Fives reached and scratched his healing shoulder. Celly had been quite concerned for the wound so minor he probably wouldn't have even gone to see Kix about it in the old days.
He chuckled in delight, contemplating Celly's reaction, as he reached up to zero the coordinates then waited as the new ones came from the beacon Rex and Ahsoka had set here. They were wrong, of course, in case some Imperial ship came instead of him but he knew the information – the answer to some random question about their past – that completed the code, switching it to the correct and final coordinates.
With steady hands, he confirmed the new coordinates and gently pushed the ship into hyperdrive. There was that moment of pause, of shifting as the galaxy ceased movement, then the stars became milky streams of light.
Fives could have set the autopilot, but he preferred to pilot himself amidst the beauty of the dancing stars. Flying had come easy for him in ARC training. He and Echo had…
Fives pushed the memory away; piloting was not a time for maudlin memories. The hypnotic star streams tended to mesmerize him into remembering the old days. He shifted to more recent memories.
After confounding the plot to kidnap the little princess and delivering the information from his contact on Aldaraan to very inappropriate rebels – Hondo Ohnaka of all people – Fives had visited Chopper. He'd heard that Chopper was no longer one of them; that he'd been in Imperial hands and interrogated.
Maybe so, but Fives had few enough brothers that he couldn't see discarding one for so simple a reason as he might now be an Imperial double agent. Fives knew he was better than anything the Imperials would have watching a clone deserter on the off-chance something might happen and what he wanted from Chopper wasn't 'business'.
Not that he simply flew his ship into Chopper's front yard. He landed half a continent away, making his way by local transport and, as he got closer, by stealth in the darkness of night.
After a day's observation, he knew that no one except him observed the cabin on the edge of a meadow in the mountains. Fives circled the cabin several times checking for passive surveillance. There was none.
He saw Chopper come out and move to the woodpile with a smile on his ravaged face whistling a tune. Fives smiled and stepped into the clearing where Chopper could see him. It was never a good idea to sneak up on Chopper.
Chopper had been ecstatic, pounding him on the back as he hugged him tightly then pulled him into the small house to introduce Fives to the newest member of the family.
She had hair as dark as any clone's, smoky velvet eyes that Fives knew would turn hazel gold and she fit into Fives' two hands like nothing he'd ever held.
"I wanted to name her 'Rex'," said Chopper as he cupped his single hand under Fives' fingers around her head, "but Deena didn't approve. She didn't like the idea of naming our child after her either and I am adamantly against naming her after me." Chopper paused in thought, "Though I'm pretty sure Deena was teasing about that. We're still contemplating 'Ahsoka'."
The tiny child opened her tiny flower-bud of a mouth and yawned, her round face wrinkling even further.
"Name her 'Echo'," suggested Fives. "It's a good name." Echo would have loved holding her. Fives could see Echo's expression of delight in his mind and took a deep breath, exorcising Echo's ghost as he did five or ten times a day.
Chopper was suddenly silent and he looked down at the floor, the muscle in his jaw jumping as he ground his teeth together. It was an old habit that Fives hadn't seen in several years. Instantly he was alert.
Chopper's gaze moved from the floor to Fives' dark eyes. "You haven't seen Rex or Ahsoka recently, have you?" It wasn't a question.
Fives shook his head. "Not since before we lost you, Chopper, though I read the report…" he gestured his head towards Chopper's handless wrist. "I've been…," he gave a grin, "well, doing more of what I do."
Chopper smiled back slightly. "Asking pretty girls if your tattoo is on straight and otherwise not my business." Then his face became solemn and he reached for the baby, carefully settling her in his curled arms before lifting her from Fives' hands. He turned and carried her back to where Deena was napping. Fives heard soft speech; Chopper's words that they were going out to check the barn, her loving reply.
For only a moment, Fives wondered if he should look for a woman to wife. He shook his head. He'd be a terrible husband, never home and always shifting, hiding from Imperials. Not to mention there were far too many women of interest to decide on only one; although Celly would definitely be a contender. Fives smiled; definitely a contender.
Chopper came out of the room, took his coat off the hook by the door and didn't say anything until they actually had checked the woodpile and the animals in the barn.
