I will be the one you can cry your songs to
My eyes will share your tears
I'll be your friend if you win or if you're defeated
Whenever you need me I will be here
She was sitting alone in the hangar again.
He could have expected that much, as there weren't many places to find solitude on a Star Destroyer, and for one as accustomed to shipboard life as Ahsoka, the steady pulse of sound and activity during downtime in the hangar could have a strange calming effect, a stream of harmless noises to drown out the voice of one's fears. Rex thanked the deck officer for the information, and made his way toward the turbolift that would carry him to the hangar floor.
Upon reaching the lower level, Rex swiftly navigated past the rows of starfighters, making his way to the auxiliary wing of the hangar where the Jedi typically housed their craft. Her fighter sat in its normal spot, identifiable by the proud maroon and crimson paint scheme that, though faded and worn through in spots, still spoke to its owner's brave and eager personality. It was the craft of a young and adventurous warrior, a leader, and the weathered appearance added an additional of element of respect, of experience.
But the young woman the sat in silence on the wing of the Delta 6 before him looked very little like a leader or a warrior. Her shoulders were slumped, her head bowed, and her figure seemed dwarfed even by the compact spacecraft. In fact, though she was now 17 years old and had clearly matured with her age, Rex felt he'd never seen her look so small before.
He knew why, too. The last time Rex saw her in this position was over Rhyloth, when Ahsoka had just returned from a disastrous foray against the Separatist blockade.
Rex had heard of that incident only second hand, but he'd been right behind her during their latest battle, when poor judgment and inaccurate intel led Ahsoka to hurl her unit against a massively more powerful droid force. Despite the best efforts of Rex, Ahsoka, and Kix, the Republic troopers were devastated, with only Torrent company and a handful of stragglers surviving long enough to be rescued.
Rex himself had earned a short stay in the bacta tank courtesy of a bolt to his ribcage, and when he checked out this morning he learned that Ahsoka had not reported for duty since returning to the Resolute, despite her Master's repeated demands for her to do so. When Rex left the medbay in fact, he found a message from General Skywalker - who was still absent on a classified assignment - ordering him to find Ahsoka and "force some sense into her", and expressing his own disappointment at their ill-fated mission. Rex didn't need to be ordered to seek out the unhappy Padawan, but the General's message reminded him of the sort of pressure Ahsoka was under, and that had led to her spending her days moving from one lonely hiding place to another, trying to escape the twin burdens of responsibility and defeat.
Ahsoka didn't acknowledge his approach, and didn't even lift her head as Rex ascended the short service ladder and took the spot beside her on the wing, half-seated while kneeling on one knee. He regarded her for a moment; her face was ducked away and hidden, but Rex knew her eyes would be red-rimmed and tired, and her face contorted in a tight frown. Unlike many of the subjects of their private discussions, this was an instance where Rex understood perfectly what his Jedi Commander was feeling; as a fellow officer he knew all too well the weight that defeat placed on a leader.
He knew this was a case where he would have to speak first, so he did. "They tell me you've been missed."
She made no response, but Rex didn't wait long for one before continuing, "You know you can't avoid your responsibilities forever, Ahsoka."
Strangely, addressing her by name was easier when he was speaking firmly like this. He kept his voice even, because he knew the first thing Ahsoka needed was to be reminded that she was still in command, and she didn't have the luxury of wallowing in self-pity. To an outsider it may have seemed a cold way to approach a hurting young person, but to one who knew her as well as Rex did, it was exactly what she needed to hear.
She knew it too, and so Rex wasn't taken aback at all when she finally replied in a bitter tone, "If you're trying to help, you have the strangest way of showing it ever."
Rex nodded. "So long as it's the right way."
She actually laughed then, though it was a humorless laugh, before sighing heavily. "I know I shouldn't sit around and pout, but I just… after that battle…" her voice broke as she shook her head. "We lost so many men…"
Rex didn't reply, and sat beside her in silence as she fought back a sob. He shifted a fraction of meter towards her, a wordless offer that Ahsoka immediately accepted, scooting along the starfighter wing to lean heavily against his side. His right arm came up to accommodate her body, before resting it across her shoulders and pulling her close.
"I just thought... I was better than that, now," Ahsoka went on, her voice still cracking. "I've gained so much more experience, and I've learned so much, but then something goes wrong and I make the wrong call… and everyone else pays the price. I'm no better than I was on Rhyloth, and Felucia-"
"That's the price of command," Rex interrupted her, speaking more gently this time. "You made a mistake, Ahsoka. And you will do so again. You aren't in this position because you're perfect, you're here because you have a duty to lead. And leadership means facing up to our failures, learning from them, and moving forward."
"So what you're saying is that I'm being a terrible leader," Ahsoka shot back, an unsubtle hint of irritation in her voice.
"I'm telling you the truth, Ahsoka-"
"I know, I know," Ahsoka sighed as she lifted her head. "I appreciate your honesty Rex, it's just I-"
"I wasn't finished."
