Ahsoka woke to the sound of bubbling and popping coming from the kitchen. With a groan she stretched as far as the cramped couch she'd spent the night on allowed, then hauled herself upright.
"Rex?" she croaked.
The man in question popped his head out of the kitchen, looking far too awake this early in the morning. He was wearing a loose white woven shirt with an open neck and those scratchy tailored trousers only elderly men ever seemed to wear. Ahsoka let out a bittersweet chuckle at the sight. Rex really was getting old.
"Oh you're up. Want some breakfast?" Rex said.
"Sure," Ahsoka said, bringing her hand to her forehead and squeezing the sleep from her eyes.
"Will Din be joining us?"
Ahsoka shrugged. "I don't know. He'll come in when he's ready I guess."
Rex's small home only had one couch, so Din had elected to sleep on the Razor Crest along with the child. There was space on the ship for Ahsoka, too, but the couch was reasonably comfortable and Ahsoka had wanted to stay closer to Rex.
Rex returned to the living room with a bowl of savory soup and some crispy wafers. Ahsoka accepted the soup and sniffed it appreciatively.
"This is so much better than what they served in the mess on the Venator," she said.
"Well I've lived on my own for a while now. Had to learn to make my own food some time," Rex said.
Ahsoka swallowed down several hearty spoonfuls of the broth, enjoying the meaty flavor on her tongue. Rex shoved her blankets to the side and sat down next to her on the couch—he must have already eaten.
"The food is reason enough to want to stay with you forever, Rex," Ahsoka said, closing her eyes both to savor the soup more fully and to avoid seeing Rex's reaction to her half-joke.
He laughed but didn't say anything, revealing nothing of his final decision regarding Ahsoka's confession the night before. That was fine. Ahsoka knew he needed time, and she was willing to give it to him. That didn't change the fact that she hated waiting.
Rex's front door creaked open and Din walked into the room carrying the child in one arm, the floating pram tailing in after him.
"Morning," he said with a scratchy voice that could only be accompanied by bleary eyes.
Rex and Ahsoka parroted the greeting back at him, then Ahsoka closed her eyes and concentrated, reaching out towards the child.
Good morning, she sent him across their connection.
The child's response was wordless, but he sent happy feelings of new beginnings and food and being refreshed and ready for a new day. Ahsoka smiled.
She opened her eyes and Din was setting the child in the pram while Rex looked on, a slight furrow to his aged brow belying his otherwise relaxed demeanor. Rex never showed even the slightest hint of nerves in the face of battle, but apparently the prospect of possibly living an extra few decades made him apprehensive.
"Hungry?" Rex asked.
"Already ate," Din said, tucking the child into the pram with a warm blanket and turning back to Rex and Ahsoka. "So what's the plan?"
"We might as well jump right in," Ahsoka said.
Rex nodded, fidgeting in his seat on the couch. "What do you need me to do?"
"Nothing," Ahsoka said, moving over to sit on the floor by the child. She fiddled with the console on the side of the pram, and it floated lower to the ground so she could see the child's face. "Just sit there, and I'll see if I can communicate what we need to the child."
Din remained standing and crossed his arms across his chest, his head tilted slightly to the side. He seemed slightly annoyed, probably because while he had nothing to contribute to the day's activities, he wouldn't be letting the kid out of his sight.
Ahsoka tried to put the two anxious men out of her mind and focus solely on the small child beside her. She reached for his tiny clawed hand, and his three fingers wrapped around one of hers in a tight grip. She closed her eyes and reached out to him. Despite his young age, he was practically aglow with the Force, his natural aptitude and powerful presence already unmistakable.
The child's thoughts were indistinct, but he seemed happy to connect with her, his presence burbling with welcome and excitement. Ahsoka returned his pleasant attitude, sharing her appreciation for him and her gratitude that they could spend this time communing together. She let them marinate in these warm feelings for a while, wanting to ease into making any demands of the child. After a sufficient period of time, Ahsoka let feelings of sorrow and concern seep through their connection.
The child's reaction was immediate and strong. He shared in her worry, curiosity joining in with his sympathy as he wondered what the cause of her unhappiness was. Ahsoka couldn't help but smile at how quick the child was to empathy and generosity. With a little guidance he would surely be a powerful source of Light in the galaxy. In answer to his question, Ahsoka sent an image of Rex across their connection.
