Ahsoka Tano and Captain Rex Are Dead
Bonus Epilogue 5.
"Walk with me."
Three small words, and they drew his attention. Spoken in such a low, rough contralto, it was hard not to turn his head and look down at the speaker. She was small, but her shoes gave her height; platforms with spiked heels. Standing on her toes like that made her leggy, with slender, muscled calves. Further up were narrow thighs, narrow hips, and a waist so small he wondered, momentarily, if he grasped it, he'd be able to encircle it with his hands. The narrowness continued upward through a sylphlike torso and a petite chest that still managed some swell of cleavage due to the expansive cut of her neckline.
Her face was composed, utterly neutral, just like her words. There was no excitement there, no hope, no coyness. Only a dispassionate request, and a pair of steady, pale green eyes. She was Theelin. Uncommon these days, though maybe not so much in an entertainment district like this one. In the dim light of the growing hours of the morning, it was hard to make out her coloration; the flashing lights of the bars and tapcafs had shut down, and there was only the murk left from the fading moon above and the lights that still flickered from the closing cantinas. Her skin was cream-and-green, he decided. Mottled and a little grey. Three spikes were stacked on her temples, each the length and width of a small finger but far sharper. Lavender-grey hair fell, pin straight, down her back from a high forehead.
She'd been serving drinks in the Spitting Narglatch earlier in the night. The other staff seemed to give her deference for some reason. "The Diva is back," he heard them whispering in hushed, awed tones in the back room, while he affixed his force pike to his hip. Eyes picked her out and lips curved into smiles as the other waitresses, bartenders, and guards spotted her winding her way into the bar for a tray of drinks. There was a thrum of hopeful excitement that faded somehow into disappointment as the evening wore on, and she continued to merely serve drinks and wait tables.
There was no reason the Theelin would come to talk to him.
The sound of a swoop bike gunning roared through the pre-dawn light, attracting both their attention; a ring of men, mostly Weequay but with a couple humans mixed in, laughed uproariously. Most of them were perched upon, or leaning against, tricked out swoops on the other side of the street. The laughter, though, was that of drunk, bored - and apparently armed - men. There were blasters in the holsters at their hips. Drunk, bored and armed; a combination he'd learned that, though indicative of stupidity, also meant potential violence. Roughly half of those drunk, bored, armed men were not watching the idiot in the driver's seat, but rather him, and the Theelin.
She moved, ever so slightly. The bland expression on her face remained, but one of her hands, hanging at her sides, lifted, crossed her waist, and held loosely on to the elbow of the other. Her lavender lips twitched momentarily down and one of her brows twitched momentarily up. It was all the disapproval she expressed. Another ripple of laughter made a round through the group of men, low and unsettling.
He was off the clock. This wasn't his job at the moment, beating gropers off the Narglatch's hostesses – or waitresses, as the case seemed to be here.
Still. Protecting civvies had been drilled into his head since the incubation chamber, and it was against everything he ever learned to just leave her standing there. Stupid Theelin wouldn't even be able run in shoes like that. And outside the safety of the cantinas and their hired muscle, there were worse things than groping that could happen to a pretty humanoid female.
And it'd been awhile since he'd had a proper fight. Busting some heads sounded like a relaxing way to finish the night.
Chopper snorted. "Fine."
She fell into step beside him, those ridiculous shoes clipping sharply against the pavement as they moved along the far side of the street. He scowled down at her feet for a moment, then her face. Still impassive, she continued walking, gaze forward and apparently ignoring him despite that he was doing her a favor. A series of yowls and catcalls went up from the drunken gang now behind them, along with a variety of culture-specific obscene gestures, from butts waggling in the air to twisting fingers jutting skyward accompanied by whistles.
He sent a glare backward, tensing. Kriffing barves. Seeing him turn towards them, the whooping grew louder and more obscene, and he scowled. They were trying to provoke him. D'kuts.
