This fic was inspired by reulte's fantastic, ongoing work, Scars, in which the character of Chopper has been fleshed out to an amazing degree. It's one of my favorite stories, and I highly recommend that you take a look.
For all intents and purposes, Better is set somewhere between chapters 19 and 21 of Scars, and a few months after the events of Not Fooling Anyone in my own timeline; not exactly sure how well the two intersect, so this might be AU.
Thank you, reulte for letting me "play" with your version of Chopper!
According to Fives, the reason that everyone was in such a fervor was because General Halcyon's squad was planning a rendezvous with the Resolute; however, Chopper really hadn't been paying attention to much since he'd gotten a hold of the latest helmet vids of the IG-100 MagnaGuards. Even seated between his bunk-mates in the mess, he was only peripherally aware of their discussion.
"I heard that she's involved with the men in her squad," Fives was saying as he and Echo leaned across Chopper, their voices blending into the low murmur that filled the room. The speculation was accompanied by the lift of Fives' brow and a sly grin, but Echo only looked thoughtful.
"Where'd you hear that?"
Still focused on his datapad, Chopper frowned. The MagnaGuards were a relatively new threat, though they'd already been christened "Jedi Killers," and from what he could make out from the vids, the nickname did not come without reason. Unparalleled reflexes. Lightsaber-resistant staffs. And it looks like they have the capacity to learn. Indeed, from the vids he'd seen – far too few for him to comfortably predict just how much of a threat these machines were – the droids seemed to possess highly-advanced combat algorithms that allowed them to adapt to any situation. Chopper's eyes narrowed as he watched the replay again and again.
Fives glanced around as if they were the only ones discussing the matter. "Buddy in the 212th worked with Shadow Squad a couple of months ago. Said that there was something a little too familiar about the way that General Halcyon interacted with her men...especially the captain."
Chopper shook his head as he paused the vid and studied the blurred image of the Magna. Is that duranium armor? It must be, for them to be so resilient.
"That's just gossip, Fives," Echo replied with a shake of his head. "You shouldn't go on like that about a Jedi."
His brother shrugged and looked at Chopper, who was still engrossed in his datapad. "You haven't heard anything, have you?"
At first Chopper didn't realize that Fives was speaking to him; after a moment he lifted his gaze and blinked a few times as his eyes adjusted to looking at something that wasn't a tiny screen. His head tilted in thought before it shook. "This is the first I've heard of anything."
It was true; no one gossiped with Chopper. About him, most certainly, but not with him. Fives and Echo were the first. The thought occurred to him that he didn't mind either way, not really, but it was...nice to be included. In the with as opposed to the about. "And Echo's right," he added as he looked back down at the 'pad. "You shouldn't say those things about a Jedi. It's disrespectful." Of course, he wasn't thinking about a general – rather a certain commander – but the idea was the same, anyway.
Fives sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Well, I'm interested. And I'll bet that the two of you are as well."
Echo rolled his eyes but made no response and Chopper was already lost to the datapad.
Kalinda Halcyon regarded the holographic forms of Anakin Skywalker, Padawan Ahsoka, and Captain Rex with nothing short of relief. "As long as your 'freshers are working, I'll be happy."
Anakin gave her a wry grin. "The Wayfarer's acting up again, huh?"
"And then some." With a sigh, Kali glanced at the members of her squad, who were currently huddled around the tiny room with an assortment of plungers and dripping towels. Crest and Traxis were arguing about something while Weave was attempting to remove a bit of pipe; they were all soaking wet and none-too-happy. Beside her, Captain Stonewall was silent but she could tell that he was also annoyed with their predicament. "It's just getting too much...use, I guess," she said. "I mean, six adults...one 'fresher...it's really not a good equation."
Ahsoka wrinkled her nose. "I understand how you feel, Master Halcyon. Trust me."
"Well, we'll be glad to help you, Kalinda," Anakin added. "And while you're here I can take a look at those dampers you mentioned." He sounded pleased at the prospect of getting to work on the little transport and Kali smiled to herself.
Chosen One or not, he's still that little boy from Tatooine who likes to play with ships. "That would be a huge help."
As she was about to end the transmission, Stone gave her a look and raised his brow. Aren't you forgetting something? Since they had discovered that they could communicate through the Force, he often took full advantage of the fact, particularly when it came to reminding her of things that she should not have forgotten in the first place.
