Chapter 2: Bringing Up Baby
"Hey Reese, you and Watt get down to 79s," Captain Taiko said, poking his head into the miniscule office Reese shared with several other patrol troopers in an obscure corner of the RCMO. "It's Flex again."
Reese leaned back in his chair and groaned. He'd never finish his reports at this rate. "How does he keep getting in? He's been banned so many times."
"Who's Flex?" Watt asked as he gathered up his things.
"A marine with the 21st," Reese said. "He's one of our less socially aware troopers and he's… lonely."
Captain Taiko snorted. "That's one way to put it. Get down there and bring him in for disciplinary action. And you might to inform him that people are starting to talk about reconditioning."
Reese grimaced. As much of a menace as Flex was becoming, he wouldn't wish reconditioning on anyone. Of course, if Flex's behavior continued to deteriorate, what else could be done?
Reese and Watt rode to 79s, dodging through traffic as the orange glow of their speeders blended into the luminous tapestry of the Coruscant night. Reese wondered what he might say that could change Flex's behavior. Flex was obnoxious, true, but Reese couldn't help but sympathize with his brother. It was hard to be on Coruscant as a trooper sometimes—citizens enjoying their rights as free people were all around, a constant reminder of the privileges the clones were denied. Reese couldn't condone Flex's actions, but he understood the impulse behind them.
Such philosophical musings ended as Watt and Reese pulled up to 79s. Reese strode into the club and looked around. It was late in the day and the club was packed, but he knew what to look for and he located his quarry immediately. A clone in maroon armor leaned casually against the bar, his long hair loose and his posture relaxed as he drifted a little too far into a server's personal space.
"So when do you get off your shift?" Flex said, oblivious to the way the waitress recoiled at his proximity. "I can tell you're curious, and I'd be happy to satisfy that curiosity."
Flex was standing directly between the server and a tray full of drinks she clearly needed to reach.
Kriff, Reese thought as the server's pale features and grey hair sparked his memory. It was that waitress from the fight between the 41st and the 501st a few weeks ago. As if she needed any more reasons to have a poor opinion of clones.
Reese sighed and maneuvered through the crowd towards Flex, positioning himself between Flex and the waitress. Kiraz, he remembered. Watt reached the bar a few seconds after Reese and planted himself at Reese's right flank. Reese doubted he'd really need backup on this, but he appreciated the gesture.
"CT-1777," Reese said, clapping Flex on the shoulder, "I keep getting complaints about you."
Flex looked towards Reese in surprise, although this entire situation was all too predictable. "Reese? Come on, you know I didn't do anything wrong."
"You know my name, Flex, and you aren't a part of the Coruscant Guard. That's never a good sign."
"Hey, you here to collect this loser?" a maroon Twi'lek woman asked, walking up to the bar. "Yesterday it was me, and today he bugged Kiraz all afternoon."
"I'm not bugging anyone, I'm just having a conversation," Flex protested.
"You're the one who called? Quilana?" Reese asked the Twi'lek woman.
She nodded. "Yeah. I could have security throw him out, but he's already been banned and somehow keeps getting in. Was hoping you might have better luck keeping your own under control."
"That's what we strive for, ma'am. My apologies for the trouble."
"I don't want your apologies, I want him gone," Quilana said.
Reese was about to placate the angry Twi'lek when he noticed the expression of the other server. Kiraz looked on the verge of tears, her hands fidgeting nervously and her eyes darting frequently to the door behind the bar.
"Kiraz?" he asked, and her gaze jerked back to him. "Are you alright, ma'am?"
"Um, yes. I'm fine, thank you. If you could just take Flex away, he's banned from 79s."
"I'm just flirting. As far as I know, that's not against the law," Flex protested.
"CT-1777, you know standard laws for citizens don't apply to us. And businesses are allowed to refuse service, as they've done to you," Watt said.
"Usually that kind of reasoning goes for people in a position of authority. Increased power goes with increased accountability. But we have no personal rights and increased accountability. How's that right?" Flex said.
Reese rolled his eyes. "I'd find your argument significantly more compelling if you were trying to open a business or earn a wage rather than harassing uninterested women."
"Who says they're uninterested?" Flex said.
"We do!" Kiraz and Quilana said in tandem.
"Alright, alright," Flex said with his hands up.
"Look, Flex. Will you come with us willingly or am I gonna have to drag you out of here in binders?" Reese said.
Flex looked around at the two angry servers and the two clones in red surrounding him and hung his head in defeat. "I'm coming."
