The battle was all over except the cleanup. They had won, as usual, and when General Skywalker strode up to Rex his grin was bright, eyes flashing with his victory. He clapped Rex on the shoulder, nearly hard enough to stumble him in his exuberance.
"Good job, Captain,” General Skywalker enthused. "You and your men did well today. The mission was a success, and the people of Bocchi can live in peace, not under the fist of the Separatists.”
"Yes sir," Rex replied, his voice steady. “The men performed perfectly.” He continued, letting just a thread of pleasure at their success, and gratitude for his General’s recognition, into his voice.
Pleased at the acknowledgment, Anakin turned on his heel, step springy as he walked away again. Back towards his personal ship where his Padawan waited for them to take off to return to the flagship
It was deserved, Rex supposed. It had been Anakin’s risky and daring spur-of-the-moment plan that had allowed the 501st to take the droid headquarters in the capital and end the engagement decisively hours before even the most optimistic of projections.
Rex kept his eyes nowhere but his General’s back until the boarding ramp closed behind him.
Only then did Rex allow his eyes to drop to the bodies of his brothers shattered around him. Three squads on this mission. What was supposed to be a scouting mission turning into a full frontal assault with no time to call for backup.
Every single one of them had died in that risky, successful maneuver.
Rex was left standing alone.
Alone on an empty battlefield full of identical faces, dozens of distinct lives.
Once more the only survivor.
Rex swallowed thickly, dragging his eyes away from the way Firestorm’s bucket had been driven into his skull, blood marring the blue flames Rex had painted for him only three rotations ago.
At least this time they controlled the field of battle and Rex could take the time to find each of his men and ensure they got proper rights. Too often he was forced to abandon the bodies of his brothers like so much trash. So many spare parts.
Interchangeable and disposable.
Except, somehow, him.
Over and over again, he remained.
Movement on his left caught Rex’s attention and he looked up in time to see General Kenobi firmly squeeze Cody’s shoulder. The General’s head was tipped in close to Cody’s bucket, eyes solemn. They were too far away for Rex to make out the words spoken, but the Jedi’s tones were low and measured. The deadpan, morbid humor of battle was gone from Obi-Wan’s face, leaving only lines of grief and weariness in their place.
The 212th had also been involved in today's battle. While not quite as hard hit as the 501st, they too had lost men.
As Rex watched, Obi-Wan turned, Cody at his shoulder. Not to join Skywalker on his ship, which was already ascending, but back onto the battlefield to collect the bodies of their fallen men.
Rex took a deep breath. Let it out.
And went about his own grisly business.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Sweat dripped in Rex’s eyes, and some manner of local insect buzzed furiously around him, protesting his interruption of its meal. Helmet long discarded, Rex swiped at the sweat and ignored the insect.
Ignored the sun beating down on him, lower and lower on the horizon for the body of every brother he found, scattered along the path of that desperate attack.
Ignored the beginning smells of decay, sickly sweet and too familiar, of brothers returning to the molecules that had made them.
Sometimes he thought that battlefield smell — burned flesh and the ozone of blasters, and the rotting of bodies — would never leave him. It already followed him into his dreams, threading though the parade of mirrors, swirls of blue markings, and blank white helmets. Shinies and veterans, the marks of everyone he led.
But never his own.
Now that hated stench might help him, as he searched to find at least a few more pieces of Kicker. The leg he was disturbing the insects away from was just not enough to feel like he’d done the best he could, to bring his brother in for the pyre.
He only had another hour, maximum, before he would need to be on the ships returning to the Resolute to rejoin the rest of the 501st that had stayed behind for this battle.
The 212th had helped, as they collected their own dead, to gather their 501st brothers for the pyre. Rex had barely had the energy to nod his thanks before he set off again to search.
He’d found everyone else, finally. Everyone but Lieutenant Kicker. The entirety of three squads, lost to General Skywalker’s decisive charge on the droid headquarters. Every one of them had died in the offensive that broke the enemy line. Everyone but him.
Rex had dragged them together, for whatever cursory ceremony he could provide, but Kicker had been the first to fall, the furthest away from the main fight. He’d had to find him though, despite that. Had to find them all. They had all fought hard, had been the deciding factor in freeing this planet, so its inhabitants could know peace, instead of war.
