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Blackbirds: Year One

Chapter Text

Dear Flanker,

Well, I’m onboard the Negotiator now.  Heck of a surprise, getting diverted from Orto Plutonia.  I didn’t see that one coming, but I can’t say I’m complaining, either.  At least, not about not having to spend however many months strapped to that iceberg of a planet.

I met a couple of the guys who are going to be in our squad.  Tally’s the name of our medic.  He’s a little older than we are, though you know as well as I do that doesn’t mean much.  He’s real calm, though.  He was on Christophsis, like you were, but he said he never ran into you.  I wish he had.

The other one I met is Raze, and I bet he’s gonna live up to his name.  He was pulling apart a grenade launcher while I stowed my gear.  Swear by the looks of him that he was in love.  There are gonna be eight more of us here soon, and then I guess we’ll get a proper briefing.

I wonder sometimes why we’re all different like that.  None of us are ARCs or anything, we all had the same training, but here we are with all these different quirks.  Makes you think, eh, brother?

Anyway, though, I gotta tell you about our CO.  You won’t believe this.

I got onboard and after I settled into our quarters, I get a call from the hangar deck from General Kenobi himself.  That’s a pretty big deal, so I make sure I’m all turned out and then I double-time it up there, and I have to admit that I’m wondering why he didn’t call one of the other two.

I get there, and he’s arguing with the scariest looking zabrak I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Around now, I started getting a sinking feeling, but I just stood back and waited.  It was definitely an argument.  The general looked frustrated.  The zabrak just looked terrifying.  They weren’t shouting at each other or anything, but they both had their arms crossed and were firing words back and forth, and I stayed well out of the way because I didn’t want any part of that.

Except, then General Kenobi made me a part of it.

He threw his hands up and then came my way and looked me over.  Polite as could be, like he wasn’t just in the middle of an argument.  "You’re Shiv, correct?“

"Yes, sir,” I answered.

“Wonderful.”  I got the feeling that he actually meant that, which made me feel a little better.  "Shiv, this is your new lieutenant, Maul.  Maul, this is your new sergeant, Shiv.  I expect you to schedule a meeting in briefing room three as soon as the rest of the squad gets here.“

Heck of a way to get a promotion.

General Kenobi claps me on a shoulder, and then he walks by and I swear, Flanker, I catch him smirking to himself out of the corner of my eye.

The zabrak – our lieutenant – glares after him with these eerie yellow eyes, then he looks at me and visions of snarling and death cross my mind, though it sort of becomes less of a glare and more of a stare, like I’m some kind of strange thing he’s never seen before.  Talk about irony, right?

Then, damned if he doesn’t speak, and I’m not kidding, he has the most proper inner core newscaster accent I’ve ever heard.  Never in a million years, did I imagine that voice going with a face like that.  "Hello, Shiv.”

“Sir,” I answered, once I got over my surprise.

“I’d like you to know that I have precisely no idea what I’m doing,” he went on, looking me in the eyes.  "If anything goes wrong, I think we should blame Kenobi.“

I have no idea how to answer that.  Good thing he didn’t seem to want one, because he walked past me and left me standing there, with a brand new promotion and a commanding officer who’s even greener than I am.

I don’t know if there’s anything after this, for us clones.  But brother, wherever you are, if you are, save a beer for me.  I think I’ll need it.

-Shiv


 

 

Chapter Text

The couch was military blue-gray and not particularly long, sitting across from a holo display in the tiny area that one might call a living room, if they were feeling generous.  On the other side of it was the door to his private ‘fresher and a very small kitchenette.  On this side of it was the reason why Obi-Wan Kenobi did not turn down the larger quarters afforded to a general: An actual bed, rather than a bunk, with a decent mattress and pillows, and with standard issue bedding in addition to a couple of personal blankets folded at the foot of it.  It even had netting that could be raised that would prevent the sleeper(s) from being knocked onto the floor in the event of an attack.

It was a very comfortable bed.

The reason Obi-Wan was contemplating the couch, however, was because he was pretty sure he was going to be sleeping on it for the forseeable future.

Maul was furious with him.  Not Sith Lord furious, but how dare you furious.

Standing there with arms crossed furious.

I might never let you come back to bed furious.

It didn’t honestly matter that Maul had his own assigned quarters on the Negotiator.  As far as Obi-Wan was concerned, home was together and it would never occur to him to have it otherwise.  They hadn’t even really discussed it; it was a given. Just because he came in through the door and Maul came in through the access hatch didn’t make it any less theirs.  They slept in the same bed, they edged past one another in the 'fresher while half-asleep to brush their teeth, they both kept the place tidy and made sure the tea was stocked in the cupboard.

Hell’s teeth, they even co-mingled underwear.

“All I’m asking,” Obi-Wan said, gentle, “is that you give it a fair shot.”

“It’s a horrible idea, Kenobi.  I’m not–”  Maul gestured sharply, frustrated. “–leadership material.  I don’t even work well with others, I don’t know what makes you think I could lead them.”

That Obi-Wan had been reduced to his surname was indicative of how angry Maul actually was. “Intuition, mostly.  But I do have plenty of tactical reasons.”

“So you’ve said.”

“I’ll be glad to go over them again with you.”  Obi-Wan edged a little closer, walking the very fine line there sometimes was between being soothing and being unwittingly patronizing. “The backup alone makes this worthwhile.  But it also widens your mission parameters considerably.  They aren’t ARCs, but all of them have good notes for independent thought and decision making, too.”

“I don’t know the first thing about leading troops.  The closest I’ve ever come was hiring a mercenary force at Orsis and leading a mock raid at the academy,” Maul pointed out, still glaring at him.

Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows, imploring. “Given the black ops angle, that’s a good foundation.”

This wasn’t their first argument about it.  The first argument was on the hangar deck, in front of the Blackbirds’ newly minted sergeant, Shiv.  Obi-Wan had made a strategic decision not to warn Maul he was about to be given his own squad, mostly because he had wanted to delay sleeping on the couch for as long as possible.  He also hoped that it would be a case where begging forgiveness would ultimately be easier than asking permission would have been.

“I watched you teach Cody some truly diabolical methods for rigging relays and explosives,” Obi-Wan said, inching closer still.  "I also caught you teaching some hand-to-hand to those new transfers, remember?  You’re not as ill-equipped for this as you think you are.“

He could see the wavering resolve; Maul certainly didn’t quit glowering, and his posture remained just as closed off, but there was that little flicker of something on his face that suggested he wasn’t stone-cold set against the idea.

Frankly, if he really and truly decided not to accept this position, there was no amount of persuasion in the galaxy that would change that.

"Two months,” Obi-Wan said, pressing his advantage while he had it.  "Give it two months.  Some training exercises, then missions if they come up.  If you still don’t want to do this at the end of seventy days, then that’s it; I’ll turn the Blackbirds over to someone else.“

Maul wrinkled his nose up, the mildest form he had of a snarl, but he didn’t say no, either.  He also didn’t push Obi-Wan backwards, when Obi-Wan made to creep into his space, which boded well.

Not only for the Blackbirds, but for Obi-Wan’s back if he was spared the couch.

"Why name them Blackbirds?” Maul finally asked, which was about as close as Obi-Wan was going to get to a surrender.  And even that was a conditional surrender, he knew.

“Oh.  Well, once long ago,” Obi-Wan answered, grin spreading as Maul gave him a flat look for his opening, “my master and I were visiting a world in the Outer Rim and while we were there, I saw these birds flit across the fields of grain, chasing insects.  They were small, but fleet and graceful; I found out later that they were also quite good hunters, eating half their body weight per night.

"But even while they did that, they landed so lightly that they didn’t even bend the stalks of grain.”  Obi-Wan shrugged, close enough now to duck his head and rub the bridge of his nose against the line of Maul’s jaw, and smile to himself when Maul finally uncrossed his arms and rested his hands light on Obi-Wan’s hips.  "They’re technically called Antarian Red-Barred Blackbirds, but that’s a rather cumbersome name for a squad, so Blackbirds it is.“

Maul made a vague, noncommittal noise, but then huffed out a quiet sigh. "Two months.  And I’ll hear no more about it, if I decide that’s all.”

“Two months,” Obi-Wan confirmed, drawing back enough to capture one of those hands that rested on his hips.

He was still grinning when he kissed the red bars on the backs of Maul’s otherwise black fingers, and he didn’t stop grinning until he fell asleep.

Particularly because he did so in his own bed.

Chapter Text

“No, I just think it’s kind of funny.  I mean, what are the odds?” Tango asked, leaned back in his seat with his arms behind his head.

“Apparently pretty good?” Brody asked back, bemused. “Since we’re here, and so are they?”

Tally looked up from where he was going through the squad’s medical records on the datapad, familiarizing himself with the history of ten of his brothers and one zabrak-human hybrid with extensive cybernetics, making use of the time while they were waiting in Briefing Room 3 onboard the Negotiator.  He tended to arrive to meetings early, if he had the chance, so he had already been seated as the rest of them started trickling in, also early.

That, he guessed, was probably curiosity on their parts.  None of them had expected to be transferred here, so it made sense that everyone would want to get this show on the road and see what they were dealing with.

The two shinies – and boy were they, they’d only been aboard for two hours and came right from Kamino – were sitting together, talking quietly to each other.  They were batchmates; they had probably expected to be assigned with their platoon, only to find themselves separated and sent elsewhere.  They didn’t even have names yet, though doubtless they would soon enough.

Castle was the other one who had arrived today; he was pretty quiet, just sitting there watching the rest of them play the ‘getting to know you even though we’re all genetically almost identical’ game.

Husker, next to him, was the oldest of the clones (and the one who had taken a piece of shrapnel to his neck, injuring his vocal cords during a training exercise before war was even declared and thus earning his name); he had been transferred over from the 501st.  Like Castle, he didn’t talk much; supposedly, if scuttlebutt was right, he had originally been approached for sergeant and had turned it down.

Raze was their appropriately named weapons specialist.  He was also the only clone who wasn’t already in the briefing room, absent Shiv.

And Shiv was their newly promoted sergeant; he seemed pretty serious on first glance, but once he got talking, he had a pretty good sense of humor.  He was sharp, too.  He and Tally had fallen in fast and Tally was sure they were going to work well together.

Tally himself had been with the 212th already; so far, he was the only one.  He was also the only one next to Shiv who had met their CO, but not onboard ship – he’d met Maul back on Christophsis, trying to patch him up after he’d jumped in front of a bomb blast protecting General Kenobi.

Just based on that initial meeting, Tally was going to guess they were in for some interesting times ahead.

He hadn’t gotten a feel for Smarty or Misty yet, but he figured they’d all likely be hanging out together later swapping yarns and getting used to one another.

Now, though, Tango rolled his eyes. “I can’t be the only one who’s thought about this.”

Tally hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversation, so he asked, “Thought about what?”

“Both of the guys directly in charge of us are named after weapons,” Tango answered, emphatically, raising his arm from behind his head to gesture as the door opened. “Maul, Shiv.  I mean, if you ask me, it’s an omen.”

The two shinies scrambled to their feet while Castle and Husker both stood more leisurely, and it was right about then that Tally realized that, in all likelihood, one of the two named individuals had just walked into the room.  He set down his datapad and got to his feet as the rest scrambled to follow, caught off guard.

Scratch that. They had both walked in.

Maul eyed Tango, head tilted a little bit. “What if I was named for the verb?” he asked, with a seriousness that could have been real or could have been deadpan humor; it was impossible to tell.  Behind his shoulder, Shiv rubbed over his face, clearly failing in his effort not to grin.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tally could see the shinies staring wide-eyed.  Maybe a little terrified.  Tango, on the other hand, cleared his throat, face flushed. “Sorry, sir.”

“Technically, you’re still a noun, sir,” Tally pointed out, coming to his rescue.

Maul turned his attention to Tally next. “I am a noun, but the premise is that I was named for the noun.  The entire argument falls apart if I was named for the verb.”

Someone – either Misty or Brody, they were standing close together – snorted a laugh.

“Were you named for the verb, sir?” Tango asked, more tentatively, still red-faced.

“I’m not sure.  Perhaps.”  Maul quirked his brow, then eyed Tally again. “I know you, don’t I?”

“Yes, sir.  I tried to patch a hole in your side on Christophsis and you grabbed my wrist and told me you’d take care of it yourself,” Tally answered, just a little bit dryly.  "Looks like you succeeded.“

Maul gave a nod back, eyes narrowed a fraction, though it didn’t really look like anger. "I did.  I thought I recognized your hair,” he said, and Tally reached up and ran a hand back over the medic's cross he’d had his hair shaved into, originally a joke and later surprisingly practical.

Then Maul turned to look at Shiv. “Shiv is both noun and verb, as well.  Which were you named for?”

“Definitely the verb, sir,” Shiv answered, color rising on his cheeks.  "It’s a– it’s a long story.“

"I stand corrected,” Tango said, sheepishly. “But it is kind of funny anyway.”

“It could still be an omen, if they’re both considered verbs,” Maul agreed, and this time, it was definitely dry, deadpan humor.  Then he blinked as if he was remembering something and gestured. “Oh.  As you were.”

The rest of the squad all slowly lowered themselves back into their seats just as Raze came through the door, stopping when he noticed he was the last man there. “–kriff.  Sorry, sir; Sarge.  What’d I miss?”

“A grammar debate,” Shiv said, a smile lurking on his mouth as he gestured. “Have a seat, Raze.”

Chapter Text

Now

The briefing was going surprisingly well.  There was nothing too specific to brief the squad on, just their mission parameters and why they had all been assembled, but as first meetings went, it was turning out– unexpectedly painless.

“I blow stuff up,” Raze said, grinning.

“I put it back together,” Castle added right on the heels.

“I make sure everyone’s intact to do both of those,” Tally put in.

The two new clones who didn’t have names had numbers so close together that Maul just designated them Six and Eight in his mind for now.  Six said, nervously, “We aren’t specialized.  I guess that means we’re the distraction while you guys get to blow stuff up or put it together?”

They went around the table; Tango was a pilot, Brody was trained in computers, Husker was a sniper and he and Shiv were both more widely trained in extreme environments than the others, Smarty apparently had taken a particular interest in self-studying cultures and customs in his free time and Misty was an aquatics expert.

Even Maul had to admit that covered just about everything a well rounded group of soldiers would need in the field, and they would inevitably gain more skills with more experience.  Completely despite his absolute reluctance to have anything to do with this leadership business, he caught himself plotting to teach them teräs käsi as he listened to them.

When he realized he was doing that, he internally cursed Obi-Wan again.

“What about you, Lieu?” Raze asked, and it took Maul a moment to realize that was actually short for lieutenant. “What are you specialized in?”

He opened his mouth to answer and–

 

 

Earlier

“I have a briefing in two hours and I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Bail Organa looked back in his small blue holographic form, and even in miniature, Maul could see the amusement on his face.  But it was either ask advice of him or ask advice of Obi-Wan, and frankly, Maul would be damned before he would give Obi-Wan that satisfaction, since he’d orchestrated this business in the first place.

So, after pacing around the general’s quarters for a solid half-hour, trying to picture even talking to these troops, Maul had called Bail, who took being woken up an hour earlier than he would have otherwise with admirable patience.

“I– okay, which part of this is giving you trouble?” Bail asked, eyebrows wavering a little, once he was done scrubbing at his face, doubtless trying to finish waking up.

“All of it.”  Maul gestured, frustrated, and barely managed to keep himself from pacing again. “I’ve never done this before.  I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to act, I don’t even know how I’m supposed to greet them, yet I’m expected to be in charge?  This is–”  He paused and squinted. “Are you laughing?

Bail had one of his hands over his face and his shoulders were shaking.  Completely ignorant of – or intentionally ignoring – the glare that he was getting, he laughed for perhaps twenty seconds before shaking his head with a breath out. “It’s just– I’m talking to a former Sith Lord with a fear of public speaking.  I can’t say I expected to start my morning like that.”

“Bail.”  That came out a little more pathetic than Maul had meant it to.

“Listen,” Bail said, taking another breath and smiling some, one of his fond looks, “I’m going to give you the most trite, cliché piece of advice there is, but in your case, I actually mean it.  Okay?  Go, and be yourself.”

“Be myself,” Maul said, flatly.  "Which self are you suggesting I be?  The one who’s been a prisoner for a third of my life, the one who knows a way to kill almost every sentient in at least one fashion, the one who has no military or proper leadership experience?“

"All of the above,” Bail answered, shaking his head, holding his hand up to tick off his fingers.“And don’t forget blunt, stubborn, funny, loyal and clever.”

Maul crossed his arms. “Flattery doesn’t solve this problem.”

“Maul, you know me.  I don’t flatter.”  Bail shook his head again. “Just– trust me on this one.  We went through hell together, I know what I’m talking about.  Take my really cliché advice and go be your blunt, stubborn, funny, loyal, clever, inexperienced and deadly self.”

“If this goes horribly wrong–”

“Then you have my permission to call Breha and tell her about my bad advice.”

Maul eyed Bail; that was a pretty undeniable vote of confidence.  "Fine.  Thank you.“

 

 

Now Again

”–Stealth.  Infiltration.  Mechanics.  Hand-to-hand and bladed combat.  Wilderness survival.  Explosives. I know of at least one way to kill almost every species of sentient in our known galaxy, but more often several,“ Maul said, more aware of the eleven sets of eyes trained on him than he really wanted to be.  He drummed his fingers lightly against the table’s surface, leaned back in the chair.  "What I don’t specialize in is military protocol and I have very limited experience in working in teams, most of that some seventeen years old now.  In that regard, I’m going to be– learning as I go, I suppose.”

Six and Eight were staring with their jaws dropped.  Tango was, as well.  Raze– Raze was grinning in a manner which one might consider disturbing.

“You’re– a Jedi?” Brody asked, tentatively, sounding like he was fairly sure that the answer was exactly the opposite of that.

“I’m under their banner, but no.”  Even Maul had to smirk just a little there. “I’m something else entirely.”

A glance at the chronometer told him they had been there for the allotted half-hour, so Maul dismissed them, but not before telling them all to meet him in one of the training rooms in the early afternoon, an hour after lunch.  He figured that they would be deployed for training soon enough, so he might as well make use of the time here to start teaching them what he knew, in the hopes he might learn what he didn’t at the same time.

“Not bad, sir,” Shiv said, lingering; even just in the past two days, he had proven himself an invaluable second-in-command, and much like Maul had with Bail, he had decided he liked Shiv almost instantly.

On the other side of the door, just before it closed, Tango was saying, “Definitely an omen, boys.  We’re in trouble.”

Raze answered, “Are you kidding?  This is going to be great.”

Maul tipped his head back to look at his sergeant standing there. “We’ll see about that.”

Chapter Text

She carried herself differently, from the last time they had crossed paths.

It was a subtle enough difference, but a difference nonetheless. Maul wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it was enough that he mentally noted it when Ahsoka Tano, padawan of Anakin Skywalker, decided to slip into the training room where he was currently teaching his squad their first lessons in teräs käsi.

He didn’t intend to interrupt his lessons, though he shook his head to himself and chewed down a grin when Raze – who Maul had quickly figured out was the most easily distracted clone he had under his still quite new command – completely broke form to see who had come in. Tango followed suit, followed by Misty, and by the end, the only two who didn’t turn around were Six and Eight, likely because they were fresh out of Kamino had therefore freshly indoctrinated to military protocol.

(Maul was still figuring out how to get them to not be terrified of him. He was hoping this would help.)

“Need something, Commander?” Shiv asked, brow furrowing in confusion, which saved Maul from having to ask himself.

Tano chewed her lip briefly, looking for all the world like she didn’t know whether she should be standing upon her rank – she was currently the highest rank in the room, which struck Maul as downright bizarre given her age – or whether she should defer to the squad she was interrupting. “No, I just–” She shook her head, then gave them a bit of a rueful smile. “I was curious, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“If you’re looking to learn,” Maul cut in, folding his hands behind his back, “then form up.” A beat. “Commander.”

It wasn’t mocking; he had no desire to cut the girl down. But it was pointed; he certainly wasn’t going to defer to her authority, either, especially in his training room and with his squad. If she wished to learn, then so be it; in the military, she ranked him, but in teräs käsi, he was a master.

He had to give her credit, because she didn’t try to push the issue, just squared her shoulders and then nodded and stepped over to stand next to Brody, the brief hesitation of before gone in favor of what looked to be still-new confidence. “Yes, Lieutenant.”

Maul asked Shiv to go and catch her up, and then just resumed his lesson like he wasn’t walking all over Skywalker’s toes, even though he was so very aware that he was.

Unsurprisingly, that made the lesson much more satisfying.

 

 

 

There were several reasons why Maul wanted to teach his squad teräs käsi. One of those was, of course, the various Sith pretenders running about. Dooku and Ventress both would have no issue with cutting down clones, and Maul wasn’t about to let the likes of such trash cut down these clones.

(For the sixty-eighth time in just shy of two weeks, he cursed Obi-Wan in his mind. Because Obi-Wan knew. He knew Maul wouldn’t be able to resist taking charge of this squad because he wouldn’t be able to resist teaching them all kinds of things that the Jedi Council would have tooka kits over.)

Anyway, that was the second reason. To score one on the Council. Training a bunch of non-Force sensitive clones in how to take down Force sensitives was a subtle defiance, but Maul would take it.

A third reason was that teräs käsi was a very inwardly focused discipline. It involved knowing oneself and knowing how to use oneself, in body and in spirit; the squad could only benefit from such things. Maul could already see that Raze -- if he could just focus long enough -- was going to excel at it once he had the foundation work done, and Shiv was also likely to do the same; the others were less certain, but all of them could gain something from the learning. A master of it could even control their autonomic functions to some degree; while it would take some years for them to become masters of it, there was plenty to be gained for the practice, including learning meditation, mindfulness and how to shield their minds from Force users and other interference.

A fourth was that a master of teräs käsi could prolong their own lifespan and health several fold beyond the mean natural. And for beings whose clocks were artificially fast, that could give them something that the GAR, the Republic and Kamino wouldn’t: Lives after the war.

Maul wasn’t altruistic, but once he decided he had liked them, this unlikely lot of eleven clones that he was going to be in charge of -- (there was the sixty-ninth curse) -- the realization of their status became important in a way it hadn’t been to him before.

There were other reasons, too. Practical or otherwise. But those four were the serious ones.

 

 

 

Tano turned out to be something of a natural at it; her thin, whipcord frame benefited her in many ways, whereas the clones were bulkier and had to work harder to control themselves for the more delicate moves. More, though, her Jedi training gave her a strong advantage; teräs käsi may have been created to fight Jedi, but to fight something effectively, you had to know it and understand it and then build on that foundation. There was a reason why Maul knew all of the traditional Jedi lightsaber forms, instead of simply focusing on one or two.

Once she was caught up, she fell right in with the current lessons, expression intent and focused. Maul wondered, a little, what she was trying to prove and to whom; desire to learn simply to learn existed, but she didn’t seem the type to pick up a new martial art just to know it.

Once the lesson was over -- Raze was already trying to figure out how to weaponize meditation, of all things, discussing it with animated hands on the way out the door with a very bemused Tally, leaving Maul to stare after them and wonder for the umpteenth time just what he had gotten into with this -- Tano lingered behind.

Maul wasn’t very surprised by that. “Your master doesn’t know you’re here,” he said, because that much was a certainty.

Tano shook her head, smirking a little bit, though her shrug seemed both sheepish and guilty. “He’s busy, and I’ve already done all of my lightsaber drills.”

“What were you working on?” He remembered she had been on Niman, but that might as well have been a lifetime ago. It felt like it for him; he thought it probable that it felt like it for her, as well.

“Ataru,” Tano answered, flashing a quick (and apologetic?) grin before turning and heading for the door. “Maybe with that, some Niman and some teräs käsi, I might almost know what Juyo’s like.”

"I thought you wanted to learn Jar'Kai," Maul said, after a moment, not liking how that statement made him feel. It wasn't anger, but whatever it was, it also wasn't pleasant.

Tano stopped and half turned back; somehow, the girl managed to look both oddly confident and equally fragile, in profile. Not for the first time, her age -- fourteen? Perhaps fifteen? -- struck Maul, though he wasn't sure why. He had already been neck deep in lightsaber combat techniques by then, facing off against assassin droids and his own Master, and he was fairly sure the only reason he didn't have more scars from it was because his Master had been content with inflicting pain and that permanently maiming Maul would have been counterproductive.

Somehow, she seemed younger. Maybe it was how Jedi raised their apprentices.

"I asked Master Obi-Wan, after Christophsis. He said you were master of three forms and at least knight level on all of the rest of them." Tano chewed her bottom lip, another of those nervous ticks, then turned back to face him fully. "You were only seven years older than me, when you did that, but I was just working on first level Niman last time we talked."

Maul thought he could see where she was going with this, even if she was attempting to land on it from an elliptical orbit. Her proficiency in lightsaber combat was, though, none of his business; that was her master's job to teach her.

But there was something else which whispered -- the Force or just some echo of who he used to be, when he could walk into any combat situation with nothing but a blade and know he would walk back out because he had been that good -- keeping him from throwing her out of his training room. Some combination of Kilindi Matako's bright personality paired with incredible competence and his own late teenage years, where the one place he belonged to himself was with a blade in his hand.

"I've only just gotten back the right to carry a saber," Maul said, folding his hands behind his back again. "Training you behind your master's back would likely see that right taken away again, if I'm caught. It's his job to teach you these things; why are you asking me?"

Tano started; she probably hadn't thought he could guess what she had actually come here for. Though he didn't doubt she would also learn teräs käsi. But she didn't flinch away, even if she looked guilty, as she said, "My Master is a good teacher, but lightsaber training is mostly deflection practice and basic forms these days. Which I guess makes perfect sense, since we're mostly dealing with tinnies, but if I want to become more than proficient at dueling, I'm either going to have to wait until the war ends, or seek out a teacher who is willing to teach despite the war."

Maul raised a brow. "And you think I am."

"I think you might be." Tano fidgeted yet again, then looked down for a moment, clearly thinking. When she looked back up, there was something-- sly? on her face, and a smirk on her mouth. "I think you really like knowing you can score points on him. But if that's not good enough, I have something else to make it worth your time."

Completely despite all of his better judgement, Maul asked, "And that is?"

Tano bit her lip again and then grinned, enthusiastic rebellion in skinny teenage form. "I might know when your squad's first training mission is going to happen. And I might know where. And I might know the parameters and who you'll be up against."

Maul was not particularly talkative. Nor was he given to saying more words if fewer could be used. He struggled with knowing which ones to use, and sometimes even to speak them when he did know them, but that wasn't the same thing as actually being knocked speechless.

Yet, Ahsoka Tano had managed to do just that.

His being knocked speechless must have shown on his face because her grin broadened further and her brows went up in a look between imploring and barely-contained glee as she rushed on, "Okay, I know what you're going to say, but it's just a training mission. And we're all part of the same army. And your squad is going to be infiltration and covert ops, so that means subterfuge and knowing how to get informants, right? How to get people on the inside? So, consider me your person on the inside. You train me in dueling as compensation, your squad gets valuable experience, you get to score all kinds of points on Skyguy without anyone getting hurt; it's a win for everyone. Except maybe my master, but he wins other things all the time."

He wasn't sure whether it was her audacity, her nerve, her ridiculous amount of enthusiastic glee, the madness of this proposal, but Maul was sure that he hadn't laughed like that in a long time, startled right into it, something he was still learning fell under the definition of happiness.

"So..." Tano said, drawing it out, when he'd finally managed to get that back under control; something in her expression had softened. "Deal?"

Maul rubbed over his face one-handedly, and then jerked his chin towards the door, not quite able to smother a half-grin he was still wearing despite his best efforts. "I will think about it. If you come back tomorrow, I'll probably have an answer."

"Fair enough." She sketched a salute, then turned and headed out the door, a bounce in her step.

 

 

 

Maul did think about it.

By the time he was deep into contemplation of the whole thing, even the desire to stick it to Skywalker had become a peripheral (though not non-existent) factor in it.

He wasn't a master swordsman anymore. Even able to practice openly -- and he did, whenever he had any downtime which wasn't spent with Obi-Wan -- he was no where near what he had once been. It wasn't just the lack of practice; he no longer could ground the way he always had. These metal legs precluded it, and even though he was still strong in the Force, he was never going to be able to attain the sheer fluidity of movement that he'd once worked so hard to refine; he would never be able to re-attain the connection to the Force, the perfection of motion.

One of the more wretched and useful things that he took off of Zigoola was the acceptance that he would never know that kind of perfection again, but it didn't take away how much it still ached at the base of his throat when he thought of it. One of the more healing things he had taken off of Alderaan was having that loss acknowledged for what it was -- Orders or morals or Light or Dark aside, just for what it was -- but that didn't mean the pain of it had vanished entirely, only that the anger attached to it was finally gone instead of just buried deep.

He sat with elbows braced on unyielding knees, hands playing over the increasingly familiar hilt of his staff, the casing slowly gaining the inevitable signs of wear, marks to a story being told. He still didn't feel bonded to it the same way as he had his original, but as time wore on, it was becoming more a part of him; its living crystals sang a different song than the ones he had forged himself so long ago, but sometimes he could feel the resonance in his blood again.

Even now, practicing against droids or sparring with Obi-Wan, there were moments where he wished Obi-Wan had aimed higher. Even for all that he had gained since. Moments where the hurt in his chest was such that he didn't want to keep drawing air past it.

Yet, still he did. And inevitably he figured out how to breathe and to be again.

Tomorrow, he would tell Tano that he agreed. And they would work out some way to make it a learning experience for the Blackbirds, gaining that intelligence; it was a teaching exercise, after all, just handing them the intel would not gain them anything genuinely useful.

But tonight, he would let Obi-Wan drag him in and hold him, and he would listen to the man breathe, listen to his heartbeat through his chest, and give himself some time for the ache in his own to fade again.

Chapter Text

Brody had learned a lot, in his time as a computer specialist.

For instance, there were more kinks than there were species in the galaxy. There was an entire HoloNet community dedicated to holo-manipulations of Jedi generals wearing either very little or nothing at all. (There was also a fiction section about them, but Brody knew some things were better left unexplored.) There were virtual sectors dedicated to everything from propaganda to conspiracy theories to love connections between Republic and Separatist beings.

Beyond that, he knew for a fact that Vice Admiral Dode had an account with the sector The Furry Lekku, which was devoted to amateur porn between wookiees and twi'leks. General Skywalker, despite being far better than most at covering his tracks on the information stream, had an account on a sector which tracked and discussed Outer Rim pod racing. The senator's aide from Galvoni liked to listen to the Mystery Series Broadcast weekly.

Brody had a bit more knowledge about the galaxy than many of his brothers just because of his specialty. And he was pretty damned good at slicing into difficult systems, if he did say so himself.

What he didn't expect was for his CO to ask him to do the nigh-on impossible.

"I need you to infiltrate the Jedi Temple's system," the Lieu said, gold eyes narrowed.

"--uh, can't we just ask General Kenobi?" Brody asked back, breaking into a cold sweat at the idea of trying to slice into that particular system.

"Not in this case. It's about our first training mission."

Brody blinked back. He's crazy, he thought, staring at the zabrak. Okay, so that wasn't the first time Brody had thought that, but he was pretty sure this proved it. "What-- what am I looking for, sir?"

Maul pulled out a piece of flimsi and set it down on the console. "These files, specifically."

"Where did you hear about this, sir?"

"I may have someone on the inside." Maul nudged the piece of flimsi over closer. Brody stared at it and felt the sweat run down his back. "Try not to get caught. It's no great loss if you can't get it, but I would be grateful."

Well, that took a little of the pressure off. Brody waited until he was alone again to pick up the flimsi. The Temple's system was a fortress, like the Temple itself was. He'd never done more than go to the public facing sector, which was bland and boring, but even then he could see the firewalls behind it. And kriff, getting caught--

He stared at the file names.

Looked like he would just have to be really careful not to get caught.

(He would be lying if he said he wasn't just a little bit intrigued.)

 

 

 

A few hours or so later, two decks away, General Obi-Wan Kenobi was watching his other-half sit in the middle of the floor with droid parts everywhere. He, himself, was not particularly mechanically inclined, but he knew Maul was quite adept as an engineer and mechanic both.

Still, this was the first time he had ever been witness to it in action.

"There must be a thousand parts here," he said, stepping incredibly carefully in order to make it past the minefield of them.

"Nine hundred and thirteen," Maul answered, looking both endearing and ridiculous with a pair of magnifying goggles on. When he looked up, eyes magnified to cartoon proportions, Obi-Wan had to bite hard on his inner lip to keep from busting out laughing. "If you want something useful to do, you can make me a tea," he said, adjusting the magnaspecs and then going back to his work.

"Yes, darling," Obi-Wan answered, like a well-pecked husband, knowing full well that Maul wouldn't get the joke as he turned around to go and make some tea. "What is that for, anyway?"

"It's a training droid. Or, it will be."

"For your squad?"

"Not quite. Could you make that black tea Bail sent and add some cream and honey?"

Obi-Wan rubbed over his beard, grinning broadly, and then did as he was asked. Perhaps later he could find out what the droid was going to be for. And if he had to excuse himself to slip out and laugh at the image of Maul in those magnaspecs in the meantime-- well, humor was scarce in war, Obi-Wan would take what he could get.

 

 

 

Onboard the Resolute, Ahsoka Tano was busy with her own bit of intrigue. She leaned against Hardwire's terminal, waving a datachip at him, smiling big and bright. "I just need these files inserted into the Jedi Temple system. It's part of another squad's training mission; their computer expert needs to practice his slicing," she said, which happened to be the truth.

What she didn't tell him was that it wasn't for one of the squads in the 501st. And she also didn't tell him that it was basically her playing double-agent for someone her Master really, really didn't like.

She had meant it, though; they were all on the same side. No harm would be done, except maybe a little to Skyguy's pride, and it wasn't like he couldn't use the occasional ding to that. Ahsoka thought highly of Anakin Skywalker, and every day she thought she understood how his mind worked just that little bit better, but she was still stung about how he had treated her between Christophsis and Bothawui, too.

And besides, she kind of was rooting for Maul and his Blackbirds. She knew what it was like to be underestimated.

"Do you have the access codes?" Hardwire asked, eyebrows drawing together.

"As a matter of fact," Ahsoka answered, smiling even bigger and brighter, canines showing, "I do."

 

 

 

Four decks away, on a very well-encrypted comm connection with his wife, Anakin remained oblivious to the fact that his credentials were being used to ruin the surprise training mission he had lobbied the Council hard to be able to design.

 

 

 

"You've got this, Brody, I believe in you," Misty said, yawning, with just enough ironic cheerleading to flavor the words, setting the cup of caf down next to Brody's hand fourteen hours later.

"Shut up," Brody muttered back, scrubbing at his bloodshot eyes with one hand. He had been excused from their regular training exercises and lessons in teräs käsi in order to keep working on slicing into the Temple's system, and while everyone -- including Maul and Shiv -- had told him to take a break and get some sleep, he had only managed an hour of that before inspiration drove him out of his bunk and back to his terminal.

Now, it was two hours to morning muster, and he was this close.

He took a sip of caf. Stared at the datastream; the evolving firewalls. The adaptive response programs.

Slowly -- with trembling fingers -- he reached out and tapped execute and watched his own program, custom build over the past not-quite-day, start seeking the way in.

 

 

 

There was a third of a completed droid on the floor, sitting next to a half-zabrak, who was laying sprawled out amongst scattered parts wholly asleep.

Obi-Wan had given up trying to drag Maul to bed some hours before, having been reduced to being Bringer of Tea and also Bringer of Headache Pills, both of which were not roles he minded playing, but in moderation. He discovered fairly quickly, though, that when Maul was intently working on something, moderation went out the viewport and thus he was stuck going to bed alone without his favorite body pillow and/or blanket.

Now, he just stood in his underwear, not very awake himself, and surveyed the scene; he sighed, too, knowing that Maul was going to be especially surly in a couple hours when he had to be up and moving, and that it was possible that this would keep happening until the mystery training droid was complete.

A couple hours in a proper bed wouldn't likely hurt anything, though, so with some use of the Force -- to extract Maul from the scatter of parts -- and the rest of muscle, he hauled his other-half to bed, trying to mentally prepare for the coming day and (at the exact same time) put it off as long as possible.

Of course, any fleeting frustration Obi-Wan might have felt vanished entirely when Maul curled up against him; he just shook his head and smiled to himself, dragging the blankets up over them both.

 

 

 

It had taken Shiv very little time to figure out the best way to approach his new position as sergeant.

For as intimidating as Maul had first looked -- before he opened his mouth and sounded like a newscaster about to read the headlines, anyway -- he had not been kidding when he said he had no idea what he was doing. Since Shiv was sane, he found that to be an extremely worrisome declaration, because while he and all of his several hundred thousand brothers had been raised and trained to follow orders, and many of them followed the orders of actual children, you wanted to have some kind of confidence that your CO maybe hopefully knew what the hell was going on and how to deal with it.

What he had expected was gross incompetence. What he got was a mix between a complete lack of military knowledge and a truly terrifying amount of hypercompetence in a lot of things, up to and including many, many methods to slaughter people in sometimes wildly creative ways.

Maul's saving grace wasn't in his rather startling ability to name sixteen ways to kill Rodians with his bare hands without blinking once, though. It was his complete lack of pretentiousness.

When Shiv made a suggestion, Maul listened. If any of them made a suggestion, and it was something they knew that Maul didn't, Maul listened. Then he went one better: He learned from it. In those areas where he was the best authority, he commanded just fine; when he wasn't, he paid close attention and while he didn't defer his command, he was perfectly willing to step aside and encourage someone else to show their skills.

So, Shiv found himself in the position of teacher as much as he did sergeant (and sometimes student), which suited fine. And even just over a number of weeks, he watched the squad get more and more cohesive and comfortable with that dynamic.

But the best approach was actually much more simple: A quick sense of humor and the durasteel balls necessary to deploy it.

"Someone woke up on the wrong side of their plug-in station," he observed, when Maul made it into the briefing room that had become the unofficial headquarters for the squad. The fact that Maul's cybernetics didn't require it didn't matter; the quip was too good to pass up.

"I know of thirty-six separate ways to kill humans without so much as a knife in hand," Maul answered right back, without missing a beat, voice calm and utterly at odds with the fact he looked like death warmed over, squinting and bleary-eyed and wearing a rumpled shirt.

Shiv snorted, moving over to the caf-maker that someone 'liberated' from the galley only a week into their time as a squad, recognizing a caffeine withdrawal headache when he saw one. "Maybe when you're awake, you'll remember a dozen more, sir."

"Maybe. Maybe even two dozen," Maul said, archly, though without any heat. For being a very adept murdering half-machine, though, he looked less dangerous than the average tooka when he sat down and put his forehead down on his arm, braced on the briefing room table.

Shiv smiled to himself, just shaking his head as he brought over the fresh cup of caf and set it in Maul's reach. He was just about to make another -- likely far softer -- comment when Brody came in the door, doing a very fine impression of their lieutenant, right down to the rumpled black shirt and bleary expression.

"I did it," Brody said, holding up the datachip; for as bad as he looked, he sure sounded proud.

Shiv wasn't sure exactly what Brody had been working on, only that it had been Maul who had put him to it. He blinked, looking between them.

"Very good," Maul said, sitting up, a smirk on his face and a wicked glint in his eyes. "Very good."

Shiv was, in a perfectly understandable manner, suddenly very grateful that Maul was on their side.

Chapter Text

"Okay. The good news is, I got in, I got out, I have the files, I have the bumper sticker for whatever ship we eventually get assigned and I didn't get caught." Brody paused, presumably for dramatic effect, then continued, "The bad news is, they're bio-locked."

Nine of them groaned. Maul didn't, and Shiv managed to refrain, but he had to work pretty hard to cut that one off in his throat.

Biometrics were standard procedure on high level classified information; they were incredibly hard to fake and that required access to levels of technology that a squad of clones, even black-ops clones, didn't routinely have. At least not in full. And that meant that the only way they were going to be able to do it would be by actually obtaining each 'key' to the bio-lock and doing it within a very strict timeframe; each key had to be input in order, in a set amount of time, or the files would not only lock themselves again, but the bio-lock programming would also note and log every attempt. If they also happened to contain coding to send the log to the originator, well--

That meant none of them wanted to ask the next question, so Shiv sucked it up and did it. "Who's it bio-locked to?"

Brody set the chip down and winced. "General Skywalker."

This time, they all groaned, absent Maul.

Maul seemed more contemplative than irritated; while the caf hadn't done much for the fact he still looked sleep-deprived and rumpled, Shiv had to give him credit on his ability to at least sound like he was as fresh as an Alderaanian daisy. "The way I see it is this," he said, leaning forward and folding his hands on the table, resting on his elbows and taking them all in, "we can continue on as we have been, training for any eventuality and simply go on this mission as we're intended to without any foreknowledge." A beat. "Or we can stick it to Skywalker, crack his files, get his plans and then possibly humiliate him. We just need to decide which option to take."

"Are you asking for a vote, sir?" Misty asked, tentatively, after a long moment of anticipatory silence.

Maul looked back at him like he was surprised that was even a question. "Of course I am. This isn't a requirement and I most certainly can't do it myself--" Shiv woulda bet that Maul would have just for the fun of it if he could have, though. "--which means we would need to do it as a team, and if you don't want to, then so be it. This isn't some-- some objective from higher up."

Silence fell again, no small part incredulous, especially among the younger clones. Raze, Six and Eight were staring at Maul with lovelights in their eyes, which was probably the first time Shiv had ever seen their shinies not look at him like he was about to eat them. Tally's eyebrow was trying to climb off of his forehead. Even Husker and Castle had both sat up straighter.

Maul glanced around at them with brows up. "So, yes? No?"

It was a very unanimous and largely enthusiastic yes.

 

 

 

"You look-- about as well as expected, I suppose," Obi-Wan said, from where he was sitting on the small couch in their quarters, sipping tea and reading the night's reports. Maul had come back in order to get himself a shower and a fresh set of clothes, since he had woken up to his alarm, then made the undeniable mistake of closing his eyes again for a few moments, only to wake up again with three minutes to get to the briefing room.

Obi-Wan wasn't due to the bridge or briefings for another hour; rare was his chance to catch his breath, but Maul was pleased he was taking it.

"I'm fine," Maul said, gesturing vaguely. "I do need something, though."

A look of surprise crossed Obi-Wan's face and he sat up straighter, something lighting up in his eyes. It was only when he did that, that Maul realized how-- very few times he had ever actually asked the man for anything.  Or asked anyone for anything.  He furrowed his brow at himself at the thought, then shook it off; something to think about later, if he needed to think about it at all. "Name it," Obi-Wan said, almost eagerly.

There was a moment there where Maul felt a nervous jolt, like the anticipation of a blow. He was so caught off guard by that feeling that it took a moment for him to answer, "LiMerge's files. I don't need the whole database, just copies of my old droid programming files."

His Master had scrubbed the system before Maul had been broken, but Maul had kept his own backups, and when the Jedi took LiMerge, they copied everything they could get their hands on. In retrospect, keeping those backups had been a childish whimsy; he had thought, at the time, that he would someday be good enough to put such information to use, perhaps when given more freedom. Now he knew he had been given only scraps, just enough to make him feel vaguely important, just enough to secret away like one buries treasure, hidden deep in the permanently embedded system files for the building's environmental controls, in the anticipation of mattering.

His programming had been his own, though; his training droids had been able to learn and adapt. Maul had rebuilt them so many times that he could have done it asleep, and they kept him on his toes even after he was thoroughly proficient at lightsaber combat.

Sometimes, even now, he missed them. Missed his bike. Missed his Scimitar, the first real symbol that he was worth anything to his Master; even after he knew better, though, he remembered her with affection.

Droids, a bike, a ship; the only things in his life then which bore him no malice.

Obi-Wan cast a glance to where the training droid Maul had been working on was, still in its scatter of parts. Then realization dawned in his eyes; Maul didn't correct his assumption, though he would if asked directly. "I can get those for you," he said, something a little more solemn in his voice. He doubtless thought the droid was for Maul.

Maul was delaying letting Obi-Wan find out that it was for Tano; while it was inevitable, he had a feeling he might end up being the one sleeping on the couch then.

 

 

 

Problem was, Husker liked General Skywalker.

He'd been with the 501st; he knew and followed the man into battle and even interacted personally with him. He also respected the hell out of Rex, but who didn't? He even thought Tano was pretty sparky, with loads of potential.

So, the idea of acting against his former legion was one that didn't sit quite right.

Though-- it didn't sit quite wrong, either. Especially when he saw the brightness in his brothers' eyes here. He had never been given a say in a mission to that degree, let alone a vote, before Maul had offered that out on the table. Like they weren't grunts. Like they were people. Like it didn't even cross the Lieu's mind that they were just clones and shouldn't be having opinions on things, like the missions they accepted.

He held his peace even when they were brainstorming at the briefing table. Of all of them, he was the one who could most easily get in, get some part of the information and get back out, but first he had to reconcile how he was feeling about the whole thing. Because it was one thing to be given a vote, but it was another to actively take part in going against your former CO, especially when you respected them.

Despite popular belief, Husker hadn't ever been approached for sergeant in the Blackbirds. That had always been Shiv, and even after only weeks, it was perfectly clear why; when there was something Maul didn't know, he automatically looked to Shiv, and when Shiv stepped in, he never stepped on the lieutenant's mechanical toes to do it. Tally formed the third part of their command structure, and between the three of them, things were settling steadily into cohesion and they were gaining momentum.

Husker thought sometimes they were as much shield for their Lieu as a bridge to the rest of the GAR, too. He'd sure been in combat long enough to know what damaged looked like. And despite himself, he found himself kind of wanting to be a little bit of the same.

"The synthskin will match the prints, that's not the problem. And we can probably piece together the voice recognition. It's the retinal scan and the DNA that we're going to have a hard time with," Tally was saying, leaning on the counter with his arms crossed. Husker realized, as he sat there looking around at them, that they were all dressed in fatigues, except for him and their shinies. When he did, he snorted. "Thinking something, Husk?" Tally asked.

The snort hadn't been related, but maybe-- well, maybe it actually was. In a round-about way. Husker felt the entire group focus on him and after one more moment wrestling, he said, "I think I can get one of those. Maybe both of 'em."

It would just involve convincing General Skywalker that he was a turncoat while being a turncoat.

Shiv looked up and a grin cut across his mouth. "You've got a plan?"

Husker hated talking; doing so for long periods made his throat ache. So, he tried to be as expedient as possible. "If you haven't noticed, those two can't stand each other. If I happen to slip over to the 501st for some sympathy, the general probably wouldn't be able to resist the bait. And if I happen to bring some unbranded shinies--" he nodded to Six and Eight "--testing new tactical binoculars..."

Six and Eight both looked at him wide-eyed. Along with Raze, they were the youngest in the room, so what better way to make use of that than by just sliding them right into the 501st for a short mission? New shinies came from Kamino all of the time. No one would look twice.

"Kriffing brilliant," Brody said, then barked a laugh. "I can program them to backscan on the calibration sequence and he'd never even notice!"

"What about the DNA?" Tally asked; he looked a little skeptical, but not dismissive. "We need more than just a few skin cells. We need quite a number of samples to piece together enough to fool the print lock."

It was right around then Maul walked in, and then paused inside of the door; Six and Eight jumped to their feet, but the rest of the squad paused right on the edge of doing so. "At ease," the Lieu said, automatically, since this exact scene had played out a couple dozen times now. When everyone relaxed again, he looked around at them. "I'm guessing you've been planning?"

"Yes, sir," Shiv answered, leaning way back in his chair and folding his hands across his midsection, grinning broadly. "I think you're gonna like it."

He was absolutely correct.

 

 

 

"I need alcohol," Maul said. "A-- case. Or two? Could you get me that?"

Bail tilted his head, looking back in bemusement. "Having a party?" he asked, his eyebrow going up, though he didn't sound reluctant.

Maul gestured, then crossed his arms again, shaking his head. "Not quite. It's for a mission. If you send it, could you make it so that it wouldn't be confiscated? Or noticed? And how long would it take?"

"A mission? And yeah, I could, and I think post is two weeks currently. But I can probably have it put into a priority shipment to the nearest base and get it to you in two or three days, if you can get off of the Negotiator to pick it up."

This plan was getting more complex by the minute, but time was certainly of the essence. Even for as often as Kenobi and Skywalker were deployed together, it was possible for things to change at a moment's notice, too. And they were going to be sent on that training mission in three weeks. That gave Maul and his squad fifteen days to crack the files, assess the situation, specialize their training and then go out there and hopefully humiliate Skywalker's intentions, because Maul was absolutely sure Skywalker intended for them to be the ones who were coming back in shame.

The fact that he could just look at the files now didn't bear any consideration, not if this was going to be a shared triumph with his squad.

"Our first training mission is-- soon. Skywalker's planning. We've acquired the coded files detailing it, but we need to break the bio-locks. Thus, the alcohol will-- undoubtedly help. I hope," he finally answered. "I can get off of the Negotiator, so yes, let's do it that way."

"All right." Bail nodded back, seriously, then his expression turned distinctly concerned. "Hey, are you okay?"

Maul had never figured out his own transparency issues, which had become clear before Zigoola and seemed to be continuing long past it, but with Bail -- sometimes even more easily than with Obi-Wan -- he was able to accept it without too much frustration. "I like them," he just said, not knowing how else to say it.

Bail didn't answer aloud; didn't give back any platitudes or empty words. Just nodded, something solemn reflecting in his own eyes, visible even in hologram form. "I'll send two cases of something that won't arouse too much suspicion and shortburst you the coordinates on your comm. Keep me updated?" he asked, after a few moments of mutual silence.

"I will," Maul said, nodding back, unsurprised by his own gratitude and affection for the man he was talking to. "Thank you, Bail."

"Anytime. And I mean that." Bail pointed, then grinned some. "Happy hunting, Lieutenant."

Chapter Text

The beauty of building a droid from parts on up was that no one else had come before you.

EL-10's programming was Maul's entire; his own droids in the Works had not been given any personality programming, but he had automatically backed them up every time before a training session and had shielded their processors, and thus had copies in case they were damaged badly enough to require the data to be reloaded. Because of that, they had certainly become very good at their primary purpose, which was to try to kill him in creative and unexpected ways. Maul double-checked all of the files Obi-Wan had retrieved for him, and even after a decade and some months of imprisonment, he found the lines of coding intimately familiar.

His own work, from long ago. He had been proud of that then, and he was surprised that he could find the same pride in it now.

EL-10 wasn't going to be nearly as lethal as Chain or Hammer or any of Maul's others. Its specialty was going to be combat, but he didn't want to see Ahsoka Tano maimed; Jedi didn't send their apprentices up against homicidal droids with no safety measures, and she would be at a distinct disadvantage. The point was to teach her dueling, not watch her get slaughtered by something that had the programming which had challenged Maul at his prime. It wasn't pride (all right, maybe it was a little bit) that made Maul think that few current Jedi would be able to face off against the droid and survive, if safeties were disabled.

Gathering the parts hadn't been too difficult. The most important thing was making sure EL-10 was going to have the maneuverability and speed to match a lightsaber duelist, and the shielding necessary to survive a strike. Though, as she became more proficient, Tano was probably going to have to learn how to repair it, as well. And while EL-10 didn't have the Force, it would have years of prior experience against a Force-sensitive lightsaber duelist to draw on.

He had finished the droid in two days, and now he was working out its final programming on a shuttle to a supply depot to pick up alcohol.

Shiv was riding along with him; of all of the Blackbirds, only he and Tally knew Maul was still prisoner to the Order, and it was less suspicious if they both went together. It certainly helped that Obi-Wan never held his leash and would approve whatever ventures Maul wanted to undertake (and had, though he had been curious and it was only fortuitous timing which prevented Maul having to explain), but he was still logged and flagged wherever he went in Republic space or on Republic ships.

Even if no one bothered to look at those logs, they were there. The logging was passive, so it wouldn't likely interfere with missions, but it was something Maul never really lost sight of, either.

"Droid programming?" Shiv asked, leaning over a little on the sturdy bench seat. The back of the cargo carrier was bare bones and empty right now, but it was likely to be thoroughly uncomfortable on the ride back.

Maul handed over the datapad, though he didn't know if Shiv understood the programming language enough to make sense of what it said. "If an unconventional sort. Half mine, half the experience of a dozen training droids long destroyed." His master never would have allowed them to continue to exist; out of anger if nothing else, they were doubtless scrapped.

Shiv looked over the screen, then handed it back. "Lookin' for a sparring partner, sir?"

"No, it's for Tano." Maul scrolled through to where he was working. "I'm not sure whether I should add in any personality programming, though."

"Hm," Shiv said, crossing his arms as well as his armor allowed for. "Maybe a base one and potential for growth?"

"Why?"

It was an open question; Maul wasn't looking for any specific answer, just Shiv's thoughts behind why he gave that particular one. Thus far, Shiv had proven to be level-headed and level-hearted, and while it was strange for Maul to have a sounding board for his own thoughts, he found it came more naturally than he might have expected it to. Shiv made a considered noise, head tilted over, then said, "If you want what my official answer would be if asked, I'd say it's because an adaptive personality makes a droid learn more effectively. But if you want my actual answer--" He shrugged. "--she's young. She's got a lot of responsibility and a lot of expectations pinned on her, and maybe could use another friend."

Shiv was technically younger than Tano, but there seemed little point in saying that; he carried himself as grown and had a certain level of maturity even many of the other clones lacked. For that matter, he seemed to be considerably more at ease with other people than Maul was, and thus there had been several times already when Maul had looked to his sergeant for cues on how to act.

It was that thought which had Maul nod back and turn back to his programming; he could dig through the various basic personality programs that came pre-installed on most droids that interacted with people and see if he could cobble a custom one together.

He happened to have an excellent example of the kind of personality he thought would do well by Tano sitting next to him.

 

 

 

The station's quartermaster hadn't given them any trouble over their picking up the crates, though he had been curious. "A priority shipment from a senator?" he had asked, eyebrows up, when Maul transferred the pickup order. He wasn't sure how to even reply to that, so he was relieved when Shiv did it for him. "Classified," Shiv had said, which was being quite selective, though he had given the other clone one of those commiserating looks that Maul had often seen exchanged between the troops.

The quartermaster nodded, mouth in an understanding line, and then ticked off that it had been logged out. Just that easily.

The crates were heavy; they were also extremely well packed. Maul wouldn't have guessed they contained bottles of whatever alcohol Bail had sent even on picking one up.

They were lucky enough not to run into Obi-Wan on the way between the hangar and their briefing room, absconding with their contraband, and once they were inside and the door was locked, Raze was already on the crates and using a multitool to pry them open.

Briefing Room 3 had become their unofficial staging point for everything; it helped that Obi-Wan tacitly approved it and thus, no one else was ever scheduled to use it. It was small, relatively, but it was fairly central to everything they needed and Brody had perhaps done a little work slicing into the Negotiator's systems to make sure only the Blackbirds could come and go. Somehow, a caf maker had ended up on the counter within days of them 'claiming' the room, and now, there was a hot plate next to it. Maul didn't ask questions about any of it.

But having the room made it much easier to hide the contraband. Ranks of bottles gleamed inside of their hollow-foam packing.

"--well, hello," Misty said, with a whistle.

Tally pulled one of the bottles out, eying it over. "Not swill, but not pricey. Good choice."

Everything Maul knew of alcohol was down to some rum on Iloh and the wine from House Organa's vineyard, so he was even less knowledgeable in the subject than some of his troops. And certainly less so than Bail was. "The sort that would not arouse too much suspicion about its origins?" he asked.

"Exactly the sort," Tally said, smirking.

 

 

 

The thing about Skywalker was-- well, Maul couldn't stand him.

He had been indifferent towards Obi-Wan's padawan, absent some vague and ill-defined annoyance, all the way up until he was actually exposed to the so-called Chosen One. Typically, increased exposure to people could lead Maul one of two ways: Either he would grow to at least tolerate them (or perhaps even like them, and in one or a few cases, more than like), or he would grow to find them the opposite. Skywalker had started out mildly irritating, but between his enmity on Christophsis and then his actions on the heels of the separatist bombing that had hurt Obi-Wan, he had firmly placed himself into the intolerable camp.

Maul still didn't regret pinning Skywalker to the wall by his throat; if Vokara Che had not intervened, he also wouldn't have regretted choking the Jedi unconscious and perhaps beating his limp form off of the walls a dozen or two times.

But while Maul quite disliked him, the time imprisoned had greatly humbled his tendency to underestimate opponents. While he thought Skywalker was arrogant and sometimes reckless, there was one place where Maul had a grudging respect for the man, and that was in how Skywalker treated his clones. Some of the Jedi, it seemed, viewed the troops as little better than battledroids, and Skywalker wasn't one of those.

Maul himself bore no good nor ill will towards the Grand Army as an organization; it didn't much matter to him. He didn't really care much about the Republic, either, except insofar as he cared about Bail and Breha Organa. He didn't agonize over dead troops, be they clone or not, but a lifetime spent largely as a nonentity meant he understood, deeply and fundamentally, what it was to be a weapon and tool. That Skywalker treated his men as people with their own minds and thoughts and feelings wasn't lost on Maul, whatever else he felt about the man.

In this case, it was something which he was counting on.

Tally had been playing a very high stakes game of sabacc for the downtime of the past day over on the Resolute, there under the guise of conferring and training with his fellow medics, and the alcohol which Maul and Shiv had retrieved the day before happened to be his closing bet. According to Castle, who had donned some unmarked armor and was in the audience, Tally was doing a brilliant job at looking like he wasn't trying to lose.

That just left getting the rest of the pieces in play. Maul eyed his squad, absent Tally and Castle, arms crossed. "All right. Everyone knows the plan. Are you ready?"

Husker's armor still had the chipped blue paint of the 501st on it, whereas Six and Eight both wore the bright, clean, unscratched armor they had been issued with. Husker nodded. "Yes, sir. We'll hop a ride over with Commander Tano. Mingle. I bump into General Skywalker and act reluctantly disgruntled about this assignment, keeping his attention and recording as I go. Six and Eight do their thing, then we lay low until Misty, Raze, Smarty and Brody sneak over tonight with the payload after Tally loses the game."

"Most of the payload?" Tango asked, hopefully, holding up two bottles of the whiskey from the crate.

Maul thought probably they needed all they could get -- two cases was the maximum number he thought wouldn't arouse too much suspicion and he had no idea how much it would take to get various targets drunk -- but after a moment, he waved Tango off. "Most of the payload. But no one touches those if we fail."

Tango blinked in surprise, then flashed a sharp grin. "Yes, sir. Fair enough."

Most of this plan had been devised and was being implemented by the squad. It was the first time Maul had really gotten to see their potential for the work they had been assigned; the way they had taken what had been presented to them and then came up with a crack plan to see it happen, throwing ideas around a table until they had a workable, if unconventional, solution to it.

The hard part was that he couldn't be more directly involved himself. He was far too distinctive to make an appearance on the Resolute, either to help or to gloat, which meant that he and Shiv were going to have to wait and hope that the rest of the squad could pull off this mission from start to finish with only minimal input from them on the Negotiator.

It also meant trusting them not to get caught. If they were, there were going to be a lot of questions to answer and he-- really didn't want to know what Obi-Wan would do.

Then again, Obi-Wan had insisted on this squad's existence. They were doing what they had been tapped to do. One could hardly blame them for that.

After another moment, huffing a breath and trying not to think of all of the things that could go wrong, Maul nodded. "Very well."

"And good hunting," Shiv added, with a half-grin of his own.

 

 

 

Half of his squad was on their way to the-- not-enemy's ship. And most of the rest were either already there or waiting to be there. Shiv was catching a little sleep to make up for what was going to be a late night, and Maul supposed he probably should have gone and done the same. His nights over the last week had largely been spent working on EL-10, while his days had been spent training, and sometimes in there he managed to make it to bed. Thanks to Obi-Wan, he always woke up there, at least.

Instead, he sat contemplating the droid in front of him. It wasn't particularly attractive; its armor plating was functional, rather than polished, and its joints were made for durability instead of streamlining. It had similar framework to an assassin droid and just as many photoreceptors, but configured such that it wouldn't be mistaken for the enemy without a second look. And really, Tano could likely customize its looks further if she so chose, to make it more-- hers.

The successor to Maul's droids; his companions and adversaries and teachers, all at once. Inside of EL-10's programming, hints to a thousand untold stories and unknowable hours of combat practice. The droid had the bare bones programming of two different personality templates woven together: a tutor and a companion. The new programming was encrypted and locked to a key only he and Tano would have; the lines of code originating with Maul's old droids were locked to him alone.

Sitting there looking at its slumped form, Maul wondered what his own droids might have said, had they ever been given voices and thoughts beyond combat.

He knotted his jaw, rubbed over his face and then he reached out and flicked the power switch that was currently coded to his prints, and later would be coded to Tano's, too.

In a soft whir, the droid straightened from its slump, photoreceptors lighting up blue. Even as different as this droid looked outwardly, Maul felt himself tense automatically when it focused its attention on him, ancient anticipation of an attack that would not come now unless he invited it.

"Hello, Lieutenant," it said, after a moment, doubtless having been accessing its recognition files.

It had a soft voice; higher pitched than his, no definable gender-expression, but the similar received pronunciation accent of the inner core worlds that Deenine had imparted upon Maul, likely without intending to, and none of the fussiness of a protocol droid.

Unbidden, he wondered how much of his own history, beyond the files, he had built into this droid without even realizing it at the time.

"Hello, EL-10. Will you tell me your purpose?" he answered, resting his elbows on his knees.

"I am programmed to be lightsaber combat instructor, sparring partner and companion to Commander Ahsoka Tano. I am to be her personal droid, outside of the ownership and authority of the Republic's armed forces. I am to answer to no one but her or yourself and I am to give no information to anyone else asking without prior approval."

Maul nodded; he hoped Tano kept that in mind when it came to where she kept and how she used EL-10. The last thing they needed was for the droid to be victim of mistaken identity. Or, for that matter, to be caught by Skywalker. "Do you understand your role as combat instructor?"

EL-10 took another long moment to answer; no surprise, given this was the droid's first activation with its full personality and programming enabled. "I am to unlock new levels and intensities of instruction and sparring only after she has become proficient with each prior."

Tano would likely chafe against that, but it made perfect sense to Maul. And unlike most Jedi, EL-10 was programmed with knowledge of all of the lightsaber forms, including Juyo. And, too, how to fight someone who used it.

"Good," Maul said, rising to his feet and picking up his saberstaff. "Take a moment to orient yourself, then we can spar."

"Yes, Lieutenant."

He wasn't sure the impulse; it wasn't to see if EL-10 was proficient, even if it also served that purpose. Nor was it to hone his own skills, though he was always seeking to do that.

But by the time EL-10 had him disarmed and pinned against the wall at the end of a training saber, having all but mopped the training room floor with him, he thought maybe it was a final salute to all of the droids that came before it.

Even though they were gone and he was broken, he was oddly glad that some part of them lived on, in their shared and untold stories.

Chapter Text

Losing at sabacc was galling.

Tally had been playing cards from his first night off of Kamino. Stuffed in a troop transport with only enough elbow room to shift awkwardly, one of the NCOs in charge of them had apparently been stir crazy enough and bored enough to bring a deck, and they managed to barely clear enough space to get a game going. Tally had been cynical even as a shiny -- came with learning the projected statistics of the survival rates of his brothers -- and therefore had plunked himself into the circle without hesitation, even knowing he was going to lose. And he did lose the first couple games, but he'd picked it up fast and now, he was willing to put himself up against all but the professional gamblers who did this for a living.

He let the game seesaw back and forth between him gaining and then losing ground, pretending to be frustrated at the latter, and when the final bets came in, he was almost tempted to win since it would have gained him a whole box filled with contraband holos, some more risque than others. Instead, he made a subtle but critical error and ended up giving up two cases of perfectly good whiskey.

Fives was a little insufferable, but at least it was in a likable way.

"So, about my winnings...?" he asked, grinning as Tally got up, the latter throwing just enough disgruntled annoyance into his expression to make it look good.

"Tonight. I've got a shipment of supplies for trade with my counterparts to cover our gaps, I'll have it brought over then," Tally grumbled back, before stalking out of the room, catching Castle's wink on the way out the door.

 

 

 

Out of the Jedi that Husker had met, the only one who looked comfortable being in the middle of a galaxy-wide war was General Skywalker. He didn't seem stressed or exhausted, at least not anytime Husker had ever seen, just competent and quick-thinking and quick-acting. There was a change in his leadership style as time went on, a certain maturity he seemed to gain, but he never looked or acted uncomfortable. The general wore his confidence outwardly, not only in himself, but in his troops. It was one of several reasons why Husker liked him.

Another was how easily he mingled with his men.

He made it a point to use their names, to remember things about them. And his eyes lit up when he saw Husker making his way across the mess, occasionally stopping and visiting with his former mates and generally enjoying the chance to catch up with them. When the general came over with a genuine smile and a, "Hey, Husk. Did we get you back?" the smile that Husker returned was every bit as real.

"Ah-- no, sir," he answered, shaking his head. "Guess I was a little homesick, was all."

He didn't know why General Skywalker and Lieutenant Maul hated one another; far as Husker could tell, they didn't interact regularly. But he did know it, partly from scuttlebutt, partly just from observation.

Therefore, General Skywalker's look of disdain came as no surprise. "Well, you're welcome back anytime," he said, clapping Husker on the back of the shoulder. "If you ever want transferred back over here, I'll find a way to make it happen."

"Admit it, sir, you just want me to strum some sappy love songs on my guitar for you," Husker joked back.

"You caught me," the general said, holding up his hands, pretending to reel back from an invisible blaster bolt. "No one plays the Ballad of the Theed Maiden like you do."

A voice drifted into earshot; Husker didn't turn to look, but he had to chew down a grin anyway.

"No, I'm telling you, the switch is..."

"--here, give me that, you're going to break it."

"Will not!"

General Skywalker leaned over to look around Husker, and it was only then that Husker turned himself. And right there, arguing over a new pair of tactical binoculars, dressed in their pristine white armor, were Six and Eight. The general gave Husker another pat on the shoulder and sidled past him, heading over there. "Hey, guys. What's the problem?"

Six and Eight did a fabulous impression of two baby shinies in the presence of a rapidly growing legend and straightened up, eyes wide. Either really good method acting or actual shiny enthusiasm, Husker thought, still wrestling with his mouth as he tried not to grin.

"It's-- it's these tactical binoculars, sir. They're a newer model than the ones we trained with," Six said, then elbowed his brother. "My brother thinks the button on the side is the calibration, but I think it's the magnification--"

Eight elbowed him back. "But we have to figure out how to turn them on first."

General Skywalker raised an eyebrow, but his expression remained good-natured. "Here, let me have a look," he said, and then took the binoculars. He pointed to the switch, "This is the power, and--" he lifted them to his eyes and flicked the button on the side. "--the one on the side is definitely the calibration." He looked through them for a moment, then offered them back. "I don't recognize you two; do you have names?"

"Not yet, sir," Eight said, giving back a sheepish grin as he took the binoculars. "Long as it isn't dead-eye, now."

"No dead-eye, then," the general said, with a scoff and a smile. "Welcome aboard, make yourselves at home."

"Yes, sir!" Six and Eight answered in unison, straightening up and all but beaming back.

 

 

 

"Got it," Tally said, as he checked the binoculars, smirking. He passed them around, and on the heads up display was a perfect map of General Skywalker's retinas.

The clone known largely by the last number of his designation -- Six -- breathed out a sigh of relief, slumping against the wall of the janitorial supply closet. Among the idled mouse droids, the four of them were checking in with each other, and the fact that they had completed their objective was a rush of relief.

Or a high, given the way his batchmate punched the air, hissing, "Yes!"

When Six and Eight had been pulled from their squad, without any warning, it had made both of them nervous. They had originally been slated to join General Krell's company, but then they found themselves landing on the Negotiator, only to be confronted with a scary-enough looking CO to compete with Krell. The next several weeks found them learning a whole different method of hand-to-hand combat than what they had learned on Kamino, but it wasn't until they got an actual vote on this mission that, for the first time, they stopped expecting their Lieu to bite their heads off or something.

Of course, going all black ops on their own people was a bit of a surprise, but Six figured maybe that was the point: Practice against the safe people so they'd be more ready when it came time to be deployed into life-or-death situations.

He was still catching his breath, heart thumping, when Husker rasped, "Good job, kid," and reached out to give Eight's head a gentle shove.

"Kid. What are you, a few months older than us?" Six asked back, but he was grinning so broadly that his face hurt.

"Maybe even more than a few." Husker handed over the recorder next.

Tally checked that over, too; given the way he frowned, though, the news wasn't good. "We need another minute or two of his voice, if we're going to get the voice emulator working right," he said, thoughtfully. "And I doubt he's still in the mess."

"Could we get it tonight?" Six asked, the elation of their successful retinal retrieval drifting away, though not entirely.

"If he takes the bait," Husker answered.

 

 

 

"You're rotten to the core, Fives."

"Not my fault you lost, Tally. Hopefully by the end of the night, I'll be drunk to the core."

Tally rolled his eyes, arms crossed, as he waited for the cargo transport from the Negotiator to land. It had been dead easy to talk to his counterparts in the 501st and trade for medical supplies. Beyond the fact that it was an accepted practice in the fleet to cover each others' asses like that, he had always gotten along with the medics here. That, no doubt, was going to come in handy later on in the evening or maybe the next morning, when they had to figure out how to get enough DNA off of General Skywalker to fool a thumbprint reader that a synthskin print was actually a real thing attached to a real person.

Once they got the print, anyway.

Tally could probably coax cells to divide and some skin to grow, but even that required a good sample. He was chewing it over as he watched the cargo hopper from the Negotiator land, Tango at the helm and Raze in the co-pilot's seat.

They didn't need a demolition specialist, but if they happened to need any chaos to make their escape in, there weren't many clones who could create it quite like Raze could. Tally was just relieved that Raze was gonna stay with the ship, because Raze's ability to create chaos wasn't necessarily restricted to when he should be doing it. His reputation had preceded him even before he had arrived on the Negotiator.

"What the frip did you put in these boxes, bodies?" Misty asked, right on cue as he hauled the first crate of whiskey down the ramp after it had been lowered. Given he knew full well what was in the boxes, Tally was especially pleased by the complaint.

"Everything in there is medicinal," Tally answered, and when Fives started snickering next to him, he aimed a light kick over at the back of the other clone's calf.

"Here, I'll help carry 'em," Fives said, still looking insufferably pleased with himself. He whistled Echo over, and after five solid minutes of those two arguing -- Fives pleading, Echo trying to quote regulations -- apparently Fives won because a very disgruntled Echo helped him by grabbing one of the crates.

Once they were gone with their ill-gotten gains, Raze was poking his head out of the cargo hold, followed by Brody and Smarty, the three of them reminding Tally of some kind of bizarre prairie rodent family, all lined up checking things out. "How's it going?" Raze asked, eagerly, looking a little like he was ready to launch himself out of the transport in his enthusiasm. "We on schedule?"

"So far, so good." Tally looked after Fives and Echo, then smirked to himself as he grabbed another box, this time of legitimate medical supplies. "Brody, Misty, Smarty, gimme a hand with these."

 

 

 

It was a good thing, Husker reflected, that Rex was off with Cody on some kind of mission. Because if anyone was straight-laced enough to confiscate contraband, it would be Rex. Helluva captain, but not exactly all that big on letting decorum slide... or, at least, not slide enough for everyone to get hammered together. Echo was enough trouble about such things, but at least he could be won over with enough affectionate peer pressure, if not enough to participate, then enough to turn a blind eye.

"Ready to do your thing, Husk?" Shiv had asked, over the encrypted comm line, once he had been updated with what they had so far.

"Go and get drunk with my buddies? Oh, definitely, Sarge. I'm ready to take one for the team," Husker had answered, dryly and with as much faux solemness that he could throw into his tone.

Next to him, Brody had started cackling, though he at least had the good sense to cover his mouth and try to muffle it. But that nearly had Husker snickering himself, and after wrestling with his composure, he signed off with Shiv and promptly swatted Brody -- lightly -- on the back of the head.

Fact was, it was dead easy to get an invite to that private party. It hadn't taken Husker too long to realize that his friends in the 501st thought that his assignment to the 212th and the Blackbirds was probably miserable, and therefore he deserved all the sympathy he could get. Maul's reputation, however wildly inaccurate, apparently walked way the hell ahead of him; to listen to the members of the 501st, Husker might as well have just been put feet first through an industrial meatgrinder, and that would somehow be less cruel.

It was a useful thing, though Husker honestly wondered how the heck it had happened.

Once he had updated their sergeant on what was happening, he left Brody to do his thing and slipped out to go back to meet up with his old group. It didn't take him long; Fives worked quick when he wanted to, and the party was already mostly planned.

"Your medic's loss, our gain," Fives said, slinging an arm around Husker's shoulders as they were making for their quarters.

 

 

 

When General Anakin Skywalker stopped on his way back to his own quarters, he was surprised to see that he had missed his inspection of the troop quarters. He had thought for sure that was supposed to be tomorrow, but his datapad made it clear that it was today. He sighed and dropped his head, then clipped the datapad back to his belt, turning around to go and perform what was, to him, a relatively pointless action of bureaucracy.

As he retraced the steps he had made only moments before, he walked past the maintenance closet where Brody had sliced into the Resolute's network in order to tweak said schedule, none the wiser.

 

 

 

"Uh-- we can explain, sir," Echo said, as the entire group of fifteen (absent Husker) scrambled to their feet upon the appearance of General Skywalker in their quarters unexpectedly. Open on the floor were two crates containing many bottles of whiskey, the bottles that weren't already in someone or another's hands. Echo had forgone the opportunity to drink, but he had agreed to keep his mouth shut about it. But now, confronted with his general, he apparently was caught between a rock and a hard place. "See, we, uh--"

"--were just-- disposing of this contraband--" Fives tried, when Echo trailed off.

Husker chewed on the inside of his lip to keep from barking out a laugh at that. That got about a thousand times harder when General Skywalker eyed the whiskey, eyed his men and then gave that slow nod that spoke to his disbelief. "That's a lot of contraband to be-- disposed of," he said, but it was pretty clear that he was far more amused than ready to start court-martialing them. "Where did you even get this much booze?"

"Took it off Tally," Husker spoke up, as loud as his damaged voice allowed him to. "Beat his ass in a game of sabacc, I heard."

"Tally?" the general asked, and then his eyes lit up as recognition clicked. "Where did he get it?"

"Supposedly beat a civilian the same way a month ago."

Were it anyone else, Husker had a feeling General Skywalker might have waved it off and left, tacitly allowing them their-- disposal methods. But given it was Lieutenant Maul's medic that had lost to his own troops, there was an added sweetness to it, the kind of which might tip the tide in their favor. There was a sharp-edged amusement on General Skywalker's face, a sort of almost mean delight that not only was the Blackbirds' medic out gambling, but also smuggling around contraband; Husker didn't need to be a mindreader to see that.

"Do you maybe want to help us dispose of it, sir?" Fives asked, shifting his weight between his feet. Echo, meanwhile, slapped his palm down over his face.

C'mon, c'mon, Husker thought, not having to fake the hopeful look on his own face.

General Skywalker was wavering. "Well, I am supposed to be off-duty..." he said, clearly wrestling between a chance to socialize somewhat with his troops and what he should be doing as their commanding officer.

"Now that you know about it, it's definitely your job to make sure it's disposed of properly," Husker cut in, raising his eyebrows hopefully.

"Ah, all right, you got me." The general flashed a grin and then turned around and locked the door.

 

 

 

"That's the voiceprint made," Tally whispered, sitting in the closet with Brody. "Now let's see how lightweight a Jedi is."

"Wanna make it a bet?" Brody asked, leaning against the wall with eyes closed, while they listened in on the soon-to-be drunken shenanigans. "I'll bet he'll be slurring his words inside of four shots."

"I've gambled enough today, thanks." Though, even as he was sitting there, Tally was estimating Skywalker's body-weight, combined with the fact that he grew up a space monk and probably didn't drink regularly (if at all), in addition to the proof of the not-cheap-but-not-expensive whiskey that Maul had somehow sourced by means unknown, trying to guess the odds.

"Six, maybe seven," he said, after considering it.

 

 

 

Two shots later...

"The taste doesn't improve, does it? But I think my tongue is going numb."

 


Four shots later...

"I'm just saying that-- that I wanna know who came up with that idea for the Naboo handmaiden pinup--"

 


Six shots later...

"And another thing! --wait, kriff. I forgot what the other thing was."

 


Eight shots later...

"I just-- it's such a beautiful story, I love it so much. The way they have to hide their love from a whole galaxy..."

"Sir, are you okay?"

"I'm fine, I'm really fine, it's just-- it's such a beautiful story, guys, I hope every one of you finds love like that--"

 

 

 

Smarty was willing to lay odds that General Skywalker was seeing double.

Husker looked a little dazed and drunk himself, but per their plans, he was the one who got under the tall Jedi's arm and got an arm around his waist and was leading him back to his quarters, leaving behind the rest of the clones to finish disposing of the contraband. All the while, Skywalker was mumbling about all of the things he loved, from pod-racing to the planet Naboo -- "There's so much green and water--!" -- to his troops.

Smarty was the one who got tapped to collect the thumbprint and DNA, because Husker was supposed to get mildly pickled and therefore couldn't probably handle the delicate biopsy kit that Tally had sent along. Authenticity being what it was. He waited down the hallway, pretending to read a datapad, and watched as Husker half-carried the drunken Jedi to his door.

Skywalker reeled a little bit, then pressed his thumb to the pad, completely oblivious to the fact that it was, in all actuality, a print recorder. Then he made a bemused face, lip a little curled, when the door refused to open. "Eaugh. It's sticky."

That was Smarty's cue; while Husker pretended to take a long look at it, Smarty just slipped right on over in his pristine, borrowed armor and stuck the diagnostic plug-in into the port. "Hang on, sir," he said, "this whole deck's been registering issues. I'll have it cleared right up."

General Skywalker blinked slowly, wavering some on his feet, then turned to look at Husker. "You staying? I mean, not in my quarters, but onboard?"

"No, sir. Gotta get back to my own post."

"Oh. Kriff." Skywalker literally pouted at that, but he also missed Smarty removing the print recorder while doing so. "I dunno what they're thinking, giving a squad to a prisoner. But maybe they'll come to their senses soon."

--what? Smarty stopped a moment, staring at Husker wide-eyed. Husker looked back just the same, but recovered fast.

"Here, sir. I think he's done fixing it," Husker said, turning the Jedi more back towards the door. And after a few more moments of staring blearily at the print reader on the door, Skywalker thumbed it and this time, the door hissed open.

It didn't take Husker long to lead the beleaguered general to his bunk; with some careful maneuvering and a bit of a controlled fall, Skywalker sprawled on the relatively narrow bed, eyes closed. Smarty slipped in behind them, mind still running balls-to-the-wall fast, trying to piece together what he knew of their CO versus what Skywalker had just rambled out drunkenly.

Husker was nice enough to tug Skywalker's boots off for him, though he was not exactly one hundred percent steady himself. The Jedi made some inarticulate sound, and before the second boot was even on the floor, he was snoring softly.

Smarty still waited another two minutes, while they stood there in silence, but when Skywalker didn't so much as stir, he pulled out the biopsy kit Tally had provided and snuck over, gingerly rolling up the sleeve on Skywalker's mechanical arm to get to the nerve-dead skin above it. The biopsy needle was tiny and fine, barely enough for someone to note even on feeling skin; on the numb space where flesh gave way to cybernetics, the only way that Skywalker would even notice would be if he woke up.

He was still holding his breath through the whole extraction, and once he stepped back and sealed the sample in its sterile container, he was glad as all hell to get out of there with his mildly drunk squadmate.

Husker had apparently sobered up pretty quick; when they were out into the comparatively safe hallway, his face went grim. "You get that?"

Smarty nodded, pensively. "Yeah. What did he mean, prisoner?" he asked, as they made for the rendezvous on the hangar deck.

"I dunno, but I intend to find out."

Chapter Text

The ride back was awful quiet, considering that they had accomplished their mission without being caught.

Tally had been listening in from the closet where he and Brody had ensconced themselves; before Husker and Smarty even made it back to the hangar deck, he cornered them. "Two things," the medic had said, looking between them with chin tucked a little and eyebrows up, voice quiet and serious. "First, that's the Lieutenant's story to tell, if and when he feels like telling it. And second? Judge him on his actions now, not his legal status."

Husker looked less than pleased about being cut off by Tally before he had even started to ask questions. Smarty looked confused. Either way, Tally wished he could kick a Jedi right now, because of all of the ways for them to learn that particular piece of information, this was a bad time for it to happen.

It wasn't that Tally didn't believe in transparency among squads. Frankly, given their ultimate objective, they needed to be transparent to one another, because they were supposed to be opaque to everyone else. But the timing of it was awful; they were only starting to really work as a unit, for one. And Maul was still spring-green as yet; he was doing a pretty good job, considering his lack of experience, but he wasn't anywhere near prepared to deal with the kind of flak this could cause, either. This woulda been better settled after their first official training mission, not before. After they had the chance to build more trust, instead of when they had only just begun to.

Both Smarty and Husker had nodded -- Tally wasn't officially ranked over them in anything but medical matters, but he was still pretty much one of the top three dogs anyway -- but they didn't look happy about it.

Later, maybe, Tally would talk more with 'em. Not to tell Maul's story for him, but to point out that he'd never been convicted by a court. Tally didn't even know the story, beyond that fact and what he could glean from medical records (and those told a hell of a harrowing tale all by themselves), but he had been there to watch Maul throw himself between General Kenobi and an explosion, putting life and remaining limb on the line, and never once breaking stride in hesitation to. Whatever his legal status, his loyalty to their general was a real, observed thing.

"Feels a little like a body transport in here right now," Raze finally spoke up, voice a little hesitant. "Did I miss something?"

Husker looked long at Tally; Tally looked back at him, unblinking. Then Husker shook his head. "Nah. Just been a long night, kid."

And that it was.

 

 

 

"You know, sir, pacing isn't gonna bring them back any quicker."

Shiv kept his tone pinned in the middle between dryness and good-humored patience, as he leaned against the engine housing of another cargo hopper, arms crossed, watching Maul try to wear a line in the decking. They had already gotten the mission accomplished transmission from Tango, which just meant waiting for the rest of the Blackbirds to land on the Negotiator so that they could take what they had gained from said mission and hopefully break the bio-locks on those files as soon as possible.

Maul waved him off and then turned and started another lap.

It wasn't as if it was a long flight between ships, though the CAPs being flown by the starfighters on a near constant basis, as well as the usual traffic, meant that their transport was low priority in terms of being given permission to land. Even then, it was only about twelve minutes before the cargo hopper descended into the hangar, Tango's expert piloting pivoting the small ship and setting it down light as a feather.

There were two bottles of whiskey waiting for them to celebrate, but Shiv knew better than to celebrate before they had cracked those files and made sure no one was coming to haul them to the brig to wait for a court-martial. They had a lot of leeway, given their intended purpose, when it came to rules and regulations, but Shiv was reasonably sure those didn't apply to espionage inside of their own fleet for the sole purpose of wrecking a Jedi general's possibly nefarious plans.

For some reason, the thought of the word nefarious made Shiv have to choke down a laugh. He half-failed, and when Maul raised a brow at him in question, he ended up giggling uncontrollably for half a minute before he managed to get it back under control, shaking his head at the bemused expression that gained him.

Okay, so maybe he'd gotten a bit nervous over it all himself.

The ramp descended on the cargo carrier, and it didn't even touch the ground when Raze rocketed off of it; before Maul likely even had time to process what was going on (going by the entirely startled look on his face), he was tackle-hugged by the demolitions expert, knocked into a stumbling reel backwards in an attempt to keep both of them upright, while Raze yelled enthusiastically, "We did it!"

Shiv rubbed over his mouth in an attempt to keep from giggling all over again; he almost missed the small hand-signal Tally gave him that suggested they needed to have a talk about something.

The look on the medic's face was a little worrisome. Shiv nodded back, and then went back to greeting the rest of the squad, not failing to notice how subdued Brody, Smarty and Husker were looking as he did.

 

 

 

"He what--?!"

Shiv had the longest fuse of any clone Tally had ever met. He'd figured that out within a week, watching Shiv deal with Raze, which was like trying to herd a whole group of feral tooka kits into a bathtub while keeping them from shredding the bog paper. So the fact that he looked, for the moment, like he was ready to stick his whole armored boot up General Skywalker's ass said quite a bit.

"In fairness, he was pretty hammered. But Husker, Smarty and Brody all heard it." Tally carefully moved the growth solution to the next station in the medbay. "Which means we'll have to deal with this sooner rather than later."

Shiv's expression was thunderous. Whether it was out of loyalty to their CO, the breach of common decency or the fact that it complicated things for the squad was impossible to know. Probably a bit of all of those, Tally thought. Though, credit to the sergeant, he was clearly already working out how to do damage control; even as much as he was glowering, he was also obviously thinking.

Yep, he's a good one. Tally smiled a little to himself, shaking his head as he moved down to the sterile enclosure where he would try to coax General Skywalker's cells into making a delicate sheet of new skin.

This was way above Tally's official paygrade; this was the type of stuff best left to real doctors, supposedly. Nothing galled him quite like that implication, which he had gotten from the Kaminoans and the hired doctors who had been training him and his fellow medics on Kamino; that the clones were somehow incapable of learning that far. Medicine fascinated Tally. Not just turning it over to droids or throwing someone in bacta, but the art and science of healing. Of diagnosing something and then coming up with the correct treatment. He had come out of training the best of the group he had gone in with, being ultimately selected for the field surgery program, and he had excelled there as well.

When this war was over, he wanted more than anything to go to medschool. Become a proper doctor, even if his accelerated aging was going to make it a comparatively short career.

That was, if there was ever an end to the war and he lived to see it. If they were given their freedom then.

It wasn't too hard for Tally to give Maul a chance. None of them were free by any real measure of the word, and without any solid information to go on, Tally could only really go on observation and intuition, and both of those were in accord with one another. Combined with an almost-painful-to-read medical history, Tally thought anyone who could remain even passably sane after all that had some quality worth taking a shot on.

"I think we should tell Maul," Shiv said, breaking into Tally's line of thought. "Then we can see what he wants to do with it, and if that means we run interference, then we run interference."

Tally had been planning on doing at least some of the talking himself, but after another moment of thought, he nodded. If Shiv thought that, it meant he had already reasoned about why, and sometimes just going straight-on at the problem was all anyone could do. "Yeah. All right, you go do that while I try to coax this to grow fast enough to be of some use."

 

 

 

Maul took it pretty well. He didn't seem to be all that surprised by the fact Skywalker had rambled that out drunkenly, though like Tally and Shiv both, he rightfully figured that this was going to be something to address sooner than later. The majority of the squad had gone to get some sleep after their long day and night, and a meeting was called for mid-morning, which was too few hours away, but at least they would get a little rest. Absent Tally, anyway, who was running on caf and probably stims to make sure they had enough skin to sacrifice to their objective, thankfully none of theirs.

Maul was already in the briefing room when Shiv got in, drinking tea and looking calm if a little bit remote, leaning against the counter. He gave Shiv a salute with his mug, but didn't bother to say anything.

"Tally's still in the lab, sir," Shiv reported, moving over to get himself some caf so he could make it through what was sure to be an interesting meeting. "I stopped by on my way here, and he said he'll probably have enough skin to pass the DNA reader by this evening. Said something about timing a bacta infusion just right."

He didn't get anything back more than a nod, but that wasn't any shock. Shiv didn't exactly have a ton of dirty laundry of his own to air or anything, but he had a few stories he wasn't in any great hurry to tell just yet, waiting until he felt more comfortable with this squad. He supposed all of them likely felt the same, too; they were all brothers, but they were also all different. One face, a bunch of personalities and stories.

Instead of saying anything else, Shiv just leaned next to Maul and worked on his caf, a silent support if it was needed and backup if it was wanted. When the others started filtering in, it was clear that Husker, Smarty and Brody hadn't said anything, because the rest looked kind of confused. Those three looked wary, and Shiv frowned internally, not because he was angry with them for it, but because he didn't like what their wariness suggested about their own histories.

Not surprisingly, Raze was the last one to fly in the door, two minutes late. Everyone had long given up on getting him there on time, and now they were just working on getting him there within a couple minutes of it.

By then, the subtle tension had bled through the whole room, even though only half of 'em knew why.

He knew Maul was about to speak up because he felt the lieutenant shift slightly, moving his weight from one foot to the other, their shoulders barely in contact. Resisting the urge to say something to break the thick atmosphere, Shiv just kept quiet and stayed there, right hand and a loyal presence to brace against.

"Some of you have questions. Ask, and I'll do the best I can to answer them," Maul said, voice quiet, though the room was so still -- even Raze was sitting perfectly motionless, looking nervous -- that he had no difficulty being heard.

Pretty much everyone turned to eyeball the three in question, because it wasn't like they didn't all share quarters and mess times and showers and routines. Even though they were all still figuring out how to relate to each other, there wasn't a whole lot of room for privacy. And after a successful operation, everyone should have been feeling pretty good and-- obviously not everyone was.

Brody looked down at his datapad, scratching his thumb a little against the side. Smarty went to speak, then shut his mouth again.

Only Husker seemed inclined to throw his balls out on the table. "Is it true?"

Maul didn't blink. "Yes."

"Wait, is what true?" Raze asked, sitting up in his chair, gaze darting around the table.

"I'm a prisoner of the Jedi Order. I have been now for ten years and some months," Maul said, plainly.

Shiv didn't fail to notice that Maul didn't make eye contact with the demo expert. Given just how intently Maul usually did with anyone, that was more telling than anything.

"Why?" That was Brody, finally finding his voice. The entire table was leaning forward; the expressions they were wearing a range between shock and dismay and curiosity. Raze, of all of them, looked the least shook up by the revelation, though his eyes were wide.

Maul took a moment to answer, holding a hand up to ask for said moment, obviously working over how to explain. But when he did, his voice was the same level calm as before. Steady. "Before the blockade of Naboo, I was a Sith assassin in training. Similar to what Asajj Ventress is now, though I was considerably better trained than she is." Apparently even in this situation, there was room for their lieutenant to find a hint of smugness. Though it disappeared as he went on. "My Master sent me to bring the situation there under control for the Trade Federation. While I was there, I engaged two Jedi." There was a beat there, just a momentary hesitation, then, "I killed the first, the master. I nearly defeated the second -- then padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi -- but when I paused to gloat over my victory, he regained the upper hand, cut me in two and while I managed to survive it, the Order captured me before I could escape."

There was a collective gasp when that piece of information hit the air. And immediately, the Blackbirds started whispering to one another. Reminded Shiv a little of their childhood, what they had of one, where they would get some juicy tidbit of information and immediately discuss it to death, probably because Kamino itself could be so damned boring.

Shiv himself hadn't known that bit about General Kenobi, but now that he did, he wondered how the hell the two of them could even stand to be in the same room, let alone interact so comfortably with one another. Obviously, there was a much longer story somewhere between all of those words.

"So, why-- why are you here, sir?" Tango asked, which hushed the chatter again.

"I'm wasted in the Temple," Maul said, holding up a hand and ticking off fingers. "I have extensive training in stealth and a number of other useful disciplines. I'm another body who happens to be sensitive to the Force and capable of using it to further the aims of the Republic. The Order doesn't know what else to do with me." He paused there for a moment and then crossed his arms; even if Shiv wasn't standing right there, he probably woulda been able to pick up on the way Maul was wrestling with himself internally. "I'm here to make sure General Kenobi lives to see the end of this war," he finally added, the vaguest hint of defiance in his voice, though Shiv wasn't sure what against. "I'm here to see to it that the eleven of you do, now, as well. And if, in the meantime, I can make life a little more miserable for Dooku or Ventress or even my old Master, then all the better."

Silence fell again there, tense and heavy all at once. Shiv looked at each of them; took in their expressions, from thoughtful to touched to steeling resolve, and he almost smiled.

"Well, sir," Husker finally said, "I think that's good enough for me."

There were no murmurs of dissent, either. Shiv didn't think the issue was totally resolved, but he thought they'd probably put to bed the worst part of it, and he was kind of proud of 'em right that moment.

"Anyway, unless you have any other questions, you should probably go and finish catching up on your rest. We're going to try for those files tonight, as soon as Tally tells us he's ready," Maul finished, upnodding towards the door.

The Blackbirds filtered out with Raze talking to Six and Eight about how they had the baddest CO in the Grand Army. Shiv snorted at that one. It was only after everyone was gone but for the two of them that Maul let out a slow breath, the kind which trembled a little at the end.

Really, Shiv was proud of him, too.

"None of us are free, sir," he said, pushing off his lean against the counter to stand straight. "You did fine."

Maul looked at him for a long moment, then gave a nod back.

 

 

 

Shiv's day after that went well all the way up until it was time to actually complete their objective.

He stared at the small droid on its creepy spider-like legs as it stood on the table. "Don't make me do this," he said, shuddering from his shoulders on down at the thought of that thing crawling down his kriffing throat. "Can't we draw straws?"

"Sorry, Sarge. We've already held a vote," Brody answered, as he used his datapad to remotely finish adjusting the voice emulator droid, which had the nerve to bounce once on the table like it was excited to be able to claw its way into Shiv's throat and wrap its legs around his voice box.

