Actions

Work Header

Blackbirds: Year One

Chapter Text

"Another one?" Yularen asked, sounding both weary and exasperated.

"Yes, sir," Rex answered, standing at attention and wincing internally, as he brought the report of yet another instance of graffiti. All instances were to be reported, after all, especially since the Chancellor's cabinet ordered any mention of the events in the medbay to be censored in troops' letters.  He didn't know why they were compiling numbers, but he did know nothing good could come of it.

Rex's opinions on it were ultimately mixed,  though. He believed in duty and protocol; believed, too, that they -- the clones -- were made for the Jedi and Republic and that therefore, they had a responsibility to both.

On the other hand, he did get, however reluctantly, why things were spreading in defiant whispers and a rebellion drawn in marker or paint.

How many did they lose on Malastare alone? How many more died because the Zillo beast was brought back to Coruscant, instead of some less populated world? And that was just one battle and one tormented wild animal.

Their casualties were so high. Sometimes a platoon would transfer into the 501st and be dead before they'd even had a chance to paint their armor.

In that sense, Rex could understand the frustration.

"The signals we're sending to the men should be more uniform," Yularen said. The man was too well-disciplined to directly speak out against General Skywalker, especially to his second-in-command, but Rex could all but read his mind.  Skywalker hadn't made anything cleaner when he took the side of a second lieutenant over his own CMO. Nor when he implied that the prior protocol for bodies wasn't adequate.

Rex just made a noncommittal noise of commiseration and acknowledgment.  He didn't make it a habit of questioning orders, nor did he make it a habit of grousing about them.  It wasn't how he would have handled it, but he wasn't the general.  And it didn't help that he had heard rumor that Kenobi had actually let them paint a whole karking mural on the Negotiator.

Though, Rex did have to wonder if that might lower the temperature elsewhere, too, letting the men have some space to try to express what they were feeling about it all.

Still, the latest piece of unauthorized artwork had given him a hell of a chill. Most of it was written word, the same four words, but sometimes, someone drew a silhouette of a rabbit instead, usually running or leaping. And someone had drawn another one this morning, only about the size of a man's hand in black marker.

But instead of running or leaping, this rabbit was sitting facing straight on with its cut out eyes and long, somewhat pointed ears directed at the viewer. Even Rex had no trouble discerning the message it was meant to convey:

You might be watching us, but we're watching you, too.

He'd ordered it scrubbed off the wall, but that didn't scrub it from his mind.

He hoped Ahsoka was having an easier time of it, down in the troop barracks with her new fire team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Neesh, Ahsoka wrote, and then sat with the datapad’s cursor blinking at her, wondering how to even convey everything that had happened since the last time they’d written to one another.

She and her Clawmouse agemates weren’t desperately close, but they had gotten into plenty of mischief growing up together.  Enough that Ahsoka trusted Neesh and a few of the others to understand why she’d chosen her own demotion, anyway, and to sympathize with it.

Though, choosing to be demoted to enlisted was a little more serious than smuggling sweets back into the creche.  Cakes for Neesh, hard candy for Ahsoka.  The candy was a lot easier to get away with, and it wasn’t long before they ditched the cake and instead kept little caches of wrapped up honey candy.

It wasn’t even that long ago.  What, seven years?  They were still doing it even as of five years ago.

Around her, her little fire team was trying to settle into their quarters on the Resolute.  In deference to Ahsoka’s different body configuration and age, they had their own small room with five bunks and a charging station for Elten.  There was a divider that could be pulled so that she could change clothes in relative privacy, but otherwise, the group of them were going to be living in each others’ back pockets until such time as she was promoted or until they were pushed into a larger unit.

Ahsoka smiled a little bit as Draco, who’d become her de facto right hand, was sitting with a couple of bottles of hair dye, trying to decide between them with the help of Banshee.  It hadn’t been hard getting ahold of those, either; even if she wasn’t Commander Tano anymore, Ahsoka still had her resources, and if she could use those for her team, then she was going to.

