A/N - A long read but I hope you enjoy and find it worthwhile.
SCARS - FINALE
Senator Chuchi gave Rex a hug and a gentle kiss on his bearded cheek as he pulled the small gear bag over his shoulder. It was a clumsy hug as her pregnant belly tended to provide a barrier to everyone but Chopper. When Chopper held her, they seemed to melt together, to become one.
"I have submitted a bill to the Senate," she told him, "to permit retirement of clones for disability. It was attached as a rider on another long and dull bill that has a greater chance of passing. Already I know that many of the Senate will not care enough to read that far."
Rex snorted his amusement and Senator Chuchi's face tilted in a momentary smile.
"I will try to add benefits for the clones in small increments, giving them choice and keeping them out of Kamino if they wish." Riyo continued smiling, more wistfully, but her eyes were sad. "I have read the entire contract."
Rex took her hands in his and gave her fingertips a gentle kiss. "Thank you, Riyo, for everything you do on behalf of my brothers. Thank you for everything on my own behalf." He smiled. "Take care of yourself." Rex said as he stepped to the ramp.
"What?" she teased lightly, "No words of 'take care of Chopper'?"
"As long as you take care of yourself," he said solemnly, "Chopper will be fine."
She nodded, one hand resting on the mound of her unborn child. "Until she is born and for six months after, I won't be doing anything but Senate paperwork and public relations." She smiled, "and observing."
"Good enough." Rex bent and place a kiss on her forehead then strode from her small ship and onto Naboo.
Naboo was a nice place though it was probably no longer a safe refuge. There'd been a battle at the palace, resulting in the death of the queen, the day after he had arrived. He had to avoid the stormtroopers who'd probably recognize him as a deserter in spite of his beard and wiry thinness, as well as the local populace who had deeply loved their Queen Apailana. There was an ugly undercurrent in the mood of the people.
Athualla F&S had a sign, 'Under New Management' at the warehouse office not far from the port. Rex sighed, but waited out of sight until he saw people opening the office and warehouse; he hoped to see Ash or Knaps, both of whom he could recognized.
He didn't see anyone he recognized, but he dared to go into the warehouse. Ash was a pilot; she wouldn't spend time at the warehouse so not seeing her meant almost nothing. Knaps, as a clone, would have to stay out of sight as well.
"Can I help you?" The young woman at the counter was young with a bright, flirtatious smile and hair, as blonde as his, tied jauntily in two tails on either side of her head. Behind her were two desks piled with flimsis, only one occupied, and an open door leading into an office.
"I was looking for a pilot I used to know," he offered as his eyes flicked warily around the room for security cameras, so common now on Coruscant. "I was hoping to ask her a small favor? Pilot Ashwaeen Athualla?"
The girl sighed deeply. "My cousin is no longer with us." Then she perked up, "but if the favor is a job, we can always use a strong back."
Rex pursed his lips in a tight line. "No longer..." he paused. "Not... dead," he asked softly hesitant.
The girl's blue eyes widened. "Oh, no. Nothing like that. I'm sorry if I implied that. Just no longer with Naboo Athualla Freight and Shipping."
"Would you know where she is or how I can reach her?"
The girl shook her head, her hair swirling to either side. "Sorry."
Rex hadn't seen any security cameras and for a moment, frowned then smiled at the girl. "I guess a job would be very welcome."
With a job he'd have reason to be there. He could gather intel, perhaps determine if someone else know where Ash might had gone. He knew how easily gossip traveled. The credits would be useful as well though Riyo had provided him a good amount. Rex paused and glanced out the window. "I don't have any references, no one to vouch for me."
"That's ok," said the girl. "If you show up drunk, if you fight, if you don't work or if you don't show up at all then you get fired. Damaging cargo or equipment will get your pay docked for the insurance premiums. We're a good company and most of our workers are like family, but we work hard and incompetent workers don't last long. If you're a good worker but just don't get along with the main crew - and it's happened - we give you two weeks' severance pay and let you go."
Rex blinked then chuckled. He had never realized what civilians did; incompetent troopers usually didn't last long either though most never got a second chance.
It was hard work and Rex rejoiced in it; rejoiced in the heat of his muscles that left him exhausted each night. Few of the workers gave him more than a passing glance at his introduction, waiting for him to prove himself equal to the work. Only the supervisor had inspected him for more than a few moments and that had mostly been at the thinness of his frame from his long-term, self-induced starvation which hadn't yet caught up to the clone-induced muscular development brought on by good food and company. Then the supervisor had nodded, seeing hard balls of muscles on wiry arms and hard, capable hands.
"You'll do," said the grizzled man by the unlikely name of Mack Lace. "Some of the others will challenge you but I think you'll do very well."
Rex tilted his face with a frown. "I thought fighting wasn't allowed."
The grizzled foreman laughed. "Not fighting; simply competition on unloading freight by hand. Maybe a bit of arm wrestling in down time." He laughed again. "I'll throw my wager on you."
So it had been. Rex hadn't been on the docks long enough to have had his first break when one of the guys from Enik Federated Freight in the next bay over; a big Twi'lek by name of Tu'kwal Addura, challenged Rex to see who could unload the most cargo from the bay of an small Corellian freighter. It irked Rex that he hadn't won, though he'd been only a step behind the experienced freight handler. Tu'kwal had nodded with a big grin.