The child recognized Rex, but he didn't understand why Rex would make Ahsoka sad. Ahsoka took a deep breath and considered how best to share this next part. This would be the most difficult concept to communicate, she was sure. Concentrating as hard as she could, Ahsoka went through Rex's life in her mind—his birth in the glass growth jars, his training among his identical brothers, his service in the GAR fighting and watching his brothers die for the Republic, Order 66 and his life on the run, and finally his continuing service to the Rebellion even as his health declined.
Young though the child was, he seemed to grasp that Rex's life had been a difficult one, and Ahsoka felt his commiseration through their connection. But that wasn't what she needed the child to understand. She needed the child to see not that Rex's life had been difficult, but that it had been accelerated and was being cut short. Ahsoka started to go through Rex's life in her mind again, but faster this time. She did this several times, moving faster and faster and faster, then paused.
This isn't how it should be, she thought. He should have more time.
The child's confusion suffused their connection, and Ahsoka knew he didn't understand. She took a deep breath, and went through Rex's life again, rushing through it and emphasizing his old age. When she got to the present, she showed him passing away here in this tiny home on this artificial island. This is how things are. Then she went through his life again, but slower this time. She erased the lines on his face, carefully showing him how he would have been at each time if he'd aged like most humans. She got to the present, showing him in this little house by himself, but looking like a normal forty-year-old instead of an old man. Then she continued onward, showing an imaginary, hoped-for future with many decades of well-earned peace and contentment to come. This is how things should be.
The connection between Ahsoka and the child went still. He was thinking, she could tell, trying his best to understand what she was saying. Her thoughts were urgent, and he could sense how important this was to her, but he wasn't fully connecting the dots. Ahsoka waited, knowing that it could take some time for the child to understand.
Ahsoka opened her eyes. Rex was still sitting on the couch, tension in his hunched shoulders and expression carefully blank. Din lurked in the corner, leaning against the wall with a forced casual posture.
"Rex, can you come over here?" Ahsoka asked.
Rex got up and walked over to the pram. "Here? What do I do?"
The child opened its huge black eyes and stretched his tiny hand out towards Rex.
"Take his hand," Ahsoka said.
"Eheh, alright…" Rex said, obediently taking the child's green hand in his gnarled one.
Ahsoka closed her eyes again and reached out for the child. Through the child she got a distant sense for Rex and his thoughts. She didn't want to pry into the privacy of his mind, but the impressions the child was getting from the old soldier were relevant to the success of their mission.
"Rex, you need to show the child what you want," Ahsoka said.
"What?" Rex asked.
"Think about how things are, then think about how you would like them to be."
Rex paused for an uncomfortably long time. "...Ok."
Ahsoka opened her eyes and looked up at Rex, uncertainty and anxiety clear on his face.
"Do you… do you want to be healed? Actually want it, for yourself?" she asked, scared of what he might say.
Rex avoided Ahsoka's gaze for a long moment, and Ahsoka's heart sank. Maybe she was pushing this too hard. If Rex didn't want this, who was she to tell him he was wrong? Perhaps he was ready to go, ready to return to the fabric of the Force, and she was being selfish, forcing him to stay past his time for her own benefit.
She let go of the child's hand and looked to the floor, letting her shoulders sink. She didn't believe the old Jedi tenet that attachments were bad, but perhaps in this case she was holding onto her friend too tightly. She needed to let go.
"Ahsoka…" Rex said, his voice gently chiding.
She looked up at him, and the uncertainty on his face had been replaced by an understated tenderness that was so very Rex it hurt.
"I want to stay," he said, conviction firm in his face. He stood taller, his certainty removing ten years from his appearance.
He knelt down by the child's pram and added a second hand to the first, holding the tiny child's green claws in both hands. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose, all tension bleeding from his weathered features. He said no more, but his lips moved in silent prayer, and Ahsoka could guess at what he was saying.
I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.