"You started this," Shiv said, accusingly, eyeballing their lieutenant. "Now look where this democracy business got me."

Maul held up his hands in the universal gesture for surrender. "I volunteered and Tally intervened."

"No hybrids, we need a full-on human to impersonate a human," Tally explained, as he delicately overlaid the incredibly thin sheet of skin over the hollowed out synthskin thumb with the pronounced print on it that Shiv was going to be wearing. "I mean, I don't know that for sure, but why take chances?"

"So that I don't have to swallow that thing?" Shiv asked, shuddering for a third or fourth time as he stared at the droid and it stared back at him.

There was plenty of cheerleading and cajoling from the rest of the squad. Shiv considered himself pretty tough, but there was something about that droid which was creeping him out to no end, and it was only the peer pressure of his brothers that had him even tenuously willing to swallow something that large, never mind its nasty little legs.

"You've got this, Sarge," Tango said, pouring a double shot of whiskey. "Here, something to chase it down with. You get the first drink and if this doesn't work, maybe the only drink."

"Every last one of you owes me," Shiv answered, reaching out and resisting the urge to fling the voice emulator against the wall when it jumped into his palm. He raised it up to look it dead in its single photoreceptor, face puckered in deep distaste. "Okay. Here goes nothing."

It was every bit as awful as he'd thought it would be, though it wasn't actually painful. Just incredibly weird and uncomfortable. He gagged a few times before the thing was settled and once it was, he threw back the double shot of whiskey desperately, hoping that the burn of the alcohol would numb the wildly bizarre sensation in his throat as fast as possible.

When he managed to pry his eyes open again from where they had been squeezed closed, the entire squad was leaning in towards him staring at him.

"What?" Shiv asked, and then squeaked, slapping his hands over his mouth when General Anakin Skywalker's voice issued out from it. Tally apparently thought that was the height of comedy, because he started laughing his head off; it was around there that Shiv remembered that Tally had been running on stims and caffeine for two days straight and wondered how safe he was, trusting their medic to not be unhinged.

The others didn't have any excuse, though. But half of them busted up, too.

"Sorry, General, sir," Tally said, dryly, once he managed to get his laughter back under control. He stepped over and grabbed Shiv's left hand, slipping the synthskin thumb-glove on it delicately. "Don't touch anything with that until it's time to use the scanner," he warned, before moving off to take what looked-- like an eyeball--

Shiv had been wondering how they were going to pass the retina scan. Despite his weird new voice, he had to ask, "You're not going to pop my eye out and replace it with that one, right?"

"Nope. I managed to print the retinal pattern on the inside back of it with successive layers of plastifilm. Just hold it up to the scanner when it's time." Tally set the case with the blue-iris'd eyeball in it next to Shiv's right hand. "It's for the left eye, so reach across yourself."

Shiv was getting tired of things staring at him, but he nodded back, taking a steadying breath. Maul sat down across from him, sliding the datastick into the security reader, and then turned the whole thing around and pushed it across to Shiv. "Ready?" he asked, brows up, looking like he didn't have a doubt in the galaxy that Shiv would carry this off.

Shiv nodded back, resisting the urge to massage his throat, and turned the reader on with his right hand.

The entire squad, absent Tally and Maul, crowded around him.

Voice print recognition required, the terminal prompted on its screen.

"This is General Skywalker," Shiv said, shuddering vaguely at both the sensation and at the fact he was impersonating a superior officer.

There was a moment where everyone was holding their breaths, then it read, Accepted. Please verify thumb print and submit to the DNA scan.

Across the table, standing behind Maul, Tally shifted; he couldn't read the screen from his vantage, but Shiv didn't doubt he could tell what was going on anyway. Shiv gave a nod and pressed his thumb -- or rather, a puppet of General Skywalker's thumb -- to the reader. Now, he was holding his breath too, as the scanner lit up yellow underneath of it.

The moment drew out an almost agonizingly long time. Like the computer had to think about it. Shiv held as still as he could.

Accepted. Please put your eye to the reader for a retinal scan.

Shiv almost gasped out a breath in relief, but they weren't through this yet. He plucked the false eye out of its case and turned it between his fingers, then held it to the scanner, having a momentary panic attack that he hadn't held it there correctly while the computer's reader lit up blue.

A drop of sweat hit the table next to his arm. Shiv glanced up and saw Misty there, staring at the terminal like he could will it into acceptance.

There were a couple of flashes on the scanner, and then--

Accepted. Decrypting files now.

For a long several seconds there was silence, and then it was shattered with a roar of triumph, most of the Blackbirds sounding off at once in elation. Shiv had no idea how many hands slapped his back, as he slumped in the chair and folded his hands under the table to hide the fact that they were shaking. Even the voice emulator droid was temporarily forgotten as he tried to catch his breath.

They did it. They actually did it.

"Lieu! Can we have our whiskey now?" Tango asked, which was when Shiv looked up. Maul looked back at him, something soft written even in the sharp black lines on his face, then he nodded to Tango, who promptly whooped and ran to get out enough disposable cups for all of them.

"Okay, Sarge, time to give your little friend back," Brody said, picking up his datapad. One uncomfortable extraction later, and Shiv was rubbing at his throat, glad the thing was gone and put away. He saluted the squad with his cup, now with considerably more whiskey in it, then checked on the decryption. Half-done.

By the time it was complete, the noise level had died down some and the sheer amount of relief in the air was infectious. They all gathered in their usual seats around the table, drinking and chatting. Shiv interfaced the reader with the holographic display built into the table, though he didn't turn it on just yet, enjoying the way his shoulders had unwound thanks to the combination of alcohol and victory. At least in this phase of their overall objective.

As he listened to the happy sounds of his brothers, he smiled to himself.

It was probably another ten minutes before anyone broke into that; Smarty was the one who spoke up loud enough to be heard over the more aimless conversation. "Hey, Sarge, is it done?"

"Yeah," Shiv answered, appreciating his own voice like never before. "We ready, Lieu?"

"Likely not," Maul said, deadpan, but he nodded anyway. Shiv was sort of pleased he had his own whiskey in hand, anyway.

Shiv nodded back and turned on the display even as the rest of the lights dimmed, bringing up the files related to their training mission, starting with the maps.

Silence reigned anew. Then someone said what they were all thinking:

"Oh frip."

Chapter Text

Dear Flanker,

I know it's been awhile since I've written. Sorry about that, things have been busy, but not in the bad kind of way, just hectic. Who knew that being a sergeant was so much work?

I think I love it, though. I mean, I know in my last couple letters I was worrying about being able to handle it, but the longer I'm at it, the easier it's getting. It feels right, I guess. Or more right, anyway, this whole leadership thing. I was sort of expecting to have to spend all my time barking at people and cracking the whip on them, but it's not like that at all. Tally says that it's because we're not just some random squad of foot-soldiers and that they needed a sergeant who was a thinker, instead. I guess there's merit to that, but it almost makes me wonder why they wouldn't pick one of the others. Husk's been around longer than any of us and on more battlefields. And Tally and Smarty are both really sharp. And me, aside my environmental training, I've never been anything particularly special before.

Ah, kriff. Sorry, brother. I'm not complaining, just sometimes still trying to figure out why me. Y'know?

But yeah, I kind of love it. I think I do.

Oh! I got my first taste of a voice emulator droid. That was frippin' awful, Flanker. I know that's probably not the last time I'm gonna have to let one of those nasty little things violate my vocal cords, but I can hope it will be. Remember how I said we were going to try to get information about our first training mission? It was for that, we had to unlock all these bio-locked files and someone needed to pretend to be General Skywalker. Guess who got voted into it?

I'm sure glad we did it, though. Because this mission-- this mission is going to be tough. A lot tougher than any training mission I've ever been on and then some. I don't think even the ARCs get put through this kind of thing, though I could be wrong. I'll tell you more, but I should wait until after it's already over before I get into detail. I know this datapad's secure, I even had Brody check it once I realized how good he was with systems, but it never hurts to be cautious.

There's one thing that came out that's now common knowledge, though; our lieutenant's a prisoner. I knew that within two days, both Tally and General Kenobi briefed me on the situation, though apparently General Kenobi left out the part about where he was the one who took Maul down. I gotta say, brother, that kind of worries me some. I'm not entirely sure why, I can't explain it, it's just a feeling. I mean, it's not like any of us can just muster out of the army and walk away to live civvie lives, the Republic literally holds the papers on us, but I guess maybe it's because he's not a clone. I'm gonna keep an eye on it, anyway.

He did good, though. Didn't try to hedge his way around it when the squad found out, just called us all together and told 'em to ask questions if they had them, and then gave it to 'em straight. I don't think he's ever gonna be a military man, no matter how much I've been trying to teach him more about it, but the more I watch, the more I think that might actually be in our favor. I guess maybe we'll just keep working on his self-confidence and see how things play out. I don't think I've ever had a CO turn so often to check in with me before, but it's been working fine so far.

In fact, Maul pulled me aside just a bit ago and said he wanted to set up an assessment run with the squad in the field and see what our weaknesses were in an actual unknown environment, and I agreed that was a sound idea, so apparently he's gonna ask General Kenobi for a little time on the closest life-sustaining planet around and he said something about seeing if Tano would give us a hand with it.  We'll have to see if that actually pans out, though.

Otherwise, things are doing fine. I still don't know where our caf maker came from yet, but Tally's the one who's been smuggling in the caf itself. Apparently, somebody lost to him in a card game from the galley, so we're always supplied. Maul brings in tea sometimes and leaves it there, too. Tally claims he doesn't know where the hot plate came from; I'm eying Castle for that one. He's a combat engineer, but he's also pretty mean with small-time mechanics, too.

I know I'm forgetting something.

Oh! The Raze Report. That's what I almost forgot, before I signed off to turn in. This week, while we were building up to our mission, I caught him sitting with these tiny tools making little balls of puddy explosive. And I mean really little, Flanker, too small to do much of anything. Then, a day later, he comes in with both his ears pierced and I didn't even start to put it together. But you know Raze -- or, you're getting to know Raze -- and he was happy to tell me that one earring was the puddy explosive with a thin coat of nail polish on it (of all things, I don't even know where he got it) and that the other was a custom built mini-detonator. And apparently, he made more than one of each. In different colors!

He's literally wearing weapons in his ears, brother.

Anyway, that's it for me for now. I'll write again soon.

I still miss you.

-Shiv

Chapter Text

A Blackbird's Tail

Chapter Text

"You know, sir, if we ever get a bucket that'll fit over your horns, you can have marks on the side for every half-rodent consumed."

Maul gave Shiv a very flat look, not particularly caring if he looked ridiculous doing that with his toothbrush hanging out of his mouth. Shiv looked back at him with barely concealed amusement, his helmet under his arm splattered with fluorescent green paint to match his likewise splattered armor, humor hiding in his gold-brown eyes and hinted to at the corners of his mouth. It was almost enough to make Maul want to throw the container of toothpaste at him, but if he ended up consuming any other raw rodents, he wanted to have enough to last him.

The fact that he ate the thing so he wouldn't lose face to a Togruta padawan who wasn't even half as old as he was wasn't lost on him, no.

It wasn't that Maul had never resorted to eating raw meat before. The earliest years of his life were that and little else. He hadn't even had a cooked meal for the first time until he was at Orsis, and he remembered being genuinely shocked that there were actually different things he could eat; he had known that different species consumed different things from his education under Deenine, but he hadn't thought that he ever would. Then again, he hadn't even known at that age that he was a hybrid, though apparently Trezza had and his meal plan reflected that fact.

Given he was usually treated as some stereotype of an uncivilized wildling, an image which he cultivated until he was old enough to understand how demeaning it was intended to be and started to chafe against it, he eventually lost all taste for it and now largely preferred his meat cooked. Not to say he wouldn't eat anything to survive, but crunching small bones between his teeth had long reminded him of little more than starvation and humiliation, though nowadays mostly all he felt was annoyed at how stringy it was and how much work it was cleaning said teeth again after.

He finished brushing, rinsed his mouth and then eyeballed Shiv anew. "You're eating rodent tonight yourself; if I have to mark mine, you have to mark yours."

Shiv looked down at his bucket, then scratched a line in the green paint and flicked the flakes off after, grinning openly now. "Done."

Maul managed to smother a groan, but he didn't resist the urge to give his sergeant a light shove in the shoulder on his way by to put his kit away again.

Though, he also didn't resist the urge to smile some when Shiv started laughing behind him, either.

 

 

 

Dusk came in pastels and with the crackling of cook fires and the smell of meat.

Maul supposed that he could have set up an evening training scenario for the squad, but after watching them scrambling around to catch their dinner and listening to them laugh while doing so (and occasionally failing to stifle a laugh of his own), that thought drifted away and he didn't revisit it. Even though they only had three days here and the training mission was less than two weeks out, even though they clearly had plenty of work to do and not enough time to do it, he didn't really want to break into the evening's peace. If he were looking for a justification for it, he would probably make an attempt to argue that the squad needed more time to continue building their bonds -- and such things were practical, especially given how new they were -- but he didn't have any need to, and so he didn't bother.

They were sprawled out in scattered little groupings, most of them using their armor as a backrest, and roasting rodents to varying degrees of success. Smarty had been talking to Tano for the past hour about hunting culture on Shili, and she apparently was enjoying the conversation, given the amount of smiling she was doing. Once, she bent her head over to him so he could inspect her headdress, and then picked up a stick to draw on the ground; from what little Maul bothered listening in, she was describing methods of hunting akul and he thought he heard something about using the right kind of bait in there.

She was also making sure Smarty's food didn't burn, since he was too distracted talking to notice it. Brody's, however, was black on one side and pink on the other, given how he was absorbed into his datapad; Tango apparently couldn't bear to look at it anymore, because he reached out and turned it without saying anything. His own rodent on the same fire looked fairly evenly roasted.

Mostly for the sake of variety, Maul had used his own survival training -- if one could call it that -- to find some edible tubers to add to the dinner, and those were likewise heating, though they were doing so in one of the four modular pots that were assigned to the squad. They smelled good, and as he was reasonably resistant to many kinds of poison (both natural and otherwise) he had tested them out, much to Tally's immediate chagrin, and when they turned out safe, he gathered enough for the whole squad before finding his own spot to settle and brood over what Skywalker had planned for them.

Admittedly, it was hard to brood too much; the Blackbirds were in fine spirits despite Tano wiping them out once, and Maul was still trying to figure out how to even cope with how much that actually meant to him.

He wasn't given to forming attachments. Not because he thought the Jedi were right (in fact, he often still thought they were ridiculous and wrong), but because what you cared for could be used against you. He knew that lesson well.

But it was becoming rapidly fact that he cared about this squad. They were his responsibility, and the more time he spent around them, the more their lives mattered. Not only during the war, not only on a battlefield, but in the between times and the after times, and in the future.

It was a dangerous enough thing. Maul knew well how many of their brothers died each and every day, never having once known a life without being a soldier.

He shook himself out of those thoughts to find Tally eying him with a brow up. Maul raised his right back and the medic snorted, though not without a half-concealed grin. "Just making sure you taste-testing strange roots didn't have a delayed reaction," Tally said, poking the fire with a stick.

"I've poisoned myself enough times that I know how to take care of myself," Maul answered, waving it off, then crossed his arms and leaned back a little more against his own makeshift backrest, which consisted of his gear and his rolled up jacket.

Tally scoffed. "That might've worked when you were just the 212th's designated Kenobi body-guard, but you're my responsibility now. Grab my wrist now and I'll pull rank on you. And if you poison yourself biting random roots, you get to sit through any lectures I deem necessary, too."

Maul didn't doubt that; were he in a less amenable mood, he'd probably wrinkle his nose at it, but it wasn't really anything worth picking a fight over. They all had their roles and Tally had thus far proven to be hands-off until he thought something was necessary. Similar to Vokara Che, in that regard. So, he just nodded and watched the flames for a moment, then asked, "Where did you get your name?"

"He keeps count of all the contraband he wins off of the unsuspecting in cards," Shiv said, lightly, plunking himself down beside Maul and sticking his own newly dead, newly skinned rodent over the fire.

"No, but I should." Tally grinned at that one. "Bragging rights, if nothing else." His expression softened then, just a little bit, to something either wistful or sad or both. "Back when I was brand new, I started marking the number of troops I saved versus the number of ones I lost on a whiteboard on my locker, so my sergeant at the time called me Tally. I still do it."

Apparently, this topic was enough to attract attention, because the other small clusters of Blackbirds fell quiet. When Shiv caught them watching, he raised a hand and gestured them over, and before a half minute passed, most of them -- absent Smarty and Tano -- had all settled themselves down close by.

"I got mine before I even left Kamino," Raze said, face greasy from where he had been enthusiastically tearing into his rodent-on-a-stick. He gestured with it. "I chained together a bunch of charges and almost blew up the Citadel." He grinned broadly. "Didn't hit any of my own squad, either."

"Of course you did," Maul answered, laconic. He wasn't the least bit surprised by that. "Tango?"

Tango cleared his throat. "Uh. Flight training, sir. Three of us were-- you know, kind of show-offs. We ended up doing this hare-brained stunt while buzzing the control ship. The deck officer bawled us out and then called us Whiskey, Tango and Fynock."

There had to be something there which Maul was missing; he frowned a little bit in confusion while the rest of the Blackbirds started snickering -- except for Tango, who was slowly turning red -- and then Shiv took notice, leaned over and whispered the explanation. When Maul just said, "Oh," nodding for the context, Tango covered his face with his hand, red to his ears.

Husker snorted at that, giving Tango a little nudge with his elbow. "At least yours is interesting, Jethead. Mine's obvious."

"You could tell us how you got that scar in the first place," Six said, raising his eyebrows. His rodent was, apparently, there and already gone, and he was tossing the small bones into the fire as he took the skeleton apart.

Husker let out a gusty sigh, though his expression wasn't particularly irritated. "Hot-headed ARC set some charges wrong, and I got hit before I could get under cover." He tipped his head back, rubbing at the jagged, paler scar on his throat. "The long-necks did what they could, I spent a few days in bacta, but my voice has been wrecked since."

"Your guitar fingers make up for it," Tally commented, off-handedly. "What about you, Castle?"

Castle smirked. "That's easy. I helped rebuild the Citadel after Raze blew it up."

"That was you?!"

"Me and fifteen others. You were a frippin' legend by then, it was a good thing the 5th Engineers were back on Kamino doing upgrades at the same time." Castle waved a hand in the air. "Nobody missed the chance to talk about the crazy-ass shiny who managed to wipe out half the kriffing course."

Raze, unsurprisingly, sat up a little straighter at that one. He looked decidedly pleased with himself, too. Completely despite himself, Maul was having a hard time chewing down a laugh at the mental image of his demo expert, standing in the middle of a smoking course with a remote detonator in hand, wide-eyed wonder at his own unique brand of chaos.

"Misty?" Six asked next, after smirking at the back-and-forth.

Misty groaned a little bit and turned his roasting rodent. "It's nothing as fun as blowing things up. Somehow, I got designated as the weather guy with my AIT platoon. Before we'd go out for dives, they'd ask me what the weather was, and since it was Kamino early on, the answer was always some variation on wet. Apparently I answered that it was misty enough times that I became Misty and that was it."

Misty was going to be one of those Maul was relying on to keep them alive through Skywalker's training exercise. He thought, probably, that would be an odd relief for the aquatics expert; there hadn't been terribly much for him to do onboard the Negotiator.

"Smarty's too busy making eyes with Tano's culture to answer, but I think his is self-evident," Tally said. "Brody?"

"Sportscaster for the Rastar Rancors." When that got a bunch of raised eyebrows in response, he rolled his eyes, huffing a sigh. "I did my AIT on Coruscant, because Kamino has lousy network connections to the rest of the kriffin' galaxy. So, imagine a bunch of clones, raised in the backend of nowhere on a planet where you can't even go outside for a walk without-- well, without being Misty," there, Misty threw a small stick at him, "suddenly having access to the HoloNet. I mean, our teachers were hired slicers. So, aside from the whole official curriculum, with presentations on the projector and all, we had the unofficial lessons and those were a lot more fun, for obvious reasons."

Maul's experiences with the HoloNet were more limited than not; while he was prisoner to the Temple and restricted to the grounds, he had no access at all. And when he was off on missions with Obi-Wan, he generally had better things to do. He knew that most beings who were from Republic worlds (and more besides) grew up using it, to where it was incorporated into their everyday lives, and there had been times where he had used it for research before Theed, but he had never found much purpose to it beyond seeking information.

He supposed, with that background, he could understand to some degree how it would be for a clone having access to it for the first time. Albeit a very limited degree.

"Anyway," Brody continued, apparently enjoying having an audience, "somehow, we got into an online gambling sector for null-g sporting events, the kind where you can make out with real credits if you win enough virtual points. Our instructor, who only went by the name of Hax, thought it'd be a good thing to teach us how to slice into that system. Of course, he took most of the winnings as commission, but we didn't do too bad."

By now, the other clones were staring at him in shock, and even Smarty and Tano were listening.

"Part of my job was keeping an eye on a set of teams and reading out the scores. Apparently, this made me sound like a sportscaster, so Hax started calling me Brody, after a local guy who did the sports on his homeworld."

"What did you do with the credits you ended up with?" Tally asked, looking fascinated probably in spite of himself.

"Oh, well." Brody paused and looked around, checking over his shoulder, then looked back ahead. "Stuff I won't say in front of Commander Half-Pint."

"Hey, Commander Half-Pint here took your squad down earlier," Tano complained, sitting up straighter. Then she waved her comparatively tiny hand. "Besides, if you're talking about sex, I've had the talk already, so..." she trailed off when she noticed the entire squad was staring at her. "What?"

"Anyway," Shiv cut in, raising his voice, pulling the squad's attention back to forward. "Moving on."

"You're the only one left," Tally said, a smirk crossing his face. "Which means you get to regale us with the story of how one of the nicest sergeants in the GAR ended up with the name Shiv."

"Nope." Shiv crossed his arms, abandoning his rodent temporarily to the mercy of the cook fire.

Maul looked over, brow furrowed; it was around that time that he realized his sergeant was blushing. "Why not?"

Shiv flicked a glance sideways. "Commander Half-Pint."

That was apparently enough to get her to throw her hands up in frustration. "Oh, come on! I'm older than you are! And I outrank you!"

"Technically, Commander, but you're also a teenage space monk." Shiv gave a slow, casual shrug despite his red face.

Tano looked a little amused, but also offended. Not, Maul thought, devastatingly offended, but she still seemed about two seconds from huffing and perhaps declaring how unfair that was. When she noticed that all of the other Blackbirds were watching her again, she finally rolled her eyes and sighed out, standing up and brushing her leggings off. "Fine. Fine, I'll just go and see if there's anything more interesting to hunt than squirrel, while you guys have your dirty secret exchange or whatever."

"Much appreciated, Commander Tano," Tally said, dryly; despite the tone, his expression was genuine good-humor.

She muttered a little as she slipped away; just for the sake of making sure she was actually slipping away, Maul kept his own Force senses tuned to her signature. When she was out of range, he gestured. "She's not in earshot anymore."

Shiv groaned, but then heaved out a breath and leaned forward, shifting his rodent before settling back again. "Okay. Fine. Same thing -- AIT. Our instructors were a couple Mando mercs that got hired specifically because their resumes said they fought wars and tracked bounties from here to Wild Space on every kind of world and didn't have any recorded convictions by any Republic courts. Both of 'em were practically too thick around the middle to fit into their beskar'gam and they were old, which might have seemed counter-intuitive, but apparently old for a Mando bounty-hunter meant you were good enough to live that long. And I gotta say, they actually were. One time, they did this demonstration; they had us stick a non-powered, non-tracked target anywhere within a sixty thousand hectare area, in the most brutally cold temperatures I'd ever been exposed to, without telling them even what direction it was in. We did, and we came back, and those two went off in nothin' but their armor, took nothin' with them and were back by the next evening, with the target in hand and without so much as a hint of frostbite. Said they found it by tracking us, and that was even after we sent squads in different directions to make false trails. Then, they started to teach us how to do it."

Shiv was a good storyteller; his voice fell into a smooth, rolling rhythm, and it was pleasing to listen to. Maul had talked with him at some length about their duties, and some more length about the scenario Skywalker had set up, but this was the first time he'd had the chance to listen to his sergeant telling a story and he found he was listening as raptly as the rest of the squad.

"We didn't do too bad, being all shiny and new. I mean, we sure weren't their caliber, but we did okay. They said give us enough years and we might get close, and I guess that's fair enough. Experience counts for something." Shiv cocked his head some, looking into the flames. "After we finished that training run, spent three weeks freezing and learning as much as we could about survival in sub-zero, we were told to report back to Kamino for assessment. It was all a mad scramble after Geonosis, I'm sure some of you remember that--" Husker snorted there, and Tally echoed it precisely. "--and by then, we'd been training with these Mandos for two months straight, in deserts and swamps and everything between. We had a little time, though, so on the way back, they diverted us to the Wheel."

"Mid Rim," Maul said, just noting it. "Known for its casinos. Black Sun had some interests there, if I remember correctly, though that was before your time." And before Maul slaughtered the entire syndicate, though he heard that since then others had rebuilt with the same name.

"Right." Shiv rubbed the back of his head, where his hair was starting to grow in from the distinctive bands he had shaved into it at some point. "Obviously, none of us had ever been to that kind of place, but our trainers said we'd be fine and that they had a few more lessons to teach us. My batchmate and I, we were together from the moment they popped the bubble on us, and we were there too, and before we knew it, the whole platoon was in one of the bigger bars getting progressively more drunk. We were light-weights, let me tell you. A few cocktails and I was laughing at everything. Anyway, we weren't the only people there; there were plenty of other folks and there was this one dynamite woman. Zeltron, I think. She was sweet, and a few of the more outgoing guys in our squad managed to find their balls and were chatting her up."

"Zeltron? From the pleasure planet?" Six asked, leaning forward, his brother doing the same. It made them look a little like their shoulders were glued together.

"Yeah, I think so. Anyway, my brother was more outgoing than I was. He was a real charmer. One of the Mandos -- I don't remember which, I was a little hazy by then -- saw him looking and leaned over and said, 'You can get in there, just flank 'er.'" Shiv dropped his head and started chuckling. "Well, from that night on, he was known as Flanker, and let me tell you, the looks of shock anytime he told that story made the night worth it. Even if it took him a full three days to forgive me for what happened next."

Tango was practically leaning into the fire, he was so fascinated. "What happened next?"

"Well, I followed my brother. Of course." Shiv pointed to Six and Eight, sitting there with identical looks, doubtless in illustration of similar batchmates. "I had no intentions of trying to make a play for her myself, I could barely see straight. He did flank her, he slid in from the side and started stealing her attention from the other guys, but then she said something and I must have found it funny, because I started laughing. I didn't even introduce myself, but I was laughing and I was thinking that even if my brother went and got laid, the night was probably worth it because of that, I couldn't remember ever laughing like that before. But then, the next thing I know, there are these red hands on my chest and these gorgeous dark eyes looking at me, and I stopped laughing and then she smiled -- and wow, was it a smile -- and kissed me." A beat. "Right before she dragged me off for, uh-- obvious reasons, my brother asked me, real incredulously, 'Did you just shiv me?' And from that night on, he was Flanker and I was Shiv."

Tally was roaring with laughter himself by then, arms wrapped around his middle, and so was half of the rest of the squad. "The verb, not the noun!" he managed to gasp out. "Kriff, Shiv. Way to slip the blade in."

Shiv was a little red-faced again, grinning sheepishly. "Yeah, well, you asked. Now you know."

There was a few moments there where things wound out, then Tango spoke up and asked, "Okay. I have to ask, but how many of you other clones have gotten laid?"

The only clones who didn't raise their hands were Six, Eight and Raze. Tango stared at the group with his mouth hanging open, and Maul was pleased to be left out of the question; he didn't feel like getting into that particular discussion. "Okay, that's-- really?!"

"Prostitute," Brody said.

"Observing medical student," Tally added.

"Tropical dive instructor." Misty grinned, tongue in cheek.

"Jazz musician in a tapcaf we went to for R&R," was Husker's answer.

Smarty cleared his throat, mumbling; when they gave him a look, he spoke up louder. "Librarian, in a holo storage archive."

"One off with a hitchhiker who talked my former sergeant into a ride in our cargo repulsorlift." Castle gestured.

Everyone, by then, had started eying Raze. Raze just blinked back at them. "What?"

"No shenanigans?" Tally asked, eyebrows up.

Raze shook his head, shrugging nonchalantly. "Nah. Doesn't really interest me. I've gotten a lot of hugs, though."

Meanwhile, Tango was looking thoroughly crestfallen. "So much for everyone wanting to sleep with pilots."

 

 

 

After dinner, and after the name discussion, which had somehow ended up being a discussion on the various sexual experiences of the clones -- Maul had to admire their ingenuity in such things, if nothing else -- conversation had tapered off somewhat. Tano came back with a slightly larger, different kind of rodent, which she actually did roast over the fire and share with the rest of the squad. Shiv dozed here or there, close enough to hear his breathing, and Maul could understand the urge; the firelight was relaxing, and the night was warm enough to be comfortable, but cool enough to make being next to the fire pleasant instead of overly warm.

A few of the others retired to their small tents, leaving only a handful of them; aside to throw more wood onto the fire, no one really moved or spoke.

It wasn't the first time Maul had ever been camping in adulthood -- if one could call it that -- but it was the first time he had done so with anyone who wasn't Obi-Wan. Therefore, it made a sideways kind of sense that his thoughts drifted that way.

He was a little surprised to realize that this was the first night in weeks now that he wouldn't be sleeping next to the Jedi. And that even when duty parted them, it was rarely enough that it was now months where they shared the same bed, in the same relative place, aside from those rare partings.

He was more surprised by the sharp edge of something he could only tentatively identify as longing at that realization.

War was never a time for stability and predictability, even though he and Obi-Wan had done well with defining their own reality outside of all things, including Temple and legal status. They rarely had opportunity to interact outside of late-night talking in bed, one or the other playing pillow, and in the morning before they went off to their respective duties, but Maul had come to rely upon those times as something to ground against while the rest of his galaxy was in several kinds of upheaval. Something familiar and comparatively steady; whatever catching up he was trying to do, whatever new things he was being tested against, whatever new affections were forming, he knew that on most nights, he could lay his head on Obi-Wan's chest, or feel the years-familiar weight of Obi-Wan's head on his, and that this was the only definition for home he had ever known.

Therefore, it wasn't hard to imagine Obi-Wan curled up in bed alone, wrapped up in the blanket Bail and Breha had gifted them with and probably using all of their pillows at once, even though that made the knife-edged longing worse.

That also might have been why what happened next did.

Despite being quiet now for an hour or more, Tango had been brooding quietly on the other side of the fire. Now, he spoke up, a tone that bordered wistfulness and bitterness both, "We clones die off in droves, and I haven't even had a kiss, let alone gotten to go to bed with anyone."

Shiv stirred fully awake; in Maul's peripheral vision, the sergeant's eyebrows furrowed. "Lots of clones haven't, Tango. I think you have plenty of time to find someone to make out with."

"Are you kidding? You saw what General Skywalker has planned for us. And that's just the beginning."

"I'll kiss you, if it means that much to you," Tally said, clearly teasing.

Tango wrinkled his nose up. "No offense, Tally, but I'd like my first kiss to be with someone who doesn't have the same face I do."

"I could," Maul said, on something of a whim. The only person he'd ever kissed was Obi-Wan, but he figured that he was competent enough at it, anyway. At least, it would perhaps help disarm some of Tango's clear unhappiness over things.

That had Tally and Shiv both eying him with some surprise and amusement. "Well, if he doesn't care that you ate half a raw rodent earlier, anyway," Tally said, after a moment, smirking.

"He brushed his teeth for a solid ten minutes after that, though," Shiv pointed out, also smirking.

Meanwhile, Tango was squinting suspiciously. "Really?"

Shiv nodded. "Ten minutes, no kidding. Ravaged that toothbrush."

"Or ravished it?" Tally asked, snickering.

"No, I mean--" Tango trailed off, looking at Maul across the fire.

Well, there was no point to backing out of it now. Doubtless there were rules against this sort of thing, but a lack of paying attention to those had led to Maul getting his first kiss (and second) on Iloh, so he couldn't see any reason to follow them now. He shrugged to himself and got to his feet, stretching his shoulders and cracking his back (which made Tally wince), then nodded. "I don't see why not. Unless you'd rather wait for someone more suited."

Tango gave a nervous little huff, face coloring. "Uh-- no. No, that's-- that's perfectly fine." He scrambled up to his feet, dusting himself off a little more than necessary, and then there was a decidedly awkward moment where they were both standing there somewhere half-way between where they'd been sitting.

It made Maul wonder a bit if Obi-Wan had felt awkward about it on Iloh and decided that no, the Jedi was rather shameless about the whole thing, which was probably a large part of the reason why Maul had gone along with it. That and being entirely surprised by it. Then again, Maul wasn't the first person Obi-Wan had ever kissed, so perhaps that was why it had seemingly been so easy, especially with the amount of rum involved.

He was just taking note that Tango was taller than Obi-Wan by a small amount and was about to ask if Tango wanted to back out, and then Tango was kissing him.

It was tentative, a little clumsy, but not unpleasant. After a split second of noting how different it was kissing someone without a beard, Maul returned it, keeping it just as light and unassuming.

He was surprised at how red Tango was when they broke apart and he furrowed his brow, going to ask if everything was all right, but then Tango was kissing him again.

It was definitely not light, even if it was still a little clumsy, that time. Somehow, the space between them had been reduced to nothing and he ended up grabbing onto Tango's back just so he wouldn't go tumbling backwards, caught off guard.

Somewhere off to the side, Tally gave a low whistle.

Tango let go, then stepped back, huffing out a breath or two and then gesturing back over his shoulder, still very red. "Uh-- I'm gonna just-- let that be goodnight. Sir. Thanks."

Maul was taken aback that he was actually breathless after that, blinking after the retreating pilot before turning to the other two. He thought he had a question, probably one about whether or not he'd broken their pilot by accident, but wasn't quite sure how to ask it.

"See, now, I'm kind of jealous," Tally said, leaning back further and folding his hands across his midriff, grinning tongue-in-cheek.

Maul closed his mouth with a click, then narrowed his eyes. "I'm not kissing you, you threatened me with a lecture."

"It's okay, I've got an imagination. Hey, Shiv, did it get hot around here all of a sudden?"

Shiv gave a considered nod. "Definitely felt like a temperature increase in the immediate vicinity, Tally."

Realizing he was being ribbed, Maul just huffed and grabbed his gear from the ground. "Either of you. Ever."

"You willing to put a bet on that?" Tally asked, grin sharpening some.

Maul snorted right back at him, making for his own tent and not looking back. "No. Goodnight."

Admittedly, he was still having a hard time not smiling when he heard the two of them start laughing behind him; it was that laughter that made sleeping alone that night just a little bit less lonely. The laughter of the day, too; the ridiculous hunt, the squad chasing down their dinner under the tutoring of a padawan. The meanings behind names; the stories, serious or silly. It was enough for Maul to get his first inkling that the definition of home could broaden, over time, even if the heart of it remained the same and ever would.

When he fell asleep, slowly though not uneasily, it was with the remembered sound of Obi-Wan's laughter next to his head.

Chapter Text

The place: Blackbird Headquarters
The time: T-minus three days to training mission
In attendance: Everyone
The mission: Survival against--

"--Tango, what are you doing?"

Tango felt his face go warm as he looked up to find Brody eying him across the briefing room table with one brow going way up. "Just having some fun. I mean, since I'm the one designated to take notes," he answered, a little more defensively than he meant to. But he hadn't known that he was actually reading aloud. "I don't know why I'm the one who has to."

"We voted on it," Smarty tossed in, absently, with his face stuck in one of his eight datapads; he had one helluva start on a beard, but this was the first time in days that he seemed to be-- well, not stewing in deep despair about their training mission.

Tango made an unhappy noise; yeah, okay, they voted on it and he got voted in as the guy who took the notes this time around, because their brainstorming sessions tended to get chaotic and someone needed to keep track of all of the ideas, but at least they could let him be creative about it. It wasn't like anyone outside was going to be reading it.

Just to deflect the attention, he jerked his chin in the direction of Smarty's collection of datapads. "You got something?"

Next to Smarty, Castle was sucking down caf like it was going out of style, only slightly less scruffy looking. He was the one who answered, voice gravelly from a lack of sleep, "Might do. I'm running all these through a structural soundness algorithm, but it doesn't like the natural variables at all."

Across the room, in deep head-bent discussion with Shiv, Maul paused and looked over at them. He was probably just taking note of what Castle was saying, but Tango still felt himself flush even worse, as if the mere possibility of their CO making eye contact with him was enough to get his motor running. He tried to chase the feeling away by scrubbing his hand over his face and redoubling his effort to pay attention to the notes he wasn't taking yet.

"Someone has it bad," Tally whispered aside, smugly, and then just barely got his leg out of the way before Tango could kick him under the table. "So bad."

Tango didn't part his teeth to answer, "Shut. Up."

Tally smirked back, but at least he did shut up; he had his own work to do, though like the rest of them, they wouldn't be able to finalize anything until they had all of the pieces together and something of a tentative plan.

"All right, what do we have?" Shiv asked, finally coming over to the table, settling himself down in his usual spot.

"A whole lot of whiskey-tango-fynock," Husker answered, pointing to Smarty, and completely ignoring the eyeroll that Tango responded with.

Smarty looked up like he had been caught doing something illegal, then blew a breath out and interfaced his datapad with the table's central projector. "He's not wrong."

When the display came up in its three dimensional glory, rotating around with notes and arrows scribbled in aurebesh, it was Eight who asked, incredulously, on behalf of the uninitiated: "What the frip?"

 

 

 

The objective was about as basic as it could get: Capture the flag.

The rest of it--

Skywalker had set the scenario on one of the Republic's small, barely inhabited planets. It wasn't too big a surprise which one, because it was one the Grand Army used for training exercises before; Shiv and Husker had both been on it, in different periods, for their cold-weather survival training. It had no native sentients, only a couple of small settlements of miners, and there was no one disputing its use for such things. It didn't even have a name; it was only known by its designation, which was Bravo-984.

Anyway, it was clear pretty much from the outset that they were being set up to fail. And fail hard.

Smarty had been chewing himself up now, absent a brief break for that pre-training-training-mission with Tano, since he got his first look at the cracked files. It was a nightmare scenario; a well-fortified bunker smack in the middle of a genuinely inhospitable mountain range, where if the anti-aircraft and anti-personnel measures didn't get them, the environment just might. Even Maul seemed a little distraught -- hard as it was to read his face -- by the whole thing, given the grimace he gave when he saw what this was going to entail.

The anti-personnel measures were all non-lethal; it was obvious Skywalker didn't want to kill any of them, just leave them to slink back failures. Even the self-deploying stun grenades, which would register them as taken out of the scenario, were set in places where they wouldn't fall off a mountainside or something if they were hit. But there were an overwhelming number of them, set in every single accessible mountain pass and at several more points besides. According to the schematics that were in those now-cracked files, the launchers not only scanned for heat signatures -- easily enough dealt with -- but also motion patterns and certain sounds. Even if half of them failed -- and that was unlikely -- there were still more than enough to wreck the Blackbirds.

Especially since they were rigged to signal the bunker if they were set off, which would allow a team of soldiers to come out and catch them.

If they did manage to make it to the bunker, there were passive and active scanning towers and a detachment of 501st clones, including a couple of ARCs, to mop up whoever had made it through the minefield of stun grenades.

Of course, at any point they could flip the switch on the mission and call it off; if any of them were injured or if they were in genuine danger, all they had to do was activate their distress beacons and they would be picked up post-haste by the emergency forces from the bunker, forfeiting the scenario. Smarty appreciated that, even if he could also see how confidence-shattering it would be for all of them to have to go that route.

It was Maul who came up with the idea Smarty had turned into his life's mission, ultimately; almost off-handedly, right before their little field trip, he'd commented aside that since going over the mountains might prove impossible, then perhaps going under them would work. It sounded crazy at the time, but Smarty had idly gone and researched based on it and--

It was still crazy, but Smarty thought maybe it was a crazy General Skywalker hadn't thought of.

 

 

 

"Six hundred years ago, give or take a decade, the Sheenan Mining Company did an in-depth geological survey on Bravo-984. I had to go incredibly far back to find it, and I found it in the Republic's mining permit request archives; it hasn't been cataloged anywhere else that I could find, but thanks to Brody, I did manage to get complete copies instead of just the briefs," Smarty said, bringing up the broad-view survey map next to the projected crucible they were going to be heading into in a few days.

Six was the one who caught on first, grinning. "If it wasn't anywhere else, what do you think the chances are that General Skywalker knows nothing about it?"

"Fabulous," Tally said, with a sharp grin of his own. "I'd throw in all my credits if that was the bet."

"Right." Smarty could almost feel the buzz of excitement, like electricity, roll through the room as everyone started grasping the implications of what he'd found. "They were looking to mine in the mountains and they did get approved to do it; it turned out that there wasn't much there, but they didn't know that when they started digging. The company's long since gone under and their internal records were lost, but according to that geological survey, there's every chance that the logical path their tunneling would have taken will get us almost three quarters of the way to the bunker. Going off of all recorded data since then, Bravo-984 is a very stable world, with no notable seismic activity; those tunnels are likely to still be there."

"So, basically, we're looking at possibly going into a bunch of abandoned mining tunnels in the hopes we'll get close enough to make a run on it?" Tally asked, tone bordering both intrigue and skepticism, though it was in a good-humored way that suggested he was mostly just making sure they had all their banthas in the herd.

The enemy's advocate was a role the medic often played, but Smarty liked it. It kept him on his toes and challenged him, and Tally was a keen debate partner; thankfully, Smarty came prepared because of those debates. "What we're going into would be the natural cavern system that already existed when they did their geological survey, and using backwards engineering--" he nodded to Castle, "--taking the path that the miners would have most likely taken, using the geographical features already in place, in order to do their exploratory tunneling. It's not a guarantee and this is potentially risky, but most of the danger exists in the possible flooding of the tunnels and not in the carverns themselves. If we fail to find a safe path forward, we can backtrack and try an alternate route."

Misty cut in there; he leaned forward and put his elbows down on the table, adding, "There are sections, from what we can guess, where tunnels might have flooded. The underground temperature is just above freezing; in the case of a flooded tunnel, it's possible for us to swim for it, but it would require us to carry yet more gear on top of the dry survival gear we're already going to be carrying, and obviously we're gonna have to be really well coordinated if we attempt anything like that."

"That depends," Shiv said, shaking his head. "The equipment, I mean. We're going to be in cold assault armor, the Lieu and I have already requisitioned it. It's easy to modify it to work with the water-rebreather and it's already waterproofed. We should only have to carry fins, provided we're not going to be underwater for too long."

Misty looked skeptical. "That's some pretty heavy armor to be swimming in, Sarge. We'd need to up the buoyancy somehow, or we'll be exhausted within minutes."

"I agree." Tally rapped his knuckles on the table lightly. "A rebreather'll keep you alive if you founder and sink, but if no one else can get you, then you'll eventually suffocate to death when it can't scrub the air anymore."

"On the other hand, no one wants to carry around twelve separate propulsion systems, either."

"Weight's going to be a consideration whichever way we go," Maul said; otherwise, he had just been watching them handle the briefing quietly. "We can abandon equipment with a marker for later retrieval, but it's easier if we can minimize it from the outset."

"There are portable, self-inflating floats," Misty suggested. "A good life-vest is pretty light weight, too. I'm just not sure those would be enough, considering the weight of the cold assault armor otherwise, and it'll make it even harder to move."

"Why not a relay?" Husker pointed. "We're not talkin' kilometers of flooded tunnels. We carry enough gear for one or two guys to swim underwater and enough rope for the rest to pull themselves through. Two personal water-jets versus twelve, and once we're in the open, we can just abandon them like the Lieu says."

Shiv was frowning as he tapped into the datapad he had in front of him; after a moment, an inventory list in-progress jumped up as a third panel over the table. "Right now, we're allotting for two white-out tents, eleven sets of cold assault armor -- since a certain party both won't wear it and also isn't tall enough to fit into it -- one full dry-suit with a helmet, a field medic's kit, four large warming blankets, enough cold-weather rations so we can replace the ridiculous amount of calories we're going to burn, three datapads and three wireless broadcasters, all necessary mountaineering gear and now we've got longer ropes and water-jets. We're pushing it on the amount of stuff we're going to be trying to get through."

If Maul minded being poked about the armor (or height) issue, it didn't show on his face; then again, from what Smarty could tell, he had gotten rapidly used to Shiv ribbing him regularly and probably took it with a grain of salt. Or a bucket of it. "Said certain party is more than capable of carrying a large amount of gear, if it's packed correctly, and also doesn't have to worry about the weight of the cold assault armor in addition," he said, dryly.

"Don't forget bags we can seal our non-waterproofed gear into," Husker added, pointing to Shiv's datapad. "The kinds with anchor points."

Shiv sighed and added those to the list, then ran the numbers. It was a lot to carry for one squad on foot, no denying that; Smarty could already see where that would slow them down, though probably not quite enough for them to go over their allotted ten days.

"What's the backup plan if this one doesn't work?" Tally asked, picking up his own datapad, probably to work on what the best weight distribution would be, in order to save their backs from stress injury. "And what are we going to do about the last stretch between where we hope we're getting out of the underground and the bunker?"

Maul lifted a hand and all eight of Smarty's datapads rose smoothly off of the table; the lieutenant just quirked his brow as he held them there. "We improvise. There are only between three and six launchers, depending on our chosen path to the bunker, from the intended exit point. If, however, we have to backtrack to go over the mountains, then we'll likely have to get even more-- creative in our strategy." He set them back down again, just as smoothly, and Smarty was wondering just how close Maul had to be to something to pull that off.

But remote triggering a launcher -- or a dozen -- would definitely keep the soldiers in the bunker hopping, chasing the shadows the Blackbirds were supposed to be. Though, the risk of being spotted was still a hell of a lot higher the longer they were out in the open, regardless.

Tango picked his jaw up off of the table from the little Force display there, then bent his head to the notes he was supposed to be taking, clearing his throat. "Everyone send me what they've got, and I'll, uh-- format it so we're all on the same page."

 

 

 

There was one thing Tally could definitely say for all of the Blackbirds: They were some of the least risk-averse clones he'd met outside of the commandos. He could see about a dozen ways that trying to go under a mountain range could go wrong, but the moment that the possibility was out into the open, they were all immediately figuring out how to make it work, and Tally could really do no differently.

As if it was going to be an adventure and not a grueling mission they were supposed to fail at.

He went over the schematics for the cold assault armor and he was pretty sure that even though they were going to smell pretty bad when this was over, they would at least be warm enough. The white-out tents would be a little packed for having six people in each, but they were insulated enough to keep heat from escaping, too. The rations were going to be the dense, somewhat nasty-tasting high calorie kind, but Tally made sure to throw in some hot drink packets to go with the water purification tablets that were standard and enough individual heating pads to warm hands at one setting or warm canteens at another.

His main part in it was the same as it always was: Keep everyone alive and healthy.

"You wanted to see me?" Maul asked, after he wove his way through the Negotiator's medical bay back to the area where the battalion's medics were given space to store their supplies and deal with the minor injuries that didn't require a higher up or a bed.

"Yes, sir." Tally turned and leaned on the counter, gesturing to his CO's cybernetic legs. "How do those hold up in the extreme cold?"

Maul eyed him, crossing his arms -- something Tally had already figured out was a pretty sure sign of some kind of uncertainty or insecurity -- before answering, "Well enough. I didn't have any trouble, functionally, on Ensolica."

"Over four years ago, right?" Tally had already known about that mission, it was in the files he'd gotten at the beginning of this assignment, though since there hadn't been any injuries (at least, not any reported), all he knew was that it had taken place. "How did you protect the hydraulics then?"

"The same way you would protect your legs without armor: Thermal leggings, good socks and good boots." A little edge crept into Maul's voice, just enough to clip his words.

Tally guessed that was probably a signal he ought to cut to the point, and so he did. "I'm not trying to sound any alarms, sir. But those are civilian technology; they aren't shielded like they woulda been had they been made for a battlefield. And they're ten years old now. I know they haven't given you any trouble yet, but I'm worried that under these kinds of extreme conditions, their age and make are gonna come into play. This is gonna be pushing their limits pretty hard."

There was a moment there, then Maul huffed once, not quite a laugh. "I don't exactly have a more suitable set I can use instead, Tally. This is what I have, ergo, this is what I'll go on this mission with. If you've any suggestions that fall within those facts, then you'd best speak up now; otherwise, I have other things I need to be doing."

The tone wasn't mean, but it was businesslike. Tally supposed that he understood that, too; being questioned about your suitability for a mission you didn't ask for by a medic who hadn't lived with your gear for ten years would probably be a little galling. As such, he offered back a half-grin. "Point taken. Are you able to change the hydraulic fluid to something with a lower freezing point and better viscosity for these temperatures?"

"I have very limited access to their internal workings, frankly, and I'd rather not trigger any of the security measures by trying to do more than adjust the tension levels on the joints, which I have done and could do again, if necessary. In the meantime, the usual methods will do." Maul never looked away; he wasn't glaring, but he clearly was ready to be done discussing this. His next question was pointed: "Are we finished?"

Tally didn't like any of that -- who sent a soldier out without at least giving them access to repair their own cybernetics? And what happened if there was catastrophic damage or failure in the field? -- but if there was anything he could do about it, Maul wasn't going to be able to help him.

Especially not in the time frame they had to work with.

Tally would just have to keep an eye on it and work out whether there was a passive way to do damage control, if it became necessary. He nodded, then, pressing his mouth into an apologetic line. "Sorry, sir. That's all I needed."

Maul nodded back and turned for the door; after two steps, he paused, but whatever he might have said ended up being lost to a shake of his head, and then he was gone again.

Tally went back to his work, pushing aside his worries for the time being to focus on the rest of the mission.

Chapter Text

When Obi-Wan received his copy of the brief for the Blackbirds' training run, his heart hit his boots and then felt like it maybe went through the decking under them, too.

It wasn't the brief itself. That was all in order; it was laid out like a standard (if difficult) training mission. Location, personnel, objective and safety precautions were all included, as well as the required map. A list of recommended supplies for the squad was also included; Obi-Wan was a little amused for a moment that Maul and Shiv had already apparently heard rumors or otherwise, because they had already requisitioned half or more of the supplies, the ones that were harder to source, before the brief was even received. On the surface, the whole thing looked perfectly above-board.

Until Obi-Wan saw who the overseeing officer was.

He had done a fair job keeping Anakin and Maul out of one another's sight line; it wasn't terribly hard, now that Maul had something to do that wasn't haunting Obi-Wan's shadow. The only direct bridge between them aside Obi-Wan was Ahsoka; she had started showing up whenever they were in range of one another to take lessons in teräs käsi, and while Obi-Wan was cringing in anticipation of the day that Anakin found out about it, he turned a blind eye because from what few times he had seen them interact, Maul and Ahsoka had apparently reached a fair level of mutual respect with one another.

He'd even asked Anakin if he, himself, could 'borrow' her, only to send her off to train with the Blackbirds.

But all of that had been clandestine; Anakin didn't know about it, because if he did, Obi-Wan would have had his ears gnawed off the side of his head by now. And really, what he was allowing was poor form, in terms of tradition; the master was in charge of the padawan's education, had always been, and they were circumventing that. And Anakin did care for Ahsoka, more as time went on, bonding with her; Obi-Wan might have been the only Jedi in the Order who not only tacitly approved of but also encouraged that attachment and affection.

Still, even accounting for that, Obi-Wan wasn't sorry that she and Maul were interacting regularly. If there was anyone who could offer a counter-balance, even a small one, for Anakin's daredevil brilliance it was Maul, who was perfectly capable of sowing chaos, but who tended to temper it with a lot of pragmatism and common sense. If Anakin was the one who would destroy a power plant to shut down an unruly appliance, Maul was the one who would just pull the plug. Ahsoka could use some of that tempering influence, and Obi-Wan was too busy most of the time to provide more than the occasional sounding board or gentle suggestion.

Digression aside, though, there was no reason why Anakin should have any current, immediate grudge against Maul. But looking at that training brief, even as innocuous as it seemed, Obi-Wan couldn't shake the feeling of dread.

Having anything like a life outside of military strategy, troop movements and galaxy-wide implications was hard. In any given day, Obi-Wan was doing so many things at once that he sometimes felt like he'd ceased to be a person and had just become the term 'general' incarnate. The only times when he could remember that he was a man and not a figurehead were those times with Maul; those moments where they talked before falling asleep in bed, tangled up in one another, or those moments where they woke up and fell into a domestic morning routine that felt so much more familiar than a war. Even the rare sparring session, made much easier now for the fact Maul was allowed to carry his saberstaff openly, was a reprieve from everything else.

Still, Obi-Wan definitely took the time to track his darling down after reading that training mission brief.

"Oh! General!" Raze rocketed to his feet, when Obi-Wan slipped into Briefing Room 3 -- after convincing the door that he was actually General Obi-Wan Kenobi and allowed anywhere he wanted to go on his own ship! -- and then immediately put his body between Obi-Wan and the counter where...

There was the caf maker that had gone missing from the galley, and what looked to be a hot plate. There were pods of caf, some tea in a tin and some-- cookies?  Cookies. There was a bottle of whiskey with about a third left, and a small but apparently growing collection of mugs neatly hung on hooks on the wall over the counter. Obi-Wan boggled for a moment at the amount of 'personalization' the Blackbirds had done. He had known they all gravitated to the room as their squad room, he'd even made sure no one else was scheduled to use it, but he--

Actually, no. He wasn't that surprised by it. Despite his anxiety and the reason why he was there, he failed to completely swallow the laugh that bubbled up, not only for their contraband, but for the fact that Raze was trying to block the view with a body too small to do so.

"We can explain," Raze said, his still-boyish face going steadily darker.

"Queen Breha sent the cookies," Maul said, casually, from where he had been practically in a huddle with Shiv, Tally, Smarty, Castle and Misty across the room. "Make yourself at home."

Obi-Wan quit trying to stifle his own laughter and busted up, startling the clones -- was it really so rare that they'd seen him smile? -- and shook his head, face aching for the broadness of his grin. The urge to say something unforgivably revealing and domestic was a little easier to hold back, but not much, and when Raze sheepishly brought him some cookies in a napkin and a cup of caf, he took it and found a seat at the table.

"So, uh, what brings you by, sir?" Tango asked, giving up on trying to hide his cookies behind his mug.

"I need to borrow your lieutenant for a short time," Obi-Wan said, eying the cookies he'd been given himself and wondering if Breha had baked them. He wouldn't have been surprised, given her affection for Maul, if she had done so and sent them in a care package. He was almost jealous; they certainly looked good, and after a moment, he picked one up and bit into it and then had to stop himself from closing his eyes to moan at the taste.

He might have taken advantage of his privilege for the sake of having quarters large enough to share with Maul, but he ate no better than his troops, and the taste of real food on his tongue after only the rare cooked meal was amazing.

When he looked again, he was getting a bunch of soft looks from the Blackbirds, and Obi-Wan's heart twinged in ache at the fact that these men -- his darling's squad -- apparently found something as simple as him enjoying a cookie to be worth a fond look.

"It's okay, sir, we all looked like that when we opened the box," Raze offered helpfully, sitting back in his seat at the table.

It was tempting to get sheepish, but Obi-Wan didn't allow himself to, and instead gestured to the small, glittering green earrings Raze was wearing. "When did you get your ears pierced?" he asked, both curiosity and a chance to interact while waiting for Maul to wrap up whatever mission-related brainstorming he was doing now.

"A few weeks ago." Raze grinned back, shoulders hunching in a frankly cute shrug. "Tally did it for me. I'm trying to talk the Lieu into getting his done, but he hasn't given in... yet, anyway."

Obi-Wan vaguely remembered that Maul had once had one of his ears pierced, but it was before his capture. Though, he could easily imagine that any jewel would look good in those black earlobes and quietly hoped Raze succeeded in his efforts. "I like them," Obi-Wan offered back, and grinned at the beaming smile he got in turn.

Maul made it back over before Obi-Wan was finished with his second cookie and eyed him. "You wanted a word?"

The reminder of why he was here settled in like a shroud, heavy and uncomfortable, and Obi-Wan slid his untouched third cookie over to Raze before rising to his feet. "Yes, I do," he said, tipping his head towards the door in request.

If Maul suspected anything, it wasn't evident on his face; he nodded and followed Obi-Wan out into the hallway, and Obi-Wan's heart gave another little ache when Maul brushed fingers against his hand in a subtle little show of affection that would doubtless look accidental, before they fell into step to walk together.

Obi-Wan would prefer to make it back to their quarters, but he didn't want to leave Maul guessing for too long, either. So, eventually, he just said, "I'm thinking of cancelling your squad's training mission."

That stiffened Maul's shoulders and he looked over in both surprise and displeasure. "Why?"

There was little point to hedging. Obi-Wan gave back an apologetic look. "Anakin's in charge of it. I don't think that's wise, to say the least."

"Oh." Maul's reaction sent Obi-Wan's eyebrows shooting up; his gaze skated away in what looked to be dangerously close to sheepishness. "I already know that. As well as what it entails, including--" A beat, and then he huffed out and finished, "--including all of his tactical planning, troop placements, armaments and defenses. As well as at least one way to potentially circumvent most of those."

Obi-Wan tried to absorb that, but he was honestly a little too jaw-dropped to do so in any elegant manner. He gaped for a moment more, then fell quiet so they could get back to their own space; this was clearly going to be a conversation they should hold well away from any potential eavesdropping. When they got through the door of their quarters, he turned and locked it and then eyed Maul, who somehow managed to pull off looking both defiant and guilty at once. "How?" Obi-Wan asked, a little incredulous. (Though, he did notice he had a smaller box of cookies sitting on the counter with his name on it.)

It quite said something that Maul was acting like he had fire-beetles crawling up his spine; he sort of hunched his shoulders inwards a little bit, still not exactly making eye contact. "We-- acquired his planning files."

"Acquired."

"Clandestinely."

Obi-Wan had to pick his jaw up a second time. "How?"

Somehow, Maul managed to look even more guilty. Guilt was not exactly something Obi-Wan associated with his darling, so he wasn't sure how to feel about it; on one part, it was worrying, but on the other, seeing that handsome face painted in an expression which usually belonged on initiates who were caught with their hands or other grasping appendages in the sweets jar made him want to laugh and not stop for awhile. Maul actually winced, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "I-- made a deal with Tano, some weeks ago. Her proposal, after a lesson in teräs käsi, was that she would bring me the information and I would train her in dueling."

And then a third time.

"I agreed, but wanted it to be a training exercise for the Blackbirds to aquire the related files, so I asked Tano to bio-lock the information to Skywalker and insert them into the Jedi Temple's system." Maul gestured, then started pacing, apparently not noticing that Obi-Wan was having trouble with the hinges of his jaw right now. "I then told Brody about it and asked him to slice into the Temple's systems to retrieve them. In the meantime, I managed to scavenge enough parts to build EL-10, given that Tano and I would have little time for me to properly hold up my end of the bargain; that was when I asked you for my files from LiMerge, so that I could program EL-10 off of my former training droids."

Even as Obi-Wan was trying to grasp the sheer intricacy and illegality of the plan, he couldn't deny some admiration for it. Maul could have easily just taken the files and run with it, but like any good teacher, he'd instead identified a learning opportunity for his squad and made use of it.

He just happened to commit any number of crimes while doing so, and apparently without any of them getting caught.

"Brody successfully retrieved the files and the squad discovered they were bio-locked; I didn't tell them that was under my orders. They proceeded to collaborate on how they could acquire the pieces to unlock them; I mostly left them to it, though when they needed some-- contraband for it, I called Bail."

Obi-Wan slapped his hands over his mouth. Maul winced even more graphically, but gamely continued his explanation. "Bail sent two cases of suitable whiskey; that was why Shiv and I left the Negotiator to go to the supply depot, so that we could pick it up. Tally went over to the Resolute and took up a game of sabacc with some of the 501st, and threw the game intentionally in order to lose the whiskey, minus two bottles Tango requested for our victory, if it was indeed a victory. In the meantime, Husker, Six and Eight managed to get Skywalker's voice print and retinal scan, the latter by back-scanning on the calibration sequence of a pair of tactical binoculars." Maul paced another lap, gesturing again. "Brody had ensconced himself in a janitorial closet and had sliced into the Resolute's intranet, moving Skywalker's scheduled inspection of the troop quarters up by a day, after Tally delivered the whiskey. Husker managed to gain himself an invite to the private party amongst his former friends and they were apparently only getting started when Skywalker came to do the inspection."

"You... got Anakin drunk," Obi-Wan breathed out, caught somewhere between wanting to hyperventilate and wanting to laugh until he fell over. "Oh, darling."

Maul flung his hand up, but it wasn't agitation so much as an attempt to ward off the accusation. Obi-Wan was sure that if Maul had the ability, he'd be blushing right now. "I did not. Skywalker got Skywalker drunk, we just happened to maneuver it such that it would be easy for him to do so. It worked, and Husker kindly escorted him back to his quarters; Smarty was in the corridor and sticky-gelled the thumb-print reader on Skywalker's quarters in order to obtain his print. Apparently, Skywalker was too drunk to really notice and Smarty came and 'fixed' the problem, though not before Skywalker informed Husker and Smarty about my status as the Order's prisoner."

That sobered Obi-Wan rather quickly; his face fell and he frowned. "How did the Blackbirds take it?" He had taken both Tally and Shiv aside very early to explain things, and both the sergeant and medic had handled it without any real trouble, but it hadn't seemed prudent to tell the rest until such time as they were more cohesive as a squad.

"Well." Maul finally stopped pacing, expression settling into something easily recognizable as a quiet pride. "They asked questions, I answered them and aside Raze apparently thinking this gives them, ah-- some manner of rogue credibility, it hasn't come up again."

Obi-Wan nodded, breathing out a sigh of relief. He'd had a feeling that the Blackbirds would take it all right when the time came, he had been so very careful to choose that squad not only based on their specialties, but on their personality profiles -- in the cases of Six and Eight, from Master Ti's personal notes -- but it was something he hadn't anticipated coming out so early on. Then something else occurred, and his brow furrowed. "How did you get enough DNA to unlock the last piece of the bio-lock?"

"Oh. Tally gave Smarty a biopsy kit, and while Skywalker was drunkenly snoring in his bunk, Smarty took a sample from just above where his arm was cut off." Maul didn't seem to think that was any big deal, though when Obi-Wan's eyes went saucer-wide, he paused and looked back warily. "It was easier than perhaps snatching a handful of his hair out by the roots. Or some other such action."

After a moment more of numbering the charges that could be brought against Maul and the Blackbirds just for this single adventure in espionage, Obi-Wan managed to finally properly re-hinge his jaw. "--and that's how you know about the mission."

Maul just nodded back, then pressed his mouth into a rueful line. "I won't blame you if I end up on the couch tonight."

The thought of relegating Maul to the couch for this hadn't even occurred; Obi-Wan would sooner cut off one of his own legs than give up a night sleeping with his other-half. In fact, it was quite the effort for Obi-Wan to not grab Maul and kiss him until he was panting for air.

He held up a hand, asking for a moment to just-- grasp all of this, and the more he thought about it, the more brilliant it became. The layers of planning and the intentions behind it; the unorthodox methodology and the clever way they had pulled it all off, all before their first official training mission. He had known the Blackbirds would likely be quite unconventional just because of who they were, but he was a little amazed at how quickly they had gone and proven it.

Of course, that reminded Obi-Wan that said training mission was still in the air.

"Since I have only the brief to go on," he asked, "how bad is it?"

Maul quirked his brow. "It's designed to see us fail, and rather badly. I doubt the commandos often saw training missions of this type. But despite that, I think we're equal to it."

"I don't doubt you are, but it hardly seems fair to send you into a scenario where you're intended to lose," Obi-Wan said, gently. "The point was supposed to be training; I think it might be wise to bypass this and make sure your squad is going to be treated fairly."

Maul shook his head, having apparently regained his ability to look Obi-Wan in the eye. "We've been idling for training now for months; even if it's for a larger purpose, we need to be able to act and soon, in the capacity that the squad was assembled for. There will be plenty of situations in the future that we face where we are against overwhelming odds and have little more than our wits to fall back on. Skywalker means to see my ruin, but if I back down, it will just delay us getting into the fight sooner. If it proves to be genuinely dangerous to my squad, I will forfeit the mission for their sakes, but until then, I think we should take the challenge head-on and then shove it down his throat."

The words were calmly delivered, all just statements of intent and fact, but Obi-Wan could hear the subtle note of imploring in there, too.

The most damning part was, Obi-Wan could see all of the threads of Maul's reasoning; could see why Maul would rather just go and tackle this now, instead of hope for a chance for the Blackbirds to prove their mettle later. Having a general step in would likely lead to all sorts of rumors that no one wanted to deal with, too.

As he so often did, Maul took the challenge presented and then he had set about finding a way to beat it, and went to quite some interesting unorthodox solutions while doing so, and all the while he did so as teacher, if not perhaps commander, of his squad. And his squad answered it with cleverness and cohesion and were prepared to follow Maul even into a situation as bad as this one seemed to be.

Taking them out of the fight before it even started would make all of that work seem poisoned.

Obi-Wan took a breath, then another, and practiced yet again his lessons learned on Zigoola. "All right, darling. I'll give you any supplies you request in the next two days, no questions asked, and--"

He wasn't sure how to finish that statement, but the tangle of feelings -- love and pride and worry and a thousand others -- that he felt when Maul huffed in relief and practically sagged in place was poignant in its strength. And instead of bothering to say anything more, Obi-Wan finally gave into his urge to laugh; at the scheming and the cunning and the sheer audacity of what they'd already accomplished.

And he also gave into the urge to kiss Maul breathless, too.

 

 

 


They parted ways after; Maul back to his squad, Obi-Wan back to the rest of his neverending duties, where having the space in his mind to think about anything outside of the war was precious and scarce. He took every request the Blackbirds sent and made sure to fill it exactly as requested, and over the next two nights, he spent a few more minutes than normal just laying awake, holding Maul tight, something to ward against the ache of the time they would be apart and against the worry he was certain to feel.

On the last morning, Obi-Wan made Maul tea and stuck it in a covered mug, tucked a pair of cookies in plastic in the pocket of his white parka, and then adjusted the collar of it after Maul pulled it on. On the sleeve was the pale gray variation of the Blackbirds' patch, and seeing it made Obi-Wan smile.

"Make him regret it, darling," he said, holding on for one more moment to the front of that parka just to steal a kiss.

Maul kissed him back, then flashed a grin, lopsided and a little fierce at once. "I intend to. I'll see you in a few weeks; be safe until then, Obi-Wan."

"I will be." Obi-Wan took a breath and then stepped back. "I love you."

It was only the third -- perhaps fourth, if he'd actually said it while falling asleep instead of just thought it -- time that Obi-Wan had spoken those words. In that moment, he felt them so deeply that they rang against his soul like a bell.

Maul was always more awkward with it, but no less heartfelt. "I love you, too," he said, after a moment, before picking up his pack to throw over a shoulder; he left without a backwards glance, all purpose and nerve.

Maybe try being proud of him, instead, Bail had said, on Zigoola, those months ago.

I am, Obi-Wan had answered then.

He was every bit of the same now, too.

Chapter Text

"Tighten your harnesses, guys, this is gonna be a rough descent."

"Oh, frip-- Tango--"

"Can't you hold us steady?!"

"You try to set a courier down in the middle of a blizzard!"

"I don't feel so good..."

"Raze, I swear, you hurl on me and I won't step foot off this frippin' ship until you hand-scrub my armor!"

"Deep breaths, Raze. Here, pass this down; Eight, stick it on his neck."

"What is it?"

"Motion sickness patch."

"--thanks, Tally."

"Wow, boys, listen to that wind."

"I hate everything."

Maul watched, gaze pinging around to each speaker -- absent Tango, who was piloting -- and while he was used to the Blackbirds bantering, he had never heard them bickering like this before. It was a little bit alarming, so he leaned over, against the harness keeping him otherwise pinned into place on the bucking courier, and asked Shiv quietly, "Are they angry?"

Shiv glanced over, amused, though his expression softened quickly. "Nah, sir. Just being brothers."

Maul still didn't get it -- and the arguing and complaining didn't abate, though Raze had closed his eyes with his head leaned back, complexion no longer quite so sickly -- but he didn't exactly have all that much experience with brothers himself, so he just nodded and took Shiv's word for it.

The lights flickered when a particularly hard gust buffeted their ship, silencing the Blackbirds for a moment.

But only a moment.

"What the hell, Tango, why not let us get blown into the side of a mountain?!"

"SHUT. THE FRIP. UP!"

"Ooh, testy."

"Brody, if you keep whining at Tango, I'm going to stunbolt you."

"Guys, it's just nerves, can't we please get along?"

"Ah, kriff, Raze, don't look like that, we don't mean it."

"Guys? I have to go to the 'fresher."

 

 

 

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they landed; Six bolted for the 'fresher and the rest of the squad stretched as much as they were able to while wearing most of their cold assault armor. And all of them listened to the wind howling outside, shrieking against the ship and making it clear that their disembarking would be at least four times as unpleasant as their descent had been.

The motion sickness patch had apparently had some kind of sedative effect on Raze; he kept mixing up the order of things, motion slow, until Maul intervened, pulling the insulating hood over Raze's spiky hair before Raze managed to pull the specialized bucket on without it. "Are you going to be able to walk?"

Raze blinked back at him sleepily, though he obligingly lifted his chin some so his hood could be fitted under it. "Yessir, I'm just-- a little drowsy."

It had become quickly clear that in addition to having the attention span of a child, Raze was incredibly physical. He was the first one to sling an arm around a brother's shoulders, or to lean against someone. Even Maul hadn't escaped this bizarre facet of the demo expert's personality; case in point, once his hood was on, Raze leaned into Maul and plunked his brow against the top of Maul's shoulder, mumbling his gratitude.

Maul just endured it, though after a moment he patted on the back of Raze's head awkwardly. "You need to get your helmet on, you can't sleep here."

"I like the parka better than the armor, sir, it's much softer and not as heavy," Raze said, not yet picking his head up.

Maul caught half his squad watching this, some of them from behind their helmets, the neck-less effect of them rather unnerving. "The armor has an environmental system in it. Raze--"

"Okay, I'm up." Raze straightened himself up and thankfully Tally came over and got him the rest of the way suited up, which gave Maul a few moments to sort himself out.

Even as Tally was manhandling Raze into his helmet and arranging the windbreak, he was saying, "Taking bets on this ship being buried by the end of the day."

"No one bets with you. At least, no one with any sense. Besides, what do we even own to bet?" Brody asked, skeptically. "We don't even own our clothes."

That had Maul raising a brow; even his few possessions were at least his, though he was well-aware that they could be taken away from him if he displeased the wrong person enough. But then again, he was a prisoner, whereas the troops were fighting for the Republic. "What about your contraband?" he asked, before he had a chance to really think about it.

"Fleeting." Tally patted the top of Raze's bucket, then shook his head and picked up his own. "Hard to get, we lose it if we get caught and, depending on who's doing the catching, we get into trouble. I mean, I still have it, but it's not the same thing as betting a paycheck."

"But at least we get to paint our armor," Misty commented, voice vaguely distorted from behind his faceplate, and there was no placing that tone on the spectrum between sarcastic and genuine.

Maul nodded back, half-absently, still chewing over the thought as he finished getting ready to go out into the cold himself.

 

 

 

Tango had set them down as close as he could to their entry point into the mountain range, bringing the courier down in the valley between two peaks despite the vicious winds he'd had to wrestle the ship against, but there was still a long hike to get to where they were hoping an old mining tunnel was open enough to get into. Castle was in the lead; the scanner he held had a limited range, but he also had the contour maps on his heads up display and was the best equipped of the squad to be able to read both of those things in order to determine where they were precisely without having to rely on the satellites.

Maul figured that if they had the idea of using the satellites to guide them, then Skywalker's cohort would be able to track them by the same; while it was technically against the unspoken sportsmanship of training exercises (at least according to Shiv), Maul thought that likely Skywalker had thrown sportsmanship to the wind when he designed this scenario and therefore any paranoia was well founded.

So, he had Brody slice the geosynch satellites -- which had no serious tactical value while surrounding a non-strategic world and were therefore very easy to get into -- and set up a series of scrambled pings coming from all over Bravo-984 before they left the ship. If Skywalker's troops were also sliced into the system intending to use it to track the Blackbirds, then it would look like the Blackbirds were ghosts, flying around the globe faster than the sound barrier. And if Skywalker's troops weren't watching them that way, then nothing much was ventured nor gained.

It was a strange thing for Maul to actually listen to his own paranoia. He had spent the past number of years trying to disarm it enough to function without checking every corner of every room compulsively, without stiffening for a fight the moment someone came into his space. Willingly giving it any additional rein now made his skin prickle in anticipation of disaster.

The blizzard hadn't let up any; walking into the winds shearing down the mountains and blowing snow ahead of it meant that they had to walk close together or risk losing each other. Maul couldn't see Castle in the lead, nor Shiv bringing up the rear; for that matter, he could barely see Tango directly ahead of him. The effort of walking through snow would have had his legs burning, had he actual muscle and bone; given how quiet they were even over the radio, the Blackbirds likely were feeling the strain of it and didn't want to waste any breath. The only time anyone spoke up, it was checking in that they were all still together, or occasionally Tally giving Raze a nudge to wake up.

Even without feeling the burn in his legs, Maul could feel the effort; he was carrying as much as Tally would allow him to, taking advantage of said cybernetics, and the only way to do that was to drop his head like a pack animal in a harness and lean into the wind.

It was somewhere around the fifth hour when Castle started relaying back how close they were getting. Maul had some knowledge of how to read contour maps, but nothing the same as the combat engineer; it seemed, then, to be intuitive to hand the leading off to the one equipped for it. Listening to Castle calmly reciting distance and lines of elevation they crossed -- which were buried under snow, and therefore could only be detected by scanner -- and that seemed to have been the right call.

Maul still had no real, solid idea of how much time had passed between them leaving the courier behind and when Castle stopped the line, though. "Got a problem, boys."

"What is it?" Maul asked back, through his own headset, ignoring for the moment the way his shoulders were burning for the weight on them.

"There's an entry point, but it's half caved in and about thirteen meters up a steep slope and buried in snow, Lieu. Looks like this area's weathered over the years; it's listed in the survey maps as bein' close to ground-level originally."

They had known that if they took this route, there were going to be obstacles. And not only a few of them. Maul found himself nodding despite the fact no one could possibly see it, then pushed ahead, brushing past Tango and Misty to get up to Castle. He couldn't see a thing for the white-out conditions, but clearly standing out here waiting for what passed for spring on this rock wasn't an option.

"It's just the snow and the steepness?" he asked, once he was alongside Castle.

"Yes, sir. We could maybe manage against the one, but not the other at the same time, not if we don't wanna take any falls." Castle held up his gloved arm, showing the angle of the slope; somewhere between fifty and sixty degrees, closer to sixty. Steep, certainly; impassible, no.

"Where exactly, relative to us, is that tunnel mouth?" Maul asked, trying to calculate the best way to get a squad in heavy equipment up there, squinting into the whiteout through his goggles, though to no avail.

Castle pointed unerringly up and to their left. "Right there."

Maul looked in that direction, despite not being able to see it. Then he started off-loading the equipment he was carrying. "Let me see if I can't clear us a way."

Once he was burden free, he pulled his saberstaff from where he'd strapped it across his chest -- since his back was occupied -- and lit a blade.

Over the radio, Raze sighed, "That's so badass."

"And hot," Tally added, mischief in his voice, before he ended up grunting. "Literally hot, Tango, for frip's sake."

Maul couldn't quite help but chuckle at that; despite the fact that they were in the middle of what appeared to be a never-ending blizzard and things were likely only going to get harder from here, at least Raze sounded awake again and no one was grumbling or seemed to be in poor spirits. For that matter, despite the fact that he deeply despised the cold, Maul was in a fair mindset himself, something that surprised him; not so much that he was, as that he recognized it as such.

Just to test his theory out, he stuck his blade into a spot well away from the troops and watched the snow rapidly retreat from the glowing gold; after a moment, he widened the area and then tested the consistency of the bared ground with the toe of his boot, watching intently to make up for the fact that he couldn't actually feel it.

It was rocky enough over permafrost to not turn too slippery; he had been a bit worried that it would become nothing but mud. Satisfied, Maul raised his blade again and looked up.

There wasn't any point to waiting around; after a moment, plotting whether a straight shot up would be better than side-hilling, he put his blade out in front of him and started carving their way upwards, the hand not holding his saber digging into newly bared ground.

 

 

 

"I'm so glad I'm not claustrophobic. So, so glad."

"You've said that thirty times, Tango, we got it the first time."

"Tango's only said it six times."

"Well, sir, it feels like thirty. But even then, it's five times more than I needed to hear."

There was some indistinct grumbling that was undoubtedly Tango's. Despite privately agreeing with Husker, Maul could certainly understand Tango's desire to repeat that, even if it suggested that the pilot actually was a little claustrophobic and that he was reassuring himself that he wasn't.

Getting all eleven of the clones up the slope had been some effort; their cold assault armor was heavy enough that with that, and the gear, they struggled to make such a steep grade. After Castle's boot slipped, Maul positioned himself about halfway up, dug his boots in sideways against the slope, kept one (very uncomfortably cold and now ungloved) hand on the ground, and used the Force to brace Castle and pull against him at the same time, until he was past Maul, and then it was all push.

"What a garden spot," Castle had said, sardonically, while Maul dragged Tango up next. Given that Maul had cleared the entrance and taken a look in himself, he could only agree with the sentiment.

They were slowed some for the fact that Maul could only safely manage one at a time; this world was no Zigoola, and he wasn't feeling negatively enough to draw on the dark side, which mostly left him with a more neutral, less powerful access to the Force. Good enough, for this purpose, but slow.

Now, there was the scrape of arms and packs against the walls, and the illumination of headlamps against the back of the person in front. The rock walls on either side of them, rough-hewn centuries before, were close enough that occasionally it did feel as if they were closing in. On one low spot, Brody didn't duck far enough and smacked his bucketed head off of the ceiling, then let out a string of colorful curses. Apparently, just to amuse himself, Smarty named the culture each one came from right after.

"Unless something else has changed, twenty meters before we get some space to breathe," Castle reported.

There was a groan of relief from someone. Maul silently nodded; he genuinely wasn't claustrophobic, but he still didn't care for the tight quarters, either.

"Where are we relative to our first camp?" Tally asked; he was somewhere behind Maul, though he no longer had to mind Raze, who had shaken off his drowsiness.

"Depends on the shape of the cavern system ahead. No guarantees," Castle answered. "Best guess? An hour."

"What were they looking to mine here, anyway?"

Smarty took that question, being the one who did most of the research that had brought them here: "They thought they found a kyber deposit. Turned out that it was only the kinds of run-of-the-mill crystals that mystics try to pass off as being healing or whatever else, but it took 'em so long to figure out because the Jedi refused to confirm or deny it. Eventually they managed to get ahold of a kyber from Jedha -- no mean feat -- and run comparisons on the lattices."

The topic had Maul grinning a little bit. "There are more ways to focus a lightsaber than just a kyber crystal. The Jedi prefer those because they're alive; they resonate in the Force. But my blade prior to this one was focused with crystals I forged myself."

"What about the ones you have now?" Smarty asked, instantly curious.

"Kyber. They live, though I'm still getting used to them."

"How did you make the other ones?"

After Maul told them the brief story -- covering his days spent in meditation, in a specialized furnace, where he was not only forging crystals but keeping himself from being baked alive or dying of dehydration -- it was Raze who got the final word on the subject: "Definitely the most badass CO in the Grand Army."

They couldn't see Maul rolling his eyes, but he did anyway. Nor could they see the vaguely sheepish quirk of his lips, which was certainly for the better.

By then, they were near the first cavern. Castle's gusty sigh of relief carried over the radio when he finally left the tunnel, which made enough of them break into questions to cause radio interference until Shiv told them to can it and see for themselves.

In the light of headlamps and little more, the ceiling above was tall and incredibly spikey, while there were mounds of mineral deposits on the winding, uneven ground. They stood in a group of twelve, turning in each direction to look; where their lamps illuminated, everything sparkled across the spectrum, throwing back glittering pinpoints of light in a multitude of colors.

There was little in the way of even ground, but there was some. Tally took his bucket off, the thermal hood under it soaked in splotches from sweat, though he kept the headlamps on and used the bucket as a directional lamp. "I think we oughta set camp here. We've been on the move almost nine hours and all of 'em hard."

Maul had no heads up display to rely on for timekeeping, but he was still some surprised they had been moving that long. "How far are we from our first projected camp, Castle?"

"Forty-five minutes, sir, unless we run into obstacles."

Maul thought about it; he would have pushed on himself, were it just him, but it wasn't just him and the troops were suited up in heavy enough armor that fatigue was a real concern. Nor could they lean on the Force to keep them going. This was probably one of those moments for a command decision; for him to decide based on both objective and reality what the best course would be, but ultimately, Maul couldn't figure out which one of the two options was the better of them.

So, he just fell back on what had worked before: "Vote. Who wants to go ahead and who thinks we should camp here?"

 

 

 

It turned out that it was an hour and a half, and by the time they did stop, all of them were exhausted. Even without the snow to push through, there was nothing kind about the passage between one point and the next.

The ground was just as rough here, as well; this cavern had a lower ceiling than the prior one, though it was still better than the tunnel that they had to practically crawl through to get to it. It took more precious time for them to find enough level space to place their tents, which would keep them warm enough to sleep, and everyone had fallen into a kind of weary quiet, speaking up only to coordinate where to put things.

Maul was rather surprised at how guilty he felt over it. He could have just set camp back there, and he knew that none of them would have kicked about him doing so if he'd made it an order, but instead he had left it up to a vote and when that turned out to be seven to five -- his own apparently being the tie-breaker -- they had gone ahead.

Seeing how beat they were by it left him feeling edgy and uncomfortable and also wondering why he was feeling either of those things, especially since they were all soldiers who answered to higher authority, himself included. But even as he threw in on making camp himself, he noted the stiffness in their shoulders and backs, and how comparatively slow they were now, versus when they were rested.

Setting a watch was only debatably necessary. There were no signs of life in these caverns thus far, and it was highly unlikely the enemy was going to stumble over them. But before they had even embarked on this mission, they had decided to set one anyway, just in case. One person, two hours, four rotations, so two-thirds of the squad would get a full night's unbroken sleep each night, and the others would only have theirs broken up once every third day.

Driven on by that unfamiliar guilt, Maul took the first watch.

Driven on by an unsurprising difficulty at the prospect of sleeping crammed into a tent with five other bodies close, he ended up taking all but the last of them, too.

Chapter Text

When Tally woke up with an arm and a leg over him, and a nose nuzzling the back of his head, he had a long moment where he wondered if the mission and everything leading up to it had been a hallucination and if maybe he was still in the rented room of that Navy nurse he'd given a thorough kriffing however many months back. Then he realized that he could only smell the not-yet-rankness of his brothers and had to bite back a groan of minor disappointment.

"Raze, get off of me."

Raze grunted sleepily, but instead of unplastering himself, he just turned to rubbing his whole face against Tally's hair.

Shiv was laying directly across from Tally and already studying one of their datapads; he glanced over, amused. "Guess that answers whether you're the big spoon or the little spoon."

"You smug asshole," Tally answered, without any heat, as he reached back and scritched at Raze's head. "Raze, please get off of me, I'm not a damned body pillow."

"Unh-- what?" Raze asked, before apparently waking up enough to let Tally go. He peeled himself away from where he had been pinning the medic to the sleeping mat, rolling onto his back and then sitting up. "Didn't I have a watch last night?"

"You and me both," Shiv said, without looking away from his datapad, some undefinable note in his voice. "The Lieu took 'em."

Tally found himself frowning at that, as he sat up in his single-body-wide space in order to gather up his armor, which was piled neatly at his feet. But he didn't say anything.

Yet.

 

 

 

The caverns weren't particularly treacherous, but they were miserable in terms of claustrophobia. Tango was having a harder time the longer they were underground dealing with the perceived weight of a mountain on top of him, and Tally was keeping an eye on the pilot; Tango already had a bend towards superstition and flights of fancy, so it probably wouldn't take all that much for his imagination to run away with him.

Castle, on the other hand, seemed to be in his element; he wasn't a geologist, but his grasp of engineering -- mechanical and structural -- gave him a heck of a leg up in terms of being able to interpret some very old maps and allow for the fact that things probably had changed some over the centuries since they had been made. As they occasionally had to slither over rock-falls and sometimes leave it to Maul to clear a wider space with his saber, Castle was usually relaying what was coming; unless they needed space cleared, he was the one leading this expedition.

Tally didn't have much in the way of an opinion on it, himself. He found it easy to focus on his own job and follow those doing the leading; he didn't really let himself think about the cramped conditions, beyond making sure he was listening to his brothers. In his bucket's heads-up, he could pull up their vitals and watch, and even though he would have preferred to leave his head uncovered, he kept the bucket on specifically so he could watch Tango's bio-signs and call up any others he might have needed to.

The only person he couldn't watch the data on was their lieutenant. He knew that those cybernetics had a limited life support system -- had to, in order to be able to make up for the fact Maul was missing some vital parts of his guts -- and he knew that if he had the actual ability to access them, he could probably have them transmitting the data back the same as their armor did, but he didn't have any access.

That left him more traditional methods to keep an eye on Maul; namely, observation.

If the night up had any impact, it didn't show; Maul seemed just as alert and ready as ever. And really, all of them knew what it was like to go a night without sleep -- sometimes many -- so he wasn't too worried yet, but he resolved to keep watch anyway.

Tally would have done so with any CO, he used to with General Kenobi, but Maul was an undeniably different case entirely. Kenobi tended to grind himself down without a second thought -- something he and the Lieu had in common, from what Tally could see -- but there was a lot less in Kenobi's medical records to suggest he'd be at risk for psychological instability, too.

Maul's, on the other hand, were something of a mess, albeit one where the disasters seemed to happen in clusters, and the rest was all comparatively calm. The healer who was in charge of his care at the Temple had been pretty thorough in including scans and notes; there didn't seem to be a bone left in his body that hadn't been broken at some point, all prior to him being captured. An old shoulder injury occasionally acted up, though not enough to do anything about. Being cut in half was obviously a big kriffing deal, and the period after that even made Tally queasy, even if it was all just notations on medical interventions.

Tally was pretty sure he was the only one of them who knew Maul had tried to kill himself. He didn't think even Shiv was privy to that information.

That was a decade ago, but the ensuing period of despondency was incredibly long. The word depression was never added, but then again, the Jedi had some weird ideas about how living people worked and Tally knew what depression looked like, even when it was only revealed in notes and observations. More recently, Maul had managed to get two concussions inside of two months, and both of those only a couple months ago -- Tally knew about the one on Christophsis, but the other following had been fairly quickly thereafter -- and while zabraks were pretty tough, there was only so much anyone could take before it started doing permanent damage. More minorly, he had some peripheral neuropathy in his right hand from around the same time as that most recent concussion, and Tally had caught him rubbing at his wrist and the heel of his palm the night before, though he hadn't said anything about it.

Anyway, Tally would have preferred to be able to call up vitals with the right glance, but since he couldn't, he just kept his eyes and ears open.

It wasn't warm underground, but it was warmer than it would have been had they tried to cross the mountains above. Still, the air had a constant clammy feel to it; Tally took water samples from any available whenever they stopped and found nothing that would be dangerous, though he insisted they purify the hell out of anything they took to drink, lest he end up dealing with another kind of river, of the disgusting type.

But after about six hours of calm walking, all of it relatively level with only minor variations, that was when they started going down.

And down.

And down.

In the seventh hour, Tango started to lose it.

 

 

 

"I can't do this. I can't do this, I need to go back, I'll stay with the ship, I can just provide air support--"

It was damned tight quarters for a pilot to be in the middle of a panic attack; Tally had made sure to position himself right behind Tango at the last spot where they had some room to get around each other, but it was in the hopes that he wouldn't need to be there. Now, it was clear that he definitely had made the right call.

They had all taken their buckets off, except for Castle and Misty, who both offered to scout ahead for a wider space, and who got Maul's okay to do so. Now, Tally crouched in the chokingly narrow passage, hoping they could get Tango calmed back down before he ended up hyperventilating. He was pretty close to doing so now.

"We need you, Tango," Raze said, surprisingly softly, from behind Tally's shoulder; everyone had their headlamps pointed to the walls to reflect light, rather than burn anyone's eyes, buckets in hand or resting on the ground. It was pretty good light, too; Tally would require Raze to pull his medpack off for him, if he needed it, but they at least could all see one another provided they were able to peer over shoulders or over heads, depending on who was crouched or standing.

"I'm a pilot, I'm not supposed to be underground," Tango gasped back, trembling in place with his eyes squeezed closed and sweat beading on his face despite the cool, musty air and his armor probably trying to compensate.

Even Brody, though, sounded more reassuring than snarky. "I know you've sat in tiny cockpits with some transparisteel between you and the unfeeling vacuum of space, brother, this is nothin' compared to that. I don't know how the hell you don't piss your blacks every time you climb into one of those single-man fighters."

"I can see when I'm out there, I can see the stars, I can see space, I can see ships, I can't see down here, I can't breathe down here," Tango babbled, and Tally winced when the tears started falling, heart aching some for the sight of their ridiculous, creative, crushing-on-their-CO brother in that kinda state.

For all the snark there had been coming down to land, none of the Blackbirds were being anything but supportive with Tango now. From the other side of Brody, Maul pointed out, rather gently himself, "You can breathe; you are breathing. If you're able to speak, you're able to breathe."

Tally's mouth quirked up on one side at that being pointed out, reaching out and taking one of Tango's gloved hands. "Lieu's right. But listen; just keep your eyes closed and breathe slower, okay? In through your nose, deep into the bottom half of your lungs, then hold it for two seconds, then let it out through your mouth. Can you do that?"

He'd had the foresight to pack a pretty broadly useful medkit, and he happened to make sure he had brought along the strongest tranquilizers he had access to, enough to cover situations exactly like this. But for someone who wasn't used to 'em, they had a pretty strong sedative effect, and they still had some ways to go before they were going to be at their next stop; they'd known starting out that this day's hike would be anywhere from ten to twelve hours, and more if they ran into too many obstacles. If he could get Tango calmed down enough without 'em, that would definitely be ideal.

Tango gave a sketchy nod and tried, albeit with some real difficulty at first, clinging to Tally's hand. But within twenty seconds, it sounded like the whole squad was breathing with him in unison.

Tally mentally shrugged and fell into that rhythm himself, especially when he could see and hear Tango slowly settling down. It went on like that for the better part of another minute before Husker said, "I'm sure as hell glad no one ate onions before this."

It startled Tango into a little laugh, and a few others into snickering like schoolboys, but when it was over, Tango was at least breathing right and looked kind of exhausted, but not on the edge of hysteria. Still nervous, but not quite as bad as he had been.

"Thanks, guys," he said, voice thick.

"What're brothers for?" Brody asked back, nonchalantly. "Claustrophobia or getting you out of a jam with the Chadran mob, we have each other's backs."

"--the what?" Smarty asked, from the back of the line, incredulously.

"The Chadran mob. Look, it's a long story, I don't know if now's the time to go into it--"

"I, for one, would very much like to hear it," Maul said, amusement sneaking into his voice.

"Me too," Tango added, still sounding a little bit breathless, but considerably better.

Brody huffed. "Fine, fine, but only if we can keep walking, I can't wait to get this stuff off my back."

Tally helped Tango up, and rested their foreheads together for a moment in silent affection and reassurance, and then they all got moving again as Brody started, "Have you ever pissed off a bunch of naked, meter-tall furballs with sharp buckteeth? Because thanks to one of those little side bets on a sports sector, I managed to do just that, and let me tell you, friendly as those chadra-fans are, they take their grav-ball pretty damned seriously..."

 

 

 

Brody's story of how he managed to barely avoid four life-debts with wookiees and being in the hole for six million and thirty-three credits to the Chadran mafia, all thanks to the intervention of a more experienced brother slicer, morphed into Maul telling a story about an undercover mission in his former life that involved a chadra-fan artist and convict; that story involved a lot of brutality, blood-shed, clawbirds and a deathspine varactyl (among other things), and Maul glossed over the actual fights he'd been thrown into cage-match style, but it was still entertaining if kind of horrifying to listen to.

(He probably wasn't helping Tango's crush any, but he was definitely keeping Tango's attention on something besides the tight space.)

Castle and Misty had backtracked with news of a slightly wider section of tunnel where they paused to eat, and when everyone started moving again, the stories kept being told.

By the time both Brody and Maul were done talking, they had finally reached their next stop and Tango was reeling with exhaustion, but still on his feet, and aside all but sobbing when the tunnel opened up into a low but broad cavern with crystals growing all around it, he seemed to have his claustrophobia contained, even if not perfectly.

Tally didn't need to be told that both their storytellers had been talking the last near four hours specifically in order to keep Tango focused and to give the others something to listen to as they walked, thereby distracting them from the heaviness of their packs and the tight spaces they had to negotiate, but he was grateful for it anyway, even for his own sake.