Dear Neesh,

It’s been awhile, huh?  I know you’ve probably heard by now about my demotion.  Don’t worry, no one did it to me, I asked for it.

The longer the time went between then and now, the more Ahsoka was growing comfortable with that.  She felt-- better, now that it was just her and this small group.  She hadn’t even realized how much pressure she had been under until it was gone; until she had some distance from her brilliant but daring Master.  Until she no longer had to look at Rex -- Captain Rex -- and realize that she could get that good man killed if she made the wrong call, and that he might have to follow her orders to his own ending.  Him and his brothers, for that matter.

Instead, it was just her and these four, and she was only a single step above them, the lowest noncom there was.  They still treated her as being in charge, but it was a completely different feeling from how things had been when she’d still been a commander.  The separation was so much smaller and so much easier to overcome.

Draco was the steadiest out of them so far; he was really protective of the whole group of them, and even though he wasn’t any more experienced than his other brothers, he didn’t seem to have any trouble accepting his assignment and the possibility of going into battle.

The rest, though, all had their-- quirks?  Issues?  Banshee wasn’t too much different from Draco, in terms of his ability to handle things, he just seemed anxious about whether he was even ready to be out there at the age of barely eight.  Strings had a lot of the same issues, except he had more serious fear-aggression responses; when he was afraid, he got angry about it and had a worrying tendency to lash out because of it, though he was also quick to apologize and try to mend things after.

It was honestly 8658 that worried Ahsoka the most.

He was so closed-off that, if not for the softness of his boyish face, he would have seemed a lot older than he was.  His responses to things were stoic, his willingness to bond was, so far, nonexistent.  He only used his brothers’ names because he was told to, and he didn’t seem to seek one of his own.  His armor and weapons were pristine and untouched with so much as a dab of paint, even as the other three were all making their plans on displayed individuality.

He wasn’t completely inscrutable, though.  Because Ahsoka could feel what he wasn’t allowing to show on his face; she could feel something she could easily identify as loneliness.

She just wasn’t sure how to draw him in.  She’d tried everything she did know, and so far, he hadn’t responded to any of it.  The other three tended to eye him warily, and that wasn’t helping either.

She took a deep breath and went back to trying to catch Neesh up, though even as she wrote, Ahsoka realized she was also writing to herself.  Putting her own thoughts in order.

I guess it might seem crazy from the outside, but I feel a lot better about it.  About being a noncom.  I’m still working out how to be a corporal and a Jedi both, because I’m the lowest ranked Jedi in the whole GAR, but I think that there are so many worse things to be.  I remember you telling me about how hard it was because you felt so in over your head, but I don’t think I realized how much I was myself until after Felucia.  That wasn’t where it started -- it started on Ryloth when I was holding the body of my latest transfer at the time, who was caught in a suicide blast before he even had a name -- but that was what finally drove it home, I think.

She glanced up and found 8658 watching her from his bunk, dark eyes inscrutable.

He was younger than Rabbit had been.  All four of them were; all four of them looked about her own age, and if she thought about that too long, Ahsoka-- had no idea what she would do about it.  Because they weren’t the only young clones being sent out from Kamino.  Because as the war went on and their older brothers died in droves, those replacing them were younger and younger.

She managed a quirk of a smile and then turned back to the datapad.

I thought I was seeing things when I saw the rabbit drawn on the wall.  But apparently while we were on Base Alpha and Master Skywalker was off dealing with the rest of the group on Malastare, rumors had been spreading.

That was why, you know?  Because I disobeyed orders and didn’t retreat, Master Koon had to keep the air support covering me, and some of the vultures broke off and went back to the base.

Ahsoka paused again, taking a deep breath; she was relieved that she was able to even think about this right now without shattering.  That between her own decision to be demoted, and Tal’s reassurance and advice, and Master Plo’s approval, and what she thought was Lieutenant Maul’s forgiveness, she figured maybe she was reaching the point where she could live with it.  Where the lesson learned, even if the cost of it was too high, at least meant Rabbit’s loss wasn’t in vain.