The Captain, bred and raised and trained for war could only assume that peace was worth the lives of his brothers, spent so freely for it.
It had to be.
They deserved whatever peace he could provide in death, though, this once. All of his fallen brothers did, their corpses abandoned across the Outer Rim.
For once, he had the chance to actually provide that, not leave them scattered on the battlefield like discarded toys.
The Jedi said that when a person died, the person joined the Force.
He’d never had the nerve to ask any of them if the clones counted as people.
Even the Jedi, proponents of the belief that the body was unimportant, got funerals. Got taken from the battlefield, even if retrieving their supposedly insignificant flesh got more brothers killed.
Clones had nothing but the occasional pyre when time allowed it, as many bodies as they could find piled in a heap, and the Remembrances of their brothers, as many as still lived.
Some kind of local predator had found Kicker, in the hours since he fell. Torn him apart and fed on his body. Blood had smeared away through the dirt in several directions where several of them had apparently fought over his remains. One of those trails had led Rex to the partially devoured leg he held. It was mostly intact, the armor having proven too tough to chew through, but it was all he had found so far.
There might not be much more of Kicker left to find at this point, but Rex had to try. The lieutenant had fallen to a chorus of blaster-bolts through the chest as he took out a pair of camouflaged rollies that would have decimated the squad, reduced their numbers enough they may not have been able to break the enemy line. He had saved all their lives. That those lives had been lost anyway, (cut down one after another, after another, bodies falling around him in an endless flood) didn’t detract from that.
The Captain had found the scorched and gnawed chest plate a few yards to his left, so he held out hope that he might at least find Kicker’s bucket, his face, painted with the mess of vines and intricate flowers. When he found that, at least, he could return to the headquarters, to the transport landing site where he had left the rest of his squads. Waiting for the fire to consign them back to dust.
Then he could rest.
A rustle sounded in the violently yellow underbrush behind Rex, but he didn’t hear it over the pounding in his skull. Didn’t see the movement through exhaustion-blurred eyes. He did heed the battle instinct that sent him dropping to one knee just in time for the predator’s chest to collide with his back and shoulders, instead of losing his head to its gaping jaws.
The impact knocked out the little sense that was left in him after this interminable day (week, year; how long had he been awake, in the run-up to this battle? Doing everything he could think of to get as many through it alive as possible, only to fail) and sent his blaster spinning out of reach. He got himself onto his back in time for fangs to skitter across the armor of Kicker’s leg, as he used it to hold off the snapping teeth. He cursed the foggy impulse to leave his helmet behind for this last run, when he hauled the two halves of Yipp back to the pyre.
He was tired, his muscles weak from the battle and his toil since. He hadn’t eaten or drunk anything, just wanting to finish this. Put these brothers to rest, for once.
Now it might finish him.
Was this why he lived through every battle? When brothers fell in droves around him. Was he destined to die, not fighting droids, not surrounded by brothers fulfilling their purpose, but alone? Meaninglessly?
Rex snarled back at the beast above him, gathering himself for another push, for the moment he needed to drive the sharp rock at his side into the creature’s eye.
A fist-sized stone rocketed out of nowhere and smashed into the creature’s head a bare instant after a blaster bolt struck it dead between the eyes. Rex’s breath left him as the creature’s full weight slumped onto him for a second. Only a moment later the beast’s weight lifted, and Rex rolled out from under it, managing to make it to his knees before his head started swimming. General Kenobi, hand outstretched and eyes squinted in concentration, let the body drop again once Rex was clear. Cody was pressed against his side, blaster still raised. It was only long experience with both of them that let Rex see that their closeness wasn’t just coincidence, but a careful lean that was probably all that was keeping each other on their feet.
“Are you alright, Captain?” The General asked, voice light despite the haggard cast to his face. “I do hate to interrupt your fun, but we need to get back to the transports, or they’ll likely leave without us.”
Rex couldn’t quite drag up the sardonic response he should have been able to muster, in the face of Kenobi’s usual sardonic humor.
Tomorrow he would go back to being able to cope, to meeting every challenge with determination and creativity and drive.
Tomorrow he would accept that they couldn’t take the time to go back for every brother who fell.