Everyone had dropped their packs the moment they could, and now Smarty was eying the crystals reflecting the light of their headlamps back at them in frosted, pale colors and sometimes catching a facet just right enough to throw rainbows. "So, you said that there are more ways to focus a lightsaber than just kybers?" he asked Maul, who was taking a moment and absently rubbing his wrist.

Maul nodded back; his voice had gotten a little more hoarse for all of his talking, but he still answered, "Several. You'd have to break me off one before I could tell you if these are capable, though."

Smarty apparently felt that was a challenge he wanted to take up and went to it; Maul, in the meantime, went to crouch in front of Tango, who was sitting and doing the same breathing exercises Tally had talked him through earlier, though more calmly.

Tally wasn't close enough to listen in, but he watched for a few moments while Tango shook his head, and then eventually nodded, albeit reluctantly. And then, absent Smarty, they were all pitching tents and getting out rations and setting up for the night.

That didn't take long, either, before they were eating enough to try to replace some of what they'd just burned on their long and aching downhill hike inside of the mountain; Smarty came back with his crystal and plunked down next to Maul, offering it over for inspection.

"It might be capable of focusing a low-power blade," Maul said, after holding it up in the light of Smarty's headlamp, squinting at it and turning it in his fingers. "Not stronger than an initiate training saber, but it would burn skin, if not cut through it." He offered it back and when Smarty took it and asked a bunch more questions, the kinds of which didn't interest Tally enough to follow, he answered them one and a time and patiently.

Tally wasn't listening, but he was watching when Tango -- who was supposed to take the first watch tonight, though Tally had been ready to volunteer in his place and rearrange things so he could just pull a double one himself, since he was supposed to take the third -- turned in. And when their lieutenant made no move to himself.

Shiv caught his eye from across the semi-circle they naturally gravitated to sitting in, raising an eyebrow in question, but Tally just pressed his lips into a line and gave a minute shake of his head. And when he turned in, twenty minutes later, he made sure to set his gauntlet to buzz at the right time to wake him up.

He was going to say something, but not yet.

 

 

 

"Feel like talking about it?" Tally asked, still trying not to yawn, four hours after he had fallen asleep.

In the very dim light of a single handlamp, Maul peered back at him steadily, arms crossed while he leaned against his pack. Even just waking up, Tally wanted to shake his head for the instant (albeit subtle) wariness he was having aimed at him, though he refrained.

At least Maul didn't do him the discredit of asking what about; he raised a brow instead. "If I had wanted to, I would have."

The tone was even, a statement of fact, if maybe a bit defensive. Tally took it in stride, sitting down crosslegged across from the zabrak, finally giving into that yawn that he couldn't seem to stuff down.

However, he did have to put some real effort into not smirking knowingly when Maul instantly echoed it, failing to muffle it into the back of his arm.

"Here, lemme see your hand," Tally said, holding out one ungloved palm, though he had most of the rest of his armor on just for the sake of staying warm on his watch. "You've been worrying at it all day."

"It's minor, and there's nothing to be done for it anyway," Maul said, but after a moment of eying Tally's outstretched hand, he gave his own over.

"Humidity's a bastard sometimes, especially chilly humidity like this," Tally agreed, turning Maul's hand over in both of his, before pushing the sleeves of his parka and undershirts up, then rubbing into his wrist with both thumbs from the heel of the palm back; his own skin was still really sleep-warm and it must have felt pretty good, given how quickly he could feel the tension go out of Maul's forearm. He kept at it for awhile as he chewed over what he wanted to say; he wasn't above getting snappy and pulling rank if need be, but fact was, he didn't think that was going to actually do much good here.

Just foster a distrust that they sure as hell didn't need.

Between hiking and handling a claustrophobic Tango and listening to storytelling, there had been plenty of time to think, so Tally had used it and he hoped he'd used it well. "Look, sir. I can't pretend I know any of the reasons why you're out here pulling a second all-nighter, I'm not a mind-reader or anything, but I do know that Force or no, it's gonna catch up to you. And I know you're used to people, healer or medic, just making moves on you without bothering to tell you why, but all grousing aside about how I'll lecture your ears off your head if you do something stupid -- like poison yourself taste-testing weird roots you dug out of the ground -- I haven't actually pulled rank on you yet. And before you go thinking that means I'm leading up to it, I'm not."

Maul had the best sabacc face Tally had ever seen outside of his own; he didn't pull his hand back, but he also didn't blink once when Tally spoke, and that was its own kind of tell.

"So, I'll make you a deal," Tally continued, unperturbed, not looking away himself. "I won't act on you without your direct, explicit consent, at least outside of emergency situations where you can't give it and your life's on the line, but you've gotta trust me to have your best interests at heart and take it for fact that when I say something, I do know what I'm talkin' about. I don't want to have to wrestle with my CO to keep him alive and healthy, and I can't imagine you want to spend the rest of this war worrying about what I'm gonna do or not."

There was another moment while he was on the other side of that intent gold gaze, then Maul finally asked, "What are you proposing?"

Tally had just given one proposal, but he was quick enough even after a long day and four hours of sleep to know Maul was talking about this specific situation. If he had his own way, he would have shoved Maul into the closest tent -- maybe next to Raze, who could pin anyone to a bed cuddling -- and told him to spend at least the last few hours of the pseudo-night sleeping, but this was as much test as question, no matter how neutrally asked.

So, he just pulled out one of the warming pads from one belt pouch and a small roll of gauze from another; broke the seal on it and let it heat up, then got to wrapping it to Maul's hand and wrist, making sure not to restrict the motion of that joint more than necessary while keeping the pad secure. "Tonight? Keep me and Husk company on watch and doze if you can. Tomorrow, I want you in a tent and sleeping."

"I'm not very good at sleeping close to others," Maul said, at length, though his eyes slid closed as that warming pad went to work on his sore hand and that made Tally grin some. "It won't do me much good, nor them, if I'm jumping all night."

Considering that Maul had him by a wrist before he'd even woken up entirely on Christophsis, that didn't surprise Tally too much, though the admission did more. "I brought half a pharmacy with me, and I've got the same kinds of acute anti-anxiety meds that you've had before. Nothing you can't push past if you have to, but I'll bet you'll sleep pretty well anyway."

That had Maul squinting at him, vaguely incredulous, though there was an amused quality to it that Tally definitely took as a good sign. "Anxiety?"

"Yep." Tally finished tying off his impromptu dressing. "It's good stuff, too; if Tango can't cope tomorrow, I'll probably give him a half dose and then babysit him like I did Raze."

Maul made a noncommittal noise, a low hum, then only said, "We'll see."

Testing boundaries, probably; Tally just nodded back, gave his CO a friendly clap on the upper arm, then got up to get himself a cup of hot cider.

He was definitely heartened when he handed off the watch to Husk a couple hours later, though, and Maul dozed right through it.

Chapter Text

"Raze--"

Raze grumbled and then groaned, piteously, "I know, I know, get off of you."

Shiv drifted awake to something he could already sense was going to be a reoccurring scene, variations on a single theme, and found that he couldn't bring himself to mind. Between him and Raze, Tango was getting cuddled like he was a stuffed fen-hare; after the day before, though, Shiv figured that if anyone needed a good night of cuddling, it was probably their pilot.

Especially since today wasn't likely going to go easier on any of them.

Despite saying that he was going to get off of Tango, though, Raze didn't yet; within ten seconds, he was back asleep and Tango rolled his eyes and then snuggled back against their brother, apparently looking to steal a few more moments of his own.

Shiv grinned, scrubbed a palm down his face, and carefully extricated himself from blanket and tent, pulling his armor on outside so as to give them those few moments despite the chill.

 

 

 

Six and Eight were steadier than Shiv had necessarily expected them to be, given how little experience they had in the field. They slept curled together like tooka kits, and during breaks or meals, they chatted with one another. They never seemed to get annoyed with being in each others' company; even on the occasions they bickered a little, the bickering was fangless and friendly and more a well-ordered dance than a spontaneous event.

It reminded him of Flanker, and how they were early on until they were assigned to different units; that kind of closeness that happened when you were raised right next to one another and hadn't ever known a conscious time when your batchmate wasn't there. When you were almost two halves of one whole, instead of a single person; where a glance could convey a world of information without a word being spoken. Not all clones had a batchmate like that, who was suited to sharing a specialization and therefore got to stay together once they were properly graduated from being cadets, and Shiv considered himself lucky he'd been one of them.

It wasn't even that long ago, but just like their accelerated aging, time didn't mean quite the same thing for a clone. It felt like it had been a long time; felt like it had been twice as long as it had been since Mag came and told him his closest brother had been shot down on Christophsis. He didn't feel like the same person, even though he knew he was.

Then again, a lot had changed. Shiv hadn't expected to make sergeant anytime soon; hadn't even actually expected much of anything, except to go to Orto Plutonia and make use of his survival training to test prototype cold weather gear. Being diverted into this was a complete surprise, but the longer he was at it, the more and more right it felt. Like maybe there were parts of him that someone else saw and decided, "Hey, there's a guy who's capable of wrangling a bunch of independent thinkers and a green CO with some hefty baggage."

Shiv-before thought, Wow, someone wasn't thinking straight, and Shiv-now thought, These are my troops and that's my lieutenant and my job is to make sure they all work together so we can stick it to the Seppies once we clear this hurdle. And-- hey, Flanker, I'm not too bad at this, I'm not too bad at it at all.

His brother would have probably said something like them figuring out the truth if he ever got another shot at that three-bean salad they'd managed to score at an outpost, and Shiv would have pointed out that Flanker ought to not ever go near egg-salad again, and then they woulda slept curled up together like tooka kits -- unless one of them managed to score a sex partner, anyway -- or chatted about things and argued like dancing.

He didn't think he'd ever fill the empty spot beside him, but it didn't hurt like it did when it was new. Sometimes the ache caught him, made his throat go thick and his eyes sting, the instant desire to turn to Flanker and say, "Hey, check our shinies out, were we ever that young?" or go, "Lookit that kid, he's wearing explosives in his ears," but it was an ache he could bear and it had its own strange sweetness to it.

Flanker would have loved Raze, he would have instantly adopted the demo expert as an honorary batchmate and taught him all about how to be even more of a pain in the neck.

Probably the strangest part of all of this, for Shiv, was the shift in thought from, I'm going to die hard and fast and young to We might actually make it out of this alive.

He didn't quite go so far as to wonder what would come after, but he could almost conceive of an after, and that was weird and new and oddly kind of wonderful.

They set off again once breakfast was had, painkillers distributed and packs were back on; Tally stuck Tango between himself and Maul, and Shiv fell back to the back of the line just to watch their rear ends, even though they hadn't met so much as an insect. Even though parts of these old tunnels were caved partially in, Castle's analysis was bearing out so far; Misty's, too, though that meant they might encounter some really hairy situations as they went deeper, towards where the main deposit of false-kybers had been found and partially mined.

There wasn't a back that wasn't sore down here; they were due to surface for air the day after briefly before entering some higher elevation exploration tunnels, but until then, they only could keep going down.

So, they did.

 

 

 

Tango had been hanging on all day so far; Shiv thought it was partly because he'd managed to handle his panic attack the day before and partly because he didn't want to lose any more face because of it -- not that anyone was blaming him, even Shiv found the weight of the rock all around and on top of them oppressive -- but it was when they encountered the flooded tunnel that his tenuous composure shattered so bad that he was sobbing between desperate gasps for air.

Both the flooding and the panicking pilot required them to turn around and backtrack to the last space that had some room; it wasn't much, just a glorified staging point carved out centuries ago for miners to coordinate supplies going down and crystal coming back up, whatever antigrav infrastructure they used long since gone, but it was adequate enough for the Blackbirds' purposes, even if it probably didn't feel like that to Tango.

Shiv couldn't pretend that staring into the black water, the beam of light vanishing into its murky depths in a very narrow passage didn't chill him right down to his bones. He had gone back down to look at it with Misty and shuddered in his armor, while Tally did his best to get poor Tango back to some form of stability.

“Well, we knew this was a possibility,” Misty said, sounding almost like he was excited to have found such a low-key nightmare in their path. Shiv couldn't get it, but he kind of could, too; Misty was specialized in something they didn't get to encounter very often, and so any opportunity for him to show his chops was probably something to look forward to. “Probability, even.”

“Visibility is awful,” Shiv said, swallowing down his jitters and trying to recenter himself, staring into the deceptively small pool that he knew went very deep and maybe very dangerous. “And we don’t know what’s down there.”

“Nothing alive to worry about, though.” Misty shrugged. “Look at it like this, Sarge: the worst thing that can happen is that there's no way through and we have to switch to plan B. Visibility will be better when we can use the water jets, anyway, those have high power lamps.”

Shiv could frankly think of a lot of things that could happen and be worse. The idea of being pinned somewhere down in there, for one. Or hopelessly turned around and lost, for another. Slowly suffocating while within radio contact with their brothers, but too deep into the mountain for emergency beacons to work, and even if they did, being too deep for help to arrive in time.

Kriff, there was no way they were gonna be able to get Tango through this, either.

Shiv made a noise of acknowledgment, if not agreement, then turned to head back up to the others, Misty following behind him.

 

 

 

Plan B was another set of tunnels, a bit higher in the mountain range, but they were sketchy at best. The old maps of them suggested that they were more preliminary than the ones they had chosen to follow and therefore not so carefully carved. There was a much higher probability of large scale cave-ins, too, the kind that they couldn't fight their way through.

When Shiv and Misty made it back up, Tango was the artificial calm of tranquilized out of his mind and even then, the mask of tears on his face reflected the light of headlamps. Most of them had their packs off, and Raze was sitting with an arm around Tango, pretty much cuddling in situ. Shiv didn't know if it was going to do much good, especially if they decided to press on, but it sure couldn't hurt anything right now.

Castle was neck deep in discussions with Maul, both of them as far apart from the others as they could get, voices low and quiet and heads bent together; when they saw Shiv and Misty were back, both of 'em nodded the other two over.

"The debate right now," Maul said, once they were in a cluster, "is risk versus time, and the obvious personnel variables."

Personnel variables meaning Tango, though Shiv silently added Maul to that list; while their lieutenant seemed just as capable of moving as he had at the start of this mission, he'd been even quieter than usual today before this stop, and if he didn't take his rack time tonight, Shiv was going to sit on him all night, rank be damned.

"I think this is doable," Castle said. "We've got a pretty solid idea of what we're going to be up against down there, and how much it's going to take to traverse back above the floodline. Backtracking to Plan B will see us losing about ten hours overall hiking time, and that's if we push right on through when we're supposed to rest."

"Same," Misty agreed, readily. "Castle and I can get us through the flooding. We're gonna have to have a smart plan and we don't have a lot of room for screwups, but we can do this."

"I think even doped up, Tango won't be able to manage this," Shiv said, frankly, albeit quietly. "I mean, beyond the risk that his reflexes are gonna be compromised -- because they definitely will be -- he might still shake it off enough to panic and none of us are gonna be in a position to do something about it. And we do gotta keep this all in perspective: This is just a training run. Yeah, an important one and I want to make the five-oh-first eat it as much as the next man, but we're definitely out of range with our emergency beacons and if something bad happens, we're on our own."

Misty looked disgruntled by that, though Castle only nodded; their engineer was one rock-solid guy, aptly enough, and Shiv appreciated that. And really, he even understood Misty's displeasure with his words, but somebody needed to say it.

"So, do we put this one to a vote?" Misty asked, after a few beats of silence.

Maul hadn't said anything yet about which way he was leaning, but like he did anytime something like this came up, he was looking to Shiv for his cues. And for the first time, Shiv couldn't really take this one off his lieutenant's shoulders, even though part of him really wanted to; not even because he wanted that power, but because he had a pretty good idea how hard this was gonna be for Maul.

He gave back a rueful look and then shook his head at the other two. "No voting, we need this to be a command decision, for everyone's sakes."

Voting in this case had far more of a chance to lead to disaster; Shiv did appreciate the hell out of how much Maul took their thoughts, feelings and very lives into consideration, something he knew without being told was separate entirely from Maul's comparative lack of confidence in his own leadership abilities -- even if one seemed to enable the other -- but this wasn't the time for either democracy or dictatorship, just a solid call by the commanding officer and all those capable focused on seeing it through.

He didn't imagine the panic, subtle as it was, in Maul's eyes at those words.

"Go see what Tally thinks, but quietly," Shiv told the other two. "Specifically about whether Tango's gonna be able to survive it without dropping dead of a coronary event, if that ends up being the call."

They weren't slow; they knew. They gave a smart nod and then turned to go do that; Shiv took a breath and looked back at their CO.

The way Shiv figured it, this was either going to be a tempering moment -- the first of many, he hoped -- or it was going to be a shattering one. And the circumstances weren't ideal, they had one man in a state of serious psychological instability and Maul was working on catnaps at best, but the situations weren't ever gonna be ideal and Shiv found, as he stood there looking at his anxiety-stricken lieutenant, that he was absolutely sure that Maul wasn't going to lead them wrong.

It was just convincing Maul of that.

"You can do this," Shiv said, plainly, if softly.

"What if I'm wrong?" Maul asked back, immediately.

"Well, sir, then you're wrong." Shiv drew the words out into a bit of a drawl, not irreverent, just keeping his tone relaxed and patient, then continued easily, "You pick up the pieces and you learn from it, and then you keep going. But you know what we're up against, you're damned good at risk assessment, and I'm ready to go whichever way you decide."

He could see Maul calculating it out; even as tired as he had to be, right about now, and in over his head, it was clear he was definitely taking those words in and working over the variables. And Shiv just left him to it; this was the whole point of a training mission, anyway. They had time here and a thin-but-real safety net, and if Maul needed to take his time to figure it out, he had that and Shiv would be behind him regardless.

Admittedly, there were a few times where Maul was obviously about to ask Shiv what he would do; the fact he cut himself off each time had Shiv chewing down a bit of a grin.

The zabrak sure wasn't slow himself. When he seemed to come to some internal accord, he palmed over his face -- even with his glove on, Shiv could see his hand shaking -- and then called, "Tally?"

Tally looked up, and when Maul nodded to Tango -- who was leaning with his head back, eyes closed, still tucked against Raze's side -- he pressed his mouth into a line, but then he nodded, albeit reluctantly.

Having both of them holding similar opinions about this venture, even if Tally's was unvoiced and only clear by his expression, had to make this even harder, given how much Maul usually relied on them to fill in the gaps. Tempering or shattering; he just waited to see if Maul was going to bear up under the pressure or crack.

Either was possible, but Shiv thought only one of those was likely, and it turned out that he was right.

"We knew when we chose this course that we might encounter this," Maul finally said, raising his voice enough to reach all of them; it quivered some tiny amount that Shiv was pretty sure only he or Tally would notice at the start, then steadied. "We're going to press on. Castle, Misty, Husker; work out the logistics. If anyone has any ideas to make this run more smoothly, speak up, and hopefully within a handful of hours, we're celebrating on the other side."

Tango drew his knees up and rested his brow against them, shaking once so hard his armor actually rattled, taking slow and deep breaths that trembled like he was, but he didn't say anything. Aside him, the smattering of acknowledgment from the rest of the squad -- including Shiv and Tally -- was both immediate and without reluctance.

Raze leaned his head over, pulling Tango tighter against him, and murmured to him probably in reassurance; despite having made a perfectly acceptable call, Maul watched with a look that could only be called guilt and anxiety in equal measures.

There wasn't gonna be any way to disarm either of those fully until they were on the other side of this, hopefully triumphant and heading back upwards into more forgiving territory, but leaving Maul to stew in it wasn't a good idea. So, Shiv leaned over and said, "You're doing fine, sir," before nodding towards where Misty and Castle and Husker were all going over the maps and inventory, the former two looking more excited and Husker looking perfectly game, "let's go give 'em a hand."

After another moment of looking at Tango and Raze, Maul finally nodded.

 

 

 

Being pretty doped up didn't completely disarm Tango's panic, but it was keeping it manageable. Once Maul had made the call he had, Tally had turned to brainstorming the best way to pull the pilot through; both Six and Eight were right there offering suggestions and even though some of them seemed almost frivolous, there was a quiet amount of genius in them that had Shiv grinning despite the harrowing situation. Singing, for instance. Or telling jokes. Raze continued to be the physical support, and sometimes Tango even managed to speak up, though he still sounded completely terrified as he did so.

"The hardest part is making sure that all our supplies come with us and that we traverse the caverns without losing track of everyone. The water's pretty murky, so the light off our headlamps gets swallowed up pretty easily. The water jets have higher powered lamps, but we do have to make sure that we have enough power in them to get us through this and any other situations we might run into like this before we have to abandon them," Misty said, summing it up professionally, clearly thrilled to be in his element. "We don't have enough rope, even if we tie the segments together, to bridge the projected distance, which means coming up with a way to get everything from one spot of dry land to another. And I think we've got a solid, reasonably risk-free solution."

"A relay," Castle picked up, using the holographic function in his gauntlet to pull up the map of the cavern in blue, with a reddish line showing their hopeful course through it. "Misty and I are gonna do a full run with the water jets just to make sure that things haven't shifted so much as to make this impossible, and obviously if there's a major cave in or otherwise, we'll abort to Plan B, but provided there isn't, we can anchor the first rope here--" he pointed with his free hand, "--and here. Each man brings a waterproofed bag of equipment, and at least one of us is gonna have to come back for more than one. Then we transfer man and gear to this rope," he said, pointing to the third anchor point, "here, and they pull themselves along all the way up to dry land."

"Since our armor's so heavy, Castle is gonna stay to bridge the rope relay; that way, we have a water jet and combined with some air in the bags, enough buoyancy to make it. Then, after the last man and supplies are past, we abandon the first rope, and Castle brings the second one in, and then we're good. An hour to two uphill and we get to stop and kiss the ground and get some sleep," Misty finished.

Tango's complexion looked washed out at the thought, and his eyes were a bit glassy, but he seemed a resigned kind of calm as he stared at the holographic projection. Raze looked unflappably ready, Six and Eight both seemed more eager, and the rest all fell in between those two poles, absent Misty and Castle.

Shiv wasn't in love with any of this, but it was a good plan, making use of their gear as efficiently as possible and minimizing the risk to everyone going. And Plan B would have been its own kind of rough. Any which way, he was ready.

"Misty and Castle, go ahead. Give us the stroke by stroke as you go. Raze, Six, Eight, Husker, you'll go first, and once you're assuredly on the other side of the relay, Smarty, Brody, Shiv and Tally." Maul paused a beat. "I'll bring Tango and any gear that's left behind," he finished, no hint of nerves this time.

Shiv's eyebrow went up, and he could see Tally's do the same in his peripheral vision, but then he nodded smartly and didn't bother chewing down his proud little half-grin. "Yes, sir."

Tango didn't look any less sick, but Shiv could see something else in his expression, too: An achy and battered but real gratitude.

He made sure to give Maul a pat on the back before turning to help pack their supplies into the waterproofed bags.

Chapter Text

Misty hadn't been in the water properly since he'd been assigned to the Blackbirds.

Unsurprisingly, he missed it.

Even though the tunnel-and-cavern system was less than ideal, the feeling of a water jet humming back through his arms and the gentle clinging pressure of the water all around him, compressing his heavy, ill-suited armor closer to his body, was as familiar as any embrace. Underwater exploration in sometimes harrowing (and often dark) circumstances was nothing new to him; several of their training missions took them under Tipoca City, into the supports of the structures and into various formations close by.

Castle was the one with the maps, but Misty was the one who was trained to see looming threats in the deep semi-gloom, so he took the lead. It was a longer trip than either of them had quite anticipated, something they relayed back, but not so much that Misty would have aborted the attempt.

Looming stalactites gave everything an almost disorienting cast; the sharp shapes coming down off of the ceiling, formed when the cavern was relatively dry and the water working its way down through the mountain from above could drip into the cavern and now, currently, hanging there like ghosts until the floodwaters receded and left the space open again.

They'd had to basically creep down the rest of the way into the cavern through the flooded tunnel, then go up to the roof of it, and once they were fully on the other side, they'd have to dive again to find the exit point.

"Getting close to the projected end-point," he said, keeping the group back on the other side abreast of the situation; when the crystal studded wall on the other side became visible, he paused, Castle joining him, as they used their water jets to scout the wall and make sure it was actually just a wall and not one of the cavern's natural support structures. Dimly, the crystal that wasn't covered in mud flashed back reflections, a murky point of dark greenish light through the water.

"Saw a few decent anchorpoints on the cavern ceiling, too," Castle added; he was just behind Misty and when Misty stopped, he came alongside. "Wonder how many floods it took to carve this place out," he added, and Misty grinned to himself, given he'd been thinking about that.

"Eons worth," he answered. "Ready to find our way out?"

"Should be down and to our left, between two-twenty and two-thirty degrees, fifteen to twenty meters," Castle said, after a moment where he was orienting himself. "Lead on, brother."

 

 

 

Castle, meanwhile, was more interested in how the cavern had formed than the fact that it was currently underwater; he had studied the geological structures before they'd come on this mission, and while he mostly worked with sentient-made structures -- a bridge, a tower, a bunker, an encampment, you name it -- there was a certain beauty that came with seeing what the nature on various worlds carved out. In this case, the cavern had been formed by floods over a very long-ass time, and the supports which held it in place were made of the denser, more resilient seams of rock and mineral that held when the rest had been washed and worn away, leaving behind something both ordered and chaotic at once.

Kinda like Raze, he thought, absently, as he followed Misty down again so that they could find their exit. The outer walls of this cavern were made of the same dense rock that its support structures were, so Castle thought there was a much better-than-average chance that the tunnel out was as intact as the tunnel going in, allowing for time.

Being underwater didn't bother him; being an engineer meant he had gotten trained for dives, though no where on the level Misty was. But he could handle himself under here and didn't feel any more bothered by it than he had any other part of this little trip through the mountains. He was more worried about how Tango was going to handle it, but that was out of his hands mostly; best way to see Tango through was gonna be in making the passage as quick and easy as possible.

"There?" Misty asked, pointing at one hollow, then dismissing it almost instantly and pointing to its left where a much deeper shadow was. "No, I'll bet that's it."

"Lemme see," Castle answered, moving ahead of his brother and letting the water jet turn off so the weight of his armor pulled him down further.

He got a fair jolt of adrenaline when the floor wasn't where it shoulda been; he quickly reengaged the jet to pull him to a more stable hover.

"All okay?" Tally asked; the radio communications were a little fuzzy, but Tally had positioned himself at the flood line when they'd dove and Castle thought probably the medic caught that jump in his heart-rate.

"Yeah, Tally. The floor's just not where it should be," he said, huffing a few breaths, but calming down again quick. Beside him, Misty actually just let himself sink and Castle watched the light of his water jet dimming as he got deeper. "The flooding that made this place washed more away over the years, I'm guessing."

Misty came to a gentle stop just barely in visibility. "Not by too much, though. So, if someone sinks, there's at least an okay chance we'll be able to find them, provided the rest of the cavern wore similarly."

 

 

 

"Thank frip for that," Tally muttered, standing right above the flood line, looking down into the utter blackness. If it woulda been on the surface, it would have looked like a damned mud-puddle, for all the more innocuous it was. Except stepping into it would have meant vanishing underwater and disappearing quickly, completely.

He had put himself here because there wasn't much more he could do for Tango that Raze wasn't already doing, but if something happened to Castle and Misty, then at least he'd be closer and maybe able to talk them through it; he'd be there to pull them out and help drag them back up to the waypoint above. He wished that they had brought another water jet along, but even as he wished it, he knew that it would be more weight on some already borderline overloaded backs.

Frankly, Tally considered it more luck than anything else that there had been no torn or pulled muscles yet. Everyone was sore, but no one had been hurt and Tally didn't want that to change.

"All right, going in to map the exit tunnel," Misty said, cool as could be. The way he and Castle kept talking, it seemed like a walk in the park that Tally knew it wasn't, but he was glad that they were so calm about it, because Tango was doubtless listening. "Hey, tell Tango it's not as narrow as the one comin' down."

Most of the guys above had their buckets off, but Tango doubtless heard it anyway, they woulda just set the radio to speaker. Still, just to do it, Tally said, "Hear that? The exit tunnel's not a straw."

"And the giant slurped up the clone troopers through Big Murder Mountain via his stone-straw..."

It took Tally a moment to realize that was Eight -- who was almost as quiet as Maul by nature -- and the smattering of giggles through the radio made him grin despite himself.

Someone made a slurping, lip-smacking noise and then Brody deadpanned in a goofy, deep voice, "Hmm, clone nuggets. Never know what you're gonna suck up when you stick your lips against a mountain."

It was ridiculous and only passably funny, but listening to Raze start laughing hard had him laughing himself; all the way on the other side, crackling some thanks to the distance and structures between them, the other two were chuckling themselves.

 

 

 

The mental image of a giant with lips against the mountain was more than Raze could take; he laughed so hard that tears were streaming down his face and his ribs hurt, because he thought probably a giant would crack some teeth on their armor, but also maybe because he was a little nervous -- not a lot, or anything, not like Tango -- but just a little bit, and laughing made everything feel better.

Poor Tango was having such a bad time down here; Raze wished he could fix that, but since he couldn't fix it, he just made sure Tango knew he wasn't all by himself and that they would be there for him and they would get him through this.

He had kind of hoped that he would get to use some of the charges he brought with him to blast a passage open, but he knew that if he did that, he might end up bringing a whole mountain down on them, so he was ready to just use them on the other side, maybe the Lieu would let him blow up General Skywalker's stun grenade launchers or something.

Raze wiped his eyes with the soft inner part of his glove and then checked on Tango, who was really drugged and pretty dazed because of it; he had his eyes closed like he was dozing, but Raze knew he wasn't yet because he shivered here or there occasionally, and Raze knew it wasn't because it was cold; their armor was really good at keeping them warm even if it wasn't all that comfortable to wear because it was so heavy, and then there were the supplies on top of that, too.

There weren't any animals down here, either, which meant no more fur for his hat. He had a good start on it because of Commander Half-Pint, she had even gotten him an extra tail somewhere and sent it for him as a gift, but piecing it together was going to take forever. Still, it was a fun diversion and maybe he'd even get some use out of it.

"Okay, we're above water!" Misty's voice was triumphant and cheerful, and beside Raze, Tango gave another long and rolling shiver.

"Relay time," Castle added, and Raze could hear him grinning even through a slightly staticky connection.

"Not long now, then it'll be over," he said himself, aside to Tango, and leaned their heads together. "We've got this."

 

 

 

"No slurping giants, huh?" Tango asked, voice kind of choked, and Six bounced on his toes some just to deal with his own jitters about going down there. Watching their pilot have a series of breakdowns over this had been hard, because some part of him thought that if Tango was that scared, maybe there was a reason to be. But Shiv was calm and so was everyone else mostly, so he swallowed it down and just stuck with his brother.

They didn't have names yet, except Six and Eight, and those weren't names so much as ways that other people addressed them. To each other, they were only you and me; they weren't numbers, they just were. Not that being referred to as the last number of their designation was bad, and they knew they'd get names soon because everyone in the Blackbirds was thinking of names for them -- sometimes goofy but sometimes really sweet -- and it was just that nothing had stuck yet.

"Maybe I can be Giant," his brother said, grinning. "I can slurp with the best of them; someone gave us noodles once, I can prove it."

Six snorted at that; he remembered that. They were just two packages of instant noodles, but they were the first things that they had ever eaten that weren't given to them by the Kaminoans or older brothers who were support staff on Kamino.

"Just once?" their lieutenant asked, brow furrowing. He'd been quiet all day, except to do planning and coordination, but it didn't seem like he was disappointed in them or afraid of whatever was ahead. Maybe tired; he was carrying a lot of gear and without the support structure that armor provided to balance the weight.

"We've had some different things since then," Six offered, shrugging. "Well, you know, sir. Rodents and cookies and whiskey and all that."

Their sergeant was smirking and dropped his head, rubbing over his mouth; Maul caught him at it and reached over to give his head a light shove. "Not a word."

 

 

 

"I didn't say a thing," Shiv answered, rolling with the little shove he'd been given, but he was still grinning tongue-in-cheek and Eight was grinning right along with him, mostly for the immediate memory of their L-T with his toothbrush, scrubbing his teeth for ten minutes straight post-raw-rodent.

"You were thinking it," Maul said, archly, though by now Eight had gotten pretty good at knowing when the zabrak was unhappy versus when he was having a playful go at them. Not that it was easy to tell, all the time, but practice made perfect and where his twin was the quick, canny action-guy, he himself was the patient, observant, watch-then-move one.

"I can't help it, I was just internally lamenting that there's a serious lack of small furry bodies down here for you to snack on."

"I noticed that you weren't turning down the rodents you roasted on the fire."

"But sir, they were roasted and that's the difference."

Eight watched between them, thoroughly entertained; he'd heard tell of command teams that actually hated each other, and he'd heard some rumors since being assigned to the Blackbirds about what went on under General Krell, so he was grateful all over again to be where he was.

"If she'd handed you half a rodent, what would you have done?" Maul asked, crossing his arms over his dry-suit, eying Shiv.

"Politely handed it back," Shiv answered, flashing a grin. "With a reminder that she's skinny enough to need the extra calories."

Maul went to say something, then closed his mouth and worked that over, narrowing his eyes before conceding defeat. "I might have to remember that for next time. If there is a next time."

They had already packed their gear into the waterproof bags and switched over the rebreathers in their buckets. Eight still couldn't say he was one hundred percent ready for this, but he felt pretty good about it, especially since the only person who seemed genuinely scared was Tango, and Eight figured that he'd probably be okay once he got to the other side.

"All right, boys, all ropes are anchored and the course is mapped. Come on down," Castle said, through the radio; Eight took a deep, slow breath and picked up his bucket, swallowing down once before putting it on and sealing it in place.

 

 

 

"I'll see you shortly, Tango," Raze said, getting up and suiting up the rest of the way, just as Tally was making it back up into the chamber with them. Husker had been watching the drama play out mostly quietly, though he joined in with his brothers in offering encouragement or supportive words to their pilot; in that time, his estimation of Raze kept climbing. Who knew the flighty, sometimes-clingy, almost-certainly-crazy demo expert could show such a knack for setting an example? Sure, he never made it to briefings on time, and he was the first one to abandon armor in favor of fatigues, but when it came down to the wire, he was rock-solid.

Right now, he was heading down the tunnel, the thick white of the big, partially air-filled waterproofed bag looking ghostly. Their shinies followed right after carrying their own bags, and Husker gave a wave before going down with them.

He'd been in a lot of places in his time, but he'd never spent so much time underground before. It wasn't as bad as he probably would have thought, though; it was easy enough to just put his head down and follow their leads. And since Castle proved to be damned good at navigating even this sketchy a deal, he didn't have any misgivings about it.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, most of what was troubling Husker was the scenario General Skywalker had come up with.

It felt-- merciless. And unfair. And Husker had problems with thinking anything was unfair because they were soldiers and they didn't get to have opinions on what the battlefield was going to be -- at least, not outside of the Blackbirds -- so that just added to his conflicted thoughts. Their general trained them hard, but Husker couldn't ever remember Skywalker setting them up for failure; even when he pushed them, he was also the guy who was cheering them on and encouraging them.

And it didn't feel like this was something he woulda done to just any squad in the 212th, either. It felt a lot like Skywalker was playing out a grudge against their lieutenant, and if that meant letting them fall on their faces--

"Here we go," Raze said, taking a deep breath that they could hear over the radio; it was narrow enough now that Husker couldn't watch him disappear into the black hole of water, but he'd find out soon enough what it was like when it was his turn.

"Standing by,"  Castle answered, no longer sounding crackly.

Raze was their test subject as to whether or not the waterproofed and partially air-filled bags were going to add enough buoyancy to overcome the weight of the cold assault armor and allow him to reach the rope relay without an assist. Husker figured right now everyone was listening in, because it would change the scenario if Castle had to play escort.

About eight minutes later of quiet, tense silence, Raze came back with, "No can do, Castle. Feels like a low-grav situation, but I can't float."

"All right. So, plan change: I get all four of you on the rope, then you get to the midway point, I play water taxi, and Misty catches you at the bottom of the other side."

Husker thought about the power in the water jets and tried to mentally calculate it; the reason Castle and Misty couldn't just ferry them was to preserve the batteries.

He hoped they didn't have to do this a second time.

The next several minutes passed slowly; Six and then Eight went down, and when it was Husker's turn, he looked down at the black hole and couldn't help but suck in a breath, swallowing down a sudden bout of realization of just how dark it was down there. No kriffin' wonder Tango had a major meltdown. He listened to the checks and affirmatives of his brothers, and then finally took his first steps down into the water.

It wasn't cold inside of his armor, but he could feel the pressure and a vague edge of coolness as he carefully descended down below the surface; this armor was insulated enough to manage this, though it hadn't originally been designed for full-submersion, but it was still kind of unnerving. He found himself breathing in that rhythm that Tally had taught Tango the day before, guiding himself down with a hand on the wall; his waterproofed bag kept wanting to pull off his back, but it was a small concern.

His headlamp didn't do a damn bit of good. And he didn't even notice that he was at the bottom until Castle was saying,"Whoa, Husker; hold there, you're about to step off and sink to the floor."

Husker immediately froze; he couldn't even see the cavern he was on the edge of. Just the faint, green-tinged light of his headlamp, disappearing into perfect blindness. But once he was still, he could make out the brighter lights of the water jet coming down to get him, and he couldn't entirely hold back a huff of relief when Castle turned and Husker could grab hold for his ride up to the rope.

 

 

 

When it was Smarty's turn, after the other four had already gotten to the other side and were safely climbing back up to above the waterline, he'd had a long moment where he debated on whether to ask Tally to dope him out of his mind, too. And not for the first or hundredth time, he thought about whether they wouldn't have been better off taking an overland route, even if that would have put all of his research in the trash compactor.

Not to say he wasn't proud of it. But dragging himself hand-over-hand along a rope that vanished into blackness both ways was a particularly awful and surreal experience, and his shoulders -- which had been sore for days -- were burning with every forward motion.

Sometimes, out of the darkness, the sharp spikes of stalactites caught the light from the edge of his headlamp. Castle had anchored the rope to either go under or between them, only a few hung low enough to bump against, but every time they appeared out of the murk, Smarty's heart gave a little jump.

Stalactites are formed by a variety of water soluble materials carried by ground water depositing the solution over time; the most common forms are found in limestone--

Another of the monsters faded out of the black into a dim green, and brushed past Smarty's waterproofed pack as it floated half above him despite its anchoring. He clung to the rope, shuddering, and then gasped when he felt the motion transfer through said rope when Brody joined him; in a moment of panic, he wondered if the rope was going to be able to hold all of their weight, but then he had to remind himself that it had already tested secure for the previous four, and--

He hoped that was Brody, anyway. He'd tuned out of the radio chatter briefly, absently, and didn't actually know.

"This is the actual, literal pits."

Yep, definitely Brody.

--but maybe each jolt against the anchors loosened them, then they would plunge down--

"How deep is this?" he found himself asking, dragging himself along more because he didn't want to block traffic than anything else.

 

 

 

"You heard 'em earlier, Smarty-pants," Brody said, grinding it out as he started his hand-over-hand walk along the rope. Kriff, what a pain in the ass. He'd gone through plenty of field training like all of them, but he never wanted a computer terminal and a cup of caf as much as he did right now. "Probably not deep enough for us to get lost forever."

"Aren't you frippin' original," Smarty shot back, but at least his voice sounded a little steadier. Brody couldn't even see his brother ahead, he could only feel the motion transfer down the rope, and he didn't know whether he found that reassuring or creepy.

"What can I say, I'm a born unique genius," he grunted. Really, though, he pretty much knew what Smarty was thinking, because Brody was thinking it himself: This sucked. They were more trained for support than field work, and with every single hitch down the rope, Brody was reminded of why.

Still, he thought, if he'd been given a chance to stay back with the ship-- well, he probably wouldn't have taken it. He'd probably be right here with the rest of the guys, even if it was miserable. After all, he got to tell his story of the Chadran mafia, and the squad made a great audience; he'd had more fun than he'd probably ever admit answering their questions and maybe only embellishing a little bit. For dramatic effect.

(It was only three million and twenty credits and not six million and thirty-three, and it was only one wookiee and not four, but the incident with the chadra-fan stripper and Brody wishing desperately there was some way to sterilize his brain was dead accurate. Unfortunately.)

"If I ever want to make a killing, I think I'll film a horror holo and set it someplace like this," he said, as he watched the downward spike of a stalactite fade into view. He made the mistake then of tipping his head back and seeing how close, comparatively, a bunch more spikes were. "Scratch that, I absolutely will."

There was a little jerk on the line and Shiv asked, voice strained a bit, "That furry little stripper going to get a cameo?" Then there was a long beat while Brody actually shuddered at the mental image, hanging off the line like a bat, and Shiv added, "As long as--"

Maul's voice broke in over the static, "I will kill you, Shiv."

"Oh frip," Smarty managed, through peals of laughter, and even though it meant clinging for his life to the rope, Brody started roaring with laughter himself.

"--I was just going to say as long as she was clothed." Shiv didn't sound half as innocent as he was trying to, though, even through radio interference, and it took more will than Brody thought he had to keep hand-walking the rope when he was laughing so hard. "And nothing at all about carnivores.”

 

 

 

"Of course you were," Maul growled back, and Shiv barely managed to keep himself from snickering. Still, hearing all of his brothers laughing -- with a notable exception in the form of Tango -- made him feel lighter. He was already doing pretty well with things, even this particular thing, but he knew this wasn't easy on anyone in this squad and they weren't even near their objective yet.

"I can't believe you think I'd make a cheap joke like that," he said back, as he crept along the rope, glad as hell for his textured gloves.

"You haven't been able to control the urge thus far."

Shiv grinned to himself, wanting to shake his head but not really having the ability to do so at the moment, thanks to his arms being up and the unwieldiness of both armor and cargo. He was carrying a bit more weight himself, just to make sure Maul had less ferrying to do later -- he knew Tally wasn't thrilled with the lieu volunteering, but Maul's logistics were sound, he was the one least encumbered by armor and therefore quicker -- and the bantering provided a nice distraction from the ache in his shoulders.

"Oh, sir, you don't know how many times I've bit my tongue," he huffed, pulling himself along and blinking widely behind his visor at the thing that came fading out of the dark at him.

There was a long beat of silence there, then the disgruntled concession, "Perhaps not."

Tally interrupted them, dryly, "You know, I think I can tell exactly when each one of you sees something creepy, it's like watching your vitals form a sine wave."

"You mean the giant roof spikes adorning Big Murder Mountain?" Eight asked, crackling from the far side.

"Stalactites," Smarty said. "They're called stalactites."

"Roof spikes sounds much neater, though."

Shiv smiled as he picked up pace a little bit, buoyed more by listening to his squad's chatter than by anything else. The rope dipped as Tally joined them, and up ahead, Brody gave a little motion-sick kind of groan. "Reverse fishbowl would be awful," he said, and Shiv snorted back, though his face scrunched up at the thought.

Beside him, like a phantom of green and light, Castle jetted by them with a snarky, "Good thing someone called for a taxi, then, isn't it? Not that those protein bars taste much different coming back up than they do going down."

 

 

 

"I didn't need to hear that, brother," Smarty said, distaste clear in his voice. "Get over here and give me a ride and pick another topic."

Tango only heard them sometimes; most of the time, he was floating. When he wasn't floating, fear had a clawhold on his throat, squeezing low down below his adam's apple and making it feel like something heavy was sitting on his chest. It wasn't as bad as when he couldn't breathe; that pain was awful, he felt like his heart was going to explode, but it was still terrible and he didn't actually know of the tranks were doing what they were supposed to. Yeah, he could breathe, but he didn't quite feel like he was in his skin anymore.

Worse than that was the shame of it.

Brody was right; he'd climbed into any number of small, single-man fighters and been perfectly fine, even though those were so cramped that he could only move his forearms and head. He'd taken those into space, where if he wasn't fast enough or good enough, the vacuum of space would turn him inside out when the seals of his armor finally broke. Or he would freeze to death or suffocate if they didn't.

But none of those times scared him as much as this was, and he didn't even know why. Cramped conditions were common on Kamino, hell, their bunks were like miniature caves when they were cadets, stacked like honeycombs. But every time he looked at the walls, they seemed closer; every time he thought about that black pool of water, he wanted to scream.

He dragged in a shaky, miserable breath and rubbed his hands over his face.

"Do you want to go before the supplies or after them?" Maul asked; it was down to just the two of them, and Tango felt another spike of shame that he had to be baby-sat of all things, especially since he'd been pretty useless since they'd landed.

"Doesn't matter," he gasped back, hating how he sounded. "Whatever's easier, sir."

There was a long moment of silence there, and he heard the short chirp that signaled Maul had turned off his transmitter, though some quieter Tango could still hear the receiver picking up the bantering of the other Blackbirds in unison with his own bucket. It was enough to pull him out of his circling thoughts, and he managed to make himself open his eyes, shivering. He turned his own off, with shaking fingers, not sure what precipitated it but following the lead.

Maul wasn't looking at him, but he was looking thoughtfully into some middle-distance; they were down to two lamps, so in the dim light, his markings seemed to fade into the shadows, his otherwise red skin a dusky purple. The only true color was the gold of his eyes, albeit darker. After a moment of quiet, he spoke again, "With me, it's nearly always my arms first. Someone says something, or the wrong thought goes through my mind, and my arms stop feeling right; stop feeling like they belong to me. I don't usually remember what comes after."

Tango blinked, drawing his arms and knees tighter to himself, brow furrowing some as he took that in. When it clicked, what he was being told, he wasn't even really sure what he felt. "What about when you do remember?"

Maul tilted his head some, worked his jaw, and then said, "Pain. It feels like someone put a knife through my chest and I have to try to breathe anyway, even though it's still there cutting."

"Sounds about right," Tango managed, feeling new tears as they streaked hot down his face. As if saying it made it fact, his chest ached in echo, though not so bad he couldn't get air past it. "What do you do about it?"

Maul finally looked at him, quirking his brow tiredly. "Nothing. I live through it, and then try to put myself enough together to keep going. It does-- get easier, though. If not always in the most predictable ways."

That there wasn't some answer to just making these feelings go away was almost disappointing; that there wasn't some kind of drug or meditation or whatever that would fix it. That there was any kind of answer at all, though, even if it was just in enduring it and then forging on was more than Tango would have expected, especially from their lieu.

It was honest, even if it was a painful honesty.

Tango fought to get his quivering mouth under control, taking a few slow, deep breaths and then he said, "Since Castle's gonna-- gonna be on this side to pull us up anyway, he can push the bags, they aren't that heavy and won't waste much more battery power. If he-- if he anchors them to the rope. Like a supply train. Then all you have to do is get them to him. Then we can go."

Maul thought about it, then gave a nod. "Good thinking." He picked up his headset and pulled it back on, turning the transmitter back on. "Tango has a good idea to cut down on how much longer this is going to go on. Castle, be prepared to play catch at the entrance tunnel mouth."

Castle's answer was a curious but ready, "Yes, sir. Be back there in a couple minutes."

Tango watched as Maul reconfigured the straps on the bags, then pulled his helmet on and locked it to the seal of his suit where the rigid neck would hold it into place.

He didn't exactly feel better, but-- he at least felt more ready, as he started making himself move enough to get his bucket back on and stretch the stiffness out of his cold, fear-chilled body.

 

 

 

Given the dimensions of their waterproofed bags, the weight of their supplies and what buoyancy could be added to said bags by leaving an air cushion, it was going to take a few trips to get them all down to where he could hand them off to Castle.

For the third or fourth time in a row, Maul checked the seals on his dry suit; he had thermals on underneath of it, and the suit was doing a fair enough job keeping him warm, but he didn't feel like testing how hypothermia worked when you only had half the circulating blood volume of a person with a whole body. He was tired enough now that his thoughts kept trying to wing off in different directions on him anyway; he was disciplined enough to keep them in order, but it was taking some effort and giving himself a new potential disaster to work over wasn't going to help anyone, not even himself.

The good cheer of ten of the eleven clones did help, though. Their quick adaptation and resilience was being put to the test, and they were managing it. And even though Tango was struggling, he hadn't actually bolted back for higher ground; even though he was sick with terror and hurting enough that even Maul could sometimes feel it ping off of him, he was still there.

As Maul usually did when fatigue became a real factor of his existence and not simply something to push through or ignore, he focused in the moment and didn't really allow himself to think ahead any further than necessary to stay alive, encountering each obstacle, dealing with it, and then moving onto the next. As such, he didn't really even let himself think as he went underwater, toting cargo; noted it, noted that he could feel the cold pressure of it, but then just kept moving, guiding with one hand against the tunnel's wall and toeing ahead every few steps to make sure he didn't step off the end of it into the cavern.

He was leaning on the Force to get through; both in lending some strength to his protesting back and in trying to keep some form of stable footing when he couldn't actually feel his feet. His ability to use the Force had been choppy ever since that temple on Zigoola and his confrontation with his former Master; usable, it never abandoned him entirely, but where before it was seamless and smooth and as natural as breathing, now it seemed to bunch up at odd times, or narrow to a trickle, or occasionally become a flood before receding again and leaving him feeling the echos of his prior burn-out.

He hadn't said anything about it -- what would be the point, except that it would worry Obi-Wan and perhaps make his own life harder if it made it back to Che? -- but the more tired he was, the more he was increasingly aware of that inconsistency.

If he trusted it, this would have been a lot faster; he could have hauled everything telekinetically. As it was, they couldn't afford to risk supplies on a connection that might falter.

"All the little bags in a row," Castle said, as Maul handed them off, two at a time. Luckily, there were only three trips required and by the time he got the last of them down, they had managed to smooth the transition and he had a solid idea of where the tunnel mouth was.

That just left Tango.

"Ready?" Maul asked, after a few moments of catching his breath from playing back-and-forth.

Tango had gotten himself the rest of the way suited up, and he wasn't very steady on his feet, but he answered roughly, "Yessir."

 

 

 

Several things went wrong.

First, the water jet wasn't able to support the weight of two clones and one half-cybernetic zabrak. Maul had known that they were going to be pushing it with that, but he had been hoping that they could pull it off anyway; it turned out that they couldn't, which meant Castle had to take Tango up, then come back for Maul, and listening to Tango panting in fear over the radio was several kinds of unnerving and upsetting.

Maul had rigged a harness from some of their mountaineering gear to keep Tango on that rope even if he couldn't manage to hold on, but that probably didn't feel very safe.

The second was that he had never been properly underwater with his cybernetics in a free-floating environment. Their weight had been useful coming down the tunnel -- he hadn't actually even thought about it while he was ferrying cargo -- but it worked against him once they were in the cavern, overriding whatever buoyancy he gained from being unarmored and from his organic half; he hadn't realized just how much it was. He knew they were weighted to match the organic body parts they replaced, but they had no buoyancy to balance that out in this situation, which left them largely useless deadweight, not even good for kicking and swimming.

He-- probably should have thought of that before now.

Still, it was too late to change the parameters, which meant making due.

"Tango, listen to me," he said, once they were both on the rope, recentering himself in the moment and focusing on the panicky clone he had to get through this. "Nothing is going to happen to you, I won't let anything happen to you. All you have to do is hold on, close your eyes and think about something else."

"Like what?" Tango asked back, but he took that first suggestion at least and wrapped both arms around Maul, tight enough that for a second Maul wondered if he was going to have the air squeezed out of him.

"You can tell us about the first time you climbed into a cockpit," Castle suggested. "I'm right beside you, brother. Neither of us are gonna let you hit the deck."

Maul nodded, rather pointlessly, and he didn't exactly care for the way the rope was holding them, but there wasn't anything to be done for it now; he just grit his teeth and dragged them along, working against the weight of both pilot and cybernetics, dragging on the Force as much as he could. In a last-ditch emergency, Castle could just pull them both to the other side, one at a time, though that would likely leave them with only one water jet at the end of this adventure. Muscles could recover; batteries without a charging station couldn't.

"Uh. I-- I guess. It was-- I mean, I had always done really well when they put me in a simulator during sorting? And I used to play games with the others in the simulators, so I wasn't surprised when they put me with the other flyboys."

From the other side, Raze cut in, "I remember those. I crashed six times on take-off and they never put me in a simulator again."

The Blackbirds had been quiet as they had coordinated that last leg; hearing Raze speak up was an odd relief. Tango apparently thought so, as well, because he wasn't bruising Maul's ribs quite so badly anymore.

"I never crashed once. I mean, I was nervous when I got into my first cockpit, but-- the good kind. The excited kind."

"Probably like how I felt when I watched my first big explosion."

"Yeah, probably. The first time wasn't anything exciting, though, except to me. Just orbit and deorbit. Our instructor was there to walk us through it."

Tango's voice had smoothed out some, and while he didn't sound good, he didn't sound quite so bad, either. Maul just let them talk and focused himself on getting them to the bridge between ropes. Castle and Misty had already handled the cargo; as Tango had suggested, just pushing it, transferring it and pushing it had proven easy enough, even if it did add to the battery drain. That just left them, though he thought he'd probably have Castle retrieve both ropes for the sake of possibly needing them later.

It was slow, decidedly laborious, but it wasn't until they were on the second rope that the third and fourth things went wrong.

The anchor point behind them gave.

Maul had sensed it coming a split-second before it did, just enough time to switch his grip before they were plunging down, falling away from Castle's brighter light; instantly, the noise over the radio was so deafening from both voice and interference that he couldn't keep a thought in his head as he tried to keep a hold on the rope with Tango squeezing the life out of him as they went down.

It wasn't the swiftest swing, given the drag factor of the water, but it was fast enough to be disorienting and when they came to a halt, Maul's hands slipped for half a meter before he could dig back in and stop them from sliding right down into the blackness below them.

Tango slipped himself, and the fourth thing went wrong when he scrambled back up using whatever handhold he could get; the dry suit wasn't meant to support the full weight of a heavily armored, panicking pilot and the seal broke, which had Maul dragging in a sharp breath for the very cold water that flooded in.

There were safeties; the helmet sealed itself to the rubberized, rigid neck, cutting itself off from the rest of the suit and the rebreather kept working fine, but the shock of cold was thought-shattering and they hung there for a moment, Maul clinging to the rope with a death grip, Tango clinging to Maul just the same, and neither of them able to drag enough air into their lungs to think clearly, let alone speak.

"Cut the chatter," Shiv barked, after the radio squealed, and everything fell silent but for Tango's small, terrified noises at the end of every breath. "Situation?"

Maul tried to haul them upwards and couldn't; it took him every bit of focus he had just to hold them firm and get his own breathing under control. "Anchor gave and we fell. I have the rope, but I can't pull us up."

"Just found the first anchor and I'm coming down now," Castle said, and within moments of those words, the light of the water jet was descending on them.

"Right behind him," Misty added. "I'll get Tango."

"Tango, breathe," Maul ordered, though it probably lost something for the fact he had to do it through his teeth and somewhat breathlessly himself.

Tango's only answer was a pitched whimper, shuddering.

"C'mon, Tango, just reach out and grab my armor," Misty encouraged, hovering alongside. "I'm right here, it's a real quick ride back up above water."

The cold water soaking in was making Maul's muscles stiffen and ache -- not that they weren't already sore before -- and every time Tango shifted his grip, the armor dug in a few more bruises. Finally, arms shaking, waterlogged and at the end of both his literal and figurative rope, Maul tried again: "Tango. You have to breathe and you have to go with Misty," he said, steady by a feat of will, throwing something of a Force suggestion behind it, similar to what he had done with Obi-Wan on Zigoola; not quite to the level of coercion, but something hopefully Tango would want to listen to, and Maul was projecting as much calm as he could possibly muster up.

It took a few seconds, but then Tango said, in a shaking whisper, "Okay. Okay. Okay, I can do this, okay," and the-- emotional feedback, as it were, was so painfully sharp with fear that it had Maul baring his teeth silently.

Once the pilot let him go, though, he hung there for a long moment feeling dizzy and a little disoriented before redoubling his shields and getting his bearings.

"C'mon, Lieu, elevator for one going up, waiting on your floor," Castle said, tone somewhere between reassuring and casual.

By that point, Maul didn't have it left in him to worry about the battery charge on the water jets, the rope or anything else; he just pried one hand off of the rope, tucked his fingers into the joints between Castle's armorplating, and then abandoned the rope, swallowing down for the brief dip before they were heading upwards.

 

 

 

The last thing to go wrong was the one he wasn't even sure actually happened.

It was while he was trudging, heavy and tired and shivering, up the dry part of the exit tunnel, reeling some now from genuine exhaustion and thinking about changing into dry clothes that he went to take a step and-- for a fraction of a second, didn't.

It woke Maul right up, but it was so brief that he wasn't sure he'd actually felt it; he paused there, hand on the tunnel wall, and lifted his foot, rotated it back and forth, put it back down, then did that all over again. But everything was working the way it was supposed to; his cybernetics responded as they always had, once they had adapted to his nervous system, no hitches or delays.

"Everything okay?" Castle asked, water jet hooked to his back and bucket under his arm.

Maul tested it one more time, then slowly nodded, trying to ignore the grain of nervousness that remained as they went on to join the others.

"Fine."

Chapter Text

Ahsoka tapped her chin with the side of her finger, head cocked, taking in the droid in front of her.

EL-10 -- quickly dubbed Elten -- looked back at her steadily, its blue photoreceptors giving it a calm, almost soothing look. Which was some trick, since Elten was modeled off of assassin droids enough to give her a jolt when she first opened the crate to reveal it in full.

"Well, what pronouns do you feel like?" she asked, because that seemed pretty important. She knew that most lower-level droids, the common laborers with only the most basic function and programming, didn't have any gender preferences (and no droids were considered sentients, which Ahsoka thought was banthash-- bantha leavings), but Elten was definitely a higher class and therefore could. And she didn't want to misgender the droid.

"I'm a droid, Commander Tano. I don't have feelings," Elten replied; even its voice didn't really hint one way or another, though it did make Ahsoka grin the first time the droid spoke, because it had the same accent that Lieutenant Maul did, and the same soft tone of voice, albeit pitched higher.

"Now I know that's not true. Or-- I guess you are pretty new, so maybe it is true, but it probably won't be as time goes on." She wrinkled her nose as she thought about it, then huffed a sigh and plunked herself down on the lid of the crate Elten had come in, now closed up. She didn't know what she was going to do with the crate, but for now, keeping it to hide Elten in if necessary seemed a good idea. "You really don't have any preferences? I mean, there are hundreds of genders in the galaxy, you aren't just stuck with him or her."

"I can confirm that I have no preferences." There was a beat. "What would you prefer?"

"Oh no." Ahsoka shook her head, lekku swaying with the force of it. "Not a chance, El. Don't you have any programming on cultures of the galaxy you could look at and see which one-- I dunno, which one interests you?"

"I'm programmed as a combat instructor, Commander," Elten answered, and Ahsoka squinted her blue eyes at those steady blue photoreceptors at what definitely sounded like a dry tone. "If you prefer and with your permission, I can access the Resolute's intranet and research, given my role as your companion in addition to."

Ahsoka hadn't known how to feel when Elten had been delivered; it wasn't some chrome-plated beauty, but there was an elegance to the droid that was immediately notable from the first reveal, and when Elten had rattled off its origin and purpose, she had a long moment where she put it all together and was-- maybe touched? Okay, definitely touched, because no one had ever given her a custom-built droid before, but she also wondered some if Maul was looking to dodge teaching her himself.

When she asked after that -- politely -- Elten informed her that, given the war effort, it was meant to supplement and instruct so that what times she could learn directly from its builder were spent as productively as possible.

After that, she was both touched and excited. Especially when Elten told her that Lieutenant Maul had included instruction on Juyo, as well as the six approved of forms of lightsaber combat, and that Elten had actually been programmed with the skills of the combat droids that had taught Maul when he was her age.

But now, the important thing was making sure that Elten was-- well, happy.

"Okay. Okay, how about you research it and until you know-- what about they and them?" she asked, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands. Thinking of the droid as 'it' made her feel uncomfortable, but they/them was nicely neutral even in Basic, and she'd known plenty of people who preferred those pronouns.

Elten's photoreceptors brightened briefly. "They and them is acceptable."

Ahsoka found herself beaming. "Great! So, wanna spar?"

"Yes, Commander."

Elten proceeded to dance with her back and forth across the training room, giving her one hell of a workout, showing an almost impenetrable defense and a sound offense.

Ahsoka started to think of all the ways she could deploy her new friend against her old ones in practical jokes and smirked.

Chapter Text

"Raze?!"

Shiv had never heard that particular tone from Maul; if his voice hadn't been pitched so low naturally, it would have easily been an incredulous squeak.

There was a shuffle, then a mumbled, "Don't headbutt me, Lieu, it's just that you're really warm."

Shiv pried his eyes open and took in the sight of Maul; he was the latest in the line of living body pillows claimed by their demolitions expert, half-pinned by an arm and a leg thrown over him, and he was currently looking at Shiv with wide, pleading gold eyes. If a bit glassy, yet.

After a deep yawn, Shiv pulled the datapad out from under his makeshift pillow and checked the time, then flicked the screen off and put it right back where it was. "Not time to get up yet." Then he closed his eyes, chewing down a smirk. "Raze is right, though, sir: you're keeping the blankets nice and toasty."

A snore rose up from Raze -- Shiv knew that sound well by now -- and then Maul said, "You can't just leave me here like this."

"Sure I can." And with that, Shiv turned over and threw an arm over Tally, since Tally insisted on sleeping on that side of him, and settled in for another hour himself.

He didn't know if Maul gave up trying to escape a clingy Raze, but before he drifted back off, he did hear Tally mutter something about definitely not being the little spoon.

 

 

 

The night before had been mostly a coordinated, minor amount of damage control. No one had it in them to hike much further, so they made use of the first even barely large-enough space to make camp. Fortunately, they were all good at making camp fast; the incentive of a vaguely soft surface to sleep on and getting out of the cold assault armor was enough to prod them on despite exhaustion and aching muscles.

Tally had declared that no one was moving again for twelve hours and no one had even considered arguing. They weren't wildly ahead of schedule, but they definitely were ahead of it by some, so they could afford a couple extra hours of rest and recovery time.

Shiv didn't feel too bad; he was sore like everyone else, but he was more just very frippin' relieved that they were heading up now, because the chances that they would encounter another underwater obstacle decreased the higher their elevation. He had sat listening to the quiet conversations of the others, picking apart the high calorie nutrition bar that-- yeah, okay, it did taste a lot like a compressed brick of wet wood pulp, even when it was dunked in some spiced hot cider. Shiv got that they couldn't exactly bring down fresh ingredients and cook full-course meals down here, but the lack of effort to make these things taste good was something he was eternally irritated by.

By the time he was ready to turn in, he had found himself cocking his head at the unmoving lump of parka and legs that was his lieutenant, who apparently hadn't thought to actually get into a tent before hitting oblivion.

"Just how doped up is he?" Shiv asked Tally, kind of amused.

"To the tune of three hundred milligrams of isonazam." When Shiv blinked at that, Tally had raised his hands and added, "I didn't spring it on him or anything, he knew exactly what he was taking and what it was gonna do. Though he might have misjudged how well it would work."

Shiv had found himself snorting at that; still, even with a parka, he wasn't about to leave Maul out there crashed against a pack of supplies, so with a drawn groan of reluctance, he got up and went over and jostled the zabrak awake, which was a surprising amount of effort, and then dragged him up to his feet once he was passably aware and capable of standing.

Maul blinked at him and said, with perfect enunciation, "It's a little like being drunk, but less--" he held one hand up (the one that wasn't currently hanging onto Shiv's shoulder for support) and wagged it back and forth, "--sloshy."

This declaration was made out of no where and was the only thing Maul had said; Shiv found himself wondering, as he'd manhandled his CO into the tent, out of his parka and back horizontal again when Maul had ever had the chance to get drunk. And if he was half as entertaining as Shiv suspected when he did.

Thankfully, for everyone's sanity -- no matter how debatable -- the rest of the night had been peaceful. By the time Shiv woke up for real, feeling about as ready to move on as he was going to, the squad was in various stages of doing the same. He managed to refrain from groaning as he pulled his armor back on, piece by piece, stretching in place as much as possible to warm up before he did, and when he finally exited the tent, he walked right into an amusing, somewhat baffling debate.

"--st saying, you should share the wealth," Brody was in the middle of declaring, as he sat looking disgruntled with his nutrition bar.

"I didn't mean to," Raze said back, rubbing at the back of his head sheepishly.

"What kind of wealth is Raze supposed to be sharing?" Shiv asked, plunking himself down and taking a quick gander around the rest of the squad; Tango still looked kind of subdued and groggy, but all right compared to yesterday, and despite some sore movements, everyone else seemed to be doing fine.

He was, admittedly, kind of surprised when it was Maul who answered, dryer than a desert, "My ability to produce body heat in excess to the human norm." He sounded more awake, now, too; Shiv wondered if he'd managed to escape his limpet after their brief conversation a couple hours ago.

"Yeah, I mean, who wouldn't want to sleep next to a living space heater?" Brody asked back, as he procrastinated on eating his breakfast. "The blankets are good, but still."

"Shame on you, turning our CO into a free commodity," Tally said, from the side. "If you want to sleep next to the living space heater, you should have to earn it."

What ensued was one of the more jawdroppingly absurd conversations that Shiv had ever been privy to.

"Marching distance?" - "No, we have to stay together." - "How about whoever complains the least?" - "Hey, I could go for that!" - "Wait, hold on; you would have to define complaints, because if you twist an ankle, you'd best be letting me know." - "But complaining about foot marches is a time-honored tradition, and I know I'd lose by default." - "Best singer?" - "--please no, anything but that." - "How about jokes?" - "Do you think jokes are gonna fill an entire day's worth of marching?" - "Maybe; we can sure try--"

"What about stories?" Tango asked, the first time Shiv had heard the pilot speak yet this morning. "Best story wins."

Everyone fell silent for a moment, all looking at each other, gauging the interest.

Maul had been meticulously testing out his cybernetic legs while he watched the whole thing happen, looking amused and incredulous. He was the one who broke the silence by asking, "Do I get a say in any of this?"

Another round of exchanged looks passed, then Raze said, with a cheerful shrug, "You can pick the best one."

And that settled that.

 

 

 

Tango hadn't ever been one of the strutting, confident kinds of clones, but this mission had gone a long way towards reminding him of why.

At least now, they were heading up again; at times the way was steeper than comfortable and he had to find a handhold on the rough-hewn wall, but he did feel a little better about it. Even though it didn't actually make any real difference, it felt like there was less on top of him.

Though, that didn't take away the blow his self-confidence had taken in all this.

After setting the Courier down -- and he knew he did that well because he had managed to land that thing light in the middle of crosswinds and a blizzard -- everything had just started going downhill, first metaphorically, then literally. He hadn't minded the march through the snow and wind to the caves, grueling as it was, and he even did okay that first day, though he'd started getting uncomfortable the further into the mountain they got, but after that he just kept having to fight to control his thoughts, which raced in every black direction they could.

Every narrowed part of the stone tunnels had felt like it was squeezing him. The occasionally low ceiling had seemed ready to cave in. He hadn't known he was claustrophobic; all of the times he'd been in tight spaces before had never fazed him, but there was something about the size of this one that stuck in his brain like a pointy rock would stick in one's boot, making walking painful and miserable for so long as it lasted. Except here, he couldn't just dislodge it.

He'd accomplished nothing, except slowing them down and making them waste time talking him down off of the panic attacks he couldn't seem to control, and kriff, did he appreciate the effort, but he hated the awful feeling of shame that came after.

His suggestion of telling stories hadn't even been because he thought he stood a chance of winning -- Brody, especially, was a hell of a good storyteller -- but because in all the time they'd been walking, the easiest for him had been listening to the stories the others told, when they told them. He could get lost in the words of his brothers and lieutenant and instead of picturing the next cave-in, or a sink hole no one could see coming before they fell, or another cavern filled with black water, he could picture the events of the story. There, he could kind of walk in their boots, rock-free, instead of his own.

It occurred to him, though, as they were walking and he was listening to his brothers talk that they were all autobiographical in nature. He could take a guess where there was some embellishment going on, and where the events were fudged to make them funnier or more entertaining, but all of them had a ring of reality to them; the feeling of having happened mostly like they were relayed. Half-absently, he wondered if anyone had ever thought of just-- gathering stories like that, maybe putting them all into some type of anthology.

Maybe then they would be like real people, to the rest of the galaxy.

One by one, the stories came, broken only when the climb was steep enough that it took all of their concentration to climb. Sometimes they had to stop and clear things out, and in those times, feeling hemmed in, Tango closed his eyes and listened while whichever of his brothers was speaking carried on.

Tally and Shiv didn't add in any, and Tango thought probably no one was taking this all that seriously, but it was keeping him sane.

Misty talked about the time he had gotten to swim with a pod of whales on Iloh, and his love of the water and the time spent there colored every word of his story so strongly that Tango could almost smell the salt in the air; could see the pale colors of the shallows, the deep blue of the depths, the dappled light that fell on the mottled skin of the whales and the wonder that Misty had felt just-- being there, with these giant creatures, watching them move through the water. After he had relayed that, Maul had mentioned that he had been to Iloh once himself, on a mission for the Jedi Order; when he said that was the first time in his life he'd been drunk, the entire squad had asked so many questions that the Lieu cut 'em off and told 'em to get back to their own stories.

Castle's storytelling was like Castle himself; blunt and straight-forward, told without a lot of flare and it required him to pause more than once to explain a term or a piece of equipment that the others hadn't encountered yet. It was still good listening, though; he explained how they'd had to build a bridge in two days, and the amount of work and effort it took to dig footers into a fast-moving river, and how exhausting and rewarding the whole thing had been.

It was amazing, how they all came from one genetic template, but were all so different. It was rarely so apparent as it was in story form.

Unsurprisingly, it was Brody who talked longest and kept everyone, even Tango, amused. Instead of the Chadran mafia, this time he told them all about his first, last and only misadventure with Hax in the Crimson Corridor and just how close he came to being hitched to a Psadan.

"--I might actually be married. I'm not sure, I was pretty drunk at the time and my bride-to-be-or-was apparently found me gross and ditched me before we could, uh-- consummate anything," Brody said, clearing his throat. "Not sure what the customs are, there."

Aside nearly getting married, he'd also apparently nearly joined a Weequay pirate crew and had definitely joined the Church of the Sacred Sarlacc, though he wasn't sure if he was still a member because he hadn't attended services except the once.

Tango was pretty sure Brody's story was going to win, if only because it was funny, long and had enough of an open ending to let the imagination run wild there. He was even smiling about it, especially picturing the sign above the Church of the Sacred Sarlacc, because that description had been hilarious and evocative at the same time.

That was why he was a little surprised when Tally tapped him on the shoulder. "Your turn, Tango. Tell us a story."

The mental image of a hutt groping desperately out of the many-toothed holy sarlacc with spirals for eyes quickly dissolved and Tango's mouth opened and closed a few times before he said, "I don't-- I don't really have-- I mean, I've never had anything that wild happen to me."

The suggestions came quickly. "What about your first big scare in the cockpit?" Six asked.

Misty chimed in,"That's a good one. Or how about that time you buzzed the control ship and got your name?"

Behind him, Tally sounded like smugness incarnate, "Or you could tell the story of your first--"

Tango stopped dead just fast enough for Tally to run into him with a grunt, because the last thing he wanted to do was tell those who hadn't witnessed it all about kissing their lieutenant. Not that everyone didn't know about it, but he'd had enough humiliation for one trip. Tally gave him a shove in the back of his pack, but he thankfully shut up there.

"What about the story you started telling me a few weeks ago?" Raze asked, maybe coming to his rescue, from up ahead towards the front of the line."About Etah and Adao?"

Even though they were still marching, Tango could practically feel the full attention of the squad sharpen and his own face go hot. He swallowed, stepping up the pace again now that he'd shut Tally up, grateful that his bucket currently hid his blushing. "That's not really the same kind of story, though. I mean, it's all made up."

"But it was really good." Raze's voice took on a little bit of a pleading note."Even just the first part."

"No one said the stories couldn't be fictional," Shiv pointed out, reasonably.

Tango swallowed a second time, feeling a nervous tremor in his belly that didn't have anything to do with claustrophobia. He didn't say anything yet, just focused on Eight's back in front of him, and tried to imagine sharing any of the stories that he made up.

He daydreamed a lot, especially when things were slow and didn't require his attention, and while often it was about what was happening in the real world -- the war, their training, his really kriffing inconvenient crush on Maul -- sometimes it was about things that had never happened, except in his mind's eye; an image would just hit him and then he would start to think of all of the things that went with it. Sometimes it was a person, sometimes a place. Sometimes just an impression that he'd spin out into some fantastical tale to entertain himself, laying in bed at night thinking about these things, even though he knew they weren't real. He would snag pieces of folklore, or draw on events or observations, and then he would weave it all together into something else.

The story of Etah and Adao had come from listening to some merchant shippers in his former posting; he had been on a supply run and they had been talking about the fabled beings who came from Iego, the Diathim and Maelibi. None of them had ever claimed to see one or the other species, but they all claimed to have known someone who did once, long ago or far away, and he was so taken by the descriptions that he had chewed it over for months afterwards.

Sharing that seemed-- really personal, even kind of vulnerable, but after a moment more of silence, he took a deep breath and tried to work out how to start it -- it was such a long story in his head, crossing a lot of time and covering very long journey -- and how to do justice to the visions in his mind with only words. He had started telling it to Raze one night, and Raze had really liked it, but this was the whole squad and...

He trembled once, not because he even noticed the rock around him anymore, but because he felt a little like he was offering his unguarded heart out in his hands and if they laughed, he knew it would break.

But then, he breathed out and spoke.

"Etah was broken for a long time," he said, starting softly. "It didn't happen fast; first came the war, and that itself would have been enough to chip away at anyone's spirit. He went into battle and watched his siblings fall around him, and even more damning than that, he was good at war. A good soldier, a natural, but for every cut he made, for every life he took, it took another piece out of him too. When it came time to kill the defectors, he was usually looking into the eyes of someone he had played with and sang with as a child; when it came time to kill them and those they fought with, the ash clung to his wings like blood. And this went on, and on," he paused a beat, and finished heavily, "and on."

Tango didn't know exactly where this story itself came from; he could recognize bits and pieces of lore he had overheard and he could recognize some of what his brothers here and abroad had said or felt, but the story was different from everything he'd ever heard the other clones tell even if it was a hero's journey like many others.

The more he thought about it, the more real it became to him; infused with imagination and life and color. It made his heart ache and sometimes he felt like he was as much spectator as storyteller or daydreamer, a conduit for the tale to be told.

He could feel the weight of them listening to him as he continued, "The war wounded him, not outwardly, but inside where it couldn't be seen; after that came a long wait, a cold war replacing the hot one, both sides strong enough to hold the other in check and with the understanding that someday would come a reckoning. He might have healed more, if it had been peace instead of just waiting, but he had been a soldier for so long that he didn't know what else to be, and so he waited for the next battle, the next call to action. His species -- long before they were called Diathim, though I'll call 'em that for this story -- were long-lived, and there were times Etah thought, as he watched his world and the sentients evolving who would someday become all of us, if he wouldn't have been better off if he would have been less good at war. If he hadn't been such a good solider.

"If he'd fallen in a previous battle, and gone to a place where no war could touch him again.

"Mostly, Etah was tired; he was tired deep down, where no healer could reach."

None of his brothers spoke; none of them were asking questions or snickering, and Tango put his hand out on the wall just to remind himself to pay attention to his steps as they climbed. They were due to see air again, outside air for the first time again today, and maybe this story could be the wind at their backs as they made for it. He didn't know, but his heart twinged for relaying what his main character had been feeling at that point.

"Like all cold wars do, this one had to end and did; it took thousands of years, but it did. The beings who would someday be called Maelibi rose up and the armies fought a war of attrition; unlike the Diathim, they had taken those years to evolve and learn, and where before they would fight all in, now they fought smarter, often using the mortals as shields or pawns against the Diathim. But as time went on, even they suffered their losses; on both sides, more and more of the elders fell and everything seemed compressed, like it was faster and harder and meaner than it had been even in the beginning.

"Adao was younger than most of the Maelibi, but he was canny and cunning; he could see better than nearly anyone on both sides the costs of fighting like this. Maelibi were being cut down faster than new ones could be born, and there had been no new Diathim since before the last clash of open warfare. He wasn't idealistic or altruistic, but he was practical and more than anything, it seemed senseless and wasteful to spend so much time fighting when they could be building their power and gaining control of their respective kingdoms, both above and below."

Kriff. Even as Tango was saying it, he had a moment's panic about whether his brothers thought he was drawing a direct allegory to this war they were in. Saying stuff like this about the Seppies would probably sound like treason. He worked his jaw as he walked, having to grab more handholds on the wall to lend him some stability, and barely managed to resist the urge to break into his own story with rapid-fire reassurances that he was definitely not a Seppie collaborator or anything, it's just that--

"The Jedi would probably spontaneously birth tooka kits if they heard you say that," Maul said, and his smirk was audible even over the radio; it was such a tone of approval that Tango found himself giggling a little bit, some of his nervousness fading.

"I won't tell if you won't, sir," he said back, biting his lip behind his faceplate, letting that comment buoy his storytelling. "Anyway, Adao had no love for the Diathim, but he did love his own life and didn't want to die, and it was through his plotting and planning that he was able to meet Etah.

"Etah was the last, the youngest of his kind, though much older than Adao; still, after thousands of years, that didn't matter anymore really. They looked completely different; Etah was bright and ethereal, seemingly lit by some internal glow, with shining blue eyes, though the ash on his wings turned them a duller and dimmer gray. Adao was stocky with hard scales in red and sometimes gold, with burning and fiery eyes, and had great horns that curled around his heavy head and a thick tail he could use as a weapon. It seemed even their appearances spoke to the realms they inhabited; Etah, the sky; Adao, under the mantle where the world was molten. But there was one thing both shared, even if neither of them knew how to make it happen: They wanted the fighting to end, even if their reasoning for why was different."

"Hang on one second, brother, we've got a rough patch ahead," Castle said, then added more hastily, "Not too tight or anything, just a sharper incline."

Tango huffed back, but this time he was more amused than ashamed for the reassurance; he listened to the low grunts of those ahead of them as they climbed, and when it was his turn, he dug in with his boots and put his head down, using the floor or the walls to scramble up higher. "If you ask me, every step up is definitely-- an up."

The smatter of good-natured groans he got at that made it worth it.

 

 

 

Tango had to stop telling the story for awhile, as they went up a series a steeper, rockier passages, making a sharper ascent than the slow and winding descent had been. Raze was disappointed that he had to wait, honestly; when Tango had started telling him this story sometime back, he had immediately been taken by the descriptions of the world and the-people-who-would-someday-become-them, the idea that once they were all one people and then became humans and zabraks and twi'leks and togruta and kiffar and all the other people of the galaxy; that long before time was measured, maybe they were all once the same, and therefore maybe were all kind of a part of one another even now.

Raze thought Tango was definitely the best storyteller. Brody's stories were great and they were funny, but Tango's always sounded like he put his whole soul into them, and Raze thought it was honestly about time that their pilot brother got to showcase that talent of his.

They stopped for dinner in a smallish opening, a few small pockets of crystals glittering on the walls, and the second everyone had their buckets off, they were looking at Tango expectantly.

Tango looked back at them, nervous all over again, and Raze silently cheered him on as he asked, "Do you-- do you want me to keep going?"

The instant chorus of yes and hell yes and at least one you frippin' better made him huff and smile, and Raze was smiling right along with him. Tango turned red and rubbed at the back of his head before taking out a ration bar and sitting on his pack. "Uh-- okay. Uhm-- okay. All right."

He was smiling so wide at that point that it took him a little time to continue. But then, as he broke open his ration bar, his face softened and went more serious and kind of sad, as he looked down and went on telling his story.

"The second thing that broke Etah was the punishment," Tango said. "Before Adao found him, he had broken orders because he felt they were wrong, and since that was treason, he was punished for it, horribly. The superiors he once thought were fair and honorable turned out to be anything but; they were willing to sacrifice their own soldiers for the sake of a quick win, even if there were slow and less deadly ways to do it, and when Etah -- a leader of his own battalion -- broke those orders and came up with a different battleplan to minimize the deaths, he wasn't given a chance to defend himself."

Raze glanced around and saw the rest of the squad watching; a few of 'em were even wide-eyed. Tango took a couple bites of his dinner, then went on, "Adao found him soon after that. He was still bleeding from his injuries, but Etah was proud and arrogant and didn't want even the practical help of an enemy. He might have even tried to kill Adao, if he'd had the strength, but since he didn't, he just acted condescending and threatening.

"'Suit yourself,' Adao said, when his offer for help was pushed aside. 'But I heard about what you did. I think we could come to an accord, you and I.'

"'I don't bargain with your kind,' Etah answered, before taking flight again.

"But somewhere in the back of his mind, the calm demeanor of Adao struck him. The Maelibi, he had been told -- and observed in battle -- were chaotic, hateful enemies, driven on by spite. But here was this Maelibus who came to talk to him, who offered to at least help patch his wounds, who wanted to talk instead of fight. Etah knew better than to trust him, but as the war ground on and more and more people died on both sides and caught between both sides, his own desperation got stronger. They were driving each other towards extinction. They were driving themselves towards extinction."

Sitting next to Raze, Six gave a little shiver that Raze could hear, when Six's shoulderplate rattled a little against his own. Across the smallish space, Tally's eyebrows were pegged up.

"Finally, with the ashes flaking off of his ever-grayer wings, he met Adao again. 'Speak,' he demanded, as he stood looking at his opposite, blazing like the heart of a star. 'What are you proposing?'

"Adao had been waiting for this, and all the while, he'd been building his own power base. He had other Maelibi who were loyal to him, and he had great fiery beasts he had raised himself from embers, but there was always more power to be had and who wanted to rule over an extinct people? 'An end to this wasteful war, for one,' he said, his barbed tail curling around in front of his legs as he crouched watching the Diathim. 'You're different. You're a rebel, a traitor some might even say, but I happen to think you're onto something.'"

Tango quieted again, like he had before, and picked apart the last half of his ration bar more slowly. Then he seemed to come to some kind of decision inside himself, because he didn't need prompted to continue this time. "Etah had been alone in heart, if not in presence, since his punishment. He was wary, but Adao's flattery and manipulation worked on him; Adao talked about how clever Etah was. How he knew what would happen if he didn't act. How the Diathim would survive and maybe even thrive and repopulate under his leadership, and how if Adao led the Maelibi, peace could be achieved.

"It wouldn't have worked so well, except Adao's words were true. He was manipulative, but he was truthful about the outcome he wanted. And so, even though he was uneasy, Etah was desperate enough to agree."

"Oh kriff," Eight breathed, making Tango startle a little bit. Then Eight winced. "Sorry, Tango. Just-- you can kind of see the bad coming down the pipes there, y'know?"

Tango gave a quick breath out, then a sheepish smile. "No, it's okay. I mean, you guys can-- you can say stuff, I don't mind."

"Oh, thank everything," Tally said, falling backwards a little bit like he was relieved. Raze thought for a second maybe the medic was being snarky, but when he sat back up, there was open admiration on his face. "This is-- really good stuff, Tango, I mean--"

"--frippin' wow," Brody agreed, cutting in.

Tango somehow went even more red that he had before, visible even in the low light of the headlamps, and once he finished his ration bar -- chewing slowly -- he cleared his throat. "Thanks, guys."

Misty pointed at him in mock-threat. "You better not leave us there."

Tango shook his head, grinning some. "I won't. Okay. Anyway, they planned together, gathering what allies they could. Etah was still too proud to consider Adao a friend, and only barely could look at him as an ally, but they worked together as though they'd been made for it. And between them, in the end, they managed to seize power of their respective people." He held up a hand there, though, as if to say that wasn't the end. "The thing was, no one had ever told Etah how hard leading would be, especially of a broken people who had known nothing but one kind or war or another for what seemed to be their entire lives. He was also the youngest, so many more doubted his wisdom, even though he was ancient by mortal standards. And finally, when they found out that he had gained his power by making a pact with a Maelibus, well, that was when they went into open revolt."

"I knew it," Eight whispered, though Tango apparently heard it because he nodded.

"The situation fell apart fast. Instead of bringing peace, he only turned their war from one with the Maelibi to a civil war, sibling against sibling, friends slaughtering friends. Those loyal to him, and those who rebelled against him. And Etah didn't know how to do anything else himself, but to wage war; he didn't know anymore what peace looked like, let alone how to bring others to it, and so he waged the war and took the lives he'd been trying to save.

"Adao, on the other hand, had solidified a cast-iron grip on his own people. He offered, at one point, to help Etah end his civil war, but Etah blew him off. Adao was angry about being spurned like that, but he just turned his attention to rebuilding his own kingdom and letting the Diathim bleed their way to extinction.

"Tens died. And then hundreds." A beat. "And then thousands. They fell in battle, or if they were captured, they were executed as traitors."

Raze could almost feel the weight of those last words, like something pressing down on his shoulders; the heaviness that Tango spoke them with. Because they all knew, except for Six and Eight, what it was like to lose brothers right in front of them. It was hard to like Etah for that, but it was hard to hate him, too.

Shiv gestured Tango on, but then got to his feet, making it clear that they had to move on. Especially if they were going to reach the outside world today, even if it was only for a quick valley crossing.

Everyone else got up, too, getting their packs and buckets back on, dissolving the wrappers from their meal with a little bit of water.

Tango waited until they all had their buckets on and were ready to move out before he went on: "In the end, though, Etah lost. His loyalists were eventually too few, and what few elders remained were able to rally, and in disgrace he fled to the ground and once there, he covered himself in clay and wove it into a mask to hide what he was, and it was there, living among the mortals and an outcast from his own kind that he broke for the last time, not because he was hated by the other Diathim, but because he realized how he had only led them to even more ruin. Those loyal to him died for his cause. Those against him were slaughtered. All of them were his own, and he did this to him."

"The population of tooka kits around the Jedi Temple would quadruple," Tally commented, playing off of the Lieu's prior words, and just like Maul, he sounded really amused by that idea.

Raze didn't quite get it, but it didn't bother him anyway, and he smiled when he heard Tango chuckling over the radio.

They were back to climbing again, though at least right now, the grade wasn't quite as steep.

"Heartbroken and prideless, Etah wandered for a year, then two; a long time for a mortal, though only a blink for a Diathim. He thought about turning his sword back on himself. He thought about going back home and letting them judge and punish and likely execute him. He despaired so deeply that his feathers started falling out, and sometimes when he would walk, they fell to the ground behind him, silver and ash and charcoal, like blood dripping from a wound.

"And that was how Adao found him, by following the trail of feathers.

"He was angry with Etah; angry because Etah had been arrogant and condescending, angry because Etah had slapped aside Adao's offered help, and angry because the truce they had planned had fallen apart, though for now the war had turned cold again, thanks to the Diathim being so devastated. But Etah wasn't the same being he had been before; his spirit was broken and he ached for nothing now but rest and an ending, the kind where he wouldn't ever know anything again, good or bad. When Adao came to confront him, Etah looked to his old ally and said, 'I was wrong about you. Where you had built a kingdom, I had caused nothing but destruction.'"

"But was that his fault?" Six asked, quietly, almost like he was asking himself.

Tango paused there, story-wise. "What was who's fault?"

"Etah's. I mean, he was trying to stop the war, right? And save the Diathim? But no one taught him how, so-- I mean, it'd be kind of like throwing a bunch of shinies into the middle of a major, high stakes operation and telling them to make it work, wouldn't it?"

"Tango said he was a good soldier, though," Castle pointed out, with a little grunt that warned Raze that they might have to climb or crawl over something shortly.

"But not a leader," Six answered, then there was a long beat and he said, "Wow, I just realized how messy that situation was. I mean, he was right because it seemed like the two sides were just fighting because they didn't know how not to fight, but then when he tries to get them to at least kill each other less, he gets punished, and then when he comes up with an idea for a truce-- wait, did he ever try to ask his superiors about Adao's offer?"

"No," Tango said, with certainty. "After they punished him, he didn't trust them anymore. That was why he thought he had to stage a coup."

"Kriff, this is so good," Tally murmured.

 

 

 

Tango had never had anyone debate one of his stories before, but that was what they did for the next two hours as they climbed, scrabbled, cleared the occasional rock fall, and when his face wasn't burning in embarrassment and something like pride, he was in awe of just how much his brothers were taking from this story he spun out in his head, built from little pieces and mental images and feelings, even if it felt like it had come more like a gift.

It seemed like almost everyone had an opinion. Husker's was that Etah had kriffed it up good by not trying to change things from the inside, through the right channels. On the other side, Tally was the most sympathetic to the Diathim. Maul offered no opinions on character motivations, but his admittedly wicked glee at them relaying and debating what could definitely be called subversive material was pretty damned gratifying.

Tango didn't even get to continue the story before they reached the outside.

The first hint was the faintest realization of light; not from their headlamps, but light from outside, pale and limited as it was, and the stir of colder air that Tango only could see when the temperature indicator on his heads-up started going down. Castle didn't even interrupt the debate to tell them they were getting close until it was patently clear; only then, he said, "About a hundred meters up and another hundred across."

Tango couldn't blame them when they all fell quiet for that part; even though his legs ached something fierce for the long day, he barely felt it as he climbed.

"Oh," he said, quietly, when they reached the opening.

It looked like it was carved by sentients, not natural; a rough, rectangular opening in the mountain half sheeted in ice. The frigid, vicious wind blew into the cavern (shaped almost like a ship's hangar, maybe it would have been if the operation had continued) and Tango could feel it sort of pushing against him even in his armor.

"Look at the stars," Raze said, almost reverently, standing to the side of the ice sheet with his head tilted back and the light from the two moons and the stars above reflecting off of his armor.

The entire squad gathered there to do the same; twelve bodies, taking in the brilliant showcase of the night sky. Completely caught off guard, Tango's eyes stung and even though it was really damn cold, he pulled his bucket off just to be able to see the whole thing clearly without his visor in the way.

Everyone else did the same, absent Maul, who had pulled the hood of his parka up at some point; in the thin light, the white ruff stood sharp contrast with his face, shades of gray and black in the night. Across the valley, more mountains were pointing up to the sky, jagged and forbidding, but oddly beautiful.

On the other side of those and some further, their target was waiting for them.

"Will you be all right if I seal this entrance?" Maul asked aside, to Tango. "Snow and ice, not rock. Just a wind break."

Tango didn't want to lose his view of the stars, but it was so incredibly cold that he nodded immediately. "Yeah. I mean, yes sir, I'll be all right."  Honestly, he was relieved that they weren't going to try to scale down even with the moonlight on them; daylight felt a lot safer for such ventures, even if it upped the possibility of them being spotted.

Maul shoo'd the rest of the squad backwards and toed to the edge of the cavern's mouth, looking down; after a long moment of what definitely looked like thoughtful contemplation, he pulled his gloves off and handed them back to Six, then pressed one hand against the rock and raised the other.

Despite being shoo'd back, Tango drifted closer anyway, breath caught in his throat (definitely from the cold, didn't have anything to do with Maul) as he watched the snow drift up the mountain like it was caught in a wind, swirling crystalline and sparkling under the light of the moons and stars. It hissed as it started building up against the tunnel mouth, at first impossibly fragile looking. It reminded him of the way metal shavings stuck to a magnet under a table.

It seemed almost too gentle to ever hold, but more and more snow piled up, pulled from above and below until Tango couldn't see well enough to watch anymore and had to move back.

One careful pass of the saberstaff later, and they had a new ice wall to block the wind.

"So, Tango," Castle drawled, voice light. "You gonna leave us there?"

Tango pulled his pack off and chuckled, feeling better now than he had since before they even embarked on this mission. "There's not much more to tell, at least in this part of the story. I mean, Etah was walking among mortals, drowning slowly in his despair. And when he told Adao that he had been wrong, Adao didn't want to believe it.

"He wanted to stay mad. He told himself that it entertained him to see a Diathim so broken and humble. He told himself that he could use Etah as a bargaining chip, if he had to, to the rest of the Diathim. He told himself a lot of things."

Once again, he had the full attention of everyone; no one had moved yet to unpack their tents, and if there was anything that made Tango realize how into this story they were, beyond their prior debate, it was that they were willing to delay warmth, comfort and sleep for a few more minutes just to hear it.

Maybe he was good for something here, after all.

He took a breath. "But looking at his former enemy turned ally turned-- he didn't even know, he couldn't make himself kick Etah while he was already miserable. Snorting, jets of smoke burning out of his nostrils, he just left the Diathim there to wander the shores of the great ocean and hide in the clay that hid his light and held him to the ground; he intended to leave Etah to waste away as it seemed Etah wanted to.

"And that worked-- until it didn't. Until Adao came back." Tango grinned a bit to himself. "And that's where the story really starts, but you guys will have to wait for the next part because I'm ready to sleep about three hundred years."

"So, Lieu, who won?" Raze asked, tongue in cheek, despite the grousing from the others about not hearing more yet.

Maul scoffed. "That answer's obvious. But feel free to cast a vote anyway."

The response was instant, unanimous and simultaneous: "Tango!"

 

 


Maul took the first watch, since it was his turn to, so Tango didn't even hear him come into the tent.

