"And I don't even know what kind of things I said; / My mouth kept moving and my mind went dead. / Picking up those pieces - now where to begin? / The hardest part of ending, is starting again."
"Waiting For the End"
Cody stood at the edge of the road and looked out onto a field of stones.
For several minutes, the clone stood perfectly still, his mind racing in confusion.
There used to be town here. Where is everything?
For a moment, he wondered if he'd gotten the coordinates wrong for their destination. He drew up the numbers in the view of his HUD and double checked. He even cross-referenced the coordinates against a map of the area from a year ago.
No, there was definitely supposed to be a town here. A town called Chan-Dar. A town that he had dreamed about in fire and blood for a whole haunting year.
Obi-Wan stood to his left, somber and silent, his hands tucked into the sleeves of his shabby robe and his beadred face clouded in the shadow of his hood. Saa stood at Cody's left, his Miralukan disguise immaculate; the setting sun glinted off his headband, throwing shades of umber and ochre across the dark-tinted glass. Neither one of them spoke, though Saa made an aborted movement with his arm, as if he meant to reach out and touch Cody's pauldron and then thought better of it.
"I don't understand," Cody whispered softly - he wasn't sure if either of them heard and he didn't bother to check if his out-going audio was switched on.
What he said didn't really matter at this point. Only what he did.
So, heart-pounding and palms sweating, Cody stepped off the sun-baked dirt and into a patch of knee-high weeds that lined the roadside ditch. The brittle plants crackled underneath the unforgiving duraplastic covering of his boots; winter had come to Bellassa and old snow had turned the world around them fragile and frozen.
Cody spotted movement out of the corner of his visor and he turned his head quickly to track it. A spike of alarm gave way to a sense of bemusement, as he watched an old man struggle along between a row of stones. He was several paces away from the clone and he glanced in the rear-sight screen on his HUD at Saa and Obi-Wan. The two still stood on the road, impassive and silent, but Cody could tell by the way Saa's hand had tucked underneath his seemingly unarmored arm and by the way Obi-Wan's stance had shifted slightly into his knees, that both were watching his back.
He kept an eye on the old man, but continued forward, the majority of his interest drawn by the first stone that stood in his way.
It was a rounded piece of polished granite. The speckles of white, black, and gray reflected in the dying light, throwing tones of amber and scarlet back into Cody's covered eyes. He reached out with a gloved hand and slowly ran his fingers across the smooth curve of stone. It stood up about waist-high, it's height shorter in distance than it's width. The stone was vaguely rectangluar in shape and curved gently at every corner.
Cody glanced at the other stones that dotted the quiet field around him - each one was absolutely identical to the one in front of him. He realized, with a mixture of reverence and shock, that this was a memorial.
Someone - or, more likely someones - had taken the time to remember Chan-Dar. And in place of what had been a small town - a rural suburb of the nearby capitol, Ussa - there was a field of granite memories.
The stones had to have been mined from some nearby quarry; Cody vaguely remembered mention of mines along the foothills on the other side of Ussa. The craftsmanship was achingly simple and exquisite - just carefully measured stones, meticulously shaped and polished. Cody's fingers lingered reverently on the sun-warmed granite as his gaze wandered a little lower, until they rested on names etched with the same painstaking perfection.
Names. The stones were markers, memories, gravestones.
Cody traced a few letters of a name, his fingers making clumsy work of the blocky font that was standard to Galactic Basic.
Cody read the first name on the stone and couldn't bear to read any of the others. He squeezed his eyes shut, thankful for the privacy of Yln's buy'ce and leaned against the stone, the weight of his sins heavy against his shoulders.
He thought perhaps tears would come, but they didn't. His thoughts drifted back to that morning, when he'd asked Saa to kill him and he'd gone into Tay's hothouse to beat, and break, and shout his sorrow into the cold Anobian air. Cody realized that he'd cried all the tears he had, that day - all that was left was the hollow ache in his chest that reverberated against his senses each time his heart beat.
He hung his head and whispered silently the litany he'd learned from Saa -
"Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum."
"I'm still alive, but you are dead. I remember you, so you are eternal."
It was all he had to give. He had no names to add - there were too many stones, too many names, too many memories. And even if he searched across a thousand suns, he wasn't sure he'd ever find out the truth of her name, or of her son's name. They would remain nameless - but their memory would never die.
Not with him, anyway. Cody doubted that even if he found absolution in the silent memoriam, he'd never stop hearing her screams echoing deep inside his darker thoughts.
Her death was a sin he'd live with for the rest of his life. A part of him had hoped that by coming back to Bellassa, back to Chan-Dar, that he could put the past to rest. But, what was done could never be undone.
