he didn’t look convinced.

“So…what did Rex mean, about the platoon thing?”

“What Rex means is that he is an asshole, and sometimes he has to remind me of that.” Eel smiled when Gregor gave him another one of his Please Make Sense Now looks of desperation. “No, it’s—when I first got promoted to lieutenant, Rex was still Captain of Torrent for real. I was panicking. I told him I was too scatter-brained to run a platoon, since I could barely manage a squad. Rex, in his infinite capacity for bastardry, has never let me live that down.”

Gregor had a faint smile on his face that might have been a smirk if his brain hadn’t been so addled. “Could you run a legion, then?”

Eel shrugged. “I have no idea. I wanted to give it a try, but Rex would have to be promoted, and…well, Rex is the one who would be promoted into Cody’s job, and none of us want that to happen.”

“Why—” Gregor started to say, and then he halted in regretful realization. “Oh.”

Eel nodded and gave Gregor a full-body nudge. “Since none of us want Cody dead, and Rex doesn’t want to lose his mind, we’re trying to keep the military status quo the way it is.”

That last night, before everything went insane, Eel found his CO in a nearly deserted commissary and sat down across from him. “Three years.”

Rex glanced up from his comm and put it away. “Congratulations; you can count.”

“I was just saying—three years, Rex. We made it. We’re going to live to see the end of the war.”

“From the sidelines, while benched,” Rex replied, frowning.

“Sure. But we’ll see it.” Eel held up the mug of oh-gods-yes caff he’d been lugging around since getting caffeine-cleared. “Even if it’s not combat, we need to see it to the end for every single man who can’t.”

Rex nodded and tapped the mug with his glass. “Good point. For them.”

Neither of them said it, but Eel knew they were both thinking it. Torrent had gone out with the 501st in the beginning a full one hundred forty-four brothers strong. Out of that original batch of shiny new baby-faced troopers, they were the only two left. Dice was still alive, but he’d come from Barrage Company, one of the few men in that group to survive a literal barrage from the Seps. Attie had been Mayhem first, and Jesse was dead.

Gods, he missed his brothers, those long gone as well as those recently lost. Eel hadn’t been officially listed as Torrent since month six, but you never really stopped feeling like your first company was home.

Then the Chancellor issued Order 66, and every single one of Eel’s brothers lost their fucking minds.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Eel loves being 501st. It’s such a complete clusterfuck of a legion, and not only because of his commanding officer and their Jedi.

Had loved. Fucking Empire.

Right, tense shift: The thing Eel had always loved about the 501st was that it was stocked with crazy people. The surviving brothers he claims when it’s time to leave Kamino aren’t quite on that level of nuts, but they’ve got potential. Three of them are also very, very young, and it makes him feel very, very old.

Sergeant Frog is one of the kids, a brother with two genome quirks. He’s got ice blue eyes and white hair that he shaves into a single line from forehead to neck. He’s also an asshole. Eel adores him; takes one to know one, after all.

Tunnel Rat looks like a standard brother, if you can ignore the fact that his eyes are full of the kind of remembered terror that would sideline a Jedi Knight. Nobody even realizes he’s grown his hair down past his shoulders until he pulls off the green knit cap he wears all the time. The cap’s origins are a mystery that Eel really wants to solve, but getting Tunnel Rat to say more than five words in one day is a fucking miracle.

Juri clips his hair short, except for one long braid behind his ear. “For my first Commander,” he says, when asked. “She wanted…she wanted to get hers grown out to full pre-Knighting length, but she uh—you know. I told her I’d do it for her.”

Tomas has the genetic quirk for green eyes, so when he got tattoos for his scalp, he went with the same color. The effect is kind of creepy. Tomas makes up for this apparent badassery by having the worst fucking taste in music. Eel bans him from ever choosing their daily audio feed.

Tomas is the one to ask how Frog got his name. Tomas and Juri chose what they wanted to be called, but Frog and Tunnel Rat were gifted with their names.

Frog grins at them, bright and happy. Maybe a bit manic, too, but they’re all trying to function in a galaxy that’s gone sideways. It’s forgivable. “When I was a Shiny, I’d bring ideas to my squad leader that I knew were good ideas, and I’d get brushed off. The first time that got someone killed, I hopped over them and went to our platoon leader. If he didn’t listen, it was on to our captain, and so on. I leapt over the command structure, one officer at a time, until I found someone who’d listen. So: Frog.”

“If you leap over my head, I’m shoving you into the airlock,” Eel says, and the others laugh. “No, seriously. There isn’t anyone else, and I’m capable, amazingly enough, of this really strange thing known as listening.”

“You’re also capable of snoring,” Juri mutters. “Heard you through the bulkhead three nights running now.”

Eel taps the flattened ridge of his nose. “Go talk to the battle droid who broke my face. Frog, what fucking group were you with where that leapfrogging shit was actually necessary?”

“87th,” Frog says. “Under General Kolar.”

Juri whistles. “Eel isn’t the only one who worked with one of the High Generals, then.”

“Did General Kolar’s entire command structure have sticks lodged in their asses?” Eel asks, while in the middle of being professionally appalled.

Frog shrugs. “Maybe? We went through enough change-ups that year that it could’ve just been bad luck. General Kolar promoted me and then ordered the others to start listening to my batshit ideas. I’d uh—I leapfrogged my way up to him quite a few times.”

Eel puts his face in his hands. “Gods in the Force wept.” Cody could be an utter asshole, but he would never have let that shit fly more than twice. Frog would have been promoted into the position that gave him the chance to use those supposed batshit ideas, not left to flounder for what sounded like months.

“The 87th got hit hard enough that by the time I got through training, the battalion was mostly made up of Speedies. I was last-gen,” Frog says. “Last batch of brothers to be grown the old-fashioned way before the Kaminoans started spawning the two-year cycles.”

“Same,” Juri and Tomas both say. “What about you, Rat?” Juri asks.

Tunnel Rat just grunts and holds up five fingers. Fifth-gen, then.

“And I’m third-gen. Good; I’m still older than all of you,” Eel says, and Tunnel Rat rolls his eyes.

“What about you, Commander? How did you get your name?” Frog asks him.

“I was still a Shiny, first month out with Torrent,” Eel says. This story used to embarrass the hell out of him; now it just seems distantly amusing. “We did a water-crossing, and I was—well, thanks to our flash-training, I was scared shitless of eels.

“Guess what was in the water?”

Juri, Frog, and Tomas grin at him. Tunnel Rat starts to snicker under his breath.

Eel smiles. “Next thing I know, I feel things moving underneath my armor. Hells, some of them had even figured out how to get past the tabs on my blacks. Thus, I did what any well-trained, professional soldier would do—I came flying out of the water, armor pieces flying off, screaming for someone to please get the fucking eel out of my pants.”

Behold, the mighty Republic soldier, Eel had heard Rex say. It was probably against regs to chase down your platoon leader in an attempt to beat him to death with a live, wriggling eel, but he had no regrets whatsoever.

CT-9791 had been Eel from that point on.

That was the same day he’d discovered that eels were delicious. Best revenge, ever.

Also, worst pick-up line ever. Worth the slap, though.

Eel misses Rex, Wolffe, Gregor—every single survivor from 66 who decided that mass murder was a bad idea. He loves his current batch of insane little ducklings, though.

Not that way. He still has life goals about getting a girlfriend, and while he’s not necessarily gender-picky, he’d like for said girlfriend to have girl-parts.

What Tomas and Juri, meanwhile, get up to on their own time is their own—

“OH, FUCK YOU GUYS!” Eel shouts, putting his hands over his eyes. He’d just wanted to ask a question and now he was blind.

“That was the actual idea,” Juri says, huffing a sigh.

“But nobody knows how to knock!” Tomas shouts, slamming his palm on the door switch to close it.

Eel goes to the ’fresher and tries to drown himself in the sink. He loves his brothers, but he is never going to be able to forget that moment. Ever.

Tomas and Juri are both excellent soldiers, though Juri is an actual shit shot. How Juri got through training with that kind of gods-awful aim is beyond Eel’s comprehension.

Eel does them both the favor of pretending he can talk to them without remembering that moment, even if he suspects that they arranged it on purpose. The quiet ones are the sneakiest bastards, and now nobody wants to bother with a door that Juri and Tomas are lurking behind. It’s not worth another sink-drowning.

Frog is a talkative little genius who knows way too much about hoverball to be mentally healthy. He also does his best to out-smartass Eel, which Eel is not above encouraging.

Tunnel Rat, by contrast, is the easiest of Eel’s ducklings to care for. That brother spends all of his spare time hiding in maintenance tubes.

“Are you having problems with large open spaces?” Eel asks him one night. The transport they stole to replace the armored shuttle isn’t exactly spacious compared to a battle cruiser, but they each have a room to themselves. The hangar bay can even hold a fighter, if necessary.

It usually just holds the laundry that nobody wants to do, but the fighter is still an option.

Tunnel Rat looks from side to side before answering. “I don’t…like it. Too many ambushes, I guess. Is it a problem, sir?”

Eel shrugs. “If you get stuck in a tube, I’m sending Juri and Tomas in to get you out. Figure they’re the best at that sort of extraction.”

“That was a cheap shot!” Juri yells on his way past.

Tunnel Rat smiles a bit. Much better. “You’re fine with it, sir?”

“Nah.” Eel waves him off. “Go. Have fun. Knock yourself out—no wait, don’t literally do that. Just…if we need you, be ready, but otherwise? Enjoy.”

“Thanks, Eel.”

Honestly, the year they run dark, keeping off of the Empire’s radar, doesn’t go that badly at all. It has long stretches of intense, mind-numbing boredom.

Sometimes, it’s exciting. “What do you mean, someone disconnected the hyperdrive from the cockpit controls?”

Sometimes, there is also a lot of shouting after the fact. “Please never break the hyperdrive—” “It was just console maintenance!” “—never break the thing again, I like being alive!”

Other than that, their rations are holding steady. Hunting goes well, when it’s safe to try to nab a meal that doesn’t come from a wrapper. Juri learns how to fire a blaster with much better proficiency than his rushed Kamino training allowed for. Tunnel Rat slowly learns not to leap for cover whenever someone fires a blaster.

Eel buys Tomas and Juri a digital lock and tells them to use it, please.

Tunnel Rat creeps out of the aft maintenance tube one night when the others are all asleep. Eel’s sitting in the lounge area, feet up, trying to give the beverage in his hand another go. Almost four years on, and he’s still trying to figure out what the fuck was up with his Generals’ obsession with tea. Weirdos. The only benefit Eel gets from it is that it’s cheaper than caff.

“Can I talk to you?”

“Sure.” Eel pushes out a chair. “Do you like tea?”

Tunnel Rat’s eyebrows scrunch together, like Eel just offered him poison but it’s supposed to be a compliment. “The fuck is that?”

“Rex calls it divine punishment,” Eel says. “I just think it’s leaf soup. It’s not even impressive leaf soup.”

“Keep your leaf soup away from me, then.”

Eel grins at the refusal. “What is it, Rat?”

“Tomas and Juri.” Tunnel Rat takes off his cap and worries at the edges with his fingertips. “You’re all right with them?”

Eel blinks a few times. “Why, what did they break?”

“No, they didn’t—” Tunnel Rat’s face twists up, worse than the tea-poison expression. “It’s just that—we’re brothers.”

Eel catches on after a few seconds. “Oh! Well, yeah. We’re brothers.”

“And what they’re doing, it doesn’t…bother you?” Tunnel Rat asks.

Eel gives up on the leaf soup. “Let me tell you something that General Kenobi told me. Well, General Skywalker tried to tell us first, but he is sometimes bad with words, so Kenobi clarified.”

Is. He is going to keep saying is, not was, in regards to his Generals, because neither of them are on the confirm-kill list.

“Okay.” Tunnel Rat peers at him as if hoping for actual divine guidance.

“We’re all from the same genetic stock. We mostly look the same, though there are some of those random quirks about hair and eye color. Hells, I knew one brother who had six toes.”

“Six?” Tunnel Rat asks, eyebrows climbing.

“Yeah, it was weird. He claimed it was his lucky toe.”

“Wait, you mean eleven toes total?”

Eel grins. “Yeah.”

Tunnel Rat shakes his head. “Kriffing weird.”

“But in the Force, the Jedi say that every single one of us, every single brother—we glow differently. Millions of shining lights, and not a one of them the same.”

Tunnel Rat’s eyes widen; it’s obvious he’s never heard that before. “Wow.”

Eel nods. “If there are millions of us, and in spirit we’re all so very different, I’m not gonna side-eye Juri and Tomas about being fuckbuddies, or being in love, or whatever it is that they’re trying to figure out how to be.”

“Flexible,” Tunnel Rat grumbles.

“That, too,” Eel agrees. “Have you seen the porn they’re using as research? Terrifying stuff.”

Tunnel Rat pulls his cap back on, and Eel figures that’s the end of the conversation. Then his brother says, “I just—I never really thought it was an option for us clones. To…to love someone, or date them. To spend time with someone and it not be for the military.”

Eel knows that Tunnel Rat had a rough, bad time of it, almost on par with Gregor, even if he won’t talk about it. Things like this make Eel want to hunt down and strangle the man’s CO for not getting the Rat in for therapy. Maybe some desperately needed downtime, too.

“Tell ya a secret,” Eel says, leaning forward with a conspiratorial smile on his face. “One of my commanders and one of my Jedi were making like long-haired bunnies.”

“Bunnies?”

Eel bites his lip so he won’t laugh at the baffled look on Tunnel Rat’s face. “Shagging. Friends with benefits. Really going against regs, but on their own time. The few of us who knew about it, we didn’t care.”

“Why not?”

“Because that time they spent together, it helped them both to be better people, and better soldiers. If something so anti-reg is so damned helpful, then fuck the regs. I’d rather have living, happy, scarily-effective soldiers than emotionally stunted drones,” Eel says.

“I kind of am an emotionally stunted drone,” Tunnel Rat confesses.

“No, you’re just fine,” Eel replies. “I promise, I am probably way crazier than you are.”

“You don’t hide in the ducts,” Tunnel Rat points out.

“I’m claustrophobic.”

Tunnel Rat chuckles, steals his tea—”Hey!”—and leaves the lounge. Eel puts that conversation into the win column.

It’s the first part of month twelve, just a few weeks out from the Tatooine rendezvous. Eel and his ducklings have to hit the water to avoid an Imperial patrol on some backwater (pun!) but Eel’s the lucky bastard who snorts murky water into his sinuses when their hiding hole turns out to be deeper than they thought. He slogs his way out of the wet, stinky mess tasting nothing but fetid swamp.

“You all right?” Juri asks him, and Eel waves him off. He’s fine. He is waterlogged as all hell, but fine.

Then he gets sick.

Eel has terrible, hilarious flashbacks, remembering what it was like to try and fight a battle with his very first head cold. The entirety of the fucking 501st and half the 212th had it, too, and nobody could keep their HUD clean.

At first, a head cold is all it is. Funny coincidence, but at least this time he’s not trying to polish a HUD screen with his tongue so he can see well enough to not die.

Things high on Eel’s list to never repeat, ever: That.

Tomas has taken on basic medical duties, and chases him down with a hypo to inject him with an immune booster, a broad-spectrum antibiotic, and vitamins that were probably added for color.

“Remember the epinephrine boosters that we had?” Eel asks him, trying to ignore that he sounds like a foghorn attempting to speak Basic.

Tomas nods in regret. “Yeah. They probably would have killed us, long-term, but they were handy damned things to have when it was hour twenty of the battle and the droids were still advancing.”

Eel thanks Tomas and goes to hide in his bunk. He should be fine. Bases covered.

He wakes up feeling like his fucking head is going to explode. Worse, he feels like he can’t breathe. The act of drawing breath is a raspy, painful disaster. He is way too warm, and that’s wrong, he’s usually too fucking cold. They keep the ship cooler than normal so they don’t sweat the Rat out of his favorite tunnels.

“Uh, guys?” Eel asks, coming out into the lounge to try and get Tomas’s attention. That’s the last thing he remembers, because hallucinations. He is far less concerned about his head exploding than he is about the weird mutant Jedi Gundarks coming to eat him.

Eel wakes up in a medical area that is not their ship. “thFuck,” he whispers, and gets a hand on his chest, pressing him firmly back down on the bed. Medic needn’t have bothered. Eel was pretty sure that “up” was not a direction he could manage at the moment.

“You must stay prone,” the medic says, her words a gentle, not-quite-sibilant hiss. Some mammalian-humanoid species. Fur. Teeth. Pretty eyes.

“Thank you; I like my eyes as well,” she says, and Eel is promptly horrified.

“Yes, you are saying everything you think.” The medic pats his cheek. “It is very cute.”

“T’you,” Eel says, because why not.

When he wakes up again, he’s on oxygen that tastes like bacta. “Gross,” he says, which comes out as an irritated mumble. Talking through bacta spray never works all that well.

Eel’s ducklings all but crowd around the bed as they realize he’s awake. “You look better,” Tunnel Rat says, while Eel slowly navigates his way into sitting up. It feels like someone has been beating on him, nonstop, for several weeks.

“Thnfk,” Eel replies, then scowls. “Whft hppnd.”

“You picked up a flesh-eating bacteria,” Tomas says. “That wouldn’t have been so bad—we could’ve treated an external case with bacta, but you decided to suck it directly into your lungs, Eel. It’s been chowing down on your delicious insides.”

Eel feels himself pale. “Fckng gross.”

“The good news is, you’ll live,” Juri adds, approaching in a slow sidle until he’s standing next to Tunnel Rat. “It’s just—the recovery time—”

“The rendezvous is in thirteen days,” Tomas says, when no one else speaks. “You’re confined to medical for at least fifteen days, minimum.”

Eel rips the bacta mask from his face. “We have to leave, we have to be there,” he says, and then starts coughing and almost blacks out.

Okay, that hurt. Not doing that again.

The mask is snatched from his hand before the healer from earlier is pushing him back down onto the bio-bed. She scowls at him, sparks showing in her magnificent eyes, as she puts the mask back on his face.

“Are all men of your type also suffering from stupidity?” she asks caustically.

“Nt stpd,” Eel growls back.

“Your immune system has been compromised,” she tells him in a gentler voice, while the ducklings pretend to be ignoring the conversation. “If you so much as leave this room without being cleared by medical, any bacteria that would normally be harmless to your system could easily, quickly kill you. Those fifteen days are not negotiable, Eel. Not if you want to live.”

“Fck,” Eel replies, eyes widening. His immune system is compromised? He has to tell the Kaminoans, they'd be absolutely insulted. “Y’sure?”

“Yes.” She hesitates. “I am sorry. Your brothers have informed medical as to the importance of this meeting.”

Kriffing hells. Fucking damned shit luck.

Eel is on Fondor Waystation, the closest outpost with a full medical center in the entire quadrant of space they’d been traveling in. Eel knows just how remote the waystation is—Gold bitched about Fondor for a month solid after he returned from being “kidnapped” by Dogma.

“The Imps haven’t bothered with even sending patrols into this region,” Frog says, after bringing Eel a datapad with things to read. Staring at the ceiling isn’t fun, whether you’re hallucinating or not. “They’ve had almost a year to come out this far, so the consensus is that we should all be safe.”

Eel agrees; it’s fucking Fondor. There isn’t jack shit on the station that the Imps would be interested in. Even the smugglers tend to avoid it.

“Look, thank you for saving my ass,” Eel tells his ducklings, after his primary medic, Hawnniffa of the gorgeous eyes, clears him to breathe without the stupid bacta mask. “But you guys need to get on the ship and make the rendezvous on Tatooine.”

“Not doing it, boss,” Juri says. Tomas nods; Tunnel Rat and Frog just look grim.

Eel grits his teeth. Stubborn bastards. “You have to go without me. This meeting is fucking important! I—we need to know who’s still alive. They need to know we haven’t fucked up and gotten ourselves killed. I’ll still be here when you get back!”

They still shake their heads. “Most likely, the Imps won’t show their faces out here, but maybe they will. No matter what, it’s dangerous to be a lone brother in the galaxy right now, Eel,” Tomas says. “We won’t leave you unprotected.”

“You’re idiots!” Eel snaps in response, trying to ignore his burning eyes. Gods love his idiot brothers, because he’s going to strangle them all for mutiny. They’ve almost all died about eighteen times, but they’ve made it the full year. In just over a week, their brothers will be waiting for them on Tatooine. They have to be there.

Eel tries one more time. “Please actually go to Tatooine, you assholes. I’m fine!”

Frog snorts. “Yeah, except for the part where you were actually dying a week ago.”

That’s it. He can’t change their minds, and since he does not want to die, he can’t crawl out of this bed and shove them into the ship himself.

“I know that it is a big galaxy, Eel,” Hawnniffa says, when she finds him sitting up in the bio-bed that evening, in the middle of a grand sulk. His ability to breathe is still hindered by the damage to his lungs, slow to heal even with bacta. His mobility is shit, and he can’t hold his arm steady to aim a blaster. They’re going to miss the rendezvous on Tatooine because he snorted up pond scum.

Everything is balls.

“Perhaps you will see your friends again, despite this lack of contact.”

Eel sighs and slumps back, thumping his head against his pillow. “Like you said, it’s a big galaxy. I just don’t want the others to think they’ve lost us.”

“I understand. I have suffered a similar difficulty, but I ultimately do know where to find my loved ones.” Hawnniffa pats his hand, but it’s not a brisk healer’s consolation. Her touch lingers, and it’s…soft. “My short-name is Hahna.”

“That’s very pretty,” Eel says, because he’s still way too drugged.

Hahna smiles. “I can offer you no miracle, Eel. If your loyal brothers will not abandon you, then all I can do is make you strong enough to travel. From there, perhaps you will find greater luck than you expect.”

“Maybe,” Eel grants, though it feels like giving up. “Not gonna find anyone with fur as pretty as yours, though,” he says, and then closes his eyes because nooooo he said it aloud.

“Honesty is to be cherished,” Hahna says, smirking, and goes off to check on her other patients. Eel hides under his pillow so that he can die of embarrassment instead of bacteria.

Eel doesn’t miss the rendezvous by two weeks, the earliest date Hahna is willing to let him leave Medical plus travel time. He misses it by a full month, but by then, he doesn’t care.

The Imps come calling the day of the Tatooine meeting, while Eel is watching his chrono and counting down the seconds. Rex is going to murder him for screwing this up, and Wolffe is going to murder what’s left of him when Rex is done.

It’s bothering the others, too, to the point where none of them can sit still. Finally, Juri grabs Tomas and Frog, dragging them out while babbling about ship repairs. Tunnel Rat shrugs at Eel and follows them.

Ambushes have become preternatural instinct. Eel’s hand is already tightening on his chrono, his other hand gripping the bio-bed railing, when the station rocks with a force so strong it would have thrown him from the bed.

“What the hell—” Eel starts to say, and then the blast doors for Medical slam shut.

“Hull breach,” Hahna whispers, approaching with one hand held to her forehead, where violet blood is seeping through her fingers. “The yellow lights on the doors—the station has been breached. What has happened?”

“Turbolaser blast,” Eel says, a terrible feeling lodged in the pit of his stomach. He’s distracted; he isn’t ready for the second volley and gets tossed onto the floor.

There is another strike immediately, one that fucks with the station’s equilibrium. Everyone in Medical falls down towards the far wall before gravity reverts and yanks them back down to the floor. “Shit!”

“Is it pirates?” an old one-eyed Arconan shouts.

“This is Fondor!” Eel retorts. “There isn’t shit here that a pirate would want!”

“Slaves,” a Chadra-Fan whispers.

“Nooooo, no, no offense, but I’m sticking with my first answer,” Eel says, and the Chadra-Fan’s ears twitch before she smiles.

“Was that it?” a Bothan asks, and then the worst hammer falls. The last blast destroys half of the equipment in medical when it’s flung across the room, and almost smushes most of them in the resulting pile of debris.

Eel doesn’t bother with answering any more questions. He just starts pulling folks out of the mess, one at a time, until Hahna tells him they’ve found everyone. The Bothan, one of Hahna’s cohorts, is swearing in repetitive, angry waves.

“What now?” the Chadra-Fan asks in her own language. Eel isn’t sure when he picked up chitter-translation, but he isn’t questioning it. He’s learned a lot of weird shit over the years.

Eel blows out a breath; he can’t panic about his ducklings right now. They’re fine. They’re trained soldiers. They’ve got this, just like he’s riding herd on the situation here.

Hahna shows him where a single e-suit is stored in case of sudden depressurization. Eel isn’t the only one who can wear it, but it is painfully obvious that he’s the only one with the training to go outside. Hahna helps him suit up and secure the pathetic bit of gear that comes with the e-suit: one steel-cable belay line and hook, a glow rod, and what turns out to be a damned fine cutting torch.

“Testing,” Eel murmurs, and Hahna nods.

“Your signal is clear. There is a contrived airlock between Medical’s blast doors and the blast doors that came down to block the corridor. If the override code does not work…” Hahna trails off. Eel gets it; if he has to torch his way through the outer doors and there’s no way to repressurize the outer hall, everyone in Medical is fucked.

Opening the first set of blast doors nets him a pressure change that pulls him a few steps forward into the airlock before everything evens out. He seals that to turn off the angry, annoying alarms. The outer door panel accepts the override code, thank the Force, so he doesn’t get to use his shiny cutting torch just yet.

The door gives him a thirty-second countdown before it cycles open, just enough time for Eel to clip the hook for the safety line to the wall. The pressure shift yanks him off of his feet and pulls him five meters out into the corridor until the safety line pulls tight.

Eel drops to the ground when gravity reasserts its hold. “Fuck. Oh, fuck. Fuck,” he whispers. The end of the corridor is gone, and Eel is staring at open space.

“Eel?”

“I’m fine,” he replies. It’s not a bad tear—looks like the depressurization just blew out the wall. If he can scavenge a force field from somewhere, this section of station can be repressurized, and everyone in Medical will get to live. Awesome.

Eel travels onward, noting problems to Hahna (big gaping holes) as he goes. He doesn’t tell her about the bodies in the public corridors, people who got hung up on equipment or bolted-down furniture before they could get sucked out into the void. He passes a depressing number of closed doors that are not air-tight. Anyone in those rooms when the station blew out was fucked.

Eel has to stop about a klik into the trip to bend over and breathe, trying not to gasp for air and piss off the suit’s sensors. Hahna was right. He wouldn’t have been ready for travel, and so far, all he’s done is walk around. He hopes maybe there’s an immune-booster she can give him, because his fifteen-day confinement to Medical just ended with two days to go.

The bridge is up near the top of the waystation spire. All of the transparisteel windows have been blown out. The bridge is unmanned except for a single body that’s caught up in the underpinnings of a control station. Poor bastard.

Eel brushes his gloves over the control panels, wiping away accumulating ice. The primary emergency protocols for Fonder are offline, caused either by the damage or by someone not doing their fucking job. Medical’s bulkhead sensors, Hahna tells him, were built into the structure itself in the event of this very occurrence.

“Great,” Eel murmurs, and is suddenly furious. No one on Fondor was rebelling against the Empire. The waystation was primarily a home for refugees, for downtrodden people with nowhere else to go.

Fuck you, Eel snarls out at the silence of empty space. There isn’t even a star destroyer for him to curse. The Imps destroyed Fondor and then bugged out the moment it was done.

Eel activates emergency force-fields for the control room, restoring and repressurizing the room. He does the same for small sections of Fondor, where there’s just enough structure left to do so, or there were emergency measures in place that failed to activate. If the sensors are registering right, Medical is not the only group of survivors.

He tries not to think about the hangar bay, which registers largely intact on the scans but isn’t reporting an atmosphere.

Eel’s never fixed a decaying orbit for an entire space station before. He never wants to do it again, either, and he might need new britches now that it’s done.

No one is quite sure what Fondor’s population numbers were at the start of the day, but by the time they’ve rescued everyone registering on the scanners, Fondor is down to thirty-five people.

“Fondor is dead,” the Chadra-Fan cheeps sadly, and puts her long-fingered hands over her eyes.

“Yeah,” Eel says, feeling numb. None of the survivors are his brothers.

It takes a while for all of Fondor’s dead to be found, laid out in the vast hangar bay with what personal identification can be found for each of them. Eel is doing his best to ignore the rows of corpses, taking the time to remove broken tools from the partially exposed innards of their ship, signs of desperate handholds that failed.

Hahna comes to stand with him when Eel finally gives in to the inevitable. He’s standing over the three recovered bodies of his brothers: Juri, Tunnel Rat, and Tomas. They can’t find Frog.

Eel’s seen spaced brothers before, bodies brought in that showed the damage of sudden decompression and the intense cold of space.

This is worse. These were his men, his ducklings. His responsibility.

“It is not your fault,” Hahna says quietly.

“I know.” That’s true and he can admit it. It isn’t his fault. There was nothing he could have done to prevent this, aside from not inhaling pond water and that damned stupid bacteria. Eel could have ordered his brothers to go to Tatooine, but they would have just AWOL’d on him, refusing to leave Eel behind.

Damned foolish brothers. This is not what kindness should have brought them.

Eel feels broken inside, like he died with them. Trouble is, he’s still walking around.

“The bodies,” Hahna says, nudging him out of the dullness that’s taking over his thoughts. “Do you have a preference for your kin?”

“I—yeah. Cremation. We still have the facilities for that, right?”

Hahna nods. “It is how we shall deal with the unnamed.”

“Good.” Cremation was what they’d always done in the field. Might as well stick to what he knows. “But when it’s done, I want the—the ashes. I’m taking them home.”

“Your home is a very dangerous place to visit,” Hahna reminds him.

Eel doesn’t give a fuck. His brothers are going home.

Hahna leans against him, a long line of soft warmth. “When you go, I will accompany you.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I am aware,” she says with a gentle smile. “I have things I must attend to afterwards, but this? You should never say farewell to family alone.”

Hahna is a good co-pilot. She helps him get the transport into Kamino air without notice. They’re on the far side of the planet, away from most of the cities and outposts. The ship is so close to the water that they’re probably registering as a large whale cruising along.

Eel cuts speed and uses the repulsors to hover the ship near a rocky outcropping he knows of. He and his batchmates had crawled all over it during an illicit adventure away from the training center.

They caught hell for it, but Eel refused to be sorry. It had been his first taste of Outside, and he loved it.

Hahna helps him to climb up the rocky slope. There are three small containers in the bag he carries, and the weight keeps offsetting his balance. He’s still not recovered from a stupid lung-eating bit of fuckery, and it’s galling.

At the top, he removes each container from the bag and sits them down on the rock. It’s just a row of three unadorned metal canisters. There should be four, but it’s not the first time Eel’s attended a funeral that lacked a body.

“So, fuck, I was never good at this,” Eel says, allowing the wind and the ocean spray to keep his face clean of tears. “You were good soldiers, and even better brothers, and nobody fucking deserves to go out like that. You should all have been there with me at the end of those fifteen days, making shitty jokes about my bacta breath. You had such brilliant lives ahead of you.

“If there is an afterlife, you deserve to have a great one.”

Eel pops the cap on the first container, the wind stealing ash from it before he can even speak. “Rat, I hope you find peace,” he says, and lets the wind have it all.

Hahna helps him to make certain that the last two canisters open at the same time. They fling the ash into the air, and Eel says, “Juri, Tomas, I hope that you find each other.”

Eel tucks an empty container under his arm and sighs. “Frog, you asshole. It is very difficult to have a funeral for someone who skipped out on it.”

Hahna, perhaps sensitive to his upbringing and service, only says, “May the Force be with you all.”

“I’ll miss you,” Eel whispers. “Look after the others if you can, okay?”

Hahna takes his hand and helps him back down to the ship. He slips twice, and would have brained himself on the rock if she hadn’t been there. Eel hopes he manages to thank her with the expression on his face, because he can’t get the words to climb out of his throat.

The ship gets back into the safety of hyperspace, unmolested except for one squawking, surprised control tower officer, trying to figure out where they’d come from. Eel takes a shower and doesn’t remember doing it. He just knows that he’s clean and there is no longer ash on his hands.

Hahna shakes her head at him and guides him into her cabin, pressing him down on her bunk. She lies down with Eel, wraps her arms around him, and encourages him without words to rest.

He does; he spends the hours unmoving but for the fingers he cards through her soft, brilliantly patterned fur.

He’s all too aware of the fact that once Hahna leaves, he’s going to be alone.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Eel doesn’t expect to see anyone he knows, ever again. It’s not the depression talking, mostly. It’s just—as he and Hahna both said: It’s a big fucking galaxy. He is one man in a literal teeming sea of quadrillions, and that’s just in this quadrant.

When Eel stumbles over his former General in a shitty bar, he actually double-takes, trying to figure out if he’s hallucinating. The General still isn’t on the confirmed-kill lists, but…

The General’s hand is already moving for a weapon when Eel remembers to raise his arms, revealing empty hands. “De-chipped,” he squeaks, because he remembers what happened to Carve, and no fucking thank you.

Kenobi’s hand lowers as his shoulders slump in relief. “Eel.”

“Sir,” Eel says, and tries not to cry. “Nice to see you again.”

“Likewise.” Kenobi waves him over to a seat at the bar. “What brings you here?”

Eel glances at the rows and rows of gleaming bottles. “I came here to get very, very drunk.”

Kenobi smiles, and it almost—almost—looks normal. It’s so very similar to that same bright-eyed almost-smirk, but the grief that etches the expression makes Eel’s insides hurt. “What a coincidence; so am I.”

“You sure you can afford this?” Eel asks. This is top-shelf liquor, and he knows exactly how much that shit costs. The alcohol beneath his nose smells like ambrosia, and but it also makes Eel’s stomach turn over. He’s probably had way too many of these in recent weeks, but he really hasn’t come up with much else to do. He’s probably drinking himself into an early grave, but hey, he was due for one of those anyway, so who cares?

Kenobi shrugs. “No, but they could,” he says, tilting his head. Eel uses the wall mirror to follow Kenobi’s gesture, and finds a corner full of some of the most disgruntled motherfuckers he’s seen in a bar outside of an actual brawl.

“Are you still using your powers for evil, sir?” Eel says, and regrets the joke the moment it passes his lips. Kenobi’s eyes take on that frosty look he usually reserved for the Seps—or for the exceptionally foolhardy.

“In a sense, I suppose,” Kenobi says, and make his drink go away. Eel’s gut clenches; he can salvage this. He can come up with something to say that won’t encourage Kenobi to shoot him.

“Was it the noble innocent bit, or the starry-eyed, naïve kid routine?”

Kenobi smiles again, but this time the expression is warmer. “I think I’m a bit too old to pull off the former.”

Eel has to give him that one. Eel knows he hasn’t been aging gracefully, but he’s got genetics as a valid excuse. Kenobi, meanwhile, is maybe thirty-five Standard, but he looks like he’s been dragging his face across a roadway for most of that time.

“Obvious and expensive reasons aside, what brings you to this fine establishment?”

Eel toes the ground, which is either a dirt floor or a sign that the bar hasn’t been subjected to a proper cleaning in at least twenty years. “I had four chicks under my wing, mostly younger brothers.” And one fucked-up soldier, he thinks sadly. “We were on Fondor Waystation six months back when the Imps came along and blew the shit out of it.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Eel shrugs. “It’s just…I know you Je—” He catches the slip in time, and fortunately, the bartender is ignoring them both. Probably Kenobi’s doing. “I know you don’t believe in luck, but it was just that. Just bad luck.”

The General doesn’t argue with him; he only replaces the brandy that Eel can’t remember drinking. He can taste the remnants of it, so he must have swallowed it, but the actual process is another blank spot.

“What about you?” Eel asks.

Kenobi drains a second glass and turns it over, stacking it on top of the first one. The bartender gives him a dirty look and supplies a third glass without bring prompted.

“I had to kill one of your brothers today.”

“Fuck.” Eel has to swallow to loosen his throat when it feels like he can’t get enough air to speak. “Chip was still active?”

Kenobi nods, staring down into his third glass of brandy.

“And we’ve always been too damned stubborn to take to suggestions,” Eel says. He feels like vomiting, and not because of the alcohol.

“I tried very hard to avoid it.” Kenobi’s gaze is distant in a way that is honestly disturbing. “But yes. You are all exceptionally stubborn beings, and it was not just my safety that I had to be concerned with.”

Eel braces himself. “Was it anyone that we knew?”

Kenobi shakes his head. “No. Small mercies, yes?”

“No.” Eel’s jaw clenches. “I think maybe if you had known him, it might have been enough to change his mind.”

The look Kenobi gives him in response to that statement makes his balls try to climb up and hide, which is never the most pleasant sensation in the world. “No. It wouldn’t have been.”

