As suddenly as she had entered his life, she was gone.
Gone. It was a difficult word to fully appreciate, and Captain Rex wasn't quite sure he had grasped the ramifications of it even now as he sank into a chair in his office, back at HQ. It had all happened so quickly, it was hard not to wonder if it had all been a twisted nightmare. But the logical side of him stoically confirmed what he already knew: Ahsoka Tano, Jedi, Commander, comrade, friend… was gone.
Rex pressed his lips together, leaning across his desk to retrieve his datapad and run through the duty roster for the day. It was a sham, a useless gesture of activity that did nothing to shake his thoughts from the events of the past few days… and hours.
Ahsoka was gone.
Gone, yes, but alive and whole, and that counted for something. In fact it might have been what made the sense of shock, of loss so much more poignant, because pragmatically speaking Rex probably should have wholly approved of his - former - Commander's departure from the Order that had so callously abandoned her. It was for her own good that she get away from the tangled web of wartime ethics that was slowly strangling the Republic she had tried her best to serve. If the Jedi could not be counted on to protect their own, then Ahsoka's chances of success would be far better on her own.
That was voice of his logical side. But he wasn't really paying attention to it anymore. Not when his entire being was weighed down with a crushing sense of loss, that he, who had no claim upon Ahsoka Tano other than as her subordinate, had been robbed of far more than a CO, or even comrade.
The fact that she had taken the time to seek him out, to say goodbye, was a small comfort. Their final meeting had been almost criminally brief, but it was better than nothing. She had told him of her decision, of the Council's offer, and her choice.
He had listened to her, in shock at first, and then indignation, but as he watched her battle her own grief while she spoke to him, Rex somehow managed to come to an acceptance, at least for the moment. He didn't argue with her, and he could tell she appreciated the fact, and he somehow found it in him to laud her courage, her independent thinking, her integrity and her honor. They had exchanged thanks, words of encouragement, and even a few friendly jabs, though Ahsoka regretfully turned down his offer to let her give a farewell address to the men.
"It's not fair to them, Rex… it would be such an honor, but… I can't. I can't be strong for them anymore. To see me now, after this kind of fall… she had closed her eyes, fighting back tears she didn't dare to show. "It would only discourage them. It would only rob them of whatever faith they have left in this system."
The unspoken part of her refusal was clear and glaring to Rex. Ahsoka had already lost that faith. She couldn't risk letting that happen to the men she had once led in its cause. She couldn't allow them to follow her lead and suffer the consequences for doubting the system.
He had assured her that he would give the men her best regards, and even memorized a handful of personal messages to those she knew best. Then a short embrace, the sensation of a single tear running down his collarbone as he held her close for an instant, and she slipped out of the alleyway behind the barracks. She didn't look back, and though his entire being ached to see her face just once more, Rex silently praised her focus and her resolve. A new future was unfolding before Ahsoka Tano, and to look back now, to waver, would be a grave mistake.
She hesitated at the corner of the barracks, her slight figure silhouetted against the last gleams of sunlight over the horizon.
And then Ahsoka Tano was gone.
A sudden thundering of footsteps echoed just outside the door to his office, jarring Rex from his melancholy reminiscing. He turned to face the door, his datapad lying forgotten on the desk as he prepared to greet his visitor; though the doorchime never rang, Rex had already recognized the gait by the time Fives burst through the door.
"Rex! Kriff, where've you been vod?" the ARC trooper seethed as he came to a stop at Rex's desk. "I've been burning through my pager trying to raise you!"
A grimace came over Rex as he realized he had utterly failed to recognize the buzzing of his communicator, while lost in thought. But he pushed the embarrassment away and met Fives' reddened face with an even expression. "My apologies, Fives. I've been… off my game today."
"Is it true?" Fives demanded, not bothering to press issue of the ignored commlink. "They said the Commander was found innocent, and they expelled her?"
"Not in that order. Sit down, Fives," Rex motioned towards another chair, silently urging his brother to settle down.
Fives took the seat, but his voice didn't lower a notch. "How does that make sense? She's innocent! She should have been reinstated immediately!"
"Fives," Rex interrupted, giving the other man a stern look that he knew would get his attention. "Lower your voice," he warned, leaning forward in his seat. Ahsoka's departure wasn't exactly classified information, but Rex knew it was hardly something she'd want to draw attention to. The rumor train was bad enough as it was.
Fives reluctantly acquiesced, falling silent as the Captain began to explain. "This is much more complicated than that, Fives. Ahsoka- Commander Tano was expelled, then found to be innocent, as you heard, in a military tribunal. She was returned to the Jedi. She was offered reinstatement. She was offered Knighthood."
Fives sucked in a breath, and Rex watched as understanding dawned on his quick-thinking brother. "They offered… and she..?"
Rex only nodded.