The Force worked in mysterious ways. Ahsoka didn't know if advanced aging was the kind of thing a Force user could reverse, but she knew that if the Force willed it, all manner of strange things could happen. Her own trip to the World Between Worlds was evidence enough of that. She could only hope that the Force would be with Rex today—that of all of the hundreds of thousands of brothers who shared Rex's DNA, he at least could avoid his undeserved fate.
Something changed in the atmosphere of the room, and Ahsoka knew that whether he would be healed or not, Rex's fate would be determined in the next few minutes. She couldn't bear to look and closed her eyes, trying to empty her mind and sink herself into the infinite peace of the Force. Something was happening, something strange and powerful, but she only squeezed her eyes shut tighter. She wouldn't look she wouldn't look. Many years of life and sorrow had taught Ahsoka that things didn't always go the way she wanted, and she tried her best to prepare herself for disappointment. Despite years of experience, she didn't think she'd ever be able to get past her devastation if this didn't work.
"I'll be damned..."
Din's gruff voice broke through Ahsoka's spiral, and she forced her eyes open.
"What happened?" Rex said, his voice breaking and drowsy like he'd only just woken up.
He was lying collapsed on the ground, arm over his face and blocking Ahsoka's view. Her eyes went wide as she noticed the increased bulk to his arms and tautness to his skin. Tears stung at her eyes, and he moved his arm slowly away, revealing a wide nose, serious eyes, and sharp jaw as familiar to Ahsoka as her own face.
"Ahsoka?" Rex asked as he sat up, his voice betraying tentative hope with a heavy undercurrent of fear.
Ahsoka scrambled across the floor over to her friend, pulling him into her arms. He felt solid and sturdy, no longer paper-thin and like he might float away. He returned her embrace, his strong soldier's arms holding her tighter than he ever had when she was his commander.
"Rex, it worked," Ahsoka said over his shoulder, her lek rubbing up against the freshly-smooth skin of his cheek.
"I know," Rex said.
He held her for several long moments, and Ahsoka tried not to cry. For all the battles lost and the friends gone in her life, this moment of joy eclipsed all the pain.
Rex pulled away and Ahsoka felt immediately bereft.
"Is the kid alright?" he asked.
Feeling terribly selfish for not thinking of the child sooner, Ahsoka turned around to see the Mandalorian bent over the pram to check on the unconscious child.
"His vitals are strong," Din said tightly. "I should have known this might happen. He tends to lose energy when he does something big.
Ahsoka looked back at Rex's distinguished nose, newly-thick eyebrows, and blond hair.
"Well this certainly qualifies," she said.
"Will he recover?" Rex asked.
"If it's anything like the previous times, then yeah. He'll be fine after he sleeps it off."
Rex pushed himself to his feet and immediately almost collapsed. Ahsoka jumped up to catch him.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
He nodded. "Yeah, just… really tired all of a sudden. I guess having decades' worth of aging reversed in minutes can really drain you."
Ahsoka pulled his arm over her shoulder and let him rest his full weight on her before moving towards his bedroom. "You should get some rest."
"Yeah… I think you're right…" Rex slurred.
She helped him through the door and onto his narrow bed, and by the time she pulled the blankets up to his chin, he was already dozing soundly.
Ahsoka took a minute to look down at Rex, marvelling at the years that had been erased from his body. He looked a lot like he had when they'd been on the run together after the end of the war, only a little more grey and worn. Her heart leapt into her throat.
Ahsoka returned to the living room to find Din relaxing on the couch, one hand raised up to the floating pram and holding the dozing child's hand.
"How is he?" Ahsoka asked.
"He seems fine. Won't be totally sure until he wakes up, though," Din said.
"I'm sorry. It's hard to have to wait and see."
"It should be alright. Odds are good."
"Well, it's a parent's job to worry, isn't it?" Ahsoka asked, as if she had any experience with either side of the parent-child relationship.
He seemed reluctant to say any more, so Ahsoka sat down on the couch next to him and settled in, content to occupy herself until Rex woke up.
Ahsoka closed her eyes to meditate, but her racing mind instead focused on the future. All she wanted to do was find a peaceful place (preferably not here) to spend the rest of her life with Rex. But she had an obligation to train the Force-sensitive child now, and she had no idea if Rex would want to spend the rest of his days with her either.
"So…" Din said, interrupting Ahsoka's reverie, "I thought Jedi weren't supposed to have relationships."