Eel considers if it’s worth the argument, and then goes for it. He was never known for being the smartest man in the 501st, anyway. “I know some brothers who fought it. Not a lot, and it killed one of them, but they did it.”

He almost mentions Rex, Wolffe, Hero, Io, Notch—almost. He just doesn’t know if any of them are still alive. It doesn’t seem fair to give anyone false hope.  It's the mirror reason as to why he isn't asking Kenobi about other Jedi.  No false hopes, and no squashed hopes, please.

“How much distance was there between these brothers and a Jedi?” Kenobi asks, a knowing glint in his eyes.

Eel sighs and raises a hand in surrender. “Few dozen lightyears, at least.”

“The instructions for the Order seem to be exceptionally effective if the target is at hand,” Kenobi says in a way that tells Eel a lot about how that day must have gone down.

“Cody?” he asks.

Kenobi’s answer is short and curt. “Yes.”

Eel glances down at his empty glass. Shit, he missed drinking that one, too. “Can you afford to buy the bottle so that ugly fucker doesn’t have to keep coming back?”

“I heard that,” the ugly fucker in question growls, slamming the corked bottle down on the bar top. “Can you?” the bartender asks Kenobi.

Kenobi nods and slides over a pile of credits that—yes, that is more than enough to cover the cost. That’s a fucking scary-high number of credits to be carrying around. “This is an excellent tip that will also cover the cost of the second bottle under the counter, the damage to your table in the back, and should be enough to convince you to leave us alone, please.”

“What damage?” the bartender starts to ask, and then there is a howl, followed immediately by the sound of smashing wood.

Eel turns around on his stool; one of the grumbling gamblers lost his temper and used a smaller Gand to break the Sabacc table in half. The Gand’s alive and throwing things at the other gambler, so Eel faces front again, intending to ignore the mess unless the fight gets worse.

The bartender sighs. “Son of a—thanks, Ben. Business hasn’t been good since the Empire gained control of this sector.”

“Ben?” Eel asks, once the bartender has collected his credits and moved to the other end of the bar.

Kenobi raises a new glass of brandy, one of his almost-smiles on his face. “That’s me.”

“Seems a bit too easy to remember.”

“There are a lot of humanoids named Ben in the galaxy, Lieutenant. It’s easy to become lost in the shuffle of a very large pile.”

Eel snorts. “You can knock off with the rank jokes, you know.”

“Oh. Terribly sorry,” Kenobi says dryly. “My apologies, Commander.”

“You are an asshole, sir.” Kenobi, like Rex, needs to be reminded of that.

The corner of Kenobi’s mouth quirks up. “Besides, I seem to recall that defection is on par with resignation. It’s just far less legal.”

“Yeah, well.” Eel contemplates golden liquor, watching as the prism cut of the glass turns one droplet into many. “Habit, right? It gave the ducklings a sense of order when everything else was fan-scattered shit.”

“Oh, that was a pleasant mental image.”

“I live to serve,” Eel says, but grimaces the moment the words emerge from his mouth.

“What have you been doing since Fondor?” Kenobi asks, after Eel is on drink number five. He feels a lot more emotionally mellow, even if his stomach is screaming about liquor and acid and holes and fuck knows what. He’s pretty sure he forgot to eat today, but he didn’t really notice. Or care.

“Nosy damn…ranking officer,” Eel mutters, stumbling words together as he realizes that saying “General” in a bar is probably too much of an attention-getter.

“Being nosy is sort of my job lately,” Kenobi counters.

Right. Job. He used to have one of those. Boy, he’d fucked that up.

“I’ve been drinking, vomiting, sleeping, and cycle that on repeat,” Eel says bitterly. “Oh, and avoiding the Imps. Not much else for someone like me to do, anyway.”

Kenobi looks sad, and also like he’s trying to figure something out. Eel hasn’t seen that kind of indecisive expression on the General’s face since Raku. Now there was another unpleasant clusterfuck.

Fuck, have I done anything with my life that isn’t ultimately depressing?

Kenobi leans in close, and it’s such a surprise that Eel lurches back and almost falls off his stool. Lieutenant.

Right. Eel manages a jerking nod, wondering what’s so important that the General is resorting to telepathy. He hates telepathy. Eel understands that it’s useful in the field when silence is key, but he never got used to it.

Reputable sources have informed me that Rex, Wolffe, and Captain Gregor were on Alderaan, six months ago. They’re alive.

It takes Eel a few minutes of blank not-thinking to realize that his vision is blurry, his face is soaked, and he’s making one of the most pathetic, choked noises he’s ever fucking heard.

He’s gotten so damned used to the idea of everyone being dead, or at least utterly lost to him. Finding out that they’re not is such a shock that it’s taking an embarrassing amount of time to put his head back together.

Kenobi doesn’t seem to mind Eel’s emotional breakdown. He just keeps sipping bandy, ignoring Eel to the perfect extent.

Asshole Jedi. Gods, he missed the bastard.

“Did you—did you see them?” Eel asks, proud when his voice sounds rough instead of wobbly.

Kenobi shakes his head. “I wasn’t there.” Alliance meeting. They joined up under the auspices of someone named Fulcrum.

The Alliance. He’d heard vague rumors about that, but nothing concrete until now.

Eel thinks about it. “Is that what you’re doing, running around in the back-ass of beyond, wearing a blaster instead of using that, uh, fancy stick?”

Kenobi looks mortally offended. “Fancy stick?”

“I’m not that great at analogies and euphemisms when I’m six glasses in,” Eel protests.

Kenobi shakes his head. “Fancy stick,” he mutters, and then breaks down in muffled snickering.

Eel is on the verge of giggling when he has to stop to wipe his eyes. “Fancy fucking stick. Yes. Exactly.”

It takes him glass number seven to gather enough bravery to ask, “Where are they?”

The answer is disappointing. “I don’t know,” Kenobi says. “Individual cells, Eel. Isolation for protection in case of discovery by certain parties. Only certain select agents know of the existence of multiple cells.”

Eel puzzles on that, because few men are more trustworthy than this crazy fucker he’s sitting next to. Kenobi is so closed-mouthed that it’s gotten him into almost as much trouble as it would if he’d been a blabbermouth.

“Then what the hell are you doing?”

Kenobi glances around, checking the distance of other patrons, before he says, “I create new groups, when and where possible. Then I send them into the arms of one of those few trusted agents for relocation, with stern instructions that I am to be forgotten.”

Eel turns his head to stare at Kenobi. “Do you mean that literally?”

“No.”

Eel starts breathing again, because fuck, he does not want to be mind-whammied any more than he wants to be shot.

“They relocate so that I do not know anything further about them,” Kenobi explains. “I didn’t even want them to use their real names, though some stubborn holdouts insist that nicknames are undignified.”

“Can’t imagine where they got that idea, Negotiator.” Eel smiles when Kenobi rolls his eyes.

“I actually do like Tehkemiren Shus’huk,” Kenobi admits in a soft voice. “It feels more accurate, especially lately.”

Eel just nods, because he still hasn’t quite forgiven Rex and Cody for not waiting until he could see the look on Kenobi’s face when the name was gifted. “This is probably a stupid question, given the dramatic nature of our new government, but why the exceptional level of paranoia?”

Kenobi lifts one shoulder, a gesture that feels dismissive. “Our new government is aware of the fact that I am not dead.”

Ah. Eel swallows back what tastes suspiciously like bile, and washes it down with the rest of his brandy.

“In the meantime, I have made it a goal in life to make sure that the Empire never forgets that I existed.”

Eel grins. “So what you’re saying is that you’re running on alcohol and spite.”

Kenobi raises an eyebrow. “When put that way, it sounds terrible.”

Eel lifts both hands in mock-defense. “Hey, it’s kept me alive for a good six months beyond what should have been my expiration date. Don’t knock it if it works.”

“Indeed.” Kenobi pulls a strip of plast from his belt, one that looks like it’s been reused at least six times. He scribbles down a string of numbers with a stylus that looks like it survived a bomb blast, and then puts the plast strip into Eel’s hand. “Memorize and burn it, please.”

“Got it.” Eel studies the numbers, recognizing the basic swap-outs for time and location. “One-time offer, right?” It has to be, given the date.

“They move out in less than twelve hours,” Kenobi says.

“Oh.” Kenobi is already on his way out. It’s complete fucking chance that Eel stumbled over the General at all.

Then again, this is Kenobi. Eel wouldn’t be surprised if stalking had been involved to make certain they met at this particular moment.

Eel folds the plast strip and puts it in his jacket pocket. “Beats drinking myself to death.”

Kenobi stands up before resting his hand on Eel’s shoulder. “Good luck, Commander.”

Eel tries not to let on that he’s about to start sobbing again. Gods, no, that’s enough with the leaking. He is a soldier. He understands duty, and he knows exactly why this man has to leave, but fuck, he doesn’t want Kenobi to go.

“Am I ever going to see you again?” Eel asks, aware of how pathetic he sounds.

“You know how we fancy stick bearers say that the future is always in motion?” Kenobi smiles at him. “I’ve no idea, Eel, but I do hope so.” Then his smile turns sharp. “Make certain that the Empire will never forget that you existed.”

Eel nods and manages to smile. “Sir, yes, sir.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Eel gets to the plast coordinates—an actual hole in a sea cliff wall, cute—about three hours before the rebel cell’s bug-out time. He’s not offended by the faceful of blasters it earns him to turn up unannounced.

“De-chipped and sent by my General,” Eel says, his hands in the air. “You lot call him Ben.”

Most of them relax. Gods be fucked, they’re all kids, even younger than his lost ducklings.

“Who the hell are you?” the touchiest one asks. The girl is too sharp-boned to be much older than fifteen Standard.

“Regimental Commander Eel, formerly of the 501st. Or just Eel, since it was recently pointed out to me that defection is equivalent to resignation.”

“Eel in the 501st wasn’t a commander, he was a lieutenant,” one of the men says. No, scratch that; if that boy is older than fourteen, Eel will quit drinking for a month.

“And Rex wasn’t a captain, either, but that didn’t fucking stop any of us from following his bad example,” Eel shoots back, grinning.

“Well, yeah, that’s true. Marshall Commander,” the boy says, and another kid rolls their eyes.

“No, dumbass. That was Cody and Commander Wolffe. Rex was a Senior Commander.”

Eel keeps the grin on his face with effort. Dear gods of his sole actual ancestor, Kenobi sent him into a den of fanchildren. He can’t decide whether to thank the General, or plot his demise.

No, wait, that’s a horrible joke. Eel is just going to punch Kenobi when he sees the man again.

These are the children who followed all three years of the war, the ones who treated the Republic’s heroes as…well, heroes. Eel is embarrassed to discover that yes, apparently little tiny collective figures of his brothers do exist, and then he’s insulted, because where is his. He’s lived through three years of war and does not get a stupid plastic figure. Outrage.

His ranting makes the kids laugh. Eel is aware of the fact that he sounds like a grumpy old man.

He still wants a fucking plastic figure, though.

Eel has been teaching Shinies how to Not Fuck Up for most of his career. These kids aren’t brothers, but they want to learn. Trying to stay alive is very good learning fuel.

Kenobi left this cell with a good starter pack of knowledge on command tactics, and how to stay alive when everything is shit. Eel, already familiar with the General’s work, expands on things in a way that is so familiar, so natural, that the kids “fire” their previous commanding officer and elect Eel in her place. Eel feels guilty about that, but then the ex-commander comes over and hugs him, crying in gratitude because she didn’t want to be responsible for any of her friends’ deaths.

“Well, that sure makes me feel a whole lot better,” Eel says in stone-cold deadpan. She giggles at him while wiping her eyes.

Eel makes Jodi be his Second. Serves her right.

“Second what?” she asks.

Eel gathers his new flock of insane ducklings together. “Rank is bullshit,” he tells them all. “It’s useful when you need to know who’s in charge, but look: There are twenty of us, total. All of you kids know who’s in charge at all times.” As one body, they point at Eel. “Right. You don’t have to shout over fifty-thousand people on a battlefield to get my attention. Rank is reserved for when the day comes when there are at least a hundred of us.”

“Therefore,” he continues, “the only place where official rank and identifying numbers will go is into an electronic, coded, secure drop box. I only want to have to access it to update the files for promotions and shit, which means you little brats aren’t allowed to die on me. I don’t want to have to look at that bullshit for any other reason!”

They smile at him, but it’s the certain, wry smiling of kids who know they’re probably going to die tomorrow. Eel has to stop for a moment when his breath catches, because he can’t remember his brothers ever smiling the same way, and he knows that they must have. Every man that left Kamino knew that he was going out to court death.

“I’m First,” Eel says, and has to bite back a smile over the old Torrent joke. “Jodi’s Second. The rest of you are all our Gruntlings. This means that your safety is our top priority, and in return for keeping you alive, you remember to feed and water your commanding officers when they need it.”

It takes Eel a few weeks, and two base relocations (fucking Imps, piss off!) to realize that he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since Kenobi left him at the bar.

Thanks, he whispers to the stars, and goes back inside the base, full of plans for keeping his band of young, hormonal lunatics alive.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Eel’s been Alliance for ten years, and is training his fifth batch of insane young hormonal lunatics, when Jackson brings him a problem.

Eel does not want Problems. He wants to shoot Imps. He is not, as he keeps telling people, a fucking therapist.

Nobody ever believes him, which is why Jackson is hauling in a prisoner that’s thrown over one of his shoulders. Human, probably male, and emitting a long string of angry growling. “I brought you a present, but I think he’s feral.”

Both of Eel’s eyebrows rise as Jackson plops Sir Growling down onto the closest chair. Not just any feral human, but a brother.

“I am not feral, you fucking bastard Corellian whore-tank—” The rest of the man’s diatribe dissolves into growling again.

Eel drops his feet down from his desk and sits up, tossing aside the report he’d already been trying to ignore, anyway. “Are you speaking fucking Shyriiwook?”

His brother turns on him with a glare, one that softens as he notices mutually recognizable features. “Yeah. I am.”

Eel doesn’t entirely blame Jackson for the feral assessment. This brother is dressed like he crawled into a gutter and forgot to come out. His hair is a grown-out, bushy mess, and there is a light to his eyes that is not quite sane.

Eel has worked with a lot of insane bastards over the years, but this brother reminds him of Gregor and Tunnel Rat. He’ll either need to tread lightly, or sandblast his way through the conversation.

He glances over just in time to see the door slide shut as Jackson beats a hasty retreat. “Asshole.”

When Eel turns back to his brother, the man is smirking. Huh. Sandblasting it is, then. “Who the fuck taught you Shyriiwook?”

“Smuggling Wookiee lady named Chalnikka.” His brother rolls his shoulders before dropping the unlocked cuffs on Eel’s desk. “That fucker you call Jackson is built like a tank.”

“I like you already,” Eel says, grinning. Neat trick; those are Level 3 cuffs. “I’m Eel. 501st before things went to Imperial shit,” he says, and his brother’s eyes light up in a way that’s not related to insanity.

“One of the rogues who ditched from Kamino,” he says. “That’s excellent.”

“You’ve heard of me?”

The man nods. “I looked up everyone who went rogue right at the start. It was nice not to be the only fucker who didn’t turn stupid when the Order was given.”

“I guess so. What’s your name?”

The question gets Eel an eye-twitch; he’s seen that paranoid look before. “Click. I was 104th.”

Wolffe’s favorite battalion. “What the hell happened to you, Click?”

“Someone called in Sixty-Six, and everyone else started shooting at our Jedi Commander,” Click says. “I tried to make them stop, so they shot us both and left us for dead.”

Eel winces. “Fuck. I’m sorry.”

Click shrugs, like it’s old, useless news. “Shit happens.”

“Why did Jackson pick you up?” Eel asks. The tank didn’t leave him a brief. Asshole. So fired.

Click’s good mood vanishes. “I don’t fucking know. Some bastard that I’ve never seen before stops me on the street and asks if I’m de-chipped. I say no, and it gets me arrested! Fucking hells, what is wrong with people?”

Eel stares at Click, and for a minute he’s not sure he heard the man correctly. “You still have your chip.”

“Last time I had a med-scan done for a concussion, yeah,” Click shoots back, scowling. “That was two years ago, but I’m pretty sure no one’s pried it out of my skull in the meantime.”

“And you defended your Jedi?”

Click shakes his head. “Don’t you fucking start.”

“No, look. It’s just—” Eel scrubs his face with one hand. Fuck all of this, why is he the base therapist? They actually have a bastard who has Therapist as a real job title. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you about what the chips do?”

Click raises an eyebrow in a way that reminds Eel strongly of Boil having a bad day. “No.”

Eel sighs. “Fuck a rabid duck.”

To his surprise, Click grins at him. “No thanks.”

Eel’s brother isn’t happy to be told about the chip’s true purpose. He’s even less happy to be told that he’s up for brain surgery. “No fucking way!”

“No choice,” Eel says, while Jackson and Teal hover nearby, waiting to see if their boy is going to bolt. “You have a chip that didn’t fire, and there are still enough of us kicking around in the Imp ranks that we need to know why it didn’t.”

Click gets a wary look on his face. “I’ve seen some of them. This might…help them? To be less fucking stupid?”

“Maybe. No way to find out unless we get to study a broken chip, though,” Eel says, and Click agrees. It helps that they’ve got a one hundred percent success rate on the chip removals.

When it’s done with, the lab techs tell him that there’s nothing useful gained from the chip’s removal. “As near as we can tell, the chip deteriorated early in its lifespan, long before Sixty-Six was ordered. Unfortunately, there is also nothing special about the manner in which the chip degraded.”

“Fuck,” Eel mutters, and goes to tell Click while feeling like the galaxy’s biggest asshole. It would be nice to get thrown a miracle or two. Instead, he put a brother under the knife for no damned reason at all.

“I don’t want to join your fucking Alliance!” Click snarls, when Eel makes the offer.

“That’s fine,” Eel says, resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. It’s not worth the fight. The Alliance only wants willing volunteers, not crazy people who’d rather be anywhere else. “I can have Jackson put you back in whatever gutter he found you in.”

Click glares at him. “Look, I did my job, and not only did I not get fuck-all out of it, the kid fucking died. Fuck all of this, and fuck all of you, too.”

Eel thinks he gets who the kid might have been, but he can’t focus on that. Click needs one hell of a nudge back to the less-psychotic side of the Force. “You know, there are actually a lot of people in the Alliance nowadays. Fucking all of us would take a long, long time.”

Click’s mouth twitches, like he’s biting back a smile. “Fuck you.”

“Seriously, I just told you, that is logistically time-consuming.”

Click still says no, but at least he’s leaving in a better frame of mind than he arrived in. Also, cleaner. Eel thinks that part was desperately overdue.

“Look, just…take this,” Eel says, and gives Click a comm that has also seen better days. “About sixteen entries down on the list, there’s a contact with no name attached. Use it if you change your mind. Oh, and if you get picked up by Imps? Do me a favor and stomp the fucker before it gets confiscated, all right?”

Click’s fingers close around the comm. “Uh—yeah. Sure.   You, uhm, take care of yourself, all right?”

“Sure,” Eel says, and watches until Click disappears into the dark. Poor bastard. Eel can’t tell if Click will survive, or if he’ll be dead inside of a month.

Eel goes back to his private quarters, shucks his jacket and boots, and sits down on the bunk. He’s staring at the wall, doing a good job of not-thinking, when the door hisses open again.

“You cannot save them all.”

Eel glances up at Hahna, who is hanging her long coat next to his jacket. “Yeah, I know. But I can keep trying.”

She graces him with one of her gentle smiles. “You can, yes,” Hahna says, and then curls up on his lap, placing her head on his shoulder. “Scritches,” she demands in a grumpy mutter.

Eel smiles and runs his fingers through her patterned fur. “Demanding girlfriend.”

“There is no other type, no matter the gender,” she replies, and then purrs out her next breath. “Scritches before sex, always.”

“Like that’s a hardship,” Eel teases, and gets whapped for it. Gods, he loves this woman.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Eel is wondering, not for the first time, if he’s about to die. Fucking Imps.

He ducks under the duracrete lip of a tunnel for water runoff, waving his two kids inside while the Imps rain blaster fire down on the entire area. “Look, seriously, fuck you and your boots—we need an evac, yesterday!”

“And I want to live too, asshole!” the Alliance pilot on his comm shouts. “The flack’s so heavy that the transport would be shredded before I could get down there!”

“If you wait too long, this team is going to be too dead to rescue!” Eel shoots back.

“Find me a safe landing zone, then!” the pilot orders, and cuts the channel.

“What are we going to do?” Teal asks, wrapping her arm before more of her coppery blood can leak out. “This tunnel doesn’t go very far before it ends.”

“I don’t know—” Eel starts to say, and then his comm buzzes again. “Hold that thought.”

The channel isn’t the one he’s sharing with the Alliance pilots upstairs. Eel frowns. “Yeah?”

“Your pilots fucking suck balls, you know that, right?”

Eel feels a disbelieving smile spread across his face. “Click?”

“Yeah, yeah, be smug later. Seriously. Sucking rancid Kowakian monkey lizard balls. Fucking flak, my entire ass.”

“Are you providing an extraction?” Eel asks, just to double-check. He’s hallucinated more interesting rescues.

“In about two minutes. Be ready to bolt out of whatever rock your people are hiding under.”

“Holy fuck,” Teal says, and Eel echoes her when the ship comes screaming down, jerking to a halt about a single meter shy of slamming into the ground. “I don’t know if I want to get on that ship, Commander.”

“It’s that ship, or staying here to get shot,” Eel says. He pushes Browning towards the boarding ramp. “Your brother can go first, just to make sure it’s safe!”

“Safety is a relative term!” Browning retorts, but to his credit, he does go up the ramp. Eel judges the situation and then tosses Teal over his shoulder, bolting across the short patch of uncovered ground. An Imp manages to tag his arm, but doesn’t kill either of them.

“Never do that again!” Teal shouts after he’s got them both inside the ship.

“Fine. Next time, I’ll leave you to stumble around from blood loss,” Eel says, and palms the ship’s ramp closed before toggling the speaker. “Good to leave!”

The sudden acceleration is so intense that Eel almost winds up on the floor. “Damn!”

Eel tells Browning to stop poking his nose into other people’s belongings before entering the cockpit. “Nice ship,” he says, sitting down in the unoccupied copilot’s chair. “Who in the entire list of hells taught you to fly?”

Click gives him a dry smile. “A lady named Chalnikka. Used to be her ship, but she wanted to retire.”

“Is Chalnikka also crazy?” Eel asks, wincing as the flak starts to hit. Click doesn’t seem bothered; he just dials the shielding up to maximum, like he flies through flaming death every day.

“Nah, she’s just a Wookiee.” Click gets them in under the shadow of the single Alliance cruiser that came out to trade shots with the Imp destroyer. “I’ve been thinking. Is that job offer still open?”

Eel gives him a disbelieving look. “Click, you just saved our asses. Right now I’d give you a blowjob if you asked for it.” Hahna will understand his reasoning. Maybe. She is fond of him continuing to be alive.

Click stares at Eel from the corner of his eye. “I was trapped all alone on an uninhabited world for over four years, and I am still not that desperate, man.”

Eel smiles. “Fine. No blowjob necessary. Welcome to the Alliance, where I’m sure you’ll find that you are crazier than everyone else involved.”

“Weren’t you 501st?” Click asks.

“Hey, piss off,” Eel retorts, and just like that, he has a brother again.

Chapter Text

Slick’s been in prison for about a year when the Republic loses control of that sector of space, and the Seps move in. He’s excited for a while—he helped the bastards. He’s getting out.

Yeah. Not so much. Doesn’t take him long to realize that the Seps are going to let him rot out the rest of his sentence. Great. Thanks.

He’s very much aware of the fact that prison has made him a hell of a lot more sarcastic. He thinks he gets now why General Kenobi left that setting cranked up to maximum all the time. It doesn’t make him like the bastard, but he gets it.

The only real change when swapping from Republic to Sep control is that the facility starts taking in POWs from the Republic side. Slick doesn’t meet any of them; they’re in different sections. He hears the rumors, though, gets a few names, but none of them last long. He doesn’t know if the idiots are getting themselves killed, or if they’re taking the easy way out, but it’s really kriffing depressing.

Even if they are idiots, they’re his brothers. He’s sitting in jail because he gives a damn about them, not because he didn’t.

A few days from the first anniversary of his official sentencing, Slick gets a cellmate. A brother.

A brother from the 501st, who is really not fucking happy about sharing a cell with a traitor.

His brother tells him so. Loudly. While throwing anything he can get his hands on.

Slick stands in place, not saying a word. He’s a complete bastard, but isn’t so bad that he’s going to shout at someone who looks like they might still be dying. He nudges a cup with his boot. Not a damn thing being thrown is hitting him, and it’s not because his brother isn’t trying.

It doesn’t take long for the kid to run out of ammunition. Not much stuff in a prison cell. He glares at Slick, panting, an alarming gray cast to his skin. Fuck’s sake, the kid should still be in medical.

“You right-handed?” Slick asks. There isn’t a response, which is answer enough. “How long have you had that shiny new bionic arm?”

The kid’s got fresh burn scars on his face. It probably hurts to scowl like that. “About a week.”

Slick nods. “It takes a while for the neural connections to really finish lining up, especially if they didn’t take the time to do the job right. That’s why you can’t aim for shit. It’ll get better in about a month or so.”

That gets Slick a wary look. “How do you know that?”

Slick lifts his right leg and wiggles his foot. “Been there, done that, fucking hated it.” He’s got a higher-end bionic than his poor bastard brother. His arm looks fragile, and that’s no good in a prison. Fucking Seps went cheap on him. At least the bionic eye they gave him isn’t garbage.

“Your leg?”

Slick shakes his head. “Nah. Foot. Lost it my first time out—it got blown off by a cluster bomb. That’s how I earned my first commendation.”

“For getting blown up?” the kid asks him, eyebrow raised. Such a 501st brat.

“No. For sticking out the duration of the fight, walking on the stump of my leg when we needed to move, and probably saving a few dozen lives.”

“Kriffing hells.” The kid looks torn. “I wouldn’t have expected something like that from you.”

“That’s kind of my point,” Slick says, irritated. “You got into the 501st after I was already tossed in here. We’ve never met until today. You don’t get to judge me when you don’t know fuck-all about me.”

The kid’s eyes narrow, and all at once Slick realizes he might be misjudging this brother’s age. He might still be young, but he’s not a kid. “You calling my commander a liar, traitor?”

Slick rolls his eyes. “Rex isn’t a liar, he’s just an asshole. Look. It’s been almost a year since then. A year is a long time for a clone, isn’t it?” His brother gives him a cautious nod. “You can learn a lot in that time.”

“What did you learn?” his brother asks, sounding cranky.

Slick gives him a sardonic smile. “How to be a complete bastard. How to hate everyone and everything. Maybe how to be more fucking subtle, too.”

“No, I really don’t think you’ve nailed that last one yet,” the man says, and finally sits down on the bunk he didn’t strip for projectiles. “Dammit. This isn’t—hells, you wouldn’t understand.”

He snorts. “Try me.”

His brother holds up his right arm, looking at the shine of metal joints that are human-looking only in the sense that there’s a hand and five fingers attached to the end. “It’s not even just that I’m captured and stuck in a Sep prison. I’m—even if I got out tomorrow, I’m fucking useless now.”

Slick gives it a moment, judging the situation, and sits down next to his brother. Doesn’t get punched for it; good sign. “What’s your name?”

“CT-21-0408, Sergeant-Major Echo, ARC trooper.” He holds out his left hand with a tired, defeated look on his face. Burn scars there, too. The Seps took him out of bacta too early, the bastards.

Slick ignores the hand and takes him by the arm, properly Mando’a. Echo looks surprised, and when he tries to mimic the gesture, he doesn’t have it quite right. “CT-9983, Slick, and I still hold a sergeant’s rank so fuck you.”

Echo smiles. “Touchy, aren’t you?”

“You’ve got no fuckin’ idea. What the hell happened to you, Echo?” Slick asks.

“Got shot, got blown up,” Echo says, which, yeah, that explains a lot. “Pretty sure I was dead for a bit, too, but the Citadel stocks good medical droids.”

“The 501st assaulted the fucking Citadel?” Great fucking ugly balls, his legion has lost their damned minds.

They went in by carbonite-freezing themselves. Utter. Fucking. Nutjobs.

Echo takes it as a compliment, warming to Slick just enough to keep talking.   Most of it’s bad news, like the fact that Rex is still leading the 501st and generally refusing to die.

The casualty list for the last year is just insane.

Slick told them they were cannon fodder, he fucking shouted it. If this long list of names isn’t proof enough, he has no idea what it would take to convince his brothers that they’re being used.

Fucking lockstep bastards, Cody and Rex with their sanctimonious bullshit, leading brothers to their deaths because some damned Jedi tells them to. His entire fucking squad is gone, all of them: Gus, Chopper, Punch, and Sketch. They trusted him, and he’s failed them by not being there.

Well. Had trusted.

Gods dammit.

“How the hell are you not a walking, traumatized, battle-broken wreck?” Slick asks. Echo literally watched entire squads of men die all around him, batchmates included, and yet he doesn’t seem to have any…quirks. He only bitches about the bionics—not just his arm and the eye, but his right leg from mid-thigh down—and the way the burn scars itch as sensation slowly comes back.

“I dunno,” Echo says, watching the crowds in the commissary. He’s memorizing patterns, who hangs out where, who’s talking to each other, where the exits are. Maybe this brother will last more than a week. “How’s the food? I can’t taste anything. My tongue’s still too burnt.”

“If you pretend you don’t know what you’re eating, it’s easier,” Slick says, trying to evaluate this idiot he’s been saddled with. “How old are you?”

Echo is picking at one of the provided protein cubes like it’s going to bite him. “Nine.”

“Fucking what.

Echo stops poking at his food and looks up. “What?”

Slick has to take a breath or he’s going to be screaming in the mess. It always stirs up the guards, and he’s had enough blows to the head, thanks. “You told me that you were put in the 501st at the end of last year.”

“Yeah.” Echo is looking at him with that wary Slick-the-Traitor expression again. “Domino Squad finished our training up when we were eight, got sent out on active duty. Celebrated my 9th birthday with Torrent. Are you all right? You’re turning kind of purple.”

“The minimum. Combat age. For clone troopers. Is fucking ten.

Echo looks surprised. “No, it’s not. It’s eight. It’s right in the regs.”

Slick honestly thinks he is going to explode from the effort it’s taking to keep the rage in check. The only thing keeping him from screaming is the fact that Echo is not ready to take a beating from the fucking guards.

“They changed the regs,” Slick says, the words coming out in a raspy whisper because he’s grinding his teeth together. “They actually changed the godsdamned regs.”

Echo is shaking his head. “It’s always been that way—”

“Don’t be so fucking stupid!” Slick snaps, and then lowers his voice when several heads turn in their direction. “I’m eleven, just two generations younger than Rex. When we were kids, it was ten. We were told that we were too young to go any earlier, that our brains weren’t finished developing, and we needed the training time to be the best fucking soldiers we could be. I logged fifteen hundred hours of combat training, Echo. What did they give your team?”

Echo is starting to look unhappy. “Five hundred hours.”

“Congratulations. You were literally set up to be cannon fodder,” Slick growls, and then shoves his chair back and walks away. He can’t continue that conversation.

He goes to the next cell block and starts a fight with a Whiphid that’s always cranky. It really helps to beat the shit out of someone. He just doesn’t want it to be that dumb damn kid.

Slick is lying on his bunk, staring at the ceiling while nursing the epic black eye he’s going to have in the morning, when Echo comes in. “Don’t start,” he mutters.

“I was just gonna say that you’ve got anger issues.”

Slick lifts his head and glares at Echo. “Haven’t you ever been really fuckin’ angry?”

Echo eases himself down on the other bunk, leaning against the wall. “Nah. Not really.”

“Not even when you lost the rest of your squad?” Slick asks, a nasty theory curdling his thoughts.

“No. I mean, I miss them. I always just left the soft stuff to Fives. He’s better at it.”

Slick relaxes. No further emotional fuckery than the Kaminoans had started with, then. Echo has just swallowed a huge dose of Jedi nonsense about detachment. Or he’s broken, but hey, what clone isn’t after going into combat?

He’s almost fallen asleep when Echo asks, “Why’d you ally with the Seps?”

Finally. Slick has been waiting for that shoe to drop for a while now. “Didn’t think I had any other options. Doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

Echo sighs. “No. I guess it doesn’t.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

The Seps are losing the war, slowly but surely. They get hints of it now and then, and sometimes the HoloNet feed picks up transmissions that aren’t pure Sep propaganda.

First there are whispers that the war might be over. Then the news comes in that the Jedi are being executed as traitors to the Republic.

Slick’s been pissed at the Jedi Order, their Commanders, and their high-and-mighty Generals, for a long time now. He is the happiest, smuggest bastard to ever wander around a prison complex. Fucking murdering bastards, responsible for the deaths of so many of his brothers, had finally got what was coming to them. It’s the best present ever, and it’s not even his birthday.

Echo is in too much shock to notice how thrilled Slick is with the news, which is just as well. The man loved his insane Jedi leaders. Even if he’s sort of willing to go along with Slick’s theories about their brothers being yes, actual cannon fodder, he still believes that the Jedi wanted the best for them. Idiot.

Most of the prison population starts crowding around the few working, wall-mounted vid-screens, dedicated to running grainy pirated news from the HoloNet. The word in their block is that the powers that be for their facility are trying to figure out if they should remain Confederates, surrender to the new Empire, or pretend to have been Republic all along.

Yeah, that last one would fly well. Slick almost wants them to try it.

“Why would our brothers do this?” Echo asks. He’s watching some random asshole in the Senate extoll the virtues of their new Emperor. So much for all that noise about preserving the Republic.

“Maybe they finally got tired of watching our brothers die for no reason,” Slick says.

Echo doesn’t snap at him, though Slick can tell by the set of his jaw that Echo wants to. Instead, he just says, “But that’s the problem. Why all of them, Slick?”

“What?”

“Why all of them?” Echo repeats, after giving Slick a sharp nudge with his elbow. “The Jedi were all executed at once. What about a military tribunal, Slick? You know, that thing you went through when you were dubbed a traitor? Where was the trial?”

Slick bites back the immediate, angry impulse to say it doesn’t matter. “I dunno. Maybe the new Emperor thought the Jedi were too powerful to arrest and put on trial.”

“Maybe,” Echo says, but he doesn’t look convinced.

Slick is trying very hard to ignore the voice in his head, his annoying damn conscience, telling him that Echo has a point. Traitors get trials. His own had been boring as hell.

Then they find out about the razing of the Temple. The 501st performed a mass execution of every single living being within.

Echo vomits in the tiny corner ’fresher until he’s dry-heaving. Slick just sits on his bunk, feeling numb.

He is an utter bastard, and has never once apologized for it. His morals are not exactly in line with the Jedi-Republic standard, but what he knows is this: Those were children. Underage children, no matter if it was the Jedi viewpoint or the Republic laws regarding sentient adulthood.

Underage children can’t be convicted of treason. There are laws against that shit. Slick should know; he looked them up, trying to figure out if his actual, physical age would protect him when he decided to act against the Republic. Didn’t help him at all, being a clone, but it was nice to know those things about other kids. Just in case.

His—their legion executed children. If he’s going to be honest with himself, the 501st helped commit genocide.

“This is—this is wrong, isn’t it?” Echo asks him in a hoarse voice. “I know how you feel, Slick, but…isn’t it?”

Slick can’t look his brother in the face, but he nods. “Yeah, Echo. Active field Jedi…that’s one thing. But—but not kids. That’s not…”

“That couldn’t have been Rex.”

Slick looks up. Echo has a pinched expression on his face, the one he gets when he really wants to be angry but the burn scars fuck things up. “Rex could be dead.”

Echo closes his eyes. “He could be. Maybe—maybe he must be. I know you don’t like Rex, but he would—he would—”

“Rex would never have gone in and murdered kids,” Slick admits, feeling a sudden, aching exhaustion. “Not even on his worst day.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

It takes about a year for the new Imperial military machine to make it out to their sector of space. The prison gets a full review from white-armored men who are no longer clone troopers, but stormtroopers.

Everyone gets exiled to their cells and locked in, the better for their new Imp overlords to get a proper headcount. The other prisoners on their block are making a horrendous racket, but Slick ignores them, watching the way the troops spread out through their section of the facility.

Slick pays particular attention to the restyled buckets. The original, Mandalorian-inspired lens has become separate black eye ports, but it doesn’t look to be an improvement. “Bet you an extra dessert from the mess that they can’t see shit in those helmets,” he says in an undertone to Echo.