A muffled curse was all Fives could manage at first, and Rex could tell that his fellow clone wasn't taking the news well. After a moment of stunned silence, Fives ventured in an uncharacteristically muted tone, "Did she say goodbye?"
Rex nodded again, and though he saw a flash of hurt cross his brother's face, he knew that Fives understood the special bond between the Captain and Commander. They had known each other longer than she had any of the clones, and to be frank, Rex had been much quicker to come to trust the young, gangly Padawan than had any of his subordinates.
"Did she give any reasons?" Fives asked, setting his elbow on the desk and holding his forehead with one hand, his fingers tweaking at the locks of jet black hair.
"Some. She couldn't in good faith accept reinstatement from the Council and take the vows. It would have been impossible for her to honor their leadership anymore after they had expelled her so easily."
"The kriffing di'kute," Fives growled, glaring down at the desk, his free hand clenching into a fist. "I can't blame her for that, I admit. At least by leaving she won't have to suck up to them again. If it were me I would have taken those shabla fools by the throat and knotted their-"
His brother shot him a glare at the warning, but after another muttered swear word, Fives shook his head resignedly. "Sorry." He stroked his brow, still staring at the durasteel tabletop before speaking again. "I guess walking away was the best punishment she could offer. One less promising young life to assimilate into their Order." He scowled for a minute, then looked up. "Did she say anything else? About why she was leaving?"
Rex sighed, then hesitated, suddenly unsure of his next words as a wave of long-repressed feelings and memories began to claim his thoughts. Fives' presence, while never unwelcome, had also never ceased to remind him of another nightmare, of another time when faith in a revered system was put under assault. A distant, shadowy world where Rex learned that the worst failures could come when he refused to question the powers that be, when he refused to relinquish faith in a system that had proven first incompetent, and then sinister.
"There is more, Fives. More than she actually verbalized. More…" Rex furrowed his brow as he searched for words, turning to look out the small window to his left, where the light show of nighttime Corsucant had supplanted the last gleams of sunlight. Streams of airborne vehicles poured down the skylanes and created seemingly slow-moving ribbons of muted lights, weaving between the glass towers with almost hypnotizing regularity. The scene was dark, mute, and strangely ominous.
"More what?" Fives prodded, none too patiently.
His eyes not leaving the view from the window, Rex replied in a hard whisper. "More than is safe to discuss like this."
The almost lethal tone of voice was certain to alert his brother to the seriousness - and possibly treasonous - nature of Rex's thoughts, and Fives didn't disappoint. He stood, walking towards the door and quietly locking it, before returning to his seat again. The precaution was the only practical one available, though Rex had long ago inspected his office for any signs of listening equipment, and the walls were as well-insulated as they came.
Taking his seat, Fives leaned forward towards the Captain. "What are you talking about?" he asked in a low tone, both hands now lying on the desk between them - open, palms up, a subconscious gesture of honesty. "You know you can trust me."
"I do trust you," Rex replied with a shake of his head, his voice pitched equally low . "It's myself I'm not sure I can trust, right now."
He could feel his brother's keen gaze fixed on him, and Rex knew that Fives wouldn't take long to trace his train of thought. Still, he needed to speak, needed to confide these doubts with someone he knew would understand them all too well.
As far as Rex was concerned, there were only two individuals in the galaxy capable of understanding what he was feeling. And one of them was already gone.
"Ahsoka-" he almost corrected himself before realizing there was no longer any need to refer to her by rank- "didn't leave out of spite, like you suggest. She could have humiliated the Council. She could have forced them to own their despicable treatment of her."
"And she would have been damn right to."
"But she wouldn't have been Ahsoka," Rex countered. "It's not her nature, not her way. She wasn't looking for revenge. And that's not why she left."
"Well fine," Fives waved a hand in frustration, "If that wasn't the reason, what was it? She did tell you, didn't she?"
"Yes and no."
Fives exasperated expression would normally have elicited a faint grin from Rex, but he was in no mood to smile now. Turning in his seat, he stood up, and strode slowly towards the window, a gloved hand rubbing his chin where Ahsoka's montrals had touched him during their hasty embrace. His eyes settled unseeingly on Coruscant's glimmering skyline, and he heard the noise of another chair scraping the floor and the Fives' footsteps as he approached and stood beside him.
"She didn't tell me in so many words; and she didn't need to," Rex spoke quietly. "She knew… that I knew."
A short silence preceded Fives' prodding. "Knew what?"
Rex took a deep breath, keenly aware that he was about to give voice to thoughts and doubts that he had all but tried to deny till now. Treasonous, subversive thoughts, thoughts of a man who had seen too much, who had experienced things he was never intended understand. Thoughts that ran counter to everything he was supposed to be, even the resolute, fearless and loyal soldier he believed himself to be.