Chopper was leaning on a fence, his arms crossed in front of him and his single hand curved around his elbow. Fives knew that Chopper took time to say things but the words out of Chopper's lips took his breath away.
"I think Echo's alive."
Fives wavered, his knees suddenly and inexplicably weak. Chopper reached out to grip his arm, to steady him. "Here, lean on the fence. It's good for that."
Fives leaned, bent his head between his arms on the wood, blowing the breath out with harsh panting. Then he shook his head. "He can't be, Chopper. I saw him die at the Citadel."
Chopper stroked the side of his face, where old scars lived on his skin. He had made peace with them before the 501st took the Jedi temple. "Explosions can be particularly deceptive, Fives, and if you thought he died then why did you search?"
"Maybe. Maybe so, Chopper." Fives swallowed, ignoring Chopper's question. "He would have discovered we deserted." Fives shook his head in disbelief. "Echo wouldn't have stayed."
Chopper regarded him with mismatched eyes. Fives knew he was nearly blind now in the cloudy, yellow eye.
"It took me years, Fives, but I know we're individuals. Rex deserted for Ahsoka, you deserted because of what had happened at the Citadel and Umbara. Kix deserted because Order 66 applied to children. I deserted because I…" Chopper looked ashamed, "had no friends outside of Rex, Kix and you." He paused, moving his gaze from the grass underfoot to the shadows of the forest beyond the meadow. "Why would Echo desert, Fives? He didn't experience Umbara or Order 66; or the turmoil of those later days. He wasn't there when we had to make a decision; an irrevocable decision that would changes our lives forever based on the chaos of that moment around us. "
"He'd desert because we deserted," exclaimed Fives.
Chopper shrugged. "Maybe he'd follow us; if they'd given him the opportunity to sit and think but do you think they'd do that? More likely they'd send him back to Kamino for testing; reinforcing the hierarchy of command, shifting him from here to there constantly, keeping his mind busy with new regulations and new places. And he'd be hurt enough to stay because the army is all he knows."
Chopper was silent, staring out into the past then he sighed heavily. "I'm not certain. I had dreams and Ahsoka must have picked up on them." He chuckled. "Partners." After a moment, he reached into the coat he wore and pulled out a worn, old-fashioned postcard. "It's what passes for communication out here." He handed it to Fives.
Sorry we missed your wedding. Had our own and vacationing at Pelpont. The mountains are wonderful and the echo goes on forever.
"Three, two, one," murmured Fives as he looked at the postcard. Three statements, two lies, one word."
It was a makeshift code they had developed; a three sentence communique. Two sentences would be lies and the third would contain some relevant message.
Sorry we missed your wedding. A lie. They'd all been there for Chopper's marriage to Deena. Rex had even taken what Deena called a 'traditional' dare of the best man to dance on the table and Cut, Chopper, and Fives, claiming they were best, had joined him with Kix laughing and clapping to the beat of the music. It had been a glorious time.
Had our own and vacationing at Pelpont. Another lie. Rex and Ahsoka weren't planning on getting married until the emperor was defeated, dedicating their lives to that end. Fives thought that decision a tragedy and he had argued with Rex constantly, telling him he should marry their former commander, leave the rebellion and be happy. Until one night after frayed nerves had resulted in a fistfight between the two. Ahsoka had come up to him with tears in her eyes.
'Why do you think arguing with Rex will change our minds?'
'Because I want you to be happy, commander."
'Do you think we'll be happy while the Empire exists?'
Fives knew they wouldn't and he had apologized to Ahsoka and then to Rex. That had happened on Pelpont.
The mountains are wonderful and the echo goes on forever. Two lies; so the code word would be in the other statement and the only word of relevance was 'echo'.
"I think," began Chopper after Fives had been silently contemplating the small card for too long. "I think Echo was the ARC who 'interviewed' me, who gave me seven painkillers for the options it provided. I just didn't recognize him." He gave a sad chuckle. "I had other things on my mind. But I remember talking to him as I made my way to the fallback point. I thought I was talking to ghosts - Coric and Hardcase as well as Echo." Chopper shook his head. "Maybe I recognized him and simply didn't realize it until I came home. I'm sorry, Fives. I am so very sorry."
