For a moment all it seemed Chopper could do was blink at her, but he recovered quickly and – to Kali's amazement – made a noise that sounded almost like laughter. "More than close enough," he replied, shaking his head and glancing in the direction the Magnas had gone. "But we should move on." Another look at her. "Your knee?"
The real question was implied. Can you walk? Can you make the journey? She wondered what he thought of her, of a Jedi that was felled so easily, especially after working with Anakin and Ahsoka for so long.
Pushing away her own doubt, Kali took a breath and nodded. "It'll be fine, Chopper. Let's go." She made to step forward but he remained, studying her, head tilted. "What's up?"
"Your eyes close when you access the Force," he replied. "It helps you focus?" Kali nodded and he seemed satisfied with something; he held out his left arm and leveled the T-slit of the visor towards her. "I can guide you, so you can keep your attention on your knee."
It was her turn to look at him and blink, but she took a breath and nodded again. She placed her hand on his vambrace and, after confirming the direction of the squad, they began to make their way through the forest. Kalinda found that it was not hard to focus like this, especially given the fact she was more comfortable being on the move right now; soon she relaxed into the Force and tried to work on mending the blistered skin of her knee.
For a while they walked in silence. The underbrush had cleared away, giving berth to slender pines that stretched out in all directions, whose dried needles coated the ground and muted their steps as their scent sharpened the air. After about half an hour she realized how tired she was, and decided to forgo working with her injury in order to contact Stonewall. It took longer than she would have liked but eventually she was able to reach his mind through the Force. Stone?
Kali. Even in this state his relief was evident. We lost contact with you...are you okay? And Chopper?
She felt the clone's presence at her side, his determination radiating off of him even as she could sense his mind working over the Magnas. He's fine. I'm in one piece. We lost the bikes, though, so we're on foot. She tried to figure out their position but was at a loss, wishing for a moment that she had the equipment that the troopers were outfitted with. "Chopper...is your GPS working?"
He tilted his head and replied a moment later, giving her a set of coordinates. "The comlink's still not operational, though," he added with a glance in her direction.
"Thanks." She repeated the coordinates to Stonewall, who seemed uncertain.
That's...how in the blazes did you get all the way out there?
She resisted the urge to laugh. Those bikes can cover quite a bit of ground, you know. Where are you?
Half a day away, by the sound of it. There was a pause, then he added: Weave thinks he can find you with the scanners on the ship, but we don't want to rile up the unfriendlies any more than necessary.
Kalinda shook her head. I don't want to risk it, Stone. Let's just meet somewhere...
During their surveillance of the planet, they'd noticed a wide river that crossed through the area that held the droid facility; it was apparently the halfway point between their locations. After a few moments of debate, they agreed to meet at the river's edge, as soon as possible. But I don't want you to rush, especially if you're injured,Stone replied, his tone firm despite the agitation she felt from him.
How do you...
It was his turn to chuckle. I know you, Kali. I'm just glad you're with someone else, not traipsing about the jungle on your own. Though I bet you tried to get him to leave you, right?
She held back her indignation. Or tried to. Traipsing?
His laughter was still evident, though it was underwritten with his customary worry. Be careful and stay safe, please.
Kali sighed and opened her eyes, blinking in the fading sunlight that was filtering in through the trees, and realized that Chopper was staring at her, that his arm was down, and that they had stopped walking. She could sense his question, but decided not to answer. "Everything okay, Chopper?"
There was a moment where he regarded her and she thought that she felt a flicker of understanding from him, but it passed quickly and he nodded. She indicated the direction of the river. "Let's head over there...we should run into the others by tomorrow."
Again, his speculative look – even through the visor it was as if she could discern it – but again he only nodded, as if reluctant to speak anymore. She wondered if she'd done something wrong, but he offered her his forearm once more, and she took it. They continued on.
