Rex needed a few minutes to clear his head. Unfortunately, calm eluded him and he'd been pacing in circles around a small rocky clearing behind their makeshift camp. There was little privacy to be had in a camp of several thousand men, but Rex would take what he could get.

Their first attempt to take Fort Anaxes had been an unmitigated disaster. Thinking about it made his blood boil all over again. Rex yanked off his bucket so viciously it scraped his chin and threw it at a nearby tree. The spindly fauna of Anaxes was no match for Republic-grade plastoid. The tree shattered and his bucket rolled several times before landing right side up facing him.

His reflective visor stared him down, seeming to mock him, and demand how this fit of anger would help the men.

Rex had been seething since the battle had gone all kinds of wrong. He'd nearly bitten Hardcase's head off this morning when he'd asked him for some paint. The battalion was barely holding on and Hardcase was worried about repainting his armor? Rex's armor was covered with new carbon scoring from where he'd used himself as a shield while trying to herd some of the hapless shinies out of the line of fire.

They were like nerf sent to slaughter.

He blew out a long breath, sat down in the meditation pose Ahsoka had shown him and tried to settle his mind.

What was it Ahsoka said? Look around you and notice five things you can see.* I see… rocks. This planet is all damned rocks. I see… sky. A blood-red sky filled with smoke. Gah. This isn't helping…

They'd had their shebs kicked in the battle and Rex hated it.

His men (not counting the Spaartis) had been ready. Thanks to Admiral Yularen doubling their rations, his troopers had regained the weight they'd lost during their imprisonment. With constant workouts and training, they were all back to perfect muscle mass. Some were even stockier than before Darkknell and Kazharia. Rex was so proud of how far they had come.

The worst part wasn't even that Skywalker had been called away. Rex had been prepared to fight on without his General. He and Cody had done it before. Generals Skywalker and Kenobi had been called away on Jedi business on numerous occasions. The 501st and 212th still deployed and did well. This time, they had the additional backup of Cody and Ponds.

Who the fek decided the 501st needed a temporary General? It was beyond insulting. It was an insult to Rex, Appo and Yularen. And, of all the Generals, the Jedi Council had sent Pong Krell?

He was known for producing "results." But, the casualty numbers of the divisions he'd commanded were horrific.

I understand now how he produces his results and at what cost.

He'd ordered the 501st to rush the guns. It was a tactic they rarely did unless they were absolutely desperate and never in the beginning of a battle. It was tactfully stupid and suicide, plain and simple. When Rex objected, Krell had threatened to pull him from the battle. Even worse, he insisted the shinies lead the charge saying they "needed battle experience."

The shinies. They looked like Jangos and fought like crechlings. Their cramped RMSU* was so full that Kix had appropriated a number of their large sleeping tents as additional medical space. He'd doubled up the men in the other tents and he still had a large number of men sleeping outside on the ground. It wasn't ideal on a planet known to have ferocious nocturnal predators. Rex had yet to run into a Fyrnock, but he tripled the normal guard at night to ensure none of his men were dragged away in their sleep.

The situation was only slightly better up in orbit around the planet. Ahsoka and Oddball were holding their own against Trench's fleet around the planet, but it was nearly impossible to send evac ships back to the cruiser. He'd sent four LAATs full of wounded up immediately after the battle and lost two as soon as they breached the atmosphere.

Maybe it would be different in their second offensive.

It had to be.

Barring any more interference from their temporary General, maybe they could make some progress this time.

Clear your mind, Rex.

Ahsoka's calm timbre rang through his head as clearly as if she was sitting next to him in the Resolute training room. He'd benefited so much from their nightly sessions together. It wasn't just the training. It was the time they spent afterward, walking slowly through the corridors of the ship, talking about the men, and usually ending up in the mess for a late-night caf.

Deep breaths in. Hold. Slowly exhale. Repeat.