The dark-haired Jedi frowned. "Also...we've gotten wind of some new droids being tested in a nearby system. Magna...something."
"MagnaGuards." Stonewall's voice was even but she could tell that he was amused.
She sighed again. After a while, they all look the same to me. "Right. MagnaGuards. The Council's asked us to look into it. I heard that you've encountered them a few times?"
Anakin's shoulders lifted in an easy shrug. "Yeah. They weren't easy, but they went down eventually, right Snips?" He grinned at his Padawan, who shook her head as she replied, her lekku swaying with the motion.
"If by eventually you mean after some seriously difficult combat, then yes." At this, Captain Rex's mouth twitched in a grin, but he looked thoughtful as well. Ahsoka tilted her head and regarded the other Jedi. "If you have a chance, Master Halcyon, I'd like to learn the shielding-technique you've been working on. Rex mentioned that it saved him when we went on that mission to Japarran a few months ago."
"If we have time, I'd be glad to," Kali replied. "It's come in pretty handy, right Stone?"
Stonewall stood at parade-rest beside her; at her words, his brow lifted but he only nodded once, and Kalinda tried not to roll her eyes at his formality. Can't blame him, I suppose. We have to be discreet for a number of reasons. So she glanced back at the others. "We'll see you tomorrow. Thanks again."
"Sure thing, Kalinda." Anakin gave her a casual salute before the transmission ended.
A hiss of water, followed by a sputtering sound came from the direction of the 'fresher, immediately followed by Crest's voice. "Kriffing son of a shabla nerf-herder!"
"Watch your language, Crest," Kali called out. "We're about to be in polite company, you know." She smiled when the clone captain reached for her hand and smoothed a strand of hair from her face.
Weave's voice rose from the direction of the 'fresher. "How much longer did you say...?" She could hear Milo and Traxis muttering as well, followed by more splashing sounds. Ignoring the noises, Kalinda put her arms around the captain's waist.
"You think the 501st is polite company?" Stone asked as he smiled down at her.
She shrugged and leaned up to kiss him. "More so than us, from what I hear."
Shadow Squad arrived on the Resolute at 0400 the next day, which was far too early to account for the surge of clones that attempted to meet them in the hangar. Apparently everyone had decided to get in some early drills, and Chopper heard via Fives that Captain Rex had to order most of the sightseers out of the area.
"But I got a look before she went off with the other Jedi." Fives was sitting at the edge of his bunk, his hands lifting in the manner they often did when he was excited.
It was too early even for the mess, so Echo was cleaning his armor to its customary sheen; however, his interest was palpable. "And?"
Fives leaned forward, nodding. "She's pretty. Real pretty."
"Not like the commander, I'll wager," Echo replied at once.
His brother shrugged. "She's a little more...grown-up than the commander, Echo. If you get my drift." He made a curving motion with his hands to indicate what he meant.
From his own bunk, Chopper continued to consider the problem of the MagnaGuards, which was a disturbing one. No one really lasts too long against them except a Jedi...and even then. He winced. Some of the helmet vids had been intense, to say the least. But everything has a weakness. I know if I could just get a closer look, I might be able to figure out theirs. He was peripherally aware of his bunk-mates' conversation, but again, felt no interest in what they were saying until...
"So why are they here, anyway? Does anyone know?"
Fives' tone took on the resonance of someone with valuable intel that he's been dying to share. "They're special-ops, you know. Seeking out foundries, collecting intelligence, and studying new Seppie weapons..." His eyes slid to Chopper. "Like the MagnaGuards you're so twisted up about."
At this, Chopper glanced up from the 'pad. "The Magnas? That's what General Halcyon's squad is looking into?"
"That's the rumor going around," Fives replied, leaning back on his hands. Engrossed in his own thoughts, Chopper didn't see his bunk-mates shoot each other knowing looks, and eventually his eyes fell back to the datapad.
Finally aboard the Resoulute,Kalinda found that her mood had increased exponentially once she was clean, though she now realized how hungry she was. While she was slipping on her boots, her comm chirruped. "Stone?"
His steady form regarded her through the hologram. "We're going to be a bit longer than I thought. Do you want to just meet back at the ship a few hours?"
