About an hour later...
Wind slipped under his shirt and grazed the top of his head, but the sun was warm on Rex's back as he, Fives and Jesse watched Caith demonstrate how to repair the old-fashioned wood and wire fence that bordered this section of Mrs. Damaris' land.
The pasture where they stood ended at the top of a relatively small hill which overlooked the sprawling valley that was adjacent to the Damaris' territory; in the distance, Rex could see a cluster of charcoal-colored mountains rising above more green than he'd ever observed in one place, which was saying something.
It was mid-spring here. Patches of snow still clung to the highest peaks, themselves wreathed in mists and clouds that had not yet been burnt away by the sun. The sky itself was a clear, unwavering blue, and the surrounding area felt peaceful.
"Wouldn't an energy-fence be more practical?" Fives was asking. "This seems to be a little...quaint."
Caith was showing them where the wires that wrapped around the wooden beams of the fence had come loose from the metal latch that held them in place. Beyond their position, Rex could see a line of fence that seemed to stretched out forever over the rolling, grassy hills.
"It's worked for a long time," Brenna's brother replied. "I know it may seem odd, but it's really very practical."
After he spoke he pursed his lips and glanced towards Mrs. Damaris; she was watching the demonstration with one hand on her hips, the other holding on to Caith's son, Tavi, who'd insisted on coming along with his father. However, Rex noted that the boy seemed more interested in the cloned soldiers than in mending a broken fence, as his eyes kept flicking from clone to clone and his expression indicated that he was curious.
"Running power all the way out here is inherently risky as well," the elder woman said, her voice lifting over the wind. "With this area being so far from the house, it would need to be checked several times a week – if not daily – to ensure that it still worked. When those things fail, you're out of luck. At best, you have a breach in your territory where the stock could escape; at worst...well, aside from predators, there've been fires on other folks' land before, started by sparks from failed energy fences. Technology will only work so well, but I'd prefer to rely on things I can touch and feel."
As he listened to Mrs. Damaris speak, Rex thought that she didn't look too much like Brenna; he could see similarities in facial structure, of course, but overall Jensine Damaris reminded him of no one he could recall meeting. Her mannerisms struck him as being more like that of a drill sergeant on Kamino than a ranch-owner, though admittedly he didn't know the first thing about ranches, or quagga, for that matter. Well, he knew that Brenna didn't care for the creatures and that Iri did, but he had no firsthand experience with which to base any knowledge. Yet.
That, he knew, was going to change in the next few weeks.
Caith slid the wire into its place, the latch catching with a satisfying snap, then gave the whole thing a good tug before he stood up. "These fences are made to last longer than any energy shield; the parts are all interchangeable and they're remarkably sturdy."
"Can I help, dad?" Tavi asked, forgetting his fascination with the clones for a moment as he watched his father.
Nodding, Caith used his gloved hand to rub affectionately at the boy's head, then glanced at Rex; there was a question in his gaze, but as of yet he'd said nothing to the clone.
Squinting, Jesse indicated the segment of fence that was stretched before them, following the ridge of the hill as far as they could see. "Sounds easy enough. All this needs to be checked?"
"I think the most efficient way is to set yourselves up in pairs at intervals, alternating segments between workers until you meet one another at a central point," Mrs. Damaris said, her voice ringing with confidence, as if she'd done this many times. "Hopefully we can get this section done today. I can take two of you down the line, while Caith can help out the remaining fellow, here."
Rex cast another glance at the sweeping scenery around them, then looked back at his brothers. "You heard her, men: Jesse, Fives – go with Mrs. Damaris."
Soon enough, he watched as the other clones boarded the rickety speeder that the group had driven out here and skimmed off over the grass. Once they'd gone he glanced back at Brenna's brother, who was studying him again, and this time Rex thought he had an idea of what Caith was thinking; there was no mistaking the protective look in the other man's eyes, and Rex figured a talk of some sort was coming.
However, nothing was said for a few minutes, during which they worked in relative silence. All of the clones had been given leather gloves to protect their hands, and it was easy to fall into a rhythm with the repairs to the fence: checking the line of connecting wires that ran up each post and fastened into a corresponding eyelet. Some of the eyelets had broken off and had to be replaced; some wires had simply come undone. It was not difficult work, but Rex could see that it would be time-consuming and taxing over a long period of time, so he was glad that he and his brothers could be of help.