Fingertips brushed briefly past the back of his hand, and he realized they'd stopped. The Theelin spoke, her voice low and her attention still straight ahead, easily ignoring the racket behind them. "Walk with me."
They weren't worth it anyway. Drunkards were no challenge. Gritting his teeth, he turned forward again, and matched his footsteps against the sharp rapping of heels against duracrete. The screaming faded as they rounded a corner and turned right; there was a revving of an engine, and then the blasting sound of repulsors discharging a build-up of ions as the swoop must have lurched into acceleration. There was more shouting, and laughter, but it faded away along with the sound of the swoop.
The gang's rushing off seemed to be the last burst of the night's noise. All that was left was the muted quiet of the hour before dawn. The walkways were packed when he'd arrived for work last night, filled with throngs of the rich seeking cheap entertainment, the masses seeking escape, the drunks seeking more liquor, and the workers seeking enough money to scrape by a little longer. It reeked of sweet, fresh alcohol, stale, old liquor, frying food, sweaty bodies exuding hormones and pheromones, and the rotting, fungal smell of alleys full of garbage. Now, it smelled vaguely of garbage, puke, and the fresh morning air. Droids were buzzing down the walkways, sweeping up one night's refuse for the next.
They turned down another path, and walked. Sentients, mostly women, were meandering the streets, heading in various directions Chopper suspected to be home. The flashing neon lights of the night were off, making what seemed, after nightfall, a carnival, into something remarkably mundane. A dirty street with gaudy, unlit signs. The cantinas grew smaller, sparser, as they left the main strip, and wove their way into the grid of side businesses and apartments.
Streetlamps provided a little extra light. Between each patch they walked through, he got another, clearer look at the Theelin. A long, straight nose. Lidded, narrow eyes, with creases around them that were deeper, more defined than those of most of the waitresses. When the light caught them right, they reflected gold, an indicator, he suspected, of mixed ancestry.
This walk was the most time he'd ever spent alone with a woman. It was strange. Unexciting, too. Somehow, walking an unfamiliar woman home an hour before dawn in awkward silence had never been a part of his imaginings of what spending time alone with a woman would be like.
The clicking sound of her footsteps stilled. Chopper glanced first at her, then up at the bulky, duracrete building she was looking at, looming overhead. It was discolored, streaks of grime running down its' side and turning the structure into a dingy grey. They stood beside a canopied stairwell that curved upward around the building until it reached another level, then another.
"Thank you," said the Theelin, and Chopper frowned, turning back to her. As it has remained their entire walk, her face was impassive, unreadable. There seemed to be no gratitude there, nor relief, or even calculation. She tilted her head slightly, in what was too brief to be a bow, but too slow and formal to be a mere toss of the head. Her eyes sought his, her head tilted so that they met his at a slant. "Rest well for tonight."
Her shoes clicked against the duracrete softly as she walked past him. She smelled slightly of sweet wine, cigarra smoke, and something he suspected was purely feminine - it was fruity, somehow - but couldn't identify. She passed him by in the same silence they shared during their walk away from the cantina. Then she was ascending the first flight of stairs, rounding the corner, and disappearing.
It was not the first time Chopper wished he had one of his brothers with him, to ask them what the kriff just happened.
It was the sudden hush that warned him something was happening.
If he were in battle, it would have been the silent moment before an attack; when the world nearby suddenly became quiet, breathless, waiting for the first shot to fire, for the first scream, for the first death. Here, though, in a cheap old club, it was unsettling. The Narglatch was always noisy, full of milling sentinents, jazz, the clattering of glasses and the poor attempts of customers to convince the scantily clad hostesses or dancers to go home with them.
The jazz quieted and went silent. The customers looked around, unified in their puzzlement, until they noticed the small stage was clearing of dancers, and the staff was suddenly ignoring them in favor of the empty platform. Chopper frowned, paused in the shadows of the back of the room, and folded his arms across his chest. He waited with the rest of them, though with less curiosity. Clearly there was going to be a special performance of some kind, though why the attentiveness, he didn't know. Dancers regularly pranced around on stage in metal bikinis and glowing body paint and nobody got silent over it. If anything, they got noisier.
