Quiet bootsteps approach from the hall of the old Venator.
Echo shifts his attention from where he's been stacking scavenged medical supplies—meager as they are on a junked ship as old as this one—to see Hunter returning from where he'd presumably gone after Captain Rex. Rex isn't with him, though.
“The Captain's heading off-planet, said he'll see us around,” Hunter remarks, leaning on the doorframe. Tech looks up from his datapad, and Wrecker and Omega turn their heads from their spot cuddled up against a wall.
“Wait, he's gone?” Echo blurts, swiftly setting down the tiny roll of bandages he'd been holding.
Earlier, Rex had hung back for the first few minutes they'd spent recovering from the chip surgeries before ducking out into the hallway, mentioning something about a call—Echo had thought he just wanted to give their squad some space and would stick around long enough to hike back to the ships together. If nothing else, he'd expected to be able to say farewell.
Hunter shrugs a shoulder. “Seemed like he had a meeting to make. I told him we'd stay in touch. We should get going soon, too, before the Scrappers find either us or our ship.”
“Oh.” Sure, they'd exchanged comm codes back at the bar, but he'd wanted to properly check in with Rex before parting ways, more than their conversations had allowed. As much as they'd talked, there were a lot of things Rex hadn't said; the Captain always preferred to keep his own grief close to his chest. But he's not too hard to read for those who know him, and Echo worries.
The Sergeant gives him a knowing look. “You could probably still catch up with him, if you want. The rest of us can follow at our own pace.”
Echo glances at the rest of the team. Tech nods, tired but apparently not laid too low by what's almost definitely a concussion; Wrecker gives him a thumbs-up, only slightly less enthusiastic than usual, and Omega smiles.
“Don't worry, Echo! I'll watch the squad 'til we meet back up with you,” she says. She still seems shaken by the day's events, but the kid's bouncing back quickly, much like she has from their other misadventures so far.
Echo's pretty sure that their little band of misfits has met their quota for trouble today. If not, though, they'll have each other's backs.
“Alright,” he says, “I'll go on ahead and get the Marauder started up, too. Comm me if anything happens.”
Then he's off.
The trip back to the ships is blessedly uneventful compared to when they'd set out. It helps that one person travelling alone can move more quietly than a group, especially an ARC like Echo, and the yellow cable used to cross the infested water has been re-tied extra tightly with a second length by its side—Rex's doing, most likely. The others might find a different path for Wrecker anyway, but it makes Echo's life easier. Then it's just a few more klicks before the little garage is in sight.
Peeking through the rusted door, he notes with relief that the Y-wing is still there, Rex fully geared and looking it over for what looks like a pre-flight safety check.
Echo is careful to make sure his footsteps are audible as he enters. The Captain’s been on edge since he found their squad, guarded and wary the way some brothers got after more harrowing missions, and Echo doesn’t miss how his hand twitches toward his blaster before he turns around.
“I know we’re trouble, Captain, but are you really this eager to get away from us?” Echo calls, pulling off his helmet, and Rex relaxes.
“Ha. No, Echo, just have some business to get back to,” the Captain replies, leaning lightly against the nose of the ship. His helmet tilts as he looks around. “Where’s the rest of the Batch?”
“Should be on their way. I wanted to catch you before you left.” Echo stops and sets his helmet on the ship before mimicking Rex’s position next to him. “Wanted to say thanks. For helping us. It’s been good to see you again.”
Rex removes his own bucket, staring down at the Phase I visor for a moment before setting it next to Echo’s. “Yeah, well. Soon as I heard you were running rogue, I had to see for myself. And I couldn’t just leave you with the chips in your heads if there was something I could do about it.”
“Mm.” Rex had nearly drawn a blaster on them at the bar, when he’d learned they still had their chips. And it hadn’t escaped Echo how vaguely the Captain spoke about the end of the war; he’d described the trip to Mandalore, and the capture of Maul at the hands of Commander Tano—whose fate he hasn’t mentioned, along with any details of after. Echo hopes she got out too, that the lack of information is secrecy for her safety rather than reticence born of grief.
He remembers how all their brothers turned on General Billaba, swift and ruthless and overwhelming in number. Rex’s last trip on a Venator hadn’t ended well, and he couldn’t fight the chip by himself—the haunted look when he’d said that spoke volumes on its own. It’s not a complete picture, but Echo has enough of the pieces. He’s been reading the exhaustion in every line of Rex’s body, a mournful script all but written in bold.
How many brothers has he buried?
Rex’s voice breaks through his thoughts.
“If anything, you should be thanking Fives,” he says. “If he hadn’t investigated in the first place, I never would've heard of the chips at all.”
(“It was Fives,” Rex says as they clamber through layers and layers of dead metal, after Echo asks how he'd known about the chips. Echo stumbles momentarily, air suddenly absent from his lungs.
Rex grabs his elbow to steady him as he remembers how to breathe, then steps forward and continues, “There was an incident on a campaign at Ringo Vinda. Another trooper's chip malfunctioned, and he shot a general. Fives went with him to Kamino, found out about the chips. He made some noise about it and got himself a meeting with the Chancellor, then ended up on the run.”
Stars above. Fives, too clever and brazen for his own good. Of course he wouldn't have let something like that go.