During the escape from the RJC, his shoulder had been grazed by a blaster-bolt, but the injury caused him little more than an ache that was easily ignored. In many ways, Rex found it difficult to believe that his life had changed so completely from when he'd received the wound; crouched before a wooden fence in the Alderaani mountains was a far cry from running for his life in a Republic prison, or from any of his old missions for the Republic, actually.
No, not Republic: Empire, he told himself as he reached for a spare eyelet to replace one that had rusted off. Emperor, not Chancellor.
He still didn't know the whole story behind that title-change. Probably no one did, not really, and admittedly the political machinations of the upper-echelons of government had never interested him overmuch. His focus had always been his brothers, the men whose lives were in his hands. They were what mattered, not politics, even though he knew that the army's fate had always been tied to the decisions of the Senate.
But the Senate was far away now – not just from him, but from the entire galaxy, it seemed – and most of his brothers were gone, dead or just too far away, right now. The few who remained with him were still his responsibility, and together they all had to learn to live in this new world.
As for the Jedi...well, he had to trust that Ahsoka was safe; Kenobi, Skywalker, and the others he'd served with were resourceful and clever, and he hoped that they had found ways to escape the fate that had befallen so many of their comrades.
Rex gave a deep exhale and moved on to the next section of fence, because there was nothing he could do about the Jedi right now. As Brenna had suggested, it was probably best to take things one day at a time.
"Looks good." Caith's voice broke him out of his thoughts several minutes later; looking up, Rex watched Brenna's brother kneel down beside him, running a hand along the post Rex was working on. "You're a fast learner."
"Bred for it," he replied with a nod. "And it's no more complicated than assembling a DC-17."
"Is that a blaster you fight with?" Tavi asked, his face alight. The dark-haired boy was clad in a pair of smaller gloves that were still quite big on his hands, and his eyes on Rex – a warm brown, just like Brenna and her brother's – were wide with curiosity.
"It was," Rex replied with a glance at Caith. "But I don't have one any longer."
Disappointment crossed the boy's face, but Caith gave his son a smile. "How about you go check the next few sections for us? Let us know how many new hooks we'll need."
"By myself?" When Caith nodded, Tavi looked pleased, and made his way to the next section of fence, still within sight but far enough away that he likely couldn't hear anything the adults said.
Once Tavi was out of earshot, Caith looked at Rex. "You and the others seem like decent fellows," he said without preamble as both knelt before the fence-post. "But I have to admit that I have...doubts."
"That's understandable," Rex replied in an even voice. "You don't really know any of us."
"True. And, as you can probably guess, we – my family and myself – took a rather significant leap of faith when we decided to help Bren out and bring you guys here."
Rex took a breath and held Caith's eyes. "We won't cause you any trouble. Matter-of-fact, if there's even a whisper that our presence is endangering your family in any way, we'll leave at once."
"See, that's what I'm afraid of," Caith replied, shaking his head as he ran his hands along the fence-post. "Brenna...she loves you, Rex. Force knows I thought – and hoped, I have to say – she'd never fall for another clone, but she did. I'm concerned for my family's safety, of course, but I'm also concerned for my little sister's heart."
Before Rex could say anything, Caith dropped his hands and stood up, causing Rex to follow. "I need to know that her trust in you isn't misplaced, because I think that if you were to leave...she'd follow you, and she'd take Iri with her. That's a rather big responsibility for anyone, let alone a man with your background."
It was actually a rather tactful way to phrase what the other man was undoubtedly thinking, especially considering that the last – and only – clone Caith had encountered before Rex and his brothers was one who'd impregnated Brenna and then fled the scene. Something inside Rex tightened with indignation and with fear. The words were true; when it came to staying with Brenna and Iri, he had no doubt that he would want to, but before now he hadn't had time to consider – to seriously consider – if he could.
Behind Caith's head, the sky was starting to be streaked with wispy, upper-level clouds and the wind seemed to drop as Rex considered his reply. "I have no intention of leaving her – for any reason. I want to stay by her side for as long as I'm able. I regretted not doing so the first time I had the chance, but in the end, I made the best decision that I could at the time. Now, though..."