"She didn't need to tell me," he repeated, his voice low and dark. "She didn't need to tell me what it's like to have your trust decimated by those who should have guarded it best. To realize that you've been used, and that you're easily discarded when your usefulness is ended. She didn't need to tell me how it feels to lose faith in your cause, to question everything you thought you were ready to die for."
"Umbara," Fives breathed, his haunted tone sending a chill down Rex's spine as the revelation finally hit HQ. "This was Ahsoka's Umbara."
Rex nodded slowly. "Exactly that."
The ensuing silence between the two men was deafening. Above the quiet hum of the air recycler and distant power generators, it seemed Rex could hear an entirely new din emerging from deep within his consciousness. The shouts, the screams of dying men, the thundering of alien war machines, the triumphant roaring of a Besalisk Jedi.
"I was using you!"
The weariness, the defeated slump of his shoulders as he stared out over the courtyard full of wounded and dying men, and for an instant, a traitorous instant, realized he no longer knew if it meant anything all.
"What's the point of all this? Why?"
The passion and fire of his younger brother, fearless and belligerent in the face of a tyrannical Jedi superior. His voice, earnest and angry and demanding. Challenging him, berating him, forcing Rex to hear the things he didn't want to accept.
"You really believe that? Or is that what you were engineered to think?"
Rex's eyes drifted to where Fives stood beside him, silent in thought. The scarred and weathered face that, except for the tattoo and black hair, mirrored his own, was no longer that of the feisty and naive shinie he had picked up on the Rishi listening outpost. Despite their genetic lineage and their time together in the ranks of the 501st, Rex and Fives' careers had taken drastically different turns, and he doubted that either man knew the full story of what had brought the other to the perilous place they were now. And yet here they were, confidants and guardians of a deadly secret, the only living men in the whole Grand Army of the Republic that, to Rex's knowledge, dared to question the almost-sacred cause they were bred to fight for.
"Then the real question is," Fives mused, meeting Rex's sidelong gaze, "Why didn't you go with her?"
The sudden question, in typical Fives' fashion, caught Rex completely off guard, and for a moment he could only stare blankly at his brother. "What are you saying?"
Fives stepped forward where he could better face him, their faces less than a arm's length apart as his brother spoke in a muted voice. "You know what I'm saying, Rex. You're in the exact same skiff as Ahsoka, and we both know it. You don't trust the Republic or even the Jedi to do the right thing. You don't believe that this war is really about anything noble anymore."
"Admit it Rex. You practically said so yourself on Umbara. You didn't believe there was a point to this war."
"But I did," Rex corrected, turning from Fives to face the window once more, his hands clenching into fists at his side. His gaze swept past the steams and towers of lights to the faint points of stars that were barely visible through Coruscant's thick and polluted atmosphere. His thoughts followed his line of sight, as the memory of a distant world, a lonely farmhouse, a rebellious, passionate brother came almost unbidden to the forefront of his mind; memories of a time when he thought he understood, when he thought everything made sense.
"I did believe it was worth it all," Rex insisted, his eyes narrowing. "I did believe that this war was for a just cause, that our goal was to preserve life and establish peace, to secure a future for our- for their children," he almost coughed to mask his slip-up, but he knew Fives would have seen through the ruse. "I believed that our sacrifice would ensure justice and freedom for future generations."
"And you don't believe that anymore," Fives stated evenly. "Do you?"
Gritting his teeth, Rex scowled into the night sky, Fives' question echoing in his head like a blaster shot in an empty hangar; except it wasn't really a question. And he couldn't bring himself to voice an answer. So he shook his head.
It was enough for Fives. "Then my original question still stands. If you can't in good faith fight for the Republic cause, then why are you staying? You clearly believe Ahsoka made the right choice. Why aren't you?"
It was a challenge, just like on Umbara, only Rex wasn't sure he had a stubborn retort to offer this time. He was shaken, unsure of himself, and that was an abhorrent feeling to a man like Captain Rex.
It was the very reason why he had never allowed himself to dwell upon his own doubts, after the nightmare that was Umbara. And even now, part of Rex still held tenaciously to the ideal that had become integral to the man he was - that somehow, it was still worth the sacrifice, worth the horror and the bloodshed. It had to be.
But he didn't really believe it anymore.
Fives' gaze was burning holes in the side of his face, and Rex sighed as he searched wearily for an answer. There was one, in fact, one that he had held on to like an anchor long before Cut Lawquane, and even before Ahsoka had entered his life. It survived yet, though it had been shaken more than once, and it was perhaps last thread that still bound him to an increasingly pointless way of life.
"It's different for me," he spoke in a near murmur. "Ahsoka was abandoned by her own people, her own… family," he winced at the rarely spoken but all-too-familiar word. "She was set against the ones who should have had her back all along."
He turned to regard his brother, who returned the gaze with a thoughtful one of his own. "And..?"