Ahsoka raised a brow marking in Din's direction, her lekku darkening despite herself.
"They weren't," she said, playing it cool. "But I'm not a Jedi, and the Order has pretty much been decimated anyway. I suspect the next generation of Force users will make their own rules."
"So the kid would be able to do what he wanted?"
"Even if he wanted to call himself a Jedi, he'd be free to reform the order how he saw fit," Ahsoka said. "And to be honest, the Jedi order needed reform long before it fell."
Din let go of the child's hand and turned his attention more fully to Ahsoka. "How so?"
"Well, the attachments rule, for one. I barely knew my parents because I was taken to the order at such a young age, and this was seen as a good thing—a way to avoid strong emotions."
"So none of the Jedi ever knew their parents?"
"Not well," Ahsoka said. She'd never heard of anyone being inducted into the order any older than Anakin, and he'd still been quite young. "The idea was that strong feelings for individuals could lead to anger and hate, which would lead you to misuse the Force."
Din fell silent for a long moment, his helmeted head turning back towards the child resting in the pram.
"I've seen some of the things the kid can do, if he thinks I'm being threatened," he said eventually.
Ahsoka's eyes widened in surprise. "Like what?"
Din looked away from the child and didn't answer.
"Din, if I'm supposed to be his teacher I need to know," Ahsoka said.
Din cleared his throat, then said, "My friend and I were arm wrestling. The kid misinterpreted the situation, and he started choking my friend. From a distance. With his little hand wave thing."
Ahsoka's orange skin lost some of its color. "Well…" she said, starting off slowly. "That technique is considered a Dark Side technique. But context is important, and he thought he was protecting you."
Silence filled the room, and Din's helmeted head turned away from Ahsoka.
"I don't think that necessarily means having parents is bad for Force-users," Ahsoka said carefully. "A… close friend of mine was very close to his mother and also had a secret relationship while he was in the Order. He later fell to the Dark Side, but I can't help but wonder if he'd been taught to manage his relationships and the emotions that came along with them instead of being forced to hide them… I think things would have been different."
Din didn't respond, and Ahsoka could practically see the cogs of his mind turning. She could sympathize. She didn't think the Jedi ways were all correct, but if not their rules, then whose? And who wanted to be the test subject for what it meant to be a Light Side user after the fall of the Order?
"Going to the Dark Side… That means being a bad person?" Din asked, breaking his silence.
"It means using the Force for selfish or power-hungry purposes," Ahsoka said. "The ability to use the Force puts us at an advantage over other people. Those who fall to the Dark Side can cause…" she paused, thinking of a flaming ship doomed to crash with her friends onboard, "immeasurable amounts of pain to others in their pursuit of power."
"Well if there's any chance of me causing the kid to go that way, I should avoid that at all costs, shouldn't I?"
"Even if you do everything right, there's always a chance a Force user will turn to the Dark Side. If you ask my personal opinion, the child will only benefit from having a father who cares about him as much as you do."
"...I hope so," Din said, his hesitation clear in his bearing and voice.
"Anyone who's able to do what your son did today has an empathetic and loving nature," Ahsoka said firmly. "He'll be fine. The Force brought the two of you together for a reason, and that usually only happens for the very deepest and strongest of relationships."
The Mandalorian let out a heavy sigh. "It always seems to come back to the Force. Sure would be nice if it felt like my life was directed by some rules I could actually understand."
Ahsoka smiled. "I'm sure you understand more than you realize."
He gave a noncommittal nod, then turned back to the child, taking the tiny limp hand in his. Ahsoka had spent enough time with the reticent Mandalorian to understand when a conversation was over. She decided to try meditating again and failed once again, this time falling into a deep sleep.
A frightened shout startled Ahsoka to wakefulness, and she jumped up off the couch.
"I think your friend needs your help," Din said, head gesturing towards Rex's room.
Din was standing over by the pram, pulling the fussing child out of his bed and shushing him. The noise must have also disturbed the child.
"Don't worry, I've got the kid," Din said, and that was all the encouragement Ahsoka needed to run for Rex's door.
"Fives… Fives… Fives!"