But as tired as Tango was, he still woke up at some point after that; in the dim light from a single headlamp, he tried for about ten whole minutes to work up the nerve to snuggle closer -- and frip, Maul really was a space heater; even with a little distance between them, Tango could feel the warmth reflected off the zabrak and the blanket -- and in the end, he couldn't make himself do it. So, instead, he half-drifted into the story he had told and let it mingle with the moment; thought of Adao's red and gold; of his fire and cunning and power, and about how none of those colors were accidental.

But his last thought before drifting off to sleep was that the back turned towards him was made for wings.

Chapter Text

"--Raze, if you're gonna lay on me, move your elbow?"

"Nn. Sorry, Sarge."

Maul pried his eyes open to the sight of his slightly disgruntled sergeant, whose turn it was to play mattress for their demo expert. When Shiv opened one eye to look back at him, Maul didn't even try to keep from smirking in satisfaction over the role-reversal, while Raze went back to snoring softly. Shiv wrinkled his nose at that smirk, then just closed that eye again, huffing but otherwise staying put.

From the other side of them, Tally's voice was no less smug as he asked, "Now who's the little spoon?"

Maul wasn't sure what cutlery had to do with anything, but Shiv's exasperated sigh was gratifying, and all in all, that wasn't too bad a way to start the morning.

It was a shame that the same couldn't be said for ending the day, as well.

 

 

 

The space they had to get across was a shallow bowl -- a saddle -- high enough in elevation that breathing was a chore, but low enough that Maul didn't need to rely on a rebreather, though he had one just in case that changed. One of the few-- benefits, if one could call them that, to having only half a body to oxygenate while still having full lung capacity was the ability to push the limits in that regard, and that was on top of the efficiency lent to him by the zabrak half of his heritage. And his troops had their cold assault armor, which was made to regulate their temperatures and air flow in this environment, adjusting automatically as needed; its weight was a hindrance, but the trade off was ultimately worth it.

There was little chance in them being spotted; this area was considered so rugged and impassable that there were no regular patrols and the nearest scanning towers were on the peaks and not down in the bowl; those were anti-aircraft, and not aimed at the ground. Even droids would find navigating this rough country to be more work than worth it, especially as droids were considered disposable and a more straight forward assault would likely yield similar enough losses.

The morning light was thin, pastel pinks and yellows over an iron gray that foretold yet more snow coming when they left their cave and the long trek through the tunnels behind them; they had spent an extra hour loading up on hot drinks and repacking their supplies, not out of reluctance, but to give them the best start possible. There was no guarantee there would be another set of tunnels on the other side that they could get into, but for now, they operated under the hope that there would be.

Maul had been testing his legs out every chance he got, trying to see if there was any other hitch, but it hadn't happened again. And he had been so exhausted that he still wasn't sure that it had even happened the first time; if it wasn't in his mind, a combination of his own fatigue and anxiety, preying on him in a state of weakness, distorting his perceptions. His paranoia in himself was such that he couldn't summon up any paranoia for Tally offering him a couple of pills and an explanation; he just knocked them back, had dinner, and then didn't remember much of anything until he woke up to Raze pinning him to the sleeping mat.

The rest had done him good, though; probably, in retrospect, the medication had too. He wasn't overly fond of being drugged -- for many reasons -- but he was used to it enough to tolerate it, and at least this time, he could have chosen not to be. He was a little drowsy through the prior morning, but his mind was calm and that same steadiness lingered through most of the day, helped along by having some enjoyable stories to listen to. The trade-off there was that it muzzled his already occasionally debatable sense of the Force, so he'd waved off the same offer the night before, but aside waking up a dozen times to assess where he was and who was close by, he did stay in the tent and managed get a little sleep.

Castle was leading again, as he had been pretty much since they landed; much like the last time they were out in the open, the Blackbirds were quiet as they worked their way around the perimeter of the bowl, heads down despite buckets just in response to the shearing wind that came over the mountains ahead of them, blowing snow into streams like smoke before cutting down into their midst. Even with that wind, though, this was still the safest way around. They had climbed down out of the cave, rappelling in teams, before starting into the march proper and Maul was hoping that they would be into the next underground section by late afternoon.

As such, he was irritated when the snow started falling again, but it wasn't until they clambered over spurs and up to the next hopeful point of passage that they discovered their way blocked, and Maul found himself nodding along with the rest of the squad, most of whom were swearing in every language they knew and possibly inventing a few more besides.

 

 

 

Castle's holo display was small, but it was detailed enough to do the job; they huddled in the mouth of what was going to be their next passage under a mountain, if not for the massive cave-in that cut them off before they could even properly get out of the snow, and tried to figure out the best way out of the bowl and hopefully back down to more forgiving ground.

"At least we didn't find out after we were halfway through or something," Shiv said, an attempt at optimism, though there was no denying the disgruntled note under it.

Tango was the only one who didn't appear to mind the setback, which wasn't any great surprise. "I'd say that's a bright side."

Maul just listened to them grousing as he studied the map projected above the engineer's gauntlet. The mountains around this bowl were undeniably deadly; sharp and steep, poorly mapped, and it was late enough in the day that temperatures were going to start falling soon, leaving them stranded on a mountainside when it plummeted. There wasn't even enough space to make camp in this cave mouth; it took being packed in tight to even have all twelve of them on stable ground, and while Maul thought it possible that the Blackbirds could sleep in their cold assault armor if they had no other choice, it was still far from an optimal situation.

"There are a few spots that might be passable," he said, holding a hand up to shield his radio from the wind that swirled chaotically into the hollow, and using his other to point. "There, and there."

"I was thinkin' that," Castle agreed, tapping a few controls to narrow in on the two spots. "Wouldn't touch either of 'em if we had better options, but right now, those look like the best ones."

The other Blackbirds fell quiet as they realized it was being discussed, though they likely had only had been murmuring to one another to stave off the sense of defeat at their setback. Maul leaned in a little and eyed the two prospects, now magnified. "Projected time to each?"

Castle grunted. "Not before nightfall."

It was a chilling thought, and not only because of the miserable terrain and the frigid weather. But trying to stay huddled in this little hole wasn't much better, and backtracking to the prior camp would be the easiest, but would also find them losing the time they'd managed to save up and then some more, while bringing them no closer to their target.

"Who knows when the moons rise?" Maul asked, after a few moments, feeling the frission of anxiety humming in the base of his throat for what he was reasonably sure was coming next.

"Forty-five minutes after sunset," Misty answered, promptly.

Maul stared at the two prospects; the closer one was steeper, the other was far enough that they might be on the move all night, and that after another arduous day of marching and climbing.

He could feel Shiv at his back and he knew that this was another one of those situations where he had to make the call. He found it was no easier, but he did his best to sound confident about it when he said, "The less vertical we have to go, the more likely we live through this. We'll make for the second passage, stop between sunset and the moons rising, and then keep going until we can make camp."

Maul wouldn't have been able to blame them if they grumbled or groaned about it; he wouldn't have even thought to reprimand them over it. Frankly, he would have had his own misgivings if he had been told to follow orders like that. He had-- precisely no idea what he would do if the Blackbirds ever just outright refused to follow along with something he ordered, but he already knew that he wouldn't ever bring charges up on them for it.

But none of them grumbled; after a moment where they all were silent, absorbing the idea, the chorus of yessir was more commiserating than Maul felt he had any right to.

He was still grateful for the squeeze of a heavy hand between his neck and shoulder and Shiv's silent approval, though.

 

 

 

Whenever Maul tried to sort out how he felt about any of this, it tended to get jumbled up like a speeder wreck in his mind. Sometimes he felt equal enough to it, especially those times when he could lean on his own prior training; other times, he felt woefully out of his depth and bound to get them all killed. He had never been good at teamwork, in the broad sense; at Orsis, he had worked well with a partner, with Kilindi, and since then he worked well with Obi-Wan (and Bail, on Zigoola), but working with eleven other individuals was taxing sometimes in ways he was unprepared to deal with.

He second-guessed everything, it seemed; every decision took on weight he was still trying to figure out how to carry. Before Theed, he had followed orders; any decisions he made in the course of following them was limited to circumstance and the best way to complete his objective. After Theed, he followed Obi-Wan; it wasn't really until Zigoola that he had started pushing back against that, and even in that, it was not so much a desire to assert whatever illusion of authority he had as it was not wanting to be overprotected to the point of being treated as if he was helpless.

Somehow, now, he ended up with responsibility for those eleven other lives, in addition to his own, and suddenly everything was more complicated.

He was intelligent enough that he could glean some of what he was supposed to be learning in all of this, but even knowing that didn't make it easy to do so.

Right now, his method of coping was by taking things as they came and relying heavily on the actual soldiers to guide him, either overtly -- outright looking to Shiv, in particular, for some kind of cue of what he was supposed to be doing -- or covertly, by asking their opinions or for their votes on things. Maul knew that wasn't what was done in the military, he knew that it was a loose way to run things, but trying to pretend that he was a career soldier, let alone an officer, was a hubris he couldn't swallow.

Sometimes, he wondered how the Jedi could pretend as well as they did. Obi-Wan's projected confidence as he led his battalion was mostly real, but not entirely; the troops, absent perhaps Commander Cody, didn't get to see the aftermath of a high casualty count, didn't get to see the way Obi-Wan would get back to their quarters and go silent, gaze distant and arms tucked firmly around himself, at least until he had Maul's arms to hide himself in. They didn't get to see just how much Obi-Wan chewed himself up over his place in the war, and what being a general meant, and how far it was away from what he had considered himself to be.

(If there had been one good thing about the long period of training that the Blackbirds had been given, it was that Maul was there to do the holding and the tea-making and the hair-petting; now, here on this ragged, miserable, cold rock, he also occasionally found space in his mind to worry about how Obi-Wan was doing without someone there to do all of those things.)

That, it seemed, had become the crux of Maul's very existence of late: Worrying. If not about one thing, then another or another or yet another.

He took up position right behind Castle and with Shiv directly behind him and Husker bringing up the end of the line as they worked their way back down to a lower line of elevation, the snow sometimes piled up past their hips, sometimes even as high as their chests, and the progress forward painstaking for how carefully they had to move towards the spot they were going to cross so as not to hit a crack or obstacle that had been lost under said snow. The four of them were easily the most trained in environmental hazards like this one, though Maul was constantly at a disadvantage because he couldn't feel his feet as anything more than pressure on the ground; he had mountaineering spikes on to give him purchase, the same kinds that the rest of the squad could deploy with the press of a button from their boots, but only having a sense of pressure and resistance made every step more precarious.

Still, there was nothing to be done for it, so he plowed on, taking care to keep as much of his sense of the Force gathered around him as he could at any given moment.

The sunset found them two-thirds of the way from the pass they were going to attempt; they only exchanged a few words back and forth across the squad, and the speed with which they managed to hollow themselves out something of an impromptu trench to huddle in spoke to how long the day had already been and how much they wanted to rest.

"It's kinda pretty, in a really punishing way," Raze said, pressed against the wall of their trench as the light left the sky; the snow had stopped falling again only an hour before, and between the breaks in clouds, the sky faded from the pastels of sunset towards the deep blue of night.

Maul looked up, the ruff on the parka framing his face giving his view a bit of a gauzy quality. He couldn't quite assign much on this world the label of pretty, though. Beside him, Shiv snorted, a good-humored if tired sound and said, "We do any more training, and I vote we go AWOL if they try to send us somewhere cold."

It was clearly an insincere threat, though Maul contemplated it seriously for a few moments anyway. He wasn't above absconding with his squad, if it came to it, he had no real loyalty beyond his own personal loyalties; in relation to the Republic or its army, he didn't feel he owed them anything. But between the security measures he was walking on and the fact it would mean leaving Obi-Wan and potentially destroying the Blackbirds, he knew he wasn't going to.

"I've heard about troops that ran," Tally said, tone neutral. "Can't say I blame 'em."

"I can," Husker shot back, without a pause. "Cowards run; we took an oath."

"What's an oath worth, if you never had a choice about taking it?" Tally asked, leaning forward to eye the older clone, black eyebrows furrowed. His voice remained even, though; not antagonistic, even if it seemed Husker was ready to take it as such.

Maul looked between them; took in Husker's angry expression and wondered if he should be trying to smooth things over, or if he should let them hash this out between them. Shiv hadn't spoken up yet, though, so for the moment he held back. Husker scowled and shook his head, "It's worth whatever kinda honor you've got. You say the words, you make a promise, you don't get to break it later just because it's inconvenient."

"Yeah, but Husk, what're the words worth if the only other choice you have is decommissioning?" Tally shook his head. "Basically, you either agree or you die."

"You what?" Maul asked, before he realized he was about to, sharp enough that it surprised even him.

The looks the entire squad gave him at that made his skin crawl, not because they were angry, but because they were-- sad. Resigned.

Husker looked away first. Tally's mouth thinned, then he shook his head again. "If you don't agree, if you act-- disloyal, you're considered a defective product," he said, plainly, and Maul didn't even know how to feel about the almost gentle tone he took. "Mild physical deformities or genetic faults can get you reconditioned, or they'll try to find a support staff position for you -- like, Ninety-Nine managed to escape being decommissioned by being so loyal and being one of the first, kinda like a test case -- but being disloyal? Being subversive? You don't come back from that, not unless you're one of those Alphas or something, and bred for that kind of independence."

"Then how'd you survive?" Husker asked, voice gruff. Maul snapped a look over at him, but the expression on Husker's face kept him from jumping to Tally's defense; it wasn't a mean look. More weary.

Tally fell quiet for a long moment, looking down at the package of the nutrition bar that he had been ripping into tiny squares, before answering, "--I don't know. I guess I barely kept my mouth shut just enough and I took my oath like a good boy when it was time."

Husker didn't seem like he was all that happy with having an answer to the question he asked. He grabbed his bucket. "This ain't a topic I'm keen on," he said, before pulling said bucket on.

Maul went to take a breath and try to say something himself -- he wasn't even sure what -- but he couldn't find the right words, and couldn't quite get the right amount of air to produce them if he did. Absently, he flexed his hands and tried to just--

But one thought sat on the surface of the maelstrom of unease and tangled, complicated feelings, and no matter how much he didn't want to have it, it was there anyway.

Does Obi-Wan know about this?

 

 

 

The moons rising, their light reflecting off of the snow, gave them enough to see by in order to continue. They tackled the summit at an angle, in deference to just how difficult it was, and more than once had to slow down to navigate some obstacle; a head-wall, a crevice, glacial patches, boulders and great slabs of granite that pushed up towards the bright night sky. It wasn't much of a reprieve for Maul, though, from his own wild thoughts and the unexpected storm that came with that particular piece of information.

It shouldn't have shocked him. He had already figured out that the clones had been dealt an unfair hand, and for everything that had happened in Maul's life to date, he had never quite lost the ability to distinguish between what was fair and what wasn't. He knew they were essentially little more than slaves, created to die for a Republic that didn't even really consider them people, and yet still, somehow it was the thought that they were just-- killed, if they acted in any way too contradictory to their purpose, that was gnawing a hole through what was left of his guts.

It wasn't as if Maul didn't know -- know well, know intimately -- exactly what kind of life that was. He had lived it. He had lived knowing full well that if he strayed, if he faltered, if he failed, his Master would end him and none too quickly. For that matter, since his Master couldn't kill him bodily, he'd torn Maul's mind apart instead when he had fallen to Obi-Wan's blade, then discarded him for the Council to work over.

I would kill them, he thought; if the Kaminoans came for his Blackbirds, if they tried to 'decommission' his squad. I would kill them, he thought hotly and with something invisible squeezing at the base of his throat.

It was almost more than he could cope with, however certain it was; behind it was equal parts terror and ferocity, neither of which he could pick apart one from the other. It was breath-stealing and he didn't know how that happened; that after so short a time, he knew that he would kill for his squad, swiftly and mercilessly, and damn the consequences.

He knew he was attached to them -- he'd finally given up trying to kick back against it sometime between when they landed on this world and this moment now -- but sounding the depths of how far he was willing to go over it was terrifying. Before Zigoola, only Obi-Wan Kenobi had occupied that position in his life. After Zigoola, Bail had ended up in that same space, as easily as drawing breath, as if he was always supposed to be there. Breha was there because Bail was, though Maul was growing more and more comfortable with her and fond of her as time -- and the occasional letter, comm call and care package -- went on.

It was one thing to find himself responsible for eleven other lives. It was another to be a part of them. And to have them be a part of his.

The final crawl up to the pass was gruelling; far to their left, the warning beacon on the anti-aircraft scanning tower, blinking red light to keep pilots from smacking into it, gave them as good an orientation as they were going to get without the satellites as to how close they were to the base they needed to take. If Maul remembered the maps right, they would get there well within the tenday alloted for this exercise, though too many setbacks would make it dicey.

If they had gone the way Skywalker had wanted them to, the way they would have gone had they no prior warning, they probably would have timed out if they hadn't gotten taken out by the perimeter or the detachment at the base. The surge of anger that hit Maul at that realization was a welcomed break from the more complicated issues he was trying to sort out; that they really were intended to lose. That they had been set up in a way that nearly guaranteed it, barring a miracle; that if Tano hadn't shown up and offered to negotiate for information, they might already be defeated.

He wasn't sure which part he was more surprised by: The fact that he had thought Skywalker would give them any quarter at all in even a token attempt at fairness, or his anger at finding out that Skywalker hadn't.

"Oh frip," Castle said, as he finally crested the peak, and that tone boded very poorly; Maul managed to claw his way up just beside of the engineer and immediately saw what the problem was.

"What?" Shiv asked, but then he was landing on the other side of Castle. "--Oh, frip."

The top of the pass was narrow and rugged enough to be an obstacle on its own, but the deep drop on the other side, a wide crack where the mountain had split open at some point was the real problem. Between them and the opposite ground, which was mercifully less blade-like, there was at a deep notch at least sixteen meters across.

Maul leaned over further, body dug into the snow and ice, and looked down; the notch went so deep that he couldn't quite make out where the bottom even was.

The rest of the Blackbirds had come up by now; the number of groans and quiet curses colored the radiowaves, as they all laid there in a line, the wind slicing across their backs.

"We could backtrack to the other pass," Castle said, after a moment. "But frankly, given the looks of this place, we might find the same thing there."

Even with an uneven sense of the Force, Maul could feel some edge of the frustration and near-defeat that the rest of the squad was; he narrowed his eyes, studying the other side. It was some lower, and if they could get to it, the ground beyond seemed to be at least less punishing; it was that gap that was a problem, obviously, and how the twelve of them could traverse it safely. If not for his unsteady connection to said Force, it would have been a fair bit easier; if he trusted it like he had before Zigoola, he could have maybe hovered his squad over there, one at a time, and set them down on the snow. After all, he was definitely angry enough about Skywalker that pulling on the dark side would have been possible.

But-- he didn't trust it. He certainly didn't trust their lives to it.

He had spent years at Orsis -- eight, all told -- and but for one notable incident, he hadn't used his Force-given abilities beyond what he couldn't help, which was usually just perception and some sense of imminent danger. He had learned how to do everything a highly trained assassin would do just the same as his non-Force sensitive classmates.

It was that which had him already thinking up an alternative. "We have a couple of pulleys, don't we?" he asked; the angle was good, their rope was solid -- it was the anchor which had given before in the cavern -- and there were a few higher spots across the gap that could be used.

"Three," Shiv answered, and he actually leaned forward a little himself to eye Maul. "You thinking a zip-line? But how do we anchor it on that side?"

Absolutely in spite of the large setback, his anger over this mission and everything else, Maul started grinning.

He didn't trust his connection to the Force enough to risk their lives, but he wasn't the least bit worried about risking his own.

 

 

 

The Blackbirds were totally silent when Maul landed on the other side, coming down hard enough that he had to tuck and roll, lest he damage his mechanical legs, but something about it felt good; about grabbing onto the Force, what he could get of it, and throwing himself across that wide divide, kicking off of the sharp peak and sailing through the air to land where he meant to. He had a rope tied to him, just in case -- and it would definitely break something if he'd fallen and the Blackbirds had to arrest that fall -- but it turned out that thanks to several factors, including the Force and the cybernetics, a good tailing wind and the fact that his landing spot was lower than the point he leapt from, he landed with some room to spare.

He came back up to his feet, breathless and triumphant, and once he was there, the rest of the squad cheered, once again overloading the radio.

While Raze was declaring, again, that Maul was exceptionally badass -- something that still confused Maul -- he pulled his saberstaff. He didn't like the idea of igniting a blade up here; didn't like its visibility, even on a bright night, on the off-chance any of the 501st detachment was watching, but after that incident in the cavern before, he also didn't want to take any chances on anchoring.

He made sure that he had the rock he was going to put a hole in between himself and the direction of the base, then lit a blade and got to work boring a hole through it, listening to the hard and mildly chaotic hum of his saber.

"Okay, yeah, that is hot," Tango was saying, which provoked half of the rest of the squad into giggling, of all things. Even while he was sabering his way slowly through the rock, Maul was a bit bemused by that reaction.

"Kinda sexy, too," Tally added, mischievously, and then something thumped loud enough to be heard even over the radio and he immediately yelped, likely more in surprise than pain given his armor.

"Are we all going to be okay with this?" Shiv asked, breaking into the bantering, though his voice sounded lighter and more cheerful now that there was a plan of action and part of it had already succeeded. Maul had set him and Castle to rigging the pulleys -- which were made for mountaineering, not zip-lining -- together so that they could hold the weight of the troops and also be pulled back to the other side via the second rope. All of the gear, though, was rated to be able to handle this weight and unlike the water jets, there was no battery to run down.

"Definitely," Tango said.

"Oh, hell yes," Raze added, with no small amount of glee; it reminded Maul a little bit of Tano's tone when she had proposed playing double agent for them. "I call dibs on the first trip."

"Sure, go fling yourself off the mountain, we'll be back here with a shovel." That was Six; despite the words, it was clear he was joking.  Brody cut in right on his heels, mimicking Eight's giant with, "Mmm.  Clone paste, on Big Murder Mountain the Second."

Once again, Maul just listened to them chattering to one another; Husker was quiet, but everyone else seemed to be openly anticipating their rather sketchy adventure across the gap and their good humor, even after yet another long day, chipped away the edges of unease that Maul had been dwelling in since they left the cave-in and took to the slopes.

He watched the molten rock drip, and finally his saber was through; rather than pulling it free, he extinguished the blade and strapped the staff back across his chest. He'd left his gear behind to make this jump, so it would have to be sent down, but that was a relatively minor concern. "Before you come across, Raze, send my pack?"

"Yes, sir!" Raze answered readily. "Be a good test case anyway."

There wasn't a ton of redundancy built into their inventory, given weight, but it probably was prudent to test it. Maul stuffed snow into the hole in the rock, though it was cooling quickly in this altitude and at this temperature. By the time he was satisfied that it wouldn't burn the rope, he unwound said rope from himself and threaded it through the new hole, tying it off with a double bowline and then clipping one of the carabiners through it so it could be loosened again once they were finished. He figured that he could probably pull himself back up top and then untie the other side once everyone was across, saving them the rope.

"Ready?" he asked, once he'd thrown all of his weight back against the knot to test it again; up top, the troops had already anchored the other side, and nothing about it gave Maul any misgivings.

"One pack of supplies, comin' your way. But sheesh, Lieu, you've been carrying all this all this time?" Raze asked, using more of their carabiners to hook the pack onto the pulleys.

Maul shrugged, even if the gesture was a bit useless for the distance. "While I don't recommend getting cut in two, cybernetics don't suffer fatigue and I'm not working against the weight of the armor like you are." Admittedly, he did get knocked backwards a few steps in the trampled snow when he caught the pack, given its weight and momentum, but the impromptu zip-line worked exactly as it was intended to. And once it was unclipped, the pulley was drawn back up via the second rope.

Unsurprisingly, Raze whooped as he slid down; he had to tuck himself pretty tightly given the lack of height on the lower anchor, and he landed a little closer to the edge than Maul was comfortable with, but his laughter was somehow gratifying anyway.

Given how many set-backs they had gone through so far, even though most of them were minor, it was a relief that something was going as it was supposed to.

 

 

 

And it did. Until it didn't.

Smarty got a little motion sick, though he didn't end up throwing up. Brody managed to choke down most of a howl, but when he landed safely, he started laughing. Six, like Raze, had given a whoop and practically jumped on his more stoic twin when he was free of the line and back on his feet in what seemed to be excited happiness. Misty seemed to be perfectly at home going from one peak to another, Husker was just as easy with it, and Tally grumbled some, but came down just fine.

After his long and difficult journey so far, Tango had the best form of them, executing an unsurprisingly perfect landing and then giving a joking bow when his brothers clapped for it, silly. Castle followed, and Shiv was the last one to make the trip.

The rope never gave, the pulleys worked exactly as they had been asked to. It was the edge of the cliff face that couldn't take the consecutive landing of eleven clones in heavy armor, carrying gear; it was something that they couldn't have anticipated. When Shiv landed, there was a moment where all seemed calm; he just unclipped his jury-rigged safety harness from the zip line, then took a step forward.

There was a crackle, an awful rumble and the sergeant instinctively set his stance wider, but not even two seconds later, the ground under his feet gave and he barely had time to shout before he vanished, flailing out to try to catch the stable ground in front of him and managing to for a split second before it crumbled under his hands.

Maul had been moving before he'd even had time to realize he was; he had been closest and he dove on his belly, sliding nearly to the point of falling himself before the spikes on his boots found purchase in the ice and ground under him, throwing an arm down and just barely catching Shiv's forearm. He was just starting to get a grip on Shiv with the Force, as well, when all of that weight sent an electrical, white-hot rod of pain through his shoulder, enough that it actually tore a cry right out of his throat, as it felt like his arm was about to be ripped off.

The sudden pain shattered any attempt he had to focus through it to grab hold of the Force; it was as much a scramble to ease it as it was to execute the rescue that had him throwing his other arm down, trying to relieve the weight by wrapping his left hand around Shiv's gauntlet clad right forearm, even as Shiv reached up with his own left to try to hold on back. Far below, the sound of that section of rock and snow and ice breaking up echoed back up to them, and despite how loud it was, Maul could barely hear it past the roaring rush of blood in his own ears and the torment of trying to keep Shiv from following the same path.

Even then, the thought of just letting go never once crossed Maul's mind.

There was the clacking of armor and weight over him and against him and the hands of the others -- he didn't know how many, his vision actually blurred for how breathless he was -- reaching down to get any grip they could, and their frantic near-whispers of mindless pleading hissed into his perception from his headset, but somehow in all of that, he managed to hear Shiv say, "Don't let me go," and somehow, he found enough air to gasp back, "Stay with me."

"C'mon, Sarge, I need your arm," Husker said, gritty and strained, and Shiv again tried to swing his left arm up high enough for one of his brothers to catch it; the weight of the motion had Maul grinding his cheek against the ground, in some desperate, helpless attempt to offset the pain in his shoulder and chest with the cold of the snow against his face.

It was an eternity before someone else finally took a bit of the weight, and then they were hauling Shiv back up and someone grabbed Maul and dragged him back out of the way; the motion was nearly enough to make him gag, jarring him, and he only got his eyes open in time to watch as they got Shiv back up on stable ground and far enough back from the edge.

Tally was already back together and giving orders, before anyone else had even managed to speak up, "Castle, find us a landing site--"

"No," Maul ground out, barely able to raise his voice enough to be audible; his head was spinning, he couldn't force himself to stop splinting against the pain in order to get enough air, but he still said, "No, wait."

Tally swung around, and even with his bucket on, his incredulity was clear in his posture. "Sir?"

"Not yet." It was more of a plea than Maul meant it to be. "Please."

It was enough that the medic took off his bucket, face bloodless and expression drawn in worry; he shot a look over to Shiv, who was leaning against Tango, shaking hard, then looked back to Maul again. "Sir--"

"Tally, just-- wait," Shiv said, raggedly.

Tally looked between them again; the rest of the squad held quiet, waiting on their command team to come to a decision.

"--kriff," he swore, quietly, before jerking his head towards the slope downward. "Castle, find us the closest tent site you can."

 

 

 

Maul didn't remember most of the next hour in any detail; it kept blurring, time stretching or contracting. He refused any pain medication just yet, but he did use his rebreather to help compensate for the fact that he was having a hard time forcing his lungs to expand when every breath seared pain through his shoulder and upper right chest, letting it pull more oxygen from the air for him. Distantly, somewhere in the gray haze of waiting, he wondered when he became so-- susceptible to this kind of pain. There had been a time, before, when he could at least push himself through it. Now it was all he could do just to breathe and think in more than sentence fragments.

Through it all, Tally proved to be good for his word. He didn't intervene; he offered, but he never forced the issue, even though it was clear from the look on his face that he was extremely worried and could barely hold himself back from acting.

The trek downhill was slow, spent leaning on Misty's shoulder on his good side; Shiv was still shaky on his feet, too, so Tango made sure to keep an arm around him, as well. There were a few stumbles and trips, a few moments of jagged, hot agony, but by the time they made it down there, the rest of the squad had already set the tents up in the eave of an overhang, sectioned together per Tally's request, though there was a divider between them that could be lowered over the narrow tunnel that joined them together to help with heat rentention.

The sudden near-death of one of their own had subdued the squad all over again. By the time they were all clustered in the two linked-together tents, their faces were drawn and sometimes blanched of color; Shiv was especially rough looking and Maul imagined he was little better himself.

It was Smarty who spoke first, after several long minutes where they only breathed, dazed and shaken-up, probably as exhausted mentally as they were physically: "Why aren't we calling for an evac?"

That was on Maul to answer; he found that if he held still, kept his dislocated shoulder and strained elbow tight against his side, he could manage just enough space to think between breaths. He wet his lips, taking a moment, then said, "We're safe for now. For-- the next several hours." A beat, a breath. "I wanted to give everyone a chance to vote on it."

No one answered right away, but they all stared, some incredulously, some just deeply worried. Maul hoped that they weren't going to ask him to detail out his thoughts on why; he didn't even know if he had any, except that this seemed to be a vital time to give them this choice.

"It's a training mission," Misty said, after a few long moments. "One of us nearly died on a training mission."

"It wouldn't be the first time that's happened," Castle said, and half of them glanced at Husker, who was staring at Maul down from the other tent with an inscrutable expression.

"That's why you should vote on it," Shiv finally broke in, hoarse; he was still shivering intermittently, and it was strange to see the normally unflappable sergeant so rattled, but there wasn't any hesitation in his voice.

"Now?" Six asked, sounding nervous and upset and frightened, sitting pressed against Eight.

Maul shook his head a little. "Tomorrow. Nine hours from now. Set the usual watch and we'll-- we'll vote when it's time."

There was a murmur, but he couldn't think clearly enough to pick out the words. All the while, Tally had been waiting with an admirable amount of patience, considering what he was being asked for; this was, perhaps, the first time that Maul could say he had any real trust in the medic to hold to what he had said he would, and while the concept of having any kind of say in his own health and welfare was incredibly new -- he had never had a say in it, not when he was a child, not when he was an adult -- Maul was grateful for the respect that conveyed. Tally had his kit out, but had made no move to use it.

"Rest now. Think it over. We'll vote in nine hours," Maul said again, something of both prompt and dismissal.

They took it as such; started doling out nutrition bars and blankets, while Tango looked on anxiously for a moment before pulling the rest of his armor back on so he could guard the camp. Maul was not especially surprised to see Raze sliding into caretaker mode with Shiv; warming a canteen, mixing up a packet of cider for him, staying close enough to be a physical support and very likely to end up using the sergeant as a body pillow for the second night in a row.

After watching for a few minutes, and finding it oddly soothing to do so, Maul finally looked back at Tally and quirked his brow in silent question.

Tally looked right back at him, some mix between rueful and affectionate. "If you try to tell me to take that parka off of you without pain medication, I'll hold you responsible for telling your squad why the tent smells like vomit."

Maul almost laughed at that, even if it would have been a frayed sound. "I've held my stomach through worse."

"Not your stomach I'm worried about, sir. It's mine." Tally raised an eyebrow. "If you ever point out to me what prick taught you to be such a stoic in the face of pain like this, I'll turn their wedding tackle into a bolo ball and kick for orbit, but in the meantime... don't make me put you through any more without letting me do everything I can to alleviate it."

It was its own kind of plea, if delivered bluntly; Maul gave back a facial shrug, acquiescing, and tipped his head over, baring the side of his neck and closing his eyes, which was not quite as hard as he expected it to be. Though, he did ask, as Tally shot him with something that instantly made his mind go even foggier and made the pain go distant, "--what's wedding tackle?"

Halfway across the tent, someone giggled, but Maul didn't even hear the answer before he was gone, drifting out of reach of everything.

True enough, he never felt a thing.

Chapter Text

Tango doesn't think about voting.

He stands watch and he thinks about how much he'd rather be flying. About how angry he is. About how real this all suddenly feels; about how, even compared to the panic attacks under the mountain, the situation seems more deadly and immediate. He thinks about all of the things that happened during this day, or over the mission, or the time since his transfer, and sometimes he goes even further back.

He thinks about how much he wants to go home, but then he amends it in his mind, because it's not really the Negotiator that is home.

He replays the scene on that broken cliff a hundred times in his mind, trying to get a handle on his own fear at how close they came to losing their sergeant, just that fast; over and over, he has to swallow down how much the sound Maul made when he caught Shiv's weight hurt to hear.

Tango thinks about how this is a crucible harder than the Citadel ever was, because for as hard as that was, they never had their heads held underwater like this, an attempted drowning, bloodless but lethal anyway; he wonders at how he once looked up to General Skywalker -- and who didn't? -- and now any thought of the Hero Without Fear is accompanied with the twisted and slimy sensation of having been deceived. Betrayed. Somewhere back inside the tents that Tango's guarding, Husker is probably even more confused, because how much Husk loves Skywalker is still evident every time he speaks of the Jedi, and this has to be tearing him in two.

Tango thinks of a lot of things, as he stands out there in the cold; he thinks of a lot of things, but he doesn't think about voting in eight and a half hours.

Instead, he imagines Etah and Adao, and the story he has started telling the rest of the squad, except further down the road than where he left off; he thinks about how they feel when they wake up from their long period of unconsciousness and how they believe they've lost one another. That despair, fathomless, where they believe one another dead and find themselves wandering a world turned unrecognizable, the very last of their respective species, or so they believe at the time. He thinks about their loneliness and their aching yearning for that thought-to-be-broken connection, for someone to remember them as they were, for someone to believe in what they could still be.

He thinks he wants to go back inside and tell his brothers and L-T more of it, though now isn't the time. But soon.

He thinks, don't let me go, and stay with me, are another way to say I love you.

No matter what kind it is, no matter how new, or whether it's romantic or platonic or familial or something else entirely that hasn't been defined yet, Tango thinks: This is still love.

The imagined confusion on their faces if he ever says this makes him smile despite everything and his heart settles a little as he sinks himself into telling and retelling and expanding on the stories in his mind, weaving new layers into them drawn from the threads of their lives, as he stands the watch.

 

 

 

Tally doesn't think about voting, either.

He's grateful as all hell that Maul basically handed him a blank credit chip in the form of a bared neck, because if Maul had asked him to just pop that shoulder back into place and slap a bacta patch over it, Tally would have done it, but he would have probably been reduced to tears of angry frustration. That joint was already mildly damaged before, though not badly enough to require rebuilding it, and it's definitely a hell of a lot more serious now.

He had recruited Raze into giving him a hand getting Maul's parka off, since that couldn't be replaced, but he'd just cut through the undershirts, though not until he had made sure that Maul had replacements in his pack. He'd also gotten Raze to act as a counterweight once the cocktail of sedative, narcotic, muscle relaxer and anti-inflammatory had time to work so he could reduce that dislocation; it's a drug combination he wouldn't have dared try on a full-blooded human in the field, but where a human would have probably stopped breathing, it just turned Maul into a ragdoll of a zabrak-hybrid and Tally's pretty sure he wouldn't even feel minor surgery at this point, let alone anything less intense. Tally's watchful, but not worried.

(Despite countless university hospital studies, zabraks are still chronically under-medicated by medical professionals -- even on Iridonia! -- especially in relation to pain medication; the perception of their high pain tolerance combined with their high metabolic efficiency, plus a large dose of this is the way things have always been done has long led to a lot of quiet or silent suffering. Tally's been doing his research from the moment Maul became his responsibility; he'll also be damned if he lets that happen to his L-T.)

Now, he uses his handheld imager to get a look at the injury and he's more relieved than he could coherently explain that while there are plenty of tears and some other soft tissue damage to Maul's rotator cuff -- on top of that old damage that didn't get bacta treatment fast enough however many years ago -- nothing's broken loose that would necessitate a surgical theater, which they clearly don't have up here.

"I think I can fix this," he says, more to himself than to Raze and Shiv, the former having put himself firmly between lieutenant and sergeant as if he could protect them both from invisible threats, the latter of whom is probably still awake despite being tired. Tally had offered him something to help him sleep, but Shiv had turned it down -- "Give me some time to sort my head out," he had said -- and since Tally has his hands full anyway, he doesn't bother pressing the issue. Shiv is sound in all the ways that Maul isn't; he isn't apt to just suffer in silence because he doesn't know any better, so it's easier to accept his decisions without worrying about the underlying reasoning or lack of.

"Really?" Raze asks, apparently taking it as opening to a conversation, curious.

Tally nods, looking over the imager's screen again; it's a high end piece of gear, which he had acquired on the battlefield out of the kit of a fallen senior medic (after holding said medic's hands for his last breaths), and while protocol would have dictated him turning it in to be reassigned to another senior medic, he's kept it and kept it in good order because to hell with protocol. Then he turns back to his kit, just checking again visually the inventory he already has in his memory: saline premix, individual bacta packets, sixteen gauge needles, tubing, and a reversible heavy-duty sling.

Then he finally answers Raze, in a rush of confidence and an anticipatory excitement at figuring out a way to beat the odds, "I'll have to get pretty inventive with gear and he won't be able to carry anything for at least a couple days -- more, if I have my way -- but yeah."

"Whatever happens when the vote comes?"

Tally doesn't want to think about voting. He wants to think about medicine. He wants to see if he can save Maul a trip under a laser scalpel. He wants to see if he's as good as he's studied, fought, desperately needed to be.

He wants to prove to himself why he's been allowed to live despite his cynicism and subversive leanings and disloyalty.

But Raze's voice is small and vulnerable and he looks like the whole thing makes him queasy, and so Tally presses his mouth into a thin smile, reassuring as well as he can, "Either way it goes. If we keep going, then I'll have him back in decent form by the time we get to the base. If we don't, then I'll hopefully be saving him trouble further down the road anyway. No downsides. It'll be okay."

He can think about voting later; right now, he has a job to do.

 

 

 

Shiv doesn't think about voting because he thinks about Flanker instead.

He lays with his back to the others, blanket up to his ears, half-listening to Tally and Raze talking, and something inside of him twists and aches every time Raze reaches over to pet his hair. His shoulder is sore and he has some pretty bad muscle strain, a couple pulled tendons and ligaments, but he's in better shape than Maul is, anyway, and even if he didn't want to be drugged to sleep, the anti-inflammatory and bacta patch Tally gave him is keeping the soreness tolerable enough that he probably can and will fall out on his own, once he's got himself put back together.

He thinks about Flanker because he doesn't want to die, and the realization of this fact hits him like ice water on a hot day, sudden enough to make him shiver all over again. Because he's been getting more and more comfortable with his role here; with being part of this squad and command team. Because he's swan-dived into acceptance of his future as sergeant here, turning his eyes away from the losses behind him in favor of studying the terrain ahead.

But Shiv not wanting to die isn't down to rank, or mission.

He doesn't want to die because he loves them, and it's that realization that slams home hard enough to shake him down to his core.

He loves them. His brothers here. His unlikely CO. Because when he's hanging over the edge of a cliff, he can hear the desperate fear and anguish in their voices, as if they're hanging there with him. Because Maul doesn't let go even when it hurts. Because when they pull him back up, Tango holds onto him while he shakes from it. Because every last one of them puts a hand on him before he crawls into the tent, as if to reaffirm that he survived and they haven't lost him. Because Raze is here making cider and petting his hair and the last person who did that kind of thing for him died on Christophsis and Shiv thinks: I don't know if I can survive this again.

He's seen so many of his brothers die. He's not even that old for a clone, but they all have, except Six and Eight. They all have watched their brothers get cut down, they all have learned to measure their futures in weeks because months are too long. They don't have long, none of them do, he's been learning this since they popped the cork on him and Flanker and over half of his batch is already dead, over half of them are already dead including his twin--

He started writing his letters because after the better part of that first month, living in a fog, his body on autopilot, he couldn't bear the permanent silence. The empty airwaves, the forever of it. He wrote because he couldn't live in a universe without his twin, but he had to somehow keep living anyway. He still writes because yeah, it helps him order his thoughts, but he writes to Flanker specifically because he wants his brother to hear him, even knowing he never will again.

Shiv knows that he doesn't want to die.

What he doesn't know, can't know, is if he can survive loving like this again. Survive losing it again.

The thought catches him, hitches the breath in his throat, and then there's a shuffle and Raze is under the blanket with him, pressed up to his back and wrapping an arm around him, and he doesn't know if he can survive this, either, but he doesn't pull away or push his brother off.

"All okay?" he manages to whisper, sounding less steady than he wants to, but more steady than he is.

"Yeah," Raze whispers back. Then he raises his voice a little, "I figured it was time to tap out when Tally got ready to stab the Lieu with the scariest needle I've ever seen."

It takes Shiv a few seconds to realize Raze is actually poking fun at Tally, but then he asks, "Tally, why're you stabbing Maul with scary needles?"

"Really, 'cause I'd faint if you came at me with that thing," Raze complains, as he snakes his arm up under Shiv's in order to press a hand over his heart.

Tally huffs in clear mock-annoyance. "Bacta's too thick to run it through a smaller gauge and I want to dilute it as little as possible. Trust me, he won't feel it. You could dress him as a cantina dancer right now and his blood pressure wouldn't waver."

"Carry on stabbing, then," Shiv says, voice still rough from earlier, but an attempt at humor as Raze snickers at what is undeniably an amusing mental image.

"Thanks, I was planning on it," Tally says back, dryly.

"I'll just hide under here with you," Raze finishes, and then he drops his voice back to a whisper as he gives Shiv a long squeeze. "It's okay. We're all gonna be okay."

Shiv doesn't think about voting.

He thinks about Flanker, and he thinks about the Blackbirds and he thinks about how devastating it would be to lose one of them, and how devastating they would find it to lose him and he thinks about what it means to want to live, what it means to love, and he knows he's supposed to be an example and a leader, but right now, he holds onto Raze's words with desperate faith and finally lets himself relax.

He doesn't think about voting; he thinks don't let me go, and when he drifts off to sleep, the tears that cut across the bridge of his nose and back to his temple have a chance to dry.

 

 

 

Raze is thinking about the vote. At least sometimes, when he's not thinking about how cool the zip-line was, how spine-jerkingly scary Shiv's fall was, how their Lieu would look dressed as a cantina dancer. (Raze has no real grasp of attraction but he totally gets aesthetics; he thinks probably something light-weight, lots of scarves, playing to Maul's colors and they could all watch Tango keel over on the spot. He'll tell Tango about this idea later, because he's a good brother and has Tango's back.)

When Tally says it's gonna be okay, Raze believes him. Why shouldn't he? When Raze tells Shiv, he doesn't know if Shiv believes him, but he's gonna take care of him anyway.

He doesn't know what he does think about voting, as in actually casting one and for what. If he thinks about it just for himself, he would go ahead. But it's not really just him, it's everyone and what's the best thing for everyone? Their Sarge is pretty shaken up; even before he falls asleep, settling properly into Raze's arms, he trembles here or there and Raze can't blame him. Raze would probably still be shaking, if he'd been the one to fall.

Well, maybe. He wishes they had jetpacks because that would make that whole thing moot. And those would be so much fun. And so badass. They could have some kind of wings made so then they'd really be blackbirds.

But for as scary as that was, he's ready to leave it behind and move on. It's not that he forgets when bad things happen, but he figures that they all survived and if they think too long about it, then they're gonna end up just scaring themselves out of continuing on. He thinks that probably he's not the only one that wants to go and beat the snot right out of the 501st detachment down there -- kriff, the bragging rights alone! -- but he does have a responsibility to the rest of the squad to take into account what's best for the majority.

In line with that thought, he's kind of worried about Husker. Husker's always been a little more uneasy with the squad than everyone else. Not mean or standoffish. But like he's always afraid that he's going to end up stepping wrong or like he doesn't know if he really fits. And he's too gruff and insular to reassure the same way, he looks at whoever tries like they're speaking some other language.

He doesn't really touch anyone often or get close, like most of the rest of them do. Raze has cuddled with literally everyone -- even Brody, even Maul -- in the squad by now, except Husk.

Raze thinks that has to be so lonely. He can't even imagine being so alone. Did Husk get close with their brothers in the 501st? Maybe that could be why it's so much harder for him to fit in here; Raze has gotten along with everyone he's ever been assigned with, but not all clones have an easy time moving from one place to another, and Husker's been bounced around a lot, so it might be that the 501st was his first real chance to settle and bond, only to be pulled out for the 212th's Blackbirds.

It's past time for Husker to get out his guitar again. He did when he first joined them, but then he put it away and he hasn't played since, even though everyone likes it and he's really good. Raze thinks that it might be a good thing, and he makes a mental note to ask Husker if he'll play whenever they get back to the Negotiator. Be it sooner, or later.

(Come to think of it, Tango's good at words and Husker's good at music; Raze bets they'd write some great songs together.)

Right. Voting. Raze knows Maul will want to keep going. He's not sure about Shiv or Tally, but Tango will want to keep going too. Six and Eight-- probably they want to leave pretty bad, but they're going to wait to see what everyone else has to say. Castle will want to keep going. Misty probably won't. Smarty probably won't. Surprisingly, Raze thinks Brody actually will want to keep going. Husk is up in the air.

He tries to add it up, but he's not sure enough about his guesses to know for sure.

So, he thinks about voting, but he honestly doesn't think too hard about it. Because jet packs and Maul as a cantina dancer and getting Husker integrated and taking care of Shiv is all more important, and whatever they all decide, Raze will be okay with it. He wants to go ahead, but what he decides is that he's gonna be with them regardless of what the choice is, and that's really the most critical part of choosing, anyway.

He falls asleep peacefully, shielding his sergeant's back.

 

 

 

Castle doesn't realize that Raze has already pegged his vote. He thinks about voting, but he only does it for about ten seconds after they've been told to rest because he already knows what his choice is: Kriff the 501st, kriff Skywalker, this is banthashit and damned if they should eat it just because they're supposed to.

Not much gets Castle's hackles up, but this does. So, he decides within ten seconds and then dozes off until it's his turn to take the watch over from Tango. He's pretty much forgotten what it's like not to be sore somewhere on his body, but that's nothing at all new to him, nor is sleeping in adverse conditions, so he knocks out pretty fast and easy.

When he wakes up for his turn to the vibration of his gauntlet pressed under his chin, everything's quiet. The lights are turned off, except for one in each tent, and he can hear the sounds of his brothers breathing in the comparative darkness. He knows that pattern now, learned it quick, so he knows that even after two hours, he's not the only one awake.

Even so, he's quiet as he pulls his armor on and heats his canteen, throwing in a packet of instant tea just to have a break from the cider. He switches his radio over to one-on-one with Tango, and slips out with his bucket on, moving from the warmth of the inner part of the tent to the partitioned section of the entrance, closing the flap behind him and opening the one to the outside.

There's a hint of dawn on the horizon.

"'Nother day," Tango says, and when Castle finds him, the pilot is leaning against a boulder looking towards the base.

"Yeah," he just says, leaning beside Tango and trying to shake off his sleepiness. "Figure out which way you're gonna vote?"

Tango scoffs, a more cynical sound than Castle's used to hearing from him. "I want to go down there and kick the hell out of them. I don't know how many of the others do, though." His voice goes a little softer. "Or-- or if it's a good idea. Shiv was shaking so hard and Maul--"

Tango cuts himself off, but Castle kind of guesses at what he's thinking and feeling. Tango's invested a hell of a lot of his heart in their CO -- more than Castle thinks wise, but even he knows that hearts don't listen to reason or wisdom -- and a hell of a lot of his self-esteem into the squad as a whole, and this has been more of a roller-coaster for him than most of them. "They'll vote for themselves, brother," he says, leaning over against Tango's shoulder some; even with armor between them, even unable to really feel it except as pressure, there's comfort to be found there in the gesture. "I'm with you. I plan on voting to go and shove their faces in this."

"I don't know how they could justify this," Tango says, after a long period where they just rest there together. "I can't-- fathom how our brothers down there can think this is fair. Or how General Skywalker can think it is."

Castle has no easy answer for this. He's a combat engineer; give him a bridge to build, a structure to mentally pick apart, and he's at home. Give him questions about the psychology and motivations of people he doesn't live with every day, and he's lost as can be. "I dunno, Tango. Maybe they don't think it's fair, but what can they do? And I never really know what the Jedi are thinking."

There's another moment of silence, then a slow breath out that's loud enough to carry over the radio and Tango stands. "I better get what sleep I can."

Castle would nod, but cold assault armor's not exactly that friendly to the gesture. But before Tango's out of reach, he catches the pilot's arm. "Hey, before you go... why did Adao go back?"

"Trying to jump ahead of the others?" Tango asks, but his voice has gone warm. He pauses and then he says, "He went back because he thought-- he thought it likely that Etah wasn't going to be able to survive. Etah was all alone; he didn't have anyone left at all who cared about him, or didn't wish harm on him. And even though Adao had succeeded in taking control of his kingdom, ruling was a lonely business too. No one looked at him as an equal; only as someone to fear or someone to grovel before. He was still angry, he had good reason to be, but the part of him that knew that kind of loneliness drove him to go and follow the trail of fallen feathers and find Etah again." Tango's smile is in his tone. "Basically, he lied to himself a lot because he didn't want to care and ended up caring anyway."

Castle could probably listen to this story all day (again); he doesn't catch some of the nuances that their other brothers do, but he definitely wants to know what happens next.

But it wouldn't be fair to jump too far ahead, so he says, "Thanks. Gives me something to think about while I'm out here."

It sends Tango to bed happy, which is another bonus, and Castle settles in for watch thinking about how the story will play out from there, running scenarios for it in his head and content enough with his choices.

 

 

 

Misty mostly sleeps, but it's uneasy enough that he wakes up whenever Brody shifts next to him, and he wakes up when Castle slips out, and during those times he wakes up, he thinks about the whole frippin' mess and about which way to vote.

His mind keeps going back to it's a training mission, an incredulous loop of anger and disbelief. We're not supposed to almost die on training missions, when we're facing dying every damned day out there on real ones. He does know that it happens, he's not naive; Husker's an example himself, embodied in flesh, of someone who almost died on a training mission and bears the marks of it.

It's that this isn't an accident. It's that this mission was designed to break them. That if there wasn't so much animosity between their CO and Skywalker, they would have gotten a fair scenario. And Misty's complicit in it, because he went right along with the rest of them about taking it on anyway, but now-- he thinks they should have just balked and not gone. Have someone else set up their training run, someone who doesn't have a grudge to play out regardless of who gets hurt.

He wants to get angry with Maul for not digging in against it; that's what a CO is supposed to do, they're supposed to make the calls on these things. But it's hard to get angry, because Misty likes being given a say. He likes being able to vote, he likes that his voice and experience matters, he likes knowing that his vote will weigh no less than Shiv's or Maul's, when it's given. It's wouldn't be fair to accept a stake in the responsibility and then turn around and get pissed off at his lieutenant for not ignoring that he did. He could maybe argue that no good officer should be offering a stake and therefore such responsibility to the grunts anyway, but--

But.

Misty's heard about companies like that. Where the clones aren't even allowed to use their names, let alone have a say. Where they die and die, and the person leading them just walks away with a list of numbers to be marked off and no hesitation. Where a general or a commander thinks so little of them that the unilateral orders given means piles of bodies with faces like his own. Maul could probably do better at balancing when to give them a say and when not to, but even as Misty's trying to find a target for his ire, he knows that their lieutenant is doing the best he can.

And anyway, this is supposed to be a kriffing training mission; he shouldn't have to be making life-or-death decisions here. None of them should be. There're gonna be plenty of those coming, they shouldn't be needing them here.

Ultimately, it's General Skywalker he's most angry at, for letting whatever personal feelings there are get in the way of the actual good of the troops. Misty can't figure out what this is supposed to teach them, except that they can't trust one of the most admired generals in the Grand Army. If he's desperate enough, he can think that it's supposed to teach them how to lose gracefully, but--

But he knows better.

Misty doesn't sleep well, but he does think about the vote; even as he decides which way to go, the whole thing leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.

(The only thing they're learning is distrust and persecution, on top of what they already live with every damned day.)

 

 

 

On the other side of Brody, Smarty's of a mind with Misty, but he doesn't know that yet.

What he does know is that they should evac, go back to the Negotiator and build a case against General Skywalker. Because he knows exactly which rules and regs it can be argued that Skywalker is breaking. There should already be regs that make this kind of training mission impossible, but even with what there is, Smarty thinks he could make a case and heck, maybe save some other squad trouble down the line.

The Grand Army is, to put not too fine a point on it, slapdash. The clones were raised for a war that might never have broken out, only to be given to peacekeepers acting as commanding officers, some of them having not even reached the Age of Responsibility, to face off against droids, none of whom bleed. Smarty's loyal, but he's not blind; a lot of their brothers take pride in their skills -- and why shouldn't they? -- but the whole war effort stinks of having been thrown together in completely haphazard ways. That'll change over time, it kind of has to, but for now everyone's trying to figure out where they fit and how. And a lot of people die because they don't know already.

Even though the Kaminoans have their flaws, they had limits set on training scenarios. A minimum number of days, for example. Giving ten days for them to get to this base against these odds is asking them to have wings to fly. They've done well, Smarty thinks they probably could get to the base before they time out, but only because they went off course and under a mountain. There are regs about gross negligence, if nothing else.

He wants to believe General Kenobi will stand up for them. He worries because he isn't sure General Kenobi would, since it would mean standing against his former apprentice.

Smarty chews up real estate in his mind. He thinks he's gonna hug Commander Half-Pint when he sees her again, for giving them the narrow chance they even have (he already knows she's the one who tipped Maul off about the files and where to find them), but he's going to vote that they abort and get out of here. Go back. Find a way to make Skywalker accountable for this, instead of give him the dignity of considering his scenario worth completion.

He knows this won't be popular, but he has a vote, so that's his.

 

 

 

Brody, between them, sleeps like the dead, having known instantly which way he's planning on voting. He also knows that when he gets back, he's going to subscribe General Skywalker's accounts to every single human-male-enhancement-product advertisement list in the known galaxy. He might even do a holo-manip of an ad and release it, of the good general talking about how Viable helped him straighten his lightsaber for only ninety-nine point nine credits per month, in the hopes that it goes wildly viral.

A membership to the Church of the Sacred Sarlacc probably wouldn't go amiss, either. Especially given how aggressively they fund-raise.

 

 

 

Further back, though, tucked into the corner of that tent, oblivious to pirate-like plans of chaos or the idea of rules and regs, Six lies wide awake and thinks about something more terrifying than voting, something more terrifying than dying: He thinks about what would happen if he loses his twin.

He knows that they've had a pretty charmed life for unspecialized shinies; instead of being thrown into the war effort, into a company with staggering losses, they ended up pulled into a black ops squad in training and they haven't seen a real battlefield once yet. He feels insecure sometimes about it, because everyone else on the squad has seen action, but no one ever gives them any flack over it and so he doesn't think about it too often, and instead he just learns what he's supposed to be learning and waits for when the stakes become real.

Except, they're real now. They're real now, and he's terrified.

I'm a coward, he thinks, his chin on top of his twin's head, anxious and unable to sleep.

He can think of few worse labels to give himself. Few more shameful. He feels like he's letting everyone down just by thinking about it at all, but he can't seem to help it. He wants to run and he feels the bite of shame at that, too. He doesn't really have more nuanced thoughts about the ethics of it, or whether General Skywalker is doing wrong by them, or whether their lieutenant is capable of leading them; he just thinks about what would happen if he loses his batchmate and it freezes his spine in his back, leaves behind nothing but a static-filled howl of fear and desperation to spiral around his mind.

Of the two of them, he's always been the more eager and outgoing one. He's always been the one jumping ahead into things, and his brother has always followed him.

The half-hysterical thought crosses his mind that he hopes he dies first, because then he won't have to live through losing his brother, and he hates himself right after having it because he doesn't want his brother to follow him there, too.

He doesn't think about voting, he doesn't sleep. He just holds on for dear life.

 

 

 

(Eight doesn't sleep, either, but not for the same reasons: He doesn't sleep because he can feel the terror in the tightness of his brother's arms and the tremble in the jaw against the top of his head, and it hurts his chest that he can't fix that. All he can do is hold on and feel angry -- deeply, hotly angry -- at the architect of this mess of a training mission, and even though he won't know it for a few more hours, for the very first time in his life, he steps ahead of his brother in making a choice about which way he's going to go.)

 

 

 

The first time someone who wasn't a brother treated him like a person, it was General Anakin Skywalker, of the 501st.

By then, Husker had been living and training for a veritable eternity, then bouncing around different units as the GAR was being built up; his assignment to the 501st came halfway between Geonosis and Christophsis, and Skywalker had greeted him personally, asking his name, asking specific questions about his training and history, the likes of which he wouldn't have known to ask unless he had bothered to read the file sent to him. And then, when that first meeting ended, Skywalker had grabbed him by his shoulders and beamed an infectious, roguish grin and said, "I'm glad I've got your experience behind me, Husker. We need every advantage we can get, and you're definitely one of them."

Husker, by then, was used to being viewed as damaged goods. Older than most -- his designation was double-digits until they reformatted it -- scarred up, his only claim to anything was his ability to navigate just about any kind of terrain, his marksmanship and his ability to pick at a guitar, which he had gotten because one of their instructors had thrown it away with a broken neck, and he'd repaired it and kept it.

He wasn't a shiny, so he didn't buy the general's words, not until Skywalker started asking him specifically for help when his specialization came up. Not until Skywalker sat in a circle with him and a bunch of the others and watched him play guitar; his face had seemed so young by the firelight, expression open, and at the end he smiled sadly and said, "It's been a long time since I've heard anyone play."

Husker played for him anytime that chance came up. And he bonded with the other men of the 501st; bonded with his squad, bonded with others, bonded with his general. It didn't seem like mere months; it seemed like a lot longer. Like he could leave behind a history where he'd overheard the long-necks discussing, blandly, whether to treat him or decommission him when that shrapnel tore a hole in his neck, and live in a present where someone thought he was worth listening to and caring for, brothers he could laugh with, a general who inspired them all.

Husk knows that the rest of the Blackbirds are getting steadily, swiftly more sour towards General Skywalker. They never served directly with him, so they don't know him like this. No, he doesn't ask for a vote or anything, but he does care; he comes up with brilliant, off-the-cuff strategies and plays them out and relies on his men because he trusts them.

What Husker can't reconcile is how that good man, the one who remembers their names and knows their lives, could have ever been party to this training mission.

It's easy for him to think that it's meant to be hard for their own good; the work they're intended to do will often be long odds and slim openings. Setting up a hard scenario is perfectly in line with that, and besides, they're soldiers. They follow their orders even when those orders are impossible.

But the reality of it -- the sheer hopelessness of it -- came rushing up at the same time Shiv almost fell away.

They hadn't taken any of the intended routes. Husker could pretend that if they had, things wouldn't have been as bad as they looked, they could have gotten through, there would be some kind of an out or opportunity. He's been in agreement on bypassing those routes, just as a matter of tactics, but when he realizes that this has just become a game of life-or-death, regardless of intentions, the unease he felt before is inescapable.

Why would you set us up to lose? he asks in his mind, trying to fathom what his former general could be thinking.

It can't just be malice. General Skywalker might hate their L-T, but he doesn't hate them; he's always cared about the clones, his or others. It can't just be hatred, because if it is, that means they're just collateral damage and that doesn't fit with everything Husker knows.

He lays there thinking, as the hours tick by. He comes no closer to any answers. He only feels-- soul-sick, and under siege.

When his gauntlet tells him it's coming up time for Tally's watch, he sits up and quietly dons his armor, pulling his bucket on and switching to one-to-one with the medic, speaking quietly since he's pretty sure Tally's not wearing his yet. "Tally. Copy?"

There's a delay on the reply -- the curtain between the tents is sealed so that it's easier for the heat to stay contained, and it does a pretty good job containing sound too -- and then Tally answers, "Husk? What's up?"

How Husker feels about the medic is just as damned messy and complicated as everything else about this kriffing disaster of a mission. He's known from the get-go that Tally's barely a step up from deserter; that Tally is sharp and opinionated and probably bucks authority. That he looks at Kamino and sees a war crime and not a homeworld. That if he didn't have something to stay for, he'd break his oath and disappear.

But on the other hand, he's a damned talented, skilled medic. Under his sharp edges, there's a depth and a kindness. It's hard to hate him; hard, even, to dislike him, even when Husker wants to. And Tally is loyal to those who earn it.

Is that better? Is that better? Is it worse?

"Husk? You okay?" he asks again, concern creeping into his voice.

"Yeah." Husker knots his jaw for a moment, then says, "Figured I'd take your watch, since you're busy and since mine's right after."

There's another long pause, this time on the other end, then Tally says, "Thank you."

"No problem." It's not a problem, either. Not this. This is easy; cover for a brother. Tally's got at least one person to look after and maybe two, depending on how Shiv's doing.

He switches over to one-to-one with Castle, slips outside. The searing light of day makes him grateful for his visor; the sunlight beating down on the snow. They trade off the watch.

Husk keeps thinking. And thinking.

And thinking.

 

 

 

Going under was swift, but coming back up is a slow process.

It's considerably less disorienting than Maul expects it to be; he's used to not knowing where he'll wake up after any given period of unconsciousness. In the early days at the Temple, his life was a series of jumpcuts; even as recently as Alderaan, he would black out in one place and wake up in some other place, though the fact that he knew it was Obi-Wan hauling him around takes the edges of anxiety off of it.

There's no eddied presence here, but he knows where he is and with whom; his mind is surprisingly clear, though also-- tired. A sense of exhaustion, not physical, even if he also feels very heavy in body.

It's not unpleasant. This actually surprises him. He feels, simultaneously, like he's been asleep a long time and not more than a minute, a dichotomy he doesn't have it in him to reconcile; when he furrows his brow as a precursor to fighting off the heaviness enough to open his eyes, slightly cool fingertips trace the top edge of his mask, invoking memory, soothing.

"You've got another hour, Lieu. Sleep a bit more," Tally says, voice pitched soft.

His mind drifts to Obi-Wan, who seems drawn to that same spot as a place to touch, but at the very edge of sleep, another (older) impression comes: Of white, of confused, hopeless, desperate, soul-deep love; of pale chameleon eyes that seemingly shift between green and blue and gold and gray.

One day, he'll see those eyes again in another face, but for now, the impression slips gently away, like mist, like a ghost.

 

 

 

Husker watches the sun cross the sky.

Sometimes he gets so sick of thinking that he kicks up a flurry of snow in frustration, watching it become a cloud before settling again, sparkling under the punishing light. Sometimes he just wants to shut down and not do it anymore; to hell with everyone, they can vote, he'll just follow his kriffing orders. If he can find someone to give them, anyway.

The base that's only a few days away steals into his thoughts often. Those are his brothers down there. Do they know? Would they care if they found out Shiv had nearly turned into a broken meatbag at the bottom of a long drop?

'Course they would, he thinks, scoffing.

It's General Skywalker that Husker's less sure about. And he hates that. He keeps circling back to wondering why his former CO and his current one hate each other. To listen to the scuttlebutt from the 501st, Maul's some kind of monster who probably roasts babies over a fire while cackling. And those men couldn't have gotten that impression from interacting with Maul, because that's definitely not what Husker sees. Monsters don't look like you gutted 'em when they find out what happens when you're defective.

Maybe it's 'cause he's an ex-Sith. Of all of Husker's thoughts, that's the only one that makes any sense. The only reason he can see why General Skywalker would hate their lieutenant. Maul's a prisoner and an ex-Sith and had a part in the genesis of the conflict they're seeing play out now, and looking at it from that angle, Husker can almost grasp it.

He slows his breathing, unconsciously falling into the pattern that Tally had taught Tango, pacing the well-trampled ground.

But why this?

General Skywalker had to know that throwing this kind of mission at them wouldn't just disgrace their lieutenant. That it would also disgrace them. That unless someone actually bothers to look at how incredibly stacked against them the scenario was, they'll really only see a failure for the squad and that's after a longer period of training than most of the GAR gets once they're off Kamino. The only thing that could come of it--

Husker stops, staring in the direction of the base, heart squeezing painfully in his chest.

No, he thinks, shaking his head as hard as he can, in his bucket. No.

The thought refuses to leave him, though. And he's being a coward by ignoring it.

The only thing that could come of it would be the squad being disbanded. Not right away, maybe. But the mark would follow them; they could maybe try to fight it based on how stacked it is against them, but--

But who's going to listen to clones and a prisoner over a general? Especially one like Skywalker?

Husker remembers the general offering to get him back. Right now, that feels considerably less-- casual, than it had at the time. Less like an expression of commiseration. Could he have been hoping Husk would take him up on it before this mission went down?

The thought of that makes his gut churn, and it's then that Husker knows which way he's going to vote.

 

 

 

"Full disclosure: If we do vote to keep going, then we're going to be down two backs to carry the weight for awhile, so we're going to have to get brutal on shedding gear and it's going to be slow going at first."

The entirety of the squad is pretty much packed into one of the tents; there's just enough room if they're sitting to fit into one, though Raze and Brody are both laying on their bellies side by side in the tunnel bridging the two, chins resting on their hands, to make it a tiny bit less packed. They remind Tally of boys, posed like that, enough that it makes him smile even under such a weighty atmosphere.

Maul wasn't thrilled about being told he wasn't going to be able to carry anything; he had been their main pack-mule thus far. Tally left the ball in his court; Maul could either listen and take it easy on his shoulder for a couple to three days, or he could try to use it now and undo all the work Tally put into fixing it. Tally wasn't going to force the issue, but he also didn't pull any punches, and even though Maul wasn't happy about it, he caved to the requisite, no doubt helped along by having half the squad adding some affectionate peer pressure.

Shiv kicked less; he managed to carefully negotiate himself into carrying some of the mountaineering gear on his un-strained side, and he didn't need a sling, so it was easier to talk him into it. Plus, Tally was rather unashamed of making use of Shiv's willingness to listen to his judgment to set an example for their lieutenant.

The decision to sit together, even in very cramped conditions, is easy. They need to be able to look one another in the eyes to do this.

It's Raze who speaks first, after a murmur of acknowledgment over the conditions, "I'm with whatever we decide. I mean, I'm behind everyone no matter what? But for me, I think we need to keep going. We're pretty close and we've been through so much to get this far, I want to see this through."

"Same," Brody says, casual. "I'll carry a damned bantha down the mountain if that's what it takes. The only difference between yesterday and today is that we thought this was a training mission yesterday. Now, we know better."

Castle holds a hand up. "Third vote for going. Kriff this."

Smarty doesn't look surprised; his mouth goes into a rueful line, but then he shakes his head. "I vote we bow out, then go back to the Negotiator and see if we can't get at least an investigation into General Skywalker's planning and intentions."

Tally watches Husker flinch, just barely, but the older clone doesn't say anything about it. Beside Smarty, Misty nods. "I hadn't thought about calling for an investigation, but I do think we should quit now. This is a training mission -- or, it was supposed to be. I mean, we can't claim we came into it with good faith, given Commander Half-Pint and our own espionage, but there has to be a point where we decide that enough's enough."

"I think we should keep going." Eight's voice is quiet, and the wide-eyed look of shock and anxiety that Six gives him makes him wince, but he doesn't take it back. "Enough is enough. I know-- I know I'm just a shiny and I've never been under real fire before, but I'm gonna be soon enough and I'd rather go down there and fight alongside all of you and earn my scratches here than go back to the ship feeling defeated."

When they all look to Six, he just shakes his head, and the sight of the tears that have welled up yanks on Tally's heart. Before they leave, he's gonna have to take Six aside and see if there's any way to help, because Tally can't think of many things more awful than taking a terrified kid into a fight he doesn't want.

His heart tugs even further, both aching and warm, when Husker reaches over and pets the back of Six's head.

"I'm gonna go up top," Husker says, still soothing the little brother at his side, "and sharpshoot our rope off that summit so we've got it if we need it. Then, I think we need to go down there and show 'em why we're all together."

Completely outwith the seriousness of this discussion, Tally finds himself grinning. Both for that vote, and for the fact that Husker's declaring what he's going to do without waiting for orders.

He's not the only one smiling, either; Tango is, too, looking at the older clone with a soft sort of admiration. "Count me in with that, too. I mean, I hear what you three are saying," he says, nodding to Misty, Smarty and Six. "But I didn't crawl under a frippin' mountain just to go home now."

There's really only one more vote needed before the majority is reached. And the three top dogs left to vote. Tally can see the math hit Maul because he can see the way his eyes go a little wider in what's pretty clearly anxiety over the idea he might be the tie-breaker, and so Tally takes a breath and scrubs over his face before doing it himself: "Medically speaking, we should abort. We've got two injured and a long way down to the base. Personally speaking?" A beat. "I say we go. We can still forfeit if we absolutely have to, but I think we're on the back side of this now and that if we're smart and keep it together, we can take this. And that doesn't take away the possibility of an investigation later on, anyway."

"If they investigate Skywalker, then they will inevitably start investigating us," Maul says, after a moment, looking subtly relieved that it wasn't on him to have to cast the pivotal vote. "It's a good idea, but if they do that, then--"

"--then they'll probably find out how we got word ahead of the mission and knew to go so far off course," Smarty says, shoulders slumping a little. "Which puts us, and Commander Half-Pint, in the crosshairs."

Maul just nods, then adds, "I would go alone, if the option were available--"

"--but it's not, because you have us," Shiv interrupts, a smile making an appearance on his face for the first time since his fall.

Maul rolls his eyes, huffing at being cut off a second time, though he's obviously not genuinely annoyed. "--but since the option's clearly not available, I do think we should continue."

"So do I," Shiv adds, more quietly. "The only way we're gonna be able to rend this right is if we do it for ourselves."

Smarty and Misty both nod; they don't seem to be disappointed that they were in the minority, or bitter because of it, and Tally's honestly not too surprised by the rush of affection he feels for all of them.  Six still looks scared and upset, but they have some time before they break camp that Tally can talk with him and hopefully help.

There's a long beat of silence, then Maul nods. "All right. Let's work out what we can safely abandon and rearrange what we can't, and then we'll figure it out from there."

There's a smattering of yessirs and a bunch of uncomfortable shuffling as they disperse, too many knees and elbows in a confined space, but there's also a hum of determination in the air.

Later, after Husk comes back with their rigging that had been abandoned when Shiv fell, Tally catches him just as he's pulling his bucket off and rests their heads together; after a long moment, Husk reaches up and holds on back, and for a moment they stand there, just being brothers.

Chapter Text

He was back on Kamino.

The white and gray should have felt familiar, maybe even soothing, but it didn't. Instead, it felt cold, sterile. Oppressive. He was somewhere he had never been before, a long room filled with beds on each side of the lit center. In each bed was a brother, still and seemingly peaceful. Down at the other end were two Kaminoans, speaking in their soft way.

He made his way over to one of the beds, and then recoiled, backing up, his heart suddenly hammering in his chest and all of his limps jerking once as the adrenaline hit his brain like a runaway skytrain.

It was Husker. Except, he wasn't peaceful. He was awake, and his whole body was stuck to the bed like it was molded into it, and his eyes were pleading and when he opened his mouth to speak, nothing came out and where his throat was supposed to be, an empty hole gaped open between bloodless, clean, surgical edges.

He turned, he looked; the others were all there, too, and all of them were missing pieces of themselves, like they were machines that had been taken apart. But all of them were awake. All of them were terrified.

All of them looked at him.

His brother was at the end. His middle was gaping open, empty, just the same.

The first Kaminoan said, "These parts are still useful. We'll simply arrange them into a better unit."

The second one said, "Yes. They are designed to be interchangable."

They didn't seem to see him, they just moved over and he tried to go and claw his brother free from their grasp, but he suddenly couldn't move and even while he stood there with his brain screaming coward coward coward at him like a klaxon, they reached in and they took out his brother's heart

 

 

 

and Six woke up with a strangled scream.

"Whoa, brother, easy," his twin was telling him, wide-eyed and worried, and for a moment Six was in two places at once; that awful place on Kamino, and here, on Bravo-984. He scrambled upright, gasping for air, and slowly the nightmare dissolved away into the present.

"Just a bad dream," he said, shaking hard and drawing his knees up, curling up into a ball and trying to kick away the terrible images that his mind had produced. He could feel the film of sweat on his face and his neck, and he couldn't make himself look at the guys in the tent who he'd just probably violently dragged back to awareness.

They hadn't gotten very far the day before; after they had jettisoned every bit of gear they could afford to and broke camp, it was already edging towards evening. Everything took longer, both for the way the weight of the remaining gear had to be distributed without Maul and Shiv being able to carry their usual loads, and for the way that injury made everything more precarious. In the end, they only made four hours and not all that much distance downwards before they had to set their next camp.

Six hadn't known if he would ever be ready. Even with such a short day, he could feel them drawing closer to the inner perimeter; they had come by such a brutal, punishing route that they had avoided crossing any of the countermeasures yet, but that wouldn't be the case soon. Soon it would be scanning stun grenade launchers and heat sensors and motion sensors and audio sensors, and even if they had bypassed the outer perimeter by going under one mountain and over another, there was plenty left for them to trip across.

He had no idea how they were going to get through. He had no idea how he would be any use to them, since he couldn't control the terror that had lodged itself in his spine since Shiv had taken his fall.

Sometimes he wasn't sure what shocked him more; that it turned out he was so shaky, or that his twin had wanted to go when he hadn't. It wasn't like they didn't disagree on things, but on the big ones, they'd always been in accord and now-- they weren't.

He had made himself move, helped where he was supposed to, listened to Tally trying to reassure him and talk him down.

But today, he felt no better.

 

 

 

"It's unlikely that they changed much between when we got our intel and when we were deployed," Smarty was saying, as they spiraled their way slowly down from the peak, working their way around obstacles just as painstakingly as the day before. "Which means we'll have to cross the first launchers before nightfall."

Taken individually, the countermeasures were all easily defeated. Taken together, though, and they became a nearly impossible task; a single mistake in slipping past them would launch the stun grenades, and it that wasn't enough, then the detachment at the base would also be alerted to come and take care of them that way. They had two of their three datapads -- one was left behind with the flagged gear on the mountain for later retrieval -- and Six could barely look over the map without getting queasy.

They're just stun grenades, he kept telling himself. No big deal.

He wished he could believe it.

"I think I've got a plan," Brody said, thoughtfully. "I mean, since we're gonna be sneaking by in daylight."

"What's that?" Maul asked; Six had overheard him this morning knocking heads a little bit with Tally, and he sounded kind of disgruntled even now, but he apparently lost that fight because he was still in that sling and relying on Misty or Smarty to help him navigate the terrain since he was down an arm.

"Well, those outer perimeter scanning towers are contained; made to just drop off fast and pick up fast. All those sensors are in one tower. I think if I can get close enough without it seeing me, I can probably slice into it and loop back say-- ten minutes of its log, have it overwrite the present, then go back to regular scanning."

"So, we sneak past one, then you go ahead and do the same with the next?" Misty asked.

"That's a little harder; their scanning range overlaps just enough that there's no blind spot for the squad to hide in. And I don't think it's smart to try to loop more than ten minutes, because the longer you do, the more likely someone is to notice it, especially getting closer to sundown."

"If the scanning range overlaps, then our datapads should be able to network," Shiv broke in; he had been quiet the past day, but he sounded together again, and that was a small comfort that Six held onto with both hands. "Send someone else to the second tower in the line, then we leapfrog until we reach the hole where we were going to come out of the mountain; we can hide in that for the night."

"If it's open." That was Castle.

"Whoever it is would have to be fast," Brody said, bypassing Castle's caveat. "Who's the fastest here? I mean-- the fastest person with all limbs working and capable of running in this armor?"

Maul's little grumble was cut off by Raze: "I'm pretty quick."

"I'm no slack myself," Tango added.

Six swallowed; he could feel his brother's gaze between his shoulders, and no amount of armor or bucket could take away the way it was searing into him. He gave a little shudder, as he listened as the others started comparing their times from back during their training.

He was faster than all of them. He had been the fastest guy in their platoon, on Kamino; even carrying weight, even across the simulated rough terrain, he was always the first one across the line and--

"I am," he whispered, feeling the clawing anxiety jump back up from where it had been balled up, laying in wait, under his breastbone. Then, realizing that they didn't hear him, he said it again louder, even though he couldn't keep the tight note out of his voice. "I am. I'm-- I was--"

"He's one of the top-rated runners in the GAR," his brother said, from behind him, tone a mix between worry and pride. "Number twenty-two, in the entire army."

Everyone fell quiet for a long moment, apparently just to absorb that. Six started breathing the way Tally had taught Tango; everyone had been really nice to him about this, nicer than he deserved, but he was still waiting for someone to laugh and ask if the shaky little shiny would be able to pull it off.

"Perfect," was what Brody said, a note of wicked glee in his voice. "Up to playing some high tech leapfrog, kiddo?"

No, Six thought, eyes stinging. No, I'm not, I'll never be ready, pick someone with a spine--

"Yeah," was what he said anyway.

No one commented on how quivery that one word came out.

 

 

 

Lunch, or what passed for it, was spent huddled in a chute. They were getting close enough to the base now that while they weren't in range of any patrol, caution was still the watchword of the day. It was there that Shiv finally managed to talk Tally into letting him carry more weight; he'd been wearing bacta patches on his strained and pulled shoulder since he'd fallen, and Tally grudgingly agreed. Maul tried the same, and was again overrode; he looked no happier about it, face set in lines of frustration, but he didn't grumble any further than he already had.

Packs were redistributed yet again, to free both Brody and Six, and Six cringed behind his bucket for every quiet groan he heard as the rest of the squad tested the weight. Tally handed out painkillers and advice, looking worried, but he didn't veto anything and was carrying just as much as everyone else who could. Castle and Husker were both well-build across their shoulders, both of 'em went beyond their usual exercises on weight lifting, so they took the heaviest loads for themselves.

The only thing left out was the fabric that made up the bridge between their white-out tents.

"So, the plan is that I wrap myself up in this in order to protect me from any possible heat leakage points from the heat sensors on the scanning tower," Brody had said, throwing the thing around himself like a cloak, "and creep in close to it, while our Lieutenant makes us enough of a snow storm to hopefully confuse the motion and audio sensors, just in case I ain't as light on my feet as I should be. Then, as soon as I manage to get into position, I'll start the loop there; Six grabs the cloth from me, runs ahead with his datapad, creeps in close to the second tower so I can get a network connection and loop it. Meanwhile, the rest of you follow slow enough that he and I can play leapfrog until we get to our next set camp."

"I'll take lead of the rest of the squad," Maul broke in, nodding his head towards Six. "I can hopefully manage to keep up the snow blind ahead of him, even at a little distance."

Six had wondered a little how Maul was going to actually make a snow storm happen, but he had made an ice wall once already, so it didn't seem too far fetched. He also didn't know how he felt about possibly having his CO witness it in case he blundered and failed, though he couldn't exactly just come out and say that.

He had nodded his agreement, but he didn't say anything; beside him, his twin sat close, a silent pillar of support. He had been fast, but what if the cold assault armor proved to be too heavy for him to manage? And what if he tripped? What if he fell?

"You've got this," his twin had said, quietly. "We've got this."

Now, as the day wore on and they were getting closer, all chatter had fallen quiet. Even if they weren't in the range of regular patrols, their purloined intel was just old enough that things could have been changed in the interim and so all eyes were open.

It seemed, though, that this time luck -- or mercy -- was on their side.

Six laid next to Brody on the ridge; the sky was cloudless, but the light was lowering as they got closer to nightfall, and according to projections, they would hopefully reach the cave mouth within the next hour and a half. Over two hundred meters ahead, glinting in the thin light, the scanning tower was elevated on its weighted, temporary base; to their right was a passage that would have funneled them to it, had they taken a more conventional route than they did.

Somehow, the realization that they had bypassed several more countermeasures made him feel a bit better, even if it had been almost deadly to do so. There was a strange comfort in seeing that scanning tower, even if right now it looked like a failure in the making; if it was there, then they were close enough to the base for rescue if something did go catastrophically wrong, and if it was there, then even if they did get hit, no one was going to fall off a cliff. Six didn't like General Skywalker's weighted scenario himself, but he did appreciate that the general had at least taken their safety into account.

"So," Brody whispered, even though their radios were shielded, sounding kind of excited, "who wants to see me go down there and do my magic?"

Tally snorted, just as quietly. "Oh, great wizard slicer, get thy ass down there and get us moving, because my back hurts and Raze promised to rub it for me when we make camp."

"How come you get a back rub and the rest of us don't?" Misty griped, without any heat.

"I had the foresight to ask."

"If you're done negotiating, gentlemen, can we get this little magic show on the road?" Shiv asked, though there was a note of good humor in his voice that made Six's heart feel a little lighter even yet.

"Yep." Brody made to creep over the ridge. "C'mon, Six, I'll tell you when to stop and go."

Six swallowed again, clinging to the bantering and the minor boost to whatever he had that passed for courage, and then gave a nod and an, "Okay," before following Brody down.

 

 

 

All thoughts of slicing General Skywalker's accounts aside, Brody was glad that he had some kind of serious use on this mission.

He was well aware that he was more of a thinky kind of soldier than a gung-ho kind; not that it bothered Brody, really, but when it came to physical missions like this one, he usually resigned himself to the idea that he might not be able to contribute as much as some of his more athletic brothers. In fact, if he had his way, most of the time he'd be back playing support, slicing into whatever system was needed in order to keep things running as smoothly as possible.

Still, he had an objective to achieve and he was the best one to achieve it. He'd take what victories he could get.

Crawling towards the tower was painstaking. The snow was deep enough that moving was both louder than he liked and more laborious. He had the tent material wrapped around himself, but he did worry some about the idea that maybe the 501st detachment was going to come out this far and see their tracks. Especially since they were drawing close to their time limit. Those guys down there had to be feeling the anticipation winding up, just like the Blackbirds did.

He took a breath and kept going; right behind him, Six and Maul were following his track. Further back, the rest of the Blackbirds were creeping along single-file.

"Two," he whispered down the radio, counting off the meters to the scanning perimeter.

Around him, the snow started swirling in what looked to be a wind--

--but the wind wasn't touching him.

Maul.

Brody crept forward a bit more, but he couldn't resist turning and looking back; behind Six, Maul had his eyes closed and his free hand raised, and even that far away, Brody could see the tension written on his face and in the way he was holding himself.

"One; you two wait there," he whispered, after turning back forward, using his body as a snow plow. "Going radio silent."

There was no acknowledgment. All around him, the white flakes increased, thickened, until it looked like a blizzard had come down on him. The sky was getting dark enough, with the peaks, that hopefully it would look like the wind had just kicked up. That happened often enough, apparently.

Brody crept past the line, aiming true in the Force-created white-out, waiting for the alarm and stun grenades with every breath and every step, even as careful as he was being. If he was going to pull off slicing through Six's datapad, then he had to get as close as he could to the tower, given the overlap. It wasn't ideal, and one single break in the network connection might see 'em sunk, but it was all they could really do and still make enough headway to get to their camp.

So far, so good. He had the datapad scanning the tower, and even as he was pushing through the snow, he kept an eye on the network signal. Just for the sake of making Maul's life easier, he also kept his profile as low as he could get it, which wasn't too hard given just how deep this snow was.

The utter silence of the radio was unnerving; even when they were walking before, he could usually hear any breath loud enough to be picked up by the mic, and the Blackbirds were a talky squad anyway. He knew the likelihood of the scanner picking up radio chatter was slim -- unless they used their speakers, anyway -- but they were taking no chances and so Brody felt alone like he hadn't so far on this mission, even knowing they were behind him.

One thing at a kriffin' time, he thought, slowing his own breathing down. Just one.

As he got closer, he slowed his steps even further, all but inching; without the momentum, the effort to push through was even worse.

Almost.  The network signal was pegged to its highest. Almost, Brody thought.

He almost ran into the base, and pulled up as it dissolved out of the whiteout in front of him. Gritting his teeth from the tension, he hunkered down there and immediately got to work, interfacing the datapad with his heads up and working as fast as his thickly gloved fingers would allow.

 

 

 

It was the slowest race that Six had ever run.

He couldn't see more than a meter or two, but he knew they were all behind him; even as quiet as everything was, he could feel the tension like a wire running through the entire squad, pulling tighter with every moment of silence that passed.

He had no idea how Maul was creating the white-out; there was no actual wind, but the snow was moving regardless. And a lot of it, too; pulled from the high ground around them and from behind them, it was swirling like a blizzard, even though it wasn't. Whenever he could see, past the snow, the Lieu'd had his teeth bared and it looked like whatever he was doing, it was taking a lot out of him to do it.

Six had tried to shove down the guilt that threatened to choke him, either preempting failure or for what effort had already gone into this, and had faced back ahead. After days and days of carrying gear, the cold assault armor alone felt light; he knew it was going to work against him, but compared to trying this with a pack on, he had least stood a chance.

He had still ended up jumping half out of that armor when Brody's voice came over: "Got it; Six, go!"

He had dragged in a hard breath, but thankfully he hadn't hesitated; he'd plunged ahead desperately, following Brody's line and picking up speed, boots grabbing the snow and kicking up clods of it behind him as he dug in.

Now, he had the white-out fragment wrapped around him and was leaping and pushing, plowing, breaking new ground; his legs and lungs were burning for the effort, but he gripped that datapad desperately and tried to ignore the time countdown on the heads up between when Brody's tower went back online and the last second when his had to go offline.

C'mon, he thought, tears burning in his eyes, his own teeth now bared.

"Five," Brody's counted; he was following the datapad that Six had.

Six couldn't afford to slow down until the last second, when he would have to creep just across the line into the range of the next tower. Lucky for him, it was pretty hard to get caught at that distance; unlucky for him, this was only the first damned leg of this race.

"Four."

"Kriff, that's insane speed," Raze broke in, in apparent enthusiasm, startling Six all over again. "Run, Rabbit, run!"

Six didn't have a chance to wonder what the hell a rabbit was; a split second later, Shiv's voice was shushing Raze and then Brody said, "Three."

Two minutes left on the timer. The rest of the squad was somewhere between Brody's tower and his, and if he flubbed this, they would be pinned there between two active scanners and would have to make a stand when those went off.

"Two."

Six grit his teeth.

"One."

He pushed on, watching the timer desperately. Brody had built in enough time to give himself a chance to slice in, and that was something, but it was still cutting it close. The second Six hit the mark, he slowed down and ducked into the snow, pushing on and gasping as quietly as he could with the whiteout fabric wrapped around his head and shoulders. Brody wouldn't tell him when to stop; he'd just get into the datapad and do his slicing, and in the meantime, Six would keep blazing trail until it was time for him to start running again.

He was shaking like a leaf from adrenaline and exertion, waiting for the grenades, waiting for the failure--

"Done!" Brody called, voice pitched sharper in excitement.

"Double-time it, boys, there's no going back now!" Castle barked, but even his tone was one of triumph.

--I did it, Six barely took a second to think, before taking off again, no longer feeling his burning muscles.

"Good work, kiddo," he heard Husker say, and this time... this time, he even started to believe it.

 

 

 

Eight was almost at the back of the line, but his heart was with his twin.

Brody had plowed past them all, occasionally jostling them as he ran; Maul had fallen back and when Eight looked behind him, he got to see why: Their tracks were being obliterated by the flying snow. Then, Maul would push through them again to go to the front, though he never spoke a word while he did it, bouncing from one end to the other.

Eight's job in all of this was simple; keep moving at the speed set by their sergeant, even if he felt like an overburdened bantha and was waiting at any second to overbalance and go down under his too-heavy pack. But compared to what his brother was being asked to do, it seemed almost painfully easy to keep moving, especially given that the trail had been blazed for them already.

The timing of it couldn't be a beat off. They had to be ready to cross the tower ranges as they went down, before the one behind came back up again, and even stopping to take a breath was out of the question. Periodically, things went silent and tense again as they came up on the next one in the descending valley. Once, Misty slipped and had to be hauled back up by Castle and pushed ahead and steadied at the same time. Periodically, his twin and Brody switched places on who was doing the trailblazing.

It was in the space between two towers that their proposed camp was, just in range of one and not quite in range of another; that was, if the cave mouth was open. If it hadn't fallen in like the other side of it had.

If it wasn't there, then Eight knew they would be running until the first even barely tolerable space was available, and he didn't know if any of them had that in them.

"Last one," Brody managed to gasp out. "Hey, Rabbit, go see if that cave's open?"

His brother sounded just as beat and breathless, but he also sounded so much better than he had this morning, too. "Only if someone promises to tell me what the frip a rabbit is."

"Deal," was the immediate agreement.

Eight swallowed hard, shifting to the side a little to let Maul behind him, and kept going. Up ahead, when he picked his head up, he could see his brother scrambling and fighting his way uphill to disappear between two formations, and he dug deeper, redoubling his speed and panting through his nose while his armor compensated by pulling more oxygen from the air. It didn't take away the desperate need for it, but it helped a little bit.

One by one, they followed his twin's tracks; little by little -- slower now than before -- their tracks in the snow vanished behind them, filled in by the swirling snow.

He almost collapsed with relief when he heard his brother say,"Oh, thank everything. It's open."

The weak and breathless cheer from the squad sounded downright pitiful, but to Eight, it was the best sound he could have hoped to hear. He scrambled up after them, not letting himself get complacent just because relief was in sight; crossing out of the sight line of the scanners was a huge relief, but it wasn't until he was at the tunnel mouth that he let himself sag.

It wasn't a very big opening, and it was natural and not like the ones before, which had been carved out. Eight had to duck before getting inside, but before he did, he looked back to make sure their CO was coming up.

Maul was slower, and he was clearly struggling to make the grade, though he had his head down and was using his free hand to steady himself; Eight took a few quick breaths, went back and caught him under his good arm, then hauled him up and stood by while he finished making their tracks vanish behind them.

 

 

 

"So, what's a rabbit?" Six asked, after ten minutes where the entire squad just sat, finally sans packs, panting. Completely outwith his control, he'd started crying when he got his bucket off, but the tears didn't feel like terror, or weakness, just like-- like too much pressure had built up and needed released before he could get enough of his mind together to talk.

No one made mention of it, but his twin sat on one side and Husker sat on the other, and they all leaned together in a cluster.

"Prairie animal; some type of rabbit lives on most worlds with forests or grasslands, ranging in size between two meters tall and no bigger'n your palm," Smarty said, head leaned back against the rock in a manner that had to be uncomfortable. "Herbivores, almost exclusively."

Six felt his brow furrow. "--okay?"

"They're also really fast," Raze added, grinning; of all of them, he seemed the least exhausted, but even he was sitting still for the moment. "Cute, and fast."

"Oh, kriff. I don't wanna be something cute, even if I am fast," Six complained, but without any heat.

"'Cept, you are cute," Husker said, eyes closed, looking amused. "Rabbit."

"They're also really, really virile." Smarty went from smiling to grinning broadly, tongue-in-cheek.

"--okay, that part I like."

His twin snickered. "Guess that means you're Rabbit, now?"

Six tried it on in his mind; looked around at all of his brothers and his lieutenant, all of whom were watching him, just as warm and supportive as they had been since he had come aboard the Negotiator, only hours from Kamino. He thought about how the day had started, with tears and terror, and how it ended with tears and relief, and how he had managed to blaze the trails that kept them safe from detection, relying on the speed that apparently was going to give him a name, even if there was an element of cuteness to said name.

He took a breath, just a little shaky now. "Guess that means I am."

 

 

 

Later, just as Six was about to go crawl into the tent and hope that no nightmares followed him, the Lieu paused on his way to go stand watch -- finally having been let out of his sling, with instructions to only do gentle range-of-motion exercises -- and pulled a bag out of his parka's pocket, offering it over.

Six -- Rabbit -- took it, and found a very smashed cookie (or two or three) in the bag; when he looked up in question, he only got back a half-shrug and a warm look. "I hear that there's some manner of tradition involving baked goods and naming days," Maul said, the corner of his mouth going up.

Rabbit looked down at the cookies, crushed as they were, and swallowed down the lump in his throat made of too many things -- good things, heavy things -- before answering, "Thanks, sir."

Needless to say, he shared them with everyone before sleeping, even if that meant only sharing crumbs.

Chapter Text

"I don't know. I mean, we should have heard something by now."

"Well, they are supposed to be a black ops squad."

"Yeah, but a brand new one!"

Time was ticking down on this training mission. Ten days had been allotted, and frankly, they should have heard anything by now. Crest was getting more and more nervous as the clock kept running; on one part, he expected an attack at any moment, but on another--

He was worried that squad out there was in trouble. The scenario was pretty hardcore, not in terms of goal -- they'd been playing Capture the Flag since they were all barely out of nappies -- but in terms of obstacles. Crest had helped deploy all those countermeasures; either the Blackbirds were really just that good, or something bad had happened to them and their emergency beacons had failed them.