Wow, Neesh.  This letter is making no sense.  What I mean is, I’m glad Rabbit’s being remembered.  Because I had a part in his dying there, and I can’t take that back, but I can do better and maybe his name spreading around will remind everyone else in charge that they can, too.

Apparently Draco had figured out which hair dye he wanted and was gesturing in explanation to Banshee; Ahsoka smiled when she heard him describing the stripes he wanted.  Instead of just one color, he’d wanted both.

Anyway, I promise my next letter will be more coherent.  Or at least more entertaining.  I’ll tell you about my guys here.  I think I’m about to be conscripted into dyeing some hair.

Thanks for listening.

-Ahsoka (Corporal Tano!)

She flicked the icon to send it, then went to set the datapad aside when a red warning flashed up on the screen:

Unauthorized subject matter.  Revise to send.

“Corp?” Draco asked, sounding a little worried, and that was when Ahsoka realized her eyes were narrowed and her jaw was pushed forward and that she probably looked a little scary.  When she glanced up, she saw all four of them -- and Elten -- were watching her.

“Uh-- it’s just something that caught me off guard,” she said, breathing it off and saving the letter so she could see what about it was getting it bounced back to her later.  “You after something?”

Draco didn’t look convinced, but after a moment of just eying her, he held up both tubes of hair dye and asked, “Wanna help?”

It was enough to pull Ahsoka out of her troubled thoughts and she stood up, setting her datapad aside with the screen shut off. “You bet.”

She’d find out what this censorship business was later.  And then she’d work out what to do about it.

 

 

 

Halfway across the galaxy, Rancor hid tucked inside of a poncho, waiting for their contact -- and cargo -- to arrive, trying to remember what day it was and why that even mattered.

The spaceport he was in was small, attached to a likewise small town; there weren’t even full-sized speeders, just hoverbikes with various trailers attached to haul things.  A handful of bars serving cheap swill and a single restaurant that specialized in the large rodents that made up the biggest game on the rocky surface.

The world itself -- originally named by wookiees and therefore named something unpronounceable to a human tongue -- was neutral, but he didn’t doubt that the sight of a clone trooper would be a step too far.  So, Rancor hung back in the shadows of early evening with the hood of his poncho drawn over his head, dressed in a pair of civvies Peck had shoved into his chest and told him to wear.

The diurnal rhythm of the world was short -- just over twelve hours covered a whole day and night -- and that didn’t help Rancor’s disorientation much.  He tried to keep his internal clock on standard time, but it didn’t take long before that dissolved and he found himself lost.  Even checking a datapad didn’t relieve the sense of being unanchored.

He also wasn’t really meshing with the other guys.  Clone Captain Mope was an okay officer, if rather quiet and prone to keeping to himself.  Peck was decent.  Bozo, too; he was their comms-tech.  The rest were all commandos, too; Rancor was the only baseline out there, and he definitely felt it, but that wasn’t--

That wasn’t really their fault.  They were decent, but--

But they weren’t the Blackbirds.  Mope wasn’t as intense as Maul or as engaged as Shiv.  Peck was kind of acerbic, but he didn’t have that same fire in his eyes that Tally did, that desire to burn the whole system down; at least, he didn’t let on if he did.  Bozo didn’t compulsively drop a ton of information about every single thing like Smarty did.

They were genuinely nice guys, it seemed, but Rancor couldn’t connect.  Didn’t even want to connect.

At least they didn’t punish him for it.  He did his job -- taking a turn with the mobile comms unit, which had so many antennae and dishes bristling out of it that it looked wholly sinister, helping keep camp clean, keeping watch at night, doing his turn on laundry or other grunt work --  and they gave him his space outside of it.  They ate ration bars.  They dressed in fatigues or armor, depending on whether they were on-duty or off.  They played cards.  After he quietly rebuffed their offers to let him join, they didn’t ask again.

Rancor just kept time and lived in that drift and ached every minute of every day, however short or long, for the absence of his twin.

At least in that regard, going on the cargo retrieval mission was a break.  A chance to think about something besides duty or grief.  He had one of the two beater hoverbikes the squad had bought when they’d first arrived, and the cargo trailer.  He was supposed to be picking up more ration bars and water purification packets and batteries. Toiletries.  If they were lucky, Peck had said, maybe some snacks or something that tasted better than rations.