His rebellious mind quieted and thoughts of the failed battle and their baffling, substitute General faded away. He focused only on his breathing and restoring his sense of calm. After several minutes, his internal clock told him his time was up. He'd allotted himself a ten-minute break only. He needed to do inventory with Jesse, and run through the latest casualty numbers with Kix.

An attack shuttle swooped low overhead, almost touching the ground, as it aggressively skirted the Seppies' automated air defenses. The purple pinstriping and lightning-themed nose art identified it as being from the 187th.

The camp shields shimmered slightly as the LAAT passed rose up and dusted off his armor. The dusty red sand of Anaxes was very different from that of Geonosis, but just as annoying when it seeped in between the crevices of armor. Jesse met up with him when he was already halfway back to camp. "Fives and Echo are back. They say they need to talk to you."

A twinge of alarm shot up the back of Rex's neck. "Why didn't they come find me themselves?"

"They were coated in duracrete dust. I told them to quickly hit the sonic. Kix is always saying not to breathe that shab in."

Duracrete dust. That was not good. The only thing that generated that was a substantial explosion and chunks of buildings or roadways blowing up.

Rex's calm center slipped away. "Fives and Echo blew up the CyberCenter?"

Jesse shook his head. "I don't think this one was their fault."

"Rex!" Fives hurried out from the cramped area they'd set aside for the sonic. It was open to the air, as they hadn't had time to install walls. Since the camp was all clones, there was no need for the additional privacy measures Skywalker insisted they take when Ahsoka was around.

Fives was still sliding into his ab plate, chest armor, and pauldron. His armor had a glassy sheen to it, indicating it had also been hurriedly run through the sonic.

Echo rushed out behind him, clad only in his boots and blacks, holding his armor in a bundle. in his arms. The Spaaarti shiny, Feeeeeek, jogged over to help. Echo gave him a grateful nod, depositing most of the bundle in the young trooper's arms. With his arms freed up, Echo armored back up in record time.

It was then that Rex noticed the stripe of blue paint across Feeeeek's chest plate. A freshly painted stripe. And, another stripe across his biceps and his helmet.

Hardcase stood behind him, grinning, and tucking a small can of paint away in his belt pouch. Realization hit Rex all at once. Hardcase was trying to help the shinies integrate into the ranks of the 501st. He'd decided Feeeeeeek had 'earned his stripes.' He gave Hardcase a nod of approval. Hardcase gave him a cheerful salute and Rex's mood was momentarily lifted. Hardcase's warmth and energy were good for the 501st.

He had a feeling he was going to need it with whatever Fives and Echo were about to tell him.

"Report."

Once Fives started talking, it was as if his brain couldn't keep up with his mouth. "There was an incident at the CyberCenter. Commander Ponds gave an evac order, but we didn't receive it. The Seppies— they're jamming us."

Rex tapped his wristcomm. "Jesse and I are aware. I couldn't get through to Ponds or Cody."

Fives and Echo exchanged a significant glance. It made Rex very uneasy. "Define incident."

"The 181st found an entire chamber on the ground level filled with ryhdonium. Trench

"A trap," Rex growled. The 212th and 181st had been lured into a trap. The 501st had been sent into what essentially amounted to an ambush. How was this possible? They had planned this campaign so carefully.

"Commander Cody came to find us and insisted we evac." Fives' face flared with guilt. "But…. we…we made him wait while we finished what we were working on."

Echo shifted restlessly and his hand moved to something in his belt pouch.

"I hope to haran whatever it is you were working on is worth it." Rex couldn't keep the anger out of his voice. "Where is Cody now?"

Fives squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head. "He didn't make it out."

Rex stopped breathing. He stared at the two ARCs, curling his fists so tightly his gloves creaked. Once he could push air into his lungs again, all he could feel was white-hot anger. "Cody came after you. You disobeyed a direct order. Now he's gone. And, you're sorry?!"