"I pity anyone who challenges you after six or seven days of experience," Tu'kwal had said as he slapped Rex on the back and they all moved to their respective bays to continue unloading cargo.
For lunch he'd been one of the few men to walk down to a small eatery. He'd been challenged to a bout of arm wrestling by a lean Naboo man who introduced himself as Dak Kanuur working with GoRelEl. Rex had the satisfaction of winning that bit of competition then the other crew had moved to a Toydarian liner.
So it went for several days. He'd seen stormtrooper patrols several times, but it seemed that each time they came near the Naboo Athualla warehouse, Lirane would call him into the office to fill out some piece of paperwork for new employees or ask him to do a caf and snack run for the office. Of course, she asked these things even when there weren't stormtroopers so Rex decided it might be a happy coincidence.
There was a camaraderie among the dock workers that seemed so very much like his clone brothers in the early days of the war and Rex enjoyed working with them. He enjoyed the heavy work that taxed his strength and endurance and left him exhausted most nights. But he learned nothing of where Pilot Ashwaeen Athualla had gone; learned nothing of her husband, nothing of anything that might prove useful in his search for her.
Rex sighed as he stared at the work board. He'd only been worked for six days, he told himself. Give it time. He pulled his work token, RX, from the on-shift side of the work board and rubbed his calloused thumb over the smooth, painted surface.
Most of the tokens had the worker's first and last initials; having no last name, Rex had simply used the first and last letters of his name. Riyo had given him some identification chips and cards but he had decided to use them carefully and infrequently. He didn't know how good or authentic they were. According to those, he was an Aldaraani named Rix Hallick. The name was good, close enough to his real name, but what he knew about Aldaraan wouldn't fill a caf cup. Lirane hadn't asked for any identification and Rex thought that promising, until Mack had told him he was only a seasonal worker and papers weren't required for seasonal workers.
Today had been a light workday; it was some Naboo holiday celebrating the autumnal equinox and most of the workers had asked for the day off to spend time with their families. Apparently, family picnics and fishing were traditional ways to celebrate. Even the pilots seemed to be on vacation. There'd been only one cargo freighter to unload. Rex hadn't originally been scheduled to work, but he'd taken the shift for Lace whose wife occasionally sent in treats for everyone. Mack had laughed and promised Rex one of his wife's specialties - autumn moon pie - for the favor.
Hanging his token on the off-shift board, Rex glanced at the board again as he considered volunteering for night shift and letting that worker have time off as well. He wasn't as exhausted as if he had worked a normal shift. He liked working to exhaustion; it let him sleep without nightmares or memories. They were infrequent now but occasionally he'd still wake in the middle of the night gasping at what he'd done in the Temple, at the memory of Vader in his mind, at Coric's harsh screams as he died.
Night shift was minimally staffed since the office was closed and they might only need to unload one or two small freighters. Mostly Rex worried about the stormtroopers who patrolled the port regularly during the day. They patrolled less frequently during the night.
Glancing at the night workers' tokens, Rex wondered if there was a possibility he could get on night shift on a regular basis. KV. No, he hadn't heard anything about KV. Next to KV was KR. Rex paused, frowning slightly, his eyebrows raised.
Chopper had told him he thought some of Zeer's men had deserted and Rex wondered where they were now; wondered if they'd been killed or captured and returned to Kamino. KV, KR; Kev, Kru - two good troopers from the 501st. He shook his head in denial. Just a coincidence, two workers with similar initials.
The next token was TQ. Rex sucked in his cheeks. Torque.
Why would they come to Naboo?
Rex muttered a profanity at his own blindness. Where else would Kev go? Ash was probably the only civilian they'd ever met, their only chance for successful desertion, their only chance for something approximating a reasonable life after the army.
The next token was face to the wall and Rex reached out his fingers to gently turn it around - 56.
It brought tears to his eyes and a crooked smile to his face to know that the squad had taken the Spaarti. With a startled gasp, Rex remembered Appo telling him 56-9386 was dead in the same breath he had announced Zeer's death. His fingers were shaking as he reached for the supervisor's token; if 56-9386 was alive, then maybe Zeer was as well.
"Hey, Rex," It was Lirane, the blonde girl who'd given him this job and Rex dropped his fingers guiltily, turning to face her.
Surprisingly, in spite of her youth, she was navigator and pilot rated. Rex grimaced. In spite of his youth, he'd been captain of the 501st. He simply looked twice her age.
She flirted a lot, with almost all the workers, most outrageously with the oldest men who laughed and flirted back. Occasionally she flirted with him, winking or nudging him with her elbow.
"Yes, Lirane," Rex tried not to feel guilty about looking at the night shift tokens. There was no reason to feel as if he'd done something wrong.
"The night shift will be opening up tomorrow and I thought you might be interested?" She tilted her head in curiosity. "You are, aren't you?"
He nodded immediately, "Yes." He gestured to the board. "What can you tell me about my co-workers," he glanced as if looking for the first time, "KV? Maybe KR or TQ?" He reached for the supervisor token, hoping - desperately hoping - for a ZR.
LA and his heart sank. "Or LA," he glanced at her, "that's you."