Reese and Watt marched him out of the building and to their speeders and helped Flex onto the back of Watt's speeder.
"Watt will book you while I try to patch things up with 79s," Reese said. "Don't want to get any other clones banned because you can't stop thinking with what's in your pants."
Flex accepted the directions with minimal grumbling, his expression resigned. This wasn't the first time Reese had brought him in, and Reese worried the lesson wasn't sticking. Reese turned to head back inside, then thought better of it and rounded back on Flex with a sigh.
"Look, Flex. I don't want to see you here again."
Flex nodded repentantly, but Reese wasn't buying it. "I'm serious. They're talking about sending you back to Kamino."
Flex's tan features paled. "They… General Mundi wouldn't do that to me…"
"Keep this up and it'll be out of General Mundi's hands. Don't come to 79s any more, and if a woman isn't enthusiastically eager to be talking to you, leave her alone."
"Where would I even meet anyone if I can't go to 79s?" Flex said.
"That's the spirit," Reese said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Watt, take him back for me, will you?"
"Sure thing, Reese."
Reese waved the two troopers off and went back inside the club, making his way back to the bar. Quilana was still there, but Kiraz was nowhere to be found. Reese interviewed Quilana, nodding in sympathy and taking the time to listen to even the complaints that had no relevance to his report, then set off in search of Kiraz. She was mysteriously absent from the floor for several minutes, though it was difficult to tell if she was gone or if he'd just missed her in the crush of officers, troopers, and civilians. Eventually Reese spotted her coming out of the door back behind the bar.
"Kiraz!" he said, dodging a pair of drunk pilots and weaving between two rowdy marines to get to her. He caught her eye, and she looked away quickly, looking for all the world like she might pretend she hadn't heard him. Karking hell, how much had he pissed her off last time?
Reese had been around civvies long enough to be able to recognize how people felt about him, and the last time he'd seen her it had been clear as day that she couldn't get away from him fast enough. She'd barely tolerated him patching up her injured hand, and now she was pretending he didn't exist.
Reese was tempted to just walk away. If talking to him was so distasteful, he could just make up her answers for the reports. He'd probably be able to guess pretty close to what she'd actually say, anyway. But he couldn't do that. Reese didn't know if it was the genetic engineering or his own, homegrown conscience, but he took his job seriously and something within him recoiled at the thought of misrepresenting one of the people he was tasked with protecting.
"Kiraz!" he said again, loud enough that she couldn't feign deafness. She jumped a little at the sound of his voice, then turned around to meet him just as she'd reached one of the emptier corners of the club behind the bar.
She looked nervous, and as Reese closed the distance between them he started to feel bad—like he was a predator who'd just cornered his helpless prey. He hooked his helmet to his belt and kept his hands at his side, putting a gentle smile on his face that he hoped might ease the tension.
"I'm sorry for shouting, it's so hard to get anyone's attention in here," he said.
"Oh it's no problem officer…?" she said, trailing off.
Reese stared blankly at her for a long moment before realizing she was asking for his name.
"Reese," he said. "...We met a few weeks ago."
"Oh," she said, looking more bewildered than embarrassed. "I'm sorry, you all have the same face."
"I have a tattoo," Reese protested, pointing to the large symbol of the Coruscant Guard that creeped up his neck.
"I see," she said. "I guess I didn't notice."
"Then what was the karking point," Reese snapped before he thought better of it, his hand flying up to touch the dark design. It had kriffing hurt to get it done, and he didn't even like tattoos.
She raised her eyebrows, the thin grey hairs nearly disappearing into her pale forehead, and her eyes widened in surprise.
"Ah, sorry," Reese said, collecting himself. If that was how it was going to be he'd just have to get used to people not recognizing him. He wasn't about to go and get a huge face tattoo over it. "Well anyway, I'm Reese, and I have a few questions for my report again. You know the drill."
"Of course," she said, folding her arms across her chest, her eyes darting towards the back door behind the bar again.
Reese narrowed his eyes at her. She was obviously hiding something, though if he had to guess he didn't think it was related to Flex. "Alright… So tell me tell me what happened."
Kiraz walked Reese through Flex's harassment, starting almost as soon as she got to the club and continuing until Reese and Watt's arrival. He'd followed her around, made inappropriate jokes, and tried to intimidate some of her male customers. He'd been persistent, annoying, and had interfered with her work, but he hadn't touched her, thank the Force. At least Flex had some sense of boundaries.
"Are we done, then?" Kiraz asked after answering a handful of Reese's followup questions. "I really need to get back to work."