The idea that he might go out there and find eleven frozen, lifeless brothers-- and kriff, their CO was dangerous, everyone knew that. General Skywalker had been deathly serious about making sure the Blackbirds didn't come to any harm, and the implication was that the detachment might actually be protecting them from the zabrak leading them. Not that the general had outright said as much, but it wasn't hard to tell. And Husker was out there, too; he was one of their own, even if he had been transferred, but even if he wasn't, those were still Crest's brothers.

Taxi, despite playing devil's advocate, was clearly worried himself. Most of them were; the only one who wasn't was their resident ARC. They were supposed to have two, but one of 'em got pulled back last minute for another mission, only to be replaced with a shiny who spent more time admiring the Freeco bikes than patrolling. Not that Crest blamed him. Playing antagonists for friendly forces, sitting in the middle of jagged mountains, freezing their shebs off going outside wasn't anyone's idea of fun.

"They're probably fine," Taxi -- short for Taxidermy, not for the livery service -- said, shaking his head as he watched the monitors, though he still sounded kinda worried too. But aside the usual gusts of wind and blowing snow, and aside the occasional false positive thanks to those things, there was nothing out there.

"Maybe. But I think we should start widening our patrols." Crest chewed on his lip. "You know, just in case."

"The 1600 patrol can go out to the perimeter towers."

The slightly rougher voice of another brother broke in; their ARC was standing in the door, fully-armored but for his bucket; in fact, Crest hadn't seen him out of his armor yet, not even at breakfast. Crest didn't quite know what to make of the commando; he was standoffish and aloof and always seemed to hold himself apart, though he wasn't mean about it, exactly. Not friendly, but not nasty, either.

Mostly, he just seemed to be very focused. "All right," Crest agreed, breathing out a sigh of relief as he looked at the chronometer. "Same number?"

"Two men per patrol; one takes the north, one takes the south. The rest of us continue our usual rotations."

That felt a little better, anyway. Crest exchanged a glance with Taxi, then went to go gear up.

 

 

 

"I don't want the squad hurt," General Skywalker had said, grimly. "But they can't be allowed to succeed on this mission. The last thing the Republic needs right now is a former enemy with access to some of our most sensitive intelligence. It's only a matter of time before he turns on us."

General Skywalker was a decent general, given his age. Less apt to go all mystical on them, he tended to go on his gut instincts, and those seemed to be pretty damned good, considering. The ARC didn't really get along with Rex, didn't feel any great attachment to the other clones, but he was available to do the jobs that might've needed someone a little more elite, and he was willing to follow orders that might've seemed a little sketchy.

He didn't really require an explanation as to why Skywalker felt it so necessary for him to take this particular duty on, but Skywalker had provided it anyway.

"They're always saying that once you go down the path of darkness, it'll forever dominate your destiny." A beat. "I don't know how they could let themselves be so blinded to the risk of letting an Darksider out of his hole, armed, in command of living, breathing men."

There had been another long pause there, then Skywalker had looked him in the eyes. "Keep the Blackbirds safe, but take Maul down as hard as you can get away with without killing him, Alpha. Sith aren't exactly known for keeping their cool, hopefully he'll go off like a volcano and everyone will see how bad this idea really was."

Now, standing on Bravo-984, Alpha pondered thoughtfully on why Skywalker hadn't just asked him to arrange a fatal 'accident'; then again, arranging an accident wouldn't prove the general right in his assumptions, where the zabrak going crazy might.

Either way, he had a job to do, and he'd do it. He looked out into the cold, forbidding landscape and then down at the droid popper in his hand.

Chapter Text

Morning twilight came too quickly.

"Well, boys, I guess I'll be seein' you on the other side of this," Husker said, after testing the weight of his pack, looking at the rest of them assembled there with clear eyes and a certain rueful expression on his face, presumably for the necessary split.

The first of several.

Maul barely managed to bite back the urge to ask yet again for Husker to go over the plan for the final assault on the base; everyone knew it, they had conceived of the bones of it before they had even gone on this mission, and there was no reason to change things now. It was sound, there were contingencies in place, and regardless of the wreckage it would leave their pride in, they could still forfeit if things went too far wrong. Despite Shiv's fall and the subsequent emotional jarring it had given everyone -- even Maul -- they were close enough to the base that emergency help could be called upon.

Everyone knew the plan, but actually implementing it was surprisingly difficult. At least, Maul was finding it so, though he thought everyone else likely felt similarly given their expressions.

"I'll buy the drinks after," Tally said, giving Husker a half-smile. "Win or lose."

"I happen to have some credits stashed to help out." Brody gave a shrug and a grin when the rest looked at him. "I didn't spend it all on the Church of the Sacred Sarlacc."

"Or the furry stripper?" Shiv asked, and then grunted when Brody's elbow hit him, even if neither of them could feel it through the armor.

"Long as you didn't fish it back out of her clothes, I don't care where you got it," Husker said, gruffly. But he looked ready, and able, and he nodded towards the opening of the cave mouth as he pulled his pack on. "I got a lot of climbing to do, so I'm gonna get a start. Good hunting, Blackbirds."

Half of the squad, those in reach, put out a hand to ghost past his shoulders as he left. The silence left in his wake was heavy, until Raze said, softly, "He'll be okay."

"Yeah, he will." Tally let out a slow, heavy breath and then moved. "Here, a couple of you come over here and gimme a hand cutting the rest of these sections."

 

 

 

The past couple of days had been an ongoing lesson in moderation.

Maul was well-familiar with limitations, from his status as a prisoner to his attempts to reattain some state of grace in combat, but he was getting quite an education on just how many more there were that he had not yet realized before now.

First was the shoulder; Maul had expected Tally just to put it back in its socket and perhaps immobilize it for a day. What he had not expected was Tally to spend a night infusing bacta directly into the joint and then lean on him to keep his arm in a sling for two days and then a bit more. The amount of effort that the medic had put into repairing the damage made it much harder to refuse to listen to him, even if the forced moderation made Maul's bones itch. It had worked, and now, aside from some stiffness, there was no pain and he had back a full range of motion, so clearly Tally had been right regardless.

More distressing was the frank, if gentle, way that Tally had pointed out that he couldn't keep walking through every beating he took as if there were no lasting repercussions. Maul wasn't given to reflecting back on his past often, at least not intentionally, but having that handed to him made him look back at the many, many times when he just powered through an injury, allowing the pain to fuel his strength through the Force. That had not always been his own choice, mostly it had been his Master's, but even those times when he could have gotten a medical droid to patch him up or when he could have gotten into a bacta tank, he had only done so when it was so grave that he had no other options. Most of the time, he had just kept going, and finding out that there were long-term ramifications to that bothered him, in ways he couldn't even put words to.

It was a reminder, if nothing else, of what his worth had been to his Master. And a reminder of his own naive and incorrect belief that even if he wasn't indestructible he could somehow become powerful enough in the Force to get close.

He had done his best to shake the thoughts off, and it had taken some self-control to avoid getting too snappish when he couldn't even pick up a pack and help carry the squad's gear, but they had come back the day before.

By the time he was done covering the squad in a telekinetic snowstorm, his nose had been bleeding steadily and his head pounding terribly; thanks to the waterproof (and apparently blood-proof) parka, the constant movement and the abundance of snow, he had managed to keep that particular issue to himself, but it had hammered home how badly Zigoola had damaged his ability to use the Force; before now, he could just guess it was a worrying inconsistency, but it was clearly worse than that. Not that the world itself had, not bathing in the constant power of it, but that last confrontation with his Master and then immediately getting lost in the entirety of said Force, unshielded and blown wide-open, channeling far more power than one mortal being ever should, had broken something and the thought that it could be permanently broken was terrifying.

The only way to achieve that snowstorm was by dropping his shielding and reaching well past himself, and even as of the next morning, his head still hurt and he knew that trying that again might end up with him flat on his back, overloaded, helpless and useless.

And he also knew that he was going to have to, unless an actual blizzard came down to do the job for him.

"Sir?"

Maul looked up from where he was reordering his own pack; Tally wanted him to keep it light yet, but thankfully that was about to become much easier. Si-- Rabbit was standing there, looking pensive. "Yes?"

Rabbit dropped himself down to sit, crosslegged; in the thin light that managed to reflect into the cave, he looked a little tired (they all did), but much better than he had been the past few days. "I-- I was actually going to volunteer to go with Misty and Tango," he said, then chewed his lip.

Maul paused packing and regarded him, resting his elbows lightly on his knees. "Despite what you said during our initial briefing, you're not just here to be a decoy."

"I know." Rabbit looked down at his hands as he rubbed one over the other. "But I am fast. And I think I can probably get further than they could because of it. I mean-- I know this is last minute, but after yesterday, I think I can do it."

Maul considered it for a long moment, then nodded. "All right. As soon as they're done with Tally, I'll update everyone."

Rabbit nodded back and took a deep breath, then gave a wavering kind of grin, somewhere between confidence and nervousness. "Thanks, Lieu," he said, standing up and slipping back to the rest of the squad.

Maul took his own deeper breath, blew it out slow, and went back to arranging his pack.

 

 

 

"I've got this," Misty said, looking at his brothers and Maul, grinning. "I guess if I'm gonna get my first taste of leadership, this is as good a place as any to do it."

"If you don't have this, I'll mutiny," Tango muttered, jokingly. He looked more nervous, turning his bucket in his hands as he stood there, but not a terrible amount.

Rabbit and his twin were standing a little apart, foreheads just leaned together; a silent until later that no one had the heart to break into.

The decision to split so far away from the objective was multi-factored and at the time they had come up with it, it had been fairly easy to contemplate logistically. Now, actually faced with it, after all of these days of living in such close quarters and sharing such experiences, it became something else entirely. Their reliance on each other since leaving the courier was the only reason they had made it so far, and now they were going to have to rely more upon themselves. Maul was used to doing that, but he was startled for how little he liked the prospect right now.

Still, it was a sound plan, in no small part because it was unconventional. It meant splitting the squad four ways, maintaining radio silence and relying on planning and nigh-on blind faith to see it through. Even with the contingencies, should someone need to call for emergency evac, its best chance for success was in all parts coming together at the right time, in the right order. When they had all been together, one person forfeiting would have meant the whole squad forfeiting; now, split up, they had until the last man was lost or they ran out the clock to succeed, and that improved their odds greatly.

"Well, at least we don't have to carry so much," Misty said, shrugging. "I feel like I've got wings right now."

"Yeah, but it also means sleeping is going to suck. If we even get the chance." Tango made a face at the prospect.

"Just be careful anyway." Tally pointed at them both. "That way everyone's intact when it's time for us to be court-martialed for destroying military property."

Maul snorted at that. They had cut the white-out tents up with Tally's laser scalpel so that each member of the squad would have a piece big enough to cover them, and given how expensive said tents were, it was likely Obi-Wan was going to let him have it over it, but he didn't think for a moment that Obi-Wan would actually do anything.

They had also jettisoned the last of the extra rations; now, each person carried only enough to see them through the following night. Each troop had only enough mountaineering gear to cover themselves, those who were going to take to the rugged wilderness.

"We can start up our sewing circle, I guess." Shiv smiled, shaking his head.

They were dawdling a little bit, but finally Misty pulled his bucket on. "All right, you two. Let's go and have an adventure."

Tango heaved a breath and Rabbit held onto his brother more tightly for a moment, then let go. "See you guys tomorrow," Tango said, taking them in each in turn, then joined Misty.

"Good hunting," Shiv said, expression soft and rather proud.

"You too, guys," Misty said, before turning to lead his group out.

After they were gone, to the shoulder-pats and brushing touches of those left, the eight remaining all looked to each other before hoisting their packs and pulling on the rest of their gear, unable to find anything more to say.

 

 

 

It wasn't a blizzard, but it was snowing; Maul wished it was snowing harder, but even that much was enough to take a little bit of the pressure off of him. The wind was blowing steadily and all he had to do was add to the flurries as they moved. He also had fewer people to cover, which helped, though they had to change their tactics to make up for the fact that Rabbit had gone with Misty and Tango. No longer able to rely on Brody's slicing, they instead made ample use of their stealth, moving with painstaking slowness, silent and tense at any moment for one of those towers to pick up on them despite the snowblind and the whiteout fragments covering any heat leakage points.

It turned out, more by guess than observation, that there were four more towers before they hit the much more serious countermeasures surrounding the base. That would have been easy enough, if time-consuming, but then it also turned out that patrols had been extended.

Whipping the snow over top of them and over top of the pieces of the whiteout tents that they each carried was easy enough, but the sound of the two Freeco bikes going over them upped the stakes; according to their prior recon, the base detachment hadn't intended to send patrols out past the inner perimeter. Maul suspected it was because they were counting down on the clock, but any which way, it complicated moving. It was luck alone that they were in the thin overlap range between two towers and could afford the risk of radio communication.

After the sound of the bikes were gone, Shiv whispered down the radio, "Well, this just got even stickier."

Despite the invisible, serrated spike currently jabbed into the center of his brain, Maul snorted back, albeit quietly. "We should probably stay here and see how long it takes them to cross back over."

"If it were me, I wouldn't make it too predictable," Smarty murmured.

"That was dead on the hour, though, adjusting for distance," Brody pointed out.

Despite not bothering to slice into the towers any longer, Brody was still leading the line because he would need to again soon enough; when Shiv's party broke away to take into the ragged range again, instead of this comparatively tame passage, he would need to buy them a decent amount of time to execute said split. At the highest point of daylight, the amount of time he could get away with looping the sensor feed back on itself was a fair bit longer.

Then all they had to do was get to the edge of the inner perimeter and wait for the assault the next day.

"Should we take advantage of this somehow?" Eight asked, after a few long moments of silence where they were just laying in their dark, individual snow caves contemplating the change in patrol routes.

"I don't think so. We ambush them, it only takes one startled shout on their radio frequency to alert the base," Shiv answered, though there was a thoughtful note in his voice which suggested that he had been considering it himself.

Brody made a little noise. "What if we used the scanning towers as a jammer?"

"If we ambush them, then we would need to figure out what to do with them," Maul said, eyes closed as he tried to rest while they considered their options. "If they disappear and don't report back to base, that will have those remaining searching far more intently. If we replace them with two of you, you would have to somehow keep that from being found out for an entire day and we still would have to keep them contained." A beat. "All of that being said, if they decide to fly a patrol tomorrow around the time that we intend to take down their perimeter, I wouldn't be against ambushing them and taking their bikes. Jam their radios, restrain them somewhere safe and we've just gained a two man advantage over the detachment and additional transportation."

The sound Raze made down the radio sounded almost like a cross between a-- a purr and a giggle; even with his eyes closed, Maul's brow knit as he wondered what it meant. Though it sounded pleased, certainly.

"You're going to leave us out of the fun?" Shiv asked, clearly amused. "I'm hurt."

Maul would have rolled his eyes -- his nearly default reaction to his sergeant's poking by this point -- if his head weren't hurting so much. Even if it wouldn't have been seen. "You're the hingepin of this entire plan, isn't that good enough?"

"I dunno, jumping some troops and jacking their bikes sounds more exciting than yet more mountaineering..."

"Tough."

"Really, sir, your sympathy is bowling me over. I think I might shed a single tear over here."

"Keep it up, and I'll take my saber back."

"You can't, I'm the hingepin of the entire plan, remember?"

Maul just gave up with an only slightly exaggerated groan, resisting the urge to shift around and scrub his face with his palm, not wanting to disturb his cover.

Thankfully, Raze took over bantering -- poking Shiv about how much fun it was going to be to steal the bikes -- and Maul could turn his attention to trying to recover enough to make it to their next stop.

 

 

 

When the GAR had planned where to set the base, they had certainly done so to make use of the natural defenses of Bravo-984. The number of ways someone could die just by putting their foot down wrong, unless they stuck to one of the two open approaches, was large enough that even thinking vaguely about it had Maul wanting to drag his entire squad back out of the range of operations, find some stable ground and just refuse to move. It was an irrational urge, he knew that, but it was still clawing at his throat, especially when he saw the next section that Shiv's party had to tackle.

Maul didn't need to go with Shiv's party to see them off -- in fact, doing so was risky -- but he ended up going anyway, driven on by some complicated mix of feelings that he had no time or mental space to pick apart and examine. Hauling themselves up the thin, rocky, ice-filled chimney to get the group out of the passage they had been in was physically taxing, and he might regret it later, but as yet he didn't. Even if it was making the anxiety worse.

From the top of the chimney, there was a rocky ledge that descended into another deep, unforgiving crack in the ground, barely wide enough for the men to traverse; just looking at it was enough to give Maul a jolt, thinking of the way Shiv had disappeared when the cliff broke under him, and the sharp little breath he pulled in at the sight must have carried down the radio, because the hand that Tally had used to help him up didn't release his until well after he was on semi-level ground again.

They had gotten a fair idea of the patrol rotation, and it was near midday. The shadows cast by the brutal rock around them were narrow, but incredibly thick. Between the time and the still-falling snow, Brody was able to keep the tower they were under the range of looped for the better part of an hour; even as he stood there looking at the miserable terrain he was sending a third of his squad into, Maul knew he shouldn't be dawdling, he should just turn around and go back to his own group, but it was proving-- difficult.

"Be careful," he said, emphatically. "If it's your life or the scenario, forfeit."

There was no bantering now; Shiv was frowning a little bit as he pulled his bucket off, and Maul felt disgracefully transparent at the look he was getting. "We will," the sergeant said, seriously. "We've got a whole day to make this little trip, I'll make sure we take our time and exercise all due caution."

Maul nodded, after a moment, a quick bob of his head, and tried to force a grin he couldn't really feel. "Remember to point the business end of that away from yourself when you activate it, too," he said, gesturing to where half of his saberstaff was hanging off of Shiv's belt.

Shiv glanced down at it, a smile tugging the corners of his mouth. "Thanks," he answered, dryly but not unkindly, "couldn't have guessed that on my own."

"I'm glad I bothered to climb up here to tell you, then." Maul looked back over his shoulder, back down the chimney, then took the four of them in, trying to calm the twisting anxiety that was showing no sign of abating. "Good hunting."

Shiv shook his head, went to say something, then just reached out and caught Maul by the back of the neck; after stiffening for a moment in surprise, Maul let Shiv draw their brows together, being mindful of horns. "We'll see you tomorrow," Shiv said, with calm certainty. "You be safe."

It was a gesture that generally belonged to the brothers; there was no word Maul knew that could convey what it felt like to be included in it. "We will be," he managed to say, steady by some miracle.

Shiv gave his neck a squeeze -- something that would probably have felt threatening even only months ago and now felt comforting of all things -- then let go and jerked his head to Eight, Castle and Tally. "C'mon, boys, let's go make ourselves inconvenient," he said, with a little grin, before putting his bucket back on.

It was another emotional jolt when Eight and Castle ran a hand past his shoulder, and started after Shiv.

Tally lingered a bit longer; he'd taken his own bucket off at some point, and now he pressed his mouth into a line before he said, "You look like hell, sir. Gonna explain why after this is over?"

Maul had not actually been intending to go into his issues with the Force and the consquences of Zigoola, except perhaps to Obi-Wan (maybe, if it became necessary, if it wouldn't get him pulled off of the line, if it wouldn't get back to Vokara Che, if--), but now didn't seem like the time to argue about things. "I don't know," he answered, frankly. "Regardless, I'll submit myself to whatever you deem necessary after the mission's over."

Tally blew a breath out, then shook his head, rueful. "Kriff, Lieu. I don't want you to submit to anything, just to let me know when you're struggling so I can help, so we can figure out what to do to make it better."

Maul couldn't quite bring himself to grasp that, let alone agree to it; the concept was so foreign that Tally might as well have been speaking another language entirely. "We'll see," he finally said, which was all the further he could push himself in that regard.

Tally nodded, then just like Shiv, rested their brows together in a moment of affection. "Do me a favor; stick close to Raze until it's go time?"

"All right." Maul wasn't sure what good that would do, but unlike everything else, it seemed an easy thing to agree with. "Be safe, Tally."

"Count on it." Tally pulled back, then headed after the others, putting his bucket on as he did.

Maul watched them as they started picking their way down to the ledge, took a few careful breaths, and then turned to go back to the three men waiting down below for him, hearts aching.

 

 

 

When night fell, it found Husker huddled alone, tucked into a rocky little platform most of the way up a mountain; high above him, the stars moved in their slow trek across the sky, and despite himself, he found himself thinking of Tango and Tango's storytelling; found himself drawing lines between them, forming pictures of animals or Jedi or brothers, as if he couldn't point out which were systems or parts of trade-routes or which belonged to the Seppies and which were theirs.

As if they were all new.

 

 

 

"'I would settle, I think, for just-- feeling I have done all right. I don't know what peace looks like, I don't think I can anymore. But having done well. I think I would settle for that,' Etah said, and Adao could hear all of the things that the Diathim wasn't saying."

Sleeping in full armor was more than uncomfortable, but they didn't have time to try; instead, they kept moving through the darkness, crawling with the utmost care towards their objective. Rabbit and Misty had fallen quiet, but this time, Tango didn't worry about being judged for the story being told, or whether it made him a sympathizer, or whether it was even worth telling. Instead, he thought of enemies, turned allies; enemies again, turned tentative friends; friends, moving inevitably and inexorably towards falling in love, and a shared moment of rest between them.

"'Uncertainty again,' Adao answered, carefully. 'Which of us can say what will happen? We once found peace, so it is possible.'

"Etah shook his head, his great, ragged, ashy wings twitching once before settling again. 'A different sort of peace,' he said. 'We are-- soldiers, allies who cleave together in the face of odds.' He paused. 'What would we be, if there was no war?'

"'What are you asking? Whether there should be a balance of forces?' Adao asked."

Tango smiled to himself, as he helped Rabbit down off of a small, if steep, ridge.

"'If our species are to survive, it would have to be,' Etah answered. But then he said something that he wasn't sure he had ever put words to before. 'I mean-- what would our world look like if I no longer had to be a soldier, and you no longer wished to be king? It's impossible. And I can't even grasp it, not really. But I wonder sometimes.'"

 

 

 

When they finally stopped for the night, no one said a word; everything was conveyed by hand gestures. On the other side of the wall of rock was the beginning of the sensor net; only a handful of meters beyond it was the base itself. It was so close that if they shouted aloud, provided the wind was light enough, they would probably be heard.

They covered themselves in pieces of the whiteout tent; in the dark, Tally dozed uncomfortably with his bucketed head against Shiv's shoulder while Shiv kept watch over all of them.

 

 

 

The first major inner-perimeter obstacle consisted of a wide-field sensor net, which fed information to the launchers inside of it, as well as the alarms, and which would alert the base as to their exact locations; it wasn't like the towers, where Brody could slice one and loop its logs. When he took it down, everyone would know that the base was under attack.

There was no going back from there.

He sat in their self-carved little snow cave, close to the well-concealed sensor base; where the towers were all easily visible, this one had been hidden and if not for the intel they had stolen from Skywalker, they wouldn't have known where to look for it. It was all pointed back to the base, overlapping its fellows, and Brody was looking forward to the chaos that was going to happen when it suddenly stopped working.

The patrols had passed by again and again and again; they had moved between them, then split up right at the end of the line many hours earlier, with Brody and Smarty on one side of the pass, and Maul and Raze on the other.

Now, Smarty dozed uneasily beside him; in a few hours, he'd wake up and Brody would try to catch some sleep.

In the meantime, he had the start on a holomanip of General Skywalker advertising Viable to work on.

 

 

 

Raze talked. Quietly, because even with the snow cover and the whiteout pieces and the wind above, he didn't want to be heard beyond the space of a meter, but he talked anyway because it seemed that the Lieu liked it, or at least didn't mind it. He chatted about his training on Kamino and some of the more exciting things he'd gotten to blow to smithereens, then switched to recounting some of the funnier stories he had. None of it was particularly structured, he sure wasn't as good at this as Tango, and there were probably a bunch of times when he started one story only to end up telling another one, but he was having fun anyway.

Maul had been really nice; when Raze complained about trying to rest in his bucket, the zabrak had just stretched out his parka-clad arm and so Raze got to take his bucket off and use that arm as a pillow, and that was a heck of a lot more comfortable. The white-out fragments were enough to keep them dry and it was actually pretty decent, as a place to hunker and wait.

After awhile, he realized Maul had dozed off, even though his arm was probably asleep by now; when Raze noticed the line of tension between Maul's brows, he just reached out and brushed his fingers over it until it disappeared, then settled down to rest quietly for awhile, smiling to himself.

This mission, he decided, was going to be a great story to tell and he couldn't wait to see how it ended.

Chapter Text

Dawn rose to...

Absolutely nothing.

Crest watched the pink light break through the clouds, bringing with it daylight. He was in a weird place, mentally; he was worried about the Blackbirds, he had been on alert for most of two weeks for the squad's arrival and attempt on the base, but he was also tired. There was only so long the mind could be alert and only so long that anyone could balance on the edge of tension's wire, trying not to fall to either side of paranoia and apathy.

So, Crest went on patrol with Taxi, then came back so that he could grab a snack. Then he went out again, his second for the rotation. And then he went out yet again, looking at the seemingly unchanging terrain. He'd stopped caring about winning because mostly, he just wanted to get confirmation that his brothers on the other side were safe, and then get the hell out of here and do something else. Anything else.

When the stun bolt hit him precisely between bucket and shoulder, he didn't see the muzzle flash from under the white scraps of former tents; didn't see Taxi go down just the same way from the other side of the pass; didn't have a chance to even realize what was going on before lapsing into unconsciousness.

He never felt himself land in the snow, more softly than he might have, and he didn't see the gold-eyed zabrak who had both eased his and Taxi's landings and slowed the stalled bikes before they could crash, telekinetically.

His sensor registered him 'killed,' his radio was disabled but for an emergency override; at the same time as that happened, the base was alerted and the alarm sounded, letting everyone conscious know that they were under attack. But for Crest and Taxi, at least, the training scenario was over.

From either side of the pass, the small team of Blackbirds jumped into action when Maul said, calmly, "Go."

 

 

 

"Kriff!"

Rabbit jumped when Misty's voice came over his radio, because after a very long night scrambling along the sides of mountains in order the flank the base, and after slipping past countermeasures and avoiding the northern patrol and finding a place to hide, there hadn't been any real time left for sleep. He had grabbed a fifteen minute catnap, but all that had done was make him feel even more exhausted.

"Frip, that's eight minutes early!" Tango sounded just as startled, which was kind of a relief.

It took Rabbit a few seconds to catch on; he did when he saw the light on the sensor base they had been parked close to had gone from a tiny blinking green light to a tiny blinking yellow one, meaning it was no longer online. He remembered Brody saying he was going to force the sensor net into a deep diagnostic, rather than shut it down, because it was a lot harder to reboot from that.

"Switch to the squad's frequency. Rabbit, you're up," Misty said, voice a little shaky.

Rabbit scrambled to do just that, just in time to catch the rest of the Blackbirds reporting in.

"Able is go," Shiv said, steadily.

"Bravo in position." Husker's signal was crackly for his distance.

"Condor on the move," Misty added, breathlessly.

It was Raze, rather than Maul, who howled the last one with laughter in his voice, "Delta incoming!"

Rabbit had half a second to feel some perfectly understandable concern at that, before he was running past the now disabled sensor-net, making for the base with all due haste, blaster up and ready and with the other two members of his team spreading out behind him to take each side, until it was time for them to peel off.

 

 

 

They had quickly dragged the two unconscious 501st clones to the side of the passage, then promptly stole their Freeco bikes.

Upon reflection, Maul would wonder what had ever possessed him to allow Raze to do the driving.

The decision to start the assault early by a number of minutes had been specifically because the patrol happened to be there to ambush; Maul wasn't worried about the Blackbirds adapting to it because while they had set a time to go, they had also made certain to give ten minutes leeway in either direction for unforeseen circumstances, and the addition of the bikes was worth moving things up by that small amount, especially since it would bring them into the heart of the base much more quickly than running would have done. That would also save Misty's party the effort of trying to play the main bulk of the distraction while waiting for Maul and his group to travel between the perimeter sensors and the base proper; the distance of the perimeter to the south was greater than that to the north.

He scrambled up behind Raze, while Brody and Smarty got on the other bike. "Right down their throats, Raze," he said, adjusting in his seat and pulling his half of his saberstaff to have in hand, ready to jump into the fray and deflect bolts to try to buy Shiv's party the longest time possible to take the command center.

"Hold onto your horns, Lieu!" Raze called back, and Maul had precisely two seconds to wonder why he would do something like that before the bike practically stood on its engine housing for the way Raze hit the accelerator, like a kybuck rearing.

Maul actually made a startled noise, snapping his arms closed around Raze in order to not spill off the back of the bike, and was consequently speechless when the bike screamed forward and Raze took the opportunity to declare they were incoming.

A more apt word could not have been used.

 

 

 

Husker couldn't help but feel some approval when only three of the 501st clones came out of their command center.

The base was laid out with supply sheds, enclosures for the Freeco bikes, support structures, a landing pad central in the valley and then two decoys of the command center in addition; if not for their stolen intel, they might not have chosen the correct building. But since they did have advanced warning, he was able to watch the actual command center through his scope.

His HUD told him that two were already down, which currently put the Blackbirds at a two man advantage. And until the northern patrol returned, they would be at a four man advantage. In a situation like that, the smartest thing those boys defending the base could do would be to turn their command center into a fortress while sending out their best battlefield operatives to pick off as many of the Blackbirds as they could before it came down to a siege. Even if they were on the opposite side, Husk felt himself smiling in pride for their smart tactics, as he zoomed in a little bit on the three troops who slipped out and dispersed.

Then he stopped smiling.

Alpha-17 was one of them. Husker narrowed his eyes behind his bucket and scope, jaw knotting; the temptation to pull the trigger and just pick the ARC off was pretty high, because out of everyone General Skywalker could've sent, he had sent the most dangerous commando he had. But Husk knew that once he pulled the trigger, sensor net or no, his advantage and position would be given away and then they would turn the base guns on him and frag him with stun bolts from the safety of their command center, which meant he wouldn't be in the sweet spot he was in order to coordinate the Blackbirds on the ground.

The auto turrets hadn't been set off yet, though that was bound to change when the men on the ground got a better idea of the situation. As long as Husker stayed put and stayed down, they wouldn't even think to turn those in his direction.

"Three men on the ground currently; one of 'em's Alpha-17," he reported, keeping them abreast of the developing situation. "Rabbit, change of plans; I want you to make for the manual gun turret on your right hand side, two o'clock, around the storage shed you're about to pass. Once you get it, I'll tell you where to point it."

Rabbit was flying across the snow; he didn't even bother to acknowledge that, but Husker watched as he immediately turned and went around the storage shed and made for the turret. Everything down there was set to stun, not kill, even the big guns. Might as well make use of them.

Alpha-17 immediately backed his men up to behind the storage buildings on the eastern side, taking him out of Husker's line of sight, but that wasn't any surprise.

Now, the sound of screaming Freeco bikes had him spin his rifle the other way, and that was a shock.

Husker damn near laughed, as Raze blasted right into the heart of the camp with Maul hanging onto him for dear life, while Smarty and Brody peeled off, making for the false command center as per their plans, putting that between them and the auto turrets, though a lot faster for the stolen bikes. Raze turned his bike sideways, the repulsors sending up packed snow in clods from the angle, and before he'd even come to a full stop, Maul leapt off of the back with his saber igniting like the shiny target it was, landing light and graceful, sweeping his blade out in a flourish that Husker might've thought was excessive if it wasn't so-- well, frankly, badass looking.

And that was when the auto turrets came online and the real chaos began.

 

 

 

"Fire discipline," Alpha said, to the two clones he had with him. "Stay under cover and don't take the shot unless you're sure you've got it. That frippin' zabrak'll send your bolts right back into your faces, so focus on the other clones. Spread out north and south."

The acknowledgment was quick, while Alpha went back to assessing the situation. It took him less than thirty seconds to guess that the Blackbirds had a spotter up in the surrounding mountains, probably with a rifle, so the first thing he had done once they were outside was set them up behind the storage buildings and command center on the eastern side of the base; the sheer cliff wall behind them precluded their little bird watching from there, so there were only so many ways to keep any element of surprise.

The loss of the sensor net was more annoyance than critical; all they had to do was make sure to hold off any attempted siege of their command center until the squad was down or until they timed out. He wasn't happy about the fact that two of his own were already picked off, thanks to their good samaritan patrols, but ten was enough to see this through, if they were smart about it.

"North Patrol. When you cross the perimeter, split up and skirt the outside of the base. Do not dismount. Pick off any Blackbirds you see."

There was another acknowledgment; from Alpha's reckoning, their ETA was about two minutes.

He narrowed his eyes and peeked around the corner, noting the sounds of the auto turrets firing, though according to his HUD, none of the mock-enemy had fallen to them yet.

What are you doing? he silently asked the zabrak out there drawing fire like this was some kind of game; pinned between two auto turrets and just outside of the range of a third -- enough to activate its tracking but not enough to activate its fire -- he was deflecting bolts with the speed and precision of any Jedi, a single gold blade moving so fast it was just arcs of light and afterimages. That part was no surprise, but his positioning was.

Putting himself out in the open like that was either reckless bravado, or--

Or he was intending to be a distraction. Alpha considered for a moment more, then got back on the radio to the two clones he had on the ground with him. "Disregard my last command, ground team. Pull back in and watch our backs, I have a feeling we've got more incoming from the east."

"From the cliff?"

Alpha scoffed to himself. "Or from behind it. One of you go down and check that short rise in the northeast."

"--copy."

 

 

 

Raze was having the time of his life.

He had no gear on him now but his armor, his explosives, his blaster and his white-out fragment, which was like the most epic cloak ever, tied under the shoulder straps of his armor and fluttering like a legend when he wasn't holding it close to make him harder to track. And while his lieutenant stood in the open like a dare, drawing the fire of the auto turrets with the heat of the saber and his quick, graceful movements, Raze had ditched the bike and let it hit the ground as he was tucking and rolling behind the sewage processing plant across from the command center.

His job wasn't the command center, though. He listened to Husker's coordinating, but only halfway, because he only had one job and it just so happened to be his specialty.

Chaos.

This-- this was the best part of any mission. He was grinning wildly as he pulled the explosive charges out of the bags at his hips, then started creeping up on the auto turrets, taking full advantage of the fact that Maul had them distracted and that they only had one blaster per, and looking forward to watching them explode.

 

 

 

"Tango, mind your flank. Thought I saw one of 'em dart between a couple buildings over there. You've gotta clear it quick, before Able Team's swooping in."

Tango didn't have words for how glad he was Husk was out there, playing spotter for all of them. "Copy," he answered back, putting his back up against a supply building and holding his blaster at low ready as he moved.

Unlike going under a mountain, this was pretty damned exhilarating.

"Rabbit, turn your gun; when that patrol out of the north comes barrelin' home, pick 'em off if you can."

"Copy that, Husk," Rabbit said, and for how scared he had been before, now he just sounded breathlessly determined.

Misty was somewhere behind him, so Tango was pretty sure his back was covered. That just left going forward. He took a breath, then peeked around the corner and spotted one of the 501st brothers approaching the rise where Shiv's team was due to cross; even as he brought his blaster up, the brother spotted him just the same and then they were exchanging fire and diving back for cover. "Got one, ten meters north of the command center; I've engaged!"

"Keep him pinned down, kid, and get him if you can," Husk said, gruff voice nonetheless filled with approval.

 

 

 

"C'mon, Raze, raze that bathashit," Brody murmured to himself, hunkered beside the false command center and waiting for the auto turrets to go offline so that he and Smarty could take a charge on the front door of the real command center. There were plenty of them scattered around the base, but the only few of consequence were the ones that Maul was currently deflecting fire from because those were the ones guarding said door.

Not that watching that was any kind of hardship. The Lieu was currently in range of two of them, and watching him bat the bolts away with his saber, somehow managing to make every single trajectory look purposeful even at that speed was kind of hypnotic. Brody had only gotten to see one Jedi do the same once, and to him, that had looked jerky, all quick sharp jabs of the blade into position.

Maul, on the other hand, seemed more like a symphony conductor out there, shifting so smoothly from one deflection to another that it looked like it was all one movement.

No wonder Tango's in so deep, Brody thought; he wasn't really into other males, give him a female-identifying person with some curves and he was happy, but he could definitely see where Tango was coming from.

There was a flicker on his HUD and he watched another of the 501st clones go down; a split second later, Rabbit's voice broke in, high and excited, "I got one! But not the other one--"

Brody caught a glimpse of another Freeco bike making for the eastern side of the camp even as Husker was barking, "Misty, Tango, incoming!"

"I--"

His heart hit his boots when Misty's number flickered red on his HUD.

 

 

 

Husker swore up and down as Misty went down to the other clone on the Freeco, the one that had peeled off in the direction away from Rabbit's gun. It was rapidly coming up on the time when Shiv's party made their grand entrance, and now there were three clones, one on a bike, and a frippin' ARC still back there defending the back of the command center.

If something didn't change fast, this was going to turn rapidly against them. Right now, Tango had apparently managed to throw himself behind some cover, but he was pinned down between auto turrets on one side -- even with Maul distracting, that was no guarantee -- and the enemy on the other, between two buildings.

This was all down to Raze now; even Husk had a hard time seeing the demo expert as he crept between the bases of the auto turrets, hidden under his whiteout fragment, but if Raze didn't get a move on--

"Come on, Raze. We're just about out of time," he said, keeping his voice steady and turning his attention back to where he had last spotted Alpha.

"On it, Husk," Raze whispered back, some of the wild excitement bleeding out of his voice for a more serious note. "Thirty seconds."

Husker grunted back. He hoped they had thirty seconds.

 

 

 

Even Alpha hadn't seen the demolitions expert. But when he peeked around the corner to get a lock on Maul, the zabrak had apparently either sensed him there or was just that quick, because on a swift turn of his toe, he batted a blaster bolt right at him. Alpha jerked his head back as it dinged off the edge of the command center and then narrowed his eyes.

Despite his willingness to undertake this mission for General Skywalker, Alpha didn't have any real opinions about Maul himself. If the GAR wanted to employ a hardcase and make use of him, well, it didn't matter. Thus, he was only mildly irritated by having a blaster bolt redirected at him off of the blade of a lightsaber, but at the same time he could admire the competency of the move.

What he had to do next was just a matter of duty; it wasn't personal. Not for him, even if it might've been for General Skywalker.

He pulled the droid popper out of his pack and armed it with a flick of his thumb. He was gonna have to be both quick and accurate, because damned if he wanted to catch one of those deflected bolts and get knocked out of the scenario. Listening to the guns firing, the whine of them, he hefted the ball in his hand once just to remind himself of the weight, then came around the corner low, throwing it underhand and thinking, not for the first time, that it was probably a good thing the zabrak wasn't a droideka and that it was just as good that the grenade didn't even need to make contact in order to do its job.

He had a only a moment to see the results; at the exact same time that droid popper discharged, jagged arcs of electricity jumping to and then playing around the zabrak's cybernetic legs, the auto turrets kriffing exploded, the pieces of them flying backwards in muffled bangs, shrapnel missing anyone living with admirable distance and precision.

Alpha's last conscious thought before a stun bolt hit him from a distant, high powered rifle was a belated, curious, Wait, why was he only using one blade--?

He wasn't awake to see that he and Maul hit the ground at the same time, too.

 

 

 

If Shiv had been aware of that thought, he would have answered, Because I have the other one, asshole, and with a viciousness he rarely felt.

He had been watching on his HUD as he and his party made for the break in the rock wall that would let them out on the northeast edge of the camp, watching the markers flickering off one by one, all 501st until Misty's went red; they laid themselves out before they went over the comparatively low rise, waiting on their bellies just below it for their chance to come over it and get to the sealed, back emergency exit of the command center.

Then Maul's name went red, followed only seconds later by one more of the 501st.

The note of sharp terror in Raze's voice in his ear made Shiv's blood turn to ice. "Lieu?!"

"Raze, stay down!" Husker barked, in a voice that would have had even Shiv pausing to follow the order, rank or no. "Wait for backup. Tango, you're clear around front, all three turrets are down, so try to circle around and clear the back. Brody, Smarty, get a move on; Rabbit, hold position. I just tagged Alpha-17; looks like he hit Maul with an EMP."

Shiv had to snap an arm out and literally take Tally by the back of the neck, quietly as he could, when he saw the medic tense to bolt. Even though his own heart was trying to claw its way out of his throat, giving away their position before the ground forces on the other side of the rise were distracted or disabled would negate the entire point of their creeping in this close anyway.

Tally gestured, jerkily; he tapped a gloved finger on the ground, then jabbed it away, a silent signal: Going to tap out.

The sharpness of the gesture made imagining what Tally's expression was easy; Shiv signed back, Okay. Wait, knowing that he was asking for something Tally might just punch him out for later. Tally's hands tightening into fists beside him backed that thought up.

"Suggestion; Brody, Tango, Raze and I suicide-rush the guys around back, no holds barred," Smarty said, breathlessly, clearly on the run. Distantly, Shiv could hear some auto turrets spinning up and firing, but they were likely firing too far to make a dent. "With the ARC down, we've got 'em seriously outgunned."

Shiv finally broke his radio silence, unable to hold it anymore, murmuring, "Do it; Tally's gonna tap out to get to Maul."

There was a warcry that was almost chilling, and Shiv realized that it was both Raze and Tango in unison, and he closed his eyes for a moment, mentally calculating the distance. Just over the other side of the ridge, he heard the Freeco bike rev up.

Come on, he thought, tightening his hand around the saber he had in it. Come on.

Surprisingly, another of the 501st numbers went red despite a lack of blaster fire, but Shiv didn't have a chance to parse it out before he heard the suicide run of the other Blackbirds and he reached out and gestured for Castle and Eight to crest the rise and join them.

 

 

 

It was a metaphorical bloodbath.

They didn't even bother trying to draw out the men guarding the back of the command center to the front, relying instead on strength in numbers and pure frippin' anger; Smarty came around the corner and started shooting, only barely avoiding Tango with friendly fire, and just in time to see Castle and Eight come over the rise and pick off the brother on the Freeco in unison. The other two were quick to go down; one in shiny armor didn't even get a shot off before he hit the ground.

Tally's number went red and the second it was clear, he was off running, not saying a word -- not that they would hear him anyway, since his radio was blocked the moment that he forfeited -- and making towards where Alpha-17 had dropped their CO. Smarty almost went to follow him, but until the scenario was over, the 'dead' were supposed to be persona non grata, lest they end up illegally coordinating the squad, using their new noncombatant status to take advantage. To go after Tally without forfeiting would mean losing the entire scenario for an illegal action.

Like a damned droid popper shouldn't be considered illegal, Smarty thought, bitterly, falling in to cover the others' backs, forming up in a semi-circle. There were only two men left, and only three of the Blackbirds were down, but at this point, he wasn't ready to put anything past them.

He hadn't even seen the EMP grenade go off, just the flash of blue-white like lightning reflecting off of the snow from his spot under cover with Brody, but that was more than enough to make his stomach try to reject every ration bar sitting in it.

Shiv came over the rise and made for the back emergency exit; normally, it could only be opened with the correct code or from the inside, which made it perfect for their purposes.

Since it could also be opened by a lightsaber.

Shiv ignited the gold blade, visor lit up eerily by it, and then jabbed it into the seal between the door and its frame, stuttering a little bit while he was probably getting a feel for it and then sliding the blade down slow, the molten metal falling to hiss against the snow on the ground.

 

 

 

If Tally were a lesser man, he would have stomped on Alpha-17 when he went past the unconscious ARC.

The temptation was certainly there.

As he ran, he tried to calculate every bit of potential damage that an EMP grenade could do to a half-cybernetic half-zabrak and even for all of his research and skills, he found himself largely in the dark. He knew how to handle electrical burns, he knew how to deal with it when someone accidentally grabbed the wrong thing without taking precautions and made themselves a path to ground, he even had some idea of how to handle kriffing lightning strikes, but he had no solid idea how the intersection of cybernetics, limited life support, organic flesh and electrical discharge meant to disable electronics was going to work.

He knew those cybernetics weren't hardened beyond the obligatory amount most civilian grade tech was, though. He knew that they weren't shielded against something like this.

And he didn't even have access to them. Nor could he force access, not without potentially killing Maul, if the damned nasty security measures mistook medical intervention for an escape attempt and were still even minimally operational.

He tore his bucket and his gloves off in motion, dropping them as he went, and he swore a blue streak when he picked up the faint but real scent of ozone and burned skin; every other breath was a curse against the Jedi Council, and the only positive thing Tally could say was that he knew the immediate danger from that grenade was past.

Unsurprisingly, Maul was out cold; he was breathing quick and shallow, but at least he was breathing, sprawled on the ground. Tally was just checking his pulse, taking that extra second or two required to note the twin hearts beating and make sure they weren't arrhythmic, when he heard a noise behind him.

Without thinking, he grabbed the closest weapon to hand -- Maul's fallen saber -- and turned with his teeth bared, holding it up, thumb on the button. He didn't even know if the thing would work or if the EMP damaged it, didn't have the first idea how to use it beyond igniting it, but for the moment he was on a real battlefield with real threats, and he was ready to defend his fallen CO to his own last breath.

One of the 501st clones stood there, a jump bag hanging on a strap over his shoulder, bucket off and hands going up; his hair was shaved down to the hint of stubble, and there was some tattoo on the side of his head in aurebesh. "I tapped out; I forfeited," he said, eyes wary and worried, but his voice was steady and his tone disarming and quiet. He turned just enough to flash the shoulder of his armor, where the red cross was there, the same as the one Tally had. "I saw the monitors; I wanted to help. I'm Kix, I just transferred to the 501st a few weeks ago."

Tally stared at him for a second more, then set the saber's hilt down. "Tally. You got a neck brace in there?"

 

 

 

"Kriff, we surrender! Sarge! Sergeant, call your frippin' rancor off, please!"

Eight currently had one of the last two 501st clones pinned against the wall with a bloody mouth, fist drawn back, as Shiv moved past the other one, who did indeed have hands up in surrender, in order to get to the panel where he could input their code and end this scenario. "Eight, put him down," he ordered, without looking, though later on he would be kind of surprised that Eight had just silently come through a door with a molten hot edge and punched the first 501st clone he saw in the teeth.

Right now, he had more important stuff to worry about; he stabbed the code in and then hit the round button. After three seconds, the panel lit up green.

The Blackbirds had won. Shiv wished, in that instant, that he could feel like they actually had.

"We didn't know," the other clone said, voice shaking. "We didn't know Alpha was going to do that." He looked around at the grim-faced Blackbirds, eyebrows drawn up and a real note of pleading in his voice that instantly eased Shiv's feelings, even if not his worry. "I swear, Sarge. We didn't know."

Shiv swallowed down hard, trying to get rid of the red hot ball of rage in his throat as his anger shifted targets back to the ARC outside; he didn't bother responding before he got back on the radio. "Everyone get to the command center. Tally, is Maul okay?"

There was a long moment, then a subtly different voice answered. "This is Kix, Sarge, the other medic. He's breathing, anyway, hearts are both beating right, but we're gonna bring him inside so Tally can do a better assessment in our medical unit."

"Copy." Shiv ground his teeth together, then took his bucket off before looking to his own men. "Go help collect all our brothers who were stunned. Except Alpha, I've got him."

There was a ragged murmur of acknowledgment, and then they dispersed, leaving Shiv to try to comprehend that it was over.

That all they had to do now was survive the aftermath.

His heart squeezed painfully in his chest, and he walked out without another word.

 

 

 

Alpha woke up with his bucket off.

The next thing he saw was a fist and a flash of light, and he felt a crunch that told him that his nose was broken, and then he landed back turtle on the trampled snow, turning to his side and managing to bring his hand up to cover his nose.

When he could see past the blur of a stun-addled mind and the tears that came from the trauma to his face, he took in the three slashes on the other clone's shoulder and then gasped, with a ragged laugh, "Couldn't even wait until I was standing, sergeant?"

Sergeant Shiv looked down at him, jaw tight and eyes narrowed to slits, before he said, hot coals of anger simmering in his voice, "You aren't worth that courtesy."

Alpha would have snorted, but the state of his nose precluded it. He just shook his aching, foggy head gingerly and got up to his elbows before sitting against the side of the building, cupping his nose to protect it from the cold wind, prepared to wait for the expected fallout that his general predicted would come of this, as Shiv turned and walked away, leaving him there.

Plucky baseline. Alpha liked him.

 

 

 

Crest and Taxi trudged their way towards their base, feeling tired and sporting headaches. Their radios were working again, but it was clear from their HUDs that they had lost the scenario; that only two Blackbirds had gone down under fire and one had forfeited. Crest tried half-heartedly to feel disappointed, but ultimately, all he could make himself feel was relief.

That was all they knew, until a brother with spiked hair came out to get them, face etched in misery and worry.

His name was Raze. He also rewrote their entire perception of the Blackbirds.

And the Blackbirds' lieutenant.

"We thought-- we heard--" Crest said, after Raze had explained how the rest of the assault had played out, feeling kind of sick, "We heard he was dangerous. But we didn't know what Alpha was gonna do."

Raze didn't answer right away, as they walked. Then, he said, quietly, "He let me sleep on his arm last night, 'cause I was complaining about how uncomfortable it was trying to sleep in my bucket. Before that, he got his arm pulled out of joint saving Shiv from falling off a crumbling cliff. Before that, he carried Tango across a flooded cavern, on his back. Up until he hurt his shoulder, he was carrying the heaviest load of the group. It's not my CO who's dangerous to us, but maybe you oughta ask some questions about yours."

The tone wasn't mean; if anything, it was weighted with affection and concern. Crest boggled for a moment wondering how the hell the Blackbirds managed to encounter a dangerous cliff and an underwater cavern, but then he realized that he didn't have a right to that story; that he had no right to ask after this, though he hoped he would get it someday anyway.

Instead, he just said, "I'm sorry."

Raze only nodded, and they walked the rest of the way in silence.

Chapter Text

He's burning.

It flickers at the edges of his awareness; the ghost sear of a lightsaber passing through him, the-- incomprehension of it, the unreality of it. His lungs freeze, his hearts flutter ineffectually; the shock of it is so complete that it becomes the entirety of him. No thoughts cross his mind because there are no thoughts that can encompass it; when he falls, he only feels burn and phantom electricity

and he's burning, on a stone floor, invisible knives stabbing into every nerve. He knows this feeling; he cannot remember what he did to provoke his Master into raining lightning down on him, but he knows exactly what it feels like to regain awareness afterwards and knows that he must have done something, he must have displeased his Master,

and he's burning, a raw broken half-body on the floor of a cell, mind cut to ribbons and then they are there and he burns and burns

and

burns

                      and

 


                                        sound and


                                                                       he begs, "please," over and over and over and over, screaming desperation, and they don't listen

 

"--kriff, Lieu -- shhh, shh shh, you're safe--"

 

 

 

 

If Tally hadn't already been nursing a grudge against the Jedi Order -- as part of his grudge against the whole frippin' establishment from the Senate to Kamino -- he would have gained a huge one in the span of time between when he and Kix moved Maul inside to the bunker's small medbay and when Maul went from semi-conscious disorientation to full-scale disoriented panic, crashing to the floor on minimally functional cybernetics and immediately putting his back into a corner, dragging himself on his hands and heedless of whatever equipment he bruised himself on in his efforts to escape.

As it happened, that just sharpened said grudge to a cutting edge.

It helped to have another medic there; Kix had brought out the jump bag, which did have a soft neck brace and an extendable backboard with antigrav function. Tally's mind had been running a mile a second, trying to figure out which part he should have been worrying about first, before Kix's appearance managed to snap him into triage mode and he was able to work systemically. There wasn't much to be done for Maul out there on the snow; getting him indoors was the first priority.

Beyond how incredibly useful Kix's help was, the younger medic also provided something of a positive distraction, not from treating Maul, but from Tally's anger over the situation.

"Want me to fire up the droid?" he had asked after they were in, which Tally thought was adorably ironic given the tattoo on the side of his head, and when Tally shook his head, Kix's eyebrow went up.

"Can't stand 'em," Tally'd said, as he grabbed the overhead imager and brought it down. "I mean, I'll use them if I have to, but I know how to do most of this stuff myself, so--"

It didn't take more than a half-minute to establish that the shock didn't end up breaking any of Maul's bones -- a good thing, given how fiercely muscles contracted when hit by electricity -- so Tally could breathe a sigh of relief about that, at least. He took off the neck brace, hooked up a few monitors -- the ones he could actually do first -- then picked up a laser scalpel after taking a moment to read them; blood pressure was up, but Maul's hearts were still beating right and his blood-oxygen levels were likewise acceptable. "You know how to draw blood for a comprehensive metabolic panel?" he asked, as Kix got a pair of shears so that Tally could wreck the last set of shirts that Maul had on him, once he got done cutting the parka apart with said (very carefully handled) scalpel.

Kix sounded a little uncertain. "I know how to start an IV..."

"Similar." Tally took the shears next and got to work, cutting through Maul's shirtsleeves first. "Just a different stick angle. Say-- forty-five degrees, instead of thirty. Use a twenty gauge. Best spot's around here," he said, tapping a spot on Maul's newly bared inner right forearm, about five centimeters down from his wrist. "Not the elbow. He's got thicker skin than we do. Vacutainer instead of catheter, and I can do the analysis myself. Just grab one tube of every color, I'll sort what I need later."

The other medic looked worried, but he moved to go to the cabinets lining the one wall. "Are you a senior medic...?"

"No. But I did come out of the field surgery program." Tally finished cutting those shirts off and his mouth briefly went into a flat, tight line at the sight of the burns creeping up above the leather brace Maul wore to reinforce where his organic body met his cybernetics. "--frip." He was oddly glad that the zabrak wasn't awake yet, though it seemed that his respiratory rate had settled back to baseline again and he would likely come around sooner than later, unless something catastrophic was wrong. "I'm-- self-taught. Which is about as ethically sound as everything else about this army, but I'm not going to lose someone just because I didn't have the most basic knowledge needed to try to save them."

Kix startled -- probably not used to hearing that kind of frank complaint expressed openly -- but then he went back into motion, pulling his gloves on after sterilizing his hands and getting out the necessary equipment; he seemed a little hesitant but not too bad, considering. "I was supposed to be in the field surgery program, but they've lost so many medics recently that they rushed me into service."

Tally did glance up at that, taking in the other medic's expression; the ruefulness of it. Kix caught the look and shook his head, before getting back on task, adding, "I'm not a shiny, but I haven't been out here long."

Basic medic training on Kamino was-- frankly, laughable. They relied heavily on accompanying FX-3 medical droids, bacta and an emphasis on the most straight-forward emergency triage. And all of it -- every last bit -- was centered on the clone body, the relative uniformity of the same genetic model. Even the field surgery program, which was a little broader and more comprehensive, focused almost exclusively on human anatomy.

Everything Tally had learned about Maul's physiology, he had learned by studying the hell out of Surgeon General Che's records and every text on zabraks and zabrak-hybrids (of the Iridonian variety; there were no texts on the Dathomirian variety) that he could get and understand, and even several more he was still struggling to. He wasn't anywhere near as trained as a proper doctor would be, given he'd only been at this for months now, but he was at least confident that he was a good choice when it came to having medical responsibility for his CO.

"Do yourself and everyone a favor, and study." Tally held back a reflexive wince as he unfastened that brace, and gingerly peeled it back, revealing both old scars and evidence of new burns, the scent of it as stomach-turning as ever. "If they tell you that you're not smart enough, study it anyway. See if you can get your general to get you simulator time with medical programs. It'll piss you off, but you'll be a better medic for it."

Kix was busy drawing blood -- Tally noted with approval that he nailed the stick on his first try -- and setting the tubes aside in a row as he went. When he finished and happened to catch a glance at those burns and scars, his eyes went wide. "--what the--"

"Dress that first, then you can help me get bacta on this." Tally leaned in, looking over the burns, eyes and mouth tightening some as he did. "You can't just-- stick half a body on a cybernetic platform," he explained, as much to keep himself arrow-focused as to walk Kix through it. "First, it's wired into his spine with a neural net connection, which is probably why he's still out. But there's also the loss of support from connective tissue -- muscle, tendons, the whole thing. So, there's biomesh protection between the metal and his organic body, but there's also a coated surgical durasteel mesh under his skin, almost up to the bottom of his ribcage, fully grown into the tissue; it can flex, and it can stretch and contract some if he gains or loses weight, but more importantly, it does some of the job organic connecting tissue used to. Otherwise, even just a bad kick to the side would be pretty catastrophic."

Kix sucked in a breath as he came back, now that he'd moved all the test tubes and taped a tiny bacta patch over where he'd done the stick. "That's why he has those burns?"

"Yeah. I think that most of the EMP would have stayed in his legs, but he fell and grounded the rest of himself at the end of the discharge."

"We'll need the hyper infused extended-release dressings, then."

Tally looked up, surprised that he had it in himself to grin for how quickly Kix put that together, but grinning nonetheless. "Yeah, exactly."

He was kind of relieved that Kix didn't ask him to get into the original damage -- what made Maul need half a cybernetic body -- because he wasn't prepared to break confidentiality to explain it, if Kix didn't already know. Heck, even if he did know, Tally wasn't going to say anything about it. Not that clone medics even had a confidentiality oath, but Tally had made himself a promise in that regard anyway; he might not be a doctor, but he could conduct himself with the ethics of one.

Once the burns were protected and wrapped, they could try to figure out how critical the cybernetics themselves were going to be, or if they needed to make a mad dash back for the Jedi Temple so that someone with actual access could repair them. If the high capacity kinetic batteries were still all right. If the circuitry was. Thankfully, for Maul's sake, none of it was so immediately critical that he couldn't be kept stable if they were totally offline long enough to do that, but if they had been any further away from Coruscant, that would have been a different story.

They had just finished wrapping the bacta dressings around the burns, then bandaging over that, when Maul started to come back to his senses.

"You happen to have a clean shirt he can borrow?" Tally asked, pulling the monitors off just in case Maul got fighty on him, not wanting to damage either equipment or zabrak.

"Yeah, I've got one. I don't have a parka, though."

"It's all right, Tango will go get our courier." Tally kept his voice down, fingertips on Maul's radial pulse, mildly worried for how much faster it had jumped to being. "Hey, Lieu. If you can hear me, you got a pretty bad shock, but you're safe."

He didn't get any more of a chance to reassure.

Maul was off the table in an instant and a crash; one of his boots clipped Tally hard enough to knock him backwards, and even after what had to be a bruising fall, Maul was in a corner gasping, legs half-twisted from being dragged. Tally froze himself for a moment, heart hammering before it made a painful slide for his boots, after detouring into his throat; the sight of his CO's eyes flickering with gold light actually gave him a jolt of-- not fear, but something a cousin to it.

The zabrak never made a sound, but he was panting, shaking and clearly terrified and just the sight of him like that was breaking Tally's heart. When Kix went to move, Tally held out a hand and gestured him back, shaking his head and crouching himself -- out of reach -- soothing half-mindlessly, his own voice a little shaky until he managed to force it to something like steadiness.

He knew Maul had a history with anxiety. But it was the first time Tally had ever seen him in a full-on panic attack.

"Nothing can get to you here, they'd have to come through me to do it," Tally murmured, as he shifted a little to get more comfortable, ready to wait it out unless it became dangerous.

"Me too," Kix added, nervously, which later on Tally would smile about. Whenever he felt like smiling again.

"Hey, Kix, go grab that shirt?" he asked, keeping his voice soft, though he never took his eyes off of Maul. Who wasn't so much looking at him as through him, eyes wide, lost and wounded both. When Tally heard Kix leave, he went back to shushing, and for all the worry he was feeling, he was actually heartened when one of those mechanical legs twitched, and then the other. "Remember that breathing exercise I taught Tango? When you can, try that?"

He didn't honestly expect Maul to listen to it; wherever he was in his mind, it was clearly a hostile, awful place. So, it came as another surprise when Maul did focus on him and ask, voice ragged, "Tally?" between desperate drags of air.

"Yeah, it's me." Tally still didn't come any closer, but kriff, at least Maul was semi-oriented. "You got hit with an EMP grenade. What's the last thing you remember?"

Maul gave a short, sharp shake of his head, and then proved that his cybernetics were partially functional by pulling his knees up; it was slow, there were a few hitches in the motion, but once he did that, he buried his head in his arms, still trembling hard from horns to boots.

Tally wished he wouldn't put pressure on his dressings like that, but now wasn't the time to worry about that part. "Okay. It's okay, Lieu. Just try to breathe slow and if you want something to take the edges off, it's on offer. All right?"

He didn't get any answer, but after a few more minutes, he finally took a chance and moved slowly closer; reached out and stroked his fingertips back and forth across one of those sheltering forearms, and took it as a good sign when Maul only startled a little, and didn't push him away or worse.

It wasn't all the problems solved; still, he would take what he could get and work his tail off for more.

 

 

 

"I like it. That way, when we want to get both of you to pay attention at once, we can just call you Corbit."

Rabbit groaned at that, pushing Brody in the shoulder.

The Blackbirds were all worried sick; for that matter, so were the 501st clones, absent Alpha, who sat around waiting until Kix paused to fix his nose, grabbing one of the small first aid kits, straightening that nose carefully and taping it over with a bacta patch. The medic didn't say anything to the ARC, but it was clear to anyone watching that he was no more happy about what had happened. He did, however, at least let them know that Maul was awake and not in critical danger, which wasn't the same thing as saying he was okay but Eight, newly dubbed Rancor, would take it. Then Kix was gone again, saying something about getting a clean shirt.

Rancor flushed, face hot, and rubbed the back of his head with a sheepish grin at Brody's words, before looking over to Timber -- the clone he'd decked and was now sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with -- and offering yet another, "I'm really sorry about that."

Timber snorted, pulling the ice pack away from his split lip. "S'okay, at least I didn't go down like a tree. Don't worry about it." Timber shot a glance to Alpha, leaning against the wall, "Can't blame you anyway, little brother."

Rancor still felt kind of guilty about it, but he nodded and leaned over a little more in gratitude and affection. Hearing every single one of the other clones apologize for what happened to their CO was-- he didn't know. He didn't really know how he felt about it. Touched. Upset, because they didn't deserve this either, being set up on this scenario without knowing the nasty trick that was going to be pulled.

Shiv had taken Tango and one of the Freecos to go and get their courier; Rancor thought probably that was a good idea, because the molten way Shiv kept looking at Alpha was almost terrifying. Shiv was always so calm, and patient, that seeing him so angry that he was willing to break noses and maybe worse was unsettling, to say the least. Even if Rancor absolutely understood it and felt a lot of the same way.

Raze was the other one Rancor worried about, because he'd been quiet since coming back with Crest and Taxi, pacing around the little group, though he gave a small smile every time one of them reached out to ruffle his hair or touch his shoulder. Raze and quiet weren't usually things that went together.

The door opened and a very sought-after voice joined them; Husker took one look at Alpha, then glanced around at the rest of them, rifle slung over his shoulder and bucket under his arm. "Which one of you punched the ARC?"

Even as Castle was saying, "Shiv did," Rabbit and Rancor both practically tackled Husk, wrapping around him, almost in tears from the relief of just having him back. "The rest of us wanted to queue up for it, but we don't want poor Kix to work overtime."

"Our sergeant broke a nose?" Husker eyed Alpha again. "Hell, saves me from having to do it."

Alpha made a crude gesture back, but his expression was just as relaxed as it had been when he'd hauled himself back into the bunker. As if he hadn't just alienated all of them. Rancor didn't know how to feel about that, either; the ARC shoulda been pissed off, but he clearly wasn't. If anything, he seemed like he was waiting for something.

Rancor finally let go of Husker, though; they leaned their brows together for a moment, then he went back to sit with Timber. "I just hope the Lieu's okay," he said, and tried to take some measure of comfort in the murmur of agreement almost all around.

 

 

 

The thing was-- Alpha really wasn't bothered by the collective ire of the baselines.

He was a little more startled by how much damage his grenade might have done, though. The point had been to KO the zabrak in an infuriating manner, preying on one of his weaknesses, and reaping the rewards of him losing his temper, stability or more. It hadn't been to do any potential permanent damage to the horned bastard. General Skywalker had said that it would be a nasty shock, the droid popper; painful, because he'd been hit with one once in his own cybernetic arm and knew. But he hadn't mentioned that it could be potentially deadly.

If the general wanted Alpha to arrange an 'accident' and kill Maul, that was one thing, but that hadn't been the point.

He didn't feel particularly guilty about it. Not knowing the outcome made him look incompetent, which bothered him, but taking down a target was what he was bred and raised for.

That wasn't apparently the only miscalculation, though. None of those Blackbirds acted abused; the care and concern they had for their L-T was real and clean. There wasn't any hesitation in it. Even Husker, who of all of them Alpha expected to be more resentful, kept shooting glances down the hall towards the medbay. It didn't seem coerced or shadowed, that worry, that loyalty.

Alpha was sure reporting that back was going to be popular. But just like he wasn't going to refuse an order, he wasn't gonna lie to his general, either. The squad cared about their lieutenant. And they didn't seem brainwashed into it, or just too blindly loyal to see the truth.

He sat listening to them, letting the occasional barb slide off without hooking into him, and waited to see if there were any other miscalculations to take back with him.

 

 

 

"I know this isn't what you want to hear, but Lieu--"

Tally ended up cutting himself off, though.

It was hard to be on the other end of that look.

Once Maul was out of the corner, he sat still on the table for less than a minute, still trembling intermittently, letting Tally make sure he didn't disturb his dressings, but the moment Tally made the mistake of turning to check on the incoming results of the metabolic panel he was running through the analyzer, Maul was up and pacing. Whatever hesitation there had been seemed to be gone from his cybernetics; he didn't look steady on his feet, exactly, but it was impossible to tell whether that was because of the effect the EMP had on the mechanics or the effect it had on him.

He was short answering questions and not entirely accurate; he couldn't remember anything past him jumping off the bike and starting his deflection at the auto turrets, and there were a few times that he shut up in the middle of an answer, struggling to find the right words for it, before managing as close an approximation as he could get. He kept rubbing at his head, and sometimes would overcorrect on a turn when he went to pace another lap.

Postictal, Tally thought, at some point. It wasn't like it wasn't known an electrical shock could set off a seizure, and while Tally had no real way to confirm it, it was probably a good guess, given the confusion and other symptoms.

Now, though, Maul was staring at Tally with wide gold eyes again -- no glow in them -- and looking somewhere between an awful kind of resigned and an even more awful kind of pleading.

The discussion, what there was of it, was whether Tally would throw down with the Jedi Council about the make of Maul's cybernetics, in order to address what was clearly a big, dangerous issue now that there was actual data to back it up. Tally's hope being that they would realize that they were risking one of their officer's lives, regardless of his legal status, when an upgrade and a couple of weeks of adaptation would be all it would take to prevent that.

"They'll--" Maul paced a couple steps, then stopped again. "--they'll-- make me go back. To that cell. I'm not-- they're not--" He took a few rough-sounding breaths, then shook his head, hissing in apparent frustration through his teeth. "Obi-Wan; I'm here because-- he's the one--"

It was hard, Tally reflected, trying to translate 'mildly disoriented and anxious' when he was missing large chunks of context. "You've proven yourself on the battlefield, sir. And now on this training mission. Why would they waste a good officer by taking him off the line permanently?"

Maul huffed out, a mirthless breath of a laugh, though at least some of the wound-up tension eased out of his posture. "Near half the Council wanted to execute me at first," he said, carefully, and Tally's blood went cold. "I saved O-- General Kenobi and Senator Organa, and Chief Healer Che spoke on my-- my side-- my behalf. To be here. But it's--" he held up a hand and wagged it. "--shaky." A beat, then he clarified, "Precarious."

Your life is precarious right now, Tally thought, but the instant he heard the word 'execute', the picture Maul was trying to paint became sickening clear. "This can get you killed," he said, keeping his tone gentle, but not pulling the punch. "Leaving it unaddressed. That was one regular droid popper, sir. What if you got caught in the blast radius of a large-scale version of the same?"

"I know." Maul wavered on his feet, looking thoroughly exhausted and heartsick enough that Tally almost couldn't bear it. "But I don't want this."

He sounded about like he thought Tally was going to just ignore that, and that was almost worse. Tally glanced at the metabolic panel results again -- electrolytes were a little off, but by less than he had expected; there was a lot to be said for Maul's physical durability -- then looked back at his L-T, who was rubbing at his brow with a thumb and forefingers.

There was also plenty Tally wanted to say about how far a person shouldn't be pushed, too.

"Let me note it in a report. That this needs addressed. I won't--" Kriff, he couldn't believe he was saying this, but he wasn't going to just throw away the amount of trust he'd earned so far. "--I won't send it to them, I won't push it yet, but-- but let me note it, Lieu. Let me put down a record-trail so that when you're not on such precarious footing, we can try to get them to listen to reason. Will you let me do that much?"

Maul eyed him, searching and wary, and Tally just looked back at him, adding, "And in the meantime, we can come up with some kind of exterior armor. I'll bet Castle would have some good ideas."

He didn't know if Maul really believed him, but when the zabrak gave a tentative nod, Tally knew he'd made the right call.

Even if it was going to take awhile to feel like that.

"C'mon, hop up here and let me get a look at you, okay? Without you jumping down the second I turn my back." Tally pointed at the table. "Bet Shiv and Tango'll be back within the half-hour, and we can get out of here."

 

 

 

The last miscalculation was the zabrak's temperament.

When he rejoined his squad, he looked rough, but he didn't look like any kind of raving lunatic. He didn't look like some unstable, dangerous element slathering to take lives without worrying about the ones he was leading. He just looked tired and rattled and surprisingly composed despite that. Dignified, maybe. The Blackbirds' medic was at his shoulder, looking no less so.

It had been about an hour since the assault and the ending of the training mission; Alpha stood up, ignoring the way the entire squad of Blackbirds stiffened up as if he was a threat. He could see Shiv bristling out of the corner of his eye, just back with their pilot from bringing the Courier in, and bacta or no, his nose ached like hell at the reminder of who'd broken it. But he still said, "Nothin' personal, Lieutenant."

Maul looked back at him for a long moment, then gave the stiffest nod possible before asking, "Who broke your nose?"

Alpha smirked a little, even if it made his face ache worse. "Your sergeant."

There was another beat there, then Maul looked to Shiv, the hint of a grin appearing on his mouth. "Thank you."

Shiv scoffed, but his demeanor had softened. "My pleasure, Lieu."

General Skywalker wasn't going to like what Alpha had to tell him, no. But those were the breaks; Alpha had done as he was told, the Blackbirds had routed them hard and thoroughly, and Maul had proven to be more stable than General Skywalker suspected.

"That little deflection you pulled, knocking a bolt at my head," Alpha said, just before he turned to leave and start working on his report in his quarters. "Pretty sweet move, sir."

Something unidentifiable flickered across Maul's face. "I don't remember it."

Alpha shrugged. "Then take it from me: It was good. Congratulations on your win."

He didn't look back when he walked out, but he could hear the Blackbirds swarm the zabrak, relief and worry and affection coloring their tones.

 

 

 

It was slow going, getting back on the Courier, not because they didn't want to get out of there, but because they had to exchange letter codes with the 501st squad and because they had to detail where they had left their gear abandoned on the mountains. They had to send a signal to the Negotiator; when they received the recording -- by General Kenobi himself -- that the fleet was out of range and that they should wait until the next contact for coordinates to reunite with it, no one quite knew what to do.

Even Shiv felt at a loss.

"Damned if we're staying on this rock," Husker had declared, and so they had finally boarded their ship, stowing the cold assault armor with various groans of relief, and then sitting down to wait until Tango had them up into the black in their undersuits.

It was quiet, though. None of the complaining or banter; everyone seemed to be lost in their own thoughts, and Shiv couldn't think of what to say, as he just tried to-- grasp it.

That it was over. That they had survived it. That they had even won. His knuckles ached, even though he'd been wearing his armor, and his heart ached, and he wasn't sure why. Everything just felt-- heavy. Almost too heavy.

It was Rabbit who broke the silence, tentatively. "Are we allowed to be happy now?" he asked, a bit plaintively; not quite to the level of tears, but Shiv wouldn't have been surprised if there were. And not just from the shinies.  Or were they ex-shinies now?

There was a long moment, and then--

"That subversive asshole owes me a drink," Husker said, gruffly, pointing at Tally. Tally looked up and huffed a little laugh, holding his hands up in surrender, but the smile that stole across his face was fond and real, and it lightened Shiv's heart some to see it.

"What's the closest planet with cheap booze?" Brody asked, looking up from where he'd had his nose buried in his datapad. "I'm not rich, but I can buy us some rounds."

"Corellia's closest, if you want good booze cheap," Smarty answered, immediately. "We'll have to get permission to land and sign an affidavit that we're not there on military operations, because they're doing their-- meditative solitude thing, but we should be allowed to land. I mean, credits are credits and we're legitimately there to purchase goods and services and not to do anything else."

"They're doing their what?" Husk asked, sounding incredulous.

"They don't agree with the war, so they're using their privilege gained under their early special provisions of the Republic Constitution to sit it out. Contemplanys Hermi it's called." Smarty shrugged, tiredly. "They withdraw from the Senate and therefore don't have to aid in the war effort without losing their status as a Republic world. Their sector's the only one allowed to do that."

"Smart," Tally said, at the exact same time as Husker snorted, "Banthashit."

The two exchanged a long look, but now, it was tempered with mutual good humor.

Shiv didn't really care about the politics of Corellia, but the idea of spending a couple or three days on a world that wasn't going to break out into a battle sounded good to him. They could always just sleep on the courier, if need be. "Well, Lieu? Corellia or bust?"

Maul had been quiet since he'd taken that hit, and had only gotten more so; still, he apparently hadn't dozed off, despite sitting with his head back and eyes closed. "Set the course. If they tell us no, we'll figure out something else."

"Setting course," Tango replied, from up front.

As if it had broken open some kind of dam, the Blackbirds started talking again; Raze was still sticking to Maul's side, but even he had apparently managed to shake off his upset from before. Shiv didn't really talk himself, just rubbing at his aching knuckles, but he watched and listened to them as they plotted and planned and tried to make bets on who was going to drink who under the table, while Brody got to work doing something probably-illegal-that-Shiv-didn't-want-to-know-about on a datapad and Tally got up to dig his own, physical credit chips out of his carry-on in his locker.

Are we allowed to be happy now? Rabbit had asked.

Shiv looked at all of them -- tired and battered, but alive and together -- and decided:

Yeah, you bet we are.

Chapter Text

Now

"So, let me just-- make sure I have this down. You guys managed to convince your way into Corellian space despite the closed borders, parked an entire courier on a public landspeeder deck -- and talked your way out of the ticket because the traffic codes weren't written to take into account that someone would park a starship there -- and then you went and got drunk at the first five watering holes you encountered, only to take apart the last one?"

Bail Organa's prior day had started with a dignified breakfast with business, political and military interests, the kind of official breakfast where expensive food was consumed while everyone thought about the various ways to slip a knife into the next person's back. This was followed by three hours of committee meetings, a Senate session to vote on bills, then two hours of more committee meetings; he didn't get a chance to eat lunch, and by the time the Security Committee was in session, he was starved and tired and sporting a headache. This was followed by him trudging back to his apartment, grabbing a chunk of bread, calling Bre and talking for awhile, then falling asleep on the couch while he was working his way through briefs, only to be woken up by a ping on his private comm line and the entirely unexpected 'rescue mission' he had to go on.

This day was starting very differently.

The same incredibly sheepish expression graced twelve battered faces -- eleven of them sharing the same genetic template, one very different -- and even with the headache he still had, Bail was having to work pretty damn hard not to laugh. "Which one of you threw the first punch, anyway?"

When the eleven clones looked at their lieutenant in unison, Bail actually squeaked, "Really?"

Maul ducked his head, cleared his throat and said, "--yes, I did."

Bail couldn't hold it back anymore; he started laughing so hard that tears ran down his face and his ribs hurt, some combination of affection and pride and humor culminating in him leaning against the bars of the holding cell that the Blackbirds were in, almost unable to breathe for the force of it.

When he finally managed to get it under control, he shook his head -- still giggling! -- and said, "Okay. Okay, lemme go and make-- well. You know."

One of the Blackbirds started snickering uncontrollably at the near-miss of the pun, and Bail's face ached for his laughter as he went to go and bail the squad out of the drunk tank.

 

 

 

The day before...

Watching Smarty wrangle the hassled Corellian bureaucrat responsible for giving them a landing permit made Tango feel better. Smarty had a datapad out, and he was wording things so precisely that Tango thought maybe his brother should have been some kind of lawyer; maybe could still be, if the war ended and they were allowed to have lives after it.

After the end of the training mission, anything was a reprieve from Tango's thoughts about it. He was glad Shiv had taken him to go and get the courier, because he wanted to throttle Alpha to death for hurting Maul. Even seeing the ARC's broken nose hadn't taken the edge off of it; seeing Maul up on his feet helped a bit, but Tango still worried, because that was a nasty thing that was done to him.

Tango was still having a heck of a time even comprehending that the mission was over. It felt like it had been a lot longer than a couple of weeks; it felt like it had been a lifetime. Like he'd left things in those tunnels under the mountains and gained new things at the same time; like he had found something in himself that he hadn't known to look for before. Now, on the other side of it, he was trying to reconcile who he had been before it, and who he was now, and how so short a time could make such a difference.

"Hang on," Smarty was saying. "I'll take the datapad, get the signatures and our numbers, and transmit them."

The Corellian glowered, tiredly, from the holo projection. "Hurry up."

Tango quickly signed it, grinning, and then listened as Smarty went around and got everyone else's signatures on the affidavit. Once it was transmitted and a landing permit was sent back to their console, then came the debate about where to land.

"The beach!" Misty said, immediately. "Any beach warm enough to swim at?"

"I don't care where we go, but no mountains!" Tango called back, as he adjusted his flight plan, now that they had permission to actually enter the sector. Whatever else was going on, there was something deep and fundamentally soothing about playing his hands over the panel; to feeling the hum of the ship's engines through her structure. He hoped they got to keep her; she was a pretty big ship for a single squad, but she had a sweet hyperdrive and even if she didn't like wind shear, she answered to Tango's piloting well anyway.

Our nest, he thought, smiling to himself.

In back, his brothers were all shouting suggestions and requests. Brody didn't care, so long as he had a good HoloNet connection available. Smarty wanted somewhere with some cultural enrichment. Tally wanted them to make sure there was at least a level one clinic close by, though Tango didn't know if that was for Maul's sake or in case they ended up in trouble themselves.

"Slow down," Shiv broke in, his smile in his voice. "Booze is our first priority, so wherever we land has to have some kind of quick access to alcohol, and it has to have some kind of place we can set this ship down without having to pay for the privilege."

Tango kept half an ear out while Smarty started going through options on his datapad, listing the pros and cons of each. The moment he mentioned a city in the mountains, there was booing from the squad, but otherwise, they didn't interrupt.

They were just on approach when the decision was made, a consensus reached by popular vote and debate, all very parliamentary for a squad of government owned men and a prisoner.

Tango sent their new landing permit for authorization and keyed in the new coordinates.

 

 

 

Cosaintheas -- Southshield in the vernacular -- was beautiful.

A harbor town, its historical district was well-preserved, hugging the coastline; landspeeder traffic was heavily restricted, so everyone was either on foot or on old-fashioned pedal-powered bikes. When Smarty had seen someone actually riding one of those antiques, he'd stopped and stared after it for a long moment, surprised and already pleased that they'd come here instead of going to the bustle and chaos of Coronet City. The air was warm and smelled of salt and some kind of sea-plant life -- Misty was practically bouncing in place at the idea he might get to swim -- and even though they garnered a lot of looks from the people in the streets, it was still preferable to the speed and noise of a larger urban area.

Smarty was already feeling pretty good; when Tango had set their ship down on a public parking deck, taking up almost the entire top level, the traffic patrol droid had just about rattled itself apart in its indignation. It took some quick work on Smarty's part to dig out the local ordinances on a datapad and he would swear on-- something important that the droid's head had smoked when he pointed out that there were plenty of regulations on parking speeders, but none on parking ships. The ticket was avoided, at least for the time being; by the time they updated the ordinance, the Blackbirds would be long gone.

(Castle had already eyed their parking spot with his trained engineer's eye and told Tango it could support the weight of six couriers and all the landspeeders already parked there on top of it.  "Those Corellians make stuff that can take a beating and last," he had said, with a shrug. "It'll hold her safely.")

Now, they were exploring a little, a cluster of black-clad clones with their likewise black-clad lieutenant, the heat of the early autumn sun baking through their clothes in a manner that was undeniably enjoyable after their time on Bravo-984. And while mostly they were looking for a bar that they could afford -- they'd bypassed some sketchier prospects inland towards the parking deck -- they were also just taking the moment to breathe. The cross-streets leading to the main drag of the town were all smooth, flat stone, colorful and fitted in; along the way, small businesses were open, cheerful flags from all over the galaxy fluttering in the warm breeze off of the ocean.

It was all really charming. For all of the studying Smarty had done, he had comparatively little on-the-ground experience with different places and cultures. Growing up on Kamino had felt like starvation, a lot of the time; it didn't matter that he had a full belly or a warm place to sleep, like a lot of their brothers were resigned to being grateful for. He wanted to know things and see things and take some part in the beautiful, vast galaxy they inhabited. He wanted to taste new foods and pick up new languages; he wanted to learn new cultures, maybe because their own seemed so--

So hopeless. So many of their brothers identified themselves as Mandalorian, because of Jango; Smarty knew better than anyone that Mandalore, under Duchess Kryze, would never take them in because of what they were. Clones of an exile, soldiers in a war. Mandalore's pacifist culture was fascinating as a sociological study, but whenever he used to hear one of his brothers daydreaming wistfully about maybe having a homeworld that would accept them and cited Mandalore as an example, he winced inside.

Smarty didn't identify as anything, except maybe Citizen of the Kriffing Galaxy. And he wanted to see as much of it as he could.

If that meant he had to get shot at and risk death between brief stints of rest and recreation-- well, at least he had something to try to live for. And Maul, so far, seemed willing to indulge as much of the latter as possible, which made Smarty grateful for this assignment all over again.

They came out onto the main drag of the town; it was built above the sea, a barrier wall protecting it from tide and surf, even though the harbor was reasonably sheltered. Standing there, looking down, it was several meters to the blue-green water lapping gently against the buff-and-reddish stone wall, and Misty drew in a breath that sounded almost like a sob when he leaned his hands on the railing to peer down into it.

"You okay?" Smarty asked, watching him.

Misty nodded back, though he did look kind of choked up. "Yeah. I just-- I don't know. I kind of always feel like I'm--"

Smarty waited to see if he was going to finish; when he didn't, Smarty rubbed at his back, holding his datapad in the other hand.

"I just miss it," Misty finally said, jaw quivering a little before steadying. "I'm okay."

"That's it. We're building or stealing a kiddie pool," Brody joked, slapping his hand against the railing, dramatically. "We'll stick it in the back of the briefing room so our fish out of water has a habitat."

Misty scoffed at that, but he was smiling some when he said, "You're such a kriffin' ass, Brody."

"Hey, guys, what about that one?" Rabbit asked, and they all turned as he pointed to the facade of a bar; pretty flowers were hanging in pots from hooks inset into the side of the building, and there was a patio out front with chairs and umbrellas.

Smarty thought they might afford a single round in a place like that -- if they were really cheap about it -- but he didn't bother saying anything while a few of them went to go investigate, slipping into the cool-looking, darker interior.

They came back out less than ten seconds later, shaking their heads, and Castle just said, "Frippin' expensive. I wanna get hammered before we go broke."

Privately, Smarty didn't mind; that meant they could explore a little more before he was too tipsy to really appreciate the place.

 

 

 

It took them another hour to find a bar they could tenuously afford on the main drag; it was down south some ways, in a less picturesque part of the old town, closer to where that gave way to the more modern section yet further. Castle thought probably they should have just cut their losses and gone inland, where the bars were cheaper and rougher, but mostly all he wanted by the time they had found this one was a glass of cold water before they started up on the booze. The sun was nice after all of the time on Bravo-984, but the Blackbirds were starting to wilt under the heat they weren't yet accustomed to, and the humidity was going up steadily as the day wore on. Though, the sea breeze did help.

They bought one drink there per each clone -- some kind of summery cocktail, sweet and crisp and sharp -- though Maul waved it off and stuck to water. Castle was kind of disappointed, because just like the rest of the squad, he had a feeling their L-T was probably quite an entertaining drunk, but it was likely more to do with Tally's worrying than it was unwillingness or stodginess. Maul had maybe said a dozen words since they landed; of all of them, he seemed to still be halfway back on the planet they'd just left, which-- well, Castle couldn't blame him any. He kept pace with them and listened to them when they talked, but he still seemed kind of shut down.

That mental turn of phrase made Castle wince internally.

(But that holo-manip Brody was working on intermittently was coming along well; General Skywalker was going to become Viable's biggest celebrity without knowing it. Castle was meanly delighted with that thought, especially now.)

After that cocktail and a recounting of their credits, they migrated to another bar, this one a block inland; there, they managed to score happy hour drinks and put down two more cocktails apiece.

"These are so good," Rabbit said; his boyish face was flushing some at the high points, and Castle -- who only felt the mildest buzz so far -- rubbed over his mouth trying not to grin for how damned cute that was. "How do people even come up with this stuff?"

"Experimentation!" Smarty was nursing his drinks, the slow poke. "Never underestimate the creativity of people who want to get smashed in fun, colorful and tasteful ways."

Rancor was likewise apparently just as lightweight; he was throwing down his cocktails and then sitting eying everyone else's drinks. When Tally -- who was drinking lightly himself -- pushed his second cocktail over, the ex-shiny took a few slower sips before gulping the rest and then wavering in place just a little bit.

They got a little more chatty at the third bar -- even more inland, on the south end of the city, where there was a mix between professionals and dockworkers haunting the place -- and by then, Rabbit and Rancor were both in the giggling phase of pickled, leaning against each other and murmuring back and forth, then cracking up until one or the other was laughing helplessly face-down on the table. That was enough to keep Raze in stitches, too; hell, he didn't even seem to need to hear things to find it funny, as if the mere fact of his brothers laughing was enough to set him off. Shiv had finally loosened up enough to smile regularly again, occasionally making commentary on the brief conversations, most of them to do with how jealous the other squad probably was since they were stuck on Bravo-984 to wait for pickup, and Husker was just watching the kids laughing and smiling himself, quietly, looking pretty content.

Castle was still relatively sober, enough to note that the reactions to them by other people were an interesting mix between curiosity, disdain and sympathy of all things; he noticed Maul was watching too, though he had switched from water to tea.

"You all right, Lieu?" Castle asked, leaning over to keep his voice down between them.

Maul blinked once like he was surprised, then gave something of a facial shrug. "Fine. There's been a zeltron following us for the past two hours; I was wondering why she was."

Shiv's head shot up like he was jabbed in the ass with a stun stick, and he started looking around; Castle immediately remembered his sergeant's story while they were camping with Tano and thought, Seems he has a type.

"I don't think she means us ill," Maul said, probably not realizing that Shiv's looking around had less to do with worry and more to do with where he wanted to spend his night. But he upnodded to the windows; across the narrow side-street, barely wider than a walk, there was a zeltron woman sitting in the windows of the restaurant across eating. "It could be a coincidence, too," he added.

Castle eyed her with unabashed curiosity; she had dark hair with strands of blue running through it, and skin just a slight shade different from Maul's. She wasn't very big, but she was dressed in a way to show off that smooth skin, and Castle could see Shiv internally chewing over whether or not to walk across the street to chat her up.

If she was watching them, then she was doing a nice job pretending not to; instead, she ate and read her propped up datapad; the way she held that fork in her slender fingers made Castle honestly kind of jealous of the kriffing cutlery.

"It's about time to move on anyway," Tally broke in, counting out his credit chips. "I'm down to buying straight shots, so if we want more to drink, it's time to move onto the rotgut portion of the evening, and they don't serve that here. If she is following us, then we'll know soon enough, right?"

"Guess so," Shiv said, mostly managing to hide his disappointment. "We ready to go?"

 

 

 

The looks got more hostile and less sympathetic the further they went into the rougher sections of town. Not that any section of this place was as rough as some of even the mid-levels on Coruscant, but by comparison to the idyllic downtown, they might as well have been dives.

Misty was drunk enough to turn giggly or morose by turns; most of the time, he thought about how badly he wanted to swim. He knew he wasn't going to get to today, the sun was coming down on the horizon now, painting the town in reddish gold light and the haze in the atmosphere burnished everything with it. Tomorrow, though; if they were still here, he was going to go swimming.

For now, even the salt in the air felt like a comfort. He hadn't been prepared for how deeply it had resonated, when he got to lean over the railing and look into the water; hadn't been prepared for the sharp tug and ache in his chest, the burn in his eyes. Like greeting a long-lost friend, or a part of his family. It didn't matter that he'd never been on Corellia before; the sea called to him, the life in it, the rhythm of it. And this world had so much water; there were seafarers even now on these worlds, plying the waters for their living. He had spied a big sailboat out there, cutting through the water, and ached to be on it.

I could be-- a marine biologist, he thought. After the war's over.

He could swim with whales again; could track down harmful illnesses and parasites threatening the marine life; he could go and help protect reefs and endangered species. The mere idea made Misty want to cry with longing.

For now, though, he was an aquatics expert on a black ops squad, aiming to get drunk enough to retire so that tomorrow could come.

Now, they were in the fourth bar; it was a workman's bar, dockworkers and sometimes fishermen scattered around it, and all of them clearly local. The smell of frying food made his stomach rumble, and Misty realized he hadn't eaten anything since a slightly less nasty ration bar before they left their courier.

He was just thinking about that when one of the dockworkers spoke up, voice coarse and mocking, "Hey, look boys, we're hosting the Republic's finest!"

The Blackbirds all paused their conversation, four bottles of cheap whiskey sitting on their two tables; Shiv just scoffed quietly and gestured them back to their business.

The guy apparently wasn't done. "Whatchu think, Darl, you think they got anything under those black leggings? I bet not, bet it's all smooth sailin' down there; wouldn't want them to breed a million little lookalike babies, after all."

"Don't rise to it," Shiv said to them, shaking his head, waving the guy off.

"Yeah, we wouldn't want to show him our gear; it might disturb him out of his meditative solitude," Brody said, raising his voice a little bit with every word and completely ignoring Shiv's attempts to deescalate the situation. Shiv facepalmed and went to interrupt, but Brody went on, "Hey, hey, guys," he pointed to the Blackbirds, "listen to the wage slave, insulting the guys who actually have the balls to go out there and fight, while his planet benefits without any skin in the game."

Misty made a mental note that Brody was a mean drunk, even though his eyes were sparkling.

He also failed to stop himself from laughing, covering his mouth with his hand.

"Who you callin' a wage slave, clone?" the dockworker asked, bristling, pushing away from the dinged up, elbow polished bar. "At least I'm worth enough to be paid. Who cut your last paycheck? No one? You got some interesting definition of slavery, you half-chewed Mando copy."

"Come on, we're all exploited by the same damned system," Tally said, standing up and holding his hands up; Misty was kind of surprised he was being as diplomatic as he was, but then again, he probably didn't want to have to treat any injuries from thrown glass. Or thrown bodies. He eyed the dockworker, mouth in a line, then said, "You make low-end wages so that some asshole with a star-yacht can sexually harass a twi'lek serving girl, paying you a fraction of a fraction of a cut. We clones, none of us asked to be bred and born to go out there and get ourselves blown up. None of us have any real power here, not you, not us. We're not your enemies."

Somewhere down the bar, someone grumbled, "A kriffin' clone trade-unionist? For real?"

The man who had been poking at them opened his mouth and then closed it, something sort of-- less antagonistic in his expression. He muttered something under his breath and then palmed over his scruffy face. "Yeah. Point. Darl, send those dupes another couple bottles, put it on my tab."

Tally huffed out and offered a half-smile. "Thanks."

"What I wanna know, is how long it'll be before they're clonin' replacements for the rest of us," another dockworker said.

"It costs a small fortune to clone just one person," Tally answered, shrugging. "The only reason we're a hair cheaper is because we're all one genetic template, but we're still expensive. Frankly, it's a lot easier for them to wait until desperate, poverty-stricken people have kids, then exploit those kids while ensuring that they never make enough or get enough chances to break the cycle. Why spend the money on clones when all you have to do is continue the systemic economic oppression?"

By then, everyone in the bar was staring at Tally. It was only then that Misty noticed that Maul was conspicuously absent from their two tables; when Misty looked around, he finally spotted the zabrak in the back corner, blended into the shadows, watching the whole thing silently, still clear-eyed and sober.

Guarding over us, Misty realized, giving his Lieu a little smile, and the mirror he got back of it made him feel good.

The conversation that followed involved the entire bar, and by the time it was over, mostly everyone was incredibly drunk, Misty and the others had gotten to try fried sherrah strips on the house -- and geez, those were so good -- and they might just have incited the dockworkers into forming a trade union.

"You guys ain't nothin' like the news says," Jib -- the first dockworker -- said, arm slung around Castle's shoulders, before planting a big, smacking kiss on Castle's cheek.