“That’s not Phase II armor, either,” Echo says, evaluating squads as they traipse down the corridors in front of their locked cell. “I think that armor’s quality is worse than what I had as a Shiny.”

Slick waits until the Imperials’ initial evaluation is done, and then he chances a beating by getting the attention of the sergeant in the next squad that walks by. “Hey!”

“What is it, Prisoner 211-2556B?” the trooper asks.

Slick’s stomach sours on him when he realizes that the trooper’s voice doesn’t belong to a brother. He also wants to punch the fucker for reducing him to a number—and the wrong number, besides.

He puts all that aside; this is not about him, not yet. “Are you lot doing extractions for POWs that the Seps were keeping here?”

“Depends on the prisoner,” the sergeant says. “Why, you a POW?”

The sergeant sounds far too amused; Slick doesn’t trust him at all. “No, not me. Him,” he says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate Echo.

Echo glances up just as the sergeant lets out a derisive snort. “Guess you haven’t heard the news, then, prisoners.”

“What news?” Echo asks. Slick’s grateful for the distraction of the question, since he’s a few seconds away from shoving his arms through the cell bars so he can throttle the life out of an Imperial asshole.

“We don’t want clones,” the sergeant says, an opinion echoed by the other members of his squad. “You’re nothing but relics. Even if we were gonna restock clones in the Imperial military, that one?” The sergeant points at Echo and laughs. “What would we use him for, target practice?”

The sergeant takes one step too close. Slick leaps forward, arms outstretched, and has the fucking sergeant wrapped in a chokehold before his idiot squadmates can so much as twitch their undertrained fingers.

“Let go!” the sergeant demands in a raspy hiss. Slick rolls his eyes and racks the idiot up against the bars. The man’s troopers try to move in; Slick tightens his arm across the asshole’s throat, warning them off.

“Not gonna do that,” Slick says. “I get that maybe things have changed, and oh, but forgive us poor fucks for not knowing that. But that man you just insulted is 501st. He is a decorated war hero who also happens to outrank you, Sergeant. You owe him an apology.”

“Slick, it’s fine—”

“No, it isn’t!” Slick growls back. They could turn on the juice that sends an electrical charge through the bars at any moment, and he’s got a point to make. “They can leave me here to rot, but they don’t get to insult one of my brothers!”

“Stupid clone,” the sergeant gurgles. “They’ll—never let—you out!”

“Fine. You aren’t leaving here, either,” Slick says, and gives the fucker’s head a sharp twist just before someone wises up and turns on the juice. Slick is flung back from the bars, hits the rear wall of the cell, and blacks out.

Slick wakes up in his bunk to find Echo staring down at him. “Well,” he rasps. “You’re still here.”

“You know, there are other ways to ask people to do things that don’t involve trying to kill them first,” Echo says, his lip curling up on one side as he smiles.

“I did ask first.” Slick sits up and groans. Fucking high-voltage jolts hurt like hell afterwards. Of course, that could also be bruising from hitting the wall. Fuck-all, his back hates him.

“While you slept off your temper tantrum—”

“Hey, fuck you,” Slick grumbles. “Is that asshole dead?”

“They carted him out, yes,” Echo retorts, miffed at the interruption. “Look, I sat in a corner and listened to all the words floating in the air. What I heard…it isn’t good, Slick.”

“Can’t make things much worse than they are now,” Slick points out, wondering if he’s got any pain patches tucked away in the stash he’s not supposed to have.

“For us? No, not really,” Echo says, and that’s when Slick really starts paying attention.

Their brothers are dying. Sometimes the deaths are obvious suicides—and those numbers are sickeningly high—but other times there are mass deaths under “suspicious circumstances.”

Friendly fire, Slick thinks, jaw clenched in anger. They’re wiping the military ranks of Republic-loyal clones, all the better to fill them with soldiers who are utterly devoted to the new Empire.

Lack of intelligence has never been one of Slick’s problems. He’s too angry, too violent—but he watched, he listened, and he learned, even when he wasn’t supposed to.

“Fuck,” Slick mutters. He feels ill, like his heart is clamped in a cold vise.

It’s never fun to realize that you were angry at the wrong damn people.

“What is it?” Echo asks, dropping down from the one-armed chin-ups that Slick has been badgering him to do. The first week, Echo angrily told him off—no point to exercising if you were trapped in a cell and useless. Slick countered that there wasn’t much else to do in a prison cell, and Echo’s out-of-shape ass needed to learn to carry bionic weight.

Gods, that’s at least a simple problem to fix. The mess the galaxy’s in—that’s not simple, and Slick had a hand in making it that way.

Echo is kneeling in front of him before Slick realizes he went silent. “Talk. It’s weird when you pull the silent card.”

“They were using us.” Slick is trying to figure out how to get the words out without sounding like he’s just on another of his angry diatribes. “The Republic—or maybe it was just that damned Chancellor. They used our brothers, and the Jedi. The moment they got what they wanted, they killed us. They killed the Jedi. Just so they could turn the Republic into this shit fucking Empire.

“I told you that we were slaves, that we were cannon fodder.” Slick glances up at Echo, who is staring at him in dismayed realization. “I just…it never occurred to me to wonder if maybe the Jedi were slaves, too.”

Echo sighs and drops down onto his bunk, staring at him from across the room. “Damn. What do we do?”

“Same thing we’ve been trained to do,” Slick tells him, feeling a cold smile steal its way across his face. “We survive.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

The prison gets a thorough Imperial vetting, which takes way too long and seems to involve a lot of “redistribution” of supplies. Once it’s done, the original staff is left in charge of the facility. The exception is one overweight man in an olive-drab Imperial uniform. He’s ostensibly the new warden, but after being introduced on his first day, no one ever sees him again. Fucking lazy Imperial bastard.

The facility is run by those who actually give a fuck about keeping people alive, even if they’re prisoners. Slick tries to be less gruff with them, well aware of the fact that the fat Imperial fuckwit, left to his own devices, would have locked the prison tight and left everyone to die of starvation and insanity.

Echo suggests an escape attempt in their third year.

Slick gives Echo a disgusted look. “We don’t have the resources,” he says, “yes, even if we raid Medical, Stores, and bribe every lazy-ass guard in every single cell block.”

“But maybe—”

“Your bionics are shit. You can’t even run, dumbass,” Slick reminds him.

“My mobility’s getting better,” Echo grouses under his breath.

“And, the most important reason?” Slick looks down at his hand, which has a pretty mess of scars from a Force pike being applied to one place for far too long. It’s not the only place on his body that has that kind of scarring. “I already tried it. The results were lousy.”

Slick has no idea why he gets along so well with Echo. They might as well be polar fucking opposites, given Echo’s absolute joy when it comes to structure and rules. Slick doesn’t get it; he gives no fucks about anyone’s rules but his own.

Echo just offers him an odd smile that—yes, that’s mischief, not innocence. “You have to know all of the rules and regulations in order to know how to go around them,” he says, and gets the prison guidelines and regulations handbook from the archive.

The prison regs fill up six data chips, and Echo reads all of it, which further fuels Slick’s opinion that Echo is completely fucking nuts. The man must have been an amazing ARC trooper.

Echo’s new knowledge of regs and rules is how they wind up with double rations three times a week, less restricted access to Medical, and unrestricted access to anything in the prison archives. Slick is willing to concede the point, but he’s still not going to read the entire fucking prison manual.

“Now we can actually learn something,” Echo says proudly.

Slick eyes the long list of non-fiction titles and learning texts for coursework that ranges from grammar school up through university. “Congratulations. I think you might have managed to make prison even more boring than it already was.”

Echo slaps him on the shoulder. “Haven’t you ever wanted to speak another language?”

“Why? I already speak Asshole well enough.”

Reading does actually help to pass the time. Dammit.

Echo is smug when he catches Slick cradling a screen-cracked datapad, sounding out words in Huttese that he doesn’t yet know. “Fuck off,” Slick mutters, and Echo just laughs and goes to find something else to do.

Slick is also hiding behind the datapad because…because otherwise he’s paying far too much attention to Echo. Not verbally—though that’s fun, too. Echo doesn’t seem to mind that Slick is a vitriolic mess of a clone, and will prod back under the pretense of being nice.

He just notices, all right? Echo’s burns have all but healed, though there’s always going to be the shine of it on his face, left arm, and hand. He built up the musculature to easily support the weight of the bionics. Hells, the kid is probably in the best physical shape he can get without some serious technical and structural upgrades.

Slick’s just not—he’s not the kind of person the kid should spend that kind of time with. Sharing a prison cell’s fine, but he isn’t…Echo deserves better.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Slick’s prison sentence is supposed to be ten years. He’s really not all that surprised when his release date goes by with no hint of anyone giving a damn. Assholes.

He does ask one of the medics about it, a close-mouthed Lannik with half of one ear missing. He has a feeling Chavan was in the same civil war that General Piell was involved with, but the medic won’t talk about it.

Chavan just sighs at him, like Slick asked a stupid question. “They’re not letting anyone out, not unless they’re willing to swear loyalty to the Empire and the Emperor.”

“Fuck that,” Slick retorts immediately.

“Exactly my point,” Chavan says, and returns to his rounds. The Whiphid that Slick likes to beat into the ground on occasion is lying in one of the beds. Given the information displayed on the bio monitors, his favorite punching bag isn’t going to last much longer. Damn.

Echo tried to get him to lay off the man, but Slick refused. The Whiphid started it.

“It’s just as well,” Echo says, when Slick mentions his lack of release date. “The Empire would probably make us stone dead in less than a week just for showing our faces outside of these walls.”

“That explosion at the Citadel broke your fucking brain.”

Echo smiles. Pragmatic fucking idiot. “Yeah, probably.”

Slick doesn’t want to admit that his stupid cellmate has a point. At least in the prison, they’re getting medical treatment (Godsdamn arthritis, are you fucking kidding me?) clothing, regular meals, and thanks to Echo, a better education through the archives than they received via Kaminoan flash-training.

He’s well aware of the things they don’t have—money being the most important one. Echo and Slick wouldn’t be able to get shit for assistance unless they joined the Imperial Navy or that ragtag mess that calls itself the Rebel Alliance. Trying to rebel against the Empire would also make them very dead.

Then there are the days that prove, over and over again, that prison is extremely fucking boring. They’re in lock-down because someone was stupid and started a riot. The timing’s bad; they were between archive runs. There isn’t shit to do except breathe and try not to die out of mental self-defense.

“Twenty questions?” Echo asks, slumped on the bunk next to him.

“No booze,” Slick replies, but he’s desperate enough to consider it. There is literally nothing else to do. “Subject matter?”

“Anything goes,” Echo says. “My brain is melting from boredom. If we tried to narrow it down I’d never come up with anything.”

“Favorite color.”

Echo snorts. “Any color except the lovely palette of bullshit we see every day. Institutional green, steel, and glop. Had enough.”

“Glop isn’t a color,” Slick says.

“Fuck you,” Echo replies, which makes Slick grin. “My turn. Favorite sexual position?”

“Uh.” Slick stares at him from the corner of his eye. “Sometimes I switch hands. It’s great.”

“What? You’ve never—”

“Hey, asshole. If you’re going to play the game, play it right,” Slick says, shoving Echo over a few centimeters. It’s not easy to move this man; he carries extra weight and he knows how to cheat. “My turn. Most embarrassing crush?” It’s ridiculous, but it’s a classic.

“Nooooo.” The word comes out as a distressed whine, and Echo looks horrified. “Can I take a pass?”

“No.” Slick’s far too curious now. “Besides, we still don’t have booze.”

“You can’t tell anyone,” Echo says, and Slick starts laughing. “Hey, fuck you! I’m serious. We’re not dead yet! We might see someone we used to know, eventually!”

“I won’t, all right?” Slick promises, wiping at his eyes. Tell anyone, his ass. Fucking hells, that’s hilarious. Who’s he supposed to tell, anyway?

“I used to have this gods-awful crush on General Vos.”

Slick raises both eyebrows. “You had a crush on a crazy person. A Jedi crazy person.”

Echo nods. “Yeah.”

“You’ve got terrible taste in men,” Slick tells him frankly.

Echo gives him a rueful sort of nod. “I really do,” he says, and then leans forward and then there are lips pressing against his.

Slick has no idea what the fuck is happening. Kissing is—way nicer than he expected it to be, but still, this also just climbed to the top of his What-The-Fuck list. He pulls back and looks at Echo, who is staring at him, defiant, guilty, and uh, flushed.

“You don’t have to—I mean, I know I’m—” Echo starts to babble, when Slick doesn’t say anything.

“If you bitch about how you’re not a whole man, I’ll punch you,” Slick says, grinning. “But after the sex.”

“Yeah?” Echo looks so damn hopeful that it breaks his bitter fucking heart.

“Yeah.” Slick kisses Echo first, this time, because he’s really still trying to figure that out. It’s nice. Warm and smooth, hints of wet, stubble—he could get used to this.

“You sure?” Echo asks him one more time, when they’re tangled up together. Slick has no idea what happened to his shirt, and he has no fucking idea when these stupid drawstring pants got so difficult to remove!

“You deserve someone a lot better than a dried-up, vicious bastard of a clone,” Slick says, in complete honesty. “But I’m an asshole, so I refuse to be noble. I’ll bet sex is way better than noble suffering.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Holy shit. Sex is better than breathing.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Echo is ridiculously happy when he discovers that prison tattooing is a thing. Slick rolls his eyes at him for not knowing before he remembers that their last artist died in a brawl a few weeks after Echo joined him, and there wasn’t anyone with the talent to replace her.

The transfer in from B-block is a humanoid of utterly indeterminate gender. The first person to forget to use gender-neutral pronouns (they exist for a reason, assholes) gets a lifetime tattoo ban.

The second person to forget gets stabbed through the eyeball with a toothbrush. Lasting impressions and all that.

The only thing Echo wants them to ink onto his skin is a blue handprint. Slick stares at him.

“That’s it? You have unlimited access to an artist, barring trade, and all you want is a fucking handprint on your chest?”

Echo just smiles at him. “It means a lot to me.”

“Nutjob.”

“You have no right to bitch,” Echo says. “You have zero tattoos.”

“Zero?” Sheenalia perks up. “You are a blank canvas?”

“Shit,” Slick mutters. They’re so curious about having what they swear is their first “blank slate” of skin that they’re willing to ink him and owe him a favor.

He is not stupid enough to turn that offer down. Toothbrush.

Sheenalia works on the left side of his face for what feels like the entire damned day, and no, they do not allow for piss breaks. Moving is also not allowed unless it’s related to breathing.

The result is…not what Slick expected.

It’s a star, and until he looks close, he thinks it’s a solid block of purple that’s more blue than red. Anyone else would have to be pretty much staring him dead in the eye to know it, too. The star is five-pointed, but the two points at his earlobe and hairline are short. The other three are elongated, coming to sharp ends at the corner of his eye, the edge of his eyebrow, and the bottom of his jaw. Within the star is intricate detail work, symbols and unfamiliar alphabets and gods fucking knew what else.

“Why a star?” Slick asks, touching the pattern on his face. His skin is tender to the touch, and seeing that ink in the mirror every morning is going to throw him for a while.

Sheenalia smiles, revealing demon-sharp teeth that match their cat-slitted eyes a bit too well. “Because you burn inside.”

“I like it,” Echo says, when Slick wanders back to their cell that evening.

“Didn’t get it for you.” Slick winces when his customary scowl makes his face hurt.

“You’re an asshole.” Echo is smiling as he says it, so he probably means it, but Slick still gets to share his bunk with a naked man that night, so he doesn’t care.

Slick rests his hand on the green-edged domino that graces Echo’s hip, making Echo wince in his sleep from the pressure on freshly-tattooed skin. He’d asked Sheenalia to cross out four of the five dots.

“You don’t know about dot number four,” Slick had said, trying to argue with him. Ink was permanent in a prison—no fancy lasers to get rid of your mistakes.

“Yeah. I do,” Echo replied, but that was all he would say about it.

 

*         *         *         *

 

It’s surprising how quickly twenty-seven years can pass when you deliberately stop paying attention to calendars and dates. Once Slick shoved that habit out of his head and kept it there, the days started to blur together. He marked time by what he’d read, or the bruises he picked up from sparring to keep his basic hand-to-hand combat skills from getting rusty. His sparring partner has two metal fucking limbs, and Slick refuses to let Echo pull his punches.

There is also sex, but it’s less all-consuming passion and more familiar, grounding moments of contact. It’s…nice. He’s not sure if this is a relationship or an extended friendship, but Echo doesn’t hate him. Slick can live with that.

Then the Rebel Alliance liberates their prison.

“What the fuck,” Slick whispers, as cell after cell after cell opens wide, their occupants released. He’s watching the chaos from the relative safety of the mess; the Alliance doesn’t seem to notice, or care, if they’re releasing violent offenders. Maybe there’s a security system in place—

Oh. They’ve got Wookiees there to keep order. That’ll do the trick. The bastards will behave, or they’ll get their legs ripped off. No great loss, that.

“Slick?”

Slick shakes his head at Echo. Whatever the question is, he doesn’t think he has an answer, not yet. At this point, he’s been in prison longer than he’s been GAR, or even a kid clone-in-training. Freedom is a leery fucking prospect, much as he still wants it.

They’re told that there was a second Death Star. “Are they fucking stupid?” Slick blurts out, but the Alliance rep speaking to their group of relatively-sane prisoners just laughs.

“Seems that way. Sure came in handy, though,” the woman says.

Lieutenant F’Tsn tells them about the Battle of Endor. The Emperor is dead, as is Vader, and a whole slew of other assholes. This isn’t just chance liberation—the Alliance is winning.

“Well…shit!” Slick finally says, while a bunch of emotions he doesn’t even like to contemplate try to compete for dominance. “Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?”

F’Tsn sobers. “Anything you want. I mean that. There are not very many of the original clone soldiers left in the galaxy, and the Alliance takes care of you when we can.”

“I want better bionics,” Echo says, the first words he’s spoken since F’Tsn asked for their attention. “These are shit.”

“That’s all?” Slick asks, dredging the question through as much sarcasm as he can muster.

“With synth-flesh or without?” F’Tsn asks Echo without blinking. She’s way too chipper to have around all the time, but she gets major points for that gesture alone.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Echo takes the entire fucking archive with him when they leave. Nutjob.

 

*         *         *         *

 

They get stuck on an Alliance cruiser. It’s not intentional—fuck, there isn’t anywhere else for them to go. Slick went into prison with nothing and came out with even less.

It’s still a type of confinement, and it’s galling. It’s annoying.

Also, neither of them are used to eating real food. That’s a week of adjustment that Slick would like to forget about immediately, thank you very fucking much.

The Alliance keeps their word about making sure Echo gets bionics that aren’t made of cobbled garbage. Echo and Slick have gotten so used to cold metallic lines that the synth-flesh is weird, but Echo stopped caring about weird the moment he realized that every square centimeter of fake skin had full sensation.

That is a week of exploration that Slick would like to repeat. In a permanent loop.

It does make him look at his own right foot, contemplating an update of the solid bionic replacement that’s kept him walking for almost three decades. It feels stupid to swap it out just to get fake skin, even if Echo is a proven case that synth-skin definitely has benefits.

Slick ultimately decides not to go through with it, and tells himself it’s not because he feels like he doesn’t deserve it. It’s just a fucking frivolous waste of time.

Echo joins the crew in a position that may as well be civvie, because of course he does, but at least it makes him happy. Slick can’t cope with the idea of joining anyone or anything, but he isn’t going to up and leave, either. He spends Echo’s on-shift time roaming the Dumisani Haven, getting to know a cruiser that’s literally as old as he is. She’s something familiar, something tangible that he knows.

Echo and this stupid ship are the only things he knows. Fuck.

“You know, you do have…options, now,” Slick suggests. He doesn’t actually want to have this conversation, but it’s been a bad day, and his hands hurt like hell.

“Options?” Echo looks at Slick like he’s lost his mind. “What options?”

“Well, there are thousands of people around now. You don’t need to necessarily stay with me.”

Echo frowns. “Are you…are you breaking up with me?”

“What? No!” Slick retorts, and then realizes that he’s just admitted that they have a real relationship. “You bastard.”

Echo grins at Slick. “You’re stupid,” he says, and kisses him until Slick has forgotten the pain in his hands. He also might have temporarily forgotten his own name, but that’s because Echo is a cheating little shit.

Slick still doesn’t want to be military, but he knows the ship so intimately at this point he can walk the corridors in his sleep. There are civilian work crews, about a step down from what Echo is doing, so Slick decides to hell with it and joins up.

He didn’t realize that this also meant planet-side jobs.

There is real soil beneath his boots. Air in his lungs that is true atmosphere, not regulated by a facility or by a ship’s life support system. There is sky and land stretching endlessly in all directions.

Slick can’t decide if this is rapture, or if he’s having a fucking panic attack.

If Lieutenant F’Tsn hadn’t gone with the crew, he would have been fired on his first day for utterly stalling out. She gives him a pass while Slick tries to cope with ground and fucking sky and now there’s snow.

It’s fucking snowing. He used to hate the shit. Now, it’s probably the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, and if that’s not pathetic, he doesn’t know what else could qualify.

He spends that first day just scuffing around in dirt and snow, letting it fall on his face and melt where it lands. F’Tsn wanders around with him, doing her usual chatterbox thing. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to need a response—which is good, because he doesn’t actually have context for half the things the woman is blathering about.

The next day, Slick sternly tells himself that he is not going to become a broken mess over what is really just bad weather, and gets to work. The crew is a mix of civvies and what look to be soldiers either on the verge of retiring, or retirees who just don’t know how to go out without a uniform anymore. He thinks they could be Clone Wars vets, a theory confirmed when they give him cold shoulders and furtive glares when their shift lead isn’t paying attention.

Slick just smiles and gestures, using the old Mando’a hand sign for “Fuck you.” He’s put up with worse in his life, and these old grumpy fucks don’t even rate on the scale.

The work isn’t bad, either. He doesn’t need to shoot anything; they’re just cleaning up the mess from a battle that happened at least five years ago, given the way the carbon scoring is fading from the walls. Place used to be an Alliance base before the Imperials nailed it, and Command thinks it’s still a strategically useful location.

Slick thinks they’re full of shit, but hey, he’s getting paid for this. He’ll paint the walls pink if that’s what keeps the money coming.

He hopes they don’t paint the walls pink. He really does like colors now, more than he ever did before, but he still can’t stand pink.

There’s a crack running in a diagonal line up one side of the base, a retaining wall that’s keeping back a hell of a lot of rock and dirt. Slick makes a note of it, points it out to the shift lead that day. It’s one of the prejudiced pricks, but Slick badgers the asshole until at least the damage is written down.

“What the actual fuck is your problem with me, anyway?” Slick finally asks. They’re low-rate annoyances, but godsdammit, they are doing the same fucking job and this is ridiculous.

The retiree sniffs and glares at him. “Fucking Jedi killer, that’s what my problem is.”

It takes Slick a moment to realize what he’s being accused of before he starts laughing. “You stupid shit. I was in a POW prison during the Purges.” He’s never killed a Jedi, though he will privately admit that he did sort of try. Didn’t work very well, but this asshole doesn’t need to know that, either.

“Oh. Er—I’m…sorry to hear that,” the old man sputters.

Slick rolls his eyes and walks away. He’s got things to do, and they don’t involve listening to bullshit apologies.

He does find himself wondering: Could he actually fire a weapon anymore? He hasn’t touched a blaster of any type in twenty-seven fucking years. The medics in the Alliance are doing wonders for the arthritis in his hands, but he doesn’t even know if he could keep the weight steady.

Slick practices with a rock that has just enough heft in his hand, close to the right weight but he knows immediately that it’s wrong. Prison doesn’t exactly make you soft, so strength won’t be a problem. A rock just isn’t a substitute for the real thing.

Either someone didn’t actually listen to Slick about the damned retaining wall, or they just didn’t get to it fast enough. It comes down the next day with a roar that makes Slick’s ears feel like they’re stuffed with gauze.

“Fuck everything,” Slick mutters, and goes to help.

Problem is, nobody seems to know what the hell to do. Slick observes the chaos for about forty seconds before he loses patience with what appears to be complete fucking ineptitude.

“HEY! STAND TO!” he roars, and gets the attention of every officer, retired or not, and most of the other workers just on sheer fucking volume alone. Slick takes a second to be pleased that he hasn’t lost the ability to shout insubordinate fuckers into submission.

“You three,” he points at the retirees who gave him the most shit. “I want you on comm to the Haven upstairs on three different channels. We need life signs detectors and we don’t have them here. Tell them to bring down a heavy lifter or a repulsor, because that tiny damned dozer over there isn’t going to be worth shit for cleaning up that mess. Third signal is devoted to medical—there was a team in that wing of the building and if we pull them out alive, we’ll need to fucking keep them that way.”

“You two” he points at the next group, who are all but standing there with their mouths open. “Get on that dozer, go to the other fucking side of the retaining wall, and start getting rid of that crap that’s still back there. We want the pressure off the pile, or more of that shit could fall over and make our jobs more fucking difficult.”

“You four!” Slick glares at the last group, the kids, who are at least paying rapt attention. “Put on your heavy gloves and start lifting rocks. We won’t make much progress, but at least anyone alive will hear that we’re trying to save them. Go! All of you. MOVE YOUR ASSES!” Slick bellows, when they’re all two seconds too slow.

The hell with all of this. Nobody’s dying on his watch because of a fucking wall.

Slick’s hands are raw and bleeding by the time it gets dark, but they’re also pulling the last kid out of that stupid pile of rubble.

No bodies. Just partially crushed kids who are crying because they’re glad to be alive. Their recovery will be shit, but they’ll enjoy the hell out of the bragging rights later.

F’Tsn sits next to him without asking. “You did good today.”

“Fuck off, Natania,” Slick mutters, too tired to deal with the Alliance’s blatant verbal bribery.

“You did,” F’Tsn insists. “Fierdde told me what happened, that everyone panicked. You didn’t, and those kids are alive because of it.”

“Just doing what I was trained to do,” Slick replies, because he knows she’s not going to lay off until she gets what she wants.

“You were trained to do that almost thirty years ago,” F’Tsn says. “There is a significant gap between then and now, but you still fell into the role as if you’d never left it.”

“I’m not joining the fucking Alliance, F’Tsn.”

F’Tsn smiles. “You already did, Sergeant. I’m just trying to convince you to rejoin the military side of the Force, as well.”

“Go away, Lieutenant,” Slick says, and thankfully, she does. Annoying twit.

When he gets back aboard the Haven, Echo takes one look at him and shoves him into the ’fresher. “You are covered in dirt, blood, and fuck knows what else,” Echo is saying, while Slick blinks crud out of his eyes and tries to remember how to turn on sonics.

“Water, genius,” Echo tells him, and then gives up, strips down, and joins him in the shower.

Slick wasn’t actually angling for that result, but he’s not going to complain about it. It means he has someone warm to lean against when his knees try to give out from underneath him. Fuck.

F’Tsn is right, and honestly, it scares the hell out of him.

Echo gives him a curious look before shaking his head. He uses his hands to remove the dirt and gravel from Slick’s skin; the water runs dark red from the minerals in the soil. Then cleaning becomes playtime, which is a hell of a distraction, especially when Echo is running his tongue along Slick’s throat.

Slick closes his eyes. He doesn’t need to be military. He has Echo, who is hot and wet and exceptionally noisy. He’ll put today in the win column and just enjoy the reward sex.

 

*         *         *         *

 

It’s Echo who first suggests that they start looking for other surviving brothers.

Slick is not enthused. “Not a whole lot of people I liked even when I wasn’t considered traitor scum, Echo.”

Echo frowns. “That was twenty-seven years ago, Slick,” he reminds him, as if Slick has forgotten how to count in the last two hours. “Look. I survived getting blown up. Literally, blown up. We’ve lasted this long, and I bet we’re not the only ones.”

“You’re an idiot,” Slick says in a flat voice. “Even if some of our brothers survived, the chances of finding them are practically zero.” He doesn’t even want to search for that kind of trouble. Echo is…Echo at least learned to tolerate him. The others wouldn’t have a reason to.

Echo shrugs, unfazed by the insult. “I was told I was stupid from my first day of training until the day I graduated. Proved them wrong. I bet you’re wrong, too.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Slick growls. Pragmatic. Asshole.

Echo never says another word about it, which is great, except Slick can’t let it go. When the most annoying motherfucker in five quadrants is on-shift, Slick goes out and starts asking questions. He’s only going to put up with Echo being smug if there’s anything to find.

It’s hard to get decent information out of the Alliance—neither of them are active military. Slick puts up with the bullshit runaround for a solid month before he gets sick of it. The question, “Are there any more of us?” should be easy to answer. Instead, all he gets is excuses about security and safety. Assholes. Fine. He’ll do it his way, and fuck the lot of them.

Slick might have fucked up his entire life, but he learned a few things along the way.

It’s not difficult to get into the Haven’s systems. The ship had laughable security when he was a Shiny, and it hasn’t gotten much better since then. From there, he’s got at least partial access to the Alliance’s wider datanet, spread along new relay stations in order to avoid the Imperial-controlled HoloNet.

There are millions of names and numbers he could search for, but that’s stupid and time-consuming. They all have the same genetic profile, genome quirks aside. Accessing Medical records is a hell of a lot more efficient.

There are ten profiles, listed by numerical ident only. Slick recognizes his and Echo’s numbers at the bottom of the list.

Slick frowns. Echo was right, and it’ll make him insufferable for weeks, but hells, ten? Out of millions? That’s pathetic.

Now he faces an expected quandary. He got this far without getting caught, but if he breaks the privacy encryption on those files to get names or locations, there could be hell to pay. He’s technically a civvie, so they can’t court-martial him (again) but he doesn’t want to go back to prison.

Then Slick thinks of Echo, who has never given up hope on there being other surviving brothers.

Fuck. He’s an idiot.

Slick does get caught with the terminal still loaded up with personnel profiles, three of which are so buried in security clearances that they’ve got to be officers in Intelligence. He untangled two of the three before stalling out in shock.

The universe is a bitch. A godsawful, vile bitch who has it out for him.

His fucking commander is still alive.

Security doesn’t cuff him, which is really fucking stupid of them. Then, to his surprise, they don’t take him to the Haven’s detention level. Instead, Security escorts him to a private office just off the bridge.

The Dumisani Haven’s captain, Lành Chin’weulta, grills him for fifteen solid minutes after dismissing the Security team. Half of the captain’s rant is in Bothan, but Slick knows what to expect: threats and accusations of treason.

Yawn, yawn. Been there, done that.

When the Bothan finally stops for breath, Slick speaks before Chin’weulta can go off on another tear. “You know, the only thing we wanted to know was if any of the others were still alive. That was it. A simple yes or no would have been fine, but you fucks couldn’t be bothered. So, yeah, you’re fucking right I’m going to go hacking your system, looking for my family. What the hell else did you expect?”

Chin’weulta’s fur ripples before his ears twitch. Dammit, now there’s something Slick should have learned in prison. There hadn’t been Bothans locked in with them, so it just hadn’t seemed worth the mind-numbing memorization needed to learn and understand Bothan body language.

There is a long moment in which Slick and Chin’weulta stare at each other. If he’s waiting for Slick to look away first, it isn’t happening. Shit like that can get you killed.

The captain finally sits down at his desk, ears still pointing backwards. “And what,” he asks tersely, “will you be doing with this information?”

“Me?” Slick raises both eyebrows in a display of mock innocence. “Not a thing. Most of my brothers wouldn’t want to see me, anyway. But Echo? He’ll want to know, and unless you space my ass, I’m gonna tell him.”

“Spacing you will not be necessary, though given your charming attitude, I can see why your siblings might have been tempted in the past,” Chin’weulta says. “I cannot give you active information for those who are in Intelligence.”

“Figured as much.”

Chin’weulta scowls, one ear sliding around to point forward. “Do shut up. I also cannot send you after the five of your brothers who are military. The chances of them being in active combat are very high. You would die, and I don’t kill civilians if it can be helped—no matter how irritating they are. I can, however, give you codes that would allow your brother to compose and send messages to those five.”

“Just Echo, huh?”

Chin’weulta smiles at him. Prick. “You’re the one who insists that the others do not wish to see you.”

“Right.” Slick almost chokes on the word, but he manages to say it. “Thanks.”

“You are welcome.” Chin’weulta frowns, both of his ears once more pointing backwards as his fur ripples. “Please do not slice into the Haven’s computers again. You’ve left Security in a panic because it was so cleanly done. If you hadn’t gone after restricted data, they would never have noticed you.”

Slick snorts derisively and shakes his head. He’ll give the Bothan this one; favors granted needed to be paid before they started generating interest. “It’s an old Imperator-class Destroyer. Of course I know how to get into the system.”

“Hmm.” Chin’weulta continues to stare at him, but without any more untranslatable movement. “Why did you not try for Intelligence upon your liberation? You certainly have the skillset.”

Like F’Tsn hasn’t already bent one of your ears about me going military, Slick thinks, but he plays it casual. “Didn’t think they had a mind to hire traitors.”

Chin’weulta blinks exactly three times before he starts laughing. “Perhaps you missed the memo, but over half of the Alliance is staffed by Imperial defectors. We’re all traitors!”

Slick opens his mouth. He wants to protest, or explain, or who the hell knows, but he doesn’t know how.

The captain’s right.

Chin’weulta rests his furry chin on his clasped hands. “Perhaps it will be easier to consider it this way. All who continued to serve the Empire after the Republic fell could be considered traitors to said Republic, and yet that government no longer existed. Any who defect from the Empire to the Alliance, especially among the military, are dubbed traitors, but only in the eyes of the Empire. The definition of the word flexes given the circumstances it is used in. Perhaps you were once a traitor in truth, but I am thinking now that you know the important difference.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?” Slick asks, trying to figure out if this conversation has a point.

“Treason and betrayal are not actually the same thing.”

Slick goes back to his quarters feeling gut-punched. He’d come to regret going turncoat on his brothers a long time ago, but he never regretted trying to get them something better. He’s just never heard it explained so damned well before.

Slick still hasn’t gotten used to the idea that he and Echo have three different rooms that are theirs, and by habit still goes to lie down on the bed. Bunk? Whatever, it’s a bed that’s attached to the wall so it doesn’t crush you in your sleep if the inertial dampers fail.

Echo finds him there an hour later when he comes in. He stops in the middle of shedding his jacket to give Slick a sharp look. “Hells, what did you go and do now?”

Slick thinks about it before holding up eight fingers.

The way Echo’s eyes light up definitely makes all this shit worth it.

 

*         *         *         *

 

The list of brothers looks innocuous enough, when Lieutenant F’Tsn gives it to Echo later that week. It’s just a single sheet of plast with a short list of names and accompanying comm designations, but it makes Slick’s chest hurt to look at it.

Pulsar, AM-CT-9521, Lieutenant Commander. Special Forces

“I think he was 41st,” Echo says thoughtfully, chewing on the end of a stylus until Slick takes it away.

“How do you know?” Slick asks, and Echo tells him about the brain worms, and how Pulsar’s squad got fucked over by the Geonosians. Slick firmly tells himself that he is not going to have nightmares about that shit, and promptly does anyway.

Lichen, AM-CT-02-6687-01. Captain, Logistics and Training Division

“Anything?” Echo asks, when he draws a blank on the man’s identity.

“Nah. He was probably a kid on Kamino when we were on active duty.”

Click, FC-CT-88-5462-55, Captain. Flight Command, 3rd Fleet

“That’s the poor bastard that the 104th tried to execute as a traitor,” Slick tells Echo. He wouldn’t have known, but Click has some interesting notations in his file about mental stability, and by “interesting notations” Slick means “multiple bright red flags of DO NOT APPROACH.” He’s probably fun.

Boil, AM-CT-01-7771, Colonel. Sector Command

“Fucking how?” Slick asks, and Echo starts laughing.

This is bullshit. He’d met that kid as a Shiny; Trooper Boil had come with a target imprinted on his ass. Literally.

“He got better,” Echo insists, laughing hard enough that breathing is a serious fucking concern. “Your face!” he gasps, when Slick glares at him. “It’s your fucking face, fuck, the look on your face right now!”

“Fuck off,” Slick grumbles, and tries for an expression that isn’t stupid-looking.

Wolffe, AI-CC-3636, Status Classified

“Are you surprised?” Echo asks.

Slick snorts. “No.” The Seps kept trying to kill the bastard over and over again, and didn’t succeed even when they should have. The Imps probably didn’t fare much better.

Rex, AI-CT-7567, Status Classified

After his initial reaction (fucking furious) Slick isn’t surprised that Rex lived. It’s what the bastard did—he walked straight into fire with a smile on his face, and then somehow lived to walk back out again.