He realized that, now.
All that he could do, was learn to live with the sins of his past. He could only accept the forgiveness he'd already recieved - from Tay, from Saa, from Obi-Wan - and learn how to forgive himself.
There was no absolution. Not in this snow-covered, granite-grim memory of a town that would never exist again.
He lifted his head slowly and looked out toward the sun-stained sky. A copse of needle-leafed trees reached up toward the sky, the only spot of green in a world painted shades of darkening monotone. The wind was starting to pick up as twilight approached and a little flurry of loose snow danced across the tops of his boots.
Absolution had to come from within.
"You won't die in vain," Cody spoke softly, his words carried away by the wind that whistled briskly against his helmet.
His promise, gently given, was absolution.
He could bring her back to life. He couldn't go back in time and stop Bellassa. He couldn't change Order 66. He couldn't wipe the blood that he imagined still stained his hands, his gloves, his clothes, his armor. He couldn't erase the scars on his thighs, or on his soul.
But, he could make sure none of it ever happened again.
Not on my watch.
He curled his fist on top of the granite cairn and lingered for just one second more. His eyes drifted across the dotted field, across all the stones, across all the names that were marked in shadow and deepening sun.
He would never again stand by while evil triumphed. He'd find Ferus Olin this time - but not to kill him. He'd never stain his honor again by carrying out Imperial orders. He'd find Olin and give some bit of hope back to the galaxy. He'd watch over Obi-Wan for as long as he could, to ensure that evil didn't find him. He'd go back to Anobis and give what he had left of himself - a broken man and half a heart - to Tay. And then he'd take Saa and they'd find his brothers - Rex, Fives, Boil - and he'd see if they would stand with him.
Cody remembered Obi-Wan's words:
"We need compassion in this galaxy, if we're to pull through these dark times. We need attachment, love, mercy, and - dare I say it - passion."
No, Cody realized, as he watched the sun slip behind the trees and the shadows lengthen between the stones. We need the sum of all those parts. We need rebellion.
He stepped away from the headstone and turned his head to catch the old man standing just a few arms' lengths away, watching him with wary, war-torn eyes.
His eyes, pale with age and cataracts, lingered fearfully on the ex-commander's helmet. Cody knew only toowell why - the helmets of the Republic's Phase I had been modeled after Jango Fett's buy'ce. After Mandalorian buy'cese - after helmets like Yln's. The T-shaped visor was practically identical and it mirrored the man's fear back into his eyes.
Cody lifted a hand, his palm flat and outward in a galactic sign of peace, but the movement seemed to spark something inside of the old man. Age clearly made him bold, as he took his simple wooden walking stick and slapped Cody on the back of his legs.
He just looked down, briefly, and then back at the old man, nonplussed. He didn't feel a thing, since his leg was firmly encased in durapast plates and he cocked an eyebrow in mixed amusement.
The old man whacked him again, his chin quivering but held high.
"What are you doing here?" his ancient voice cracked in the cold; his breath puffed into steam and evaporated as quickly as his words.
"I'm here to -" Cody started, but the cane reached out and caught him briskly across the thigh.
The clone flinched, his muscles tensing for a hard-wired reaction. But, he controlled himself and merely reached out his arm to block the cane as it descended viciously against his extended forearm.
"Who are you?" anger followed close behind the fearless - if ill-advised - blows.
The next blow came higher, striking Cody right across the top of his helmet. At that exact moment, Cody realized that the old man couldn't hear a word he was saying, since his out-put audio was turned off. He blinked quickly and voiced his indignation.
"Hey!" he snapped and reached up, grabbing the cane firmly in his grasp.
He pulled once, giving the cane an authoritative tug; the old man's grip on the other end was surprisingly rebellious and Cody paused. He didn't want to topple the older man over or cause him serious injury, so the two stayed locked in a stand-still, each holding tightly to opposite ends of the cane.
"I'm Mando'ad," Cody answered, quietly.
He glanced in the HUD's rear-sight just in time to catch a rather enigmatic smile flash briefly across Saa's lips. The older Mando gave one slight nod, as if he could sense that Cody was looking at him; something in the gesture bolstered Cody's confidence. He knew Saa well enough by now, to know the nod was a sign of silent approval.
Both Obi-Wan and Saa remained on the edge of the road. The armored clone could tell by the slight tension in their body language that they were ready to come help him diffuse the situation if necessary, but otherwise, they would stay where they were until he called them over.
He was being given command of the situation. It was a feeling Cody knew well, but one that he had almost forgotten underneath the misery of his past.