"I'll be working but the others are leaving." She shrugged. "They were a short-term contract group for the summer overload and summer's over. Night shift will probably be just two people until early winter then we'll take the number back up to four or five workers." She tilted her head and winked at him with that bright smile of hers. "Night shift is usually slow. Maybe you could teach me to flirt?"
Rex chuckled but shook his head.
Lirane reached out her hand to touch him lightly on the forearm. "It is only flirting, you do know that?" For once she seemed solemn. "I'm not serious."
"I know that, Lirane." He gave her a smile. "Just for fun and practice and to make old men feel young again."
"Exactly," again she was bright and enthusiastic, turning back toward the main office.
Rex had to sigh, knowing she thought him one of the 'old men'. He felt old at fifteen and turned toward the board, replacing her token in the night-shift supervisor slot. He looked at the other tokens again; KV, KR, TQ and 56.
It had to be Kev, Kru, Torque and 56-Target.
She had to recognize Kev, Kru, Torque and 56-Target as clones; yet she hadn't turned them into the patrolling troopers.
If she recognized them as clones then either she was with some rebel group or she wasn't. If she wasn't, no harm. she was simply being kind to deserters. Though 'why' was a question he might ask her; perhaps she'd been close to Ash and her clone husband. They why didn't she know where Ash now resided?
If she was with a rebel group then either she meant to turn them over for... whatever the rebels did to ex-troopers or she was helping them escape.
Knowing she was related to Ash and Knaps, Rex hoped the later. In which case she probably had lied on the first day when she said she didn't know where Ash was or how to get in touch with her.
Rex jerked slightly as he remembered that conversation. She hadn't said 'no', simply 'sorry'. Sorry could mean she didn't know or sorry could mean she shouldn't tell him. A slightly different thing.
Lirane either didn't recognize him as a clone or she did. If she didn't, no harm and sometimes Rex looked into a reflective surface and barely recognized that wiry, blonde bearded man staring back at him. If she did recognize him as a clone then putting him on night shift could be a prelude to helping him escape.
Rex stared at the board. It is only flirting, you do know that? Her words echoed in his mind and he wondered which clone in Zeer's squad had taken her seriously then realized that she recognized him as clone as well.
He gazed at the token board and closed his eyes in thought, letting his jumbled thoughts sort into a recognizable pattern.
Lirane was a pilot and navigator yet she worked in the office? She was working the day shift yet her token said she was night shift supervisor? There was too much that didn't make sense unless she was helping the clones.
Rex delved into facts. KV, KR, TQ and 56 were scheduled for night shift. Tonight was their last night.
Rex glanced at the arrival board where two ships were listed. Athualla's Desire in the early evening and a small freighter in the dawn hours of tomorrow.
He didn't want to wait.
He wanted to talk to Kev now. He wanted to ask 56-Target what had happened to Zeer. He wanted to have their backs when they escaped - he owed it to them, to his men for what he had put them through since Order 66 and what he had allowed Appo to put them through.
He strode into the main office. "Lirane, I need to speak with you." His intensity and air of command had the attention of everyone there and Rex grimaced. He hadn't meant to make a scene. "I'm sorry, Lirane. I don't mean to make it sound like an emergency. Just when you have a few minutes, I'd like to speak with you privately."
"Certainly, Rex. I have a few minutes now," she nodded toward the office, "I'll be right there."
Rex sat in the chair inspecting the office for a moment while he waited. There was a desk, a file safe and a half-height file case in front of a door leading to the work bay. This desk was far cleaner then the two in the outer office. When Lirane came in, she closed the door behind her. For several long minutes, Rex didn't say anything, simply inspected her as if she was one of his troopers, trying to determine what and how much she knew. Lirane simply waited patiently for his inspection to end and that told him most of what he needed to know. He sighed heavily then leaned forward, his elbows on her desk, his fingers interlocked in front of him.
"Have you told Kev and Kru, Torque and 56 that I work here?"
It was her turn and she leaned forward, her fingers interlocked and her chin resting on her knuckles, mirroring his position as she inspected him as carefully as he'd done her.
"No, Rex. I don't cross my shifts. Night shift is separate for very good reasons."
Rex nodded. It made good sense to keep the information private, especially if it was some means of escape. Naboo might have been safe once, but no longer. A careless word to one of the patrols could mean the death of everyone in the chain of rescue; could mean the death of everyone associated with Athualla F&S no matter how little they knew.
Rex could demand or he could ask. He looked into her eyes and let his hands relax on the desk, palm up. "Please, I'd like to go with them."
Solemnly she shook her head. "No." She must have seen something in his expression because she relented enough to tell him why. "It takes time, Rex, and people and preparation."
Slowly he let the breath he'd been holding out in a soft stream of regret. "I understand. Time and people are not inexhaustible resources. Preparation is not something to waste simply because I want to go." He nodded, knowing she had to be careful. He would not jeopardize their escape. Softly Rex repeated himself. "I do understand, Lirane." He stood then paused. "I'd still like the night shift tomorrow."
Before he reached the door, he turned back to her. "If you can give them a message once they reach their destination..." he paused, he also had to be careful in case she wasn't who or what she seemed.
"Tell them I'm proud of them."
Fives voice came harshly over his helmet. "Jedi Tano is no more. She's been taken out."
Inside his helmet, Rex shook his head in disbelief.
He should have been there.