Rex paused and looked at the distant mountains; there was so much space here, it was a bit disorienting to someone who had begun his life in a decanting jar and spent the most of the rest within the close quarters of a starship. "Now, I think I'm where I need to be. I know I'm where I want to be, because the woman I love is here, and if I have to choose again, I'll choose to be where she is, every time.
"As for responsibility," he added, glancing back at Caith, whose eyes had flicked to the small boy a few times in the past minute or so. "I'm no stranger to others relying on me. Granted, I've never been a father, but if that's what I need to become in order to remain with Brenna and Iri, than that's what I'll do. Happily."
"That's commendable," Caith replied with a nod. "But loving someone and being a father are more challenging than you can possibly understand. I mean no disrespect," he added. "Force knows I'd be useless on a battlefield, but from what I know of clones...this type of thing is far from your area of expertise."
Yes, there was a bitterness to the way that Caith spoke of clones, but Rex thought that with time he could change the other man's opinion. "I have no intention of leaving Brenna and Iri," he said at last, injecting his words with every iota of conviction he could muster and holding Caith's eyes with his own. "Unless she wants otherwise, I'll be by her side as long as I'm able."
It was a painful thought, not only the idea that Brenna might not want him around one day, but the realization that it may not matter, because he might not live long enough for her get tired of him. However, he thought that Caith appreciated the acknowledgment, for the other man nodded slowly. After a moment, Caith sighed and leaned against the fencepost, regarding Rex thoughtfully. "I'm glad to hear that."
"I'm glad I'm able to say it."
Caith chuckled, then sighed and ran a hand through his hair, before glancing at the clone again. "She was right; you're nothing like Tucker."
Take care of my girls, Rex.
No, not nothing. No clone was the same, but Rex thought that – while he would have done many things differently than the commando – there were worse things than sharing his face with a man who'd given his life for the well-being of those he cared for.
However, it felt like too much to explain to Caith right now, so Rex nodded. "We have our differences. Had, rather."
"Had. Right." Caith grimaced and looked away, towards the mountains. "I heard that he died; I wish I could say I was sorry, but he caused Brenna too much pain for me to really regret it. Anyway," he added with a sigh as he met Rex's eyes again. "That's the past, and I think it's best if we try and move on. Brenna seems like she's done so, and I have to admit that she's made a better choice in you, so far. So, as long as you're welcome in her life, you're welcome in mine."
Rex nodded again, not quite sure what to say, other than "thank you." There was a clinking sound behind them; both men turned to see Tavi frowning over the next fencepost. Surreptitiously, Rex studied Caith as the other man watched his son. "He seems like a good lad," Rex said suddenly, nodding to the boy.
"He's the best," Caith replied with the same smile that Brenna wore when she spoke of Iri. "Ed and I are so proud." He paused, then looked back at Rex with a trace of wryness in his gaze. "I know you're not ready to be a parent, but I don't think anyone ever is, so I'll help you out if you like. Not that I'm an expert, but I've got about six years on you."
Thinking of Iri, Rex gave a smile. "Thank you. I'm glad I'll have a chance to learn from your experience."
Caith nodded as well, then indicated the fence. "We'd better get back to work. Mom's quite the drill sergeant when she wants to be."
"I had a similar thought, actually," Rex admitted as he glanced back at the fence. "But I really am grateful of the opportunity she's giving myself and my brothers."
At this, Caith let out a snort of laughter, and clapped Rex on the back. "Just remember that feeling once your hands are covered in blisters and you're too sore to walk. And in the meantime..." He paused, then grinned. "Welcome to the family, Captain."
Rex looked at the mountains and inhaled deeply. "Not 'Captain,' any longer, Caith," he replied. "Just 'Rex.' And thank you...I'm happy to be here."
As it turned out, Caith hadn't been kidding about the blisters and being sore. By the time Rex, Fives and Jesse made it back from the far pastures, Rex thought that he had never been so tired in his entire life. When Rex, Fives and Jesse reached the Damaris' house, they met Kix and Coric – who'd returned from the stables a few hours ago – and received orders to rest; Rex had also been informed that Brenna and the others were still at the stables, doing something with the infamous quagga, but they'd be back soon. Edme was in the house as well, and mentioned something about dinner later.