Fives put the back of his thumb to his lips, his head shaking in denial. "No, Chopper. It couldn't have been Echo. He would have greeted you in the cell. He would have yelled it to the sky and pounded you on the back then gotten you out."
Chopper chuckled softly. "I would have passed out if he'd done that." He put his hand on Fives' shoulder. "If it is Echo, if you need me, vod, for whatever purpose I will be there. And if you do find him," Chopper's voice turned into a warning growl, "you had better bring him to meet his niece."
Fives gave Chopper a slight grin at the hope in his voice then his expression became solemn.
"It's not Echo, Chopper."
The small ship was quiet. Rex and Ahsoka had gone to meet someone about a shipment of armaments for Hamura. It seemed they might be returning to that muddy, war-torn planet. Rex had also been muttering about a possible traitor, citing 'the fish are smarter, Ahsoka'.
"You're only saying that because he almost shot you," retorted the Togrutan pilot saucily and Rex, solemn-faced, had raised a hand slowly to rest on her cheek.
"He almost shot you."
There was silence as Ahsoka closed her eyes and tilted her face into his palm. The she laughed and gave Rex one of her bright smiles. "Only because he didn't mean to, otherwise..." Her eyes looked past Rex and her lips curved into an 'O'. "I wasn't expecting it, Rex. Like I wasn't expecting the Imperial ship. I was in the galley." She turned to Are. "Are, plaese go over the records of our hasty departure, but I bet that Imperial ship was not battle-ready when it came out of hyperspace. I think it was simply," she shrugged, "accidental."
"Yes, sir," Are said in habit as he gave her a nod.
Rex narrowed his eyes as his fingers caressed the blaster at his side. "I suppose that means I can't question him?"
"Verbally only, Rex."
He sighed and his lips twisted in aggrieved pride as he turned to Kix and Are. "Do check the log to see if that ship was coming after us or simply almost ran over us." He turned to the ramp of the ship speaking to Ahsoka. "And if that cruiser was coming in with weapons out... If there is even a stormtrooper cleaning his blaster visible in one of the hangar bays, I am going to have a serious discussion with Jar-Jar."
"Serious? You and Jar-Jar?" Her voice laughed
They were still discussing as Are closed the ramp behind them. He glanced at Kix with a worried look. "What if it's me, Kix? What if I am the traitor and they can somehow track me?"
Kix pulled his crutches to him and rose from the chair with Are's assistance. "I think Ahsoka is right, Are, and so does Rex." Kix smiled at the other's confused expression. He's just arguing to argue. But we'll look at the log and make that determination."
Are stood unmoved, his hand under Kix's elbow, "What if it was battle-ready? What if I am the traitor?"
"We'll take care of you, Are, and not battlefield mercy." He smiled at Are's expression as he moved the crutches forward. "Rex tells me everything that bothers him; I'm still his medic." He gave Are a slight push toward the cockpit and followed on his crutches. "We will work it out somehow."
Are was glad that a viewing of the log vids showed the cruiser had not been battle-ready coming out of hyperspace - it hadn't even activated its shields. Are sat in the pilot's seat, his fingers running over the console, reacquainting themselves with the once-familiar. Kix relaxed in the co-pilot's seat.
"May I ask, Kix, how you got wounded? I've never seen damage like that. It doesn't look like blaster wound or shrapnel." Are tilted his head, his lips pressed tightly together as he considered. "What kind of weapon did the rebels…" he frowned as he considered his words, realizing he was a rebel now, but Kix only chuckled softly.
"Wasn't rebels, Are. Or droids or stormtroopers. It's a lightsaber wound."
"One of the Jedi?" Are's brows furrowed even further.
Kix shrugged. "Of a sort, I guess."
He paused and Are, watching his expression, suddenly wished he hadn't mentioned it.
"I'm sorry, Kix. You don't need to tell me, don't need to remember."
"I can't help remembering, Are. Every day." Kix smiled wanly and ran his fingers through Are's thick hair. "It's getting long, Are. I can trim it if you wish."
Are nodded. He hadn't meant to make Kix sad, to remind him of everything he'd lost. He found scissors and had his back to Kix in short order. He was relaxing on the stool he'd taken from the hangar, Kix's experienced hands deep in his hair, caressing his scalp, when Are realized that Kix did want to tell him what had happened but simply couldn't bear to look him in the face while doing so.