Rex was thrashing to and fro in his bed, eyes open but unseeing, fingers clenched tightly in his sheets. Ahsoka ran to his side and held onto his shoulders in a firm but gentle grip, trying to keep him still.
"Rex! Wake up, you're alright now, everything's alright."
It was a lie, of course. Rex was in no immediate danger but the things he was dreaming about, memories of Fives and Tup and Jesse and his other brothers—that would never be alright. Still, Rex's eyes focused on Ahsoka's and he calmed, his heart rate slowing and his arms stilling.
"Commander?" he asked, his voice hoarse. "Where am I?"
"You're at home, on Kamino," she said gently. "What do you remember?"
Rex sat up and held a hand to his forehead, close to the scar where his chip had been removed. "You came here with that Mandalorian and… and a baby like General Yoda. And… I'm younger now."
"Yes, that's right. ...And it's Ahsoka, Rex. Not Commander."
"I remember. I was just confused for a minute."
Rex relaxed and his breathing slowed as he settled back in the bed. The wide neck of his loose shirt opened wider, and Ahsoka tried not to stare at his finely-contoured chest. Ahsoka's motivation for reversing his advanced aging had been entirely to add more years to his life, but now she was beginning to fully appreciate the added benefit of his restored body.
Ahsoka turned her gaze pointedly to Rex's face. "That's understandable. You've been through a lot."
Ahsoka sat down on the bed by Rex's side and Rex looked down at her hand, his fingers inching slowly towards hers.
"I, um… Also seem to remember you saying that you… ahem… love me," he said, eyes still downcast.
Ahsoka stretched her fingers out to his and caught them, curling them up into her palm. "Yeah, I said that."
"I'm not going to pretend that's easy for me to process," Rex said, his hand fidgeting in her grip. "You were off-limits for so long, both according to the regs and just… in my own head."
A chill settled over Ahsoka's heart, and her fingers went rigid around Rex's. He wasn't rejecting her exactly. In fact, Ahsoka felt fairly confident she could convince him to stay with her. He was used to doing what she asked, after all. But what would that mean, convincing someone that they wanted a romantic relationship? Especially someone who'd been born and raised to follow your commands?
Ahsoka swallowed thickly and blinked back tears. She couldn't let him see her cry.
"That's alright, Rex. I knew it was a long shot anyway-"
"I didn't say I don't want you," Rex said, turning his palm under her hand and interlocking their fingers together. "It won't be easy for me to process, but I want to. And… maybe you can help me."
Ahsoka's face flushed and her mouth went dry. Rex leaned forward and slowly moved his other hand to her lek, his thumb stroking carefully down its length from her ear to her shoulder. She shivered and wondered if he knew how intimate a gesture it was, how sharply aware she was of the texture of his thumb, of the heat of his hand. She suddenly felt way in over her head. This was what she'd wanted but she was already overwhelmed. Her free hand darted up to catch his, and he immediately retreated.
"No, it's… you didn't do anything wrong." Ahsoka said, reaching for his retracting hand and pulling it back towards her. She now held both his hands in hers, and she forced herself to look him in the eye.
"I've never really done anything like this," she said, feeling utterly ridiculous. She was 46 years old, a former commander, then a spy, now a master user of the Force (if not a Jedi Master), and she felt just like a teenager again. Still, all those years of experience taught her that at the very least, it was best to acknowledge one's own gaps in understanding. "I'm a little out of my depth," she said.
Rex laughed, the stricken look fading from his face. "Me too."
"Really? There was never anyone?" Ahsoka asked.
Rex shrugged, looking sheepish. "I mean, there were some… I met a woman or two at 79's."
Ahsoka's gut clenched, but she tried to force the feeling away. She had no reason to be possessive of Rex's past. He was his own man, and she'd hardly been a teenager at the time he was describing. Still, the thought of him with someone else felt wrong, no matter how much she told herself she was being illogical.
"...But it never went very far," Rex continued. "Fraternization of any kind was discouraged by the higher ups. And then after the war I was always on the run and aging rapidly. I didn't want anyone to get caught up in that."
"Well, at least one of those problems is solved now," Ahsoka said.
Rex chuckled then pulled one of his hands away from her, holding it up wonderingly in front of his face. "I still can't believe it."