As she was about to reply, her stomach let out a gurgle and Kalinda sighed. First a meeting with Anakin and Ahsoka, then a meeting with Anakin and the Admiral, then transmission to the Jedi Temple...no wonder I'm starving. Haven't had two seconds to eat. She nodded. "Sounds good. You guys got showers and food, though, right?"
"We're clean and fed," he replied with a smile. "Just in time for some friendly sparring. Apparently Traxis has some old buddies who can't wait to hear about his recent adventures." Though he didn't say as much, she thought she could discern his happiness at being in the company of so many other clones; the five members of her squad got along well enough – most of the time – but she'd learned that most clones enjoyed being surrounded by lots of brothers upon occasion.
So she nodded and gave him a salute. "Enjoy yourself, Stone. I'll be thinking about you." Even as she said the words she imagined doing something with him that wasn't professional in the least, and she figured he picked up on her thought when his grin broadened.
"Same here." He paused, then his voice dropped in pitch. "Kali." The transmission ended and she gave a quiet sigh that was overwhelmed by another snarl of her stomach; ensuring that she had her datapad and that her damp braid was at least neat, she slipped out of the cabin and made her way to the mess.
To an outsider, the mess hall was the picture of dignified professionalism as clone troopers filed in, collected trays of food and quietly took their seats. There was no more talking than usual, only a few trickles of conversation that stuck out a bit louder than the rest; no one made any indication that they were staring at the Jedi Knight who was seated alone in the far corner of the room, picking over a plate of scrambled nuna eggs and consulting a datapad.
But Chopper knew better.
First of all, she was at his table. Well, he didn't own the table, but it was widely understood that he preferred to sit there, and ever since that business with Kev, most of the others did not begrudge Chopper his preferences. If Fives or Echo were with him he'd sit where they wanted to, but even they would acquiesce if he chose to sit at that particular table. Even the commander had joined him there, once or twice.
For a moment he stood with his tray and surveyed the room, considering his next move. Fives and Echo were behind him, finishing up in line and he knew that they – Fives at least, though Echo would follow his brother's lead – would want to sit by the Jedi. Not that they actually would, but they would want to. At the very least, the idea would be bandied around.
Chopper decided that he didn't really want to sit by her.
Sometimes he felt that the scars that pitted and ribboned his flesh were living things that had their own ideas about what he should do, where and how and why he should do it. Sometimes they wore him, though he was starting to understand it should be the other way around. At this point, everyone in this room – on the ship, in fact – had seen his scars and didn't seem to care so much, even the commander.
But that didn't mean that he was one hundred percent okay with having a new female, and a Jedi at that, looking at him and flinching away, even if just for a second. So he stood in the mess and tried to find another table.
"What're you doing?" Fives was beside him. "Let's just go." He nodded to the table and Chopper sighed.
Echo was there as well. "It'll be fine, Chopper, like it always is. Look, she's not even paying attention." It was true; General Halcyon's gaze had not wavered from her datapad even though she had to realize that she was the subject of probably every conversation in the room.
It made Chopper wonder if the rumors were true, after all. She's obviously comfortable with clones. But either way, she doesn't seem to care. He didn't know what to make of that, so he shrugged it off and resigned himself to following in Fives' wake as they headed for the table.
When they reached the Jedi, Fives straightened his shoulders and saluted her, one hand balancing the meal tray. "General Halcyon." He waited for her to acknowledge him before continuing; she looked up, met his eyes and gave a small smile. "Sir. We hate to intrude, but the mess is a bit crowded at the moment. May we share your table, sir?"
She looked around with the air of someone who was stepping from a dark room into bright sunshine; after a moment she smiled again and gestured to the table. "Sure...?"
"Fives, sir," he said, taking the seat beside her. "That's Echo and Chopper." Echo sat on Fives' other side, which left Chopper to either sit at the far end, beside Echo – which could be perceived as a snub – or directly across from her, which would give her a clear view of his scars. It was not a pleasant debate and he chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment before she blinked up at him, then nodded to the seat across from her as though it were perfectly normal for clones to sit with Jedi so casually.
He sat but kept his eyes down as he ate.
The Jedi seemed not to notice, instead setting her 'pad down and regarding the others with interest. "Nice to meet you guys. Echo...how did you get that hand-print on your armor?"