"Oh." Ahsoka glanced up at him, her lekku flushing in mild embarrassment. "Sorry?"
Rex shook his head, allowing a smile to play at the edges of his lips. "I'm telling you the truth, because I've been in exactly the same place you are, and I had to learn the hard way that there's no room for self-pity in this business."
"You're just repeating yourself now," the Padawan complained, hanging her head again. "I got it, I'm just not command material-"
"I still wasn't finished."
Ahsoka let out an exasperated snort. "Since when have you gotten so talkative anyway?"
"I learned from the best." A low chuckle accompanied his reply; he caught a flicker of a smile on her face despite Ahsoka's attempt to hide it. "As I was saying, I understand what you're feeling. I know the pressure you're under right now. I've been there more times that I'd care to admit."
He thought he saw her open her mouth, perhaps to challenge his statement, but he didn't give her an opening. "Yes, Ahsoka. I know what it's like to be defeated. I've born the weight of knowing that lives were lost because of my mistakes."
His voice had taken on a harder edge, almost unwittingly, and he consciously softened his tone as he added, "That's what we call the burden of command."
Ahsoka shielded her eyes with one hand, nodding even as her voice cracked when she spoke. "Does it ever get any easier?"
There was a plea in her words, a request for some assurance that the pressure and guilt would somehow become more bearable. Though a part of him yearned to give her the words she wanted, he hardly hesitated before answering, "No. It never does." He fell silent for a moment, pondering his own response. "And I hope it never will."
He felt her startled eyes fixed on him, but somehow Rex knew that the young Jedi understood full well what he was saying. That if leaders like Ahsoka, like himself, like the numerous non-clone officers that operated within the Republic chain of command, if they one day lost that sense of burden and responsibility, and came to see their troops as nothing more than statistics and resources, then the morality of their entire system would be compromised. If lives on the frontlines could be dismissed without regret, then what would happen when the ordinary citizen found themselves between an officer and his objective?
Efficient and effective though it might seem, leadership without humanity could only bring about absolute horror. It was the stuff that monsters like General Pong Krell were made of, and it was the very same ideal that made the droid army the terrifying success it had been. No, true leadership had to be difficult, it had to remain a burden and a weight upon Rex, and upon Ahsoka. Fallen men had to be morned, bad decisions had to have consequences. There was no escaping it.
But there was also no reason either of them needed to bear it alone.
"It never gets easier," he repeated, his voice a little distant. "But there are ways… to move on, to accept the hand you're dealt and make the best of it."
"How?" Ahsoka's voice was small, yet strangely hopeful. "How do you move forward?"
He hesitated this time, considering his words and trying not to let anything escape his lips that should not. "You keep your mind on the goal, on ending the war, or defending innocent lives," he answered. His brow furrowed as he went on, "But sometimes that's not enough… sometimes it's just too difficult to see past the tragedy around you, and…"
Ahsoka's eyebrows arched as he trailed off, and her inquisitive gaze seemed to heat the side of his face as he searched for the right phrasing.
Rex took a breath. He didn't turn to meet her eyes immediately, willing himself to say the words that he wasn't sure he dared say. "And then we turn to those around us, who matter the most to us. Those who we can trust, the ones whose friendship isn't based on our performance, but… on who we are."
He allowed himself a sidelong glance at her, wondering whether she would draw the connection he couldn't bring himself to make out loud. Her eyes were still fixed on him, and there was an instant of confusion on her face. But then understanding clearly struck her; the crown of her montrals flushed just a little, and the stripes on her lekku darkened. "That's… I'm…" Her gaze fell, and she shook her head. "Thanks, Rex. That… it means a lot."
A combination of relief and satisfaction came over Rex, and his smile was a more confident, if faint. "The feeling is mutual; you've had my six on more than one occasion, you know. Now," Rex shifted towards the service ladder, "I believe we have some briefings to attend."
Ahsoka nodded, but remained quiet as she followed his lead and made her way onto the deck. As they walked side by side across the hangar, she spoke up again. "I mean it, Rex. Knowing that someone else believes in me, who cares for… enough about me to track me down when I'm in a lousy mood… I'm saying this all wrong-"
"Ahsoka," he interrupted, trying to both minimize her embarrassment as well as head off anything too probing. "You don't need to worry about the verbalization when we both know what you mean. You've been… the same to me, during many different circumstances."
Ironically, Rex felt his own wording had come across about as clumsy as Ahsoka's attempt. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that neither of them could "verbalize" what they meant, and the walk to the turbolift proceeded in silence.
As the door slid shut behind them, Rex decided to try and bring things to a simple conclusion. Their eyes met, and he managed a single sentence. "Just remember, anytime you need me, I'll be here."
A shy grin turned up the corners of her lips, and her markings flushed just a little under the soft white lighting of the lift. "Right back at ya."
One more peice to go. As always, thanks for reading! A review would be most appreciated. :)