The stage was lit up, unfrosted bulbs illuminating the proscenium in stark golden light, and the gaudy detailing of the arch seemed to glow. The rest of the floor, filled with tables, darkened, and hostesses of various species, draped over patrons, began to direct the males' attention forward.
The Theelin stepped out onto the stage, in a slinky black dress. She'd been tarted up for her performance, whatever it would be; there was heavy violet shadow on her eyelids, her cheeks were rouged, and her long lavender hair piled up into some sort of towering monstrosity.
Polite applause rose up from the room, led by the hostesses and wait staff. Chopper gave them all an odd look. They were usually oblivious to the performances, from what he'd seen the last handful of days he'd worked here. They were jaded, the lot of them, earning money by pretending to be interested in the dry lives and dull affairs of the men who patronized the Narglatch. Anticipation was a strange contrast to their usual, falsely flirtatious behavior. It rang with authenticity.
The Theelin began to sing.
He didn't know the words; sung in some language he didn't know, the words themselves didn't seem to matter. They rolled out across the room like a wave, low and deep and building. Her lips, stained a dark burgundy, opened and closed, shaped words and breathed them out, winding across her audience, binding them tighter to the sound of her song. Someone in the audience began to snap her fingers in time, and was joined by another and another; someone in the bar began to pound hands into the bar in steady rhythm. It beat out a steady tattoo against her song. Her voice was like sandpaper, rough and hard; but like sandpaper, it produced a smoothness. Her voice was like smoke and whiskey, rich but with a burn that he suspected would linger long after her song was done. There were inflections in the lyrics, questions and pauses that denoted a wait for answers. Given that she was the only singer, the only answer she received was the steady drumming from her audience. Slow, the song thrummed against the walls, built up some pressure in the room. He could feel it in his gut, in his chest. Even without understanding the words, there was a loneliness to the song, a wistfulness and a wonder and a pain. The pauses, the rising intonations of question, were left unanswered. The Theelin's head was bowed, her eyes lowered and narrow, though they swept across her audience, flashing by each table, further tethering her audience to her and the sound that flowed from her lips in that smoky, succulent contralto.
Her movements were neither wild nor dramatic, but slow and deliberate. But it was an expressive deliberation, so different from the way she spoke the night before, cool and emotionless. Her hands fluttered before her, fingers winding through the air and punctuating the questions her lyrics asked. Her lips curved upward, and united with the hooded gaze of her eyes, she seemed coy, full of promises as much as pain.
For a moment, they met his; just for a moment. Reflecting gold in the light of the stage, they were inhuman, gleaming, entrancing and powerful. Then gone, and onto the next man, and the next, until the song was done and the room strangely silent, the siren's call, ended.
And then it began again, and again, sometimes in Basic, sometimes in languages Chopper neither understood nor recognized, until late in the night or early in the morning. She sang, and the room was still, spellbound by the song of a small Theelin standing alone on a stage except for her music and the harsh illumination of the spotlight.
By the end of the night, he'd learned her name was Noula Vaai. When she stepped up beside him just outside the bar's back door and said, coolly, "Walk with me," he did not question it. There were no thugs hanging around outside the Spitting Narglatch that morning. No reason she would ask him for protection or company. But she did, and after a night of forgetting that he was a fugitive, a clone, a soldier without an army, a man wandering away from his brothers, in a galaxy that was lost deep in the dark, he walked with her.
He understood, now, why the others were eager for her to sing.
She had a voice that made people forget pain.
It became a tradition. Somehow, she'd be ready after her set at about the same time he'd be done with his portion of locking the Narglatch up, and she'd appear at his side with a simple, "Walk with me."
And he'd walk her home, just as he did now.