Reese hesitated a moment, wanting to get to the bottom of whatever was making Kiraz so jumpy but unable to find a reason to keep her any longer. "Yeah, that's all."
"Great," she said, immediately bolting for the bar.
He watched her go, a gut sense of dissatisfaction settling in his stomach.
"Ma'am, wait a second-" he said.
She turned. "Yes?"
"If, uh… If you need anything…"
Her brow furrowed, like she was looking at a rambling vagrant from the lower levels and didn't quite know what to make of him.
"Just…" he continued. "The Coruscant Guard is here to serve the citizens of Coruscant. With whatever they need."
"...Thank you, but I-"
"Kiraz!" Quilana burst out of the back door behind the bar, her arms full of a squirming bundle. "I've tried to look the other way, but you just can't leave a kid unattended in the back."
Quilana drew nearer and a tiny pale foot stuck out of the squirming bundle of cloth. What little color Kiraz had drained from her face, leaving her skin almost translucent in the fluorescent lights. She rushed over to Quilana and pulled what Reese now understood to be a baby into her arms.
"Why'd you bring him out here," she hissed.
"What was I supposed to do?" Quilana said. "He was getting underfoot and the kitchen staff were complaining."
"What's going on here?" Reese said, stepping up to the two women.
Kiraz's head jerked in his direction. "I'm not doing anything illegal."
"I never said you were, but you seem to be in distress."
"Of course I'm in distress, you laserbrain. I have to figure out a way to watch this kid and somehow keep my job. Wouldn't you be in distress?"
"Why would you bring him to work, Kiraz?" Quilana said, hands on hips. "Especially when you work at a club."
"Do you think I had a choice?"
The tiny foot tucked itself back into the blanket, and Kiraz began reflexively rocking and swaying the baby as she faced down her angry Twi'lek coworker. Reese didn't think he'd seen a foot that small since Kamino—maybe even since he was that small himself. On Kamino the youngest cadets spent all day in giant nursery chambers, separated from their older brothers.
"I can watch him."
Four eyes turned towards Reese and Quilana and Kiraz both stared at him, dumbstruck.
"What?" Kiraz said.
"I said I'll watch him. Your shift ends in what… three hours? I have flimsiwork to do. I can watch him in the back while I fill out my reports," Reese said.
Kiraz sputtered speechless for a long moment.
Quilana shook her head. "I have six tables waiting for me. You two figure this out," she said, walking away.
Reese stood awkwardly in front of Kiraz, unsure how to read her reaction. If she wasn't going to accept his help that was fine, but it would be nice to know sooner rather than later.
"This isn't some kind of trap?" Kiraz asked, holding the child tightly to her chest. "You're not setting me up to arrest me or something?"
"You said yourself you weren't doing anything illegal. Citizen crimes are outside of my jurisdiction—is there something illegal about bringing a child to work?" he asked.
A funny look crossed Kiraz's face, and Reese got the impression that some of the intricacies of civilian law were probably going over his head. It didn't bother him too much, though. Coruscant Security Force didn't really like interacting with the GAR, and the feeling was largely mutual. Sure, it probably wasn't a good idea to bring a young child to a club, but Kiraz was obviously in a bind, and she'd tried to keep the child out of the areas where alcohol was being served. His duty was to keep the citizens of the Republic safe, and he didn't see how running to CSF to report her would accomplish that.
Kiraz studied his face with startling intensity, and he resisted the urge to fidget under her scrutiny. Her eyes narrowed, then relaxed as she nodded her head.
"Alright then. I'll accept your help.
Kiraz got maybe four to five hours of sleep a day, six on a good day. It was difficult to operate on so little sleep but she had no choice—she, her mother, and her father all worked and somebody had to watch over Emil. They'd worked it out so their job hours alternated—father worked early morning shifts at the docks, mother worked during the day at a textile factory, and Kiraz worked the late shift at 79s. Each of them spent a good chunk of their time off watching Emil and the rest sleeping, hence Kiraz's near constant state of sleep deprivation.
It would have been nice if one of them could watch over Emil full-time, but considering the price of rent and the wages at the jobs they were able to get, they all had to work every day. If they lost their housing, their housing registration would lapse and they'd have no legal status on Coruscant. It was basically the worst thing that could happen to a refugee here.
Despite the constant threat of homelessness and loss of legal status looming over them, It was still better than being on Umbara. They'd known when they'd fled their home planet that life would be hard on Coruscant, but when talk of an invasion started and drafts were invoked, they'd all agreed that leaving was their best option. Kiraz might be tired, but she wasn't afraid for her life.
