Sergeant Deck sat alone at his old spot in the Liberator's mess hall.
Captain Rex had left soon after they arrived at Coruscant yesterday evening. Along with the COs, he took a transport planetside for debriefing.
Deck saw him off briefly, and Rex gave him a friendly farewell, and probably some other brotherly words. Deck didn't remember. In fact, he didn't remember much of anything after his last conversation with Rex, in this same mess hall. He had listened with rapt attention, intent on discovering what it was that made his Captain friend so... whatever it was. Different, I guess, but that's a pretty vague description.
When their conversation ended, Deck was in shock.
He had sat down with Rex, believing he was sitting with a famed Captain, a brilliant tactician, an aggressive soldier, and a loyal clone trooper.
When he finally left the table late that night, he had discovered his friend was also a dangerous freethinker, a hopeless visionary, and had trampled on his sworn duty at least once.
And Rex didn't regret it in the least.
Everything about Rex's story was wrong. Deck knew it. So what if this deserter had a cute wife and kids? So what if he was brave - as if fleeing a battle could be described as brave - and could tear a hundred commando droids to pieces with his bare hands?
Was it appealing? If course it was! Who wouldn't want to leave this restrictive, deadly life - if you could even call it that - head off to some distant world, hook up with a pretty Twi'lek girl and work as a farmer? Okay, so the farmer part isn't exactly a turn on. Still, it was obvious this 'happily ever after' tale was infinitely desirable to any clone.
And Rex brushed this self serving criminal as some sort of role model? Someone he admired and respected? Did this mean that all of his brothers should head for the Outer Rim and start picking out Twi'leks? It was ridiculous. It was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
It was wrong, because it was against their orders. A clone was bred to follow orders. Orders were everything. You didn't do anything you weren't ordered to do. You did whatever you were ordered to do. Orders kept you and your brothers safe. Never mind that half the time nothing that could be called 'safety' resulted from it. It didn't matter - you followed orders without thought, no matter how confusing or counterintuitive they seemed. It was the only way things could be; after all, if it weren't for strict obedience to orders, who wouldn't choose to leave the GAR?
That's where Deck's entire argument fell apart.
He had almost expected the Captain to conclude his tale of treason with an offer to jump ship, steal a shuttle and head for the Outer Rim. Pick out a girl and live it up. After all, if Rex granted this deserter that choice, then what reason was there for him to stay in the army?
Rex caught him totally off guard then.
"Deck, I don't fight because it's all I think I'm good for. I fight because I want people like that brother to be able to live in peace. I want those kids to be able to run and play without wondering if they'll make it home again. That means something to me. Of course I'm not leaving the army. Somebody has got to protect those people. I'm able to do that, so that's what I choose to do."
That's what I choose to do. Deck had a hard time taking it all in. Of course clones fought to protect. After all, that's what they were bred to do. That's what their orders demanded.
But Rex looked at everything the other way around. He wanted to protect people, so he followed orders.
Did that mean if he believed that an order wouldn't protect people... Rex would not follow it?
Captain Rex had it all backwards.
Or did he?
A sharp crack alerted Deck that he had shattered the mug in his vice like grip. He scowled at the broken duraplast. At least it was empty. This was the third cup he had disposed of while wrestling with Rex's ideas. It's all his fault. Now the galley crew hates me. He scooped up the shards, and slid from his seat.
He knew he'd break another one before the day was through.
The chime rang to announce their entrance as Rex and Ahsoka slipped past the smudged duraglass doors. Rex was dressed sharply in his gray fatigues, looking every bit the respectable officer, though with a friendly enough face. Actually, a rather amused face, as he regarded his companion who more resembled a disgruntled youngling than a Jedi commanding officer.
"It's not like I'll be needing to tell the tinnies who was the fourth monarch of Toydaria! Or when the last election season the Senate was all... 'fresh' or whatever they call it." Ahsoka let out a huff of frustration. "I mean, when the war's over, sure they'll be plenty of time to figure out all that stuff, but I never have any use for it now!"
Rex listened patiently, rather pleased that at least none of Ahsoka's frustrations involved him. She just needs to vent a little, that's all. The Commander didn't ever appreciate being left behind for a mission, and took advantage of having a non-Jedi on whom to pour out her grievances. Rex always found it amusing that she found it somehow fulfilling to complain to someone who was completely unable to affect her situation in any way, particularly since she didn't seem open to any suggestions. But apparently a listening ear, and an occasional grunt of sympathy, was all she wanted, and Rex could provide that much.
"Hmph," he grunted, as sympathetically as he could.