Appo turned his head slightly toward Rex, observing, and Rex thought his saw triumph in his stance. and the set of Appo's shoulders.
General Skywalker turned toward Rex as well, his eyes red with rage and hate.
Rex woke, gasping, shivering at the memory. He rose and, once in the refresher, ducked his head under the faucet, letting the water wash away the beads of sweat and the fetid odor of fear.
He knew he wouldn't get back to sleep, so he pulled on his jacket and left the small rented room for a walk or perhaps a run if he felt like it.
Rex had been out in the night for a while. He'd run the fear to ground and then simply for the pleasure of running. Now he was in a walk, his muscles warm and relaxed from the exercise. He decided to go around the warehouses back toward the small room he rented. Athualla's Desire had come and gone by now and Rex was sure Zeer's squad was on it rather than some unknown freighter. Maybe it had even been piloted by Ash herself and there had been a good reunion between the clones and the pilot. Rex smiled at the thought; while he hoped Lirane had given them his message, what mattered most was they were going to a good future of some kind. Maybe he'd met up with them sometime in his search for her, for Ahsoka.
There were still groups of people wandering around, celebrating the equinox and simply because he was walking the same street and moving more quickly than most of the pedestrians, he found himself among a group of laughing, happily-drunk civilians.
In the fashion of the socially inebriated everywhere, they immediately adopted him as one of their own, offering him the bottle passing around, which he took a small taste from simply because he knew it was the socially correct thing to do. He declined the paok-weed and laughingly provided his arm to support one of the women with desires had been larger than her slight frame and sense of balance.
As they walked past the port warehouses, a few of the group used the side of a building to help maintain their vertical orientation as they widely turned a corner, laughing as the corner proved too much for one man who fell into some of the ubiquitous bushes that lined the roads. The fallen man was laughing the hardest and even Rex had a slight grin on his face as he shook his head.
Suddenly there was the stormtrooper in his white armor and Rex stiffened; one hand instinctively reaching for a blaster he no longer wore.
"I'm sorry, folks," he intoned and Rex relaxed just a bit as he recognized this stormtrooper must be one of the newer recruits because he wasn't a clone. "This area is closed off."
"Why?" It was the man in the bush, only his waving arms and struggling legs now visible in the thick foliage.
"There's been a tibanna spill and we're helping local authorities close down the area and clean it up." The stormtrooper gestured them in the area they should go and the group started moving in that direction, crossing one of the speeder lanes.
Definitely not a clone; that excuse had been far too reasonable, far too civilian for a clone to make up. Still, Rex kept his face down, talking to the woman; this was a stormtrooper who might be able to recognize Rex as a clone in spite of his beard, his blondness and his current thinness.
"Hey! Hey!" The man struggling in the bush called out, "it's eating me," but his friends didn't notice he wasn't following. The stormtrooper sighed and he took a step forward to assist the drunken man from the shrub.
No, definitely not a clone. A clone wouldn't have been that careless, turning his side then his back to the group as he reached and grabbed the man by the front of his clothing.
"Ow! Oww, leave the chest hair," called the drunk. There was more, but Rex didn't pay attention as he silently slipped away from the party-ers and down the street, staying behind the bushes lining the lane, staying out of sight.
There were more stormtroopers, but Rex avoided them. These weren't on guard for infiltration simply to prevent civilians from wandering into the area. As he made his way to the Naboo Athualla F&S warehouse, Rex moved more cautiously and pulled on his command training. This certainly wasn't a tibanna spill, there were no civilian emergency services around - only the white-armored troopers and all of their preparations screaming 'ambush'.
Where would I put my men for an urban ambush? He glanced up to a likely place, seeing a sniper where he expected and his heart sank. He looked down the street and saw another as well as a spotter. Over there seemed a good place for a squad of men who would rush the building under the protective cover of the snipers and that line of shrubs. It took a while, but finally Rex saw a careless movement, revealing the white gauntlet of a stormtrooper.
They were centered around the warehouse where he worked; where Kev and Kru and Torque and 56 would be working their last night with the expectation of leaving on a freighter to freedom. Surely, the Athualla's Desire had already taken them? Unless there'd been a destroyer high overhead that had already captured the small craft. Were his men in the warehouse worried and wondering what had happened?
Rex moved quickly, silent in the darkness and near invisible in his civilian clothing. The warehouses were connected in the back; all of them open to the landing pads; freighters weren't always guided to the pad closest their company. There was only one trooper at the far end of the row of buildings.
Rex frowned sorrowfully; he had hoped his battle days were done with. He had hoped he'd never have to kill again.
Rex had the dead stormtrooper's blaster and grenades and was at Enik Federated next to Athualla when he heard Kev's warning cry immediately following the distinctive pitch of a sniper rifle firing.
Rex had already begun running, turning into the open bay where an old tramp freighter was idling. He saw an older civilian on the ramp from the corner of his eye moving toward the office where Kev's shout had come from.
"Stay," he ordered as he moved rapidly toward the office.
56-9386 was next to a clone bent over with pain and a cane in his hand. "Get him on-board," Rex shouted to 56 as he continued his run. He heard more shouts from Kru and Kev in the office and several more shots from the snipers. Rex pounded on the back door of Lirane's office. Kriff, blocked and locked. He moved to the main passage between office and cargo bay.