“A comm designation would be nice,” Echo growls. “That’s only my CO, fuckers.”

“No listed rank,” Slick says, not that it matters much. They don’t have any way to contact either of them, and really, Slick is fine with that. He doesn’t know what Rex would say to him, or vice versa, but Slick is in no hurry to find out.

Echo points at the next entry on the list, which is a series of black lines and nothing else. “Huh. I wonder who this is.”

“No idea,” Slick replies. “I didn’t get that far when I was looking everyone up. Guess they want to keep it a secret.”

The last name on the list is one that Slick really did not expect.

Eel, FC-CT-9791, Commodore, 3rd Fleet

“I can’t believe it,” Echo says, running his fingertip along that line of the plast.

“I know,” Slick says. “Eel surviving is a complete fucking travesty.”

“Not that,” Echo retorts, and then pauses. “Well, maybe a little. I just meant—out of all of the military groups in the army, out of all of our brothers, four out of ten survivors are 501st?”

“Huh.” Slick nods, refusing to admit that he feels anything like pride. Not his legion. “Looks that way.”

Echo grins at him. “Slick, we are complete badasses.”

Dammit. Slick gives in and smiles. “Yeah, I guess we are.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

“Do you want me to tell you what they say?” Echo asks.

“Fuck, no,” Slick replies, and heads out for another shift. The rain on this particular planet matches his mood.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Eel turns up at random two weeks later, and startles Slick so badly that he almost drops a power core on the stupid bastard. He is being hugged. What the entire fuck. The hugging. No.

The very first thing Slick says to Eel in almost thirty years is an angry, indignant shout of, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Do you have any idea how long I’ve been hoping to run into someone else who was 501st?” Eel shouts back, a wide smile on his face. The black twisting tattoo that starts at his temple and winds its way back along Eel’s scalp looks really stark when it’s surrounded by white hair.

“Well, it’s your lucky fucking day,” Slick says, doing his best to keep his older and clearly insane brother at arm’s length. “There’s four of us.”

The noise Eel makes in response is ungodly. “Fucking four?”

“Including your CO,” Slick says.

“Rex is alive? That’s great!” Eel says, and then his grin vanishes like it was slapped off of his face. “He’s going to fucking kill me.”

“Hey, join the club.” Slick uses Eel’s sudden lack of enthusiasm to get equipment put away. “Also, what the fuck—didn’t you threaten to strangle the life out of me?”

“Yesssssssss, but that was a long time ago.” Eel pulls himself together and sort of acts like a proper fucking officer. “Are you serious? About Rex?”

“The galaxy loves irony.” Slick tosses his gloves aside before flexing his fingers. It’s suddenly a lot easier to focus on the fact that he needs another trip to Medical, or his joints are going to stiffen up on him again.

It’s really hard to dislike someone who is that damned glad to see you.

“Doesn’t Command tell you anything?” Slick asks after he logs out. It’s technically early in the shift, but he’s been putting in 13-hour days and Natania has already been yelling at him to knock it off.

“Not really,” Eel replies, waving off Natania when she goes wide-eyed and salutes. “A lot of us are still used to the way the resistance cells operated as isolated groups, especially since it wasn’t that long ago that we were still doing it.”

When Eel sees Echo, Slick realizes that he got a restrained greeting as Eel proceeds to lose his fucking mind. Great. He gets that Echo died a hero and he was just the traitorous asshole, but seriously.

“Please let me give this noisy bastard alcohol so he will calm the fuck down,” Slick says to Echo. Echo makes a muffled sound and waves his hand vaguely in Slick’s direction. Since Echo is busy trying to make sure Eel doesn’t crush the life out of him via hugging, Slick takes that for approval.

By the time Echo has given Eel a brief rundown on why he isn’t dead, Slick has managed to get two shots of someone’s shipboard-crafted alcohol into him. Eel is a hell of a lot more mellow after that. “How long have you two been Alliance?”

“Six months,” Slick answers. His eyes are watering and his sinuses are on fire because some nutjob added hyperdrive coolant to the still. Again.

“And three days,” Echo adds, swirling his finger in his own glass. “Ugh. Coolant.”

“Gives it color, they always say,” Eel says. “Where the hell were you before that?”

Slick rolls his eyes. “Prison. Both of us.”

“Fuck.” Eel steals the alcohol and drinks it like he has no sense of taste left to speak of. “You were supposed to be out in ten.”

Slick raises an eyebrow, surprised that Eel knew anything about his release date. “I don’t think the Empire actually gives a fuck about completed prison sentences.”

“No, they really don’t,” Eel agrees. “But in that kind of vulnerable position—don’t give me that look, Slick—I’m surprised either of you survived. The Empire had a fucking field day getting rid of us, any damned way they could.”

Echo shrugs. “He’s an asshole, and I’m half-clanker. I guess they thought we weren’t all that threatening.”

Eel’s eyes narrow in a way that reminds Slick that there was a reason why he survived Torrent’s first six months. “You’re 501st. You’re always dangerous.”

Echo smiles. “Well, Slick did kill an Imperial stormtrooper who insulted me.”

“Stupid fuck got too close to the cell bars. Choked him and then broke his neck,” Slick explains, when Eel gives him a curious look.

Then he realizes that Echo is grinning at him. “What?”

Echo’s grin widens. “You didn’t deny it.”

“Deny what?” Slick asks, irritated.

“Being 501st,” Echo says, turning smug.

“Oh, piss off,” Slick says, but then Eel has to chime in.

“You didn’t earlier, either.”

Oh, hell no. “Fuck. Both. Of. You.”

“No thanks, I have a girlfriend,” Eel protests, at the same time that Echo says, “Our bed isn’t that big.”

“Our?” Eel blurts, and Slick gives up and puts his head down on the table. Fuck this day. He absolutely will not explain the logistics of his…his relationship…to Eel, of all people.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound rude, it was just surprising,” Eel says, while Slick puts his hands over his head and refuses to participate further in this stupid conversation. “I don’t have anything against it. I’m just trying to figure out how you two managed to pair up without killing each other.”

“The very first time I met him, and I realized who he was, I threw everything in the cell at him,” Echo says, “and Slick stood there and let me. My aim was shit, so he wasn’t in danger, but he didn’t…he helped me. He could have let me flounder my way into getting myself killed in that place, but instead he pretty much beat the hell out of anyone who came near me until I was more or less capable of taking care of myself.”

“That sounds like the Slick I used to know, yeah,” Eel says in a quiet voice.

“Fuck you,” Slick grumbles against the table.

“That also sounds like the man I used to know,” Eel says, and Echo laughs.

 

*         *         *         *

 

It takes a hell of a lot of shuffling to get all seven of them in the same place at the same time. The other five are active military, the fucking nutjobs, but there is no stopping a brother when he's decided he's going to do something.

Slick has no idea how in the hell he made an ally in the Dumisani Haven’s captain, but it’s Chin’weulta who starts pulling strings to make sure that all the transfers happen. Some commanding officers are a lot less willing to let go of useful personnel than others, and Eel only has pull in Flight Command, not the army.

Chin’weulta is also the complete fucking prick who convinces Slick to go military again.

“Look here, and listen,” Chin’weulta tells him, after being nice enough to give Slick alcohol to ease the sting of whatever blow was coming down. “Ultimately, I think there is only one way to make this happen. If you and Echo re-enlist, then suddenly I do not have a random group of soldiers congregating on my ship under what might be considered suspicious circumstances. I have a new Special Operations squad.”

“SpecOps groups have a seriously high death rate,” Slick retorts. “Fucking cannon fodder.”

“Not if they are good Special Operations soldiers,” Chin’weulta replies, a serene smile on his face that is just shy of smug. “I am not speaking of the Mission Groups that work under the SpecOps banner, but the Special Operations Teams themselves. Do you know the benefits of being a SpecOps Team?”

“Less chances for bathing?” Slick asks caustically. “Longer time in the field? Shitty food?”

“You can have terrible food anywhere,” Chin’weulta replies. “No, you irritating ass of a human: Less. Direct. Oversight.”

Slick lifts his head and looks at the Bothan. He’s pretty sure that the man’s current body language is meant to convey truthful seriousness.

“All right,” Slick says, curiosity hooked. “Now I’m listening.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Slick was right; Click is definitely fun. The man drinks like there is no tomorrow and flies like he gives no fucks. Slick can see why Click still holds the same rank—he doubts anyone in Command is insane enough to give this man more firepower than he already has the right to yield.

Click is also one of the most compassionate bastards Slick has ever met, and he does it on the sly. It’s like he has a sixth sense for when people need food. Click makes sure folks are comfortable, and then sometimes shoves extra rations in their pockets for good measure.

“Stuck alone on a planet with no supplies for four years,” Eel tells Slick in an undertone, while Click runs his hand along a panel and then pops over an entire row of switches, making every cleaning unit turn on at once.

“Fuck all of that,” Slick replies, feeling a twist of sympathy. That definitely explained the food, and there are worse quirks to have.

Like the thing with the switches.

For the most part, it’s a harmless nervous tic. Slick grits his teeth when it happens and ignores it. Eel redirects Click’s attention with the ease of someone who is seriously used to having to do that job on the regular.

They all have quirks. It’s always easier to just deal with them.

Then again, it’s been a while since Slick has had to worry about any of Echo’s quirks. Slick gets a sharp reminder when Echo loses it on a day when the button-pushing and the clicking gives Slick a headache.

Echo stands up and uses the strength in his bionic hand to break every single clickable item in reach while staring Click in the face. Echo’s intensity is a little terrifying, but also kind of hot.

Click is a lot more conscious of his bad habit after that, refusing to lose himself in the constant click-click-click whenever Echo is around. Win/win.

Meeting Lichen is easier, since he doesn’t appear to have any Click-levels of bad habits. Their brother from the old 682nd is easy-going, well-trained—honestly, Lichen has all of the personality of a rounded brick. Slick has known quite a few bricks, though, and they’re fucking useful.

Eel freaks the fuck out again when he meets Lichen. Slick decides he’d rather not participate in another weird reunion. Before he can escape, he hears something about a meeting and missing it, and apparently those two assholes thought the other was dead.

Fucking isolated cells, Slick thinks while growling under his breath. He gets that they had a purpose, and it’s easy to slip into the habit of how things are supposed to be, but Lichen is strongly associated with Alliance Intelligence and should know better. Communication is a thing and it’s great; they should all fucking try it more often.

Lichen finds out that Echo and Slick haven’t requalified on the range yet, and takes personal offense at having two brothers who aren’t currently licensed to shoot at anything that moves. Echo isn’t worried about requalifying; Slick just doesn’t look forward to his hands hurting afterwards.

Muscle memory is awesome, old set habits from childhood are great, and Slick almost beats Echo’s score on the range during testing. Lichen looks at them both like they’ve grown second heads. “You sure you guys were in prison for almost thirty years?”

“501st,” Echo says, like it’s fucking obvious.

Slick massages his right hand while glancing over the digital readouts that give him damage ratios on the target. His joints ache, but it’s not that bad. “Bet I do better than you on the next round.”

Echo smirks. “You’re on.”

Slick has to quit after round five when his fingers give out trying to pull the trigger. Two out of five against an ARC isn’t bad, though, and Echo is grinning like someone just gave him permission for utter mayhem. The man really, really likes a challenge.

Lichen looks at their target sets, one of which has flames licking up one side from too many hits in rapid succession. “Just…yeah. I don’t think requalifying is going to be a problem.”

“That a two kilogram weight on the trigger?” Echo asks, after watching Slick flex his fingers. He can’t get a full curl on his trigger finger, which is irritating.

“Think so,” Slick answers, glancing at the rifle he propped against the station. “Don’t think it’s shifted much from standard.”

“Personal weapons,” Echo says, smiling when Slick looks at him curiously. “We adjust the weight on the trigger. Bet we can get it down to one kilo.”

“Sneaky bastard. Knew there was a reason I liked you.”

Pulsar is terrifying on a level that reminds Slick of Sheenalia. Like he needed more of that in his life.

“What the fuck, man?” Eel asks, looking like he just tried to chew on a live womprat.

Pulsar smiles, which doesn’t help with anyone’s initial impression. “Darth Vader was my commanding officer for ten years. I think it’s the kind of situation you sort of…adapt to, after a while.”

“No fucking shit,” Click says, his eyes shining again with the light of the not-quite-sane. If he bolts, they’ll be prying him out of a maintenance tunnel in the furthest reaches of the ship. “How the fuck did you survive ten years under Vader?”

Pulsar looks uncomfortable. “The clones that were loyal to the Empire—he looked after us.”

“If working for tall, dark, and crazy was such a good deal, why’d you ditch for the Alliance?” Slick isn’t sure he cares, but he knows that the others do. Too much exposure to Vader and his fucked up, Imperial-converted version of the 501st.

Pulsar sighs, and some of that terrifying element lessens. “Things changed.”

Slick can’t sleep the entire night before Boil and his companion, a lieutenant-colonel, are due to arrive. Yeah, he’s older than Boil, but that’s about all he has. Boil is a colonel with a damned decorated career behind him, no matter which war you looked at.

“Slick,” Echo says, wrapping his arm around Slick’s waist and pulling him in close. “It’ll be fine.”

“Yeah. Sure,” Slick says, trying to sound like he means it.

Echo lets out a brief laugh, one that warms his shoulder. “Look, you spent a long time saving my ass. If Boil sees you and has a mental break, I’ll save you.”

“My hero,” Slick grouses.

“Sure, if you want me to be,” Echo replies. “You’re mine, after all.”

“You are a terrible sap of a soldier. Gods-awful. Hero? What is this bullshit?”

Echo tugs on a lock of Slick’s hair. “Shut up and go to sleep, hero.”

Slick shakes his head and closes his eyes. “Hero,” he repeats, letting out a derisive snort. Fucking ridiculous.

Boil comes off the transport with his formal uniform jacket tied around the waist, a rifle slung over his shoulder, an unlit tabacc stick in his mouth, and at least five days of stubble on his face. The green-skinned Twi’lek woman at his side looks far more alert, but her weapons have all seen harsh use and her uniform has definitely seen better days. She has beautiful, extensive blue tattooing along both her lekku, what Slick thinks he remembers as being the traditional way a Twi’lek warrior marks their victories.

Boil stops and faces his gathered brothers, a scowl on his face. He still wears his goatee in the same damned way, even if it’s now solid white. His companion is giving each of them an evaluating stare which makes Slick decide that she is the most dangerous half of this particular pair.

Eel decides to start blabbing before anyone else has the chance. “You look like grandpa arriving with his granddaughter.”

Boil’s scowl gets more pronounced. “Fuck you, Eel—that’s my sister.”

Lichen tilts his head thoughtfully. “No, I gotta say that I’m with Eel on this one. Grumpy grandpa and beautiful granddaughter.”

The Twi’lek smiles. “You think me beautiful?”

“Stop flirting,” Boil grumbles, and then looks at Slick. “We gonna have problems? Like before?”

Slick rolls his eyes. “I killed the first Imperial stormtrooper I met with my bare fuckin’ hands. No, we’re not going to have problems, you asshole.”

Boil starts to smile. “Well, good. It’s been a long damned time since Christophsis. I’m tired, and I didn’t want to have to worry about shooting your ass right now.”

“We’re out of charge,” the Twi’lek reminds Boil. “Knives or handiwork.”

“Yeah, but that means I’d have to get close to Slick, and that fucker bites,” Boil says.

Slick realizes he’s smiling. Dammit. “Nice of you to remember that.”

“You fucking bit me on my second day in the 212th. Nobody forgets when a crazy fucker from the 501st bites them,” Boil shoots back.

“Bit him?” Echo asks, giving Slick an odd look.

“He fuckin’ deserved it,” Slick answers, and Boil snickers.

Okay. Maybe this won’t be so bad, after all.

Boil’s “sister” is Lieutenant-Colonel Numan’arru of Sector Command. She’s technically an underling to Colonel Boil, but they don’t treat each other as CO and subordinate.

“Wait. Little Numa?” Eel asks, grinning. “Tiny little badass Numa?”

“That would be me,” Numa replies, settling on the arm of the couch, close to where Boil is sitting. Slick can’t figure out if they really mean the brother-sister thing and they’re just into proximity, or if they are lying through their teeth and shagging like rabbits.

Click finishes chasing everyone else out of the officer’s lounge they’ve claimed. “Found the booze.”

“Oh, gods, bring it here,” Boil requests in a pitiful voice. “Five days of Imperial rain. Who were you with, Click?”

“104th,” Click says, giving one bottle full of clear liquid a curious look before handing Boil the entire thing. “They shot me for being a traitor when I didn’t obey Order 66, so I think that means I was probably kicked out of the battalion.”

“Fucking hells,” Boil mutters, pulling the cork with his teeth. Click has apparently decided to be thorough again—he’s skipped glasses and is just handing every single one of them a full, unopened bottle.

Echo looks down at his, one eyebrow raised, and then glances up at Slick. “This is really expensive stuff.”

“It’s probably Chin’weulta’s,” Slick says. “Drink up.” Revenge is awesome and anyone who says otherwise is a fucking liar.

“Your chip didn’t fire?” Lichen asks Click as he receives a bottle of something blue. “You lucky bastard.”

“Sure. Lucky,” Click says, and decides to drink half of a bottle of brandy in one pull.

“Yours did?” Boil asks Lichen.

“Yeah. I was on Kamino with Eel, Rex, Wolffe—a few others.” Lichen is concentrating his stare on the label he’s busy removing from his bottle. “I—I fought back. Thought I was going to die because of that thing screaming in my head. Some of us did actually die because of it.”

“What the hell was that like?” Echo asks.

Eel is still holding the unopened bottle that Click gave him. “Lots of screaming,” he says quietly. “Mine didn’t fire, either—took a headshot not long before the Order was given, and the damage disabled the chip. I got to witness the fucking thing going active in everyone else.” Eel opens the bottle and takes a cautious sip, makes a face, and then takes another. “Lots of screaming, bleeding, and…and I had to watch most of our brothers leave to go kill Jedi.”

“Pulsar?” Lichen asks.

Pulsar is sitting sideways on an armchair. “Am I going to be executed if I say that my chip went active in the presence of a Jedi?”

“Cody ordered the 212th to take the shot at Kenobi without even hesitating,” Boil says, and then shakes his head. “He missed, but that doesn’t change the fact that he intended it to be a fatal shot. I couldn’t even remember that what we’d done was wrong until my chip started to degrade.” Boil slugs back what Slick thinks might be some type of gin. “That was a fun day.”

“I was right there with General Unduli,” Pulsar says in a soft, halting voice. “It wasn’t—I didn’t even remember what had happened until I was lifting off Kashyyyk.”

They all look some degree of sympathetic, but nobody says anything. Slick doesn’t think any of them would know what to tell Pulsar, anyway.

“As long as we’re having sharing time about how the Kaminoans stuck chips in our heads that fucked up our entire lives, what about you, Echo?” Eel asks.

Echo shakes his head. “Inactive chip—or maybe the Seps pulled it out entirely.” He taps the right side of his skull. “One-quarter of this is titanium. Literally lost part of my head at the Citadel.”

“And your arm. And your eye. And your leg,” Slick mutters.

Echo smiles. “I hope they kept everything. Souvenirs.”

“That is exceptionally disgusting,” Numa says, grinning. “It is way too late to be claiming those pieces, anyway. What would you even do with such things?”

Echo considers it. “Pranks. Horrible, traumatizing pranks.”

Eel points at Slick with his bottle. “You spent way too many years sharing a jail cell with this asshole, Echo.”

Slick grins. “Nah. That’s all him. He gets really creative when he's bored.” The alcohol Echo has been drinking just exacerbates things.

“Twenty-six years of boredom,” Echo says. “I figured out how to melt a wall with prison food.”

“I really want to know how you did that, but at the same time, I really don’t,” Boil says, and then looks at Slick. “I know you were in prison, but did you…?”

“No.” Slick looks away, trying not to meet anyone’s gaze. “I didn’t—I didn’t have a chip.”

Eel sits up straighter in his chair. Pulsar lifts his head to stare at him. “What?”

“When the Alliance did the scans after they brought us in and told us what the chips were responsible for, I didn’t have one,” Slick says. If he thought facing Boil for the first time would be uncomfortable, this is a hell of a lot worse. “No idea why.”

A moment of silence follows that confession. Then Boil whistles. “You are a lucky fucker, you know that, right?”

Slick winces. Even knowing what the chips were designed for, the realization that he’d lacked one for his entire life had left Slick half-terrified. Defective clones existed, and one small stupid bio-mechanical chip could have been his entire fucking problem in the first place.

“Nah, he’s just an asshole,” Echo says, and just like that, Slick feels better.

“Thanks.”

Slick spends the next few hours in the company of Echo, five brothers, and one sister. It’s the longest time he’s spent around people who weren’t forced work associates, inmates, or Echo. It makes him feel crawly and half-panicked, but it also makes him feel like he fits again.

These are his brothers. His family. Even Numa seems familiar, like she also fits.

Maybe it’s the booze going to his head, but Slick feels like he’s studying eight pieces of a puzzle that nobody knows how to put together yet. He doesn’t even know what the damned thing looks like, but he thinks…he thinks maybe if he concentrates, he can see it.

 

*         *         *         *

 

“Everyone knows that the Alliance’s Special Operations teams exist, though it is not commonly known who populates those units,” Chin’weulta says, beginning the briefing with none of the flowery-feeling nonsense that he pulls with his normal officers. All eight of them are present—some of them still far more hungover than others. “SpecOps does what few others dare to do, often because they are completely insane. I am sure you are all familiar with that state.”

Click makes a derisive noise, which gives Chin’weulta pause before he continues.

“But, this translates into allowances such as those that Rogue Squadron earns, but on quieter terms.”

“Rogue Squadron is stocked with complete fucking nutjobs,” Slick says.

“Exactly my point, and no, Captain, I am not insulting you. At least you are honest in your quirks,” he says, and Click stops glaring at the Bothan.

Chin’weulta smiles briefly before turning to look at Slick. “As long as your team responds to High Command in a timely manner when communication is asked for, they will not give a single copulating monkey lizard’s arse what all of you do with the rest of your time, provided you are not out committing war crimes.”

“I like this idea even better than I did—wait.” Slick stares at Chin’weulta. “What the fuck do you mean, my team?” he demands, just as Echo begins snickering.

Chin’weulta gives him a glib look. “Discounting your three siblings in Intelligence, and myself and Lieutenant Colonel Numan’arru, you are the only one of the seven men standing in this room who showed the initiative, the drive, to seek out the answers you desired instead of waiting idly for someone else to provide them.”

Slick glares at the others. “You’ve all gotten fucking lazy, then?”

“No.” Boil glowers right back at him. “It’s like Eel says he told you the first day he got here—we’re all used to how things are. We’ve trained Alliance Shinies and run command posts and gods knows what else over the years. We’re used to how things have been done for this war, but the war hasn’t been the same since Endor.”

“Operation: Cinder proved that fairly conclusively,” Chin’weulta says in a flat, disapproving voice. “And yet, so many of our commanders have been unable to look beyond Endor’s singular victory to see the desperate beast we may soon be fighting.”

“Some of us do,” Numan’arru says. “Some of us have been looking since the news came that the Emperor was dead, but everything in combat still seems to be exactly what it was two years ago. Slick, we do not know what it is that we’re looking for. We are all of the firm belief that you and Echo will see what we do not, and you are the one who is utterly unafraid to go out and do something about it.”

Chin’weulta is nodding. “Not only that, but you actually did wait an intelligent amount of time between those unfortunate denials before taking matters into your own hands. That shows respect for the command structure, no matter the methods in which you choose to vocalize it, and the ability to recognize when the stupidity has gone on long enough.”

“You’re a fucking psychopath for thinking this is a good idea,” Slick says to Chin’weulta, trying to pretend that his jaw isn’t on the damned floor.

“You were Republic 501st while I was still sleeping in the family nursery,” Chin’weulta replies. “You have no room to judge my supposed insanity.”

Slick looks at Echo, who has a wide smile on his face. “Oh, you fucking bastard. You knew.”

“Of course he knew,” Click says. “He suggested it.”

“You suggested—” Slick refuses to bury his face in his hands. Some days he really does forget that Echo is as much of an asshole as he is. Echo just prefers to be an underhanded little shit. “And why don’t you want this job?”

“Because there’s a difference between independent ARC action and being in charge,” Echo replies. “Besides, whoever leads this team should have no problem telling a superior officer to fuck off. I get twitchy about it. You don’t care.”

Slick points at Eel. “We have a fucking Commodore that can do the damned job!”

“Slick, I’ve been training ducklings and running command groups for twenty-five fucking years,” Eel says, sounding tired. “I just want someone willing to point me at a target so I can destroy it.”

“Same,” Boil and Lichen say together.

“Click?” Slick asks. At this point, he wants to hear everyone’s reasoning behind this fucking insanity.

Click shrugs. “I’m fucking nuts, Slick. I’m good at following directions, but you do not want me to be the one making decisions.”

“Trust him, he knows what he’s talking about,” Eel mutters. “Dear weeping gods, that was such a disaster.”

“Pulsar?”

Pulsar is staring at his clasped hands. “You know how they’re saying that you’d see what we would miss? Slick, I was Imperial for ten years. I won’t see the obvious because I used to live right in the middle of it.”

Numan’arru and his brothers are all gazing at Slick like this is normal, like he can do this. “Fucking hells, why?

“Maybe you fucked up once,” Eel says, turning serious. “But then you spent twenty-seven years in jail, and twenty-six of that making sure one of our brothers stayed alive. That is some serious fucking dedication, Slick. Imagine what we could do when we’re all that dedicated to keeping each other alive and safe.”

That leaves a warm feeling in Slick’s chest that makes him really damned uncomfortable, so he latches onto the gigantic fucking flaw in this stupid plan. “I was just a sergeant. Most of the others outrank me.”

“Oh, how silly of me,” Chin’weulta says in a mock-startled voice. “What a great detail I have overlooked. Of course I will cancel everything immediately.” He snorts. “Oh, wait! I have the power to grant promotions. What a wondrous coincidence! Congratulations, you are now a colonel. I’m sure you’ll make us all proud, and make insurance companies weep bitter tears.”

Slick scowls at Chin’weulta. “You’re not a captain at all.”

The Bothan offers him fluttery, innocent blinking. “Why, of course I am. I am the captain of this ship.”

“Fuck you, sir.”

“Ah, see?” Chin’weulta smiles, his fur rippling with what Slick thinks has to be amusement. “And that’s ‘Fuck you, Rear Admiral.’ Please do be certain to get it right.”

Slick lets out a disgusted sigh. “Shit. You’re Intelligence.” Chin’weulta’s smile widens in confirmation.

“No way,” Boil says, the corner of his mouth turning up. “I just thought he was a pushy little shit with a lot of friends.”

Chin’weulta’s fur ripples the exact same way it had a moment ago. “I am that, too. Go away, Colonel, and take your new team with you. I will sign off on the necessary expenditures to make certain that you all become a well-armed and mobile unit. I’m sure you’ll find something to destroy in short order.”

“I cannot fucking believe you assholes did that to me,” Slick says the moment they’re out of the Bothan’s briefing room.

“Worth it for the look on your face,” Echo says, refusing to be sorry.

Slick shakes his head. He doesn’t want to be pleased about this; it feels too much like a trap. “Boil, why the hell are you vetting this bullshit?”

Boil smiles in a way that is wide, vicious, and crinkles the lines at the corners of his eyes. “I just figured that you’ll be a hell of a lot more tolerable once you get to shoot things again.”

Slick’s mouth twists in a grimace that wants to be a smile. Right. Fringe benefits.

 

*         *         *         *

 

First bonus of being a colonel: Nobody can boss him around except Eel, and Eel apparently gave up on his hard-on to one day run a full Legion about three days after Order 66. Eel tells him (in private) that he isn’t going to circumvent Slick’s official command unless Slick is dead, actively dying, or committing them to a suicide run when other options are available.

“Suicide is a stupid fucking idea,” Slick retorts, annoyed. “You can’t kill the enemy if you’re dead.”

“Which is why I’m only worried about the first two,” Eels says. “Also, don’t fucking die. It would make Echo sad, and then I’d have to be pissed off at you all over again.”

Second bonus of being a colonel: He finally outranks Echo. It only took twenty-seven fucking years. It’s meaningless bullshit, but Echo gets a weird thrill out of looking him in the eye and saying, “Yes, sir,” so Slick has decided that yes, the promotion is worth it.

Third bonus of being a colonel: Boil can argue with him and Slick can tell him to fuck off, and it’s fun. Slick’s original command wasn’t fun; he was too busy worrying that his squad was going to get their idiot selves killed. He’s not expected to absolutely adhere to the chain of command when so many of them are high-ranked. He can verbally tear into someone without concern, because they’re going to tear into him right back and threaten to kick his ass for good measure. Excellent.

Fourth bonus of being a colonel: Slick can requisition supplies instead of waiting for whatever is handed out. The credit line Chin’weulta supplies for the team is sort of terrifyingly high, but that does not stop Slick from using it. He hasn’t worn duraplate armor in a long time, and doesn’t see the point of trying to get used to that heavy shit again. There are better options available—like the thickcloth that’s designed with fire-proof thread, an impact-resistant weave, and thin sheets of a really fucking good body armor inserted in overlapping panels that cover pretty much every vulnerable spot they have from the neck down. Even better, it’s a separate jacket and trousers combination, with a third piece that wraps around the neck and rests on their shoulders. The weight is less fatiguing, and they don’t have to wear it until it’s time to go shoot at Imps. Fuck, where was this when they needed it during the war?

Helmets are an issue that he doesn’t know how to address.

“It’s not a big deal. None of us have bothered in years,” Lichen says, when he sees what Slick is scowling over.

Slick eyes him in disdain. “Headshots are a thing that exist, Lichen.”

“Yeah.” Lichen smiles, but it’s nothing except the shine of old grief. “I don’t know about the others, but I never wanted to go back to being a faceless meat clanker.”

In the end, he finds that the same manufacturer who created the thickcloth body armor also made a hat. It’s got a brim in the front to keep light from overwhelming his eyes when he’s trying to take a shot, and it’s a hell of a lot less restrictive than a helmet.

“It looks so fucking stupid,” Echo complains.

“Bitch, bitch,” Slick shoots back, shoving the hat down on Echo’s head. “Wear it so you don’t lose your brains out of the back of your skull from a slugthrower.”

“Nobody uses fucking slugthrowers,” Echo says.

“Fuck yes, they do,” Pulsar tells him. “Wear the fucking stupid-looking hat.”

Fifth bonus of being a colonel: This team is not made up of Shinies. None of his brothers (and his new sister) have been Shinies in decades. These are professional soldiers who have seen and done (and exploded) damn near everything. They have the skill to do pretty much whatever the hell they want.

Slick is still a nervous wreck when Chin’weulta sends them off in the direction of an Imperial outpost with directions to “Have fun, and then find more.” He doesn’t remember being this fucking nervous about command when he was young and stupid.

Right. He’d been stupid. That explained a lot.

Slick doesn’t relax until the job is done and the outpost is a smoking crater. When they wrap up, he stands on a ridge overlooking the valley, watching the glow of embers that are still trying to burn in the wreckage.

Fuck, but he really had missed shooting things, and the Imps made great targets. That was an almost orgasmic level of satisfying stress relief.

“Damn. We’re in under our mission window by ten minutes. That’s fucking excellent,” Boil says as he walks over. He puts his foot up on a rock and lights one of the long-stemmed tabacc sticks he keeps in his jacket. “Want one?”

“No, thanks,” Slick replies absently. His body is polluted enough from almost three decades of prison food.

“Good job, by the way,” Boil tells him. “No, seriously. You don’t have to look so damned constipated about it, Slick.”

Slick’s returning glare is half-hearted, at best. “I don’t—I didn’t remember being good at this.” They all knew what they were doing, but he’d coordinated everything as the mission progressed, and hadn’t missed a single damn step.

Eel comes up to join them and steals Boil’s tabacc. “Why do you think you got promoted so fast in the first place? Back then, I mean,” Eel adds, while Boil scowls and pulls out another tabacc stick, muttering about thieving assholes.

“Fast?”

“Yes, fast,” Eel retorts, blowing smoke out over the valley with an irritated look on his face. “Or did you think brothers normally went from trooper to corporal to sergeant in a month’s time?”

“Yes?” Slick says uncertainly. He can’t quite believe what he just heard. “Always thought the 501st was just filling the ranks after getting wiped out so many times in succession.”

“Yeah, that happened,” Eel agrees, a flicker of sadness in his eyes. “But there were plenty of other corporals available to fill that fifth sergeant’s position in Torrent.” Eel ditches the moping attitude, grinning when Slick glares at him. “Hey, you lived through cannon fodder season, too.”

“Yeah,” Slick replies in a neutral tone, because has no idea what to else to say. He’d been young, yes, and apparently really damned stupid.

Numa all but bounces over to join them, both of her rifles slung over her shoulders. “That was fun! I think we should do that again.” Then she looks at Slick. “I have been out with a new commanding officer in the field several dozen times. I have never shadowed a commander who had their team’s timing down perfectly on the first try.”

“He’s good at that,” Echo says, approaching without looking up from the datapad he’s reading. He stole a large percentage of the Imperial’s on-site database before an officer wised up and slagged the system. Slick will probably have to pry that damned pad out of his hands later just to make sure that Echo eats and sleeps.

“We are definitely keeping you,” Numa says, and gives Slick a one-armed hug. He tries not to flinch; he is still weirded out by other people touching him, and he also doesn’t want Boil to fucking kill him for any perceived injustice towards his sister.

The moment she lets go, Slick gets on the comm. “Pulsar, how’s it look?”

“Communications are clean,” Pulsar reports, his voice partially washed out by wind gusts. “Worm did the job; the signal the Imps tried to send for assistance just cycled back on itself. No one’s going to know anything happened to this place until the Empire notices that they’ve stopped submitting reports.”

“Click, you ready to come get us, or are you still playing with TIEs?”

Click sounds gleeful. “Pfft. They’ve been scattered bits for a good ten minutes now. I can lift you guys out whenever you give the word, Slick.”

“Yeah, well, I’m giving it. Pulsar, meet us at the landing point. Click, come get us the fuck off this rock.” Slick turns to the others. His brothers look happy, something Slick hadn’t realized was absent until he saw it on their faces again.

Maybe his team is right about him. Maybe they’re not, and Slick is going to fuck up their lives in spectacular fashion…but the puzzle pieces are all set in place, and they fit, like they were always meant to be this way.

“Come on,” Slick says, fighting a smile. “Let’s go find something else to destroy.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Numa is the one to choose their name.

It’s not something Slick feels they need, not at first, but they’re an independent SpecOps unit. Calling themselves SpecOps all the time begins to sound stupid after about a day and a half, but none of them want to use any of the names associated with the old GAR.

They’re a squad with too many members, the man with the highest rank isn’t in charge, and over half of them are crazy. Pulsar hides it pretty well, but that man is completely nuts. Some of the shit he does on the regular would have given Rex pause, and Slick’s old CO had set the gold standard for batshit crazy.

Boil gave up on sanity when he became a sort-of-parent. Numa was raised by Boil and is thus nuts by association. Neither of them protest this, which just proves Slick’s fucking point.

Slick was right about Echo and his ARC capabilities. Echo does things that are fucking insane during firefights, leaving Slick with his heart in his throat, hoping his idiot isn’t about to get himself killed. Fuck, Echo does not need to go out of his way to make sure that every single bit of their armor, hats included, will do its fucking job!

Click is…well, Click. He proves that the notations in his file are probably understated when they’re in a space battle up against a Star Destroyer (not on purpose, dammit!) and he makes a blind hyperspace jump to get them out of the fight.

“What the entire fuck did you do?” Slick shouts at him, after they’re thrown out of hyperspace by the gravity well of a gas giant. They’re lucky they didn’t revert into real space in the middle of the fucking planet.

“Rescued us,” Click says, as if Slick’s asked a stupid question.

“Are you fucking crazy?” Boil asks Click, once he’s peeled himself off of the cargo bay wall and stormed his way to the cockpit.

Click tilts his head, giving them both a slightly confused look. “Well…yes? I thought that was already established. Besides, three more hits and we would have been space dust. I figured a fifty-percent chance of dead was better than one hundred-percent.”

Boil raises one finger, mouth open to argue, before he gives up. “Okay. I actually can’t argue with that logic.”

“Fine.” Slick rubs at his eyes before looking out of the viewport. “Where the hell are we?”

Click turns back around to check navigation. “Huhhhh. Oh. So, uh, we were already out in the space boonies when we made the jump. I have no idea where we are now.”