"I hope they still feel that way during tomorrow's hangover," Castle just said, after he was freed from his limpet and they were out the door, ready to head back to the courier.

If-- anyone could remember which way that was now. Misty just followed, because he sure didn't.

 

 

 

In retrospect, the decision to stop at one last bar was probably not a good one.

Shiv and Tally were less pickled than some of their brothers -- they were practically carrying the Triple R Trio now -- but they still weren't quick enough to stop Tango from wandering into one more place, drawn by the rocket ships glowing in neon in the windows, steps reeling some. Shiv opened his mouth to try to call to Tango, but then Rabbit moaned and he had to deposit the kid in an alley to make use of the compost container, and the next thing he knew, half the squad was missing and the voices from inside that bar were getting loud.

"Kriff," he murmured, head spinning some, but still steady enough on his feet. "Here, Rabbit, c'mon. Just--"

He didn't want to leave Rabbit alone, but he also didn't want to drag him into a hostile situation, so he leaned the kid against the front facade of the building -- which only had high up, narrow windows, presumably so no one could be thrown through any larger ones -- and then glanced around again before slipping inside the building.

"--frippin' Republic military--"

"--better than stinkin' dolls, on an assembly line--"

"--least we're not a buncha shitworm cowards hidin' behind closed borders--"

"Uh-- economic oppression?" Misty tried, looking around at the extremely hostile faces of a bunch of dockworkers. "We're all screwed by the same people? No?"

Shiv might have actually started laughing at that, even as he grabbed ahold of Brody -- by far the most belligerent of their squad -- to try to drag him back outside. Tango just looked thoroughly confused, wavering on his feet; Tally had moved to try to get hands on Rancor, who was likewise reeling and confused. Raze was-- frip, Raze was already at the bar and somehow managed to go completely ignored, chatting at the tender in a friendly way that seemed to disarm the man. Smarty and Castle were bristling some.

One of the bar-goers started crowding Tango, who seemed more baffled than angry about it, and said, mockingly, "Get outta here. You cut-outs are all gonna be dead within the month anyway, we don't--"

A red-and-black fist came out of seemingly no where, and the meaty thudding sound it made when it hit that guy in the mouth silenced the entire bar.

Someone asked, whispering, "What the frip is that?"

Maul squared his shoulders -- outsized by pretty much everyone around him -- put himself between the crowd and the majority of his squad and said, "That is their lieutenant. Would anyone else like to threaten my squad?"

Despite everything, Shiv found himself grinning broadly. Brody quit trying to throw himself into the fight. Tango-- unsurprisingly looked like he was in love.

And even though an unbroken glass bottle clipped him in the head within the next ten seconds, and several chairs were broken; even though fists were flying and so was the occasional tooth, Shiv was still grinning when CorSec showed up.

He only stopped briefly and cursed internally when the beautiful zeltron was one of the arresting officers.

 

 

 

(Senior Deputy Constable Dani Faygan, in the meantime, managed to get the situation under control with the minimum of CorSec injuries and the maximum of trussed up hardcases, clones and one zabrak-hybrid who surrendered without fighting them; as the entire population of the bar was being loaded up, she stopped when the warm tan hand wrapped around hers from the ground and looked down in surprise at the clone trooper sitting on the walk outside. "'s' my squad," he slurred, looking up at her with pleading dark eyes. "C'n I come with you?"

Dani felt her face soften as she projected reassurance and comfort, turning and helping him up, then getting his arm across her shoulders. "We won't leave you here, sweetheart, I promise."

She didn't charge him, not even with disorderly conduct, even if he was stuck waiting in the cell so he could be with his brothers and CO.)

 

 

 

Now again

Bail leaned against the bars as he listened to the story, even as he counted up the number of small political favors he was going to owe for getting the charges dropped. Or the number of cigars and brandy; Draq' Bel Iblis could go either way on that. He winced a few times, he laughed several more times, and then he just looked over the men in the cell and shook his head with a smile. "You guys are something else."

He knew their names, faces and some things about them, but he had never met them before. But Bail had gone over each of their unofficial files (along with a number of others) when Obi-Wan had sent them, taking extra time out in the evenings to get an understanding of who would be added to this squad, making suggestions himself, so even though he had never met the Blackbirds in person before, he felt nothing but affection for all eleven of them.

"--if Queen Breha takes exception, I can-- do the explaining," Maul said, and winced, and Bail huffed fondly at that look, on the face of someone both he and Bre considered family.

"You think my wife hasn't taken apart a bar or two in her day?" he asked back, rubbing his cheek from how much his face ached for all the laughing. "Kriff, Maul. She's going to fall off the throne laughing when I call to tell her about this."

The looks the Blackbirds were giving him were such a strange mix between wonder and wariness; Bail was already trying to think of excuses to buy himself some hours to spend with them, and to check in with Maul. There was something about the zabrak's demeanor that was worrying him, and he knew he wouldn't be able to get over that worry if he didn't manage to wrangle enough time to find out more.

Luckily for all of them, that was when the guard came to unlock the cell, looking disgruntled. "Charges were all dropped. Get out of here, don't cause any more trouble," they muttered, turning and walking back out.

The Blackbirds all looked at one another -- some of them still slightly drunk, others looking painfully hung over -- and then managed to crawl to their feet. Bail watched them, glancing over the patches covering cuts on their faces and the bruises (even Maul had a few good dings on his face that Bail could see), and stepped out of the way as they shuffled out of the cell. "Don't go running back to your ship, okay? I'm gonna see about getting you guys a place to rest and recover."

Tally, the medic, eyed him warily again and Bail offered what he hoped was a reassuring look. "A nice place," he clarified, raising his eyebrows.

"What do you want out of it?" Tally asked, as he slipped past Bail; the fact that he was bold enough to ask that somehow made him even more likable.

"To take care of my friend, and my friend's squad," was all Bail answered, shaking his head, at nearly the same time as Maul said heavily, "Nothing; good luck trying to pay him back, too."

Bail chuckled quietly at that, wrapping his arms around Maul when he was finally out of the cell -- the last one out -- and feeling another spike of worry for the faint tremor through Maul's shoulders, even as he rested his brow briefly to Bail's shoulder. "Having credits is pointless, if you don't use them for the people you care about," Bail said, holding on carefully for a moment in deference to bruises, resisting the urge to squeeze, before letting go and stepping back, though he kept one hand on the back of his best friend's shoulder, trying to lend some steadiness. "So, let's go see if I can find you guys a decent rental until Obi-Wan's done getting himself into trouble and can come back for you."

 

 


(It didn't take long for Bail to find a beach-side rental, since it was just before the beginning of the tourist season; not huge, but big enough if the squad didn't mind sharing the beds. The longest delay leaving the station was Shiv slipping over to talk to the zeltron; Tally, even hung over, just murmured, "Lookit him go," as they talked.

It ended with Shiv securing a date with the officer who arrested him, for later that night, and precisely no one in the squad was surprised. Even if a few of them were a little jealous.)

Chapter Text

Husker had never seen the like before.

Frankly, it was almost intimidating.

The rental was a two story house, both of which had balconies with metal safety rails twisted into matching sunset patterns out the front, populated by comfortable looking chairs; it wasn’t beachfront, but it was only a block away from there, and since the city itself climbed upwards as it went inland, one could view the ocean from the second floor balcony with ease. It had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, an open kitchen and several other places one could grab a nap on the mostly-open main floor. Tile mosaics made up that floor; blue swirls that faded to green, to yellow before going more and more pale, tiled between in white and eventually blended into the same. The furniture looked so pristine and comfortable that Husk was almost afraid to even sit on it.

And it was all paid for by a senator.

A kriffing senator. Who was currently half-carrying Rancor to ease him down onto a lounge sofa that Rancor sank into, head lolling before he just groaned quietly and turned to his side. A senator who not only did that, but crouched next to the kid, rubbing his back and talking lowly.

Whatever Rancor said went unheard, ‘least by Husker, but Organa nodded and stood back up and went to the kitchen, coming back with a bucket from under the sink and a glass of water with ice cubes in it.

Husker’s boggling must’ve been obvious, because Tally slipped over to check on him after setting Rabbit down just the same way on another absurdly comfortable looking sofa; the medic’s eyes were ringed in red from his hangover, but apparently he wasn’t feeling mean about having one. “Need an arm?” he asked.

“What? No. Just–” Husk shook head slowly, gesturing around. “Kriff, this is a lot.”

Brody had appeared next to him, as Organa kept moving around the place, checking cupboards and drawers in the kitchen and apparently not happy with what was in there, because he pulled a datapad off the holster on his hip and started tapping in it. "You don’t suppose he and the Lieu–“ Brody said, barely keeping his voice down.

If Tally looked hung over, Brody looked like he’d been dragged behind a landspeeder by rope for a dozen klicks. Husker’s eyebrows drew together as he tried to figure out what Brody was asking, but Tally seemed to have caught on quick. "I think they’re friends.”

Oh. Husk rewound the morning so far in his mind; chewed over the fact that the senator had shown up as fast as a ship could travel between Coruscant and Corellia from when Maul made his single allotted comm call. The easy way that Organa would just put hands on Maul; the way Maul didn’t stiffen up whenever he did, like the Lieu did when most everyone else did. The fact that Organa just rented a beach house for a squad of clones and their prisoner lieutenant, after bailing them out of the drunk tank, without a moment’s hesitation.

He could see why Brody thought that, but Husk had to agree with Tally there. "Yeah,“ he said. "Besides, Organa’s married.”

“Arranged marriages usually allow for lovers,” Smarty said, joining them in their little cluster by the broad, gracefully paned front windows. “Do you guys want to know how much this place rents for even in the off-season, especially on short notice?”

“Nope,” Tally said, crossing his arms. “But I’ll bet it’s enough that it’s damn rude to speculate on whether Maul’s the senator’s piece on the side when said senator’s paying the tab for all of us.”

“You don’t even like him,” Brody said back, screwing his face up.

“I don’t trust him, but he hasn’t given me any reason to dislike him. At least beyond the fact that he’s a politician.” Still, Tally softened his critique on Brody’s poor manners by giving him a nudge. “Go lay down before you fall down and pick up a dozen more bruises.”

Brody had taken the brunt of the fists in that fight, mostly because he’d been the one looking for it. But the fight was over now, and the slicer looked like the piss and vinegar had gone with it; he stuck his tongue out at Tally, but then made his way slowly and carefully for the stairs.

Husker glanced around; Misty had disappeared into the downstairs bathroom. Shiv was currently sitting in a bench seat drinking another glass of water in front of different set of windows. Tango and Raze were both collapsed on what looked like a sectional couch of some kind, surrounding an entertainment holo system, though no one had turned it on yet. Castle was in there with Organa, talking to the Senator now, looking relatively unscathed. Maul was just inside the front door, leaning against the wall with eyes closed.

Husk was still trying to grasp the change in circumstances -- from being nestled on a ledge on the side of a mountain about a day ago to being in the lap of luxury -- when Organa looked up from his datapad, taking in those both present and conscious. "I can only stay until early afternoon. How about you guys get some sleep, and if you're up in five or six hours, I'll make you breakfast before I go?"

"Breakfast?" Husker asked, though out of respect, he tried to keep from sounding incredulous.

Organa shrugged, smiling. "I'm pretty good in a kitchen. I can definitely poach a mean egg."

"Sold," Tally said, before putting both hands on Husker's shoulders and steering him for the stairs.

"Uh-- thanks, sir," Husker added, back towards the senator, and just let himself be pushed along.

There was a hell of a lot he had to work through; had to think about what he could say to General Skywalker, when they next encountered each other, had to think about how to just process everything that had happened over the past few weeks, but when Tally pushed him towards the bed and Husker collapsed onto the soft sheets, the mattress that perfect kind of consistency between firm and soft, he decided that he could worry all about that later.

"Sleep well, brother," he told the medic.

"You too, Husk," Tally said back, dropping next to him, a smile in his voice.

 

 

 

"You look like you need to lay down yourself."

Bail's voice pulled Maul out of his own thoughts -- or lack of -- and he blinked his eyes open. The front of the house was in shadow, for the morning light, but everything still seemed somehow too bright and had done since he had woken up in the base on Bravo-984. He didn't know if it was from fatigue or from the electrical shock, but the visual distortion occasionally made him feel queasy. "Maybe," he answered, though, noncommittally. "You're going to make breakfast?"

Bail's expression was searching and quietly worried, but like it had been since Zigoola --really, even, since they met -- there was something calming about the man's presence. Maul had not quite figured out how to quantify it, even having noted it before to himself, but that much had apparently not changed. Bail inevitably felt kind to be around; there was no sense of pressure or expectation, no weight to it. Just an acceptance, warm with affection and loyalty.

Right now, that felt more necessary than sleep. It ached, for some reason Maul couldn't understand, but he was loathe to give it up.

"I was, yeah. If you're not gonna go lay down, want to walk with me to the store?" Bail asked, tilting his head towards the door. "I figured if there was a general store on the way to the grocery, I could pick your squad up some clothes and toiletries and that, too; save 'em wasting time going back to the ship."

"I could." Maul pushed himself up from where he had been leaning, opening the door and holding it open, temporary losing himself in the way the stained-glass window bowing over the top cast muted colors of reflected light on the wall.

Bail's hand brushing over his shoulder pulled him back out of it, and he followed the man out, letting the door close behind him. Outside, the air was still warming from the night; the humidity was high enough to cause haze in the distance. Maul tried and failed to imagine how the Blackbirds would react to being showered with new clothes and the like, and found he didn't have the first idea himself; even when Obi-Wan got him things, he never quite knew what to do with them, or what purpose it served, unless there was some form of necessity involved.

Though, he supposed this could be slotted into necessity, if he pushed it far enough. But they weren't so far from the courier that they couldn't manage with what they already had; further, the rental had a laundry unit. And the rental itself was unnecessary, but the looks on the Blackbirds' faces, even if they were hungover, had made him smile anyway.

Maul's understanding of economics went only so far as understanding that many people were inherently greedy and that could be manipulated. And that those who had, were privileged to have, often wanted more long after they no longer needed more. Bail and Breha were notable exceptions to that rule, the only two he had ever met who were independently and jointly wealthy, yet gave without reservation anything beyond what they needed to maintain their family legacies and care for their extended families and estates. And even now, Bail was ready to spend more to look after the Blackbirds.

He tried to work it all out, but his thoughts remained elusive and scattered. They kept falling apart into fragments, then dissipating; losing themselves to cuts of sunlight between buildings, to the idyllic scenery.

"They kill them," he said, after they had been walking awhile, having cut down a block, now walking along the sea wall. "The clones. If they're disloyal or-- defiant."

He heard Bail suck in a breath next to him, clearly startled by the words, probably especially so given where they were. Maul felt a sharp twinge of guilt at bringing it up, but at the same time, almost a sense of relief of having done so, especially to someone who might have the power to do something about it.

"I've been looking into their situation since Geonosis," Bail answered, after a few moments more, quiet and decidedly subdued. "And I've been keeping an eye on it. The Jedi assigned an overseer, and we -- the Security Committee -- demand weekly reports on losses, both on the battlefield and off. I'm still pushing to get them recognized as having basic sentient rights, but there are a lot of factions that would stand to lose by it, so they've been burying it every time I've managed to get some headway. But the-- the killing has stopped, at least there. A bunch of us managed to get language into the bill handling funding to Kamino that the Jedi overseeing had the final word on-- on the fates of clones the Kaminoans would have otherwise killed. It's not as good as I want -- I'd rather have a full panel's oversight -- but it was the one that was easiest to get done quickly."

Maul couldn't say that was a relief, exactly; it seemed precarious to trust their fate to the Jedi.

Everything seemed, right now, to be precarious.

Still, it didn't surprise him that Bail had been working on it. He nodded for the information, then said, "I keep wondering if Obi-Wan knows. But he has to, doesn't he?"

"Probably." Bail's voice was still somber, though Maul appreciated the straight-forward answer. "But I doubt he's any easier with it than we are."

Maul nodded again, falling quiet and rubbing at his forehead absently. He didn't have a headache anymore, though yesterday's was vicious enough that the memory of it lingered like an impression, like a threat behind his eyes and across his brow. Whenever they crossed a band of sunlight, even though it felt good against his skin, the afterimages it caused made his stomach twist. The burns hurt, in a sore and dull way, even with the bacta dressings, but all of it felt like it was through several filters and far away.

They walked another block, while he tried to pull it together, then Bail spoke up and broke the silence.

"You don't have to answer me, but--" Bail paused a beat, then asked, "are you okay?"

For a few moments, Maul went to nod and give the automatic answer -- I'm fine -- and the words were on the tip of his tongue when another answer presented itself.

It was the first thing he'd felt strongly since shaking off his terror after the EMP on Bravo-984, and it was no less than that had been; a cold spike of it right through the core of him, sudden and breath-taking and he didn't even realize he had stopped walking until Bail had hands resting on his shoulders lightly, and the man's expression when Maul looked up was one of profound concern, a match to the same radiating right off of him, and Maul tried in some desperation to push I'm fine past the clawing in his throat and chest.

But what came out was, instead, a tight and plaintive and almost questioning, "I don't think I am."

 

 

 

Bail listened to it all.

They found a bench on the main drag, on a little overlook platform built out from the seawall, and spent a good three hours there. The whole thing was interspersed with long lapses into silence, and Maul would seem to alternate between wound-up anxiety and almost numb recital of the entire training mission, from start to finish, but Bail didn't try to prompt or push, just sat and listened and felt about a thousand different things himself about all of it. Love for the Blackbirds, with their unique personalities and their willingness to band tight together, between themselves and with their lieutenant. Admiration for each, too. A special amount of respect for Tally, who apparently had taken it upon himself to help Maul rebuild -- or maybe even build for the first time -- some concept of boundaries and consent in the medical context.

He felt warm to his soul for Shiv's supportive steadiness (and for punching that ARC and busting his nose). Felt delight at the youngest clones gaining their names. Thought that Padmé might not forgive him, because if he happened to catch Skywalker before he had the chance to cool off, Skywalker was going to need some teeth replaced. If Bre didn't find some way to reach out from Alderaan to punch him herself, first.

Bail felt brightly proud of their bravery. And he felt aching worry for how dangerous their lives were, and more determined than ever to give those men a chance at better. Them and all of their brothers.

Them and the zabrak sitting next to him, arms crossed tight, looking both nerve-frayed and absolutely exhausted in equal parts.

Ultimately, he was damned proud of Maul, too. Because it was clear that it had all been hard on him; it was clear that the emotional and mental weight of the mission was no less heavy than the physical had been, and that the past few months created some kind of deep change, because even as of the last time they had been together in the same physical space -- on Alderaan, right after Zigoola -- Maul had been reserved, guarded, though Bail had caught plenty of glimpses behind those walls anyway. And this kind of openness, this kind of vulnerability, wouldn't have been displayed at all, even haltingly and fraught with fear.

Even if it made his heart ache to see it, and not be able to just fix it, Bail still thought that it was a good thing.

When it was over, he sat quietly absorbing it, letting it settle into his thoughts. When he was finished, he knew he didn't imagine the relief in Maul's expression when he said, "I think it's pretty normal to not be okay after all that, but for what it's worth, I think you guys did an amazing job."

Maul didn't reply, but to huff a little breath of a laugh out. But the corner of his mouth crept up, and Bail couldn't resist slinging an arm around his shoulders just to give him a squeeze; he smiled himself when Maul leaned into it for a few seconds.

"I think we're supposed to get groceries, aren't we?" Maul asked, after Bail let him go.

"Yeah," Bail answered, getting up and letting his best friend retreat from the subject without fuss. "Clothes, too. I saw a little shop about a block back, I bet we can find something there for your flock."

Maul nodded, getting up himself, none too quickly and rather gingerly. He seemed to wrestle with himself, then he just said, "Thank you. For listening."

"Someday," Bail teased, after nodding in acknowledgment of it, "I'm going to convince you of what the definition of anytime means."

The wry grin and the, "Maybe," Maul gave back just made Bail proud all over again.

 

 

 

"They look like flames."

The shop they went into did have clothes, but none of them were simple. Instead, a bright and colorful array of satin shirts covered the walls and the racks, and there was a holo-catalog with yet more that were stocked in the back and could be bought. The colors weren't doing Maul's vision any good, but he still was grateful for the distraction and the chance to let himself calm down again after his and Bail's long talk on the seaside, even if he was letting Bail do most of the actual shopping.

Now, Bail was holding up a shirt with what looked like blotches of flames, red and orange and yellow, on a black background. "I think they're actually flowers."

Maul tilted his head. They still looked a bit flame-like, but he supposed that he could also see where the streaks could be flower petals.

"I want to get it. Which Blackbird would like this one?" Bail asked, checking the tag for the size. Maul was still wearing the shirt he had borrowed from the 501st medic (even if he wasn't sure if he'd ever have an opportunity to return it), so sizing was easy enough. They had to guess when it came to pants, though most of them had an adjustable waist if they guessed too large.

"If it looks like fire, Raze," Maul decided, after a moment. He was rather startled to discover how easily he could picture Raze wearing it, and for that matter, Raze's delight in getting it.

Bail broke into a broad grin, laying the shirt over his arm and grabbing the matching swim-shorts that went with it. "One down, eleven to go."

"Ten."

"We'll see about that."

Maul snorted, rolling his eyes, though he regretted it a moment later when that made him mildly dizzy. Still, he couldn't quite manage to stifle the grin that stole up on him as he watched Bail moving around the shop in some manner of glee. Perhaps despite himself, he found himself looking around more carefully, trying to imagine which each of his Blackbirds would like to wear. He didn't know how long they had here, but the idea of them being able to-- to take something with them, something that would be theirs, felt right.

Misty's was the easy one; there was another shirt with an undersea scene, Corellian marine life on a turquoise-to-deep blue background. When Maul pointed it out, Bail snapped it up. The others were a little more difficult, and Maul had never in his life tried to parse out fashion; the closest he ever concerned himself with was the cut of his own robes, back when those mattered to him, both for ease of movement and also to strike an intimidating picture.

Bail, however, picked up whenever Maul faltered. He picked out a falling star pattern for Tally, yellow stars falling down into a dark blue, then black, and a hunter green forest pattern for Shiv; Maul suggested a pair of interesting patterns in two different colors and gradients for Rabbit and Rancor. Castle was going to get a printed scene of the downtown, done as if in a painting. Husker's was more subdued, a twilight beach scene with palm trees arching over a man in a hammock. Smarty's was a print of the flags that adorned the various shops in the area, from all over the galaxy. Brody's was a vivid green street map on a black background.

Tango's was the hardest, in the end; it seemed nothing suited the pilot. Even Bail was stumped. Where the rest had been more easily found, they both wandered through the store, looking for inspiration, until Maul thought to ask the clerk, "--do you have anything with dragons? Ah-- or wings?"

The problem was very quickly solved when the clerk nodded enthusiastically, his lekku swaying from the force of it.

 

 

 

Even Tally, who knew how to get into beds that weren't provided by the Grand Army and had quite a few times, had never woken up in such a nice one.

He hadn't been asleep long, but long enough to shake off the worst of the hangover, though the lingering exhaustion from the mission itself protested from half his joints and made itself known in the heavy sensation of his limbs. He groaned quietly as he stretched and then turned onto his side; Husker was still racked out beside him, flat on his back and snoring softly at the ceiling.

The midday sun was filtered through skylights which had darkened to only allow so much light in, and from the windows that were open along the side of their room, sheer off-white curtains drifting lazily. From downstairs, Tally could smell breakfast cooking and his stomach rumbled in response to it.

He came downstairs just in time to see Raze tackle a senator from behind, and said senator go oof and catch himself before he could be knocked face first into a skillet where eggs were being made.

"I take it that's a yes vote?" Organa asked, once he managed to regain stable footing, though he was doing that with Raze literally hanging off of his shoulders in an oversized bear hug. Still, he was grinning broadly as he asked it, color high on his cheeks. For a second, Tally eyed him up and down and thought some very inappropriate thoughts about what the good senator would look like under him on some bedsheets. Or, for that matter, what those long legs would feel like wrapped around his back.

He shook it off, clearing his throat quietly, and intentionally ignored the questioning look that Maul shot his way. Explaining to his CO why he was undressing a politician with his eyes was definitely not on his agenda.

"Kriff, I love it!" Raze answered, voice high and excited, before he let go and landed back down on his feet. When he spotted Tally, he waved what looked like a black shirt with fire on it at him. "Tally! Look! The senator got us things! I got a shirt and some swim-shorts, I think I'll go with Misty when he wakes up, I know he wants to go swimming."

"Raze. Raze, keep it down," Tango groaned from the sectional couch, where he hadn't gotten up yet.

Rabbit and Rancor, though, had both clearly shaken off their own hangovers; they had glasses of water in hand and still looked kind of rough, but they were dressed in-- some wildly colorful clothes and Tally felt his own lips twist into a bemused grin at the sight of them. He wished he could shake off the indulgences that fast himself, but apparently, even a year and some months in age made it harder.

"Wherever you go, stay in groups of at least two," Maul said, leaning against the counter. He looked like he was on his feet by willpower alone, but there was also something clearer about his expression; Tally had been worrying since that damned droid popper and the subsequent aftermath, but whatever Maul had been doing while Tally was asleep had been good for him, judging by the relaxed state of his shoulders and the good-humored, engaged tone of his voice. "The locals aren't universally friendly and I'd rather not have to call Bail again to, ah--"

Organa dropped his head, shaking it and giggling -- the man actually giggled-- as he moved to dump the eggs on a series of plates lined up on the counter, where there were already steaming piles of what looked like potatoes in a warming tray and some kind of meat in another. "Should I leave a coded credit chip, in case you do need ah--?"

Maul failed to hold a straight face for about two seconds before he started laughing, though it was accompanied by a wince; still, an open, full-on laugh was a rare occurance from the L-T and absolutely despite himself, Tally felt his distrust in Organa dissipating like the fog in the morning sun.

"I sure wouldn't turn down some spare credits," Tally piped up, throwing some mischief into his voice, though firmly keeping any flirtation out of it. Or trying to.

"Done, then." Organa set the skillet in the sink and then gestured. "Order's up, boys! Whoever can't eat yet, I'll stick theirs in the oven to keep warm."

How fast Blackbirds appeared at that call was impressive; Shiv swooped in from the back of the house, Brody came down the stairs, Rabbit and Rancor both leapt from their loungers. Even Tango managed to drag himself up.

Tally just stood back and watched the swarm, smiling and shaking his head to himself as he did.

 

 

 

The Negotiator's call came just before Bail was going to leave.

The Blackbirds took to him quickly; a few of them were more awkwardly formal -- Tango and Husker, mostly -- but after breakfast and another two hours of conversation, it was clear that the squad had folded Bail right into their social structure. Raze adored him, which wasn't much of a surprise, but even Tally had apparently decided that Bail was good company and took to ribbing him occasionally, usually about economics. Maul only half listened, but when he did, it made him smile; he wasn't ready to go and try to lay down yet and free-floating anxiety kept deeper sleep elusive, but he did doze here or there, and whenever he woke up to the latest conversation, it was always entertaining.

"--not saying it's perfect, Tally. But we've come a long way since our civil war, and we're still pushing forwards. None of us are sitting on our laurels."

Tally was sitting on a lounger across from Bail, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, feet up next to the senator's hip on the opposite chair, which had been moved apparently to make the debate easier. Bail, in turn, was reclined himself, though he kept his feet on the floor. "I hear a lot about incremental change. It's usually an excuse," Tally said, dropping his chin and eying Bail down the bridge of his nose.

Smarty was also there, leaning forward from a third chair off to the side. "Playing senator's -- sorry, sir, in this context it would be Viceroy's -- advocate, Alderaan's shifting political structure towards total democracy is demonstrable. I mean, yeah, it's slow. But it's clear and on record."

Bail nodded, agreeing. "You also do have to take into account the overall political opinion," he pointed out. "Alderaan's been a monarchy from the beginning. Since House Organa took the crown, my mother instituted a census poll not only for Alderaan, but for our whole system and all of our extra solar colonies, as to what public sentiment was towards the representative monarchy we currently have, and the polls are consistently in favor of continuing it. That might change now, with the war, and if it does, then we're going to have to take that into account, but as of right now, our citizenry wants things to continue on the track that they have been."

Maul understood Alderaan's social structure barely at all, but he knew enough to know that it was a happy world compared to most. No one wanted there; no one was left out in the cold. And it was not a case of them just closing their borders to non-Alderaanians; as a world, she regularly took in refugees, as many as they could support in any given year.

He was just about to weigh in and perhaps say as much, wanting to offer support to Bail's side of the debate, but then his comm beeped in his pocket. Maul had made sure he had his issued comm on him, though it had been temporarily confiscated in the drunk tank, and had also made sure that the courier would relay any messages to it with its more powerful transmitter. When he saw who was calling on the pop-up display, he got up; at the questioning looks, he only said, "It's General Kenobi."

They probably expected him to take the call there, but Maul didn't. He slipped outside around the side of the house, in the narrow tiled walk there, making sure he was not too close to any windows before answering it.

Obi-Wan's image appeared; he looked not-too-much the worse for wear, though tired. The connection wasn't perfect; it held, but it occasionally blurred or shifted sideways or crackled with interference. "We're just coming back into range now," he said, without preamble, though the way he actually leaned to the side as if somehow he could see from his end whether Maul was by himself was oddly endearing.

"I'm out here alone," Maul said, a half-grin sneaking up on him. Though it fell away again anyway. "We beat the scenario. I imagine Skywalker already knows that, though."

"Oh, darling. Hello." Obi-Wan blew right past the report, shoulders sagging; he leaned forward as if he could reach right through the comm connection. His eyes closed for a moment, and his voice was thick as he said, "I've missed you so. I doubt he knows, he was diverted the moment we got back, him and Ahsoka. Are you all right? Are the Blackbirds? Where are you?"

There were too many questions there for Maul to answer in full. And he was unprepared for just how intensely he felt himself; as if the longing in Obi-Wan's voice reminded him that it mirrored his own. He took a slow, slightly trembling breath in deep, then let it out just as carefully. "We're-- we're all right. I mean, we are safe. We're on Corellia; Bail's here. He, uh, had to come and-- rescue us from the drunk tank."

Obi-Wan's blink was gratifying amidst the more complicated, tangled emotions.  "I-- wasn't expecting that," he said, before he broke into a smile, sort of wondering. "I don't have long, I have a lot of calling to do--" and there, Maul realized Obi-Wan had called him first, before anyone, even the Council. "--but I am looking forward to hearing the whole story. We should be in range to pick up your courier in another sixteen hours. If you want to save on fuel, then eighteen."

Maul nodded back, calculating the time in his head; they'd have to leave fairly early in the morning, but it would give the squad the rest of the day to enjoy, too. "All right. Send the rendezvous coordinates and I'll make sure we're there in eighteen hours' time. Are you all right?" he asked back, raising his brows.

"I am. I'm tired, but I am." Obi-Wan's grin took on a more rakish quality. "Better now, by far, for having seen you even in hologram form."

Maul scoffed, trying to chew down a grin, "Reprobate."

"But always yours, darling." Obi-Wan heaved out a breath. "I have to go, I've quite a bit to report to the Council. I'll catch you up when we rendezvous."

"Be safe." It was rather hard to actually let go of the comm connection; yet another surprise after so many. "We'll see you soon."

"Be safe," Obi-Wan said back, looking exactly as reluctant.

When the call ended, Maul rested his head back against the side of the house and tried to figure out how he was ever going to tell this story a second time.

 

 

 

Right after breakfast, most of the Blackbirds had dispersed, following Misty to the seaside, all of them adorned in their new clothes. Tally thought he was probably going to have to have a word with Tango about not glaring darts at Bail Organa's back every time the senator wasn't looking -- he knew why Tango was, because if Brody was willing to speculate on the senator and their Lieu, then of course Tango would see Organa as competition -- but for he, himself--

Aside any inappropriate lust (and kriff, that was made no easier when he actually had Organa's full attention; those dark eyes and high cheekbones were frippin' devastating), he found himself really believing that Organa meant it when he said he was trying to change things. His answers didn't sound like excuses; he was frank about how much the Republic had to lose economically if the clones were given basic sentient rights, and why so many politicians who were supposedly honorable wouldn't sign onto his bills attempting to make it so, and he was also really clear in how he wasn't going to give up.

Tally could have brushed all of that off, but not so much how they left things.

"Thank you," Organa said, the good-natured affability usually on his face gone in favor of an earnest, serious look. "I know being a medic is your job, but handling things the way you did--" He shook his head. "Just-- thank you."

Tally had been surprised when the senator had approached him just before leaving, and he was more surprised by that. "How much did he tell you?" he asked, after a moment, because it was hard for him to even imagine Maul actually discussing things with someone, but it was also pretty obvious that he'd been talking to Organa about it.

"I imagine most of it. I mean, given I wasn't there myself." Organa looked to where Maul was across the road talking to Misty and Castle, who had apparently come back for lunch and towels and were still dripping water on the walk, then back to Tally. "But he especially made it a point to tell me how much respect you gave him, and I wanted you to know that I appreciate it. Even if it's not my life and health, I appreciate it. And that if this war ever ends, and you still want to be a doctor, I'll make sure you have a spot in our program at the U of A's School of Science and Medicine at Aldera."

Something about that statement hit Tally right in the throat; some part of him that was still an unnamed baby clone on Kamino, being told he didn't have the necessary intelligence and temperament to advance further into medicine than the field surgery program, even though he was trying so damned hard to prove them wrong. He dropped his head, swallowing, and tried to find an answer to that.

And he tried to keep his eyes from stinging too hard, too.

"And just in case you ever need to know, I'm working on Maul's situation too." Tally leaned into the hand Organa rested to the front of his shoulder, as the senator said, "Much as I'm hoping for a chance to relieve Anakin Skywalker of a few teeth, the real issue there is the Jedi Council. But I'm working on it."

"I'm glad you're his friend," Tally said, taking a few breaths to try to get himself back contained and under control, voice a little rough.

"I'd say I owe him for saving my life at least twice, maybe three times, but--" Organa offered a shrug and a small smile. "That's not why. But now, I have to go. Thank you again, Tally. Stay safe and stay alive, because I'm working on all of this."

Tally scrubbed a hand over his face, realizing that there was every damned chance he was going to go find a pillow to have a breakdown into, and bobbed his head in a nod back. "Yessir. Thank you, too."

Organa -- Bail -- gave his shoulder a squeeze, then headed out of the gate and out to join Maul, who was presumably going to walk him back to where he could get to his ship. Tally looked after them, the unlikely friends walking together, and then vanished back into the house.

The pillow was tear-stiff when he fell asleep, but the long nap he took after was more healing than any he'd ever taken, too.

 

 

 

(They all came back together after the sun went down; the back deck of the house had not only a place to grill -- and Bail Organa had made sure they had enough food to see them through the day, never mind the credit chip he handed over, just like he said, to cover any other expenses -- but also a jacuzzi that it was apparently possible to fit no less than eight clones in, which they knew because of course they tested it out first. Misty was sacked out on a deck chair, skin darkened by the sun, a hint of red across his cheeks and nose from sunburn; Tango, newly reassured that the senator was not stealing his crush, was trying his hand at grilling meat over charcoal, wearing his shirt with the red dragons curling over the shoulders to meet face-to-face at his chest. Husker was relaxing in the jacuzzi with Castle, while Brody was working steadily on his advertisement for Viable; Shiv had slipped out to go on his date after checking in with them, and Smarty was reading a book that had been on one of the shelves inside. Rabbit and Rancor looked the best sort of dazed, as if the whole day, minus their hungover morning, had been the very best they had ever lived. Raze, unsurprisingly, was sprawled on Misty, snoring and peaceful. Maul was relaxing in a hammock at the very back -- wearing a loose, subdued blue button-down over a new black t-shirt -- and dozing occasionally, or looking up at the stars through the trees the rest of the time.)

(Tally just watched over them all and waited for dinner to be finished and loved them and dared to feel hope.)

Chapter Text

Dear Flanker,

I know it's been awhile.

I must have started this letter a hundred times in my head, while we were out there on Bravo-984. Maybe more. And the longer I went without writing, the more I panicked because how was I ever gonna catch you up? How was I ever gonna fit it all into one letter? How would I ever be able to tell you everything when there was so much of it, and make it so you could follow along? I mean, writing the squad's after-action report is one thing, there I just have to cover the facts, at least all the facts that I can cover. Some things never make it into reports, even though they happened. You know how it goes.

But the rest of it. How do I tell you the rest of it?

I kept thinking: I gotta tell Flanker--

Our brothers out there face loss by saying that our dead are only marching far away. And the Jedi always say that no one ever really dies, they just become one with the Force. I know why they do it, I guess maybe for the same reason I still write you letters; in the end, we want to believe that our dead can hear us and see us and are never really gone.

But I don't feel like either of those, brother. I feel like-- I feel like I'm the one marching, instead. And that you're a fixed point in time which every step leads me further away from. And like these letters are me looking over my shoulder and seeing you getting further away in the distance behind me, and not being able to stand it.

 

Kriff.

I don't know how to catch you up. You keep getting smaller into the distance no matter how many words I put down. And I don't want to leave you behind, but every step I take forward means that I have to. And you're forever frozen there, just as I remembered you, and I guess sometimes I get scared that you won't recognize me anymore, and that one day I'll look back and you'll be around a bend I didn't feel myself taking.

 


I don't know why my mind's going there. We're back on the courier -- Tango's started calling it the Nest -- and we got about two hours before we rendezvous with the Negotiator. We got to spend about two days on Corellia, and were put up by Senator Organa in this nice beach house after he got us out of the drunk tank; I knew he and Maul were friends, but I don't think I realized that it wasn't some kind of political thing or some kind of odd acquaintance until I got to see them interact with each other. Now I think they'd probably lay themselves bodily across a river of lava, if it would give the other a bridge to somewhere safe, and maybe that's why I was reminded of you.

Or maybe it was Dani. She's with CorSec, a senior deputy constable. I met her officially for the first time when she arrested us for a bar fight. Lookin' at her made me think of the Wheel and think of you; here I was, meeting another beautiful zeltron, and you weren't there to groan at me or accuse me of stealing her attention or anything. Instead, I went and talked to her while we were being outprocessed, scored a date and spent the night with her, though I had to leave early to get back to the courier.

The sex was dynamite.  So was the pillow-talking.  So was the holding and the breathing.  Waking up with her head on my shoulder and her hair all over my arm and chest, in the pink dawn light--

She was funny and kind and I hope she feels as taken care of as I do.

Geez, brother. There's nothing coherent about this letter, I'm sorry.

I almost fell off a cliff. One second I was standing there, then I was falling. If not for the lieu and then the rest of the squad, I'd be my own fixed point in time. Would I be allowed to walk back to yours, if I was?

Would they keep looking back over their shoulders to find me, if I did?

 

 

 


Oh frip. I was getting kind of emotional and one of the guys asked what was wrong, and I explained about what it felt like thinking about you and it got Rabbit crying. We're about a half-hour from the rendezvous now. I think he'll be okay. I guess maybe he gets it better than most, him and Rancor, not because they've lost each other, or because one of them walked too far ahead, but because they've probably thought about it themselves. What they would do, if it happened.

I want to tell them that they would be okay, maybe not right away, maybe not even for a long time, but--

But I don't know that, do I? Not really. Because I panic about trying to fit all these events into a letter that you can never read. Because I look back over my shoulder and watch you receding into the distance.

I guess, what I'm trying to say, is that I love them. And it hurts that I'll never get to show them all off to you, or find enough words to tell you about all these things that happened. That for the first time, I can't write everything down for you because it's so much. It's so much. And it hurts because I know, I think, that this is the first step I'm taking around the bend.

I love you, brother. I know I didn't say that when you were there to say that to. I know that I always felt it, though, and I know that I never doubted that you loved me. But I wish I had said it. Maybe it's not too late to shout it back down the road.

Anyway, I'll leave you with something good. This was this morning; I took it before I had to leave Dani and come back here.

 

 

And, of course, The Raze Report:

 

 

Check him out.  I won't be surprised if I catch him wearing that shirt under his armor, he likes it so much.  I've taken to calling him and Rabbit and Rancor the Triple R Trio, because they form a mini-squad inside the squad.  It makes me happy that they have, just like it makes me happy that Tally and Husk have found their brotherhood and that our ex-shinies have names now, and that Misty got to go swimming, and that Maul has a friend who loves him enough to-- uh, rescue him and us from jail and make sure we're okay.

Not all of this road is pain.

I'll write again. Sooner, this time, I hope.

-Shiv

Chapter Text

This awesome extra for Blackbirds was written by B_Radley, who wrote Dani's POV of her night spent with Shiv.  Read (and comment!) on it here, and if you love Dani as much as we do, there are a ton of stories about her over on B's side of things!  And if you're a regular reader, there's been a lot posted lately; I'd apologize, but instead, I'll just hope you enjoy the reading materials. XD

Chapter Text

                                            And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

-T.S. Eliot; East Coker

 

 

 

Standing on the Negotiator again was-- surreal.

Shiv still felt a little off-kilter from his letter to Flanker when they landed, sometime during the morning watch; shipboard time was coordinated to Coruscant time, and was a few hours behind that town on Corellia in that regard, which just added to the sense of being displaced.

He hadn't managed to completely sort through things, but he had gotten a start on his reports while they were making that last ten minute leg to the ship. He knew General Kenobi was going to want to have it in hand as soon as possible, and he kind of wanted to get it out of the way and hope it provided some of the closure that the actual mission's end didn't, thanks to Alpha's kriffin' droid popper.

"I have to include that, Tally," he had said, as they were finishing up disembarking; Tally had already chased Maul off of the newly (if unofficially) dubbed Nest, because apparently their lieutenant was just as mildly lost as they were about being back here and had lingered around looking exactly like he had no idea that he was supposed to get off the ship and go unpack and rest, and then once he was gone, Tally had brought up Maul's concern about word getting back to the Jedi Council that he had been compromised like that.

Hearing Tally, of all people, wanting to body-swerve bringing it up instead of going balls-to-the-bulkhead to get it fixed had knocked Shiv momentarily speechless. When Tally took in his look and explained why Maul didn't want to turn it into an incident, Shiv--

The idea that someone -- that the Jedi Council -- had once calmly discussed just killing their lieutenant, as if he was some rabid akk dog to be put down and not a person, made Shiv's stomach crawl into his throat and twist there. But even as he shuddered to his bones for the thought, he knew he couldn't just ignore the droid popper happening at all, because it was almost certainly going to be in Alpha's and Kix's reports.

"Kix said he won't go into details," Tally said, seriously, standing and waiting for Shiv with his dufflebag's strap over his shoulder. "And I promised I wouldn't. And I don't think Alpha's in any hurry to go and volunteer that he coulda killed an officer on a training mission. I don't like it either, Shiv, but I'm not gonna put Maul back into their crosshairs until he's ready to fight that battle. And right now, he's really not."

"So, I should just say it stunned him and didn't end up with the burns and the rest?" Shiv asked back, his own anxiety over that idea threading its way through his shoulders

"Put down 'mild injuries' because that's something that can be confirmed." Tally scrubbed at his face one-handedly. "Technically, it's the truth."

"I don't--" Shiv grabbed his own bag, cutting himself off, then headed for the ramp down and off the ship shaking his head. "Okay. I'll do that. But I think we need to--"

"--get Castle on designing some kind of external shielding?" the medic asked, a hint of a smile tugging on his mouth, if wanly.

It did make Shiv smile back, even for the worry. "Yeah, lookit you, reading my mind."

"Part and parcel of my job," Tally just said back, reaching out to clasp the back of his neck for a brief, affectionate squeeze as they walked.

The other Blackbirds were long gone by then, probably back to their shared bunk room. Shiv noticed the way the other troopers on the hangar deck watched them, and he wondered in the back of his mind how different they looked since they had disembarked. At how much more like a unit they looked, instead of a scattering of clones stuck together.

“Feels like we’ve been gone longer than we have,” he said, hefting his gear over his shoulder and looking forward to hitting his rack. Pleasurable as his night with Dani had been, he hadn't exactly gotten a full night's sleep.

“That’s a surprise?” Tally asked back, casting a good-humored and tired glance over.

“Nah, not really.” They slipped off the hangar deck and into the corridors; it was the middle of the morning watch and most everyone was at their stations working or preparing for work, leaving it quiet. Shiv figured they’d get their new orders pretty soon, so he wasn’t going to fret about it until after a shower, some rack time and one very large cup of caf come morning. “Wonder if our caf maker is still there.”

“I’ll bet if it’s not there, it will be by morning.” Tally smirked, which was when Shiv realized who it was who liberated it in the first place.

He laughed at that, long and deep and much-needed; while he hadn’t asked any questions about who liberated the thing, he had his guesses and Tally had been on the very bottom of that list. Though, on reflection of all of the things Shiv had learned since then, he probably shouldn’t have been.

They fell into a companionable silence as they wound their way towards their bunk room, and Shiv almost didn’t process what he was seeing when he came around the corner to find their general had their lieutenant crowded back against the wall. He froze there, bristling instantly in his surprise as he pulled Tally back around the corner, just to give them a moment to assess the situation and what it meant.

If he was bristling, Tally was outright ready to launch; Shiv could feel the muscles knotting under his hand, and he kept a grip on the medic while they peeked around the corner.

It was definitely not, uh– a fighting kind of pinning.

Maul had both hands in the general's hair, and Kenobi was kissing him with such fervor that he had Maul's head back against the bulkhead with the force of it. It was exactly the devouring kind of kiss of reuniting lovers, and Shiv had-- no idea how to feel about it. Shocked, for sure. Protective, yeah. But mixed, too; when Kenobi's hands drifted down and brushed past where Maul had been burned, and Maul flinched from the touch, Kenobi broke the kiss in what looked like clear worry, murmuring something or another and easing back a fraction.

Though he didn't get far before it was Maul who was pulling him back in for another kiss.

“Oh,” Tally whispered; the tension hadn't gone out of his arm yet, but it was clear enough he'd figured out the tenor of that at the same time Shiv had, and that neither of them had cause to rush in there and rip the general away from their Lieu.

Shiv nodded silently, then turned and pulled Tally the other way; they could take the long way back to their bunks.

Once they were definitely out of earshot -- even their Lieu's better-than-human earshot -- Tally said, "This just got really kriffin' complicated, didn't it?"

The question was clearly rhetorical, but Shiv nodded again anyway. "Yeah. FUBAR kind of complicated."

"Frip," Tally sighed. "Just-- frip."

 

 

 


If Obi-Wan had been aware that their display in the hallway had been witnessed, he would have spent the next however long in a panic, but he wasn't.

Instead, he was relieved. And glad that Maul had returned with his squad, safely.

And he also was overwhelmed.

After being drugged, chained to Dooku, dealing with Anakin and the Count both, dealing with Hondo-- after all of that, and the deep well of frustration that he couldn't do anything to capture Dooku and the even deeper well of hostility he had been pinned inside of (and unfortunately helped perpetuate), getting word on the Blackbirds' victory and their comparative safety was a sweet spot amidst a great deal of reporting, explaining, coordinating, catching up and otherwise Being a General.

But when they picked up the courier, he had managed to break away from his neverending duties and headed down to meet them, and the sight of Maul in the hallway trudging in the direction of their shared quarters had cracked something in him.

Obi-Wan had known that they were alone, though even if they hadn't been, it would have taken all of his restraint not to do what he did next.

They hadn't even said anything before coming together; his hands lit on Maul's face, then shoulders, and then Maul slid fingers into his hair and they were kissing; pressed so close, feeling so unguarded and joyful for their reunion, Obi-Wan mapped his darling's mouth anew and squeezed his eyes closed tight against the sting in them, and against the desperation and longing that he had managed to keep banked in his heart, but never entirely forgot.

It was only after their second kiss had broken that he asked again, "Are you all right?" He'd felt the padding of the bandages through Maul's t-shirt and the subsequent flinch, and it had jolted him out of their first kiss, though he could sense no edge of serious pain and Maul had drawn him back into that second kiss before bothering to answer his question.

"Tired," Maul replied, with a head tilt in lieu of a shrug; Obi-Wan could feel that exhaustion radiating off of him, too, along with some phantom sensation of soreness from his midsection, which suggested that he was too worn to bother holding onto stronger shields right now. "Still standing, though."

Obi-Wan managed to resist taking his hand to lace their fingers together, though he put a hand to the back of Maul's shoulder as if he could lend a bit more strength. "Come on, let me walk with you. I'll make you tea and-- and we can talk, before I have to get to the command deck; we're heading for Juma 9, though we won't get there until tomorrow evening."

Maul nodded, falling into step with him; he was wearing his usual black, and an overshirt not dissimilar from the one that Bail had gifted him on Alderaan, albeit closer to his own size; there was no sign of his parka. His lips quirked in a rueful looking smile. "I'm not sure where to start."

"Tea. And you, off your feet for a bit; it looks like you need it," Obi-Wan said, even as he was surprised by the thumping of his own heart.

That Maul didn't offer so much as a token argument to that suggested how much he probably did need to sit down for awhile; he only nodded acquiescence, and once they were through the door of their quarters, he set his bag aside and then sat on the couch, leaning back into the space between the backrest and the arm of it, tucked into the corner.

It was decidedly hard to not just-- plaster himself against Maul, but Obi-Wan moved to go and get a kettle on. "Do you want to start? What happened, how did you get hurt? How bad is it?"

"Not bad. How did you end up in trouble?" Maul asked back, just pointed enough to get it across that he didn't want to be the one to start talking at length.

"Well, we had been on the way to Quell when you and the Blackbirds disembarked; we managed to get that situation under control for the stationed ground forces, and then Anakin and Ahsoka were diverted to Mon Gazza while I stayed to help with securing the situation on Quell, heading up our troops as well as the 501st. Which tea do you want, darling?"

"Any's fine." Maul stifled a yawn behind him, and Obi-Wan glanced back just to catch the end of it, which had his heart aching in warmth.

Something herbal, then, he thought as he got into their cupboards, searching through as he continued, "While I was there, Anakin had intelligence sent to him from the 332nd; he headed off in a Starfighter to handle that at a Separatist outpost in the Outer Rim, and after he came back from destroying a prototype droid they were developing -- a Jedi Hunter, for Force's sake -- we met up again just in time to arrive at an opportunity to capture Dooku." He frowned as he went through their boxes and tins of tea, lining them up neatly on the counter-top, looking for the perfect one: something with good body, but no caffeine, something Maul would find pleasing and relaxing both. "Since the 212th and the 501st were handling the mopping up operations on Quell, I left Cody and Rex in charge, and he and I and Ahsoka headed off with his starfighter and the Twilight to see if we could get him aboard the Separatist ship. We ended up dropping wreckage in an ice field, along with Anakin's starfighter -- and Anakin -- in the hopes that they would pick it up. Which, of course, they did-- only to end up capturing Anakin. Admittedly, that was the plan all along. I suited up for EVA and told Ahsoka to get the Twilight back to the Resolute and--" He paused, finding the perfect tea, an Outer Rim import that they had gotten a few years ago, vacuum sealed to keep it fresh, and turned with it--

--only to find Maul dead asleep, head lolled to the side at that neck-aching angle that reminded Obi-Wan of months ago, in the Halls of Healing.

He set the tin of tea aside, then covered his mouth with one hand, the other pressing over his own confused heart.

He had known, when he had started putting together the Blackbirds, that it meant-- it meant giving something up. That it meant sharing his darling's time and care and attention. In fact, when he had been sitting there agonizing over it, bouncing it off of Bail, it had been very much with that as part of the goal; there was no strict logistical need for the Blackbirds to exist, but for as much as Obi-Wan appreciated having Maul at his side, on the battlefield and off, Obi-Wan never let himself lose sight of what Zigoola had taught him.

Watching Maul take so easily to Bail, and indeed Bail taking so easily to Maul in turn, had driven home just how alone and isolated Maul really was. That aside himself and Vokara Che -- and she was his healer, rather than his friend -- he'd had no one else who--

No one else who knew all of the good things about him. His courage and his loyalty, his quick and clever sense of humor. His dogged endurance in the face of odds, even the worst kinds of odds. They didn't know him; those who even knew of him rarely knew what to make of him, unless they had already set their minds on him being dangerous. They didn't know how long he'd had to walk, stumble and pull himself along to find even this kind of stability and peace in a galaxy that had done its very best to remove any trace of it from his life, before he was even old enough to walk.

They didn't know how deep his ability to care went, provided it was something which he chose for himself.

Putting together the Blackbirds was-- was not a question of letting go, but of giving his darling something that Obi-Wan couldn't provide himself. And it was giving those men, a small enough number that Obi-Wan could justify pulling them from all over the GAR, a CO that Obi-Wan knew would protect their lives and interests. He had chosen them for their ability to think independently, but he had been aware of their other qualities as well; of Tally's cynical distrust, and of Raze's difficulty focusing, and of Husker's rough and painful bouncing around.

He had hoped, when he had put the squad together and then handed them unexpectedly to Maul, that Maul would choose them; would grow attached to them and they to him, even if Obi-Wan had meant it when he had said that he would turn them over to someone else if Maul decided he didn't want to lead them.

He turned and took the kettle off of their stovetop, then moved over to see if he could get Maul into their bed; he was careful picking Maul up -- for whatever was hurting him, for the sake of not startling him -- and it caused another sharp tweak in his heart when Maul didn't so much as change his pattern of breathing, apparently so beat that even being bodily lifted wasn't enough to stir him back awake.

There was a time, even only a few years ago, where Obi-Wan could not have gotten away with such a simple thing. He was intensely aware of that, too, as he stood for a moment with Maul up in his arms.

I'm so very proud of you, Obi-Wan thought, warm and aching with the truth of it, feeling it through his whole body, as he moved and carefully set his darling down in their bed, then went to get his boots off first; he thought it instead of said it, because he knew saying those words aloud would be met with confusion and wariness and uncertainty, or even outright deflection.

And so Obi-Wan lived it, instead, in the hopes that Maul would feel it anyway, asleep or awake, for now and for always.

 

 

 

"General."

Tally's voice had a frosty note in it that made Obi-Wan blink, but he offered back a smile anyway, moving back to the area the medics had in the Negotiator's medbay.

He had stayed in bed holding Maul for an hour before making himself get up; after getting Maul's boots off, he'd managed to wrangle the shirts off, as well, and the sight of the bandages wound from cybernetics up to Maul's lowermost ribs made his heart plunge and dip into something cold with worry, though he was careful to keep that to himself. Still, he was gentle and careful gathering Maul into his arms, tucked against him, head on his shoulder; just the weight of Maul there, warm and breathing and back somewhere that Obi-Wan could protect him had nearly moved Obi-Wan to tears.

He didn't nap during that hour, despite a long-delayed need for his own respite; he just held his darling and stroked the edges of his mask, and tried to remind himself that he would get the rest of the story later and that if Maul was this difficult to rouse, he was probably desperately in need of the unbroken rest.

He would have happily stayed there all through the day, if not for the Being a General part of things.

Most of the Blackbirds were asleep, absent Raze and Tally, the former of whom showed off a shirt that Bail had bought for him. According to him, the squad was split down the middle as to whether those were flowers or flames on it; Obi-Wan had declared they looked like flames to him, which made Raze beam at him widely, since he thought so too. Then he had told him that Tally was off restocking his kit and so Obi-Wan had headed that way.

"Welcome back," he said, pausing a couple meters away, not sure what to make of Tally's standoffishness. "You and Raze are the only ones currently awake; I was wondering if you felt up to telling me about the mission?"

Tally eyed him, then went back to his meticulous resupply. "I'll turn in my report within the next day or so. No doubt the lieutenant and Shiv will do the same."

Obi-Wan frowned a little bit, internally; he probably could make it an order, but he was loathe to do so. This was Maul's squad, regardless of being under his own banner. "No injuries?"

That was apparently a question Tally found-- either amusing or troublesome, it was impossible to tell by his expression. The medic dropped his head, mouth twisting in a distinctly sardonic smile, jaw working, and then he looked up, brown eyes narrowing in a manner that seemed almost threatening. "You already know the answer to that. At least in part."

That was the truth, but Obi-Wan felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up anyway. He took in a breath and then just said, firmly, though not unkindly, "I'm guessing that you have a point to get to, Tally. I suggest you do, and perhaps we can work out whatever unpleasantness has sprung up between us."

There was a flicker of uncertainty across Tally's face and it reminded Obi-Wan quickly of how young the medic was, him and all of his brothers. But then that uncertainty vanished under a steel mask. "He's your subordinate. But more, General, you're holding him prisoner. I'm having a hard time imagining how you and Maul could have developed a relationship without coercion being somehow involved."

Obi-Wan's guts immediately flooded with ice water, and he must have looked as panicked by that statement as he felt, because Tally went from glaring at him to looking uncertain again, and perhaps a little guilty, though he was obviously trying not to look like either of those. Just to buy himself a few seconds to grasp that their hallway reunion had been witnessed, Obi-Wan held up a hand and worked on centering himself.

It wasn't as if Tally was not asking things which had already been asked. More recently by Bail, before Zigoola. But before that, by Obi-Wan himself. And while it was a shock to have yet more people know, including people who could make their lives very difficult, (though Obi-Wan didn't think Tally would), he held onto the truths that he and Maul had laid down, and at a time when both of them were defenseless to each other as they tried to survive the hostile world around them.

He tried to think of how to explain it, and that was no easy thing, but it deserved all due care. He rubbed over his mouth, then crossed his arms, unable to help the defensive gesture despite himself. "You're not asking anything new, I'm afraid. Before you, it was Bail questioning it. And I'd been asking myself that since Iloh, coming up on six years ago now," he said, breathing out slowly and controlled after. "I didn't even stop asking myself that until Maul quite firmly told me that he chose this, while we were on Zigoola. Mind you, I've never held the leash that the Jedi Council insists be kept on him regardless of how much he has proven himself, but I worried myself whether or not he felt he had a choice in it."

Tally crossed his own arms, leaning against the counter where his supplies were, putting that to his back and not taking his gaze off of Obi-Wan's face. "You cut him in half," he said, plainly and flatly, blunt like a mallet and nearly as painful.

Tally had been Obi-Wan's very first pick for that squad. And even if his heart was still pounding from adrenaline and his stomach was twisting miserably, this-- was a large part of why.

He closed his eyes at that, even though it stuck in his guts. "Not a single day of my life goes by that I don't regret it, too. If I could go back and change it, I would; in a moment, I would, in a heartbeat, without hesitation. I can't. I can only do my best by him now." A beat. "I don't-- think it appropriate to go into the details of our relationship, though Maul is more than welcome to tell you whatever he likes about it. And if you don't believe me when I say that we are-- are together because we mutually chose one another, even accounting for the hurts in our past, then perhaps you'll believe him."

Tally's mouth was in a line as he listened to all of that, though he hadn't interrupted. Then he shook his head. "Sir-- I want to believe you, but--"

"You can believe him."

Both Tally and Obi-Wan jumped, heads turning in the same direction; like a ghost, Maul had somehow managed to slip in without either of them noticing. He had pulled his black t-shirt back on, and now he just stood there, just out of the shadows from the part of the bay that wasn't in use.

"Why are you up?" Obi-Wan asked, frowning. "I didn't wake you, did I? I hadn't meant to."

"My pillow vanished, and when I realized, I went looking for it," Maul answered, off-handedly. Despite the odd situation, that made Obi-Wan smile; it meant that Maul at least knew Obi-Wan had been holding him. Then Maul looked back at Tally again, and the-- the softness in his eyes as he took in the medic was something new, something Obi-Wan realized had been earned on Bravo-984. "I'm with him because I want to be, Tally. Because I chose to be. That's all."

Tally absorbed that, then nodded. "That makes him your, uh-- significant other? Next of kin, I guess? So when he comes around poking about you--"

"If it saves me having to detail it, by all means," Maul answered, with a hint of a tongue-in-cheek grin, though there was a rueful quality to it that was worrying.

"Yes, sir." Tally looked at Obi-Wan for a long moment, then they both looked back at Maul and said, in unwitting unison, "You should go back to bed."

The stereo of that had Maul jerk his head backwards a tick, though the way it made him squint at them in clear amusement had Obi-Wan grinning back, rather helplessly infatuated with that expression. "Well, when you put it like that," Maul said, shaking his head at them, before turning around to vanish into the shadows again.

Silence hung in the air for a few moments, then Obi-Wan said, "About the mission--" at the same time as Tally started, "Kriff, that explains the--"

They paused, then Obi-Wan gestured, smiling. "You first."

"I was just saying, that explains the horns." Tally gestured to his own temple, and Obi-Wan realized it was in reference to where Maul had had his temple horns cut flat after Alderaan; while Maul had never explained it to Obi-Wan, he hadn't had to.

"I love holding him like that," Obi-Wan only said, softly, feeling no need to fill in the gaps more than that. Then he asked, "Will you tell me what happened?"

Later, he would wish that he could have held onto the joy of reuniting longer.

 

 

 

Maul had an arm wrapped around Obi-Wan's usual pillow and his face half-buried in it; even for the anger burning in his veins, something in Obi-Wan remained detached enough from it to feel tender at the sight.

Tally had said that the burns would probably be healed before the week was up; that it was slow only because they weren't surface, and it took longer for the bacta to absorb deeper into the tissue. But instead of the sight of those bandages worrying him, now they made Obi-Wan furious.

He hadn't been surprised by Maul having some trouble sleeping in proximity to the squad, but he had been mildly, pleasantly surprised with how Tally had handled that. He had felt something in his chest turn to lead when he heard about Shiv's near-miss with death and Maul having his shoulder torn up to prevent it; it was on hearing about that part that the fear started creeping into his veins, though Obi-Wan could keep it contained.

But ultimately, it was the damned EMP grenade that had sent a shock through him, as if he had been hit with it himself.

"Maul doesn't want me to take a fight to the Council over it," Tally had said, sounding like he wanted nothing more than to do so. "I won't; I'm not going to break his trust. But this situation isn't going to go away. It's not going to magically resolve on its own."

Obi-Wan had always had mixed feelings about those cybernetics. He did have an appreciation that before anyone else in the galaxy would have thought to, Vokara Che had pushed hard to make sure Maul would have the best that he could be given. And there was no doubt in Obi-Wan's mind that if the Council would have denied her, in her pushing, Maul would have eventually found a permanent way out of living like that, largely immobile and denied any manner of dignity, probably by making sure that the next blood vessel he tore out was enough to make it too quick to prevent.

There had been a period of time, very early on, where Obi-Wan had reassured himself that while he could not take back his swing, the replacement legs would somehow balance the scales. That they were imperfect, maybe, compared to the flesh and blood and bone they replaced, but that they were a good thing. There had been a time after he fell in love, after he knew every line written in black on Maul's skin, that he realized he would never know the shape of the rest of those markings, or whether the tips of Maul's toes had been black like the tips of his fingers.

Every time the thought of sex even crossed his mind, he shoved it away.

Right now, though... right now, those cybernetics, the ones that had given Maul back mobility and some measure of limited freedom -- as much as Obi-Wan could debate and advocate for and more by the week -- looked like a terrible trap that was going to spring closed.

They looked like a weapon; the barrel of a blaster, pointed at Maul's head.

Or the lit blade of a lightsaber, just like the one Obi-Wan had held.

Anakin had been the one to wield the threat most recently.

Anakin had ordered that EMP attack.

Some part of Obi-Wan was still scrambling desperately to absolve his former padawan. He told himself-- he told himself that Anakin couldn't have done that; that he had sent Alpha-17 and Alpha (at the best of times a hardened soldier) had come up with the idea himself. He told himself that Anakin had not gone so far, as to try to actually hurt Maul, even if he had set up a dreadfully unfair scenario for the Blackbirds. He told himself that Anakin couldn't be that cruel. Or that if he had actually ordered it, then he couldn't have known about all of the thousands of ramifications; about the actual physical danger, about the potential for injury or death, about how the Council could and probably would react by pulling Maul back to the Temple if they were given even the flimsiest of excuses, about how the Blackbirds would be disbanded or handed to someone who they had not been carefully picked to work with, about how shattered both of those things would leave Maul and very likely his squad, because they-- because they had done what Obi-Wan had intended, and they had bonded together just like he had hoped they would.

Obi-Wan hadn't even considered the danger of an EMP against unshielded cybernetics; he had not even taken the time to figure out that they wouldn't have been hardened against it. He had just assumed that the quality of them, as high as it was, would have covered that, too. He didn't think the Council or Che had considered it yet, either; if they started to--

He lied to himself, but he knew the truth.

Anakin had wanted to devastate Maul. To what end, Obi-Wan wasn't sure, because from this angle, it seemed little more than spite. And Anakin had been willing to forsake any amount of honor to do it.

Obi-Wan wasn't really sure how to cope with that truth, no matter his scrambling attempts at justification born of love for the boy he half raised meeting his love of the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

"He said the situation was precarious," Tally had said, mouth twisted in a wounded bow. "He was understating it."

When Obi-Wan had come up with the idea for this squad, it had been with the best of intentions. He had wanted to give Maul a chance to bond with others, people who he could teach and learn from, much like Maul had discovered in befriending Bail. He had wanted to give the Blackbirds what he could not give his battalion in full, despite aching to: A commanding officer who could prioritize their lives and safety first, and the Republic's objectives only after; a small enough unit that they could get away with being insular and loyal mostly unto themselves, even as he knew they would also be effective.

He had wanted to give Maul a chance to show his hard-won skills; to give him a chance to build a service record strong enough that even the Council could not argue with it, so that when the war ended, Obi-Wan could petition for Maul's permanent freedom based on it, and then they could walk away from all of it together. And, in the meantime, he wanted to give Maul enough allies who would speak on his behalf when the time came.

Looking at his sleeping darling, he wondered if he had not been horribly naïve.

"What do I do with this?" he had asked, breathlessly, not even really asking Tally, though Tally had been the only one to hear it. Perhaps asking it of the Force, or the galaxy, or-- or himself, even if none of those provided answers.

It was Tally who spoke, though. "I don't know, sir," he had said, with the frank honesty that Obi-Wan had always appreciated, and now more than ever. "It's too late to yank Maul back behind the lines; we've walked too far together now for that. It's too late to take back the mission to Bravo-984. It's too late to challenge Skywalker about it, because if you do, we're all going to be in the crosshairs then, thanks to Tano and our espionage, including her. It's too late to take back any of it, so--" The medic paused and rubbed his eyes, shaking his head, and Obi-Wan again thought about his age and about regret. "I don't know. Let us do what you put us all together to do. And just-- keep Skywalker the hell away from us. And maybe we'll know the answers down the road."

After leaving Tally, Obi-Wan had gone back to Being a General; he had gone back to receive mission reports, updates on the too-many campaigns of the GAR; Anakin was radio-silent right now, which was probably for the better, though thinking that made him feel guilty. He had gone and coordinated protection details for supply lines and hyperspace lanes, and had worked on the inventory requirements for their next stocking run, and had reviewed the Juma 9 facility. He had managed to do all of that, and then he had come back here again, no closer to solving any the problems looming over them.

Now, he sat on the edge of the bed and looked at Maul and burned in his heart with anger and love and guilt and fear and tried to figure out what to do with any of it.

He found he didn't know what to do with anger or the guilt, or the fear which came with that uncertainty.

Maul stirred a little, maybe having sensed him there; he scrubbed his face against the pillow he had been cuddling, then blinked sleepily, and Obi-Wan braced himself for the apology he expected, even if he had been one of the people who chased Maul back to bed.

Except, this time Maul didn't give it.

He looked, for a moment, like he was about to; like he was going to apologize for having the audacity just to sleep when he was tired and needed it, but then he shifted backwards to his own side of the bed and let go of Obi-Wan's pillow and held up his arm in invitation.

Obi-Wan took it; crawled into bed properly, heedless of boots or sheets, and plastered himself up against Maul, tucking his head under his darling's chin, minding the burns, and for as hard as he tried, he couldn't contain the tears that came from some place he couldn't even name, or the way his breathing turned to sobbing at the warm breath through his hair and against his scalp, to match the warm reassurance -- "It's all right, I have you." -- that came with it.

He didn't know what to do with the anger or the guilt, or the fear. 

But at least he knew what to do with the love.

He had to believe that would be enough, for now.

 

 

 

Shiv's report was made up of events in bullet-points, which covered only half of the actual events and none of the emotions involved.

Tally's report was much the same.

Maul's was more succinct than both, and he filed it for the Council's eventual perusal without remorse.

 

We came, we saw, we conquered.

-Maul, 2nd Lieutenant, 212th Attack Battalion

Chapter Text

"Feels a little like-- like someone else putting on your underwear."

Husker's eyebrow climbed of its own accord, as he swung his head over to look at the little brother next to him, at Rancor's whispered words; Rancor, sitting next to him, looked back at him expectantly, like that wasn't a weird thing to say at all.

Though, after Husker thought about it for a few moments, the analogy did seem pretty apt. He looked around at the few dozen brothers packed into the Nest with the Blackbirds; took in General Kenobi and Commander Cody sitting uncomfortably packed in just the same. Then he only nodded. "Yeah, it really kind of does, kid."

 

 

 

Juma 9 was a captured Separatist station; what made it notable was its high level scanning capabilities and the fact that it was within decent distance of several Republic interests. The intention had been for the Negotiator to refuel there, drop off a platoon of clones to bring the station's manpower up to acceptable levels, and then for the battlegroup to continue on to the 212th's next assignment.

Needless to say, that wasn't how it happened.

Husk was fairly used to the chaos that made up life in the Grand Army of the Republic. When the bulk of the enemy's forces didn't need to eat or sleep, when their side didn't bleed and need recovery time, only replacements, they could afford to fight on dozens of fronts at once without any seeming loss of efficiency. Blow one clanker away, ten more were right behind; take down one foundry, and there would be two more coming online somewhere even harder to get to. Situations changed not by the day or week, but by the hour; most of the time, it frankly felt like they were all just playing catch up.

Privately, Husker thought that they could just pin a star map on a wall, throw darts and find trouble anywhere those darts landed, for all the more sense it ever seemed to make.

Ryloth, in particular, was an ongoing mostly-but-not-always-unmitigated disaster. Even though Husk tended to just keep his eye on his own null-g court, he was aware that the situation on Ryloth was particularly complicated and never seemed in sight of ending. While the Blackbirds were in training, the 212th had been there. Now, most of the 212th was going back there, as was General Skywalker, Commander Tano and General Secura's forces, in addition to however many others.

Except, not all of the 212th. Because Juma 9 still needed its reinforcements.

It only took Husk about five seconds to realize that the Blackbirds were tapped to play escort because General Skywalker had made it back from Maridun alive, and General Kenobi didn't want them in proximity to Skywalker right now. Husk wasn't sure how to feel about that part; he wanted to talk to his former General and see what he had to say for himself about that training mission, both in how unfair it was and in how Alpha had taken Maul down. On the other hand, Kenobi probably thought it would be a good idea to let tempers cool some -- not unreasonable, really -- before putting them anywhere near each other. They'd only just gotten back yesterday morning, and now, they were right back off again.

Well, this ain't exactly what we were trained for, but it's closer, Husk thought, with a mental shrug.

"I think we should look into getting some paint," Raze was saying, where he was sitting with Brody, who looked disgruntled about not being able to bring his datapad to work on. He'd updated all of them the night before that every account Skywalker had now was receiving a flood of virility-enhancement solicitation and that once the General signed on the HoloNet, the algorithms that handled advertising had pegged him as a man in need of serious help in that department.

Husker might have admonished him about it, but it was ultimately harmless and it made Brody feel better.

"For what?" Rabbit asked, from the other side of Rancor. Despite none of the Blackbirds considering their ex-shinies to still be shinies after a training mission that was a little too real for all of them, their regular issued armor was still pristine and white; when Raze pointed to his armor, Rabbit looked down at it and his cheeks flushed. "Oh."

"We don't want you mistaken for new meat," Husk added, kind of side-ways reassurance. "Since you're not anymore."

Rabbit's face went even more red, but the grin he wore was nice to see. The entire squad was still tired from that run on Bravo-984, and therefore, more subdued than they had been before it. Husker thought probably that would correct itself once the whole thing had a chance to settle into their minds, though.

And in the meantime, he could keep trying to work out how to reconcile himself between his new commanding officer and his former one, in the hopes that he could find some way to be at real peace with both.

He had a long way to go to get there, but not as long as it had once been.

 

 

 

Maul had probably been transparent to at least eleven people in the back of the Nest when he had claimed the co-pilot's seat, but he still wasn't sorry he had.

He had rapidly adapted to being surrounded by people since his inclusion in the war effort; there was no avoiding it, when you were moving around as part of an entire battalion, but adapting to it didn't mean it ever sat easily with him. He had an easier time with the clones than he did with civilians or Jedi, at least; while they were all individuals, regardless of their genetic code, he knew essentially what to expect of them. Even then, being packed in on a courier with a platoon's worth, in addition to his own squad, was enough to have him feeling on-edge.

Tango was apparently enjoying the company, though. He talked about the courier, and what he wanted to do if they managed to score her as their permanently assigned ship. He talked about other ships he had flown, and launched into a rambling but interesting discussion on the latest class of starfighters. He didn't seem put off by having a mostly quiet audience, and he was excited when Maul did engage some by talking about his Scimitar; after dragging out every possibly detail Maul could remember about his old ship, Tango expressed jealousy that he hadn't ever gotten to fly one like her.

Now, though, they were on approach to Juma 9 and Maul was looking forward to off-loading their guests. Like Husker, he had realized this little escort mission was mostly to keep him and the Blackbirds away from Skywalker; also like Husker, he wasn't sure how he felt about Obi-Wan shielding them like that. He tried to ponder whether it had anything to do with Tally and Shiv being in the know about their relationship, or whether Obi-Wan was protecting Skywalker as much as he was them, but frankly, Maul was too tired to really do more than skim across the thoughts and then promptly let them dissipate, leaving him back in the present moment. If there was an answer there, it would just have to wait; he didn't have it in him, right now, to chase it down.

The more damning part was that the exhaustion wasn't entirely physical; he could still feel the toil of that mission, but mostly the pervasive sense of being tired was in his mind. And he couldn't figure out how to make it go away.

Tango's hands danced across the console gracefully; as he maneuvered the courier into the hangar, elegantly turning her to line her up with her mooring and coordinating with docking control, there was a look of quiet pride and pleasure on his face that had Maul smiling to himself, grateful right now for just about any reprieve from the heavier concerns they were all dealing with.

"Nicely done," Maul said, as the courier landed in one of the spaces for larger ships, light enough that there wasn't even a bump.

He wasn't sure why Tango flushed red to the roots of his hair, but the pilot mumbled, "Thanks, Lieu," and then went to shut the courier down into standby as someone or another hooted from the back, presumably in agreement that it was a perfect landing.

It was a relief when the sounds of the troopers in back started offloading; snippets of conversation ranged from being excited about the assignment to resignation for the same. Maul waited until it was fairly quiet before he unbuckled and got up himself, taking his jacket from the back of the chair and pulling it on, and he huffed to himself when he slipped into the back only to find his squad waiting for him. "Don't tell me you're waiting for orders," he said, noting that Obi-Wan and Cody were also lingering, though back more amidships instead of clustered with Maul's squad, in the middle of some manner of deep discussion.

"Nah, sir, we were just waiting to see if you and Tango had a steamy makeout session in the cockpit," Brody said; Tally immediately kicked him in the calf, but thanks to armor, all it did was make Brody snicker.

As if someone had fired a signal flare, Obi-Wan's head turned in their direction despite the distance between them. Maul, on the other hand, went to ask why they would even think that, but Shiv interrupted: "We're only here for an hour. So, no games of sabacc, Tally, and no unauthorized marriages, Brody, and Raze, please don't blow anything up."

"I hear they set up an actual kitchen in this place," Misty piped in. "I'll bet we can score something to eat that isn't ration related."

Maul just shook his head, mildly amused. "Go. Eat or do whatever, just keep your comms on our frequency and be back on time," he said, eying Raze, who only beamed back in a sheepish manner.

The smattering of acknowledgment preceded the Blackbirds' exit; Maul watched them filter past Obi-Wan and Cody and then went down to join the other two.

"Lieutenant," Cody said, at the same time as Obi-Wan clearly restrained himself from greeting Maul with darling. Someday, Maul was sure that Obi-Wan was going to slip and say it; he didn't look forward to that day, but the thought had him fighting a grin nonetheless.

"Commander." Maul had yet to call anyone 'sir' in this army; he wasn't about to start now. But he did respect Cody; he didn't know the man well, but he knew that Obi-Wan relied on Cody, often for his very life, and that was more than enough reason to afford him that respect. "What's the plan?" he asked Obi-Wan, raising a brow.

Obi-Wan was clearly trying not to give in to his own grin. "No plan, really; I wanted to get a tour of the facilities once I was done discussing things with Cody. But unless there's some surprise Separatist attack, that should be all. Then back to Ryloth. Again."

Later, Maul would take a moment to hiss at him, "You had to say it, didn't you?"

But for now, he just nodded and headed for the ramp with the reply, "Master Jedi," and threw enough mischief into the tone to keep it light.

He didn't think to look back, though, and therefore missed the way that it made Obi-Wan blush.

 

 

 

The station had the distinct styling of the Separatists; the sense that it had been built for droids, rather than people. The reliance on energy-field bridges for foot soldiers, instead of solid structures, was the first clue; it was more efficient for droids with repulsors and boosters to move through the base, ferrying cargo for reloading and fueling Separatist ships. Maul could see some evidence of the Republic's forces planning to retrofit the station to be more biped friendly, but that hadn't happened yet.

Maul didn't really have anything he wanted to do and unlike Castle -- who was already walking the edge of the hangar studying the architecture -- he didn't have any particular interest in the enemy's aesthetics, though before he had even gone five meters, he'd already mapped where he could set charges in order to wreck the deck and make it unusable. No doubt Raze had done the same, and probably within only two meters.

As such, he stayed relatively close to the Nest (wincing internally, good-naturedly every time he thought of the ship's new-if-unofficial name) and waited for some manner of inspiration; if worse came to worst, he could just reboard the courier and relax, or perhaps try to catch up on what the situation in the wider galaxy was, and therefore what their next assignment might be after Obi-Wan cut them loose.

He wasn't sure if he was meant to wait and join Obi-Wan on whatever tour Obi-Wan intended to go on, though, so he stayed on the hangar deck, letting his mind roam.

All of that vanished when he saw the Kel Dor Jedi.

Even before he had been captured, Maul had known who Plo Koon was. Koon was considered one of the finest duelists of this age, and Maul had even studied what few holos of the Jedi his Master had provided for him, mostly in the hopes of someday getting to cross sabers with him. Koon was not only well-trained in the Jedi arts, but he was also one of the few Baran Do sages, and beyond that, he knew a little teräs käsi, as well. In every possible respect, he would have been the exact kind of adversary that Maul had once ached desperately to test himself against.

Maul had admired him.

Plo Koon was also a member of the High Council when Maul had been captured. And still was to this day. He'd had a vote when they were debating Maul's interrogation. He'd had a vote when they were debating Maul's execution.

Despite being under Obi-Wan's banner, too, the Council still could snatch away Maul's commission and squad, as well. Without even meaning to, Maul's posture stiffened and he drew his shoulders back, though he resolutely kept his hands away from the currently split hilt of his saberstaff, hanging one half on each side of his belt.

Even if some itch in his fingers made him want to reach for them anyway.

"Lieutenant," Koon greeted, as if he was not one of those currently holding Maul's very life in his hands, likely once he had realized he was being watched. Then he straightened his shoulders even further and added, with more-- warmth? familiarity? "Master Kenobi. I had heard you were on your way just before you arrived."

Maul didn't look back over his shoulder, but he felt the brush of Obi-Wan's hand across his back, unobtrusive, before Obi-Wan was standing beside him and acting no less friendly. "Master Plo. It's a pleasure to see you," he said, cheerfully. "What brings you to Juma 9?"

"Awaiting my new ship. That should bring my battlegroup back to full strength after our losses to the Malevolence. We'll rendezvous at our next assignment."

"How many was that, General?" Tally asked, and Maul blinked, looking over at his medic, who had appeared on the other side of him just as silently as Obi-Wan had. The look on Tally's face was one of polite interest, but there was a confrontational note under his likewise polite tone that had Maul unsure of whether he should be excusing himself (and Tally) to go elsewhere, or whether he should be dropping his head to try to chew down the grin that wanted to cross his face. Not because the subject was funny -- it wasn't -- but because Tally was so willing to take shots at a Jedi without remorse.

The Kel Dor didn't rise to challenge, though; did not even seem to note it. Instead, his voice was measurably heavier when he replied, "Too many. Far, far too many." There was a beat there when Maul started bristling at the lack of a specific number, then Koon added, "Twenty-seven thousand and fifty eight lives lost, in total. Only a handful of us survived both the Malevolence and the pod hunters."

"Tally, didn't you say you wanted to look at the medical equipment that they're going to be installing?" Maul asked, after a long beat where he could practically feel Tally ready to launch into an attack. Tally had mentioned being curious, offhandedly; now, Maul latched onto it as an excuse. "I wouldn't mind seeing for myself."

Tally swung his gaze from Koon to Maul, eyes fierce, then opened his mouth for a moment; at the last second, he stopped himself and then gave a curt nod. "Sure, Lieu."

Maul nodded back and glanced to the other two; Obi-Wan was frowning, though it seemed more confused than anything else, and Koon's expression was impossible to read through his goggles and mask. "If you'll excuse us," Maul said, and then didn't wait for dismissal before pressing a hand to Tally's shoulder and steering him off, not really caring where. But he didn't want his medic in the crosshairs of an offended Jedi general, even if he had some measure of faith that the other Jedi general would smooth things out again.

They barely made it into the a hallway before Tally leaned against the wall, thumping his head lightly back against it, setting his bucket aside on a crate. He took a few breaths, clearly upset, then shook his head. "He led them right down the enemy's throat, Lieu," he said, voice quivering. "After a whole damned other battlegroup went missing, he just went right in, full sublight and clustered together in formation, and they didn't even get in weapons range before the Malevolence disabled 'em."

There were a few seconds there where Maul wondered how Tally even knew that; Maul did because Obi-Wan had briefed him, albeit unofficially, but he didn't think Tally -- not yet in his squad at that time -- would have been informed, at least in terms of details.

But that quickly dissolved on the realization that it didn't matter how Tally knew that, only that he did. "I know," Maul just said, because there was nothing at all he could do about it. And he couldn't make himself admonish Tally for being himself, or upset about the whole thing, nor did he have any desire to.

Tally went to say something else, then just shook his head to himself, rubbing at his eyes. After a few moments, he said, "I keep thinking about how-- how damned scared my brothers had to be, when those kriffing pod busters came for 'em. A bunch of kriffing droids without heartbeats, blithely slicing their way through escape pods, and now he's going to be given more men and more ships."

"I suppose one could only hope he would have learned something, at least," Maul said, but he doubted that was any consolation.

"It wasn't worth it." Tally pushed off of the wall, picking up his bucket, mouth tight.

Maul could only agree: "No. It wasn't."

He didn't need to know any of the people behind the twenty-seven thousand and fifty-eight lives lost to know that they were worth more, by far, than one Jedi's life and lessons in tactics, if how he felt about the eleven lives he was currently responsible for had any bearing on it at all.

 

 

 

"They're right to hold me responsible," Plo said, and vocabulator or no, Obi-Wan could hear the sorrowful note in his words. "Your medic and his brothers alike."

Maul's medic, Obi-Wan thought, absently; he was still adjusting to the changed dynamic of the Blackbirds himself, but had he not already figured that part out, the exchange of only moments ago would have cemented it further. He couldn't say he was surprised by the way Tally had acted; he had gotten his name for a reason, and even Obi-Wan knew that it was because he kept count of their dead. The only thing that surprised Obi-Wan was the way Maul had disarmed the situation, though Obi-Wan knew full well it was not for Plo's sake that he had done so.

It felt like a week since the squad had gotten back, despite it only being not quite two days, and it felt like Obi-Wan had been awake and scrambling for the whole of it. Much like Maul, he was tired; not physically, so much, but mentally and emotionally.

"I wish there was something we could do beyond 'get better at this,'" Obi-Wan answered, falling into step with Plo as they headed in the direction of the command center, though slowly.

"As do I." Plo gave a subtle shake of his head. "But if that is our only recourse, then get better we shall."

Obi-Wan huffed out a mirthless laugh, then shook his own, ready to set the topic aside for the moment. "They're not sending you to Ryloth too, are they? I'm starting to wonder if half the Grand Army isn't being diverted there."

"No, we're being sent to the Mid Rim." Plo folded his hand behind his back as he walked, and Obi-Wan unconsciously mirrored the pose. "I believe that the foothold--"

The words were cut off by a low rumble.

Foreboding immediately slammed into Obi-Wan, instinctive and Force-driven both, and his hand was on his saber's hilt as he turned around, looking for the source. Beside him, Plo did the same, and just as they had fully made their turn, the station's klaxons engaged, the warning whooping through the air, and a Separatist frigate came out of hyperspace, visible through the high up transparisteel landing control windows, right outside of the station.

Within the first five seconds of its appearance, a swarm of boarding shuttles was making towards Juma 9.

"Well," Plo said, as chaos broke out on deck. "It appears they've taken exception to our occupation of their former station."

"All personnel to their stations, we've got incoming!" the station's clone commander ordered over the comm, voice hard.  "Lock and load, boys!"

Obi-Wan started to say, "Oh, I have a bad--"

A red and black finger cut him off, pointing right at his face; when Obi-Wan turned his head with his mouth still hanging open, Maul -- newly reappeared and with a lit saber in his other hand -- said, "Do not."

Chapter Text

When Rabbit looked back later, with a few more missions under his belt, he would think about Juma 9 with the words: It figured.

Right now, though, was not that time.

He stared in awe and horror at the swarm of boarding shuttles making for Juma 9, and temporarily everything else faded to the sound of his own heart hammering in his ears. The realization that this was the real thing landed as the first shock of contact hit the station, the small shuttles attacking the station's deflectors with such overwhelming numbers as to punch right through.

"Blackbirds, back to the hangar," was what broke him out of his wide-eyed stare. Their lieu sounded more annoyed and vaguely disgusted than anything else, and Rabbit didn't know if Maul meant for that to be so calming, but it really oddly was. Like maybe this was an inconvenience instead of a catastrophe in the making.

"Oh boy, oh boy, this is so exciting," Brody said, sarcastically, grabbing Rabbit's arm and then nudging him from the back of his shoulder, propelling him towards the hangar, his bucket already on. "It's just clanker target practice, kid; don't worry too much."

"Okay," Rabbit answered, admittedly kind of breathlessly, clutching his blaster close to his chest from where it had been slung on a strap over his shoulder as he hurried along, staying to the right side of the corridor so that their brothers from the station could move deeper into it as deployed.

They hadn't gotten far from the hangar deck; even as he could hear the sound of metal tearing through metal behind him, they emerged out onto said deck. No clankers had gotten there yet, but he could hear the two Jedi coordinating, calling for pilots and directing the action.

"I need deflector control secured," General Kenobi was saying, just as General Koon was on his own comm going, "Station an extra contingent outside of the reactor room--"

"Already done, sirs," the base commander replied, kind of testy.

Maul had his headset on and half the squad was already there; in one hand, he had a lit saber, but otherwise he looked really calm. He gave them an upnod in greeting, standing apart from the Jedi somewhat. "Tally wants to commandeer that cargo storage room for a triage area," he said, pinning his gaze on Brody. "Can you go slice the door and get him into it?"

"In a snap, Lieu," Brody said back, before jogging in that direction.

By then, the rest of the squad had shown up, a few of them with singe marks from blaster fire. "What's the plan?" Shiv asked, as they formed up in a semi-circle with blasters at ready. Down the corridors, the sounds of fire-fights in progress were filtering in as the contingent of droids drew closer. Even to Rabbit, it was pretty clear that they didn't want to do overwhelming damage to the hangar deck, probably for the sake of not ruining their ability to use it to take back the base.

"If I may," General Koon said, stepping over and ignoring the way the squad stiffened up, "I'd like to secure the hangar. I'm planning on launching fighters and making sure your courier can help with evacuation of the wounded if need be."

Tango's whole body went more upright and he turned to Maul. "Sir, permission to go jump in a bird and wreck shuttles?"

"When the hangar's secure? Go, have fun," Maul just said, then gave a nod to Plo before looking back at the rest of them. "Rabbit, you stay with Tally and help him get any wounded back here. The rest of you, help secure this hangar."

"Yes, sir," Shiv said, in a way where Rabbit could hear the grin in his voice. He pointed. "Rancor, Castle, Misty, over there. The rest of you with me. Set your radios to scan between station ops and our private channel."

Rabbit took a few deep breaths and leaned into Husker's hand for a moment when Husk patted him on the shoulder, then took off at a jog for where Brody and Tally were breaking into a supply room, arriving just as the doors opened.

And just as the clankers started flooding into the hangar themselves.

 

 

 

It had been a very long time since Castle had engaged with clankers.

He set up a fast nest with some cargo while Rancor and Misty laid down covering fire at the incoming droids. He wasn't surprised when Shiv went to do the same, and behind him, he could hear the hum of lightsabers covering the other entrances to the hangar. The shuttles could only drop so many of those bastards at a time, and the hallways themselves could only allow so many through at a time, at least. And backup was already arriving, in the forms of brothers stationed here; in one corridor, they plowed through the clankers from behind and Castle waved a few over to join them in their impromptu sniper's nest.

He aimed and fired, picking off B-1s with ease, but mostly he was hoping none of his brothers from other units got careless with their droid poppers. They were likely to be used less here on the station, but he didn't want that to happen to Maul again before he could finish designing exterior armor for those cybernetics; didn't want to try to imagine how taking a second hit like that would affect their CO, because even Castle could see that the first one had messed him up pretty bad, if not physically, then mentally.

He wasn't so sure their lieu could shake it off a second time. And he didn't want to test that, either.

"We've got the station's pilots making for us," Shiv said, over the comm. "Anyone in position not already picking droids off, focus fire on Section 30."

Rancor, Misty and their yet unintroduced brothers were doing a decent job themselves, so Castle turned and aimed for the corridor Shiv had directed 'em to.  "Copy that, Sarge," he said, shouldering his blaster anew and right back to firing.

All in all, it didn't take them long to clear the corridors; when the pilots started streaming in, Tango actually leapt up from behind cover with a whoop and ran to join them as they made for the fighters.

"The droids are overrunning deflector control and the reactor!" station ops reported, making Castle wince internally, even as pilots were jumping in fighters and launching and the sound of the organized chaos made it even through his bucket.

"Cody, take some men and retake deflector control," General Kenobi ordered, then gestured to Maul and General Koon. "We'll go and handle the reactor."

"Mind if I tag along with a few of ours, Commander?" Shiv asked.

Cody's voice sounded serious, but kind of amused right under it. "Been missing clanker cleanup, Sergeant? Yeah, the more the merrier, c'mon," he said, as he jogged for the corridor they had just cleared out.

"Brody, Castle, Husk, Rancor, c'mon; the rest of you, hold the deck and help Tally," Shiv said, back on the Blackbirds channel, following Cody after waving them over.

Castle grinned behind his bucket as he fell in behind them, looking forward to jumping into the thick of it. "Right behind you, Sarge," he said, reaching out with his free hand to pat Rancor on the back as they went.

 

 

 

Before this, Plo Koon had been in the seat of his starfighter, contemplating the same subject that the medic would bring up to him in an hour's time.

He was old enough to have spent the past couple of centuries and then some watching those with lesser lifespans grow, grow old and then pass into the Force; time had given him perspective on such loss, despite the sorrow that accompanied each one. He knew that the loss was inevitable, and that his sorrow was not for the sake of the dead themselves, now one with the Force, but for his own loss of their presence and companionship. Grief was selfish, by its nature, but it was a component of love; unlike some others, Plo would not eschew either word, quietly embracing them. He mourned, and then he moved on.

The inevitable losses didn't stop him from caring; from building new friendships and maintaining older ones. It only offered him a certain serenity that was difficult for many to achieve.

All of that was thrown into disarray, painfully and suddenly, with the outbreak of another war.

Plo had not wanted a seat on the Jedi's High Council. Not for any desire to shirk service, never that, but because he felt it would not be entirely fair for him -- with his long lifespan, and all of the benefits and detriments that came with it -- to be making large-scale decisions for those who were often younger than he was, and whose lives would likely be lived within the span of his own. But his master's death in the Stark Hyperspace War saw him installed there in the newly vacated seat, and he accepted the appointment with due humility, still feeling the deaths that war had caused and some of them genuinely horrific.

While on the Council, he often held silent, waiting for the best possible course to reveal itself. His conservative approach was, at least he wanted to believe, tempered by compassion.

But being the veteran of war did not make a career soldier. And twenty-seven thousand and fifty-eight lives were lost because Plo had considerably less experience in handling soldiers than he did in handling a lightsaber. And unlike losses due to natural old age, or fighting in battle, there to be mourned and then released with the knowledge that those lost were returned to the Force, he had been given command of young men who were born and bred specifically to face death without ever having had a real chance to live in the first place.

Plo was not given to spending a great amount of time going over his mistakes, but this one had haunted him since it had happened. He had played out what he could have done differently over and over again; he could have split formation and gotten the other two ships out of the way of the Malevolence's weapons. He could have ordered an emergency hyperspace jump; even as dangerous as blind jumps were, the odds were still so much better than the reality had been.