"Yeah!" Ahsoka continued, waving her arms to emphasize her point. "It's not like Master knows half this stuff! I don't even know if Master Kenobi made him study as much as I do, but he definitely doesn't remember any of it. So what's the-."
She was interrupted as the friendly Besalisk cook hailed her. "Welcome, my favorite Togruta!" he bellowed from the serving window, waving his two upper arms. "Ready to take on a Nuvee today, are you? It is sooo hot out there, you know?" He laughed heartily to himself.
Ahsoka rolled her eyes. "Your only Togruta, you mean, Dex. And no, I'm not any closer to having that sundae." She frowned as she led the way to an empty booth. "He's always trying to get me to try a 'Neuvian sundae' when I come here," she muttered to Rex. "It's bigger than my head!"
Dexter laughed again. "Whatever you say, my girl. It's all on me, and your soldier too." He turned back towards the kitchen.
Rex slid into the bench opposite her. "Bigger than your head, eh? Might be enough for me." He turned to look for the waitress.
"Right with you, sir!" The unicycled server droid called out, swerving almost dangerously around a round booth on the far end of the diner.
Ahsoka raised her eyebrows. "You've been here before?"
Rex nodded. "Yeah, General's taken me here a couple times, discussing training or tactics. He's usually hungry after talking a while." He chuckled. "And I don't complain, of course. Usually around lunch time, though. Beats the food in the mess hall."
"Huh," Ahsoka responded, lazily tracing circles on the table. It didn't appear to have been cleaned recently, but that was all part of the 'charm' of Dex's Diner, or so Master Kenobi always said.
Rex watched her finger perform its absentminded dance for a moment. He opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind as the server approached.
The droid rolled to a stop at their booth. "What can I get you folks?" it queried in its clear if sharp female tone.
"I'll have a..." he turned towards Ahsoka. "What did you call it?"
"Nuevian sundae." Ahsoka finished for him. "And I'll have a blue milkshake. Small... lish..." She furrowed her brow, then shook her head. "Oh, make it regular."
The droid seemed annoyed by her indecision. "Make up your mind, kid," it drawled sourly.
"Regular, got it?" Ahsoka snapped back, also annoyed with the unit's mannerisms. "Regular. Blue. Milkshake. That's all."
"Chocolate or zoochberry with the sundae?" the droid prompted.
Ahsoka motioned to Rex. "Chocolate, thank you," he answered.
"Coming right up." The droid whirled away.
Ahsoka let out a deep breath. "I don't like 'Flo' at all. I wish Bagwa was here. She's so much nicer. I hate talking to droids, sometimes."
Rex nodded, his eyes following the departing server. "The lady is easier on the eyes," he agreed.
Ahsoka shot him a very unique look of disapproval at that comment.
Rex noted her discomfort with puzzled amusement. "Something wrong, kid?"
She held the strange look for a moment, as though she wanted to glare at him but wasn't sure why, then relented. "Oh... nothing." She quickly lowered her head to more closely examine the booth table.
Rex waited a moment before answering. "Sorry, sir. I'll try to behave," he spoke with a small chuckle.
Ahsoka didn't answer, just stared at the table for a moment, alternately spreading and clenching her hands over the smooth top. Finally she sighed. "I'm sorry for being in such a bad mood, Rex," she spoke slowly, head still lowered. "It's not fair to just complain to you during your leave."
"No worries, kid. I'm always ready to listen." He gave her a friendly smile.
She looked up, with a grateful smile in return. "I know. Thanks, Rex." She turned her gaze back to her fingers, absentmindedly tracing a new scar up her forearm. Her mood became more contemplative. Which is a bit rare, actually, Rex noted to himself. She only occasionally had these thoughtful moments, usually after some particularly jarring experience.
Finally she let out another sigh. "Thanks, Rex," she repeated.
Rex raised his eyebrows. "Sir?"
Ahsoka shook her head. "No, thanks for getting me out of that... river. The lava flow. Back on Mustafar. I..." she trailed off, before lowering her tone. "I didn't think I was going to make it that time." Her voice dropped to a mere whisper. "I didn't think I'd get to see you again... I mean, anyone, again."
Rex nodded, thoughtfully. "I admit, I was afraid I'd – we'd lost you for good, that time." He paused, collecting his words, before turning his gaze towards her downcast eyes. "You didn't think I'd leave you there, did you?"
The Padawan shrugged. "I never thought about it, really. I remembered my wrist comm eventually, but it had already fallen in the lava."
Rex flinched, recalling his finding of that scorched communicator. She continued, "I guess I figured you'd all think I was already... gone, so nobody would bother looking for me."
The Captain nodded, feeling a small measure of guilt at how nearly he had done just that. If it weren't for Deck... He almost shuddered at the thought.