"Go," Kev's voice spoke harshly. "You can make it."
"Into the private office, squad," Rex yelled. "There's a door to the bay. Take it down."
"I've got it," yelled one of the clones. Rex identified Torque's voice then the sound of his careful, quick movements.
There was the sound of the sniper rifles and Torque working on the door as Rex moved into the room, staying low so the snipers wouldn't see him behind the counter. He saw Kru crouched behind the counter facing outward. From behind the counter, Rex could see nothing between the counter and the door.
Kru glanced then stared at Rex, his eyebrows twisting. His shook his head and his lips twisted into a wry grin. "Kev, the 501st has arrived."
"Kru," Kev's voice was angrily sharp, "this is no time for jokes."
Kru's hand reached out to the swinging half-door and pushed it slightly open. A sniper shot hit the wooden panel and it cracked. Kru winched from the shock and pulled his hand away. The door swung closed but not before Rex had seen Kev spread over Lirane, blood seeping into her blonde tail, both of them against the far wall under the window. Kev had seen Rex and his face had gone pale, his mouth opening with nothing to say.
"Why haven't they rushed?" Rex turned to Kru.
Kru pointed to a small pile of tubes wrapped in colorful paper. "Celebration fireworks to wake up the morning." He touched several blue-wrapped tubes. "These shot out fireballs." Kru glanced at Rex's blaster. "Mostly flash, burning out too quick to catch armor on fire but I got the bushes in the front and they're burning good."
There was a final, splintering crash and Torque's shout. "In the bay."
"Tell them to prepare for liftoff, Torque, it's going to be a running departure." Rex commanded. "Kru, are any of these smokers?"
Kru nodded and pulled two small yellow and red tubes from the pile. "The sniper will know as soon as he sees the smoke and compensate."
"That's my job, Kru. I'll keep him ducking." He touched the blaster. "Kev, the glass is going to go then I want you moving."
"Yes sir." Rex heard Kev move, sliding Lirane closer to the wall and covering her as much as possible. "Ready sir."
Chaos. Once again they were troopers in the controlled chaos of the battle. The glass shattered, smoke shot out the window then wafted, settling in front of the building. Kev, Lirane in his arms and glass scratches on his face, crouched and moving, Rex firing over him toward the sniper and Kru setting up some fireballs pointing toward the doorway and the remainder in a pile...
Rex smiled, remembering Kru's sub-specialty in demolitions. Then they were out of the front office and running towards the moving freighter at a run, leaping into the ramp already closing. Rex pulled his legs up as the ramp clicked shut. 56-Target was there, hand near the override then bending to swing the bar lock as they were all safely on board.
"Medical's this way, Kev," 56-Target pulled at Kev's jacket.
"I've still got glass, Target, you take her and start first aid." Kev handed over Lirane and shook himself, small bits of glass falling from him. 56-Target moved toward the back of the freighter followed by Torque.
"How much do you weight?" yelled a voice, female, from the cockpit.
"She's asking you, Rex," said Kru reaching out his hand and Rex yelled out his weight to the front of the ship as he took Kru's hand to stood.
Rex stiffened at the clone's voice from the front of the ship. Zeer's voice. Zeer - whom Appo had said was dead.
He heard Zeer's laughing reply and he closed his eyes pressing his forehead to Kru's shoulder.
"Yes sir," Kru whispered, "he's alive. We went back to find them and got there barely in time."
"Thank you, Kru." Rex whispered back then stood with a nod of thanks to the trooper. Together they moved into toward the cockpit.
It seemed they had walked into an argument.
"Three meters of clearance," said the man stubbornly as he entered some information into the pilot's console.
That was going to be close; in space, distance was measure in parsecs or kilometers at the smallest. Rex stood next to where Zeer sat, the cane at his side and his face lined with long-term pain and a grin to see Rex.
"One," replied the woman in a voice that could only be correction as she reached over the navigator's console to input some data.
"Three," insisted the man.
"You missed a decimal point,"
"Did I really?" His voice sounded affronted but not seriously so; amused as thought it was a disagreement of long standing. "Shall we split the difference, dear?"
The woman gave a small smile and nodded.
The stars stopped and the engines shifted to the hyperdrive. As the stars began their spin into ribbons, there was a loud shrieking noise, a grinding on the bottom of the ship and Rex stiffened.
"Kriff, what was that?" Torque glanced at the pilot as he entered the cockpit.
The man turned red and nodded to his companion who preen in righteousness. "My missing decimal point." he muttered then turned to Torque. "That, young man, was a ship-to-ship interface."
Torque sat slowly, a frown on his face. Relieved, Rex began to chuckle. Zeer was the next to understand and let out a raucous hoot.
Kru turned to Rex with his forehead corrugated in thought. "Captain, is that what I think it is?"
Rex nodded but addressed his question to the navigator. "What purpose does it serve to bump up against some old satellite or drifting debris; the Imperial ship won't be fooled by something like that."
"It wasn't debris," began the short, white-haired woman as she closed down the navigation board now that they were in hyperspace. She looked up into his face. "We have this escaped planned down to a nano-second. As we go into hyperspace, our partnership is coming out of hyperspace to the exact coordinates we departed from."
Rex understood that and turned pale; they all understood the implications of that. Zeer spoke after a cough, "I'm surprised the 'ship-to-ship interface' wasn't more... abrupt."