"I mean you no harm," he turned his attention back toward the front of his HUD, toward the old man who was beginning to shiver pathetically in the twilight wind.
As if to show that he meant it, Cody let go of his end of the cane. Wary, the old man lowered it and leaned heavily against it once again, but his eyes never strayed from Cody's helmet. For a long moment, the two considered each other and the sun slipped further below the distant horizon.
"I wouldn't linger here, if I were you," the older Bellassan's pale eyes suddenly shifted as he threw a furtive, almost fearful glance around them.
His words were underlined by a particularly theatric shiver.
"What do you mean?" Cody frowned, his expression safe behind the anonymity of his helmet.
"The ghosts," the old man suddenly pulled the frayed edges of his patched cloak tighter around his narrow shoulders as he hunched his flimsi-thin frame against the wind.
His eyes roved nervously about at the stones and his voice dropped to barely a whisper. It was only with concerted effort, that he looked back up at Cody, fear etched deeply into his wrinkled face.
"Night's coming. So are the ghosts."
"What happened here?" Cody knew the awful truth, but he wanted to hear it.
He needed to hear it.
"Evil," his companion whispered, shivering, his eyes furtive.
"There was a town here. What happened to it?" Cody persisted, undaunted by talk of ghosts and evil.
He knew evil - he'd done it's bidding. And ghosts didn't scare him - he would never be rid of them, but their haunting had slowly lost its hold on him.
"The soldiers in white armor came," the old man shut his eyes, as if remembering only too well a past that was drenched in blood. "They took our people hostage. Killed our sons. Broke our women."
Cody's past echoed in his raw-voiced words. He squeezed his eyes shut, too, the memories of Chan-Dar still fresh. Still painful.
"They were looking for someone. They were here for many days."
Cody had deserted the night after he'd watched that woman beaten, raped, and killed. He hadn't stuck around to find out what happened to Chan-Dar. He'd made his way to the next closest city - Amo - ahead of the Imperial army and had caught a freighter out. Since he'd caught what was most readily available, he'd gone to Dantooine first, where he'd sold his armor. From there, he'd made his way to Anobis and he'd never once checked back on Bellassa. He'd never followed up on the conclusions of Order 37.
He'd never been strong enough.
"They didn't find who they were looking for. So, they locked the villagers who were left in the town hall. And burned it. They burned the whole village. And everyone in it."
Cody's soul went as cold as the winter air around them. He knew who had given that order - when he left, he deserted his men from the Stormtrooper Corps, but they'd been mixed with two teams from the 501st, lead by Commander Appo.
Cody absently noticed that he had now healed enough to feel anger. He clenched his fists at his side and clenched his teeth.
The men hadn't talked about who had lead them at the Jedi Temple massacre. But, they'd talked about Appo. And Appo had bragged about leading the 501st against their unsuspecting Jedi commanders, younglings, padawans, and elders. Cody had only worked with Appo once or twice - a few times during the War, even. But, each encounter had soured him further on the clone commander. During the War, he'd been a decent enough officer, but Order 66 had turned him cruel and sadistic.
He'd taken quite a lot of pride in the massacre he lead. Every account of it had turned Cody's stomach in horror. And what had disgusted him the most then, was what disgusted him the most, now.
Appo had enjoyed pain, misery, dominance, evil. He thought little of slaughtering innocents. Cody didn't need to look into the past, to know that Appo had to have been the one to order the slaughter of a whole village. Or, its destruction.
"I'll kill him."
He hadn't realized he'd spoken out loud. The old man lifted his head sharply, his expression a mixture of surprise and fear.
"You'll what?" his voice cracked again, the cold becoming almost too much for his voice to bear.
Cody was silent for a long time. The sun had almost all but set and twilight whispered in across the field, painting the stones in cool shades of purplish blue and dusky black.
"I knew the two commanders who destroyed Chan-Dar," Cody finally spoke, his voice deep, husky, and low with barely surpressed emotion.
He was fury. He was horror. He was vengeance. He was justice.
His hands clenched and unclenched, unconscious, as he turned his head slightly to meet the old man's gaze from behind his helmet's visor.
"One is dead. I'll kill the other."
The old man just stared back at him, his face a study in blank amazement. Finally, he shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. His old, arthritic hands reached up to pull the hood of his cloak up over his face, to shield the back of his neck from the biting cold.
"It won't change the past, young man."
Cody didn't answer at first. He just looked back over the field and watched as the wind whipped up snow in little eddies. In the encroaching darkness, he could almost imagine that each little whirlwind was a restless spirit, stirred up by the memories of the past.