They walked well into the night before Chopper noticed that her limp was getting worse. He paused and watched as she faced him. "You need to rest," he said, thinking that she looked as if she would object. He didn't want to say it, but he thought the words would make a difference, so he added: "Captain Stonewall would want me to make sure that you rest, Kalinda."
This had the desired affect, for though she frowned, she nodded and hobbled over to a nearby fallen tree-trunk, sliding down to rest her back against the rounded side and patting the ground beside her. I should keep watch, he thought as he stood by. But she shook her head, tapping her temple with solemnity.
"Jedi-senses, Chopper. We'll be okay for a few hours." It wasn't an order, or even a request, but he understood the implication, so folded his legs and sat beside her, glancing up through the canopy, searching for any stars that he might be able to make out through the webbing of branches above their heads. There was a crinkling sound, then he looked down to see half of a ration-bar extended to him. With a swallow, Chopper removed his bucket and set it on the ground beside him before taking the bar.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the night-creatures who were just beginning their variegated songs. After some time she looked at him, and he realized that she was sitting on his right side, his scars in full view. The knowledge filled him with apprehension until he recalled that it was getting dark and that she probably couldn't see them that well. "May I ask you a question, Chopper?"
Of course it will be about the scars. How could it be about anything else? He tensed involuntarily, but nodded. However, given the darkness, he spoke. "Of course, General." Formality returned like a tic, but he couldn't take anything back.
But she seemed unconcerned. "What made you change your mind about coming with us?"
The question should not have surprised him as much as it did, so he had to take a moment to formulate his answer. When it came, it startled him. "Because I knew that you would need me."
The sound of her laughter was bright in the darkness. "You're right about that, I guess." He heard the sound of her head leaning back against the tree, and for several minutes it was quiet; he supposed she was going to sleep and wondered if he'd be able to follow. So it was strange to hear her speak again, the words reaching through to him even in the thick of the night. "I'm glad you did, Chopper. Thanks for coming."
You're welcome, he wanted to say, but the words sounded silly even in his mind, so he only nodded. Of course, that felt even sillier, but it was too late, as her head dropped against his shoulder and she was asleep within a moment.
It was some time before he was able to follow her lead.
When Kali awoke the next morning, her entire body was stiff and sore, and her knee ached fiercely, but she was rested, at least. A glance beside her told her that Chopper was awake; at some point he'd replaced his bucket. If she had to guess, she supposed he was reviewing the vids he'd taken of the Magnas, which had thankfully not found them during the night.
We're lucky, I suppose, she thought as she studied the forest. Perhaps they lost track of us. However, she knew it would not be so forever, so she cleared her throat and looked at the trooper. "Ready to move out?"
He was on his feet in one fluid motion; she rose as well, but her knee buckled and she nearly collapsed to the ground. But Chopper was quick and caught her arm, helping her stand up. After peeling off the bacta patch he'd placed the previous day, she winced at what little she could make out. Ouch. No wonder it hurts so kriffing much. The blistered skin was discolored and swollen, and she wished for a moment that she was a proper Healer. Even after Chopper replaced the patch, her knee ached worse than the day before, and she realized that she could barely walk.
The trooper seemed to catch on as well, but he was – if anything – more uncomfortable with the realization than he'd been when his brothers had made him sit at her table on the Resolute. Finally he seemed to gather himself and look at her. "We're not far from the rendezvous point," he said in a careful voice. "You can lean on me as much as you need to."
If it had been Stonewall – or any of her men, she decided – he would have scooped her up without a moment's hesitation, even if they hadn't been romantically involved. But Chopper was not Stonewall. He was unlike any of the clones she'd met. He offered his shoulder – his right one, she noticed, even though he tended to be flinchy about that particular side – and they began to make their slow progress through the forest. Kali hobbled along as best she could and tried not to be irritated at her own body's weakness.
The air was cooler now, tinted gold by the climbing sun, and sprinkled with birdsong; when he spoke it was entirely unexpected. "May I ask you a question, Kalinda?"