So Kiraz, her mother, and her father worked day in and day out, and when they weren't working or sleeping they watched Emil. The system wasn't perfect, but it worked. That is, it worked until the day Kiraz's mother woke up with a high fever and had to go to the hospital.
Her mother's illness combined with a complicated childcare schedule that left no room for error had somehow brought her to this point: standing in a crowded club that reeked of booze, handing her baby nephew over to a clone trooper's care.
Helplessness and anxiety nearly overwhelmed Kiraz as Reese took Emil in his plastoid vambraces. Every fiber in her being resisted, screaming that she couldn't trust her brother's child to this near-stranger. She knew almost nothing about Reese, and common opinion among the civilians of the Republic held that clones didn't understand anything beyond shooting blasters and battle formations. It was irresponsible, a terrible idea, really, and Trung would never forgive her if he ever found out.
But she had no other choice.
"Uh, what do I need to do besides hold him?" Reese asked.
Emil wriggled in Reese's uncertain arms, and he popped his pale head out of the dark blanket, his wispy white hair reflecting the heavy neon lights of the club. He blinked his large, innocent eyes in confusion, and Reese looked down at him with an equally flummoxed expression. He'd be doomed without some guidance.
Kiraz grabbed Reese's arm and pulled him towards the employee only area. "Follow me. I'll get you set up."
He sounded hesitant, and Kiraz wondered if maybe he was regretting his offer. Well, it was too late for him to back out now. This might be Kiraz's only way of getting through her shift with both her nephew and her job intact, and she wasn't about to let it go.
"All you have to do is keep him alive for another three hours," she said as she towed him through the crowd. "If he cries that's alright. Just keep him breathing."
"I should be able to do that."
She led him into the back rooms, through the small kitchen where the club's limited menu was prepared and to the storage room where she'd left Emil earlier. She plucked Emil from Reese's arms and placed him gingerly in the small portable crib she'd left him in at the start of her shift. She'd checked on him as often as she could throughout her shift, but everyone had noticed her frequent trips to the back rooms and her absence on the club floor. It was a miracle she'd gotten this far into her shift without getting chewed out, and she'd still felt on pins and needles every second she spent away from her combined with Flex's stalking had made this the most stressful shift of Kiraz's life.
"This is Emil," she told Reese, giving her nephew a gentle kiss on his fuzzy head. "He's one year old. If he cries, he's either hungry, tired, bored, or has a dirty diaper. There are diapers and milk in there," she pointed to a bag propped up next to the crib. "Feeding is pretty intuitive, and if he's bored just play with him. Diapers…you should probably just leave to me."
"Play with him?" Reese asked, scratching the back of his head. It occurred to Kiraz that the only babies Reese had ever interacted with before were likely clones. She didn't know exactly what a baby clone's life might look like, but it was probably pretty different from what she was used to.
"Yeah, just… Make funny faces at him, swing him up and down, sing to him—that kind of thing."
"Alright… Alright," Reese said, hesitant at first and then with the conviction of a soldier.
The clone trooper looked down at Emil, who was happily amusing himself by rolling around in his crib, then sat down on the ground next to him. He unclipped his helmet from his belt and set it on an unopened crate of Corellian whiskey, then pulled out a mini datapad and leaned back into the cold metal wall to work. There was no way he was comfortable with the rigid plastoid armor bits digging into his back and legs, but he seemed content as he started flipping through whatever flimsiwork was required of a Coruscant guardsman.
"I'll… I'll check on you when I can, but I might not be able to come back for a while. I'm probably already in deep trouble as it is," Kiraz said.
"That's fine. I think I can manage to keep him alive for three hours," Reese said.
"Ok then, I'll leave you to it."
With one last worried glance at Emil, Kiraz fled the room, leaving the door to the kitchen open behind her. On her way back to the club she passed by Wanchai, a chef in the kitchen she'd befriended a few weeks back, and asked him to check in on Reese and Emil every once in a while for her. This might be her only option, but she was still going to do as much as she could to ensure Emil's safety.
Back on the club floor Kiraz was immediately pulled in six different directions. The club was packed and the wait staff had obviously suffered in her absence. Quilana shot her a dirty look, and Kiraz threw herself into taking orders and delivering drinks, trying her best to win back her colleagues' good graces. She was reasonably confident Quilana would forgive her. Quilana's temper ran hot, but she was understanding and she liked Kiraz.