“Fuck me running,” Boil mutters. “Any pings for the navicomp to pick up?”

Click is slowly shaking his head. “I think we’re too far out from any of the relays. We’re going to have to wait for navigation to orient itself using the stars. That’s…that’s going to take a while for the computer to finish mapping.”

“How long is a while?” Slick asks.

Click makes a face, closing one eye as he thinks. “About eight hours. Maybe eighteen.”

“Shit.” Boil glances at Slick. “Well. At least we’ve got a drop box to look through. That’ll eat up some time.”

Slick just sighs and leaves the cockpit. The drop box is the entire reason they’d attracted Imp attention in the first place. He hopes the contents are worth it.

He didn’t know he was going to be one of the team’s few sane members, and he really didn’t expect Eel to be one of the others. “Fucking hells, how did you survive service with that brother all these years?” he asks, when he finds Eel in the galley.

Eel puts down the shot glass he’s just emptied and gives Slick a dry look. “Exactly like this.”

“Good point. Give me a glass, huh?”

Slick thanks Lichen for being sane. Literally—he goes to Lichen and tells the man that he is eternally grateful that at least one of them is not fucking nuts.

Lichen raises both eyebrows in response. “Uh, thanks?”

“Yeah. Tell the others I need an hour, huh?” Slick wipes away the blood from his nose. “We need to do something about the inertial dampers near the topside gun. Got thrown pretty hard near the end, there.”

“No problem.” Lichen runs a hand through his hair before letting his head thump back against the wall behind his seat. “Should I tell them Echo needs an hour, too?”

Slick lifts one shoulder, hiding the wince. He’s due for new injection treatment for the fucking arthritis soon. “Pretty sure that won’t be necessary.”

Lichen grins. “Good point.”

“I just don’t want any of you to die. I don’t want to lose any of you,” Slick says, after he’s stripped Echo’s armor and clothing off and pressed his face against warm skin that still smells like sweat and acrid blaster discharge.

Echo wraps his arms around Slick and holds him tight enough to make his ribs hurt, and it’s exactly what Slick needs. “I don’t think you will. This is just who we are.”

“Right,” Slick mutters, and makes a mental note to adjust their mission parameters to accommodate full-blown insanity instead of just general nut-job soldiering. Knowing that everyone is going to be doing fucking stupid shit in advance will keep his stress levels down.

He used to be Torrent and 501st, led by an actual fucking crazy person. Honestly, Slick should have known better from the start.

“Name,” Boil says, after they’ve destroyed the booby-trap within the drop box, meant to keep out curious Imps. The box itself is full of missives, mission suggestions, personal letters, a few of the specialized data thieving bits that Echo asked for, and blank reports waiting to be filled—more bullshit in one go than Slick was expecting.

Their combat pay has caught up with them, too. Slick is quietly freaking out over the fact that one single payout is the most money he’s ever seen in his life, and he’s going to get one of these twelve times a year.

“We need a name,” Boil repeats, when nobody says anything.

“Holy shit, I didn’t know they’d promoted me.” Echo holds up a ranking pin that came with the drop package. “I get to be a major!”

“Major pain in the ass, more like,” Boil says, irritated by the interruption.

“Insane Fucking Bastards,” Slick suggests, if only to get his mind off of the idea of money. “Congratulations, Echo,” he adds, a sentiment echoed by everyone but Boil, who is still scowling.

“Insane Fucking Bastards is too awkward,” Pulsar says. “And it’s not completely accurate for everyone involved.”

“Well, there are eight of us,” Numa says thoughtfully. She has her legs drawn up and is sitting in a chair with her feet bare. She’s changed the color on her toenails again, this time to the same shade of blue as the tats on her lekku.

“What do you think, Eel?” Lichen asks. “Got any ideas for anything involving eight?”

Eel is frowning over one of the missives he received. “Huh. Lothal’s rumored to be running a successful rebellion. Oh, and Eight-Sided Die.”

“That is fucking stupid,” Slick tells him.

“I like the pun, though,” Echo says.

Lichen chuckles. “I hereby declare that our name should not be a pun.”

“Lylek Squad,” Numa says, gaining their attention.

“What the fuck’s a lylek?” Slick asks, but he’s already intrigued—the look on Boil’s face has morphed from disgruntled to really damned pleased.

“They’re a creature from my homeworld,” Numa replies, a faint, nostalgic smile on her face. “The most unstoppable predator Ryloth knows, one that will attack its own kind as readily as others. It’s dangerous for even a seasoned warrior to face a lylek; their exoskeleton can deflect blaster bolts.”

“I like it already,” Eel says.

Numa’s smile widens. “I wasn’t thinking of that trait for our name, but it is a nice bonus. The lylek has eight limbs: six legs that end in sharp, destructive points, and two extremely powerful tentacles for rending and tearing. Its tail barb is tipped in a paralytic poison, and it can crush a man in its jaws in one bite. There is no part of a Lylek that is not dangerous.”

“Eight limbs. Eight of us.” Echo smiles. “Grumpy, poisonous, and indestructible. I think it fits.”

Boil is nodding. “I don’t mind being associated with something that terrifying.”

“Lylek Squad does have a nice ring to it,” Lichen says.

“It’s like a nice fore-warning of ‘Don’t fuck with us,’” Pulsar adds, a grim, unsettling smile on his face.

“Lylek Squad. Slick, you get to call it. Are we going to be terrifying?” Eel asks him.

Lylek Squad was the sort of name that would spread rumors. Slick did kind of like the idea of the Imps pissing their pants in fear before the squad even arrived. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”

“Hey, Click!” Eel calls as their nutjob brother comes into the ship’s lounge. “We’ve got a name. We’re Lylek Squad.”

Click blinks a few times. “Hey, that’s awesome. Oh, and I broke the ship.”

It takes Slick a second to process the second sentence. “You did what?”

Click holds up his hands when Boil growls. “Not entirely my fault. We did a blind hyperspace jump, and I think something was already trying to break down in the hyperdrive.”

“And you finished breaking it by almost flying us into a gas giant,” Boil says. “Great.”

Eel looks at Click. “How bad? Are talking no fuel bad, no motivator bad…?”

Click shakes his head. “It’s little fiddly bullshit parts. They’re not hard to get, and most of them are universal. We just don’t have them with us.”

“So we’re fucking stranded,” Echo says.

“Yes and no.” Click frowns the way he does when he’s trying to focus in spite of too much being asked of him at once. “The navicomp figured out where we are—Western Reaches of the Outer Rim. We’ve got a couple of settled planets in range, so getting the fiddly bullshit shouldn’t be that difficult.”

“What are our options?” Pulsar asks.

“Jakku—which has a rep for merchants that’ll be up your ass in a heartbeat, charging too damned much for parts that are used and broken.” Click waves his hand. “Okay, so none of them are that great, since they’re all fucking sand pits. If we skip Jakku, we’ve got Ogem and Ponemah to choose from.”

Numa looks as enthused as Slick feels. “What does Ogem have?”

Click shrugs. “Moisture farmers? Nobody goes there, so it can’t be that interesting.”

“What about Ponemah?” Slick asks.

Click grins. “Pirates.”

“I vote pirates,” Eel says. “They’re fun.”

“And nobody will complain if we have to kill them all.”

Eel glares at Pulsar. “We don’t actually have to murder everything in our path, man.”

Slick nods before Pulsar and Eel can start a war over ethics. “Pirates it is.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Click takes them to Ponemah and orbit-drops them through the atmosphere, revealing a world of sand and lightning. Slick grimaces and braces himself out of habit, even knowing the ship has extra protection against that kind of electrical damage. Echo is snugged up against him—not for any pleasant reason, but because cockpit space is limited, Eel already took the copilot’s chair, and Boil and Numa crowded in to make it a tight fit.

Click is glancing between the viewport and the readings the ship is picking up. “Hey, I’ve got read on a sizeable tech cluster to the south. Pretty sure from the shape that it’s an old cruiser.”

“Probably already stripped for parts,” Boil says.

“Probably not,” Click counters. “Concentrated lightning storms and some damned odd geological activity in the area. Chances are pretty high that the locals didn’t have the shielding to make the trip.”

“Then we try the wreck first,” Slick says. “Pirates can be option two.”

Click flies low once they get to the southern desert, which differs from the northern desert by having sand that’s a much brighter orange. Well, that and the fact that the sand is undulating like the ocean waves on Kamino.

“That is fucked up,” Echo says, watching the waves rise and fall.

“Not as fucked up as that.” Eel points down towards their left, where a massive worm is gliding along the waves.

“It’s at least ninety meters long,” Numa informs them, just as Echo presses himself much more firmly against Slick.

“Fucking worms,” Echo murmurs, when Slick gives him a raised eyebrow. “Lost a squadmate that way. Don’t wanna repeat the experience.”

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” Slick whispers, grabbing Echo’s hand. “We’ll avoid the damned worms.”

“Hoooo!” Eel exclaims, as the crash site comes into view. “That’s an old Sep cruiser.”

“Looks intact, too,” Click says, doing a flyby over the wreckage. “Huh. There’s no sign of the trench that a ship that size should have carved out when it crashed.”

“Sand probably covered it,” Boil says. “Site’s active enough.”

“Land right on top of it,” Slick tells Click. “We’ll just torch our way right through the hull.”

Click frowns. “Durilliam. This kind of ship, that crash—the core might be leaking.”

“Well, we haven’t had a dose of toxic shit in a while,” Boil says. “Think the masks we’ve got will handle it, Click?”

“Should,” Click answers, firing the repulsors as he slowly lowered the ship down onto the Sep cruiser’s sand-blasted hull. “If they don’t, we’ll be too dead to give a fuck.”

“Oh, that’s always so reassuring.” Numa glances at Slick. “I’ll go and make certain that the masks all have fresh filters.”

“Good idea.” Slick hesitates, thinking. “It’s been a while, but active droids might still be an issue. Ask Pulsar if he’ll stay and keep watch.” Their brother might be disappointed about guard duty, but Slick refuses to get stranded on this fucking rock because an outdated battle droid stole their ship.

Then again, worms. “You gonna be good?” he asks Echo.

Echo shrugs. “Are we going out there?”

“No.” Slick sure as fuck doesn’t want to, anyway.

“Then I’m good.”

“Why, what’s out there?” Pulsar asks, just shy of an obstinate growl. Nope, not happy about staying behind.

“Ninety meter worms,” Numa tells him.

Pulsar’s eyes widen. “Fuck that and fuck all of you. I’m not leaving this ship.”

“Kind of the idea,” Slick says, and grins when Pulsar throws an ammunition pack at him. Please; as if he isn’t used to people throwing things at him.

Slick doesn’t need their equipment to confirm a durilliam leak. The gas causes the torch to burn bright purple instead of its normal white-cored blue. “Glad we have a separate airlock for this hatch.”

“Hey, I know how to pick a fucking ship,” Click says, while Boil and Lichen kick the torched patch of hull until it collapses inward, clanging down on the deckplates below. A gust of wind washes up over them as the pressure change completes, and then there is nothing but the sound of their own masked breathing.

“Well, I don’t hear alarms,” Lichen says. “Or droids.”

Boil grins. “If their charging stations don’t have power, they’ll be useless hunks of metal.”

“That’s almost disappointing,” Echo says. “I haven’t shot at a clanker in a long time.”

It takes combat for all of Eel’s bullshit to vanish. “Going down first,” he says, turning his hat around so the brim is at the back. “Remember, Seppie ship—piss-poor lighting.” Then he jumps, landing with a quiet thump on the decking with his rifle already raised to fire. “Clear so far,” Eel says after turning a full three-sixty. “Come join the fun.”

501st professionalism and badassery. Gods, Slick had missed that. “You’re up, Echo,” he says in a low voice, and Echo drops down the moment Eel steps out of the way. “Make sure you’re all on-comm.”

“Yeah, if something jumps you, I want to record the undignified screaming,” Pulsar says in Slick’s ear. Slick lowers the volume on his comm and makes a note that Pulsar needs to adjust his fucking mic.

They drop down into the ship, one by one, until their team is a small cluster standing in a corridor. The ship’s lights are running, but at low power. “Good call,” Boil tells Echo, turning his hat around. “Not much light to get blinded by unless someone pulls a searchlight.”

“If someone pulls a searchlight, your ass needs to drop,” Lichen says, turning around the same way Echo had, getting his bearings. “Click?”

“She’s not a standard Seppie ship, even if she looks like it on the outside. Build’s different.” Click puts his hand on the nearest wall, then rests his ear against it, listening.

“I think the only juice left is emergency power. That’s why we didn’t get a welcoming committee. The ship has lights, doors, and just enough electricity to keep the databanks alive.”

“Useless hunks of metal.” Boil sighs and shares a look with Echo. “Lost opportunities, my friend.”

“We’re near the command deck, yes?” Numa asks. When Click nods, she says, “Then we should check the bridge. If the databanks have power, I can give the computer a temporary power boost so it will tell us what may still be useful. We are here to find Click’s fiddly little bullshit parts, after all.”

Click grins wide at her use of his terminology. “I can do an on-site check. Computers might be lying if the sensors are damaged.”

Both are good ideas. “Click, take Lichen with you,” Slick says. “He can cover your ass while you go plundering.”

“Oh, so we’re not going to shoot pirates, we’re just going to pretend to be them?” Pulsar asks in a snide voice.

“Arrr, ye fucker,” Boil rumbles, which makes Numa stifle a giggle.

The five of them continue the trek to the bridge, which takes longer than it should. The durilliam leak has corroded the walls, so there is a mess of holes, unstable flooring, and at one point, a fucking tunnel to crawl through, a gift of the observation deck when it dropped half its shit through the ceiling.

A battle droid is still sitting in the command chair on the bridge. Boil tilts his head at it before ripping its arm off and dropping the appendage on the floor. “Keeps it from activating the cavalry if it wakes up enough to push that alarm button,” he explains.

“I thought you wanted to shoot clankers,” Echo complains, but Boil just looks at Numa, who is busy slicing into her power-boosted computer. Echo rolls his eyes and goes to help.

“We’re on the Marimbanni,” Numa informs them a minute later. “It is…am I reading this correctly, Echo?”

“It’s a decoy. Appearance of a standard cruiser, but it’s a personal transport.” Echo frowns down at the display, which is damaged and flickering. “Count Dooku?”

“Really?” Eel perks up. “Can we blow it up when we’re done here?”

“Sure,” Slick says, while Echo and Numa argue good-naturedly about transferring the data off of the Marimbanni’s system to put it on devices that will be easier to read. “Come on, guys, step it up. Pulsar’s getting nervous.”

Pulsar’s growl echoes on the comm. “Seriously, fuck you.”

“Fucking hells, I can’t read this,” Echo grumbles. “Does this say prisoner or treasure, Numa?”

Numa narrows her eyes at the flickering text. “It isn’t the viewscreen. That section of data is corrupt. Whichever it happens to be, it is stored in cryo-stasis in a vault.”

“We don’t exactly need treasure,” Lichen says over the comm, just as Click chimes in, “Fuck that! Treasure is useful. Treasure buys Star Destroyers.”

“And if it’s a prisoner, well…chances are high that it’s a Republic prisoner,” Eel says, glancing at Slick. “If the poor fucker is still alive.”

“It’s a cycling cryo-stasis pod.” Numa purses her lips. “At this date, it’s a fifty-fifty chance, and only if the pod never lost power.”

“It could also be bullshit Sith stuff,” Pulsar reminds them. “We open the stasis pod, and suddenly you’re all nuts.”

“Pulsar, brother, I have some very bad news for you,” Click says.

“More nuts,” Pulsar clarifies in a sarcastic drawl.

“Narrowing down when the ship crashed,” Numa interrupts them. “Remember when dating systems were simple, Echo?”

“You mean when we had one Standard calendar and not three? Yeah,” Echo replies with a sigh. “Someone really should have informed High Command that swapping date systems really fucks with existing programming.”

“Someone did inform them,” Eel says, lip curling up in disgust. “Several someones, actually. Didn’t do much good. Politics for the win, right?”

“You sure there’s a difference between the Alliance and the Rep—Echo?” Slick asks. Echo’s expression has gone flat and blank, which usually means bad news or a trauma-related flashback. “What is it?”

“I’m summarizing, because the details are pretty bad,” Echo says, his voice just as flat. “Republic prisoner of war, interrogated for information—”

“Fuckin’ tortured,” Boil spits.

Echo nods. “—and then confined for transfer into Count Dooku’s specific custody for further interrogation.”

“Fuck, what did this poor bastard find?” Eel asks.

Numa is reading over Echo’s shoulder. “It doesn’t say…no wait, here it is: ‘The prisoner is known to have specific intelligence regarding the clone inhibitor chips—’”

Eel makes a startled, choked sound. “What’s the number, Echo?”

“Eel—”

“WHAT’S THE FUCKING NUMBER?”

Echo only stands there, jaw working, like he can’t get the words out. “CT-6116,” Numa reads for him.

“Bullshit,” Slick breathes, sheer disbelief that he sees mirrored on Boil’s face. Then he looks at Eel, who’s gone ghost-white and looks like he’s on the verge of a psychotic break. “Fuck. Eel?”

“We couldn’t find him. He disappeared at the same time that everything went down with Fives,” Eel whispers, while Echo’s jaw-clench gets more pronounced. “Tarkin and his cronies—they pinned his murder on Fives, said if Fives was the kind of clone who’d attempt to assassinate the Supreme Chancellor—”

“That is such fucking shit!” Echo shouts.

Eel closes his eyes long enough to take a breath. “Yeah. It is. But we couldn’t disprove that Fives had done it, because nobody knew where—he just fucking vanished, Echo!”

“Would someone tell me what in the entire fuck you assholes are shouting about?” Pulsar asks caustically.

“CT-6116.” Eel swallows. “Kix. Major. CMO of the 501st Legion.”

Chapter Text

Republic Date 5212: 6/13th

Club District, Coruscant

First Month of the Outer Rim Sieges

 

“Kriffing Speedies,” Jesse mutters. “Kriffing Speedies everywhere.”

“Be nice,” Kix says, but Jesse has a point. He knows the speed-grown clones were flooding the ranks pretty quickly, but it seems like everyone at 79s is a Speedie. He doesn’t see a single face he recognizes—and he’s aware of the stupidity of that statement.

“Nice?” Jesse looks outraged. “Kix, they were throwing bottles at air cars while wearing the uniform of the GAR! Where the hell is their military discipline?”

“Maybe they just can’t hold their liquor,” Kix suggests. It’s plausible. Clones grown to maturity in two years instead of ten could be prone to all sorts of complications. Human brains aren’t designed to mature that quickly, no matter how plastine they are—at least until puberty comes along and ruins everyone’s brain chemistry for six years. Even just three years of that was a hell that Kix does not want to repeat.

“Why are you disagreeing with me?” Jesse looks wounded, but the military has always meant so much to him. Kix is less concerned about the organization and a lot more invested in keeping everyone from kriffing dying.

“I’m not. I just want this to be a normal evening.” Not a rant as to why the Army Just Isn’t The Same Anymore.

Jesse’s face loses the harsh lines. “Okay. We’ve only got two days, right? Might as well make the most of it.”

“Good. You’re buying me a drink,” Kix says.

“Why me?”

“Because I paid last time, cheapskate.”

The alcohol’s still nice, but Kix gets two drinks in and realizes he’s not imagining how loud it is. Their little corner of the bar isn’t bad, but the raucous coming from the upper levels sounds like it’s only a few steps away from a brawl.

“You wanna leave?” Jesse offers.

“I’m dying to,” Kix says. “Gotta hit the head first, though.”

“Yeah, sure.” Jesse glances upwards, where an argument is in progress. Their Speedie brothers are already waving bottles around. It’s ridiculous; they might as well be waving their pricks. “You might want to hurry up, or you’re going to come out and find me beating these men into the ground for being ridiculous.”

“Sure, Regimental Commander,” Kix says, just so Jesse will roll his eyes and huff. It’s adorable. The others can be paranoid if they want about using their actual rank, but the only common denominator Kix has ever seen between seniority and death was a brother’s propensity to run straight into blaster fire.

Everything seems normal when another brother comes into the restroom until Fives pulls his hat and scares the hell out of him.

Kix literally backs himself into a corner until recognition filters in.   “Fives? Whoa,” he yelps when he’s boxed in. Half of his instincts are telling him to lash out; the other half are telling him to climb the kriffing wall if that’s what it takes to escape.

Fives kind of has that effect on people during a battle—except this isn’t a battlefield.

“What’s going on?” Kix asks. “They say you tried to assassinate the Chancellor, that you’re infected with the virus that killed Tup.”

Fives looks wild, like he’s been in combat about fifty hours too long and is on the verge of an adrenaline crash. “It wasn’t a—I don’t have time to explain right now. All I can tell you is that I’m being framed. All of us, even the Jedi, are in grave danger.”

Kix had good instincts; you had to have them to survive more than ten minutes out with the 501st. His brother isn’t violent or deranged—he’s terrified. “But what can I do, Fives?” He’s just the kriffing medic! But Fives looks desperate, and…and Kix can’t stand the idea of losing any more brothers. Not today.

“How can I help?”

Fives swallows, and a little bit of the panic fades, but the mania doesn’t. “I need to talk to Rex, or General Skywalker.”

Well, that’s easy enough. “They’ve been tasked with finding you. Just turn yourself in!” Problem solved, everyone lives.

Fives shakes his head. “No! No, I’ll never get to them. You don’t understand. What I’m mixed up in, it goes all the way to the top.”

Kix tries not to become immediately freaked out. The top of the GAR is the Supreme Commander. The Chancellor.

No way.

“I have to talk to General Skywalker and Rex directly. Alone,” Fives says.

Ah, Kriffing hells, Fives, Kix thinks, a sinking feeling in his gut. “Look, I can contact Rex, but I can’t guarantee he’ll bring the General.” Not when Skywalker and the Chancellor were on such friendly terms. Bringing in Skywalker might be the worst idea ever.

Fives just nods. “Good, good. Good.” Kix isn’t sure if he got the hint or not. Actually, Kix is beginning to wonder if Fives hasn’t been drugged. “Thanks, Kix. I appreciate it.”

“Sure,” Kix tries to say, but Fives grabs his arm and programs in the coordinates. “Just make sure he meets me there.”

Kix stares at the display. He’s pretty sure that’s one of the 501st’s supply depots. “Right.”

Fives drops his arm and leaves as quickly as he came in, leaving Kix feeling like he’s just flown a malfunctioning transport through the Maw Cluster. “Good luck, Fives,” Kix murmurs.

Kriffing hells. This is not how he expected his evening to go.

“Hey, you made it back before I started breaking skulls,” Jesse says, lighting up the moment he sees Kix.

Kix makes the decision in the same moment he realizes he’s got to choose. If Fives is right, a single word could put Jesse in danger. Combat does that often enough, and Kix likes his boyfriend in one piece, thanks.

“I have to call in.”

Jesse frowns, playful demeanor dropping away as the soldier creeps back in. “Are we being recalled?”

“No.” Kix hesitates. “Well, I don’t think so. I hope not. I still need to call in, though.”

“All right.” Jesse smiles. “I found a new hotel.”

Kix tries not to make a face. “If it’s anything like the zero-g suite, you’re sleeping on the floor.”

“No zero-go. Promise.” Jesse grins at him. “Kiss before you go?”

“Here?”

Jesse makes a point of glancing around. “You really think anyone’s going to say anything?”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Kix is pretty sure they could strip down and make out, and none of these drunken disgraces would notice.

It’s not a short peck, but it’s not a tongue-twister, either. Jesse smirks at him afterwards. He knows that it doesn’t take much for Kix to be melting into a puddle. Fingernails on skin. Scalp scritching. Just…warmth and sensation. He really gets off on the tactile parts.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Kix says. Then he adds something he usually doesn’t. “Love you.”

Jesse’s eyes brighten. “You dork. Love you, too.”

79s has a row of private communication booths, since the club was designed to fit military needs. Kix slides into the last one in the row and spends a minute sitting with his head between his knees, just breathing. He’s not a head case like most of the 501st; he’s a kriffing medic. He wasn’t built for conspiracies!

Kix is worried that Rex won’t take the call, since he’s supposed to be hunting down Fives, but he answers quickly. “Captain Rex.”

He pauses, struck again by the fact that most of them have dropped Clone from their rank titles. It’s nice, actually. “Rex, it’s Kix.”

“Kix? I thought you were on leave.”

Kix looks heavenward. He wants to be on leave, thanks. “Yeah, but then I got a numeric visitor.”

There is a quick inhale. “Fives?”

“Yeah.” Kix swallows down the taste of acid in the back of his throat. “He’s in big trouble, Rex.”

“We know. He removed his chip, and it’s making him…act out,” Rex says.

Kix sits up as a bunch of puzzle pieces come together all at once. “What? No. Rex, that’s utter shit.” He repeats, word for word, what Fives told him, and it makes him half-panicked all over again. The picture he’s seeing is nauseating. A conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, one that involves the inhibitor chips?

The conspiracy is the chips. Kix just doesn’t know why.

All of us, even the Jedi, are in grave danger.

Why would the Jedi be in danger? They don’t have chips—

“Rex? You have to find him.” Kix hears the too-high pitch of his voice and tries to calm down. “You have to listen to him.”

“Why? What the hell is going on, Kix?”

“Not on an open comm,” Kix replies. There’s an automatic encryption for calls made on military channels, but this? Saying this aloud any place save a shielded vault might get one of them killed. “I’ll tell you later, when he’s safe.”

“Got it. See you soon. Remind Jesse that zero-g is a dumb idea.”

Kix smiles. “I already warned him. Good luck, Rex.”

He steps out of the booth and feels a prickly sense of unease right away. There should be people, brothers lingering around in the hallway, but he doesn’t even see a droid.

Then something sharp bites into his neck, and he’s falling into blackness.

When Kix wakes up, he’s already strapped to an interrogation table.

“Oh, great,” he whispers. For a moment, he honestly hopes that this is Jesse’s new hotel. His boyfriend does have a thing for wanting to try everything.

Then the droid approaches. Kix recognizes the Mark II interrogation unit, and the bottom falls out of his stomach. It’s a sleek, shiny steel gray, and it has an array of implements that make his sometimes-questionable medical ethics seem like they’re gilded in gold.

“You are Clone Trooper CT-6116.”

Kix scowls. “No, I’m Major Kix.” He kind of likes that his name and rank are a pun.

“Good enough.” The droid’s photosensors shift, making loud clicking sounds, as it peers closer. “You have information that I will extract.”

“One? Like hell you will, and two—what kriffing information?” Kix asks, bewildered.

“You have been in contact with Clone Trooper CT-27-5555, also known as ARC-5555, also known by designation: Fives.” The droid’s eyes click continuously as it hovers around Kix, examining him.

“I’ve been in contact with Fives often. So have a lot of other brothers.”

“Of course.” That clicking sound is going to drive Kix bonkers before anything else touches him. “CT-27-5555 has information on the clone inhibitor chips. He has been in contact with you in reference to the chips. Therefore, you also have this information.”

Kix shakes his head. “Actually, no, he didn’t tell me a damned thing.” Kix just inferred the important (horrific) part, but he’s not telling the droid that.

“We will see.” The droid’s body casing shifts to allow an electrified prod to take precedence.

Kix eyes it. Muscle contractions and tissue damage were the least of his concerns. “You know, that can cause immediate heart failure and death.”

The droid ponders Kix’s words. “I have the means to resuscitate you.”

Kix draws in a breath.

Make peace with the fact that you’re about to die. Protect Fives. Give them nothing.

Kix smiles at the droid. As last words go, they’re pretty much in character for the 501st: “Go to hell, clanker.”

The thing that makes torture worse, besides the fact that it really kriffing hurts and he’s possibly hallucinating, is that Kix knows exactly what the droid is doing to him. He can identify specifically what the droid has targeted, how much damage that part of his body can take. How much more pressure it would take to cause permanent damage. How long it conceivably takes to heal the damage that’s already been done, with or without bacta.

That’s the problem with torture droids. They don’t maim their victims. There are no broken bones. It’s all about stress, the neural translation of stimulation that goes on too long. The wounds are superficial. The fire is beneath the skin.

Kix has always been particularly sensitive to touch.

At some point, some long time later when he can’t lift his head and his throat is swollen almost shut, he hears words, but the droid isn’t talking to him. “I have done my best. I am impressed; the clone will give me nothing.”

“Very well. Prepare him for transport. We will need to consider alternative forms of interrogation.”

Kix wants to open his eyes, but that takes energy he doesn’t have. He knows that voice. Doesn’t he? Deep Core accent. Coruscanti.

Dooku.

“Alternate forms, sir?”

“I very much doubt the clone will withstand the kind of interrogation a Sith can subject him to.”

Oh. Well. That doesn’t sound good.

Kix can’t let that happen. The droid didn’t kill him, so he’s got to do the job himself.

“Prepare the prisoner for cryo-stasis.”

Or not.

 

*         *         *         *

 

To his absolute relief, he does not wake up to Dooku’s court-perfect manners and false smiles. His eyes won’t focus very well, but he knows that’s a ship’s ceiling over his head, and not a Sep one. Seppie cruiser ceilings were all smooth polish or unfinished darkness; this is segregated lines, marking where plates of durasteel have been welded together. It’s well lit, and he can sense/hear the thrum of a sublight engine.

“Major,” a female voice says.

Kix turns his head away from his groggy review of the ceiling to find a green Twi’lek female standing next to him—he’s lying on a bio-bed in a very cramped medical suite. Not a cruiser of any sort, but something much smaller.

He doesn’t recognize the Twi’lek, but she isn’t glowering at him like he’s the enemy. All of these things indicate rescue, but he doesn’t know who did the rescuing. Pirates, maybe. At least General Skywalker will pay a ransom to get him back…or just get rid of the pirates. Both are valid possibilities.

“Major, can you speak to me?” the Twi’lek asks, peering at him in what he thinks is concern.

“Hi,” Kix croaks. His throat feels like he tried to swallow a cactus.

She smiles, pleased. “Major, I sedated you the moment you were released from the stasis unit in an attempt to circumvent hibernation sickness, but I believe from your bio readouts that I didn’t succeed. I’m not a medical doctor, so I need you to tell me how to treat you.”

Kix sighs. There’s never another medic around when he needs one. “’Kay,” he rasps, and then swallows in a vain attempt to sound better. Speaking hurts like hell. “Show me the stats.”

She brings over a datapad screen that’s mirroring the bio-bed’s readouts. Kix blinks a few times, forcing his eyes to focus. Everything keeps trying to go foggy, but he can make out the important details. Elevated body temp, white blood cell count is bonkers, blood pressure trying to plunge through the floor. She’s right about the hibernation sickness. Dammit.

“Sickness plus previous torture,” Kix says, and the Twi’lek nods in sympathy. He has to have been in stasis for at least a month, if not longer. Rex is going to hand him his ass, and then General Skywalker is going to flay what’s left of him.

Kix wracks his brain to come up with the right combinations of drugs to stabilize the damage from long-term hibernation, as well as what’s probably bruised kidneys and Force knows what else. His Twi’lek friend gathers everything with swift efficiency, injecting them via four different hyposprays. Kix hopes he’s remembered it all correctly; one of those combinations is fatal if he botched it.

“I need to see to your other wounds,” she says, peeling back the sleeve of his blacks to reveal that his left wrist is raw and oozing blood from torn skin. Kix can already feel the drugs kicking in, so at least it doesn’t hurt. “Bacta is not as plentiful as it was last year, but I don’t think you need an infection on top of everything else.”

Kix snorts. Not a chance of that, not with the cocktail she just gave him, but it’ll be nice not to have scars to mark his time in Sep captivity. “Thanks. Who are you?”

She glances at him, some weird emotion reflected in her eyes. “I’m Numan’arru, Major.”

Black fuzz is creeping into his vision. “Where the hell am I, Numan’arru?”

“You’re safe,” she says with a genuine, reassuring smile. “I promise you that.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

When Kix wakes up, he feels one hundred percent better. Granted, that’s only one hundred percent of how he felt previously, and that was not great, so Kix judges he’s about twenty-five percent away from normal. He can probably fight his way out of a pirate’s nest if he needs to.

“You must be doing better,” Numan’arru says as she enters the cramped medical suite. “You no longer look like so much warmed-over death.”

Kix raises an eyebrow at her. “Your bedside manner is seriously lacking, Lady.”

Numan’arru smiles in response. “I’m told yours is much worse, Major.”

“Maybe.” Kix yawns until his jaw cracks. Gods, he wants a shower, caff, and food, and he would not be offended by the idea of having all three at the same time. “Who rescued me? My brothers?” he asks, torn somewhere between hope and dismay at the idea. Numan’arru doesn’t seem to be GAR, and they’ve been in enough trouble for random AWOLs lately—

Fives. Oh, gods, Fives.

Every single bit of relief he’s felt since waking dries up like water striking desert soil, replaced by borderline panic. Kix has no idea what’s happened, if Fives is safe, if anyone else knows about the kriffing chips—

It must be on his face, because Numan’arru’s expression turns serious. “May I sit?”

Shit. Shit, it’s bad news. He refuses to listen to bad news lying down.

Kix levers himself upright in stages, making room on the narrow bio-bed for Numan’arru. He feels like someone hammered on all of his limbs. “Sure. It’s your ship, anyway.”

“Technically, it belongs to one of my brother’s siblings, but we all think of it as home.” Numan’arru sits so that she is facing him. “There are things that I have to tell you, and none of them are pleasant.”

Kix breathes out, trying to expel the stupid, useless panic. “I noticed that you didn’t answer my question about my brothers.”

Numan’arru’s mouth quirks; it’s not quite a smile. “Some of your brothers were involved in your retrieval, yes.”

Kix swallows and makes himself ask. “Fives?”

“I was told he would be one of your concerns.” She sighs and shakes her head. “No, Major. I’m sorry.”

Kix closes his eyes and presses his balled-up fist against his mouth. Gods, no. He should have followed Fives, gone with him, done anything except stand there like a useless idiot.

“How?”

“He was framed for an assassination attempt against then-Chancellor Palpatine,” Numan’arru says.

Kix lowers his hand, opening his eyes to stare at her in disbelief. “Fives would never,” he says, but that’s not quite true. Fives would do exactly that if he thought he was getting rid of something that posed a danger to his brothers, but Numan’arru claimed a frame job. Kix can’t decide which option is worse.

“Believe me, we’re aware.” Numan’arru hesitates, looking deeply unhappy. “Major—Kix—the war is over.”

“Great kriffing—” Kix’s head is spinning, and he doesn’t think it’s a delayed response to the cryo. “Did we lose?”

Her brow furrows. One of her lekku drifts forward; the end curls itself into a tight coil. “I think it would be more accurate to say that everyone lost.”

“It can’t be that bad,” Kix tries, because no, it absolutely cannot. His brothers didn’t fight and bleed and die just for the entire galaxy to collapse!

Numan’arru pulls up her sleeve and begins releasing the catches on the chrono/comm unit strapped to her wrist, a model that Kix has never seen before. “You disappeared on the 13th day of the Sixth Standard Month in 5212.”

Someone rips out his stomach and replaces it with a block of ice. If she’s referencing the year, then he’s been in cryo for at least seven months. Maybe longer. “Yeah, that’s right.” That was the date on the walls when Fives scared the hell out of him in the damned ’fresher, when Kix and Jesse—

Jesse. Kix wants to ask if she knows where Jesse is, but can’t make himself voice the question.

Gods, this keeps getting worse.

Numan’arru hands him her chrono. “I don’t think words are going to be sufficient. I believe you should see this with your own eyes.”

Kix stares at the readout. He uses the controls to speed through every option that the device has, confirming that it’s attached to a hyperspace relay network and is synching time with Core Galactic Standard. He has no idea what an Alliance Grid is, but there’s an option to connect to the HoloNet. The odd thing is how it requires a very long encryption key.

“Can I connect in?” he asks.

“Limit it to two minutes, please,” Numan’arru instructs, and then her fingers input the encrypt key so fast he’s lost the first half by the time the second half is entered.

“Got it.” The HoloNet—what is this Imperial bullshit?—reports that it’s Year 26. That’s when the chrono he’s holding starts to shake.

Wait, no; that’s his hands.

Kix bites his lip and figures out how to pull up a Republic-equivalent calendar.

It’s the 26th day of the Tenth Standard Month of the Galactic Calendar. That’s not so bad, except it’s not 5212.

It’s 5238.

Kix only realizes he’s not breathing when Numan’arru puts a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Air is important, Major.”

The dry delivery makes him huff out a silent laugh, which means he has to breathe in again. “You’re not—this isn’t—” Kix stumbles over his words and tries again. “This is accurate.”