His original plan was to get one more paycheck before he wandered down to the spaceport and hopped another ship for another system, but payday came and went, and the days to the next one began to count down. It wasn't that he felt attached to his security job at the Narglatch – or even, really, to Noula Vaai and her voice – but instead to the inclusiveness of it. The hostesses flirted with him a bit, lightly, without seriousness, and thanked him whenever he yanked an overzealous customer off them. The waitresses and cooks gave him a bit of extra food when he took his break in the kitchen and inhaled his meals faster than any of them had ever seen. The big, bulky bouncers gave him respect when he talked. Though he was the 'newest' to security work, he seemed to know more about fighting than the veterans.
Nobody asked him about his scars. Sometimes the women would give him fleeting looks – not of disgust, but of sympathy. That sympathy didn't last long, though. Within a few days, the staff of the Spitting Narglatch simply accepted him as one of their own. Even in the GAR, he'd been an outsider, deficient and different somehow, in the head, in ways that made him different from his brothers.
Here, no one noticed. Here, no one cared. Here, he suspected, he was among others that were also broken. Or lost. Or different. They were all different; therefore, differences stood out little. Including his.
He wouldn't – couldn't – stay much longer. Not without risking putting them all in danger. The longer he lingered, the more likely someone would spot him, place his face. His scars, he suspected, were actually a benefit. A mask. His face was more contorted than his brothers'. Less recognizable. But sooner or later – someone would wander through. A mercenary out for an evening of drinks and women, probably. Or just someone who'd seen the right bit of news, seen the face of a clone, and was hard up enough to turn him in for their personal profit.
"You didn't sing tonight," he said. The Theelin glanced at him, sideways. They'd had a shorter night than usual, because she hadn't been on stage; it was still dark out, with only the greyest smudge of sunrise beginning to light the sky. They moved between pools of white light spilling onto the ground from streetlamps above. The Theelin's eyes shifted from shadowed green to illuminated gold, then back again as they walked through the puddles of light. Her lips twitched upward momentarily, and she turned her face back forward.
"Shai believes that my voice requires rest every so many nights," she said, referring to the proprietress of the Narglatch. There was a catch, though, in her voice that hinted a humor, and Chopper looked down at her. Her purple lips were still curved slightly upward.
"But it doesn't?"
The lips curved into a more distinctly crescent shape, and he was rewarded with another, narrow eyed glance. "Shai believes so." The golden irises turned moss green again as they exited the circle of the overhead lamp's light, and slid away from him once more. "And I do need rest, on occasion."
Nights when Noula Vaai sang, they were packed. That meant they made the most money. Shai Forta, for all she mothered her girls, was driven by money. She'd have Noula singing all day and night if it meant she would turn a higher profit.
This time, when the Theelin stopped walking, Chopper stopped as well. In the week and a half he'd been walking her home, he'd memorized each route she'd taken them, the alleys and the side streets. It didn't creep up on him, the way it had the first few days. Her dingy concrete building loomed up above them, squat and bleak, lit up from below by the electric white of the streetlights.
The steady clicking of the Theelin's sharp heeled shoes stopped. There was a tradition in this, too. Every night, the same words. "Thank you," followed by "Rest well for tonight."
She was looking up at her apartment building, a frown now twitching on her lips as her head tilted slightly to the side. After a moment, she looked at him, considering, thoughtful, and opened her mouth and drew breath. Words started to come out, but they sputtered and died before they were given sound, and whatever comment she'd been about to make dead before given life. Her brows drew together and she looked away from him again. The cool blankness that was her customary expression resettled across her face. She became composed, the sudden stuttering, a half forgotten thought. Her eyes closed, and she breathed once, opening them again once she'd completed an exhale. "Rest well for tonight, Chopper," she said at last, a slight deviation from her usual farewell.
The Theelin did not look at him again, before she crossed the street and began her ascent up the stairs.
He waited until he could no longer hear her heels clipping against the steps, then turned and began to walk.