Echo rushed to defend his brother. "Technically, his status is missing. He has not been declared dead. This is all my fault, Captain. Once we discovered the encryption key, I-"

Fives refused to let his brother take the blame for what clearly was a mission gone wrong. "I was the one who insisted Commander Cody give us extra time. We made it out but somehow he didn't. I thought he was right behind us-"

Echo shook his head. "No. He got that comm, remember? Commander Ponds asked him to go after someone. A captain– Nash– I think it was. We offered to go in the commander's place, but he ordered us out."

Cody perished saving the one trooper he couldn't stand?

"Did Captain Nash make it out?"

"Not that we know of, but Commander Ponds ordered us on a shuttle back here right after he called in search and rescue. We offered to help, but since the Wolfpack is on planet, he said he had all the help he needed."

A small glimmer of hope blossomed to life in Rex's chest. Ponds was right. If anyone could do a difficult extraction, it was Wolffe and his Pack.

"How bad?" Rex asked quietly.

"The whole structure collapsed," Fives said grimly.

Rex closed his eyes briefly, trying to absorb all of this information. He opened them again after a brief moment. "Anything else?"

"General Windu didn't make it out either," Echo added. "Commander Ponds said he ran in at the last minute to try and find some of the missing troopers-"

This was bad. Very bad. They'd lost several command staff members in a single blow.

And, Cody.

Oh, fek. Cody.

# # #

Cody paused in his tortuous crawling and frowned with confusion trying to make sense of what he was feeling. There was definitely something out there. He kept moving forward guided only by the general sense– ugh- he didn't mean it that way– by his innate instinct that Windu was basically in that direction. It was slow going picking his way around the crumpled remains of what had once been the CyberCenter.

Why had the Separatists blown up their own center? What were they trying to hide?

He pushed out a weary sigh as he encountered a jumbled mass of twisted rebar. That is going to be exceedingly difficult- and painful- to drag my injured shebs over.

But, if I could get to my feet, I could do it. (I think.) Can I get to my feet?

He stared down at his legs. One of his legs was definitely more broken than the other. Legs definitely weren't supposed to bend in that way. That particular leg had stopped hurting and just gone numb. But, the other leg didn't look too bad.

So… if I can balance my weight on my less broken leg, I can stand up.

He grabbed a loose piece of rebar about a meter high and used it to carefully push himself upright. Dizziness assaulted him, but through sheer stubbornness, he was able to stay upright and keep his balance on the one leg.

Alright, that's good. Now, I can move a little faster, (and maybe find the General sometime before this war is over.) How long have I been down here anyway?

He'd completely lost track of time. Had it been hours? Days? Longer? What was going on with the battle above ground? Was anyone trying to rescue them, or had they been given up for lost? Or, even worse, had Separatist forces retaken the planet?

The outcome is exactly the same. Either way, I become a permanent resident of this place.

I can't control what is going on up above. But, I can fulfill my duty to the General.

I'm getting closer.

He didn't know how he knew he was approaching his objective, but he was sure of it. Cody adjusted his course and carefully worked his way across an obstacle course of twisted rebar and jagged duracrete. He groaned as his less badly injured leg (the one that still had feeling) got snagged in a piece of debris. He reached down to disentangle enough and startled as he stared into the face of an SBD. On instinct, he drew his blaster. His kicking leg tried to draw back, too, to smash the droid in the chest. But, belatedly he remembered he was in no shape to be kicking droids. But, then his brain caught up and he realized the lights on the droid were out and he was snared on its' wire-laden innards. He used his vibroblade to cut himself free and moved on.

I've been walking for days.

Maybe I've been walking for years.

Maybe the Clone Wars is over already.

His mind was getting increasingly fuzzy and his vision was blurring at the edges…

Falling back on his training with Alpha-17, he briefly removed his helmet to check the seals. The integrity was still good. For the brief few seconds with his bucket off, he got a good sense of the terrible air quality. He wouldn't last long down here without supplemental oxygen. He sealed his helmet back in place and adjusted the oxygen-CO2 balance.