"Don't fear the ghosts in this place," he finally dipped his head toward his old companion and raised his hand in a respectful two-fingered salute.
Cody turned to leave, but before he did, he paused and looked over his shoulder one last time. The old man hadn't moved; he was still watching Cody with eyes that had seen far too much.
"Tell the story of Chan-Dar to anyone who passes through," he spoke quietly, reverently, the force of all his absolution behind every parting word.
Cody glanced up at Saa and Obi-Wan, then started walking forward toward them, leaving the stones and the old man behind.
The wind took his last words and amplified them, so that they echoed against the graves like the voice of those who'd died -
"And don't fear her ghosts. They may help set this galaxy free."
He stopped once he reached Obi-Wan and Saa. For a moment, he deliberated, but then he slowly reached up and pulled off his helmet.
The old man's face was cast in shadow, but his eyes widened beneath the brim of his hood and his breath hitched in an audible gasp, when Cody turned around to face him, eye to eye. The wind stung his naked cheeks and tried to rake through his short-cropped hair. For a long moment, the last survivor of Chan-Dar gazed in sheer amazement at the commander who had helped to bring it down.
Cody bowed, just once, deeply at the waist. And before he put his helmet back on and turned to walk back toward Ussa with his silent companions, the clone left his promise among the stones and their ghosts.
"You have this soldier's word. I won't forget Chan-Dar."
"The hardest part of ending, is starting again."
Cody had heard those words once, somewhere - he didn't know who'd said them, or in what context. But, they echoed about in his head, in his heart. And in the next three months, he learned the exquisite truth of those words.
It was hard, facing the ghosts of his past amid the memorial of Chan-Dar. It was even harder to accept that he'd never put those ghosts to rest - he could only learn to live them with them and to turn their memory into positive actions toward the future. It was hard not to be crippled by the words of that old man or by the memory of those silent stones. It was hard to realize that in some ways, he'd left Chan-Dar to a darker destiny by deserting when he had, than if he had stayed and offered opposition to Appo's orders as the senior commander in charge.
Chan-Dar wouldn't have burned if he hadn't fled from the memory of his weakness - or, at least, that's what Cody told himself.
But, while Chan-Dar wouldn't have burned in a bloody massacre, staying would have meant that he would have become a very different man. He wouldn't have run to Anobis. He wouldn't have gotten addicted to stims and whiskey. He wouldn't have met Tay. He wouldn't have found his winding road to redemption.
Good came hand-in-hand with the bad. He'd always known that, at some intellectual level. But, the man he'd been in the War was a far less perceptive man that he was now. In many ways, Cody had learned the truth of things, through hard experience and hard-won understanding.
It was one thing to know something. It was something else entirely, to learn the reality of its application on one's life.
For three months, Cody and Saa kept an eye on Obi-Wan from afar. During that time, Cody learned the ways and wisdom of his blood - every day his knowledge of Mando'a increased, his understanding of the Mandalorian culture deepened, and his desire to follow the Resol'nare strengthened.
As the days slipped by into weeks, Cody slowly accepted the simple grace offered by cin vhetin. He wore the armor of a Mandalorian now. The past was what it was, but it no longer had to hold its power over him.
He could acknowledge the ghosts that would walk by his side for the rest of his life. But he no longer had to let them rule him.
He grew harder during those days - stronger, leaner, faster, wiser. His body would never go back to what it was in the height of his abnormal youth, during his glory days as "Commander Cody". Age was slowly reconfiguring his shape and the lean, almost sinewy muscle of before was slowly replaced by a slightly broader bulk. He put on muscle in slightly different places now, as the emphasis in his fighting styles changed; his chest seemed a bit broader now, his arms and legs a little thicker.
Saa told him that his build started to favor that of an ARC trooper - like Del. Cody had pondered that for a bit - he'd heard it said that the ARCs and some of the other special forces had been left less tampered and their genetic makeup was closer to that of Jango Fett's, than that of regular troopers. Cody had been selected and trained as an ARC, but he'd come from the trooper batches. Their genes had been slightly modified to favor a slighter, quicker frame. But, it seemed even genetic dispositions could be reshaped by environment.
It drove home the lesson that they - each and every clone - was more than the sum of their parts. More than their genetics. More than their conditioning. In the broader galaxy of experience and nurture, even the coding of their DNA could be challenged and changed.
They weren't machines, they weren't chained to some predetermined path to the exclusion of any other. They were capable of choices, decisions and growth.
They were capable of changing.
He was capable of changing, of choosing the man he wanted to be. He didn't have to be the clone he was told to be; he was capable of his own free will, his own choices.