Tomorrow, he would stand as a bulwark against the whispers that this wasn’t worth it. That him and his brothers were worth less than droids, were slaves to an uncaring Republic.
Today he was too tired.
Had lost too many.
Today he just nodded his thanks for the rescue (he was always rescued, in the end. Why him, and not his men?) and grit his teeth as he dragged himself back onto his feet. Kicker’s leg was still in his hand, the blue vines that had extended down the trooper’s legs marred by dirt and blood, and now gouged with the marks of teeth.
He was out of time.
When he met Kicker in the Force (if he met Kicker, and all the rest. What happened to clones when they died?) the other would just have to forgive him, for failing him.
Like so many others.
He didn’t see the concerned looks Obi-Wan and Cody exchanged, or the carefully coordinated way they separated and flanked him. He did feel the shoulder Cody tucked under his right arm, leaning and supporting as they turned back towards the landing site. He did feel the sudden lightness of his own step emanating from the hand General Kenobi had placed lightly on his left shoulder. The feeling was almost akin to floating in warm water, buoyed and supported by an unseen force, by the Force.
The former he could accept; Cody and he had been through too much together to ever turn the other away. Cody was his brother, was an almost-mirror. They would give everything they were for the other. That was their right, their privilege, the only thing they had to give. They stood as equals, supported and supporting.
He tried to twitch out from under the General’s hand, running up against the solid wall of Cody’s side for his effort, slung as he was practically over Cody’s shoulder. The weight returned to his limbs when Obi-Wan’s hand left him, and his legs almost buckled. He nearly dragged Cody down with him before they got their legs beneath them again. Cody’s arm snaked across his back and he grabbed the General’s hand before he could complete his automatic withdrawal, drawing it back to clasp Rex’s shoulder again.
“Cody,” General Kenobi’s voice was scolding even as that light feeling returned to Rex, though the sensation of supportive energy surrounding him was more tentative than before, more like being supported by thin air rather than the comforting embrace of water. “Not everyone is comfortable with the Force being used on them. If he doesn’t want-“
“He’s just being stubborn, sir, as usual,” Cody rumbled, voice sure. Rex *wanted* to ask his brother exactly who the intractable son of a Sith thought he was calling stubborn, but it was suddenly all he could do to continue to put one foot in front of the other.
He tried to keep aware enough to look out for more predators, at least, since most of the job of walking seemed to have been taken out of his hands.
He had to, he was the last one left.
It was hard. He was so tired, and the repetitive tapping of the “all-clear” and “my watch” signals Cody was drumming against his arm as they walked were lulling him into passivity. Cody had the watch, with the General backing him. Rex could relax and focus on getting back to the transports. Back to the pyre.
Despite the empty bodies waiting for him, the empty transport he would take back to the Resolute, he…wasn’t alone?
“Cody,” Rex managed after a long moment of stumbling forward, the ease with which he stepped over a twisting root with legs he could barely feel reminding him that General Kenobi was wasting the precious resource of his energy on Rex. Just to make his trek a little bit easier. That didn’t seem right. The Jedi were important. Obi-Wan was important. His own tone was an unconscious, scolding echo of Obi-Wan’s, for all he tried to keep it low enough for his brother’s ears only. “The General looks ready to collapse. He shouldn’t waste his energy on —”
“I’ll decide what is or is not worth my energy, Captain,” Obi-Wan broke in, voice sharp. The weightless feeling redoubled and Cody’s sharp eyes caught the hitch in his General’s step at the effort. Rex couldn’t quite contain his tiny flinch at the words, the tone, the title. He hadn’t meant to insult the man, and he didn’t feel much like a Captain at the moment.
“Rex,” Obi-Wan said, voice softening. He pulled their stumbling walk to a stop and slid himself from simply resting a hand on Rex’s shoulder, to draping Rex’s other arm across his shoulder, not even flinching when Rex’s gruesome burden, still held tight by the ankle, bumped against his arm. “You did well today, Rex. Now it’s time to let us help.”
How could he argue with that?
They resumed their stumbling walk, and Rex let the journey back to the landing site pass him by, too tired to care, securely held between his brother and the General.