The greyish smudge of burgeoning dawn was growing in strength, and there was a muted pink beginning to fill the sky to counterpoint the grey. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the rumble of garbage droids beginning their morning work, picking up the trash left in the dumpsters of the apartments or businesses nearby. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket, tucked his head down, and began to walk.
Here and there, as he walked, beings would step out of buildings and hurry on their way, or out of houses in sleepwear, taking bags of trash down to the street for pick up, before scurrying back inside to avoid the chill of autumn weather at dawn. Angling down a side street and towards the flophouse he'd been sleeping at, he resisted the urge to pause, to look backward.
The pressure of eyes was on him. He could feel it. Surveillance. He was being watched.
He kept his pace steady, sparing a fleeting thought for the Theelin. Home, she was presumably safe enough, though that may depend entirely on who was following him and why. Coming to an intersection of streets, he turned left rather than right, and kept walking straight, leading whoever was moving so silently behind him away from the residential area. Clone hunters were a possibility; small fry locals thinking they'd steal from him a higher probability. There was also the option of the unknown, of an unexpected assailant.
The playground opened up before him as he moved past a shoulder-height duracrete brick wall. It was long since abandoned; the swing set lacked swings, the jungle gym was missing its' slide, and an arching ladder that led to the main platform was twisted on its' side, the platform's paint job peeling. Scrawny trees vied with weeds to sprout up through the pavement, brown and scraggly. A few benches, still intact, ringed the rectangular space, propped up against the stone wall surrounding the play area. Taller, healthier trees on the opposite side of the wall would have provided shade at a sunnier point in the day; beyond the trees, there were hulking buildings.
Chopper took ten steps into the playground. In one, smooth movement, he drew his pistol and spun.
The barrel was aimed perfectly between a pair of eyes, which blinked at him once. One of the brows above one of the eyes lifted wryly, and the man said, with the barest hint of amusement, "That's not going to be very effective on me, Chopper."
Captain Rex was fading into existence, and beside him, holding his hand as always, was Commander Tano. Light flickered around them, silver and sapphire, shifting like a bit of white light striking slow moving water. What remained of their physical bodies was washed out, the colors muted and overlaid by the watery hues. Chopper scowled at them both for a moment, before turning and stuffing his pistol back into its holster. He knew it was only a matter of time before these two showed up. They popped up at the ship every few weeks, delivering news, transponder codes, and leads on jobs. They'd learn he was gone, eventually.
"Everyone's been worried about you," Commander Tano said, and Chopper's scowl softened into a mere frown. She meant it, of course. Not just about his brothers, or the Captain, but herself as well. They were all worried about him. He ran a hand over his face, and dragged it back into a proper glare.
Both Captain and Commander looked unimpressed by that. Captain Rex's face remained stone flat, and Commander Tano's worried expression became an irritated frown. A long moment of disapproval later, Rex snorted and shook his head. "Tup told everyone he was leaving. He didn't just disappear one day, and he's living somewhere safe. Jesse and Gus have been looking for you for weeks."
They didn't need to do that. Chopper turned aside and looked away. It was almost two years now, since the Republic fell. Two years of fighting and running, hiding in sight as plain as they could make it. Living like - living like clones on the run. It was what they were. But when Tup left, the dynamic changed somehow. It was as though the thought of living differently had been tossed between them. They didn't have to keep running. They didn't have to fight for a living.
They didn't even have to do it all together.
Their desertion had united them in many ways. Gus could be a d'kut with his head up his shebs, but he'd been through many of the same experiences Chopper had. Been a part of Slick's platoon. Knew about his propensity for chopping up bits of droids and hiding them away, of taking something back of what was lost. Gus had given him another outlet for that - it wasn't the same, but hauling bodies back - preferably living ones - was more satisfying than making grisly jewelry. Jesse had, in most ways, become their de facto leader in the aftermath of their desertion, flying the ship, checking on each of them, finding jobs, and seeming to enjoy it rather than merely accept it.
