Chapter Twelve—Sympathy and Empathy
Humans did not do well in confined spaces.
For his part, Jud was quite ready to see blue skies again. There was something about being in a labyrinth of tunnels with no exit in sight that grated on your mind. Something about the musty, damp air that reminded you that this was no place for people. The incident between Ril and Cera was by far the most obvious display of the strain that everyone was under, but it wasn't the only one.
During an otherwise normal debate about the merits and demerits of DC-15's and DC-17's, Stretch had told Meer bluntly what he thought of his opinion and Meer—being Meer—had taken it personally. Digger had managed to patch things over, but both men were still prickly. As for Ril and Cera… The civvies had split into two camps: Cera and Wesak on one side and Ril on the other. Both sides seemed to determined to ignore each other. The only people who seemed to be unaffected by the tension were Pani and Stolli, both of whom had come out of their shells slightly; even exchanging a few lines of conversation. They weren't Jud's biggest problem right now.
Fitch wasn't doing well.
The rookie had withdrawn from everyone, carrying out his tasks, but not saying a word. He'd also been forgetful, losing his train of thought easily, and Jud had caught him spacing out more than once. Jud hadn't seen him this disturbed since that first night in the treetop. Something had to be done.
Jud caught Fitch's eye and motioned to one of the side tunnels. "Fitch, a word."
Ril glanced up as Jud and Fitch vanished down a side tunnel, then went back to staring at the dark footprints in the mossy path. The thunk of boots against stone faded into the distance, the sound becoming distorted as it echoed back down the tunnel towards her. She hoped that the two men wouldn't get lost.
Everyone else was sleeping in a huddle in the middle of the cavern in a bid to keep out the heat-sapping chill of the stone floors. The ribbon of moss glowed blue beside the blanketed pile, footsteps showing where the sentries had gone ahead to make sure that nothing crept up on them. The tunnels seemed lifeless, no insects or plants aside from the ubiquitous moss, so Ril wasn't sure why the soldiers bothered to keep watch. Maybe that's all they knew how to do.
Cera was sandwiched between Wesak and Pani, a pile of blankets on top of them. The soldiers, Meer and Digger, were also huddled together in sleep, armour gleaming in the faint glow of the moss. Removing their helmets was the only concession to comfort that they seemed to make. The injured one, Digger, was covered in blankets, the pins from a bacta patch gleaming on his bicep. Ril shook her head at the waste without thinking, then frowned. They were from the Republic, so they probably didn't have the shortage of supplies, medical and otherwise, that had plagued her people recently. With no shuttle to do trading in, both towns had quickly run out of those supplies that they didn't manufacture themselves.
Ril rolled over and grunted in discomfort as something sharp jabbed her in her ribs. She felt under the blanket mattress and pulled out a small stone. Tossing it aside, she lay back down and tried to get comfortable. She was as tired as she'd ever been, so why couldn't she sleep? She rolled again. Beside her, Pani protested in her sleep, mehing and mumbling. Ril sighed and gave up on sleeping for now. Carefully, so as not to disturb Pani further, she slid out from the huddle and went to sit by the pile of supplies. Careful eyes watched her go.
After a moment, there was a rustling from behind her, different from the snorts and murmurs of the sleepers. Wesak came to sit beside Ril, who looked at him warily. He hadn't said anything to her since their confrontation earlier, but neither had Cera for that matter. Not since the fight at least. After they'd run off, the medic—easily distinguishable by the flash of red on his shoulder armour—had led them back to the others. As usual, Wesak had his arm around Cera. Ril had half expected that he would say something, but they'd walked right past her. Perhaps he'd just been waiting for a time like this, when they were alone. She glanced at the soldiers, but they were apparently fast asleep. She was thinking about re-joining the group of sleepers when Wesak spoke.
Whatever she was expecting, it wasn't that. Ril tried to speak, but the sides of her throat seemed stuck together. Jud had started rationing out their water supplies; she hadn't had a drink for a while now. Wesak didn't seem to hear her croak and kept talking.
"I didn't mean to frighten you earlier... I wasn't thinking."
Ril cleared her throat and tried again. "Thank you—for apologising." Wesak kept looking at her like he was expecting something, an apology maybe, and Ril started to get annoyed. "What?"
"Aren't you going to say sorry too? For hitting Cera?"
Ril settled for the least offensive reply she could think of. "No. And I'm not going to. She deserved it for what she said to Fitch."
Wesak's expression darkened. "He's a soldier. He'll deal with it."
"He might not," Ril insisted.
She watched as Wesak withdrew, standing up to face her. "Don't you get it? He's a clone, remember? The founders were almost wiped out because of lab-people like him!" He hissed.
He was too loud. They were going to wake someone at this rate. "Keep your voice down!" Ril whispered harshly as she could, matching his anger with her own. She did her best to ignore his venomous words, but they seemed to echo the doubts that the small, dark and poisonous part of her mind kept taunting her with. She was too late.
"Perhaps this could wait for when it is not the middle of the night?" The rough voice was familiar.