He was capable of taking Chan-Dar and turning her memory into a rallying cry. Those screams no longer had to haunt they - they could motivate him. They could fuel him, focus him, shape him.
He no longer had to hang his head in shame for the sins of his past, because he could choose to use their memory for a better future.
And so, for three months, Cody slowly let go of what had held him down for so long. He let go of his grief, his confusion, his sorrow, his depression, his fear. And in their places, he found courage, strength, determination, clarity, and absolution.
He often thought of Tay while Saa and him ran interference between Obi-Wan and the nameless Mandalorian bounty hunter who had shown up to track him. In the quiet of the night, in the peaceful moments between running, fighting, and protecting, Cody started to allow himself thoughts of where he hoped to go with her. Of the things he wanted to show her.
He contacted her from time to time, since she was reluctant to do so, not knowing when he'd "be busy" and not wanting to be a distraction. They would talk in the privacy of Yln's buy'ce and Saa would pretend he didn't know what was going on. Cody was thankful for the feigned disinterest.
And the more they talked to each other, the more Cody hoped for something more.
They didn't get to say much to each other - not usually. Watching over a Jedi - and in time, two Jedi - was a tall order during the best of times. But, sometimes he'd be able to catch a longer conversation with her - fifteen minutes here. A half-hour there. Just long enough to share shy admissions of longing. Just long enough to let her know he cared.
Saa re-injured his wounded leg during a firefight with the bounty hunter one early spring day and Cody knew their time was up. They were able to make contact with Obi-Wan, just long enough for Saa to admit through gritted teeth that he was, in fact, "too old for this".
Their farewell was short, but poignant. No words were said at first - young Olin had stared at the two men, at the quiet Mandalorian in armor so very similiar to the very bounty hunter who pursued them, at the Miralukan who forgot to act like a Miralukan in the pain of his injury.
Cody had only saluted the young Jedi and left him with a parting admonission - one he knew that Olin would remember.
"Don't forget what's happened here."
Olin's eyes had widened and Cody knew that the young man had understood perfectly what was being asked.
"Don't forget Chan-Dar. Don't forget Order 37. Don't forget Bellassa."
Obi-Wan and Cody hadn't said a word. The bearded general merely took Cody's forearm and gripped it tight; the former commander did the same and they silently accepted that this was the last that they would ever see each other.
Cody left them, then, but his head was held high, his shoulders straight, his back strong. He hadn't gotten far, though, with the limping Saa, before Obi-Wan called out. The clone stopped and half-turned; General and Commander looked at each other one last time.
"Don't give up hope," Obi-Wan just waved his hand and Cody felt that familiar nudge against his mind.
"I won't. There's too much out there, sir."
And those were the last words spoken between General Obi-Wan Kenobi and Commander Cody.
When Cody finally walked away, he felt complete for the first time in his life.
The last memory of his general wouldn't be of treachery or death.
Those memories had been replaced by hope. And Cody would never again give that up.
Saa was right - Cody left Bellassa a second time, a changed man. And when they landed back on Tay's fallowed field, Cody put her little house in his sights and stalked toward it like a man on a mission.
For a moment, though, Cody lingered, waiting on Saa, but the older merc waved him on.
"Get on with it," he grimaced from the pain in his leg, but that was quickly replaced by a knowing chuckle.
He limped along after Cody, but took his time, his injured leg wrapped and braced securely. The younger clone hoped that maybe there was something Tay could do for Saa and for a moment, he felt bad about leaving his elder behind. But, then he caught sight of a short, curvy figure in the garden behind the house and Cody's focus narrowed down to one thing - her.
He'd given up his kama and his pauldron about his second month on Bellassa; he no longer needed either to force a military posture or a swagger. Chest out, back straight, Cody covered the distance between him and the garden in a long-legged, single-minded gait. As he drew closer, he slowed down, his hips swaying in a cocky swagger that had become almost second-nature to him.
Tay was hands-deep in dirt, when he pushed open the little garden gate. She lifted her face toward him, surprise and delight bright across her every feature. She stood up and opened her mouth to greet him, but Cody didn't give her a chance to make a sound.
He'd been thinking about this for three months, planning on it, hoping for it.
Cody just reached for her and set the record straight.
He pulled her in his arms, up against his armor and his body. And he did what he should have done three months before.
He took her chin in hand and tilted her face up toward him. Tay managed to whisper one word before he claimed her lips in a firm, demanding kiss.
It was the one word he'd hoped to hear above all others.
+ PART ONE: REDEMPTION +
+ FIN +