Numan’arru nods, though he didn’t really phrase it as a question. “I’m sorry.”

She gives him a barebones summary of the last twenty-six years, and even that’s horrific. Kix has to excuse himself halfway through to visit the cramped shipboard ’fresher and dry-heave. Then he listens to the rest, feeling numb.

He desperately wants this to be the worst prank that the 501st has ever conceived of.

It isn’t.

 

*         *         *         *

 

“I can’t believe you’re that Numa. Boil and Waxer’s famous Numa,” Kix says, following Numan’arru out of medical and down a short corridor. He feels better after a trip through the sonics, but it’s just superficial calm. He wants his armor, a blaster, and maybe something to hide under until things start making sense again.

Numa tosses a smile over her shoulder. “My nerra does like to brag that I was famous before I learned to shoot Imperials.” She stops in front of an open door and gestures for him to go inside.

Kix steels himself, glances at Numa once more, and enters the room. It’s a lounge that is not military-crisp; it’s too lived-in for that. It’s also empty save for one lone, white-haired man. He’s got his elbow propped, hand supporting his head, smiling at a blue holo projection. Furry, most likely female, and bearing an expression somewhere between tolerant and smug.

“You will be back at the end of the month, then?” she asks.

“No, it looks more like we’ll be back in a week. Maybe less,” the man replies.

Kix feels his blood run cold at the same time as his skin flushes hot. There is no mistaking a brother’s voice, and Kix would know this man even without the stylistic eel tattoo on his head.

He’d believed Numa. He did. This just makes it an inescapable truth.

Kix has to choke down grief at the sight of how old his brother has gotten. Intellectually, he’d understood the way he and his brothers would age. Now he’s realizing that he never quite believed any of them would live long enough for the double-aging to be a problem.

“Try to convince your team of nutjobs to stick around for more than six hours this time. Six hours is not nearly enough time for scritchings.”

Eel grins. “Not my team of nutjobs, Hahna, but I’ll see what I can do. See you soon. Love you.”

“Love you, too, my nutjob mate,” Hahna says, which makes Eel roll his eyes just before the connection shuts down.

Kix has to make light of the situation, or he’s going to try to find an airlock to fling himself from. “It took you twenty-six years to get a girlfriend?”

Eel looks up at him, and a broad grin stretches across his face, real delight shining in his eyes. “Yes and no,” he says. “She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my wife.”

Normal. Pretend this is normal. This is normal.

“That’s legal now?”

“According to Imperial law, we’re outlaws, so we can marry whoever the hell we want.” Eel gets up from his chair and approaches slowly, like he’s afraid Kix is going to bolt from the room.

Kix actually does want to bolt from the room. He forces himself to relax.

This is Eel. His brother. His much, much older brother.

“Fuck, what happened?” Kix whispers, which is when Eel breaks and engulfs Kix in an embrace that smells like acrid blaster discharge and home.

The rest of Lylek Squad introduces themselves one at a time. Kix has a not-smile stuck on his face; he’s glad he has brothers who survived the dual Purges that Numa told him of, but he also can’t stop seeing how young he is compared to his remaining family.

He was stuck in a kriffing stasis pod for twenty-six years, four months, and ten days. He can’t stop realizing that he’s been left behind.

Boil gives him a traditional Mando’a handclasp that leaves his arm feeling bruised all over again, and then hugs him in a way that makes Kix’s back creak. Pulsar gives him a smile that would seem shy if not for the fact that his brother from the old 41st radiates creepy vibes the way Boil radiates the lingering odor of tabacc smoke.

Kix is pretty sure he likes Lichen. He seems sane, whereas Click just became the most terrifying bastard that Kix has ever met, and he’s had to deal with actual Sith.

“He’s not so bad,” Eel says, once Click is distracted by what looks like a nervous habit of button-pushing. Kix thinks he understands where that brother got his name. “He was 104th.”

“Wolffe?”

“Still around,” Eel says. Then he adds, “So is Rex,” and suddenly it’s like there is one less knife stabbing Kix in the chest.

Kix doesn’t ask about Jesse. He already knows because no one mentions him.

The last two members of the squad of brothers (and one sister) enter together. Kix just stares at them, nonplussed. Both of his brothers stare back; one is scowling, and the other is grinning.

“So,” Kix asks, after swallowing down nerves. “How was prison?”

Slick’s scowl lightens a bit. “Prison-y.”

“Right.” Kix looks at Echo. “So, how was dying?”

“Explode-y,” Echo replies, still grinning. “Damn, it’s glad to see you, Kix.”

“Yeah,” Kix manages, feeling shell-shocked. “I guess you’re all used to people coming back from the dead.”

“Why wouldn’t we be?” Boil smirks and flops down on the couch next to Numa. “Kenobi pulled it off twice by himself.”

“Okay, that’s a valid point,” Kix admits, and then gets another bone-crushing hug from Echo. Aging hasn’t affected anyone’s strength, at least. Without the armor restrictions keeping everyone to a set shape, some of them have even bulked up, like Boil, Echo, and Lichen. Slick, Pulsar, and Click still look like they’re keeping to armor standards. Eel has always been twig-like, even though he can break droids in half without breaking a sweat.

Numan’arru should seem like the odd woman out, but she was raised by Boil. She sits, gestures, and expresses like a clone, even though she doesn’t speak like one. Kix is pretty certain that Numa is also in the “easily break droids in half” category.

“You’re in charge of this squad?” Kix asks Slick, when an hour has passed and he feels less like he’s going to swallow his own tongue out of sheer discomfort. They’re all sitting on the furniture—or in Click’s case, perching on it.

“Yeah, I thought it was a bullshit decision, too.” Slick leans back, and Echo immediately snugs in against him. The fact that Slick doesn’t throw Echo across the room in response tells Kix that this is a common thing.

The moment Slick is distracted by Eel and Click (dear gods, the clicking) Kix looks at Echo and raises an eyebrow. Echo tilts his head at Slick and then gets a smug, poodoo-fed grin on his face.

Kix nods in response, uncertain of what else to do. It’s not that he has a problem with Echo’s choice of boyfriend. It’s more like he just can’t wrap his head around the idea that Slick could learn to tolerate anyone in close quarters for more than five minutes.

Click takes off after more fidgeting, muttering about the ship’s hyperdrive. Slick yells at him to not break anything; Click flips him off with the old Mando’a gesture of thumb jutting up between split fingers. It reminds Kix so much of the first year of the war, which makes him want to weep in reminiscence or scream in bewildered rage.

It takes Kix a while to realize that he’s waiting for a military klaxon to sound at any moment. That’s what his life has always been about, and the absence of the immediate, constant threat of battle is jarring him just as much as all these familiar, aged faces.

His brothers and Numa keep a conversation flowing around him when Kix stalls out. He just—he can’t grasp how much has changed, and how much is just simply gone. He feels like his skin is trying to crawl off; anxiety is clawing its way up his throat.

Kix finally holds up his hand, and everyone looks at him. “Guys, I—Eel, I need you to tell me…I need you to tell me what happened to him.”

Eel closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Please don’t ask me to tell you that.”

“Gods dammit!” Kix shouts, so far beyond frustrated that he’s cycling right back around to horrified disbelief. Silence is thick in the air, the jarred quiet of people kicked back into painful reality. “I already know he’s dead, Eel! What the kriffing hells could be worse than that?”

Eel sighs and covers his face with one hand. “Kix.”

The realization kicks so hard, Kix feels like he can’t breathe. “Oh.”

“Shit.” Echo’s expression twists into what looks like utter fury. “Shit!” He kicks the wall and storms off down the aft corridor. Lichen winces when they hear something crumple and break.

“And they think I’m the temperamental bastard,” Slick mutters, rolling his eyes when what sounds like a kriffing bunk locker hits a wall.

“You stay the fuck away from my hyperdrive, or I’ll cut your balls off!” Click shrieks from the hold’s engine compartment. “I just fixed this fucking thing!”

“Fuck you and fuck your hyperdrive!” Echo shouts back.

“He must have been worse when you guys found out about Fives,” Boil says.

“No. He knew,” Slick says, without looking at any of them. “Day it happened, Echo knew. I argued with him about it for years—said he had no way of knowing Fives was dead. You don’t exactly get that kind of information in prison. Turns out, he was right. He only got violent about it when we found out why.”

“Fucking midichlorian infestations, man.” There is a wry smile on Boil’s face, one that also makes him look so godsdamned tired.

As much as he’s worried about Echo—and he is, Kix is used to an Echo that is a bit more, uh, self-contained—he has to know. Kix feels bad about pushing, but it’s Jesse. “Eel. How?”

Eel lowers his hand and sits up, and it’s like the reflective shine of a thousand battles is burning in his eyes. “It was the fourth month of the Sieges when things started to get really bad. Before that, you could cycle out for a couple of days of downtime, but after Fives…it was like someone on the Sep side decided it was time to put the hammer down.”

“Fucking wonder why,” Pulsar mutters derisively.

“Hindsight’s always perfect,” Eel says. “So: Third Battle of Bothawui.”

“Cut the shit,” Kix blurts, a response that’s pure reflex. “Again?”

“Planet was a Sep magnet then, and it turned Imp magnet as soon as there were Imps to draw in. Bothawui got the Ryloth treatment. Full occupation,” Pulsar explains, and Numa’s expression shifts from quiet, Jedi-like serenity to pensive grief.

“We were losing,” Eel says. “Fuck, we were losing so damned badly there were a few minutes when we thought the entire legion was going to get wiped out. The 212th and the 118th came in to save our asses, and that just about evened the odds until a new Sep command ship dropped out of hyperspace, one of the massive fuckers. At that point, we were outgunned and penned in.

“Word from Command was that we were supposed to kick the Seps out of Bothawui space or die trying. Jesse took it as a personal invitation.” Eel gives Kix a look that’s apology and sympathy twisted together. “Jesse ordered everyone off the Redeemer II and drove a Star Destroyer right up that Sep command ship’s ass.”

“Go big or go home,” Kix murmurs, a numb sensation in his chest. “Jesse always did say that if he went out, he wanted to make sure it was memorable.”

He has to make jokes. He doesn’t know what else to say.                 

He knows this is happening, but none of it feels real.

“He saved all our lives, and scared the holy hell out of the Seps in the process,” Boil says. “They fucking ran after that.”

Eel smiles in fond recollection. “You’d think that the Seps would have been used to the 501st throwing destroyers at them to make them go away.”

Numa crosses her arms. “I’d just like to make it a rule that we are not going to be piloting this ship up any other starship’s ass.”

“We’re doing what?” Click comes back into the lounge with his mouth hanging open. “First my hyperdrive, and now you want to forcibly mate my baby with another ship? What the hell is wrong with you people?”

Boil grins. “Our generals firmly believed that ‘Say it with Star Destroyers’ was a valid option.”

Kix buries his face in his hands. He can’t tell if he’s laughing or crying, and he’s not sure it matters.

The conversation sort of devolves from there into “Whose General was crazier?” and Kix is glad of the distraction. This kind of reminiscing is about things he knows. Click nods along, as if everything makes perfect sense; Pulsar seems wistful. Lichen just looks appalled by most of the conversation.

Besides, it’s not even questionable. Kenobi was crazier. Flat out. Skywalker at least had escape plans.

When it gets quiet again, Kix ventures, “I just can’t help but wonder what things would be like if Fives had been able to tell Rex about the chips.”

“That’s why they killed Fives? He knew about the chips?” Boil asks. When Kix nods, he snarls, “Fucking hells,” and lights up a tabacc stick, taking a long drag while looking utterly furious.

“Those fucking chips.” Click is sitting with his head lowered, an angry gleam in his eyes. “Mine didn’t fire when the order came in, but everyone else’s did. My damned brothers shot me along with the Jedi I was trying to protect.”

“What order?” Kix asks. Fives hadn’t mentioned anything about orders. Kix had suspected it would be a signal, something broad-spectrum that would activate the chips all at once.

“Right. We keep forgetting that you’re missing a hell of a lot of history.” Slick’s customary scowl is laced with regret instead of anger.

“The chips told us to kill Jedi—any Jedi. If you had one in front of you, you were shooting without a moment’s hesitation,” Pulsar says in a low voice. His expression tells Kix that he’s speaking from personal experience, and it’s chilling.

“Yeah. Cody, too. No hesitation at all.” Boil sighs. “The Chancellor issued Order Sixty-Six, and everything went to complete shit.”

Kix feels a sharp, lancing pain in his head. He grimaces and half-closes his eyes. Migraine spike, maybe? The list of possible side effects from long-term cryo sleep is extensive.

Good Soldiers Follow Orders

Kix blinks in confusion. What—what the hell?

Good Soldiers Follow Orders

Kix grits his teeth. It’s like a prodding in his head, an electrical impulse that tells him he is supposed to get up, he is supposed to act, he has orders regarding the Traitors and Good Soldiers Follow Orders—

“Kix?”

Kix opens his eyes and finds Eel and Boil are right there in front of him. Kix’s hands are gripping the arms of his chair so tightly that he’s hearing cracking sounds.

“Fuck me,” Slick whispers. “We’re idiots. We’re all godsdamned fools.”

“What the hell,” Kix rasps out. His head is pounding, and he can hear that refrain repeating itself, over and over again.

Boil is panicking. Weird; Kix hasn’t seen Boil panic since Umbara. “I am so fucking sorry!”

“We just accidentally activated your chip,” Eel explains. He sounds calmer than Boil, but that is definitely concern shining in his eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s just—fuck, none of us are used to having to deal with the damned things any longer!”

Good Soldiers Follow Orders

Kix is on his feet without realizing he’s going to stand up. “How the hell do I make it shut up?”

Kriffing hells, there aren’t even any Traitors left to kill!

Not. Traitors. Kix bites his lip until it bleeds. Jedi. Fuck off.

Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders—

“Kix.” Eel has him by the shoulders, and Kix didn’t see it happening until he feels fingers squeezing into flesh. “Skywalker. Our General. You concentrate on him, right now.”

It’s the most baffling thing to hear under the circumstances, and it gets his attention. “Skywalker? Why—” Kix starts to say, and just like that, his thoughts are clear.

“Kix? You with us?” Eel asks.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here,” Kix says, and feels warmth touch his lip. He wipes his hand under his nose and his fingers come away smeared with blood. “What the hell?”

“Fuck.” Boil heaves in a breath. “Eel. What the fuck—why is that working?”

“We never figured that out,” Eel is saying, while Kix stares at his fingers.

You don’t understand. What I’m mixed up in, it goes all the way to the top.

“I know why it works,” Kix says, but the moment his focus slips from Skywalker to the Chancellor, he’s hearing

Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders

Kix pulls himself back into screaming awareness by mental fingernails. Eel is dragging him down the corridor, back to Medical. “You need to take a nap,” Eel tells him in a strangled voice. “Not the best option, but it’s a hell of a lot better than watching you fucking die—”

He’s shoved in front of clear-paneled cabinets full of medical supplies, everything he would need to poison and slice and—

Kix almost starts beating his head against the wall. No, no, and no. He opens the cabinet to his right, loading up a hypo by rote memorization.

“Kix, that’s too much—” he hears Eel say, but he’s already injecting the sedative. He is not going to listen to this, he is not following this stupid order, by all the gods, Fives, you should have told me

Hitting the floor doesn’t register; Eel’s shout and cold deck plates do.

Kix drifts in and out, never quite sleeping, but not conscious enough for that stupid voice to yell at him to go kill traitors –no, JEDI.

He comes to just enough to realize that his nose is buried in fabric, and there is warmth and scent beneath it. He studied medicine even after flash training was over, and had a hard time believing the scientific insistence that a genetic copy was exactly that. DNA supposedly conquered all. Kix and his batchmates were supposed to be the same man, all of them, and yet every single one of them had a unique scent.

He knows right away that this isn’t a batchmate. Not Jesse.

“How’s he doing?”

Humans need earflaps. Why they’ve gone all this time without evolving a physical method of shutting out noise that didn’t involve hands and mufflers and earplugs, he has no damn idea. He can’t avoid hearing people speak unless he moves to prevent it, but if he moves, he wakes up.

If he wakes up, the chip is going to cause him to take a surgical scalpel to the people keeping him from obeying orders—

Shit, Kix thinks in absolute misery, and tries his best to just tune it out. He’s going to pretend none of this is real. If none of it is real, then that voice can’t badger him into doing something he can’t take back.

He does try to think about Skywalker, but that’s one of the side-effects of long-term cryo-sleep that isn’t so common: inability to concentrate. Combine that with the sedative, and he can barely remember what Skywalker kriffing looks like.

He feels the flex of a diaphragm against his cheek as the muscle contracts, taking in air that leaves the body as sound: “Eel says he took enough sedatives to sleep for the next two days, and he’s still not sleeping.”

No, Kix is not sleeping. “It’s not working,” he mutters, fingers tightening involuntarily, catching and squeezing the fabric of the shirt he’s gripping.

“What’s that?”

Good Soldiers Follow Orders

“Give me a third day’s dose,” Kix grumbles, mentally telling the stupid voice to take a long walk off a short landing platform.

The question is long, drawn-out, and honestly, sounds kind of worried: “Whyyyyy?”

Kix sighs. “Because I’m still hallucinating you.”

Another diaphragm-flex, and this time it’s released as a soft laugh. “Yeah. Not doing that. We want you to still be alive by the time we hit Alliance space.”

He almost slips and says Echo’s name. Not real. Not a target. “Stupid ghost, not giving me what I want.”

“He always did go out of his way to prove that medics are the worst patients ever,” Slick says. Except it can’t be him, because he blew up half of the damned base and is serving a decade for it.

Please, please be hallucinating. All of it. Please.

It all sounds so kriffing normal, is the thing. The problem is that Slick was long gone before Echo and Fives were adopted into Torrent, and Slick almost sounds like he’s mellowed.

“I have not,” Slick retorts.

Kix winces. “How much of that have I been saying out loud?”

“Most of it.” Echo pats his shoulder. “Couldn’t think of a crueler thing to say to him, huh?”

“It won’t shut up,” Kix whimpers, curling around Echo while trying not to scream. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“Hey, sharing my feelings always made me feel better,” Slick says in a dry voice.

“Your feelings were about anger and biting and blowing things up,” Kix retorts. He can focus on this. Not the chip. Slick and his stupid plans to save them, an idea that Kix appreciates now in a way he couldn’t conceive of back then.

Good Soldiers Follow Orders Good Soldiers Follow Orders

Shut up!

GOOD SOLDIERS FOLLOW ORDERS

Dammit. “Echo.” Kix clenches his jaw, trying to make sure he gets the correct words out. “How long. Last dose, and…”

“Arrival time?” Echo guesses, and Kix twitches his head in a shallow nod. “Six hours ago, and we’re about eighteen hours out from a surgical center that can remove the chip.”

Kix breathes, in and out. His nose might be bleeding again; his head certainly hurts enough to have burst capillaries. “Sixteen hundred milligrams. Space it out by…”

He frowns, trying to concentrate over the screaming voice in his head. Math is hard when that damned chip won’t shut up. “Nine hours. Max safe dose.”

“Max safe dose, my ass,” Slick says. “That could actually kill you.”

“The chip will kill him if we don’t keep him sedated,” Eel snaps from somewhere near Kix’s left. “I’d rather go with the medic’s advice.”

Kix feels the smooth rounded metal of a hypo against the side of his neck just before the injection sends a fresh wave of cold through his body. He tightens his grip on Echo’s shirt as everything starts to fog out again.

“Don’t let me,” Kix begs, even though he can’t remember what he’s trying to prevent.

“No way,” Echo promises, and that’s the last thing Kix hears for a while.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Kix wakes up on an Alliance vessel with an aching head and the scent of bacta crawling up his nose. Once again, there is a woman waiting at his bedside, but this isn’t Numa. Lines are beginning to carve her face, and there is a hint of steel gray in her dark hair, but she’s easily recognizable.

“Mouse,” Kix whispers, smiling.

“Kix,” Mouse replies, and wipes tears from her face. “You are such a sight for sore eyes.”

“Pfft,” Kix huffs, too sedated to feel embarrassed by emotions, or by his stupid situation. Then he realizes that there is no chip yammering in his head. Jedi Jedi Jedi, and no hint of Traitor Traitor Traitor. Thank the gods, and his brothers, that he doesn’t have to deal with that anymore.

He feels a hell of a lot better physically, too. “S’date?”

“It’s the thirtieth,” Mouse replies. “Tenth month.” She pauses and raises an eyebrow. “5238.”

Kix sighs. Nothing like remembering that your life currently stinks to clear up a sedative fog. “I remembered that part, thanks.”

“Glad to hear it.” Mouse is suddenly regarding him with the cool professionalism he remembers, and Kix knows that this just went from reunion to interrogation. “Feeling murderous, Major?”

“Only if you’re a Sith in disguise, Lieutenant,” Kix retorts, irritated.

“It’s Colonel, now.” Mouse pats his hand, just above the intravenous line jutting awkwardly out from a vein in his hand. She’s gone right back to warm consideration; he must have passed whatever weird test she’s supposed to be giving him. “I outrank you, Major.”

Kix gives her a dry look. “I’m still a CMO, Mice Desoto. Chief Medical Officer outranks everyone when things go all to hell.”

Mouse just grins. “I missed you, too, you uppity little shit. I’ll call in the others and let them know you’re awake and sane.”

“Why the interview, Mouse?” Kix asks. He just spent days heavily sedated; he figures he deserves an answer.

“Aside from the fact that a certain Bothan asshole neglected to tell me that my former comrades had formed a new SpecOps squad? Alliance Intelligence still has to review every clone we de-chip.”

Kix sniffs to try and clear his sinuses, but that just makes the bacta worse. “How many do you get?”

Mouse’s smile wilts at the corners. “Not nearly enough.”

Eel almost collides with Mouse at the door. “Hey! It’s my favorite colonel.”

Mouse shakes her head and accepts the hug he offers. “It is still tragically unfair that you outrank me, Commodore,” she says, which causes Kix to choke on his next attempt to clear out bacta.

“Yeah, but you’re a scary Intelligence type. Carries more weight,” Eel says, which explains even more about Mouse’s short interrogation.

“You’re SpecOps,” Mouse shoots back. “You are a scary Intelligence type!”

“Are you guys trying to make me suffocate on bacta?” Kix asks desperately. He doesn’t care what banner they’re fighting under; Eel as a high-ranking Intelligence officer has to have been someone’s act of complete desperation.

Then he finds out it was a Rear Admiral’s attempt at corralling Slick. Fair enough.

“I told you it was a bullshit decision,” Slick says, which sets Echo to snickering. “Look, can you say something to Boil?”

“Say what to Boil?” Kix asks. He’s been wondering why Boil didn’t wandered in with the rest of his brothers—come to think of it, Numa’s absent, too.

“The idiot’s trying to turn himself into a chimney because he thinks he almost killed you,” Echo says. “I didn’t think it was possible to blow through that much tabacc in a single day.”

“Boil did almost kill him.” Eel and Echo both glare at Slick, who ignores them. “I don’t want a chimney; I want a soldier capable of blowing up Imps.”

“I spent twenty-six years in a kriffing box,” Kix says bluntly. “Boil has a long way to go before I think he’s had even half a chance of making me dead.”

“Good point. I’ll go see if it convinces him to calm the hell down,” Pulsar says, and leaves the room. Kix feels guilty for being relieved that he’s gone, but Pulsar’s been giving Kix weird looks since everyone came to see him. He doesn’t know why, and he’s kind of afraid to ask.

“Speaking of soldiers…” Slick winces and looks at Echo. “You knew him longer. You ask him.”

“You’re in charge,” Echo replies, blinking innocence when Slick glares at him. “It’s your job. Besides, you knew him first.”

“I fucking outrank you,” Eel says, while Lichen vigorously shakes his head. “You do it.”

Click holds up both hands to fend them off. “I’m crazy. I’m not allowed to ask.”

Slick rolls his eyes. “Fine. Numa says that our lylek needs a tail. You interested, Kix?”

“You want me to be CMO to a special operations group working out of Alliance Intelligence,” Kix says, just to make sure he’s got that part straight. He receives multiple nods of confirmation. “You guys do realize that I don’t know jack shit about this Alliance, I barely understand what the hell happened to the Republic, and it’s probably illegal to ask someone to join military service when they’re still in Medical, right?”

Slick shrugs. “Yeah. So?”

“I guess I just have one question,” Kix says, perversely enjoying the fact that Slick looks like he’s bracing himself.

“What’s that?”

Kix grins. “What the hell is a lylek?”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Pulsar is standing in the room the next time Kix opens his eyes. Stupid sedatives.

Granted, the sight of Pulsar is enough to make the sedative fog go away in a big kriffing hurry. “Uh, hi?”

“The chips,” Pulsar says, and then grimaces. “I wanted to talk to you about what you said about the chips.”

“I probably said a lot of things,” Kix says.

Pulsar nods. “Yeah, well. Do you know how I got my name?”

It’s such a conversation shift that Kix has to mentally switch tracks. “No, I don’t.”

“When I was a kid on Kamino, I realized I had great hearing—a lot better than standard among our brothers,” Pulsar says. He looks both sad and serious. “Before I learned to keep my stupid mouth shut, I used to tell people that I could hear the stars talking when I slept. So: Pulsar.”

“That’s probably a better reason than most of us have for our names,” Kix says. He chose his because it was a stupid pun, after all.

“Maybe.” Pulsar glances around the room, like he’s double-checking for something hidden. “Skywalker. His name, his image—they make the chip shut up. You said you knew why. The others didn't hear you, but I did.”

Oh. That. Kix swallows. “Yeah, I do.”

“Same,” Pulsar says, with another set of darting glances around the room. “I just…it’s not something you tell people.”

“Yeah.” Kix feels a sour churn in his stomach. He wasn’t. Kriffing. There. “Skywalker and the Chancellor. They were…they were friends.”

“Friends.” Pulsar snorts. “Yeah, that’s definitely a past-tense relationship. I just…” He hesitates. “Knowing that someone else gets it. That, uh—that means a lot.”

“You’re…welcome?” Kix ventures.

Pulsar cracks a smile, which eliminates most of his seriously damned creepy vibe. “Thanks.”

 

Imperial Year 26

Observed Republic Date 5238: 11/2nd

Alliance cruiser Dumisani Haven

Anoat Sector

 

Kix is sitting in an empty public lounge, a datapad resting on his lap that he can’t concentrate on. Adjusting to the future isn’t that easy, much as he’d like it to be. Kix is a man literally born and bred to be flexible, to adapt to swiftly-changing situations, but he’s pretty sure the Kaminoans did not have anything like this in mind.

He’s met the captain of the Dumisani Haven, Rear Admiral Chin’weulta. Slick is right, for once; the Bothan is an asshole.

Chin’weulta is also terrifying levels of efficient. Kix is confirmed as a major and CMO in the Alliance, listed as an active member of a special operations squad, before he’s even officially released from Medical.

Kix glances down, studying his clasped hands. They look exactly as he remembers them, burnished skin burnt darker by sunlight on so many worlds, from the starlight of so many systems. Gloves and armor had never seemed to completely block out the sun for any of his brothers. It’s the running joke of so many Shinies, fresh from the perpetually stormy skies of Kamino: “If we take our armor off and go out in the sun, does that mean we burst into flame?”

He’s earned every single mark on his skin, scars from rescues and battles—so many that he doesn’t even know how to count them anymore.

None of it matters. When Kix stands next to his brothers now, there is no mistaking which one of them is still Shiny.

“Now there’s an expression I know really well.”

Kix lifts his head. He knows that’s a brother, but the lounge’s shoddy lighting means he can’t quite see the man’s face. “What’s that?”

“You look like a man who hopes he’s dreaming, and really wants to wake up.” His visitor takes a step forward, throwing his brother’s lined face into stark relief.

Kix feels himself smile. That triangular tattoo is unmistakable. “Dogma.”

Dogma grins. “Hi there, time traveler.”

Kix pushes himself up from his chair and gets pulled into a hug. Dogma’s leather jacket is so worn the texture is like silk under his hands; his brother smells like several days of shipboard travel and the mineral tang of churned black earth.

“You look great,” Kix says, even though what he means is, “You look alive,” something that none of them had confirmation of twenty-six years ago. “I guess farming wasn’t so bad.”

“It had perks,” Dogma says, “but Eel hasn’t knocked off with the livestock jokes for a long time now.”

Kix knows two things in rapid succession, both of which make his chest feel like a vise is clamped around it: Jesse must have told Eel how to find Cut’s farm, and he’d already been intent on dying when he did it.

Losing Jesse is hard enough, but Kix has been struggling for days with the fact that it’s his damn fault. He could have done so many things differently—

“Annnnd that’s my cue,” Dogma says, pushing on Kix’s shoulder. “Sit down and breathe before you have a panic attack.”

“I’m not panicking!” Kix snaps in response, and then grimaces. “I’m sorry. You didn’t—dammit.”

Dogma sits down across from him. Gods, but they all have varying versions of that same tired smile. “Well, I didn’t get locked in a stasis pod for decades, but the concept’s the same. I got dumped into a situation I didn’t know how to cope with. Sound about right?”

Kix nods, dredging up a passable smile. “Yeah. I get it. Is that why Eel called you in?”

“No, Eel called me in because one of our brothers turned up alive, and now he’s the most handsome specimen in the entire 501st,” Dogma replies, grinning.

Kix bites back every bitter thing he wants to say, and takes the lighter route. “There are only six of us left from the 501st. Seven, if you count Pulsar’s time in the Imperial version of the 501st. It’s really not that hard to beat out the competition.”

“It’s still nice to see the numbers climb.” Dogma shrugs out of his coat, revealing a thick sleeveless shirt underneath. He also skipped out on the option of bulking up, but his bare shoulders are literally tattooed maps, topographical landmasses compressed into geometric shapes. “We didn’t even know about Rex until a few months back.”

“I thought there were only ten of us active in the Alliance military,” Kix says, grasping at straws for a subject to talk about that isn’t extremely out of date. “Or are you the man in Intelligence with the mystery identity?”

Dogma points at Kix. “There are eleven clones in the Alliance, now that they’re including you.”

It’s an act of will not to flinch. “Right.”

“I’m not your mystery man; I’m not active military. I report Imp movement sometimes, but I…” Dogma hesitates. “Umbara was it for me, Kix. Once I hit dirt on Saleucami, I was done with fighting.”

Kix’s stomach gives the same familiar lurch at the mention of Umbara. “I’m not gonna judge you for that, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Dogma stretches out in his chair, a relaxed slump that he’d never have dared to allow himself as a Shiny. “Sometimes I still get worked up about it. The battle breakdown was pretty damn bad for a while. You?”

“I never really had time to break down,” Kix says wryly. “I was too busy putting the rest of you back together.”

Dogma gives him a sharp look. “Check your shit,” he says, which gives Kix a bad start. He hasn’t heard the phrase in years; it dropped out of use as the early generations of brothers were lost and replaced by the younger sets.

“You must have learned that one from Cut,” Kix says.

“Yeah. Among other things.”

Kix realizes he’s trying to carve his way through the solid arm of the chair with his fingertips. “You think I’m having breakdown now.”

“Maybe. I know something is bugging the hell out of you.” Dogma tilts his head. “You know, there were so many times when I’d convinced myself that I had to have done something to cause that mess with Pong Krell.”

Kix stares at him. “That is complete shit, and you know it.”

“Yeah, it is,” Dogma agrees. “And you didn’t murder the Jedi, or betray the Republic, or serve the Empire under the influence of those damned chips.”

Kix swallows, his mouth feeling too dry. “I still wasn’t where I should have been.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Hell, Kix, maybe none of us were where we should have been,” Dogma says, expression set and serious. “None of that matters. The only thing that does matter is what you choose to do about the bullshit you’re faced with right now.”

Kix sighs. His chest still aches, grief and guilt knotted up together, but he knows Dogma’s right. “How did you get so smart?”

His brother just smiles. “I got old.”

Dogma leaves the next day, but not before there is an impromptu reunion of the Republic 501st. There should have been more men—Rex should be there, at least—but the others are thrilled that there are five of them in the same room.

The rest of the squad piles into the lounge after leaving them alone for a few hours. Click stole someone’s stockpile of alcohol, but Kix turns down the chance for a drink. The last one he had was with Jesse. It’s probably stupid sentimentality, but he’d like to keep it that way for a while.

Boil has finally calmed the hell down from his I Almost Killed Kix By Accident guilt-spiral, to Kix’s intense relief. He’s got a limited tolerance for awkwardness, and Boil was topping the scale.

The night passes swiftly, and the company is good, but Kix can’t stop seeing faces that aren’t there. He’s pretty sure he isn’t the only one having that problem.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Kix lost most of his company, but he’s part of a squad again. Half of him wants to panic, but the other half recognizes that these people survived decades of resistance-fighting, so they’re not as likely to die tomorrow as the average incoming Shiny.

Hells, he’s probably got a higher chance of ending up dead. He’s a seasoned veteran by Clone Wars standards, but not the Alliance. Not when he stacks a mere three years next to his new squadmates.

He’s trying to catch up on galactic history, but it’s slow reading. He keeps stopping because so much of it is kriffing awful.

He has to remind himself to talk about pretty much everyone in the past tense. Both of their generals are dead—Skywalker to Order 66, and Kenobi to the first Death Star.

Kix is still half-convinced that the Death Star projects were some kind of extended Imperial prank.

Eel is typically Kix’s go-to when it comes to history and confirming that yes, this shit really did happen. “They built a planet-destroying battle station. The size of a moon.”

“Pretty much,” Eel says, eyes glued to the report he’s filing. Technically, that’s Slick’s job, but Slick’s reports tend to get rejected for language content or inappropriate summarizations of events. Usually it’s both.

The question comes out as a distressed wail. “Why?”

Eel glances up at him. “Tarkin.”

Kix pauses mid-protest. Okay, that’s a fair point. Tarkin is a scary bastard.

No, he was a scary bastard. Now that’s a past-tense reference Kix is glad to make.

The sad thing is that the first Death Star’s construction, and the reasoning behind it, is almost-credible levels of believable. It’s what they did with it that is utterly unfeeling, and completely insane. Alderaan’s destruction is a loss Kix can barely conceive of, and that’s after his brothers took him out to see the bits of rubble that compose the Graveyard.

The rest of the Imperial/Alliance history reads like someone decided to just keep coming up with next-worst things to do to the galaxy. Then there’s the fact that the Empire built a second Death Star. An actual, second Death Star, even though the first one blew up and took a statistically significant portion of the Imperial military with it.

“Luke Skywalker,” Kix reads aloud from the Alliance’s historical summary of the Battle of Yavin. “Is that a coincidence?”

“Nope,” Boil answers, smiling while he works on sharpening a boot knife. “I’ve seen holos of the man. That is definitely General Skywalker’s kid.”

Kix frowns and does a search until he finds an image of Luke Skywalker that’s not grainy or military-official. His eyes may be blue, but that’s Senator Amidala’s steel in his gaze.

She’s gone, too. That’s a loss that’s almost as hard to fathom as Alderaan.

Then he stumbles over a news report from six months back. “Wait. Twins?”

“Yup.” Eel looks so damned proud. “The Princess has been involved in the Rebellion since she came of age. Senator Organa introduced us once. She looks like her mother.”

Kix goes back to digging through digital archives, hunting for glimpses of her parents in Leia Organa’s face. She has the Senator’s brown hair and brown eyes, but in most of her photos, the princess is so stern, so sober, that it leeches out her personality.

It takes him hours to find an unofficial holo, taken just after the Battle of Endor. Leia’s eyes are bright and shining, and there is a delighted grin on her face. That’s the photo that convinces him.

She smiles like Anakin Skywalker used to.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Kix gives up on history after a few days’ study. He knows the basics of what’s happened, and he knows who to kriffing shoot at. Kix figures he’ll pick up anything else he needs along the way.

Medical data, though. That is a different story entirely. Kix buries himself in medical updates until his eyes feel like they’re bleeding.

Lichen finally drags him out to requalify on the firing range just to make him stop. Kix rolls his eyes and borrows Lichen’s rifle, nailing the target with the precision Rex would have expected of him.

“Are you happy now?”

“Fucking 501st,” Lichen says, but he sounds approving. “Go check out the armory and kit up. I’ll make sure the paperwork’s done. Did it for Slick and Echo, anyway. Training the kids used to be my job.”

“What are my choices?” Kix asks, swapping the power cell on Lichen’s rifle before handing it back.

Lichen shrugs. “If you can carry it, it’s yours. We’ve got the budget surplus to pay for it if anyone comes along whining about missing hardware.”

“Got it,” Kix says, trying to pretend that he’s not feeling gleeful. He’s CMO, yeah, but you didn’t go out with the 501st—and survive—unless you were also a damned good soldier. Jesse taught him to appreciate more weaponry than just the Kaminoan kit standard.