The old man smiled, his blue eyes sparkling and his bushy white eyebrows raised in humorous question. "You mean a sudden deceleration due to direct planear contact with an object of equal or greater mass and velocity?"
Kru pursed his lips tightly. "Yes. A head-on crash."
The old man had a hurt look on his expressive face. "Such a harsh word, sir. We prefer the term 'near-miss'." Again he grinned as Kru rolled his eyes upward then turned to the woman, his hand on her shoulder and his head near hers. "I'll check on Lirane but suspect she's in good hands. Then to the galley preparing some snacks." He glanced around the cabin, "for all of us."
"Lirane needs medical attention, but we've got her stabilized," said Torque. "Kev has a couple of deep scratches that Target is tending to but nothing worse." He turned to the man. "May I assist you, sir?" Torque asked, "I've been wonderfully fed by Lirane and I'd like to learn to prepare food so I can return the favor one day."
"Then come along, young man," said the old pilot as he ducked his head and moved down the small passageway.
"The Imperial ship only sees the hyperspace tunnel and one ship," Kru said softly, peering out at the stars.. "For them it's the same ship."
"If there's only one ship who started going into hyperspace then... didn't," the old woman gestured with her hands. "Perhaps they find some young kid out for a joyride. The parents are grateful to the troopers for giving their disobedient brat a scare and all ends." She shrugged and turned in the co-pilot's seat to face them. "Or possibly some problems with the hyperspace core and it couldn't shut down quickly once ordered to stand by. Or one of several other situations." She inspected them with a tilted head and a serene smile. "We have an excellent pilot as our incoming counterpart."
Rex shook his head. "That... leniency won't last long."
"No," agreed the old woman with a sad sigh. "The death of Queen Apailana has turned the mood and there are not many people who believe the Empire sent troops to assist."
Rex glanced down at his hands. He had wiped off the blood with a rag, but there were still dark stains in the lines of his knuckles and a singularly distinctive stickiness on his fingers. "The death of a stormtrooper tonight won't help."
Rex waited in the docking bay at their destination. He noticed they were careful to not identify the planet. He asked if he could wait and the old man nodded even as most of his attention was taken by Lirane's complaining her head hurt. "Only one way," he murmured to Rex and," he gestured, "security cameras."
"Thank you, I'll just wait for the other pilot."
The old woman had nodded her understanding. "It will be a long wait. Perhaps half a day."
"As long as it takes, ma'am," he replied.
Their counterpart pilot had to be Ahsoka. Planned down to a nano-second? It explained why they had to re-adjust the numbers - to account for his and Lirane's additional and unexpected weight. But flying on a crash course in perfect confidence? That took more than simple calculations and flying; that took piloting into the realm of the supernatural. Into the realm of the Force.
It had to be Ahsoka.
The others had gone to the debriefing, Kev carrying a complaining Lirane like a child with the old couple on either side of Kev and Target at Zeer's side in case he needed a hand. He said he was no longer a trooper and so didn't need the '56.
After a while, Zeer and the rest of the squad returned and sat with him.
"I'm glad you made it, Zeer." Rex had laid his hand on the ex-sergeant's shoulder with a sorrowful laugh. "From Kamino to Teth, from Geonosis to here; it's been a long journey."
Hooking his hand around Rex's arm, Zeer nodded. "With the best captain I can imagine." He paused then continued. "We did a quick debrief with Ash and Knaps. Knaps told us there are more troopers who've deserted. He said there's even a cure for the aging." Zeer snorted his own sad laugh. "He even said we could have a reasonably normal 'civilian' life, Rex." He shook his head and his eyes sparkled with tears. "I don't know what a civilian life is, Rex. I don't even know what I could do. All I know is the army."
"We'll manage, sir" cut in Target softly. "We'll find something we can do."
They waited, each man explaining what had happened once they'd deserted, once they'd found Zeer and Target and the ensuing year since then. Then Zeer had pleaded tiredness and they'd gone.
Not much later, Kru returned with a bag and, sitting beside Rex, began pulling out some food.
"Can I ask some questions about Chopper?" He began quietly as he handed Rex a warm pastry.
"You can ask, Kru but I think you have more questions about yourself."
Kru thought, still for a moment, then nodded. "Maybe so, sir."
"You always wanted to be one of the best in the 501st" Rex shrugged. "You were always competing with others, as though there was some line dividing the 'best' from the rest. Chopper simply wanted to be better than he was." Rex turned and looked the younger clone in the eye. "Let me ask you this; why did you desert?"
Kru's jaw tightened. "Appo tried to kill Zeer, wanted him dead and that wasn't right."
Rex shrugged. "We all did a lot of things that weren't right. Why did you desert?"
Kru stared down at the floor; the image of a wooden floor from Coruscant in his mind. "Because it seemed like the best troopers of the 501st had all died or deserted and I didn't want to die."
"So, once again you were trying to be one of the best of the 501st?" Rex seemed mildly amused.
"I hadn't thought of it that way, sir," Kru said slowly, "but maybe."
"I don't believe that, Kru. Why did you desert?"