Ril looked over and saw Pani was sitting up, blanket wrapped around her like a cloak. Ril blushed and Wesak seemed similarly chagrined.
"I'm sorry, Mizz Eriki," he offered.
"Why are you both up so late?" Pani asked.
Ril didn't want to answer. She glanced at Wesak, but he didn't look like he would start talking anytime soon either. She opened her mouth, only to have Wesak speak at the same time.
They both broke off. Ril indicated that Wesak should go first.
"Ril told the clones about the founders and the path. It wasn't her right. Not when they could turn out to be just as bad as the droids." Wesak said, crossing his arms.
Pani just listened and said nothing, so Ril added her two credits.
"They have done nothing but help us," Ril insisted. "They couldn't be farther from droids. How could I not help them in return?"
Pani looked at Wesak. "I agree with Ril, Wesak. The soldiers have been kind and they have done their best to keep us safe. Perhaps you judge them too soon."
Wesak was clearly not happy with Pani's statement, his face taut and closed off. "You're both being naïve." He stalked back to Cera's sleeping form and curled down around her.
Ril gave Pani a half-smile. "It's good to have you back, boss."
"Fitch, a word."
Jud set off down a side tunnel and the younger clone followed him obediently. Sound travelled in the caves, but if they kept their voices down, they shouldn't be overheard. It wasn't by any means private, but it was as good as they were going to get. The tunnel loomed darkly in front of them. There was no moss here, so Jud flicked on his headlamps, two reassuring yellow pools of light appearing in front of him as he strode down the tunnel. When he was satisfied that they were far enough away, Jud popped his helmet seals, easing it off before he took a seat on a rock formation. Fitch made no move to follow his lead.
"C'mon, rookie. Bucket off." Jud motioned.
"Yes, sir." Fitch sounded reluctant, but took his helmet off nonetheless.
Pray to the powers be that I don't stuff this up. Jud took a breath and tried to remember everything he'd learnt from his sergeants and CO's over the years, how they handled awkward situations. "Look, Fitch, I know I haven't known you all that long, but even I can tell that you are off."
"Off… sir?" Fitch sounded puzzled.
"Not at the top of your game, not focused." Jud elaborated. "There's only a few of us left to get these civilians to safety. I need every one of my men to be a hundred percent. So whatever it is that has got you in a funk needs to end; right here, right now."
Jud waited, but Fitch remained silent. He just sat there looking at the helmet in his lap. Jud cut to the chase. "Eyes front, Fitch. Get it off your chest."
Jud hated himself for throwing his new authority around like this. It felt like he was mindlessly parroting the phrases and postures of all the officers that he'd ever served with. During the rest break earlier, he'd caught himself doing Wiki's characteristic pacing combination; pace three steps one way, four steps the other, and scuffing his left boot on the tunnel floor. Now, for the umpteenth time, he wished for a real sergeant, a proper one, who knew what to do and when to do it. A sergeant who would get them through this.
Jud paused a moment to shake his misgivings away. Maybe he didn't need to be a sergeant right now. He wasn't used to doing this type of thing as an NCO, but he had done it as a brother. He was used to being there for his squad. He was always the mediator, the judge, whenever Dale and Remy got into one of their debates. He was the one who heard all sides of the story, the one picked his brothers up whenever Hops couldn't make them laugh off whatever was troubling them. He could do this.
"It's hard to explain, sir," Fitch mumbled.
"Then I'm not a sir for now. I'm just Jud." Jud gestured to the space beside him. After a brief hesitation, Fitch sat down. "We made it through the forest together, just you and I. Talk to me—what's bugging you, kid?" Jud asked.
"Well, it's just…. It's just that…."
Jud laid a hand on Fitch's shoulder, hoping it would reassure Fitch enough to spit out what whatever was tying him in knots. That gesture never failed to calm Dale or Hops after a rough day, but Fitch reacted as though Jud had put a red-hot piece of durasteel on him. He recoiled from Jud and leapt up from his seat. Unbalanced by his sudden change of position, Fitch's helmet landed on the floor with a clatter.
"She's right! I'm just no good, sir!" Fitch's ragged confession tumbled out of him.
She? Jud looked at Fitch, puzzled. When had Ril said— Oh. That blonde piece of—. Jud hastily cut off that train of thought, a not particularly sergeanty thought. Doubt seized him suddenly. Should he be the sergeant or friend? Jud wasn't sure anymore. He needed time, to make sure he was going to say the right thing. Fitch wasn't Dale or Hops, that much was clear. Jud needed time to work out how he could help Fitch.
""So what happened?" he asked quietly.
"I got them all killed. All my squad." A dam seemed to have broken and Fitch was pouring out all his pain. "A grenade landed near them. I should've been paying attention. I should've called out. Should've said something. Should've dived on it. Done something. Anything." Fitch clenched his fists. For a moment, Jud thought he would punch something, but that wasn't Fitch.
"I should've died instead of them," Fitch whispered. "I couldn't save them. I couldn't save that woman. They all died and I didn't raise a hand to stop it."