The spaceport was small enough that he had no trouble seeing when the small cargo hopper was coming in; rolling his shoulders, Rancor pushed off the wall he had been leaning against and headed through the hallways to the hangar where the ship had landed.  It was manned by a pair of clones, though according to the squad, said clones were disguised to look natborn since they were also doing some legitimate cargo-carrying to help maintain their cover.

When he got there, he gave the predetermined hand-sign at one of the clones and headed that way.  “Hey.  Here for the monthly pickup,” he said, unnecessarily, once he got there.

When the other clone looked at him, though, Rancor froze.

It was like looking into a mirror.

Not in the literal sense.  The clone had some cosmetic work done on him, probably for disguise purposes -- his nose had been altered, his skin had been darkened, his irises had been dyed a subtle green, his hair was straightened and worn in long braids, he had a goatee -- so he didn’t look anything like Rancor.

But in those eyes was a look Rancor knew because he lived it these days.  Breathed it.  Felt it in the seams of a quilt.  In the chill against his skin where his twin had once slept.

“Oh, yeah.  Sorry, I’ll get that right out,” the pilot said, shaking himself out of the desolation, before turning to go and grab a sled.

Under his cosmetic work, he couldn’t have been much older, if any, than Rancor himself.

Which was why Rancor reached out and caught his arm, asking with a gentleness he was surprised he still possessed, "Who did you lose?"

 

 

 

His name was Post.

His surviving twin was named Turtle.

The cargo crates were sitting on the grav-sled, but Rancor and Turtle were both sitting on the back ramp talking quietly.  Even though Rancor should have been heading back to his camp already.  And even though Turtle should have been taking off to his next assignment.

Everything Turtle was saying were the same things that Rancor felt in every cell of him.  Turtle had lost his own batcher just two weeks ago and yet he was still expected to fly cargo to various places without him.  There had been no downtime.  Post was killed in an unexpected skirmish with an advanced seppie recon unit on a disputed neutral world while they were resupplying their own advance unit, and before his body was cold, Turtle was receiving orders to go to his next stop.

Rancor was horrified when he heard that.

Rancor was outraged.

It was the first thing he’d felt since leaving Alderaan that wasn’t helpless anger or devastation or desolate heartbreak; the first time since then, too, that he was able to recognize that pain in someone else and not-- 

Honestly, not resent it; that someone else could even feel the way he did.  As awful as that sounded even in his own mind.

“I keep-- looking for him next to me,” Turtle said; once he’d opened up to Rancor, the wall of duty had crumbled, leaving behind someone lost and wounded both. “That’s his seat.  They’re gonna send someone else to fill it, and I’m going to have to-- to not hate whoever it is, and I don’t know how to do that, Rancor, I don’t know how to let someone else sit there and not resent them even being alive--”

The thing was, Rancor didn’t have any real advice, either.  Because he still didn’t know how to cope with losing Rabbit.  Because he had left the Blackbirds and the Nest so that he wouldn't have to see his brother's ghost there.

“I don’t really know, either.  Except-- they won’t understand why you’re angry at ‘em,” he said, after a few moments of quiet, trying to work out his own thoughts on it.  It wasn’t easy.  And-- he wasn’t so sure he liked what he saw there. “Unless you explain, I mean.”

“Why I might hate them?” Turtle asked, bemused, eyebrows drawing together.  Rancor absently noted that even they had been shaped a little differently and was halfway through filing it away as a suggestion for Raze in the future before he realized what he was doing.

Somehow, that almost hurt worse than even talking about this was doing.  Just that thought.

“No, no.  But-- why you’re hurt,” Rancor said, letting out a shaky breath. “I mean-- there can’t be that many of us who haven’t lost someone, you know?”

Turtle nodded, but then shook his head right after. “Yeah, but-- we aren’t supposed to talk about this stuff.”  He closed his eyes, reaching up and rubbing at his chest over his heart, as if he could soothe the ache that way.  “They’re only marchin’ far away, right?  I mean, that’s what-- that’s what everyone says.”