Ahsoka shifted on the bed so she was facing him more fully, one leg folded in front of her and the other hanging off the side. "Well you'd better believe it, because you're stuck aging like a regular human for the rest of your life."
He smiled again, a soft, indulgent smile. "Thank you," he said, taking her hand again. "I never would have done this if you hadn't bullied me into it."
"Bullied? I was merely presenting the… the..."
He silenced her faux outrage by pulling her towards him, slow but inexorable as a tractor beam. As she drew nearer he closed his eyes, but Ahsoka didn't, wanting to witness for herself that this was really happening. Thirty years after she'd first started to feel more for her captain than she knew was appropriate, she would finally know what he felt like.
For all his talk of inexperience, Rex kissed her with the decisiveness of a soldier. He pressed his lips to hers, and the sensation was both more thrilling and more mundane than Ahsoka had anticipated. At the end of the day it was just skin on skin, but it was Rex's skin, and he wanted to touch her. At least, she hoped he did. In the back of Ahsoka's mind the worry that Rex's training and programming might be behind this niggled at her, but then Rex's hand slotted into the space between her cheek and her lek and pulled her closer and all conscious thought ceased.
Ahsoka leaned further into him and her hand rested on his chest, her fingers sinking into the muscle beneath. The wiry, aged body he'd woken with that morning had been transformed back to his middle-aged strength, and Ahsoka was fascinated to finally feel a figure that had been so familiar to her by sight.
Rex inhaled sharply and his other hand wrapped around her waist. His mouth moved more fluidly against hers, and Ahsoka's heart leapt in her chest in a way it hadn't in years. She'd spent decades too far away from him and now she couldn't get close enough. She lifted herself onto one knee on the bed and shifted closer, her knee moving to rest between his. He made a soft noise and shifted closer to her, his open-mouthed kisses warm and soft against Ahsoka's mouth. His tongue brushed hers and she lost her precarious balance and started to fall, and he tried to steady her with a hand on her thigh. Ahsoka's instant, bodily reaction to his bold touch only unbalanced her more, and she sat backwards on his legs. They fell apart in an awkward heap, and Ahsoka caught his eye, their faces both flushed and wide-eyed.
"Ah, my bed is a little small, sorry," Rex said.
"That's fine," Ahsoka said, holding his molten-gold gaze for as long as she could stand before looking down at her lap.
"Well, ahem. I think I managed to do some processing…" Rex said after an awkward pause.
Ahsoka looked back up at him, struggling to maintain her normal aura of confidence. "And?"
"Does your offer still stand? To stay with me for the rest of our lives?"
"Well then that's what I'd like. Wherever you go, I go."
"Are you sure?" Ahsoka asked.
Rex's eyes narrowed, and he studied her for a long moment.
"I know you're worried," he said eventually. "Worried that because I called you Commander for so long, this isn't really my choice. I understand your concern but eventually you're going to have to trust what I say I want and why."
Ahsoka looked up at him through her lashes, shrugging and feeling chagrined. "I do trust you. It's just you're such a good soldier. Almost too good..."
"Don't worry, I didn't respect you nearly as much as it seemed. I just had to make sure you always felt like you were in charge," Rex said, completely deadpan.
Ahsoka punched him in the arm, and he laughed as he shook his arm out.
"Did I hurt you?" Ahsoka asked, suddenly worried.
"No, just still feeling a little sore."
Rex nodded. "Yeah, whatever that kid did really took it out of me."
"You should get some rest," Ahsoka said, getting up to leave.
Rex caught her arm. "I said I'd stick with you. Stay."
Ahsoka's eyebrow markings climbed nearly into her headdress.
"Not like that," Rex huffed. "Just… stay."
Rex scooted over on the narrow bed and Ahsoka filled the space he left behind, resting her head on his arm. She placed a tentative hand on his torso, loving the feeling of his dense weight next to her. Her concerns about his agency and the truth of his feelings faded away. This was Rex. He'd managed to avoid Order 66 and fought hard to be able to make his own decisions. She could trust that.
She closed her eyes and felt at peace, suddenly filled with absolute certainty that this was as the Force willed it. She shifted closer to Rex, her arms pulling tighter around him.
"I love you," Rex murmured into her montrals.