Echo had understood as soon as he'd been rescued that his batchmate was dead, because nothing less would have kept Fives from that mission. He hadn't felt ready to ask what had happened to his brother, though, still coming to terms with what the Techno Union had done to him. Then he'd been adjusting to keeping up with the Bad Batch on mission after mission, and the Outer Rim sieges had kept the 501st more than occupied, and there'd just never been an opportunity to talk about it before the galaxy collapsed around them.
“Fives...tried to warn me about the chips, but I didn't understand at the time,” Rex finishes, solemn.
A GAR-wide conspiracy, headed by the Chancellor himself.
“It's still hard to believe now,” Echo replies, and they keep moving.)
Rex sighs, attention fixed somewhere in the distance. “I should have listened better, dug into it more. Maybe then, all this could have—”
“Don't,” Echo says. “You would've been killed for it like he was.” Even if the secret of the chips had gotten out properly, the Chancellor—kriffing Emperor, at present—could have just triggered the Order earlier. Dwelling on what-ifs doesn't help them now, anyways.
A long moment passes. Into the heavy silence Rex confesses, voice a whisper, “He died in my arms.”
Echo swallows around the lump in his throat. “Better than a ditch on some backwater planet.” Or abducted and hidden, far from any other brothers.
Rex looks away.
With a shaky inhale, Echo tips his head back to stare at the stars through the broken ceiling. “Fives...he'd be glad that he found enough for you to figure it out. That you were able to save me, too.” Even in death, his batchmate still managed to look out for them. Grief and gratitude ache side-by-side in Echo’s chest. “And I—I’m glad that he wasn't alone, in the end.”
Which Rex has been, Echo realizes with a pang. He pushes himself off the ship and steps forward to catch Rex's gaze, setting his hand on the Captain's shoulder. “You could stay with us awhile, you know.”
But Rex shakes his head. “Like I said, I have work to do,” he gently declines. “As do you. Your squad needs you to watch their backs.”
“And who's watching yours?” Echo retorts.
The words come out sharper than he intends; he regrets it as a pained wince flashes across Rex's face. “I’ve got allies. I'll be fine, Echo,” the Captain insists, and Echo wonders if he carries on moving because he'll fall to pieces if he stops.
“Rex…” But he doesn't push. If this is how Rex keeps himself from coming apart at the seams, Echo's not going to tug on the stitches.
At a loss for what else to say, he pulls the man into a hug.
Rex returns it after only a moment of hesitation, and Echo doesn't comment on the tightness of his hold or the quiet hitch in his breath. It's even again by the time they draw apart.
“You have our comms,” Echo says. “Don’t hesitate to—”
“To call you if I’m in a bind, I know—”
“Not only in emergencies,” Echo continues, stern. “Just—check in when you can, alright?”
Rex sighs. “That carries risks.”
Echo crosses his arms and snorts. “With Tech’s encryptions? Hardly. I’d like to see the Empire try.” Then he grimaces. “Actually, maybe not. I’d rather they forget about us entirely. But we can be careful, so stay in touch.”
Rex’s expression softens. “All right. And same goes for you; I can’t promise I’ll be available on short notice, but if you ever need a hand, I’ll see what I can do.”
Speaking of which...Echo can think of one thing. “About that—hang on, wait here,” he tells Rex, turning to jog towards the Havoc Marauder.
“That an order?” the Captain teases behind him. “I outrank you, Corporal.”
“We’re both deserters, and you’re legally dead!” Echo calls over his shoulder.
He opens up the ship and ducks into the storage area, rummaging around for a couple minutes—ugh, they really need to re-organize, but Force knows Hunter's the only other one still with them who ever remembers to put things back where they belong—until he finds what he’s looking for. Prize obtained, he steps briskly out again.
“Ah, I see.” The corner of Rex's mouth quirks up when he catches sight of the little can tucked under his arm.
“Never got a chance to properly mark my armor,” Echo says, popping the lid open and holding it out. Obliging, Rex dips his left hand into the white paint.
“Your own hand would still work for this,” he remarks, one brow raised.
“It’s not the same if it’s not yours, Captain,” Echo replies. They’ve had this exchange before.
Rex lets some of the excess paint drip back into the container, then gently presses his glove to Echo’s breastplate. Holding it there, he lifts his head to meet Echo's eye, lopsided grin small but fond. “You've come a long way from being a shiny, Echo.”
Echo just smiles back, warmth curling beneath Rex’s touch.
Rex withdraws his hand and accepts the rag Echo passes him to wipe down his glove. “I'm never gonna be able to get this all the way out,” he complains without bite, squinting down at the brightly stained palm.
“Consider it a reminder,” Echo replies. You're not alone, he means.
Once Rex has scrubbed his glove as best as he can, he returns the rag. Then he lets out a long breath and levels Echo with an apologetic look. “I'd really better go. But—thanks. For coming to talk.”
Echo nods. He’ll always have his Captain’s back when he can, even if they have their own missions now.
Reaching up with his clean hand, Rex palms the back of Echo's neck and taps their foreheads together, the way some of the commanders learned from the Mandalorian trainers. “K'oyacyi, vod. Stay alive.”
“You too,” Echo replies, voice thick. “Take care, Rex.”
The Captain pulls back with a parting smile and dons his helmet. As he strides away and climbs into the cockpit, Echo notes with relief that Rex carries himself steadier than when they’d first reunited at the bar, set of his shoulders just a little less weighed. Weary but settled, Echo puts on his own helmet and backs up to give the ship room.
He salutes as the Y-wing takes off, then turns to ready the Havoc Marauder.
They’ll see each other again.