“Whether or not you believe that shit, you still lost him.  Your twin.  Your co-pilot.”  Rancor shook his head himself.  “So-- talk about him.  Whether you think he’s marching far away or not.  At least then, you’re remembering him.  And maybe your new co-pilot will get it.”  He thought of something then, and pulled out the black grease pen he’d used to mark the crates. “Here, got anything to write on?”

Turtle blinked back at him, then pulled out his datapad, offering the back case of it. “What do you need it for?”

Rancor wrote down a string of numbers, being careful to make them as clean as possible so that Turtle could copy them down later somewhere else.  “I’m giving you my comm code.  So-- even if you can’t talk to whoever gets assigned in Post’s place, you can still talk to me.  I mean, I’m not maybe gonna be fast replying, but at least I’ll be out there for you.  I-- I know what it feels like.  Losing a twin.  Losing-- losing part of yourself.”  His throat ached and he swallowed it down. “So I can-- I can listen to you, even if you don’t think the others can.”

Turtle took the datapad back when Rancor was done and looked down at the code, then closed his eyes, mouth quivering for a moment.  “I’m not even sure how to talk about him, but-- I can try.”

Rancor nodded at that, leaning his shoulder briefly against Turtle’s, even though that ached, too. “He deserves to be remembered.  Not just-- as someone marching away.  But as someone who was here.  And-- maybe if enough of us do talk about them, maybe-- maybe it’ll get easier.  Maybe things will change.”

That sent tears streaking down Turtle’s cheeks, shining with the landing lights around the platform they were on.  Then he huffed a watery laugh. “You might be right.  I mean, there was that vod’ika on Felucia.  Maybe things are changing.”

The words hit Rancor in the center of his chest like a runaway shuttle.  He knew before he had time to second-guess who Turtle was talking about, but--  “--what do you mean?” he asked, breathlessly, feeling his eyes burning and panic tingling in his fingertips.

Who else could it have been?  Even for everything that happened on Felucia, who else could it have been?

Turtle wiped at his face, looking at Rancor briefly like he was nuts for not knowing, but then his expression eased into something more gentle. “You musta been out here awhile.  A trooper named Rabbit on Felucia; he died saving a whole platoon of men.  Brave as hell.  But then his Jedi officer wouldn’t let them send his body back to Kamino, I hear; he pulled his lightsaber and fired it up and demanded Rabbit’s body back.  And he did it; he got Rabbit’s body.  The long-necks didn’t get that one, even though they wanted him.”  There was a beat where Turtle’s jaw knotted and he looked back out ahead. “Lots of-- lots of opinions about that, like it being crazy and whatever else, but I-- I think that officer did that out of love.”

The wounded noise slipped out of Rancor before he could stifle it.

Somehow, in all these weeks, he hadn’t heard that.  He hadn’t known that.  He had been in the morgue with Kix and Castle.  He didn’t know how the release orders were secured.  He didn’t know how they managed to make it happen, that his brother’s body was taken to the Nest and then to Alderaan.  And he had never asked, because he had been drowning in his own heartbreak and then running at the first available opportunity as far as he could away from them, trying to get room to keep breathing.

His hand was over his mouth and Turtle was looking worried and asking if he was okay and rubbing his back, but Rancor--

Turtle knew his twin’s name.  Turtle knew his twin had been a hero.

Turtle knew that because Maul--

I think that officer did that out of love.

“He did,” Rancor whispered, feeling the sharp stab of truth in his heart and the tears burning down his face. “Oh, he did.”

 

 

 

Mope had been pinging Rancor’s comm impatiently because he was supposed to be back hours ago, and even though Rancor sent back the signal that he was safe, he otherwise ignored the summons.  When he did get back, he got dressed down.  He took the reprimand, then he went back to his tent once the cargo was unloaded.

He sat with Turtle’s comm code on a scrap piece of flimsy in his pocket and Maul’s quilt folded in his lap and cried his heart clean.