They didn't need to worry about him. But they did. It was strange. He shrugged, and heard Rex make a small, disappointed sigh behind him.
"It's good to know you're in one piece, Chopper, but can you at least tell us why?"
Tup left, and a rift formed. Perhaps it had always been there, waiting for the right moment to appear, to make itself known. They were brothers. The four of them had become accomplices in their desertion. A team as bounty hunters and mercenaries. But for all these things, they'd never fully become friends. They were brothers who worked together, fought together - would even die for each other - but they lacked that firm bond that some others had. They were not clones who were brothers by choice as much as by birth.
Tup left, and he found himself wondering what else was out there. Tup was hiding somewhere Captain Rex wouldn't say, but assured was safe and that Tup was not alone. Chopper didn't want to just follow Tup to some safe haven, most likely in some backwater Outer Rim world, to settle down somewhere, hide and be quiet.
He wasn't even sure exactly what it was that he wanted. More than running from one self-imposed mission to the next. More than spending his short life killing people on behalf of others. More than being a flesh-droid. More than chopping up bits of enemies to feel like he was getting something out of his life. More than a man who was known for being blasted apart too many times, until his body scarred over everywhere, and his brain got rattled and it turned him mean.
How could he say that? That he wanted more out of his life than to march the same line as all the others? That he wanted back something he'd never had in the first place? To not be looked at and known, even by memory, as deficient?
Captain Rex wanted to know why? Chopper shrugged. "I wanted to."
It was the first thing he'd ever done purely for himself. Not for the Republic. Not for the GAR. Not for his platoon, not for Jesse, or Tup, or Gus.
Commander Tano was expressing a mixture of puzzlement, dismay, and worry at his brief statement. Captain Rex, though, moved fleetingly through those expressions, until he settled on a final one: understanding. His face set, his chin tilted down a bit, his eyes grew serious, almost grim.
"It's a big galaxy, Chopper," he said, and Commander Tano looked at him for a long moment. His sternness seemed to settle her, and she sidled in a step closer to him, so that their arms brushed in a subtle statement of solidarity.
Chopper shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket and shrugged. "Always been big."
Captain Rex sighed - a strange affectation for someone without lungs, really - and looked him firmly in the eye. "Take care of yourself, Chopper."
Though he kept his focus on the Captain, he saw the look worry flash across the Commander's face, of how her lips were pressed thin and her eyes grew momentarily large before softening again. "We'll be around," she said.
Of course they would be. They were always turning up with random bits of information or guidance. He didn't need it. Didn't need the Captain or the Commander looking out for him, like he was a cadet or in the GAR and needed someone to watch over him, make sure he didn't screw it up.
And then the Commander smiled a little, and the Captain's stern look became something caught between relief and pride. He didn't need them to watch his back. But there were moments, he knew, when it was better not to be completely alone. To have someone able to distract him from memories and pain. To have someone to walk with.
He shrugged himself deeper into his jacket, though the air was not chilled enough to require more warmth. "Tell the others I'm fine." He paused, frowned, and looked away. "And I'll keep in touch."
Ahsoka's small smile spread larger, and Rex's tilted to the side, wryly, as he said, "We will. See you around."
They disappeared into the wash of pinkish light rising in the east, the watery silver-blue of their spirits melding into the day until they seemed like nothing more than a wide beam of sunlight hitting the dirty duracrete ground. And then they were gone.
Alone in the playground, Chopper breathed in the morning air, then set out into the day.
He waited for her usual farewell, but did not receive it.
The grey dawn had turned rosy, and the first hints of blue were grasping at the tops of trees and rooftops of buildings. The Theelin had paused, her face turned upward towards her building, her lips slightly parted, moving vaguely, as though words were trying to form, and failing. Her eyes closed for a long moment, and when she opened them again, they slid in his direction, and she spoke words that were not the usual ones: "Would you like to come inside?"