“Holy gods,” Kix says, once he’s standing in the armory. “My boyfriend would have been having an orgasm right about now.”

“Too many details,” Lichen grumbles, and leaves Kix alone to browse.

There’s a class of rifles that are definitely made of a new polymer. The only real weight is coming from the charge; he could fire one at shoulder height for an hour or more without fatiguing.

It’s Lichen’s fault that he comes out of the room capable of fighting a small civil war on his own, but Lichen just nods at Kix’s choices. “The armor will be a few more days.”

“Armor?” Kix asks, confused. Technically, he doesn’t need armor. His had been packed away on that crashed Sep cruiser they’d found him on.

Kix hasn’t been able to bring himself to open the container.

Lichen pats the moss green sleeve of his coat. “Body armor,” he explains, grinning when Kix just stares at him in complete bafflement. “It’ll take a blaster bolt without showing a mark. Fireproof and impact-resistant. Try the weight.”

Kix doesn’t believe it until he’s wearing Lichen’s coat. It’s too big on him, but he can find the armor panels when he taps on fabric and hears the tic of metal plate beneath the surface.

“Does it work?”

Lichen heaves a sigh. “Pretty sure Echo’s managed to test it well beyond industry standard.”

“ARCs, man,” Kix says, and shares a look of complete understanding with Lichen. Kriffing insane bastards, all of them.

The moment he has a set that’s sized to fit, Kix is an immediate convert. The new armor is completely awesome, and even better, can be dyed different colors. Not quite as customizable as the old duraplex armor, but hells, he’ll take it just for the freedom of movement.

Pulsar dyed his cloth armor black. He’s supposed to be a stealth specialist, and anyone who’s run around in the dark knows that you want a deep blue (or green, or red, depending on the planet’s sun) but Pulsar is an asshole. He prefers Surprise! I’m Terrifying over being invisible.

Pulsar’s eyes are also solid black, which is driving Kix nuts. He can’t get a true pupil response from someone whose irises are the same color!

“The Imps went cheap on me when my eyes were damaged in a firefight. Black is the easiest color to manufacture for the new bio-replacements,” Pulsar explains, while flinching away as Kix tries in vain to figure out where the damned line of his pupil ends and the iris begins.

Kix doesn’t understand why Lichen didn’t bother with customization. Fatigue green was boring even when he was a Shiny, and it veers pretty close to the olive green of an Imperial officer’s uniform. Then some jackass in a different SpecOps unit mocks Lichen’s name.

Lichen says nothing in response. He simply goes to the ’fresher, cuts his hair short enough to curl in close to his scalp, and dyes it the same shade of green as his fatigues, because Fuck You, That’s Why.

“Don’t mock the useful moss. Got it,” Kix murmurs, and then conspires with Eel to make sure that the jackass in the other unit gets to experience what it’s like to rely on lichen moss for survival. The unit’s lead helps them with their mission, which tells Kix that this is a lesson that’s been a long time coming.

“Almost feel sorry for him,” Eel says.

“I don’t,” Kix replies. “Bugs, remember?”

Eel’s face twists up. “Oh, dear fucking hells. I’d forgotten about that. Fuck you, Kix.”

Kix smiles. “In your dreams, old man,” he says, and then he has to run from his brother or suffer worse indignities than a bit of moss in his food.

Click, by contrast, refuses to wear anything in that resembles nature-based camouflage, because nature tried to kriffing kill him for four years. He wears steel gray, instead. It’s the same color another Alliance unit uses, but Click is kind of unmistakable. He keeps his white hair in a loose tail, and there is a dark blue ideogram above his left eye.

“What’s that mean?” Kix asks. “The tattoo on your face.”

Click ignores him and asks a question of his own. “What’re you going to do with your armor, now that you have it?” His voice muffled by the compartment he’s half-buried in. Kix is taking his turn at handing Click tools, parts, or food. Click’s baby, the Gedin'la Dinii, isn’t quite ready to go out again, but that time is getting closer. Kix is equal parts nervous and terrified by the prospect. He handled his first op as an actual Shiny better than he’s handling the slow prep for this one.

“Blue,” Kix answers. “Same as Eel and Echo.” His brothers went with 501st blue, and Kix doesn’t want to leave that sense of familiarity behind. “You went with the 104th, right?”

“Not on purpose. Didn’t even realize I’d gone with the 104th’s colors until it was too late,” Click says, waving his hand around until Kix puts a hydrospanner in it. “Thanks. When I got the armor, I couldn’t decide if I liked it, or if I wanted to burn it and order another set. Then there was a firefight before I could make up my mind, and hey, no sense in getting rid of armor that kept me alive, right?”

No matter how many times Kix asks, Click won’t tell him what the damned tattoo means. Searching databases doesn’t turn up anything, and the others have no idea. Eel suspects it’s a joke that Click doesn’t want to share.

Slick thinks Kix, Eel, and Echo are stupid for going with that same shade of 501st blue, but when a blue band in that color shows up wrapped around the sleeve of his armor, he doesn’t take it off. Echo looks smug for days afterward, which makes Slick a bitch to live with.

Kix doesn’t understand their relationship at all, but they’re not murdering each other, so it must work for them. Somehow.

“Why a star?” Kix asks Slick, shining a light into his brother’s eyes to get a dilation response. At least his eyes are the right damned color. “It doesn’t seem like you.” The warped star, filled with text and ideograms that make no sense, is the same dark violet shade as his cloth armor. Kix suspects the color is also Echo’s doing; even he can admit that it’s a flattering combination.

Slick blinks several times after Kix turns off the light, scowling like he wants to murder everything; he’s still exceptionally photophobic. “You don’t argue with the tattoo artist, especially when they’re known for shoving toothbrushes into people’s eyes.”

“Good point. Show me your hands,” Kix orders. He’s seen the man rubbing at his knuckles off-and-on for days now, and his joints are a bruised reddish-purple.

Slick glares at him. “Fuck off.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot that I have to ask in the right way.” Kix narrows his eyes. “Give me your hands, dumbass.”

Slick grins at him, the prick. “That’s more like it.”

Kix frowns as he prods at Slick’s hands, while Slick pretends everything’s fine and he’s not in pain. “How long have you been wandering around with arthritis?”

“About fifteen years,” Slick answers him, and Kix winces in sympathy.

Kix winds up staring at the blue of his cloth armor for hours. He doesn’t—it doesn’t feel right to have that solid wall of color. He does some research and figures out how to bleach the fabric without ruining the properties that make it useful, tracing out a faint replica of the pattern on his old armor.

It still isn’t right, though. That’s what finally causes Kix to give in and open the container that holds his armor, packed away by Separatist droids that are long-since destroyed.

A lot of the pieces are cracked or outright broken in half, evidence of a search for information Kix didn’t have. The comm unit has been ripped out of his left vambrace, damaging the armor in the process, but the right vambrace is intact. That’s going back on his arm; it feels like the right sort of reminder. When he tries it out, Kix discovers he got the bleached edging of his sleeve so true that it lines up with the vambrace.

There’s another reason he’s glad to find that particular piece.

Stupid kriffing droids, Kix thinks, inserting a thin piece of metal into the edge of what looks like a hairline crack in the armor. He slides the hidden compartment open and finds that the contents are untouched.

The compartment doesn’t hold much; Kix didn’t need it to. There are only three data chips, still compatible with modern datapads.

Kix slides the second chip into a datapad and cues up the hundreds of flatpics and holos the chip contains. “Hi, Jesse,” he whispers, as Jesse’s distinctive tattoo and laughing eyes appear on the screen. “You stupid shit. I miss you.”

Eel doesn’t try Kix’s bleaching method (“Hey, my name is on my face.”) but Echo does. He copies the lines from his old armor, and then adds the pattern from Five’s ARC gear. The combination makes an entirely new pattern, but anyone who knew Echo or Fives can still see the originals without difficulty.

Echo only makes two changes. He doesn’t include the famous handprint, but he puts a domino pattern on his sleeve. It makes Kix’s chest hurt to look at that mirror of Echo’s tattoo, but at least the domino on his armor doesn’t have most of the dots crossed out.

“I do know the meaning of overkill,” Echo says, when Kix asks about the handprint, and shows Kix the dark blue tattoo on his chest. “I’m still kind of tempted to put it on the armor, though. Slick makes funny angry noises when I do shit like that.”

Right; Kix often forgets that Echo is kind of evil. He hides it well, but you don’t pull that kind of assholery for nice reasons. Fives is what kept Echo in check; Slick doesn’t even bother trying.

Numan’arru’s armor is the same rich shade of indigo as the tattoos that grace her lekku. She wears the cloth armor like it’s an extension of her own skin, and word is that she’s not above pinning it into form-fitting shapes to go out and flirt for information. People fall for it, every time. Kix can’t really blame them—Numa is extremely damned pretty.

She’s also highly intelligent. Numa speaks eight languages and understands four more, can calculate basic navigational jumps in her head, and learned enough about medicine to keep the rest of her squad from dying when they screwed up. It’s nice to have an assistant that’s not just competent, but soaks in information like a sponge and puts it to great use.

It’s an almost painful jolt when Kix realizes he’s crushing on her, bad. Jesse would be laughing his ass off at him.

Boil dyed his armor a dark, rusty brown, which strikes Kix as being just as odd as Slick and his purple star. The narrow bands in 212th gold that Boil wears just above his elbows almost makes it worse.

“You have got to lay off the kriffing tabacc,” Kix tells him, when he finally gets Boil in his medical clutches. Boil always avoided Zed in the exact same way, and it’s annoying.

“Why?” Boil asks, snorting in dry amusement. “To extend my life? Be fucking realistic, Kix. I’ve got maybe another good ten years in me, and that’s if I don’t get killed by Imps.”

“Fuck you, you bastard,” Kix hisses, all but shaking with sudden fury. “We may age twice as fast as standard, but that doesn’t limit us to kriffing fifty!”

Boil shakes his head. “Fuck, I’m sorry,” he says, genuine regret in his voice. “I keep—I look at you, and…hells, Kix. I’m thirty-eight Standard, but there is no damned arguing about the fact that I’m old. I’m going to enjoy every minute of it, but I know I’ve got an expiration date.”

Kix draws in a deep breath, calming himself enough to say, “I’m going to tell Numa you said that.”

Boil blanches. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

“Then cut the tabacc in half,” Kix retorts. “And maybe I’ll keep your stupid shit ideas to myself.”

“You’re an asshole,” Boil growls. “Fine. I’ll cut back. Happy now?”

“Ecstatic,” Kix says dryly, but when he goes back to his assigned berth on the Haven, he can’t resist looking in the mirror.

He’s not yet thirteen Standard. He looks like he’s approaching twenty-five.

He can’t stop seeing the careworn lines on his brother’s faces, or stop thinking about the fact that in another twenty-six years, he’ll look the way they do now…and he’ll probably be alone.

Kix hasn’t had a complete breakdown like Dogma implied, but he’s definitely struggling with depression. Kriffing hells, the future is awful.

He curls up that night in his bunk with the datapad throwing holo projections onto the wall, sorting through thousands of images. Most of them are of the 501st, with the 212th running second place, though men and volunteers from other units do turn up on occasion. He finds a slightly-blurred snap of Pulsar with his eyes their original color, standing with the rest of his squad from Unduli’s 41st. That is definitely Scythe’s forehead tat, even if Kix can’t make out the rest of his face.

Mouse’s team posed for a group shot, the impassive smug assholes. Even when they got transferred out, they remained one of the best damned units in the military. He reminds himself to make a copy of that holo for DeSoto.

“Hi, Captain,” Kix says, sighing when one of Jesse’s underhanded pictures of Rex turns up. Rex hated cameras—he spent more time dealing with the press than they did—so if you wanted that man in a holo, you had to go stealth.

Kix sits up in a hurry, already clapping a hand over his mouth, when he finds the next set. “Oh, Jesse, they would have killed you,” he murmurs, a wide grin on his face. He has no idea how his boyfriend pulled it off, but Jesse managed to snap one of the few moments when Kenobi and Rex had slipped and looked at each other.

“Bet you ten credits that our commander is sleeping with Cody’s General,” Jesse had said, grinning.

Kix had given him a narrow-eyed look. “Jesse, for the last time—”

“He has proof,” Eel said, wandering by without stopping.

“For real?” Kix asked, and Jesse nodded repeatedly. “Dear gods, Cody’s going to kill us all.”

Then Jesse had refused to show him the holos. Said he was saving them for the end of the war.

“War’s over now,” Kix murmurs, and then it hurts to breathe.

There’s the man in question, even; the next series of holos feature a lot of the 212th during one of their intermingled missions. Cody had his helmet off and tucked under his arm. He wasn’t looking in the camera’s direction, and it gives the image a surreal quality that makes Kix’s throat feel tight.

Eel and Dice, with Dice pretending he wasn’t dying of embarrassment when Eel carted him in from the field when a lucky shot almost obliterated his right leg. Eel hadn’t helped the situation by carrying Dice bridal-carry style and asking if anyone had a priest available.

Attie, bright-eyed and so damned happy that the Second Battle of Bothawui was over with, and it had been a normal battle. Well; sort of normal. Normal for Grievous showing up, anyway, but at least nobody had pulled any orbital free-falls in just a suit (Skywalker) or gone in on Anakin’s non-existent wing to keep him from dying (Kenobi) like the first time. Commander Tano’s presence put everyone on their best behavior…except for Skywalker, who used a ground unit to assault a star cruiser. Hells, but Kix misses that crazy bastard.

Senator Amidala and Commander Tano share a holo, probably a few months before Tano’s bullshit military trial. They’re leaning into each other, laughing in a way that makes Tano seem younger and the Senator seem older. Skywalker’s in two of the next holos, looking miffed and also covered in slime: This was not actually my fault!

Sure, Master. Keep telling yourself that.

Kenobi had been the smarter man, since he’d found a towel before finding people to lose dignity in front of: Actually, he’s right. It was mine, he said, which only made Tano laugh harder.

Echo’s memorial. Kix winces and speeds through that group of pictures like his fingers are on fire. Aside from the fact that the man isn’t dead, there are just too many brothers in those shots who look like everything has gone wrong and nothing will ever be right again.

Kriffing hells, none of these are in order, Kix thinks in resignation, when shots from the war’s second year get replaced by a moving holo of Shiny Boil, jumping around gripping his right hand with his left, while Slick looked far too damn smug.

It always bugged Jesse that they couldn’t get a personal recorder that captured sound—it was against regs—but Kix can hear every single quote, every quip, every bad damned joke like it’s ringing in his ears.

You weren’t supposed to bite me, you son of a whore!

You think there are rules in combat, Shiny? You think if you ask a droid nicely not to hurt you, it’s gonna listen? Grow the fuck up. You want to live three minutes during your first battle, Shiny, you need to remember that rules aren’t shit!

Waxer poked his head out of the crowd in the next moving holo, a smile on his face. If you bite me, I’ll bite you back.

Slick grinned wide. Good. Get over here and show your squadmates how to not fuckin’ die.

Bullshit decision, Kix’s entire ass. Slick hit the ground on day one with a fierce desire to keep all of them alive, and prison time just refined that quality. Slick was never a Shiny, even when his armor still smelled like it was fresh off the factory line.

Kix doesn’t realize that he’s crying, weeping in silence, until water starts dropping onto his hands. Dammit. There’s just so many of them that he’ll never see again: Hardcase and Jesse, Waxer, Dice, Cody, Oddball, Redeye, Attie, Ahsoka, Skywalker, Kenobi—

He has to freeze the image when all the air leaves his lungs in a rush. Tup and Fives—or more accurately, Fives trying to lick the side of Tup’s face and Tup trying his best to lean away because What? No! Are you serious? Knock that off, we are going into combat—

You think me licking the side of your face is going to make a difference?

It’s the side of my face, Fives! Jesse, for gods’ sake, put the damned camera away, I will beat both of you into the floor—

Gregor, before he vanished into thin air in the 212th’s first year. King, who’d been blown off of a hillside just after Skywalker claimed them. Alpha-17, post-Rattatak, looking like he’d been beaten to shit for three weeks straight, but was ready to go another round out of sheer kriffing spite. Clank and Zero, during one of the few moments of the second Kello Campaign when everything didn’t feel horrific. General Muln, brilliant threads of silver shooting through his hair even though he wasn’t much older than Kenobi. General Secura and Bly, with one of the man’s extremely rare smiles on his face; Hardcase punched Waxer just to get that kind of reaction. Completely worth the cracked bucket.

Kix’s door sliding open is what makes him forget that he didn’t engage the privacy seal. “Hey, Kix, I was wondering—” Eel stops and freezes in place, staring at the holo on the wall. Echo and Fives were standing together; Fives was smirking like the happiest bastard to ever live because they’d both been accepted for ARC training.

“Fuck.” Eel looks like a man who’s just had his insides scooped out. “Fuck, Kix. How many of these do you have?”

Kix swallows and tries to wipe his face. “Uh—two and a half years. Jesse had that stupid recorder, and I, uhm, I kept backups for the holos in my armor.”

Eel’s face is blank until memory filters in. “Our unofficial documentarian. I—can I have copies?”

“Sure,” Kix says, realizing he’s been a complete asshole about not telling the others about the pictures in the first place. “Yeah.”

“You’ve got…everyone.” Eel still looks dazed. “Well, everyone except the incoming Speedies during the Sieges.”

“Torrent’s original lineup. Commander Bell. Even our first idiot general,” Kix says, smiling.

“That’s amazing.” Eel gives him an arch look. “I’ll take everything but the porn.”

Kix blinks a few times, feeling his cheeks heat with embarrassment. “He had fucking well better not have!”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Great kriffing gods, he did. Kix puts those holos on a separate data chip, his face burning every time he even looks at the drawer where he hid it.

Jesse, you complete asshole. When I said you could take a holo of me whenever you wanted, that is not what I meant!

Then he finds the last holo, stored by itself in an encrypted folder on the third chip. Kix gets into it using one of Jesse’s more obscure passwords, curious as to what Jesse thought was so valuable that it needed to be secured in the first place.

It’s a full color moving holo, taken with the recorder that Jesse didn’t take out into the field because it was too fragile. It isn’t porn, either. It’s far too intimate for that.

The holo is what finally sends Kix into a full breakdown. He sobs with his face pressed into his stupid pillow to muffle the sound, hoping like hell that no one comes into his room. He can’t get up to engage the seal; he’s too busy trying not to scream about how fucking unfair this is. He hates the future, he hates that his stupid boyfriend suicided by Star Destroyer, he hates the chips, the Empire, and the stupid fucking Sith. He’d eat a kriffing blaster barrel if his brothers weren’t already on the verge of extinction.

The holo is of both of them, in the hotel suite Kix found before the infamous zero-g disaster. Kix is asleep, all but pressing his face into the mattress because Real Bed and Sleep Is Awesome. Jesse is snugged up against him, propped up on his elbow while tracing random patterns along Kix’s exposed skin.

There is a wide, lopsided smile on Jesse’s face. He looks like he’s the happiest man in the universe.

 

*         *         *         *

 

The next day, he is in the Haven’s lounge, blearily reaching for the caff, when Slick turns up next to him. “You got it out of your system yet?”

Kix pours a cup of caff that looks like tar, trying to figure out if he’s brave enough to drink it. His eyes feel like someone stuffed his eyelids full of grit and left it there, his sinuses are inflamed and angry, and there is a deep ache in his bones that Kix suspects isn’t going to be vacating any time soon.

“Yeah. Much as you can in one night, I guess,” Kix answers finally, and looks up. Slick’s typical smirk is nowhere in evidence. There is a serious weight in his gaze that raises the hair on the back of Kix’s neck.

“I know it’s not quite the same as taking a nap and waking up to find the world’s changed, but I did spend years trapped in a box,” Slick says. “Echo, too. Nothing really came in or out except the basics, you know? We knew about Order Sixty-Six, the Empire, the Emperor…but that was about it. Prison isn’t really big on current events.”

“I guess getting out after ten years would have been a shock,” Kix says.

“Ten years?” Slick makes a derisive noise. “Try twenty-seven.”

Kix opens his mouth to deny it, but the words dry up in his throat. A Sep facility would have become an Imperial facility, and the Imps had been bad for sidelining clones. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“They were supposed to let you out in ten,” Kix says.

“It actually kinda bothers me that everyone knew that,” Slick replies, but he doesn’t sound angry. Kix would call it amused if Slick bothered to smile. “Nope. Twenty-seven years, six months, seven days. Echo’s count stands at twenty-six years, six months, and ten days.”

“Hells,” Kix whispers. As far as box-like imprisonment goes, he should probably consider himself lucky. “I’m sorry.   I—I didn’t know.”

“We don’t exactly go around shouting about it,” Slick says dryly. “Our box was bigger, and time crawled by, but we both came out to a galaxy that made no fucking sense.”

Kix swallows down a return of last night’s nausea. “How do you cope with something like that?”

“Cope?” Slick raises an eyebrow. “Kix, I shoot people for a living.”

Kix smiles. “Right. Good point.”

“You still hate breakfast?” Slick asks, when Kix finally remembers that he has caff and it’s a damned gods-send, even if it’s tar.

“Food does not belong anywhere near me until noon,” Kix says. “Why?”

“Wanna go spar when you slug down that caff?”

Kix frowns. He has to admit, the idea of beating up a brother early in the morning always did have an appeal that food lacks. “Okay. But no biting.”

Slick’s smirk returns. “No promises.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Kix misjudges a grapple and spends the rest of the day with an imprint of Slick’s teeth on his arm. Boil turns pale and goes in the opposite direction whenever he sees Slick, because nope, he is not volunteering for biting.

Echo thinks it’s hilarious. Kix is indignant about all of the germs a human mouth can carry, and he doesn’t need an infection…but yeah. It kind of is.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Numa isn’t the only competent medic Kix knows. Eel’s wife, Hawnniffa, is a full-fledged medical doctor. He finally has people he can talk to while spewing medical jargon, and not have to worry about blank expressions and a complete lack of understanding.

At first, Eel is happy that Kix and Hahna get along so well. Less so, once Hahna and Kix spend an entire night talking about biomechanical advances and how stupid some of them are, and why aren’t they using those same advances on internal organs? Similar kriffing concept, just different execution!

The lounge near Kix’s quarters on the Dumisani Haven seems to be owned by Lylek Squad. Other officers of the Haven use it, but the moment they see a brother, or Numan’arru, they bolt from the room like their asses are on fire.

“Click, what did you do?” Kix asks, watching the latest escaping tide of officers flee the room.

Click shrugs. “I was…me? Or maybe it was Pulsar.”

“I’m not creepy!” Pulsar retorts, which is a blatant lie and they all know it.

Numa joins them, followed by a flight deck officer who is definitely crushing on her. Then he spies Numa’s brothers, makes a gleeping sound, and hastily departs.

“You scare away all of my dates,” Numa says with a put-upon sigh.

Boil snorts. “I haven’t done jack shit. You’re an adult, lia’ry. Not our fault you attract the spineless ones.”

Kix almost blurts out that he is not spineless, but quashes the urge just in time. He’s pretty sure that Boil would kriffing kill him.

Echo walks in by himself, announcing that Chin’weulta and Slick are prick-waving again but they should get a cool job out of it. Lichen, Eel, and Hahna turn up after Hahna gets off-shift, and they bring food, which means Kix does not have to deal with the nightmare that is the ship’s mess.

Kix tries to be good, but then Hahna grumbles about a patient, and Kix responds, and then there is a conversation that no one else can follow except Numa. Her smile widens as Boil’s eye tic of Please Stop gets more pronounced.

“Please, please stop monopolizing my wife,” Eel begs at last. “Find your own girlfriend!”

Kix freezes in place before lifting his head to stare at Eel, who has a smile of realization spreading across his face. They both shout, “SHE’S NOT MY GIRLRIEND!” in the same breath and start howling with laughter.

“What the fuck?” Lichen asks, still holding his glass half-way to his mouth. Hahna looks confused and indignant, and possibly like she’s ready to slap Eel.

Boil is covering his face with both hands because he refuses to let on that he thinks it’s funny. Echo has to leave the room, red in the face and holding his side, because he can’t stop giggling.

Pulsar is staring at them like they’ve lost their minds. “Seriously. The fuck?”

“Pretty sure it was one of those, ‘You had to be there,’ kind of things,” Boil mumbles through his hands. “Hard to explain.”

“Can’t be that hard,” Lichen says, but Kix shakes his head.

“No, uh—trying to explain Kenobi and Skywalker’s interactions to people who haven’t seen them at it is like trying to push a boulder in zero-g. Sure, you can do it, but if you don’t have a place to start from, nobody’s going anywhere,” Kix says, after wiping his eyes. Good tears, for once, instead of horrible, gut-churning weeping.

“What the hell did I miss?” Slick asks. He’s standing in the doorway, a baffled look on his face. “Why is Echo sitting out in the corridor wheezing?”

“You weren’t around for the Duchess Kryze’s visits,” Eel explains, still on the verge of snickering. “Apparently, there may or may not have been a thing between her and Kenobi when they were kids. Kenobi said no, but Skywalker…”

“Acted like a prick. Got it,” Slick says, and drops down onto a chair. “Want to blow up a factory that helped produce the toxins that were used by the Empire during Operation: Cinder?”

Pulsar sits bolt upright. “Oh, fuck yeah.”

Lichen just frowns. “That shit will be heavily guarded. Are you sure we’re good for it?”

Kix gives Lichen an up-and-down sweep. “You can’t have been 501st or 212th.”

“Why not?” Lichen asks, a smile quirking up one side of his mouth.

“You’re not nuts,” Kix replies, and that’s when Eel starts laughing again. Kix glares at him. “I can so make that judgement call, Eel!”

Echo comes back into the room. “Kix, you were 501st. You’re nuts by association.”

Kix rolls his eyes. “I was the most normal person in the entire kriffing legion!”

Eel’s grin turns sly. “You were sleeping with Jesse. I don’t think you’re as normal as you like to believe.”

Slick turns in his chair so that he can stare at Kix. “You and Jesse?”

Kix tries not to flinch. “Yes?” It was technically against regs, but Rex had approved. Hell, Rex had swapped Jesse and Dice’s bunk assignments so that Kix and Jesse had a berth to themselves.

To Kix’s surprise, Slick gives Echo a wide, triumphant grin that shows a lot of teeth. “Fucking called it!”

“Oh, please. One lucky guess?” Echo shakes his head. “You also think that Kenobi and Rex were shagging.”

Kix suspects that if Eel’s smile gets any wider, he’s going to hurt himself. “Well. They were,” he says, which is not what Kix expected him to say.

“EEL!” Kix shouts, just as Echo says, “Fucking seriously?”

“It’s not the GAR anymore, Kix,” Eel reminds him. “Besides, if we ever manage to contact Rex, I want everyone to be capable of asking him some really awkward questions.”

Kix is still feeling half-panicked. These are regs that are fresh, valid things for him, not long-dead, stupid rules. “I can’t believe you told them that.”

Eel’s smile turns melancholy. “Kenobi would have thought it was hilarious.”

Boil still looks flabbergasted. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice.”

Echo scowls. “I can’t believe Slick was right.

“Fuck you,” Slick mutters.

“It isn’t entirely about GAR regs,” Kix says, once he can put words together in a coherent sentence again. “Awkward questions, hell, Eel. You’ve basically ensured that Rex and Slick will wind up in another fist fight!”

Slick just shrugs. “To be fair, that’ll probably happen anyway.”

Kix grinds his teeth. “Would you maybe consider not punching our commanding officer?”

“Why the fuck would I want to do that?” Slick asks in irritation, and Kix gives up. If Slick and Rex have to beat the hell out of each other to quench that particular fire, then they can feel free. Kix is the one who gets to patch them up afterwards, and he’s not above pouring salt in their wounds. If Kix can rub salt into his own boyfriend’s blaster burn when said boyfriend did something kriffing stupid, then he’s not above doing it to his commanding officers.

“Besides, it’ll be just like old times. Nostalgic and shit,” Slick says.

“How can Rex not know that any of you are alive?” Kix asks. “The Alliance is one single body, isn’t it?”

“Isolationist bullshit,” Echo says. “Slick had to go digitally hunting to find everyone.”

“Isolated cells were the norm up until Endor,” Eel says, when Kix just stares at them in confusion. “But there is also Intelligence bullshit at play. About eleven years ago, Rex and the people he worked with were forced to go dark after an encounter with Darth Vader. I don’t know the details; I don’t know who else Rex is working with aside from Wolffe. But the incident itself was rumored to be pretty…pretty bad.”

“And for some reason, they’re still running dark covert ops,” Slick says. “Chin’weulta claims they have a Jedi with them, and that’s why they won’t come out of cover, but hells, Vader and the Emperor are dead. They need to stop fucking hiding.”

A surviving Jedi sounds intriguing, but Kix can’t bring himself to ask about them. He knows for certain that there is one Jedi in the Alliance, and he doesn’t…there are so many names that he won’t hear again.

“What about Cody?” he asks instead. If Wolffe and Rex have lasted this long, especially with a Sith Lord trying to crawl up their asses, then Cody definitely has a chance.

Boil is already shaking his head, and Kix’s heart sinks. “No.”

“What happened?”

Numa abandons her chair and sits down next to Boil, cuddling in at his side. “The only reason we know is because I created a program that scans Imperial and Alliance casualty reports, sending us names if it finds something familiar,” she says.

“There was an Alliance assault on Kamino, a few years back.” Boil is worrying at his wrist comm, his heavy brow shadowing his eyes. “Cody turned up on the Imperial KIA list.”

“Imperial?” Kix can’t believe it. He understands that Pulsar served for ten years in the 501st out of old loyalty before he realized the institution was fucked, but Cody—Cody had a very grim and proper idea of what constituted right and wrong.

“Yeah,” Boil confirms, not looking up. “Still serving in the ranks.”

“But—but these stupid chips—you said they degrade! What the hell was he still doing with the Empire?” Kix asks, feeling like someone blasted him off of a speeder bike.

Numa answers for Boil. “We don’t know, and unfortunately, there is no way for us to find out.”

Kix nods and lets the conversation shift away from death and betrayal. He knows that the Alliance pulled Click’s chip to try to figure out why it degraded early, keeping him from suffering under the yoke of 66. That team came up empty-handed, and if the Alliance’s best and brightest couldn’t figure it out, Kix is probably not going to come up with the magical proper answer.

He doesn’t stop thinking about it, though.

 

*         *         *         *

 

Their first mission is what makes Kix realize that his squad was waiting for him to get his shit together. It’s not that it’s difficult, or that things go bad—aside from Click discovering switches that release toxins into the air that they are currently breathing, thank you very much!

Click rolls his eyes while putting on a mask. “Whine, whine.”

Kix puts down three stormtroopers who wander around the corner at the wrong moment. “You need a damned stim toy.”

“What the hell is that?”

“Something you can button-push to your heart’s content that won’t break shit. They’re portable,” Kix explains. “Are you done priming the core?”

“Yep!” Click reseals the panel so that it looks like it’s untouched. “I gave us a good twenty minutes to get clear.”

“That means he gave us ten,” Eel says over the comm.

Kix sighs and takes point in front of Click. “You’re an asshole.”

“Hey, where’s your sense of adventure? It’s a challenge!” Click says happily. “How do I get one of those stim toy things?”

“I’ll look into it,” Kix answers. He is going to get Click the most clicky, most button-riddled device he can find, if only so Slick doesn’t crack one day and strangle the life out of their brother for all the damned pulled switches.

He gets a little bit nervous when they run into four squads of stormtroopers, a thick enough grouping to slow down their exit time. Then Echo and Pulsar drop in from above—literally, they blow a hole in the ceiling just for the fancy entrance—and help Kix and Click obliterate the Imps. It’s a quick job, but not so fast that the Imperials don’t finally realize they have enemy soldiers in their base.

“Now it gets to be fun,” Echo says, grinning. Kix nods, finally feeling the old particular battle stillness calm his thoughts and loosen his limbs. This is how he survived two years and six months as a field medic, longer than any other CMO of the GAR to serve in combat. Zed was the only other medic who came close to Kix’s combat time, but Zed’s survival was mostly due to competent squadmates in the 212th and blind kriffing luck.

They get out of the base and are in the safe zone for the blast radius with two minutes to spare. Eel’s correction is off by about ten seconds.

Kix sighs. “Click. We have synchronized chronos for a reason.”

“Mine runs fast?” Click offers. Pulsar slaps him on the back of the head. “What? We’re all still alive.”

“Not every op needs to be run from the seat of our fucking pants,” Pulsar retorts. “For fuck’s sake, asshole, do we need to turn it into a competition so that you don’t try to kill us all out of boredom?”

Numa shakes her head and grabs both of them by the sleeves of their jackets. “We should actually leave, just in case the containment for the biological hazards fails.”

“Does that count as me killing us out of boredom?” Click asks, grinning.

“No, it counts as you being an asshole,” Pulsar says, and they’re still bickering as Numa pulls them out of hearing range.

Boil claps his hand down on Kix’s shoulder. “You good?”

Kix breathes in, letting the air out slowly. “Yeah. I can do this. I wasn’t sure until we were about halfway through, and Imps aren’t as much fun as droids, but yeah. I’ve got this.”

“Awesome,” Boil says, and makes a point of strolling away before lighting up a tabacc. Kix rolls his eyes; cutting the tabacc in half is not the same as Kix throwing fits over smoke in his personal space.

“I wasn’t sure until we were done with our first op,” Slick says, and then touches the comm in his ear. “Yeah, Lichen, we’re good to go. No, I think Click should keep his ass in a pilot’s seat, too, but we’ve got to let the crazy bastard out sometimes.”

“Sometimes you’ve got to do this shit before you know what you’re capable of,” Echo says in a quiet voice, leaning in close so that their shoulders are brushing. “I didn’t know I could handle combat without a damned field guide until I did it. I didn’t know I was fucking ARC material until Fives started shrieking about us making the cut.”

Kix smiles. “I didn’t know if I could root around in a brother’s body, hunting down severed arteries to keep him from bleeding out, until I did it. I vomited until I was throwing up my own socks afterwards, but I kriffing well made certain that man lived.”

“What happened to him?” Echo asks.

“That was Hardcase,” Kix says, and realizes he’s on the verge of crying again. The hell, he could really use some of Cody’s stone-cold field sobriety right about now. “He died taking out a Sep cruiser during the shit that went down on Umbara.”

“I still don’t know everything that happened during that campaign,” Echo admits. “Eel doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“None of us do,” Kix says, and puts his arm around Echo’s shoulders. “Come on. Let’s go find a lot to drink, and I’ll tell you about it once I’m too kriffing hammered to figure out how to walk.”

Kix wakes up the next morning with his head pounding and his mouth tasting like he tried chewing up dirt, but he’s got only hazy memories of telling Echo about Umbara. He thinks maybe Slick, Pulsar, Lichen, and Click came to listen (and drink) but Boil and Eel stayed well the hell away.

Kix’s second mission with Lylek Squad is on a damned ice ball, and it’s a bust. They have to wait to regroup once they realize the facility they’re going to infiltrate is not only empty, but half-melted, like it took a turbolaser blast from a destroyer in orbit. Weird shit; none of them are going near that mess.

Kix watches Slick strip his gloves and massage his knuckles, blowing on them for warmth. His joints don’t swell, but they do turn interesting colors when the tissue is inflamed.

“Arthritis again?”

Slick grimaces and stops touching all the joints on his second finger. “Yeah. Probably due for another injection.”

Kix nods; Slick is on a corticosteroid hybrid, but Kix isn’t sure it’s the right treatment. He just has to build a case that will convince Hahna to alter treatment without insulting her. The hybrid injection works on ninety-nine percent of the humanoid population, but Slick always has to be a special pain in the ass.

“You shouldn’t have kept punching people,” Echo tells Slick. He’s still staring at his datapad, trying to make sense of what little data they could capture from the destroyed Imp facility.

“He fuckin’ started it,” Slick replies.

Echo just shakes his head, an indulgent smile on his face. “Pretty sure you ended it.”

“It wouldn’t be the punching that caused the arthritis, anyway. It’s genetic,” Kix says.

That gets Echo to look up. “How’s that work? None of the rest of us have it.”

Kix gives them both a sour glare for missing the obvious. “Rex had blond hair.

“So, what you’re saying is that the Kaminoans were actually bad at their fucking jobs,” Slick says.

“No, not really.” Kix thinks about it. “It’s more like they expected genetic perfection without making allowances for the metaphysical.”

Slick stares at him. “What?”

“Would it make you feel better if I just said, ‘Jedi bullshit,’ and left it at that?” Kix asks.