His head cleared as he took in more oxygen, but he also knew he was using up his precious reserves. He checked the timer on his reserve tank. The countdown had begun. Either his vode rescued him in the next 0:59 minutes, or he found a way out with the General on his own, or he'd slowly suffocate in this duracrete tomb.

Well, I suppose there are worse ways to die.

Like… a Zillo beast. No one wants to be eaten by one of those things.

Or… what were those things on the Ryloth? Gutkurrs? All teeth and fangs. The General was amazing holding a horde of them off with some mind trick until his men could get clear. Well, most of them anyway. They did lose a few to those toothy bastards.

Cody shook his head to clear it again. It didn't help much and basically made the dizziness worse. He pressed hard on his temples to try and focus.

I need to stop thinking about ways that are worse than dying buried under a building– alone– separated from the vode.

Mmmm… suffocating in space. Awful stuff. Why don't our helmets have more reserve air? We are stationed on fekkin' cruisers. Surely the imbeciles at Rothana Heavy Engineering must have realized our ships get holes in them sometimes.

Maybe that's it. That's worse. Just floating there in space- watching your air supply dwindle as you desperately hope someone is locking in on your locator beacon.

Suffocated by one of those Sith devils. Maul. Ventress and that coughing cyborg…. Grievous.

If he's a cyborg– why does he cough? I never understood that part.

Add getting crushed by Grevious' hideous claw legs to the list. Getting crushed by anything really- which brings us back around to Zillo Beast…

Cody dug around in his belt pouch for another stim. Too many would send his blood pressure through the roof, but he had to get his mind more focused.

He jammed the plunger into his thigh with more force than necessary and then howled with pain.

Not the best place to inject myself.

Not good, Cody. Not good.

Tears streamed from his eyes and he blinked hard as he tried to work through the pain. He took several deep breaths and eventually the pain settled down again.

His mind was already clearing, though.

Thank you, Republic issue stores for giving them access to an ample supply of stims. While Cody, and every other trooper were supposed to use them judiciously, the demands of the war meant they all used way too many of them. He knew half his battalion was highly addicted to stims and caf and crashed hard when deprived of either. The other half were shinies who hadn't yet had a chance to develop the addiction.

Doesn't matter much, though. Not really. I don't think the Republic cares if any of us are addicted to stims because they don't expect any of us to live very long anyway.

The building groaned above and more debris and duracrete dust came down around him.

Cody took shelter under a horribly bent rebar beam until things stopped crashing down around him.

I could use a Jedi about now.

Not just any Jedi. My Jedi. I miss Kenobi. I sure wish he'd hurry up with his Mandalorian business and get back here.

He continued to hobble along, painfully picking his way across the debris. It was easier to lose himself in his thoughts to distract himself from the agony that was his body.

He didn't want to think about ways to die anymore, so he turned to his thoughts to his General, trying to imagine what Kenobi was up to at the moment. His thoughts ranged from the benign to the very unusual, but it did keep his mind occupied. He was so lost in his thoughts, he didn't notice Windu until his foot kicked into the side of the Jedi's bald, unmoving, dust-covered head.

"General!"

Cody was elated he'd found him.

Or, at least part of him.

Oh shit.

Windu was buried in debris and Cody could only see half of him.

# # #

A/N: I finally got this chapter done. I was distracted over the past two months getting ready for Celebration. I completed five new costumes and submitted all to the 501st for approval. It was a marathon effort and I put in 12-hour days, at times, to get it all done. Celebration was great fun, and I met some very interesting people. I also contracted COVID. So, I'm currently recovering from that, but other than a fever, cough and general exhaustion, I don't feel too bad.

Story notes:

* At Celebration 2022, Ashley Eckstein did daily meditation with the younglings using the "Five Things You Can See" technique. It was adorable. I made a nod to the "five things" meditation in this chapter.

** RMSU- Republic Mobile Surgical Unit. See my Tumblr for a detailed post and artwork on RMSUs and IMSUs. I'm on Tumblr as Longlivetheclones.