Jud just sat for a moment, looking at Fitch. He didn't really know what to say. There were half a dozen responses that he recalled hearing in holofilms. There was always a rallying speech, a touching moment between characters after someone had died. Some glib soundbite from the leading man. It wasn't real though. They were actors in a play: civvies. None of them were clones. None of them knew how it felt to lose your brothers; that gut wrenching feeling when you did your best, but found out that it wasn't good enough. Or when you watched helplessly as your brothers died in a fiery larty crash.
The two clones sat there just staring at each other. Jud could feel the tears seeping from his eyes and in a strange flash of self-consciousness; he wondered if Fitch could see them.
Empty words began rolling through his mind. There was nothing you could've done, it's war, these things happen, it wasn't your fault, they would've wanted you to survive. Nothing sounded right. In Fitch's place, Jud would've decked anyone who tried to pass off his pain over Hops and Dale with one of those trite phrases. He still would. That wound was too raw.
Not for the first time, Jud appreciated the difference between sympathy, and empathy—knowing the other person has been in your shoes.
"I'm... I'm sorry, Fitch," he murmured the only condolence he could think of that seemed appropriate. "I'm sorry that it happened." Jud whispered as he folded his arms and fought back his own grief as it surged against the barriers he'd put around it.
Fitch looked long and hard at Jud, seeing if he was being honest perhaps, before the rookie let out a growl and kicked at his helmet, sending it skittering away into the darkness. Then just as suddenly as it came, the anger was gone and Fitch sagged to the floor, cradling his head in his arms.
Jud snapped back to the present, realising that Fitch needed him. He took one last look at Fitch before he went and slid down beside him. Fitch didn't move. They just sat there like that: two clones frozen in a moment. Time passed and Jud tuned out everything but the sound of water dripping in the distance.
In the silence, Jud remembered something that Hops taught him ages ago, back when he was struggling with the loss of his first squad, when he was shiny, just like Fitch. "Ni su'cuyi, gar kyr'adyc, ni partayli, gar darasuum: Hops, Dale, Garac, Jez, Olar, Sev, Tiber, Muzz, Sev," he whispered, heart sinking as he realised for the first time how much longer that particular phrase was going to get. What were names that Hops had said? Leven… that was one… and Mol? Mar? Jud squeezed his eyes shut. So much for being eternal. The memory fades the moment no one can recall the man behind the number.
"Does it help?" Fitch's voice came out of the half-shadows, startling Jud out of his bitter thoughts.
Jud thought about it. "Not really," he admitted. "But Hops used to say it."
"I keep seeing it, sir," Fitch said, his voice far away. "Over and over whenever I stop to think."
Jud tensed. They were treading on dangerous ground—paths he'd been down before. Trooper files weren't open to anyone, only the commander, his second, and the Company's chief medic. Stretch knew, but he was the only one. Jud struggled with himself: his fear of being thought 'defective', and his desire to help Fitch. He looked at Fitch, who was aimlessly plucking at his gauntlet. The latter urge won out.
"Fitch…" Jud's mouth went dry, choking off what he was going to say. He licked his lips and tried again. "Third isn't the first squad I've outlived." The words came slowly and painfully. Jud noticed a faint scrape of plastoid as Fitch straightened from his slouch. Jud chose to ignore it and kept talking, hoping that Fitch wouldn't interrupt him and make him lose his nerve. "The first time it happened, I… uh… didn't cope. I blamed myself and was pretty much determined to get myself iced so I won't let anyone else down." Jud grimaced at how pathetic it sounded now. "Luckily I ran into some brothers who wouldn't give up on me." Too bad they're gone now.
"How do you do it, sir? How did you cope?" Fitch asked frankly.
Jud just looked at him, a bit perplexed by the innocence of the question. "Honestly?" he asked.
"I don't know." Jud spoke slowly, trying to articulate his thoughts. "I guess I just focus on one thing at a time. Put one foot in front of the other, you know. Solve the problem right in front of me and... I try not to think about it," he confessed. "I box it up until I can work it out."
There was another moment of quiet and then Fitch spoke. "Thank you, sir," he whispered.
"For being honest."
Eventually Fitch stirred and got to his feet, plastoid armour creaking. He reached a hand down to Jud. Jud's eyes just drifted up toward Fitch. Fitch tried for a smile, but it didn't quite work. "Want a hand, sir?"
"At my age, I can't afford to say no," Jud quipped, trying to lighten the atmosphere, but his smile was as forced as Fitch's. He was a bit surprised when Fitch actually chuckled. Jud put his bucket back on and staggered to his feet.
Jud turned back. "Yes, Fitch?"
"Thank you… Jud." Then so quietly that Jud almost didn't catch it. "It does help."
"Yeah, I guess it does." Jud's mindless words slipped out. "You're welcome… brother."
I hope you enjoyed the chapter. If you've time, I'm keen to know what you thought of it.
You've probably already noticed, but updates are going to be a bit erratic sorry: Darth Real Life strikes again. Best way to keep up to date with new chapters, aside from camping out on the Clone Wars main page, is probably to follow the story. Here ends the shameless self-plug ;)