Are understood not being able to look someone in the face. So Are listened, not caring what Kix did to his hair as he remembered and spoke.
"My days and my nights are curtailed and constricted by this wound, Are. You know I can't feel my leg most of the time; what you don't know is sometimes I can't feel my hip or my waist on that side about up to my lower ribs. It took me months to heal, a year to learn walk with a cane and you know I still have problems with it." Are felt Kix's hands move, felt Kix shrug as if it was no matter to him anymore and heard the bright click of the scissors. "A year of being cared for and being useless; a year in which to contemplate my actions on a particular day and wonder how much would have turned out differently if I had acted differently or been someone besides a medic." Giving a short laugh Kix gripped Are's shoulder tightly. "A year in which I learned how deeply my brothers care for me, how much they love me."
Are licked his lips. "That's easy to do, Kix." He blushed deeply; glad Kix couldn't see his face. The scissors stopped for a moment and Are felt Kix's forehead against the side of his head. For a timeless moment, both men were silent and still.
"I was with the 501st," continued Kix as he wielded the scissors, as if nothing had changed. "We weren't called 'Vader's Fist' then. Vader didn't exist. We were simply 'The 501st' needing nothing more to distinguish us as the very best." Kix shifted slightly. "For being the best, we were given the," he paused, searching for the right word, but there was no right word so he fell back on what they had called it then. "Honor of saving the Republic from traitors. The 501st was given the task of going into the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. I know now the reason it was our 'honor' is because the Coruscant guards had daily dealings with the Jedi; as a company they would have hesitated. Maybe even rebelled. The 501st was always just coming out of battle, always primed to kill." Kix paused and carefully snipped around one of Are's ears then continued speaking. "We were given the mission to take down every Jedi in the temple; no mercy for the treacherous masters, no mercy for the knights, no mercy for the padawans and, though I didn't realize it at the time, no mercy for the children."
"Children?" Are's voice was a whisper and he began shaking. "They said they removed the children; that they were reconditioned to forget the Jedi and adopted out. I remember that!" He stood suddenly, facing only the wall in front of him, avoiding Kix's eyes. "They rescued the children, Kix! They had to!" He raised his arms and slammed both fists against the metal bulkhead of the ship. "They had to, Kix," he repeated desperately. "I remember that."
"I'm sorry, Are."
Woodenly, Are sat back down, Kix's quiet apology more convincing than any arguments. He would have missed the stool if Kix's hand hadn't touched his waist and guided him. He was suddenly stiff, his muscles tense and Kix gently massaged one shoulder.
"Do you remember why it's so important, Are?" Kix's voice was gentle and Are nodded hesitantly.
"I found one. After some battle, searching for wounded brothers, I found a little girl. My general told me she'd go to the Temple and be taken care of. I remember… it was a good day." Are gulped and stuttered the remainder. "She… she hugged m..m… me and s… s… said w… when she became a c… c… commander, I'd be her c… c… captain." He bent his head into his hands and Kix could only rub his silent, shaking frame.
Suddenly Are looked up, twisting to see Kix's eyes, his voice firm with none of his usual hesitation. "You didn't kill her, Kix, you wouldn't be able to fire on defenseless children. What happened?"
That wasn't Are and a chill ran down Kix's spine as he knew he was seeing the trooper Are had once been.
"I was with General Skywalker," Kix resisted the urge to say 'sir' knowing now that Are had once been command level. "We, the general took a squad of us, went up to the main meeting place of the High Council of the Jedi." He shrugged a shoulder and glanced down at his useless leg. "To confront the Jedi, I thought. General Skywalker ordered us to wait, that he would confront the council by himself. So we waited outside the door, listening, hearing only the sound of light sabers."
Kix bowed his head. "I got worried." He chuckled without humor. "I got worried for our brave, reckless general facing the traitorous High Jedi Council alone; even more so when I realized I was hearing the noise of only a single light saber. So I went through the door. My first sight was a child, eyes still seeing. His eyes glanced away from me and I didn't understand. I thought the child had gotten in the way of two battling Jedi." Kix sat alone, remembering, then shook his head. "I glanced up, just in time to see General Skywalker swing his lightsaber at the final living child in that room." Kix shook his head again. "If I'd been a regular trooper instead of a medic, I would have reacted faster. My blaster would have been in my hand before he killed that last child and General Skywalker would have died." Kix shrugged. "I would have been executed as a traitor, but it would have been worth the change Vader's death would have brought."