How did you even get to be a Jedi, if you can't even go one mission without blowing out your weak knee? "Sure."
"Was Crest serious about letting me keep the harmonica?"
Kali bit back the urge to chuckle at the perplexed tone of his voice. "He's serious about very few things, Chopper, but he wouldn't have given it to you if he wanted it back. It's yours now, if you want it."
Something akin to relief edged off of him as he nodded. "I liked it. Thank you."
They didn't talk much for the rest of the journey, not until Kali sensed the others' presences about two hours later; that was when her spine straightened and her attention oriented to Stonewall, as it always did, and she felt her steps pick up. Chopper seemed to understand, and his pace quickened as well. Soon after that she could smell the fresh scent of the river, then hear its burble as it meandered though the forest.
And then she sensed Stonewall's presence in the Force, close. She could almost feel his warmth and found that she was more anxious than she'd realized to be with him again; her steps quickened further, still. Chopper was right along with her.
When she saw him approach she didn't try to hide the leap of joy that she felt at his gaze, and she could tell that he felt much the same way. The two groups met at the river's edge and Kali was aware that Chopper didn't move from her side until she was before Stone, when he took one look at her leg and picked her up, holding her perhaps a bit too close. "Glad to see you're in one piece, General." His bucket was clipped to his belt and he was looking at her with an expression she figured was mirrored in her own eyes.
"As reported, Captain." She couldn't help the grin that crept to her face, which widened once he smiled back.
Crest's throat cleared, causing Kali to look over at the trooper. "Weave and Mi are at the ship," he said, thumbing the appropriate direction. "And we managed to get some good footage of the droids – Trax even snagged one of those staff-things – but we might not want to hang around any longer."
At this, Chopper looked at Traxis. "You got a pike?" The scarred member of Shadow Squad nodded and the other clone seemed pleased.
"It's at the ship," Trax replied. "Like we should be. I've had enough of this kriffing moon to last me a lifetime."
As he held her, Kalinda felt Stonewall's fingertips trace small circles against her arm, the gesture meant to reassure himself as much as her as they began to head out. They reached the ship without incident and soon she was seated at the galley table, leg extended while Weave patched her up. Milo and Traxis were at the helm, Crest and Stone were gathered around her, listening to each other's stories of the previous night.
At the end of the tale, Weave looked at the Jedi, a frown on his face. "You lost both bikes?" When she gave him a dark look he shook his head and pressed the hypospray to her neck. "Sorry...it's just...they were brand new. I didn't even get to test..." He trailed off and shook his head again. "Never mind."
"Next time, you get dibs," Kali replied with a sigh. She glanced over; the pike had been stashed in a small alcove of the ship, and Chopper was examining it intently. Stonewall caught her eyes and lifted his brow in a question. In response, Kalinda smiled.
The journey back passed quickly. Suspiciously quickly, in fact. Chopper found that between examining the pike and his vids, and playing music or sabacc with the rest of the squad, it felt like only a day had passed when it had been several. Additionally, a lot of good footage had been collected, both from him and that the others, and he knew it would keep him busy for some time.
He liked the music-making more than he'd suspected he would, though he knew he was by no means proficient. It was interesting, and he enjoyed the sound of the harmonica when it blended with the other instruments as well as when it was on its own.
But now he understood more than he had before, and was not sure what to do with the knowledge. The captain's attraction to the Jedi was not one-sided as he'd thought, which he realized for certain when he'd felt her pace increase the morning after her injury on Milagro, when she beamed as the officer picked her up – with a familiar ease, as if such a thing happened with regularity – and when she simply looked at the clone. Now it was plain to see, and Chopper wondered if it was because he was getting better at reading women, or because she was a particularly easy one to read.
They returned to the Resolute quietly one evening, and before he knew it, he was stepping off of the loading ramp and turning to say goodbye to the members of the squad who each shook his hand and said that they hoped to work with him again. Crest had shared several lurid jokes that he knew Fives would like but wasn't sure if he would repeat. The pike that Traxis had collected was strapped to his armor.