From here, his bunk-mates launched into an animated discussion of the Rishi moon incident, which Chopper had heard many times. After a few minutes he managed to study the new general without seeming to; he noted how she seemed entranced by the story, and the way that her face fell when they mentioned the deaths of their brothers. She looks genuinely sad about it. The expression reminded him of one he'd seen on Commander Tano's face after a particularly grueling battle.
As Fives had said, she was older than their commander; a fully-grown Human woman, with dark hair that she wore in a braid – still damp from a shower, he supposed – and dark eyes which held that Jedi otherness that some clones found unsettling. She did not appear to miss much, which confused him even more. If that's the case, and she knows that they're all talking about her, why does she eat in here? In fact, she seemed almost...easy with the others in a way that indicated she had spent many, many hours in the company of clones. He even heard a sprinkle of Mando'a in her conversation, which delighted Fives and Echo, and intrigued him further.
Finally her comm chirped and she glanced down with a start, speaking into it with hesitation. "How long has it been?"
The image of a clone captain had appeared at her wrist; the officer's reply was amused. "Not long, General. We've only been waiting about twenty minutes."
"Sorry, Stone. I'll be there in a second. Anakin said that he and Rex would be down after their vid meeting with Obi-Wan and Cody...?" Her voice held a question and the captain shook his head.
"They haven't arrived, so you're not late...yet."
She grinned. "Great. Thanks, Captain."
Had Chopper been a man of more speculation, he would have thought that there may have been an air of impropriety to the conversation, but aside from being casual, it wasn't anything out of line. However, he could see that Fives' brow had lifted and Echo was purposefully looking down at his plate; clearly, they thought otherwise.
The general sighed and gathered her datapad and tray. "It was nice meeting you guys," she said to Fives and Echo, who rose in a hasty salute that Chopper followed after a moment. But she startled him when she nodded to his empty tray. "Want me to take it for you?" Dark eyes fell on his face but she made no indication that she'd even noticed the scars.
He wasn't sure which part of the last ten seconds he was more astonished by: the fact that she looked directly at his scars and had no reaction, or the fact that a Jedi Knight and General was offering to clean up the remnants of his breakfast. His mouth opened but no sound came out.
However she only smiled and reached for the empty tray anyway. As she did so, her datapad clattered out of her grip and knocked his half-empty cup of caf all over his 'pad, the screen of which flickered and died. For a moment he simply looked at it with bewilderment, half expecting it to come back to life. When it didn't, he felt a thrill of regret and – if he was honest – irritation. Hours and hours of research...gone.
The room had only fallen silent for an instant, but it was long enough for him to realize that everyone had noted the incident; hundreds of identical eyes moved from him to the Jedi to the dead little 'pad. But she appeared not to notice anything but the accident; she gave a soft curse and bent to retrieve the damaged object, looking up at him in chagrin as she held it up. They both watched brown caf drip from the edges to spatter across the table. "All your work...I'm so sorry, Chopper."
Chopper didn't know what kind of reaction was acceptable in this circumstance, because he was annoyed with her, but felt that it would be disrespectful to show. So he shook his head and kept his eyes fixed on the dead datapad, thinking of the vids he'd assembled. It took me days to collect all those...He tried to keep his thoughts off of his face but she was a Jedi after all.
Before he knew what was happening there was a hand on his arm; she had stepped around the table and stood before him. "I'll make it up to you," she said in a firm voice, causing him to meet her eyes more out of surprise than anything else. "I promise. What was on it?"
"Droid research." His voice was a whisper but she nodded as if he'd spoken in a normal tone.
"Can you be any more specific?"
Fives and Echo had watched the exchange silently until now, when Fives spoke up. "Those new droids...the Magna-ones...or something. Right, Chopper?"
Chopper nodded but said nothing. Her hand was still on his arm and he wasn't sure if his voice would work. The Jedi looked thoughtful before she lifted her hand and regarded him with a soft smile. "MagnaDroids?"
"Guards." He corrected her absently and Echo winced.
But she didn't seem to care. "Right. I'll be in contact." With that she leaned to collect his tray – carefully – before slipping out of the mess and leaving Chopper in a quiet state of chaos.
This is a shorter fic, totaling five chapters. I plan to keep a weekly update schedule (every Wednesday), so you should add Better (or me) to your alert list...don't want to miss what happens next, do you? :P
Reviews, comments and speculations are all welcome and encouraged! Thanks for reading.