Kru was silent for a long while then he spoke. "I don't know, sir. I honestly don't know. It wasn't right, what we did in the Temple, what we did to Coric and the Jedi. It wasn't right what we were doing on a daily basis. It wasn't right what Appo did to Zeer or to you in his greed for the 501st. Maybe I was tired of doing things that weren't right. Maybe I was just tired of being a trooper. Maybe I was tired of betraying what I believed in. Maybe I wanted something different and knew I had a better chance of finding what the kriff I wanted out here than back in the barracks."
Kru raised his head and stared almost belligerently into Rex's face. "Why did you desert, sir?"
Rex laughed. "I didn't; I was kidnapped." He shook his head in humor and at Kru's expression. "I was so drunk I was passed out." His jaw tightened, "I was so drunk the Kaminoan inhibitors didn't work; I was going to tuck my blaster behind my right ear, pull the trigger and let someone else clean up the mess." He dropped his head and laughed. "Problem with that idea is I was so drunk, Kru, I couldn't find my blasters."
Even Kru grinned slightly at that admission.
Rex's face became solemn. "But when I sobered up and was given the choice; I chose desertion. For much the same reasons you name and for one more. I wanted to be myself, individual, living by my choices. I wanted to be a man instead of a clone." He turned to face the younger clone. "Kru, did Lirane tell you I was proud of you?"
"Yes sir. I figured you were mostly talking to Kev."
"No, I was talking to the men who had taken their lives into their own hands; men who had made a decision to leave everything they knew behind them in favor of making their own way forward. I am proud of you, Kru. You're one of the best men I know."
Kru dropped his chin slightly. "I've had good models, sir. You, Kev, ARC Fives." He swallowed the bite in his mouth and took a drink from the bottle. "Even Chopper though I didn't recognize it then." Kru sucked his lower lip between his teeth, determined not to ask. Knaps had told them not to ask about other troopers.
The corner of Rex's lips twitched. "He's happy, Kru. More than any other of us, he's prepared to have a happily civilian life."
"I'm not surprised, sir and I'm glad. I don't know why because I don't think I like him any more than I ever did, but I really am glad for him."
It was late when the low growl of a ship could be heard in the long tunnel where he waited. Rex knew she sensed him long before she reached the junction where he waited on the bench. He could see the tenseness in her shoulders as she strode down the corridor toward him.
She'd grown a bit taller but was still lean and slender. Her montrals and lekku had grown only slightly. She wore trousers and boots, a short vest over a sleeveless top. A small pack was slung over one shoulder.
Rex had let her go once, when she said he would blind her to the dark side of the Force.
He'd let her go a second time when he hadn't rushed to her side during Order 66.
He'd be damn to let her go again.
He stood as she came up to face him. Ahsoka looked up into his face for a while then she took a deep breath and smiled. "I'm glad you're safe, Rex."
"I came here to have your back, Ahsoka."
She shookder her head sorrowfully. "Do you remember our conversation, Rex? When Chopper suggested you also be my brother by choice? I'm still blinded by you. I won't be able to see…"
"I said I'll have your back, Ahsoka, and I will. In all ways. I'll have your hand and we'll do this together." He offered her his hand, palm up.
She stared at his hand; her face stricken with pain. "It will lead me to the dark side, Rex."
"And if you don't take my hand, Ahsoka. I will follow you anyway, to my dying day. One way or another, I'll have your back for the rest of my life."
She still paused, staring at his hand with tears in her eyes and her lips twisting. She was going to say 'no' and Rex saw it.
"We'll recognize it, Ahsoka, moving toward the dark side," he asserted. "It was what confused you and me toward the end, right before Order 66. What we talked about and what we observed about the general's actions. Why some things made no sense."
Rex took her hand softly in his. She flinched slightly but didn't pull away. "The general was changing and we saw it; we just didn't know what it was or what would happen. We'll recognize it now." He looked at her, his face suddenly wan and haggard, haunted by what he'd done, lined by what he'd been Forced to do. "I will recognize it, Ahsoka. Ventress tried brute strength, Krell tried subtlety. Neither was a Sith; they were simply greedy, selfish people. I've had my mind ravaged by Vadar and I know the dark side of the Force."
She turned pale at his words. "You don't know what I've done, Rex," she whispered and looked at the floor in shame. "I'm not... I can't be a Jedi because of what I've done."
"What is that, Ahsoka? Is it as bad as being a traitor to your friends and leaders? Is it as bad as following a Jedi-turned-Sith into the Temple?" His face was wan, pale and shadowed with what he'd done. "Is it as bad as killing civilians?" His voice dropped to a whisper, "Is it as bad as ordering the death of children? Tell me Ahsoka, is what you've done as bad as everything I've done?"
"I..." She was almost as pale as him now, then she rallied. "I might very easily become Sith like him. I raped minds too. I went into Fives and Chopper's minds. I changed their memories, the very essence of what they are."
"Why'd you do that, Ahsoka," he asked. "Was it for your benefit?" He shook his head and raised his free hand palm up. "Did you enjoy it? Trampling through their minds with army boots? Did you laugh when your strength was greater than their resistance?" His voice was harsh.
She retreated. "No. And I tried not to trample, I tried to be... selective." She pulled her hand away from his, curled both hands around her arms and looked down at the floor, though he'd already seen the tears in her eyes. "They weren't coming to kill me, to kill anyone at the Temple. They would rather have died."