Kiraz worked in a furious daze, taking order after order and serving drink after drink, all while anxiety over her nephew pressed down on her as oppressive as the pollution of Coruscant's lower atmosphere. She tried not to watch the clock, but inevitably gave in to temptation every five minutes. The upside of her trance was that she didn't miss a single order, didn't drop a single glass. It was probably her most productive hours at work ever.
Some time near the end of Kiraz's shift, her concentration was broken when a bickering couple nearly knocked her off her feet as the woman stormed off the dance floor and her clone paramour followed her.
"You can't put me in this position," said the woman, a human with caf-colored skin and long dark hair.
"But I want to be with you," the clone said, taking off his officer's cap and clutching it tightly in two hands.
Kiraz wondered for a moment if she should intervene on the woman's behalf, but this looked more like a lover's quarrel than harassment. Cases like Flex were actually pretty rare. Most of the clones didn't invest much energy in picking up girlfriends (or boyfriends), and those who did were generally respectful about it. Most of the relationships Kiraz saw play out in 79s were casual—everyone knew how impossible anything longer lasting would be. But every once in a while she'd see a clone who was convinced his love would last for the long haul.
"I like you, Quick, but what good will that do either of us?" the woman said. "We should just end this now, before it gets worse."
"I can give you a good life."
The woman shook her head and scoffed. "You can't even give yourself a good life, Quick."
The poor clone looked like he was about to cry, and Kiraz was desperate to get out of their way. Every once in a while something would happen that would remind her of how depressing the clone's lives were, and she hated it. Kiraz retreated to the bar, and as she dodged and weaved she thought back to what Flex had said when Reese had first come to pick him up. But we have no personal rights and increased accountability. There really was no justice in the galaxy.
Kiraz put those thoughts out of her mind as she picked up the drinks her last table had ordered. She felt bad for the clones, she really did. But Coruscant was a tough place, and she was constantly one wrong move away from catastrophe. She didn't have the time or energy to spare on sympathy for them. Besides, they'd been engineered to be content with their lot. And anyone who'd spent any amount of time with the clones could see how much they enjoyed being soldiers, how much they loved the sting of battle, how much they reveled in their brotherhood.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Kiraz's shift didn't go on forever. Not long after her runin with the quarrelling couple Pilar came to relieve her for the morning shift (79s was an all-hours club, although the day crowd was much thinner than the night), and she retreated to the back rooms.
She glided through the kitchen, catching Wanchai's eye and asking him a question with her expression alone. Anything seem off?
Wanchai didn't stop frying sweet cakes, but smiled and shot her a quick thumbs up. Kiraz let out a sigh of relief as she continued on to the storage room. She pushed open the door and stumbled inside, almost tripping right over Reese and Emil.
"Shadowed sun, I'm sorry!" she yelped.
Reese rebalanced Emil on his knee and gave him a couple good bounces. Emil giggled happily, and Reese smiled back before looking up at Kiraz. "No harm done. Your shift is over?"
"Yes, thank you," she said, taking Emil from his arms and squeezing him in a gentle hug. "You really saved me tonight."
Reese stood and tucked his helmet under his arm. "It's no problem," he said, and his golden brown eyes glowed in the storage room's bright lights. Funny, in the neon dimness of the club she'd never noticed how beautiful they were.
Feeling suddenly self-conscious, Kiraz looked to the ground and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "I, uh… I never would have brought him here except that the person who normally watches him got sick. I didn't really have a choice."
"That's not really my business, ma'am," Reese said. "It's my duty to aid the citizens of the Republic, and if that means watching a baby for a few hours, well… that's probably one of the simpler things I could do."
"Your superiors won't be unhappy?"
"I commed them to let them know I'd be here, and I was able to do most of my flimsiwork from here. Actually got caught up on a lot of things, to be honest. You'd be amazed at how many distractions there are back at the RCMO."
"Well, um… Thank you," Kiraz said, the words feeling inadequate. "And, uh, I promise to remember your name next time."
Reese flashed her a smile that could light up the surface of Umbara, and she had to blink away its brilliance.
"Just doing my duty, ma'am," he said. He bent down to Emil's level and saluted him, a goofy expression of mock seriousness on his face, then left the storage room.
Kiraz watched him leave, and her eyes lingered on the empty doorway for a long moment. She was so, so tired, and she still couldn't quite believe her rescue had come in the form of a member of the Coruscant Guard. She'd heard once that Coruscant's name had come from the glittering shimmer of the planet's cityscape, and the description seemed to match Reese's parting smile perfectly.
"Kriff," she said, belatedly remembering to cover Emil's virgin ears. She looked down at his face, his large grey eyes blinking up at her curiously. "I think I might be in trouble."