The pyre of the 212th’s dead was already a smoldering ruin of ashes drifting in the wind, the remainder of their squads arrayed around the pyre prepped for the 501st, an honor guard for the dead.
Cody and Obi-Wan led him to the pile of bodies decorated with 501st blue. Bodies that had once been his brothers now empty shells. They let him place Kicker’s leg on the pile, and grope for words. Then they let him fail gracefully, Obi-Wan stepping up, his words simple; short, but heartfelt.
“The Jedi believe that there is no death. There is only the Force. Nu kyr'adyc, shi taab’echaaj’la. We honor their sacrifice today. Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum.”
“Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum.” The assembled clones answered, as one voice, then broke into an individual murmur of the names they held within their hearts.
Rex was unspeakably grateful that Cody took that moment to hand him his helmet, so he could shove it on and hide his tears, muffle his shaking voice. So many names for the Remembrance. So many who were only eternal because he still lived.
Obi-Wan’s words were like a vibroblade to the heart. So. At least one Jedi believed they too would join the Force when they died.
Surely that was worth something.
Rex didn’t have the presence of mind to protest Obi-Wan’s further use of the Force when green flames roared up around the bodies of his men. Or to object when he was herded onto the transport ships with the rest of the 212th, and back to the Negotiator. Or when Cody and General Kenobi bracketed him and led him, not to a ship to take him to the Resolute, but down a corridor and into the General’s quarters. He drank the juice they give him, and was grateful when Cody whisked the food out of sight immediately at the doubtless nauseous look on Rex’s face.
He only gathered himself to protest weakly when they began to strip him of his armor, not wanting to intrude. Not when Cody’s armor rested on a rack obviously there expressly for that purpose. When his blaster’s cleaning gear was open on the table. When the neatly made bed still showed the impression of two bodies. When a chess game was clearly in progress, two cold cups of tea showing that the players had been pulled away abruptly. Not when they moved together with such wordless grace, flawlessly navigating this obviously shared space.
“I can —” Cody shushed him gently, like he had the first time Rex climbed into his sleep tube with him after their first combat training simulation. Only four years old, shaking from leftover adrenalin, and the fear he hadn’t let show when the blasters started firing. The shaking he only let show when he was wrapped in Cody’s arms, away from the prying eyes of their trainers, of the Kaminoans who were constantly looking for flaws.
Shushed him, and pulled each piece of his armor off, to lay in a neat pile, while Obi-Wan — Rex could not think of him as General Kenobi here, in the quiet intimacy of the man’s own quarters — stepped in close, hands warm and gentle, eyes on his and full of understanding as he helped him strip down to his skin and coaxed him into the fresher, letting the rare water shower sluice the day away. He lost a few minutes to leaning against the wall, blankly watching filthy water swirl around his feet before Cody joined him. Acres of warm scarred skin were a comfort as Cody prodded him into washing, shoving a soapy cloth into his hands while he ran soapy fingers through close-cropped blond hair and over Rex’s knotted neck and shoulders, down his back. Rex leaned into the contact, reveling in the feeling of not being alone.
He managed to motivate himself enough to return the favor, to turn in Cody’s arms and run the cloth over the muscles trembling with fatigue in his brother’s back, run his fingers through slightly longer hair and know that Cody was only holding himself together by sheer willpower in order to help him. He was unspeakably grateful for it. Rex felt one long moment away from shattering.
Tomorrow, he would return the favor. Let Cody lean on him as long as he needed. Hold onto him the way he had when CC-2224, who had not yet gained a name, had lost his first brother to a live-fire exercise gone wrong.
If Cody needed it; if Rex’s place as comfort and pillar had not been replaced.
A rustle of movement caught his attention enough to make him turn his head from where it was resting on Cody’s shoulder. The attempt at washing had devolved into a full-bodied lean on both their parts, simply standing and letting the water flow around them. Obi-Wan had lain two pairs of sleep pants on the counter, and was holding a towel in open arms. There was no jealousy in his eyes, to see them together. Just a soft, genuine affection that somehow encompassed both of them.
(Tomorrow. Rex would deal with that tomorrow.)