"Did they fight you, when you took their memories and gave them new ones?" His voice almost cracked in his pain. "I fought." Rex closed his eyes. "I fought with everything I had and he enjoyed that. He reveled in it. Did you enjoy their struggles, knowing they would lose?"
Softly she shook her head as she raised her eyes to his and her fingers to his cheek. "No," she whispered, "they didn't fight. It was more like they opened up their minds and offered."
"Because you didn't rape their minds, Ahsoka. You were their commander and you offered them a way to live in spite of their refusal to obey direct orders. You offered them a slender chance of escape. I don't know what Fives felt, but Chopper said to tell you he has found his happiness."
Her lips twisted with emotion and suddenly tears overflowed her eyes, flowing over her cheek and into the hollow beside her nose. His hand reached up to her face and his thumb gently wiped them away.
"Tears are inappropriate, commander," he smiled and she returned his smile with a tenuous one of her own.
Then she blinked back more tears and leaned forward, her forehead against his chest. "I'm so glad for him."
His arms went around her shoulders. "You gave that to him, Ahsoka. Without you, he wouldn't have felt worthy of friends. He was willing to give you everything he was because you'd given him your friendship. Because you were willing to give him whatever he needed," he touched her chin with his fingertips and gently lifted her face to his, "...like new memories."
Ahsoka froze at his words, "but..."
"How do you tell the difference between a Jedi and a Sith?"
"I can feel it, Rex... the blackness and seething emotions..." She shook her head violently. "I don't meditate anymore because I can feel it."
"No, Ahsoka." Rex shook his head and spoke gently. "How do you tell the difference between a Jedi and a Sith if you can't feel the Force?"
Ahsoka blinked, her mouth slightly open.
"How do I tell the difference between Jedi and Sith? How does any trooper? Or any civilian?"
"I... I don't know, Rex."
"By how they affect us. By their actions. By how they act when their men die in battle. By what they leave behind. You may no longer be a Jedi, Ahsoka, but you are no Sith either."
"I ran away," she looked at the floor. "In the Temple, I ran away. I should have stayed and fought."
"Fought men you'd trained with? Eight-eight said that perhaps you hadn't turned traitor since you hadn't tried to kill him and his squad. He said you simply deflected the blaster bolts." Rex bent his face close to hers. "You would have died, Ahsoka, and that would have been a betrayal of the gift Fives and Chopper gave you. You would have had to kill troopers you knew; troopers you'd fought with, bled with, protected, laughed with, shared caf on cold, dark nights. Troopers you depended on in battle. And that would have been a betrayal of everything you are."
Ahsoka was still, contemplating his words. His hand reached to brush her cheek and her hand reached to clasp his fingers in hers. She turned slightly in his arms, the fingers of her other hand caressing his worn face. "I love you, Rex. I've loved you from the moment you said 'experience outranks everything'. I've lived without you, but I've never lived without your memory; not a day, not an hour when I didn't think of you."
"I'm not the same man,"
She ruffled her fingers in his beard. "I can tell that," she replied impishly.
"I mean..." he began but she touched his lips with her fingers.
"I can tell that, too, Rex." She paused then spoke quietly. "I'm not the same either. We've survived but we're not the same at all." Slowly, her hand reached out and took his. "It will be an interesting journey, finding out who we are now."
"I have a feeling we'll still be our best with each other." Rex smiled and quickly brushed her fingertips with his lips. He reached for her small pack and slung it over his own shoulder.
They walked down the corridor, close though neither reached out to touch the other. It wasn't necessary.
"You know I'm nineteen, Rex." She tilted her face flirtaciously toward him, a mischievous smile on her lips.
He chuckled, remembering a proposition several years past. "I'm coming up on my sixteenth lifeday."
Her smile went content. "I can wait."
Rex grinned and stopped, facing her fully. "Waiting is overrated." Slowly his hands slid around her wrists then moved up her arms; her skin tingling at his touch, to her shoulders. The backs of his fingers stroked along her lekku until his hands surrounded her face, his thumbs touching her lips which relaxed at his touch.
"I am not an experienced kisser, Ahsoka," he murmured as he looked down into her eyes, "but I have kissed you every night in my dreams." His face bent over hers, tentative, giving her time to turn away, to refuse if that was what she needed.
Ahsoka reached up, as if Rex's gaze was the sun, was the light of her life.
It was a good kiss, decided Rex, the prelude to a thousand more.
One of his battle-hardened hands dropped to her waist, resting on the slope of her hip; his other hand raised palm up lifting her hand. He began humming; a tune he'd heard once before on a night when he had danced with a princess. Rex guided her in the steps he'd learned - unwillingly - three years ago. Ahsoka closed her eyes with a smile, trusting his lead, moving to the gentle touch of his hand. She seemed to melt into his arms, into the very surface of his skin as if she'd be there forever.
She wasn't wearing a dress of blue so dark it was almost black; she didn't have crystals framing her face competing with the sparkle in her eyes...
... and she was more beautiful than ever.
So we finally reach the end. I am going to take a break - maybe two weeks - before I continue Haruu II or Confinement & Escape.
I hope you enjoyed this entire story; Chopper's growth and events after Order 66.
Please review - especially if you've never reviewed Scars' before or have reviewed infrequently. I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts on the entire story as well as this particular chapter.