Kix shrugged again. "He saw, of course, saw me futilely pull at my blaster. Too late. His light saber went through the blaster, the holster, my armor, most of my hip. Nonchalantly, not even concerned enough to see if he killed me or not. Just that easy swing as he walked past me."
Are, and it was Are now, not the nameless trooper he'd once been, pushed his hand against his face wiping away tears. "I'm sorry, Kix. I'm sorry. I don't know why I asked."
"You asked, Are, because you once did something good and worthwhile." Kix paused, his eyes dark pools of pain. "I suspect that's why they reconditioned you. They tried to take everything away from you but you still remember."
Are nodded hesitantly. "I found someone… a child on the battlefield."
Kix put his hand on Are's shoulder. "That's all you have to remember, Are. All you need to know is that you rescued someone." He smiled wanly and gestured at the stool. "I'm only half-finished, Are. Turn around and I'll make it even."
Are obediently sat back on the stool, allowing Kix to finish cutting his hair.
It was a good cut and Are ran his fingers over the bush of his hair with a laugh. Kix also laughed and ran his fingers as well on Are's scalp, brushing out the fine trimmings.
They stopped as their fingers touched in the thickness of Are's dark hair.
Kix's fingers trembled and Are clasped his hand around the other man's hand, bringing it down to his face and softly kissed the palm; suddenly not afraid, suddenly sure.
"I can please you, Kix. The troopers taught me that when I was first sent to Hamura and," Are paused, tilting his head then looking shyly into Kix's eyes with dawning discovery, "and I think I'd like to please you."
Kix gave a soft snort of laughter though his expression was sad and he bent his forehead to Are's face. When he spoke, his breath was warm on Are's cheek, but he reclaimed his hand and shifted back in his seat.
"I think it's time you moved to your own cabin, Are."
Are's despair must have shown on his face because Kix touched his shoulder, letting his hand cup the muscular junction of Are's shoulder and neck. "I'll still need your assistance, but it doesn't have to be constant." He smiled at Are. "You need the opportunity."
Are didn't understand what opportunity for the longest time.
"ARC-8!" It was the captain's voice sharp in reprimand. ARC-8, observing the crisp bleakness of the stars, didn't deign to turn around. The captain wouldn't do anything, nothing that would bother 8 anyway. He'd long ago lost track of the demerits and extra duty simply kept him busy and fit.
"ARC-8, are you paying attention?"
"No." ARC-8 wondered what the captain would do as he looked out into the black void of space. There was something pristine and welcoming in the crystal clarity of the stars.
The captain sputtered then threatened. "When I see your 'friend' back on Hamura I'll prove you're a traitor."
It was an empty threat. ARC-8 didn't have any friends.
He used to. Once, long ago when he'd been a trooper instead of an ARC, he'd had a brother. Once, long ago, when he'd been in the GAR instead of the Imperial Army he'd had a good captain. Once, long ago, when he'd been a shiny, there was camaraderie in the mess.
He'd thought them dead - the commander at least and her captain.
Until he'd met a traitor who'd once been one of the best troopers in the 501st and now he wondered, knowing the official version was a lie. He'd always known that, but now he wondered which parts and how much. Surely it couldn't all be a lie; a good lie hung on truth.
"… for a voice of thunder," he murmured under his breath, letting his helmet catch whatever demerit or extra duty the captain was assigning him.
The captain had tried to destroy the civilian poetry and had done a good job of it. After meeting the woman who taught poetry, who loved poetry like he loved... he snarled silently; he didn't love anything anymore, but she had explained - yes, explained - they were just words and you couldn't love words ... what it meant. After listening to her words, he had concentrated on that poem and hadn't had time to remember the others. He remember this one though.
Who can remain human in the face of war?
ARC 8 wondered what he'd say if he had a voice like thunder.
He was just a clone.
A clone had nothing.
Not even a voice.