"Did you wash my face?" Ahsoka asked rather abruptly without looking up, her montrals changing shade as she continued to stare rigidly at the table.
Rex started a bit. "Sir? I, uh..." he frowned, before remembering. I didn't think she'd recall that, she seemed pretty knocked out.
Well, there was no point skirting around it. He cleared his throat. "Yes, sir, right after I got you out. I wiped down your face, I mean your head, sir." He winced, and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I hope I didn't do something wrong, he thought with some concern.
She didn't answer, her head still lowered, and Rex feared he might have crossed some line he didn't know of. "I'm sorry, sir, but I needed to get your temperature down, and it was the only way I could think of."
Ahsoka quickly looked up at him, "No! No, you didn't do anything. I just... I thought I remembered someone doing that, and I wasn't sure it was for real." She fell silent again, looking back at the tabletop. "It was nice, really," she added quietly. Some of the tension in her shoulders seemed to disappear, as she let out a long, low breath.
Rex had to stifle a sigh of relief. He wasn't sure what to follow up that revelation with, but Ahsoka solved that problem for him. "Thanks for always looking out for me, Rex." She cautiously raised her head to meet his eyes.
The Captain relaxed. This was familiar territory, at least. "It's my job to have your six, Commander," he responded crisply, only a hint of mischief in his voice.
He waited for her to open her mouth for her inevitable protest, then interrupted. "Really, sir, there's no need to thank me. I'm just glad you're alright." He paused, rubbing his freshly shaved scalp. "I wish I could say I'd always be there for you, kid, but I will always do my best to guard your back." He grinned. "Something tells me you'll have opportunity to, you know, even the score." He winked conspiratorially.
Ahsoka met his eyes, matching his competitive grin. "You'd better believe it."
Barriss stood before the main entrance of the temple, watching the sky begin to erupt in brilliant hues of gold and magenta. The brisk wind in the upper atmosphere had left the sky unusually clear, leaving it blank like a canvas for the setting sun to splash its departing glory. The golden light was gentle enough to not require squinting, and even through the duraglass panes it emitted a gentle warmth that, for once, did not take her thoughts back to the horrors of Mustafar. She smiled, closing her eyes and basking in the soft rays.
"Enjoying the sunset, are you, Padawan Offee?"
Barriss started slightly, having been so absorbed in the sight she failed to recognize the approach of the Grand Master. She quickly turned to face him, bowing as she answered. "Yes, Master Yoda."
The old Master chuckled. "Surprised you, I did, hmm?"
Barriss winced inwardly. "Yes, Master, I'm sorry, I was -"
"Sorry? No need there is to apologize." Yoda walked slowly up to her, his gimmer stick clacking sharply against the stone floor. My, how did I miss that? Barriss wondered to herself.
"Congratulate you on your mission, I do," he announced, his piercing black eyes gazing up into her own.
Barriss subconsciously bent her knees, uncomfortable looking straight down at the ancient Jedi. "Thank you, Master Yoda. But I must insist that Padawan Tano is as much to credit as I."
Yoda nodded, still regarding her thoughtfully. "Hmm. Yes, commended, young Padawan Tano will be."
Barriss felt a small thrill at the thought of a formal commendation for her friend, though she tried to suppress her emotion.
The motion was not lost on the old Master. "Strong, your feelings are, for your friend," Yoda remarked plainly.
Barriss's face fell. She had not meant to give away her closeness so easily, and the prospect of a discussion on attachment with Master Yoda was not at all appealing. She felt an urge to shield her emotions, but for a Padawan to do so in the presence of a venerated Master such as Yoda would seem almost insolent, and probably futile; very few Jedi were as perceptive as he.
Yoda continued to regard her intently, as though waiting for an answer. She sighed, and responded softly. "She's my best friend, Master Yoda."
He nodded slowly. "Yes. Strong are your feelings." He turned to face the sunset. After a moment of silence, he spoke again. "But stronger still, you are."
Barriss eyes widened. "Master?"
Yoda turned to look up at her again. "Mastered, your feelings are. Found balance, you have." He turned back towards the outside view. "Few Jedi there are, that can say the same."
After another moment of almost uncomfortable silence, Yoda turned to hobble away. "Hmm. Few, indeed. Few, indeed..." he murmured as he departed.
Barriss turned to see Ahsoka trot through the entryway, heading straight for her. She smiled at her eagerness. "Has it been a while already, Ahsoka?"
"Long enough, I'd say." Ahsoka approached and stood beside her. "When are you leaving next?" she asked, a slight note of wariness in her voice.