He could have done things differently.

The young medic, with his flashing eyes and anger, would not be the first clone trooper to look askance at him. His own men, the very few survivors and the new since, were loyal to him and he tried every day to prove worthy of that loyalty. But those who looked at him in suspicion and pain--

He would try to prove himself worthy of them, as well. And fight just as much for them as for the Republic which claimed them as a military force without giving them the honor of citizenship and recognition, so that when the time came, as many of these men were alive to have the lives they had been denied as possible.

The Council had forgiven his actions, citing his lack of pre-knowledge of the situation, but Plo had not yet forgiven himself.

Now, they headed for the reactor room and Plo found himself hanging back slightly, ostensibly to cover their flanks and backs, but also just to watch. Obi-Wan and Maul moved together with ease, seemingly intuitive in covering one another's open spots while quite effectively rendering droids into scrap. The hall was narrow enough that Maul apparently was opting to use only one saber, though he had recoupled both together; Plo approved of the tactic and the foresight.

"I'm almost tempted to keep count," Obi-Wan said, voice lilting in jest. "We could make a wager of it."

"Droids are poor sport," Maul answered back, throwing out a hand and knocking back several before moving to the door controls and crouching to bypass it, seemingly having no worries about Obi-Wan watching his back while he did that.

Obi-Wan indeed did fall right in to do so, guarding over the zabrak while Plo Force-crushed a couple of straggling B-1s. "Maybe I wasn't talking to you, maybe I was talking to Master Plo," he said, with a likewise light-hearted sniff.

Plo hummed back an acknowledgment, tusks jumping slightly in appreciation for the humor. "The lieutenant is correct, however. It's not very sporting."

The blast doors slid open to reveal a number more droids -- more B-1s, but also a number of B-2s -- and Plo could hear the sounds beyond of droidekas coming their way.

"You were saying?" Obi-Wan asked, taking a split second to eye them both archly, before leaping forward.

Plo didn't miss the way Maul rolled his eyes and followed, not bothering to banter back as he came out into the open of the station's larger cargo shuttling columns and lit his second blade.

 

 

 

There were troopers on the other side of the wide, open column, desperately trying to slice the doors that would allow them to escape being pinned down by the droids streaming in, hoping to get into an adjacent corridor. Between them were deactivated energy bridges.

The reliance on energy bridges was something distinctly Separatist in design; the force-field generated walkways were temporary and could allow easier shuttling of large cargo up or down in the station's superstructure. They were also wretchedly dangerous, with no guard rails and no way to protect the person should malfunctions occur. Then again, given most stations like this were occupied by droids, the lack of safeties made more sense.

"Can you get those bridges on?" Obi-Wan asked Maul, calling over the sound of blaster fire and droid and sabers humming, having to stop the automatic darling from accompanying the question yet again.

Maul was making quick work of the B-2 battledroids; he sabered one through the chest, deactivated his blades, then turned and dragged the thing by its limp, malfunctioning body, using said body as a shield as he made for the bridge controls. Even through his jacket, Obi-Wan could see his muscles flexing from the weight. "On it," he said, curt and businesslike.

Plo was doing a fine job himself; he was no less quick, and Obi-Wan jumped back in at his side, deflecting off of one of the droidekas as Plo leapt acrobatically over it, flipping mid air and landing behind it on the circular platform, arm shooting out to grab onto it telekinetically and fling it off of the side of the column they were in.

The troops on the other side whooped and the bridges flickered on, humming, as the Jedi both finished mopping up. Moments later, the clones got the blast door open; the other side, at least, was clear for the moment. "C'mon, sirs, we were heading for the reactor room ourselves before we were pinned down!" one of them called, before they went through the door.

Obi-Wan gave an extra stab to the twitching droideka that had been previously damaged, then headed that way, running across the pale blue forcefield bridge; he could hear Plo and Maul right behind him.

He was halfway across when the doors they had just left behind them blasted open; he didn't see the piece of debris slam the bridge controls, but one moment there was something solid under him--

--and the next there wasn't.

The air rushed past his face and tore at his clothing; he deactivated his saber on instinct and managed to gasp in a breath as he turned his attention and his Force senses downwards, looking for some place to land safely; through that opening into the Force, he could feel Plo doing the same as him and Maul-- trying to.

And failing to.

There was no time to think about it now, but when Obi-Wan spotted the power conduit, he used the Force to telekinetically redirect his fall and then slow it, cushioning his landing; at the same time as he landed in a deep crouch, the soles of his feet stinging hard even inside of his boots from the impact, he snapped out a hand to try to catch Maul, managing to finally get a telekinetic grip after Maul had already fallen past the conduit.

It wasn't a sudden arrest of motion; it wasn't until Plo added his power that they managed to stop Maul falling any further, and by then he was at the limit of Obi-Wan's ability to influence.

"I've got you," he called, and he could feel the jagged edges of waxing and waning fear rolling off of his darling, like rocky outcroppings that pushed past Maul's mental shields enough to sense and radiated outwards after. "We've got you, hold on!"

This close, and working together, Obi-Wan could also feel Plo's confusion and curiosity; he didn't waste any time trying to reel Maul in, and for Maul's part, he didn't try to fight out of the grip, physically or metaphysically. When he was finally high enough to grab, Obi-Wan and Plo both reached down in unison and supplemented their grip with the Force with the strength of their arms.

The conduit wasn't terribly wide, but it was wide enough; it took all Obi-Wan had not to throw his arms around Maul right there, but he didn't even try to resist the urge to grip Maul's upper arms, searching over his face, taking in the wide eyes and the rigidly controlled breathing. "Are you all right?" Obi-Wan asked, thumbs ticking against the slightly rough fabric of Maul's jacket.

"Fine." The answer was short, the tone a little ragged, but Maul drew backwards out of Obi-Wan's grasp, rising to his feet and looking up. "We'll have to find a way back into the station's interior."

Obi-Wan remained unconvinced, but now certainly wasn't the time to discuss it; he logged it away for them to talk about later and looked around, frowning to himself. "I think we can follow this conduit to the wall, then cross at that junction--" he said, pointing to where the conduit joined with others, all running around the column's perimeter, "--until we can find a maintenance hatch."

"Indeed," Plo said, rising to his feet himself. "Lead on, Obi-Wan."

Obi-Wan cast one more glance to Maul, trying hard to look certain and reassuring both, then turned and started leading them to the junction against the wall.

Chapter Text

Elten hadn't been given olfactory sensors; their original engineer had not felt those necessary for a combat training droid. Nonetheless, the smoky air required them to make minute adjustments to their photoreceptors to pick out the filthy white and blue of Commander Tano's lekku and the sounds of troopers coughing made it clear how terrible the air quality was.

Commander Tano had been deployed from the Resolute to one of the pockets of fighting left on Ryloth's surface, where entrenched Separatist forces left over from Wat Tambor's occupation had managed to hold on. Seemingly on a whim, she had grabbed Elten on the way to the hangar, steps hurried and confident; her emotional state didn't seem happy, but she had seemed excited and Elten, as they had been charged with, went as her companion instead of her instructor.  Elten was aware she'd had a rough time on her away mission with General Skywalker, though she had yet to say anything more about it.

No one had expected the droid contingent to self-destruct their bunker so spectacularly. Separatist forces tended to hold on to the last droid; suicide bombing was not their normal tactic.

Elten finally spotted her, running a swift scan to confirm in the space of three microseconds, and carefully picked their way over there.

Commander Tano was holding the body of one of her troops, the comparatively large clone sprawled partially in her lap with half of his face blackened, his head burned to skull in some spots, and she was rocking him back and forth lightly with her thin arms wrapped around him. Casual observation would not reveal that she was trembling, but Elten was not a casual observer.

She startled when Elten appeared next to her; their cushioned and padded feet were nigh on soundless, thanks to Lieutenant Maul's engineering, and Elten marked the moment in their memory banks with an internal memo to work with their Commander to come up with some auditory signal to prevent such future startles.

She looked up at them, face streaked with blood not her own and with ash. "He didn't even have a name yet, El," she said, voice quivering. There was a long moment, and new tears cut new tracks in the grime on her face to join the ones already there. "What was he doing here? What are any of us doing here?"

Elten had no possible answer to that; they had not been programmed to have an opinion on the Republic's forces or their choices in officers. A quick scan showed that this trooper was the only one of Commander Tano's killed, though there were several more injured. Nonetheless, she was not; at least, she was not physically. Elten knew that Commander Tano had lost men before, but did not know how she had reacted to those losses then.

Only how she was now.

"I can help you carry him," Elten offered, crouching in front of their Commander and the lost clone.

Commander Tano looked back at them, then down at the dead trooper; she briefly cradled the back of his head, seemingly unconcerned about the damage, looking at his face and then holding him closer before nodding. Her tears had dotted clean spots on the part of his face not burned.

Elten reached out and gathered the troop up with all due care; even if it did not matter to the troop, it mattered to their Commander and therefore it mattered to Elten.

She picked herself up and started for where the medics were taking care of their wounded, each step looking both more heavy and more determined.

Elten tilted their head down at the boy in their arms, taking him in with a dozen photoreceptors -- unless Elten was memory-wiped, the nameless boy would be remembered -- and then followed.

Chapter Text

Tango threaded his fighter between chunks of Seppie ship debris and blasted back into formation with the rest of his temporary, impromptu squad with a whoop, both hands wrapped around the stick and face hurting for the width of his grin.

"Ten!" one of the squad yelled.

"Hell, I have thirteen!" another shot back.

Tango worked his jaw and then just added, "--yeah, I've got seventeen. Anyone beat that?"

"Kriffin' black ops show-off," Jagger -- who Tango got the name of since they jumped into adjacent ships -- shot back, before peeling off from the squad and taking aim at a few of the boarding shuttles that managed to escape the first two sweeps.

"You'll catch up, don't worry." Tango peeled off with him, just to cover his rear.

Even though this fighter was a generation newer than the ones Tango had trained in, it took him less than ten seconds to adjust. Now, as they danced outside with the swarms upon swarms of droid ships, he could feel the fighter almost like an extension of himself; the freedom of flight made his arms feel like air, made the rest of his body nearly fade into the superstructure of the ship.

The frigate out there had launched everything it had; as usual, with the Seppies, they tried to make up for their lack of precision with sheer numbers. It was a worryingly solid tactic, on the ground or in the air, but Tango still liked their odds.

Until the second frigate appeared, appearing soundlessly next to the first one, a giant looming cargo-carrier for yet more droids.

"--you've got to be kidding me," he said, before slamming his stick over and rolling his fighter out of the way, just as the second ship started launching shuttles and fighters and the other pilots started cursing.

He maybe liked their odds a little less, now. But just a little.

 

 

 

The more droids he shot, the less Rancor felt excited about it.

It wasn't that the droids posed no threats; the B-1s were barely competent, but the B-2s were more serious. But the party that had joined Commander Cody was efficient; Cody led them with the practiced ease of a born and raised leader, and Shiv fell right into that role by helping to coordinate, so it wasn't nearly the challenge Rancor had been expecting. Yeah, there were a lot of droids, but it was pretty clear the troops were up to holding them off.

Just for the sake of not being distracted in the middle of a fire fight, their comms were set to coordinate just with the group closest to them; set to scan for proximity and automatically switch frequencies as needed to keep them in communication with themselves and with any troops that they came across. Shiv and Cody were also listening to station traffic, and even though he hadn't spoken, Rancor was comforted to see Maul's name on his HUD as still being on the Blackbirds' frequency, knowing that their Lieu was listening in even as he and the Jedi headed for the reactor room.

Though, in retrospect, Rancor did wonder why the Jedi hadn't split up, with Maul, so each group could have a Force user present.

The wounded they came across, they sent back to Tally's location. Now, they were just coming up on the deflector control room when they ran across brothers pinned behind a stack of crates from both sides.

"Clear 'em out," Cody ordered, drawing the fire of the group of battle droids away from the men, though not all of them.

The entire hallway was littered with cargo; Rancor dodged behind another stack of crates even as one of the troops said, "Kriff, are we glad to see you guys!"

"If I can get in there, I was working on upgrading the system when we were overrun," another troop said, "I can help you get it back online in a hurry."

"Oh, yeah?" Brody asked, ducking behind cover with Rancor and peeking over the top of the crates to take shots at another droid. "What's your name?"

"Switch!"

"I'm Brody, nice to meet you. I'll be giving you a hand."

Rancor smiled some to himself even as he shot the arm off of a B-2, at the confident way Brody just declared that. And he was still smiling when Cody said, "You heard the man, let's get him in there. Rancor, Brody, Husker, concentrate all your fire; Shiv, you're with me. The rest of you, watch our tails."

Rancor knew not all battles were going to feel this light, but he was grateful that this one did.

 

 

 

I should be with them.

The thought came unbidden; not like a lament, but like a statement fully-formed and certain, like a truth that had been lurking around the edges of his mind and had been waiting for him arrive close enough so that it could present itself.

It was, like most things had been now for months, caught in the tangled speeder wreck of Maul's mind; caught in the new threads woven throughout the tattered remnants of older ones, and throughout the fabric that made up him, even as he was still trying to figure out who he was. Or, for that matter, what he was really for. But listening to the Blackbirds coordinating with Cody and station ops as they made for the deflector control room, bantering or planning, made something in Maul's bones itch; made some voice ask, in his mind, Why am I not alongside them?

He could feel the weight of Obi-Wan's worry whenever they brushed past one another. Could feel the way Obi-Wan was watching extra closely for Maul to slip or fall again, as they climbed or jumped or crawled their way to the reactor room, using power conduits or broken lift shafts to see them there.

Maul doggedly refused to acknowledge it, not because he liked being worried over, but because he didn't want to satisfy Plo Koon's curiosity or give him reasons for more by bringing it out into the open discussing it. He knew it wholly unlikely that Obi-Wan was going to just let his falling go, especially because before Zigoola, he could have easily landed himself even in these circumstances, but now wasn't the time to get into it.

The other thing, he realized, as he closed his eyes and grit his teeth to grab hold of the Force as well as he could as he tried, almost futilely, to keep up with the two Jedi--

The other thing was that Obi-Wan didn't need him the way he had at Christophsis.

Obi-Wan needed someone to hold him and care for him now, too. But he no longer needed someone to fill the gap a new war and a new role had left him, in his ability and inclination to defend his own life; he no longer needed a shadow with a more finely-honed sense of danger to jump between him and bomb blasts. He again wore that ridiculous imitation of armor despite Maul's objections, but he didn't-- didn't need Maul there to guard his back, so much as just guard his sanity. Obi-Wan would doubtless still throw himself into trouble, he couldn't seem to resist, but nowadays he seemed to understand the risks of doing so.

If anything, Maul's presence was putting Obi-Wan in more danger, right now. Not less.

That little revelation landed at the same time as his hand nearly slipped off the rung he'd managed to catch after a leap from the broken conduit; above, laying on his front, Koon reached down and just grabbed his forearm with both hands and helped haul him up to the platform the rungs had been leading to.

Maul barely managed to keep from glaring, feeling increasingly helpless. But internally, the tangle got worse.

"Are you listening to your squad?" Koon asked, seemingly conversationally, though Maul didn't trust that tone any more than he trusted the Jedi Council in general.

"Yes," Maul answered, curtly, as he got to his feet and resolutely ignored the eighth worried look Obi-Wan had given him in the last twenty minutes alone. "It's not distracting," he added, more carefully, when the notion occurred that Koon could be looking for a reason why he was struggling to keep up with them. Or, worse, looking for some manner of weakness in his ability to command. "If anything, the opposite."

"I often enjoy listening to my pilots, even when I'm not with them and can do nothing but listen," Koon agreed, taking the lead again; they were getting close to the access hatch into the reactor room, small enough to typically be used by the Separatists maintenance droids. "They have unique voices, despite being of one genetic template."

Maul had no desire to engage in conversation with the Jedi, mouth pressed into a line as he knelt next to the access panel into the hatch, prying it off with a vibroblade he'd stuck in the sheath in his boot. Given that the droids currently held the reactor room, the door wasn't going to open without intervention. "Yes," he just said, hoping that his single-word answer would be enough to cut the conversation off without crossing the lines to rudeness.

Obi-Wan had been mostly silent, through this. Now, he spoke up; his tone was upbeat, though Maul knew only by a force of will, rather than sincerity. "Interacting with them, it sometimes amazes me that they all share a genetic code with Jango."

Maul bristled and before he meant to, he asked with just as false a tone, "Whatever happened to his young son, anyway? The one who witnessed Windu beheading his father."

The silence that fell there was so uncomfortable that Maul instantly regretted his own question; he accidentally shocked himself on an exposed wire and hissed, and tried to redouble his focus on the task before him, rather than the thoroughly awful quiet he had just provoked.

Surprisingly, it was Koon who answered, "Most of the Council doesn't know. However, I'm not one of them; he is being cared for by his brothers and by someone who I trust implicitly to watch out for his best interests. He's a very angry little boy, but I believe he'll learn to manage it with time."

Maul finally got the door to open, fingertips still stinging from the shock, but he was knocked somewhat off balance by Plo Koon offering that; Maul had not been thinking about the boy's current state, so much as he was the rank hypocrisy he often found the Jedi capable of, but that this Jedi actually had an answer to that question surprised him.

He eyed Koon, but the Jedi didn't say anything more; instead, Koon got down on all fours to crawl into the access tunnel. Maul closed his eyes for a moment while the Kel Dor vanished from view, then made himself look at Obi-Wan. "I'm sorry. That wasn't very fair of me."

Obi-Wan still looked a little hurt, though there was truth again in his voice when he said, "It's all right," and -- since Koon was not able to watch -- leaned over to kiss Maul on the cheek lightly. "It's not entirely unfair. I didn't know Jango beyond our meeting and fight; I shouldn't make too many assumptions about what kind of man he was, or what might have led him there in the first place."

The strange temptation to argue contrary to that was pointless, but there anyway; Maul frowned to himself as he shook his head, brushing a more awkward hand across Obi-Wan's back in a second, silent apology before following Koon into the tunnel. Arguing as devil's advocate was something Tally was more apt to do; arguing simply for the challenge of it.  It wasn't something Maul typically thought to do himself.

Somewhere in the tangle, Maul wondered at himself for the impulse; if it wasn't just another symptom of whatever it was that had him wanting to be alongside his squad, instead of alongside the man he shared a bed and a life with.  If it wasn't some attempt to put distance between them, though he knew he didn't want that; at least, not personally, even if professionally.

He shook himself out of the thoughts a second time; the second door opened without needing intervention, and Koon crawled out, lightsaber igniting before he was even up on his feet to deflect blaster fire. Maul doubled his speed to get out there himself, and--

Whoever designed this station had gone quite overboard on the defense measures. The columns from the center reactor, directing power throughout the station, were guarded by revolving energy shields, the sorts of which were guaranteed to burn a person if they were hit.

And there were no walkways here.

Maul moved down, opposite Koon, and deflected the blaster fire from the droids guarding the room, many of them hovering threats; they looked somewhat like interrogation droids if much larger.  They were bulbous and intimidating, but instead of being armed with the implements of torture, they were armed with blasters.

Taking them down was one thing. Trying to leap between platforms in order to reach the override that the droids were guarding--

Obi-Wan was apparently thinking the same; when he came out of the tunnel, covered by Koon and Maul on either side, and stood, he only said, "Oh wonderful."

 

 

 

Blasting through the doors to deflector control was--

Frankly, it was a lot of fun.

Shiv had been keeping in contact with Tally, between advances; none of the wounded who came into his little impromptu medbay had been seriously hurt, and the Seppies must have sent their most pathetic lot of droids, because no one had been killed yet, either. Outside, flying like hornets around the lumbering frigates, their pilots were knocking down most of the boarding shuttles before they could reach the station, and none of them had died yet, either. For once, it seemed like luck or fortune was on their side.

The troops streamed through the doors, peeling off left and right with the ease of common basic training, aiming at the droids who were holding the deflector control room and listening to their shrieking panic, annoyingly loud even through their buckets. Bringing up the rear was Switch -- a soft-shell, wearing just a basic flak jacket and a light-weight helmet -- and Shiv was pleased at how well Rancor was doing.

It didn't take them long to mop it up; just because he knew Maul was listening, he tapped the panel on his arm to keep his next words on the Blackbirds' frequency. "Hey, Lieu, we've got deflector control secured; Brody and Switch are moving to get those back online and beefed up."

The voice that came back was definitely not Maul's.

"--get it off GET IT OFF GET ERROR ERROR--"

Shiv blinked widely behind his visor, at the grating metallic voice screeching over the open comm line.

"--sn't built to-- bzzt! --be ridden by zabraks!"

"Uh. Lieu?"

"One moment, Shiv." There was the sound of a droid screeching on the other end, then it abruptly stopped and Maul's voice cut back in, "Sorry, I was handling-- something. You were saying?"

"We have deflector control back under our control." Shiv squinted as if he could somehow peer down several decks and see what the hell was happening down there. "What are you doing?"

"Procuring myself a ride." A beat. "Generals Kenobi and Koon said to tell you and Cody to move down and retake or secure the cargo decks, as that's likely where they're going to concentrate now that we have them on the run."

Shiv snorted.  "Yes, sir. Have fun, I guess."

"I'm emphatically not, but--" There was a grunt, then Maul finished, "--I have it in hand. Good hunting."

"You too." Shiv was just shaking his head to himself, unable to fight down the grin that was pulling the corners of his lips up as he relayed their latest orders to Cody.

 

 

 

Outside, Tango grinned in a decidedly feral manner when he saw the deflectors snap back on, surrounding the station in a flickering blue glow, and the small droid ship that smacked into it explode.

That grin only got wider when the brand new Venator-class jumped onto the scene.

"Good news, station ops! Backup's arrived!"

 

 

 

"Oh, thank everything for that," Obi-Wan said, mostly to himself, when station ops relayed Tango's message; truthfully, though, he only half heard it because most of his attention was focused on what Maul was doing.

Taking down the droids defending the reactor room was easy enough; none of them were shielded. A few well-placed deflections were enough to knock them out of the air, thus clearing the room and hopefully allowing them to get up to where the more stationary droids were guarding the emergency override. It was simple--

All the way up until Maul launched himself off of the platform and landed on one of the cylindrical droids guarding the room, one of the few they had not yet sent falling as smoking scrap, sending it careening wildly around the vast room shrieking in its grating voice as it tried to dislodge its new rider. So far as Obi-Wan could tell, it was not a Force-assisted leap, either; Maul simply threw himself off of the platform in one well-timed jump and now was standing on top of the droid, holding onto wires he'd torn out of the pried open access panel of the thing like reins.

Obi-Wan wasn't sure whether to be more impressed or more terrified. Both of those were vying for space in his mind, as he stood gaping at Maul, who was apparently getting a feel for his new-- steed? transportation? even as he calmly talked to Shiv through his headset.

"He certainly has a flare for the dramatic, doesn't he?" Plo asked, voice humming with amusement, as the last droid not being rodeo'd by a zabrak fell with a disconsolate whine down into the depths of the reactor's pit from a blast deflected off of his blade.

Obi-Wan nodded back absently, then managed to close his mouth with a click. He had not been sure how they were going to traverse the platforms if Maul couldn't jump with them, relying on the Force to make up for what muscle or cybernetics couldn't, but apparently Maul had been thinking ahead of him in that regard. "I suppose we, ah-- had best get moving, or else he's going to have them rendered to scrap before we get up there."

He didn't feel his own light-hearted tone, no. But it was too late to change anything about this. His mind was still running frantically trying to figure out what was wrong, and why Maul wasn't using the Force as Obi-Wan knew well he was capable of, but there wasn't any time now to do anything about it anyway.

"Indeed," Plo just said, before backing up and taking a well-timed leap into the void, channeling the Force as a platform, and landing up on the next branching platform.

Uneasy and worried, Obi-Wan took a breath and followed.

Chapter Text

It seemed to be going perfectly well, until – of course – it wasn’t.

“Just be sure you recover it,” Dooku’s voice said, over the open comm line at the center console of the communications room, sounding about as disgruntled as ever. Obi-Wan took a moment as he stood, staring at the back of the large, hulking figure leaning over the panel, and tried to remember any moment his own master had ever mentioned Dooku not being somehow dour and repressive.

None came to mind quickly. Not that he had much time to contemplate it.

“You needn’t worry, Count,” the large figure said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have guests.”

Obi-Wan couldn’t resist saying, “It’s about time you noticed; your manners are atrocious.”

The Skakoan turned. “You’re earlier than I expected,” he said, with some mean joviality making into his synthesized voice. Truthfully, Obi-Wan wasn’t terribly surprised by the species of their attacker; Wat Tambor had made a disaster of Ryloth, and likely whoever this was had been involved in some manner or another. "No matter; I’ve gotten most of what I’ve come here for.“ A beat. "Where is the third Jedi?” he asked.

Obi-Wan had a brief moment of amusement at Maul being called a Jedi, then a brief moment of panic because wasn’t Maul right behind them a minute ago?  But he knew better than to turn back and show his surprise at his darling’s sudden disappearance, so he just said, blithely, “Damned if I know; it’s not as if I have a leash on him.”

“Who are you?” Plo asked, hand hovering over the hilt of his lightsaber.

The Skakoan laughed, a juttering noise through the synthesizer as he made to walk past them. “I thought you Jedi knew everything.”

Both Jedi drew their blades, igniting them; Plo said, “In the name of the Republic, you’re under arrest.”

When it made the Skakoan laugh even harder, holding up a remote detonator and saying, “Take one more step, Jedi,” Obi-Wan reflected that they definitely could have handled all of that more gracefully. And when he and Plo drew back slightly, uncertain as to what the remote was linked to and how bad it could be if it was activated, there was a notably slump in the Skakoan’s posture as he complained, “Well, you’re no fun.”

And then he hit the button.

 

 

 

Not terribly long before the Skakoan declared the Jedi to be no fun, Smarty started noting the patterns of movement from the droids and was quickly figuring out that not all was as it seemed.

He had been holding the hangar deck with a slew of other troops and covering Rabbit, who brought back brothers who had called for help and deposited them with Tally before bolting off to the next clone in distress. His speed, even in these conditions, was so notable that even troops who didn't know him commented on how fast he was, and Smarty had enough room in his mind to be proud of his little brother for it. Whatever shakiness Rabbit had felt on Bravo-984 seemed to have melted away, leaving behind a very fast, very dedicated troop; he didn't hardly pause to catch his breath before making into the station again, blaster at the ready and armor singed somewhat, to help someone else.

Smarty was listening in to station ops because someone needed to help coordinate the hangar deck, and he just happened to be the guy best suited to keeping track of multiple positions and groups. He had his blaster up, but most of his attention was on the radio and his HUD, and he was as surprised as anyone else when not only the other Blackbirds, but also the other station troops, started answering to him as if he was the CO of the deck.

A lot of the paths through the station were cut off. Smarty had the station's maps up, and a datapad he'd grabbed from the Nest resting on a crate next to him, and he was keeping a running map of which ways were clear and functional and which had to be bypassed, as well as where the droids were being reported, that he pinged out to every trooper wearing a bucket in the station every time it was updated.

That was why he started noticing that things weren't adding up.

He took a few seconds to confirm it, then got on the radio to station ops and made sure to have Maul tied into the transmission, "I don't think they're trying to take the station back," he said, hurriedly. "Their pattern of movement through the station's all wrong."

"What do you think it is?" Maul asked back immediately.

Smarty eyed the map. "I can't say for sure, Lieu, but deflector control and the reactor override look like distractions; like where they're going because that's where we expect them to." Station ops flickered on his HUD as now showing offline, and Smarty stiffened in place. "Sir, they just took station ops offline, they're isolating the communications room!"

"We're already heading--"

All of the rest of the comm signals flickered off and the words signals jammed replaced them.

Smarty cursed to himself, then switched to speaker in order to reach the guys around him. "Guys, we've got trouble. Prepare for incoming and station evac."

 

 

 

"Comms are down," Cody said, grimly, switched over to speakers as they hunkered behind crates deep in the station, trying to take back the cargo decks.

"One of mine thinks they're trying to isolate the communications room." Shiv was scowling as he rested his blaster on the top of the crate and shot bolts at the droids who were darting back and forth. "He doesn't think they're trying to take the station back."

The implications of that statement were pretty wide-ranging, and none of them were good. "You mean we're been sent on a wild goose chase, Sergeant," Cody stated, rather than asked, now sounding grimly amused instead of just grim in general. "We're way too far down to get up there ourselves, so let's finish clearing this place as ordered, then we can move on. Hopefully, someone closer will get our radios working again."

 

 

 

Someone closer, in this case, were the three Force users, two of whom were on foot, and one of whom was astride a repurposed droid.

Maul had mostly cleared the override control platform, deftly avoiding the blaster fire from the droids stationed there and the truly ridiculous energy barriers that rotated around it. Mostly, that had just involved distracting the droids and allowing said barriers to do the work; even he had stopped as a lone B-1 ran ahead of the red screen of energy wailing about the injustice of it all, while he was standing on its larger and more bulbous cousin with his head cocked over to the side, the sheer absurdity of the entire situation enough to render him baffled and speechless.

Obi-Wan eventually ended that droid's rather pathetic laps around the column. It was while they were shutting down the energy barriers and securing the override against any further interference that Obi-Wan and Plo Koon were discussing contacting Skywalker to see if he had anyone available to provide air support; when they realized that they couldn't access the long-distance communications from there, they made plans to head for the communications room, a few decks above.

By then, Maul had gotten a fairly good feel for his 'ride'; he had the connections in hand for its gyros and propulsion, the mechanical means by which the electronics were activated, and he'd torn out the wires to its speaker just to shut it up; for now, it served as his likely reluctant steed and when they made for the communications room, he just kept the droid so that he could have an easier time navigating the obstacles than he had before.

(The number of times Plo Koon and Obi-Wan glanced back at him had him smirking to himself, as he hovered his ride behind them soundlessly, like a senator in a pod. Later, he was going to have to call Bail and tell him about it, because Bail would laugh until he was red.)

He used the droid to go up the broken lift shaft, while the Jedi both pushed off the walls, leaping from one to the other and back, relying on momentum and the Force; he didn't particular care for how that made him feel, watching their grace and speed and physical performance, but the internal frustration over his own inability to really do the same was long familiar and easily pushed aside for the moment.

It was when they just reached the right deck, though, that he heard the chirp that told him he was being actively tied into a frequency and Smarty was updating them on the situation.

Then the static.

"Someone's cut off station ops and has jammed our comms; Smarty thinks that they aren't looking to retake the base, but here for some other purpose," he reported to the Jedi, shoving down the spike of worry that flared up at being out of contact with his squad; he wouldn't do them any good if he lost focus, especially since it was likely that they were about to confront the reason behind all of this. "Whoever it is has control of communications."

Koon made a thoughtful noise through his vocabulator, then said, "This station is equipped with the strongest sensor array that the CIS has engineered; that was the reason the Council wanted it taken in the first place. Could that be the primary objective?"

"That sounds right." Obi-Wan huffed in and out, catching his breath, then started jogging down the corridor, Koon on his heels. "Let's get in there and see if we can't put a stop to all of this."

Maul went to follow, then stopped, watching for a moment as they kept going.

Then he looked up, taking in the maintenance infrastructure above, and grinned.

 

 

 

“Well, you’re no fun,” the Skakoan said, then pushed the button.

The explosions rocked the decking; Plo immediately set his stance wider, anxiety flushing his skin hotter as he finished putting the whole thing together: This Skakoan had been here to use the station's strong sensors to find something, perhaps on Ryloth, probably abandoned there by Wat Tambor when the Republic had started taking the world back from the droid army.

Not that any of that was more important than the issue currently presented: Even with comms down, the station's klaxons blared to life and the lights went from cool blue to red and gold, a visual indicator of the seriousness of the situation. And the Skakoan was still laughing as he used thrusters in the boots of his containment suit to take off; he took a moment to give them a jaunty salute, hovering in mid-air--

--when something large, black and bulbous came crashing out of the conduit above, smashing down on his relatively unprotected head, knocking him to the ground and to his knees.

It was quickly followed by something more fleet and with red highlights, illuminated brightly by the glowing gold blade of a saber, which promptly landed right behind the stunned Skakoan in a crouch; two flicks of the blade and both of the Skakoan's hulking shoulder-mounted blasters were sliced away.

Maul stood straight again, sharp hunter's teeth bared in a triumphant manner. "To steal a line-- hello there."

Beside Plo, Obi-Wan breathed out, "Oh Force," but it didn't sound like exasperation.

Unfortunately for all three of them, the Skakoan -- his head having been the only part of him not protected by the containment suit -- fell forward, unconscious from the blow the falling droid had given him.

As dire as the situation was, even Plo could not resist chuckling when Maul frowned at the unconscious enemy and toed him with a boot and a, "Hmmph."

"I'll unjam our communications," Plo said, jogging past the Skakoan and Maul, offering a consoling pat on the shoulder on his way past the zabrak to do just that. "We'll need to order an evacuation and hopefully help will get here quickly."

(He was too busy doing that to see Obi-Wan grab Maul for a fast but fierce kiss, before the two of them went to finish disabling the Skakoan's many suit-based weapons and his ability to escape via thrusters so that he could be secured. He also didn't hear Obi-Wan ask, still lip to lip, "Now who's the reprobate?" or Maul answer, after stealing a quick kiss back, "Still you.")

 

 

 

Comms came back up just in time for General Kenobi to order on all frequencies, "Abandon station! Repeat, abandon station! All fighters in the air, cover the escape pods and get them aboard any Republic ship as quickly as you can."

Raze had been helping hold the deck, but once Smarty had realized what was going on and told him and everyone, he had turned his attention mostly to helping Tally get the wounded onto the Nest, because the droids had stopped coming at the hangar not long after Smarty told them that the station wasn't the ultimate objective. The worst injury was a bad blaster burn, a gut wound, but the brother who had been hit was stable, though he needed a real medbay and surgery soon if he was going to stay that way. He was the first one they got aboard, then they turned to the rest, picking the ones hurt worse first.

"Raze, we've got a problem," Smarty said, as Raze helped another brother onto their ship, setting him down in one of their seats. In an unused cargo space, Tally was minding the one with the gut wound, setting up an impromptu IV stand and using anchors on the solid parts of the antigrav stretcher to secure it for lift off.

"What's up?" Raze asked, running back down the gangway to find Smarty, who had set himself up a miniature command center in the middle of a bunch of crates.

Smarty didn't take his bucket off, but he tapped into the datapad, and a moment later, the station map sprung up on Raze's HUD. "The explosions cut Commander Cody and Shiv and them off from getting out; I need someone to go blast open this passage," he said, and the hallway that had been blocked by debris -- thankfully unbreached to the vacuum of space -- highlighted yellow on the map, "so they can even get to the escape pods. And there's another squad pinned down here," another area highlighted, "that you can free on the way. Then just hop in with them and we'll meet you outside."

Raze never went anywhere without a variety of explosives. Including on a supposedly easy jaunt playing escort to a Republic station.

"Sounds like my kind of mission," he said, grinning broadly and slapping Smarty on the back of an armored shoulder, pulling his blaster around to have in front of him as he took off at a run.

 

 

 

They hadn't really had time to debrief properly after Bravo-984; the best that they had managed was an impromptu caf-chat in Briefing Room 3, right before they were tapped to play escort to Juma-9. All the Blackbirds were pretty frayed yet; aside their ex-shinies, they had been in war long enough to know all about rapid deployments and a lack of down-time between them, but a couple days on Corellia and a decent day's rest after didn't make up for the brutal slough through the icy mountains, and Husker was feeling it now, as he tried to help the others in their group clear debris in order to to minimize any flying shrapnel from the broken superstructure for when Raze got there to blow a hole open for them.

Whatever blow was dealt to Juma-9 wasn't immediately fatal, but there was no telling how long the ailing superstructure was gonna hold. Castle had said that the station might hold together, if crippled, but the engineer had made it damn clear that was the best case scenario and that they oughta expect the worst.

There were no droids left, though, so all Husk had was muscle and time to think, which led him back to the day before, and their briefing room caf-chat. Word had passed between 'em like a rippling wave that their caf maker was still there and that there was a decent selection of pods (Husk suspected Maul was the one who brought the box in on behalf of the sender, because several of the pods bore the name of an Alderaanian company specializing in roasting coffee beans), and there wasn't a trooper in the Grand Army that would turn down that kind of opportunity, let alone the Blackbirds.

Having now met Bail Organa, seeing the way the man so quickly treated all of them as peers, instead of property, and Husker appreciated all over again the box of caf pods set on their counter. Organa would have had to have sent them before the mission to Big Murder Mountain for them to have been there like that, which meant he had sent them without even knowing the men who he had sent them to, if not out of love for them, then out of love for their lieutenant and care for them by proxy.

Watching Rabbit and Rancor pawin' through the box ooh-ing and ah-ing over the different flavors had made Husker feel good. Their excitement to try some berry or chocolate flavored caf was infectious, too; before long, the rest of the squad had filtered in and was doing the same. Even Husk picked out a sweet vanilla flavor to brew up.

The conversation had meandered; just a bunch of clones, then eventually Maul too, all lounging in their chairs around the table. Somehow, though, they got onto the topic of other campaigns and the losses there, maybe because of what Shiv had been talking about before they got back to the Negotiator.

"I didn't really get along great with my batchmates, most of 'em," Tally had said, shaking his head. "I keep in touch with a few, though."

"Ours were all good. I wanna write 'em a letter, but--" Rabbit's face twisted, and he pushed his mug further away. "--you know. General Krell's company.  I, uh-- I don't know how many..." he said, then trailed off.

The entire table had fallen quiet there, and Husker -- who was sitting beside Rabbit on one side, while Rancor was on the other -- just reached over to rub the kid's back. But it was Shiv who spoke, looking at Rabbit with old hurt shining in his eyes and said, "I wish--" Then he stopped, and thought about it, and then took a breath and continued, "I wish the Order would think about that kind of thing when they, uh-- when they decide what's considered acceptable losses. I understand objectives, but..."

"There are no acceptable losses."

The entire table had looked at Maul -- the only one of them who bothered to drink tea when there was a perfectly good box of interesting caf to choose from -- and he looked back at them, taking them in each in turn. They all knew his status to the Order; honestly, it wasn't something Husk ever lost sight of, that their L-T was a prisoner and that he had no more rights outside this army than they did, but Maul rarely openly spoke out against said Order, even if he never censored the squad when they did.

"Not here," Maul said, quietly but with weight. "Not out there. Not ever."

The part that scared Husk was that he was sure Maul meant that.

"Where you at, Lieu?" he asked now, after flinging aside another piece of debris, just to make damned sure that his CO was also abandoning the station like they had been ordered to.

"Currently dragging a very heavy, unconscious Skakoan to the nearest escape pod."

Shiv cut in there, apparently thinking the same thing Husk was, "We've got Raze coming to get us out of this jam. You are planning on getting in the escape pod with the unconscious Skakoan, right?"

Maul huffed loud enough to carry over the radio. "Yes, that's my intention, but only after Raze has you freed and the rest of you are off the station."

Somewhere in the background, they could hear General Kenobi protesting that; there was a brief moment where the radio went silent, presumably muted, and Shiv and Husk exchanged a look despite buckets. From somewhere else, Rabbit got on the radio, "We're just lifting off with the Nest now; the hangar's been cleared and all personnel evacuated."

Maul got back on the line, apparently having won his argument, "Good work. Shiv, signal me the moment your party is free of the station."

Shiv didn't bother to hide his exasperated sigh, though as ever, there was a note of affection in it. "Yes, sir. Then you signal me the second you are, too."

"I will."

"Hey, I heard somebody say they needed a way out?"  Raze broke in, a bright grin evident in his voice. "Stand back, guys, get behind some cover and I'll have you out of there in a flash... and a bang."

 

 

 

The Skakoan was just regaining consciousness when they arrived at one of the few undamaged escape pods left on this level.

Despite all training, however, Plo's mind was elsewhere, at least in part; even at this distance, he could sense some pang of pain off of the child he had brought to the Temple years ago, though training and experience was enough to distinguish that it was an emotional hurt, rather than a physical one. As he helped drag the Skakoan, he tried to send back warmth and reassurance; at least, to project it in Ahsoka's direction, so she might feel less alone in it; tried to reach out to her as she had done for him after the Malevolence disaster.

"I don't suppose you're interested in sharing a name," Obi-Wan was saying, forcing Plo back into the moment and the immediate. "Or what you were doing here?"

"How many of your clones have died in my explosions?" the Skakoan asked back, voice a little slurred, though he was quite trussed up and the thrusters in his boots disabled.

"None, thus far," Maul said, giving a particularly hard jerk on the Skakoan's arm. "Most have been evacuated and as soon as my squad is clear, I intend to have my slicer dig through the scanner's logs remotely to find out what you were after."

"No matter." The Skakoan laughed. "If you think that your pathetic Republic forces can hold me, you're sorely mistaken."

"I think I liked you better unconscious." Obi-Wan dropped the Skakoan outside of the escape pod, then looked up at Maul. "I don't suppose you have another droid you'd like to drop on his head?"

"I'd drop the entire droid army on his head, but my boot would do in a pinch," Maul answered, resting said boot on the Skakoan's head, right where it had been hit, and causing the prisoner to make a warbling sound as he squirmed, bound and helpless.

"Gentlemen," Plo interrupted, gravely. "Let Intelligence deal with him." He paused, then continued diplomatically, "Though, if he keeps this up, feel free to disable his vocabulator until they have him."

Maul took his boot off of the Skakoan's head, though it seemed to be the last thing he wanted to do. Still, Plo had been duly impressed with the former Sith thus far; with his obvious concern for his troops, and with his quick, if rather dramatic, tactics. A far cry from the cornered, viciously defiant being he had been; it made Plo feel justified in the way he had voted all that time ago, and also more recently.

Perhaps something to bring up, after the prisoner was secure on his new ship.

There was a moment where the light blinked on Maul's headset and he listened to whatever was being said, then relayed, "Cody's party is free and making for the pods."

The Skakoan made a disgruntled noise at that, but didn't speak another word yet. Obi-Wan grabbed his arm anew and started dragging his disabled, containment-suited body into the pod. "Best get him aboard, then." When Obi-Wan caught Maul stiffening in place, he huffed and rolled his eyes. "We won't leave until you give the word, d--" he started, and then cut himself off, complexion darkening.

Plo wondered what word was going to follow (a curse?), but Maul just cleared his throat and grabbed the other arm to help drag their prisoner aboard.

 

 

 

Half the pods were damaged, and those that weren't were gone.

Cody took the lead once Raze had the way cleared for them; when they finally got to some pods still there and useable, he shoved half of their collected group into the first one, which left just him and the Blackbirds and Switch for the last one.

They were piled into it and buckled in fast when-- it refused to launch. On the panel next to the hatch, a warning flashed red that the remote controls for the docking clamps were disabled.

"You have got to be kidding me," Brody said, making to unbuckle, half under his breath. Castle was just about to do the same, too; Shiv opened his mouth to admonish them to just pick one guy to see if they could jury-rig the connection when their soft-shell escort decided to play hero.

"I can fix it," Switch said, already out the hatch, having been the last one in and having not been buckled there yet. "Just need to use the manual override," he added, hoisting his blaster and turning back to face them with a wan grin Shiv had seen far too many times on troopers about to sacrifice themselves--

--only to get a face full of Raze, who flung his bucket back into the pod to chase after the technician.

Every one of them jumped when he bellowed, "Like hell you are! You get your ass into that pod, soft-shell!"

Even Cody, who'd taken his bucket off to take control of the pod's thrusters, had turned in the pilot's seat and was staring with his mouth hanging open. Shiv-- well, at least his bucket was on to hide the fact that his jaw was also dropped.

"Someone needs to blow the controls--" Switch stammered.

Raze literally grabbed him by his flak jacket and shoved him back into the pod. "Sit down, I'll get it."

"Raze--" Shiv started.

Raze shot a look into the pod, then deliberately reached up and took out one earring, then the other. Switch was staring at him wide-eyed, until Brody reached out and snagged the tech by his arm and jerked him down into the seat. "He's got it, sit down and try not to find some other reason to sacrifice your own life, for frip's sake."

Raze muttered as he squished his plastic-explosive earring, breaking the pretty sparkling shell and exposing the explosive compound under it, and then he activated the tiny detonator in the other one; he moved out of sight and was gone for exactly two seconds, then dove into the pod and slammed the hatch closed just before the pod released, the small explosion enough to trick the docking control into opening the clamps.

"Knew those would come in handy sometime," he said, splaying his arms out as the pod rolled away from the station, its gravity systems struggling to compensate for the wash left from all the energy trails from the battle that was winding down.

Then he pointed up at Switch from the floor and said, "There are no acceptable losses."

Shiv was grinning so hard that his face hurt when he reported on their frequency, "All alive, well and departed, Lieu."

He was looking forward to seeing what Maul's expression was later when he heard about that, but for now, he was grateful for the relieved reply which came back, "Right behind you, Blackbirds."

Chapter Text

Brody cocked his head to the side and eyed the footage of his general and his lieutenant sucking face from four different cam angles, behind the back of a Jedi Council member, and then glanced around quickly before scrubbing it out of Juma 9's databanks.

The Nest had picked up their escape pod; Tango whined the entire time over the radio telling Rabbit not to scratch the courier's paint, even as he himself provided cover for them in his borrowed fighter. Somehow, despite not being Tango, Rabbit managed a successful retrieval, hooking docking port to docking port with the escape pod. As they had disembarked, Maul had called over the radio and asked Brody to slice into Juma 9's systems remotely and see if he could access the scanner logs and see what the Skakoan prisoner had been looking for. For expediency's sake, Brody sliced the surveillance first so he could pin down a timestamp, and that was how he ended up getting an eyeful of General Kenobi and Maul having a steamy little tongue-wrestle in plain view of the cameras.

As the last scrap of video data depicting that disappeared into a disk corruption error, Brody thought, Poor Tango, and then promptly put it out of his mind as he worked on slicing the scanner's logs.

After he found out what the Skakoan had been scanning for and where, he forwarded the information to General Koon's new ship, where Maul and the Jedi had been brought aboard with their prisoner, as the two Seppie frigates (devoid now of fighters and battered from the battle) jumped away into hyperspace. Then he went back through the footage again; he made a copy of Maul's droid-riding shenanigans, made a copy of the incredibly badass drop on the Skakoan, deleted a few more strategic chunks of footage and wondered if he could win some credits off of Tally by somehow making this new revelation into a bet.

It would be nice, after all, if he could afford to hire a legitimate advertising service to run the Viable ad that he was only a couple of days away from completing.

 

 

 

Kul Teska was the name of their very unhappy prisoner; once they had him aboard ship, and Plo was able to contact one of the Intelligence units out there, it didn't take him very long to be identified. Then, immediately after that, they finally managed to get into communication with Anakin Skywalker, who had been holding Cad Bane prisoner on Ryloth after managing to capture him; apparently, this was enough to seriously anger Teska, because Bane had stolen a prototype part for a weapon from him, which Skywalker had already confiscated before Bane escaped. Teska's entire point of bringing two frigates and to have CIS forces go on the offensive on Ryloth seemed to be so he could access Juma 9's sensors and find out where Bane had ended up with it, only to be thwarted. While listening to Teska rant and monologue, Plo had made sure to record the information for Intelligence, hoping that the more arrogant of the villains never lost the habit of talking too much, even if having to listen to it made the bases of his tusks ache.

After that, he finally took a moment to center himself anew, greeting the new men who would be under his command as they headed back for the hangar deck.

There had been twenty-three losses over all in the conflict, and none of them on Juma 9; nine from the 212th, the rest 501st, including one trooper that had been under Ahsoka's command on Ryloth. When he heard that, his prior sense of her suffering came back to mind.

His own mistakes had led to far more deaths than justifiable; the Malevolence remained a dark specter just behind of his shoulder. As old as he was, it was a weight he was capable of bearing while still walking in the light, but Ahsoka was still so terribly, achingly young for such burdens. Plo had brought up the question of what would happen to the padawans while their masters were deployed as military officers at the beginning of this conflict, and had protested when the answer was that every Jedi -- even those still training -- was needed. Their numbers were not so great that they could afford to keep the padawans in the Temple, hoping that they would learn piecemeal, or wait until after the war to finish their apprenticeships; the padawans would go with their masters, out onto the battlefield, and would command troops.

As with most things, the Council was split over that decision. And none of them were easy with it, regardless of vote.

Plo believed in duty, however; he accepted the responsibility of leadership when the decision was made for the Jedi to act as the primary pool for the Republic's military officers, but he also made certain to back any Jedi who refused to fight on the front lines, of which there were a few. His own former padawan, Issa Mar, had opted to join the war effort in an intelligence role instead, and Plo would be dishonest if he tried to claim that he didn't prefer that for her.

He wished that Ahsoka could have gone the same route.

The dark was obscuring, and they had been losing their way in it especially of late; able to step back and see things with a longer view, Plo could also see just how long this had been going on.

He decided that before he left the area, he was going to contact Ahsoka and check on her. That he was going to take time to meet and greet every new clone under his command that he could between now and their next destination, as well.

For now, he went to see Obi-Wan and Maul off; their pilot had joined them, and the courier was in the holding pattern for landing on the deck to pick them up. While the pilot -- Tango -- was talking animatedly with Maul, Plo stepped over to Obi-Wan. "I intend to hold here long enough for the engineers to assess whether Juma 9 can be salvaged. We have enough capacity to care for the troops who were supposed to be stationed there, including yours, until we know."

Obi-Wan nodded, though his expression had gotten pensive between when they left the station and now. "With Ryloth mostly back under control, we'll doubtless be pushed elsewhere."

"Still, it was good working with you again," Plo continued, folding his hands into the sleeves of his robe. "And likewise good to see your undeniably unique lieutenant in action."

Obi-Wan's shoulders stiffened a little, though he didn't look or sound angry as he said, "Maul's proven himself a number of times, but especially of late. Shaak Ti also wants an assessment of the Blackbirds; I'm debating on whether to allow it or not."

The defensiveness that Plo was detecting was ultimately unsurprising. Aside Vokara Che, Obi-Wan had been the one with the most contact with the ex-Sith; after those troubling early days of Maul's captivity, Obi-Wan had been steadfast in his advocacy for Maul. Plo, having known Qui-Gon and considered him a friend, wasn't sure what his old friend would have thought of this, but for he himself, he was-- grateful, in a way, that something good had come out of all of it, even if the loss to the Order had been undeniable. "I think she would be very fair," he pointed out, watching the zabrak steer his pilot out of the way of a group of troops leaving the deck, all without interrupting said pilot's talking. "Many on the Council still view him as a liability; the only way to challenge that is by showing them otherwise."

"I don't know if I agree with that," Obi-Wan said, arms crossed. "But you raise an interesting point."

"Does he know of my own voting record?"

It was a touchy question to ask, Plo knew, for a number of reasons; Obi-Wan's clear wariness over it radiated off of him and made Plo feel regretful, that one of their finest generals -- and, indeed, one of their best Jedi -- felt so divorced from the leadership of the Order. Nor could he entirely blame Obi-Wan for feeling that way; when the Council had to debate who to fill Depa's seat with, given her comatose state, Obi-Wan had been one of the candidates. And it was specifically his steadfast advocacy for Maul which had him passed over, though the vote had been close and Grandmaster Yoda had pushed strongly for Obi-Wan to be given the seat.

Obi-Wan was likely expecting some manner of belligerance over having shared that information with Maul. Because clearly he had, given his long silence, though after a few moments his chin inclined and he confirmed it, "Yes, he knows who voted and how."

"If it helps, Obi-Wan-- I don't regret any of mine," Plo said, reaching out and patting Obi-Wan on the shoulder before walking past him to go and talk to Maul.

 

 

 

The reappearance of the Sith, after a thousand years of silence, had shaken the Order to its foundations.

All of that had been brought to bear on Maul, immediately after his capture. As the only possible resource for information about what their ancient enemy was planning, he was given no quarter beyond what Vokara Che could demand; even then, her demands were only heeded when his very life was in danger. In the initial weeks, his wounds kept him in that precarious place; first came the emergency measures to keep him alive, then to stabilize him and deal with the ensuing infection that ravaged his broken form, then to add a permanent life-support cuff to what was left of his body to compensate for the organs he no longer had once he was strong enough for the surgery, taking over for the exterior machinery that had been doing the job before. There had been no talk then of granting him mobility via cybernetic replacements for his hips and legs; once he was no longer in immediate danger, he was given the full attention of the Council, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

He was questioned, to no avail. Telepathically probed at, likewise to no avail, even when it was the Order's strongest and best trained telepaths attempting it. Even for his age and injuries, he was so steadfast in his refusal to bend or break that days became weeks, and weeks became months, and the more time that passed, the more intense the attempts. He made no effort to attack the guards or Vokara Che, but he refused to cooperate even with the most basic of requests. The only person who could provoke him into speaking was young Obi-Wan, who the Council was also concerned was treading too close to the dark.

In the end, it wasn't the Council that broke Maul's mental shielding. They were only there to see if anything useful could be found in the wreckage after the other Sith, undeniably the master, had found a way to do catastrophic damage from a distance.

But it was certainly the Council of the time that broke Maul's will to survive. Plo had no doubts about that.

Plo had been against using mental probing and sleep deprivation as an interrogation method from the start; he, Yaddle, Ki-Adi-Mundi, Adi and Depa had all refused to participate in it, citing their discomfort with it. But when he heard that Maul had finally been broken and had immediately tried to end his own life, he was saddened, but not particularly surprised. To have held on that long was a feat of endurance; to have finally reached the end of it could only be devastating. When he heard the details, the sadness grew more pronounced.

Even with gaps in his memory, it was clear that Maul had been raised and trained as a weapon. If there were any grand plans, he would not have likely been privy to the details. For Plo, and some of the others, the ends had not justified the means.

Now, nearly eleven years after, the same person stood on Plo's hangar deck; a commissioned officer, fighting on their side, alongside their men and alongside the Jedi. Plo could understand why many of the Council, and indeed many of the Jedi, were uncomfortable with Maul's existence, let alone with his participation; he was a moral quandary embodied in flesh and cybernetics. A question about the space between light and dark, and during a time when the Order was already struggling to see the former for the overwhelming presence of the latter.

"I wanted to personally thank you for your service," he said, once Maul had finished talking with Tango, who had moved off with a wary glance to meet the courier due to land any moment.

Maul's posture was stiff; much like Obi-Wan, his chin raised, and exactly like Obi-Wan, he crossed his arms defensively. "General," he just answered, not really an acceptance or a refusal, but at least an acknowledgment.

Plo wasn't going to speak ill of the other Council members; he did not think their decisions, then or more recently, were made with any malice in mind. Nor, though, could he blame Maul for viewing him with such clear suspicion. "I understand your discomfort, speaking to me," Plo added, folding his own hands behind his back to appear less intimidating and more open. "But I wanted to also tell you that I consider my votes, regarding you, to have been the correct ones and that I don't believe that will change."

Maul somehow managed to stiffen even more in place; his voice was tense, if controlled, when he said, "I'm still a prisoner. Your prisoner. My opinions on your voting record are inconsequential."

It reminded Plo of Maul's defiant stance in the Council's chambers, when his parole was being debated. His biting criticism. Strangely, that display of spirit pleased Plo. "It matters to me, but I can appreciate your unwillingness to discuss it. Still, if you ever wish to, I'm willing to listen. And if you ever want to cross sabers in a friendly spar, I would be honored."

That apparently took the zabrak aback some; he drew his head back, one shoulder twitching the same direction. Then his jaw worked and he wrestled with himself, shifting his weight slightly before squaring up again, even if his arms remained crossed. "I'm not the swordsman I once was, but I admired you then, General. For your prowess and skill. You struck me as an honorable opponent."

Plo absorbed that, and didn't take the barb personally. "But no longer?"

Those arms didn't uncross, but Maul didn't look away, either. "Did you ever speak out against it, while they were at me? I know how you voted. That you refused to participate. But did you ever speak out against it?"

There was only one honest answer to that, so Plo gave it: "No. After the initial vote on interrogation, I recused myself citing my discomfort with the methods, but I didn't speak out against it while it was happening."

"Then you already have your answer."

Ultimately, it was the undertone of disappointment in Maul's voice as he said that which hit home. And when the zabrak turned and walked away, making for the direction where his courier was due to land, Plo let a slow breath out through his mask.

He had a great deal to meditate on, once he had time to do it.

 

 

 

Obi-Wan had a lot to think about, and yet more he and Maul had to talk about, but it had to wait until they were on the Negotiator.

He had stayed back while Maul and Plo talked, then said goodbye to the other Jedi before following his darling to where the Nest had landed. Tally had transferred the wounded to the waiting medics aboard, rattling off rapid fire the condition and vitals of the one hurt worst, and then disappeared back onboard the courier. Raze flew off the ramp and tackled Maul, which made Obi-Wan's eyes go wide, as Maul had to play catch and stay on his feet; Tango, walking with them, just shrugged and said, "He does that all the time."

It was another piece of the picture he had been trying to build now since the return from Bravo-984. Not an unwelcome one, but heavy: The realization that there was an entire part of Maul's life that he was no longer an active part of. That the squad was building rituals and languages all their own, and he had no rightful place sharing those things.

The bittersweetness of it lingered until they were back aboard their own ship. Ryloth was back under control, Mace and Kit Fisto having arrived from another completed campaign to mop up, which left Obi-Wan free for the battlegroup's next assignment. To his relief, that was to one of their supply worlds; a chance to resupply his fleet and give his men a brief rest.

And perhaps, too, a chance to breathe long enough for him and Maul to figure out where they now stood.

Once back aboard the Negotiator, Maul went with his squad to their briefing room, likely so they could go over their performance; Obi-Wan went to the bridge to get on the comms and piece together everything that had happened in the chaos spread out between Ryloth and Juma 9.

Now, four hours and a buzzing headache later, they were back in their quarters and doing the very last thing Obi-Wan wanted to be doing.

Arguing.

"If I would have known, we could have started looking into how to fix it!" he said, trying and failing to keep a level tone. But at the heart of it, he felt-- not betrayed, never that, but a little wounded, that Maul had been struggling with the Force since Zigoola and had not once brought it up to him, even obliquely. "We could have at least discussed it!"

"I didn't even realize it was that serious." Maul was standing, unsurprisingly, as he watched Obi-Wan from his spot nearly to the bulkhead, as if he felt he had to have something solid to protect his back. "And if you would have known, what would we have done? Meditated on it? I've tried that."

A thousand nightmare scenarios were crossing Obi-Wan's mind, even as he was trying to reason with his other-half. "I could have--" he started, then paused, dropping his head over his own folded arms.

He would have axed the training mission, very likely. He might not have assembled the squad, or if he did, he would have found some way to lighten their mission parameters. He would have done that to protect both Maul and them, because a large part of the original argument to the Council about letting Maul out of the Temple to join the war effort had been based on his Force sensitivity and his ability to use it on the battlefield to their advantage. And if that connection was so unreliable that Maul's life was in danger like it had been on the station--

The terrible thought occurred that Obi-Wan could easily end the argument and everything else, if he cast Maul as a liability rather than an asset in relation to the Blackbirds. Then, instantly after, the more terrible realization came that Obi-Wan was even capable of thinking that; that some part of him was capable of viewing this as an exercise in tactics instead of as something which needed handled with love, and not violence, even the subtle and undermining kind of violence.

We were never meant for this, he thought, closing his eyes and swallowing down his horror before making himself look up again.

"I'm managing it. I can compensate for the unreliability and I have," Maul said, and Obi-Wan's chest squeezed at the tremble across Maul's shoulders and the note of questioning in his tone as he finished, "I'm worth more than just my ability to use the Force."

And it was a truth; hell's teeth, it was a truth that Obi-Wan would have cried from the top of a mountain. In any other moment, Maul saying that would have had him beaming and soaring internally; that his darling would assign himself any worth without somehow citing himself as being a useful tool.

But in that moment, Obi-Wan almost couldn't believe how close he had come to taking a contrary position to it.

"You are," he agreed, his own voice trembling more than he liked. "By every possible measure. So-- let's map it. What you know for sure about it, and maybe we can figure out the best way to navigate around it."

Maul gave back a steady looking nod, but that didn't change the fact that he spent the next half hour or so shaking like a leaf in Obi-Wan's arms, before they could even get down to the discussion.

Somehow it didn't come as a surprise when, after that, he asked Obi-Wan to let the Blackbirds deploy afield for missions, away from the bulk of the 212th.

Or, that when all of their words were spent, they slept the rest of the night with their limbs tangled together as they held onto one another with everything in them.

 

 

 

"Point of order!" Brody smacked the briefing room table, theatrically. "Let the lieutenant have the floor."

In spite of how he was feeling, that made Maul huff in amusement. Their morning briefings tended to be more like free-for-alls than anything else; had been since the first one, really, which had been the most formal of them. After that, they became a time to convey information, yes, but also to joke around, or to banter, or to debate, or just to drink caf or tea and watch the squad descend upon any non-issued foodstuff that might have made it into the briefing room. To anyone outside, the chaos probably seemed a terrible breach of protocol, but Maul enjoyed these times; it was during them that he had first gotten to know his squad, and now, post Bravo-984, it felt--

He wasn't sure; didn't know the word for it, but it reminded him of Alderaan towards the end of their convalescence there, post-Zigoola, where sharing meals with Bail and Queen Breha was much like this. Where the people gathered were not there because they had to be, but because they wished to be.

"Do you want me to start with the good news or the confessions?" Maul asked, resting his elbows on the table and folding his hands, taking in the squad; he was anxious, but managing it -- it felt like everything in his life right now was down to managing or compensating -- and the way all of the Blackbirds perked up when the word 'confessions' hit the air made him smile and shake his head to himself, firmly tamping down his nervousness.

"Oooh, that's a tough call," Shiv ribbed right back, leaning back in his seat as he was often wont to do when he was courting mischief, eying Maul with a tongue-in-cheek grin. "Either of those coming from you is bound to be entertaining."

Maul snorted. "Don't be so sure on that."

"I'm intrigued either way," Tally said, to the enthusiastic nods of everyone around the table. "But hell, start with the good news."

"The Nest is ours, permanently."

Tango jumped up from the table and punched the air, and no one at said table was shocked as he hollered, "Yes!!"

"--and, within reason, we get to customize it. Reason, in this case, meaning whatever we can requisition within budget and salvage otherwise. From here, we're headed to Radnor for resupply; the 332nd will be there, and General Kenobi intends to source us our next field assignment from their general. But while we're there, we're authorized for R&R on days one and two. After that, the 501st will be there, but we'll likely be on our next assignment by then."

Husker hrrmphed and Smarty chimed in with, "Radnor's one of the only planets in this area that hasn't been skirmishing, thanks to their weapons development projects and the bio-plague from a few years back that escaped from one of their labs. The world's been cleared, some have migrated back to it, but I guess no one wants to go and find out if there's still some pockets of it waiting to escape again, not even the Seppies."

"Is there anything you don't know?" Tally asked, though he was grinning.

"Plenty," Smarty said back, with a sharp smile. "But since this entire area is a CIS hotbed or slaver territory, I did my research."

"Droids don't get the plague," Husker pointed out.

"No, but their officers can. I wouldn't want to risk it, either." Tally gave a cheerful shrug. "I hope they did their decon right, then. Biologically engineered plagues sound like a great vacation souvenir."

Maul had more knowledge of the situation than any of them, for once; Obi-Wan (and Skywalker) had been deployed there when it had happened, some six years back, and Bail had been instrumental in getting relief and aid sent without a lengthy Senate debate. He remembered Obi-Wan's visits after it; it was just before Iloh, actually, and thus Maul had some mental and emotional context for the events in play.

Mostly, the remaining inhabitants of the world were still entirely friendly towards the Jedi, and given the nature of the war out here, were willing to act as a supply depot and waystation for the Republic's forces, where many other worlds were either hostile or didn't want to get involved directly.

"Oh! Ocean world!" Misty had been reading from a datapad, apparently having been curious enough to do his own research. "Well, mostly. Either way, I win."

"From here, we'll be treated as largely independent, but General Shaak Ti has requested an assessment of the squad in the near future," Maul continued; he wasn't happy about that in the least, but he knew some of his squad had a rapport with the Jedi, and ultimately, the only one who could stand between them and said assessment was Obi-Wan, who would if asked, but who Maul didn't want to ask.

Husker's face brightened at that, while Tally's dimmed. A few of the others had similar reactions. "She'll give us a good review," Husk said, with certainty. "She's a good ally to have in our corner."

Tally's mouth went into a line, but he kept quiet.

"The time hasn't been set for it yet, due to current troop graduation levels, but doubtless we'll know sooner than later." Maul unfolded his hands and scrubbed a palm down his face, aware that he had their attention anew, hiding behind his hand for a moment. "As to the confessions..." he started, then faltered for a moment, the anxiety he'd managed to get a hold on early rearing back up hard enough that it caught his breath short. He made himself take a deeper one, then let it out carefully, even if he couldn't make himself open his eyes yet. "The mission to Zigoola, prior to the squad's assembly left me-- unreliable."

"Unreliable?" Shiv asked, disbelief in his tone, after a long beat.

Maul finally managed to make himself look back at the squad, bracing for disappointment or worse, though he kept his voice even. "My ability to use the Force was damaged there. I didn't realize it was quite so bad as it turned out to be until we were on Bravo-984." There was another long beat where he wrestled with himself, half a dozen urges -- all of them ultimately boiling down to fleeing or freezing -- firing down his arms, which had him folding his hands on the table again, just to resist that. "If I was able to harness it as I had before Zigoola, I could have caught you," he said, a rough note creeping into his voice as he looked at Shiv. "I could have avoided the zipline for all of you, likely. I could have-- I could have probably handled the cargo more efficiently. I could have also handled the sensor towers more efficiently."

The Blackbirds were all quiet, as they looked back at him. The only one he could make eye contact with was Shiv, and that was so he could say, "I'm sorry, Shiv."

Shiv stared back, squinting; Maul would not have thought to blame his sergeant if he launched into an attack about it, though he didn't think it likely. The thought of losing Shiv's respect to silence was somehow worse anyway.

"Frankly, Lieu: Kriff that," Shiv said, after a few moments. "Are you seriously apologizing to me for not being able to do what none of the rest of us can do anyway?" He shook his head, emphatically, then took his own breath and said, more calmly, "Sir, connection to the Force or not, you sure as hell weren't what anyone can call unreliable."

"Shiv's right," Raze said, just as certainly. "I mean, I get you being worried about it and all, 'cause the Jedi go jump around like spiced-up hares and pick up giant things by gesturing dramatically, but Lieu-- none of us can do that, and anyway, that's not what being a leader's about."

Maul wasn't sure what to say to that; the entire squad agreed immediately, and enthusiastically. Tally looked a little worried, but he was just as loud and enthusiastic as the rest of them. Maul tried to think of how he could explain that an unreliable Force connection made him a particular liability to the squad, and said, "Nonetheless, I realize it was one of my selling points--"

"--selling points?"  Tally interrupted, incredulously. "Okay, first, you're not a kriffin' commodity, you're our lieutenant, and second of all-- Raze and Shiv are right. Speaking for myself, I'm worried about it, but that's medical and doesn't have a thing to do with your ability to contribute. You said it yourself, our first briefing; you know stealth, you know how to kill pretty much everything, you know how to do what we've been tapped to do, and sir, that counts too."

It was getting steadily harder to-- to think through all of the threads Maul had painstakingly assembled before coming to this briefing. He thought, objectively, that even one more point against him would be enough for any sane group of people to backpedal from supporting him quickly, and he held up a hand asking for no interruptions before carefully trying to order his thoughts past the tight feeling in his chest, "There's-- a lot. I'm a prisoner. I'm walking on cybernetics that can be compromised by a weapon commonly used by the Grand Army. My ability to compensate for my weaknesses is further damaged by an unreliable ability to use the Force. I'm not-- I'm not--" He gave a sharp gesture at his head, then made himself fold his hands again by some feat of will. "What I'm saying is, I want--" A beat, and he swallowed. "--I want to continue as your lieutenant. But I-- I don't want to be a liability, either. Nor do I want there to be any-- any illusions, as to what I can or can't do."

I don't want to let you down.

Every word of it hurt to say. Even feeling the sharp ache, Maul wondered at how that was possible. The fact that he was not even finished confessing liabilities reminded him of what drowning felt like.

"Can we talk now?" Shiv asked, calmly; when Maul managed a nod, he said, "Obviously, the only way we can do this part of things is by vote. So, Blackbirds, vote: Do we keep our lieu?"

"Damn straight we do," Raze said, immediately. "Look, sir, if you can cope with me never being to briefings on time, or having a completely understandable but maybe kinda extreme desire to blow things up, or thinking a thousand things at once, I sure as hell can cope with you just being you, whether you can lift boulders with your mind or not."

"Seconded." Castle rapped his knuckles light on the table. "We've already proven ourselves with you. Twice over -- three times, if we count our espionage against Skywalker -- and that's more'n most of our brothers get a chance for. I don't want another CO."

"Thirded," Brody threw out. "Lieu, I'm a-- mostly-former cult member, currently only semi-legal slicer who might be married but doesn't know for sure, I'm definitely not gonna get hung up on any of your issues, especially 'cause you've never been hung up on mine."

"Fourth'd." Smarty sounded as if he was smiling. "Give up the only squad and CO that never tells me to shut up when I compulsively spew information? Hell no."

"Fifth'd, this is the most swimming I've gotten to do since leaving Kamino," Misty added. "And now that I'm done being shallow -- ha ha -- I kind of like being able to vote on things. I like coming in here and feeling like we're all brothers instead of barely one step up from droids."

"Sixth'd," Rabbit said. "I mean-- you gave me cookies in the middle of an arctic nightmare, I'm pretty sure that alone makes you a keeper, Lieu. Never mind that whole badass lightsaber thing you do."

"Seventh'd." Husker's voice was quieter, but it was steady. "I made my choice on Big Murder Mountain, Lieu; you're it and nothin' you've said here is even close to enough to change it."

"Eighth'd," Tango said, firmly. "Where you go, I go."

"Nineth'd? Is that even a word? But nineth'd. I mean-- we're voting on this, sir, and we wouldn't be doing that if not for you," Rancor said.

"Tenth'd." Like Husker, Tally's voice was quieter. "You're a prisoner, and we're an army of cloned, bought, owned men, but we're here and we're already pretty good and only going to get better. There's nothing about you that makes you worth giving up."

"And obviously I'm keeping you," Shiv finished, straight-forwardly. "Like that wasn't a foregone conclusion. So, vote's been cast, unanimously we're keeping our lieutenant, and I move we all vote to make that permanent, from here to the end of the road, so we have ammo to remind him if he tries to talk us out of it again. Up and down, aye or nay?"

All eleven voices overlapped with, "Aye!"

It was, by far, more than Maul could cope with. Part of his mind scrambled to find points of argument, but mostly, he was just overwhelmed; uncertain connection to the Force or no, he could feel the loyalty and sincerity in their words, could feel the warmth of it, and could feel the same echo from his own hearts, this attachment he didn't see coming and now wanted, with aching desperation, to hold onto.

The breath he dragged in there trembled, and he rested his face in his hands, but he said, "If you change your minds after what I say next--"

"Oh, for frip's sake!" Tally broke in, but his voice was filled with undeniable affection.

"--I won't blame you," Maul continued, a shaky smile tugging the corners of his mouth for the interruption, as he tried to gather his nerve for the rest of this and keep the panic under even tenuous control.

Shiv just said, quietly, "You've got this," and Maul didn't doubt for a moment that Shiv knew what was coming.

Maul managed a nod, then said, "General Kenobi and I are in a relationship -- a romantic relationship -- and have been for years."

There was a very long several moments of silence; it was Smarty who broke it, sounding stunned.

"Oh, shit, I did not see that one coming."

Chapter Text

"--remember, you too can try Viable for a free two week trial, and it's only 99 point 99 credits per month after!"

Maul paused inside of the doorway of their briefing room and stared at Brody, who was currently speaking with Anakin Skywalker's voice, a datapad in hand that he was clearly using to record said voice. Maul blinked once or twice, then his head went over to the side, as he tried to come up to speed on what exactly his slicer was doing.

Brody paused and blinked back at him, though he didn't seem the least bit embarrassed.

"Do I want to know?" Maul asked, brow furrowing.

Brody gave him a toothy grin, broad and beaming. The effect was triply unsettling for the fact he was still using Skywalker's voice when he said, "Probably not, Lieu."

Maul gave a slow nod, then turned to leave again; he was only going to grab a few more of their supplies to transfer to the Nest, but that could wait. "Carry on."

"With gusto, Lieu," Brody replied, cheerfully.

Maul was still shaking his head when the door closed behind him. Doubtless he would find out eventually.

 

 

 

Brody watched his CO leave; Maul wasn't the only one shaking his head, though Brody was doing so with that grin still plastered on his face. But having what amounted to tacit approval for this venture made it even more fun, and even though it had been a lot of work, it had already been a blast, especially as it started coming together.

The fully-rendered holo-model of General Skywalker had required a lot of time staring at the man; Brody had duplicated his visage perfectly, had spent a solid hour zoomed in on his cybernetic arm in order to accurately recreate the glove and anchorpoints, had color-matched his usual clothing -- kriff, did he ever even change clothes? -- and made sure to lay the right textures on the fabric. He had watched recordings and tweaked so that Skywalker's lip and jaw movements would line up with the recorded dialogue in a natural manner, and then he'd hauled out Shiv's Little Buddy -- the voice emulator droid that they had not yet reprogrammed from their original 'fact finding' mission -- and swallowed it down with a shudder just to record said dialogue.

Striking the right mix between boyish and sheepish-yet-confident took some practice this morning, but now-- Brody had it down. Skywalker was going to have one hell of a time protesting his innocence; sure, eventually he might be able to, but not before this ad looped from one end of the vast HoloNet to the other.

"So, don't leave your lightsaber under-powered, make the call today!" he finished, then rattled off the comm code for Viable.

Shame he wasn't going to get a cut of the profits this illicit ad campaign generated, but sometimes, one just had to perform solely for the arts.

(He hoped that Tango would get a kick out of it; his poor brother had looked gutted when he left the briefing room earlier.)

 

 

 

Setting the Nest up for long term use was going to take awhile, but the Blackbirds already had a good start on it and she was highly customizable by intentional design. The ship's design was older, and most pilots actually hated the BR-23, but she was fast and did have the best set of deflectors available. Her firepower wasn't really good, and she didn't like sharp maneuvering, but she had plenty of space and was well-made in terms of her primary purpose, which was troop movements. And in this case, her unpopularity helped, because no one was going to care too much if someone requisitioned a mass-produced ship for a single squad if it was the kind of ship no one liked to fly.

Tango knew that he'd be a laughing stock of the air corps if he admitted he liked the BR-23, because she was unweildy in landing and atmospheric flying, but where other pilots would just see a headache, he saw her potential. And he already had a good feel for her controls, even in really adverse conditions.

And working on her was distracting him from the gods-awful misery trying to eat a hole through the middle of him.

He wasn't sure what was the worst part of it all: The fact that Maul was in a relationship, and with who, or the way the rest of the Blackbirds were all so sympathetic to he himself. It felt a lot like kriffing pity, the way they kept patting his back or asking if he was okay, and he hated it. He loved them for caring, but he hated it. It made him feel like he had been left out of some important conversation and now everyone was referencing it and he didn't know what they were talking about, even though everyone -- except Shiv and Tally and Brody -- had been just as shocked by the confession as he was.

Right now, he was sitting on the Nest's deck, centered between the cockpit and the rear loading ramp with her schematics pulled up in holographic form so they could plan. Tally wanted a med-bay installed, and while getting all of that gear was going to take awhile, Tango was already planning on where to put it. The Nest was equipped with repulsors, so he had to make sure whatever they did, the weight would be balanced out correctly, but he and Castle were both up for that.

At least, that was what Tango was trying to do.

"General Kenobi cut him in half," he said, when he felt Tally looking at him for the millionth time in the past half-hour. He looked up himself, taking in the medic's look of quiet sympathy, and bristled. "You can't tell me there's anything healthy about that relationship."

Tally raised his eyebrows. "I can tell you that General Kenobi regrets doing that. And I can tell you that they've been together for a long time. And that Maul trusts him and loves him and I get the distinct impression that the general had to earn that."

Tango felt something sour curdling in his mouth and throat and guts. "Yeah, except what choices did Maul have? He's a kriffing prisoner, Tally."

"Yeah." Tally shook his head. "I've got my own misgivings, but none of those are because I think either of them wants to hurt the other."

"I don't like it." Tango dropped the stylus he had been using, interfaced with the holo-projector, and tried to stop his lip from curling up, though only to partial success. "The lieu deserves better'n someone who cut him down like a-- like a piece of livestock."

There was a long moment there where Tally regarded him, then the medic sat back, bracing his hands on the decking behind him. "I think it's up to Maul to decide if Kenobi's good enough for him. Not us. I mean, I get where you're coming from in worrying, but Tango--" There was a beat, and Tango's skin prickled nervously before Tally finished, "--Tango, he was never yours. I know you feel hurt and disillusioned, but he wasn't yours to lose."

Tango felt a flush burn through him, some mix of shame and anger, at having that pointed out to him. "Like I didn't frippin' know that. Don't lecture me, brother."

"I'm not trying to." Tally frowned, then his mouth twitched. "I'm sorry I came across like I was. I just-- I hate seeing you hurting like this."

That hit pretty hard; unlike all the back patting and the implied poor Tango he was getting from everyone, Tally was so-- so damned sincere, and Tango felt his eyes burn and his own mouth quiver before he rested his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands, tears scalding hot behind his eyelids. He tried to say something -- didn't even know what -- but couldn't figure out the words or how to force them past the ache in his throat.

He heard a shuffle, and then felt Tally's arms around him, and as angry and frustrated and sore and sad as he was, he wrapped his arms around Tally's middle and pressed his face into his brother's shoulder and cried his badly cracked heart out.

 

 

 

Honestly, Rabbit was kind of afraid to even board the Nest right now. She was Tango's baby, for one; Tango just got some subjectively bad news, for another. And, really, Rabbit was kind of trying to slot that particular brain bender into his understanding of the galaxy.

"Isn't that-- forbidden?" he asked, as he and Raze and his twin carried crates of supplies. There weren't actually many crates they could take from the Negotiator because she was running low on supplies, but they had a few and they also were allowed to cannibalize parts from ships that were damaged and due to be scrapped, of which there were a handful.

"As far as I can tell, romantic relationships in the Jedi aren't allowed?" Raze asked back; he'd taken the news just like he seemed to take most news, letting it roll over him and then cheerfully moving on. To say Rabbit admired their demo expert might have been understating it. "So, it was a pretty big deal, the L-T telling us."

They were alone, something all three of them had checked as they walked, because no one wanted to spill to the rest of the ship what Maul had told them. It was only after they'd started discussing it, though, that Rabbit realized that they had done; that their caution had been automatic. It made him feel good, because that was how a black ops troop should be thinking. "How much trouble would they get into, you think?"

"More than any of us wants to consider."

Rancor had been quiet about it, though he was just as surprised. Rabbit thought for sure that his brother was doing the same thing he was; just taking it in and trying to work out what it meant for them. "Wonder if that's why we've been given the ship," Rancor said, thoughtfully.

"Favoritism?"

"Maybe. But maybe just so those two wouldn't be as close together," Raze answered, after a moment's thought.

Rabbit felt his face pulling into a frown. He'd never fallen in love; lust, a few times, sure. But not love. Even then, he knew that being away from someone you loved had to be pretty kriffing awful, given the amount of pining literature and language there was in the galaxy. "I'd think it would be the opposite. I mean, if you love someone, you're supposed to want to spend all of your time together, right?" he asked.

Raze gave a shrug. "I don't know. But I guess if I was sleeping with someone, I'd probably not want to see how much danger they're in every day."

There was a long beat there, then Rancor asked, tentatively, "--if they're boinking, how do you suppose that works?"

Rabbit's face went hot and he hurried along the corridor with his crate, trying hard not to even think about that. Raze, though, seemed to take that the same unflappable way he had the news in the first place, bumping shoulders off of Rancor and answering, "Well, I guess they deal with it by nunya."

"Nunya?" Rabbit's brow furrowed, despite the heat on his face.

Raze grinned back. "Nunya damned business, brothers."

 

 

 

"Just when you think you've got it all figured out."

Castle and Husker were both climbing over the ships, both larger and smaller, that they were going to cannibalize for the Nest. In terms of amenities, there wasn't much to be had, but in terms of spare parts or extras that could be converted to more interesting things, the scrap heap was a veritable gold mine.

Husk didn't have a whole lot in the way of opinions on most things higher up, but he had to admit, two of their commanding officers in a romantic tryst was a tough pill to swallow. The chain-of-command issues alone could make a troop break out into a sweat, and that didn't even touch on the personal issues that could come up.

The very last thing that Husker had expected to do today was discuss the romantic status of their general and lieutenant.

Castle grunted back at him as he crawled over a wrecked starfighter, inspecting it. "It's sloppy, but I don't think it's-- I dunno. They were together a long time before this, should they break it off just because the galaxy crumbled around them?" He shook his head, then, pulling up a piece of the ship's torn skin to look under it. "I don't really care that much, myself. Not my relationship, not my business."

Husker shook his head. "It's not that. But they shouldn't be workin' together directly like that. Too much can go wrong. 'Specially if they were already suckin' face on duty."

"I think that's why the Lieu's asked to have us cut loose. Put some distance between him and Kenobi."

"Me too. Still worries me, though." Husker palmed down his face. "General Skywalker ever finds out, and I don't even wanna contemplate the size of that disaster."

At that, Castle smirked, even with his face half-buried in the body of the starfighter. "We're doing a fine impression of a pair of gossips. Besides, if Brody gets his Viable ad done, Skywalker will have plenty else to worry about than who Kenobi's sleeping with."

Husk nodded at that. He didn't really want to think about it anymore, so he upnodded to the starfighter. "What are you lookin' at that for, anyway? That thing wouldn't have any crossover parts."

"Tango." Castle sat back on the starfighter's wing, looking over it, his smirk morphing into a grin. "I think I can probably salvage this one. Yeah, it's pretty beaten up and it's a Delta-6 and not a Delta-7 which is probably why it's on the scrap-heap, but no one's gonna give Tango a new starfighter at his grade. I might be able to give him this one, instead."

Husker wasn't really a mechanic; he could do repairs in the field, if they weren't too complicated, but he didn't get into it the way Castle did. He eyed the starfighter, with a broken landing strut and blaster burn marks and then just shrugged. "We'll have to come up with a way to dock her with the Nest."

Castle rested on his heels and tapped the side of his head, grinning even more, a rare bright look on his usually stoic, square face. "Already working out how."

 

 

 

"Hey, you figured out the syncing!"

Smarty had walked in to catch the very tail end of Brody's digital devilry, and the result was outstanding.

The holo advert was such that it could come up in full hologram form or broadcast on screen, depending on the receiver. In it, General Skywalker extolled the virtues of the little blue pill that would solve all human virility problems while swinging his lightsaber dramatically, deflecting fictional laser bolts. His voice and inflections were spot on; on the briefing room table, Shiv's Little Buddy (unrelated to Skywalker's little buddy, oh kriff, when Smarty heard that part he almost fell over laughing) was in standby mode.

"Yep," Brody said, such a wide grin on his face that it was almost deranged looking. He went back and added a public domain music track, a rousing (or arousing) military-style number, and then started adding the text with the comm codes and the brand name.

Smarty could sit down and quote, line and subsection, every single regulation and law that the Blackbirds had broken or would be breaking today, from Maul's confessions to their voting to Brody's planned counterstrike against Anakin Skywalker. And even though he had some misgivings about parts of that, he kind of loved that he could even do that. There were companies -- whole sections of the army -- that would get into trouble if they so much as took a part off of one of the droids they knocked down as a souvenir, and yet here were the Blackbirds, sowing chaos and getting away with it.

"Did you manage to find a way to run it legitimately?" he asked, nodding to the currently frozen hologram of Skywalker holding his lightsaber jutting up from his crotch in the most cheesy, blatantly phallic way Brody could render.

That dimmed Brody's grin some, and he shook his head. "Nah, it's gonna have to go viral on its own power." But he slapped the table lightly, making Shiv's Little Buddy hop in place, brightening right up again. "But I'm pretty damned sure it can. This is a bonafide work of art, brother. It'll catch."

 

 

 

Shiv was no artist, but he understood the squad's request for paint and went to see about filling it.

He was pretty sure that the armor-painting tradition had been passed down to them from their Mandalorian instructors; he knew, mostly from listening, that different colors symbolized different things in that culture, though he didn't really have any desire to study up on it and find out more. But he did know that the Blackbirds wanted a chance to paint their battlefield armor up; for most of them, it would be a new start, painting over the old marks of prior units. For Rabbit and Rancor, it would be the very first time they got to paint theirs.

Raze was a pretty good artist; Smarty, too, knew how to draw. Shiv didn't figure he'd paint anything elaborate on his, but he knew he was going to update his colors.

Unsurprisingly, the squad all concurred that red, black and gold were the ones they were most after, though Smarty asked for a variety of whatever was available.

There wasn't much left on the Negotiator to be had; most of it was an orange-gold color, because that was the 212th's color. He went from one quartermaster to another flight mechanic to another deck sergeant before he managed to get a full bottle of that.

But what he did manage to source was black paint. A whole kriffin' barrel of it.

"I think I'm gonna coordinate with Smarty on some kind of maritime design," Misty was saying, as he helped Shiv haul the barrel to the hangar so it could be loaded onto the Nest. Finding the right kind of applicator to blanket paint armor black -- which was unorthodox, yeah, but weren't they already? -- was going to take some asking around, but if worse came to worst, they could probably do it with sponges and brushes.

"Yeah?" Shiv asked back, as he chewed on where he could find someone willing to part with an air-brush applicator.

"Yeah." Misty shrugged, then his tone went more pensive. "Hey, how long have you known about-- you know."

Shiv hadn't been too surprised by the room's reactions. Tango's face had gone bloodless when Maul came clean with them, and a lot of jaws had hit the briefing room table, but after everything everyone had been through together, there hadn't been any anger or anything. Or, if there was, it wasn't at Maul, so much as it was circumstances. Shiv knew well just how much flak could come at them if it became common knowledge, but he trusted the squad to keep it amongst themselves, even if it was pretty clear that General Kenobi was more of a danger in terms of giving away the secret. Not that Shiv could entirely blame him for being overcome with a desire to kiss Maul after that drop on Teska; hell, Shiv didn't even have a thing for their Lieu and he might have kissed Maul for that, for saving them some protracted battle with a jumped up, over-armored Skakoan with an ego. But it was still kind of a dumb thing to do on camera.

"Just since we got back from Bravo-984," he finally answered, shaking his head. "Never suspected it before that, really; just thought they were friends."

"You suppose that's why we got the Nest?"

Shiv cast a flat glance over. "I think we're a squad of black ops clones and we'll need to be able to get where we have to go. And sometimes that'll mean being away from our fleet for a long time, so I think it made sense to give us the courier. 'Specially if we're gonna be living aboard her a lot."

Misty seemed to chew on this, then he finally nodded. "I hope no one else finds out."

"Long as we're careful, they won't find it out from us, anyway." Shiv pointed ahead with his chin to the doors for the hangar. "Let's go load this up."

 

 

 

Watching the finalization of their not-quite exodus from the Negotiator was a strange, bittersweet moment for Tally, as the big ship came out of hyperspace to cruise into the Radnor system.

Attached to the top of the Nest was a wrecked Delta-6 starfighter; Castle had just secured her with quick-set emergency docking clamps, leaving behind the original small, two-man-in-a-tin-can shuttle that had been there before, which was still in good enough shape for someone else to make use of. Inside the ship was almost everything that the squad had, including their cold assault armor from Bravo-984 and the scraps of the whiteout tents they had used there.

Tally had grabbed all of his own gear and requisitioned as many medical supplies as he could talk the head of the department into giving them, which wasn't anything as good as being equipped with a fully-loaded medbay, but it was probably enough for him to do his job and keep everyone alive and healthy. And he knew they were going to get more on Radnor, because resupply was the whole point of the battlegroup stopping there, so at least there was that.

He had scoped out the rear quarter of the Nest for his area; it was closer to the engines than he normally would have preferred, but it was also closest to their loading ramp, so getting someone back onboard in a hurry was a lot easier. Then it was just a matter of scavenging everything he could possibly get his hands on in order to improve upon it. First up being a table, maybe with an overhead imager. They'd need a damned 'bot, too; Tally was able to handle a lot of things himself, but he was still only one man and unless he trained up one of the others, he'd need more hands in the case of multiple injuries or other emergencies.

That left the other rear quarter for cargo and for one small room to be partitioned off as a guest room or a recovery room, or maybe if one of them wanted some privacy, unless Maul claimed it as his own. Though Tally didn't think that likely; their lieutenant hadn't once yet shown himself the type to stand on his rank as a reason to gain more privilege than the rest of them.

The forward quarters of the ship, in that case, were going to be living space. Bunk space. Kitchenette. A briefing area, doubling as a dining area. It sounded like it was going to be a lot of fun working it out, especially since they had some genuinely handy people aboard who could fabricate, and Castle especially who could work out loads and balancing.

The bittersweetness of it came with leaving Briefing Room 3. Their caf maker, of course, came with them, as well as every other thing they'd brought in there. For now, their caf maker was set on a cargo shelf, until they could work out a kitchenette; Maul had brought what looked like a lot of tea and caf pods, and a handful of other things, including a colorful quilted blanket that apparently was given to him (and Kenobi) by the Organas as a present. For now, all of that stayed in the someday-cargo-section; the room, with all their gear, and their clothes from Corellia, made Tally feel kind of hopeful and kind of sad, all at the same time.

They had started their time as a squad on the Negotiator, and had friends outside the Blackbirds; leaving their room and their battlegroup to range afield was equal parts exciting and frightening, even for him.

"Ready to go?" Tango asked, still sounding subdued and kind of miserable; he didn't notice the worried looks everyone -- including Maul -- gave him, or at least he pretended not to.

"Ready as can be," Shiv answered, already buckled in. Tally foresaw seating arrangements changing, too, when they reconfigured the interior, but for now, they were still using the bench-harnessed safety seats.

Tango didn't say anything else, up in the cockpit. Tally still felt bad about upsetting him earlier, but he hoped a little time down planetside would help and maybe they could score some booze and get their pilot drunk, though they'd probably be smart to keep him away from others if they did so.

The ride to Radnor was short. Once they had clearance for take-off, they were the first ship to cross into atmosphere and the first one to be directed to landing; the Blackbirds idly chatted with one another was they gently bumped down, and then everyone was making for the back gangway, which lowered on a button push--

--to the chipper face of a kriffing Core-world holo-journalist, whose likewise chipper voice hit them at the same time as the warm, humid air of Radnor did.

She was just starting, "And now, finally, the brave soldiers from the Outer Rim Campaign have--" when Maul snapped a hand out and raised their gangway pretty much right in her face, as the entire squad stiffened up in shock.

Chapter Text

“There’s elite– and then there’s us,” Misty said, as they mustered near the supply tent in order to get their rations, voice rather subdued.

Dodging the media had mostly just been a question of waiting until more interesting people appeared. Thus, it was unwittingly the 332nd Light Infantry Battalion (all special operations and, so far as Maul could tell, not a single regular trooper among them) who had drawn the fire by coming down in their own air-to-surface ship. In the metaphorical sense, anyway. Their general had made himself scarce quickly, but some of the troopers wearing his colors had seemed to like the attention of the human female reporter; after she was thoroughly engaged with them, Maul and the Blackbirds slipped off of the Nest and were soon lost amongst the now-arriving 212th clones. It was after they had disembarked that he had found out that the media was there for some manner of-- 'puff piece' Smarty had called it; a public relations stunt meant to show the GAR in a positive light.

Included in that was a planned celebration, paid for by a number of politicians pooling their resources, which included catering of all things.

Perhaps the worlds of the Core didn't care to see how uniform and unpleasant the regular rations were, for their army of bought and owned men.

Though, cynical as the whole thing seemed from this side of it, even to Maul, he hadn't had any issue giving the Blackbirds permission to partake in said celebration later. It was playing to the lie, but he wasn't about to tell them they couldn't go and enjoy whatever fare was on offer. In the meantime, he worked on inventory with Shiv and the Negotiator's quartermaster, staying out of the reporter's line of sight.

At least, that was what he had been doing until Misty spoke up.

Maul turned around from where he had been going over the first six crates they had been allotted, following Misty’s line of sight to where there looked to be a group of 332nd clones surrounding the reporter. One of them had stripped off his upper armor and his undershirt and was showing off his toned body; another two were having an intense sparring session, which definitely had her attention despite the posturing of the first. Many of them had customized armor; compared to the Blackbirds standing there in black undersuits, they did seem rather soldierly. There were commando helmets everywhere, too.

Still, he didn’t see anything particularly special about them outside of the adornments, aside the one who was notably larger than the others. Maul didn't have the same eye of a clone assessing other clones, but he didn't think they had anything on his squad.

“Kind of makes us look like the dregs at the bottom of the barrel,” Tango agreed, arms crossed, not bitterly so much as resigned; he had been in a particularly dour mood since their briefing and Maul was looking for an opportunity to get the pilot alone to see if he could figure out what to do about it. The idea that something he said could have upset Tango so badly made his bones itch to figure it out and fix it, even if it was in just in offering to listen to any grievances.