He wasn't so sheltered or removed from the world that he didn't know that phrase was often an invitation to more than an apartment. She was pretty, in the early light of morning, in a different way than she was on stage. Standing under the harsh lights during the night, she seemed laid bare, no shadows softening her features, her eyes a reflective gold and her voice a raw sound that brought all attention on her. Here, though, the shadows of the morning made her soft, drew out the greys and greens mottled in her skin, made her eyes something more natural. Her voice drew him to her, her face attracted him, her quiet presence when they walked made him unusually comfortable near her, as the days and strangeness passed. She asked nothing of him other than his company, and that was a thing few wanted. And it felt good, to be wanted.
But there was nothing of flirtation in her tone. There was no coyness, no attempt, however mild, at seduction. If anything, the slight tilt to her chin and puckering of her brows suggested a sense of uncertainty. She'd never asked anything of him but his company, so perhaps that was really all she was continuing to ask for now. The invitation to come inside was simply that. Though he had no idea what he was supposed to do inside her apartment, otherwise.
She was looking up at him, expectant. He gave her an answer. "Sure."
She didn't smile, but there was a moment of something like acceptance, and she nodded once as she turned away from him and towards the steps that led up to her apartment. Her heels clipped quietly against the duracrete as she crossed the street, then with a more metallic, hollow ring as she began to ascend the steps.
He followed her, a stride or two behind, and the long lavender braid of her hair swung low across her back in time to her steps as she climbed the stairwell. They went up four floors, then down the side of the building until they reached a middling door. She pressed her palm into the scanner in its center, and the light pulsed and sputtered beneath her hand as it verified her identity. Then there was a click, and a pop, and the door slid open with a scratching sound along the bottom track.
It was cool and dim inside, and he hovered in the small foyer, shuffling in behind the Theelin as she slipped off her towering shoes and moved silently across the floor. It was small, a single rectangle of a room with a battered old wooden folding screen partitioning off what he supposed must be a living area further in. He could see the shape of a computer sitting on top of a set of shelves, some clothes folded and stacked on the levels beneath it, and the bottom edge of a mattress on the floor, before it disappeared behind the screen. The walls were bare, grey, and had the feel of a place that had not been lived in long - nor would it be. The occupant lived with little baggage.
The door rolled shut behind him, forcing him another step forward to ensure he didn't get clipped by standing too close to the doorway. There was a pile of spike-heeled small shoes around the foyer, and he could only suppose that meant he was supposed to take his off, too. A moment later, he was standing in socks in the kitchenette of Noula Vaai.
She was standing on the opposite side of a small table from him, eyes slanted sideways, away from him and with her hands clasped at her waist. "I have some caf, if you would like some. It is Kavasa flavored. I have some juice as well. And breakfast items. Well, bread and gorfruit jam, at least."
So it was, then, simply an invitation for company. Though there was, he supposed, some part of him feeling vaguely disappointed, he did not feel surprised. And oddly, he felt strangely pleased at the invitation inside and offer of food. But he was still puzzled; the Theelin had, from the first day, made all overtures of friendship towards him. She knew he had nothing to offer her. Though he'd walked beside her, talked a little bit with her, he did not understand why she would want to do these things with him - she was liked and respected at the Narglatch, and he was - well, he was Chopper. There was no reason for her to invite him to walk, to invite him into her home, small and scruffy looking as it was, and try to feed him. As quiet and awkward as it felt at times, it was kind, and he'd received little kindness from anyone.
"Why are you doing this?"
The words were spoken before he thought them fully through, and somewhat more accusatory in tone than he really intended. Gus, Tup, Jesse - they were stuck with him for years because they were all in the 501st, because they deserted together, because they needed each other to survive. The Theelin had no such reason to want his company or to show him kindness of this magnitude, even if it was just caf and toast. She didn't know his background. Didn't know how he'd steal bits of droids, didn't know how he'd been a soldier or how he'd gotten his scars. Didn't know he was a fugitive running from the Empire, that his presence put her in danger, didn't know he had to keep running, or that when he listened to her sing, he could forget all that for just a little while.