“No!” Echo and Slick protest together.

Kix holds up his hands. “Whoa, okay,” he says, surprised by the equal vehemence. “The truth of it is in the genome quirks. That’s what the Kaminoans called them, and to be fair to them, they were right. You got a genome for arthritis, Slick; Rex got the blond hair; some of our brothers had blue or green eyes; some of us had receding hairlines at ten Standard, even though we had photographic proof via Dad Fett that it shouldn’t have happened. Hell, Eel says he knew a brother who was born with white hair.

“And that’s where the metaphysical comes in. According to science, those genome quirks shouldn’t exist. The Kaminoans had Fett’s gene sequence fully mapped, beginning to end. They didn’t fill in any blanks, or experiment beyond their ideas about improving stamina.”

“And that bullshit about increased loyalty,” Slick says, frowning.

“Double-aging,” Echo says. “Thanks a hell of a lot for that, Kamino.”

“Right,” Kix says, feeling guilty about that even though it wasn’t his fault. “The genome quirks happened because we’re individuals.”

Slick looks disturbed. “That would be the Jedi bullshit part, right?”

“Pretty much,” Kix says. “We’re unique people. We affected the physical outcome of our own bodies as we grew. It’s really neat, actually, because except for some random religion-based notions about spirituality, science doesn’t know how to explain that kind of genetic deviation. The science says that we should be perfect copies of Fett, and none of us are.”

“So, you’re saying that Slick has arthritis because he’s an asshole,” Echo says with a cheerful grin.

“Hey!” Slick barks indignantly, but Echo’s grin just widens when Slick glowers at him.

Slick and Echo, man. Kix still does not get it.

When Kix oversees Echo’s first medical visit, it winds up running for three hours. The new prosthetics are kriffing neat as all hell. Someone finally figured out how to make synth-skin speak to the nervous system, turning neurological signals into sensation. Echo is patient enough to let Kix examine his arm and leg for hours; he just reads from a datapad until someone comes along and tells them that food is a thing and they should eat it.

Echo’s scarring isn’t all that bad, either, especially considering that part of his skull is now metal. Kix idly wonders if that’s what kept Echo’s hair from turning solid white, like most of their brothers, or if it’s genetic. Slick’s hair is steel gray, while Echo’s hair went white at the temples but stayed almost pure black on top.

Then there is a third op (What the hell is an Inquisitor and why won’t it STAY DEAD, he did not sign up for actual zombies!) followed by a fourth op that’s a bit more normal. Well, normal in that everyone is completely nuts.

Pulsar and Click are pissing Slick the hell off because they keep interfering with his fun. “You fuckers! That was my shot!”

“Who am I supposed to have shot? I already shot, like, a lot of people today,” Click replies in a bright voice.

“Pfft. Shot more than you did,” Pulsar says.

“And I told you I wasn’t keeping a fucking tally!” Click retorts.

Kix laughs around a mouthful of wiring as he helps Numa set up a fault in the electrical system. Not your traditional way to start a fire, but the fuel stores are in the next room. He almost feels bad for the poor maintenance droid who is going to repair the broken light switch they’ll leave as the obvious problem, and then use the switch, and…

Numa giggles under her breath. “Boom.”

“You spent too much time with Boil.”

Numa grins up at him. Her lekku always get really twitchy at the ends when she’s having a good time. “What absolute nonsense.”

“Aw, you fucking bastards!” Slick yells again.

“What, what is it?” Echo asks. He’s been shot at least six times so far, gleefully letting the armor do its job. Kix gave up on flinching somewhere around the first five minutes of their first mission. Kriffing ARCs.

“I DIDN’T GET TO SHOOT THAT IMPERIAL ASSHOLE IN BLACK!” Slick roars.

“If Slick doesn’t stop shouting over an open comm, I’m shooting him,” Pulsar mutters.

“It doesn’t count for your fucking tally if you shoot friendlies!” Click says.

“I thought you weren’t counting!”

“For fuck’s sake, Eel, stop encouraging Echo!” Boil yells, and then there is an unplanned explosion from the far side of the complex that vibrates the floor beneath Kix’s feet.

Kix sighs and rolls his eyes. “Then what the hell are we doing this for?”

“Delayed gratification,” Numa tells him primly. “Help me finish.”

She looks up when Kix doesn’t say anything. He’s pretty sure there is a frozen look of terror on his face. Nope, he is not giving Boil any reason to kill him. Nope. None.

Numa tilts her head, lips curling in a smile. “Well, that sort of finishing would be nice, too,” she says, and Kix squeaks in response.

“Lichen, please tell me you’re doing something normal,” Boil asks.

“Uh, killing people?” Lichen says doubtfully.

“That counts,” Eel says, then grunts and swears after what Kix later finds out is a headshot, deflected by the layered panels of body armor in his hat. “Echo, why the fuck do you keep volunteering for that?”

“It’s fun!”

Boil growls under his breath. “I recognize that prison is boring, but you seriously need to re-evaluate your idea of fun.”

“Why?” Echo asks, and Kix bites his lip, trying not to snicker too loudly.

“He wasn’t this bad during the old war!” Boil protests.

“Time has dulled your memory, old man,” Kix replies.

“My count’s up to forty-nine!” Click shouts.

Pulsar makes a sound that is probably restrained, gurgling anger. “You crazy shit, stop saying you’re not counting and then beating my counts!”

“Fifty!”

“Fuck you!”

Kix and Numa grin at each other. “I’ll bet you that we can top both their counts just getting back to the recon point,” he says.

Numa hefts both of her rifles. “You are so on.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

Kix misses Jesse. If anyone ever tried to call him on that, Kix can provide large quantities of dried saline on his pillow as evidence. He still cries over the man’s stupid face and his stupid holos.

That doesn’t mean he’s fool enough to turn down adrenaline-fueled sex. Numa is amazing, and she gets the touching thing immediately, no explanation needed. It’s really…it’s fun.

Boil is probably going to rip his intestines out through his eyeballs.

“Is this a…relationship? Thing?” Kix asks, feeling awkward when he asks her about it later. He hopes he hasn’t stumbled his way into one; he’s not sure he’s ready for yet more emotional upheaval.

Numa smiles and pats his cheek, like he’s being cute. “Casual is okay for now, Kix. You are a kind man who also happens to be a playful sort of bed toy—”

“Is that a compliment?” Kix isn’t sure, and Ryloth has weird cultural things that he never understood.

“Do you think me a nice sort of bed toy?” Numa asks, the edge of her mouth turning up in a grin that is just shy of sly.

“You have nice hands,” Kix blurts, and then groans and asks the ground to swallow him. It doesn’t work, especially since it’s deck plating and they’re in space.

“We’ll just see what happens, then,” Numa assures him. “If nothing comes of it but two friends and a bit of enjoyment, we will still be squadmates and family.”

“That’s…okay.” Kix smiles. “I think I can manage not to panic about that.”

 

Imperial Year 27

Republic Date 5239: 2/10th

Imperial Space, The Colonies Region

 

Kix screws up and gets his dumb, stupid ass captured by Imps. When he can be strictly fair to himself later, Kix will recognize that there wasn’t much he could have done to avoid it, but that still doesn’t make him happy.

They’re covering another team’s exit from an Imperial base, one of the commando groups that’s famous for working with crazy people (Reference: Skywalker, Solo, and Organa) during the Battle of Endor. Page’s Commandos stir up a hornet’s nest of stormtroopers, and Lylek Squad is the closest team with the training to cover an extraction.

Two of Page’s people are down on the ground, and they don’t have a medic of their own—or if they did, that team member wasn’t replaced in time for the op, which is kriffing stupid. It takes a mix of hand signals and shouted Mando’a to get Eel’s attention over the roar of battle. Pulsar takes over Eel’s position so that he can help Kix pull the wounded to the rear of the fight.

Both men are in bad shape, and while Kix has worked actual miracles before (Reference: Anakin Skywalker lived long enough to father children) he’s not sure this pair is going to make it. That is a hell of a lot of blood, and Kix isn’t familiar with the second man’s species.

“Transport is a klik east!” one of the commandos barks, firing a hail of blaster shots to keep them covered. “Take those two and get them out of here!”

Eel hoists the first man over his shoulder; he lets out an unhappy groan and starts swearing. That’s encouraging; anyone still alive enough to bitch is probably going to survive. “Kix, come on!”

Kix is fishing around in I-Don’t-Know-This-Species’ pelvic region, hoping like hell to find something resembling an artery that he can tie off. “I can’t move this one yet!

“I’ve got him covered,” the commando says. “Clear out!”

Kix has found an artery—please, fuck, actually be an artery, someone this size can’t lose that much blood—when he hears a pained grunt that’s way too close. His covering fire is suddenly gone, and all at once it’s far too quiet.

Kix looks up to find stormtroopers filling the space where laser blasts and Page’s team had just been. The commando is on the ground, not breathing, and the smell of burnt flesh is high on the air. Shit.

“You! Don’t move!” the closest stormtrooper orders. Kix makes a point of glancing down at his patient, then back up at the trooper. To his credit, the stormtrooper does seem embarrassed.

“Hands in the air!” a second one barks angrily.

Kix stares at them, amused. “Those are conflicting orders. Which one do you want me to follow?”

“The second one,” Angry Stormtrooper answers, after what seems like a moment’s debate.

“Well, I’m gonna have to say no, because if I put my hands up, this guy dies,” Kix says.

The second stormtrooper raises his rifle. Kix flinches, but the blast isn’t for him. His patient lets out a gurgle, dying from a second shot to the chest.

Kix sighs and shakes his head. “I really wish you hadn’t done that.”

“Too bad,” Angry Stormtrooper sneers. “Hands in the air, Rebel scum!”

“Okay.” Kix lifts his hands and flings the blood that’s clinging to his skin right over the closest stormtroopers’ visors.

He takes out a squad and a half of stormtroopers with his bare, bloodied hands before the idiots have the sense to stun him. He wakes up on a transport with his hands cuffed behind him and his feet cuffed to the floor.

“Seriously?” Kix asks the nearest Imp.

“Shut up,” the Imp replies.

Kix isn’t even sure why they’re keeping him alive until he overhears an officer in green talk about an intelligence unit. Great. He’s up for his second interrogation in a year. Not a good track record.

The transport drops out of hyperspace; he can tell by the shift in the engines. Useful information, but not welcome news. Unless one of his squadmates got a tracker on the transport, nobody will know where to find him.

They unload him planetside and hustle him into a base, straight into an interrogation cell, which gives Kix the opportunity to memorize the way out. Dumbasses. Imperial standard operating procedure is spot on, and Kix only learned it from a textbook about two months ago.

The Imperial officer from the transport is a smug fucker with a crooked nose. Kix suspects the man is used to relying on his uniform for intimidation, but Kix doesn’t give a damn. He hasn’t been awake long enough to have any particular thoughts about olive green beyond Shoot It.

The only useful thing the man does is demand Kix’s Alliance ident. “SO-CT-6116,” Kix recites. If this idiot enters that information into a database that’s attached to the HoloNet, Lylek Squad will find it.

The recitation causes the officer’s frigid mask to falter. “What kind of operating number is that?”

“Wow, you really don’t know your history, do you?” Kix shakes his head. “I guess they’ll put anyone in a uniform these days.”

That gets him a fist to the face, but it’s just a split lip. Kix spits blood onto the floor and raises an eyebrow. If this is just going to be a punch-out, the Imp could really do better.

The Imperial officer raises the stakes by calling for an interrogation probe. Kix isn’t concerned—what the hell, a probe?—until he sees the refined, sleek glossy sphere of the interrogation droid.

That’s what causes him to break again.

Reality screeches back into place when Kix realizes that the only sound in the room is his own whistling breathing. He’s obliterated the interrogation droid, the Imperial officer, and his stormtrooper escort. That explains why Kix has the officer’s blaster pistol clenched in his hand, why his wrists and knuckles are bleeding, and why his knees hurt. You can crack cheap-ass stormtrooper armor, but not without deep tissue bruising.

No one managed to hit an alarm, either. Kix grants himself a full minute to lean over, sobbing and trying not to vomit on his boots. Fuck all of this. He isn’t going to be anyone’s damned victim ever again, no matter if they’re droids, Imps, or both.

The stormtroopers don’t carry full medical kits, but there are bacta patches for his wrists. Stupid Imps. He’s Mando’a to the genetic level, bred and raised to kill the hell out of droids. Level-2 security cuffs are not going to stop him from doing his job.

The standard Imperial blaster rifle isn’t a bad piece of machinery, but the blaster pistol is better. Kix gathers up every charge in the room, grateful once more for across-the-board compatibility. He improvises a sling to carry it all, thinks about it, and then shoulders a rifle anyway. What the hell; why not.

Bonus: One of the troopers had Kix’s hat stuffed into a belt pouch, like it was going to be some stupid souvenir. “Not like that isn’t an expensive piece of body armor, you dumb shit,” Kix tells the dead trooper.

Kix uses up most of the stolen blaster charge on his way to the base’s primary maintenance control station. He might be stupid for getting captured, but the Imps take the prize for leaving the station unguarded, tended by droids instead of technicians. Not a problem; bye-bye, droids.

He seals the door, just in case the Imps figure out what he’s doing. Better paranoid and safe than to have a kriffing stormtrooper crawling up his ass. Then he kills the alarms, finding and sending the All-Clear signal. Not every Imp will believe it, but it buys him time.

The first aid station is right where standard Imperial protocol dictated it would be, and it’s properly stocked. Kix finds a basic sedative and self-injects until his hands stop shaking and the world stops being fuzzy at the corners. That’ll slow his reaction time a bit, but so will panic.

Kix lifts a full face mask out of the cabinet, pleased that it’s a maintenance model meant for crawling around in places not fit for any living being. It’s got an oxygen tank and CO2 scrubbers meant to last eight hours, not just the standard filter e-kit.

Pfft. If he’s not out of here in eight hours, he deserves to be killed by Imps.

Kix idly wanders through the maintenance computer system, swiping through screen after screen until he finds the code he needs. Knowing how to save lives also means knowing the multitude of ways it’s possible to end them.

People always forget that about Kix. Maybe he just seems too kriffing nice.

He double-checks to make sure there were no other prisoners in the system before convincing the computer that there is an environmental disaster outside. The blast doors drop with reassuring green-to-red signals at every exit point, sealing the base.

Kix gears up with the mask and a pair of thick gloves. Then he tells the computer that there is a fire in every single section of the base.

His ears pop when the air pressure shifts, the filtration system pulling oxygen from the room. He’s expecting it, but still winces when the flame-retardant chemical mix starts raining from the ceiling.

Fire suppression systems, man. Not so good against droids, but the majority of Imperials are humanoid baseline folk who need to breathe.

Not today, assholes.

Maintenance always has the best maps. He’s got the route to the exterior vehicle depot memorized—south of his position, three levels up.

The terminal that was used to log in his gear is on the north side of the base. Dammit.

Kix kills his way across the base, going in the wrong direction, to get his stuff back. The weapons are easy to replace, but that damned vambrace he wears on his right arm is the last thing he has from his old life that’s still the same. The stupid fucking Imperials don’t get to keep it.

It’s not really a difficult trip, anyway. The only combatants left are troopers who were bright enough to seal their buckets when the foam started spraying from the ceiling, and most of them aren’t a challenge in the first place.

Kix breaks the lock on the container that holds his Imp-confiscated belongings, feeling déjà vu crawl up his spine. He snaps the vambrace over his jacket sleeve, collects belt and weaponry, and after a moment’s debate, keeps the officer’s pistol. He can fire a rifle one-handed, like any man from the 501st should, but he’s solo at the moment and needs that quick snap-draw if he comes across anyone still alive. That leaves him with one hand free to log in to the system at the southern exit, too.

The computer fights with him for three minutes in programmed disbelief that a full-scale environmental disaster could be fixed so easily. Kix grinds his teeth and tells the computer it was a false kriffing alarm. He is leaving this dump, even if he has to backtrack and find explosives.

Kix does find people still alive in the vehicle depot, but they’re not Imps. It’s a team of bipedals in dark green uniforms (distinctly not olive) wearing full face masks and tinted goggles. They’ve hit the anonymous level so hard, Kix can’t even determine if there are varying genders. Definitely soldiers, not just kids running their first mission.

Kix raises his hands, trying not to sigh, as all six of them draw blasters on him.

Twice in as many days. Kriffing hells, he is so fired from SpecOps.

Like hell he’s going to drop the pistol, though. He wants that in his hand in case these not-Imperial folk turn out unfriendly.

The closest one looks him up and down. “I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you’re not an Imp.” The mask distorts their voice into an unrecognizable monotone. Damn; Kix wants one of those. That is useful.

“No, I’m not a fucking Imp,” Kix says, realizing only then that he’s still geared up with the mask, and sounds just as distorted and anonymous. At least his uniform isn’t Imperial standard, no matter what service branch you’re dealing with. The Empire is too cheap to outfit its units properly.

“You Alliance?” another one asks. That soldier has a blaster rifle that’s been modified for higher draw from a blaster pack, and a dancing girl’s image etched into the side. Bonus points for the soldier—she’s not naked.

“Yeah.” Kix glances around at them. “Can I put my hands down, now?”

“Sure, but if you don’t holster that blaster, it’ll be the last thing you ever do,” soldier number three says, voice gruff even with the voice mod.

“Oh, so I’m just supposed to be happy about the fact that all six of you are pointing weapons at me?” Kix asks, irritated. “Fuck that and fuck you.”

“I like him,” Soldier One says, and shoulders their rifle.

“Weapons down, people,” Soldier Two orders. “Pretty sure we don’t need to shoot the first new ally we’ve found in ten years.”

Kix slowly lowers his hands as everyone else starts shouldering or slinging back rifles. The possibility of having to kill six more people has just dropped down into the low range.

“What’s an Alliance soldier doing out here?” Soldier Five has a dancing boy etched on his rifle. Awesome; gender equality is always a nice indication of a group’s moral set.

“The Imps thought I looked like a shiny target worthy of interrogation,” Kix says. “I disagreed.”

“So, escaping,” Soldier Four says hesitantly. “Should we…uh, close the door behind you? Or something?”

“I don’t even hear any alarms. Maybe they don’t know he slipped out yet.”

Kix grins beneath his mask. “I disabled the alarms. Those are really inconvenient when you’re escaping.”

The last member of the green squad is staring down at a piece of equipment. “Uhhh. Huh. I couldn’t check with the blast doors down, but uhm…I’m reading zero life signs inside.”

“Fucking zero?” Soldier One blurts.

“Only thing I’m picking up on are the seven of us.”

“I told you I disagreed,” Kix says. He feels so tired, all at once. The adrenaline rush is cooling, leaving him kriffing stranded gods-knew how many kliks distant from a safe point.

“Just you. By yourself. The entire base,” Soldier Two says, accompanied by a sound that is probably supposed to be a whistle. “Damn, that’s hot.”

“It’s my job.” Maybe he’ll be impressed later, but for now, he’s pretty much done. He tosses the Imperial officer’s pistol at Soldier One. “Keep it. It’s a nice pistol.”

Soldier One stares down at the blaster. “Is there blood on this?”

Kix strips off the heavy gloves and glances down at his knuckles, which are striped in drying flakes of reddish-brown. “Just mine.”

“Are you, uh—wait, are you leaving?” Soldier Three asks in surprise.

Kix pauses in the midst of loosening the straps for the mask. “Yeah. I want to get the hell away from here. You kids can have fun robbing the place blind.”

“First—I resent being called a kid, I’m thirty-nine years old,” Soldier Number Two grumbles. “Two—the entire reason we were hitting the base was to steal their long-range transmitter.”

First ally in ten years. Transmitter. Kix lets his head drop forward. “Shit. You guys have been stranded here.”

“Yeah. Back of beyond, no space-capable transports, and no transmitter strong enough to get the attention of anyone unless they were already in-system,” Soldier Three says. “The Imps only set up shop a month ago.”

“They knew in advance that there were unfriendlies on the ground, so they don’t even keep shuttles around. Everything gets called down from above,” Soldier One explains.

Soldier Six nods. “We’ve been waiting for the right moment to hit the base.”

“Wouldn’t you know it, the Imps suddenly get distracted by some shiny new prisoner,” Soldier Five says.

“We were Alliance, back in the day,” Soldier Two tells him. “One of the independent op cells. Then things went to shit on a run, and we got stuck on this rothole. Command probably wrote us off years back.”

“Hey, I live on this rothole. Watch your mouth,” Soldier Six retorts.

Soldier Four huffs a sigh. “We all live on this rothole, Skive.”

“You’re saying I have to—” Kix would bury his face in his hands if he wasn’t still wearing the bulky mask. “Let me tell the computer to return the base’s internal atmosphere to normal, okay?”

“What?” Soldier Six asks, but whatever they say is lost to Kix pulling the exterior terminal’s cover off so he can talk to the computer again. It’s a lot easier to convince the system to make the base habitable, since that’s the programmed standard.

“Give it five minutes, and it should be good,” Kix says. He loosens the other strap and pulls the heavy mask, rubbing his eyes with both hands. “I get a turn at the transmitter after you lot, though. There are people looking for me who are well-armed and pissed off.”

When Kix turns around, all six soldiers are staring at him. He shouldn’t be able to tell with that face-gear in place, but he knows it by the way all the hair on his body tries to stand up at once. “What?”

“You’re, uh—” Soldier Two coughs. “You look pretty fresh-faced for a thirty-nine-year-old clone out of the last war.”

Kix bites back a lot of swearing. “I’m not kriffing thirty-nine. I’m three months shy of thirteen.” Then he catches on. “You said you were thirty-nine.”

Soldier Two nods. “Like I said—you’re the prettiest thing a lot of us have seen in a long time.”

“For fuck’s sake, Lead! I like girls!”

Soldier Two—Lead, apparently—ignored the outburst. “What’s kept you in such shiny condition?”

Kix turns his attention back to the panel and pulls another one of maintenance’s shiny maps. Long-range transmitter was dead-center in the base, meant to protect it against incursion.

“Cryo-stasis doesn’t allow for cellular degeneration,” Kix explains, showing Six how to download the map onto their equipment. “Let’s go get this over with, huh?”

“Fine by me,” Soldier One replies, when Lead just stands there. “C’mon. We’ve only got about six hours before the next shuttle comes in.”

“You guys go ahead. We’ll catch up,” Lead says, which makes Kix ball up his left fist.

“Don’t shoot the man,” One reminds Lead. “He’s probably got the only access codes that will get someone in Alliance to believe we’re legit.”

“I’m not gonna shoot him,” Lead protests. Body posture and tone of exasperation convince Kix to relax his hand. Still not a threat—at least, not a physical one.

“If you’re holding me back here because you want to swap war stories, this is the absolute worst time,” Kix says, his voice cracking. He’s only been awake for three months and seventeen days, but he’s so kriffing tired.

“Nah, I won’t, uh…won’t bore you with old stuff. Well, maybe I will, but…aw, fuck. I was just wondering: What are three ways you can use to figure out whether you’re hallucinating or not?”

It’s a 501st call-and-confirm line. That’s all it takes for adrenaline to decide that Take Two is warranted. Kix’s heartbeat speeds up; cold fingers try to trace his spine.

“Punch yourself in the mouth hard enough to knock out your teeth. Then bend down and pick up every tooth you can find. If you’ve got more teeth in your hands than you originally had in your head, you’re hallucinating.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Lead pulls off his hood, goggles, and mask with a practiced, single pull. “What are the other two ways?”

Kix’s vision whites out at the edges, with black creeping in just behind it. He bites his tongue, drawing blood, until he convinces his body that fainting is not allowed.

He’s staring at an older brother with a full head of wavy white hair just touched by Slick’s steel gray. The left side of his forehead is too smooth, like someone sandblasted him; it ate away at the tattoo. There is a hint of it above the man’s left eye, and almost a full, untouched quarter is on the lower part of his face. The rest of the tat, if there’s any left, is hidden by hair.

The original design is unmistakable—it’s the Republic military sigil.

He can’t—he can’t—

“Hi, Kix.”

Kix croaks out a sound of disbelief. “Jesse?”

Jesse ducks his head, looking up at him through soulful brown eyes. “I promise, it’s me.”

“Great,” Kix whispers, and then all at once he’s shouting. “SUICIDE BY A KRIFFING STAR DESTROYER? WERE YOU OUT OF YOUR KRIFFING MIND? YOU DO NOT DRIVE A SHIP UP ANOTHER SHIP’S ASS JUST TO MAKE YOURSELF DEAD!”

Jesse just stares at him, swallowing hard enough that it makes his throat jump. “You didn’t come back,” he says. His voice is soft, gentle—broken.

An iron hand seems to be clamping down on Kix’s chest. “I—”

Jesse bites his lip. “I’m sorry. I—Kix—”

Kix doesn’t remember who crossed the distance between them. All he knows is that he’s in Jesse’s arms, legs curled around Jesse’s waist, and holding on for dear fucking life.

“I’m not dreaming. Oh, gods,” Jesse whispers. “I’m not dreaming.”

“Not sure of that, yet. Not sure I care,” Kix replies, burying his face against clothes and skin that smell right.

That’s what he’s been missing, the thing that’s kept him from sleeping at night. He’s tossed and turned, laid awake, read to the pass the time, but he hasn’t slept an entire night through since he woke up from chip removal.

“Oh, fuck. Fucking hells, Jesse!”

Jesse seizes his face with both hands and kisses him, warm and open-mouthed. Kix whimpers because it’s almost too much. He can’t process not-dead-boyfriend and kissing and almost-died and not-dead-boyfriend all at once.

Jesse doesn’t push it. He just starts peppering Kix’s face with ridiculous butterfly kisses. “I will not be—” Eyebrows and eyelids. “—convinced—” Nose, both ears, back to the nose again. “—until I have done this to every part of your body.”

“Not in public!” Kix gasps, because yes, that is his throat and oh, that spot still works.

Jesse pauses and gives Kix a very serious look. “Kix. If I really did strip you down in public and do as I just promised, would you really protest that much?”

The question is too close to one of the last things Jesse ever asked of him. Kix puts his hand over Jesse’s mouth, holding up one finger in a shushing gesture. “No, probably not, but they might.”

One of the soldiers has pulled off their gear, revealing a kid who’s about fourteen Standard. “Hi! Don’t mind me.”

“Yes, minding you. Go back inside!” Jesse orders, but it doesn’t sound impressive because it’s muffled by Kix’s fingers.

She giggles and wanders back into the base. “Mooo-ooom! Uncle Jesse is making out with the clone!”

“Don’t be rude, Skive!” a female voice shouts back. “Ask the man his name!”

Skive pops her head back around the doorway. “Hey, shiny guy. What’s your name?”

Jesse picks Kix up again in a bone-breaking hug before Kix can answer. “Skive, this is Kix. Kix, Skive. Now go tell your mom it’ll be a minute!”

Kix waits until Skive is gone before he leans forward and presses a gentle kiss against Jesse’s lips. Twenty-six years older, but he feels the same. Hells, he tastes the same. “I missed you.”

Jesse nods repeatedly. “Same,” he says, running his hands along Kix’s face, jawline, and shoulders, as if still convincing himself that he’s touching a real person. “Oh, fuck, Kix. Where did you go?”

Kix thinks about how to answer that question, especially since it’s a subject he doesn’t like talking about. “Seps, torture, stuffed in a box,” he says, and feels guilty when Jesse winces. “Look, it’s—”

Jesse just nods again before Kix can figure out what to say. “Want to swap details later?”

Kix smiles. Later. There is going to be a later. “Yeah. That sounds great.”

 

*         *         *         *

 

“Flight Marshal,” someone called.

Cody turned his attention away from the boring-as-fuck view of empty space. Lieutenant Fane stood waiting for him, her furred Chitanook face schooled into perfect officer’s composure.

“Yes?” Cody clenched his jaw and tried again. “Yes, Lieutenant?” It wasn’t her fault that she reminded him of a Chitanook Jedi. He also wanted her to lay off with the rank, but since he’d recently let that cat out of the sack, he had to deal with the consequences.

“I’ve got an Intelligence signal coming in from a nearby system. It’s weak; they’re probably broadcasting from a low-power transmitter. They’re lucky we picked it up at all.”

“You could have brought this to Commander Tano,” Cody said. She was the more familiar officer to the Alliance. He was a ground-crawler who spent too much of that time in cantinas and bars.

Lieutenant Fane’s eyes flickered, her composure slipping just enough to tell Cody that the Jedi made her nervous. Hells; that made him commiserate with her a lot more than he had five seconds ago.

“You were the most senior officer available,” she replied, which was a neutral, diplomatic answer as much as it was a massive tell. “Should I find the commander, sir?”

Cody sighed. “No, I’ve got it. Patch me in through my comm, would you?”

Fane smiled and inclined her head in a brief bow instead of a salute. “Easily done, sir.”

Cody watched her leave, memory eventually providing the reason behind the lack of salute. The Alliance wasn’t big on that around senior officers; everyone was in the habit of making sure the Imps didn’t get pointers on who to assassinate.

Maybe I can resign, Cody thought. He didn’t want to be anyone’s commanding officer, not again. That had been the entire fucking point of volunteering—insisting—on working solo, picking up the grunge missions no one else wanted.

His comm beeped and saved him from trying to make a decision. Of course, then he had to actually answer the damned thing. He thumbed it on, reflecting that he had recently made horrible life decisions and it was Obi-Wan’s fault.

That was so good to be able to say.

“Flight Marshall.”

“Uh—sir!” the voice on the other end squeaked. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting that level of ranking officer.”

“Did he say Flight Marshall?” a second, fainter voice chimed in. “I didn’t know any of our brothers had made Marshall in the Alliance.”

“You’ve been MIA for ten years. I’m sure there’s a lot you don’t know—oh, yeah, you probably would want to know that the Emperor’s dead.”

“And you didn’t mention that sooner?” the second voice asked in complete indignance.

Cody frowned over the pair of voices. The one in the background was definitely a brother, but the first—that one sounded far too young. “That’s fair, soldier. You caught me on the day I quit drinking. Give me your ident and tell me why the hell you’re calling.”

“CT—shit, I’m still not used to the new number. Running into a senior officer with a familiar voice is really not helping,” the first one said, sounding chagrined. Maybe embarrassed. “SO-CT-6116, and I’m calling because I killed a kriffing lot of Imperials today, but I don’t have a ride home.”

“That is still hot,” the background voice said.

“Not helping!”

Cody realized he was staring at the comm. Alliance standard protocol had never changed when it came to clones. Whatever branch of service a brother went into, the Alliance just slapped the branch designation in front of their original service number.

“Kix?”

“Uhm, yeah?” Kix sounded hesitant. “Who are you? Uh, sir.”

“Are you kidding me? We get a Flight Marshall, and he knows you? That’s awesome!”

Cody pinched the bridge of his nose. He wanted to be angry, but emotions were traitorous things, and he was already smiling. “AI-CT-2224.”

There was a long pause. “Cut the shit,” Kix said in a strangled voice. “Cody?”

“No fucking way!” their unidentified background friend shouted. “Damn, he was Imperial last I knew!”

“Haven’t been that for a while now.” Cody glanced over when movement caught his attention. Rex and Skywalker were entering the lounge; Rex was walking without the limp that he’d gone into Medical with, and Skywalker had a steel-trap grip on a mug of caff.

Skywalker still had the bleary-eyed, angry look of someone not yet awake. It evoked memories that were…well, probably well-timed, all things considered.

“Is there any particular reason you’re not dead?” Cody asked.

“I was going to ask you that, but since you’re Intelligence, I’m guessing that’s a big hint.”

“Good guess,” Cody acknowledged. “Your turn.”

“I don’t know if you’ll believe me,” Kix said.

Rex and Skywalker were giving Cody curious looks, probably trying to work out who the hell he was speaking to. Cody held up one finger, asking for patience. He needed to get through this new spanner thrown into the works before he added someone else’s.

Skywalker’s expression grew baffled when Cody kept staring at him. “What?”

“Kix,” Cody said, watching as Skywalker went from zero to wide awake, “I would believe just about any fucking thing you could tell me.”

Both of Rex’s eyebrows were climbing his forehead. “No fucking way.”

“Anything?” Kix repeated, amused. “Well, I got stuffed in cryo-stasis by Seps, the ship I was on crashed in the ass end of beyond and I was there for twenty-six years until an Alliance SpecOps squad found me, Slick is actually doing a really great job, Echo’s not dead, and oh, yeah, there’s an asshole named Jesse trying to climb over my shoulder because he wants the mic and I won’t give it to him.”

“Okay,” Cody said, after about a minute when all three of them did nothing more than give Cody’s comm a blank look. “You win; I can’t figure out if you’re making that up or not.”

“Jesse, give them your ident.” Kix made a muffled sound. “Without climbing over me, jackass!”

“Hello!” Jesse sang out. “AM-CT-5597 speaking. I have been stuck on this fucking rothole for ten years with what’s left of my team, and I’d really like to get off!”

“Seriously?” Kix sounded half-strangled again. “You really said that.”

“Yeah, but I bet they believe it now,” Jesse shot back. “Besides, it’s true.”

Rex finally found his voice. “SUICIDE BY FUCKING STAR DESTROYER?” he bellowed.

“Oh, shit. Shit, it’s Rex. There is a Rex and he’s shouting. Kix, we have to have sex right now, because he’s going to strangle the life out of me.”

“Jesse. Today, I killed every living thing in this base.”

“Giving you back the mic now,” Jesse said in a much more subdued tone. “But hey, it’d be like the ultimate comm sex—oof!”

“You know what? Let’s go back to the beginning of this conversation,” Cody decided. Skywalker’s jaw was hanging open, which was entertaining, but Rex was halfway between angry and clubbed in the head. That had never been a great combination. Things tended to get broken shortly afterwards. “You said you needed a lift?”

“Uh, yeah. We’re on Wivvelinnt II. Jesse says that it’s in your standard navigational database, but it’s not exactly a common destination,” Kix answered. “Oh, and I’d really appreciate it if someone could send word to my team, and tell them that I’m not dead. They’re probably very upset, and by very upset I mean they’re probably carving a path of destruction through this sector of space.”

Cody could put those pieces together easily enough. “You did say Slick was doing a good job.”

“The ranking system is kind of fucked in Lylek Squad, so we ignore it, but he’s officially Lead,” Kix said, which was when Skywalker muttered, “I need to sit down,” and pretty much fell onto the nearest chair.

Rex narrowed his eyes. “Slick in Lead position. Huh. How did he like prison?”

“Hi, sir! Please do not murder me; I didn’t actually plan to ditch,” Kix said. “And Slick said it was boring, but he got Echo out of it, so he doesn’t care.”

Cody felt the muscles around his eye twitch. “Slick and Echo. A couple.”

“I don’t understand them, but they’re not killing each other,” Kix said. “It works.”

“Congratulations. You have found the magic combination that has pushed this into the realm of complete disbelief,” Cody returned dryly, glancing at Rex.

Rex nodded, eying Skywalker before he spoke. “Well, as long as no one plans on staying fucking dead, who else is in that Lylek Squad of yours?”

“Uh, there are nine of us: Slick and Echo, Click, Pulsar, Eel, Boil, Lichen, Numan’arru and myself. I was kind of a late find.”

Boil. Cody had to close his eyes for a moment on that one. Now there was a potential meet-up that would involve tears and fist-fighting.

“What about you, Jesse?” Rex sounded stone dry. They were both handling these revelations well, but Cody was very much aware that five days ago they would have been losing their shit. “Are you hauling around dead people?”

“No? I mean, I’m hauling around a dead man’s kid sometimes, but she’s neat, you’ll like her,” Jesse said, his voice quiet enough to prove that he was obeying Kix’s instructions about the mic. “Neatfreak was on my team, but uh—you know how the Speedies were set to age twenty years in two.”

“Aw, gods.” Rex was rubbing the side of his nose, just under his eye. “He must have—fuck. That poor bastard.”

“Hey, he did all right,” Jesse countered. “We were all just really fucking glad that the aging thing didn’t get passed on to Skive.”

“I still can’t believe that kid is twenty.”

“Still digressing,” Cody interrupted, rubbing at his temple while trying to figure out if he had a headache or not. “Look, we’ll pass on the message and come to get you. It’ll probably be a couple of hours.”

“As long as it’s less than four hours, awesome,” Jesse said. “That’s when the Imps come back to visit. Probably won’t be happy to find their base in this condition.”

“Pretty sure the Imps won’t be a problem, one way or the other.” Cody looked at Skywalker and smiled. “Besides, you aren’t the only people to stop being dead recently.”

Skywalker grinned back at him, an open, happy expression that chased a lot of ghosts from his eyes. “Hi, kids! Miss me?”