Cody nudged him out of the shower and into Obi-Wan’s arms to be engulfed by soft fabric, while the commander dried himself and dressed. Rex let himself sink into the feeling of more-than-physical-touch without complaint this time, trying to lean into the phantom fingers that scritched over his scalp and against the real, lean, solid strength of Obi-Wan at the same time.
It was a seamless maneuver, when Cody was ready. Obi-Wan shifted Rex, disturbing the light doze he’d fallen into, leaning against the tiny patch of available skin at Obi-Wan’s neck and breathing in the smell of dried sweat and Obi-Wan’s vaguely spicy scent, so different from his brothers. Shifting Rex’s weight to rest on his brother’s broad chest before carefully withdrawing his support, Obi-Wan transferred custody of him to Cody. The Jedi leaned in for a moment, two, three, to press forehead and nose to the Mando’ade clone Commander’s own. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in with Rex pressed securely between them, before he pulled away. A soft press of fingers to Rex’s cheek in silent, momentary farewell, and he stepped away for his own shower, leaving Cody to help Rex struggle into borrowed sleep pants.
“C’n do it m’self.” Rex tried to grumble, not liking the feeling of being treated like an invalid, resenting the tremble in his hands; this act of dressing somehow different than the calm intimacy of the shower.
Cody got the draw-string tied despite Rex’s attempts to help, and straightened to drag his younger brother against him. To tap his forehead to Rex’s with a quick and gentle press, and lean against him to rest their bodies against each other, puzzle pieces perfectly matched, cheeks pressed together.
The Commander didn't tell him the truth; that Rex didn’t have the coordination for it, that Cody could see him struggling to focus his eyes, that he was listing sideways physically as well as mentally every time they let him go.
“Let me, please.” Cody requested, instead, and Rex could never refuse Cody anything.
Dried and dressed, Rex followed trustingly when Cody guided him from the fresher into the drier air of the main room of the cabin. Obi-Wan followed only a few moments behind them, hair and skin damp from his own rapid shower, and was on hand to help soothe and guide Rex down into his bed, tuck him securely between them, bracketed on each side by warmth and lean strength, the dim light of the cabin encasing them in a world that felt safe. It felt like nothing could reach him here, defended on both side.
Rex should protest. He should return to his ship. The rest of the 501st was probably worried. Torrent had been upset already about not being on this mission.
He was so unspeakably grateful they were not.
He didn't want to protest. He didn't want to think anymore.
He was aware of what they were doing for him. With Cody it was a given, both ways, but Obi-Wan had no reason to drag a weary clone into his bed.
“I accept the debt,” he got out past the heaviness trying to overtake him. It came out in Basic, though the idea was Mando’a. For all the clones wholeheartedly embraced the Mando’ade culture of their heritage and training, they were taught Basic first, and Rex sometimes lost the Mando’a when over-tired.
Obi-Wan reared back like he was struck, face twisting with something Rex couldn’t identify just then. “It’s not a—” he started, indignantly, but Cody reached across Rex to rest his hand gently against Obi-Wan’s arm, stopping him from saying it was nothing, or rejecting the debt owed. The move buried Rex further in their embrace, encased him further in their warmth and presence, and yet Rex could feel himself on the verge of trembling, and internally snarled at himself to suck it up. But if the General dismissed what this meant to Rex, dismissed the most sincere thanks he could manage, somehow missed seeing just how much it meant to him, missed *seeing* him, he felt like he might shatter in truth. Obi-Wan looked at Cody, then back at Rex, and whatever he saw in Rex’s face in the dim light of the cabin made the lines around his mouth go tight, made his eyes go fierce and intent.
“You’re worth it, Rex,” Obi-Wan told him, voice low and conviction unshakable, body a bracing pillar against him.
“They were worth it too,” Rex rasped.
“Yes,” Obi-Wan agreed, not trying to offer platitudes, or excuses. Just a grief to shake mountains to dust.
“They’re all gone.” Rex’s voice was a hoarse, cracked whisper, ripped out of him before he could control it. “Again.”
“We know, vod,” Cody rumbled from his other side, hand a comforting, heavy weight on Rex’s neck, tucking his head in under his chin. “We know.”
They don’t tell him they are glad he lives.
They don’t tell him that they had been doing their duty.
They just hold him, bodies entwined, and wait for morning to come.