"And that's not the case with me," Rex continued, finding some conviction to back his words, "My place, my family has always been here, in the GAR, in the 501st. Yourself, Jesse, Kix, all of Torrent. We've stood together through hell and beyond. I like to think we still do."
"Vode an," Fives murmured in assent, "Brothers all."
Rex nodded, the apparent agreement of his fellow clone having granted him some level of relief from the prior pressure. "I meant what I told General Krell; my duty to keep my men alive and well is just as binding as my oath to the Republic itself." A grim, half-laugh came from deep within his throat. "Maybe more so, after this discussion."
"Traitor," Fives smirked, before crossing his arms and stroking the dark stubble on his chin with one hand. He maintained a respectful silence for a moment, but then spoke up again, his voice edged with a dark warning. "You can't assume that won't change, Rex."
A faint chill ran through Rex's frame, though outwardly he only hardened his expression, turning his eyes back to the window. "Of course I can't."
"The army isn't the same as it once was, vod," Fives went on. "Sergeant Appo is well on his way to a Captain's commission last I heard, and his approach to battle strategy is just as brutal as ever. And it's not just him. All the new command clones hitting the deck in the past few months are primed to kill… and not just droids."
"So were we."
"This is different, Rex, you know it is. The army is changing. Men like Sergeant Appo and Commander Wolffe are the ones that are climbing the ranks, not you and me. When's the last time you were offered a Commander's commission?"
"I turned it down."
"How long ago?"
"I don't recall."
"More than a year. That's insanity for an officer with your kind of experience. You should be turning down offers weekly by now. High Command doesn't trust men like you, or me for that matter. They want men who don't think too much, men who do things 'by the book' like General Krell said. They want men who will commit the most brutal deeds on demand."
"What are you suggesting?"
"Exactly what I said, Rex. The army is changing. The Republic, the Jedi, it's all changing, and can't be naive enough to believe it's for the better." Fives voice fell, and he seemed to be speaking as much to himself as to Rex. "Something is wrong. Something terrible is going to happen, I can almost feel it."
Rex said nothing, because he had nothing to say. It was true; as the war had dragged on with no end in sight, matters within and without the Republic had only deteriorated further. Despite innumerable campaigns and planetary invasions, there had been no tangible process made; no pivotal battles, no lasting results. It was like the Republic was treading water, and the only real effect of the war was to sustain itself. That, and to wage a continual force of attrition against anyone unfortunate enough to be involved.
An attrition to which Ahsoka had finally succumbed. She'd had enough of the charade and chosen to find her own way. And though his chest ached and his throat went taut at the memory of "losing" her, he couldn't say he was unhappy to think she was finally free of the war, to whatever degree that was possible these days. Whatever "terrible" thing that may be coming, as Fives feared, could no longer reach the exiled young Togruta.
Or so he hoped.
He expelled a long, low sigh, turning away from the window and walking towards his desk again. "I don't know, Fives. I have a bad feeling about all of this, as well." He stood still, his eyes resting on his helmet that sat neatly on the desktop to the right of his seat. "But I can't walk away now. It's not the right choice for me."
"Not yet, you mean," Fives corrected, stepping up behind him again. "I know you pretty damn well, Rex. You can't stay here forever. One day, this war will end for both of us. It's only a matter of whether it's our choice or someone else's."
"It's ended for Ahsoka," Rex mused.
"Her choice, on her terms," Fives agreed. He stepped closer, and suddenly Rex felt the weight of his brother's hand on his shoulder. "You'll see her again, I know you will. You'll know when it's time to go."
"It won't be anytime soon."
"It'll be sooner than you think, I can guarantee you that." Fives' grip tightened over his shoulder cap, and his voice took on a distant note. "Just be sure you make the right choice when the time comes."
Rex nodded slowly, then turned around, stepping towards the window once more, ignoring the gleaming skylines this time and looking down at the marshaling yard that stretched from the foot of the barracks tower outward towards the perimeter of the base. A pair of AT-TE walkers lumbered by far below, flanked by several squads of armored men, their white figures illuminated only by the faint washes of blueish light from the watchtower beacons. The patrol continued its slow, steady march across the yard, and Rex's eyes idly followed each man's impeccable footstep, stepping to a familiar rhythm that was as drilled into his being as that of his own heartbeat.
Ahsoka had made the right choice, painful as it was.
"May we all make the right choice," he murmured, as Fives approached and stood by his side, regarding the silent march below. "Or may the Force help us all."
Okay, so after the S5 finale, I knew I'd have to go back on my word and write one more follow up peice. Much of this was inspired by a chat with Jade-Max, who was also kind enough to take a look at this vignette before posting. Thank you so much!
EDIT: Thanks to Kalena-ti for correcting my butchered Mando'a. :P
And thank you for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts. :)