“Come on, that’s not helpful,” Shiv said, not looking up from where he was counting out ration bars. "I'm sure they're plenty good, but we're no joke ourselves."

Misty frowned. “We’re not trying to be down, it’s just–”

“We’re not that. Half the GAR probably does think we’re a joke. Those are commandos and we’re just–” Tango shrugged, mouth twisted.

It wasn’t too often that his squad of odds, ends and eccentricities showed signs of poor confidence so overtly, at least recently; he wondered what was provoking it, though it might have just been the proximity to the special forces troops and their own inclinations to compare themselves.

It bothered Maul, not because he didn’t think his Blackbirds capable, but because he did.  Because he knew them. They were baselines, but they were unique. Undeniably clever. Different, but in ways that made them particularly well suited for the black ops work they had done and were going to be doing more of.

“Raze,” Maul said, “stop caressing the explosives and come here.”

Raze started guiltily from his minor love affair with the cases of frag grenades set to go to the 332nd, then came over, chewing his lip. “Yeah, Lieu?”

“Go pick a fight. Politely.  With the big one.” Maul nodded back over his shoulder to the commando unit. “Just sparring, no injuries,” he added, when Tally gave him a Look, because when it came to physical training, Maul was in charge, but when it came to health and welfare, Tally was the one who gave the orders and Maul knew better than to cross that line in the sand.

Raze blinked, looking at the big trooper, and then blew out a breath and nodded before heading over there, something in his expression both eager and nervous.

Maul didn’t even watch him go negotiate; he already knew what the outcome to that would be. But he did grin to himself, grateful for the mental reprieve from everything else going on, as he wrote Shiv's murmured number into the datapad with a stylus.

 

 

 

The fight was over in six moves; there hadn’t even been time for the clones to gather and circle it properly. One of the 332nd clones was kind enough to 'shield' the reporter with an arm tucked around her, and there were enough spectators to cheer or roar, but mostly, no one even had time to gather enough air to do that. Maul turned back just in time to watch the match itself, arms folded across his chest, Shiv right beside him, even though he already knew what was going to happen.

It was probably for the better that there hadn’t been time for bets to go flying; a lot of people would have lost out.

Raze’s face had gone in an instant from the open, earnest and eager look he usually wore to something still and calm, and through the Force, Maul could sense the shift in his chaotic demo expert’s signature. The moment where Raze fell into the centered focus required for teräs käsi, where he shed all extraneous thought and became that alignment of body, mind and spirit.

Raze had excelled in teräs käsi, as Maul had thought he might; he had progressed well past even Shiv in learning. Even though their lessons had been interrupted repeatedly by the training mission, then Juma 9, Maul had been training Raze ahead of the others and Raze had become his primary sparring partner in hand-to-hand because of it. Sometimes those extra lessons lasted only ten minutes, just enough time for a quick demonstration of something new; sometimes they lasted longer, a more serious block of instruction. Either way, though, Raze soaked it in so quickly and thoroughly that Maul was absolutely sure that Raze would master the discipline in perhaps half the amount of time it had taken Maul.

Needless to say, Maul was proud of him.

Raze bowed politely, feet together and hands at his sides, and then fell into the opening rider’s stance and blocked the first well-aimed swing thrown his way before moving right in to counter. Murmurs ran through those who had gathered, and admittedly, the big commando was no slack himself, clearly an expert in all the usual forms of hand-to-hand.

But Raze moved like water around him, quick and fluid and graceful, face never once betraying his thoughts and Force signature like a calm, glass-smooth lake, fathomless and reflective at once. Within six moves, the big trooper was pinned to the ground; Raze had a knee in his back and his arm cranked at an angle that would become a dislocation with a slight application of weight. Just that quickly. By then, the general of the 332nd had come back to watch, though from the periphery.

Maul didn’t bother to check the Jedi’s expression, though, just waited for his demo expert to bow and return, before turning back to his own work.

“In the entire Grand Army, there’s only one squad being trained in teräs käsi,” he said, ticking off another mark on the datapad. “Even if they asked, I would train no others in it. There’s a difference between knowing you’re elite and actually being so.” He gestured with his stylus. “Anyway, I know I wouldn’t trade you.” A beat, and he made sure to eye Misty and Tango. "Any of you."

Though, he didn’t really want to know what message the commandos took away from it when Raze threw arms around him and planted an enthusiastic kiss on his cheek, making him scrunch his nose up and then grin and shake his head once he was let go of.

 

 

 

"It's a flavor saver competition," Shiv whispered in Maul's ear, as they stood back waiting for Obi-Wan and the other Jedi to finish on the comm connection to the High Council; they had both been requested right after Raze's little demonstration, so they had turned inventory over to the others and reported. Upon entering the tent, Maul had been bristling a little bit on hearing Yoda's voice, until Shiv broke into it with that observation.

Maul had never heard that term before, and his brow knit as he tried to figure out what it was referring to. "What do you mean?" he asked, similarly quietly, turning his head a bit without taking his eyes off of the two generals there, and the fuzzy hologram of some of the Council clustered together.

Shiv gave a little snort, though there was nothing mean about his tone. "The beards. You could stash half a buffet in those."

Obi-Wan did tend to eschew trimming his, though he didn't let it grow long so much as he let it get bushy. Occasionally he made the time to crop it back closer to his skin, but he hadn't recently. The other Jedi's beard, by comparison, was even longer and fuller, reaching down towards his chest. Maul rubbed over his own mouth, not because he was admiring his own marble smooth skin, but because he was trying to rub the smirk off of his face to only partial success.

Aside the beard and equally bushy hair, the Jedi seemed to eschew the robes of the Order; instead, he was dressed in fatigues and adorned with accessories that appeared to be sourced from multiple cultures. He looked human, though not very old -- early twenties, perhaps. Given that he was likely going to be the source of at least some of their assignments, Maul looked him over in open assessment, not bothering to hide that he was doing so. When the Jedi glanced over, he eyed Maul back for a moment, then lifted one shoulder in a relaxed shrug, before going back to discussing troop movements with the Council members.

"Obi-Wan says that it keeps his face warm," Maul whispered aside to Shiv, after returning the Jedi's shrug with a similar quirk of his own brows. "I hadn't considered it in terms of food-storage."

Though, now he was going to have quite a time not doing so.

The Jedi wrapped up their comm call, then Obi-Wan's eyes brightened when he spotted them waiting, though he managed to keep some manner of decorum in place as he introduced, "Lieutenant Maul, Sergeant Shiv, this is General Croft of the 332nd."

Shiv slipped right into formality as he nodded to the new Jedi. "General. Well met."

"General," Maul echoed, politely.

Croft nodded back to them, picking up a datapad and a data crystal from the table. "Lieutenant, Sergeant. General Kenobi asked me if I had any missions that fell within the parameters for the squad; it turns out that I do. ‘Specially given that you just tangled with the Techno Union's psycho-nerd at Juma 9." He offered over the two objects. "GalTech Droidworks has a foundry due to become fully operational within three weeks time, round-about; our recon suggests that they were building maintenance droids until recently, but that they've expanded and the new lines they're adding seem to be for the mass production of the latest series of droidekas. Their parent company is a part of the Techno Union, but there're also some interesting breadcrumbs out there that the funding for expansion might actually be coming from inside of the Republic."

It did sound like the exact type of objective that the Blackbirds had been assembled to tackle. Maul took the datapad and crystal, handing the latter over to Shiv while flicking the former on to look over the brief. No doubt Smarty would be able to dig out even more, too, once it was handed over to him. "Primary and secondary objectives?" he asked, scanning the information before looking back up at Croft.

"Primarily, take the place down. Their location's good enough to supply half of the Seppie forces in the Outer Rim with droidekas if we don't stop ‘em from bringing the foundry online, and for once, they don't know that we know it's there in the first place. But if you can, get into the main offices first and see if you can track down any kinda evidence that might lead us back to whoever's holding their purse strings," Croft answered, resting his hands on the table and leaning on them. "We have a captured CIS transponder code that ain’t been red-flagged yet that can get you through their space and into the atmosphere; beyond that, their scanning is all automated, and so as long as no one actually sees you land, you shouldn't have any problem putting your courier down outside of the perimeter and going overland to the objective."

Whoever had done the recon on the mission had done a good job of it; there were photos, a decent contour map and a listing of distances. Key buildings were labelled, some with certainty, some tagged 'possible.'

Obi-Wan had been quiet the whole time, but Maul could feel him watching. In a way, Maul was relieved they were getting their assignment from someone else; the chances of them being thrown easy work went down considerably. He looked over it for another moment, then looked up at Croft again. "We'll take it."

 

 

 

The best part of getting down to Radnor early was getting the inventory done and then being cut loose to whatever mischief suited them.

Maul had handed Smarty the information for their next assignment; their Lieu had made it clear that he was supposed to take the night off to relax and enjoy himself, but Smarty still ended up carrying the datapad around going over it, cross referencing through Radnor's HoloNet connection and the GAR's databases to put together an even more comprehensive picture of what it would entail. So far, it did look like a good assignment; something they were absolutely capable of. Considering Misty's and Tango's dip into self-doubt earlier, Smarty thought that was definitely a bonus; they could use a victory of their own in the field, really.

It was that which reminded him that he owed Commander Half-Pint a 'thank you'; there was a chance that they'd miss the 501st, given timing, so Smarty went aboard the Nest to call her, walking past where Raze was laying out various pots, bottles and buckets of paint in color order, along with brushes, using an open space just off the main center aisle to do his thing.

When Tano showed up in holo form-- kriff, did she look rough. She looked clean, but there was a devastation in her eyes that reminded Smarty of some of his brothers, when they'd just seen too much too quickly and hadn't really made it back to the world yet. "Hey, Commander," Smarty said, taking the girl in. "You okay?"

Tano rubbed at her cheek; even through holo, the jerkiness in the motion showed. "I-- yeah, I'm-- I'm okay. Whatcha need, Smarty?"

"Nothing. I just wanted to thank you for the help." Smarty had no way of knowing if she was alone, so he kept it vague. "It made a big difference."

That seemed to bring her around a little; a weak but real smile crossed her mouth. "I heard about it right before we got here. I mean, to Ryloth." She glanced around, then smiled just a fraction more. "I heard you guys were amazing. My Master's been mad as a rit-hornet since he found out you trounced us."

Smarty felt himself smirking at that; just as he was saying, "I'll let the lieutenant know, I'm sure he'll appreciate hearing that," Raze came up to stand with him.

"Hey, Half-Pint," Raze said, grinning, though after a longer look at her face, he frowned instead. "What happened?"

Tano offered him a smile back until the second part. Then she looked down. "A suicide bombing. Or-- I guess droidicide. They blew their own bunker just as we were cracking into it, and one of my-- my new transfers--"

Her voice broke before she could finish and she shook her head, heaving out a shuddery breath. After a long moment of quiet, Raze asked, "You're not alone, right?"

She shook her head again, lekku swaying. "No. Master Plo already called me, and I've got Elten. We'll be at Radnor in a couple days, too."

"Shame we'll probably be gone by then, I owe you a hug," Smarty said, heart aching some for the girl and for the troop she lost. "General Croft gave us an assignment."

"--did you say Croft?" she asked, blinking in surprise. Then something a little more lively came into her expression; she still looked rough, but at least she looked engaged. "Between Maridun and Ryloth, I haven't been able to keep up on anything outside. The 332nd is there?"

"Yeah, Raze here went and picked a fight with one of them." Smarty tipped his head over. "Not a real fight," he added, hastily.

"Big commando named Drop," Raze supplied, shrugging. "I won. Six moves, it was great."

"Teräs käsi?"

"Yeah." Raze grinned. "He took it okay. I mean, he looked like he had swallowed a whole thundercloud, but he didn't try to turn it into a real fight."

Ahsoka huffed a little laugh, then she shook her head and smiled again. "Want another little mission, before you guys take off?" she asked, looking up at them again, taking them in; her smile was still frayed, but the affection on her face was genuine. "I'll make it worth your time."

"Oh?" Smarty asked back, perking up. "We happen to need an insider over there for the next while to, uh-- record and observe... what d'you have in mind, Commander?"

 

 

 

It disappointed Husk some that they might miss a chance to run into the 501st; he had some things he wanted to discuss with General Skywalker, and that wasn't the kind of conversation one held over a comm connection.

Still, mingling with the lot of commandos from the 332nd was an interesting experience; some of 'em were elitists, but a number of 'em were decent guys without a block of duracrete on their shoulders. Unlike a couple of the Blackbirds, Husker didn't feel any particular need to measure himself up against them; he knew how well he was trained, he didn't need to go prove it to anyone, and doubtless that helped him get on okay with them. He figured that a couple missions would probably get his squadmates into the same mindset, too.

He also mingled a bit with more of the 212th, who were coming down in waves so that the Negotiator and the rest of the group, despite having docking capabilities, could patrol above Radnor, given most worlds in this area of the galaxy were hostile in one way or another. But finally, he went back to where half of the Blackbirds were clustered in the shade thrown by the Nest, painting their armor. And not just them; a handful of others were there, too, borrowing paint or entreating Raze to customize theirs.

Husker eyed the pile of trinkets, treats and souvenirs sitting around the demo expert. There was a packet of instant noodles. A finger-length sized chocolate bar. A handful of coins from worlds that minted their own currency still. A resin rock with pretty wildflowers forever preserved in it. A piece of flatbread with what looked like some kind of sugar glazing. A few other odds and ends.

None of it was really worth much, but it warmed Husk up inside, how it showcased the creativity or interests of brothers he probably hadn't even met yet. "You got your own little black market goin', kid?" he asked, joking, as he pointedly took in the pile, then the breastplate that Raze was painting an orange and green and gold prairie-scene on, rolling grasslands under a pale sky, for one of the 332nd troops.

Raze was stripped down to his black undersuit pants, flecks and dashes of paint adorning his skin. He grinned up at Husk. "Nah, I don't ask for anything, they just bring it," he said, then bent his head back to his task, shrugging. "I'll probably share all of it anyway."

Husk stood for a bit, just watching Raze painting; kriff, the kid was really good, too. He wasn't doing a lot of close detail work or anything, but he was making the scene come to life anyway, mixing paints and creating the impression of distance, even just painting on a scuffed-up chestplate.

Down the way, Smarty was sitting with three or four others; Brody was with him, as were a couple of the 212th and one of the 332nd's, and all of them were working on a wildly colorful set of armor that had been coated in black. Shiv had already apparently finished his; aside his sergeant's stripes on the pauldron, he just put a gold V done like feathers on his breastplate, the same marking that the blackbird they were named for had, and had left it leaning there to dry.

It seemed like a sweet kind of community project, so Husker shrugged and went to get his own armor so that he could join them.

 

 

 

It turned into the perfect time to do this.

So, Brody did.

He'd managed to overhear the reporter talking to General Croft about how she was so very much looking forward to meeting General Skywalker; he had just finished painting his armor (nothing elaborate, just some slicer code and some color, and some tick marks) when he caught a snippet of that conversation drifting their way, which immediately had him sitting up straighter and listening in unabashedly from where he had been lounging under the Nest's shadow.

Apparently, the reporter's primary reason for coming out here had been to get an interview of The Hero Without Fear, as the press had dubbed him, and she had been disappointed that he was still two days out. Croft seemed to handle that with a grain of salt, though he was working some kind of charm, because the woman did finally give him the time of day and her full attention as the conversation continued. This resulted in Croft donning Jedi robes for-- some purpose or another, but Brody had more important things to think about than a Jedi's wardrobe choices.

The fact that the reporter had decided that she was going to stick around in order to interview Skywalker was the real icing on this cake. By then, Brody's gift to the galaxy would have had ample opportunity to propagate.

Brody had gotten up, got dressed in his Corellian vacation gear, and had gone to deploy it.

First, he got Maul's permission to go with a group tour. Then, once he did, he managed get a good, reliable network connection while in Radnor's Twin Cities; it was while the other troops were wandering through the streets that Brody sliced into their local servers and used them to access the outside HoloNet with his trusty datapad. Then he transmitted the Viable ad through ten different encrypted proxies he had tested at the same time he was scrubbing Juma 9 of the Maul and Kenobi Makeout Footage, having used the station's powerful transmitters and receivers to do so; he'd already had those proxies set up for certain uses before he'd even come up with the Viable ad, so it was a quick and easy thing to make sure they were online and waiting for him.

From there, it transferred itself to the vast sub-legal advertising algorithms that plagued the citizens of the Galaxy, be they Sepratist or Republic or just some random neutral freighter captain. And from those, it was set loose upon the HoloNet, finding its way into messaging services and porn sectors; finding its way into forums, and popping up on any device that made the mistake of searching for Anakin Skywalker's name.

Brody didn't follow after that; one set of encrypted packets was a lot harder to find the origins of than a tracer ping. But he smiled and smiled as he walked with the other troops, imagining the journey his piece of artwork was taking, and didn't care when everyone gave him a little more space and eyed him in worry or wariness.

 

 

 

(Within a single hour, Crest was staring wide-eyed at his own datapad, while Timber and Taxi crowded around him. All three were silent, as their General's confident-yet-boyish-yet-sheepish voice extolled the virtues of that little blue pill that would solve all issues of virility in human males.

After the ad was finished, Taxi swatted Crest on the arm. "I told you to stay away from that furry lekku sector! Kriff, how'm I supposed to even look at him now without hearing him talk about his 'little buddy'?!"

They weren't the first, nor the last, to ask that question.)

 

 

 

Unaware of the chaos his slicer was unleashing, the day wore on rather quietly for Maul.

He stayed scarce, aside to check in with his squad; the rest of the time, he kept to himself. Despite being friendly to Republic forces, Radnor apparently didn't want large groups of troops moving between their twin cities or jamming their beaches, which meant the clones were released in groups of twenty-five at a time and thus, only a couple hundred of the troops were off doing their own thing at any given point. He gave Misty, Rabbit and Rancor permission to go with a group heading to the beach; he gave Smarty, Tango and Brody permission to go with a couple of groups heading into the cities. The rest seemed content enough just to stay around their landing and staging area, a broad and grassy valley surrounded by rainforest, and enjoy the day off while waiting for the food to be served up come evening.

Officers weren't included in the movement restrictions, but Maul didn't go to either the beach or into the city, despite having the freedom to. He had no urge to swim -- the metal legs precluded any enjoyment of being in the water -- and he didn't really care to go explore otherwise. Obi-Wan had gone to track down friends he'd made six years back and asked Maul to go along, but such social ventures sounded more like torment to him than any kind of pleasant outing.

As such, he found himself a quiet place on the periphery of the valley, not terribly far from their courier, and rested in the grass. Above, a reddish-gold star lit the world in colors Maul tended to associate with the evening haze on various worlds; the susurrus of movement from troops and transports and nature mingled together. When he laid back in the grass, it was tall enough that it blocked his view of everything but it and sky, and the edges of the overhanging trees.

It was close to peaceful, a decent place to rest, and so that was what he tried to do.

Except, his mind wouldn't stop, no matter how much he wished it would.

Everything of late reminded him, in no small way, of the time between the massacre at Orsis and the time immediately after that; of the chaos and motion, too rapid-fire to even quite grasp, let alone hang onto.

Imprisonment had been much like his early childhood on Mustafar; long periods of emptiness and boredom, a sort of forced apathy broken by his Master's or Deenine's random and unexpected tests. Not that the Jedi tested him after they were done with him, except once, but that same sensation that there was nothing else but to stare at the walls or exercise or learn whatever it was he was told to learn. At least in latter case, he had Obi-Wan to break up the monotony, either bringing lunch or later on taking him elsewhere, so the unexpected became pleasant, though occasionally still cause for anxiety.

But this was like Orsis. And a few points both leading up to it, and after it. Where everything happened so quickly and dramatically that there was no time to really sit down and figure out what it all meant, if it meant anything; there was only time to accept it and survive it and move on. Whenever Maul took time to think on it -- or when his own mind conspired against his desire not to -- he started to realize that all of his former master's biggest lessons had been born of chaos and pain, and of Maul's reactions to those things, which mostly consisted of survival by whatever means necessary.

That had been most of Maul's method of coping back then: Survive, and keep moving. But now, while he was able to do the same to some degree, he was left afterwards not feeling numb, exactly, but-- worn thin. Sere, and more transparent for it.

He remembered, after killing Kilindi, that something in him went quiet with her last breath; that as he laid her lifeless body on the ground, having killed her quickly and cleanly, some part of him that had been crying out against it went silent. The time after that was numb. He was moved to Coruscant, and he tried to find hope or enthusiasm in that, though he largely failed. It was not until months had passed that he started to feel like he was in his skin again, and then thanks to a whim born of either loneliness or youthful stupidity, he was given a thorough lesson teaching him that even his skin was not really his, ultimately. Everything of Maul was his Master's, to forge or to break or to use.

It wasn't often he reflected back on any of it. He wondered what it said about him that he was doing so now.

None of this was anything the same, in terms of events. A year ago, he was a prisoner in a cell, allowed out for exercise or lunch or the occasional rare mission with Obi-Wan. Now, he was as free as he'd ever been, but he didn't feel like it.

When he was not worrying about his flickering Force sensitivity, he was worrying about his ability to guard the lives in his care; when he was not worrying about those things, he was worrying about the Council and crossing them and what it could cost him and his squad if he did; if not that, then the hesitation he still wasn't sure he felt in his cybernetics on Bravo-984 and what that could mean in both short and long terms; if not that, then another thing or another, or yet another. And, finally, his internal frustration that he couldn't seem to just set those aside or bury them; he could focus through a mission, but the moment that he could breathe again, they all came back and harder.

The sun had moved a little by the time he made it back out of his own mind; turned inward as deeply as he had been -- and no closer to solving any of those things -- he hadn't really felt the passage of time.

But what he did feel was frayed. He sat up for a moment, automatically checking in the direction of the Nest; clustered in the shadows of the courier, some of his squad was there, and he did have his comm on him in case he needed to go and find the others, or in case they needed help. In other parts of the valley, troops moved supplies; several were playing an impromptu game of bolo-ball, and many others were sprawled out on the ground sleeping, sometimes in a pile and sometimes individually.

He probably could have done something useful; gone and seen if their next allotment of supplies had been granted yet, gone and seen if there was any kind of work he could do on the courier to make it more long-term living friendly. But the sun was shining down, warm against exposed skin, and the grass smelled sweet and earthy both, and for the moment everyone was safe.

After a few more minutes of wrestling with himself and a long, unsteady breath out, Maul finally took the many examples of the many troops and laid back down, shifting to his side and crooking his arm back under his head as a pillow, in the grassy hollow he'd made for himself.

He dozed there until evening, when the staged festivities started and the sun was under the edge of the horizon.

Chapter Text

"Has your little buddy been feeling down lately? Do you find it hard -- or not hard! -- to get excited by the things that you used to? Well, human males of the galaxy, have I got a solution for you!"

Rex stared at the datapad that Crest had shamefacedly handed to him, mouth hanging open, as his general leaned forward in a conspiring manner, taking the audience into his confidence in a way that was meant to foster a brotherly intimacy and apparently to sell a lot of virility enhancement pills.

"What," he demanded, flatly, "the frip is this."

 

 

"I'm Anakin Skywalker, General of the Grand Army of the Republic, and let me tell you guys, there's nothing like a war to get your blood pumping and your heart racing. But what happens when all the heart-hammering excitement of your life doesn't pan out to actual results after the fighting is over?"

Ahsoka's hand flew up to her mouth as she stood between Echo and Fives, both of whom were staring jaw-dropped at a holo advertisement that Jesse was projecting above his gauntlet, having apparently heard about it from someone else. Her master's voice, as he jutted his hips out in an obscene manner, issued forth from the projection: "What happens when your lightsaber is just -- umph! -- too underpowered to do what you need it to do?"

Ahsoka shuddered, the hand that was covering her mouth now covering her eyes; in a moment, she put together exactly why Smarty and Raze had asked for the favor they did, and wished she'd given them a much, much larger mission than she actually had in compensation for observing (and possibly recording) the reactions to this.

 

 

"Thankfully, you don't have to suffer those questions about your impotency any longer! The makers of Viable have you covered, brave men of the galaxy; with a single dose before your engagement, you'll be fully powered on, hot and ready to go!"

Skywalker ignited his saber and started deflecting blaster bolts; more disturbing than that, he did so with his hips still thrusting out every other shift of his blade in a provocative rhythm. Background music, a rousing military fanfare, started playing in time with it.

"What," Mace Windu asked, after getting red-flagged priority messages from no less than three dozen people containing the same link and opening it, "the hell is this?"

 

 

"The best part of this offer is that you can try it before you buy it! You can pop the pill, pop your little buddy out and thrill your lucky partner or partners without a credit-chip number or any long-term commitment."

Padmé watched the captioned advertisement run on her datapad's screen with the volume mercifully muted. The image of her husband flourished his lightsaber, having fended off the supposed attack he had been under, in order to continue selling a dubious medical solution to erectile dysfunction. Which Padmé knew personally and for a fact that he had no trouble with.

Anakin, we need to have a talk, she thought, before carefully excusing herself from the state dinner she was attending, face burning under the layers of makeup.

 

 

"Viable's been shown to be effective in 94% of all human males, ages eighteen to ninety-six; remember to check with your doctor to see if your heart is healthy enough for sexual activity. And while you're at it, scope out our sector reviews: the results are outstanding and human males who use it report longer, fuller and more satisfying erections and longer, fuller and more satisfying experiences!"

Skywalker's hips started thrusting against air again as he bragged, timing the words to the beat, "I should know, my last encounter lasted four-- kriffing-- hours!"

Hondo Ohnaka drew his head backwards, then gestured for a datapad. The message he sent Skywalker via various sub-legal relays was simple: If you required help in that department, my friend, you need only have asked! We shared an important experience together!  I could have arranged many ways to help you with your little buddy.

 

 

"Remember, you too can try Viable for a free two week trial, and it's only 99 point 99 credits per month after!"

Anakin stared up at his own face and listened to his own voice as the military-themed music faded, looking up to where his hologram was projected above the war room table, so stunned that he couldn't even move to turn it off.

His guts slid into his boots slowly, as his holographic twin held his lightsaber at crotch level and declared, "So, don't leave your lightsaber underpowered, make the call today!"

The image froze like that with the words and comm code on brazen display, and General Anakin Skywalker -- now unwittingly the spokesman for Viable -- had the good sense to shiver as his comm started beeping very urgently for his attention.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Brody hadn't been entirely clueless as to how far and how fast the ad would spread.

The buffet set up by the companies and politicians who wanted to make the GAR look good was pretty expansive; two dozen tables, with more in reserve, catered by droids. There was also a lot of product placement going on; companies who provided food, booze or supplies so that they could show their support for the troops. All in all, it was a hell of a con, but no one was going to turn down free food, and Brody already foresaw one or several of the Blackbirds making off with handfuls of the plastic utensils and napkins to stock the Nest with, and he wouldn't have been surprised if they also made off with whole trays of leftovers after everyone had been served. If, of course, the others didn't beat them to it.

It was while he was standing in line with his many and varied brothers from the 212th and the 332nd waiting for dinner that he got to listen in on some of the reactions to the Viable ad, and all the while, he just smirked to himself. He had no desire to claim responsibility, outside of his squad, but the sheer pleasure of listening couldn't be understated.

"--supposedly going to get royalties for it--"

"--says that the media should vet their sources more carefully--"

"--his kriffin' little buddy, can you believe that?"

The thing about growing up on Kamino was-- there wasn't much to talk about. Or, at least, there wasn't much interesting to talk about. Anything that even sniffed of intrigue was immediately batted around between the cadets, sometimes like the most absurd comm-game ever to take place, where the beginning of the rumor didn't resemble the end. Other times, it was deadly accurate. Any which way, though, growing up in that kind of environment meant two things which Brody thought would ensure the success of Anakin Skywalker's reputation undergoing a makeover: First, the clones would find it quickly, because holo-porn consumption was definitely a reality for many of them, and second, they would spread the ad like wildfire, thus convincing the algorithms that ran advertisements on the HoloNet that the ad was a hot topic and should be propagated far and wide.

The holo-porn thing, Brody thought, probably traced back to puberty on Kamino. Despite being cold bastards, the Kaminoans had no hangups about human sexuality and thus, all clones of a certain age were given sexual education courses. Those were dry and unpleasant, mostly focused on biology, but the upshot was that cadets who had 'needs' or 'urges' could use a holo simulator to get their rocks off as needed, because the biological reality was that many of them were going to be interested in sex, but had no outlet beyond themselves and (or so Brody had heard) their brothers. Thus, the simulators. Nothing like the real thing, but it wasn't like they knew what the real thing was all about at that point.

A lot more went into that. Rumor had it that if a cadet used the simulator too much, they were considered defective and therefore up for reconditioning or decommissioning. Like every single other thing about their lives -- from food consumption to sleep cycles -- there was an acceptable average they were allowed to be interested in sex and participate in sexual activity with very regular, non-kinky hologram simulation programs, the kinds of which were just the basics, only meant for one purpose. Needless to say, Brody couldn't even begin to perform in those kinds of conditions.

Reactions to the simulators varied by platoon; some platoons viewed using them as shameful and not something to discuss or even use (reinforced by intense peer pressure), while others viewed it openly and with no shame whatsoever. And he'd heard that the practice had fallen out of favor not long after he was out anyway, which explained guys like Tango and their ex-shinies, who didn't seem to have any experience beyond their own hands.

Brody's platoon had been somewhere in between; they didn't talk about it, but they mostly all used it. After the first handful of times, though, Brody lost even an academic interest in the plain simulations -- the canned dialogue, the spine-crawlingly uniform way each one happened -- and managed to slice into the personal terminal of one of their instructors without getting caught, which led to a period of some much more interesting simulations, though he was on punishment detail at that point for something unrelated and couldn't find out himself.

When the instructor did figure out who was behind the slicing, that was when he quietly shunted Brody into the tech route. He also so happened to make sure that he had some fascinating stuff on his terminal to share, though when he did curate the collection, it became a lot more 'age appropriate'. Gone were the hardcore kinks; in its place were storylines meant to develop naturally and simulated partners who actually required some form of interaction before putting out. In retrospect, Brody's admiration for that instructor was very high. Not all of his brothers liked the more in-depth stuff, but some of them really did, and he was one of them.

(And he would never admit it, at least not outside his squad, but his favorite sim -- the one he spent months playing out -- was a fantasy simulation involving a very buxom politician and a lot of questing on the side, traipsing through a fictional world collecting pieces to the puzzle that would allow the politican to reclaim her country; he would earn his privileges and use his simulator time for that, and they didn't even have romantic relations until two months into the sim, and when they did, it all felt so real that it kind of messed him up when the storyline ended. He mighta fallen in love with a computer sim, of all things; after that, every other experience he had was in the flesh and with the paid professionals.)

All digression aside, it was the perfect sociological brew to release his bomb into. One of their most admired generals apparently had erectile dysfunction, and now, everyone would know that.

Brody had no illusions that Skywalker wouldn't be able to prove his innocence and clear his name eventually. Viable would certainly disavow knowledge of the ad. The Council would probably come to his aid, maybe even the Chancellor.

But everyone would remember the sound of his voice talking about his underpowered lightsaber, and damn, that was exactly what Brody wanted.

He was still listening in to the reactions -- and whooo boy were there a lot of those -- when Maul appeared next to him. No doubt the lieutenant had been catching pieces of the rumors, and since he had caught Brody in the act of actually making the ad, he certainly had to have no doubts about who had set it loose upon the HoloNet. There was a bit of a worried, disturbed look on his face, and Brody leaned over, slinging a careful arm around the zabrak's shoulders just to murmur, "Don't worry, no one can trace it. Even if they managed to find their way through all my relays, they'd see its point of origin as in the twin cities. But they won't."

Maul had stiffened for only a moment at the arm around his shoulders, likely in surprise, but then relaxed again. "How much do I want to know about this?"

"I'm gonna say probably as little as possible, and not to worry about it." Making Maul worry had definitely not been on the list of things Brody had wanted to accomplish with this, which was why he added, "He has it comin' after Big Murder Mountain, Lieu. And the way I see it is if they're busy focusing on this trash fire, then they won't be focusing on us."

Maul was quiet for a long moment, taking that in, then the corner of his mouth went up in a lopsided little smile as he shook his head. "In that case, good work."

Brody had a genuinely happy glow in his chest; he even straightened his shoulders some as Maul slipped away.

 

 

 

Husker, on the other hand, had no urge to listen in to the reactions or view the ad himself.

He understood why Brody did it, though he thought it was a little like bringing a very large, Raze-approved bomb to a blaster fight. He got why Brody was mad enough to go to such effort, and despite his own affection for General Skywalker, he wasn't gonna to get pissed off because Brody decided on a creative method of wreaking revenge. But that didn't mean he wanted to go reveling in it, either; it was done, General Skywalker was probably birthing an entire rescue center's worth of tooka kits and Husk was just as happy not to think about it.

Instead, he thought about the food; he was one of the first in line more by luck than anything else, having been chatting close to the tables with some of the ARCs from the 332nd and a few of the other baselines from the 212th, and thus had found himself in the debatably enviable position of being served early. That meant getting a good tray (two, actually) and definitely getting his hands on some very interesting alcohol, but it also meant ducking his head to the reporter and the cameras, mostly to hide the scar on his throat.

He managed to avoid the worst of that, though, then using good ole fashioned detective work -- which consisted of finding the quietest place left in the valley -- he tracked down his current CO.

Maul had found himself a spot back by the treeline; in the low light of a scattering of stars and two moons, one tiny and distant, all of his colors were faded to grayscale and he blended in pretty good in the faint shadows cast by the trees, that natural camo of his doing him a good stead. His brow furrowed when Husker managed to lower himself down; he didn't seem put out by the company, though. "Husker."

"Lieu." Husk rested his tray on his knee and set the two bottles in the grass, then offered the second tray over. "Figured you wouldn't wanna tackle that circus."

Maul took it, looking down at it for a moment before saying, "Thank you. I had thought I would just go at the end of the night."

Husker snorted at that. "The second one of those catering droids turns its back, whole catering trays are gonna start goin' missing from those tables. 'Specially with this many special ops types around."

That made Maul chuckle, as he got to unwrapping the utensils. "How many of those trays are going to find their way onto the courier, do you suppose?"

"I'd say five, maybe six, but don't go wagerin' on it." Husk waited a beat, then grinned a little. "Might end up bein' more."

Maul just huffed at that, sitting crosslegged with his food balanced on the makeshift table of his lap as he got to work on it. Husk didn't figure he was the picky type, so he'd just grabbed a bit of everything that didn't smell too weird.

Maul also wasn't gloating about the ad; somehow, that didn't actually surprise Husker too much. It didn't take any kind of Smarty-level genius to figure out that Maul's sense of humor wasn't really tied to popular culture; besides that, Husk figured probably he just wanted to get past Bravo-984, which put them in accord. It had finally started to settle into history for Husk, and that was definitely a relief.

They ate in silence for awhile, listening to the merriment of the troops whooping it up over dinner. After they were finished eating, Husker cracked open the bottles and offered one over; the sweet and spiced -- and alcohol sharp -- scent of the booze drifting up from the bottle's neck warmed him up almost before he even took a sip.

Maul, on the other hand, eyed the bottle in hand with bemused intrigue. "Rather strong for a dinner, isn't it?"

Husk eyed his own bottle, squinting in the low light to read the numbers. "Yeah, but that's probably so they wouldn't have to provide as much. Want me to go track down somethin' you can cut it with?"

"No." Maul shook his head and tried a careful sip, then made a bit of a face at it before apparently deciding he liked it enough for a longer draw. "Metabolic efficiency being what it is, I'm not terribly worried about getting drunk."

Oh? Husk thought, smiling some. He wasn't in any hurry to go prove the opposite, but he highly doubted the same could be said for the rest of the squad, absent maybe Tally. Still, he just nodded in response. "Well, then, bottom's up, I guess." He offered the neck of his bottle as a toast, and after a moment of puzzling over it, Maul clinked his own bottle against it gingerly.

"Is it always like this?" Maul asked, once the ritual was out of the way.

"Like what?"

"--not busy, that's not the right word." Maul tipped his head, looking over the revelry afield. "Relentless, I suppose. Is it always this relentless?"

Husker looked over, brow furrowed. "The war?"

"Yes."

"Yeah." No point to pulling that punch. Husk had been around for a long time for a clone, but once war had broken out and he was assigned, the longest 'down time' he'd had was during the Blackbirds' initial training period. And even that wasn't technically any kind of R&R, though it was low key enough to feel like it. It had certainly done him some good like a vacation might, though; the steady schedule and steady place, the lack of being under fire constantly. Before that, even with the 501st, he woke up most mornings with a tension headache, and fell asleep most nights with a sore back, and that had disappeared after a couple weeks with the 212th.

Now, though, it was back to the grind again; constant motion and a stolen day or two between missions. Husker didn't really think to complain much about it; he knew it was going to wear them down, he just hoped that they managed to build something strong enough that it could take that wearing and remain intact. He thought they probably had; all the right ingredients, all the right amount of care, though he'd also likely be the first to say that even those things never measured up to a guarantee.

He thought he could get a sense of why Maul was asking, so after gathering his thoughts, he added, "You get used to it. Wears you out some, after awhile, but it might not be so bad for us, not bein' on the front lines as much."

"I've lived similar periods before." It was a statement of fact with no defensiveness attached. Maul picked some at the label of his bottle, though he was working on drinking it about apace with Husker. "Survived them, anyway. It doesn't leave much room for thought, does it?"

Husker took in the zabrak's expression; Maul didn't seem angry or bitter, just contemplative maybe. He had to think himself before saying, "Not really. You just kinda gotta keep moving forward and hoping that eventually you'll be able to sort it out, or that it just won't matter any more."

It felt unkind to say it; Husk hadn't forgotten his initial assessment months ago, when the Blackbirds were all new to each other. Their lieutenant had come across as damaged even back then, though contained; not the chaotic kind of disaster, but-- walking wounded, maybe. Now, knowing him, it was the same except instead of it being Husker's assessment, it was fact. Whatever wars Maul fought before this one, for whatever side, they'd left their marks.

"Having a good squad helps," Husker said, trying to reassure. "I mean, you can't beat Shiv as a right hand. Can't really beat Tally as a medic, sharp-tongued as he is. You got a good group, Lieu. We won't let you down."

"I'm not worried about you letting me down," Maul answered, glancing over with a knitted brow before turning back to picking at the bottle's label. "I'm worried about the opposite." A beat. "Mind, I'm not looking for reassurance to the contrary. But it weighs, nonetheless."

That silenced Husk for a bit, as he absorbed it. He picked his next words carefully. "I think the fact it weighs what it does means you won't, sir. For what it's worth. Not an officer in this whole organization that's perfect or doesn't make mistakes, but--"

It was a fine line to walk, between his own innate loyalty and observed truth. Husk wrestled with himself for a moment longer, then finished, "But there ain't all that many that worry about letting us down. That counts for something."

He didn't know if the words made much difference, but it got a little half-smile, anyway. Husker reached over and gave Maul a pat on the back, then they just went back to drinking in silence.

 

 

 

Husker's words were good ones. Maul didn't know quite how to fully accept them, but he appreciated them; appreciated, too, that the most experienced soldier under his command was willing to even offer it in the first place. While seeming to need or want reassured left Maul feeling decidedly pathetic, it meant something to him that Husker was willing to offer it, in his plain and straight-forward way. As they sat and drank together, he tried to slot the new words into the running stream of thought he had been working over whenever he was awake to do so.

Maul's ability to chew things over in his mind didn't survive the night, however.

It wasn't that he had been aiming to get drunk; on Iloh, the sensation had not been pleasant enough for him to ever feel like chasing it down again, though it hadn't been bad. He had a very serious dislike for altered states of consciousness when he was young, largely because he'd been drugged enough times to view any kind of chemical impairment with a great deal of suspicion. When Obi-Wan had put the bottle of rum on the table, it was more impulse than Maul had let on that had him agree to share it; a sideways desire to buck his own past and a certain degree of intrigue and curiosity, though he wasn't sure if it was to see for himself what drinking was like, or if he was more curious to see what Obi-Wan would be like and knew that would require him to partake himself.

Since then, he hadn't turned down alcohol when it was offered -- the wine from Bail's vineyard was particularly good, actually -- but he didn't seek it out himself.

What Maul had not anticipated was how much of it he was going to end up being handed. It didn't help that this particular alcohol -- Chandrilan Apple Pie -- actually tasted good; by the time he was on the third bottle, he stopped noticing the burn of it and mostly just tasted the nuanced sweetness, the layered impression of spices and fruit.

Though he did start to seriously wonder why it was named pie when there was no pie involved whatsoever. There was even a picture of a pie on the front label, right above the numbers for the alcohol content of the bottle, and it was starting to offend Maul, the fact that there was a picture of a pie on a bottle of booze which, obviously, contained no dough whatsoever. "It seems disingenuous," he said to Tally, when his medic had asked why he was frowning. "It's a liquid, not a solid, therefore it cannot possibly be pie."

Tally was chewing on a grin. "I think it's just a reference to the flavor, sir."

"Oh." That made more sense. Maul thought about it a bit longer, then frowned anew. "I don't taste any dough, though. Isn't that a requirement for pie?"

At that, Tally just shrugged in an exaggerated manner, as if literally shrugging it off. "Yeast is involved with both, I think? I guess it counts by technicality."

It seemed that every time the bottle Maul had in hand was mostly empty, another appeared in its place, delivered by one of his Blackbirds and by the time Maul started to suspect anything about it, the alcohol had already kicked in and a fair bit harder than that rum on Iloh had. That had left him feeling a little loose and unsteady; this, by contrast, felt like he'd been caught in a malfunctioning centrifuge. There was also the fact that it vastly overwhelmed the water reclamation systems in his cybernetics, which led to draining the literal pipes, and having to figure out how to do that in a portable toilet the size of a small closet with one hand braced on the wall.

Now, after-- he wasn't sure how many bottles, Maul was not thinking about the ingredients or anything but maybe getting horizontal, though he was also absolutely certain he wanted to make sure his squad was safe and not off getting into any kind of trouble. He was also mildly but genuinely concerned that if he tried to walk anywhere, he might not be able to. Or, at least, not upright. If his legs wanted to work at all; they could get unreliable if he was impaired enough and now he was definitely impaired enough.

A flash of beard and robes in his peripheral (also unreliable) vision was a relief, and Maul pressed his shoulder over against Obi-Wan's, thinking that the Jedi was probably back from all of his socializing--

--except, it wasn't Obi-Wan.

General Taliesin Croft looked back at him, mouth hanging open; at least, Maul thought it seemed to be hanging open, it was hard to tell with all of that hair around it.

They stared at one another for a long moment, blinking, then Maul made to stop leaning and achieve a vertical orientation, but one of his feet refused to move and the next thing he knew, the Jedi was holding him up and he was practically face-planted in the beard, fingers curled into Croft's robes and the empty bottle he had been holding lost between his stumble and his being caught.

Somewhere in Maul's alcohol-soaked mind, he thought this was probably terribly awkward, but he wasn't sure enough to say that.

Croft didn't drop him, though, just asked with a kind of amused tone, "You okay, lieutenant?"

Maul went to say that he was fine, except he would very much like to go lay down, but instead, he looked up into the Jedi's green eyes and asked, very carefully and seriously, "How do you keep food out of all of that hair when you eat?"

"'Scuse us, general," Shiv's voice broke in, also amused, and Maul found himself pried off of the Jedi; he reeled a little bit, but Shiv got under his arm on one side, and Tally appeared on the other. "Sorry about that, we'll handle this."

Croft huffed a laugh. "Uh-- not a problem."

Maul went to ask again, perhaps with more elaboration, but by then, Shiv and Tally were steering him away. Or dragging him. He couldn't be sure, he couldn't feel his legs, and he might have worried about that more, but he had his Blackbirds and they wouldn't let him fall, he was sure, and so instead he leaned his spinning head over and not-whispered, "Flavor saver," to Shiv, before breaking down into uncontrollable laughter.

He was still giggling helplessly when they gave up trying to get him to walk and Shiv just picked him up. Though, he didn't remember any of the rest of the trip after.

 

 

 

"Well, that was frippin' adorable," Tally said, as he got into the lockers and dragged out a number of blankets not already in use. Rabbit and Rancor were already asleep cuddled together in a small nest of them in the courier's hallway, making sure their ship lived up to her name. Shiv could also smell food from the direction of their current storage room, which suggested someone or several someones had poached them leftovers.

He stood with his passed-out Lieu up in his arms like a bride who'd had too much at the wedding reception, though he wasn't put out by it. Mostly 'cause he agreed with Tally; that actually was really frippin' adorable. Frankly, he wouldn't have been surprised if anyone told him that Maul had never in his life giggled before this. "Hope he doesn't get mean when he's hung-over, though."

"We'll find out tomorrow." Tally started making up a bed of blankets and bedroll, though well off to the side by the wall. "I'll keep an eye on him; I probably should've given a cut-off on the number of bottles, but I got distracted watching Croft trying to get laid and then the aftermath of that."

Shiv leaned against the wall while Tally worked; Maul wasn't that heavy, anyway, and Shiv didn't want to just put him down on the decking. "Who was he trying to get laid by?"

"The reporter. She managed to talk him into putting on all the Official Jedi Robes for a photo shoot, on the promise she'd help him take 'em back off again later." Tally finished making up a bed, then helped Shiv get Maul into it. Their lieutenant didn't so much as twitch as he was settled down, nor when Tally rested a hand across his brow and thumb-stroked the diamond in the center of it in a moment of affection. "In the meantime, I do believe some mischief is brewing with Smarty and Raze. They haven't touched the booze tonight, and I heard them planning something with paint."

Shiv rose to his feet again; the back loading ramp was open to allow the cooler night air in, along with the occasional random insect. Idly, he looked out into the night; many of their brothers were still merry-making out there, many of them also drunk, though things had quieted down considerably compared to earlier. "Now to decide if I wanna do anything about it," he pondered; he had only had one bottle, and nursed that one all night, mostly because he had been in on getting Maul trashed and had figured if they were going to take their CO out of commission, then someone ought to be sober enough to take charge.

"Well, it wouldn't be fair to let Brody get away with setting off an intergalactic incident just to stop the others from whatever prank they're up to." Tally smirked, standing himself once he had probably reassured himself that Maul was relatively okay. "So, I figured I'd volunteer to help instead."

He had a point. Shiv pressed his mouth into a line and then conceded it with a shrug and a nod. "Okay, let's do that."

 

 

 

The plan was simple: Dip the end of General Croft’s gigantic beard into the paint. It was a thick, neon green, slow-drying variety, so hopefully by the time the burly, hairy Jedi woke up, it would still be wet and the Blackbirds could observe the response from a safe distance. If possible, they were to get footage and send the footage on to Commander Half-Pint.

Apparently, Croft had been a helper in the creches for a time of Clawmouse Clan, and that both he and Tano had been taken to Shili by General Ti to learn the Hunt at the same time, thus making them hunt-siblings. It also meant that Ahsoka liked to pull pranks on her hunt-brother.

Smarty figured that was more than a fair thing to ask for, given she was stuck detailing as much of the Viable fallout as possible. He still hoped there was enough overlap between the Blackbirds leaving and the 501st arriving to give the girl a hug -- she looked like she needed it -- but even if he couldn't, he and Raze sure intended to do their best to fulfill her request.

It started as being his and Raze's plan, but before long, several of the others got involved. Rabbit and Rancor were passed out, Husker was off hanging out with a few of the soldiers it turned out he knew before his assignment to the 501st, Shiv and Tally had been left out of the initial planning for strategic reasons, but Tango was there. It made Smarty feel better, their pilot getting involved; he had been so down since finding out about Maul and Kenobi that seeing some spark come back to him was a relief.

He, Smarty, Raze and Brody were all huddled together in a quiet cluster, wearing nothing but their blacks, though Raze did have on his utility belt from his armor, freshly painted black. “Whatever you do, don’t get caught,” Tango warned, seriously, in a hushed whisper.

Raze nodded back just as seriously, eyes wide, as he stowed the large bottle of paint into his belt pack.

Castle was already in position; he had gotten in with a group of Croft's commandos earlier in the evening and now was pretending to be passed out amongst them, conveniently located where he could watch General Croft's tent. According to his tapped out coded transmission earlier, the reporter was still in there with Croft, but at least the squeaking and moaning had died down. Now it was just waiting for his 'go' signal.

"If you do get caught," Shiv murmured, startling the hell out of all of them, having appeared from behind the tent, "make sure you create enough chaos to get away." He eyed them, then smirked, dark amber eyes narrowing in mischief. "I've got Tally deployed with a holo-cam to catch the aftermath."

Smarty started grinning at that; beside him, Raze was outright beaming. And they were still smiling just that broadly when Castle gave them the go-ahead.

 

 

 

Raze’s lessons in teräs käsi served him well.

Out of all of his brothers in his squad, he found an odd harmony with the precise martial art; an almost meditative state where he could feel the edges of world around him almost like lines of energy, even in the dark. He was good enough that Maul took extra time to teach him ahead of the others, because he took to it so well, and he was proud of that. And he liked sparring with his Lieu, too; Maul was a really good teacher, way more patient than some of the instructors had been on Kamino with him. Whenever Raze would get distracted, Maul would just redirect him and teach him how to actually redirect himself, and Raze started really feeling the discipline as he got better at doing that. Between that and the medication Tally came up with for him -- a quarter of a stim-tab in the mornings, weirdly it didn't leave him feeling buzzed, just more focused, even being a stimulant -- and Raze thought he was probably starting to really hit his stride in a lot of ways.

Even excited as he was now, he was able to keep his heart rate and breathing even, his body seemingly divorced from his mind; in truth, the excitement was just channeled, focused, lending everything the sense of being crystalline in its clarity. It wasn’t something Raze knew how to describe, but it was a great feeling, one he got better and better at sinking himself into the more he practiced it.

He crept more like a fluid shadow than a man through the other part of their encampment. He knew there were plenty of clones left awake, even if most of 'em were drunk, but all he really had to worry about was getting past all those commandos.

And by some minor miracle, in addition to skill, he did.

General Croft was snoring quietly on his sleeping pad; the reporter was sprawled naked against him, her formerly stiff and very rigidly styled hair rendered into an absolute disaster sticking out in every direction. Raze almost felt bad, because he did like the Jedi and he didn't have anything against the reporter, but– well, what was the point in being covert ops if you couldn’t have fun? Half-Pint needed something to help her feel better, and Raze was glad to take up that call.

In fact, just on the off-chance that he couldn't do the dip, he'd created a paint bomb and brought that along, too. He figured that any paint splattering was better than none, so if he couldn't do one, he'd definitely find a way to do the other.

Now, he did as Maul had taught him, focusing everything that he was on becoming part of the background noise of the Force; even if Raze couldn’t feel it like a Force sensitive, he could almost taste the moment he succeeded, like something sweet and cool in his mouth. That should render him invisible to the general's Force senses; at least, it should long enough for Raze to do what he needed to do.

Gingerly, he took the paint out and uncapped it. It was the same neon green that Ahsoka had bombed them with on their training run ages ago, which Raze thought was probably unofficially her color. And he figured probably Croft knew it was her color, too, which was likely the point.

For all of Raze’s efforts, the dip was the simple part. He gingerly gathered the post-coital Jedi's beard into a gentle brush shape and then lowered it into the wide necked bottle, minding not to get his own hands wet so he couldn't be traced by it later. He managed to get about half of the bottom in there, then pulled it back out, gooey and dripping, before letting it settle back on Croft's chest. Then, he recapped the bottle and beat a very hasty retreat.

But it was when he turned and slipped back out that complications happened.

So much of his focus was back on the Jedi that he ran right into Drop’s giant chest. Even as Raze squeaked, the big commando grabbed him by his upper arms and literally lifted him off of his feet, though he wasn't actually hurting Raze any. “What did you just do, you little–”

Raze gaped, but then he moved; lightning fast, he snatched the paint bomb off of his belt, arming it with a flick of his finger and – unable to do more than bend his elbow with his arms pinned – flung it straight up.

Well trained as he was, Drop reacted to something beeping and flashing by dropping Raze and moving to neutralize the threat.

Raze wasted no time darting away, and he heard General Croft ask what was happening a split second before he heard the small pop and the wet sound of yet more neon paint hitting everything in the vicinity.

He ran past where Tally was stationed with a holo-cam and all the way back to the Nest, as Brody, Smarty, Tango and Castle all fell in and ran with him, and he didn't stop laughing once the entire way there.

 

 

 

(Later that night, only Tally was awake when Kenobi crept aboard the Nest to be with Maul; instead of speaking, he just helped Kenobi resituate the zabrak in one of the unused cargo areas of the courier and then slipped back out again when Kenobi laid down beside him.)

Chapter Text

It rained the next day.

The sound of it beating on the ground outside and against the courier was soothing; with it came the breeze and that musty smell of clean dampness, flowing in with the occasional wet scatter from the open back gangway. Outside, he could hear it pattering down on the beaten grass; inside, it afforded everyone some much needed air flow.

Obi-Wan loved it. He could get lost in it, in the simplicity of it, at least for a little while. Not long enough, but then, nothing ever was.

He had come back and some strategic questioning of a green-painted Croft had led to him finding out Maul had gotten beyond drunk. Obi-Wan rather regretted missing that; he remembered how charmingly frank and relatively open a well-medicated Maul had been on Alderaan, and he wondered if it translated the same to alcohol. Still, he had quietly slipped aboard the courier; Tally had been the only one awake by then, laying in the aisle on a bedroll, reading from a datapad.

Ever since Tally had held him to task over their relationship, Obi-Wan had felt somehow-- diminished. Or, perhaps not diminished, but as if Tally was measuring him far more carefully now than he had been when Obi-Wan was only his general and not also in a relationship with his lieutenant. It was a strange feeling; to be sheepish at coming to see if Maul was all right, and perhaps in want of some company, and to see Tally as something of a gatekeeper. He was so young; Jango's face had filled out and hardened with age, stocky lines, but Tally's face was still more narrow, his features still more delicate, unlined despite the worried furrow that would appear between his eyebrows from time to time. The same cheekbones, the same cut of his nose and chin as Jango had, but there was a softness there yet, a boyish look made no less so by the loose curls Tally was growing out, his shaved cross long-since gone.

Obi-Wan struggled not to see all of the troops that way. To try to look past how young they were, and how short their lives had been so far. And how cut-short those lives often became, and sometimes under his own orders. He tried to protect them as much as he could, but the losses still happened, and he still struggled with them.

Tally hadn't barred him from the courier, though; just helped him steal Maul off into the not-yet repurposed cargo hold at the back that would become a medical bay with enough time and equipment -- Obi-Wan was working on that part -- and then left behind a bucket and water. Obi-Wan debated with himself for a full twenty seconds about whether or not to stay; in some measure of angry defiance, he laid down there and rested an arm over his darling's sleeping -- or drunkenly unconscious -- body and decided to hell with it. The Blackbirds all knew about them now, even if Obi-Wan's spine had frozen when Maul decided to tell them; he was officially on leave, so unless a crisis happened, he could spend part of that leave hidden on the Nest with Maul.

The 501st was on their way.

Anakin was on his way.

The Resolute's group had managed to finish early, with the backup that had come to Ryloth, and they were going to be here before day's end. Add to that the advertisement going around and the fallout from that, add to that the Blackbirds in proximity with Anakin, and Obi-Wan wanted to find a dark hole to hide in.

He figured that the advertisement was likely a case of someone clever building a highly rendered 3-D map and perhaps using footage of Anakin from before to come up with the dialogue. It was probably within the vein of unscrupulous marketing; the company the ad was for rapidly disavowed knowledge of it, but the chaos was still spreading out as the company's stocks had gone up dramatically. Obi-Wan had fielded several Council calls while he was trying to visit friends in the city before getting so disgusted -- of course Anakin didn't make the ad! -- that he turned his comm off altogether and had it redirect to messaging.

Now, in the dim morning light that managed to filter in, to the sound of rain, he just tried to-- exist, for awhile. To just be for awhile.

You would probably either laugh at me or lecture me, about now, he thought in the direction of his old master. Qui-Gon had always been admonishing him to keep his focus in the present. Obi-Wan had always resisted it, irritated by being told to do something which had not come naturally to him at all. Now, he sought it out whenever he could, especially when it came to his time with Maul.

He huffed at himself and unwound his arm from Maul, who had shifted to his side at some point during the night, and instead traced Maul's midnight-black mask; he could feel the impression of unsettled dreams and pain, and figured he was going to probably spend at least part of the day dealing with his hung-over darling. And, in truth, Obi-Wan could think of few things he would rather do and all of those involved Maul anyway, albeit sober and bright-eyed.

I'll miss you, he thought, fingertips following lines even more familiar to him than his own; he lamented that there was not a stronger word for it, too.

He wondered if Anakin felt this way about Padmé; felt the keen blade of separation. The longing that ached. He knew that he must have; as angry as he was with Anakin over the Blackbirds' training mission, he could imagine how hard it had to be for them. And how hard it was going to get for him and Maul, as the war sent them in different, if perhaps parallel, directions.

For once, Obi-Wan felt that Maul would handle it better than he would, and that was a strange and bittersweet thought to have.

Speaking of the zabrak; Maul surfaced from his drunken stupor with a quiet groan, and Obi-Wan winced in sympathy. If Maul was making any noise of pain, then it had to be bad. "Good morning, darling," he murmured, keeping his voice pitched low so as not to make the headache worse.

"Never again," Maul answered, one clumsy hand finding Obi-Wan's undertunic to clutch as he squeezed his eyes closed tighter. His voice was a little slurred, though likely more from sleep than from any lingering drunkenness. "Never."

It made Obi-Wan smile, anyway, even if he was still grimacing in empathy for Maul's plight.

He also wondered if Anakin or Padmé had ever held the bucket for the other after a night's indulgence, which was what he spent the next twenty minutes doing for Maul.

 

 

 

Tally didn't exactly sleep in, but he didn't wake too early, either. He'd set his alarm for about six hours after laying down, which wasn't enough time, but he thought he'd get a chance to catch up when they disembarked, and besides that, he wanted to keep an eye on his lieutenant. While he'd been in on getting Maul tanked, curious about what kind of drunk their L-T made, he really hadn't planned on Maul getting too smashed to even walk. So, figuring it was partly his own inattention and lack of setting a limit, he wanted to make sure he was up to help mitigate.

Though, apparently General Kenobi was already in the process of it.

It seemed that every time Tally observed them together it became easier to see why they were. He had known Obi-Wan Kenobi as General; a kind if harried man who seemed unprepared for war, but who was quick enough and sharp enough to learn fast. A good officer, though closed off. Tally had never seen the softer, more vulnerable side of the man until he started seeing him in context with Maul; around the zabrak, Kenobi's face wore less stress. He smiled more freely. His expressions were easier to read. Tally had known they were friends, but finding out they were lovers made a lot of sense in retrospect.

He still did have his misgivings, like he'd told Tango, but it was getting harder to hold onto them. Slipping into that side hold, with its open door, and finding Kenobi using a damp rag to mop Maul's face and neck off-- he didn't see a general there. Just a man, taking care of someone he so obviously adored.

And who loved Maul enough to clean out the bucket, too. No small thing to do for your other-half.

"Sorry, General," Tally said, quietly, going and sitting crosslegged behind Maul's back, mostly so he could talk with Kenobi without making the man crane his neck. "We were planning on getting him tanked, just not quite that tanked."

Kenobi huffed a little, but a smile tugged his lips and showed at the corners of his eyes. "I'm rather sorry I missed it. He's entertaining when he's less-than-sober; what tact he has goes out the viewport."

"He asked Croft how he kept food out of his beard when he ate." Tally grinned a little. "And apparently Shiv had planted a seed earlier in the day by calling beards 'flavor savers' and Maul cracked up about that before he passed out."

Kenobi smiled more broadly at that, shaking his head against his makeshift pillow of robes. "Well, he's already declared 'never again', but we'll see if that holds."

It probably could; Maul sure wasn't lacking in will power. Tally wasn't really surprised by that declaration, either. "Guess so," he just said, reaching out and running nails up and down Maul's back, even though it seemed Maul was taking the smartest route possible and sleeping off the night before. He wrestled with himself for a few moments there, then finally said, "I don't like this assessment business with General Ti, sir. We're already a squad, Maul's already our C-O. I don't see why we need to go and prove ourselves to yet another person." Especially someone neck-deep in everything Kamino, he added, in his mind.

Kenobi set the damp rag aside next to the bowl of water he'd put in reach before looking back at Tally; there was a certain sympathy in his eyes that almost made Tally uncomfortable, like maybe the Jedi was looking through him. "When Master Plo brought it up to me, I told him I didn't like it either. But Maul needs allies. And I know Shaak Ti; next to Plo, I don't think there's anyone on the Council more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt."

"She's complicit in slave trading, General." The words were out before Tally could even think to stop himself. "I get it, we aren't being killed for any deviation from the norm anymore like we were before, but she's right there in the thick of it."

"I know." Kenobi's simple agreement caught Tally off-guard. "Tally, I know. So does she, I'm absolutely sure of it."

Tally wasn't buying it. He remembered when brothers disappeared. He hadn't even figured it out until he was nine or so, but once he did, he panicked every single damned time a brother went missing and no one knew where, because he knew they were being 'decommissioned' and it took everything he had not to become one of them. He couldn't begin to fathom how a Jedi could walk into that situation and understand and just-- what, go along with it? "How can you know that?"

"She sent me you."

Tally sat back a little, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "What?"

Kenobi looked back at him steadily, though the hand he was using to stroke Maul's forearm never stopped, fingers playing along markings. "She knows how-- how ugly this whole situation is. She stays there so that she can try to control it to some degree. So, she sent me you. Specifically, intentionally, with a note that you were angry and hurt and needed a general who wouldn't hold it against you."

"No." Something bottomed out in Tally's gut, and he had to fight the sudden urge to just-- jump up and get away from this. He didn't even know why, but it sent a jolt through him, something awful and panicky, the thought that General Ti had somehow known. He didn't hate her, but he sure didn't like her; didn't like any of them on Kamino, not their instructors, not their overseers.

And he hated the Kaminoans.

"Yes." Kenobi seemed to take it in stride, just looking at him with that same sympathy that it almost burned to be on the other end of. "She said you were one of the finest medics she'd ever seen. And that you had come close before her arrival to-- to being killed despite that," Kenobi stumbled over that part, "--and that she knew I would do my best to take care of you. So, I quite gladly accepted your assignment to the 212th. And when the time came, I assigned you before all of the others to the Blackbirds because I knew that you would protect him," he said, nodding to Maul, "but also, that he would protect you. From everyone, even the Jedi. Perhaps even especially from the Jedi."

It was almost more than Tally could take in; his throat felt tight, some mix between lingering anger and a grief he couldn't even understand, let alone disarm, and he stared back at the Jedi for a long moment before pushing up to his feet, being careful not to jostle Maul in the process, so he could get the hell out of there and get some air.

He was still crying his eyes out in the rain, anger and confusion and grief and a thousand other things, when Shiv came out and sat down next to him on the loading ramp to put an arm around him.

 

 

 

"Any better?"

Obi-Wan's quiet voice didn't cause the headache to flare up any worse, at least. Maul made a noncommittal noise back; he felt wretched enough that there was no measuring the degrees of it. Beyond the headache, his stomach was sore and uneasy, and his skin alternately felt too hot or too cool, or sometimes both. The half of his body that he still had ached.

It reminded him strongly of waking up on the couch in Bail's family's summer home, and Queen Breha minding him after his shielding shattered and he ended up once again exposed to the Force far beyond what he had been built to take. The difference being that this time, he did it to himself.

Just in case he had not made it clear the first time he woke, he said, "I'm never doing that again."

"It's not so bad in moderation," Obi-Wan answered, though Maul could hear him smiling some. He might have gotten offended by that, but he knew it wasn't in any meanness. "Still, I've been there before, so I can appreciate your swearing it off right now."

Maul got his hand up and rubbed at his face, unsurprised by its shaking, and didn't even try to open his eyes yet. Still, even feeling like he'd been poisoned -- he supposed technically he had been -- he could sense some of Obi-Wan's unease and anxiety, especially at this proximity. "What's bothering you?" he asked, tucking his arm back around himself and shivering a little, though pleasantly, for the cool breeze brushing past him.

"Anakin's going to be here this evening." Obi-Wan heaved a breath out; it skated past the top of Maul's head. "And I think as soon as you're well enough, you should go see to your medic."

Word of Skywalker being around didn't bother Maul as much as he might have expected it would; he had no desire to go and put himself in proximity of the so-called Chosen One, and it was easy enough to avoid that. The second part was what got him to pry his eyes open, though that did him no favors. "What's wrong with Tally?"

"I told him some things that upset him." Obi-Wan reached up and stroked his fingers down Maul's cheek, light, and it took a bit of willpower for Maul not to close his eyes to it. "It hadn't been my intention, but I don't think my checking on him would go over well now."

Obi-Wan was likely as not right about that, though Maul did think that was something that would change with time. He gave a slight nod, then made to get up; his stomach protested, though it was too empty to go into open rebellion at least. "All right."

"--I hadn't meant now," Obi-Wan said, wincing; still, he got up himself and got an arm around Maul, steadying him. "He might scalp me if you get up just to fall over."

Maul pinned him with a flat look, then carefully drew away and got to his feet. Despite feeling wretched, his cybernetics were answering him correctly; he had just enough space in his mind to find that a relief, especially remembering that he didn't think they were the night before. Once he was up, he softened his look by brushing his fingers through Obi-Wan's hair, as Obi-Wan looked up at him worriedly. "I've survived far worse than this."

"I know, but still." Obi-Wan nonetheless leaned his head into Maul's hand, and the gesture made something in Maul's chest tweak hard. "Take it easy for me, darling."

Maul had no desire to argue, so he just nodded and made his way out of the hold, quite gingerly. It only took him a few seconds to spot Tally; his medic was sitting on the loading ramp with Shiv, the latter's arm around the former, heads bent close together. He stood and watched them for a moment; deeper into the Nest, the rest of his squad was still in varied states of sprawled out asleep, probably trying to catch up on their rest while they could.

Between that and the rain it was-- something that could only really be called peaceful.

Maul huffed a little breath at himself, then shook his head -- and regretted it -- before picking his way down to the other two, lowering himself to the deck slowly. Both Shiv and Tally were wet from the rain; now, they were sitting far enough back as to be out of it and Maul put himself down opposite Shiv, on Tally's other side, and rubbed over his face again.

Of course, once he was there, he had no idea what to say. Thankfully, Shiv seemed to have that in hand, because he didn't even wait until Maul was done settling to say, "See, Tally, I told you he wouldn't drop dead."

The utterly casual way Shiv declared that made Maul snort despite himself, and Tally echoed him precisely. "Don't be so sure," Maul said back, dropping his hand and eying his sergeant blearily. "I'm certainly considering it right now."

"If you did, I'd give you a sparkling eulogy. 'Our brave lieutenant; he survived being cut in half and several months of war, but he finally met a foe he couldn't take: Chadrilan Apple Pie. After bravely battling the bottle -- and another and another and several more -- he succumbed to it, though he waited until he was properly hung-over before doing so. Remember kids, don't drink alcohol.'" Shiv held his free hand over his heart. "His last words were, and I quote, 'Flavor saver.'"

Laughing was definitely not helping his head, and yet, completely outwith any ability to comprehend why, that was what Maul did. Even if it did make him have to lean over his own knees and clutch his skull, fingers splayed between horns. "Those would not be my last words," he said, eyes closed tight again. "My last words would be, 'My sergeant is incorrigible and should be brought up on charges. Don't let him get away with this.'"

"There you go," Shiv said, voice gone warm and affectionate. "Now you're getting it."

Maul went to shake his head again, thought better of it, then took a few slow, deep breaths to try to settle his stomach before looking up; both of them were looking at him, though Tally's expression was that scrutiny Maul had long since come to recognize as assessment. "Are you all right?" Maul asked, pointedly, taking his medic in just the same; Tally also looked rough, though Maul was certain it had nothing to do with the alcohol. His eyes were red rimmed and his still-wet hair was hanging in chaotic curls down across his brow, almost to the point of getting in his eyes.

"I'm fine," Tally said, gaze flicking away for a moment, before he made himself look back again. "You, on the other hand--"

"You don't seem fine. And besides, Obi-Wan told me you weren't fine," Maul answered, raising his brows.

Tally's face hardened some and his jaw knotted, and for a moment it looked like he wanted to get angry. Behind him, Shiv's face turned softer by contrast and he took his arm off of Tally's shoulders just to rub at his back.

Apparently, though, that simple thing was enough to drain the medic's ire. After a deep breath, Tally shook his head, sighing out. "I'll be fine. I don't really want to talk about it, but I'll be okay." A beat. "Thanks, though. I mean, for asking."

Maul didn't like that answer, but after a moment of his own, he nodded back. He couldn't -- and wouldn't -- force any conversation about it; hopefully, Tally would either sort it or at least be willing to talk about it later, if he did need to. "All right."

"You'd better not even try to tell me that you're fine, though," Tally said, dropping his chin even as he reached out to catch Maul's, using that grip to turn his head a little, more into the gray light, just to peer at him. "You look Big Murder Mountain bad."

Maul tolerated it with a little huff; Tally wasn't rough about it, anyway, and after a few seconds, let go again. "My head hurts, my stomach is upset, but I'm all right enough. Or, as Shiv said, not about to 'drop dead'."

"Your liver can probably take it if you want something for it now." Tally wrapped his arms back around his own midsection. "That and sleeping it off are my professional recommendations."

"We still have loading to do. And I'd rather get it done before Skywalker's battlegroup gets here."

"Uh, excuse me," Shiv raised his hand and his eyebrows at the same time, smirking. "I think you forgot that you have a squad of eleven people here more than willing to see it finished."

“And you forgot that I don’t care for being coddled,” Maul said back, archly.

Shiv cocked his head at that, and his expression shifted from some manner of smug to something considerably softer. “Lieu, it’s not coddling. None of us are in bad shape. This ship’s gonna be our home, too, so it’s not like we’re doing you a special favor. So, sleep off your adventure into falling-down-drunkenness and let us do our thing. We’ll get it done and make sure to stay out of Skywalker’s vicinity.”

“Seconded.” Tally raised a hand. “Which means you’re outvoted, so shoo, go back and cuddle with your boyfriend some more and I’ll bring you something for your head. Besides, trying to haul crates will just prolong your recovery, trust me.”

Maul didn’t really like the idea of just-- lounging all day, no matter how wretched he felt. He pressed his mouth into a line, but when both of them just kept looking at him expectantly, he finally capitulated.

Though he was still boggling over the term boyfriend, its definition and applications and how bizarre it seemed when applied to him and Obi-Wan, when he went to go lay back down.

 

 

 

The rest of the day wore on quietly.

Tally gave Maul something to make the headache bearable and something else to help with the queasiness, and after that and some water, he ended up falling back to sleep and staying there. The rain hadn’t abated, and so the Blackbirds stripped to their shorts and boots and carried their cargo that way, what didn’t need a grav sled; Obi-Wan helped, though he kept his clothes on.

They finished not long before the first shore party from the 501st was due to land.

Now, Obi-Wan counted the minutes, sitting over a mug of tea with his hair drying and his still-damp robes clinging to his skin uncomfortably. Even then, he couldn’t seem to make himself get up to go and get changed, too on tenterhooks even for that.

He knew that Anakin was bound to be tired, and in a foul mood besides; the advertisement that had taken the galaxy's underbelly by storm would ruin anyone's week, and that was on top of what had happened on Ryloth and on Maridun before that. It was a great deal of stress for anyone to be under, let alone such a young man, and Obi-Wan would be lying if he tried to claim that he wasn't tempted to put this discussion off. To give his former apprentice a chance to rest and recover, a chance to center himself.

His first instinct, even now, was to shield the boy from disapproval. To protect him as much as he could be protected; to be the one in Anakin's corner, as he had made a commitment to be when he decided that he wanted to be Anakin's master. Not just to fulfill Qui-Gon's request, but to do right by the child they had taken from his mother, the one that was viewed with awe or suspicion or both by so many.

Except--

Except this time, he couldn't. If he let it go this time, and tried to chalk it up to somehow being a mutual antagonism, he would be doing wrong by Maul. And by the Blackbirds. The training scenario they had gone through had never been weighted fairly; their espionage and everything that they had done based on it was based on the fact that they were going into a situation that was designed to humiliate them and that they refused to give into it.

And all of that was Anakin's doing. Right down to a droid popper, thrown without warning.

Right now, Obi-Wan was set up in a command tent, since he knew it was the first place Anakin would stop. The Blackbirds had not yet taken off, but aside Husker, he had not set eyes on any of them in quite awhile. He couldn't blame them for making themselves scarce; he didn't like to think about how angry they really had to be, right now, at Anakin.

He forced his eyes off of the table-top chronometer and onto his cup of tea, but that did nothing for the anxiety chewing a hole through his midsection.

He didn’t have to wait long.

Anakin looked exhausted when he came in; there were dark splotches under his eyes, and his face was still paler than usual, likely as much from that exhaustion as from the wounds he had suffered priorly. But he smiled when he saw Obi-Wan, and that made Obi-Wan’s heart sink even as he tried to smile back.

“Am I glad to see you,” Anakin said, coming forward and reaching out, then pausing. “Why’re you all wet, though, Master?”

“I was helping load supplies.” Obi-Wan swallowed down, reaching out himself to squeeze his former padawan’s upper arms. “It’s-- I’m glad to see you in one piece, too.”

He didn’t know if it was apology. Or if it was unadorned truth. Only that it felt sour on his tongue, and that even as he prepared to stand up against a wrong, he felt like there was no way to come out of any of this clean.

Anakin was perceptive, too; he eyed Obi-Wan once over as if looking for injury, brows drawn in worry as he asked, “What’s wrong, Master?”

“I wanted to talk to you about the training mission you designed for the Blackbirds,” Obi-Wan said, trying to strike a tone between sternness and openness. He wanted Anakin to hear him, but he also wanted to give Anakin a chance to explain himself.

The moment the words ‘training mission’ were out of Obi-Wan’s mouth, though, Anakin’s expression closed off. “I don’t know what there is to talk about. My detachment lost, there were only minor injuries according to the reports. And I don’t know if you’ve heard, Master, but I’ve got a lot on my tray right now.”

“I did read the reports.” Obi-Wan worked his jaw, trying to figure out how to even do this. “Anakin, that scenario wasn’t remotely fair. If not for some foresight and unorthodox thinking, they wouldn’t have stood a chance even if they had done everything correctly. The point was supposed to be training, a chance for them to work out their internal dynamics. Not for them to be crushed.”

“They’re supposed to be an elite black ops squad, aren’t they?” Anakin shot back, eyes narrowing. “The fact that they beat it proves it wasn’t unbeatable.”

Obi-Wan could feel a twist between defeat and frustration bubbling up. “They’re new. They weren’t supposed to be elite yet, they were supposed to be in training.” He took in a slow breath, then finally just got to the point. “I think you let your feelings about Maul get in the way, when you designed that mission. Regardless of what the Blackbirds are supposed to be.”

“My feelings about that-- that murderer are the right ones!” Anakin snapped, voice raising, gaze boring into Obi-Wan. “You’re too blind to see it, Master, but he’s dangerous. And you not only ignored the fact he’s a darkside assassin, but then you gave him command of troops?! Your own master’s murderer, and you put him in charge of living, breathing men! It’s not my feelings you should be looking at, it’s yours!”

Obi-Wan could feel his mouth fall open, each word cutting deeper. The look in Anakin’s eyes, burning anger and betrayal, left him feeling sick and off-balanced and wrong. He gaped, scrambling in his mind to just-- find some kind of-- of response--

“I know you think he’s-- redeemable or something, but he’s not, what he did can’t be forgiven or forgotten,” Anakin went on, tone growing more confident; like a predator smelling blood. “It’s not too late to fix this. I’ll even take the squad into the 501st--”

”No.”

It was a thunderhead of a word.

Obi-Wan was almost as surprised it came out of his own mouth as Anakin seemed to be.

“Master--” Anakin started, a little less loudly.

“No,” Obi-Wan repeated, drawing his shoulders up and picking his chin up at the same time. “No, you don’t get to say that to me. Because, unlike you, I’ve bothered to get to know Maul. All of those long days at the Temple while you were in remedial education? I was visiting him. Every day, Anakin, that I was in that Temple and could get there, I did, for years. I know exactly where he came from, what he endured and how he managed to pick up the pieces after I cut him down, and I have not once felt unsafe with him at my back, not while he went on missions with me before this war, and certainly not since!”

He could see the words landing like daggers. But Obi-Wan was done trying to shelter Anakin from these basic truths. He softened his tone, but he didn’t back down, not even as Anakin revved up for another go; he just held up his hand, drawing on his years of experience and the years which he spent raising this young man to hold the floor.

“To address your points,” Obi-Wan said, calmly, “I don’t think he’s redeemable. I think he’s long-since redeemed. And I’ve long-since forgiven him for Theed. For Qui-Gon.”

The change that came over Anakin’s face at that was almost terrifying to behold; his mouth twisted into a snarl and he opened his mouth yet again to speak. Obi-Wan jolted internally, though he kept that from displaying on his face.

Anakin had his moments throughout boyhood, where he’d show such frightening things. But it had been awhile. He was larger than life; his feelings filled every empty space, even the ones where peace and quiet should have been left alone, demanding without even meaning to to be the center of attention. He never seemed aware of it, but oh, Obi-Wan never quite forgot it.

Now, after a moment of twisted rage, Anakin managed to force it back off of his face again. Instead, it burned and roiled in the Force between them.

But Obi-Wan gave him no quarter, stepping closer and squaring up even more. “No. I’m not doing this with you. I was the one whose Master was cut down, and I have also been the one who has bothered to see that Maul was every bit as much victim as he was killer. I have known him and I’ve been close to him now for over a decade! You don’t get to discount my experiences during Theed or after, not in relation to Qui-Gon or to Maul, simply because you don’t like what you’re hearing.”

Anakin was still sneering, though he tried to strike a placating tone as he said, “Master, your perspective-- you’re too close--”

“No.” Obi-Wan cut him off again, showing his own teeth in a brief flash, in a manner he could have only picked up from Maul. It certainly startled Anakin into snapping his mouth closed, head jerking back a little in shock. “I don’t distrust him. I don’t question his loyalty, not to me or to his Blackbirds. I’m not the one trapped behind the perspective of an angry and frightened nine-year-old, Anakin, you are. But you’re not nine anymore. And he is my officer, that is his squad, he leads them and he leads them well, and you will either treat him as a fellow officer in this army or you’ll leave him alone entirely, but you will never again target him for devastation, physical or psychological, because I won’t stand for it. Hate him all you like, but stay away from him. And if you want us to remain on speaking terms, then you won’t cross that line again.”

It was hard to read the expression on Anakin’s face; whether it was rage or pain or some echo of that little boy who needed Obi-Wan’s steady love and patience finding out that it wasn’t infinite.

It hurt to see it, any which way. But Obi-Wan didn’t back down; he stayed only a moment more, staring Anakin down, then turned and walked out of the command tent, back out into the rain.

It almost felt clean.

 

 

 

Husk knew that they were supposed to stay away from General Skywalker and the 501st.

He just didn’t plan on listening to it.

He had helped the rest of his brothers haul supplies and start really organizing their courier; they scored rations and that, yeah, but also some other supplies, like decent bedrolls and bedding, in addition to the hoarded bedding they’d been using before. They had new basic mess kits and some other odds and ends, and best of all, a newly clean-shaven General Croft had slipped ‘em word on a wrecked medical frigate that was being towed under escort back to Republic space for salvage; her hyperdrive was ruined beyond repair, and he gave them the right codes to transfer to the escorts so they could go aboard and cannibalize her for anything useful, once they were done with GalTech.

Things were going pretty good, in Husk’s opinion. The ship. The squad. They even managed to convince Maul to spend the day resting, which Husker thought was probably a winning battle in what was gonna be an ongoing war on top of the war they were already in. They had food from the night before, they had some trinkets they traded, their armor was painted and it finally felt like Bravo-984 was processed and behind them--

Almost.

Husker had one more thing to do in that regard; while the Blackbirds were doing a final round of inventory and checks, while Tango was doing a full walk-around of the Nest and Smarty was compiling a briefing for after they were underway, he slipped off into the night.

Tally spotted him and they just looked at one another for a moment; then, the medic’s mouth quirked up in a sad half-smile, and he turned back to his own work, leaving Husker to do what he needed to do.

Seeing Anakin Skywalker sitting like the weight of a planet or ten was resting on his shoulders didn’t make Husker feel good. And when he looked up at Husker, a miserable look crossed his face, which made it even worse.

Husk wasn’t there to beat him up. He just stepped over and sat down beside the general, resting his elbows on his knees and folding his hands between ‘em, and he didn’t doubt for a second that his former CO knew exactly why he was there.

General Skywalker confirmed it, after a few minutes of familiar, if aching, silence. “I never intended for any of you clones to get hurt, Husk,” he said, voice exhausted and thick. “I’m-- I was trying to stop that from happening in the first place.”

The damning thing was, Husk believed that in part. He didn’t think it was all that (he thought Skywalker probably did mean for Maul to walk away damaged), but he did believe it was part of what factored into his former general’s plans.

And he thought that his own presence amongst the Blackbirds had something to do with it, too.

“When you aim at him, sir,” Husker said, carefully, gently, “you’re aimin’ at us, too. We’re in that blast radius, General, just the same.”

That seemed to hit Skywalker in the guts, given the way his mouth tightened and the way his eyes slid closed. He swallowed hard, but he didn’t say anything, and Husker still loved the hell right out of him and he knew, in that moment, that he probably always would.

And that he was allowed to.

“Is he-- good? To you,” Skywalker asked; there was a bitter twist to his lips, as if he had to force the words out, but the tone was a genuine question. Not mocking.

Husker didn’t have to hesitate. “Yeah, he is. Has been from the start, too. Kinda green still, relies on Shiv a lot to show him the way, but he cares a hell of a lot.”

Skywalker didn’t say anything right away, just nodded, leaning his head backwards and heaving out a shuddery breath. “Alpha said the same thing,” he finally replied, voice coarse. “Take care of yourself anyway, Husk. You-- your squad won’t have any trouble out of me.”

“Thank you, sir,” Husker said; he didn’t think General Skywalker was going to forget his grudge, but as long as he set his aim where in belonged -- on the enemy -- then that was the important part. “I gotta go, we’re gonna disembark shortly. But you take care of yourself, too, yeah?”

“I’m working on it.” Skywalker gave a bitter, tired smirk. “My new publicity hasn’t been doing me any favors, but we’ll get it sorted out eventually. Safe flying and happy hunting.”

“Same to you,” Husker said, reaching over and giving his former general’s forearm -- the flesh and blood one -- a squeeze before he got up and left.

Now, there was only forward.

 

 

 

The engines were warming up when Obi-Wan snuck aboard the Nest; Maul was up again, finally, holding onto a cup of caf and reading from one of the datapads, probably catching up on the latest mission specs, and Obi-Wan stood for a moment just to watch, as the Blackbirds bustled around.

When Maul spotted him and got up, they ducked into the back cargo hold they had been sleeping in earlier; in the dim lights, with the dying sound of the rain and the hum and whine of the courier’s engines coming online for flight, Obi-Wan felt equal parts longing and anticipation, almost like hope.

“I will miss you,” Obi-Wan said, reaching up and taking Maul’s face in both hands; the day of rest had done his darling some fair amount of good. He looked better, and he felt better through the Force, too; ready, and warm, and almost even content. “I’ll see you at the assessment; be safe, darling.”

“I will be.” Maul reached up and held onto his forearms, not pushing him away but holding on, and leaned his face more into one of Obi-Wan’s hands. “Try to sleep when you can. And stay safe yourself.”

“Take-off in ten, any last minute gasps of outside air better be over and done in three!” Shiv called, from the corridor on the other side of the bulkhead.

“Guess that’s my cue,” Obi-Wan said, smiling and leaning in to steal a lingering kiss. “I love you, and I’ll see you soon,” he finished, letting go reluctantly and stepping back.

“I love you too,” Maul answered, and this time without hesitation, before seeing Obi-Wan out and off the loading ramp and then turning back to his squad inside as the ramp raised behind him.

Obi-Wan watched through the rain until the Nest’s running lights were long gone, then went back to his own command.

Just like Husker, he knew now there was only forward.

 

Chapter Text

Dear Flanker,

Mag is dead.

My whole former platoon is dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don't know what to say. I meant to come back to the Nest and tell you how the GalTech mission went, but then our L-T got the message from Kenobi; the 212th and the 501st had been sent to Orto Plutonia after Radnor because our outpost there had gone dark. They arrived and everyone was dead. Kenobi knew I'd originally been slated to go there, so he sent a message to Maul, so Maul could tell me personally, I guess maybe that was a good thing? I think?

Everyone. All of them. The whole platoon. The guys I stayed with when you were transferred. I was gonna be there, Flanker. I was gonna be there, if I hadn't been pulled for the Blackbirds. I was gonna be there with them.  I was with them when I found out about you, I was with them when I found out I was alone, they tried to help even when I didn't want it

 

 


What do I do?

We were doing good. The Blackbirds.  GalTech was painless. We worked like this wasn't our first real, independent black ops mission, like we'd done this a thousand times. We did really well, we all did, we did good, why

 

 

I'm okay. I'm okay.

I mean, this is what happens, right? We're soldiers. Dying is part of that. It wasn't even droids, Flanker, it wasn't even in any kind of a real fight, it was a kriffing territory dispute with the indigenous sentients that supposedly didn't exist when Glid Station was put there. The Seppies had put down their own base and attacked the indigenous population and our people were apparently just collateral. Just collateral, they didn't even do anything except test gear and try not to freeze and they were slaughtered.

I don't know details.  Except, they all died.  They all died.

I don't

 

 

 

We did good on Shiffrin, we took that foundry down, we got everything and sent it along to the 332nd's cyber-intelligence unit, we blew the entire thing sky high and we didn't kill any civilians when we did it. I took Raze, Castle, Husker and Rancor; Maul took the others, Brody and Smarty stayed with the Nest to handle coordination and intelligence transfer. We set the charges for the power generation station and the foundations, while Maul and the others broke into the offices. No one got caught. First time the droids knew we were there was when everything blew up. We made sure to be there during the night cycle when the civvie contractors weren't, just so we wouldn't hurt them.  I was really proud of us, Flanker.  We went in and got out clean.  Mission accomplished.  Everything fit and worked, no one got hurt, I was so proud

 

 

Mag was the one who told me you were dead. I knew those guys. I was one of those guys.

 

 


How am I still here?

 

Chapter Text

"The thing was," Tango said, "is that Etah wasn't looking to be saved. Or redeemed, or forgiven. There was no thought in his mind of somehow earning redemption for his crimes; when he went to ground, he did so only because he felt he had nowhere else he could go. Isolated from his own kind, left to the dark thoughts in his mind, he didn't have the luxury of self-deception any more. And, really, he didn't want to deceive himself anymore, either.

"Instead, he lived in that between state. It wasn't really living, so much as existing. He had avoided the punishment of his elders, those few left, but that did nothing to save him from the punishment he levied on himself.

"In all of that, there can't be any doubt that it was Adao who saved his life."

 

 

 

Work on the courier was well underway.

The wrecked medical frigate, being towed for salvage, had already been stripped of several things. Whole computer banks had been taken, as well as nav consoles and other highly valuable items; a number of her medical supplies were also gone, but enough of the equipment itself remained to make use of it. She was an undeniable boon, not only for the sake of installing a medical bay for Tally aboard the Nest, but also for the entire squad. Maul made a mental note to thank Croft when he next saw the Jedi; he hadn't really gotten the chance to do so on Radnor.

Now, he followed the others as they hauled salvage back to the Nest; thankfully, for all parties, the frigate's hangar deck was intact and she had enough charge in her generators to maintain her life support and forcefields, though the air was a little thin and certainly cold. Aboard the Nest, a few of the other Blackbirds were moving things around and prepping areas that were going to require actual construction work; when Maul had left, Shiv had been there doing that, and Tango was telling a story to him and Smarty, and on popular demand, recording it for the rest of the squad as well so that they could listen to it later.

"So wait, you want us to store our food in the same refrigeration unit that probably has housed who knows how many bodily fluids from who knows how many people?" Brody asked, as he jumped in to help Castle painstakingly haul the large refrigerator back to the Nest, having caught them on the way back for another load. The grav sled could barely handle the weight of said refrigerator, so a good deal of muscle was also involved with the transfer; Castle gave Brody a grateful look when the slicer started helping.

Behind them, Tally was carrying a box of medical instruments that had been left behind because they needed serviced or repaired. He was still debating on the FX-3 droid who had been abandoned deactivated; Maul had left it up to the medic whether he wanted said droid. Now, Tally said, "I'm sure it's been sterilized, but if it'll make you feel better, I'll do it again."

"As long as you don't plan on sticking any body parts or anything in it. That'd be a hell of a way to ruin a midnight snack."

"Balance being what it is," Castle grunted, throwing his weight into pulling the unit along as Brody pushed, "he'll have a smaller unit in the medbay for anything gory."

"Thank everything for that. Last thing I want is to grab myself some three eyeball salad with a side of brain fillets or something."

Tally eyed Brody's back at that, looking irritated. "What the hell would I be doing with any of those things?"

"You got me," Brody answered, somehow managing to shrug despite the physical effort. "I wouldn't put a little mad science past you."

The bantering was normal, but there was a pall over it, as there was over everything else. A sense of weight and uneasiness. Still, it was no mystery why.

Maul had never had to inform anyone of a death before, let alone inform someone of forty of them. He knew it wasn't standard procedure for notifications like that to go out, and that Obi-Wan had chosen to send him word of what had happened to the platoon that had been on Orto Plutonia -- Shiv's former platoon -- because Obi-Wan had cared enough to make sure Shiv heard it from someone he was closer to, instead of via briefs or mission updates.

Maul didn't know if he had done it right. No one had taught him how. Ultimately, he had just come out with it straight; his tone was gentle, but it was even and matter-of-fact.

Shiv had only blinked at him. Physically, he gave no real outward reaction; after a few long beats, he had just said, "Thanks for telling me," and then turned back to stowing his gear from their mission.

Outwardly, he gave no sign. But Maul could feel the blow hit; could feel the shock and then the stunned numbness, and his fingers had itched with the desire to do something. He didn't know what. With a physical wound, he would apply pressure to the bleeding; with a bone he would splint the broken part, but what could he do here? He didn't know the right words, didn't know how to help, and it ate at him.

(Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he could find a kernel of irritation for the fact that his Force sensitivity wanted to work now, instead of when he needed a physical boost; now, when he could feel the pain bleeding off of his sergeant. The anger and the hurt and the raw guilt and grief. Just like he could feel the concern radiating off of the rest of the Blackbirds, even though they kept bantering and moving forward.)

Shiv had thrown himself into work, just as everyone else had. No one avoided him, but he took steps to avoid the others. Maul had tried to ask Tally what they could do, but even Tally didn't know; his only suggestion was to respect Shiv's silence on the matter and to be available if the sergeant wanted to break it. Even Raze seemed to be taking that advice.

Now, preoccupied by it all, Maul dragged the grav-sled full of bunk mattresses back towards the hangar deck and kept trying to figure out how to fix things.

Maybe someone else would have some ideas, someone not raised from birth -- or decanting -- to fight.

 

 

 

"Etah may have gone to ground, but it was really only a matter of time before his superiors caught up to him. He must have known that, somewhere, but even a Diathim's heart could be blinded by narrow-mindedness; even he, immortal and war-scarred as he was, could convince himself that he could hide in the clay and walk the ground, the realm between the red hot below and the icy blue above, and find some answer to it all.

"And he thought, even if he couldn't find an answer, perhaps he could find courage enough to end it. To remove himself from the whole equation.

"Adao, though-- Adao kept coming back. Once he had overcome his anger, he realized just how lost Etah actually was. How terribly broken he was. It was hard to want revenge on someone who was already living in misery; hard to want to add to the suffering. What would be the point? he wondered. He could find no answer beyond self-satisfaction, and so, he held his tongue and held it, and the longer he did, the less his own desire for retribution seemed to matter. He found himself listening to the Diathim talk; found himself offering reasons for Etah to keep moving, to keep being.

"'There's still work to be done,' Adao pushed, trying to draw his opposite out. 'You told me you admired what I did, you believed in our cause. You can't just abandon it now.'

"But Etah wasn't having any of it. 'Everything I've touched, I've destroyed. My family. My people. Our alliance. I'm tired, Adao; the only end I can see now is oblivion. And I would be, I think, grateful for it. I just don't yet have the courage to see it through myself.'

"Adao was shocked, at hearing that. That his former enemy, turned ally, turned-- he wasn't even sure, could see no other option but a permanent ending. Maelbi revered survival, among their own kind. He had never known one to consider taking their own life, and those words shook him to his fiery core.

"It was a moment that could have gone several ways. He could have blasted the Diathim for his fatalism. For giving up. He could have retreated there, and let things happen as they would. He could have gotten angry -- and some part of him did -- at the thought.

"But it was two words which stalled his anger showing; that kept him on the ground, instead of retreating beneath it, to the fire and motio