"I don't want to disturb Anakin or Ahsoka, otherwise I'd come with you," Kalinda said as she and the captain stood before him at the edge of the ramp. "Will you tell them 'thank you,' for me?"
Chopper nodded. "Certainly, Kalinda." Her name came out as if on reflex, but it was okay. The Jedi only smiled at him, then – as if on a whim – gave him a hug and a quick kiss against his right cheek, where the scars were at their most tangled.
"Thanks for everything, Chopper," she said, looking into his eyes and nowhere else. "You're more than welcome with us whenever you want a change of scenery." She flashed him a last smile and turned for the ship, leaving him and the captain alone in the empty hangar.
"I told Rex I'd see you back," the officer said. "And I wanted to speak with you in private, as well."
Chopper felt a thrill of apprehension and the place where her lips had touched began to burn. It's not like that, he wanted to say. I know your secret, and hers. But I don't care about it...not in that way. But he only nodded and they began to walk.
After several minutes of silence, when they were exiting the turbolift, Stonewall glanced at him. "I know what you did for her, Chopper," he said in a quiet voice. "And I wanted to thank you, personally, for keeping her safe when I wasn't there." The captain met and held his gaze, and Chopper's conclusion was strengthened; Stonewall reached forward and shook Chopper's hand. "I'll be sure to let Rex know how much you helped us."
"You're welcome, sir." Chopper met the captain's eyes and felt the current of understanding pass between them. It isn't any of my concern, but it's a good kind of knowledge to have, he realized with a flash. Hopeful. Somewhere Slick was snickering, but he shrugged it off. Not all women hate scars, Slick. His cheek was still pleasantly warm.
Rex met them outside of his office; Chopper watched as the captains greeted one another, then stood quietly by while Stonewall reiterated what he'd just said to Chopper, who noted that the 501st captain's mouth lifted in a faint smile at the news. The three men shook hands, then Stonewall gave Chopper a last nod and walked away.
For a moment Rex only studied Chopper, then nodded to the pike. "Souvenir?"
Chopper's mind went to the little harmonica tucked in his duffel and the warm spot on his cheek where the Jedi had kissed him, then shook his head. "No, sir. Just part of the mission."
But Rex gave him a knowing look. "Right...well, I imagine Skywalker and the commander will want to have a look at it as well." The captain smiled at him. "Good work, by the way. I'm proud of you. And you should be, too." With that, he clapped Chopper's back and they parted ways.
Echo and Fives were just coming off the watch rotation, and were awake as anything. Fives peppered him with questions while Echo examined the harmonica – not blowing into it, but only investigating – and Chopper found that he was glad to be back. After a shower and change, he realized he wasn't tired, so he decided to go over the helmet vids again, but Fives stopped him with a look.
"You know, don't you?"
In response, Chopper tilted his head but said nothing.
Fives gave an exasperated sigh. "About the rumors of General Halcyon and her squad? Surely you saw something?"
He'd been expecting this to come up, and had his answer ready. "I saw lots of things, Fives. Just not what you're thinking of." He tried not to smile at the look of disappointment on his bunk-mate's face, and failed.
But it's okay, he realized as he settled down with his new 'pad, waiting for the new vids to upload. It's more than okay.
And it's getting better, every day.
I'm always a little sad after a story is done, because I really enjoy sharing them with you guys. Thanks for your support and reviews, everyone! I'm so glad that you enjoyed my "take" on Chopper. :)
reulte: you are awesome. Thanks again for letting me borrow Chopper! (Told you he had fun!)
If you're a fan of my work, look for my next story, Eye of the Storm: Alchemy on Monday, October 17th. It's been a long time coming...yes, it's a plug, but I have no shame. :P
In a similar vein, there may be a new-ish "series" starting this weekend. My profile has more info. ;)