The Theelin did not move, except to lift her gaze and meet his eyes. They were still green in the soft gloom of the kitchenette, and thoughtful. She closed them for a moment and released a small, quiet sigh. When she spoke, her voice carried the raw sound of her singing, but without the rise and fall of a tune. "I have seen people before, who are lost," she began, meeting his hard gaze with her softer one. "People who are searching for something, and looking in the wrong places. I have been such a person." Her gaze turned away, turned internal, reflective. "I am still such a person, though I am trying not to look in the wrong places any more. I have lost friends to self-destruction. Seen them lie down laughing and never wake up. I think, maybe, you are the same. When I saw you, that was what I thought." She lifted one hand into the air. Though she did not reach forward, did not cross the small space between them, her hand came parallel to the right side of his face, her palm and fingers cupping the air and unmistakably referring to the whitened, puckered scarring that webbed across his skin.
"I thought, maybe, that we are the same."
Her hand lowered, fingertips resting lightly on the tabletop, and her eyes lowered in accompaniment.
There was no way she could possibly understand. She was whole, intact, uninjured, a civilian - she was calm and quiet, everything he wasn't - the same? How could two people possibly be more different?
And then she looked up at him. She still seemed soft from the shadows that filled the kitchenette, but in that moment, he realized it was not the harsh, bright lights of the stage that made her face seem as raw or exposed as it was when she stood up and sang, but rather a shift in her expression. It was different, seeing that look on the face of a pretty Theelin woman rather than on one of his brothers', but it was the same; the look of someone who had seen suffering and had experienced it for themselves. Every man in the GAR learned their own way of dealing with it - for Chopper, the way had been taking something back. Of running mad on a battlefield, cutting down those that hurt him with near gleeful violence and making keepsakes as proof of what he'd reclaimed.
But there were others - others that grew silent and still and solemn.
She was a civilian, not a soldier. Whatever it was in her past was not battlefields and the constant strain of war. It couldn't be. But Noula Vaai had not gained such an expression of loss without experience.
As quickly as the resentment bubbled up within him, it died. He cut down droids and made grisly mementos.
Noula Vaai sang.
Maybe that was why he'd come to feel so comfortable at the Narglatch. Every time she took the stage, he could forget for a little while - but it wasn't just him. The crowd kept time, clapped and snapped fingers in rhythm, listened with respect. But perhaps it was also recognition. They all had things they wanted to forget. To move past. To move beyond.
She invited him in for breakfast because she didn't want to be alone either.
Chopper had never been much for touching. Kaminoans and medical droids poked and prodded at him, medics stabbed him with drugs on the field, patched him back up only to be deployed and blown up again. His brothers usually either stayed away or merely tolerated his presence. Except for maybe - maybe? Gus and Jesse and Tup. And the Captain. And the Commander, even if she wasn't a brother.
And the Captain and the Commander - they were dead, but even like that, they weren't alone. They always had a hand to hold.
Her hand was still resting lightly on the table. It wasn't a very elegant grab - he mostly just got her fingers, and even then, only three. His bigger hand overwhelmed hers, the light brown a strange contrast against the mottled greenish-grey of hers, and it seemed too warm and sweaty in comparison.
Her other hand appeared in his line of sight, overlapping his, gently prying it off the one he clutched at, and then sliding it more comfortably into his.
She thought that maybe they were the same. "Maybe," he admitted roughly.
When he finally brought himself to look at her, her hard expression had changed into a small, soft smile.
It took him several seconds, because it seemed he had forgotten how, but he managed, however awkwardly and faltering, to return it.
Noula's voice is modeled on Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. Winehouse's rendition of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is probably the best song to fit the chapter. Her name, FYI, is pronounced "New-lah".
Hope you enjoyed.