After making sure that his brothers were okay, Rex chose to take a shower and change his clothes before finding his way to the front porch, because he wanted to sit, but also wanted to be outside.
It was that point of early evening where the sun was just starting to dip below the horizon, and the formerly blue sky was slowly being replaced with layers of violet, saffron and pink hues that were catching on the clouds that had remained. Planets and the brightest stars were starting to appear, and crickets were singing to the coming dusk.
There was a wooden bench of some kind on the porch, hanging from two chains in the ceiling; a cursory examination indicated that his weight would be supported, so Rex took a seat. Exhausted from a day of physical labor unlike any kind he'd ever known, his body sank into the wooden slats and the bench began to rock slightly, the chains creaking in the air. At first he glanced up, wary at the sound, but after a few moments of nothing collapsing under him, he was able to relax.
It was quiet, here.
Beyond the grass that sloped away from the house, he could see a mountain, the one that he recognized from the pic in Brenna's old cabin on the Resolute. The mountain loomed above the landscape, not ominous, but watchful, and its tip was painted in rich gold by the setting sun. Another breeze rifled through Rex's shirt, and he actually felt a bit chilly. However, he was too tired to do much more than rub at his bare arms, so he just nudged his boots against the porch and listened to the creaking chain of the swing, the crickets, and the wind sifting through the grass.
"There he is." Suddenly, Brenna's voice met his ears, her tone lilting in the manner it did when she was speaking to her daughter. Rex turned and watched as the brown-haired woman and the toddler slipped out of the front door and made their way to him. "Kix said he thought you'd gone outside."
"Rex!" Iri broke free of her mother's hand and scurried towards him, coming to a halt beside Rex's outstretched legs, which he'd braced against the slats of the porch to pause the swing and prevent it from hitting the little girl. "Up? Swing? Please?"
He shot a cautious look at Brenna, who smiled and nodded, so he reached for the little girl; she was more solid than he'd anticipated, warm and small but not so fragile as he'd imagined, and set her beside him on the bench. Immediately, she kicked her legs out, her tiny, stockinged feet barely dangling over the edge, and looked up at him. There was pure delight on her face, which was enough to make him chuckle and tousle her hair. Around them, the wind picked up again, and he wondered if she'd be cold, but Brenna had dressed her in a colorful knitted sweater that looked fairly cozy.
As Brenna sat on Iri's other side, she caught her daughter's attention. "What do you say when someone does as you ask, Iri?"
"T'ank you, Rex," the toddler replied. As he was reaching his arm up to rest over the back of the swing, she scooted so that she was right beside him and leaned her entire body against his torso, giving a deep sigh of contentment as she relaxed into his side.
Rex was a bit flummoxed for a moment, then Brenna moved closer as well and shot him another, warmer smile. He returned the look, and for a few moments they sat in silence, listening to the sounds of the approaching evening and watching the stars appear in the darkening sky.
Over the toddler's head, Rex and Brenna had been able to sit close enough for her to rest her cheek against his shoulder; as he inhaled the scent of her soap and savored the warm press of both the woman he loved and her daughter at his side, he was grateful.
Because he couldn't help himself, Rex shifted his arm so that he could twine his fingers in Bren's hair, which was loose and still a little damp from her shower. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as her eyes closed briefly in pleasure. When they opened again she tilted her head so that he could discern her mouth forming the silent words: I love you. In response, he skimmed the curve of her cheek with his ungloved hand.
I love you, too, he wanted to say aloud, but the look in her eyes told him that she already knew.
To Be Continued...
First of all, thank you thank you thank you to Jade-Max, whose help, support and advice while writing this story were invaluable. *gugs* Jade!
A massive thank you to everyone who took the time to review. You guys made TFK my most reviewed story, and your insightful comments and encouragement were always a joy to read; it's one of the best parts of the whole creative process to interact with folks who enjoy your work, and I can never thank y'all enough. :)
The sequel, Worth Fighting For, can be found on my author page, and I encourage you to check it out! :)
Thank you again for reading!