Barriss shook her head. "I don't know yet. Master Undulli had an appointment with Master Windu and Master Kenobi, but I'm not aware of any imminent mission just yet." She ran a hand under her headscarf through her hair. "Master Undulli believes I should take some time to rest, so I might remain here for a time."
Ahsoka's eyes brightened. "Huh. Well, Master isn't letting me go with him till I catch up on my study, so I'll be sticking around here too, I guess." She frowned slightly, then sighed. "I don't like being left behind."
Barriss gave her an understanding smile. "Being a Jedi is as much about acquiring knowledge as it is about applying it, Ahsoka. I know how much you love to exercise your muscles, but studying exercises your mind, and that is just as important."
Ahsoka nodded. "I know, I know," she answered, not sounding entirely convinced.
"But, I don't see any harm in having a little help, while exercising," Barriss added, with a wink.
Ahsoka jerked her head to face her, eyes bright. "You mean it?"
"Of course I do, Ahsoka." Barriss laid a hand on the younger girl's shoulder. "I'd be happy to assist you; I could use a little less excitement, myself."
Ahsoka smirked. "Can't say I feel the same way, but I'd love it if you could work with me, when you have time."
"Certainly, and I'd love to spar with you again, when we're both a bit stronger, of course." Barriss eyed Ahsoka's bandaged belly with mild concern. "I'd like to see you try some new forms."
"That'd be good. I'm thinking of branching out to some new ones anyway." Ahsoka absentmindedly fingered her lightsaber. "I'm thinking of trying a second one, maybe," she motioned towards her weapon. "Sticking with Shien, but maybe adding a shoto, or something. It's something I've wanted to do for a while."
The older girl nodded, and the two of them fell silent again, watching the last rays of the sunset paint the sky in even darker, richer tones of lavender and maroon.
Ahsoka broke the silence first. "Barriss, I'm glad we're friends." She looked up at her fellow Padawan through the corner of her eyes.
Barriss smiled warmly in return. "So am I, Ahsoka. So am I."
Disclaimer: I don't own anything, except for Deck.
Author's Note: Well, this is it, folks. It's been a blast writing this, I've learned a lot, and I hope to continue to do so.
A few more comments before I thank everyone:
1. Deck. My first OC, he's been quite an interesting character for me, and I hope for you as well. I admit, he's not always easy to understand, and that's partly by design. He's a "neither here nor there" character, caught between two worldviews and not fully embracing either. For the conclusion of Deck's character arc, see my one-shot "Beat the System."
2. Rex/Ahsoka. Just to be clear, I am a 'Rexsoka' fan. I don't find it unnatural or weird in any way, so long as it's done with some thought given obvious considerations (Ahsoka's age/maturity, primarily). So you will see hints of that relationship in my work, and I'm not apologizing.
3. Attachment. The major theme of this story, because I've found that few fans have any idea of what 'attachment' really is (and it is not a synonym for 'romance' or 'love'), or why it is forbidden by the Jedi Order. As you should have seen from the story, while it is a flawed and ultimately detrimental rule, it does have a strong logical basis, and is anything but stupid. It is simply a crutch – attempting to make it easier to do something difficult by bypassing the difficulty altogether, and, in so doing, depriving the Jedi of relationships that most people really need.
With that, let me give (in chronological order) a hearty thank you to...
laloga (Your reviews have been a huge help, you just rock!)
Queen (Thank you so much for taking the time, both in giving feedback and a little - excellent- plot advice)
shakespeareaddict (I really appreciate your help, tips and feedback, and just being sort of a sanity check for my writing)
san davis 687
SerendipityAEY (I admire your persistence – your reviews have been awesome!)
StarWarsRocksMySocks (Your enthusiasm knows no bounds. ;) But please don't kill anyone)
Red Sentient Kyburi
Fox Scarlen (Thanks for your encouragement and excellent spell checking habits – and I mean it, you really pushed me to start this. I didn't think I could handle anything past a one-shot at first)
Ahsoka fan 7000
Bookity (I hope this was the 'dealt' story you were looking for... ;) )
Mrs. Kenobi (Hey... you aren't a homeschooler by any chance, are you?)
LongLiveTheClones (I know you haven't gotten around to a 'real' review (yet?), but your feedback and encouragement is much appreciated nonetheless)
Thank you all so much - it's always great to know my work is appreciated and enjoyed.
And with that, this tale draws to a close. Okay, to be blunt, it'll be a while before I stop tweaking it – I see a lot of room for improvement in the earlier chapters, especially. And I will most assuredly refer to the events and characters of this story in my own future work (see my one-shot "Grudges" for a sneak peek at a possible follow-up story).
But for now, this is it. Enjoy, take care, and God bless.